Re-Write: A Story of Narrative


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Every human is an artist. And this is the main art that we have: the creation of our story.- Miguel Angel Ruiz

Long before Beyoncé began sampling Chimamanda Adichie, I was hip to her brilliance–consuming her novels and listening to her vintage “Danger of a Single Story” TED Talk.

Adichie blew minds when she said:“the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.”

One of her other points gets overlooked. “Our lives, our cultures, are composed of many overlapping stories.”

I would like to explore how these overlapping narratives interact with a power structure and dominant cultural narratives that are deeply intertwined with our story of self.

Everyone knows that the victor gets the spoils, but they also get to write the story of what happened (often leaving out their own transgressions).

This is why in the United States and so many other colonized spaces, the country’s history begins with European contact rather than with the thousands years of civilization and traditions among the indigenous people.

This is also why I sometimes feel that in the U.S. we’re stuck on the issue of slavery. Why else would “12 Years a Slave” like “Gone with the Wind” garner so many Oscar nominations?

It is relevant to African Americans’ overall narrative, but not our whole story.

As the great journalist, Walter Cronkite said, “In seeking truth you have to get both sides of a story.”

Stories told and untold, are BOTH important, because they reflect and create a nation’s prevailing understanding of its truth.

In fact, one way I like to think about privilege is: those who have it must learn to listen; while for those who do not have it, must learn to tell their counter-narratives.

There are not always receptive audiences for the stories of the marginalized.

Far too often, those in power silence counter-narratives by telling stories about the marginalized that harken to the pre-set dominant paradigm.

Here are three examples.

(1) The national narrative says that our best and brightest are attending top notch colleges. Statistics tell us another story. According to Forbes, “…while poor kids are underrepresented on elite campuses, the wealthiest kids are overrepresented. At Harvard, 45.6% of undergraduates come from families with incomes above $200,000 — in other words, incomes in the top 3.8% of all American households.”

(2) The national narrative says that the poor choose to be poor, because of their questionable life decisions. Every once in a while you’ll have articles like the these in the New York Times railing against the systemic challenges that low-income families face. But more often than not, you have stories like this one. The Washington Post decided to tell a story about poverty in the nation and used a black woman, living in an urban environment, who is the third generation of unmarried women on welfare to tell the story.

It is important to point out that both stories have black people as the main protagonist.

These articles reinforce the national narrative that says: being poor equals being black, or to be poor is to be black.

(3) There are also “dominant stories” that are shaped by regional norms, like the prevailing sentiment in south in the mid-west that to not be married by 30 makes you an “old maid.”

We’re molded by these stories.

The “dominant” discourse can be written by the media, by opinion leaders, but also by our communities and family members.

It is the grown man preparing for his 50th high school reunion, who is eager to prove that he’s made something of himself.

It is the daughter who is committed to showing her mother that her past mistakes are just that–in the past.

This is why repairing relationships in families or in our nation have to start from a place of unpacking meta-narratives.

In our interpersonal relationships we create dangerous story spirals that become self-reinforcing. He NEVER listens. She ALWAYS doubts my ability to get things done.

In our political sphere, we unintentionally encourage a culture of hypocrisy, because people often have to deny their shortcomings to be elected.

The Economist recently ran a parody that highlighted this issue.

We should be asking ourselves how can we still have high standards of conduct and ethics for our leaders and ourselves, but AUTHENTICALLY be ourselves.

Because as much as we are standing on the shoulder of giants; we are metastasizing generations of anxiety, fear and unmet needs.

Our reconciliation as a country, as communities and families is about restoration and harmony in juxtaposition. It is about overcoming the stories projected on you and mapping your own narrative in a wider discussion.

We must learn to re-write our stories, not only to re-define who we are, but also to re-imagine the country we envision and expect for ourselves.

A Few Words on Syria


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Presidents quickly realize that while a single act might destroy the world they live in, no one single decision can make life suddenly better or can turn history around for the good.- Lyndon B. Johnson

I am not a Middle East expert.

In fact to gain a better sense of what has been happening with the Syrian civil war, I’ve had to refer to sources like these and this one, too.

Yup, ostensibly I had to check out ‘Conflict Dynamics in Syria for Dummies.’

These ‘cliff notes’ are a helpful way for non-wonks and regional specialists to catch-up to speed. But they can also be slightly misleading in their simplicity, especially when trying to solve complicated conflict dynamics in Syria.

Still, I have real concerns about the possibility of U.S. ‘engagement’ in Syria. There are four things in particular that I find disconcerting that I want to note here.

First, I am disappointed that despite the humanitarian crisis associated with the civil war– the 2,021,430 refugees and 100,000 deaths; it took the alleged use of chemical weapons to publicly contemplate interventions in Syria, or to try to galvanize international support to do so.

Yes, the U.S. should be prudent about international ‘entanglements’ and violating a nation’s sovereignty, but the scale of the problem and human suffering of the refugees should have been difficult to ignore.

Second, what is up with haranguing the President and accusing him of “dithering?” Since when does contemplating an issue equate weakness?

