“For your dreams to come true you gotta wake up.”
I’m struggling right now to define myself as someone who makes things happen, as opposed to being someone things happen to.
I doubt I’m alone in being someone whose proudest moments are times when they stepped up: proposing to my wife, negotiating for a new job with confidence, starting Detroit Diaspora. It’s invariably more awesome being the golf club than the golf ball.
But I beat myself up about the times when I let circumstances dictate my state of mind and/or productivity. Yeah, I wasn’t feeling 100%, but why didn’t I make that phone call? Why did I let fear over what the doctor might tell me enable me to put off physical therapy for 2+ years?
I was scared. I still might be. But I need to flip that fear on its head. Maybe it’s more “fear” as in “fear of the Lord” I need, the kind that really means respect, trust, and confidence.
Being productive, being a “pro,” means being willing to put yourself out there. To get hit, hurt, or embarrassed. To fall down, but to fall forward.
That takes confidence that can only be built through experience. If you think about it, we respect people that go all in for stuff in this world. Basketball players who throw their bodies after loose balls and entrepreneurs that bet on their ideas have this in common. So do great teachers and soldiers.
I’m challenging myself on this in small ways with my health and habits. Less consumption and more production. That motto should get me pointed in the right direction.
Happy Black History Month. Now go make history.
On September 11, 2001, I was thinking about my future.
My plan for that Tuesday was unique.
It was the 2nd day of the 1st week of my sophomore year. I woke up that morning in my dorm room in Ann Arbor, MI at 6AM thinking about two things: my career and the Blueprint.. Before my classes started, I had an early meeting somewhere in Troy, MI. My mother had connected me with a man that was a former General Motors colleague of hers who had a few years prior left GM to create is own consulting practice. He was an electrical engineer whose consultancy had GM as his biggest client. He was quite successful.
I was a Computer Engineering major with aspirations of owning my own business. Meeting him was an exciting proposition to me, having just come off my 2nd internship at GM that summer. He was living the dream. I wanted to understand how he did it. I called my parents at home while I was in the car on my way to his office. I got there around 720AM for my 730AM meeting.
I won’t give his name, but suffice it to say that he and his business were awesome. He opened my eyes to entrepreneurship in a way that reading a blog post about Steve Jobs or a book by Jack Welch never could. He told me about how hard it was to run a business, and how much it was worth it. He told me he wasn’t swimming in money, but he and his family were quite comfortable. He told me how terrified he was the day he quit GM, despite the fact that he had a plan, but his faith and his family undergirded him. What I remember 2nd most about that meeting was the fact that this was a real person with a real business. He had pictures of his kids on his desk and a drawing of a tiger by his daughter on his wall.
What I remember most, however, was how I felt walking out of that office. We passed by a conference room and did a double-take. Why was CNN playing? Why where 10 people in there for an 845AM meeting on no one’s calendar? What was going on?
A woman in the office was crying. The screen showed one of the twin towers that defined the most famous skyline on the planet. It was surreal. We sat down and watched in horror. The coverage was scattered and frantic, mirroring the hearts and minds of everyone in New York and everyone connected to anyone in New York. I watched the 2nd plane hit the tower in that conference room. I watch the tower collapse in that conference room.
I got back in my car and drove back to Ann Arbor. I called my dad, a Department of Defense employee, to find out if he knew anything and if his office had been put on any type of alert. He basically knew what I knew. It was scary.
I got back to campus to find everyone stunned. I had class, but when I got to North Campus I found signs on the buildings saying classes were cancelled (I think that’s the only time that’s happened before). I was supposed to go to the mall with my then-girlfriend, but the mall was closed. In my dorm room, a combination of CNN and Jay-Z served as our soundtrack for the next several days. Our room, the biggest on our floor, was where everyone came to find out what was happening. Great hip hop mixed with catastrophic news. Our TV and our stereo remained on the same channel/CD for days and days.
