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Why I’m a Self-Loathing Liberal

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Today, Donald Trump announced (over Twitter, of course) that transgender people would no longer be allowed to serve in the military. On cue, my Facebook feed filled up with justifiably shocked and outraged responses and reactions from my liberal friends.

To start, I will say Trump’s announcement is disgusting. But we have to remember Trump is just continuing to troll America, the country that unfortunately put him in office. He’s under serious investigation by an independent counsel, his healthcare plan continues to go down in flames despite the fact the GOP controls Congress, and he is under fire for typical brutish remarks to Boy Scouts (is this really shocking though?) So it’s typical that he would rally his base by making such an announcement out of left field—to try to distract by denigrating another minority and throwing them under the bus (kinda like he’s thrown Jeff Sessions under the bus lately).

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Donald Trump, Troller-In-Chief

But I’m tired of all the anger with no solutions. I’m tired of fellow liberals taking the bait and yelling over social media about how angry they are (to be fair, I’m guilty of this too!), and complaining about the outcome of the 2016 election, without strategizing about how we’re actually going to move forward from here.

I am not claiming to have all the answers. But what I do know is that being a “liberal” is not something I’m proud of these days, and the tone of the discourse isn’t going to build any bridges or promote unity in a way we so desperately need.

I’ve found that many of my fellow liberals attack anyone or anything that doesn’t perfectly align with their worldview. It’s true, conservatives are very much guilty of the same (I have a Trump-supporting family member who stopped speaking to me around the time I vocally supported and campaigned for Hillary and views me as “immoral” for my support, so I know better than anyone how closed-minded conservatives can be). But liberals, progressives, left-leaning people, Democrats, or whatever you want to label them (I mean, us?) need to do so much better.

A few recent examples:

Unqualified Vilification 

I posted on Facebook recently about Jeff Sessions. I worked for him in the summer of 2009 in D.C. When I suggested people can change for the better over time (referring to comments he made several decades before), a liberal friend was quick to post “Was his heart in the right place before or after the 1980s?” Everyone is quick to vilify Sessions as a racist without looking at the entirety of his record, and this frustrates me. Granted, I voiced my concerns about his nomination back in January and never thought he was the right person for the job, and I got a lot of pushback for this from moderate and conservatives alike. But this blanket vilification of people “on the other side” will never move the needle, and will only serve to further alienate people instead of getting back to a place of civil discourse. (To be fair, this friend and I had a very productive discussion following the post–we shared a lot of the same concerns about Sessions then and we continue to do so now. And Sessions’ comments way-back-when were and are fair game for legitimate criticism.)

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Disclaimer: I changed my mind about Sessions’ “changed heart” the day this happened

 

Privilege

Also, there’s a huge Facebook group called Girls LOVE Travel (GLT). Obviously, since I am a girl who loves travel, I’ve been a member of the group for quite some time, and it was very helpful and encouraging to me as I was planning my solo backpacking trip around the world last year. I love seeing posts where girls are asking for travel advice, and the amazing stories of girls traveling solo and discovering so much about the world on their adventures.

But this week in particular, there have been a lot of posts about “how to spot the American abroad” and “the fragility of the Western traveler,” among other riveting topics. I get some posts along the lines of the first example may all be made in good fun, and it’s important to talk about how to be a respectful and mindful traveler, but I began noticing so many of the comments were devolving into arguments about “privilege” in a tone that didn’t show respect for others posting.

So today, I posted that I was disappointed in how negative the page was becoming, and that I thought it was supposed to be about travel, not politics. Of course, I was called out for my “privilege” and for not being knowledgeable about the world and the circumstances of others. These people who were calling me out have never met me. I’ve traveled a lot and I understand that I’ll never be able to fully understand or appreciate some of the situations of others, but I don’t need a stranger yelling at me about it on Facebook. This girl loves travel, but she doesn’t love virtue signaling.

I left the group because I really don’t need the negativity. As much as social media can add to our lives (I love seeing pictures of friends on vacations, friends’ babies, reading funny posts and memes etc! And I also think social media is an important means of social activism) it can be extremely dehumanizing, as I think people forget they are talking to someone’s daughter, friend, sister, aunt, mother, or wife when they yell at them over social media about their “privilege.”

I do think we all need to be aware of the various ways we are privileged, and that we all need to work to make society more equitable for all. I’ve talked about privilege until I’m blue in the face, on Facebook with Trump-supporting friends and in person with a variety of people. I protested after Trump’s election. I blogged about travel privilege here, about how colonialism is still an issue here, and about my views on Trump’s America here and here. But I think the term “privilege” is losing its muster–the more angry liberal people yell it at other people without trying to first put themselves in that person’s shoes, the less anyone will listen and the less the term means.

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In my view, this is a good way to call out privilege

Don’t get me wrong…there are so many who are getting the messaging right, particularly guys like Trae Crowder and crew, and I still think the editorial section of the New York Times is on point these days.

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But as a self-identified liberal (probably more moderate these days), I am calling out my people for being a self-righteous bunch. We all need to have a bit more empathy for each other.

