Can baseball bridge divides? Maybe yes, maybe no

Some activists unveiled a banner about racism in baseball at Fenway Park this week. Baseball has figured into a couple of political conversations I’ve had in the last week. It’s left me wondering: Can baseball bridge divides in our society?

The case of the curious Lyft driver

I caught a Lyft when I arrived at the Cincinnati airport a couple of weeks ago. It was around midnight but my driver was chatty and I mentioned that I was in town to catch a baseball game. His next question came right out of the blue, like a pop fly in July:

“Are you married?”

He had kind of a thick accent—from somewhere in West Africa, he later told me—so I thought perhaps I’d misheard him. But when I didn’t answer, he asked again. Much more emphatically. Half-turning around in his seat:

“Are you married?”

I laughed and said, “That’s a very personal question.” He explained that he was just wondering because I was a woman going to a baseball game alone.

I tried to smile as I made it a teachable moment: “Well, as you’ve probably noticed in the year and a half you’ve been here, women in the United States often do things without their husbands. And husbands do things without their wives.”

I’m not sure I convinced him that our culture really does allow women to have agency (at least it has historically). But he did ask me how much the tickets were, and said he’d try to catch a game one of these days. If I didn’t manage to enlighten him, perhaps I created a baseball fan.

Can baseball bridge divides? The case of the translator

I found myself watching a game on TV with a relative of mine.

can baseball bridge divides?Baseball is one of the few things we have in common (although he roots for the wrong team). Then in the post-game interviews, one of the players showed up with a translator by his side.

“Now that—that I don’t go for,” my relative said, appending the familiar blather about how if you’re going to play ball here you should learn the language.

I knew I’d have to address the situation—I’m done letting teachable moments pass—but a combination of jet lag and my cold had ground down all my feistiness. So I said quietly, “Oh, I don’t know. Learning a new language is hard.”

And then a question popped into my mind. So I asked it, willing my voice to stay calm and curious:

“Have you ever tried to learn another language?”

I expected to hear something about high school Spanish but he just said, almost sheepishly, “No.”

Was his mind opening a crack?

“Well, it’s hard,” I said, still gently. “And then imagine that you’ve got to speak in this new language you’re learning in front of TV cameras and millions of people will hear you speak, and your bad accent, and maybe you don’t use all the right words. I can’t even imagine having to do that.”

My relative couldn’t either.

Listening, thinking can bridge divides

Now, my relative is not going to run right out and join a pro-DACA demonstration. But he’s thinking about at least one part of the immigration issue in a new way.

Can baseball bridge divides? Maybe. Not with banners but with personal interactions.

One conversation, one new idea planted. Starting right where you are, whenever you get an opening, whoever you can talk with.

It’s a long road, but it can lead to lasting change.


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Difficult conversations, tough realizations

I wrote this post about “difficult conversations” two weeks ago. But it was late and I was tired and it’s such an important subject I didn’t want to publish it before I had some sleep and re-read it. I found it in my drafts folder today; turned out it didn’t need much cleaning up at all. And, sadly, the subject remains relevant So here you are.

I’ve been resisting Anna Marie Cox’s new podcast, Friends Like These for a while. She advertises it as being about the “difficult conversations” we have with one another—or, more accurately, don’t have often enough. I’ve heard her talk with a pastor whose flocks (he has churches in two different counties of some midwestern state I’ve forgotten) both voted for Trump. And she draws heavily on the expertise of her colleagues at MTV News, which brings more people of color to the microphone than the white bread podcasts run by her colleagues at Crooked Media (yes, that’s the company’s real name).

But the podcast I listened to today—already a couple of weeks old—got me thinking in a new way. Part of it focused on conspiracy theories. Cox and her guest Adam Savage contended that while the crap that’s going/has gone on with Russia is clearly important, our pursuit of the conspiracy at least partly serves to distract us from the even more depressing thought of the millions of Americans who needed no outside persuasion whatsoever to vote for Velveeta Voldemort.

That’s the real scandal here. We have turned into a country of intolerant people.

No—it’s a more difficult conversation than that:

“We have always been a country of intolerant people, but it’s no longer possible to ignore that.”

For many educated white people like me, who have been living in a Disneyland Shondaland where Diversity and Inclusion seem to increase daily, this comes as quite a shock.

Lava pools of racism and sexism, religious intolerance, xenophobia, homophobia have been bubbling beneath the surface of our society for decades. It was only a matter of time before they burst to the surface, like the volcano that lurks beneath Wyoming. There’s a volcano underneath Wyoming? Yes, according to yet another podcast, Stephen Dubner’s highbrow trivia contest, Tell Me Something I Don’t Know.

