Foreign Policy is Hard: In the 1st 100 Days— & Beyond

Foreign policy is hard. Really. Really. Hard. Public policy, generally speaking, foreign or domestic, local or national, big or small, by the very nature of its process, is not easy. So when we look at what is going on with the current administration’s efforts around governmental policy of every variety (a resounding failure in the First 100 Days), it is worrisome to imagine what comes next.

Before delving into the myriad reasons that foreign policy is so difficult, let’s consider one domestic policy issue that, while clear-cut in its desired outcome, was a very chaotic and drawn out process (State-by-State) with the Supreme Court making the final ruling: gay marriage. This will provide context for the difficulties encountered when leaving the home-land to work on hairy situations.

The crafting of domestic policy is an amalgam that often brings together actors with differing ideas about how to achieve the best outcome, based on their views surrounding the issue. The State of Minnesota used a ballot measure (2012, Minnesota Amendment 1) which allowed the voters to determine the outcome of marriage equality; and many other States used the courts to provide legal status for same-sex marriage, prior to the Supreme Court’s ruling. On one side of the divide was the group that opposed any legal recognition of same-sex couples’ unions. The opposing view held that societal laws have no role in restricting a gay/lesbian couple from carrying out their lives in the same way that hetero relationships are affirmed. Within each camp we found various degrees of difference (domestic partnerships, civil unions, etc, etc); but at the end of the day, one was either pro-marriage for all consenting adults, or anti-same-sex marriage. Even with an issue that was so clearly defined, the messiness and complexity of the legislative affairs and public maneuvering/posturing/messaging led to many heated debates, broken relationships, and fissures that have not yet been healed. And that’s just a taste of what happens in the recipe-making of local domestic policy affairs. Imagine working on this topic with Nigeria.

It is likely that the countries and peoples of the African continent will prove to be the most important pieces of the global economic future. We might want to engage more seriously with the leaders throughout this majestic land.

Foreign policy is a world unto itself. It is, like any policy matter, made more difficult when opposing beliefs or ideas require oppositional actors to find common ground (compromise). Additionally, barriers created by language, culture, and custom, conspire to increase the already difficult job of the principal negotiators. For these reasons, it is best to have learned, seasoned, professionals when attempting any type of serious foreign policy matter (Jared Kushner is not the walking embodiment of these requirements). And… the ability to place everything into the proper context is crucial.

The Middle East is made more complex by the passage of time and the number of foreign entities entangled in the region’s affairs.

Foreign policy requires a great deal of time and effort, again, like the domestic type, but more so. One can’t simply decide to negotiate arms treaties, agricultural assistance, economic development & trade, environmental concerns, human rights, conflict resolution, foreign aid, terrorism, and many other international public affairs of all form and fashion, without putting in years/decades of research into those matters. It is for this reason (the knowledge factor) that we should act with caution when making decisions that will affect people in multiple countries/world regions both directly and indirectly. The outcomes of these negotiations are potentially far more disruptive to the planet as a whole.

It’s generally considered bad form to treat one’s allies as second class.

There are many countries with whom we share a long history and have therefore learned how to work together for mutual benefit. When it comes to working out trade deals with Canada, Mexico, the European Union, Morocco, Japan, South Korea, China, and many of the countries of the Caribbean, Central, & South America, we usually know what to expect. We have been interacting with these governments for more than a century, in many cases. And, with a few exceptions by a diplomat or politician, we have maintained strong ties, making for fewer hang-ups in any potential agreement. That doesn’t mean that bargaining with these countries isn’t difficult, it just means that we are better prepared based on historical precedent and the faith that our deal-makers are up to speed on the economic conditions, popularity of elected officials, cultures, histories, values, mores, and customs/mannerisms in said country.

Conversely, conducting negotiations and treaties with governments that are not inclined to trust us, find our tactics oppressive or strong-armed, or simply don’t like our elected officials, can lead to obstacles at every turn. We’ve witnessed this play-out as long-standing feuds with established States and seen it happen with newly formed governments (post U.S. exit); the process is also more difficult when working with newly formed countries. With every new unknown comes the potential for error. Whether it is making a favorable reference to an unpopular member of a former administration, a translation gone awry, or a choice of clothing accessory, the pitfalls awaiting a delegation are plentiful. Working with governments that are neither similar in design nor sharing in all of the values/norms that our country adheres to can make for tough— really, really, tough, negotiations. This is the reality of governmental deal making across borders. To say it is different from making real estate/golf course/hotel deals, is to say, LeBron is a pretty average basketball player (and if you’re even thinking about speaking those words out loud, keep your pie hole shut).

Russia and the former USSR States require delicacy and posturing based on intelligence— and context that envelopes more than a century’s worth of convoluted historical affairs.

Another issue that comes into play is “interests”. While we may have much in common with another nation, our interests are not always aligned with others’ national affairs. This can, and does, make it more difficult for the pundits and other non-actors to appreciate the final arrangement; both for what it accomplished and for what it didn’t unnecessarily involve. Sometimes it means giving up an incentive or condition in order to promote peaceful coexistence between other nations. Sometimes it means waiting longer than is necessary/recommended to take action, knowing that in the long-run, it often is the wise choice.

It is possible to condone while cooperating, control while compromising, and work toward win-win solutions, rather than playing a zero sum game.

We can’t afford to proceed down the path of reactionary policy measures. This not only destroys our ability to shape world affairs (which we must continue to do, given our current  place in the global spectrum— whether we want to or not) but more importantly, it weakens us in the most important area of foreign policy negotiations, credibility. If we can’t be trusted, we have nothing. Our military might won’t save us if Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, and 47 other countries decide that we are full of shit and no longer worth dealing with. Veracity must be a norm that is not compromised for short-term gains— and it must, absolutely has to, start at the top. This is not optional. 

Embracing and including our closest neighbors, in all policy matters, is in the best interest of all parties in the hemisphere. We cannot go backwards and hope our trajectory takes care of itself. It doesn’t work that way.

Addendum for anyone working with/near/for the administration:

Alessia Cara is not a foreign policy expert; however, she is a Canadian, born to Italian parents, and she makes music that mentions policy, albeit briefly. Maybe the new administration should take a listen to her music and see what they can glean from the syntax/lyrics. Wild Things  Here I mean really, it can’t hurt.

And speaking of the 808 (Roland TR-808, mentioned by Miss Cara in “Wild Things”), here’s another policy lesson. When working on getting a piece of legislation passed, or making diplomatic inroads in a foreign country, one must have a good sense of when a policy window will open, and then have the ability to exploit the opening with Usain Bolt type speed. Listen for the starting gun, i.e. focus on what’s being said and who’s saying it. Kick it MCA… Hold it Now, Hit It.

 

2017- Musical Themes for a New Reality:

Well, here we are— 2017! It’s here! Really, this is it! I guess. I would say the event was anticlimactic but that would mean I truly believed something grand would happen, but it didn’t, and really, I had no expectations. I know that very little ever happens on New Year’s Eve but there is often a feeling associated with the coming of the new year (especially after the Longest December ever) and that feeling was missing this go-round. New Year’s Eve didn’t feel like a new dawn or a new day; it felt like the coming of a new school year…if you’re the student who spends more time hiding from bullies, looking for quiet places to read, and coming up with new sicknesses so as to escape the drama that awaits. It was—well…it was an eve.

Having spent the past month thinking about the possibilities that exist for the coming year (which is a weird exercise in positive thought process while remaining cognizant of the current realities), I’ve come to the conclusion that this is not the best use of time and is most certainly one way to drive oneself mad. Therefore, as a way to think about 2017 in different terms, sort of non-political, politically-motivated-(in most cases)-musical terms, I’ve figured out which songs will end the year as the Top 17 most played tracks (and a few more that will console, humor, and assuage the dark thoughts). They span a variety of musical styles and eras, and they will definitely get a lot of “air time”. Whether listening to Ryan Seacrest and friends, Pandora, I-pod, I-cloud, or spinning vinyl on the turntable, here’s the must-have list of music to get you through 2017 (and probably a few more years). And if you’re wondering how this ties into policy, consider these songs as a catalyst to define “the problem”. Formulate ideas about how to address the problem. Implement the “solution” to said problem. And, then, after some time has passed, evaluate your outcome (and don’t feel the need to tell everybody about the results; most of the time, nobody will read your findings, and those that do will question your graphs and say they are irrelevant and/or hard to understand (this is not your fault, graphs can be hard)).

#17) PatienceGuns & Roses: We will count on many virtues to get through this stretch of instability, weirdness, cockamamie, tomfoolery, downright inane ideas, & more, and patience may be the most important of these virtues. Keep a paper bag handy for those times when you are completely out of patience and just need to breath deeply, in a personal space. The melancholy of November Rain will also be popular, especially after a good deep breathing session.

#16) UglyFishbone: If I had to choose one word to sum up expectations, this is it. And so it goes in the world of politics, policy, public affairs, personal vendettas, polarizing platforms, patriarchy, & people who are predisposed to prideful displays of dopiness. As somebody kind of famous probably once said, “it is what it is”.

#15) The Revolution Will Not Be TelevisedGil Scott-Heron: The revolution was not televised in the ’60s & will not be televised this time either; the revolution takes place in the mind. Once we, collectively, get on the same page, the revolution will happen through the will of the people. Just remember what the crow says, “CAA” (not all crows enunciate the “w”), Communication, Action, Advocacy. Communicate with everyone, not just those you agree with. Don’t simply discuss what needs to be done, MOVE on those ideas. Advocate, advocate, advocate; if elected officials “don’t know” something is a problem, call, email, write a letter, visit your leaders at their office, get their attention somehow.

#14) The Times They Are A Changin’Bob Dylan: It’s true. And, it’s happening at rates of speed much greater than we’ve ever seen. Change: political; social; economic; demographic; linguistic; industrial; religious; and even the ways we think about change; is moving at light speed, or faster. We might be overwhelmed by the rapidity with which this is happening, but if we focus on those items that we can exhibit some sort of control/influence over, together we’ll get through. It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).

#13) Wake UpRage Against The Machine: A group that never backed away from making a political statement, Rage produced a lot of music that made people stop and think about what was happening in the politics of the day, with historical references to add weight to their argument. Their music has awakened many a young person to injustices that are happening in their own backyard. Killing in the Name is another piece that provides added effect for those who are having trouble getting the sleep out of their eyes. When an unusually ridiculous event occurs and you need to let loose on the punching bag, crank up some Rage.

#12) ChangesTupac: The changes we’ve seen in our relatively short history, are immense. That said, we have a long way to go before we reach an equitable society. Listen to Tupac’s words, then listen to Sam Cooke and Billie Holiday. Reflect on the struggles, the realities, the lives— fire yourself up, and get moving.

#11) True ColorsCyndi Lauper: This has a “punchers chance” of being Song of the Year as we will constantly be reminded that the True Colors of some Americans were on display & “This” is exactly what was requested on 8 November 2016. Now is not the time to shake our heads and hope for the best, we need to talk to people; people we don’t know, people we think we have nothing in common with, people who are—people. The urban-rural divide has always existed and it’s gotten more intense as our politicians have exploited it for their political gain. We’ve gotta call them out (the politicians) and discuss civic matters with our fellow citizens that live in “those” places. Sure, it will be uncomfortable getting to know folks who you feel you have nothing in common with, but I assure you (as a person who spent the 1st half of my life in a small farming/blue collar/industrial community, and the 2nd half of my life in a variable mix of metropolitan areas in numerous locales around the country, working a variety of restaurant, retail, & education jobs) we have far more in common than you think.

#10) Follow Your ArrowKasey Musgraves & Details in the FabricJason Mraz: (it’s a tie) When the going gets tough, it’s hard to remain true to the person you are. Surround yourself with good people, good food, good energy, & constantly remind yourself of who you are, how you got “here”, and where you’re headed.

