Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Chin National Day and ‘American Family’ Values

Ever go to an event hosted by a culture different from your own but feel out of place because of the way people looked (or didn’t look) at you? Well, the Chin National Day celebration is definitely not one of those events. Chin National Day (CND) is an annual holiday among the Chin people from Burma and Burmese-Americans that celebrates democracy, unity and cultural identity. As I understand it, CND initially focused solely on the political aspect of the Chin people but over the years has broadened to emphasize the cultural aspect of being Chin.

The CND celebration I attended was marked by prayer, commentary, entertainment and lots of food. It’s a family-oriented affair attended by young and old alike. The evening’s festivities were simple in production yet culturally rich and colorful – with many folks dressed in traditional Chin attire. Think ‘family reunion’ with a fashion theme, except that several hundred folks you don’t even know are there. As an outsider, it was enlightening to observe the ethnic traditions presented in the form of music, dancing and other performances.

Despite the large audience, the event held a uniquely intimate feel. Since I arrived late and theater seating was limited, I made my way to the rear of the auditorium where dining tables were set up. The atmosphere back there was less formal and from where I sat, not only could I enjoy the program on stage, I was able to immerse myself in the Burmese-American community. What I took away from it all was most instructive.

For instance, you know how gatherings comprised of relatives that relaxed and comfortable feeling (that is, before the black sheep of the family arrives), and how even the smallest kids roam wild and free and parents tend not to fret about where they are or what they’re doing? That same spirit was present at CND. Adults watched over and interacted with youngsters doing their high-energy thing. Not out of control; just exploring and discovering.

As I observed the warm and inclusive scene, absent was that, ‘keep-your-distance-I-don’t-know-you’ posture found at other social affairs. In its place was more of a, ‘you felt our culture was significant enough to be here? Thanks for coming!’.

As one might expect, some of the teenagers were brash and rambunctious. There also were the obligatory babies crying. Still, the underpinnings of the event were rooted along a common thread of unity – among human beings as much as Burmese-Americans in harmony. This is not to suggest these particular folks lead a quixotic existence. Far from it. I am told that, as with most communities, Burmese-Americans are steeped in their share of internal discord. But all of it was absent (at least from an outsider perspective) from this event, and it felt nourishing to be a part of this festive and engaging energy.

By contrast, more than a few local events I go to tend to be standoffish – including some that I am host to. And although most participating folks work hard to be polite, a person still can come away feeling like an outsider. It’s as if folks are avoiding really getting to know each other by ironically being as polite as possible.

After experiencing the good will ‘family’ feeling associated with the CND celebration, I wonder what’s happened to those of us born here to have acquired or adopted a posture in which we tend to regard each other with such suspicion these days. Or has it always been like this?

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

How Do You ‘Travel’ Through Town?

Which is most true regarding efforts to strengthen our community? a.) Great work is happening. b.) Bad work is happening. c.) Nothing’s happening.

I have a theory. It’s by no means scientific and frankly rather whimsical. Yet, I believe it helps explain why we sometimes have a hard time understanding what others perceive as ‘truth’ about work going on in our community. It’s called the Hometown Traveler theory and goes like this:

As we ‘travel’ the community, going about our daily lives, we do it from one of five symbolic viewpoints. Each holds its own truth and sometimes more than one can be right.

1. Airline Travelers. This ‘10,000 feet’ view of the community offers the broadest perspective. You get the big picture of how the all parts and pieces fit together. The problem is from way up there, you can’t see much detail. So emerging projects, activities and other work that is (or isn’t) making a difference may not be easily noticed.

2. Subway Travelers. Moving in this way may be necessary but also somewhat limiting. Time is mostly spent apart from and uninvolved in community action. You’re randomly surfacing in this neighborhood and that one, catching brief glimpses of what’s going on; then going back ‘underground.’ The result can be a jigsaw puzzle with lots of missing pieces; one moment, the community looks attractive and prosperous, the next it feels like doom and gloom.

3. Cruise Ship Travelers. You see more parts of the community since you visit lots of neighborhoods. To be efficient, you participate in short, to-the-point stops (power lunches, site visits, orchestrated meetings, etc.). Here’s the rub: your time spent in each place is so brief, these ‘excursions’ can lull you into believing you ‘understand’ situations when you really only have snapshots.

4. On-Foot Travelers. Since it’s a slower means of getting around, quality time can be spent in a particular place. That creates expertise as to what’s going on. But it’s a double-edge sword: the time you spend up close and personal in one neighborhood keeps you from learning what’s happening elsewhere. This limited scope can lead to incomplete conclusions about may be happening just around the corner.

