Wednesday, September 23, 2020

The Racial Divide

I've been spending a lot of time this summer thinking about how to have conversations with other white folks about systemic racism. Increasingly it seems people either get it, or think it's a non-issue.

I recently spent an entire day getting tests done in a hospital. Knowing that there'd be some wait time I brought a book with me: David Blight's 2018 biography, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom. In the course of the day two different health care practitioners (both white women under 40) noticed the book and asked about it.

One was impressed that I was trying to educate myself about the impact of white privilege, and the pain of how the federal government turned its back on the promise of Lincoln's 1863 Emancipation Proclamation in the decades that followed the Civil War—allowing white supremacy to reassert itself during Reconstruction. We had a solid connection about the need of whites to educate themselves about the dimensions of systemic racism.

The second conversation went differently. When I offered a sketch of the horrific injustices that occurred regularly in the South that was the primary focus of Douglass' orations during his final two decades, this person opined, "Well, life was probably hard for everyone after the war"—as if the hardscrabble conditions that Southern whites faced at the end of the 19th Century somehow excused or justified the lynchings, voter intimation, and unequal access to property and wages that characterized Black lives. (Was she serious? Did she really think that?)

When I persisted, making clear that I thought the reality for whites, however poor, was nowhere near as desperate or unsafe as what Blacks experienced, she backed down. While this exchange was brief, and ended without rancor or harsh words, neither did I think I'd altered her perspective, and I've been brooding about that ever since.

What might I have done differently that may have led this second person to reconsider the story she tells herself about systemic racism? I'm not sure. While I'm glad I didn't just let the moment slide by (as I might have six months ago), I also feel I need a more effective response in such moments—which will undoubtedly keep occurring.

There is a great deal for us whites to do to dismantle systemic racism, and it starts with acknowledging its existence. While I'm clear about that, and the work I need to do, I'm not clear about the best strategy for penetrating white defensiveness—which is incredibly strong in many pockets. I doubt I'll succeed by getting righteous and pounding on the gates.

One Piece of the Puzzle

Just last week I read JD Vance's bestselling memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, chronicling the lives and culture of three generations of Appalachian whites, which goes a long way to explaining why poor whites from Scots/Irish rootstock are demoralized about their prospects in the world and feel that Trump voices their anger. Vance describes a lifestyle and world view that was totally foreign to me. While the author had the loving support of strong grandparents that encouraged him to achieve the escape velocity necessary to avoid the downward spiral of Appalachian nihilism, most of his peers have not been so fortunate. Vance paints a grim picture of dead-end jobs, opioid and/or alcohol addiction, out-of-control birth rates, terrible diets, broken families, and high violence and abuse.

As a segment of the population, there is a higher percentage of poor whites who report that they don't expect to earn as much as their parents did (42%) than any other segment. This is the segment that most strongly feels that the American dream has failed them.

While poor whites are by no means the only portion of the population resistant to the concept of systemic racism (Appalachian whites think that they are being discriminated against; that Blacks are being favored), they are part of the issue, and Vance poses a reasonable challenge: what do politicians and more privileged whites (such as myself) have to say to poor whites that can make a difference—not in the way they vote, but in their prospects for a life that works? That allows us to pull together to end systemic racism?

While it's discouraging how big the hole is that we're trying to climb out of, at least I feel like we're moving in the right direction. Finally.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Key Facilitative Skills: Sequencing Work Productively

As a professional facilitator for more than three decades, I've had ample opportunity to observe which skills make the most difference. As a facilitation trainer since 2003, I've also collected plenty of data about which lessons are the most challenging for students to digest. Taken all together, I've assembled a series of blog posts on the facilitation skills I consider to be both the hardest to master and the most potent for producing productive meetings. They will all bear the header Key Facilitative Skills and will be a distillation of where the heavy lifting is done.

Here are the headlines of what I'll cover in this series:

I. Riding Two Horses: Content and Energy

II. Working Constructively with Emotions

III. Managing the Obstreperous

IV. Developing Range: Holding the Reins Only as Tightly as the Horses Require

V. Semipermeable Membranes: Welcoming Passion While Limiting Aggression

VI. Creating Durable Containers for Hard Conversations

VII. Walking the Feedback Talk

VIII. Sis Boom Bang

IX. Projecting Curiosity in the Presence of Disagreement

X. Distinguishing Weird (But Benign) from Seductive (Yet Dangerous)

XI. Eliciting Proposals that Sing

XII. Becoming Multi-tongued

XIII. Not Leaving Product on the Table

XIV. Sequencing Work Productively

XV. Trusting the Force

                                        • • •

Sequencing Work Productively

Plenary time is precious. It's expensive getting everyone together and the time should be used wisely. 

On the front end that means agenda suggestions should be carefully screened to make sure that they are appropriate for whole group consideration, are sufficiently mature for prime time, and have a high enough priority relative to other work that clears the first two hurdles (don't try to put a 20 lb meeting in a 10 lb sack).

