Three Thousand Ears in Cape Town


You’re probably thinking there is a typo in that headline. Nope. It’s correct. Not years. Ears.

This is a story about service. This is a story about choices and not enough choices. This is a story about experiential learning and tangible human impact, one small moment at a time.

Three thousand is an estimate of how many children’s ears were recently screened in Philippi Township, Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa. At best count and two ears per young child, a volunteer team screened about 1500 children for otherwise undetected ear infections. If left untreated, this preventable and correctable condition could easily have left many of these children permanently deaf. About ten required immediate surgery. Six had cysts that could have resulted in meningitis or death.

A project of this scope had never been attempted. The average number of children screened by public health services in the township for ear care is 150-200 per year, largely based on referrals. The team we assembled, working hand in hand with local clinicians familiar with medical infrastructure in the township, took on more than that each day. Once this model partnership committed to the challenge, there was nothing stopping them from achieving a new record they can’t wait to break or see broken.

The ear clinic was only one of many innovative projects our group of volunteers tackled earlier this month near the far-away Cape of Good Hope. One team worked on AIDS prevention and education in a place where HIV remains epidemic, potentially impacting the vitality of an entire emerging generation. A construction team built bookshelves for public schools across the township. Another team focused on robotics learning, with young children lighting up as their minds opened to the basics of computer programming.

We also ran a dance program led by a former champion from television’s Dance Fever. We engaged a team of professional journalists to start a school newspaper. We organized a series of open discussions on women’s health and personal well-being. We developed a peer-to-peer math mentoring program for high school students.

My own team focused on business consulting with micro-entrepreneurs, working with an NGO called Business Activator to help bolster start-up companies. We were based in a unique business park created from the remnants of an old cement factory, with stacked shipping containers creating storefronts along a makeshift plaza.

So what’s the buzz? Why were we in Cape Town? Why take this on in lieu of a leisurely vacation?

It was all about service—an alumni project organized by my college. This time a hundred volunteers descended on Cape Town, a highly unusual metropolis of contrasts and contradictions. You may remember that I wrote about a similar project a year ago at the Fort Mojave Indian Reservation. Indeed, this is the tenth anniversary of the Yale Alumni Service Corps, harnessing the passion of individuals from all walks of life to immerse themselves in unfamiliar cultures and spend a week helping to ignite a spark in the lives of others that will be embraced, measurable, and lasting.

If you’ve ever dedicated any amount of time to volunteer service, you know the cliché is apt that you take away much more in your heart than you can ever give of your time. A visit to a place as complicated and torn as Cape Town can change your life if you let it. At the very least it can change your perspective on what you thought you knew about a subject as harrowing and sadly unresolved as apartheid.

I thought I understood the plague of apartheid from reading about it in newspapers and history books. I thought I understood the plight of institutionalized racial oppression from seeing the struggles on television and internet video. I thought I understood the meaning of healing through Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom.

The little I understood was academic. I didn’t know it until I was in Cape Town, but I needed to be in the townships to even start to internalize what apartheid was and what of it remains. Apartheid may officially be dead, but its pervasive toxins leave long, lingering trenches of decay.

Now I have seen this. I also see the corollaries to many of the deepest problems in our own backyards. A simple service project made this possible.

Service isn’t just about doing good deeds. Service is about cultural immersion. Service is about lifelong learning. Service is about coming to terms with empathy for distant problems that on closer examination are wildly close to home.

On the second day of our trip, my direct observations on an extended bus ride through the townships almost stopped my breathing. I had never before seen systemic, uncontrolled poverty on that scale. As much as I thought I knew what economic inequality meant, nothing prepared me for seeing the ruins brought on by apartheid sprawling without containment almost a quarter-century after the election of Nelson Mandela.

Service let me see this. Service opened my eyes to the impact of history and the seemingly immovable obstacles of current events.

There is no way words can adequately describe the inequality in Cape Town. The city center is picturesque and opulent, with cascading views of the gorgeous waterfront. Quaint streets reflecting British influence and signage wind past towering universities, luxury-car dealerships, and New World wine-tasting rooms.

Fifteen minutes down the road are the townships originally created by apartheid, still standing—expanding actually—with millions living in abject poverty. Many live ten or more in tiny corrugated metal shacks, if they have an overhead shelter at all. There is minimal plumbing, shared toilet structures, electricity pirated from public lines tempting common incidents of fire. School dropout rates approach 80%. Unemployment stands near 25% with utter confusion among the suffering how America is not stuck in the same recession.