What strikes me most about this day and the 10 year anniversary today is that I’m still thinking about my future. The “I had no idea I’d be here today” cliche applies to me. On September 11, 2001, I expected to be starting business school at MIT on September 11, 2011. Instead, thankfully and happily, I am siting in the basement of my beautiful home in DC with my beautiful wife of exactly 2 years and 2 months, watching New York on TV, just like I was 10 years ago. I’m working in politics for the public interest, not technology like I thought I would be. I woke up this morning thinking about my future, just like I did 10 years ago today.
On September 11, 2011, I’m still thinking about my future. We all are, and we all should be. But on this day, and every day, let’s remember how important our past is too.
One Love. One II.
Detroit is where I was born. It’s the best place on earth.
You wouldn’t know that by the Detroit Decimation Porn that has been the most resilient major media fetish of the last five years. It makes me want to spit at my computer screen now. I get showing images and telling stories with the intent to educate. But it’s clear to me that nothing new is coming out of that noise: what was once educational is now irresponsible and exploitative.
I am neither a denier nor an apologist for what’s happening in Detroit. It’s tough. Real tough. The 2010 Census says the city has lost 25% of its population in the last 10 years. That fact is jarring but unsurprising.
Like most hard truths this presents both a set of challenges and a set of opportunities. Too many people dwell on the former, lacking purpose and direction. Instead, I’m choosing to approach the latter in a way that suits my current skill set and station in life.
I introduce to you Detroit Diaspora: From Detroit. For Detroit.
Grave challenges in Detroit’s public school system drove my parents to decide to move our young family out of the city to its northwest suburbs. They felt forced to choose between their child’s education and their love for Detroit, the only city they’d known. The Census data shows that more and more individuals and families are facing the same choice every day. This opens up a unique opportunity.
Detroit Diaspora is based on the premise that a strong way to rebuild Detroit’s human capital is to leverage the human capital that Detroit and it’s neighbors built. Southeastern Michigan has birthed, educated and trained hundreds of thousands of brilliant, hardworking leaders that have contributed their time, talents and treasure to the well-being of places all over the country and the world. Detroit’s most valuable export is its people.
Many move physically, as I did after graduating from the University of Michigan to pursue a career in software development. But most don’t move emotionally. Many of these travelers have family in the area. They faithfully read the Detroit Free Press, Detroit News, Michigan Chronicle, etc. more than the local papers in their new cities. They perk up when they hear the word Detroit at a bar or a party and initiate conversations with people about their home. And it’s over if they find somebody who also hails from Southeastern Michigan: just call it a night.
Being an organizer, whose passion is in connecting community energy and common purpose to world-changing goals, I see great potential for Detroit in the energy of these current expatriates.
- What if everyone that ever thought about moving back home to Detroit actually did?
- What if they maintained connections with the fearless changemakers building Detroit’s future and supported them with ideas and resources?
- What if every native Detroiter changed the prevailing Detroit doomsday narrative one conversation at a time?
- What if every native Detroiter knew of and was connected to every other native Detroiter in their city?
We are only limited by our imaginations when trying to envision what would be possible if we mapped and connected the Detroit Diaspora. When you connect people to one another that share common bonds, sparks are lit, fires are started and lives are changed forever.
Detroit Diaspora is about making those connections and being a platform for this community. As we grow, we’ll decide how to proceed together. I have a few ideas about what can be done through this community, but there are infinite possibilities:
- Diaspora Map. Who makes up the Diaspora? Where are they? What are they doing today? Who do they know? Through Detroit Diaspora we’ll draw this map together.
- Detroit Stories. People sharing their stories and vision for home and how they plan on contributing. For those that do return home, people will share how and why they did so. Detroit Diaspora will be a platform where these stories are told and shared.
- Detroit Circles. Everyone has a story and a place. Each place can form a Circle, where people interact face-to-face. People will soon be able to find and join Detroit Circles.
These are just a few ideas, by no means the extent of what’s possible or what will happen. The ideas and opportunities will flow as the community grows. So join and grow the community first. Let’s do our part to contribute to the future of Detroit.
Fellow native Detroiters, join me on this Detroit Diaspora journey today. Please share this with your friends and family.
One Love. One II.
