Month: December 2013

What I Would Tell My Children About Nelson Mandela

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Mandela

What would I tell my four-year-old daughter about Nelson Mandela, in a time when she lives in a country where we have an African-American President?  What would I tell her, when she lives in a country where she has the responsibility as a citizen to live in a diverse community, practice tolerance and engage with people different from herself? What would I tell my daughter, who will have the right to vote as a woman, a right to access, accommodation, property and the American Dream? What would I tell my daughter about Nelson Mandela that could possibly come close to framing in the most approximate accurate words the gift that he was? How would I do it when she lives in some way the world of the “haves” and not in the “have nots”?

Well, after much searching, I realized that I would be doing a disservice to Mandela if I painted a rosy picture of his journey, considering her own comfort as an American and her future role as a citizen towards the oppressive social dynamics that Mandela fought against. I have come to the conclusion that the best way to educate my children about Mandela is to speak about the thorny times and the perpetuation of the dreaded racial dynamics that are still at play today here and abroad. I should educate her not on just the points of history in his life she will be able to search on Google, but rather what those points on the timeline tell us about ourselves, as a people of collective conscience. The times that do not have Nobel Peace prizes, global acclaim and thousands of applauses for Nelson Mandela.  The times when he was alone, victimized and deliberately outcast by the so-called forces of good. And, yes, I must deliberately introduce her to the “have nots”, to those that deserve a better life but are suffering due to the color of their skin, on our watch in 2013, in our cities.

Nelson Mandela was removed from the terrorist list from the United States State Department in 2008. Let me say it again: 2008.

The manifestation of an unfortunate case of human nature at its worst is the need to protect one’s own interests over supporting truth.  I would tell my daughter that as she rises in her ambition and career, no matter what she does, to not forget the guiding principles she learns at home and from her heart. To speak for those who are speaking the difficult language of truth that is not popular. To support those that are on the ground in their limited means to make change with integrity. And to never doubt her truth, even if the majority tries to convince you that your truth without an official stamp of approval from the higher-ups is not valid. In 2008, Mandela had already served his time in prison calling for armed resistance, served as President of a nation, forgiven his oppressors, started a national reconciliation movement and introduced the policy of diplomatic and reconciliation internationally. He had already won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993. He argued for reconciliation in the Middle East crisis, resolution of Kashmir in the Indian Subcontinent and resolution of national African conflicts and East Timur in Indonesia. He was adored by the world and the global community but was considered a terrorist in the United States. Why did we wait so long to join the rest of the world? Perhaps we thought our interests did not match his spirit of reconciliation. I am not interested in debating the ethics of such decision here.

I would tell my daughter: In her struggles and passion for what is right, many will not join you. Like Mandela, I would tell her to keep going, for the power of your principles will always win people over. Your principles are all you have and one must always be critical of who is receiving an applause and who is not.

Contrary to popular belief, during Nelson Mandela’s life, the same groups he fought for had factions that spoke against him.

Even after Mandela gave him life to the cause, serving as president of South Africa, serving a long prison term – factions within South Africa started forming and accusing him of selling out against the same principles he was advocating for.  What is the lesson in this? That being committed to the struggle does not guarantee unanimous unlimited support from the same people you are advocating for.  At many points in your life, you will want people to understand your motives, to give you a vote of confidence when you make a bad decision based if not anything, on your original intent to always do good. Not so. People in masses much like people in isolation can be fickle. We as humans practice short-term memory, we forget the good very often when things start to look grey. However, what you will be judged on is how you deal with the complaints of your greyness, for they may be valid. Do you ignore it, shun it, or call it a lie? Or do you take a seat and give the criticism your ear? I recently read an article by Zakes MDA who knew Mandela from childhood and is the son of the co- founder of the ANC Youth Council, Ashbey MDA, titled “The Contradictions of Mandela”. In it, he writes about the dissenting opinions against Mandela through the years by his own people. One of the most important points he writes is about how Mandela handled the dissent.

He writes “When he was president, I often wrote about the emerging patronage system and crony capitalism. To his credit, when I wrote him a long letter outlining my concerns, he phoned me within a week and arranged a meeting between me and three of his senior cabinet ministers. Although nothing of substance came of the meeting, the very fact that Mandela listened attentively to the complaints of an ordinary citizen, and took them seriously enough to convene such a meeting, was extraordinary for any president.”

