Category Archives: Society

Putting the 1950s in Perspective

Lately I’ve been reading about the civil rights movement and it’s incredible.

Everyone knows that, but reading the details is something else.

I could probably write a lengthy post going into all kinds of details, but there’s just too much to say and that’s too hard to swallow. Instead I think it’ll be easier (for you and me) to just throw out random thoughts as they come.

Tonight I was struck by how a nostalgic view of 1950s America has to be completely blind to issues of race.

I imagine 1950s nostalgia is blind to a great many things. But race seems like the most offensive.

Viewing the 1950s as the golden age of America forgets that Jim Crow was in full force in the South. Even though court rulings had dismantled segregation, it still existed as a practical matter. Much of the civil rights movement was about claiming what had already been won in court and was being illegally denied.

It’s a shocking thing to consider. Comparisons don’t do it justice, but they help put it in perspective. The Supreme Court recently struck down California’s Prop 8, making gay marriage legal in the state of California. Imagine if gay people went to California to get married and were not only turned away, they were arrested, beaten and jailed?

It’s inconceivable today. Yet that’s what happened with the Freedom Riders in Mississippi.

The 1950s were hardly a rosy time of peace, prosperity and good morals. Especially for blacks in the South.

Thinking About Trayvon Martin: Let’s Listen

The verdict in the Trayvon Martin murder trial was released Saturday night: George Zimmerman was found not guilty.

And the conversations exploded.

There are people on all sides of this issue and it can be difficult to talk about. Which is exactly why we need to talk about it. A lot of smarter people have said smarter things about this, so go read them.

Then I’ll throw in my two cents:

1. Listen
But one thing has become clear to me: A lot of black people, among others, are very angry about this verdict (and the case in general, regardless of the verdict). If you don’t understand why, then I think it might help to do some listening. The specifics of the case almost don’t matter—just listen to people. Even if their anger is misplaced (which I don’t think it is), I think it helps to understand their perspective.

At the very least it would promote some compassion. It would minimize the tone deaf comments.

After all, a kid is dead. A community is shaken. A man who took a life is walking away not guilty and free, though hardly free.

I posted last week about what LeVar Burton does to avoid getting shot. This is the reality for black families in America. Most of us are clueless about what they go through. And now there’s the Trayvon Martin case on top of it. You can only begin to understand that by listening. As one of those smarter people said:

“Black people, on the whole, experience a very different America than white people.”

If you bristle at that statement, don’t challenge it. Listen.

2. Expand Your Circle
Of course listening doesn’t do any good if you’re in an echo chamber. That’s what happens when you surround yourself with people who think like you, people who believe what you believe, people who look like you, people who vote like you.

It’s an easy place to find yourself. You might think that you’re a well-versed person, that you consider all sides and perspectives, that you’re well connected and plugged in. But maybe not.

As a part of our adoption training we went through an exercise where we were given a number of colored beads and a cup. The facilitator would name different people in various roles and positions, and we had to drop a bead in the cup every time one of those people was someone of a different race. So we’d talk through different people—doctor, dentist, barber, friends, family, boss, coworkers, neighbors, pastor, favorite author, favorite musician, favorite actor, etc.

You get the idea. As you can imagine, I didn’t have many beads in my cup.

Well, sure, I live in Minnesota where the non-white population is only 17 percent (up from 1% in 1960). Whatever. Don’t make excuses.

It was eye-opening. And I bring it up because if you’re not listening to a diverse group of people then you’re missing out. You can’t really understand the perspective of a group of people unless you know them. I had never heard of Karen refugees until they started filling up my church. Suddenly their story and the general persecution in Burma (highlighted by Aung San Suu Kyi, inspiration for the U2 song “Walk On”) became a lot more personal. It’s what makes InvisiblePeople.tv so effective: Allowing you to hear the stories of homeless people. In the Trayvon case, the raw wound within the black community becomes a lot more obvious—and you become more sensitive to it—when you actually listen to black people. As Jim Wallis said:

“If white Christians stay in our mostly-white churches and talk mostly to each other we will never understand how our black brothers and sisters are feeling after a terrible weekend like this one. It was the conversation of every black church in America on this Sunday, but very few white Christians heard that discussion or felt that pain.”

