Jesmyn Ward’s The Men We Reaped is a tragic personal account of how racism and oppression intersected in the untimely death of five men she held dear. I believe the most immediate cause of these tragedies were addictions (four of the five boys chronicled are addicts and come from broken homes with no strong adult black male figure). But the addictions of Ward’s friends and father are only symptoms of a large-scale, pervasive oppression of African Americans males since the dawn of U.S. history. The New York Times article Extensive Data Shows Punishing Reach of Racism for Black Boys states "black boys are disadvantaged to 99 per cent of white boys in America. They are more likely to be disciplined in school, detained by police, and stereotyped as scary, intimidating, and violent."" In Bryan Stevenson's powerful Ted Talk "We Need to Talk About an Injustice," he states that the prison population has increased by two million people in forty years, which has led to despair in black communities since one out of three black men aged 18-30 is in jail or prison.
Issues of economic and judicial racism are seen in the life of Ward's brother Joshua.
Joshua was perhaps the most compelling figure in the memoir because he held the paradox of boyhood innocence while dealing crack cocaine in order to pay bills (he worked legitimate jobs as much as he could, which speaks to racial inequality in terms of job opportunity and income in this country).
When Joshua is killed by a white drunk driver, the perpetrator barely receives a slap on the wrist. Ward paints a clear picture that in courtrooms--like most rooms--a white man’s life is unjustly worth more than a black man’s.
Bryan Stevenson states “we have a system of justice in this country that treats you much better if you're rich and guilty than if you're poor and innocent.” In the case of Joshua, it is clear that a rich, guilty white man was treated better by the justice system than Joshua's family, who deserved justice in the sentencing of his perpetrator. Grief and anger over an unjust sentencing flow from Ward's pen when she writes "by the numbers, by all the official records, here at the confluence of history, of racism, of poverty, and economic power, this is what our lives are worth: nothing.”
How can we battle the systemic oppression of black men in America?
For one, we can stop talking about how we live in a post-racist society. People see color. Racism is real.
We can learn about historical trauma--a topic I will write about in a later entry--and where our prejudices of black men come from. Uprooting Racism by Paul Kivel is an invaluable resource in this regard.
White people talking about white privilege--unearned assets simply because of the hue of our skin--can bring clarity and sobriety. Stevenson states “ultimately, you judge the character of a society, not by how they treat their rich and the powerful and the privileged, but by how they treat the poor, the condemned, the incarcerated."
Since boys benefit more than girls from same-sex adult mentors (as illustrated in the NY Times article above), it is important to connect positive male figures to every community. Moonlight, which won an Academy Award for Best Picture, centers on a young boy whose only male role model was a drug dealer.
The same drug dealer who sold his mother crack cocaine.
We can do better. We are the United States.
We put a man on the moon. We can do anything. We can provide male role models when research says male role models are a driving tool for change. As a social work intern who counsels fifteen non-white boys a week, I directly see that my presence as an adult male with values is an unquantifiable asset in their lives.
Young black boys need to know they are worth more than being murdered or ending up in prison. If we can create more positive adult black male role models in afflicted communities, black boys will respond positively and progress can be made. Would Joshua still be alive if his father was addiction-free, dedicated and loyal to the family, available and present, and capable of connecting and relating to his children and the community?
Racism is everywhere, all the time. It is sometimes as obvious as the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville 2017, but it also occurs constantly in countless subtle, insidious microaggressions.
Racism is a major public health problem precisely because it is ignored, downplayed, or unacknowledged by a majority of Americans. My hope is that in some small way, I can shed light on the hidden, dark, scary parts of our individual and collective stories so that we can heal and become better than we were before.
I hope that I can do my part to move the national needle toward this goal: never again will a bereft sister write that "by the numbers, by all the official records, here at the confluence of history, of racism, of poverty, and economic power," a black man's life is worth nothing.
