A Boy or A Girl or A Person: the Lack of Recognition for Intersex People

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Not surprisingly, Fox News presenter Clayton Morris had to apologise for his ‘ignorant and stupid’ comments mocking the new gender options for Facebook profiles which allow users to register as intersex. The TV presenter ridiculed the move of the social media company referring to intersex by saying “whatever that is”. This case illustrates the prejudice and ignorance surrounding the reality of individuals who cannot be clearly classified as male or female at birth. Most countries worldwide still neglect this human rights problem and intersex people remain invisible to the majority.

The International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia of 17 May also aims to highlight the struggle against the discrimination and prejudice suffered by intersex people. The word “intersex” has replaced “hermaphrodite”, which was widely used by medical practitioners during the 18th and 19th centuries. The social expectations for either a girl or a boy at birth, or a woman or a man in society, are the source of the problems intersex people face. Society does not usually recognise a person without reference to their sex. Yet intersex individuals’ chromosomal, anatomical or gonadal characteristics do not belong exclusively to either sex. This is why intersex persons encounter huge barriers to the enjoyment of their human rights.

Surgeries without consent

The situation of intersex persons is not well known. Recent research has demonstrated that the parents of intersex babies are often ill-informed and baffled. Medical professionals may be quick to propose “corrective” surgeries and treatments aiming to “normalise” the sex of the child. Such surgeries, which are cosmetic rather than medically necessary, are often performed on intersex babies and toddlers. This can result in irreversible sex assignment and sterilisation performed without the fully informed consent of the parents and, even more importantly, without the consent of intersex persons themselves.

“Corrective” operations and treatment are usually traumatising and humiliating. They can take a long time and post-operative complications are common. There are long-term effects on intersex individuals’ mental health and well-being. The sex assigned to children at an early age may not correspond with their identity and feelings later on.

In addition, medical services are rarely transparent about the statistics of operations performed on intersex individuals and even the people treated experience difficulties in accessing their own medical records, as pointed out in a study published by the Heinrich Böll Foundation last year.

Rights to self-determination and physical integrity

The early “normalising” treatments do not respect intersex persons’ rights to self-determination and physical integrity. Intersex babies and younger children are not in a position to give their consent. The proxy consent given by parents may not be free and fully informed and can hardly take into account the best interests of the child in the long-run.

The UN special rapporteur on torture, Juan E. Méndez, has called on all states to repeal any law allowing intrusive and irreversible treatments, including forced genital-normalising surgery, when carried out without the free and informed consent of the person concerned. Intersex individuals’ choice not to undergo sex assignment treatment must be respected.

When operations are not necessary on medical grounds, they should only take place at an age when intersex persons can give their consent and participate actively in decisions about treatment and sex assignment. This position has been advocated by the Swiss National Advisory Commission on Biomedical Ethics which acknowledged the past suffering of intersex persons in November 2012 and called for an end to surgery for sociocultural reasons.

Information and support

Intersex children, their parents and families need adequate counselling and support, as highlighted by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, among others. Civil society advocates of intersex people should be able to participate in the provision of information and services to intersex families in addition to medical and social professionals. There is also a need to improve training about intersex issues and their human rights implications among health and social services.

Legal recognition

Birth certificates and many other official documents almost always require the identification of the sex of the individual concerned. It is usually impossible to differentiate the official recognition of the person from the definition of that individual’s sex. Therefore a person without a clearly identifiable sex can easily fall into a limbo of unrecognised personal status without official documentation.

Since November 2013 in Germany, it has been possible to choose “blank” in addition to “female” and “male” on birth certificates. Therefore it is no longer necessary to identify the sex of children at birth. The practical consequences of this legal change remain to be seen and it is not yet possible to exercise similar choices when issuing identity cards and passports.

Raise awareness and review legislation

There is a need to raise awareness of and collect more data on the situation of intersex persons in society and the discrimination and prejudice they encounter in daily life also as adults. The reform of the Sex Discrimination Act in Australia last year introduced the ground of “intersex status” among other prohibited grounds of discrimination. This is a powerful tool to foster the equality of intersex people.

I urge governments in Europe to review their current legislation and medical practices to identify gaps in the protection of intersex people and take measures to address the problems. Policy makers should involve civil society advocates of intersex persons such as the OII Europe and ILGA-Europe in these efforts. The enjoyment of human rights is universal and it cannot depend on the sex of the person. Intersex individuals must be granted full legal recognition from birth and amendments to their sex or gender classification should be facilitated to reflect their individual choices.

Individual vs Collective Impact

At a meeting with one of my regular clients, I was reminded of an important tension and interesting phenomenon in organisational dynamics, and it is blogged about ad infinitum.

The tension is the value of meetings over that of individual productivity, and the phenomenon is the power of “collective influence” (Alex Smith).

meetingMeetings get a bad rap these days. Particularly online businesses favour virtual teams, online collaboration, etc. Alex reckoned 90% of meeting content is irrelevant, people are busy, and time is precious.

On one hand, I agree that meetings can be wasteful. Personally, I avoid them if I can. But, what can we learn when we look deeper at individual impact versus collective impact?

There is a difference between a meeting and an intentional gathering or conversation. As I said at the meeting today, I have been in several of the latter with another regular client. Everyone is pressed for time, the gathering is delayed…

However, every time when we finally meet either during or afterwards, something magical happens. An opportunity, a breakthrough, and/or a request for what we offer.

I describe this as a dynamic or energetic outcome, and I’m waiting for what will emerge from this week’s meeting.

If you’re arguing about whether individual productivity or meetings are more important, please stop. It’s a useless conversation.

The conversation should be about how to harness the benefit of both individual and collective impact. The questions are, what is a good balance, how are they organised, and what are the intentions?

The answers? Well, you tell me.

Cover Photo Courtesy of Collaboration for Impact

Duffy Books in Homes Working Towards Literacy for Kids

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Recently, I spent an hour at Rosebank Primary School in Avondale, Auckland, speaking as a Duffy Books in Homes Role Model. It’s something I’ve done a couple of times each year since connecting with Linda Vagana, Duffy’s GM, when we both did the Leadership New Zealand programme in 2012. Duffy Books in Homes is a nonprofit created for the specific purpose of increasing literacy outcomes for elementary school children, and you can visit there website to learn more about their school book giveaway program.

It’s a tough but rewarding gig. Primary-aged kids pull no punches as an audience. I’m not the usual speaker they are used to and as I begin to speak, the giggles start.

I resist the urge to ask, “What are you laughing at?” To begin with anyway. Instead I ask all 500 to introduce themselves to me – their name, where they come from and a secret about them – all at once. The hall erupts with noise and laughter.

A few teachers look horrified that I’ve deliberately ruined the controlled quiet they’ve worked so hard to create for me (earlier a couple have asked if I’m used to speaking in front of large groups – “I’ve had a bit of practice,” I understate). I restore order and assure them I now feel like I’ve known them for years and that I won’t share their secrets. They get it.

kidsTime to talk about the elephant in the room. “So I heard a bit of laughing before,” I reflect. A few giggles return. “What was so funny?”

“You talk funny.”

“Oh you noticed. I’ve worked hard to develop a very unique way of speaking. Everyone recognises it’s me, even when I’m on the phone.”

The laughter changes, from the awkward recognition of difference to an unconscious realisation that the framing has changed. Somehow I’ve owned my difference and I’m no longer a victim – I’ve used it to my advantage.

“So what else is different about me?” There’s a pause, as if perhaps the second elephant has already become less noticeable. “Is it my shoes?” I prompt.

“No, you’re in a wheelchair.”

“Great you noticed that too! Why do you think I use a wheelchair?”

Various theories are tested – I have a sore/broken leg, I can’t walk, I walk funny, my legs don’t work.

“Maybe…but do you want to know the real reason?”

Anticipation. For the kids it’s curiosity; for the teachers it feels slightly anxious: “How’s he going to tackle this?”

“I’m just lazy.” Laughter and relief. “Why would I walk when I can just sit and move around?”

Contemplation.

“Look, you guys are all sitting on the floor because there aren’t enough chairs. Imagine if you all had wheelchairs?”

More contemplation.

“Who would like to have a wheelchair?”

500 hands fly into the air.

The rest of the time I talk about reading and achievement. I help give out books. The assembly ends with a rousing rendition of Frozen’s “Let It Go” and Duffy’s song – “Going to read it. Read about it. I’m a Duffy kid and so proud of it. You can do it. Nothing to it…”

The idea is for each class to file out of the hall in silence. That works for the first class leaving through the back door. The rest, however, leave via the front door, past me, and it’s high fives all round.

It strikes me as significant that, in the space of forty minutes, I transform from enigma to elementary in these kids’ agile brains. At first glance, I’m unusual, even a threat. A few reframes later, I’m still unique, but I’m safe and approachable.

The human ability to make meaning is miraculous. The challenge of meaning-making is to keep it constructive and useful. So often we do the opposite, particularly with children.

Luckily, it’s easy to change. Don’t miss an opportunity.

The Problem with Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion

The people of color that I’ve been talking to are getting kind of sick of the equity, diversity, and inclusion terms use by nonprofits. We love them, but the dissonance between their usage and actual practice is like getting poked in the eye on a daily basis. Case in point, at a panel I was on recently, a colleague of color told me that someone contacted her, saying, “Can you help us spread the word about this new job position? We want to diversify our pool of candidates.”

My friend said, “I wanted to ask, Are you trying to just diversify your POOL of candidate, or ACTUAL hires?” We both sighed; thankfully, the wine was plentiful that evening.

equityThis has been happening a lot recently, the usage of these feel-good and trendy terms without serious consideration for the challenging and time-consuming changes that we need to undergo to actualize them. Equity requires the embrace of risk and failure. True equity, and diversity and inclusion, cannot exist without them.

Unfortunately, our field is often frustratingly and ineffectively risk-adverse, paralyzed by thoughts of failure. So yeah, we’ll “diversify the pool of candidates” and then, most likely, select the “most qualified” person anyway, who is often White. I know many organizations who tout equity and inclusiveness whose staff and board are mostly White. They are highly qualified and awesome, but it is jarring when most of their clients are people of color.

Or we’ll “work with communities of color” and then, most likely, select mainstream organizations because these ethnic-led organizations “don’t have the capacity” or “didn’t put in a strong enough proposal.”

The voices of communities of color have been struggling to be heard on almost every single issue. And to everyone’s credit, I don’t feel like people are actually being exclusive. This recent trend of diversity, equity, and inclusion is a testament to the fact that we all recognize both the importance and the lack of engagement of these communities. However, recognition of the problem and talking about it are necessary but not sufficient elements to solving the problems of inequity. We have to be willing to try different stuff, fund differently, and accept a few failures.

