Friday, May 29, 2015

A Communication Apocalypse is Upon Us

Reaching out & touching someone... old school style
As world communication technology advances, so does our ability to interact with each other. Locally and globally. This progress has really helped society. It’s also hurt us as human beings.

              Think about it, we can be instantly in touch with almost anyone on the planet. Writing, voice or video, connecting has never been so easy. “Lightning fast” communication started way back when with dots and dashes. Yet today we’re farther apart than ever.

              This day marks the anniversary of the first telegraph message. On May 24, 1844, Samuel Morse (of Morse code fame) sent an experimental transmission from Washington, DC, to neighboring Baltimore. The success of that telegraphic message trumpeted the start of a surge in our ability to be in touch, the likes of which history had never before seen.

              About 20 years later in 1861, Western Union completed the first transcontinental telegraph line. That technology leap doomed the fabled Pony Express, a transcontinental mail system in which mail was relayed, horse by horse, between the frontier state of California and the East Coast. Between April 1860 and October 1861, this service was yesteryear’s cross-country equivalent of today’s Federal Express.

That's some way to earn a living
              During its brief 19 months of operation, the Pony Express reduced message delivery times for mail traveling between the Atlantic and Pacific coasts to around 10 days. It became the West's most direct means of east/west communication across the United States. That is, until the telegraph rendered it obsolete.

              Enter Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone. The year was 1876. It was the start of an eventual dial up love affair that endures to this day.

              Who remembers when calling “long distance” was a big deal? Never mind ringing somebody in another country; back in the ‘60s things ground to a halt whenever mom in Michigan would dial up relatives in Ohio. And a phone call from Los Angeles? Fuhgetaboutit. Life as we knew it stopped as we learned the latest from our California cousins, aunts and uncles.

              FedEx in the ‘70s and the rise of telephone answering machines a decade later further enhanced our ability to reach out and touch. Then came the Internet, which exploded for consumers in the ‘90s.

Humankind has never had it so good.

              One would think with all this access to communication that we’d enter a new state of being; a kinder and gentler humanity. Yet our increased ability to stay in touch has rendered us more distant than ever.

              Bad news is the preferred news, especially on social media like Facebook. Some folks are engaging in meaningful online dialog across the miles, or across the street for that matter. But most eschew positive intercourse in favor of narrow, one-sided, fear-based, sensationalized conversations.

Hit me back on the telegraph

It’s interesting that our means for connecting with each other have developed to such an extent that we have the capability to be in constant contact with one another for extended amounts of time. Curiously, how the reality of how we’re choosing to remain in touch today is quite the opposite.

              Consider texting, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat – among the most popular forms of communication, particularly with young people. Concurrently, phone companies report talk times among youth are declining.

              All these forms of contact have one thing in common: short, controlled bursts of communication. They also conveniently allow persons on receiving end to choose whether and when to engage in conversation. This enables individuals to keep each other at arm’s length, with comfort and convenience being the operative words.

              Unintended byproducts of these communication platforms include genuine misunderstandings between people at best, and hateful cyberbullying at worst.

              Ironically, today’s preferred ways of connecting in many ways harken to the early days of telegraph and telegram communication, when there was no choice but to be brief and to the point. What’s old is new.

              Perhaps in the end, what’s happening is merely a case of us continuing to evolve toward something wonderful and stumbling along the way. Either that or it’s the start of a return to a communication Dark Ages, which hardly bodes well for equity among people. 

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

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Practice Values as Much as You Preach Them

Talkin' loud, but sayin' nothin'
It can be hard to practice what you preach, even when it comes to our most cherished values. Take the treatment (and mistreatment) of animals and human beings for instance. First the animals.

For me and many others, animals under the care of people (i.e., pets and zoo animals) deserve as high a quality of life as possible. This extends to livestock (cows, pigs, chicken, etc.) destined for dining room tables.

Recently, I watched a Facebook video clip that secretly exposed the inhumane manner in which most livestock are raised. It was disgusting and offended every fiber of my being. In less than a minute, a hidden camera fast-forwarded through the birth-and-slaughter cycle of a “factory farm” calf. The mini-documentary was a call to action to cease foul treatment of God’s creatures.

Yet in the end, like most folks, I’m probably not going to do anything about it – even though I believe the treatment livestock suffer in those places is wrong.

More than 90 percent of farm animals raised in the United States are funneled through factory farms. These farms are large, industrial operations that raise massive numbers of animals for food. Like most large scale businesses, factory farms focus on productivity and efficiency for the sake of profit. Animal welfare is secondary.

