Tuesday, June 17, 2014

America Needs Quality, Subsidized Day Care

Me working  a job while recovering from having my first
child. As an independent contractor, if I didn't work, I didn't
get paid. 
 I have three jobs. One is full time, two are part time. Only one pays, and not much. 

I am not alone. 

My first, full time job is as a stay-at-home mom (SAHM). 23% of American moms with kids under age 15, and 35% with kids under age 6 stay home. Such work is always unpaid, and always more than the typical 40 hour work week. It's a job we can never leave. The kids are there in the morning needing to be changed and dressed, taken to school, play dates, classes and practices, fed breakfast, lunch, and dinner, helped with their homework, bathed, and gotten ready for bed. Many of these moms are single, and many others have husbands who work long hours and/or commute to jobs, causing them to come home late and exhausted. 

It's a big risk being a SAHM. Even for those of us who are married to spouses with well-paying jobs with good benefits, the divorce rate is still high, and sometimes spouses die or become disabled. For a parent who stops working for years to take care of children, going back to work in later life poses all kinds of challenges, and our life-time earning potential has been drastically lowered. 

On the other hand, many SAHMs express deep fulfillment in this practice. I know I feel grateful for all the time I spend with my daughters, how much I get to see them grow up, and how I'm building a bond and memories that the three of us will cherish for our lifetimes. 

Everything in life is give and take. 

My second job, as an artist and writer, is also mostly unpaid. I manage to put in an average of 20 hours a week in my studio making woodcuts and doing blogging and social networking to "raise my platform", and sending my work out to agents, editors, and galleries. I do this work while my littlest one is napping and my older child is at school, and after they go to bed at night. I rarely go to sleep before midnight. In my studio I'm surrounded by to-do lists and self-set deadlines to keep myself focused. 

In addition to fulfilling my creative and intellectual needs, my work as an artist gives me a huge sense of personal accomplishment and sense of career status. When strangers ask me or my husband what I do, we talk about my art - where I'm showing, the book I'm trying to sell, the new book I'm working on. After all, only other parents really want to hear much about my kids, and even then talking about the kids can get tedious. 


Me working on a book at the kitchen table in between
making dinner and getting kids ready for bed.

But as I said, this rarely pays. I sell a few, small prints on Etsy every month. I earn a paltry amount through Google Ads. The last arts and crafts sale I did, after the table fee, brought in only $25.00. I scored an agent, but she wasn't able to sell my book for me, so now I'm again at square one with that project, adding to the pile of things to do. It is a daily struggle to keep myself feeling confident that eventually I'll hit my "tipping point" and make some real income. 


My third job is as a part time art teacher. I must do this to bring in extra income because my husband's pay alone isn't quite enough to support our family. I work through non-profits and art centers. It pays a decent hourly wage, but I get hardly any hours, and those I do get require a lot of babysitting trades with other parents to cover childcare. When all the extras are added up, it's really not much more than minimum wage for a few hours a week. 

I am one of the lucky moms. My marriage is strong, and my husband has a good job. Without his gainful employment, my art career would go comatose, despite years and thousands of dollars in investment. I also have enough family support to get us through rough patches. If things for me keep going the way they have (fingers crossed), odds are I will eventually hit that sought after "tipping point", so that by the time my kids are grown, I might actually have a full time paying career as an artist and writer. 

But what about the moms without supportive spouses who can pay the bills? The ones without extended family who can help out? 

Today in America, women are under-represented in politics, business, STEM fields, the arts, just about everywhere. And not for lack of women getting the degrees and having the potential to be hugely influential in all those segments of society. Do we really wonder why? Do we really think we can fix this problem by merely giving women lip service and the encouragement to "lean in"? 

Typically, the only subsidized early childhood care in America is for poor parents, and most of these programs, including Head Start, are at facilities where those children are segregated from their more affluent counterparts. 

In general, day care in America is associated with substandard early childhood care, which is one reason why so many parents who can manage to avoid it, do. But in many other industrialized nations, publicly subsidized day care, which is accessible to all families, often on a sliding scale based on income, is of high quality and embraced by parents. Just look at France. 

American parents seem increasingly convinced that children fare better with a parent at home than in center-based care, but there is little to no scientific evidence for this. Consider: 


Multiple studies, including the NICHD study, have found that, after statistically adjusting for the effects of social class and other potential confounders, kids enrolled in high quality child care given by nonrelatives develop slightly better cognitive and language skills—as measured at various points in their lives, all the way up through age 15—than do kids in low-quality care. These beneficial effects are more pronounced for low-income kids than children from more affluent families and for kids in center-based care than other types of care. The NICHD study also compared children in child care to children who stayed at home with their mothers for the first three years of their lives, and the ones at home fared somewhere in the middle: They scored better on verbal comprehension tests at age 3 than did kids in low-quality care, but they scored worse on language tests at age 2 than kids in medium- and high-quality care. Interestingly, studies suggest that the cumulative amount of time kids spend in care makes little difference when it comes to scores; what matters is whether they go at all and if it’s good or bad.

