My White Privilege Wants Little Haitian Girls to Read

So the other day I was sitting, chilling with some friends here when I decided that I had a hankerin’ for some fried food. (I’m a farm boy from Iowa, so yes, I get hankerin’s.) plantainsSo Papi and I went to get some plantains and pork from our usual vendor, only on this day she didn’t have any fritay for some reason. So, since my roommate, Christophe was sitting right there, Papi and I borrowed his moto and headed up the mountain a little way s to the next vendor. At this vendor’s place we were given two chairs to sit on on their porch while they brought us two Prestige and a plate full of the best grio I’ve ever had in this country. Seriously, I’m officially transferring my fritay allegiance to this vendor. It was definitely worth the extra drive up the mountain. But none of that’s really the point. This isn’t a post about delicious fritay, it’s a post about race (again).

Because here I was, at this new fritay place, just enjoying my pork. I didn’t know this vendor or any of her family. I couldn’t tell you any of their names although they all clearly knew me and acted like I was an old friend that they’d been waiting to see for a long tie when I showed up there. Then, while Papi and I were eating, here comes the vendor’s husband with a sly grin on his face, dragging their little daughter behind him. He stood her right in front of me in her bright pink checkered kindergarten school uniform, looking ashamed to be alive.

“Mister Lee,” the Dad said, “I want you to have a talk with this girl. Every school book I buy for her, she just rips the pages out of. She doesn’t understand how important and how valuable these books are. She doesn’t want to learn. No matter what I do she just doesn’t respect her education and she keeps ripping up her books.”

I looked at him like he just asked me to tell a fish how to fly. I racked my brain searching for reasons why this stranger would think that my encouragement would hold any weight on this young girl’s scholastic future. Because I’ve built a school so clearly he knows that I believe education is essential for all children? Or maybe because I’ve coordinated sponsorship programs that prove that I believe that every child deserves a chance to learn as much as possible? Or maybe because I’m a writer and have published books myself, so obviously I hold books, in general, in very high regard? Maybe somebody told him what a great blog I write for? But even if any of these reason meant anything to the father, they clearly meant absolutely nothing to the 4-year-old girl that he drug behind him. So, why on earth would hi think that she would give any extra respect to what I had to say about books and learning opposed to anyone else? Because I’m white. He didn’t ask Papi who was sitting right next to me, and has spent 2 years in the US, and was paying for the fritay and beer what he thought about her books. He asked me. Because my skin is white. And having white skin in this country means that I”m automatically assumed to be more educated, more sophisticated, and more worldly than all of the darker skinned Haitians around me. And so when my white mouth tells this little black Haitian girl not to rip up her books, it means a lot more than if any of the other black Haitian adults around her every day told her the same exact thing.

So, realizing this, rather than getting irritated by the inverted racism behind it, I embraced it and used it for the sake of this little girl and her relationship with reading. I reached out my hand and told her to come talk to me. Taking her hand, I gave her my best impromptu lecture on the importance of reading and how she should treat her books like friends of hers rather than destroying them. I tried to encourage her to embrace her schooling as a vital step towards building a brighter future. (And then a rainbow stretched out over my head and songbirds sang.)

“Do you understand?” She nodded her head.

“You won’t rip up anymore books?” She shook her head no.

IMG_1051“Promise me?” She nodded again. Then I let go of her hand and sent her back to her father. He smiled at me like I had turned water into wine and walked away with his daughter leading her into a future that was apparently looking a little brighter because my white privilege wanted her to read.

I don’t know if my motivational speech really made any difference in how that little girl will think about books from now on, but I do know that her dad will always have it to use to remind her. Whenever she doesn’t want to read or wants to rip her pages, I know her dad will be saying, “Don’t you remember what the white man told you? I don’t think the white man would be very happy if he saw you right now.” And although it’s true that a very large part of me is very uncomfortable that that is how our world operates, if my being white helps that one little girl to grow an interest in reading, then so be it.

