Notes From a Fruitful Conversation: Realizing Our Potential, And Assisting Others To Do The Same

A few months back, I had the opportunity of getting to sit down for coffee with a good friend of mine, Arnaud Jean. He is a UMass student who happens to be taking some time off in Haiti devoted to consulting and building with others in the field of permaculture. He is doing a lot of great work, and his example can be an inspiration to us all. 

All of the work Jean is doing–consulting with people at the state level in Haiti, building with other like-minded individuals, and striving to have a positive impact with Haitian youth–had me wondering not only as to how he developed such a vision, but also how he even felt that such a vision could become a reality? At some point, a strong conviction that what he was doing could be possible was needed for him take that leap forward. What enabled  him to feel empowered enough to take such an initiative?

For Jean, self empowerment has always been a part him. “When I was a kid, my mom used to say, ‘Son, whatever you want in life, you will have.’ To a kid, being poor and your mom saying something like that was like a promise. And I remember my grandma used to tell us stories, folk tales, about voodoo, gods and goddesses, the kind of stories that made you feel like nothing was impossible.” Jean internalized these thoughts of being capable of infinite possibilities, and that belief has been manifested through his work in Haiti.

But this way of thinking isn’t always romantic. He continued to say,”Thinking this way can make you overestimate what you are capable of and set you up for failure after failure. But still, each failure is a learning opportunity. And it is this learning that leads to self actualization. So as dangerous as that mindset can be, I think it’s an important part of becoming.”

All of  what Jean had to say resonated with me so strongly because it was something I myself had been wrestling with for some time. Recently,  I have carried my own insecurities with myself and a lack of confidence in my own capacities. For many of us, Jean’s story is not much different than our own. Most of us grew up being told we had immeasurable capacities waiting to be unlocked and opened to the world. Most of us can relate to  a childhood where we envisioned a reality that could be manipulated through our own vision and hard work, a reality that we controlled. A world where we believed that our outlandish dreams could come true.

So if this story is so much like my own–like our own, then why am I so interested in it? Because unlike Jean, many of us–at one point–were confronted with the harsh reality that maybe we couldn’t be and do everything we wanted, and we internalized that doubt. As we approached adulthood, we encountered setback after setback, and eventually we become jaded with life’s harsh realities. This too was the case with Jean, but somehow he was able to recapture his youthful ambition. That is what makes Jean’s story so unique: that despite continuous encounters with life’s reality, he still believes in his own capacities.

As the conversation went on, we started to explore this idea of “youthful self-empowerment”. Jean expressed his desire to facilitate others into realizing their own potential in Haiti. In a community that has experience so many hardships, it is not hard to imagine many Haitians internalizing the present realities as their only available option.

“I sometimes talk to Haitian boys and girls. Some of them seem so hopeful and others you can tell are a bit more ‘realistic’. I think, for me, my dream is to encourage the dreamers in pragmatic ways to realize their dreams. You know, after you’ve been through so much…it’s difficult to hold steady to old ideas. But can you imagine,–if Nelson Mandela stopped dreaming, if MLK, Gandhi  or the Haitian forefathers stopped dreaming?”

In a community that has experienced so many hardships, many Haitians have internalized the present realities as their only available options–options that aren’t so optimistic and don’t leave much room for hope. So how can Jean facilitate some Haitian youth to a sense of realization of autonomy over their own destinies? How will Jean encourage those he comes in contact with to envision realities that are not visibly present , but realities that can become actualities through their own vision and endeavors?

haitian kids

The deeper we went into this conversation, the more lost we became, but also the closer we came to finding ourselves. Through discussing this topic so heavily, we were able to make connections together that we wouldn’t normally be able to do alone. I know that for myself, when I think of Haiti and other Caribbean nations, I also think of America and the depressed urban populations that live within my own domestic boarders. Being an Afro-American studies major with a concentration in Political Science and History, I have a good understanding of structural changes that have occurred domestically that have kept people–primarily of color–from achieving upward mobility and I have an awareness to the social impediments that have continually marginalized groups of people from feeling that they have any autonomy over their own reality–because for so long they have been victims to systematic oppressive forces that crippled them from having any real control. Systems responsible for joblessness, housing, and poor education–all of which keep people who are already down, down even more.

So, because of this knowledge, I find it naive for us to really expect that we can live that youthful reality that indoctrinated us to believe we could do anything we set our minds to, because it underestimates social realities that really do exist for many people. However, I also cannot just accept that social impediments are the last deciding factor in our fates. That way of thinking becomes problematic,  because it means we gave up and lost.  Too many of us  have internalized such thoughts, especially people who been victimized to such unjust social impediments.

black youthAnd so the question I posed to Jean was how do we mobilize oppressed communities? How do we give these communities a feeling that they can actively shape their own realities and combat the forces that have so long been against them?