But that's not the hard part. What I want to drill down on in this blog is how to tackle an issue effectively once it's made it to the plenary floor. Here's the sequence I propose:

1. Presentation of the Issue 

What are we talking about? What needs to be decided at the plenary level? What are the relevant group agreements bearing on this topic (if any)? If there has been recent prior work done on this topic, what was accomplished and where did that leave off (no need to re-plow old ground).

This is typically handled by a presenter who is not the facilitator. It's OK for the presenter to be a stakeholder and to have preferences about the outcome; it is not OK for facilitators to be stakeholders—they need to be neutral.

Caution: It is relatively common for strong presenters to slip into the role of facilitator by calling on people with questions or comments, and engaging in dialog with them. Don't let this happen to you! As soon as the presentation is over, thank the presenter, and ask them to sit down. (You're flirting with danger whenever you allow a non-neutral person to run the meeting.)

2. Questions 

Did everyone understand the Presentation? This is not what do we want to do about it—that's later. The point here is getting everyone on the same bus before it pulls out of the station. The better the Presentation, the fewer the questions.

2a. Clearing the Air

If there is non-trivial unresolved tension associated with the issue, it's an excellent idea to deal with that before anything else. If you attempt to plow ahead without dealing with this (perhaps you weren't aware of the tension; perhaps you were afraid of it; perhaps there's resistance on the part of the group or the protagonists to opening that door) it will often bite you in the butt. Tension is associated with distortion and distraction, making it difficult to steer clear of reactivity or to hear accurately what everyone is saying. Rather than trying to cope with distortion on the fly, it's almost always better to deal with it directly and separately first.

Note 1: In order to do this, there needs to be agreement that the group will work with emotions; facilitators need to be authorized to engage with feelings, and they need to have the ability to do so with skill and compassion. That's a lot of ifs.

Note 2: If there are no significant tensions associated with the issue, this step can be skipped.

3. Identification of Factors

Which group values are in play? Do some considerations trump others, or are they all of equal weight?

It generally works much better if the group articulates how it will assess the suitability of potential solutions (or action steps) before considering what those solutions will be. This is an expansive phase. If people hold strong opinions about what should be taken into account, it is in this segment that they can be given time on the soap box to make their pitch.

4. Proposal Generating

Now, finally, we get to solutions. What do people think is the best response, given all that we're trying to take into account (the output of the preceding step)?

Distinct from the previous step, this one is contractive. It's time to set aside the advocacy that characterized step 3, and focus on bridging.

—Pitfall #1: Starting with proposals

Groups frequently require that the presentation of an issue be accompanied by a proposed solution, in the hope that that will speed up the consideration. Groups do this for two reasons: first, as a safeguard against an issue not being well defined. If the presenter is required to offer a response, s/he is that much more likely to have a clear handle on the problem. Second, if the group is lucky, the offered solution may be a winner and allow the group to skip over a potential slog in plenary, saving who knows how much time and grief.

The downside of this is that the presenter is required to invest in a solution before the whole group has had a chance to identify what needs to be taken into account, and if the initiator has a significant hole in their thinking about what needs to be addressed, that dog won't hunt—and all the effort devoted to problem solving may be down the drain, which doesn't help morale a lick.

It doesn't take many experiences of that before there is a significant drop in enthusiasm for serving on committees—which appear to be an assignment to serve as so much cannon fodder for plenary scrutiny. It's much better to not start on solutions until the plenary has signed off on what needs to be taken into account.

Pitfall #2: Commingling steps 3 & 4

Most groups wrestle with an issue in one big conversation (or multiple big conversations), which can often devolve into a melees or swamp draining assignments if the issue is difficult. While it's no small challenge in and of itself working through topics where the outcome is consequential and there are strongly held divergent opinions, the water is unnecessarily muddied further by attempting to identify what needs to be taken into account at the same time that you're developing solutions.

As was pointed out above, the first step is expansive and the second is contractive. When groups try to breathe in and out at the same time, it gets confusing. People get lost about what kinds of comments are appropriate and it can be hard to follow the bouncing ball. Someone expresses a concern, and the next speaker offers a solution while a third person is waiting their turn to express a different concern. It can be hard discerning whether you're coming or going.

5. Decision

Once the group is satisfied that it's done what it can to sensitively manifest the best solution it can, you're ready to make a decision—unless you believe it's prudent to let the proposal incubate for a time, to give those who missed the meeting a chance to weigh in, and for those in attendance to process any residual reservations.

Note that there can be a fine line between dithering and reflecting. I am not advocating for weak knees; I'm suggesting that if there is no urgency about the issue, then waiting for another meeting cycle to allow for reflected input can result in better grounded decisions.

