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.