I started feeling sick the second-to-last day of my trip home to Detroit for Christmas. It’s not the best way to finish up such a trip. What started as a dry throat became a sore one. A few sniffles evolved from a cold to [what I think is] the flu.
I’m still not 100%. I’ve pummeled four boxes of Puffs since returning to DC plus a full box of Kleenex from my parents and 3 travel-packs of tissue. I’m almost through Costco-sized boxes of DayQuil and NyQuil, and I should buy stock in domestic vapor rub manufacturers.
You get the idea: this infirmity has been tough to get over. While going through this, I can’t help but thinking about the bigger problems we’re dealing with that seem to persist no matter how hard we fight. US politics has regressed from broken to vitriolic to violent. Poverty and economic inequality have skyrocketed with no end in sight. And racism finds another hole to poke its head out of every day. This stuff makes curing the common cold look as easy as walking in a straight line while sober.
There is no agreed-upon cure for the common cold, but the approach we take to treating it could be instructive for us as address our nation’s challenges. Consider what we normally do:
- Rest up
Being sick usually wears us out because our body is literally fighting off infection. Unsurprisingly, fighting is tiring. We need to rest so we can fight again next time.
The same is true with the societal and structural challenges we’re tackling, but replace rest with reflect. Taking at least a second to think before reacting to all the day-to-day idiocy in the news would probably lead to less idiocy in the news every day. My father has a saying: “I don’t have to do anything right now.” By this he means that he operates on his own timetable, not someone else’s, and that he won’t be cajoled into doing something until he’s thought about it and is ready. We should all heed that call to reflection.
- Drink lots of water
Drinking fluids flushes our system and replenishes us. When facing big problems, we need to do the same. Read and watch responsible, nuanced and smart media instead of sound byte silly news. Engage people that make you think about why you think and feel the way you do about issues, not just people you implicitly and explicitly agree with on virtually everything. Consume good, healthy stuff and watch good, healthy come out.
- Wash your hands
Hand washing is one way to prevent colds and the flu. It’s a preventative solution based on the principle of helping everyone while at the same time helping yourself. That’s called community values, which means acting in a way that responsible to humanity in general and to yourself individually.
These things are what come to mind when we get sick, and they can inform us on how to go about healing our nation. There’s no magic cure, not matter what any person or interest group says, but there are things that we know won’t work. Let’s commit to doing things we know will move us closer to a healthier future.
One Love. One II.
The following is a brief essay I wrote in late 2010 for the Skillman Foundation Annual Report in which I was featured. After the essay, there is a short video message I recorded for young men in Detroit as well.
One Love. One II.
I wear my Detroit heritage proudly every day. I was born at Hutzel Hospital. I played basketball at Herman Gardens. I spent sunny afternoons at Hart Plaza. I love Detroit, its people and its history. Most importantly, I love the future of this great city.
The city’s visionary leaders and institutions invested in me and thousands of other children like me. Programs like the Skillman-funded Detroit Area Pre-College Engineering Program (DAPCEP) exposed us to a future beyond the negative circumstances too many young people face. Foundations like Skillman joined hands with Detroit Public Schools, businesses like General Motors and universities like my alma mater, the University of Michigan, to work toward a common purpose: to expose the children of today to the skills of tomorrow, regardless of their zip code. The writing opportunities. The friendships. The science projects. The math challenges. DAPCEP transformed these subjects from intimidating and mysterious to accessible and fun. They gave me educational experiences that empowered me to choose my destiny with confidence.
The future of Detroit will be built upon initiatives like DAPCEP. They will combine the best thinking from the city’s people, government, educational, cultural, business and philanthropic communities to overcome our shared challenges. The entire Detroit community will come together to mold the Detroit we dream of.
This city produces hard-working people with brilliant minds. Many of us went to other places in search of careers and opportunities. We may have left Detroit, but Detroit certainly has not left us. Detroit’s diaspora is full of sons and daughters who are hungry to participate in the city’s renaissance. We’re ready to contribute our talents to the home that made us who we are.
DAPCEP and similar programs built human capital in Detroit. We have an opportunity to supplement the human capital investments that are being made today by reclaiming people who benefited from past investments. So let’s invest in the entire Detroit community. Let’s invest in the relationships upon which our future will be built.
