Thursday, February 26, 2015

Speak Up for Those Unable (and sometimes those unwilling)

This childhood incident flipped me out.
Throughout my life people have inspired me in unexpected ways. Sometimes when it happens it just feels like an ordinary experience. Only later do I realize that what occurred changed the way I thought about life.

So it was in elementary school gym class. It involved a trampoline and included a boy named James Clark.

We were not best friends nor even close really. In fact, our only association was that we went to the same school and shared some of the same classes.

Still, what he did for me back then is something I think about to this very day. In fact, it was one of those kind of things that has guided my values and life choices.

Not sure what James Clark goes by today but back then we just referred to him simply as “Clark.” Why we called him that I’m not sure, except that maybe our gym teacher, Mr. Campbell, referred to us all by our last names.

Do schools even have gym class anymore?
Clark was one of the few kids outside of gym to whom we used just a last name. He was something of a preadolescent icon. That’s because he was the single most talented athlete in our grade, bar none. At least that’s how I remember it.

Clark was the strong, silent type. He could do anything and was good at everything. Never said much but he was always the first guy you picked in kickball, basketball, you name it. He was the fittest, fastest, most agile kid on the floor.

Me? I was scrawniest. Well, one of them anyway. Timid too. Still, I could hold my own in gym. A couple times I was next to the last kid left in dodge ball! Like most people, I’d have my moments. Every now and then at least. It’s just Clark was in a league of his own; he was always in the sports spotlight.

But there’s one moment I doubt Clark, Mr. Campbell or anyone else in gym class remembers. Except for me. In fact, it turned out to be a defining moment in my life. It was during trampoline week, my favorite time in gym, because I was so good at it.

A simple act helped shape my understanding of social justice.
“No flips!” Mr. Campbell barked as a reminder about our skill level. Then he walked to the other side of the gym where his desk was to grade papers or something and we began.

Clark was first up. He jumped high and sure, performing knee drops and seat drops to perfection. One by one everyone else took a turn on the tramp. There was no order to who went next – just whoever got up there first.

Me being me, I waited politely for my chance. Except it never came. Everyone had been up and folks had begun taking second, even third turns. Back then I wasn’t very good at speaking up and so I resigned myself to not getting a chance to participate.

We were nearing the end of gym class when somebody said, “Give Reynolds a turn.”

It was Clark. The way was clear.

On the tramp, I was high; in more ways than one. So much that I performed a forbidden flip. I didn’t stick the landing, but I didn’t care. Mr. Campbell did though. As punishment, he ordered me off the tramp and told me to give him 20 clappers (a form of pushups). I didn’t mind; I had gotten a chance on the tramp. Clark had spoken up for me. Clark did!

Why Clark did that I’ll never know. But it had an impact on me I’ll never forget. Maybe that’s where my passion for social justice comes from, and why I try to speak up for those unable to do so themselves. In any event, thanks James Clark.

Follow J.R. on Twitter @4humansbeing or contact him at

Friday, February 13, 2015

Black History Month: Look for What's Relevant and then Bring it Home

Sojourner Truth Monument tells the story
I have a problem with Black History Month. The issue is relevance. More specifically, it’s people not appreciating and understanding its relevance.

Each year when it rolls around, schools, corporations and media dust off familiar images, events, facts and figures. The “first African American” to do this or is a familiar refrain. In many ways that’s a good thing. Also shared are certain iconic moments, many of which were earthshaking.

Throughout history African Americans played roles that led to the United States emerging as arguably the world’s most important nation in the 20th Century. And not just as individuals; black folks also did it collectively, as a people.

Our physical labor, creative artistry, cultural innovation – it all added (and continues to add) tremendous value. The trouble is we tend to see, read and hear about the same triumphs and “firsts.” As a result, it feels more and more like Black History Month is being held in less and less regard.

What’s missing is the vitality of Black History Month and how it fits in with the contributions African Americans are making today. For example, take Bobby Holley. His work as a community activist brings attention to issues like homelessness, violence and bullying.
Bobby Holley: true American patriot

It’s important to note that the things he works on aren’t just “black issues”; they are matters that affect the entire community. Over the years, Holley has taken to the streets of Battle Creek (and sometimes beyond) to raise awareness of critical social concerns.

Just recently, Holley spent the night outside on the corner of North Avenue and Roosevelt Street. Weather conditions were dangerously cold. Yet Holley stayed out there as part of a homeless awareness campaign. The purpose was to encourage the community to think about those who are homeless.

