Every single human is important. Even the ones I don’t like, or the ones who do horrible things- still important.
Category Archives: people
Right now, while I am sitting on my couch, or in my office, I will not admit to which, Dr. Brandon Fisher is less than a mile from the summit of Mt. Everest.
Hopefully, possibly before you read this, he will have reached the pinnacle of the world- literally. That place is one of the most over used metaphors, most cliched, most exaggerated, and he will likely, hopefully, do what we hyperbolize.
My thoughts and prayers are with Brandon Fisher and the Radiating Hope team.
I once found myself sitting at my desk with a magic check book. I could scrawl out numbers large or small to anyone (except myself) and those checks would clear. I was under the general charge to use those checks to help those in need, and records were to be strictly kept, but other than that, it was all up to me. I was the genie, I could grant wishes, and I really wanted to help. I wanted to do good, to tackle the troubles facing those within my reach and now I had the ultimate tool; a magic checkbook.
This office was right on North Broad Street in the heart of one of Philadelphia’s most blighted neighborhoods. I was positioned perfectly. I was right where help was needed, with all the money I could imagine, possessing more will to do good than I knew what to do with, and I have never felt more useless and impotent then I did during that time.
I didn’t even make a dent.
This isn’t to say I wasn’t able to do some good or help some folks here and there, nor am I fishing for support with self-deprecating comments. No. I really wasn’t able to fix a thing. I have never felt so utterly thwarted.
I wrote a lot of checks, but not as many as you might have thought. We did our best to be financially responsible by not replicating services available elsewhere and thanks to WIC, food stamps, section 8 and a plethora of slum lords I paid out a lot less on rent mortgages and food than others I have seen with similar check books. I paid for a refrigerator, a water heater, paid tuition, bought subway tokens, patched a hole on someone’s roof, and funded a lot of plumbers and electricians. I also paid for some mental health services. Those ones were tricky, not because the money or service was funny, but because I discovered that those who needed these services most were hard to track down. They kept going homeless and getting arrested or admitted to hospitals. I did pay for some phones. Those were probably the most useful things I wrote checks for.
There was one woman I knew who was battling Cancer. She was unable to work and didn’t own a car that ran. We used to sit in her living room, her reeling from the effects of chemo, me reeling from the stacks of unpaid bills that she kept incredibly organized in a stack next to the couch. She knew who she owed, when things were due, and how much she had, but what she couldn’t get was a straight answer from anyone on the phone. She would be in the ratty recliner queuing up the bill, I would make the phone call and use my best respectable white man voice to try to get some clue as to what number to put on my magic check. Mostly I was put on hold or lectured about financial responsibility or sternly warned about service interruptions.
There was this other retired woman whose inherited house was reassessed and she magically owed back taxes. Old age and epilepsy made getting a job a non-starter so she borrowed money from friends and family to scrape together taxes. Scraping included not paying her water or electricity. She had previously been on a payment plan for both, and these plans included the stipulation that should you ever miss a payment you would be required to pay all the fees that would have accrued had you not been on said plan. I wrote a check for $2,000 to get the water turned on and $1,700 for the electricity. She was incredibly grateful and as we flipped the switch and there was light, she stared off into space and asked, “What am I supposed to do when the tax comes due again next year?” The house wasn’t particularly nice.
There was the truck driver who was on a rent-to-own program to gain full ownership of his rig. He was forced to forfeit with two payments left because someone rear ended him at a stop light. There was guy in the carpenters union who was laid off for over a year and then billed for two years of apprentice school when he finally took a menial job outside the union. There was even a stripper who didn’t want to dance but was struggling to find a way to pay her bills when she had no other marketable skills. There were all sorts of stories and I wrote all sorts of checks, but what I was mostly unable to do was change anyone’s long term situation.
My endless checkbook’s funds were insufficient in the face of greater contexts.
