Election Anniversary: An Early Thanksgiving

This week, as the first anniversary of the election of Donald Trump, leaves me thoughtful and thankful for how much more I have than I had a year ago.  Surprised? Here’s what I mean.

As a result of the words and actions of this Administration and those it inspired, I’m more engaged in American political life than I ever felt the need to be since I became a citizen in 2010.

I’m more attuned to the situations and voices of people who are concerned for their rights and freedoms under the current Administration. I’m more alert to the need to take action, to speak up, and to stand with them and for them. I’m more willing to invest my time and my social currency in social justice. I’m more willing to drop old assumptions about people and look beyond appearances to explore the opportunities for ally-ship.

I have more courage to speak my mind about issues that are controversial, and to be ready for some people to decide they might not like me so much as a result. I am more public about what I believe, and have published more personal and thoughtful blog posts as a result.

I am more ready to challenge others when they say or do something that I think is not okay. I am unequivocally prepared to try and to fail, to be vulnerable and imperfect, and to be held accountable for my mistakes when someone calls me on being out of integrity.

I’m more interested than ever in hearing the views and thoughts of people who believed a year ago that electing Donald Trump was going to bring them the brighter future they dreamed of.  How similar, or different, are things today from what you hoped?

I’m more curious about what’s in the hearts and hopes and minds of people who hold different views than I do. I’m grateful for every conversation I had the courage to launch with a new goal: to listen, rather than to argue.

I’m more attentive to the power of empathy and the value of common humanity to close what can seem like a chasm of difference between people. I am more willing to engage someone in an uncomfortable conversation on an important issue rather than avoid situations that risk misunderstandings and hurt feelings and conflict despite the best of intentions to do no harm.

I’m more aware of the origins and contemporary manifestations of racism and the pervasive effects of white supremacy in a great many aspects of American life.   I’m more informed about the effects of how  American history is taught in most high schools.  If you’re wondering why that matters, especially if you’re a teacher, read more here.

I’m much more ready to have conversations in which my most important goal is to listen to understand. That’s not just a result of the past year, but a continuing evolution of a key change for me. I spent my formative years in university with a roving pack of competitive debaters. It seemed to me then that every conversation was a battle to be won or lost. I lost most of those battles. I didn’t like losing. I’m pretty sure that experience shaped how I looked at relationships for a long time (and not in a good way).

I care a lot more about people in situations I never used to think about. I wonder what kind of policies — Republican or Democratic — it would take to bring back, or start to restore, economic prosperity  and health to people who have lost their jobs or can’t find work, to people who are chronically ill, to people who are drug-addicted.

I’m ever more disappointed in people who attack others based on what they look like or what they believe or how they dress.  While I’m on the subject, it was never okay to call any group of people a “basket of deplorables.”  That was wrong the first time I heard it, and it’s still wrong.  I’m more aware of how horrible it must feel to be the object of such attacks.

I’m more aware of the times — both long past and sometimes painfully recently — that I’ve said and done such unkind things to others, especially out of old patterns of sarcasm, or of wanting to sound clever at someone else’s expense.  In retrospect, it wasn’t good to do in university, where I picked up the habit from a couple of people in my social set. It never served me well, and it’s a behavior best banished. I’m more determined than ever that that’s not okay, and more determined to do better and be better: to walk my talk, to be the change that I want to see in the world.

I’m more grateful for a political system of checks and balances, and for every politician who has worked to seek some kind of common ground.

I’m more determined to make a positive difference in the communities where I show up, and more willing to have faith that even those with different beliefs from me are showing up with a heartfelt intention that is much the same.

 

The Path Of Allyship

I didn’t go to the Women’s March, the day after the 2017 Inauguration. I had a long list of reasons for not going.  I still have mixed feelings about my decision to not march. I still have unequivocal angst about the future of America under the leadership of its current President.

Since I had become an American citizen in 2010, up until this year there hadn’t been an issue that had galvanized me to take to the streets. Looking back, I would seem to have thought that “somebody else” had been doing their best to keep anything I might have been paying attention to pretty much headed in a direction I approved of.

In November of 2016, America didn’t suddenly become more racist, or more opposed to transgender rights, or more poor. But an electoral majority of voting Americans had been stirred up to become more afraid, and more angry, more eager to blame, and more hateful of their targets of blame.

Since election day, millions of Americans have felt tossed into a series of ever-more destructive topical storms of presidential pronouncements and policy controversy. There is barely enough time to recover from one before the next arrives.

That being said, when I (and arguably the Democratic party) wasn’t paying attention, millions of other Americans apparently spent the previous eight years feeling voiceless and uncaringly tossed-about.

Have you noticed? The effect is similar to being hit by a series of hurricanes. If all someone sees is an onslaught of attacks on everything she considered normal and familiar, she becomes numb. It’s all too easy to stop caring what’s happening to anyone in the next community or even the next block. Our only focus is on day-to-day survival.

That kind of atmosphere leaves a population easy prey to a leader with a large public platform who proposes to ease the pain by presenting someone (or better yet, a diverse array of communities — as the ones to blame, and to make those communities a focus of anger and hate?

In today’s America, the President’s words and actions have emboldened millions of people to think that it’s okay to say and do hateful things that their neighbors had considered not just unacceptable but completely beyond the pale.

Millions of others on both sides of the aisle have been citizens longer than I. They have seen cycles of change before. Maybe their lives weren’t too bad before the election, and they can’t imagine anything terrible happening to them now.

Experience has taught some that nothing really changes no matter who is in power. They commiserate in quiet corners of concern or continuing despair, but avoid engaging with the contrary-minded. Even if things change in the next election and the pendulum swings the other way, it won’t matter.