—Pitfall #3: Getting Bogged Down in Late Concerns

If you decide to postpone a decision until the meeting after you've completed proposal generation, there is a danger of inviting monkey business from members who skipped prior meetings but arrive at the final one to throw sand in the gears by expressing concerns about the proposal—something that should have happened back in Step 3. While it's possible that their last-minute concern is something missed in the prior considerations and the group will be smart to stop and go back, you are not obliged to do so if you have adopted this sequence as the official way you do business. A member's right to have their views taken into account is tied at the hip to their responsibility to make their views known in a timely way.

6. Implementation

The last step is all about dotting i's and crossing t's. What are the action steps, who will cary them out, what's the budget (if one is needed), what are the reporting expectations, and what are the deadlines? In general, implementation details are straight forward, yet groups sometimes neglect to pin them down in the rush to be done and move onto the next topic (or to adjourn). It's a shame to squander otherwise solid work by getting sloppy at the end. Don't let that happen to you. 


Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Key Facilitative Skills: Not Leaving Product on the Table

As a professional facilitator for more than three decades, I've had ample opportunity to observe which skills make the most difference. As a facilitation trainer the past 17 years, I've also collected plenty of data about which lessons are the most challenging for students to digest. Taken all together, I've assembled a series of blog posts on the facilitation skills I consider to be both the hardest to master  and the most potent for producing productive meetings. They will all bear the header Key Facilitative Skills and it's a distillation of where the heavy lifting is done.

Here are the headlines of what I'll cover in this series:

I. Riding Two Horses: Content and Energy
II. Working Constructively with Emotions
III. Managing the Obstreperous
IV. Developing Range: Holding the Reins Only as Tightly as the Horses Require
V. Semipermeable Membranes: Welcoming Passion While Limiting Aggression
VI. Creating Durable Containers for Hard Conversations
VII. Walking the Feedback Talk
VIII. Sis Boom Bang
IX. Projecting Curiosity in the Presence of Disagreement
X. Distinguishing Weird (But Benign) from Seductive (Yet Dangerous)
XI. Eliciting Proposals that Sing
XII. Becoming Multi-tongued
XIII. Not Leaving Product on the Table
XIV. Sequencing Issues Productively
XV. Trusting the Force

• • •
Not Leaving Product on the Table
In this monograph I'm going to focus on the last 10 minutes of a meeting. In my experience groups often squander opportunities by not understanding what's possible in those moments.

In a meeting where the topic has been well explored, everyone has had a decent chance to express their views and concerns, and the energy is fluid—pay attention to these caveats; they're important—it is often possible to bring the group to a reasonable agreement, or at least a partial agreement, that will likely evaporate if not captured right then and there. It's use it or lose it.

The interesting case is not when you're testing a specific proposal for buy-in—that's relatively easy—but when you're in a dynamic conversation and not clear where you'll end up. Leaving aside for the moment whether the facilitator can create and hold the group in a listening, non-combative place (no small thing when the stakes are high), a good facilitator should be able feel into the possibilities about what agreement could hold the whole.

Here are the elements needed to put yourself in a position to harvest something valuable in the last 10 minutes—to bring the train into the station on time with as full a load as possible.

—Seeing the Glass Half Full
What ungirds this skill is understanding the power of being agreement oriented (seeing the glass half full). While this may seem a minor matter, it isn't. We come out of a wider culture that emphasizes individuality, to the point where we have been deeply conditioned to be aware at all times about how we are distinct from others—not how we are aligned with others. Thus, we have learned from an early age to identify and focus on how we disagree with others, because that's how we know we're unique. Developing the skill of seeing the potential connections among disparate viewpoints requires unlearning our default response to differences.

I experienced a dramatic example of this last winter when I was facilitating a community meeting where the group was discussing cat policy. One couple held a strong position about limiting the range of cats outdoors because of their predation of songbirds. While the cat owners in the group weren't willing to accept an outright ban on cats being allowed outdoors (excepting on a leash—which no cat owner thought was workable) there was considerable sympathy with the couple's concern about songbirds, and a number of suggestions emerged about what could be done to support songbirds short of banning outdoor cats. Where I saw a a lot of common ground among the suggestions, the couple only saw failure because they weren't getting buy-in with their proposed ban. For the couple, if they weren't getting everything, they were getting nothing. Where I saw possibility; they experienced rejection.

Another way this shows up is in the summary of the meeting. Left to their own inclinations, participants will often dwell on what didn't accomplish, rather than on what did. While both may be true, there is a completely different energy around a summary that points out how differences got narrowed, partial agreements were reached (perhaps pinning down subtopics), and people were assigned to research unclear points. All of that is movement and has a completely different feel to it than a simple statement such as, "We didn't complete the topic today and will have to return to it at the next meeting."

Often, skilled facilitators will be able to read what's possible better than anyone else in the room—not because they're magicians (adept at sleight of hand), but because they have trained themselves to see connections and possibilities ahead of differences and obstacles. They should also be able to deftly read the energy in the room and tell the extent to which it's gelling, rather than getting brittle.

