Sunday, September 13, 2020

Social Inequities Explained by Survivor: Fiji

There's this thing that happens when white people hear terms like systemic racism or social inequity.  They bristle.  They reject the premise of the question.  They double down explaining how hard they've worked for everything they've ever gotten in their lives: I earned this house, this car, this vacation, this life No one handed me anything.  I poured my blood, sweat, and tears into everything I've ever done and will always be this way until my dying day.  I had to work hard -- no one can tell me I don't deserve every single thing I have.

No one is telling you that you don't.  So chill.  I, too, am a white person who has worked very hard my entire life, who has gone through very difficult situations and, when the dust settled, was still standing.  I completely agree that there is a pride and an honor and a sense of accomplishment with every achievement I make.  I'm not automatically rich or worry-free because I'm a white person in America.  I struggle, too.  I have problems, too.  As a woman, I'm not immune to systemic inequities, either -- I still have to fight for my voice to be heard, for my work to be acknowledged, for this society to value me on par with white men, who, by the way, make more money than me simply because they are white men.    

also am fully aware that social equity is in my favor because I'm a white person.  I am fully aware that I have a little bit of a head start in this race to the finish because of the color of my skin.  I am fully aware that my life is just a tiny bit easier because of this caste I was born into.  That doesn't diminish my efforts or my accomplishments or my place at the table -- but it does make me aware that denying the lived of experiences of others isn't helping and, if anything, I should be using my status to amplify and support the lives of those whose path is not as easy as mine for reasons that are completely out of their control.

Here's an easy analogy:  Imagine you are born six feet tall.  You still need to make an effort to reach for things on a high shelf, but maybe that's just a little stretch to the ball of your feet as you rise up an extra couple of inches.  Now imagine the person next to you is born four feet tall.  They are tasked with reaching the same thing that even you, a full two feet taller than them, had a hard time reaching.  That four-foot-tall person looks around, realizes there's no stool to stand on, no way to boost themselves up, so they have to get creative, they have to work a lot harder to get the same thing you got -- but it might not always be possible for them.  They start out at a height disadvantage.  That's no one's fault, but you have to agree that it makes their task harder to be successful at that it was for you.  That is social inequity in its simplest form.  

But can I interest you in a more complex example?  Follow me, right this way.... Let's go on down to Fiji.

I have been watching Survivor these past couple of weeks.  This reality television show takes maybe twenty strangers to an exotic and remote location and asks them to figure it out over the span of thirty-nine days.  In between trying to find food or maintain a shelter or build a fire, they are asked to compete in these truly inane -- and typically physical -- challenges that can earn them rewards (like fishing gear or pillows or letters from home) or immunity (meaning they don't have to go to Tribal Council and vote a member of their team off).  Prior to this exploration of seasons available with Amazon Prime (weirdly, not all of them -- not sure why some are included and some are not), I'd only ever watched the first season where Richard Hatch won and then famously later had to go to prison for not paying the taxes on his million dollar prize money.  Watching some of these other seasons has been... interesting.  Certainly, my inner sociologist eats it up with a spoon.  It's dog-eat-dog every season on Survivor.

Recently, I started the Fiji season and even though I'm only a couple episodes in, I am deeply fascinated by what I'm seeing.  Typically what happens on Day One is the contestants are divided into tribes that have pre-assigned names and color associations (symbolized by buffs that contestants are required to wear) and then they are sent off to set up their respective camps.  Sometimes there are only two tribes that first day, sometimes there are four -- the show mixes it up.  But with Fiji?  Nineteen strangers converged on a beach with no Jeff Probst there to greet them and tell them who they were to each other.  So.... they started to get to know each other and went exploring.  One of the contestants said he felt like a "chicken with his head cut off," just running around, unsure of what to do without this standard ritual of the show.  That's when Jeff flies by in a little plane and drops a crate in the water.  The contestants retrieve it and find out there are materials nearby to build a shelter and an outhouse and a kitchen.  They are given plans for the layout and for how to construct things.  Everyone pitches in and gets to work and by Day Two, a pretty swanky campsite is put together.  There's even food and a fire source, something that most Survivor gamers have to earn by winning challenges.  Everything is handed to the full lot of them.

And then comes the twist.

Jeff finally shows up and asks one of the contestants to somewhat randomly assign her fellow competitors to stand behind a green or orange line.  Then the person who did the assigning -- a middle-aged Asian woman named Sylvia -- is told she has immunity from the first elimination but she is going to be sent to Exile Island -- riddled with poisonous sea snakes -- and will return to join whichever team loses its first member.

Exile Island is a whole thing.  I'll come back to it.  

Once Sylvia is shipped off, the two tribes -- Ravu (orange) and Moto (green) have to face off in a challenge.  The winning team gets to return to the camp they all built together -- which will now also have a couch and pillows and blankets and other amenities -- while the losing team will be sent to a new campsite that will have one cooking pot and a machete....and nothing else.  Moto wins the challenge and returns to their relatively plush accommodations while Ravu forges off to start over.

The biggest disadvantage for Ravu?  No fire.  Without fire, they have no water.  This is a huge problem.

Descriptions of the Survivor: Fiji season call it the Have's versus the Have Not's.  What becomes readily apparent after even just a couple of episodes is that the comforts afforded Moto jettison them to the leaderboard.  They win literally every challenge.  They are stronger, better nourished, better rested, better taken care of.  Video footage from their camp shows them lazing in hammocks, going back for seconds at chow time, enjoying leisurely swims.  Even though two of their teammates incur injuries or ailments (one teammate has to be lifted from the game because of his health complications), they are clearly the "better team."  They are simply better equipped to compete because their basic needs are more than met.  One Moto member even joked this could be the season where contestants gained weight -- that's how well-cared for they were.

