Wednesday, July 2, 2014

A "Real" Job

With my recent job change, some of my former co-workers commented as I left that I was getting “a real job.” They chose those words because I was moving from a job with an hourly wage and odd hours to a salaried job during normal business hours. I was transitioning from a part of society that works during holidays -- even during the wee hours of the morning -- to a part of society that is paid for holidays, without having to work.

Here in the United States, most people accept this classist division, because – well, what else can you do? If you’re on the lower end of the income scale, you can’t say you won’t work over the holiday or overnight if that’s your only way to pay rent and feed your family. And if you’re on the higher end of the income scale, it’s hard to protest over other people having to work weekends and holidays, when it means you can go to the store almost any time you want.

With the recent Supreme Court ruling allowing Hobby Lobby to refuse coverage of certain kinds of contraception, we see another blow to low-income workers and their families, except this time, it's anti-woman too! In order to maintain the religious freedom of a corporation, actual human beings now have less freedom when it comes to their own health. It's ridiculous, it's preposterous, and yet this decision somehow made sense to five of our nine Supreme Court justices. (Reminds me of when Texas closed all those abortion clinics "to protect women.")


A Hobby Lobby employee upset by this news could potentially quit and find a job elsewhere, but most are not going to be able to make that switch very quickly. Meanwhile, the lack of healthcare and the precedent remains. If this corporation can religiously object to A LAW mandating coverage of women's healthcare, what's to keep another corporation from religiously opposing goodness-knows-what other law? A friend summed it up this way: "It's now ok to be a dick -- [and break the law] -- as long as you believe in it!"


But that's not all. Earlier this week, the Supreme Court released another ruling, this time dealing a blow to public unions. The Supreme Court ruled that "public sector unions cannot collect “fair share” fees from non-union-members." While this ruling does not gut public sector unions entirely, it will make it very difficult for them to grow further.

So, to recap -- the United States Supreme Court just allowed a for-profit corporation to ignore a law mandating certain provisions for employees, while weakening the very organizations that stand up for employees' rights. On top of that, SCOTUS continued the political trend of reducing women's access to the reproductive healthcare that ultimately helps prevent abortions. Let that marinade for a while.

Now, a month into my new job, I mentioned to my supervisor that I would have to finish a certain assignment the following day, because I had a few out-of-office meetings that particular day. One of my colleagues overheard part of that conversation and thought I was going on vacation. When she giddily asked where I was going, I was mystified.

I explained that I had some meetings and then asked what she meant. "How could I go on vacation? I've only been working here a month. I don't have any vacation time yet." "Yeah, but maybe you had something already planned," she explained. "If you had a vacation or a wedding to attend, you might not get paid time off, but they couldn't stop you if you needed time off."

My mind was blown. If you need significant time off in retail or in the service industry, tough luck. You suck it up and go to work. You take the time off you're given, and if you need more, oh well. You find a way to get through it and show up to work, or you lose your job. And no one can afford to lose their jobs on that end of the income scale.  

In Brazil, even the lowest of low-wage workers are not expected to work late on Sundays and usually never on holidays -- and Brazil has a LOT of holidays. Not only that, but having a job -- even if you're just the guy who works for the guy who peddles sunglasses on the beach -- means that your employer is paying for your lunch. Any job that does not include a paid lunch is seen as a scam, according to a Brazilian friend of mine. 

When I explained that all of my internships for the United Nations and the US government had been completely unpaid, my Brazilian friends were again flabbergasted. "But that's illegal here!" The cherry on top of all of these unpaid US government and UN internships is that transitioning from student-intern to paid professional is nearly impossible. There are just too many layers of bureaucracy.


Before I started my current job, my work hours were typically 4 or 5pm until midnight or 1am. I worked five nights a week, I almost never had two days off in a row, and I definitely never got any paid lunches. The job wasn't ideal, but it was actually much better than many retail and service jobs out there. Besides, I needed an income while I waded through HR processes that were taking much longer than I had hoped

During one of my breaks on a long Sunday night shift, I got a text message from a friend in Brazil. We exchanged pleasantries, and then I told him that I had to get back to work. "This late?" he asked. He was flabbergasted, and it was only 10 or 11pm. 

