G.R.O.W. towards your greatness! (a poem)

They say greatness is a choice, but what have you chosen?

You’ve been frozen in time and broken in mind

For too long the same song playing in your head

Living in breath but better off dead

But who said you didn’t have the power?

Who said this is not your hour?

You’ve been showered with a steady stream of words that kill your dreams

But it seems that since you’re still living that someone done lied to you

Tried to deny you of your own potential inside you

If you’d just decide to let no one deride you

Don’t even let them get beside you as you unearth the new you

Stop listening to naysayers and decide to do you

No more pity parties, sobbing and boohoos

If no one told you you’re great then let me be the first to

If you have the thirst to drink from faith’s fountain

You’ll develop the might to move mountains

We move tons of dirt to find an ounce of gold

So I ask you to move tons of hurt and find just one ounce of your soul

You’ll be on the path to control your own destiny

Getting out of your own passenger seat and driving your own car

Reaching for the moon but maybe landing among the stars

You have greatness inside you but you must choose to be great

Blaze a path of excellence, leave fear in your wake

All you need is already inside you

Just believe in yourself

G.R.O.W. towards your greatness and discover your true wealth!

We need YOUR leadership now more than ever!

              We are experiencing an extreme crisis of leadership on the part of our politicians. My hope is that all of you who are leaders will realize that we need your skills now more than ever. Our politicians are failing us by the day. Whenever we turn on the news, we see bickering people choosing to become bitter and not better. Stirring up anger and hatred among your base of supporters is not leadership. Never apologizing for mistakes you make is not leadership. Demonstrating an inability to take higher ground when you believe you have been insulted is not leadership. The question is very simple: are you going to be a leader who works to find common ground or a leader who seeks to destroy others on your way to the top? By the way, you should know that only one of these scenarios is actual leadership.

              As President Obama once said, our focus should not be griping over how imperfect our nation is, but rather what it means every day to work on perfecting it. In every corner of influence that you occupy, you have the ability to strike up courageous conversations on pressing issues we face. You have an opportunity each day to challenge bigotry, ignorance, and hate either vocally or even silently by choosing to not be present when ignorance is caught within your earshot. Don’t be a bystander, be an UPstander now and always. This country has only made progress when we all (or most of us) realize that we have more things in common than we do that separate us as human beings. Now is the time find that commonality among us all if we truly believe in uniting this country.

Beyoncé the latest example of women held to a higher standard than men

It has been more than a week since Super Bowl 50 and the world is still taking about Beyoncé’s performance, which was captivating at best, or a slap in the face to the family friendly event at worst. From The Jacksons to former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, the performance either made you proud, angry, or somewhere in between. As some prepare to boycott the NFL or Beyoncé in anger, it seems that there is one point that we are missing—Beyoncé was not the only performer on stage, but she was the only woman. The critique she is receiving is yet another double standard in the way women are treated harshly for their actions while men get a pass.

Starting with Beyoncé, I find it shameful that few people are mentioning the fact that Coldplay and Bruno Mars also performed. While many on social media jokingly thanked Coldplay for opening up for Beyoncé and Bruno Mars, the fact remains that it was Coldplay’s performance and they added Beyoncé. Since they clearly rehearsed for the performance, Chris Martin knew exactly what Beyoncé was going to do as it relates to her Black Panther attire. Should he not be protested as well? What about Bruno Mars? Was he not also dressed in the traditional black leather attire of the Black Panthers? I started to wonder how common situations like this occur and I instantly harkened back to Super Bowl 38. 

At the end of the halftime show of Super Bowl 38, superstar singer Justin Timberlake, ripped off part of Janet Jackson’s costume and exposed her right nipple. This event, commonly referred to as the “wardrobe malfunction” or “nipplegate” led to Janet Jackson’s music being blacklisted by Viacom, CBS, MTV, Infinity Broadcasting, and Clear Channel. Justin Timberlake received no such penalty. I then found myself asking—are the Beyoncé and Janet Jackson examples both sexist and racist? Miley Cyrus reminded us that it is not always about race.

