Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Time to Take Collective (as Opposed to Individual) Approaches to Food Access Issues

It's a crying shame so many people lack access to good food
There’s a problem in our food system and it’s a big one. It centers on access and equity. Access to good food and the equitable availability of it. And between the two of them it’s killing us.

              According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), over 111 million people in the U.S. are obese. That’s more than a third of all adults and almost 20 percent of children and adolescents.

              Obesity is not experienced equally. According to CDC reports, 35 percent of African Americans are considered obese. Among Native Americans, it’s 30 percent, with Latinos also weighing in at about 30 percent. With white Americans, the number drops to 24 percent.

              This all speaks to poverty and hunger, something that at first glance appears contradictory, carrying unhealthy body weight and being hungry. Again, it all boils down to access and equity.

              Folks with a high enough income tend not to believe access to good food is a problem. Many assert that anyone can get food if they really want it. There are stores, farmers markets, government programs, food banks, pantries, you name it. If a person’s obese, it’s their own fault.

              But it’s not that simple.

There's a big difference
              The food movement is ripe with an ethic of individualism. Whether it’s a concern about obese people choosing to eat fattening food or a permaculture farmer who wants to live “off the grid” and grow her own food, the underlying theme is an individual’s relationship to food.

              Yet with few exceptions, this perception of individualism is a farce. We live in a culture driven by systems. Driving those systems are corporations, which are about as far from individualism as you can get.

              What we have are collective problems. This raises questions of equity. What’s fair? Who has what, how much and why? Put another way, who doesn’t have what and why?

              In this community, it’s a fact that persons of color make up a statistically disproportionate number of residents earning low wages. Food experts refer to many communities of color as being “food deserts.” It’s a term coined by the federal government and defines a geographic area in which there are few if any grocery stores. Depending on which agency, the distance is one or two miles.

              A couple miles isn’t a big deal. Unless you have a several bags of groceries and have to walk because you don’t have a ride. Or have to tote them on a bus that doesn’t pass near your home. Or must shuttle there and back a taxi. Or have small kids with no sitter. So much for access.
Good food is fresh, green and affordable

              A review of studies by Policy Link discovered that only eight percent of Blacks live in a census tract with a supermarket, compared to 31 percent of whites. That’s sobering information. It’s also a clear indication of racial inequity.

              Here’s the “good” news: the term “food desert” is actually a misnomer. There’s plenty of food. The convenience stores, fast food joints and gas stations all have it. It’s just the majority of the food is processed versus organic. It’s also high in fat, salt and sugar – all drivers of poor health outcomes. Hence the unequal rates of obesity.

              To top things off, the term food desert conspires to portray these communities as negative, unproductive places, when in fact many thrive with backyard, church and community gardens. Not enough food to feed the entire community but still. The unflattering perception fosters and perpetuates inequities, perceived and real.

              It’s time to focus on solutions that make collective changes, instead of blaming the individual. Let’s act beyond creating alternatives or niches for small, privileged groups of persons, and examine and remove policies and practices that result in food system injustices. It’s the equitable thing to do.

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

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Facing the Plain Ugly Truth about Privilege

Who's missing from this picture?
Privilege. The driver of so many social ills plaguing our communities. It benefits historically-included groups while oppressing those that have been historically excluded. Yet privilege can be a tool for change. First the down side.

              One of the damning aspects of white privilege, for example, is the vehement denial that it even exists. This assertion of its non-existence would be laughable except that like other forms of privilege, white privilege operates in stealth mode. It runs in the background of our culture (at least it does for people with white skin). And it’s hard to scrutinize something you can’t see.

              A few individuals here and there make the farfetched assertion that white skin guarantees an easy, prosperous life. That of course is ridiculous. However it does carry certain unearned social, political, or economic benefits not afforded persons of color.

              People with white skin aren’t the only historically-included group. Those of us who are nondisabled (and I'm one of them) benefit from arguably the most insidious unearned privilege operating today. It’s certainly among the most potent. Nondisabled privilege is so powerful, we who possess it have essentially rendered invisible those persons with disabilities. And it’s criminal.

              Historically we’ve isolated, institutionalized and even sterilized persons with disabilities, against their wishes. Then we claimed it’s all in their best interests. Bullshit. It’s for our own comfort and convenience.

Not thinking about certain things can be a privilege.
              That’s the heinous thing about privilege: it implies the right to assume a delusional righteousness of our own experiences, casting others as different or even deviant while arrogantly viewing ourselves as normal. Now isn't that a mouthful?