My Brazilian friend didn't know that I had to work until 1am, and I didn't really want to explain my schedule at that moment. I assured him that I had to get back to work, but he didn't seem to believe me. "But it's Sunday!" he protested. "I know" was all I could reply. Here in the home of Wall Street and mega-capitalism, I had to work whatever schedule I was given on whatever days my bosses needed.

This map shows the rise of income inequality over time. Red means lower inequality, green means higher inequality
When I changed jobs, I gave some of my old colleagues my number, hoping we could still hang out. But they all have to work during my free time and vice versa. In fact, many of my old colleagues have multiple jobs and almost no free time at all. 

I made a leap from one class to another, and I'm proud. Sadly, in spite of "the American Dream," the US culture of individualism, capitalism, and over-consumption makes it hard to bridge the gap between people of significantly different income levels. But that is no reason to ignore hardship or accept inequality.

Those of us lucky enough to be doing fairly well in life are shortchanging ourselves if we think the financial struggle of so many Americans doesn't affect us. A friend said, "It's amazing to me that the GOP spends so much money and effort keeping people from voting, and so many volunteer to help simply by not showing up." It's time to show up: we all need to register to vote and commit to voting in the upcoming Midterm elections. There is much more at stake than being able to shop until midnight any day of the year. 

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Where Did I Go?

Hello, dear TrekkieWonk readers. How are you? How have you been? It’s been a while since I’ve posted, but like you, I haven’t been twiddling my thumbs. Life just got VERY busy.

In the last few weeks, I changed jobs, and in so doing, I flipped my entire schedule, commute, and even wardrobe upside down. My responsibilities are now almost exactly in line with my career trajectory, and every day is full of interest and challenge. I could not be more content with the situation. In fact, I'm feeling Beyoncé-level awesome about this job!


In this new job, I have the tools to productively work outside of business hours if needed. Being brand new to my position, I have a lot of research to do to bring me up to speed on the issues my coworkers and clients expect me to help resolve. Basically, I have homework to do on a regular basis, and that’s kept me from blogging at my usual pace.

That said, from this point on, my blogposts are not going to be as regular as they have been in previous months. When I returned from Brazil, I aimed for three posts a month. Now, I plan to devote my time to writing longer, more in-depth posts, regardless of how how many posts I can publish per month. Shorter “Saturday Top 3”-type posts will basically be eliminated.

For those who want to know what I’m up to on a more regular basis, you can always follow me on Twitter. I am already a fairly active tweeter, but now, any content that I would have shared in a shorter blogpost will also end up in my Twitter feed. Check it out HERE.

I have a few upcoming blogposts already in the works, and that’s exciting. At least one will be on Brasília (that place is way too fascinating), and one or more posts will most likely be on the US culture of (over)work and over-consumption. I wanted to publish another post on Street Art as well, but I had to get my last two smartphones replaced (a manufacturer’s defect), and in the process, I lost a bunch of photos that were destined for blog publication. Aah well. All in good time.


In the meantime, THE WORLD CUP officially begins tomorrow! I’m not excited about how much it’s costing the Brazilian public, but I am excited for athleticism at the international level. 

I will be sporting US colors for a little bit, and then I’ll switch over to Brazil colors. One of my new coworkers said that he couldn’t wait to see me come into work with my face completely painted in green and yellow. 

I’m not sure I would ever paint my face for a sporting event (especially at work), but as colors go, I actually really like green, yellow, and blue. It shouldn’t be that hard to coordinate Brazil-themed outfits, but I definitely wouldn’t mind wearing red, white, and blue longer than one game. We’ll see how it goes.


That’s it for now. Happy Wednesday, and much love to everyone. Thanks for the continued support, and thanks for reading!

Monday, May 12, 2014

Walking the Eixo Monumental in Brasília (a.k.a. How Far Away is the Next Monument?)

[BRASÍLIA] People who who live in Brasília or know Brasília well would typically tour the Eixo Monumental (Monumental Axis) by car. It's a decent distance from one end of the Axis to the other, and Brasília really is made for car travel. I, however, set about seeing the monuments of Brasília on foot. This meant that I spent a lot of time NOT looking at monuments, as I slowly but surely made my way along the Eixo. 



