Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Unleash Your Curiosity and Embrace Science

Folks who make my acquaintance sooner or later begin to suspect me to be something of a science geek. Guilty as charged. Truth is, my passion in this regard ranges from hard, fact-based science and far-ranging science theory, all the way to plain ‘ol science fiction.

So it eventually comes as no shock to friends when I try to steer discussions toward such topics. Sadly, in most cases, my invitation to dialogue is met with polite head-nodding followed by an increasingly vacant stare. Or outright here-we-go-again eye rolling.

I don’t mind. In fact, I don’t blame them. Different strokes for different folks, I say. Case in point: some of my friends and relatives hold great passion for things like professional wrestling, romance novels or HGTV. Me? Pass.

When I was younger, some people accused me of having my head in the clouds. That is, I was thinking about things that to them ultimately didn’t really matter in the greater scheme of things. For instance, when I talked about stars, most inferred television and film celebrities.

Of course, I meant far off worlds that might hold other intelligent life (unlike TV & movies). Statistically it’s a virtual certainty, yet there’s no observable data to support the claim. Despite my deepest dreams, seeing is believing. Now that’s what I call an inconvenient truth.

There’s no whiz-bang intellect in my noodle that justifies the passion I hold for science. Still, my world view can often keep a lot of people from engaging in what I consider interesting conversation and conjecture. In fact, a lot of stuff I like to go on about squarely resides in the wheelhouse of most people’s, “Who gives a darn?”

They’ve got a point. Despite my love of it, modern science can also chap my hide. My biggest beef is that humankind keeps believing we have it all figured out. Take the dinosaur thing. Back when I was a kid, scientists were certain they were cold-blooded like reptiles; now we believe them to have been warm blooded like us.

Or, once upon a time we were sure the smallest elemental particles were atoms. Positive of it. That is, until we discovered electrons. And protons and neutrons. Then muons and bosons. It goes on.

Even science’s simpler mysteries can be exercises in unprovable conjecture. Like where the mate to a socks goes after doing laundry. Good money used to be on gremlins; now, thanks to the science of Calvin and Hobbes, I’m squarely in the transmogrifier camp, with the dryer doubling as some sort of multi-dimensional transporter. The problem once again though is verifiable proof.

Fractals, wormholes, microchimerism, implicit bias – these are all science terms (look ‘em up) that stimulate my imagination. And curiosity. Even concepts that I initially struggled with in math, like integrals and derivatives, have become dear to me. Despite their aloofness as it relates to my initial inability to comprehend them in practical terms (i.e., during test-taking), conceptually, they invoked and continue to provoke in me a desire to better understand the world.

What does it all mean? Why should such high minded concepts be on the radar of a relatively-speaking mid-brow individual such as myself? Two words: curiosity and imagination.

Thanks to the level of technology we’ve achieved, today’s youth are collectively being robbed of those two most useful traits known to humanity. Computer simulations and digital effects reign supreme, leaving less and less to the imagination. Or is that really the case?

Time will tell if this period in history marks a decline in human innovation or serves as the launch point toward something altogether innovative and unique. Here’s to the unknown. Let’s go exploring!

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

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Push the Edges of Conversation Concerning Life and Death

Thinking about life can force a person to contemplate a wide range of circumstances. Two biggies that have come to mind recently are being born and dying. This pair of inevitable events are bookends, staples of the human condition – literally and figuratively. That’s because both are experienced by every single person on the planet.

Long ago I was there in person to bear witness to the death of my father. More recently I was front and center for the birth of my youngest son. Each event held unparalleled meaning. They were wildly different yet in many ways uniquely the same.

Both consisted of high drama, though distinctive in their unfolding. Both drove me to tears. Both exuded an unearthly power that ironically left me feeling as if they were the most natural things in the world. In retrospect, perhaps they are part of the same process – life – just at different ends of a continuum. Watching a person leave this world. Witnessing another enter it. The immensity of it all, to participate in such profound coming and going.

I also experienced fear. Fear of the unknown and its meaning. Such bewildering complexity bundled in experiences that are oh so common to all human beings, yet in the moment too expansive for my puny intellect to comprehend. Both shook me to the core.

I’m no scientist. Nor am I a person of the cloth. But in each instance I empirically observed and divinely felt a magnificence associated with the two events. A power that, if I choose, can be readily harnessed to great purpose in my life. And the lives of others.

When I think about all that, it makes me wonder: why are we, as people, so unable to get along with each other? After all, each and every one of us have or will experience these same momentous events, in some form or fashion. I mean really, it’s not like other things we share in common like the noting the weather or breathing air or eating food. I’m talking living and dying, the alpha and omega. Perhaps the very essence of what it means to be or not to be.

