Tuesday, December 24, 2013


Recent Conversation with a 13-year old who is coming my hair for 15 minutes


  • edge up (verb) - to cut the hair with electric clippers in order to make an even hair line on the forehead, temples, and neck
  • edge up (noun) - the even (or uneven) hair line created when using electric clippers to smoothen the hair line on the forehead, temples, and neck


“Why did you get that edge-up?”

“What edge-up?”

(pointing to my hair) “That edge-up.”


“Umm, I don’t think I edged it up. It’s just hair recession.”

“But why did you edge up your hair like that?”

“I didn’t edge up my hair.”

“Yes, you did, you have an M edge up.” (pointing to my forehead)

“My hair is not edged up like an M. It’s hair recession.”

“Well, why would you edge it up like that?”

“It does it naturally. The hair line starts to recede. No one edged it up like that.”

“I wouldn’t do that.”

(thinking he doesn’t know the word recede) “I didn’t do that! It’s natural.”

“You should get a different edge up. Who is your barber?”

“Its natural man! The hair just stops growing. It just stops growing, man!”

“Oh, you mean you’re bald?”


“Let’s go get some breakfast.”


Hello, and Happy Kwanzaa, Joyful Christmas, Merry Hanukkah, and Peaceful New Year to you!

Not much has gone on with me since I last wrote. I was able to take a few peaceful trips. I’m trying to be and live healthier and part of that is spending time in nature most days. So I was blessed to have the opportunity to travel to East Africa and visit my flatmate in Tanzania and Kenya. I was working with her to find an NGO with which she could volunteer and do legal work. She found one in Tanzania doing legal work on behalf of widows and women. I also helped her with housing there. So I went down to check it out. It’s nice to go to Tanzania and not do the touristy thing like most people do. They arrive, climb Mount Kilimanjaro, go to Zanzibar, and then do a safari in the Serengeti. I was able to hang out with local people, go into town, sit on war tribunals (a parallel court system to Western government courts), visit farm land over which there were disputes, travel on lakes, hike, visit cave and rock paintings, and laugh. I didn’t climb Kilimanjaro (most Kenyans and Tanzanians have not) or go to Zanzibar, but I did go on a safari for the first time in my life, as Alice really wanted to do so. It can actually be an amazing experience. I did one night in the Ngorongoro Crater and a 3 day trip in the Maasai Mara (northern part of the Serengeti in Kenya). Sleeping in a tent and hearing the laughing hyenas, the hooting baboons, and the growling lions as if they were right next to you was amazing. I spent time with Maasai villagers and warriors, danced with them, and laughed with them. It was really beautiful.

Sadly, a trip to Egypt was canceled. An intern of mine was getting married and invited me informally before she had a date. Later when she had chosen a date, she thought those had formally invited me and didn’t. She didn’t want to push because foreigners were scared to go to Egypt due to the turmoil. I was waiting for the formal invite and more information but I didn’t want to push because I thought she had too many people to deal with. So we missed each other sadly. It has been wedding season though. A Texas, South Africa, and Namibia wedding in November (I didn’t go and wasn’t invited to all). A Portland, Oregon wedding and a Yosemite wedding in September. And just wonderful time to travel through Oregon and northern California and view nature. Egypt was in August. And October I had a break. In November I took a short visit to Oxford to attend a talk by Bianca in their Social Policy and Intervention department. I just came back from a wedding in the States in Dallas and that was mind-blowing. Forget about properly planning the reception. The wedding ceremony itself was overflowing with people standing in the back of the church and people outside in the hallway. And this was with the edict that kids were not allowed at the wedding. Wow.

Of course, I visit students when I can and still hold onto the American tradition of Thanksgiving wherever I am, if I am able to do so. I’ve started work again on a school reunion though it’s been harder this time to rally people. Thankfully, one wedding proved surprisingly successful in recruiting volunteers, so it will turn out well in the end.

In September, I traveled to South Africa to speak at a conference of and for teachers. I’ve started helping teachers to reap the benefits of educational technology in low-resource settings. It’s hard work, but good work. I’m going to go do disaster response work in the Philippines soon. I’m always happy to do meaningful work like that, especially in the area of disaster risk reduction (DRR) or disaster preparedness. I’ve taken a break from some of my online courses due to focus on other things. I’m reading more now including fiction, and I’m loving it. If any of you wants to do a small book club, I’m always down and interested. I still try to cook meals and still learning instruments (like the accordion and ukelele) as well as counseling, working with ex-offenders, teaching, etc. There’s a choir that is interested in me, so they may actually find time to let me sing with them in a concert (you can always go to rehearsals but must audition to sing in a concert, but only when they need more of your voice part). I’m just getting adjusted to life in a new city and searching for locations to run a Sparks club. My last location fell through. In the meantime, I was cast as a zombie extra in an independent film but had to bow out due to a crazy weekend. But the idea was fun, and I look forward to the next independent film since I usually do stage work. In the meantime, I’m just hanging out with friends (Ekaaro, ekaasong) and even crazier friends (pigeon english), attending get-togethers and Christmas parties, taking cooking classes, and making my first double-layer cake.

I hope the latter half of the year has been meaningful to you, regardless of whether circumstances have been favorable, that in each situation whether bad or good, you have had the opportunity to respond well. I hope you responded well, displayed resilience and have had community around you to help you do that. I hope you are able to form and foment that even more so this coming year and in the holiday season. Happy Holidays.


As always there are corrections, rebuttals, and general responses submitted to me when I write and send an update. So I wanted to respond to those related to the last time. They all deal with the section on capitalism. I’ll paste them here and then respond to them one by one.

"I especially enjoyed your section on capitalism, since I study capitalism directly and indirectly in my work. I just read David Harvey's The Enigma of Capital: And the Crises of Capitalism, which I really enjoyed. A couple random thoughts and tidbits I've been learning that you may
already know and have taken into account (but if not, you might find interesting):

Market economy is not synonymous with capitalism- one of my classmates said this to me while we were debating whether economic activity builds or can build 'civil society' in our Civil Society and the State class.  Being around hippy-anarchist types all the time had influenced me to forget to differentiate between the two, and his comment (which in hindsight seems underwhelming to me) actually rendered me speechless for a moment (rare occasion).