Those of us who actually possess this privilege based on absolutely no merit of our own but based on the tone of our skin need to ask ourselves what we’re using that privilege for. Are we acknowledging the privilege and using it to make our voices heard as a force for good? Or are we denying the privilege and yelling at everyone, “Don’t call me blan!” pretending that we don’t see color?” There’s a very fine line between using white privilege as a tool for effective allyship and advocacy, and falling into the white savior complex where we exploit the privilege to establish an illegitimate superiority. But being aware of that line and being sensitive to the complex histories and feelings that exist on both sides of it make it worth trying to find more ways to fall on the side of using racial influence for sincerely positive progress. Whether it’s for fighting for more just law enforcement, more diversity at the Oscars, or just trying to get a little Haitian girl to read, we can’t pretend that race doesn’t matter. And the sooner that we all recognize that and find ways to work through it together, the sooner we’ll arrive at a place where someday, maybe, it really won’t matter at all.Donate


When Bad Logos Happen to Good People

PCAPLast year I took this photo at the beach in Jacmel. I took it thinking that it was one of the worst logos and worst names for a nonprofit that I’d ever seen and thought that I’d probably want the image sometime to refer to of exactly what not to do. I knew it would probably come in handy for the blog sometime. So I’m a logo snob. I studied art and design so I’m particularly sensitive to how we communicate things visually. But this one was especially bad. Why is it so horrible, you ask? The image itself implies an offensive hierarchy where the giver is seen as being higher, superior to the bottom dwelling receivers who are so desperate that they are reaching out for pity. In the name, the very first word, the primary description of the children is “poor” which demonstrates a skewed focus from the start which dehumanizes the individuals who are supposed to be served by the project. Not to mention that the logo and the name are both too general, too vague, and too inflated with a very long expired approach to charity work where there are rich people giving stuff to poor people without any collaboration, empowerment, or true development.

Not only were the logo and the name bad, but they were on the side of a bad truck. One of those giant trucks with cages on the back for the white people to ride in so that they look like zoo animals as they drive through the Haitian streets to wave at all of the little kids that stare at them. So I took the photo knowing that through some of the design consultation work that I do with different groups it would serve as the perfect example of what to avoid in branding. And since then I have indeed used it multiple times for that exact purpose. But I never used it for anything on the blog yet and that was a year ago.

Then, a couple of weeks ago I got a message from one of my readers who was going to be in the Jacmel area with a mission team and they wanted to meet me. They wanted to visit me in Mizak and learn more about the work that I do here and then see if I could travel back to where they’re working. They were visiting a children’s home in the nearby community of Camatin which their church back in Indiana supports financially, but they were hoping that I could come along to help them better understand the operations of this project that they were involved with. They had some questions on the way the children’s home was run and also the effectiveness of their involvement as foreigners and they hoped that I could help them figure out some answers by helping through the language barrier and interpreting the cultural situations that influence the work there. I always look forward to a chance to meet my readers in person and also to learn about initiatives that I’m not familiar with that are working within our local communities here, so I agreed to their invitation and we made plans for the exchange.

After they came to visit me in Mizak, I was to ride back with them to Camatin. It was starting to get dark out by that time, so I didn’t even notice the truck that we were climbing up into for the ride back. I didn’t notice, that is, until the next morning when I woke up in Camatin and walked out onto the second story porch where we were staying and saw the logo on the side of the truck in the driveway. It was the exact same truck that I had photographed last year! I started laughing out loud at the absurdity of this strange bit of serendipity until the leader of the group heard me and came out to ask what was so funny. Knowing that he was a reader of the blog and understood my critical perspective on so many nonprofits, I had to tell him the truth. I told him the whole story, how I saw their truck on the beach a year ago, probably with some of them even in it, and judged it very harshly for the logo and name. I had to tell him how I had used them as a bad example to other groups who were working on ethical branding. I told him how ever since I saw it on the beach I have frequently wondered about the organization behind the logo and what kind of work it actually accomplished in Haiti (because there’s no way I could actually know from their branding). Now there I was, having ridden in their truck the night before and having spent the night at their headquarters.

To my delight, he laughed along with me and told me the story of the logo. He said that it’s been around since the 80’s when some well intentioned Americans got involved with the children’s home which had already been established by a local Haitian businessman. They incorporated the home as a nonprofit in the States and gave it that name and logo. Those Americans and the churches that they were from that had first supported the home had long since cut ties with the organization, but the nonprofit structure in the States and the name Poor Children’s Assistance Project, have remained in tact with a 2 person board responsible for it. Yet, it seems that the organization lacks any real invested leadership stateside concerned with updating it’s vision or reconsidering their branding to be more appropriate for their current status as a single children’s home caring for a total of twenty young girls, with an uncertain future as regulations for orphan care and adoption continue to change. They also lack leadership in Haiti as the whole project depends on the direction of one single man who inherited the project from his father and doesn’t have such a heart for it.

