Tag Archives: diversity

Come Together

1853

“A few found what they came for, filling their pockets easily and heading home convinced that California was God’s apology for ousting Adam and Eve from the Garden. But the many more toiled in a decidedly post-Edenic state, with uncertain and often diminishing success.”

– H.W. Brands, The Age of Gold (Anchor Books, 2002) 194.

I’ve been reading a lot more since my latest career switcheroo, which has been a welcome change. One of the books in the feeding frenzy was a history book by H.W. Brands titled, The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream. For a transplanted Californian and former history teacher, it was a natural choice.

It was fascinating to read selected accounts of those intrepid souls who set off on terrifying journeys from all over the nation and all over the planet, all with their sights set on the part of the world that I now call home. Reading about the experiences on those seemingly interminable voyages and dangerous journeys…  I really can’t imagine, but Dr. Brands’s book helped me try. And certain facts about California that should have been obvious before—like the reason San Francisco is such a diverse city—make so much sense to me now.

But of course one of the transformative events in the history of this nation and one of the most astonishing accomplishments in American history emerged from these dangerous pilgrimages, and that was the completion of the transcontinental railroad.

On my recent travels I drove out to the historic location where the golden spike was driven that completed the grand project. Almost unbelievably, that epic dream began in 1863 when the nation was right in the middle of trying to kill itself by self-war. Two companies, the Central Pacific led by Leland Stanford and the Union Pacific led by Dr. Thomas Durant set out from Sacramento and Omaha respectively building track in the general direction of the other in a race for economic victory. The Central Pacific effort had to traverse the treacherous and snowy Sierra Madres—at time digging through solid granite at a pace of eight inches of progress a day—while the Union Pacific had its own challenges crossing the Great Plains while encountering the desperate Sioux and Cheyenne only to run into the Rocky Mountains.

Somehow, almost miraculously, these two companies met up north of Ogden, Utah, in just six years and had a little ceremony that rocked the world.

It was a lonely weekday morning at the Golden Spike National Historic Site when I visited, and it was quite surreal to be the only person standing at such an historic spot.

And, of course, I was filled with conflicting emotions about it all, given the materialistic fervor that produced the initial desire and drove the work along with the terrible treatment of particular peoples, including the very destruction of the ways of life of nations that were here first.  Still, it was impossible not to find some measure of respect in the simple fact that it was dreamed and accomplished.

But I think my favorite part is the metaphor of the very project that seems so foreign to our world today.  Imagine a world where competitors are positioned so that their very task is to see how fast they can come together as one.

That’s worth celebrating.

 

 

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Great Big Beautiful World

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Photo Credit, Jeff Baker

In this great big beautiful world of ours, I come from a place called Paragould, a small city in the northeastern corner of Arkansas right next to the Missouri border.  We called it The Friendly City, and maybe that is still its nickname.  Paragould is primarily a factory town sitting on a geographic anomaly called Crowley’s Ridge just east of “the hills” and just north of Mississippi Delta farmland.  It experiences all four seasons each year, from the searing heat of summer to the crisp fall air to bitter winter weather to the liveliness of spring—sometimes all in the same week—and is home to mosquitoes large enough to pull a truck out of the mud should they ever decide to be helpful.

In Paragould, I have fond memories of loving family and friends, listening to Cardinal Baseball on the radio, cruising Kingshighway as a teenager, eating “baby burgers” at Dairy Queen, and high school basketball straight out of the Hoosiers movie set.  In Paragould, I am not glad to remember a sordid past in race relations and am amazed that an almost unbelievable lack of racial diversity persists even to today.  But all of this, the good and the not good, is part of my hometown.  It’s where I come from.

This week is Diversity Week at Pepperdine Law, my California home for the past eight years, and it kicked off with the second annual Global Village Day, a day that celebrates the national, regional, and ethnic cultures found within the Pepperdine Law community.  It has become my favorite day of the entire year.  I suspect I enjoy it so much because of my insular experience growing up in Paragould.  To wander around a single law school atrium and experience cultures including Armenia, China, East Africa, France, Germany, India, Iran, Israel, Italy, Korea, Moldova, Philippines, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Scandinavia, Spain, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam—and regions of the United States including California, New England, and Texas—is just too cool to describe.  But from a somewhat less selfish perspective, it is even more fun watching students (and faculty and staff) take such pride in sharing their culture with others.  We are all from somewhere, and all of those somewheres are worth sharing.

