We were interested in speaking with members of the Green Gulch and San Francisco Zen Center communities whose lives might have been particularly impacted by participation in the diversity workshops. So we met with an interracial family, residents at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center, Furyu Nancy Schroeder and Grace Dammann, two White women who share their lives together and have adopted Sabrina, a biracial (Black/White) child. We met after the storms this past December that had knocked out the power at Green Gulch for several weeks. Leaning toward one another for warmth, we made a cozy circle on a futon. Sabrina, now two-and-a-half, napped in Furyu’s lap as we talked. — B.G.
Furyu Nancy Schroeder: Sabrina came to live in Grace’s and my household when she was one month old. We had received a telephone call that a baby was needing two moms.
Sabrina was a beautiful little four-pound biracial baby girl. She was a preemie, but she was not in an incubator. She was drug addicted at birth and so we spent several months detoxing her from a number of different substances that her mother had been taking. The day we went to get her from the hospital, the report on her HIV status came back in a sealed envelope. This privileged information would be released to us only if we had accepted responsibility for her. After we opened the envelope, we stood there and cried because the report said she was positive, and it was conclusive.
Since birth, possibly from the HIV infection, Sabrina had some cerebral palsy, which is showing up in her torso. The doctors had thought she might be a quadriplegic. But we’re expecting her to walk in some fashion; she’s already playing soccer; whenever she can get hold of the ball, she kicks. Contrary to some expectations, it turns out that Sabrina is very vibrant and active, charming and intelligent.
Grace Dammann: I participated in the diversity workshops Sala gave for the Zen Center board of directors. More than anything else, I took away from that workshop an understanding of what it means to be an ally. I found it extraordinarily helpful to think that many of our early patterned experiences could be changed as adults by thinking in terms of either being an ally or asking for somebody to be our ally.
At moments in the workshop I felt totally overwhelmed; I wondered, “How can I be an ally to this child in the many, many ways in which she may experience some sort of holding back on other people’s parts…on the issue of disability, on the issue of life-threatening illness, on the issue of color/race, on the issue of parental background (having two White moms) and so forth. Just what will it be like to be somebody who can’t walk very well? What will it be like to be slower than the rest of your class? And what will it be like for other people when they know that her blood is potentially death-giving for other kids?
As I experienced it in the workshop, what it means to be an ally is to be available to be called to join somebody else so that that person can move through their own experience without feeling totally isolated.
Being an ally is a code phrase that actually makes it safe for somebody else to step forward, because being an ally is structured in order to provide limits. As a caregiver, I know that when people ask me to do things I sometimes have an immediate pull-back response, which is, “Are you going to be another person that I have to bring into my home and life forever and ever?” But somebody who has had this training knows the limits. And when I need an ally, I appreciate those limits. I don’t want somebody to come and fix it. I don’t want somebody to love me to pieces. I want somebody to walk with me through what’s frightening.
I wish that everybody could get trained in being an ally so it would be easy to call on people. I remember I had a terrible interaction with a department head in neurology over Sabrina. As a physician in the AIDS unit at Laguna Honda Hospital, I’m someone who knows the health care system for AIDS patients. But what I really would have loved to be able to have done was to call somebody up and say, “I can’t deal with this alone. Can you come with me?” What an ally does is she or he comes with. No questions asked, she comes with. Because she understands the part of the experience that is so disempowering, and she knows that her mere presence lets you reclaim your own position in the situation.