Thursday, November 30, 2006

Beyond NON-FICTION: A HAND TO GUIDE ME by Denzel Washington

Speaking of shopping….

I seem to be on the lookout for meaningful gifts lately. I first saw a description of A Hand to Guide Me on Matt’s Empathy blog. Then it came across my radar again on the blog of book marketing master (as well as prolific author and fellow Syracuse alum) M.J. Rose.

The brainchild of M.J. Rose and bestselling author Stan Pottinger, A Hand to Guide Me is comprised of more than 70 personal stories from a diverse group of celebrities that includes Denzel Washington, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, Bonnie Raitt, Gloria Steinem, Cal Ripken, Whoopi Goldberg, Antwone Fisher, Alex Rodriguez, and Dick Vitale. Portions of sales will benefit the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.

Denzel Washington has become the face of the Boys and Girls Clubs of America as the organization’s national spokesperson. His story of his involvement with the Mt. Vernon, N.Y., Boys Club and the “push” he received from “someone who cares” lies at the core of this book. Denzel Washington also penned the book’s introduction as well as intros to each celebrity’s story. All the stories explore how mentoring can change lives, a topic that hits close to home for me as I’ve recently embarked on my first stint as a creative writing mentor for a very talented fifth grader in a local school. While A Hand to Guide Me will surely raise significant funds for the Boys and Girls Clubs of America (which serves more than 4.5 million children), chances are it will also inspire at least a few readers to seek out ways they can make a difference in their communities.

So for everyone on your list who loves to read personal stories of triumph from celebrities (and/or has a crush on Denzel Washington!), consider wrapping up a few copies of this “do-good gift” and know you’re giving the gift of a bestselling book…and much more.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Beyond FIESTAS: ProGroup’s 2007 Honoring Differences Diversity Calendar

Talk about an unusual gift idea.

I’ve featured Minneapolis-based ProGroup before; it helps companies offer coaching, mentoring, training, electronic solutions, and innovative cultural audits designed to identify and address diversity issues in the workplace. And I just came across their site advertising the 2007 Honoring Differences Diversity Calendar. Designed for organizations that wish to “reinforce a message of inclusion and respect year-round,” the Diversity Calendar highlights cultural holidays and events celebrated by groups from all over the world, with an index divided by religion, culture, and country, as well as helpful tips on how to appropriately recognize all the holidays featured. The basic calendar runs only $16 with group discounts available. There’s also an on-line version as well as a “data set” for the technically inclined who like to download important dates.

Apparently ProGroup hears from managers of diverse groups who greatly appreciate the annual diversity calendar and refer to it before scheduling anything. I’d think it would provide a pretty nifty educational tool for teachers and parents, too. Shop on!

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Beyond THE FUTURE: “Oneida Indian Nation Works to Recover its Language”

I always get homesick around the holidays, so any news from upstate New York is welcome this time of the year. I was happily surprised to chance upon a Morning Edition story on NPR this past Monday, “Oneida Indian Nation Works to Recover its Language,” that highlighted an encouraging story about the Oneida Indians who used to populate much of New York State. Limited now to a reservation 30 miles east of my hometown of Syracuse, the Oneida Nation of New York has made news in the past with a highly profitable and popular casino as well as other business ventures. Turns out a significant portion of Oneida Nation profits are funneled into educational programs, some of which have led to immersion classes in the formerly nearly defunct Oneida language.

To hear people speak a language that’s not only foreign but is also rarely heard is an educational experience in itself. As I listened to the story I tried to make sense out of the sounds taught to represent “man” and “woman” in a beginners’ class for Oneida speakers. One thing that rang clear was the teacher’s patience and love for the language she was teaching. One student told the story of her parents, both of whom spoke Oneida, who had not passed that language onto their daughter. They had been punished—beaten—for speaking their native tongue when they were sent to “white” schools as children. Our government was determined to assimilate Native Americans into a whitewashed culture that left no room for their heritage, and abusing children was considered appropriate means toward that sad end.

Luckily some tribes have survived and, like the Oneida Nation, are flourishing. I know the piece of country these people call home, and I’m so happy to hear they’re doing well. To resurrect a native language must make one feel as though she’s resurrecting a lost piece of her being; to build and maintain such a bridge with an ancient heritage must contribute to the well-being of every person involved. I have a feeling if and when that one student becomes a parent, she’ll speak to her children in Oneida, and they’ll do the same with their own.

