Sunday, February 22, 2009

Crime and Punishment

Ever read the book Crime and Punishment? No? Ok, well in summary, it's about a man who commits a crime, murder, one that he thinks will benefit both himself and society. He is subsequently mentally tortured by what he has done. It's a Russian novel and is a pretty interesting read, particularly because it contains a universally moral truth. Humans often (not always) do things because they think that it will benefit themselves or others in the short or long term. We do it because it feels good or maybe it might help someone down the road. WE never really know that though. So we go primarily on intentions and give a marginal amount of thought to consequences. Hmmm. Much of same happens between a series of generations. It's a sociological type of crime and punishment, in terms of subsequent generations. Our parents, their government made decisions. Which wars to fight, which races and classes to oppress. Which laws to pass. What kind of legacy to leave. Some of this decisions were and continue to be beneficial, but a couple (well, more than a couple) have been missteps that have altered the course of their and our history.

The crime in all of this? Irresponsible decision making. Irresponsible in the sense that it lacks accountability to the generation that it affects. Moral depravity, high divorce rates, failed economic policy, the decline of family as an institution....the list goes on. These problems didn't just spring out of the ground one day. They are the crimes of a generation, the generational hurdles for which we suffer the punishment.The old saying goes, to whom much is given, much is required. What the heck have we been given but a slate of a problems to fix, problems that we will inevitably be blamed for years down the line?!?! So now we are all having round table discussions about how the generation called sex-driven, pot-smoking, morally amorphous will have to solve the world's biggest problems yet. Gee thanks.

I had dinner with my dad this week, an event necessary in fully reflecting on the state of the world, and he kinda brought me down. A little dad used to be a real idealist. A shoot for the moon and change the world kind of guy (you may know them as community organizers), but life somehow found him hiding in a cave of Hope and assaulted him, punished his idealism with a swift blow of reality. It wasn't just getting married, having kids, and running the rat race of life or any single traumatic event. It was the realization at 25 years old that he and his fellow organizers, in the ghettos of Houston were faced with the impossible odds (punishment) created by decisions (crimes) that were made long before their time. Now in his late 40's he is trying to recapture that same idealism. In this day and age, I fear that the same is being done to many folks of this generation. Not being far from 25, I see that possibility on the horizon. The possibility that I will wake up one morning believing that the odds are insurmountable. I know its seems almost blasphemous coming from an organizer like myself, but it's a possibility worth examining. As we stare down this path of forever, we are haunted (in some part) by everything we know about the world. The issues that we face, the hurdles that we know others have tried so hard to jump and even climb over. But will we have the courage to be different? Have different outcomes so that our kids do not suffer the punishment of our crime of failure?

Further, how soon is too soon to learn about crime and punishment (the sociological kind)? The action-consequence pattern of society. Surely not when we are faced with them head on. I tell the 3 and 4 year olds that I work with, the truth about anything that they can handle. Hey, they wanted and educator and got a social scientist.;-) I tell them at the truth that I've discovered, in hopes that I can put them on the path to finding their own, creating it even. That is what I owe to them, to their generation.

But how essential/necessary is truth when you are a dreamer?? Does truth and the abundance thereof punish our idealist spirit? Much like what happened to my father. Further, how hard is it to dream when you come to the realization that you are living in the aftermath of decisions made for you and that you are making decisions for another generation? For just as hope lives close by fear, so must the idealist spirit must take into account the trends and patterns of the world.

Where does it all end, or spiral out of control? I'd say that it all comes down to our ability to consider both forgiveness and redemption. I read an article by Desmond Tutu and its says this: "without forgiveness there is no future." Simple and true. Without forgiving those who have hurt us, those who have created the conditions of the world that we so readily inherit, we have no future. Whether it's your mother or George Bush, we must forgive. We then owe it to the next generation to give them a world where the truth does not overtake their desire or ability to remake it. Therein lies our redemptive power. More importantly we are to gift them a world better than we found it. The redemptive ability of our generation is vast and deep. Let's use it. Let's set a STANDard.

