"When you were born you cried and the world rejoiced. Live your life so that when you die, the world cries and you rejoice." ~ Cherokee

Grateful for Being in the Eye of the Storm

Recently, my friend, Anna Catalano, hosted a Zoom Happy Hour. Like the rest, Anna was missing old friends and the lack of intimacy that Covid-19 has rained down upon us. During the call, it might have just been the question, the timing, or how our good friend Professor Rob Wolcott artfully presented it. Since all this began, what are you grateful for now?

I immediately became present to the fact that I have been living right in the center of the social storm that has upended our lives at the same time as the virus. It is not as if I didn’t know it. However, when you are fully present in something, especially in the space of gratitude, there is a flood of awareness and feelings. I didn’t share them because it was a Happy Hour, crowded, and there was only so much time. I didn’t want to be that guy.

The Calm Before the Storm

If there is calm before the storm, I do not doubt for a single moment, there will be peace after chaos.

Sai Pradeep

The night before everything shut down in March, we all remember the foreboding, if not the actual realization that this would not be an ordinary time ahead for us. From the beginning, it was a logical crisis, for which we had warnings and lessons from other countries. A highly contagious pathogen, less than the optimal healthy populace, and a broken and inequitable healthcare system that cannot protect the projected critically ill required a quick, unified response. Of course, all the horses got out before we shut the barn door. And in our uniquely American way, we managed to politicize a health crisis and meet it with haphazard planning and gross mishandling. But that is a different conversation for another time.

As fate would have it, that evening, I was at the Symphony Center, attending one of the last major public events in Chicago. It was an annual tradition with my sister, Kathleen, to attend Old St. Patrick’s Siamsa na nGael. The event features some of the world’s best Celtic dancers, singers, musicians, and bagpipers, joined by a multicultural group of brilliant artists. A bonus is one of the headliners is a long-time family friend, Catherine O’Connell.

The evenings narrated performance fittingly wove Irish and African American history dance, music, and culture. As in years past, the production told the stories of our respective ancestor’s sordid history with slave ships, oppression, and immigration discrimination. I can not recall any past Siamsa where I had even glanced at my phone, lost in the brilliance of the performance.

However, this year, the air was heavy with anxiety, and the usual sold-out venue was half full. The first bulletin on my phone was the Tom and Rita Hanks diagnoses, quickly followed by the NBA suspending the rest of the season. I turned to my sister and said we needed to head out the side door and straight home as soon as the event ended. It might have been the beginning of the year of our upside-down world, but I am grateful for that particular evening and the performance’s context as it relates to future events.

First Responders on the Front Lines

When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.

Fred Rogers

However, my overall gratitude since all this began centers on the fact that since day two, I have spent every day working and several days a week meeting with first responders. At the same time, I work with underserved communities most affected and ill-prepared to deal with the virus. As a lawyer, I provide estate planning services, particularly Living Trusts. Lawyers are essential employees as it relates to the pandemic response lockdown. As you can imagine, deadly viruses and uncertainty increase the call for estate plans. So in that part of my professional life, we have been busier than ever. When I say, I mean we. For 30 years, my front-line worker, my secretary, the only Shelly, the glue that holds it all together, never misses a day and is the best helper. I am forever grateful for Shelly.

While our clients are varied, the front-line workers I have represented for over three decades were lining up – police officers, EMTs, nurses, and firefighters. Tragically, some clients have died; others have lost family members and friends to COVID-19. However, I am grateful to be with them during this time, to hear their stories, and be trusted with their vulnerabilities as they face uncertainty and personal risk. To be able to provide them with some peace of mind and friendship was the most valuable gift of all.

Then came Minneapolis and George Floyd. The callous indifference to a human being’s life and death is displayed in the real-time video for the world to see. And the long-overdue cause of Black Lives Matter filled the streets. Since that time, we have full-on displayed a societal dysfunction that is beyond heartbreaking, and we continue to do so. As the storm brewed and erupted, I found myself in a familiar position – right in the center of it.

Chicago’s Segregation Legacy

We’ve come a long way from the days of state-enforced segregation, but we still have a way to go.

Ruth Bader-Ginsberg

I was born on the Westside of Chicago. We moved to the Northwest Side when I was eight, but I spent much time in my grandmother’s Division and Laramie apartment. I swam in the La Follett Park pool and played in the park, surrounded by kids who, at best, were only curious about their differences. Not so much the adults, and in White Flight, we flew to the homogeneously White Northwest Side.

