More is better

How much diversity do we need? Take animals for example. I watched a show on the BBC a while ago about the science of growing animals from their genetic code. Not only could this help endangered species, but it could even bring back extinct ones (no dinosaurs, please). The comment was made that an increase in diversity for the animal kingdom would be a good thing. This prompted a question: do we need tigers, for example? Could the world get along without them?

I did a little research. Variety is the spice of life. In fact, it is more than just spice. It’s the main ingredient. The greater the amount of diversity in our ecosystem, the better the balance.

The food chain needs all the balance it can get. Tigers, in answer to my earlier question, rule as powerful predators so that the lower rings on the chain don’t proliferate to the point where their amassed numbers could disrupt the ecosystem. Aside from food chain duties, some animals play an important role in teaching us humans how to behave in a more civilized manner. Elephants are a prime example. Their social structure, in my opinion, is superior in several ways. I wrote about this in an earlier blog, “An Elephant on Hold” where we learned how elephants support one another in ways that humans would consider preposterous.

Plants, as most of us know, are crucial for human survival. There are over 400,000 species so far identified. Scientists are discovering more all the time. Over 250,000 plants produce flowers. How many types of flowers do we need? A rose, a tulip, a daisy – wouldn’t that do? Could you live without roses? Valentine’s Day just wouldn’t be the same… Some rose bushes live to be over 1,000 years old. That’s why the rose has always been the symbol of undying love.

Other plants have values directly related to our health. For centuries, people have used botanicals to ease all sorts of ailments. There’s a plant called, “Lamb’s Ear”. It’s a silky soft fuzzy broad-leafed low growing meandering plant. Leaves are about 4-5 inches long and an inch or two in diameter. Roman soldiers used them as band-aids for the obvious protection for a wound and also the fact that the plant has antiseptic properties.

If diversity in the wild world is so important, why do we humans tend to shy away from variety within our own ranks? Take big-box retailers for example. You’d think these gigantic warehouse chains would contain more variety than any consumer could ever want. Au contraire! The cereal isle tells all – four, maybe five choices. Laundry soap? a few top brands. What is this telling the shopper? Look, lady, just pick one and move on.

I heard recently that more and more websites are popping up catering to people of like mentalities, e.g., similar beliefs, backgrounds, etc. This magnetized clustering is creating a level of social ignorance that is riddled with potential problems. In effect, people are choosing to go through life with social blinders on. The operative credo is: the less you know the better. They’re excused from taking social responsibility for fellow earth dwellers because of their self-imposed ignorance – or are they? Social inbreeding gives birth to social misfits which can weaken a society.

It’s ironic to me that humans are limiting their connections with one another when we have the opportunity to connect with anyone of any society now through the internet.

Social diversity or social extinction – take your pick.

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An Elephant on Hold

When an elephant is sick, two others will stand, one on each side, and hold the sick one up until that elephant is well. Elephants have a transcendent sense of community.

A few years ago, civil order among herds in Africa came down with a social sickness never before observed in elephants. The media carried several stories on teenage elephant gangs. Their atrocious behavior was similar to human gangs: pillaging, violent attacks, destruction of environment, etc. They were raping and killing other animals. Humans became targets as well.

The intelligence they displayed rivaled any strategy of human criminal behavior. For example, they went on rampages viciously attacking people. Their modus operandi resembled battle plans of successful warfare. They would shrewdly blockade escape routes in villages while other gang members pinned villagers down to rip them apart, limb by limb.

Animal behavior experts were perplexed, to say the least. It didn’t take too long, though, for them to come up with a solution: send in the old generals – wise, mature male elephants.

It worked. The old grandfathers rounded up these out-of-control young thugs and put them through a course of proper elephant behavior. Soon, the raging rogues were restored back to the decent law-abiding citizens they were expected to be. Order returned. Peace stood strong once again among the herds.

Hmm… I wonder if there is anything we humans could learn from the social structure of elephants?

I read an article in the Wall Street Journal several years ago. A survey was taken of a few hundred male graduates of Ivy League schools. The question was asked, “What is the one thing that you wanted that your father never gave to you?”

The nearly unanimous response was summed up in one word: time.

Time is something that elephants think nothing of spending in spades. Hold up a sick one until it is well. Provide your youth with careful guidance. Whatever it takes.

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What Do We Owe?

