Category Archives: Personal

Things about me, my life, and my family.

On this birthday I have an ask

Never been a big fan of birthdays or naming a desired gift.  Somewhat of a personal carryover from growing up without many material items and watching my mom provide as best she could from paycheck to paycheck along with limited help from government and occasional help from family members.  My siblings and I weren’t raised on the ilk of “closed mouths don’t get fed” but more of “show humility and dignity about yourself and be thankful for what you have”.  Neither philosophy is wrong and both have their benefits.  We just knew if we wanted more we had to work for it.

On this birthday, I’ll be begging that you feed me- my soul.  To do this my first ask is that you please write my son, Andrew Platt.

Andrew lives in the Louisiana State Penitentiary.  He’s served 12 years of a 75 years sentence for armed robbery.  You can go here to read more about his case from the perspective of the State of Louisiana.  His address is:
Mr. Andrew K. Platt #509383
Louisiana State Penitentiary
Gator 4L3
Angola, LA 70712

Andrew and I met when I lived in Shreveport, Louisiana while serving at Barksdale Air Force Base.  He was one of many players on one of my AAU basketball teams.  His life circumstances were some of the toughest I had come across.  After I got out of the Air Force in 1997 and moved to Fort Collins, CO to work for HP, some parents on the teams and adults in Andrew’s life felt that he would benefit from my discipline and structure as well as being out of the corrosive environment he was living in in the “Bottoms” of Shreveport.  His father gave parental guardianship to me on October 1, 1997 so Andrew could join me in Colorado.

That lasted just over a year before he pushed hard enough and my patience and parenting skills were weak enough to send him back to Shreveport.  He made great leaps in so many parts of his life.  Academically he was above a “B” average in a more rigorous curriculum.  He was able to order at a sit-down restaurant, understand basic table manners, display common etiquette, and gained self-confidence to achieve no matter the place, setting, or challenge.  That didn’t change him being a product of his environment and me being an immature parent of a teenager with my own strict regiment from my life growing up in and surviving life in the projects.

After back in Shreveport, Andrew would transition from the homes he previously lived.  A family who also was on the basketball team I coached in Shreveport and who helped facilitate his move to Colorado was in touch with him on occasion and attempted to assist where possible.  Unfortunately, Andrew would eventually go to foster care.  He remained in foster care until graduating high school, emancipating and going to college at University of Louisiana-Monroe.

I was able to travel to Louisiana to spend time with him while he was in college.  I’d later learn from a different old basketball family Andrew had left college and was back in Shreveport.  He spent a quick time in the US Army and even had a chance to spend a day with my mom while he was at Basic Training at Fort Jackson in Columbia, SC.  But he would have an early exit.  Some point later, I’d learn he was in jail.

You writing Andrew will help reduce the feeling of isolation and boost his morale from not focusing on the norms of caustic life in prison.  It also helps him to have a view on life beyond prison.  I believe he won’t serve that unjust sentence and when he gets out it’s important that he can connect with “reality” beyond the prison cells.  And it helps boost his cause when evaluation is done regarding his readiness to leave.  A post card, a joke, a few sentences, a few questions, pictures, a newspaper article, a complaint about me, or anything you choose to write is appreciated.

My next ask is more of an ask to and admonishment of myself.  Talk about your personal and family encounters with law enforcement and corrections.  A black person in jail is often as much a statement of America’s legal, education, and health systems as it is a about the action that resulted in the arrest.  We have to talk about the ridiculousness of a bail system that forces jail time because people are poor versus guilty.  Talk about a system that looks at black children and encourage school suspension, labels of learning disabled and emotionally handicapped, and fast-tracks to a regiment of government punishment without due resources to address underlying struggles, hunger, and family conditions which were directly created by government policy and laws.  Talk about discrepancy in sentencing, in charges brought, in searches of property, in property seizure, in stops by officers, in recommended charges by probation and parole.

None of these things would change the fact that Andrew knowingly conspired with others to fake as if there was a threat of a fast food restaurant being robbed at gun point by an unknown robber (Andrew).  He’s guilty of that and respects that he’s to be accountable for that crime.  However, 75 years is a life sentence.  A sentence all too often given to the poor, black, and brown so the injustice system can ensure there’s a population to provide profit with the industrial prison complex.

Please help me make sure Andrew’s name isn’t forgotten.  Don’t let him just be prisoner #509383.  Thanks in advance for the birthday gift.


Not so Golden Anniversary- Opportunity to Improve our Future


In a couple of weeks will be 25 years since I was approaching my high school graduation and had to face the reality of gun violence that resulted in the death of two friends, Tyski Gabriel and Chris “Punkin” Sharper. In seeing many begin to share their resolution for this coming year, I’ve thought lots about Tyski and Punkin and their families. I try to imagine what they would look like, what their lives would be like, and how things might’ve been different for me.