So on Global Village Day I joined my friends Jeff, Margaret, Brittany, and Sarah for a pretty awesome table that shared the American South with the law school community.  I wore my Arkansas Razorback necktie and poured gallons (four!) of my wife’s sweet tea to those who wandered by, and Jeff shared his amazing (ten-hour!) playlist of Southern music alongside his homemade biscuits and pimento cheese, and Margaret, Brittany, and Sarah shared scrumptious cheese grits, macaroni and cheese, and Butterfinger cake, respectively.  We were a hit, but we were a hit in a room full of hits.

We are all from somewhere.  I have no intention of forgetting that.  But I sure love learning more about this great big beautiful world of ours.

Reflections from a Matatu

In Kenya

[Photo credit: Lee Morgan]

Hip hop music blasted from the Kenwood and Pioneer speakers aimed at the passengers’ faces on the matatu (bus) ride from tiny Kamulu to the big city of Nairobi.  Including the three members of my family, there were exactly three mzungus (white people) on the bus, and if we weren’t conspicuous enough, I fell into a lady’s lap as I boarded when the matatu unexpectedly (to me) lurched forward.  It turns out that my ability to make an impression transcends national borders.

Jackton, our friend and guide, warned us that it would be noisy, but I was still unprepared.  As DJ Simple Simon dropped the beats featuring the best in East African hip hop, an even louder horn consistently announced our presence to potential passengers.  Either that, or there was a Kenyan soccer fan on the roof with a turbo-powered vuvuzela, which would not have surprised me.

I learned that the young man dangling off the side of the matatu was the “conductor” who was responsible for picking up and dropping off passengers by yelling and banging on the side of the bus with his free hand.  Our conductor wore black Nike flights, a navy blue trench coat, and a brown flat-billed cap with a bright yellow sticker on the bill.  In California, I would have guessed he was from South Central, but we were most definitely in Kenya.

The matatu was named “The Inspector,” and as the kids like to say, it was dope.  The interior walls surrounding the aforementioned speakers were decorated with PR shots of the popular artists, and the ceiling was royal blue with white stars and had colorful Converse sneakers glued to the ceiling upside down.  The best feature, however, was the countless numbers of passengers that came and went all along the route.  After my graceful entrance, we had seats for the hour or so journey, but at times there were so many people on board that I made it to second base with multiple Kenyans without having to move a muscle.

It was quite a ride.

At one point my wife noticed that DJ Simple Simon offered a remix of a Taylor Swift song, a jarringly strange occurrence, and when we heard that Mr. Simon would appear in a Labor Day showdown at a club in Pomona, California, I no longer knew which planet I was on.  While my first matatu ride powerfully engaged every one of my senses, I particularly sensed that the world is a fascinating place, at times vast beyond imagination, and at times so tiny that our connections are undeniable.

Two of the three mzungus on The Inspector that day are now back in California, but the third, our youngest daughter, remains in Kenya for a summer internship.  Tomorrow is her birthday, and she seems so far away right now.  But I know that in certain and important ways she isn’t far away at all— and that she is with Kenyan friends she considers members of her family.  I hope she has the best birthday ever.

Exotic India

Taj Mahal.jpg

The fun folks at Merriam-Webster define exotic as “strikingly, excitingly, or mysteriously different or unusual.”  I now just picture India and call it a day.

