Jun 232014

I stood in the middle of the floor and I cried. I still cry when I think about it today because I came from an era where this was impossible, totally and completely impossible. It was surreal. I thought I’d eventually wake up and none of it would have happened. I couldn’t believe it because it wasn’t believable.

That was Election Day, 2008. Clifton Taulbert’s an author, a storyteller. He believes in the illuminating power of a story told well. This one introduces the eerie, cultural postraumatic stress disorder at the heart of his twelfth book, The Invitation.

When commentators called the presidential election for Obama, Taulbert celebrated. But he didn’t celebrate 100 percent. He was of two minds. The kid in him, the child raised in the segregated Mississippi Delta of the 1950s and 1960s, waited for the other shoe to drop. Surely there was a miscount. Or perhaps this was a practical joke unleashed on an impossibly large, national scale.

I’m 50 years removed from that place but it’s a lesson of race and place that lingers. It still shows up today because we’re still seeing a lot of African-American firsts.

So it was that Taulbert, standing in a generic, ordinary hotel room, on an otherwise average Tuesday evening in suburban Anytown, U.S.A., wrestled with the extraordinary. America had a black president. It was a done deal. But initially, he couldn’t enjoy the finality of victory, the end of an era, the soulfully satisfying conclusion to one of the most important public conversations in the country’s history.

It would be another year before the story of The Invitation crystalized. It would be another six before it saw bookstore shelves. Taulbert’s search for meaning behind the second guessing, the hypersensitivity to the improbable, emerges in the pages of The Invitation as a sort of cultural post traumatic stress disorder.

The Invitation, the story of an improbable friendship of a black baby boomer and the southern descendant of generations of slaveholders is a well-told story that invites readers to remember the lessons of segregation without reliving it. And, it turns out, there is a sort of therapy for Taulbert’s brand of PTSD: hope.

If the past shows up, hope is the most important bulwark. Reality isn’t the world of our childhoods. The future is not written. Be hopeful,” he says.

The frustration of PTSD emerges not just narratively, but stylistically. Every time the story starts rolling, Taulbert stops to check the surroundings and the audience. The discomfort of being watched and the low-level anxiety of always watching constantly remind the reader what The Invitation is about, even when Taulbert’s not explicitly calling that frustration out.

It’s unlikely that Taulbert’s first book, 1989’s Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored, would have made it to the big screen without that hopeful message. Starring Phylicia Rashad, the film was a milestone for Taulbert. His life story, he saw, resonated powerfully with those of a much larger audience than the book gathered. It was also an important sign that his beliefs about community could find a larger audience, as well. And it would find that audience in some unlikely arenas.

Taulbert credits his escape from poverty to the small community of his Mississippi home town, Glen Allan, and to the even smaller community of the extended family—his “Porch People”—that raised him. His elders’ shared vision of his future, he says, shaped him before he was old enough to understand that he was being shaped.

Community is about unselfish action, and ordinary people rising to the heights of leadership. In my community, people did anything and everything necessary to protect kids in the world of legal segregation. In order to do this, the community came together and wove a safety net of sorts capable of catching us when needed.

In 1997, two years after the release of the film, Taulbert boldly codified the lessons of his youth in Eight Habits of the Heart. It was written proof that memories of danger aren’t the only thing that have stayed with him. Eight Habits is a cookbook of sorts, with recipes for community carried forward from his younger years in the Delta. His forward-thinking elders, it turns out, were entrepreneurial thinkers, as well.

With his consulting company, the Freemount Corporation, he carried the gospel of community to organizations ranging from Fortune 500 companies to public school districts.

The message in Eight Habits resonates in a lot of places. I recently saw it resonate really well with Idaho’s public schools and the Human Rights Education Center. If communities can be built in the face of segregation, they can be built under any conditions. Businesses with holistic communities where every voice is respected can succeed, regardless of time and agendas.