I selfishly wonder what would be different for me because Tyski and Punkin’s death was yet another awakening in my challenging childhood and adolescence. In the days following, several of us adrenaline and anger loaded young men gathered with the goal of exacting revenge on the perpetrators and those who we believed contributed to the fate of our friends. I had withdrawn to deal with my sadness of their death alone and to focus on my part time job and going to college, but received a call from my best friend who told me of the meeting and when he’d come to pick me up. I wanted in and wanted nothing more than to avenge the death of Tyski and Chris. As can be expected, when we met we were poorly organized in how we would retaliate and after lots of talking, scheming, and emotional venting we eventually dispersed. For me I swung between being livid and relieved that nothing happened because I had managed to get a handgun that night in hopes of making a significant contribution and that wouldn’t happen.

I would end up being relieved that circumstances didn’t escalate further causing me to use the gun and I was also determined to find some way to honor Tyski and Punkin. After a ridiculous confrontation later in the school year, my principal, Mr. Henry Young admonished me on being a leader and called me out to honor Tyski and Chris by being successful in life and helping others. For the past twenty five years, I’ve thought of Tyski and Chris a few times a year and it’s always stood as a reminder for me to seize the moment, to do my best, and to make a difference in the lives of others. Though I’ve come up amazingly short in my personal life in many ways, I’m at peace that my life to this point has honored my friends as I wanted and as Mr. Young directed. As I look back at 2014, I realize that my work isn’t done and that I have tons to offer relative to improving life for those who are living in situations similar to that I was reared in. After taking a few years off from being highly engaged in community service, I look forward to upping my involvement in 2015. Surprisingly, I also find myself in a position to engage with law enforcement and communities that have historically had low trust for them.

After spending most of my life hating the police because of my perspective and how I witnessed them treat me, family, friends, and others in the community, I managed to also spend time advocating for families and seeing more inappropriate and dismissive action by law enforcement individuals which further disgusted me. However over the past three years, I’ve gained a broader perspective as a result of many close interactions that helped me view police officers as people and individuals. I’ve sat on a non-profit Board with a Chief of Police, established a relationship with a different police chief, partnered with police officers to find computer equipment for a non-profit, sat on a police hiring board (that was an odd feeling), played basketball with police officers (couple decent ballers), shot guns at a range with officers (that was fun), and even made suggestions for new cadets. Although none of my interactions over the past few years erase my past experiences with police, I have gained a level of appreciation that I never had and even more important is I’ve established relationships with officers as individuals and have seen some of them engage in communities to proactively discuss changes when necessary to ensure there’s understanding of how the police is perceived by the community and possible changes to address.

One might ask, “What does this have to do with Tyski and Chris?” To me, the stupidity that killed Tyski and Punkin stems from the same disregard for and lack of compassion for life that would have a police officer quickly resort to deadly force in certain situations and not others, or have a young man to thoughtlessly take the life of another within his community, or to have a jury not recognize or ignore that police authority doesn’t beget necessity to use any level of force, or that perpetrating revenge on someone that killed a friend is just as sinful and immoral as someone killing police officers who some might feel targeted and plagued by. I believe that if we face the same core problems that resulted in my friends deaths 25 years ago, fewer people will be in the situation 25 years later wondering what their friends lives would be like or how they would look because we would’ve taken action to still have them alive.

Below are my thoughts on practical actions that I believe need to be taken to shift behavior and accountability to improve the lives of all citizens and establish respect between law enforcement and communities where they garner the least trust. I intentionally omitted “training” as it’s very subjective and often used as a means to exonerate or refute blame versus build bridges and relationship. Likewise, I omitted cameras because they do nothing to build relationship or increase the likelihood that officer and suspect will treat each other as human versus serve to hopefully prove blame after something has already gone horribly bad. Hopefully each individual (starting with me) can find a means to see what they can do as individuals to improve the situation prior to or in direct alignment in speaking of the shortcomings of others.

Actions for the community-

  1. Vote in EVERY election possible. City and school leaders will respect your vote even if they don’t respect you based on any bias
  2. Spend as many hours volunteering in a classroom than you will in a bar at a night club or at parties (Go to any school where the help is needed)
  3. Spend as many hours reading with or ensuring children are reading than they will watch TV, play video games, or play on a smartphone/tablet
  4. Yes, I said it. Sorry, more often than not we know those perpetuating violence and crime and we need to face that those individuals are holding us back

Actions for cities and local law enforcement-

  1. Provide financial and promotional incentive for law enforcement to live in high crime zip codes and beats within the city (include in contract where possible)
  2. Incentivize staff with pay or promotion to include citizens from high crime areas on hiring and promotion boards for police officers
  3. Incentivize police officers with pay or promotion for participating in sports, mentoring, and other activities within high crime areas
  4. Don’t participate in the school system’s criminalization of children which is most egregious in communities of color

Actions for state and federal government-

  1. Implement background checks on all gun and ammunition purchases and discontinue sales of automatic weapons
  2. Provide rehabilitation and job training for perpetrators and connect time served with a financial remedy for victims, families, and society
  3. Reward grants to schools that encourage partnership for accomplishing
  4. Reward grants for things done in the “For cities and local law enforcement” section

None of this will change that Tyski and Chris’ families have to deal with their death every birthday, every holiday, every milestone, and every family gathering, but I pray we all engaged to make it better for others. So this year, I send my love and continued blessings to the Sharper and Gabriel families and I recommit to them and Mr. Young to continue to honor their lives.