#9) Wolves in Wolves ClothingNOFX: Released in 2006, this song is as relevant today as it was a decade ago.

We are Rome, Aztec Mexico, Easter Island paradigm 
We are followers of Jimmy Jones, cutting in the kool-aid line 

We are Animal Farm Pigs, we are a Terry Gilliam film 
We are fear Oligarchy, we are wolves in wolves' clothing, 
We are this planet's kidney stones 

In the process of getting passed, metamorphosis from first to last 
A system breaking down beyond repairs 
A product of three million millionaires, a hundred million easy marks 

We are Marie Antoinette, we are Joseph McCarthy 
We've finally become the divided states 
A nation built on freedom, fear, and hate, the denotation of Irony 

We all want a Hollywood end, but we're getting a foreign one 
The script has already been penned, and titled, "the epitaph of a drowning nation"

#8) Take a MinuteK’naan: Time has to be made to give thanks for what we’ve got; recognizing all the people who have provided for us and played a role in our continued existence. Some of those people are truck drivers, farmers, factory workers in Detroit & Elkhart, artists in Oakland & Baltimore, teachers, service industry personnel, health care professionals, contractors, artisans of fine cookware and china, musicians, law pros, activists, brewers, dockworkers, academics, poets, saleswo/men, athletes, and volunteers, et al; they are all important to our daily lives. Thinking about our fellow Americans as being a necessary component of life allows for greater appreciation of our shared experiences, joys & sadness, and our reason to progress. We have differences but we are not so different.

#7) What Do You MeanJustin Bieber: Along with Sorry, (Lo Siento) and Where Are Ü NowBieber will be lauded for his unintentionally written future-present political masterpieces. With each new Trump-Tweet aimed at “guiding” foreign policy, we will hear people, the world over, screaming, “WHAT DO YOU MEAN? HOW IS HE IN CHARGE OF ANYTHING?” And millions of people in Los Estados Unidos responding “SORRY! We didn’t really think it would get this bad; it could be worse…right?”  Knowing full well it really couldn’t be that much worse but practicing self-delusion as a means of self-preservation. After a brief moment of reflection, the phrase, “Where are you now will replay in our minds until we are snapped back to reality. 

#6) Yes We CanJohn Legend & will.i.am: We can. We will. We must. Remember that it’s about the long game. Short-term gains at the expense of long-term foundational achievements is neither prudent nor practical in the “business” of nationhood. We’ve done it before, we can do it again!

#5) Man In The MirrorMichael Jackson: “If [we] want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself, and then make the change” None of us are perfect (shocking, I know). So put in the time, make those changes and then start having those hard conversations with your frenemies and others with whom you experience unpleasantries. Tell them, The Way You Make Me Feel, is not ok. And if that doesn’t work and you get the sneaking suspicion that They Don’t Really Care About ‘Us’, focus all of your energy on Getting Out The Vote! Some of the folks we’re going to be hearing from are Smooth Criminals and the only way to get rid of them is to vote out the Head Tweeter.

#4) I Hold OnDirks Bentley: It’s the message we need to hear everyday. Times will get tough (if you think we’ve already experienced the worst of it, Hold On!). The key is to remember that unless the world ends via nuclear holocaust (and I’m not denying the plausibility of that), this too shall pass. In the meantime, it’s going to be a rough ride; so buckle-up, find a little liquid courage if needed, and forge a path forward.

#3) No Woman No CryBob Marley: Considering it took us nearly 150 years (in this country) to figure out that a woman’s vote was just as important as a man’s vote, we shouldn’t be surprised that it will take at least 100 years to see the first woman elected President. 2020 would be a fine time to make that happen. We might think of it as a Redemption Song.

#2) What Goes Around…Comes AroundJustin Timberlake: JT will likely have several selections that make the year’s end Top 50 list: Cry Me A River (this will get more play as we approach November and buyer’s remorse really starts to kick in); Sexy Back (this is the song that will be put on repeat as we come to terms with the lack of class, dignity, and general civility that will be on display, from Day 1). As for the #2 hit of 2017, WGA…CA will be played by millions to remind the anti-Obama crowd, especially those who took delight in every obstruction put forth by the House and Senate, that the Golden Rule means what it says. 

#1) Fight The PowerPublic Enemy: Every Day All Day; use your “Voice” to bring attention where needed. This may come in the form of art, science, math, writing, history, sport, or just showing up and doing what you do, everyday. Fight for what is good. Fight for what is right. Fight for what is necessary. By Any Means Necessary.

In addition to those hits, several more songs will help us through this coming period of uncertainty. Additionally, make sure to take care of yourself in order that you may do your best to help get this country back on track. It’s going to take a real team effort and I know we’re up to the challenge.

Talkin’ Bout a RevolutionTracy Chapman:

Not Ready To Make NiceThe Dixie Chicks:

HurtNine Inch Nails or Johnny Cash

PepperButthole Surfers: (Listen to the lyrics and try to imagine different members of the 45th President’s administration in place of the fictitious figures. Not hard to envision these scenarios).

Happy New Year!

 

 

It Could Be Worse:

The election is over; the winner declared. Thankfully, we were assured that it was going to be rigged, so we don’t have to feel quite so bad about the results we’re seeing (they could have rigged it so it was “bigly” ugly). America has spoken; even those individuals who willingly chose not to cast a ballot (which excludes the vast majority of folks caught-up in our criminal justice system) and so we must reflect upon what has happened & come to grips with our new reality (to include pending court cases, etc, etc, for the future Commander-in-Chief).

It could be worse: the earthquakes affecting Oklahoma could increase in size and scope and team up with the San Andreas Fault and the Ramapo Fault, to cause much greater chaos (think Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, & Draymond Green playing in a 3-on-3 high school tournament; destruction).

First we need to understand how this happened… here’s my theory. The expansion of broadband internet and all technology in general, which includes social media apps and everything that goes along with that world, has done what no prior presidential nominee in our history has been able to do—it has allowed for the vast expanse of disaffected voters from all corners of the country (this group is predominantly White with more males than females, if only by a few, and typically over the age of 35, though they don’t discriminate against millennials who are “with them”) to come together in a unified effort to elect a person who represents “Hope”, to “them” (a Hope that shares four letters with the “HOPE” of Barack Obama’s presidency, but not much else).

Prior to Breitbart and other alt-right type websites penetrating the rural landscapes of America, people felt that they were part of a small group of outsiders that wasn’t represented by the folks in Washington. Sometimes they would vote, sometimes they wouldn’t and the outcomes were always the same; the issues they cared most about wouldn’t get the attention that they deserved. But this election cycle, they figured out (with the help of all that technology) that they aren’t just 25 here and 50 there, they are tens of millions strong; and when combined with a few more million who, to put it mildly, despise everything the U.S. government stands for (except the military, border patrol, road repairs, medicare/caid, corporate welfare—ok, there are a lot of things they like that are provided by the government), anyway… they could give a bump to that “special” candidate who speaks their language. And 2016 provided just the guy to make them feel as if somebody cared. Somebody said “I hear you and I’m going to do something about your plight”, as if they were Israelites wandering in the wilderness. 

It could be worse: climate change could speed up at an exponential rate leading to the reintroduction of dinosaurs as animals revert back to the forms that served them best in tropical climes (remember what happened in Jurassic World?)

The real problem for me, and many millions more (maybe billions if we include the rest of the globe), is two-fold. One, the “chosen one” is extremely foul in his manner. His blatant disregard for niceties in the company of children, his mocking of people with disabilities, his ridicule of veterans of all ages, his incessant vitriol and lack of respect for the entire genus of humans falling under the designation of “non-male, non-white, non-hetero, non-cisgender conforming, & non-christian,” is enough to make one physically ill… and yet it didn’t seem to bother others. In fact, some actually embraced their role as “deplorables”.

It could be worse: the “deplorables” could be abducted by aliens and become “super-breeders”, able to pop out a baby-deplorable, every 31 days or so

And two, he is genuinely clueless about public policy issues, as  public policy relates to, oh… say… everything; including everything that he’ll be expected to deal with for the next four years. He knows about real estate (though he often makes bad bets on it) and he knows about making deals (but I’m not sure if that means good deals, bad deals, or black jack deals), and he knows about hair product (which has almost nothing to do with governing and public affairs); but policy, the kind that is a fundamental part of the job for which he has just been elected, is not in his wheelhouse. That scares me, a lot, and it should scare you. Even if he appoints really really smart people to help him out, it is still the job of the President to make the final decision and if he doesn’t know which end is up, he might be diving towards the bottom as his scuba tank is running out of air.

It could be worse: all of Ecuador’s volcanoes could erupt simultaneously and the ash and smoke could cover the Amazon rainforests destroying our greatest source of carbon dioxide filtration

When a candidate does the things that he did, says the things that he said, and then gets the kind of support that he got, it makes me wonder, just how far we have come since 1865? On the one hand, we drive cars, fly planes, text by voice, and prepare meals without actually preparing anything. While simultaneously we see Rebel flag flying yahoos screaming at Black people that they should stop talking about slavery, because it was “so long ago” (is that ironic?) and wearing t-shirts that promote division and killing, not unity, amongst the people. They are incorrectly channeling their anger at a group of people who bear no responsibility for the loss of American manufacturing jobs or the financial situation they are facing.

It could be worse: the U.S. treasury could announce that all U.S. dollars are being converted to bitcoins and you only have 24 hours to trade in all your cash, and it’s 5:00 on a Saturday (hope your bank has Sunday hours) 

Now don’t get me wrong, many of the people who voted for the male candidate have legitimate gripes about how American corporations have acted in the past 30 years. The businesswo/men who actively chased larger profits, at the expense of American jobs, were only doing what they were taught to do in business school, think of the bottom line first, everything else second. They didn’t let long-standing community ties interfere with expanding operations in new countries and they never turned down an opportunity to take advantage of lower wages elsewhere. But how did a guy, who encouraged these very behaviors, become the savior of the “working man” (and the working man’s women)?

It could be worse: we could live in a country where every job comes with a designated home, in a designated neighborhood, based on genetic markers that are entered into a central database at birth, and used to “guide” us through this difficult existence

This group of voters is angry about NAFTA (and potentially TPP) but don’t spend much time thinking about mechanization as a significant factor in the demise of blue-collar jobs (it’s a significant factor). They haven’t considered the impact that Wal Mart et al. have had on driving down prices of goods, and wages paid, both here and abroad (which plays direct and indirect roles on wages and job creation in this country). They don’t consider the economic ups and downs that are part of our history as well as our long-term future (part of the economic fabric of markets). And many don’t consider the strong possibility that jobs will never be as plentiful as they were in the 1990s (peace-time), 1960s (Vietnam) or 1940s (WWII); their assumptions are based on past experience, not future uncertainty. We need to make space for critical thought that considers the context of historical settings, current realities, and future possibilities. 

It could be worse: science could turn out to be a complete fabrication created by people who hang out in labs drinking PBR all day and dreaming up wild ideas to sell to the unknowing commoners (they also could spend a lot of time teaching lab rats to play fetch, roll over, and beg for cheese)

They felt as if they were being left out of all future plans that the government was laying for the nation. Some thought themselves similar to the African American citizens who were routinely disenfranchised for more than half of the 20th century (Jim Crow) and practically all of the previous 250 plus years, not understanding that the similarities between the two groups stop after accounting for bones, teeth, hair, and similar internal organs. They blame the “Demon-crats” for much of what has gone wrong in their lives and then turn around and tell people that they have to take care of themselves, get a job, go to work, don’t be part of the “takers”. They have been told by the GOP’s upper caste that the two issues that matter the most revolve around the 2nd amendment and the word of god (the christian one, not the others). The guy they voted for reinforced this belief and promised to prioritize their values because they were also his values (they didn’t know he was lying, he has a long history of lying when “making deals”).

