Monthly Archives: November 2014

It’s Not About Ferguson

I wasn’t sure what to write today. I’ve had a hard time finding my words.

Ferguson is all that’s on the news, and with good reason. A grand jury failed to indict police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed, 18-year-old, black man.

I could write about how the role of a grand jury is to evaluate a case by the low bar of whether there is probable cause to believe that a crime has been committed – advancing the suspect, still presumed innocent, to face a trial.

I could write about how incredibly rare it is for a grand jury not to indict, how of the 162,000 federal cases U.S. attorneys prosecuted in 2010, grand juries declined to indict in only 11 of them.

I could write about how the jury which failed to indict white police officer Darren Wilson was composed of nine white and three African-American jurors.

I could go through the thousands of pages of evidence, giving my own lay opinion of what it all means.

But none of that feels sufficient. None of that is enough.

What happened in Ferguson was shocking, but not surprising. It was horrifying but routine. It was a noteworthy moment, but a moment of little note.

The thing is – the true, deep, terrifying thing – is that it’s not about Ferguson.

In that moment, in that place, the details, of course, are everything. But in the grand scheme of things – it doesn’t really matter whether Officer Wilson genuinely felt threatened or whether he had genuine cause to feel threatened. It doesn’t really matter what the evidence indicates in this specific, individual, case. I mean, it matters a lot, but it also – it doesn’t matter.

What matters is that black men and women face a dramatic difference in life expectancy than white people do.

What matters is that black men and women are hugging their children tight, desperately praying for their safety. I don’t know whether Officer Wilson was genuinely threatened, but I know that my black brothers and sisters are genuinely threatened.

I know that black people are disproportionately more likely to be shot by police officers.

I know a 12-year-old black kid was shot and killed by police while playing with a toy gun.

You see, that’s the insidious thing about institutional racism – there’s always a reason why its “not about race” this time.

A police officer is trained to react a certain way, to anticipate a certain danger in order to stay alive. Can you really blame a white officer for feeling seriously threatened by a black man? It’s almost easy – especially as a white person – to look at the details and rationalize the injustice away.

But not everyone has that privilege.

Not everyone has the luxury of turning off the news with a sigh, saying this news has nothing to do with me. Not everyone has the privilege of feeling safe walking down the street in their own neighborhood.

Not everyone has that privilege. But everyone should.

As a white person, it seems so obvious, so assumed, that a person would have that safety. But my Facebook feed is full of people of color wondering which of their family members they might lose. My neighborhood is full of black men who look at me askance and hustle on their way – fearful I might find them a threat.

That reality is simply not okay.

I’m not interested in getting into a fight about evidence or laws. I’m not interested in picking apart the details or analyzing every action that has happened in Ferguson. What’s happening there has meaning, but it’s not the details that matter.

Black lives matter.

Black lives matter.  We cannot simply breath a heavy sigh, finding just enough compassion to calm our conscious. We cannot keep rolling our eyes, assuring ourselves that it’s not really about race this time. Assuring ourselves that we are not racist, or that there is no privilege which comes with being white.

We cannot let people of color fight this battle alone, and we cannot, we cannot – we cannot let our fellow man continue to die because of the color of their skin.

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The Grind

There’s an important moment when strength training and getting into heavier weights. It’s just about halfway into the movement – when you’ve gotten past the initial push but haven’t made it to the smooth sailing of the top.

That middle ground is the toughest.

It’s somewhat cartoonish, actually. Everything seems normal as the initial effort gets you started, but then – you just stop. Midway. Stuck. It may be impossible to move the weight any higher.

That moment feels like an eternity. In my mind, I look at the weight, I look at myself…and I look at the weight. I have a whole inner dialogue about whether I’ll be able to get the weight to move any further. Do I have it, or is this it?

The world ceases.

But, really, I’m just standing there silently, straining to hold a weight in midair. Trying to figure out if I can make the weight go up, or if I should just let it down.

It’s a subtle, but important decision.

You see, trying too hard when you don’t have it in you will almost certainly lead to injury. It’ll almost certainly slow progress towards your goals. It is foolish to push past your capacity. If you don’t have it, you don’t have it.

Better then to just walk away.

