The Social Justice Scroll

If you know anything about me, you know that I take activism very serious. And, virtually every single day, I get an email or Facebook message from someone who has an issue with my voice or my belief or my outspoken desire to make the world a more inclusive and equitable place. For example, last week Ireland passed marriage equality.

I cried. And I retweeted about 100 tweets regarding this momentous occasion. This is the first country in the world to pass same-sex marriage by popular vote!

Of course, this is just one of many huge experiences related to social justice that is happening in the world (and, including however you frame, “social justice,” in your sphere). Throughout the year, and as issues continue to plague our own country, people take to twitter, Facebook, and various blogs (I guess, this one, included), and air their disagreements and grievances, one way or another. If you’re in any way connected to social justice or equity/inclusion work, you will agree that, when these big things do happen in the world, the internet trolling is on a new level. And thus, all those committed to making the world a more equal place, are on full alert.

We enact, “The Social Justice Scroll.”

Quite simply, The Social Justice Scroll is a mere quick-read through the major articles and stories and statuses posted on any given topic (including the most-posted pieces and remarks with a large amount of comments or likes).

For example, I discovered this while scrolling through my timeline(s) last night:

“Not necessarily saying Jenner is a freak show, but come on people. I didn’t want to post about this but think about what we could accomplish if we spent all of this energy on things that truly matter.”

To pause, when you tee something up as, “I’m not saying…, but…,” you are probably actually saying just that. And, especially when your post is accompanied by a giant photo, reading, “Like if you think we should be worrying about serious things, not this national freak show,” and later noting, “But what got the most attention? A 65 year-old man playing dress up.”

“What you permit, you promote,” and all of that. And, what you post, you probably stand behind. I have a belief that nothing good comes from dodging your true feelings with the mask of, “I wasn’t going to speak up here, but…,” or, “I guess I’ll put in my two cents…” This is the modern day, “I don’t mean to hurt your feelings, but…” No, no, please do share those two cents of yours, and while doing so, allow me to move along quietly with gaining frustration.

Of course, it’s not long before the next piece pops up, and the next, and then one about Mike Huckabee’s opinion on Caitlyn, and then one about the next big issue, and so on, and so forth (of course, while not dismissing any issue as one being bigger than the next). And this happens a lot, people start comparing issues. Don’t even get me started on the hero-comparing that is happening right now (soldiers versus Caitlyn Jenner, Barak Obama versus Harvey Milk, and the list goes on). Can we please stop doing this? Can we please just pause and let a moment happen? You don’t have to honor that moment just because everyone else is, but you do have to respect that it’s happening.

I have a friend who often asks me, “Why don’t you just defriend all the homophobes and racists and sexist fools on your timeline? Or at least, why don’t you hide them?” And, to be honest, it has been this past few weeks when I realized the reason I do not get rid of those voices in my life is because I kind of thrive on the dissonance. It get a push from these perspectives, and it is far more impacting on me than reading a random article with no personal connection to the voice.

These are real people.

Let’s pause here for a moment. There are real people in the world who actually think a woman’s place is in the kitchen and not in an office or leadership role. There are real people in the world who have committed to a life of white supremacy. There are real people in this world who think all gay people should go to hell. There are real people in this world who like Peeps. I digress.

I keep these people around because I feel like if I have access to them, they have access to me – and with that shared accessibility, perhaps they’ll learn something. And, perhaps, I might learn something, too. I should add, Oklahoma is not the cause of this dissonance. For so long, and when I moved to Los Angeles after college, I cited my upbringing as the reason I have so many swaying voices in my life. The truth is, these people exist all over the world. And these people will continue to say hateful and small-minded things in order to make meaning of their own beliefs.

I know many would advise against this, however, I always read the “Comments” section. People will usually show you who they really are in any given comment section. It’s painful, but it’s very real. And, as is the social justice educator guilt. This, too, is painful. There are times where you (we) literally will not have the mental capacity or emotional understanding to make a post or write a comment or challenge a bigot. And you should know, you don’t have to. Because this is exhausting. Challenging people all day, every day, is exhausting. And many live this life within the mere makeup of who they are. Please feel the validation that it is okay to be exhausted of this.