It was at this moment when Jean saw it as an appropriate time to give me a lesson in biology. Describing the cell: “when many cells come together they form tissues, the tissues forming organs, the organs forming organ systems, and then an organism.  At each new level, there is a new reality. Now, apply that to people”. The cell is the individual, the body is the community. 

And then, the dialogue transformed and wasn’t just about how to mobilize others, but first how to integrate ourselves. Although I never grew up in the ghettos of America, I still felt  alienation growing up because the color of my skin. I remember teachers never encouraging me to push myself because they didn’t think I could, fellow students always questioning my intelligence, always being suspected as a thief when walking into stores, and a continuous stream of events where I had been profiled because of my skin color. My blackness has always been perceived as a negative trait by the standards of others, and that mainstream perception negatively affected how I perceived myself for a long time. It influenced what I believed I was capable of.  Once someone who believed they were innate with huge potential turned into a black male who  lost faith in fairy tales.  But now I long to feel that youthful empowerment again.

And my story–although it is my story–isn’t much different from others’. In fact, my life probably parallels with so many who experienced some form of alienation, but maybe not alienation based on race. Jean asked me how common is it for people like me–people who have been put down for shallow reasons–to struggle with these same kind of questions that we happened to be contemplating over? How many of us have self-actualized what others thought about us and believed that that was the actual reality–a reality that didn’t deem us as being worthy of self confidence. And because of this self actualization,  we haven’t taken risks, we haven’t reached for what we wanted, or aspired to be who we want to be because so many people instilled doubt in us, and we fully accepted it.

This might have been the answer me and Jean were searching for: that because the challenges of others are so much like the ones we experience ourselves, in order for us to truly mobilize and assist other individuals, as well as other communities, we have to first mobilize ourselves. We have to see within us–at the individual level–the latent potential of nobility that has been inherent in all of us from birth, but has yet to be activated. We have to first look inward and cultivate ourselves, then share that with others. We have to see, acknowledge  and believe in our own self-worth. Change begins at the individual level. In order for us to be active agents of change within other communities we have to start with fixing our own problems.


But this is a very abstract answer. And when I expressed that to Jean, his response was that “every person is different, so every answer will be different. Take this idea, and make love to it”.

So that’s exactly what I did this idea:made love to it. 

Like Jean, I am a member of the Baha’i Faith. So in order to really expand my thoughts and find a solution with a solid foundation, a friend suggested I search the vast and abundant sources that the Baha’i writings had to offer, especially when it pertains to current issues–like inequality.

It was then that I came across a quote that “highlighted both the complexity and the interdependence of the problems facing humanity.” Stating that “none of these problems–the debilitating inequalities of development, the apocalyptic threats of atmospheric warming and ozone depletion, the oppression of women, the neglect of children and marginalized peoples, to name but  few–can be realistically addressed without considering all the others. None can be fully addressed without a magnitude of cooperation and coordination at all levels that far surpasses anything in humanity’s collective experience.” (Baha’i International Community, 1993 Apr 01, Sustainable Development Human Spirit)

In the same way Jean was comparing the process of the cells forming organisms to the individual and the community, social inequalities also fall into this process. Indeed, all individuals are different, our experiences may not be concretely the same, but we can use our individual experiences to relate to one another. In the same way that people are struggling with questions similar to my own, they are also struggling with similar problems. Oppression is oppression, exploitation is exploitation, no matter what forms they take shape in, because they are all unjust and perpetuate some form of inequality.

When we reach this realization that all injustices–no matter what form they are manifested in–are interrelated, then we can start to make real progress. 

In the conclusion of my first post, Thoughts on Newtown, I emphasized a need for a perspective that looks at all the layers of injustices. A perspective that understands that all the injustices the occur around the world are linked, and that in order to adequately address one, all the injustices need to be addressed and their connections to one another need to be openly acknowledged.

So to piggy-back off of that idea: we have to start understanding that the empowerment of Haitian youth is linked to the the empowerment of youth everywhere, to the empowerment of the women everywhere, to racial justice everywhere, to economic justice everywhere, to environmental justice everywhere--to justice everywhere through the empowerment of people everywhere.

This post, like so many of my previous ones, isn’t intended to magically offer any definitive answers, but rather to ask appropriate questions that put us on the right path to finding the gold we are constantly mining for.

