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 4humansbeing@gmail.com.

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 4humansbeing@gmail.com.

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.


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

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Practice Patience, Understanding During Times of Stress

As a culture, it’s disappointing how intolerant and impatient we’ve all become. Especially when it comes to respecting fellow human beings. The sobering truth is people are not perfect. As a consequence, sometimes we goof up, stumble or just have brain farts.

There are also circumstances are beyond our control. Events happen and if we’re in (or not in) a certain frame of mind they can send us into a tailspin of anger. Take kids on an airplane.

Recently there was a news story about a parent who took her infant on a flight and before takeoff issued “apology” gift bags filled with goodies (candy, ear plugs, etc.) to those seated around her. She even included a note, penned in the voice of the baby. The purpose? Massage those who might be disturbed by the possible fussing her baby might engage in during the flight. In essence it was to apologize in advance for the baby being a baby.

As if the infant is doing something unexpected and out of character. As if a parent as responsible as this one is accountable for her baby acting like, well, a baby. As if it’s inexcusable for a six-month-old to be upset in a public place.

The same can happen when an elder is moving too slow getting on or off a flight. So many passengers outwardly display impatience, disgust and intolerance toward those with differing abilities.

Planes and trains aren’t the only place such inhumane reactions occur. Ever been at a fast food joint when it wasn’t fast? Five minutes to get served instead of two?

The horror. Not over the extra time it takes, but the foul treatment the cashier receives. The cashier is not the one working the fries machine or building the burgers. Nevertheless, she’s the one who get the evil eye. Or worse.

It’s the same in any service industry. For instance waiting in line at the grocery store. Oh, the gasps of exasperation and disgust from disgruntled shoppers. As if it’s the end of the world that the shopper ahead of them has coupons. Or an item that needs a price check.

Elders driving? Newbies behind the wheel for the first time? Somebody lost or looking for an address? It’s awful the treatment they can receive by impatient passing drivers. Sometimes dangerously impatient drivers.

Not that I’m innocent of any of this. Quite the contrary. Ever been cut off in traffic? Who hasn’t? A more relevant question: ever cut someone else off in traffic? We all have, knowingly or unknowingly.

We’ve all been there; interrupted someone else’s flow, I mean. All except for the perfect people in society. The ones who steadfastly refuse to believe their armpits don’t stink after a workout.

I’m not suggesting we give everybody passes on things that disrupt our lives – especially if that disruption can be helped. But there’s a difference between intentional and unintentional incidents. There’s a difference between a baby flying off the handle with no parental guidance and one who’s just plain inconsolable – no matter what the caretaker does to soothe the child.

What to do? Who can say? A start might be to incorporate a bit of compassion for those different from you. Or take into account the fact that random acts of chaos can happen when it’s least convenient or expected.

I, for one try hard to remember the Golden Rule. Without a doubt, “doing unto others” can be difficult to remember during times of stress and frustration. Yet a wink and a nod can often be a saving grace, particularly when seated in 17-B next to a first-time mother toting a six-month-old suffering from colic.


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

Monday, January 5, 2015

Temper Outrage of Slain NYPD Officers with Compassion For All Who Suffer Tragic Deaths due to Violence

Outrage continues in America over the murder of two police officers in New York City. Officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu were slain by a hail of bullets in broad daylight while sitting in their vehicle. After the gunman opened fire on them, he fled to a subway station where he committed suicide.

I share that outrage.

The shooter, Ismaaiyl Brinsley, was apparently no stranger to crime. His rap sheet includes robbery and carrying a concealed weapon. Earlier that day he was near Baltimore where he threatened suicide before shooting and seriously wounding former girlfriend Shaneka Thompson. Turns out he also reportedly had a history of mental illness.

The fact that the shooter was deranged does not excuse him from his responsibility for the despicable acts he committed in New York and Baltimore. I categorically reject any aspect of his reasoning (if you can call it that) for gunning down the officers, particularly his assertions on social media about wanting to claim revenge for the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner — unarmed men who were killed by police and have sparked months of civil unrest that continue to this day.

