Quote of the Day: Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou — ‘Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.’

I watched the Netflix documentary recently, featuring stories from Michelle Obama’s tour to promote her book Becoming.  Both times I’ve read the book, I cried.  Of course, I cried watching the documentary, as well.  I believe her intention for writing the book was meant to be inspirational…to motivate people (especially young people) to be the owners and writers of their stories…that we should each captain our own ship when navigating life’s journey…and that we should help others when their voyages have gone awry, or whose ships may be taking on water, and sinking.  So why cry when reading a book, or watching a documentary, that features so much good?

Over and over both the book and in the documentary, Mrs. Obama emphasizes to young people to stop thinking of themselves as statistics, they are not invisible.  We don’t build friendships over our statistics, we build them through recounting our past, sharing knowledge, finding commonalities, uttering anecdotes, sharing laugher, and confessing our pain.  Communities are formed in a similar way.  In truth, Becoming makes me nostalgic for a time when I believed America was on its way to becoming better.  The turmoil of the 9/11 attacks, then entering into a war none of us wanted/believed in, and the start of the recession, had brought the spirt of the country to a low point.  Bush’s 2nd term was ending, and we were all eager for the country to find its way back to the light.  Even through the ugliness of the 2008 election, I distinctly remember how Obama continued to inspire the kind of hope that we needed, that made us proud to say we were Americans again.

His presidency sent a clear message to (what I like to call) the good ol’ boy regime, that the tides were finally turning.  During the film, Michelle made mention of what a proud moment it was for the black community, but with that comes the immense pressure of being the “first black anything”.  Admittedly, I have no idea what this must feel like, but I do appreciate the weight these words carry.  While the black community felt pride in this historical moment, I know so many of us in the white community were equally overjoyed. America’s past is stained with racism and oppression.  While oppression happens all across the world, which seems to be a uniquely human affliction, it isn’t something that many of us want to talk about.  It’s certainly not something that evokes a sense of patriotic nobility, but it is something we should acknowledge and make reparations for, if we ever hope to become a more equitable nation.

Throughout his campaign and years in the White House, this aspiration for true equality – regardless of the color of their race, creed, or color – seemed to finally be burgeoning forward, after years of laying groundwork by all of those who have fought for freedom.  Yet, this legacy of racism runs deep like the roots of a Banyan tree, with “white privilege” deeply engrained into our society, beginning with the constitution, on down to segregated schools and neighborhoods, to most notably the criminal ‘justice’ system, and we have learned those roots are hard to cut out. Immediately after Obama took office, the pervasive ugliness of this unworthy endowment, reared its nasty head on TV, in newspapers, and every day communities, exposing our collective naivety of hope, dashing the idea that real change had finally arrived.   Many in the white community were just waking up to suffering experienced by our black and brown brothers and sisters over centuries, signaling it was time we dig deeper into the past, to learn what we are rarely taught in school.

Although many of us in white society are not racist, there is no doubt we have wholly benefited from the systemic biases built into our culture.  Just because slavery was abolished, does not mean that we haven’t allowed the architecture of slavery to create the framework of current day society.  Maybe “white guilt” has accelerated this denial, or political partisanship prevented us from seeing those who have been left behind, relegated to statistics.  Speaking for myself, I can’t remember a time growing up when I ever felt fully aware of how I benefited from systemic racism.  It wasn’t until I was old enough to vote, that I began to see the disparity.  For many of us, I think it took Obama’s presidency to pull the veil from our eyes to truly see even the simplest of inequities.  Why else would we allow a white man to a tan suit in the White House, and think nothing of it, but contrive a false scandal when a black does the same?

If you didn’t see this brazen hypocrisy before/during his presidency, you most certainly have to acknowledge it exists now.  Physics states that when the pendulum swings hard in one direction, it comes back in the opposite way with equal force, but eventually the amplitude of their swing declines until it eventually rests somewhere in the middle.  The current administration represents that recoil effect of having our first black president,  and he will by no means be the last. Whether the white people in “power” want to believe it not, evolution does happen, and throughout history we have seen the narrative change. This is the common theme amongst the fall of the British Empire, the Ottomans, the Han Dynasty, or the Roman Empire: oppressing people leads to depressed economies, imbalances in trade, the overthrow of governments, and greater turmoil.  Economies work well when you have a healthy, educated labor force, people are extended their freedoms, and there are high levels of research and development.