Right after I passed by the TV Tower and its accompanying artisanal fair, Brasília's National Stadium came into view. Constructed in 1974, The Mané Garrincha National Stadium holds just under 73,000 people.


I snapped a few photos, made a note of where I was on the map, and continued on. The National Stadium, though impressive, is just another example of how much public money the Brazilian government has put into athletics in the recent past. The final cost of this stadium's 2013 renovation was USD $900 million -- THREE times the original renovation budget of USD $300 million

I'm not against spending public money on stadiums, but the expenditures do very little to serve the greater population. If Brazilian (and American, for that matter) spending on public education and public healthcare were more in line with need, the outrageous cost of professional sporting facilities might not bother me so much. Brasília's Mané Garrincha National Stadium is currently the second most expensive soccer stadium in the WORLD.


I passed large buildings that looked like they could be used for conventions, large sporting events, or concerts.


Above: There was a concert going on inside this building. The main signage you see (on the left building) says, "Tickets."



The above building is the Federal District Audit Court. It is a part of Buriti Plaza, which encompasses a grassy plaza as well as a few government buildings. Below is the sign and map that accompanied this area. The English half of this sign was rather weirdly translated, so my re-translation is below.


"Inaugurated on August 25, 1969, Buriti Plaza was originally conceived by architect and urbanist, Lucio Costa, as part of the 1957 Pilot Plan of Brasília. At that time, this space was called the "Plaza of the Municipality." In 1959, at the request of engineer Israel Pinheiro, the plaza was renamed after the trees planted there, officially becoming Buriti Plaza.

Structures: 1. Buriti Palace; 2. Federal District Audit Court; 3. Federal District and Territories Justice Court; 4. District Attorney Main Office; 5. Indigenous Peoples Memorial.

Other Points of Interest: 6. Sculpture - Roman SheWolf; 7. Buriti (palm tree); 8. Cruls Mission Landmark." 


Above and below: I rather liked the plaza, but nobody else was there. Considering how hot it was, I could understand why people wouldn't flock to a plaza with almost zero trees (ironic, considering that the plaza is named after trees). Buriti Plaza was obviously a public space that was largely ignored, regardless of city planners' intent. 


After Buriti Plaza, I came upon a grouping of busts of people important to Brazil and Latin America. Shortly after seeing the first one, however, I realized that most of the statues/busts in this area were vandalized.


Above: "I didn't come to conquer, but to free peoples." - General José de San Martín, Grand Captain of the Army of the Andes. Liberator of Argentina, Chile, and Peru.


Above: "Miguel Hidalgo, Liberator of México. Born in 1753, started the war for independence in 1810, abolished slavery in November of 1810, died in 1811." - Brasília, November 12, 1998 



Above: The quote and name of this person is too difficult for me to read, but the graffiti says, "challenges everyone."



In the photo above, you see a monument in the foreground and a monument in the background that are completely bare of any explanation for their existence. There are two more stone pillars in the photo below, also lacking busts and the signage to explain why they were first installed. 


After a while, these memorials to famous men of Latin America reminded me more of grave stones and less of public art. Case in point:

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Saturday Top 3 - 5/10/14: Brazil to America

Happy Saturday, TrekkieWonk readers! On the bright side, it's the weekend, and summer has arrived in DC. On the not so bright side, it already feels swampy. 80ish degrees Fahrenheit with rain is just gross. Let's get to the Top 3:

1. [LANGUAGE LEARNING] A Brazilian friend of mine posted the following article to a social media site yesterday: Perfect Match: Brazilian Kids Learn English by Video Chatting With Lonely Elderly Americans. The headline was both heartwarming and painful at the same time. Elderly people in Latin America are not typically viewed as lonely, because family and community are culturally more important than they are in the States. Meanwhile, here in the States, we can come off rather cold in our individualism. Nevertheless, older people in all cultures tend to enjoy talking to younger people and sharing their stores, and this really is a perfect match.