This is true. Sometimes I use short-hand and don’t always write out what I mean. I was specifically referring to free-market capitalism. I wasn’t talking about a market, which does not have to be free or capitalist, nor a free market which does not have to be capitalist. I was specifically referring to free-market capitalism. So when I wrote a blog about whether the free market corrodes human character, I made sure to explicitly say free market capitalism or at least the free market as we see it today in its U.S. version. To summarize, I was specifically looking at markets that were free and specifically free markets that incorporate the accumulation of wealth and increasing financialization, specifically using the accumulation of wealth to build up a greater accumulation of wealth such that the means and the end and the motivation are all one.

3% Growth- I forget Harvey's explanation of why capital likes to grow at at least 3% in particular, but one of his main arguments about/observations of capitalism is not that it is a market economy, but that it it is a logic that perpetually invests and reinvests money to make more money (and then reinvest). The logic is to invest where one speculates there will be greater return ad infinitum, which means growth of profit/increasing returns is intractably embedded in the logic of capital. That is why I think it is problematic (as you mentioned) to try to add adjectives in front of capitalism. This does seem to be a fundamental, definitional aspect of capitalism, whereas social justice or environmental sustainability can only ever be addenda.

Exactly, you’re touching on the root of the problem with the various “adjectival forms” of capitalism. If the problem with capitalism today is something that is not fundamental, then it’s easy to change that part or branch of capitalism and give it a new name like neo-capitalism. But if the problems we experience with capitalism as a society are fundamental to what capitalism is or how we understand and practice it today (see next paragraph), then we need to look for radical changes. I use the term radical purposefully. Etymologically, radical means dealing with the root or related to the root. It doesn’t necessarily mean drastic or markedly unorthodox. What we have to decide, as a people, is if the problems we experience with capitalism are fundamental or not. If they are, we need a response that deals with capitalism at its root. Otherwise, we will continue to generate the same problems while dealing with the symptoms.

It’s important to emphasize that the definitions, understanding, and practice of capitalism has not been constant in its history. It has definitely changed throughout time. So I’m only dealing with it in its current version, today, specifically in the U.S. context, though there are similar contexts in other parts of the world.

The last point is that, today, a mechanism in which speculators invest where there is greatest return might require that we qualify “return.” Specifically, many speculators try to invest where there is greatest long-term return which is completely different than investing where there is greatest return, in general. The greatest return almost always is accompanied by the greatest risk and some capitalist speculators try to avoid the greatest risk. The ones who don’t mostly fall into the venture capitalism camp (sorry to use another adjective in front of capitalism). Experientially or anecdotally (among my friends), most people start speculating in the “greatest long-term return” camp. Perhaps, as a goal you want to accumulate enough wealth where you can simply invest where there is the biggest general return which implies the greatest risk which eventually may
lead to venture capitalism.

"The coercive forces of competition"- Harvey kept using this epithet almost anytime he mentioned competition. It highlights a general theme of the book, which is that perpetual growth and expansion and reinvestment of profits is not so much an expression of people's greed (which has been on the scene long before capitalism), but a necessity for people running businesses in a capitalist system. Economic competition is not necessary for a society to survive, but in a capitalist system, people running businesses really do face the reality that if they do not compete and grow and capitalize on innovation and reinvest, they will not merely stay small, but they will likely lose their ability to stay open.

The difficulty of Harvey’s point here is that it is both true, today, and yet, does not have to be (and was not always the case). It is true: if you don’t reinvest profit to innovate and attract new people and grow, in today’s world, you will stay small and possibly close down. And that is not necessarily related to greed. But let’s look at related questions to that process. How much of my profit should I reinvest? What specifically should I reinvest my profit in? How will I reinvest my profit? Should I reinvest my profit in a way which I consciously know will close down competitors forcing them out of business? Should I reinvest my profit in a way in which I consciously know will force competitors to sell to me or merge? Can I reinvest my profit in a way that is harmful to the environment? May I reinvest my profits in a way that adversely affects society and the emotional health of people? Should I choose to reinvest my profit in a way that closes down smaller businesses catering to a local or hyperlocal audience which I do not need? All of these questions and more go deeper down this “greed-less path of reinvestment” and show how greed can be involved in a “greed-less” process.

Corporations are smart entities. It’s not necessarily any one particular person or group. Every incentive is aligned to maximize profit, so it’s fair to say that this entity is greedy. It’s not a negative or positive statement (depending on your ethics); it’s just fact based on priorities. In fact, as a corporate executive or employee, you have a fiduciary responsibility to maximize profit for your shareholders. If you do not, the shareholders can sue you. So think of it like this.

1. Reinvesting capital to innovate, compete, and grow is not the same thing as maximizing profit.

2. Reinvesting capital to innovate, compete, and grow is also not the same thing as prioritizing profit above all else.

3. How you define profit can determine what you maximize. If profit is specific to me alone as a corporation and not to the people to whom I am selling or the society in which they live, it affects what I maximize, whether I am greedy, and the value I produce in society.

Economy is how society puts food on the table- this isn't from Harvey, but a phrase that I like. Economic activity across time and cultures and societal sizes is fundamentally how society provides for itself so it doesn't starve to death, or doesn't die from exposure. People tend to equate economy with currency, or GDP growth, or competition, or businesses, but these things are simply not fundamental aspects of what economy is. It helps pose the question: how well is our society providing for itself?

I think this was my FAVORITE comment. I really loved that someone wrote this. It’s so true. How well is a society providing for itself? It has an aesthetic element and a philosophical and political one which is why we often speak of the political economy. What is the philosophy by which we determine the health of our society? What is the philosophy which guides us as we provide for society? What is the philosophy by which we measure how well we provide for ourselves? That is the question.

To quote one of my favorite professors, Professor Emeritus Cornel West, the true test of any democracy is how well the most vulnerable are treated. I would say the exact same for a true political economy, remembering that an economy is how we provide for ourselves. The true test of any political economy is how well the needs of the most vulnerable are provided. And that’s it. That’s the core of it all, the root of the problem. If economy is how a society provides for itself, free market capitalism as it exists in the US is doing a poor job.

Today because our economy is so tied to this artificial concept of money and the amount of it available in society, the economy is tied to the amount of currency (whether direct like cash or indirect like credit) and, even more, to the distribution of that money. This leads to one of the obstacles created by capitalism in the form which we’re discussing. This accumulation of wealth and use of money to make more money tends to create a highly unequal distribution of money and wealth in society. It doesn’t just tend to create a distribution in which everyone has enough and a few people have a super excess. It creates a situation in which some people have a super excess and some people have a super paucity. That’s the problem.


