Saturday, October 16, 2010

33 Miners Rescued – DC Kids Still Trapped
What a tragedy that the 78,000 public school children in our nation's capital weren't trapped in the San Jose mine in Chile instead of the miners. Help poured into Chile from around the world. The world's attention was riveted on the rescue by a huge, sympathetic media encampment. All were rescued as the Fenix 2 capsule carried miner after miner to fresh air and lifeBut DC kids were still trapped in one of the worst school systems in the country.
    What is needed in DC – and every failing school system – is an immediate, all-out encampment on the Washington Mall like the one at the San Jose mine. Bring in the experts, the media, the money guys, the politicians, and start putting together the rescue apparatus. Then start drilling through all the issues that keep our public school kids trapped and in danger of living lives without hope. Drill through all the greed, prejudice and stupidity that separates poor kids in public schools from privileged kids in private schools. And create – and fund – the escape capsule. And this is most important: the encampment stays in place until every child in a failing school is rescued.
DC Schools Are Not Really Schools
   The nation's capital needs to come up with a different word to describe the broken down buildings where it traps poor children during the day. These are not schools. Schools are places where children are loved by the community and where learning takes place. Sorry, that simply doesn't describe what I remember about DC public school "education." 
   If the DC school system would simply fail to live up to its noble mission, one could forgive it but it doesn't simply fail. It traps children in dangerous caves, caves worse than those of the Chilean miners because there are no exits and no one comes to the rescue. And it traumatizes them. With the exception of a handful of schools who have the support of groups of affluent parents, a traumatizing message is sent to every trapped child every day that he or she has no value, will never succeed, is not loved and will not be rescued. Is it any wonder that 40% of DC´s adult males are going into prison, in prison, or coming out? 

Kids lobbying city leaders to MAKE KIDS FIRST!
   I lived in the brokenness of DC for seven years and, with my faith community, tried to make good things happen for public school children. We lobbied a gathering of 2,000 District leaders called together by Mayor Tony Williams to Make Kids DC's FIRST Priority. They did. But kids still aren't very high in the city's pecking order.
   We did other things but, in 2001, I returned to California believing we had accomplished very little by working within the system. When a system is hemorrhaging, working within it merely produces more blood.
   At the time I lived in DC,