Others figure that, like riding out the stock market dips, all they need to do it wait it out. Things will eventually change in the next election, the pendulum will swing the other way, and nothing can go seriously wrong for long.

As a relatively new citizen, I found myself among those who have been tossed and confused trying to make sense of wave after wave of events that threaten to erode or simply wash away things we hold dear. We want to do something constructive, but have no base of experience in how to respond to or engage with people who seem passionately opposed to us. We are afraid of the consequences — from broken friendships and conflicted conversations to lost business — of wading into a disagreement on a flashpoint issue.

Staying silent suddenly feels wrong to me. What I find stunning is the range communities and policies I care about that I find under assault. The price of courage seems intimidating. But a growing number of communities are being hit with the tab of those who aren’t willing to speak up.

There is an overwhelming number of things happening that concern me and move me to wish for better actions and outcomes. I am frustrated by my lack of time to research and write thoughtfully about all of these things. I want the United States to have gun laws as well as access to mental health care that together can significantly reduce violence.

I want all Americans to have access to healthcare they can afford. I want all of us to stand up for each other regardless of our appearance or abilities. I want a clean environment for us and for future generations. I want people to be able to recognize the common humanity in us all, and to treat each other with dignity despite our differences of opinions.

I want people to have the ability to move away from places where their homes have been destroyed and the support and legal ability to start over (I’m talking about the international refugee crisis, which, at over 65 million refugees, is at an all-time global high).

Somewhere in the middle of all of that I am also trying to run a business and give my professional best to the people I am here to help. Thinking about even a fraction of those things on any given day can leave me feeling overwhelmingly inadequate. I also want to love and laugh and have time with friends and family and explore and adventure. That’s just the list that is top of mind at the moment. I don’t have answers for all of those things. I find it hard to escape the feeling that it’s my responsibility to make a difference on all of them.

I’ve come full circle to the advice I was giving myself almost a year ago. I need to pick a lead issue and dig in, and have faith that others will do the same across the board.

I took to the streets for the March For Racial Equality. This was my first experience as a participant in public protest. I had sorted out many of the questions the plagued me during the Women’s March. I had figured out what the point was.

I didn’t think the Department of Justice was going to pay the least attention to anything that several thousand people chanted or held up on signs.

I didn’t want to accidentally say or do the wrong thing when I arrived with the intention of supporting other humans.

Many people at the march were delighted when I asked to take pictures of them with their signs. I was thrilled every time another marcher wanted to take a picture of my sign. In that moment, we were a community in motion.

I did think that it mattered for a few thousand white people who saw us pass by to notice all the other white people who were marching for racial justice.

And it turned out to matter to me, to feel common cause with thousands of law-abiding fellow marchers. I feel a lot less alone writing my blog post.

I feel inspired to learn how to engage more deeply in conversation, with respect and curiosity, with those who seem to think differently from me. And while we explore our differences, to begin to find the things we have in common.

 

Educate, Don’t Incarcerate.

About 20% of Virginians are black. But 60% of its state prison inmates are black.

Black people don’t behave a certain way because of the color of their skin. If the way justice is administered in Virginia suggests that, then the system needs fixing.

The injustice of that outcome starts early. Commonwealth of Virginia has the distinction of referring nation’s highest ratio of young people of color into the criminal justice system.  16 of every 1000 Virginian young African-Americans end up there. That’s what “school-to-prison pipeline” means.

As a human being, I cannot abide a justice system that streams a record number of young people, and a disproportionate number of children, of color into prison.

local public meeting opened my eyes to the “school-to-prison pipeline.” It’s one more face of racism in America. It shows up in my header graphic for this post, adapted/expanded by Ellen Tuzzolo from an original graphic published by the Safehouse Progressive Alliance for Nonviolence, with a similar rank of “social acceptability” as “Police murdering People of Color” and “Confederate Flags.”

In Virginia, African American students get suspended at 3.6 times the rate of white students. They make up 23% of the student population but account for 58 percent of short term suspensions, 60 percent of long term suspensions, and 55 percent of expulsions.

Why does that happen and how did it start? If you have had kids in school in the United States over the past 25 years you might know this: in many communities School Resource Officers (SRO) are on-site in the schools as employees of local law enforcement agencies. They are under the direction to use police procedure to enforce state and local law.  It was news to me…and so were the consequences.

In the early 1990’s, many communities started to place police officers in the schools to increase safety. But their roles expanded over time. Research showed that the presence of police in a school resulted in a greater number of young people being arrested for minor offenses. What in my day might have been a “mild scuffle” with the vice-principal could be today’s “assaulting a police officer,” which a law enforcement official must report as a crime.

Childhood trauma is often a cause of serious childhood misconduct. Black and Latino students are at a greater risk than white students of having experienced childhood trauma. Youth of color are also more likely than white youth to attend schools with police officers. This means that students of color, who may have greater need for mental health care than white youth, are instead dealt with by police officers who are untrained or insufficiently trained in responding to trauma.

~ RawStory.com 9/7/16

 

Without adequate training of adult teachers and leaders, and without detailed briefings for parents and students about the rules of engagement, even simple everyday interactions have the potential to escalate easily into disciplinary action and suspensions.

Suspensions mean missed classes. Missed classes bring students stigma and social isolation and put them on a path of failing grades that can be difficult to reverse.

Kids make mistakes. Repeatedly. They need more than once chance to get it right, and the criminal justice system often doesn’t give them that chance.

Once the get into the criminal justice system, these young people are imprisoned at an annual cost of $150,000 per person. That’s more than enough money to send that same person to college for four years!

Both the school board member and the Assistant Public Defender who spoke at the meeting agreed that the schools need more resources and better training for teachers and school resource officers, for starters. That’s yet another expenditure I’d support before putting kids in prison.

