Tuesday, March 31, 2015

See Women with Disabilities for Who They Are: Humans Being

As Women’s History Month winds down, there’s a group we all must keep on our radar that continue to remain essentially invisible: women with disabilities.

Depending on whose statistics you’re reading, anywhere from 12 to 20 percent of all women living in the United States have difficulty with mobility, vision, hearing, cognition, or possess other forms of disability. This does not include women residing in institutions (ex., nursing homes, prisons), or actively serving in the military.

Geographically speaking, among women not living in a metropolitan or micropolitan (an urban location with a population between 10,000 and 50,000, like Battle Creek), area about 17 percent have a disability. They tend to be poorer, in worse health, less educated, and more dependent on government programs than urban women with disabilities.

Despite the rhetoric so many Americans proudly recite about how we treat all our citizens the same, the truth is different. Persons with disabilities, more specifically, women who are disabled, experience significant levels of discrimination.

“When [nondisabled] people see the way that we move, in a wheelchair, on crutches or whatever, it frightens them. Or worse, they don’t even know what to feel so they stop seeing us as human beings,” says Tresa Tully.

See the potential in everyone.
Tully’s statements encapsulate a reality common to many who have one or more disabilities. The calm and thoughtful manner of her assertion belies an intense frustration, but not one borne of the 46-year-old’s Cerebral Palsy. She can deal with that reality. Instead, what troubles her deeply is the lack of empathy that exists among nondisabled people.

Despite investing in herself and earning both Bachelors and Masters Degrees, Tully has been employed just twice in her life. “Even though I’ve done everything society says you need to do in order to be a success, [people] just won’t give me a chance,” she says.

Tully and others report this lack of opportunity, despite being qualified, is common among those who are disabled. “When you go in as a woman with disabilities, people aren’t willing to see the mind behind the person.”

It’s sad but true: nondisabled Americans claim to cherish core American values such as rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Yet the facts tell another story. So do statistics.

For instance, the North Carolina Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance Survey of 2009 revealed that  women with physical and cognitive disabilities are significantly more likely to experience diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, physical inactivity and poor sleep.

Any three of these conditions combined represent a higher risk factor for cardiovascular disease. That is to say, women with disabilities are more than twice as likely as women with no disabilities (48.3 percent versus 20.9 percent) to experience three or more of these conditions. One result is being at significant risk for cardiovascular disease.

Venerable Institution: Ann J. Kellogg
In order to achieve optimum levels of wellness, remain active and part of the community, persons with disabilities require quality health care and health programs – just like nondisabled folks do. But they don’t.

Tully says it’s true programs, equipment and technology exist that can enhance the quality of life for persons with disabilities. But it’s just like people who go hungry in a country bursting with fresh and nutritious food: it’s a matter of access. And most with disabilities don’t have the resources to acquire it.

They require other things too, like acceptance and love.

“We’re no different than anybody else,” says Lori Smith, an activist focused on issues related to disabilities. “We strive to have families, become educated and have meaningful careers, but society’s view point limits our opportunities,” she says.

Smith has TAR Syndrome, a rare genetic condition, and uses a wheelchair to assist with mobility. But it doesn’t stop her from having the same dreams other women have. That includes sexual desire.

Growing up, Smith said she heard guys say things like it would be cool to have sex with a woman who has a disability. As with most women, she resented being objectified.

“Like everyone else, we crave intimacy [not just sex] and that includes myself,” she says. “We also have to deal with low self-esteem. A lot of women have it but [among women who are disabled] it’s even more pronounced.”

Another common misconception within the nondisabled community is that having a disability means a person isn’t healthy. To the contrary, wellness means the same thing for all of us. It includes getting and staying in good physical, mental, and emotional condition in order to lead a full and active life.

Yet such a way of living can be challenging for those who have a disability. That’s because it requires a collective attitude adjustment – on the part of nondisabled people and the systems we have created.

But it’s not all bad news. As a child, Smith attended Ann J. Kellogg, one of the first elementary schools that blended nondisabled students with those who were disabled. At Ann J., she felt accepted and challenged.

“I had teachers that pushed me,” Smith recalls. “Judy Montich was one of them. She loved us and always was firm in her support of believing we could do something.”

Sadly, most nondisabled people don’t think like that. Yet it’s exactly what we must do if America is to achieve its idealistic values of liberty and justice for all.

