My Extracurricular Activities, 2017

common-ground-logo-uai-258x457In response to the divisive 2016 election, the faculty at Mount Mercy University chose as its Fall Faculty Series topic the state of American democracy in 2017. I organized the series, which consisted of lectures, workshops, art, and guest speakers.  From August through November, students, faculty, staff, and community members discussed the structure of U.S. government, the role of the free press, racism, inclusive feminism, health care, civil discourse, the role of non-violent protest, and the economics of the wealth gap.  Associate Professor of Communications Joe Sheller documented the series in his blog CRGarden Joe’s Blog .

The series was featured here  in the Mount Mercy Magazine.


Meanwhile, MMU was invited to apply for a College Sustainability grant by the Margaret A. Cargill Foundation. Originally part of a small committee that put together a statement of intent, I was eventually selected to write the grant, which I did during the spring. sustainability-efforts-ramp-upHappily, we were awarded $425 000 in August. The grant money will allow the creation of an Office of Sustainability and Stewardship, which will coordinate a Sustainability Scholars Program, campus stewardship goals, curriculum development, community outreach, and small infrastructure projects. Read more about it here .



My mother knitted and my grandma crocheted, so from the moment I was old enough to be aware, I knew that knitting was a woman’s handicraft.


I knit so hard I snapped the blue needle in half. It belonged to my mother 40 years ago 

At 7 years old, however, I had an experience that changed the way I viewed working with yarn. I was in second grade and had just been transported from a classroom in Michigan to an “Interdisciplinary Team” at McKinley Elementary in Appleton, Wisconsin. The move was difficult in a number of ways, not the least of which was that I had already surpassed McKinley’s second -grade reading curriculum by the time I joined the classroom mid-semester. This was in the 1970s, in the days before there were “Gifted and Talented” programs or No Child Left Behind assessments. I suppose it is possible that the school administration didn’t quite know what to do with me. But my new second-grade teacher, Sue Tabbert stepped in. In a small reading group, consisting of me and one other student, she introduced me to the novels of Eleanor Estes and her characters the Moffats. My partner and I flew through the pages, but Miss Tabbert found new ways to engage us. One day, she appeared in class with yarn and two pairs of knitting needles. One of Estes’ characters, Rufus Moffat, was knitting washcloths to send to GIs fighting in World War I. knitWe were going to learn to knit washcloths, too. She showed us the cast-on, and then I knit my very first stitch. I won’t say my washcloth was a success; it was an ugly brown and about the thickness of a doormat. But, in making a washcloth just like Rufus Moffat, I learned that knitting was political, it was patriotic, it was a show of solidarity with strangers who stand up for us.
(Check out the  WWI”Knitting for Victory” story here).

That is why the Pussyhat Project has been so meaningful to me. A quarter-million women will assemble in Washington and at at statehouses around the nation on January 21, wearing the hats as a symbol of solidarity while they rally, once again, against threats to basic women’s rights. Critics have dismissed the pussyhat as “silly headwear” or “a stunt” that will distract from the substance of the protest.

But for me, the pussphoto-on-2017-01-10-at-21-38yhat is the protest. The manner of its making, the collaboration required for its distribution, and the solidarity shown in wearing it all attest to very vision of the world the marchers are standing for. In a time when the president-elect is grossly inflating the power of corporations, doling out cabinet positions on a pay-to-play basis, and disparaging women around the world, knitting has once again become a political and patriotic act.

First, in a coporatocracy (“Corporations are people, my friends”), the hand-made item is a disruptive object. In a few short weeks, thousands of individual women and men have created tens of thousands of hats in a decentralized process that by-passes corporate control. Sure, some of the yarn is coming from Michael’s or Wal-Mart (“but not if I can help it,” says my mother-in-law), but it is also coming from independently owned yarn shops or grandma’s stash in the attic. The sea of pussyhats is a visual reminder that corporations do not have a monopoly on the means of mass production. Second, in a pay-to-play climate, the Pussyhat Project demonstrates a disruptive alternative by creating a gift economy. Gift economies benefit both giver and receiver without the exchange of money. The vast majority of knitters in the Pussyhat Project are giving their hats to marchers, not as a quid pro quo, not as charity, but as a statement of thanks and solidarity, akin to the way that civilians knit washcloths for soldiers during The Great War. The marchers are returning the gift by wearing the hats at the march, where they will serve as representatives for those of us who cannot be there. That is a valuable exchange, and it has the added benefit of creating interpersonal connections at a time when the nation is more divided than it has ever been. Finally, when tens of thousands of women wear the pussyhat in a demonstration of women’s political engagement, it becomes a banner of resistance. Women are watching. We will not be made to go backwards in our rights, our dignity, or our autonomy.