Imagine what kind of change we would see in communities if even half of those kids got the resources and opportunity to overcome obstacles they were born into, and the support to defy those disadvantages to see and make choices that would get them to college instead of to prison.

As a human being as well as a taxpayer, I’d rather my money send kids to college than send them to prison.

This isn’t just a problem in Virginia. It’s certainly an issue that all voters (but most immediately those in Virginia, which holds gubernatorial elections on November 7th, 2017) should know how candidates will address before they head to the polls.

And it’s an issue that we should all care about as human beings.

Why White People Can’t Afford Silence

Racism is a daily reality for persons of color.

Even to say that I think about racism and privilege more and more is to admit the privilege of having the choice to ever not think about these issues. People of color don’t have that choice.  I acknowledge up front that people face discrimination and hatred for many reasons other than race, too; right now I am writing about race. Trust me, I’ll get to others.

I cannot imagine what it would be like as a young person to cross a threshold of realization that every single morning I wake up I could fully expect my day to be filled with racism taking the form of everything from tiny slashes and pricks by the unwitting to full-on intentional deadly assault by haters who know nothing about me but the color of my skin. Maybe today would be better than yesterday. But the odds aren’t great.

No one in America, no one anywhere, deserves to live that way. Anyone who does not live in such a constant state of assault has a responsibility to fight for those who do.

I was deeply disturbed to see a president who did not immediately and unequivocally condemn racism in the face of a public demonstration of activities that were inarguably intended as such.  I disagree with his policies, but his implicit support of racism betrays the fundamental American values established in the constitution (and its amendments) that he swore to protect and uphold.

For me to be silent about his behavior simply to avoid the discomfort of being in disagreement with people I know who support this president flies in the face of everything that America stands for, everything that drew me to seek the American citizenship that I now hold. As a citizen, it is my responsibility to stand up and say, “No more,” and then actually do something about it.

Events in Charlottesville brought my attention back to facets of racism that I either didn’t know or hadn’t thought much about recently.

I read arguments on both sides of the “Lost Cause” of what the Confederacy stood for. I remain convinced that it was, at its core, about the fate of slavery in the United States. Any other arguments simply obscure the fact that thousands of people sought to sustain a way of life in which they could legally treat fellow humans like objects.

I discovered that the surge in new statues of Confederate generals represents racial conflict, response by white Americans to their fears during times of greater advocacy of equality for black Americans.

I was heartened by the community leaders who covered or removed those statues from places of honor. I was left wondering why communities wouldn’t all go back into their own histories and seek to replace those statues and names with those of people whose work and actions and sacrifices represent all that those communities and all their citizens aspire to today.

I live on a street probably named for a Confederate general. My city of Alexandria recently rescinded its 1953 policy to name all new north-south streets after Confederate generals and are in the process of re-naming the Jefferson Davis Highway. There are no plans to systematically change the names of over 60 streets named for Confederate leaders, I just discovered how someone may apply to re-name a street in Alexandria.  I have a feeling there’s more to it than submitting a form. Re-naming streets takes time and money, none of which is infinite. Would I rather use that time and money keeping young kids out of the criminal justice system? Actually, yes. But I’d like to ask some of my African-American friends how they feel about that, too.

I noticed the memes, like “This is not a wakeup call. The alarm has been ringing for over 200 years, and y’all been hittin’ the snooze button,” and “Where would you put a statue to honor someone who raped your wife and beat your children?”

It was clear to me that people who say they want to exercise their right to freedom of speech to say things they know are offensive to the majority of Americans have more in mind than expressing their views when they take to the streets to exercise that freedom armed with weapons.

I am still ashamed by my utter naivete and blindness in thinking for even an instant that a country that could elect Barack Obama had risen above racism. I cannot believe that I was not awake to the signs of how many millions of Americans loathed that president specifically for his race. I cannot believe I didn’t pay attention to how many people felt threatened by all he symbolized for them as a black man in a position of power, and how determined they were to replace him with someone who represented as much of a polar opposite as they could imagine.

A white woman recently said to me, about protests against racial injustice, “They should just get over it.” I am ashamed that I didn’t know what to say to her, and that I did not say something as simple as “That is not okay.”

But I know that racism isn’t something from which white people can seek personal absolution. I can accept responsibility for the times when I did not speak up against racism in its many pervasive forms, and work to become ever more conscious of opportunities to do so. There are still plenty of those.

Until every person of color everywhere on the planet all agree that they are not discriminated against because of the color of their skin, it’s not over. Discussions of racism make a great many white people profoundly uncomfortable. That’s particularly so for those who look at their ethical selfie and say, “Well, I don’t behave that way. Explain to me again why you think you still have problems, and what you expect me to do about it.”

“Structural racism”… has been perpetuated throughout history and is present in education, politics, public safety, culture, health, and also social relations.

~ Aline Ramos

So long as it’s present in our laws, education systems, media, culture and society, we’re all responsible for working to eliminate it. In other words, white people, racism should make us feel uncomfortable. That’s the very least it should do. If we are not noticing it around us every day, then we’re not trying hard enough. Racism should make us feel disturbed and angry and compassionate and on fire with determination to wipe it out.

Yes, if you are white, it can take a lot of deliberate effort to try to see the world and understand the stories of centuries of pain and humiliation and fear that fill the daily lives of persons of color.

I’m grateful for every person of color who has published examples from their own experience to help white people understand what privilege is. I’ve written about the gifts of insight I have received from my step-mother-in-law, Pocahontas Gertler, whose life story is of a determined warrior for social justice. Re-reading Lori Lakin Hutcherson’s ten poignant examples of privilege brought it home to me yet again.

I’m working on understanding the worldview and experience of people of color. That’s well-defined task, because that experience is changing every day, both for better and for worse, depending on who you are and where you are.

