Saving Black Boys

Posted in Librarians in the News with tags , on July 11, 2015 by crankylibrarian

DaJae Coleman, died 9/22/2012

In Jesmyn Ward’s bittersweet new memoir, Men We Reaped, she speaks eloquently of the pain of losing 5 young men she loved, including her brother, to drugs and violence. This is a maddeningly familiar scenario for many in the African American community: losses as varied as Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis and, right here in Evanston, DaJae Coleman, Leslie Calvin, Marcus Davis, Javar Bamberg, and Justin Murray keep us asking: why can’t we keep black boys safe?

Dr George Jenkins was a black teen boy from the Newark projects  who made a personal commitment to survive and succeed, despite the odds. He enlisted his two best friends, Sampson Davis and Rameck Hunt, and they formed a pact: that all three would do whatever it took to overcome their challenges and become successful doctors. And they did. They recount their story in The Pact: Three Young Men Make  a Promise and Fulfill a Dream,  our April 15th discussion topic.

Trayvon Martin, died 2/26/2012

The Pact is one of a number of memoirs chronicling the rise of a young black person from inner city poverty. A few months back we read Rosemary Bray McNatt’s equally inspiring Unafraid of the Dark, about her journey from the Chicago projects to Francis Parker school and then Yale; and we have also discussed The Other Wes Moore, in which a successful journalist ponders the different circumstances that pointed him on to success, while another young man with the same name and a similar background ended up in prison for murder. Several common themes emerge: the need for strong role models, family support, and the empathy to see beyond bad behavior and recognize potential.

Jordan Davis, died 11/23/2012

It’s that empathy that is often lacking in discussions of why black young people go wrong. All of these authors admit to making bad choices as kids: McNatt stole money from her private school classmates, Moore flirted with street gangs, Davis was arrested for shoplifting, Hunt served time in juvie. Yet all had caring, engaged adults who refused to give up  on them: parents, grandparents, teachers, coaches who were willing to give them second, and often third and fourth chances.

Died 11/29/2012

All of these authors were hard working and talented, but they repeatedly stress that they could easily have gone the way of their classmates and friends. They remind an uncomfortable public that there is very little difference between them and the thousands of young black teens who don’t make it to successful adulthood,
and that instead of offering judgments about “personal responsibility” we should be reaching out, and affirming our belief that young black lives have value. Rather than trying  to distinguish between the “good” victims and the “bad” boys who got what they had coming, Moore, McNatt, Ward and the Three Doctors urge us to stand up in support of all our young people, and give them what it takes to survive and thrive. To learn about some existing mentoring and support programs see:

The Three Doctors Foundation – Drs Sampson, Hunt and Jenkins foundation.

The “Elevate” Blog
Wes Moore’s listing of “organizations that answer a call to action everyday and empower those who are less fortunate but equally deserving”

DaJae Coleman Foundation – offers programs that motivate Evanston youth and instill positive values to help guide them.

Leslie Calvin, died 7/4/2010

Empathy, Not Judgement: Are We Our Brother’s Keeper? (originally published April 9 2014)

Posted in Librarians in the News on July 11, 2015 by crankylibrarian

The religious principle I’ve always had the most trouble with is “Judge ye not”. I am a pretty judgey person by nature. Whenever I’m reading the news, or observing my fellow citizens in traffic, (“Thanks for nearly running us over, jerk!”) my gut reaction is “How can people be so completely selfish/intolerant/cruel? What kind of decent person does that?

I’ve been reflecting on my judginess as I’m reading this month’s African American Lit discussion book, The Pact.

Imagine your son is a freshman at an exclusive liberal arts college. Late one night, a scholarship student from Newark gets in a loud argument in the dorm with several guys from his old neighborhood. Angry that your son and other students are watching, the Newark kid yells at them to leave, and when you son refuses, threatens him, then pick him up and hurls him headfirst against the floor, breaking his leg. It transpires that the scholarship student had been jailed the previous summer for the attempted murder of a crack dealer he had stabbed. You are asked if you want to press charges, and send the assailant to jail.