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

Make Women’s History Month a Priority

Sojourner Truth told, well... the truth
March is Women’s History Month. Recognizing its meaning should be a priority for everyone, especially men. It certainly is for me. But it wasn’t always that way.

As a person steeped in male privilege – that is, being granted significant societal advantages for no other reason than being born male – there was a time when I wrongly believed the annual month-long recognition was excessive. But that’s what any form of privilege does for you; it distorts your view the world. Science has proven even the most fair-minded people are affected by this implicit bias.

For me it started in grade school, maybe earlier. Mis-education back then conditioned my thinking in ways I wasn’t even aware. It still affects my perceptions to this day. It had little to do with any conscious efforts of my instructors. Instead it had to do with was what I saw textbooks. Or rather what I didn’t see: women.

Oh, women and girls were in the books. But their portrayals were systematical cast in supporting roles. Or worse, subservient ones. There were of course exceptions but most depictions were secondary to the “louder,” more prevalent messages conveyed about men.

While ads like this are no longer common, attitudes still are
This was especially true when it came to what we learned in history books and when I scoured my family’s set of encyclopedias (remember those?).

What’s worse, this marginalizing and stereotyping of girls and women was reinforced in magazines, newspapers and other media, especially television. Countless news programs, TV shows and movies recounted tales that deemphasized the role of females in our society. And they continue to this day, though there is some change happening.

According to the latest census numbers, females consist of roughly half the American population. Yet despite all the equality and fairness laws, policies and other municipal, state and federal legislation passed in the last 100 years – grave inequities still exist. That’s a fact.

What we repeatedly read in books and see in pictures and other media set a framework for what we come to believe. That’s why it’s important to support efforts that counteract the negative narratives about women that bombard us daily.

Time to change the narrative about women in history
Historically speaking, these are but some of the many women leaders that should be recognized for their work in the struggle for equality: Susan B. Anthony, Isabella Van Wagenen (aka, Sojourner Truth), Lucy Stone, Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Harriet Tubman, Alice Paul.

To most they are just names. Yet each contributed greatly to the sacred tenets upon which our nation was founded, but go largely unrecognized for their work.

This year’s Women’s History Month theme, announced by the National Women’s History Project, is “Weaving the Stories of Women’s Lives”. The purpose is to underscore the need for “weaving” the full and complete story of women into the cultural fabric of U.S. history.

This is no small task, considering the origins of our nation are rooted in oppressive patriarchal beliefs, practices and policies – many of which continue to this day.

This year is the 35th anniversary of the National Women’s History Project. To celebrate, they chose nine women as honorees. Collectively their work spans the 20th Century, contributing to the effort of writing women back into history. They are:

Delilah L. Beasley (1867-1934), historian and newspaper columnist

Gladys Tantaquidgeon (1899-2005), Mohegan medicine woman, anthropologist, and Tribal elder

Eleanor Flexner (1908 –1995), historian and scholar

Polly Welts Kaufman (1929-Present), writer, teacher, activist

Lynn Sherr (1943- Present), broadcast journalist and author

Judy Yung (1946-Present), oral historian, author, and professor

Darlene Clark Hine (1947- ), historian and educator

Holly Near (1949-Present), singer, songwriter, social activist

Vicki L. Ruiz (1955 – ), educator and pioneer in Latina history

Collectively these women have written, co-authored or edited more than 90 works in the form of books and music CDs. The result is an anthology of creativity rooted in fact that surfaces the depth and breadth of the multicultural womanhood. They are important and deserve recognition because of their role in constructing authentic women’s stories for all to include in our thinking about American history. Google them.

The stories of women’s lives encourage girls and young women to think larger and bolder. It also gives boys and men a greater understanding of the female experience and their importance. Knowing about women’s achievements challenges stereotypes and unravels assumptions about who women are and what they can accomplish today.

In Battle Creek, this work goes on by women, albeit in different ways. Some are well-known to the community, others less so. The ones listed are longtime friends and associates who continue to personally impact my life and work in Battle Creek as it relates to specifically promoting equity for women and social justice in general. Among them: Velma Laws Clay, Jackie DeHaan, Kate Flores, Michelle Frank, Lynn Gray, Reba Harrington Brenda Hunt, Jean Krohn, Linda McKinney, Teresa Phillips, Martha Thawngmung, Kyra Wallace, Val Whitney and Kathy Wilson. Perhaps most impactful of all as it relates to deepening my awareness of women’s history is Emily Joye Reynolds (my spouse). And then there is my own mother, Vivian Reynolds. The list goes on.