—Allowing Time to Breathe
In the interest of efficiency, a number of groups shoot themselves in the foot by scheduling plenaries too tightly, not allowing sufficient time to explore issues in depth. In general, groups would be better off delegating more and giving greater time to the remaining topics—the ones that should be handled by the plenary. If a topic is worthy of full-group attention, then give it enough time to be explored in depth. To be sure, considerations should be well-focused and not repetitive, yet neither should they be raced through or cursory. When you ask groups to swallow food that has been insufficiently chewed, you should not be surprised that the result is indigestion.

—Establishing and Maintaining the Right Energy for Problem Solving
Good facilitators know how to manage energy. Not by strong-arming participants but by establishing the right tone for the right kind of consideration. If at all possible, you want to confine advocacy to an earlier phase of the consideration—when you are identifying what should be taken into account in evaluating proposals. Essentially, this earlier phase is getting clear about what common values are in play and their relative priority. 

It is much easier to hear how strongly someone feels about environmental impact, then it is to hear how strongly they support a particular solution (we must release capital reserve funds to finance solar panels on the roof of the common house). If you assiduously separate identification of factors from problem solving, then you can restrict advocacy to the earlier phase, which is expansive, while insisting that the latter phase be characterized by bridging and coalescence (how do we best connect the dots, since we're all in this together). When done well, problem solving is not characterized by tug-of-war energy. There should be a soft, creative feel to it, in which the seed of solutions can sprout in the fertility of the final minutes.

—Working the Edges
When a topic elicits non-trivial differences (hint: most of the interesting ones do), it's often worthwhile to pay special attention to the edges of the conversation, making sure that outliers have been able to fully express their concerns and at the same time understand that they have not been particularly persuasive in drawing others toward them.

If you've been careful to establish that outliers have been heard, you are in a much stronger position to ask them to move toward the middle, where agreement tends to dwells.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Turnip Day and Bickled Peets

On the 25th of July
Sow your turnips, wet or dry

I imagine that for most folks, last Saturday slid by unnoticed. But for those of us who are grounded in in the arcane folklore of Missouri agriculture, it was Turnip Day—once brought briefly into the national spotlight by native son Harry Truman in 1948, when he called for a special summer session of Congress in an effort to light a fire under Republicans who controlled both chambers of Congress but produced little legislation.

Truman's call for a Turnip Day Session came July 15, at 1:45 am, in the context of giving his acceptance speech as the Democratic candidate for President. It was the start of his dramatic climb back into contention against the heavily favored Thomas Dewey, who he nipped at the wire in the November election. 

While Truman's gamble occurred 72 years ago, it occurred to me that here we are with Republicans diddling again, this time bumping along downstream without a rudder (Trump has plenty of rudeness, just no direction) in the fast water of a pandemic. It's incredible watching this train wreck unfold. Every single day, Trump loads up a shotgun… and discharges it into his foot by nightfall. (I appreciate that there were a lot of metaphors in that paragraph, but I imagine the meaning was clear nonetheless.)

While it's not obvious what we'll get with Biden, it's damn clear what we get with Trump and people are fed up and weary of the divisiveness, the venality, and the dysfunction. There's a bumpersticker on our block that encapsulates it all: "Any Functioning Adult in 2020."

• • •
Beyond politics and Show Me folklore, last weekend was notable because I was able to indulge in one of my favorites pastimes, condiment making. I lived for four decades at Sandhill Farm, where we had a foundational commitment to growing and preserving our own organic food. Over my years there I developed a niche for processing acidified foods (think tomatoes, fruits, and pickles), and I miss it today.

Happy as I am to be living in Duluth (as I type, it's 79 degrees with 44% humidity beneath a sky filled with cotton ball clouds—eat your heart out), I long for the rhythms of farm life. While Susan and I enjoy putzing around in our 100 sq ft backyard garden, I hit the jackpot last Friday when I was running Susan out to the car dealer's and we passed someone peddling fresh vegetables out the back of a pickup in a bank parking lot.

Thinking to pick up a half dozen ears of fresh corn (to accompany our grilled salmon fillet for dinner)
I pulled over on my way home and stumbled onto some nice wax beans and good looking beets. For reasons that escape me, it's hard finding beets at a decent price, so I knew a good deal when I found one, and I jumped on it, buying a half bushel. Sunday I turned those into 16 pints of pickled beets. Yeehah! (Susan made a double batch of moussaka earlier in the day, so our kitchen was redolent with the aromas of love.)

In addition to the odd experiment with a new recipe (last year it was chow chow pickle; this year I have a batch of red cabbage sauerkraut going), my baseline condiments (the things I never want to run out of) are: corn relish, dilly beans, pickled beets, and tomatillo salsa. Because we're just a household of two, and you can only expect your children to eat so much, I've disciplined myself to only making a batch of each of these every three years. Otherwise we'd need to devote an entire wall in the basement to canned goods storage.