“There aren’t any crib notes or 5-minute YouTube videos to fix you. If you’re really determined to do better, know that this journey will take the rest of your life. Think of it as continuing education or an independent studies class where you need to proactively seek out the content. Don’t ask us to provide the information for you. Instead, participate in your own education. We’ve already given you enough of our free labor. Don’t ask us for anymore.”

~ Real Talk: WOC and Allies

Here are three of my favorite stories that bring this home.

Black musician Darryl Davis has been befriending Ku Klux Klan members through gentle conversation for almost 25 years. They hand over their hoods when they change their views.  Just watch how he does it in this two minute trailer of the award winning film, Accidental Courtesy.

Accidental Courtesy – Theatrical Trailer from Sound & Vision on Vimeo.

Said Davis,

The most important thing I learned is that when you are actively learning about someone else you are passively teaching them about yourself. So if you have an adversary with an opposing point of view, give that person a platform. Allow them to air that point of view, regardless of how extreme it may be. And believe me, I’ve heard things so extreme at these rallies they’ll cut you to the bone.

Give them a platform.

You challenge them. But you don’t challenge them rudely or violently. You do it politely and intelligently. And when you do things that way chances are they will reciprocate and give you a platform. So he and I would sit down and listen to one another over a period of time. And the cement that held his ideas together began to get cracks in it. And then it began to crumble. And then it fell apart.

See for yourself how people with deeply-held views behave when they first discover each other as human beings rather than carriers of opposing ideologies. (Credit: Heineken UK)


More binds us than divides us — if we are willing to look past what we see and get to know who we are. See all that we share, in Three Beautiful Human Minutes by Danish filmmaker Asger Leth.

What can white people do?

I’m now remembering the vow I took after election day: to seek out conversations with those whose beliefs are different from mine. I’d kind of tailed off my efforts. It’s I got back into my discomfort zone.

Silence in the face of racism is not acceptable, and never has been. Neither is righteous hand-wringing. Just saying, “Isn’t that awful?” to all our white friends changes nothing if we are not also taking action.

As Ali Owens says, white people doing nothing is part of the problem. Noticing, denouncing, and pushing back against white supremacy in all its forms is our constitutional responsibility.

Aline Ramos suggests nine ways that white people can support the fight against racism.

The Southern Poverty Law Center offers these community-focused ideas.

Probably the most powerful is conversation. Research shows that in order for someone to change their position, they first need to feel heard. We need to discover each other as humans. That is anywhere from uncomfortable to surprising to downright scary.

Why would anyone even listen to racism? Consider this: because it has better odds of opening the door to changing someone’s mind than does arguing.

Listening to views we find offensive or repugnant is uncomfortable. Actively drawing people who hold these views into conversation is even more scary. In part, we’re afraid of what someone might think of us as listeners. We’re afraid that the person who’s speaking these things might infer that we agree with them. We’re afraid that a bystander to our conversation might infer that we tolerate these views and think the worse of us.

The president’s words and actions since Inauguration Day this year have left me with a continually-deepening sense of paralysis.  I remembered the prescient voices of those who, last November, predicted a dangerous national numbness as a new normal swept the nation. There was nothing I liked about the incoming president. He had said he was going to do a lot of things I didn’t like. Democratic government permitted Americans to elect him and offers me ways to speak and act to contradict his policies.

Since the election, I’ve felt increasingly overwhelmed by wave after wave of this Administration’s words and actions that I disgree with. I want to be thorough and thoughtful when I write, to check my facts and sources before I publish. But when events in Charlottesville brought racism once again into the front and center of public discourse, that drove my choice for this post.

Some people will disagree with me. Others will show me things I didn’t know, and I will need to be prepared to process the inevitable shame I feel from appearing to be less than perfectly knowledgeable. I will disagree with some of them, too. I don’t like conflict. But staying silent to avoid the discomfort of being in disagreement with someone gives implicit support to actions and policies that fly in the face of everything that America stands for, everything that drew me to seek the American citizenship that I now hold.

Brene Brown’s video “We Need To Keep Talking About Charlottesville” in the aftermath of violence reminded me that I don’t have to wait to find the perfect words to speak about racism, about immigration, about human rights, about all the fundamental human values that are under an assault led from the highest levels in America right now.

Okay, and what else will I do, besides listening and writing? I’ve found two issues I’m ready to work on. One is voter registration. For the other, that’s my next post.

Departure Is Not An Option.

The President said today that he will withdraw the United States from the Paris Accord.

This is just plain wrong-headed thinking.

We all live on this planet. So every one of us is also responsible for cleaning up our messes. Didn’t your mom tell you as much? She was right, and is in a united front with Big Mama: Mother Earth herself.

Reducing the burden of environmental regulations on businesses does not guarantee economic growth and new jobs. In the long term, reversing the United States’ commitments to a clean environment will hurt Americans and hurt our neighbors.

China’s commitment is “to lower carbon dioxide emissions (compared to its 2005 level) by 60 to 65 percent by 2030 and India’s commitment to lower emissions by 33 to 35 percent by 2030.”  The deadline the U.S. set for its own reduction is 2025. In so doing, America would be first in leading the world at cutting emissions!

The President wanted a deal that is more “fair;” that puts America first. What on earth is fair about sustaining actions that soil the planetary nest for us all?

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are all impossible if we are ill. We lose our liberty to choose the life we want to live if our air and soil and water are contaminated with things that make us sick. The theoretical prosperity businesses will achieve from spending less to comply with regulations will be outstripped by the costs of a faltering environment that will fail in part because those regulations were rolled back.

Which jobs are going to grow by backing out of the Accord? America’s natural gas, wind and solar industries today employ over five times as many American workers as the coal industry.

