Climb Your Mountains

This week I climbed a mountain. I hadn’t planned on doing it. I had no warning ahead of time that I was going to have to do it. It was a task thrust upon me.

See, what had happened was we took our students on a week long field trip to a wilderness “school.” On my chaperone schedule it said my morning class was “mountain ecology.” So I thought we’d be learning about what lives in a mountain environment and play some games. I wasn’t wrong.

We started with an interesting discussion about how various mountains are formed and other fascinating stuff. While this captivating activity was going on at no point was it explained to me that I was going to be required to hike a mountain. I was just told to walk the path behind the instructor.

The first part of the path was a long gentle incline. At the speed we were going it was hard to even notice that we were walking up until we reached the first plateau. While I listened to the instructor talk about the difference between deciduous and evergreen trees I looked down the path behind me and saw how far up we had walked. Hmmm. Okay. That’s pretty steep, I thought. We must be close to the top.

On we walked. It felt like were hundreds of miles away from everyone and everything. Then we rounded a corner and my first reality check kicked in. In front of me was a very steep incline. To make matters worse it had a deep gully running through it from the heavy rains that came a few days before so you had to keep switching sides or straddle it as you walked.

This was it. Now we were climbing. So I followed the group up the incline. I took it slow and steady. I tried to pace myself and breathe deeply as I walked. Little by little I made my way certain it wouldn’t get any harder than that. For a while I was right as the climb led to another plateau. We stopped. We played a game. And then we walked on.

We rounded another bend in the trail and it took us down into a clearing. Oh, good, I thought. We are going back down. Nope. Still we walked on.

As we left the clearing we began our proper ascent. While there were short plateaus along the way it was basically a series of steep inclines. Sometimes the path would be riddled with exposed roots. Sometime the ground was hard packed and sometimes it was loose and sandy. There were even fallen trees to traverse and thorny branches to avoid.

Within minutes I ceased all attempts at conversation with my companions as I fell further behind the group. I needed all my concentration to regulate my breathing and watch my step. At one point, in an attempt to raise my morale I tried to jump up on a fallen log instead of step over it. Big mistake. I immediately lurched forward as the dead wood pulp crumbled beneath my feet. I had to brace myself with my hand to keep from taking a header into the dirt. So now not only was I hot, tired and out of breath, my wrist was throbbing and my pride was stinging.

But I climbed on. What choice did I have? Even if I wasn’t responsible for the group of children I was chaperoning there was no one coming to get me. The only way back down to my cabin was up this mountain. So I climbed.

Everyone was already seated in a circle taking a water break when I arrived at what was truly the top. As I struggled as quietly as I could to catch my breath I looked out through the break in the trees. There before me was the beauty and majesty of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

I’d made it. I didn’t die. I didn’t quit. I didn’t have to be rescued. While the children were engaged in their activity I sat on the cool granite of a nearby flat rock and just stared at the mountains stretched across the horizon.

I was still hot (maybe more so). I was still tired (definitely more so). My wrist hurt. My thighs burned. My chest was still heaving with the effort to calm my breathing. But I’d made it. And it was worth it.

Coming back down was its own special torture because my muscles were so over it and my knees were giving me the screwface. As I schlepped the last few feet to our cabin the metaphor of my day was not lost on me.

I climbed a literal mountain that day. I, and all of you dear readers, climb our own figurative mountains everyday. Sometimes the path is smooth and sometimes it is riddled with obstacles. When facing our mountains all we can do is climb on. We will get tired. We will get sore. We will want to give up. We will stumble and fall. We will reach false summits only to have to keep climbing.

But if we keep climbing, don’t quit and don’t wait to be saved, we can make it and it will be worth it. Every time.


BHM ‘19 – Women of Power Ruby Rouse

Being the first anything is hard. Given the racist past of this country being the first black anything required a level of talent, humility and grit that few possessed. Being the first black woman to do anything takes an extra level of knowing how to show your strength, maintain your confidence and stand your ground without alienating potential allies all while having to break down deeply ingrained stereotypes of gender roles.

Add to that being a single mother of four and you begin to see why the sister we recognize today is lauded as an iconic figure in VI history. The legendary Ruby Rouse is most definitely deserving of the spotlight.