But you shouldn’t be a quitter, either. The only way you’ll get better, the only way you’ll get stronger is to push yourself as hard as you can. If you stop whenever you get tired, you’ll never get anywhere. You have push through the discomfort and give it all you’ve got.

It’s a fine line between these two states, but you learn to feel your way through them. Every day is different and every workout is different. A weight that feels manageable one day may as well be the weight of the world the next.

You just have to feel it out. See how it goes. Do your best, but know when to walk away. You may not get it today, but you’ll probably get it to tomorrow. Or maybe the day after that.Just keep pushing. Grind through. Wait for the right moment, but never back down.

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Cooperation and Competition

I believe that the best solutions come from diverse opinions.

Several years ago, I participated in a simple activity: in a large group we were individually presented with a list of items and asked how we would prioritize taking them if we we about to escape a sinking ship. Essentially, we were asked to identify which items would be most essential to survival. After individually ranking these items we formed small groups and discussed our answers, generating a collective list of priority items.

As a final step we scored our lists – the version we created individually and the version we created collectively. In a room full of 100 people, every one was more likely to survive when they had input from others. Alone, we had each demonstrated imperfect judgement and imperfect knowledge.

That experience helped me realize that cooperation isn’t just nice, it isn’t just something you do to feel good about yourself or to garner a warm and fuzzy feeling. It is literally about survival; about generating better solutions.

Our world is facing many serious problems – economic instability, global warming, and diminishing resources, just to name a few. These problems are non-trivial, and they require non-trivial solutions.

There is not one of us who can do it alone.

So I strongly agree that the best way for a society to prepare its young people for leadership in government, industry, or other fields is by instilling in them a sense of cooperation, not competition.

Those who would disagree with this statement would likely highlight the valuable role that competition can play.

In Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, a futuristic novel of rich social commentary, one of his characters outlines a parable illustrating the importance of competition. In this space-fairing universe, there is a world called Sanctuary. Of all the worlds in the galaxy, Sanctuary is unique. Not only is it suitable for human life, it experiences virtually no radiation from space. There is no element forcing hardship, mutation, or change. While at first this sounds good, the full picture Heinlein paints illustrates why competition, while perhaps unsavory, can be beneficial.

You see, nothing on Sanctuary every changes. The life there never evolved because it was never forced to evolve. Anyone who moves there becomes virtually trapped in time – genetically, socially, and technically stagnating as they face no challenges to their fitness to survive, no competition forcing them to be better.

Sanctuary, Heinlein concludes, is nice respite to visit, but it is never a place to stay.

I appreciate Heinlein’s vision and I agree that competition does have value. Humanity itself has indeed only evolved as a result of generations of competition.

However, surely as a society we can provide an appropriate balance. I don’t suggest we coddle our young people, encouraging them to never face a hardship or to never know real trouble. But surely – life is hard enough as it is.

The challenges we face individually and collectively are monumental, and it won’t help to be fighting amongst ourselves. As a society we ought to encourage our young people to collaborate, to interact fairly with others, and to improve themselves by learning from others.

There will be plenty of opportunities for competition, plenty of opportunities for young people to get their heart broken and to grow from the hard lessons of life. But as the stewards for the next generation, we must instill a sense of cooperation. Indeed, that is the best thing we can do to support their future leadership.

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This is actually a response to the writing prompt, “how much do you agree with the statement: best way for a society to prepare its young people for leadership in government, industry, or other fields is by instilling in them a sense of cooperation, not competition.” Hence the somewhat formulaic response. Obviously, there are more than two options, and I’m not sure cooperation and competition are actually diametrically opposed.

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Transgender Day of Remembrance

Today is Transgender Day of Remembrance.

The fact that we need such a day is a tragedy in and of itself. Transgender Day of Remembrance is a day to memorialize the lives lost to transphobic violence.

The mind reels to think there even could be such a thing.

According to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP), in 2013 there were 2,001 incidents of anti-LGBTQ violence. That same year, 72% of LGBTQ homicide victims were transgender women, including 67% transgender women of color.

The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) reports that in schools, 16.8% of transgender students report being physically assaulted as a result of gender expression, while 32.1% experience physical harassment.

There is no universe in which that reality is okay.

