Looking Forward , Sarah Verbiest, founder of Every Woman Southeast, reflects on the new year and what it holds.

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When Addiction Has a White Face



WHEN crack hit America in the mid-1980s, for African-Americans, to borrow from Ta-Nehisi Coates, civilization fell. Crack embodied instant and fatal addiction; we saw endless images of thin, ravaged bodies, always black, as though from a famined land. And always those desperate, cracked lips. Our hearts broke learning the words “crack baby.”

But mostly, crack meant shocking violence, terrifying gangs and hollowed-out inner cities. For those living in crack-plagued areas, the devastation was all too real. Children learned which ways home were safe and which gang to join to avoid beatings, or worse.

Even for those of us African-Americans living at a relatively safe distance, there were soul-deadening costs. City centers, and by extension black neighborhoods, were seen in the national imagination as lawless landscapes. We were warned of a new wave of “super predators,” young, faceless black men wearing bandannas and sagging jeans. The addicted, those who preyed on them and those caught by class, geography and especially race were swept together. At the edges of my 12-year-old mind was the ominous sense that no matter how far crack was from my actual life, I was somehow associated with the scourge.

Once again, African-Americans were cast as pathological, an indistinguishable and unsympathetic mass. The plight of Black America was evidence of its collective moral failure — of welfare mothers and rock-slinging thugs — and a reason to cut off all help. Blacks would just have to pull themselves out of the crack epidemic. Until then, the only answer lay in cordoning off the wreckage with militarized policing.

Lest we forget the obvious, the potential profitability of white addiction. Affluent addicts make for a rich patient base. Not that black…

The dormant carrier of this ill-defined disease, harboring a mix of criminality and violence, was the young black male. By my high school years there was no doubting the danger strangers saw radiating off me. When I was in college in the early 1990s, my short dreadlocks meant older women would cross the street to avoid me.

Thirty years later, America is again seeing an epidemic of drug addiction, particularly heroin. The surge is so great that for the first time in generations, mortality among young white adults has risen. But the national attitude toward drug addiction is utterly different. Even Republican presidential candidates are eschewing the perennial tough-on-drugs speeches and opening up about struggles within their own families.

More important, police chiefs in the cities most affected by heroin are responding not by invoking military metaphors, weapons and tactics but by ensuring that police officers save lives and get people into rehab. As one former narcotics officer described his change of heart on addiction, “These are people and they have a purpose in life and we can’t as law enforcement look at them any other way.” In his inability to name the change that allowed this epiphany, his words also capture our cringe-worthy self-denial. Suddenly, police officers understand crime as a sign of underlying addiction requiring coordinated assistance, rather than a scourge to be eradicated.

It is hard to describe the bittersweet sting that many African-Americans feel witnessing this national embrace of addicts. It is heartening to see the eclipse of the generations-long failed war on drugs. But black Americans are also knowingly weary and embittered by the absence of such enlightened thinking when those in our own families were similarly wounded. When the face of addiction had dark skin, this nation’s police did not see sons and daughters, sister and brothers. They saw “brothas,” young thugs to be locked up, rather than “people with a purpose in life.”

To be clear, no one laments the violence that the “crack bomb” set off in inner cities more than African-Americans. But while shootings, beatings and robberies cannot be tolerated anywhere, the heroin epidemic shows that how we respond to the crimes accompanying addiction depends on how much we care about the victims of crime and those in the grip of addiction. White heroin addicts get overdose treatment, rehabilitation and reincorporation, a system that will be there for them again and again and again. Black drug users got jail cells and “Just Say No.”

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It would be cruel and perverse to seek equal abandonment of those now struggling with addiction as payback for the failures of the ’80s. Nor do I write in mere hopes of inducing cheap racial guilt. The hope, however vain, is that we learn from our meanest moments.

Even today, as black communities face pressing problems of addiction and chronic unemployment and the discrimination in hiring that helps to perpetuate it, many are dedicated to ignoring racial prejudice. Faced with searing examples of unconscionable police violence against unarmed black men, of concocted justifications laid bare by video, too many still speak of isolated cases and overblown racial hysteria. With condescending finger-wagging, others recite the deplorable statistics of violence within poor minority neighborhoods as though racist policing were an antidote or excuse. Both responses ignore that each spectacular moment of unjustified police violence represents countless instances of institutionalized racial control across generations.