In some respects, and to some extent in retrospect, the failure was mine. I was afraid of going big and swinging for the fence. Every month I would meet with approximately five other men who had similar checkbooks but with different jurisdictions. They were mostly suburban and they almost always spent more money than me. They were also older than me and more experienced. We would meet and talk about solutions, and principles of work, and the overall theme would be in wondering how we could write fewer checks or get people to stop asking for money. There was much ado about responsibility and self-sufficiency, both of which I was on board with, but as we talked each month they would bring up a small redundant set of scenarios, or even repeat certain family names again and again, and here I was talking about everyone and everything. They would repeat to me some principle about work having it sown value and that rather than handouts we needed to encourage people to take control of their own situation. I would talk about the woman with cancer, or the new taxes, or the carpenter, I didn’t share the stripper because that would have seemed salacious, and they would just repeat those principles. I found it very dissatisfying and I was branded a passionate young firebrand. Whether it was the branding or the caution toward frugality, I never did what I really wanted to do which was to just pay off all of these people’ bills with some sort of trust moving forward, freeing them from the crushing weight of the unpaid bill shuffle or the impending doom of bills yet to come. I wanted to just write some big numbers that would give these people more than just some wiggle room but the solid footing needed to build a skill or chase an opportunity. But I didn’t. No one told me directly not to do it, yet I remained afraid knowing full well how the others interpreted those principles and my magic was rendered impotent.
I remember that check book any time I read policy debates about public school funding, government entitlements, or healthcare. Any time I hear the statement that problems cannot be solved by throwing money at them, I hear echoes of those monthly check writer’s meetings. They sound the same and that same feeling I had there rings and resonates inside me with the same feeling of helplessness and I know that this discussion will fall short. I know this because I am no longer a young firebrand but rather I am a little older and experienced. I know better now and were I to go back to my former self in those meetings and with that checkbook, and in the discussions of policy now, I would write those giant checks.
I would agree that the problems of a post-industrial world cannot be solved by just throwing money at them- then- I would add that any solution that doesn’t include throwing lots of money at it, is incomplete and wrong.
We live in a 1st world country with 1st world problems and those who have the means to become world traveled know this. They point out that the impoverished in America have so much more than almost everyone else in the world. I haven’t been to those places but I get it. I understand. I realize that in some countries people walk miles to get water from a well in bare feet and toil with seeds and soil to pull out rice or yams to eat in their tin roofed shacks with dirt floors. I am reminded of these things or these places when Americans look at our budget deficit or entitlements or failing public schools. We are rich and we are wasting it and we need to stop the bleeding and become more responsible. I get it.
But I cannot tell that retired woman that rather than asking for $2,000 to get her 1st world water turned back on, that she should get a bucket and walk to the well. Because there is no well.
I cannot tell the man from the carpenter’s union to stop wasting his money on rent and use his skills to build himself a tin roofed shack. We don’t allow that here.
I cannot tell that dancer to employ her health in planting and harvesting because she has no land, no seeds, and no time.
And the woman with cancer. Were she in one of those places the answer would be somewhat more direct. She would go untreated and die. Because that is what happens there.
Truth is that in America people need money. If someone has some money, they must spend their time in accruing more in order to keep up with the clock because in America time has a cost. If you happen to have an abundance of money you can buy time, and spend it as you choose. But if you start out with no money you will at some point need to borrow or beg because you cannot afford the cost of living that time demands while you are spending your time in the act of accumulation. And that initial cost of time is the rub.
Time is the rub because it is so much more expensive than we realize and our 1st world has completely adjusted to those who can already afford it. It has taken us quite some time to get here, but we have arrived and if we just deal with now, acknowledging how we got here but willing to deal with the present, we have a lot of work to do and it is going to be more expensive than we realize.
For instance, schools are not only expensive to run, but opening up charter schools and options for parents, is mostly only open to those who can already afford the costs of changing schools, including the cost of time in researching and applying. Retraining those displaced from industrial jobs due to mechanization is not just expensive as it relates to tuition or instruction, but the time it takes to learn and get re-hired. Who pays the bills in the meantime? It is as if any one who finds themselves at zero is being fooled by the goose egg. There is no such thing just as time never stands still. Zero lasts only a moment before it becomes a negative and as soon as you realize you have hit the bottom you are in negative numbers.