Taken from the Transgender Day of Remembrance website, here is a list of those who have died from transphobic violence in the last year. That there should be one name on this list is too many –

Jacqueline Cowdrey (50 years old)
Cause of death: unknown
Location of death: Worthing, West Sussex, United Kingdom
Date of death: November 20th, 2013
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Rosa Ribut (Jon Syah Ribut – 35 years old)
Cause of death: blunt force trauma
Location of death: Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
Date of death: November 24th, 2013
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Betty Skinner (52 years old)
Cause of death: blunt force trauma to the head
Location of death: Cleveland, Ohio, USA
Date of death: December 4th, 2013
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Brittany Stergis (22 years old)
Cause of death: gunshot wound to the head
Location of death: Cleveland, Ohio, USA
Date of death: December 5th, 2013
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Elizalber Oliveira de Mesquita (39 years old)
Cause of death: stoned to death
Location of death: Teresina, Piauí, Brazil
Date of death: January 5th, 2014
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Paloma
Cause of death: multiple gunshots to the head and chest
Location of death: Belém, Pará, Brazil
Date of death: January 8th, 2014
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Rayka Tomaz (20 years old)
Cause of death: multiple stab wounds.
Location of death: Fortaleza, Ceará, Brazil
Date of death: January 10th, 2014
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Prince Joe (Joseph Sanchez – 18 years old)
Cause of death: multiple stab wounds, dumped on the street
Location of death: Belize City, Belize
Date of death: January 12th, 2014

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Toni Gretchen (50 years old)
Cause of death: multiple stab wounds
Location of death: Teresina, Piauí, Brazil
Date of death: January 16th, 2014
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Luana (20 years old)
Cause of death: gunshot to the chest
Location of death: Goiânia, Goiás, Brazil
Date of death: January 10th, 2014
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Cristal (Alexandre Nascimento de Araújo – 22 years old)
Cause of death: Gunshot
Location of death: Natal, Rio Grande do Norte, Brazil.
Date of death: January 19th, 2014
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Thifani (18 years old)
Cause of death: dismembered
Location of death: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Date of death: January 27th, 2014
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Joice (José Antônio Vieira Freitas – 32 years old)
Cause of death: multiple stab wounds
Location of death: Teresina, Piauí, Brazil
Date of death: January 28th, 2014
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Sarita (Marcos de Almeida Oliveira)
Cause of death: gunshot
Location of death: Itabela, Bahia, Brazil
Date of death: January 29, 2014
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Juju (Julian de Souza Cruz – 32 years old)
Cause of death: beaten and stoned to death
Location of death: Salgueiro, Pernambuco, Brazil
Date of death: January 29th, 2014
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Raíssa (Lourivaldo Xavier)
Cause of death: 6 gunshots to head and chest
Location of death: Cuiabá,Mato Gross, Brazil
Date of death: February 1st, 2014

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Tatty
Cause of death: facial injuries
Location of death: Belo Horizonte, Brazil
Date of death: February 7th, 2014
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Rafaela (Alexsandro Alderotti José dos Santos – 32 years old)
Cause of death: multiple gunshots
Location of death: Recife, Brazil
Date of death: February 11th, 2014
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Alex Medeiros (8 years old)
Cause of death: Beaten to death by father for refusing to cut hair, liking women’s clothes, and dancing.
Location of death: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Date of death: February 18th, 2014
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Paulete
Cause of death: multiple gunshots to the face
Location of death: Taguatinga, Brazil
Date of death: February 19th, 2014
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Camila Veronezi (24 years old)
Cause of death: suffocation
Location of death: Bragança Paulista, São Paulo, Brazil
Date of death: February 21st, 2014
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Lu (Célio Martins da Silva)
Cause of death: multiple stab wounds
Location of death: Nova Serrana, Minas Gerais, Brazil
Date of death: February 23rd, 2014
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Unknown woman
Cause of death: gunshots
Location of death: São Paulo, Brazil
Date of death: February 27th, 2014
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Unknown woman
Cause of death: gunshots
Location of death: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Date of death: February 28th, 2014