Rouse was born in December 1921 in Christiansted St. Croix. She lived on St. Croix with her parents until she was fifteen. She moved to Manhattan to live with her brother. She graduated from high school in 1943 and joined the military to became the first Virgin Islander to join the Women’s Army Corps. This began what had been often referred to as a career of firsts.

She was the first female member of the drill team at Ft. Dix in New Jersey. She was the first black woman to be permanently assigned to the staff of General Dwight D. Eisenhower. She retired as a sergeant first class in 1963 and returned home where she became the first woman to be hired by the Harvey Aluminum company. Two years later she became the first female parole and probation officer on St. Croix.

Not only was she dedicated to helping reform her parolees she spent a lot of time talking to youth groups in the community. She continued to walk it like she talked it when she took in her niece and three foster children. She credited the love and support of the community in helping her get through those early years with her children.

Rouse’s involvement in politics began as soon as she returned home. In 1964 she was a delegate to the first Constitutional Convention. In 1968 she served as a delegate for the VI at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago and was one of five black women on the very important Rules Committee. She ran for Senator in 1970 but wasn’t successful in her campaign to represent St. Croix until 1972. She served on the Committee on Health and Welfare. During this first term she helped investigate the Insular Training School and submitted recommendations for improving the welfare and education of the children housed there.

Rouse ran unsuccessfully for Lt. Governor in 1974 and finally returned to the Senate in 1978. During her first term back in office she sponsored a bill that gave financial assistance for tuition or services to special needs children, if they needed service they couldn’t get on island. She also served on committees where she worked to make jobs for mental health workers more secure, investigated unsafe prison conditions and looked after the needs of the poverty stricken constituents in her district.

In 1981 she continued her career of firsts by becoming the first female president of the Senate and, thus, the first black woman to head a legislature In the United States. During her tenure she was pivotal in creating the Virgin Islands Bureau of Audit Control to gain more oversight of the finances of the government and to offer more transparency. She continued to serve as presiding officer of the legislature until her death in 1988.

In an interview with Sally Jacobs in 1972 Rouse said she believed women “belonged in politics.” She said women “looked at the human side of the picture” and “were more apt to be concerned with people and their problems.” Many of those who opposed her tried to derisively describe her strong convictions as her “morality kick.” Rouse, however, took it as a compliment and said it was part of the work ethic and respect for all people instilled in her by her parents.

It was her consistent behavior of reaching out to all communities that set her apart from many of her colleagues. She was said to be sensitive to the issues facing all segments of the population, both local and transplants.

She spoke of being concerned about increasing racial tensions and urged each group to take a piece of the responsibility for finding “interracial harmony.” In a sentiment that seems to echo current times, she was very plain in speaking to relocating “continentals” and telling them to come with an attitude of wanting to be a part of the community and build it up rather than just to lime on the beach. “Come prepared to work.”

The life of Ruby Rouse serves as an example of how power does not have to come from some exalted family name or because of the accumulation of property and wealth. She was a prime example of what is more the norm here. People from the community who have spent many years out of office working on a grassroots level to make these islands better. She was the first woman to accomplish many things in her lifetime. Her hard work, dedication to improving the lives of those struggling the most and unwavering commitment to making government accessible to the people it serves left a legacy of creating lasting, generational change for these islands that ensured she would not be the last.

BHM ‘19 – Women of Power: Lucinda Millin

Imagine being a black female born only a few generations out of enslavement on a small island in the largely unknown Caribbean. Only 44 years separated the unwavering stand for freedom of those courageous Virgin Islanders and her birth. Only 14 years passed between the fiery rebellion of the “Three Queens” and her birth. Less than a week after she arrived on this Earth Queen Coziah led 200 women in a march to demand equality.

This is the context into which Lucinda Millin’s life began. To people living during her time events that seem so far back in history to us were freshly remembered and experienced. In a very short amount of time the formerly enslaved residents of these islands wrenched freedom, independence and respect from the hands of their former oppressors. As the general level of equality inched forward, however, the plight of women continued to lag behind.

Years of customs and conditioning by Europeans perpetuated the myth of woman’s inferiority to man. Women were to stay in their place, caring for the home and children, while men ran things. Laws in the books reflected this attitude. In 1936, women in the VI were finally given the right to vote, the most fundamental right of democracy.