Maybe one of the reasons coming into life and/or leaving it fails to bring us closer as a single race is people’s level of comfort (or rather, discomfort) when it comes to the topics. There are so few people willing to “go there” in conversation. I mean talk with any depth about either subject – especially death.

Even with respect to being born, most folks avoid specific conversations about it. Oh, they speak in general terms but nothing too deep or specific. In our culture there’s actually one day a year that gives each of us a chance to delve into meaningful dialog on at least one of the topics. I’m talking birthdays.

Sure we celebrate them. Rarely is there any eloquent reflection on what it all means. Life, the opportunity to be here, the hopes and dreams associated with it.

An exception I expect is with respect to mothers. I imagine, this is because of their very active and no doubt painful role in birthing their children.

I personally believe most of us would benefit greatly from candid and authentic conversations about life and death. Unfortunately, those are the last things folks want to think about – let alone discuss.

Yet experts say talking about death and (therefore life?) is among the most beneficial therapies for humans, as it relates to our individual and collective health. Especially if entered into with honesty and integrity. How much more compassion would we hold for one another, no matter our differences, if such conversations were no longer so taboo? One can only imagine. Or one can start the discussion.

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

Monday, December 15, 2014

When Ebenezer Scrooge Meets George Bailey

Tis the season to be crabby. At least when it comes to Christmas music. Especially when it starts playing just seconds after Thanksgiving. Friends, for the next few weeks the radio is not my friend; not even NPR. The musical holiday cheer is everywhere, to which I say, Humbug.

I mean come on; turkey’s still in the fridge; the horn-of-plenty hasn’t been boxed up yet; the good china’s still out. Where’s the recovery period? Can’t my stomach settle and reset for the next holiday?

And don’t let me turn on the TV. Charlie Brown Christmas, Mickey Mouse Christmas, that Red Ryder air rifle kid… the overload is coming. In fact it’s already begun. Just look at all the commercials. Target and Best Buy and Kohl’s, oh my! It feels like that movie Groundhog Day. Here we go yet again with all the sounds and images pumping up the impending holiday. It’s Yuletide gone postal.

You know, once upon a time I used to absolutely love this time of year. Really enjoyed it; even the music. Like back in the day when I was a kid and polar vortex weather was the norm rather than the exception. Snow drifts blocking doors seemed to happen with great regularity. And snow days? Fuhgetaboutit; the phrase hadn’t even been invented.

Back then there was no mall to go to. Downtown was it. There and Columbia Avenue. During those times, going to the West Main Mall or Maple Hill Mall in Kalamazoo was a treat, something special. Do those places still even exist? I feel myself slipping into a vortex of nostalgia.

It wouldn’t be so bad, the length of time I must endure listening to Christmas music I’ve heard for more than 50 years (half a century, y’all), if the songs they played didn’t have the hypnotic ability to continue for hours after hearing them.

Ever been to a Disney theme park? You know how the “It’s a Small World” music stays in your head long after the ride? How it infects your very psyche? Over and over and over again in your head? That’s Christmas music to my ears.

Don’t get me wrong; I like Christmas as much as the next person. Sometimes. When it comes right down to it, it’s not the music I’m railing about. What really chaps my hide is the commercialization of it all.

It’s a condition to which I freely admit I too fall victim, despite best intentions. Matter of fact, this year, the pressure for me to buy presents was so great that I began my shopping before (cue the suspenseful organ chord) Thanksgiving! What’s worse, I enjoyed the process. Yes, my wife, there is a Santa Claus.

The problem: my early gift-buying had less to do with the meaning of Christmas and more with the internalized pressures to buy. It’s an unwelcome mantra that nevertheless has been drilled into me by retailers. So much so that it doesn’t just drive the economy, it’s become central to American culture.

Let me be clear: none of my friends and family ever squawk about what they want for Christmas. If anything, their “I don’t know” and “it doesn’t matter” can be worse because it tends to leave me wandering store aisles and surfing retail sites aimlessly for what feels like hours on end.

Still, some folks, younger and older than me, love the Christmas season. They are all in, as festive as can be this time of year. With that realization, who am I to play Scrooge? Better I cast myself in the role of someone more like George Bailey. After all, it’s true I have a wonderful life.

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

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Lesson from Ferguson: Talk about Race

Count Ferguson, Missouri, as one of countless places in which the letter of the law trumps justice. That is, unless you believe the letter of the law IS "just us". I don’t and here’s why.