Over 90% of public school kids qualified for free lunch and breakfast on school days but – because of the broken food delivery system – most of them didn't get breakfast. On 185 non-school days no one got lunch or breakfast. Nor did they qualify for dinner 365 times a year. Do the math. It meant that more than half of all children in our nation's capital went to bed hungry every night. And probably still do.
  • The school food the kids did get was of questionable quality. A whistle-blower at the time exposed the school food warehouse for rotten food, dead rats and expired food. Councilman Phil Mendelsohn helped get the warehouse cleaned up after first being refused admission. A few years later, I remember our “Mission Accomplished” president sending yellow parachutes of food to be dropped over Afghanistan. Some should have been dropped over DC.
  • DC school kids never got their text books until December. This may still be true. Why would the “Leave No Child Behind” president allow this to happen in his own neighborhood?
  • Just before schools opened in September, on at least two occasions, a judge kept the schools closed for two or three weeks so all the boilers could be fixed or all the roofs repaired - and always at double and triple time for the companies. 
  • Walking by DC's broken school buildings always depressed me. Just across the river conditions were so much better. How could kids learn in those conditions? Most couldn't but, not to worry, we've got most of the troublemakers securely locked up in prison. 
  • And the playgrounds! Broken backboards - when there were backboards - and never any netting on the rim. And not much else. The only public recreational place within a mile of my home at 5th & G Streets NE was a tiny summer swimming pool. The pool was surrounded by a rusty cyclone fence that separated it from an alley littered with condoms, broken beer bottles and drug needles. 
  • In the seven years I lived in DC, the capital city of the number one baseball country on the planet, I never once saw a child playing baseball. Of course, I lived in Northeast DC where recreational facilities were virtually nonexistent. Why do kids get into trouble? Have you ever raised teenagers? The secret is to keep them busy, interested, and, yes, tired. And, of course, loved. Too many DC kids are not busy, not interested, not tired, and not loved. 
  • One of my peeves was to see precious playground space being used to park teacher's cars. Of course, most teachers couldn't walk to school because they didn't live in the city: all the license plates were from Maryland or Virginia. I always wondered why the teachers didn't insist that their parking spaces go to the kids so they could have some quality playtime. 
   Well, I could go on but that's not why I'm writing today. I just read on Facebook about the current controversy in DC over the quitting of school chancellor Michelle Rhee. She, like all her predecessors, couldn't fix the schools but leaves with a good severance package. Isn't America great! No matter what, we make sure the privileged bail out with their Golden Parachutes.
   To her and Mayor Fenty's credit, Michelle Rhee brought some good changes and was clearly moving in the right direction although her critics say she made too many waves. Hey, they imprisoned Nelson Mandela and murdered Gandhi and Dr. King for making waves. Heroes all!
   On the other hand, Rhee is leaving before the job is done and needs to be faulted for that but she doesn't need to carry all the guilt. The incoming mayor, Vincent Gray, obviously liked what she did but doesn't like her. Well, sorry Vincent but we don't have to get along with everybody in order to get a tough job done. I've heard good things about Vincent Gray but I wish he could have made peace with Michelle Rhee and she could have reciprocated, at least until the end of the school year. It would have been tough love for both leaders but would have meant a lot to the kids.
   Okay, here's the real point of this post
   Not much is going to change in our schools unless we recognize the awful and unacceptable reality that many public school kids are trapped in dangerous caves where hope can't breathe and where the possibility of a good life is slowly being sucked out of them. What is required is their immediate rescue. We need an immediate encampment on the Washington Mall led by the President – just like President Piñeda in Chile. It would send a thrilling message throughout the planet: our kids are precious and we intend to rescue every one of them.
   As we wait for that day, smart, courageous people who take risks and make waves are our best, if imperfect, hope. At the end of the day, it is people like Michelle Rhee, people of courage and genuine love for the kids, who bring needed change. Current Mayor Fenty´s interim appointment of Kaya Henderson to replace Rhee, at the request of incoming Mayor Gray, was a good move. We expect Henderson, who was the right-hand assistant to Rhee, to continue the work begun by Rhee and this all bodes well. But it won't bring our kids out of the cave and up the shaft to freedom in a lifesaving capsule. Because there is no encampment. No thrilling message. And not enough love.
   I've been in Buenos Aires for the last year and, recently, students in 30 schools, mostly high schools, shut down their schools for two months, demanding major improvements. If the Gray-Fenty-Henderson approach doesn't continue to be courageous and with a lot of love for DC kids, maybe DC students need to learn some things about democracy from students in Buenos Aires.
   What if, for example, every public school child left school next Monday, accompanied by parents, and surrounded the White House? And what if they didn't leave until President Obama came out and agreed to set up a national encampment on the Washington Mall? And what if he created the structure to enable every child trapped in the dangerous caves of the nation's broken school system to rise to freedom in an American Fenix capsule. And what if …
   NOTE: I moved out of DC in 2001. Someone I respect told me that my criticism of DC schools is too harsh, that there have been improvements. I would love to hear that DC now has a good school system. Can anyone tell me that?

 I invite you to consider my book, Touching The Rainbow Ground - 8 Steps To Hope. Acting on behalf of children is risky but accepting the risk will change the world for children.  You may find it at as a print or e-book. has a Kindle edition and iBooks has it for iPad, iPod and iPhone.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Branding A National Treasure
Coca-Cola Take down that ugly sign!

As I wrote in a recent post, Sports Branding, when a company brands its name on something, it is the same as a cowboy branding a cow: the intended message is, “This cow belongs to me.”

Argentina just celebrated its 200th birthday, its Bicentenario. On the big day, 3,000,000 Argentines celebrated near the Obelisco, a 660-foot monolithic cultural and national icon in the Plaza of the Republic, in Buenos Aires. The national flag was first flown on the site in 1812. Media stories about Argentina almost always include photos or video of the monument.

I was privileged to be in that crowd of 3 million and to witness the passion and love Argentines have for their country and its traditions. A great celebration of a great people. It was awesome!