By this time, Millin had already been a respected educator for over 20 years and had founded her own school. She was active in the community as a women’s rights activist and a crusader for better care for the island’s elderly.

It wasn’t until almost 20 years after women were granted the vote that for the first time our voice was represented in the legislative center of power. In 1954 the Revised Organic Act, a landmark piece of legislation to the history of the Virgin Islands, ushered in the modern manifestation of our Senate. It also was the year that Lucinda Millin became the first female Senator elected to office.

Given her groundbreaking status you would think there would be a treasure trove of information about her career. Not exactly. The most descriptive account of her time in office comes from legislative lion and colleague Earle B. Ottley. In his memoir he described Millin as “shy”, “compassionate” with an “impish humor”. He gave her credit for calming heated debates and for being well respected by her fellow Senators.

If you’ve ever seen the famous portrait of Senator Millin you have been mesmerized by the look in her eyes. It is a steady gaze that peers out through spectacles with determination. At first glance she looks like a woman who brooked no disagreement and suffered no fools. In the words of the old folks, she looked like she did not play.

However if you look closer you can see the hint of that humor Ottley describes hovering around her mouth. She looks like at any moment she is ready to break into a grin or laugh out loud. It is that portrait that instantly endeared me to her when I came across her in my research at the Department of Education many years ago. For me what she specifically did during her 10 years in office was less important than what she represented.

Being the first of anything is hard. Being the first black anything is harder. Being the first black, female anything is not for the weak spirited. You have to not only know what you seek to achieve but also have a strategy for achieving it. Being a highly educated and civic minded woman Millin must have felt the weight of her role. She must have known how fervently women prayed she would succeed and how there were some, men and women, who felt certain she would fail. Yet she remained steady in her work to improve education and elderly care.

In the islands we are very familiar with strong women. We have many examples of women who stepped into leadership roles and fought for respect, equality and access to opportunity for all. Lucinda Millen represented then and now a connection to those Queens, who she probably heard first hand stories of in her childhood, for generations of girls who grew up to become commissioners, executive officers, cabinet members and, yes, senators.

Because she ran and won and served with strength, vision and confidence doors were opened and long standing perceptions were changed. When she died in 1981, only 38 years ago, she left a legacy of service to others, a home for the elderly in her name and children who also spent their lives in public service. She was born in the shadow of powerful women and stepped out to blaze a path for others.

BHM ‘19 – Women of Power: Shirley Chisholm

For young women it may seem like we are in a new age of feminism. They may feel like the most radical chics on the planet and in history. Standing up to assault. Taking over long held corporate bastions of manhood. Seizing control of our wombs and redefining motherhood. Certainly one of the more notable areas where we have made strides is in the political arena.

When you are blessed to see life progress over decades you begin to see life isn’t a smooth trajectory of progress. You have times when you progress quickly and other times when it feels like a slog through the muck. Every once in a while, we take a giant leap forward and it is in those moments that our heroines appear.

Yes, we are living in transformational times. But we have been here before. We have made great leaps in progress due to the effort, idea or sacrifice of a heroine who stepped up. This Black History Month we will look at four women who made their mark in politics and changed the trajectory of the country and these islands. We start with a woman who’s name is not mentioned as often or with the weight it always deserves. The Shirley Anita St. Hill Chisholm.

Do you love “Auntie” Maxine Waters for her outspoken courage? Do you respect Mia Love for her practical willingness to compromise on issues but not on her principles? Are you excited by the blossoming career of Stacey Abrams? Then you should say a word of thanks for Sister Chisholm.

“Fighting Shirley” was the first African American woman in Congress and the first woman and African American to seek nomination for president of the United States from one of the two major political parties. At a time when a lot of people would tell you a woman’s place was barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen, Chisholm was demanding the laws and rights of this country be equally and equitably applied to women and men. 44 years before HRC, Chisholm kicked in the door to the old boys club of presidential candidacy and brought the issues of African Americans, women, veterans and working poor to the national stage.

