Tuesday, August 19, 2014

A Little Cooperation Goes a Long Way

That's LUKE'S father, not mine

Before he passed away, my dad bequeathed something to me I’ll always treasure: his love of driving. He didn’t own a performance car, luxury vehicle or anything exotic (unless Oldsmobile 98s qualify). Still, I considered him something of a Jedi Master on the road. Not because of his DMV book knowledge or cat like reflexes – both of which I possess, by the way.

Instead, he passed down to me something more subtle, yet vitally important. He shared his insight into the “hidden” rules of the road. They aren’t found in official manuals. But they can be learned; it just takes time, attention and anticipation. It also requires a good deal of patience and cooperation.

Over the years, Dad showed me the importance of interpreting what was happening on the road and then adjusting my driving accordingly. When he was driving and other vehicles were nearby, he mentally calculated what they were doing, what they might want to do and then adjusted his driving to blend with theirs.

Dad was a Jedi master on freeways
It was more than situational awareness. Dad engaged in what might be referred to as a symbiotic relationship with other drivers as much as possible. It was a condition in which all parties benefited. A result was that all drivers were safer and could achieve whatever it was they were trying to do in the moment.

It would be interesting to know how many folks on the road work in cooperation with other drivers, rather than in competition. Where did Dad learn this? If I had to guess: truck drivers.

Most, but not all, truck drivers tend to conduct themselves on the road collectively in a more cooperative fashion then we pedestrian drivers in our cars and SUVs. They do have a nasty habit of stacking up traffic by staying on cruise control when passing. Still, over the years, I have regularly witnessed truckers slowing for each other and flashing high beams to let other trucks know when it's safe to merge into their lane.

I don't see a lot of consideration among other drivers. In fact, the reverse is often true. People cut off each other without signaling and regularly don’t make way for merging drivers at on-ramps. It often feels like we conspire to keep fellow drivers off-balance, with one-upmanship the goal.

Highway exits and entrances: literally crunch time
Ever been overtaken by a vehicle in the next lane that's clearly in a hurry but had no place to go? They want to merge in front of you but instead of allowing it you inch forward, often tailgating the vehicle ahead of you, to deny lane entry?

Dad always let them in, even if the other driver was obviously being a jerk. Why? It was the safer play.

What makes us decide when to be benevolent and yielding and when not? So many times there are situations where clear cooperation can lead to mutually satisfying results. Yet we often let our egos get in the way of making decisions that are safe or right or just.

I believe when we’re on the road, most of us don't think about the other driver in human ways. It reminds me of how we can often show up in the world. We're so centered on our own lives we fail think how we might be able to help out the other person.
Dad's '98 AKA: Red Leader

Oh, we do our part. But a lot of times “our part” consists of offering mere remainders of the day; we only help if it's no skin off our back.

Some people believe it's a dog eat dog world. I believe the world is what we make it. If folks did a better job of cooperating rather than inhibiting others along the road of life, we all might experience this community in richer ways.

