Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Overcoming the odds

The perseverance, successes, and determination of the kids around me completely amaze me.

About 8 years ago I had the privilege of assisting the coaching of a Ranger Rookie League baseball team for 4th and 5th graders. After we had gathered our team together, not only did we have some budding baseball players (some of whom had never picked up a baseball before), but we also had some good parental support.

One of the parents, Mr. Aparicio, brought water and snacks to every practice we had for the kids. Through those two years of baseball, I got to know the Aparicio's. I was blessed to be invited into their family when they had special events. We discovered their oldest daughter, Kim, and I share the same birthday. When they had Kim's quincenera, I was invited to join in and celebrate; when Oscar (our Rookie League baseball player) had baseball games in high school, they gave me a schedule and when he graduated from high school, I was given one of the coveted tickets. Every once in a while Mr. Aparicio will call to give me an update or invite me to a family event. Though I don't see them often, I cherish those times that they include me.

All-in-all, they are an absolutely wonderful family. They've have worried about their children staying in the local, low-performing public school. They have tried to do whatever they could to get their children into the magnet schools and they support them in everything they do. They push their limits financially so that their children can have the best education.

Their oldest daughter, Kim, will now graduate from SMU next month. She is an absolutely amazing and determined individual. When she was at Townview (high school) she used to tell me about her internships in the ER (in high school!!). She was interested in the medical field. When she went on to SMU she told me about her aspirations to be a dentist. But, most recently, she let me know that what she really wanted to do was be a doctor. On somewhat of a whim, she decided to take the MCAT to see how she would do. Though I don't know if she quite realizes it, she is brilliant. Her scores on the MCAT were such that she could apply to medical school. However, just like I mentioned in my last blog, fear was holding her back. See her email to me:
Hi Ms.Janet
Hope you're doing well. I'm on my last couple of weeks of school. It's a little scary and the whole "too close to the end" laziness seems to be kicking in too. I was wondering if you could send me your address so that I can send you a formal invitation to my graduation. It's December 9th at 7:30 pm. I also have been interviewing at different medical schools. I've interviewed so far at San Antonio, Texas Tech in Lubbock and in the next couple of weeks I'll interview at UT Southwestern in Dallas, TCOM in Fort Worth, and Houston Medical school. I'm still waiting to hear from Galveston and Texas A&M but we'll see if they call or not. It's crazy because I would of never thought I'd be in this position growing up or even a year ago when I had planned to apply to dental school and now hopefully one of the medical schools will offer me acceptance. I had limited myself, thinking that I might not be good enough to even get an interview in medical school until my mentor said that I had too much firepower to not go all the way with this thought and I would probably regret it if I didn't apply to med school wondering "what if". So luckily I listened to someone else and went for it. Now I'm just crossing my fingers to see if it turns out the way I'd like it to. Hope to hear from you soon.
Thank goodness Kim didn't allow her fears to get the better of her. Kim grew up in a low-income area where expectations are often low. Unfortunately, for many kids, the outside world's expectations of them get the better of them and they don't choose to take the risk and do what they have the skills and talent to do. In Kim's case, she stepped out and it paid off:

Hi Ms.Janet
Just wanted to tell you that I got into medical school! I'm pretty psyched. Now I have to pick, which one to go to because I was offered admissions to UT Southwestern in Dallas, UTHSCA in San Antonio, and UTMB in Galveston. They are all great medical schools but now that I have options I don't know where I should go. Well, hope you had a great Thanksgiving, I was blessed with this news and had a good Thanksgiving as well. Hope you're doing well.Thanks, Kim Aparicio
These kids need to be congratulated and supported so much more than they are. The fact that they have overcome the odds is a feat that many of us will never understand.

In a few years, if you're seeking a new doctor, look for Kim Aparicio. I guarantee you she will make a GREAT doctor.

Congratulations, Kim.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Is fear holding you back?

Over the holidays my cousin asked me a question that I didn't have the answer to. She was telling me about their local public school and how students were scared to go there because of the violence. Just recently, she explained, one of the kids had pushed another kid down a flight of stairs, injuring him to the point of hospitalization. She then went on to ask, "You work with Black people. Why do they hate each other so much?"

Despite the fact that I know there's probably some degree of underlying racism in that question, I didn't have an answer for her. In my mind, there is no short answer to that. Even if I had given her the long answer, I don't know that I could explain the oppression, the systemic racism, the self-hatred (often times due to the way the media presents people of color), the poverty, and the difficult family situations that all contribute to this phenomena. The answer is much too complicated...and quite honestly, I don't have an answer--either to refute her question or to affirm it.

Yesterday I had a conversation with a 20-year old I hadn't seen in quite some time. I've watched him grow up since he was about 9-years old. I've watched him change from a sweet, innocent child to an angry, self-destructive young man. I posed my cousin's question to him to which he replied, "I ask myself the same thing."

