Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Change is in the Air

Why is this message so threatening?
We are currently experiencing a period of significant cultural change. It’s exciting, widespread and somewhat intimidating because of its magnitude. This collective transformation is sweeping the nation, maybe the world. And there’s something altogether unique about society’s seismic shifting.

              It’s not just occurring within the boundaries of social justice either. It’s impacting numerous political and economic sectors too. In the process, it’s unearthing traditions and behaviors that once were firmly cemented in place. The result? Hope for some. Uncertainty for others. Fear for a great many.

              The causes are many and complex but the so-called Arab Spring is the global flashpoint. The events of Arab Spring, which took place half a world away in 2010, consisted of a wave of protests, demonstrations and civil unrest in parts of the Middle East. All were rooted in the dissatisfaction of the people with the status quo. Oppression seemed the common thread.

One theory of change
              It’s the same here in the States. For instance, the Black Lives Matter movement is a grassroots campaign that’s galvanizing African Americans and their supporters across the country. Its origin stems from the 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. It has since evolved to more generally protest many law enforcement agencies whose militaristic (some say brutal) policies disproportionately target African American men and women.

              On the economic front there’s Occupy Wall Street. This movement started in 2011. It illuminated protesters’ perceptions of, and attitudes about economic inequality in general, with particular emphasis on income disparity. The movement received global attention and inspired the broader Occupy movement against social and economic inequality worldwide.

              Of a more personal nature, marriage equality awareness has surged in recent years. Known more commonly (though perhaps not as accurately) as same sex marriage, change on this front has centered lately on the LGBTQ community but the disabled community has also been affected. Only a couple months ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that state-level bans on same-sex marriage are unconstitutional.

Make room for all identities
Then there’s the emergence of issues related to persons who identify as transgender. Conversations are happening that poke holes in the conventional male/female binary, as well as accepted notions of what defines “masculine” and “feminine”. It also surfaces questions of acceptance and oppression – some of a life-threatening nature. According to reports, in 2015 there have been at least 16 transgender women murdered across the country.

              And let’s not forget about this nation’s policy (and make no mistake, it’s a policy) of mass incarceration, an institutional issue seemingly driven by the crime. Yet with the crime rate trending down, growing evidence points more strongly toward a broken, racist criminal justice system as the culprit. And it’s bookended by plain old fashion capitalism in the form of corporations running our prisons.

              All this change is not without backlash. And it’s showing up in often weird, dysfunctional ways. For instance, the political landscape is unrecognizable. Presidential candidates are flippantly mocking each other and employing communication strategies more akin to reality TV than substantive, issues-based messaging. Surely it cannot last. Or can it?

Time to change our criminal justice system
              What we are undergoing as a culture and as a nation, this dynamic social evolution, is quantum in nature. That is, it’s more a giant leap for humankind than one small step. It reminds me of the huge science and technology advancements made in the 20th Century (i.e., space flight, genetic research, computers… the washing machine).

              This progress, while many welcome it, also is taking a toll on our collective psyche. It’s hard to keep up. I’m all for it though, especially if it ultimately results in increased compassion and empathy among those of us who (consciously and unconsciously) oppress others.


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

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Bear Witness to Truth of this Nation by Embracing its Contradictions

This isn't the first time these guys talk out of both sides of their mouths
One of the toughest things to come to terms with in life are contradictions. That is, holding equally true but ultimately conflicting facts and realities. Contradictions play out in all sorts of ways, from the way we think about institutions to how we look at people. How one holds these contradictions play an important role in one’s outlook, especially as it relates to truth and justice.

              For instance, I love the United States of America. I was born here; it’s my country and I’m proud of it. I like to think of the U.S. as the No. 1 country in the world, despite a heck of a lot of facts and figures that suggest our overall ranking is otherwise.

              Our stated values and principles are things I hold dear. And yet as an institutional system and as much as I love it, this nation is wildly flawed. Flawed in ways that frustrate and anger me.

One of the most damning contradictions about our founding fathers
              That our country is imperfect I can accept. What’s harder to come to terms with is how so many people refuse to accept and embrace this contradiction.

              We say we value freedom. But the U.S. has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. We lift up equality as a cherished principle. Yet conditions like racism, poverty and hunger persist across the 50 states.

              We insist one of our most cherished institutions is education. Yet we deny inner city school systems the resources they need to thrive. At the same time we saddle college graduates with staggering debt to accompany their diplomas.


              Recently I visited the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. It’s an amazing place, steeped in pride of history and country. It was at once inspiring and troubling.