As most know, Ferguson is ground zero to an ongoing saga plaguing our nation. There, a lawman gunned down an unarmed citizen. In this case, 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by 28-year-old police officer Darren Wilson. The result has been weeks of protests (locally and nationally) and civil unrest.

Those who thought “letter of the law” was the single most important factor in the grand jury clearing Wilson of wrongdoing are also likely to downplay the fact that the dead victim was African American and that the shooter was white. Such thinking is shortsighted.

What was missing in the grand jury outcome is also by and large discarded in most other legal arguments: the current and historical context race plays.

On this point, attorneys, scholars and armchair law experts will point out that race in such matters has no place in courtrooms. Rather, it’s what happened in the moment that is paramount. The rationale of this head-in-the-sand thinking is that race rarely has a bearing cases like this. But it does. The scientific evidence associated with unconscious bias in all people bears that out.

The current and historical context of race is not just missing in Ferguson. It’s absent from other important mainstream conversations surrounding large swaths of inequity. Like access to quality food, housing, education, jobs and healthcare.

Why is context deemed irrelevant by so many, despite our country’s beginnings rooted in oppression and racism? Yes, there was the wonderful founding dream that we all are created equal. But there also was the founding reality.

It started with the systematic extermination and heinous relocation of native peoples and morally criminal import of Africans as chattel slaves. Illicit acquisitions of land and labor, and both were government sanctioned and rigorously enforced by law.

The persecution continued with the infamous Black Codes and extended into the 1890s post-slavery era with racially motivated Jim Crow laws and practices. This morphed into separate-but-equal government policy, the result of an 1896 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, and continued through the early- and mid-1900s, with more and more laws that propped up housing, education, job, health and other institutional segregation and discrimination into the 1960s.

Then came the crack era of the 1980s. Law enforcement wielding its power with seeming impunity; crushing, suppressing and occupying entire neighborhoods – as if they believed the billionaire drug lords responsible for starting that insidious drug epidemic were themselves living in South Central Los Angeles.

Mass incarceration as a policy followed in the ’90s and it continues today, with the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave holding the dubious distinction of having the highest rate of imprisonment in the world. Not China, not Russia, the U.S.

Just think, the United States represents about five percent of the world's population, yet houses close to 25 percent of the world's prisoner population.

And through it all, guess who’s been saddled with the historic burden of enforcing these lawless government laws? Police. What’s worse, who were/are the victims? People of Color.

Government policies aside (and that’s a huge aside), the police has a job to do. I get that. People of all hues get that, not just middle class white folks. The fly in the ointment is the current and historical context in which police operate in communities of color. For many, especially those with few social, financial and legal options, we have been conditioned to distrust police. Others outright fear them. Yes, that fear and mistrust cuts both ways.

Fortunately in our community there is hope. Battle Creek Police Department Chief Jim Blocker is out there walking the talk. When it comes to addressing issues (including race), he’s walking with residents, close up and personal. Marshall Police Chief Jim Schwartz is doing the same.

Both are turning toward, rather than running from the realities race plays in policing and our community’s response to it. That said, they’d agree more (on all sides) must be done.

Amnesty International USA’s executive director, Steven W. Hawkins may have said it best: “The U.S. cannot continue to allow those obligated and duty-bound to protect to become those who their community fears most.”

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

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

What and Whom Can You Love?

It's interesting the loves we claim in life. Everything from soup and gasoline brands to sporting teams and people we don’t even know. In many ways these attachments can feel real and authentic. The way we go on about what/who we say we love and why. On the other hand, it can seem akin to puppy love. Is there a deeper truth?

For instance, I love the Michigan State Spartans. I’m a loyal season ticket holder. For the better part of a decade I’ve made my way north each fall, across the miles to Spartan Stadium, to watch my team win. And lose. Rain or shine, warm and cold, I’m there in my precious nose-bleed seat. “Go green; go white,” I chant, along with some 50,000 other fans.

All this despite the fact that nary a player on the current squad do I know personally. For some reason that glaring fact feels a minor detail, me not having actually met any of them I mean. Every couple of years I do manage make a passing acquaintance with a player or coach and that’s kind of cool.

For instance, I once literally bumped into current MSU football coach Mark Dantonio passing through a restroom door prior to a game. I was on cloud nine for weeks. Can you imagine? Just because I ran into him. FYI, if it had been anyone else I’d have had choice thoughts for the guy; after all, he was entering from the exit door.