I would tell my daughter: Never think you have done enough good or reached a level of untouchable success that makes you unaccountable to others.

Today in 2013, in the United States we are still in the living in a world of social, economic and opportunity disparities divided on the lines of race. The African-American population makes up of over 75% of the nation’s prison system. Today in the United States inner-city schools are mostly run by the system of property taxes; and minorities have a graduation rate in these schools that are on average less than 20 %. Today in the United States, in the land of natural resources, in cities like Chicago and Detroit many African-Americans and Hispanics live in “food deserts”, where there is not an accessible grocery store that provides fresh produce. As a result, we have communities that have the highest rates of high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes.  I would tell my daughter, just like South Africa in which Nelson Mandela was elected President, we have an African-American President Barack Obama. But these leaders are one person, and many times due to global limitation- symbolic. But changes have to happen on the ground by us. We cannot rely on leaders to fix broken systems by themselves. It is my job, my daughter’s job, as she grows up to right a wrong, to deliberately seek out places where there is injustice in a spirit to resolve even if she is told she lives in a world of equality. She does not. And unless she rolls up her sleeves, she will not.

Nelson Mandela is a symbol of what is achievable. His life exemplifies the struggles it takes to speak your truth and how it can reach to isolation in prison or even among your own people.

Perhaps that is the most important thing I can teach my daughter about him: Speaking your truth and following your heart comes at a cost. It is lonely, but without the sacrifice of wanting to be with the majority, the underserved minorities whether as a people or a truth will never be heard. Speak your truth, even if you voice is the only one you ever hear in agreement.

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A Close Look at Bullying

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They always say a bully now is nothing more than a kid who was a victim in his or her past. If this was true, we have a community of nameless and faceless victims who have reached a point where it is payback time.  If we are serious about curtailing bullies as a phenomenon and stop them from becoming a cultural norm for American school going children, then we have to take look at the adults raising them.

Adult bullying is a silent phenomenon we do not like to embrace. Simply because it is easier to focus on the children.  They are complicated immature individuals who will know better in the future. But what about the adult bullies now? When will they learn? Many have faced bullying in the work place or their personal lives, but very few really speak about it. But the truth is, the more we call out bullying for what it is instead of sugarcoating it, the more adult bullies will be forced to be held accountable and the more socially healthier children they will raise.

The Miami Dolphins case of Bullying vs. Locker Room Culture brought this phenomenon to light. As unfortunate the situation is, I am glad it brought adult bullying to the center stage. The details are simple: Miami Dolphin Jonathan Martin accused teammate Incognito for consistently bullying him off the field using words that disparaged him racially and physically. Incognito does not deny his statements but rather has filed a grievance against his suspension stating that his behavior was in line with locker room behavior. Now, a full-fledged NFL investigation is taking place with detailed interviews by attorneys. A quick media search shows you that most team members and employees of the NFL world agree that there is an unspoken locker room conduct that was never considered bullying…until now. So, yes, at this time a lot of people within the NFL are forced to reexamine what is “normal” conduct.

As a society, we have the greatest responsibility to raise a more generous, emotionally healthy and confident generation.  For such a task, reexamining one’s conduct is the least we could do. People do not like reexamining their assertions and beliefs. Adult bullying is no exception.  Perhaps for the simple reason that if we call ourselves bullies or our behavior bullying then we are accepting that we have some unresolved childhood issues.  For those who deny that adult bullying is a rare celebrity case, I would suggest a closer look.  It is happening in different situations, among different circles and your circle is probably no exception.   Here are a few examples I witnessed and learned about in the last two months, aside from the famous Miami Dolphins case.

I was at a checkout lane at a supermarket. The bagboy was a beautiful bright-eyed boy with a smile. He was well mannered and helpful and had Down syndrome. The lady on the register was a nice enough lady, who smiled at me while I was taking out my groceries in my cart.  While I was doing this, the bagboy asked the lady “My mom told me to check my check. Am I getting the right amount?”

“Yes, you are. What is your question? “ The lady asked him, and then smiled at a co-worker. The bagboy repeated himself.  The lady now laughing said, “Hmm, let me see the check. Yes, I told you, you got the right amount.”  Then she laughed at the employees across the supermarket and laughed, “What is he saying?!”  The bagboy was confused and said, “I have to ask somebody else.” He clearly did not understand. “Well then go and ask someone but first go get the cart, run, run, run!!”  The bagboy ran, and she laughed.  Now, mind you this all took place in front of me while I was emptying out my grocery cart.