Should leaders be decisive, yes, but do wise leaders seek counsel and explore their options before coming to an informed conclusion, ideally.

There are many reasons for us not to attack Syria. Several of these questions are pertinent to vital U.S. interests and warrant careful consideration.

There are also relevant “Just War” questions that should be used to calibrate our approach if the U.S. were to decide that violent intervention is absolutely necessary.

Remember, immediate action now can have LASTING repercussions.

The third thing that upsets me is this false dichotomy the U.S. citizens are being presented with between not responding to the conflict at all and launching missile strikes. There IS an …”alternative to bombing [that] is not “looking the other way.”

I applaud Senator Rep. Chris Smith for thinking and raising “non-lethal ways of holding people to account” in Syria.

I also was happy to hear Secretary Kerry’s unintended suggestion that President Bashar al-Assad could turn in his chemical weapons and avoid U.S. cruise missiles.

You cannot make a credible decision, if there are not diverse and sound options being considered.

Fourth, I do not believe that the U.S. should go forward without support from a critical mass of UN member countries and Syria’s neighbors. Contrary to this professional opinion, I am not convinced that “there will be no resolution [in Syria] without American leadership.”

And even if I looked passed the hubris, and agreed that yes, the world needs the U.S. to take the lead— any sustainable effort to address challenges in Syria would require a united collation of countries.

The USA and the international community at large should learn the lessons from Rwanda.

To be clear, no, I am not equating the lack of response in Syria to the failure to act in the face of genocide, but the point that instability in Rwanda, upset fragile regional dynamics that were already precarious.

You have to bear in mind that there are “More Syrians are now displaced than any other nationality. More than 97% of Syria’s refugees are being hosted by countries in the surrounding region.” UNHCR said that the influx was “placing an overwhelming burden on their infrastructures, economies and societies.”

Not to be all Vietnam war-ish, but the crisis in Syria and the implications of it could create a destabilizing regional ‘domino‘ effect that the U.S. should be worried about.

My overall opinion is this: right now is a defining time –not just for U.S. statesmen and soldiers, but our world.

It should not be taken lightly.

Our response to the crisis in Syria is an opportunity for the international arena to respond thoughtfully to yet another instance of civil war and state fragility.

To do so effectively, the U.S. needs to muster astute diplomacy, strengthened forms of regional and global cooperation, and an American public that thinks things through assiduously before allowing our leaders to intervene.

Sybrina’s Grief: A Response to the Trayvon Martin Verdict


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America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves. – Abraham Lincoln

Sometimes, you cannot fully convey what you think, unless you share what you feel.  And sometimes structured prose doesn’t give you the space to be as expressive as you want.  So in homage to the form and the story; this is my response to the Trayvon Martin verdict.

Sybrina’s Grief                        

Her distress didn’t register

Her pain didn’t warrant despair  

The grace with which she bared her loss

Was not a reality the masses could share

His callous questioning

Before a woman who had just heard her son’s final cries

Was not tempered by the audience watching

Judgment in their eyes

Assumptions on their mind

A jury of mothers

Witnessing, but not seeing

The war wounds of her womb

Silent tears for the flesh and blood

Ripped from her arms

Sold down river

Raped with impunity

Strewn from noose ties in trees

Bloated bodies dredged up from rivers

Shackled in handcuffs

By joblessness

By school suspensions

And under performing schools

And deadly suspicions

Bleeding on concrete pavements 


For a system that needed her babies’ bodies

And discounted their souls

But marred the story

By painting a nation’s shame

On their identity

Labelled him a threat

Her a whore

And an unfit mother

Because they’re killing her sons

And when she cries out

“None, but Jesus hears her.”


New Horizons for Marriage Equality


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True strength lies in submission which permits one to dedicate his life, through devotion, to something beyond himself. – Henry Miller

On Saturday, I went to a wedding. Who doesn’t love weddings?

A lot of people are more excited about marriages now that the U.S. is becoming more inclusive  about who it extends the “rights and privileges thereof” to these days.

But that is marriage equality under the law.

I am increasingly concerned about cultural norms in the context of heterosexual marriage that threaten equality among beings.  

Let me explain what I mean.

Back to the event on Saturday, the suits were quirky, the bride radiant, and the children attendants were adorable. So far, so good, right?

I got thrown for a loop though when the vows turned out to be different for the groom and bride.

No, it wasn’t because they had written it themselves or personalized them.

These were vows meted out to them by the officiating pastor. For him, the pastor asked that “God might grant him the wisdom to lead and for her.” For her, he prayed that “she would be faithful to the spirit of submissiveness to heed his leadership.”

Yes, I know that for many Christians, “him” being the head and “her” being the body are part and parcel of honoring how God designed marriage to be, right? It’s in the books of Ephesians and Titus and Corinthians etc.

But there are different perceptions about how the command to submit can be interpreted.

Here is what I have problems with:

1)      Ephesians 5:25 says: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” The metaphor of loving your bride as Christ loves the Church is a powerful one. It is a laudable aspiration, but unlikely to materialize even when people are diligent. Remember God is not a man or a woman. Despite the use of gendered pronouns and his human incarnation as male, the Holy Trinity does not have body, nor did Jesus have any of our human flaws, like pride, insecurity, or greed.

