Urban And Rural Economic Development

The United States has entered a new era. It is not an era defined by our politics, though they have played a role in getting us here, and it is not defined by our technological advances, though they too are important. The new era in which we find ourselves is defined by a gap, or a divide, a chasm between those who are on financially solid ground and everybody else. While we’ve experienced time periods similar to the current situation, in our nation’s past, we’ve never witnessed anything on this scale. The bad news is, it’s going to be difficult to find the political will required to address the problem. But there’s good news too… political will is only half the solution.

Large swaths of rural America have been stagnating or declining for more than a decade — some much longer. Simultaneously, many of our urban centers have experienced similar negative changes that have affected not only the physical place but more importantly, and no differently from rural areas, the people who call those places home. The reasons for each of these occurrences is not dissimilar. A combination of disinvestment (some purposefully, some not by choice) and an exodus of the young and creative folks, who are responsible for much of the entrepreneurial spirit we endeavor to, has left a significant hole that no amount of hard work can replace.

There are many exceptions that can be found, in both cities and smaller towns, but exceptions are not rules and exceptions are not always replicable, for a variety of reasons. In order to reverse current trends and correct the situation before it sets, several initiatives must be undertaken. Some of these ideas will work in geographic locations across the board (regardless of size or setting), others will be relevant to one place or another, and all will have people who naysay or attempt to discredit them as too far reaching or way-out-of-the-box; but at the end of the day, if major changes are not instituted, many cities will devolve into unrecognizable pools of caste and class and thousands of small towns will dry-up and cease to exist.

Rural places, like the one I grew up in, have been trying to find ways to remain economically and socially viable while their populations have shrunk, their tax-bases have likewise decreased (due to both population declines and wage stagnation), and their futures have become increasingly uncertain. This is not the case for all rural locales, but it does represent a significant portion of greater America. In many of these places, there is a strong desire, among some, to get back to the “good ole days” when life was “simpler”. The problem with that line of thinking is that that America, which was built on a combination of manufacturing, agriculture, and major infrastructure investments, ceased to exist more than 30 years ago. While we are in desperate need of new massive infrastructure developments (yet uncertain whether or not they will materialize), agriculture and manufacturing opportunities have declined as technological advances, outsourcing, and increases in productivity and efficiency have eliminated many of those jobs.

Regardless of where one lives, the loss of good paying manufacturing jobs, between 1980 and today, has had some sort of direct or indirect effect. When a small town or a big city loses manufacturing jobs, that impacts the workers, the family’s of the workers, the bartenders and servers that relied on them, the hair salons and barbers, the auto-mechanics, healthcare facilities, public schools (as local tax revenues decrease), movie theatres, retail stores of all types, etc., et al. We’ve seen it happen in small and medium size cities and former boomtowns like Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Detroit. And while many of the mid and small towns have found it more difficult to rebound after such losses, the situation in some of our urban metropolises is less dire, if only for the promise that comes from having a large and diverse pool of talent amassed there. Some of these places have taken steps to re-imagine themselves as hubs of the new creative centers that will carry their regions forward. Others are still trying to understand how best to tackle the issue; and a few seem not to be paying any attention to the plight of the impoverished, or the disparity between the two Americas.

In his new book, The New Urban Crisis, Richard Florida outlines several of the factors that have created the current financial situation and then lays out policy initiatives that might best address these problems. The overarching theme reinforces what we have come to know in these past decades. The future of industry lies in creative thought processes; and in places that generate more ideas, we will find more jobs, better paying jobs, and more opportunity for those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder. However, that does not mean that poverty will magically disappear as cities and regions reconfigure their plans to attract and retain more of this crowd. But it does provide the impetus, in the way of taxes, to supply the necessary services required to alleviate much of the poverty we have today.

Another idea that Florida (as many others have) points out is the benefit of diversity in a city/workplace. It is no coincidence that places with greater diversity have more success, regardless of the enterprise. Be it big or small, public or private, local or international, those ventures that include more diverse voices in the mix are more likely to find success. Part of this has to do with people bringing different experiences into the group, which can spark a completely new, and related idea, from someone who had never been exposed to radically different thought processes. Additionally, stepping out of one’s comfort zone (another part of the practice of working in a diverse setting) gets the mind to think from new perspectives.