As the bagboy ran, I asked her, “ Are you laughing at him?”

She replied with a smirk, “Yes.”  Without a second of hesitation.

“OK. Because he is somebody’s son.” I replied.  And she paused. The employee on the next register heard me and said, “Is something wrong?”

“Yes.” I replied.  “If you have an inside joke, you should share it in private. But honestly to make a joke based on someone not being able to understand you is horrible and disrespectful.”

The lady was clearly not appreciative of my remarks and said “I do respect him. I treat my children to be nice to everybody.”

And there it was. Denial. The “I do not bully or condone bullying.”

I do not share this story to share my graciousness in righting a wrong. I share it to show how easily this bullying was taking place in front of grown adults. We are at so many times, myself included, in denial of it.

I will say that the next time I went to the grocery store, the same lady excused herself to the next register. Yes, she got the message. Victory!

Group bullying is also not uncommon.  We have all witnessed situations where even adult women are victims of subtle acts of bullying. Whether it be in the form of isolating someone, aggressively attacking another person in public, or the worst ignoring them. I did a workshop with young girls on bullying and one thing they all related to is being ignored by a group of girls. Sometimes the most subtle of behaviors is hurtful. They witnessed girls addressing a group in conversation and not them, or eating lunch with each other and excluding one.  We have seen the disastrous effects of in-person bullying and cyber-bullying.  I am saddened by the many young teens who have made videos on YouTube while on the brink of suicide, due to the emotional torture.  The same children who were bullying these victims have parents. Were they in denial?

The other day, I was watching The View and the ladies were discussing a Facebook group where women get together and post pictures of what they call “ugly babies”. Yes, do not be shocked.  These are a group of mothers themselves. The reason why this Facebook page was discovered is because a mother who had a premature child found his picture on the page. The mother found out and was appalled. According to The View, the mothers responded by saying “It’s a free country.”  And we wonder how bullying is becoming a social norm in our schools?

I took my daughter trick or treating this past Halloween. She got lots of candy and had a blast. The best part of Halloween is seeing kids in their cute and creative costumes. This year was no exception. The kids looked adorable.  One stood out.

As I approached a house, I saw a young girl about 15 years old. She had glasses on, suspenders and a bow tie. At first, I thought she was a character from Harry Potter. As I got closer, I noticed the tape between her glasses and, of course, pens in her pocket.  This is 2013.  So, I was a little surprised. I asked her, “What are you?”  She smiled, “A nerd”. Awesome. We still think it is funny to make fun of other kids who are “smart”.   Then, came the best part.  She turned around and there was a sign on her that said, “KICK ME”.  Did I blame her? No, I blame the mom. I blame her for thinking in this time of a bullying phenomenon that it was cute to be dressed like a victim.

In my work, I have met many individuals looking to resolve the conflicts. I have seen bullying in the workplace (we legally call it discrimination), in schools, universities, and yes I have seen bullying by spouses. The truth is, we have many damaged adults raising children. And in many ways we are damaged ourselves. Yes, us. The ones who feel that bullies do not look, act or sound like us.

But one thing I have learned that bullying does not have to sound or look the same. It just hurts the same.  Until we can be honest with ourselves and stop gasping at the famous cases of bullying we see, the everyday lives of our children will not change. Bullying is happening among us around us every day. The truth is, until we stop teaching our children how to be popular or protected by putting others down, we will be raising victims or raising bullies. Our children become isolated and victims based on one dominant factor – what they think of themselves. We are the only ones who can tell them they are amazing.  I write this piece in honor of every child and every adult who was once bullied as a child. In honor of anyone who has cried in private or who felt alone, regardless of the environment. Our children can be so much, so great. The more we lift them, the more they will lift others.

As always, here is a song for inspiration.  My favorite words from the song are below. Say these words to your kids.  If we have failed them, perhaps they can change the world for us.

Be students
Be teachers
Be politicians
Be preachers

Be believers
Be leaders
Be astronauts
Be champions
Be true seekers

Be students
Be teachers
Be politicians
Be preachers

Be believers

Be leaders
Be astronauts
Be champions