Stories from the Stage

S4 E10 | FULL EPISODE

Good Kind of Trouble

The late John Lewis took pride in creating “good trouble” and standing up against unfairness. Maulian fights to ban "Indian" mascots in Maine schools; Ronald stands up for his integrated marriage; and Dr. Wanda’s boss pushes back against patients who don’t want to see her because of her name. Three stories, three interpretations of GOOD KIND OF TROUBLE, hosted by Theresa Okokon.

AIRED: February 22, 2021 | 0:26:30
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TRANSCRIPT

MAULIAN DANA: And there's a gymnasium full of students,

and everywhere I see is the word "Redskins,"

and they all look very angry.

RONALD SMITH: I saw this guy.

I'm, like, "That's him."

And he's walking up to the table,

and I have no idea what to do.

WANDA CASTRO-BORRERO: Why? Why people has to make assumptions

based on your last name, your accent,

the color of your skin-- why?

THERESA OKOKON: Tonight's theme is "Good Kind of Trouble."

The late great representative John Lewis

once said, "Never ever be afraid to make some noise

"and get into good trouble.

Necessary trouble."

Every day, each of us can only hope to live up

to this directive, and tonight's storytellers

are sharing their true stories of their own good trouble.

SMITH: My name is Ronald Smith, and I was born

originally in Selma, Alabama.

I live currently in Fayetteville, Georgia,

with my wife and kids.

Uh, I'm the founder of New Way Revolution,

and the work that we do here is racial reconciliation,

and we do work that bring people together.

OKOKON: And when did you realize that you wanted

to play a role of some kind

in changing things in your community?

SMITH: I think there's something that's been in me

for a really long time to help people.

And I met Dr. Bernard Lafayette, and when I met him,

uh, he worked alongside Dr. King and John Lewis

and C.T. Vivian, different people like that

during the Civil Rights Movement.

When those guys began to tell me stories and talk about

the courage that it took

to try to bring people together

and what they were willing to do,

like, something in there stoked a fire in me

and I wanted to do it.

OKOKON: Did you grow up with storytelling in your family?

SMITH: My brother Rufus, who passed away,

he was, he was nine years older than me, but...

He could tell-- he could really tell some good stories.

I mean, he just had a way of capturing you,

whenever he sat around and tell a story.

And Dr. Lafayette also taught me some things, because

Dr. Lafayette is a great storyteller.

So I learned to tell the stories,

or use stories to actually teach from.

So the storytelling became, uh, just simply a tool

that I would use to get some of the principles across

to some of our audiences.

I was born in Selma, Alabama, one of 16 children.

And my parents kind of grew up on a farm.

And I saw the, the courage of my parents

just even to raise 16 children, you know, in Selma.

And I saw the strength of my dad.

You know, I saw my dad do, do incredible feats,

in my opinion, as a young boy growing up watching him.

You know, be out in the cold weather,

sometimes be 30, 45 degrees, and he'll be chopping wood,

you know, with no shirt on, you know?

And that was my dad, you know, that's my dad.

You know, as a kid, you see, you cheer him on,

'cause that's who your daddy is.

And then I saw his weakness.

I saw his weakness come out,

because he was afraid of white people.

And he was genuinely afraid.

And we would go downtown, and he would push me off the sidewalk

when whites were coming.

And he would tell me,

"You get off the sidewalk when white people come."

And then I saw him in a grocery store with a young white bagger,

and him saying "Yes, sir, no, sir," to this white bagger.

And it really bothered me and it really frustrated me.

I really didn't like it.

That's my dad.

I mean, he's supposed to be strong,

but I just see him being weak in this moment,

and didn't understand why.

I didn't wanna be that way.

I didn't wanna do what he did.

I wanted to do something different.

I believed something different could be done.

And years later, I began to invest some time

in Selma to do work in the community

to help young people, to help people be reconciled.

Black and white people can come together.

You can actually, we can actually live together.

We can actually, you know, do this life together.