I am outraged that someone would so callously and willfully assault human beings who are mandated to protect and serve us.


I’m also outraged that many of the same people who share my anger regarding this tragedy have been silent when it comes to the deaths of African American men and boys. Young males who are systematically being beaten and killed through acts of police brutality.

(I personally believe a minority of police engage in unwarranted violence of this kind and it is them and their culture of prejudice to which I direct my anger. To them and the militarized law enforcement culture that supports them.)

Similarly, I am outraged by the people, who through their silence, affirm the disproportionate mass incarceration of young African-American males. I'm outraged that they believe it's right and just for young black men and boys to be systematically discriminated against in courtrooms that jail them at significantly higher rates than white males who commit similar crimes.

I'm outraged at white people who only see their point of view, a white-washed lens through which they are complicit continuing acts of injustice. I'm outraged they minimize, dismiss or even justify so many heinous acts of physical and emotional violence historically perpetrated against people of color – from slavery to Jim Crow to lynchings, to housing and job discrimination, to the continuing racial discrimination plaguing today’s education, employment, housing, judicial and yes, law enforcement institutions.

I'm outraged about white people who enthusiastically call out obvious, individual acts of racism but refuse to connect the dots when it comes to systematic racism.

I'm outraged that when I got pulled over by a County police deputy and tell him I was in the act of putting on my seatbelt when he saw me that he accuses me of lying. I'm outraged that when I told a mall retail store manager I've waited in the TV section of his store for 15 minutes to buy two televisions and was ignored by not one but two sales clerks, he told me that he wasn't there so he doesn't know what happened.

Am I so invisible, irrelevant and untrustworthy? Are all black males so? That is, unless we raise our voice, raise our hand or raise an issue of injustice, then we become a “problem.” I'm outraged that when we do these things we suddenly become quite visible, often to the point that we are perceived as aggressive or angry. Or dangerous.

I'm outraged that white people have the kind of privilege in our society that allows them to ignore or otherwise not engage on issues that negatively impact persons of color.

And yet…

I’m also encouraged. Encouraged by the growing number of white people who are coming to the table, sitting down and listening. To these people I tip my hat. I know how hard it can be to listen to another person’s experiences for which it can often be impossible to relate.

As we think about the terrible tragedy of slain officers, also think about all those who also suffer and die unjustly. But not just the ones you can relate to.

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

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Unleash Your Curiosity and Embrace Science

Folks who make my acquaintance sooner or later begin to suspect me to be something of a science geek. Guilty as charged. Truth is, my passion in this regard ranges from hard, fact-based science and far-ranging science theory, all the way to plain ‘ol science fiction.

So it eventually comes as no shock to friends when I try to steer discussions toward such topics. Sadly, in most cases, my invitation to dialogue is met with polite head-nodding followed by an increasingly vacant stare. Or outright here-we-go-again eye rolling.

I don’t mind. In fact, I don’t blame them. Different strokes for different folks, I say. Case in point: some of my friends and relatives hold great passion for things like professional wrestling, romance novels or HGTV. Me? Pass.

When I was younger, some people accused me of having my head in the clouds. That is, I was thinking about things that to them ultimately didn’t really matter in the greater scheme of things. For instance, when I talked about stars, most inferred television and film celebrities.

Of course, I meant far off worlds that might hold other intelligent life (unlike TV & movies). Statistically it’s a virtual certainty, yet there’s no observable data to support the claim. Despite my deepest dreams, seeing is believing. Now that’s what I call an inconvenient truth.

There’s no whiz-bang intellect in my noodle that justifies the passion I hold for science. Still, my world view can often keep a lot of people from engaging in what I consider interesting conversation and conjecture. In fact, a lot of stuff I like to go on about squarely resides in the wheelhouse of most people’s, “Who gives a darn?”

They’ve got a point. Despite my love of it, modern science can also chap my hide. My biggest beef is that humankind keeps believing we have it all figured out. Take the dinosaur thing. Back when I was a kid, scientists were certain they were cold-blooded like reptiles; now we believe them to have been warm blooded like us.