That is not the state of our country today.  Pandemic aside, income inequality comes at a high price, not just for the poor, but the wealthy alike….just ask the people who lived through the Great Depression.  Yet, nearly 100 years later, we have forgotten those lessons as well…too much infighting has severely weakened us as a nation.  We are now incapable of learning from one another, in order to strengthen our economy, and fortify our nation against all enemies (foreign and domestic)…there are rats living in the White House, my friends.   The separatists of the south wanted to keep people enslaved, long after it was proven to put them at a disadvantage for long-term economic prosperity.  They lost the Civil War because of their inability to modernize, to allow people to walk free.  More than 150 years later, our system is still reinventing “new” ways to keep people marginalized, but history rings true time and time again…oppression shreds an empire.

When a black woman dies by the hands of the police, for nothing more than pretextual traffic stop, while a white woman can freely run stop lights and only get a minor scolding, that is oppression.  When a black man is strangled by the authorities for selling cigarettes on a street corner, while a white man is calmly arrested after murdering 9 black parishioners in cold blood, that is oppression.  When a white person can leave their home to go for a run, or sit in a park, or have a BBQ without fear of having the police called because you were “laughing too loudly”, or having your body chained and drug behind a pick up truck, or hunted down and shot dead, that is oppression.  While these stories are not the ones we want to tell, they are the ones that must be told, until the narrative changes.

If we do not learn from our past, if we do not get to know the “other”, we allow the empires to keep us fearful, relegating us to nothing  more than a statistic…history will repeat itself and we will fail.  We see it happening already from the dysfunctional response to the pandemic, to the dismantling of an organized government, our economy has experienced a greater negative impact than those societies with highly functioning governments.  Those who believe in investing in education and science, in investing in their people, and development, have not experienced as traumatic economic fallout as Americans. Education has been called the great equalizer, so if we are to change the narrative, we must not be afraid to share our stories.  We must not be afraid to listen to the stories of people who may not look like us, or think like us, or pray like us.  For if we put those fears aside, we will learn that we all have more in common than what we were raised to think, or the current administration would have us believe.

Michelle ends her documentary by reminding us of this…no matter what Tangerine Toddler (my description, not hers) says, no matter what some in the “news” media reports about, there are a lot of good people out there.  She has met them along the way – from her time campaigning for her husband, to the her time in the East Wing, and all along her recent book tour, there are so many people who want to do right by one another.  It is time that for our stories to be heard.



Travel Log: Real Jardin Botanico Madrid

Dahlia; (C) 2011 Laura Riggs, all rights reserved

In September 2011, I traveled to Madrid on a one way ticket, alone, with a backpack of clothes, a small laptop, and some toiletries…no phone, no itinerary.  I had a rough “plan”, however…I had sketched a path along the Mediterranean coast, then maybe head north, and at some point, I would go home.  I had lost a child who was not my own, been laid off, ended a relationship, sold my home, and was in the throws of a deep depression.  Basically, my life blew up and I decided it would best for my soul, if I went out and wandered the world for a while.

It had been more than a decade since I’d last visited Europe, nor had I ever been to Spain, so I really had no idea what to expect.  Initially, I (like every other American) mistakenly believed I would “know” how to navigate the city because it would be similar to my own, and that everyone would speak English.  After three failed attempts to get to the city centre from the airport by train, I finally made it to my hotel  Then, I panicked — this was only day one of my adventure in a city where I couldn’t read the street signs, nor the understand the logic as to how the streets were laid out, and I didn’t speak Spanish well enough to ask for help, or get directions.

When Don Miguel Ruiz laid out the criteria for navigating the life through four agreements, he wasn’t kidding about the third – Don’t Make Assumptions.  I realized that nothing would be as I assumed, so I either needed to get my ass back on a plane and go home, or adapt.  I had to remember why I had even decided to come on the trip to start with – my life was a mess, and I needed to believe in myself again.

Most of my time in Madrid was a blur, but I remember sitting in the Real Jardin Botanico, having a full blown panic attack, when I looked up and noticed this dahlia staring back at me.  There was so much beauty I was missing, because I had shackled myself to my past.  I had to trust myself to navigate through the challenge, to let go of the assumption that things would be similar to home.  Bigger still, I had to let go of the assumption that I was not worthy of joy.  It took three more months of wandering before I found acceptance, but this place was where I began to understand that my fear/my assumptions, were full of shit.