It all seems apocalyptic. We aren’t talking a few blocks or a few streets of urban decay. We’re talking mile after mile of human beings on top of each other trying to survive, source decent food, tote clean water, find a way out.

Remember, this is more than 25 years after the end of apartheid, which astonishingly lasted as law into the early 1990s! I was shocked to hear several young people actually speak ill of Mandela. To some he has become more myth than legend, and they question why his promises haven’t panned out for their prosperity. Many have become cynical, wondering why his vision was never realized, whether he compromised too easily and sold out their future. It is common to hear the electorate speak openly of parliament as corrupt and self-serving. They ask if the ANC can once again become their champions.

In service we seek to offer hope, and while there were glimmers of resilience in each of our day’s work, the scale of oppression remains impossible to talk past. All of this is the long tail of apartheid, a system so vicious and deeply embedded in societal ills it is difficult to decipher how many generations it will take to overcome. I was left thinking of the United States after our Civil War, how long it took for any kind of normalcy to prevail, where even today we can’t seem to get past racial hatred. I wondered how in the embers of Nazi defeat at the end of World War II, with the Nuremberg Trials in the headlines, it was possible for apartheid come to power with the National Party in 1948. The irony of 1948 is impossible to escape. That was the founding of Israel.

Our work in Cape Town was facilitated by a dynamic NGO known as Amandla Development, whose mission is to “empower children to succeed from cradle to career.” One of the sheer joys of being in Cape Town was getting to know the local staff of Amandla, to spend time with people who grew up in the townships and are now determined to reverse the course of history by touching the lives of children one at a time. This is how hope becomes action—not with epic commitments of resources in attempts to shatter daunting obstructions, but in finding one or two individuals open to the idea of collaboration and helping them improve their lives.

Our volunteers in journalism reported that many of the students in their program seldom interact at all with white people. They simply don’t have the occasion or opportunity, another awful remnant of apartheid. One student wrote that she never thought she would develop a friendship with a white person. That friend became the person who encouraged her to publish her first story.

All that brings me back to the 3000 ears in Cape Town. Perhaps on equal footing with ensuring quality hearing for these 1500 children was the opportunity to let each one of them know that we care about them. Our volunteers didn’t just process them through a waiting line. These were very young children, most of whom don’t begin learning English until the third grade. Of course they wondered why we were there. Our loving colleagues went to their classrooms and explained through a translator what we were doing, that they would be in no discomfort, and that we truly were friends from abroad.

Raising awareness of the scourge of hearing related diseases was as important a part of the mission as the specific medical attention offered. Adroitly changing the perception of these maladies from endemic to treatable afforded our educators an enormous creative window. While the children were waiting to see the doctors, our volunteers played games, sang songs, and worked on art projects with them to reinforce this learning. I can’t help hoping that some of these children will remember these joyful moments of sharing as they become adults. I know our volunteers will never forget them.

Perhaps the Cape of Good Hope is well named. I won’t forget any of it. Not apartheid, not the townships, not the children, not the entrepreneurs in their offices anticipating a brighter future.

That is the nature of service. I’m pretty sure we can’t fix this rotten, broken, unjust world. I’m completely certain we can always help one or two strangers if we care to make that choice.

_______________

Photo: Copyright Melanie Belman-Gross (shared with permission)

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Your War to End

Dear Teenage America:

Your outrage is well founded. All your lives you’ve known gun violence as a norm. It was not a norm when we were in school. It should not be a norm.

This is your Vietnam. It is a corrupt war hijacked for purposefully obscured reasons. It is your war to end.

Vietnam was a war abroad challenged at home. This war is solely on our land. The names of schools suffering premeditated surprise attacks of destruction ring out like the battles of any prior global conflict:

Columbine (1999).

Virginia Tech (2007).

Sandy Hook (2012).

Parkland (2018).

Add to these battle monikers the neighborhood mass shootings near your campuses:

Aurora (2012).

San Bernardino (2015).

Orlando (2016).

Las Vegas (2017).

These don’t even include the lessor acts of weekly gun violence that no longer seem to warrant national news coverage. The assaults are frequent and terrorizing, yet somehow they have become numbing. With these numbers and the vast unpredictability of some 300 million guns in American civilian hands, no public space can be declared protected, fortified, or safe. Not schools. Not churches. Not theaters or clubs. Not government office buildings.

How is this not a war?

We hear your cry. Enough already. Make it end here. Make it end now.

Eliminate assault weapons from the American civilian landscape and you will have changed our nation for the generations to come.