According to the Gini Index, the US is one of the most economically (income) unequal countries in the world, ranked around 40 depending on the year and type of inequality.  (Remember that by “economically,” we simply mean to what extent the society provides for its people.) The most economically unequal countries in the world include South Africa, ranked at #2, depending on the year and the ranking institution. I had the privilege of living in South Africa for a few years and seeing and experiencing first hand this inequality. When Madiba died a few weeks ago, it struck a chord with me, specifically because he spent his entire life fighting against inequality and injustice. Believe me, the system of apartheid was primarily an economically based system as much as it was a racial one. By that I mean that it had economic motivations and that it primarily dealt with the redistribution of society’s provisions for its people within South Africa. It was a system in which wealth was accumulated in the hands of a minority, an injustice which surrounded the life of this man, Nelson.

I think one reason I really like him is that most of the really amazing men and women, who are heroes to me, are dead. He’s the first of that caliber of people (like a Gandhi, Jesus, Teresa, Day, Romero, King Jr.) who was actually alive during my time, a person who I saw leave prison, a person who I saw work hard to fight for an end to apartheid even after coming out of prison, a person who helped his country transition peacefully to post-apartheid, democratic rule, a person whom I’ve met.

But even after briefly meeting the guy, I didn’t think much super-special of him at the time. I just knew he was a bit of a legend. Even when first arriving in South Africa to live and work, I didn’t think much. After all, just as you can see in this fellow Nigerian’s meeting with Madiba, I saw that South Africa still suffered from at least four, interconnected, debilitating problems: a crippling disease burden including rampant HIV/AIDS, TB, and malaria; a housing crisis in which so many poverty-stricken citizens lived in townships, shanty towns, and worse, informal settlements that were most vulnerable to disasters, crime, and disease; an economic inequality unrivaled by any other country other than maybe Namibia with most of the wealth concentrated in a minority of even the white minority; and, directly related to the economic inequality, a crime rate so high that house break-ins, car hackings, and muggings are just a question of “when” for people in Johannesburg and not “if.”

However, Nelson himself was quite aware of all of this, and he would respond that the end of apartheid is a victory enough, the first democratic elections were victory enough, electing the first black president of South Africa was victory enough. Most importantly, peacefully ending apartheid without any retaliatory bloodshed, and bringing the people together through peace and reconciliation fueled by forgiveness (and the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission—hugely important) was an immense victory. More importantly, the issues of economic inequality, crime, disease, and housing were going to take some time to work out and still are taking time to resolve. But none of that work that is now still going on would even be possible if South Africa, the Rainbow Nation, didn’t get past the first step, the paramount test—could a nation of various white, black, yellow, and brown ethnic groups come together, covered in forgiveness, walking in peace, as one nation? I will be the first to tell you it’s not perfect. There are still people who have no truly deep relationships with people of a different ethnic group, there are still Black people there that don’t trust white people, any of them. But I will also tell you the nation passed this first test. And that is due in large part to Nelson Mandela.

So it’s strange to me to think of someone, a bit of a giant, was alive during my time. Usually giants are magical beings, long dead, the stuff of legend and lore, myths. And as we know, it makes no sense to question whether a myth is true or not. That is completely irrelevant and a misunderstanding of what truth is. The only important question about a myth is whether it is alive or dead. Is it alive? Or is it dead?

Nelson, is a bit unlike some of the other giants of lore. He was married multiple times (never at the same time). But that’s weird to me. People like Romero and Teresa never married. And Gandhi and King Jr. stayed with the same spouse their entire lives. So it’s weird to think of that. It’s weird to imagine that Mandela has children who felt neglected by him due to his work or a son he never sees because in Mandela’s first divorce, the son sided with Nelson’s first wife. It’s a bit strange. But then when you look at all of our saints or my saints, none of them was perfect, not one. And yet, it’s not the perfection of the saint that sanctifies him or her, is it? No, it’s rather how the saint overcomes imperfections and, in spite of them, grabs onto some universal truth and begins to live life according to a reality that has not yet arrived. And yet, in that one life, that reality has arrived. It’s the very definition of faith. Faith, in the lives of these saints, in the life of Nelson, is not a belief of equality, it’s living life as if we are equal even though we are not yet. Nelson was able to live counter-culturally according to a reality that was soon to come and by living that way, so usher it in, so usher us into this imagined way. That is the work of a prophet. That is the work of a true saint. And it has nothing to do with perfection, it has everything to do with faith.

So is the myth, the legend of Nelson alive or dead? It’s very much alive, I say. And yet there are people who seek to kill it. So to them, I have a few words to address two of their invective points.

Terrorism - One of the reasons I love Nelson is because he stood for nonviolent love and peace to change the system. However, he had a brief period in which he felt this method was failing. To quickly recapitulate the happenings, in 1948 the National Party instituted legalized segregation practices starting the system we call apartheid. By this time Mandela had been married for around 4 years to his first wife. In 1952, he opened up a law practice and helped to defend people attacked or oppressed by the apartheid state. He and Oliver Tambo campaigned against apartheid and in 1956 Mandela and 155 other activists were charged with high treason. During the 4-year trial, Mandela divorced from his wife in 1958 after having four children and 14 unhappy years with his first wife. He married Winnie Mandela in the same year. The charges were dropped in 1960 after 4 years of the trial. Resistence to apartheid grew especially after the Pass Laws which required blacks to have a pass (think passpoprt) which restricted where Blacks could live, work, and travel. In the same year 1960, the ANC (African National Congress, Mandela's political group) was banned and he went underground with his activities. After the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960 in which 69 young Blacks were shot dead by police, Mandela felt that you couldn’t use nonviolent responses against a regime that was killing your own people. So he resorted to targeted sabotage or economic sabatoge. They would target particular government facilities or a bridge, for instance, and bomb it when there was no one around or in the building or location. He only participated in this for about 2 years before he was arrested a second time and went on trial again. (Some sources say he shifted from economic sabotage to full guerilla warfare before being captured.) It was in this trial that he gave a famous 4-hour speech before he and 11 other saboteurs were convicted to many years in prison starting in 1964.

