Elisia Parham, on slam poetry, Black Lives Matter, allyship, confronting her own biases, activism out of love, and having difficult conversations
(Publication Date: 5.16.23)
In this episode of the We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream podcast, host Adam Williams talks with Elisia Parham, poet, activist and social worker.
Elisia is a poet who grew up in unconventional circumstances. She and Adam talk about how those circumstances helped her to develop resilience and her voice, which she has used not only as a performing slam poet but as an activist.
Adam talks with Elisia about her path from being an activist out of righteous anger to being an activist out of love, and one who recently earned her Master’s degree and is starting a career as a social worker.
SHOW NOTES, LINKS, CREDITS & TRANSCRIPT
The We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream podcast is a collaboration with the Chaffee County Departments of Public Health and Housing, and is supported by the Colorado Public Health & Environment: Office of Health Disparities.
Along with being distributed on popular podcast listening platforms (e.g. Spotify, Apple), Looking Upstream is broadcast weekly at 1 p.m. on Tuesdays, on KHEN 106.9 community radio in Salida, Colo., and can be listened to on-demand via khen.org.
Black Lives Matter: blacklivesmatter.com
We Are Chaffee
Looking Upstream Host, Producer & Photographer: Adam Williams
Looking Upstream Engineer & Producer: Jon Pray
We Are Chaffee Community Advocacy Coordinator: Lisa Martin
We Are Chaffee Graphic and Web Design: Heather Gorby
Director of Chaffee County Public Health and Environment: Andrea Carlstrom
Note: Transcripts are produced using a transcription service.
Although it is largely accurate, minor errors inevitably exist.
[Intro music, guitar instrumental]
Adam Williams (00:00:07): Welcome to We Are Chaffee, Looking Upstream, a conversational podcast of humanness, community and wellbeing based in Chaffee County, Colorado. I'm Adam Williams.
Today's conversation is powerful, it's insightful and, I think, important. I think it's one of those kinds of conversations that we all need to be having if we truly care about making things better as individuals living in these challenging, disconnected times and in our communities and as a nation.
We have to be willing to have difficult conversations like this one, with people that we might not always know exactly how to go about it. Today I'm talking with Elisia Parham. Elisia offers us a reminder that personal growth and emotional maturity, it's about the willingness to look at ourselves and unlearn the identities and perspectives that just are not serving us well and learn those that will.
Elisia and I cover a lot of amazing, universal ground. Along the way, we touch on several of the threads that have developed throughout many of the conversations that I've had here on Looking Upstream. Things like resilience, connection, healing, humility, community, compassion.
Elisia is a poet who grew up in unconventional circumstances. We talk about how those circumstances helped her to develop resilience and her voice, which she has used not only as a performing slam poet, but as an activist.
We talk about Elisia's path from being an activist out of righteous anger, to being an activist out of love and one who has earned her master's degree and is starting her career as a social worker. We talk about a lot in this relatively short time. At the heart of all of it is respect, a focus on each other as humans, and breaking down barriers.
(00:01:48): Show notes with links and the transcript from today's conversation are posted at wearechaffee.org. We Are Chaffee, Looking Upstream is a collaboration with the Chaffee County Department of Public Health and the Chaffee Housing Authority, and it's supported by the Colorado Public Health and Environment Office of Health Disparities.
Now, here is my conversation with Elisia Parham.
[Instrumental guitar transition music]
Adam Williams (00:02:18): I've been looking forward to this conversation. I think we have some really great things to talk about. So, thank you for being here.
Elisia Parham (00:02:23): Thank you for having me.
Adam Williams (00:02:24): I want to start off with slam poetry. I understand that you are a slam poet, and I know a little bit about that, but I'm kind of thinking, for anyone who, maybe when I say the word poetry is thinking of old school, we're talking Robert Frost or go back to Shakespeare or maybe Mary Oliver or if they watched the inauguration with Joe Biden a couple years ago, and you have Amanda Gorman, but that's not what we're talking about. So I'd love it if you could start us off with telling people what slam poetry is about, how you got into it, that sort of thing.
Elisia Parham (00:02:57): Yeah, so I feel like slam poetry is different for everybody. So I consider different types of poets. So when I think of slam poetry, I feel like you have structured poetry where you can get up there, you'll write something, you practice it, recite it, and then I think of on the fly poetry where you get up there and you kind of think about how you feel and then that's what comes about.
So I think for me, slam poetry is, for me personally, as a poet, it's about getting up there and thinking about what has happened in the world or what's affecting me currently, and just releasing that feeling and energy to the audience. I feel like lyrics or haikus or whatever you want to call them, they do hold a certain power, but it's also about how you deliver it, which I think everybody has a different delivery style, but it's all about feeling and what you want to convey to the audience.
Adam Williams (00:03:54): So you go by feel.
Elisia Parham (00:03:55): Yeah.
Adam Williams (00:03:55): You get up there and you freestyle.
Elisia Parham (00:03:55): Yeah.
Adam Williams (00:03:58): It's got to be scary, doesn't it? I mean, how do you feel about that? Or is it an energy that you use and say, "I don't know where I'm going next. I don't know what word's next, let's just ride it out." How does that work for you?
Elisia Parham (00:04:09): I think, for me, it's about getting up there and then letting the audience know that I am a freestyle poet, so when I do this, don't look for me to look at my phone and recite something for you, I said, "Because that is not who I am when I step into my poetry persona."
So I think for me it's letting them know that, "Hey, this is freestyle." So if my voice cracks or if you see me looking at my phone, I'm looking at my phone because I'm looking at research. I like to have all the facts, basically. So if I'm looking at my phone, I'll tell them, I'm like, "All right, give me a second." I'll get some facts in my head and then take a deep breath and I kind of just release it. So I think it's also about bringing the audience in on the freestyle that kind of makes it effective as well, because then once they get into it, they're like, "Oh, oh my goodness."
(00:05:03): And then when I stop or it takes me a long time to come up with more stanzas, they'll snap or they'll clap because now they're in the understanding that when you freestyle, it's literally about conveying the feeling and making sure if you're free-styling about what has happened for the past three years, COVID, George Floyd and all those good things, it's going to take time because there's a lot of facts, but it's also very, very emotionally heavy to do things like that. So I also make sure that I extend grace to myself when I am free styling, because it's definitely a lot of pressure, but I feel more pressure sitting and, "Is this going to make sense?" That's pressure for me to sit and write... Yeah. So I like to get up there and just go for it.
Adam Williams (00:05:48): So you're really inviting the audience to say, "I want you to feel this with me," And you're giving yourself grace, but it also encourages them and then lets them know. And when you're in that kind of environment, I'm guessing it's fairly supportive and encouraging and people are there for that moment. They're not there to just be entertained and criticize or whatever, right?
Elisia Parham (00:05:48): Yeah.
Adam Williams (00:06:09): So does it feel like that energy of community kind of surrounds this kind of experience?
Elisia Parham (00:06:15): Yeah, I would definitely say so. I love people who are able to write poems and then get up there, remember them and convey them the way that they want the audience to hear it and feel it, but not everybody is like that. I feel like anytime we talk about any type of art, every artist is different. Even if they're all practicing the same craft, they're not all doing it the same way.
