Writing for Justice

By Maryann Calendrille

With one hundred women just elected to the House of Representatives, we’ll soon see the first Muslim, the first Native Americans, and many African-American women take their seats as lawmakers come January. These new faces in Congress look a lot like the diverse faces we saw at the Women’s March on Washington and worldwide in January 2017. 

I’d been to other rallies before as a member of East End NOW, but never anything like that one. In the crush of that day, in the nation’s capital, many of us were energized anew to take action. We made commitments, whether we spoke them aloud or whispered them silently within. It’s quite possible these national election results are, in part, the fruits of those commitments. My commitment is taking shape closer to home.

One month after the march, Organizacion Latino-Americana of Eastern Long Island called an emergency meeting. Racist and bigoted fearmongering spewed from our highest office, demonizing immigrants. ICE agents were showing up at job sites, at restaurant kitchens, at people’s homes, hauling people into detention. Pews were packed at Queen of the Most Holy Rosary Catholic Church in Bridgehampton as families fearful of being pulled apart came to learn their rights. Advocates, allies, and others filled the balcony, every aisle. 

A panel of speakers gave advice: Find someone to take care of your kids if you get picked up. Tell your kids not to open the door to strangers. A woman near the altar silently wept. Children feared going to school one morning and coming home to an empty house, their mother or father gone. How could we stand idly by? 

Late one night this spring, I read an email from the Herstory Writers Workshop. Something about its call for facilitators spoke to me. I’d known of Herstory for years, ever since Erika Duncan, a Sag Harbor writer, first offered women a chance to write a story they hadn’t previously told, to break silences they’d kept for years. We’d hosted several Herstory readings at Canio’s, always moved by what we heard. 

Herstory evolved from classes at the Southampton Cultural Center to offer workshops Islandwide in prisons, domestic violence shelters, with young student Dreamers, and more. I wanted to work with writers who had urgent stories to tell, to help them shape a narrative that would move the “stranger-reader,” as Erika terms it. If we understood someone’s lived experience, if we walked in their shoes even for a few pages, hearts and minds might open. That is the hope. As one Herstory facilitator said: “You can argue politics, but you can’t argue with a story.”

I’d been teaching writing workshops at Canio’s for years, but this new effort would call me into other corners of the community. Years ago, my college classrooms were filled with black, brown, and white young people, some struggling to keep up, and some who enjoyed every privilege of their race and status. We read stories like Louise Erdrich’s “The Red Convertible,” Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour,” James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues.” But could we understand our common experiences across differences, all the while learning a thing or two about comma splices and verb tense? 

Often the disparities between students were too great to bridge. We’d need more than one class, one semester to develop the empathy I was after. We’d need better basic education for all; we’d need support for single mothers, quality child care, and a whole lot more. The effects of institutional racism, classism, sexism couldn’t be undone in a few short months.

I grew up in relatively safe, segregated, middle-class suburbs where it was easy to consider everyone equal since nearly everyone I met looked like me. Everyone I met lived in a house more or less like mine, often an exact model. When I first came to the East End, decades ago, social stratification announced itself in the grand mansions in Georgica and along Southampton’s Dune Road. And in the modest cottages of friends in Springs and Pine Neck. The old migrant farm workers camps were still standing along the Bridgehampton Turnpike. At harvest time, I’d see men riding in open flatbeds with the cabbage they’d cut from fields all day, as if they, too, were excess produce that might easily fall from the truck, unnoticed, along its bumpy route. 

Walking through an old oceanfront estate a friend was remodeling, we passed the master’s suite, then down a hallway to the servants’ quarters, where, once through a dividing door, the woven carpet changed to old linoleum; silk wall coverings vanished, revealing bare wood. The material distinctions so obvious, it seemed like a parody, but wasn’t. I’d watched teams of landscapers fuss over sod lawns sloping over dunes. Garden expenses for one summer exceeded my yearly salary. The disparities were disturbing then, and feel much worse today.

The sense of urgency has quickened as military troops have swarmed the border, caravans of desperate refugees labeled “terrorists.” As a Herstory facilitator-in-training now, I meet weekly with a diverse and lively group: young students, mature professionals, black, brown, and white, gay and straight, mostly women and one wonderful young man. We practice our skills, read our work, and listen in awe to the fierce tenderness each of us brings to the table. We’ve each made a commitment to take this writing for justice to some corner of the community come spring.

It’s that fierce tenderness that runs through “Brave Journeys: 15 Border Crossing Stories,” recently published by Herstory. In one story, a pregnant young woman escapes domestic violence at home and endures days of difficult travel, days of hunger and cold. Then she’s confronted with a river crossing. She cannot swim. In another, a 15-year-old girl leaves home on the day of her quinceanera. Her aunt and uncle were murdered. She dreams of a better life, but must leave her mother behind. Once you hear her story, you can’t deny her strength of spirit, the tenacity within. 

“Brave Journeys” deserves a wider audience. If our local legislators read these stories, might that lead them to greater understanding? Would they make better policy decisions to protect rather than punish community members? That is the hope. If students read “Brave Journeys” in our East End schools and libraries, wouldn’t it inspire them, challenge stereotypes, and spark conversation and compassion? That is the hope. 

With these dreams propelling us, Herstory writers and advocates will gather at Canio’s this Thanksgiving weekend to hear stories from our East End immigrant neighbors. With OLA and Racial Justice East End, a group of clergy and activists, we’ll renew commitments to create a collaborative and just community. We know full well the East End economy would collapse without critical contributions made by our hard-working immigrant neighbors. But more important, we value each other as people sharing a dream. 

If Thanksgiving means anything to us as Americans, surely it means we depend on one another for survival. It means there’s always room for another guest at the Thanksgiving table. Especially here on the East End, where we have so much to offer, and there is so much need. 

Maryann Calendrille is a co-owner of Canio’s Books in Sag Harbor, where a Herstory Writers Workshop reading and call to action will take place on Nov. 25 at 3 p.m.