Is there any question how most of us would react?  All your son did was stand up to intimidation: he didn’t call the guy names, or threaten him or use violence, and yet this thug with a violent criminal record, this ANIMAL dared to lay hands on your child in his own dorm. Of course you would press charges.

And if you had, you would have ended the life and career of Dr Rameck Hunt, currently an internist at Princeton’s University Medical Center  and Assistant Professor of Medicine at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. Dr. Hunt is the co-author, along with his friends Dr. Sampson Davis and Dr. George Jenkins of The Pact, the story of 3 young black men from the Newark projects who supported each other in their dreams to become successful doctors.

Unlike many stories of poor but saintly children triumphing over the odds, this one doesn’t sugarcoat the difficulties. Looking back, Dr. Hunt explains (but does not excuse) his behavior: “On the streets where I grew up if someone disrespected you, you beat his ass. Period. If I did nothing I’d look like a punk”.

How many times have we read about violent young people and thought “Punk”. “Lowlife”. “Thug”. After all, how could decent people do that?

In fact, Dr. Hunt says that the weight of being judged by his white middle class dorm-mates was what had enraged him: “To the average white stranger I was an instant security threat a thug, not a human being with a heart and dreams and family and fears. We were a spectacle confirming white folks worst stereotypes”.

President Obama speaks with black youth about the “My Brothers’ Keeper” initiative

Fortunately for Dr. Hunt, (and for all of us) the mother of that student chose empathy and compassion over judgement, and declined to press charges, and her decision changed his life. We’ll be talking about Drs. Hunt, Davis and Jenkins next Tuesday, and the many decisions large and small which led to their current success. And we’ll ask: how are we, as a society, treating the Ramecks of today? Are we offering empathy and encouragement, or are we squelching them with 3 strikes laws and zero tolerance policies?

Tybalt on Ridge (originally published August 3, 2010 )

Posted in Librarians in the News on July 11, 2015 by crankylibrarian

Leslie Calvin has been on my mind lately. The Evanston 19 year old was shot dead on July 4th, and the newspaper coverage and reaction to his murder have sparked an uncomfortable community conversation about young black men, violence, and community responsibility. Was Calvin a “notorious” gangster who terrorized a neighborhood, or was he a teenage “baby” and beloved son?

The tragedy is that he was both. I thought about Calvin last night as I was watching Two Pence Theatre’s excellent, spare production of Romeo and Juliet at the Evanston Arts Depot. As I’ve grown older, the central love story has become less interesting to me than the parent-child relationships. The current production, staged only blocks from where Calvin died, is an insightful examination of fathers and sons, and the agony of a father’s inability to prevent his son’s violent death.

It may sound odd to describe R&J as about fathers and sons, since the only actual father/son pair in the play never speak a word to each other. Several characters are father figures however: Friar Lawrence for Romeo, the Prince for Mercutio and Paris, and Capulet for Tybalt. Each of these “fathers” will attempt to control the violence and impetuosity of his “sons”: each will fail.

First, a word about Capulet. All too often he’s played as either a buffoon or a raging monster. The Two Pence production wisely portrays Capulet as a strong, essentially good man, driven mad by the chaos around him. The ball scene is particularly revealing: Capulet is working hard to keep things under control while his nephew Tybalt threatens murder. In many productions, Capulet quickly flies into a rage almost as ungovernable as his nephew’s, but here Capulet is more nuanced; he quietly (but firmly) steers Tybalt away from the guests, calmly reasons with him, and only at the very end of their conversation does he raise his voice and threaten violence. Clearly this isn’t the first time Capulet has had to restrain Tybalt.

Yet the exchange is affectionate as well as angry; this is a Capulet who loves his nephew, but can’t prevent him from going down a wrong (and dangerous) path. A few scenes later, when Tybalt’s mad violence has led to his inevitable end, Capulet’s hunched body language says it all: anger, frustration and deep sadness over this wasted life.

Was young Capulet once like the prudent Benvolio?