And to preemptively address any individuals now annoyed and stewing over this post, I leave you with my favorite line from, “Tiny Beautiful Things,” by Cheryl Strayed (previously the advice column, “Dear Sugar“):

“We are all entitled to our opinions and religious beliefs, but we are not entitled to make shit up and then use the shit we made up to oppress other people.” –Cheryl Strayed

How can you create some dissonance today with those around you? Will you challenge the coworker using, “retarded,” as a derogatory term? Will you address the racial tension in your community? Will you engage with the family member calling Caitlyn Jenner a, “he-she it?” Will you challenge transphobic and homophobic political and religious leadership in your life or community?

Many are trying. And for every hate-filled post, there is one full of curiosity and questions (and not to mention the thousands that exist in opposition of the hate). Curiosity and questions are healthy. Please, remain curious. And be comfortable questioning so you have a better understanding of whatever it is in which you are inquiring. No one should fault you for this. And, further, no one should fault you for speaking up when you know something isn’t right or just.

YMCA of Boulder Valley CEO, Chris Coker, displayed courage recently. Will you?

Exhausted,

Michael

What world do you see

*Photo above taken from somewhere in the internet – thank you to the creative soul who designed this! 

What kind of world do you want?

“If you don’t stand for something you will fall for anything.”

I believe it was Malcom X who coined this provocative and relevant thought (and if my citation is inaccurate, I’m sure Malcom X said this at some point, while living this philosophy as his truth). And it’s so accurate, right?

I am obsessed with great content, and especially when that content assists in creating real and raw perspective. For example, when Kerry Washington accepted the Vanguard Award at the GLAAD Awards this past weekend. Pause and listen to her speech. This speech is incredibly valuable, and something which should be replayed over and over – there is a lot more we can be doing, and a lot more inclusion we should be observing. I’m curious to see how Kerry continues the dialogue.

Outside of this speech, and, of course, the previous posts I have used to articulate my thoughts on activism or the current reality in my home state of Oklahoma, I want to pause and show some appreciation for my alma mater, the University of Central Oklahoma. This past week, the Office of Diversity and Inclusion at UCO launched a campaign, advertising The Tunnel of Oppression, which is a phenomenal simulation to help students better understand privilege and oppression, and how these concepts impact everyone. Check out the posters below:

UCO Tunnel of Oppression - Asians..

UCO Tunnel of Oppression - Black Men...

UCO Tunnel of Oppression - Disability...

UCO Tunnel of Oppression - Muslims...

UCO Tunnel of Oppression - Gay Men...

UCO Tunnel of Oppression - Native Americans...

First, I want to thank these brave students for “coming out” in these posters. Whereas many people of color are already “out” as noted by race (being, “color blind,” is not a thing, and all of that), sitting with these search items is a heavy and intense moment – a reality faced by any oppressed or marginalized individual. Next, I want to highlight that these, “Societal assertions,” are very real and are played out for people every single day. And this should not be a surprise. In fact, if you gasped at the items listed in the search bars above, I challenge you to think about your surroundings a bit more critically. This is certainly the case following the OU SAE incident, and has been a theme in a lot of the conversations I have had with friends and colleagues now two weeks after the release of the video. We must challenge a little harder, and push a little deeper.

And this starts with inclusion. How are you integrating inclusion into your conversations and into your personal and professional engagements? As Luke Visconti argues, and I tend to agree, it is so much more than simply asking (expecting) baristas to talk about race in the 20 seconds they have with a customer at Starbucks. If we want inclusion, diversity, equity, multicultural understanding, etc. to be something that is espoused and enacted, it must be something that is integrated through every fiber of an operation. As Visconti points out, it must start from the top (and in the most, see-someone-to-be-someone, kind of way).