So, in summation of all of this deep thinking, I ask a simple question: what will you give to those who come after you?

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Black is the New.....Black?

In the months during the general election and period leading up to the Inauguration, I've watched countless news stories and special interest pieces where folks, mainly pundits and talk-show hosts discuss and theorize about what it means to be black in America in this "post racial or post-racist" Obama era. The stories, have been....well, compelling but the conclusions have largely left me shaking or scratching my head.

They ask questions like (no joke, I've heard these new things):

"Will black kids learn better?," "Will black people feel the urge and find the strength to rise above the poverty line" "Will black on black crime come to an immediate halt? I would say no to most of these things. Not because I am hopelessly pessimistic, but because I am a cynical optimist.

While I hate to answer a question with a question, I ask this in response "Will the issues that plague black folks be treated as issues/ flaws in the system rather than the self-induced plight of a people who, until recently, lacked representation by a man seemingly at the top of his game?"

"Will black people be given the opportunities that they have been so long denied, the same opportunities granted to a certain current President of ours?"

***Point of clarification: I do believe that flawed decision making skills and poor personal choices stand alone, no matter what race you are.

Those are the questions that we should be asking ourselves. Truly. It's mentally and socially heavy lifting and it doesn't make for heart-warming stories but our moral defense of these issues should not weaken for any reason. Not even a black President.

For as long as I can remember, the default, almost comical response of Black people feeling the pressure of society was to "Blame it on the white man." Because he was and is, for all intense purposes the high and mighty authority. But now, as we see, both the white and black man have some of the same issues....we are BROKE and in many cases, hopeless. Plus, THE MAN (the president) is now OUR MAN (Barack Obama), so what now? I don't see any of our issues disappearing quite yet, not as quickly as people expected them too...and not, in my opinion until we address the issues systematically. Nov 4th changed the game in a huge doubt. But the system still rears it's ugly head. I think, and this is a bit daring, that moral issue like social and racial oppression are SOCIAL issues that can only be solved by SOCIETY. There's no real democracy about it. And no, I'm not a social anarchist. I just think that the government cannot solve the problems that you have with your neighbor across the Mason-Dixon line, except to legislate that you cannot kill him or deny him the right to vote. Big deal. You can't legislate love. The steps that we take to heal a nation, as I've learned, are bold and they don't require any bureaucracy or even a black President.

I could be totally wrong, but think that we as a race (human and African American) are in a unique place to evaluate where we are going. So I guess we should not be asking ourselves how far WE have come, but rather how far forward we have moved on the scale of issues that affect us most and the system that they all revolve around. It's a shame (or a blessing, you decide) that being black is sometimes more about a platform of issues than a celebration of heritage.

I grew up in an age, post Black Panther, pre-Black President, where black folks were getting a little slice of the pie (more like crumbs) and we gained some idea of upward mobility. Get a house, lease a car, get a desk job....etc. Still, there were glaring injustices that gave rise to folks like the Reverend Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton who were spokespersons for many of these issues. We've all seen the news clips where the family and supporters of a victim of police brutality are shown and Jesse and Al are giving the same speech that they gave when this last happened. "The government is unfair....we demand respect, etc." But truly, what will happen to the forward movement when we aren't making stump speeches about how much the Bush administration hates us?? Hmmm.

On another note, where are we are on the cultural front? I mean, the Obama campaign did something to invigorate the spirits of young men and women everywhere, and if only for a moment, politics became intertwined into popular culture. Thank goodness, because considering that are being passed the societal torch, I was getting a little worried. Is that the place for it though? I think so, but decide for yourself. As long as we don't pair justice with popularity, I think it will be ok. Rest assured though, conservative and old folks alike, kids wearing baggy pants named Dequan won't be defiling your daughters (at least not in large numbers) and running your country just yet. We've still got some work to do, because as soon as we get comfortable with the progress that we have made, the movement has found another cause, another corner of the earth to penetrate and we are left behind reveling in our hay-day. So, in honor of this Valentine's Day weekend, I'll have to say that my heart is taken. Captured this notion, this opportunity to change. I love the fact that I have been called to be apart of it, and that it has become apart of me.