And it didn't have to be

all this that my parents went through.

And so... but while out there doing this work, uh,

I met, I met a white woman named Gwen,

and she had a radio program, and, and she invited me

to co-host on this radio program.

And the radio was designed to do the very thing

that was in my heart to do, you know.

And Gwen was not like me.

I mean, she was from Colorado, I was from Alabama.

She drank green smoothies

and I loved pork chops and fried chicken and...

Just had some differences, and I'm Black and she's white.

But she also played football, had some grit,

so I knew that she was committed to doing this work,

just reconciling people--

the commitment to reconcile people and...

So we get on the radio and we put our energy out there.

We're gonna put our love on the line,

and we're gonna help people come together,

and people will call in and say some very hateful things.

People will tell us how Blacks and white together

will dumb down the race, or putting Blacks and whites

in the school together, meaning that you will have

to dumb down the education.

And then we'd take calls about people wanting

peach cobbler over apple pie, and things like that.

And that was kind of the space that Gwen and I operated in,

and I still felt some uncomfort with her, because

my dad was telling me to be afraid of white people.

She's still white, and I never

completely got past that, you know?

And so I didn't always challenge certain things

that I would hear her say when Black callers would call.

And so there were still some things in me

that I needed to work through, but we were committed

to keep doing the work.

But months later, Gwen and I found ourself

in a totally different space

in the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery,

and with the Alabama Bureau of Investigation there.

And we're sitting across the desk, and they're passing us

emails that they had captured from this guy.

And these emails said that,

"I will make a bomb and blow these people up."

Specifically wanting to kill Gwen and I.

And then they give us a picture to show us what he looked like.

Kind of a short guy, white guy.

And Gwen and I are driving back from Montgomery to Selma,

which is about a hour drive.

And the car was completely silent.

I mean, we just did not talk.

But everything in me started to feel the fear

about my parents being right.

"Why am I doing this? Is it worth it?

"Is my life worth it? Is her life worth it?

"I'm putting people in danger because I'm Black, she's white,

people don't want this, so let's just stop."

But the closer we got to Selma, the more I realized

that I wanted to keep going.

And we were committed.

We were committed to spreading love.

We were committed to going into community.

And we did.

But while just spreading love, Gwen and I

fell in love with each other.

I really started to love her

and was committed to doing this work together with her.

And so, months later, Gwen and I got invited to Hawaii

to do a training, a nonviolence training.

And while we were there to do this training,

with some people that were supporting us,

I wanted to marry Gwen, and I told her that.

And she said yes.

And she married me on that island.

And while Gwen and I flew back from that Hawaii trip,

on the plane, I felt all the anxiety of what my parents felt.

I felt the fear of going back to what we was going to

because there was somebody...

Because of the work that we were doing

to reconcile Blacks and whites,

somebody was wanting to kill us.

That we had to go back to that.

So Gwen and I made a decision

not to live together in the same house.

We would continue to do the work, but not to live together

in the same house, which was a challenge,

but it was safe for both of us.

And so when we get back,

we were doing an event downtown Selma,

not too far from the Edmund Pettus Bridge,

and we were outside playing music and

I saw this guy coming up, this white guy.

And I'm, like, "That's him."

In my mind, I'm, like, "That's him."

And Gwen sees him, and Gwen darts in the building

that we were out in front of because she's afraid.

So I'm just standing out there, and there's this guy

that we saw in this picture.

And he's walking up to the table where I'm at.

And he got both his hands in his pocket.

And I have no idea what to do.

I have no idea what to say.

And he walks up, takes his hand out of his pocket,

and I reach over and shake his hand.

And I would love to tell you that me shaking that man's hand

changed the way he felt about me being a Black man.

But in fact, weeks later, this man was arrested

for testing bombs in his backyard

that accidentally went off.

Gwen and I moved back in together,

we continued to do the work,

and I realized my parents were right.

