Category Archives: Public Service

Still angry!

protest

What do I say to my neighbor?

I’m hardly alone in pondering that vexing question. She and I always seem to get along so well, in that informal, rather superficially friendly but consistently pleasant way in which women often interact with other women. Lots of smiles, small talk about our children and pets, a word or two about the weather; seldom more. Yet that was enough – it was comforting to know that she, her children, and their little dog lived next door, even if her boyfriend barely said a word to me. He didn’t seem like the talkative type, but together they made for nice neighbors.

In late October everything changed, when they placed the Trump sign on their lawn and the very rude anti-Hillary bumper sticker on his truck.  That lawn sign stayed put right through Inauguration Day, and the coarse bumper sticker remains on his truck.

As for me, I’ve not found my way to saying a word to her since election night. I’m not proud about that. To the contrary, I’m saddened that I suddenly feel such an enormous distance between us. The awkwardness has been mitigated a little given that it is winter and too cold for any of us to linger outdoors; I barely cross paths with her. In time, we will probably return to our innocuous shared pleasantries.

Maybe.

But maybe not. How can I possibly get to a place in my mind and spirit where I “get over it”? Everything is different now. Suddenly, America feels different – crystallized into people with disparate realities and differing “facts” who neither care nor know how to engage across the chasm that has come to divide us. I’m not describing just the Red State – Blue State divide; the chasm I experience has opened up even between my house and my neighbor’s. It’s depth and width are exacerbated by the anger that still wells up inside of me, undiminished. Yes – I’m angry. Furious even. I feel indignation and outrage that the country that I know and love, a country of caring and progressive persons, has suddenly been snatched away. I’m angry that a man who embodies the antithesis of the virtues of everything that I honor and look up to in a leader is now at the helm of our great country. I’m angry that he has gathered around him the counsel and company of billionaires and extreme right wing people, people who have no respect or time for minorities, women, the poor, or anyone who doesn’t see the world as “us” and “them”. The bizarre combination of Russian intrigue, FBI Director malfeasance, an abundance of fake news, and outdated electoral college mechanisms have handed the government of my country to an Administration who lost the popular vote by an historic margin, and who now enjoy power with at best a very questionable mandate, and arguably no mandate at all. Continue reading Still angry!

Musings of an “East Coast liberal elite” on Thanksgiving

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It’s Thanksgiving, and so far I have sat mute as numerous messages have reached me across the Internet from friends and family, effusive in their gratitude for the many blessings that characterize their lives and relationships. These are sincere, warm, caring messages, and it is wonderful that this holiday opens the door to such expressions. Throughout the rest of the year, none of us says “thank you” nearly enough.

This year, however, I have not found the words inside me to be warmly responsive to these sentiments. Maybe I am just in a funky place…which might be forgivable in my current circumstances. I’m still trying – without measurable success – to make any sense of the recent presidential election, as the American political landscape seems to have entered into a place of irrationality and deep division. While the world around me seems very insecure, my own personal world also has more than a fair share of insecurity.  I’ve been unemployed (not counting a few consulting assignments and some modestly-remunerated adjunct teaching) for the past two years, despite my monumental efforts to find a new job. Success in securing employment eludes me. My small savings long ago were depleted, and despite many job applications still “pending” my prospects continue to look bleak. So…I am finding myself blocked from that congenial space in which to muse upon my blessings. I might take some small satisfaction in laying some blame for my plight on ageism and transphobia, but placing blame won’t change a culture that excludes well-qualified people from employment opportunities simply because they are mature, experienced, and living authentically.

Still, I know all too well that I am blessed.

I do indeed have much to be thankful for: my health, my family and friends, my Quaker faith community, my excellent education, my life’s narrative of so many international adventures, my growing and inspirational global community of LGBTI persons and allies. I should even be grateful for my cat…he’s a good cat.

Optimistic, idealistic do-gooders are generally not esteemed in society (cats or no cats), especially by those of a more hard-edged, pragmatic character. Still, I am grateful for my resilient idealism, despite the many knocks along the way. Among these ideals that mean the most to me are two: 1) that human dignity is universal, and 2) that ethical leadership makes all the difference in getting to a place where societies honor that dignity…for everyone. Continue reading Musings of an “East Coast liberal elite” on Thanksgiving

The fight for America’s soul

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Transgender people know what it means to fight for our souls. After all, it really isn’t a choice. If we fail to live our lives in full commitment to who we are, we lose our identity. Without our identity, we lose meaning. We lose joy. We lose self-respect.