So as I remember back to those days where I had the magic check book but was too afraid to write a tectonic check I also remember that one of the reasons I did not, one of the reasons why I felt so helpless, a foundational contributing factor to my in effectiveness, was that money wasn’t and would never be, enough. I knew it then. I couldn’t stop time. I didn’t have enough extra hands, enough hours, enough extra bodies or opportunities, to throw at these people’s problems in addition to throwing money. Because it was instantly obvious that this is what was, and still is needed.
We cannot solve the problems of poverty by simply throwing money at them. Reality is that it takes money and then it takes more. Throwing money and throwing time.
Developed society has left behind the sweat of our brow and replaced it with allowances either purchased or granted. Because of this we cannot expect any progress within the lower half of society unless there is some sort of concession granted by those who control, or own resources. We will never solve poverty in the 1st world till more of those who can afford time, start spending it on helping those who can’t.
The confederate battle flag was not just the banner flown by an army fighting for the right to own black people, it was also the banner that was revived and waved by those who opposed desegregation and civil rights.
In honor of the centennial celebration of the Civil War in 1961, South Carolina decided to raise the confederate battle flag over the state house. No black people were on the commission that made that decision.
Not only were they not on that commission, but South Carolina did not allow any black people to participate in their hosting of the national festivities. JFK tried to force the South Carolinians by moving the festivities to an integrated Navy base in Charleston, but the white people led a walk out and held their own official celebration in a segregated hotel. In that celebration Strom Thurmond gave a speech saying integration was evil and that the US Constitution never promised racial equality.
That is when that flag went up on the South Carolina capitol building. Black people (and some allies) have been asking for that flag to come down ever since. Those in authority continually refused.
On June 17th, 2015 a white supremacist murdered 9 black worshipers in a Charleston church. In the subsequent outcry against violent racism, there was some talk of the flag coming down. Those in authority thought they might allow it.
On June 27, 2015 a full 54 years after that flag went up, a black woman named Bree Newsome climbed the 30 foot flag pole and tore the flag down in defiance of the police who waited below to arrest her. She refused to wait for some democratic action to recognize her humanity when God had granted it from birth.
She was of course arrested when she came back down.
On July 9th the SC House of Representatives voted to remove the confederate battle flag in some seemingly gracious act of conciliation. It was an act that came not only 23 days too late, but 54 years overdue.
Bree, in her act of theater, gave America a symbol illustrating bravery and self determination in blackness.
Here is my nod to you Bree Newsome.
Yesterday the white house played host to presidents of historically black colleges and universities. You may have seen the picture. It is the one with our nation’s president at his desk, a smiling Amarosa at his side. The office is packed with black people in dresses and suits, and of course Mrs. Conway kneeling on the couch.
I wasn’t there. I don’t really know what happened and I can only guess at why.
But Dr. Walter Kimbrough, the President of Dillard University was in that room and he wrote about it. Oddly enough just last week three freshman were in my office asking me questions about student support and I printed out two different peer reviewed articles written by Dr. Kimbrough to help them.
Here is what he said about yesterday, “…the goal was for officials from a number of Federal agencies (about 5 were there including OMB) and Secretary DeVos to hear about HBCUs. That all blew up when the decision was made to take the presidents to the Oval Office to see the President… there was very little listening to HBCU presidents today- we were only given about 2 minutes each, and that was cut to one minute, so only about 7 of maybe 15 or so speakers were given an opportunity today.”
Today is the last day of Black History Month. The image I saw online had the potential to communicate some hope for these institutions. Sadly, as is the precedent, it fell far short.
Then I saw the Education Secretary’s statement following their meeting.
“Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have done this since their founding. They started from the fact that there were too many students in America who did not have equal access to education. They saw that the system wasn’t working, that there was an absence of opportunity, so they took it upon themselves to provide the solution.
