Culture Shift

Why Norway’s Rush to Save the Sámi Language Involves a Talking Reindeer

YES! Illustration by Nicole Xu

YES! Illustration by Nicole Xu

A good puppet has to be liked, so Binnabánnaš was given a pair of friendly brown eyes, a set of uneven blue antlers, and leather shoes with red trim and curled toes reminiscent of samiske komagers, the traditional reindeer skin shoes worn by the Sámi, the indigenous people of Northern Europe.

Tristan Ahtone

Tristan is a journalist and member of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma. His work has appeared on and in PBS Newshour, National Native News, Frontline, Wyoming Public Radio, Vice, Fronteras Desk, NPR, and Al Jazeera America.

He also has a job: to teach the Sámi language to children on Norwegian television on his own three-minute show. For example, Binnabánnaš teaches words that begin with the letter “B,” the difference between big and small, and colors. Think Sesame Street with an indigenous twist.

“Binnabánnaš could look like a reindeer calf, or it could be a cow calf. Some people thought it was a goat,” said Tamie Sue Runningen of NRK Sápmi, a unit of the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation responsible for producing Sámi content. “It didn’t need to be one specific animal, but most of the Sámi will probably identify it as a reindeer.”

Reindeer herding is an iconic tradition practiced by the Sámi in the north, an area often referred to as Sápmi. Hunting and fishing are also common practices in Sámi communities, so Binnabánnaš will also have a fish sidekick named Ujujju.

“We want [children] to like both of them and feel that we have covered everybody that is in Sápmi and all the Sámi people and what they work with and what they have in their communities,” said Runningen.

Photo by Katri Heinämäki

Binnabánnaš, held above by Tamie Sue Runningen of NRK Sápmi, will appear on-air this fall to teach children about Sámi language and culture. Photos BY Katri Heinämäki

More than 80,000 Sámi people call Northern Europe home and live across Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. They’re the largest indigenous group in Scandinavia, and it’s estimated that up to 35,000 speak the Sámi language. However, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has classified the language as endangered.

Binnabánnaš’s main goal is to keep the Sámi language alive in the next generation, but the character may also have a more subversive social role: demonstrating that indigenous culture is alive and growing in a world that has either forgotten or shown open contempt for its original people.

“I have a hope that through [Binnabánnaš] other kids will learn about the Sámi culture and learn about diversity,” said Runningen. “When they see some of the generalizations and challenges that the Sámi people have had in history, or any other indigenous people have had in history, that they’ll have a little better understanding of what that is and why some of those fights were important.”

According to the United Nations, more than 370 million indigenous people live in nearly 90 countries worldwide and speak up to 6,000 different languages — half of which are in danger of disappearing by the next century.

“They are not passed on to the younger generation, so there’s an interruption of transmission,” said Christopher Moseley, editor of UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger. “As long as a language is taught to children by adults, then to that degree it’s safe for the future. But if adults see no reason, whether it’s economic or social or any other reason, to pass on the language to their children, then the language is doomed, really, because the slide can only get worse unless some active measures are taken.”


Of 194 languages remaining in North America, it’s estimated that nearly 63 percent are spoken only by adults or elders. That’s where television and characters like Binnabánnaš can help.

“Children’s programming is really, really important both to preserve the language but also to pass on the cultural values,” said Duncan McCue, a correspondent for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and creator of Reporting in Indigenous Communities, an online guide for journalists working in Aboriginal communities. The Inuit Broadcasting Corporation has run puppet shows in Inuktitut for decades and has created Inuit super heroes.

Outside of the United States, indigenous programming is not uncommon. In Norway, NRK Sápmi broadcasts in the Sámi language; under NRK’s corporate strategy, Sámi language and culture is to be strengthened through culturally relevant programming. New Zealand has Māori Television. In Ireland, there’s TG4. And in countries like Canada, Australia, Taiwan, and South Africa, indigenous broadcasters have a place on TV.