One thing I always love about going home is hearing the sounds of my family’s voices. My brothers sound like each other and my dad; my sisters sound like each other and my mom. Not exactly alike, of course, but it’s the inflections and the facial expressions, the familial sense of humor and the years of knowing each other that contribute so much to holiday conversations. So I’ll call today and hear some of those voices, and I’ll be happy to hear them across long-distance telephone lines. Then I’ll start counting down to the next time I’ll get on a plane to make the cross-country trek that will once again bring me to a place I cherish, where loved ones’ voices remind me of who I am, and where I’ve always belonged.

Stunning acrylic on canvas artwork “Celebration of the Three Sisters” by Dave Hill of the Oneida Nation © 2001. The Three Sisters in some Native American cultures refer to corn, beans, and squash.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Beyond FINESSE: Have Fun • Do Good, Global Girlfriend, and the Amber Chand Collection

Thanks again to Matt over at Empathy for posting on Monday about the upbeat and generous blog, Have Fun • Do Good. Britt Bravo (I know; what a great name!) of Oakland puts those looking for fun and helpful ways to make a difference in this world in touch with worthy causes and charities that could use their help. In her November 17 post on holiday shopping with a charitable twist, Britt highlights Global Girlfriend, which happens to be headquartered right here in my little neck of the woods south of Denver.

A “fair trade boutique” that sells products that benefit women’s human rights and hand-made goods made by women’s non-profits and cooperatives, Global Girlfriend offers a wide selection of stylish and stunning gifts. As Stacey Edgar has stated in numerous magazine articles and newspaper features on her unique company, many women worldwide try to make a living by selling their handicrafts but have little access to market opportunities. Global Girlfriend provides consumers easy and very affordable access to the works of such artisans.

Groups that benefit from Global Girlfriend’s efforts include the Women’s Bean Project of Denver, the Enterprising Kitchen of Chicago, the Gathering Place of Denver, Rosie’s Place of Boston, The Gemini Trust of Ethiopia, and many more. Check out the colorful beaded Masai bangle bracelets created by women in a Tanzanian craft cooperative for $12 or the Be Strong beaded lariat made by women in Nepal for $28. And that’s just in the jewelry section of the Global Girlfriend on-line catalog, which also features apparel, gifts for the home, gifts for girls, handbags and accessories, even hand-made paper products. It’s so refreshing to find unique gifts in an on-line store; it’s even more refreshing to know that each purchase contributes to the well-being of another human being.

In her post on Global Girlfriend, Britt also invited readers to share info on other sites that sell “do good gifts.” One visitor mentioned the Amber Chand site that features “global gifts for peace and understanding.” Here’s that company’s simple yet powerful statement:

“The Amber Chand Collection offers unique gifts created by talented craftswomen who live in regions of conflict and post-conflict. Each object we present is an expression of skilled workmanship and design emerging out of rich, vibrant cultural traditions in which women are often the keepers of the creative flame. We work with craftswomen who are the inadvertent victims of war, genocide and civil strife—and celebrate women’s hands as a force for peace and women's voices as the enduring strength of their fragile communities.”

Founder Amber Chand also has been featured in numerous publications. While her collection continues to grow, check back often to see what’s been added to a colorful line that now includes the Darfur basket of strength, the Cambodian silk bag of smiles, the Kabul necklace of courage, the Jerusalem candle of hope, and the Mayan harmony necklace and bracelet.

Women like Britt Bravo of Have Fun • Do Good, Stacey Edgar of Global Girlfriend, and Amber Chand of the Amber Chand Collection know what it takes not only to acknowledge what people in need all over the world endure, but to do something about it. Their efforts truly make a difference. Happy shopping!

Friday, November 17, 2006


This one is going to the top of my wish list. Editor Chandra Prasad, author of works ranging from the Outwitting the Job Market guide to the forthcoming novel On Borrowed Wings has put together an impressive collection of short stories by new as well as established writers in Mixed. Prasad, a Yale graduate who’s of Indian, Italian, Swedish, and British descent, wisely chose to include personal insights from contributing authors regarding not only the stories at hand, but the impact of their “mixed” heritages on their lives and writings. Contributors include Danzy Senna as well as Prasad and a long list of writers with unique perspectives on the many issues inherent in living “the multiracial experience.”

A release about this anthology states that Mixed contributors “give voice to the multiple identities of a rising generation.” This idea of multiple identities remains so intriguing to me; as our country becomes more diverse, people who may look like they ought to fit certain stereotypes are going to break out of those stereotypes as a matter of course, befuddling all those who insist on hanging onto such stereotypes. And what better way to explore such shifting realities than through stories? There remains limited fiction in print regarding the challenges faced by people of mixed-race or cross-cultural heritage. Let’s hope the publication of Mixed paves the way for many more novels and short-fiction anthologies written to explore the realities of lives that are indeed “mixed” in so many ways.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Beyond FACTS: Barack Obama and the Ever-Present Question of Race in America

NPR’s Talk of the Nation show yesterday featured journalist Benjamin Wallace-Wells and a discussion of the potential impact of racial and/or gender discrimination on the presumed upcoming face-off between Democractic Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Wallace-Wells wrote an op-ed piece that appeared in last Sunday’s Washington Post in which he questioned the willingness of American voters to put either a black man or a woman (presumably of any race) in the White House.