If the Administration is looking for a big win, this isn’t it. Leaving the Paris Accord is a colossal, irresponsible, error. Is it possible that the point of making a big statement that has no immediate impact but gets a wide swath of people upset is look like you had a big win? To declare the intent to withdraw from the Accord costs no money up front, takes no Congressional approval, and appeals to Trump supporters because Their Guy is telling the whole world to get stuffed.

Could the White House simply want to create more uncertainty and distraction from myriad other issues that are much closer to hand and on which it’s much harder to accomplish anything of substance?

I’ve stopped trying to guess what the White House is up to. Plenty of people who are smarter than I am are investigating that already.  I’m not impressed by either of the arguments offered by twenty-one Republican Senators who support the President on this issue. Their first argument is that participation in the Accord will generate litigation that will prevent the President from rolling back the Clean Power Act. I’m not mollified by the idea that even if the United States were to withdraw from the Paris Accord, it still holds a permanent seat at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), out of which the Accord arose.

Three things this week give me great heart: Big Industry, Big Cities, and Big Thinkers.

Watch Big Industry. Leaders of 30 of America’s largest corporations, spanning transportation, energy, agriculture, manufacturing, banking and technology urged the President to support the accord. ExxonMobil shareholders directed their company to publish reports that document how climate change is likely to affect its business. Jeffrey Immelt, CEO of General Electric, said the President is wrong. Lloyd Blankfein, head of Goldman Sachs, used his first-ever tweet to say that the President is wrong on this one.

Related: Harvard Business Review details on U.S industry support for the Accord

Watch Big Cities. Today, mayors of 68 American cities announced their plan, to independently align their efforts, representing over 36 million Americans, with the other 194 nations that adopted the accord. Ironically, that list includes Pittsburgh, PA…despite the President’s announcement that his decision to withdraw from the Accord supports a brighter future for cities like Pittsburgh.

Watch Big Thinkers. Today, Elon Musk, the last of the Silicon Valley CEO’s on the President’s advisory boards, today resigned, tweeting, “Am departing presidential councils. Climate change is real. Leaving Paris is not good for America or the world.”

Neil deGrasse Tyson opined, “If I and my advisors had never learned what Science is or how & why it works, then I’d consider pulling out of the Paris Climate Accord too.”

I just finished the latest book by author and NYT columnist Tom Friedman. It couldn’t be better timed. Thank You For Being Late: An Optimists’s Guide To Thriving In The Age Of Accelerations, concludes with 17 policy options that Mother Nature would support if she led a political party.

And closer to home, literally: As I was writing this, a young man came to the door asking me to get in touch with Senator Warner, to oppose 31% funding cuts to EPA and support programs that sustain the Chesapeake Bay.  I was glad to chat with him.

 

The New “Pursuit of Happiness”

Since mid-January, the first three minutes of news I hear when my alarm goes off leave me with more questions than answers. Why is this happening? What are they thinking? Why are they doing this? I needed to identify factual reporting of what did happen, and set aside speculation about what might happen.

After absorbing the last four or five months a gamut of other people’s news and blogs and opinions and comedy and hand-wringing, I’ve been delayed by the quaint need to research facts before throwing unsubstantiated opinions out on my own blog.

I’m back. I’ve had time to do some research. I just needed to curb my penchant to footnote it all.

I’m dismayed to realize that no right or freedom in America is protected in perpetuity. The last few months have left me better informed about all the ways something once passed into law, implemented in regulation, and even decided by the Supreme Court, can be undone. One of the responsibilities of citizenship, apparently, is constant vigilance in defense of the freedoms one holds dear.

Has “…the pursuit of happiness…” become synonymous with “fight for rights”?  Until this moment, I hadn’t considered that.  A friend of mine told me that she sincerely hoped that protest marches in America never become as common as the ones in South Korea. There, she said, “nobody pays attention anymore.” I’d have to agree with her hope.

I like it when people speak plainly, tell each other what they want and need, and sensibly work it out. I have never been able to understand the gamesmanship of political bargaining or even marketplace haggling for that matter.

I also want to be able to take a President of the United States as his word. Experience shows me that I can expect this President to consistently disappoint me in that regard. It seems just rude to routinely set aside everything someone says and wait a few days or months for updates to see what he really meant to say.

RELATED: The New York Times “…logged at least one false or misleading claim per day on 91 of his first 99 days.” >>MORE

Hats off to members of the media right across the political spectrum who have nailed down a process to rapidly fact check, interpret, and understand the words and actions of the new Administration. I noticed when the White House press office started saying, “…the President believes…” is though his belief alone sufficed to substantiate a fact.

Looking back, I disagreed with many of the decisions and policies during George W. Bush’s administration. I remember feeling a pall of darkness around the deepening of military involvement post 9/11, and unease about deficit and the foundering economy. But at that point I wasn’t a citizen. Resident alien, full-time legal guest. It was someone else’s country, someone else’s problem.

Now that I am a citizen, under this Administration, I struggle. This is my first experience voting in a presidential election when my team didn’t win.  I feel somehow personally responsible for what I fear will be negative consequences of the new Administration’s policies for me, for people I care about, for the country, and for the rest of the world.

I’m more curious about reporting outside my “bubble” than I was before the election. I took less comfort in, and applied more critical thought to, left-leaning media sources after the election.  Which cherished freedoms are actually threatened?

Will I look back and regret that I didn’t drop everything else and become a full time civic activist? My ancient inner voice is always scolding me, saying, “Uncomfortable? Not good enough. What are you doing to make a difference?”

I don’t have a lot of patience for speculation about all the things that MIGHT happen. I’m no pundit, and a bad guesser. Until this year, if a law were passed about something I care about, and the critical details of how it will work were to be in the implementing regulations, I’ve submitted comments on draft regulations.