Difficult conversations with myself

Anyway, the bubbling lava pools of intolerance shocked the hell out of me, and a good percentage of polite society, when they burst out, seemingly ten minutes after the election results were announced. I said “polite society,” meaning the kinds of people who don’t go around creating swastika-covered cupcakes at birthday parties. But really “polite” is not the right word, though it rhymes with it:

White.

Yep, even though I like to think of myself as “diverse”—y’know, because I married a woman and all—I have had no freaking clue what’s been going on in my own country to people whose skin are, as Oscar Hammerstein put it, “a different shade.”

Oh, I haven’t been living under a rock: I know about the black youth killed by police, the unrest. I know Black Lives Matter. And Muslim Lives. And Trans Lives. I know we can’t disappear them into the seemingly tidy package of “All Lives Matter,” because one of the things that matters about Black and Muslim and Trans lives is that they deserve to be visible.

But the daily drumbeat of unconscious bias, the kind of stuff you’ll find under the Twitter hashtag #BlackWomenAtWork—really, I thought we were past all that.

We’re not. Take a look at some of the tweets collected in this Essence article:

difficult conversations

Every problem looks like a nail

Someone said “When the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”

My particular “hammer” is communicating. But, really, wouldn’t that help? If we all learned to speak our truths, if we had the guts to call out people who behave like this, and the tools to make our case forcefully—wouldn’t that help? Would they be difficult conversations? Sometimes, you bet. But the alternative is allowing these unconscious biases to stand. And that will not end well for anyone.

We allies have a responsibility to speak up. Grab that word-hammer and use it. Even—especially—when the conversations get difficult.


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What the customer wants — inclusion (if the Super Bowl ads are right)

“Listen hard to your customers. (Then listen some more.)”

Translation: Find out what the customer wants. And give it to them.

That particular advice comes from Pat Fallon and Fred Senn’s book Juicing the Orange. I haven’t read the book, but I did read a review of it in The New York Times back in 2006, which is how their “seven steps for creativity” landed in my quotation file.

The other rules, for the record:

“1) Always start from scratch
2) ‘Demand a ruthlessly simple definition of the business problem’
3) Find a ‘proprietary emotion’ you can appeal to. ‘Marketers who favor reason over emotion,’ they write, ‘will find themselves quite literally forgotten.’
4) Think big. Don’t be limited by the budget or the initial challenge.
5) Take calculated risks.
6) Collaborate with others both inside and outside your company to solve the problem.”

All of these, except perhaps the last, resonate with me as a writer. Be original. Boil complex issues down to simple (but sophisticated) explanations. Appeal to the audience’s emotions. Hmm…how to translate “think big”: Write what you feel needs to be written. Don’t second-guess or censor yourself.

 

what the customer wants is inclusion

But in the aftermath of the Super Bowl, I’m most struck by the ideas of listening to your customers (the audience) and leveraging emotion to convey your message. The video game and movie commercials treated us to a violent, dystopian world—one commercial showed tanks exploding into everyday situations; Tienanmen Square in your very own living room! But the consumer products companies told a story of compassion and inclusion. I’ll take that world, thanks.

The customer wants inclusion

My favorite was Airbnb’s “We accept” ad.

This isn’t just a political statement—it’s also brand positioning for Airbnb, which has faced issues stemming from some of its hosts discriminating against guests. See this piece on the Twitter hashtag #Airbnbwhileblack and this one about a “straight-friendly” host evicting a gay couple.

It’s a challenge for Airbnb, one they seem to have tackled forthrightly. But as discrimination becomes more socially acceptable, they may find they need something stronger than a feel-good advertisement or even a nondiscrimination pledge in their user agreement:

“We believe that no matter who you are, where you are from, or where you travel, you should be able to belong in the Airbnb community. By joining this community, you commit to treat all fellow members of this community, regardless of race, religion, national origin, disability, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation or age, with respect, and without judgment or bias.”

This is decidedly not the United States the current Republican administration envisions. But it is not what the customer wants — or most citizens, for that matter. Here’s hoping the corporate vision wins this battle.


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Finding the Martin Luther King Jr. in all of us

Visionary, leader, activist, peerless orator, man of faith: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was clearly a remarkable man. The primary face of the Civil Rights Movement, he deserves all of the accolades heaped upon him. 

He and the people he led faced down bigots with torches and nooses and water cannons. Their bravery, rooted deeply in nonviolence, changed the country. Not completely. Not nearly enough. But a bit. And over the decades that “bit” has taken on a life of its own.

In the world I live in—as a white woman in the rarefied East Coast liberal bubble—we believe we’ve moved past questions of “integration,” sometimes called by the fancier name of “diversity.” Inside the bubble, we talk of inclusion now; it feels like a big step forward.