Meanwhile, over at the Ravu camp, things are going south, fast.  They literally have no water for something like a week.  They also have no food, besides coconuts that take an almost Herculean effort to crack open given how weak and dehydrated they all are.  One tribe member finds a grove of pineapples and you'd think it was the mana from heaven story in the Bible.  The group descends on this new food source.  But without much else to eat and without water to drink, the Ravu camp is struggling, hard.  When Sylvia comes back from Exile Island, she is astonished by what she sees and also immediately feels out of step with everyone else since she missed the first day or so of bonding.  Even in a challenging situation like theirs -- or maybe even especially in a challenging situation like theirs -- she is extra on the outside because she's new and not a factor in whatever they had gone through as a group in her absence.  She definitely feels like the target is on her back, should they lose the next challenge.

Spoiler alert: they lose the next challenge.  They lose all of the challenges, at least as far as I've watched.  

Part of the Moto team's prize is electing another member of the losing team to go to Exile Island.  Sometimes that protects a player from being eliminated, sometimes it just sends them away for a day without that bonus.  Either way, a player sent to Exile Island is alone for at least twenty-four hours, isolating them from whatever is happening back at camp.  Being sent away is supposed to be a punishment, and often is.  Sometimes it offers an advantage, but rarely.  Mostly, what it does is prevent cohesion with the entire group.  The person sent away has the potential of losing social status within the team since they become less and less bonded to whatever is happening with the others.  

So what that means is the losing team:

1) Has no control over who is sent to Exile Island -- which creates stress, both for the those who are worried about being sent (some folks in previous seasons really had emotional breakdowns at being "othered" in this way) and for those who are going to have to maintain the camp strategy or status quo without probably a key member of the group (since the winning team is likely going to send a strong player to destabilize their perceived power)

2)  Gets no reward or immunity


3) Has to vote a member of the group out.

Losing on Survivor has high stakes, every single time.  It becomes especially challenging when your team loses over and over and over again, meaning that not only are you constantly being required to vote people out (which makes your team potentially weaker, just by numbers), you are also constantly forced into these divisive conversations about which person "should" be eliminated.  Alliances are a huge part of the game, but there's also no reason to fully trust that what someone tells you is happening is actually happening.  The team that is put in the position of having to go Tribal Council week after week is inherently more fractured and more wary of each other than the team that doesn't have to do that.  Add to that the fact that the winning team is also well-nourished, well-hydrated, and living pretty comfortably, it is easily understandable why Ravu is such a mess and Moto is like a winning machine.

In one of the challenges, the two teams had to square off to eat local delicacies (like fish eyes and pig snouts, that sort of thing), and a member of the Ravu team taunted a member of Moto.  The Ravu member won that round, but was chided by a member of Moto for being "unsportsmanlike."  He made quite a speech about it, really emphasizing his disgust at the behavior.  That's when a member of Ravu -- a very boisterous Bostonian who goes by Rocky -- clapped back, "You try having no food or water for days and having to vote off your teammates day after day and we'll see how sportsmanlike you are then, bro."

Yeah, bro.

But Rocky's point is more than valid.  The look on the Moto teammate's face after his competitor's speech was over illuminated that he hadn't taken a moment to consider what that team had been going through.  He had no rebuttal.  The truth is that neither camp really had much idea what was going on at the the other camp.  Moto, especially, had never seen Ravu's setup.  They just heard it kinda sucked and after offering a shrug and a spit, went back to swinging in their hammocks.  

Having the nicer camp didn't prevent an older Moto teammate from cracking a rib in one of the challenges and then later becoming disoriented before the medical team had to lift him from the game -- being in the "better camp" didn't make anyone immune from life challenges -- but it did protect them all from the game itself.  Their living situation and the many privileges that came with it boosted them.  And it was clear that they were fully aware of those advantages when after winning an immunity challenge, Jeff told them they had to pick:

a) Keep the immunity idol but have to swap campus with Ravu


b) Give Ravu the immunity they'd won this round but get to keep their camp

and they, of course, picked keeping their camp.  It was obviously better to have to vote one person out then it was to have to give up their ability to remain six feet tall instead of shrinking to four feet.  Ravu could have this one -- to Moto, their camp was more precious then their ability to keep their team intact.

The fracturing within the Ravu camp was also quite bewildering to behold, so let's take a moment to break it down.  Here are some demographics: 

There are 10 original Ravu members.

Five men, five women.

Of the men, there were two Black men, two Asian men, and one white man.

Of the women, there was one Black woman, two Asian women, and two white women.

In the episodes I've watched so far, a white woman was voted out first, the Black woman was voted out second, and had they been forced to go to that third Tribal Council, Rocky (the only white man) was pushing hard for one of the Black men to be next to go.  Since the first elimination is always a little arbitrary (no one really knows anyone that well by Day Three), let's just say that the first real elimination -- that second one -- really surprised me.  The woman who was voted out?  She's the one who'd discovered the pineapple grove earlier that day.  Without her, they would have had no sustenance whatsoever going into that challenge.  But Rocky, along with one of the Asian men, pushed to have this Black woman voted out because.....this is true....she was "yelling too much" during the challenge they lost.  Hey, you know what she was yelling?  "Try putting the piece over here!" while they were struggling to assemble a puzzle.  How dare she "be so frantic."  I couldn't believe her team voted her out so early on, even after she had proven to be a valuable member of their squad.