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Kitana
Cause of death: 3 gunshot wounds to the head
Location of death:Aracaju, Sergipe, Brazil
Date of death: Feburary 28th, 2014
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Sarita do Sopão (39 years old)
Cause of death: multiple gunshot wounds
Location of death: Teresina, Piauí, Brazil
Date of death: January 29th, 2014
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Andressa Pinheiro
Cause of death: 15 stab wounds, dragged, fractured skull
Location of death:João Pessoa, Paraíba, Brazil
Date of death: March 1st, 2014
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Rose Maria (32 years old)
Cause of death: stabbed in the neck
Location of death: Brás, São Paulo, Brazil
Date of death: March 5th, 2014
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Vitória (16 years old)
Cause of death: 2 gunshot wounds to the chest
Location of death: Boa Vista, Roraima, Brazil
Date of death: March 12th, 2014
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Unknown woman
Cause of death: burned to death
Location of death: Jardim Ingá, Goiás, Brazil
Date of death: March 14th, 2014
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Paulete (Paulo Roberto Lima dos Santos – 19 years old)
Cause of death: gunshot
Location of death: Teresina, Piauí, Brazil
Date of death: March 17th, 2014
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Marciana
Cause of death: gunshot
Location of death: Iguatu, Ceará, Brazil
Date of death: March 24th, 2014

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Nicole (Marcos Vinicius Machado – 20 years old)
Cause of death: hands and feet bound, stabbed in the neck and abdomen
Location of death: Vitória, Espírito Santo, Brazil
Date of death: March 28th, 2014
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Unknown woman
Cause of death: dismemberment
Location of death: São Paulo, Brazil
Date of death: March 23rd, 2014
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Giovana Souza Silva (33 years old)
Cause of death: gunshots
Location of death: São Paulo, Brazil
Date of death: March 29th, 2014
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Unknown woman
Cause of death: beaten with weapon, fists by several people, dragged through the street.
Location of death: João Pessoa, Paraíba, Brazil
Date of death: March 29th, 2014
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Unknown woman
Cause of death: blow to the head with iron bar
Location of death: Sobral, Ceará, Brazil
Date of death: April 2nd, 2014
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Unknown woman
Cause of death: beaten and strangled to death.
Location of death: Manaus, Amazonas, Brazil
Date of death: April 2nd, 2014
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Mileide
Cause of death: 4 gunshot wounds
Location of death: Santo Antônio, Rio Grande do Norte, Brazil
Date of death: April 7th, 2014
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Valquíria (aka Josivaldo Ribeiro Oliveira Brito)
Cause of death: gunshot to back.
Location of death: Praça dos Carreiros, Rondonópolis, Mato Grosso, Brazil.
Date of death: April 20th, 2014

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Çağla Joker
Cause of death: gunshot to the chest
Location of death: Tarlabaşı, Beyoğlu, Istanbul, Turkey
Date of death: April 21st, 2014
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Unknown woman
Cause of death: four gunshots
Location of death: Porto Alegre, Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil
Date of death: May 29th, 2014
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Marcia Moraes (34 years old)
Cause of death: four gunshots
Location of death: Porto Alegre, Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil
Date of death: May 29th, 2014
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Kandy Hall (40 years old)
Cause of death: massive trauma, body left in a field
Location of death: Montebello, Maryland, USA
Date of death: June 3rd, 2014
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Paola (Anderson Arruda Camote) (29 years old)
Cause of death: knife wounds to neck, feet and hands tied
Location of death: Arandu, São Paulo, Brazil
Date of death: June 8th, 2014
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Zoraida “Ale” Reyes (28 years old)
Cause of death:choked to death
Location of death: Anaheim, California, United States
Date of death: June 10th, 2014
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Mia Henderson (26 years old)
Cause of death: massive trauma, found dead in alley.
Location of death: Baltimore, Maryland, USA
Date of death: June 16th, 2014
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Yaz’min Shancez
Cause of death:murdered, and burned
Location of death: Fort Myers, Florida, United States
Date of death: June 19th, 2014
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André Luiz Borges Rocha
Cause of death: gunshot wounds to the face
Location of death: Tijucal, Cuiabá, Mato Grosso, Brazil
Date of death: June 23rd, 2014
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Tiffany Edwards (28 years old)
Cause of death:shot to death
Location of death: Cincinnati, Ohio, United States
Date of death: June 26th, 2014
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Unknown woman
Cause of death: raped before being brutally executed with blows to head.
Location of death: Coruripe, Alagoas, Brazil
Date of death: June 30th, 2014
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Kellen Santorine
Cause of death: raped before being brutally executed with blows to head.
Location of death: Uberaba, Minas Gerais, Brazil
Date of death: July 13th, 2014
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Mackelly Castro (age:24)
Cause of death: hanging
Location of death: Teresina, Piauí, Brazil
Date of death: July 18th, 2014
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Lele (age:24)
Cause of death: beaten to death
Location of death: Roatán, Honduras
Date of death: July 18th, 2014
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Dennysi Brandão (age:24)
Cause of death: multiple gunshot wounds to the hip, chest, and back.
Location of death: Contagem, Minas Gerais, Brazil
Date of death: July 24th, 2014
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Alisson Henrique da Silva (age:25)
Cause of death: multiple gunshot wounds
Location of death: Macaíba, Rio Grande do Norte, Brazil
Date of death: July 31st, 2014
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Unknown woman
Cause of death: found dead, with eyes removed.
Location of death: Jardim dos Ipês Itaquaquecetuba, São Paulo, Brazil
Date of death: August 9th, 2014
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Alejandra Leos
Cause of death: gunshot to the back
Location of death: Memphis, Tennessee, USA
Date of death: September 5th, 2014
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Karen Alanis (age:23)
Cause of death: thrown from vehicle, ran over
Location of death: Caçapava, São Paulo, Brazil
Date of death: September 9th, 2014