So that is the background. First, I want to say that terrorism is relative, sadly. I wish it were absolute, but we all know of the trouble that the UN has had to create a single definition of terrorism. Any definition of terrorism that is or has been proposed is one in which some countries are incriminated by it (this includes the United States) and so there is no one definition by which every one, every country can or will agree. So the term, unfortunately, is left to the decision of history (which can be biased of course). As the song “Wonderful” from the musical Wicked says,

A man's called a traitor - or liberator
A rich man's a thief - or philanthropist
Is one a crusader - or ruthless invader?
It's all in which label
Is able to persist
There are precious few at ease
With moral ambiguities
So we act as though they don't exist

So often winners of wars become freedom fighters instead of terrorists. Losers remain terrorists. In the case of South Africa, if the world supported apartheid and it was upheld, maybe freedom fighters would be called something else. Today they are praised because the apartheid regime was dismantled and is and was viewed as evil. However, I do applaud people who try to use an absolute definition of terrorism. So the question remains. Was he a terrorist? My first point is that if we keep an absolute definition, we must recognize the apartheid state of South Africa as terrorizing and terrorist. Murdering and massacring Black South Africans would count for me. Secondly, Nelson and his group did targeted economic sabotage (liberation without bloodshed), avoiding citizens which doesn’t fall into the category of terrorism (though they were trying to “terrorize” the government, in a sense, to free non-whites from apartheid and give everyone a vote). Third, a major problem is that people seem to attribute killings by more extreme South Africans to Nelson Mandela while he was behind bars. Yes, pe
ople kept pushing for an end to apartheid after Nelson went to prison. Some were extreme in their methods including full guerilla warfare. Yes, Nelson kept in touch with people from prison, but he was not running the organization from prison in any real way. Rather the organization was using him and his name and situation as a rallying cry, an inspiration, a wrong around which to motivate people to act. Fourth, even if he were to have been a terrorist (which he was not), judge the man not by one particular phase in life, but by the man he became. This is the man who worked hard and learned Afrikaans while still in prison to understand and empathize with white South African Afrikaaners including his jailers. This is the man who preached forgiveness and reconciliation while still in jail. This is the man whose white captors wished him well and respected him and liked him. This is the man who embraced extreme black and coloured South Africans when they were captured and sent to the same prison, even when more moderate freedom workers wanted to exclude the extremists in prison. This is the man who told everyone to put down weapons and not to rise up and fight at all when he got out of prison. Nonviolent change. Not terrorism.

Communism - Yet, Margaret Thatcher dismissed him as a terrorist, and initially he was not supported by the U.S. government. This is one of those times as a student of the world, you begin to understand that democracy is not synonymous with freedom and communism is not synonymous with oppression. So when governments like the U.S. promulgate that they are in a particular country to spread democracy which is freedom, always try to read between the lines and understand ulterior motives of all sides. In the plight of non-white South Africans, ask yourself an important question: was Democracy or Communism on the side of freedom for these South Africans? Well, if you don’t know, it wasn’t the democracy of the United States. It was the communist regime of Cuba, the dictatorship of Gaddafi, and Yasser Arafat of the PLO. The thing is that if the democracy of the US is truly equated with freedom, it would seek out and support freedom movements whenever and wherever they are. It may not support certain methods, but definitely the ends should be supported. However, there are other geopolitical concerns of nations like the U.S., and so Mandela and the freedom movement took help and support wherever they could receive it. Mandela famously said in a town hall meeting at NYU in 1991 “The mistake that political analysts make is that they think their enemies are our enemies.”

Nelson was not a communist. It’s possible to see him as a communist sympathizer and some sources say he joined the party for a short time. He definitely read widely including from communist leaders. He took help from whomever offered help. And because the PLO and even Castro’s group in Cuba were primarily seen as liberation movements, there was an immediately identity-based connection to those groups. In other words, the fear that we should not let communism take hold in Africa because it will be a threat to freedom is a bit . . . strange. If you fear freedom is threatened, you support freedom where you see it. If you don’t, then the reverse can be said of you by communists. In reality, the Cold War between the US and Russia, especially, fought in Africa often was not honestly framed when framed as freedom vs. oppression, not if the US supported oppressive regimes or failed to support the freedom of particular peoples. In this way, Nelson took help from these groups without explicitly questioning their internal affairs. When critiqued,
he once said that it is hypocritical to accept that black and coloured South Africans take help from the US without questioning the internal race relations problem and inequality and discrimination in the US (yes, even in the 1990s) and to reject when South Africans take help from Cuba or Libya or the PLO without questioning their internal issues. His paramount concern was gaining freedom for his people and he didn’t feel he was in a position to critique those people and groups (including the US) before apartheid ended. When asked if he would support a communist or capitalist system when South Africa was freed, he admitted that he has no allegiance to any system, he only cares about what works. I like this. He was not into labels which allowed him to work with Communists or Democracy-proponents. He was not a communist as one committed to an "ism". Interestingly enough, if you go to South Africa today, communists are a welcome party in South Africa and communist ideas or quotes by famous communists are a part of the dialogue in a much more open way than in the U.S. today.

Yes, he was stubborn. And he was loyal to friends who supported him even when they acted poorly. His paramount concern was freedom and first enacting or enabling that. It’s another trait of a saint—universalism. Look at the quote that has been over quoted in the past few weeks after his death.

“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

What is great about this mythical and truthful quote, yes, is the fact that he is willing to die for this act of creative and prophetic imagination—a nation where we all come together and everyone has a voice. I know a lot of people who are willing to fight for such things, but I don’t know many (almost none) who would be willing to die for it (not kill for it). This is what sets him apart. I keep asking myself if I can say that about anything or if I could have said that at that time, that I would die for democracy, die for true freedom. I don’t think I can or could. I don’t think I would have said that. I would have wanted that to be true for me, it’s such a purely noble thing, but I don’t think I’m there yet. One day, maybe.

But the greatest part of the quote is perhaps many times eclipsed by the end of the quote. Look at his words. He says “I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination.” This was not in the 90s. He said this back in the 60s. This is universalism at its best. He is saying, his fight isn’t against white people, that’s too proximate, local, temporal, and provincial. His fight, to be a true fight for freedom, is a fight against oppression, wherever it is found, whoever commits it. This is a great truth he is grasping. This is universalism. It’s why people who say they are on the side of freedom should oppose oppression itself, anywhere, anytime. And it shows a keen understanding he has experienced of oppression. A
n oppressive system enslaves both sides: it is not only the oppressed that need to be freed, but the oppressors also need to be liberated. Thank you, Madiba.