Unboxing equity

By now, most of us have seen this graphic above, which displays very clearly the difference between equality and equity. But after we think, “Aw, that’s so cute; all these kids can now watch the game; equity is so magical,” how does it actually translate within our field? Let’s unpack this.

First, I’m not always a big fan of this image, because to the less wise, the short kid is obviously deficient and needs some serious help. The short kid represents entire marginalized communities such as the LGBTQ community, communities of color, poor communities, etc. But this kid can also symbolize individuals such as professionals of color, as well as nonprofits such as ethnic-led organizations. These communities and individuals have plenty of strength and assets and is not always just the baby in the group.

But anyway, let’s continue with the metaphor. Since my experience is with communities, people, and nonprofits of color, I’m going to hone in on that for this post today.

Regardless of who this little kid represents, the point is that we are always struggling to see over the fence. We’ll be lucky to get a two-by-four to stand on, much less a whole box, much less TWO boxes. In the case of ethnic-led nonprofits, the argument against giving a whole box to them has always been, “You’re cute, but you guys just don’t have the capacity. If we give you a whole box to stand on, you’ll probably just fall off of it. We can’t give you a large grant. Here’s a small one. Sure, all these problems we’re tackling disproportionately affect your communities, and you have the best connection to them. But come back when you are more organized.”

At a recent conference I attended, funders were congratulating themselves on capacity building around collective impact work. As much as I like collective impact in theory, the reality is that it has more often than not been screwing over communities of color, who cannot access funds to be significantly involved and thus are unintentionally tokenized. (See “Collective Impact: Resistance is futile,” where I compare ineffective CI efforts to the Borg from Star Trek).

“Collective impact has been leaving behind many communities of color,” I said from the audience, “how are you addressing building capacity for organizations that are led by these communities so that they can be involved?”

A funder took the microphone to respond. “I wish my organization was one of those with the flexibility to give $5K or 10K grants,” he said, “but we don’t do that. We give larger grants.” And of course, these ethnic-led nonprofits would never be able to compete for one of these larger grants. They are stuck in the capacity quagmire like college grads who can’t get hired because they have no experience.

The importance of risk and failure

Look, I’m not advocating for people hire staff willy-nilly, or for funders to be throwing money around at random. But the status quo is not working, and holding hands chanting “equity, diversity, and inclusion” without actually doing stuff differently is dangerous because it makes us feel like we’re making progress when we’re not.

Here’s the reality: If we hire less experienced people from communities of color, yes, they will likely require more support, and they may fail more often. If we fund small ethnic-led nonprofits, yes, they will likely require more support and may fail more often. That kid has not had much experience standing on two boxes. His balance is being tested. He may fall down a couple of times.

But here’s another side to that reality: Those staff from communities of color are critical when working with communities of color, and our field does a lot of work with communities of color, to put it mildly. You can hire a less experienced staff of color and train them on technical skills. But you cannot teach someone to be a person of color. Believe me, I tried it; it was uncomfortable for everyone. So if your org works with clients of color, take some risks in your hiring. Don’t just “diversify the pool.”

Ethnic-led nonprofits organizations are the most effective in connecting to their communities, and they do it on shoe-string budgets. Since they have the strongest relationships, they are constantly asked to help with outreach, to sit on advisory teams, and to do other stuff for free. Then when they try to get more significant support, the response has historically been, “You don’t have the capacity” followed by “but why don’t you join the Cultural Competency workgroup of our awesome collective impact effort!”

Let me know your thoughts, and also check out my previous article on building capacity for communities of color.

Selma 50 Years Later, Then Back to Work

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Obama Family leading the 50th Anniversary March- Photo Credit Whitehouse.gov

 

President Barack Obama, in what may be his most eloquent and thoughtful speech, helped us to understand the profound place in history held by those who crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965 in pursuit of social and economic justice. In Selma, Alabama 50 years later, it was their encounter with the forces of bigotry and hate that helped change the course of history.

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President Barack Obama share a moment with Georgia Congressman John Lewis during the commemoration of Bloody Sunday.

It was the determination of the protesters to endure the most vile and despicable slurs imaginable, to withstand flailing police batons, ferocious dogs, and battering waves of water pouring from hoses, that moved the needle ever so slightly from oppression towards freedom. We are constantly reminded by injustice in Ferguson and other places that the battle is far from over.

As the President stated, this is no time for cynicism, no time for complacency or despair. Many Americans of good will believe the social contract that the Framers had in mind was not one that favored a few who would reap a disproportionate share of the benefits of a society whose prosperity depends on the work of many.

I came of age in the 1960s, and it was a turbulent time—Vietnam, the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Jr., Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King. There were riots, uprisings on college campuses, and, yes, black men were still being lynched. Yet through the turmoil there was always a sense of community—a belief that people were better off if we stuck together. We were told that we either swim together or drown alone. Events like Woodstock brought thousands of young “hippies” together for marathon sessions of the best that music can be. Not surprising, the 1960s was the heyday of community social work.

We hardly got into the next decade when another turning point arrived in a tragic day at Kent State University. It occurred one day before my 20th birthday on May 4, 1970—four unarmed students were shot dead by the National Guard and nine others wounded. The age of law and order had arrived with a vengeance. After all, it was the slogan that propelled Richard M. Nixon into the White House. He was soon to be followed by President Ronald Reagan and a new era of conservatism that swept the country. Community was too close to communism and socialism to be an acceptable form of lifestyle. It was the individual that was paramount.

Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama
Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama

Robert Ringer’s Looking Out for Number Onethe tome du jour—became a New York Times #1 bestseller, and supply-side economics heralded Ayn Rand’s great man theory. Unions and collective bargaining began to wilt from constant attacks from corporations and their Republican allies. We were all competing for the American Dream when we should have been working together to achieve it universally.

The President reminded us that the single most powerful word in our vocabulary must be we. We can get a lot more done than me. At the risk of sounding like Rodney King, it is time that we put aside our differences and begin to look for common solutions to major problems. The commemoration of the historical Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama is cause for neither celebration nor despair. It should, however, energize us to go the extra mile—as the old folks used to say—to see what the end’s going to be.

We must believe that things can get better. We must believe that we can have a more egalitarian society. Economic inequality reaches a point where it becomes evil because it robs so many children of their chance for a meaningful future. The only weapon we have to fight this injustice is political power. We must use it or lose what little hope we have today of achieving some measure of social and economic fairness.

Resignations and Employment Relationships — I Quit?

I’ve been reflecting on the complex dynamics of employment relationships (ER) — let’s call them ERs because of the acronym’s somewhat appropriate onomatopoeia — and what it means when an employee resigns without giving notice.

i-quit-note-smallERs are tricky things, without a doubt. They are usually initially awkward, in that most ERs begin with a stranger needing to get to know others — at a more than leisurely pace — at least well enough to work toward common goals and outcomes.

An ER, unlike most relationships, is a legal relationship. It shares a latent litigiousness with two other common types of relationship: that between a client/customer and supplier; and, ironically, a marriage. Like the former but unlike the latter, an ER involves an exchange of money — although, well…no, let’s not go there.

Finally they are perilously unequal, though the inequality goes both ways, which many an employer may deny. Each party has what the other doesn’t — money on the one hand and skill, labour and attributes on the other.

ERs, if I may be as bold as to generalise, are an accident waiting to happen. They are deeply co-dependent, treacherously uncertain and whomever came up with the concept should be — or should have been — severely chastised and punished.

Having indulged myself in pragmatic scepticism, I should say I have been party to numerous (by a fair estimation, several dozen) ERs in my time. Albeit that I have only been in the so-thought less dominant role of employee three times, I have neither suffered nor, as far as I am aware inflicted, much if any ill effect.

By now, if you have read this far, you will have realised we are entering a veritable quagmire of complexity. As this is a blog post, not a thesis or doctorate, I should get to the point.

Why do employees quit and say see ya, I’m out of here right now — without working out the “legally” agreed notice time?

I’m not a lawyer, so I’m not offering a legal opinion. Nor am I, as I said, writing a thesis or doctorate, so I’m not citing research. Though I will allude to research I’ve read. If you want to verify it, Google is but a click away.

What I do offer is observation, experience and opinion: In short, the problem lies not with the E, but with the R.

We refer mostly to the E. We talk Employment, Employer and Employee. Seldom do we refer to the R: Relationship. But I’ve read about research that found that our overwhelming drive to work is social, not functional. So in any ER it’s the Relationship, not the Employment, that is crucial.

I also remember reading a blog post citing research findings that, when it came to job satisfaction, “acknowledgement” was what employees consider the most important. That’s another relationship-based need. In my experience, empathy, flexibility, appreciation, trustworthiness (competency, reliability and honesty), humour and well-boundaried but fun social interaction goes a long way to providing that acknowledgement.

When employees leave without giving notice, the ER has gone wrong. They need to leave quickly, I would proffer, because they have a strong discomfort with people or a particular person within the organisation, not the work they were employed to do. In my experience the discomfort usually builds over time, but can also be triggered quickly by a significant negative incident.

The lenses of leadership, diversity, complexity and change offer insight into how to minimise resignations without notice (RWNs) and enhance ERs and organisational culture. Capacity and clear intent in these four areas underlie the culture of any organisation.

Leadership

In my experience fair, transparent and generous leadership is crucial to maintaining healthy ERs. Not only from the top but also from throughout the organisation, leaders set the tone and guide the interaction between people and teams. When things go wrong and people leave, those in roles of leadership can only look to themselves, not to the resigning employee, and take responsibility for finding out where the cultural cracks are that caused the unresolvable conflict.

Leaders also need to be aware of the reciprocity of ERs, as I mentioned before. The attitude that “no one is irreplaceable” can very easily lead to an arrogance that values functions over people. A more useful attitude, which I keep in the front of my mind as an employer, is that people are, in fact, irreplaceable. It is jobs and their functions that are not irreplaceable. I have often applied flexibility to jobs because I place higher value on individuals than on a functional detail.

Diversity

I notice many organisations have a very narrow view of what diversity is. Usually it begins with acknowledging gender and ethnicity but, for the most part, stops there. Sexuality, age and religion may get a look in, but disability probably won’t, nor will more uncommon issues like transgenderism.

These issues and labels are not the true nature of diversity, as I’ve written about so many times before. They are mere categories that organisations choose either to represent or ignore. They may be the cause of conflict in ERs, but I think there are more subtle dynamics at play.

Differences in personal style, strengths, weaknesses, values and core beliefs are far more likely to create ER rifts, particularly if the organisational culture places more value on commonality than uniqueness. The unspoken “this is the way we do things around here” will soon marginalise anyone who doesn’t fit the cultural mould, eroding the ER.

Complexity

Relationships are neither simple nor complicated — they are complex. They are never-endingly dynamic and uncertain. They need constant nurture and attention.

