Archive | January, 2012

Saturday quote

14 Jan

“We have more possibilities available in each moment than we realize.”

—Thich Nhat Hanh

Expectant mothers park here

12 Jan

It was my first time at Facebook headquarters. And as I pulled into the parking lot last month, I had another first: right by the front doors of building 2 were the usual spots reserved for disabled folks… behind a few spots designated for expectant mothers.

I’d never seen that before. And while I myself have never been pregnant, it made sense.

How cool, I thought!

But, it would seem that not everyone agrees…

“I park in expectant mother’s parking because it’s closer to the door” has its own page on Facebook, explaining, “It’s closer. So why don’t they have expectant father’s parking? That’s kinda a big deal too. The expectant father is probably at the store to buy something the expectant mother is craving. Anyway, they’re like the handicapped spots only you can’t get tickets for parking there.”

Does this seems like a confused argument/mad grab for justification to you? Convenience seems to be primary motivator, with a half-hearted call for equity for dads thrown in there before the poster admits another reason to park in expectant mother spots: because you can get away with it. Which is true, at least in Indiana: As for the poster’s call for equal rights: expectant fathers don’t carry the babies.

Another FB user who is willing to share her name posted, “You’re not disabled, so don’t park in a disabled space you lazy BASTARD!” and went on to ask her friends, “Who gets mad at the places where they have the parking for ‘expectant moms’ that are closer than the handicap parking? I do. I have been pregnant and I didn’t need that much help as when I was considered handicapped.” Perhaps not surprisingly, Julie’s friends tend to share her perspective, posting responses like: “I am fed up of [sic] people parking in the bloody disabled spots when there [sic] not bloody disabled!!! And why should there [sic] be mother a [sic] baby ones??? If they didn’t wanna carry a baby why get pregnant? And a child would be held or in a buggy anyway.” Wow.

While I share an ire for people who park illegally in spots for disabled folks, I must confess that the contempt for expectant mother parking surprises me. I get that some moms have no need for parking perks, but does their fortunate good health justify intolerance for moms who might need or just appreciate a break?

And what makes it OK to attack a woman’s reproductive rights because you don’t agree with the city or state’s decision to provide parking accommodations for her?

What troubles me about the controversy (albeit a diffuse and questionably committed one) around expectant mom parking is the faster-than-the-speed-of-light judgments and the certainty that my experience gives me the authority to speak to yours. These are all too typical in conversations about how we’re different, and how those differences matter.

Toward creating more space to wonder and learn, to honor each other and to be more compassionate (as opposed to critical), I’d like to suggest two practices:

  • Speaking from the “I” and listening from the “we.” As a middle and high school teacher, I discovered that my students came to me already trained in the discipline of the “I.” They would speak with this tall, pointy certainty–and then use it to jab holes in anyone else’s point of view. (“Well, I think… so I don’t agree…”) Discussions were more like clusters of I statements, all planted ramrod straight into the classroom floor. And so I started to ask my students to speak from the “I”–and listen as “we.” In my work as a consultant, I broaden this concept into “yes, and…” thinking. Borrowing from the improvisational acting game, I ask each person to speak from their own experiences, perspectives and truths, and to accept other, sometimes unfathomable experiences, perspectives and truths. They don’t have to agree or even get where other people are coming from. They just have to accept it, not diminishing either their own or the other’s truth, but letting the contradictions and tensions be. 
  • Asking, “What are at least 3 ways I could look at this?” For example, expectant mother parking: It could be the result of lobbying on the part of spoiled and greedy moms. It could be a helpful social recognition of a temporary and sometimes debilitating medical condition. It could be just another example of identity politics. It could be something I’m grateful not to need myself and blessed to be able to afford for others. It could be something that’s just making me grumpy because I’m in a rush and parking is limited. It could be no big deal to me tomorrow, or even right now if I just take a breath. OK, I went beyond 3–and that’s what often happens when we let go of our certainty and make space for what we don’t know, and what’s possible. By the time I consider multiple perspectives (including my most narrow and ungenerous ones), it’s hard for me to be so indignant. Because I actually have considered other points of view.