We lose.

Yesterday evening America lost. Now we have to fight to get her back again. After all, it really isn’t a choice. If America fails to conduct itself as a nation committed to the principles she was founded on – “American values” for which so many have sacrificed and struggled and died – we lose our meaning and our place in history as a great nation. We lose any reason to be proud. Far from becoming “great again”, we become small…just another country with a narcissistic, self-serving, unprincipled ruler, and a citizenry who has been conned into thinking that this is who we are.

If that becomes the status quo, we all lose.

It may not seem very obvious this morning, but America is still a nation of ethical principles founded on revolutionary ideals of universal dignity and freedom. We are a nation where human rights values are manifest in our laws, and where we innately know that our (much eroded) tradition of civility in public discourse is necessary if we are to foster our co-existence as a diverse society with a common identity. We are a nation where we have labored hard to create and sustain strong democratic institutions characterized by integrity, self-sacrifice, justice, compassion, and the service of the common good. America is about freedom of religion. America is about caring for the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free”. America is about responsibility to our children and our grandchildren and generations yet unborn, especially in the face of a threat as existential and monumental as global climate change.

That is my America, but this American awoke this morning with a new edge of vulnerability.

My suspicions are that the vast majority of those who voted in Donald Trump yesterday do not view me and those such as me as human beings worthy of respect. If you think locker room talk is corrosive to the dignity of women, that low standard of behavior that the majority of American voters chose to overlook isn’t limited to misogyny and tough-guy boasting. For those who are at home in that particular locker room, there is a special dialogue of enmity and scorn for anyone who dares to challenge the assigned-at-birth gender binary. The prospects for transgender rights were dealt an enormous set-back last night, and that has implications across the civil rights spectrum for so many minorities in this country. While we may all be Americans, we who are members of sexual minorities find ourselves set-aside and “othered”.

Yet…if we bother to try, each of us is able to feel what “America” means. OK, this morning it is harder: it is now more darkly obscured by venal politicians, the irresponsible media, self-righteously intolerant faith leaders, faulty polls that we won’t ever trust again, and by all those Americans who cling to “deplorable” sensibilities and values. Yes, Secretary Clinton was wrong to use that adjective for the people she targeted, but she was absolutely correct using it to describe their behavior and their attitudes – their intolerance, smallness-of-spirit, isolationism, misogyny, racism, and profound lack of civility. “Trump the bitch” is deplorable. Threatening one’s political opponent with jail is deplorable. Promising to renege on the Paris Agreement on global climate change is deplorable. Suggesting that America will return to torturing suspected terrorists with water boarding (or worse) is deplorable.  Urging the summary deportation of millions of undocumented people is deplorable. Claiming Mexican immigrants are all rapists and criminals is deplorable. Closing the country to Muslim visitors and igniting a national witch-hunt against Muslims who are already here is deplorable.

Voting for all of this was deplorable, and frankly beyond my comprehension. Continue reading The fight for America’s soul

Normalizing America – in a vacuum of values

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I would never have believed we, as a nation, could come to this.

Perhaps I should take some comfort in knowing that I’m not alone in my perplexed disbelief. In an op-ed in the Washington Post published today, Republican columnist and former George W. Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson shared his own incredulity, and his words speak directly to my own pre-election anxieties:

“It is almost beyond belief that Americans should bless and normalize Trump’s appeal. Normalize vindictiveness and prejudice. Normalize bragging about sexual assault and the objectification of women. Normalize conspiracy theories and the abandonment of reason. Normalize contempt for the vulnerable, including disabled people and refugees fleeing oppression. Normalize a political tone that dehumanizes opponents and excuses violence. Normalize an appeal to white identity in a nation where racial discord and conflict are always close to the surface. Normalize every shouted epithet, every cruel ethnic and religious stereotype, every act of bullying in the cause of American “greatness” … In the end, a Trump victory would normalize the belief that the structures of self-government are unequal to the crisis of our time.”