2)      Ephesians 5:24 says: “Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.” According to the narrow interpretations of scriptures, it places the man in a position of unquestioned authority in the household. This creates a lot of space for even a well-meaning person to become a tyrant. Remember, even the President of the United States is subject to checks and balances for very good reasons.  Also, the power of the crucifixion is that Jesus decided to die for our sins. That is agency. This constraining language removes agency from the woman.

3)      Often there is undue focus on masculine and femininity, but Galatians 3:26-29 tells us:  So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” Marriage is a deeply personal institution and one of the few that is all encompassing of a person’s life. Creating such a strict binary can force people to “perform” gender norms that may or may not reflect who they authentically are as a person, nor the person Christ called them to be.

Now, let me also say something about the prevailing liberal discourse. I’ll be brief. 

There isn’t any such thing as a 50/50 relationship. Having this sort of tit-for-tat mentality would also certainly encourage distress. What matters is both parties feel that their counterpart is working for the benefit of the marriage, even if this is done in distinct ways.

Personally, I think it is time that we re-imagine adulthood and fulfilling relationships. Demographics and the economy are forcing this, but it can also be done intentionality.  

it’s simple. Keep each other informed and be considerate. Celebrate the talents, show mercy for the weakness and forgive the shortcomings, while still insisting on the best from each other. And above all, let the good times roll.

Keeping Count – Poverty in Focus


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In a country well governed, poverty is something to be ashamed of. In a country badly governed, wealth is something to be ashamed of.- Confucius

I’m at the airport. I just used my husband’s “premiere points” with an airline to check-in luggage for free. I mention the fees, because I loathe them and I’ve long thought that airports are one of the most visible vestiges of classism.

Have you ever seen the cocoons that first and business class passengers fly in on international flights? What about the literal red carpet that is laid out for “business elite” or “platinum” members. They have their exclusive lounges that my pinkie toe cannot meander into.

U.S. citizens hate to think of the USA as a place where only “certain people” succeed. As much as we’re enthralled by TV series like Games of Thrones which refashions and glorifies the intriguing secrets of lords and ladies, we hate to think that being of noble birth equates being “destined for greatness.”This would also inherently mean that those of ‘low birth’ will spend their lives toiling at their service.

Still it’s real. There are countless ways where: class matters.

For example, the New York Times recently ran an article about how talking to your children gives them a higher IQ. It also noted that parents from higher income brackets are more likely to talk to their children than middle class parents, middle class parents more than working class parents and so on.

I doubt this is about literacy or desire. I am sure that some of this is more about time…We’ve talked about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs on this blog before. Suffice it to say, when you’re trying to address your survival needs you have less time and energy to focus on anything else.

Just think about it…

Here are a few salient moments for me in the last few weeks that have reminded me of my own class privilege. I needed the perspective.

1) I was on my hammock when I realized I was literally getting “paid to lay in the shade.” That’s right. I am salaried and have paid vacation leave (and sick leave). Even if most of the time, it’s exasperating and disheartening to calculate what my hourly salary would be when I work more sixty hours, rather than forty hours a week without any overtime in sight.

Still, I can take time off when I need or want it (within reason) and not have it affect my family’s bottom line. This is important. Hourly work is normal in the service and construction and such sectors do more physically demanding work, but are not able to take time off to rest or care for themselves or their families.

2) At CVS – when I went to have a routine prescription filled and I pulled out my health insurance card, while the woman who proceeded me spent ten plus minutes trying to see if Medicaid would cover hers. It was a stark reminder that as of 2010, 49.9 million was the number of uninsured Americans. That’s 16.3% of the total population.

3) Driving through Gary, Indiana: the husband and I were on our way to see MJ’s childhood home. Gary is considered a rust-belt town. The kind of town that used to have a thriving employed population at the local steel plant and the adjoining industries that supported it. When the plant boarded up, cut hours, and went automated most people were laid off en masse. You know that it’s cyclical. Unemployment begets poverty which begets decreased standards of living.

It takes means, motive and opportunity to get ahead, not just hard work. All of these are often shaped by your networks, which come from your community. If everyone you know is unemployed or underemployed, you’re resources are quite minimal compared to someone whose mother’s best friend chairs the hospital board and sister who works at a prominent engineering firm.

4) Continuing our conversation about access, it is important to note that access is NOT about proximity. Yup, this is really clear to me when I attended my sister’s graduation from Johns Hopkins University, which like many universities (Atlanta University Center, Columbia, University of Chicago, University of Southern California are all other good examples) that are smack dab in the midst of impoverished neighborhoods, full of children who due to systemic barriers may never attend these schools, much less consider it.

The reality is stark: “Three-quarters of students at top colleges come from the top socioeconomic quartile, with only one-tenth from the poorer half and 3 percent from the bottom quartile.”