Of course, it’s all about practice. Getting our 10,000 hours in, as Malcolm Gladwell might say. Because compassion is no less a skill than writing or playing a violin.

So I invite you to join me in practicing “yes, and…” and perspective-taking the next time(s) you find yourself jump to judgment. Maybe when you see someone park illegally in a reserved spot.

Another Monday quote

9 Jan

“Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”

–Eugene Debs, US union leader, at his sentencing trial for sedition in 1918

Saturday quote

7 Jan

“Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in  the transformation of their world.”                                  

—Paolo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

A more compassionate Facebook

6 Jan

In December, I had the privilege of speaking on a panel of educators at Compassion Research Day at Facebook HQ. The daylong conference brought together some phenomenal minds doing work on compassion, including Dacher Keltner from Berkeley’s Center for Greater Good, Emiliana Simon-Thomas from Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (don’t you want to work at a place with a name like that?) and Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton from Berkeley’s Relationship and Social Cognition Lab, among others doing great work in the field of compassionate social interactions.

As a panelist and learner, the question I brought to the conference was: How does social identity facilitate or detract from our ability to be compassionate? In other words, when it comes to compassion, how does diversity matter?

Here’s an example of diversity as a lens for understanding compassion: in trying to understand how people “read” compassion in others, Keltner has found that touch and tone of voice convey this emotion more recognizably than facial expressions. Interestingly, he also notes that men have a tougher time understanding when women are conveying anger, while women find it harder to discern when men are trying to communicate compassion.

That would explain a lot of cross-sex misunderstandings.

For me, this research underscores that it’s helpful–not just politically correct or divisive–to recognize how social identities matter. The point isn’t that sex determines your ability to communicate effectively with others, but rather that acknowledging how nature and nurture shape how we express ourselves and how others understand us can help us communicate better with anyone.

But doesn’t that lead to stereotyping? Talking to men one way, and women an emphatically other way?

I don’t think it has to.

Recognizing how identities matter–how different groups of people are different–isn’t the same as stereotyping, which is a default choice to engage with others on autopilot so we don’t really have to engage with them as they are, but as we imagine them to be.

Rather, when we notice how social identities matter on a group level and take from that revelation the humility that our way is not the only way, then, the next time someone–man or woman, white, Jewish, adolescent or physically disabled–doesn’t seem to be getting our frustration or empathy, we can remember that everyone isn’t us and try a different tack to connect with them.

What I’m suggesting is that social identity is a lens, not a conclusion, that helps us to engage others with more self-awareness and the presumption of diversity, rather than homogeneity.

If you want more professional or just human development on compassion, check out the videos of the speakers here (in the “Compassion Project Dec 7, 2011” video library. FYI: I’m in the 4th video segment with Kathryn Lee and Mark Basnage from Prospect Sierra):

You can also hear more from Arturo Bejar, the Facebook engineer who seemed to be in charge of the event, in this NPR interview:

What resonates with me is his theme that we should try to engage person to person when someone posts something on-line that we object to. (Or when they write something in the newspaper that gets our goat–see my Dec 13th and 14th posts: yes, I sent them to PB.) I agree with Bejar that while organizations can and should step up to support their communities, policy, authoritative intervention and public complaint should be secondary recourses, at least if compassion is part of our goal and practice. Because face to face we’re more likely to treat people with compassion. Avatar to avatar or special interest group to special interest group, not so much.

* Note: I’m not on Facebook and have no real idea of what it’s like in there, so the Facebook portion of this post could be a load of hooey.

Theo: a book recommendation

5 Jan

You know those children’s books that tell us it’s OK to be different? That we’re all unique and lovely caterpillars, about to turn into even lovelier butterflies, admired and cherished by all?

