Robin McDowell

“You are the best thing in this place.”

Posted by in New Orleans

At our last action, a young man stood with a poster, hiding behind us, tears streaming down his face. I assumed he was overwhelmed with the crowds and just needed to take a break. Maybe he was dehydrated. I really had no idea. I asked why he was crying.

“I don’t understand why wanting to take this down makes these people want to hurt me. Actually hurt me. I’m scared.” I was stunned, panicked, feeling ill-equipped to respond. I put my hand on his shoulder and he shook it off. “If this guy owned people like my great-great grandparents, why does he get to be right here, up high, in the middle?”

“Well, he might be there…for now, but you are the best thing in this place,” I said quietly. I got a smile, a big sniffle. I handed him a soda from my backpack full of snacks. I told him that this was coming down one way or another. Even if we had to use our own ropes and chains. He asked if he could help. “Yes. We need you to help.”

He was quiet for a long time.

“We’re like the flowers. The statue has got to come down and the flowers will still be here. They’ll grow and cover where it used to be.”

He picked up his poster, pushed through the other protesters and stood in the front.

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A Decade of Grown-Up Jobs

Posted by in New Orleans

I turned TWENTY in West Philly in my boyfriend’s apartment. We were tripping acid, eating ice cream and calling everyone we knew, attempting to feed them through the phone to celebrate my birthday. We woke up covered in Ben & Jerry’s containers and Sbarro’s pizza boxes from 30th Street Station. How we made it almost two miles to a regional train depot and back, I will never ever know. Two weeks later, after coming home from bartending at a restaurant called Bubble Tea House, I found him cheating on me with the next door neighbor.

I moved out and into a shithole apartment with a chemist from Dublin and a shiatsu practitioner with a dog. My rent was $300 a month, utilities included. The place was full of rats and the AC didn’t work. One morning an industrial coffeemaker exploded on my legs at Bubble Tea House. I was hospitalized for burns, experienced morphine for the first time and contracted infections while recovering in my sweltering apartment. I got out of town and visited my grandmother for a weekend. We celebrated my TWENTY-FIRST birthday with a 24-ounce beer at Texas Roadhouse in Watertown, New York.

That fall, I let handsome traveling musicians draw on my walls in permanent marker and threw a lot of raucous parties with art installations that I don’t remember. The heat stopped working and never came back on.

Luckily, I found a room with more amenities in a huge, beautifully renovated house with five young men. We destroyed the place, throwing the best Prince themed New Year’s blowout of all time. It was greasy, smelly, and covered in beer and books. We were so manic and so irresponsible. We tore the crystal chandelier out of the ceiling. I clogged my vintage clawfoot tub with papier mache. We sang Waylon Jennings covers on the porch and lived off day old muffins. It was perfect. They were perfect. Nothing perfect lasts.

I got my first “grown-up” job at an advertising agency, designing web banners and writing musician interviews for a blog. I moved to South Philly with my best friend from childhood to be closer to work. The Philadelphia Police came to that place twice. First when two of my friends were robbed at gunpoint on my front steps. Second when I was followed home from work and someone tried to kick in my door.

The boutique advertising gig suited me. I moved up to Art Director, designing packaging for cigarettes, overpriced hipster booze and a snooty Americana boutique. Philly treated me very well. I managed to save a bunch of money and not get arrested or permanently injured. I quit my job and boarded a plane to San Francisco. I ran around for several weeks, enjoying pour-over coffee and rose gardens in Berkeley. After blowing through most of the aforementioned savings, I failed to hand-deliver about 40 portfolio packages to potential employers. What else would you expect from a TWENTY TWO year old?

Thanks to a too-weird-to-refuse deal with my benevolent and completely maniacal former boss, I returned to Philly. I picked up his brand new Chevy Suburban, loaded up two suitcases filled with all of my possessions, and moved to New Hampshire. I lived by myself for a little over two years on a defunct multi-million dollar farm, managing seventy-two acres of property, two barns, three houses, one pond, and one graveyard. I also was charged with making friends with residents, procuring real estate, and paving the way for another snooty Americana boutique and a micro-distillery, both physically and with community “goodwill.” I turned TWENTY THREE years old. My neighbor left a special birthday note on my woodpile. I really did manage to make some real friendships of my own while learning about gentrification, rural poverty, and how to be humble. I also learned about mental health, keeping secrets, and rock climbing. I adopted two dying kittens, raised them to stable health, then pawned them off on my parents shortly after my TWENTY-FOURTH birthday. 

Then I dropped everything and moved to New Orleans for love.

Twice.