It could be worse: I’m pretty sure it could be worse, but I’m not 100 percent certain, so I’ll hedge my bets

Having accepted the word of the male candidate, these voters, along with much of the rest of the GOP base (this was the weight that tipped the scale), cast their votes for a man who has encouraged racism, misogyny, xenophobia, and jingoism, and thereby gave approval to all of his antics. And while not all “support” him (they say they are really more concerned with Supreme Court nominees in the next term) they did vote for him. They voted for division, and hate, and all that comes from him and his most vociferous supporters. They voted for the candidate that told a shock jock he could call the candidates daughter a “piece of ass”; a real values based kind of vote. What kind of Supreme Court nominee can we expect from this type of person?

When supporting a candidate, one need not agree with every policy issue or require that the candidate align with every value the voter holds. Rather, finding out if the candidate is qualified, understands the job for which they have applied, and is willing to make the hard decisions in difficult times, that is the measure that should be used. The current President-in-waiting does not meet these qualifications and I hope that things do not get a whole lot worse.

He earned his greatness
He earned his greatness

Achievement Gap -vs- Achievement

The achievement gap has garnered a lot of attention since the implementation of No Child Left Behind (2002). It is the raison d’être for numerous individuals, and offices, within schools, districts, states, and the federal Department of Education (not to mention the nonprofits focused on it). We think, and talk, and think, and talk, and think some more, about how to eradicate this persistent “gap” in our children’s educational outcomes. But nobody (or, nobody I know) is asking, “what are the children on the ‘wrong side’ of the gap learning” (they focus on what the students are not learning)? Because, they are learning something. Is anybody else curious about that? Or do I stand alone (a place I’m fairly accustomed to). These kids, the ones who fail to achieve the rank of “proficient” are not dumb— nor are they lazy or “bad”; they are kids who are growing up in a world that many people know nothing about.

Measuring achievement is nothing new for schools. Standardized tests have been around in one form or another for more than half-a-century. The idea of understanding what kids know, how well they know it, and at what age they are learning it, is not a bad idea; it helps teachers figure out how better they can help those who are falling behind in particular areas. However, the newer ideas of sanctioning schools (under NCLB), students, and teachers, based on these tests, is not helpful. Preventing a school from receiving needed funds, or a high school senior from graduating, is not conducive to furthering educational outcomes. Furthermore, the idea that we need to have these high stakes tests (read: high stress for students, teachers, administrators, et al.) administered annually between 3rd grade and 12th grade (some variability by state), defeats the purpose of a well-rounded education—as we see more and more time spent on tested subjects (math & reading primarily) and test prep, meaning less time for everything else: social studies, phy-ed, art, music, recess, technology, languages, etc.

As we begin the new school year, it might be helpful to start thinking about the reason we send kids to school in the first place. While the world has changed a great deal in the past 100 years, the reason for providing a free education has remained relatively stable—we want to prepare succeeding generations to successfully carry on, and improve upon, what’s been done prior to their arrival, while ensuring that they understand the importance of their role as members of our citizenry. For the life of me, I can’t understand how scoring proficient on a given test can be used as a means of measuring a child’s ability to succeed in the world. To assume that they are not adequately learning because of a test score, is akin to assuming that Brett Favre was a terrible quarterback because he threw so many interceptions. Both assumptions are false.

There are all kinds of things that come into play in any child’s education. For starters, where they are born and spend the first few years of their life is extremely important. Children who experience violence, hunger, poverty, instability, abuse, for an extended period of time, are more likely to lack the all-important ability to trust others. Furthermore, the connections that are used to identify situations and react accordingly (synapses) are more likely to be “short-circuited” before they are able to fully develop. Because the human brain develops more in the first three to four years than it does for the remainder of one’s life, the child’s early environment will have an enormous impact on the remainder of his/her life.

“Because of the brain’s plasticity during the early period of rapid development, the younger the child the more vulnerable is their developing brain to the effects of the environment. Adverse environments can be particularly harmful and have long lasting effects, altering the developmental trajectory of a child’s learning” (Goswami, 2008).¹ 

Second, the surroundings of their early years (3-10 y.o.a.) play a significant role on whether or not they are able to develop the skills needed to perform well on these tests. Children who are in a near-constant state of fear, depression, anxiety, i.e. stressed, are less likely to have the ability to focus on those tasks that are not immediately relevant to their general well-being. Any kid that experiences poverty at a young age can appreciate the realities of being hungry, not having seasonally appropriate clothing, uncertainty about whether there will be electricity in the house, or if the house they were staying in last week is different from the house they are staying in this week. Add to that list the possibility of growing up in a neighborhood that experiences greater instances of violence and one has the makings of a very difficult childhood where survival is the primary goal and everything else is secondary.

These children (and not all of them score below proficient, but of those that do, these kids make up a disproportionate number) are extremely smart, highly motivated, and have the ability to adapt and overcome circumstances that we find in places like Chi-Raq or Bodymore, Murderland. The fact that the majority of these kids grow up to graduate high school is proof of their tenacity. And yes, you can question the curriculum, the teachers’ subjectivity, the “rigor” of a particular course or school, but you cannot question the child’s desire to be successful and figure out what they need to do in order to achieve that success (however they choose to define it).

When we rely on standardized tests to provide us with data, we must consider the context of the child’s entire situation. Some students who are attending the “best” schools in America have test anxiety and don’t score proficient. Their teachers can vouch for their intelligence, ability to think critically and creatively, but they can’t explain why the student performs so poorly on a test. Conversely, we find students who are experiencing homelessness and yet they find a way to achieve at the highest level. What’s going on in their brains (which includes what happened during the brain’s formative years) is playing a remarkable role in the current scenario. So how is it that we continue to make such extreme outcries about the achievement gap when we fail to address the problem at its core.

DSCN0567

There are places that are addressing the problem from the start. The Northside Achievement Zone (NAZ) in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and other Promise Neighborhoods across the country, are working with communities to promote healthy living, stable housing, and intensive educational assistance before the child enters kindergarten. Additionally, many nonprofits have a niche and they work tirelessly to bring about change in their area. This is work that must be done in order to bring about a transformation that will provide greater access and opportunities for these children. These are great first steps in a long process, but we need to think deeply about what the future holds for our youth and what will provide them with the greatest opportunity to succeed. Will tests determine their worth or give them an edge when applying for a job, or would we be better served to focus their efforts on more meaningful classroom objectives?

Students achieve regardless of what a test score tells us. They achieve in various ways. Some students, who can’t pass algebra their first time (or second or…) find jobs working in retail or restaurants. They have basic numerical literacy and therefore are capable of running a register, making change, doing the simple accounting required on a balance sheet or an inventory list. They don’t have to know the quadratic equation to do those things, they have common sense. And, if they decide to remain in the business, and the business requires them to learn more advanced math, they’ll figure it out; because it becomes part of their routine, it’s not some random equation asking them to determine the function of x given y (or vice versa).

Making test scores more important than they actually are is damaging to students, communities, and teachers, in the form of a stigma that attaches to anyone involved in the outcomes. The more important outcomes, the ones that we should be celebrating and learning from, are those achievements that don’t show up on a test. When students figure out what their passion is, and then begin the process of moving towards getting paid to work in a capacity related to that passion, that’s achievement. That’s what success looks like. Why should we tell kids that success is dependent upon something that they find trivial or boring, or not worth the time. I realize that this comes across as radical, but I believe very strongly that once we start providing children with opportunities to learn about a passion they have, we will see graduation rates increase and greater successes both in and out of the classroom. Stefanie DeLuca digs into this idea (identity/passion projects) in her book, Coming of Age in the Other America; it is an extremely important piece of the achievement gap conversation.

Apprenticeship programs (Pipeline etc.) are a feature of Minnesota’s long-standing commitment to helping people find work that is both meaningful and pays a decent wage. Students can benefit greatly from the introduction that is provided, both to the work and to the network they build while learning a trade. And, the employers benefit from the opportunity to show a young person the right way to do a job— which will pay benefits to the broader society (economy) regardless of whether that young lady stays with that company for 40 years or takes on a new opportunity a year after completing her apprenticeship.

So here’s the thing, do we want to live in a society that picks “winners and losers” based on test scores? This means we are identifying those who “deserve” a shot at real success and those who are relegated to a lifetime of unsatisfying work… when they can get it. This is the way it’s been for too long in our nation; the kids born into the “right” circumstances, are afforded the greatest opportunities with nearly unlimited access to exploit those opportunities. While the kids born into less than perfect circumstances are relegated to whatever’s left, e.g. school funding, employment, housing, etc., etc.

The issue is not terribly complicated, nor are the means of addressing it. It is the political affairs that complicate matters. Here are a few ideas, some of which are in practice in some school districts around the nation, but not everywhere.

1) Fiscal policies that provide greater equity in funding are a good place to start. We know that the challenges are greater in schools that serve a larger percentage of students experiencing poverty; so why not give them significantly greater funds to address those needs. That might mean shifting some property taxes to surrounding districts, which could cause an uproar, but uproars are part of the deal (elected officials are supposed to hammer out these types of details…compromise). And, while using the equity lens— 2) lets ensure that weighted student funding is being used, and used properly. We need to target the children with the greatest needs, be they physical, mental, or emotional.

3) Expanding the Promise Neighborhood model can provide the type of outreach and assistance that make real differences in the community’s future. This does not imply a similar scale for every new program, as smaller sites could provide similar benefits; it is the actions undertaken that fuel the change. 4) Moving to Opportunity (MTO) (1994-2004), a program designed to study the effects of providing housing vouchers to low-income families (random assignment with a control group), had some fairly significant effects, 20 years later. Providing stable housing, in neighborhoods that are not populated primarily by families experiencing poverty, makes a big difference, especially for the children.

And finally, 5) stop with all the testing. Provide students with more course options (to include the return of industrial arts and home-economics in addition to new classes that reflect markets with high job growth potential: aircraft maintenance, cyber-security, renewable energy, bio-technology, etc.); make connections between what is being taught and its relationship to real-world work; take advantage of current apprenticeship programs and develop new ones; and implement passion/identity projects that will capture each student’s imagination and provide them with extra incentive to take full advantage of their educational opportunity.  In this way, we can make education relevant to all students.

One other thought related to current practices; the high achieving students (like the 9th grade girl who is doing college level math) should not be stuck taking random courses that are preventing her from reaching her full potential. Those students who are able to move more quickly through the system (1-5 percent), should be able to do so. Why hold them back when they have the ability to succeed at a more advanced level? Do we tell the 9th grade basketball phenom that he can’t play on the varsity because he’s too young? No, we allow him to take control of his future by using his talents to expand his opportunities. It’s not that difficult to allow students to move more rapidly, the system only needs to accept the change.

At the end of the day, it’s not enough to thoroughly analyze the data provided by these tests. We can’t make assumptions based on some scores and potentially inaccurate or incomplete observations concerning students’ lives. Students deserve better than that. They are entering a world vastly more complex than the world of just 20 years ago. They don’t need to learn rote memorization skills, they need creative and critical thinking skills. They need people to believe in them, inspire and motivate them, and then, help them up when they stumble (and stumbling is all-important here, learning from mistakes is critical to any kids development). The real-world is not standard in any way shape or form. Life is messy so we might as well embrace that messiness and let students know that it only gets more difficult after graduation. By giving them a few tools, we can help them move through the next stage.

So there it is, a fix for our achievement gap problem, rather simple. Why didn’t anybody think of this before. The playing field in education, and life, is inherently unequal, that’s the nature of our world. And while it is in everyone’s best interest to work on leveling the playing surface, it will not happen in the near future, and maybe not even in the distant future. That, however, is no reason to stop trying. But until that day comes, focusing our efforts on providing the kinds of opportunities that are more likely to result in real achievement, measured in paychecks and well-being, ought to be the goal. Anything less is shortchanging the students who have already been robbed of their lunch money… change is all they’ve got left.

