Undo Racism Every Day: Exclusive Interview with Children’s Author Anastasia Higginbotham

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ANASTASIA HIGGINBOTHAM has written a courageous children’s book that seeks to dismantle institutionalized racism and white supremacy, one conversation and action at a time. Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness  challenges adults to face their own discomfort and biases in order to validate the truths that children intuit. In this exclusive interview, Anastasia discusses her process of expanding her world view and becoming a disruptor of the very best kind.

Deb: “What prompted you to write this important book?”

My answer is a who and a what. Who inspired me were Black women: Noleca Anderson Radway, Brooklyn Free School Executive Director; Reverend angel Kyodo williams, Zen priest and co-author of Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation; and Anyanwu Uwa, The Human Root Co-Founder and Executive Director. Noleca made me see white power in action and in myself; Rev. Angel dared me to connect with my deepest conditioning into whiteness and grow from a place of heartbreak; Anyanwu insisted I view myself as worthy. What inspired me is everything that the Black Lives Matter movement shows us about state-sanctioned murders of Black women, men, trans people and kids by police, plus no accountability for those crimes and new ones committed against the BLM activists themselves.

Deb: “What have you learned about yourself in the process?”

Making this book has removed veil after veil (it’s still happening) of illusions I had about my own uselessness in the fight for racial justice. I am beginning to develop a healthy racial identity for the first time ever. Rather than feel disgusted by my whiteness – and suspicious of everyone else’s – I can expand my worldview, correct the smearing and distortion caused by a whiteness mindset (the one that lies to us all about white superiority), and see, love, embrace, and engage with people from a more healed place. Also, it’s like wearing x-ray-night-vision spy goggles—I see white supremacy now in all its hiding places. I’m not scared to shine a light on it and root it out of everywhere, including out of me.

Deb: “What are the most challenging aspects (for you personally) of engaging in conversations about white supremacy with white people?”

When the white person I am talking with needs proof that white supremacy is real and something they should care about. I don’t understand the hurdle I’m trying to help them see or get over, and I get confused. I wonder if they need me to convince them that this is an issue worth caring about? Is their instinct toward caring that broken and buried inside of them? When that seems to be the case, I despair.

It’s also hard when I want to help someone understand that white supremacy is a system embedded into everything—government policies, banking, housing, courts, schools, elections, healthcare, where the city dump is located, etc. And they want to defend their personal stake in being a good person, a.k.a. not a racist. This is not the point or the goal. There are evil systems at work here. Let’s break them. To me it’s as simple as: “Hulk smash!”

 Deb: “How about with people of color?”

I sometimes dissociate when I am talking about race and whiteness with people who are seen as Black—people who are experiencing anti-Blackness from a white dominant culture all day long. I feel myself floating beside myself criticizing every word I say, telling me how ignorant I sound, predicting that I will say something hurtful and outrageous. But I have learned to coach myself back into my body and just be humbly there, reading the person’s facial expressions and body language, letting there be lots of room and as much safety as I can help to create so we can both be fully present, honest, and open.

Deb: “And on the other side of the coin, what have been some of the unexpected joys of these conversations?”

Love. So much love and connection. With everybody. The chasms created by racism and fear and alienation disappear, then and there, and common ground appears on that very spot where we stand. Feels like something starts to grow between us and beneath us instantly.

Deb: “In her book, White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo says, “The body of research demonstrates that white children develop a sense of white superiority as early as preschool.” How can we start the conversation with young children before they initiate it?”

I don’t have any studies to back this up but I make a point to associate the colors black and brown with immense power, beauty, and radiance, for starters. Point out the beauty of a brown tree trunk, rich black dirt for growing all the things that keep us alive. Black mountains, vast brown deserts, all the colors of chocolate, and other delicious black and brown foods. And of course, the beautiful people who enjoy an abundance of melanin in their skin. I give blackness all the credit for the gorgeous serenity and mystery and thrill of nighttime. When reading children’s books where evil is represented by the colors black, I skip it. I don’t use the word black to describe something or someone scary, evil, or ugly (even if it’s only describing the bad guy’s clothing or where they live). I never associate the words white or light with innocence or goodness. Anti-blackness is everywhere in our language and so is this idea that we should go to the light and avoid the dark. The entire Star Wars franchise is based on this, so good luck navigating that mess. I don’t talk about having a dark sense of humor or a black mood. I find other words. They exist.

Deb: “What else do you want readers to know about you and your process of writing the book and dismantling white supremacy?”

White people can be each other’s allies in this work of disrupting white supremacy—that’s where our ally-ship is most needed and effective. You don’t have to be an author or a leader in a movement. Be present to the other white children and adults in your life, in your family. Read and study about whiteness so you can see where it tricked you and distanced you from your own instincts to connect and relate to whole groups of people who are targeted by white supremacy. Learn to see the systems of whiteness at work and tackle that system (instead of other people or yourself) in meaningful ways every day, every day, every day. Remember: “Hulk smash!”

 

Photo Credits: Erin Bogle, Webber Park Library, Minneapolis, MN

 

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Available now at: https://www.dottirpress.com/not-my-idea/

The Child Life Maker Movement: Loose Parts Impacting Healthcare

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What happens when you cross a child life specialist with loose parts? Creativity, to say the very least. Specialists have been using loose parts to make the medical world more accessible and friendly for children and families since the beginning of our profession. They combine medical supplies (tubing, gauze, rubber gloves) and household items (paper towel rolls, pipe cleaners, paper clips, felt) to create everything from customized dolls that reflect a child’s medical situation, to a glove-o-phone to help children pass breathing tests. Simple and complex inventions have aided children in making meaning out of their medical experiences.