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

Monday, August 18, 2014

Freedom Schools Instills Resilience and More

Not your ordinary summer camp
A few weeks ago I volunteered with Freedom Schools. The youth program was taking student participants on a field trip across the state, needed adult chaperones, so I signed up. What I witnessed that day was memorable.
Nationally, Freedom Schools serves upwards of 12,600 children in 108 cities and 29 states, according to its website. Locally, the six-week program is designed to reduce the “summer slide” phenomenon that many students experience during their three months off, as well as improve reading skills.
Staff also works to increase awareness of social/community advocacy responsibilities and empowerment, develop leadership skills, and introducing students to healthier lifestyle choices, including nutrition.
There’s another, little discussed but vitally important benefit of the program but we’ll get to that in a minute.
Students participating in the program, referred to as scholars, range in age from five to 15. I traveled with the scholars to Covert, Mich., to visit Barbara Norman, a feisty blueberry farmer who owns more than 50 acres. The field trip agenda included a presentation by Norman, lunch, a round of blueberry picking and a short stop at nearby Lake Michigan.
Farm owner Barbara Norman 'planting seeds'
It was cool and cloudy when the two buses headed out that morning. Since it was July, everyone fully expected a hot and balmy day with temperatures in the 70s or higher, so there were lots of t-shirts and shorts. But it end up remaining in the upper 50s most of the day. The skies were gray but the attitude of the scholars was nothing but sunshine.
Above chattering teeth, Ms. Norman conducted her brief presentation, which included her proud history as a third generation African American farmer in the region. A former national Small Farmer of the Year (U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service), she held the scholars’ attention with a mixture of charismatic charm and uplifting frankness.
Youth being youth, there was some degree of cutting up going on by a very few, on the bus and while picking blueberries. However, observing the staff managing the more energetic kids was a thing of beauty. Each employed a nurturing discipline rooted in the art of ‘teachable moments’. The result: sassing scholars quickly came to terms with their unacceptable behavior and quickly fell back line.
Turns out Freedom Schools is about much more than reading. An equally important component of the program is its ability to help instill resilience among its scholars. That is, the ability to become strong, healthy or successful again after experiencing misfortune. It is a personal characteristic social scientists are examining with greater appreciation these days, particularly as it relates to at-risk youth where it can be lacking.
Can I pick 'em or can't I?
Freedom Schools scholars, their parents and staff are exposed to books that reflect their own images (many but not all are African American) and are part of an integrated reading curriculum in which books, activities, field trips and games all relate to and reinforce each other. Increased resilience and improved self-esteem are welcome outcomes of the program.
These days we’re so consumed with testing students on reading, writing and arithmetic that we forget about other equally important aspects to education and learning. As such, what we refer to as “soft skills” are actually quite hard to acquire attributes. This is especially true if students come from a place where such qualities are not effectively modeled by parents or other adult caretakers, such as teachers.
Freedom Schools completed its 2014 program in July. Its closing celebration ceremony was filled with fun, music and song. If you weren't there, you missed something very special.

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

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Don’t Let “Rule of Law” Curb Compassion for Immigrant Children

What, me scared?
Recently I had a nightmare. It was the kind where I kept trying to wake up but couldn’t. It was especially frightening because it involved children. Yours and mine.

Times were hard; like the Great Depression but much worse. The economy was a wreck and I was out of work. Unemployment soared, the result of some foreign power manipulating our nation’s economy. Trusted systems of support, like federal and local governments, police and fire departments, had essentially collapsed. Access to water and power was spotty at best.

Local militias had risen to restore order; yet had resorted to trafficking illegal drugs to fund their efforts. The result was violent, bloody combat between factions. My once stable community had become a bonafide war zone. It was the same across the country and no place was safe.

About the only thing going right in life was my family. In the dream, our kids were preteens, maybe teenagers. They were always hungry. It had gotten to the point where we couldn’t afford to keep up their clothes. So they often went to school in tatters. When school was open.

In my dream we were so poor, scared and hopeless I remember thinking I’d do anything to get my kids out of the situation. I considered working for one drug-funded militia or another, but knew sooner or later I’d end up dead, probably my kids too. Besides, that option just wasn’t in me. Still, I was desperate.

Children: by any other name
Then I was told of a place where there was opportunity. A faraway place where my kids would have a chance to grow up and live a humane life. But we only had enough resources to send my kids there, so we’d probably never see them again. The place had its own set of problems and I remember thinking sending them there was madness. And yet staying here was too dangerous.

I remember agonizing over what to do. Then, after a particularly terrifying night of warring in the streets of our neighborhood – one in which our neighbor’s daughter was killed – we made the decision: we’d send our kids to that faraway place.

There would be no friends or relatives there to greet them. Instead, we’d have to rely on the benevolence of the good people we were told lived there. A place of freedom, compassion and most of all, hope. The United States.

For me it was just a bad dream. But for many parents and children in some Central American countries, it is literally a living nightmare. From where I sit, my modest but comfortable Midwest home, sending my kids to a distant country for their survival seems impossible to imagine. At the same time it doesn’t. Because I love my kids that much.