              What's more, you don’t even have to be in the majority to hold privilege. Case in point, male privilege. Woefully, I also claim membership in this historically-included group, which consistently engages in intentional and unintentional policies and practices that demean, demote and degrade women.

              And because it has endured throughout history, much of that oppression has come to feel like part of some twisted “natural order”. But it isn’t. Just ask a woman.

              Then there’s the nonsensical insistence by more than a few who are part of historically-included groups that insist they are the ones being oppressed or discriminated against. To prove their point, individuals cite instances in which they personally experience discomfort. But what they’re feeling much of the time is equity.

The natural order of things isn't natural
              Examples of this equity include municipal regulations for accessible public spaces for the disabled, food stamps for the poor, and affirmative action for women and persons of color.

              Though such policies that seek to level the playing field are needed, they often are rejected as unjust by people accustomed to their privilege. Or misunderstood as handouts. Again, the culprit for this individualistic thinking are the socially invisible characteristics of privilege.

              In some ways it’s almost understandable why so many among historically included groups play the victim card. They/we are used to having our own way every day. It just feels right and natural, even though it’s wrong and artificial.

              Mass media (i.e., television, radio, newspapers and internet news sites), fueled by social media outlets like Facebook, Twitter and You Tube provide ever-growing opportunities through which historically-excluded groups may share more regularly their experiences.

              Despite being a relative drop in the bucket in terms of awareness, it’s getting harder and harder for historically-included groups to remain cocooned in their often self-imposed ignorance of glaring inequities.

If you see something, say something
              “Privilege” is a term one that chaps the hide of many individuals within historically included groups. Invoking the term often triggers defensiveness and can shut down conversations. Especially among those who grew up under less than desirable circumstances.

              Yet as more people with privilege become aware that they have it, some are beginning to use it in ways that seek to interrupt social inequities that exist. How? By speaking out.

              If you’re part of an historically-included group, use your voice to point out oppression. It’s the greatest privilege of all. 

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

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Diversity & Inclusion 101: Time To Walk Through the Doors of Truth

United we stand...
We as a race – the human race – are divided. And not just along color lines. We’re separated and segregated, figuratively and literally. Mentally, physically and spiritually. It’s of our own doing too, consciously and unconsciously.

              A lot of us prefer it this way, being divided. Particularly those part of historically-included groups. You know, male, straight, able, Christian, documented. White. So many benefits, so much access. So easy not to notice the inequities affecting those who are different.

              For historically-included persons it’s comfortable to maintain human categories and social divisions, even preferred. That’s because the alternative requires leaving the bosom of ignorance and facing hard, unsettling truth. Coming to terms with society’s self-inflicted inequities is no psychological walk in the park. Examining the worst of harmful, age old cultural practices and institutionalized policies can resemble a gut punch. It’s jolting, even painful.

              It’s a fact that once faced with the truth, lots of folks refuse to stomach the stench of inequity that exists. They turn away and sink back into the murky bog of ignorance.

              Knowing but not knowing.

              Here’s the good news: if you facedown the sobering fear and shock of truth, there’s salvation. It comes in the form of reclaiming your humanity. All it involves is getting curious. No easy task though when your universe has been tilted.

So many of us see, but do not see.
              Yet it’s also funny how something as simple as getting up close and personal with people different from yourself can help you see their humanness. And yours. That is, if you approach such encounters with an open mind and heart.

              Setting aside bias, prejudice and stereotypes can be difficult, if not impossible. It’s also uncomfortable. There’s nothing like believing in a thing only to discover it is not in fact the truth.

              Take poverty. Like other historically-excluded groups, poverty fosters a toxic, limiting belief system. One that dehumanizes a broad swath of our population. It generalizes, stigmatizes and therefore marginalizes people. In turn, institutions and cultural attitudes conspire to cement in place and thus perpetuate the conditions of those affected.

              It took me serving as board president of Woman’s Co-op to unlearn all I had learned about what poverty is, who’s affected and what their reality is.

Women helping women succeed
Woman’s Co-op is a nonprofit network of women working together to improve their lives through life management skills, education and employment opportunities. Many members have low or no income.

              Until I got knee deep in the work of Woman’s Co-op, I used to make up in my mind what it meant to live in poverty. I based it all on my limited encounters with poor folks: on the street, in stores, at meetings, wherever. I also drew on warped media images, especially on TV and in movies. In retrospect they were mere snapshots – moments in time.

              What it took for me to see the truth was “being” with them. Listening and withholding judgment. Eating with them without critique. Crying with without offering pity. Holding their babies as if they were my own. Laughing to share their joy. Equally important was sharing my own woes – personal secrets that polite folks like myself conveniently keep out of conversation so as to maintain membership in the coveted Middle Class Social Club.

