Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Value of Teachers

My alma mater has a contest in which it gives substantial awards to innovators in education. It hopes that giving an incentive will help those with new ideas bring those ideas into fruition. We need new ideas because many of the old ones either haven't worked out, or haven't been allowed to not work out. One way or another, we need something to work out.

I have met a lot of bright kids who simply don't understand the world. I have met adults who are in the same boat. In my mind education isn't about getting a job, though one does need to pay the bills, but rather having the tools needed to understand what is going on around ones self and being able to find a way to employ an individual's talents and dreams in whatever environment they find themselves in. That is education. Education requires teachers.

Teacher's need not be formal, be housed in a school or program, but they are necessary. We, at least in America, do not place the value on teaching as a profession that it deserves. We are more willing to reward quarterbacks and pop-stars than we are those who teach reading and math. I'm not really comfortable with that... but thanks to economics teachers in college, I understand how we got to this point.

Penn partners with the Milken Family Foundation to fund their education innovation contest. Winners need not be teachers, or schools, but they do need to have an idea that teaches. Lowell Milken said, "Only when society demonstrates respect for educators will the brightest and most capable students choose it as their profession." he was right.

I worked for a school that had a special, and expensive, program for people who had already graduated from college, but were willing to take extra science classes, just to be more competitive applicants to medical school. In talking with potential applicants it was obvious that the majority of these students were not motivated by saving lives, but rather motivated by the idea of becoming a doctor. Why? Because society demonstrates a respect for doctors. It demonstrates this in money as well as prestige. The same is not true for those who lay the foundation for those wishing to become doctors.

It isn't logical. Those who claim economics is logical are in many ways, illogical.

What good is saving a life if the life being lived is unfulfilled? Teachers help us learn how lives get fulfilled.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

How Modern Racism Works

I once spent a week in a Manhattan office as a sort of test drive for a possible new career. The staff was friendly and competent, the work was interesting, and the opportunities were sky high. I liked the company well enough and they liked me. They liked me quite a bit. I was exactly what they were looking for. I had met the founder/CEO of this top notch firm in church. We were both serving in leadership roles and had worked together in differing roles there. He liked how I went about things and asked if I would consider a career change that would include coming to work for him. It looked like a great opportunity.

The moment I stepped off the elevator I saw that this was not like any company I was used to. Everyone was Mormon. Not just Mormon, but graduates of BYU. It is not normal to find such a place on the East Coast where Latter-Day Saints are about as common as Panda Bears. At all my previous jobs I was forced to spend an abnormal proportion of my conversational time explaining why I wasn’t drinking like everyone else, why I was wearing an extra layer under my clothes, or why I never dropped the F-bomb like everyone else. I found this a bit frustrating as I would have rather spent my time talking about literature, movies, or maybe football. Rarely did I get a chance as my Mormonism trumped my other interests, or at least trumped anything else that may have been interesting about me. None of that would happen here. If I took this job those days would be over. I was intrigued.

“I like hiring Mormons. I understand them, they understand me, and we can have a work environment more in line with my values,” The boss told me. “I can start off at a level of trust with a new employee that I wouldn’t have otherwise and in this business there has to be trust.” I don’t think this employer was completely against working with non-Mormons, I know that nearly none of his clients were LDS, but he knew what he was looking for, knew where to find it, and he just did what he knew. He knew Mormons.
In the end I didn’t take the job. We just couldn’t get the numbers to work. That was years ago and they are still going strong. I don’t know everyone there but I can pretty much guess a thing or two about whomever it was that took the job that I did not. I’m pretty sure they were Mormon, went to BYU, and were extremely capable. I think about them, and my experience there, quite often. Strangely enough I think about it when I read in the paper about affirmative action, racial profiling, and income inequality. I thought about it during the Treyvon Martin trial, the Cliven Bundy showdown, and now during the Donald sterling drama. In all these cases there is so much talk about racism, or false accusations of racism, or reverse racism. Everyone has an opinion, everyone knows what should be done, and everyone, no matter what side they take, is upset.
So many are upset in part because we, the collective we, do not really understand how racism works. We think racism is, or happens when, we hate someone who is different. We think it is when we act out on this hatred of another in some way. While this may be one way racism works, it is very much not THE way racism works. The truth is that today, and in years past, for the most part racism works just like that office in Manhattan.

Racism happens when we simply show a preference for our own.