We all need to work harder at stepping out of our self-centered worlds to really examine what’s going on elsewhere. There are places where violence and harm are systematically perpetrated on the innocent. From the comfort of our living rooms, it all can seem unreal, but it is real. Just because it isn’t happening here doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. Or that it couldn’t happen here.

It’s time to set aside politics and harsh, emotionally empty phrases like “rule of law” and look with greater empathy at what’s happening to vulnerable Central American children and others who are undocumented. Remember, it was once the rule of law to force Native American relocation, enslave African Americans, intern Japanese Americans, and sterilize many with disabilities.

Let’s instead embrace and nurture child refugees arriving here to escape poverty and violence. To do otherwise is contrary to human rights. And that’s un-American.

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

Friday, August 1, 2014

Practice Expanding Your Point of View

Finally it’s happened. After all these years. About time too. Following decades of bewilderment and confusion, everything’s clicked and I’ve joined the masses. I finally appreciate the game of soccer!

For the longest I’ve tried to embrace it. After all, I consider myself a worldly man and soccer’s the world’s game. More than 250 million players in over 200 countries play it, according to Wikipedia. That makes soccer the most popular sport on Earth. Sorry Baseball.

It took a while. A long while. Hours of watching. Years of questioning. But at long last it’s official: I love soccer. It happened sometime during this year’s World Cup.

One moment I’m watching guys run up and down the field aimlessly kicking the ball to each other, trying to score. The next, I’m witnessing artful athletes exhibiting uncanny control of their bodies to execute a team strategy to outdo their opponents. Why did it take so long?

Winning hit or errand pitch: depends on your viewpoint
Speaking of baseball (my favorite sport), it was a similarly long road for me regarding that venerable game. Prior an epiphany about baseball, my understanding of the game was limited to my Little League experience: throw the ball, hit the ball, catch the ball. No thinking; just doing.

My eventual appreciation developed about the same way it did for soccer. Actually, in the case of baseball, it also took a six-pack of beer (in my 20s) and an expert friend of mine patiently explaining the game’s rich complexity.

So it was with football; the U.S. variety. For years as a kid, the game seemed merely to consist of two teams hurling their bodies violently into each other. I thank TV’s 50 yard line viewing angle of the game for my limited outlook.

It took going to a college game and sitting in nose-bleed seats to understand linemen weren’t simply hitting the opponent directly in front of them. They were pulling, cross-blocking, drawing and all sorts of schemes with the hike of the ball. Viewed from that higher angle, things were completely different.

The game changer in all these cases? My point of view. That is, I shifted my perspective in ways that offered a different manner of looking at things. Easier said than done in a lot of instances, and not just sports.

Expanding your viewpoint can open your mind’s eye to new possibilities. Trouble is, we often get stuck believing our point of view is rooted in hard fact. Actually, in most instances, how we think about things is based on previous experiences, mood, cultural norms, our health… any number of factors. All of them can conspire to persuade us in one direction or another – regardless of what is truth.

Such misperceptions become problematic when a person’s point of view about important social issues, like matters of race, comes into play. It can be easy for a white person to say he doesn’t see color. Easy, because his perspective is rooted in experiencing the world as a white person. And the majority of systems, policies and media convey the perception that “white is right.” And that’s wrong.

Same stairs: two outlooks
The same can be said of nondisabled individuals such as myself. For instance, attending a ball game for me consists of little more than driving there and buying a ticket. No big deal.

A person with a disability might hold a more complex perspective. Depending on their ability, will the ticket booth be low enough to buy a ticket? Are there elevators or just stairs? Will there be accessible viewing spaces for little people or for those with wheel chairs?

It can be challenging and even feel impossible to expand your viewpoint. Yet when things finally do click, it can all be worthwhile. And I’m not just talking sports.

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

Monday, July 21, 2014

Give Yourself the Gift of Difference

It's understandable why we thought the world was flat.
Trouble is brewing in the science world. Don’t worry, experts still agree the Earth is round. However, a growing list of neuroscientists in Europe are poo-pooing the ambitious undertaking known as the Human Brain Project (HBP). HBP is bankrolled by the European Union and the goal is to recreate the functioning of the human brain using supercomputers.