My observation is that few organisations put time and value on relationship maintenance, particularly amongst groups. Meetings are only about work (Employment) and seldom about the people working (Relationships).

The organisations I’ve worked with over the years with the best cultures and ERs build regular personal sharing into meeting times and value social interaction outside of work.

Change

They say the only constant is change, yet most believe it happens only when intended. “Let’s change this, that or the other system, structure or procedure,” they say, “and, what’s more, let’s manage the change.”

No offence to any change managers reading, but managing change is like instructing the wind to blow in a certain direction. It’s futile. Whether it is intentional or the organic result of the passage of time, change needs to be acknowledged, observed and negotiated.

Responses to intentional or organic change will vary from individual to individual and from team to team. These responses need to be valued and respected, particularly the response that differs from the majority. Careful communication is needed to work through fears, disagreements and misunderstandings.

Conclusion

I am not naïve enough to believe RWNs can be eliminated. There will always be circumstances in which employees will choose to resign and leave immediately.

However, I do think RWNs are an important indicator of the healthiness of ERs and organisational culture. Anyone in a leadership position who dismisses it as the fault of the employee does so at their own — and their organisation’s — peril.

Are You or Your Org Guilty of Trickle-Down Community Engagement

A while ago, I was talking to a friend, another Executive Director, and he said, “Have you noticed that everyone is getting paid to engage us communities of color except us communities of color?” Sigh. Yes, I have noticed. I’ve been thinking a lot about this, and have come up with a term to describe it. Trickle-Down Community Engagement (TDCE). This is when we bypass the people who are most affected by issues, engage and fund larger organizations to tackle these issues, and hope that miraculously the people most affected will help out in the effort, usually for free.

In Seattle, if you’re a person of color and you walk down a dark alley late at night and you feel like you’re being followed, it’s probably someone trying to do some community engagement.

“Psst…hey buddy—Go Hawks!—you want to attend a summit? It’s about economic inequity. We need your voice.” “Daddy, I’m scared!” “Stay calm, Timmy; don’t look him in the eye.” “Come on, help a guy out! Here, you each get some compostable sticky dots to vote on our top three priorities! You can vote on different priorities, or, if you like, you put more than one dot on—” “Run, Timmy!”

This is why you should never take your kid down a dark alley in Seattle.

Needs Assessment, Ownership and Community Engagement

There are several reasons why TDCE happens. First, the nonprofit sector has all sorts of unwritten rules designed to be successfully navigated only by mainstream organizations (See “The game of nonprofit, and how it leaves some communities behind.”) Second, 90% of funding in the nonprofit world is relationship-based, which screws over marginalized communities, who have much fewer relationships with funders and decision-makers. Third, due to existing definitions, many organizations led by marginalized groups “don’t have the capacity.” They’re “small and disorganized,” they are “not ready to be leaders in these efforts.” Fourth, community engagement has been seen as the icing on the cake, and not an essential ingredient, so it is always last to be considered. Fifth, many funders and decision-makers focus on sexy short-term gains, not effective long-term investments.

Look, I’m not saying anyone is intentionally trying to discriminate against certain communities. Everyone is well-intentioned. Diversity, equity, inclusion, and cultural competency have risen to the front of people’s minds. Organizations are scrambling to talk about these issues, to diversify their board, to get community input. That is all great and all, but it has only been leading to marginalized communities being irritated and frustrated. Every single week, we leaders of color get asked to provide input, to join an advisory committee, attend a summit, to fill out a survey. Because of this well-intentioned mandate to engage with communities, we get bombarded with requests to do stuff for free.

Trickle-Down Community Engagement is pretty dangerous, for several reasons. When people who are most affected by issues are not funded and trusted to lead the efforts to address them:

It perpetuates the Capacity Paradox. The Capacity Paradox is when an organization cannot get significant funding because it has limited capacity, so it cannot develop its capacity, which leads it to not being able to get significant funding, which means it can’t develop its capacity. This greatly affects organizations led by communities of color and other marginalized communities. And then they can’t be as involved, which leads to ineffective efforts to tackle issues. (See “Capacity building for communities of color: The paradigm must shift.”)

It’s annoying as hell. In every single issue, I keep seeing larger, well-connected organizations getting significant funding but are not effective at engagement. So they pester us smaller ethnic-led orgs to help. I was asked by a collective impact backbone org to be involved with planning a summit to engage communities of color. I advised them not to do it, and told them that I’ve been to far too many summits that suck (See: “Community Engagement 101: Why most summits suck.”) Next thing I knew, they organized the summit anyway, asked my organization to help with outreach, and asked me personally to translate their outreach material into Vietnamese! All for free, of course! (“Run, Timmy!!”)

It’s intrinsically wrong. We, above any other field, must act on the belief that people most affected by inequities must be leaders in the movement. It is the right thing to do. Imagine a group of men leading an effort and making important decisions on women’s issues like reproductive health, and then asking women to come give feedback at a meeting. Or a bunch of idiots who don’t know anything about science leading a committee on climate change and asking scientists to come testify about global warming. These scenarios are ridiculous, which is why they happen in Congress.

Most importantly, it doesn’t work and is even counterproductive. If TDCE actually works, then we’d have little to argue about. But it does not. Well-intentioned but useless and sometimes even harmful stuff get voted on and implemented. For example, at a meeting I was invited to someone said, “We need to put 100% of funding into early learning instead of splitting it among early learning and youth development” and I had to remind them that “Many immigrant and refugee kids get here when they’re older than 5, so they’d be screwed if you only invest in early learning. We need to support the entire continuum of kids’ development.” (See “Youth Development, why it is just as important as early learning“) Unfortunately, by the time a mainstream organization finally gets to that community feedback forum or summit to get feedback on their well-intentioned but crappy plan or policy, it is too late.

Trickle-Down Community Engagement sucks and is insulting. The sector needs to stop only supporting major organizations and hope that magically the people disproportionately affected whom we don’t fund will join in. Or at the very least, we should stop whining about it when they don’t. We organizations led by marginalized communities are tired and irritated at excuses like “We can’t invest in you guys because you’re too small,” coupled with the constant requests for us to be involved. Don’t just give three drops of water to your rainbow carrots, wonder why they aren’t growing, and then whine about the lack of color in your salad.

As I said, everyone is well-intentioned. But Trickle-Down Community Engagement is harmful, and we need to all be aware of it and put a stop to it:

Funders: Review your investments for every priority. Are the issues you are trying to address disproportionately affecting some groups? Are those groups getting equitably funded and supported or are you just giving them token funding? Are they leading the effort or just playing bit parts on the side? If you are funding mainstream organizations to address challenges affecting marginalized communities, look at their budget request to see how much of it is to be shared with partner organizations that are led by affected communities. Stop being fooled by well-intentioned mainstream efforts that claim to represent marginalized communities but that are only tokenizing and using them. I’ve seen a well-funded coalition list over 80 diverse organizations as member, but on closer examination, several of these groups aren’t aware that they are members, or they no longer even exist!

Donors: See above paragraph. In addition, know that organizations led by marginalized communities tend to be smaller, so they need your support more. Unfortunately, they don’t have the same relationship with you or the same marketing and development capacity as bigger and better known organizations. Seek them out. Your support matters.

Mainstream organizations: Sorry, it seems like I’ve been beating up on you a lot. That’s not my intentions. You guys do awesome stuff and play critical roles. But review your projects and budgets, and examine your role and the dynamics you are contributing to. Are you building in funding to share with community partners, or are you just asking people to do stuff for free in the name of “community engagement”? Are you siphoning funding to address issues that other nonprofits should be tackling but they don’t yet have the capacity? Are you mentoring smaller nonprofits through strategic partnerships? Are you serving as an advocate for these groups, since you have better relationships with funders?

Organizations led by marginalized communities: Learn when to say yes and when to say no. I’ve seen too many small nonprofits agree to do outreach, to be partners, to even run programs for tiny amounts of funding. I’ve done it myself. My last organization, when it was much smaller, partnered with a bigger org who could not reach students of color. They asked us to organize a 2-hour workshop for over 100 diverse kids each month for a year. You know how much we got to do that? $2500 total, and we had to itemize and have receipts for every pencil we bought! The big organization who “partnered” with us got all the credit, of course. All of us can be so naïve, signing on to coalitions without researching first, lending our names to summits without due diligence, doing outreach and translation for free. It just perpetuates a terrible and ineffective system that continues to leave our communities behind. Learn to say no, to give feedback firmly, and to build strategic relationships.

Equity, diversity, inclusion, community engagement, etc. those are all good, but they can also be irritating, misleading, and even harmful if not done right. Trickle-Down Community Engagement is an example of good-intention poorly executed. If we want marginalized communities to be engaged, we need to fund and support them directly to be engaged. Community Engagement cannot be the icing on the chocolate cake of equity and social justice. It is the chocolate!

Power, Prejudice, and Paradox

I’ve recently changed how I describe myself or, more accurately, my experience. I now talk about “my paradoxical experience as a queer, caucasian, cisgender man with unique function (disability).”

indecision-967718-mEven doing this is paradoxical, given I argued the point in 2012 at TEDxAuckland that we need to decay labels to reveal diversity. But I’m doing it to explain a phenomenon of power, privilege and paradox, rather than to label myself.

Power and privilege have long been part of the politics of diversity and discrimination. Recently I heard another diversity expert, Leslie Hawthorne, encourage those with privilege to raise awareness of it by, for example, not using the word “lame” to describe something that is bad or stupid, because you are implying that people who can’t walk are bad or stupid.

There has also been the story of Ijeoma Oluo, a woman of colour, who experienced an instant reduction in racial slurs when she changed her Twitter profile picture to one that made her look caucasian.

These examples seem to me to slightly simplify the understanding of power and privilege — change a word here, look a bit different there. I think there are more complex subtleties at work, like context, subjectivity and objectivity, that paint a broader, more complex picture of power and privilege.

So back to me — let’s deconstruct those labels (or decay them) in terms of power and privilege (I’ll use P&P to save keystrokes).

  • Queer — not heterosexual (but not obviously so) — P&P comparatively low
  • Caucasian — not of colour — P&P unquestionably high
  • Cisgender — not transgender — P&P unquestionably high
  • Man — not woman — P&P unquestionably high
  • Unique function (disabled) — not non-disabled — P&P unquestionably low

So the question becomes, where do I sit in terms of P&P? We could do simple maths: 3 high P&P, only 2 low, ergo I have +1 P&P.

More complex maths — let’s give more points to unquestionably (2) than comparatively (1): -1+2+2+2-2=+3 — so I have +3 P&P? Or do I have +6 P&P as well as -3 P&P?

