White-Free Living: An Update

Last summer, I announced that I was no longer white. Or I should say, “white,” since one of the impetuses for the rejection of my culturally assigned category is that I discovered that race, at least as a scientifically measurable and valid concept, isn’t real.

I figured, since a few influential people in prior centuries made up “race” and its categories (which have ranged anywhere from three to over thirty classifications through the years), then assigned those categories rather arbitrarily to certain groups of people, beginning with whom they deemed most valuable (themselves) and least valuable (those they wanted to enslave or exploit), then I could decide to reject my assignment. After all, God didn’t invent race; humans did.

This has been such a fascinating, strange journey that I decided to write a book about it. If you’d like to be kept in the loop when it publishes later this year, or be on my “launch team” to help promote it, you can sign up here. In return, I’ll send you a sample chapter and a free copy as long as you promise to read it and share your honest opinions about it to your friends.

Don’t get me wrong, this journey hasn’t been knee-jerk in any way, and it’s not meant to say that we don’t clearly observe various physical traits among us: a kaleidoscope of skin tones (although none that I can find that are literally red, yellow, black or white); differing hair textures; perhaps patterns of eye, nose or face shape. And yes, after several centuries of layering on assumptions based on a moving target of physical characteristics, and shared experiences among those who have been targeted for extreme privilege or extreme persecution based on those traits, there are major cultural markers that have taken shape and often ride along with what we consider racial classifications.

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I’m not denying any of those realities. No, what I’m rejecting based on my own personal research is that a) any of those traits can neatly fit into anything resembling clear categories of “race” as we’ve been asked to check off on a census form, and, most importantly, b) any of what we’ve been told to believe about racial categories or traits has much positive utility in how I understand myself or how I relate to others. I can get farther in relating to people if I simply look at them as individuals, or when understanding their community context is required, ethnicity and culture.

In fact, I found the opposite: race has set up a countless set of conscious and subconscious barriers to living a fully human life. So, I gave it up.

Needless to say, my decision to give up my assigned race, and race altogether, can be considered controversial to some, and just plain weird to most. I get it. I often felt strange even studying the possibility, and I still feel odd entering a society each day where race is a primary marker of identity. And some I’ve interviewed along the way have indicated they have learned to value their assigned race, many because they had to fight so hard to prove its worth and it feels like a dishonor to those who battled for equality within the racial structures that were handed down. I certainly don’t begrudge anyone’s right to understand their identity the way they find most valuable.

However, so far I’ve found that living as a race-free individual has more upside than downside, and it’s a daily proactive choice that I’ve decided to keep making. I thought I would share with you a few of the benefits I’ve experienced so far:

  • Us vs. Other: So much of my prior life has felt like peering through invisible shields. Who is in my religious, racial or economic tribe who I’m “supposed” to seek out? Why is this social issue an issue for “them” and not “us”? Now I feel a more common bond with any human I happen upon, with less opting out of engagement because a voice inside my heads tells me, “They’re different.”
  • Active vs. Passive: Honestly, as a people watcher and thinker more than a do-er, I found myself being very passive even when the moment called for action. Too often I cheered others who spoke out or hit the streets to right a wrong instead of feeling like, “Oh, I think I was supposed to be out there, too.” As an introvert, I’m still not a shouter or a big sign maker, but I am a far more active letter writer, confronter (hopefully always in a hopeful, helpful way), and a changer. My 2018 New Year’s goal is to pick a policy issue, stand with others, and hammer at it.
  • A More Stimulating, Relevant Faith: Honestly, I’m really weary of worshiping in a church that doesn’t reflect the breadth of God’s kingdom. No offense to my Euro-origined Evangelical peers, but homogeneity is boring. Staying satisfied with the lack of diversity and unity in the church doesn’t challenge my faith, and it doesn’t draw people to Jesus. I’m praying for and seeking out a truly diverse body of Jesus followers. That might mean I have to start one, I’m not sure. I’m also way beyond weary of watching the world around me burn with racism and economic disparities while we don’t even acknowledge it when we gather. A diverse church family makes it far more difficult for me to keep my head in the sand when the person next to me is suffering.
  • A Broader Pool of Potential Relationships: I suppose my marriage to Soni at the end of last year, who is Indian by birth and grew up in Valencia, Spain, is Exhibit A of this benefit. I didn’t seek out anyone of any specific culture or skin tone to date, but knocking down any assumptions about who God might have out there for me led me to meet and marry a woman whose faith, character, kindness and beauty are way out of my league. Her perspectives are also often quite different from mine, which makes our relationship richer. Next up: friendships. My friends have tended to be curated from two primary sources: church and work, two of the least diverse environments in our society for most people. To open the door to more friendships that could be as gratifying as my new marriage, I’ll need to resist the easy path of hanging out primarily with those who our society bunches together in race-based clusters.
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“The true neighbor will risk his position, his prestige and even his life for the welfare of others.” Strength to Love, 1963

