Saturday, August 25, 2007

Short Funny Gender Story

Or, Yet Another Peculiar Conversation about My Name

Last weekend I was strolling about town with a friend. We were discussing the language origins of our names. Both my name and hers work well in numerous languages, but the meanings vary across languages. With my name, even the gender varies across languages: most Indian (from the subcontinent, not the Americas) people will hear my name as Devi, which is a definitively female name.

Just then we were hailed by Mohammed, the Indian guy who just opened a little grocery up the street from my house. Ordinarily I anonymize the strangers that I write about in my blog, but "an Indian guy named Mohammed" might apply to a larger group of people than almost any other phrase of similar construction, so I'm not worried. Business was slow, and Mohammed was bored, so we chatted for a while.

(Random footnote: The spell-checker built in to blogger does not recognize Mohammed, but does recognize Microsoft, McDonald's, and Macintosh. How fucked up is that??)

The first thing Mohammed said to us was, "Where are you really from?" I said "New York," and Mohammed said, "Really?"

This confused me. I know that people get asked questions like this all the time, but ... I'm white. I'm not even "kinda dark for a white guy," like a lot of white Jews I know. So I'm not sure what stereotype he could possibly have been drawing on, to have trouble believing that I came from New York. Then he asked my friend where she was "really from," and she said "here," and there was a similar exchange of mild disbelief. That made a little more sense to me, because she is indeed kinda dark for a white girl, in a way that not many people are, who are "really from" here.

We chatted for a while longer. I did most of the talking, and Mohammed mostly talked to me. I felt kinda bad about it, because it seemed like a gender privilege thing. But, I also thought it might be kind of chivalrous of me. My friend is femme and gorgeous and gets a lot of un-asked-for attention from men. So I thought, maybe Mohammed is rudely ignoring her to converse with me, but, at least that means he's not leering at her like most men do.

Then Mohammed looked at me, and nodded toward my friend, and said, "Is she your girlfriend?"

I said, "No," and my friend and I made eye contact and giggled, which probably didn't help anything.

He said, "Just friends?"

We said, "Yeah."

Still looking at me, Mohammed said, "Oh, are you gay?"

"I, uh ... not exactly?" I almost said, "No, but she is," but then, isn't she dating boys lately?

He said, "It's okay if you are. I accept everybody."

"Uh, great. Yeah, um..."

"You swing both ways?"

"It's ... complicated."

Somewhere toward this end of this exchange, I realized that Mohammed thought I was male. And gay, of course, because why else would I be "just friends" with a stunning and seemingly heterosexual woman? At that point my friend must have taken over holding up our end of the conversation, because I was totally flummoxed. So much for being the gentleman. The rest of the conversation is kind of a blur to me, until we decided to extricate ourselves.

I said, "Look, we really have to get going. It was great to meet you." Then realizing we hadn't exchanged names yet, I put out my hand: "My name's Davey."

Mohammed took my hand in both of his, softly, with a level of attention that I'm not used to receiving in a handshake. "Devi?" said Mohammed, "That's an Indian name."

"Yeah, I know," I said. "See you around!"

And we scrammed, before he could put the pieces together.

I can't wait to see what happens the next time I swing by his grocery store.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Vision Statement

Last month I had the privilege of attending the Jewcy retreat for the third time. Jewcy is a West-Coast gathering of next-generation tikkun olam activists. Tikkun olam means, more or less, "the repair of the world."

This year we did some amazing leadership development activities, one of which involved writing vision and mission statements for our lives. Since the retreat, I have been reflecting on my vision and mission, and trying to resolve them into something specific and communicable.

Here is my draft vision statement. I am eager for your feedback and responses. I wrote this vision statement in response to the prompt: In the next 2-3 years, what will be different in the world, because of your work?


Communities that I work with will be acting more like communities. They will develop structures and habits for nurturing their members in many ways, including emotionally, socially, and materially.

Many groups that think of themselves as communities – such as congregations, some schools, and neighborhood groups – already have structures for supporting their members socially. Some also do pretty well at supporting members emotionally. Very few such communities (in the U.S.) are in the habit of supporting members materially.

Supporting community members materially would mean sharing resources – i.e. money – such that, at the very least, everyone’s basic needs would be met. Many of us in the U.S. have an ambiguous relationship with the idea of sharing resources. We’re not quite sure it’s our job. It seems vaguely communistic. And, since it’s considered impolite even to talk about money and poverty, communities can comfortably pretend that they don’t know that a member is struggling to pay their bills. But for me, this is part of what community should mean. If a member of a community needs a place to stay or healthy food to eat, there is no reason that need can’t be met, that minute. Many of our communities have the resources to care for members in this way, if only we would decide to do it. There’s no excuse for us not to.

In order for communities to embrace the responsibility of sharing material resources, they need to resolve this ambiguity and decide that it is indeed our job to nurture community members in this way. They need to uncover and challenge the roots of this discomfort by having competent, compassionate conversations about class and across class. They need to engage with questions like, Do I deserve what I have? What does it mean to “deserve” resources in excess of what my neighbors have? How do I communicate about class and money? What aspects of my class or money situation do I consider to be “private,” and why? If I needed help from this community, would I feel comfortable asking for it? Who is responsible for making sure that members of this community have safe places to stay, and healthy food to eat? Who is in the center of this community, and who is on the edges? How do we make the center large enough for everyone?

In order to address these questions in a way that is loving, informed and applicable, communities need practice and they need facilitation. I can help communities engage in these conversations by facilitating workshops, cross-class dialogues, and cost-sharing procedures. Through these facilitated encounters members of the communities will improve their skills at communicating about class and money, and increase their awareness of their own and others’ hang-ups around class. Gradually the community will develop a shared understanding about class, and will create formal and informal norms about sharing resources within the community in order to address members’ needs.

I want to do this work because I want communities I work with to become communities that I want to be a part of. I want to do it because I feel genuine when I’m able to have honest, heartfelt, intellectually rigorous conversations, and because I know that class is one barrier that gets in the way of these conversations. I want to do it because this system is set up to divide us, and we don’t have to let it. I want to do it because I have faith that communities can and must do better.