Despite all of this there are 20 little girls in that home who depend on its operation for everything in their lives. And there are a lot of Americans and Haitians collectively who care deeply about these girls’ well being and their futures. During my one day with this group at the children’s home I learned that the issues facing their programs there are truly much more complex than a bad logo and bad name on a bad truck. But I also met the girls who stay there and the women who take care of them and the staff that work to make sure all of their needs are provided for. I learned of their needs that might have a better solution possible for resolving them but will probably be impossible to ever implement that solution because of the systems of decades old charity that their needs are woven into from the start which is too complicated to undo. I found myself wishing the absolute best for the girls there and the staff that’s responsible for them but found it hard to believe that the absolute best would ever be reachable for them. For those reasons I applaud those people who are doing their absolute best to support this project despite the imperfection of the situation and encouraged those supporters who were there that week to continue their support any way that they could. There’s a future that’s going to be available to these girls that might not have been otherwise, and that always deserves to be celebrated.

I may have cringed when I first saw the logo on the beach, but now I’m thankful for learning the story behind it and the lives that are connected to it and I’m thankful for the friends that I met along the way. But next time I hate a logo on a truck on the beach, or on a t-shirt in the airport, or on a building in the street, now maybe I’ll invite Karma to bring that logo’s story back around to overlap with my own story. You just never know.


Whatever You Do, Don’t Start Your Own NGO

I have often been asked my advice for individuals who are starting their own organizations and after years of nurturing my own start up org, being involved in starting and encouraging a number of others and now on the brink of starting another brand new one, my best advice is: DON’T DO IT! This is a case where I implore all off the other justice-loving, peace-fighting, hard working, big-dreaming hippie do gooders out there to do as I say and not as I do. I’m too far into the deep end of the intoxicating rush of designing logos and crafting mission statements and training staffs and mobilizing groups around common goals to make it out alive. But you still have a chance to save your own soul! Whatever great idea you have for the next life changing organization to introduce into the world, take a moment to bathe in the the very brief euphoria of the hypothetical, and then quickly abandon all of your brainstorms and swiftly run in the other direction. The truth is that there are better ways to channel your lust for making a difference than making one more well intentioned acronym to add to the global alphabet soup of good deeds.

I’m not writing this to rain on anybody’s parade but to lend my support to the idea that the way that humanitarian work is done is truly changing and the future does not need any more MONGOs (My Own NGOs) to flourish. I am also not saying this because I regret starting my own or because I think others have been mistakes. But the way we do things even since I founded my first 5 years ago has changed drastically. We collectively have learned a lot and we’re at a tipping point where things must change to improve and even maintain the prestigious reputation that humanitarian work has held in the past. We have learned a lot from the Haiti earthquake of 2010 and all of the failures that followed. We have learned a lot from Greg Mortenson and Somaly Mam and Yele Ayiti and Invisible Children. We’ve learned a lot from MONGOs that weren’t equipped to handle fame and recognition and the support that comes with it to carry out their grand visions. We’ve learned a lot from MONGOs with very big ambitions and even bigger hearts but absolutely no cultural or professional expertise.

IMG_1219-001I, personally, have learned a lot from all of the ego inflating highs and the soul sucking lows that I’ve gone through myself in my MONGO experience. Luckily I’ve been able to make it through all of those highs and lows, as have the organizations that I’ve been involved with, while maintaining some hope still for the future, but there have been too many days along the way where I have seen the humiliating gateway to failure looming dangerously close. And although I and the orgs have survived in the big picture, there have been too many smaller failures in the process of learning to survive that make the bigger picture much less enjoyable to believe in. (Somewhere in there there’s a metaphor about seeing the forest for the trees.)

The truth is that you shouldn’t start an NGO of your own because in order to succeed you have to give up too much of yourself and You are too precious of a thing to sacrifice so completely to some greater abstract notion of altruism. I know, I know, cynical old crabby doom and gloom. But here’s the glimmer of hope, the crocus pushing up through the cold, icy snow: You can make a difference! But in order to do so, You have to remain the beautiful creature that you already are. The beautiful creature that believed it was possible to do something great in the first place. That beautiful creature that dreamed of a world better than the one they knew and thought that they could play a role in making it come true. Be that beautiful creature and don’t destroy it by trying to start another NGO. It’s the most guaranteed way to crush those beliefs and suffocate those dreams. The people that you think will be there to support you and encourage you along the way will end up being the ones doubting and ridiculing and criticizing you. Or you might find that you get so much support you don’t know what to do and the next thing you know you’re wandering in the street naked babbling like a crazy person while someone videotapes you in secret to share with the world.

