How Having a Son Made Me a Feminist

August 12, 2016
By Ian McCall, Alpha 2016 Fellow

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As the first boy born in two generations, I grew up doted on by superwomen. I was raised by my mother, her sisters, and their mother – Grandmama, the most fearless one of all.

Grandmama was basically a Marine Corps Sergeant. She didn’t really sleep, she just laid down – usually last – and was always the first one up the next day. Grandmama policed us from her recliner using a system of mirrors triangulated to show every corner of the house. The mirrors were decoration, instruments of vanity, and a home surveillance system.

Her domain was vast, spanning the household, the finances, the calendar, family health, and anything else she wanted to shield from my grandfather, who ran a construction crew. Grandmama made every decision, or she would tell the decision maker what decision to make. In all things and on all fronts, there was only Grandmama’s way. She wasn’t disruptive or argumentative. She was just always right.

Grandmama’s drill-instructor brand of love forged her daughters into iron-fisted women. They made eye contact. They said what they meant. They were frighteningly intelligent – a gang of lionesses on the hunt, who could filet a man with their words and leave his ego splayed across the hood of his car for the vultures.

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On the other hand, my grandfather, father to three girls, had not always known what to make of them. He’d grown up hearing that daughters were liabilities. “They can’t do nothing but sit up in the house and spit out more mouths to feed,” his father had warned him, repeatedly.

My great-grandmother – Grandma Margaret – had the vision her husband lacked. Well after my great-grandfather had died, she lay on her deathbed, and her son sat by her bedside, frustrated and confused.

“Mama what can I do with them?” he asked. “They’re girls. What can they do?”

“You educate your girls,” she told him. “They can do anything anyone else can do. Things are going to change.”

My grandfather believed her. And he later believed in empowering everyone he came into contact with, from his construction crew (who got regular bonuses), to his wife (who he brought to work with the men when she wanted) to his daughters, whose ways through college he paid for with cash, from laying bricks at 25 cents a piece.

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I’ve come to suspect that it was due to this upbringing that my social circles always resembled the paradigm I most understood – a tribe of women with me at their center.

Eventually I found myself as the official photographer at a reproductive-rights rally. I’d gotten involved because I was dating a woman who volunteered with the host organization, Georgians For Choice. Wherever she was, I wanted to be.

For the first time, I was around women who were openly lesbian, sharing fruit platters with women in transition. I’d been exposed to queer people, but I’d always found their sexual orientations dizzying, and I’d certainly never been in an environment where there were more of them than there were of me.

At this point in my life I was still very much an ex-grunt. I saw every room I entered in slices, kept track of exits and entrances everywhere I went. I got along better with civilians than some of the fellows I served with, but under the surface, I was just as isolated out here as was any monkey shot into space.

For some reason, I was comfortable around these women. They didn’t judge me; they too were renegades. Mavericks. They were some of the realest, most complex human beings I’d met since getting out.

And most of all, they were the first people I’d found in my adult life who were talking about ideas.

Once more, I found myself surrounded and shaped by a tribe of women, as I was the only man I ever saw there. But I’d never been around women like these. They were socially conscious. Politically informed. Righteously angry. And they went to work on me immediately. I quickly learned that everything I said was misogynistic. And whether I liked it or not, most of what I did was chauvinist and pigheaded. “Would you even think to say that to a man?” became the question of the hour.

I’d gotten out of the military very aware that society was jacked up, but without a clue how the world really worked. It was through the consciousness of feminists that my awareness expanded to include the history of Western imperialism, the prison and military industrial complexes, the distinction between capitalism and socialism, the difference between democracies and republics.

I didn’t realize it then, but the foundation of my resocialization into the world was being built.

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I’d always been conscious of injustice because I’d lived my life as a racial minority. But as a Black man, my entry into understanding oppression was racial. I had the option of being awake to sexism and misogyny when and if I wanted to.

Most Black men miss this reality. Like most Black men, I’d never had to consider the multiplicative effect of race and gender on Black women, even though the women who’d raised me battled it right in front of me my whole life. Perhaps I saw the battle and without understanding, mistook it for power.

I wondered if my upbringing had given me a false sense of what women were actually up against. It dawned on me that the women in my family seemed “strong-willed” because I was used to women suppressing their wills everywhere else I encountered them. I’d overlooked the obvious: the women in my family had all been to college and were successfully employed, but they still didn’t hold any real power out in the world. I remembered that after 20 years, my mom was passed over for a job she’d trained others to do twice.

I realized I’d been calling them superwomen for all the wrong reasons. They weren’t superwomen because they were smart and opinionated and decisive. They were superwomen because they dared to assert these qualities in a world that didn’t think Black women should be any of these things.

