Wednesday, December 25, 2013

All I Want is Presence for Christmas

On Monday I received some of the best Christmas gifts ever. Happened last Monday during a business meeting. Funny thing though; the gifts weren’t typical presents. In fact, they weren’t presents at all.
The reason they felt so good to receive is that the social justice work I do in the community can be hard. Really hard. It involves helping shift the way people think about social issues. The work can be messy, painful and progress feels agonizingly slow. It can also be isolating. In the case of the meeting that day, race was the social issue on which we were focused.
Race. The final frontier. The word that launched a thousand frowns. In the context of social justice, it’s a not so simple four-letter word that can stir up all manner of feelings, attitudes and beliefs. And disbeliefs. Affirmations and denials. The topic can be so controversial among some that it’s been unceremoniously lumped in with politics and religion as the subjects you shouldn’t discuss in polite company. Ridiculous.
There are more times than you’d probably care to know in which the work comes to what seems like a grinding halt because of communication problems. A sad truth is that disconnects are an immense barrier to any social justice process, not just matters of race. And I’m not talking dropped calls and lost emails. These disconnects in some cases refer to people understanding each other; that is, speaking the same language and using the same definitions of terms. Or in other cases, simply showing up for each other.
It’s in this context that I received the unexpected gifts. Instead of presents, I received presence. The presence of other people working toward the same goal of achieving racial equity. That presence did not consist of white folks and people of color holding hands to sing “Kumbaya.”  Quite the opposite.
Yes we were in a circle and yes we were all in agreement that change needs to happen. However, there was significant conversation as to manner in which the work unfolds. There also was varying levels of knowledge and awareness pertaining to the subject. It made for a long, sometimes frustrating half-day, with fear, anxiety and misunderstanding all front and center.
There also was encouraging levels of hope, honesty, courage and sharing. What bound it all together was resilience – the sense that we all were on a common path. We were holding each other in the wake of our emotional tensions.
And amid all that, I received my gift. See, there are more folks than one might think working to address race issues (racism, discrimination, immigration, etc.). A big challenge to that work is understanding all the moving parts and even knowing there are parts out there moving. That’s why I treasure the gift of presence that I received.
It’s like sports teams; most win more games at home. Why? Because there’s a support system in place; a crowd of people, the majority of who believe and buoy the players on the field. Their very presence offers moral support, an energy to continue. The fans are not down on the field, but at the same time they are. Or at least their energy is. If you’ve ever attended a live ball game, you know what I mean.
It’s our team and we won. Or we lost. There’s a collective essence that exists, and it can be powerful. Sometimes it can even help determine the game’s outcome. Hence the term, home field advantage. This is the context in which I received this unexpected gift.
It’s the same at home with friends and family. All I want is presence; lots and lots of presence. How about you?

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Apes and the Top of the Food Chain

Ever wonder why apes flick poop at zoo-goers?

A couple weeks ago one of my Facebook Friends posted an outrageous news story, one that boggled my mind. At first. Then it got me thinking and made me go, “Hmmm.”

The article he posted referred to a New York court case involving four chimpanzees. An advocacy group (Nonhuman Rights Project) filed a lawsuit to get the quartet of caged primates recognized as legal persons, with rights to certain liberties. Chief among them, their freedom. The case was dismissed; most say rightly so. The advocacy group is appealing the verdict.

What makes this case so interesting to me is how it brushes up against an intriguing, complex and often confusing question. It’s one that has affected modern Americans for quite a while now: just what is a ‘person’?

Thanks to our judicial system, a business corporation, a non-biological thing, is designated a person. As such, corporations enjoy many (but not all) of the same legal rights as humans. So is it really that much of a stretch for some to want living, breathing and, to an unknown extent, thinking chimps to be legally considered a person in order to gain its release?

They’re just animals, some argue. We are too, says science, and a corporation isn’t even that. So the question remains: why aren’t certain apes afforded personhood status? It’s a fact chimpanzees share most of the genes we have, along with many of our physical and mental qualities. For the record, apes (chimps, gorillas, bonobos, etc.) are different from monkeys and other lower primates.
Corporation: not quite human but still a person

Also for the record, I am not comparing apes to humans. While science tells us chimps and humans share about 99 percent of the same DNA (an essential molecule that's sort of the instruction manual for building all living things), that’s not the whole story. That last one percent accounts for about 35 million differences, some of which are huge; others are less so.

Apples and oranges aside, this column is about assumptions; being so certain we’re right about something that we ignore other possibilities. Remember, we once knew the Earth was flat; it is round. We once knew dinosaurs were cold-blooded reptiles; they were warm-blooded. On a personal level, I once knew my alma mater Michigan State didn’t have a chance at the Rose Bowl this season; guess where the Spartans are January 1?

All this back and forth ignores another, equally important element that’s driving this maddening dynamic: power. Human beings have it, chimpanzees don't. It’s a somewhat similar situation among and between people.