And so, I feel like when I get up there, it is like a sense of community, but it's also a sense of vulnerability because I'm also letting them know that, hey, when I do this, this is very raw for me because anytime I freestyle poet, if it's poetry, I only do it if it's placed on my heart right. So if I'm feeling the need to get something off my chest or to inform a subset group of people, that's the only time I get up and I freestyle.
So it's definitely a sense of community and it's a sense of letting them know that every emotion that you're going to feel with me is not the first time I felt it, but the first time I'm feeling it and conveying it to the audience.
Adam Williams (00:07:15): Every moment is its own, feel it with me.
Elisia Parham (00:07:15): Yeah.
Adam Williams (00:07:17): That word, vulnerability. I've been visual, I visualize a lot of things and that's one, lately, that I've started visualizing. It's almost like this flare or a sign that we're shooting up when we make ourselves vulnerable and we're saying, "Meet me at these crossroads. Come be vulnerable with me. Feel this with me." And it sounds like, to me, that's what you're describing as this experience. So I want to ask, is it the same as spoken word? Because people might be familiar with that phrase.
Elisia Parham (00:07:45): I feel like slam poetry and spoken word are slightly different just because slam poetry is more about getting up there and doing it, doing it, doing it, and not really paying attention to how you might say something or the speed at which you might say something. I feel like, me personally, everybody may think of it differently.
When I think of spoken word, it's much more articulate and slowed down. So when I do spoken word, it's like, okay, I'm going to talk slowly and I'm going to take numerous pauses, whereas if I'm doing slam poetry, it's like, this is what's going on, this is what I'm trying to convey and that's it.
Spoken word, I feel like, garnishes more interaction and reaction from the audience because you have to wait to see if they understand any messages that you're trying to get them to understand or if they're feeling what you're saying. I consider all poetry feeling, but spoken word, to me, is much more, "I'm going to say this slowly, I'm going to pause and then I want you to react," In a sense.
Adam Williams (00:08:52): Okay. Is this something you still do?
Elisia Parham (00:08:55): I haven't done it in a long time. I think that for me, doing poetry, it releases a lot for me. And so, like I said, I don't do structured poetry. So these past three years have been so crazy and so, I haven't really found a space to kind of open up that realm because when I go up there, because I freestyle, everything's going to be raw and I'm going to be vulnerable and I also need to make sure that I feel safe when I'm doing that.
And so, I think these past three years has really been testing the safety aspect because I'll get up there and I'll perform but if I'm talking about politics or Black Lives Matter, even though that's not political, that is also a very kind of testy subject, especially in the world right now. We have to be very careful about what we want to present to a community because it could have a completely adverse reaction and that wasn't your intention.
Adam Williams (00:10:03): And I'm going to get into those things with you. I really want to talk about some of that stuff in time here. Staying right where we are for the moment, I'm wondering what is significant to you? What is most important to you or the potential you feel for slam poetry and for this art form and the way you express yourself? What is most important about it for you?
Elisia Parham (00:10:25): I think what's most important to me about doing poetry of all kinds, spoken words, slam poetry, is making sure that I'm not just giving a message, but I'm also giving a feeling. Because when I go up there and I talk about these things that impact me or impact my life or impact my community, I want people to feel it, right?
Because it's really hard for people to see, sometimes, what's right in front of them if they don't identify with that group. So if I can draw the feeling out of you, I'm also drawing out connection. And so, I think that's what's really most important for me, is drawing out the feeling which leads to the connection. Because people will sit back and they'll think, they'll be like, "Oh, I never really thought about it that way."
(00:11:08): And it's like, there's nothing wrong with that but when you don't have to think about something a certain way, but you hear it and you feel it, right? Because you can hear something and not have any feeling about it but when you hear it and feel it, it creates a whole different kind of connection and meaning for the people who are on the other side of it.
Adam Williams (00:11:25): We can put out facts all day long.
Elisia Parham (00:11:27): Yeah.
Adam Williams (00:11:27): It's not necessarily going to convert anybody.
Elisia Parham (00:11:29): Exactly.
Adam Williams (00:11:30): Even if we think it's incredibly logical, incredibly intelligent and, well, you can't argue against it, but you go to that place of feeling. We all have that, that's where that connection of humanness is. So absolutely, I understand and love that. I'm wondering if anybody in your family, or maybe it was people, loved ones, others, surrounding you when you were growing up, if they influenced this.
Was there anybody else who was creative, whether it was in poetry or not, or somebody who encouraged you? Maybe if it wasn't about poetry specifically, were there people in your family saying, "Yes, use your voice. Yes, get this out. Convey this feeling. Be this communicator."?
Elisia Parham (00:12:11): Honestly, not really. And I mean, granted, there are people in my family who are creative, but I feel like poetry, for me, is also drawing from my own experience. And so, if I grew up where I necessarily feel like I couldn't express myself or I couldn't express how I felt, that kind of shuttered everything. And I'm like, "Ah, maybe I shouldn't say anything."
So I think for me, the transformation happened in my early college years, so my undergrad. That's when the transformation happened for me because I left home, 18, thinking I can handle everything, and that was not the case. And then I often feel like times when you're removed from your home environment, and as somebody who's in school for social work, I start to reflect on certain things. I'm like, "Oh, that wasn't right. That was not good." And so, I think for me, it's also drawing on just the way I grew up.
(00:13:07): My dad is very articulate, very smart man, and he also has a way with his words, but the way that he uses his words is more preaching or that type of connection, and the way that I use it is to more so invoke feeling about things that we all go through that we probably just don't talk about or we don't understand.
Adam Williams (00:13:27): Do you feel like he has an appreciation for how you use your words?
Elisia Parham (00:13:30): Yeah. Yeah, totally. I'm my daddy's daughter. We're just alike so I think he loves it. Yeah.
Adam Williams (00:13:38): Tell me more about your childhood, about your family and growing up in Cleveland, right?
Elisia Parham (00:13:43): Well, yeah. I was in Virginia for 12 years and then I moved to Cleveland from 13 to 20-ish. And so, I was the youngest of three. Yay me.
Adam Williams (00:13:43): Me too. I have two older brothers.
Elisia Parham (00:13:56): Nice. I have a older sister and a older brother. Me and my brother are three days apart, actually. Same year, same month, just three days apart. Fun fact. So I think...
Adam Williams (00:14:09): Are you twins?
Elisia Parham (00:14:10): I do call him my twin, but we have different moms.
Adam Williams (00:14:14): Three days apart.
Elisia Parham (00:14:15): Different moms, three days apart, same month, same year. So yeah, growing up, I did call him my twin because I'm like, at this point, we are twins. We are twins. We don't have to tell anybody that we have different moms. Just tell them that I stayed in three days longer. And we went on with that for a long time because sharing that I had a different mom and that she wasn't involved in my life was something that I was not kind of prepared to talk about.
And so for me growing up as the youngest of three, in Virginia, I was the youngest of six, it was definitely hard. I think that the reason I cling to my dad so much is because I feel, growing up, I haven't had a maternal figure that has made the connection with me. So I feel like when we talk about not having one parent, it's often, "Oh, you don't have a dad," Or, "Your dad is not in your life."
(00:15:07): But not having a mom, I feel like, presents a different type of wound and a different type of need for connection, especially maternal connection. And so growing up, that's what I wanted and I didn't get it, and so it resulted in me just being angry or resentful, in a sense, or closed off. And so it was hard, but I wouldn't be where I am.