Of course this is where the paradox and complexity comes in, as well as context, subjectivity and objectivity (and other things I haven’t thought of but probably will do later). Let’s do some more decaying…

Context: As I said at TEDxAuckland, but to reframe it slightly, if I’m in a room of cisgender, caucasian men, they will not see my +6 P&P. They will see and/or sense my -3 P&P, feel awkward, discount me and I will lack P&P.

If, however, I’m in a room of indigenous, transgender and/or queer disabled people, chances are my +6 P&P will become very noticeable and my -3 P&P won’t be enough to save me. There goes my P&P. Again.

Similarly, if I’m in a recognised leadership role or on stage talking about P&P to a TEDx audience, I’ll have more of it than if I’m a stranger in the street.

Subjectivity: This works two ways. 1. The more people know me (i.e. the more subjective their experience of me), the more relative P&P I will have. They’re looking past the labels and seeing me for who I really am. 2. The more P&P I feel I have in different contexts, and the more I am aware of the behaviours and language that are commonly understood in the situation, the less threatening my perceived lack or abundance of P&P is likely to be.

Objectivity: I’ll refer back to Leslie Hawthorne, who recounted a story of an orchestra, which lacked female members. On becoming aware of this, “blind” (I’m not sure if that’s offensive or not to people who can’t see) auditions were held, so that decision-makers couldn’t tell the gender of the auditioning person.

Within a few years, female members had increased several-fold. So, ensuring some objectivity around P&P can decrease its impact.

So, where are we? Well, if you’re anything like me you’re likely in some state of confusion and uncertainty which, I would hazard to say, is a very good state from which to tackle diversity, not to mention leadership, complexity and change. Our human need to be sure and certain and to know the answers are precisely what leads us astray in the world, a world which is nothing like what we would like it to be.

In “A Short History of Stupid” by Helen Razer and Bernard Keane, Razer observes:

When you elevate lived experience to centrality in your socio- political critique and politics, you delegitimise the contribution to debate from other perspectives; if the traditional logical fallacy is appeal to authority, since the 1990s appeal to experience has come to rival it, creating a hierarchy of analysis with lived experience at the apex of authenticity. Moreover, as the phrase ‘check your privilege’ implies, it is not merely that a non- experience- based contribution to a discussion lacks legitimacy, the possession of other forms of experience creates an illegitimacy that is impossible to overcome: the scoring systems used to allocate ‘privilege points’ can be neatly flipped into a ‘how illegitimate is your opinion’ scale, depending on the colour of your skin, your sexual preference, your income and your gender. The result is a further fragmentation of public debate on issues, with fewer voices heard and greater unanimity among those voices given the imposition of dominant narratives even within sub- groups. The result is also a lesser willingness among generalists, and particularly media practitioners, to genuinely engage on policy issues arising from or including identity politics, for fear of being labelled racist/misogynist/homophobic/middle class/transgenderphobic/ableist/fattist/perpetrators of rape culture. They live in fear of fatally missing some critical nuance that would reveal them as inauthentic, or worse.

I agree. I don’t see myself (or anyone else) as absolutely either owning or lacking P&P — I don’t think it’s a useful paradigm. Sometimes we have, it sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we can influence it, sometimes we can’t. Sometimes we’re prepared, sometimes we’re not. Sorry kids, it’s messy out there.

And — hate to say it — it’s getting messier.

Solidarity for Racial Justice and Non-violence

As a group of students, staff, and faculty at the University of Utah College of Social Work, we join our voices with those of other schools, agencies, and communities against recent acts of racism and violence in Ferguson, Cleveland, New York, Phoenix, Saratoga Springs (UT) and elsewhere. We recognize our varying experiences with and participation in systems of power and privilege, oppression and discrimination, which make this conversation complex, risky, and uncertain.

utahswWe recognize that racial biases are often unconscious, and that even well-intentioned individuals may lack awareness of our own biases. Thus, this conversation and related actions are necessary aspects of raising our consciousness with respect to racism, systemic violence, and injustice, and taking steps toward healing in our communities and our nation. We are compelled to speak out for justice by our personal convictions and our professional values and ethics; to remain silent in the face of injustice is a privilege that we reject as collusion.

In 2009, African Americans comprised 13% of the U.S. population but 42% of inmates on death row. These national patterns are often reflected in Utah, as well. In Salt Lake City, the rate of arrest for black residents is more than four times that of non-black residents. Minority youth in Utah are significantly more likely than non-minority youth to have aggravated sanctions and longer sentences, while non-minority youth were more likely to have mitigating sanctions applied to their cases, leading to shorter sentences.

Media portrayal of recent events of racism and violence has contributed to a polarization of this issue in which those standing in solidarity with victims of violence are deemed to be anti-law enforcement. We reject this polarizing view of these events, and openly recognize that we are all socialized and implicated within a larger system of racism in our country. Aspects of structural and institutional racism occur within law enforcement, as well as within other professions and the social, political, and economic institutions in the U.S.

We unite as students, staff, and faculty to stand in solidarity with those already working toward racial justice through continued action to reduce racism and violence. Specifically, we seek to examine and change, where needed, the work that we do in our profession and education. We ask that the College of Social Work discuss and develop the following actions:

• Promote and implement College-wide activities that center social justice and equality in the culture and educational aims of the CSW.

• Develop and support dialogue between law enforcement, the criminal justice system, service providers and communities to help heal the wounds of violence and injustice, and to build bridges among participants.

• Collaborate with campus units, local agencies, colleges, and communities on anti-racism and social justice work.

• Encourage the BSW and MSW Program Advisory Committees to develop action plans to address current pressing social justice issues in classroom discussions in a timely fashion.

• Establish regular professional development for campus and field faculty with regard to implementing critical dialogue about privilege, power, oppression and racism.

• Establish an Anti-Racism Task Force within the College of Social Work.

We have grave concerns about observed and documented patterns of racial violence by law enforcement agents across the U.S., historically and currently. As Rev. Meg Riley has noted, “We are buried up to our necks in a history of violence and brutality against people of color.” We know that communities of color and other minority groups are disproportionately stopped and arrested by law enforcement, and prosecuted and incarcerated by the criminal justice system. Across this country we have witnessed too many incidents in which some law-enforcement agents have harassed, beaten, choked, and/or shot civilians – particularly black men – and it has been done with impunity.

As a school of social work, we are professionally mandated to center social justice and anti-oppressive practice for the improvement of human and social well-being. We join colleagues at Smith College School for Social Work in listening deeply and compassionately to the pain, grief, anger, fear and loss in families and communities struggling with these events. We join Portland State School of Social Work and others in continuing to transform our professional work into efforts that promote socially just, anti-racist services, programs, policies, and change.

Media Contact

Dr. Christina Gringeri | Ph:  801-581-4864 | christina.gringeri@socwk.utah.edu

University of Utah College of Social Work

Press Release: Social Work Helper Magazine was not involved in the creation of this content.

Five Social Justice Challenges to Teachers

As the new school year is underway, I just wanted to take a moment to urge teachers to think about how social justice issues impact their classrooms. I’ve listed 5 social justice challenges to teachers below to encourage us to think about how we interact, teach and organize our classrooms to promote equity and justice.

sjToo often, and especially at the beginning of a school year, I see teachers becoming concerned about having the “right” posters on the wall or trying to become an expert at the latest “technological innovation” in teaching. As great as technology can be in a classroom, teaching and learning is about human interaction. At the heart of that interaction can be a shared commitment to learning through a social justice framework.

Here are my five social justice challenges to teachers:

  1. Create a safe and equitable classroom for LGBTQ students. If we want to create an inclusive classroom where students care for each other, we must instill a culture that embraces all students in the classroom. Here is a resource to help  http://glsen.org/educate/resources/back-school-guide-educators
  2. Learn about how colonialism impacts teaching and education. If you’re a teacher in Canada then you must be aware that colonialism is not just a thing of the past, but a process that continues to this day. Many of us teachers are settlers on Indigenous lands and must understand that we have a role to play in the decolonization process. Check this out-http://blogs.ubc.ca/edst591/files/2012/03/Decolonizing_Pedagogies_Booklet.pdf

  3. Do not be afraid to talk about race with your students. Despite what many mainstream commentators are saying, we do not live in a “post-racial society”. Canada is not immune to racial inequality. I urge you to learn about Canada’s missing and murdered Indigenous women as well as how the issues in Ferguson, Missouri highlight racial inequality.

  4. Understand how poverty can impact your students lives. Often times, we blame individual students for their behaviours without looking at the context of the environments that they live in. Poverty has a an immense impact on a student’s ability to succeed in the classroom. As teachers, we see this first hand. When we signed up to become teachers, we also signed up to advocate for our students. Get involved in your community and ask how you can be a part of the solution to create the social change to eliminate poverty.

  5. Don’t hesitate to take on controversial issues in the classroom. A great example is the conflict between Israel and Palestine. Students must use their classroom experiences to make sense of the world they live in. If we do not prepare them to engage in the task of understanding the world, then we do them a great disservice. Below is a short and good video to help kick off a discussion about Israel and Palestine.

I could add many more challenges to this list, but I think these are 5 good places to start. Obviously, you can tailor these challenges to the appropriate grade level and learning needs of your students. If you approach these challenges with authenticity and a willingness to learn, then you just may find that you’ve opened a door to new possibilities about the purpose of your role as a teacher. It definitely did for me, I hope it does for you.

[youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y58njT2oXfE[/youtube]

Top 5 Reasons Social Work is Failing

Airing live on CSPAN, Dr. Steve Perry gave a searing speech on the “The Role of A Social Worker” at the Clark Atlanta University Conference in Atlanta, Georgia. He is the founder and principal of a Connecticut school which only accepts first generation, low-income, and minority students.

Dr. Perry received his Masters of Social Work degree from the University of Pennsylvania and has since become a leading expert in education, a motivational speaker, accomplished author, and a reality tv host.

Dr. Perry was adamant that social workers are the key to solving societal problems because we are the first responders for social issues.

However, he also pointed out that social workers are not unionized, tend to be politically inactive, and do not engage in social conversations in the public sphere.

Dr. Perry asserts that our jobs are the first to be cut because we are silent, and taxpayer dollars are being diverted to education budgets for programs social workers should be implementing.

I have listened to Dr. Perry’s speech twice already, and there were many pearls of wisdom that he dropped on the ears of those in attendance and viewing the broadcast. For the most part, I agreed with 95 percent of what Dr. Perry said which is a very high percentage for me.

Now, I am going to share with you my top 5 reasons why I believe social work is failing:

1. Title Protection

First, it made me beam with joy when Dr. Perry referred to himself as a social worker despite his celebrity status. Most individuals with social work degrees who work in social work settings often refer to themselves as researchers, professors, therapists, or psychoanalysts. The people most vocal about title protection and licensure don’t actually call themselves social workers as if the title is relegated only to frontline staff.