During the 7 years I lived on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, I often walked my German Shepherd, Morgan, on the Mall where the Washington Monument and the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials all stand proudly, surrounded by acres of grass and hundreds of trees. Americans protect these hallowed places because they are part of our patrimony and we would be outraged if huge commercial signs were erected on our Mall. We don't allow bright, colored, flashing soda pop signs next to the Washington Monument. Nor do we allow fluorescent yellow arches to bathe the Viet Nam Memorial in color. Although they interrupt our movies, sports events and news shows with their tasteless messages, even the crassest business people draw the line when it comes to national treasures.

But they don't draw the line in Argentina. McDonald's purveys its fat-laden food with garish, brightly-lit yellow arches right next to the Obelisco, but Coca-Cola has far outdone the arches! It has saturated the Obelisco site with an ugly 7-story, 600-square meter, 24-hour, animated explosion of color, light and bad taste promoting its heavily-sugared drinks.Why is it different for U.S. companies here in Argentina? Why do McDonald's and Coca-Cola show so little respect for the cultural and national patrimony of Argentina?
This is a branding very similar to cowboys branding their cattle. It is an effort on the part of these two companies to put their brand on the treasured site of Argentina's national Obelisco, to connect their brands with Argentina's best-known icon. Coca-Cola even created a Facebook page on Argentina's 200th birthday: Esquina Icónica Coca-Cola Obelisco Buenos Aires (Coca-Cola's Iconic Obelisc Corner). Using the word iconic, connecting Coca-Cola and the Obelisco in its Facebook name, and starting the page on the nation's birthday reveals much about Coca-Cola's branding intentions.
Before we go any further, I have to come clean. I already had a negative opinion of these companies before I saw their bad taste displayed next to one of Argentina's national treasures. The U.S. has a serious problem with obesity - between 16 and 33 percent of U.S. children are obese. Argentina is not immune to this deadly health issue. At the heart of the problem in the U.S and Argentina, you will find these two companies, both aiming their advertising at the young. With the permission of misguided school boards and parents, both have a major presence in U.S. school systems as obesity rates among children skyrocket.

To protect our kids from harm, we tell them not to take sweets and gifts from strangers but these companies make immense profits by doing just that! They lure children into unhealthy food habits with gifts, sugar, caffein and fatty foods. Obesity and smoking both cause great numbers of deaths. We've curtailed some of the tobacco companies harm to children - we need to do the same with these other - let's be honest - child abusers.

The real effect of Coca-Cola's branding at the Obelisco can't be appreciated during daylight. You have to be there after the sun goes down. (or click YouTube to see it now) Its strobe-like glare absolutely dominates this cherished place of Argentine national pride with bright red and white logos, bubbles and bottle caps. It's almost impossible to see the Obelisco from the opposite side of the street because the sign's flare is so great it puts the gigantic icon in shadow. I had difficulty getting a photo because the assault of light kept overexposing the shot. The light is so strong that an airline captain told me the flashing red sign is difficult to ignore from the cockpit at 8,000 feet!

There are other commercial signs on buildings near the Obelisco but leave it to us Americans: we know how to make the biggest splash. Coca-Cola and McDonald's, you embarrass me, you embarrass our country, and your outlandish displays of bad taste offend every person subjected to the irritating light from your vulgar signs.

But, worst of all, at a very deep level, at that place where we all express our love for culture and patria, you show no respect or reverence for this symbol of Argentina. Your sign says to every Argentine that you have enough money and power to do anything you want, including polluting and branding the site of a national treasure.

Your insensitive displays in this honored place suggest that Americans are only interested in making money, but that is absolutely not true. We have strong life values that are not for sale and, pay attention Coca-Cola & McDonald's, we penalize companies that reject these values. We especially don't cotton to companies that harm our children. It's time you both make some changes. Some big changes!
Coca-Cola take down that ugly sign!
You can't brand the Obelisco because you don't own it.
McDonald's – create a dignified sign!
If you want to do business next to a national treasure, be respectful. Hide your yellow arches and garish lights from photos taken of the Obelisco.
And, while we're at it, for God's sake
and the sake of every child on the planet,
  stop luring our kids into                                                     life-threatening obesity!
I invite you to consider my recent book, Touching The Rainbow Ground - 8 Steps To Hope.  You may find it at as a print or e-book. has the Kindle and iBooks has iPad, iPod, and iPhone editions.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Gifts of Wonder - On The Mountaintop

“I’ve been to the mountaintop and I’ve seen the Promised Land …” What spirit could not be stirred by Dr. King’s vision! Looking over his broad shoulders we also were called to see great possibilities. The views from mountaintops call us to open our minds and hearts and embrace the possible.