Born in Brooklyn, NY to a factory worker immigrant father from Guyana and a seamstress immigrant mother from Barbados, she was a studious child who grew up to graduate with honors from Brooklyn College. She began her career in early childhood education. She eventually got her master’s degree from Columbia University and went on to work for the NY Division of Day Care. In 1964 she ran for and won a seat in the NY state legislature, becoming only the second African American to serve.

When redistricting created an opportunity to head to Washington, Chisholm ran for and won a congressional seat, against three heavily favorited African American men challengers in the primary. Her tough talk and up close and personal campaigning style earned her win against a liberal leaning Republican who confounded CORE and organized Freedom Riders in the general election. Her campaign slogan “Unbought and Unbossed” was a direct attack on her opponents strategy of trying to paint her as just a “little schoolteacher.”

As a freshman congresswoman she fought her way on to the influential Veterans Affairs Committee. In 1977 she became the first African American woman and the second woman to serve on the Rules Committee. She was also a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Women’s Caucus. Over her seven term career in the House she introduced more than 50 pieces of legislation and was a warrior for racial and gender equality and the poor. She was especially adamant about bringing an end to the Vietnam War.

Chisholm’s greatest claim to political fame was in her 1972 candidacy for the Democratic nomination for president. She was blocked from participating in televised debates and had to take legal action to get permission to give the one speech she did do. Chisholm campaigned across the country in 12 primaries, meeting up close and personal with voters. Her efforts earned her 152 delegate votes which was 10 percent of the total despite being under-financed and weakly supported.

Her run for the highest office broke down long standing gender and racial barriers. She stood toe to toe with titans of Washington and delivered for her constituents. She took the heat for wanting to find areas of compromise with Republicans and whites but insisted that to get anything done we had to build bridges between the two communities. She was ahead of her time in working with the Latino community and bringing their issues to the forefront.

When Chisholm eventually left office she returned to education as a professor at Mt. Holyoke College. She also remained engaged by cofounding the National Political Congress of Black Women and campaigned for Jesse Jackson during both of his presidential bids. She settled in Florida and wrote and taught until her death in 2005.

The influence of Chisholm reaches far and wide. For generations of black women she was the motivation behind their careers and efforts in politics and public service. She defied convention, gender roles and racial boundaries to be a transformational figure in American History. Chisholm said her legacy was that she was a woman who “dared to be a catalyst for change.” As we continue to push through the barriers to equality that remain we must remember to look back at those who have fought tough battles, taken the hits and propelled us forward.

You are the Past, Present and Future

Artist: Phyliss Stephens

So you registered to vote and have checked the location of your voting place. You know where to go and how to use the machine. So you’re all set, right?

Not quite yet. The other piece of that puzzle is to be aware of who has earned your vote and why. That “why” part is important.

When you step into the booth to vote you aren’t there just representing yourself. You are there representing the past, present and future. You are there adding your voice to the conversation about what our society will be.

There is only one voice that has always had a voice in our democracy. At one point the opinion and wishes of the white male landowner were the only thing that counted or mattered. Every other group has had to fight in some way for their natural right to speak and be heard.

Power never concedes willingly. Those without it have always had to wrench it free from the clutches of those who want to hoard it for themselves. The path to this point in voter inclusion is riddled with the bodies of those who sacrificed so that others may have what was denied to them. It is for them that you vote.

In our current political climate voters are constantly being pelted with hot button issues designed to get them focused on the trees while others clear cut the forest. So called identity politics are the bright flashy issues that attract a lot of attention but really are just a distraction from the bigger picture.

While it is true that we are not a homogenous society, it is a ruse for us to believe that the issues facing the community I claim are not connected to the issues another group may claim. Everything is connected because they take resources. How the resources of our society get utilized and distributed is directly related to the officials we elect and the officials they in turn appoint or hire. The decisions we make today do have lasting effects on the future but they also have immediate effects on today.

People are making laws about issues like gun control, wage equality, healthcare access, education opportunities and environmental protection right now that will determine how we live our lives right now. If you have children in the public school system it matters who is on the Board of Education. If you have someone battling a chronic illness it matters who runs the health department. If you have been a victim of or been accused of a crime it matters who the judges and prosecutors are.