I feel that over time title protection has been convoluted to mean licensed social worker and not a worker with a social work degree. I go in more detail on my thoughts regarding licensure in a prior article entitled, “Licensed Social Workers Don’t Mean More Qualified”. In my opinion, current policies and advocacy by professional associations and social work organizations have fractured the social work community into its current state.

We hail Jane Addams as the founder and pioneer of social work when in fact a story like Jane Addams’ would not be possible today. Jane Addams did not have a social work degree nor did she need a license to advocate, help people organize, or connect them with community resources. As a matter of fact, in today’s society Jane Addams would probably major in gender studies, political science, public policy, business or law.

Social work degree programs have begun dissociating themselves with “casework” connecting community members to resources, and they actually steer students away from these types of jobs. If we are going to pursue title protection, we also need to create second degree and accelerated programs to pull experienced professionals and other degree holders into the social work profession instead of excluding them.

2. Macro vs Micro

For the past couple of decades, social work has slowly moved towards and is now currently skewed toward being a clinical degree while marketing itself as a mental health profession. Over time, the profession has done a poor job in recruiting and connecting with individuals who are interested in working with the poor, politics, grassroots organizing, and other social justice issues.

Individuals who once flocked to social work to do community and social justice work are now seeking out other disciplines instead. Many social workers who want to be politically active and social justice focused are forced to do so under the banner of a women’s organization or other social justice nonprofit due to lack of our own. Students who decided to seek a macro social work degree often feel alienated and unsupported both in school and later with lack of employment opportunities.

3. Professionals Associations Represent Themselves and Not Us

Social Work organizations and associations have been pushing licensing for the past couple of decades which happens to also correlate with the same time frame they tripled the amount of unpaid internship hours required to complete your social work degree.

Recently, the Australian Association of Social Workers conducted a study which found university social work students were skipping meals and could not pay for basic necessities in order to pay for educational materials. American social work students who receive no stipends or any type of assistance are being forced to quit paying jobs in order to work unpaid internships, and they have no one fighting for them. In fact, most social work leaders argue that if you can’t shoulder the hardship this is not the profession for you. Many social workers struggle with supporting the fight for $15 dollars per hour for minimum wage jobs because they have master’s degrees making less than $15 dollars per hour.

You can’t talk to a social worker about anything without hearing the word “licensing”. From the time you start orientation, licensing is being forced feed to you as the solution that will solve all of social work’s problems. You are told licensing is going lead to better pay, better professionalism, better outcomes for clients, and better recognition to name a few. Minimum education and training standards are important, but requiring a medical model for all areas of practice in social work is not the answer. Social Work Licensing advocates often compare social work licensing with that of nurses, doctor, or lawyers.

In my opinion, social work licensing gives social workers all the liability and responsibilities without any of the rights. In states where licensing is required, social work licensing advocates did not advocate for employers to assume the cost of the additional training. The cost of continuing education credits have been passed on to the employee who is already in a low paying job, and the employer may opt to pay for them if they choose.

Here are a few things that licensing actually does:

  • Who can pass the licensure exam without having to pay for test prep materials or a workshop in which your professional association happens to sell to you at a “discount” if you are a member.
  • People are taking the licensure exam sometimes at $500 each time for four to five times. Where is this money going?
  • Once you pass the licensure exam, you are going to need liability insurance in which they also happen to sell.
  • To keep your social work license, you will have to maintain a certain amount of continuing education unit (CEU) hours yearly. They just happen to own and provide the majority of these CEU online companies and workshops for you as well.
  • Then, you have to pay renewal fees yearly and fines to your state board of licensure which goes to sustain their jobs.

Licensing is currently in all 50 states and US territories, and it seems to benefit the people who created the policies more than it does the social worker and the communities we serve. Licensure makes money, and social justice issues just aren’t income generators. For social workers who are already struggling, how does all the above fees and costs affect their career mobility in one of the lowest paid professions with one of the highest student loan income/debt ratios? Without a union for social workers, who will advocate on our behalf and for our clients to get the resources we need to serve them?

4. Lack of Diversity in Social Work Leadership and Academia 

Through Social Work Helper, I have had the opportunity to be a part of conversations with various factions of social work leadership over the past couple of years. Often times, I was the only person a part of the conversation that didn’t have a doctorate or at least in the process of earning one.  Additionally, I noticed that very few were minority voices if any other than me who were a part of these conversations. At first, I was intimidated because they had more education and  higher positions than me.

However, the more I listened and paid attention, I realized they are not better than me rather they had access to more opportunities than me. The ignorance and insensitivity displayed towards communities of color and the plight of social workers who are struggling in this profession was unbelievable.

Diversity in leadership brings different perspectives and point of views to be added to the conversation. Why didn’t more social work organizations and schools of social work support last night’s speech by Dr. Perry hosted at a Historically Black College? How often is the topic of social work front and center in a televised public forum?

According Social Work Synergy,

“At times this will mean sharing power and leadership in deeper ways, and taking proactive steps to undo oppression and racism. The use of community organizing principles and skills are essential” (p.19) to this effort. Read Full Article

5. Lack of Support and Silence

Social work organizations and associations are forever holding conferences that the majority of social workers can’t afford to attend. Many social workers don’t have the luxury of having their university foot the bill for them to attend every social work conference each year. This very dynamic adds to the failures listed in 1 thru 4. In addition, it highlights another point made by Dr. Perry when he stated, “Social Workers will talk to each other, but they won’t engage in the public sphere”.

I have contacted both the Council for Social Work Education (CSWE) and the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) asking them to waive certain expenses, so I can cover their conferences in order to engage social workers via social media who can’t afford to attend. I can get press access to a White House event, but not to a social work conference. It’s like a country club that you can’t be a part of unless you can afford it.

Watch for free on CSPAN: The Role of Social Workers

 

Social Work Appears Absent in #Ferguson Global Conversation

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As Editor-in-Chief of Social Work Helper, I recently published an article entitled A Grand Response from Social Work is Needed in Ferguson written by Dr. Charles Lewis who is the President of the Congressional Research Institute for Social Work and Policy. Due to my coverage on the shooting of Mike Brown and the police response in Ferguson, Missouri, I have received lots of comments and responses from both social workers and non-social workers via email and various social media outlets.

As a result of comments I have received on Facebook, it makes me extremely fearful that some of these people are actually social workers, and I pray they are not working with minority communities. Maybe its a good thing the national media and reporters are not patrolling social worker forums and social media platforms to see what social workers think about national and global events. If they did, many would not be able to withstand the scrutiny placed on their statements.

As a strong warning, if you are going to proudly display yourself as a social worker in your cap and gown at your School of Social Work graduation, don’t make comments you would not want screen-capped and publicly reviewed. It has been my policy to hide these comments from public view, but this is only a cosmetic solution and does not address the racial divide and attitudes within our profession.

As one social worker and Facebook commenter provider her analysis of the events in Ferguson:

The police have nothing to do with voting, the police were shooting at a someone who wasn’t in the wrong place at the wrong time, but a thief who was stealing from a store, then when stopped by the police, charged the police and was shot. This has nothing to do with voting. Look at the autopsy report, instead of hearsay and the media looking for the next big story. I love being a social worker, but it makes my blood boil when other social workers jump on bandwagon going nowhere. Know the facts before you post something like that. Rioting, stealing and destroying other people’s property is not going to help the situation.”

If this is the primary analysis social workers are developing after seeing the events in Ferguson, then I have to question how are we preparing students and professionals to engage and meet the needs of minority communities. The best explanation and analysis that I could find to help social workers understand why they should care about Ferguson is in a video by John Oliver host of HBO’s Last Week Today. Also, you can view an article at the Jewish Daily making a case for why Jews should care about Ferguson.

Not only has the shooting of Mike Brown sparked a national conversation, it has sparked a global conversation on all inhabited continents according to the LA Times. Palestinians in Gaza are tweeting advice to American citizens on how to treat tear gas exposure, Tibetan monks arrived in Ferguson to show solidarity with protesters,  #dontshoot protests are happening around the world as a show of solidarity with Ferguson, Amnesty International sends first delegation ever to investigate on American soil, and the United Nations has been holding hearings on the civil rights violations against African-Americans in Geneva, Switzerland.

According to the New Republic,

In a 2005 study from Florida State University researchers, a mostly white, mostly male group of officers in Florida were statistically more likely to let armed white suspects slip while shooting unarmed black suspects instead.Police in that study shot fewer unarmed suspects than the undergraduates did, a difference attributable to professional training.  Read Full Article

As part of my research for this article, I did a Google news search using the strings “social workers” and Ferguson, then I used the string teachers and Ferguson. Please, click on the links to view the results.  I found two results one of which was the article published by Social Work Helper, and the other was a small blurb in a local news reporting stating that Social Workers are going door to door to assist with crisis counseling.

There is no doubt that there are many social workers already in or headed to Ferguson at their own expense to donate their skills during this crisis. But, the question we should be asking is who is helping to support their efforts on the ground? If you wanted to connect with them, how would you do it? We have many Schools of Social Work and many dues paying social work associations, but has any of them stepped up to offer assistance, help with coordination, provide a point of contact for social workers who do care about Ferguson and want to contribute? If there is, please let me know, and I will help promote your activities. Are social work professors writing letters to the editor, opinion editorials, or looking for ways to incorporate issues in Ferguson in their lesson plans? I found one professor at Columbia University who wrote a letter to the editor in the New York Times via twitter.

In the past, I have often been frustrated when it seems social workers are always left out of the conversation when discussing federal protections, pay increases, and job loss which tend to focus on teachers, police, and first responders. Also, I have been equally frustrated when professors from other disciplines are becoming political analysts for media outlets for the purpose of explaining social safety net programs that social workers implement. Lately, I have begun looking at this dynamic with new eyes and a fresh perspective, and I am beginning to form another hypothesis. Is social work not apart of the conversation due to exclusion or is it because social work is not showing up?

Another social worker who I truly respect and admire made the comment, “I am reminded that my profession is ALWAYS active. We don’t have to REACT, because what we do everyday is the action that is part of the solution.” However, I respectfully disagree with this assessment because crisis and emergency situations do not fall into the scope of what we do everyday.

Even during natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy, social workers acting outside the scope of their employment were left to their own devices. Without a social work organization leading the effort, it increases the difficulty of volunteer social workers to provide information, get support, as well as help with coordination of resources in order to maximize their efforts.

Human services agencies, Schools of Social Work, and Professional Associations have not exhibited the skill sets to create virtual command centers to steer potential resources to on the ground efforts as well as relay the needs assessment made by ground forces. As a matter of fact, it does not seem that these types of efforts are even viewed as actions to fall within the scope of their responsibility.