              That back and forth sharing, over time, resulted in an unleashing of a mutual authenticity that allowed me to “see” persons living with lower incomes. And the majority of them are me, just from different circumstances.

              We’re at a pivotal moment in history. At no other time have so many doors of truth been more visible. It’s time for us to open those doors. All of them; not just those we’re comfortable with. Open them and step out of ignorance. Time to embrace justice. And in the process reclaim our humanity.  

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

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Black Hair Matters

Rockin' it all natural
I love black natural hair. The way it looks, the way it feels. And the way it makes me feel, inside. And I’m not the only one. There’s a revolution coming. Maybe it’s already here.

              More and more, I’m noticing African American men and women increasingly embrace their natural hair in all its creative styles. Dreads, plaits, twisties, cornrows, naturals, Mohawks, faux hawks, afro puffs, dookie braids. You name it, I’m seeing it.

              Kinky, curly, coily, bushy, tight, short, long – I’m loving it.

              Reasons for going natural are varied. For some, it’s convenient; for others it supports a healthier, more chemical free lifestyle. For a whole lot more it’s just more affordable.

              Sure, lots of black folks still “process” their doos. They’re perming, weaving, tinting, dying, highlighting, and wearing toupees and wigs. That’s fine by me; do your thing.

Required reading
              Unfortunately, that “thing” includes succumbing to hair-related esthetics and preferences favored by white Americans. Sadly, we (including me) all have generations of social conditioning to thank for that. It’s fueled by media that, consciously or not (read Tom Burrell’s Brainwashed), is designed to prop up whiteness as the end-all, be-all standard. But I digress.

              It’s just I’m lifting up sisters and brothers who are styling their hair in ways associated with our indigenous African American heritage. And they are rockin’ it with flavor. Leading the charge are young folks. No surprise there.

              Back to the revolution. There was a mantra in the African American community of the 1960s: “Black Power”. The catch phrase popularized by activists Kwame Ture and Mukasa Dada, better known as Stokely Carmichael and Willie Ricks. The pair were organizers for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

              Their work sparked one aspect of the nation’s collective Black Power movements, which became widespread nationally and internationally by the early ‘70s. It was further fueled by historic firebrands like Angela Davis and Malcolm X. They and scores of others at the time were demonized by mainstream establishment. In recent years however, many historians have come to view them more evenly and recognize their stalwart efforts during a difficult period of social change.

Natural history
Hair is a big deal in American society. Unfortunately, the tops of African Americans’ heads have for generations been a blistering battlefield. A scarred landscape on which oppressive cultural warfare continues to be waged.

              Witness the systematic and institutionalized workplace racism centered on hair. Citing policies and “appropriateness” as placeholders for white supremacy, African Americans were/are made to conform to hairstyles that as much as possible resemble standards of beauty and acceptability associated with whiteness.

              Dreads, twisties, braids, cornrows, even if perfectly coifed, until recently were banned in office environments. Still are in most mainstream institutions. In spite of it all, African Americans, though savaged by their inability to express a cultural individuality, nevertheless endure. But at what cost?

              It all speaks to resilience, what’s happening now. Figuratively speaking, once upon a time Black Lives Matter was called Black Power. But like the ‘60s and ‘70s slogan, it’s being twisted. Perverted by those afraid of some sort of uprising in which African Americans are “gunning for whitey.” But nothing could be further from the truth.

A person's hair is nothing to toy around with
              More and more persons uncomfortable with the Black Lives Matter movement assign blame of recent tragic killings of law enforcement personnel to an adamant but peaceful activist campaign. It’s a move rooted in fear and driven by a resigned notion that in our society there are people who must necessarily be oppressed in order for others to thrive.

              I don’t buy it. Neither should you. Natural black hair, like Black Lives Matter, embodies a growing reclamation of cultural humanity and sense of social justice. It’s time to set aside fear in favor of authentic efforts toward equity in our institutions and systems. Join the revolution.

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

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Selfie Sticks: one more way technology is robbing us of our humanity

President Obama has a selfie stick? Say it ain't so.
The selfie stick is a real product. For the longest I thought it was just a running joke on social media. You know, a gag gift. It’s not. It’s a legitimate photography accessory that enhances one’s ability to take smartphone self-portraits – selfies. Guess I’m in a cave when it comes to certain popular culture merchandise. Still, as marketable as it is there’s another, less welcome aspect to the apparatus.