The biggest downside, obviously, is that the society around me still very much treats me with the assigned privileges they think go along with the race they perceive me to be. I can’t change that, but I can work subversively to topple those assumptions along with others. Leaving behind “whiteness,” I believe, puts me in a better position to do that.

As I write this on Martin Luther King, Jr., Day 2018, I remember how often in the past I would feel self-conscious about posting a picture of MLK on Facebook to honor him, a man who has been my personal hero since college days. I would think to myself, “Why aren’t more ‘white’ folks doing the same? Why am I one of the very few folks in my Facebook stream or church to even mention the holiday?” Now, with a completely new orientation and race-less lens to look through, I see so many people who share the values of equality, justice and peace. I’m not counting how many are white vs. black; I’m just joyful to be among those who are elevating these values.

I belong, in a completely new way.

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America 4.0

America 1.0 started out inspiring enough. We’ve learned about our origin myths, shaped through the lens of Euro-dominant history classes, in grammar, junior and high schools: Columbus “discovering” the “New” World, the Jamestown settlement, the Pilgrims fleeing religious persecution, the Tea Party (the real version in Boston) rebellion, the Founding Fathers, the Declaration of Independence and Revolutionary War, the ground-breaking Constitution.

Soaring words from Thomas Jefferson:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men [emphasis mine] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Of course, we know that in practice, what these words said and what they meant to the men of mostly British descent who signed on was that these truths were self-evident regarding those considered of the white race, who owned property and who were not female. Slavery was not only practiced but ultimately embraced in a series of foul compromises resting on the racist assumption that those of African, Asian or (Native) American descent were not “people” in the same sense as European Americans were.

Nevertheless, those left out of the spirit if not the words of the Declaration and Constitution persisted to point out the hypocrisy and fight for their more accurate and moral meaning. This led us into America 2.0, when legalized ownership of other human beings was finally settled: you can’t do it.

America 2.0 had a brief, agonizing tease of equality with the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, and Reconstruction policies in the defeated rebel states. There was even the first African American Senator from the State of Mississippi in 1870, Hiram Revels. Can you imagine that?

But of course, America 2.0 didn’t have the broader moral agreement or fortitude among the ruling European-American leader class to stick, and we as a country settled for a “separate but equal” pile of false freedom. America 2.0 was still hitched to blatant individual and institutional racism, including American Apartheid, otherwise known as Jim Crow laws.

America 3.0 showcased some of the bravest, most American heroes of our country’s history. From the Niagara Movement and W.E.B. DuBois, which led to the founding of the NAACP in 1909; to the Women’s Suffrage movement early in the 20th century; to the brave, principled and peaceful courage of the Civil Rights Movement in the Fifties and Sixties, America’s realization of the promises in our founding documents may have made their greatest leaps forward.

Unfortunately, there was a fatal flaw with America 3.0. America still assumed it was a “white” country, and even the “tolerance” and “equality” gained during this era still required the basis for value to be based on whiteness. As long as people of color and immigrants were willing to adhere to white standards, there were a few seats at the table for them.

America is a country of “almosts.” We’ve almost gotten it right a few times, but power being power, Euro-American power – known as “white power” – does not like to give it up. No power structure ever does without one heckuva sustained fight. It’s like our country keeps setting traps for racism and sexism, but then applies a capture and release policy instead of a full and final repentance and final death to these evils.

So here we are in yet another era where pure, unashamed, unadulterated “white” power is exerting its ugly, evil face again. We have literally put in the most powerful office of our land a man whose path to power was paved by racism and ethnocentrism. The contrast to our country’s election of the first African American president couldn’t be any more stark. It reminds me of that portion of the Christian scriptures in Revelation where the devil makes one final last gasp before being eternally defeated. Will we finally finish off this petulant, power-grabbing force of racism? Or will we settle again, paying homage to those in power who still cling to whiteness and the privileges that have historically come with it?