And I feel like once people have healed from so much... That sounds so cliche, right? Like, I wouldn't be where I am if I didn't go through the struggle of lacking the need for maternal connection or if I didn't go through the struggle of feeling like I was the black sheep of the family and that I always did stuff wrong. Even if I did stuff right, the weight of doing stuff wrong was just never cleared or never lifted off of my shoulders and so that was really hard.
Adam Williams (00:16:02): Who did you feel like you had to please with that, by being right or in their version of right?
Elisia Parham (00:16:08): My brother and my sister's mom. I felt like I had to... Because me and my brother are three days apart, same grade all the time, and so I feel like, for me... And my sister's also very smart. Love them to pieces. Those two, straight A students, don't really talk back or if they do talk back, it's not as much as I would because I like to question things.
And because I felt a sense of being displaced, I felt more of a need to question certain things than they did. And so that whole realm is just really weird to see because I felt like I had to appease our mom because I'm like, she has these two kids who straight A students, they never get calls from teachers, they're not out here acting crazy as I was, and not in the sense of just getting smart with teachers, so things like that. And so I feel like I had to appease her, but then I also had to appease the teachers, right?
(00:17:13): Because they're like, "Oh, well, I had your sister in class and I had your brother in class," And they put this, essentially, perception that I'm going to be them and they got the exact opposite.
Adam Williams (00:17:23): I understand that one completely because my brothers, they were several years older, but not only were they doing well in school and all their endeavors, my parents had been teachers. So everybody knew who the youngest in the Williams family was and had expectations and so I was bucking that for a number of years.
You mentioned being the youngest of six in Virginia, then the youngest of three, is that because of a shift when you moved from Virginia to Cleveland? And it sounds like then you were with the mother of your brother and that sister and you feel like you didn't have a maternal figure. So, sounds like maybe the relationship you felt there was different. I'm going to guess the mother that you grew up with or at least in those teen years, is that any connection? I don't want to put a story there where it's not, but if you can help me connect the dots. It sounds like she might have treated you differently than the brother and sister in that house.
Elisia Parham (00:18:20): Oh yeah, totally. I think that... And me and my dad kind of talk about this all the time because now that I'm 25, I'm like, "Dad, you got to be honest with me. I'm here now and things have happened, so let's talk about it." And so, I think for me, she definitely treated me differently but I feel like the problem with family systems and family structures, when children are treated differently, it's really hard for parents to notice because in their mind, they're treating us all the same.
But me getting in trouble for not wanting to come home because I felt like nobody wanted me there, that was me being treated differently. But if my sister stayed out and didn't tell my mom where she was, it was more so they had a conversation, but as opposed to me, it's like, "Why are you doing this? I'm going to send you back to your dad." X, Y, and Z.
(00:19:10): And so, I think that dynamic and growing up, teen years are also just as important, as informative as your younger years, your adolescent years because it's shaping how you view yourself in the world and what you want from people who come into your life. And so, the dynamic that we had was, she had no choice but to take me, right? My dad said, "You're not going to take two and then leave the other one here."
Because at that point, I was also not young enough to understand their dynamic. And so, how I was treated was a reflection of my dad's actions. And I think that's hard for my mom to see because she may think that she's healed from being cheated on and... Hey, he had a whole baby on her and then didn't tell her about it. She found baby girl clothes in the trunk of the car and they had a son. So she's like, "What is this?" And so, I think that finding out about me threw her off and then having to raise me, it created such a strain because she wasn't given a choice.
(00:20:22): But at the same time, I shouldn't have been the one that paid for my dad's actions because I also didn't ask to be here. But that's the funny thing with trauma and with people who are hurt, is that it's really hard for them to step back from the trauma and from being hurt and recognize that this is a whole child, she did not ask to be here, I should do my due diligence the best that I know how and then as she gets older, we can talk about our dynamic, which hasn't happened and it still hasn't happened, and I'm 25 now.
And so, that has definitely strained our relationship a lot because I'm like, you're still not really understanding that you made me pay for my dad's actions. So the way you treated me or not treating me as an equal, essentially, or not getting me the things I need, but making sure that my brother, my sister, have the things that they need, whether it's getting clothes or shoes or just love, support.
(00:21:20): So you'll come to my brother's... My brother did wrestling and I did softball. You'll come to my brother's wrestling matches but you came to one of my softball games and I played softball for two, three years. And so, that also had an effect on me because I'm like, you don't even support me when I'm doing something good so why continue to do something good when I could just give you what you're looking for, which is a reason to treat me like the ugly duckling or the stepchild, right?
Because that's essentially what I was, right? I was this little girl who came into her world, unbeknownst to her, but was told that you need to take care of her. And granted, she probably did the best she could, but that's a funny thing with trauma, you do the best you can, but until you step out of that, you're not going to see all the discrepancies that have came along with how you treated people when you were in the midst of trauma or being heard or whatever the case may be.
Adam Williams (00:22:15): It sounds like you've done a lot of processing of this for yourself. I would imagine it's an ongoing effort to do that, I think, for any of us. But it sounds like even though she is not or you necessarily might hope she would be able to see clearly, make amends, whatever you feel like you would want or is needed, at least you're able to do that for yourself and continue in a strong way moving forward. Is that a fair assessment? Do you feel like you're in a good place, overall, with who you are and where you're moving?
Elisia Parham (00:22:48): Yeah, I think that as I go further into the social work profession and developing that kind of social work persona and doing the research and looking at all the facts behind why people may react a certain way to certain situations, it sucks. I'm not going to say that it's not terrible, but I had to take a step back and I had to think, "Okay, what was going on with her that affected how she raised me and how she treated me?"
But I also am to a point where I'm like, I wouldn't be who I am and I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing if the things in my life didn't play out the way that they did. So it's like, it's a certain aspect of appreciation, but then the aspect of, my inner child is like, "Elisia, that is still wrong," But my growing self is like, "But she also had trauma that she didn't deal with and she didn't know how to deal with it, and the closest thing to the trauma was the child that is in the room next to her that she has to raise and care for."
And so, I had to remove myself from the inner child aspect and kind of think about it on a grander scale. Some parents go through things too. And granted, children should never become victims of parents' trauma, but if the parents don't do the work or if they aren't in therapy, it's going to be hard to not inflict trauma.
It becomes kind of just a perpetuating system of, I'm traumatized or I'm hurt so now it's going to go to you because I haven't done the work for myself. And maybe she is doing the work for herself now, but like I said, I'm 25 and to me, damage has been done, so the only thing I can do is repair the damage that was done to me and then hopefully move forward and cultivate a better relationship, however that may look to us.
Adam Williams (00:24:45): Personal growth feels like a real push pull. We're still dealing with those hurts and the sources of those while we're also growing and getting a new, maybe, clearer view of ourselves and what's possible as we move forward, and it is past, present, and future where if we have our eyes on where we can go as a stronger person.
And actually, the word resilience comes to mind. I don't know if that resonates for you, but this resilience that you are building and have built for what you're doing. You said you're studying social work and... Well, I want to ask you, actually, before we get to that piece, if we go from poetry and using your voice, you mentioned Black Lives Matter, you went into activism and using your voice as well.