 

 

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Divine Intervention

Last week, I received the sad news from home that my Grandma Dot had passed away. Even though she had been in poor health for some time, it is never easy to hear news like this. It’s impossible to ever be fully prepared to learn of and internalize the news of the loss of a grandparent. I feel very blessed to have known 3 out of 4 of my grandparents for my first 27 years of life, as I realize so many aren’t able to get to know their grandparents as long as I have. I didn’t have the chance to get to know Grandma Dot as well as my Smith grandparents, but I am very happy for the times we had together here on earth. I was able to visit her in the hospital while I was home for the holidays last month, and I’m so glad we had this time together.

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Dot was born and raised in Tippah County, Mississippi, but also lived in California and Texas at different points in her life. She was a nurse during her professional life, spending her time caring for other people. I will always remember her as kind-hearted, good-humored, and thoughtful. She was the biggest Ole Miss fan I ever knew and will probably ever meet. In fact, one of the last gifts she ever received was a personalized autographed football from Coach Hugh Freeze. She was very proud of it. Grandma Dot was a special lady.

~

After I heard the news, I found myself numb from shock, but also kicking into gear to organize my travel back to Mississippi for the services, and to read ahead and tie up loose ends at school before heading out of town. On Friday morning, I left my apartment at sunrise heading to Newark airport. My flight would leave at 10am to Atlanta, and then I would connect to Memphis after a 45 minute layover.

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About 10 minutes before we were set to board, the dreaded announcement came over the intercom—“Delta flight 2343 to Atlanta has been delayed indefinitely due to mechanical problems. We don’t have an estimated new departure time, but when we do, we will let you know.” As we all let out a collective groan, the gate attendant added (for good measure), “It’s not looking good, folks. Sorry. We will try to rebook everyone as soon as possible.”

~

The flight to Atlanta was packed full, and 50 or so people immediately swarmed up to the gate counter to get a place in line for rebooking. As my layover was so short, I already knew that I, too, would need to rebook. However, I just didn’t have the emotional energy to push my way through this frenzied crowd, so I sat back in my seat and decided to watch, at least for a minute. Through the hullabaloo, I heard (or imagined I heard) an announcement—“Elizabeth Smith, please report to Gate 44.”

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I didn’t think anything of this. First of all, I have never, ever been paged in an airport, and I fly pretty frequently. And there was no reason I would be being paged right now. Secondly, I feel like Elizabeth Smith is a pretty common name. (Some people are shocked to find out my name is actually Elizabeth Grace, and I just go by Gracie as a type of formalized nickname, I guess. It gets confusing!) Newark is a big airport—I was sure there was another Elizabeth Smith about to miss her flight.

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The shouting, shuffling, and complaining continued at the Atlanta-bound gate, and I stayed seated, watching it all unfold. I was about to call Delta’s customer service line to try to rebook to arrive at a decent hour, when I heard it again. “Elizabeth Smith, please report to Gate 44.”

~

Why not? I thought.

~

I walked over. “Hi, I am Elizabeth Smith, but probably not who you’re looking for?” I started.

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Without missing a beat, the gate attendant looked directly at me and said, “You’re flying to Memphis, right?”

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“Yeah, I am!” I said, surprised. I looked over my shoulder at the 50 other people still waiting to rebook at the Atlanta gate just a few feet away. I was fortunate to be singled out in the best way possible.

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“Great,” she said. “I’ve already rebooked you on this flight through Cincinnati that will still get you to Memphis this afternoon. We’re about to board now.”

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As someone who has been stranded overnight and/or had to cancel weekend trips due to airline failures on multiple occasions, I was truly surprised and deeply grateful. “Wow, that’s amazing! Thank you so much!”

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She smiled as she printed my new boarding passes.

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Then, half-jokingly, I said, “You’re like my guardian angel!”

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As soon as the words left my mouth, goosebumps covered my arm and my hairs stood on end. I thought of my Grandma Dot. Tears came to my eyes.

~

Maybe she wasn’t always physically or logistically able to take care of me here on earth as much as she may have wanted to, but this was Grandma Dot’s way of looking out for me now. I had arrived at the point of emotional exhaustion—the point where you need a grandmother’s hug, and maybe some fresh-baked cookies. And, in a different way, that’s exactly what I got there in the Delta terminal. I felt taken care of and looked after in that moment, and I felt my grandmother’s love. I laughed as I pictured her pulling some strings for me up at the pearly gates, intent on making sure I could arrive and reconnect with our family with the least amount of frustration and exhaustion possible.

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Grandma Dot, thank you. I love you. I hope you are at peace and enjoying good health, and are reunited with many loved ones in a place of joy and happiness. Hotty Toddy.

~

Day #6 of “American Carnage” 

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Washington Square Park, NYC, January 25, 2017

The U.S. Constitution is bigger than your (unfounded) “fear.” Or so I hope.