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Marcela Duque (46 years old)
Cause of death: stoned to death
Location of death: Medellín, Colombia
Date of death: September 9th, 2014
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Cris
Cause of death: multiple gunshot wounds
Location of death: Portal da Foz, Foz do Iguaçu, Brazil
Date of death: September 13th, 2014
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Marcela Lopez
Cause of death: Stoning
Location of death: Medellín, Antioquia, Colombia
Date of death: September 14th, 2014
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Mahadevi
Cause of death: pushed off moving train
Location of death: Malleshwara, Karnataka, India
Date of death: September 25th, 2014
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Bruna Lakiss (26 years old)
Cause of death: gunshot wound
Location of death: Várzea Grande, Mato Grosso, Brazil
Date of death: September 30th, 2014
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Aniya Parker
Cause of death: gunshot wound to the head
Location of death: East Hollywood, Los Angeles, California, USA
Date of death: October 3rd, 2014
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Gaivota dos Santos
Cause of death: three shots to the face
Location of death: Rio Largo, Alagoas, Brazil
Date of death: October 1st, 2014
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Géia Borghi
Cause of death: shot in the chest, bound, gagged, set afire
Location of death: Monte Mor, São Paulo, Brazil
Date of death: October 9th, 2014

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Jennifer Laude
Cause of death: asphyxiation by drowning
Location of death: Subic Bay, Zambales, Philippines
Date of death: October 11th, 2014

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Sara (27 years old)
Cause of death: Gunshot
Location of death: Camaçari, Bahia, Brazil
Date of death: October 12th, 2014
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Aguinaldo Cláudio Colombelli (45 years old)
Cause of death: 30 stab wounds
Location of death: Passo Fundo, Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil
Date of death: October 16th, 2014
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Unknown woman
Cause of death: beaten to death
Location of death: Manaus, Amazonas, Brazil
Date of death: October 16th, 2014
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Flávia
Cause of death: three gunshots
Location of death: Goiânia, Goiás, Brazil
Date of death: October 20th, 2014
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Mary Joy Añonuevo (55 years old)
Cause of death: stabbed 33 times
Location of death: Lucena, Quezon, Philippines
Date of death: October 21st, 2014
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Ashley Sherman
Cause of death: shot in the head
Location of death: Indianapolis, Indiana, United States
Date of death: October 27st, 2014
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Maicon
Cause of death: Gunshot
Location of death: Goiânia, Goiás, Brazil
Date of death: November 1st, 2014
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Letícia
Cause of death:stabbed in the chest
Location of death: Sorocaba, São Paulo, Brazil
Date of death: November 6th, 2014
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Raquel
Cause of death:Gunshot
Location of death: Parnamirim, Rio Grande do Norte, Brazil
Date of death: November 6th, 2014
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Adriana (16 years old)
Cause of death:Gunshot, body wrapped in sheet, tied to tree trunk, thrown in river.
Location of death: Rio Branco, Acre, Brazil
Date of death: November 9th, 2014
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Unknown woman
Cause of death:throat cut
Location of death: Jundiaí, São Paulo, Brazil
Date of death: November 9th, 2014
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Unknown woman
Cause of death:shot and burned
Location of death: Tblisi, Georgia
Date of death: November 10th, 2014
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Gizzy Fowler
Cause of death:Gunshot
Location of death: Nashville, Tennessee, United States
Date of death: November 10th, 2014