Black is the new black, eh? So FINALLY, in 2009, it's ok for me to be black girl from the North Atlanta suburbs with righteous indignence in her soul and an afro pic in her purse, speaking her mind in complete sentences with subject-verb agreement?? Well.....maybe. I won't push my luck. On the other hand, it's only mid-February. I've got a least a few more days.


Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Minimalist Effect

Ok, so I originally had no clue what the ACTUAL idea behind Minimalism was, so I did some scholarly research, which, in 2009 consists of typing the words "Minimalism" into a search engine and clicking on the top, seemingly most relevant return. Here's what I learned.

"Minimalism describes movements in various forms of art and design, especially visual art and music, where work is stripped down to it's most fundamental features."

**That's all I found that was particularly relevant to this post, so I'll spare you the cut and paste.
Given my predilection toward making things/concepts applicable to real life, here's my sociological interpretation:

Life is an intricate and elaborate piece of work in which people and systems interact in a way that influences, heck...DETERMINES the course of human history. Despite this intricacy, there are only a few elements that we cannot live without as humans(love, hope, peace, joy, justice, etc), barring what society says. What is fundamentally necessary to me is probably necessary to others, therefore we are connected in that vein. We all impact one another, both consciously and subconsciously. Fundamentally, we are linked and our realization of such a fact helps us to look beyond the petty happenings and sometimes tragic events of our lives to glimpse into the suffering of humanity. It also help us to realize that, regardless of what we endure, there is the potential of hope that lies dormant at our very core.

In short hand cliche phrases: Something bad happens you, it could be worse, at least you are still alive. Minimizing thinking about past hurts and failures, helps to maximize our potential to do great and meaningful work in the earth. The glass is half full, etc.

These sub-concepts have in common the premise that we focus on the POSITIVE and the NECESSARY, what is most essential to human survival and growth, leaving all other things behind. Most importantly though, we are to structure, design, our lives to reflect those things that are fundamental and necessary. Fundamental and necessary to what? To our life's purpose. If you have at least a vague idea of what your life purpose is, the minimalist approach will work for you (or at least it shouldn't be too hard to understand). While I know that society is fraught with way too much cynicism and judgment and pity to actually operate out of this model, it's something to consider.

Example: So I was in an accident last week and I was pretty broken up about it. Then I realized that I, the other dude, or some bystander could have died, there could have been major damage to my car. and further more, that I could have not had insurance to pay for it. Or to turn on the evening news and learn that a young man, your age, celebrating college graduation, is killed in a hit and run. Well, when you put it that way, my fender bender sucked, well....less.

Another example: Sitting around thinking about how much debt you're in, wallowing is a pool of self-pity, only to receive a call hours later telling you that your cousin has just lost her battle with lung canger.

I'm not suggesting that we should all live in world of relative pessimism. I am simply observing that a little bit of perspective goes a long way. These kinds of sobering realizations draw us away from the smallness of situation and into the fullness of life. We are given permission to strip away the unnecessary, even if that only consists of other people's opinions. In a more idealist-realist view: We understand, simultaneously, the world as it is and as it should be.

I saw the movie, Revolutionary Road, last night and it framed my thinking about this concept in a very interesting way, more focused on the outward expression of many of these same concepts. Oh, and here's a SPOILER WARNING:

A young, fresh, married couple start as idealists but quickly become jaded by the business of social climbing (stuff accumulation). This realization weaves a web of emotional turmoil in their lives. They attempt to simplify. They try desperately to move to another country where people "really live" but are unable to escape the life that they have built for themselves. The life that is supposed to make them happy. What a tragedy. Perhaps the bigger tragedy?