In her article The Dark Side of Preschool, Gwen Dewar compared studies of American center-based care to a study done in Norway. Although more studies need to be done to come to a better understanding of how center-based care impacts children, there is some evidence that it is largely the quality of care that makes a difference, not whether children are at home or in a day care center. 


So if Zachrisson’s team found no evidence that preschool attendance causes behavior problems, that might be because preschool in Norway is better. 

The question becomes this: how can we make center-based care in the United States as good as it is in other developed nations? In addition to integrating programs that separate the poor and middle class, another no-brainer seems to simply subsidize care so that we can afford to raise the professional standards for those who work in day care centers and preschools.

Childcare workers are often paid a paltry sum, despite frequent requirements for degrees in Early Childhood Education and having to work year round and longer hours than school teachers. The average hourly wage of these workers is less than
$10 an hour. Even in New York City, day care workers are paid an average of $25,000 a year - barely a living wage! This leads to high turnover, low status, and staff burnout, not exactly a formula for quality child care. 

We Americans need to ask ourselves what sort of society do we want to be? One where women are equally represented in every career field while our children receive loving, quality care from well-respected child care professionals, or one where we turn back the clock to the days when women took a back seat to our husbands running the world while we stayed home and changed diapers, regardless of our educational backgrounds, talents, and aspirations. 

I'm raising two little girls. Right now I tell them that they can be whatever they want to be so long as they work hard. But I know that's only a half truth. When my girls come of age, will I have to change my tune and tell them that they will probably have to choose between fulfilling their career dreams, or having kids while being financially dependent on a spouse and setting their careers back at least a decade? I dearly hope that they and none of the other American women of their generation will have to make that choice. 

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Open Carry: Just Because You Can Doesn't Mean You Should

On Saturday the Medina County Gazette of Medina, Ohio published this guest column of mine: 

I frequently visit Medina with my husband and two young children because that’s where I grew up and my parents still live here. The Gazette tells me that next time I'm on the Square with my kids, I might see people from the activist group Northeast Open Carry patrolling the area with firearms in holsters or strapped to their backs. If I do, I won't call the police since there's nothing illegal going on. The law is already firmly on the side of open carry advocates. They aren't even required to show their IDs when questioned by police.
But I won't stick around. Police who carry firearms are trained and hired to serve and protect. Concealed carry requires at least a permit.

But a man just strutting around with a gun, he’s a total unknown. Maybe he's had sufficient training in firearm use and safety, maybe not. Maybe he's a schizophrenic about to have his first onset of serious symptoms. Maybe he's generally paranoid with lousy judgment. Maybe he’s a perfectly stable, responsible guy. The point is, I don't know.

What I do know is that Joe Smith or whoever is holding a deadly weapon and could easily kill me or my kids from hundreds of feet away. 

To Joe Smith or whoever, I didn't ask for your protection, and more importantly, I don't need it. The Medina crime rate is much lower than both the Ohio average and national average crime rates. (The city is ranked among the safest 15 percent of Ohio’s communities, according data compiled by USA.com. Most of the rare robberies and thefts that happen in Medina do not involve a deadly weapon at all. So unless you are on your way to the shooting range or to hunt, why are you flaunting your firearms in public spaces?

Just because you have the legal right to openly carry shotguns, assault rifles, and semi-automatic pistols in public doesn't mean it's a good idea or without risk. The Constitution gives the Westboro Baptist Church the right to protest military funerals with signs saying “God hates fags.” That doesn't mean they should or that doing so won't cause trouble. It also doesn't mean that the public should accept such behavior as “normal.”

People of Medina live without fear. It's not that crime never happens in Medina, but the number of crimes there that could be prevented by a random stranger walking around with a gun are so low that they're negligible. 

In a safe place, adding guns only adds the risks that come with them. That's why most people in Medina clear the area and might even call 911 in response to seeing a random stranger casually patrolling public spaces. Nobody here needs to be “educated.” We already felt safe, and Northeast Open Carry activists are taking some of that peace of mind away. 

Martha Knox is an artist and blogger living in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She is the daughter of David Knox, the managing editor of The Gazette.

That's my point of view visiting my quiet little hometown in Ohio. Now for my perspective from where I live today. 

A couple years ago a man was shot and killed on my street. It was 4:30 in the afternoon. I heard the shots from my living room, looked out the window just in time to see the shooter and his accomplice run away. Minutes later I stepped out on my porch to see a body lying on the sidewalk across the street. He died on the way to the hospital, one of America's many victims of violent crime, most often connected to the illicit drug trade. 

I live in Philadelphia, a city where hundreds of people are murdered and thousands more are injured with guns every year. Many more, including children and youth, are traumatized by witnessing gun violence in their neighborhoods. Here in Philly, if I saw someone walking around with a gun, even though Pennsylvanians have a right to open carry, I would call 9-11, because here the odds that violence will ensue is likely.

The idea of good guys with guns stopping bad guys with guns is based on nothing more than wishful fantasy, and is in opposition to actual evidence. And yet people all over the United States are trying to change American society into one which encourages vigilantism and is poised for conflict with deadly weapons anywhere, anytime.  

Let's be clear what's happening here: Open Carry Activists already have the right to do what they are doing. What they want now is to change the culture into one which accepts them flaunting those rights. 