              The main attraction is “Freedom Rising”, a 17-minute, 360-degree theatrical presentation. Think: intensely patriotic IMAX Theater. The production traces the “American quest for freedom” and if you want to know about the beginnings of the United States and its storied history, this production and the Center itself is the place to go. Sort of.

              See, within these walls are contradictions. Contradictions and omissions – the sum of which fail to tell the full and complete story of our great nation. This ultimately speaks to truth. Or rather, untruth.

Thomas Jefferson. Whose story? His-story.
Most of the important facts and figures are there, along with relevant turning points. But the centerpiece of the contradictions lay with the troubling immersion in which one finds oneself at the Center. That’s because like most museums, libraries and bookstores, this venerable place is steeped in a singular perspective – one viewed through the lens of straight white Christian males.

              That’s a problem. Especially for people who don’t hold that identity. The thing of it is, most of us who are not straight and white and male and Christian are not even aware of the lens through which we view things like this exhibition.

              Had I not made a conscious decision to experience my visit to the Center through the lens of racial equity, I would not have noticed that after the initial sentence of the “Freedom Rising” presentation, Native Americans were never mentioned again. It was as if they went extinct.

              If I hadn’t kept my critical thinking cap on, I probably would not have keyed in on the fact that the U.S. Constitution was written by and specifically for men. White, landowning men.

              There are scores of other examples but the point is that the Center, and historians in general, whitewash history. They scrub it clean of the dirtier aspects contributing to this nation’s creation. They sweep away hard cold facts in favor of more palatable renderings. And it’s damaging to our psyche. Telling the truth from a single perspective keeps people from coming to terms with who we are as a nation.

              Until we hear, and more importantly accept, all sides of United States history – the good, bad and ugly, folks will continue to have trouble sitting in the right and wrong of America. Its contradictions.

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

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Time for Communities to Get Off the "Savior" Mentality Regarding Public Servants

Mighty, yes; savior, no. And that's no dig either.
Departed Battle Creek Public Schools Superintendent Linda Hicks has something in common with our U.S. president and incoming New York Police Chief Kim Royster. And it’s as big as it is problematic.

              First Royster. It was gratifying to note her elevation to Police Chief of our nation’s largest city. Royster’s advancement from Deputy Chief will make her the highest-ranking black woman in the history of the New York Police Department, according to reports. I celebrate her achievement but her promotion is accompanied by some unwelcome baggage.

              Royster has nearly 30 years of experience with the department. That’s not the problem though. Neither is the fact that she started her career with NYPD as a police administrative aide. Nor is it that she’s a mother of two.

              What’s troubling is this: Royster is a person. A human being. Why is that a problem? In and of itself it’s not. The thing is, there’s a whole lot of expectations that this one individual can affect change, in short order, to a system that was established 170 years ago. It’s the largest municipal police force in the country, with a reported uniform strength of about 34,500 people.

              A lot of folks are pinning their hopes on Royster to markedly improve department levels of racial and gender equity. That’s real heavy lifting for just one person.

              This same issue’s on an even larger scale at the national level. Even before his election, idealistic supporters cast President Obama in the role of savior. What we found out all too quickly though is that like Royster, the president is just one person. The result was sobering disappointment and in a lot of cases outright disapproval.

Royster is super too; but no miracle worker to be idolized
              A single individual within a large system can inspire. They can draw up plans, manage and lead. Ultimately though, said individual’s agenda is subject to often invisible and largely uncontrollable processes. These processes are driven by institutional policies, procedures, as well as the people employed there.

              Indeed, the very purpose of these institutional elements is to keep the organization, and therefore the system, running smoothly. That makes change difficult; even when the change is in the best interests of all involved.

              External forces are also a factor. Meddling outsiders, politics, regulations and other dynamics all influence, even mandate what happens inside a given institution. To the extent that no one person can affect significant change when faced with so many moving parts – most of which are designed to discourage, and in some cases actively resist change.

              About Linda Hicks. Like Royster and Obama, the former BCPS superintendent suffers from the human condition of only being one person.

              On occasion I got to work up close and personal with Hicks. From my perspective she did everything humanly possible to strengthen and repair BCPS. Unfortunately, she was faced with too much, too little, too late.

              Like her predecessor, Hicks took the reins of a system that had been steadily losing its base of support. The core of that base is people. Students. With bleeding levels of enrollment came (or rather went) government financial support. Fewer students means fewer dollars, resulting in fewer education resources and tools. That translates to poorer outcomes.

Linda Hicks gave 110 percent
Also at that core are school teachers and administrators. Many of them lost faith. The result? Low morale, with many bad-mouthing not just Hicks but students, the school district and the community it serves.