I followed two colleagues to the other side of the world last week to cultivate relationships on behalf of the law school, and from a business perspective it was a successful trip.  From a personal perspective, I brought home extraordinary memories of…

  • Monkeys swinging over shoppers’ heads at a bazaar high in the Himalayas.
  • The snake charmer on his punji serenading us and his little, slithering friend.
  • Children playing cricket in the dirt in the searing heat.
  • Men paving a road by hand.
  • The “mad poetry” of Indian traffic (as my friend Jeff calls it), where cars, buses, scooters, bicycles, pedestrians, cows, dogs, auto rickshaws, motorcycles, and tractors dance to a symphony of horns.
  • The morning sun peeking through the haze on the road to Agra.
  • The stunning majesty of the Taj Mahal.
  • Being one of only two people not wearing a turban in a large business meeting.
  • The powerful aroma and flavors of rich Indian cuisine.
  • Camels on the roadside.
  • The unlimited potential of a scooter, from the wedging of toddlers between adults to beautiful women in colorful saris precariously riding sidesaddle to hauling more people and goods than a typical pickup truck.
  • Cows everywhere—and the jarring appearance of a McDonald’s.
  • A military man carrying a rifle grabbing breakfast in a convenience store.
  • Conspicuously arriving at a skills center in full business suit and the stares from the long line of poor people awaiting an exam that could change their lives.
  • The noble India Gate.
  • Going behind the gates of the President’s House and seeing the formal guard dressed in bright red uniform with a feathered hat standing at attention.
  • The magical city of Shimla at night.
  • Colors.  All of them.  Bright and vibrant blues, greens, yellows, reds, oranges, purples…

I don’t really know what to do with all of these memories just yet.  They are almost too much to process.  Sadly, I suspect that I have already forgotten images that in any other context would be unforgettable.

What I do know is that the world is filled with exotic places.  And that they are worth checking out.

Discovering Diversity

I participated in a “privilege beads” exercise at a diversity conference a year ago that involved reading statements and taking applicable beads to create a privilege bracelet.  As a white, straight, Christian, highly-educated, American male who lives in Malibu, I made a privilege hula-hoop.  It was embarrassing.  It was particularly embarrassing because one of my primary self-identifiers has always been growing up poor (read: underprivileged).  I am all about sticking it to the Man, ironically, and standing up for the little guy, i.e., my people.  Imagine my surprise.

But discovering diversity has been, for me, a humiliating pathway to joy.  The world is a big and beautiful place, and leaving the startling homogeneity of my hometown, though filled with wonderful people, has been an indescribable blessing.  I have learned so much, mainly that I know so little, and what I don’t know is fascinating without fail.  More importantly, I now have relationships with people who represent ethnicity, identities, faiths, interests, and nationalities that I never even heard of as a child.  That is my real privilege.  I am better for knowing these good souls, sure, but more importantly, the world is better for knowing them, too.

I returned to the same conference this year hoping for no privilege beads but anticipating new and deeper relationships and was not disappointed on any count.  One of the many things I learned at this year’s conference is that the majority of the United States will be non-white by 2044 and that 2011 already marked the first year that more non-white babies were born in the United States than white babies.  Significant change is occurring as to several of my privileges, some far more quickly than others.  My Facebook feed reminds me that many find such changes to be frightening.  Since diversity has been a great blessing in my life, I see it with different eyes.  To co-opt the famous FDR quote, the only frightening thing I see is the fear itself.

Listening

“There is a difference between listening and waiting for your turn to speak.”
– Simon Sinek

I typically get a laugh when I say that I do my best work by accident, but as an inveterate planner it is stated more as confession than humor. Regardless, it is true.

The monthly interfaith conversation with law students that we host in our condo is a prime example. I launched the group just over three years ago with distinct goals: (i) make sure our Christian law school really is welcoming to students from all faiths; and (ii) reduce my ignorance that periodically and unwittingly creates difficulty for certain faith groups, e.g., scheduling events during important religious holidays.

I think I also hoped for great conversations but had no idea that this interfaith effort would turn into one of the best things in my life.

October’s rendition was fantastic. The official conversation topic as decided by the student leaders was, “How does your ‘birth religion’ differ or accord with your personal feelings of religious experience (i.e., were you born into your religion, or did some thing or event compel your faith)?” I expected an interesting discussion but did not anticipate such moving and personal stories as were shared from traditions including Atheism, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, and many flavors of Christianity. It was one of those occasions when you realize that you are honored just to be there. It was a sacred space.

Although less emotional than the rest, I took a turn at answering the question. Although I am still associated with my “birth religion,” a major personal turning point occurred as a young adult when I first interacted with those from religious groups different from my own. This experience launched me on a trajectory that is currently exemplified by the very interfaith conversation that prompted my sharing.