Watch the video. It brings me to tears each time I watch it:


2. [POP CULTURE] While I was in Brazil, one of my favorite ways to stay connected to American news and pop culture was the Daily Show with Jon Stewart and the Colbert Report. Not too long ago, it was announced that Stephen Colbert of the Colbert Report will take over for David Letterman on the Late Show at the end of this year. While I am happy to see Mr. Colbert move on to the next step in his entertainment career, a lot of people have been wondering what will happen to the Colbert Report. Will Stephen's character quit? Die?

The fate of the Colbert character on the Report is still a mystery, but we do now know what will happen with the time slot and the show. Larry Wilmore, a regular correspondent on race issues on the Daily Show, will take over as host, and the show will become the “The Minority Report with Larry Wilmore.” (If you aren't familiar with Larry, click HERE for his most recent report on the Daily Show.) 


Wilmore, as a former Daily Show correspondent, should complement Stewart well, just as Colbert currently does. The selection of the African-American Wilmore is still profound, however, as he will break up the white-male homogeneity of basically all latenight TV in the States. Wilmore, who grew up around Los Angeles and lives in California said that he's beyond excited to have the chance to continue his relationships with Comedy Central and the brilliant Jon Stewart. He said, "I love the city of New York and promise to only wear my Laker T-shirts when I’m layering.”

3. [TIPPING] Having been back in the States almost five months now, I am almost completely readjusted to American life (though DC still finds ways to surprise me). I do still have one big point of anxiety, though, and it's tipping. Tipping in many other countries (including Brazil) is either not appropriate at all or involves only a tiny cash amount to show appreciation. In the United States, it is almost a requirement, as some jobs (restaurant servers in particular) are paid a menial amount with the assumption that customers will pay the rest of their salaries with tips. 

When I first got back to the States, I would go out of my way to avoid using some services just to avoid the panic of having to figure out if and/or how much to tip. Fortunately, I found this article: Everything You Don't Know About Tipping. If you live in the States, or if you plan to spend a significant amount of time here, I recommend reading the entire article (HERE). In the meantime, my summary and the following chart should summarize tipping in the USA pretty well:


Some good rules of thumb:

• Time matters. "Sometimes a bartender cracks open eight bottles of beer, which takes 12 seconds, and sometimes she makes eight multi-ingredient cocktails with olives and a whole umbrella scene on each, which takes four minutes, and those two orders should not be tipped equally, even though they might cost the same amount. Along the same lines—"

• Effort matters. "Food delivery guys are undertipped—they’re like a waiter except your table is on the other side of the city. $2 really isn’t a sufficient tip (and one delivery guy I talked to said 20% of people tip nothing)—$3 or $4 is much better. And when it’s storming outside? The delivery guys I talked to all said the tips don’t change in bad weather—that’s not logical."

Their salary matters. "It’s nice to give a coffee barista a tip, but you’re not a horrible person if you don’t because at least they’re getting paid without you. Waiters and bartenders, on the other hand, receive somewhere between $2 and $5/hour (usually closer to $2), and this part of their check usually goes entirely to taxes. Your tips are literally their only income. They also have to “tip out” the other staff, so when you tip a waiter you’re also tipping the busboy, bartender, and others. For these reasons, it’s never acceptable to tip under 15%, even if you hate the service. The way to handle terrible service is to complain to the manager like you would in a non-tipping situation—you’re not allowed to stiff on the tip and make them work for free."

Some additional pointers:
  • Tattoo artists expect $10-20 on a $100 job and $40-60 on a $400 job, but they get nothing from 30% of people.
  • Strippers not only usually receive no salary, they often receive a negative salary—i.e. they need to pay the club a fee in order to work there.
  • massage therapist expects a $15-20 tip and receives one 95% of the time—about half of a massage therapist’s income is tips.


The basic idea with the low/average/high tipping levels used in the chart above is that if you’re in the average range, you’re fine and forgotten. "If you’re in the low or high range, you’re noticed and remembered. And service workers have memories like elephants."

* * *

Thanks Tim Urban and Andrew Finn for your awesomely helpful blogpost on tipping!