Another thing about mountaintops -- you can’t see the view from its summit without actually being there. You have to do the hard work, accept the risks, and devote the time to reach it. And, as in the case of Jesus, Gandhi and King, getting there could well involve death.

The mountaintops I’m working with today aren’t metaphorical -- they’re real mountains, the kind one hikes on. Still, reaching the summit of these physical wonders is every bit as riveting to one’s spiritual sense as the mountaintop from which Dr. King saw the Promised Land. One is filled with wonder upon reaching the summit and experiencing its unique, breathtaking beauty ... and with a heightened awareness of the very thin line that separates the spiritual from the physical.

Although I’m posting this from Buenos Aires, for the last 9 years I’ve lived in the middle of a forest at almost 4,000 feet elevation in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. In that forest, there is no sound except for birds and gentle wind, no light but the light from stars and moon. And the splendor of Yosemite is so close that the coffee in my cup still has warmth in it when I cross the Park boundary and am embraced by trees and river and granite.

I’ve had these gifts of wonder in my life for almost a decade. And with the help of good friends in my hiking group, I’ve managed to stand on the summit of dozens of peaks in Yosemite and its surrounding mountains and be captured by the wonder of their spiritual energy.

I took these photos of some friends in 2007 at the top of Mt. Dana, second highest mountain in Yosemite.

I get my picture taken, too, with Mono Lake in the background. Mt. Dana has an elevation of 13,061 feet, so the breathing gets a little labored just as it does when we take on any risk in life.

 The trek down is just as exhilarating as reaching the summit. We’re filled with both the fantastic view and the great feeling of having just connected with something larger than life.

Did I mention that we’re all members of the Sierra Senior Hikers? Sure, we all creak and groan a bit, but the beauty and thrill of a mountain trek make up for sore muscles and tired feet. But, still, all spiritual stimulation aside, it always feels good to stop!

There is something else that has drawn me into the midst of so much wonder. It is my unceasing reflection as I hike, that these incredible displays are not accidental, but powerful evidence that a Higher Power, a Divine Artist, has been at work. Not only a Higher Source, a powerful God, but one Who clearly loves us. Why else create such gifts of wonder? In the presence of such boundless love, I can’t help but be profoundly grateful.

There’s an old hymn that expresses all this. Alan Jackson sings it beautifully on YouTube. Click: How Great Thou Art  I hum the words of the old hymn as I hike the mountains because it perfectly describes the wonder I experience. The YouTube renditions do not include these words that match so closely my experience on the trail:
When through the woods, and forest glades I wander,
and hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees.
when I look down, from lofty mountain grandeur
and see the brook, and feel the gentle breeze.
then sings my soul, my savior God, to thee,
how great thou art, how great thou art
then sings my soul, my savior God, to thee,
how great thou art, how great thou art.

I sometimes felt that my reflections and wonder were not shared by fellow hikers. Then one day, in the middle of July, we walked through a meadow at 8,000 feet that was just experiencing its higher elevation spring season and were treated to a display of thousands upon thousands of wildflowers. An amazing sight in the middle of summer! One of the hikers commented, “I feel like I'm trespassing in God’s garden.”

I hope you will find your gifts of wonder on a mountain trail one day soon.

You may enjoy reading,
Touching The Rainbow Ground - 8 Steps To Hope
about my 30 year journey to the rainbow ground
working with some of God’s other gifts of wonder,
impoverished children in The Americas.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Sports Branding
Professional sports’ dirty little secret: it’s all about money

     Television or movies have given most of us the sight of a hot branding iron being pressed against the tender flesh of a young calf. It’s not a happy moment and calves never volunteer - in fact, it usually takes 4-5 men to hold the poor critter down. Why brand? To make it clear to all the world, “This is mine!”

     Branding of humans (slaves) was common throughout the millennia. It’s deplorable and no person of worth would choose or allow such an obvious violation today. Yes? 