Addressing “isms” and Criminalization… Model, Teach, Practice, Reinforce

About three years ago I found myself having a conversation with an assistant principal at my son’s middle school. Jacob (now 17 year old junior in high school) was being suspended for a couple days for getting into a fight with another boy after reacting to the boy aggressively stating the word nigga toward Jacob after Jacob told the boy he found it offensive and had asked him to stop saying it while singing a rap song. For that incident both were suspended two days. I coached Jacob on using his words and avoiding violence while equally praising him for taking a stand for things of importance him. As much as anything, I was upset with how we give that word so much power while equally upset with how much a large swath of American society finds it acceptable to use the word or any of the derivations.

Fast forward to Friday, May 2, 2014, where I received a text from Jacob stating, “Something happened at school today I need to talk to you when you get home.” My stomach dropped. I then quickly stepped out of myself to view whatever it was from his perspective and decided he needed to know that he can trust to be honest with me and responded, “Okay” and “No matter what. I love you.” That was one of my biggest steps ever as a parent. I’m the authoritative dad who learned to lead with fear from my mom and my ancestors who largely learned from their slave roots. So I wrapped up what I was doing at the office and headed home… practicing my responses, pushing myself to ask open ended questions but not too many, seeking ways of being supportive and firm, and anything else I’ve failed in year’s past.

When I got home, Jacob was tucked away in his room as usual and made his way to my room to tell me what had happened. He told me of an incident on Thursday at lunch where a group of students opened a window/door to a room used by the Drama Club and how he and a group of friends came to see what they were doing. In the room were some cookies that could be reached of which the group goaded Jacob to take and he complied. After eating some cookies and giving some to his group of friends and the kids that opened the window, they moved on to their normal day. Apparently on Friday, there were more cookies to be taken and someone took cookies and left a note that chided the Drama Club and included the word “faggot” in reference to those involved with the work of the Drama Club.

My first two questions were, “Who wrote the note?” and “Do you know who wrote the note?” Then I think, “Oh shucks, I’m supposed to be helping him feel comfortable right now but I’m angry on so many levels, somebody help me!” He noted that the administrators think they know who wrote the note, it was not him, and the administrators insinuated that the person who is suspected actually attempted to blame the writing of the note on Jacob.

So then I shift from the note and seek to clarify if he took part in the opening of the room versus his involvement being specific to the taking of the cookies that he already admitted to. Needless to say I struggled to deal with any of the “feelings” until my mind was able to understand the facts behind what happened. So my questions continued to focus on the who, what, when, and where. He was adamant that he had nothing to do with opening the room though he failed to report seeing someone else doing it and he admits to wrongly going to the next step of removing the cookies. Anything beyond that, he says he wasn’t involved with. No letters, no visits to the room the next day, nothing. And I believed him, accompanied with several added questions to validate and triangulate.

Now I’m able to include a little of the feeling stuff. Why did you take the cookies? How did that feel? A few of those kind of questions came out and it was good to hear him talking and sharing more than stressed and responding. Some of my favorites are “how do you think I should deal with this” and “how do you feel about the consequences you’re already facing.” Essentially he thought enough consequences had been experienced and those he’s facing (five days of no school) were very fair. Pretty convenient situation from a teenager’s point of view. In the dialogue I was particularly interested to understand how he felt about being accused of writing the note, to understand the punishment levied on all involved with opening the room, and to understand the prime driver of the suspension – opening the room, taking the cookies, or the note. His belief was that his suspension was for the note and the fact that the note likely wouldn’t have occurred had he not taken the cookies. I simply failed to connect taking cookies or being an unknowing accessory to a note that he didn’t believe in to a consequence of five days of suspension. Interesting enough he noted that the administrators were also pursuing suspensions against the students who ate cookies and somehow used a guilty by association argument to justify this.

For his part, Jacob was pretty distraught about any connection to the note because he has a great deal of respect for the Drama Club. Actually as part of his leadership role on the school’s Media Club he frequently worked with the Drama Club. Coincidentally, he spent Wednesday night watching the production of Shrek because he was supposed to film the show on Friday night. Equally so, he was disappointed about giving in to peer pressure and how that manifested in demeaning the efforts and hard work of the Drama Club. I was hoping to hear more remorse about taking the cookies. After having a chance to marinate on this over the weekend, I’m also unsettled around the failure of action to use this as a teaching opportunity regarding the demeaning of others and the insensitive if not damaging words and intent of the note. Jacob doesn’t own that specific action individually, but we as a society do regardless of who the perpetrator was. Silence or lack of effective action is acceptance.