In 2013, Miley Cyrus performed her hit song “We Can’t Stop” at the Video Music Awards. She invited R&B crooner Robin Thicke out to sing his new hit song “Blurred Lines.” During his song, Miley Cyrus bent over and “twerked” (grinding her behind against his groin region) while the crowd raucously applauded. Many on social media and in the press, however, did not applaud. Miley was roundly criticized for her raunchy performance and Robin Thicke got a pass, even though Cyrus claims that the move was Thicke’s idea, they did rehearse it, and he wanted her to look “as naked as possible” to reflect the women in his video. None of that mattered though. America sided with a then 36-year old married man who was somehow seduced by a teenage girl. America has a problem.

While the three events written about here represent mainstream pop culture, we can see every day how in 2016, men are still held to a lower standard than women. It is evidenced in Secretary Clinton being condemned for “yelling” though I’ve heard every male candidate in this election yell at some point with the exception of Dr. Ben Carson. It is evidenced in the continued praise heaped over the great American dance icon Fred Astaire while few struggle to remember the name of his partner Ginger Rogers, who did everything Astaire did but backwards and wearing heels, as President Obama noted. When will we wake up?

So as the protests against Beyoncé or the #beycott continue, Coldplay and Bruno Mars play on with no repercussions. We shame Beyoncé but do not shame an America for not knowing that the bay area where the NFL celebrated its 50th Super Bowl is the same place where the Black Panthers also started 50 years ago. We do not shame America for the sweeps of homeless populations living around the San Francisco 49ers stadium while those inside the Super Bowl ate hot dogs with gold flake toppings, celebrating American excess at its best. No. At the end of the day, we condemn the sole female performer who used her opportunity to shed light on a moment in American history that too many of us are either unwilling or incapable of studying and understanding and that is the real affront to American values.

Do you have the things money CAN’T buy?

Let’s talk about that money! That’s right: mula, dinero, feza, duckets, loot, greenbacks, chedda, whateva! As Rita Davenport said, money isn’t the most important thing, but it’s right there next to oxygen on the “gotta have it” scale. and as the great philosopher Yeezus said, “Having money isn’t everything. Not having it is.” OK this may be true and it’s nice to have the things money can buy but what about the things money can’t buy? Ziglar reminded us of this when he said money can buy you a house, but it can’t buy you a home. It can buy you a mate, but it can buy you a friend. It can buy you a bed, but it can’t buy you a good night’s sleep. 

Are you so caught up in the riches you don’t (and may never) have that you are forgetting about the priceless fortune right in front of you? Your spouse? Your children? Your family members? Your business? Your job? Your global perspective? All of these things are more important than money and so remember in pursuit of those added zeros in your bank account, don’t forget to celebrate the things that money can’t buy…like self love!

When Boston Latin School Students Wore White Sheets In Protest…Against Me

I entered my senior year at Boston Latin School (BLS) with a spirit of triumph. I felt like I finally made it. In earnest, I was on the extended plan, having repeated my seventh grade year. BLS was every bit the challenge I was told it would be by then Headmaster Michael Contompasis who said on our first day of school: “Look to your left, look to your right. By graduation time, many of you won’t be here.” I spent most of my years at BLS barely passing most classes. In fact, the end of my sophomore year was the first summer that I did not have to attend summer school. I came back my junior and senior year focused and ready to be a leader at BLS…and that’s when my real education started.

Junior year was when I really began to question my role and experiences being black at BLS. I realized how the complexion of my classes got lighter the more advanced courses I enrolled in such as English Honors. I recalled times where I was disciplined more harshly than white students for the same offenses—an issue plaguing many school districts today. I started to realize that in my entire 7-year experience at BLS, I read one book by a black author—ironically Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. I remembered how I would only see pictures of black leaders on the wall during Black History Month. The more frustrated I became with my experiences, the more opportunities I sought to be a leader. By my senior year, I was president of the Afrikan Kulture Society, and I ran for senior class president and student council president. My experience running for senior class president was my final wake up call.

On election day, I entered school and found a great deal of frustration on the part of many black students. I was told that several white students wore white sheets on their heads to protest my candidacy. Many students skipped class that morning to go to the office in protest. I, maybe out of fearlessness or stupidity, went about my day. I had not experienced physical bullying at BLS since the 7th grade and by my senior year, I felt very comfortable defending myself if I needed to. What I remember more about that day than seeing students crying was the inaction on the part of my teachers and administration. As Dr. King said, at the end of the day, we’ll remember the silences of our friends than the words of our enemies. In fact, it was not until maybe second period where one of our European teachers, Mr. Berger, told students to take their hoods off when we they showed up for our French class. I remember asking myself how these students made it through part of the day with those sheets on and today, I ask myself why they were never disciplined and this is at the heart of what I see with the #blackatbls controversy today.

