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    The Ultimate Price of Unconscious Bias


    This week the picture of Mohamed Ali in a black hoodie has gone viral—a sense that even The Greatest must feel lucky, “there but for the grace of God…”  

    The death of Trayvon Martin in Florida last month is every mother’s worst nightmare. It is not the cause of African American, Latino, Asian, or any one ethnicity or race of children. This child’s death is every child’s death at the hands of conscious and unconscious bias.  For George Zimmerman it meant something to see a young, black man wearing a hoodie, walking in an upscale neighborhood.  In a month or two it will be another person’s bias about a young Asian man wearing a leather jacket at a mall, later it will be a Latino youth carrying a back pack outside a fast-food shop or a white teenager wearing all black clothes.  We will grieve again. We will hold rallies. We will write essays.   

    Every mother has argued at one time or another with their child, “are you wearing THAT to school?” We have pleaded, “please get home before dark”.  We have all said, “it is not you that I’m worried about, it’s the others out there that I don’t trust”.  And now we can add another: “take that hoodie off”. 

     It’s pointless of course. It is just a false sense of security that the life of our children can be protected from a deadly equation of motive and opportunity.  Murder is motivated by a myriad of emotions that are triggered by an equally broad range of factors.  We cannot possibly give warnings to our children about every combination of emotion and triggers to avoid among strangers.  Some of Zimmerman’s friends have said he was not a racist.  And I would suggest that he might successfully argue he was not aware of how much he was motivated by hate or racial prejudice—this is the true challenge of unconscious bias.  Everyone one of us has a range of unconscious bias--beliefs and assumptions--that we act on in an instant. We see an African American walking toward us and without thinking clutch our handbag, clench a fist.  We see a group of Latino young men together and assume they are gang members. For Zimmerman, his unconscious bias met up with a deadly opportunistic accomplice—a lethal weapon.

    We should all worry about the hate speech that crowds the airwaves and blogosphere but the real work in an increasingly diverse world is to call attention to the unconscious bias we harbor that places us all in jeopardy. 


    Arizona: Ground Zero for Latino Bashing?

    Arizona appears to have opted to once again become ground zero on the status of Latinos in the US.  It was first to claim that anyone who looks Latino can be asked by local police officers to prove their residency status.  Now it is trying to control how the history of indigenous people, Mexico’s fight for independence and the experience of racism among Latinos can be taught. Tucson Unified School District claims that Mexican American Studies Courses offered in high school promotes resentment towards whites and is now banning the program.  A separate group Tucsonans United for Sound Districts has published an overview of the problem curriculum which features some not so traditional explanations of Thanksgiving, a summary of Mexico’s fight for independence as a threat to US Manifest Destiny and an example of the questions on a final exam for a class.   

    The reality is that Mexican-American studies offer students an opportunity to understand their own history and heritage absent the bias of Eurocentric interpretation.  The unique lens through which we all learn about major events in US history is so ingrained in the curriculum of our textbook industry that it is indeed shocking to imagine how those same events may be seen from the viewpoint of other people.  The indigenous civilizations of the Americas—like the Olmec, Toltec, Teotihuacano, Zapotec, Mixtec, and Aztec—are estimated by some scholars to number upwards of 30 million in 1492 when Columbus came and pointed the way for other European immigrants.  Through my own Chicano studies course in my first year of college I came to understand that these societies were governed through traditions, language, and beliefs that still influence the lives of their descendants today.  It was the first time I had a chance to discuss my heritage outside my family dinner table conversations or family trips to Mexico.  

    I must admit that these courses did indeed make me angry—how is it possible to go through 12 years of public education and not know these historical facts?  Why is the history of US relations with Mexico defined by events surrounding The Alamo and not the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo?  What keeps us from discussing the core economics of immigration?  Fortunately my pride in my heritage also grew and my resolve to finish my education was even greater.  It is not surprising that Arizona Unified School District has also documented that students in its Mexican American Studies have a higher graduation rate than those who do not take the course. The confidence gained by knowing your history and celebrating the achievements of your heritage is an amazing break from the subtle and not so subtle messages that Latinos are somehow a “population problem”, an “education problem, or a “crime problem.   For some, it is possible the one time they can see that they have made a contribution.