The first time, I stayed two months before leaving. Big mistakes destroyed one of my dearest friendships. Healthy coping mechanisms weren’t my thing. When I woke up one morning covered in baby turtles on a mattress in the kitchen of a stranger’s house, it was time to pack up. Lay low, lick my wounds, take a new “grown-up” job up north. I wore pantsuits to look more professional and attempted to shake off my ethanol-soaked doppelgänger. TWENTY-FIVE was just too old for this idiocy, right?

I don’t talk about the second time. Life is never a straight line but it always leads back to Louisiana.

I made it off the waitlist to an M.F.A. program, swiftly took out 40K in loans, and moved to Austin, Texas. I lived in a collective house of bilingual community organizers, and drove to the River Parishes every other weekend until I could move to New Orleans full time. In the process, I unexpectedly found the most significant mentor of my entire life. He helped me find a voice. He helped me find a way to get my thoughts off the page and into the streets. He saved my life in some ways.

My TWENTY-NINTH birthday on Cabrini Bridge was quiet and unremarkable. I was tired and it showed.

I tried to leave again last Fall. My mental health was shot to shit. I’d taken and quit three jobs in four months and was stuck in an utter standstill. I never cried more than I did last summer and fall. That leaving felt like it was for good, but departures are funny events. Sometimes the door closes as you measure each step in the other direction and never look back. Other times, departures are turning points. When the door hits you on the way out,  you get up and stick a battering ram through it. I returned. I find small ways every day to move beyond the paradigm of dropping everything for New Orleans.

I accompany many struggles. Or maybe really, The Struggle. That undertaking requires steadfast beliefs and relationships—bonds of community and trust that are not quickly or easily picked up and put down. A fellow organizer gave me an African name (that I forget because I was crying so many happy tears this time) meaning “Quiet Warrior.”

Here I go again.

Leaving to start a Ph.D. A “grown-up job” up north, hey?

My THIRTIETH birthday is in 8 days, and I can’t wait to leave my 20’s behind. I’ve been telling people I’m 30 for months now. At the sunset of the next decade, I’ll have endured thirteen years of higher education. Hopefully the next decade will bring even more twists and turns, but (please) less rats, drugs, and credit card debt. I’ll make different kinds of mistakes. Somewhere around THIRTY SEVEN, there will be some more letters after my name, but that is not and never will be what gives me the right to keep telling stories out loud.

STOP Louisiana Bill HB953 NOW!

Posted by in New Orleans

Dear Governor Edwards,

Please veto Bill HB953! The underrepresented populations of your state and city of New Orleans who have suffered unfathomable tragedy and countless deaths without recompense are counting on you to choose justice. At-will employees are not underrepresented groups that should fall under this bill. This piece of legislation was and is meant to protect those populations, families, and individuals most vulnerable to undue, unjust, and unsubstantiated violence and discrimination.

http://www.legis.la.gov/legis/BillInfo.aspx?s=16RS&b=HB953&sbi=y

http://gov.louisiana.gov/index.cfm/form/home/4

http://www.legis.la.gov/legis/ViewDocument.aspx?d=1004447

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Mother’s Day Smells Like Bacon

Posted by in New Orleans

“Birthmom”

If I had a dime for every time someone asked prying questions about my adoption, I’d be well out of debt and on my way to owning multiple homes. It goes like this:

“So your mom’s Asian and your dad’s Irish?”

No.

“The other way around?”

No. I’m adopted.

“Ohhhhh.”

At this point, people usually stop making eye contact, fidget a little, and always preface the next question with, “I don’t mean to be too personal, but…”

…”What about your birthmother? Have you tried to find her?”

I am always more than willing to answer. However, this is, in fact, a deeply personal inquiry. The answer is no, I have not tried to find her and don’t plan on it.

Trepidation over crossing a personal boundary completely disappears at this point. My response is never enough.

“But why? Aren’t you even curious?”

If it seems like my interlocutor has a bit of time to spare, I explain the following:

In the 80’s, not only was abortion illegal but the social shame of pregnancy for unwed South Korean women was pretty much irreversibly devastating. Abortion remained illegal until 2013, and even today, as I am told by several friends from Seoul, the same social consequences apply. Basically, any combination of the following likely occurs: Your family disowns you, you are blacklisted from living-wage employment, if still school-age, you will be barred from the testing and enrollment system that places young people into high schools, universities, and presumably, careers.

Sheesh.

