The Lenten Discipline of Checking One’s Privileges

As I start reading the introduction to The Postmodern Bible, I’m reminded of David Foster Wallace’s This is Water.

It starts off with

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says "Morning, boys. How's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes "What the hell is water?"

To apply it to Biblical studies, water is the cultural context we are surrounded by when we read the bible, a context we are probably not even aware of. As we read the scriptures, we turn around the creation story and recreate God in our image, because that is the image we know and understand. Megyn Kelly recreates Jesus as a white conservative and James Hal Cone speaks of God in terms of black power.

As I think back of my journey to understand Christianity, as well as to understand cultural constructs like whiteness and blackness, maleness and femaleness, straightness and gayness, transness and cisness, I shudder at the presumptions I made about how to love my neighbor.

These days, these ideas are reflected in phrases like “Your privilege is showing” or “check your privilege”. Perhaps that is a good Lenten discipline, checking one’s privilege. Perhaps as we sit and read the Bible, we need to think about how much our interpretation and understanding of the verses comes from our own privileges.

Back to David Foster Wallace’s This is Water; towards the end of his commencement speech, he pulls it all together with

If you're automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won't consider possibilities that aren't annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

Checking one’s privilege, pay attention, looking for other options, perhaps this needs to be part of Biblical Studies and Lenten discipline.

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A Postmodern Cyber Lenten Discipline

The past month has been particularly rough, and I’ve gotten very little time for writing. This is my first blog post of March after only getting up about seven blog posts last month. At other times in my life I had years of getting at least one blog post up every day. Things are settling down a little bit and hopefully I’ll be able to get back to writing more regularly.

Various friends have talked about what they’re giving up for Lent, but I’ve been thinking some other sort of Lenten Discipline might make more sense for me this year, so I’ve been thinking of spending time studying and journaling.

My starting point has been to try and figure out, in my own mind, how my interests in cyberspace, social justice and Christianity fit together. My first thought was to spend time reading some liberation theology. I had been thinking of Introducing Liberation= Theology by Leonardo and Clodovis Boff, which I’ve read some good reviews of, but I can’t find a copy of it in the Connecticut Library system. I’ve looked around for other books to read, but I haven’t found one that jumps out at me.

Liberation theology is one if the themes I’ve been interested in pulling together, but there are some others as well. One web page I found theology of cyberspace provides a bunch of interesting links I’m considering exploring. These include a message from John Paul II about computer culture and a Pontifical Council document about Ethics of Internet. These are old documents, but look interesting.

Then there is the work of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. One link was to Toward a Theology of the Web: Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Cyberconsciousness. This led to an article in Wired, A Globe, Clothing Itself with a Brain I see that The Phenomenon of Man is available in a nearby public library, so I may pick this up as I dig deeper into my reflections.

As I thought more about it, I remembered a book my eldest daughter got me for Christmas a couple years ago, The Postmodern Bible.

So, I set out on a journey. Forty days wandering through reflections, if not lost in the wilderness. Let’s see if I can coalesce many of my thoughts and interests in this exercise.

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The Better Deal

On Thursday, Connecticut House Republican’s Chief of Staff George Gallo resigned as the word spread about a federal investigation into how candidates used a direct mail firm out of Florida. People asked me if that wasn’t the same firm that my opponent used in 2012. It was. Yet I don’t think she is any more culpable in this than Chris Donovan was in the improprieties that took place in his Congressional campaign. It is easy to suggest that the candidate either knew, or should have known about possible illegal activity. It is too easy. It doesn’t get to the real issues. Perhaps it simply reflects one of the bigger issues.

In the Hartford Courant article about Gallo, former state GOP Chairman Chris Healy, talking about direct mail firm simply states, “we got a better deal”. A cynic might ask what that deal was. Was there any sort of illegal quid quo pro in the better deal? But this, too, perhaps doesn’t get to the real issue.

