In Honour of the Prescient Langston Hughes

Today is the anniversary of poet Langston Hughes birth.  I’m sure many of you know him and his works, but there are 3 poems of Mr. Hughes that I have loved for years. The first was introduced to me by my sister when we were in high school. Never a big poetry fan, this poem was short and sweet and to the point, and most important, I got it! In my very literal mind, it was profound AND easy and stuck with me ever since:

DREAMS

Hold fast to dreams

For if dreams die

Life is a broken-winged bird

That cannot fly.

Hold fast to dreams

For if dreams go

Life is a barren field

Frozen with snow.

 

The next two came from a small pamphlet I got in one of my careers/jobs — either while at The White House or at ABC News/Nightline.

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This little book contains 9 poems that, through the years, have meant something different and revealed new truths every time I read them.

In today’s world, this one carries so much meaning:

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These words stick with me: There is a dream in the land\With its back against the wall.\ By muddled names and strange\Sometimes the dream is called.\\There are those who claim\This dream for theirs alone — \A sin for which we know\They must atone.

And further down: The dream knows no frontier or tongue,\The dream no class or race.\The dream cannot be kept secure\In any one looked place.\\This dream today embattled,\With its back against the wall –\\To save the dream for one\It must be saved for ALL –\Our dream of freedom!

I think all people in the United States and the U.K. can appreciate and understand this poem — and its relevance — in today’s world.

But a longer poem he wrote is equally as profound and prescient. Titled “Let America Be America Again”, it was originally published in the July 1936 issues of Esquire magazine. In this poem, Hughes contrasts his hopes for America with the true reality of life amongst social and economic outcasts. As he saw it, there were dominant groups (racial, economic, social, religious) and the wedge between those who were “in” and those who were “out” had only grown to a breaking point. Reading it again brings to mind the civil and economic unrest I see in both the US and UK today.

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A poet worth remembering, whose words seep into you and stay with you as they reach deeper and deeper levels. I leave you with one last poem, a man whose birth, and life, and death, should be honoured.

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DAVOS’ CARBON FOOTPRINT?

I feel like Davos has started to turn into the White House Correspondents Dinner where it becomes — for many — just a place to see and be seen (started? some say it’s been this way for a while).  An opportunity to feel self-important and rub shoulders with world leaders and celebrities alike, all touting their causes.  Don’t get me wrong — if I got an invite of course I’d go. But it is a bit of a bubble, isn’t it? Who’s been invited to whose party? Did you see Bono? What about Justin Trudeau? Is Elton John going to Tina Brown’s party? What about the Clintons or Macron?

Participants would say there is a lot of good being done for the world at the World Economic Forum’s annual meetings nestled in this alpine Swiss ski resort town. Historically, they are right. There have been memorable moments or key policy breakthroughs: in 1992 when Mandela attended with de Klerk, or in 1994 when Arafat and Peres reached an agreement on Gaza and Jericho (which I remember as I was working for Gergen in the Clinton White House at the time and this was ahead of the Peace Treaty Signing on the South Lawn).  And WEF over the decades has contributed to huge policy changes globally.  But now, I get the impression that it’s more pomp and circumstance than real commitments and change.

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A private jet burns as much fuel in one hour as a car does in a year

But what really gets my goat is people not committing personally to causes they ascribe to globally.  Change starts on our own doorsteps. Stop talking about it and do it.  The climate change issue has been a big one with WEF for decades. But that doesn’t stop the 3,000 participants (plus all their entourages this bloats to around 15,000) from taking private jets, helicopters, limousines and SUV’s to get there.  The theme of the week, “Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World”, sorta says it all doesn’t it? So fractured that they cannot see how they are adding to the very problems they are discussing.

Grist analysed the estimated carbon footprint of all the participants in 2013 and how much each would have produced to get to Davos.  They used a figure of .21 kilograms per passenger per kilometre for a flight, and 22 kilograms for a three-hour train trip, per person. The total CO2 emissions just for travel by the participants to get there was estimated at 2,520 metric tonnes. Not a huge amount in the scheme of things, but with a global urge to reduce fossil fuels, this doesn’t jibe. And this analysis doesn’t include anyone else (entourage, travelling staff) or anything used outside of plane and train travel.

In 2015, it was reported that there were 1700 private jets flying to/from Zurich (closest airport). To put into perspective, a private jet burns as much fuel in one hour as a car does in a year. This year reports show that number is closer to just over 1,000 which, if true, is a good reduction.  But still the number of private jets arriving at local airports has spiked from an average of 65 flights/day to 218.

I don’t necessarily blame the participants, either.  WEF is as much – if not more so – responsible for changing this irresponsible personal habit (or luxury to the rest of us). Why not move the location to somewhere more easily accessible and not so tiny? They could require participants to carpool (or jet-share, if that’s a term). Hey! Cate Blanchett! Got room in your limo for one more? Prince Turki, President Joko Widodo of Indonesia needs a ride back. Could he hitch a ride on your private plane?