We have the opportunity to usher in America 4.0, an era where race could be finally set aside as a foundation for power and where the very construct of race is finally discredited for the made-up thing that it is. We have an opportunity for America to shed whiteness as a requirement for full American-ness. 

As with all abusive power dynamics, those in power need to lead the way and lay down the standard of whiteness and the power it yields. Power is an idol. If you have any relationship to Jesus and have any claim to him as a follower, this is an unquestionable truth in Philippians 2 (NIV) that must be embraced:

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature[a] God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature[b] of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

dragonThe world’s type of power, based on siphoning humanity from others and glorifying self, is a dragon. The power shown and offered by Jesus is a lamb. Contrary to popular myth and proclaimed mightily throughout the Bible, including its breathtaking final conclusion in Revelations, the lamb is more powerful than the dragon.

Let’s build America 4.0 the right way this time. My personal approach is to reject whiteness as a personal identity marker once and for all, and to work towards the deconstruction of white privilege and race-based power. I have no idea how my small contribution to America 4.0 will turn out, or if it will make any difference. But I have faith that the Lamb is going to win in the long run, and I’m not afraid of the Dragon.

That’s It. I’m Done. I’m Giving Up White.

I suppose, what with so many people in Charlottesville, VA, right now proving how superior they are as white folks and demonstrating how Christian they are by spewing hate and violence, that this is as good a time as any to admit something:

For the last two years, I’ve been working hard to give up being white.

To be clear, I haven’t been trying to shift my identity to another race. I’m not trying to pull a Rachel Dolezal here. I’m not halfway through a melanin transition process. It’s just that I’ve just considered what this whiteness thing is all about and, well, I’ve determined it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.

I’m pretty sure the folks who showed up in Charlottesville to assert their whiteness would be very disappointed in me over this admission. But I’ve grown weary of all that goes along with whiteness and its burdens. I mean, who wants to bear this long list of aggravations that go along with whiteness:

  • I’m tired of people assuming I’m a fine, upstanding middle-aged man, just by looking at me.
  • It’s aggravating getting the benefit of the doubt at work and getting promotions and kudos while just doing my job. Heck, I’m tired of getting the job.
  • Even when I drive around with an expired sticker, which is far too often to be an upstanding middle-aged man, I can’t get pulled over to save my life.
  • The educational opportunities I’ve received, from well-funded, safe pre-K through graduate schools, have just become so…so…. tiring.
  • Enough with the politicians – especially that guy at the top – sending me clearly coded signals that they are for me and want to make the middle class (not those lower class mooches who deserve where they are) and America great again. I can’t deal with that kind of pressure.

Okay, you caught me. I was being a little facetious about how hard it is to be a “white” person these days. If you’ve read Hillbilly Elegy, you understand it’s true that being white ain’t what it used to be. “My people” – my real people, not just those posers from New England who also think they’re white – are Appalachians, and I’ve seen with my own eyes that yes, some of my people who also believe they are white are struggling in this global economy. So I’m not joking about that, or diminishing anyone’s real suffering.

It does appear that there is a real sense of loss among a certain segment of “white” people in this country, and they are feeling a lot more permission to come on out and scream and riot – whether at the ballot box or in the case of Charlottesville, right there in the streets – about what it is they’ve lost. And somehow they’re tying that sense of loss to their white identity instead of other things. If they’re losing something, it seems like they’re saying, it’s because they’re white, and it’s because those who aren’t white are taking it from them.

Is that true? Or is the whole concept of race and whiteness a huge con perpetrated on generation after generation? I guess that is really what I’ve been exploring.

The reality is, this concept of being white was beginning to crumble for me a long time ago. I guess it started the moment I actually developed real relationships with people who also didn’t consider themselves white. Or more accurately, those whom our culture didn’t consider white. Which is to say, I’ve had my suspicions about this concept of whiteness bestowed upon me for a good while since childhood. I had friends who were Chinese, Afghan, African and Appalachian since playing in mud and clay as a pre-K squirt. That messed up the whole white thing for me pretty bad, in retrospect.