5. Flying Saucer Travelers. These Hometown Travelers are looking at things from outer space, which is also where their ideas often originate. And way out there, where the air is thin, things become distorted really quickly. So it can be hard to have a grip on what is referred to on Earth as reality.

(Note: omitted is the sixth category, Time Travelers, who spend most of their time living in the past or visioning a future so far flung that it often resembles the Flying Saucer aspect of the theory.)

Kidding aside, each of us hold jobs, roles and responsibilities that cause us to look at the community through a particular lens. Volunteers, educators, elected officials, administrators, service providers, philanthropic funders, factory workers, business executives – the list of who we are is rich in its diversity. And through them all, common, unifying threads exist. Try and see the community from other people’s perspective. Don’t let job titles cloud opportunities for collaboration. Be sensitive to another person’s possible state of mind and open yours to the notion that sometimes it may only be our way of looking at something that keeps us from seeing and understanding that, in truth, we share mutual points of view.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Only One in the Room

     It can be one of the most uncomfortable things a person can experience being ‘the only one in the room.’ In this case, the only one in the room refers not to a person walking into a space empty of others. Rather, it’s being in a place filled with folks who are different from you.

     Last Sunday, I was the only one in the room. At least it felt like that. I was invited to church service by a close colleague. We both serve on the board of an agency he wanted to strengthen awareness of among his congregation. But something else was going on in my mind as I pulled into the church parking lot: I would most likely be the only one of my kind at the service. My anxiety grew when I exited my vehicle and approached the entry way.

     I was pretty sure there’d be a person or two there that I’d know, which helped some. But I still felt apprehensive. I knew I was being irrational. After all, I was entering a place of worship; a sanctuary. Nevertheless, the nervousness was present.

     What made me different from the rest of the people that morning was that I am of the Episcopal faith and the church I was entering was Methodist. And aside from being in a room full of strangers, my concern was this: at my church I know when to stand, when to sit, when to pray – in short, what to expect. No surprises. But here, there were nine way to Sunday that I could embarrass myself. Or worse, unintentionally offend someone.

     As it turned out, the only thing I had to fear was if I had left my cell phone on or not. When I reached the church doors, two little kids with big smiles swung open the doors to greet me. The adult ushers welcomed me, handed me a program and, well, ushered me into the beautiful sanctuary. Still worried about making mistakes, I selected a seat in a row well toward the rear of the church. Within seconds I was welcomed by a stranger, then another. Then a colleague welcomed me warmly. And although I was ‘forced’ closer to the front, I felt ‘held’ by parishioners. Choir members smiled. Behind me was a woman in a wheelchair. As far as I could tell, she was the only one in the room too.

     Long story short, I was made to feel welcome. And although there were some who ‘kept their distance,’ I reflected on how many times when somebody else was the only one in the room, how I held my own distance. Not intentionally, mind you; I might have been too involved in my thoughts or ‘just not in the mood’ that day to reach out.

     My relatively mild anxiety as the lone Episcopalian that Sunday morning pales in comparison to situations in which more significant social situations might exist within the mind of the only one in the room: a poor person among the well-to-do; a blind person in a crowded room of the sighted; a white person in a space filled with persons of color. For some, the experience can be traumatic.

     Short of making direct contact, offering a smile or nod can go a long way in making someone feel welcome. Simply having an awareness of another person’s situation can often make the difference between fellowship and fear.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Hidden Hazard of Privilege

     I grew up in a working class neighborhood. A few households were prosperous; others less so. Our family was somewhere in between. Some neighbors lived well below the poverty line. As lean as things were for my family when I was a child, only today do I realize I grew up in a household of ‘privilege.’

      Imagine that; growing up lower middle class and experiencing privilege. Well, everything is relative. To people who possess the top shelf type (think, country club memberships and European vacations), our privilege was passé. Nevertheless, even modest families like mine held distinct advantages over others, and they can be invisible; like air: we breathe it; we live in it and mostly don’t even think about it. Then again, if you’re, say an astronaut or scuba diver or coal miner; air becomes something you’re very much aware of. It’s a privilege.

     Growing up, I lived under assumptions that were essentially invisible. For instance, it never ever occurred to me that I might not have clean, pressed clothes each day for school. Or not have enough to eat. Or the heat might get turned off. Or the power. Or we might be evicted.

     Privilege comes in several forms. Among them: economic privilege, class privilege, male privilege and white privilege. There’s even sexual orientation privilege. A lot of privilege is earned. A lot of it is the luck of the draw: being born to a certain family, or being a certain gender, height, shape or color. Or having eyes or arms or legs that work.