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They could work with Swiss authorities to charter special trains to bring the participants up the mountain en masse. They could ask participants who are renting SUV’s or limos to make sure they are FULL before heading up the mountain (full disclosure: I went to a conference once where the topic was environmental sustainability and everyone was driving their own individual SUV everywhere). They could move the whole event to an enormous field in Devon a la Glastonbury or California a la Coachella. They could do the whole event all online and tout it as the first global online videoconference and get tech geniuses from around the world to make it excellent quality.

We are all to blame for our own excesses, but we have to start somewhere if we are really going to change and save the world. My husband plunges us into darkness with his electricity saving techniques (he’s convinced the secret to financial success is going to be from the money we save as a result of low electric and heating bills).  The thermostat is a constant battle. The brain surgery precision that comes with separating (and washing) the recycling in West London will do anyone’s head in. But I can’t win with any arguments I throw at him and ultimately I’ve caved. He’s right. I’m culpable. We all have to do our little part to help. It’s likely going to inconvenience us all a bit, but these are 1st world problems, not 3rd.  If that means you drive an electric car, or take your canvas bags to the supermarket, great. Whatever it takes.

WEF leaders and participants could learn from Leo DiCaprio’s mistakes. Last July, he got called out for taking a private plane to accept an environmental award and realised the hypocrisy.  He has now ditched the private plane (I know, tragic, right?) and flies commercial. But bravo for starting somewhere. We are so used to having a choice, and these things are all luxuries, relatively speaking. Seriously. We all need to be inconvenienced a little more. Every drop in the bucket helps. And think about it, if you saw several world leaders sharing a ride in a Prius to go to one of these events, the power of the words and policies they deliver will be that much more effective.

BRITS VS YANKS: Government (Shutdown)

As we look across the pond at the government shut-down in the US, I suspect many here are wondering how the heck this could happen (and trust me, many back home are thinking the same thing). As similar as our democratic systems are, it points to the striking differences between how our governments operate. Whose is better?

To start with, Brits vote for a party. Americans vote for a person (be it a Senator or Congressman or President). So in the US, you can have a ballot where you vote for your local Republican congressman because you like his/her policies, but you can tick a Democratic President on the ballot for the same reason.

As you vote for a party in the UK, once the counting is down, the party with the most votes and seats comes into power and the head of the party becomes Prime Minister.  Done and dusted. That means that for the next 5 years, the party and Prime Minister that were voted into power control the government, the policies, the budget, etc. They set the agenda. That’s it, and if you don’t like it, you can vote differently in the next elections.  (We’ll save coalition governments for another day.)

In the U.S., we have this thing called “checks and balances” or as some in D.C. call it “quagmire” :-).  Because you can vote individually and NOT down party lines means you can end up in any given election year where you’ve elected a Democratic President, the House is controlled by Dems, but the Senate is controlled by Republicans or any similar confusing permutation (to recap, our lower house or Congress is similar to your MPs, and our upper house or Senate is similar to your Lords).

So as a result of this system, where no one entity has too much power (the powers of the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government in the US are clearly separated and defined), our Congress and Senate and President end up bickering a lot. And since they cannot agree on many things, they end up in stalemates.

Enter Government Shutdown.  Because one party (in this case the Democrats) could not agree on the budget the President and his party (the Republicans) put forth, and since the budget needs to be approved by both the House and then the Senate, the deadline came and went without consensus.

In the U.K., this just doesn’t happen.  There is little recourse if you don’t like the budget conservatives (ruling party right now) put into place, except to protest with your local reps or vote differently in the next election.  Acceptance and move on.

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However, you should see Budget Day here! It was nothing short of a royal wedding coverage. It’s absolutely fantastic (for policy wonks and geeks)! There are helicopters hovering over the black car carrying the famous “Red Box” that is attached to the UK Treasurer as he leaves 10 Downing and heads to Parliament to read out the new budget. Budget Day last fall was November 22nd and the BBC (and other networks) had a 4-hour special breaking into their regular news programming to carry the speech live and then go into extensive analysis with experts, followed by immediate feedback with citizens across the country.  Four hours! Live TV! On the national budget!!

But this doesn’t happen in the U.S.  The two sides go into their corners and negotiations are heated. The shutdown this time has become even more politicised than before. Thanks to this President, it’s vicious and nasty. The message you hear when you call the White House says calls cannot be answered because the Democrats are holding government funding “hostage”. (Listen here). And this irresponsible and erroneous ad has been approved of by the President, contrary to what the White House press secretary recently said.

Many are affected by the shutdown, but the scaremongering the President has attached to “our nation’s security” and not being able to “pay the troops” is overblown and misunderstood. This piece by Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling explains exactly what happens in a government shutdown to the military and why. As he’s been in command when this has happened before, I suspect he has a better handle on it than the President.