Of 194 languages remaining in North America, it’s estimated that nearly 63 percent are spoken only by adults or elders. That’s where television and characters like Binnabánnaš can help.

In the United States, indigenous broadcasting is on the rise, but it’s still relatively outside the mainstream. While media outlets like All Nations Network and FNX hope to become national providers of indigenous content, tribal broadcasters like the Cherokee Nation have begun broadcasting online and on local and regional stations.

“We’ve come off of a hundred years of history books that have not accurately depicted Native American tribes, let alone modern Native American tribes,” said Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Bill John Baker. “But nobody can tell your story better than you can tell it.”

The Cherokee Nation’s 30-minute television magazine program, Osiyo, Voices of the Cherokee People, appears on stations around Oklahoma but can also be watched online, as requested by Cherokee citizens living in other parts of the United States and the world.

“Anybody anyplace in the world can stream the program, so it doesn’t matter where you live; it’s available any time of the day or night,” said Chief Baker. “It gives us the opportunity to tell our story without letting someone else be in control of that story.”

But when it comes to finding a home on the national stage, Native American voices continue to struggle.

“America has so much to learn from contemporary Native Americans that they’re just not open to and they just don’t seem to be able to open the media landscape to those contemporary indigenous voices,” said McCue. “In other indigenous communities around the world, we’re beyond that to some degree.”

Endangered Languages in the U.S. In the United States, there are 145 Native American languages left—some spoken by only a small number of elder tribal members. Forty seven have fewer than 20 speakers. Navajo, spoken by about 120,000 people, is the most widely used Native language in the United States.

2016 data, UNESCO Interactive Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger | YES! infographic 2016

And it shows. On TG4, a new teen drama called Eipic follows “five rural teenagers who take over their local abandoned post office to start a musical revolution.” It’s broadcast in Gaeilge, the original Irish language. In Canada, Aboriginal Peoples Television Network offers dozens of programs, including Mohawk Girls, the indigenous answer to Sex and the City, and The Other Side, a paranormal investigation series. And in New Zealand, Ngā Pirihimana Hou follows Māori recruits as they train to become police officers. Māori television features a range of programs, from news and current affairs to performances of Romeo and Juliet in Te Reo, the Māori language.

“In the broader American media landscape you just don’t hear about those Native American voices,” said McCue. “I guess part of it has to do with the fact that America doesn’t want to struggle with its difficult history, and when you start having vibrant voices, then you’ve got to deal with this really complicated history that Americans don’t want to face up to.”

For Aboriginal people in the United States, that means carving out digital spaces or harnessing old-fashioned technologies like radio to fill the void. Around the country, more than 40 tribal radio stations are currently on air, half of which broadcast in their own indigenous languages. At the same time, hundreds of newspapers and online outlets produce hyper-local content, from the Potawatomi Traveling Times in Wisconsin to larger national outfits like Native American Times.

“Community-generated indigenous media has a very strong impact on the health and well-being of not only languages but on the life and health of indigenous communities,” said John Schertow of the Center for World Indigenous Studies. “It provides communities with an easily accessible channel to disseminate culturally appropriate information, which helps maintain cohesion, but it also helps to ensure that communities can remain responsive to new challenges, threats, and opportunities that arise, which is something that mainstream mass media can’t generally provide.”

In other words, supporting indigenous media, and its potential to reach larger audiences, could increase the likelihood that languages will survive. Still, American media outlets remain primarily Indian-free zones, and that means encouragement for indigenous languages is lacking a big piece of support.

“I don’t want to say that the future is rosy, I think the trend all the way is toward homogenization, and I often feel that people who try to champion endangered languages are fighting a losing battle,” said Moseley. “But there are plenty of reasons for hope in individual cases. As long as there are people to care about their own linguistic heritage, then you can’t give up hope, can you?”

