Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Don’t Just Celebrate National Hispanic Heritage Month, Live It

Here we are, smack dab in the middle of National Hispanic Heritage Month (Sept. 15 – Oct. 15) and I’ve yet to pay my respects to any of my friends who identify as Hispanic. Nor have I done anything significant to further my understanding of Hispanic culture. What’s the big deal? Plenty.

In case you haven’t noticed, I often use this column to explore issues of diversity. Not just race but ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, ability, class, you name it. I work hard to respect and appreciate all the variations of people on the planet. This is especially so regarding those who are different from me and have historically been targeted with discrimination and systematically marginalized through intentional prejudice and unconscious bias.

Why do I say, “I work hard to respect…,” rather than, “I respect…”? Because I believe actions speak louder than words.

For example, I tell people I love the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team but I haven’t watched a Lakers game in years. I know superstar Kobe Bryant still plays for them but I’m hard pressed to name any of his teammates. I know the Lakers play at the Staples Center but if you ask me to name their coach, fuhgetaboutit.

On the other hand, I’ve been watching the Detroit Tigers all season – on TV and live at Comerica Park. I can name the starters, tell you their positions, wear their swag and have purchased Tigers caps, shirts and hoodies for friends and family. In short, I can legitimately claim I love the Tigers. But this isn’t about sports.

My box score as it relates to acknowledging and supporting National Hispanic Heritage Month this year? Zero, zilch, nada. Nothing. Yeah, I’ve given the matter some thought. Big deal. Actually, it more resembled musings. Like: “I really should do something to celebrate National Hispanic Heritage Month.”

So far, I haven’t gotten much past scarfing down chicken enchiladas at Taqueria San Francisco with the family. Great Mexican meal experience with the wife and kids; poor showing of active respect for Hispanic culture. I guess it’s a start though, supporting an Hispanic owned and operated establishment.

In previous years, I’ve done better. For instance, as communication person for a local grassroots food movement group, I placed supportive advertisements in the Spanish language newspaper Nueva Opinion and other publications, including the Enquirer. Not an insignificant gesture. Still not enough though.
A couple years ago, I devoted this column to an issue related to National Hispanic Heritage Month. It was a perspective piece and required me to research the celebration’s origins and identify largely unheralded accomplishments of persons with an Hispanic identity. Better effort that year.

              This year I have yet to distinguish myself as a person who truly regards National Hispanic Heritage Month as anything more than a calendar footnote. And that’s a problem. For me it’s not about tokenism or ticking off an item on my diversity checklist. It’s about truly seeing my fellow humans. That means learning what I can about the various Hispanic cultures and appreciating what it means to live as an Hispanic in the United States. That and creating and maintaining space in my heart for understanding.

It also means acknowledging Hispanic contributions to American culture, recognizing their social issues, and engaging with them in as many ways possible. That includes intentionally striking up conversation with Hispanics about their experience and publicly naming inequities and discrimination when I see it happening.

Matter of fact, I should be actively pursuing these last couple of actions steps on a daily basis and not once a year. Anything less is just window dressing and I know I can do better than that. How about you?

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

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Stop Hunger

Although I bleed green and white (thanks to Michigan State football), my favorite color in September is orange. And it’s not just because my oldest daughter is a Syracuse University incoming freshman. Orange is the official color of Hunger Action Month. It’s also my favorite fruit, after blueberries, but enough fun and games.

Hunger Action Month is an annual campaign of Feeding America, a nationwide network of food banks. A dirty little secret in the United States is that millions of fellow citizens afflicted with hunger. What’s worse, you don’t have to travel to some remote place in the country to find it; it’s here in town. Maybe next door. Maybe you.

It’s ironic that in a place (I’m talking America) currently struggling with an obesity epidemic, there are also people who don’t know where their next meal will come from. Sometimes hunger and obesity go hand in hand. Why? In a word, poverty.

According to the Food Bank of South Central Michigan, which serves an eight–county area, 14 percent of all people in its service area suffer food insecurity. That is, they are uncertain from where their next meal will come (never mind whether it’s fresh and nutritional).

What’s worse, among children, that number rises to more than 20 percent – that’s one in five kids. The stats are even lower for Calhoun County residents. And we wonder why some kids have such a hard time focusing on classwork; many come to school hungry.

Ever meet a hungry person? Chances are you have or will do so today, even though you may not be aware of it. This assumes you move in mainstream society. The problem is that a lot of naysayers – those who claim food that any person can access fresh nutritious food if they want it – tend to live in a vacuum. More specifically, the ones with their heads in the sand choose to move in ways that keep them far and away from the people in need.

Thank goodness for the aforementioned Food Bank, along with Sprout Urban Farms, Gardening 365 at Leila Arboretum, God’s Kitchen and a myriad of other food agencies and services around the community. There’s also Good Food Battle Creek (GFBC), a network of individuals and organizations that promote healthy food choices and access to good food for all people. But it’s not enough. As GFBC coordinator, we believe our local food system is broken and are working to help repair it.