With Taulbert’s help, cutting-edge business strategies emerge from the time-honored customs and traditions of the Mississippi Delta. They target, of course, the most significant investment of every business: people. Developing human capital, says Talbert, is where businesses need to succeed first. His ideas have reshaped a wide range of organizations, from the FBI and the NSA to Ford and Harvard.

Other forays into the business world include Roots Java Coffee, an African-American owned coffee brand that imports and retails coffee from war-torn Rwanda. The direct link it provides between the American retail market and some of the world’s moist sought-after coffee beans is, slowly but surely, pulling a group of hard-working Rwandans out of poverty.

Cultural post traumatic stress disorder may just be one of the costs of doing business in a democracy. But doing business with the lingering lessons of Eight Habits in mind defangs the past’s trauma, softening the harsh memories by creating real communities with real people—at home and around the globe. There’s no need to continue reliving the past. Just use those lessons to craft a better future.

Jun 102014

needleFor most of the 20th century, the virus was the villain. Polio, measles, mumps, rubella, diphtheria. It used to be an impressive rogue’s gallery. They once accounted for hundreds of thousands of hospitalizations and deaths annually in the U.S. The last of the rogues fell off the Most Wanted list in 2000, when the surgeon general announced in 2000 that measles could no longer be found in the U.S. It was an unprecedented public health victory. But the victory would not endure. The rogues are returning, aided and abetted by a tenacious anti-vaccine movement.

Vaccinologist Paul Offit deftly explores the history of the anti-vaccine movement (dubbed “anti-vaxxers” by the media) and its stubborn, graceless refusal to accept defeat in Deadly Choices: How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All (Basic Books, $16.99). Anti-vaxxers wouldn’t be interesting if the stakes weren’t high, and Offit lays them out in stark and vivid detail. Deadly Choices is the gripping story of how the world’s most ambitious public health program, once a national source of pride, is slowly unraveling amid unjustified fear, pernicious misinformation and shady conspiracy theories that merit a place in Fox Mulder’s files.

Health officials were taken by surprise last year by a measles outbreak near San Diego. Since then, it’s cropped up in 17 other states. The CDC reports 288 cases in the U.S. this year alone. Offit moves quickly, establishing the blame early in the book. It sits, he says, squarely at the feet of parents that choose not to vaccinate their kids according to the CDC’s childhood vaccination schedule. He’s not alone in his opinion. Assistant Surgeon General Dr. Anne Shuchat did the same recently in congressional testimony.

“The current increase in measles cases is being driven by unvaccinated people, primarily U.S. residents, who got measles in other countries, brought the virus back to the United States and spread it to others in communities where many people are not vaccinated,” she noted in a recent statement.

Measles and other potent bugs don’t respect international borders. The Red River certainly poses no challenge for them. Episodes like this are the reason that Offit wrote the book. Measles found a foothold in Newark, Texas, because it found a lot of people who chose not to get vaccinated. Offit unsparingly holds the unvaccinated person fully responsible for the next person’s infection.

No vaccine is 100 percent effective. But nobody needs to bust out the scientific method to know that vaccines lower the chance of infection to nearly zero. Throughout most of the twentieth century, America watched with pride as its vaccines clobbered virus after virus. Smallpox, polio and other diseases that left trails of dead kids in their wakes lost their oomph. Today, says Offit, “Children are suffering and dying because some parents are more frightened by vaccines than by the diseases they prevent.”

If one person’s vaccination holds up, the next person’s vaccination doesn’t have to work at all. Herd immunity, as its called, doesn’t just prevent the testing of the next person’s vaccination. It’s critical for the protection of those who can’t be vaccinated for medical and health reasons. Compromised immune systems are the best example. Offit calls out the story of Stephanie Tatel and her two-year-old son that has leukemia. The disease–and its treatment–destroyed the natural effectiveness of his immune system. He couldn’t attend daycare or pre-school. Everywhere they searched, the Tatels found kids that hadn’t been vaccinated. They wouldn’t take the risk because they understood that all it takes is one.