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Touring Brasília: The TV Tower

Happy Wednesday, TrekkieWonk readers. It's another gray, rainy, cold day here in Washington, but at least it's Wednesday. It's been raining for three or four days straight now: it doesn't even feel like May will be here tomorrow. With no sunshine outside, I figured it's only right to share some sunshine from my October 2013 trip to Brasília. 



On the first day I was in Brasília, I took the metro from where I was staying into the downtown stop, right underneath Brasília's main bus terminal (#11 on the map above). From there, I planned to walk up and down the Monumental Axis, thinking I would be walking along something similar to the National Mall in Washington, DC. However, when I emerged from the underground metro station and started walking, this was the sight that greeted me:


I felt like I was walking along an expressway in Houston, Texas. The Monumental Axis was not pedestrian friendly, and it was much, MUCH bigger than the National Mall in Washington. On the right side of photo above, you can see the TV Tower poking into the sky in the distance. I had a long way to walk in the October sunshine of Brasília to reach the Tower.


As I walked, I noted the buildings around me and felt even more like I was in Texas. Giant hotels and corporate buildings along the Eixo Monumental echoed memories of buildings I had seen when visiting Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio. The lone pedestrian on the left side of the photo above reminded me of how weird it is to walk in cities which are designed almost exclusively for cars. 


I soon realized that I was lucky to have seen one other pedestrian. As I forged on in the afternoon heat, my only company whizzed by in cars and motorcycles. At least I was making progress towards the TV Tower.


When I approached the TV Tower, I realized that they were doing major construction around the base of the Tower, and the entire Tower was closed to tourists. I stopped to take a picture of myself with the dirty, empty sidewalks behind me. I felt like Indiana Jones on lone mission across the desert.

As I looked around, I saw that there was a large Artisanal Fair directly behind the tower. When I went down to the fair, I saw that the majority of the little kiosks were closed. I asked one of the open vendors about the fair, and she said that the kiosks are typically closed throughout the week. 

Since it was Friday, a few vendors were open for business, but everyone would be open on Saturday and Sunday. I made a mental note to return there to go shopping, and I ended up finding quite a few fun presents, including a squirrel puppet, jewelry and other decorative items involving polished stones, as well as some really well-designed t-shirts. I was quite pleased.


Having arrived at the hill where the TV Tower stood, I could see down the rest of the Eixo Monumental quite well. On the left side of the above photo, under the pink dots, are a grouping of hotels. Further down the Monumental Axis, under the yellow dots in the photos above and below, are Brazilian Ministerial or Governmental buildings. There are ten ministries on each side of the Axis, all in exactly identical buildings (it's creepy, but I'll get into that in another post). Even further down the Eixo Monumental, you can see the twin towers of the Brazilian Congress, situated under the red dot in the photos above and below.




The Television Tower itself didn't impress me much, but it did remind me a teeny, tiny bit of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France (above right). 

* * *

When I did my research later, I learned that the little hill where the TV Tower stands is indeed the highest point in Brasília. Inaugurated in 1967, the Television Tower stands 224 meters (735 ft) high. The observation deck is 75 meters (246 ft) high, and at 25 meters, there is a lower deck, which houses the National Museum of Gemstones. 

During my visit, I couldn't access the Tower at all, but if you like to see cities from above, the Brasília TV Tower is the place to go for an elevated view of Brasília, particularly down the Monumental Axis. Designed by Lúcio Costa, the Television Tower is one of a few important structures in Brasília that were NOT creations of Oscar Niemeyer. The Brasília Television Tower is also the third tallest structure in all of Brazil


Saturday, April 12, 2014

Saturday Top 3 - 4/12/14: Incarceration? Let it Go!

Happy Saturday, TrekkieWonk readers! Before we get into the Top 3, I wanted to quickly reference my last post, Hill Harper at the Department of State, in which I touched on the issue of mass incarceration. Shortly after I published that blog, I saw that Hank Green of the Vlog Brothers had also just posted a great video on the subject. Because mass incarceration in the United States is such a huge issue, I am sharing that video here:



1. [IN-FLIGHT ENTERTAINMENT] Before you get too depressed over mass incarceration, let me lift you up with the following video. In it, the cast of The Lion King - Australia busts into song as people board the flight they are all on. This makes me want to fly only when Broadway show casts are flying too! (Thanks Cameo!)