And the issues they are squabbling over are extensive but at this point it boils down to DACA (Dreamers, the children who came illegally to the US to stay and work or study and allowed to stay b/c of a law Obama put into place in 2012), border security, children health insurance, and spending and investment.  This has happened in the past (Monica ended up roaming the halls of a fairly empty West Wing during the Clinton White House because of a government shutdown, and we all know how that ended). But in every instance, it takes compromise on both sides of the negotiation.

This President touts himself as being a tough negotiator, a “dealmaker”.  In this case, I’m glad the Democrats are digging their heels in, but getting to this point doesn’t help anyone, and I fear the President and his pride will be determined to win this. And the American people are already turned off by Washington. 80% of Americans polled in 2017 say they disapprove of the way Congress handles their job (Gallup). No surprise there.

I’m not sure which is better. I do like being able to vote for the individual rather than the party. I do like the theory of checks and balances but it just doesn’t seem to work well in practice.

Alternatively, I’m not sure having a fait accompli is good either. However, without the option to change policies halfway through an administration, I think it becomes that much more incumbent for the sitting administration to get things right.  If they don’t, they’ll be voted out at the next chance. They have one shot and have to make it work.  Let’s hope the Dems and Reps in Washington can do the same thing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

SEXUAL HARASSMENT: LET’S SEE THE FOREST FOR THE TREES

We all feared there would be backlash. The pendulum swung too far too quickly.  Many women friends and I discussed the predicted confusion for men in the workplace as all these stories emerged and suspected they would throw their hands up.

I am from the older generation of women that Lucinda Franks wrote about in the New York Times.  We toughed it out to prove ourselves. We needed to be and act like men to get ahead. We were on our own. I’m so in line with what she said that my uncle emailed me saying he thought I could have written it (yes, Dear Uncle, apart from that small detail of she being a Pulitzer-prize winner). Regardless, we all imagined men fleeing to the hills saying “Who needs women in the workplace? Why bother?”

Normal, average people wouldn’t even fathom acting this way so it’s hard for us to comprehend

What we didn’t predict was where the backlash would come from.  “Bad feminists” and “Good feminists” are squabbling amongst themselves as demonstrated, surprisingly, by Margaret Atwood, who I have deep respect for. In her piece this weekend,  Am I a Bad Feminist?, she defensively uses far too much ink on one (1) wrongly accused man, rather than discuss the overwhelming evidence of police reports worldwide that show more often than not, women who come forward are not heard or listened to. Globally, justice does not prevail for women.  Sadly, this was a case of trying to do the right thing and it back-fired. A one-off.  Wish she’d spent a little more time with her power & influence to turn the conversation forward.

In other instances, we are getting bogged down by semantics. We are name-calling. We should not be lumping together any and all complaint — that will muddy the waters.  There are too many accounts that are sidetracking the true issues to name, so here are a few from just the last few days to really confound you: the ultra-feminist website Babe publishing an expose of Aziz Ansari , Liam Neeson bemoaning the “witch hunt”,  France’s pushback against #MeToo.

CALL FOR CLARITY

Let’s try to see the forest for the trees. We need clarity for this movement to work. We must divide the issues into different buckets and address each one separately. We should not confuse assault with an off-colour joke. Dating a direct line-manager gets into unchartered territory that needs defined guidelines. Equal pay and office bullying are side-issues that are absolutely worth discussing, but best to start with narrow, focused goals.

As part of a women’s group dedicated to solving these problems, we are just starting to identify them, and it will take months of study and analysis before we can unlock effective and long-lasting solutions. But let’s start with assuming that we are talking about the workplace, or work-related scenarios (and not some chance encounter of someone famous, as recounted in the NYT retelling of Aziz Ansari’s date that went badly).

Unraveling this piece by piece, we have the obvious:

SEXUAL ASSAULT & SEXUAL HARASSMENT — The jokes regarding certain alleged (and in Louis CK’s case) admitted behaviour have already started. As if it isn’t really real — just something to laugh at now because it’s so absurd.  Let’s be clear: This did happen. There is no scenario where pulling your penis out and rubbing it against a woman or masterbating in front of women or pinning a woman down on a couch while kissing and groping, or grabbing her private parts without warning without consent is acceptable.

Normal, average, everyday people – men and women – wouldn’t even fathom acting in this way so it’s hard for us to comprehend. It’s easier for us to assume the stories are exaggerated rather than realise we are part of a larger societal problem that buried our heads in the sand for years.  I have heard some of the stories and they are horrific and most important, criminal offences.  In some, the women are petite and the men are physically overpowering. In others the women are young and impressionable and the men are Gods in the office, bringing in the big bucks for the networks or film studios.