Was it because she was the only Black woman?  I highly doubt anyone on that team would say that it was -- but according to social hierarchy, the Black woman has the least social value out of a group with Black men, Asian men and women, a white woman, and a white man.  So pineapples or not, she's the next to go.

So very interesting.

It therefore didn't shock me at all when Rocky set the target next on the back of one of the Black men.  Will he be the next one voted out of Ravu?  Only time will tell.

What I can say for certain is that Survivor: Fiji is playing out the model for social equity and how systemic issues can be misunderstood by the "Have's" and unavoidably applicable to every single moment of every single day for the "Have Not's."  The Have's are savvy enough to know that they don't want to give up their status and cope with the inherent disadvantages of the Have Not's but they are also just as willing to apply willful ignorance to what their compatriots are struggling through in their much less desirable position in this game.

The Have's still have to play along -- they still have to push through the obstacles -- but is anyone still confused about why it's just easier for them to be successful than the team that had nothing and had to face the same obstacles?  These contestants all rowed over to this island together in one boat, worked together to build a nice existence, and then were forced apart by factors largely out of their control and one of those groups was told they couldn't enjoy these riches they'd helped foster and, instead, were going to have to start over, all on their own, without a hint of advantage on their side.  

Six-feet-tall versus four-feet-tall.  Everyone's reaching for the same bunch of bananas, but one group simply will have an easier time.  That's it.  That's social inequity.  

I don't know how the rest of this season will play out.  Eventually, the two tribes always merge into one once enough players have been voted out, so that will cause another shift in dynamics.  It'll be interesting to see how it all plays out.  Even though this is a game -- a reality television show with a cash prize -- its echoes to how systemic fracturing can take place....and how disconnected the Have's can get from the reality of the Have Not's....feels highly relevant to the way social misunderstandings can take place.  If you've got Amazon Prime, give the season a watch and see what you pick up from it.

Systemic inequalities crop up as a means of protecting the people at the top of the social pyramid -- which in the United States is white men -- and filters down from there, with women of color being the least-advantaged group of people.  The intersectionality of being part of multiple marginalized groups -- being both a woman and also Black, for example -- creates even more distance from social advantage and it's time to shine a light on that.  To amplify the voices and stories of these women who have been shoved so far to the side that it causes those in power to blink absently and wonder what they're hollering about.  It's time to stop being defensive about these inequities and get on the offense instead.  What can we do to remedy these injustices?  That seems to be a better use of energy than digging our heels in on well, I work hard, too.  Who said you didn't?  That's not the problem.  Wake up, y'all.  It's way past time.

The dynamics in Survivor: Fiji provide a useful illustration for how quickly humans can spiral out of power when they are denied access to goods and services -- or when they are forced to apply a "it's them or me" attitude to their decisions -- or how the toxic stress of being labeled a loser, less-than, weak, or unworthy can unravel confidence and crush spirits.  It also effectively illustrates how hard it is to remain resilient in the face of such persistent challenge and how difficult it is to "bounce back" when all you're really doing is running into concrete walls that seem invisible to your competitors.  There is a sense of loneliness and alienation and mistrust forever brewing amongst the Have Not's while the satiated Have's walk around oblivious to that lived experience.  Out of sight, out of mind, not their problem, right?

Let me just leave this one here:

Once we know something is off-balance in a society that we claim we want to be equal, isn't that the only call to action we need?

I decided to go back to school to earn a social work degree to focus on community organizing, community storytelling, and community equity.  I'm not saying you all have to change your careers or take such a drastic step, but there are ways you can become an ally in this fight.  The first step is letting go of your "what about me"/"all lives matter" mentality and understand the issue at hand: no one is devaluing you -- we are simply acknowledging not only the disadvantages built in to our many social systems, we are also taking the next action step to do something about it.  For me, that might mean I get into politics, policy initiatives, or other direct involvement in identifying where things went awry and working to correct those deficiencies. 

What do you want to do about it?

Hey, I have a really simple thing that many of you can do: VOTE.  Our elected officials hold the keys to our social welfare. Your vote matters.  So cast your ballot.  Information on how to do so in YOUR state is easily discoverable at Vote Save America.  And if you're not eligible to vote, that's OK.  You can still encourage others who are able to vote to make sure they do so.  You can fill out the 2020 Census -- this is a huge way to ensure dollars flow into your community -- there is no disadvantage to filling this survey out and it will literally take you three minutes or less.  The Census will close at the end of September, so just do it now, OK?  There are so many low-impact ways for you to help advance our society and how our systems work for everyone -- these are just a few you can do today or in the next couple of months.  

The competitors on Survivor get to go home after their experience and resume their "normal" lives.  So what happens on the show isn't "real life" in that sort of sustainable way, but it can serve as a model for what happens in the social experiment where some people are gifted advantaged while others are flatly denied it.  There is little doubt how huge of an impact this has both on the individual players and the teams themselves, even in this short blip of time.

It's not a huge stretch to apply this model to modern society and see how being "lucky" enough to be a Have isn't a small advantage -- it's a massive one.  Social status is the game out here in the real world -- it determines our norms and sets the rules.  It's time to pay attention and not just keep scrolling or claiming that you work hard so you're exempt from the process.  We're all more productive and equipped to handle life when we're all nourished and rested and seen and heard.  So let's go.  The reward's a game-changer.


Written for the I Spy in 2020 blogcast.

Audio version of this post available by donation.

Virtual Tip Jar: Venmo @sarahwolfstar

Thursday, September 10, 2020

What Are We Learning

  "We are so confused and ill-prepared for life when we're young.  Schools fail us so much.  