Towards the end of my and Jacob’s conversation, he gave me the letter from the school which took me back to a recent post I made regarding the criminalization of children. Sarcastically, I ponder if I should celebrate that this criminalization occurred in a mostly upper class neighborhood with virtually no socio-economic diversity and very few Blacks or Hispanics versus the usual scenario. After listing the Education Code, which seemingly has no relevance to Jacob’s actions, the letter goes on to state that “Student was involved with other students in the breaking and entering of a locked facility on campus of 5/1/14. Students also took part in leaving an inflammatory note with the word “faggot” written in it as well as taking and eating cookies…” Seeing the words “breaking and entering” in the letter were very frustrating as they directly reference criminal activity and the remainder of the note reminded me that I’m only hearing one side of the story from Jacob. With clear suggestion that he had more awareness and/or involvement with opening of the room and writing of the letter I had to find an approach of confirming his story in a non-threatening manner. Regardless of how low of a threshold it may be, I’m glad I avoided raising my voice, accusations, or any form of threat in the process of confirming his story yet again. My reality is that I was hoping to protect myself from being made a fool when questioning the school and their choice of discipline. I called the school to speak with the assistant principal, but she was gone for the day and this will linger at least until Monday.

In the meantime, I had Jacob call three men whom I love and respect so he could share the experience with them and hear their counsel. From that he heard that 1. They too were kids at one point in their lives and this too shall pass, and 2. Versus just saying sorry within an apology it is much more meaningful to spend time writing an apology to connect with his feelings and equally demonstrate the importance of the apology by investing time in communicating via written word. I like what he heard. I also thought back to my high school days and the incident that happened with Jacob in middle school. When I compare this to what I did in high school and even the fact that just a few years ago he got in a physical fight or assault for those whom choose to criminalize behaving like a child, I find it quite ridiculous for a five day suspension to be the consequence for taking some cookies and being an unknowing and un-supportive accessory to the writing of an unacceptable letter.

In fairness to the situation, I’m still operating with only Jacob’s perspective on the events mentioned. After a low-key Saturday so Jacob could study for an AP test this coming Monday, I had him call all the friends whose names he gave to the administration and I called all their parents to forewarn of potential action the school might also take for those who ate a cookie. If possible, I also wanted Jacob to be able to speak with the person that allegedly accused him of writing the letter as well as to the Media Club sponsor since Jacob was a no-show to film the Drama Club perform Shrek. In both cases, the goal was to gain understanding and to seek or extend forgiveness. I should add, aside from the phone calls to peers, Jacob also made calls to find means to earn money via manual labor with the money to be donated to the Drama Club. It’s these type of actions that I believe bring the necessary understanding, respect, and learning in such a situation versus criminalizing children and suspending them from school. I pray for our school administrators and teachers as the ask of them is high and I pray that my dealings with them tomorrow don’t reflect my current disappointment.

To the LGBT friends that I know and have yet to meet, I apologize for my past history in condoning the hate and ignorance within the note that some ill-informed child left associated with this incident. Unlike the “N” word, I’m not familiar with the usage being pervasive and normal in today’s music or society so there’s no excuse there. And in my case, I can honestly say that I used the “F” word frequent and without relent in my childhood and on to my time in the military. I didn’t begin to gain respect until building a friendship with lesbians in the US Air Force at the time and later to have a great friendship with a co-worker in Northern Colorado. It was in Greeley and Fort Collins that my exposure would grow to understand that my position of “at least gay people have the choice to choose to be gay or not” was at best rude and easily a pilfering of one’s soul. This was only stamped further being that I lived in Fort Collins when Matthew Shepard died there in October 1998. I realize my part in his death. Most important was reciprocating friendship to my good friend Jackie and the many other amazing people who accepted me as a human first.

The situation that Jacob is experiencing is a stark reminder of a step show that some friends and I did at our high school when I was in tenth grade. We reenacted the step show scene from the movie School Daze and aside from the reference of that word, we inserted “Drama” to replace “Gamma” since there were no fraternities in our high school. I’m smart enough to know there’s no connection to Jacob’s situation and my actions over 25 years ago, but I believe the same forces of hate and ignorance that struck us to think that step show was okay back then are still prevalent to allow some child to write the note at Granite Bay High School this past week. It’s also reminder of how disappointed I am that in choosing a place to live that is conveniently locate to my job and resources that are preferred for my family, I also am in a place where all too often “difference” is not discussable. Whether it be broad conversation along the lines of those needed by the young man that thought it was okay to aggressively say the “N” word in my son’s face because it was in a rap song, for the student to scribble the “F” word in reference to the Drama Club, or for my generation who still use both of those words and are probably too fearful to admit how they’ve used them, we need to be able to talk about it and be honest about it. And “we” means that there needs to be more people in the authoritative “majority” opening up and being an honest.