The on-air discussion was intriguing, with the first caller spouting off about the irrelevance of the questions posed and how she resented their premise. I believe she considered herself enlightened to state that a candidate’s race or gender should have no impact on how a voter votes, but instead she sounded naïve about the continued reality of discrimination against so many people in this country. Racism, ageism, sexism…they all still exist, like it or not. And yes, race and gender will influence how some people vote, regardless of candidates’ political records or auspicious plans.

While reading the Wallace-Wells op-ed piece, I came to consider the writer a bit naïve, too. Questions of gender aside (and I have plenty of those in regards to the Wallace-Wells article), I can’t help but wonder that anyone would think electing a black person president would in any way put “that old race stuff behind us.” “The election of a black man,” Wallace-Wells writes, “would be a particularly American achievement, an affirmation of American ideals and a celebration of American circumstances.” Sounds wonderful, but I have to admit I remain skeptical on this one. The fact does remain, however, that Obama discusses his racial identity with much comfort and candor. Many Democrats hope he will use that comfort level as well as his charisma to bridge divides within the party and perhaps even those that exist between the two major parties.

Certainly the issues of intolerance and discrimination in the U.S. run far too deep to be remedied with a simple election, but if people feel good about putting a young family man with a positive attitude in the White House, I’m all for it…as long as he’s the best person for the job. From what I’ve read about Obama, he sounds like a much better candidate than many others we’ve seen in recent history. And if Obama’s success on his recent book tour is any indication, I’d say it’s safe to bet people of many backgrounds will opt to hang their hopes on his rising star, hopes that a very new, unique, intelligent, and empathetic leader will help lead our country and our world to better days and a brighter future. That’s a lot to expect from a relatively inexperienced politician, but if Obama’s repeated calls for assistance to the people of Darfur, Sudan, show anything, at least they show his heart’s in the right place. Skin color shouldn’t impact important decisions for voters, but it always will. Maybe in 2008 that impact will have positive results.

Thanks to my little sister in Chicago-land, Kristen, for links to the Illinois senator’s site and this site regarding the dire needs of the people of Darfur. Some day, peace will prevail.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Beyond FANFARE: The Long Road Ahead...and the Need for a Little Tenderness

It’s tempting to celebrate, to sing “Happy Days are Here Again” after waking to the news that voters had swept so many non-Republican leaders into offices across the country. Here in traditionally Republican Colorado, despite lines that really did run out the door and down the street and force people to wait two hours (two hours!) to vote, the results were exciting. But there’s so much to be done that we really have no time to celebrate. Other headlines this morning served a more sober wake-up call: 60 people “killed or found dead” in Iraq, for example. Voters have sent a message to Washington that they’re tired of the tough guy approach that’s led to so much suffering and grief in our world, that they want leaders who lead with honesty, integrity, and empathy for the well-being of all people.

Over at Empathy (, Matthew says his blog is designed to “propel compassion and awareness,” and he does that with insightful posts, soothing photos, and lists of terrific resources for people I like to call “socially conscious.” Check out his current post on the Free Hugs campaign, then watch the video with your volume turned UP. This is what we want for America; the ability to reach out to the international community with openness and even a little vulnerability, to remind everyone that we stand for what’s right and good in this world, that we’re here to help.

It doesn’t take much to make a difference; hopefully our newly elected or re-elected governors, senators, and representatives—from all parties—will take to heart the call for a new way of leading this country. Hopefully they’ll help us achieve an era in which the U.S. is viewed as a diplomatic powerhouse with a huge heart rather than a narrow-minded bully. Hopefully they’ll come to realize it’s okay to be a little vulnerable in order to reach across difficult divides in the hope that real, lasting peace might someday be achieved.

If they don’t, they’ll have to face more disgruntled Americans like the future voter pictured above; voters who won’t hesitate to put their hands on their hips, to stand in line for hours, to look into a camera and imply (maybe even with a little attitude), that they elected their leaders for a reason…and they expect those leaders to act accordingly. So, for her sake and the sake of so many others, let’s get to work.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Beyond FICTION: HALF OF A YELLOW SUN by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Awareness promotes understanding, and author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie raises awareness of a critical time in Nigerian history in her powerhouse of a second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun. Awareness also promotes tolerance when it reveals how discrimination can lead to destruction on an immense scale. When the Igbo people of eastern Nigeria were murdered in mass numbers in the 1960s, a revolution for independence was sparked, lives began to unravel, normalcy for many became a thing of the past. And, as so often remains the case, the international community turned away as innocent men, women, and children were butchered, bombed, or left to starve.