Almost a week into Donald Trump’s presidency, I am beginning to realize this is worse than I feared. I was devastated following Trump’s electoral college victory, just like all the other “liberal snowflakes” out there. I randomly cried every day for about a week, and I got out and joined protest marches and rallies twice in the week following the election. Although the pain and fear of Trump’s plans for the U.S. were real, I found myself quietly hoping as I listened to the words so many moderates spoke that week.

“It’s not going to be as bad as everyone thinks.”

“He just said all that stuff to get elected…he’s not serious.”

“Give him a chance before you judge him.”

“He hasn’t even taken office yet, so why is everyone freaking out?”

While I thought his campaign rhetoric (particularly promises to build a giant wall along the Mexican border and ban Muslims and refugees from traveling into the country) was sickening, I found myself praying they were just empty (disgusting) promises made on the campaign trail to garner votes. The words enough were awful, but actions would be even worse. (There’s also the fact people actually voted for this, which I will address later…)

Now, it’s Wednesday, January 25, and Trump has already issued an executive order to boost a “Deportation force” that will tear families apart, and to begin construction on a wall between our country and our neighbor, Mexico. He has censored scientists who were using social media to communicate facts, and has continued to promote the unsubstantiated claim that he lost the popular vote because of voter fraud. His administration is commanding us to “reject the evidence of our eyes and ears” (George Orwell, 1984), and pushing “alternative facts” in its place. He has unilaterally acted to deny healthcare to millions of Americans and deny women’s health services to millions of women. Tomorrow, it is reported he will announce an executive order to ban the entry of Muslims and other refugees in danger of losing their lives into the U.S. It is also reported that he will soon act to withdraw a substantial amount of U.S. support from the United Nations, an international body that came into existence following a horrific world war for the purpose of promoting international cooperation and peace. We haven’t had a world war since.

We are less than a week in, and his actions are “unpresidented.”

I have to admit that I am a fan of executive action when it benefits human beings and the greater good—examples include the Emancipation Proclamation (Lincoln) and DACA (Obama). However, now we are seeing what happens when the wrong person has the power to take executive action. It’s truly horrifying.

I still find myself grappling with the same question I found myself asking in the days immediately following the election—how can people I love and care about condone the beliefs and political platform that embolden actual racist, misogynist xenophobes who are out there? It has only gotten worse. Why can’t America, a nation built by immigrants, live up to the standard set forth by one of our earliest founders and leaders John Winthrop—“We shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us”? Why are so many Americans so willing to blame people of a different racial, ethnic, or religious background for our country’s problems? Which came first, the hate or the fear?

During a recent visit to Mexico City, I had the chance to get to know a blond-haired, blue-eyed, collared shirt-wearing Mexican guy (not that any of this is important, but I am trying to paint a picture). This guy often travels to the U.S. for work trips, golf trips, and to visit his sister (who legally resides in New York City). He is aware of how shocked Americans always are to learn he is “Mexican,” and found it humorous, until recently. He nows sees it as evidence of the deeply ingrained racial prejudices and stereotypes held by many. He also finds Trump’s rhetoric deeply offensive and dangerous, and he and others plan to boycott our country because of the pervasive hate that has found its way into our White House.

The bigotry perpetuated by so many Americans, which has found a voice and platform in Trump, is unacceptable. Our country is now being boycotted by other nations because of human rights issues. We need to wake up and stand up.

I’ve also reached an unlikely conclusion in the last few days—Trump is a unifier, but not in the way he purports to be. I have been thinking a lot about the Women’s Marches that took place around the nation and world this past weekend. While I did not participate for personal reasons, I found the pictures of marches that took place everywhere from NYC to Washington DC to Jackson, Mississippi, to Nashville to San Francisco to Paris to Bangkok to Nairobi inspiring and humbling, but also unsettling. Where were WE (white women) during the peaceful Black Lives Matter protests across the nation over the last few years, many of which faced heavily militarized police resistance? Where were we during the recent DAPL protests, and all the subsequent demonstrations against the government’s rape and conquest of Native American land?

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I didn’t take this picture, but it spoke volumes to me

I attended a rally tonight in Washington Square Park to stand in solidarity with Muslims and Latinos in light of the Mexican wall order and impending Muslim travel ban executive order. I looked around, and many of the protesters were white like me. While I am so happy to see unity across race, socioeconomic status, religion, gender, sexual orientation, age, and ethnic lines, I am still deeply troubled because in a way, some of us are too late. I am humbled and afraid. img_2121

I am trying to maintain faith in our constitutional institutions, but the damage is already done. This bigotry was here long before Trump took office—he just gave it a vehicle and a voice. I take personal responsibility for not acting and speaking sooner in my own personal life. Many people (aka white women) feel threatened for the first times in their lives, and that’s a sign of privilege. So many others have been afraid of losing their hard-won civil rights for a long time. Yet Trump’s policies are still a reason to fight back. I hope the marches on Saturday were just a start. While I disagree with some of the rhetoric coming from the resistance movement (particularly from celebrities), we need to stay vigilant, uncomfortable, and humble. It’s just getting started.