These jobs get decided and filled all the time by those we vote into office. So while it may seem like you only have to look out for your own self interest when you go to vote, your vote actually has more power than that. It effects your neighbor, your coworker, your friends and family. It is for them that you vote too.

As quickly as it seems changes get made sometimes by any given election, societal change actually comes very slowly. Emancipation happened about 150 years ago in a rapid turn of events that saw thousands of Africans go from enslaved to free overnight. However the road to full equality and restitution has been long and continues. It has taken incremental moments along the way to reach where we are. So many who came before us fought and protested and demanded rights and freedoms for us that they knew they themselves would never enjoy. Like them, the choices we make now may take generations to bear fruit but if we don’t plant the seeds now then the results will never manifest. It is for those future generations we will never see that we vote.

Sometimes it can feel like there is so much to fix that you don’t know where to start. This last year has also taught us, once again, that no matter what we want the future to hold, sometimes there are forces beyond our control that can change the trajectory on which we thought we were traveling. We did not expect to have the year we just had. We did not expect to lose the resources we lost. We did not expect to be thrown off course in the way that we have been. Plans that we had no longer fit the reality of where we are.

That’s life. Life is the past, present and future woven together in an intricate pattern that is ever changing. That’s why when we think about who we want to lead us we need to consider their past, present and future. What have they done already to show their commitment to the growth of the community? Who do they associate with and who has helped shape their character and beliefs? What is their vision and plan for the future and how flexible can they be to whatever challenges may come?

Even with only three days to go there is still time to educate yourself on the candidates and be ready to make an informed and thoughtful decision. Casting your vote is one moment in your life when you are simultaneously existing in the past, present and future. Make it count.

African Liberation Day 2018 – Unified at Home and Abroad

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Close your eyes and visualize Africa. I know it’s a big place and there are a lot of visual images that could come to mind. Don’t get too bogged down in the details. Just note the first image that comes to mind and hold it there.

When the movie Black Panther came out folks went all Wakanda all the time. At levels not seen since the 70’s people were claiming their African-mess and doing the most for the culture. It was February too? We couldn’t be black enough.

Not only were we proud black. We were indignantly proud black. For days, we had a hair trigger for colonizer shenanigans. We showed our pride in our roots through our clothes, hair, our talk, mannerisms and social media. The memes, oh the memes.

The Hotep lifestyle had been on the come back for a while. As the music and style began to revisit the 90s there came with it a growing level of wokeness that has been developing and fermenting for years. It was further strengthened by the tense atmosphere created by the new administration and the spate of violent interactions with the police. Tired of feeling like the victim it’s like the whole community decided to use pride as an offensive tactic to fight back. The whole attitude found a perfect accelerant in the movie set in the mythical Wakanda.

Who wouldn’t want to be from Wakanda? The fictional land of tradition, culture, heritage and modern technology is the stuff of our dreams. It is the Africa we all want to claim. So we did.

Pull up that image of Africa you started with. That first flash that comes to mind when Africa is mentioned. Be honest. Was it of Wakanda? Or was it the Africa we have been fed through countless forms of media and ads from seemingly well-meaning charities trying to pull your heartstrings and wallet. For decades, no centuries, we have been fed a steady diet of a “dark continent” of war, poverty, famine, disease, uncivilized practices and superstitious beliefs. So few of us knew anyone from Africa or had ever been ourselves. What outlets did we have for disputing this information?

It was not by accident that the images of Africa that come to mind for most of us are of devastation and degradation. European countries that carved Africa like a Thanksgiving turkey and military and political dictators had a vested interest I. Keeping an image of an impoverished and unsafe Africa. Entire industries and economies are based in exploiting Africa’s people and resources and having millions of Africans around the globe proud to be African was not going to fit in their agenda.

It is through deliberate effort that most people have any kind of positive relationship with Africa. We learn what e can about it’s ancient, pre-colonizer ways and try to connect with a more specific location. Some of us are even using the new DNA technology to get more specific about where we came from so we can make that connection.

Well, thankfully, I’m here to tell you that those images we hold in our heads about Africa are not the only reality. Yes there are parts of Africa that have been devastated by nature and by man. There are parts that are impoverished and parts that are war torn. Just like every other continent. There is also great beauty and rural wonders. There are modern cities and beautiful developments.

