bias

Proximity to Reality: Somos Cubanos

One of the most remarkable things in life is how wrong we are about our perceptions. That almost everything upon closer examination yields insights and new truths. Especially people, places, cultures, religions, and lifestyles we are not familiar with. The constant process of learning what we don't know empirically. 

One of my newer heroes is Bryan Stevenson. He has devoted his life to justice. Called the American Mandela, Stevenson is ripping back the curtain of mass incarceration and the pernicious legacy of racism. His Tedtalk, his latest book Just Mercy are to be added to your must experience list. His acceptance speech earlier this year for the 2016 Public Counsel awards dinner is among the best speeches I have ever heard. And I have seen and studied my share!

His speech is anchored on four principles to pursue change and greater understanding of difference. A fabulous structure to test our thinking about worlds we think we comprehend, people we think we know, and places we think we understand. This is how I interpret Bryan's advice:

Proximate: We have to get physically close to needs, issues, and people to learn the truth through reality. I know this sounds obvious, but much of our perspective about "homelessness", "refugees", "poverty", "Cuba", "black people" and "socialism" are gleaned through abstract and "distant" information.

Narrative: We have a story running in our head about these issues, ideas and people. These stories are reinforced through selective consumption, our biases, and with the limitations of empirical data.  How do we disrupt this story with facts and experiences? 

Uncomfortable: When we disrupt our cranial narratives with facts then we get shoved out of our comfort zones--we get understandably uncomfortable. Truth is the greatest source of discomfort, especially when it conflicts with our long held belief system. Discomfort wakes us up and we have to use our brains and think and feel again. Being uncomfortable is a necessary step in our journey to learn and grow. 

Hopeful: Gaining new perspectives through experience, opening new parts of our minds to new truths, and seeing new possibilities expands our hopefulness. Because when we learn new things we see how change is possible and that expands the pool of hope.

(Yes I have changed the order of these principles for my own purposes :)

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Me and Congresswoman Karen Bass

I recently was included on a special study tour of Cuba led by Congresswoman Karen Bass (One of the most dedicated public servants I have encountered) It was a mind blowing learning experience that changed me. I reflect on Stevenson's principles that helped me re-think everything "I knew" about Cuba. Except the food, music, art, rum and cigars, which are exquisite and met and exceeded my expectations!

US-Cuban relations have been so tortured and convoluted through hundreds of years of American history. We have viewed and treated Cuba as a possession and territory for generations prior to the revolution which triggered the ongoing embargo. Then Cuba was perceived as a  threat. Not enough space here to provide or review history. Suffice it to say that the US has imposed its will on this island country for the last 50 years.

We rarely think about Cuba, yet the Cuban people are big fans of Americans. We were greeted by colleagues and strangers with open arms and warm friendliness. I know, it is about the historic antagonistic systems and governments. It is about capitalism vs socialism. And Fidel vs JFK. Here's the deal, that was then and Cuba does not resemble those caricatures of the past. Globalization is here and Cuba has been benched and ostracized. This embargo is not just a political war of words it has really hurt the people. 50 years of no access to anything from the US from anywhere. That includes school materials, medicine and food. I know it was meant to punish the country, but that time passed and it is harming people who pose no threat to us today. As an embargoed country, Cuba is in the same company with North Korea, Iran, Ukraine and Syria. It makes no sense now. It hasn't for many years.

Everything I knew about Cuba was transformed by a closer examination.

The President Obama lifted some sanctions, travel and certain goods are no longer prohibited, but we need to open up our relationship to take full advantage of what Cuba has to offer. Cuban medical training is the envy of the world. They have free medical care from pre-natal to hospice. For example, Cuba has a robust bio-tech industry and have developed a drug called Cimavax which attacks lung cancer cells. NY state now has a few trials of Cimavax, the first medical exchange in 50 years! 

IMG_0287Visited the education system as well, which is totally free. By the way, Cuba's literacy rate is about 97%. In fact they have a Museum of Literacy! We visited ELAM (Latin American Medical School) where students from 110 countries receive free medical training. Free room and board and a stipend! We met a number of US students there who are receiving a world class education centered on the patient. Cuba is famous for providing doctors to Haiti, Africa, and other disaster torn countries. 

As ethno-centric Americans we worried when every corner has a McDonalds, KFC and Starbucks....... It was interesting not to see Coca Cola there. We asked about these changes, which we thought were inevitable. We heard that they don't need Coca Cola, they have "sugar water". Or more burgers, chicken or coffee... They need infrastructure, pharma, hotels, car parts, educational materials---many many things. We want to get the things we need before we add things we don't. "We don't want to add to the war of symbols." Wow!! Television programs are not interrupted by commercials, except public service announcements and education--mostly health oriented. Yes I know, we have more choices. But we have a lot of noise and interruptive messages  too. How would we change our system if we could?