The Definition of Sexual Harassment:  Here in the UK (and probably similar in the US) sexual harassment is a form of unlawful discrimination under the Equality Act of 2010 and is defined as such:

Sexual harassment is unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature which:

  • violates your dignity
  • makes you feel intimidated, degraded or humiliated
  • creates a hostile or offensive environment

You don’t need to have previously objected to someone’s behaviour for it to be considered unwanted.

Again, pretty clear-cut. But I suspect sexual harassment videos, educational and role-playing seminars in workplaces would be helpful. In the past, at all my places of employment, we sat through various HR seminars on discrimination, drug use, and sexual harassment with a sort of giggle and swagger like we were back in 8th grade and the teacher was teaching us how to put a condom on a banana.  Now, I think (I hope) they will be taken more seriously.

THE GREY AREAS

The grey areas are the ones we really need to nail down. Here are some that need delving into more:

DATING A DIRECT SUPERIOR/LINE-MANAGER — Back in the 1950s, my Southern belle mother arrived in NYC at “Manny Hanny” (the investment bank Manufacturer’s Hanover) working her way up to Head Librarian in the Research Department (2018 equivalent might be Head of Research/Duodiligence) by the time she was 26. My Dad was a Cornell grad recently arrived in the bank’s training program.  He was often found in the Research Dept unnecessarily and when their dating became serious and obvious, they knew one of them would have to leave as company policy stated interoffice dating wasn’t allowed.  What they weren’t prepared for was that Manufacturer’s Hanover management asked my Dad to leave, as he was one of many Ivy league trainees, whereas my Mom’s invaluable expertise and management skills over a team of women researchers was indispensable.  Don’t take my word for it, this policy was common practice: In George Clooney’s movie, Good Night and Good Luck, they portray 2 people dating in a 1950s newsroom.

It’s easier to assume the stories are exaggerated than to realise we are part of a societal problem

Of course, we’ve come a long way since then, but interoffice dating is a very tricky, grey area (at least in my mind and various polling). This is where I think research and study will help going forward.  If there is a married older “company” man in the office who is powerful and prominent, and he pursues aggressively a relationship with a younger, impressionable employee who may or may not be directly line-driven by him, but who knows that any move she makes will have huge repercussions for the office, what are the rules or guidelines here? What is her recourse? What if the person is not married but in charge of bonuses and the underling doesn’t want to be punished financially if she doesn’t respond accordingly? What if two people date, break up, and then the underling is in line for a promotion that the superior has a say in?

There are many scenarios that need fleshing out, but clearly defined rules and guidelines are a must.

OFFICE POLITICAL MACHINE — All too often, I heard from various women that they did not know who to turn to. They did not know their rights and were afraid of ruining their careers. At other times, women DID reach out to superior men AND women in the offices and were met with resistance or, shockingly, completely ignored. The change here should be swift: Put into place a sexual harassment ombudsman (for lack of a better term) or ombudswoman. Someone whose sole purpose is to field the various victims who come forward; someone who will investigate claims, work the alleged accusation through a proper system and chain of command. No one is above or beneath the law. Power and prestige in the office is invisible. The time for Non-Disclosure Agreements and pay-offs is over.

Additionally, there should be some set of rules or guidelines in place for AFTER an inquiry — whether it comes to fruition or not. The accuser is not a pariah in the office. She/he should not be sidelined or marginalised.  This is discrimination.  Again, I think more research and outside expertise would be helpful.

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IDENTIFYING SEXUAL PREDATORS — In a previous post I wrote about men as sexual predators (towards children and women and other men). This is a societal issue but as Arthur in the previous piece said “the time is right to do something now. It’s an appropriate moment in society”. He also said that the man who assaulted him as a child was “facilitated by a system that encouraged silence.” And that men like his abuser were “in a position of power and authority and gain/gratification was taking away the power of others.”  Finally, the experts on the program who study sexual predators said “underlings are powerless to do anything and predators know this.” Arthur went to police in 2003 and was ignored. He went back this past year and this time, the police listened. His abuser was sentenced to 4 years in jail last week.

Remember, we are not talking about someone who made an off-colour remark about a woman’s blouse or her lipstick (although that is something to address). We are talking about men who repeatedly, over 20 years in some cases, harassed or assaulted women (or men) in the workplace.  I cannot imagine that this kind of behaviour could have gone on without the knowledge of others around them. We need to identify men who cannot cope with power or who have serious predatory behaviour, however subtle or secretive. Identifying men like this is important to set the tone and morale of the office.  If others knew these men were doing things and getting away with it, what message does that send everyone else?

It’s the very nature of television news and Hollywood that these stories are fascinating to a larger audience and garnering attention. Do you think we’d be having this conversation if Joe Public from the accounting dept. was harassing women? Or if Jim X on the factory floor was assaulting underlings? We should not be fooled. The stories I heard relate to the headlines, but they are happening everywhere.