IMG_0345
Manhattan-Lower East Side-SoHo

 

¹ Winter, Pam. Engaging Families in the Early Childhood Development Story – Neuroscience and early childhood development: Summary of selected literature and key messages for parenting. March 2010.

http://www.scseec.edu.au/site/DefaultSite/filesystem/documents/Reports%20and%20publications/Publications/Early%20childhood%20education/Engaging%20Families%20in%20the%20ECD%20Story-Neuroscience%20and%20ECD.pdf

Guns, Criminals, Constitution & Policy

Seung-Hui Cho, the student who killed 32 people at Virginia Tech University, in 2007, had no criminal history. Adam Lanza, killed 27 people in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012, and was not, prior to this act, a criminal. James Holmes, killed 12 people in Aurora, CO, wasn’t a criminal. Jared Loughner, Tucson, AZ, killed 6, not a criminal. Robert Stewart, Carthage, NC, killed 8, not a criminal. Jeffrey Weise, Red Lake Reservation, MN, killed 9, not a criminal. James Huberty, San Ysidro, CA, 21 killed, not a criminal. This list is but a small segment of the larger list of people who have been found guilty of murdering multiple persons in what we refer to as “mass shootings“. It is also a list of individuals who, prior to their crime, had never been convicted of a criminal offense. “No prior criminal history” is a common refrain found in many of the news reports discussing these and other (not all) mass murder events. It is for this reason that I am not worried about criminals getting their hands on guns.

The NRA and some of its supporters try to persuade us that it is not the average Joe who is committing these crimes, it is the work of criminals. We are reminded daily that if there are new gun restrictions, they will limit non-criminals (your average citizen) from obtaining guns; the criminals, however, will “always be able to get guns”. The problem with that narrative is that it doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. When many of the mass shooters have never been found guilty of anything more than a misdemeanor (if that) by the criminal justice system, how can we call them criminals? The fact that their criminal history begins, and ends, with one act, should be a wake-up call to lawmakers; preventing criminals from committing these types of acts may not be their number one concern.

The next group to be blamed is rather difficult to pin down because of the varied behaviors that can be seen as normal or not normal depending on whose doing the assessing. Those individuals who are experiencing mental illness, hard to manage stress (post-traumatic, chronic, acute, et al.), or depression, are often singled out as “more likely” to engage in these kinds of acts. This provides another convenient excuse for the gun extremists (which are few in number compared to the millions of gun owners nationwide); when the shooter is found to be mentally unstable (which may or may not include those who are religiously intolerant, or affiliated with extremist views), they lay blame somewhere other than the weapons. But here too, these actions are not, in and of themselves, criminal. In the majority of these cases, criminal activity has occurred only after the shooting commences. So why does the vocal minority insist on talking to us about criminals getting guns and people who are mentally unstable, and armed, as a great danger to society? These folks aren’t the biggest concern, not even close.

Our society already watches out for those with criminal records. We “know” who commits crimes and we know some of the reasons why. We know about recidivism rates (and some programs that are working to decrease recidivism), and we keep our collective eyes peeled for the known “bad guys” who might try to do additional harm after serving their time (or they might not harm anyone). But we don’t have heightened senses for those who have never been charged with, nor found guilty of, a crime. They are the people we interact with every day.

Sure, most of us have talked about someone behind their back, with our spouses/partners, co-workers, pew-mates, bar buddies, and the like, about “his crazy rants“, reckless ways, violent vocal outbursts—concerning their wives, girlfriends, kids, neighbors, boss, local police, F.B.I., the President, et al. Yet, we assume that they, like so many others who have stated their disgust concerning the most recent “nuisance” in their life, are all talk and no action; because, really, who would act on these kinds of threats, especially after spouting off in front of numerous people—in public places.

Even Omar Mateen, who had some fairly normal teenage difficulties in his youth, was accused of domestic abuse, and is now known for perpetrating the worst mass shooting in our history, was not a criminal, in the eyes of the law. He was investigated and found to be a bit more of a threat than our friends Steve, or Ron, or Earl, or Pete, who like to talk big about what they’re gonna do to this, that, or the next person that “pisses them off”; but at the end of the day, everyone assumes it’s inane loud-mouthing, woofing, acting the fool, and all other manner of ludicrousness. So I ask you to think about the “criminal” and “mental illness” arguments that are made by some of our fellow citizens. Does it really make sense to concern ourselves with the known criminals when law enforcement is already paying closer attention to them? Should we really be watching our back constantly, because who knows when a person suffering from a malady of the brain is nearby? Or would we be better served to focus on what’s happening with the amount of gun violence in our culture; like, someone with a gun making a snap judgement, or maybe shooting up a street, or planning a massacre at a church, schoolrestaurant, club, workplace, or not planning it.

Most people don’t want to “get rid of the 2nd Amendment“; they just want some common sense measures to decrease the number of atrocities occurring in our nation. Policies that make it more difficult for anyone to obtain certain types of weapons or weapon accessories (high-capacity magazines, etc.) would be a good starting point. No, that won’t prevent all non-criminals (or criminals) from getting their hands on a weapon but it would likely prevent some of them—and that is better than none.

It is also better if the next mass shooting (because there will be more) takes the lives of 5, rather than 10, or 30, instead of 50. The families of those who are killed will be no less upset knowing that there were fewer victims of the violent act; the benefit, however, would be in knowing that fewer friends and family members were grieving the loss of a loved one. The cost of doing nothing is so much greater than any benefit inaction would generate.

Liberty Bell - Philadelphia, PA
Liberty Bell – Philadelphia, PA

If you’re reading this and thinking, the cost of any restriction on my rights to fully take advantage of the 2nd Amendment for my benefit is a cost I cannot bear. I would say, you might be kind of selfish, and furthermore, you’re never going to legally get your hands on the type of weaponry you would need to engage with a real military unit (you can’t afford an F-16), so why make such a fuss about restrictions aimed at saving lives. The idea of a militia (as referred to in the 2nd Amendment (Amendment II: A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.)), acting as a military force against a standing army,  no longer exists. We aren’t fighting the Red Coats anymore, technological advances (and having the most lethal military forces in the world) have rendered local militias mute, for this particular cause. The Constitution, to include the Bill of Rights, must adopt to the changes in our society while meeting the challenges of upholding the intent of the Framers.

What we need right now is lawmakers who are willing to look at current policies and make adjustments to outdated laws in addition to instituting new ideas. This applies not only to assault style weapons but to mental health counseling services and policies aimed at moving our civilization towards a more open and accepting society; we are, at best, a cautious and private society (especially to anyone who appears different from us) and at our worst, we are angry and hateful, particularly when we feel our social mores, our “way of life”, is threatened.

Hate is the primary driver of violence. This is not a theory, or some notion that a wise philosopher came up with while sitting atop a mountain, it’s a fact. People don’t generally kill, or maim, or injure other people because they love them or find them funny; they perpetrate these actions because of hate. In all it’s forms, hatred makes us want to lash out at someone/something. Maybe the person who caused us to feel “this way” or maybe the person that happens to be close at hand. The recipient of our rage is not as important as our inability to control it. Hate is the emotion that feeds the desire to do harm, and it’s become a bit too rampant in the present day. It must be addressed; and the laws that tackle it must have teeth.

Legislating anti-hate policy is never easy, but Americans are not ones to shy away from a challenge. We have football (American Style) and Hockey, Baltimore and NOLA, Lumberjacks and Miners,  and of course, we have Marines. We aren’t short on tough. But some of our lawmakers are short on courage. They lack the fortitude necessary to do what is right because it is unpopular with certain constituents and supporters. They are neither valiant, nor virtuous. They think first about themselves (i.e. re-election) and then about everything else. I don’t think of that as particularly American in character.

This may sound like a pie in the sky scenario, legislating acceptance and tolerance, but I’m not convinced that it can’t work. Sometimes, in order to create change, it is necessary to try the unthinkable. Maybe it could start with making civics and civility a more relevant piece of our educational curriculum. And communities could spend more time and money on making their members feel like they are part of the same gang (might even be an opportunity for some job creation here). Celebrate the uniqueness (the differences) that each group within the community contributes (just don’t get stuck on those differences, move forward to find similarities that are shared). Pretend, if necessary, that you like meeting new people; and in time, you might actually start to enjoy it.

Ducky and Junior, meeting for the 1st time and admiring each others qualities
Ducky and Junior, meeting for the 1st time and admiring each others qualities

Vanilla—It Ain’t White

What happened to vanilla? Seriously. When was it that vanilla came to be associated with a shade of the color white, and an adjective describing “bland”—and why? Who would commit such an injustice to a product of the beautiful Vanilla planifolia (a member of the orchidaceae family)? And what, you’re probably thinking, does this have to do with policy? Well, quite a bit.

The history of vanillaproduction” started in the geographic locale of the Aztec Empire (previously controlled by the Teotihuacán and then the Toltecs), in what we now know as Mexico (North America) and was cultivated by the Totonac. With the arrival of the Spanish into this region (circa 1520) and other areas in the Western Hemishpere, the Old World and New World underwent drastic changes. The movement of ideas, disease, precious metals, technologies, foodstuffs, and spices, et al., which would come to be known as the Columbian Exchange, dramatically changed the course of both hemispheres (this period also saw the annihilation/genocide of millions of indigenous peoples and several empires, by Columbus, Cortés, and other conquistadors, and their men). And the “exchange” of vanilla, to the Old World, was the first step in vanilla’s story of becoming a colour no longer tied to the plant’s origins. 

Fast forward 200 years and we might find the next clue in the color mix-up. Ice cream was gaining in popularity in 18th century Europe (according to historians), and when a fearless culinary madame/monsieur mixed vanilla into a batch of ice cream, I believe the “white” fallacy was born. As the base of ice cream is, yep, you guessed it, cream, the thick and fatty substance that is strangely similar in color to today’s perceived shade of vanilla, it would make sense that over time people eating vanilla ice cream would wrongly assume that vanilla was white. But this doesn’t help explain the other part—bland, plain, blah, meh.

Over the next couple of centuries, ice cream became America’s favorite dessert (even in ice cream deserts). And naturally, the colors that were most commonly associated with the frozen treat: white (vanilla), brown (chocolate), and pink (strawberry), also came to have additional significance.  Here’s where we may find part of the background on vanilla’s “plain Jane” problem. Whether it was due to the seemingly more decadent taste of chocolate (and all that went along with the desire to have something “other/different”), or the memories of a dish of freshly churned ice cream with just picked wild strawberries mixed in, after a Fourth-of-July celebration, the widespread availability of “regular” vanilla didn’t seem to evoke the same type of emotion. Which leads me to believe that the passage of time, combined with the desire to believe what is placed in front of one’s face, has led to the misconception of vanilla’s True Colors. As a society, we believe vanilla is both white, and boring, neither of which bear any resemblance to the true character of this most flavorful and versatile spice.

So now that we’ve determined who and what is responsible for this catastrophe of maligned color designation, lets talk about other instances where time and indifference have contributed to beliefs that are neither true nor sensical (which is akin to sensible). And then, I’ll discuss the importance of truth in labeling and the deleterious effects of buying products that are not what we think they are (this is where policy comes into play).