We can love a fictionalized version of Africa but we can also have a very real connection with Africa that will give us the same pride and joy. It’s not the particulars of the place that bring forth that love. It is the acceptance of Africa and recognizing Africa in ourselves that brings forth that pride.

This week we recognize African Liberation Day. The theme this year is “Unified by common struggle, history and culture -Africa Home and Abroad Unite.” This theme is so appropriate for harnessing that feeling we felt watching the best of Africa displayed in the movie. More than that it speaks to the pride we feel with expressing the myriad of ways our African identity has grown and evolved through our history as a people forced to exist in societies hostile to our presence.

In their song Arrested Development sings “Africa’s inside me/She taking back her child/She’s giving me my pride/And setting me free.” Our story is fractured but despite the many different roads we have travelled we share common threads. Wakanda may not be real but the more we unite around the goals of ending our struggle, sharing our true history and expressing the variety of our culture the more we can do to heal Africa’s wounds and develop her strengths at home and abroad. The more we can continue to free ourselves from the lies we were told.

Better For Perfect

When it’s spring, I don’t know that because of the dates on the calendar or because of the flowers that are starting to bloom or the trees that are starting to bud. I know because of that feeling that comes over you that time of year. That feeling of renewal and inspiration. I can smell it in the air and feel it in the wind. The tone of the days changes.
So when I feel the season turn to spring my mind and spirit feel like they are waking up and looking around at all the possibilities of what could be. My mind starts racing and thinking about all the areas of my life I would like to change or improve. At first if feels exciting but the more I examine it and start to try and make plans the more I begin to feel a bit over stimulated. There is so much I want to do, so many things I want change, improve or try that I don’t know where best to start.
At a recent women’s circle we were asked to make a visual assessment and plan for what we want to see come to fruition in our lives in the spring. It was a very frustrating exercise for me because I couldn’t prioritize the things that came to me. I couldn’t figure out if I needed to start with something broad and then get to the specifics or if I should pick one specific thing, finish it and then move on to the next. Should I choose the easiest thing first or the hardest? The window of opportunity to take advantage of how the change in season affects my spirit seems so brief. I feel like if I don’t make a decision or choose the wrong thing to focus on time would be wasted and perhaps opportunities would be missed. I just want to get it right.
Couple of day later while this exercise was still on my mind I was driving along listening to my sports radio. I heard a commentator mention a quote from NFL Commissioner Roger Goddell. “Don’t sacrifice better for perfect.” What Goddell was talking about had nothing to do with life changes or anything so ethereal as that. Whatever his context, my hearing the quote was very timely.
I think often we forget that everything doesn’t have to be exactly right for there to be a benefit. Sometimes we get so wrapped up in achieving an exact replica in real life of our imagined life that we get stymied in our efforts to accomplish anything.
In essence we sacrifice making things better because we can’t make them perfect. Even if we aren’t a perfectionist it is a state of mind that still applies. We look at that monstrous pile of laundry and think, there is no way I can finish all that today so rather than tackle it bit by bit we ignore it one more time. We want to go back to school but when we look at the big picture of all we will have to do to get that degree we want/need it seems like such a daunting prospect. So instead we convince ourselves that we can’t do it. Maybe when the kids are grown or when we get these bills under control or blah, blah, blah.
When I let that quote roll around in my head for a day or two and contemplated the paralysis that had set in as I tried to figure out what to do with my spring energy, it came to me that plans are just as easy to make as excuses.
As much as I was balking at making a choice because I didn’t want it to be the wrong one I realized that even if I didn’t get done exactly what I wanted by the time the malaise of fall set in, at least I would have accomplished something. My life may not be exactly where I want it to be, perfect so to speak, but it would be better than it is now. Like the song by the Blind Boys of Alabama, I may not be what I want to be but I’m better than I used to be and I’m getting better all the time.
When you are trying to progress and improve your life no choice you make is going to be a bad one as long as it leads you along the path to your goal. Some choices may move you along the path further and faster than others. You may make a decision and realize you actually need to go back and take a few smaller steps first before you can fulfill that action but you are still moving forward.
Spring comes with the infinite possibilities it inspires. The only way to enjoy the beauty of the season is to bloom.