Why are such pernicious, appalling values being normalized? Why are so many Americans completely unconcerned as Trump wreaks havoc with truthfulness by doubling down on lies and on his distortions of well-documented facts?  Why are so many Americans committed to a leader who assaults the very premise of our democracy, i.e. that we as a nation are able to rise together in collaboration to address the challenges that confront us, and to seize the opportunities that await us?  Why are so many Americans so  enthusiastic in their support of a leader who takes pride in turning his back on the urgent threat of global climate change – despite the proven (and progressively self-evident) devastating impacts that will affect their own children, grandchildren, and generations yet unborn? Why are the promises of short-term economic gains so alluring, ignoring all of the subsequent trade-offs of long term (and in many cases) irreparable harms to our economy, our environment, our security, and our sense of ourselves as a nation? In short, why are the polls so damnably close, with the election just days away?

My best guess is that we have lost our sense of direction as a nation.  We have no moral compass, and many of us don’t give a damn.

No, a moral compass isn’t the latest app that can be downloaded onto your smartphone. You may know it best by its absence – the lack of any discernible institutionalized process of robust discussion of secular values in our society at large, and specifically in the corridors of governance. Instead, “values” and “morality” have fallen victim to claims associated with narrow ideologies – and to vagueness – with expressions such as “traditional values”, “family values”, the “moral majority”, and even “American values” often being rhetorical devices to advocate for very narrow and often very polarizing political, cultural, or religious objectives. The idea that secular morality and ethics forms a common societal unifying platform – a deliberative space in which people are respected, listened to, and able to share their well-informed and considered views without jeopardy – is now largely a lost notion. Even our fundamental national institution of deliberation, our Congress, has lost even the pretense of deliberative, mutually respectful discourse and debate on the issues that affect us all. When was the last time that Senators or Representatives actually debated an issue?

The mechanism at the heart of any moral compass is ethics – a system of moral values that guides discernment and decision-making. Sadly, that mechanism has atrophied, due in large measure to semantics. Few really know what “ethics” means. In the media and in the public consciousness, “ethics” as a discipline has been narrowly redefined by the lawyers and legislators, who have reduced and reinterpreted the word to mean little more than compliance with codes of conduct and disclosure, with legal requirements, and with avoidance of conflicts of interest (or the appearance thereof). It’s pretty dry stuff, and not likely to stimulate much lively discourse. While compliance and legal propriety have obvious importance, limiting the role of ethics in this way diminishes ethics to nothing more than a skeletal version of its essential secular and governance role.  Secular ethics and morality exist to make our values explicit and meaningful, to provide the societal glue to bind us together and to guide our progress and direction as a society. Through the application of secular ethics, we learn to recognize which values have the most relevance to specific situations, which values deserve to be respected as universal, and how best to use this knowledge to forge a persuasive social consensus on the shared values, rights, and principles that allow us to cohere as a society and as a nation.

In short, we need that moral compass to guide how we normalize the secular values and human rights that ought to define us, and to reject those values that discredit us as a people. Michael Gerson’s description of what is now being “normalized” clearly shows little reference by Americans to the application of such a moral compass.

What might such a moral compass guide us toward? Continue reading Normalizing America – in a vacuum of values

Any room for idealism in a “results-driven” age?

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I often (perhaps too often) post on social media about some urgent human rights, social inclusion, or justice issue that I’m feeling deeply moved by. Such concerns are a very prominent part of who I am and what I’m about, and how I strive in my own small ways to make this a better world. Yet I know that personal and family news always seems to score the highest number of “likes” on Facebook or Twitter postings. When I recently posted about my son Ian’s very positive interview to become a Peace Corps Volunteer (possibly in the West African, Francophone country of Benin) the response was overwhelming. I’ve never received so many “likes” on Facebook, from both Ian’s friends and mine.

While Ian and I await a decision on his application, I’m left to ponder what it is that makes the Peace Corps so special in the American psyche, and so respected by me and by so many people here and in developing countries. And perhaps not surprising for someone with over three decades working as an international development practitioner and activist, I can’t help but compare the Peace Corps model to the evolving and ever-consolidating modern American (and increasingly multinational) development “industry” of for-profit firms and NGOs, fiercely competing for each contract and grant in a tight and under-resourced market.