We currently accept a great deal of what is presented as fact, so long as the presenter is acceptable to our ears and eyes. The effects of such marketing/propaganda have helped shape current debates, policies, historical inaccuracies and general attitudes. Ask 10 people why the U.S. Civil War was fought and you’re likely to get one of three answers:  Three might say slavery, two might look at you like your speaking Shyriiwook, and the other five would likely say States Rights. Both answers are correct, in a way. However, many people still believe that the war was primarily about States Rights. And while we can say it was related to that idea, we must explain that the one right that was by far the most important (to the men who controlled the States), was the right to own human beings (slavery). Some “smarty pants” might spout off a list of rights that includes: taxation, tariffs, trade, freedom from federal powers, blah blah blah (they sound like Charlie Brown’s teacher). Yet, they leave out the fact that the Bill of Rights, specifically, the 10th Amendment, covered many of the State’s concerns. And, when one looks more closely at each of the “concerns”, they all have direct links to slavery, i.e. the South’s primary economic driver. So while this long held belief (State’s rights), as a stand alone argument, is essentially wrong, incorrect, untrue, a lie, we are still talking about it as if there’s some doubt as to the veracity of the real reason for our Civil War, the enslavement of human beings.

A short list of other time-tested fallacious fabrications, fictions, falsifications, fibs, and falsehoods includes: ♠ Jesus was “White”—kind of like vanilla, Jesus was a darker shade than the one he is often purported to resemble; ♣ the term “race” as used to describe different ethnicities—just plain wrong; ♥ we don’t lose 50% of our body heat through our noggin (this is not an excuse to go without a hat when it’s -20°); ♦ trickle-down economics will lift all boats—think about it, if you could make 10 million dollars a year by working more hours or fewer, which would you choose? Well, wealthy business people think the same, if they can work less, hire fewer people, invest less capital in new ventures and still make the same amount of money, why bother with all the extra nonsense. They have vacation homes to visit (not just 1 little cabin in the Northwoods), yachts to party on, polo matches to watch, and politicians to influence…they’re busy folks. So lets get on with the process of making income/wealth inequality grow; ♠ and while we’re on the topic of finance, “money can’t buy happiness”—I’d be happy to make a wager with anybody who’s looking to lose some money. Sure, after a certain amount of wealth is earned, we wouldn’t expect to gain as much “utility” from an extra million or two; but for anyone who lives paycheck to paycheck, or is unemployed and relying on the social insurance programs administered by government agencies, money can and does buy happiness. ♣ and a couple more recent illustrations of this phenomenon: ♥ you have to be smart to be successful—George W. Bush (I’m not hating, just pointing out the obvious); ♦ and, guns are just tools, like shovels, rakes, garden hoes, etc.—guns were designed with one purpose in mind, and it wasn’t skeet shooting. Guns were the next big thing in the evolution of individually controlled killing implements. While many people use them for shooting clay pigeons, beer bottles, pumpkins, and the dust off of a fly’s wing, they are still designed to end a life, be it human or animal. That, I would argue, is a far cry from what most “tools” are designed to accomplish.

Now then, let’s look at the problems associated with products that are labeled as (ex.) ƒ(x) = 36x + 5, but what you actually end up with is pistachio pudding. What happened? How did that function of (x), that I bought with my hard-earned money, turn out to be pistachio pudding? Well, maybe the celebrity endorser pitching the product wasn’t being completely honest with you. Or maybe you wanted to believe that you could get a real Rolex for $150. because that guy on the corner with the table of nice watches really needed the money and that’s the only reason he was selling it so cheap. Sometimes, nobody is any worse for the deal. The knockoff Prada handbag made the buyer happy to have a replica that looked legit, and the salesperson made some money. The problems occur when you are unknowingly endangering yourself or others.

Do you remember the toxic drywall that was imported from China and caused (and is still causing) plumbing, electrical, and health problems across the South? How about the formaldehyde trailers that were delivered to displaced Gulf Coast residents after hurricanes Katrina and Rita, in 2005 (because that’s just what every dislocated person wants after a catastrophic event, more health problems)? Ever asked for a Coke at a restaurant and gotten a Pepsi, or is it Royal Crown, no, wait…it’s “cola”, something sharing a few of Coke’s qualities, carbonated water, caramel color, caffeine, but definitely not the same as Coke. Big or small, these things matter. When we’re told we are buying, or being provided with, one product, and later find that we’ve gotten something that is close to what we assumed we were getting, but not quite the same (and in some cases extremely different), we have reason for concern if not downright outrage. Sure, the generic cola won’t kill us (we hope), but if you’ve been looking forward to lunch (at the place your project manager recommended), thinking about that patty melt with bacon, perfectly deep fried tater-tots, and the crisp refreshing bite that hits the back of the palette after taking a big swig of real Coke, and instead you get a lackluster mouthful of overly saccharine cola, your lunch break letdown won’t ruin the rest of your day (your coworker did that by accidentally squeezing the jelly out of his donut and onto your shirt sleeve), but you might return to the office feeling a bit more deflated than when you left, and now you have to go into a post-lunch meeting with the same project manager, the one who tells you to smile more, with one less reason to smile and one more reason to leave anonymous hateful little notes on his desk.

Again, a short list of items that you may want to double check prior to purchasing (or maybe you like to live dangerously): ♠ fish—the mislabeling of seafood is bad for three reasons: you might be paying too much for an inferior product that doesn’t taste as good, the people working on the fishing boats are enslaved, and you could be unwittingly eating a fish that is currently over-fished/not sustainable; ♣ sunglasses—if you’re not concerned about your eyes long-term viability, don’t worry about this; conversely, if you hope to keep your sight top notch into your golden years (so you can watch the paint dry), make sure you’re getting the real deal; ♥ fragrances/cosmetics—some of the chemicals etc. that are being used in the fakes are toxic and/or gross; ♦ pharmaceuticals—no commentary necessary here, but, think about the cost and the potential consequences of getting a drug that is potentially the same but due to lack of oversight the dosage might be high, or low, and make you more sick, or simply fail to cure what ails you; ♠ flea & tick products—many are good, some are not, and your pets are not the only family members that can be affected.

Mislabeling of products, and inaccurate classifications run the gamut from “no big deal” to “holy shit, that coulda killed me”; these are issues I think about when I hear people relating boring and white (like this guy appears) to vanilla. Vanilla is anything but boring and most certainly not even close to any shade of white. And while the vanilla farmers of Mexico, Madagascar, Comoros, et al. may not care what you believe about vanilla, so long as you’re buying it, I think of the vanilla lie as a type of “gateway drug” to believing, and even promoting, other untrue and possibly slanderous/historically inaccurate theories. Fertilizers, pesticides, nutritional supplements, comestibles, and other products are regularly found to be noncompliant with generally accepted consumer product safety measures/standards.

To be clear, I know that vanilla ice cream, frosting (butter cream or others), protein powders, yogurt, etc., etc., are shades of white (and sometimes very bland) due to other ingredients. However, these products, and others, have coloured our perceptions about actual vanilla characteristics. When we make assumptions about something based on false pretenses, we fail to consider the background as well as the implications and ramifications for future generations. Policies that fail to address flawed or distorted belief systems (thank you South CaroliniansGov. Haley) and overlook misleading (intentional or otherwise) product statements can have serious negative consequences, both known and unknown.

Anytime someone is trying to sell you something, or sell anyone else something, take a piece of advice from Suzanne Massie, “Trust but verify”.

Vanilla Bean/Pod, not white, more deep, dark, rich, brownish black
Vanilla Bean/Pod, not white, more deep, dark, rich, brownish black

Owl City – Vanilla Twilight

If you’d like to see the difference real vanilla can make in a simple way, buy a vanilla Coke (if you can find it) and make a vanilla Coke using Mexican Coke. The flavor differential is significant.

2016 Presidential Primary Season: Do The Polls Have It Right?

Here we are, just days from the first caucus/primary for the 2016 Presidential election. The candidates have provided us with an overwhelming amount of politicking (some of it pretty good), mountainous volumes of material requiring fact-checking, and a fair amount of thespian-like antics. Since last July, we have seen the field shrink, if only slightly; but after Iowa and New Hampshire, it is likely we will find out who the real contenders are in the G.O.P. and just how close the Democratic race will be. Current polls show Donald Trump and Ted Cruz leading in the Republican race, and Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders both looking strong. However, it is probable that March 1st (a.k.a. Super Tuesday) will bring us a very different looking contest on the Right side of the aisle. By the time the candidates leave South Carolina and Nevada, the field should be whittled to two or three serious contenders per party (plus the possible wild card, Michael Bloomberg).  And then, the real melee begins; Small Victories can turn the tide and carry the day.

The contenders have had 6-12 months (or more…Hillary) to make us aware of their stances on various policies as well as beliefs and occasionally solutions concerning: social issues, the economy and related matters (unemployment/underemployment rates, wages and wage disparity (household incomes, taxes), GDP, TPT,  the housing market, the stock market & Wall Street reforms, and the importance of small business in America), global warming, health care/ACA/Obama-Care, criminal/social justice, religious beliefs, the V.A., and even a little about the environment and education.

They have also told us, more or less, about their thoughts on DOD spending, the DEA, DHS, DOJ, DOT, EOs, EPA, FRB & FRS, INS, JCAT, NNSA, ORR, OWH, SEC, SSA, USCCR, WHO, and the WTO. Which is to say, we’ve learned a lot about who they are (or who they say they are for the sake of votes). But they’ve also told us a lot about what matters to them based on what they haven’t talked about.

We didn’t hear much, if any, discussion surrounding: cyber-securityECA, ECIE, EOWS, FEC, HUD, MBDA, OSERS, VTO, OCTAE, ONAAPHA, PLLI, RBS & RECD, SDWIS, USIP, VAWO, WIC, youth employment/training programs, or WNET. So it’s probably safe to assume that policy ideas concerning: replacing old voting machines; marijuana legalization; affordable housing and urban development; employment & training programs for youth & adults; and rural economic development; will not be front and center on any candidates updated websites next week.

Policy matters aside, the Democratic nomination is shaping up to be much more of a contest than most pundits thought twelve short months ago. Secretary Clinton still has an edge, nationally, but Senator Sanders has shown how his youth movement can have a substantial impact, already doing yeomen’s work in Iowa and New Hampshire. Governor O’Malley is simply raising his profile in hopes of having a better outcome in 2020 or 2024, depending on what happens this November. The Republicans, conversely, look like they will be engaged in a much greater competition and may end up getting into some of the back-room deals that were more common in the politics of yesteryear.

But look at what the polls tell us…

I don’t put a lot of weight in the polls that have Donald Trump and Ted Cruz with big leads (which would be the vast majority). This is not to question the veracity of their methods but to highlight the realities of modern polling. Here’s the scoop. Polls have the uncanny ability of being able to tell pollsters whatever they want to hear (not saying this is the intent of the aforementioned survey firms). Good polling outfits design a survey using tightly structured methods, within set parameters, and scrutinize every angle prior to the final product being rolled out. That said, even when the best in the business believe they’re doing everything right, sometimes it all goes to pot. The potential snafus are illustrated in many instances and there are various reasons for results coming out the way they do (Dewey defeats Truman; Landon-vs.-Roosevelt; Bevin (R)-vs-Conway (D)). Additionally, people forget that these polls reflect the beliefs of those who are still answering their phones when an unknown # (or a “known” #) comes up. It’s unlikely that a broad swath of our nation is taking part in such antiquated methods (which is to say a lot of phone calls are being placed in order to reach the magic number of responses); rather, it may be that the most extreme constituents, on both sides, Left & Right, are completing many of the phone questionnaires. Moreover, how many of the folks who support Trump on the phone are going to bother showing up on primary day? He might have a lot of backing from the “all talk – no action” crowd; who knows?

Many political polls are done well and are valuable because the time was taken to ensure accurate results. Additionally, when multiple polls are considered in a forecast, along with in-depth analysis and common sense, the odds are definitely in one’s favor. But, it’s still difficult to imagine Donald Trump & Senator Cruz being the big winners in the 1st (3) states (or the remainder of the primaries for that matter). Why? you ask. Because; Trump is still not running a serious campaign (more like buffoonery on planet clown) and Cruz is about to learn just how serious the Republican gate-keepers are. When the old guard talks about finding a candidate who can draw interest from hard-line Conservatives, along with the more socially moderate Republicans and Independents who lean Right, they’re not endorsing a firebrand like Cruz.