From my teenage years, legends in the community mentored me: Jesse White and Father Walter Brennan. From the Westside and Lawndale to Cabrini Green, I had no choice but to learn and understand the communities, African-American culture, and their reality. And I am grateful that I did. To fully understand African American history related to today’s issues, it would take much longer than this blog post, and I only know so much. With my entire life immersed in it and through lifelong friends made along the way, I continue to listen and learn.

As a native Chicagoan, my city is, without question, one of the most segregated in the world, and by design. Segregation alone is a recipe for a lack of understanding, fear, and ignorance. However, the entire history of the African Americans’ existence in this country spans one arc, from owned to excluded. Their reward for emancipation is systematic segregation into defunded and disinvested neighborhoods, lack of jobs, resources, and quality education. The message is clear- their lives do not matter.

Black Lives Matter

Inequality is the root of social evil.

Pope Francis

I do not know why it is so difficult to understand. What if your ancestors arrived in this country as someone else’s property and – only 56 years ago – finally given the right to use public facilities, government services, vote, have a fair trial, a public education, and sit in front of the damn bus?

Think about it. Less than six decades ago, an entire race of people, owned as slaves, got Civil Rights, but not equal rights. They could go to school but not a good one. Sure, they could leave their neighborhood, but they wouldn’t be welcome anywhere. They could use government services finally, but good luck finding them. The polls are now open, but not to vote for someone who looks like them.

And we will think the next 50 years were an open-armed welcome party? An equal opportunity, you can make it if you work hard system for African Americans?

African American Reality

Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed unless it is faced.

James Baldwin

Today, if you are African American:

  • You are a casualty of your parent’s average $213,000 loss of wealth because of redlining. The racist redlining lending practice rejected borrowers based on race or where they lived. A creditworthy Black person could not obtain a loan to renovate their homes or move to the beautiful new suburbs. And they couldn’t sell their house anyway because their community was off-limits for issuing a mortgage to any prospective purchaser.
  • If your parent had an ironically named white-collar job, they were among the five percentile who did, and it didn’t come with equal pay or promotions.
  • In 2020, the median wealth of Black families is just 1/10 of the median wealth of White families, $17,000/$171,000.
  • Today, Black families earn $57.30 for every $100 White families earn in pay.
  • Black children are three times as likely to live in poverty as White children.
  • Blacks and Latinos receive significantly less quality and accessibility of health care than Whites, even when insurance and severity of conditions are comparable. Consequently, they suffer from 30-40% poorer outcomes than Whites.
  • Blacks and Whites now graduate at the same rate from high school and equally attend college but are not equally educated or equally compensated upon graduation and throughout their careers.
  • There are nearly 1.4 million lawyers in the U.S. ( I know, yikes.) Just 2% of the partners in all law firms are Black.
  • You will be stopped for driving Black. Taxis will pass you by; you’ll be mistaken for the valet, turned away as a tenant, treated differently in malls, restaurants, or just walking down the street. Every day, you will hear micro-aggressive racist comments.

The list goes on. Kenny Williams, the GM of the Chicago White Sox, said when a White friend asked him what it is like being Black every day, “It’s exhausting.” And he is a professional athlete, an executive, and wealthy.

Until we acknowledge the inherent racism that exists in our words, thoughts, and institutions, we will fail as a society and as decent humans. African Americans are suffocating from society, kneeling on their necks since they arrived here in chains. Resist the dismissive All Lives Matter until they do. Black lives deserve this moment, this movement, to help level the playing field. If not, now, when?

Be the Solution, not the Problem.

There is no more neutrality in the world. You either have to be part of the solution, or you’re going to be part of the problem.

Eldridge Cleaver

This is America, though, and Black Lives Matter – the movement, not the organization – has devolved from support to resentment and peaceful protests conflated with riots and looting. People of all races and ages finally joined to walk beside them. Now, all Blacks are held responsible for the bad actors who turned their peaceful marches into riots. We can all agree that rioting and looting are criminal, subject to arrest and prosecution. We can condemn it and wish that it didn’t happen. But a Black person from the heart of a desperately deprived community might condemn looting, but they understand it. They know where it comes from: those who own nothing of value, including hope.

As Trevor Noah eloquently stated, society is a contract, an agreement to follow standard rules, practices, and ideals. However, “there is no contract when people in power don’t uphold their end of it. We need people at the top to be accountable because they set the tone, tenor, and example for everything we do in society.”

Malcolm Gladwell wrote, “This is called the “principle of legitimacy,” and legitimacy is based on three things. First, the people asked to obey authority have to feel like they have a voice—that if they speak up, they will be heard. Second, the law has to be predictable. There has to be a reasonable expectation that tomorrow’s rules will be roughly the same as today’s. And third, the authority has to be fair. It can’t treat one group differently from another.”