One year ago, I was a cluster facilitator at LeaderShape, a leadership retreat for college students. The university where I was working did a campaign to advertise this opportunity, and passed around various flyers reading, “I see a world where ______.” Individuals could write in what kind of world they see. For example, “people have clean water,” “cancer is fully treatable,” “we find peace,” and, “everyone has a puppy,” were a few of my favorites. When I filled out my own flyer to be hung on my office door, I thought long and hard. What kind of world did (do) I want to see?

And, today, I ask you this same question, among others:

How do you see the world? What kind of world do you want? What kind of contribution can you and will you be willing to make? Do you dare?

Engaging,

Michael

*I see a world with liberty and justice for all.

My high school was, “pretty black.”

My junior year of high school, I went on a leadership retreat with a group of students from my high school and also from another school in the district. This particular school was considered the “high class” option in our school district, and mostly consisted of the more privileged kids in the area. This has potentially changed over the years, but at this specific point in time, it always felt like, when compared to this school, I attended a school for urban-peasants. Back to said-retreat. This particular experience involved community members from the city and also in-depth conversations about leadership and ethics, as well as a series of other, meet-the-right-people-because-you’re-awesome-teens, opportunities. All the guys were staying at a local dentist’s house (this was their attempt to give a city leader some “charity points,” it seemed), and the peers from my high school were sleeping in one room while the others were in a downstairs lounge area. Ultimately, good, wholesome learning/fun, right?

The interesting thing about our two schools is that the student leaders were all somewhat aware of each other. We had an understanding of the “other school” on both ends, and we were all mostly aware of the community’s view on my beloved alma mater. The second of two nights wrapped late and we all retreated to the dentist’s house/sleeping quarters to head to bed. Sometime after everyone had fallen asleep, myself and a few others in my room were jolted awake by the sound of giggling and scurrying, which lead to me jumping up to turn on the light. As our eyes adjusted, we looked around to find that a few students from the other school had sprayed shaving cream on us, and covered one specific guy in what looked like, an entire cans-worth. I was pissed. Being a confrontational adolescent, and general do-good’er, I marched down the stairs, and was greeted by a few laughing douchebags from the other school.

I started with a calm approach, and while wiping the shaving-cream off my arms, asked, “Did you guys do this?”

“Yeah, probably,” replied the douchiest of the bunch.

“Why? I don’t recall doing anything to you guys,” I challenged.

“Who cares, dude. Don’t take it so serious, it’s just a joke.”

“A joke? We don’t find it funny.”

By this point, I was shaking. I had been joined by two others from my school, one of which grabbed my arm to go back upstairs, while eventually yelling down, “Fuck you guys, and fuck your ‘joke,’” or something of that regard. I was pissed. In that specific moment, we knew this wasn’t about silly high school antics, nor was this actually a fun-intended prank. These guys were picking on us because they could, and probably even planned to do so before even showing up. These guys were use to having a consistent upper-hand, and from my experience, this ‘practical joke’ was actually about power. By the mere makeup of their school, most of these students came from some type of privilege, while my peers and I were viewed countless times as, “the charity perspective.” Now, this was not a direct quote (nor is this a, woe-is-me, passage), but anyone from Midwest City High School circa 2002-2004 (and probably surrounding years, as well) will tell you that when it came to Carl Albert High School, none could compare. It was jarring, and an ongoing frustration with our school district.

Again, back to said-retreat. We helped our most-covered classmate clean up a bit, and then spent fifteen or so minutes wiping the shaving cream out of our sleeping bags and pillows. We were all pretty upset, and just as we started to devise a plan to go back downstairs for another confrontation, the dude who was most covered came out of the bathroom, looked at each of us, and noted something along the lines of, “If we would have done this to them, we would have been sent home and in so much trouble.” We all agreed with great disappointment, and the differences between Midwest City and Carl Albert were again highlighted and affirmed. Before we could process this aloud, the same, overly-creamed individual just started laughing…uncontrollably. I remember politely joining him with a few curtsey chuckles, only to all finally look at each other and erupt into real, authentic, frustrated laughter. We eventually fell asleep, amidst the mocking of the douchebag from downstairs and planning a way to address our concerns tomorrow.