Trump. Yeah, that guy had me concerned from the beginning and his rise probably sped up this decision. You didn’t have to listen too closely or see too clearly to discern those white dog whistles. I’ve actually been less concerned about him specifically than all the white nationalist, “take back our country” (Native Peoples, any comments here?) types who surrounded and catapulted him into power. I’m friends with liberals and conservatives, and have voted for candidates of many stripes. But this Trump is no conservative; he’s something dark and power hungry and nationalist, supported by even darker, power hungrier and even more nationalist influences.

I’ve also been really concerned about my other group of people, the ones I’ve aligned with of my own accord since my teen years because they said they were on board with the words and life of Jesus. Giving up whiteness may end up with me giving up on certain gatherings of those Jesus people who aren’t really that well informed about what Jesus actually said and did, especially as it related to superiority and power over others. Go ahead, read Jesus’ words on that stuff, either for the first time or for the first time through different non-white eyes. If you’re reading those words clearly, you’ll shudder inside, especially if you’ve mistakenly thought Jesus was on your side in pursuing whiteness in all its historical glory.

Jesus said give up anything – even your right eye or arm – if it causes you to sin.

For now, I’m just letting you know. I don’t think I’m going to be white anymore. I’m outing myself as a formerly-white person. It just doesn’t make any sense to me. There has to be something better than this. You can call me Appalachian-American, or even Euro-American if you want. Or just plain old American.

I just think that in the very, very near future – as in right now – we’re going to have to quickly redefine what it means to be American. It can no longer begin with the assumption that white folks are the real Americans and the other folks of different hues are kind of American as long as they snap into formation and act as white as they can, but never if they start thinking they’re actually equally entitled to this goodie bag of real American benefits. I’ve learned too much about real history. There are a lot of American heroes who didn’t identify as white who had an impressive track record in helping America become more American, at least as defined in our founding documents.

I don’t know if any other former white folks will join this giving up white movement or not. Most of them look at me like I’m crazy when I try to explain it to them. I can say that after two years of seriously considering this move, there is potentially a lot to give up. The system has worked amazingly well for those of us who thought we were white.

However, much like most other personal breakthroughs, what you thought was once a great thing turns out to be a spiritual, emotional and intellectual ball and chain. I can see the rays of sunshine breaking through into this new not-white existence. It’s starting to feel much better, but these days it’s connecting me to a lot more responsibilities to fight beside others who never were considered white, but are absolutely equal brothers, sisters, Americans and humans.

What do you think? Am I crazy? Is it possible to give up being white?

What say you, “white” people? Are you interested in taking this journey with me?

Overpriced Drinks, Refugees and American Values

statue-de-la-libert-photo_8851010-770tallI’ve seen some interesting analogies from those who support a blanket effective ban on all Muslim refugees and immigrants from certain countries (ironically, not countries that have actually been the source of terrorists to date in the U.S.). One analogy compared the ban to simply locking the door of your house to keep your loved ones safe. Another, set up by a video from a Marine or an ex-Marine (I wasn’t sure which), observes how an American might be treated if they walked down the streets of an Iraqi or Afghanistan city and uses that likelihood of hostility as a reason to keep people from that country out of the U.S.
 
These analogies and justifications make a certain sense. I fully recognize that people are worried about terrorism, and I certainly don’t want my children or friends blown up or shot. I’m not naive to think that ISIS or whatever group couldn’t sneak a terrorist into the country under the guise of a refugee needing help.
 
However, these analogies are woefully inaccurate and misleading in communicating the choices we face as Americans, and if you’re a Christian, choices we face as Jesus-followers.
 
The analogy of simply locking our door to keep loved ones safe leaves out the part that in this case, we would be locking our door and not welcoming thousands of people who are not terrorists at all and who are deeply suffering because of actual terrorists. It would be like locking your door and choosing to not help a bunch of hungry, hurting people right there in your yard. The world is quite small; these people are our neighbors, according to Jesus. America is quite rich and quite capable of helping. We cannot just lock our door, close the curtains and turn our back on the 99.99% because .01% of those who need help may be posing or harboring an intent to harm us. We also cannot simply stand by and let our other neighbors – ie, Europe, Canada and the rest of the world – welcome them while we cower behind our locked door. That’s not the home of the brave.
 