              Selfie sticks are handheld telescoping extenders that increase the distance between people and their smartphones when snapping pictures. In the process they create another kind of distance, the kind between the photographer and passersby. And that’s the rub.

              In the old days you had to ask a stranger for an assist if you wanted your entire group in a shot. Now we have one more way not to interact with human beings we don’t know. ATM’s, automated customer service, grocer self-checkouts – we're moving farther and farther apart, thanks to technology.

              Although the spellcheck ap on my computer keeps flagging “selfie”, it’s listed in Wikipedia. The online encyclopedia defines the selfie stick as, “…a monopod used to take selfie photographs by positioning a smartphone or camera beyond the normal range of the arm.”

Why interact with fellow human beings when you don't have to?
              Personally, I exalt this product to the same degree I covet refrigerator door magnets and Chia Pets. Who actually buys them? Turns out, an awful lot of people. How this cultural phenomenon got my eyeballs and into the mainstream is beyond me. Maybe it’s because I’ve never seen one in action.

              A simple Internet search further confirmed my ignorance. They’re sold everywhere – from WalMart to Best Buy. Google lists a site that rates them. “The Top 8 Selfie Sticks”. There’s even a website called Who knew?

              Taking a deeper dive, I surfed and guess what I found? Selfie sticks. Lots of them. They sell from a few bucks to more than $100. Some even have a Bluetooth feature that allows it to do something, although I wasn’t curious enough to keep reading and find out.

This might be why Disney banned selfie sticks
              Back on Wikipedia I noted with no small degree of satisfaction the banning of selfie sticks at some public venues, citing safety reasons. Disneyland is one of them. I looked it up on their website and it’s true.

              (Random factoid: Disney also prohibits certain “inappropriate” tattoos, so I might be personally banned if I show up shirtless to see Mickey. Luckily the facial hair restriction is no longer enforced. Oh wait, that was just for park employees).

              This whole isolation thing reminds me of the mentality most of us have about being in physical proximity with each other. Like at shopping mall food courts. People go out of their way not to sit at tables occupied by strangers that have open seats. Even if there are no other chairs, folks will orbit, trays in hand, until an entire table is vacant before swooping in.

              Privacy is the reason given for not wanting to share space with others, (second only to “germs”). Privacy from what? Do perfect strangers across from you who are enjoying their Kung Pao Chicken really care about your Aunt Mable’s preferred hemorrhoid product?

Quick, open seats. No wait; we'd have to share the table.
              Distasteful example I know. The chicken dish I mean, but you get the idea. My guess is most people sharing your table tune out your conversation and vice versa.

              In the end, sure it can be uncomfortable to approach a stranger and ask them to take your picture. The benefit though is that it stretches you in such a way that bolsters your sense of humanity, acceptance and inclusion. And be honest, after you help a group of smiling faces with their Kodak Moment, doesn’t leave you feeling good inside? That alone is the price of admission, tattoos or not.


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

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Change is in the Air

Why is this message so threatening?
We are currently experiencing a period of significant cultural change. It’s exciting, widespread and somewhat intimidating because of its magnitude. This collective transformation is sweeping the nation, maybe the world. And there’s something altogether unique about society’s seismic shifting.

              It’s not just occurring within the boundaries of social justice either. It’s impacting numerous political and economic sectors too. In the process, it’s unearthing traditions and behaviors that once were firmly cemented in place. The result? Hope for some. Uncertainty for others. Fear for a great many.

              The causes are many and complex but the so-called Arab Spring is the global flashpoint. The events of Arab Spring, which took place half a world away in 2010, consisted of a wave of protests, demonstrations and civil unrest in parts of the Middle East. All were rooted in the dissatisfaction of the people with the status quo. Oppression seemed the common thread.

One theory of change
              It’s the same here in the States. For instance, the Black Lives Matter movement is a grassroots campaign that’s galvanizing African Americans and their supporters across the country. Its origin stems from the 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. It has since evolved to more generally protest many law enforcement agencies whose militaristic (some say brutal) policies disproportionately target African American men and women.

              On the economic front there’s Occupy Wall Street. This movement started in 2011. It illuminated protesters’ perceptions of, and attitudes about economic inequality in general, with particular emphasis on income disparity. The movement received global attention and inspired the broader Occupy movement against social and economic inequality worldwide.

              Of a more personal nature, marriage equality awareness has surged in recent years. Known more commonly (though perhaps not as accurately) as same sex marriage, change on this front has centered lately on the LGBTQ community but the disabled community has also been affected. Only a couple months ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that state-level bans on same-sex marriage are unconstitutional.