Jacob’s going to be okay and will learn from this- I’ll see to it. I fear those that need it most will not get the needed lessons and very likely be leading our companies of the future potentially without the lessons that were here to learn.  Stop criminalizing children and focus on setting examples, teaching lessons, and reinforcing their learning of critical life lessons that will build them to be great leaders of our future.

Grooming Leaders versus Prisoners

Murder, armed robbery, rape, and assault with a deadly weapon were some of the charges being faced by the young men I spent time with yesterday (Saturday, April 26, 2014) while at the Sacramento County Juvenile Detention Facility.  I sat and listened to them, hugged and dapped them, talked trash to them, laughed with them, gave them pointers on exercise, played basketball with them, and just built rapport.  The time was huge in helping me to correlate many events and feelings I’ve faced as a child and as an adult.

As much as I hurt for the victims of the crimes these young men are charged with, I also hurt  and want for these young men.  For the most part, I related to their stories from my own childhood or from time spent in communities I’ve lived as an adult.  I believe love and structure will do so much more for them and society than punishment and incarceration.  This is separate from the justice, compensation, and help clearly needed for the victims of the charges.

Some of the young men reminded me of myself as an adolescent and I told them that the difference between me being where I am versus having to also struggle through the situation they’re in might simply be because I was a faster runner than some of the friends I grew up with and those friends didn’t “rat” me out when they got caught by the police.  Today, I’m frequently viewed as a clean-cut, no non-sense, up and coming leader in a Fortune 20 company.  And that is an accurate description of who I am and how I carry myself at work.  It’s also frequently assumed that I was reared in a middle-class house with both parents who owned a vehicle, benefited from a private school education, and was an A-B student in school.  All of those are incorrect assumptions.

Despite not liking what I heard from some of the young men at juvenile hall, I related to what was shared with me.   Minus most of the violent acts I could personally associate in some way.  Before the age of 14, I had plenty of experience with the wrong side of the law including criminal damage to property, petty theft, underage drinking, drug possession, and one near-reported instance of breaking and entering and attempted rape.  I was lucky in avoiding a police record.

The summer following 7th grade, I was caught shoplifting in a K-Mart.  Luckily the store officer was also a local police officer who recognized me as one of the better athletes from my All-Star baseball team and I was released to my mom.  At the time, I thought being released to the police was far better than being released to my mom… and so did my behind after getting home.  Less than 6 months later I was questioned by police following significant property damage to cars from rocks being thrown at a train transporting the vehicles.  There simply wasn’t enough evidence to establish a case against me or any of the other potential co-defendants, but again, that didn’t save me from my mom but it saved me from a police record.  The summer following 8th grade, I was shipped to Flint, MI to be with my uncle who was serving in the US Army.  Most of my childhood mates weren’t so lucky to have such an outlet.

Looking back at my poor choices as a child, I believe a 2014 version of me could very easily be one of the young men that I visited yesterday.  In contrasting my adolescence with the young men I spent time with yesterday and guys I grew up with, I found (non-scientific assessment) a few things of note.  1. To a person, they had an “initial” recorded contact with police before they ever got to their current crimes to get them in juvenile hall.  2. One of their early contacts,  was for something that my 17 year old son or others in my upper middle class community could have easily dismissed with a “low cost” attorney, 3. They remained in or were returned the same home environment and/or community following their initial contact with police, and 4. Having no mature or positive outlet to communicate and work through emotional and mental stress without drugs.  Other symptoms include growing up in homes with a single or no birth parent, low-incomes, failing grades, contact with foster care system, access to guns, and incarceration of family members.

Regardless of social situations and personal circumstances, we’re a nation of laws  and it’s absolutely appropriate to hold people accountable for their actions.  Thus I’m more focused on actions that can be taken to prevent or reduce the likelihood of children getting to a point where such serious crimes seem to be an acceptable option based on illogical thinking or external influences.  Regardless of the outcome of the current charges being faced, most of these young men will some day be released and it’s to all of our financial benefit (tax dollars) and personal safety (future crime potential) that their return to society is much improved from the life they lived before being incarcerated.  And who knows, maybe, just maybe they did not commit the crime they’ve been charged with.  As far fetched and unbelievable that might be to some, I had a personal experience of advocating for a young man in 2005 where the police clearly got the wrong person and a high school student was wrongly incarcerated for 5 months.

My hope is we (American society) will work more diligently to 1. stop escalating the criminalization of American children for minor crimes which typically become learning lessons for those above working class incomes, 2. redirect children and their families to community service and improvement projects that include counseling versus places of incarceration following “contact” with police, and 3. treat drug usage more as a mental or medical condition versus a criminal act.  Though, I don’t believe these steps alone will stop the criminal activity of all children, I’m confident they will result in more cases of career leaders and fewer prisoners.  Essentially, I think our country greatly benefits by having more 40 somethings like me who were lucky than to be caught in a rotating door of a criminal justice system that hurts tax payers, brings little to no benefit to our economy, and potentially threatens the safety of others.