Do you wonder why this country has so much anger, particularly in urban and rural America? Look to both political parties’ failed social policies over decades—some well-intentioned, some downright evil. Throw in the widespread failure of public education and the absence of good role models. Add it up, and you have millions of isolated and deprived people fueled by willful ignorance and confirmation bias. It fosters distrust, fear, and a complete lack of understanding. Now cap it off with elected officials who intentionally stoke the flames and media silos of selective bias, fear-mongering, negativity, and pandering.

It is a mess, and it is time to clean it up. It is time to be informed, get involved, advocate, vote, and insist on integrity and honesty from elected officials. Seek out unbiased, honest news sources. Don’t look for what you want to hear or enter conversations already listening to that voice. Ask yourself if you are being objective and attempting to understand rather than judge. Be part of the solution and not part of the problem.

Serve and Protect

The duties of an officer are the safety, honor, and welfare of your country first; the honor, welfare, and comfort of the men in your command second; and the officer’s own ease, comfort, and safety last.

George S. Patton

I am also the son of a Chicago police officer, and my grandfather was a chief with CPD. I have been a police lawyer for over three decades. Lost in all legitimate, peaceful police brutality protests are the thousands of good police who work every day walking the line to protect law-abiding citizens. Let’s face it, no matter how they became who they are, many bad people are out there. Good police stand between them and us. And they deserve respect and cooperation, not bricks and bottles thrown at them for trying to keep the peace.

Let’s face the other truth. There are too many bad police, at best with bad attitudes, and at worst with bad intentions. None belong in a police department or carry a badge and a gun. Bad cops may have lost their way, never appropriately trained, become jaded and disillusioned by all they have seen that the average person never will, or are just awful people. If you are that officer and are young, find another career. If you are old enough, do yourself and us a favor – take your pension and go. Being part of the problem isn’t a good look for you or us.

Now, can we all understand what defunding the police means? It doesn’t mean disbanding the police, at least to most people calling for it. It involves investing resources in marginalized, disinvested communities with the highest crime rates to help prevent future crime. My issue is government inefficacy and waste, special interests, and corruption. This is Illinois and Chicago, after all. But it isn’t much different on the federal level and across the country in local governments. Honestly, examine the budget of the CPD and its top-heavy command staff and other costs. And transfer funds from other bloated agencies to underserved areas. Three generations of community neglect, and we do nothing except consciously let it worsen. It should not be a surprise that we are in this situation today. It is criminal.

We aren’t going to arrest and incarcerate our way out of this situation in Chicago or any high-crime area. It is entirely illogical in a country that contains 5% of the world’s population yet 25% of the world’s prisoners. The strategy isn’t working, folks. It costs $214,620 a year to imprison a young person, a 44% increase since 2014. It is insane. And it ruins the remainder of their life. Do you think that prevention might be a better use of that money? It is certainly not used for rehabilitation in our failed prison industrial complex.

Prison Industrial Complex

It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.

Nelson Mandela

Our prison system is simply a collection of private and public companies that maximize profit and minimize rehabilitation. Just two of the corporate prison companies generate over $2.9 billion every year in revenue, with $80 billion spent annually on correction facilities. The annual economic burden of incarceration in the United States is $1 trillion. Families, children, and citizens who have committed no crime pay more than half of the costs.

People go to jail 10.6 million times each year. 25% have a root cause of poverty, mental illness, or substance abuse, whose problems worsen after incarceration. If we continue to imprison people for victimless crimes and hold all prisoners in a system that releases them as hardened criminals, we will fail as a functional society. What are we doing if prevention and rehabilitation aren’t our goals for those who commit crimes? And who are we?

Crime is not a Reality TV Show

Justice must always question itself, just as society can exist only by means of the work it does on itself and on its institutions.

Michel Foucault

Violent crime is real. It shouldn’t be ignored nor used as a political sound bite. Unless we support and provide better training for the police, they cannot effectively and appropriately handle their job to keep law-abiding citizens safe. Spend money on social workers, mental health professionals, domestic abuse counselors, health care workers, homeless, alcohol and drug counselors, so the police do not have to perform all of those roles like they do today. They can then be free to be the good police, solve crime, contain criminals, and serve and protect.