You have risen with spontaneity, passion, and authenticity to oppose injustice. You can no longer tolerate the breach of trust perpetuated on the places you come in order to learn, share, trade ideas, grow, and ready yourselves for the future.

Your immediate impact and opportunity have not gone unnoticed. Here is what one writer, Emily Witt, wrote about you in The New Yorker:

By Sunday, only four days after the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Florida, the activist movement that emerged in its aftermath had a name (Never Again), a policy goal (stricter background checks for gun buyers), and a plan for a nationwide protest (a March for Our Lives, scheduled for March 24th). It also had a panel of luminary teens who were reminding America that the shooting was not a freak accident or a natural disaster but the result of actual human decisions.

You are moving quickly. You can’t stop. We are counting on you to create outcomes the adults of this nation have been unable to create. You are not conflicted. Your agenda is pure. Stay focused on demanding the safety and security of outcomes that make sense, and you can make this happen. You are our best hope.

We didn’t have social media in our youth. You have mastered it and know how to use it to bring change. Even in our most agitated state, we largely maintained a sense of awe and respect around Congress and the Presidency. Your trust in them has been so violated that you are not bound by the conventions of artificial deference. We may have opened the doors to opposing the restraints of conformity, but you can walk through them. Your fear of violating your own beliefs is greater than your fear of retribution from those in power who need to fall.

Do it peacefully but relentlessly. Fight with words and ideas, rallies and activism. Stand your ground in civil disobedience until there is no fight left.

We failed. You should not.

Do what no one has been able to do for a generation:  Defeat the NRA.

Knock Wayne LaPierre off his arrogant perch and discredit him as the gun lobby huckster he chose to become, not an American patriot fighting for constitutional rights.

You know this is about money, about preserving the profit in selling weapons that no other modern nation exploits. You see the reality. Expose the falsehoods.

You are right to call out the hollow shell of condolences spouted by the talking heads in empty sound bites. You are wise to know the head fake of leadership paralysis, the helplessness of those elected through bad money who are beholden not to their duty to protect our friends and families but to the special interests who rent their authority.

Thoughts and prayers in absence of action aren’t even background noise.

In a few years you will have the vote. You will no longer be teenagers and will have the same voting rights as every adult in America. You can use those votes in blocks to eliminate every cynical politician who has sold us out. Between now and then, it’s all about exposing them and pressuring them to do what is right or step down.

Organize, gather, and demand what is right, once and for all. Yes, it will take decades to clear the land of guns in the hands of people who shouldn’t have them. The sooner we begin, the fewer the decades.

You are on the side of moral right.

Assault weapons have got to go.

Background checks must be mandated.

Mental health requires more than lip service.

You can make this pointless bloodshed end.

We are counting on you.

 

Humbly in your debt,

The grown-ups who so terribly let you down

 

_______________

This article originally appeared on The Good Men Project.

Photo: Rhona Wise / AFP / Getty

Every Hope is Worth Saving

It’s been a rough year.

I’m not sure what to make of 2017. What we’ve seen this year on the public stage is unlike anything I can remember. We hear casual conversation about whether our elected officials and senior federal employees colluded with Russia to soil our national election. We observe mass shootings like the one in Las Vegas, now so common we barely discuss it a week later and don’t even bother utilizing it to foster a conversation on common-sense gun control. We watch the parade of famous men from all walks of life falling from prominence when confronted with their ghastly predatory behavior. We experience nature’s record storms devastating the southeastern mainland United States and Puerto Rico as we strip down the EPA, deny climate change, and fail to provide adequate resources to those fighting to rebuild their lives.

Maybe for you this was just another year. For me it was something different. I can’t get my feet to walk solidly on a path below me. My legs are too shaky. The ground is unfirm.

Despite the turmoil, the holidays have arrived. It is the season of wishes. Here are a few I am guessing many of us share:

Don’t you wish the President of the United States was a man of grace, wisdom, and compassion whom our children could admire, instead of cementing this image of awfulness in their brains for the rest of their lives?

Don’t you wish Harvey Weinstein had been called out decades ago so that dozens of women could have been spared his lurid, violent, inexcusable acts of supremacy and self-importance?

Don’t you wish the U.S. Olympic gymnastics team comprised of child champions had been spared the physical and psychological abuse of their team doctor posing as their protector?

Don’t you wish that our absolute defense of the First Amendment wasn’t being utilized by racists unashamed to wear swastikas in public and proclaim a new day for Nazi ideology?