     Here’s the rub: no matter how it’s acquired, with privilege comes an important responsibility: recognizing we have it. Otherwise, moving with it in the world carries the hazard of negatively affecting others. If we’re not careful, it can be used as a weapon – which is exactly how I once used mine. What I did was hurtful and wrong; and it was as obvious as the air we breathe, yet it still happened.

     I was in grade school. My classmate "Marsha" was a quiet, shy type. Sometimes she’d come to school looking a hot mess, her hair uncombed and wearing long, dingy-looking dresses and well-worn sneakers. Because she was so different, kids picked on her. Whenever it happened, I remember always thinking they were wrong for doing it.

     One day, some of the kids were in rare form; spitting outrageous and disparaging remarks about Marsha. Somehow I got caught up in the banter. And I joined in.

     I immediately regretted my actions. What I didn’t understand then was that I had got caught up in my privilege (to not be born poor), and used it to my benefit (in this case, amusement) at the expense of a fellow human being.

     What happened those many years ago was a childish expression of privilege. The way privilege plays out among adults varies. For instance, not growing up in a dangerous neighborhood is an economic privilege. Walking hand-in-hand with the one you love without being stared at is a heterosexual privilege. Uttering an emotional outburst at work without others joking, ‘it’s her time of the month,’ is a male privilege.

     A lot of folks ask, ‘what’s the big deal?’ Generally, they are the ones who hold the privilege – like me and the kids who bullied poor Marsha.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

More Than Cardboard Cutouts

     I have a dream. So did the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but we’ll get to his in a moment.

     My dream for 2012 is for everyone to start seeing each other as whole beings. I want us to stop trying to shoehorn each other into one-size-fits-all stereotypes. That means looking more deeply into people; from presidential candidates and city council members to bank tellers and cashiers.

     Why is it we tend to take people we don’t personally know and reduce them to a single thought, sweeping viewpoint or general descriptor? (i.e., he’s a racist; she’s a liberal; he’s a snob.) Seeing each other in such ways is harmful and hurtful – to ourselves as much as the person we’re regarding. That’s because, in large part, our knee-jerk opinions are based on superficial things like second hand information, gossip, media sound bites and movie trailers. These arm-chair judgments cloud our lens on who people really are and rob us of opportunities to form meaningful and often times productive relationships.

     The life each of us leads is not easy. It’s nothing like on TV sitcoms, where problems are neatly presented, easily understood, quickly addressed and satisfactorily resolved with a wink and a nod – all in a half-hour. In reality, being human consists of a wonderfully complicated mixture of consistencies and contradictions. We are the sum of layer upon layer of experiences, good, bad and ugly. So why cast someone in the role of a one-dimensional actor, just because you don’t know her?

     Who among us truly has only one side? Where is the person that possesses just one layer? One note?

     It may at first appear a person is capable of being only one way. I know I’m guilty of creating this false perception; especially, it seems, when regarding someone who looks or believes or acts different than me. In some respect, I guess it’s almost natural to view someone different in this limiting way. But in truth, rare is the person whose collective essence can be summed up in a single word, phrase or sentence.

     We are all multifaceted; with as many moods, beliefs and distinctions as there are snowflakes in the sky. Personally, I’ve come to believe we are ‘perfect’ in our complexity, and it is a way of being that should be celebrated. Sadly instead, we typically prefer to see others different from ourselves in ways that, if taken to extreme, can border on mental libel.

     Which brings us to Dr. King. In 1960, he visited Battle Creek where he spoke from the pulpit of First United Methodist Church – the same place where this month’s Martin Luther King Ecumenical Celebration took place. To many, Dr. King’s claim to fame is that ‘he helped black folks.’ That’s certainly an important aspect of the man, but only one. During the Ecumenical Celebration we were reminded he also was a scholar, theologian, friend, father and husband. He also had failings, personally and professionally. Who among us hasn’t? To the greater point, how many of us are willing (for the purpose of helping others) to be arrested, stabbed, stoned and ultimately assassinated, as he was?

     During his life, the Atlanta native emphasized freedom, liberty and justice for all – no matter race, religion or social status. This was glowingly illustrated in 1963 through his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech and his lesser known (but arguably more important) Letter from Birmingham Jail. Dr. King was also about securing civil rights for everyone, ending hunger, poverty and the Vietnam War.

     As we move through 2012, let's all work harder to see one another not as cardboard cutouts, but rather as whole and complete persons. It's the human thing to do.