The inevitability that many of us will end up this way if we aren't careful. Not to say that you can't drink the kool-aid every once in a while, get married, have some kids....but we risk building fortresses around our comfort, getting wrapped up in the simple mindedness of our own struggle and loosing that thing that causes us to live....passionately. I see that in some of my friends....already. I don't plan to spend the rest of my life lacking permanent companionship, but I will (I vow) to have enough flexibility to, should I choose,wake up one morning, turn to my husband and say "Baby, lets move to Dubai....tomorrow" (my friend Sarah and I decided that a week would give a foothold to too many obstacles and doubt). He'll be like "Cool. Let's go." Or the freedom to say, "Let's move to and join the revolution." There should be room in our lives, and more importantly, room in our thinking for just a little bit of that."

Back to the movie: The couple couldn't, try as they might, leave behind something that they themselves had created. They became victims of a utopian existence. Who has ever heard of that? Probably not many people. Because we are taught that people who live as they lived, have lots of stuff, good looking kids and a house to put it in...have all that they need. There existence, however narrow, is secure. But after awhile, we are prisoners of these things and people and societal pressures. Especially in circumstances where the man wears the pants and the woman wears the high-waisted pencil skirt. To make matters worse, they knew, because they had tasted, what was so epherial, invigorating and TRUE about life but did not have the guts to recapture it. Such as shame.

The STANDard here, and my strong advice: Live life, giving special and strong consideration to minimalism (in both speech and action) and the freedom and TRUTH therein. The minimalist approach to thinking and living isn't minimal in practice, actually, it's quite rich and abundant. It is so, because it incorporates the abundance of humanity without the smallness that keeps us from believing that it's unimportant.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Federalist-Socialist-Democratic Republic of the Little People

Wow. That title is a mouthful, but it truly captures the essence of the last 6 weeks of my life.

All of our lives, we are taught to develop some tough outer shell of self-importance that will carry us toward the shining beacon of healthy adulthood. So we try, in our short time on the earth to accomplish an impossible (nothing is impossible really), rather unrealistic, To Do list that is often polluted with a number of self-serving items that do little more than give us something to talk about when we want to impress the pants off of people or a good opening line that ends with us passing along our business card. Little do we know, and few people discover that the truth behind living a good, worthwhile and healthy lies in the the small things that we do for others.

Ever since I finished with Jim Martin's runoff campaign, I've been searching (both my soul and the classifieds) for the NEXT BIG THING that would launch my career and the fast track to a Time Magazine cover shoot. I was waiting impatiently for my trip to DC for inauguration and looking forward to seeing all of my organizer friends. Little did I know that the NEXT BIG THING was working with little people. Not midgets. I now have a gig at a Christian Day School. Don't laugh. Because I it. If you know anything about me, you know that naturally, I protested a bit because I thought myself "not the kid type," through I suppose I was one at some point. But along the way, and by way, I mean 1 and a half weeks, little people have been the source of multiple epiphanies. While I've spent most of my life as a social scientist, studying people, systems and the behavior that connect them, working with these kids has been like a crash course in democracy, where the subjects include:

1) Relationships yield effectiveness in discipline- Have you ever listened attentively to someone you didn't like, didn't trust or didn't respect?? Probably not. What is that? I supposed it's because people require relationships, even kids. You must seek to understand them and then prepare to be misunderstood by them (kids). Nonetheless, legitimacy goes along way. They will only heed your correction if they know you care about them.

2) Monotony...Psh!! Discipline is important. Routines in life (get up, work, come home, sleep, repeat) aren't meant to such the fun out of life....they are, in my opinion, a way to get us to understand that the earth-shattering task of reform is based upon our ability to retain livelihood. Or, as my Deputy Field Director in MO would say, "Earth shattering things begin with the little things."