Positionality is the idea that we judge and label ourselves and others in various ways including race/nationality; gender; socioeconomic class; age; sexual orientation; religion/spirituality; ability/disability; and sense of place. Examining our positionality allows us to gain a deeper understanding of what these labels mean to us, how the meanings developed in early childhood and shaped our life, and how these labels impact our stance toward difference, toward "the other." This work creates personal insights which shifts our public policy opinions and conversations in ways that uphold the dignity and worth of all people. To become better public policy advocates, we start with the man (or woman) in the mirror; after all, he is the one most in our locus of control.
“Who am I” and “how do I relate to others, especially those who are different than me?” are questions I have struggled with throughout my life. I have some answers, but I have learned the hard way to try and embrace uncertainty on the parts that are still developing rather that foreclose on that growth by pretending I have all the answers.
Race/nationality/language: I identify as a Caucasian, white, United States citizen who is a native English speaker and grew up in a racist community in small-town North Carolina. For example, as a middle school student, I was handed a business card by a Ku Klux Klan member as the group marched in those evil white garments and cowardly hoods in the Mule Days parade near my hometown in Benson, North Carolina. When I was in seventh grade and I watched the twin towers fall on TV, I was programmed that “foreigners” (Muslims) were to be feared. Once I left North Carolina to pursue a career in the arts, the racism I was programmed to believe began to dissipate through friendships. Love beats fear every time. In Cleveland, Ohio, I lived with close friends who were Muslim or Hindu and hailed from India, Pakistan, Kashmir, and Saudi Arabia (they are now medical researchers, a radiologist, and a lawyer for the United Nations). When I first came to Houston, I lived in Third Ward, an African American community, and now live in Sharpstown, a Hispanic community. I had the opportunity to live for a year in Germany, and I got to see life and culture in Poland, Germany, and France. All of these experiences have helped me see that being a white American is not better than (fill in the blank with any minority). I think that almost anyone who grows up in the United States has some form of racism. However, because of the people I have met and the work I have done on myself, I am pretty quick to see my own racism and nationalism and address it in healthy ways that allow me to be better than before.
Gender: Being in a man in America taught me “don’t feel, be perfect, don’t ever make a mistake.” However, my father modeled that it is okay to cry, even in public; a rare gift few boys receive. My mom allowed me to play with barbie dolls and other “girl toys.” One of the hardest issues around my gender was losing some of my male privilege and being seen as effeminate when I came out as gay. Today, I am pretty secure in my manhood and am seeking to understand more about gender fluidity and the transgender community.
Socio-economic: I was born into a white, middle class family. Growing up, we always had more resources and money than my extended family or schoolmates, and I was embarrassed to have newer clothes and drive a nicer car than my schoolmates. I felt it was deeply unfair that I was given more than my peers simply because of the family I was born into. My experiences with economic privilege in childhood challenged me to educate myself on income inequality in this country, perhaps most expertly discussed by Robert Riech in his documentary Inequality For All (Dr. Reich served in the administrations of Presidents Ford, Carter, and Clinton and was Secretary of Labor from 1993 to 1997).
Age: I used to hear "when you're older, you'll understand." Ugh. Today i often here "why are you still in school at age 30?" Ugh. I have to admit I keep those messages in my head and replay the tape. One tape that has been deleted with age is from a difficult moment when i was 17. A man I respected at church told me I would die of AIDS before I was thirty, so making it to thirty years of age disease free has eradicated an unhelpful message. Outside of my own age, I am working to treat others with equal dignity no matter what their age. It is very easy for me to give patience, understanding, and care to teenagers and children. It is more difficult for me, personally, to assume the best about adults. Because I watched my grandparents suffer slow, painful deaths, I used to be uncomfortable around the elderly because I associated them with hospitals and funerals. However, today I serve at an LGBT-friendly church fueled by love and social justice where many elderly people are still out and about, making a difference and creating meaning. They have changed my view on what it means to grow old, create a legacy, and pass away with dignity.
