May was National Foster Care Awareness month — a window in time to recognize that we each play a part in enhancing the lives of children and youth in foster care. May gave way to June which is National Reunification Month, a time that recognizes the people and efforts around the country that help families to stay together. This year, these important recognition months come during a time of civil unrest, a global pandemic, and an economic crisis. At a smaller scale, these months fall on the third and fourth month of a life of stay at home “quarantine” for my family.
For us, we are working from home, homeschooling and caring for three foster children, and trying to navigate these complex times with a level head. Like all parents, we are doing our best to explain the world around our children. First came the pandemic and why they couldn’t visit their family in person any more, why they couldn’t go to school, and wouldn’t be able to leave our house without a mask. Often, we fell far short of an adequate explanation. Then, in the midst of a pandemic, the murder of George Floyd painfully exposed a grave wound in our society. Now, we are charting new territories with conversations that carry more personal and profound implications. As white parents to children of different backgrounds than our own, we signed up for work that we knew was not going to be easy. In our home we have a white pre-teen, and two Hispanic sisters, ages six and two. Due to the beautiful dark skin of our six year old, we know that she is more likely to experience discrimination.
I was a teacher when the Black Lives Matter movement was just getting started. I remember navigating complicated conversations with my students about Mike Brown and Trayvon Martin. Looking back through old emails and resources from that time brought me to a student note that I stored away: “You have really proved to me that there are people other than African Americans who feel strongly about what is going on”.
Is that truly something that needed to be proved? Apparently it was — and still is.
As the news of George Floyd’s murder swept across our nation, and protests rightfully erupted, I found myself momentarily debilitated and unable to find the right words to describe the emotions I was feeling. And, the grief, frustration, pain, anger, and confusion as a white man only led way guilt because I knew damn well that the gravity of my pain paled in comparison to the pain of the African American community. My first public acknowledgment of what was happening focused on the need to “listen more and talk less” as I shared this Sojourners article. I was hesitant — I wanted to be conscious of space and time, and avoid any effort to whitewash or mansplain the current upheaval. But, in my hesitation, I was reminded of what my student told me back in 2014. There is a serious need in our world to demonstrate that “people other than African Americans” feel strongly about what is going on.
#BlackLivesMatter is not a belief reserved for African Americans. It is something that we all should fundamentally believe as a human race. Importantly, it is also not a statement that says other lives don’t matter. In times like this, we lean on faith because humanity has a tendency to weigh us down. The parable of the 100 sheep found in Matthew 18:12 and Luke 15:4 describes how Jesus left the 99 to tend to the one that was in danger. Do the other 99 sheep matter? Of course they do, but they are not in danger.
As foster parents of children with identities different than our own, we are intricately interwoven into this civil unrest and, as Connecticut Department of Children and Families Commissioner Vannessa Dorantes recently outlined during a radio interview, the “insidious virus of racism has been intertwined” within it all. We must acknowledge where we fit in this conversation and our kids are watching us every step of the way.
This is all falling within a pandemic and at a time where all parents’ patience, time, energy, and perseverance has already been truly tested. For us, we want to do a lot more and to be on front lines of creating meaningful change. Yet, we are still quarantined to our home, and working full time jobs with three kids. Simply managing our day to day needs presents its own challenges — and we know we are not alone.
We are simply trying to be deliberate with what we can do during this time. We have started to actively seek out social media outlets that fill our feeds with diverse authors and perspectives. We have pursued a few more books by diverse authors and about diverse characters to read our children at night. We are actively seeking out teachable moments to talk to our children about racism, social justice, and the meaning behind the phrase Black Lives Matter. We are openly praying about it during bedtime and at dinner. We are strategically leaving the news on during specific segments to invite questions. We are empowering our kids to ask hard questions of us (even when we may not have answers), and we are allowing them to see our frustration, pain, and confusion through it all.
As we do, we are bearing witness to true growth in an eleven year old white girl who is taking it upon herself to learn, and read about racism — she is challenging us with questions about segregation, discrimination, and the use of the N-word. We are simultaneously watching our six year old come to grips with the world around her as we have unpacked the meaning of race and racism. We have experienced the utter heartbreak in watching the innocence of a child prove the unnaturalness of it all: “I am brown, will people not like me? Will they be mean to me?…But, Ms. G is white, and she is nice….” We are also reminded of their innocence when, in the midst of a conversation about skin color we asked our six year old if she had any other questions and without hesitation she replied; “Yes, where do babies come from?” My wife took that one.
As a white man, I am not here to tell you what books to read, or what news to follow (that said, if you are white, and you want a place to start, you can start here, here, or here). I am not here to tell you to go attend protests, or post on Facebook or Twitter if you are not comfortable doing so. And, to be clear, I am not saying we are doing enough, or doing it perfectly . We have so much more room to grow as parents, and as anti-racist allies. Every parental decision has the potential to expose our own biases, and learned racism — and we must actively work to unlearn what society has ingrained.
I am, however, very comfortable in asking you to find comfort in saying that Black Lives Matter. Even more, I am asking that you should let others know where you stand. We must have conversations about these issues with friends, neighbors, family, students, co-workers, children, and strangers. You can never know enough, and it’s never too late to start. The resources are out there, and you should seek them. Don’t be overwhelmed by them, or feel like you need to watch and read everything in this very moment. Trust me, I know there is a lot going on in our world and sometimes it feels like too much to handle. Many of us have a lot to learn but we do not have the luxury of waiting. The honest truth is the process of understanding and becoming an anti-racist starts with an internal commitment to be better; and we can all make that commitment today, even during a pandemic. As foster parents living and loving across lines of difference, we are provided with a unique ability to make real change inside our home.
We have a unique responsibility with children. We raise children as our own, knowing full well that they are other people’s children temporarily in our care. As we move through Reunification Month, and look back at Foster Care Awareness month, it’s vital to acknowledge that this too is the challenge of foster care — to care for, to teach, to support, and to enhance the life of the children while they are with us.
For us, our hope and prayer is that our kids will come out of this pandemic with a strong sense of social justice, a compassion for others, and the conviction that Black Lives Matter. We believe that meaningful conversations, strategically placed teachable moments, and a whole lot of humility will help guide us towards a better tomorrow where society truly does come to value the humanity and value of all black lives.
It all starts with our willingness to engage.