I often quote Randy Pausch’s Last Lecture in my blog, and I’ll provide a more complete version of one of my favorite quotes here:

OK, and so one of the expressions I learned at Electronic Arts, which I love, which pertains to this, is experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted. And I think that’s absolutely lovely. And the other thing about football is we send our kids out to play football or soccer or swimming or whatever it is, and it’s the first example of what I’m going to call a head fake, or indirect learning. We actually don’t want our kids to learn football. I mean, yeah, it’s really nice that
I have a wonderful three-point stance and that I know how to do a chop block and all this kind of stuff. But we send our kids out to learn much more important things. Teamwork, sportsmanship, perseverance, etcetera, etcetera. And these kinds of head fake learning are absolutely important.
And you should keep your eye out for them because they’re everywhere.

What candidates want is to get elected, but most of them don’t get elected, they just get experience. This experience might help them get elected the next time around. It might turn them bitter against the system, or it might inspire something greater.

Why do we want to get elected? Hopefully, it is to make their communities better places, and this gets back to the quote from Chris Healy. What is that ‘better deal’ he spoke about?

On my campaign, we often spoke about who we would purchase our services from. We wanted to make our community a better place, and we argued whether it was better to get services from companies in the district, or if it made more sense to use less expensive companies in other parts of Connecticut. It was a difficult balance, and I don’t know how well we really did on it, but at least we didn’t spend most of our budget, a large amount of which came from a Connecticut state grant, with companies in Florida.

We also had people offer us great deals because they were friends that believed in our campaign. We sought to make sure that everyone was paid fairly for the work they did and that there was no expectation of quid quo pro, real or perceived.

Yet most importantly, the focus was on issues. I wanted to talk about health and education. I did. I wished I could have gotten into more discussions about these issues. I wish people would engage more on the issues our state faces instead of making decisions based on a few pieces of mail crafted by political consultants in Florida. I wish more political coverage in the traditional media could be about the issues, and not the horse race and the corruption.

Hopefully, I moved the needle a little bit in that direction. No, I didn’t get elected, but I got “the better deal”.

Health Equity and the 2014 CT Legislative Session

Last year, as a member of the Connecticut Health Foundation’s Health Leadership Fellows Program the group I was part of mapped out plans for bring Health Impact Assessments into Connecticut policy decisions, especially the state legislative process.

A key component of this plan was to improve the way health advocates work together during the legislative session. We set up a Google Group, CT Health Equity Bills to discuss this. As we enter another legislative session, members are encouraged to discuss upcoming bills and opportunities to testify.

I must admit, prior to becoming a CT Health Foundation fellow, I would often be asked to support various bills, and I rarely thought about these bills in terms of the impact they would have on health equity, and I suspect that many legislators don’t think about bills in terms of health equity the way I believe they should.

The Connecticut Health Foundation has published a blog post, Things We’ll Be Looking Out For During the 2014 Legislative Session. While it doesn’t address specific bills, it provides an important framework for this year’s session. I have been speaking with other organizations and hope to share thoughts about their agendas as well.

Meanwhile, I’m already getting messages from activists to support different bills. One of the first bills I received a message about was S.B. No. 23 AN ACT CONCERNING BENEFIT CORPORATIONS AND ENCOURAGING SOCIAL ENTERPRISE.. Friends have pointed me to a Change.org petition uring the senate to take up SB 23 this year.

it is early in the session and I don’t know what SB 23 is going to look like by the end of the session, but I strongly support the goal. Yet I hadn’t been thinking of this bill in terms of health equity. My gut feeling is that it won’t harm efforts for health equity and has the potential to benefit health equity efforts, but beyond that, I haven’t really thought it out much.

Then, at dinner last night, I got into a fascinating discussion with a friend from Yale’s Global Health Initiative. She was at a conference where people were talking about using a social impact exchange as a means of encouraging social entrepreneurship and investment in Haiti to deal with the issues of cholera.

While I do expect the passage of SB 23 to lead quickly to the issue of Social Impact Bonds, or the establishing of a social impact exchange, and a resulting improvement in efforts to address health equity in the state, it does seem like a step in the right direction.

Another bill I was contacted about was S.B. No. 120 AN ACT CONCERNING DYSLEXIA AND SPECIAL EDUCATION.. “To include dyslexia detection, recognition and intervention education as part of the professional development program for teachers and to amend the state IEP form to include dyslexia.”