My mother was not a superwoman for raising us by herself; she had no other choice. She was a superwoman for raising us to know no ceilings, while the ceiling she was pressed up against suffocated her. She was super because even though she had no clue how to raise a man, she single-handedly raised a feminist.

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At age 32 I found out I was expecting a daughter. My first thought was that I wanted her to be a woman of power, a mighty lioness like those I’d encountered throughout my life. My second thought was that I wasn’t sure if I was equipped to protect her from all the odds against her. What if she was so pretty that nothing else about her was taken seriously? What if she wasn’t pretty at all? How would I explain to her that prettiness would have no bearing over the success of any little brother she might one day have?

I was confused. Conflicted. I had no clue how little girls developed into women, how I would help a daughter navigate a world built upon her subjugation. I was suddenly touched by the problem of sexism. Now it was personal.

I didn’t just have blind spots. I felt completely blind. I wanted to talk to my mother, but she was dead – she too had seen her deathbed with her contribution to the world (beyond motherhood) untapped. I realized I wouldn’t be able to understand how gendered oppression really worked until I took ownership of all the ways I had participated in it. I had to admit that I didn’t actually see women as equals, that they were accessories at least and appendages at most, human-like beings who displayed human-like traits but needed to be managed, like my emotions or my bank account.

I knew what my mother would tell me – that my daughter could do anything anybody else could do. And if I equipped her like I’d been equipped, she too would be a force of nature.

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Then we found out our little girl was a little boy through another ultrasound. I wasn’t overjoyed. I wasn’t even relieved. My heart sank, actually. I had finally wrapped my mind around raising a daughter, and I realized I knew even less about raising a son.

I’d been raised by women, and couldn’t really conceive of what it meant for a man to interact with his son positively. I barely understood how to connect with those who weren’t exactly like me: artists, idea-preneurs and warriors.

From childhood I developed a binary filter for quickly discerning men as either adversaries or speed bumps, always boring, pitifully simple to break down, and one-dimensionally driven.

But women were cunning and exciting. My thoughts went haywire. Don’t judge me. I saw men – including myself – as expendable. I was a product of a society that taught its men to take pride in that expendability: to go to war, to put our bodies on the line for work, and sacrifice ourselves for family, was what it meant to be a man.

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So I wrestled. I picked my own pieced-together manhood apart, trying to figure out how to relate to this baby boy. Then one day, I heard a voice from Georgians For Choice asking me a familiar question, but framed differently this time: “Would you be having this existential crisis if your boy were a girl?”

Herein was another lesson from feminism: Patriarchy doesn’t actually benefit us men in the long run. When women are robbed of their humanity, so are we men. Again, it was through the lens of feminism that it became clear how I should raise my son. If I was going to raise my daughter lovingly, it was simple – I would raise my boy the same way. I may not have known what it felt like to be absolutely bathed in the love by a father, but this boy – my boy – would get everything that his father, and his father’s father, and his father’s father’s father had missed. The bullshit would end with me.