No sane community faced with addiction and crime would invite or acquiesce to brutal policing as their fate, and no moral community would impose it as a primary response. We do not have to wait until a problem has a white face to answer with humanity.

Ekow N. Yankah is a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University.

A version of this op-ed appears in print on February 9, 2016, on Page A23 of the New York edition with the headline: When Addiction Has a White Face.

Artists as Activists: Pursuing Social Justice

Flight by Marie Hoeber. Image courtesy of the artist and Gutfreund Cornett Art.

We must never forget art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth.

John F. Kennedy

Some might say that the world is a mess right now. Others point out that it could be worse. In our war torn world, it depends on who you are and the place that you live. In light of the ever-growing list of crises crossing all borders and cultures, the curatorial partnership of Guttfreund Cornett Art has mobilized a group of 86 artists to address this escalation of violence, human rights violations, and environmental concerns. Throughout history, art has reflected its time. Art mirrors the aesthetic standard of the day and also provides a window into the historical context of the time. Works such as Andy Warhol’s, Big Electric Chair or Picasso’s Guernica serve as iconic reminders and powerful statements on social issues of their time. Artists often see their place to provoke, to voice, to enlighten. This long-standing role of the artist as activist is at the heart of “Social Change: It Happens to One, It Happens to All”, an art exhibition taking place at Saint Mary’s College of Art in Morago, CA September 18 – December 11, 2016.

Gutfreund Cornett Art’s mission is to create exhibitions in venues around the U.S. on themes of “art as activism.” Karen Gutfreund believes, “There is much that is needed to be said, to make people stop, look and listen, to confront social injustice issues. Art can often say what words cannot. We want to bring powerful artwork to the general public that reflects on these issues and encourages change.”

This exhibition focuses on a broad range of human rights violation issues which have risen dramatically to the surface in the last few years. The exhibition’s statement explains,

“Human rights can no longer be thought of as separate and belonging to a privileged few, but rather that these rights are all interrelated, interdependent and indivisible for all”

This exhibition entangles such hot-button issues as wealth disparity, immigration, racism, gender and equality issues, reform of the criminal justice system, and gun violence. Voice and visual image combine to form a powerful commentary.

Eric Almanza, an artist and a teacher for Los Angeles Unified School District, has witnessed too often the chaotic aftermath embedded in students’ experience, following their parents who have made the dangerous journey across the border, hoping to give their children a better life. Eric has observed, “They don’t come here to mooch off a broken welfare system. These migrants cross the border to work, not one, but two and sometimes three jobs.” His piece In Search of a New Home is dedicated to those who have made that journey.

In Search of a New Home by Eric Almanza. Image courtesy of artist and GutfreundCornett Art.

The Sunshine State by Justyne Fischer reflects the artist’s reaction to a tragic outcome for the young African American boys; Treyvon Martin and Jordan Davis, both victims of the Stand Your Ground law in Florida. The historical reference to lynching reflects the pain, grief, and complexity of the racial divide that the black community has dealt with for too many years. In Justyne’s words, “White men stand their ground, Black boys get gunned down.”

The Sunshine State by Justyne Fisher. Image courtesy of artist and Gutfreund Cornett Art.

Artist, Jenny Balisle explores gunshots as mark making in her work America Red, White and Blue. She took instruction in shooting a firearm as a means to explore both the operation and consequence of firearms in light of the numerous mass shootings in this country. She came to the haunting conclusion that her art practice reflected American culture.

America Red, White and Blue by Jenny Balisle. Image courtesy of the artist and GutfreundCornett Art.

Nancy Ohianian’s conceptual piece, EPA Regulations is a powerful and visual reminder of what environmental injustice looks like. Implied are the effects of race and politics on a human right as simple as clean and safe drinking water. The irony not lost that in the most developed country in the world one of Michigan’s poorest and blackest communities have not had access to safe or clean water.

EPA Regulations by Nancy Ohianian. Image courtesy of artist and GutfreundCornett Art.

The media attention given to the Ray Rice elevator incident with his wife Janay Rice forced artist Jaime Shafer to look at her own experience with domestic violence and the result was the pop up piece,1 in 3. “Creating this piece proved more difficult than I expected. . . By creating this piece, I hoped to help the viewer understand the victim’s point of view and the lack of resources that often hinder a victim’s ability to escape the situation.”