Sexuality: When I think about my homosexuality, I think about people and events. I think about realizing I was gay in kindergarten when my friend asked me if I wanted to see his Power Rangers underwear; about having to change in gym class for the first time and being terrified the other boys would just somehow "know;" having my Jeep Grand Cherokee packed in case my parents found out that I was gay and kicked me out; a family member throwing up when I came out as gay at age 17; and other traumatic events that eroded my self-worth and wrote on the slate of who I was. As I began therapy and recovery in my mid-twenties, these frozen traumatic events thawed out and I began a long, painful process of sorting them out. The more recovered I get in my sexual identity, the more I seek to understand other sexual minorities, such as the transsexual community. A great strength I possess is an ability to relate and mentor young adults who are in the process of coming out and reckoning with the pain of growing up gay in a straight world.
Religion: Growing up Southern Baptist in the Bible Belt of North Carolina, religion was synonymous with authoritarian, rigid, black and white thinking. In middle school, the church I was born and raised in split apart over a heated, contentious debate about evolution and whether the Bible was literal or should be interpreted. In my youth, I knew that the church my family attended did not have room for how I thought and the gender I wanted to love. After working for the Anglican church for fifteen years, I currently serve at a church which is in line with my values and fosters spiritual growth.
Abilities/disabilities: Although I grew up uncomfortable around people with disabilities and family members in palliative care, I had to come to terms that I had within me several interconnected disabilities in my twenties: alcoholism, drug addiction, a nasty binge eating disorder, and clinical diagnoses of PTSD, anxiety, and depression. Working through these issues for myself changed how I look at differently-able people. For example, I share joy on a weekly basis with an autistic sixth grader through games of Jenga, Uno, and eating Funyuns (but only the spicy kind. We have standards).
Sense of place: The greatest struggle I have had in life is finding a sense of place, finding belonging. I was a gay, artistic, creative child who was born into the Bible Belt of North Carolina. Racism, homophobia, and gender roles influenced me to write a script about myself that declared I was not worthy of love and belonging in my community or family. I decided at a very early age to get out of Four Oaks as soon as I turned 18 because I was afraid I might die if people found out who I really was. I learned to be a chameleon, to be a mask and pretend to be the best little boy in the world. Anything to avoid the Scarlet Letter. Naturally, I could not belong or have a sense of place where I could not be my authentic self. I belonged nowhere and with no one. I was not centered. I was not grounded. I was detached from life. I lived in a fantasy land. Gravity barely had a hold on me.
I finally began to find a sense of place when I moved to Houston in 2012. I found a community of people who truly accept me for who I am, flaws and all. I eventually moved away from Houston for a job and remember watching the news coverage of Hurricane Harvey with sadness that I was not in Houston with the people I loved. Harvey was a devastating natural disaster. People were fleeing the city. I desperately wanted to return. I decided that a sense of place was more important than career success, so I moved back to Houston with the intention of staying here for the rest of my life. I want to use the roots and relationships I have here to support me in finding meaningful work and finding someone to create a family with. My sense of place is in Houston, and I am grateful every day that I get to wake up here.
Although I have struggled with a sense of place because of my sexuality, I have never had to struggle with a physical sense of place. I have never been homeless, and on most days I take that for granted. I have never been treated poorly or told I do not belong because of the color of my skin. I have never been subtly told to shut up and look pretty because I am a woman.
Through seeing how these labels create the position in which I see the world, I am more able to understand myself, others, and my environment in new ways. I understand more fully how I think and feel (and why). I am able to more often extend myself for the nurture and care of another, which is one of my favorite definitions of the word "love." I am able to effectively help the teenagers and emerging adults I work with in the various institutions I am a part of.
Being able to see more clearly how my labels affect myself and the people I serve and care has also helped me see how much of society is created on positionality, labels, and judgment. We live in a society that has deep roots in racism and inequality. Understanding the unconscious bias I have has direct consequences to how I see public policy.
I believe if more people took the time and were given the resources to examine their unconscious biases around race/nationality; gender; socioeconomic class; age; sexual orientation; religion/spirituality; ability/disability; and sense of place, that we would be having very different conversations about immigration, bathroom bills, economic inequality, health care, poverty and homelessness, and other major issues our country faces. In the words of Michael Jackson..."if you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and make a change."