But just to be clear, the epicenters of American poverty are not stagnant. Contrary to popular belief, American cities have not always been a place of decay. Right now American cities are experiencing the inverse of white flight as countless upwardly mobile people move back into the cities – it’s all about proclivities (and gentrification).

5) Then I did some research about 529 college saving plans for a family member. Yes. Their son or daughter is going to school and they have the disposable income to put some money aside for their pursuit. Our banking system is not the most egalitarian. People who can afford to keep large balances in their checking accounts get them for free and those who can make large investments get the best interest rates. The working poor get DISMAL interest rates and banks make money off overdrafts (which is easy to do when you’re trying to make a dollar out of fifteen cents). This is not something that affects richer people. The same can increasingly be said for student loans.

6) Then – there is a wider world context. Even as I read heartening stories of individual triumph, like this one, I know it’s in part because of the infrastructure in the USA. Even as a homeless person she would have access to a free public school, clean drinking water, sources of light, libraries and health care. Just ask the Economist. “Nobody in the developed world comes remotely close to the poverty level that $1.25 a day represents. America’s poverty line is $63 a day for a family of four.”

None of these observations make me any less privileged, but maybe, just maybe they make me more human.

Anyone Can Lead


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If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader. —John Quincy Adams

You have to be living under a rock not to know that the U.S. Supreme Court is about to hear two landmark cases on the legality of same-sex marriage. 

No matter how the Justices rule, this will be a turning point in U.S. history.

I of course have a preferred outcome, but so does everyone.

If I am to generalize, most people see this either as a justice matter or a protection issue. For me, it is about equality, but also about leadership.

What is the vision of America that we are casting?

Mind you, leadership is on my mind because in the last six months I have learned a lot about the suffering bad leadership can create.

This last week was particularly heinous, so I spent the weekend watching movies with a friend. Among the evening line-up was Ratatouille.

Here is the story. A rat named Remy wants to become a chef. He chases his dream inspired by his passion for food and encouragement from his mentor, Chef Gusteau, who’s mantra is that “anyone can cook.”

Before you start getting too concerned about why I am mentioning a rat, cooking and same-sex marriage in the same post, know this. After my harrowing experience with someone who exhibited few of the best traits for leaders, I have had to ask myself, do I really believe that anyone can lead? And what are the larger implications of leadership in people’s day-to-day lives?

This is what I’ve come up with so far.

Lesson 1

My first lesson comes from the other movie we watched – A Knight’s Tale. William Thatcher wants to be a knight, but knighthood is only for people of noble birth. He is consumed with “changing his stars” so that despite his peasant linage, he can distinguish himself as a knight.

In both movies, the main protagonists have aspirations for themselves that seem insurmountable, given the constraints.

The take-away? Leaders have to be just a little crazy. Not totally nuts, but crazy enough to hear beyond what society says and speak back.

They also have to be internally motivated and be able to encourage themselves, because blazing trails means you don’t get a roadmap.

Most people talk about this in terms of vision. All I am saying is that you have to know where you are working to go, even if no one else gets it.

Lesson 2

You have to be able to adjust–publicly. Just listen to Hillary Clinton here and then here. If you also haven’t heard she has completely changed her stance—from being against same-sex marriage to endorsing it.

Granted, she may have had this personal view all along and felt that it would not be “politically expedient” to support same-sex marriage at the time. Being a leader is always a delicate dance between your personal and public self. Not just the projections of the image, but the ramifications of not heeding the balance.

Let me be clear, by ‘adjust,’ I do not mean follow the polling data and change with the wind. What I mean, is be willing to change positions when you gather new insights and understandings.

This takes humility. As I get older, I become ever less expectant that people will look at the fallacies of their own arguments or the merits of their opponents.  People respect people who do.

Lesson 3

You have to have integrity. I mean integrity as in character and ethics, and not betraying the public trust like Jesse Jackson, Jr. But more than that, I am talking about having a core.

What is your dominant framework? 50 years from now, what will people be able to see is still true about your values?

Part of Hillary’s core is women’s rights. It is interwoven into everything she has ever pursued–through Wellesley, Yale, Arkansas, the White House, Senate and the State Department.

Lesson 4

You have to care.

Martin Luther King. Jr. is famous for saying that: “Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”

I agree that a service attitude is a critical ingredient for effective leadership. A leader who is so fixated on their position that they cannot see the people, is a travesty.

Lesson 5

Leaders have to know how to troubleshoot. They have to be able to see solutions and opportunity, where everyone else sees problems and perhaps even despair.

Here’s the catch. Most times the solutions are simple; the politics are complicated.

Take for example new evidence about what we can be doing to send low-income students to college. Will this happen? It depends. There are a lot of competing interests afoot. For every status quo, there are people who are empowered and those who are dis-empowered by it. Wrestling power away from people, even for the noblest of pursuits is always a tricky endeavor.

As this recent WashPost noted: 

“Maybe America’s accelerated “evolution” on gay marriage proves that the ultimate taboo in our society is redistribution. As Martin Luther King Jr. learned near the end, securing legal equality turned out to be the easy part. Nobody had to write a check. Equal opportunity and economic justice are entirely different matters, requiring a nation to take even bigger leaps of empathy and imagination.”

