Archive | October, 2014

Handouts on Halloween?

31 Oct

I happened to catch today’s “Dear Prudence” advice column on Slate and feel compelled to share as a thought exercise in what you would say if someone came to you with this Halloween quandary:

Dear Prudence,
I live in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the country, but on one of the more “modest” streets—mostly doctors and lawyers and family business owners. (A few blocks away are billionaires, families with famous last names, media moguls, etc.) I have noticed that on Halloween, what seems like 75 percent of the trick-or-treaters are clearly not from this neighborhood. Kids arrive in overflowing cars from less fortunate areas. I feel this is inappropriate. Halloween isn’t a social service or a charity in which I have to buy candy for less fortunate children. Obviously this makes me feel like a terrible person, because what’s the big deal about making less fortunate kids happy on a holiday? But it just bugs me, because we already pay more than enough taxes toward actual social services. Should Halloween be a neighborhood activity, or is it legitimately a free-for-all in which people hunt down the best candy grounds for their kids?

—Halloween for the 99 Percent (

Your gut reaction? Notice if it’s a thought, feeling or impulse to act. Notice the volume on your reaction–and what in particular you’re reacting to.

… So what would you say if someone asked you your opinion? Here’s how Prudence responded.

Dear 99,
In the urban neighborhood where I used to live, families who were not from the immediate area would come in fairly large groups to trick-or-treat on our streets, which were safe, well-lit, and full of people overstocked with candy. It was delightful to see the little mermaids, spider-men, ghosts, and the occasional axe murderer excitedly run up and down our front steps, having the time of their lives. So we’d spend an extra $20 to make sure we had enough candy for kids who weren’t as fortunate as ours. There you are, 99, on the impoverished side of Greenwich or Beverly Hills, with the other struggling lawyers, doctors, and business owners. Your whine makes me kind of wish that people from the actual poor side of town come this year not with scary costumes but with real pitchforks. Stop being callous and miserly and go to Costco, you cheapskate, and get enough candy to fill the bags of the kids who come one day a year to marvel at how the 1 percent live.


While I’ll admit to finding some satisfaction in Prudie’s unapologetic stance, I think Prudie misses the actual grievance. And her tone makes me cringe (while the contempt may compel “99” to buy more candy and never speak of this again, I doubt it will help “99” to self-reflect and contribute to changing a problematic conversation about entitlement in our society).

So here’s my PS:

Dear Halloween for the 99 Percent,

Thanks for your question. It’s one, I’m sure, that may resonate with others because of a common misunderstanding about “charity” and “social services”: that “fortunate” people subsidize the “unfortunate” already “more than enough.” I invite you to watch this video from Professor Ananya Roy at UC Berkeley’s Blum Center for Developing Economies that explores “Who is Dependent on Welfare” ( If you’re short on time, I’ll summarize the takeaway for you: subsidies for middle-income and wealthy families are exponentially “more substantial [than the] handouts” allocated for poor families. (And, of course, those subsidies are stigma-free. It’s only “welfare” if you’re poor.) In actuality (as opposed to popular prejudice), the taxes you pay flow generously toward your billionaire neighbors a few blocks away, as well as up and down your own street.

So let’s just reset the scenario: since families in your neighborhood are disproportionate beneficiaries of the taxes you pay, your issue seems not to be about giving away more to those who already receive plenty, as it is giving to people who don’t live in your neighborhood. Fair enough. May I ask a few questions?

  • When you call yourself “the 99 Percent,” what do you mean? It’s a pretty big, diverse group that includes the 1.001%, as well as people in the bottom 5%. Like “middle class,” “the 99 Percent” doesn’t tell us much: about ourselves, other people, or the wide-ranging diversity among us. I ask because the kids coming to your neighborhood are also “the 99 Percent,” yet I sense you’re making a distinction between you and them. So perhaps there’s a better way to name yourself to make clear how you see yourself and your position in the spectrum of socioeconomic status.
  • How can you tell which kids are “clearly not from this neighborhood”? Once they’re out of their cars, what marks them as from “less fortunate areas”? Is it the quality of their costumes? The way they talk? The color of their skin?
  • Is your issue with the children, or the parents of the children who drive to your neighborhood? Can you imagine at least three different reasons why they may drive to your street? (I’ll imagine a few: 1. They are venal candy grubbers looking to take advantage of you, 2. Your neighborhood is safe, 3. Your neighborhood has awesome decorations, 4. Your neighborhood has a reputation for being full of kids and lots of fun on Halloween…)
  • Are the cars really “overflowing” with children? I just had to ask.
  • How do you define your neighborhood? Socially, what are the boundaries? In the event of an emergency, how far can you go for help? How are the limits of neighborhood helpful to you and your family? How are they not?