So, now if you decide to follow through with your idea for an NGO anyway, don’t say I didn’t warn you. Maybe you’re just a little masochistic like me and are drawn to the suffering. This is one of the reasons I refer to myself as a green mango. They’re masochistic little fruit. Mangoes actually need some sort of trauma to thrive. When nature is the harshest, mangoes love it. And in order to maintain the right kind of crazy to run your own NGO you have to have some of that attitude where you welcome the pain and the failures and turn them into opportunities to thrive. Welcome the bitter reality and still find a way to turn it into something sweet. But even then, even if your desire to help others trumps the logic that says it’s not possible, there are better ways to follow through in this day and age than by starting your own NGO.

And yet, I realize that sometime’s it’s simply safer to stick with what we know. And for years we’ve been told that NGO’s are part of the answer to the world’s problems. That’s a large part of the reason why I am standing at an impossible intersection that leads to building another MONGO right now. Despite everything, it’s what I know, and it would be a shame not to apply everything that I’ve learned in the past 5 years to something that means so much to me. You want to know more about it? Check out the Facebook site for The Mountaintop BAZ Foundation. Make a donation if you want. As far as MONGOs go, I think this one’s pretty damn sweet.

But, I repeat, just because I’m doing it doesn’t mean you should. Especially if you are new to the NGO world, I urge you to carve out a different path than the one that I and many others have found to work. The fact is that it won’t work forever, it may not even work for much longer, and I know that you’d rather be a part of the future. Create the future if you have to. Make it one full of more beauty and dignity and less institutionalized begging and pathetic logos and websites. Make it more about justice and less about charity. Make it a future that down the road, old fart humanitarians like me can say we were proud to be a part of when we were.

Why Can’t We Have Microwaves and Racial Justice?

I have a couple of very close Haitian friends who have recently returned to our community in Haiti after spending a significant amount of time in the US. Now that they’re back, of course, many of our other friends like to hear about their American experiences and often fantasize about visiting sometime themselves. As these conversations evolve under the mango trees and amidst the songs of chickens and crickets, it never takes long for the guys who have traveled to issue a warning along the lines of, “But being a black guy in the US isn’t always as sweet as it sounds” Then the others look to me for some sort of explanation.

Although I can’t say what it’s really like to be a black man in the US, I find myself taking a deep breath and doing my best to explain the complicated mess of race relations that currently exist in our country. I try to explain to them the stories of Michael Brown, and Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice, and John Crawford III. I try to explain to them how those stories can exist in the same country as the stories of Barack Obama, and Oprah Winfrey, and Beyonce, and Wyclef Jean. I try to explain how Martin Luther King Jr. was an inspiration to millions but he was also shot for being so inspirational. And how some people think that inspiration isn’t supposed to come from certain colors I try to explain how in the US my Haitian friends there can indeed use the same water fountain as me and sit next to me on the bus, but the KKK still exists and functions freely. I try to explain to them that although, if they did come to my hometown, they would be welcomed in the community and greeted with kindness, they’ll also just as often be presumed to be thugs, and thieves, and gang members, and drug dealers. That if they decided to protest with me in the streets I might get some eyes rolled at me but they’d probably get spit on.

I try to explain all of this and still justify how we can call ourselves the land of the free and the home of the brave. I try to explain to them that the only real way to be completely free and brave in our country is to be white, Caucasion, heterosexual, employed, not poor, and speak fluent English. Anything else and there will be plenty of people finding plenty of reasons to hate you. And then they’ll defend their hatred in the name of the Constitution and the God that they claim to believe in. We’ll hate you if you’re Mexican, Arab, Muslim, Voudouist, Queer, Trans, homeless, handicapped, depressed, or just a little weird. We won’t say that we hate you because of those things because that would just expose our ignorance. We’ll say we hate you because of other less obvious reasons but essentially they all boil down to hating you because you’re different. Because you don’t fit the status quo that we’ve imagined to define our country’s alleged greatness. Because our ingrained prejudices and our undeniable Privilege suggest that your differences weaken the curve.

I try to explain this to my Haitian friends hoping, that me standing there among them, the only white in a varied spectrum of browns, makes me somehow immune to the injustices that we normalize in our US American society. I try to explain this hoping that they’ll recognized how ashamed I am to admit this reality of where I come from.