Don’t you wish that a tax cut for the wealthy was not broadly accepted as an apologia for the reprehensible inattention to human needs our Congress trades for the financial support that keeps them in office?

Enough already, right? I told you that for me this wasn’t just another year. This was more than enduring tone-deaf leaders who won’t lead. This wasn’t a year solely to rant. This was a year that tested my belief in fairness. This was a year that took me on an inward journey where I questioned the ability to maintain my values in a world that too often and too easily openly rejects them. This was a year where I wondered if justice was more than an eloquent ideal, and whether healing was possible in a nation that can no longer find common ground in a path forward that invokes a shared understanding of our founding principles.

And so I go looking for a hope.

Because it’s the holiday season, I am also listening to a lot of Trans-Siberian Orchestra. This music is an annual tradition in our home. Last weekend my wife and I attended the TSO concert in Southern California as we do every year around this time.

The shows are fun. They are energizing. No matter how many times we hear the same songs played live under laser beams and surges of flames, the story of hope rekindles my childlike sense of wonder and optimism. In particular of late, these lyrics keep hitting me with profound motivation:

Let it go!
Let it go!
This old world that I know
For soon everything will be changing
In a single glance
Where it all enchants
And every hope is worth saving

Paul O’Neill, the visionary who created TSO, died this past year. Yes, we lost him, too, but he left behind words like this that matter to a lot of people. At this year’s concert, music director Al Pitrelli noted in honoring his former boss that Paul used to say, “Individually we are finite, together we are infinite.”

I’m buying into that. Every hope is worth saving. We cannot give up hope. We’ve had presidents who have talked about that, in metaphor and aspiration. We can lampoon the storybook notion all we want, cynical survivalists that we are, or we can be childlike and share in the embrace of vital idealism.

In my last book, my wife picked this line as her favorite, spoken by Daphne, the wise mentor and guiding light of experience:

“Hope is the strength that keeps us going.”

I’m going to try to continue that theme in my writing this year. I can always find snippets in songs that inspire me, but maybe we can find some resets hidden in the hard events surrounding us.

Throughout the darkest hours in Puerto Rico, there were quiet acts of selflessness where local individuals stood in ten-hour lines for fuel, foregoing their own ration for an elderly friend. When we see goodness in action, we are reminded that grabbing for oneself has none of the power of building together.

I recently saw a TV news story where a judge in Minnesota met repeatedly with a pregnant young heroin addict until she assured him she would get clean and become the mother he believed she could be. He could have gone by the book and sent her away, but instead he invested the time to work with her. Today the mother has a healthy son, and the son has a healthy mother.

The national (and hopefully global) awareness of men exploiting women in the workplace is likely to instill new norms of decency in our interactions. If nothing else, the immediate fear of losing everything should shut down a lot of the oppressive behavior that morosely became too common. Deterrent is a good start. Choosing to live by example is where we need to go.

Even more than the season of wishes, this is the season of hope. We can grab firmly onto any teetering branch that is reachable and attempt to repair it, or we can walk away from the broken bough and give up against overwhelming odds of measurable impact. Those are difficult words to write without sounding preachy. It is a more difficult promise to make and keep to oneself.

We arrive at the end of this year in an awkward place. In my heart I want to move along and tackle new turf, but at the moment I feel stuck. I know I am not alone. We need to get unstuck together.

Together we are infinite.

_______________________

Lyrics Excerpt from “Christmas Dreams” by Paul O’Neill and Robert Kinkel
© Warner/Chappell Music, Inc.

Image: The Ghosts of Christmas Eve, Tran-Siberian Orchestra

Tribal Ways and Open Doors

 

Few of us will ever have the opportunity to spend an extended period of time on an Indian reservation. If you don’t live or work there, it’s just not something you’re likely to do. You might drive onto native lands for a festival or to buy some crafts, or you might enjoy some vacation time at an Indian casino. If you ever do have the invitation to fully immerse yourself in the culture of tribal ways, I recommend you walk through the open door.

If you embrace the opening of that door, you will be changed.

My wife and I recently spent a week volunteering at the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe, a federally recognized sovereign nation that sits at the three-way intersection of California, Arizona, and Nevada. We were there for a week as part of an alumni service project from my college with a group of about 50 like-minded souls. We were divided into three groups focused on construction, education, and business projects. Our construction group built an outdoor shelter where children from the school could study outside in the shade. My wife helped teach music and art in the preschool. I helped teach basic business and entrepreneurial skills to adults.