Or, once upon a time we were sure the smallest elemental particles were atoms. Positive of it. That is, until we discovered electrons. And protons and neutrons. Then muons and bosons. It goes on.

Even science’s simpler mysteries can be exercises in unprovable conjecture. Like where the mate to a socks goes after doing laundry. Good money used to be on gremlins; now, thanks to the science of Calvin and Hobbes, I’m squarely in the transmogrifier camp, with the dryer doubling as some sort of multi-dimensional transporter. The problem once again though is verifiable proof.

Fractals, wormholes, microchimerism, implicit bias – these are all science terms (look ‘em up) that stimulate my imagination. And curiosity. Even concepts that I initially struggled with in math, like integrals and derivatives, have become dear to me. Despite their aloofness as it relates to my initial inability to comprehend them in practical terms (i.e., during test-taking), conceptually, they invoked and continue to provoke in me a desire to better understand the world.

What does it all mean? Why should such high minded concepts be on the radar of a relatively-speaking mid-brow individual such as myself? Two words: curiosity and imagination.

Thanks to the level of technology we’ve achieved, today’s youth are collectively being robbed of those two most useful traits known to humanity. Computer simulations and digital effects reign supreme, leaving less and less to the imagination. Or is that really the case?

Time will tell if this period in history marks a decline in human innovation or serves as the launch point toward something altogether innovative and unique. Here’s to the unknown. Let’s go exploring!

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

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Push the Edges of Conversation Concerning Life and Death

Thinking about life can force a person to contemplate a wide range of circumstances. Two biggies that have come to mind recently are being born and dying. This pair of inevitable events are bookends, staples of the human condition – literally and figuratively. That’s because both are experienced by every single person on the planet.

Long ago I was there in person to bear witness to the death of my father. More recently I was front and center for the birth of my youngest son. Each event held unparalleled meaning. They were wildly different yet in many ways uniquely the same.

Both consisted of high drama, though distinctive in their unfolding. Both drove me to tears. Both exuded an unearthly power that ironically left me feeling as if they were the most natural things in the world. In retrospect, perhaps they are part of the same process – life – just at different ends of a continuum. Watching a person leave this world. Witnessing another enter it. The immensity of it all, to participate in such profound coming and going.

I also experienced fear. Fear of the unknown and its meaning. Such bewildering complexity bundled in experiences that are oh so common to all human beings, yet in the moment too expansive for my puny intellect to comprehend. Both shook me to the core.

I’m no scientist. Nor am I a person of the cloth. But in each instance I empirically observed and divinely felt a magnificence associated with the two events. A power that, if I choose, can be readily harnessed to great purpose in my life. And the lives of others.

When I think about all that, it makes me wonder: why are we, as people, so unable to get along with each other? After all, each and every one of us have or will experience these same momentous events, in some form or fashion. I mean really, it’s not like other things we share in common like the noting the weather or breathing air or eating food. I’m talking living and dying, the alpha and omega. Perhaps the very essence of what it means to be or not to be.

Maybe one of the reasons coming into life and/or leaving it fails to bring us closer as a single race is people’s level of comfort (or rather, discomfort) when it comes to the topics. There are so few people willing to “go there” in conversation. I mean talk with any depth about either subject – especially death.

Even with respect to being born, most folks avoid specific conversations about it. Oh, they speak in general terms but nothing too deep or specific. In our culture there’s actually one day a year that gives each of us a chance to delve into meaningful dialog on at least one of the topics. I’m talking birthdays.

Sure we celebrate them. Rarely is there any eloquent reflection on what it all means. Life, the opportunity to be here, the hopes and dreams associated with it.

An exception I expect is with respect to mothers. I imagine, this is because of their very active and no doubt painful role in birthing their children.

I personally believe most of us would benefit greatly from candid and authentic conversations about life and death. Unfortunately, those are the last things folks want to think about – let alone discuss.

Yet experts say talking about death and (therefore life?) is among the most beneficial therapies for humans, as it relates to our individual and collective health. Especially if entered into with honesty and integrity. How much more compassion would we hold for one another, no matter our differences, if such conversations were no longer so taboo? One can only imagine. Or one can start the discussion.

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