     No! Human branding is not only present today but is far more prevalent. Corporate logos are woven artfully and prominently onto colorful cloth on every article of human apparel. And the snake-oil sales pitches of commercial interests convince the unthinking that they will be more attractive and life will somehow be better if they are identified with a large corporation. “I’m a Chargers fan!” “Coors is my beer.” “This shirt is from The Gap.” The excruciatingly painful hot iron has been replaced, but not the statement: “This is mine!”

     These thoughts tumbled out this morning as I sat in a café on the historic Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires and saw a local newspaper photo of Maradona, the famous Argentine fútbol (soccer) player who coaches a team heading for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Shown here on the right, he clearly carries the-taken-for-granted-branding of so many athletes. Sharing the branding with Coca-Cola is Claro, an Argentine cellular telephone service. Not an outfit I would choose for a world-class coach.

     As I sipped coffee, I thought about the Buffalo Bison’s baseball team when I was 13 and excited about my team winning the International League championship. In the final weeks of the season, Buffalo was in first place with Montreal a few hot breaths behind. I and a friend raced home from school every day to hear the games on the radio. We knew all the players, their batting averages; we had their autographs on our scorebooks. They were our heroes!

    And then it happened. Buffalo’s major league parent, the Detroit Tigers, was in second division and needed an immediate rescue. They pulled 4 of Buffalo’s first stringers to Detroit. Buffalo crashed and burned; Montreal moved into first place, capturing the championship. And, at 13, I learned something about baseball and all professional sports: it’s all about money! A great disillusionment for a young baseball fan but a valuable insight into the connections between corporations and the athletes they buy, sell and brand, the athletes they tell in many ways, “You are ours!”.

     They also do it to stadiums. Likely you’ve never heard of the Chukchansi Casino in the Sierra Foothills in California. The gambling company that runs the casino branded the local baseball stadium in Fresno, Chukchansi Park. San Francisco enjoys America’s pastime in AT&T Park. The New York Mets play in CiTi Field. What corporation has branded the stadium where your favorite team plays? Oh, and Buffalo today? The Bisons play in Coca-Cola Field. I hope all those 13-year-olds are paying attention - that is, if they can even afford to get into Coca-Cola Field. (Did you know there are 11 teaspoons of sugar in every 12 oz can of Coke and that soft drink machines in our schools are major contributors to obesity? I’ll save that rant for another day.)

     Every so often we get a particularly clear sign of professional sport’s dirty little secret. I happened to catch the 2009 Super Bowl awarding of the winner’s cup. It was not presented to a member of the winning team but to the CEO of the corporation that owned the team. We got the message: This is our cup. The team belongs to us. And all you folks out there who tune in to watch the new Super Bowl commercial, well, our shareholders thank you for supporting our brand, I mean, team.

     We’ve become so used to corporate branding that we even pay local cable corporations $50 to $100 a month for an unending slew of offensive tv commercials. The evening news used to be an institution with great personalities like Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley. Now, half our evening news is dominated by ads about bowel movements, depression and stomach acid. And while they’re branding our news with this garbage, they brand our $2,000 screens with their logos. It’s virtually impossible to watch a movie without seeing animations in the corner of the screen urging us to tune into still another branded program. Be honest, they own our tv sets.

         I mentioned earlier that this blog was inspired by a famous Argentine futbolista, Diego Maradona. Argentines also are famous for physical beauty. They are, in the best possible way, branded by a very high Source with natural beauty and dignity. As I sipped my café con leche and watched beautiful people walk by the café window, I noticed that none were branded: Gap, Calvin Klein, Wrangler, Nike were absent on their clothing. Then two tourists came by; one wore a sweatshirt branded with Abercrombie Fitch. Maybe Argentines know they’re beautiful and don‘t have to rely on someone else’s brand to prove it.

     So, in the big picture, does it really matter? In a benevolent world, probably not - but that’s not the world we live in. As they often say in the crime shows, “follow the money.” Too much money corrupts and that’s what’s happened to professional sports. When it costs a dollar to watch a game and 50 cents more to buy a hot dog and a Coke and players get off of drugs and play again because they love the game, maybe I can become a fan again.

     In the meantime, us smart humans need to learn something from “dumb animals” about branding. Never volunteer and never, never submit unless 5 cowboys hold you down and force a brand on you.