There’s also Double Up Food Bucks from Ann Arbor-based Fair Food Network. Germinating from a small pilot program in Detroit, Double Up Food Bucks has blossomed into a statewide success story. In 2013 alone it’s helped stretch the food dollars of 200,000 low-income families and supported more than 1,000 farmers in the process. As a bonus, it’s produced more than a $5 million effect on Michigan’s economy.

Double Up Food Bucks is growing locally. Currently the program is available through Nov. 30 at Family Fare (45 E. Columbia Ave.), and through Oct. 31 at both Battle Creek and Springfield farmers markets as well as the Fresh on Wheels program offered by Sprout Urban Farms.

Recently, the Food Bank hosted a meeting to unveil a report: Hunger in America 2014. Every four years, Feeding America coordinates the national Hunger in America Study, which ties in to the state and local Hunger in America studies.

A key takeaway from the meeting is the need to secure funding for expansion of fresh food distribution at food banks. But providing fresh food alone isn’t enough. What’s also needed is nutrition education and support. In today’s fast food society, raw food preparation is a dying art and skill in many quarters. Let’s not allow an entire segment of our society with it.

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

Don’t Assume Poor People Aren’t Trying

Gonna be a bad day
Someone once said, “It’s hell to be poor.” That’s doubly true if your parents grew up that way too. Even more so if your parent’s parents also did. That’s what’s known as generational poverty and it’s hideously oppressive. The reason? It creates ways of being so engrained they can be nearly impossible to break.
When born into poverty (or any other class), you inherit a system of beliefs and way of doing things. Like it or not, this system is as real as the nose on your face. In fact, this system is right under your nose. Thing is, unless you know what to look for, chances are you can’t see it. That’s a problem.
All social classes have “rules” that help define who we are – to others and to ourselves. They also tend to dictate how we look at the world, which leads us all to engage in predictable ways.
These rules are rarely discussed intentionally but we abide by them. We’re compelled to. After all, it’s what we know. For most of us, it’s all we know. At worst, we are prisoners of our own experiences; it sets the stage for what we come to believe. About ourselves and about each other.
Yes, there are exceptions; there’re always exceptions. But the majority of us remain cemented where we are. And it’s usually not because we like being in the social or economic situation we’re in.
Take getting an education. Ask any adult; rich, not so rich or poor. Most will agree education is important. I’ve met many a successful business person who has boldly informed me that nothing takes the place of hard work. And who am I to argue with somebody who only finished high school but nevertheless managed to acquire and maintain a seven-figure bank account? Legally.
Getting an education and/or keeping your nose to the grindstone is sound advice. But there’s more to it than that. It’s understanding there are different rules for different social groups. What allows us to thrive in one set of living circumstances may not work so well when you’re trying to survive in another. Or climb out of the financial/social situation we’re in.
I learned a valuable lesson about this while serving on the board of Woman's Co-op, a nonprofit network of women helping women with very low incomes. During a board exercise, we were invited to list items women living in poverty needed.
Believing I knew what it meant to be poor (based on observations and my own early struggles after college), I confidently compiled a list. My list had things like car seats, diapers and baby food. Turns out none of the items I listed made the top 10.
What was at the top? Silverware. Forks, knives and spoons. Plates and cups to replace the ones made of paper. Another was laundry detergent. I was stunned. In short, my middle class values came with assumptions rooted in ignorance: mine. There was a major disconnect between what I assumed they needed and the actual reality.
Why the disconnect? Patterns of activity and behavior get passed down. So do thoughts of self and others. Biases form as a result of the conditions in which we live. Our ways of being are programmed; whether we like it or not. Whether we know it or not.
What do paper plates and detergent have to do with getting ahead in life? Plenty. Those in higher income brackets always assume they know how to break out of lower income living conditions. Yet why aren’t more middle class persons living higher on the hog? A wealthy person might say, “They’re just not working hard enough.”
Now where have I heard that before?

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

Friday, September 26, 2014

There’s More to Life Than (fill in the blank)

Serena Williams

There’s a lot I can learn from tennis star Serena Williams, the least of which is how to improve my weak backhand. For those who don’t follow the game, news or Facebook, Serena won the 2014 U.S. Open. There’s also a lot to admire.

Serena Williams’ career achievements on the court include: winning her third straight U.S. Open title, her sixth overall. She’s currently ranked No. 1 in the world. Not bad for a soon-to-be 33 year old, ancient as it relates to women playing tennis professionally.

Serena is regarded by some professional players and experts to be the greatest female tennis player in history. According to reports, she holds the most Major singles, doubles, and mixed doubles titles combined amongst active players, male or female.

Ultimately, there are other impressive statistics I could share but you can easily find them online. Besides, that’s not what impresses me most about her. What makes Serena (and sister Venus for that matter) relevant in my eyes is something different. Something unique among people who are leaders in their chosen profession.

Serena is diverse.

No, she’s not a person of color. Well, actually she is. African American to be specific. But that’s not where I’m going with this.