My experiences at BLS are why I have become a diversity educator today, working with schools nationwide including Boston Public Schools on how to create more culturally competent schools. While I am not directly involved in the current issue at BLS, I know what it feels like to be marginalized there. But even with my challenges at BLS, my time there was not all doom and gloom. I lost the senior class president race but won the student council presidency. The senior class presidential team was multiracial, and I definitely graduated BLS college-ready so I can speak to BLS’ great potential to create strong students. I also had some great teachers who were instrumental to my development. I just can’t help but think, however, of all of the other students like me who never felt truly welcomed at BLS and either left the school or just became less engaged.

In full disclosure, I have not stepped foot in BLS in several years and I do not know the current headmaster Dr. Lynne Mooney Teta so I cannot comment on what the school has or has not done recently to promote respect for diversity. What I do know is that I represent many black alumni who, rightly or wrongly, have not fully engaged BLS at the level we should have beyond graduation because we felt as though the school did not care much for us, so like many graduates of color from many majority white high schools, colleges and universities, we left and never looked back. My hope is that the #blackatbls moment can serve as an opportunity for all of us in the BLS community past and present to deepen our commitment to respecting diverse cultures and having courageous conversations so that there will never be a need for a #blackatbls moment in the first place.

 

 

Reflect positively on the end of another year

The end of the year is upon us and what do you know? You’re still here. Despite all of the many tragedies we see in the world today, you still woke up today, blessed to breathe a new day. Have you ever stopped to really ponder what that means? What better time than now to do just that. Even though your day may not be going great, are you still grate-ful?

I am learning more and more how to appreciate each day, each moment with my family, and each moment with you. This holiday season, I really suggest you make an effort to do the same because each year that passes is one you will never see again. Oprah once said that when her time is done on earth she wants to look down and say “I knocked that earth thing out!” You can’t accomplish that if you do not focus on being present and enjoying each moment while you have it to enjoy. Don’t let anyone take your peace and potential happiness away…not even YOU! Happy holidays to you and yours!

How student leaders can respond to controversial topics in the news

It is beyond an understatement to say that we are living in very dangerous times. It seems as though every time we turn on the television, there is another story on some hot button issue from mass shootings to police/civilian interactions. From racism, anti-Semitism, and islamophobia, to immigration, education, and terrorism, it is very easy to feel overwhelmed by the challenges we face today. In my work as a youth speaker and an UPstander, I encounter leaders like you every single day who may not be sure on how to respond to these challenges from a leadership perspective.

It is easy for any of your peers who are not leaders to say whatever is on their mind with no concern for the ramifications but as a leader, you took an oath to work towards bringing people together, be it in your school community or beyond, depending on the issue. But how can you honestly speak about an issue like #blacklivesmatter or a tragic mass shooting if it is far removed from your daily experience? Here are 3 steps you can take to become a more effective leader on hot button issues.

  1. Educate yourself on the issue

We live in the information age. There is simply no excuse to not be able to educate yourself on an issue. The challenge, however is whether you will diversify your sources of information. For example, if you are reading about the tragic shootings in San Bernardino or the killing of Laquan McDonald in Chicago, you should not only consult one media source, as most people do. Remember, you are a leader! Don’t only watch CNN, MSNBC, or FOX for example. Watch all three plus additional sources like NPR and other reputable websites and journals that can educate you. Require that your team do the same thing and then make an informed decision on how to move forward.

  1. Survey your community

It is very easy to not address an issue because you do not believe it affects you directly but chances are that there is someone in your community that is affected. Is the Muslim student in your school being looked at differently after the San Bernardino killings? Is the police officer in your school or neighborhood being looked at more suspiciously after videos that surface showing police officers on the other side of the country shooting unarmed individuals? Is the Spanish speaking student more on edge over the immigration debate? You have to survey your community to find out who is feeling isolated and engage them. One of the mistakes I made as a high school student council leader was not listening as often as I should have to the people who did not speak up. Remember, silence can speak just as loudly as the loudest megaphone.