What does it take to be a Benvolio, the man of “good will”? As in most productions, Benvolio is an active (if ineffective) peace-keeper in the first brawl, although the actor lets him hesitate ever so slightly before throwing himself into the quarrel. Unlike his impetuous friends, Benvolio clearly appreciates the risks involved. As the Mercutio/Tybalt duel approaches its climax, and Mercutio dies, Benvolio attempts to drag Romeo to safety. Yet when the final death match between Tybalt and Romeo begins, there’s a devastating moment when a tearful Benvolio simply backs away from them, throws up his hands and turns his face to the wall. He knows what’s going to happen, and realizes that this time, there is nothing he can do.

That helplessness in the face of violence, and the bitter resignation that follows: we see it in Benvolio, in Capulet, in Friar Lawrence, and in Prince Escalus, as he gazes first at the body of Mercutio and then later at that of Paris. We feel the weight of his guilt as he says, “and I for winking at your discords too have lost a brace of kinsman”.

Have we been “winking” at discords here?
How do we curb violence in young man? “Good will” is powerless. Demonizing them is pointless and wrong, the “monster” to one side is the “baby” and beloved son to another. (“My brother’s child!” sobs Lady Capulet at Tybalt’s death.) Even lovesick Romeo and upright, by-the-rules Paris eventually mutate into brutal killing machines, their final confrontation a sickening reminder that “good boys” are not immune to the lure of violence.

There are five young men at the beginning of R&J; only one is alive at the end. There are four older men left to struggle with their grief and guilt over all they failed to do. We share their frustration and their fear, for the Mercutios and Tybalts, so quick to reach for weapons at the slightest provocation, the Romeos and Parises caught up in violence against their will, and the prudent Benvolios, careful, and lucky enough to survive.
“All are punished.”

The Wisdom of Chickens: “Are Those the Only Choices?” (originally published August 7 2011

Posted in Librarians in the News on July 11, 2015 by crankylibrarian

Chicken Run is a sadly under-appreciated movie. A coopful of chickens, led by the fearless Ginger, conspire to escape the farm before they are all converted to pies. At one point, Ginger, exhorting her followers to risk it all issues the rallying cry, “We either die free chickens, or we die trying!” (Wild cheers!!)

To which one chicken, the sweetly spacey Babs meekly replies, “Are those the only choices?”

Babs the hen is my heroine. Although no one ever responds to her naive, but  profound question, it’s occurred to me that we could use more chickens like Babs these days. Imagine Babs at the recent partisan budget debates:



and then Babs: “Are those the only choices?”

The union debates: “Give up collective bargaining, or let the economy collapse!”

and then Babs: “Are those the only choices?”

Or the post 9/11 warmongering: “Give up your civil liberties or the terrorists win!”

And then Babs: “Are those the only choices?”

We humans have a stubborn, but pernicious need to divide the world into 2 opposing camps: you’re either for us or against us. Good vs evil. Flesh vs spirit. East vs West. Capitalist vs Communist. Cubs vs Sox. Yet this binary view often keeps us from finding true solutions, and achieving meaningful understanding of “the other”. The binary view, “this or that” presents us with false choices that ultimately are no choice at all.

In fact Babs’ simple question could be the motto of The Third Way, a think tank that attempts to see beyond “rigid or outdated orthodoxies” to avoid the  “polarization…of ideologically driven policies and political gridlock. We believe there is a better way, a “third way” – one that discards the false choices presented by both sides.”

Avoiding false choices: that is the core principle of Third Way.

The binary worldview is not only unproductive, it can be downright dangerous in the hands of fear mongers. How often have we heard heart-breaking stories of essentially good people who in times of crisis committed horrific acts, because they were told “there is no other choice”?  “…If you don’t kill them NOW, the Tutsis will win, the Sikhs will take over, the Arabs will destroy us, the blacks will overrun us….” Over and over and over, these tragedies play out, with no Babs to ask “Are those the only choices?”

So the next time you hear a binary argument, from someone pushing you to do something you feel in your gut is wrong or cruel, or simply unwise, step back a moment and think. Be brave enough to be a chicken, and ask with Babs, “Are those the only choices?”

For examples of  Third Way thinking see:

Third Way Center -Works to provide an alternative to the false choices of incarceration or homelessness for troubled teens.