One of the best books I have read this year is the 2008 New York Times Bestselling Gang Leader For A Day by Sudhir Venkatesh (you can find a fascinating interview about the book here). The book takes place in the 1990's and chronicles Venkatesh's experiences as he integrated himself into the projects of Chicago's Robert Taylor Homes. The housing project was one of the nation's most notorious housing projects, known for gangs, prostitution, and crack cocaine before it was torn down in the name of gentrification. The book examines how race and poverty intersect; how to make a living in the projects; how a man's home is his castle, even in the projects; and how national public policy affected the tenants of the Robert Taylor projects.
Venkatesh says the book is about "that difficult place people are in when they have to turn to a gang in order to survive."
I believe the book is about the dignity and re-humanization of marginalized people that we as a society all so often ignore and erase.
Venkatesh spends most of the book allowing the reader to fall in love with otherwise-easy-to-dismiss characters. Once he connects us to these figures, he challenges us to come to terms with how our society uses public policy as a tool to continually marginalize disenfranchised groups through racism and poverty. He creates space for the reader to rumble with this discomfort by being vulnerable and sharing his own challenges and transformations as a person of privilege spending every spare moment in one of the poorest areas of the United States. Only after he has created a personal investment between the reader and himself/the Robert Taylor community does he discuss how city, state, and national public policy directly displaced the poorest of the poor.
As I read the memoir and struggled with the thought-provoking challenges the material poses, I could not help thinking of the places I lived and how poverty/race was separated through housing. I come from a small town in North Carolina; growing up, there was an unspoken measure of worth between me and other classmates. You either lived in a trailer park or you lived in a house. This measure was also tied to race. I was lucky enough to grow up in a nice two-story house which seemed to be as much a part of the family as any of its occupants.
When I lived in Greensboro, NC as an undergraduate student, I lived in apartments a few miles from the university, but it was "dangerous" to walk or bike to school (code for "you might pass homeless people, someone of a different race, or a drug dealer").
Cleveland, Ohio was perhaps the largest indicator of housing segregation. As a graduate student, I lived in University Circle, a half mile from Severance Hall and the Cleveland Museum of Art on East 105th street. A half mile in that direction was also Case Western Reserve University; all indicators of wealth and prosperity. If I went a half mile in the other direction of my apartment, I would enter the most crime-infested part of the city. Depending on which direction I went, a few hundred steps could lead me to promise, prosperity, abundance, or crime, poverty, destitution. Downtown Cleveland had similar disparities. I worked at a church on historic Public Square, an institution which housed stained glass by Tiffany and where President Lincoln's body was toured after his assassination. Buildings like Tower City reminded us of the Gilded Age, when Cleveland was one of the most powerful economic forces in the country. However, at night, the "underworld" came out. Downtown Cleveland turned from white middle-class workers, retiring to a comfortable evening in the suburbs, to a land of drugs, crime, and prostitution.
Here in Houston, where I've lived since 2012, there major neighborhood disparities. On the one hand, we have the River Oaks community, one of the richest zip codes in the world. On the other hand, a February 2018 article in the Houston Chronicle reported that Third Ward (where University of Houston is located) and Sunnyside are two of the most dangerous communities in the United States. I lived in Third Ward for the first four years I was in Houston as I pursued a doctoral degree at the University of Houston, in a part of the community that had been re-gentrified. I had no idea I benefited from my housing at the expense of a less privileged previous tenant. I now live in Sharpstown, which used to be a white middle-class neighborhood but is now primarily Hispanic.
Although Venkatesh's book focuses on Chicago housing in the 1990's, it is a specific and emotionally compelling account of problems in cities and communities across the United States. Some of the most powerful moments illustrations include:
J.T. (the gangleader Venkatesh befriended) asked Venkatesh what sociologists thought about gangs. The response was sociology's notion of a culture of poverty, that poor blacks don't work because they don't value employment as highly as other ethnic groups. J.T.'s response was "So you want me to take pride in the job, and you're only paying me minimum wage? It don't sound like you think much about the job yourself."