Vaccinologists typically put the threshold for herd immunity at 80 percent. Eight out of ten individuals need to be vaccinated to stop disease from going epidemic. In the U.S., only nine out of ten children are vaccinated completely according to the Center for Disease Control’s recommended childhood vaccination schedule.

Offit meticulously addresses every concern a parent might have about vaccination. He tackles safety. He _really_ tackles religious objections. He addresses the folly of waiting to vaccinate. He takes on vaccine alternatives. As for the rest, it’s misinformation. He obliterates it. And he pulls in study after study to do it thoroughly.

In the end, Offit’s sober evaluation of the damage done to national vaccination programs by anti-vaxxers leads him to the conclusion that the only way to move forward is to rebuild America’s trust in the system. That, he rightly contends, represents a major sea change.

“If we are to get past the constant barrage of misinformation based on mistrust, we have to set aside our cynicism about those who test, license, recommend, produce, and promote vaccines. Only then will we survive this detour—a detour that has caused far too many children to suffer needlessly.”

Jun 062014

American Indian MuseumI’m writing about the AICCM again. I’d like to see it completed. In addition to being plain cool, it will be an important contribution to state and national culture, a physical extension of the ongoing conversation about Native American tribes. It’s exactly the sort of place I’d like to wind up on a Saturday with my kids.

The three-decade long project awaits $80M in funding. The state pledged $40M and the other half (maybe) will come from private donors. Tens of millions have been spent on it to date. The progress is impressive, but it’s pretty much just sitting there now, metal and concrete skin and bones near the intersection of I-35 and I-40.

The center almost secured the remaining funding during last year’s legislative session, but the Moore tornado (rightly) took precedence. It almost secured the funding during this year’s legislative session, too. But political shenanigans and tomfoolery got in the way.

The funding bill, which would have scooped the state’s share of $40M out of its Unclaimed Property Fund, passed the Senate with a comfortable margin. House Speaker Jeffrey Hickman refused to introduce the bill unless a supermajority of representatives showed support. The obvious: representatives demonstrate support by voting. The bill has Governor Mary Fallin’s support and aides tell me it would have pulled in roughly 65 votes—a clear majority—if it had hit the floor.

Something’s up. At the very least, Hickman owes Oklahomans a story. I sense hijinks. 6/12/14: Hickman explained in an interview that it’s common to keep “controversial” bills off the floor if they don’t enjoy majority support. My guess is that it saves time. The legislature is not a year-round endeavor, though it feels like that to a couple of my legislator friends. But this tactic also spares House members from taking positions on controversial issues.

There’s still a chance that the state will fund the AICCM by dipping into funds that don’t require legislative oversight. That makes many of the bill’s supporters uncomfortable, though, and rightly so. After everything’s said and done, this is a $200M project. That kind of dough should have legislative oversight. A dollar here, a dollar there, ya know.

It’s crunch time. Private donors will likely reverse their commitment to match the state’s funds if there’s no state action this month. That would double the cost of completion for the state. Oklahoma City’s a little tired of the wait, too. Under the terms of the deed, it can reclaim the land and use it for something else.

If executive action is what it takes to complete the museum, then that’s what it takes. Governor Fallin, do your thing. Write that check.

Jun 032014

doucheLast night I took some time out of my schedule to inform visitors to John Gibbons’ campaign page that:

John Gibbons has ass for character. Attacking a victim of domestic abuse for political gain is the apex of douchebaggery.

Like Tom Guild, he locked me out. This time, however, I feel that I legitimately earned it. And would do it again given the opportunity. All I did on Guild’s page was ask good questions.

Gibbons is running for the Oklahoma State Senate House in Oklahoma City’s 88. He’s made domestic abuse a pillar of his campaign, saying, “We need to do more to prevent domestic violence.” And some other stuff, mostly numbers. But for a guy concerned about domestic violence, he’s showing — at the least — incredible insensitivity for its victims. At the most, he’s being an asshole.