Photo by Katri Heinämäki

Binnabánnaš will appear on-air this fall to teach children about Sámi language and culture. Photo by Katri Heinämäki

At NRK Sápmi’s studio, Runningen took an admiring look at Binnabánnaš, then wrapped him in plastic. With the show still some months off, the puppet would return to storage until a little television magic could bring him to life.

“It’ll be really exciting when the set comes in in a couple of weeks because then the world will start forming,” said Runningen.

When Binnabánnaš and Ujujju hit the air this fall, they’ll be in stiff competition with children’s programming from around Norway and the world, but Runningen says NRK Sápmi isn’t too worried: Binnabánnaš’ job will be to show that Sámi culture is thriving while preparing the next generation for how to be indigenous in the 21st century.

“Hopefully [non-Sámi] kids will grow up with the idea that the Sámi aren’t another people that are different,” said Runningen.

Tristan Ahtone

Tristan is a journalist and member of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma. His work has appeared on and in PBS Newshour, National Native News, Frontline, Wyoming Public Radio, Vice, Fronteras Desk, NPR, and Al Jazeera America.

Books + Film + Music

No Walls Here: Communities That Embrace Immigrants

Times Leader photo by Scott McKeag

Jubilee Velez, 3, of Hazleton, gets ready to enjoy a bite to eat during the community event at the Hazleton One Community Center. Times Leader photo by Scott McKeag

With all the attention the media gives to presidential candidate Donald Trump, some might think that the anti-immigrant sentiment he expresses is the dominant frame of mind in our country. But Susan E. Eaton’s book, Integration Nation: Immigrants, Refugees, and America at Its Best, reminds us that, in fact, hate and xenophobia are being rejected by communities across the nation.

Manuel Pastor

Manuel Pastor is a professor of sociology and American studies and ethnicity. He is the co-director of the Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration (CSII) at the University of Southern California.


Magaly N. López

Magaly N. López is a data analyst at the CSII and is a Public Policy and International Affairs Fellow at USC.

What’s the secret recipe to creating more welcoming communities in our country? Part of it involves making the economic case that immigrants contribute. In places like Dayton, Ohio, and Philadelphia, civic and business leaders have understood that economic revitalization can be driven by immigrant entrepreneurship and energy, and so have sought to foster and support small-business development.

But while direct economic interests fortify the case for immigrant integration, Eaton’s book is a powerful reminder that it’s a few fundamental values — being open, receptive, and neighborly — that are really critical. For what’s at stake is not just our prosperity but the very soul of America — and this turns on the choices we make every day about how to act, how to lead, and how to inspire others to do the right thing.

Of course, welcoming attitudes and activities do not happen on a blank slate. In a recent co-edited book, Unsettled Americans: Metropolitan Context and Civic Leadership for Immigrant Integration, we tried to lay out the factors that make a difference in receptivity — that is, what “unsettles” native-born Americans about new immigrants and what factors best help new Americans settle in.

Integration Nation

Integration Nation

Susan E. Eaton, The New Press, 224 pages

First, history matters. Cities with a longer legacy of immigrant arrival also tend to have the immigrant-serving institutions that help integrate newcomers. But such experienced cities often are bordered by suburbs that are less familiar with immigrants — a big challenge because those suburbs are exactly where America’s immigrant population is growing most rapidly.

Second, race matters. When a city or a region has a diverse immigrant community — both in terms of class and national origin — native-born residents are less likely to view immigrants in a negative, racialized manner. In Silicon Valley, highly skilled (often Asian) immigrants are seen as essential to business health, which has positive spillover effects: Silicon Valley was one of the first places in the United States to create a local health insurance program that covers undocumented kids.

Third, politics matters. Naturalized immigrants and their American-born children can vote and hold political representatives accountable for their actions. Consider New York, where immigrant voters, social movements, and advocacy organizations secured political support from then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg and current Mayor Bill de Blasio for immigrant-friendly practices, like municipal ID cards and resistance to the involvement of Immigration and Customs Enforcement in local jails.