My friends who’ve been there have seen the stories on the news and have been able to imagine their own image in the place of the victims. But then they come back to Haiti and all of their friends think that they’ve just returned from the Promised Land. How does one explain something like that? How do we reconcile what we’ve created with what we claim as our identity? I’ve struggled with these questions as many have for a while now. I wrote about my feelings after Ferguson and then thought that somehow, leaving the US and coming back to Haiti would give me a break from all of the upsetting news. But now I just have to go over it again and again as I try to explain it all to my friends. And it still never makes any more sense than it did the first 100 times.

"2010 0515 rama 4 and sathorn 24" by Takeaway - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

“2010 0515 rama 4 and sathorn 24″ by Takeaway – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

In the meantime, on the flip side, I am finding myself once again having to explain the riots in Jacmel to friends back in the States. How an entire city can be brought to a standstill for a week by burning tires and piled rocks and angry people and how at the same time that does not make the place a violent place. How most of the people don’t even know what they’re rioting for and there could be a hundred different reasons. This fiery roadblock could be because someone accidentally shot someone else in the foot while the one 100 yards down the road could be because teachers haven’t been paid at a local school and the next one could be because someone’s wife cheated on him. And all of that means that I’m not making it to the beach this week but it’s probably better because I’ve got plenty of housework to do. And somehow, you just get used to it all because it’s happened before.

I guess sometimes I wish the issues from the States were that simple. I wish that there were less complex reasons to our protests. I wish that we could say that people are organizing rallies just because someone’s donkey got stolen or a bridge is taking longer than expected to get built. I wish that talking about those issues resulted in nothing more than a temporary inconvenience to me rather than the more overwhelming realization that I come from a place that doesn’t value all human lives the same.

But of course, life can’t be that simple because we’re humans. In my conversations with my Haitian friends the ones who have traveled usually resolve their explanations with something along the lines of “But at lease the microwaves and washing machines and the departments stores and the internet are nice.” It would just be nice if we could have the microwaves and the racial justice at the same time. I guess you can’t have all. Maybe some day. MLK had a dream that we’re still waiting on and I’m gonna go ahead and keep dreaming too.

My Top 10 Books of 2014

I read more this year than I ever have before and mostly it was because I encountered books like the ones on this list that reminded me why I love to read and what a good story can do for a person’s soul. These are my best 10 from the year. It might be a bit redundant for me to list them because I’ve already quoted many of these books or even written full reviews of them throughout this year on this blog. But they were all good enough that I want to make sure to recommend them again to all of my readers. If you need a good book to read over the holiday break or to start your new year off, all of these are worth checking out. One of my new year’s resolutions will be to read even more so that maybe next year’s list will be even more competitive. Not all of these books were published in 2014, they are just books that I happened to read in 2014. They are ones that if you haven’t yet, you should happen to read in 2015.

Claire of the Sea Light1. Claire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat

There is so much to love about this book. Most of all, Danticat’s incredible use of language and storytelling are such that they make me want to be a better writer while at the same time letting me get completely lost in the story as a reader. The brilliant way that she layers so many different convergent stories all centered around the innocence and optimism of one little girl, Claire. The setting that she creates in the fictional town feels so real, especially for someone from the Jacmel area, I could visualize every step the girl took. My absolute favorite part of this book, however, was a part where Claire sings a song about a hat falling into the ocean. About a week after reading the book, I was riding in the back of a tap tap and a group of teenage girls in the truck with me started sing the same song!

Radiance of Tomorrw2. The Radiance of Tomorrow by Ishmael Beah

Set in a fictional village in Sierra Leonne that is trying to rebuild itself as refugees return to it after the war ends, paints a picture of conflict that is seldom seen. Although it’s fiction, Beah writes with such sensitivity and infuses his words with such a unique African style, that the entire story feels very real. And knowing Beah’s background from his own memoir, Long Way Gone, you can feel how personal each character is. As the community fights for dignity and the chance to be seen as more than disposable your empathy as a reader is pulled to the absolute limit. Beah leaves you as a reader wanting to find the radiance in tomorrow almost as badly as the characters in the book themselves. You keep thinking maybe on the next page, or the next chapter, the light will come, but you’re never given the real relief that you’re looking for, and it’s in that realization that you feel the pain of the characters and the truth of what it may be like for so many in the world who have to face such situations after being displaced by war.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers3. Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

This breathtaking story creates such a beautiful yet tragic atmosphere where poverty and wealth, politics and religion all collide through very relatable characters that are all trying to make life better for themselves in the slums of Mumbai, India. It’s hard to believe that the story is based on real events lived by very real characters because it is so well told and so extreme in its representation of the clashing forces that define this society. And yet it’s full of so many snippets of real life that can be applied to the struggles of people anywhere in the world. No book has made me root for the underdog and feel sympathy for seemingly sympathetic characters like this one.