  1. Actively reach out to the affected community

The word “active” is extremely important here. Your entire school community needs to see that you are making efforts to be an inclusive community. Yes it’s cliché but you have to lead by example. Be the person to sit at a different table in the cafeteria, which is still one of the most segregated area in many schools today. Create speakout events where opinions can be expressed or have a unity rally. There is no shortage of things you can do once you are committed to be an UPstander and not a bystander. Once people know that they are still accepted in the community they share with you, they may be more likely to open up to you and also less likely to resort to some form of negative behavior due to the isolation or mistrust they may be experiencing.

Leadership is an easy job if you only preach to your choir but here is the problem, preaching to the choir is not leadership. It’s preaching. You ran for office and though you were not elected by everyone, you noe represent everyone. Take that responsibility seriously. Get educated on the issues of the day and use your knowledge to build your community, not keep it divided. That is the sign of a true leader!

Daddy, why did you record the police?

Weekend mornings in my house are family time. Our 2 daughters, ages 9 & 7, run around making breakfast themselves or helping my wife and I with meal preparation, while my 1-year old son looks for new ways to climb up on (or eat) anything in sight. Though our morning engagements can sometimes be brief, I always look forward to talking about our week or what’s coming up for all of us. The comfort of one Sunday morning was shaken, however, when my 7-year old walked up to me and said “Daddy, why did you record the police?” Everyone else continued like it was business as usual but my heart sank as I tried not to look like my brief moment of bliss had not just been shattered by my daughter who just happened to see video on our iPhone Photo Stream that I forgot to delete.

Rewind. It was a hot Monday afternoon. I went down to Virginia Beach to meet with a Grammy Award-winning music producer about possible collaborations. In addition to my work as an educator, I am also a musician with seven albums to go along with my seven books. I love making music and so I was looking forward to this meeting. The session was fabulous and since I live in Washington, DC, I wanted to leave as soon as our meeting finished so I could avoid as much traffic as possible on this three hour drive to get home in time to tuck my kids in to bed and tell them one of my legendary freestyle bedtime stories. I filled up on gas and hit the road and though my tank was full, the air in my lungs was punctured when a police officer appeared on the right rear side of my vehicle. I told myself what I always tell myself as a coping mechanism when police are near me: “It’s all good O. They’re not gonna pull you over. Just relax man and stop being so paranoid. You’ve done nothing wrong and you have nothing to worry about.” I repeated it a second time as he pulled behind me. I said it a third time as his sirens illuminated, and a fourth time when I was pulled over.

As the officer went into his routine before he emerged from his vehicle, I went through my black routine. This could be a routine for all races, I don’t know. I just know that in “the hood”, learning what to do when we encounter the police is probably a more comfortable conversation for parents to have with their children than the birds & the bees. Sing along if you know the song:

1. Windows down
2. Pull out license and registration
3. Place all items on the dashboard
4. Hands on the steering wheel
5. SMILE!!!

Recent events of encounters gone tragically wrong with the police have led many in my community to add another verse to the song:

6. Pull out your phone (always keep it charging in the car for situations like this)
7. Send a message to someone to let him or her know that you are recording so that if your phone is retrieved after you’re killed and there is no video there, something shady happened to it
8. Repeat step #5

Why was it necessary for me to record my interaction with the police? The answer is simple: I can’t trust American society to paint a balanced picture of who I was in case the officer kills me. If I was a violent individual who shot and killed the officer, the media would be ripe with stories of the heroics of the officer…and that’s how it should be. I look at anyone who goes into law enforcement as a hero first and foremost. If however, I was the one killed and the story happened to make the news, I have learned that some in the media would attempt to cover what objectively happened while most will pontificate over why I deserved to be killed. Someone will tell viewers to just look at my size and how the officer should have been afraid. I’m 5’10” and weigh less than 190 pounds. Someone else will find out that I took some martial arts classes at some point and remind them that the officer had to defend himself (as if the officer would have known that). Someone else would find out that I’m also a rapper and blame hip-hop without actually listening to my own curse-free motivational lyrics such as “Only you have your dreams they were given to you/to bring it out to the world don’t let them die with you.” Someone else will post a picture of me with my locks and turn me into some weed-smoking addict who was aggressive though I’ve never smoked a day in my life. Someone else will blame the absence of black fathers for my death, without researching the fact that I was raised by both my parents who have 9 academic degrees including 2 PhDs from Harvard. It must be my dad’s fault I was shot because (say it with me now) “72% of black families don’t have a father in the home” (though the CDC reports that black men actually spend more time with their children than other groups).