Is this a change we Americans want? We already have horrifically high rates of gun violence compared with other industrialized nations. If guns being carried by just about anyone, anywhere, anywhere become the norm, do we really believe that most of those people will be sufficiently trained and cautious at all times? How many people ignore speed limits, thinking they can handle higher speeds, despite the threat of fines and accidents?

Are we really going to ignore the fact that the proliferation of firearms increases the numbers of suicides and accidents involving guns? Or that a desperate criminal will exhibit far more risky behavior such as grabbing a gun from an innocent citizen or shooting innocent people before responsible, armed citizens have a chance to fully assess the situation?

Flaunting rights to openly carry around firearms in public make no sense in safe communities such as my hometown or communities like Philadelphia which are already plagued with gun violence. It makes no sense period. 

The simple truth is that more guns don't protect people. They increase the chance of people getting shot. Forget the wild west fantasy, that's the science, that's the reality. 

Monday, June 2, 2014

Civil Magistrate in VA Permitted to Discriminate

Bud Roth, a civil magistrate in Virginia, employed by the county, paid by taxpayers, appointed by the court system to officiate civil contract marriages, has been permitted to refuse to marry certain couples based on their religious beliefs. 

Read the detailed account including a video recording of a conversation one of the betrothed had with Roth at Friendly Atheist

What minority does the guy discriminate against? Why non-theists, of course! But given the language used by both Republican and and Democrat politicians speaking about marriage over the past couple decades, should we be surprised?

We all know what religious bigots many Republicans can be when it comes to marriage equality. But here's some quotes from prominent Democrats: 

"I'm for domestic partnerships having legal protections, but not the same sacrament, not the same name, because I favor protecting the institution of marriage as it has been understood between a man and woman." -Al Gore in 2000 

But, Al, the civil union part of marriage (which is the only part government has a hand in) is not a sacrament
"Marriage has got historic, religious and moral content that goes back to the beginning of time and I think a marriage is as a marriage has always been, between a man and a woman." -Hillary Clinton in 2000. 

Hillary, guess what, the oldest and most common type of marriage in human history has been polygyny, not heterosexual monogamy. Also, what the hell does what ancient societies did have to do with the institution of marriage today, anyway, particularly considering how the state of women's rights has progressed! 
"I believe that marriage is the union between a man and a woman. Now, for me as a Christian - for me - for me as a Christian, it is also a sacred union. God's in the mix." -Barack Obama in 2008
Barack, if that whole sacred aspect of marriage is just for you, then why the hell are you bringing it up during a political campaign? Could it be that you are encouraging voters to trust you because you are Christian (because after all, secular people simply can't be as morally upright as good Christians such as yourself.) 

Of course now all three of these political figures have evolved in their views regarding gay marriage. Now they all think legal gay marriage is just hunky dory.

Who cares that all that old rhetoric was incredibly insulting to atheist and agnostic couples (who actually have lower than average divorce rates.) Nevermind that such rhetoric helped solidify in the minds of Americans that marriage and religiosity are inseparable, and that marriage that is not regarded as sacred and sacrament is a less serious, less solid undertaking.

If Bud Roth wants to be a minister and officiate religious ceremonies then he should go do that. But if he accepted an appointment to officiate civil ceremonies for the state, he has no business turning away couples based on religious beliefs or lack thereof. 

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Exclusive Scouting and the Defamation of Atheists

A year ago the Boy Scouts of America adopted a resolution to end the ban on openly gay scouts. Many cheered, despite the fact that the BSA - the scouting group with the greatest resources and prominence in American society - still won't allow openly gay leaders and continues its ban on atheist leaders and scouts.

In response, Herb Silverman, founder of the Secular Coalition for America, lamented:
There is no similar step forward for atheists. This modified policy would still require local groups to discriminate against atheists, apparently because the Boy Scout Oath implies that an atheist can’t be “morally straight” unless he can do his “duty to God.” 
Using this twisted logic, a number of courageous and honest atheists have been kicked out of the Scouts for rejecting all supernatural beliefs. Among them was my friend Darrell Lambert, an Eagle Scout, who had been supported by his entire troop.
Dan Kennedy was optimistic (well, sort of, I'll explain below) in his response: 

Though Thursday's vote can be seen as a modest step forward, another possible compromise floated earlier this year would have been far more workable. You may remember that one: groups that charter troops, such as churches and civic organizations, would have been free to set their own policies. 
Such a compromise would have accurately reflected how the BSA actually operates, as troops are considered part of their chartering organizations. To concoct a hypothetical, it would have opened the way for a Unitarian Universalist church to sponsor a troop that allowed gay scouts and adult leaders as well as atheists, another group banned under current BSA policy.
I write "sort of " optimistic because policies varying so much from troop to troop remind me of the event that inspired Margaret Downey to devote herself so passionately to defending the rights of atheists: she saw her son in tears because of discrimination. Downey's son had been a Boy Scout at a troop where his atheism was tolerated. But when the family moved, he was denied membership because of his lack of belief. 