I will return home to be part of Detroit’s bright future and give to the city that has given me so much. There are thousands of others who are ready to do the same.
Here I am. Send me.
I’m thankful that you’re here. I pray you are a happy and healthy year for every person and every family.
I enjoyed your younger brother 2010, which brought me many blessings including my fist anniversary, a new house and 28th birthday. He also gave me many new friends, acquaintances and contacts to whom I hope to prove valuable.
That same year, however, there were challenges of all scales imaginable. Devastating earthquakes carrying famine and disease in their wake. Selfish, reckless politics that saw ugliness, derision and greed show their faces at all levels of government.
I can only imagine what you hold in store for us this year.
I’m thinking big as I look into your eyes this first Monday. Instead of big, scary, hairy problems I see huge, wide open opportunities to grow personally, professionally and communally. To put it succinctly, I’m still here. I’m here for you 2011.
I’m not alone. We’re all still here. Working hard. Fighting for what we believe in. Marching into our future.
Detroit is still here. Despite hopeless headlines, political division and census data, the resilient spirit that built my great city still breathes breaths of hope throughout its streets. The flip-side of blight is bright.
The social justice movement is still here. Despite electoral setbacks, there is more hunger than ever for a clearly stated vision of public institutions that are clean, functional and responsive to people’s needs. Progressive activists, organizers and politicians must realize this opportunity and seize it.
The opportunities for personal growth and fulfillment are still here. The best investments are the ones made in people. I’m thankful for all those that invested in me in 2010. My debt to them is not only to exceed their expectations and those of my own, but to pay them back by investing my own time, talent and treasure in others this coming year.
Yes, the people who hate, detract and obstruct are still here too. All I have to say to them is that to say only negative things, to only point out what’s wrong with an idea rather than find out what’s right, to criticize with the intent to paralyze is the highest form of intellectual bankruptcy. Do so at your own peril.
Here I am 2011. Let’s go.
One Love. One II.
“Racism still alive/They just be concealin’ it” -Kanye West, Never Let Me Down
Ten years into to the 21st century, the United States is still arguing over the same central problem it faced 10 years into the 20th, 19th and 18th centuries: racism. From the “peculiar institution” to Jim Crow to redlining to anti-immigrant profiling, overt and covert racism has been a consistent foundation for discrimination, displacement and disenfranchisement.
Racism’s tragic legacy is tearing apart families and communities everywhere across the country. Hate crimes are up in Baltimore. Why? Because anti-immigrant vitriol is being dispersed by politicians and media personalities. Because people are translating their economic insecurity into fear of people who don’t look or speak like them. This thinking turns neighbors against neighbors and needlessly forces communities into hiding because they fear for their safety. Worse still, according to the article, people are afraid to come forward and cooperate with law enforcement because of the hate-filled environment. Simply put: they don’t trust the people who are paid to protect them, which makes these already-vulnerable communities even more susceptible to criminals who know their victims are less likely to contact the authorities because they’re afraid of being profiled.
Many Black communities have a long history of being weary of police forces that disproportinately use excessive force and harass them, so they too are often unwilling to cooperate, leery of not being taken seriously or being victimized again. It’s the vile cycle of victimization.
Out of the many implications of the far-reaching impacts of racism, three stand out for me in this current socio-political moment.
1. Demonization of difference
Though this country’s founding was fueled by an imperialist premise, it was based on certain principles that protected the freedom to be different. Diverse religions, diverse sources of wealth, diverse methods of communication, etc. The freedom to be different, however, has been systemically walked back in several respects, as protectors of tradition have cloaked their radical views with nice-sounding thoughts like returning to the “good old days.” What they really mean is the “good old days when non-white people and women were largely subservient and the transfer of wealth and power existed within a homogeneous, incestuous, repetitious vortex.” What they want is a return to the days when it was cool to say “freedom of religion,” but people only used that freedom to choose what flavor of Christian they wanted to be. Kind of like Henry Ford saying that people could have any color Model T they wanted, so long as it was black.