I understand that maybe this is too idealistic for many to vibe with, but I just found that this conversation Jean and I had needed to be shared with other like-minded individuals. So take this post, and in the words of Jean, “make love to it.”


Discussing Banning Drones Isn’t About Terrorism, It’s About Preserving What’s Left Of Humanity

“Can you tell us why Abdulrahman al-Awlaki was killed? Can you tell the Muslim people their lives are as precious as our lives? Can you take the drones out of the hands of the CIA? Can you stop the signature strikes that are killing people on the basis of suspicious activities?”

Those were the words of Medea Benjamin, a reporter who was present at Obama’s May 23, 2013 speech on national security,  in which he heavily discussed the use of drones in the U.S. government’s “War on Terror.” As Obama discussed the urgency to eradicate terrorist organizations through any means, Medea Benjamin spoke up. Continuing to say:

“[Can you] apologize to the thousands of Muslims that you have killed? Will you compensate the innocent family victims? That will make us safer here at home.

I love my country! I love the rule of law! The drones are making us less safe.

And keeping people in indefinite detention in Guantanamo is making us less safe. Abide by the rule of law.”

All of this was said as she was being forced out of the building.

Obama says that “America cannot strike wherever we choose,” but he failed to acknowledge the contradictions behind such a statement. He failed to acknowledge the innocent lives–children–that were killed as he authorized the testing of drones. Those lives were not terrorist threats. Obama, along with the CIA, had a choice, and that choice was to take lives.

Too much power is being held in too little spaces. What constitutes a terrorist threat, who determines it, and who decides the appropriate actions are all administered by a small select group of people. By this point, more than a handful of innocent people have been labeled as “terrorists,” and tortured as such. Once they were proven innocent, torture may have ceased, but no compensation was given, neither was a formal apology from the U.S government. So killing innocent lives, along with torturing innocent people, is what Medea Benjamin is referring to as not abiding by the rule of the law.

Those people who are in power see themselves as being above the rule of the law. It permeates all of their actions, and lately, we are seeing occurrences of blatant abuses of power. The Obama administration being charged of war crimes, the covering up of Benghazi, the IRS scandal, Wiki-leaks–and those are just what have been exposed.

Obama–along with so many other advocates of drones–miss the point. It’s not about terrorism or self-defense; it’s about making blatant contradictions, lying to our faces, and no attempt to right wrongs. It doesn’t matter what good drone use may serve in a war against terrorism, because in my mind, the casualties that occurred will continue to haunt me. A discourse on drones transcends beyond weighing the pros and cons of war to something much bigger: the moral condition of humanity.

When we think of the causalities of drone strikes, we can’t just emphasize those 4 Americans who died earlier this week, we also need to value those Pakistani, Yemenese, and Somalian lives as equal to those of Americans. When we start seeing foreign lives in the same way we see Americans, then maybe a discourse on drones won’t have to happen, because drones would be obsolete.

Obama’s Disillusioned Morehouse Speech

The other day, Barack and Michelle Obama both spoke at two different HBCU’s Commencement Ceremonies–Morehouse and Bowie State. Their presence, in theory, is extraordinary and significant for all of the obvious reasons: Whether or not they went to an HBCU, their success is the result of the efforts and purpose HBCUs have served over the last 150 years. At the same time, what they said holds another significance, a different significance.

personal responsibility

Words from Michelle:

“But today, more than 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, more than 50 years after the end of “separate but equal,” when it comes to getting an education, too many of our young people just can’t be bothered. Today, instead of walking miles every day to school, they’re sitting on couches for hours playing video games, watching TV. Instead of dreaming of being a teacher or a lawyer or a business leader, they’re fantasizing about being a baller or a rapper.”

Words from Barack to the Morehouse class of 2013:

“We know that too many young men in our community continue to make bad choices. Growing up, I made a few myself. And I have to confess, sometimes I wrote off my own failings as just another example of the world trying to keep a black man. But one of the things you’ve learned over the last four years is that there’s no longer any room for excuses. I understand that there’s a common fraternity creed here at Morehouse: “excuses are tools of the incompetent, used to build bridges to nowhere and monuments of nothingness.

We’ve got no time for excuses — not because the bitter legacies of slavery and segregation have vanished entirely; they haven’t. Not because racism and discrimination no longer exist; that’s still out there. It’s just that in today’s hyper-connected, hyper-competitive world, with a billion young people from China and India and Brazil entering the global workforce alongside you, nobody is going to give you anything you haven’t earned. And whatever hardships you may experience because of your race, they pale in comparison to the hardships previous generations endured — and overcame.”