Ms. Bailey, a tenant and president of the Local Advisory Council, basically ran the Robert Taylor Homes. When Venkatesh addressed the 60% drop-out rate of the project's high school kids, he stated "research today says that if kids can get through high school, they have a 25% greater likelihood of escaping poverty. She interrupted, saying, "if your family is starving and I tell you that I'll give you a chance to make some money, what are you going to do." Venkatesh humbly replied, "Make the money. I have to help my family. School will have to wait until my family gets enough to eat."
Because community based organizations, churches, and government cuts reduced donations to the housing project, Ms. Bailey took it upon herself to find resources for the community, sometimes by cutting unethical deals, in order to advocate for her people.
The following passage brought tears to my eyes : "People in this community shouldn't have to wait more than a week to get a new front door. People in this community shouldn't have to wonder if the ambulance or police would bother responding. People in this community shouldn't have to pay a go-between like Ms. Bailey to get the services that most Americans barely bother to think about. No one in the suburb where I grew up would tolerate such inconvenience and neglect." The author spoke truth to injustice and his own privilege, striking a chord deep within me.
There was an economy of women who sold food, made clothing, offered marital counseling or baby-sitting, read horoscopes, styled hair, and prepared taxes.
"Many of the women of Robert Taylor had protested for civil rights in the 1960s and campaigned for black political candidates in the 1970s; they took the need to fight for their community very seriously. But during the 1980s and 1990s, as their plight was worsened by gangs, drugs, and even deeper poverty, they struggled just to keep their families together. By then the housing authority had grown corrupt and supportive, the police were largely unresponsive, and the tribe of strong women had been severely marginalized.
"While the official statistics said that 96% of Robert Taylor's adult population was unemployed, many tenants did have part-time legitimate jobs. But nearly all of them tried to hide any legitimate income from the Chicago Houston Authority, lest they lose their lease or other welfare benefits."
"Until a few years earlier, men in Robert Taylor could have gotten a few hundred dollars a month in welfare money, but by 1990, Illinois and many other states eliminated such aid for adult men. The conservative revolution launched by President Ronald Reagan would lead eventually to a complete welfare overhaul, culminating in the 1996 directive by President Bill Clinton that made welfare a temporary program by setting time limits on just about every form of public aid--for men, women, and children. For men like the ones in Robert Taylor, the welfare changes only exacerbated their poverty."
"In early 1995...members of Congress and the Clinton administration had begun serious discussions with mayors across the country to propose knocking down housing projects. Henry Cisneros, the secretary of Housing and Urban Development, claimed that 'high-rises just don't work.' He and his staff spoke of demolishing these 'islands of poverty,' with the goal of pushing their inhabitants to live where 'residents of different incomes interact with one another.' Cisneros singled out Chicago's projects as 'without question, the worst public housing in America today.' The Robert Taylor Homes were said to be at the very top of the demolition list. They were to be replaced by an upscale town-house development called Legends South, which would include just a few hundred units of public housing." Venkatesh wrote that tenants were struck with disbelief. The overwhelming sentiment was "do the politicians really have the will or the power to relocate tens of thousands of poor black people?"
Our public policy has dislocated Native Americans, Japanese Americans, African Americans, and other marginalized populations throughout the course of our history. Our politicians really do have the will and power to relocate tens of thousands of people.
Venkatesh continues by saying "from the outset urban renewal held the seeds of its own failure. White political leaders blocked the construction of housing for blacks in the more desirable white neighborhoods. And even though blighted low-rise buildings in the ghetto were replaced with high-rises like the Robert Taylor Homes, the quality of the housing stock wasn't much better. Things might have been different if housing authorities around the country were given the necessary funds to keep up maintenance on these new buildings. But the buildings that had once been the hope of urban renewal were already a short forty years later, ready for demolition again."