It is, of course, up to you how much candy you buy and how you want to distribute it. And how you want to continue framing the conversation about poverty, wealth, social service, charity and what makes one “fortunate” or “unfortunate.”

Thanks for writing in,


“What (else) are you doing for others?”

31 Oct

Have you read Tim Cook’s open letter In Business Week? At the heart is a question MLK, Jr. posed, to which Cook responds:

Throughout my professional life, I’ve tried to maintain a basic level of privacy. I come from humble roots, and I don’t seek to draw attention to myself. Apple is already one of the most closely watched companies in the world, and I like keeping the focus on our products and the incredible things our customers achieve with them.

At the same time, I believe deeply in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, who said: “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’ ” I often challenge myself with that question, and I’ve come to realize that my desire for personal privacy has been holding me back from doing something more important. That’s what has led me to today.

For years, I’ve been open with many people about my sexual orientation. Plenty of colleagues at Apple know I’m gay, and it doesn’t seem to make a difference in the way they treat me. Of course, I’ve had the good fortune to work at a company that loves creativity and innovation and knows it can only flourish when you embrace people’s differences. Not everyone is so lucky.

While I have never denied my sexuality, I haven’t publicly acknowledged it either, until now. So let me be clear: I’m proud to be gay, and I consider being gay among the greatest gifts God has given me.

… I don’t consider myself an activist, but I realize how much I’ve benefited from the sacrifice of others. So if hearing that the CEO of Apple is gay can help someone struggling to come to terms with who he or she is, or bring comfort to anyone who feels alone, or inspire people to insist on their equality, then it’s worth the trade-off with my own privacy.

… When I arrive in my office each morning, I’m greeted by framed photos of Dr. King and Robert F. Kennedy. I don’t pretend that writing this puts me in their league. All it does is allow me to look at those pictures and know that I’m doing my part, however small, to help others. We pave the sunlit path toward justice together, brick by brick. This is my brick (

Cook’s reflection on what he has been doing and what he could be doing for others hits home for me. While arguably, many of us are already “doing for others,” we usually do what is comfortable, native, preferable for us. We do what we’re already inclined to do. This is perhaps obvious,  in many ways sensible and still good.

Yet what else could we be doing for others? What else that would require a stretch and growth on our part, in order to serve a real, persistent, significant need?

For me, the answer is fundraising. I don’t like asking for money. I don’t want to ask people for money. Even for a good cause. But I’m realizing that not developing that skillset is my “what else” I could be doing. Because there’s legitimate need for money that’s out there–that will go somewhere if it doesn’t go to the causes and organizations that are doing vital work.

So I’m throwing down here. I don’t have a plan yet, but I wanted to express my gratitude to Cook for holding up a mirror and encouraging me not to turn away from something I’ve seen there before and still see now: my potential. My brick.

Blink workshops in Winter 2014-15

24 Oct

In addition to Leaders of Color: A Professional Learning Community, which launched this year’s series of conversations this week, I’m thrilled to be offering some other workshops this winter:

  • Cultural Competence & Educational-Relational Thinking: The Intersections of Learning & Community.  Thursday, December 4, 2014; 10am-11:15am at this year’s People of Color Conference in Indianapolis, IN. Alison will be co-facilitating the discussion with a panel of colleagues. For more info and registration, please visit:
  • Facilitating inclusive conversations about diversity and social justice. Saturday, January 31, 2015; 9am‐12pm at Marin Country Day School in Corte Madera, CA. For more info and registration, please visit
  • Talking about socioeconomic status and class. Saturday, February 21, 2015; 9am‐12pm at Park Day School in Oakland, CA. For more info and registration, please visit

Stay tuned for more Blink workshops coming up in the spring!