1 in 3 by Jaime Shafer. Image courtesy of artist and GutfreundCornett Art.

Sarah Friedlander was faced with her own ambivalence to political realities in Israel. “In 2011 I traveled to Palestine for the first time. Prior to that, I had avoided the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because as an American Jew it was taboo to discuss or question Isreali policy.” On her second visit, she was faced with her own questions. “What I saw when I arrived was both mesmerizing and profoundly unsettling. Only upon returning, when I sought to communicate my impressions, did I come up with this piece of artwork as a way of opening the discussion here in America. Stonewalled in Jerusalem is the initial piece in a larger series that explores the pain and anguish on both sides of the situation.

Stonewalled in Jerusalem by Sarah Friedlanger. Image courtesy of artist and GutfreundCornett Art.

The goal of this exhibition is not simply to call attention to these serious problems but to also begin a dialogue. Gutfreund Cornett Art partner, Sherri Cornett states that “One of the main motivators for creating these kinds of exhibitions is the dialog engendered by the works and the communities that form in the process of developing and participating in them. Artists have an opportunity to be part of the discourse. They are shedding light on their own personal experiences with injustice or those endured by others. . . through this shared dialogue, work together to transcend polarities and rediscover our common humanity.”

The exhibition runs September 18 through December 11th and includes work chosen for onsite installation as well as artists chosen to be a part of a digital slide show, For more information and the online catalog see

The Bird Cage by Xian Mei Qiu. Image courtesy of the artist and GutfreundCornett Art.

Haiti and Dominican Republic: One Island – Two Worlds by Gerado Castro. Image courtesy of the artist and GutfreundCornett Art.

Justice in America by Margi Weir. Image courtesy of the artist and GutfreundCornett Art

Untitled by Dawn Nakashima. Image courtesy of the artist and GutfreundCornett Art.

Justice Will Prevail by Dan Tague. Image courtesy of the artist and Gutfreund Cornett Art.

The Girl Who Fell From the Sky/La Nina que se cayo del cielo by Veronica Cardoso. Image courtesy of the artist and GutfreundCornett Art.

Pleasure Quarters by Priscilla Otani. Image courtesy of the artist and GutfreundCornett Art.

A few symbols of my identities as a runner, friend, teacher and activist: inspirational jewelry from BFFs, my sneaker wings, and the pussy hat my students made for me.

The transfer of power from President Obama to President Trump today has made me reflect on my different identities.  As a cis woman and feminist, my heart is heavy as the biggest glass ceiling in our country remains intact. The promise of a Cabinet with half of the seats filled by females is lost. As a white mother, I am very aware of my privilege today – particularly as I look at a sea of faces that look like mine standing against the backdrop of Congress. In my professional identity as a public health social worker, I worry about funding for many different programs that seek to support and elevate those in need. As a Democrat, well, dang – it stinks to lose, especially when Rachel Maddox said for months that we would win.

But I think the identity that I need to most consider today is that of being an American. I was born in Michigan, raised in upstate New York, and gave birth to my children in North Carolina. I was educated in American schools and universities. I’ve paid taxes and used my financial resources to support capitalism – even McDonalds once in a while. My grandparents were square dancers, and one of my favorite runs is along all the monuments in DC. I may try to fake it when I travel but my fundamental Americanism is hard to hide – that darn optimism and clothing style.

american-flagYet, I’ve noticed a deep division within myself over the past few months about which kind of American I wish to identify with – and those from whom I find myself desperately trying to distance myself. I feel an inner fissure that is new and really uncomfortable. I feel angry and sometimes even think in passing that if bad policy decisions are made now, the people who voted a certain way will just learn the hard way. How awful! I hate to admit this feeling but it is there.

President Obama urged all Americans to  “Understand, democracy does not require uniformity. Our founders argued, they quarreled and eventually they compromised, and expected us to do the same. But they knew that democracy does require a basic sense of solidarity – the idea that for all our outward differences, we are all in this together; that we rise or fall as one.” So I have to do my inner work here, too, if I want to fully lean in to my identity as an American. The divide can’t close entirely but I need to better understand it.

Regardless of how I feel, my Americanism also means that I can’t just sit on my couch for the next four years drinking wine and binging on Netflix. Being an American means that I have to be a more active citizen. I must engage more now than ever. Democracy may be messy and hard and imperfect…but what is the alternative?