HBCUs are real pioneers when it comes to school choice. They are living proof that when more options are provided to students, they are afforded greater access and greater quality. Their success has shown that more options help students flourish.”
This is the kind of statement you make if you aren’t listening. But again, I wasn’t there so maybe she did listen, or maybe she didn’t get a chance to hear them, or maybe it is worse. Maybe she listened and then still chose to release the above.
It should be clear that Black colleges did not start because of too few choices, they were founded because of exclusion. There was a system in place that was working for white people, and those people fought hard to keep this benefit exclusive.
Once these schools were founded they did not represent an additional choice, or even an alternative, they represented the only option.
Had the Secretary chosen to listen to Dr. Kimbrough, the president of one of these lauded schools, here is what he would have said (which we know he would have said because he published it today),
“Fifty years ago a philosophy emerged suggesting education was no longer a public good, but a private one. Since then we’ve seen Federal and State divestment in education, making the idea of education as the path to the American dream more of a hallucination for the poor and disenfranchised.”
I am a Mormon. You cannot tell that just by looking at me, but it is very much a part of who I am. I could even argue that it is everything that I am. But you cannot really see it.
There are plenty of Mormons who like to think their Mormonism is visible, that we glow, but this is simply self-affirmation. You can’t see it. It isn’t like Orthodox Judaism or some forms of Islam with proscribed hair and clothing. We don’t even have any actual symbols to announce our faith. No crosses, no Star of David, no half moon and star. Some of us have created symbols, like Angel Moroni lapel pins, but these came “from the streets” not from God. But we know our own. We know who we are because we are obsessed with ourselves.
This is arguably why many people do not like us. We do not sit quietly in a corner, we let you know who we are. We knock on your door and ask you to join us. Odds are, if you want to be left alone, we still won’t leave you alone. This is one reason why, even if I am personally leaving people alone, they still might throw beer bottles at me, swerve their motorcycle to run me off the road, mock my faith loudly during board meetings, accusingly tell me what I believe in job interviews, misrepresent me in classrooms, sing songs mocking me in bars, spit chewed food at me, or the ever hard to really pin down- deeply ignore me. I have experienced all of these things personally.
Sometimes it happens without the other person knowing my faith. They say something negative with no intent to upset me because they don’t know. But most people I know, know what I am, and when the digs come they are intentional. It will not happen, but theoretically, I could always choose to simply not be Mormon. People leave the faith all the time. It isn’t like my last name ties me to an ethnicity like say, Lifshitz or Austerlitz, though I should say that names are how I know Ammon Bundy and Manti Teo were born Mormon. I could hide if I really wanted too, but odds are if I ever became somebody I would get outed. We out our own all the time.
For instance Derek and Julianne Hough, Aaron Eckhart, Ryan Gosling, all born Mormon. Roseanne Barr’s family joined when she was a kid and thanks to my favorite Pop-up Video bubble, the singer Jewel was Mormon till the age of 8. This was my favorite insider Mormon joke because we all know you cannot officially be Mormon until you turn 8, but the point is we are self-obsessed enough that even if you leave us, we will find and claim you. Just the other week I got a text while sitting in church informing me that the real life Rudy, the guy the movie portrayed, had just been baptized a Mormon.
There are some good explanations for this obsession; both historically and due to what it is like to live as a Mormon day-to-day. For example the governor of Missouri signed an extermination order in 1838 authorizing the use of deadly force to remove all Mormons from the state. During much of those years Mormons lived as refugees fleeing from place to place relying on each other for survival. Identifying and sticking with our own was critical. Then we went and founded a city. Then we went and founded a whole bunch more. Salt Lake, Las Vegas, San Bernardino, all Mormon. But manifest destiny couldn’t be stopped and in 1857 the United States declared war on the Mormons in Utah and occupied Salt Lake. As a kid my family regularly drove past the army base originally established by federal forces to keep us Mormons in line.