My daughter will be old enough for scouting in a year, and as a parent I'm interested for many typical reasons. Scouting instills a sense of responsibility through community service, encourages positive relationships with peers, and offers kids opportunities and the motivation to learn new and useful skills. Scouts are generally thought of as eager to lend a hand, adept, and principled.

I am therefore deeply grateful for Lance Finney's of Grounded Parents article Ethical and Inclusive Scouting, which gives a rundown of scouting alternatives for secular parents. I live in a major metropolitan city outside of the Bible Belt, so my kids have several good scouting options to choose from. Not every American atheist family is so lucky.

As an atheist parent, simply acknowledging the history of scouting can be painful. All scouting has its origins not only Christianity, but an exclusionary mindset that falsely asserts that people must believe in and worship the Christian God in order to be good.

I can't think of a more clear example of the moral defamation of atheists than this previous wording (changed less than a year ago) in the BSA's Declaration of Religious Principle:
The BSA maintains that no member can grow into the best kind of citizen without recognizing an obligation to God. In the first part of the Scout Oath or Promise the member declares, "On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law."
Consider if such a thing were said of any other faith group: Jews can't be the best kind of citizens. Buddhists can't be the best kind of citizens. Mormons can't be the best kind of citizens. And so on. Pretty awful, isn't it? 

Many of these attitudes persist today, especially in America, where atheists are the most distrusted minority. Not because of anything we real flesh-and-blood atheists do (we tend to be pretty model citizens, actually), but because groups such as BSA maintain an association of God-belief with character, integrity, and high moral standards, thus associating atheism with bad behavior.

Austine Cline suggests:
...atheists are being saddled with the "sins" of American society generally. They are "a symbolic figure" that represent religious theists' "fears about ... trends in American life." Some of those fears involve "lower class" crimes like drug use; other fears involve "upper class" crimes like greed and elitism. Atheists are thus a "symbolic representation of one who rejects the basis for moral solidarity and cultural membership in American society altogether."
Prejudice against atheists, particularly when instilled in children and youth and under the guise of moral superiority, contribute to discrimination

Over the years the views among many scouting organizations around the world have broadened to include all or most sects of Christianity, Jews, and even people of non monotheistic faiths and atheists. The Girl Scouts of America is an example of a scouting organization that discriminates against none based on worldview, which personally pleases me, as I have daughters.

But what continues to disappoint is that so many scouting organizations persist in discriminating (most often against atheists and homosexuals, but sometimes other non-Christian faiths and certain sects of Christianity) even as they give lip service to the value of inclusiveness and brag about how inclusive they are in other respects. 

The BSA Scout Oath includes:
A Scout is reverent toward God. He is faithful in his religious duties. He respects the beliefs of others.
What meaning does "respect" hold if the organization is formally excluding certain people based on their beliefs regarding the meaning of life, gods, and afterlife? Or maybe they just meant that they respect the religious beliefs of others, but screw all the secularists. 

Trail Life USA is an alternative to BSA that launched in 2013 specifically in response to BSA's allowing openly gay scouts (but remember, not leaders.) In their statement on Membership Standards, Trail Life USA writes: 

While the program is undergirded by Biblical values and unapologetically reflects a Christian worldview, there is also a clearly defined inclusion policy for youth. Accordingly, all boys are welcome irrespective of religion, race, national origin or socio-economic status. 
But all boys are not welcome since individual Charter Organizations are permitted to exclude boys of certain faiths. 

American Heritage Girls, a sort of sister organization to Trail Life USA, contradicts themselves even more blatantly in their own Inclusion Policy

All girls of any color, creed, race, national origin and socioeconomic status who agree to live according to the standards of the AHG Oath and the AHG Creed are invited to be a member of the American Heritage Girls. 


So AHG accepts those of "any creed" so long as they agree with their "Creed"?

Seriously, how do the leaders of these organizations not recognize their own hypocrisy? Their organizations are either inclusive (which means being inclusive to the nonreligious) or they discriminate based on religion.

Camp Quest is an excellent example of an organization that is genuinely inclusive. Though Camp Quest is explicitly set up to promote the values of humanism and is generally run by and attracts secular humanists, there are no oaths or creeds. There is nothing in their mission statement that is exclusive to any people of faith because humanist values are pretty similar to Christian values, minus the religious exclusion, sexist gender roles, sexual repression, and bigotry against homosexuals.  From Camp Quest's FAQ: 

Are campers at Camp Quest required to be atheists?   
Answer
No. Campers at Camp Quest are encouraged to think for themselves and are not required to hold any particular view. We firmly believe that children should not be labeled with worldview labels by adults, and instead should be encouraged to ask questions and explore different worldviews as they grow.
We do present atheism and humanism as valid and reasonable options for an ethical and fulfilling life, and most counselors at camp consider themselves to be atheists.