On occasion, I’ve stepped up to advocate for a law (to expand opportunities for women-owned businesses in federal contracting) or against (proposed budget cuts in funding research on ovarian cancer).

Right now, the White House and the Administration are constantly taking actions, and Congress is considering bills, on many positions I disagree with.

So I’ve changed my approach. I don’t have my members of Congress on speed dial. I have called them and written them more since January than at any time since I took my oath of citizenship in 2010.

I pay far more attention to the minutiae of how the legislative process works, because I’m much more concerned that the Republican majority and White House will make policy and pass laws that I don’t think are in America’s best interest.

Even though Republicans hold power in two of three branches of government, they have do not have unanimous views or vision. Being in opposition is easier than governing. The President is surprised to find that he does not get his way. The Democrats and Republicans in Congress are listening to their constituents before they vote, not simply voting along party lines.  The greatest fears of those out of power have not come to pass (at least not yet).

I’ve taken a step back from liberal blogosphere weekly listings of all the worrisome bills that have been introduced. Most bills proposed don’t become law. The 114th Congress was more productive than the 113th and 112th Congresses. The House beat its historical average, passing 11.2% of bills it introduced. The Senate passed 4.8% of its bills, fewer than its 7.1% average.

I have realized that the stream of news from the embattled left requires just as much critical reading as the ebullient right. I’ve trimmed my media feed to a handful of sources from the mainstream swim lane, below, and sample a bit of the governing majority viewpoint from contrary-minded friends and the right side of the infographic.

 

news infographic

I’ve waited a couple of months to see how things are unfolding before even trying to write. Every day, I’m spending more time sorting through the latest events and announcements. Every day, I hear the new thing. I’m grateful for reporters who dig in to clarify or confirm or correct whatever the President said. I wait and see what happens next. Then I research to figure out what I know, what I don’t know. I try to get to a point where I know enough to have an intelligent conversation or ask intelligent questions with someone else on either side of the aisle.

I don’t expect to agree with the current Administration on much. But I watch and listed and ask questions to try and understand. Here are just a few issues that are top of mind for me right now.

  • The Executive Order banning travelers and suspending entry of refugees from six predominantly Muslim countries:  does not increase national security by preventing attacks by Islamist militants. There is already so little chance of terrorist attack in the United States by someone from those countries that the ban changes virtually nothing.  The ban helps the President and his Administration gain support from  Americans who have been made to believe they are not safe. By pointing to people from predominantly Muslim countries as a potential danger, the travel ban makes people feel the President has made them “safer” by banning those people.
  • Health care: Is the Affordable Care Act perfect? No. Are there major issues that need to be addressed so that insurers will continue to offer coverage? Yes. But why would Republicans and the White House propose changes that experts estimate may result in between six million and twenty million people losing health care coverage ? The Joint Committee on Taxation estimates that proposed changes in health care would cut taxes by at least $600 billion. I just paid my 2016 taxes. Would I have preferred to keep that money? Not if it’s the price I need to pay to live in a country where people who are sick can get care without going bankrupt. Not if my taxes give people better access to everyday care that keeps them healthier and out of emergency rooms and expensive procedures that could have been avoided.

    Oh, about the absence of female legislators among the thirteen members to work on health care in the Senate? Diverse groups make better decisions. We need that more than ever. MORE>>

  • Tax policy: My inexpert understanding is that a big goal of changing health care policy is not simply to undo a previous Administration’s work, but to cut taxes and stimulate growth. Yet not one of 42 economists surveyed by the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business (which regularly polls economists) believes “…the cuts would stimulate the economy enough to cancel out the effect on total tax revenue.” 
  • Environmental protection: clean air, water, energy and soil enable good health and the quality of life. I want laws and regulations to support that. Why would we stop protecting those things?  Why dismantle regulations that do? I am not an environmental economist. I don’t have the data to support my belief that money spent to protect and improve the environment is money well spent. If you have data showing that protecting the environment is a waste of money, show me. I am baffled by the idea that money in someone’s pocket is more important than the quality of the air we breathe and the water we drink. Animals that destroy their habitats die. When a community finds its environment has been poisoned, people can get sick or die while waiting for governments to fund and take remedial action. Poor communities may face even greater environmental risks under the new Administration, if EPA cuts funds to the environmental justice program that provides seed money, funds and advocacy they need to fix or prevent those problems.
  • Immigration has so many facets. I immigrated legally. I filled out forms and paid fees and followed the rules. Do I believe that people should immigrate legally? Yes. Do I believe that the United States should allow more of its citizens to sponsor and help resettle refugees who are screened for security risks? Yes.

    I also want this country and its leaders to find compassionate ways to tackle tougher issues.

    Should all people who have entered illegally be deported?  If not, then what should happen? Undocumented entry itself breaks the law. What if people commit another crime? “Criminal alien” is not defined in U.S. immigration law or regulations. The law is similarly ambiguous about what crimes are sufficient cause to deport an alien. If someone has entered illegally, and they’ve committed a crime, well, how serious a crime is a good enough reason to deport them? On one hand, a law is a law. On the other hand, how can we guarantee enforcement that is free of racial bias or xenophobia?

  • Russian influence on the U.S. elections? I hope it’s possible to get clarity on the past, and have justice prevail. Regardless of the results of any investigation, the election results can’t be undone. So what can we do, moving forward, to be aware of, and ward off, such a thing in the future?
  • The entire casting and recasting of White House and Administration officials? I didn’t care for many of the Cabinet appointees. Firing FBI Director James Comey? That story’s still coming out. I’ve found that the most perplexing situation yet. He and his fellow appointees swore or affirm an oath under 5 U.S.C. 3331 to “…support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.”

    I absolutely want officials who are doing their level best to support and defend the Constitution, and whose job is loyalty to the citizens they serve.