Some article I read somewhere (and of course now can’t find) compared it to Democrats or Republicans who only talk to like-minded people and have a hard time seeing anyone on the other side as being a normal, sane person. It’s part of why politics is so poisonous today.

And of course expanding your circle isn’t just about having sympathy for people’s pain or better understanding where they’re coming from even if you disagree. You can discover a lot of cool stuff too.

So Start Listening to an Expanded CircleThe good news is that it’s something you can easily fix in our digital age. Start listening to people who are different from you, whether it’s race, gender, creed, age, socioeconomic status, location, politics, etc. Friend them on Facebook or follow them on Twitter. Here’s the key: When they say something that bugs you, don’t unfollow or defriend. Stick it out. It’s especially hard when it comes to politics or faith, but stick with it. And don’t pick fights. That’s definitely not why you’re listening.

I’ve been trying to expand my circle. I went to a small, Christian, mostly white, liberal arts college, so I get the bubble. I’m also an introvert who works at home, so my circle is pretty small.

It’s a small start, but that’s how we get anywhere.

On Saturday night, when the Trayvon verdict came out, I saw a lot of pain and anger. If I hadn’t been listening, I would have been clueless and tone deaf.

How LeVar Burton Avoids Getting Shot

The host of Reading Rainbow and star of Star Trek: The Next Generation, LeVar Burton, has a specific ritual to keep from getting shot by police:

We like to congratulate ourselves on our black president and pretend racism doesn’t exist in America.

LeVar Burton’s story says otherwise.

It’s insane. But it’s common sense for Burton. The way everyone else in the video responds is a good indication that Burton’s little ‘don’t get shot’ ritual is the norm.

It’s one of many things I’ll have to teach my son, the kinds of things I don’t normally have to think about because I’m white.

Gay Marriage: It’s Time for Christians to Move On

As last week’s Supreme Court decision and the ensuing reaction highlight, the conservative church is losing the debate over gay marriage.

Frankly, I welcome it.

For much of my life I’ve noticed the conservative church taking an approach to social issues that basically tells other people how to live. It’s judgmental, it forces beliefs on others and it denies people basic rights. I’m sure they don’t see it that way, but I think that’s how it’s coming across in the wider culture. What’s worse is that it gives the impression that blindly following a bunch of rules is what makes someone a Christian, that what is good and right and lovely in the eyes of God is wearing long skirts, not drinking beer and making sure people don’t get gay married.

I don’t get it.

I think it’s time for the church to stop expecting the world to follow our beliefs. You can’t legislate people into Christians. That’s not the great commission.

The church claims to be about love, but when all we do is argue about cultural issues and try to make people do stuff they don’t believe, we’re exhibiting the opposite of love.

It’s time the church figured out how to live in disagreement. It’s time churches figure out how to be the minority. Because guess what—that’s where we are.

Where this gets especially interesting is that the church itself is in deep disagreement. I used the phrase ‘conservative church’ above because not all churches condemn the LGBT lifestyle. Some churches are LGBT affirming and it’s interesting watching both sides try to navigate these waters. I think it’s time for the church to recognize the disagreement, let other people live how they want to live, and move on as brothers and sisters in unity.

Some other people have more eloquent things to say about faith and LGBT issues than I do:

Reading stories like these (and also browsing my social media feeds and seeing a lot more joy than dismay) gives me hope.

Love Runs

Love RunsI love it when things come together. When different concepts merge into a brilliant idea and when overlapping people start working together toward the same goal. That’s good stuff.