It is difficult to bridge the gap between what one might expect signing up for a week on Native American lands and what one would actually experience. The key learning for me was getting past what I thought I might accomplish in advance of our arrival and giving myself over to the experience itself — of bonding with people who otherwise would have remained strangers in my life. What struck me as particularly resonant was how building a bridge of trust to a few people one person at a time could open all of our eyes to the language of possibility.

Let’s start with some basics. Even though few people will have the opportunity to spend a week in a place they might not have known was there, a week is a fragment of time too brief to overestimate in scope. That means that every moment shared was a moment that mattered, with an intense focus on listening and learning rather than articulating strategies and solutions. Time may be limited, even precious, but if you try to rush things in cultural immersion, the mistakes of the past can swiftly swell to unintended repetition. There is no doubt that there is a prolonged history of inexcusable abuses perpetrated against the indigenous residents of our nation, but that can’t be repaired in a lifetime of cooperation, let alone a week’s visit. We were not there for any more reason than to be good listeners, good citizens, and hopefully ongoing good friends.

We learned immediately that in the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe, each individual is a part of his or her past. We introduce ourselves to each other by talking about our families, initially to see if there are points of intersection in our histories, but more to establish a common ground of respect for the elders who have taught us and the esteemed leaders who will guide us.

As we listen to each other’s lineage, the table is set for sharing what matters in our lives. We all have dreams and aspirations. We all have experienced pain. When we look into each other’s eyes with focus and listen to the authenticity in the words a new acquaintance chooses to share, human connection begins. It doesn’t fix what has come before, but it does gracefully establish a framework for what could happen next.

This is what I mean when I talk about possibility. What might be possible will only be possible if trust replaces suspicion, if curiosity replaces fear, and if hope is elevated from slogan to shared ideal.

I spent the majority of my week working with one entrepreneur. He was slightly older than me. We connected early in the week by chance almost serendipitously around a shared love of music. We both play guitar and are avid classic rock enthusiasts, but he still plays in a party band and I haven’t done that in decades. Beyond teaching himself musicianship in his high school days, he was trained long ago in a skilled trade and made his living at it, but it wasn’t taking him to the economic freedom he desired.

We wrote a brief business plan together, one bullet at a time, from creating a statement of purpose to stepping through the mechanics of daily tasks and completion milestones. We talked about always present competition, nagging administrative needs, and one-to-one marketing opportunities. He didn’t have a website, but with a bit of nagging from me he realized he had a younger relative who had learned some internet basics in school and could help him launch a single online page with his contact information that would cost him nothing. The more we brainstormed the web page, the more ideas he had for posting customer endorsements and project photos that might attract local attention. We documented everything we discussed, and as the pages began to take shape, the candor in our dialogue took on that feeling of lift you experience when the wheels leave the runway below you.

Let me return to the notion of expectation and result. As I suggested, prior to arriving at the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe, I had developed a tailored curriculum of lessons I would lead on defining mission, vision, strategy, tactics, finance, and sustainable growth. It was a solid teaching plan, and I was only hopeful I could get through all of it in the short week allowed. By noon on the first day, I had abandoned it. It did not apply to the situation at hand. Had I attacked it with the same pragmatism and vigor I normally tackle goals, my week on tribal lands might have been finished by lunch.

No, there was no way I was going to get through that lesson plan, no way I was going to cover all the things that would surely make businesses better for all in attendance. Something else happened, something much better, something that mattered. On the final day of working with my partner, he offered to share the financials of his business. He trusted me enough to show me the material trends in his business — the actual numbers with dollar signs — and we incorporated a sliding scale forecast into our business plan. Together we found the leverage in his operating plan that actually could take him to economic independence in the years ahead.

He didn’t have to change what he was doing. He knew what he was doing. He had to make a few changes in how he was doing it. He saw that tangible possibility for the first time in the words and numbers we wrote together.

It was a true aha moment. It was a breakthrough. It was everything I could have hoped for as a result of a week’s dedication, and not a moment of it was anything I had planned. The only thing that could have been harder for me than jettisoning my syllabus and going with the flow was my partner’s unhindered willingness to improvise with a stranger.

We pulled it off together. There was no other way it was going to happen. First the bridge, then the embrace, then the hard work, then the roadmap. We had to do it in that order, and we had to do it together.