Some will counter that it’s the nature of things that some folks have power while most others don't. To my mind, even though a select few possess positional, institutional or political power, that doesn't mean we should simply roll over when that power is used in harmful or offensive ways. That includes when it’s used against chimpanzees, other animals and the environment.

I was just following orders from the Emperor
What I'm getting at is the often tyrannical arrogance and/or insensitivity that come when people of a certain ilk or even largely benevolent persons and institutional systems project their power. Typically, it’s used to benefit themselves rather than for the good of all. They become so certain of a thing that they lose their empathy and with it, their humanity.

But ordinary people also have power. It goes largely unused but it’s there and can be quite formidable. Case in point: the cluster of folks who banded together recently to prevent the 3-day eviction of the homeless colony taking up residence beneath the I-194 bridge at the edge of downtown. The assumption by those in power: nobody will care. Boy, were they ever wrong.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Sometimes ‘The Right Stuff’ is Just Wrong

I feel the need for speed
I love things that fly. Birds, bees, helicopters, planes. That said, I have a definite preference: jet aircraft. I’m talking planes that fly on military power. Yeah, I appreciate the Airbus A-340, with its cutting edge fly-by-wire controls. And I really respect the ‘operating economics’ of the upcoming Boeing 747-8. But when it comes to my aeronautical need for speed, give me a F-23 Raptor or F/A-18E/F Super Hornet any day of the week and twice on Wednesday.
My love of military aviation dates back to my days living in Dayton, Ohio, which is near Wright Patterson Air Force Base. Wright Pat, as locals call it, was the largest U.S. Air Force base in America. Back then it was a Strategic Air Command (SAC) base and B-52s flew out of there all the time. Window rattling sonic booms were a way of life growing up in Dayton, just as the smell of breakfast cereal is an outdoor aromatic staple of Battle Creek, where I live today.
As a kid, dad took me on the base Saturday mornings for target practice because it had a shooting range. But the best part about that place was each year when they hosted one of the largest air shows in the country. With its gun range and airplanes, Wright Pat had the right stuff. It also contributed to a way of thinking that today gives me pause.
Pair of Hornets: 'bout to leave the hive
With planes as a backdrop, you might understand why I believe 1983’s “The Right Stuff” is one of the best films ever made. Inspired by author Tom Wolfe’s equally amazing novel bearing the same title, its story centers on test pilots in the late 1940s at little known Muroc Army Air Field in the California desert. It transitions through the early ‘60s with America’s entry into the space race, featuring pioneering astronauts dubbed The Mercury Seven.
What makes this movie so great is the intrepid spirit and noble way of being portrayed by the early test pilots and astronauts. With their fearless heroics and stalwart commitment, these boys had ‘the right stuff.’ Recently, that source of inspiration has been tempered by an evolving way of thinking on my part.
See, like most male movie-lovers of my ilk, female characters are typically cast as a sidebar to the main story; eye-candy around which males go about doing so-called manly things. You know, flying, fighting, shooting, blowing up stuff and whatnot. Trouble is, I’ve come to realize most women in these movies are being marginalized. They’re essentially invisible. The equally invisible message is this: ultimately they don’t matter. That’s a problem.
Birds of a feather
In “The Right Stuff,” pretty wives of the test pilots and astronauts are portrayed as doting partners who live only to support their man and his whims. In the case of this movie, that ‘whim’ is flying at Mach speeds with his hair on fire – sometimes literally. This may certainly be a reality for some women. The trouble is I never really considered their feelings. I never saw their film characters as fully formed individuals. They were mere extensions of their male partners; like shadows.
Equally shadowy are the unconscious messages such depictions send, especially to youth: females aren’t central to society, and somehow of less value. Media projects this every minute of every hour of every day, it seems. Bottom line? Having ‘the right stuff’ doesn’t mean a woman must play second banana in a man’s life. For there to be true equity among the sexes, I, like most men must remember the unconscious mental conditioning I’ve been subjected to since youth, work to recognize it, own it and continue fighting against it.