To be clear, the Peace Corps is not universally admired. It’s regularly criticized as a federal Agency without a clear mission: a development agency that isn’t all that good at sustainable development and one that doesn’t hold its development results or effectiveness abroad up to public scrutiny by hard-pressed American taxpayers. It is castigated as an organization that places Volunteers – many fresh out of college and largely innocent in the ways of the world – into situations that are potentially very dangerous, all for reasons that are not all that clear.  Others see it as yet another example of federal government overreach; a chrysalis of globalization or a taxpayer-sponsored development “boot camp” to forge the future leaders of American development firms and non-profits to be competitive in the international arena. Why should taxpayers carry the burden of transforming Volunteers into dirt-under-their-fingernails global citizens made world-weary by the complexities and impact of poverty, diverse cultural values, and faraway community dynamics? Still others see it as a government sponsored extended summer camp, where mostly young Volunteers go to exotic and remote locations to spend a great deal of time over two years interacting with other Volunteers. And then there are those who simply dismiss the Peace Corps as an idealistic experiment from a bye-gone era, barely relevant to the turbulent and hard-nosed international scene in 2016 – an Agency struggling to retain its aura at a time when President Kennedy, its founder back in 1961, is “ancient history” for most Americans born long afterwards.

That’s quite a blistering critique, but it hardly squares with the enthusiastic outpouring of warmth and support for my son’s application process. So quite clearly, there is another side to the Peace Corps.

I’ve seen that other side again and again in my own career. I’ve experienced it in the resilient enthusiasm and sheer gumption of the many Volunteers whom I used to host to Thanksgiving dinners every year at my home in Nairobi, Kenya during the decade that I worked as an architect there. I’ve seen it in the fond, almost dewy-eyed recollections of so many colleagues in international development as they recall with both pride and immense satisfaction those profoundly formative years from their own service as Peace Corps Volunteers. I’ve also appreciated it being made manifest by the sensitive and wise assessments made by former Volunteers of America’s interactions with complicated foreign cultures, even on such charged and often conflicting values-based situations as women’s equality and the social inclusion of LGBTI persons.

I also recognize my own pride that I feel in my son’s choice. Whether selected or not to become a Peace Corps Volunteer, I’m heartened by his commitment both to public service and to volunteerism. Indeed, I cherish his idealism, as I recall how very difficult it has been in my years of work in international development to find those types of conversations – those passions expressed – among my colleagues, even though it is clearly what motivated most of them into such careers.

We just don’t make space to talk about ideals, or values. But you’ve heard me say that before. Continue reading Any room for idealism in a “results-driven” age?

Gritty Realism vs. a New Woman

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Washington, D.C. abounds with (free) opportunities to participate in erudite deliberations, cutting-edge topical presentations by highly respected experts, and diverse policy discussions including people who actually wield enormous power (or once did). Then there are those by-invitation-only gatherings of the “high-level” people – gatherings beyond the range of mere mortals such as I, with the occasional quirky exception (such as when I was invited to join Ambassador Samantha Power for a dinner). Elite-invitation-envy aside, Washington events are populated with many folks who are unquestionably very smart, remarkably accomplished, influential (just ask them), and affiliated with just the right institutions or government departments (again, just ask them – they expect to be asked).

With the notable exception of the few “fringe” or “radical” gatherings (e.g. feminists, LGBTI people, religious devotees, environmentalists, or philosophers), those who attend the more typical Washington discourse events are also usually quite well-invested in the prevailing paradigm, which is always a variation on the preeminence of Power and Wealth (occasionally made glamorous by close association with Technology). It’s a paradigm + variations that comes with baggage: an almost off-hand acceptance of the many inherent failings of human nature, the wave-of-the-hand disavowal of “old notions” of morality, or a dismissive snicker at the naïveté of anyone idealistic enough to suggest someone might actually be motivated by public service.

No one really talks about public service. Just like no one really talks about integrity, when it is so much more fashionable to frame everything through the lens of corruption. People will be corrupt to the extent that they can get away with it, right? What else is there to say, except to exhort a stop to these corrupt miscreants (who of course by definition are those of us who get caught)?

It goes deeper still, however. There exists an unspoken premise that citizens will always bend to incentive structures that have been cleverly crafted to appear to maximize their individual self-interest, but which are more likely to be all about manipulating people towards ulterior ends, i.e. entrenching and amassing the power and wealth of the elites. And about those ulterior ends… the adjective “nefarious” is usually left off. Why assume motives, eh? The economy will do what it does.