That’s what is happening with Love Runs. It’s a remote 5K that’s happening on Saturday to raise money to build a classroom in Uganda. What’s a remote 5K? It means you can do it anywhere. You don’t have to be part of any official run.

I’ve been running lately. Some days it’s horrible and I hate it and (less frequently) it’s awesome and I love it. But every time I feel good. Even when my feet hurt or my knee is acting up or I’m just exhausted, it feels good. So I keep doing it.

Then Allison Vesterfelt comes along and wants to celebrate her 30th birthday by raising $30,000 to build a classroom in Uganda. That’s the kind of crazy thinking I like. Allison has been kind enough to support my recent book by letting me write for her blog and for Prodigal Magazine. I kind of owe her. I wanted to support her effort, but I wasn’t sure how. Then I saw she was doing Love Runs.

Things come together.

Now I can do my run and support a good cause. Plus I can help out a friend. Plus, the school in Uganda that Allison is helping is supported by Bob Goff, the author of Love Does: Discover a Secretly Incredible Life in an Ordinary World, a book that’s been on my reading list for a while. I saw Bob speak last fall and he’s the kind of ridiculous guy who puts his phone number in his book and urges people to call him. (He genuinely wants to talk to you. So of course his phone rang while he was speaking. Awesome.) It should come as no surprise that when Bob saw I was doing the run he thanked me on Twitter. When I responded and mentioned that I needed to read his book before Saturday, he offered to send me a copy. The guy’s got heart. So yesterday I picked up Love Does from the library (yes, I should probably buy it—it’s good stuff) and I’ll probably have it done before the run on Saturday. I get bored with nonfiction books, but this one is captivating. Bob loves people so much that he’s just crazy. I think that’s kind of the point.

Things come together.

So Saturday I’m doing this run for all the reasons I just said. Want to join me?

It’s a remote run, so you’re welcome to take part. Pony up some money to Allison’s cause and let’s do this. Strap on your shoes and go! You can walk if you want. 5K sounds like a lot, but it’s only 3.1 miles. Go 1.55 miles from your house, turn around and go home. Done. Take a picture and let’s celebrate with Allison.

If you don’t want to run (or walk) but still want to support Allison’s birthday project, you can make a donation here.

Things come together.

Support Homeless Documentary & Game

I’ve been a big support of Mark Horvath and his work with InvisiblePeople.tv for a while. His passion and resolve to fight homelessness is inspirational.

Mark always has cool stuff up his sleeve. Now there’s an Indiegogo project to fund a documentary about Mark’s work and a social game to help fight homelessness. It’s a cool concept and more than just a movie about Mark, there’s a smartphone game that can get people involved and push them towards real activism.

They’re trying to raise $100,000 in 37 days, which seems like a tall order. They’ll need to raise $2,700 a day. Yesterday they raised $396. So they need your help.

It’s also backed by a nonprofit, so it’s tax deductible.

Check it out and consider supporting the @home campaign:

One Act of Thanksgiving When Things Go Wrong

What kind of people are we when all we ever do is complain?

Not good people. Not friendly people. Not the kind of people you want to be around.

I feel like that’s what we’ve descended to. We complain about the cashier. We whine about the business that we think screwed us over. We rant about not getting the kind of service we think we deserve. We scream about the idiot politician.

Sometimes I think social media just magnifies it all.

That’s not the kind of person I want to be. I’m tired of being the person who complains that the express cashier at Target is going so slow because he insists on scanning every item before bagging, a process that involves juggling the items on the tiny counter space he has because it was freakin’ designed for him to immediately bag each item after scanning it. Clearly the holiday help is not as well trained or as well practiced.

I seriously stood there getting so annoyed at this poor Target cashier. I’m tired of being negative all the time.

If I’m that negative over something stupid, what happens when it’s something that matters?