As coordinator of Good Food Battle Creek (GFBC), I consider myself a journeyman foodie. GFBC is a local group of agencies and individuals working to address our broken food system by providing information and education to residents. We are currently in the process of developing plans to take a more proactive role that supplements our whole information/education shtick.

That half-minute “life of a calf” documentary affected me. Considering my level of distaste (to put it mildly) of the way calves and cows are treated, it would seem a simple matter to remove beef from my diet. I rarely eat it and my wife rarely serves it.

Here’s the disappointing truth: despite knowing what I know, I’m still eating beef. Even though it’s not a regular home menu item or a staple when dining out. Even though I know it’s contributing to a system of mistreatment of animals, which is contrary to my stated values, I’m going to order it.

I like a juicy, medium-well burger with all the works now and then. Same with steak. Mom never should have turned me on the Porterhouse cut; I’m hooked and need my fix every couple of months.

Levity aside, a burning question sears my conscience. If a self-described social justice advocate like me can be overlook the callous treatment of calves and other animals in the name of nutrition that can be achieved by alternative food choices, how can I hold other human beings accountable with respect to other social issues? I’m talking racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism and all the other –isms plaguing society.

Some argue there’s a difference between human beings and animals. Does that legitimize the pain and mistreatment imposed on them? Frankly when you think about it, the whole “there’s a difference between them and us” argument has historically justified the oppression and mistreatment of entire races and classes of people by dominant groups.

This week on the Senate floor, U.S. Senator Harry Reid stated he was “stunned” that National Football League officials are more concerned about how much air is in a football than with a racist franchise name that denigrates Native Americans across the country. He is, of course, referring to the NFL team in Washington, DC.

In many respects, my love of beef and the Washington, DC, team owner’s desire to keep his team’s racist name share something in common: lack of moral conviction.

It’s easy to armchair quarterback your values. It’s all-together different when it comes to transforming values into action. It takes getting down off your high horse and practicing what you say you believe.

A lotta times that ain’t easy. Not because of the effort involved but because of your ego. That and giving up a way of being that’s comfortable and familiar. In the end it’s worth it. 

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

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Self-Examination is Critical for Growth (...if I'd have known then what I know now)

Yes, YOU!
Muhammad Ali once said, “A man who views the world at 50 the same way he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.” I believe that.

              At 20, I was certain I had figured out most things. Thirty years later I realize there's a lot I still don't know or understand.

              For instance, I’ve come to terms with my personal history of sexism, heterosexism, ableism and classism. Three decades ago, nobody could have convinced me of my participation in these -isms. In my 20s I thought, “As an African American male who experiences racism, I’ve got a firm grip on how it feels to be gay, a woman, disabled person or someone poor. There’s no way would I participate in any form of discrimination.”


              Today, I realize just how little I understand what these targeted groups go through – despite having close friendships across each group. Back then I didn’t know that I didn’t know. Today, I know I don’t know, but I’m listening, reading and learning. Huge difference.

              Speaking of racism, I’ve gone through much of my life believing it consisted merely of bad individuals actively thinking and doing prejudicial things against people of color. It wasn't until later that I came to understand the state-sanctioned policies and systems that were created to establish and perpetuate racism. And that good, well-meaning people help prop up these systems – through unconscious bias and/or their silence.

              Another biggie: I had no idea some 30 odd years ago that the physical injuries of my youth would fester until my middle ages, and begin a gradual torment that would likely follow me to my final days. Nor did I realize the significance of other sorts of injuries. The kind that occur up in your head.

              Nowadays I  understand that certain mental and emotional traumas from my childhood, teen years and young adulthood impact how I see the world and move through it. Back then it all seemed like it was “one and done.” And yet, had I not been teased and bullied, would I have embarked on my current social justice career path? One wonders.

              I used to think not having my father around after he passed in my 20s was “just one of those things” and I’d get by. Yet in later years I recognized the magnitude of no longer benefiting from the wisdom of his counsel. In him I lost an important perspective. He’d seen me at my very best, and worst. From that, he could offer viewpoints like no other man. (Thank goodness I still have mom). In my youth, I squandered countless opportunities to benefit from his wisdom. Today I’d walk through fire to hear his words.

              Which brings me to my two closest friends. They walk alongside me today with an importance that has me lamenting the rather childish ways in which I held their friendship in our 20s. Back then, trust with them centered on mostly juvenile notions, like how to get women and what gym exercises to do to look my best.