When we woke up the next morning, there was an awkward tension in the air. We agreed that the shenanigans from the previous night would would be addressed that day, and it was our hope that the guys from the other high school would greet us with apologies (if anything, an apology for the dude who had been covered most). We arrived at the first location for the last day of our weekend retreat, and before we could even get comfortable, several of the women from the other school were staring and giggling at us. I don’t remember many of the details, but in that moment, I do remember feeling so embarrassed and ashamed, and over something this group of peers considered, “just a joke.” This ‘joke-mentality’ was confirmed as the session opened with the program coordinator even making a snide remark about, “boys just being boys last night.” This moment has stuck with me for quite some time, and it was triggered this week after posting a video to my Facebook.

Let’s pause here for a moment.

The video I posted featured students from my high school, Midwest City High School, and a huge community-wide effort to help develop more funding for the high school’s Special Olympics Team. Very cool stuff. I was particularly inspired by the amount of students who were involved in the production, and specifically elated to see the continued support for students with physical and emotional disabilities. This was always one area I felt my alma mater was getting right – the amount of support and resources for students with disabilities was a focus and a shared-community value. Check out the MCHS Lip Dub below:

 *The video is quite long, feel free to skip, “skim,” or just jump to 12:20 for the final message.

Whether you watch(ed) the video or not, just after posting the link, I received two messages that read as follows:

Message 1 (from Facebook): Damn your school was pretty black

Message 2 (via text): You weren’t kidding… you really did go to a diverse high school.

Yes, my high school was pretty diverse. And yes, there were a lot of black people who attended my high school. But there were also Asian kids, white kids, American Indians, and military kids of every different makeup. I am a proud product of Midwest City High School, but for years after graduating, was somewhat fearful of what exactly this pride implied. When I went off to college, a lot of the responses I received from new friends and peers were similar to the very messages I received yesterday. The diversity was always shocking, and more so, as was how this big ol’ white kid was able to survive in such a diverse setting. This flawed perspective of many seems to imply that a bunch of black kids all at one high school must immediately mean thuggery and/or poverty (I’ve even had people ask me if my experience was like Sister Act II, pre-Sister Mary Clarence). Their ignorance was always a setback for me.

Was shaving cream at a lock-in-type overnight actually a huge deal? Probably not. But the upper-hand which was involved was a big deal to me, and to all of us. There’s a big chance the prank was not racially motivated, and I can rest with that belief. However, the friend who was creamed most was right, if it had been any of the guys who were attending from my school, a huge issue would have been made out of this ordeal. Perhaps, even ‘thuggery’ would have been assumed. Furthermore, when administrators or professionals use terms like, “Boys will be boys,” we inherently disadvantage our young boys by viewing them as game-players and unable to respect others. This, too, is a flawed perspective. And this is all ultimately why I was particularly elated to see the video from my high school.

Aside from the pure race dynamics that existed at my alma mater, there also always seemed to be a permission that you could be of any shape, size, or background, and still have some sense of human or social capital. Hell, I was a total closet-case in high school (pun intended), and aside from some of the bullying I endured, I still felt like I received a huge amount of love from all types of people of all types of backgrounds. My high school reunion would later affirm many of those relationships, some of which also provided closure from the aforementioned bullying. Whereas the, your-black-high-school, messages I received via Facebook and text were both done with good intentions, they also provided for a deep-reflection as to why I continue to support and believe in all things Bomber magic (this is what we call, “spirit”).