“One act of thanksgiving when things go wrong is worth a thousand when things go well.” -John of the Cross

Those words came to Madeleine L’Engle when her granddaughter was hit by a truck. L’Engle was across the country and opened her prayer book before bed. Two things fell out. One was a picture of her granddaughter from a few weeks before, the other was a card with those challenging words from John of the Cross. L’Engle confesses in Walking on Water that she had to make that act of thanksgiving.

I wonder what she was thankful for?

It was 10 days before L’Engle’s granddaughter regained consciousness and they knew she would recover.

I want to be the kind of person who is thankful, not just when life is good and it’s easy to be thankful, but also when life is dumping on us and it’s so very, very hard.

  • I’m thankful for a giant white dome that went up in my city this year and enabled me to go running in the middle of January, which is not an easy thing in Minnesota.
  • I’m thankful that today is Pajama Day and Lexi is so excited.
  • I’m thankful that after a minor fever and a day at home, Lexi’s temperature went back down and she was beyond excited to go back to school.
  • I’m thankful that Milo still takes a nap.
  • I’m thankful that Milo can turn almost anything into a dragon, give it a name and decide what breed it is.
  • I’m thankful for a stack of good books from the library.
  • I’m thankful for the Star Wars socks I got for Christmas that allow me to put laundry off one more day.

Embracing Mistakes, Pain & Failure

Lexi BikingNobody likes to make mistakes, feel pain or experience failure. But that’s how we learn, grow and succeed. It’s something we’re losing today.

A 2004 article in Psychology Today explores this phenomena, and if anything it seems more relevant today. The article bemoans the way parents over-protect their children, keeping them from experiencing the mistakes, pain and failure that will teach them important life lessons. Kids are coached through play and never learn how to skin their knee and get back up again. Parents swoop in to resolve every playground conflict and kids never learn to handle their own disputes. Parents fight with teachers, trying to gain every advantage for their child. In the end, kids learn how to work the system instead of how to overcome challenges.

If allowed to, learning how to get along with others would actually make kids smarter: “Social engagement actually improves intellectual skills. It fosters decision-making, memory and thinking, speed of mental processing”

The article points to college as the time when the “emotional training wheels come off,” but now kids totter and crash. Relationship problems used to be the biggest issue for college students, a developmentally appropriate concern. But since 1996, anxiety has overtaken relationship woes. Now 15% of college students nationwide are depressed. Those relationship woes haven’t gone away, but worsened, with stalking on the rise. Anorexia and bulimia now effect 40% of women at some point in their college career. Binge drinking is a steadily growing problem.

Yikes. College students don’t know how to cope. And in some ways colleges have caved. At one point 94% of seniors at Harvard were graduating with honors. It reminds me of one of the conflicts in the Pixar super-hero film The Incredibles: If everyone is special, then no one is special.

It’s not just college students either. Adolescence has extended into the 30s.

“Kids need to feel badly sometimes,” says child psychologist David Elkind. “We learn through experience and we learn through bad experiences. Through failure we learn how to cope.”

Get Up Again
It’s a hard thing. Nobody wants to see their kids hurt.

I think about teaching Lexi how to ride her bike last summer. Failure seemed to shut her down. But more than failure, the fear was the most crippling. Fear of falling down, certainly, but also the fear of failure more than the failure itself. I realized more than anything I had to teach Lexi how to get up and try again. I let her “crash” into the grass at one point, proving that she could dust her self off and try again. She almost didn’t.

I’m hardly an over-protective parent. But even in a simple example like learning how to ride a bike I see these difficulties in coping with mistakes, pain and failure.

Somehow, we need to learn to embrace them. Only then can we rise above them.

Thank You Bruises
As Dallas Clayton says in An Awesome Book of Thanks, “Thank you to… those bumps and bruises that turn ‘couldn’ts’ to ‘coulds.’ Thank you to those for they make us all stronger. They make us all smarter. They make us last longer.”