What does this work have to do with average Joes like us who go to work every day and live regular lives? More than you think, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

According to news reports, more than 150 European scientists penned an open letter to the European Commission (the executive body of the European Union). They are threatening to boycott the HBP project.

The letter bears a series of suggestions for project improvement. They come in the form of seven bullet points. At the top of the list is concern about who is involved (or rather, who isn’t):

“The panel should be composed of highly regarded members of the scientific community whose views reflect the diversity of approaches within neuroscience.”

One bad apple? Or a fruitful start toward greater diversity?
The key word in that initial bullet point is “diversity.” That’s important for a lot of reasons, beyond what’s happening with HBP.

An all too familiar misstep that saps the strength and hamstrings the growth of any community – not just the science realm – is to marginalize the value of diversity in planning. What’s equally bad is to deny diversity in participation. Yet that’s what happens time and again when it comes to leveraging a diversity of professional relationships on the job. It can be similarly so when it comes to tapping into diverse human resources long after we’ve punched out for the day.

The sad truth is that too many of us fail to realize the incredible assets available to us by not maintaining diversity in our personal tool chests. Yes, I’m guilty of it.
             Similarity and difference; it’s the nature of the universe. From falling snowflakes to interplanetary star systems, no two are alike. Yet among each group they share close comparison. The same is true when it comes to human beings.

Don’t think an unsighted person can teach anything to a sighted person? One way might be how to use your other four senses to take richer stock of an environment – even in broad daylight.

What can a poor person teach someone who’s rich? Maybe uncanny resourcefulness to survive, despite not having the privilege of an advanced education, a sufficient bank account or friends in high places.

What's wrong with this person? Absolutely nothing!
What can a gay couple teach a straight one about family systems? Perhaps a number of nontraditional ways coupling can effectively operate and be equally happy – and in many cases more so.

What can a person of color teach someone white? For one, how it feels to be enmeshed in a systematically repressive society (many claim doesn’t even exist) yet still function with grace and compassion with the oppressor.

Each of these examples feature non-dominant or marginalized groups doing the teaching and that was intentional. But the reverse is equally true; learning happens both ways. One “merely” has to reach out and dare to create new relationships. Start with those with whom you highly regard, but make the interaction personal and your motives transparent.
Diversity is about so much more than color
Initial attempts will be uncomfortable. This is normal. Just study history. It was equally the case when the first scientists produced undeniable evidence the Earth wasn’t flat. Then as now, the discomfort will pass. What will be left? New perspectives holding limitless possibilities.

So do yourself a favor: give yourself the gift of difference in your relationships. You’ll be better for it, in more ways than one.

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

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Meeting Someone can be Wonder(ful), if You Remain Open

Eye Sea U
            When it comes to judging people – or rather, not judging them – folks like me, with full use of our eyesight, are at a distinct disadvantage. At least that’s how I see things.

It seems most of us who can see, tend to do so only with the two orbs in our head. But there’s more to seeing than what our brain receives through eyeballs.

I’ll never forget meeting world famous performer and Grammy Award-winning singer, producer songwriter Stevie Wonder. What happened many years ago during that celebrity encounter was a first big step toward my developing a clearer understanding of myself… and how I see others.

It was at a Hollywood party and I was introduced to Stevie by a mutual friend. After our hellos, he invited me to sit with him. After settling in at the table and meeting the others with him, he extended his hands in my direction and asked me to take them.

His request wasn’t so much startling as it was unexpected. After a beat I did as he asked, figuring it was his unsighted way of initiating a handshake. But his request was more than a greeting. So much more.

Stevie Wonder: he sees beyond sight.
I placed my hands in his and gripped firmly, using the same steady pressure I apply when shaking any person’s hand. Instead of responding in kind, he started talking. It was the normal getting-to-know-you stuff, except for two things: one, Stevie Wonder was asking the questions; two, we were holding hands.

There I was, literally embracing a legend. And a stranger at that. After several minutes of conversation he gently released his hold.

“Why’d you do that?” I asked.

“I like to know who I’m talking to, and it helps me feel their energy.” He went on to add that he gets a wide-ranging sense of a person through this exercise. He was right.

