“How does it feel to be a white woman running the Martin Luther King Jr Community Center during a racial uprising in the middle of a pandemic?” she asked. When my mental health therapist posed this question to me in July 2020 through the computer screen, I laughed out loud, and then realized she was serious. I’m usually focused on the disparities in our society due to all the -isms that don’t often apply to me. Even when it comes to sexism I’ve been really lucky in comparison to many women. And here starts the excuses, revealing how I’ve been conditioned to see myself as fortunate — minimizing the stressful and isolating things that have happened in my own life. The little voices dishing out shame creep in.
“Why are you crying?”
Therapy is supposed to be the place that I put down all the fight, flight, and freeze defense mechanisms, but this seemed extreme even with the weight of her question. It’s taking place through a telemedicine ap since we can’t meet in person. I underestimated how effective that technology would be and my inability to hide from her – or maybe her questions are just that on point.
“Wait, how ARE you doing?”
Some curiosity tried to creep in, but more self-diminishing excuses followed. I’m working to just own them, and not shame myself or compare them to anyone else’s outsides. Sort of like being bossy versus having leadership skills. It’s like a never-ending debate between shame and compassion sitting on opposite shoulders.
Shame: First, I explained how we’re still working in person during the stay-at-home order, at least three days per week. I expressed my gratitude for the way our funding is structured. We haven’t had to furlough anyone like many other non-profit organizations, or those who closed completely as a result of COVID-19. The camaraderie is good.
Compassion: Working is really scary without access to COVID testing. Because my organization was still operating in-person, I made a commitment to be a model as the leader and not socialize much outside of work and risk bringing COVID into the workplace. It’s lonely at the top.
I wasn’t visiting my family either, but it turned out to be a good excuse. A couple of months into the stay-at-home order my father called asking for a favor and said, you can come quarantine with us if you want. I politely declined and said I was still working. He sarcastically said, “oh – so you’re an essential worker?” It reminded me of the time he said, “How does someone who’s an Executive Director not have health insurance?” Thank goodness for the Zoom conference calls happening three days per week with the other 11 community center directors since the beginning of COVID-19. Few people understand. Sometimes they lasted just five minutes to make sure everyone was as okay as they could be.
“Why are you crying?”
Shame: I told the therapist that laughter has been good during these times. Those social media posts about people and their pet/child coworkers are hilarious. At least I’m not trapped at home in 1400 square feet with a spouse and young children. Sure – keep telling yourself that.
Compassion: It’s lonely and isolating as a single person at home, without seeing your extended family and friends, and a toxic romantic relationship falling apart. In another life I was probably a crazy cat lady with dozens of cats. My 17-year old cat passed away in 2019. She would have been a great quarantine coworker walking back and forth across the screen.
Even though I wasn’t dining out, I saw the reports of City officials deciding to close streets like Mass Ave and Broadripple Ave in an effort to save locally owned restaurants. Cities can get so creative in a crisis, showing that we could be more creative with other neighborhood streets like 38th Street, or the one-way speed trap toward downtown that is Capitol Avenue.
Why are you crying?
Shame: Since the murder of George Floyd, white people are sending us their guilt money left and right. I’m sure it’s because we’re safer than sending it directly to Black Lives Matter. Do they even know there is a white executive director here? Or does that make it even more safe? Do Black people even value our work?
Compassion: My work over the past five years speaks for itself, that’s also a reason why they’re investing in MLK Center. You’re doing the work that you were meant to do. We practice what we preach and believed Black Lives Matter long before 2020. You’re not a “fragile” white lady, but it’s still okay to cry.
I went to the police tape line on Michigan Road when Dreasjon Reed was killed by IMPD to be a white ally between the police and the protestors. When I read the story of Elijah McClain, who was killed by police in Aurora, Colorado, before George Floyd, I sobbed and sobbed. NY Times reported that he played the violin for stray cats to soothe them. I can’t even type that sentence without crying.
When I got to MLK Center in 2015, it was on the verge of extinction. The budget was less than $300,000 and there were two part-time employees. No one thought it would last past the 18-month plan I had been charged with implementing. I was overqualified for the job but took on the Managing Director title anyway because titles just aren’t important to me. In seven months of 2020, we distributed more than $1.8 in emergency assistance due to COVID-19, which is more than what we had projected for our total annual budget. It’s a lot to be thankful for, but most times, it’s just a lot.
Adolpho Reed, Jr and his son Touré Reed, have taught me that, “neoliberal practices and ideologies” will be used to justify new twists and turns in Indianapolis post-COVID, just like the rebuilding of New Orleans. All of the variables are intertwined – not just race and not just economics, but a finely woven intersectionality of oppression. The history of the Butler Tarkington Neighborhood, the home of MLK Center, is steeped in these issues. They’re alive and well today, just veiled in more “sophisticated” ways as Justin Garret Moore explains to students when detailing his work.
It’s okay to cry.
Allison Luthe has been Executive Director of MLK Center in Indianapolis since June 2015. A graduate of Butler University, she also holds a Master of Social Work degree. She is currently pursuing a PhD in American Studies at IUPUI, researching youth violence. Allison and her porch cat, Wheezy, live in the Crown Hill Neighborhood within walking distance of MLK Center.
BTNA. (n.d.). About. https://www.butlertarkington.org/about.
Hemme, D., & Chamberlain, B. (2020, September 7). Beyond complete streets: Could covid-19 help transform thoroughfares into places for people? https://www.planetizen.com/features/110429-beyond-complete-streets-could-covid-19-help-transform-thoroughfares-places-people.
Reed, A. (2015, June 29). Undone by neoliberalism. https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/undone-neoliberalism/.
Tompkins, L. (2020, June 25). Here’s what you need to know about Elijah Mcclain’s death. https://www.nytimes.com/article/who-was-elijah-mcclain.html.
Webb, D. J. (2020, August 25). Man vs. Woman: The Effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect: Dr. Jonice Webb. Dr. Jonice Webb | Your resource for relationship and emotional health. https://drjonicewebb.com/man-vs-woman-the-effects-of-childhood/.