These were the same words that Bill Cosby gave nearly 10 years ago, where he stated black people cannot continue to blame white people for the problems that collectively plague African Americans today–joblessness, poverty, poor education, mass incarceration, etc etc.

It is  ironic that these views are no longer coming from just whites who are fed up with discussing racism. They also comes from African Americans, many of which are middle class. The last six months I’ve been seeing the Cosby statements resurface on Facebook and get a lot of positive feedback from many of my black friends.

When it comes to racism in America, so often do we see ourselves, myself included, placing the individual blame solely on African Americans. So often do we discriminate against others who our less fortunate than ourselves and feel their problems stem from laziness. So often do we feel this need to lecture those around us on personal responsibility. As an African American, it’s what we were brought up being told, because thinking anything else would drive us mad. If we were brought up to believe that we had no control over our destinies in a country with so much racial tension, then it is safe to say we’d be far worse collectively than we already are.

What makes Barack and Michelle’s statements more significant,  however, isn’t what they said, but rather who they are and what they represent: A post-racial America. So many people stand behind the Obama presidency as a testament that racial matters are obsolete in a country that has elected a black man to the most powerful political position in this country. They use the Obama presidency as the proof that America is past racism. If a black man, with a single mother, can make it to the white house, then perhaps racial and social impediments don’t really exist to the extent that so many people argue. So when Obama wags his finger to Morehouse graduates, it holds great significance because he–the poster child of post-racialism–is outwardly advocating the same ideology so many others used him for.

These type of statements on personal responsibility that the Obamas and Cosby make are problematic because it misdiagnoses the problem, and allows racism to spread unchecked. If racism isn’t adequately acknowledged in all of it’s obvious forms, then it perpetuates and becomes worse.

Sure, many of the statements Cosby makes about blacks’ “cultural choices” are partly true. We’d be fooling ourselves and missing the point if we didn’t acknowledge  the current state of much of black America. I’m not disillusioned.  I understand the reality. But what Cosby fails to do is accurately acknowledge what is this culture a product of: Slavery, Jim Crow, the formation of Ghettos and unfair housing policies, unequal schools, mass incarceration, and a level of discrimination that transcends institutions and individual interactions and reinforces inequality. When we only see current racial inequities as products of individual and cultural behaviors, then  we fail to acknowledge a history, a Country, and a capitalist society that structured its institutions around perpetuating inequalities. Someone as educated as Barack, Michelle, or Bill Cosby should understand those very real social impediments that are still in much effect today.

Even more problematic is this notion of the “Super Negro”.Dr. Boyce writes that the super negro “is a commonly-held belief that if all 40 million black people would simply make straight As, never ever break the law in a minor way, work 80 hours a week and make no mistakes, we could overcome any form of racial oppression.”

She continues: “The point here is that black people are the only group of people who are severely punished for being average.  If a young black male grows up in a neighborhood where he might get shot everyday on the way to school, the educational system is dilapidated, he is being racially-profiled on every corner and there’s no food in the house, we expect him to be able to rise to extraordinary levels of focus and capability to overcome all of this.”

Michelle Obama Gives Speech At Bowie State University Commencement

It’s the walking contradiction we’ve too often acknowledged and ignored all at the same time. Too often do people realize that the conditions of much of black America are unequal. We realize the schools are inferior, the neighborhoods are crime infested, and that the odds are disproportionately against black youth to succeed. Yet, despite all of these blatant facts, we expect it to be blacks’ responsibility to move around these barriers, the same barriers that were installed to keep them in a hole of oppression–because they were black. When government funded institutions have functioned with a racial agenda that perpetuated inequality, the solution shouldn’t be individual responsibility by the victims, the solution should be the State making a new racial agenda. An agenda that works on behalf of African Americans in order to compensate for working against them for so long.

When the only solution people like Obama–who is the Head of State, a racist State–offer is the “Super Negro,” that isn’t personal responsibility, that’s personal blame.

Everyone, black and white, needs to acknowledge the privilege they have been given and how that puts them in advantage over others. I know that myself, even though I am black, I am middle class and male, and being such hold many advantages over others. Where I am may be some part of individual effort, but it is also a product of the privilege I have been given. When we can see how our privilege has propelled us, then we can see how others’ under-privilege has crippled them, and maybe we can then make proper assessments to reaching real solutions.

It’s time to wake up from this disillusionment and realize that racism is as real today as it was 60 years ago. It still holds tangible outcomes for many disadvantaged and keeps them down while allowing others to succeed.

Racism may not reach all of our personal spaces, but whether we chose to acknowledge them or not, those spaces where racism thrives still exist and persist.