The Third Way Finding Way: Finding Balance in MidEast Analysis

Did You Sacrifice a Child Today? The True Meaning of Child Sacrifice, (originally published Oct 12 2011)

Posted in Librarians in the News on July 11, 2015 by crankylibrarian

Listening to the BBC News this morning, I heard a story that literally made me sick: a report on the revival of child sacrifice in Uganda. For a fee, “witch doctors” will kidnap small children, hack them to bits and bury their remains in order to bring prosperity to the client’s business or family.

The story upset me for more than the obvious reasons. Despite never having visited, I have connections with Uganda; my synagogue has sponsored service visits there, and helps support an interfaith coffee cooperative in the country. The horrors described were so at odds with the family loving communities of Uganda we know. The cruelty,  the savagery described fits in with longstanding stereotypes about Africa, and people of color in general. Of course it WOULD  have to be ignorant black people on the “dark “continent doing this, wouldn’t it.

But then I listened some more. The rise in child sacrifice is not taking place due to an increase in religious fervor or ethnic superstition, but rather due to increased development and prosperity. “Child sacrifice has risen because people have become lovers of money”, one local pastor said. “They want to get richer.”

In other words, it’s not  ignorance or superstition that’s driving child sacrifice, it’s selfishness and greed. And that, my friends, is far from unique to Africa.

Ask any non-institutionalized person what they think of child sacrifice and of course they will respond, “How horrible! How backward! How inhuman!” On the other hand, ask them if they avoid buying products made by child labor, oppose drone strikes and bombing,  support tougher gun laws and police protection in the inner city, or stricter standards on environmental pollutants  and children’s products. Instead of righteous outrage, you’re likely to hear muttered excuses, “well…it’s a complicated issue… trickle down… need to address the problem gradually…maintain economic stability….”

The fact is, we sacrifice children all the time, to our greed, our sense of safety, or our convenience. Clothes made by pre-teen girls in Asian sweatshops are cheap, so we buy them. Coffee and chocolate harvested by small boys who will never be able to afford those delicacies is easier to find than fair trade, so we buy it. Sometimes we even use the well being of our own children to justify sacrificing others. For example…

A few years ago, a friend asked my to buy chocolates to support a local preschool. I was pleased to see that the school was using one of the few candy fundraisers that sells exclusively fair traded chocolate, meaning farmers (and their children) get a fair price and a chance at a better life. The following year when I was approached again, I noticed that the chocolates on offer were now from one of the standard chains, one with a dismal record on fair trade and child labor. When I asked the fundraising chair why they had switched, she stammered, “We-ll, we _tried_ to go with fair trade, but the return on the investment just isn’t as high so…we had to do what was best for the kids”. Translation: what’s best for _her_ kids, her safe, suburban kids, who were more important than some anonymous children in Africa.

We are willing to sacrifice for our safety, or our perception of it. Why else would we have gun laws for “self-protection” which  flood urban neighborhoods with weaponry, killing  thousands of children a year?  Why else would we condone the bombing of civilian populations in Iraq and Afghanistan?

In the terrifying days after 9/11, two friends argued over attacking  Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction”.  “What about the innocents?” one asked. “Do you realize how many Innocent people, innocent children we’re going to kill?” .

Exasperated, the other exploded, “You know what? If it keeps my wife and kids safe, I don’t care, okay? Call me a bad person but I just don’t care”. Translation: my kids are more important than theirs. Sacrifice those kids, not mine. (Children killed in Iraq 2003-2008: 2146)

So let’s not  get all judgmental over Uganda. We may not actively kill children here, but when we ignore the toll of poverty, pollutants, and violence on child health; when we tolerate unhealthy and unsafe products made with slave labor, and base our foreign policy on a narrowly defined self interest, we condone the sacrifice of children.

Here’s a question: which has ended the lives of more Ugandan children, ritual child sacrifice? Or dangerous low paid work in mines and coffee fields? Or maybe preventable diseases and malnutrition?

The highest estimates put the number of child sacrifice victims at 900 over 3 years. How does this compare to the over 3000 U.S. children a year killed in gun violence? Or the high mortality rate from industrial pollutants, unsafe toys and baby products? Every time you see a crib recalled after yet another baby strangles in it, or a  lead-laced or magnet-filled toy yet another toddler has swallowed, remember, “Someone was willing to sacrifice a child’s life to sell this”.