A lot of people write a check as a form of “giving.” Holley’s currency is his body. Much of his activism involves personal physical discomfort and intentional sacrifice. It also admittedly consists of a measure of theatrics – no doubt employed in an often symbolic effort to garner attention from a world pressed with other important things, like work and family.

On the surface, Holley’s work as an activist seems to fall squarely under the general category of “Battle Creek history”, and on many levels it does. But it also relates to black history. Why the double dipping?

Harriet Tubman on Internalized Racial Oppression
Consider this: for generations there was virtually no representation of black people in history textbooks. It was as if we contributed to no institutions other than slavery, entertainment and sports. There are also was Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Battle Creek’s own Sojourner Truth and the like. But they were positioned in history as rare exceptions.

Black History Month is an attempt to remedy the systematic withholding of vital and relevant historic contributions of black people in this country. Too many people of all colors seek to minimize Bobby Holley. That is, render invisible the relevance of what he is doing and what he’s achieved.

By focusing too much on the manner and methods in which he conducts his social justice issues, so many of us miss the beautiful inner meaning of his way of being.

Holley needs to be remembered. Not because he’s an African American working to make our community better, but because he’s one of many African Americans working to make our community better.
Bobby Holley: NOT a caricature. An enigma.

And no, he’s not the first and only. That a person, black or otherwise, was the first to do or be a thing can be significant. But let’s not allow a personal milestone be the most important thing written on their tombstone. Rather, it is the meaning of that milestone that is important. How did it change us all for the better? That is where the relevance is.

Follow J.R. on Twitter @4humansbeing or contact him at

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Black History Month: Open Your Heart as Much as Your Mind

It’s February. That means Black History Month. It’s a time when schools, bookstores and media spend the month recounting interesting facts and wooden historic figures. But it seems to do little in the way of moving the needle with respect to what it means, and has meant, to be black in America. Here’s why.

There’s more to black history than slavery, the Civil Rights Movement and the scientist who worked with peanuts. There is an untapped spiritual depth not found in scholarly statistics and cliché events.

Brought Black History into the light
Spoiler alert for those who believe the urban legend that Black History Month is held in February because it’s the shortest month of the year. Contrary to conspiracy theorists, Black History Month in February stems from Negro History Week, thanks to author, educator and journalist Dr. Carter G. Woodson.

Woodson devoted much of his life to historical research. He believed African-American contributions were overlooked, ignored, and in many instances suppressed by many white historians of the day. This practice effectively rendered invisible the legitimate accomplishments and contributions of African Americans. So in 1926 he launched Negro History Week.

Why February? Woodson strategically positioned Negro History Week so that it would fall between the birthdays of noted abolitionist Frederick Douglass and President Abraham Lincoln.

Decades later, Negro History Week evolved into Black History Month in 1976. It is a recurrence that every American president has recognized ever since.

A lot of folks (white, black and other people of color) ask, in an age when we have a sitting president with African American blood coursing through his veins, why do we still need Black History Month. Isn’t every racial group’s history important?

How many do you know... beyond their names?
The short answer is yes/and. Yes, the histories of all race and ethnic groups are important. And since before the end of slavery in America, persons of African descent and African Americans have been making significant contributions to the United States. But until relatively recently, most wouldn’t know it. In fact, many of us still would be hard pressed to lift up the names of noted African American persons beyond certain sectors of society like, say sports and entertainment. That’s a problem.

When it comes to systems of oppression, everybody knows about slavery, or at least the fact that it happened. Fewer know about the Jim Crow era. Even fewer recognize their historic significance as it relates to what’s happening today. That includes the current school-to-prison pipeline phenomenon and how it’s fueling the heinous “mass incarceration” epidemic going on. Fewer still understand the societal relevance of it all.

For generations, black history was withheld from our education institutions. The result? For decades upon decades, African Americans were largely regarded as making no significant contributions to this nation.

That’s the more depressing aspect of Black History Month. There’s also an equally underreported side. And it’s as vast and enriching as any other cultural group. It’s a largely hidden history that consists of amazing triumphs of human spirit – of a kind that can be transformative in thought and being. It’s out there for the learning.

Pop quiz: who are they and what did they stand for?
In the end, some believe that providing historical truth will crush oppressive practices and prejudices beset upon African Americans (and other groups of people for that matter) whose accomplishments have been systematically muted for reasons of exploitation and greed.

However, I’m convinced it will take more. It will require something more impactful than mere exposure to facts. What’s required is a change of heart. In many respects, that’s what’s missing from Black History Month. Not from those who present it but those who receive it.