Teachers are change agents everyday, but they are reacting to the events of Ferguson in the following ways:

Ferguson students have been out of school for the past two because their community has been a war zone. 68% of students in Ferguson schools qualify for reduce or free lunch. As many social workers know, many students in poverty-stricken communities rely on school lunches to survive.

To help bring some relief to the community, Julianna Mendelsohn, a 5th grade teacher in Bahama, N.C., launched a fundraising campaign to benefit the St. Louis Area Foodbank, with the hope that the organization can offer food assistance to needy students. Mendelsohn set an initial goal of $80,000, and crossed that line today. As of this post’s publishing, her initiative had raised just over $110,000, with two days still to go. Read Full Article

150 Ferguson teachers used their day off as an opportunity for a civics lesson to help clean broken bottles, trash, and tear gas canisters from the streets.

“We’re building up the community,” says Tiffany Anderson, the Jennings School District superintendent. She has organized the teachers helping with cleanup, is offering meal deliveries for students with special needs, and has mental health services at the ready. “Kids are facing challenges. This is unusual, but violence, when you have over 90 percent free and reduced lunch, is not unusual,” Anderson says. “Last week, I met with several high school students, some of whom who are out here helping clean up. And we talked a little bit about how you express and have a voice in positive ways.” Read Full Article

Without school being in session, many educators are concerned with the needs of children due to the high poverty rates.

Today through Friday, Ferguson-Florissant will provide sack lunches at five elementary schools for any student in the district. The schools are Airport, Duchesne, Griffith, Holman and Wedgwood. On Tuesday, Riverview Gardens provided lunch to 300 children. Jennings also opened up its school cafeterias. Read Full Article

Ferguson schools are doubling the amount of counselors in their schools. But, what about the parents and adults in this community? Who will help care for their needs and direct them to resources?

Public schools in Ferguson, Mo., are reinforcing their counseling services for the first day of school Monday in anticipation of students’ anxieties after two weeks of protests in their community. Ferguson-Florissant School District is doubling the number of counselors Monday, and it’s training school staff to identify “signs of distress,” said Jana Shortt, spokeswoman for the school district. Read Full Article

Most importantly, educators have created the hashtag #Fergusonsyllabus to help other educators turn the events in Ferguson into teachable moments. They have also developed a google doc with resources and teaching tools to create lesson plans on Ferguson which can be found here.

The bulk of this article focused primarily on service needs, but the macro and advocacy contributions needed in this community are even greater. SAMHSA has also issued a press release to help direct Ferguson residents to their disaster relief and crisis counseling hotline which can be found at http://www.samhsa.gov/newsroom/advisories/1408110710.aspx

How can social work contribute and be apart of the solution, or is this somebody else’s responsibility? I would love to hear your thoughts!

Police: Serving and Protecting the White Middle-Class and Mentally Well

A violent threat, a criminal, a gangster, a drug-dealer, a menace, it seems these are all the things the police see you as in the United States of America if you are a black male. If the current media coverage of the shootings of Mike Brown and more recently Kajieme Powell have taught us anything, it is that to be a young black man in America is to know, despite much progress, you will still be treated as a second-class citizen.

Police fire tear gas in Ferguson Missouri
Police fire tear gas in Ferguson Missouri

The first thing to note is that the cases of Mike Brown and Kajieme Powell have brought media coverage that is long over-due. These killings are in no way unique. Kimani Gray (aged 16), Kendrec McDade (aged 19), Timothy Stansbury Jr. (aged 19), Sean Bell (aged 23), Aaron Campbell (aged 25), Wendell Allen (aged 20), Ramarley Graham (aged 20),  Oscar Grant (aged 22). The list goes on.

All these young men were unarmed and all of them were killed by police officers. Just because these incidents have not made international headlines, does not mean that similar cases are not happening all across America on a frequent basis.

Many of these shootings are the result of deep-rooted racial stereotypes of African-American men. The racism is subtle and implicit. However, on other occasions the racism has been overtly hateful, such as in the case of Orlando Barlow.

In 2003, Barlow (aged 28) was surrendering on his knees in front of four Las Vegas police officers when Officer Brian Hartman shot him dead. During the investigation into the shooting it was revealed that Hartman and other officers had printed T-shirts labeled “BDRT,” which stood for “Baby Daddy Removal Team”.

Serious questions need to be asked about when firearms can be used by Law Enforcement Officers. Even if Kajieme Powell did steal from a convenience store, that does not warrant lethal consequences. As someone who disagrees strongly with the death penalty, I do not believe that the state should have the authority to kill its citizens. Even the death penalty, when implemented after years of careful consideration by a Court, still can and does get things wrong (the case of George Stinney being particularly heart-breaking).

How we expect police officers, responding to high-stress, high-speed situations with minimal information, to demonstrate clear judgement in the use of lethal force, is an impossibility. Police should of course have the right to defend themselves but this should be in the form of skilled de-escalation and disarmamant techniques. We know that it can be done.

Every 28 hours in the United States of America, someone dies at the hand of the state. This is an alarmingly high figure, especially as the state has proven, time and time again, that it cannot be trusted. Police statements from Mike Brown and Kajieme Powell’s shootings have not matched up to later released videos. In another recently highlighted case, police were shown to be lying about the arrest of Marcus Jeter. If the dash-cam video had not surfaced, proving the police had tampered with and concealed evidence, Jeter would just be one more African American male in prison victim to an unfair and unjust system.

The shooting of Kajieme Powell also raises alarm bells with regards to the police’s approach to people with mental health problems. Whilst I am not suggesting that Kajieme was mentally unwell, it is clear from the police report that they were aware, prior to arrival on the scene, that Kajieme was acting erratically and talking to himself. When they arrived, Kajieme shouted at the officers to shoot him, which of course, they did. Anyone currently feeling angry or depressed, who watched the video footage, will know now that the easiest way to commit suicide in America is to provoke the police. The police have to be trained  on how to deal with vulnerable and mentally unwell people without killing them, otherwise there will continue to be tragic consequences. Ronald Maddison was a forty year old man with severe learning disabilities who, on hearing police gunshots, ran away and was subsequently shot and killed by police officers.

Equally important, however, is the fact that the highly publicized killing of Mike Brown has rightly caused extreme anger across America and the rest of the world. Kajieme Powell did not have to be mentally unwell to act the way he did. Mike Brown’s killing sent a clear message across America that the system is racist, corrupt and murderous. It is entirely possible that Kajieme Powell was trying to further prove the words of W.E.B. Du Bois, that have for a long time reverberated around black communities: “A system cannot fail those it was never meant to protect.”

It is all too easy for the Political Class to become complacent over the issue of race. Since the election of Barrack Obama, there have been cries that racial equality has been achieved and that the Civil Rights Movement has come to a complete and happy conclusion with America’s first black President.

This could not be further from reality. Obama’s success story is the exception, not the rule. One out of nine African American men will be incarcerated between the ages of 20 and 34, and this is the rule. The fact that there are more black males in prison than enrolled in university should not be the rule. Malcolm X sums it up best when he said: “No matter how much respect, no matter how much recognition, whites show towards me, as far as I’m concerned, as long as it is not shown to every one of our people in this country, it doesn’t exist for me.”

We cannot underestimate what is happening here. Police officers are killing innocent citizens and lying about doing it. We must get over our disbelief and stop looking for other explanations as to why these atrocities have occurred and realize, what many communities in America knew already, that the police do not protect everyone equally. It is time to stand together regardless of race or religion and say enough is enough. We will take no more!

[youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Oe9zK6SJr0[/youtube]

The Sport of Coming Out

Ian-Thorpe1

Australian swimmer Ian Thorpe is the latest in a long line of sports “stars” to come out as gay in an interview with celebrity interviewer Sir Michael Parkinson. It seems to be a sport in itself these days: to play professional sport and reveal that you’re gay. Perhaps a better sport might be to place bets on who will be next. David Beckham? Too good to be true.

But the real question — or the bigger conversation we’re not having — is about the “casual homophobia”, as Kath and Kimactor and out lesbian comedian Magda Szubanski puts it, in sport that stops people like Thorpe coming out — or never having to “go in” in the first place. In the Parkinson interview, he said keeping his sexuality secret was good for his career. He didn’t know if Australia wanted its champian to be gay. The lie was convenient and increased his maketability. He didn’t want to be gay.

It seems this “casual homophobia” is alive and well in more places in society than sport. I would say that there are many people — not just sportspeople — who keep their non-heterosexuality secret because it’s good for their career, they don’t know if their parents and friends want them to be gay, it’s more convenient and easy, socially, to be seen as straight — so no, they don’t want to be gay.

Which begs the question, how far have we come in liberal society, not to mention conservative pockets (religion, Russia etc), in the fight for human rights around sexuality, among other non-normative characteristics like gender (binary and non-binary), functional diversity, even race and ethnicity?

Not as far as we’d like to think, I’d suggest.

Australian Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson was in NZ recently and, according to the NZ Initiative, “argued that human rights are supposed to be sacrosanct principles, and criticised the expansion of human rights from their classical liberal origins.” Freedom, Wilson believes, is “the fundamental human right.” Anything more are social aspirations, which “come at the cost of freedom. While they may be worthy goals, they should not automatically be given equal status to the classical human rights.”

I agree with the Commissioner and have been saying a similar thing, to half-deaf ears it often feels like, in my work on labeling and diversity. The more grounds we add to the list for which we can be accused of unlawfully discriminating upon, the more we highlight difference. The more we highlight difference, the more scrutiny it attracts. The more scrutiny, the more at risk we become of being excluded by others’ prejudice. The more at risk we are, the less fredom we have.

Gay rights did nothing for Ian Thorpe — in fact I would almost say it did him a diservice. I’m not saying that gay rights are wrong or bad or shouldn’t have happened, nor that they haven’t improved the lives of some people. But, as Tim Wilson points out, gay rights come at the cost of the freedom to not have our sexuality put under scrutiny.

I was telling a friend a few days ago that, when I was seventeen, some thirty years ago, on the cusp of homosexual law reform but a decade and a half before gay human rights legislation was passed, I wore a badge at school saying, “How dare you assume I’m heterosexual”. Not out then, when people asked whether I was meaning I wasn’t straight, I clarified that the point of the messagee was the emphasis on “assume.” Now, whether I had automatic immunity from homophobic slurs due to my unique function, I’m not sure, but I’m also unsure I’d feel as comfortable wearing that badge as a student at school now.

Why not? Because the scrutiny of sexuality would put me at risk of other students’ prejudice. I’ve heard stories that it’s harder to be queer at schools today than it was decades ago, simply because kids are more aware. Such is the shadow of liberation; such is the cost to freedom.

I titled this post “The sport of coming out.” Perhaps it could be more aptly titled “The cost of coming out,” or even “The sport of catching someone coming out.”