Letters Left Unsent4. Letters Left Unsent by J

As I mentioned in my blog post about this book, it was definitely the most quotable book that I read all year. If more people in the aid world thought like the author of this book and more people outside of the aid world realized even the tiniest drop of what he’s talking about, it would be possible for a new era of aid work to take hold in the world. It unashamedly calls for more professionalism in aid, honestly questions how long we can allow good intentions to be the basis for bad aid, and it also reveals that when aid is really done well, it ends up sucking the soul from those who do it. It removes the façade of fluffy good feelings about humanitarianism and asks us all to get real with ourselves.

Unbroken5. Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

I just finished this one. And although I’m not usually attracted to war stories, Angelina Jolie convinced me to give this one a try since she made it into a movie. It illuminated so many parts of World War II that I had no idea about and shared the harrowing and extraordinary story of Louis Zamperini. From childhood bad boy, to Olympic runner, to Air Force bombardier, to tortured POW, Zamperini survived it all and eventually came away full of forgiveness and a greater zeal for life than he’d ever had. So much courage and resilience and strength of the human spirit coming through this story. If any of your resolutions for 2015 include complaining less or having a more positive outlook, then this is a book that will help you accomplish those. I know that as soon as I finished it and put it down, I looked at my life and the world that it’s lived in a little differently.

Savage Harvest6. Savage Harvest by Carl Hoffman

Maybe “lost at sea” was a theme for my reading in 2014. This one, like Unbroken and even Claire of the Sea Light could fit into that theme literally where as some of the others more metaphorically could. But Savage Harvest is full of themes that drew me in: art, adventure, anthropology, and spirituality. They are all packed into the story of Michael Rockefeller and his search for “primitive” art among the Asmat people of New Guinea. The Asmat, known for cannibalistic rituals but also their beautiful and raw artistic expressions of their spiritual experiences, drew Rockefeller to them searching for items to take back to his father’s museum in New York. He mysteriously disappears on his voyage and the author of the book retraces his steps and weaves a very plausible and intriguing story of what might have happened to him.

Redefining Realness7. Redefining Realness by Janet Mock

I learned so much from reading this book about the journey that a transgender person goes through but even more than that, it’s simply a story for us all to have the courage to be real with ourselves. I had been attracted to the book because I was acquainted with Mock through some of her television appearances, but never knew her personal story. My favorite part of the book, however, was showing the cover to my roommates here in Haiti and hearing them all fawn over what a beautiful woman she was and then see the look on their faces when I told them that she was born with male anatomy. In the rural mountains of a country as LGBTQ-phobic as Haiti, of course they freaked out at first, but it also opened up some very interesting conversations with the guys and gave me a chance to share Mock’s story with them as well which let them see into the experience of a person that they would never take the time to think about otherwise.

How to be Black8. How to be Black by Barathunde Thurston

On the back cover of this book it asks, “Have you ever been called too black or not black enough? Have you ever befriended or worked with a black person? Have you ever heard of black people? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then this book is for you.” I couldn’t agree more. Especially with all of the tragic, upsetting news around race relations in our country right now, a book like this can help us to understand each other while being very funny about it. It takes so many stereotypes and turns many of them on their heads, reveals the absurdity of others by placing them so in your face and embraces others as unavoidable but still harmless.

I know why the Caged Bird Sings9. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

I bought this one after hearing of Maya Angelou’s death and realizing that I’ve never actually read anything of hers. I’m glad I did. I like to think that I’m a better person because of it. Although sometimes difficult to even read in it’s authenticity, still beautifully written and leaves the reader with a sense of redemption and wholeness. The hatred an pain that comes through the story, although set years ago, still resonates with what we as a society have to confront today. Ultimately though, it brings each reader to a point of acknowledging the strength that lies within themselves and gives them a reason to fight through their struggles.