Everyone should have their own mental list of those close to them working to change the narrative of women. Do you? If so, let them know you see them. If not, create one.

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

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Time for America to Adopt an Anti-Racism Footing

The racist incident caught on video involving a college fraternity is disturbing on so many different levels. The least of which is the fact that a group of young white individuals thought it was okay to publicly spit offensive, hateful rhetoric.

To summarize: members of the University of Oklahoma chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon, one of the nation’s largest and oldest national fraternities, participated in an obscene chant targeting African American males. Slurs, including mention of lynching, were sung to the melody of the popular kiddy ditty, “If You’re Happy and You Know It”. The recurring stanza was, “There will never be a n*gger at SAE.”

SAE. Sigma Alpha Epsilon.

According to its national website, there are 239 total chapters and colonies and approximately 15,000 undergraduate/collegiate members. Since being founded in 1856, it has initiated more than 325,000, with approximately 200,000 living alumni. More than 26,000 have graduated from its celebrated John O. Moseley Leadership School.

Leadership school.

School bus chant refers to this homegrown form of terrorism
That means more than a few fraternity members work as judges, lawyers, politicians, police, physicians, business executives, military officers, college professors and university chancellors. In short, they span all institutional sectors across America.

This is not to suggest some diabolical racial agenda exists. That’s ludicrous. It does however call into question how well we are preparing our young people to lead in a growingly diverse culture. And that’s bad for business and worse for society.

News of the Oklahoma incident flies in the face of detractors and distractors who incessantly claim race no longer matters in the United States. And that today’s youth don’t see color.

It’s ironic that news of this incident broke nationally on March 9, the fraternity’s historic founder’s day, when Sigma Alpha Epsilon turned 159 years old. It’s also not the first time a SAE chapter was caught being untoward and disciplined by the national office.

Last year, SAE members at the University of Arizona were suspended for attacking Jewish students. The same year, SAE members attending Clemson University were suspended for conducting a racially denigrating, "Cripmas" party. Two years ago, the SAE chapter at Washington University in St. Louis was suspended for singing racial slurs to African American students. These are not the only incidents reported.
Sad to say SAE has the same frat colors as mine

In each case, the national organization of Sigma Alpha Epsilon took swift and decisive action, as did local colleges and universities. In the latest debacle, the charter of the University of Oklahoma SAE chapter was suspended, along with its members.

Swift and decisive action.

Yet it’s not enough. And I’m not referring to the foolish and immature students involved. Rather, I’m outing the national presidents of all fraternities and sororities. That’s because Sigma Alpha Epsilon isn’t alone.

In 2013, at the University of California Irvine, an anonymous racist note was slipped beneath the door of an African American student athlete on an academic scholarship. It read, “Go Bakk 2 Africa Slave”. On the same campus, another video surfaced. This one depicted what appeared to be students from an Asian fraternity dancing, with at least one in blackface. The result was that the campus fraternity chapter was shut down for a year.

Also in 2013, at the University of Alabama, accusations of racial discrimination were leveled at white sororities. According to a 2013 story reported in the campus paper The Crimson White, African American female students were set to be allowed in, but sorority alumni told current campus sisters not to let black pledges join.

What the students did in Oklahoma was reprehensible. Yet there’s more to this incident than a bus loaded with students participating in a hurtful racist chant. The bigger issue is what continues to be the elephant in the room when it comes to this country’s conversations about race. And that is the systematic and institutional nature of racism.

Since the end of slavery, freed African Americans have been systematically targeted by patterns of racist behavior, policies and politics. And a lot of it was/is government sanctioned. So much so that it’s culturally acceptable.

Not at the individual level anymore, mind you. These days, we’ll slap down any and all people acting racist. The bigger problem is at the systems level, an abstract realm where there’s a heaping helping of ambiguity. And little accountability.

On the surface most folks understand that racism and prejudice are affronts to collective societal values. The problem is many consistently refuse to take the microscope off individuals and soar upward to take in a bird’s eye view of our social landscape. Only there can we turn a critical eye on and perceive how our institutions and policies perpetuate, and in some cases encourage racism in America.