Follow J.R. on Twitter @4humansbeing or contact him at

White Supremacy Harms All People; Not Just Those of Color

Michigan has been front and center regarding two separate stories in the media lately, and neither is good news. One is about somber statistics concerning the murder rate of African Americans around the state. The other covers the aftermath of weekend vandalism at a pair of northern Michigan ski resorts that resulted in tens of thousands of dollars in damage. At each story’s core is senseless and disturbing levels of violence.

Let’s get one thing straight, murder can never equate to material carnage. It just can’t. That’s apples and oranges. The taking of human life is reprehensible and deplorable. Still, those who have followed the ski resort scandal and murder rate reports are shaking their heads and asking, why?

A very few others are wondering if, at some level, they might be connected.

So what does the state of Michigan’s homicide rate share in common with the trashing of two of its posh winter vacation spots? Most say nothing. Yet they bear more in common than one might want to believe. First some facts and statistics.

According to a report from the Violence Policy Center in Washington, D.C., in 2012, 90 percent of black persons killed in Michigan by handguns were men. This ranks Michigan third among states with the highest homicide rate in which the victims were black.

The other story: during recent stays at several northern Michigan resorts, students from six fraternities and sororities at a prestigious Michigan university, caused substantial damage to the properties where they were staying.

Something’s going on. Frankly, it’s been going on – white middle class college students conducting riotous, property-destroying rampages that masquerade as celebration. And black lower income men shooting each other. On the surface, these occurrences seem unrelated. But are they?

What happens when you step and start looking at the forest rather than the trees. A few things begin to emerge. Both groups are young. Both are engaged in destructive activities. Both, it would seem, move in social circles that apparently find it acceptable to participate in such action – at least in the moment.

How are the actions of young white college students getting so drunk they have no compunction about trashing vacation resorts connected to young black men who are so enraged (or fearful) that they try to assassinate each other?

What’s driving their state of mind?

There appear to be forces placed on seemingly reasonable college students that compel them to commit violence so unreasonably. Likewise there seem to be forces being applied to rational black men that coerce them to behave in irrational ways. Could they be connected? If so, what’s the missing link?

As mentioned, the destruction of life doesn’t compare to the destruction of property, yet something is leading both groups of young people to act out. Some deduce the pressures of school is a motivating force for such behavior in one case. Some assume the stresses of poverty in the other. Both are likely suspects but not the driving force.

There’s something else at play. Something tangible yet simultaneously illusive. It’s largely invisible and running in the background, woven into the very fabric of American culture. And, it somehow signifies to youth that violence as a means of expression is okay.

My take? It’s white privilege. It’s also internalized racial oppression. Both are two sides of the same coin and destructive result of the cultural driver known as white supremacy. Not to be confused with the more familiar white-hood-and-burning-cross euphemism.

White supremacy is a system (not an individualistic construct) that creates and perpetuates destruction based on the notion of racial hierarchy; in these cases, the laissez-faire destruction of property and the incomprehensible destruction of lives. They may be of a different scale and committed by people of different colors, but they are born of, and perpetuated, by the same system.

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Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Never Forget: Civil Rights is Also About Women's Rights

Oprah resisting racist oppression in "Selma"
For the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s birthday, my wife and I hired a babysitter and dashed to catch the Hollywood movie “Selma.” I say, “Hollywood movie” because I’ve come to expect little from films produced by big name studios and producers. I prefer smaller, independent films. In this case though, boy was I mistaken. At the same time, the making of the movie has become troubling on several levels.

Hollywood being Hollywood, where cash is king, movie features had better fill seats. As such, “safe and low risk” pretty much sum up what and how films get made. Case in point, “Red Tails”, which featured an all-star cast and spectacular special effects.

The 2012 World War II flick featured something else: a lousy script. Plagued by cliché dialog, its one-dimensional characters spouted predictable lines that drove a predictable story line. In short, a very important story was rendered irrelevant.

"Red Tails" missed the mark big time. Blame Hollywood 
That’s Hollywood; more power to them, I guess.

“Selma” wasn’t like that. Directed by Ava DuVernay, the motion picture was nothing short of powerful. Its portrayal of Dr. King, his associates and antagonists, was laced with a riveting level of drama befitting the magnitude of that Civil Rights historic period. The film is acclaimed by critics and audiences alike (according to Rotten Tomatoes), and is a must see. There’s something else.