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A Race to the Top, or to the Bottom Line? My Concerns with President-Elect Trump’s Secretary of Education Appointment

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I have to admit, President-elect Trump’s appointment of Betsy DeVos to the Secretary of Education post was his first that didn’t make my jaw drop in disbelief instantly. I decided to keep an open mind and research her background before making up my mind, even as I immediately started seeing pro-DeVos and anti-DeVos posts in my Facebook “echo chamber.” After all, as President Obama said, if President-elect Trump succeeds, our country succeeds. So, between studying for finals and seeing friends and catching up with family over the last few days, I began my research…

She is a big Republican donor with 0 experience in a public school or in education period. Still trying to keep an open mind, I kept researching…

President-elect Trump said that Ms. DeVos will work to “reform the U.S. education system and break the bureaucracy that is holding our children back so that we can deliver world-class education and school choice to all families.” I am all for this, but what does this mean, exactly?

Since my time in Teach For America, I have had a love-hate relationship with charter schools. During my time in TFA, I had the privilege of teaching at one of the oldest public high schools in Memphis (Melrose High School in Orange Mound). I also had several friends who taught in charter schools—some of which were were providing great learning environments and opportunities for their students, and others which were poorly run and were failing at achieving this vision. Charter schools are unique animals—they are publicly-funded, privately-managed schools that are free from the directives and oversight of the local school district. Many times, this independence and freedom equates to a greater latitude for visionary school leaders to run schools that outperform their public counterparts (shout out to Soulsville Charter School, Libertas Academy, Freedom Prep Memphis,  Memphis Grizzlies Prep, Veritas Memphis, and the many other amazing charter schools) . Other times, this independence and freedom leads to schools that perform at a lower rate of achievement than their public counterparts, with minimal course-correction directives from the district. screen-shot-2016-11-25-at-9-33-32-pm

While in TFA, and since then, I have bristled at the idea that charter schools are the end-all, be-all solution to the grave issue of education inequity in our country. Partially because I saw what some of my friends saw and dealt with at poorly run charter schools, and partially because I was teaching at a public school whose students deserved the very best in funding and policy from our government as well.

Ms. DeVos is a proponent of charter schools as well as “school choice” via vouchers. What is wrong with giving vouchers to families who may not be able to afford private school tuition to be able to send their children to higher performing private schools in the area? Here’s what’s wrong—no matter how much “school choice” our government finances, there will be students left behind in increasingly failing public schools because of this measure. Money will go to vouchers instead of improving our existing public schools. Not every student will get a voucher, and even if many do, our public schools, and the students remaining there, will be left even farther behind, and the inequity will grow even deeper and more serious. We can’t afford to go down this path for 4 years—children’s livelihoods and opportunities are at stake.

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On an end-of-semester bowling field trip with some Honors Students!

It is true that in the 8 years of President Obama’s leadership, our country has not solved this grave issue of educational inequity. I was able to teach during a time when Tennessee was one of President Obama’s Race to the Top recipients, which saw mixed results—positive outcomes (some increased student achievement) as well as negative outcomes (increased bureaucracy and mandates on over-worked teachers). All-in-all, I thought it was a step in the right direction for the federal government, even if it didn’t solve all the many, complicated issues of educational inequity overnight. And as much as I love TFA and its vision as an organization to strive for the realization that “one day, all children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education,” I hope and pray, and will continue to work toward, making sure TFA goes out of business.

What do I mean? I mean I don’t think our country should need TFA— we need to continue to address improving our public schools ASAP to meet TFA’s vision, which I think encompasses what we all want for all of our children as Americans. [I personally think the first steps towards this are 1) addressing issues of systemic poverty that directly affect low-income students (healthcare, access to food, safe neighborhoods, economic opportunities for families) 2) raising teacher pay and increasing benefits for teachers through classroom resources and professional development, 3) adopting higher national standards for curriculum (Common Core or an improved curriculum), and 4) limiting class sizes and/or decreasing the teacher/student ratio in every classroom (I regularly had 30+ students in a classroom all by myself, and all of these students were on various learning levels.) But that’s for another blog…]

For today, I hope Ms. DeVos focuses on improving our current public schools instead of trying to throw money at the problem through vouchers and increasing the presence of charter schools, some of which may work but others of which will be free to fail at their leisure because of a lack of local school district oversight, but at deep costs to their students. We should not take our focus off improving the educational outcomes and life trajectories for our current and future public school students.

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Country Roads, Take Me Home: The Deep South (the good and the bad)

There really is no place like home. During the first leg of my summer travels, I am spending 11 days at “home,” which, to me, is a collection of places in Alabama and Mississippi where I have spent a good portion of my life living or visiting family. While living in NYC the last 3 years, the opportunities to spend time at home have been few and far between, so this week is a real treat for me. There is nothing better than spending time with family, and unwinding at the slower pace of the South.

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This is how I’ve spent most of my time since coming home!

After just a few days here, I am already more well-rested and re-centered than I’ve been in the last 3 years! Visiting home is good for the heart and soul. Below, I’ve listed my highlights of “home” for you, including what I love dearly about each place as well as ways I think my home can become an even better, more equitable place.