Beets are an especially evocative food for me. In addition to something Susan and I both enjoy, it was one of my mother's favorites (though she only cooked them when Dad was on a business trip). When labeling the beets yesterday, I was reminded fondly of Ann Shrader, with whom I started Sandhill. (She and I share a son and a full deck of memories: 52 years worth.) Annie has a penchant for spoonerisms and enjoyed referring to what I had just created as "bickled peets," so that's what we'll call them here in Duluth. A new tradition.

Now if I can only find a bulk source of ripe tomatillos…

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

13 Angry Men

One of the silver linings about home quarantining is the opportunity to catch up on well-regarded films that I missed along the way. Last month I looked at a couple of 100 Best All-Time Movies lists (there are a gob of them—you know what they say, opinions are like bellybuttons: everybody has one), noting which I'd seen and which I'd missed.

Through the miracle of Netflix, I am simply working down the list and adding to my queue all the films I haven't seen (or didn't recall having seen, which amounts to the same thing). Last week I got a CD in the mail of the 1957 classic, Twelve Angry Men.

The entire movie is the jury room deliberation following a murder trial. The film opens with a bored judge giving instructions to the jury. The trial has ended and viewers have no idea what has occurred. A young man (early 20s?) is on trial and if the jury finds him guilty there is a mandatory death sentence. The decision must be unanimous. None of the jurors know each other ahead of time, or have any relationship to the defendant, the judge, or the lawyers.

The defendant is an immigrant and lives in low-cost tenement housing.

(The cast is terrific, including Henry Fonda, Lee J Cobb, E G Marshall, and Jack Klugman.)

This movie was released 63 years ago and times have changed—though not enough when it comes to prejudice and racism. The first thing that caught my attention is that all of the jurors are white and all of them are male. 

We are told that the defendant was represented by a court-appointed attorney who was less than zealous in his efforts to protect his client's rights, which illuminates the issue of how much justice is available to folks who cannot afford high-priced legal help. In the movie, the character played by Henry Fonda takes up asking the questions that the defense lawyer never did—not because he's convinced of the defendant's innocence, but because he's not convinced of his guilt. Slowly, over the course of several hours, he's able to cast enough doubt on the veracity of eyewitness testimony and how to interpret the "facts," that the jury swings all the way from 11 siding with the prosecution to a unanimous decision to acquit. It's fascinating to watch the progression.

What stood out most for me about Fonda's character was his ability to withstand a steady diet of pressure from others ("we could have gone home two hours ago if you'd voted guilty at the outset") without losing his core concern for "reasonable doubt," and his steadfast ability to resist responding in kind when being railed at by others. It was rare courage.

• One juror is impatient to reach a guilty verdict so as not to miss a baseball game that he has tickets to that evening. 

• Another juror is afraid of the responsibility. He frequently makes jokes in an awkward attempt to lighten the mood, and simply votes with the majority.

• The oldest member of the jury offers important insight into why the retired man who claimed to have seen the murder might have made up his testimony—for a final chance to be taken seriously in a culture that warehouses its seniors, and pushes them to the side.

• The juror portrayed by E G Marshall is a paragon of rationality who is invariably contained and grim. He insists that the defendant must be found guilty because a woman testified that she saw him commit the murder from the window of her bedroom 60 feet away—until it's pointed out that she wears glasses and claimed to have seen the murder after being awakened from a sound sleep. As the juror also wears glasses, he realizes the improbability of the woman having her glasses on for her observation, and he changes his vote to not guilty.

• The juror played by Lee J Cobb is the last holdout, until he admits that his upset with the defendant is a misplaced projection of his estranged relationship with his son—who is the same age as the defendant. Breaking down in tears, he agrees to acquit.

• The juror who serves as foreman is constantly trying to figure out how the group wants to proceed (should we talk or vote; should votes by open or secret ballot?) and is regularly disrespected by the others. (When process is unclear it can be a thankless job to be responsible for it.)


The movie is full of racist innuendo (everybody knows that dirty immigrants can't be trusted), and mass confusion about what to do with strong feelings, which, not surprisingly, abound in a murder trial.

On the one hand, it's inspiring to realize how far we've come since 1957. There would certainly be women on the jury today, and (hopefully) a racial and ethnic mix as well. Yet it's also sobering to see how little we've advanced when it comes to clear communication, and how much the defendant's fate depended on that chance that someone as skilled and resolute as Henry Fonda's character was on the jury.

In general, I strongly question whether people of color are receiving any more justice today than they were 63 years ago, and that realization effectively makes me the 13th angry man.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

The Calculus of Suicide

This past week an older friend of mine (let's call her Adrian) reached me by phone when she was in a depressed mood. Her life wasn't working well (and hadn't been for quite a while). Near tears she asked me for a date to help her walk through whether or not to commit suicide. Oh boy. I agreed to be there for her (how would it have landed if I'd turned her down?), yet I was shaken and unsure how to proceed.