Preference for our own is a precarious thing. It makes sense. It’s easy. It’s also very exclusive and insular. Not only is it those things but it is also the justification most all overtly racist policies or groups have used to justify blatant discrimination. Most of those who supported Jim Crow laws did not claim to hate black people, they simply wanted to “protect” their own. Real estate agents and neighborhood alliances didn’t say black people were horrible, they simply wanted to make sure white people could live amongst their own. Labor unions, employers, and colleges never had to say they hated minorities; they only had to say that they had a level of trust in the abilities of their own.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not necessarily calling that office full of Mormons racist. Nor am I calling the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints racist. But I will say that all the people in that office were white. There were also no Jews. There were plenty of women and during that week I never heard one person say anything negative about any group previously mentioned. But the level of niceness, affection, or broad respect for humanity possessed by those who worked there didn’t, and doesn’t matter to any black people; because they aren’t there. Unless something changes, they never will be either.

That is the problem with a racist past never being addressed by the “non-racist” present.
The group we belong to now, and what that group has or does, is a direct result of what the members of our group did before. So, if that office would like to stay Mormon forever, so be it. Who cares right? It is one company, one office, what’s the big deal? In the grand scheme of things there really aren’t that many Mormons, especially in New York, so why even bring it up? I bring it up because this office is how modern racism works. That office is Mormon not because the people there hate anyone; they simply have a set way of doing things. The same could be said for Ford, Bain Capital, Tiffany & Co., the United States Senate, NBC, CBS, ABC, Morgan Stanley, Stanford, any local police department, the carpenters union, and on and on and on. Wall street firms don’t have to hate black people, they only have to really like Wharton graduates. Wharton doesn’t have to hate black people, it only has to really like legacies. Legacies don’t have to hate anyone, they only have to really want their own children to get into a great school. It goes on and on, spirals down, down, down.

The only way things will ever change is if someone intentionally changes it. It really isn’t enough to simply not be racist. Not hating someone is not the same as giving them a chance. Really, what it will take, and I call out that Mormon office because my own personal bias tells me that Mormons, my people, should be great at this, is to think of someone other than themselves. Look at someone new and give them a chance. Do the uncomfortable thing. 
Open up and let someone new in. Realize that if people are people, then “strangers” deserve the same sort of favoritism we give the familiar.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Azusa Pacific University was founded in 1899 as the West Coast's first bible college. It started offering degrees in 1939.
Today the school, located a half hour East of Los Angeles, still has evangelical ties and all students take religion courses. Azusa has a student body of over 10,000 people making it the second largest evangelical student body in the country (next to Liberty University in VA).

Azusa Pacific also boasts the second best NFL running back to ever be a character in Nintendo's Super Techmo Bowl (next to Bo Jackson).
While mingling at a business event I saw a black man standing alone at a table. He wasn't talking to passers by and those who passed did not appear to notice him. I knew no one there so I walked over to say hello. As I approached I recognized his face, but didn't believe my eyes. I didn't believe my eyes because the face I recognized belonged on the body of a giant, and this man was exactly my size. I do not consider myself giant.
I got close enough to read his name tag, we all wore gigantic name tags, and there it was, written in Times New Roman, "Christian Okoye". Christian Okoye came to AzusaPacific directly from Nigeria. He went there on a track scholarship with hopes of making the 1984 Olympic team. When team selections id not go his way he looked around for something else to do and he landed on football. He did not know the game, but he knew how to run and he was a giant. This giant got drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs and quickly earned the nickname the "Nigerian Nightmare". It was disconcerting to meet a giant from your childhood and not only find him incredibly friendly, but also not so much a giant. Maybe he just looked bigger because I was 8 years old at the time.

I think he is the only nightmare to ever be associated with Azusa.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Dear White Guy

Dear white guy,
I know you think it is funny when you make jokes about serious things. By serious I mean anything unhappy that doesn’t, in your view, affect you directly.

Things like rape, racism, foreign countries, urban poor, are best dealt with by saying something negative and pithy. Negative because if you say everything is stupid then you aren’t being racist. Because you hate all stupidity equally. There is a lot of stupidity out there, everywhere really, and you hate it all.
I get it. You are right, a lot of things are not as they should be and a lot of those things, we created. I understand you are a hard working guy who probably has kids that whine and the last thing you need is adults who do the same. You wish those grownups would heed the advice you give your own, “shut up and get back to work.”

I get it. I get it and please understand I mean this sincerely-
You are jack-ass.

I do not normally name call and that word is not one I ever say out loud, but I thought it the best word to most concisely and accurately communicate to you, in words that you appreciate, how you are acting.
First, let me say that condemning everything accomplishes nothing. No. That isn’t true. It accomplishes the annoyance of all who come within earshot of your wisdom. Even worse, and more troubling is that such an attitude makes you completely tone deaf to issues that are in fact important. To you.
Let me illustrate with a story.