I’ve learned to paying attention to bills and proposals on the things I care about most. I’ve marched for some things and raised funds for others. I’ll keep doing that, because the majority of those in power might not want the same outcome as I do.

 

Contrary Conversations

A single unfriending opened the door to a lot more understanding.

What I’m learning from conversations with people outside my bubble is a lesson in unity that we all need to learn. These are the kind of conversations that need to pave the road between now and November 2018, and November 2020…and beyond.

In the days following the election, many of my liberal Democrat leaning friends publicly ended their friendships with people who voted for Donald Trump. The unfrienders were making unilateral judgements of the values and desires and aspirations of people based on the button they hit in a polling booth. I was surprised by the venomous language coming out of people I had considered to be smart and kind and thoughtful.

I set aside judgement of both the unfriended and the unfrienders, and put on my thinking cap (which is not pink). So much could be going on with both sides. Hurt, fear, anger, shock, disappointment. The only way to know for sure is to talk with people.

One such “unfriending” thread gave me the clue to a new conversation. I wrote to Ken and asked him if he’d get together with me for a conversation on current affairs. He not only agreed, but went out of his way to meet with me. “I don’t normally discuss politics,” he began. “Most people don’t know I voted for Trump.”

I had two goals, I told him. First, I wanted to ask him what motivated his choice, and perhaps discover potential for common ground between us. Second, I wanted him to hold me accountable for my resolve to not argue with him about his views. My vow was to listen closely, and ask questions to clarify my understanding. If we found we could be allies on some issues, that would be a bonus.

What did Ken expect the new President to do, in return for that vote?

Ken’s top issue: “Cut fraud, waste, and abuse,” he said. “I would love to see a massive effort to cut waste and a move toward fiscal responsibility. Big one for me. I’m in love with the idea of small government. While that may never happen, any move that way is positive.” Even the best run governments have plenty of fraud, waste and abuse. I’d recently skimmed a link that Ken had posted about improprieties in financial management and contracting at a Department of Veterans Affairs office in Texas.  If that story were true, it certainly sounded like an example of the kind of thing I would like to see a lot less of. How one goes about that is a topic for another day.

Next thing: Tax simplification. “I like his direction on tax simplification and most of the economic agenda (cut back on regulation and tax changes encouraging repatriation of taxible assets).” 

I don’t get emotionally wrapped around the axle about taxes. Even in years when it’s hard, I’m glad to pay mine. Taxes mostly get me excited in a good way, along the lines of Mr. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ quotation, “Taxes are the price we pay for civilized society.” What do I think the taxes of a civilized society should fund? Watch for another blog post. I decided I could wait for a future conversation to compare and contrast visions with Ken on that.

Third thing: “Immigration.” I’d like to hear more about Ken’s views on that, too. As an immigrant, now a citizen, myself, I had had to file paperwork and pay fees and line up and line up and line up and wait for years. I hadn’t really stopped to take apart my own position on a whole complicated collection of issues related to immigration yet, so I didn’t dig any deeper at that point. Once I figured out my own stuff, I would want to pick up that conversation, too. Immigration isn’t a monolithic issue, and I would bet we would find several things where we agreed. Just as we were having lunch, lawyers and protesters were headed to international airports to aid and support thousands of people from seven predominantly Muslim countries who had been temporarily banned from entering the United States by Executive Order of the President.

I asked him how he felt about health care, particularly coverage of pre-exisiting conditions. Ken, for example, has a degenerative disease that. If he were to change jobs, would he want his new employer to be required to cover that condition? Well, yes, if his wife’s insurance couldn’t cover him. Is the Affordable Care Act perfect? No, he and I agreed. Does America’s health care program — under whatever name — need work? Yes. Should it be scrapped without an alternative? Again, no.

Now, my other line of inquiry: What issues or rights did he know were at risk when he voted for Trump, and still remained concerned would come under attack by the new Administration?

His watchdog issues? “Big concerns can probably be sumarized as swing back toward religious right (abortion, marriage equality, sexuality, war on drugs).” It would seem that Ken and I are allies on these issues as well as on sexual freedom (including freedom of expression as well as human rights for gay, lesbian, queer and transgendered people).

So, unsurprisingly, we have many issues where we share common concerns. My bet is that there are going to be more in the months to come, especially if we keep talking and listening to each other.

RELATED: Sam Altman, who runs a Silicon Valley incubator shares highlights of his quest to have a hundred conversations like that. MORE >>

Am I going to be angry for the next four years with everyone who voted for Trump? Of course not.

First, that would be not only a waste of time, but also squander the precious opportunity to build allies.

Second, the polls suggest that the more people I talk to, the more friends I’m going to find, and that those numbers are doing to keep growing.

RELATED: After a month in office, Trump’s favorable rating had dropped as low as 38%. See details on that and other polls MORE>>

The Top Challenge: Restoring Civility

Some might argue that, after the first week of the Trump Administration, the plea, “Can’t we all just get along?”is now a pipe dream.

I disagree…respectfully.  Civil conversation is now a basic survival skill. It needs to be taught in every school, every workplace, every church, every community. Because it’s the starting point for unified work that’s impossible when we feel threatened at every turn. Yet, not everyone and everything we hear and see is a threat. We can only figure  out who’s who, and what’s real, by actually talking to people.

I challenge you: Have a conversation with someone who didn’t vote the way you did. Find ONE thing you can work on together.

Don’t argue with them. Find ONE issue that you are equally concerned about. And make a pact to work with them to protect that right, push for that outcome, that’s important to you both.

I’m not an expert in Conversational Intelligence. Dr. Judith E. Glaser is. She literally wrote the book. She said,

“With all that is happening globally, especially in the U.S. this week – there has never been a more important time to focus on the level of conversations we are choosing to have. 