I would set the example I wanted my son to follow. I would be the type of (hu)man I wanted him to be: a man whose strength didn’t rely on close-mindedness, whose security wasn’t couched in his ignorance, and whose humanity superseded his “manhood.” I’d raise my son to be awake. Conscious. A feminist. And if he came to me and told me he’d been a girl all along…that too would be a dance I’d have already done.

~~~

Epilogue For the last six months I’ve been volunteering with Cunabula, a storytelling campaign sponsored by Planned Parenthood Southeast that asks questions about women’s self-image, shame, and stigma to change the cultural narrative. Its hope is to tell authentic stories to tear down stereotypes and promote positive self image. This was a fellowship made possible by The Mission Continues, a nonprofit that gets veterans working in their communities through service. I can’t thank them enough for providing me the chance to not only do definitive work, but to also be around for my son’s first days.

 

Ian McCall is an artist, a storyteller, and a father. He has a blog, Millennial Dad, and is an Alpha 2016 Fellow. Report for duty in your community with The Mission Continues. Serve with a Service Platoon at an upcoming service event near you or apply for a fellowship. You can learn more about our programs on our website and stay updated on the latest news and announcements on Facebook and twitter.

 

Inspiring Service through Art

July 27, 2016
By Doug Aldrich, Artist

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As an artist supporting The Mission Continues Service Learning Project series with Democracy Prep Harlem Middle School in Harlem, I learned as much about service from the students as much as they’ve learned from me. I volunteered and led three classes of 6th grade students to create a mural through their own visual and literary submissions.  Continue reading “Inspiring Service through Art”

From Dusty Roads to City Streets: I’m Reporting for Duty Again

July 22, 2016
By Shannon Doty, Platoon Leader

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I recently had the unique experience of being a part of The Mission Continues first Mass Deployment, to Detroit. One week, five days of service, four project sites: 4000+ hours of service. A couple of other fun statistics: three amazing roommates, 70 other incredible veterans, countless national staff that coordinated and planned the whole thing, and approximately five hours of sleep every night. Plus, there was the added benefit of coming home looking like you spent a week street fighting because you’ve got bruises everywhere.

I have been volunteering with The Mission Continues for about a year and a half now. Engaging with other veterans has been essential in maintaining happiness and balance in my life. When I disengage from the veteran community, I disengage from life — and that is when I fall into depressive episodes and let my health slide.

Illness, injury, surgeries and recoveries have dominated my life for the past 11 months. I could do the service projects I found with the Minneapolis 1st Platoon when I was sick, weak, and recovering from these injuries. I didn’t have to be in a perfectly healthy mental place, I could be engaged at any level I was comfortable with and still be a part of the work.

It was exactly what I needed. I found the monthly projects were a constant that I could count on, something that I could look forward to and be engaged with my community and fellow veterans. As I got better physically and emotionally, I became more engaged, and looked for more ways to get involved.

Enter Operation Motown Muster, a pilot program where 70 veterans came from all over the country to do five days of service in Detroit. It was competitive. I had to apply, do a phone interview, and sit on pins and needles (or just checking my email compulsively) until I found out I had gotten in.

When I got the acceptance email, I actually screeched at work. Trying to explain Motown Muster was like trying to explain the nuances of the commerce clause to my dog Frodo. One thing was for sure, they were excited for me simply because of how excited I was.

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As we got closer to the date, and more information came to us, I found out I was going to be a Team Leader for some projects every day. I had moments of panic because I certainly did not feel prepared to have any responsibility at all. After my initial panic and self-doubt, I turned to my old reliable method of coping: I figured I could use false confidence until I figured out what I was going to do.

I have served in a leadership role for the past 11 years in the military as a non-commissioned officer since I was 21 years old. I am familiar and comfortable in that structure. It felt so much different when I had to lead people who were my equals. I couldn’t rely upon my rank alone. I knew I was going to have to find ways to motivate and lead people I had just met.

I brought in a bit of my attorney training for this challenge. I decided to fake my confidence until I started to feel it. It took time. The last day was when I finally found it. When given an amazing group of people with natural leaders in it, it is so easy to stand back and let them work. Our goal was to construct five benches and five picnic tables, lay mulch and anchor the picnic tables and benches in the ground. We did all of that and built an additional five picnic tables.

While my team members were building, measuring, and teaching some local volunteers how to use power tools, all I had to do was ensure they had what they needed. Seeing them working so hard and so well together without the need for constant guidance from me made me significantly more proud than if I had sat there and did all of the work myself.  

This moment is better understood with some context about myself. I left Iraq in April 2008 and Afghanistan in September 2012 feeling like I had done nothing. It is important for people to understand that this was a feeling of personal failure, not commentary on the wars themselves.

Whenever I had the opportunity to interact with the women and children in Afghanistan, (which were ample because I was a medic and a woman), I left those situations feeling as if I had failed. I had failed to provide them better medical care, I had failed to be a better advocate for them in our mission debriefs. I had failed in ways I hadn’t even figured out yet.

I saw that these women and children had no bright future simply because of the place and time they were born into. I wasn’t taking my privilege and using it to help these women. I left Afghanistan disappointed in how I had handled myself as a woman as an advocate for other women.

I saw destruction, disease, and women and children being ignored and used as political pawns. I saw entire cities and towns left in pieces. I saw schools destroyed, leaving an entire generation of children without education, an entire generation of children growing up ignored. There was no urgency or desire to rebuild, because as long as the war was still going on there was always the chance it was going to be destroyed again.