Fourth, leadership matters. While some politicians seek to inflame anxieties to build their own political careers, other influential people and organizations are crafting more welcoming responses. For example, the Utah Compact, reached in 2010, embodied an agreement between business, civic, faith, law enforcement, and other leaders to have a more civil discourse on immigration and to avoid separating families. Strikingly, in one of the nation’s most conservative states, undocumented immigrants have long had access to driver’s licenses and in-state tuition.

What Eaton powerfully adds to this list of structural factors is something seemingly less concrete but, in fact, even more essential: the role of grassroots values. She does this by taking us far from the usual areas that come to mind when we think of immigrants in the United States — New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles — to instead visit the heartland, New England, and the South.

In Omaha, Nebraska, Islam is a growing faith — this in a state whose image of whiteness is belied by the fact that more than 30 percent of the children under age 5 are people of color. In the face of change, leaders have chosen communication and coexistence. One example: A former Jewish country club — built for and by Jews that were barred from obtaining other country club memberships — is being converted into a tri-faith campus, where a synagogue, mosque, and church will stand side by side.

Strikingly, in one of the nation’s most conservative states, undocumented immigrants have long had access to driver’s licenses and in-state tuition.

Or consider the state of Mississippi, where some in the African-American community initially viewed the growing number of Latino immigrants as job competitors. But stressing that jobs, work conditions, access to education — and basic human rights — are common goals, African-American elected officials have blocked a range of anti-immigrant legislation. Economic interests weren’t the only reason: Eaton’s book recounts a statement by James Evans, a Mississippi state legislator: “The Black Caucus knows its history — many of our members lived that civil rights history — and we vowed to never sit still when human beings are being treated as less than human.”

Perhaps Eaton’s most compelling story comes from Hazleton, Pennsylvania, a city of 25,000 that became famous in 2006 when its city council passed a series of ordinances to prevent employers from hiring and landlords from renting to undocumented immigrants. Appalled by the emerging tone, hometown hero and then-manager of the Tampa Bay Rays Joe Maddon decided to shift the conversation, helping to start the Hazleton Integration Project.

One of the results was the Hazleton One Community Center, where immigrants and native-borns alike can learn English or Spanish, enjoy cultural and sports programs, and send children to do homework. But equally important has been a new spirit of unity. When Maddon asked a cook in a Mexican restaurant where he was from, he expected to hear a hometown in, say, Oaxaca. Instead, the cook replied in English, “I’m from Hazleton,” sparking a messaging idea for a banner featuring multiethnic groups of residents with the tagline, “We’re from Hazleton!”

But there must be more than banners and slogans. In a recent report, “Opening Minds, Opening Doors, Opening Communities,” we review the wide range of policies and practices that can help cities and regions be more welcoming to immigrants. These include streamlining services, providing in-language assistance, shifting law enforcement to community policing, and making immigrant integration everyone’s business.

But you don’t get policies without politics, and our politics — sometimes for better and sometimes for worse — are fundamentally based on our values. Eaton reminds us that America is at its best when it welcomes rather than rejects immigrants, when it chooses integration over exclusion, when it builds bridges rather than walls. She stresses that what’s at stake in the immigration debate is not only the policy details of guest worker programs, border security, and paths to citizenship; what’s at stake is who we are as a nation.

The research shows that we all have an economic interest in welcoming our new neighbors — cities and regions do better when we do. But ultimately, immigrant integration is about more than our interests. It is about who we are and how we treat each other — welcoming the newcomer, helping those who are anxious find their way to their better selves, and bringing communities together to turn the page on hate.

Manuel Pastor

Manuel Pastor is a professor of sociology and American studies and ethnicity. He is the co-director of the Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration (CSII) at the University of Southern California.


Magaly N. López

Magaly N. López is a data analyst at the CSII and is a Public Policy and International Affairs Fellow at USC.