Make room for all identities
Then there’s the emergence of issues related to persons who identify as transgender. Conversations are happening that poke holes in the conventional male/female binary, as well as accepted notions of what defines “masculine” and “feminine”. It also surfaces questions of acceptance and oppression – some of a life-threatening nature. According to reports, in 2015 there have been at least 16 transgender women murdered across the country.

              And let’s not forget about this nation’s policy (and make no mistake, it’s a policy) of mass incarceration, an institutional issue seemingly driven by the crime. Yet with the crime rate trending down, growing evidence points more strongly toward a broken, racist criminal justice system as the culprit. And it’s bookended by plain old fashion capitalism in the form of corporations running our prisons.

              All this change is not without backlash. And it’s showing up in often weird, dysfunctional ways. For instance, the political landscape is unrecognizable. Presidential candidates are flippantly mocking each other and employing communication strategies more akin to reality TV than substantive, issues-based messaging. Surely it cannot last. Or can it?

Time to change our criminal justice system
              What we are undergoing as a culture and as a nation, this dynamic social evolution, is quantum in nature. That is, it’s more a giant leap for humankind than one small step. It reminds me of the huge science and technology advancements made in the 20th Century (i.e., space flight, genetic research, computers… the washing machine).

              This progress, while many welcome it, also is taking a toll on our collective psyche. It’s hard to keep up. I’m all for it though, especially if it ultimately results in increased compassion and empathy among those of us who (consciously and unconsciously) oppress others.


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

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Bear Witness to Truth of this Nation by Embracing its Contradictions

This isn't the first time these guys talk out of both sides of their mouths
One of the toughest things to come to terms with in life are contradictions. That is, holding equally true but ultimately conflicting facts and realities. Contradictions play out in all sorts of ways, from the way we think about institutions to how we look at people. How one holds these contradictions play an important role in one’s outlook, especially as it relates to truth and justice.

              For instance, I love the United States of America. I was born here; it’s my country and I’m proud of it. I like to think of the U.S. as the No. 1 country in the world, despite a heck of a lot of facts and figures that suggest our overall ranking is otherwise.

              Our stated values and principles are things I hold dear. And yet as an institutional system and as much as I love it, this nation is wildly flawed. Flawed in ways that frustrate and anger me.

One of the most damning contradictions about our founding fathers
              That our country is imperfect I can accept. What’s harder to come to terms with is how so many people refuse to accept and embrace this contradiction.

              We say we value freedom. But the U.S. has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. We lift up equality as a cherished principle. Yet conditions like racism, poverty and hunger persist across the 50 states.

              We insist one of our most cherished institutions is education. Yet we deny inner city school systems the resources they need to thrive. At the same time we saddle college graduates with staggering debt to accompany their diplomas.


              Recently I visited the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. It’s an amazing place, steeped in pride of history and country. It was at once inspiring and troubling.

              The main attraction is “Freedom Rising”, a 17-minute, 360-degree theatrical presentation. Think: intensely patriotic IMAX Theater. The production traces the “American quest for freedom” and if you want to know about the beginnings of the United States and its storied history, this production and the Center itself is the place to go. Sort of.

              See, within these walls are contradictions. Contradictions and omissions – the sum of which fail to tell the full and complete story of our great nation. This ultimately speaks to truth. Or rather, untruth.

Thomas Jefferson. Whose story? His-story.
Most of the important facts and figures are there, along with relevant turning points. But the centerpiece of the contradictions lay with the troubling immersion in which one finds oneself at the Center. That’s because like most museums, libraries and bookstores, this venerable place is steeped in a singular perspective – one viewed through the lens of straight white Christian males.

              That’s a problem. Especially for people who don’t hold that identity. The thing of it is, most of us who are not straight and white and male and Christian are not even aware of the lens through which we view things like this exhibition.

              Had I not made a conscious decision to experience my visit to the Center through the lens of racial equity, I would not have noticed that after the initial sentence of the “Freedom Rising” presentation, Native Americans were never mentioned again. It was as if they went extinct.

              If I hadn’t kept my critical thinking cap on, I probably would not have keyed in on the fact that the U.S. Constitution was written by and specifically for men. White, landowning men.

              There are scores of other examples but the point is that the Center, and historians in general, whitewash history. They scrub it clean of the dirtier aspects contributing to this nation’s creation. They sweep away hard cold facts in favor of more palatable renderings. And it’s damaging to our psyche. Telling the truth from a single perspective keeps people from coming to terms with who we are as a nation.

              Until we hear, and more importantly accept, all sides of United States history – the good, bad and ugly, folks will continue to have trouble sitting in the right and wrong of America. Its contradictions.

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