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  • Writer's pictureJennifer

Thanksgiving Representation - part 1 of 2

Updated: Nov 25, 2021

photo: taken in 2016 when curious enough to get in the car and drive to Plymouth, MA on Thanksgiving

It's that time again—turkey time 2021. Thanksgiving is the traditional starting line and rolling out of the many ways we all celebrate and acknowledge the winter holiday season. After the past 20 months of navigating the treacherous seas of a global pandemic, insurrections, death, and injustice—time and time again—I wonder what our brains, nervous systems, and our hearts, will be asking of us to reflect on. Will it be the narrative of truer stories, or will we continue to cling to that which is comfortable?

A few years back, I went to visit the infamous Plymouth Rock. I went purposely on Thanksgiving to see for myself the history and the conflicting stories. On Thanksgiving, in Plymouth, MA, and throughout the United States, there is one story of celebration and one of mourning. There is the story of community and collaboration; and the story of oppression and colonization. We've memorized the single story of manifesting exceptional purpose—while remaining blind to the historical and contemporary atrocities: of disappearance, and exploitation, which is the cost of superiority.

My uncle has invested hours upon hours researching and documenting our family tree. A few months ago, he sent me the link on Ancestry. I was dizzy from the details, especially from my maternal grandfather's side. My mind floated back to when first learning about the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. I remembered my 6th-grade social studies class, taught by the art teacher I adored, Ms. Swank. She wore emerald green nail polish, was married to a carpenter/surfer (this was the year we lived in Port Aransas on Padre Island), and drove an old classic Chevy muscle car. They didn't have children, and lived in an A-frame house I cleaned for her once a week. Occasionally, I'd help with her grocery shopping—on those days I'd get to ride in that fancy car. She was so bloody cool (as Adele recently said of her childhood teacher). In class, she went through the text in our book—having us build ships of cardboard with paper sails, and stick masts. We decorated them and heard the heroic story of conquest and sailing across mighty seas to reach the new world—just as my family must have done on the early migration voyages from old England to New England back in the 1600s. I didn't know then what I know now—the truer violent stories of Columbus and his ships, or that of my own family history and how it impacts those I love and communities I live in now. What I do with this knowledge is up to me. Do I advocate for a narrative of false and comfortable truths, or one that is often painful but required to reimagine a world of belonging?

A connection I made; Patrick Lynch of the Ipswich River Watershed Association, when doing staffing outreach for The North Face store I managed, recently posted a project he had worked on. Harvard University had replaced its website landing page with a curated list of experiences, projects, and stories by and about Native Americans and Alaska Natives as part of National Native American Heritage Month.

"Harvard, like so many American institutions, is addressing its uneven history with Native American people while also nurturing the next generations of Native students."

If you missed the landing page transformation, you can still see the voices of Native Americans and their collaborations in truth-telling, the celebration of Indigenous culture, and belonging at Harvard here. This revised effort of recognition to Native American culture at Harvard University is year-round, as it should be.

As I apply for positions in social and community impact, some within the Justice, Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging space—I am confronted with the question: do I have adequate training, professional and lived experience, for these particular roles? I have worked in areas of program management for over two decades— both in the nonprofit and private sectors. I've lived in communities that are considered or were considered marginalized when I moved into them. Often they are vibrant hubs for new immigrants, or communities pushed to the fringe due to social ostracization. They are almost always under-resourced due to racism, prejudice, and financial crisis created by the abandonment of once-thriving industries. Within those communities, I've worked across demographic and socio-economic groups—sometimes with exuberant success and at other times crushing failure. I connected with the identity of hard-working determined families—it was the familiarity to my working-class family roots. Even with that familiarity there were vast cultural difference regardless of my appreciation of those experiences. When I found success—listening and respecting—celebrating the community was key. When I experienced miserable failure, I was working from a preconceived idea of knowing—my internalized legacy of superiority was leading.

One recent role I applied to is the Director of Equity and Inclusion with the Town of Danvers, MA. If you've been listening to the news, you know how serious the issues are. I don't easily shy away from a challenge, and I would challenge you to look closer at the Town of Danvers and see what I see. They have a dedicated and committed Human Rights and Inclusion Committee, among other leadership addressing their crisis head-on. At a recent town hall meeting; that included the newly formed North Shore NAACP, they opened the meeting by honoring the Native lands the Town of Danvers now resides upon. As they are tackling hundreds of years of generational bias and superiority—they are actively listening. These are not problems that go away by voicing outrage alone. It takes commitment, education, and painful conversations of accountability. Their Human Rights newsletter addresses blatant racism and its founding history in our country, respecting the LGBTQ+ community by providing pronoun training, honoring women blazing trails of independence, and acknowledging the horrors of anti-semitism.

Portions of my Corthell family came from Plymouth, eventually settling on the North Shore, where I was born in Danvers, and where my maternal grandfather and grandmother bought their home with a GI bill. My grandfather and grandmother were of the old world, yet came to celebrate, and protect, my mom's choices as a lesbian. They loved and cherished their great grand-daughter who is half Puerto Rican, and valued the rich cultural history and identity of her father. My family has faced and continues facing our prejudices and inevitably carried racism through affinity—collectively sharing meals, homes, culture, and communities—and the necessary accountability to our history. I believe the Town of Danvers, and throughout the United States, we have the capacity to face our history—to be accountable—to create belonging.

In 2021 we've seen exponential growth in the movement of Justice, Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging. My professional and life experience has taught me the importance of celebrating and respecting race, cultural heritage, gender, and identity—and to own when I haven't. During this holiday season and current point in history, I believe it is vital to question and critically examine the stories we've been taught and use those lessons of truths to create a future of belonging. When we create belonging and celebrate our unique cultural qualities, and perspectives, that make up our extraordinary existence as human beings—we all thrive in unimaginable ways and have so much more to be thankful for.

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