It's insane to me that I knew more about igneous rocks than I did about sexual consent 

or about depression or anxiety or how the world actually works." 

~ Jameela Jamil

This morning as I went about the business of waking up, brushing my teeth, flat ironing my hair, and dabbing on a smidgeon of makeup, I was listening to this week's episode of Conan O'Brien Needs a Friend and was fairly stunned by the beautiful truths shared by his guest, Jameela Jamil.  I mostly know her as the high-maintenance Tahani from the delightful show The Good Place, but was otherwise unfamiliar with her.  It turns out, she has quite a lot of thoughts about life and its meaning that made me stop and think -- and in the event of what I shared up-top, painstakingly rewind back through the episode to get her exact words.

Why is it that schools teach us these by-subject facts but shy so far away from issues related to social awareness or mental health?  Is there simply not enough time in the day to cover everything?  Should geology take precedence over public safety and mental health stigma?  Education isn't my field of expertise, so I'm not here with answers, but I'm certainly curious.  I often quote Pete Holmes misquoting that Jerry Seinfeld once said that we don't learn geometry because we will definitely need geometry in our adult lives -- we learn geometry so we can learn how to learn.  So if that's the case, then why don't we spend more time introducing students to Life Topics?  Where is the psycho-social education in the curriculum?

I wonder.

What made me go back and dig for this Jameela Jamil quote was work I was doing related to public safety.  As part of my internship this year, I am working on a committee that is exploring alternatives to the police in our communities.  This notion of abolishing police or defunding the police isn't new, but it's a movement that's been gaining traction in the wake of a slew or brutal murders by police of Black residents: George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor's deaths being the back-to-back-to-back sparks that lit the fire.  Generally speaking, there's a lot of Words related to both sides of this issue and very little understanding of how this might work in a practical sense.  I am increasingly interested in learning more about this topic, so I was thrilled to be the intern assigned to this committee.  And as I read back through previous meeting notes, the complexity of how to create safety without the reliance on police bubbled up in my brain.  I'm not quite at the point of saying abolish the police, personally -- I think that argument is futile as the next step, at least.  There must be a way to step it down or define an intermediary -- a compromise, if you will.

But what.

Then I thought of Jameela Jamil's quote, which wasn't related to policing, but it was related to learning -- what our educational system taught us.  Our educational system is but one of many such standardized tools that our society has deemed "appropriate" for its selected population.  In school, we will teach you about rocks but not about rape, got it, check.  We will do it this way because we've always done it this way and we fear change.  Yep, ok, check check.  And what that made me do was think about how the issue was about our systems, of course -- and focusing on the actual police and what social services might pair well with them is absolutely a key discussion.

But isn't the other key discussion with the people?

Part of what makes abolishing or defunding the police scary is that it's not "normal" to us.  It seems impossible or incomprehensible because for all of our lives, there have been police.  You call 911 and they come and save you... (OK, I'm talking to the white people here), right?  Why'd we wanna mess with that?  It's how it always has been and, god willing, always will be.  We cannot see the picture a different way.

And that made me think of this meme I saw on Facebook the other day:

What I like about this is how instructional it is.  When it suggests it's a goat, all you see is a goat -- but when it says.....or bird? suddenly your brain must flicker between the two and decide.  Goat or bird...goat or bird...goat or bird....  Someone commented under my friend's post, "Let's cook it up and figure it out that way."  I mean, sure.  There are all kinds of ways to determine what something is.  But isn't it interesting that if we're told one thing and our brain says the data checks out, we easily move on unless it's challenged to consider something very different?

Could a goat and a bird be any more different????  Which one is this a picture of, anyway?????

This is basically how people feel about a number of social justice issues in this moment.  There are people who are very stubbornly clinging to the notion that it's a goat because that's what it said first and that's what it's always been and nothing will ever change that, not even these pesky Bird-Truthers who slid in there at the bottom and are maybe trying to push their way up to oust the goat people.  Conflict!  When really, if everyone took a step back and let their brain acknowledge that, wow, either of these things could be true, maybe we could investigate further to determine next steps.

Who's with me? Bleat or chirp your response.

Reading through past committee meeting notes, I saw some discussion about how police "make people feel safe" and that folks were encouraged to call the police when they felt unsafe.  It made me think of my many years of small business management where I had said this very thing to countless staff members.  If you feel unsafe, call the police.  In my 24-ish years of being a manager, I don't think a staff person ever actually called, unless a crime had been committed (a couple of thefts at the yoga studio come to mind along with the time two of my staff members were held up at knife-point at a retail store I managed) and I think that's because I also -- either directly or subliminally -- taught my staff how to maintain a safe environment.  To be most candid, the reason I insisted my staff members program the local police into their cell phones was twofold:

1) I wanted them to have the number in the event that they needed it -- that's not really a number you want to have to look up when you're feeling under pressure or super flustered


2) I wanted to give them permission to do something that most of them would find challenging to do -- knowing that they basically would never have to do it.

The idea was that I would train them well enough to know how to keep themselves safe without needing backup.  That didn't always work out, though. Here's an example.  At the yoga and wellness center I managed in Cambridge, Massachusetts, our Big Yoga Studio had some windows that ran along the back side of the building. A person wandering around out there could easily stumble upon them and finding themselves staring with their noses pressed against the windows at a class in progress.....and that could be very startling to students or the teacher, frankly.  We had blinds but they were sort of broken and this honestly wasn't a big enough deal to worry about it much until one night, a guy was out there during a night class and it spooked a few people.  The teacher then opted to instruct students to leave the studio in pairs, basically assuming this random dude was going to be waiting outside (allllllllll the way on the other side of the building) to, like, attack them at 7:30pm on the very bright and busy Massachusetts Avenue (hmmmm) and then this teacher sent a very ominous email out to staff about this "incident."