When my oldest kid was four she whined a lot. Every night at bed time we had argument and tantrums. Every meal was a negotiation. Every morning getting dressed was a display of dramatic energy, noise, anger, and trouble. It was more than annoying and my wife and I did our best to not only resist giving into ridiculous demands but squash their genesis.

On one evening my child launched into a screaming fit because the world had conspired against her and the clock had actually struck 8:00. Bed time. What injustice! She kicked, screamed, complained, and I ignored it all. I sent her to bed. She got back up asking for water. I sent her to bed. She yelled down the stairs that she needed a night light. I responded, “go to bed.”

“I feel sick.”
“Go to bed.”
“I need medicine.”
“Go to bed.”
“I can’t breathe.”
“Go to bed.”

She was persistent and she was loud. She began really holding onto this I can’t breathe thing, but I ignored it as she was yelling I can’t breathe in between blood curdling screams. Around midnight, because my softy of a wife made me, I took little miss I can’t breathe to the emergency room. The nurse at the desk didn’t ask a single question, just looked at the child and rushed us to the back room.
We spent three days in the hospital trying to get my daughters newly diagnosed asthma under control. We now travel with an inhaler and have to use it regularly.

Sitting next to that little girl for three days was humbling. The kid spent hours telling me she couldn’t breathe and I not only ignored it but resented it. I was quite the jack-ass.

The whole time my daughter was yelling things I assumed she was making things up. I ignored her. I bet if she would have yelled, “Dad, your laptop is in my bed,” I would have rushed upstairs just to make sure it wasn’t. If she would have screamed, “Wow I found a 100 dollar bill,” I would have rushed upstairs to reclaim it. Because to me and my life money and laptops matter. Going to bed at 8 and one little glass of water are silly.

Racism isn’t silly. Neither is rape or poverty. Many of you can go a whole lifetime without visiting the proverbial ER on these things because you aren’t black, a woman, or poor. Maybe you have never seen someone raped, surely never done it, never said the N word, and you work hard for the little money you get, so of course those things aren’t as big a problem as those whiny four year olds say they are.
How arrogant and selfish is it to assume that you know best in other people’s lives? How, when others are explaining, or screaming, about their experience, do you come to the conclusion that you know the truth about them better than they do? Why when someone is speaking or explaining about hard truths, would you mock and belittle?

Stop it.

Stopping and listening is harder than ignoring and mocking. Because ignoring and mocking is stupid. The stupid thing is always easiest.


It was the fourth of July our first year in Philadelphia. We went downtown to watch the parade and saw the strangest thing, a band of men wearing sequins from head to toe, carrying parasols, and playing instruments. The marched while playing saxophones, banjos, and even upright bases. I had never seen such a thing, and then a few floats later, there was another band just like the other. What was this madness?
“Oh those are mummers,” we were told . “What exactly are mummers?” we asked. “Ummm. Well, they are just, well THOSE are mummers. It’s that right there.”

That sort of non-explanation is the norm for mummery. They exist in Philadelphia and not so much anywhere else. There may be some variations in other places, but in Philly they are in every parade, have a long road filled with Mummers club houses, and every New Year ’s Day since 1901, there is the Mummers parade.
We went and watched the Mummers. They are above all else, fun. Watching the Mummers you will see kids, babies even, dancing down Broad Street, hundreds of people not associated with a high school or getting paid playing live instruments, and lots and lots of bearded men is sequined dresses. We loved it.
Our curiosity piqued we took a trip down to 2nd st. and Washington in South Philly to visit the Mummers Museum. The art deco building housed costumed mannequins from parades past and some explanations for this Philadelphia oddity.

It is thought that the traditions grew out of the British Isles’ mummers plays. There are reports of mocking mummer plays being held in President Washington’s honor while he resided in Philadelphia. In the early 1800’s it was normal to find roving bands of men dressed as clowns causing a ruckus during the holiday season. The tradition was formalized into the parade in 1901, making it America’s oldest continuous folk parade.

I learned these things by reading faded signs on dusty displays in a museum whose heyday appeared to be at least a decade ago. In one corner of the museum I was able to try a costume on. I pulled on a long glittering skirt with feathers around the hem, donned a sparkly vest, and placed a tall multicolored feather crown upon my head. I danced and posed for my wife as she took pictures. Wearing this fine regalia I squinted to read a faded sign off in one corner. As I did I removed my crown and began feeling sick.
The sign explained the origins of the Mummers signature dance or “strut”. The dance is a variation of the cake walk, a dance or strut popularized in black face minstrel shows in the very early 1900s. The Mummer strut is traditionally done to the tune Oh Dem Golden Slippers, a blackface standard. The sign also explained that from day one, till a city order in 1964, the parade was done in black face.
Standing there in sequins and feathers I felt betrayed.