So, yes, if you see women in news and Hollywood picking up the flag and marching forward its because we have a unique voice and opportunity to change society globally.  We risk shooting ourselves in the foot if we lose focus, bite off more than we can chew, or in-fight. Let us not cripple the momentum.  We must prove that our earlier worries were unwarranted — that this #MeToo movement would harm us in the end.

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PREDATORY MEN & POWER

Listening to the Vanessa Feltz program this morning on BBC Radio London, I heard a very difficult interview with the most calm, decent and eloquent man named Arthur regarding terrible sexual abuse to him as a child by a teacher at Christ Hospital School in Sussex.

Arthur was riveting. Not because of the horrible details of what happened to him, but in the brave, articulate and resolved way with which he discussed it. It was a brilliant, emotional program and worth tuning into.

By talking about it, you are taking back the power the abuser stole from you.

But while I was listening, I was also thinking about the various stories of sexual harassment and abuse in the news recently by powerful and influential men in Hollywood and journalism.  I can’t think of anything more atrocious than being abused as a child – it really is undeniably the most heinous of things.  But hearing him speak about the abuse of power and society and the way he dealt with it, I couldn’t help but draw some similarities to the young women being preyed upon in offices across the globe.

He said so much worth repeating.  I was driving at the time so I might not have the details perfect, but Arthur was abused as a child between the years of 1970 and 1973 by a man named Peter Burr.  As Arthur says, he didn’t have the vocabulary or words to describe what was happening to him but he just knew it was wrong. In 2003, he gathered up his nerve and called the police and spoke to someone there.  They didn’t do anything and he wasn’t taken seriously. He doesn’t blame them.  He said “I bear no resentment.  There was no language in society, no understanding, no compartment to put that information in, and I did as much as I could.”

The abuser was facilitated by a system that encouraged silence

Fast forward to last year and he was listening to the Vanessa Feltz show about Jimmy Saville and abusers and it spurred him to get in touch with the producers.  Paraphrasing: “You store all of this up in a box. You tuck it away. After hearing the BBC London program about abuse and Jimmy Saville, I realized there were other men and girls now who were children who commonly had the same experience. I heard that program and thought more had to be done.”

So he got in touch with Gemma the producer who said perhaps we can help and asked him to go back to the police.  He went on to say “the time is right to do something now. It’s an appropriate moment in society.  For the first time in my life, I had a story to tell, a complaint to make, and the police listened and they acted and society supported that action. At last, justice is done.  I am grateful for that.”  Peter Burr pleaded guilty and last week was convicted on 9 counts and is serving 4 years in prison.

But what really got me is somewhere between 8:15 and 8:30 AM (about 1:15:00 into the program), he said a few things that rang so true to my experience and the experiences of others who were young women working in offices of powerful men.  I’ve been grappling with why I feel guilty about not coming forward earlier. I know the man who tried to attack me ended up harassing and abusing women for 20 years. I feel lucky in that I got away before any real damage was done. I was attacked, I fought him off, I got away. Others weren’t so fortunate. And that makes me cry and makes me very, very angry.

Arthur said the man who abused him and other boys was a man who was “facilitated by a system that encouraged silence”. This couldn’t be more true of the nature of newsrooms and Hollywood and frankly, everywhere else where there were predators.  He also said the man is like many predators who are “exercising their complete power of control over you for their own sexual gratification. Utter power over you.”  The conversation revealed that Peter took gratification by abusing the power of his positionHe was a man in a position of power and authority and his gain was taking away the power of others.  But it was also the culture at the time. Arthur recognizes this.  He said “attitudes of the police have changed so much. From the 1970s, 80s, even 10 years ago. The time is now.”

Later in the program they had experts on to talk about this further.  Power in relationships is the key.  Underlings are powerless to do anything and predators know this.  In this case, it could be young boys abused by teachers, or young women abused or harassed by powerful, influential, sometimes famous men whose authority and power in the office atmosphere is very apparent.  It is very hard to take BACK that power, as the panellists on Vanessa’s show said: “They are very clever and manipulative people who know they can dominate and that’s the reward for them.  The sexual predatory behaviour is the result.”

Arthur said that by talking about it, you’ve taken back that control that people had over you. Talking about it is empowering, he said.  You are not alone and you realize that when you hear other stories.  Even if you can’t go through the court process just sharing it with others brings back control.  You’ve dealt with it.

He said “I know that justice has been served.  I know I’ve done all I can do.”  I agree with him when he says that the time is right. Now, in 2018, wider society says this is wrong. Abuse of power and predatory behaviour is wrong. There is a big sea change.

I have heard from women who are raw. Who were attacked, who were abused, who were harassed, who were taken advantage of.  They were young, they didn’t know how to react, they were paralyzed with fear.  They did not know who to reach out to, how to report, what to report, what the repercussions would be.  Many feared for their jobs or the fallout from being the “problem” person in the office.  Many thought they were the only one harassed (myself included).  Others were so traumatized they left news completely.  They changed careers. How sad a state of affairs that young women journalists starting out in their careers and arriving at the bright, brilliant allure of the all-powerful television news networks ended up fleeing in fear and pain because of the men who abused their trusted power.  Worst still, others did report the problems and little was done.