So…just say it’s 1986. You’re a 16-year-old girl living in rural poverty who hitches a ride to Seoul and gets knocked up by her boss. You haul your pregnant self back to your hometown and find refuge in a Catholic convent. You give birth in secret and the nuns take your daughter to an adoption agency. She will be matched with a family from the United States who will provide 8000000000000 opportunities, a good Christian upbringing, etc etc etc.

You don’t really want to be found. You probably never want to be found. You might get back on your feet and keep living. Maybe go to school. Get new work. Find a partner. Maybe start a new family.

The success rate of South Korean adoptees’ attempts to find their birthmothers is incredibly low. Of the fruitful searches, very few end in a birthmother even willing to speak with, let alone meet the earnest seeker.

I’m sure that somewhere in the world on Mother’s Day (Parent’s Day in South Korea) and on June 2 (my birthday), a 46-year-old woman who looks like me pauses for a moment and hears some echoes. I do not need to physically track this woman down to understand my life.

If it seems like my interrogator is pressed for time, I respond:

Nope. My mom lives in upstate NY and is texting me right now.

Mom

My mom, who lives in upstate New York and is (for real) texting me right now, is my best friend. In addition to the challenges facing South Korean women, we might also consider the context of a young white woman in the U.S. adopting a non-white child in 1986.

Mom is selfless, patient and hilarious. She’s also beautiful (Did you know she won a college scholarship in a beauty pageant? We still have the clipping.). Mom didn’t teach me to be selfless, patient, or funny. She showed me these things. It is because of mom that I know how to laugh—at myself, as a way to bring people together, and sometimes as a way to cope with pain.

As a child, I often got off the bus with tears streaming down my face. School-age children, ‘tweens, and teens are brutal. When I was very little, mom would “hug and kiss [me] until it’s all better”…”Your lunchbox isn’t stupid”…”It’s a special talent that you can read, not an embarrassment.” I got older and more awkward, teasing got sharper. On one occasion mom helped me decide that instead of lashing out, I would bring my torturess a seashell from my collection. The token was successfully disarming. Everyone deserves kindness. When starved of it, we ask in different ways. Mom is smart.

As a teenager, I ran cross country—the only sport that didn’t involve obligatory “teamwork” with some of the meanest girls in high school. Every single weekend, mom commuted to some unremarkable hill in the Northeast to watch me run 5Ks in the mud and freezing rain. To set the scene here: Long distance running is not a spectator sport. Mom didn’t get to be the booster club president in the bleachers who led The Wave and “We Will Rock You” chants. For four years, she’d wait outside for hours to see me pant and heave in the last 60 seconds of a race. I’d collapse on the ground with a water bottle, then get on the bus back to school. She got in the car and drove all the way back to pick me up on time.

When I was 21, mom got thyroid cancer. A scratchy throat, an MRI, and suddenly we’re at the Hospital of The University of Pennsylvania consulting with a surgeon and endocrinology team. Shit happens, but this kind of shit couldn’t happen to my mom, right? Everything really explodes in that inevitable moment when mom becomes a mere human.

She didn’t get out of surgery until 3am. I was the last family member left waiting. I got to peek in the window before getting sent away by the nurses. I returned every night after that and slept in the hospital bed. She would sometimes get up at night, pull out her IVs and try to walk around. Nothing could keep her down.

Mom is kicking ass and taking names. The weird blue light of the hospital television is a distant memory. Six years ago, she moved to the 1000 Islands, a region along the St. Lawrence River on the Canadian Border. Having spent summers there with family for over 30 years, mom dreamed of becoming a year-round resident and writing for the local paper. This is exactly what she is doing now. I read the clippings she sends me in the mail. I think she should have every single thing she wants.

I decided to live with mom for a little while this summer. In the morning, I wait tables at a bakery down the street. At night, I write about New Orleans history and racial and economic justice. I do not feel that this is a compromise. This is a real honor and a real privilege. Not only are children and teenagers brutal…the whole world is brutal. Living and loving like my mom does may be one of the most radical things I can do. Tonight, the smell of bacon underneath my nails made me laugh—payback for all those muddy weekends.

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GiveNOLA: 3 non-profits to put on your radar

Posted by in New Orleans

Adinkra NOLA
https://givenola.org/npo/adinkra-nola
https://www.facebook.com/AdinkraNOLA/
I used to envision having kids in New Orleans. I started thinking about it with some seriousness about 2 years ago and wondered what the heck I would do should I want to build a family here. I thought about Waldorf Schools or homeschooling (cringed a little bit at both for my own reasons). Then I met Liz and started hearing about her work. “Un-schooling” is a mixed methods approach to small-group learning that blends humanities, STEM and plain practical stuff. No classrooms bursting at the seams…but also a research-driven and practical curriculum for nurturing thoughtful, collaborative kids who are also aware of their/each other’s ancestries. So my theoretical future kids would go here.

