May, 2010

Pants on the Ground

My son is trying to get some traction in his life/work/career.  He’s 23, Nicaraguan, and wants to be an actor.  He’s also kind of short which hasn’t helped his acting life but that’s beside the point.  Right now he’s working on a landscaping crew with 8 or 9 other guys, all African-American, most of whom come to work with their pants on the ground, just like in the song.  After a couple of days of being the only Hispanic guy, my son fell in with these guys as work friends.

A couple of weeks ago, he told me that the group was chastised by their supervisor because one of the ‘pants on the ground’ guys had talked to a white woman who worked in the office and scared her.  Turns out he’d said good morning and tried to strike up a conversation.  Nothing nasty.  Just guy – girl chat, or so he thought.

So, my son says, “Are you not supposed to say hello to people because it’ll scare them?”  Of course, right there, I’m thinking that it’s an interesting predicament he’s in — is he in solidarity with his crew or wanting to distance himself?  Is Mr. Theatre getting radicalized?

“They use the N word alot which just makes the white people more nervous.” And does it ever. The N word, the pants on the ground, scary rap lyrics, cool poses make the white people more nervous, for sure.

Pants on the ground – just the latest in a revolving door of reasons to not want to talk to young African American men.  The big pants make them scary?

So everyone tries to fix the ‘pants on the ground’ kids as if their pants signify a much bigger pathology.  My pants, therefore I am? 

I don’t buy it.  We aren’t our pants.

A guy in skinny jeans can be just as messed up as a guy in baggy pants or they both might be graduate students at UW-M.  Who the heck knows unless you talk to them?


Ever been framed?  I don’t mean framed as in having a nice portrait done. I mean framed as in being falsely accused of an offense.  I have.  And it’s not a nice experience. Here’s what happened. 

Several years ago, I was the planning director for a large organization looking to hire a community organizer to work on Milwaukee’s near southside.  Two individuals who had been active in the agency’s resident councils applied – one from the southside with years of grassroots community experience and the other from the northside  with experience working as a realtor.  After interviewing both, I offered the job to the southside person.

The northside person called me to complain.  We discussed the position.  I explained as best I could – within the constraints of good personnel practice – the reasons why I felt she was not as well suited to the organizing position.   She was unhappy and said that she would file a complaint with the organization’s director.  And she did.  The matter was resolved; the southside person assumed the position and all was done.  Or so I thought.

Several months after I left the organization, I was notified that there was an EEOC complaint against me.  Basically, the northside person alleged that I had discriminated against her on the basis of age by not giving her the job instead of the southside person.  Her word against mine, right?  Nope.  Know why?  She had a friend listening in on our phone conversation – a friend willing to say that I’d made inappropriate statements about the applicant’s age and her ability to ‘fit in’ with a younger staff.

I hired an attorney.  The attorney took depositions and prepared a defense.  I spent a couple of thousand dollars on fighting the accusation because a) I didn’t do it; and b) I didn’t believe the organization would defend me strenuously enough.  And I was right.  The organization settled the complaint, paying out several thousand dollars so as not to expend more money on litigation for a former employee (me).

I couldn’t believe it.  Two people could lie – just make stuff up and get believed.  More than that, two people lied about me — a decent person trying to do good work and make right decisions.  They lied about a person who would never lie about them.  But there I am – in the record books as an age discriminator.  Framed.

I could hear the buzz around town.  “Hey, did you hear?”  Humiliating. Infuriating.  Wrong. 

You know what I learned?  The truth isn’t that big a deal to everyone.  It might be a big deal to you and me but don’t assume everyone feels that way.  For some folks,  what they hear is what will work for them.  And screw people’s reputations.  Not nice, is it?  That’s being framed.

Rocket Dog: Naming and Claiming

From BowWow to Rocket Dog

A lot of dogs are lap dogs.  A lot of people are lap dogs. Oh wait, that’s a different blog.  Anyway, not all dogs that start as lap dogs want to live their whole lives that way.

Moms Figure It Out


It’s just when you have a really big report due that you hear that baby trapped in the wall.  And I don’t mean to be sexist, but let’s be honest, if there’s a baby trapped in the wall, the man of the house will never hear it.  Sorry, but you know it’s true.

Women hear the baby trapped in the wall.  Say yes to bringing cupcakes to school the same day a proposal is due.  Write reports with children on their laps. Pull legos out of their purses looking for a pen.  Worry if their kids aren’t happy every minute of every day.  And they still get it done.  And it’s amazing and I’m happy and blessed to be in the club of women who hear the baby trapped in the wall, get her out, set her down with a graham cracker, her Teddy and a hug, and get back to work.  Happy Mother’s Day!

Sorry Ass

It’s a miracle I got through this week.  I had a major report due to the State and a new training to prepare on top of the regular day to day.  Then, slam — on Monday morning, I was assigned my CASA case (CASA: Court Appointed Special Advocate).  Well, guess whose little can-do attitude got a little smack in the face. 

Oh my.  So I thought I knew how things work.  But there is a real big difference between reading about child welfare issues in the paper and trying to sort things out for just one child.  Things I learned at SDC when it was a down and dirty anti-poverty agency really helped me out this week:

  • If you don’t know what you don’t know, you are really in trouble.  However, if you know what you don’t know, you have a prayer.  If you’re in the first position, you make the huge mistake of making assumptions that are wrong, wrong, wrong.  If you’re in the second position, it’s just a matter of asking and listening.
  • Assume the best about everybody.  Practically nobody does things intentionally to harm another person.  The world is full of people who make mistakes; people who work really hard but don’t get beautiful outcomes.  It’s not a contradiction that few people are evil but lots of bad things still happen.
  • Make it personal.  Keep ‘there, but for fortune, go I’ as a mantra. 

That’s it.  I learned an awful lot this week – too long and complicated a list for here or anywhere else.  I’m heartened and exhausted.  And I’m taking my sorry ass to bed.