Here’s the backstory. His campaign manager, Michael Clark, has a history of domestic violence. He was slapped with a VPO after a particularly ugly incident. One of my favorite mags, The Red Dirt Report, discovered this and ran an expose. (A couple of days later, they also ran a story  about Gibbons’ outstanding misdemeanor warrant other, more legal troubles.)

After learning from The Red Dirt Report that his campaign manager surfs the sewer, Gibbons decided not to seek a new one, instead defending his manager and claiming the VPO was the result of a “he-said-she-said rendering of a jilted former girlfriend.” Which sounds an awful lot like the lame excuse frequently given to judges by abusers. Even worse, Gibbons names the victim in his tortured explanation.

This clown clearly misunderstands the fundamentals of domestic abuse. And holds the deeply mistaken belief that judges issue VPOs lightly. And simply doesn’t give a shit about the victims of domestic abuse, instead leveraging their suffering to rent time in the limelight. And is a douchebag.

On his Facebook page, Gibbons whines that the Red Dirt article is an “attempt to discredit him and, by association, my campaign.” SBJ, dude. Of course it’s an attempt to discredit you. In America we regularly discredit politicians that contribute to problems they claim they want to solve.

I’ll see you on Twitter. #johngibbons88. I’ll post the most thoughtful tweets in a few days. And I’ll do some homework on his opponents and recommend one.

Jun 012014

The fate of Common Core in Oklahoma sits squarely in the waiting room outside Governor Mary Fallin’s office. The legislature, pretty overwhelmingly, wants it gone. The reporting in The Enid Eagle notes that Common Core opponents still make the we-don’t-want-outsiders-in-the-mix argument. I consider that to be the weakest of the arguments against the Common Core standards.

Once, but I’m certain not for all, the standards were developed by states. They were adopted at the state level. Governor Fallin enthusiastically endorsed their adoption. Even Fallin’s frustrated with the recurrence of this shitty argument:

Fallin tried to placate those concerns in December by signing an executive order stating Oklahoma will be responsible for deciding how to implement the standards, but opposition continued to mount.

I’ve written about the danger of repealing the Common Core standards before replacement standards are developed. The repeal mandates replacements by 2016 and I think that’s not enough time. The Enid Eagle mentions that Oklahoma will return to the standards used before Common Core was adopted. First I’ve heard of that. But we know those standards suck. They’re the reason that Oklahoma so quickly and fervently adopted Common Core in the first place.

It makes for an interesting veto watch. Fallin’s party wants Common Core gone like measles. Fallin chairs the National Governor’s Association, the group that first introduced the standards in 2010 and sees them as the best vaccine available against shitty, inconsistent performance in the nation’s schools. The disease metaphor is an oversimplification, but it’s useful for framing the debate. As a rule, it’s a bad idea to ditch a vaccine until a better one’s available to take it’s place.

(Apropos of nothing, parents that don’t vaccinate their kids are certifiable shitheads putting the rest of our kids at risk.)

(Apropos of everything, Republicans aren’t listening to their base on this one. The Tulsa Regional Chamber is rightly pissed that legislators are ditching Common Core.)

Gubernatorial Democratic candidate, Joe Dorman, isn’t a fan of Common Core standards, but hasn’t adequately justified his stance. He makes a squishy reference to them on his web site, but careens off topic with calls to raise teachers’ salaries and invest in schools. It’s like watching a caveman tune a Lamborghini with a club. Bonk.

If the Common Core standards are to be unseated, somebody owes us a story. It should be a story about the recent and unexpected discovery that Common Core standards are horrible vis-a-vis standards in and of themselves, not a story about federal “outsiders” shoving their thumbs in the state’s educational pie.

For my part, I’d like to see Fallin add the repeal to her rapidly growing mountain of vetoes. And my 12-year-old reads at college level because his parents took the time to teach him. That’s a damn standard.

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