              Like many urban school systems, BCPS is broken. Its problems are many and not just confined to the classroom. Issues are internal and external, from scarce resources to indifferent parents and teachers to meddling adjacent school systems to the state school board and legislators who lack conviction. The breadth of the dysfunction is out of any one person’s control, no matter their job title.

              Did Hicks make mistakes? Who doesn’t? But let’s not forget the good. According to a school board statement, Hicks developed and implemented a successful Ninth Grade Academy that improved graduation rates. She managed the district’s relocation of the Battle Creek Area Math and Science Center to downtown. She also transitioned Dudley Elementary into a STEM school. Not bad.

              It’s time we stopped bringing in “saviors” only to scapegoat them when spectacular results aren’t immediately realized. Instead, let’s surface holistic approaches to building community, ones in which leaders feel supported rather than antagonized.


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

Friday, August 7, 2015

Police: Militarizing is Not the Answer/ Instead Listen, Learn & Respect

This is no way to protect and serve
The increasingly publicized acts of violence by police, particularly against persons of color around the nation, are taking a toll on my psyche. Thank goodness my hometown has been spared from these socially traumatizing incidents. Or has it?

              Credit local law enforcement leaders for their upfront examination of policing policies and the proactive measures they’ve been taking to help prevent poor outcomes on our streets. Elsewhere in the country it seems altogether different.

              One of the latest incidents was a University of Cincinnati police officer who shot dead a motorist after pulling him over for a missing front license plate. The officer was charged with murder. The tragedy was caught on video; I viewed it, and was left dumbfounded.

Officer Friendly? I think not.
              TV news and social media, fueled by ever-present mobile phones, security cameras and police body cams are generating increased eyewitness accounts of the oppression and abuse people of color have known was going on all along. But not every cop is guilty.

              A lot of right and just police feel disrespected, insulted and threatened because of the actions of a few rotten apples. May I suggest that now they know what it's like for all the right and just African American men and boys out there who are disproportionately stopped, harassed and jailed for living-while-black.

              Correction, not just men and boys but also women and girls.

              Consider 42-year-old Raynette Turner. A mother of eight, Turner was found dead last week in a New York police holding cell while awaiting arraignment on a shoplifting charge. Then there’s the recent debacle involving 28-year-old Sandra Bland. She too died while in police custody, following an arrest after being pulled over in Texas for a minor traffic violation.

              African Americans aren’t the only people of color dying. Four days before Bland’s death, 24-year-old Native American Sarah Lee Circle Bear of South Dakota, was arrested on a simple bond violation. This mother of two also died in custody. So did Rexdale W. Henry, a 53-year-old Choctaw tribe medicine man and activist. He was found dead in his jail cell in Philadelphia, Miss., on the morning of July 14. Henry was arrested for failing to pay a minor traffic citation.

One of the good guys, er... gals. NYPD's Kim Royster 
These death-by-incarceration incidents and other high profile occurrences in recent days, weeks and months – such as the one widely televised in which a 15-year-old bikini-clad African American girl attending a pool party was slammed to the ground by Texas police – have left me numb. In some ways, it feels like this country’s race relations have traveled backwards in time. Particularly as it relates to the way law enforcement treats people of color.

              The draconian tactics of local and state law enforcement and its growing militarization have been long predicted. Where? In movies.

              Ever notice how the big screen tends to depict cities of the future? Police wear body armor and carry high tech assault gear. Whatever the story line, police on film more resemble combat soldiers than public servants. “The Hunger Games”, “Elysian” and “District Nine” come to mind. Art imitates life. Or is it the other way around?

              Whatever the case, acts of oppression by police are viewed with contempt by moviegoers. In real life however, the reverse is true: somehow those same moviegoers perceive the ones unjustly oppressed by police as always being at fault. Somehow slamming a skinny, half-naked, nonthreatening girl to the ground at a pool party and pinning her to the ground with a knee becomes reasonable.

              Something is happening that compels police, or rather compels society to mandate police to behave the way that they do. It’s time to examine at a national level what some local law enforcement agencies are already doing. That is listen, learn and be respectful of the citizens being policed. It’s the human thing to do.

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

Friday, July 24, 2015

Stop Body Shaming Serena Williams

Amazing Serena
Professional tennis star Serena Williams is beyond compare. Yet tournament after tournament it feels like when she wins big, her incredible playing ability and achievements get diverted or deflected. It’s nothing new, but front and center this time is body shaming.

              After winning last week at Wimbledon, Serena was subjected once again to disrespectful remarks. The worst were on social media like Twitter where it’s easy to lob hate bombs. I’m talking vulgar stuff. It showed up in mainstream media too, though the rhetoric was more carefully worded.