Given the complex story layers and gripping characterizations, “Selma” should have received more nominations than it did from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences, the folks who vote for the prestigious Oscars. The coveted Best Director award, in particular. Not everyone agrees however. Some lament the historical inaccuracies built into the story. There’s another, less discussed reason too, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

Historical inaccuracy is a common complaint whenever someone creates a biopic. Ever see “JFK”, the 1991 movie that focuses on the assassination of President Kennedy? How about the 1970 iconic war flick, “Patton”? Both, while historically inaccurate (as most cinematic releases are), received multiple Oscar nominations, including best director bids.

Another woman director snubbed by Oscar
Many expected filmmaker DuVernay to be nominated for best director. It would've been a first ever for a black woman in that category. Sadly, this important film was shut out of every Oscar category except Best Picture (a producer award) and Best Original Song.

While racism could be lifted up as the prime suspect for Oscar snubbing director DuVernay (who is African American), sexism looms just as great. It’s sad but true; since 1929 when The Oscars debuted, just one woman has ever won Best Director: Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker, in 2009.

Only three other women have been nominated in 86 years of Oscar history: Lina Wertmuller (“Seven Beauties”, 1976), Jane Campion (“The Piano”, 1993) and Sofia Coppola (“Lost in Translation”, 2003).

How is this even possible? Anybody remember the Tom Hanks fantasy comedy “Big” in 1988. Directed by Penny Marshall, it was the first feature film directed by a woman to gross more than $100 million (U.S. box office). Though it was light in tone, it was easily my favorite movie that year. Then again, I’m not an Oscars voting member.

Marshall went on to direct “Awakenings” (1990), which was nominated by the Oscars for Best Picture (but not Best Director). She also directed the gender relevant film, “A League of Their Own” (1992), which featured a predominantly female cast.

It’s ironic that at their core, the demonstration marches in Selma were about voting. With both men and women voting at the Oscars, something sinister and systematic is happening. My guess is it has to do with that old familiar disease feminists and their allies call patriarchy.

Time to take a critical look at Oscar. Check that. It’s time for Oscar to look in the mirror.

 Follow J.R. on Twitter @4humansbeing or contact him at

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Racial Equity is Required to Achieve Food Access for All

Good Food Battle Creek is in the final day of its two-and-a-half-day workshop. It’s designed to help participants understand and take action against hidden and not so hidden mechanisms that systematically keep fresh, nutritious and affordable food from many residents.

Good Food Battle Creek is a network of individuals and organizations working together to address issues related to our community’s food system. (As Coordinator, I work to support this important effort.)

Central to the workshop will be conversations concerning the disparities, inequities and barriers that exist, particularly for poor persons of color. One might ask, why wouldn’t the workshop focus on all poor people rather than those of color? The short answer is, it does both.

Frigid winter weather has hampered attendance (there was a 100-plus vehicle pile up on I-94 yesterday, with one fatality) but hasn't dampened the enthusiasm to learn and understand.

Sobering fact: a lack of access to good food disproportionately impacts Battle Creek’s communities of color. Why? Certain policies and procedures perpetuate this condition. Many unintentionally, but some on purpose. Hard to accept? Read on.

Neither rain, snow or sleet will hamper racial equity efforts
Good Food BC believes discussions about food access can help bring together growers, distributors, government, healthcare providers, and residents to develop strategies to eliminate race-based disparities plaguing our food system.

The workshop is investigating this inconvenient truth from an historic perspective to show how we got into this mess. Then, with the help of participants, facilitators are surfacing tangible ways to begin dismantling the institutional conditions that perpetuate it, from within our respective workplaces.

Food access (or rather lack of it) touches more institutional settings than you might imagine. One familiar to most is healthcare. Lack of access to good food and poor menu choices have led to increased chronic illnesses ranging from diabetes and obesity to heart disease and stroke.

ERACCE facilitators are no joke
In the education sector, poor access to good food interferes with students’ ability to concentrate and learn. And speaking of education, there’s a belief system out there that has convinced many affected residents that it’s too darned expensive to eat good food.

According to a 2014 survey conducted by BC Pulse, 46 percent of adults (living at 200 percent below the poverty rate) say “cost” is the reason they don’t eat more fresh foods. There’s a kernel of truth in that assertion.

The survey also reported 57 percent of families eat fresh fruits and vegetables (not from the can) four times per week or less. And, more than one-third of survey respondents said “they don’t find it hard to eat fresh fruits and vegetables.” Encouraging news, until you consider that may mean two-thirds do find it hard to eat fresh fruits and vegetables.