2. [CHERRY BLOSSOM FESTIVAL] 
DC's annual Cherry Blossom Festival is on now, and the weather is perfect for it. According to news sources, the Cherry Blossom trees hit their peak bloom two days ago, so I made sure to get to the National Mall and Tidal Basin yesterday.

For anyone new to the Cherry Blossom Festival, don't touch, and definitely DON'T PICK the cherry blossoms. Branch areas where cherry blossoms are picked will NEVER produce flowers again. Also, it's against the law.

Anyways, it was very crowded yesterday, and given how gorgeous it is outside now, I'm sure it will be even more crowded today and tomorrow. Get outside, but give yourself plenty of time to walk around. Happy National Cherry Blossom Festival!






3. [DISNEY] The only movie I've seen in a theater in at least six months is Frozen. Disney definitely went to the next level with Frozen, and I wholeheartedly supported its Oscar win. But even if you haven't seen the film, I'm sure you have heard of the song, "Let it go." If you love languages as much as I do, you're going to love this multilingual version of "Let it go." Enjoy the amazing voices of Elsa from all over the world. 

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Hill Harper at the Department of State

[HILL HARPER, DEPARTMENT OF STATE] On a crisp Thursday in February of this year, I headed to the Department of State for a lecture from a man named Hill Harper. I had no idea who he was beyond the information within the email invitation. I assumed he was mildly famous, because he had been a supporting actor in several movies, and he played one of the main characters on CSI: NY. The email warned that due to time constraints Mr. Harper would only be able to sign one book per guest. Apparently he was an author too. 

Hill Harper
I entered the Loy Henderson Auditorium at State with a good half hour before the program was scheduled to start. I had never been in this particular auditorium. It is one of the biggest at State, if not the biggest. As I chose my seat, I wondered if the room would fill up. Other lectures and presentations I had previously attended at State were held in smaller auditoriums, and during those events, only about half of the seats were actually used.

But, as time went by, the seats did fill. And they filled with faces much more pigmented than mine. When the auditorium was completely full, the faces in the seats were 99% African American from what I could tell. I was probably one of four or five non-black people in the room. Apparently, Mr. Harper had a following, but I was never exposed to it until that moment.

There were four or five other people sitting beside Mr. Harper at the front of the room, and almost all of them had something great to say about Mr. Harper as they took their turn at the microphone, explaining their stories and introducing Hill to the audience. I learned that Hill Harper somehow finds the time to be in movies, star on television, write books, give motivational presentations, run a foundation, and also regularly partner with the Department of State on all sorts of initiatives to diminish inequality, particularly racial inequality.

One of my former colleagues spoke about how he worked with State to speak to Brazilian youth as part of a program to promote racial equality and social inclusion. My former colleague was passionate about her words: these weren't lines she was merely reading. In fact, she looked ready to cry. This man, Hill Harper, had apparently made a big difference in a lot of lives.

Hill Harper on USA's crime drama "Covert Affairs."
The last person to speak before Hill Harper gave one of the longest and most thorough introductions I have ever heard in my life. Within it, I learned that Harper was a Midwesterner, born in Iowa City, Iowa. Harper graduated magna cum laude from Brown University in 1988; four years later, he earned a law degree AND a Master of Public Administration from Harvard University. WOW. Although Harper obtained a J.D. and an M.P.A., he chose instead to move to Los Angeles to pursue acting. 

In 2006, Harper wrote Letters to a Young Brother: MANifest Your Destiny, which which won two NAACP awards and was named a Best Book for Young Adults by the American Library Association in 2007. In 2008, Harper wrote Letters to a Young Sister: DeFINE Your Destiny, and in 2009, Hill Harper was awarded an honorary doctorate from Westfield State College.