Books + Film + Music

A Role For Colleges in Growing Young Farmers

Photo by Peter Menchini

Farmers weed and till the plot on the first day of occupation of the Gill Tract. Photo by Peter Menchini

On Earth Day 2012, a group of University of California, Berkeley, students, former students, and other community members marched to the padlocked gates of UC Berkeley’s Gill Tract carrying shovels, protest signs, seedlings, and hay bales. A small marching band kept time, and someone, it seems, remembered to bring bolt cutters. The Gill Tract, a relatively small piece of land, was about to be the setting for a months-long battle.

Chelsey Simpson

Chelsey Simpson is the communications director for the National Young Farmers Coalition, a network of farmers, ranchers, and consumers who support practices and policies that will sustain young, independent, and prosperous farmers. She lives and writes in Brooklyn, New York, but her heart resides in Oklahoma.

This is the scene captured by the documentary film, Occupy the Farm, which follows the battle for the Gill Tract, beginning with the Earth Day march and occupation of the farm and ending with a pivotal city zoning meeting several months later. In the interim, more than 15,000 seedlings were planted and 2,000 pounds of produce were harvested by community organizers, many of whom set up camp at the Gill Tract in order to assert their right to the space and prevent police and campus authorities from reclaiming the land.

A 14-acre patch of green edged by city streets and a few palm trees (the film calls it a 20-acre plot, potentially including other land in the estimate), the Gill Tract, in the eyes of the marchers and the filmmakers, is a once and future farm, one of the last arable plots in the East Bay. In the eyes of UC Berkeley administrators, the tract is a piece of university capital: valuable for agricultural research but also as the future site of a grocery store and a senior housing development, the profits from which could help close a budget gap left by state funding cuts.

Occupy the Farm

Occupy the Farm

Directed by Todd Darling, 2015, 90 min.

What isn’t discussed directly in the film is how instrumental university farms could be in closing another critical gap: America’s young farmer shortage. According to the USDA Census of Agriculture, over the next 25 years two-thirds of all farmland will need a new farmer and only 6 percent of farmers are under the age of 35. The organization I work for, the National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC), has a goal of 25,000 new young farmers by 2022. But where will these young farmers come from?


My father is a farmer on the plains of Oklahoma, as is his father, as was his father before him. For generations, farming was a largely inherited profession, but in the middle of the last century, the world began to shift. Bigger and better machinery made it easier to plow more acres and milk more cows with less help — my family has a newspaper clipping showing my grandfather in his new milking parlor, waiting for the first bolts of electricity that would change his business forever. Sons and daughters, no longer essential labor, were sent to college. Some of them, like my father and uncle, went to study agriculture with the intention of returning to the farm, while others left the farm for good.

Today, however, another shift is taking place. College is, famously, a time for exploration, and more and more young people are using their undergraduate years to experiment with farming. Many of the young farmers in NYFC say they first got their hands in the dirt while they were in college. Drawn to the idea of public service and working with their hands, some campus farmers decide to make farming their career.

Some universities do have successful farms (ranging from just a quarter-acre to more than 800 acres) that provide hands-on learning experiences, beneficial even for those who don’t grow up to be farmers. But many university farms are far from robust at a time when agriculture and education are increasingly reliant on each other. Farming is a more demanding field than ever before, requiring knowledge of soil and animal science, as well as marketing, business management, and engineering. To fix farm machinery in the 1980s, my father needed to understand diesel mechanics and hydraulics; those skills are still relevant today, but drones and a host of complex sensors and tracking apps have also entered the scene. More than ever, we need universities that can both recruit new farmers to the field and educate them well.

Universities should have farms for the same reason they have concert halls and lecture series: to give students a chance to expand their horizons, discover new passions, and enrich the quality of their overall education. Not everyone who attends a piano recital becomes a musician, and not everyone who visits a campus farm will become a farmer, but some will.