The Fort Mojave Indian Tribe lives on the banks of the Colorado River. They live by the words of their ancestors: “Water is life.” They teach that core principle of sustenance to their children and they taught that to us. The water flows with divine intention and with it comes possibility. The water sustains our bodies. The water lets crops grow from the desert floor. The water is a transit mechanism that carries the adventurous from their river home to faraway places of promise. The water is shared with strangers who can become friends if the possibility is identified. That possibility has everything to do with mutual empathy and only becomes activated when a door is opened. Doors open when listening is pure.

If a tribal door is opened to you, walk through it. Leave your plans on the other side of the door. Open your heart to tribal ways, and in a single week you might change a single life. It likely will be yours.

______________________

Photo: Yale Alumni Service Corps

Jerry’s Kids Forever

Labor Day weekend for me will always be connected to Jerry Lewis. His annual 21 ½ hour live telethon raised more than $2 billion over 45 years for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. He died last month at the age of 91. I miss him already.

Jerry meant a lot to me as a kid. I was an MDA volunteer from the age of 12. I used to help patients with mobility, assist with fundraising, and every year I would work the telethon in the local Honolulu studio. Satellite time in the 1970s was very expensive, so we didn’t get the national feed for most of the overnight hours. In those blackout periods our producers would put on a nonstop “telethon within a telethon” so we could stay on-air in synch with the east coast six hours ahead and the west coast three hours ahead. Pledges would come in all through the night. Jerry was with us in our hearts whether he was onstage in Vegas or we were broadcasting hula dancers. We did the show together no matter the separation of distance, and we loved the children at the heart of our mission.

I never met the man, but sometimes he would come on the non-broadcast feed between segments and talk to the remote volunteers, so I felt like I knew him. He would thank us for our help and tell us the telethon could not happen without us. I believe he truly loved the kids we served. He wanted to beat neuromuscular diseases in our lifetime. We haven’t done that yet, but we have come a long way. He gets credit for some of that, along with the dedicated doctors and visionary scientists whose groundbreaking work he helped fund. For a zany borscht belt comedian, that’s a long way to travel in a single visit to our planet.

Jerry took some heat for exploiting MDA patients in his depiction of their challenges. I never saw that. I saw a man devoted to curing a terrible, debilitating condition. He was a master of the stage, there is no question about that, but in the end I don’t believe the telethon was about him. It was about lending his name and global stardom to a cause that mattered. He didn’t have to do that. It was a choice. Of course it would come with some critique. He was pioneering new ground and taking creative risks that had no precedent. He might have said a few things wrong or missed the mark on occasion with a photo opportunity, but I believe he was committed to healing. He was a brave soul paving the way for a generation of viewers who learned how to turn their time into public service.

I learned a lot from Jerry and working with MDA. I learned how to work steadily through 36 hours of production from set-up to wrap. It’s hard to fathom what that meant in this age of digital media and 24-hour everything. Opportunities like that let you bond with strangers with enormous intensity that is over as quickly as it begins, yet can last a lifetime. Sometimes in the overnight hours, when I saw on the schedule board that our stage was about to go empty, I would gather some of the MDA kids and we would practice a few songs together, a Beatles tune or a Bob Dylan folk song. When the TV audience was at its smallest the producer would put us on the air. I played guitar and we would sing together in a half circle looking straight into the red light of the live camera.

The first time this happened was my first time on live TV. We were directly in front of the phone banks around 3:00 a.m. with maybe 100 people in the auditorium fighting sleepiness. I probably messed up some of the chords but the kids sang right over me. You forgot they were in wheelchairs. They were just kids singing like they were at a campfire. Afterward the kids asked me if Jerry would have been pleased with our performance. I took a chance and told them I thought he would. Today I know that for certain. They were Jerry’s Kids forever.

Jerry Lewis was an imperfect person as we all are, but he was an inspiration to me. He had no roadmap, no rule book, just a whole bunch of harebrained ideas and a ton of influence he put to work for something that mattered. He was dedicated, hard-working, wildly hard-minded about details, and a perfectionist. He gave of himself. He always made me laugh. Well, maybe not always, but most of the time. He was very funny, but of another time. I will never forget him. He was an original. Labor Day will always be his.

Jerry, dear Jerry, “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

Can We Talk?

Difficult topics, difficult times. It’s getting hotter out there. Is real conversation still possible?

A recent piece in the Wall Street Journal got me thinking about that. It’s by Amanda Ripley, entitled: America, Meet America: Getting Past Our Toxic Partisanship (6/30/17). The author offers a powerful viewpoint on making peace with each other through interaction, in essence, the widened use of “exchange programs” like some of us experienced in high school or college. In many ways the premise is optimistic, even idealistic. People who have direct relationships with each other tend to be kinder to each other and less likely to be outright dismissive of ideological differences.

