The Plum Turns Yellow
June 15–19, 2021; Portland, OR, USA
Seasonal Memoir #9
I’ve returned from a much-anticipated trip across the country to spend a long weekend with some long-time professional colleagues, who are now dear friends. Portland, Oregon, was also a homecoming for me, having spent four summers there during college. I didn’t know exactly what to expect, but it was a great trip, with lots to reflect upon.
It was a tale of two cities, one might say, each with very different trajectories. Downtown, where we stayed, was shuttered. Literally. Boarded up windows on street level. The city had not yet lifted its mask mandate, but business was slowly coming back online. Many retailers not yet open must have needed this protection from looters, protesters, or others with nefarious intentions. The streets themselves had a mix of tourists, young Portlanders, and homeless. Loads of homeless, of all ethnicities and genders. In tents, wandering around, sitting in public places, etc. Particularly in the evening, they ruled the roost. This gave the city a distinctly dystopian feel.
Curiously, the homeless (or those sleeping rough), did not harass pedestrians. They did harass each other, however, and there were some difficult dramas playing out. Having lived overseas for the past decade-plus, I’m certainly not ignorant of the destitute. I’ve seen South Asia on several occasions, after all, as well as many US cities. Economic distress blended with serious mental health and substance abuse issues (not sure which was driving which) created a deadly storm, one surely made worse by the pandemic.
In one surreal moment, as we ran up a large bill eating a bountiful lunch, we watched the homeless, many within a few feet of us, go about their business — mostly, sitting on the ground, slowly walking to nowhere in particular, or trying to hustle some loose change out of a Saturday market crowd. It created a profound moment of reflection for each of us. How does a society so wealthy and advanced in so many ways turn its back on so many people? Why is it so easy for us to ignore on a personal level?
I know the issue is complex, and I don’t know the solution, but the problem feels much worse than it used to be. It will not go away on its own, nor will it be solved without all of us investing in it. Some may say it starts with caring. I think it goes much deeper. On the plane ride back to Boston, I rewatched Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (the documentary about the radical activist, Mr. Rogers, not the Tom Hanks movie). Have you ever heard something and felt the speaker was speaking to you only, staring into your soul? If you know anything about Fred Rogers, you’d know this was his superpower. I believe Mr. Rogers would say that the homeless issue in America is really about love. To quote him directly, “(people need protection) from the every ready molders of their world.” Furthermore, “Love is what keeps us together and afloat.” When will we start loving those who cannot get themselves together?
The trip allowed me to hike in perhaps my favorite of all places to walk, the Columbia River Gorge. A marvel of geology and geomorphology, and very well maintained and protected, the trails offered an escape from the pandemic, and they were teaming with people, young and old (which am I?), each incredibly friendly and positive. In three successive days, on the Cape Horn, the Devil’s Rest, and the Horsetail Falls trails, I was able to cover 25 miles and several thousand vertical feet. Incredibly cathartic, and inordinately beautiful.
How fortunate and privileged am I, to fly across the country, dine and laugh with friends, and hike in God’s country? The experience did serve as a bit of a wake-up call. As I think about my last decade of employment (hopefully!), and how our children are now adult-age and will soon find their own way, I feel greater urgency to think less about me and more about the larger “us”. We start life in a “taking” stage, and then we build a career of “doing”. At some point, the doing needs to turn to “giving”, where you are truly making a positive and selfless contribution to the world. Imagine if every one of us on this planet chose to make such a transition? I’ll write more about how I plan to accelerate my giving in the coming weeks.
Image credits: self
Cancelling White guys is not “progress” toward diversifying leadership
Cancelling White guys is not the way to diversify leadership. Don’t get me wrong, the cancel culture push has ensnared plenty of individuals who deserve this reckoning, such as the creeps and predators held accountable in the me too movement. I’m instead talking about creating a sustainable strategy to uplift people who have the talent, qualifications, and drive to effectively lead organizations and advance society, but have been denied these opportunities based solely on race, gender, sexual orientation, or other non-majority identifiers.
After reading White Fragility, I will no longer devote bandwidth to sharing my own interest and experience in teaching social justice — you can do your homework, if you’d like, by visiting my Wordpress page. Rather, I’ll cut right to the point:
The way forward is to get behind those with expertise (i.e. knowing things), with cultural capital (i.e. knowing how things work in a particular context), with positional authority (i.e. the permission to get things done), and those who are part of broad networks of diverse peoples. Because the system has been stacked against women and mostly every minority group, seemingly forever, this invariably means turning to PWAMs: those who identify as privileged, White, Anglo males. It is this group that carries the responsibility and means to open up the path for others, and then to step aside and take the role of coach, mentor, and enabler.
The pool of non-PWAM talent is simply too shallow to continue to cancel White men, or to create a hostile and non-inclusive environment toward those who believe themselves to be White, or to try to cancel those upon hire. The thin pool of diverse talent is at no fault of its members, meaning that it is not a lack of intelligence, ability, or ambition, but rather a historically unequal access to education, wealth, and opportunity, not to mention systemic discrimination and bias against them.
A healthy society is a just society, and the proverbial pendulum has been stuck on one side for far too long, artificially rigged against too many Americans. There is hurt, anger, and resentment, which need an outlet. We must allow for the venting, but we must also move through it.
The pendulum has started to swing, now that the friction from discrimination has been reduced. The laws of physics brings it to the other side, because decades of bigotry created such a large amplitude. But the bob won’t just naturally stop at the equilibrium position that it craves (the point where we have achieved equality). We must tolerate this cyclic motion, even if it results in a degree of discrimination those in power have not experienced before. There will be unfortunate casualties.
Canceling brings us sharply to the other side of the arc, however. Canceling runs the risk of maintaining the pendulum’s momentum, thus creating backlash to the backlash, and further polarizing society. The last decade has provided ample evidence of this phenomenon, and we seem no closer to equity and an inclusive society.
Full disclosure: I am writing from a position of stark privilege. What sparked this essay is not any significant hardship, or awakening, but rather wanting to articulate a subtle sea change in my own sphere of influence, not to mention my unwavering passion for social justice. Cases in point:
- In the past several years, I found it curious that I was often asked in interviews for leadership positions, “Why can’t we find more qualified POC or female candidates for this position?” My response was always, “If you have just one, then I’d urge you to hire them over me and everybody else (and by the way, you should refrain from ranking candidates when the pool is diverse).”
- Last year, I was being groomed for a board position at a respected non-profit institution serving international schools and universities, only to have the door close on the opportunity through a sincere apology email that stated I was not the right profile of candidate (read between the lines: I was a White male and that profile was no longer viable). My response to this was, “Good. You should diversify your board. I’m happy to serve the organization in any formal or informal way. No apologies needed.”
- And just this year, in determining what I would teach in the fall semester with a leading provider of online courses, instead of being offered a race and society course (which I’ve taught in brick and mortar schools for ten years), I was instead offered a positive psychology option (for which I have less experience with, but for which I am no less passionate about). I was not upset, but again, see this as progress, as a race course should be taught by people-of-color, and no longer by While allies.
It is my sincere hope that I’ll have the opportunity to do my part in diversifying leadership, so my children have the chance to live not just a life of privilege, but rather an authentic life in a just and equitable society, one rooted in merit, respect, and inclusion. I will commit to moving the pendulum of equity toward its resting equilibrium by influencing a deep and diverse pool of talent, to practicing affirmative hiring, to snuffing out bias in the workplace, and to being mindful of my unearned privilege.
I just hope I don’t get cancelled in the process.