              Most comments were centered on Serena’s race to be sure (she’s African American), but also her gender and body type. Hecklers and haters launched scores of taunts, barbs and criticisms. Instead of celebrating her exceptional physicality, there were references about her, “Looking like a man” and “Playing like a man.”

              Sportswriter Ben Rothenberg’s recent New York Times article, “Tennis’s Top Women Balance Body Image With Ambition” is telling, for a lot of reasons. In it, he attempts to examine the topic of body image in the context of women’s professional tennis. Unfortunately, the piece misfires. Instead it quickly devolves into a not so subtle reinforcement of the same tired sexist narrative that ultimately results in oppressive judgment of how women’s bodies should look.

              Perhaps the most glaring example of this in the story is embodied by this passage: “’It’s our decision to keep her as the smallest player in the top 10,’ said Tomasz Wiktorowski, coach for tennis player Agnieszka Radwanska. ‘Because, first of all she’s a woman, and she wants to be a woman.’”

              “…she wants to be a woman.”

              This seems to infer that women who have or want to possess powerful, athletic bodies do not want or cannot be women. Sickening.

Caster Semenya -- all woman
              Not since Amélie Mauresmo, a former No. 1 player in 2004 on the women’s tour, has a tennis professional been forced to endure the kind of gender hating vitriol hurled at Serena. Such scrutiny happens in other sports as well.

              Take the woeful case of South African track star Caster Semenya. She made headlines around the world in 2009 when it was discovered she was coerced into undergoing gender tests before winning the 800 meters world title as an 18-year-old. Her crime? Being fast and not having “the right kind of look and body” for a woman. The media-fueled controversy nearly cost Semenya her career and forced her to sit out of competition for nearly a year.

              The Sports Illustrated “Swimsuit Issue” hasn’t helped matters over the years either. Launched in 1964, the annual pictorial of female swimsuit models is a mainstay of the publication, though not without criticism from several quarters. Among them conservative subscribers, sports purists, parents and feminists. The portrayal of women as thin waifs in that sports magazine over the years has done much to narrow the perception of what constitutes an “acceptable” female athlete’s body.

              In 2009, ESPN The Magazine launched its own annual “The Body Issue”. In it are pictorials of both male and female athletes that depict more diverse portrayals of the human body. Ironically, the best-selling version of the six debut covers was of, you guessed it, Serena Williams.

              At the root of this identity mayhem is a complex tapestry of issues that span sexism, homophobia and racism. The consequences of this plays out on and off the court.

              It comes as no surprise that as many product endorsements as Serena gets, Russian tennis player Maria Sharapova (tall, slim, white and blond) gets twice as many. According to one report, Sharapova received almost $22 million in endorsements last year. Compare that to $12 million for Serena. This despite Serena winning 21 Grand Slam titles versus four for Sharapova.

              Taking swipes at natural body types that don’t conform to media, fashion and modern cultural standards is injurious – psychologically, mentally and even physically. Instead of divisive shaming, let’s instead embrace and celebrate the vast diversity of what constitutes an athletic body.

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

Monday, July 13, 2015

Confederate Flag a Symbol Tattered by Contradictions

Sunset on a hurtful Southern symbol
It hardly seems real. The Confederate flag; an iconic symbol of the Old South has flown over the statehouse grounds of South Carolina for generations. It has finally come down. What does it mean for that state and for our country?

              Just a few days ago, the South Carolina House approved a bill to remove the Confederate flag from its perch on its own grounds. After more than 13 hours of debate, the House approved the Senate bill by more than a two-thirds margin. The bill then went to the desk of Republican Governor Nikki Haley, who readily signed the measure.

              Like all flags, the Confederate one is a symbol. Arguments over what it represents continues to rage. For some it signifies a Southern way of life that was romantic and gentile. For others, it embodies the proud lineage of relatives from generations past. For still others, the Confederate flag is a scourge – a despicable reminder of a part of the country that sought to preserve chattel slavery and spread the institution to the Western territories.

              Now that the flag is down, what’s changed? Not much apparently. The sublime nostalgia for Southern days gone by is still here. The patriotic memories of dearly departed ancestors who were Confederate soldiers remain strong. Racism and oppression still exist. Yet at least in one place, a very important place, a symbol representing that place and time has been removed. Good riddance.

Friendlier Southern symbol
              Symbols. They can characterize ideas. Ideals. There’s power in them, often a living force. And there’s a lot going on regarding the Confederate flag, in terms of its symbolism; the flag itself and from where it was recently removed.