I wasn't thrilled that the teacher had handled it this way -- I wished she had come to me and let me know what happened so I could have dealt with it, but, well, it was too late, so all I could do was thank her (with a "reply all").  Of course, you know what happens next: paranoia about this surely murderous person starts to percolate, especially after the teacher the next night also reports seeing someone outside the same window during her night class.  She follows that up by saying she doesn't feel safe walking out to her car.

Double sigh.

Look, I am 100% here for my staff -- completely in support of them not only being safe but feeling safe....but this was snowballing out of control fast.  The truth is the guy was likely harmless.  There's no crime in standing outside.  Yes, it can be unnerving to see a person looking in through a window when you don't expect it, but I had practiced at the street-level Somerville studio where people have stood in the little huddle of our doorway and stared through the window there while I practiced inches away (only separated by glass) and not freaked out -- when that person has a much higher likelihood of, ya know, hanging around until after class and waiting for us to filter out.


Mountains out of mole hills.

So you want to know what I did the next day?  I COVERED THE WINDOW.  I used things that were readily available in the room to do so.  And then I ordered a tapestry to hang over the window for a more permanent fix.

Guess what.  Problem solved.

What struck me most in that particular circumstance was how quick those teachers and students were to respond with such fear without a) asking for help or b) trying to solve the issue themselves -- like, if someone is looking through the window, why isn't your first response to COVER THE WINDOW.  If a fire starts, you try to smother it, right?  You don't just stare at it and scream -- that's utterly useless. And, hey, I totally get that they are not the managers or whatever, but does it take a genius to thumb tack a cloth over a window?  I don't think so.  But if I'm wrong about that, then, hi, I'm a genius.

I share this example because it relates more broadly to our community response to police.  People call the police for a host of unnecessary reasons: someone's playing music too loud, the dog keeps running their yard, there's a homeless person walking around.  Do you need to call someone with a gun they're only sort of trained how to use to come and resolve this "issue" for you?  Probably not.  Some of these things could be solved with simple, human interactions that are completely related to, ya know, getting to know your neighbors.  Talking to them.  Developing relationships.  If you do that, then you don't have to call in unnecessary force to deal with your "problem."

In retail, we call this customer service.  The best way to prevent theft?  Talk to every person who comes through the door.  Ask them their name -- tell them yours.  Ask what brings them in.  Smile, be friendly, mention you like their shoes.  Whatever.  If you think they're trying to shop lift, chat with them even more.  If they really are up to no good, they will probably leave in a hurry -- they don't really want you to remember them or learn anything about them.  If they're not up to any trouble, you may form a bond with them and develop a good relationship.  Either way, win/win.

Now, I am not ever suggesting that someone put themselves in harm's way or try to "be a hero."  There are violent people with malicious intentions -- I am not suggesting you try to chat those people up, necessarily.  What I am suggesting is that most likely this person that you think fits a certain profile that your brain equates with "trouble" or "danger" might be totally fine and chill and great and wonderful, if you take your foot off the gas pedal for just a minute to figure it out.  If our first inclination was to try and make a connection with people who we find irritating or disturbing in a non-violent way instead of calling the cops, a number of things might start to change in a positive way.  That's what I'm suggesting.

So, when we talk about defunding the police, part of that goes back to our systems -- and systemic racism -- and the lens through which we view what is acceptable in our society.  Talking about rocks is OK but talking about sex is bad.  Clinging to our understanding that police are around to "protect and serve" all of us is normal but confronting the harsh reality that such a notion is dangerously false gets everyone in a tizzy.  It's a goat.  No, it's a bird.  Let's stare each other down while we refuse to give way on either side.

I don't think any of this stuff has an easy fix to it, but admitting that there is room for our minds to grow is a great first step. Just because this is how we've "always" done it doesn't mean that it's the only way it could or should be done.  Dismantling old frameworks is an immense social challenge, one that requires tetris-like skills and focus and strategy.  It will take a lot of committees like the one I'm on at my internship to continue to get brilliant minds in a collective to bounce ideas and talk through actionable plans.  Even in complexities, though, it's good to remind ourselves that sometimes the answer is quite simple: order a tapestry, problem solved, and, added bonus, a new pop of color in the studio, amiright??  It doesn't always have to be impossible, but it takes flexibility to make that happen.

Learning and the ability to learn is so crucial, yes, but it's also so necessary to be educated in realms that are practical and useful and relevant.  If we were spending a little more time teaching kids and teens about racial bias and normalizing mental illness and understanding gender or sexual identity or signs of emotional abuse alongside teaching them about how to open a bank account or how to fill out their taxes or how to get a mortgage, there might be better equipped young adults joining the "real world."  No shade to igneous rocks, but I don't need to know about you.  Learning how to change a flat tire would have been a better use of my time, that's all I'm saying.  Our education system should have these practical applications so students can answer the why am I learning this question easily and for themselves.  Leaning more into these topics allows for students not only to have hands-on experience with things they will likely have to deal with at some point along the way, it will also afford them the opportunity to ask questions and dialogue with others.

Conflict Management 101 would save a lot of people a lot of problems, so.... why isn't it required study for all of us?  Why are we taught to outsource things we really could handle ourselves?