“If you want to double your success rate you need to triple your failure rate.” That’s the mantra of an off-the-grid, quasi homeless character in Cory Doctorow’s Pirate Cinema who learns to maximize his panhandling to the point that he does it to help the truly homeless and destitute rather than himself.

We can’t be so afraid of failure, because failure is what leads to success. You have to try, try and try again. As much as I hate to admit it, Yoda was wrong.

Finally, writer Neil Gaiman says it like this in his New Year’s wishes from last year:

I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes.

Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re Doing Something.

So that’s my wish for you, and all of us, and my wish for myself. Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before. Don’t freeze, don’t stop, don’t worry that it isn’t good enough, or it isn’t perfect, whatever it is: art, or love, or work or family or life.

Whatever it is you’re scared of doing, Do it.

Make your mistakes, next year and forever.

Donate to Clean Water, Get a Free Book

Clean Water for EliroseClean Water for Elirose is a great little children’s book explaining the problem of dirty water around the world. I plugged the book before when it was a Kickstarter project and now the author, Twin Citizen Ariah Fine, is working hard to fund a clean water well. He’s trying to raise $5,000 through charity: water, a task I know well, and he’s offering to give a copy of Clean Water for Elirose for donating any amount to his charity: water project.

That’s a great deal: Give clean water, get a free book.

If you already have a copy (like me!) or don’t need one, Ariah will give your free copy to a classroom.

You can check out the book and read the entire thing online.

Consider making a donation. charity: water does amazing work and it’s always worthwhile supporting them. Plus: good book. Book projects like this definitely need to be supported and generous souls like Ariah who put so much sweat and tears into a project and then give it all away deserve your support.

Here’s a great video of Ariah’s kids getting ready to give away some books:

Reframing the Story of Ethiopia

The usual story we hear about Ethiopia is one steeped in poverty and despair. We hear stories of famine and political unrest. That’s the common narrative. It’s unfortunate because stories are powerful. But it’s not the whole story.

There are also Ethiopians doing amazing things. Not just marathon runners, but business leaders, doctors, activists, writers, musicians and more. Flowers of Today, Seeds of Tomorrow is a coffee table book to tell those stories. They’re currently doing a Kickstarter project to fund publishing the book. It’s about 85 percent written, and you can see some of the incredible stories and layouts on the Kickstarter page.

This is an opportunity to reframe the story of Ethiopia.

Doing Good in Ethiopia
I don’t want to contribute to the narrative of despair. I’m wary of providing the kind of international aid that’s merely drops of water on a wildfire. While famine, poverty and despair need to be stopped, I want to address those issues in ways that offer hope and empowerment, not empty charity.

Just last week we celebrated a new well in Ethiopia. I love that the local people in Segalu built their own wall around that well to protect it and are raising their own money to support and maintain that well. I hope this is a project that empowers them, freeing up their time and energy to pursue more productive efforts.

Likewise, I think Flowers of Today, Seeds of Tomorrow is a book that can empower a people. It reframes their story and shifts the focus from nostalgia for the past or despair for the failures of today to a hope in the promise of tomorrow. These are stories of Ethiopian heroes who have overcome that past to find success today.

We need those stories. We need those heroes.

Bring It Home
Four years ago today my son Milo was born in Ethiopia. I wouldn’t see his picture for six weeks and I wouldn’t hold him in my arms for five months. He no longer lives in Ethiopia, but it will always be a part of him, a part of me. These are his stories, and as you can imagine, I have a vested interested in seeing stories of hope and not despair.

Ethiopians, like all of us, are not bound by poverty and famine. They are not limited to political unrest. They have heroes and champions. It’s time for a book that tells those stories. I know my family needs one in our library.

Consider backing this Kickstarter campaign and helping this project come to life. I know it’s a lot of money, but the $50 reward gets you a hardcover version of the book and they’ll donate two softcover Amharic versions to libraries in Ethiopia through Ethiopia Reads. That’s a great way to share these stories with your family and with the people of Ethiopia.

Let’s tell the story of hope.