He doesn't know why he or his friends act the way they do. Once again, I think it's very complicated. But as he explained to me that he was trying to change and do things differently I began to realize that one of the major things that keeps holding him back is FEAR. He's afraid of venturing into the unknown. He told me point black, "I'm afraid if I step out I won't have any friends." That's powerful. And that's real. But it's not unusual. Several other teenagers have told me the same thing, "I'm afraid."

Even knowing that, I still can't say the solution to his fear is simple. We need to be available...we need to be visible...we need to be persistent. But sometimes even that doesn't work. I can't change his thinking...about himself or about the situations around him. Only he can.

I know for me, surrounding myself with good people who love me despite and in spite of myself really helps. Surrounding myself around people who I feel the need to be accountable to helps as well. The love that people show me despite my flaws continues to inspire me. I hope he can recognize that he has people around him who always have and always will love him as well. I hope he realizes that we want him to do better...for himself and for what he has to offer the rest of us. Hopefully that realization will help him conquer some of his fears as he steps out.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Racial insults

I have a friend who believes that racism is just under the surface for most White people--even though we are always attempting to remain politically correct. He insisted one time that if he antagonized me enough I would probably eventually call him a nigger.

I was having a discussion with another friend of mine who informed me that some of the people in my neighborhood try to tell her that I may be nice to her face, but as soon as she leaves my house I'm probably calling her a nigger.

With both friends, I try to insist that those thoughts have never even crept into my mind. I'm not sure how much they believe me.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not claiming to be perfect...I do realize that White people feel free to say things around me, because I'm White, that I know they wouldn't say if a person of color were sitting there. I know I've also said some things that my friends of color (Hispanic, Black, and Indian) get exasperated with and have corrected me on. However, I don't hear or think the volatile racist epithets that it seems my friends seem to assume we're saying. (Though several Black people have told me before that they would almost prefer the overt racism so they at least they know where they stand with us.). The White people I know make assumptions, and therefore comments, about Black people that are based on ignorance due to systemic representations and the way our society has chosen to segregate based on what we have and how we look. When appropriate, I try to share the lessons I have learned about my own inadvertent racist actions with other White people...sometimes they listen and sometimes they don't.

Even though I realize that racism still exists in different forms, I think I'm naive. I want to believe that in 2006, racism isn't volatile...that's it's more about making comments we don't realize are as inappropriate and hurtful as they are. But Michael Richards and Mel Gibson are helping to prove that in 2006 it is still more than unconscious comments. Their comments show me that, just as my friends are saying, these thoughts must be festering deep down inside of White people. Maybe not all of us, but enough of us that it is difficult to know where someone stands on their true feelings about race and ethnicity. Richards' anger and Gibson's intoxication prove my friends' point even more. It's not in our sane moments that we make these comments. It's when our guard is down...when we are least able to control our politically correct facade.

I suppose it's not my job to take on the world and figure out how we all need to deal with ingrained and systemic racism. But I also can't sit back and watch it happen without making an effort to work actively against it.

They say that time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself. ~Andy Warhol

I don't have the answers. All I know to do is to continue putting the conversation on the table and remain open to correction myself.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Respecting each other through dialogue

Last night I attended a film club, sponsored by a local non-profit. The film they showed was about three mothers who had lost their sons to police brutality, yet all of the police officers walked away with no convictions.

Knowing there was a facilitated discussion afterward, as I watched the film I anticipated talking about whether or not people feel that type of uncontrolled police brutality is happening in our communities and, if so, what we can do to deal with it. I thought about the great conversation I had with the Chief of Police of my area and her willingness and openness to admitting that her officers make errors, then our continued conversation about how she is working to deal with those issues. She was honest and did not strike me as a person to defend her officers if they were in the wrong. The Chief and I talked about how that honesty could go a long way in building trust in our community.

Instead, the facilitated discussion was much different than I had expected. The man leading the discussion started off by talking about White "Crackers" with an intensity that I have never heard before. He talked about White imperialism and his disgust with White establishment. As he opened up discussion, other people spoke up with similar comments.

As the only White person in the room, needless to say, I was uncomfortable with the conversation. I didn't know how to respond or react. It didn't seem to bother the people there. They spoke as if I were invisible to them.

I couldn't get the event off of my mind as I drove home. How do I get myself in these situations? The people who invited me don't seem openly hostile toward White people, but it was obvious that there was a lot of anger and hurt in that room. I debated in my mind if I should even be a part of something that seemed to me to promote separatism.

It was still on my mind when I woke up this morning. I talked to a friend of mine who mentioned she had been in a similar situation, but reversed. She was the only Black face in a sea of White people who were complaining about and irritated with Black folk.