I also encourage others to seek the experience I had yesterday.  I’m going back and could use the help of many others to do the same across the nation.

Blessings galore from transforming heartwork

Awaking with the opportunity to serve my world is a daily blessing that I aim to maximize even though it’s easy to limit my focus to the daily grind of work, kids, and home and miss on the opportunity to serve my world beyond myself and my home.  Yesterday, Saturday, April 26, 2014 was filled with countless blessings that had me in a seemingly constant state of reflection and sobriety.

My day started with leaving my house before 7am to take my 17 year old son to Loaves and Fishes where he’s regularly volunteered feeding the homeless on Saturdays since the end of 2011.  After returning home and handling a few errands, I was on my way to the Sacramento County Juvenile Detention Facility, where I spent over four hours with young men who are in the maximum security units as well as a couple other units.  I left there and met a friend for an early dinner that led to a phenomenal conversation about race, gender, and privilege in American society and our workforce.

After dinner, I was so thankful, energetic, and encouraged.  At this point, thinking my day would be “lightened,” I sat with my laptop to get caught up on work and wound up watching the movie Fruitvale Station while doing so.  “Lightened” didn’t happen and the movie stirred so many of the same emotions that were already awakened earlier in my day.  In the backdrop of this day was the news surrounding the comments of the Nevada rancher, Cliven Bundy who’s comments were quickly overshadowed by the alleged comments of NBA team owner, Donald Sterling.  The movie accompanied with the recent national headlines combined to remind me of how the naiveté of so many (all races) would find themselves surprised by such events or in denial of how such comments from these individuals and fate such as in the movie are direct descendents of institutional discrimination, abused unearned privilege, and mental slavery.

I’m thankful for my many failures over the years to productively recognize and address the descendants of institutional discrimination, abused unearned privilege, and my own mental slavery that have resulted in me learning from those failures to now be in a position to personally help others who consciously and unconsciously struggle with those same poisons.  Yesterday was a blunt reminder of the pain, consequence, and inequality that endures in the lives of so many as a result and how I’m obliged to serve my world in contributing where possible to conquer these sources of division and hate.

I love the human race.

I want lots of bubblegum and no tigers with toes!

In anticipation of spending time with my kids after school I got to thinking about how we play and interact when at a park. And as much as I love the time, it’s a physical challenge (being out of shape) to participate in the good ol’ game of tag. Thus I’m typically hoping they choose to play on the swings, find others to run with, go down the slides, or just throw the ball back and forth, but please don’t make me chase.

This brought to mind one of my old poems where I was reminiscing of my own childhood and a variety of the games played. Freeze-tag, hide and go seek, and mother-may-I, and red light-green light were amongst the variety. Hide and go seek stood out for several reasons and one of those were the different jingles used in deciding who would have to “go seek.”

The three jingles that I can remember are-
1. Eenie-meenie-miney-mo, catch a nigga by his toe, if he hollers let him go, Eenie-meenie-miney-mo.
2. Bubble gum bubble gum in the dish, how many bubble gum do you wish?
3. My momma and your momma was hanging out clothes, my momma, socked your momma, right in the nose. What color was the blood?

As much as I liked saying those jingles, I liked the melody that we sung while hiding our face and everyone else scattered to their places of hiding. It went “5-10-15-20, 25-30-35-40, 45-50-55-60, 65-70-75-80, 85-90-95-100, whoever’s round my base is out and no billy-goat.” I loved that. And I’m still confused on what “no billy-goat” means?

But of those jingles to decide who would be “it,” the first (eenie-meenie-miney-mo) stood out. I mean, maybe it’s the fact that we learned it (as written) by the time we were five years old. It really stood out around 1993 when I was serving in the US Air Force. Something sparked me to ask others if they knew the jingle and there were these very big gracious smiles and I could see them positively thinking of their childhood. I could also see them singing to themselves so I decided to sing out loud. “Eenie-meenie-miney-mo catch a …” and I stopped. Most would continue to sing without interrupt and used “tiger” where I was taught another word. However there were a few who either stopped, looked up, curled an eyebrow, or did something other than to continue to sing.

It was funny to me, and the looks on their faces were priceless. They knew that I knew what the next word was to be out of their mouths but they clearly weren’t comfortable with me knowing that. So as the others finished their “tiger” version, I interrupted with a big smile and laughter and said, “Hold up. Since when does a tiger have toes?” And essentially the younger generation were clueless to what they were saying. After poking into this a little, one of the Non Commisioned Officers who was originally from Florida noted that when he was a kid the “tiger” wasn’t a “tiger” which eventually brought out that they used the same racial epithet I used as a child. What was surprising, was that I got him to share with me the entire jingle and it went, “Eenie-meenie-miney-mo, catch a nigger by his toe, if hollers make him pay, half a dollar every day.” I was somewhere between relieved and angry to hear this.