I agree with Arthur: The time is now. As part of an organisation of women whose mission is to change the newsroom culture, I hope we can pave a smoother path for future generations.  Our culture, our newsrooms, our offices, our police, our superiors, our leaders all recognize that enough is enough. There is a new cultural awareness and a new intolerance.  Change is here. Finally, thankfully.

IF YOU DON’T GET THIS, WE HAVE A PROBLEM

NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTION: WHOSE SHOES WOULD YOU WALK A MILE IN?

Atticus Finch said in To Kill A Mockingbird “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” He is explaining to his daughter, Scout, that we mustn’t judge another person until we have experienced what they have been through.

I would like to think of myself as the magnanimous, understanding person Atticus was referencing,  but I know I fall short.

He does not mean the people you feel sorry for or empathise with. He is talking about people you — without knowing it — have judged…or misjudged.  The people you would normally find the hardest to relate to, the least likely you can understand. Not someone who is poor or disadvantaged, living in poverty or worse. Although that would be hard to fathom, that is something that most of us would want to do to understand the difficulties that person faces. That is the definition of empathy. This is not an easy path, but I think we assume this is what Atticus is talking about. Whereas the shoes of someone whose values you do not like, whose causes you don’t believe in, whose doctrines are not ones you subscribe to — those are shoes far harder to step into.

For me, it would be very hard to walk a mile in the shoes of an Islamic terrorist. I would not understand them, nor want to understand them. And that’s where I fall short. I would find it very hard to walk in the shoes of a racist. A member of the Ku Klux Clan or even some of the Afrikaners we met while living in South Africa.  I would really bristle to walk in the shoes of a serial sexual harasser. Or worse, someone who abuses and rapes women.  Politically, I do not completely understand Brexiteers. And I find it very difficult understanding Trump voters. I cannot fathom that they see Trump as someone who will save them and the country.  I struggle with all these things.

But, isn’t the point that we do attempt to understand the opposite point of view? That we do try to listen and deconstruct it? You do not – at all – have to agree with it. But I would love to sit with a Trump supporter and really have an explorative, educational exchanging of views. Bridge the gap between us.  If we could discuss where he/she is coming from, how they arrived at this place in time where they felt the only answer was voting for a former TV-celebrity billionaire with no experience in government and no record of helping others, that would be a start.

I want to understand the racists whose views were formed from a young age. How did they arrive to the bias they so clearly have? When living in South Africa, we met Afrikaners who rolled their eyes and said things like “Well, your blacks aren’t like our blacks” as if we were merely discussing the difference in primary schools or bad restaurant service when in reality we were discussing racial tensions in the US and South Africa. I was appalled. I found myself judging. “How can they be so overtly racist?”

My husband pointed out to me that the woman we were speaking to had a completely different background and upbringing to us.  Economically, we were probably similar to her, and around the same age, but that’s where the similarities stopped. We all grew up in the 70s but in South Africa there was state-run media and the government controlled all the information that was fed to the public. She did not see the international news stories about the fatal youth uprising in Soweto or they were told a very different story – one that was far from the truth.  They didn’t have televisions in most of the houses and farms until well into the 70s, Pink Floyd’s The Wall and other outside media was banned countrywide, and they heard about things blacks were doing to whites through the filter and skewed POV of a scared white minority government.  They were 12 or 14 years old at the time whose parents told them the government was right.  My husband pondered were we to be born in South Africa with parents of a certain generation and the government lying to us, with a media machine in place to counter anything we might have heard, would we have turned out any better? I don’t know.

Of course, we would all like to think we would have seen it — would have sussed out the racism and inequalities and known about the apartheid system to keep blacks uneducated and seen the injustices. But would we have? Really? I don’t know. It was then that I realised I had judged them and found them lacking. I had gone to anti-apartheid rallies in the 80s. I bought the single “Ain’t Gonna Play Sun City” by international musicians who took a stand. I followed Mandela’s release and cheered when he won. But wasn’t it me who was lacking? If I couldn’t take away all the freedoms and education and bias that I was brought up with to see what kind of person I might have been had I been born in Pretoria rather than New York, aren’t I close-minded? I am assuming I’d be the better person, but I don’t know that.

I find the art of listening is lost on this narcissistic social media world we live in. So I would love to know whose shoes are the hardest for you to walk in. Whose point of view do you really not understand? If we could all listen to each other, sit for a spell, exchange points of views, come to some sort of understanding – with respect for each other – wouldn’t we be a better world for it? My New Year’s resolution is to do just that: I will try to listen more, judge less. Join me?