Occupy the Farm shows how hungry students and communities are (literally and figuratively) for urban farming opportunities and the positive impact universities could have if they leveraged their resources to create more farms and farmers. Although commercial development is currently moving forward on the south half of the Gill Tract, the north half is home to agricultural research plots, as well as the 1.5-acre UC Gill Tract Community Farm, now 3 years old. Last year, more than 1,300 volunteers worked at the farm, producing 15,500 pounds of produce. With any luck, a few career farmers sprouted as well.

Chelsey Simpson

Chelsey Simpson is the communications director for the National Young Farmers Coalition, a network of farmers, ranchers, and consumers who support practices and policies that will sustain young, independent, and prosperous farmers. She lives and writes in Brooklyn, New York, but her heart resides in Oklahoma.

Books + Film + Music

Books Inspiring Us

The World Becomes What We Teach

The World Becomes What We Teach

Zoe Weil

An expanded version of Zoe Weil’s 2010 TEDx Talk, The World Becomes What We Teach is both a problem statement and a call to action. Global crises, such as climate change, as well as the everyday stuff of life, require a generation of “solutionaries,” Weil says, to tackle real-world problems. As president of the Institute for Humane Education, Weil discusses useful strategies, like a student “Solutionary Congress,” and the integration of arts and reflection throughout the learning process. Hers is a guide to transforming schools that is a natural fit for K-12 teachers, parents, and anyone working with young people.


Notes from the Playground

Notes from the Playground

Greg John

A San Francisco elementary school principal, Greg John has presented life lessons through a collection of playground scenes. Grouped according to months of the school year and given one-word titles — from character traits such as “Grit” and “Wisdom” to you-just-have-to-read-it tales like “Pretend,” “Jump,” and “Trouble” — the vignettes show how the routines and events of a child’s day add up to lifetime meaning. A story from October (“Grudge”), about an 8-year-old who’s angry at a classmate, leads to John’s thoughts on how grudges hold people back. “Nothing changes when things stand still, and leading may be about learning how to make things move.”


Yes! But How?

DIY Ways to Live Sustainably Urban Foraging: Weeds to Eat

Foraging, or wandering in search of food and plants, isn’t relegated to remote forests and idyllic fields. Edible and usable weeds are abundant in urban environments too. Some are found in common cuisine: Dandelion and stinging nettle are often used in salads and teas. And many weeds are vitamin- and nutrient-rich.

Harvesting urban weeds can help us connect better with the natural spaces where we work, live, and play. But finding them requires a little technique. Melany Vorass Herrera, author of The Front Yard Forager, suggests carrying a field guide to help identify plants, picking only as much as you need, and avoiding areas known for pollution, heavy industry, or chemical use (pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers).

Your nearest urban patch may be home to a variety of edible weeds, including some you may never have heard of, like lamb’s quarter (hint: it doesn’t have to do with meat).

When and Where to Find Them

Mallow
Mallow

How to use it Add young shoots to salads. For soups, the leaves can be used as a thickener and to add a sweet taste. For baking, roots can be used as an egg white substitute.

What it does for you High in calcium, magnesium, and potassium, the leaves aid bone strength and resilience.

Did you know? Celtic folk doctors used mallow to treat hair loss.

Lemon Balm
Lemon Balm

How to use it Use dried leaves for tea, salads, and meat dishes. Crush leaves for lemon-flavored vinegar and herb butter.

What it does for you Lemon balm reduces anxiety and remedies digestive problems.

Did you know? Lemon balm tinctures and oils are used to treat insomnia and to calm agitation in people with Alzheimer’s disease.

Chickweed
Chickweed

How to use it A mild, lettuce-like taste makes it a good garnish in salads and sandwiches.

What it does for you Water stored in the leaves flushes vitamins and minerals through the body.

Did you know? Chickweed blossoms are rainy day fortune-tellers. The blossoms close up when rain is imminent, signaling you to be raincoat-and-umbrella ready.

Plantain
Plantain

How To Use It Add leaves to salads, steep for tea, or drizzle them in oil and bake as chips.

What it does for you Tea from leaves soothes toothaches, coughs, and sore throats.