(00:25:34): And I wonder, do you feel like you've always been strong with that voice, always confident in speaking up? Was it a process for you to get there? Was there ever a point of insecurity where you're just like, "Well, I can't go out on the street and speak up for this."? Or how did you come to that place of expressing yourself during the Black Lives Matter movement in the past few years?
Elisia Parham (00:25:58): It is totally a process. As much as I'm like, "Oh, I can get out there and I can do it." It is such a process because I feel like in order to do poetry or in order to do activism, you have to step and you have to get outside of your own head, right? Because the thing about my time protesting and activism is that when I was doing it, and this is also what I'm working on now too, when I was doing it, it was from a place of hurt and anger. So for me, George Floyd was like, that was it. I was fed up. I'm like, are we still doing this? And then there's a nine minute plus video of this man losing his life. And I was like, and for me, that's not new. We've seen multiple people die. Like Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Breonna Taylor, and that's only four names out of...
Adam Williams (00:26:47): So many.
Elisia Parham (00:26:49): Hundreds, right? And so, I think for me, that was the tip of the iceberg. I was like, we're still being killed in the streets like we're dogs. And I use that and I want people to sit with that because that is what is happening. If you can lay us out in the street and then put your hand on your hips and say, "Oh, well, he was resisting," Or, "She was resisting."
You're killing us like we're dogs, like we're stray dogs running amuck. And so for me, George Floyd was the point where I was fed up. I was angry. And the thing about activism is that activism is also about feeling right, because you're not going to stand up and speak for something unless it is self-interest, unless it affects you. And so, I think for me, it became a process, but then the process got slowly taken because I'm angry.
(00:27:39): So my time protesting in Illinois, I did my activism out of anger, which put my safety at risk. And as for my voice, I feel like... I knew I've always had a strong voice in just the way I present myself or the way I talk about things, especially if I'm passionate about them, but the ability to reign that in and also understand that because my voice is so powerful, I have to be careful what I say and how I use it.
And so, I think for me, when I came here from my era of George Floyd, that was something that I had to sit with because I'm like, I was out protesting and standing up to police officers who were holding assault rifles. I said, "In that moment, they could have killed me but because I was doing my activism out of anger and not caring about my safety, that became a little bit more dangerous."
(00:28:33): Because we all know that sometimes people who are activists, and not that I'm on this level, but sometimes people who are activists go against certain systems, that system reacts and they end up dead or missing or whatever the case may be. Not really into conspiracy theories, but that has happened. We know about the protestors who went missing.
And so, this, for me, has been a process, but it's also been a process of understanding that, "Okay, if I'm going to be an activist, what does it mean to be an activist and agitate communities out of love and care and the desire for change?" As opposed to, say, "I don't like the system, we need to change it, burn it down." That's a completely different message as opposed to, "Let's have this conversation about what has been happening for years. For years, and it's still happening."
Even though the Black Lives Matter movement expanded across the world, there has still been no systemic or social change.
(00:29:33): And so, I think that's also kind of the hardest part about it too, is, because when I use my voice when I let those protests in Illinois, I was angry, I was saying a lot of things I probably shouldn't have and putting my life in danger, but not only putting my life in danger, getting the people who were there, getting them riled up, also put them in danger.
And so, I don't want to say it's a slippery slope because you can definitely stop it. Once you acknowledge how powerful your voice is or the power that you can have over people, you have to be careful how you use it because we could all end up on a really bad end of a situation.
Adam Williams (00:30:13): We're talking about the difference between reaction versus response, for one thing here, because a response is where we have stepped back, taken a breath, considered what might be a better approach, and it occurs to me that we're also saying there's a difference between arguing, yelling against something, against the system.
As valid as that might be, the energy you're describing is different compared to, "I'm for something. I'm for the love of my community, I'm for the love of myself, for my family, for this, all of us as a united community, that is diverse and we all need to a have voice." So it can seem like a subtle difference, but it has a big impact difference, I think. You mentioned Tamir Rice, a 12 year old boy who was killed in Cleveland in 2014. If my math is correct, you were living in Cleveland at that time.
Elisia Parham (00:31:14): Yeah.
Adam Williams (00:31:15): Were you aware of that? Was that in your household, with your friends, in your neighborhood, whoever around you that would've resonated with, was that a conversation? Did you feel that one because of just being aware that it had happened even in your, now, home city?
Elisia Parham (00:31:33): So, not that we didn't really talk about it in our house, but like I said, grew up very kind of strained from each other so that was something that I didn't really talk about at home. But in school, for us, we were like, somebody else just died and he was a 12 year old boy so it didn't really hit me until Trayvon Martin, because then it came full circle for me.
Because I think when Trayvon Martin was killed, I was in high school. And so, when Tamir Rice happened, I was like maybe in middle school, about to go to high school, so I still didn't really have a clear understanding of what was going on. I just knew that the police shot this 12 year old boy for having a fake gun and the conversation that we had in school, which made me so angry, in some of my classes, we talked about it and we talked about a few things.
(00:32:25): The first thing a lot of people were just like, "Oh, well, he shouldn't have had a toy gun. We know how the system is." And my rebuttal to that, all the time, is that he was 12. He was 12. If you are taught deescalation, if you are taught how to interact with the community you serve, why did you feel the need to shoot him? If you saw the orange tip on the fake gun, why did you still feel the need to shoot him?
So I think, for me, there are a lot of people, as we kind of got older and we started to recognize what happened with Tamir Rice and then Trayvon Martin came along, we kind of sat back and that was the first time that I understood that the system is stacked against us as minorities, as BIPOC people, but it's also stacked against us within our own communities where we are supposed to feel safe.
(00:33:16): And so, the conversation happened a lot at school and a lot of people were, "Oh, well, I wouldn't play with a toy gun." I'm like, "Half y'all [inaudible 00:33:24] real guns." But that's not the point. But the point, then, is that he was 12. You mean to tell me that as a grown man, you can't talk down or ask questions to a 12 year old?
Adam Williams (00:33:36): Yeah.
Elisia Parham (00:33:37): That shift, for me, sent me into, not a spiral, but just an eye-opening moment of like, we are in danger and the world has yet to see how much danger we are in.
Adam Williams (00:33:50): When I was a kid, it was a different time and place. I've talked about it on this podcast. I grew up in a small town, rural Midwest in northern Missouri, I used to play with guns all the time, toy guns. We would play cowboys and Indians, cops and robbers, whatever, and I've given a lot of thought to this over the years since, and now, as a father to two boys, in particular, and the gun obsession in this country and how that affects us as kids and as parents and where we think, "Oh yeah, it's normal.
That's what he's playing." Or I was playing as a soldier, a hero in war because we're obsessed with that too, as this visual in TV shows or in movies, and it seems like there are domino effects from this. If we make this the thing that even kids and, maybe, especially, boys are taught is within that realm of masculinity and how we are supposed to come up feeling tough, feeling strong, feeling like heroes, whatever, for something like that to have happened, I don't think we can say it's disconnected.
Elisia Parham (00:35:00): Yeah.
Adam Williams (00:35:02): I want to ask you then, okay, you're aware of these things, participation in Black Lives Matter. When there was a counter response in language to that of All Lives Matter, what was your thought on that? What is your thought, your reaction, your feeling on All Lives Matter?