Lack of food access also produces harmful effects in the workplace. Inadequate nutrition leads to higher rates of illness, which translates to time away from work and decreased productivity.

I’ve avoided using the term but “racism” plays a key role in supporting and perpetuating disparities that disproportionately plague communities of color. Racism harms all of us; whites and nonwhites.

Today's anti-immigration climate in America promotes racist attitudes and discriminating policies that affect migrant farm workers, most of whom are Latino/Hispanic Americans. Understanding how race can influence perceptions, policies and action helps develop greater awareness of the challenges facing all small and non-commodities farmers and the often unjust relationship they’ve historically endured from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, compared to commodity (i.e., corn and soybean) growers.

There’s no doubt about it; race is a complex topic. Heap on issues of poverty and other socially divisive constructs and we’ve got a super-sized problem on our hands. Yet it’s solvable.

Improving our existing food system to one that assures better access, addresses poverty and impacts critical health, education and other issues for people of color cannot happen without the understanding of, and collaboration with, white people. I, for one, am glad so many have RSVP’d to take action and join the conversation.

 Follow J.R. on Twitter @4humansbeing or contact him at

Thursday, January 8, 2015

It's No Dream: Colonialism Can Wreck a Person's Day (not to mention incite cultural genocide)

When I was a kid I used to dream up all sorts of imaginary situations. Nerd that I am, some involved me being alone in the middle of nowhere late at night and happening upon an alien spacecraft. Hollywood defines that as a close encounter of the third kind.

In my youth, I always fashioned the craft’s occupants as benevolent. That is, they were kind and good-natured beings. After all, to be sufficiently advanced so as to travel vast distances to other worlds required not just advanced technology, but also a learned spirit of cooperation rooted in compassion and understanding.

Then I grew up.
That's no Vulcan "peace" sign he's throwing

In college my what-if scenario evolved into a game with friends that inevitably posed the question: “Would you go back with them?”

As one might expect, this sparked all sorts of interesting and often hilarious banter. Answers ranged from, “Heck yeah, count me in” to “Hell no, I won’t go.”

On reflection, it felt like “ET” and “Cocoon,” – films, in which the visitors were warm and fuzzy – fueled the kumbaya responses. Conversely, alien invasion flicks like “Earth Versus the Flying Saucers” and “Independence Day” fired up doom-and-gloom the sentiments.

Reasons for aliens coming to our planet were either good or bad. Good: friendship, exploration, and scientific research (think Jane Goodall, not cosmetics companies). Bad: colonization, appropriation of our natural resources – including human resources, galactic domination, etc. There were other more inventive reasons as well.

Keep away from me, you!
It’s interesting to note that while I consider myself a card-carrying pessimist, when it came to alien close encounters, I land squarely in the, “Take me, take me…” camp. Here’s why: movies like “Star Trek” and “Star Wars” offer a third, somewhat less polarized middle ground. That is, the cosmos contains both good and bad space travelers, with the good guys tending to win out.

Of course, there’s the fourth option, the one in which there is no life anywhere but here on Earth, but that’s too close to reality.

In large part, this game is just that, a game. Still there are philosophical ramifications to it all. And for those wondering what the point of all this seeming nonsense is, there also is an historic perspective. It’s one that continues to make this “game” relevant. And that is the holiday known by some as Columbus Day.

I say some because surprisingly what many U.S. residents have forgotten since grade school (or worse, never were taught), is that Christopher Columbus never set foot on what is now the United States. His landings were far to the south in the Caribbean, Central America and South America. But this too is beside the point. What is perhaps most relevant today is that his arrival set in motion a chain of events that has decimated the indigenous peoples of the Americas.

Many have been the time when more advanced (at least from a weapons perspective) group of people have invaded, colonized or otherwise appropriated a previously unknown peoples’ land, resources, culture and, in the very worst cases, the people themselves. Close encounters of the worst kind.

In Columbus’ case, it was done for natural resources like gold and later slaves. It also has been embarked on in the name of religion, nationalism and such self-centered notions like Manifest Destiny.

Label this under entitlement
This all reminds me of a scene in the movie, “Finding Nemo.” A baby clown fish named Nemo is abducted from his family and ocean reef home by a weekend scuba diver. During a brief yet socially relevant exchange back home, the diver explains to his friend, “I found that guy struggling for life out on the reef, and I saved him.”

It’s another close encounter gone bad, except like in my childhood fantasy scenario, no one gets hurt.


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