It was in a back corner of the Mummer Museum when I realized that in this very black city, I had never seen a black Mummer. It is possible one exists but I think the academic term for them is “statistically insignificant”.
I have met plenty of Mummers. Since reading that sign I have asked, and listened, to what Mummers say Mummery is all about. I have talked to people who have never read a thing I have written or have a clue to whom I am married, and not once has anything remotely racist been uttered. I hear lots of talk about tradition and fun. I have heard and read about music and family.
I like all of those things.

I have never read anything about black people or hate. It is as if anything racist was scrubbed off along with the black makeup. I have never even heard a mummer bring up the black face past. I am even willing to wager that most all of the Mummers under the age of 25 have no idea of the racist history or know what a minstrel show ever was. So in a very real way to them, and to most everyone, the Mummers are very much just family, tradition, music, and fun.

What a great object lesson about race in America.
The Mummers parade is fantastic, it is also very deeply and firmly sprung from racist roots.
So what is it now?

I am watching the parade now as I write this. I love it. I just saw a brigade perform a skit where a mass of commoners used a giant gold dollar sign to lure a donkey and an elephant into a trap where they could both be struck over the head by the liberty bell. I would encourage anyone and everyone to attend. It is guaranteed fun no matter who you are.

But were I ever invited, or had the opportunity to become a Mummer, I do not think I would do it. I cannot escape the memory of what I felt when all bedecked in glitter I read that faded sign.  Watching the parade today I have not seen a black face, painted or otherwise. The bands and brigades are formed as clubs and other organizations. Many are tied up in family traditions and bloodlines. Black people need not be barred for these sorts of things to stay all white. The white people need not really be racist for a black person to not feel comfortable or welcomed.

So in this way the parade is like most everything.
Does what something used to be, forever taint what it is now?
How do we enjoy today when maybe yesterday isn’t all the way gone yet?

Happy New Year… I’m spending the rest of today enjoying the parade.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Motherhood is Nuts

So why would anyone take the type of job that when the entire industry is honored, it is done so by allowing a person the luxury of not having to do that job?
Such is motherhood.

It is a sorority with the most severe initiation ritual ever devised, so much so that millions have died while pledging, yet a fresh new batch of applicants sign up every day.

If the initiation ritual for admittance to motherhood were replicated as a sort of guaranteed gateway to a million dollars, we would likely have less millionaires than we do now.  It just wouldn't be worth it. Yet not only do people sign up without the promise of a cash prize, but many pay huge sums to get in the club. Medical science has devoted some its best minds to the cause of allowing women the joy of enduring huge amounts of pain for little to no thanks, other than that one day a year when they are honored by being allowed to act like they aren't in the club for a day.

Now parenting is another story. One need not go through this initiation ritual to gain the title of parent. No, instead the intense pain of birthing labor is stretched out over 18 years in the eyes of the law, but in reality will likely last till you finally graduate into the grave.
There are those who join motherhood but decline to continue on to parent, there are those who never gave birth who then elect to parent, and then there are those who do both. Those who do both are insane, illogical, and the world owes them an inexhaustible debt.

I’m glad I hit the mother lottery. Come to think of it. I hit the lottery twice.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Law School, Palm Trees, and Pirate Treasure

What do you do if you are a slightly heavy ‘tween’, who despite his usefulness in finding hidden pirate treasure and fending off strangely friendly monsters named Sloth, but is constantly ridiculed and called “Chunk” by the likes of Rudy?

You go to law school and become lawyer.

The first part happened on a movie set. That last part happened at UCLA.
That’s right, Chunk from the Goonies went to the UCLA School of Law and can now sue the pants off of anyone who clowns his girth. Though word on the street is he no longer matches that childhood nickname.

According to the data about 80% of the people who went to UCLA’s law school are capable of suing people’s pants off so be careful.

Better yet, don’t fight them, join them. There are palm trees, the beach, and at one time George Mastras the writer and creator of Breaking Bad. If you are a little less Hollywood you may appreciate that the former provost of Dartmouth, who then went on to be president of Occidental, was UCLA Law alum. Not too shabby.

I’m sure it is mostly due to Chunk, but the school does boast a top twenty ranking in US News and World Report. It’s lot cheaper thanYale. It snows a lot in New Haven. Just sayin.

I myself have no desire to be a lawyer, but in the event I need one, I know where to look.