As for the remainder of the Republican field, Governor Christie and Governor Bush still have an outside shot but their odds are just a bit better than the chance our national flag will get a 51st star (for the State of Superioranytime soon—not great. Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson did well to garner the support they did, neither being particularly astute politicians. Rand Paul and Jim Gilmore (wait, who?) will always have their supporters, regardless of how small their fraternities may be. And Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee should have followed their friend, Scott Walker, in a stage-left-exit, prior to the holiday gatherings; it would have saved them the embarrassment of having family members ask, “How is Donald Trump beating you?” while sipping BouRye and wearing a sarcastic grin.

But What Do I Know?

So, which candidates will come out of wintertide’s donnybrook with a crown & cape and a road map to the nominating conventions, in Cleveland and Philadelphia. Well, on the Republican side, Marco Rubio and John Kasich wouldn’t be bad bets. They’re both fairly level-headed and don’t offend a majority of the party elite. And for the Dems—as hard as it is to imagine, the presumptive nominee, Clinton, could be a two-time runner-up; it wouldn’t surprise me. Nor would I be surprised if she suddenly surged on Super Tuesday. The nation’s voters (to include the so-called Independents) have seen a number of changes in their demographics in the past 10 years and we could be in for a surprise, or three.

Amongst Republicans, Rubio has a slight edge as he is better known amongst likely voters. And between his youth, his heritage, his home state (Florida), and his measured responses to most questions, it is realistic to think the majority of the party royalty will support his nomination. The opposing side (Dems) may not shake out a candidate until June, after California and New Jersey announce the winners in their primaries. It looks as though we might be in for a spirited six-month skirmish, on both banks of the the District’s aisle. Whatever ends up happening, it’s good to know that come the morn of  9 November, we should know what it all means.

 

 

 

Non-Standard Ideas for America’s Public Schools

Kindergartenhistorysaurus: finger-painted collage, newspaper stuffed, dinosaur created by Kindergarteners at Soutwest Baltimore Charter School (2009)
Kindergartenhistorysaurus: finger-painted collage, newspaper stuffed, dinosaur, created by Kindergarteners at Southwest Baltimore Charter School – (2009)

The value of any education cannot be found in a test score. Education’s value is fully realized only after what is learned becomes useful to the learner.

With President Obama’s recent statement concerning the overabundance of standardized tests (ST) in public schools, it appears as though common sense will finally be injected into the highest levels of the public education conversation. This is not to say we will see the end of standardized testing anytime soon; but, we can at least begin thinking about the day when these tests, and the standards they attempt to measure, will not be the focus of every politician’s education policy. If we’ve learned anything from this federally mandated experiment over the past decade and a half, it is this; standardized tests are really good at predicting one thing, socio-economic status.

It seems as though standards and the tests that measure achievement (and all that goes along with the entire debacle), have been at the forefront of education policy forever, yet it was implemented at the Federal level just thirteen years ago. The idea of Test – Measure – Sanction/Reward, was not immediately questioned by many members in the profession; but by the end of President Bush’s (43) first term, a majority of educators saw the bigger picture—and the effects on students: heightened anxiety; increased apathy ; and new pressures for many students who are already enduring elevated stress levels in their everyday life. The calls for reform grew larger and more vocal and finally we have turned a corner.

Since the inception of No Child Left Behind (NCLB (2002))(the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965)), our way of educating children has changed dramatically, and not so much for the better. With each passing year, increased pressure has been placed upon educators and administrators to improve test scores so as to avoid the sanctions that may come from not meeting adequate yearly progress (AYP). On the surface, this might seem like a logical way to ensure the youth of our country are getting the best education possible. In reality, it means corners will be/have been cut, laws will be/have been broken, and many in the system will/have suffer(ed). Additionally, curiosity, creativity, and the joy of learning have taken a back seat to raising test scores.

My biggest concern with all the focus on standardized testing (aside from the stigma that adheres to schools and students who regularly don’t achieve the rank of “proficient”), is the presumption that because we are providing standardized tests to capture the progress of said schools/students, then those students must be engaging in standardized learning. This is simply not the case.

Whether students are learning differently due to their own genetic variations in learning styles (nature) or because of the environment in which they are raised (nurture), or more likely a combination of the two, it is ridiculous to assume that the basic learning experience (for nearly 50 million students nationwide) will be standard. Moreover, the environments in which these children grow up and the learning communities that are charged with educating them are vastly different in social, economic, and physical makeup. This is true across all sectors, be it nationwide, state-wide and even district-wide.

By assuming to know what a student should be able to learn, we are providing a kind of default setting for achievement. This means the aspiring cyber security analyst may not receive work that is challenging her mental acumen in the appropriate areas and the future aircraft mechanic is taking courses in algebra II or chemistry when they would be better served learning about the mechanical workings of Boeing’s 777X flight controls. And for the student who has no idea what direction he is heading, then a curriculum that provides a well-rounded and integrated course of instruction (core subjects as well as arts, languages, and skills based classes) would be most appropriate. We must remember that as quickly as technology advances, so too will new jobs be created. Attempting to teach kids by the old method of rote memorization is fine for multiplication tables; but the jobs of the future will require far more in the way of creative thought processes. Standardized tests cannot hope to capture the complexity of the creative thinking of a 15 year-old student.

To be clear, I am not arguing against standards, just the idea that a 1-size-fits-all standard is not serving the majority of our students. Moreover, education is NOT a business, students are NOT inputs, and student success CANNOT be determined with standard output, e.g. test scores.

Standards and standardization have their place in education and elsewhere. I contemplate how crazy life would be if we didn’t have the advantages of standardization everywhere we look. The standard Polo shirt, standard pick-up truck, standard bank system, standard political candidates, standard grilled cheese, & even standard metronomes for our standard musicians to incorporate into the Standards. But really, do we believe that a standard serves to provide the best take on any given product or entity?

Providing standards (defined as “a level of quality, achievement, etc., that is considered acceptable or desirable” Merriam-Webster) is a way to communicate the lowest acceptable benchmark. But we know that having one benchmark doesn’t provide society with adequate options for anything: trucks, sandwiches, politicians, et al., so why should we believe that one standard for all students is an appropriate way to conduct learning? Having multiple standards for students that are interested in vastly different fields makes perfect sense. Engineers, nurses, and chefs have very few professional requirements that overlap. Hence the reason that education standards need to be updated to more accurately reflect the world into which our young adults enter; furthermore, the tests that attempt to measure progress need a total reconfiguration so as to provide meaningful assessment and feedback in realtime.

Yes, I took the ASVAB, a few Wisconsin mandated tests, and probably a couple more tests that millions of other students took; but I don’t recall a teacher ever telling me how important it was that I do well, doing my best was all that was asked. Nor do I recall ever spending an extra minute, let alone an extra hour, every day, to prep for the tests. I imagine my parents would have taken umbrage with such a waste of time in our educational day.

2 standard Jack-O-Lanterns
2 non-standard Jack-O-Lanterns

The current testing situation reminds me of a conversation that I’ve never heard, but could imagine taking place in the not-too-distant future, between two public school students (A.B. & C.D., seniors in high school we’ll say), at a standard pharmacy, in a standard suburb, concerning their standard day. And,  never having known anything but this madness of standardized testing, it might sound something like this.

A.B: Hey Man, what’s up?

C.D: Nothing Man, pretty standard day.

A.B: Tell me about it… (which didn’t really mean, “Tell me about it”, but having been conditioned to follow instructions exactly as they are read/heard, C.D. begins to tell A.B. about his standard day)

C.D: OK, so, I woke up at 7:05 and headed to the bathroom, it’s standard, 8’x5′, all the standard accessories, you know; took care of business and then got dressed in the standard threads my mom laid out for me, last night. I had a standard breakfast, 1 chocolatey chip eggo, 1 s’mores pop-tart, and a glass of juice that’s not really juice but it tastes like orange flavor, so whatever; then E.F. picked me up in his standard Toyota Camry, you know, the 2005 model that comes standard with cup holders, bucket seats, rear defrost, c.d. player, turn signals, which he only uses when Five-0 is behind him cuz a gear-head told him he could run out of blinker fluid if he used them too much…

A.B: Smart

C.D: …and it’s a manual, you know, standard transmission, it took E.F. like 10 months to learn how to drive that thing. Anyway, he had the standard jams on the stereo, “old skool” Beyonce´T-SwizzleThe Biebs, and one song that was totally not standard, he said it was in some drama thing his sister is doing, it kept talking about minutes and coffee and stuff, I didn’t get it. We talked about standard stuff: clothes, music, gym class, the girl who wears the standard jeans & v-neck sweater & always has her hair pulled back in a ponytail, which is so not standard, but it should be, I think, or not, I don’t know, and then we got to school, at our standard time, and met-up with G.H., I.J., & K.L, and talked about our standard night, you know, last night; we talked about sport-o practice, and non-sport-o practice, and our standard microwave dinner that tastes like—food, I guess, and about texting our bro’s & some chicks & I.J. said he was texting with the nerdy girl, the one that’s cute but totally not standard, wears Shell Toes, cat-eye glasses, I think she might have a tattoo on her ankle but it could just be a bug that’s always in the same spot, I don’t know, and our standard homework, math, english, science…I think I worked on something non-standard too, maybe it was something from social studies, yeah, Fred, No, Doug Fredrickson, or Douglas Freederman, I don’t know, something about the 4th of July…It’s Novemeber Dude, not July, JESUS! So non-standard, what’s that Dude thinking?

A.B: Um, yeah, ok Man, I didn’t really need to know step-by-step.

C.D: Oh, OK, so what about that party on Friday, after the football game, which we probably won’t win, you know, based on past performances, we’re so below proficient in football skills, it’s like the coaches aren’t spending enough time going over the standard plays.

A.B: Yeah, true.

C.D: Oh did I tell you about math class today?

A.B: Ummmm, no.

C.D: It was sweet, we went over the material for our next standardized test, all the information we’ll need to know so that we can score proficient. Those tests are So Boss! They hold us to such high standards and make sure we’re prepped for the ACT, SAT, H.S.E.E.s, & all that college-type stuff that we’re gonna be doing next year—in college. I can’t wait for college, all the standard courses, reading the standard texts, not having to think too much, you know, just keepin’ it real, preppin’ myself for that standard job I’ll get, out there in the big standardized world; Man, I love thinking about stuff like this, it’s so standard, not confusing, like art; what the hell was Ms. O.P. talkin’ about today, anyway. Something about Pick-asso and Africa, and the way that some artist dudes appropriated ideas but didn’t tell anybody and… I didn’t get it. Glad I won’t have to take any art classes in college.

A.B: Yeah Man, agreed; standards are totally awesome, why didn’t they have them when our parents were kids? They had it rough; my mom was tellin’ me about how they had to learn all kinds of different stuff, depending on what the teacher thought they should learn, how lame. How did they even get jobs?

C.D: I don’t know man, seems like they did what they wanted and didn’t worry about standards, weird. Oh, hey man, it’s Q.R.

Autumn colors
Autumn colors that exceed excellence, way above proficient

 

Of course we had standards before NCLB (both written and unwritten); but we, as students, didn’t know much, if anything, about them. We knew that we were supposed to be learning but we weren’t made to feel as though the future of the school depended on our ability to pass a test (because it didn’t). Our jobs were to learn the subject matter that was presented and if the class we were in had a quiz or a test, we did our best on it. In this way, we spent all of our time (or at least a good portion of it) learning about a wide variety of subjects.