Each fall I find myself rooting for people with whom I have no real personal acquaintance. It all makes me wonder just how much my admiration for the team would change, one way or the other, if I knew the players – actually met them. Sat down with them. It’s quite easy to imagine that I’d love my team all the more because of the firsthand investment I would have actually know them.

Back to Soup. My mom loves Campbell's. Oh, she partakes in other brands, like Progresso for instance. But when she has a cold or feels under the weather, her go-to product? Campbell's Chicken Noodle Soup.

Is Campbell's a wellness cure-all? Who knows? It works for her. So she says. And after all, isn't that what's most important? What works?

Then there are inanimate objects we love. Cars, phones, refrigerators – technology people use and swear by according to brand (i.e., Ford, Apple, Samsung) they have purchased over the years.

What's rather interesting is when a person experiences the failure of a brand to deliver; loyalty seems to fly right out the window. Rather quickly too, especially if a fair amount of money is involved. This despite years the brand may have previously proven itself.

Don't get me wrong, a lot of folks stick with their brand even when it doesn’t always meet expectations. Take me and the Spartans. Until more recent seasons, I billed my team as “the best .500 squad in college football,” meaning one game they’d play brilliantly, the next they’d be a no show.

This whole love thing, the claim of having it for people we don’t even know (athletes, actors, musicians) or for things like sporting teams and refrigerator brands; it all seems to be about emotional or connection.

Again the question: is it real? When a person says they “love” someone or something, is the word being used as a placeholder for something less than the true magnitude of the word? Or is the word being used with calculated precision? Perhaps in the end there are different ways of loving. And if it’s possible to love different kinds of things, isn’t it possible to love different kinds of people?

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

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Learn to Love Yourself, Body and All, Before it’s too Late

I just finished reading an article online about a woman dying of cancer. The reality that she had cancer was not what intrigued me though. Nor was it the prospect of her passing on. While it’s certainly a fact that both are dreadful life dramas, what touched me most about her story was something quite unexpected. In her end-days she arrived at the realization that she was going to miss her fat body.

Fat. Her word not mine. Throughout her story, this woman lamented how she had allowed people – friends and strangers – to influence the way she regarded her physical appearance. So much so that she grew to dislike her body. What most captured my imagination is that during her final days, she insists to now be at peace with her physical self.

This woman’s life account is less about self-judgment than self-acceptance. She related how she learned to loath her body at a young age – very young. She detailed comments people made (and didn't make) that led her to the conclusion that because of her size she was worthless. Again, her words.

As she related her story, I reflected on mine. My own body. I am lean. Some say skinny. Too skinny. It has always been that way for me. Quite the opposite experience of the woman in the story who was dying. In fact, I hesitate to even try and draw comparisons of myself, my own physical size to hers. That's because in our society it’s true being skinny can be a source of ridicule. But the criticism skinny people like me receive pales compared to other body conditions and physical forms.

On top of that, I am male. And gender makes me far less a systematic target of ridicule in this largely misogynistic society.

With that fact glaringly in mind, I confess to having grown-up with my own largely unflattering perceptions of my physical self. They’re still hanging around too, I reckon. A good portion of this comes from internalized oppression regarding my physique. Growing up underweight in the eyes of others, pocked with acne and its resulting scars, plus “four eyes” to boot, I was sometimes the target of bullying. What’s worse, I became a perpetual bull’s eye in my own mind.

Those difficult teen years molded a foundation of distaste for my physicality that extended through college and into adulthood. Most of the actual or imaginary teasing and ridicule largely ended in my adolescent youth. Yet I sometimes find myself haunted by a preference to embody a physical form more attuned to what Hollywood and popular culture emphasize what a virile heterosexual man should look like.

But alas, try as I have, bulking up is quite literally just not in my DNA.

It all boils down to self-hatred. Brought on by the pressure to fit in. Brought on by the media stressing what is beautiful and what is not. Brought on by people who abhor their own bodies and then ridicule yours so they can feel better about themselves. There’s also the unsolicited peer pressure inflicted on me by those I respect and trust…

Still, my own sometimes painful journey pales in comparison to others, mostly women, whom society has and continues to target in all the worst ways. It’s a tragedy the time and energy we waste disapproving of our bodies, not appreciating them, until for some it’s almost time to leave them.

If only we could be gentler with ourselves. Easier said than done I’ll wager, if my own less than flattering thoughts about myself are any measurement.

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

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 4humansbeing@gmail.com.

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 4humansbeing@gmail.com.

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 4humansbeing@gmail.com.

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 4humansbeing@gmail.com.

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?

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