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Group Membership and Individual Agency

What obligation does a group have to develop the agency of its members?

It is entirely possible that “groups” generally speaking have no such obligation.

Perhaps a non-profit with a stated mission of increasing agency has an obligation, while a corporation with other priorities does not. That certainly seems to be the functional way of things. But is that ideal?

In a practical sense, I don’t think I would advocate for every group – a broad term, indeed – to be focused at all times on the agency of its members. Agency is important, of course, but sometimes it’s more important to just get things done.

Yet if every person is to develop the capabilities of agency – to feel a sense of voice, a sense of influence over one’s world – where is that development to happen? Certainly we can’t rely on a few good hearted non-profits to win the battle for us.

Civil society more broadly seems the obvious place to turn: Develop curriculum that supports students as agents, structure governments which include citizens as agents, encourage voluntary associations which empower members as agents.

All of that is good. All of that important.

And yet, I find it strangely unsatisfying. An insufficient solution to a Goliath of a problem.

Schools don’t embrace agency unless the people demand it, governments don’t embrace participation unless the people demand it, and associations cannot flourish unless the people demand it.

None of these will simply sprout forth from the earth.

So, idyllic visioning aside, we are back to having a few non-profits advocating for agency and training the next generation of advocates. Perhaps we will achieve a critical mass of agency in a few hundred years or so. We’ll see how it goes.

Surely there must be other engines we can turn.

One challenge is that there is little incentive for any large organization to be concerned about agency. We may not expect this of large corporations, but even among the political crowd – too often the emphasis is on one act of agency which is swept up in a sea of voices. There’s no room for real political participation. For dialogue or for the real work of building policy together.

Walter Lippmann was deeply concerned with what he called the centralizing tendency of society – to get things done, you need to centralize, you need to bureaucratize, and ultimately – you need to cut people out of the process. It is democracy which pays the price.

Perhaps even more troubling is that the way to seemingly organize against centralized power is to build your own centralized power. Form a union. Create a new political party. Who is in power changes, but ultimately the system remains the same. And democracy pays the price.

I’m afraid I’ve stumbled upon no grand solutions in this line of inquiry, but I wonder what a…system in equilibrium would like like.

Through our many formal and informal groups, could we build a society which supports every individual’s agency, and yet still get the work done? Not every interaction with every group will increase your agency, but what is the right mix, the right balance of experience to create a good but workable system?

I cannot solve the troubles of the world, so perhaps, more simply, I should ask myself this: as a person who is a member of many groups and of many kinds of groups – do I do everything I can to increase the agency of those around me?

The group, after all, has not it’s own soul – it is ultimately up to us to make this vision so.

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The Adjustments Between Individuals

What is society? What does that word describe?

The first dictionary definition I ran across describes society as, “the aggregate of people living together in a more or less ordered community.”

Without over thinking it, that sounds about right. A society is a group of people. They may be in the same physical place, and they may have some means of communicating with each other. They may share certain values or have other characteristics in common.

Those are details over which reasonable people are right to quibble, but the fundamental concept is the same: a society is a group of people.

But what if that fundamental concept is a myth? An oversimplification, or, perhaps a convenient lie? What if society is not a group of people?

Well, then, what should we conceive it to be?

In his 1925 book the Phantom Public, Walter Lippmann argued that we ought to “think of society not as the name of a thing but as the name of all the adjustments between individuals and their things.

That is to say, society is not a group of people – it is a group of relationships. Relationships between people, between objects, between issues. A complex web describing how each person interacts with the word, and by extension, how we interact with each other.