Sarah Mink from Bitch Media offered some great suggestions for taking concrete action. These include writing actual, thoughtful letters to the people who represent us, as well as diversifying our media and getting out of our echo chambers. She suggests that we offer our skills and give money to the local groups and causes that matter to us. She also challenges us to fight racism and learn from communities who have had to resist for decades. To be clear, I am NOT saying that to be American I have to resist Trump nor that you should do everything she suggests. But as an American I do hold responsibility for participating in democracy and seeking to uphold and move forward our ideals of “liberty and justice for all”.

As Obama said, “The work of democracy has always been hard, contentious and sometimes bloody.  For every two steps forward, it often feels we take one step back.  But the long sweep of America has been defined by forward motion, a constant widening of our founding creed to embrace all, and not just some.” I know that my country has many problems – we were founded on a fault line of slavery and the murder of indigenous people. But I also fervently hold true to our highest IDEALS and my belief that the “arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice,” as Dr. King so eloquently stated.

And for all of that, today I am going to wish our new President the best. Whether that makes you happy or sad, it doesn’t ultimately matter – as Americans he is our President now. I hope his heart is somehow moved to focus outside of himself as he assumes this most awesome and heavy responsibility. I pray that he can find words of unity in the future. And I offer my expectations that all of us – from members of the US Congress to the regular “person on the street” – wake up and stay that way.

It is a mix of snow and sleet paired with freezing temperatures…in the South. Our world is shut down. It is lovely. It is Saturday and we suddenly have a weekend without obligations.


15941483_10211605274597122_6061374549231734917_nAn excuse to stay in sweats, work on small projects, actually talk to family, stay up late watching movies, even bake something. That is even better than the wintry landscape outside my window. It’s a Mother Nature imposed sabbath.

Normally my reflection might stop there. And that would be ok – we as women and an overworked, technology enslaved, “busy” nation could use a random day off now and again. It is both a luxury and a necessity to be able to do nothing on occasion.

But it is 2017 and being awake to power and privilege is long overdue. As I was sitting on my comfortable couch, I reflected that we have central heat, plenty of food, internet access, and in a pinch we can walk down our hill to a 24-hour pharmacy.  I feel safe in my home – it is a refuge not a minefield. Not all women can say this. I am warm in my home. The walls are firm, the roof is solid and whenever our power goes out it is usually back in just a few hours. This is not true for many families. I’m not isolated and alone nor am I anxious about the situation or find the gloomy skies heavy.

If this were a week day, I could work from home and still get paid…and keep an eye on my teen while he was out of school. For many people, not working today (and likely tomorrow) means they don’t get paid. My daughter was supposed to pick up a weekend shift while home from college. That gig is definitely off and she is out of luck for earning much needed textbook money.

Too many people navigate life without what they need to calmly and warmly shelter from life’s storms. For some the snow doesn’t bring a needed respite. How can we hold a space to rest, to enjoy the life we have – laugh in the excitement of our puppy or toddler discovering snow for the first time – while remembering that we deserve this no more than anyone else? Maybe for today it is the naming and recognition that matters – it doesn’t change the world but it can foster compassion. And if compassion in its truest form were a national value there would be no blizzard we couldn’t overcome.


I’m a “resolutioner”. A reflector. A list maker. An organizer. All traits that pair well with the end of the year. As a girl I would make time on New Year’s Eve to write my goals for the next year on a small piece of paper. I’d then put them in a special box that held my thoughts from the years before. It was always interesting to look back at the girl I was and dream about who I wanted to be and what I wanted to do. The words on the paper didn’t change a whole lot over time – I wanted to pray more, to be a better friend, to lose weight, exercise more, to have a boyfriend…to change the world. Yep – every year my most ardent wish was to be an instrument for the greater good and to make a difference with the time I was given on earth. I was a geeky, preacher’s kid with social work DNA – what can I say? And so the years have rolled on.

While 2016 was a solid, unremarkable year for my family (just regular life – thank goodness), it was an upending year for us – all of us – collectively as we witnessed mass shootings, a difficult election, protests, HB2 (in North Carolina) and were forced to look directly at our country, naked – not pretty. I can’t deny my deep disappointment in seeing a glass ceiling unbroken, worrying about what is to come in 2017 and wondering how I can guide my white children in a society where our unearned privilege causes so much pain. Recent politics in my state have even made my optimism in democracy waver. Frankly, 2016 made me weary.