The Pussyhat Project, for me, ups the ante on that old bumper sticker “Perform random acts of kindness.” The knitters and marchers are showing what is possible when we perform organized acts of kindness. And that is the kind of world I want to bring about, for my children and for everyone.

Optical Illusions in the Age of Trump

Remember back in 2015 when internet users spent a few days arguing about whether The Dress was blue and black or white and gold? Arguments broke out, the blue-and-blackers wailed in frustration at their white-and-gold friends “How can you not see it?” There was a call for objective evidence (“What color is the real dress?”), and articles were written about how perception is a funny thing.

Looking back, the obsession with the dress was the primer for the 2016 election season. Voters have been looking at the same images, but seeing two different things. One day, while I was marching in support of our Muslim community members right after Trump first brought up the idea of a registry, a Trump supporter walked up to me and screamed in my face “Are you stupid?! Are you blind?!” She knew I could not see whatever it was that she saw in her candidate, and she was enraged at me for it. I knew, too, when I responded by acknowledging her anger and offering a hug, and she pulled back in disgust, that she couldn’t see why I was marching in protest. Blue and black versus white and gold.


But the thing is, as with any optical illusion, that there is more than one way to see it. Think of the optical illusion that is both a candlestick and two faces. If you start out seeing the candlestick, you will swear it is a picture of a candlestick, but once you also see the two faces, you can’t unsee them. The same thing happened with the dress. I spent a day looking at a blue and black image, utterly baffled that anyone thought it was white and gold. I thought, you’d have to be blind not to see that it was blue and black. I even started to wonder if the whole thing was a giant prank, with white-and-golders claiming not to see blue-and-black just to yank our chains. But I trusted my friends on the other side and I tried to see what they saw. I spent the next day squinting, adjusting the brightness on my screen, turning my laptop sideways. Then all of a sudden I saw it; I saw the white and gold. There was an almost audible A-ha! sound as my brain made the connection that the thing could be seen in more than one way. And once I saw the white and gold, I couldn’t unsee it. I look at the dress now and I see both color sets at the same time.

Post-election many people have been calling for unity and understanding (“Try to see the other side.”) If it were as simple as figuring out the dress problem, we’d be in pretty good shape. People wanted to figure out what was going on with the dress. They didn’t want to be divisive with their friends about it. When the nation collectively “got it,” there was a continental sigh of relief — it’s ok, we can all be right.

That’s not what’s happening after the election, though. Our nation has become a candlestick and two faces. For those who can see both images at once, it is painfully frustrating that not only do some people only see the candlestick, but they want to punish and subdue anyone who tries to tell them that the faces are also there. And now, it appears, policy that affects all of us, as well as the planet and future generations, is going to be made based on the conviction that there is only a candlestick. We are all in danger when life-and-death decisions are based on an incomplete grasp of the full picture.

The only hope I see going forward is that we have to reveal the optical illusion. We have to be able to say both candlestick and faces. No matter how ardently you cling to the belief that what you see is the only thing to be seen, the moment you perceive the other half of the illusion, that belief is transformed. With no bitterness at “the other side,” you might even laugh at yourself for not seeing the faces sooner. A case in point is Glenn Beck, the right-wing die-hard apologist, who has seen, and now can’t unsee, that the alt-right is “truly terrifying.”

I am going to keep advocating for every group targeted by the rhetoric of our improbable president-elect. It’s hard to see Muslims as “terrorists” when you see them as human beings, undocumented immigrants as “criminals” when you work side-by-side with them, our LGBTQ brothers and sisters as “deviants” when your kid is best friends with one, or African Americans as “dangerous” when you see them as role models. I ask you, whether you first saw the dress as blue and black or white and gold, to join me in working towards this end.