              South Carolina was the first state to secede from the United States of America in 1861. That move, followed by 10 other states and an attack on Ft. Sumter, plunged the country into a bitter Civil War. It was a conflict that killed from 625,000 to 850,000 human beings. From the North and South.

              Symbolism. For me, removal of the Confederate flag at the South Carolina capitol was nearly as profound a symbol as Barack Obama being elected President. That’s because I always have considered that southern state to be ground zero for racism in our country. And now it’s gone.

              At the same time make no mistake: my home state of Michigan and all our other states – particularly the ones up north that historically have escaped more intense scrutiny – they are equally culpable when it comes to the harmful and enduring legacy of individual and institutional racism.

Symbol of hope
Back to Obama. His first election symbolized a growing tolerance, if not acceptance among some white people for black people. At least at the individual level. Politics aside, and that’s a big aside for many, the President brought with him a skill set, resume and other assets that would be the envy of anyone running for office. Harvard law degree, president of Harvard Law review, U.S. Senator, great communicator, social justice bend, wife Michelle Obama.

              Obama’s professional and personal pedigree made him palatable in a way no previous black presidential candidate was. In short, a significant symbol. When he first ran for president I didn’t buy it. Back then, I, along with others, considered his election bid a pipe dream. I was wrong.

              It’s the same regarding the likelihood of the Confederate flag ever being removed from the shadow of the South Carolina capitol. Wrong again. In the end most would agree it’s just one flag coming down in one place. However, it’s more than that. Its removal from this particular location at this particular time in history is a symbol of something greater: change. And healing.

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

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Size Matters in our Culture, and it’s Oppressive

What's wrong with this picture?
One of the most enduring forms of oppression targets persons considered overweight. This persecution is so culturally entrenched in society, that you can have a healthy body size and still carry unhealthy shame and guilt regarding your body size.

              I identify as “long and lean,” which means I enjoy advantages others do not. Unlike many possessing a greater body size, I have zero problems finding stores that sell a wide variety of clothes I can fit. I never worry about sharing space with others – on buses, planes, trains, automobiles, in theaters or classrooms. I also never wonder whether the person staring is judging me for my size.

              I wasn’t regularly teased about my weight, as a kid or adult. I can always watch TV, movies, surf the Internet and magazines and regularly see images of people my size who are depicted in a positive light. Folks close to my body type in media are never discussed in negative ways. In fact it’s rarely commented on at all.

              There’s more. If I haven’t eaten all day (or even if I have), I can order a “super-sized” meal and nobody will judge me or think much more than, “Boy, is he hungry.” That is, if they even notice my meal portions. In movies or on TV, my size is rarely, if ever, the butt of some joke. And if it is, there are a thousand other examples out there in which my size is considered favorable.

              In short, my experiences as a slim person are positively reinforced. As a result, I hardly think about my body size because it doesn't impact my day to day living.

              Contrast that with a person who is large. Either through no fault of their own (i.e., genetics, lack of access to good food or quality health care, illness, medication, etc.) or if they do voluntarily consume a lot of calories. All that stuff mentioned above is the opposite for them.

              I’m told by many who consider themselves overweight that not a day goes by when they're not reminded they're “fat,” “different,” “less than,” “unworthy.” That something is “wrong” with them. Every day, 24/7, 365 days a year. It can be a hurtful, stifling, unjust existence. Oppressive. And the messages are everywhere.

              I can't imagine what it feels like to be, or considered to be, overweight. What I do know is that our Culture of Slim as a standard is horrendous. It's also hypocritical. At the same time we're promoting slim-is-in, we're aggressively selling, serving and consuming high calorie food products. These foods are high in sugar, fat and salt – ingredients our nation has learned to covet. Check that: they are all ingredients that are scientifically proven to be addictive, physically and emotionally.

              The insidious thing about this is not just that it's occurring on a systematic level, though that in and of itself is morally criminal. The really low down and dirty part of it all is that most folks don't even realize this heinous form of oppression is happening. Instead most wrongly believe, “It’s the individual person’s problem; society isn’t to blame for what folks eat.”

              And by society, I don’t just mean you and me and our complicity regarding hurtful fat jokes. I’m talking food corporations, their advertising, marketing and PR muscle. I’m also casting my stink eye at our fashion industry. They project unrealistic images about what body sizes and types are beautiful (and which are not) via runway shows and media propaganda. It’s all centered on garments worn by models that only a small minority of people look like. Reality check: few women these days wear size zero, or are a 41-long with a 33” waist, if you're a man.

              Time to interrupt business as usual when it comes to fat phobia. One-size-fits-all just doesn’t work when it comes to human beings, no matter what media tells you. Or what you try to tell yourself.

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