Elisia Parham (00:35:19): I'm sure you saw, I just smirked and laughed a little bit because I think that when that whole saying first came out, like I said, it was during the era of George Floyd, and, at least for me, that's when it became most prominent, and it made me angry at first, and I'm like, y'all are not getting it. What is the deal? And so, my response to that, as I've kind of grown in my activism and grown as a person, is that, we never said all lives didn't matter, and this has been a saying on social media too.
All lives can't matter until Black Lives Matter because black lives are included in all lives. So when you say all lives, you are separating the black lives, which is inherently saying that our lives do not matter. You're saying everybody above us, "Their lives matter, let's fight for them." But if I'm saying, "Hey, Black Lives Matter. We're being killed in the streets in multiple states," Your response is, "Oh, but all lives still matter." But my response is, "But what about mine?"
Adam Williams (00:36:22): I want to ask, I don't know if you're just being extra nice here, or do you feel like... Because I don't think that the people who were behind that, I don't think it's a matter of not getting it. I think it's bad faith, disingenuous manipulation of the conversation, I think it's showing up to this... How can you look at Black Lives Matter, read it as if you are saying Only Black Lives Matter?
That is not an adult, rational, intelligent response. So to me, this is about politics because this is not even just with what you're referring to as the George Floyd era, it's not just with Black Lives Matter, this is the way politics and the way that is infected, I hate the phrase culture war, but it's the one that's out there and used and I think reasonably understood as it ties social things and politics in this country together. This has been going on for many, many years.
(00:37:23): If it's not obvious, that also has angered me, this All Lives Matter thing. And the reason is because I am interested in honest dialogue. I don't see the purpose in trying to be destructive with each other. Yeah, it's upsetting to me when we're not honest and open and actually taking the human element of these things into account and saying, "We can do this better." To me, that's an active choice to say, "I don't want it to be better," And that pisses me off.
Elisia Parham (00:37:56): I think you made a good point. You used a word that I use all the time. You said human. And I think that what has happened is that our lives as black people have been politicized. And so, the All Lives Matter, you're right, has became a political statement, but that's because as the system has been working for years now, since the abolishment of slavery, it's saying that, "Hey, your life is political."
And it's like, "Okay, but as a white person, your life is not political." It's telling us that you are part of the system and... Not even a part of the system, you are a pawn within this system. So if I can make Black Lives Matter political to get people to react, which they obviously did, reacted the way that the system wanted them to, you can pit them against each other. So I think the saying that I always like to use is that my life is not political. Your life is not political, it is humanities.
(00:38:57): When did we get to a point where we're like, "Oh, that's a political statement." It becomes political because y'all think, as people who believe in All Lives Matter, you think that as a majority, that you should still hold that control, you think that as a majority, that me speaking out against a system that is embedded with power is taking away that power. So it's also about power too, right? Because if you have people saying, "Oh, Black Lives Matter. Oh no, but All Lives Matter."
And then you'll have people on the Black Lives Matter saying that my life is not political. And then people in All Lives Matter, they don't really have a response to that because in their mind, they have deemed my black body as a political pawn within this system of power. And I think, too, that a lot of people believe that what's going to happen if, you know... "What's going to happen if black people get their rights? What's going to happen if the system stops working the way that it was designed to?"
They feel like their power's been taken away. And when people feel like power's being stripped from them, they're going to react. They are going to react.
(00:40:01): So we're all, literally, political pawns within this system of power. But the problem isn't our beliefs... I don't really want to classify all lives matter as a belief, but whatever. It's to keep us separated. Because if we have people on All Lives Matter, kind of like what you did, take a step back and say, "This is a humanity issue. This is a humanity problem."
What's going to happen? We're all going to join up and there's no longer going to be a divide between cultures. There's no longer going to be a divide. And what's going to happen when people get this urge to create unification amongst diverse groups, is that you start to see what the problem is. The problem is the system. And so what's going to happen, right? That we're going to go for the system, and that's the best way to keep us separated, is make it political. Because you have these people on the side that are saying, "My life is not political."
(00:40:53): And then you have people on the side, basically, for All Lives Matter saying, "Well, this is about power and honestly, you're saying that my life doesn't matter." And it's like, but that's an internal system reacting to keep us separated. If we all came together and said, you know what?
The fact that missing and murdered indigenous women have still not been found and there's still not research to show how frequently it happens, if we still don't really have research on how frequently interactions with police and minority communities result in death, and then the amount of times that police officers are held accountable. If we don't have that research, if we don't have hard facts, which is conducted by who?
A higher system. If we don't have hard facts to back up what I'm saying, me just saying Black Lives Matter is just a feeling. It's just my stance because I'm black. But if I had empirical research that said, I can show you why the system believes my life doesn't matter, like you said, you can't argue against facts, but you can argue against feelings.
Adam Williams (00:41:51): You know what? It's interesting that we're back to the idea of facts and feelings because we started this conversation with talking about poetry and the difference between, here, I'm just going to lay out a convincing argument maybe in terms of facts, but this is an expression of feeling. And now we're kind of, I think, have flipped it on the other side saying, "Well, feeling doesn't quite accomplish the goals."
So really, what it amounts to is, we need both. And especially in recent years, there has been some real effort to get rid of the facts part, and then what we have are reactive emotions or feelings and that's where the divide and conquer you're describing. Those in power divide through the messages, these alternative realities, stoke the emotions, stoke the reaction. We're not taking steps back to breathe and come to response, so we are continuing to be pitted at each other.
(00:42:46): And it's based on... There's not real, I think, thinking going on. I don't know if you ever noticed this, I don't know if I've seen it in person or if it's only through videos, but if you were to try to get someone who is adamant All Lives Matter and ask them, "But do Black Lives Matter?" "All Lives Matter." They will not come close to touching the words in sequence of saying Black Lives Matter, because it's a concept and it's identity politics. "No, no, no. I can't say those words, you see, because then I might be confused with being on your side."
Elisia Parham (00:43:23): Exactly.
Adam Williams (00:43:23): Let's remove these concepts and just be human with each other. I have mentioned, I think, on this podcast before, that I talked with a therapist. In fact, I've advocated for a national therapy plan for everybody because I think we all need it.
Elisia Parham (00:43:40): Oh, definitely.
Adam Williams (00:43:41): And I talked with a therapist yesterday and there were some politics that came into it, and she had it, I think, a fantastic bit of advice here. Let's bring our conversations with people who we think have different politics, let's bring them back to values. What are your values? And I suddenly, again, I visualize stuff. I started to visualize this middle ground that can seem like such a divide between us filling with all that we have in common.
You know, you love your family, you care about your sense of stability, security, participation in community, being accepted, all of these things just like I do. And so, I think the idea of values is something I want to remember and bring to conversations with people in the future. Let's place our energy there on what those human values we share are.
Elisia Parham (00:44:32): Yeah, that's a good point too because kind of like a few points you mentioned is that getting a person to say Black Lives Matter if they believe All Lives Matter, I feel like it conveys two things. People who... I don't know. I feel like we talked about this when we met up. People who are scared of the R word, people just don't like the word race. I feel like that also plays a lot into it because they're like, "Oh, if I say black or if I say white, or if I say Hispanic, or if I place this identity on this person, am I going to be perceived as if I don't believe or I'm not showing what I believe?"