At the end of the day, the one question that we need to answer is this: How does each individual student define success? This question should drive any new education policy. And don’t think this equates to a free-for-all in our schools. Students learn best when they are engaged/interested in the material that is being presented. Most students aren’t interested in math. And why would they be? It is rarely presented in a manner that equates to anything considered cool. Many kids associate math with being a math teacher, or a scientist, neither of which are appealing to the typical adolescent. But if we integrate math into a curriculum that relates to students’ areas of interest: music/arts, sports, health & wellness, design of all types, media (traditional print, t.v., radio, online) transportation, food and other service  industries, it is more likely that students will become proactive in the learning process. AND, we can focus more time on those areas that will truly be relevant to their future.

Side-bar: This idea definitely requires smaller class sizes, more teachers, more community volunteers, and more money. Those are all details that can be worked out.

The model of student/self directed learning (SDL) (or, my own variation, Individual Project Based Learning, (IPBL) which would be undertaken in the final two years of high school and be preceded by small team PBL (8th-10th) and whole group/small group PBL (K-7th)), is not spreading like wild-fire—yet. SDL is however, being explored and it has advocates around the country. These models have the potential to completely reshape the learning environment. Additionally, they will allow the students to dictate what success looks like to them (which means they are more likely to be invested in the daily grind of achieving that success). Furthermore, this type of pedagogy has the potential to integrate the larger community into the school community. Business owners, employees, and retirees from myriad sectors could act as champions for, and mentors to, the students. In these ways (smaller class sizes and community interaction with the schools/students) relationships can be built and enriched and the social fabric of the community will have an opportunity to expand while strengthening the ties that bind.

Collecting test scores and compiling the data for analysis in any number of multivariate regressions does not help the student determine what success looks like for her. By imposing a definition that does not align with the student’s vision for the future, we are telling them that THEY, the student’s, are not the most important piece of the education equation. They are simply here to provide data for the adults to analyze. Then, post analysis, some new plan will be hatched, money will be spent on the materials and the training, and “we” will try yet again to increase the number of proficient students and close the “all-important” achievement gap.

That policy has been tried too many times, It Is Tired, and everyone is tired of it (except the corporations that are reaping the financial rewards). We need to think in new ways; the way that George Pullman did when thinking about how to save Chicago or the way Mary Wollstonecraft thought about Women’s Rights, we need an entirely new blueprint that can fit within the basic parameters of public ed. The educational system needs to do a better job of thinking about why It exists; it is not to employ adults who are wanting to work in education circles (amazing as they are & necessary though they may be), nor does it exist as a location in which we warehouse youngsters until they are old enough to go out and earn a living; but rather, our education policies must be student-centric.

Students, as we know, will be in charge of moving our nation and economy forward in the coming decades. Let’s prepare them to be successful in the ways that they see their future selves achieving success; because the number of jobs that require filling in bubbles on a scantron are about the same number that hire people to soak up U.V. rays. Moreover, by equipping them with the skills, cognitive, and all the rest, that will serve them best, we will be doing our part to promote the common good and guide our nation into the 22nd century.

 

Platteville Limestone along the Mississippi
Platteville Limestone along the Mississippi, non-standard color combination in natural setting

 

 

The Way It Is: Recalling the Verse of Tupac Shakur

In 2015 the United States has witnessed a resurgence of the Civil Rights Movement (#CRM). 50 years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (#CRA’64) and Voting Rights Act of 1965 (#VRA’65), African Americans are still facing discrimination in the workplace, schools, financial institutions, housingcivic engagement, and via policing efforts within their community. While much of the anti-minority behaviors are now covert and institutionalized, the overt epithets persist. Furthermore, the support of political candidates who are opposed to affirmative action and equitable opportunities is wide-spread; and supporters of these figures wear their disdain for People of Color like a a badge of courage—a badge in the form of a Rebel Flag or Ann Coulter bumper sticker.

While no-one should argue the fact that progress in relations have been made, we should not fall into the trap of believing that the election (twice) of an African American President and numerous Black Mayors, Police Chiefs, and political figures at all levels of government, portends equal treatment of Black & White. Nor can we pretend that all of the policies instituted to combat the issues created by centuries of segregation and faulty beliefs have worked exactly as planned. Rather, it is reasonable to believe that relations have deteriorated from the “high point” of the late 1970s/early 1980s. And while 1975-’85 was not all-together a portrait of peace, love, and unity, comparatively, the country had made substantial progress from just a decade prior.

I see no changes. All I see is racist faces.
Misplaced hate makes disgrace to races we under.
I wonder what it takes to make this one better place…
let’s erase the wasted.
Take the evil out the people, they’ll be acting right.
‘Cause both black and white are smokin’ crack tonight.
And only time we chill is when we kill each other.
It takes skill to be real, time to heal each other.
And although it seems heaven sent,
we ain’t ready to see a black President,
It ain’t a secret don’t conceal the fact…
the penitentiary’s packed, and it’s filled with blacks.

The reasons for this phenomenon, the revitalization of The Movement, are likely many and varied, but at or near the top of the list must be the reawakening of people everywhere—for all of the obvious reasons: police brutality, discrimination in lending, housing, and educational opportunities, wage disparities & the widening of the income/wealth gap, and an enormous imbalance in economic opportunity based almost entirely on one’s home address. There is a growing realization that without pulling back the shades and exposing the truth of our country’s deep-seated difficulties in talking about this mythical creation of “race”, and everything that word entails, we will not be able to move forward and progress in a manner that provides Equitable Opportunities, Access, and JusticeFor All.

Tupac Shakur, one of our nation’s most celebrated and important musicians (and by all accounts, controversial),wrote a lot of music that challenged society’s wide-held belief’s about impoverished inner-city neighborhoods. In his song #Changes (originally recorded in 1992 with a remix released in 1998), Tupac dove into a number of these matters, providing the impetus for some young scholars, many of whom were not from neighborhoods resembling Nickerson Garden (Watts-L.A.), Hunts Point (The Bronx-NYC), or the Henry Horner Homes (Near West Side-Chicago), to dig deeper into what was really going on in The Other America. By exposing the lived experiences of these communities, to outsiders, Tupac, and other musicians, helped educate large numbers of Generation X (and some Baby Boomers and now Millennials), about the blurring of lines. The realization that life was not black and white—but rather a million shades of grey; and the differences between what was portrayed on the nightly news, on the printed page, and in the perceptions held by many Americans, versus, what was actually going on, spurred new research and outreach programs from coast-to-coast.

And still I see no changes. Can’t a brother get a little peace?
There’s war on the streets and the war in the Middle East.
Instead of war on poverty,
they got a war on drugs so the police can bother me.
And I ain’t never did a crime I ain’t have to do.
But now I’m back with the facts givin’ ’em back to you.
Don’t let ’em jack you up, back you up, crack you up and pimp smack you up.

For all of the time and energy that have gone into the research and programs that aspire to alleviate the difficulties found in America’s urban cores: high rates of homelessness and mobility, the decreased tax bases as corporations and wealthier White families fled for the suburbs, the lack of decent jobs, the influx of drugs and all that accompanies that scene, and the continued lack of investment in the future e.g. schools, youth programming, internships and apprenticeships, the struggles continue.

But some things will never change.
Try to show another way, but they stayin’ in the dope game.
Now tell me what’s a mother to do?
Bein’ real don’t appeal to the brother in you.
You gotta operate the easy way.
“I made a G today” But you made it in a sleazy way.
Sellin’ crack to the kids. “I gotta get paid,”
Well hey, well that’s the way it is.

Another common refrain in Tupac’s music concerns police brutality and the long history as it plays out in the African American community. It didn’t start with Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice. Nor was it new in the instances of Rodney King, Michael Stewart, or Johnny Robinson. Murder, lynching, beating, and harassment of African Americans (and Africans, prior to the 1807 act banning the Slave Trade) began long before the U.S. of A. was a nation, and, it predates, if only briefly, the early police forces.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett attempted to put an end to the practice of mob justice via lynching (often known about by local law enforcement if not fully supported and aided by it) by making a public account, The Red Record, for the country’s populace to read. Wells-Barnett’s work should be credited with bringing about  Changes in the way our justice system handled alleged allegations, but we have not yet eradicated improper use of force from policing or neighborhood associations.

I see no changes. Wake up in the morning and I ask myself,
“Is life worth living? Should I blast myself?”
I’m tired of bein’ poor and even worse I’m black.
My stomach hurts, so I’m lookin’ for a purse to snatch.
Cops give a damn about a negro? Pull the trigger, kill a nigga, he’s a hero.
Give the crack to the kids who the hell cares? One less hungry mouth on the welfare.

Our society has made progress, but how much depends a great deal on the view from your front stoop…and which “America” you live in. The biggest issues cannot be fixed with a policy, they require people to stop and think about the way they are treating other human beings, and then decide they want to Change. That said, there are policies, specifically fiscal, that could go a long way to leveling the playing field. Investing more, A LOT MORE, in public schools would be a good start. Providing inner-city schools with the funding to secure wrap-around services, similar to those that are currently being used by many of our Nation’s Promise Neighborhoods, would be a good first step.

Organizations such as the Northside Achievement Zone (NAZ) in Minneapolis, Partners for Education: Berea College (KY), and the Chula Vista Promise Neighborhood (CA), are providing a helping hand to members of local communities who need a little assistance getting things moving in the right direction. From health care and nutrition, to tutoring, to adult education classes, these programs give people not only hope, but also the skills to make sure the Changes they undergo, last.

Second, we could ask Congress to pass H.R. 40Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act (Ta’Nehisi Coates made a great argument supporting reparations). This could serve as the catalyst to provide investment in both urban and rural communities where investment in schools, businesses, and public spaces/programs would help revitalize neighborhoods and lives. And third, the government could provide incentives to small and medium size businesses to bring jobs, Good Paying Jobs, to our city centers. This form of economic investment could pay dividends that have far-reaching effects, in terms of stability in housing, raising the tax base for school funding, and providing individuals & families a reason to reengage with the democratic process.

This may sound like a lot, but really, considering the alternative, the status quo, or even deteriorating relations and continued disinvestment in our country—our cities—our communities, it seems like a pretty good idea to make the necessary policy Changes to put us on a path that begins the healing process and thinks long-term about our Nation’s future well-being.