With sponsors ranging from Sen. Bye to Rep. Cafero, this seems like a pretty straight forward broadly supported bill. Yet even with a bill like this, it is important to think about how it relates to health equity. Are there disparities in the diagnosis and treatment of dyslexia in Connecticut? How are they tracked? How will they be tracked and corrected?

A final bill for this blog post: H.B. No. 5144 AN ACT CONCERNING ACCESS TO BIRTH CERTIFICATES AND PARENTAL HEALTH INFORMATION FOR ADOPTED PERSONS., “To provide adult adopted persons, twenty-one years of age or older, access to their biological parents' health information and information in the person's original birth certificate or record.”

A friend contacted me about this bill. She was adopted as a child and does not have access to information about her biological parents. While it is easy to think of this in terms idle curiosity that an adopted child might have about their history, there are important health issues to consider. Are there biological family history information that could help the adopted child better deal with their own health? Again, I don’t know much about the health equity aspects of this. Are there disparities in access to birth and health information by adopted children along racial or ethnic lines? Would this bill help address such disparities?

Over the coming days, I expect I will hear more about these and other bills. I hope you’ll join me in thinking about the impact these bills would have on health equity in our state.

Teaching Kids About Socially Responsible Investing

This evening, I received a distressed phone call from my twelve year old daughter who has been riding out the snow storm at her grandparents house. She has a project due for school tomorrow as part of a ‘stock project’. She is supposed to learn about investing, or something like that.

She was trying to find key indicators about Burger King’s stock. She didn’t seem to have a sense at what these indicators meant or why they were important. She just needed to copy them from a website onto her homework page. She watched an online video about how to get the information, but when she tried to do what the video told her, she was told she needed to buy premium access to Morningstar. She called home about that and we told her in no uncertain terms, no.

I have nothing against Morningstar. I’ve used it in the past when I was a more active investor. Years ago, I even completed my Series 7 exam to be a registered broker. I didn’t really need Series 7 registration. I was working as a technologist on a trading desk. However, it was interesting and I’m glad I did it.

I tried to talk her through finding the data she wanted from the free part of Morningstar’s site, or from other sites like Google Finance, Yahoo Finance or Bloomberg. In the end, we just gave up. It was not worth the aggravation, and I have some serious questions about the lesson being taught.

I can see the importance of sixth graders learning how to use ratios in the real world and even things like rates of change. Yet it did not seem like this was what was being taught. I can see the importance of understanding how stocks and bonds, and even options and indices work, but that did not seem to be what was being taught. As an aside, learning about indices is probably more important because these days it is hard for an individual investor to outperform mutual funds or index related investments. I can see the importance of teaching kids to save and to make wise investments.

I’ve always been a fan of employee owned companies. Invest in where you work. If the employees have skin in the game, they’re more likely to see that their company performs well. Yet that is not a well diversified strategy. Employee ownership and diversification of investments are probably even more interesting topics to teach to kids.

Yet it seemed like the biggest issue is what is the goal of investing. I suspect most people will immediately suggest maximizing return. Yet is this what we really want to be teaching our children? Where does social responsibility fit in? Do we want our children to focus on maximizing their wealth at the expense of others? Are we espousing a virtue of selfishness, or could there be other, more important issues in investing?

I did a quick search on “teaching kids about socially responsible investing”. I got all kinds of information about teach kids about investing and about corporate social responsibility, but nothing good for kids about how the two fit together. The closest I found to anything useful was United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ webpage about Socially Responsible Investment Guidelines . While I have many disagreements with the Catholic Church on various issues, I thought this was well worth reading and I look forward to discussing it with Fiona when I get a chance.

The section that jumped out at me was

Although it is a moral and legal fiduciary responsibility of the trustees to ensure an adequate return on investment for the support of the work of the church, their stewardship embraces broader moral concerns. As part owners, they must cooperate in shaping the policies of those companies through dialogue with management, through votes at corporate meetings, through the introduction of resolutions and through participation in investment decisions.

While my moral viewpoints don’t always align with the Catholic Church, I believe we can, and should, discuss the “broader moral concerns” in investing. We might even want to discuss these concerns in education and the core curriculum.

What is core to your curriculum? Where does creativity, cooperation and compassion fit in? What are the lessons that are really being taught?

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