Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Tales of Redemption: What's your story?

     What’s your story? You know, the one you don’t bring up by the punch bowl at parties. The one that doesn’t place you in the best light yet probably is one of the most significant things that has happened to you. The one involving a mistake you believe if others know, they might shun, resent or judge you – even though you’ve paid for, have learned from and never repeated. Are you willing to share it? All my close friends have a story. So do I. Like so many others, I’m not proud of mine, but it’s a part of me.

     Most folks don’t tell their story. Don’t want to. That’s their right and I don’t blame them. Compared to others, my story, while significant to me, is tame. Still, I used to dread people finding out. It isn’t easy to admit you’ve made poor choices.

     Recently I witnessed some exceptionally courageous story-telling. They were told by high schoolers from underserved backgrounds in a theater during an inspiring spoken word event, in front of hundreds of people. Spoken word is an oral art form in which people recite poetry and other intimate writings in a group setting. The event was part of a program conducted by Speak it Forward, Inc., a nonprofit whose mission is to ‘uplift youth and adults who have been silenced by helping them find and powerfully express their voice.’

     One by one, these at-risk kids took the stage and, quite literally in the spotlight, told their story. It was powerful. Topics ranged from bullying and selling drugs, to stealing and being expelled from school. A common theme was redemption, thanks in large part to the program’s personal transformation approach. I’ve heard that telling stories is also used in other redemptive work, such as recovery from addiction, compulsion and other behavioral issues.

     Most agree, sharing your story is one of the most liberating things a person can do. Perhaps the greatest thing I learned from telling my story to others is that the world didn’t end. Some people ask difficult questions; others make hard judgments. But by far, most folks just listen – like the audience did at the spoken word event. In fact, when I told my story, no listener’s reaction approached the vicious, self-administered mental beat-downs I’ve given myself over the years.

     My story is that I pay court-ordered child support. I’m in the system – a statistic. It didn’t have to be that way, but that’s how things turned out. And I own it. There’s more to my story. There always is. I love my kids. I work hard to nourish them mentally and spiritually. But the bottom line is I made some serious – no, stupid – missteps years ago and now I’m living out consequences that stretch beyond material things like money.

     That said, I’m no longer hesitant to discuss the matter openly should it come up. Actually, I’ve grown from it. And after years of not speaking on it openly, I’ve come to realize an even greater truth: everyone has a story.

     Lessons we learn can be life-affirming. Sharing them can be instructive. How many of us move through the world defining ourselves by a single grave mistake we’ve made? Telling my story (and still having friends and family who stick by me) has helped me finally start believing this: I am not such a bad person after all. Instead, I’m a human being who made a really bad choice.

     Do you believe in redemption?

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Sticks & Stones and the R-Word

Retarded. How many of us have bounced that word around playfully in conversation, or directed it with malice toward someone? We know the adage: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” While this simple children’s rhyme might be right and appropriate in some situations, in others it falls woefully short.
For some, the R-word may not dig at our moral psyche as deeply as, say, the dreaded N-word. But in more cases than one might think, it can be just as injuring. In truth, words like ‘retard’ and ‘retarded’ can be hurtful – particularly when uttered in contempt or anger. Sometimes the words cut deep when simply used offhandedly or within the ‘schoolyard’ humor context. Perhaps more so. They can be particularly demoralizing when heard over and over again. Just ask someone who’s been on the receiving end.
“Just get over it,” some comment, when one who suffers the ‘unintended’ insult complains. Or, “Grow thicker skin.” Typically, these unsympathetic platitudes come from a person in a privileged position; that is, a person who was not born with or has not suffered disabling condition. Sometimes, offenders truly do not comprehend the magnitude of their slur; it’s for some reason beyond their boundaries of compassion. The mainstreaming of ever-devolving humor in our society and mean-spiritedness of TV celebrity talent show judges may be among the driving forces for growing insensitivity.
Local agencies like Community Inclusive Recreation (CIR) work tirelessly to beat back the stigma and perceptual discrimination associated with physical and mental disabilities. CIR’s efforts to reduce barriers to personal growth and opportunities for vulnerable populations do much to draw attention to and address this issue.

At the national level, lawmakers are putting forth bills that would banish ‘retard’ and ‘retarded’ from the legal lexicon, in favor of a more palatable term such as ‘intellectual disability.’ The movement is being spread across the country by Special Olympics, which is conducting an ‘R-word’ campaign and has been underway for about three years, according to reports. The jury is out on whether or not the R-word campaign will achieve its goal.
The NAACP attempted a similar campaign around the N-word. A few years ago, the civil rights organization conducted a much publicized ceremonial funeral in an attempt to ‘bury’ the word from the American vernacular. And while the move sparked short term conversation and nod of approval, the effort yielded little lasting results.
Regarding the R-word, replacing that objectionable word with one holding less of a stigma does not get at the root of the problem. Just decades ago, ‘retarded’ was in fact the favored term by experts who were attempting to move away from then-hurtful words of the day like ‘feeble-minded’ and ‘imbecile.’
The trouble is not the words themselves but the intent carried by the people who use them. And even if we’re just trying to be funny, until we understand that, words will continue to cause harm.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Friendship: How Far Will You Go?