Would a child who believes in God be comfortable at Camp Quest?
Answer
Yes. Campers at Camp Quest explore different worldviews, and many children aren't decided yet on their beliefs on the God question. Campers who believe in God may get a lot of interested questions from their fellow campers, but the camp environment fosters asking these questions in a spirit of dialogue and mutual respect. As far as we know, campers who believe in God have all had fun, made friends, and had a great Camp Quest experience.
This isn't just lip service. I volunteered as a camp counselor for Camp Quest in Ohio (relocated from Kentucky because a group of Baptists got a law passed just so they could legally refuse to rent their camp grounds to us dirty atheists.) One year we had a Catholic boy who was there because his atheist grandfather had suggested it and his Catholic parents were open minded. This boy was immensely popular with the other campers who were eager to show him the tolerance and respect that they who live in very religiously intolerant communities longed for. (Sadly, I've met several kids who lost Christian friends because their friends' parents found out about their atheism.)

One of the purposes of Camp Quest is to let kids from secular homes know that it's okay to choose no religion and to be skeptical of the existence of god/s, because our kids are constantly bombarded with the opposite message. 

Photo from Camp Quest South Carolina's blog

It's bad enough when peers tease and bully. But it is much worse when in addition, parents, adult mentors, and whole institutions tell a child You don't belong here. Go away. At that point the exclusion can feel like a hopeless situation because it seems the whole world insists they change who they are, or simply disappear.

Exclusion based on personal worldview is wrong, just as exclusion based on race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, disability, or sexual orientation is wrong. It's wrong because it results in needless suffering. It encourages feelings of fear and shame in the people being excluded. It also encourages self-righteous bullying among members of the in-group.

Scouting groups that exclude atheists (or gays, or other religious sects, etc.) can tell themselves that they have high moral standards all they want. In reality, they are just bullies teaching intolerance.



Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Women In Art, Forgotten and Ignored

The Wounded Deer by Frida Kahlo
Every year Camp Quest, a summer camp for secular humanist kids, puts together famous freethinkers cards to educate the campers about the many individuals who, without religion or faith, made significant contributions to history.

I was contacted by some Camp Quest organizers who were seeking examples of women artists. So far the only one they had come up with was Frida Kahlo, the Mexican artist popularized in America by the film starring Salma Hayek, and known for her often surreal and autobiographical paintings. 


I ended up highly recommending they use Louise Bourgeois, Kiki Smith, and Yoko Ono, as all three are confirmed non-theists and big names in the art world. It does somewhat sadden me that even among college educated people, only one of these three is commonly known, and she's mostly famous for being married to John Lennon. 


Portrait of Victorine Meurent by Annie Kevans
As both an artist and parent of a little girl who loves to paint, I was thrilled to hear about Annie Kevan's new exhibition: Women and the History of Art. It is a series of delicate, yet stark and emotionally charged portraits of women artists, prominent in their time but largely forgotten by history. 

Nell Frizzell of the Guardian writes: 


(Annie Kevans) has now painted more than 30 portraits of successful women who have been smudged out of the history of art for a new exhibition. Women like Victorine Meurent, who was an artist in her own right as well as one of Manet's muses, or Suzanne Valadon, who became the first female painter admitted to France's Société Nationale des Beaux Arts are among the women who are only now being singled out by later generations (Kevans's work follows the BBC's recent Story of Women and Art).


Palm Sunday, the only surviving example of
painting by Victorine Meurent.
I was surprised to learn that Victorine Meurent (the nude model in two of Manet's most famous works: The Luncheon On the Grass and Olympia) was an artist who regularly exhibited in the juried shows of the Paris Salon. Alas, when I went in search of examples of her work, I discovered that there is only one surviving work! 

There is plenty of lamentation these days about the lack of women in STEM fields, despite the fact that women are often well represented as students in STEM at the academic level. 

But these same trends exist in the field of visual arts. 

As one can tell from a stroll through any art museum, women artists in general have never been well represented. The numbers today are still rather bleak. Less than 5% of the artists featured in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art are women, and startlingly, the numbers at the Museum of Modern Art aren't much better!  

Despite the fact that in the 1970's (and also today) women were earning more than half of all graduate degrees in studio arts (source), less than half of full time professors of art are women, and only 30% of the artists represented by professional galleries are women. (source.) Similarly, women artists are featured only about 30% of the time in reviews and articles of ARTnews and Art in America. 


Shamsia Hassani, an Afghan graffiti artist
Given all the female talent coming out of academia with BFA and MFA degrees, academic awards and solid portfolios, why the inequality in professional representation? 

It is here that the sexism inherent in American society is most evident. Evaluation of the quality and significance of works of art is a largely subjective practice. Expectations and standards evolve over time based on the ever-changing values and conditions of the society from which the artwork emerges. When only a slice of societal perspectives is represented by the dominant institutions and publications, history is bound to be skewed, and social progress stunted. 

In is alarming, for instance, that Juxtapoz, a magazine covering the underground art scene, including graffiti, street art, erotica and illustration, features very few women artists (but plenty of casually sexist imagery without critical commentary), sometimes having whole issues which include not a single woman artist. This despite the fact that there are plenty up-and-coming female illustrators, creators of erotica, and street artists out there to profile, interview, and critique. 


Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, an American street artist

Critics, curators, dealers, and editors need to wake up to the sexist biases that influence their choices of what to write about, exhibit, and feature. They need to cultivate an awareness of the broader society and make real efforts to seek out the art (which does already exist!) that gives voice to historically marginalized groups, including not only women, but people of color, ethnic minorities, and LGBT people. 