 

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Now, with the Maker Movement, child life specialists have invaluable opportunities to join brains with other disciplines seeking to improve patient experience and speed recovery.   Bank Street College Child Life alumnae Jon Luongo and Kelly Segar, and children’s book author Anastasia Higginbotham rolled up their sleeves to join the Maker Faire at The New York Hall of Science this past weekend. They joined nurses, doctors, medical technicians and fellow inventors in the Health Maker tent on this brisk and cloudy autumn day.

As children and caregivers meandered through the exhibits, .the specialists shared information about how to make pediatric hospital stays more manageable, less stressful, and more fun. As Jon demonstrated the glove-o-phone, kids jumped at the unexpectedly loud honk it made.

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Exclamations of “Ewww gross!” were followed by attentive curiosity as Jon explained the purpose of the vial of “blood soup” on the table.

 

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Families spontaneously grabbed colorful neon strings and engaged in string play, a simple game that crosses generations, culture and language around the world.

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Kelly demonstrated her Barium Bear, “Barry”, developed to support children receiving barium enemas and scans. She used simple circuitry that she learned from a Hospital Play Specialist in Japan to illuminate the pretend scan.

 

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At nearby tables, radiation techs and doctors showcased how legos can be used to build mini MRI, CT-Scan, and linear accelerator machines. When they are doll sized, they aren’t quite so scary. And when children aren’t as frightened, doctors can administer less anesthesia to their tiny patients, a win-win for everyone.

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Did you know that a A three-D printer can be used to make prosthetic hands for children who have lost theirs to birth defects, disease or accidents? And for a fraction of the cost of traditional prosthetics. And they aren’t just your run of the mill hands either. They are superhero hands! As I observed a three-D printer humming away at one exhibit, I wondered about what kind of mind came up with the idea of this machine. And then who had the amazing idea about the possible application of it in the medical world?

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Wonderful ideas start somewhere, and when we encourage children to explore and create, even in the medical environment, we are investing in their healing and in their future. The Maker Faire was an extraordinary celebration of the possibilities of the human brain. From low-tech to high-tech, creative minds came together in the Health Lab tent to hack medical problems and make the healing process more fun. If you want to get your maker on, I encourage you to find maker spaces near you Challenge your child life staff to a loose parts contest at the next departmental meeting. Jumpstart a health maker group in your hospital and invite staff from throughout the institution to collaborate. And don’t forget your best assets. Find every opportunity to include children in creative problem solving with loose parts. In and out of the healthcare field, children and adults all benefit when we connect with what Eleanor Duckworth called “wonderful ideas.”

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Death may be stupid, but kids aren’t.

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This week, Shani Thornton (aka Child Life Mommy) and I brought Child Life services beyond hospital walls into our community. Via a referral from Jen Holahan, CCLS, a parent invited Shani to do some bereavement work at a girls and boys club.  A staff member and former member of the club had recently died unexpectedly, and the kids and staff  needed support. Shani reached out to me and asked if I would join her. How could I say no?

We armed ourselves with Anastasia Higginbotham’s book Death is Stupid, 3 rolls of toilet paper and Shani’s years of experience volunteering with bereaved children at Center for Hope. Our plan of action included a read aloud, followed by a group mural where  the school-aged children could express any of their many feelings about their beloved mentor’s death. The club supplied a huge roll of white butcher paper, paint, crayons, markers, glue, yarn, glitter, pompons, and googly eyes. The kids supplied their hearts.

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In addition to the mural, we set up a toilet paper target station in a corner away from the art activity.  Kids could draw what was making them sad, angry or afraid, and then wail away at the target with sopping wads of water-logged toilet paper.

What did we discover? Well, first, the children joined us in a circle of chairs for the reading of the book. Some teared up while others got silly. We staid our course and refrained from redirecting any of it. We were surprised when almost all of them raised their hands when asked if they knew others who had died. Many relatives and pets had already paved the way for this loss.

Then we set them loose on the mural. They dug deep quickly, drawing and writing about their feelings and memories about the young man who had died at the tender age of 21. They told us stories of things they had done with him, what he enjoyed, how he had helped them with their homework. They talked openly about feeling sad and angry. One tween drew a heart, wrote “Death is Stupid” in the middle of the heart, and then crossed out ‘Stupid’ and added the words scary, mean, weird, confusing and heartbreaking.

Those who weren’t quite ready to join in the mural found solace in the target game, something that allowed for a more physical, visceral release of emotions. “I hate death” they wrote on the target. “Come Back!” One child drew a picture of himself crying, and then decided to cut the drawing off of the target, so that it would not be ruined by the wet toilet paper. Their bodies danced in anticipation as they lined up to take their turns spooling toilet paper around their fists. The toilet paper flew, splatting with satisfying force again and again, as emotion propelled major league-worthy arms.

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When the smoke cleared, every child had contributed to both the mural and the target practice. We regathered in the circle, where Shani reminded them who they can speak to about their feelings as time goes on. The kids named their parents, counsellors, teachers and one another. We held hands and shouted their friend’s name as a final ritual.

Kids know what they need. When adults provide them with space, time, materials and a listening ear, kids know exactly what to do. They need to talk about the person they lost. They need to know that the adults in their lives can hear them without turning away or handing out platitudes. They need to know that they are normal, that their thoughts and feelings aren’t bad or wrong. And they need to know that the feelings will come and go, and that it’s okay to play and have fun anyway, even amidst the sadness.

After the room had emptied, as we scraped wet toilet paper off the cinder block walls, Shani said, “Isn’t this exactly where child life belongs?!”

Yes, my dear friend. This is exactly where it belongs, in the community where the children live day in and day out, and where death is stupid, scary, mean, weird, confusing and heartbreaking.

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