Follow the dollars and that likely leads you to the answer to my question.  But, hey, what do I know.  I'm self-taught in a lot of #Adulting.

And, look, I don't know if it's a goat or a bird but I'm willing to hear arguments on both sides and share my thoughts, too.  Maybe the goal is just to be open to the conversation.  It's not a bad first step.  What comes next?  Why, we smash the patriarchy of course.  That's what got us in this mess in the first place.  I'm down for the rebuild.  Hope to see you there, too.


Originally posted in the I Spy in 2020 blog.

Virtual Tip Jar: Venmo @sarahwolfstar

Hundreds march for a safer Heights (Heights Observer article)

On Sunday, June 14, another peaceful and powerful rally brought hundreds of Heights residents together in unity with the Black Lives Matter movement. 

Organized by Safer Heights, a grassroots activist group, the event began with speakers at Coventry P.E.A.C.E. Park who then led leagues of chanting and sign-carrying participants through Coventry Village, down Mayfield Road to Superior Road. The march paused outside of Christ Our Redeemer AME Church, where participants took a knee for a moment of silence. Then several speakers shared stories about their experiences as black members of the Cleveland Heights community, and called for systemic changes in policing. 

The march then continued down Superior Road, looping back to Coventry P.E.A.C.E. Park, where organizers addressed the large and enthusiastic crowd, thanking community partners and volunteers who helped make the day a success. 

Everyone was invited to stay for a picnic, with food provided by participants and local eateries.  

Via Facebook, Safer Heights has asked that anyone who would be willing to share pictures or videos of the rally e-mail them to

Sarah Wolf

Sarah Wolf is a marketing VISTA at FutureHeights, a resident of Cleveland Heights, and a graduate-level community practice student at MSASS/Case Western Reserve University.

Find the original article here on the Heights Observer website.

Virtual Tip Jar: Venmo @sarahwolfstar

Workshop will cover social-media basics for businesses (Heights Observer article)

Social media plays a huge role in how consumers seek out goods and services, but knowing how to navigate those waters can sometimes be daunting for small-business owners. FutureHeights, in partnership with US Bank, is offering a free workshop that will teach the basics of how to “Socialize Local,” with two opportunities to attend: Friday, Nov. 8, 3–4:30 p.m., at Christopher’s Pub (1318 Warrensville Center Road), or Friday, Nov. 15, 3–4:30 p.m., at CLE Urban Winery (2180 Lee Road).

By utilizing Facebook business pages, Instagram, and Twitter, small businesses can get the word out about everything they have to offer. Small business owners in Cleveland Heights and University Heights are invited to attend “Socialize Local” to unlock the mysteries of hashtags, learn how to write effective posts, decide which platforms make the most sense for them to utilize, and learn how to use these social-media platforms in tandem with one another, enabling them to reach the widest possible audience.

Many community members are already inclined to shop local during the holidays. This workshop is designed to help Heights business owners show off what’s fresh and exciting at their store or restaurant by using these powerful—and free—tools.

Advance registration is required; go to, or e-mail to be added to the guest list. Be sure to indicate which session you’d like to attend—Nov. 8 or Nov. 15. If you have any specific questions about social media that you’d like answered in the workshop, include them in your e-mail.

Sarah Wolf

Sarah Wolf, a FutureHeights intern and Cleveland Heights resident, will lead the workshops. A graduate-level community practice student at MSASS/Case Western Reserve University, she has a decade of experience utilizing social media to promote small businesses, arts and community activities.

Find the original article here on the Heights Observer website.

Virtual Tip Jar: Venmo @sarahwolfstar

Neighborhood Leadership series helps community member realize a dream (Heights Observer article)

 Donna Johnson has lived on the same street in Cleveland Heights since 1995. Her children attend Heights schools, her professional life is rich with connection to the nonprofit world, and she has an active sense of volunteerism. “Community is important to me,” Johnson said. “Without it, neighborhoods decline.”

In recent years, though, Johnson felt a disconnect with her neighbors. “It seemed like every spring there were new faces on my street. I knew my neighbors on either side, but felt a strong need to connect and engage with more of my neighbors,” Johnson said.

One day she read a Heights Observer article about how FutureHeights was conducting a Neighborhood Leadership Workshop Series, and she decided to apply.

The workshop series is for any Cleveland Heights resident who, like Johnson, wants to take a more active role in the community. The free program consists of six, three-hour sessions that cover a range of topics, such as leadership, project planning, an understanding of the various Cleveland Heights neighborhoods, city policies, and advocacy related to those neighborhoods. The workshops provide an opportunity for residents to gain skills and resources, and a chance for them to connect with other community leaders and learn what they are working on or hoping to achieve.

For Johnson, her dream was to have a Little Free Library (LFL) installed on her street—a dream she discussed during the workshop with Sruti Basu, FutureHeights director of community-building programs. Basu was able to connect Johnson with Nancy Levin, Heights Libraries director. 

“As a result, a nicely painted, and registered, LFL house was donated by the library! A very kind and supportive neighbor allowed us to install the house on his front lawn. We unveiled it at a neighborhood block party in September,” Johnson said.

As part of the process of obtaining an LFL, Johnson co-hosted a Common Ground event on June 30 to discuss any and all community engagement projects for the neighborhood. (Common Ground is a series of community conversations sponsored by the Cleveland Foundation.) Based on the response and success of these initiatives, Johnson said 2020 will include more Common Ground events, as well as another block party.  

“If you are seeking resources to help improve your neighborhood or need technical assistance developing a neighborhood project, FutureHeights Neighborhood Leadership program is worth the time,” Johnson said.