Venkatesh goes on to say that "while the goal of the demolition was to move families to safer, integrated communities, the Chicago Housing Authority was so inept that nearly ninety per cent of the relocated tenants wound up living in poor black areas that left them as badly off as being in the projects, or worse. In place of the projects, the city began to build market-rate condominiums and town houses...Robert Taylor tenants had been promised the right to return to the community once construction was done, but fewer than ten per cent of the units were set aside for public-housing families...the Daley administration and the powerful real-estate interests, rather creating new and improved low-income housing, in fact knocked down the projects to initiate a land grab."
Who we elect matters. The national conversations we have matter. What our elected officials choose to do with their power matters. Not just in matters of the economy or war or the other big things. It matters to the children of Robert Taylor in this book, who are now the same age as I am.
I don't have to wonder if, like me, the children of Robert Taylor had the chance to travel the world in pursuit of the dreams, if they obtained a doctoral degree. I don't have to wonder if, like me, they have a totally clean record or found resources to get sober from the addictions plaguing their community. I don't have to wonder if like me, they have never known hunger or never had to do things that went against their values in order to provide for their families.
To loosely borrow from Laura Mayo, an orator and writer in Houston, those children in Robert Taylor did not need our prayers. They did not need our sympathies. They needed the system changed.
I currently attend University of Houston's Graduate College of Social Work, where every first year student completes an assignment called "Engaging with Political Difference." The idea of the assignment is to find an op-ed article we disagree with, summarize it it in a values-neutral way, find some common ground with the author, and only then disagree with the position of the author. My essay on an article about polar bears (and subsequently climate change) taught me a lot about how to more effectively engage with people I disagree with:
The op-ed piece I chose for the assignment “Engaging with Political Difference” was Polar bears keep thriving even as global warming alarmists keep pretending they’re dying, authored by Susan Crockford and published in the Canadian-based Financial Post on February 27, 2018.
Crockford’s argument is that polar bears are thriving even amidst declining ice, thus it should no longer be an icon of global warming. She states that thinning ice means more availability of seals to hunt in areas where ice was previously too thick; cites the failure of a 2007 model of future polar bear survival by Steven Amstrup, who is now at an NGO called Polar Bears International; and writes that starvation is historically a leading cause of death for polar bears when she questions the validity of a National Geographic video of a bear that, by all objective accounts, is starving.
On her personal website, Susan Crockford talks about length of experience in the field of zoology and specifically brags she has written for non-scientists, but lists no credentials except “she has a Ph.D.” Although Wikipedia is not a reliable academic source, the Susan J. Crockford page states she is currently an adjunct professor in Anthropology at the University of Victoria and that “she is best known for her blog posts on polar bear biology, which oppose the scientific consensus that polar bears are threatened by ongoing climate change.”The article goes on to state that most of her career has been work on paid contracts; she currently runs the private consulting firm Pacific Identifications Inc.; and that she signed the International Conference on Climate Change’s 2008 Manhattan Declaration which virtually negates human impact on global climate and states global warming has been beneficial throughout history. She has received regular payments from The Heartland Institute, a conservative public policy think tank. Her blogs have been cited by 80% of climate change denying websites as their chief source on polar bears. The American Institute of Biological Sciences states
Notably, as of this writing, Crockford has neither conducted any original research nor published any articles in the peer-reviewed literature on the effects of sea ice on the population dynamics of polar bears. However, she has published notes and “briefings” through a conservative think tank, the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF), and is described by them as “an expert on polar bear evolution (Harve et. al 2018).
In a New York Times article on the controversy surrounding this op-ed piece, Erica Goode stated “Dr. Crockford has published some peer-reviewed articles that touch on polar bears. She has also published reports and articles that have not been peer-reviewed, like those through the Global Warming Policy Foundation.” Although sources vary in her reputation, it is reasonable to conclude that Susan Crockford is a for-hire scientist who has written more blogs than peer-reviewed articles. Furthermore, the op-ed article being discussed was published by Financial Post, a conservative Canadian publication which, by its name, is obviously not geared on academia or science.