Lesson 6

You have to be multifaceted.

Different styles of leadership are needed for varying circumstance and periods of time. You need to have new innovative ideas, but you also need to have a historically grounded perspective.One must see everything in real time, in a larger context of patterns of societal change.

This can come from the same leader or from a leader who is wise enough to seek counsel from other leadership.

Lesson 7

There is a difference between leadership and being the leader—good leaders know this.

There will be many times when you are not the leader ‘per say,’ but you have to be prepared to display characteristics of leadership. You also have to appreciate the added value that people bring.

Part of this is understanding delegation, but it’s also about appreciating institutions. At the end of the day, yes, the 16 year-old boy from the UK who sold his phone app for millions is amazing.

Yet, where would he be without mechanisms for acquiring the capital and the patents to support his ideas? What if he didn’t have access to the book on reading computer code that opened this door to unexpected success?

Bottom Line?

So, maybe it’s indisputable there are certain qualities and behavioral traits that most leaders exhibit. These traits are not something that everyone possesses, but are something that people can aspire to learn.

In the end, I do think anyone can lead, but few would make that choice. Leadership takes risks not everyone is willing to shoulder.

Forgive and Forget?

Forgiveness does not change the past, but it does enlarge the future. – Paul Boose

My mom’s best friend died this week. Suddenly. Unexpectedly. But peacefully in her sleep.

In such emotionally wrenching times, I personally turn to faith – my enduring belief in a benevolent God who wants “goodness and mercy to follow me all the days of life.”

But I also understand that there are others who cope, without counting on a higher power to help see them through. 

Still, there is nothing like the absolutism of death to make one think about their relationships with people who are still alive.

Human relationships are complicated at best.

I’m willing to assume that there isn’t a human being in the world who hasn’t been hurt by someone; or hurt someone themselves.

We’re all fallible.

Just as to live one faces the inevitably of death; to live among other people, one faces the inevitability of being disappointed, hurt and sometimes betrayed.

The ‘scale’ of these acts varies.

But each one leaves residual emotions of confusion, dismay, disbelief and often blinding rage.

What are means of not just coping with these emotions, but transcending them?

I thought about this a lot when I heard about the Newtown school shooting and even a few years back when Connecticut was home to another brutal slaying that left a man’s wife and two children dead.

According to one thoughtful report: “Words alone cannot contain the horror of violence, the cruelty of sadistic torture, the pain of bullets entering flesh, the burning of white phosphorous on a child’s skin, the sight of a beloved spouse splattered against a wall, the loneliness of a young teenager in prison, the fear of a trafficked woman in a cage…”

Yet, even as I acknowledge the searing pain of these experiences, I don’t want to place physical violence as the center of everyone’s conceptualization of harm.

There are many people who suffer palpable, although perhaps not visible, scars from physiological, emotional and spiritual assaults.

One of the best analogies I know of comes from Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (one of the best books ever). He compares relationships to bank accounts.

Every affirming and enjoyable act adds to the account; every hurtful thing deducts. When there has been a lot of “trust” currency built up overtime, it’s easier to withstand misunderstandings and outright disappointments when they occur. While other relationships, especially those with a zero balance to begin with, go into the red and can leave you feeling emotionally bankrupt. Spent. 

This analogy is useful, but it doesn’t explain why forgiving someone who hurt you is so extraordinarily difficult.

What do you do with the simmering resentment? The grief? The unanswered questions: “How did this happen to me?” “How could they do this to me?” And the one I obsess over most “why?”

The truth is while understanding can be a pathway to forgiveness, the answer to these questions alone rarely allows someone to reconcile with what happened.

These emotions are alive. Analyzing them won’t make them subside, and ignoring them won’t make them any less real.

As long as you haven’t “forgiven and forgotten” there is a part of you that is forever suspended in that emotional reality of pain – that moment when you felt like you’d been sucker punched to the gut.

In reality, although these are emotions we want to overcome, I also think we desire to hold on to them.

It’s not just because we don’t know what to do with these feelings, but because as long as we hold on to it, then our feelings are justified; our pain, the same pain we want to go away, is valid and real.

We want people to care that we’re hurting, and especially the person or persons who caused our suffering.

In most cases, it is an exercise in futility waiting for this to happen.

This absolution may not come.


Just ask Essie, the biological daughter of Strom Thurmond, an infamous segregationist who never claimed her, because she was conceived with a black woman.

Back to the bank account analogy, it is relevant when there was a history (at some point) of trust between people.

But what about when there is no trust and thus there aren’t obvious pathways for the sort of communication and genuine apologies that can resolve issues and balm wounds?

These are the sort of sticky questions, I grapple with constantly as a peace practitioner, because then the grievances and grief stem not only from interpersonal, but societal betrayal.

We have to remember that witnessing harm be-fall those you care about, or living with the day-to-day impact of their traumas is also distressing. Experience near and experience far, are both still experiences.

This reverberating ‘contagion’ effect is magnified in post-conflict settings.