FutureHeights is now accepting applications for its 2020 Neighborhood Leadership Workshop Series. Dates and program details are available at Additional questions can be directed to Sruti Basu at The deadline to apply is Jan. 17.

Sarah Wolf

Sarah Wolf is an intern at FutureHeights, a resident of Cleveland Heights, and a graduate-level community practice student at MSASS/Case Western Reserve University.

Find the original article here on the Heights Observer website.

Virtual Tip Jar: Venmo @sarahwolfstar

Mini-grant helps community leaders create aging-well guide (Heights Observer article)

Forest Hill neighbors Sue Kenney and Judy Charlick saw a need for a resource about at-home services for the aging members of their community. Through discussions with others involved in a local social activity committee, they decided to do some research and compile a list of nonprofit and public organizations that could benefit the older population. The result: Cleveland Heights Aging Well At Home Resource Guide. 

“This document lists background info about services available by category.  For example, grocery delivery, home repair assistance, social activities, and transportation,” Kenney said. Both the city of Cleveland Heights and the Forest Hill Homeowners Association offer online access to the guide, which can be found at

Kenney and Charlick soon discovered that some of the older members of the community don’t have access to (or knowledge about) the technology required to find the guide online. If they wanted it to reach everyone it could benefit, they were going to need a hard-copy version, something that proved a strain to fund on their own.

Kenney and Charlick searched for partners to help finance the process; it was during that phase that they met Sruti Basu, director of community-building programs at FutureHeights, who suggested the pair apply for a mini-grant to cover printing costs.

“The application process was straightforward, relatively easy,” Kenney said. They submitted their paperwork and then met with a panel to discuss their ideas in person. “They appeared very interested in our initiative, very aware of the need for this type of resource,” Kenney said. 

After the two-step application process, Kenney and Charlick were awarded $720 to proceed with their project in spring 2019. “We were ecstatic to get the funding. A few days after learning of the grant receipt, we began planning and executing—identifying volunteers, purchasing printing supplies, getting documents printed. We started right away,” Kenney said. 

Thanks to the FutureHeights mini-grant, they were able to meet their goal of printing and distributing 240 resource guides.

Twice annually, FutureHeights offers mini-grants of up to $1,000 for neighborhood projects like Kenney and Charlick’s. The goal of the program is to support neighborhood leaders by supplying some funding to turn their community-driven dreams into reality. 

Details about the program and how to apply can be found at or by e-mailing The next deadline is March 15, 2020.

FutureHeights invites all community members to the 2019 Neighborhood Mini-Grant Celebration, to mix and mingle with past and current mini-grant recipients, at The BottleHouse (2050 Lee Road) on Dec. 10 at 7 p.m.

Sarah Wolf

Sarah Wolf is an intern at FutureHeights, a resident of Cleveland Heights, and a graduate-level community practice student at MSASS/Case Western Reserve University.

Find the article here on the Heights Observer website.

Virtual Tip Jar: Venmo @sarahwolfstar

FutureHeights awards fall mini-grants (Heights Observer article)

 FutureHeights awarded $3,585 in grants to support five projects in Cleveland Heights in the fall round of its 2019 Neighborhood Mini-Grants Program:

Bradford Road Neighbors received $1,000 for the Bradford Road Pollinator Path (BPP) project, an expansion of a current project to rehabilitate a WPA-era pathway constructed as a safe walkway for children en route to Canterbury Elementary School. The goal is to bring sustainable plant life to the pathway to enhance the aesthetic appeal of the path as well as support indigenous growth, replacing invasive plants. Phase 1 of the project will focus on the area between South Taylor and Queenston roads. In their application, organizers stated, “The BPP is a creative local solution to educate and activate first our street and then another street to increase biodiversity in our community,” and expressed a desire to “bring together neighbors through the pleasure of gardening.”

Beth El - the Heights Synagogue was granted $809 to enhance its play yard for children. Organizers of this project noticed children using bike racks and stair rails as climbing toys, which inspired the idea for a more stable and functional play place for children attending shul, as well as those in the neighborhood. “Families will see the synagogue as not just an old building but part of a kid-friendly neighborhood,” organizers said in their application.

Boulevard PTA, which was granted $1,000 for its Boulevard Learning Garden Enhancement Project, will utilize the funds to purchase seeds, seeding tables, irrigation systems, and materials to build trellises in Boulevard Elementary School’s new raised-bed planters. Organizers stated, “Not only is the garden itself a resource that many parents aspire to have in their schools, but the development of this garden will also send a clear message to prospective parents that current Boulevard families and community members are actively engaged and developing creative programming to enhance the school.”

Coventry Collaborations was granted $276 for its Asset Based Community Development Mapping project, a survey project that aims to “help the community come together stronger to collaborate with organizations like local businesses and nonprofits to achieve mutually beneficial goals.” Sharing skills and abilities, survey respondents will be added to a database that can be used by those in the neighborhood to approach projects efficiently. “If you want to build a treehouse at Spirit Corner, for example, you could check the survey results and see everyone in the area who said they are proficient at carpentry and then reach out to those people,” organizers explained.

North Coventry and Eddington Friends was granted $500 to support efforts to build neighborhood leadership for their “Eddington Pocket Park!” project. “Unfortunately, many residents in this neighborhood don’t see themselves as connected, capable of change, or being leaders,” organizers said in their application. “This project will keep them at the tip of the spear the entire duration as participatory development practices reveal their ability  to connect, their capability of envisioning good things and making them happen, and serving their neighborhood for the common good.”

(A celebration for these mini-grant recipients will be held in December; details to come.)