My emotions and thoughts were all over the place:

—I was sad that Adrian has had such an unhappy life.

—I was immediately touched by a sense of loss (pre-grieving?). I didn't want to lose my friend.

—I felt guilty that I hadn't initiated more contact with her the last few months.

—I was flattered that Adrian felt I could handle such a sensitive and weighty assignment. She knew I didn't have a moral judgment about suicide, and she knew that I wouldn't freak out. She knew I'd take her seriously and help her explore her options dispassionately (isn't that what good friends do?).

—I was intrigued. It's a powerful topic, though one I'd never focused on before, beyond the moral and existential questions. How would one make this decision? It turns out I have a number of thoughts about it, and I was glad to have time to prepare.

—In addition to all of the above, Adrian's situation offers an insight into what it's like to be on the gray side of 70 in these days of Covid. For anyone in that age range, there are much higher odds that you'll die from a Covid infection than for younger population segments—the death rate is 8% for those in their 70s; 14% for those 80+; and only 0.4% for those under 50. Of course, those are just averages. If you're immunocompromised (as Adrian and I are) the odds are significantly worse.

[Digesting these statistics helps explain some of the tension we're witnessing between younger people who are impatient to resume normal life and seniors who are more cautious—those two age brackets are looking at different odds. What fascinates me the most is the fierce determination among some in the lower-risk age range who insist on their right to decide for themselves how safe it will be for others. I don't have any problem with individuals making choices for themselves, but that's not the world we live in—especially when a quarter or more of those infected with Covid are asymptomatic.

When people defy the advice of health care professionals by not wearing masks or maintaining social distancing, they are essentially saying that they get to be the sole arbiters of what's acceptable risk for everyone around them. In consequence, those who feel that more cautious public behavior is called for need to be mindful of the presence of those who don't care to take their concerns into account.

Thus people who believe themselves to be at risk need to be extra cautious about being out in public, because they cannot rely on others being mindful of their situation. How did we get to be so uncaring?]

In any event, Adrian and I are both in the better-wait-for-a-vaccine-before-going-to-a-restaurant category, which reinforces isolation for our age cohort—and this is on top of the struggles that seniors ordinarily experience trying get enough human contact to sustain health. Our culture is youth oriented and we tend to warehouse or otherwise set aside our seniors—not because we no longer care about them or they can no longer contribute, but because younger folks don't want to be burdened by elder care, are impatient for their time in the sun, and prefer to learn through doing it themselves than by being mentored. When you add into the mix the mobility of contemporary society, to the point where adult children often live at some distance from their parents, it's tough on seniors.

All of which is to say it can be lonely growing old, especially for those without a partner, and the pandemic has made it worse. Susan and I are highly fortunate to have each other, as well as the surrounding neighborhood, where Susan has gradually built a wealth of caring relationships over the course of four decades. We are not at all as isolated as Adrian.

Our next door neighbor—in her 80s—had been living alone for some time and recently fell and broke her hip. On top of that she has been suffering memory loss (onset dementia?), and her four adult children collectively decided that it's time for mom to move to an assisted living facility. On the one hand this makes total sense. On the other, it's hard on our neighbor to make the adjustment, losing the anchoring familiarity of her home of 50 years. It's a sad time.

Although Adrian has retained her independent living, she is in a housing complex of 400 where no one really knows her. While everyone needs caring relationships in their life, not everyone has it. And that's brutal.

Against this backdrop, I want to share my thinking about Adrian's choice about whether to stay or go. First I turned my attention to what I know about her situation:

Factors
• She has been in poor health for many years.
• Adrian has weight and mobility issues which make it hard for her to get around (even if it were safe to do so).
• She lives in a large housing complex in an urban setting and has no friends in that location. 
• She has a car and still drives (though she's nervous about going out because of the pandemic).
• She can hire support for cleaning and shopping, but it doesn't provide companionship.
• It's been hard for her to avoid feeling overwhelmed by the chaos and disorganization in her life, and then she falls into a pattern of self-deprecation at the end of the day if she hasn't accomplished much. She finds it difficult to make a plan and to stick to it.
• One of the most depressing things for Adrian is that she doesn't feel that she's being much use to anyone these days—there is no demand for what she has to offer.
• She has one sibling, with whom she has a complicated relationship. Her sister lives in a different time zone and doesn't provide much emotional support. She has no other living family—though she does have a wealth of friends sprinkled across the continent.
• Because she has an extensive background in community living, the lack of social contact in her life today is all the more glaring.
• Electronic connections are helpful (phone, email, social media), but are not the same as being in the same room.

Next I elucidated the questions I would use to explore the possibilities.

Questions
1. How do you assess the balance of joy and satisfaction relative to pain and misery in your life right now? (While I can't imagine this will look good—else why be thinking about suicide—how bad is it? Let's lay it out.)