As Lippmann bemoans:
We have been taught to think of society as a body, with a mind, a soul, and a purpose, not as a collection of men, women and children whose minds, souls and purposes are variously related. Instead of being allowed to think realistically of a complex of social relations, we have had foisted upon us by various great propagative movements the notion of a mythical entity, called Society, the Nation, the Community.

In Lippmann’s account, the error of taking society to be Society is more than an issue of semantics, and it is more than an innocent oversimplification. A theory of democracy which personifies society as a coherent whole, rather than a network of individuals and relationships, is not only mistaken – it is dangerous.

In post-World War I America, Lippmann looked out and saw the challenges of an increasingly globalized, centralized and professionalized world:

To defend themselves against the economic powers of darkness, against the great monopolies or a devastating competition, the farmers set up great centralized selling agencies. Businessmen form great trade associations. Everybody organizes, until the number of committees and their paid secretaries cannot be computed. The tendency is pervasive.

The concern, of course, is not necessarily with the centralization per se. Rather:

The men who make decisions at these central points are remote from the men they govern and the facts with which they deal. Even if they conscientiously regard themselves as agents or trustees, it is a pure fiction to say that they are carrying out the will of the people. They may govern the people wisely. They are not governing with the active consultation of the people.

Whether these people are elected, appointed, or otherwise endowed with power makes little difference in the end. Those with power are the ones who have power – everyone else is left out.

Yet the myth of Society, allows this to be so. A democratic people would never accept a king imbued by God – but they will accept government anointed by Society.

The people have spoken, they say. They cheer in victory or moan in disagreement, but the sentiment is the same. It is the Will of The People.

But “The People” is not a collective whole. Society has no unified will – and the myth that it does only allows those in power to falsely view themselves as benevolent actors of the people.

It would be impractical to do away with representative government, but what would it look like, I wonder, if we could divorce ourselves from this collective notion? If we could see society not as a unitary object, but as a messy web of relationships? If we truly saw our elected officials not divinely as the Voice of People, but as individuals themselves – given power not by social fiat, but simply for necessity’s sake.

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Rain

Silent, at first,
Mists in the morning sky.

The world wakes,
Dewy-eyed.
Fresh and cold and clean.

The sun hides
From the colorless in-between.

A deep exhale,
Roaring now through the empty streets.

Empty? Not empty –
A river –
A splash, a shout,
A blur of broken images.

A dull rumble,
The prolonged sigh.

Joy and grief,
Death and birth,
Intertwined.
The tumultuous darkness.

The sun wins once more –
clean carnage left behind:

A million little diamonds
Shining neath the sky.

Flowers bloom.

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The Gift of Not Giving

One thing most people don’t need is more stuff.

While there are, of course, many members of our society in desperate need of basic items, but those of us fortunate to have a middle class lifestyle generally have more than we need already.

I’ll save a diatribe on luxury goods for another day – stuff, you see, is a category all of its own.

It’s not a new pair of shoes or the latest gadget. It’s those miscellaneous items you don’t know what to do with but which you can’t bring yourself to throw out because they’re still in good condition or you hope they might be useful someday.

I have a whole box of miscellaneous wires.

I have a plastic lizard I’ve had since I was 10.

I have old protest signs, tchotchkes from miscellaneous events and many, many things that I’m not quite sure where they even came from.

There might be things I need, but I don’t need more stuff.

And yet…

I’ll be out and about town and I’ll see something that makes me think of someone. Wouldn’t they enjoy that? I think. Wouldn’t that be a nice gift? And then I get distracted. In a bout of temporary insanity, I mysteriously transform into the consumer capitalism wants me to be, and all I can think about is how I should really spend money on this random, ultimately worthless item that isn’t worth the tree needed for its packaging.

So I try to have an intervention with myself. Is it really something the person needs? Perhaps they would be glad to receive a gift, but in a year, would they find it in a dusty corner and find themselves straining to remember where it came from?

Nobody needs that.

But rather than just walk away, my new strategy is this: I tell people what I don’t get them.

I’ll see something amazing that my niece would love – a person-sized dinosaur, perhaps – and I’ll text my sister. I didn’t just buy this for you!

Sometimes I’ll take a picture.

And ultimately, this accomplishes everything it needs to – the person knows you were thinking about them, you mutually enjoyed the item’s existence, and then you moved on. No space or money wasted. It’s very environmental.