Good policing requires the police to partner with communities and develop positive relationships with citizens. Respect and trust are not a privilege or expectation; they are earned. And it goes both ways. Citizens must return respect and cooperation with the good police. Together, we can assume our responsibilities and restore relationships between the communities and the police and with each other. It is a responsibility that is essential for reforming our policing, prisons, and the entire criminal justice system.

The Generation We Have Been Waiting For

No one is born a good citizen; no nation is born a democracy. Rather, both are processes that continue to evolve over a lifetime. Young people must be included from birth. A society that cuts off from its youth severs its lifeline.

Kofi Anan

My other source of gratitude in the center of these stormy days is being fortunate to work daily with people, especially kids, from these very marginalized communities. Please make no mistake about it, they protest and grieve daily for the violence and death in their communities. When I started Dreams for Kids in 1989, my idealism couldn’t allow me to imagine that all the poverty, disenfranchisement, and inequality that existed then could be worse in 2020. But here we are.

Lost in all the hand-wringing on quarantines is our kid’s welfare. And not just our own kids. It is terrible enough that every kid today has to carry the burden of living with seemingly insurmountable social issues that threaten their future. Trapped in a society full of toxic civil discourse with too many horrendous role models and awful, divisive leaders, now their childhood is remote. Imagine what that feeling must be like as a kid. And when your community was already remote from resources, remote learning is more than an inconvenience. It is a tragedy.

But I get to communicate daily with these kids and their extraordinary parents. When I wonder how the parents keep it together for their kids with so little support, savings, pay, and resources, I think of my mother. As a woman and single parent of four children, the deck was stacked against her. I will never forget seeing her pay stub and trying to comprehend, even as a young kid, how she managed it all on $6,600 a year. How did she do it? Great parents, especially mothers, find a way to do it.

I wish everyone knew how ready this generation of youth is to pick up the flickering torch and create a better world. This is the generation we have been waiting for. This generation of kids gets it. And they won’t be held back. They have zero tolerance for ignoring the issues we have left them, such as racism, immigration, education, health, corruption, inequality, gun violence, and the environment. They see these issues as responsibilities to be embraced immediately. Their worldview is our planet, and our communities are something to be given to, not taken from.

Creating Their Future Today

Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events. It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.

Robert F. Kennedy

Even with all the challenges they face today, millions of youth are not waiting to make a difference and are creating their future. Dreams for Kids has a youth executive board representative of this generation. Ages 7-13, all these young leaders run nonprofits and social enterprises with deep impact. Since the day our country and the world shut down, they stepped up. This year, this group of extraordinary youths has rallied their peers to support the homeless, seniors, animal rights, the environment, education, gun violence efforts, equality, hunger, arts, and antibullying. They have created initiatives that have helped thousands of people this year alone. I am also grateful to be with them during these times.

We have a responsibility to every kid today. Stop feeling sorry for ourselves and stop longing for everything to return to normal. Normal is what got us here. And if we can’t even unify against a virus, how can we unite our country and secure their future? Sadly, one of the kids told me, “No offense, but your generation has to die off for us to make any meaningful progress.” If we can’t get it right, we cannot be part of the solution; instead of being the problem, we must step aside and get out of the way of progress. Until we work together and unite the red and blue states, we will be the United States in name only. The American Experiment will be a work in progress, and it risks failure.

Since we are giving our kids a world of unprecedented challenges, let us share our energy, resources, and unwavering support with them as they work to create the future they deserve.

If Not Now, When?

Never doubt that a thoughtful, committed group of citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

Margaret Meade

The virus and the protests exposed the flaws and inequities in our society. It may not break us, but it has revealed what is broken in our American Experiment. With 78% of Americans living paycheck to paycheck, we have an economy that works for very few and supports an obscene division of wealth and poverty. We all have rights, but they are not equally distributed. Our health care system is a sick care system. It doesn’t efficiently and effectively work for anyone and is not accessible to everyone. Not voting is the price we pay for dysfunctional, inefficient government and grossly corrupt and incompetent elected officials. Or not thinking before we do vote.

Where do we go from here? Let’s face it; this greatest challenge has brought the worst out of us, and the best. Let’s not let the worst prevail. It starts with accepting our responsibilities, starting with civility. If we can’t seek to understand rather than judge and set aside righteousness for listening, learning, and growing, who are we?

Whether in the eye of the storm, facing it on the front lines head-on every day as a hero trying to contain it, or in quarantine trying to stay safe, we are accountable for what comes next. When the winds die down, and the sun comes out again, we must do our part to clean up the mess, help the victims, lift the vulnerable, take action to prevent the next storm, and set an enduring example for our kids.

As Rabbi Hillel the Elder said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?”