While Crockford and I disagree on almost everything, there are a few facts we can agree on. She states, “more than 15,000 polar bears have not disappeared since 2005.” This very confusing sentence is true, since there are somewhere between 22,000 and 31,000 polar bears alive today. It is also true that the polar bear’s global numbers have been basically stable since 2006. I agree with her that Ian Stirling reported about spring sea ice becoming so thick that polar bears cannot hunt seals, and that has been reported in various journals; I also agree with her that science has become political. I agree with her when she states studies show polar bears are less weight that in the 1980s.
The most frustrating part of Crockford's ideas was her academic incompetence. Although she holds a doctorate in science, this “scientific” article was written in a financial publication with a complete lack of references; the closest she came was very vaguely mentioning two reports that she then invalidated. The world of Polar Bear/Arctic science is a very specific expertise. It is a completely different world, with different terminology; it takes a bit of reading to even conceptualize the reality that ice is to polar bears what ground is to humans.
Another disagreement I had with Crockford was about the current stabilization of the polar bear population. According to Polar Bear Specialist Group, there are nineteen subpopulations, and eleven of those regions—more than half—are data deficient/unknown. Polar bears live in five countries—Canada, Denmark, Norway, the USSR, and the U.S.—in some of the most remote, anti-human conditions on the planet. It is my un-scientifically proven, lay belief that as ice continues to melt, polar bear populations are not actually stabilizing. Rather, polar bears are migrating to different parts of the regions where ice is more conducive to mating and fishing, as well as spending much more time on land. I believe there is a polar bear migration happening to places where we are currently able to track them, and while the overall population is declining in remote areas we cannot track, this migration is skewing the decline. Since this is unprovable, any reputable scientist with integrity can’t make this claim publicly.
Finally, I disagree that polar bears are a symbol of global warming. Crockford states “the polar bear’s resilience should have meant the end of its use as a cherished icon of global warming doom, but it didn’t. The alarmism is not going away without a struggle.” I do think that the polar bear is a resilient species—it lives in an environment hostile to most living organisms! —but that does not mean it can survive with more ice loss with each passing year. Since 2008 a million more square kilometers of summer sea ice (the way scientists measure) has been lost. That is roughly the size of Egypt! More ice loss means more swimming, which takes up much more energy than walking, which means a lower weight and a greater chance of starvation. I side with Erica Goode’s article that “In effect, many scientists say, the bears have been co-opted by climate denialists, and in an article published Tuesday in the peer-reviewed journal BioScience, 14 prominent researchers argue that denialist blogs with wide followings are using the bears to spread misinformation about the causes and consequences of climate change.”
Two of my earliest memories were of polar bears. The first was the Coca-Cola Christmas commercial with a parent polar bear and two cubs. I remember seeing how big and cold and stark the landscape was, and how alone they were. When I went to the zoo for the first time a few months later, I saw a polar bear in real life and was absolutely enraptured; I learned that the bears can change the color of their hair to blend in with surroundings. Looking back, I can see how as a gay boy in the Bible Belt of North Carolina, the polar bear was my spirit animal. I was isolated, lived in hostile conditions, and did everything I could to blend into my surroundings and survive. I have not had a car for a while now, and have made other difficult choices to reduce my carbon footprint, because I like to think that I am making a difference for polar bears. I want to adopt a child when I finish school and get on my feet in the social world field, and I want to take them to Churchill, Canada, to see the bears in their natural habitat.
Because I have been following the story of the polar bear my entire life, I thought I knew a lot about the policy issues of global warming and environmental conservation surrounding the species. However, one thing I learned was that Polar Bears International accepts donations from Exchange Petroleum, which seems highly lacking in integrity when carbon emissions is the greatest threat to ice loss and subsequent polar bear decline. Through this writing assignment, I learned some important tools, like how to look up an author and see whether they are credible/biased, as well as how to find out whether a journal is conservative or liberal in its leanings. I read many articles from both conservative and liberal blogs and journals, and I feel like I learned how to seek the truth just a little bit better than I knew how to before.