Demopolis, Alabama. Demopolis, otherwise known as “Demop,” will always be my hometown. Demopolis is just like those small, sleepy southern towns you see in movies like Forrest Gump and Sweet Home Alabama, except even better! The downtown square is still thriving with small locally-owned businesses, and the confluence of the Tombigbee and Black Warrior Rivers provides a beautiful natural backdrop for the city. Demopolis is located in the Alabama Black Belt and is home to several wonderfully preserved antebellum homes such as Gaineswood, Bluff Hall, and Lyon Hall. In fact, Gaineswood is known as “Alabama’s Monticello” because of its unique architecture and artistry. Each year, the city hosts the “Christmas on the River” festival in the first week of December, which concludes with a parade of lighted holiday floats gliding down the river on boats. If you’re going to visit, I recommend coming that weekend! If you visit at any other point, check with the local Chamber of Commerce for a free walking tour of the historic downtown. Be sure to eat at The Red Barn, which is a barn that has been converted into an amazing steakhouse (although my favorite dish here is the crawfish étouffée!) Also, be sure to see the hay art on Highway 43 just north of town. These hay sculptures have been around my whole life, and are truly a unique site on the drive to and from Tuscaloosa!

 

 Montgomery, Alabama. As the state capital, Montgomery has a lot to offer in terms of history and culture. Some of my favorite childhood memories are of attending the outdoor symphonies held in front of the state archives building and the Alabama Shakespeare Festival with my mom. The ASF is one of the largest Shakespeare festivals in the world (yes, this is in Alabama!), and features high quality off-Broadway productions throughout the year. The city has also done a good job of renovating the downtown area, including Riverwalk Stadium, home of the AAA team the Montgomery Biscuits! There are several good bars and restaurants in this area that are worth a visit, like Central and Alley Bar.

Selma, AL to Montgomery, AL. Selma is located about halfway between Demopolis and Montgomery, and is an hour’s drive from each. Selma is home to the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the site of the tragic Bloody Sunday attack on peaceful civil rights protesters marching with Dr. Martin Luther King in 1965. Dr. King eventually led the successful march from Selma to the capitol steps in Montgomery along US Highway 80 through Lowndes County, where I lived for a time as a child. Even as I rode to and from school in Selma each day along the very path of this historic march, the significance of this has become even more evident to me in my adult life.Screenshot 2016-05-04 at 3.52.05 PM

Tupelo and Oxford, Mississippi. My family recently moved to Tupelo, yet I’ve spent my entire life visiting family already living throughout north Mississippi. Tupelo is a great town, and I’ve enjoyed the few times I’ve been able to visit. Of course, one of the key sites to visit is the birthplace of Elvis Presley! Tupelo also has a beautiful downtown with several locally-owned restaurants and shops, and a fantastic daily newspaper, The Daily Journal (shameless plug for my dad’s newspaper!) 🙂

Oxford is just an hour down the road from Tupelo, and is home to the University of Mississippi (otherwise known as Ole Miss). A vast majority of my family on both sides have attended Ole Miss, so I of course grew up with strong loyalties here! Some of my favorite childhood and college memories are attending football games in Oxford. There is truly nothing like it! The Grove (as well as the Circle) is where most of the world-class tailgating goes down. Apart from Ole Miss, Oxford is one of my favorites towns in the U.S. If you visit, be sure to stop by William Faulkner’s home Rowan Oak (check out the wall where he outlined one of his novels!) and the downtown square, which is home to several great boutiques, restaurants, bars, and my favorite bookstore on earth, Square Books.

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Scenes from an Ole Miss football game

A New South. Like most people I know who were raised in the Deep South, I recognize what is so inherently special yet tragically flawed about the place I call home. Southern hospitality is a real thing, and the South is home to some of the kindest, most genuine people you will ever meet. However, the repercussions of an all too recent history still influence the region, and there is a lot of work left to be done. Below, I have listed just a handful of issues that have been on my mind.  