              Today I depend on them as confidants for truly important things, like how to stay in my marriage when it’s tough. I still ask about the best gym exercises, though not to look my best but rather feel it. If only I could have let go my macho insecurities to engage in more substantive conversation. But you live and learn.

              A lot of folks stubbornly cling to habits, practices, values and beliefs, even when life experiences reveal how harmful they are to one’s self and/or others. That’s sad because self-examination is the only way to achieve transformative growth as a human being. 

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

Sunday, May 17, 2015


In any context and by any measure, this song -- "Stand" by Sly & the Family Stone -- represents the epitome of what it means to be engaged in struggle yet maintain your truest sense of self. It is my personal go-to song for deep, bone-tensing inspiration.

Witness what's happening around the country (world?) today among those stifled by social injustice, prejudice, oppression, bigotry or any of the -isms that are associated. This song preaches truth to the n-th degree, if you have the ears to hear it.

Whether I feel scared, depressed, disenchanted, hopeless, lost, confused, you name it, this song can refuel my spirit. That's because it's got soul, y'all. Flavor. To the max, and that's a fact.

It's old school with an eternal feel, at least rhythmically. And lyrically. Timeless in its message, profound in its tone and enduring in its legacy.


Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Hold Out Hope for Better Tomorrow

Help me Obi Wan; the future isn't unfolding as promised
As a child of the ‘60s, the future was supposed to be here by now. At least that’s what Popular Science magazine stated about the 21st Century. And it was to have been the start of a promising era. You know, manned space flights to mars. Flying cars. A new millennium featuring a great harmonious society. No hunger, declining disease. Peace on Earth, good will toward men. Blah blah.

Instead we got diabetes, the Y2K computer scare and the Great Recession.  War continues to exist; globally and locally, politically and socially. Subjugation and exploitation, leading to oppression of entire groups of people. It’s still here.

We beat “them” down, take “their” land or other resources, and everlastingly withhold the 40-acres-and-a-mule pipedream. And we still whitewash it all so everyone feels better about what’s being done to those poor people, then insist it’s their fault they’re at the bottom of the barrel.

That's one small step for man, one giant leap backwards.
The pendulum of change is swinging, but not toward societal bliss. Rather, we seem headed for more difficult days ahead. That’s sad, because there was a time when we faced a bright and shining turning point – men on the moon, no more Vietnam, women’s lib, war on poverty, affirmative action – humanity at its most aspirational.

Today, we’ve got white kids rioting about pumpkin festivals, losing (or winning) ballgames, and trashing Michigan ski resorts. Down in Baltimore, some communities of color are cutting up in ways that conjure nightmares of the 1992 “Rodney King verdict” insurrection.

Baltimore, the capitol of one of the wealthiest states in the country, continues to experience, “poverty, lack of jobs [and] disenfranchisement from the political process,” as one Baltimore clergy member said in a news report. The result is a hopelessness that simmers to frustration, which boils into rage – leading to civil unrest.
Much ado about pumpkins

And about our treatment of folks who are disabled, yes, laws and municipal codes helped increase access to buildings and such. But it’s all window dressing. Deep down, culturally, nondisabled do-gooders still operate from a charity perspective.

Few of us are moving and doing from the heart. Instead, we “give” with a heady sense of duty and honor. And the Big G: guilt. Words like empathy and compassion this century take a backseat to mechanical rituals fueled by well-meaning but largely ineffective nonprofits and their funders.

Instead of focusing on the means through which people enter the room (i.e., wheelchairs, scholarships, etc.), we should instead be open to the reality they might just be the brightest one present. View individuals who are different from a place of abundance rather than deficit.

Easy access. Not.
Despite the rather dismal first decade-and-a-half of the 21st Century, remain hopeful. After all, in the last 15 years we saw great things unfold. The United States elected its first president of color. And despite the continued unhealthy consolidation of food manufacturers, more and more people are paying attention to what they eat.

Then there’s the budding interest for increased understanding and cooperation among different groups of people. For instance, in Battle Creek and Marshall, police chiefs are investigating approaches to carrying out their duties in more equitable ways. Translation: they’re noodling approaches to policing that take into account unconscious biases that can surface and sometimes derail even the most seemingly just ways of going about their duties.

Speaking of bias, there’s an increasing sense that the general public is migrating away from overt prejudice and inching toward compassion and acceptance of the LGBTQ community. Although the greatest movement is happening in larger cities, smaller ones like Battle Creek are experiencing declining levels of open, hateful prejudice. A little, at least. Small moves, I keep telling myself. Small moves.