The next application deadline is March 15, 2020, at 5 p.m. To learn more, visit, e-mail, or call 216-320-1423.

Sarah Wolf

Sarah Wolf is an intern at FutureHeights, a resident of Cleveland Heights, and a graduate-level community practice student at MSASS/Case Western Reserve University.

Find the article here on the Heights Observer website.

Virtual Tip Jar: Venmo @sarahwolfstar

Noble corridor plan presented to city councils (Heights Observer article)

On Sept. 16 and 17, FutureHeights and Bill James, of the consulting firm Camiros LTD, presented a proposal to bolster the Noble Road corridor to the city councils of Cleveland Heights and East Cleveland, respectively. 

Plans include improving the roadway, adding specified bike lanes, beautifying the neighborhood, and revitalizing the business districts. (Watch James’ presentation to Cleveland Heights City Council on the city's YouTube channel at

Noble Road is the most significant street in the northeast section of Cleveland Heights, giving its name to an area known as “Noble neighborhood.”

“Noble Road is the ‘front door’ to a charming neighborhood,” said FutureHeights Executive Director Deanna Bremer Fisher. “A revitalized Noble Road should attract new residents and businesses to the area.”

FutureHeights, in cooperation with the cities of Cleveland Heights and East Cleveland, Noble Neighbors, Northeast Ohio Alliance for Hope (NOAH), and GE Lighting, kicked off a planning study of Noble Road in fall 2018.

The study, which comprised a market analysis and revitalization strategies for the commercial/mixed-use districts, and several community meetings guided consulting partners Camiros LTD and The Riddle Company to map out these plans.

The goal of the project is to enhance the Noble neighborhood by refreshing and expanding the business districts and improving the quality of life for residents.

Concepts for Noble/Mayfield focus on enhancing the commercial and shopping district to create a welcoming, pedestrian-driven appeal.

In Noble/Monticello, the focus is on reworking the roadways to include left-turn and bike lanes, making better use of transportation options through that part of the neighborhood, and installing a “community kitchen” to host pop-up restaurants—adding literal new flavor to the area.

For Noble/Nela, the goal is to rehabilitate the existing structures to bolster the area’s desirability and attract new residents and businesses. 

Finally, the aim for Noble/Euclid is to boost residential appeal by filling vacancies and repairing deteriorating roadways.

Full proposal details for each area of Noble neighborhood are available at

The overarching theme involves creating a multi-modal roadway, reducing the traffic lanes from four to two (one in each direction) for motor vehicles, and adding both left-turn and bike-specific lanes. This "road diet" will allow for more efficient and effective travel through the area, attracting more people to utilize the roadway. The proposal calls for an additional study to assess the plan to implement these structural changes to the roadway.

Raising the appeal of pedestrian traffic through Noble’s neighborhoods is another major goal of the proposal. Early action plans call for community support in sponsoring planters, enabling neighborhood participation in making the sidewalks a beautiful place to stroll, and raising community pride in this shared space.

Questions about how the improvements specified in the proposal would be financed are still being evaluated. One possibility, a special improvement district (SID) that incorporates both commercial and residential sites, would enable property owners, including homeowners, annually to contribute directly to the project’s funding. Whether or not this mechanism could be implemented would depend on homeowners voting to enact the SID, which many in the community believe to be unlikely. Grants, donations, city funding, and other financial resources are being explored as well.

To learn more about the project, visit or, call 216-320-1423, or e-mail

Sarah Wolf

Sarah Wolf is an intern at FutureHeights, a resident of Cleveland Heights, and a graduate-level community practice student at MSASS/Case Western Reserve University.

Find the original article here on the Heights Observer website.

Virtual Tip Jar: Venmo @sarahwolfstar

Cedar Lee Connection development project is underway (Heights Observer article)

The development project planned for the surface parking lot behind the Cedar Lee Theatre and the adjacent vacant lot to the south—at Lee Road and Meadowbrook Boulevard—is moving ahead. The project is spearheaded by Cedar Lee Connection, LLC (CLC), comprising local partners Sequoia Realty Corp. and Snavely Group.

Since the city of Cleveland Heights’ acceptance of CLC’s proposal last summer, plans have begun to take a more concrete shape. The project aims to enhance the community by adding a new complex of approximately 150 market-rate studio, one-bedroom, and two-bedroom apartments, as well as retail, restaurant and work spaces.

CLC envisions creating a woonerf, the Dutch term for “living street,” an inviting, connective shared space for pedestrians, strollers, bicycles and cars in the area behind the Cedar Lee Theatre and adjacent Lee Road businesses. The woonerf would allow for public art and create space for community events.

Richard Ferris, head of Sequoia Realty, said, “We would like to investigate how current residents would like to see the new community spaces utilized. We have teamed up with FutureHeights to facilitate community engagement with local businesses, those currently living in the area, as well as those hoping to occupy the new apartments.”

“We are working on a plan to create opportunities for resident and business-owner feedback,” said Deanna Bremer Fisher, executive director of FutureHeights. “The current crisis has presented some new challenges on how, but we anticipate being able to do so in the next few months.”

CLC is proceeding with a parking analysis of the Cedar Lee Business District, with a particular focus on the immediate area near the project site. Because parking requirements can fluctuate considerably throughout the week, options such as valet service are being considered to alleviate any potential parking-related issues. Additionally, services such as Uber and Lyft, the use of public transportation, and biking and walking may impact future parking demand.


                     This map show the location of the proposed project. [Courtesy city of Cleveland Heights.]

Find the original article here on the Heights Observer website.

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