The other analogy of shunning people from cultures who are hostile to America also has its flaws. The standard to compare ourselves to is not their culture; it is American values and our immigrant history we are upholding. And, if you claim to follow the Christian faith, the teachings and examples of Jesus, which is never included a caveat of loving our neighbor or helping someone need with “unless a tiny fraction of them may want to hurt you.” I’m sorry, that’s just not a caveat of the Christian faith.
 

There is not one person reading this, save for any Native Americans, whose ancestors didn’t come from somewhere else. If we happen to be classified by the misleading system of race as “white”, some of us may not realize that our ancestors, even though we ultimately descended from a European tribe, were considered “thieves, imbeciles and terrorists” when our ancestors came over. If you are Irish or Italian or of any Eastern European descent, these slurs were hurled at your people during America’s history (in the case of Italians, it really got ugly when a handful of Italian anarchists set off bombs around the country in the 1920’s). Although there was certainly a clamor to do, be grateful your ancestors weren’t ultimately banned or kicked out. We may be American now, but they weren’t then. Let’s stand on the side of fairness, logic and compassion now that it’s our turn to welcome people from other parts of the world. 

We face these choices to live up to our values every generation or so. America has failed so many times. The country was partially launched by English immigrants fleeing persecution; they came and soon with sad irony set up a system with lofty ideals of equality that in reality left loopholes and ended up persecuting others themselves. So many have faced shunning and violence as they sought their own American dream. Chinese. Japanese. Mexicans. Captured Africans and scattered Native Americans had a “dream” not their own forced upon them with disastrous results that we’re still paying for in the form of inequality and ongoing tension. God forgive America for these sins. But God help us, now, to repent and seek the strength to overcome the ever-present temptations of fear and self-protection.
 

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I happen to live these days in the Una-Antioch neighborhood of Nashville. It may be surprising that Nashville is so diverse, but my neighborhood has one of the highest percentages of people of Arab descent than almost any neighborhood in America. We also have large numbers of Latin American immigrants, Lithuanians and other Eastern Europeans, Ethiopian and other African countries and, well, Appalachian American folks like me. We all sit around the same Starbucks with our kids, doing homework, talking to friends, laughing and sharing our hopes and fears. 

There may come a day when a misguided, confused and hurting person does us harm in our Starbucks. But that person, according to all available evidence and statistics, would be far more likely to be an angry male of Western European descent born in this country looking to lash out against his ex-wife, employer or government than it would be a representative of these other peoples who share my local coffee shop. So regardless of who it might be who intends harm, we’re not going to sit behind locked doors. We’re going to come here and have an overpriced coffee or tea together.
 
Let’s not be the generation to bear the shame of having to take down the Statue of Liberty poem, called the New Colossus, due to an inability to live up to it when our generation faced our turn to welcome the tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free. We can never be 100% safe, from ourselves or “others”. But we can seek to be Americans in a way that lives up to our ideals of freedom and equality while also protecting our local homes, schools, churches and Starbucks. 
 
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

My Lifelong Mermaid Affair: Thanks Starbucks

Starbucks, Lebanon Pike, Nashville, TNYou know, sometimes it’s good to give a company their props. I was thinking here as I sit in a Starbucks for like the 10,000th time how much this brand has played a role in my life. Chalk it up to my recent run of middle-aged nostalgia, but I felt motivated to share.

I first saw the mermaid logo in 1990 when I started working at Microsoft in Pittsburgh. I would give little demos of “Word for Windows” and PowerPoint and such to customers, and the demo company the corporate folks gave us to use was this little coffee chain from Seattle. I guess I can date my Starbucks relationship with versions of Windows; mine began with 3.0.

sbuxpnglogoI really began a deep relationship with Starbucks in 2000 when I lived in Seattle. They were rolling out wi-fi in all their stores, and I embraced the roaming coffee shop knowledge worker lifestyle with gusto. Those of us with a touch of ADD just can’t stand to work in an office all day; Starbucks was just the ticket. I wonder how many of my most brilliant ideas and emails and PowerPoint slides were created with the Mermaid?

Come to think of it, I wonder how many journal entries I’ve written, prayers I’ve prayed, Bible verses I’ve highlighted, books I’ve read, and thoughts I’ve thunk here?