At times of stress, I find myself slipping back into this space.  It’s hard work to stay on the other upside of depression, and a continual commitment to keep seeking joyful moments, while also being firm with my boundaries and the need for self-care.  I slip for a few months, and fall into the pattern of criticizing every single flaw, every mistake, every thing I did to miss out on being happy. It’s like crawling out of the hole all over again, although the distance gets smaller each time, as I become more aware of my patterns and relying on meditation to bring me back to the present moment.

Today, I was reminded of this poem by Ariana Reines:

“Come to me whole: with your flaws, your scars and everything you consider imperfect.  Then let me show you what I see.  I see galaxies in your eyes and fire in your hair.  I see journeys in your palms and adventure waiting in your smile.  I see what you cannot: you are absolutely, maddeningly, irrevocably perfect.”

The more you can be at peace with your flaws and imperfections, the more compassionate you are towards others.  If you look closely enough, the dahlia pictured above isn’t perfect, but that isn’t what I see when I look at the photo.  I see the vibrant pinks and I remember the way it smelled, and I remember it drawing me back to the moment and out of my panic.  Imperfections and all, it’s one of my favorite pictures I took while I was in Madrid.


Thought for the Day: My Guiding Mantra

Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu = May ALL beings everywhere be happy and free, and may the thoughts, words, and actions of my own life contribute in some way to that happiness and to that freedom for all.

This is probably my favorite of all ancient Sanskrit chants.  It is not part of the original Vedic texts, but seemed to evolved from the desire to explain further the fundamental principles of ahimsa –  which means non-violence in all thoughts, words and actions.  The ancients declared the value of the Universal Spirit found within all living beings.

One of my original teachers sums it up quite eloquently:

If any prayer were to embody the spirit of the yogi, it would be this simple chant, whose 4 simple words translate as:

lokah: location (everywhere)

samastah: sameness or equality

sukhino: sweetness or happiness

bhavantu: unto all 

Notice that the transliteration says unto ALL living beings, not some living beings, and not the beings we love, or who are behaving in accordance with our expectations.  Nor does the prayer define ‘beings’ as human.  The mantra is clear – ALL beings deserve to be happy and free.  It’s simple, yet hard to practice, but has been my guiding principle for interacting with the world for nearly a decade (after I first heard it chanted in a yoga class years ago).

Some people ask, “what would Jesus do?”  As an atheist, I’m challenged to identify with Jesus.  I do think he was one of the original Yogis, when it comes to loving others and doing no harm, but I think I’m more challenged with the stance the Bible takes…namely the Old Testament which seems to focus more on defining ways we are deserving of love and ways when we are ‘bad’ or to experience the ‘wrath of God’.   Too many people like to pretend they are God, or God-like, when it comes to passing judgement upon others – they seem to forget we live in the era of the New Testament and what it was the Jesus actually taught.  Rather than dealing with confusing, or contradictory, text, I come back to this simple, astute chant when/if the thread of judgement begins to weave its way through my thoughts.

ALL beings deserve happiness, joy, and freedom – not just some beings, not just the beings you think are good or deserving – ALL beings: all black beings, all brown beings, all cis* beings, all gay beings, all beings who don’t identify within the confines of the gender binary, all animals, all plants, and the Earth itself deserve this.  It’s sometimes hard to reconcile this with the human mind, the one that calls for justice when we are wronged, or the one that lives in fear that there won’t be enough happiness and freedom for everyone (so we better restrict it to only a few).

We all deserve these things, but it should never be up to another to limit whether we heed joy’s true calling.  No living being should inflict suffering, harm, or pain on another.  That is a choice that we must make for ourselves.

HRO: Good for Business

As published in the Mar/Apr 2015 issue of Arbus Magazine:

As of August 2014, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the largest civil rights organization in the United States working to achieve equality for LGBT Americans, acknowledges 200+ cities and counties across the US who prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and/or gender identity/ expression in both the public and private sector. The city of Jacksonville and Duval County are currently not on that list.

An HRO, or Human Rights Ordinance, is a policy passed on the local level (city or county) to prohibit discrimination based on certain characteristics. These policies often ban discrimination in housing, public accommodations, and employment. Jacksonville’s current policy bans discrimination based on race, religion, sex, disability, ethnicity, national origin and marital status. In 2012, our City Council failed to pass two separate measures to extend employment protections to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. Afterwards, Jacksonville made national headlines as being one of the few cities, at that time, to defeat such a measure.