How far have we really come?

 

Looking at Labeling and Diversity: Interview with Philip Patston

Recently, I had to the opportunity to catch up with Philip Patston who is a phenomenal speaker, advocate, and expert on diversity and labeling. Philip is also one of Social Work Helper’s expert columnists who offer readers a global perspective hailing from Auckland, New Zealand. Although he is located on the other side of the world, Philip helped me to realize through his writing and speaking the symmetry we all (human kind) share versus focusing on our differences.

Philip has traveled an interesting path and has seen the world from different lenses such as a counselor, comedian, and advocate to name a few. After viewing his Ted Talk with over 30,000 views, I wanted to learn more about Philip. We had an interesting conversation, and now I am going to share it with you.

SWH: Tell us a bit about your background and what led you into the field of social work?
Philip Patston at Tedx Auckland
Philip Patston at Tedx Auckland

I began a Bachelor of Arts degree majoring in Psychology and Sociology aged 18, but hated the University environment, so I quit early in my second year. I then trained to be a phone counsellor and ended up counselling by phone for nine years. I had also been a member of a youth group since my mid-teens and had been “dropped” into leadership roles (e.g. turning up at youth work meetings and being told to get up and speak about the youth group). So I did a lot of youth development work in my late teens and early 20s as well.

Then in 1990, when I was 22, I was accepted onto a two-year Social Work programme which gave me a Certificate of Qualification in Social Work and a Diploma in Applied Social Studies. The programme was known to be quite radical. There were only 40 students per year, half of whom were Maori (the indigenous people of NZ or Tangata Whenua, literally “people of the land”), a quarter Pacific people, and a quarter “other” (known as Pakeha in the Maori language).

It was an immersive bi-cultural programme, deliberately making Maori culture dominant. There were huge conflicts, particularly among the Pakeha group, who felt aggrieved by many processes in which they were not the majority. Being gay and disabled, I was fairly used to not being in the majority, so I was quite comfortable and amused by some of my colleagues’ inability to step outside of the process and learn from the experience of the tables being turned.

During my first year, I did a placement in a government care and protection agency and realised it wasn’t my thing. My second year placement was doing social research on the needs of disabled people for the Auckland Health Board. That turned into a two or three year job. After that I worked for the Human Rights Commission for four years, after which I became self-employed, raising awareness of diversity and doing comedy professionally.

So, I never really got to actually be a social worker! But the Diploma programme gave me a great grounding in radical social theory and direct action. If anything, I was an activist. Running awareness workshops as well as doing comedy, which led me to have a very high profile in New Zealand through television in the 1990s and 2000s, were a great combination of vehicles to create change.

SWH: Would you identify your work as being macro and/or mezzo focused, and what advice would you give other social workers who would like to do the work you are doing?

People have likened me to Nietzsche over the years so, yes, I do work in the macro/mezzo realms, I guess! I think it’s a hard place to feel effective because like any leadership or social change activity, it’s a long game and hard to see any tangible evidence of success. My suggestions for others working in similar spaces? Find like minds and check in regularly. Drink wine. Celebrate any success however small and, every now and then, pretend you’ve had a huge success and celebrate that! Finally, read Getting to Maybe: How the World Is Changed — the best book on social entrepreneurship and social change ever written.

SWH: Who are some of your biggest influencers in how you filter, provide and give information/advice to others?

Some of my favourite thinkers in the work I do are the authors of Getting to Maybe, Sir Ken Robinson, Brene Brown, Peter Block, Kathryn Schulz, and Adam Kahane. I also love Onora O’Neill’s definition of trust. Another fave is Prof. Brian Cox – he’s a cute, English educational physicist and I’ve used his layperson explanations of entropy and physics to explain diversity and relationship dynamics to school students. Finally, Sue Davidoff and Allan Kaplan, from The Proteus Initiative in South Africa. I’ve worked with them on living social practice twice now and they’ve had a profound influence on the way I work with people about diversity.

SWH: Your Tedx Talk on Labeling was a huge success. What was that experience like and what has life been like after your Tedx Talk?

It was surprisingly intimidating and nerve-wracking. Being a regular viewer of TED Talks, it really felt like I was wheeling into a TED video! Those big red letters and the round red carpet are quite iconic. I had refused to rehearse because as a comedian I would only ever rehearse mentally, so the guys running it (who hadn’t seen me perform) were a bit nervous and told my PA, Wai, who was backstage. Wai said, “Nah. he’ll be fine,” and halfway through they apparently said, “He’s killing.” Wai: “Told you so!”

Probably the most significant thing though was being able to present what I would call my soul work to 2,000 people live, in a funny, entertaining way, and have it videoed and put online under the TED brand so that it’s had over 30,000 views. That’s a great privilege.

Life after TED? Well, I did a conference call with the Diversity Group of IBM in California, which was a bit of a fizzer, and I’ve had a few speaking and facilitation jobs as a result. Not life-changing on the big scale of things, but definitely a highlight

SWH: Are you further developing your work on labeling, and do you have any other projects you are working on or have recently finished?

I recently made a music video about labelling that I’ve used a lot in diversity workshops. Music is a powerful way to simplify topics that can be quite complex, in order to have a conversation about the complexity. I was really lucky to work with an extremely talented musician, Arli Liberman, who put my words to music; and then some friends who run a superb creative agency, Borderless Productions, came up with the concept and produced the video. I’ve also recently finished some work on diversity in the media and co-wrote and published a children’s book.

Right now, I’m in an interesting space of limbo. Apart from running a leadership programme, which I love and is in its fourth year, a lot of my projects have either come to an end or have lost funding (we’re in an election year in NZ so Government funders have become super risk averse, unfortunately). So I’m in a space of seeing where I will be taken next. I’d love to make some more music videos, but they’re quite expensive and hard to get funded, even via crowdsourcing. I funded the first one myself, which meant I had a complete creative license and no accountability — that was extremely liberating!

So what’s next on the bucket list…oh and I started writing a book earlier this year and I am stuck big time. I need to give myself a good talking to and hopefully, I’ll get back into that soon too!

Be Anything You Want to Be and Learn How To Define What You Want

White House Summit on Working Families-Panel on Career Ladders and Leadership
White House Summit on Working Families-Panel on Career Ladders and Leadership

From the time we had our first memories, many of us can still remember what we wanted to be when we grew up. Childhood was a time when dreams did not have boundaries and were not obscured by societal challenges and barriers many of us would come to know as we got older. Somewhere along the journey from childhood to Adulthood, we stopped asking ourselves “What do I want to be”, and we began asking ourselves, “What can I do” under the circumstances.

Recently, I had the distinct honor and pleasure of listening to a panel of powerful women discuss their journey in climbing the career ladder and the challenges they faced along the way. I hung on their every word while trying to gain some insight into my own path and future career aspirations. What was it they did, what were their commonalities, and what were the resources these women had access to that catapulted them to the top of their fields?

There were lots of nuggets and jewels of profound wisdom that were left on the ears of the participants in the room. However, one of the statements that resonated with me the most came by way of Debra Lee who is the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Black Entertainment (BET). Debra Lee stated as a child, she was always taught that she could be anything she wanted to be, but she didn’t know how to define what it was she wanted. Lee stated that she had always accepted what was given to her as a result of her hard work. Unlike her male counterparts, she didn’t seek out opportunities to advance her career.

She had reached the ceiling of her current position as Chief In-House Counsel for the network, and there was no higher position for her to aspire as an attorney. It wasn’t until the former CEO presented Lee with an opportunity to move into a newly created Chief Operating Officer position that the ceiling she was previously under was removed. Before the position had been offered to Debra Lee, three men had already gone to the CEO seeking the position to be created for them.

There are several things I garnered from this anecdote and other insights from the panel of women that I would like to share with you, and here are the most important:

1. Know Your Value

We live in a society where we are trained to want more for less. Jobs want to offer part-time work or unpaid internships for the possibility of earning full-time employment. Even though you are set to work a certain amount of hours, the expectation is for you to work in excess to prove your worth. This makes sense when its a symbiotic relationship where the employer is investing in your development instead of only extracting your skills and abilities as cheap labor. How many of us stay on abusive jobs because we fear a worse outcome or a bad recommendation to keep you there? How many of you are waiting for someone to acknowledge your hard work, worth, and value with a raise, time off, or promotion? What is this doing to your self esteem? Self-esteem and self-worth, is the difference between “what I want to do” versus “What I can do” under the circumstances.

2. Identify Your Challenges and Barriers

Challenges and barriers are very real no matter where you fall on the socioeconomic scale. However, those challenges may be exacerbated by the lack of resources, opportunities, and education at your disposal. Before you can change your situation, you have to identify the barriers and challenges you are up against. Admitting that your skin color or being a woman is a barrier in obtaining leadership positions is not playing the race or gender card, but its the unfortunate truth. Once you acknowledge your barriers and challenges, you can develop strategies, create partners and allies, and skills to reduce the impact of those same barriers.

3. Mentorship Is A Necessity

After listening to the women on the panel and other speakers, there was a re-occurring theme of mentorship and re-investment into creating other leaders that rang throughout the day. Not one person took sole credit for their own success. They all acknowledged someone or several someones who invested into their growth which inspired a symbiotic relationship of loyalty and hard work in return. These days, mentorship is harder to find as we continue to evolve into a “What’s in it for me” society.

More and more people who are in leadership positions aren’t necessarily there because they have the requisite skills and abilities rather than the availability of more access and opportunity at their disposal. In the past, we have expected mentorship to happen organically and naturally occurring from jobs, schools, and internships. Today, you must be more purposeful in seeking out mentors to assist your career aspirations. But, there are some pitfalls you may want to avoid on your quest to find mentorship.

Breathe…success may not happen overnight, and there may be many barriers on your path to success. However, you must keep in mind that your journey is preparation for when your moment arrives.

Do Foreign Drivers Need Education Before Getting on the Road

This past weekend, four people were killed by foreign drivers, which has re-opened a debate about whether tourists in New Zealand need education before they drive here.

I think we’re missing the point. It’s an example of where we point the finger at individuals, or groups of individuals, rather than examining the structural or systemic conditions that affect the behaviour of people.

In the case of these four deaths, I would say that two conditions may have been factors in the tragedies: inconsistent road rules and the weird phenomenon that, in different countries, vehicles drive on different sides of the road.

List_of_left-___right-driving_countries___World_StandardsIt got me remembering how, when I’ve visited the USA, driving on the other side of the road messed with my head. It wasn’t just being on the “wrong” side of the road and the car, I found it actually affected my spacial awareness of left and right. Let me try and explain.