Just when Michigan is turning a social justice corner, this...
Of course, no sooner than I write this, antigay billboards go up around my home state of Michigan. One step forward, two steps back.

Somebody once said it is darkest before dawn. Let’s hope in these difficult times we can remember that as we face forward toward the future. 

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

Friday, May 1, 2015

He Ain’t Heavy; He’s My Brotha’ (or why I love young African American men & boyz)

Hand up not a handout
Dear Brothers. Or rather, brothas’. I’m referring to young black guys who bear the inequitable experiences of race prejudice and the accompanying fear and discrimination it brings. This is for young’uns like Michael Brown, Eric Garner, John Crawford, Trayvon Martin and others. Like them that is, except still alive. This is my message: I see you.

              To the resourceful, nonconforming African American boys and young men who must endure, rather than thrive:

              I see you. Now more than ever.

              Y’all got heart. I bear witness to the strong, steadfast, often unimaginable ways you move through the world. I recognize the disproportionate number of challenges you face because your skin is dark. I appreciate and celebrate all that you are and what you represent, my brothers. Even as mainstream America rejects you and media vilifies you, I lift you up.

          I see you on the streets, in the library at the store and in the park. You're doing you. That means with flair. Flavor. Strutting proud, with a confident swagger that belies the oppressive tyranny you and other men in our families have experienced for generations.
           I see you gettin' your cool on, despite the searing overt and covert racism you steadily get burned with. Fighting that self-doubt with a energetic panache designed to counteract the frequent overdoses of prejudice brought on by the random store clerk, bus driver, school teacher, college professor and elevator rider.
Y'all turn the world on its head with your creativity
          And I bear witness to the tidal wave of negative images on TV and movies that try to tamp down your spirit like a steel-toe boot on your neck. Unlike most, I appreciate that stone face that's oh so quick to burst into loud uproarious laughter, but only when you feel safe. Which sadly is not so often. Some game faces are more serious than others.
          You take nothing and turn it into marketable fashion statements. Like lemons to lemonade. Words to music. You claim what little you have as yours, then make it all the rage, even as you enrage those who secretly embrace it (and steal it) - all the while denying their jealousy of your genius for doing so much with so little.
              We are the same; yet we are also different.

              I am privileged in a lot of ways. And it’s helped me overcome a lot of barriers. Many of them race-based.

              For instance, my light brown skin color. It gives me an advantage. It helps my blackness blend into places frequented by white people. There’s more. Through luck of the draw I was born into and raised in a stable household. That’s a biggie in terms of life outcomes for a male person of color. Mom and dad held steady employment. A government worker and school teacher. How stable is that?

              Not rich by any stretch. But stable. That’s important. It’s the same with single parent families. Stability of the family system, however it’s configured, is key.

This is not every family's reality
              As a kid I always started mornings with Corn Flakes, Cap’n Crunch, oatmeal or whatever. Left the house everyday with lunch money, so never worried about being hungry at school. Funny how getting enough to eat facilitates greater focus.

              Speaking of stable, the only time I changed schools was when Dad got a job transfer. Yes, going to a new school was stressful. But not in any kind of way that triggered anything but the normal stresses associated with change. Not like being evicted or jumping from place to place because of money. My stable home life instilled in me resilience; it’s served me well in the wake of the institutional racism I’ve faced as an adult.

              In my youth, I never felt threatened. I mean when it comes to life and death and such. Not like some brothers who were born into heavy circumstances. Yeah, I was bullied at times and had my share of bumps and bruises. But I never had to literally fight for my life. Never had a gun pointed at me. By police or otherwise.

              For that matter, I’ve never been physically beat down in my own home by my father, mother, relative or other person staying at our place. That sort of violence leads to a kind of trauma that can make a person look at and act in the world in a certain kind of way.

Oops, wrong example of sagging. Or is it?
              This isn’t to say none of this kind of stuff doesn’t happen to white boys and other kids of color. To the contrary, it happens across all racial groups. It’s just that the legal and social penalties leveled on young black boys in American society are different. That’s a fact.

              Finally, like a lot of folks my age, I abhor this whole sagging pants thing. Sometimes it’s enraging. At the same time I marvel at how this ridiculous but ultimately harmless fashion has been elevated to the level of more serious matters – like how government is systematically decimating access to quality education within communities of color.

              Despite their fashion choices, I’m ready and willing to bear the weight of young black men. Why? He ain’t heavy; he’s my brotha’. 

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