40 Chances10. Forty Chances by Howard Buffet

This is a collection of stories by Howard Buffet sharing his experiences doing humanitarian work all over the world through his foundation that was built through his father, Warren Buffet’s, fortune. Much of the book is pretty typical humanitarian do-good feel-good help people kind of stories. But there’s a whole section where Buffet outlines some of the biggest failures that he’s encountered along the way and the mistakes that he’s made and learned from that I found particularly refreshing in its honesty. It’s kind of comforting to know that even someone with access to as many resources as Buffet does things wrong sometimes. But it also comes back to provide some substantial basis for how to do aid work better.

What were your favorite books this year? I’d love suggestions of ones I missed that I should add to my bookshelf for 2015.

When Deeper Parts Embrace

Just a few days before I returned to Haiti I went out to eat with my parents and a couple of family friends. Where I come from in Iowa, we don’t go out to eat at restaurants, we go out to eat at towns, depending on what food we’re in the mood for. Merrill for Mexican, Remsen for steak, Marcus for a burger… you get the picture. On this night we were going out to Germantown for fried chicken. And the family friends that we were going with are some of Mom and Dad’s best friends from back in their high school days that they have remained friends with to this day. The husband, in fact, is such a good friend to my father that my middle name is in his honor, Daniel. And I’ve always liked these friends of my parents and see them frequently whenever I’m back home. One of the things I like most is getting in political debates with Dan. I’m not sure that there’s a person in this world who could be farther on the other end of the spectrum from me on our social views. And Dan’s a guy who loves to stir the pot whenever he’s in a group and say something that he knows is going to be controversial.

This night in Germantown was no exception. When he said that Barack Obama was a dirty Socialist hellbent on destroying our country and Ben Carson would make a much better president, I let it slide because I knew I was outnumbered on that one when a table full of drunk guys behind us cheered him on. When he claimed that Obamacare was taking away everyone’s freedoms I told him to quit making stuff up but left it at that knowing how uncomfortable it makes both his wife and my mom when I engage him and really get him going. But when he started in on Michael Brown, the moment the words “thug” and “monster” were used, I couldn’t keep my mouth shut. We continued on for the next 10 minutes in a passionate, but respectful debate about the characterization of the victim and real underlying issues that prompted the worldwide protests to the situation. Neither of us convinced the other of anything, but we laid our points out in front of each other and at least let each other know that we were not okay with what the other was saying. We had a discussion that didn’t change either of our minds but presented both perspectives not just to each other but to everyone around us at the bar that night who was listening. Eventually Dan’s wife kicked him under the table and told him to let me finish eating my chicken. And that was that. We went back to talking about football or something.

Dan’s not a bad man. I wouldn’t even call him a racist, because I know how much that label hurts and believe in personal evolution and redemption (Although I did consider calling this post “The Embrace of a Racist” because I knew it would get more clicks). But he is the type of man that, if I encountered him on the internet, possibly though an opinionated comment on my blog, I would probably think hateful thoughts in my heart about him and all of the other people who contribute to making the world a worse place, even though I know that’s not true. Dan’s not a bad man. He’s just a man that disagrees with me. But that too is not the whole story.

Lee 362

My Haitian internet won’t let me upload the photo that I want to upload, so I’m recycling this one from my last post.

When we went to leave the restaurant that night, knowing that it was the last time I’d see them before leaving for Haiti, Dan gave me a big ol’ man hug and told me, “Now you take care of yourself over there and know that I’ll be thinking about you a lot. And I’ll be praying for you too. I always do.”

And the beautiful thing was that I knew he meant it, with his whole heart. From the absolute deepest part of him, I felt the sincerity and allowed it to call out to the deepest part of myself where I knew that it made a difference to me to have his prayers behind me and feel his thoughts with me every day. Beyond the politics and the opinions and the people that we associate with and the cable news channels that we watch, I hold a deep gratitude to this man for the love that he shares with me. And I am happy to reciprocate it. When deep calls out to deep in the roar of your waterfalls.

Today I visited that waterfall that I shared a photo of in my last post. It’s one of the most famous places in Haiti and also considered to be one of the most spiritual. In the pool below the cascade they say the water is 87 feet deep. I wasn’t able to plunge into the water today because I’m still healing from the health issues that I had in the US, so I just sat on a rocky ledge across from the falls and listened beyond the roars of the water to hear the deep call out. The result, Gratitude. Peace. Strength.