We who frequent such events do take some small measure of comfort knowing that the many conferences and workshops and gatherings in Washington almost always are provisioned with ample – if not particularly good – free coffee. If you’re lucky, or very selective, there’s even free food. No, the food’s not particularly good either, but the price is sweet.

Do I sound just a little despairing of my Washington colleagues? After all, cynicism about humanity and its venal motivations is well supported by so much of history (or at least by what we’ve chosen to report on in our history books, or on Fox news, or on Twitter). It’s become the norm to be suspicious (or knowingly condescending) about the possibility that morality might mean something, or that human dignity has any practical influence. The evidence to the contrary is just so plentiful – as all around the world senseless conflicts rage on, and millions of people are displaced or condemned to a grueling life as refugees. The tally of human suffering is beyond calculation.

So we don’t try.

That’s just “the way it is”, right? Deal with it. Realism means that we’ve long since put aside the ritual wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth. If you’re going to play in this Washington game at this level, you damn well better know the rules. And in the context of international development, conflict management & peacebuilding, and human rights advocacy, the prevailing rules are rooted in the dynamics of power and wealth. Everything else is “soft”. Sure, it’s “nice” to pay rhetorical homage from time to time (and in passing) to ideals like justice, compassion, patriotism, public service, dignity, second-generation human rights, or – dare I even mention it – love, but in the end the players in this game adhere to the well-worn dictates of the patriarchy: only Power and Money (and the self-interest that can be pursued through these) matter.

Period. Continue reading Gritty Realism vs. a New Woman

Questions that remain unanswered – and unasked…

GU lawn

Where did 13 weeks go?

As an ethics professor at the end of a university term, I’m once again challenged by such metaphysical questions…but since I’ve been doing this adjunct gig for the past two decades I’m at least no longer surprised when it all suddenly wraps up. Along the way, I’ve taken great pleasure in the effervescent enthusiasm for learning that my students have contributed to our joint endeavor. Still, I’m troubled… after all these years the most important questions I pose each term remain largely unanswered.

I get it. I know that “ethics” is an uncomfortable word, redolent of images of accountants and lawyers with their ponderously thick books of regulations, accountability standards, codes of conduct, and threats of dire consequences for malfeasance. The type of ethics that I teach however isn’t situated in that dry (if necessary) world of disclosures and compliance obligations. Instead, my modest goal is to teach my public policy students to acquire and use a different vocabulary that has its origin in the moral language of secularism.

In the moral context, that qualifies as a foreign language for the vast majority of people. The language of “ought”, of demands for rational justifications for decisions taken and plans made (usually on behalf of others), and the phraseology of that complicated moral world of good, bad, right, wrong, caring and callous, virtuous and corrupt, and similar values can baffle any of us. When faced with unsolvable moral dilemmas and the weighing of unpleasant trade-offs, wouldn’t we really rather be doing something else, or have someone else (or their rules) telling us what to do? The moral dialogue can be hard; we’d much rather wriggle away from it or pretend it isn’t there.

And most of us do just that…and we get away with it.

Will you be surprised when I assert that ethics can also be a heroic space? Ethical leaders inspire profound transformations. Courageous truth-seekers blow the whistle on self-interested, exploitative, venal officials, or quietly but firmly take principled stands. Some people even choose not to be complacent, when being complacent is so much easier.

Just occasionally (when we’re drained of outrage and indignation) we actually stop long enough to notice those remarkable and often self-effacing people who consistently exemplify integrity and sacrifice. They may not constitute the silent majority, but they are there, all around us. Integrity isn’t a scarce resource, but who would know?

In this day and age, the prevailing ethos is anchored in efficiency, power, and profit. There are very few spaces in our institutions of governance (public or private) or corporate boardrooms where we consciously and regularly set aside time and effort to sharpen our sensibilities about the “greater good”, or to conjecture about the implications of what it might be like were our society marked by fairness, mutual respect, and caring. We seldom consider what it might mean were we to balance our society’s glorification of fierce (and usually “manly”) competitiveness with the sense that our best natures might shine the brightest through collaboration, partnership, reciprocity, and unapologetic idealism. Continue reading Questions that remain unanswered – and unasked…

How’s this for a job pitch?