    No student should be deprived of learning more about their heritage regardless of how much discomfort it creates for others.  We have overcome the price of denying the history of slavery and segregation and today it has become much easier to recognize the role African Americans played in the US. The growing number of Latinos in the US represents an opportunity to fully embrace the true history of US-Mexico relations and to honor and value Latino contributions to the US.  Arizona should be embarrassed that it may set a precedent others will follow to the demise of Latinos throughout the Americas.


    I Will Remember 9/11 with America the Beautiful

    Ten years ago on 9/11, my husband, my then six year old son and I were starting the 8th day of a cruise in the Cayman Islands.  We had made arrangements to visit Boatswain Beach the day before and I was stepping into the shower when the Today Show interrupted its broadcast to say a plane had hit the World Trade Center.  Like the rest of the world watching, it first seemed to be an accident.  By the time I had stepped out of the shower, the second plane had hit the south tower and there was no question what was happening.  At breakfast, the passengers who had been restful and amiable travelers the day were quiet and tense with worry. The entire ship seemed engulfed in the panic of trying to get more information or trying to go home to loved ones in New York.  The ship’s lounges with TVs were full and some were wailing for all the uncertainty of their family and loved ones back home. We decided it was best to get our son off the boat and try to make the best of the day.

    Our tour arrived at the Boatswain Beach two hours later and for a moment it seemed we had managed to leave behind a horror that would keep developing regardless of our watching it unfold.  But at the park, there was a small restaurant and inside a radio was broadcasting what was happening in the US.  There were Canadians, Americans and Brits listening and struggling to understand.  At first I thought I was misunderstanding the Spanish broadcast.  The buildings had fallen? Air traffic was grounded and some still unaccounted for?  The Pentagon had been hit, too?  The White House evacuated? I translated as fast as I could but I realized the newscaster was starting to infuse some political views about why the US had been attacked and how the US had been caught off guard.  I didn’t translate those remarks and the restaurant workers knew I was keeping those remarks to myself.  I couldn’t bring myself to start assigning blame or to begin looking at conspiracies.  Perhaps it was one small act of loyalty to my country or just one way to spare the travelers huddled around the radio from more grief.  I wanted to stay focused on the human anguish—not the politics behind the horror.  There would be plenty of time for that much later.

    At dinner that night back on the ship the distress of the day was visible everywhere.  But amid all the effort to serve passengers a meal the crew and staff came into the dining hall and with little fanfare began singing America the Beautiful and giving small American flags to everyone.  This was an international crew of young Pakistani, Italian, Swede, Pilipino, Nigerian, Japanese, Jamaican staff—a rainbow of faces once again looking at the humanity of the moment, all sharing that same thought: what if that had happened to me or my family? How do we live to honor those who died?  I’ve never forgotten that moment and how connected strangers can become in the face of .  It made me think of ways in which people are more alike than they are different. People can and do come together regardless of ethnicity, gender, creed and age to seek solace and comfort in the face of unspeakable horror.  The 9/11 memorials and survivor stories that surfaced in the days that followed magnified this common humanity and this is how I choose to remember 9/11.   


    Unions, Sustainability and Diversity-A Missed Opportunity

    If it were not for the hard work of labor unions in the early 1940’s and 50’s we would not be able to think of a regular work week as 40 hours, get paid vacations and paid sick leave or enjoy the basic due processes employees assume are part of the work environment.  The growth of the middle class in the 1960’s and 70’s rests largely in the strength of creating livable wages through this advocacy. This Labor Day Holiday some may suggest that having won these key battles the need to unionize workers has lost its relevance in our society.  Membership is at an all time low with less than 12% of the workforce today holding union membership.  Unfortunately the relevance of organized labor’s early roots in protecting workers from abuse and unfair practices is needed now more than ever—but the needs look different. 

    Today in the middle of the Great Recession, the growing wealth disparity in the nation and the new wave of discrimination faced by the long term unemployed and the 50-plus workers I can’t but wonder how Labor could have made a difference.   What would have happened if Labor had started 30 years ago advocating for long-term business sustainability, greater corporate transparency, or preparing workers for green jobs?  What would have happened if unions had looked at how poorly schools were preparing young people for competitive jobs or for careers heavily reliant on math and science? And what if unions had been more engaged in the fight to keep the workplace not only diverse but progressively inclusive—making sure ethnic minorities, gays, working mothers, and aging workers got hired at the most senior levels? These were missed opportunities for Labor.