Daughters of Charity
https://givenola.org/npo/daughters-of-charity-foundation-new-orleans
http://www.dcsno.org/
TMI – Received free medical care and lab testing after a 3-week kidney infection that I didn’t treat. This place is freaking awesome. There are many locations in ALL parts of the city and I feel like not enough people know about it. My case was urgent, and they got me in on a Saturday at 8am. The Carrollton location is open Saturdays.

North Rampart Community Center
https://givenola.org/npo/north-rampart-community-center
http://northrampartcommunity.com/
So besides designing their logo 🙂 …NRCC is a really special place. Did you know they have an indoor basketball court? And…New Orleans’ oldest indoor pool? (Even older than NOAC!) There is an after-school program, summer camp, and lifeguard certification classes throughout the year. In a beautiful building…that was part of St. Mark’s Church. (My favorite part of this history is that this was one of the places in the city immediately opened its doors to victims of the Upstairs Lounge fire for safety and treatment.) Donations would help fund these programs (and hopefully new ones!) and the historic building.

 

A STORY OF SMALL BEGINNINGS

Posted by in Austin, Bonnet Carré Spillway, New Orleans

By All of Us

In 2014, we held the very first Dinner of Small Beginnings in our East Austin home. Since then, four more Small Beginnings events have been held across the country.

Two pivotal events prompted this gathering of radical hospitality. The first event was the small beginning of three years of activist-scholarship (and God-willing, 5-7 more, followed by a lifetime). The second was a book.

ACTIVIST-SCHOLARSHIP?

In 2013, I began working on my Master’s of Fine Arts at the University of Texas at Austin. My intention for the two-year professional program was to create an archive of historic typography used on commemorative plaques and original hand-painted signage in Texas and Louisiana. I excitedly visited a National Historic Register site in Norco, Louisiana—two cemeteries of enslaved Africans from two sugar plantations.  However, there was no plaque, no sign, no indication of any historically significant material or events. Instead of moving on to the next Historic Register site (with an actual sign), I started looking in to the history of the cemeteries.

The cemeteries had been flooded and plowed under in 1927 to build a militarized Mississippi River control structure. This history was hidden and actively repressed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Efforts by descendants to commemorate the cemeteries and re-inter salvaged remains have gone were silenced. I slowly proceeded down this rabbit hole, encountering descendants, organizers, pastors, archaeologists and government employees. I searched desperately for answers.

My typographic photo album seemed paler and paler. Not to belittle such a project, but I was not ready to encounter state-sanctioned silencing of slavery’s descendants in rural Louisiana. Neither my training nor biography prepared me to research systemic racism in Southeast Louisiana. Yet I was compelled to pursue this path and leave behind slideshows of serif and sans-serif fonts.

When I wasn’t commuting to New Orleans every weekend to track down more documents and more people, I lived in a collective house in East Austin. My roommates were community organizers. Patty Zavala was a fearless fighter for labor justice for immigrant workers. Paige Menking subverted the power of the Mexican Consulate to set up free health services and plans to keep undocumented immigrant families together when a member was hospitalized for serious injury, illness, or surgery.

I shared the cemetery story with them. “What do I do to fix this? What can I make to fix this?” They told me that I wouldn’t fix it, but the work being done was a revelatory awakening to society’s most oppressive systems, and in turn awakening others to the buried stories we can no longer ignore. This was called activist-scholarship.

I wasn’t sold. Patty was leading street blockades in front of the Capitol in two languages! Paige was getting treatment for an 8-year-old undocumented child with brain cancer. I was going to class, hoping to not get kicked out of a Fine Arts program.

“I’M A HUMAN HUMAN BEING!”

The second pivotal life event occurred during a difficult advising session. “I can’t do this! I’m an Asian graphic designer trying to join a struggle for spiritual reparations for the descendants of enslaved Africans! I have no right to talk or write about this. Can’t I just go back to fonts?”

My advisor, Gloria Lee, handed me a book. It was called The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the 21st Century written by a woman I had never heard of—Grace Lee Boggs. “I think it will be good for you to read. This is her latest, but if you like it, you ought to check out some of her other books.”