But that was forever ago, everyone who lived in those days is long gone. Yet this era is such a part of the Mormon cultural legacy that to this day every congregation across the United States send their youth on small summer “treks” where they dress in 19th century clothing and pull rickety human powered wagons called “hand carts” for a week in the woods to ingrain in these kid’s minds what their predecessors endured. If you visit Utah in July you will learn that July 24th, “Pioneer Day” commemorating the arrival of Mormon pioneers into the Salt Lake Valley is celebrated bigger and louder than the 4th. We refuse to forget.
But it isn’t just history, being Mormon today does draw some attention. While you cannot see my Mormonism, the fact that I have never tasted coffee, or alcohol, or that I was willfully a virgin at my wedding, have put me in some serious spotlights over the years, especially in high school and college. I weathered that storm, but even in the professional world I have had bosses question whether or not I could be an adequate host to important accounts if I was unwilling to drink at the bar with them or share a good glass of wine. I was of course willing to host clients at a bar, but I have learned through repeated experience, I repeat-much experience, that most people are uncomfortable drinking with a person who isn’t doing the same. Yet this one little thing which is such a miniscule part of my faith and an even smaller aspect of who I am as a person, has become my defining characteristic to a huge portion of my associates; clients, rugby teammates, neighbors, colleagues. It becomes rather annoying having that same conversation time and time again, “No not even a little bit. Nope never have. No it isn’t really that hard. Yes hats off to me and yes I still like karaoke.” My religious views on sexual expression influence what I watch in movies, television and online. I love movies and television, and the internet, but every Oscar season there is a large swath of nominated productions that I have not, nor will ever see. This makes me different than other cinephiles and makes me almost unable to meaningfully communicate in those circles.
Faithful Mormons are largely expected to marry other Mormons.
This can make things a little tricky if you don’t live around a critical mass of other Mormons. This is one of many reasons why so many Mormons want to live in Utah, or send their kids to BYU. They want some options, they want to fit in, and they want to be part of their people. Some of us feel this desire to be among our own very strongly, some of us are annoyed by the idea, but we all understand it. I am an American to the core, but having grown up in Utah, I have felt very much the expatriate living in other states. Looking back, at both my youth and my home state, I am a bit amused at how much I, and we, felt like ex pats even when we were living in Utah.
This is why the local Deseret News regularly prints lists of every identifiable Mormon playing in the NFL, the NBA, NCAA, Olympics, or on TV, or in congress. We take a special pride whenever one of our own does anything. I never watched the old MTV show Real World, till a Mormon named Julie went on the show and embarrassed me. I watched every episode of that season. There is a website, www.famousmormons.org that attempts to list every Mormon doing anything, the church puts out an official portfolio of monthly magazines (Ensign, Liahona, New Era, the Friend) yet you can find all sorts of extra Mormon themed magazines not published by the church, but more just published for Mormons by Mormons (LDS Living Magazine). We have created our own books, book stores, television stations, network of blogs (the bloggernacle), music, schools (SVU), all above and beyond what our hyper organized church produces and we cling to such even when we are already living amongst our own. We are self-obsessed.
But I get it. Sometimes I get tired being different and just want to relax with a group of my “brothers and sisters”. Sometimes I want to watch something like Napoleon Dynamite with hard to explain inside jokes. Sometimes I would like to see a doctor who understands why I might be a couch potato yet have this health nut styled prohibition on tobacco and alcohol, yet won’t drink green tea. I would love a dance company for my daughter to join that understands why she won’t train on Sunday. But I also want to live in New York.
So I get it.
Because I get it, I refuse to listen to any white Mormon who makes the complaint that black people think too much about race. I reject any critique coming from people like me regarding black colleges, black television, a congressional black caucus, or a black history month. It is hard being an “other” in America. I know this because I am one. And as one who has experienced how “hard” it is to be Mormon in current society, yet only glimpsed what it might be like to be black, I testify that America is harder on black people than it is on Mormons.