I listened to a talk by Aaron Huey on T.E.D. the other day. He spoke on “America’s Native Prisoners of War.” Huey is a photographer and storyteller. His award-winning work has been published in the National Geographic, the New Yorker, and the New York Times. He has traveled the world and spent quality time with many cultures. Here is a quote from his biography, “My success is not measured in money. I have no financial security. I have no savings account. I measure my success by asking myself if I’m telling a story that the world needs to hear, if I am educating people.”

His heartfelt talk on T.E.D. was about the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and the Lakota people who live there. The theme of his talk was centered around an old expression used by the Lakota people that means, “the one who takes the best part of the meat”. He went on to discuss the timeline of the European invasion of the Native American’s land. Huey presented this history in a calm and factual manner, but encased with deep emotion. He had spent the past five years among the Lakota, learning first hand about their existence. I say existence because that is about all they are doing – existing – not thriving, not living a full life, not privileged to celebrate abundance.

Huey’s presentation educated me. My social ignorance was embarrassingly high. My jaw dropped when I learned that the average life span for a man on the reservation was between 46-48 years. That’s in the same range as Afghanistan and Somalia. The infant mortality rate is three times greater than the rest of the country. 90% live below the poverty line. Average annual income is $3,800. Unemployment is 85-90% and that isn’t the fault of our current Great Recession. It’s been at that level for who knows how long. Actually, how could it be any other way? Jobs are scarce on the reservation. Economic development couldn’t get a toehold even if it tried. There is no industry nor commercial operation on the reservation. The land is infertile.

On December 9, 2009, Theresa Two Bulls, President of the Oglala Lakota Sioux Tribe declared a Suicide State of Emergency at a press conference that day. I’ve never heard of anyone issuing a declaration like that. Again, my social ignorance is showing. Suicide has reached epidemic proportions on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Theresa Two Bulls organized a campaign to call their local, state and national elected officials on February 16, 2010. She instructed the Lakota people to please be respectful when they call. Tell them about the suicide epidemic and the extreme poverty. Please remind President Obama of his promise to help us.

I’m sure President Obama wants to help. So did President Clinton when he toured the reservation in June, 1999 on his “Economic Empowerment Tour.” Maybe every president has wanted to help. Maybe not. Maybe it’s too overwhelming. Maybe some people think that it’s the Indian’s own fault that they’re in such a mess. Alcoholism is rampant. Drugs. Gangs. They’re all on some form of public assistance. Generations upon generations living on welfare. They should pull themselves up by their boot straps, right?  just like the rest of us. Self-sufficiency. It’s the American way, right?

I saw a t-shirt a few years ago that had a picture of a group of Indians standing in full battle regalia. Across the bottom it read, “Fighting Terrorism Since 1492.” After I listened to Aaron Huey’s talk, I thought of the famous quote by Chief Joseph, “Hear me, my chiefs! I am tired. My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”

What do you do with an entire nation of people who have no fight left in them? Broken spirits in need of repair.

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Instant Love

Last November, Jesse Washington, a writer for the Associated Press, published an article entitled, “Blacks struggle with 72 percent unwed mothers rate.” A reaction emerged on the blogosphere as swiftly and pervasive as an itchy rash. I read through a couple of dozen or so. Right wing. Left wing. No wing. All wings flew on strong currents of blame. I had to think about all this.

I looked up some related statistics straight from the source: The National Center for Health Statistics.

Aside from the 72% rate for black women, 66% of Native American babies are born to a single mom. 53% Hispanic. 29% white. 17% Asian. The overall U.S. rate is 40%. Back in 1950 it was 4%.

Here is an excerpt from the report by the National Center for Health Statistics:

“From 1995 to 2002, the nonmarital birth rate for black women declined 12%. Rates for non-Hispanic white and Hispanic women were essentially unchanged during these years. In the recent period 2002–2006, birth rates for unmarried non-Hispanic white women rose by 14% and for black women by 9%, while the rates climbed 20% for Hispanic women and 24% for API  (Asian Pacific Islander) women.”

“The upward trend in nonmarital childbearing seen in the United States is matched in most developed countries, with levels at least doubling or tripling and in some cases increasing many multiples between 1980 and the mid-2000s.”

The report brought out some interesting contrasts. Reading it gave me a much more factual look at it than the headlines screamed last November. Black women certainly did not deserve the top billing. The facts show the opposite of the bloggers’ conclusions. First off, the rate for black women actually declined by 12% from 1995-2002 while everyone else stayed the same. White unmarried women shot up by 14% during the period 2002-2006 while black women rose 9%. The lowest of any group during that time.