I was afraid like they were, I did have fear,

but I also realized that the work that Gwen and I

were committing to do,

because it changed people's life.

It actually changed people's life.

So we became way more committed to do the work

than just to live in fear.

DANA: My name is Maulian Dana. I'm from Penobscot Nation,

Indian Island, Maine, and I serve here

as our tribal ambassador.

OKOKON: So what do you do as the tribal ambassador

for the Penobscot Nation?

DANA: I am the government representative

for the tribal nation to local, state, and federal governments.

I do a lot of legislature work,

I testify on a lot of bills.

I also advocate on issues

in communities around the nation.

Basically, I'm the voice of the tribe

in a lot of government settings.

I also work on public policy.

OKOKON: So can you tell me a bit about what it was like

for you growing up on the Penobscot Nation?

DANA: Growing up on the Penobscot Nation

is something that I hold so special

and so central to who I am.

I've chosen to buy a home here and raise my own children here.

They're 11 and 13, so knowing that they're

playing in the same woods trails as I did,

and they're on the banks of our river,

I really feel in my soul

that living in my ancestral homeland empowers me so much

when I go about my life and do this work.

I'm 15 years old and I'm watching high school

basketball tournaments on TV with my dad.

The two teams that are playing are the Skowhegan Indians

and the Nokomis Warriors.

When both teams come out to play,

the cheerleaders, the fans, the people in the band

are all wearing fake feathers, fake headdresses.

They're doing the war whoops and chants

and kind of dancing around.

And as an Indigenous person,

as a Penobscot person,

I am overwhelmed with confusion and mostly anger

about my peers in these two schools

acting out their Indian mascots

in such a disrespectful and mocking way.

I had been around these mascots a little bit in my life,

and I was aware of them, but I have never quite been

hit over the head by them like this before.

So I'm sitting there, obviously upset,

I'm kind of fuming, um, you know, clenching my hands,

maybe trembling a little bit,

and my father can sense something's wrong.

So I look right at him,

and I say, "What the hell is this?

Is this what people think we do?"

You know, "Is this what people think we are?"

At the time of this interaction,

he's serving as chief of the tribe.

But as I see him thinking back to his high school years,

he's kind of unpacking a lot of his experiences with racism

that seemed like they were part of those mascot experiences,

but were really not friendly or harmless.

They caused him a lot of harm

that he carried with him in his life.

When I'm 16 years old, I'm sitting in a gymnasium

in Scarborough High School.

They use the term "Redskins" for their mascot.

Now, "redskins" is a dictionary-defined racial slur

that I don't even like to say.

And I'm asked to be on this panel, and I feel

really great about it, even though I'm a little nervous.

I think at 16 years old, it's really neat to have

opportunities like that, where people want to hear you speak.

And they introduce me and, and I'm excited, and I look up,

and there's a gymnasium full of students,

maybe 150, 200 students.

And a lot of them are wearing jerseys and T-shirts

and holding signs, and everywhere I see

is the word "Redskins,"

with, you know, the stereotypical headdress.

They all look very angry.

So I start speaking and I start to hear

the students booing me,

and it gets louder, and I stop speaking.

My leg is shaking like crazy under the table,

I'm clenching my hands, I'm trying to make words...

Um, just very, very nervous and upset.

And a teacher starts to shush the, the students,

and we kind of find some calm in the room,

and I start to speak again.

And I don't even really remember what I say,

I was so distraught, but I did speak.

And I gathered myself and I made sure that I conveyed

to my peers that their mascot was harmful.

Now, an anthropologist was also on the panel with me.

And he talked about the origins of this word "redskins,"

and how it basically describes

skinning our ancestors alive.

And, you know, my people, the Penobscots, were scalped.

There were bounties put on us.

And this word talks about that process,

and that part of the genocide of our people.

So as the anthropologist spoke, I saw a lot of faces

in the room kind of wake up to this new knowledge.

And when we left there, it was kind of tense.

Nobody quite knew what to make of it.