To be sure, not all policies and regulations on the books are intended to exclude, discriminate and oppress African American and other people of color. (For that matter, let’s include those who are disabled, possess a non-heterosexual orientation or are of limited financial and social means.)

Americans need to stop muddling around and take the bull by the horns. It’s time to move onto deliberate anti-racism footing; one that systematically identifies, confronts and dismantles racism – individually, institutionally and culturally.

Anti-racism is a strong term. Yet at its essence should be no more incendiary than “antibiotic,” which one takes when ill; “anti-inflammatory,” which one employs to relieve inflammation; or even “antifreeze,” which all of us are glad to have in our vehicles this winter.

Like it or not, racism was institutionally embedded into the fabric of this nation during its very founding. Read the documents. That’s before any of us were born. We may not be responsible. But we are all accountable.

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

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Reading is a Social Justice Issue

Ms. Scharf was just as magical in reading class
Literacy. I take mine for granted. Like a lot of folks, I’ve been reading or read to for as long as I can remember. While the majority of it occurred at home, my most memorable experience with reading was in elementary school with a teacher named Ms. Scharf.

Ms. Scharf was one of those delightful, almost magical educators we’ve all run into. With an innovative with and quirky charm she always made learning interesting and fun. Think Mary Poppins but without the British accent and enchanted umbrella.

Ms. Scharf was the person at school most responsible for fueling my passion for the written word. She had us do spelling bees, give oral book reports and, of course, do lots and lots of reading.

I’ll always remember the very first reading assignment she gave us. Not as a result of the book I selected; I can’t even remember what it was. Instead, it was because of what she asked of us.

Her instructions started out ordinary enough, but at the end came a twist: “You can do this at your desk – or anywhere you’d like in the classroom. But no talking.”

We were thrilled. Kids being kids, we tested her. Students sat everywhere possible. On the floor, against the wall, under a desk, atop the window sill. I chose to read in my classroom locker.

Reading is fundamental
One by one we’d sneak peeks at each other, noting our choices and silently celebrating the anarchy of it all. After a while a funny thing happened though. Most of us returned to our desks.

I was one of them. Somehow, sitting contorted in a dark, cramped locker with only a few narrow slits of light didn’t make for comfortable reading. Lesson learned, in more ways than one.

Reading is fundamental to education. It’s the primary way for acquiring and sharing formal knowledge and information, at least in Western civilization.

But reading is more than a tool and approach to learning. It’s also a way of being. As a kid it conducted me to faraway places, fueled creativity and more. Sadly, not all children share this experience.

According to a report by Scholastic and YouGov, there is a sharp decline in parents regularly reading aloud to their children as they grow older. The study reported one in three kids (about 34 percent) were read to between ages six and eight. Contrast that with one in six kids (17 percent) between ages nine and 11.

It’s no surprise that numerous studies state third grade reading proficiency is a strong indicator of a student's academic success in later years. What’s more, about one in six children who don't read proficiently by the end of third grade don't graduate from high school on time.

This is March is Reading Month. It involves an annual push to raise awareness about reading in schools. In support of March is Reading Month, members of the education committees in the Michigan Legislature are encouraging colleagues to each read to 1,000 Michigan students this month. Nice gesture.

Mich,'s nerdy governor likes to read. Me too!
In a March 1 address, Governor Rick Snyder delivered a March is Reading Month message. In it he says he’s placing “particular emphasis on improving our children’s reading levels by the third grade.”

Gov. Snyder has a proposed third grade reading initiative. Presented to lawmakers during the unveiling of his fiscal year 2016 budget last month, it’s a $48.6 million proposal – about $25 million of which is state money. The end game is to increase reading proficiency scores for third graders.

But like sitting in lockers and laying on window sills, that’s just mechanics. The real work comes in large part from teachers and parents. And that “work” is inspiring youth to read. No easy task, given there are a lot of kids may not yet appreciate, let alone have been exposed to the wonders (and opportunities) that come with being proficient at reading.

Make no mistake, $48 million is nothing to sneeze at. Public school systems need it. They also require educators who can inspire students. That’s where the rubber meets the road. As legislators and administrators deliberate, it’s hoped these frontline teaching professionals will be consulted as to how best distribute and leverage the funds.

Then there’s the challenge of aligning all the various support systems to promote increased collaboration. The goal? Improve the effectiveness of all who work in early child development.