Additionally, the statistics in other industrialized nations revealed that the phenomena of nonmarital childbearing is actually more rampant in Scandinavia. The report contains a 2007 chart that shows Iceland at 66% having the highest percentage of the 14 countries represented. Sweden, Norway, France and Denmark take the top five spots. The U.S. is smack in the middle at 40%. Japan has the lowest rate at 2%.

Also, the statistics for teenage unwed mothers really surprised me. In 1970: 50% of unmarried mothers were teenagers; 42% were aged 20-29; and 8% were over 30 years old. In 2007: unwed teenage moms decreased to 23%;  the 20-29 bracket increased to 60%; the over 30 category grew to 17%.

What does this all mean? Well, for one thing, looking at the research hiding behind the article and the blogospheral rants uncovered a few refreshing facts that sucked the sap out of the sensational knee-jerk reactionary raving. It also made me think that the stories associated with any social trend are varied. For example, why are the unwed mother rates doubling and tripling in Europe?  In Jesse Washington’s article he noted that there is a “link between behavior and poverty.” The behavior of the European women is not driven by poverty. It is a social evolution that has changed the norms of acceptable family structures. It’s okay to be living together and not married in Europe and have children.  Japan’s low rate of unwed motherhood tells the story of a culture with a completely different set of social standards.

The stats on the decrease in teenage unwed mothers might have something to do with a more savvy set of kids who know the importance of birth control. Whereas, the increase in the 20-29 group shows the social acceptance of choosing to be a single mother. Back in my days in the corporate world, I knew several women who had no desire to get married, but wanted to enjoy motherhood. These were white, Asian and black women in San Francisco in the ’90s.

But let’s get back to the unwed black mother. Her choices, direct or indirect, have nothing to do with poverty. Not all black unwed mothers are poor and on welfare. Some are business professionals making a choice. Some are women who say that they feel confident to raise a child on their own. And some are from backgrounds of extreme poverty, live on welfare and choose to get pregnant.

One thing I think they all have in common – all races – all socioeconomic levels – all ages – is this: they just want somebody to love them. Love isn’t part of everyone’s childhood. It’s not a given. It doesn’t come guaranteed just because you happen to have a mother and a father or just a mother or just a father or just a grandmother or a foster parent or anyone else raising you. No, love doesn’t come in the box of life. Batteries are not included.

Love doesn’t always come naturally. Sometimes we have to learn how to love. The young women who choose to become mothers know that their babies will love them, instantly. But what if the baby gets a mother who doesn’t instantly love them?

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Rule of Law Index

The December 2010 issue of the ABA Journal (American Bar Association) has an article about the “Rule of Law Index.” I did not know such a thing existed. It’s okay if you haven’t heard of it either because this is the first time that the World Justice Project has produced it. They spent 3 years doing the research and compiling the data from interviews with 35,000 people and 900 experts in 35 countries. The report was released on October 14, 2010 at the National Press Club in D.C.

The Index has good news and bad news. The bad news first: the United States didn’t do so well in measuring up against other wealthy nations – (yet another report showing how America is falling behind). And the bad news gets worse as you dig into the accompanying charts. It wasn’t just the affluent industrialized countries that beat us. The Index covers 35 countries on every continent, grouped by income level and region. And the bad news gets worse when you find out that the U.S. ranks last on providing access to civil justice. In other words, as the article points out, it’s difficult if not impossible for our citizens to bring cases to court and have professional legal representation because our judicial process is either not available nor affordable.

It occurred to me that we probably won’t hear about this report on our news networks. Stuff like this doesn’t seem to capture our national attention. So here I am blogging about it.

Here are the nine key factors that were used in the study: 1) Limited Governmental Powers; 2) Absence of Corruption; 3) Clear, Publicized and Stable Laws; 4) Order and Security; 5) Fundamental Rights; 6) Open government; 7) Regulatory Enforcement; 8) Access to Civil Justice; 9) Effective Criminal Justice. Each factor is defined in the article.

I was most surprised by our ranking on #2, Absence of Corruption. We rank last in our region and second to last when compared to income group rankings and we’re #11 out of 35 globally. Here is the criteria for this factor: “Do government officials – including police, the military and the judiciary – largely refrain from such things as bribery, improper influence from public or private interests, and misappropriation of public resources?”