Moreover, just like Annie Kevans, we need to remember the women artists forgotten by history; bring them back to prominence, and teach about them to our daughters who long to be artists. 

The summer of 1995, when I was a senior in high school, I spent 5 weeks in Mexico learning their language and culture. During that time I had the great privilege to visit the Frida Kahlo Museum in Mexico City. The building (La Casa Azul) had been Kahlo's home. Many of the rooms have been kept as they were when the artist was alive. It was a hauntingly intimate experience. I felt a bit as if I'd stepped into someone's home, uninvited. 

In one room I noticed a pillow with the hand-embroidered inscription: 

No me olvides, mi amor. 

Friday, May 9, 2014

Demonizing Mothers In Greatest Need

"Just remember, you don't come first anymore."

These were words said to me by a friend over the phone after I told him I was pregnant with my first child. This took me way off guard as this was a liberal friend who I knew through the Humanist movement. An awkward silence followed, after which I struggled to articulate a response. I finally said something like, "I think we both come first. After all, I can't take good care of a kid if I don't take good care of myself."

Why would such a reminder be necessary or appropriate? I was an adult woman with a career, great marriage, financial security,  good health, and family support. With all that going for me, the only way I'd be an awful parent is if I'm an awful human being.


I doubt my friend thinks I'm an awful human being. But I also doubt he'd have made that comment to my husband or any other father.

There is a pervasive message in our culture that when women become pregnant and then mothers, we're taking on some monumental endeavor, opposed to one that is, while significant, commonplace. It is as if, such as in this Shel Silverstein drawing, we're escorted to a pedestal, after which the only options are to climb atop to be revered as goddess-like matrons, or fall short of expectations and be despised.

For over a decade, legislation such as the Unborn Victims of Violence Act has turned on women before their children are even born, criminalizing the abuse pregnant women inflict on themselves due to mental illness, addiction, and/or desperate circumstances, because that damage extends to a fetus.

The most obscene example of prosecution and imprisonment of a woman because of severe health issues suffered while pregnant is the case of Bei Bei Shuai. Shuai attempted suicide with rat poison after her unborn child's father left her. Friends found and saved her, but after treatment, an emergency c-section and the subsequent death of her baby, she was charged with murder and imprisoned. At one point the prosecution offered a deal if Shuai would plead guilty to feticide, but she refused. In the end, she plead guilty to criminal recklessness. But not before she'd already spent over a year behind bars.

There are other cases, such as that of Melissa Ann Rowland, a mentally ill addict with a record of child abuse, who was charged with murder for not having a c-section that would have saved her fetus. Rennie Gibbs who was charged with murder for her use of cocaine, resulting in the stillbirth of her child. Neither of these charges resulted in convictions, but the persistent trend is disturbing.

Alabama has prosecuted 60 addicts who used while pregnant. One well-publicized case was Amanda Kimbrough, charged with chemical endangerment for the use of meth during her pregnancy and leading to the premature birth and immediate death of her child.

Most recently, Tennessee passed SB 1391, a bill that allows women to be charged with assault if their children are harmed by their drug use. It passed despite warnings from pretty much the entire medical establishment that the law would discourage addicts from seeking treatment while pregnant.

Imani Gandy of RH Reality Check wrote:


Multiple medical associations and counseling services, as well as the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the Tennessee Association of Alcohol, Drug Abuse and Other Addiction Services, opposed SB1391 as the dangerous threat it is.  
These doctors stressed that any such law would continue a frightening trend of women who fail to seek out prenatal care – 23% of pregnant women in Tennessee receive none at all, and the trend is more common among women of color. A 2009 review by the National Institutes of Health found that 30% of women in a study failed to get prenatal care because of substance abuse problems.

The only aspect of SB 1391 that saves it from being a totally heinous attack on women who suffer from addiction is an amendment which gives women the option of abandoning charges if they enter an approved treatment program. Of course by that point, the damage is already done. 
There are two issues with these laws that criminalize the behavior of pregnant women. The first is an issue of choice. The biological reality is that a fetus, while a discreet human organism, is completely dependent on the woman as incubator for his or her survival. There is no perfect comparison to this situation in the real world. However it says something that we do not force people to be organ donors, even in death, and even though doing so would certainly save lives.

A woman who neglects or abuses her children can have those children removed and placed in the care of other adults. This is not an option if the "child" is a fetus. If fetuses are given the same legal rights as children, then every pregnant woman no longer has the same rights that everyone else has over our bodies. 

In his stand up, George Carlin said:


If a fetus is a human being, how come the census doesn't count them? If a fetus is a human being then how come when there's a miscarriage they don't have a funeral? If a fetus is a human being then how come people say "We have two children and one on the way." instead of saying "We have three children."
Carlin makes the point that culturally and legally, we acknowledge the difference between a fetus and a baby that can live independent of its mother's body. Laws such as SB 1391 are little more than anti-abortionist attempts to establish a legal precedent out of line with these societal norms.

The second issue with these laws is the harmful outcomes.

As much as people might despise a woman who smokes crack cocaine while pregnant, much mental illness and addiction is exacerbated if not caused by the conditions of poverty, and are therefore preventable. Putting the mentally ill and addicts in prison only makes a bad situation worse.