Sound familiar? It’s happening now and will happen again. I read Half of a Yellow Sun and was reminded of the movie Hotel Rwanda and the slaughter of innocents and lack of international assistance documented there. In a Yellow Sun scene in which one of Adichie’s main characters meets two American journalists who’ve arrived to report on the war, Adichie notes “the rule of Western journalism: One hundred dead black people equal one dead white person.” I heard this from black American Civil Rights activists recorded for the Eyes on the Prize documentary. I heard this in a recent interview with Paul Rusesabagina, the hotel manager portrayed in Hotel Rwanda. And I’m fairly sure many others—like the people of Darfur, Sudan—feel the same way. I read Half of a Yellow Sun and despaired.

I also read Half of a Yellow Sun and marveled at the disconnections Adichie so expertly explored: the separations from family; the emotional crises in a marriage; the loved ones lost to the military or to bombings or to brutal massacres; the loved ones simply lost. And yet hope prevails, because where there are disconnections there are also struggles to reconnect, and sometimes—even for a brief while—those efforts make a difference. The extent to which people often are forced to go—or choose to go—to establish connections (or to bridge the painful void when a disconnection is forced upon them) says something about our innate need to bond and draw strength from one another. All this is mined throughout the pages of Half of a Yellow Sun. While revealing intimate details of individuals affected by war and personalizing war in a creative, memorable manner, Adichie lays it all out—the despair experienced when a loved one is lost to us, the anger that overwhelms when a loved one is taken from us—and challenges the international community not to turn away from the suffering that persists in Africa and elsewhere.

The sisters in Half of a Yellow Sun, beautiful Olanna and tough Kainene, recall their Grandpapa’s belief that “it gets worse and then it gets better. O dikata njo, o dikwa mma.” And in her Author’s Note at the book’s conclusion, Adichie reflects on the way her father “ended his many stories with the words agha ajoka,” which she translates as “war is very ugly.” Adichie notes that “he and my defending and very devoted mother…have always wanted me to know, I think, that what matters is not what they went through but that they survived.” So many survived, and so many will survive the conflicts of today and tomorrow. The fact remains that we as a world continue to fail to find peaceful resolutions to what ails us. It’s this simple, confounding fact that makes books like Half of a Yellow Sun weighted with meaning and crucial to our feeble attempts to comprehend the human condition.

Thanks to Patry Francis over at Simply Wait for recommending Half of a Yellow Sun and then giving me a deadline for finishing it! Read more reviews of this book through Patry’s nifty new Third Day Book Club.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Beyond FACTS: Community Conversations Hosted by Facing History and Ourselves

I’m bummed I couldn’t go. The latest event in a series of eleven Community Conversations hosted by Facing History and Ourselves actually took place in Denver last week. Award-winning producers Whitney Dow and Marco Williams (pictured at left) were in town to discuss their new documentary, I Sit Where I Want: The Legacy of Brown v. Board of Education. Their film follows a racially diverse group of high school students as they attempt to integrate their lunchroom. The Denver Rocky Mountain chapter of Facing History and Ourselves did a great job promoting the event to local educators, calling it “an incredible opportunity to meet the filmmakers and discuss issues that are central to our work—how do we empower and equip students to navigate the levels of power and understand how to make positive social change in their community and their school.”

I love these people. Additional Community Conversations events are scheduled in other cities in upcoming weeks, and hopefully many more will eventually follow. Maybe even another one in Denver. Through this program, “Prominent scholars, authors, filmmakers and policy leaders…speak and participate in discussions about civic engagement, individual and collective responsibility, and tolerance.”

• At the San Francisco Main Library, Azar Nafisi, author of the national bestseller Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, will speak on November 9 at 6 p.m.

• At the Chicago Public Library, Canadian Lieutenant General Romeo Dallaire, author of the best-selling book Shake Hands with the Devil, will discuss his experience as the Force Commander of the U.N. Assistance Mission to Rwanda on November 28 at 5:30 p.m. His book exposes the failures of the international community to stop the Rwandan genocide.

• On December 5 (location TBA), Pulitzer Prize-winning author and historian Taylor Branch will discuss the Civil Rights Movement and how ordinary people “pried their freedom loose from the grip of segregationist whites.” Branch is the author of an extensive trilogy called America in the King Years, which chronicles the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. as well as the history of the Civil Rights Movement.

All these events are free!