Two other areas that Florida discusses in-depth are the need for greater investment in/development of mass transit (both within cities and between cities) and major investments in affordable housing for people/families who don’t make $100,000. or more, annually. This would address economic needs/issues in all areas of city and country, regardless of what divisions they feel may separate them.

Of course it doesn’t make sense to invest in high-speed rail between Eau Claire, WI and Ames, IA; but if we think about the potential for interactions between the knowledge bases surrounding and between locales (agriculture, manufacturing, energy, and the technologies that have not yet been realized), then maybe it makes sense to have some form of transit that could more easily connect people in those places. Having more modes of transport that connect major centers of industry, trade, government and hi-tech, can only benefit our future generations. Investing in great transit (aside from flight-based) that connects Des Moines and Minneapolis/St Paul (via Rochester – Mayo Clinic) and Chicago and Des Moines (via Madison – Univ of WI) with additional, and lower cost, transit options to carry people to destinations that are off the beaten path, like Ames and Eau Claire, would serve as a type of web that can create, within a predominantly rural region, corridors of knowledge that are specific to their needs. It would transform a disconnected or loosely linked place into a ruralopolis.

To be able to think more clearly about the challenges that we face, it is best to have a list of the issues/problems that need to be addressed. I’ve come up with 10 items that I have either witnessed first-hand and/or have been discussed by individuals who have researched and written about the issues. From Horace Cayton & St. Clair Drake (Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City – 1945) & Michael Harrington (The Other America – 1962), to Cynthia Duncan (Rural Poverty in America – 1992), Richard Florida, Stefanie DeLuca (Coming of Age in the Other America – 2016) & Matthew Desmond (Evicted: Poverty & Profit in the American City – 2016), to name but a few, many people have spent years, if not decades, studying the problems and working on solutions. The list is not exhaustive by any means and it applies to both urban and rural, and the spaces in-between — with the rural covering a wider scope of place and the urban drilling into specific problems in pockets of cities.

  1. Lack of money (wages, tax income/base, savings)

  2. Loss of jobs

  3. Loss of culturally significant attachments (many of which are tied directly to former manufacturing plants and the products they made as well as the local entities they supported)

  4. Loss of the “sense of place” that helped define people

  5. Loss of incentives that might retain more of the young adults

  6. Lack of diversity, which exacerbates the lack of new ideas problem (more pronounced in agrarian and sylvan settings)

  7. Insufficient planning for the future

  8. Insufficient action on future plans that have been developed

  9. Lack of a clear direction

  10. Desire to return to previous decades when life was simpler, this further inhibits the creative thought processes that are needed for progress to occur

    So how do we address all of this while maintaining fiscally sensible spending habits and without destroying communities in the process? The answers are not complex but they require buy-in from people at the local level. Mayors, city councils, school district administrators, businesses of all sizes, and the citizenry must get involved with the operations and revitalize the place from the ground up.

The first step in the process is creating a plan. And planning, whether for a ruralopolis region or for a smaller area encompassing several large metros with interspersed rural constituents, requires relationship building. Mutual trust and cooperation concerning the long-term goals will be paramount to the success of the plan. The people that make-up the planning committee should be representative of every group and every area within the defined territory and the work must include all of the necessary components of a region: affordable housing, jobs and industry, education, transportation, tourism and culture, government, and any additional pieces that impact the larger economic zone. The basis for the planning has to be developed with a “win-win” approach in mind; the alternative, zero-sum game, creates more losers than winners, which is how we ended up in our current situation. In the beginning stages of the process, funding options should be debated and implemented as quickly as possible…progress on this scale requires a large investment.

Raising taxes is neither popular nor easy. However, when small increases are made, incrementally, over a series of 25 years, they add up; and, they don’t negatively impact anyone’s business or individual income via one big bump. This type of enactment allows for well-developed plans to be put into place over a period of decades (similar to the way the Federal Interstate Highway System was introduced). Moreover, without adequate reserves set aside, for the unforeseen expenses, the best laid plans can be sidetracked and never get restarted.

New developments, and old developments given new life, should include mixed-use blueprints with a commitment to pedestrian friendly spaces. Integrating business, culture, low, middle, and high-income housing, on a human scale (keeping in mind density limits), attracts the widest variety of people to an area. Combined with investments in educational opportunities, both post-secondary and K-12, the integrated communities can provide opportunities to move up the economic ladder. Along with housing, business, public transit, and education amenities, green spaces are key; whether for relaxing or exercising, natural surroundings provide respite from the daily grind. Anything that can be done to attract younger and more diverse groups of people, can help achieve greater viability for the long-term.