    After having achieved key milestones in fair wages and benefits, labor stayed focused on these priorities well into the 1980’s even when jobs were being outsourced abroad and US companies downsized workers but didn’t downsize executive compensation.  Instead of recognizing the changing work place demands and advocating for more employee training, workforce development and better education to remain innovative, unions remained focused on keeping wages and benefits firm for members. And the definition of employee “benefits” expanded—in some professions that took the form of protecting jobs regardless of objective measures of performance or targeted results.   It’s not surprising then that labor’s relevance comes into question when unions defend teachers who don’t teach, drivers who don’t drive, and tradesmen who don’t keep their skills relevant.  Protecting workers based on seniority, job classification systems, and the status quo became associated with union dogma just when all indicators pointed to needed innovation, workforce development, and new ways to engage in a global workforce.

    Next week the AFL-CIO is hosting Next Up: The Young Workers Summit in Minneapolis.  The agenda is aimed at Gen Y and Millenials and provides a chance to learn about fighting back efforts to dismantle unions.  Several sessions are dedicated to organizing in a global context, organizing the new generation of workers, “indoctrinating” public policy and managing messages.  These themes are more defensive than offensive. Young workers may need exposure to Labor’s history but in order for Labor to regain its relevance in American society, young workers need an understanding of Labor’s missed opportunities, too.  To prevent a repeat of the past, Labor must improve workers’ ability to face unprecedented demands on their knowledge and understand seniority is not a measure of job security.  Young workers today need the ability to be continuous learners, the ability to recognize and advocate for sustainable growth industries, corporate social responsibility, and transparency.  If Labor is to regain membership, it needs an agenda that is willing to translate on the enormous complexity of economic, political, and social factors that influence the workplace today and prepare workers for the demands ahead.  


    Treat Your Career Like a Venture Capitalist Invests in Opportunities

    The recession seems to have struck the over 50 crowd the hardest—just when all those years of experience  were set to be leveraged to do great things.  Unlike the younger generations who have not expected long term careers in one place, many in the over 50 crowd never saw this coming.  And now finding work is a whole new game. The recession has run so deep that there’s now a new practice of asking individuals to work for “commission only” sales or to build up their own pipeline of work or participate in preparing a project or proposal with the hope of getting the project and working on it together.  For those of us who have been consultants, freelancers, or contract employees in the past—this is just a way of life.  Every day is an opportunity to prospect for work.  But how do you know where you should give the one thing you have plenty of during a transition-- Your Time? 

    It’s not hard to find others who are working at putting together a project that you can support and then earn money later—if it sells, if it gets funded, if it gets adopted or if—you name it!  My advice is to treat your time during a transition like an investment strategy that’s often used by venture capitalists.  They are constantly getting proposals to fund new ventures.  They look at thousands of great ideas but invest in just a handful with the hope that one of those will turn into the next Big Thing.   They use key criteria for making investments and give start ups a timeline with clear goals to be met.  If goals are achieved, then they are given more money and if not, they walk away.  The founders—if they survive—are left with the option of shutting down or looking for another investor.

    You may not have a huge savings account but you do have time. Depending on your personal financial picture, you may only have a few months to spare before you must earn income and so it’s key to set a date to assess whether you should continue contributing your time to a project.  Think of your time as your money to invest.  It is perfectly fine to offer time to the projects that meet your criteria-- but be realistic.  A great idea alone is not enough to strike it rich these days. It takes tremendous focus to mobilize marketing efforts and close a sale—if all you and your colleague talk about is an idea and there’s no business plan or marketing strategy, then it may be a long time before you see any revenue.  And, take a look at what exactly you are being asked to do with your time or “sweat equity” in a project or venture.  If you carry the greater share of workload, make sure the payout reflects this fact.   Create an agreement that spells out what you will be getting when the work comes through so that there are no surprises.   

    This all sounds simple to follow but the emotional roller coaster of unemployment and instability can undermine your better judgment.  Take a breath. Reflect on your goals daily. Develop a success routine and stick to it.  Assess what progress you’ve made with your investment of time and adjust accordingly. Making your transition work is up to you.  Abraham Lincoln said it best: "Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed is more important than any other one thing."

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