2. What are your prospects for turning this around? Can you reasonably expect things to get better? Are there things you can do that will make a difference? What help do you need, if any, to move things in a positive direction? Be specific. 

3. Is there work (or projects) that would inspire you to stay alive to do?

4. Is there a role for me to play in reinforcing the positive answers to the prior two questions?

5. If you decide in favor of suicide, walk me through how you'd do it. Do you have the will to carry this out?

6. If you decide on suicide, what do you need to complete or get in order first (for example, are there estate decisions to make)? Walk me through the timeline. Is there a role I can play in this?

7. Who do you want to say goodbye to?

• • •
While I was expecting to get into these questions over the weekend, it didn't happen. Adrian was in a better mood when we talked (for about an hour) and my instinct was to let her direct the flow of what we talked about. In turned out that she had stepped back from the brink, at least for now. 

Meanwhile, I am mindful that I can support my friend (and contradict the story that no one cares) by the simple act of initiating phone calls once every fortnight or so. And if the impetus to discuss suicide surfaces again, I'll be ready. 

Friday, June 12, 2020

Racism and the Road Ahead



When asked by a foreign journalist about the Negro problem in America, author James Baldwin replied—in the '60s mind you, more than 50 years ago—"We don't have a Negro problem in America. We have a white problem."
• • •
Racism Rises to the Top
Racism is on my mind a lot these days. It's been the first thing to come along in months that's knocked the pandemic off the front page—of both the media and my consciousness.

Two weeks ago, George Floyd was murdered by a white Minneapolis police officer who had a knee on his neck for over eight minutes while George was handcuffed and prone on the ground. The incident happened in broad daylight and was captured on video camera by onlookers who were horrified at what was happening. There were three other police officers present and none tried to intervene as George begged for his life and stopped breathing. George had been detained as a suspect in passing a counterfeit $20 bill. He was unarmed and did not resist arrest.

Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year old unarmed Black man was killed Feb 23 while jogging in daylight hours in a residential neighborhood (part of his usual running route) in suburban Brunswick GA. The shooters and pickup owners were Gregory McMichael (64) and his son Travis (34). Although the incident was caught in video camera, the McMichaels were not arrested until May 7—a shocking 74 days after the killing.

Last Friday would have been the 27th birthday of Breonna Taylor, a Black emergency medical technician, but she was shot to death March 13 by Louisville police officers executing a no-knock warrant, searching for a suspect in a pre-dawn drug raid gone bad. She was asleep in her bed at the time, and was shot eight times. Police were looking for a suspect already in custody

Amy Cooper, a 41-year-old white woman, made up a story when phoning police about a 47-year-old Black man (Christian Cooper, no relation) attacking her and threatening her life when all he had done was asked her to leash her dog in Central Park May 25—the same day George Floyd was choked out in South Minneapolis. While the preposterousness of the woman's claim was exposed immediately, it's outrageous that she thought she could get away with it.
• • •
The Institutional Dimension
As awful as these incidents are, the greater horror is that it is only a sampling of the latest in a very long line of violence and injustice of whites towards people of color—in this country that proclaims itself the land of the free, without any apparent sense of irony.

How far does this go back? All the way. The original US Constitution (1787) specified that only white men who owned property had the right to vote. Despite incremental changes over the years that have extended the vote to all US citizens (notably the Emancipation Proclamation of 1963; the 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution following the Civil War; the 19th amendment guaranteeing women's suffrage in 1920; and the Voting Rights Act of 1965), racism is bred in the bone, and is so ingrained in American culture that it goes largely unnoticed by whites—the segment of the population for whom the deck is stacked. (In fact, this pernicious injustice exists everywhere on earth that whites have settled, though I will focus here only on US culture, the one I know best.)

It is directly related to why people of color are more apt to get infected by the coronavirus and to die from it. People of color are less likely to get hired for good jobs, they get paid less for doing the same work, they are more likely to get fired in hard times, they have less access to good schools, they have less access to entrepreneurial capital, and they are subject to being more targeted by police whenever they go out. All of this adds up to more stress and less income, which translates into poorer health, reducing the likelihood of their surviving being infected by Covid-19. It's a vicious circle.

While George Floyd's killing was no more heinous or inexcusable than many other atrocities of whites toward people of color, it has turned out to be a flashpoint with respect to racism. Eighteen days later, the protests have become international and are gaining momentum even as I type. Importantly, the concept of systemic racism is now on the table—that thing that James Baldwin was speaking of in my opening quote. It's about time.

On the one hand, it’s gut wrenching to have this shoved in our face. On the other, maybe—just maybe—it will wake whites to our need to insist that institutional racism be dismantled. On the hopeful side, there has never been as much white attention to this issue as there is now, and it will absolutely take a major shift in white consciousness to address this in a serious way. People have to demand it. In that way, the protests are wonderful, and it’s heartening to see how widespread they are.