Cuba has many challenges. Poverty is rampant. Inequality is there. Sound familiar? The aforementioned infrastructure is in disrepair or non-existent. But there is a spirit of humanity, of ingenuity, of compassion, and of camaraderie that needs to breathe and grow. US Cuban relations can flourish with great reciprocal benefits to the US and the world. 

As Bryan Stevenson advised: proximity changed my narrative, made me uncomfortable, but even more hopeful. Like all life changing experiences you understand one another, you appreciate our interconnectedness and commonalities. Somos Cubanos!

I encourage you to test your own assumptions, by visiting Cuba,  or anywhere or any population you think you know, but don't. As John Wooden said, "It is what you learn after you know it all that counts."

Thanks for reading. John

 

 

 

 

 


The Apples in our Eyes

No matter our circumstance we have challenging lives. Each one of us is trying to improve our life trajectory and the world around us. We all want to make a dent in the universe and see our way to find peace, joy and fulfillment.

But our ability to see clearly is impaired by the VUCA world surrounding us. Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous. That contributes to our visual impairment. We scan many things but we see very little. Scientists say there are about 11 million inputs to our senses at any one time and we are lucky to decipher and sense 40 of them. What we see is what we get and shapes what we do.

My mother is an accomplished artist and I asked her for an "art lesson". I told her I wanted to learn how to paint. She was amused by my request. "Oh John you are so busy, you have such important things to do, (read with just the right touch of elegant sarcasm that cuts your heart out:) you don't have time for painting." She continued, "Many people think you need special DNA or inborn talent to paint, but it is not true. You simply need the ability to see. And John you don't have time to see." (Ouch!)

She finally relented and agreed to give me a lesson. She set up three apples in her studio. I had picked up a paint brush and found a small canvas. "What are you doing?!", she queried. "I am getting ready to paint". "Before we paint we have to see", she said with a wry smile. 

Apples
Morgan Russell's Three Apples inspired by Cezanne

Mom began to interrogate me about what I saw. (At least it felt like that) And while she talked I could hear my judgmental mind take over. "Why apples? I want to paint a seascape. These aren't even very nice looking apples....." I tried to re-focus. "Do you see the purple octogonal between the red and green apples? Can you see this shadow and the negative space here? Can you appreciate the geometry of what is here and not what you think is here?" This went on for a couple of hours. It was exhausting and frustrating. As the Buddhists say, "If you are bored you have not done it long enough."

Then the apples started to come into view. I started to really see them. 

A time is coming when apples freshly observed will trigger a revolution.  Apologies to Cezanne

My mother will never know the revolution she triggered in me!

Hard to do anything if you can't see.

We are in such a rush. We put a premium on speed. But speed kills, our ability to see. We all have ADD.

Call it a lack of attention, mindfulness, or patience. We jump to conclusions. We judge and pre-judge. We want to cut to the chase because we lose interest in the plot. And we miss so much.

Not just in the world of things. But what we hear people say. What we notice about body language or facial expressions. How our food tastes. What feelings we are experiencing. And the people around us.

We are increasingly desensitized and numb and we see and feel less and less.

And through this blur our brains change and evolve. Our judgmentalism puts us on neural pathways that skip any real thought or feeling. 

We all operate this way and it under-girds our implicit biases (unconscious attitudes that impact what we see and do). These biases are not detectable through self awareness or introspection. They are embedded in our brains and may and often do, conflict with who we think we are. 

Neuroscience is showing us that we tend to convert uncomfortable matters, especially those involving humans, into abstract thoughts. In Simon Sinek's wonderful book Leaders Eat Last, he asserts: "The more distance there is between us amplifies the abstraction and the harder it becomes to see each other as human." He goes on to describe that our "abundance" both in distraction and in need overwhelm our senses and "dehumanizes" our world.

In fact when people see photos of homeless people while in fMRI, our brains don't light up where it would for people we know or like. It fires up portions of our brains where inanimate objects reside--closer to furniture. Why? Because we can't invest the time, empathy, energy, in thinking about the needy so we create a mental short cut. Nameless and faceless people can be tidily put aside as things in our cranial hard drive. 

And our sense of humanity diminishes.

Tragedy of life is what dies within us while we liveā€”the death of genuine feeling, the death of inspired response, the awareness that makes it possible to feel the pain or the glory of others. Norman Cousins 

So much easier to talk about homelessness than about the people living in tents down the street. When we avert our eyes, hearts and minds from those in need, we lose a little of ourselves.

Mother Teresa said, "If we have no peace, it is because we forgot we belong to one another."

How do we keep our hyper space minds from building more neural pathways and our bulging implicit bias muscles? And restore our humanity.

Check our vision. Quiet our judgmental reflexes. Slow down a bit. 

Put down the paint brushes and see what is in front of us. See each other. And connect to our altruistic selves.

We are all connected and our destinies are tied to one another. Can we see that?

For me those unappealing apples triggered a revolution within me. What's your revolution?

Thanks for reading. John

 (Excerpt from a speech I gave at Minnesota Council of Foundations on October 29, 2015)