That includes licensed daycare centers, as well as home-based and other unlicensed yet nevertheless utilized forms of childcare. And let’s not forget K-12 schools, governmental agencies and businesses. These channels are essential if all families and young children are to have access to high-quality education.

At a systems level, Battle Creek Public Schools received a $3.9 million grant last year from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. The three-year investment was made to help improve “school readiness, early success and third grade reading proficiency by expanding teacher and leader capacity to support learning and to provide quality and equitable academic opportunities to students pre-k to 3.”

On more of a grassroots front, this month the Foundation issued a three-year grant of about $225,000 to New Harvest Christian Center Inc. The goal is to “increase access to early childhood education programs by vulnerable children likely to enter Battle Creek Public Schools by transitioning their informal childcare program to a high-quality early learning center.”

This integrated approach, which provides both broad institutional and focused community support, makes sense. But it’s not enough. What’s also needed are commitments from across all sectors of the community. In short, we all need to step up in the spirit of teachers like Ms. Scharf. The results will be magical.

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

Friday, March 6, 2015

Remember All the Vulnerable People During Community Power Plays

This is the place: Battle Creek, Mich. No wait that's Dragnet
Something’s afoot in Battle Creek and it’s sending unsettling tremors across the psyche of the community. In the last couple years an awful lot of key leadership changes have been occurring. People in high places are leaving or have left. They’ve resigned, been blown out, forced out, or flat out fired.

It’s the nature of things to change. I get that. But lately feels destabilizing.

Erv Brinker, Rod Auton, Patty Staib, Ken Tushiyama, Jackie Hampton, Karl Dehn, Nancy MacFarland. There are more. Some names are familiar; others less so.

When change involves human beings, it comes at a cost and I’m not talking money. Whatever the reasons for change in these cases, we must acknowledge the pain and anguish associated with it. And not just for the person being let go or leaving.

It can be lonely at the top.
There’s also staff to consider. The psychological and emotional impact surrounding the move is no small matter, and often belies the phrase, “leadership transition.”

Then there’s the toll paid by the people a departed leader’s organizations serves. The quality of service clients or residents receive must surely be impacted too. The question is to what extent? More on that later.

Now I’m no conspiracy theorist but I’ve been known to play one on Facebook from time to time. So to me, it’s interesting to witness all these folks exiting their important posts in such close order.

Again, some of these folks left of their own volition; it was time to retire or just to move on. In other cases, the changes were seemingly mysterious – or felt somehow forced.

And that’s the rub. Changes around here are happening in ways that have created a good measure of ambiguity in the way I thought I understood this town. Battle Creek is becoming less predictable.

Not that it’s a bad thing, mind you. Change can be good. It’s just the uncertainty associated with it is unsettling for people. Myself included.

I’m no spring chicken. I’ve had my share of earthshaking change. Like a lot of folks, I’m still going through various transitions from time to time. The difference is that in my 20s and 30s, change felt new and exciting. The insecurity of it all was a call to adventure.

These days when it comes to change, I often sense a looming specter of peril. It’s not paralyzing, just present in a way it didn’t used to experience risk.

Back to conspiracy theories. If I were a paranoid sort, I might irrationally point to the masterminds of the new TV drama “BattleCreek” as playing a role in the seismic personnel shift going on. After all, it would be in the interest of the show’s producers (and Hollywood) to conjure a city filled with scandal and messiness to help drive ratings.

Another, more reasonable take on all this leadership change is the growing sophistication and education of various boards of directors. They are the ones most closely associated with at least the sudden or unexpected departures of the various executive directors, presidents and CEOs.

In the wake of their decisions about leadership, one wonders how much attention is paid to the impact such transitions have on the ongoing quality of organizational service. As mentioned, clients and residents are also affected during these executive purges.

When it comes to board decisions about executive leadership viability, it’s my experience – as a person who’s served on boards ranging from small grassroots service agencies to large national nonprofits – that the top priority is the fiscal, legal and ethical integrity of their organization. It’s not the internal staff or external people it serves. Makes sense I guess, given the weight of fiduciary responsibilities each board member carries.
Universal board logic.

Still, many of the orgs in question service the poor, elderly and/or disabled – our community’s most vulnerable populations. These same folks are disproportionately affected in the municipal sector when department heads roll or otherwise vacate. This begs the question, is enough consideration being given to ensure their best interests? If not, who oversees the overseers?

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