I have come to a realization. Maybe attending events similar to that is something I/we do need to be a part of. Yes, it made me uncomfortable. But it also helped me to see the intensity of the pain and hurt that still exists. I need to hear that.

Being there doesn't mean I agree with a separatist agenda. In fact, I am very opposed to that. But how can we ever get to the point of creating dialogue and hearing each other if we don't engage with people who may not have the same ideas as us?

Some of my best relationships have come out of open (sometimes loud and angry) disagreements with people. In the situations I can think of, respect and deep friendship developed when we finally both listened to each other and realized that each person's thoughts and opinions stemmed from their own experiences. Once we realized that, we began looking at situations from each others' perspectives and gained a new respect and interest in each others' thoughts and opinions.

Though I don't believe last night's forum would have been the appropriate place for me to stand up and voice my disagreement with what was being said, being there does provide me with the opportunity to talk to my friends who were there and seek an understanding of their thoughts, feelings, and opinions. Then, if they are open to hearing me, which I have no reason to believe they wouldn't be, it would allow me to also present my thoughts, feelings, and opinions as well. Maybe by placing myself in uncomfortable situations I can have the courage to open myself to conversations that would've never happened otherwise.

My idealism says that it is possible to create meaningful dialogue where we will be able to hear and learn from each other.

Feel free to join in.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Using power for good

Gary has always been one of my favorites. He knows it, other people know it, and I can't deny it. But there are reasons why.

There is nothing I couldn't ask of Gary that he wouldn't do. He knows that I would do the same for him. But what's neat to me is that while I am a resource for Gary (he calls me to ask about anything from relationships to court cases...none of which I am qualified to answer, but he always asks anyway), he has become such a resource to others!

Gary grew up in the neighborhood where I live. Not all of the guys he hung with were good influences. In fact, he nearly didn't finish high school because of his connection with the other guys was always getting him in trouble, in addition to his own smart mouth with teachers who would harass him. I don't think many people expected much out of Gary.

During his first (and only) year in college, he started working at Sam's. As he began working more and more, he didn't have as much time to hang out with the guys. He has never stopped being their friend, though. I admire Gary because he didn't leave the community once he started getting his stuff together. He doesn't look down on people in his neighborhood. In fact, he stays in contact with all of the guys (he just doesn't have as much time to hang out with them anymore), and encourages them to apply at Sam's when he knows they need a job (which he recognizes that many of them do). Then, he offers to use his influence to help them get a position at Sam's. He doesn't just look for any guy, though. He recognizes that he has a reputation (and a job) to protect. If he knows the person isn't going to be dedicated to the job or if he knows them well enough to know they would lose their cool the first time someone says something to them, he doesn't hire them (or influence the hiring of them).

Gary has worked at Sam's for over 3 years now. His personality and charm, along with his dedication and commitment, has moved him up the ranks. They continue to ask him to be a Manager-in-Training (MIT), which he continues to refuse. He doesn't want the stress. (...if only I could say no to inducing stress in my life!). Despite his refusal to do the MIT program, he is still very respected at his job. Gary is in a position to help other people. He has pull. And he uses that pull for good.

Gary has figured out how to use what he has been given to help others.

What are you doing (this question is directed to myself as well) to use your power and your influence to help others?

Saturday, November 11, 2006

The Parable of the Talents

Matthew 25:14-30

This scripture, along with Luke 19:11-27, has always confused me. It never made sense to me why a person who tried to save the money he was given instead of risking it foolishly would be punished. Jesus talks all the time about those who have been given little, yet in this situation he takes from the one who was given little and gives it to the one with the most.

I had an a-ha moment the other day, though.

The sermons I've always heard on these two scriptures preach not in terms of finances, but in terms of the "gifts" and "talents" we've been given. Preachers/teachers always seem to sidestep the finance issue of this parable and make it into something simpler for us to handle. Though I agree that we do need to use the talents and gifts God has given us...I think He expects that of us, I believe we're letting ourselves off the hook easy by applying this scripture only to non-material "talents." I have come to believe that this passage is about exactly what it says. Jesus expected the people to "invest" their money. What does he mean by that?

Over the past few years I've started looking at my Christianity from a Jesus point of view. How did Jesus handle situations? Who did Jesus interact with? Where did Jesus spend his time?

What keeps coming up over and over is that Jesus spent his time with people. Plain, average people. People who didn't have a lot. People who were condemned by Christians as sinners. People "Christians" didn't want to associate with.

I like Jesus' approach. It makes so much more sense to me. He invested...in people. There is risk involved when you invest in people. It takes a lot of time and effort and even money, sometimes. The returns don't always come back as you expect. But, as in the parable, when we take those risks, the returns are often greater than we can imagine.