Okay – I know you’re thinking – how could this be? Isn’t America the Land of Liberty? We always hear in the news about places like Russia where bribery abounds. America is way above that fray, right? Well, here are the 35 countries in the study (in random order) – you can draw your own conclusions: Canada, U.S., Mexico, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Columbia, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, Sweden, Austria, Netherlands, France, Spain, Morocco, Croatia, Albania, Liberia, Ghana, Nigeria, Poland, Bulgaria, Turkey, Jordan, Pakistan, India, South Africa, South Korea, Japan, Thailand, Philippines, Singapore, Indonesia, Australia.

Sweden and the Netherlands had the highest rankings in most of the categories. Singapore did well, also. It was #1 in “Access to Civil Justice” and “Order and Security”. Austria, Japan and Australia made it into the top three a few times. The U.S. got into the top 3 one time: “Open Government” – despite all the talk about lack of transparency.

The World Justice Project gives a working definition for the Rule of Law:

• The government and its officials are accountable under the law

• The laws are clear, publicized, stable and fair, and protect fundamental rights, including the security of persons and property

• The process by which the laws are enacted, administered and enforced is accessible, fair and efficient

• Access to justice is provided by competent, independent, and ethical adjudicators, attorneys or representatives and reflects the makeup of the communities they serve

The World Justice Project is having their 2nd Annual Rule of Law Conference from January 26-28, 2011 centering on the Asia Pacific region (the first conference focused on Latin America and the Caribbean). The topics which will be covered are interesting:

1. Building a Better Business Enabling Environment

2. Mitigating Environmental Degradation

3. Ensuring Basic Rights for Migrants and Refugees

Hmm… I wonder what the topics would be if the conference were held in the U.S.?

Oh, about the good news in the ABA Journal’s article… well, there was plenty of good news for Sweden and the Netherlands, but I suppose the good news for the U.S. is that the World Justice Project came up with this idea for a Rule of Law Index in the first place. We can use this as a call for action. It’s just not right that the United State of America didn’t do well on this. Weren’t we the ones that came up with the most revolutionary form of government the world has ever seen? one that guarantees freedom and justice for all?

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Philanthropy for the Human Spirit

Poverty is spreading in America like an invasive weed whose roots seem impossible to destroy. The gap between the rich and the poor has never been greater. So far, we haven’t come up with any way to shorten that gap by extending the prosperity of a strong middle class to be within the reach of anyone who leads a working life. The working poor is an oxymoron that should be eliminated from our lexicon.

For centuries, people have wrestled with the disparities between the rich and the poor. In fact, we’ve been told that that is just the way it has to be. Even Jesus Christ said, “The poor will always be with you.” So we’re off the hook, right?

A few years ago I read a book, “The Soul of Money,” by Lynne Twist.  Ms. Twist has spent most of her life working to eradicate hunger. She is a global activist who has raised more than $150M for humanitarian causes. Much of her book has stayed with me, but the experience she related of her visit to Bangladesh will remain foremost in my memory.

For decades, Bangladesh has been a nation buried in poverty as a result of regional wars, foreign powers stripping the land of its abundance of resources, and more than their share of natural disasters.

Working with the Hunger Project when they were beginning to expand their mission to Bangladesh, Ms. Twist volunteered to help facilitate a program designed for Bangladeshis to help them reconnect with their cultural identity, build awareness of their intrinsic assets, and create ways to translate their skills into useful and sustainable occupations. The program, “Vision, Commitment and Action Workshop,” uncovered native capabilities among the people that had long been in dormancy.

In these workshops, villagers were asked how they felt about being one of the poorest countries in the world. The answer was the same everywhere they went: “We don’t like having to accept charity. We don’t want handouts. We want to support ourselves.”

Next, the participants were asked to close their eyes and envision what self-sufficiency would look like. Tears streamed down many faces as feelings of dignity and self-respect swelled. Then with eyes opened, they spoke of their thoughts. Noticeably, each one sat up straighter and heads raised as they talked of the beautiful textiles that Bangladesh had produced for centuries. When they mentioned the great poets that their culture had shared with the world, pride strengthened their posture all the more.

After these initial workshops, seminars were developed to train these villagers in business techniques. Around the same time, the Nobel Prize winner, Muhammed Yunus, was establishing micro-credit programs through the Grameen Bank (Village Bank) for small business ventures in Bangladesh. The Hunger Project’s workshop participants were able to obtain small loans.

Today, the despair of hopeless poverty is leaving Bangladesh. Small businesses are flourishing. In 2009, the national economy enjoyed a 5.7% growth rate.