And speaking of the long-term, investments in education are the best way to ensure a strong future for a region. Those cities/states that currently invest more in education (from pre-k through colleges of all types) are the places with the most opportunity for all people.  Therefore, directing some of the new revenues (taxes) to local public schools, and investing in new post-secondary training options: e.g. pipeline programs tied to Technical & Community Colleges, certificate programs, or innovative high school programming that prepares students for a particular industry upon graduation. Education spending brings a greater return on investment (when thinking generationally) than any other type of expenditure. And, as an aside, education is not a business and trying to run it as such is a sure-fire way to fail the students; but, that doesn’t mean you can’t use business terminology and number crunching practices to analyze what’s working and what isn’t.

Once a young person has graduated from high school or completed post-secondary schooling, they need to be paid a living wage. If they are not, one of two things will happen; either they will move somewhere that pays them a living wage or more (depending on skill set), or they will remain in the community and not “give back” in terms of decreased: productivity, taxes, spending, and engagement, that they otherwise are capable of. Neither of these options are preferred if the goal is to increase economic viability and growth. Depending on your address, a livable wage might be $10.00 an hour or it might be $18.00 an hour, cost-of-living across the nation varies from one zip-code to the next. An added bonus, for the employers, is the data that shows a correlation between higher wages and lower turnover. Training can be a major source of spending and cost reductions in that area can be directed to higher wages. And don’t forget, the large middle class that made America’s economy strong for the better part of four decades was built in part on paying people a decent wage to do jobs that were neither highly skilled nor particularly difficult to learn. But they were paid well just the same (whether that was due to strong unions or employers who were concerned about their employees is not as important in this discussion) and they were vital components of their community. People working in low-wage jobs today should be paid similarly and given the same opportunity to take part in all aspects of the American dream.

As wages rise throughout a region (because other businesses will want to attract the best talent possible), and spending in local stores increases, economic vitality will attract entrepreneurs and new businesses will take hold. This can promote further growth; and, along with existing companies expanding, if demand warrants, the region will likely see more young people choosing to stay in the area or return to the area after spending a few years away learning new jobs or attending school. This is all part of a win-win scenario. But, be aware of the business wo/men who are looking to take advantage of your success.

There are corporations who like to play the tax break game. While it is true that businesses move for a variety of reasons, rarely do they choose a place just because it is offering the greatest incentives in terms of tax breaks; they typically know where they want to be and take advantage of cities that are hungry for new jobs. This is often done under the guise of job creation, which is ultimately seen as a victory. However, when the numbers come in, it turns out that all of the incentives provided, to attract the new firm, were not any better for the local economy so far as realizing substantial economic growth. And in the end, when corporations pay less, somebody else pays more — the members of the community. Or, those taxes are never collected, reducing services, reducing education funding, and reducing the ability to invest in new infrastructure that will attract other businesses and people. The most important piece of a successful business, in modern times, is having an educated workforce that understands how to problem solve. Therefore, collecting the taxes that fund local educational endeavors, is critical.

Creativity, in all manner of work, is central to success. Whether we’re looking at manufacturing, agriculture, hi-tech, service industry, sales, healthcare, education, or anything else, a workforce that can help streamline systems and integrate new technologies is key to keeping local, regional, and national economies growing. Whereas R&D was once tasked with innovation and finding more efficient ways to increase productivity, all employees are now asked to provide their input. This is to say, those places that invest the most in education will likely be the same sites that will experience the most growth.

In the midst of planning and designing, and building, politics will inevitably become an issue. Localities should push for more control over allocation of funds. States, and the Federal Government, should work with local officials to allow for this to happen with a degree of oversight to ensure Civil Rights laws are not being impinged and to make certain that protected classes are not being left out of the distribution. If the community has a bigger say in how and where tax dollars are spent, their buy-in, into the big plan, is strengthened and their engagement in and support of the big picture can work to bring in others. It is a model that requires inclusiveness and a “we are” attitude to enlist those who are unsure of the “progressive” agenda that has been undertaken.