The beautifully diverse video above is why I care about this school, and why I continue to support an environment where these young learners can work together and create something meaningful and impacting. Furthermore, I am also provoked by the limited opportunities provided at my high school, which typically happen to be caused by (or as a result of) other’s privilege. Privilege is real, and race plays a huge role in that dynamic. Literature and anecdote will both affirm this assertion. And this is why I care about Midwest City High School, a school with, among many others, upper-middle class black kids, extremely poor white kids, wealthy American Indians, middle-class Mexican kids, and military children of all shades (as one really good friend puts it).

So, aside from raising money for the MCHS Special Olympics Team, why does this video matter?

This video matters because Midwest City High School matters (and all the ‘Midwest City High School’ equivalents out there). This video matters because many of these students may never again get an opportunity to be silly and creativity and artistic, and many of them will continually be stifled by the sub-communities in which they belong. This video matters because those two individuals who contacted me should be more excited about the student engagement from that video rather than conjuring up any assumptions as to how this big ol’ white guy “survived” at a high school like “that” (direct quotes, there). This video matters because race matters, and this video matters because these students matter.

With eagerness, heart, and hope, here’s to Midwest City High School.

#WeAreBombers,

Michael

*Let it be important to note that my experience as a white kid from Oklahoma City is incomparable to that of some of my peers in Midwest City. This post is an appreciation for the culture supported in that video, and also a tool for reflecting on some of the injustices and inequities I have witnessed over the past ten years around and about my alma mater.

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Leadership Camp & My Quest to Connect the Disconnected

So, I have a confession. Roughly two weeks before any facilitation experience, and leading right up to a report date/time, I have a moment (several sometimes), one where I get really close to backing out of the opportunity. I freak out. I let my nerves get the best of me, and have a period of weakness where I think I will either A. not connect with students and/or co-facilitators, or B. completely fail at inspiring students/young adults to do whatever it is that the curriculum is guiding.

My confidence may fool you, however this happens almost every single time I am set to facilitate or lead a group through some high-level leadership or processing experience. And like clockwork, it happened this past weekend as I prepared for LeaderShape, a six-day intensive leadership retreat for undergraduate students in higher education. Thankfully, I did not drop out of the experience (and never do), however last night, I had a moment that affirmed a feeling of being exactly where I was supposed to be. Upon meeting my small group “Family Cluster” of 11 students, my opening note was that I believe everything happens for a reason. Furthermore and in experiences like this, there is a reason we are all (our small group and other small groups) in this (any) specific environment together. Ideally that reason will reveal itself at some point, however the truth is we often do not realize the power of “that (or any, for that matter) moment” until weeks, months, and/or even years later. Needless to say, the reason is there and, in due time, it will reveal itself.

Several years ago I had the privilege of facilitating another leadership camp-like retreat, and during that experience, questioned the process so much so that I was unable to truly invest in the powerful moment that was happening all around me. I have since learned that I was in that particular moment for the mere reason that, in the future, I needed to trust the process.

Trust the process.

How often do we allow ourselves to do that, and in whatever facet of life it arises? One of the most inspirational people in my life once told me, “Connect the disconnected.” She said this to me in the context of the “general member” of an organization or company (or work environment), however today this is resonating with me in a way that reflects the disconnected parts of my self and my own leadership journey. Trusting the process and connecting the disconnected are valuable ideas that are aiding me on this goal of bettering my self-confidence through more thought-out ideals.

What parts of your life are disconnected? Are you trusting the process? Do you even know or see or feel the process? Is “checking our confidence issues” a reality? Another day of leadership camp is ahead, which means more reflection and processing for me both internally and externally. I am present and accounted for, ready and eager for more learning.

Connecting,

Michael

“You’re annoying and I can’t stand you…”

My sophomore year of high school was a great year. I was one of two freshmen in the Advanced Theater program, and had built a great group of friends who were upperclassmen and planning to do big things in life (remember, I was going to “make it,” before deciding to go to college). The transition of watching friends graduate, however, was tough for me. After some sentimental goodbyes to graduating seniors, I noticed something in my yearbook that I hadn’t seen that May while parading it around for all friends to autograph. Hidden among the well-wishes for a great summer and promises to, “KIT,” I found the following note written as a PS from one of the seniors who I had known most of my life:

“PS – stop riding people’s coat tails and pave your own path.”