“Uncertainty and adversity are at an all time high – how can we show up asking questions that don’t have answers, and listening to connect to others in the face of differences?

RELATED: Four essential steps to civility, by Michael O’Brien 

When everybody is yelling, nobody is listening. Especially when so many people are feeling stressed and NOT HEARD, it’s vital to stop and LISTEN to one another, connecting with open minds, and appreciating different perspectives at work and in life.

I’m talking about the way we interact with friends and family and colleagues at work and in the community. We desperately need to re-discover how to have civil conversations about differences, find common ground, and new approaches to problems we agree we both want to solve.

When I started this blog, I vowed to reach out and have those kind of conversations. I started doing that right after the election.

Yesterday, I had a three-hour conversation with someone who voted differently from me. He said he doesn’t tell almost anybody how he voted. But he trusted me enough to tell me what he most hoped when he cast his vote for Trump, and what he was most concerned about now that Trump and the Republicans are in power.

I’m not an expert in Conversational Intelligence. I’m going to be taking training in that field later this year. I’ll keep sharing what I learn.

 

What’s Next (2): The Numbers Game

If your member of federal Congress is a Democrat, she or he can be out-voted by Republican legislators for the next two years, at the very least. The President and his cabinet will push forward things that most Democrats don’t want to see, and have scant ability to prevent. If you’re opposed, and your member of Congress is a Democrat, how can you have any voice?

By counting your votes, and making your votes count.

Members of Congress are voting on all those issues you marched about. You have something they care about very much: Your vote. They make decisions that affect your vote every time they vote. Make sure you know who yours are. Make sure they know where you stand on every issue you care about that’s coming up.

Call early and often. Make sure your friends do, too. If you can’t call every time, then find enough friends to cover the issues you each care about. Phone the constituent office. Staff has to take and log these calls, and they have to be polite to you because you vote. Your personal call and comments are more effective than signing petitions or sending pre-formatted email. If pre-formatted is all you have time to do, it’s better than nothing.

  • If your member of Congress is Republican, what’s her or his position on issues you care about? Might that member consider breaking ranks with the President, if enough people in her or his district or state push the issue?
Senators Susan Collins, John McCain, TK, TK, TK.
Senators Susan Collins (ME), John McCain (AZ), Dean Heller (NV), Rob Portman (OH) and Lisa Murkowski (AK),
the top five least likely to support Trump: analysis by Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight.com        GETTY IMAGE
  • Look to the mid-terms. That’s just two years from now. If the Senate majority flips from Republican to Democratic, the President has less ability to move his agenda along.

Democrats must defend 23 seats, plus another two held by friendly independents, and then win some of the eight seats held by the GOP. Are any of those races in a state where you live? How can you get involved?

Related: More from The Hill on the outlook for 2018.

  • Then: What friends of yours are represented by Republican members of Congress, in the House or Senate? Call them. Find out what issues have in common, and are concerned about. Ask them to call THEIR members of Congress and urge them to break ranks with the party rather than support positions that you consider untenable. If only FIVE Republican senators break ranks, those propositions can’t pass. It’ll take 46 Republican members of congress willing to do that to achieve the same thing in the House.

    How likely is that to happen? I am no pundit. But it can only happen if people try.

  • One other thing:  Congress has an investigative arm: the Government Accountability Office (GAO). ANY member of the House of Representatives can ask the Government Accountability office to investigate something. ANY member, majority or minority. Republican or Democrat. ONE.  Want more actual official facts? Ask your member of Congress to request an investigation.

What’s Next (1): The Search For Allies

The quest for allies has to start now. Just like the marches and the knitting of hats and the making of signs, it need to happen in those same community centers and neighborhoods and church basements and coffee shops and workplaces and family dinner tables.

Here’s how it starts:

Conversations with people we don’t understand.

That’s right. You may have spent the weekend on the streets, and subways, and busses and planes, working up your energy in the company of people who demonstrated that they are ready to fight for the things you care about. That’s the easy part of finding common cause.

The harder part is to talk to people that didn’t march. That includes everyone from people who were ambivalent to people who tell you with deep emotion that they voted for Donald Trump.

Actually, that’s the third-hardest part. The second-hardest part is to let go of your assumptions about others. We need to find allies in places we don’t expect. We won’t find them by guessing others’ views.

The hardest thing of all is not to talk, but to LISTEN. Listen to understand, not to respond. Listen, and ask questions, and listen more, to seek common ground. You might have one, just one, issue where you agree. Maybe it’s not reproductive rights, but it is climate change.

Just because someone voted for Donald Trump, or even if all you know about her is that she didn’t march with you, doesn’t mean you should stop talking to her. It means you should start listening to her. First, if you don’t listen to her, she’s certainly not going to listen to YOU. Second, research shows that she’s much more likely to be receptive to hearing what you think and feel after you’ve given her the chance to be heard. Yelling at people and name-calling never changes their minds.

I will add this: I am fortunate not to be surrounded by family members or work colleagues who spew hate. I have read plenty of posts from people whose patience or hope for civil discussion is long gone. I admit I don’t have all the answers and I wish I did. We will find people and places in which there are no allies, where there is no apparent hope of unity on any issue. When that happens, we can move on. But I say to you, remember to circle back. We can oppose someone’s views but still love them. This is part of why love does win. Things can change even for one’s fiercest opponents. Today’s opponent may become tomorrow’s closest ally. But not if you’ve already declared them dead to you.

It’s vital not to let passion turn to hate. It’s no more right to call some illegal than it is to call them part of a “basket of deplorables.” We must not act out of the very hate that we profess to stand against. No matter what our views, we need to act and behave with civility.

FUTURE POST: understanding and practicing civility