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What does “human dignity” mean to you? Does it elicit warm and fuzzy feelings? Is it an inspirational term – a call to a higher moral standard perhaps? Or is it instead some ill-defined intellectual notion, associated vaguely with what it means to be a human being, but not something we can operationalize?

Vague? Not for me. Human dignity is the existential core of who I am, and why I – and every human being – deserve to be respected. And no, I’m not claiming some special status. Human dignity is shared in equal measure by every person, but some of us need to remind others of that fact. For anyone who is transgender, reminding the world around us that we’re as deserving of respect for our core humanity and our authentic identity as they are is a daily undertaking. I’m not sure we’re winning…if transgender people are not busy each day having to advocate for our dignity, we are fighting to have our authenticity recognized. That advocacy takes place both morally and legally, but given the near vacuum around secular moral deliberation the public conversation is much more heavily weighed on the legal. Sadly however, law is a field of battle that is only marginally productive in this context, at least in the absence of an equivalently robust moral engagement.

While there have been some legal victories for the human dignity of transgender people in some countries and some American states, that’s the exception and not the rule. We are generally simply classified as “gay” (which many of us emphatically are not, in terms of our sexual orientation) and left to join our beleaguered L,G,and B allies to face the opprobrium of homophobia that is so virulent around the world. As transgender folk we are mostly invisible, unless we’re among those who are struggling to survive in one of the few avenues open to transgender women – as sex workers – where we face extremes of violence almost beyond comprehension. We seldom get the chance to take our public stand on our own terms or on our priority issues, advocating – legally or morally – as dignified and authentic human beings.

That invisibility is slowly being swept away. Too slowly, yes, and often very awkwardly, but through the rising assertiveness of transgender people we are becoming more present. The world is being called to awareness of our existence through our solidarity in advocating a vigorous, in-your-face claim to human dignity. That’s a claim that is spiritually edgy,  morally profound, and legally troubling, and societies around the world are awkward and resistant, or downright abusive, regarding our assertions of human dignity. But human dignity is what we’ve hung our lives and our futures on – and it’s vital to us that we have that conversation with our respective societies.

After all, we’re not going away.

Human dignity however may not be an ideal tactic. One doesn’t need to scratch the surface very deeply to detect a significant vein of cynicism about human dignity. Law professor David Hyman of the University of Illinois, writing in the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy back in 2003, was dismissive:

Human dignity is an abstract aspiration, but policy decisions are necessarily concrete. These decisions must therefore be created and implemented by those “in the trenches,” but there is little evidence to suggest that anyone in the trenches really wants to use human dignity as the touchstone for decision-making or has any particular expertise in this area.

Continue reading How’s this for a job pitch?

Kenya – trouble in paradise

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Spectacular! Stunning!

My quest for superlative adjectives wasn’t up to this, and so I just gazed, wide-eyed but in silence. I shared the small plane with only the pilot – my friend and rock-climbing buddy Frank Barnes – as we flew west from Nairobi towards the Ngong Hills. We stayed relatively close to the fascinating patchwork of farms below, until I gasped; suddenly the earth dropped precipitously away as we crossed over the Escarpment. We soared out in the cloudless sky to the northwest across the Great Rift Valley, and circled lazily over the hikers on the crater trail at the summit of Mt. Longonot volcano (pictured above). Then we circled first north and then eastwards, out across Lake Naivasha and then up to the Aberdares National Park, with snow-capped Mt. Kenya on the horizon. The beauty and grandeur of this country simply overwhelmed me.

Poignantly, that aerial safari was my farewell gift from my friend, the pilot, as I put ten years of living in Kenya behind me and headed back to the United States. Frank would meet an untimely death a few years later while piloting his solo balloon in the UK, but this remarkable hour with him in that small plane will live in my heart for my whole life. So would the realization that God has truly blessed the people of Kenya with one of the most beautiful countries on this planet. Of course my admiration for Kenya extends beyond the breathtaking landscape. Kenyans are a hard-working, hospitable, patriotic and civic-minded people, seeking what we all seek – a chance at a meaningful, happy life within a vibrant community.

So why is this gorgeous country experiencing such bad governance?