In NZ, where we drive on the left side of the road in the right side of the car, when we turn left into a side street, we follow the road around the corner, keeping close to the curbside. Turning into a street on the right, you cross the opposing lane of oncoming traffic. However, in the US and the 65% of countries who drive on the right side of the road and the left side of the car, this relational aspect is reversed — you cross opposing traffic turning left and hug the curb turning right.

The weird thing was this: when people gave directions — “make a left,” make a right,” etc — my brain interpreted as “hug the curb,” “cross opposing traffic,” etc — meaning that I muddled up left and right. It also felt almost impossible to turn left over opposing traffic because my brain wanted a left turn to be a simple following of the curb.

The result was that, for the first few days at least, I felt incredibly disoriented. Luckily, I wasn’t the one driving, but yes we did end up on the wrong side of the road a couple of times fortunately without incident.

Why we drive on different sides of the road has often baffled me. I did some research, and you can see which countries drive on which side of the road here, the fascinating history and politics of side-swapping here and some interesting facts about which side of vehicles we sit to drive here.

The accidents I referred to earlier were not necessarily caused by “side-of-road confusion”, though one of the accidents involved the tourist crossing the centre line. However, both tourists came from right-side driving countries.

The other factor that may have been an influence were road rules. In 2012. NZ changed two unusual give way rules, which were confusing to New Zealanders let alone tourists. While there areinternational standard rules to prevent collisions at sea, there are no such standards in road rules around the world. Ironic.

I never thought I’d be arguing against diversity but it seems to me that, until technology is prevalent enough to prevent accidents on the road, we are stuck with a global variety of ideologies that would be far better for us if they were consistent.

Image: www.worldstandards.eu

Diversity and Decay: It’s Not What You’d Think

I have learnt so much working with Sue Davidoff and Allan Kaplan of the Proteus Initiative. I want to share an amazing insight about the nature of diversity itself (and when I say “nature” I mean both the phenomena of the physical world and the basic or inherent features of something).

One of the exercises I did with Allan and Sue was to observe plants that were growing and dying (or decaying). We were asked to observe them carefully and then sketch them. The latter action is not a forté of mine but observation doesn’t require much dexterity and I made a discovery that literally left me reeling for a moment.

The two pictures below demonstrate what I saw. Can you see it too?

Growing and decaying leaves

The first leaf is growing. It has order and structure. If it was on a tree it would have a certain uniformity with the other leaves. It would have a certain uniqueness, but amongst a common shape, colour and texture for that kind of leaf.

The second leaf is dying and decaying. It is random – chaotic even – in shape, colour and texture. If there were more of them each would be totally different. Do you see what this means? There is more diversity in the process of decaying than in growing.

I don’t know about you but I was gobsmacked. After spending twenty years understanding and helping others to understand diversity, I realised I needed to change my whole direction. In order to recognise and understand diversity (not create it, as it’s already around in abundance), something had to decay in individuals, organisations, communities and humanity, not grow.

The question was, what exactly needs to decay? Here’s what I think:

  1. Individuals: In individuals, what needs to decay is identity. In order to recognise your own and others’ diversity, you need to let go of your idea of who you are or who you think the other person is. This may include dropping labels, assumptions, values and beliefs. You may hold them dear, but they will lock you into an idea of who you are, or someone else is, that is constrained by them. I realised this clearly when I spoke to a meeting of Gender Bridge, a NZ community group established to provide support for transgendered people, their friends, families, and communities. In order to successfully understand and/or enter into a process of changing gender identity, you need to decay many things, including the values society places on static, binary notions of gender and your own idea of yourself as your biological or born gender.
  2. Organisations: Most organisations see strategic diversity management as a way to add fairness, variety, competence and productivity to their workforces, services and/or products. They write policies and procedures, do awareness training and even “diversity activities” like putting on ethnic lunches, learning cultural traditions or acknowledging lifestyle differences. All well and good but, in my experience, this attempt to “do” diversity is often inauthentic and usually fails. Why? Because they forget to decay organisational culture – ideas of what is efficient, professional, acceptable and usual. Without losing these old notions of what was important, diversity strategies are token. (Here’s a great quote from Tamarack & Vibrant Communities Associate Mark Cabaj: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” It is so true in this context.)
  3. Communities: Where communities struggle with diversity, I believe, is in their need to hear or to speak with one voice. In short, communities need to decay agreement. Communities tend to need common language, behaviour and structures to create collective identity. Like leaves on a healthy tree they want to foster a certain shape, colour and texture. Unfortunately, diversity within community is about embracing and working with paradox, discomfort and uncertainty. It’s messy, frustrating and hard work.
  4. Humanity: Humanity – no pressure. I’m aware I’m at risk of totally destroying my credibility by positing one thing everyone needs to do without, in order to embrace diversity. But what the hell. I’ll put it out there. I think the thing that humanity needs to decay is the need for answers. Answers impede the exploration of diversity more than anything else in the world. Once we know (or think we know) the answer to who we are, or who someone else is, or how, or why or when, we stop asking questions. The Diversity Inquiry – or DIVINQ – process I designed a few years ago is based on that one simple premise – the need to inquire constantly about our personal and social dynamic.

There you go. Identity, organisational culture, agreement and the need for answers. Four very complex things we need to be prepared to let decay, in order to let diversity grow in abundance.

Not bad for a couple of leaves.

Here’s a video of me presenting these and other ideas at TEDxAuckland in 2012.

[youtube=”http://youtu.be/hNUgOhJiQZc”]

Is the Wonder of Diversity Getting Lost in the Fear of Being Wrong?

In my twenties, I used to run disability awareness workshops mainly for people working in disability services. I had an assumption and an agenda — they were wrong and I was there to show them and tell them how to be right.

Over the years, I’ve met people who had been in those workshops. They’ve told me they’d never forgotten the workshop and how scared of me they were.

Young male looks scaredI often reflect on this and while I find slight mirth in the thought that I was that scary, I realise that it wasn’t the best way to approach my mission. In fact, I had a startling “ah-hah” moment, which made me change what I did and how I did it forever.

I realised that the groups I worked with sat there feeling judged and admonished by me. Then, left feeling that they’d done their penance and went back to doing the same old things. I also realised that, of course, I couldn’t change other people. They needed to want to change.

Loosing the sense of responsibility to change people was a huge relief. But losing the arrogant assumption that I was right was even more powerful because I needed to admit to myself that I was wrong.

I see this dynamic — you’re doing something wrong and I’m here to show you the right way — a lot in the area of diversity. Whether it’s gender, culture, religion, sexuality, age or disability, diversity awareness seems to often be about creating guilt for thinking saying and/or doing the wrong thing. Once you’ve realised you’re wrong, you get the right pill. Then you have no excuse to get it wrong again.

So you leave with fear of doing, saying, or thinking the wrong thing, because you’ve been wrong-proofed. Of course, you do get it wrong again, even though you know the right thing, so what does that make you? A stupid bigot? An insensitive moron? An unconscious oppressor?

Well no, actually. It makes you human. In Kathryn Shultz’s TEDTalk, “On being wrong”, she says:

“1,200 years before Descartes said his famous thing about ‘I think therefore I am,’ this guy, St. Augustine, sat down and wrote ‘Fallor ergo sum’ — ‘I err therefore I am.’ Augustine understood that our capacity to screw up, it’s not some kind of embarrassing defect in the human system, something we can eradicate or overcome. It’s totally fundamental to who we are.”

Now, when I work with people about understanding diversity, I ask why we don’t do diversity very well. After a bit of discussion, the words “scared” or “fear” inevitably come up. “What are we scared of?” I ask. Usually people say, “difference”, “not knowing what to do”, or “feeling uncomfortable”.

What I pose to them is that we’re scared of being wrong. We’re either scared of being wrong about the other person (embarrassment), but more often, I suggest, we’re scared about being wrong about us. Accepting somebody’s reality, belief systems, or customs causes us to question our own reality. If we concede that somebody else’s world is as legitimate as ours, we may need to question whether our own is as right as we’ve been led to believe.

To truly explore and embrace the wonder of human diversity, it has little to do with finding answers about other people. What it requires of all of us is the willingness to realise we’ve been wrong about ourselves … and to be ok with that.

[youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QleRgTBMX88[/youtube]

Being Black at the University of Michigan

Black students at the University of Michigan have come together to make demands on the administration this week. After bringing national attention to the injustices faced by Black students at the University through the top-trending hashtag #BBUM (Being black at UM), the students have taken the first step toward alleviating those injustices. They announced their demands to the University administrators on Monday the 20th, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, in what they’re calling an extension of the original Black Action Movement (BAM) at the University.

#BBUMThe demands center around moving Black students in from the margins – provide affordable housing nearer to campus, move the multicultural center nearer to campus, increase the number of Black students enrolled at the University to 10%. The current percentage is 6.4, well below state and national representation.

Meanwhile, the University of Michigan reaffirms its commitment to affirmative action as a 2006 constitutional amendment banning the policy in the state is being reviewed by the Supreme Court. The University’s commitment to diversity and affirmative action has always been driven by the student demand for it, as the Black Action Movement of the 1970’s demonstrated.

As stated in their demand letter,

“From the White House to Teach for America to the Peace Corps, on ever point of every corner of the globe, the legacy of Michigan is the audacity to be ambitious about its pursuit of social justice.  View in Full

The University’s own Provost recently cited current Black students’ efforts as a part of this legacy in a letter released to the University community last week.

“This commitment is longstanding and fundamental to who we are as an institution. And yet, there are times we have not lived up to our highest aspirations. Last term, we saw this in public displays of racial and religious insensitivity and in the daily aggression our students so eloquently described in the #BBUM (Being Black at UM) Twitter dialogue.” Read More

So what of this legacy? Why does a University that proclaims from all aspects to be committed to diversity struggle to create an environment where Black students can come in from the margins? And if they can’t do it – after court case after court case, after task force after task force – who can? And what does that mean for the growing racial gap in access to education in our country?

Last week at North Carolina State University, President Obama renewed the country’s commitment to providing a robust and accessible education for our young people. We can only hope that his message will trickle down to the institutions of higher learning struggling to increase their numbers and improve their climate or those institutions flat out refusing to do so.

In the meantime, we must be grateful to students who continue to push the envelope and pave the way for their younger brothers and sisters. At first glance, the ‘Black Wolverines’ demands seem extreme, but upon further reflection you realize that it is only this audacity that moves us forward. Many of us professionals once dared to dream that big as students.

Our hope now is that Black students at UM have the courage to expand the dialogue to include other students of color and marginalized communities. As a direct result of legacy of activism by Black students at Michigan, they have a voice that other communities of color do not have and perhaps, therefore, and obligation to lift others’ voices alongside their own.

As we know from experience in and outside of college activism, you can push faster and farther with more people beside you, and all our students deserve the chance to be leaders and the best.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C4Bt_RkjBfc[/youtube]

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