I firmly believe my clients want to be inclusive—and many other members of Corporate America do too. But you have to leave the office sometimes. And when we do, I fear we’ll soon be stepping back into the worst of the 1950s and ’60s. For people of color, for anyone whose religion doesn’t conform to the strictures of evangelical “Christianity,” for women, for LGBT people, these are perilous times.

I fall into all but the first of those categories. Folks like me are finding out what our brothers and sisters of color have unfortunately known forever: what it’s like to live in a country where you can’t trust that the people behind the political institutions and social infrastructure have your back.

Where’s Martin Luther King, Jr. when you need him?

Dr. King was right to remind us

“…the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”

As a lesbian, I’ve felt hopeful in the last few years that the arc has been shortening. Now I see what our friends in other communities have known all along: it’s only an illusion. Laws are just words on paper, and they only work when we agree to respect them. As democracy and the social compact crumble in the face of authoritarianism, I have to wonder: Just how far around the bend is justice?

Three million more people voted for Hillary Clinton than for the divisive racist we will inaugurate as president this week. Yet those of us who loathe the man and what he stands for don’t have a leader to coalesce around. Who can help carry us forward? Who can help us stem the tide of hatred that’s about to swamp our institutions and laws?

Where’s our next Dr. King?

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the subject of this Pulitzer Prize-winning bookLook in the mirror. Look at your neighbors. At each other, as Gloria Steinem said.

We each have a responsibility to step forward, to lead our own personal protests, however small they may be. We each need to take every opportunity we have to stand up for justice—for all, just like we say in the Pledge of Allegiance.

It’s been a long time since I read Bearing the Cross, David J. Garrow’s Pulitzer Prize-winning account of Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, but one quotation near the end of the book has stayed with me over the decades. It’s a woman named Diane Nash. My notes say she was an “SCLC worker,” but if memory serves me, I think she may also have gone to school with Dr. King, so she knew him personally. Nash says:

“If people think that it was Martin Luther King’s movement, then today they—young people—are more likely to say ‘gosh, I wish we had a Martin Luther King here today to lead us’…If people knew how that movement was started, then the question they would ask themselves is, ‘What can I do?'”

What can I do?

What can I do? It’s not a comfortable question. But these are not comfortable times.

We can’t wait around for the next Martin Luther King, Jr. to reveal himself. Or herself. If Diane Nash is right, the seeds of leadership are in all of us. And we have a responsibility—to our world, to our country, to each other—to restore civility. To honor and respect each other. To shorten that moral arc once again, and round that final bend to Justice.


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An open letter: Straight talk and business

One more post about the election—but this time with business front and center. Okay?

Thursday, the day after the election results came in, I woke up feeling I had to write something. I wanted to suggest how business leaders could speak honestly with their people about the values of diversity and inclusion.

I published it as an open letter on LinkedIn and I’ll post it here in its entirety, in case you’re not a LinkedIn member. (Wait? You’re not a LinkedIn member? What?)

an open letter to straight white male Christian CEOs

An Open Letter to Straight White Christian Male CEOs

If the title of this post shocks you, I intended it to.

The organizations I work with and the executives I write for would never think of the world in such a narrow way. I’ve been in and around Corporate America for more than 25 years, and I’ve seen a real evolution. I truly believe that most businesses today value inclusivity. So I welcome everyone to read and act on this.

But let’s be real: Some people have a bigger megaphone, just by virtue of who they are. You straight white Christian male CEOs may not have asked for this privilege—in fact, let’s assume you don’t even want it. But since you have it, put it to good use.

In the wake of Tuesday’s election, many people who aren’t straight white Christian men—including many of your colleagues and probably your clients too—feel unsettled and unsafe. Indeed, reports of violence and harassment of those perceived as “other” have already risen precipitously.

Use the privilege you didn’t ask for or seek to let the world know that decent people still respect each other.

As a business leader you have a very important superpower: the power of the bottom line. You can refuse to discriminate in hiring and staffing, even if your client requests it. You can refuse to do business with those who support discrimination. You can move conventions or facilities out of areas that enact discrimination by law or mandate.

If you have fostered an inclusive culture within your organization, thank you. Now you need to carry that culture outside your office walls. In your work with clients. In the ways you and your organization support our communities. As you live your daily life.

If you see behavior that’s incompatible with your values, speak up. Empower your people to report any disrespectful or discriminatory behavior they encounter in the course of their work. Take appropriate action to address it—and talk publicly about what you’ve done.

Lead by word and by action. Speak out wherever and whenever you can. Use the privilege you didn’t ask for or seek to let the world know that decent people still respect each other—no matter what religion, national origin, or skin color the “other” has. Or their gender. Or who they love.

Hatred used to thrive in the shadows; it’s now emerging openly, even proudly. We cannot let it become normalized. And you, the straight white Christian men society has anointed as privileged, must take the lead.


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