 

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A NEW ERA ON SEXUAL HARASSMENT CULTURE & POLICIES

I couldn’t be happier that Time Magazine’s Person of the Year for 2017 is The Silence Breakers :

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The time is now to make change in both societal norms and corporate policies. But this is not something only women can do. Far from it, it must be fostered from men just as much — if not more. Together we can all step up to the table to discuss change in the culture and society.  Except for those very brave few, many of us – myself included – were complicit in our actions (or non-actions) regarding sexual harassment. And we are at a moment where the momentum has shifted dramatically so we must take advantage and not lose the drive and focus we rarely get.

Today, I am part of an organisation who made an announcement with the hopes to truly find a better way forward for the news industry.  Here is our website (and the goals we have laid out):

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We are still in nascent stages and will continue to grow and prioritise our goals and adapt to new directions. But beyond the above, and what’s mentioned here in the AP article today, here’s what I see as important to this cause:

  1. STRENGTH IN NUMBERS: We banded together to find concrete solutions and ways to move forward with effectiveness.
  2. STUDY: We hope — through a 6-month comprehensive, transparent, wide-reaching study — to be able to provide a blueprint that will be the foundation moving forward. This study will analyse the sexual harassment policies and culture within various media organisations.
  3. INCLUSIVENESS: We sincerely expect to do this study with the support and access from various titans of the media industry — the networks themselves and the people at the helms. But it’s important that an independent organisation like ourselves, working outside the system  and hierarchy, provide solutions and building blocks.
  4. RESOURCES: We want to provide a one-stop haven for anyone working in the media to be able to come to our website and see what their legal rights are, what support networks are out there, what counselling is available, what each company’s organisational sexual harassment policies are, what each network provides through it’s internal structure and reporting systems.
  5. LEGAL RIGHTS & LAWS: Knowledge and understanding of one’s legal rights is important.  We hope to provide sources or point people in the right direction to understand state and federal laws regarding sexual harassment.
  6. TRUST: Trust has been a big issue with sexual harassment. One of two scenarios happened in the past: either men and women came forward because they TRUSTED their organisations to protect them and TRUSTED them to help seek justice, only to find that their organisations let them down in the worst way.  Not only did they not protect them, they protected the aggressor and the victims were left to defend themselves. Or the second scenario: men and women didn’t trust the system to work for them and, fearing for their careers and advancement and being ostracised, they kept quiet. For far too long. We need to rebuild trust.
  7. DESTIGMATIZE: We must work with all of society and within organisations to destigmatize the role of the victim coming forward in sexual harassment cases.  Police officers countrywide will tell you this is still a problem within the courts as well as on the streets. As we have done on our school yards, so should we do in the workplace. The moment that a child comes forward with a claim of bullying, they are to be believed until the case is investigated. More often than not, school policy is to remove the bully at once, protecting the victim and the environment around them. We must adapt this attitude and policy for our offices.
  8. NEED FOR CLARITY: A majority of men (and women) are the good guys. However, many relationships and marriages are commenced and built within the workplace. We need a better and more clear understanding of the rules and rights within the workplace for dating, for relationships, for male-female co-existence where no one party is feeling uncomfortable. This is a grey area as many in the workplace are either above or below each other within the hierarchy, so there must be some clear policies in how to handle this.
  9. MEN: We absolutely need men to help us in our endeavours and goals for Press Forward. Having their input will be crucial to getting this right!
  10. REPORTABLE/PUBLISHABLE SOLUTIONS: We hope at the end of this we will have a positive outcome to the pain this past year has caused so many.  If, at the end of the day, we can feel part of a concrete solution that will stand as the gold standard by which others can build upon, we will have served a good purpose and fulfilled a need.

 

Explaining the Gun Culture Overseas

There are countless times in the past 10-12 years of living overseas that I have been forced to explain my country – or the actions of my countrymen – to virtually everyone I come across in my daily life. The check-out guy at Waitrose asks me to explain Trump. The coffee person at Starbucks questions me about the racial violence. In discussing sports at dinner parties, there’s always one person who asks “Why is it called the World Series? No one else plays in it but you Americans!!”.

After living in South Africa for 3 years and now London for more than 7, nearly everyone I know has asked me about the gun culture in the U.S. and how the heck do people put up with it. “What is going on in America?” people say.  “Why do you love guns so much?” “Explain this to us.” I can’t.  [Although, similarly, when I ask anyone here in the U.K. who is my age or younger to explain the Northern Ireland issue or Brexit, I’m met with uncomfortable shifting and clearing of throats.]  The U.S. gun issue is a phenomenon, and I’m as dumbfounded as they are. But for me, it’s personal. It hurts my heart. My eyes ache, my lips tighten into a thin line and I feel my brow knit into a frown. The grimace is obvious.

America is ahead by miles in gun ownership & mass shootings. The only country even remotely close to us is…Yemen.