When I got home, I saw so much of the same here, in the very country that I left to protect against what I saw in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was incredibly disheartening. Failing schools, disenfranchised populations, a small group of people thriving while the rest fight for survival.

I felt as if I had gone from a forgotten war to a country that had forgotten to take care of its people. I wanted to do something to start supporting my community, but I didn’t know how. It was too much for me to take on alone. When I found The Mission Continues, it was like finding a family, other people with the same desire, but with focus, resources, and a common goal.

Detroit is the perfect example of how we have neglected our own country, our cities, our children, the most vulnerable of our citizens. Getting an opportunity to go and be a part of the healing and rebuilding of Detroit gave me a chance to address those feelings of disappointment in myself that I had harbored for so long. I was not there with 70 other people to “save” Detroit, I was lending a hand, providing manual labor and supplies to the people already working to bring their city back to the glory it was.

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Detroit is alive, Detroit has never been dead. There are people there that never left, they never gave up on Detroit, even when the country turned its back on the city that single handedly equipped us for World War II with its manufacturing capabilities. When Detroit comes back it will be because of the people that stayed in Detroit and kept it alive.

I must take what I saw in Detroit and bring it back home with me. I must take the joy, love, energy and enthusiasm from all the other Mission Continues veterans I met in Detroit and channel it to begin to work in my community. The same problems that plague Detroit are all over our country, and I know we have many of the same issues in my home of Minneapolis.

As I unpack what I learned, and what I can bring to 1st Platoon here in Minneapolis as the new Platoon Leader come August, I will remember that no matter how desperate things may look, there is nothing that cannot be achieved when you get 70 highly motivated people together and give them a mission, 94% of the supplies, and love.

I will always remember seeing the people from the neighborhood come out as we were working, and asking us what we were doing, and seeing them sitting on those picnic tables while talking to my fellow veterans. That was the moment I truly started to understand how much of an impact my time in Detroit would have — not just immediately, but long term. I didn’t need to tell them exactly what we accomplished that week. They will see it, they will eat at the tables, play on the playgrounds, and walk the halls of the school.

 

Shannon is a member of the Wisconsin National Guard and volunteers with The Mission Continues Minneapolis 1st Platoon. She will be a Platoon Leader starting August 2016.

Report for duty in your community with The Mission Continues. Serve with a Service Platoon at an upcoming service event near you or apply for a fellowship. You can learn more about our programs on our website and stay updated on the latest news and announcements on Facebook and twitter. 

Leading the Pack

June 16, 2016
By Amber Johnson

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Editor’s Note: This week we’d like to share an inspiring story of a veteran who, after a long military career, was inspired to start his own nonprofit focused on serving youth. DeRemer’s life and his work bears kinship with The Mission Continues.

It’s 7:30 a.m. on a spring morning, and Lee DeRemer is surrounded by 20 teenage boys, each full of nervous energy. Scattered around the edges of the group are bikes, helmets, and other gear. In front of them are 72 miles of Pennsylvania backroads.

They’ll be in Philadelphia by the end of the day, but they’re not riding just to reach a destination; they’re riding to learn they’re capable of the impossible.

Continue reading “Leading the Pack”

Defining Passion

June 13, 2016
By Rhonda Schlumpberger, Fellow

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Passion is the act of having a powerful or compelling emotion or feeling. We hear this word used often in today’s culture: “I’m passionate about rock climbing, music, photography, riding horses, cooking, travel….” The list is endless.

But what about a passion for serving?

Continue reading “Defining Passion”

The Mission Continues, Community Partner of The Year

June 10, 2016

Last year we teamed up with Partnership for L.A. Schools (PLAS) to help youth in underprivileged neighborhoods. The Mission Continues was recently recognized for this work as “Community Partner of The Year,” a distinction given to a PLAS partner who “passionately and generously works to develop and strengthen the school community.” The award was given at the Up Awards, which are hosted by PLAS annually to honor parents, teachers, and leaders in the community that support PLAS Schools.

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The Mission Continues 2nd and 3rd Service Platoons in LA served in the Boyle Heights and Watts communities, respectively. Platoon Leaders Richard Krykew and Majken Geiman have lead the way in both leadership and heart to make this partnership flourish.

Continue reading “The Mission Continues, Community Partner of The Year”

Blazing Trails in Our National Parks

June 8, 2016

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Our nation’s national parks were originally protected by the military, and for the past few months, The Mission Continues New York 3rd Platoon has continued to do just that. The platoon has sustained involvement with the largest national park in New York, Gateway National Recreation Area, which is home to both wildlife and historic forts.

Together, they have protected New York Harbor for over 200 years. Today, they remain among the oldest military installations in the country. To preserve this rich history, platoon members have worked over the past few months to rehabilitate a nature and history trail within the park. This trail, which has not been open to the public for decades, can now be used in educational tours that are the backbone of interpretation at the park. As the summer tourist season is about to begin, the opening of this trail could not have come at a better time.

Continue reading “Blazing Trails in Our National Parks”

The Detroit I Know

June 3, 2016
By Courtney Sloat

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They love their city and they don’t want to leave. They have lived here their whole lives and are proud of it. There’s a strong sense of determination and perseverance. Who am I talking about? The people of Detroit.

That’s why I was thrilled when I saw that The Mission Continues was coming to Detroit for an entire week, working alongside local community members and partners to help rebuild our city. I had just joined the Detroit Platoon in order to volunteer in my community while also connecting with fellow veterans in my area, and this seemed like a great opportunity. Continue reading “The Detroit I Know”