I don’t think it is impossible for us tolerate each other’s differences in the abstract. The problem I see comes with the common allocation of shared resources. When we all pool our dollars into a fund, especially when we are compelled to do so by a tax system, we are likely to have ardent disagreements about how those dollars should be used. That’s when personal philosophy becomes policy, and policy as a matter of democracy is less about consensus than it is about majority opinion. That as we know can be ugly, messy, and leave seeds of resentment, because legislative action transpires on current majorities, but policies once adopted can be difficult to unwind.

The problem with compromise is that it does not bridge values. If some people think universal healthcare is a civil right and some don’t, and we all have to pay for it, I don’t think there is a common worldview that bridges our differences. Same with a woman’s right to choose. That means we all become subject to prevailing law, like it or not, unless we wish to break the bounds of prevailing law, which inordinately few would ever consider reasonable. Again this is the sausage making of nightmares. No one stays happy for long, and bitterness has a compounding effect that is exacerbated by social media shorthand and abrupt defensiveness.

Where does that leave us? Pragmatism suggests we need coping mechanisms or we become frozen. I think that means we will find comfort in our own circles and collectives. We will begin to ignore rather than constantly confront our opponents and try to sweep hostility under the rug in tending to our lives. What it also means is that the rage is likely to fester, and while it may be convenient to leave well enough alone, it probably means lost opportunity in real unity. Does that mean the U.S will lose global leadership economically and in championing democracy? Yes, I think that’s inevitable. We can’t do big, important things together if we hate each other. We can visit each other and learn to tolerate each other, but commonality of purpose has to be built upon a majority of shared values. It has to be authentic. It can’t be feigned.

We are making this choice implicitly by agreeing that noble compromise on certain issues of shared resources is simply not honest or acceptable. We can share roads and bridges across red and blue lines until they crumble, and it will take all the statesmanship we have just to keep noncontroversial initiates functional. To think we can continue to do more than that is not terribly sensible. Thus we all lose together, which is probably the proper outcome of this dialectic.

We have been doing some work of late at The Good Men Project that is perhaps itself idealistic. Over the past six months we have expended our subscription service, also known as our premium membership program, to include telephone conference calls on difficult topics. We bring together people of varying opinions into what we call Social Interest Groups, assign a moderator, and allow people to engage across geographic, demographic, and ideological lines to learn from each other. The beta test has been so successful our staff is deploying an Indiegogo campaign to see if they can double or even triple the number of subject offerings and group leaders who are paid a nominal fee for planning the discussions and keeping them on track week to week.

I think the project is notable if for no other reason than it celebrates excellent conversation. I’ve suggested on more than one occasion to GMP CEO Lisa Hickey that I think conversation is one of the few high value products we lose over time that is remarkably difficult to commercialize. You remember good conversation, right? Oh, how we miss those long talks with friends and acquaintances about our favorite book, the reasons we go to war, and on wild tangents the meaning of life. What if those conversations could continue in our lives, with new topics and new participants, scheduled periodically for easy attendance, each episode self-contained but the connecting episodes serialized for those who have the time? We thought that might be an interesting way to bridge the divide. Maybe we are optimists at heart.

Lisa calls The Good Men Project a “participatory media company” because the content is written by the community and personal interaction within the community is what makes it distinct. We tend not to think of online commenting as the be-all and end-all of social interaction, particularly when it is anonymous. Rather we like the idea of people talking and listening about a complex subject, then thinking about it for a week and returning to talk about it some more. The participation is authentic, and while a certain amount of curation is imposed to maintain editorial standards, we are happiest when we are surprised by learning something we didn’t know before the participatory moment.

We also like to think that civility is best achieved through respect, which occurs less through the editorial funnel than it does from exemplary human behavior. Okay, so it can function as a sort of student exchange program. Maybe real dialogue is possible. Maybe inspirational conversation isn’t completely dead. I’d be going overboard if I suggested there might be a big idea here that could circumvent the festering rage that is destroying us, but hey, a good verbal chat each week certainly can’t hurt things.

The product is conversation. The value is a bit of connection and a bit of joy through sharing and compassion. I hope this experiment is a beginning. If we don’t find some way to talk to each other, the dark consequences seem as obvious as they are unavoidable.

Inequality or Invisibility?