In countless interactions I stammer to explain this. “The Democrats…” I start.  “The Republicans have….” I try.  “The polls show…”  “International statistics point to…”  “The Second Amendment…” I’m grasping at flimsy straws. “The NRA…” “After Sandy Hook…”  But the fact is no argument can explain the reality on the ground in the U.S. The horror that has become almost daily. The numbness to which everyone somehow – staggeringly — accepts this as their new reality.

And then there’s the all too familiar arguments that fall on deaf ears. The definitive statistics we’ve seen pointing out gun control in Great Britain or Australia and making those Before and After comparisons from when the laws went into place. The thread that follows how – after one shoe-bomber – laws were put into place to take off our shoes as precautionary measures or how, when seven people were killed by poisoned Tylenol bottles, new packaging made it nearly impossible to tamper with pills (I don’t remember anyone saying “Don’t worry about making safer pill bottles, it’s just the mental health of one deranged person”).

The charts, statistics, polls and studies are endless.  This one from the BBC is a good start.  And in the New York Times earlier this week with excellent charts and statistics, Max Fisher and Josh Keller methodically put forth and debunk every argument out there on why America has so many mass shootings. Mental health issues? No. Society more violent? No. Racial divisions? No. Violent video games? No. Bottom line is we have more guns – by a lot.

I found it particularly disheartening that we are ahead by miles in gun ownership and mass shootings, and that the only country even remotely close to us is…Yemen. That’s not a country you thought the U.S. would be in the same category as. Yemen? Imagine my next encounter with chatty Waitrose guy: “Hey, America and Yemen: more guns than any other country in the world! And a higher rate of mass shootings than everyone else. What’s up with that?”.  I will try to grab my groceries quickly and leave.

My first question to every single candidate who won on Tuesday “Where do you stand on gun control legislation?”

More worryingly, however, is how do I explain this to our daughter. She is of the age where these larger, more complicated issues are being discussed. She is in what Americans would call “Middle School” at a co-ed secondary institution brimming with multinationals:  Brits, French, Aussies, Indians, Russians, Italians, Spanish, South Africans, Greeks, Americans, Canadians, Chinese, Japanese, Nigerians, Senegalese and more. They all wear their nationalities on their sleeves and are starting to challenge each other in an intellectual but healthy way.  As a half-American, she is beginning to get the typical push-back and teasing that often comes from less powerful nations (an Australian boy needling her about Trump has become a fun joke between them).

So how do I explain to her that the country I love and grew up in has had 1745 deaths from mass shootings since January of 2013 (according to The Guardian)? How do I explain that our government stands by, idly, and does nothing? And that we, the people, elect those officials who do not vote as we would.  So far, no protest loud enough has changed this. But it must stop.

Would I raise our child in a place that allows someone to walk into a store with an assault rifle thrown casually over his shoulder?

 

America is getting a terrible reputation abroad for many different reasons, but the gun issue is front and centre as perhaps the worst.  Asked if I would ever move back to the U.S., I definitely pause and wonder whether I would want to raise our child in a place that allows someone to walk into a store with an assault rifle thrown casually over his shoulder while he does his shopping.  Closer to home, I understand the Concealed Carry Laws means that a citizen in Virginia can stand outside a polling booth with a gun. How do I explain that to our daughter? Of course, no place is perfect and certainly every place has its difficulties, its negatives, its issues that we all must put up with and deal with. In the US, I have to explain terrorism and Brexit to everyone. And both of those are somewhat unexplainable too. So there’s no nirvana. But I cannot comprehend doing some back-to-school shopping, squabbling over the last notebook on the shelf with another customer, followed by escalated pushing and shoving, and then the customer pulls out a LOADED gun on me. What?!? Here’s the full article.  Granted, no one comes out squeaky clean, but a Mom with her 20-yr-old daughter, shopping in Walmart with a loaded gun?? Just in case?? I worked and lived overseas in some dangerous places and I know that having a gun pointed at you can leave you with PTSD.  Or I would probably be somewhat traumatized if I took my daughter to a polling booth where a man is carrying a gun outside the door as voters go in and out to vote.  As one of the voters said “I had my 9-year old son with me. I felt intimidated…had to explain why a man with a 357 magnum is standing outside the polling station”.

No, this is not the country I know. The country I grew up in. Of course I have friends with hunting rifles and/or hand-guns, but all agree on stricter controls and bans of assault weapons.  I sincerely hope the tide is turning with all the election wins by Democrats countrywide earlier this week. History was made with many “firsts” from New Hampshire to North Carolina to Montana as candidates who are women, transgender, people of colour and part of the LGBT community won their respective races. My first question to every single candidate who won on Tuesday would be “Where do you stand on gun control legislation?”.  Let’s hope momentum is shifting and we can take that forward to insist on new measures and bans that will change the future history of the US that has yet to be written.