  1. Educational equity. Although the legally sanctioned segregation of schools ended with a series of Supreme Court decisions during the Civil Rights era, many public schools throughout Alabama and Mississippi remain extremely segregated along racial lines. While a number of public schools in Alabama and Mississippi are integrated and meeting and exceeding national standards for achievement, several counties in both states have public schools that are segregated, underfunded, understaffed, and failing to meet academic achievement standards. This article details the current situation in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, declaring, “In Tuscaloosa today, nearly one in three black students attends a school that looks as if Brown v. Board of Education never happened.” Too many students are falling victim to the achievement gap that is very much affecting the future and security of our nation. While I taught with Teach For America (TFA) in Memphis, TFA is also doing good work to address this in the Mississippi Delta and Alabama regions. It’s not sufficient in itself to solve this injustice, but it is a step in the right direction.
  2. Extreme poverty and environmental issues. Alabama and Mississippi are home to some of the poorest zip codes in the country, and there is no evidence of this more jarring than the plight of the citizens of Lowndes County and Perry County. In Lowndes County, a majority of citizens have inadequate sewage systems as a result of the high cost of installing above-ground septic tanks as required by the high clay content in the area’s soil. I still remember neighbors from my childhood here who had no running water or septic system. The Equal Justice Initiative is working to directly address the lack of closed septic systems throughout the county. You can read about their work here. In Perry County, just a few miles from my hometown of Demopolis, instances of respiratory disease and cancer have spiked since 3 million tons of toxic coal ash waste were literally transported from a white, middle-class town in Tennessee and dumped in this predominantly African American county in 2008. This waste was deemed too hazardous for Kingston, TN, and was refused by government officials in Pennsylvania, yet has been deemed “safe enough” for the second poorest county in Alabama. You can get involved in this issue here and read more about this issue here
  3. LGBT discrimination. Mississippi recently passed HB 1523, which legalizes discrimination against LGBT individuals under the guise of religious freedom.The law is so incendiary that foreign governments (such as the UK) have issued travel advisories for their LGBT citizens warning against travel to Mississippi. In addition to the horrible reality of legalized discrimination, this law also casts Mississippi back into a negative light where social progress is doubted, and forces those who have connections to the state to both apologize for this law and defend what is good about the state. While this legislation is extremely disappointing, I am encouraged by the conversations I have had with friends from the South who are speaking out in support of change, tolerance, and the protection of human rights.
  4. The Confederate flag as part of Mississippi’s state flag. The Confederate flag, which serves as a symbol of oppression and has been adopted by hate groups, is still officially recognized as part of Mississippi’s state flag. It is time for Mississippi to have a flag that represents all its people.The debate to redesign the state flag is ongoing, and you can read more about the issue here.

The South is a place of contradictions–great natural beauty yet heart-wrenching injustice, a deep and rich history yet excruciatingly painful and persistent modern consequences, and people who epitomize warmth and hospitality yet laws that codify horrifying discrimination in both the past and present. I will always love my home, and for this reason I continue to hope the region can become a place where hospitality is manifested as equality in its schools, its laws, and its symbols.IMG_7196

Everything’s Bigger (and Weirder) in Texas: 48 Hours in Austin

Last weekend, a good friend of mine got married in Austin, which meant I finally had a good reason to visit this amazing city! Given what I already knew about Austin, I had a feeling I would love this place, and this prediction absolutely proved to be true. What was supposed to be 72 hours in Austin actually turned out to be 48 hours (I may have slept through my alarm and missed my flight)…oops! Fortunately, United was very accommodating and understanding, and helped me re-book for the very next morning for a small fee (thanks United!). Once I arrived in Austin, the rest of the weekend could not have been more fun. Below is a breakdown of how I spent my weekend in Austin.

Day 1

Lunch at Torchy’s Tacos

This place is an Austin establishment (so I’m told). After settling into my Airbnb on arrival, my friend/native Texan tour guide Chris introduced me to this delicious food truck in South Austin off 1st Street. All of the tacos were reasonably priced and huge (especially compared to the tacos you get in NYC…I guess this is what they mean when they say everything is bigger here!) I ordered the Green Chile Pork and the Independent taco (as in real life, the Democrat was too expensive and the Republican was made up of sketchy ingredients, so I went with the Independent).

 

Visit the TX State Capitol

The State Capitol building and grounds are free and open to the public. A fun place to explore and get your history fix!

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Hang Out on Rainey Street

Rainey Street features a row of laid-back, bungalow-style bars with a large variety of local brews on tap. We found ourselves at Bangers, which featured a beer garden-style outdoor seating area complete with cornhole games. Food trucks are conveniently scattered throughout the street!

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This is why I love Austin…!

Dinner at Lambert’s BBQ

Another Austin establishment, so I’m told. I was still full from my Torchy’s but I did try some of Beth’s brisket and the mac and cheese, which was made with Tabasco and goat cheese. It definitely ranks as one of the top 3 best mac and cheese dishes I’ve ever tried…I highly recommend!  

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Watch the Bats

Strangely enough, hundreds of thousands of bats fly out from under the Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin each night at dusk to attend to their nightly feeding. We were advised to arrive about 30 minutes before sunset to watch this happen. We posted up on the bridge at around 7:30, and hundreds of people had already staked out their viewing spot. Hundreds more people joined us before the bats finally flew out around 8:30pm. The sight was truly eerie to watch–to me, it looked like someone turned on a water spigot and bats instead of water started pouring out from an opening in a bridge. A cloud of bats could also be seen flying miles away down the river. This is truly one of the main things that makes Austin “weird”!

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It’s impossible to tell, but those specks of light in the lower left corner are little tiny bats.

Visit Sixth Street

Sixth Street is the center of the nightlife in Austin, and it has your standard mix of live music venues and college-type bars. This street reminds me a lot of Broadway in Nashville… it’s a good time and worth stopping by!

Day 2

Rent Bikes and Ride Along the Colorado River

The Colorado River is absolutely beautiful, and the trail along the south end of the river offers beautiful views of the city. Beth and I rented bikes from Barton Springs Bike Rentals and took off for a three hour self-guided ride along the river and through South Austin!  

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Lunch at Torchy’s Tacos (again…I know!)