Relieved that we were able to talk about (even if on the fringes of) that taboo topic and acknowledge the use of that word was a common part of our pasts. Angry that their version actually included slave-like reference to capturing a runaway slave and forcing him to pay a fine for escaping. I didn’t express the anger, but my goodness that was bothering. I did challenge the concept of making him pay and questioned the origins of the versions in hopes of getting us all to think a bit more about how some unfortunate portions of our country’s past shaped many of the things we did then (1993) and today.

I would go on to believe that me singing eenie-meenie-miney-mo was in some big or small way continuing legacies to be long dead. So I stopped. I also realized that the violence captured in “my momma and your momma was hanging out clothes” was no better than eenie-meenie-miney-mo. More importantly, I gained great validation for the importance of being willing to have difficult conversations with others especially around race. Realizing I could create a safe environment for the uncomfortable discussion, but obviously requires parties on all sides to be open.

Bubblegum, bubblegum, in the dish. How many bubblegum do you wish?

Dongles and forking and privilege… Oh my

For those who’ve yet to hear of the events at and following PyCon last week, I’ll leave you to research Adria Richards, PyCon, and dongles and forking to gain as you may from what you find. After spending time reading articles, blogs, etc. I have something to say. Funny enough, the comment that incited the greatest reaction from me was vaguely within context of the incident but in my opinion had more to do with the incident than anything.

In response to a blog, a commenter wrote “…disgusted by….overwhelming privilege exhibited…” and the blogger responded, “I’m not sure how any of my words are a result of privilege. What privilege?…”

This all reminded of a personal situation about 15 years ago where I had a public disagreement (Opinion response in newspaper) with a college professor which led to an email exchange, brief phone discussion and then a face-to-face discussion about our viewpoints and eventually a friendship, regular discussions, and spending time with his beautiful family. The core of the initial disagreement and many of the ongoing discussions and perspective were borne in perspective on and appreciation of privilege.

I believe privilege has everything to do with the situation. Before writing any further, I’d like to provide a few examples of how I’m privileged as a man working in the technology industry. I will also note that in the computing and technology industry is a huge amount of logical thinking that I believe misses or overlooks the realities of privilege which is frequently not spoken nor overtly done, but simply accepted or enjoyed.

1. Amongst most of my peers, I can make an edgy joke about men or women without my gender being called into question. (Sorry fellas, women don’t get this privilege and I did nothing to earn it.)

2. When presenting publicly to a group of powerful men, I’m not concerned about whether any member of the group feels I belong based on my gender. (It’s up to the woman whether to be concerned or not, but not paying attention could very well hurt her- not me.)

3. In working across most technical companies or companies in general, there’s a high likelihood that when I’m escalated to the “boss” that person will be another man. (Just a reality and it’s typically more comfortable to speak with someone you relate a little more to in these situations, but most women would get another man to deal with.)

4. If I were to weigh in as an “outsider” on a situation in determining whether gender was at play or not, it is likely that my position will be seen as more valuable than a woman’s opinion. (If a man is in situation with woman “A” that she feels is sexist and I along with woman “B” witness it. Assuming all things equal other than gender, 9 times out of 10 my opinion on whether it was sexist or not would carry more credibility than woman “B.”)

5. I can mostly speak about gender diversity without being seen as someone who hates men or seeking to promote oneself. (A woman likely needs to weigh the consequences of speaking on this topic and to whom it’s shared and the setting. I can speak fairly freely about the need for greater gender diversity in technology and not worry.)

Funny enough as I’m preparing to type these next examples, I can feel anxiety rising from the possible pushback for sharing these real examples. And in my head I’m laughing with the thought that when I challenged the professor 15+ years ago, I hadn’t earned much. But now there’s stuff (career, perception, opportunity, etc.) at stake that if taken “wrongly” could hurt me personally and professionally. With that, it’s a worth-while risk to write about something we all should be more comfortable talking about. Now I’d like to provide a few examples of things I’ve earned and accompanying examples of how I do not leverage certain privilege.

1. If I need to relocate for work or most any other reason, I’m not likely to have an issue affording the necessary rent or getting a mortgage in most places. (However, in choosing those places I do have to consider the “welcoming” of neighbors, community, schools, etc. based on race, potential consequences if we’re the first or only Black family in the neighborhood, the perception and representation delivered in local media, ability to access a barber that’s experienced cutting hair like mine, representation of music and arts of my liking, etc.)

2. If I should need specific clothing, I can be pretty sure of affording the needed items immediately without financial strain. (However, before going to shop at an upscale store I have to consciously consider potential consequences for how I will be treated in the store based on race and then whether my appearance (clothes, grooming, etc.) will be considered a negative reflection on the race or just a choice I made.)