We now have evidence that growing up in the conditions of poverty are more harmful to a child than being a "crack baby."

Now, after nearly a quarter century, the federally funded study was ending, and the question the researchers had been asking was answered.


Did cocaine harm the long-term development of children like Jaimee, who were exposed to the drug in their mother's womb?


The researchers had expected the answer would be a resounding yes. But it wasn't. Another factor would prove far more critical.
That other factor: poverty.

Of course if poverty can have a worse impact on a child than exposure to crack while in the womb, harsh conditions of poverty can also impact the health and choices made by pregnant women. Poverty is associated with increased drug abuse and more prevalent mental illness. People like to point to rich addicts such as Phillip Seymour Hoffman and say, "See, anyone can be an addict." The implication being that it is simply a matter of personal will. But these arguments fall apart when we look at the statistics and the horrible impact poverty has, particularly on children and the women who bare and raise them.

More than one in five children are growing up in poverty, and 75% of households under the poverty line are headed by mothers. What business do we as a society have imprisoning women who suffer from serious health problems when we don't have a universal, comprehensive health care system, we're cutting supplemental food programs, Head Start, and public schools in poor communities are failing. If we want better outcomes for children, we need to give more support to the adults who bare and raise them.

They say that behind every great man is a great woman. This Mother's Day let's remember that behind every exceptional mother, there's both a history and present community of support.


Friday, May 2, 2014

An Owl with Quaker Values

Last year, while browsing in a comic shop, I came upon a delightful collection titled Owly: Tiny Tales by Andy Runton. The cover featured a cartoon owl with enormous eyes in an armchair, reading a book for a gathering of forest critters, all wearing gleeful expressions on their faces.

Curious, I flipped through a few pages, and found it to be both child-friendly in content, but more interestingly, wordless. The characters communicated through a series of symbols, exclamation points and question marks, as well as lightbulbs to express having an idea and horseshoes to say "Good luck!" As a teaching artist who values visual literacy and parent of two pre-readers, I was pleased with my discovery. I purchased it while imagining my daughters learning to read symbols and also having a book they could "read" all on their own.

Later, I realized it had even greater value.

Owly: Tiny Tales (you can read an excerpt on Andy Runton's website) is a collection of short stories told in classic comic format. The first story was "Splashin' Around." On a blazing hot, summer day, Owly and his best friend Wormy go to water a drooping flower and find that their watering can has a hole in it. They take it to the Nursery where Raccoon patches it up, but not before they notice a flock of birds joyfully playing in a puddle that has formed under the can. Racoon tells the pair about a contest to build the best bird bath. Owly and Wormy decide to enter. They bounce their ideas back and forth and come up with a bird bath that is a large bowl of water attached to a potted tree, because birds love both water and trees. Their birdbath isn't the most aesthetically pleasing design, and they become worried when they see a much larger, fancier, shinier birdbath in the competition. Nevertheless, they wish their competitors good luck. Even though the judges all express approval with the reasoning behind Owly and Wormy's tree birdbath, the first prize is still awarded to the fancier entry. Owly and Wormy eyes fill with tears and they mope all evening. But the next morning, Raccoon shows up at their door with news of a happy surprise. They rush back to the nursery to joyfully discover that the birds prefer their birdbath.

I'm not ashamed to admit that my own eyes teared up a bit when I read this story. Most children's stories in books, shows, and movies fail to achieve this level of just sheer goodness, even when, and maybe especially when they are trying to teach morals, ethics, and values to kids.

In NutureShock, chapter 9: "Plays Well With Others", journalists Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman report on studies into children's entertainment. Dr. Jamie Ostrov and Dr. Douglas Gentile ran repeated studies, trying to find out if watching violent shows such as Power Rangers made children more anti-social, and conversely, if watching "educational" shows such as Clifford and Arthur would make children more pro-social. The results were surprising:

More exposure to violent media did increase the rate of physical aggression shown at school -- however, it did so only modestly. In fact, watching educational television also increased the rate of physical aggression, almost as much as watching violent TV. And just like in the Minnesota study, educational television had a dramatic effect on relational aggression. The more the kids watched, the crueler they'd be to their classmates. This correlation was 2.5 times higher than the correlation between violent media and physical aggression.
    Essentially, Ostrov had just found that Arthur is more dangerous for children than Power Rangers
Ostrov was quoted saying:

"Preschoolers have a difficult time being able to connect information at the end of the show to what happened earlier. It is likely that young children do not attend to the overall 'lesson' in the manner an older child or adult can, but instead learn from each of the behaviors shown." 

In other words, when preschoolers watch fictional bullies, they learn about the social advantages that motivate bullying behavior.

This is why Owly is so refreshing. "Splashin' Around" was a narrative that didn't resort to anyone being cruel or selfish in order to create conflict. Every person honored the dignity of every other person. Some experienced painful emotions, but were able to quietly sit with those feelings without lashing out at others. Resolution was found not in the protagonists getting the showy accolades they sought, but in them receiving a more profound appreciation for their efforts.