As Beth had not tried Torchy’s yet, I broke down and ate lunch here a second day in a row (just kidding…I willingly ate here again! I loved this place from the first minute!) This time, I ordered the Baja Shrimp and the Trailer Park (non-trashy style…meaning without queso!)

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Enjoy the Murals and Artwork

Our bike ride and walking the day before took us past a lot of great murals and artwork unique to Austin.

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Grab a juice at Juiceland.

Located next to the bike rental shop, this quirky little spot provided the perfect post-biking refreshment. I got the “Gingerade,” which is like a spicy fresh squeezed lemonade drink with cayenne pepper. I was very excited to learn they’ve opened their first location outside of TX in Brooklyn, so I am looking forward to visiting them there!

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Visit The Driskill

My friend’s wedding reception was at The Driskill, but it is definitely worth visiting in its own right. This place is iconic Texas! While the reception was fantastic, I can only imagine the food and cocktails normally served at the restaurant and bar in the Driskill are just as good. The Driskill is also located on Sixth Street, so it’s very easy to go out nearby!

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I loved Austin’s vibe. It is not surprising to me that 100 people are moving there each day! Hopefully, the city can maintain its “small-town” charm and quirkiness and low cost of living despite these changes. I know, at least last weekend, the sun seems to shine a little brighter in Austin!

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Touched Down in the Land of the Delta Blues: My Memphis Highlights

Memphis is second to none when it comes to boasting a rich tradition in music, culture, and history. The city, immortalized by Marc Cohn’s classic song “Walking in Memphis” (yes, I love this song and I’m not ashamed!), is probably most famous in pop culture for being the home base for musicians such as B.B. King, Elvis, Johnny Cash, and Justin Timberlake. I love Memphis because it never pretends to be something it’s not—it’s a city as authentic as the sounds that come from it. Although I moved away a few years ago, Memphis still feels like home to me, and the two years I spent there teaching high school were life-changing. One plus of my family’s recent move from Alabama to Tupelo, MS, is that I can visit Memphis even more frequently (Tupelo is an hour from Memphis!). Below, I’ve listed some of my favorite Memphis highlights.426709_10200402062906670_1149355756_n

  1. 398936_3509378325686_890617298_nVisit the Orange Mound neighborhood. Located south of Southern Avenue and east of Lamar Avenue, Orange Mound is the oldest community in the south founded by African Americans, and the second largest in US history (behind Harlem in NYC).
    While the neighborhood has had its challenges with poverty and crime, the tradition and strength of community is tremendously strong. As a teacher at Melrose (Orange Mound’s only high school) for two years, I was honored to get to know and work with so many of the teachers and community members who make Melrose and Orange Mound so special. Melrose has produced a number of famed athletes, such as Olympian Rochelle Stevens and basketball legend Larry Finch, as well as entrepreneurs such as the Neely family and academics such as Alvin Crawford, an internationally recognized expert in childhood bone disease and Lawrence Madlock, medical director at the UT Medical Center. I recommend a visit to the old Melrose High School, which is designated as a historic landmark. If you are around on a Friday night, nothing beats a Melrose Golden Wildcats home football game! A great documentary about Orange Mound came out a few years ago, and you can watch it here.
  2. Go for a run through Tom Lee Park along the Mississippi River. The views of the city and the river are stunning. In particular, the view going downhill from Riverside Drive at the south of the park is my favorite! You will be treated to this view if you run in the St. Jude marathon or half-marathon, as it’s included in the route. Apart from this hill, the route is relatively flat, so it’s good for your knees! Be sure to notice the statue that honors Tom Lee, the river worker who saved 32 passengers when their steamboat sunk in the river in 1925.

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    I was so excited to round this corner while running the St. Jude’s marathon last December–the view is much better in person!
  3. Spend a night on Beale Street. Whatever your taste in music is, Beale Street has it and does it well. That being said, the blues rule here. My favorite blues spot on Beale Street is the Rum Boogie Café’s Blues Hall. If clubbing is more your style, Club 152 offers the closest thing to a “club” on Beale, and it’s a lot of fun! Visit Silky O’Sullivan’s for dueling pianos, a “beer drinking goat,” and an outdoor band, and visit one of a few karaoke bars along Beale if you’re inspired to start performing on your own. Drinks are cheap, and you’re allowed to carry your drink in a plastic container outside along the street (visit Wet Willie’s if you want a to-go slushie with a punch!)
  4. 577219_3423660262788_1045711115_nCheer on the Grizzlies at FedEx Forum. I really think the Grizzlies are a microcosm of the city itself. The mottos “Memphis v. Errbody” and “Grit and Grind” personify both the Grizzlies and the city of Memphis—both are often considered underdogs, yet both win, even if the process of winning is not always pretty. The Memphis community really gets behind the Grizzlies, and this is beyond evident when you attend a game at the Forum. The atmosphere at a Memphis Grizzlies game is electric! No offense to the NY Knicks or Nets, but those game atmospheres do not hold a candle to the atmosphere at a Grizzlies game! In fact, whenever I’ve attended a Grizzlies game since moving to NYC, it is always easy to spot the other Grizzlies fans, as we are always the most excited, cheering the loudest, and decked out in Grizzlies blue! The Grizzlies have been crushing it recently, and have made the playoffs each year for the past 5 years. Here’s hoping that the trend continues.
  5. Visit the National Civil Rights Museum. The museum is located at the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. The museum has preserved his room exactly as it was that day, which was the day after his prophetic “Mountaintop” speech. It is incredibly moving to not only view this room as he lived in it during his last few minutes on Earth, but to learn about the long history of the American Civil Rights movement, as well as the ongoing struggle (you can read here about how Memphis educators are succeeding in closing the achievement gap). The museum has a special focus on the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike, which brought Dr. King to the city in 1968. I have visited the museum twice, but not since it was renovated in 2013. The museum is a must-visit for any first-time visit to Memphis.
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    Raiford’s will turn anyone into a disco queen!