Looking toward, not away

22 Oct

I recently learned about the National Art Campaign of Compassion (, “a national guerilla art campaign to create a dialogue for a solution to extreme poverty. Using the power of  art and film, we will tell the stories of the desperate dreamers across the U.S. who are experiencing homelessness.”



What struck me viscerally about this work is that it’s designed to get us to see people who are experiencing homelessness, and to recognize just that: they are people who are experiencing homelessness. That’s a big shift, and a critical one, if we’re going to find solutions for poverty. Because any sustainable solution will have to include–not just fix or eliminate–people who are experiencing homelessness, unemployment and starvation.

You can check out more art from the campaign on the artist’s Instagram page:

Access and inclusion at (women’s) colleges

20 Oct

The NY Times Magazine published a thoughtful, complicated article about the changing the fact that “a small but increasing number of students at [women’s colleges] do not identify as women [but as transmasculine, transfeminine, gender queer or agender], raising the question of what it means to be a ‘women’s college'” (

The implications of gender-inclusive admissions is rich and complex–I’ll let you read for yourself and just note here what stood out for me from an organizational standpoint. As Wellesley works out its policies and adapts to a shifting population and culture, its current practice is that “[o]nce individuals have enrolled and announced that they are trans, the schools, more or less, leave it to the students to work out how trans classmates fit into a women’s college.”

Hmm. What is “left to the students to work out” includes institutional identity, philosophy and language; access to resources and opportunities within the community; and the navigation of gender politics that suggest a white transmasculine student is both “the man” and oppressed by a cisgender feminist institution.

While I appreciate the honesty from within women’s colleges that they don’t know yet how admissions, student development, and their own institutional identities will evolve, I think that honesty can and should be paired with the responsibility to work with their students to figure out how the gender spectrum doesn’t just fit into a women’s college, but illuminates core values and, in some cases, compels an expansion of the school so that it fits its students.

Note: For a helpful explanation of gender concepts and terminology, I encourage you to check out Gender Spectrum’s helpful article “Understanding Gender”:

** Thanks to my friend and colleague JR for sharing this article.

Quote of the day

7 Oct

“No one should work full time and still live in poverty.”

–Senator Elizabeth Warren, Real Time with Bill Maher, 10/3/14

Whatever your political orientation, doesn’t this make sense?

And from the same interview, a not so fun-fact: “Student loans issued from 2007 to 2012 are on target to produce $66 billion in profit for the United States government” ( That profit, Warren argues, is how the US recovers the tax revenue lost through loopholes.

You can check out the full interview here:

Same-sex marriage: one state at a time?

6 Oct

Today’s news about the Supreme Court’s direction to allow appeals court rulings in favor of same-sex marriage to stand in five states arguably has greater reach than just Indiana, Oklahoma, Utah, Virginia and Wisconsin  ( Marriage equality seems imminent in other states that currently ban same-sex marriage.

Still, I found myself less than enthusiastic when I read the headlines. Irritated, even.

While this is good news for proponents of social equality, I can’t help but think it’s not good enough news. My issue is rooted in findings from a 2013 New York Times/CBS News poll that “[a] solid majority of Americans opposes a broad national right to same-sex marriage, saying the power to legalize gay unions should rest with the states — even as most support marriage equality for gay people” (

That troubles me. Why? Because this issue isn’t just about gay people or gay unions. It’s about unequal taxation, and access to health insurance and government programs that provide a safety net for families, as reported by a coalition of gay rights groups in “All Children Matter: How Legal and Social Inequalities Hurt LGBT Families” ( It’s about whether children should be penalized because some people have a problem with their parents’ sexuality. And the welfare of those kids shouldn’t have to wait for 50 independent states to slog through propositions, bans, appeals and rulings up the food chain of courts. It just doesn’t make sense in these United States that children in Wyoming should have fewer rights or protections than children in Massachusetts and have to wait longer for equal care just because they got born or adopted in a different state.

And I believe there’s something simple we can do about this. A professor of mine from graduate school said that the way we frame a question determines the possible solutions. In this case, the way we frame the issue determines the possible perspectives on it. I think it’s time to shift the argument from “legalizing gay unions” (do you hear me, NY Times and CBS?) to protecting the rights of children no matter who their parents are. I wonder how that would poll.