At the moment, I’m in an Ethiopian airport on my way to Tanzania. However, I’m actually only here because a wedding trip to Egypt was canceled. Instead of celebrating a beautiful union, I instead watch the noise of the turmoil and growing turmoil there in the country. The reaction to the turmoil reminds me of the importance of being honest.

While meeting in London with a Kenyan friend who is studying at Leeds, we began to talk about international issues since he’s earning a Masters in international economics (or something similar). The one thing he kept reiterating to me over and over again is that people around the world like the US but they find the country too hypocritical.


I remember the first time a university professor explained this important and true rule: whenever the geopolitical interests or agenda of the U.S. conflict with its ideals, the U.S. chooses the geopolitical interests. At that time I didn’t know many examples of this but I soon began to learn of them from studying and reading modern history especially from WWII up to the present (and even before). Truth be told, this is not specific only to the U.S. However, it is more noticeable with superpowers and superpowers who so vocally tout their ideals and their goodness to all the world. So when the military ousted the president of Egypt from office, there was a conflict.

On the one hand, in a strange way, it’s actually great that the people have power like that because it really keeps the leaders accountable. The UK and the US, among others, don’t really like the Muslim Brotherhood. So the ousting was seen as a bit of a relief. Add to that the fact that the economy had not really improved under the president and he was consolidating a lot of power under his control and away from other bodies like the courts. Besides, goes this line of thinking, a democracy is about giving the people a voice, and this is what the people want. It’s true that the Muslim Brotherhood did not win the presidency by a large margin. So it only takes a certain percentage of disgruntled voters to put the majority of the population against President Morsi. Accordingly, this line of thinking sees throwing the president out as a “democratic” move, the voice of the people.

And there’s the rub. In a democracy, every voice is heard, but every decision does not reflect every voice. Every decision is supposed to be informed by all the heard voices. Then a decision must be made, a particular direction taken. Secondly, in a democracy there should be a democratic process by which you can vote someone out of office for doing a bad job. We usually call this “the next election.” Thirdly, in a democracy there should be a democratic process by which you can vote someone out of office for doing illegal or unethical acts. We usually call this “impeachment.”

So it begs the question: if it fits the textbook definition of a coup, why not call it a coup?

This of course is a bit complicated and deals with the fact that the U.S. is obligated to stop the sale of arms to Egypt while in the state of a coup. Not only is the US arms trade a profitable business, but some view it as a stabilizing force in the region. Stop selling arms to Egypt and who knows what will happen. I’m going to ignore the validity of that statement for now as we can discuss it another time. What concerns me at the moment is what would have happened if the president were from a political party that the U.S. supported and favoured? What would have happened if a president from this favoured and supported party was ousted? Would it be a coup then?

And if the answer is yes, then that means that the definition of a coup and our support is not based on our ideals, but rather on our geopolitical agenda.

In other words, if the answer is yes, our actions are not based on democracy but on whom we like. And that’s a strange place to be, to
believe. Because hypocrisy always comes to bite you back.


We First Book Video: "We-defining Me" from We First on Vimeo.

Some of you may have been confused by the last post on capitalism. You wonder how is it possible that companies are not doing enough.

Without giving you all the facts and figures, the main point is that the world is facing staggering problems in areas of global health, global homelessness, global climate change, global conflict, food security and agricultural development problems, energy instability or deficiency, water scarcity, gender disempowerment, unemployment, underemployment, education, youth leadership, etc. The list goes on. Yes, it’s true that most countries give a small percentage of their budget to help with foreign assistance, foreign aid, or international development. But this is not the same as the 1% of pretax profits the average company gives to charity.

To explain, let’s use the U.S. as an example. It is true that less than 1% of its budget goes to foreign aid, so it seems similar to the average corporation, on first glance. But remember, much of what countries do is domestic. If the US works on shelter and housing domestically, it’s the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD); if they work on it in foreign countries, it’s the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) or Department of State. If the U.S. works on energy security domestically, it’s the Department of Energy (DoE); in foreign countries, it’s USAID or State. If the U.S. works on public health domestically, it’s the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH); in foreign countries, USAID or State (or the international parts of NIH, HHS, and a bit of Homeland Security). So when you say that the U.S. spends less than 1% on international development, remember the key word is international. They are also doing local or domestic development all the time.

Still, I do believe the government could do more. Generally, countries that spend a greater proportion of their budget on effective education and health have higher standards of living (Norway, Sweden, etc.). So I do want the government (around the world) to do more. However, I’m specifically speaking about corporations due to the limitations of government. Before talking about corporations, let’s think about the benefits the government has. It has 60 years of knowledge in foreign aid and over 80 years of knowledge since the New Deal (U.S. government). It has guaranteed income—the tax base. It can create legislation or use executive power. And it has existing administrative, programming, and financial infrastructure at the local and state levels. However, the government is limited by fraud, corruption, bipartisan politics, jarring bureaucracy. In trying to solve problems of global and domestic poverty alleviation, the government struggles (or doesn’t struggle) with national interests versus global need, disagreements about where the poverty line should be, lack of enthusiasm towards social programs for the poor (in the U.S.), and feelings that the non-profit sector, families, and churches should handle poverty efforts.

The non-profit sector also faces great advantages and limitations. Remember, when I say non-profit sector I’m including philanthropies/foundations, NGOs, charities (501c3 status) and non-profits which can have other tax exempt status. Generally non-profits enjoy being seen as credible and neutral. More generally, non-profits have the advantage of super-motivated volunteers and staff, potential ability to attract big contributions, field expertise (many NGOs have feet on the ground in various countries around the world or in local communities), and limited staffing, bureaucracy, and overhead. Obviously this does not apply to all NGOs, however, the big large NGOs are not most NGOs. Unfortunately, NGOs and the non-profit sector also deal with fraud and corruption like the government. There can be policy conflicts between headquarters and people out in the field. Money is always a problem. A lack of coordination between NGOs working on the same or related problems diminishes impact. And NGOs are always subject to the agendas or requirements of donors and host country governments.