This is the clear rationale behind the clamoring from conservative radicals to repeal the 14th amendment’s clause that grants citizenship to all children born in the United States. That clause was included because, previously, the children of slaves (read: Black people) were not citizens of the United States and could not enjoy the privileges and immunities of citizenship, thanks to the Dred Scott decision. The precedent that the 14th amendment rejected and dismantled was abhorrently racist, and it’s sad that today’s racists want to set us back 150+ years because they are scared of non-white babies.
2. Anti-government sentiment
There is tremendous overlap between the people who are clamoring about how they want to altogether eliminate government and people who are publicly racist. The most dishonest members of this cabal advance the level of government influence on private life in order to achieve this objective. They push for policies that make people more prone to question the motives of their government, such as racial profiling laws, laws that diminish women’s autonomy over their own bodies, cuts to programs that benefit the working class (e.g. unemployment benefits, food stamps), etc. This increases the pool of people potentially open to an anti-government message, which is the point of the strategy: the more people mad at the government, the better.
One of the primary functions of our government is to be the referee that protects factions of the population from injuring each other (see Federalist Paper No. 10 by James Madison). Just because a majority or plurality of individuals want something doesn’t mean that it’s the right thing to do. A prime example is the Department of Justice suing and winning a preliminary injunction against Arizona’s SB1070 immigration law. Though many polls find most Americans support the Arizona law, it is the federal government’s responsibility to ensure that the community impacted by that law (in this case, immigrants in Arizona) is treated fairly. Racial profiling, which was what the law sought to institutionalize, clearly is unfair, illegal and morally wrong. It had to be stopped. It’s the same reason that Jim Crow laws were eradicated in the 20th century.
3. Powerful Victim Paradox
An interesting paradox present in racism’s long shadow is that the fear inherent in racist thinking leads those with those views to see themselves as helpless victims, which then motivates them to grind their heels further into the necks of those they seek to oppress. Let’s call this the Powerful Victim Paradox. This is what motivates people afraid of people of color moving into their previously-homogeneous neighborhoods to protect their ‘hood by making sure that the people they are afraid of, even if they move in, are jeered and treated disrespectfully to the point where they’re intimidated into relocating. (Think this doesn’t still happen today? Ask this woman & son in Clearfield, PA who were greeted at home last Saturday by two burning crosses on their lawn.) They think that if new people move in, they’ll steal the power and influence, so they must press their levers of influence even harder. Same is true for the argument that we should continue to destroy the lives of immigrants because they’ll take jobs (for an alternative vision, try this). It’s a great American tragicomedy.
Race has divided people nationally and locally. Nationally, one needs to look no further than the Park51 Community Center flap to see hatred and prejudice, in this case racial, ethnic and religious, on full display. The idea that a community center, run by Muslims can’t be constructed in any NYC neighborhood, near Ground Zero or anyplace else, is preposterous. It’s the equivalent to saying that you can’t build YMCAs in neighborhoods where Jewish people live. The status quo is unsustainable.
How to move forward
We can put an end to racism’s reign of terror, entrenched though it may be. We can and we must because our communities depend on it. Here’s how we can begin:
- Call racism what it is when you see it
Racism persists in part because of silent acceptance. It is amazing, however, how things can be changed when proper attention is paid to them. It is not politically incorrect to call something or someone racists if it is clear that they are behaving in such a manner. Don’t be afraid to do so.
- Remember that community literally means “with unity”
Unity is not the destruction of difference. Instead, it is the embrace of diversity. It’s about alignment, not assimilation. As organizers, activists, policy makers, etc., we may have different paths. That is fine so long as we are clear about our destination. Movements predicated upon assimilation are no match for movements that respect and encourage creative thinking toward a common purpose.
For us, that common purpose is an America and a world where we recognize the dignity and decency of every person. Where we see strength in people speaking for themselves and taking care of one another. Where communities create institutions and craft policy that treat everyone as equally important and powerful. There are no special interests, only human interests.
In order for this to be realized, the long shadow of racism must subside. Turn up the lights. Let’s recommit to this today.
One Love. One II.
Originally posted on the Center for Community Change blog.