Grace’s words, especially those about dedication to becoming more human human beings, finally clicked with me in a way that design criticism, urban planning and visual rhetoric texts never did. Grace’s challenge to build the world anew through creativity and conversation lifted my spirits and provided a frame for all of this grief work. This work was not about Asian women obtaining a hall pass to narrate black struggle. This was about the power of commitment to a project larger than yourself. A project that does not only tear down, but builds new ways of learning, loving and speaking. Grace’s call for self and structural transformation evolved over the course of her life. This call  gave me courage to forge ahead, keep fighting for commemoration of the cemeteries, keep talking about it, and not let the historical burden become corrosive to my psyche.

A week later I ran in to Glorias’ office. “I have a role! I’m a human human being! We all have a responsibility to evolve into more human human beings!”

She laughed and ran her fingers through her hair, suddenly deep in thought. “Did you hear she entered hospice care last week?” I had just found the words and work of Grace Lee Boggs! How could I say “Thank You?”

RADICAL HOSPITALITY

I knew exactly what I was going to do for my next project. I was not going to design a poster or create a documentary. I was going to cook an enormous meal for friends, mutual friends, and perhaps complete strangers. We would join together in fellowship to celebrate the life and legacy of Grace Lee Boggs. We might begin to find the shape of a better world together, over food and drink.

My roommates joined the event planning because it was too big to do on my own. We came across a quote from Henry David Thoreau, “For it matters not how small the beginning may seem to be.” I was so nervous that the dinner would be a flop, that no one would attend and no one would share a connection to Grace’s ideas. Regardless, it would be a small beginning. We would serve everyone who came to our door and invite them to conversation. We personally invited about 10 people we knew through school or organizing work.

However, on the night of the event, thirty people arrived at our doorstep. The news of the dinner had spread by word of mouth. Attendees ranged from LGBT filmmakers, the owner of a radical Latin@ bookstore and an archivist of global human rights struggles. We received an unexpected guest —a language justice organizer who had met Grace while traveling all over Texas to translate stories of families trapped in detention centers. He had made a special trip to Austin after hearing about the dinner. A woman attended who had spent time with Grace in Maine.

We ate a generous meal featuring recipes from my grandmother, and then wrote letters to Grace, telling her about small acts of resistance and creativity. The prompt was: “Write a letter to Grace Lee Boggs and share a story of your own small beginning.” While we digested our meal and digested our conversations, we read excerpts from The Next American Revolution and streamed the Grace Lee documentary for more intimate viewing groups. We facilitated discussion on balancing serious commitment to revolutionary politics with maintaining everyday optimism. Guests shared stories of the first time they encountered the teachings of Grace Lee Boggs, or simply events leading to their embrace of activism, activist-scholarship, or community organizing.

Some folks proudly read their finished letters out loud to the group. Others folded theirs up neatly and hung them on the wall. A man told a story about growing up the only gay boy in his small Massachusetts town. Every day his classmates poured the trash bin out on his head because he had finally come out. His small beginning was moving to Austin, a place where he founded an LGBT film festival and never had to be lonely again.  We envisioned these letters reaching Grace’s hospice. We thought she might like to read the thoughts of people so far from Detroit, but to whom her presence was constantly felt. She was with us in the streets, on the road, and in the classroom. I packaged up the letters along with an extra place setting, and sent to The Boggs Center.

THE SPREAD OF SMALL BEGINNINGS

Grace and grace had brought us together. To this day, I exchange emails, phone calls, coffee, and surprise visits with some of our guests.

After posting photos from the dinner online, a friend from Philadelphia sent me an email. She was holding a candlelight vigil for Grace, inspired by the Small Beginnings Dinner. She sent us candles from the event in solidarity.

A landscape architect and farm apprentice who attended the dinner brought neighbors from a Austin “food desert” together using the Small Beginnings concept. They hosted a pie walk to get people out of their homes and talking, sharing recipes, and engaging in a healthy competition for the tastiest pie. They shared their experience of the Dinner of Small Beginnings with the neighborhood and invited them to join this second iteration.

At SUNY Buffalo, a new junior faculty member who had attended the dinner during her Ph.D. program in Austin, reached out for permission to use the Small Beginnings graphics for a screening night of “American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs.” She brought the idea of Small Beginnings into the classroom Undergraduate students organized the event.

We never set out to network Small Beginnings around the country. We never set out to write any kind of self-congratulatory reflection.

We know that loving can be our most radical movement. Inviting others to conversation can be our most politicized act. And breaking bread in the midst of struggle to build each other up is part of building the world anew.

Austin, TX (Dinner of Small Beginnings)


Austin, TX (Small Beginnings Pie Walk)


Philadelphia, PA (Small Beginnings Candlelight Vigil)


SUNY Buffalo (Small Beginnings Movie Night)