Second Class Treatment is Wrong, No Matter the Gender

I ain't mad; not really.
                During the birth of your child you’d think the only thing on a man’s mind would be the health and safety of his wife and baby. While that was indeed true for me the other day in the delivery room when my son Isaiah was born, something else was running in the background of my mind and it wasn’t love and happiness. It was resentment.
               Now I’m an ordinary guy. That means I grew up in a place and time in which men and boys were the center of all things. It’s still that way in most places. Like a lot of males, I wasn’t even aware of my advantages and privilege; we just got things female didn’t and that was that. Scientists have a word for this social system: patriarchy. It’s an inequitable arrangement in which both men and women have been conditioned to believe and accept such nonsense like a woman’s place is in the home; females should wear makeup and dress a certain way; or male workers deserve more pay than females for the exact same job.
               I admit to my own continuing participation in patriarchy, even though I don’t subscribe to it. It’s so interwoven into society that I regularly blunder into its ‘invisible’ booby traps of inequity. So while I haven’t completely purged myself of chauvinistic ways of thinking, I’m developing an ever deepening recognition that females live in a world where men have made the rules and tilted them in our favor.
For the gender equity of it all.
               It’s sad but true: I’ll never understand what it’s like to be a woman in a man’s world. I won’t. Can’t. Why? Simple. I’m not female. Oh sure, being African American gives me a measure of perspective, being a minority and all. But I can never really know what it’s like anymore than white people can grasp what it is to be a person of color. Or vice versa for that matter. Many think they can but can’t.
               Anyway, with all my male privilege, imagine my indignation in the delivery room when, as my wife labored and I provided my highest levels of empathy and emotional support, I was completely ignored by the attending doctor. Throughout the process. From the beginning when the doctor first entered the room, she paid me absolutely no mind. No hello or eye contact, nothing. Everything was directed toward my wife.
               This doctor wasn’t just ignoring me like a lot of medical professionals do who suffer from poor bedside manner. She was straight up marginalizing me. Even when I asked questions, the doctor’s response was directed at my wife. I was not a happy camper.
Woman and men, together: in it to win it.
               Yet then was not the time for me to insist on a little respect. Everyone in the birthing room had a job to do, including me. Interestingly, it wasn’t until after all was said and done that it dawned on me: this must be what it’s like for a female manager of a business when a customer directs the conversation to the manager’s male subordinate. Or when a woman comes in to buy a car and the salesman speaks mainly in the direction of her male partner.
               Ironically, I regard my treatment in the delivery room as a kind of gift. That’s because it’s not every day I experience what it’s like at the other end of such a gender dynamic, so it serves as a reminder. One day I’ll share this with Isaiah. Meanwhile men: if this happens to you, instead of drowning in resentment, buoy yourself with critical thinking about patriarchy. Then allow the experience to navigate your own actions toward more equitable treatment of people.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Leaders Come in all Shapes and Forms

That's me in the center (uh, no...)
What kind of a leader are you? The prototype is dominant, forceful and unwavering. In recent years, I’ve learned there are other, less obvious types that are just as legitimate.
They can be laid back, open-minded and introverted. They also can be reluctant leaders, like I used to be until I figured out it was okay to be me. That is to say, I can be the type of person I am, personality- and temperament-wise and still be an effective leader.
There was a time when I shrank from the notion that I was a leader. This, despite holding what most would define as leadership roles. Since early in adulthood I’ve managed people, delivered speeches, sat on conference panels, advised and counseled folks of all kinds. Heck, I’ve even held the sports leadership role of point guard on the basketball floor and led my team to victory. Twice. Yet in every case back then, one thing remained in the back of my mind: I’m not really a leader – at least in the way I grew up learning what a leader was and how they acted.
Captain Kirk: Prototypical leader (during '60s TV)
Why the denial? Simple. I wasn’t like Marshal Dillon, Captain Kirk, Mannix or any of the other fictional heroes from yesteryear TV whom I admired growing up. They were rugged, uncompromising, no nonsense and always seemed to make the right decisions. Me? Well I was just me.
I also wasn’t like Patton, Powell, Schwarzkopf or other Generals who stood with confidence and held fast and firm with unwavering courage under fire. Nor was I like the always in charge Coach Jerry Saffell or steadfast Principal Louis Martin, two role models I watched and admired each and every day in high school. Add to that list Sylvia Rhone, Cathy Hughes and Ruth A. Robinson, entertainment industry trailblazers who pioneered their roles with grit, savvy, and an unwavering will. They set the standard for leadership, in my opinion.
When asked, some folks might insist they are not leaders since they don’t run organizations, command armies or otherwise manage people. Others, like I used to do, point to their personality and way of being as reasons for not considering themselves true leaders. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Their roles, resolve, actions and success demonstrate to the world exactly what they deny in themselves.
Sylvia Rhone: pioneering leader in male-dominated field
Quite often, evidence of their leadership stares them in the face. Sometimes the proof runs in the background, ever present yet invisible when you think of leadership in only one dimension.
Whether you know it or not, whether you like it or not, you’re most probably a leader of some sort. Got kids? Then you’re a leader. Teaching new hires how to run the fries station or buff the hallways? Leader. Parent, yes; trainer, yes. Leader, also yes. Sometimes it takes a while to face facts.
Leadership isn’t always about telling others what to do.  A ‘boss’ is only one form of leadership. And you don’t have to be galloping on a horse, sword in hand, to be one. That’s the mental trap I was in most of my professional career. I felt like a fake since my style didn’t include four stars and a booming voice. I’ve come to understand there’s something to be said for ‘quiet strength.’ It works for me.
Most critical form of leadership
Any who doubt their ability to lead need only reflect on a time when the team is adrift. Recall how you stood alone, taken the heat or done the work, and the group has rallied to achieve its goal. Whether you get the credit or not, that’s leadership.