By simply taking our money, our time, our resources, and "burying" them...in a bank, in our own luxuries, within our own comfort zones...we are squandering what Jesus has given us.

"To whom much has been given, much is required."

God asks us to invest. An investment in people--financially, relationally, and spiritually--grows exponentially.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Black Jesus

Click on the heading above to see the review for a new movie that's out, Color of the Cross.

I don't go to the movies a lot, so I doubt that I make a big effort to get out and see this one, but what struck me as quite amusing...and actually pretty ludicruous...is the whole idea of it being a controversial movie because Jesus is cast as a Black man.

How do we have the nerve to tell Black people that they need to get past race issues, yet it's us (White people) who are the ones causing an uproar because Jesus is cast as a Black man?! If there were any justifiable uproar, you would think it should be the Middle Easterners getting upset because all of these years we've shown Jesus as a White man with brown hair and brown eyes who reaches out to White children.

Now, I suppose you could argue we were taught to be more inclusive than that. After all, many of us probably grew up singing the song, "Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his site." But "talk is cheap," as they say. Go take a look at your Sunday School curriculum. Look at your Vacation Bible School curriculum. Look who is largely represented.

I have to admit, I haven't looked into Sunday School or VBS curriculum in a few years so perhaps it has changed. In fact, the last VBS our kids went to did have pictures of several different ethnic groups. But Jesus was (and is) always White.

On the way home from church several years ago, one of the kids told me, "Miss Janet, I love you!" I told her I loved her, too. Then she proceeded to say, "I'm supposed to say that." Confused, I asked her why. She explained, "Jesus was White and you're White. So I'm supposed to say that." Baffled about her rationale of loving White people because Jesus was White, I wasn't sure how to approach that. I asked her how she "knew" Jesus was White. She looked at me dumbfounded like it was really stupid for me not to know that! She explained, "Because I see pictures of him!" I explained that we have never really seen Jesus and we don't really know what he looks like. She was undaunted. For the rest of the ride home she explained to me all of the pictures she had seen--in her Bible, in the Sunday School lessons, on the windows in churches, etc. It gets a little hard to contradict a 9-year old's reality--because, despite the fact that Jesus grew up in the middle east and never set foot in middle class, White America, that's exactly who he favors in all of our reproductions of him.

I've always heard that Jesus is all things to all people. I don't see why it should offend us that he is represented as Black (especially considering the reality that he was probably closer to Black than White if we look at where he grew up)...unless we are willing to admit that race IS still an issue in 2006.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Pay increases...Unrealistic or just unwilling?

I had been toying with the idea of writing a blog about the Janitor's strike in Houston, but Larry James beat me to it.

As usual, his post makes some great points and challenges us to connect our actions with our faith. What I also think is interesting are the passionate comments that go along with his post. It always amazes me how upset people get when someone mentions equality for the poor or talks about raising the minimum wage. If that defensiveness wasn't so troubling, it would be almost humorous.

After I read the article on the janitor's strike I began doing a little research in hopes of understanding how much money the executives of the companies utilizing the janitorial services make. The vice president of the Hines company said he “was supportive of health insurance and higher pay for janitorial workers.” I didn't see where it said he was willing to shell out more money to the janitorial services so that they can, in turn, offer increases in pay and health insurance. The cleaning companies say, "the proposal for a 62 percent increase [from $5.25 to $8.50/hour], along with health insurance, is unrealistic."

Considering they only work 4 1/2 hours a day, this amounts to an extra $74.75/week or $3887/year. That's really not much considering Texaco's CEO is making $3.4 million along with $2.8 million of stock options (that information is before the merger with Chevron...I'm sure the salary is higher now). The company itself is bringing in a total revenue of $36.6 billion and a net revenue of $2.1 billion. Is it really "unrealistic" for that corporation to pay more for a cleaning service that I'm sure they couldn't do without? I seriously doubt those executives would want to clean their own offices every evening.

Isn't capitalism based on supply and demand? And don't we pay more for items where demand is high? It seems to me that cleaning offices (or homes or streets or whatever) would justify a higher pay scale because there is a demand...especially these days when people are making so much money and don't choose to clean things themselves. Why do we feel the need to relegate someone to poverty because of a job that we see as "less than" when the services they offer are something we have no desire to live without? Mind you, these workers are not asking for $3.4 million annually. Just a simple $3000-$4000 a year.

So, to all of those corporate executives out there, go ahead and say you don't want to give janitors or cleaning people any more money, but don't tell us there isn't enough money to do it. That argument doesn't hold any water, is somewhat irritating, and, frankly, I feel like it insults our intelligence considering how much money is going in to those companies and how little is trickling down to the "bottom."

I'm glad they are organizing and I hope they can hold their ground until someone takes notice and realizes they are deserving people, too.