Hill Harper on "CSI: NY".
In 2010, Harper published The Conversation: How (Black) Men and Women Can Build Loving, Trusting Relationships, and his fourth book, The Wealth Cure: Putting Money in Its Place, was published shortly thereafter in 2011. Harper's fifth and most recent book, Letters to an Incarcerated Brother: Encouragement, Hope, and Healing for Inmates and Their Loved Ones was published in 2013. In January of this year, Letters to an Incarcerated Brother was nominated for an NAACP Image Award for "Outstanding Literary Work - Non-Fiction."

I was amazed by all of this man's accomplishments, and the introduction wasn't even over! A woman seated next to me leaned over and whispered, that woman can introduce ME next time! Indeed, as the introduction continued, even Hill Harper spoke up, shouting, "You're taking my whole speech!" The crowd laughed with him.

Hill Harper and Kerry Washington in "For Colored Girls" (2010).
When Hill Harper stood, I saw that he was a lot shorter than most people who had spoken before him. And when I looked closer at his shoes, I saw that the heels on his dress shoes were a lot higher than normal. Another half an inch, and Prince would have stolen Harper's shoes for himself! Short men have a hard time in society, and I'm sure Hollywood puts even more pressure on men to fit a certain height standard. When I looked up Harper's height -- 5'7", or 1.7 meters -- I wasn't surprised that he went out of his way to appear a little taller.

Is Hill Harper in jail, or is the reader in jail?
  
But when Hill began to speak, he boomed with the authority of a baptist preacher. He commanded the entire auditorium: every eye was trained on him, every ear waiting for his next words. I figured that Harper probably gives this type of inspirational speech often, which he certainly does, but what I didn't know at the time was that Harper decided during the introduction not to give the speech he had originally planned. Instead, he chose to speak off-the-cuff based on a quote used in his extensive introduction that came from his book, Letters to an Incarcerated Brother.

He told the crowd that he wanted us to keep the image of a window and a mirror in the back of our minds. A mirror to reflect and a window to see where we wanted to go. I pulled out my notepad and began taking notes.

Harper went back to a key quote from the introduction and broke it into three parts. The quote talked about having passion, reason, and courage. He translated that to more modern language, saying that as public servants and diplomats, we need to have energy and positivity, critical thinking, and the heart to persevere when times are tough.

He reminded the audience that it's easier to stay quiet and passive than to stick up for the weak or to shake up the system in pursuit of what's right. When you do something necessary but not "normal", you might end up with some haters, he warned. But Harper smiled as he spoke and admitted that he actually loves haters, because that means he's upsetting the status quo. "I love haters, because that means I'm doing something!" "Come on," he called out, "HATE ON ME!"

He talked about how incarceration is a huge problem in the United States, and African Americans make up a disproportionate prison population compared to the population of the country. I nodded knowingly, as I had just explained these facts in late July (in Portuguese) during my last set of university guest lecturesThe following video gives a quick taste of the sad state of our criminal justice system: if you want to learn more beyond this blog, check out the website for the documentary, "Gideon's Army" HERE, or visit ACLU.org HERE.


Hill Harper explained that his two books, Letters to a Young Brother and Letters to a Young Sister, were regularly given as reading assignments to young people just entering the prison system. The officers in charge of these young people would have them do book reports on Harper's books, and Harper eventually wound up receiving tons of book reports in the mail and also learning a lot about incarcerated youth. Moved by their stories, Harper began to research incarceration in the United States more thoroughly.

"In our country, we lock up more people than Russia and China combined," said Hill. "Our system is broken. Over the past 30 years, we've gone from having 300,000 incarcerated people to over 2.4 million. And you can map that increase in incarceration over the past 30 years with the defunding of public schools." So instead of paying for schools, we, as tax-payers, are now paying for a bloated prison system.

With that in mind, Harper wanted to read to us the letter that ultimately led to the publication of Letters to an Incarcerated Brother. It was from a young black man named Brian. The grammar was poor, and the sentences ran on without end. But more than anything, there was a sense of extreme desperation.

Brian spoke about being jailed. In prison, Brian was given one of Hill Harper's books and was so moved that he wanted to reach out to Harper. Brian's only option was to write to the publisher and hope that the publisher would pass the letter onto Harper. Brian kept saying, "I don't know if you'll get this letter, or if you'll read this letter, but I hope this letter makes it to you."