On my best days, what changed in me was the development of intellectual humility. I have (ironically) learned that there is so much that I do not know, and what I do “know” often turns out to be wrong. That would have been a terrifying thought for Growing Up Me, but today I find it to be liberating and a great comfort.

Homogeneity is both seductive and intoxicating, but I have discovered that learning to listen to diverse voices has increased my ability to understand and respect and love. This has made me a better person, and my life is fuller.

Freedom is Respect

As I reflect on last week’s inaugural (and wonderful) Diversity Week at Pepperdine Law, the following passage from my hero, Will D. Campbell, comes to mind.

“The civil rights gains we have made are largely cosmetic,” my old friend, Kelly Miller Smith, told me just before he died. One would have expected to hear those words in earlier times, when the gains of black people had been more modest than it seemed to me they had been during his lifetime and mine. He had been a pivotal figure in it all. Buses and taxicabs, schools, restaurants, theaters, parks, swimming pools, as well as participation in the political process had all been desegregated since he and I had come to Tennessee from Mississippi in the rigidly, segregated decade of the fifties. He from a black church in Vicksburg, I from a white university in Oxford. His little daughter had been one of the nine brave children who faced the violent mobs to begin the slow and painful process of integrated education. The church he pastored for thirty-four years was headquarters for the massive sit-in movement. Quietly or obstreperously, whatever the situation indicated, he negotiated with mayors, governors, merchants, and owners such issues as employment, housing, fairness, and decency in general.

All that he had been party to and more. Yet here he lay, a few weeks from death, saying that all his efforts had produced no more than a cosmetic coating over an inveterate malignancy as socially lethal as the one claiming his life. I protested with a roll call of the improvements he had presided over. He listened in his usual smiling, affable manner as I listed them one by one, beginning with public transportation in 1956 and concluding with his being a dean and teacher in one of the most prestigious universities in the South where he could not have been more than janitor not many years earlier.

“But they still don’t respect us,” he said sadly. After a long pause for needed oxygen, he continued. “Look at the television shows. Listen to the rhetoric on the streets. They still don’t respect us.”

His words were a startling awakening. How far I had missed the point of it all. How dissimilar the promised lands two Mississippi men had envisioned. To grant the truth of his words would be to acknowledge that the years of both of us had been wasted. He spoke with approval and gratefulness for the things I recited, but as he did it became clear to me that the one thing which was behind all else was never his. Respect.

Freedom is respect.

– Will D. Campbell, Forty Acres and a Goat 269-70 (2002).

That is what gave me great joy this past week—the giving and receiving of respect.

The Hard Work of Reconciliation

I live in a perpetual dilemma because reconciliation is possibly my most cherished value and it seems the whole world prefers to choose sides. And in the good news department, a recent study revealed that “unconscious biases are now at least as strong across political parties as they are across races.”¹ Oh goody. And just in time for a presidential race.

There is some comfort at my place of employment where we are emphasizing the celebration and engagement of diversity. Our entering class is the most racially diverse in school history, and we have great plans for the year ahead, including a celebration of the twenty-plus nationalities represented in the school, increased interfaith dialogue, and regular engagement of the most controversial national headlines.

It seems that some place should begin the difficult work of societal reconciliation, and the legal profession is as good a place as any. We have surely played a significant role in the fractures.

Before you unleash your lawyer jokes, consider the friendship of two lawyers-turned-Supreme-Court justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia. Read this L.A. Times article and tell me why the rest of us cannot get along if these two can be fast friends. There is even an opera that celebrates this unlikely friendship, and a recent review closed with the following line: “Could we please make it a constitutional requirement that no one can be sworn into office in the White House or Congress without having first seen ‘Scalia/Ginsburg’ [the opera]?”

There is a provocative article in the current issue of The Atlantic on the role of higher education in preparing students for life in this world. Form your own conclusions, but there is a passage near the end of the article that I love: “Teaching students to avoid giving unintentional offense is a worthy goal, especially when the students come from many different cultural backgrounds. But students should also be taught how to live in a world full of potential offenses.”

That should keep us busy for a little while.

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¹ Greg Lukianoff & Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind, THE ATLANTIC, Sept. 2015, at 45.