The whole Starbucks is anti-Jesus because of their red cups thing was offensive to me. Jesus and I have had many a date here at Starbucks, and from the number of other Bible-readers I see in my frequent visits, I’m not alone. Church is anywhere you and the Lord hang out. Most churches are trying to adopt the Starbucks vibe, anyway.

sbuxhqWhile living in Seattle, I got the opportunity to have a few meetings at Starbucks headquarters. It was like you would expect. Earthy. Hip. Green and brown and smelling of great coffee. Nice people. They offered me a cup.

Here’s the big secret: I don’t drink coffee. Like, ever. But they still let me be a part of the family with the other faces glowing from laptops, or from friendly chats, or even those staring into space in deep thought.

I would often use Starbucks in my marketing strategy workshops when I was a consultant. They represented the emotional brand archetype that made people feel smarter, called The Sage. Maybe that’s why I do my best work here. You know a brand vibe is consistent when you don’t have to be in Seattle or New York; I’ve felt smarter in Starbucks from Princeton, WV, to Mexico City.

For the record, I do like to support locally-owned coffee shops as well. Moxxee was my hipster oasis while living in Charleston, WV. Red Bicycle feels like my space in Nashville. But Starbucks is a friend who greets me anywhere I go, in almost every neighborhood. There’s something comforting about hanging with a lifelong friend.

So thanks, Starbucks. Thanks for the smells. Thanks for the wooden tables and chairs, the open ceilings. Thanks for the music, especially when it’s old-school funk day. Thanks for the almost-always friendly team members (and thanks for treating them well with pay, benefits and education opportunities) who get used to me ordering milk – yes, just plain, cold milk; no thanks, don’t need it steamed – with my fattening treat instead of one of the coffee drinks programmed on their registers.

And thanks for the wi-fi which enabled me to post this blog.

I have to go back to creating now. I think I have another idea.

#WVChemLeak: After the Latest WV Industrial Disaster, What Do We Do Now?

Well, it’s been over a week now since toxic MCMH chemicals poured into the Elk River upstream from our water company here in the Kanawha Valley (Charleston and surrounding counties), West Virginia. Many have shared their feelings and thoughts about the incompetence and indifference that made this tragedy possible, and we’ve received national  and international coverage (some are saying not nearly enough) and jokes about the situation. West Virginia only makes it “big time” when there is a tragedy or WVU makes a BCS bowl game, unfortunately.

Are we ready to put to bed the “EPA (aka, Obama) is the devil” and “War on Coal” war cries every time there is an environmental standard maintained? I doubt it, but I notice a lot of West Virginia congressional folks have been pretty quiet through this recent disaster. Their constituents are more likely asking, “Where was DEP? Where was the EPA?” I don’t think anyone would ever assign me the “tree hugger” label, but this strange defensive stance that West Virginia leaders have taken against sustainable economics is baffling to me. We could be world leaders in this category; instead, we’ve defiantly accused anyone of pointing out the economic benefits of environmental sustainability of having horns and a deep hatred for West Virginia. Craziness.

Many, many people are questioning their own existence and future in West Virginia after this incident that has affected over 300,000 people. We have no idea what impact this chemical has on humans. It didn’t kill anyone, thank God, initially. But will we all be headed to an oncology center in the next 10 to 20 years, fighting to prove that our common cancer was caused by this shared disaster? Who knows. All we know is the water still smells like Twizzlers and we’ve been told “all is safe, go back to your showers and delicious new flavored drinking water.”

Some are ready to move. Some are committed to the fatalistic Appalachian way of helping our neighbors and then going back to day-to-day existence in Chemical Valley. But many are asking, “What can I do?”