Adam Williams (00:45:12): Or I might say it wrong.
Elisia Parham (00:45:13): Or I might say it wrong. And I think there's humility in saying something wrong, but then being corrected out of love. And I think, also, to your point too, is that I'm all for human connection. So whether you're black, white, Hispanic, indigenous, whatever the case may be, the point being is that we are all connected by our humanity.
Mind, body, soul, spirit, whatever you may believe, we're all connected, mind, body, heart, spirit, soul, in that. So the best way to divide us as people is to place the labels, is to place the identities. And not to say that I'm not going to walk around saying, "Oh, I'm not black." That's not what I mean, but it's to understand that, "Yes, I'm black, yes, you're white, but let's talk about the humanity."
Like you said, you care about your family, I care about mine. You want a better future for your kids and I want to make sure that my kids aren't going to have to be protesting against your kids or whatever the case may be.
(00:46:08): I don't want my kids or the future African American generation, whatever the case may be, to be in the same position that we are in right now because this is the same position that... Not the exact same position that our ancestors were in, but the same position in fighting for our right to live, our right to be connected, our right to understand that we want a better future.
And I feel like, even taking it a step further, is that my proposal, too, is that... Let's not even talk about you, right? Let's talk about what future do you want for your kids? Do you want your kids to continue to live through mass shootings? Do you want your kids to continue to live through what it's like to see constant black people laid out on the street? Because it pops up on social media all the time.
(00:47:00): And I was like, "Are you aware of the inherent trauma that that's placing on them?" And I'm 25, so I've been through, not even within the place, but just our history of school shootings, right? I said, "We're to a point now where we're making bulletproof backpacks." And I said, "We're to a point now where we are, as black people, we're still fighting for the right to live."
I said, "It's not even about to do what we want, but it's about the right to live. It's about the right to... Okay, if I had this interaction with this white person who doesn't necessarily believe that my ancestors should have been freed, so to speak, is that going to result in my death? If I had this interaction with the police system, is that going to result in my death?"
(00:47:44): We have the right to live, just like your kids have the right to understand that there are different perspectives in the world. Just a small town, this is not the whole world. There's people who look like me who have blonde hair and blue eyes. There are people who look like me who have very long silky hair. There are people who have brown skin, but they are not African American.
So I think, for me, is that, especially for our older people or our older generation, or even... I guess that's a little ageist. So even for the people who have kids, I think the question poses is, what do you want your kids to experience in this world? Do you want them to experience the same thing that we did? The housing insecurities? Do you want them to experience the same thing that we are still experiencing? And if your answer is no, then that is where our unification is.
Do you want your kids to be out in the street protesting? Do you want your kids to be in their cars and running over protestors? What do you want for your kids? Because I feel like it's hard for people to say what they want for themselves, but if you have children, you're like, I want the best for them. I want them to grow up in a world where people are safe and we're all equitable, or where they can have interactions with people of different races and know that they have biases, but they work to confront them. Because whether people understand it or not, we all have biases, we all operate in a system within biases until we're shown otherwise.
Adam Williams (00:49:14): You were talking about safety and my 12 year old son rides his bike to school every day. And one day, during this school year, he said to me and my wife, "You guys tell me goodbye like you're not going to see me again." And it hits you in the gut, in the heart. I was not necessarily thinking about my daily 'I love you, have a great day', goodbye hugs in that way and yet, yeah, we send our kids to school crossing our fingers hoping they come home because that is what we've enabled in this country.
And I feel like all of these big topics we're talking about, we're all looking at it, probably, no matter what piece of this political spectrum you hold, I think we probably can all agree we think this isn't right. We think it's not good. None of us should have to be living this way, but instead of taking responsibility for it as a collection, especially of adults, and saying, "We need to come together and fix this," We, instead, point to somebody else and say, "You fix it. It's your fault. It's your problem." And we justify its existence and allow it to keep going.
Elisia Parham (00:50:27): Yeah.
Adam Williams (00:50:29): What we are talking about... You were saying human earlier, you were talking about the humanity of things and it occurs to me, in this divide and conquer, we're talking about dehumanization, right? We're talking about othering. You are other, you're not as good as me. You don't deserve what I deserve. You're taking from me.
You mentioned earlier, the fear people feel in the system. If you're a part of the system, I am the system. I am a white male, cisgender, heterosexual. I embody, physically, everything that this system here, in this country, is built on. If we are going to other everybody else and act like we're afraid that they are taking what is ours, we're not going to get where we need to go. I wonder what allyship looks like to you.
When we're talking about bringing people together who understand these things and maybe participate in something, whether it's called Black Lives Matter or it's just 'I care about people and I want a better world', what does allyship look like for you?
Elisia Parham (00:51:30): Allyship, to me, looks like a few different things. The first thing is, allyship, to me, is not walking in front of, but it's walking with. So if you're going to stand with me to say that women deserve rights over their own bodies, don't walk in front of me, right? And that's metaphorically. So I don't need you speaking for me on situations that are applicable to me, I just need you to come with me hand in hand and say, "I'm with you to fight this fight."
And so, it's walking with, not in front of, but it's also, to me... This is going to sound crazy, right? It's also, to me, the ability to be able to feel humility because allyship is an ever learning process. I can't say, "Oh, I'm an ally for trans women," But then sit back and like, "Oh, I'm aware of what's going on, but I'm not going to say anything," Or, "Oh my gosh, did you see what happened?" But then that's it. So I'm just talking about it to what? Garnished conversation?
(00:52:33): So it's also about the humility and learning that we are not going to have things all the time. As an ally to trans women, trans men, and all the other identities that I don't hold, I can't speak for them and I also can't say, "Oh, well, yeah, I'm with you but just maybe not in certain spaces or certain times." Or get angry or upset if they try to correct me in how I may say something or the terminology that I may use.
So to me, it's about humility, it's about walking with and not in front of and it's also about, not necessarily speaking for them, but amplifying their voice. So if they say something and apparently people haven't heard it, you amplify it, you use the language that they use. You don't say, "Oh, well, this is what they said, but let me phrase it in a way that is more comfortable for me." And it's also about being uncomfortable.
(00:53:26): Allyship is uncomfortable because it's about learning and unlearning. And also, a lot of people don't like humility. A lot of people are not fans of experiencing any type of humility, because when we are wrong, as humans, we're like, "Oh, we're wrong." Like there's some type of internal reaction to being wrong.
Adam Williams (00:53:43): We're having to face our shame in that and that's a really hard place to go to inside of ourselves. Something from this George Floyd era that, as a white man who needs to learn plenty of things, still, unlearn plenty of things, had that humility, a phrase that sticks in my head that I feel like came up, it was something I started noticing during that time was being willing to be wrong.
And specifically as it relates to conversations with people who have different experiences, so we might be talking racially or in whatever ways, but to be willing to be wrong, and go ahead and put my language out there the best that I can, it's with good intentions, it's with compassion and also, I might need you to tell me, "Okay, we need to tweak that a little bit, and here's my perspective and here's why."
I feel like that humility is... Well, it is absolutely critical for any of us, especially those of us who have so much to unlearn by being willing to hear other perspectives with empathy, sit with that, not react, not reject it, right?