Did you know? The Plantago genus classifies about 200 plant species called plantains, completely unrelated to plantain bananas. Plantago is Latin for “sole of the foot,” which ancient Romans believed the leaves resembled.

Lamb’s Quarter
Lamb’s Quarter

How to use it Eat leaves raw or cooked. Use seeds in baked goods, like muffins and cakes.

What it does for you Lamb’s quarter may be a “superfood” contender—the leaves have more calcium and protein than spinach.

Did you know? Its seeds can be a staple for a gluten-free diet. Lamb’s quarter is related to quinoa, with both in the Amaranthaceae family and commonly used as wheat substitutes.

At Large

When Showing Up Requires More Than a Facebook Post

I had never seen a man die before watching the videos of Alton Sterling, age 37, and Philando Castile, age 32, each shot by police. Afterward, I rattled around the house, grieving and closing in on despair. How many more Black people will die? Are we really unable to change after so many years of racism? Will fear and rage — with the extra push from Donald Trump — win in the end?

Sarah van Gelder

Sarah van Gelder is co-founder and editor at large of YES! Her forthcoming book, The Revolution Where You Live: Stories from a 12,000-Mile Journey Through a New America, tells more stories of local power.

Alone with a nonstop stream of violence and brutality, there seemed to be no hope, and, aside from some retweets, I couldn’t think of what to do.

A few days later, across my Facebook page came a call to stand in support of Black Lives Matter in the nearby city of Silverdale, Washington, a suburb full of chain stores and fast-food restaurants adjacent to a large naval base. It was a new mothers’ support group — mostly White — that put out the call, but attendees were Black, White, Native and all ages, from tiny babies to elderly activists. Strangers started introducing themselves, and small groups began working together on signs with the names of Black people who had been killed by police.

The county sheriff, Gary Simpson, showed up with several deputies. When he saw a group making a sign reading, “White people: What will we do to change our legacy of violence?” he asked permission to add a sheriff’s badge sticker to the sign.

Later, as we stood at the street corner, some passersby yelled and cursed, but most honked or gave a thumbs up or a clenched fist in approval. As time went on, the group standing with signs relaxed a bit, and there were smiles and conversations. An anonymous street corner became a place to express grief, to feel connection, and, finally, to begin healing.

Social media does not replace this experience. Facebook, Twitter, Vine, Periscope, and other platforms have made it possible to mobilize quickly and at large scales. But what matters is that we show up in person.

At a recent technology conference, Sherry Turkle, director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, explained why human-to-human contact is important: “What presence does is to create the empathic connection that comes from knowing that a person who has lived a human life is listening with all of themselves, body and mind. … That is how you create an ethical connection.”

That ethical, empathic connection suggests that we might make the greatest inroads on racism in our own communities, among our own families and friends.

“You have to bring it home,” Joyce Hobson Johnson, a leader of Beloved Community Center in Greensboro, North Carolina, told me when I visited last year as part of my Edge of Change road trip. Johnson, a member of the North Carolina NAACP State Executive Board, has experienced horrific violence, including a 1979 shooting by the KKK and Nazis — with police complicity — that left five dead.

“To really make a difference, you have to have relationships and build a new culture of possibility — what we call beloved community,” she said. “We’ve met with some of the Klan and Nazis,” Johnson told me. “They too struggle for their livelihoods.”

“You respect and honor their dignity and worth, the equality of every person,” she said. “That’s something that is in itself revolutionary.”

In Greensboro, and in other places I visited during my road trip, I saw a pent-up longing to love one another. Lots of barriers get in the way: We get scared or sidetracked by trivia and cat videos. We don’t have time; we’re shy; we’re not sure we measure up. And we have trouble connecting across race, class, gender, and generational lines.

But when we do take the time to connect, we weave a fabric of empathy and support. We make our communities more resilient and more centered on the common good. We may even find the courage to finally defeat racism.

Sarah van Gelder

Sarah van Gelder is co-founder and editor at large of YES!