Doves and Ravens in this World

I have two tattoos on my wrists: a raven on my right and a dove on my left. I got the two permanently etched on my skin in 2009 as a representation of the many opposing forces that define our lives on this earth and a reminder to try to always see both sides. A dove, traditionally serving as a symbol of peace and hope; with the raven, a classic metaphor for death and fear. And somewhere in between lies the truth about what life really is. I like my tattoos, but it has always also bothered me that I had to have a white bird to represent the positive and a black bird to represent the negative. Somewhere shallow just under the surface of the symbolism of these two birds is also a tragically expected expression of racism. White = good. Black = bad. This is not why I got the tattoos, to prove these equations correct in the case of our human identity, but because this color theory symbolism permeates every facet of our culture from our art and our music and our literature and cinema to even psychology and religion. And there’s scientific basis for it. Walk into an empty room painted all white. You’ll feel much differently than if you walk into an empty room painted all black. tattoos But human lives cannot be defined by a Color Theory 101 course. Human beings are not empty rooms or words on a page crafted into poems to inspire emotion or paint on a canvas crafted to draw out feelings from a gallery viewer. No, this flesh that wraps up who we are, body, mind, and spirit, cannot be defined by such simple chromatic extremes. Because the flesh itself does not define who we are. And yet in this world, or at least in this country, it seems that people still like to think that the doves and the ravens can be captured in cages of stereotypes. But then we somehow find it justifiable to let the doves fly off to freedom while we kill the ravens because we’re afraid of the lies that we tell ourselves about what they might be.

And because of this, everything that’s been happening in this country the last several weeks has got me feeling sad and angry and all kinds of unexplainable. I am feeling upset and trapped by our human weakness because we are spending so much time looking for ways to justify killing rather than discover life. I am feeling scared because 12-year-old boy isn’t free to walk outside of his home with a BB gun without being killed but a middle aged white man can carry his loaded rifle wherever the hell he pleases and be considered an example of freedom. I am feeling lonely because we live in a place where an entire race of people have been made to feel that they are considered expendable. I am feeling betrayed because I speak a language where somehow, the word “son” has evolved into “thug” and “victim” has become “monster” and “he” has become “it” and “father” has become “target”. How have we allowed this to happen? How have we come to this? So many questions and so many feelings, but no answers and no consolation. Only more bodies and reasons why we’re supposed to believe that they were supposed to die.

Lee 362I’ve tried to find answers or some sense of consolation amidst it all. The week after this world lost its child named Michael Brown, I was scheduled to give the message at my parents’ church in Iowa. In preparation for this message I spent some time dwelling in the end of Psalm 42 where the question is asked multiple times “Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me?” And the response lies somewhere in “Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls. All of your breakers and waves have swept over me.” I wish that we all on this planet together could allow the deepest part of ourselves to call out to the deepest part of every other individual we encounter on our path in life. Beyond the skin colors and the clothing and way one might talk. Beyond even the cigarettes that one may have stolen or tried to sell or whatever item might be held in one’s hands. When the deepest part of me calls out to the deepest part of you, we are able to see something much more real and experience something much more sacred. If you believe in God then you have to believe that that’s where They dwell within a person, in The Deep. And if we get to that part, that’s when Love and Understanding can sweep over us and we can finally get lost in the deafening roar of Justice falling like a waterfall.

I still believe that. And dammit, I’m going to keep believing it no matter how many news stories might give me reasons to believe otherwise. But simply believing isn’t going to make it real. So I will continue to support those who are protesting and actively fighting to bring about the justice that they deserve. Your struggle is legitimate and I echo your cries. I will also continue to support the many good and brave police men and women who are giving their all to uphold justice in a system that is broken. Your service is appreciated and your sacrifices recognized. And I will continue to hurt and mourn alongside those who have been more directly affected by the injustices and those who were born without the privileges that I was born with as a white male in a middle class family. Your scars are deeper than anyone else can pretend to understand. Perhaps I don’t know what else to do but contribute to the dialog that needs to happen in the way I know how.

While saying all of this, I also acknowledge my own cowardice. Writing words on a blog is not the same as protesting in the street. I may get a negative comment or two but I won’t get pepper spray in my white face or handcuffs on my tattooed wrists. But it’s what I can do at this moment. It’s what I can do from these airports where I’m writing before taking my chance to get out of the USA for a while. After the last several weeks, I need a beak from America and I’m taking it. That doesn’t mean that I won’t remain in solidarity with those fighting for justice from wherever I am. Every time I look down at the birds on my wrists I’ll say a little prayer and send out the deepest part of me to the deepest part of you.