(00:54:52): Because that infringes on, well, what you just said, that you have rights and humanity. Well, that infringes on my understanding of the world. Well, that's absurd.
Elisia Parham (00:55:01): Yeah, right?
Adam Williams (00:55:01): So we need to be willing to sit with that and then have hard conversations where the person in the other seat can say, "Okay, I've got a different perspective, let me give you some information here." Are you having these kinds of conversations with people? Do you feel like in having an opportunity to bring more of this allyship together, do you feel like... Well, has anything changed, I guess, in the last few years, in your experience, where people are willing to say what I am, "You know what? I'm willing to be wrong. Tell me what I need to know."?
Elisia Parham (00:55:35): I think that as much as I have hope for humanity, I think with CoVID and with the era of George Floyd, is that a lot of people, they haven't verbalized it. Because kind of like what you're doing, you took a step back and you're like, "Oh, I'm willing to put this out there. Let me brace myself for what could be said, that, 'Oh, that's not necessarily right.'"
And so, I think a lot of people, they're thinking about it, they're thinking about, "Oh, maybe the way that I was raised to maybe walk across the street when there's a black person coming, or to clutch my purse when I see a black man, maybe that wasn't the best way," But there's steps to this. You think about it, and then you sit with it and then you verbalize it. So I think a lot of people are at the thinking about it and sitting with it phase, but they have yet to verbalize it.
And I think for me, personally, the only thing that has shifted is the way that I understand the world and how the systems that we all operate in, essentially, affect how these people are able to verbalize certain things. And so, for me, it's about, and this is such a growth, I would not have said this three years ago, but for me it's about garnishing the understanding that we are all living in the same world through different lenses and different perspectives.
So if somebody's racist or somebody calls me the N word or something like that, I can be upset with them and I can take that power back from them and let them know that, "What you said is racist," Which I have done, racist and uneducated, but at the same time, I have to look at all the systems.
(00:57:19): So seeing me with a bonnet on or seeing my tattoos may not garnish the same reaction if you see me dressed up or looking more "presentable". And so, for me, it's not necessarily about the people, but it's how I interact with those people. And coming out here two years ago, I had already said, I was like, I need to uproot myself because this was emotionally a lot for me, it has taken a lot from me and has put me in a place where I can't be my best self, and I can't go into social work knowing I have biases [inaudible 00:57:52], "Oh, well, it's about safety." I was like, "Not all the time."
And it's about weighing what is a bias and what is actually a safety concern. And so, I think for me, right? And I don't want people to not understand that while white people have a lot of work to do, we as black people and minorities, we also have work to do, it just does not look the same. It does not look the same.
(00:58:14): And so, I think it was about... And I'm still working on this, not perfect at all, right? But when I run into situations where people may be staring at me or people may use a slur against me, one, it's about taking that power back. So if it's more so being called the N word, it's about letting them know that you are uneducated and you are extremely racist even if you don't see it, but racist is not a person, it is an ideology. Racist is not a way of being, they are ideologies and you can what?
You can change ideologies, but do you want to? Kind of like what you said, are you willing to be wrong? Are you willing to say, "Hey, this is how I was raised and this is what I used to believe, so I'm going to say this..." Be willing for a person of that group to say, "Hey, you know what? Actually don't say that. That is not socially acceptable."
(00:59:09): But I also feel like it comes from a place of love. And so, when I talked about my activism earlier, I said I did it out of anger, and so now I'm moving to a place where I'm like, I could do activism out of love and out of the desire to have a better world for my kids, who are not here yet, but also for the kids who are here. Two years ago, when I decided to come to this very rural town, I made a commitment to myself.
I said, "We all know I'm black. I can't hang my skin up in my closet and go through the day. It does not work like that." I said, "So what is the way that I can, essentially, present myself to combat biases and or stereotypes?"
And I said I'm going to come out here with grace, love, kindness, and all the kids that I have interacted with, whether I taught them, whether I have babysat them or cared for them in any way, it's all about kindness and love and respect because I want them to kind of understand that there are people who look like me and there's people who look like you who aren't good, who do terrible things, but there are also people who look like both of us who do amazing and beautiful things, but because of this very visible aspect of race that is kind of taken from them.
(01:00:29): And so, coming out here and understanding that I'm coming into a community with lack of diversity, but also understanding that I'm putting myself in this situation to better myself, has had an effect on how I interact with these people and how I treat these people who are basically against my race, which is something that I can't change. And I also think about it too, because my thought is that... It's really hard to change the mind of somebody who's 80.
I said, "So what is a way to make sure that we're not perpetuating certain cycles?" I said, "To show up in a manner, in a like and which they have never seen before." So I may not be able to change the 80 year old, but the five year old, they're a little bit more formative. You can influence them better. We talked about this in my class yesterday, about the realms of different types of power, visible, invisible, whatever the case may be, and I said, "As the only black woman at Longfellow, I wield a certain power."
(01:01:30): I said because of the lack of diversity, me being there and teaching them, alone, is combating what they may hear at home because I'm not showing up angry, I'm not showing up yelling at them. I said I'm showing up, I'm caring about them, hug them if they need me to and being a person.
I'm not showing up as a black person or a black woman, I'm showing up as a person that they know they can rely on and that alone wields power because our interaction from K through fourth grade, if they've never interacted with another black person, that interaction alone could seep into their brains so as they get older, they'll be like, "Oh, I remember... Yeah, I had one black teacher, miss..."
(01:02:12): And I tell them all the time, I said, "I want y'all to understand, at the end of the school year, I'm going to see if I can get pictures taken with y'all for y'all to take them home on my Polaroid camera and I want y'all to hold onto that because I need y'all to understand that there are people who look like me, but there are a lot of people who won't step into this place that I'm in, and I may be your only black teacher for a long time.
But I want you to hold onto that because I feel like when you have..." And this is where it goes back to connection and humanity, right? When you have a connection with somebody, everything that society throws on us as far as identities, class, age, and all of that good stuff, that goes out the window because you start thinking about, "Wow, they treated me really well."
And I think in the moments where I've ran into people who are racist towards me or used a racial slur towards me, in that moment, I had two choices. I could have been the person I was in 2020 and said a lot of colorful names, so to speak, but in that moment, I decided to think about all the white people that I've had a connection with.
It was no longer about me being whiter than being black, it was about the connection we had, and that fostered how I handled situations. So it's about connecting with the younger kids. Granted, I can connect with adults too, that's fine, but after 25, you're pretty much stuck in your ways, unless you're making a consistent effort to challenge your thinking, but little kids, they're formative.
Adam Williams (01:03:39): It takes work.
Elisia Parham (01:03:40): Exactly. And a lot of people don't want to do it because it's uncomfortable.
Adam Williams (01:03:44): You were talking about work, that... Okay, white people need to do work, black people, everybody, every human has work that they do. But what that brought to mind, for me, is that I suspect there's a lot of fear in that. If we look at politics, it's typically a left side of things in this country to say, "No, we need to care about the humanity and rights of everybody."
If you are part of the system, again, we've already laid this out, that it's typically white, it typically fits these categories, that's a scary prospect because what I suspect, if you're not willing to have that humility, what it says is you need to change. Not black people, not brown people, not any of these. And that's not what's being said. It's a misunderstanding. No one is coming at you as part of this system that is entrenched and what has been here so dominant for long centuries.