When we think about those who are on financially shaky ground (to include all the “middle class” folks who are living paycheck to paycheck), we have to remember that: financial hardship and/or poverty is not a state of mind; poverty is not caused by laziness or a lack of morals; it is not a “culture”, as some would have us believe. Poverty, and therefore the decline of a place, has everything to do with policy and practice. Which policies have been implemented that have advantaged some and disadvantaged others and which policies have not been implemented because they are cost prohibitive and targeting the “takers” of society. What impacts have these policy decisions had on any individual’s ability to grow up in a stable neighborhood and attend public schools that are well funded? Which policies have been made law only to see state and local governments find loopholes and not allow the law to be practiced as intended? How do we place blame on the person who has had far fewer opportunities to excel and succeed and far more impediments placed in their path? These are the realities we must consider when thinking about how we’ve come to this point, socially and economically, in a nation such as ours. In his most recent book, Florida states, “Poverty occurs in the absence of institutions that unleash the creative energy of people and neighborhoods, or, even more so, when there are dysfunctional structures that harness and leverage these clusters of human creative energy.” If we provide the spaces for people to learn and to grow and to fail, without fear of that failure being an end, rather than a learning opportunity, we can build a web of interconnected regions that will carry us into the next century and beyond.

The work of building a new and better kind of society is not only needed here, but also in many countries around the world. This too was an area that Florida spent time discussing and the similarities that are found between the various locations is telling. He states:

“Lacking the kinds of basic infrastructure and division of labor we take for granted in the advanced world, they were forced to spend the majority of their time taking care of life’s immediate necessities: fetching their own water, bartering for and preparing food, and traveling long distances by foot or rudimentary forms of transportation. This left them scant time to devote to things that bring greater development—the further enhancement of their own skills and the broader development of their communities.”

This idea of time commitment dedicated to the preservation of life is not entirely different from what we see in our own communities, where higher levels of poverty have taken hold. People are spending greater amounts of time surviving which leaves less time (energy, money, etc) to focus on personal growth or developing ideas that could become money-making ventures, i.e. businesses. We don’t have to sit back and watch America deteriorate, we have the people power, the funds, and the work-ethic to make this country work to everyone’s advantage, we only need the will to make it happen.


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.


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.

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.


Why “Black Lives Matter” Matters

The Black Lives Matter movement was founded in 2013, shortly after Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by George Zimmerman. Since that time, hundreds of African Americans have been shot by police officers (and many White, Hispanic/Latino, & Native Americans have also been shot). Tens of thousands of African Americans, in this same time, have had interactions with police officers, many that involved a disproportionate use of force (based on police records). For those who do not study criminal justice, social justice, or the history of injustice in America, it is easy to assume that because police have so many interactions with Black People, then Black People must be committing more crimes. But this is not the case. White People commit more crimes, on the whole, than any other group. Surprised? You shouldn’t be; White People make up more than 60 percent of our nation’s population. So if there are more White People, than Black People (by a nearly 5:1 ratio), and according to the FBI statistics, White People commit more crimes, on the whole, than Black People, why do we see greater use of force against Black People and greater incarceration rates of Black People? This, in part, is why Black Lives Matter exists.

To understand more fully why the Civil Rights Movement has been reenergized, we must have a better understanding of African Americans’ history in the place we call America. 400 years ago, this continent was inhabited by many Nations of First Peoples, and a few Dutch, French, English, and Spanish, amongst others. As the population of settlements grew, the need for “hired” help grew along with it. In 1619, Africans were brought to Jamestown, Virginia (against their will), to work the land; along with the labor provided by European indentured servants, the building of a nation had begun. For a short time, Africans were looked upon as being similar to the indentured servants, save for their religious practices, language, etc. However, it wasn’t long before the European nobility/landed class began to differentiate in their treatment of Africans (and first African Americans) and European laborers.

As slavery took shape in the Colonies, it differed from slavery in other places (and this is really important for everybody who likes to say “Black people owned slaves in Africa before White People owned slaves in America” (which wasn’t yet “America” when slavery started)). That is true; in different Kingdoms various forms of enslavement were practiced. However, many historians that have studied slavery on the continent have found no evidence supporting the idea that the chattel form of slavery practiced in the New World, was practiced in Africa. And chattel slavery, as practiced in the place that would become the United States, was about as severe a practice as one could imagine.

