Settle in, because y’all are going to enjoy getting to know Jonah McDonald, the latest Parent Who Inspires! I was introduced to Jonah by his wife, Dana, who is a former classmate of mine and we are all now part of a Race Conscious Parent Collective here in Atlanta, Georgia.
Jonah is an incredibly passionate and compassionate person and I am always left feeling inspired and humbled after our interactions, even if brief. He’s a professional storyteller (yes, this is a thing!), a writer, an activist, an outdoors guide and much, much more. It’s an honor to be in community with Jonah and his family.
The below feature is chock-full of incredible stories, both about Jonah and the people he’s inspired through his work or simply through the way he chooses to prioritize human connection in his day-to-day life. I highly recommend you press pause and take the time to read Jonah’s interview in it’s entirety.
Tell us a bit about yourself:
My name is Jonah McDonald and I am raising an adventurous, independent 2-year-old with my wonderful spouse, Dana. After teaching in a Montessori environment for five years, I decided to continue my teaching outside of the classroom. Today, I wear many hats. I’m the co-founder of Peacebuilders Camp at Koinonia Farm, a human rights summer camp for middle schoolers. Alongside that work, I’m employed by my religious community, the Atlanta Friends Meeting (Quakers) and I’m also a professional storyteller (http://www.jonahmcdonald.com), naturalist, and outdoors guide (http://www.surefootadventures.com). In 2014, my hiking guidebook, Hiking Atlanta’s Hidden Forests: Intown and Out (http://hikingatlanta.com), was published and I now lead hikes and give talks about Atlanta-area trails. I even lead bicycle tours of the Civil War Battle of Atlanta.
With all of these roles tugging at me, life is very full and busy. I struggle with the tension between wanting to be fully present and focused on my family and with the urge I feel to work to make the world less broken. I am trying to integrate my work and activism into how I raise my daughter.
As a parent, what’s your favorite part about living in your city?
I love that Atlanta is full of expected and unexpected adventures. Yes, it’s fun to take my daughter to famous tourist sites like the Martin Luther King Historic Site or Georgia Aquarium, but I also love that we can go off the beaten path to a program at the Outdoor Activity Center, spend the afternoon wading in the creek at Dearborn Park, or watch airplanes take off and land at the playground beside the runway at the Peachtree-Dekalb Airport.
Also, though most people don’t think of Atlanta as a bicycle-friendly city, it has been just that for my family. We bicycle just about everywhere – to school, the YMCA, restaurants, hikes, the doctor, etc.
And because Atlanta is such a cosmopolitan city, we’re always surrounded by people who come from different backgrounds as us, something that’s very important for me.
What are your passion projects or in what ways do you engage with your local or national community?
My biggest passion (and I think my gift in the world) is inspiring people to make social change. Right now, my focus is on energizing middle schoolers to become peacemakers.
Peacebuilders Camp at Koinonia Farm (http://www.peacebuilderscamp.org) is an overnight camp for ages 11-14 (my daughter is still 9 years away from attending!) where youth from many different backgrounds come together to learn about human rights and discover ways they can fight for justice in their home communities.
Our campers’ diversity spans race, class, religion, nationality, language, ability, and gender. They room with and make fast friends with kids they may never have met without Peacebuilders Camp. Through stories of past and present peacemakers, learning about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (http://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration- human-rights/), and service learning, we hope to harness their passion for fairness to inspire them to work for justice in their home communities.
Some of my favorite stories include:
One camper started “Peaceful Pastries & Sweets” as a way to raise money for camp. After camp, he kept his business going and during the primary election he became somewhat famous for his “Bernie Bites” cookies. (https://www.facebook.com/PeacefulPastriesAndSweets)
Another camper created a spoken word poem about white privilege that ended up going viral on social media. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g4Q1jZ-LOT0&t=0s)
But my favorite story is of a camper who was inspired in a more intimate way. When this young woman learned about the universal “right to rest and leisure” at camp, she immediately thought about her mom, who works two jobs. “My mom doesn’t have access to that right,” she said, “at the end of the day, my mom gets home tired and still has to clean up and cook me dinner.” At the end of camp, this camper committed to clean and cook once a week so her mom could put her feet up and exercise her “right to rest and leisure.”