3. I can be sure that my children will attend a K-12 school that is highly regarded for its academic, athletic, and extra-curricular offerings. (However, that’s accompanied with added work of exposing them to professionals that look like them, encouraging self-love to overcome that lack of seeing self in community and school, coaching to address negative or demeaning terms from peers which are race based such as Oreo, N-word, “good one,” etc., ensuring cultural and religious preferences of others are acknowledged and respected)

4. I am likely to be called on by executives to complete challenging tasks that typically are not trusted with others. (However, I am still prepared to continue responding to whether I believe I first got my job because of affirmative action. I am very conscious of how in past situations my grooming, appearance, and presentation were assigned to the race and not just me. I am limited in finding executives who have common professional experiences impacted by race to discuss professional progression. Still face doing well in a challenging situation as being considered a credit to my race.)

In the first case, the “privileges” denoted are unspoken burdens that women face that I don’t have to deal with. However, it is not I that created that burden or am doing anything to intentionally limit women. The privilege is a consequence of our social structure which essentially provides me the luxury of not being directly challenged by those burdens as a man. Much the same, my Caucasian peers are far less likely to be burdened with the race-specific challenges that I noted for me and it would be a disservice to any of my Caucasian peers to suggest that they are responsible for or to blame for such challenges. And though racism and sexism are likely at the genesis of the societal norms that lead to the privileges I described, I believe (with the privileges I’m carrying) that most people are NOT intentionally perpetuating sexism or racism by enjoying the freedoms and advantages of those privileges. However, I believe the biggest problem with privilege is the ignorance or denial of having such privilege. Followed closely behind that is the willingness of individuals to discuss it with the goal of understanding the person not in their shoes. Though the examples only touch on race and gender, privilege extends to nationality, first language, age, class, sexual orientation, and beyond.

Thus, I’m inclined to believe that the gentlemen making the joke regarding dongles and forking were well immersed in their privilege (being men at tech conference) and their comfort led to inappropriate behavior (freely making sexual joke or innuendo). If you eliminate all women from the conference and these behaviors likely would be minimized or ignored by all others within earshot, right? Because most men are very unlikely to react, be angered, address the bad behavior, etc. especially since it was associated with an object and not directly a woman. That’s our privilege. But the reality is that women were at the conference, the very fact that we have so few women at the conference or in the tech industry in general is directly related to the privilege that we receive as men.

However, for Ms. Richards to then become scorn by so many men and women is disappointing and understood. There’s the myriad of things she could have done upon being offended and she clearly had options. However, minus breaking the law, it was those who went overboard exhibiting their male privilege that opened themselves up for whichever she chose. And the one she chose (tweet picture with comment) exposed their choices in a way that resulted in them having to explain those choices to others. There are clearly a range of responses and consequences. And to each of those are an even greater range of opinions on what should’ve been done and why. But only the person living with the burden of having to make a choice in such an unfortunate situation gets to choose what that response will be.

For me, this is not much different from me dealing with a normal dose of-
1. whether I was hired because of Affirmative Action or
2. being congratulated on being a credit to my race, or
3. being asked “why do Black people…” or
4. responding to comments based on assumption of my political position

I’ve never gone to HR to report such questions or conversations. If I did, does that make me wrong for choosing not to personally deal with this burden coming to me through the voice of others’ ignorance or lack of consideration for me? Would it be wrong to take their picture along with what they said and tweet it? What if I just loudly repeated their question/statement and my response to it so that at least everyone within the range of my voice would know “that’s not cool?” I don’t have the answer. I repeat… I don’t have the answer and don’t know what’s right. To date, I’ve addressed the situation one and one and then make others aware of what happened by keeping the person anonymous. In taking that route, no scene is made, jobs are relatively secure, and others aren’t feeling the need to to take a side. That also means that I absorb all of the work of others’ ignorance and educating others in the workforce with full knowledge that someone else will come along to be educated. But whatever legal route I choose, it is not me that’s doing something to anyone. And I’m really laughing now because I can see people wondering if they should talk to me about anything related to race. The answer is “absolutely yes” and to first apply those questions to yourself and the group you belong to determine if you think you’re in a position to answer that or if asking that would be demeaning to what you’ve earned via hard work.

I beg that those of us in a place of privilege whether it be based on gender, religion, race, class, parent, sexual orientation, authority figure, and anything I missed to invest in doing some of the hard work along with those who aren’t in the position of privilege. This typically starts with having open and honest discussions about how others might not enjoy the benefits that we do with the understanding that we are not limiting them from enjoying those benefits. However, our willingness to come to a point of understanding about the situation will very likely trigger meaningful conversations with more people and hopefully transform our work environments, our neighborhoods, our schools, our nations, and our appreciation for each other.

Many if not most of our words as Americans and those working in America are a result of privilege. Let’s avoid victimization, blame, anger, labeling, denial, and paranoia and before the next bad joke about dongles and forking comes up, let’s do more talking and gain more understanding so that either the joke isn’t said or is worded in a way that’s inclusive and funny.