But I remember feeling a shift in that room

and that we did some things right,

and maybe made a difference there.

Years and years later, as a young adult,

I am still working on this, I'm still an activist.

I'm still advocating for the removal

of these Indian mascots.

And I'm asked to speak at Skowhegan High School.

And I had spoken there numerous times before.

On this particular occasion,

it was a public forum, and the rules were changed

two days before to block me from speaking there.

So I went anyway. (laughs)

And I approached the microphone to speak after I had signed up,

and kind of the exact second I tried to start speaking,

members of the school board motioned for the police officer

in the room to come escort me from the microphone.

And everybody in that gymnasium

was also booing when I tried to speak,

and they cheered when I was removed.

They're holding signs that said, "Skowhegan Indian Pride."

They were wearing T-shirts with headdresses on them.

And they seemed to hate me

just as much as the kids in the Scarborough gymnasium

hated me for speaking my truth.

Absorbing all of that and dealing with

this disappointment and kind of scary situation,

I do some media interviews with different camera crews

that had come, and I leave the gymnasium,

and I'm approached by a 17-year-old student

who was the spokesperson for Skowhegan Indian Pride.

And at first, I don't want to even talk to him.

I'm kind of just, you know, I had had enough of fighting

for that day, and it was time to regroup and conserve my energy

and really think about how to best make change in this town.

But we, we entered into this discussion, and I was

kind of bracing myself for what he was going to say.

He looked at me and said that he was a Christian,

and that meant a lot to him, and that he was raised

to see humanity in other people.

And he said that when he saw me removed from the microphone--

and he had seen me speak at prior meetings

about these mascots--

he said that he could see the pain in my eyes,

and that it had changed his mind about the mascot

and that he was firmly on the side of changing it.

At the time, I was still...

still guarded about things, and I wasn't ready

to really embrace this moment, you know,

as more than I felt it was.

But as I reflect on that, the emotional maturity

of a young person-- he was 17,

much like the age I was when I started in all this--

I can reflect on that and acknowledge that

it was very powerful, and it really was

a sense of shared humanity between us,

even though we had differences.

Scarborough High School changed their Redskin mascot

a year after I spoke there.

Skowhegan High School changed their Indian mascot

four years after I was removed from the microphone.

I am now the tribal ambassador for the Penobscot Nation,

and I helped write a law that bans Indian mascots

in Maine public schools and universities.

I always knew that I had a voice

that could make a difference on this issue.

And even though there were a lot of threats and racism,

being grounded in who you are

makes all the difference.

Indigenous people are still here.

We matter, and we are not mascots.

CASTRO-BORRERO: My name is Wanda Castro-Borrero.

I was born and raised in Arecibo, Puerto Rico,

and I currently live in Marlborough, Massachusetts.

I'm a neurologist by training,

and six years ago, I started working

at a pharmaceutical industry.

OKOKON: And how did you get into live storytelling?

CASTRO-BORRERO: Well, I would, never told a story

until probably a month ago.

The first time I did this was for work

in celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month.

They were looking for volunteers that wanted to tell

their stories, and it was a great experience.

And after that, I said, you know,

"I think I have a lot of stories to tell."

OKOKON: And why are you compelled

to continue telling stories?

CASTRO-BORRERO: What I liked about the storytelling

that I did last month, and this other opportunity,

is the message, right?

Because when you tell a story, there has to be a message

behind that story, and I think that we all

have a message to say,

and hopefully people will be identified with it,

and others that might not feel identified with it

will think about this.

And they will say, "Maybe this is something

I have to apply to myself."

It's a regular morning in 2008.

I have completed my neurology residency

and my multiple sclerosis fellowship.

I am now part of the faculty

of U.T. Southwestern in Dallas, Texas.

I open the back door of the clinic

and I see Paula waving at me.

As every morning, I say, "Buenos días, Paula."

And she replied, "Good morning, Wanda, how are you?

Your first patient just called to reschedule."