Sometimes I wonder how far I’m willing you go for a friend. One Saturday afternoon I got my answer after receiving back to back phone messages. One was a text from an old college friend in Detroit. In his message he stated his son Daniel (whom I’d never met) got stopped by police near Battle Creek on his way back to Chicago, and asked me to call him. The other message was a voicemail from Daniel himself, who said he was at the police station, that his car had been impounded, and needed help. I left the house immediately. What happened next unsettled me.
On the way to the station, my mind became clouded by what help meant. I started feeling uncomfortable. In the years since graduating college, I only saw my friend a few times in the fall at Michigan State football tailgates, and I didn’t know his young adult son at all. What were my friend’s expectations about what I should/could do? What kind of person was Daniel? Why was he stopped and his car impounded?
I began calculating the potential cost to me for this ‘rescue’ mission – in terms of both money and reputation. Should I post his bail and pay the impound fee to get him back home? Then there was the unknown ‘price’ of getting involved, not to mention all the time it might take.
Then I remembered a few things: a person I call friend asked for help; the help was for his son. I have a son too. This young man was alone, in a strange place, in trouble, and I had the ability to help. Things became clear again. I stopped speculating, decided to get the facts and then work the problem. And I would do whatever I could to help. But things took a turn when I arrived.
Daniel was gone. He had taken a taxi to an impound yard in nearby Marshall. About 15 minutes later I met him there for the first time. There I learned he was not the vehicle’s registered owner, so Daniel could not get the car back. However, with a bit of coaxing and some paperwork that included receiving a faxed letter from the car’s owner, we were allowed to retrieve Daniel’s book bag, which he was desperate for since it contained an important paper that was due the next day in class.
I also learned Daniel was a second year law student. He had not been arrested. The vehicle had been impounded for unpaid tickets and not contraband, as I dreaded. Why he was pulled over in the first place remained fuzzy; he said the deputy told him he was driving too long in the fast lane and that his brake lights were going on and off, or something like that.
Because of the red tape involved in retrieving his book bag, I ended up spending the rest of the afternoon with Daniel. And before he departed by bus to Chicago, we enjoyed talking across a range of topics. Helping Daniel was one of my most enriching experiences this year and it didn’t cost me a dime. (Well, the gas to Marshall and bill for lunch.)
The unsettling part about that day was my second-guessing the decision to help my friend. Although it had been brief, why had I let doubt creep into my mind about helping my friend? Was it merely a matter of me being on guard against people using you or something else? What would you have done?

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

What’s the Big Deal about Race?

Why is it so doggone hard to talk about issues relating to race? After all, it’s 2012, the second decade of the 21st century. In my lifetime alone, we’ve done everything from putting men on the moon and toppling the Berlin Wall, to inventing flat screen TVs. Yet we still aren’t having authentic, action-oriented conversations about race as a community. What’s more, in some sectors, there’s no conversation at all. The silence is deafening, and there are many reasons for it.
Some say, “There’s no problem. Race doesn’t matter anymore; we have an African-American president. Doesn’t that prove something?” It does. It demonstrates we’ve come a long way from the lynch-filled days of the Jim Crow era. But putting Barack Obama in the White House doesn’t remove racially discriminating practices still embedded in our court systems and education institutions – practices so entrenched we often can’t even discern them. Nor does it negate things more readily visible and equally damaging, like disapproving looks a couple might receive as they wait with their biracial child in a grocery checkout line.
Last summer, a vandal spray-painted racist and other hateful epithets on abandoned houses for the neighborhood to see. That fall, students at a high school assembly carried out what they described as ‘harmless teasing’ when they engaged in what many adults might regard as racial stereotyping. Just a few weeks ago, at another school, several white students reportedly taunted a group of African American students with a noose. In each case, there was little community dialog regarding the occurrences.
What is it about race and racism that makes it so hard to discuss, even among sensible, well-meaning folks? You think at least it’d be easy for people of the same race to talk among themselves about it. But more often than not it isn’t; at any rate, not in ways that propel conversation toward tangible solutions. Instead, when the subject is brought up, we wade into depressingly familiar refrains that sound like what used to be known in the 20th century as a ‘broken record.’
Something is indeed broken. Hopefully, it isn’t our spirit to face what truly is among one of the most neglected issues of our day. We’re better than that. I’ve met and worked with too many amazing and committed people (of all races) here and know it to be true. Yet in many parts of our community, race is the elephant in the room. It’s a topic that can dominate a conversation without a word being uttered.
Young people seem better able to cope with the issue but even they can be confused by its complexity. What’s worse, so many of them have little historic perspective of what happened in this country, which I learned firsthand last year as a volunteer docent when the Jim Crow exhibit visited the Art Center. Many youth I spoke to there had little to no understanding of what Jim Crow was, let alone the discriminating laws and actions associated with it.
It’s time this community came out of the closet to talk and do something about issues relating to race and racism. Clearly the head-in-the-sand approach isn’t working. I welcome comments on the matter; particularly those that forward the conversation about race, racism, and what we as a community can do about it – now, in the second decade of the 21st century.