Chattel is another term for “property”. This means that the enslaved Africans and eventually African Americans were property. They had absolutely no rights that had to be honored by any White man. The enslaved were bought and sold just as cattle, horses, molasses, tobacco, etc. were bought and sold. And, when enslaved women had children, they were not born free, they were automatically enslaved—for life. People who had no knowledge of this country were ripped from their families and communities and shoved into a new place where they were stripped of their names, their customs, their religious beliefs, and their sense of self. They were “housed” in small shacks with dirt floors, made to toil in physically demanding work from sun-up to sun-down (whether in a field or in a plantation house), provided just enough rations to sustain their strength (most of the time), and almost never had the opportunity to remove themselves from this hell. Then, to make matters worse, after adapting and overcoming the initial chaos of that existence, and having started new families, getting married, having kids, doing what they could to make their life less painful, they were shocked back to reality.

The plantation owners didn’t care about inhumane treatment (the enslaved were considered sub-human/property); if the plantation owners were having “difficulty” with some of their “property”, difficulty that could not be fixed through the usual methods, they might sell that “property” to a plantation that could be five miles away or five states away. They also sold off “property” if they were in a bind for money or were offered a particularly good deal for one or more “pieces of their property”, or if the mistress of the plantation didn’t like a particular enslaved girl that her husband had taken a liking to (in other words, rape, repeatedly, until she was sold off or killed, or the husband grew tired of her and turned his affection to a new “piece of his property”). All of this, and more, had the effect of breaking up families—again. And with each new dissolution of a family unit, African Americans had more reason to hate not only the system of chattel slavery, but also the purveyors of that system, to include the enforcers of the laws and the patrols that existed to police them.

This period of our history, that included State sanctioned extreme violence against human beings, is the low point for us, as far as Humanity & Civility are concerned. Chattel slavery, in this land, lasted for 246 years. It was a terrible stain on our nation and if that was the only event that the African American community were forced to endure, it would be enough. But it wasn’t.

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After the Civil War, the South underwent Reconstruction. This period lasted for approximately 14 years, 1863-1877, and witnessed the rise of the Ku Klux Klan (and other hate groups), the suppression of Black votes, even though the 14th amendment granted citizenship and equal protection to the newly freed, and the 15th amendment guaranteed the right to vote for all male citizens (while women continued to work for this right for the next 51 years), lynching, and general lawlessness, carried out by White People who could not stomach the thought of Black People being treated as equals. After Lincoln’s assassination, things got worse.

At the beginning of Andrew Johnson’s Presidency (1865-1869), he vetoed the bill that would have enacted land distribution to thousands of Freedmen. This act, in concert with the 13th Amendment’s allowance for enslavement as punishment for crimes committed, and the new Black Codes that, amongst other things, made vagrancy a crime, served to put the recently “out-of-work”, back to work. What this meant for millions of newly freed Americans, who had little or no money (because enslaved people aren’t paid wages), is that they could be arrested for not having a permanent home. This worked out quite well for the plantation owners (who were also involved in politics, i.e. helped write these laws) as they were in dire need of labor. The law enforcement of the county would pick up Freedmen who were out on the road (they might be looking for family, looking for work, surviving), arrest them and then send them off to the fields to work, without pay—again.

In 1877, Reconstruction came to an end and Jim Crow (the set of laws governing what Black citizens were and were not allowed to do) was fully implemented throughout the postbellum South. Jim Crow laws acted as a barrier that prevented African Americans from taking part in the full spectrum of America’s democratic process, economic opportunities, educational opportunities, and social interactions with White folk. What this meant was that in a matter of less than 15 years, the vast majority of African Americans had undergone two extreme status changes. From enslaved to citizen (albeit citizens who were terrorized and subjected to the Black Codes) and from citizens to 2nd class citizens, under the rule of Jim Crow. Progress? Yes. Enough? No.

The next era in our history was defined by the Supreme Court’s mandate of Separate but Equal. The 1896 case of Plessy v. Ferguson made it lawful to discriminate (under the guise of equal accommodations) based on skin color. After a series of Supreme Court victories, Brown v. Board of Education struck down the Separate but Equal doctrine by stating the obvious, it is “inherently unequal”. This, however, did not put an end to Jim Crow. Over the course of the next 15 years, many States and individual school districts would fight the Court’s order to integrate (some never would) and many of the more affluent (and even less affluent) White families moved their children to private schools (where no Black students were to be found). But in the North everything was fine, right? So why didn’t all the Black People just move north? Well, it wasn’t always de jure segregation across the North and the West, though that existed, but it was often de facto.