And I said, "Oh, great, I will have a little bit

"of time, um, to catch up this morning.

"Please let me know if you need some help trying to

accommodate the patient, I know my schedule is really busy."

Suddenly, Paula become very sad,

and she said, "Well, Wanda, the patient wants to reschedule,

"but not with you-- he wants to see Elliot.

"He said that he does not want to see someone

that has a Spanish last name."

I was speechless.

I'm used to patients wanting to see Elliot.

At the end of the day, he's the world-renowned

MS specialist.

He was the reason I came to U.T. Southwestern in Dallas.

But I was, never had a patient saying they did not want

to see me because my last name was in Spanish.

I just said, "Okay, Paula, just let Elliot know."

She called Elliot, and a couple of minutes later,

the back door of the clinic open up,

and this tornado come all over.

It was Elliot.

He was really, really, really upset.

He says, "Paula, tell me what happened."

And Paula said, "Well, Wanda's first patient

called to reschedule, he wants to see you."

And Elliot said, "I know that.

Why he does not want to see Wanda?"

And Paula said, "Well, he said he doesn't want anyone

with a last name in Spanish."

Elliot's face become red,

and he becomes even more upset.

And he said, "Call him now and tell him if he does not

want to see Wanda, he will not see anyone in this clinic."

Paula called him.

And the patient never showed up to the clinic.

I still remember Elliot's words.

It was the first time that anyone

stood up for me in that way.

But it was also the first time

anything like this ever happened to me.

I was born and raised in Puerto Rico.

It's a small island in the Caribbean,

part of the United States.

Everybody speaks Spanish,

and almost everyone has a Spanish last name.

When I was two years old, my parents got divorced

and my mother moved from the south to the north

of the island with me and my twin.

We moved with my grandparents so they can help her,

uh, with us while my mom work

and also go to school and finish college.

We were poor.

Um, there were times that

we only had white rice and ketchup on the table.

We were seven people living in a three-bedroom, one-bathroom,

small, very tiny house.

My mom was very strict, my grandparents, too.

You only have to study-- it was study, study, study.

It was a really bad neighborhood,

and they knew that the only way to get out

of the neighborhood was to study.

So my twin sister, she become an accountant,

and later, she went to law school.

I did pharmacy school first, and then I went back

to medical school, and when I graduate,

I decided to move to the mainland

to do my neurology residency.

And this is how I'm now at U.T. Southwestern in Dallas.

Now it's 2010, and I'm seeing another new patient.

This time it's a couple.

They're about in their 40s,

white, with a deep Southern accent.

It is the first time she comes to confirm her diagnosis

of multiple sclerosis, and they were very shy.

She was very quiet.

Her husband was looking at me all the time,

both of them very reserve.

I did my usual, I took the clinical history,

I do a full neurological exam,

I read the brain MRI with her and her husband.

And then at the end, I said, you know,

"You most likely have MS.

"I cannot make the diagnosis right now

because I want to rule out other conditions."

It's what we call MS mimickers.

"So I want you to have some blood work,

"I'm gonna order a brain and cervical spine MRI,

and I want to see you back in 30 days."

I shake their hands and I'm walking them

to the checkout desk.

She turns back to me

and she says, "Thank you so much, Dr. Castro.

"This has been the best doctor appointment ever.

"I was about to cancel the appointment this morning.

"I thought I couldn't understand a word that you said,

but I'm so happy I didn't do it."

Once again, I was speechless.

It was like this punch of my stomach.

I said thank you, smile,

because that's the polite thing to do.

I left them at the checkout desk,

I went back to my office.

I sat down and I said to myself,

"Why?

"Why people has to make assumptions

"based on your last name,

"your accent, the color of your skin?

Why?"

At least I know that I change her mind,

and hopefully she will never think about another person

the way that she thought about me that morning.

For the other patient, the one that never

came to clinic, the one that never gave me the chance,

he will not know that I would have been

the best doctor he will ever have.

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