Also Serena
Instead, Serena is one of those human beings I admire for their interest in a lot of different stuff. My cousin Stanley is exactly like that. He just can’t play tennis as well as Serena, judging from the last time we played and I won. (We’ll ignore the 27 straight previous times he beat me because after all, this is about Serena, right?)

At any rate, the younger Williams sister seems to approach life the same way Stanley does: indulging her interests rather than ignoring them. It’s true Serena’s a world class tennis champion. Emphasis on champion. Simultaneously, while competing at the highest level (and mostly winning) over the years, Serena has engaged in an array of non-tennis endeavors.

Among her eclectic activities, Serena started a foundation to assist vulnerable youth. She also has a clothing line and has designed outfits she’s worn both on the court and off. She studied and became a certified nail technician in preparation of launching her fashion nails collection. She also is involved in bringing to market a signature collection of handbags and jewelry.

There’s more. Serena has authored books and appeared in a number of film and TV roles. On top of that, Serena (and sister Venus) reportedly became part-owners of the Miami Dolphins.

What makes all this so relevant, her active involvement in extracurricular activities meaningful to her while maintaining a successful pro tennis career, is that she has not compromised a well-rounded life at the expense of a singular vocational career.

No single-minded robot
Because of this, she is not without her critics. Many folks in tennis circles question her commitment and respect for the game. Really? The game’s winningest active player? It’s true that unlike most high performing (and dare I say single-minded) professionals, Serena has skipped tournaments and sometimes registered a poor performance here and there.

An argument might hold water if she was part of a team. Then again, I question the integrity of persons who miss the birth of their child because of work.

Regarding Serena, let them rant; I will rave. I aspire to live my life like Serena and Stanley. Live in a way that’s balanced and soaked with all parts of my being, not just the one that pays the bills. I’m a writer and social change agent. I’m also a mountain-biker and a trekkie. And a foodie and a Spartan.

Singer Frank Sinatra said it best when he crooned, “…I did it my way.”

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

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Let's Really Talk About Race

This is no way to conduct a conversation
So many kind, well-intentioned white people seem to be on “autopilot” when it comes to issues of race in America. Specifically, when persons of color insist they regularly experience racial oppression, their statements often get minimized or worse, refuted by the white person, often followed by a canned problem-solving lecture on American values and equality of opportunity. Yet some so-called races are more equal than others.

More than a few white folks believe race is no barrier to success; for persons of color who are floundering, in order to make it, just work harder, learn to proper speak English, pull up the sagging pants and along with them your bootstraps.

Downgraded or ignored with disappointing regularity are festering wounds caused by racially oppressive policies and practices (and the historic institutions that prop them up). Like a virus invading the body, institutional racism has overridden our moral compasses and systematically infected every nook and cranny of our great society.

But unlike most influenza cases, which cause temporary physical harm, racism inflicts enduring, often invisible emotional and psychological damage. For nonwhites like me, the injuries can be readily apparent and a near everyday occurrence. Ironically, whites suffer too; most just can’t see or feel it. How could they without knowing the “symptoms”?
Let's stop the trash talking on all sides
Being part of the dominant race group in America, a white person has the luxury of choosing to be, or not be, part of the racial oppression conversation. But like toxic waste buried deep underground, it eventually leeches out. And it does so in ways that are obvious and not so apparent.

When most folks finally do get around to talking about race, it tends to be conducted in ways that affirm their position, and usually with people who agree with them. The result: little dialog around the issue’s deep, often contradictory complexity.

Heard from both sides: “It’s their problem.” “Talking about it only fuels the issue.” “Why can’t they all act more like [fill in the blank]?”

Even when we’re not talking race, we’re thinking about it. All of us. Consciously and unconsciously. Science bears this out in countless studies on the reality known as implicit bias.

Race is a complicated subject. It’s messy and painful in a way that has no single remedy. Hard work, yes. Education, yes. But also empathy. Race is a subject in which all sides should be heard. Dialog, not monolog. With deep, active listening for understanding happening on all sides.

Most of us are stuck though. Pinned down in the trenches of self-righteousness. We assess other positions based on our own rigid, unwavering stance. Fueled by whichever network talking heads best represent the simplistic soundtrack looping in our minds.

Possibilities become unlimited through honest dialog
The result? Stalemate. No progress. The same verbal assaults, armed with age-old rhetoric so cemented in our psyche that we’re not even open to the single most scary possibility of all: what if we’re wrong? No ideas, just ideals. It’s like World War I again, but the combat employs words instead of bullets. Well, sometimes bullets are used…

Time to declare a ceasefire. Time for all sides to come to the table for straight talk. Not an angry discussion but an authentic one in which all sides speak from the heart; and all sides listen. It’s a dialogue that avoids topics like who did what to whom and when. Been there, done that. Instead let’s explore how we might collectively transform the nature of our society and its currently broken systems (education, food, healthcare, housing, etc.) into ones that facilitate opportunities for all, no matter our race.

Like all hard discussions, there’s only one right time; and that’s now. I, for one am ready. There are others. Will you join the dialogue?


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

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.