And that leaves . . . you guessed it—corporations. Of course, social enterprises (the 4th sector), NGOs and the non-profit sector are doing all they can. They can continue to improve efficiency, but they are doing a lot. Governments need to do more. However, corporations have not really scratched the surface of their potential to contribute to solutions to the major problems plaguing the world, today.

We looked at the short history of corporate charitable giving, Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) movement, and Cause-related Marketing (CRM). So yes, to summarise, U.S. corporations went from 0 charitable giving in the early 1900s when they were barred from making such contributions to giving to arts and culture in the 1950s and 1960s. In the 1970s they began to give to civic causes, and then moved to national and global issues of poverty and social justice in the 1990s and 2000s. And yes, contributions grew from 0, then, to $14 billion in 2009. Still it’s a small percentage of the profits that companies pull in annually. Most importantly, CSR is still somewhat of a second thought and operates with problems and deficiencies in many companies. Here are few of the problems according to Simon Mainwaring.

Giving is disproportionate to profits and salaries – The $14 billion in 2009 is small compared to money (billions) made by investors and top executives not to mention bonuses.

Top executives are uninvolved and insincere – In a 2010 McKinsey survey of 1800 respondents, more than 50% considered sustainability to be “very” or “extremely” important. Contrast that with the fact that only 30% say their company invests in sustainability and embeds it in business practices, while only 25% said that it is a top priority for their CEO.

Companies fail to understand CSR – According to the same survey, 20% of executives claimed their company has no definition of sustainability. Fifty-five percent thought that CSR related to management of environmental issues; 48% thought it was related to governance issues like ethics, regulations, and compliance; 41% thought it was related to social issues like worker rights and labour standards.

CSR efforts are just window dressing – The great majority of companies still use CSR as a tool for public relations and their public image. Simon Mainwaring even quotes the Economist as saying “ . . . for most public companies CSR is little more than a cosmetic treatment. The human face that CSR applies to capitalism goes on each morning, gets increasingly smeared by day, and washes off at night.”

Companies spin their CSR and CRM – Companies have been exposed for green-washing, cause-washing, and local-washing in order to market themselves.

CSR results and measurements are scattershot – There really are no national or international standards of achievement in CSR. So few companies measure their results. Most of us use various watchdog agencies to watch, analyse, rate, and rank corporations on their socially conscious good work.

When I say “it’s not enough,” this is what I mean.

I’ll close with a report mentioned in We First. One of my favourite people is Paul Newman (God rest his soul). When he was alive he convened a group of CEOs and founded the Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy (CECP). The CECP commissioned a report from McKinsey to project 10 years into the future to see if social responsibility was important for the future of corporations. The report predicted 5 important trends between 2010 and 2020: (1) a rise in the power of emerging nations, like China; (2) a shrinking of the labour force and talent pool due to demographic changes; (3) a global integration of capital markets, trade, and technology; (4) natural resource scarcities; and (5) competition among nations to attract work.

The report mentioned 4 scenarios based on how extensively corporations adopt true social responsibility.

Scenario 1 – People put greater demand on companies for social change and corporations react positively. Consumers began to trust corporations that they will agree to enact social change. Consumers and corporations become partners in actually improving the world. And governments allow corporations to voluntarily meet these social expectations.

Scenario 2 – Corporations try to adopt some social changes, but citizens fail to trust them. As a result, government and NGOs stop partnering with corporations to enact social change, and we are left with a “patchwork” of international laws and standards and a “bifurcated system of capitalism.”

Scenario 3 – Society’s expectations of businesses continues to rise, but companies refuse to enact changes for positive global impact. Governments enforce regulations reducing capital and increases expenses for companies. Citizens (who are also consumers) distrust companies creating a problem of expectations.

Scenario 4 – Societies and companies cannot match their expectations or their engagement levels so there is an ever-downward spiral of social responsibility. Trust in business drops low enough that the economy suffers exacerbating the very global social problems we are trying to solve.

The report says that only the first scenario is the logical and preferred scenario. Each of the rest does not have a beneficial outcome for corporations.  Which of the scenarios do you think is likely to happen? Do you see any other options or scenarios not listed?


My job is weird, to be honest. I’m not talking about the actual work or the potential or the few times I’m working with students around the world or part of a product team or doing engineering. Let me explain because I’ve had a few changes since the last update and I’m going through a change as we speak.

My manager reports to my VP, so sometimes I would actually report to the VP. The VP had a special place in his heart for my main project and wanted it to excel beyond imagination. My manager, however, has never wanted to manage my small sub-team of four people. He’s always been trying to get other people to manage it. After the 3 members on my team either quit due to frustration or were forced to go elsewhere, my manager got his wish.

One day, a colleague, who reports to the same manager, started asking me philosophical questions over email about our approach, how we do what we do, our outreach efforts, our mass education work, etc. His concern and priority is not the student or the user so of course we disagreed. But I always responded. Finally he started meeting with me and telling me what to do and what I should not work on. I told him he cannot tell me that, he’s not my manager. He’s a project manager and can ask me if I have time to help on his project, but he cannot try to order my day or priorities. He said I should consider him my manager from now on. I said no. I have heard nothing of the sort. He gave up and went to talk to my manager (who doesn’t answer emails by the way). My manager, for the first time, contacted me and finally met with me apologizing and telling me that he had switched me to report to my colleague, this same colleague with whom we, together, were both reporting to my manager.

Not only did I not like a colleague being inserted between me and my manager #1, but he chose the worst person. I told manager #1, I had already said to myself, literally, that there are two people in the organization for whom I would quit if put under one of them. And manager #2 was one of them. I told him that if you asked what was my worst nightmare, it would be having manager #2 as my manager (and remember he’s my colleague). Then voila! It happens. Manager #1 reassured me and said he’s amazing and that people often have 2nd thoughts initially about him. I heard differently. He’s the type that people either love or hate. What I don’t like is that I know multiple people who are anxious before meetings with him. One has panic attacks. He has a multiple page document about how to work with him. He answers emails within 5 minutes if he can. He works nights and weekends (and has asked me to do so, to which I said no). He lacks an ability to empathize. And worst, of all, he had a plan to insert another person between him and I. What?