(01:04:41): We're not saying you're the problem. We're saying, like you said with ideology, we need to come back to this, we can change our thoughts, our ideas, our understandings of the world. There's room for all of us. Nobody's saying you're wrong. You don't have to take that as an ego hit. But I think that's where we are for a lot of these things.
And I appreciate the work you're doing when you're talking about with these kids at Longfellow, elementary aged kids, and saying, here is, maybe, your first experience with someone who comes from my background, has my stories to tell, but the more we have those experiences that go against the myths that we've been taught, the more I think that's going to get into our brains and say, "Wait a second, you keep perpetuating this false idea that this is about race, this is about how that kind of person... All right, no, I have enough experiences to counter that now. I'm going to change something here."
(01:05:35): So you are a significant, I think, keystone in their experience right now. I appreciate that you were willing to take that leap and say, "I'm going to leave Cleveland, I'm going to leave my experiences and come out to a place in Colorado. Rural, so different."
Elisia Parham (01:05:50): Yeah, and I think to your point, too, is, as you know, Black History Month was in February and in January, I made it a point to them. I said, "In case you all don't know..." And I tell this joke all the time, I was like, "In case y'all don't know, I don't look like y'all, I'm black,' or, "I'm African American."
And one of my kids, she was like, "My mom said not to see black. She says to say African American." I said, "Baby, that is perfectly fine. You can use African American." I said, "I say black because that is what comes to mind, is that we don't navigate our world based on ethnicity, we navigate it based on color." She's young and she's in fourth grade and she's white so I think her being taught that proper language, essentially, is also very important.
(01:06:37): And so, we did a whole thing at Longfellow for a Black History month and I took the initiative on that because I'm in a space where these are all young kids and they need to understand... Or not even understand, they need to see African American or black people in a light that's not on a basketball court or on a football field. And so, for the month of February, we talked about Ruby Bridges, we talked about Bayard Rustin, we talked about Barack Obama as a first black president, and we know how the world is, which means that may never happen again, or at least not for a long time.
So we talked about Ruby Bridges, and we read just a lot of different books about people who have influenced our history. And one of my kids, we were just talking about it and she was like, "So wait, you mean to tell me that people who look like you and the people who look like me, we were in two different schools at one point in time?"
(01:07:36): I said, "Yeah." I said Ruby Bridges was one among, I think, six who integrated an elementary school. I said, "Six. She's as old as y'all were." And I said, "And horrible things. She was spat at, they told her that they were going to poison her food so she didn't eat." And so, I also bridged that connection too. I said, "Because y'all are both in elementary school."
And then I put up some stuff around Longfellow. I put everything in color because I need them to also understand that this didn't happen during great, great, great, great, great, great grandma time, this happened when your parents and your grandparents were growing up.
And so, I told them, I said, "Ruby Bridges is still alive." And then we also went into... Because we talked about how she had a white teacher who was willing to teach her, I said, "I need y'all to also understand that a while ago, not even that long ago, I wouldn't even be able to be here teaching y'all because of what I look like."
And it was like, "Oh, but we love you," And all this good stuff. And I was like, "I love y'all too. I love y'all with all my heart, but the idea we've been talking about this whole time is the connection." So connecting the fact that I'm their teacher, but I also hold this identity as a black woman or an African American woman, that put things into perspective for them because then they're able to see that, "Oh, most of my teachers are white, except Miss Elisia."
The way we interact is completely different because I also, as a reading interventionist, I have to teach them how to properly use or properly talk in English or whatever the case may be. But I tell people all the time, "I speak in two languages. I speak African American Vernacular English, I don't like using the word slang, but AAVE, and I speak proper English when it deems necessary."
(01:09:19): So with my kids, I make sure that I use them interchangeably and I tell them, I was like, "How I'm talking is not wrong. It's just not a way that you have heard before. How I interact with y'all is not wrong. It's just not going to be the same way that your white teachers interact with y'all because my need to make a connection with y'all is going to take a lot more time and a lot more trust on my end and on theirs, even if they're unaware of it, as opposed to seeing somebody who looks like them, which garnishes instantaneous, 'I'm going to trust you. I like you because we look alike.'"
Adam Williams (01:09:54): If we go back to the being willing to be wrong thing, and I'm thinking of this girl who said, "Oh, I'm not supposed to say black." So I have these conversations at home and with others sometimes too. You know, we get into this idea of, I don't think we need to walk on eggshells. We need to be willing to be wrong. I don't need to give up my identity in order to accept and respect that someone else has theirs.
And it brings me to this idea of white guilt. It's like, we don't need to carry that around, I don't believe, because then we're walking on eggshells, acting like I don't get to be my full self. But to me, this whole conversation is immensely full of respect in both directions as humans and the rest, the topical stuff on the side.
(01:10:37): Neither of us needs to give up who we are, needs to set that aside in order to make room for the other. This is not a zero sum game in which someone has to win and someone has to lose. We can all win.
Elisia Parham (01:10:48): Yeah.
Adam Williams (01:10:49): Let's just have the conversation. So I really appreciate your taking the time and to go into these places with me and for this conversation, to go so deeply there, share so much of yourself. I think this is, one, it's enjoyable to me to have conversations of depth that need to be had, but then we get to share it with others and so I'm sure this is going to be of use to people who are listening. I appreciate your being here to do it with me, Elisia.
Elisia Parham (01:11:16): Yeah. Thank you for having me. Thank you for being open about your experiences as well, and the fact that you're also learning and unlearning because I think that's powerful to hear from people who navigate the same identity, is that, I, too, look like you, but I'm also learning and unlearning. I may be a little further on my journey, but if we all start the journey to learn or to even start the process of unlearning and then start the process of reeducating ourselves...
Adam Williams (01:11:42): Be willing to get uncomfortable, like you said. Thank you.
Elisia Parham (01:11:48): Thank you.
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Adam Williams (01:11:52): That was me talking with Elisia Parham. If what Elisia shared here today sparked curiosity for you, you can learn more in this episode's show notes at wearechaffee.org. If you have comments or know someone in Chaffee County, Colorado, who I should consider talking with on the podcast, you can email us at email@example.com.
We invite you to rate and review the We Are Chaffee Looking Upstream podcast on Apple, Spotify, or whatever platform you use with that functionality. We also invite you to tell others about the Looking Upstream podcast. Help us to keep growing community and connection through conversation.
Once again, I'm Adam Williams, host, producer and photographer. Jon Pray is engineer and producer. Thank you to KHEN 106.9 FM community radio, where we recorded today's conversation in Salida, Colorado. To Heather Gorby for graphic and web design, to Andrea Carlstrom, director of Chaffee County Public Health and Environment, and to Lisa Martin, Community Advocacy Coordinator for the We Are Chaffee storytelling initiative.
(01:12:45): The We Are Chaffee Looking Upstream podcast is a collaboration with the Chaffee County Department of Public Health and the Chaffee Housing Authority, and it's supported by the Colorado Public Health and Environment Office of Health Disparities.
You can learn more about the Looking Upstream podcast and related storytelling initiatives at wearechaffee.org, and on Instagram and Facebook at We Are Chaffee. Lastly, thank you for listening. And remember, as we say here at We Are Chaffee, be human, share stories.
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