Paula Deen and Proposition 8

Quite a week.

Paula Deen brings the “N” word into national discourse, and the Supreme Court strikes down key provisions of the Voting Rights Act.

A day after this stunning reversal in our march toward civil rights, the Defense of Marriage Act is over turned and marriage equality is affirmed.

Hard to make sense of it all.

Two lessons I’ve taken from this week.

The first lesson is about our consumer culture and the role of brands. Paula Deen has been a train wreck this week because she doesn’t understand the difference between a celebrity and a brand. She thinks she’s a celebrity. She’s wrong. The Paula Deen brand is a fantasy of southern warmth and graciousness based around comfort food. It’s a fantasy world where racism (and diabetes) don’t exist. The first blow to the fantasy was her admission that she is in fact diabetic. The uproar over that should have been her first clue to herself as a brand. Consumers project their hopes and aspirations onto a brand – we all wanted to believe we could eat Paula’s food without consequence. When you rip that dream away from us, we get angry.

We also don’t want moral complexity from our brands. When asked under oath is she’d ever used the “N” word, she replied: “Of course.” The worst possible answer – albeit true and authentic to her culture and upbringing. Two sticks of butter we can take, but please don’t serve us the reality of race relations in America. No one has an appetite for that!

Failing to understand brand dynamics, her horrendous defense this week has only made the problem worse, and her brand has become aligned with Mel Gibson, Michael Richards and many others. The Food Network and Smithfield Foods, fully understanding brand dynamics, have run as quickly as they could from her.

The second lesson, from both Paula and from the Prop 8 battle, is about our need to simplify and reduce people to a single label – to treat each other as brands instead of people. Labeling Paula Deen a racist makes all of us feel better about our own degrees of racism – we can point to “it” over there as if none of “it” was also inside of us. When we divide the world up that way, and group people as racist, homophobic, sexist, etc, we reduce them to something more like brands than like the people they truly are. We deprive them of the ability to be complex, to grow, and to change. Even the redemption narrative, so common in our culture, requires a bipolar theory of life: you were one thing, now you’re redeemed and you’ve become its opposite.

This point came home to me reading about a family in California that had been very involved in the fight in favor of Proposition 8, banning gay marriage. From the LA Times:

Wendy Montgomery, 37, of Bakersfield and her husband supported Proposition 8 in 2008 but changed their position “180 degrees” after they learned their 13-year-old son was gay a year and a half ago. Montgomery, a practicing Mormon, said she voted for the measure and spent a couple of days canvassing and working on a phone bank for it.

“We’re Mormon. The church asked us to participate in Prop. 8, and we did, pretty much unthinking,” she said.

When her son came out, he told his parents he had at first planned never to tell them he was gay, because he thought they hated gay people because they had supported Proposition 8.

I suspect in 2008 most of us would have described the Montgomery’s as homophobes and bigots.  But what seems so clear to me is that they are in fact thoughtful loving people who work very hard to incorporate their faith with the reality of everyday life. They are complex people capable of growth and change, exactly the sort of people I’d like to have in my life.

If we’re to stay on a path toward justice, we need to create a world where Paula Deen and the Montgomery’s are real in the public discourse as full people, not simply as labels, and where their own personal growth is supported and acknowledged, along with our own.

So from this week I’m going to try to do better avoiding labels and embracing the complexity of my fellow humans.

And maybe a little less butter…………..


Liberal flag-wavers…………

I had an interesting experience last week.

A friend who knows me pretty well but had never been to my home was dropping something off. She had the address, but wasn’t sure she had the right house.

Walking up the steps she saw the American flag hanging by the front door, and immediately thought: “This can’t be Mike’s house.” Then she saw a little terra cotta rabbit in the front garden, and said “This definitely isn’t Mike’s house!”


Putting aside the rabbit for a minute………….what is it about me that would cause a smart and sophisticated person to conclude that I would never have an American flag flying outside my home?

When she told me the story, I explained that as a liberal, I wasn’t willing to cede patriotism to conservatives, and that I didn’t think she should either. A rich and wonderful conversation ensued.

I am a proud liberal. I believe that government action can be a powerful tool to improve the lives of the poor, to advance the cause of civil rights for all Americans, to protect our food supply, to educate our children, even to provide our healthcare. I’m often frustrated by the pace of advancement, but never do I lose hope. I fly our flag as a symbol of my hope in America.