3) SELF IMPORTANCE. Why do we desire to be so gosh-darn IMPORTANT? It seems we are all in a rat race, so that we can spend our whole lives basking in the glow of...... ourselves. The political world lends itself to this. In light of such things, I asked God for little humility. A bit help me serve and a bit to keep me sane, and he sent me somewhere where none cared who I was. It didn't matter that I was a college grad...or a community organizer...or even that my name was Jonae. They're KIDS for crying out loud. I'm Miss Jonae that makes them snack and reads them stories. It's refreshing really. In conversation, I'm usually referred to in a manner that accompanies a litany of positive adjectives and before I know it, they began to define me. And while I don't protest having nice things said about me, we have to be careful not to be boxed in by our own ambition.

4) Civil unrest- I witnessed, last week, the purest form of civil unrest there is....a group of kids (4 year olds), totally unprompted, started marching around the playground chanting "No more babies." It was led by a little boy whom I refer to as the little Marcus Garvey. But this whole epidose made my heart swell. When you've learned to protest, you've learned democracy. :-)

5) We are shaping a movement for them, sowing seeds- Just like my time spent organizing in Southwest Missouri, I feel that my time spent at this school is another way to sow seeds into the community. What I've realized is that once you've been apart of the movement, you have an inherent responsibility to stand on the sidelines for a bit and guide those who are coming after. Instead of resenting their immaturity, teach them the way to go.

6) Fundamentals of communication- We must learn to communicate outside of our comfort. I'm used to striking up conversation about the latest post on Huffington Post or and anyone who could do so, immediately had my attention. These kids, much like most of the world, don't read blogs and don't spend nearly as much time on the computer as I do. I've had to bring my vocab down a couple notches and focus much more on the meaning. We should all try it.

7)Diplomacy- Negotiation is something that anyone, who desires to be successful at almost anything, needs to learn how to do. I swear, negotiating naptime, the dispensation of toys on the playground, and being an arbiter for 4-yo fist fights is sometimes like negotiating peace in the Middle East. Hilary Clinton could take notes.

8) Something out of nothing- Lastly, the thing that I admire most about these kids is their purity of heart. They see the world as we desperately wish we could. No one has (and I won't be the one to do it) told them how the world is and what it can and cannot be. They look at 3 hoola hops on the playground and imagine that it's a castle...or something. I wish I had that. Maybe you do to. While we may have the courage to remake the world, we must also have the imagination.

In short, I left the general election campaign and the runoff looking for hope that could sustain me a lifetime, I found it in the eyes of a child. I'm not trying to liken my experience at this school to the enormous, seemingly insurmountable obstacles that our society faces. I'm certainly won't try to sell you on my "change a diaper, change the world" brand of thinking but I can't help but think that the time and patience that it takes to rock a child to sleep, may just be the tenderness that we need to cure the world of it's ills. Surely, there's a direct parallel.

The world, as I alluded to earlier, won't be won through intense shouting matches filled with multi-syllabic words; it will be won by looking into the eyes of an individual, cynical or pure and of heart and asking them to make choices about their lives and the lives that are connected to them. That's the kind of stuff that I do everyday with people who are young enough to be my own children. I've spent my life, verbally or physically protesting, unjust and unfair authority. Now, I have a chance to be that authority and set that standard. But I'm careful with that responsibility because the tenderness of the heart and spirit of a child bears striking resemblance to that of an ailing nation. I am careful not to, even as I reprimand them, break their spirits. I simply can't. They may be the last hope to redeem the cynicism of a nation. And I could probably do this thing half- heartedly, but at this moment in history and at this moment it my life, I believe this job requires my complete, undying attention. So, I am momentarily pausing on my aspiration to be a politico.

To spare you a closing rendition of "We are the World," and for the sake of not making this entry any longer. I'll say this. Children, like the virtues of liberty, justice, and "the American way" are placed in the earth for us to steward, providing, sometimes forging an environment for them to grow and flourish. Therein lies the connection between me, Jonae, the community organizer and me, Jonae, the young adult that works with kids. So I'm not, just in case you were worried, CHANGING professions (once an organizer, always and organizer), I'm simply channeling what I have learned :-)