Harper said that he gets a fair amount of fan mail, but when he read this letter, he immediately teared up: Harper knew that this letter was reflective of lots of other similar stories. "Consider how this letter is written," Harper told us. "It's barely at the third or fourth grade level." Then Harper asked us to consider how this teenager was imprisoned for basically failing society. "I don't think that he failed us so badly that he deserves prison. Does he deserve the life-long stigma of incarceration, because he made a mistake? What about his education? I think society failed him!"


Hill Harper did some research and eventually found Brian. Brian was in a huge prison, locked up for petty theft or minor drug possession (my notes are a bit fuzzy in this part). After speaking with Brian, Harper went to the warden and asked what educational and vocational opportunities might be available to Brian after his release.

"Brian won't be released for a long time," the warden warned. Harper didn't understand. "He's sixteen. He's not going to be released when he's eighteen?" "No, sir," the warden replied. "Brian was sentenced at fourteen, and he was tried as an adult. He has ten full years to serve."

Harper was shocked. I was shocked. The entire auditorium felt the injustice of our "justice" system.

Harper told us that it's easy to look at Brian's case and the immensity of the problems within the system and just give up. It's easy to walk away from problems in every area of public service and say, it's too big and too broken to even try to fix. But we don't need to think so big to make a difference. "Little victories are more powerful than big plans that never get realized," Hill Harper explained. And those little steps send a message that big change is possible too.


Harper then changed subjects to his time studying law at Harvard, and how one night, he decided to blow off some steam and play basketball. "Unfortunately, I was the only one at the courts," he said. "The library was full, but the gym was empty." The crowd chuckled.

After shooting around by himself some, Hill grew restless and was about to head home when he noticed another man coming into the gym. Harper was excited at the chance to play basketball with someone, and it didn't matter that the tall man coming in was wearing shorts that Harper thought were a little on the short side or knee-high socks that nobody wore anymore.

"You wanna play basketball?" Harper asked, excitedly. "Why else would I be in the gym?" came the even response. The crowd chuckled again. And so Hill Harper and Barack Obama met and became friends.


In our effort to make positive change, we need to consider the people we're trying to affect and reach out to them in their language, using what's familiar to them as teaching tools. Hill Harper said that when he speaks to youth, he uses rap and pop lyrics to convey lessons.

Harper elaborated: "Bow Wow has a song where he talks about being under 21 with a black card. Most young people know that having a black card means having a lot of money, but they don't understand how credit cards work or the reality of debt. That lyric becomes my teaching tool for making money mindfulness and care with credit relevant to them."

Harper returned to concept of the mirror and the window. When we wake up on a random weekday, looking in the mirror at our tired faces and crazy hair in the morning, it's easy to not have the energy, critical thinking, or the heart needed to make a difference in our jobs. But we have to decide to be the person who moves things forward instead of letting things fall backward.

"Every dollar we spend on early childhood education saves seven dollars, and one less person goes to prison." We cannot underestimate or devalue our public service work, even if seems boring or outside of the realm of real influence. Looking at that childhood education fact, approving expenditures in the right areas, even in small amounts, can mean saved lives.

We have the power to make our work positive. We have the power to change lives. Look through the window: what do we want for ourselves, what do we want for the future? 

Hill Harper nodded his head to signal he was done speaking and stepped away from the podium. The crowd erupted with a standing ovation. Many, including me, were wiping away tears. Harper took a couple questions, and then a long line formed for book signings.



I am grateful that I was invited to hear Hill Harper speak. Racial inequality and mass incarceration are HUGE issues that need way more attention, an I am glad that this articulate man has made these issues his priority. 

I am also grateful that I, as a white person, now know of Harper. Racism and incarceration are not "black" issues any more than rape or gender-based violence are "women's" issues. These are societal issues that all of us have to commit to ending. 

This blog post is my effort to amplify Hill Harper's message. Society needs white people to be aware and be involved in the effort to end racial inequality. No more looking on blankly. As Harper said, little actions taken in pursuit of a grander goal can make a big difference.