 

 

Rising Sun between the Brooklyn Bridge & the Manhattan Bridge
Rising Sun between the Brooklyn Bridge & the Manhattan Bridge

 

Manhattan Institute put out a Civic Report on New York City’s Poorest Neighborhoods. (2014)

Changes

Come on come on
I see no changes. Wake up in the morning and I ask myself,
“Is life worth living? Should I blast myself?”
I’m tired of bein’ poor and even worse I’m black.
My stomach hurts, so I’m lookin’ for a purse to snatch.
Cops give a damn about a negro? Pull the trigger, kill a nigga, he’s a hero.
Give the crack to the kids who the hell cares? One less hungry mouth on the welfare.
First ship ’em dope and let ’em deal to brothers.
Give ’em guns, step back, and watch ’em kill each other.
“It’s time to fight back”, that’s what Huey said.
2 shots in the dark now Huey’s dead.
I got love for my brother, but we can never go nowhere
unless we share with each other. We gotta start makin’ changes.
Learn to see me as a brother ‘stead of 2 distant strangers.
And that’s how it’s supposed to be.
How can the Devil take a brother if he’s close to me?
I’d love to go back to when we played as kids
but things changed, and that’s the way it is
Come on come on
That’s just the way it is
Things’ll never be the same
That’s just the way it is
aww yeah
I see no changes. All I see is racist faces.
Misplaced hate makes disgrace to races we under.
I wonder what it takes to make this one better place…
let’s erase the wasted.
Take the evil out the people, they’ll be acting right.
‘Cause both black and white are smokin’ crack tonight.
And only time we chill is when we kill each other.
It takes skill to be real, time to heal each other.
And although it seems heaven sent,
we ain’t ready to see a black President, uhh.
It ain’t a secret don’t conceal the fact…
the penitentiary’s packed, and it’s filled with blacks.
But some things will never change.
Try to show another way, but they stayin’ in the dope game.
Now tell me what’s a mother to do?
Bein’ real don’t appeal to the brother in you.
You gotta operate the easy way.
“I made a G today” But you made it in a sleazy way.
Sellin’ crack to the kids. “I gotta get paid,”
Well hey, well that’s the way it is.
We gotta make a change…
It’s time for us as a people to start makin’ some changes.
Let’s change the way we eat, let’s change the way we live
and let’s change the way we treat each other.
You see the old way wasn’t working so it’s on us to do
what we gotta do, to survive.
And still I see no changes. Can’t a brother get a little peace?
There’s war on the streets and the war in the Middle East.
Instead of war on poverty,
they got a war on drugs so the police can bother me.
And I ain’t never did a crime I ain’t have to do.
But now I’m back with the facts givin’ ’em back to you.
Don’t let ’em jack you up, back you up, crack you up and pimp smack you up.
You gotta learn to hold ya own.
They get jealous when they see ya with ya mobile phone.
But tell the cops they can’t touch this.
I don’t trust this, when they try to rush I bust this.
That’s the sound of my tool. You say it ain’t cool, but mama didn’t raise no fool.
And as long as I stay black, I gotta stay strapped and I never get to lay back.
‘Cause I always got to worry ’bout the payback.
Some buck that I roughed up way back… comin’ back after all these years.
Rat-a-tat-tat-tat-tat. That’s the way it is. uhh
Some things will never change

Tupac – Do For Love; I Ain’t Mad At Cha

Isabel Wilkerson‘s The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, sheds light on the lives of African Americans’ journeys out of the Jim Crow South, to the Northeast, Midwest, and West Coast. Superb! Pack a lunch, it’s a long read but worth every minute of your time.

Tanner Colby has written a great book about how we (as a society) have come to be in the place we are. Some of My Best Friends are Black: The Strange Story of Integration in AmericaEspecially good for anyone familiar with life in Alabama, Louisiana, K.C. MO & K.C. K., and NYC. But, really, just read it. You’ll Love it!

 

Rugged Individualism: It’s Not Really So Real

There is a myth that persists in our society, a myth that the rugged individual (RI)(read: male, usually White, tough, rough, “self-made man“, does it “his way”; think – John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Indiana Jones, Donald Trump, George W. Bush, and the Marlboro Man) is the one who gets things done and makes our country the military, economic, and “moral” superpower it is. He explores new places or ideas, fights the “good fight”, goes his own way & finds success, and usually saves the day—in one way or another. He is the reason, some believe, that America is great. He is also the role model for those who wish to remake America in his image (that is to say, without government policies that intervene in social or economic affairs—for the most part). They say that this RI personality trait lies within the social fabric of American society, it’s part of “our” DNA. The only problem with this kind of thinking, is that it’s leaving out 95% of the story, and anyone who is not of the male gender.

The other 95% of the story tells of how these tough guys were often raised by families that cared about their physical, mental, and likely spiritual, well being. Additionally, they were raised in communities (be it rural, urban, or the netherworld that lies between) where neighbors helped neighbors, believing in the notion that the whole is greater than any individual part. Without this solid foundation upon which they were raised (that the well-being of the local polity and its constituents take precedent over any one individual), it is doubtful that the more interesting 5% of their story would ever occur.

It should also be pointed out that rugged individualism, the American type, is not exclusively practiced by the male species nor dominated by the descendants of European Americans; men & women of all ethnicities have practiced some form or another of this character trait ever since our continent was first inhabited by Native Peoples more than 10,000 years ago.

Whether the communities that raise these RIs chose to act in a collective manner because of the biblical teachings they heard on Sunday’s, or because they knew that their community was stronger if every person was healthy, educated (in whatever professions were important to the continued existence of their inhabitants) and engaged in furthering the group’s well being, they worked together for the common good. This fraternal style of living arrangement does not preclude any RI from performing heroic acts, or spending long, lonely, hours developing a plan/model for a new venture; but at the end of the day, the solo acts are only one small part of the lived experience of every individual’s greater existence. The ongoing support from friends, family, neighbors, teachers, community, et al. is far more important in any success achieved by “The Great One”, and in the telling of the full story. And this is where some of Americas’ Great Divides have their beginnings.

The real history of our great country is not one of solo actors daring to be great, but rather communal actors being supported in their not truly individual endeavors. While the period of the Columbian Exchange and beyond was filled with the efforts of many capable sailors and crew, we only know the names of the ships’ Captains; they are given all the credit for traversing the oceans and seas.  Similarly, those brave souls who took their wagons Westward are only remembered by their family, or towns for which they are a namesake (the Donner Party exempted), yet the first Governor of each state is prominently displayed on public schools and other buildings/parks/etc. Civil War buffs remember that General George Pickett showed extreme bravery when he led his men into certain slaughter on day 3 at Gettysburg, but those thousands of men who followed Pickett, Pettigrew, and Trimble, also showed extreme bravery by marching into an open field— knowing the Union Army waited 3/4 of a mile ahead. Certainly, we cannot hope to remember the names of every person who has aided in every successful venture, but neither should we fail to recognize the importance of all those hands that helped to make events possible.

On the one side, the pro RI side, we have people arguing that individuals, not the government, are responsible for taking care of themselves. Whether “care” entails work, medical needs, 2nd amendment rights, education, or basic needs (food, shelter, safety), they argue that individuals should bear the burden of providing for themselves. These folks are more prone to argue for policies that decrease: government oversight generally, business & banking regulations, and taxes.

The other extreme is the far left-end of a socialist-style system (which is very different from a liberal progressive form of gov’t.). Governance of this sort provides many, if not all, of the necessities that people need to survive, though not necessarily thrive; from free or subsidized food and shelter, to healthcare, education, and employment. This extreme doesn’t find much support in the U.S. Neither of these systems, as is, are particularly useful in a modern economy, but they both offer ideas that could, through skillful compromise and some tweaking, be used for the greater good. Compromise, however, according to Cadillac (ads by Publicis Worldwide) and Elbert Hubbard, is for weak men. I would disagree with this premise, as would any wise politician hoping to gain passage of a controversial piece of legislation.

In between the far left and the far right are a wide variety of political ideologies, belief systems, and traditions that dictate, to some extent, regional and personal mores, values, and norms. While it is likely that we (our collective society) agree on far more than we disagree on, some “choose” (aided by various forms of media) to focus on those issues that divide us. The divisive list includes: Roe -v- Wade, 2nd Amendment, proper role of government(s), social insurance & social welfare programs, military spending, role of Christianity in schools/society/gov’t, immigration, minimum wage and the wealth gap (ideal and actual), social justice, and marriage equality. This seems like a big list of very important issues, and it is. But it’s not bigger than the list of items that we accomplish every day.

Work (paid and unpaid), caring for family, keeping up our homes, preparing meals, supporting others (mentally, physically, emotionally), taking care of the self, remembering to be nice to people (because one never knows what another is going through), volunteering, and learning, are accomplishments that many people successfully conquer, daily. So why do we insist on arguing about topics that are not of great enough import to get a majority of us to the polls on election day? (I believe they are important enough, but our national voting record tells me I am in the minority).

Part of the problem stems from our lack of understanding each other. We interact with and live amongst people, with whom we share commonalities. This serves to reinforce our beliefs and polarize those who dare to think differently. When we are continually told that our beliefs are right/correct/valid, and we hear the vitriol directed at those with other ideas, it’s natural to assume that “those people” have it wrong. But what if they don’t? Or, what if they do but don’t know it, because no one is willing to engage in civil conversations to understand another perspective. Or, what if the truth lies somewhere in the middle (like the suburbs)? And what about the RIs who claim that all sides have it wrong and that we should rebel against all government action and fend for ourselves (while surrounded by 500 friends and family members, a whole crew of RIs)?

This calls for conversations. Real conversations, one-to-one, face-to-face, “a” to “b”, you get the picture. These conversations take time, and courage, and sometimes cold beer(s). But this is the best way to learn about our differences, our fellow citizens, our brother and sisters, our countrymen/women and those with whom we share so much yet know so little about. Urban and rural people need to connect and learn why each feels the way they do about gun control and gun rights; it’s not as simple as one might think. Republicans and Democrats could learn a lot from talking to each other about the employment, economic, and moral dilemmas that come with income inequality and the pro’s and con’s of unions. Children of privilege could gain new insights into the power of words by talking with Ta’Nehisi Coates. And those Americans in positions of power and/or with greater wealth could speak with folks in middle and lower socio-economic communities and “get in touch” with what it’s like to not be wealthy; possibly giving them pause before spouting off about the minimum wage being one of the Democrats’ lame ideas .

Policies that promote individual risk and reward (such as deregulation of the banking and business sectors or tax cuts that do more for those at the top than those at the bottom) over the needs of the greater society are responsible, by and large, for many of our current economic issues. When more of the wealth (which is finite) is concentrated in the pockets of fewer individuals, it serves to depress an economy. The concept is not complex; if you have less money, you will spend what you have in order to survive and support anyone that depends on you. If you have more money (a lot more), you will invest it, or stash it offshore, or play other sorts of games to keep from paying taxes. Money that is hidden is not helping our economy; money that is spent in local businesses, whether on french fries, fuel, or fixtures for the kitchen, is contributing to the supply and demand cycle that economies rely on.

We have come to this point in our nation’s history (vast economic inequity) in part by crediting individuals with making America what it is today rather than talking about nation-building as an effort undertaken by all of us: enslaved Africans & African Americans; construction, industrial, & agricultural workers; miners; lumberjacks; fishermen/women; teachers; engineers; volunteers; men & women of the Armed Forces; bakers & brewers; salespeople, I.T. professionals, athletes, public servants, thespians & artists of all types, and all the other Americans and immigrants who have taken part in building our country, should be recognized for their substantial efforts in making America the country it is. By placing the elite on a pedestal, we have given them carte blanche to do as they please in all matters financially, legally, and politically; and they have done what is in their best interest, made money for themselves and their friends and left everyone else standing on the far side of the moat.

I don’t begrudge anybody from trying to make money. Money is not the issue; the issue lies in the mindset that those who are the most successful have achieved their goals through nothing more than their own hard work, tenacity, and sheer brilliance, choosing to ignore all the people that have played a role in them reaching their zenith (which tends to lead to less sharing of that created wealth).

While individuals accomplish goals everyday: open businesses, graduate from college, get promoted, win a wrestling tournament, write a book, etc., etc.,;  they don’t do it without the support of their extended family/community. Be it financial, mental, emotional, physical, or spiritual, they are supported by many people from the various contacts they have made. Additionally, they are encouraged/motivated by loved ones; AND, the Local, State, and/or Federal government(s) provided services (e.g. infrastructure, emergency services/first responders, disaster relief, education, possibly tax breaks, grants & loans, and much much more) that allowed them to focus on achieving their goal.

Rugged individualism is not a myth, but neither is it the whole story. Some people have the innate ability to rise up and conquer whatever is thrown at them. This doesn’t happen through DNA alone, it is a skill that is first learned, then honed, and eventually ready to be used. It only exists because s/he had the opportunity to learn and the time to hone, and finally, the access to a place where using it offers the potential of reaping great rewards.

Leif Erikson—Rugged Viking type, got by with a lot of help from his friends
Leif Erikson—Rugged Viking type, got by with a lot of help from his friends

If you’re interested in exploring the political relationship between public and private actors and how policy actions shape societies, read Deborah Stone’s Policy Paradox. This book lays out some of the major issues that policy makers have to deal with when considering new policies and the communities they affect.

A few political cartoons about rugged individualism: AlaskaMedia production; RI