    Get into the music. Memphis is a music lover’s mecca. Of course, there’s Graceland, the home of Elvis Presley. Several of his wild outfits, cars, and guitars are on display, as well as his platinum and gold records. My favorite is the jungle room—you just have to see it to believe it! I also highly recommend the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, which has a replica of the dance floor used on Soul Train! You can also visit Sun Studio, where B.B. King, Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley all recorded hits. To actually live the music of Memphis for yourself outside of a museum, you have to go to Paula & Raiford’s disco on Second Street (just off Beale). The club is a true disco, where you can dance the night away on a light-up dance floor, relax on red leather sofas, or even play on a drum set. Mr. Raiford will be in a sequined cloak spinning all of the best 80’s and 90’s songs!31919_4870696197782_1000994998_n

  7. Visit the Peabody ducks. An esteemed Memphis tradition, the feathered residents of the swank Peabody Hotel march to and from their day job (swimming in the lobby fountain) each day at 11am and 5pm, respectively. The march is always closely monitored by the honorable Duckmaster. If you happen to miss the ducks’ march, you can visit their sweet penthouse home on the roof. I also recommend having a cocktail in the lobby and enjoying the people (and duck!) watching.

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    The ducks are preparing for their 5pm exit in front of the crowd!

8. Eat some BBQ! It probably goes without even mentioning, but Memphis has the best BBQ there is. Period. My personal favorites are Central BBQ (both on Central Ave and downtown), the BBQ Shop on Madison, and Interstate BBQ. If you’re flying through the Memphis airport, you have to stop by the Interstate BBQ shop in Terminal B, even if it’s not lunch or dinnertime (they serve amazing Southern-style breakfast biscuits and delicious coffee!)  If you’re vegetarian, please disregard…but I guarantee you will find some delicious meat-free “fixins” to indulge in at any of these places!

This is just a short list of the things I find most special about Memphis. There really is so much more that makes this city so amazing. Do you have any other recommendations?

You’re the Only Ten I See: Memphis vs. Nashville

Separated by 200 miles of farmland, rolling hills, and interstate, the cities of Memphis and Nashville coexist as the two largest cities in the state of Tennessee. Like rival siblings, the two cities have stark differences in character and appearance, yet won’t admit to just how similar they really are. Both seem to always vie for the spotlight as Tennessee’s best travel destination. I spent 4 years living in Nashville during my undergraduate years at Vanderbilt, and then 2 years living in Memphis immediately following graduation while working with Teach For America. As a result, friends and family often ask me, “Which city did you like the best—Nashville or Memphis?”

Nashville and Memphis, a battle for the ages.   

What a tricky question! Both cities have amazing and unique experiences to offer, and I loved my time in both cities. Nashville is glitz and glamour—they don’t call it “Nashvegas” and “Cashville” for nothing. Memphis, on the other hand, is grit and grind in a way that is just as inviting, if not more so, than Nashville. Nashville is about flashing lights advertising platinum-selling legendary artists at sold-out arenas as well as up-and-coming artists playing cover on Broadway. Memphis is about the sign (that’s maybe missing a few lights…) on the street corner promising you the best live blues music you’ve ever heard, and then following through on that promise. Nashville has Broadway, featuring a bar with a mechanical bull; Memphis has Beale Street, featuring a bar with a “beer drinking” goat. Nashville will get your adrenaline pumping and your boots stomping; Memphis will invite you to kick back and drift along with the rhythm of the blues.

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A night out on Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee
Above: A random night at “Mount Richmore,” the former home of John Rich from Big & Rich. He had an awesome rooftop pool! This evening was a very “Nashvegas”-like experience.

So when I answer my friends and family, I tell them that there were things about both cities I absolutely loved while living there, and it is difficult to compare two cities (although in the same state) with such different vibes. I then conclude that I am more #TeamMemphis than #TeamNashville, for the simple reason that my experience teaching high school in Memphis connected me to the city and the people there in ways that I never felt connected in Nashville. That being said, please visit both cities if you can!

My next few posts will highlight some of my favorite things to do, see, eat, and drink in each city. In the meantime, let the battle continue…Nashville vs. Memphis! I think they both win.

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