But as ritual demands, tis the season to think forward and lean into the work ahead. I still want to eat healthier, be a better friend, take better care of the guy I finally got and save the world. What I’ve learned over time, however, is that I am not powerful enough to save the whole world. If that is my benchmark I will fail. So this year I want to use my voice effectively, bravely and often. I will focus. I will not worry what people think about me. I will not hide behind my privilege, I will call myself on it time and time again. I will do a better job of refreshing my spirit. I will open my heart to exploring new ways of seeing and understanding. I may join a drum circle? I will speak truth to power.  I WILL NOT GIVE UP on my belief in the inherent worth and dignity of all beings and our shared right to happiness, safety and love.


Solstice by Kylie Verbies

To be of use


The people I love the best

jump into work head first

without dallying in the shallows

and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.

They seem to become natives of that element,

the black sleek heads of seals

bouncing like half-submerged balls.


I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,

who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,

who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,

who do what has to be done, again and again.


I want to be with people who submerge

in the task, who go into the fields to harvest

and work in a row and pass the bags along,

who are not parlor generals and field deserters

but move in a common rhythm

when the food must come in or the fire be put out.


The work of the world is common as mud.

Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.

But the thing worth doing well done

has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.

Greek amphoras for wine or oil,

Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums

but you know they were made to be used.

The pitcher cries for water to carry

and a person for work that is real.

This seismic election has left our natiaudre-lordeon on a spectrum of emotions ranging from anger to jubilation and everywhere in-between. No matter where you might personally fall on the spectrum, let us continue to do the work that this coalition has set out to do together because you matter and the work you do matters!

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Smithsonian American History Museum and the Suffragette Carriage.

The 2016 Presidential Campaign has been a historic event for many reasons. Shocking, stressful, upending – this campaign has exposed the under belly of America and it isn’t pretty. Racism, classism, religious intolerance, economic uncertainty, xenophobia, the political establishment and misogyny – something to make everyone upset. Democracy is messy. It may be tempting to many to just stay home this year.

If you are contemplating taking a pass on your vote, I hope you’ll pause for a moment and remember the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention – the first women’s right convention that passed a resolution in favor of women’s suffrage. Do the names Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone, Alice Paul and Carrie Chapman Catt ring a bell? For decades women filed lawsuits, marched, went on hunger strikes, picketed the White House, raised money and fought state by state for the right to cast a ballot.More Link

It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.

It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.

I spend a good portion of my professional life educating health professionals about “reproductive life planning,” or, basically, helping someone articulate whether or not they want any (or any more) kids and the steps they need to take to achieve their desired number of children. As a recurrent miscarrier – 7 pregnancies, but only 1 live birth – the irony is not lost on me.

I’ve always been a planner. I used to have every facet of my life planned out with such precision it would put a 5-star general to shame. When my husband and I decided to start trying for a baby, I knew exactly when I should get pregnant to interfere least with my master’s program’s comp exams and summer internship. Then the first miscarriage happened. I had to tinker with my plans, but I decided I could still make it work. Then came miscarriages two, three, and four. My plans were in shambles.

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We’ve all had it, the message from our email server fussing to let us know our account is 99.9% full. First response? Sort emails by size, save and delete a few of the largest offenders, then continue on with the day. Sound familiar? A few days ago, I took a look at the actual number of messages I had. Like a BMI reality check. It was a wake up call: Inbox = 12,543 messages, Outbox = 13,203 messages. And people wonder why I don’t take vacation!More Link

I am a die-hard optimist. I am not only a “glass half full” kind of gal, I am a “glass is half full with half the calories OR I’m already partially hydrated”. I have always had a sunny outlook on life – to the point of being referred to as Pollyanna during a Fellowship interview (which felt insulting but hey I landed a spot). For many years I thought this positive attitude was genetic. In our family on my dad’s side there is the “happy” gene that can be traced across the generations. My grandmother Ethel had it as does my Aunt Mary, my cousin Marla and I, and Elaina in the newest cohort. This is the Monty Pythonesque “my arm is cut off but not the one holding my sword…how lucky” gene. This has been my truth for many years.More Link