These are just my humble suggestions on what we can do:

  • Hold political and economic leaders’ feet to the fire, Democrat and Republican, who have sought to eliminate or weaken environmental standards and regulations. The chickens came home to roost and impacted 1/6 of our state’s population; we can’t let anyone forget this moving forward. Show up at town meetings; show up in the state capitol building during legislative sessions now through March. If there is a vocal presence, politicians must respond. It has to be someone’s job to take this seriously and fix this.
  • Question what kind of jobs and industry our state development office and local economic champions are seeking on our behalf. Do these industries add to our risk or reduce them? Do they diversify our economy or make us even more dependent on dangerous industries? What is the safety track record of the organizations they are recruiting? We should ask for a public report on these factors from these organizations acting on our behalf and demand that these sustainability and health criteria are a part of how they target potential new economic community members in our region.
  • Embrace entrepreneurship. We can being to significantly flip our economy into a more diverse, sustainable economy like many other regions if we emphasize growth from entrepreneurship vs. an over-emphasis on recruiting industrial companies to the state. When you’re competing with a several other parts of the world for a few industrial jobs, there is a temptation to lower the standards in order to “win” the business: lower taxes, lower environmental regulation, etc. That puts us in a weak position to protect our citizens and environment. Not saying that recruiting new companies, even industrial companies, to the region is bad, but when we’re in a weakened, dependent position, it just leads to poor judgment like giving a $400K grant to Freedom Industries to stick around WV and require little or no regulation or improvements in how the company operates. When was the last time you heard a major – and I mean major – emphasis or commitment to entrepreneurship in the State of the State Address, or during any legislative session?
  • Embrace education. Highly educated workforce and excellent schools attract different kinds of entrepreneurs and industry. A poorly educated workforce and citizenry attracts industries with a tendency to exploit workers with lower wages and poor working conditions, because the workforce has no choice but to work in these conditions. This is the long, unfortunate history of our state, especially throughout Southern WV. We must change this through bold, innovative initiatives and return on investment in our education budget.
  • Help create new heroes. Who is doing something that benefits the long-term image and quality of life in this region? What startup business is adding to the diversification of our economy? What corporate entity is committed to sustainable, positive business practices in everything from energy savings to developing a diverse workforce? We need our media outlets to embrace coverage of these people and industries (many of them are, thank you for that…but many still aren’t), and we need individuals to give shout outs to those in the business and social community who are doing what it takes to move West Virginia forward.
  • Don’t give up. I’ve heard many struggle with discouraging, hopeless feelings the past week and a half. And for good reason. It’s amazing the lax attitude around enforcement of existing laws and regulations that has led to this. It’s depressing that just a few years ago, a Bayer CropScience explosion should have been the clarion call to take corporate environmental stewardship and safety seriously, but a mandate to plan was ignored. It’s mind-boggling to observe how discussions on how to diversify our economy devolve into political nitpicks pitting “tree huggers” against the “business community.” But….If we place our hope in the right places – and my recommendation is to focus on God and His principles of hope, persistence, justice, creativity, and yes, love – then we never have reason for despair. Patience and persistence, yes, but never despair.

So what do you think, West Virginia? Are we going to let this latest opportunity for change pass us by? Or are we going to take responsibility for our future, make sure political leaders and state government leaders who work for us, and chart a new course together?

Some organizations that you can choose to support and participate in to affect change from the status quo:

  • Create West Virginia – Dedicated to building West Virginia’s innovation capacity and growing the Innovation Economy through education, technology, entrepreneurship, diversity and quality of place. Statewide conference in October, with local chapters who form to embrace these pillars and build a local plan. www.createwv.org  [Full disclosure: I’m a co-founder and active leader in this group and have invested a great deal of time and money into this cause; so yeah, I’m kind of interested in where all this is taking my beloved state.]
  • TechConnect – A group working to build policies and programs to support the growth of technology-based economic development. Yes, they do support the growth of the chemical industry, but with an emphasis on research and development jobs and more sustainable approaches to traditional energy, as well as software, biometrics and other industries. http://techconnectwv.org/
  • Vision Shared – A longstanding group whose mission is to bring differing parties together, from labor to management, to business to environment, towards real solutions for our future. They have committees working on education, entrepreneurship, workforce development and innovation initiatives. http://visionshared.com/
  • Environmental Groups – Yes, the tree huggers. Whether you consider folks like OVEC radicals or hippies or whatever label, the fact is, even if you don’t agree with their positions or tactics, these groups serve a critical role in West Virginia and Appalachia. Without passionate advocates for the environment persistently (and probably annoyingly to the coal and natural gas industry) pointing out abuses and poor policy, imagine how bad a shape West Virginia’s communities and environment would be? What if people like Freedom Industries or rogue coal companies had no private sector group to hold them accountable? There are other groups of course, like Coal River Mountain Watch. Even if you don’t see yourself fitting in the culture of these groups, consider attending a meeting, meeting some of them, and seeing if there aren’t some practical ways you can support their cause at some level. Unless the West Virginia business community begins to see the long-term benefits to their world that environmental sustainability represents, we’ll continue to live in our current situation. http://www.ohvec.org/ and http://crmw.net/

Other than Vision Shared’s education committee, I’m not able to find an active organization or web link to an education reform group in West Virginia. It may be out there, but I can’t find them with a simple Google search, and that is unfortunate. Many don’t realize the connection between an educated population and workforce, but former Secretary of Commerce Robert Reich does.