One of the first things that struck me about Owly is that his best friend is a worm. One of nature's most vicious and stealthy avian predators paired with a creepy crawly synonymous with bird food! I instantly thought, here is a contemporary version of the Peaceable Kingdom.

The Peaceable Kingdom is a series of 61 paintings by Edward Hicks, inspired by the Biblical passage Isaiah 11: 6-8:
 The wolf will live with the lamb,
    the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling[a] together;
    and a little child will lead them.
 The cow will feed with the bear,
    their young will lie down together,
    and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
 The infant will play near the cobra’s den,
    and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.
(From the New International Version) 

One of Edward Hick's Peaceable Kingdom paintings.
Of course taken literally by anyone deeply acquainted with biological science, the passage seems absurd. But I (and most Christian theologians) would argue that taking the passage literally is absurd. Certainly Hicks, a Quaker, didn't take it literally. This passage is far more interesting and indeed inspiring when interpreted symbolically. Quakers such as Hicks believe the "inner light", or that which is of God, is part of every human being. Learning to think and live the right way allows people to tap into the divine, and thus salvation.

To me, a secular humanist, this passage and Hick's fanciful imagery represents the human animal striving to create conditions that bring out that which is most noble about our species.

I taught art for two years at a PreK-8th grade Friends (Quaker) school, and reading Owly stories, I constantly find parallels between his fictional world and the ideals expressed in the Quaker Testimonies.

Quakers worship in silence, only speaking if moved by the "inner light." Referring to the testimony of Silent Reflection as a "habit of mind", the American Friends Service Committee writes:
...silence is often used to settle into a meeting, to invite reflection, or to allow time for the synthesis of ideas. Silence refreshes the spirit and makes way for deep thinking about both ethical and intellectual quandaries.
There is a lot of silence in Owly stories, not only because of the absence of true dialogue. Almost every tale begins with a framed panoramic view of the larger setting. Owly and his friends are often seen eating in silence, awake in bed thinking, quietly assessing their surroundings, setting up, building, or just sitting quietly. All of these moments compel a deeper appreciation for simply being alive and self aware.

The testimony of Simplicity is often expressed. The winning bird bath was rather ostentatious, but in the end the birds preferred Owly and Wormy's more simple design. In the story "Helping Hands", the rabbit drops and breaks a fancy potted plant she has purchased as a gift for her grandfather. Owly and Wormy help her create a new pot with handmade decorations. The rabbit worries that her grandfather will be disappointed by her handmade gift, but after she sheepishly explains what happened, he declares the handmade pot to be better than a whole bunch of fancy store bought ones.

Many associate Quakers with the testimony of Peace, due to their long history of organized war protest and conscientious objection to military service. Violence, both physical and verbal, is so prevalent in popular children's literature and entertainment that it is taken for granted. But in Quaker schools and homes, it is common to ban even toy weapons. At the school where I taught, children were prohibited from excluding others from games. Out of the 12 stories in Tiny Tales, none involve physical violence, and only 2 include the violence of harsh words or aggressive behavior. In both of those, the conflict was resolved through changes in circumstance, kindness, or cooperation, opposed to the "good guys" responding with their own threats.

Another testimony is Stewardship, or reference for nature and conservation of natural resources. The characters in Owly are constantly outdoors, planting and caring for plants and feeding wildlife. Racoon's nursery is is an essential part of many stories. An appreciate for nature has been part of Owly's world from the beginning. In the back of Tiny Tales, Runton writes:

When I was trying to come up with a comic book idea, I tried dragons, aliens, ninjas... but nothing worked. Then one day, I looked closer at my little owl. And I drew this... It kinda summed up what I felt. I wanted to draw comics about this little owl. But I was afraid to be myself. 

Note how Owly doesn't pick the flower. He simply enjoys it, and then draws a picture so as to translate the experience through creative expression and then have a piece of that experience with him in his home.

The best thing about Quaker testimonies is that although they are proscribed by a religious sect, they are ultimately secular and universal to the human experience. It is no surprise for me to discover, in my work at a Quaker school, that many modern-day Quakers, especially on the East Coast, are also atheists and agnostics.

I recently purchased a copy of Owly & Wormy: Friends All Aflutter. This book is a large, hardback, full color 40 page picture book; in other words, an object of value to be cherished. My daughter was thrilled.

The story was in line with the values of the previous volume. In it, Owly and Wormy attempt to attract butterflies with flowers, To their dismay, a couple of caterpillars begin munching away at the plants. Despite their initial upset, Owly and Wormy befriend these invaders and come to prefer their company to the hypothetical butterflies. Soon they are striving to keep the caterpillars comfortable enough to return when they disappear (unbeknownst to Owly and Wormy, the caterpillars never left; they are merely in their chrysalises). Owly's and Wormy's putting kindness and friendship over their desire for superficial beauty is rewarded when their friends emerge, transformed.

Truly these are the values to teach the upcoming generation; the values and actions necessary to live the best life possible, and also build a better world.

May we all learn from the wisdom of owls.
Addendum: On a related note, another stunningly illustrated picture book with owls and which supports the values of nonviolence, quiet contemplation, and appreciation for simplicity and nature is The Happy Owls by Celestino Piatti.