Initially, because I am susceptible to anything I read in print, it took several readings and critical thinking to really remember where I stood. In my critical thinking, I got to see just how hard it is to prove that polar bear populations are declining; it’s impossible. The realization that I am just as opinionated as she is, and I see things with my own bias, can help me discuss this issue with someone who does not agree with me. I can ask them questions about why they think the way they do, find common ground, and then talk about the limited information I have and how it has informed my opinion. I think being transparent about how my life experience helped me relate to the polar bear in a visceral and emotional way, so I can never fully see the issue of global warming and polar bear endangerment objectively, is a way of disarming an argument and gaining a discussion.
I was recently speaking with a friend about the ambition I have had inside me since I was a little boy. Ambition has allowed me to do great things. It has also thrown my life off track when I chased success at the expense of my values and relationships. I was trying to understand whether ambition is a defect or an asset. My pal pointed out that ambition is neither good nor bad, but simply defined as "a strong desire to do or achieve something, typically requiring determination and hard work." We decided together that ambition is a part of who I am, a part of who most people are, and it can be challenged for selfish measures or the greater good.
We ended the phone call as he read aloud a passage written by a man named Bill Wilson, the founder of a group dedicated to alcohol sobriety which has affected millions of people across the planet over the last century. The essay states:
"Distorted drives have been restored to something like their true purpose and direction. We no longer strive to dominate or rule those about us in order to gain self-importance. We no longer seek fame and honor in order to be praised. When by devoted service to family, friends, business, or community we attract widespread affection and are sometimes singled out for posts of greater responsibility and trust, we try to be humbly grateful and exert ourselves the more in a spirit of love and service. True leadership, we find, depends upon able example and not upon vain displays of power or glory. Still more wonderful is the feeling that we do not have to be specially distinguished among our fellows in order to be useful and profoundly happy. Not many of us can be leaders of prominence, nor do we wish to be. Service, gladly rendered, obligations squarely met, troubles well accepted or solved with God's help, the knowledge that at home or in the world outside we are partners in a common effort, the well-understood fact that in God's sight all human beings are important, the proof that love freely given surely brings a full return, the certainty that we are no longer isolated and alone in self-constructed prisons, the surety that we need no longer be square pegs in round holes but can fit and belong in God's scheme of things—these are the permanent and legitimate satisfactions of right living for which no amount of pomp and circumstance, no heap of material possessions, could possibly be substitutes. True ambition is not what we thought it was. True ambition is the deep desire to live usefully and walk humbly under the grace of God."
In an age where all that seems to matter is winning at all costs, has ambition, a drive in itself which has no moral value, become a part of the darker side of humanity that regards the self over the greater good? Is humble ambition a paradox or an integral part of civic service? Can ambition be used to become a society of values rather than a society of success?
Although I was shaped by politics in my formative years in North Carolina through initiatives like Boys' State, Senate internships, and various civic opportunities in the Boy Scouts of America, I chose to pursue a career in classical music. Over the course of fifteen years, I earned a doctorate, served as a choirmaster/organist in the Episcopal Church in America, founded and was Artistic Director of the internationally-recognized group Houston Baroque, performed countless concerts in cathedrals and churches throughout the world, and created five commercial recordings. Throughout my work as an artist, I gained extensive knowledge in public speaking, leadership/non-profit organization, marketing, and interpersonal skills. In my free time, I mentored LGBTQ teenagers, each of whom changed my life and opened my eyes to inequality around race, poverty, and many other issues. I am currently pursuing a Master's in Social Work at the University of Houston to address inequality through public policy advocacy.
I am starting a blog because public policy is not theory or abstract. It affects millions of people on a daily basis. The impact of the decisions our leaders make affect all of us.
I am writing for an engaged, thoughtful audience interested in addressing policy inequality in non-partisan/bi-partisan ways. You can get involved by leaving comments, sharing entries you like on social media, posting guest entries, and/or e-mailing me with questions/suggestions/complaints. Feedback is appreciated and encouraged!
The goal of this blog is to find moderation, sobriety, and middle ground in a political climate fraught with anxiety and dysfunction which disallows us to most effectively address inequality.