It’s so easy to focus on the superstition, the ignorance behind the Uganda story.  But that misses the point. Would child sacrifice be any less revolting if it worked?  Or if it was conducted in a more… refined manner? It’s not the method or the faulty logic which should horrify us: it’s the selfishness, the cold, callous selfishness that would let someone end a child’s life purely for their own gain. Because no matter the  excuse, there is one simple fact on which all civilized peoples should agree:   _Sacrificing the safety and health of a child for someone else’s benefit is always wrong._

I can’t begin to imagine the mindset of a person who could hold down a struggling, sobbing 5 year old and rip his throat out. However, sadly, I can picture the people who ordered someone to order the killing, who distanced themselves from the blood and the tears, who told themselves that this was, “the cost of doing business”,  that “everyone does it”,  that it “makes financial sense”.

And just as there would be no witch doctors without clients willing to look the other way, there would be no sweatshops, no illegal dumping, no child labor without customers, shareholders, and taxpayers willing to look the other way, to shut their eyes and ears to the misery they condone, if not approve.

The  excellent film, _Girl in the Cafe_, brings home this point with eloquent force. At a meeting of those power brokers of the world’s economy, the G8 nations; negotiations to lower debt and open up trade for poor countries is resisted by US trade interests. Gina, a bewildered bystander, challenges the complacent diplomats at a state dinner, saying,

“…While we are eating a hundred million children are nearly starving. There’s just millions of kids who’d kill for the amount of food that fat old me left on the side of my plate, children who are then so weak they’ll die if a mosquito bites them. And so they do die. One every three seconds.

[snaps fingers]

There they go.

[pauses, snap fingers again]

And another one. Anyone who has kids knows that every mother and father in Africa must love their children as much as they do, and to watch your kids die, to watch them die and then to die yourself in trying to protect them, that’s not right. And tomorrow eight of the men sitting ’round this table actually have the ability to sort this out by making a few great decisions. And if they don’t, some day someone else will. And they’ll look back on us lot and say – people were actually dying in their millions unnecessarily, in front of you, on your TV screens. What were you thinking? You knew what to do to stop it happening and you didn’t do those things. Shame on you. So that’s what you have to do tomorrow. Be great instead of being ashamed. It can’t be impossible.

“It must be possible.”

Some groups working to make it possible:

Global Exchange -for background on the role of the coffee, chocolate, and clothing industries in child and slave labor and trafficking

Mirembe Kawomera (“Delicious Peace” Coffee) – fair trade cooperative of Jewish, Christian and Muslim farmers in Uganda

Ceasefire – Campaign to stop gun violence in Chicago

Environmental Working Group – Publishes studies on the role of dangerous chemicals in household products and their effect on children

TransFair Fair Trade USA – Promotes fairly traded products worldwide

Children’s Defense Fund – State of America’s Children. Reports on threats to child health from violence, pollutants, hunger, and just plain ol’ poverty.

“Our Children at Risk: The 5 Worst Risks to Their Health” from the Natural Resources Council

Child Trafficking – Works to expose and prevent child trafficking and slave labor worldwide

The Real Life Model for The Hunger Games Isn’t Reality TV. It’s the Olympics. (originally published August 3 2012)

Posted in Librarians in the News on July 11, 2015 by crankylibrarian

While watching the movie adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, I kept having this nagging feeling of deja vu. I knew of course that the callous residents of The Capital were supposed to represent rabid fans of reality television, but though I’ve never watched a reality tv show, the tropes of the movie were disturbingly familiar. The anxious teens on display in a parade of fabulous costumes. The pressure to “bring honor to my district”. The transparently faux sentimentality, exploited in the relentless search for sponsorships.

Then Monday night, watching the Olympic opening ceremonies, it hit me: the Olympics are our Hunger Games. It’s all there: teen age competitors, many from desperately poor countries, forced to compete with the well fed, well trained scions of richer countries. The ostentatious display of national costumes, which often play to worn out stereotypes, (what would Cinna think of those “English countryside” bonnets?). The chatty interviews with bronzed, blow dried, talk show hosts, oozing affable concern for the nervous Romanian or Chinese teenager on the couch.