I love seeing these teens and pre-teens get a handle on what they believe and recognize their power in the world. As a parent of a toddler, I see my daughter try to assert her independence each day. But when she is a middle schooler, she will begin making decisions about what she believes about the world. That’s what excites me about my work with Peacebuilders Camp – helping guide young people to stand for their beliefs and do something about injustice! Our overnight summer camp is an environment ripe for shepherding the transformation that comes with adolescence.
What’s your favorite part of your civic engagement activities?
I love how small individual actions can create a ripple effect of inspiration across my community. Telling the stories of our Peacebuilders campers, speaking publicly of my personal struggles with racism and white privilege, and openly expressing my successes and failures in my daily life can help others find ways to make a difference.
A recent example of how one action can multiply happened to me after the election. I was feeling so pessimistic about my country – as if half of my fellow Americans must be bad people – that I went on Facebook and invited neighbors who supported Donald Trump to dinner so I could listen to them. I was just doing this in the hope of finding connection with these people and building a little more optimism for myself.
But a reporter heard about our dinner date and asked to do a story about it. Our conversation was heard throughout Atlanta on public radio (http://news.wabe.org/post/popping-political- bubble-meeting- folks-next- door), and in this way my personal action became a public action. I hope it inspired others to reach across the political aisle in similar fashion.
When people like Shannon share their personal journey in such a raw and intimate way, I am inspired to be a better parent, friend, and citizen. I hope that my work can inspire others in the same way.
What inspires you to engage in these activities?
Even before I knew I would become a parent, I felt called to seek work that would make a difference in the world. I’m not sure where this comes from, but I see so much broken in our society that I find myself in despair if I can’t boost my optimism through activism.
My work has been driven by the need to fix, if only in small ways, the injustices around me – the injustices that I’m complicit in by the fact that I’m a middle class, educated, white man. That’s not to say I’m driven by guilt, but rather by an eyes-wide-open urgency to pull my personal nails (and hopefully some others, too) from the wall of white male supremacy that’s been built in our country.
Now that I’m a parent, I find my urgency to fix the world comes from a slightly different place. It feels imperative that my daughter sees me actively engaging in the world and that my actions reflect the values I teach her. And yet, somehow all this urgency is softened when I realize that I can be enough just by living as the good and earnest person my daughter believes I am.
Any words of wisdom for parents wanting to create space for civic engagement in their own busy lives?
When my daughter was born, I started “Operation: Fit Dad” in an attempt to not let my fitness fall apart once my time (and sleep) was constricted. Instead of hours at the rock climbing gym or miles of hiking, I set an intention of 20-minute runs, bike commuting, and high-intensity workouts that I could squeeze between feedings, naps, and baby soothing. It’s mostly worked, and I think maybe this is a model for “Operation: Social Justice Parent.”
What communities can we surround our families with so diversity is built into everyday life? What choices can we make to connect to our kids with progressive ideas that may not be in the mainstream? What actions can I take to better the world with my child rather than waiting until they are asleep to do my part?
We parents may not have time and energy to start a non-profit, be active community-organizers, or set foot to the pavement in every march or protest. But perhaps our voice is even more powerful when we make it heard with our children in tow. We are changing our present community and raising the peacemakers of the future.
There is so much to be inspired by, am I right?! I really appreciate the way Jonah approaches activism in both formal and informal terms. His work with Peacebuilders is incredibly important and formative for the young people who attend as well as our greater community. But Jonah also illuminates the power of human connection, even through one-on-one interactions.
Sometimes I can feel overwhelmed when I only focus on systems-level activism. Jonah reminds me that grassroots activism can be as simple and as powerful as sharing a meal with a neighbor, friend or family member with whom you are not politically aligned. And he clearly models our friend Beth-Ann’s belief that the work we do in our families is the ultimate grassroots organizing.
Thank you, Jonah, for all you do for our community near and far! You inspire me greatly.