Am I being paranoid here? I don’t know. What I do know is that Trayvon Martin was criminalized and murdered while walking in his own neighborhood and some in the media posted photos of someone twice his age and tattooed (rapper, The Game) to help justify why he posed a threat to the man who chased him down and shot him. What if he turned on his video camera instead of talking on the phone before he encountered George Zimmerman? What if Danroy Henry had his own dashcam when a police officer jumped on to his car and fired incessantly into his vehicle? What if Sean Bell or his friends had hit record the night they left his bachelor party? What if? Well, the fact is that in the eyes of mainstream America, it would not have made much of a difference. We have video of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Ezekiel Ford, Walter Scott, and others being killed unnecessarily by police and they are still blamed for their own murders. If Eric Garner was not overweight he would have survived right? If 12-year old Tamir Rice never had a toy gun he would not have been shot less than three seconds upon arrival of the police right? If John Crawford didn’t pick up a gun that was not real in a Walmart he would still be here right? If Walter Scott did not run from the police (or owe child support) he would not have been shot at 8 times in the back right? And even though Sandra Bland was not killed in the dashcam video in Texas, if she would have just kept her mouth shut she would still be alive right? I have learned my lesson. Read more

Thank you Dan Poynter

I remember wanting to publish my first book back in 2004. I called publishers. Some never called back and some said they did not publish poetry. I saw all the beautiful books in Barnes & Noble and Borders (remember Borders?) and desperately wanted to have my name on those shelves. I became increasingly frustrated until I learned of a book entitled The Self Publishing Manual by Dan Poynter. I consumed every letter of the book, excited by the revelation that I could actually publish myself. Eleven years and eight books later,  the influence of Dan still hovers over me and even more so after his recent passing.

After I published my first book, From the Limbs of my Poetree, I saw Dan Poynter as a hero. He was a larger-than-life figure who helped me accomplish my dream. I joined the Publishers Marketing Association (now the Independent Book Publishers Association) and went to one of their conferences to learn more about the self-publishing world. I was talking to fellow writers after a breakout session when in walks Dan Poynter himself with that charismatic smile and presence of a man who was so humble even though he knew he helped thousands of people if not more realize their dreams. It took me about a day at the conference to muster up the courage to go speak to him and thank him for inspiring me. As he probably did with everyone he met that weekend, he gave me a blue ribbon that said “celebrity author.” It still hangs up on my wall today.

Several years after that conference I joined the National Speakers Association and met Dan Poynter again at every conference I attended in America as well as abroad. He was always so kind to me. He responded to emails I sent seeking advice and even spent time on the phone with me giving me advice that I still follow. This man who inspired me to publish my first book became a mentor to me, something I could have never imagined.

I do not know how else to honor Dan Poynter. The best I can do is to keep doing what I am doing, which is tell future authors that they need to read his book before they make any decisions on what they do going forward. Les Brown said that we learn, we earn, and we pass on. I am just happy that I knew such a great man who gave me so much to pass on. Rest in peace Dan. Rest in peace.

Finishing what you start

Today I want to talk about completion. Les Brown said that in order to become someone you have never been, you have to be willing to do things you have never done. Completing my dissertation was a challenge unlike nothing else I have ever done and I have emerged from it a stronger person. The question is: what have YOU not completed? What vision are you allowing to wither away because of fear of failure, fear of success, lack of financial or emotional support, etc.?

It took me 10 years to complete my PhD. I had no children when I started and now I have 3. I could have used each child as an excuse to not continue but I let them inspire me to push on. Too many times, I hear people say “Life happened” as a reason that they did not pursue a dream. Don’t let that be you. Just because you have to go a different path than others does not mean you should stop driving. No. Find detours in the road, stop for gas, sleep at the hotel. Do whatever you have to do but don’t stop driving until you reach your destination and when you get there, find somewhere else to go! You’re not dust. You weren’t put on this earth to settle. You are here to find your calling and pursue it all costs and let no one stop you, especially YOU!