Monday, November 17, 2014

Time to Change our Belief System

Well, that is a system...
Let’s talk systems. Each of us is part of them, whether we like it or not. Whether we know it or not. Some systems are beneficial; others less so. Still others are downright destructive. How much you know about the systems you’re part of can go a long way in helping or hurting. Yourself and others.

I work hard to understand systems of which I am a part. That’s because when I recognize how they operate – what drives them, influences them, and my role in them – I can interact in beneficial rather than harmful ways. Some systems can be challenging to think about. That’s because the most complex ones have lots of moving parts.

Then there’s the challenge of knowing or learning all the parts of a system. Lop on top of that the fact that our world these days moves so quickly. It’s brimming with activities and information overload. Taking all that into account, it becomes hard to even want to understand how systems work, let alone try and appreciate how they might affect us and each other.

Systems as I define them consist of more than two persons, places or things interacting either with each other or something/someone else. They can cause a chain reaction of events or even ways of thinking. An example of operating within a system is when on the freeway.

Despite a bunch of other vehicles on the road it can feel like we’re out there only doing things individually: driving fast or slow, passing or being passed, entering or exiting the freeway, etc. Yet in fact, we’re operating collectively with other vehicles on the road. All of them. We are cooperating with other drivers. Or not. Even the ones too distant to see. (Consider a distant car accident and how it eventually affects the flow of traffic around you.)

A more immediate example is when another car is merging from an on-ramp: you have to decide whether to change lanes, go faster, slower or maintain speed. The oncoming car has similar options. So do other vehicles close by. What one does effects what the others might do. Or not do.

This is my exit.

So it is with social systems. What one person says or does in a situation can impact what happens to others. Cause and effect. But it’s deeper than that with human beings. That’s because there are a bundle of other factors in play, not the least of which is perception. There’s also how a person was raised, the experiences they went through and what they’re currently going through.

We as a people are approaching a turning point. Much of it is with regard to how we look at and interact with people different from ourselves. It’s about skin color. And gender. It’s about sexual orientation, class, ability and age. And religion.

It’s about a system of shutting down and turning our backs on those who are not like us. It’s about a system of not believing or even considering the possibility that what a group of people say is happening to them is happening. Not even remotely considering it, despite the presence of prejudice, discrimination, protests, bullying, beatings, maiming and killing.

It’s about a system wanting to keep things the way they are, staying within the comfort of our own beliefs – and if it’s at the unfortunate expense of others, so be it. It’s about desperately trying to maintain the current belief system because to consider otherwise is to tilt your world; tilt it in a manner that causes you to rethink a whole lot of things. And yes, this cuts in all directions.

Future generations will look on this important period with great interest. Which side of history will you be on?

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

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Learn to Dance in the Moment

A few years ago during a leadership learning experience, I participated in what I presumed would be a psychologically painful and humiliating activity. But surprise: instead I felt refreshed, emotionally as well as physically. In a sense I was reborn because it changed an important outlook I had on life.

The activity to which I refer is quite common in many cultures but for me, I had grown to consider it undignified, immature and quite frankly a primitive social ritual. What is this physical practice I used to find so horrendous but now willingly embrace? Dancing.

A lot of folks are lifelong dancers; my mother immediately comes to mind. So does my wife. Me? I had grown out of it shortly after college. In retrospect what I had done was allow societal pressures, especially professional decorum, adversely influence my perception of what dancing is and what it offers human beings.

I have always understood, at least in the abstract, that dancing is an artful form of expression. That is, if you were good at it. I wasn’t. What I’ve come to understand is that despite your prowess at cutting the carpet (or any creative endeavor for that matter), it also is liberating. And spiritually enriching.

Regular dancers, casual and professional know this. Wallflowers steadfastly believe dancing and other forms of active physical and vocal expression are largely inappropriate, except perhaps at nightclubs, wedding receptions, and maybe after their favorite sports team wins a championship.

Why do so many people, especially men, consider dancing and other creative actions taboo? If it’s about being appropriate, who gets to decide what’s appropriate and when?

Recently it was reported Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor bucked the system at an annual social event consisting of fellow justices and their law clerks. The story goes that during the private party, she instructed her clerks to cue salsa music and one by one beckoned fellow justices – “some of them extremely reluctant” – to dance with her.

According to the report, Justice Anthony Kennedy “did a jitterbug move.” Others were less willing, such as 90-year-old Justice John Paul Stevens who “felt as if he had two left feet” and quickly sat down.

Folks who’ve made my acquaintance eventually come to know I come to understand many of life’s realities through scenes I’ve watched in certain movies. In the 1953 flick, “The Robe,” actor Richard Burton played the troubled Roman military officer Marcellus who is in mental turmoil after participating in the crucifixion of Jesus. In a seminal scene, upon being presented with the robe Jesus wore at the time of his death, Marcellus refuses to touch it. He is irrationally terrified, but as the robe brushes against him, he is relieved from the anguish of his guilt. Later, he drops his sword and picks up Christianity.

Religion respectfully aside (besides, the movie is fiction), I liken the behavior of Marcellus with many of us who fear a thing so much that we become hardened and close-minded. That is, until we “brush up” against that thing. In that moment for so many of us, we find there was nothing to fear but fear itself.

With that in mind, today I take to the dance floor in a New York minute and free of self-consciousness. It’s not to prove a point, and definitely not to show off my moves. Instead it’s because I count dancing as one of my cardio workouts and it’s socially and spiritually liberating.

I also do it to prove a couple other things: one, what I once feared, I can now embrace. Two, if a former stiff moving stick-in-the-mud like me can get out there, so can you.

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

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

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

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?

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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

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