My wife and I spent this past Saturday morning volunteering for a college service project where we read stories to elementary school children in downtown Los Angeles. We have done this several times before and it is always a rewarding experience, but this time our interaction felt especially poignant. I guess it’s the ceaselessly unpleasant political dialogue all around us, or maybe hearing one too many times why a tax cut for the wealthy is at the forefront of our national agenda.

The children, all under the age of eight, who listened to us read books to them aren’t a lot different from the children around us every day. They are curious. They know the stories of the Three Little Pigs, Goldilocks, and Cinderella. They laugh when you use funny voices to bring characters to life. They tell you they like to run at recess, play soccer, play video games, and learn about animals. Their eyes are bright. They draw pictures with the sun in the sky and use glue stick to make puffy clouds out of yarn. They are polite and thank you for visiting without being prompted. They are as authentic and hopeful as any children you will meet at this age.

Their teachers tell you how they are different. If you have blond hair they might ask to touch it because they don’t interact much with people who don’t have dark hair and have a hard time understanding why. Although most of them were born in Los Angeles, they have never been to the beach. Most of them never travel farther than a few blocks from where they were born. Many of their parents work two minimum-wage jobs and are gone from early morning to late evening six or seven days a week. Their families may encompass six people living in a one-bedroom apartment. Their closets are built out as bunk beds.

Almost all of them receive lunch provided by the school. Only 10% will graduate from high school. Of those who do, a smaller fraction will attend college, and an even smaller fraction will graduate from college. They are likely to stay in the same neighborhood where they went to elementary school forever.

I’ve been actively involved in our community throughout my adult life, so none of this comes as a surprise. I guess it just hit me hard this weekend that almost no one is talking about this injustice on the national level. Tax cuts aren’t going to help these kids, because their parents don’t make enough money where tax calculations matter. Sustained corporate profits aren’t going to help these kids, because their families are already working as many hours in a day as they can, and still they remain at poverty level.

Not a year ago, the crisis of economic inequality was part of our national dialogue. We acknowledged as a nation that the wider the gap grew between rich and poor, the less stable our economy would become. If we don’t make it a priority to give people a chance to succeed, how can we expect them to enter a shrinking middle class where even the most basic employment opportunities above minimum wage require advanced skills and training? Now instead of addressing the problem, we ignore it completely and let the disease advance out of sight.

Inequality.

Invisibility.

Unsustainability.

Impossibility.

Calamity.

That is the path we are on if the idea of leveling the playing field takes second place, third place, or no place in the order of our priorities. I like our capitalist economy. I am a beneficiary of all the good that can come of innovation, investment, hard work, and a little luck. Everyone deserves a chance at the same prosperity. Not a handout, a chance to pursue opportunity.

There is no fairness in a community where 90% of adults will live their lives without a high school diploma. Unless we create tools to break the cycle of poverty and make it a priority to provide economic justice where very little exists, we are on an unnaturally disastrous path to undermining the whole of our nation’s prosperity.

Don’t believe me? Please spend the morning in a neighborhood like we did last weekend. If that doesn’t change your mind, then we’ve already turned the corner on the beginning of the end.

Wake up, America. Our current obsession with tax cuts and rolling back regulations lacks imagination and empathy. Too many of us forgive our President his atrocious behavior because we see a bucket of bucks coming our way if only Congress will get onboard with his program. Where is the talk of growing inequality that threatens to undermine the foundation of our shared prosperity? What do you think happens when the vast majority of a population polarizes and abandons hope? Where is the allocation of resources that proves we are a nation that cares about fairness for all, not just for ourselves?

Programs like Reading to Kids, which organized our event and does so every month for volunteers in Los Angeles, is a great start at bridge building between communities and inspiring human connections. I have written before about the Learning Lab at Hathaway-Sycamores, which helps at-risk teens prepare for college and secure funding where possible. These organizations, while relatively modest in numbers, prove what is possible if we care enough to make those who are otherwise invisible a necessity in our priorities.

For transformative impact to occur at scale, our dialogue must dramatically improve. We need to talk consistently about inequality as an unacceptable condition that hinders our well-being. We need to allocate substantial resources where we know they will make a measurable difference in the lives of others. That’s more important than a tax cut. Way more important.

We need to lead by example. We need to be a kind, caring, helpful, generous people. The neighbors you don’t know matter, both for their well-being and your own. When we turn our backs on those who are trying but struggling, we take away hope. When we take away hope, we aren’t just part of the problem, we are the problem.

Volunteer to meet some kids this weekend who don’t live in your neighborhood. Count the years until they are adults and try to envision what their lives will be. Then decide if we are having the right dialogue about our nation’s future.