OK, my view of Kenya is no longer from the window of a small plane, but I am keeping close watch as I read many reports of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s crackdown on civil society. While such organizations lack the traditional levers of power and wealth, governments around the world have come to respect (and sometimes fear) the influence of civil society organizations (CSOs) to expose government malfeasance, corruption, waste, and inefficiency, and to demand critically needed social services, genuine justice and rule of law, and higher standards of government professionalism. So when Kenya’s CSOs speaks out on challenging topics such as human rights, inadequate social services, corruption, and the government’s ineffectual reaction to various real and imagined threats of terrorism, such criticism rankles those at the top of the political hierarchy who until now have been largely “above criticism”.

These aren’t insignificant crackdowns; recently Kenya threatened 959 CSOs with deregistration. Officially this is attributed to alleged financial irregularities in the way these CSOs are being managed and funded, and I accept that there may be some degree of truth in this assertion. CSOs around the world struggle with very limited and insecure financial resources and with overall “capacity” challenges – i.e. with attracting and retaining well-qualified managerial, accounting, and administrative staff. Being in full compliance with complex government financial reporting requirements may be a particular burden for a few of them.

But 959 of them? Continue reading Kenya – trouble in paradise

Ageism and transphobia? No fun at all…

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At the distinct risk of sounding smug, I can recall many instances in my last job where I would enter into a discussion among co-workers on a vexing issue. I would listen carefully, ponder for a while, and then offer a suggestion. My co-workers would pause, look at me, and smile. “We never thought of that – what a terrific solution!”

This scenario isn’t as self-aggrandizing as it might appear at first blush. I too once sat around such a table, immersed in a similarly insolvable conundrum. In those distant days we’d found our way to a solution or at least a path to a solution, sometimes guided by the input of a mentor, by our own creative thought, or by blind luck. Turning to today, what’s important is the realization that within me is the mental “database” of over three decades of experience – often finding solutions – in international work on development and human rights. That internal database has been built from having carried out projects in 42 countries around the world, of having lived and worked in Africa and Asia for 15 years, and of having earned my way to a Ph.D.

This broad experience and the multitude of ways in which I’ve integrated all of this into my thinking, my attitudes, and my world view is an asset that is available to my younger co-workers. Yes, maybe it’s even now time for me to be the mentor. I’d be happy to give it my best shot.

One of my favorite people in the world and the co-founder of Search for Common Ground, Susan Collin Marks, once shared a personal reflection that I found remarkably illuminating. She recounted to me how, after a very serious illness while she was middle-aged, she was fighting her way back to health. During her difficult recuperation, she thought about her career like an hourglass. The only path to success was to climb your way to the upper part of that hourglass, even though the glass was slippery to climb and as you got closer to the middle, the path before you was more and more constricting. Most of those who were with you in that hourglass were also earnestly in pursuit of a career distinguished by meaningful impacts and progressively more responsibility, but ultimately most fell by the wayside or pursued other paths. Still, the experience of reaching that transition point and entering the upper part of the hourglass was transformative. The way ahead was bright and ever expanding, there was room to “be”, and the pressure of all that fierce competition evaporated. There was nothing more to prove. The ground rules were different too; from this point onward you were valued as much – or more – for your wisdom than for your knowledge.

For those of us of a “certain age” in America, wisdom has become a tough sell. The once-esteemed role of wise mentor has almost entirely been eclipsed and diminished by a new social phenomenon: ageism. That term is defined as stereotyping and discriminating against individuals or groups on the basis of their age. This discrimination may be systematic or causal. The term originated with Pulitzer Prize-winning author and gerontologist-physician Robert Neil Butler, who became the first director of the National Institute on Aging.

For me this is all particularly ironic; having spent a significant and grueling part of my life seeking to overcome the truly pernicious stereotypes that society assigns to people who are transgender, I now confront a new stereotype that is even more pervasive and more deeply entrenched. And while discrimination in America based on age is illegal (except in South Dakota and Arkansas, shame on them), employers are generally far too careful to ever let on that this is the reason for the negative response to that job application I submitted. Still, for those of us who are out there seeking a job, having to come to terms with the demoralizing flood of rejections for jobs that we know with every fiber in our being that we are exceptionally well suited for, the message isn’t subtle at all. We feel marginalized by and disrespected for something we have absolutely no control over – our age. Just like being transgender, getting older isn’t a choice. Continue reading Ageism and transphobia? No fun at all…