I like giving practical gifts, sure, but stuff?

Who needs it.

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What is the Primary Goal of Higher Education?

What is the core purpose of higher education? To educate, perhaps, but education to what end?

Tisch College Dean Alan D. Solomont answered that question today in a new op-ed reflecting on the White House Summit on Civic Learning and National Service which, as I mentioned, my office recently hosted.

As his op-ed describes:

While the [1947 Truman Commission on Higher Education for Democracy] stated that educating for democracy “should come first … among the principal goals for higher education,” today, society asks colleges and universities to prepare individuals for jobs in a cost-effective and accessible way. That is an important mission in a global economy, but there is a striking gap between 1947 rhetoric and today’s more narrow focus on education for individual economic success.

To modern sensibilities perhaps the idea of “education for democracy” sounds quaint, or perhaps simply idealistic. We’re living in a rough-and-tumble global economy. We face a skills gap. A wage gap. We are desperately trying to adjust to rapidly shifting industries and we are painfully aware that at any moment jobs might go overseas.

Education for democracy might be nice, but workforce development means survival.

There is a reasonableness to that argument, yet it feel oddly hollow and uncompelling.

Nearly half of all young people have no college experience, and, unless we want to consider making higher education free and accessible to all, than it is simply unconscionable to maintain a system that serves to improve economic prosperity for select participants.

Education for democracy – which everyone should have access to from Kindergarten right on up – has a different vision.

This approach imagines a society where everyone has the awareness to see and understand society’s problems, and everyone has the agency to do something about it. A society where people of differing views can hold civil conversations, pushing each other to be better and working to co-create solutions.

Education for democracy isn’t about improving the life of one student, or improving the lives of select students. It is about enriching all our lives, it is about actively, fundamentally, and collectively improving our communities.

The idea is neither quaint, nor idealistic. Indeed – education for democracy is about survival.

If we every hope to be the Just, Free, and Equal society we aspire to be, we must educate our young people not only to espouse these views, but to demonstrate them.

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Overthinking Letter Closings

I have a very distinct memory of being taught in grade school that one ought to properly close a letter with the claim, “sincerely.”

I went with the term for awhile but ultimate dropped it because every time I finished a letter I thought to myself, “Really? Did I really mean everything sincerely?”

For sixth grade that felt like a high bar.

Of course, checking your sincerity is ultimately for the best – if you are not sincere about the contents of your letter, that ought to call in to question your whole purpose in writing it.

But, having something of a penchant for hyperbole, I also found myself overly concerned with little details. If I sincerely wrote “I will always remember…” then decades later suffered from dementia, would that negate the whole sincerity of the letter I had innocently penned as a child?

I found this very concerning.

So perhaps you can understand why I stopped using the term. My intentions were sincere, but, I suppose, I didn’t feel comfortable holding myself to that sincerity indefinitely.

Years later, I noticed I had slipped into a seemingly casual replacement: thanks.

Particularly in the workplace this expression seemed apt. I was often asking people to do things and I was, generally speaking, sincerely thankful for their attention to the matter. And I am, have no doubt, all in favor of thanking people.

But this closing, too, came to wear on me.

I started signing off with “thanks” on most correspondence. Not only when I had something to be thankful for, but when those I was writing to probably ought to be thanking me, or when thanks, frankly, had nothing to do with it.

Not only did this make the “thanks,” seem shallow, the habit began to strike me as one of those things that would today make some click-bait list of things women ought to stop doing in the work place.

That is to say, I said thanks as a way of diminishing myself.

While women, of course, can do whatever they damn well please in the workplace and beyond, I did find myself drifting from thanks as my go-to sign-off. Thanks should be reserved, I decided, for times when I am particularly thankful for something.

For the last many years, I have settled on “best,” as my general sign-off. I like that it is positive, yet appropriately vague.

When I am feeling particularly meaningful, I upgrade this to, “all the best.

I’m not really sure what it means to wish someone all the best, but I imagine sending someone all the best things in existence. Rainbows and puppy dogs, perhaps. Whatever you’re into.

I can’t commit to my sincerity, and I’m skeptical of my thankfulness, but I feel confident that whoever you are I wish you the best – however you define that for yourself.

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