In fact, when you talk about “forgiveness” and “reconciliation” most people immediately imagine South Africa or Rwanda where the immediacy of the need for people to move past “wrongs” is obvious.

Part of this suffering was about the huge power asymmetry. In most conflict settings it isn’t just people and groups who have to be accountable for wrong-doing, but also institutions. Which makes redress difficult, becasue it’s hard to pinpoint who is responsible.

There are not only emotional and physical legacies, but material ones as well that have to be addressed.

That’s right, sometimes reconciliation takes justice.

But fundamentally, reconciliation and forgiveness ALWAYS takes grace.

One way to forgive is to acknowledge that you suffered, that the person who did it was wrong, find peace that you may never understand why, and being willing even if they don’t ‘deserve it’ not to allow what happened to diminish what is best in you.

As Catherine Ponder noted: “When you hold resentment toward another, you are bound to that person or condition by an emotional link that is stronger than steel. Forgiveness is the only way to dissolve that link and get free.”

At a collective or societal level, it is knowing that even when the grievances are more than justified, a myopic focus on the struggles of the past can thwart progress.

In short, there is a real danger that we can become slaves to our own narrative of victim-hood.

This is critical, because I believe that the people who tend to cause the most harm in the world are greedy people and “broken” people, whether they run your household, school, company or country. Their emotional lives are ‘overdrawn’ their spirits wallowing consciously or unconsciously in past anguish.

We want the person who hurt us to change and we may certainly deserve better treatment from them, but it may not be what they are able to give.

People who have ‘emotional capital’ act more like philanthropist and build people up.

This isn’t to say at all that emotionally ‘healthy’ people don’t hurt people, but they often have the ability to take corrective measures to minimize the damage. They’ll own their mistakes and be patient with the wrongdoings of others.

Still, forgiving those who you harmed, or those who harmed you is still a rare thing.

That’s why it tends to be breaking news when XX  forgives YY person for murdering ZZ loved one, like this mom who forgave her son’s killer. Just try Google; you’d be surprised by the number of articles dedicated to people who forgive those who killed a loved one– still considered by many as the ultimate transgression.

So it’s rare, but possible.

Like Gandhi said, “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”

Life is Not a Closet


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 For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they’ve never been self-executing; that while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by his people here on earth.” – President Barack H. Obama’s 2nd Inaugural Address

Depending on how you look at things –Monday, January 21, 2013 was MLK Day, the inauguration of the second term of President Obama, or the United States of America’s 57th Inaugural Ceremony.

There are a million more ways to classify that day in history.

For you, the national significance of it could have been overlaid with personal celebrations –birthdays and wedding anniversaries–or marked my tragedy – like the anniversary of the loss of a loved one.

Most people had their attention on the National Mall and watched as President Obama delivered an inaugural address rich with rhetorical imagery. 

The speech was heavily focused on the domestic agenda and was met with different opinions from liberals, which I’ll use as a tangential  stand-in for Democrats, and Republican audiences.

Then there was the international audience, who have their own varied responses to his speech and his second term in general. 

I cannot fathom what it feels like for each word I utter to embody whether someone feels included or excluded from the vision cast for my country. But so it was. And such is the task that he faces.

Like it or not, he represents “the people,” even as he is Commander and Chief of the state.

We know that the state is just an apparatus, albeit a powerful one, that “sorts” out ins and outs of the institutions that shape the lives of people.

Now, the problem is, tinkering with the apparatus so that it suits the whims of the millions of individuals who want a million and one different things.

We don’t have to look at the responses to his inaugural address to know that this is not an easy feat.

Did you notice but the varied reactions to other pivotal events this week: the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade and the US Defense Secretary’s announcement that the Pentagon is lifting its ban on women serving in combat? Even cartoon artist don’t agree.

The United States of America laid out in President Obama’s speech is either finally ‘on its way’ or doomed.

In my opinion this gap in perception isn’t so much that people have vastly different values.

Forgive me for being overly optimistic, but I believe that Americans of all stripes more or less hold the same values – fairness, opportunity, hard work, and optimism etc.

Don’t believe it? Live overseas for a while and no matter your political leanings, you’ll quickly realize the American dye has been cast upon you.

It’s not that any “pro-life” person I’ve met doesn’t believe the life of the mother matters, or any “pro-choice” person I’ve ever met believes that a fetus/baby’s life is inconsequential. Rather, it is how those values get “sorted and pipelined” into political positions that varies – drastically.

I really thought about this when I saw a graphic my friend got from Pinterest. I haven’t really gotten into the “pinning” craze, but I really appreciated this concept map.

It tries to help people decide how to face their closet and sort what should stay and what should go. The key point is everyone is starting from the exact same place of motivation: “editing their wardrobe.”

And while, I could ruminate on the economic privilege one has to have to have a closet expansive enough to have these concerns, I won’t.

What I am more fascinated by is the type of “sorting” that goes on in the American political system, where some ideas are embraced and championed, and others are cast aside like the most epically ugly bridesmaid dress of all time—ever see 27 Dresses?

Think of the US state as the closet and people’s ideas as the clothes.