The North had it’s own way of keeping White and Black apart. Restrictive housing covenants, redlining, destroying communities with public works projects, employment difficulties (last hired-first fired, unequal pay for the same work, unable to join unions, etc.), and violence against Black workers, to name a few. It didn’t matter where African Americans moved, they were going to face discrimination of one sort or another because of White America’s perceptions about Black People.  So after all of the work done, from 1865 to 1968 (the unofficial end of this particular stage of the ongoing Civil Rights Movement), African Americans were still not accepted as equal by large swaths of America.

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So that’s a lot of chaos to deal with (349 years worth of chaos, to be exact). Between 1619 and 1968 the Black community in America endured more hardships, more violence, experienced more senseless acts fueled by hatred, than any other group—(not the Irish, not the Italians, not the Jews, not the Poles, Czechs, Germans, Greeks, Chinese, Mexicans, Norwegians, Russians, Scots-Irish, Indians (not Native Americans), Catholics, et al.). And this is not to say that all of those groups didn’t experience difficulties/violence, they did, but not anywhere near the extent that the Black community suffered. And yes, Native Americans suffered for a longer period (basically from the time Columbus “discovered” Asia India Hispaniola and began killing Taino & Arawak Peoples). And yes, the history of Native Peoples in this entire hemisphere is littered with the erasure of numerous Native Nations and complete disregard for the lives of other non-White inhabitants. I’m not arguing that First Peoples experiences (with White People) have been mostly positive, on the contrary; however, the fact that African Americans were subjected, daily, to being treated as 2nd class citizens, at best, sub-human at worst, for this duration, is hard to refute. And if you thought that was the end of the story, you thought wrong; it’s 2016, not 1968.

We’ve seen what can be accomplished, more or less, with amendments: the 13th, 14th, 15th, but we haven’t yet looked at what can be taken away regardless of an amendment. The 4th amendment was written to prevent the government from snooping around just because they want to. It reads:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

And that seems not only reasonable, but very sensible. The Founding Fathers included it as a means of preventing the same type of behaviors that the British had perpetrated against them, when they were colonists. So it is somewhat surprising, knowing the importance of our Constitution and the Rights it bestows upon its citizenry, that the 4th amendment has been significantly eroded over the past 50 years. What’s that you say, my 4th amendment rights, eroded? Preposterous! Unthinkable! This is heresy, By God! Well, here it is.

Beginning in 1968, in the case of Terry v. Ohio, the Supreme Court sided with the State in deciding that it was within the law for an officer to “stop and frisk” a person/persons whom the officer thought might be plotting a crime (reasonable suspicion). It sounds ok, when you first read it, but when one looks at where it has led us (with many more cases since then, expanding policing powers: Florida v. Bostick, Ohio v. Robinette, Atwater v. City of Lago Vista, etc. etc.) it might be useful to read the words of Supreme Court Justice Marshall from the 1968 case, mentioned above. In his dissent (it was an 8-1 decision) Marshall wrote, “To give the police greater power than a magistrate is to take a long step down the totalitarian path. Perhaps such a step is desirable to cope with modern forms of lawlessness. But if it is taken, it should be the deliberate choice of the people through a constitutional amendment.” And today, we are seeing the fruits of the Court’s labor— Stop & Frisk run amok in New York City; maybe not yet a “police state”, but one can see how Justice Marshall was correct to question this type of authority. But wait, what does this have to do with African Americans? Oh, right, that. Well, as shown by the statistics, provided by NYPD, an extremely disproportionate number (based on NYC demographics) of the individuals stopped are Black and Hispanic. Which leads us to the last issue that needs to be addressed, the war on drugs.

President Nixon thought it would be a good idea to declare a war on drugs (he had a lot of “good” ideas). Putting aside the arguments about which drugs are “dangerous” and which are “safe”, we need to understand how the drug war affected American communities, Black and White. Because while one is free to think whatever they want about any particular drug, when we look at the statistics of who uses drugs, who sells drugs, who ends up going to jail because of drugs, and how jail terms differ based on the ethnicity of said person convicted of drug use/sales, we find evidence that should make everyone question what exactly is going on in the confines of our criminal justice system.