If you’ve read a book to a child in the past decade, then I’m assuming you do. “You’re OK just the way you are” is a popular theme in children’s lit. But as someone with experience being a kid, I’m not so sure. Maybe I was OK just the way I was to those who loved me, but I vividly recall how not OK I was in the eyes of some of my peers.

Theo, written by Kenny Lim and illustrated by Grant Gilliland, is a welcome evolution in children’s lit. Lim understands the world of kids well enough to know that differences matter–differences like having a third eye. His protagonist knows this, too, so he does his best to pass as two-eyed.

And you can predict what happens next. But after Theo’s big accidental reveal, Lim doesn’t just use his authorial omnipotence to make it OK to be different; he shows kids what they can do to make it so.

It doesn’t require eloquence or mind control. It doesn’t require adulthood or an immunity idol–although it doesn’t hurt to have some peer status. What it takes is compassion and the willingness to stand up–if not for someone else, then for yourself. Because we’re all different to someone at some time or another.

I’ll leave it at that and encourage you to buy the book ( For your kid, someone else’s kid, the local library or yourself.

About Matt

4 Jan

After he committed suicide in 2002, Matt Epling became the poster child for anti-bullying–more specifically, anti-gay-bullying–after he was hazed by high school upperclassman, who pelted him with eggs and taunted him for being gay.

Fast forward to the end of 2011, when Matt’s parent’s, right before celebrating the passing of an amended (see yesterday’s post) “Matt’s Safe School Law” posted this on their website [all typos reproduced from the original text]:

Attention All Media/ Reporters:  New Fact no one has ever checked Matt was not Gay

I have seen numerous articles, new reports over the last week and many have had inaccurate information and in some cases have noted that Matt was gay to seemingly justify the action taken upon him by his attackers as ‘an anti-gay crime”.  This is wrong and unethical.  Matt was not gay, nor does it matter, or would it have matter as a parent.  Matt was our son there is nothing that would have changed our love for Matt.  Matt was assaulted for being who he was, a bright, caring, outgoing young man with a world of promise ahead of him.  Others thought it was perfectly okay to assault their fellow classmates and targeted Matt and dashed his outlook. No one should be a target for any reason. Now Matt and our family have been re-victimized by the media for not simply checking facts. The basic rule of journalism; check your facts and then check them again.  Please post your corrections as soon as possible to protect Matt from further victimization

Matt’s family thanks you (

Certainly, Matt may have been gay unbeknownst to his family. Matt may also have been questioning, asexual or not any particular orientation yet. After all, he had just graduated from middle school.

Whatever Matt’s sexuality, his family’s statement underscores a truth about harassment and bullying among adolescents: it’s not just a gay issue.  According to two national organizations dedicated to creating equitable and safe learning communities:

  • 25% of students report harassment or bullying because of actual or perceived appearance, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, gender, religion or disability (WestEd, 2002)
  • 65% of 13-18 yr olds report harassment or assault (Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network; 2005)

While the statistics vary, the resonant fact remains that way too many kids experience identity bias, in the form of verbal and sometimes physical abuse. And apparently, identity is in the eye of the attacker: both of these comprehensive studies indicate that appearingto be Latino, nerdy or gay is enough to provoke harassment.

I’d take it a step further and hazard that students don’t even have to “appear” to be gay to become the target of homophobic slurs. This particular brand of harassment carries unique weight among adolescents, who are collectively trying to figure out their sexuality while looking cool and blending in with their peer group. Calling someone out for not conforming to normative attractions, affections or engagement is an easy, proven way to embarrass or denigrate them, regardless of their appearance or behavior.

So it turns out that refusing to tolerate homophobia doesn’t just protect LGBTTQQ kids: it protects all kids. 

Here, I’d propose a “both, and”: that while we continue to advocate for the rights and particular needs of LGBTTQQ kids, we also actively strive to include all kids in whatever strides we make, so that no kid has to declare an identity in order to matter.