Turns out our eyesight does a most effective job of interrupting our ability to see people for who they really are, rather than who we imagine them to be. This distorted view might be akin to self-fulfilling prophecy: we see what we want to see.

Big or small, sighted people are plagued with the amoral affliction of assessing the ability of a person based on how they look. We have each other to thank for that, and to a large extent, the media.

Tall or short, we ignorantly assess each other based on physical characteristics that are largely unrelated to how a person truly is. Instead, we rely on unhealthy social “conditioning,” which tells us to ignore what we know to be true in favor of what society insists is normal.

Light or dark, we sighted folk pound into each other warped group-think fallacies that the color of our skin holds significant insight into who we are dealing with.

Those with 20:20 vision, or even 20:200 like me, largely consider the so-called physical imperfections of others as somehow qualitative measurements of their character. And most of the time we are wrong, especially when we bump up against our admitted as well as unconscious prejudices. At least I know I am.

So I remain a work in progress, constantly fighting against self-deluding prejudgments of others based on how they look. This “vision sickness,” as I refer to it, robs me of rich and productive opportunities to get to know others. Many of us use this nonsense in place of common sense to mistakenly guide us to consistently wrong conclusions.

Keep all this in mind the next time you have the chance to shake someone’s hand.

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

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Words to the Wise: Some Phrases are Loaded

Loaded for bear
Recently, I read something that at first felt mildly annoying. On deeper reflection I became downright angry, but not at the person who wrote it. Instead I was irritated at myself over how long it’s taken me to realize (and accept) how damaging it is to see such things in print. Or hear them spoken out loud.

The offensive line was written by some human resources guru. The writer had penned a column on how to maximize your web presence as it relates to online job hunting. Specifically, the article listed simple mistakes that make job candidates look bad when creating an internet profile (i.e., short biography).

It was decent information. The items listed seemed reasonable enough, except for one thing; or rather one word.

What had chapped my hide was embedded in one of the article’s bullet points; it included the word “lame” to describe what not to do.

“Lame” is loaded with meaning, beyond the simple Webster definition of the word. Used in certain ways, it has come to be quite damaging and not for reasons obvious to most nondisabled people. In fact, it can all seem largely invisible or even irrelevant. That is, until you think about it.

Uphill climb
The painful thing about this is that until rather recently I have been guilty of writing/saying the exact same thing as that writer for that online human resources column. The crime? Employing words that describe a situation or thing that inadvertently casts persons with disabilities in a “less than” light.

Using “lame” and certain other words as negative descriptors casts an implied deficit toward people who are disabled. Initially legitimate clinical terms, such words are or have been historically used to by nondisabled people to describe those who are disabled. Over the decades they have been hijacked by mainstream language some of the worst ways.

“That movie was lame.” “How could you have been so blind?” “It’s crippling to think that way.” “You’re insane.”

In each case, there’s nothing positive about what’s being described, insinuated or stated. For those of us who are nondisabled, we live with a privilege that embodies a presumed competence. In other words, we wrongly (and arrogantly) assign a “can’t” to persons who, for instance, use a wheelchair, walker or cane.

As a result, we unwittingly project false negative connotations to physical and mental conditions in which some people live. That’s a travesty. Who are we to define the quality of another person’s life?

For most folks it’s easy to let such harmful references slip past and ignore it. Yet in doing so, that’s one more statement that unconsciously reinforces a form of silent oppression. This toward a group of human beings who have historically been ignored, institutionalized and marginalized and oppressed by elements of nondisabled society.

Just a typical fun-filled day
Hard as it was, I gently pointed out to the writer of that column that the way she used “lame” was inappropriate and why. The next time, I imagine it will be somewhat easier to do. I also am doing the same when hearing these words used inappropriately in my presence.

Equally important, I am monitoring myself, for I have been as guilty as the next nondisabled person in their use. I invite everyone to hold me accountable when I fall short, which I surely will.

It’s only by continuously pointing out the damage these statements cause that we can change our way of thinking about inappropriate word and phrase usage. I am no longer willing to let them go unrecognized for the oppressive messages they are, unintentional or otherwise. Will you do the same?

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