Some of the “sorting” is historical and evolves overtime – like with domestic violence. Other sorting of these perceptions occurs based on background, experiences, which has educational, socio-economic and geographic dimensions as well.

Like I was saying in my earlier post, The Problem with Problems ‘ish’ has to get prioritized and it’s usually the influential who decide what makes it to the top of the list.

The point is that I don’t want us to consider the matter of values so much as an existential question, nor the political hype of derision, but to see it in terms of process.

At the end of the day, democracy is a process, a people’s process.

While, I will never discount what happens in the hallowed halls of the Capital and White House, nor in the corridors of Harvard and Yale, I also cannot ignore how the quest to fulfill the truth that we are all created equal:

…guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall, just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone, to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth. – President Barack H. Obama’s 2nd Inaugural Address


The Problem with Problems


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We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them. – Albert Einstein

Like many of you I am in mourning over the shooting of elementary school students in Newtown, Connecticut. I am also incensed, because this problem of mass shootings really isn’t random or new.

Most problems don’t just appear out of thin air.

Think about it, how do you even know that a problem is a problem in the first place?

Today, most people learn about the problems affecting society when they are highlighted on the news, YouTube or other media sources.

When I was younger, I used to think that what the news simply reported on was what was ‘happening.’ Several media politics courses and advocacy experiences later, I understand how the media is not only subject to the ‘hand’ of consumer interests, but also to the whims of savvy folks who want to push an agenda forward. This affects not only what gets reported, but how it’s reported. This is called ‘framing.’

I’ll never forget when I was in a Political Science course during undergrad. We were talking about the Clinton Administration and the professor asked how many of us had heard of Monica Lewinsky during the 90’s. All of us raised our hands. Then she asked how many of us had heard of the Mujahideen? Only one person stretched up their hands this time, even though “the administration of U.S. President Bill Clinton held direct talks with the group.”

Fast forward a few decades and the United States is at war with the Taliban, who rose to power in response to the Mujahideen, and now everyone knows they exist.

Thus, the media filter and ‘frame’ is important because social problems have to be recognized as a problem.

Take for instance, the fiscal cliff. This matter has been discussed endlessly in mainstream print and television news sources. I am pretty sure everyone has heard of it, but I am skeptical that many people understand why it’s a problem or the implications of the decision that Congress has to make.

This is the third challenge, problems need not only to be highlighted and then recognized, but understood. Yet, most media outlets rarely (if ever) provide enough contextual information to help people understand the issue being discussed.

Let’s take drugs for example. If you were young and impressionable in the 80’s and 90’s, I am sure you’ll recall this public service announcement (PSA)- cue the frying pan

This particular PSA was brought to you by The Partnership for a Drug Free America. You may remember that detail, but have you ever asked yourself who decided to invest funds to shape young people’s attitudes about drugs? Where did the political will come from? What about the money?

In short, why was this issue prioritized as a problem worth addressing?

Famed rapper Tupac Shakur said, “Instead of war on poverty, they got a war on drugs so the police can bother me.” Could you imagine where we might be as a nation if we’d prioritized poverty as the most pressing social issue of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, when industrial work was disappearing in our cities?

I just finished reading, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by legal scholar Michelle Alexander. In the book, Ms. Alexander argues that Reagan’s War on Drugs led to funding for things like The Partnership for a Drug Free America, and also intentionally targeted black and brown men and framed them as criminals.

I’ll leave it for you to decide if you agree with her that mass incarceration accounts for a new system of racialized control. Whether you disagree or agree with her hypothesis, it would a shame to ignore the compelling factual information that she provides about the legal barriers that incarcerated individuals face.

I personally had no idea that ex-offenders were barred from holding some professional licenses, jury service, voting, access to public assistance, federal funding for higher education, or had to pay so many fees after their prison or probationary sentences were over.

It’s also hard for me to believe that at one point and time people didn’t know that smoking and even second hand smoke cause negative health outcomes. But then again before Louis Pasteur proved that germs exist, people used to think that diseases came from curses, evil spirits and in some cases, bad blood, literally and would use leeches to “bleed” people to cure them of their ailments.

Hence we have the fifth problem with problems, they have to be attributed.

This is key, because how we define the cause of the problem will shape our responses to it.

Fortunately, each subsequent generation becomes the beneficiary of cumulative knowledge. Today, we know that the world isn’t flat and that seat belts can save lives.

This is great! But all of this access to information doesn’t always translate into thoughtful analysis and reflection about our society, past and present. For example, there is a growing argument that even if drugs are a problem we should be worried about, there may be better alternatives for addressing the issue than locking people up.

So, here is the main problem with problems: the world that we know is enormously impacted by social, political and economic policies that were set decades ago. The lived reality in which we all exist is crafted by people!

In some instances it’s ‘the masses’ who highlight, prioritize and determine solutions for problems. This is how we ended up with anti-drunk driving laws, integrated public schools, wheel chair on-ramps on US sidewalks and the United Nations.

Despite these prominent examples, more often than not, it isn’t ‘the people’ who set this agenda. It is well-connected actors who wield their influence to further their own narrow interests (ahem, case in point the gun control lobby).