I was always open with manager #2 but it never paid off. Every time I was open with him I regretted it. I told him once that having him inserted between manager #1 and myself and then watching him insert manager #3 between manager #2 and myself felt like a double demotion. His response was that it was not a demotion. I told him I understand that and know that I haven’t done a bad job. What I’m telling him is what it feels like. He answered again, repeatedly, how, logically, it was not a demotion. I gave up. I wasn’t asking him if it was or convinced that it was logically a demotion. I was sharing how it felt and he kept answering with logic. On numerous occasions, he has been like that, sometimes disrespectful to me, my work, my time, my importance. When that happens I don’t respond to the disrespectful emails or comments, especially when his response is to toughen up. The hardest part about working with him is that I lost the favourite parts of my job—true instructional design and training. I don’t get to do either under him and he doesn’t understand how to deal with or use instructional design or teaching, he doesn’t value it, and he doesn’t understand how to measure it. Strange thing is those two things are supposed to be most of what I do, according to my role.

Manager #3 however is from my same hometown and is a people-person. So he’s the exact opposite. His philosophy is to make all of his people happy and that makes his life easier as a manager. I love it. So he knows that I want to be teaching in my position and have hated losing that under manager #2 (my 4th manager since arriving).

And so it goes . . . In November, manager #1 contacted me and asked if I could go to the Philippines to help with the crisis response and work to help train the government on how to use ICT in post-disaster emergency response situations. I gladly said yes as that project had been sidelined under manager #2. But Manager #2 cannot say anything if Manager #1 says to do it because manager #2 reports to manager #1. That project is my favorite project at the moment. I love it.

The latest change is that my portion of the organization is being dismantled and incorporated into various portions of the organization. My team will most likely join an HQ-based team. I’m not sure if it means I will move again, if we will do international applications of their work, if they will do domestic (North America/Western Europe) versions of our work, if we will simply join in their work, or something else. I don’t know if we will move or stay. I don’t know anything really. So we will see. Sadly, I think I will lose some of the community outreach work I do with the various communities whether teachers, students, business people, software developers, etc. We’ll see what happens.


Love is cultural . . . in some sense. Some cultures think it comes before marriage, some after. Sometimes, it’s just a semantic difference where different people and groups use the same word “love” to mean different things.

I’ve learned that some actions or concepts are neutral. A good example is audibly burping in public after a meal. And then different cultural place evaluative judgments on such actions or concepts. In that example, some cultures might find such excess gas rude; others may see it as a sign of thanks. Beyond that, I’ve actually learned that some aspects of culture are negative regardless of how that culture views it; a good example is beating your wife or preventing girls from attending school. Some aspects of cultures are positive no matter how others view it. So even though the understanding of love is cultural, I’ve learned there are better understandings of what it is and how to provide. Most recently, I’ve learned in my own life that the truly best understanding of it isn’t anything emotional at all, but a decisive commitment, a gift, a choice, a decision, a commitment. Sometimes, you won’t find out that love isn’t actually there until you get to something that a person cannot handle or chooses not to handle, then that limiting occurrence uncovers the fact that it wasn’t full commitment.

Better than me talking about love, I thought I’d share 3 stories of love to show it’s cultural (mis)understandings and deeper understandings.

The second is a guy who admits he did not love his wife when he married her. He uses love in the same way I do.

The third is a segment of This American Life called Unconditional Love, which talks about love between parents and children.



Enjoy. I was ending a counseling session with a client, and he said to me, with a smile, “I really enjoyed that session today!” I was a bit shocked because I never think about enjoying counseling and often counseling sessions are not enjoyable sessions, not in the way you enjoy eating a seaweed and kale salad (ok, maybe you don’t enjoy that). It reminded me of statements in which someone says that the reason we help people and do good in the world is that it feels good. I’ve thought about it for awhile, and I have participated in debates in which some people say we don’t enjoy such work and some people admit to enjoying it. I know why people disagree about this. It’s because they are speaking about two different things.

If you are helping people superficially or giving money non-relationally, then yes, you might do it because it feels good. If you volunteer in a one-time way or once-off, then maybe it feels good. If you give money to charity and then walk away feeling like you did something good, you might feel good. So I see and understand that.

However, those of us who actually roll up our sleeves and engage in the tough relational work of helping people know often it does NOT feel good. When you make yourself vulnerable and open up your home to people, whom others don’t trust, and they burn you; when you are counseling prostitutes or people riddled with diseases or suffering a loss, it does not feel good as we work through issues. When you work with ex-offenders and ex-convicts (who should not be defined by what happened in the past) and work through recidivistic tendencies as well as dealing with stereotypes people place on them, it does not feel good. When you are working with a woman who has turned against all men including you, it does not feel good. When you push a crippled person around, a person who is bitter at the world, it is not very nice. I could go on, but I think the very act of getting deep with people who need help and dealing with them as people, with all their pain, all their issues, all their expectations, and all of YOUR hurt, it does not feel good at all. It is hard. Often times you fail when you help people. You don’t know if you should start again, you don’t know if it matters. You feel like quitting.

It’s like any relationship really.

It just doesn’t always feel good.

And when you’re in a position of habitual, relational, continual help, working alongside someone as that person seeks to move forward, it’s often not a happy feeling, it’s work. You get frustrated, you cry, you get hurt. You hurt them. They hurt you. You feel like quitting, you see no progress. Where’s the impact?

Then suddenly someone talks about the difference she notices. A step forward is made. The person is in a better, stronger position in life. The person has actually started helping others, slowly but surely. And in that moment, however small, however fleeting, that person finds meaning. And, relationally, you find meaning, too. Meaning was never lost, but sometimes you lose sensitivity to it. So in that small moment, you, once again, feel the meaning or significance that was probably there all along. You experience a bit of satisfaction. You taste a bit of fullness. You begin to understand how you can be sad and fulfilled, simultaneously unhappy and satisfied. The happiness is emotional or circumstantial or superficial, the fulfillment or satisfaction or meaning is deep, very deep, undergirding, untenable, impalpable, and so real.

It’s why I can spend time with people with whom I have difficulty liking even though I don’t enjoy the experience and it doesn’t make me happy. There is meaning there.

It’s exactly why I’ve seen some of my friends shut out close people around them because of harsh treatment but other friends embrace pain-causing people because, as unhappy as those interactions are, they find meaning in continuing to love those people through presence and quality time.