Jacksonville experienced immediate backlash when the software developer Pantheon decided not to relocate their headquarters here, and many Wells Fargo executives refused to move to the city after the corporation purchased Wachovia Bank at about the same time. Now, almost three years later, the city of Jacksonville and Duval County made national headlines again that are shameful and disappointing: Just as Florida became the 36th state to legalize same-sex marriage, the Duval, Clay and Baker County Clerks stopped performing all marriage ceremonies at their courthouses, simply in an effort to avoid marrying same-sex couples.

In response to the clerks’ decision, many Duval County couples opted to wed in a mass ceremony and celebration in Hemming Park on January 10, 2015. In what some might consider an ironic twist, however, these same couples can still be legally fired for displaying wedding photos at their place of employment, denied housing, or asked leave a restaurant because of their sexual orientation.
According to a recent Gallup poll, one of the challenges with passing local protections is that a majority of Americans mistakenly believe it is already illegal to fire or refuse to hire someone, deny housing, and/or deny public accommodations to LGBT people.

Hoping to better educate their members as to why an expanded ordinance will help boost economic growth for the city, the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce West Council invited local activist Chevara Orrin, from We Are Straight Allies (WASA), to speak at their monthly luncheon in January in order to educate their members on the progress being made across the country to successfully add protections for the LGBT community at a local and national level. The founder of the WASA organization, Orrin has spent the past two years working to educate and raise awareness about the very real challenges and discrimination faced by the LGBT community.

“Jacksonville is the only large city in the state of Florida without an HRO and it is vital for our local economy that we pass a Human Rights Ordinance,” she maintains. In fact, the HRC gave Jacksonville a 20-rating (out of 100) on their 2014 Municipal Equality Index (MEI). The MEI compares the laws, policies, and services of municipalities and rates them on the basis of their inclusivity of LGBT people who live and work there. When compared to other cities in Florida, Jacksonville is second to last, only slightly better than Port St. Lucie, as being a just place for the LGBT community to live and work.

Pat Geraghty

There are plenty of community leaders like Pat Geraghty, chairman and CEO of Florida Blue, who understand why an expanded HRO is good for business. Geraghty says, “I believe that engaged employees are a key ingredient for a business to be successful. Internal diversity within the workforce helps businesses better understand who they serve, and allows the focus to be on the work and not on definitions that limit inclusion.”

Geraghty joined the WASA campaign in 2013 and has co-sponsored legislation that would protect LGBT citizens statewide. Florida Blue, Florida’s largest health insurance provider, is considered one of the best places to work for an LGBT employee. They have consistently received 100 on the HRC’s Corporate Equality Index (CEI) several years in a row. The CEI is the national benchmarking tool on fair corporate policies and practices pertinent to LGBT employees. In 2015, 89% of all Fortune 500 Companies offer protection from discrimination based on someone’s sexual orientation, while 66% of those also offer protections based on a person’s gender identity/expression.

One of the West Council members voiced their “concern about cross-dressers in the workplace.” These types of comments demonstrate the overall lack of sensitivity the transgender community faces daily at best, coupled with experiencing the highest rates of targeted violence, or suicide, at worst and speaks to why the transgender community is often overlooked. Data from the National Center for Transgender Equality found that 78% of transgender Americans say they’ve experienced workplace discrimination at some point in their career.  Because so few people personally know a transgender person, it can be hard to understand what it means to be transgender.

However, few Americans, including the LGBT community, are aware that transgender employees are protected against being fired because of his or her status as a transgender person in all fifty states, as set forth in the landmark decision in the 2012 Macy v. Holder case, brought by the Transgender Law Center. “Transgender people are a part of our workplaces and neighborhoods – and they need to be able to use the restroom safely and be left alone, just like everyone else,” says Orrin.

HRO Steve Halverson_Final f

Steve Halverson, CEO of Haskell Company and fellow WASA campaign participant, explains that having an expanded HRO is important for Jacksonville to become more competitive in the marketplace. “To succeed, businesses have to compete for talent – all talent – and provide a safe and welcoming work environment,” he says. “We are disadvantaged when we create an impression that our community is hostile to the LGBT community. People want to live and work in communities that are perceived as fair and tolerant. Jacksonville needs to be that place.”

While nothing about nondiscrimination laws changes state and local criminal statutes that would outlaw predatory activity or crimes targeted towards the LGBT community, they demonstrate to companies considering a move Jacksonville that our city is taking steps necessary to become a more inclusive place for all of its citizens.

Photos: Dan Bagan, EQ3 Media