This was just a small percentage of what was written from this friend, but somehow I seemed to ignore all of what he had written and became solely focused on this last little note. I was devastated. And mad. But I wasn’t devastated and mad because of what my friend had written, I was devastated and mad because my friend was absolutely right. I hadn’t done anything for myself that year, and allowed others to chart the territory that I was hoping to uncover. Related, let’s flash-forward to my senior year of college.

When I was in college, I was part of an organization that consisted of some of the top campus leaders at my institution. Admitted as a freshman or transfer student, this group of leaders were required to stay involved and make good grades. In return, we would all receive a scholarship that covered our tuition for all four years of college. Golden, right? And privileged, you might be thinking. Accurate observation.

Each year, we had a big retreat that helped kick off the semester, which also served as a chance to “induct” the new students into this exclusive group of undergraduates (“induct” and “haze” could be interchangeable here – Conservative gasp, I know!). My senior year retreat was bittersweet, as I was excited to be a big, bad senior, but I was also sad to start seeing this important part of my life come to a close. At the retreat, we all take time to make mailboxes, where over the course of the weekend, people can deliver and receive “mail” from classmates and peers. On the bus ride home that year, I glanced at what was written to me and was surprised to find a small, ripped piece of paper, noting, “…and I think the same way about you too.”

I was confused, and it was that next week when I realized the context of this mysterious piece of mail. A good friend of mine and I were hanging out one night and she said to me, “I cannot believe I haven’t shown you this. You’ll never guess what was in my mailbox at the retreat.” She then pulled out a little piece of ripped paper with something along the lines of the following scribbled on it:

“You’re annoying and I can’t stand you…”

Putting the pieces together (literally and figuratively), we realized the note was to both of us, and was intended to say, “You’re annoying and I can’t stand you…and I think the same way about you too.” We then spent hours and weeks trying to figure out the culprit who would deliver such hateful “mail,” and specifically in what was always a safe and supportive environment for both of us. Clearly this ghostwriter of a critic knew that we would, at some point, find each other with this message, which is probably annoying in and of itself. I digress. You get the point.

Feedback has been with me for years, and even when not-preferred, is continuing to happen all the time. For all of us. Feedback is essential, and over the past few months, I have been actively seeking ways to improve (personally and professionally) based on my own reflections and the reflections of others. Why not attempt to better ourselves and/or myself, right? Thus, this blog.

This is obviously easier said than done, and I have always really struggled receiving feedback. More than the struggle, I have always been super defensive when receiving feedback, and always feel like I have (had) to have an answer or articulately respond to any critical layers of an area for improvement. I am now more conscious of this mechanism, and have been working on reminding myself to, in those situations, view feedback as valuable and helpful.

For years, “slow down,” was an area where I needed to improve, and in this next year, I would say, “be intentional,” has become my new mantra. So often, we do things (whatever, ‘things,’ might mean) because we can. We exist, we grow, we work, we play. And in a lot of these areas, we do so because it’s supposed to happen that way (in whatever form, ‘way,’ might mean). It’s rare to stop, take in some feedback (whether it be unsolicited or solicited), and identify areas to grow, excel, develop, and succeed.

So, what feedback are you receiving, and/or struggling with? Is that struggle because you feel the feedback is misplaced, or because you realize the feedback is accurate and might really be an area where you should improve? As I reflect on some feedback I received this weekend and over the past few years, my continued challenge to myself (and others, of course) is to be open to the feedback of others, and in whatever form it appears. Though it’s not preferred to receive anonymous feedback, or publicly written notes in a high school book of memories, these sentiments are still valued and valuable. Be open to the reality that, at times, others have a better view of us than we could ever have of ourselves.

Taking it all in,

Michael