Using data from the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (U.S. Dept. of Health & Human Services) we find that drug use amongst White and Black individuals falls within a 1-2 percentage point gap, for the years 2002-2010. So that’s not why we see more Black People incarcerated for drugs. Next, we find that White People, on the whole, are more likely to sell drugs and more likely to be arrested for selling drugs, than Black People; data from studies done in 1980, 1989, 1991-1993, and 2012 (and 1980-2012 Bureau of Justice data), all provide evidence to back this up. So that’s not what’s driving incarceration rates. So it must be possession of drugs; that has to be what’s creating this disparity between Black and White…or not. Well, I’m stumped. If the war on drugs is targeting everybody, and White People, who are included in that “everybody” are found more often to be the dealers, the users, and, no surprise, those caught in “possession”, how on earth is it possible that more Black People are incarcerated on drug crimes charges?

According to studies, it looks like there are a few reasons. First, “open-air” drug markets are more common in Black neighborhoods while White People tend to go over to their friend’s house to buy their coke/weed/molly/heroine. Second, disparities in sentencing (most strikingly for marijuana, and along with every other area in the system) account for a significant portion of the numbers. Third, Stop & Frisk, targets Black and Hispanics disproportionately. And even though 10-20 percent are found guilty of “something”, that leaves 80-90 percent who have been hassled for no apparent reason, other than a cop thinks you “look suspicious”. What if Dr.s and mechanics and hair stylists and chefs got “it” right 10-20 percent of the time, we wouldn’t put up with it. But this is different, right? It’s for our public safety. Be honest with yourself, if you were approached and engaged by law enforcement while walking down the street, or driving home from work, or playing in a park, or riding a bike on the sidewalk, because of how you looked, would you really be ok with that? I doubt it. And what about those “criminals” who may have committed some sort of offense, like “selling cigarettes“, or dealing marijuana, or they were driving erratically, or experiencing a bout of mental illness, but are obviously of no threat to any one (other than their self) including the officers? We need to understand how this systematic discrimination (profiling) creates distrust between communities of Color and the police.

The war on drugs didn’t come about because the use of drugs exploded in 1971. Nor did stop & frisk come about because of an increase of robberies or violent acts. None of this data provides evidence that drug use sharply increased over the past 30 years, because it didn’t. Law enforcement focused more attention on arresting people with drugs, in part, because of the incentives that were offered to departments across the nation. And in this way, we’ve witnessed the “criminalization” of communities of Color, all across America. And this, brings us to 2016.

So now that you have a better understanding of some of the reasons (not all, that’s several books worth of material) that the continuation of the Civil Rights Movement, Black Lives Matter, is embraced by so many people, of all Colors and Creed, from all Cultures and Communities, you still might choose to not embrace Black Lives Matter; but at least you will have some understanding of why so many people are so upset about what continues to happen to People of Color in our Country. It’s been 397 years since 1619. Millions of African Americans have encountered vitriol and violent acts simply because they are perceived to be different. And while it is true that everybody has something that makes them unique, and we should in no way minimize those attributes, we must get beyond allowing perceptions to colour our belief systems. We have made progress on many fronts but to believe that we are “there” is to deceive oneself.

On their “History” page, Black Lives Matter provides the background on what led to their founding of the organization and they offer some advice for our society:

Progressive movements in the United States have made some unfortunate errors when they push for unity at the expense of really understanding the concrete differences in context, experience and oppression.”

It would do society good to remember this. In addition to those who disavow Black Lives Matter because of their sincere belief that it is nothing more than a hate group… some “forward thinking” groups and individuals fail to apply context to current events in light of historical realities. It is 2016. We have to educate our youth, and each other, about where we are, how we got here, and then start having the conversations about how to move beyond this place. Policies that: 1) decriminalize minor drug offenses and provide treatment options for addicts; 2) mandate more training for police recruits –  specifically in the areas of deescalation and learning to work and interact with the diverse populations they are likely to encounter; 3) provide adequate funding to ensure police have what they need and can be paid better for the difficult job they do; 4) demilitarize our police departments (they are not fighting a war, they are serving and protecting their communities); 5) provide funding and incentives for public schools to spend more time teaching civics, talking about civility, and discussing the importance of context as they learn about our history. This will not fix everything overnight; but in time, we can all learn the importance of the roles played by every person that calls this land home; and more importantly, learn to respect those qualities that make each of us unique while recognizing our common bonds.

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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.

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