Poverty thrives when the human spirit suffers neglect. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say something that isn’t said often enough: poverty is a mental health issue – one that is stigmatized by a significant level of social ignorance.

If you would like to help raise awareness on issues of mental health, here are my two favorite mental health organizations in the U.S., both of whom are working hard to elevate the human spirit and both are rated highly on Charity Navigator (www.charitynavigator.org).  If you are so inclined, your charitable dollars will be well spent. Below is what is written about each one on Charity Navigator:

NARSAD, formerly known as the National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression, is the largest donor-supported philanthropy for psychiatric research in the world. NARSAD strives to reduce the pain and debilitation of mental illness through its leadership in funding scientific research on the causes, treatments and prevention of serious psychiatric disorders. Since 1987, NARSAD has awarded over $233 million in research grants to scientists in the U.S. and 27 other countries for the study of depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, anxiety disorders, childhood disorders and numerous other psychiatric conditions.

NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) is the nation’s largest grassroots organization for people with mental illness and their families. Founded in 1979, NAMI has affiliates in every state and in more than 1,100 local communities across the country. NAMI recognizes that the key concepts of recovery, resiliency and support are essential to improving the wellness and quality of life of all persons affected by mental illness. NAMI members and friends work to fulfill our mission by providing support, education, and advocacy. Our many activities include: public education and information activities, peer education and support, raising awareness and fighting stigma, and state and federal advocacy.

America is struggling to find ways to address our general healthcare issues. I think if we put a priority on our mental health, it might be easier to solve our national healthcare crisis.

Posted in Generosity, Mental Health, Philanthropy, Poverty, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Social Lottery

There’s an island off the southern coast of Japan called Kyushu. More centenarians live there than most other places. Scientists have studied for decades the life styles of the inhabitants in an effort to determine what keeps them ticking so long. Conclusions are varied.

Some studies have focused on diet, of course. How often do we hear news stories about the latest findings on a newly “discovered” miracle food that will make us thin, happy and ageless?

Japanese people are famous for their regular intake of fresh vegetables, fruits and seafood. But the researchers couldn’t latch onto that as the one-size-fits-all solution because they kept running into people who didn’t eat vegetables at all, mostly ate meat, drank sake and smoked cigarettes. They found this one centenarian who had outlived his son by abstaining from fruits and vegetables and taking up smoking at the age of 70.

They thought there might be something about coming from good stock, as they say, but genetics didn’t play enough of a role in solving the mystery.

However, there was one factor that kept surfacing – social support. The scientists observed that most villages had a program sort of like a social lottery. Once a month, the villagers would assemble at the community center to have dinner together. On a table in the center of the room each attendee would toss their leftover cash from that month into a basket. At the end of the evening, after everyone had heard how one another was getting by, the group would determine who amongst them had the greatest need. That person would go home with the basket of money.

This report reminded me of my first trip to Japan in 2000 to meet my son’s in-laws. The Japanese have a solid sense of “we’re all in this together”. They have had to develop a social cohesiveness because they have to share a small island with a large population. But maybe there’s more to it. If you ask a Japanese person, “How are you?” sometimes you will get this more traditional response, “I am well because of all of you.”

There’s something to be said about looking out for one another. A few months ago, my hometown in Northeast Ohio experienced two significant home burglaries in one weekend where several thousand dollars worth of goods were stolen. 170 residents showed up at the next city council meeting to voice their concerns and demand more police protection. Is that the solution? How many police officers will it take to protect a town of 23,000? Shouldn’t we be asking ourselves what we could do to protect one another? Sure, we have a few neighborhood watch programs, but really, how well are they working?

The local paper ran a front page article on the robberies. In it, the comment was made that if you are going on vacation, you should tell a few “trusted friends in the neighborhood.” Wait a minute, that implies that not all neighbors are to be trusted. Isn’t there a way that we could build trusting relationships with our fellow block dwellers?

Communities around our nation feel a need to be connected. Yet, our busy lives take us through our days in a blur of activity. We rush home, drive into the garage, the automatic door comes down behind us with a heavy thud. We run inside, put the groceries down, turn on the TV to find out what’s going on in the world while we remain unaware of what’s going in our own neighborhood.

It seems that in America, we have a reverse social lottery. Because we do not get together with our neighbors often enough, by default, we enter ourselves into the social lottery of who’s going to get robbed next. Nobody comes out a winner on that one. Social ignorance is the culprit here. People talk about “street smarts”, what about “social smarts?”

Let’s share some ideas on improving our social smarts.

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