This is exactly why Jesus was often sad, as described by certain writers. It’s why Mother Teresa’s most recently released letters show a deep long-term unhappiness, frustration, and depression, even amidst the meaningful work that she continued to do. It is why MLK was frustration, conflicted, and downtrodden sometimes. It’s why faith can be so important to people in such situations because it can help maintain, sustain, motivate, encourage, and even propel them forward through such long and constant periods of unhappiness, sadness, and unenjoyable times. They do it, we do it because there is meaning there. There, is love.

A lot of people ask me about being happy in life or in a career, and I’ve learned by now, it’s not about being happy. Though language is so imprecise, so often I will incorrectly use those word “happy.” But when I ask if someone is happy, I actually mean to ask if the work is fulfilling or meaningful. If you leave one job because you are unhappy to go to another job, it is rare that you will find happiness there. If it’s an amazing situation and circumstance, then it’s possible. Often, in practice, because it’s so hard to find an amazing situation and circumstance people end up unhappy in the new job. However, if you learn, first, how to be content in any and every situation, that’s a key to the deeper joy. Then, you can make a move to a new job, not from a place of need or negativity (I need to find something that will make me happy; I lack contentment; I hate these people and this place; I gotta get out of this dump). No, you are already content. You are moving to a new job from a place of positivity. You are growing and a new job automatically allows you to grow more and positively impact more people. The new job allows you to increase meaningful work in society and create greater social value. The new job allows you to help fulfill more people. The new job is just a better fit for you such that you are running to a job not away from a job. The new job allows you to express passions more and allows you to work in your love language more and cooking more of your love food.

A great example of life choices involving fulfillment and unhappiness is Viktor Frankl. I often wonder how his life would have been different if he didn’t live and survive a concentration camp during WWII. By age 16, he had started a correspondence with Sigmund Freud and Freud sent a two-page paper Frankl had written to the International Journal of Psychoanalysis. And this was before formally studying medicine and practicing clinical psychology. By 1941, Frankl's ideas and work had received international attention. His logotherapy helped people overcome depression and attain well-being through finding unique meaning in life (not happiness). He had also established suicide-prevention centers for teenagers. But it was in the same year he had to decide whether or not to move to America. This is an excerpt from an online Atlantic article about him.

"That was the same year when he had a decision to make, a decision that would change his life. With his career on the rise and the threat of the Nazis looming over him, Frankl had applied for a visa to America, which he was granted in 1941. By then, the Nazis had already started rounding up the Jews and taking them away to concentration camps, focusing on the elderly first. Frankl knew that it would only be time before the Nazis came to take his parents away. He also knew that once they did, he had a responsibility to be there with his parents to help them through the trauma of adjusting to camp life. On the other hand, as a newly married man with his visa in hand, he was tempted to leave for America and flee to safety, where he could distinguish himself even further in his field."

It was a choice between being happy (circumstantially or superficially or temporarily) and feeling dissatisfied and unfulfilled due to his suffering parents or feeling like he was doing meaningful work as it relates to his parents and yet unhappy (because he, too, would probably end up in the concentration camp). To be fair, I have simplified the matter. Obviously, by staying in Vienna, he most probably imperils his wife and future child, and by leaving, he definitely saves them. What I’m differentiating simply is the difference between personal pleasure and temporal happiness from a situation, circumstance, feeling, or moment in time to satisfaction or meaning which can often be more long-term, unrelated to an unpleasant situation, constant in the face of suffering, and focused on others as opposed to self. I’ll let you see how he decided what to do, what he decided, and the implications of that choice in his life and the lives of others today. There’s more to life than being happy.


Instead of me writing a lot about things going on, I thought I would briefly highlight two stories and let you read about them. And instead of telling you good things people are doing, I also want to present good opportunities for you to do good, though you might have to think creatively.

First, there is a great story of an Argentinian mechanic who had a dream of how to aid birth in situations of fetal distress and obstructed labor. What’s amazing about the story is that his subconscious made a leap from a YouTube video he saw during the day, displaying how to get a cork out of a bottle without breaking it, to a new method to aid the delivery of babies during obstructed labor. The next morning he woke up and created the first prototype of his Odón device. More importantly, it shows how inspiration can come from anywhere, anyone with a good idea can create a meaningful business, and anyone with a good idea can start a social enterprise that helps others. Now his device is saving lives at birth and endorsed by the WHO, USAID, and other donors. It has been licensed for production, and he has presented around the world (even on TV in his home country).

The second story is of slavery in Mauritania. This is an opportunity. It’s a tough place to grow up and live. Somewhere between 10% and 20% of the population lives in slavery. You don’t have to work against slavery necessarily in Mauritania, though such work is severely needed. You can also work to end slavery in your own region, country, or city. It may not be as high as 10-20% of the population of your country, but it is still a problem worldwide. In Mauritania, a country of about three and a half million people, slavery has only been successfully prosecuted once. In fact, Mauritania was the last country to abolish slavery in the world. The problem is so big there that Mauritania passed a law in 2007 criminalizing slavery. I do not want to write too much. I would rather you read and learn about it. All kinds of abuses can happen at the hands of masters and the destitution is so great there, they do need help. I encourage you to think about meaningful and impacting ways you can contribute to the work to end slavery there or in your own place of residence.


Have you seen Wadjda yet? No, go see it. I also saw a very strange movie called Only God Forgives. I’m not even sure why that was the name of the film. It’s set in Bangkok and deals with a murder of the brother of the main character played by Ryan Gosling. The main character’s mother goes to Bangkok and the movie deals with what ensues from there. However, it’s an eerie movie because the acting (which can often draw me to a movie) takes a back seat to the effect and feel of the movie. There is less dialogue than the average film as well. It’s like an action/noir/semi-silent film all in one. Some people hate it, but if you are into films where the absurd and the form is more important than the function and acting and mundane, go for it.

I’ve seen a lot of different types of performing and visual art, but what recently stuck out to me was the Wildlife Photography of the Year exhibit which was showing in my town. If you’re lucky enough to live in a city that lies along its tour or a city or country with a similar competition or exhibit, go check it out. Or take a virtual tour of the images. They are stunning. I love that they have categories for children to participate. It’s really fascinating.

I’ve also been viewing a lot of neopop and digital art at the moment. I’m really fascinated by moving digital art.