In my life I’ve seen enormous change, almost more than I can fathom. How can you consider the speed with which our armed forces have implemented the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and not see irrefutable evidence of our power as a nation to move forward quickly, together? I fly our flag as a symbol of my confidence in America.

My father, like most men of his generation, served in World War II as radio man in a bomber. My aunt was a nurse in the Pacific. Other uncles served also, in one of the monumental struggles of good against evil, where this country defended freedom for the entire world. I fly our flag in gratitude for their service to America.

Yet “flag waver” evokes in liberals a type of person that we’re too quick to diminish and dismiss. If we’re truly the advocates for progress and the holders of hope, then we should be waving the flag higher than anyone.  

Oh, and the rabbit? My mother gave it to me, and it’s cute. Give me a break!

Bunny Rabbit

Non Profit Innovation

Who pays the costs for innovation?

I recently sat through a painful session on non-profit innovation, and how failure can be a marker of innovation.  Now I’m not opposed to innovation, mind you, I’m just amazed at the way the practice has been glorified at the expense of accountability.

Three examples of failure that spurred innovation were presented:

  • First, Hull House in Chicago. The legendary social services agency went out of business in June of 2012, after 122 years of providing social service to Chicago’s poor.  This massive failure left tens of thousands of clients stranded without access to vital services.  The agency had become overly dependent on government funding, and as that shrunk, the business model was no longer viable.  The “lesson” from this failure was that non-profits needed to diversify their funding streams.
  • Second was an interesting start-up, Benevolent.  They have experimented with crowd sourcing philanthropy, creating a platform for individual client to bring their needs to the funding community.  The instructive failure was two individuals who needed massive dental reconstruction in order to be competitive in the job market. The learning was that the price point was too high for crowd sourcing and that the particular need wasn’t compelling to donors.
  • Third was a full blown cluster-f**k of first world innovation failing massively in the developing world.  The Case Foundation, with much fan fare, bankrolled something called “PlayPumps” to bring reliable water to small communities in Africa.  As the Case Foundation program officer detailed, the pumps replaced functioning systems with a new system that was expensive to install, difficult to maintain, and too often placed in communities where there weren’t enough children to make it viable.  Case admitted the failure in a courageous blog post.  More problematically, they ascribe this failure to being innovative, where it seems to me a striking failure in due diligence, and a failure to partner with the folks on the ground, both the existing infrastructure of aid workers, and the communities themselves.

All of these examples of learning through failure have one common thread – the people impacted were poor people of color.  To her credit, Megan Kashner of Benevolent made this point throughout the presentation, but she seemed to be a lone voice.

Innovation is all the rage – but not for communities like Scarsdale, Bethesda and Brentwood.  Innovation is practiced in Anacostia, and Harlem and Compton.  Why might that be?

If social innovation had to adhere to the rules of medical testing, there would be an IRB and informed consent required before anyone conducted these experiments.

Is it time for that in the social sector?


The Most Infuriating Song Ever!

Who listens to lyrics, right?  All the song needs is a beat, a hook, and if it’s by a diva, then even better.

Yet I become physically sick every time I’m in a bar and I hear Kesha’s “Die Young” blare from the speakers.

The first time I heard it I know exactly where I was – in that kinda “where were you when the plane hit the first tower” way.  It was December 1st (World AIDS Day) and I was in a rental car driving into West Hollywood – one of a dozen “Ground Zeroes” in the AIDS epidemic.

I was astonished by lyrics celebrating that we might “die young!”  It felt like sacrilege.  Like dancing on the graves of the dead of West Hollywood and mocking the people they’d left behind.

But it’s not really Kesha that infuriates me.  It’s my brethren standing in bars bopping to the beat as if the last twenty five years didn’t happen!

The guys my age who should know better, because we lived it.

Sure, I get that we’d rather forget.  But we shouldn’t.

And the younger guys, who grew up in a different reality, a healthier reality with greater acceptance and the promise of civil rights – all built by a generation that did die young.

Brutally young.

Too many of them take for granted the sacrifice that has given them health, opportunity and hope, and far too many of them squander that sacrifice through barebacking and PNP.

So the song makes me crazy.

Its pounding rhythm makes me want to move.

Seeing a room full of gay men shouting the words makes me want to cry.