And of course, consider running for office. This may be the most daunting option to affect change. Very few people outside of the legal profession seem to have the time or money to invest in getting elected, and it’s an ugly game. But I think we all know it’s true; unless principled, visionary, community-first leaders become part of the process, things won’t change….at least as quickly as we need them to.

Do you have any additional ideas or recommendations on how we can turn our emotional turmoil and translate it into action that changes the future?

I’ve decided to stick around and keep up the fight. My family and I moved back home eight years ago for a reason. I think West Virginia is too valuable to keep letting into the hands of short-sighted, narrow-minded concerns who trick everyone into believing this is the only way West Virginia can have a job or two. I hope others stick around, too, and get more involved. We can do this.

On My Honor, I Will Do My Best

Boy Scout 2013 Jamboree
Over 40,000 Scouts attended the 2013 National Jamboree in West Virginia’s Bechtel Summit National Scout Reserve near the New River Gorge National River

Here in WV, the 2013 National Jamboree gathering of 40,000 Boy Scouts is being held in an amazing new Summit Bechtel Family National Scout Reserve, a cutting-edge adventure and learning facility beside the New River Gorge National River. There are some truly inspiring scenes, such as Scouts learning hands-on about environmental sustainability and renewable energy in a 216-foot high tree house.

Full disclosure: I only made it through one year of Cub Scouts, and that was mostly because my den mother was a very kind, good-looking mom of one of my friends, and they had a swimming pool. But my marketing consulting firm was involved in some past work with the National Council of the Boy Scouts of America in helping with research, diversity outreach and brand-building for The Summit.

Scouting has always been a powerful socializing institution for boys (39% of adult men in the United States tell Gallup they have been a member of the organization at one time). But historically, the Boy Scout organization has not played a progressive role as a leader in championing evolving societal norms such as racial and sexual orientation equality, but a follower and “norm-stabilizer” of where society has agreed to fall. For example, many people don’t realize the Scouts embrace all faiths, including non-Christian faiths (there is a display at the National Jamboree on faith which includes Islam, Hinduism, etc.).

It can be frustrating, maddening and even life-scarring for those left out of a slow-moving, conservative organization with such widespread influence as Scouting for the organization to drag its feet on issues that seem obvious to more progressive segments of society. But there are “norm-shifting” elements at work within Scouting, and I think once the slow, often painful march of change takes shape, Scouting can play an important role in developing a mindset of diversity and equality in future generations.

Scouting is still suffering from past decades of racial segregation policies. Today only a small percentage of Scouts come from minority communities, although children from minority communities are quickly becoming the majority in the U.S.; this as much as anything is a major cause of BSA’s decline in membership. But Scouting has made some slow strides in diversity and received some kudos for its Hispanic outreach initiative. There are inspiring stories of African American achievement, such as the troop in Florida with eight Eagle Scouts.

Eattonville, FL, Eagle Scouts
A group of young African-American males were honored for their scouting achievements during a ceremony this month in historically Black Eatonville, FL.

Here’s hoping BSA embraces their potential in this area much sooner than later, and that the Summit Bechtel Reserve becomes a world-class center on themes of inclusiveness and equality as it is for sustainability, self-reliance and other Scout Law themes. BSA could have a transformative impact on social norms that reduce the incidents of bullying, gay-bashing and racial profiling that divide our country today by “helping people at all times” as promised in the Scout Oath and being “brave” and “helpful” as established in the Scout Law.

Scout Oath (or Promise)

On my honor I will do my best
To do my duty to God and my country
and to obey the Scout Law;
To help other people at all times;
To keep myself physically strong,
mentally awake, and morally straight.

Scout Law

A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly,
courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty,
brave, clean, and reverent.