Most people aren’t aware of the shifting agendas, let alone thinking about the potential impact of these shifts.

And that is problematic.

‘Black is Back’ – White Angst and Black Anxiety after the 2012 Elections


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Tonight, in this election, you, the American people, reminded us that while our road has been hard, while our journey has been long, we have picked ourselves up, we have fought our way back, and we know in our hearts that for the United States of America the best is yet to come. – President Barack Obama

Even as part of the nation heartily embraces President Barack Obama’s second term, there are many who are bitterly disappointed that Mitt Romney lost.

It’s understandable.

Personally, I am heartened by the idea of ‘four more years’ and the progress that I hope it will bring to our nation.

I am also secretly (well, not so secretly now) gleeful that yet another generation of young black males will grow up with President Obama in the White House as a reminder of what they can achieve.

Yet, even as the confetti falls, and the whoops go up, it is important to point out that these same young black men will come of age in a United States of America full of disheartening statistics about their welfare and future.

“… 37 percent of black children, are poor (compared with 10 percent of whites and 13 percent of white children)…more than 900,000 black men are in prison [that is more than seven times over their white peers]; blacks experienced a sharper drop in income since 2007 than any other racial group; black household wealth, which had been disproportionately concentrated in housing, has hit its lowest level in decades…”

Black young men are more likely than any other group in the US to be a victim of violent crime, including homicide at the hands of a neighbor, foe or even those sworn to serve and protect them.

This is searing, because the contemporary danger of ‘red asphalt.’ The street corners colored from bleeding bodies, overlaps with most African American’s historical memory of black men’s brutalized bodies at whipping posts and dangling from trees.

Thus, it has become engrained in the collective consciousness of black society that we have to defend our black men and boys. They have to be buttressed in the face of these acts of violence, systemic discrimination and the sheer psychological weight of America’s hostility towards their black male bodies.

Even as I say this, I have to admit that many of the conversations about “saving the black man” are stained with strands of patriarchal thought.

It often implicitly assumes that once things are alright with our men and boys, then our people will be okay.

It also makes the lives of black males and their suffering more important than the lives, suffering and contributions of black women, which Melissa Harris Perry noted in her book, Sister Citizen: Shame Stereotypes and Black Women in America.

Still, I recognize that black males of all ages are uniquely perceived as a threat. They provoke alarm in the larger American psyche in a way that African American women do not.

Having an almost three-year old nephew on the cusp of his first forays into the US educational system has heightened my sensitivity to the minefield of antipathy that he will face.

According to a recent study, Challenge the Status Quo: Academic Success among School-age African-American Males, black boys are overrepresented in the number of students being suspended and expelled. Yet, they are underrepresented in honors placement courses.

The report goes on to point out systemic ways that black young men are prevented from attaining advanced degrees. A disturbingly high percentage of them are being educated inside special education classrooms.

Their neighborhood schools are least likely to offer the subjects required for admission at competitive colleges. They are most likely to have inexperienced teachers, often who lack the proper teaching credentials, educating them.

These educational shortfalls are especially chilling when one considers the ample evidence of how low school achievement is correlated with 1 in 3 black males’ interactions with the justice system – i.e. the cradle to prison pipeline.

The proof of this malady is in the anxiety of anyone raising a black boy.

They are keenly aware that there is not any degree of politeness or ‘respectability’ they can rear them with that can avail them of these odds.

The vulnerability of all ‘echelons’ of black manhood was made crystal clear when renowned Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was arrested after being suspected of breaking into his own home!

Even if President Obama had a son, he’d look like the now infamously deceased Trayvon Martin.

These questions about the lives, perceptions and constraints of black manhood in America are not only important for black men and the black community.

It is a national issue.

While most Americans do not have any outward biases, or a desire to discriminate, the fundamental problem is that ‘intent’ is irrelevant.

Many of our contemporary policies and historical legacies have had a racially disparate impact that continues to perpetuate de facto and de jure racism.

Have you ever seen Chris Rock’s satirical film Head of State?

It predates the time President’s Obama, and tells the story of a black alderman who is catapulted to the highest office in the land. One of my favorite scenes is on Election Day. Chris Rock’s opponent realizes that he is on the verge of losing and leaks this information to the press to help him gain a competitive edge. Right on cue, whites in California make a mad dash to the polls to prevent a black man from elected.

The scene is hilarious because of the over the top depiction of white angst about black leadership.

It was dramatized in the film, but it has been pertinent and palpable while President Obama has been in office.

And now that ‘black is back’ in the White House, we’ve seen how protests about his reelection, were acutely racially tinged, even if they were based on concerns about his policies.

We also have a lot of work to do to unpack what it means that Obama’s re-election was wrought by a diverse coalition of Hispanics, Asian American, African Americans, women, youth and people at the intersection of these identity groups.

This has shown that it is definitely possible that in 2016 we may elect another person of color, or a woman to the presidency.

What then? Will be ready as a country? What progress will we have made? And what will it all mean for ultimately allaying the roots of black anxiety and white angst???


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