Our Olympic “tributes”

And our complicity. For 2 weeks, we take these young people into our hearts. Their trials and tribulations play out as international soap opera, as we obsessively follow every sprint, every muffed dismount or false start. For what is an Olympic Games without a pixie darling, a long shot with pluck, or a hard luck case? The skater whose sister died hours before the finals, the gymnast with a Down’ syndrome afflicted little brother, the swimmer who battled asthma as a child.

For 2 weeks, we live vicariously through these astoundingly talented young people. Then the flags come down, the cauldron is extinguished, and they all go home. And except for a precious few, we forget all about them, as they drift back into obscurity (and often poverty). Anyone remember what happened to that skater, that swimmer, that gymnast?

Of course, many former Olympians go on to perfectly happy lives, but there are a disturbing number of tragedies. Dominique Moceanu, for example, the youngest ever women’s gymnastic gold medalist, has just come out with a memoir describing years of physical abuse from her father…with the complicity and encouragement of coaches Bela and Marta Karolyi. How else could they get her to practice those flawless routines for 5 hours a day? Marta Karolyi continues to coach the U.S. women’s team of course.

I don’t mean to overstate the similarities between fact and fantasy. Olympic athletes generally don’t die in the arena, there are no killer mutant wasps or dogs to contend with. And of course most athletes “volunteer” (although with China, North Korea and the former Soviet countries this is open to debate). Yet what the Olympic Games shares with the Hunger Games is the illusion of caring about people, as opposed to caring about spectacle. When we derive entertainment from the triumph and humiliation of others, particularly vulnerable others, we cheapen the Olympic spirit, and we begin to resemble the grotesque sybarites of The Capital. And when that happens, the odds are in no one’s favor.


Staying in the Picture (originally published November 5, 2012)

Posted in Librarians in the News on July 11, 2015 by crankylibrarian

Four years ago, you may remember, I posted a giddy, hopelessly optimistic piece about what Barack Obama’s candidacy meant. It was easy to be optimistic in 2004, especially since I was pretty sure my guy was going to win. This time, I’m seeing little optimism, and feeling anything but giddy. Both sides issue dire prognostications about the fate of the world should The Other Guy win. We soberly remind ourselves of our duty to vote, and spend hours harassing perfect strangers to do the same. (Just did so myself this morning). Yet our hearts aren’t in it.

I look back on all the emails I was getting from all of you in 2004, and the words “tears”, “hope”, “blessing”, “miracle”, “joyous”  appear over and over. Today the most joyful essay I read was on the possible benefits of liberals moving to Canada.

Enough. I am not moving to Canada. WE are not moving to Canada, (…or. wherever it is conservatives threaten to move when they lose). WE are staying right here, whoever wins, whatever happens, and we are going to keep working to make this country…if not the greatest in the world, at least livable for all its inhabitants.

We are going to protect and support those who need our help: the poor, the chronically ill, the disenfranchised. We will remember that “justice for all” means ALL: all races, all languages, all genders, all levels of ability and disability. We will put the needs of others ahead of our own comfort. We will remember that a commitment to equality means being prepared to give up what we’ve felt entitled to.

As many of you know, my extended family gets together every August for a week on the Jersey Shore. We come from Chicago, California, London, New  York and Connecticut, and there is little we all agree on. There are Dems and Republicans; atheists, Christians, and Jews (well, one); Mets fans, Yankee fans and Cubs fans. (But no White Sox fans. I mean, there are limits). And every year, we go out to dinner one night, and we all pose for a group picture beforehand.  This involves much squabbling, eye-rolling, grandchild wrangling, unnecessary advice giving, and occasional screaming, but somehow we always manage it. Everybody stays in the picture, every year.

Tomorrow, whatever happens, remind yourself to stay in the picture. To stay involved. To stay engaged. Wear purple, for the blue and the red and remember, we are ALL part of the picture. And that yes, we still can.


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