On the cynical side, why will it be different this time? Can we trust the political process to do the work? Politicians are too focused on getting elected and have the attention span of a sunfish. In all of the ways that President Trump has disgusted me—and there are many—his current emphasis on law and order completely misses the mark and repulses me the most. Fortunately, even the lock-step Republicans are starting to push back on his misplaced focus on a military response to suppress looting and burning. While real things, they are a distraction from the main issue. 

Biden is saying the right things, yet what will he actually do? If he gets it, why wasn’t he more active in this arena as VP for eight years under Obama? Police violence is a symptom and there is work to do there, but that’s derivative from whites who have been stubbornly comfortable with their privilege and oblivious to looking at it. 

We need a sea change. Time will tell whether we get one, or just another high tide of outrage.
• • •
My Journey
There is a lot of work to do, some of which needs to be done by me. As I've come to a growing realization of the dimensions of racism, a large question looms over me: what should I be doing (that I have not been doing already) as someone who wants to be part of the solution? 

I'm in anguish over this. My life has been bathed in privilege all along and it has taken me my entire 70 years to get to the degree of awareness that I've now achieved—which is only a point on a journey; I don't expect to ever complete the peeling of this onion. While I'm not particularly proud of that pace, here I am.

So this is a status report on what's bubbled up for me this last month. Disclaimer: my journey is just that—my journey. Writing about it helps clarify my learnings and the road ahead. If it's inspirational for my readers, that's great, but it's wholly up to each of you to make your own assessments and to make your own decisions. I do not presume that my path should be yours.

—The first step I took was to accept an invitation in early May from my good friend María Silvia to participate in a white racism study group—12-15 of us meet (via Zoom) for an hour weekly to wrestle with this issue, using Robin Diangelo's White Fragility as an inspirational point of departure. It helps to explore this compelling, yet tender topic with fellow travelers. We stumble along together.

—I've committed to educating myself about the dimensions of the problem (see more on this below).

—I am trying to learn to see what I've been conditioned to not notice. The trick here, of course, is that you never know when you're done. Maybe you never are.

—Can I commit to objecting to microaggressions as I encounter them? There is definitely the need, yet I am constantly wrestling with finding a way to do so that has a chance of being constructive. I am frequently up against defensiveness and denial, but maybe I should speak up anyway. This is hard. The divisiveness in the current political climate makes me sick and I desperately don't want to be fomenting confrontation. Yet I also don't want to be ducking the work, and complicit in the continuation of white racism. Argh!
• • •
The Minnesota Story (not so nice)
Minnesotans pride themselves on being civil (Minnesota nice) and generally progressive. As a citizen here since 2016 I figured I should familiarize myself with my adopted state's history with racism. Unfortunately, it's embarrassing. While we like to brand ourselves as the bastion of forward thinking in the Midwest, our history with respect to racism tells a different story. Let me lay out three atrocities that frame the picture:

—As noted above George Floyd was murdered by members of the Minneapolis police force, in a blatant display of unnecessary force by a white officer. Worse, this is not an isolated example. There have been unaddressed complaints about the Minneapolis police for years.

—Next Monday will mark the centenary of the lynching of three Black itinerant circus workers—Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie—at the hands of a white mob in downtown Duluth, incensed by the spurious claims of their having mistreated a white couple. The photo image at the top of this post is of a portion of the memorial of this racist tragedy at the location where it occurred, at the intersection of East 1st St and North 2nd Ave. Michael Fedo's The Lynchings in Duluth tells the story without embellishment. 

—Back in December, 1862, the largest mass execution in the nation's history occurred in Mankato, when 38 Dakota Sioux were hanged en masse. The Native American tribe was frustrated with the US government's reneging on treaty promises, systematically destroying the habitat on which the tribe depended for food, and delaying annuity payments specified in treaties. Things came to a head in the summer of 1862, when, in desperation, the Dakota Sioux asked Andrew Myrick, the chief government trader for Minnesota to sell them food on credit. His response was said to be, So far as I am concerned, if they are hungry let them eat grass or their own dung. The Dakota Uprising ensued.

They killed settlers in the Minnesota River Valley, in a desperate attempt to drive them from the area. The US Army quickly quelled the violence, interning more than 1000 in the process—women, children, and elderly men in addition to warriors. A military tribunal sentenced 303 of the warriors to death. Though President Lincoln commuted the sentence of 265 at the last moment, the remaining 38 were executed. The following spring the remnants of the Dakota Sioux were summarily expelled from Minnesota.

All of which is to say, I need not stray far from home to find work. Racism is all around and deeply rooted. As cartoonist Walt Kelley had Pogo Possum say (in support of the first Earth Day) in 1970, pointing out succinctly who bears responsibility for worldwide pollution), We have met the enemy, and he is us. It is no less true of racism.

I will close with something inspirational and pithy from James Baldwin, chiseled into a panel of the Jackson, Clayton, McGhie memorial: