December 10, 2011

Leadership is a Process of Community

One of the most paradigm-shifting concepts I teach in leadership is that leadership is a process of community.  Most people come to understand the concept but it does not fit within the traditional American model of leadership.

The traditional model of leadership is that there is a single heroic person that large groups of people follow.  Whatever that person says to do is what the followers do.  It is the classic "find a parade and walk in front of it" model of leadership.  While this model of leadership makes for good movies, when we deconstruct leadership, we will not find a hero at the heart of leadership.  We will find community.

Our greatest leadership challenge today is confronting the reality that our communities have fallen apart and social connections exist mostly online.  We do not know our neighbors.  We eat fast food alone in our cars next to other people eating alone in their cars.  We pay people to care for our children.  We pay people to care for our elders.  We pay people to cook our meals and mow our lawns.  We pay people to educate our children until they are old enough for us to send them away where we pay other people for "higher education," removing our students and their talents completely from our community.

Our communities are now collections of individuals structuring their lives in every way possible to avoid contact with other people.  So what is the result of this in terms of leadership?

Burn out.

I consult with many people who have tried to start something for the social good and burn out because they are "doing all the work."  They are expected to be the hero.  Why is this the most common model now?  Two reasons...

1.  We perceive leadership as someone else's responsibility.
We have culturally lost the concept that leadership is a collective effort.  Martin Luther King, Jr. did not march for freedom and equality alone.  He was the visionary voice for the collective effort of hundreds of thousands of people.  He would have accomplished very little if he did everything alone.

But when our communities are not connecting, there is no substance within which social action can take place.  It is like trying to turn on a lamp with no electricity.  You can flip the switch all you want, but unless there is electricity flowing to the light, nothing will happen.

This is the very reason that our businesses, organizations, schools and government build hierarchical structures.  They try to institutionalize and systematize a proxy for authentic leadership structures because we have lost civic engagement right along with our community connections.  In short:

Hierarchies have become the organizational cast for the broken arm of community.

2.  Our consumer culture tells us we can purchase the answer to any problem.        
We have abdicated our responsibility to solve problems and we try to purchase our way out.  My doctor is responsible for my health, not me.  My nanny is responsible for my kids, not me.  My local school is responsible for educating my child, not me.  My favorite restaurant is responsible for my meals, not me.    

This cultural practice is the reason why entrepreneurship has become the drumbeat of America.  Create market solutions to social problems, which includes everything from acne to saving the environment.  These two cultural views create the perfect storm that destroys the traditional model of leadership and highlights the greatest shortcomings of traditional leadership:

Leadership is powerless without community.  

If everyone thinks leadership is someone else's responsibility, there will be no leadership.  If our culture tells us we can purchase the answer to any problem, we will look to purchase leadership.  This is why corporate CEOs are paid such high salaries.  It is a function of these two cultural constructs in America.

However, if we acknowledge the reality that leadership is powerless without community, our paradigm shifts to see that community is the heart of leadership.  Our paradigm changes from asking "who is the leader?" to "who is leading next?"  This paradigm shift reveals several truths about leadership.

Traditional "leaders" are really visionaries.
The "leader" or "hero" people perceive is not doing all the work.  They are usually the person who has the clearest vision for a group's actions.  However, hierarchies tend to confuse visionaries with positional leaders and disempower communities in the process.

Leadership thrives where there are no clear answers.  So, when trying to create social or organizational change, people will naturally have questions on where to go, what to do and why.  They are not looking for someone with a fancy title to answer their questions, they are looking for someone to communicate a clear vision that can inform their actions.  Today, organizations place the responsibility of communicating the vision of the organization in the mouth of the person with the fanciest title.  So, you can see how we begin to equate leadership with people with fancy titles.  And if you do not have a fancy title, you are not a leader.  Hierarchical structures in organizations perpetuate the perception that leadership is someone else's responsibility.  However, if we see the visionary, not as the "leader," but as one of many important pieces of a community-based leadership movement, we empower everyone in the community to contribute their "gifts" as a critical piece of the collective effort we call leadership.

Leadership is an action, not a person.
When we see leadership as an action, it brings into sharp focus the problem with the concept that leadership is someone else's responsibility.  When leadership is an action, you are either doing something or you are not.  There is no soul searching or personality assessment needed to figure out if you are a leader.  Leadership has nothing to do with who you are and everything to do with what you do.  As I like to tell my students, "leading is leading and sitting on your butt is sitting on your butt."

Leadership is a process of community.
When we get away from the idea that leadership is not a person but rather a collective action of community, we see that every person plays a critical role.  It empowers everyone.  It engages the minds and talents of everyone.  It places the responsibility and accountability on everyone.  The action that creates the positive change becomes the focus rather than the hero who is supposed to ride in on a white horse and save us all.

We have to change our paradigm if we want to see progress in our communities on any social issue.  Want to solve something?  Build a community of action that empowers people.  Others will point to it and call it leadership.  Why?  Because leadership is a process of community.  To co-opt a line from Vince Lombardi:

Community isn't everything.  It's the only thing.

For an outstanding roadmap to building community, read Peter Block and John McKnight's "Abundant Community."

December 6, 2011

Georgia Tech Students Lead Social Change in Health

Georgia Tech Health Leadership Teams, Fall 2011
This week finishes up an amazing semester with Health Leadership Teams at Georgia Tech.  Over the last few months, the students pictured above have touched hundreds of lives on campus with activities and messages for healthier living.  They were all part of the HPS 1040 health class taught by the School of Applied Physiology under the direction of Dr. Teresa Snow.  All the students volunteered to design and launch health improvement programs for extra credit in the class.

The projects were "of the students, by the students and for the students."  After two class sessions on leadership and an additional three-hour training with me on transformational leadership and social change, the students launched their programs.  The programs included:

GT Beginners Fitness Club - Encouraging and motivating students to get active who don't know anything about fitness.  They went twice a week to workout in a no-pressure, fun environment.  Their ad headline was "Can't do a push-up?  Neither Could We!"  

Health Cooking Classes in the Dorms - Students came up with healthy recipes and taught their peers how to cook delicious, healthy food on a student budget at three different dorms.  One event fed fifty students!

Take A Walk In Our Shoe - Campus walking pledge for students to sign.  In just four hours of recruiting, more than 100 students signed the walking pledge and skipped using the campus buses.

Few Steps Can Make A Difference - Thwarted early on by administrative red tape to decorate stairwells on campus, students studied elevator usage vs. stairs usage and interviewed students about why they take one or the other.

Healthy Trunk or Treat - An off-site event for kids in Carrollton, GA.  A 500 person community event now has a voice for health.  Silly Bandz replaced candy and the team made pamphlets detailing the "trick" of obesity and diet-related disease and the "treat" of healthier living and what parents could do for their kids' health.

The Health Leadership projects not only empower students to create needed change on their campus to reverse the health crisis, they increase student learning in a STEM field and bring communities of students together around the shared value of healthy living for all.  You should have heard the stories of the fun students had together, right along side the vitamin and phytonutrient content of butternut squash.  It was an inspiration for all.

In taking the final picture, the students all said, "low-fat CHEESE!"

Stay tuned for the next round of Health Leadership projects.  The next step is expanding the model:  more students, more social change and a healthier world.

December 2, 2011

Whole Food Desert?

After my first shopping trip to Whole Foods for the food stamp experiment, I have to admit the outlook for this month is bleak.

I used every cost-saving technique I know...
-Make plant-based meals
-No processed junk
-Buy in-season
-Buy in bulk

Even after all that, my grocery bill for the week was nearly double what it was last month.  I'm still under budget, but not much.  For every fruit or vegetable I usually buy, add 30 - 50 cents per pound at Whole Foods.  Same thing with beans and rice in bulk.

And don't even think about buying those same beans and rice in a package with a brand on it.   You'll have to break out the dreaded letter "X"multiplier to double or triple the price.

Every vegetable was perfect as was every fruit and not a flaw was found.  However, the obvious lowest sale price you will see on fruits or vegetables was $1.99 per pound.  That's two or three times a sale price at other stores.  When it comes to sustaining your family, the perfect Braeburn apple is not the first thing on your mind.

While I did manage to stay within my budget, I don't feel like I got a deal on anything... and I was looking for the cheapest stuff I could find.

Whole Foods advertises that they are committed to helping people live healthier lives.  However, it became painfully obvious that their commitment is not to people below the poverty line.

The journey continues...


December 1, 2011

On Food Stamps at Whole Foods

We are continuing to live on a food stamp budget.  This time, we are shopping exclusively at the store known to many as "Whole Paycheck."

I must admit, this was my wife's idea.  I'm on board but more fearful than last month.  Is the classic upper class store able to accommodate the poorest shoppers?  If not, having a Whole Foods around the corner would not be much different than living in a food desert.

Today will be our first shopping trip.  More to come...

November 28, 2011

Food Stamp Philanthropy

The month of November is coming to close.  My family set out to see if it is possible to live on the $4.73 per person, per day that is provided to the poorest families of Georgia by the SNAP program.  This was a financial experiment to see if eating healthy on a food stamp budget is even possible or is eating healthy on food stamps a myth.

In our experiment, we followed a few guidelines:

1.  The $4.73 per person, per day would be our entire food budget, including eating out.
2.  We would shop at the local grocery stores.  We have two in walking distance about 1.5 miles away.
3.  If we finished under budget, we would donate any extra funds to the Atlanta Community Food Bank.
4.  If it was sustainable for our family, we would continue to live on a food stamp budget.

In our experiment, we found some shopping and eating wisdom.

1.  Eat a plant-based diet.  Legumes, grains, vegetables and fruit are our staples and are also the best value at the market.  Meat, bread and packaged products seemed to be the worst value at the market.
2.  Cook your own food from scratch.  Eating out killed our budget, instantly and decisively.  For example, one serving of oats made at home cost me $.05.  Oatmeal at McDonald's cost $1.99.

It was 40x cheaper to make oatmeal at home than to buy it in a cheap restaurant!  

3.  Grow a garden.  Food stamp money can be used to purchase seeds for a garden.  Plant in pots or anywhere there is dirt.  If it dies, plant it again.  This is a free, renewable source of food.  You don't need to be Martha Stewart.  You don't even need to buy seeds, use the seeds from the pumpkin from Halloween or the tomato in your burger.  Those seeds will grow!
4.  Buy In-Season.  Vegetables that are in-season are cheapest.  That is also the time when organic prices are nearly equal to conventional.  By buying in season, we were able to buy almost all organic vegetables and fruits.

Is it possible to eat healthy on a food stamp budget or is it a myth?  Yes.  It is possible.  Because of our efforts this month, we are donating the amount of money we came under our food stamp budget.  How much?


What does this mean?  It means we can change the conversation away from "is it affordable" to more relevant issues like food deserts, the toxic food environment, basic education about cooking, growing and nutrition, and even more fundamental elements like owning a pot and pan, a hot plate and having time to cook when you are working two or three jobs.    

We are separating the wheat from the chaff.  What are the real barriers to health in America and what are the knee-jerk myths that are just excuses to our progress?

My family will continue to eat on a food stamp budget.  We already have our next month's plan in place.  It is going to be fun and (gulp) more of a challenge than November.    

November 26, 2011

Reflections on a Thanksgiving Fast

My Thanksgiving fast has come and gone.  It was a 24 hour, water-only fast that revealed some very interesting perspectives for me.

Living your values is far more fulfilling than the food on your plate.  

This was the most powerful thought that continued to resonate for me throughout the day.  I have to note that I was with family, none of whom were fasting.  I helped with cooking and food preparation of the full Thanksgiving meal.  I played with my kids and took walks.  Interestingly, even sitting down with the family as they ate some 20 hours into my fast, I was not particularly hungry nor did I have a strong desire to eat.

However, I am no superhero.  By end of the fast, I experienced bouts of weakness, nausea and the inability to focus.  While my hunger did not grow stronger, my body sent me other strong signals that it was time to eat.  Oddly, Thanksgiving dinner was not at all appetizing.  What my body craved was sugar, in as pure a form as I could find.  I pushed aside all the potatoes, gravy, greens, cranberries, and stuffing and started in on dessert.  Two and a half helpings later of apple cobbler with brown sugar sprinkled over the top and my craving stopped and I started feeling better.

For those who are less fortunate and experience extreme hunger daily, it is no wonder why one would choose foods that:

1.  Are high in sugar.
2.  Are cheap.
3.  Are available everywhere.              

Many of the body's organs run on glucose, a simple sugar.  My craving was not a "I have a taste for..." craving.  It was a primal, "get sugar in your body now!" craving.

Take the issue of food insecurity and add to it the toxic food environment we have created around us and it is no secret that hunger and obesity go hand-in-hand.  Where people are hungry, what is available everywhere for very little money is junk food.

So what do we do about this?  We must grow and support a new food system from the ground up so that those who are hungry get the real food they need before the life-sustaining cravings begin.

Gandhi said of fasting, "What the eyes are for the outer world, fasts are for the inner."  I believe this is true.  I also believe that if our outer eyes do not see the human condition around us, there can be no amount of introspection that will reveal our true self.  We will only find what is self-like.  Self-ish.

True realization of self can only come through action; through service to others.  We are all connected in the interwoven fabric of existence.  Participate.  Donate your time.  Donate your money.  Open your eyes both outward and inward as an active participant in making the world a hunger-free, health-full and regret-less place.

November 22, 2011

Fasting on Thanksgiving

As we approach Thanksgiving, I have decided that it will be a day of fasting for me.  In a country where we can eat to excess every meal of every day, enjoying my own privilege and excess does not make me thankful.  It is the absence of abundance that evokes thankfulness for what I have.

On Thanksgiving, I will be surrounded by family, who are all healthy.  What greater abundance do I need?

In approaching a Thanksgiving fast, I came across two pieces of inspiration for me:

Martin Luther King's Thanksgiving Fast for Freedom
In 1964, students from 120 colleges and universities gave up a dinner during Thanksgiving week.  The funds they would have spent on food were donated to feed hungry and impoverished black families in the south.

The second piece of inspiration for me comes from Gandhi.  In 1932, he fasted in opposition to a separate electorate for the "untouchable" class in India.  Gandhi believed strongly in the inherent worth and dignity of all people and was instrumental in helping end the discrimination against the untouchables.  In beginning the fast, he stated:

"By the fast I want to throw the whole of my weight (such as it is) in the scales of justice pure and simple."  

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving. 

November 17, 2011

What a Difference Bulk Makes!

So, my wife came home with a box of healthy cereal (pictured on the right).  One pound of Ezekiel cereal cost us $4.89.  For a second, let's set aside the fact that one pound of this cereal costs more than the SNAP daily $$ allotment for one person.

One box of cereal has eight half-cup servings in it.

$4.89/8 servings = $.61 per serving.

Now, most stores carry oatmeal for $.99/pound.  The two oats containers you see pictured are each 2.5 lbs.

For the same cost as one pound of cereal, I can get five pounds of oats which is 60 half-cup servings! 

$5/60 servings = $.08 per serving

And if I buy my oats in bulk, I get them for $.60 per pound.  That gives me 8.3 pounds of oats for five bucks!

That's 3.3 containers of oats or about 100 servings of oats.

$5/100 servings = $.05 per serving.  

What's the bottom line here?  The boxed cereal costs me 12 times as much as oats.

November 16, 2011

Unintended Consequences

I have to admit, eating on a food stamp budget has been very revealing.  Today is recycling day in my neighborhood.  In taking the recycling to the curb, I realized that I only had about half of the food containers I normally have.

Eating on a budget has made us purchase far fewer packaged items and far more fresh and bulk items.  Who knew you could eat better for your health and better for the planet all because of a food stamp budget? 

November 14, 2011

Entertaining on a Budget

This weekend, we invited some friends and family over for dinner.  We remained committed to staying within our SNAP budget.  We did not spend extra because we had additional people coming over.  In total we had seven adults and five kids.  The menu was veggie chili, brown rice, corn bread and boiled peanuts.

We were comfortably within budget and even with the overages from last week, this week we came in under budget and will be donating $30 to the Atlanta Food Bank from our savings.


How To Lead

Leadership is not about finding a parade and walking in front of it.  Leadership is a collective action of many people within a community toward a positive good.  

Leadership for a Healthier World does not believe that we should keep secret the principles of how to lead.  Below is the leadership framework I use to teach others how to lead:

Leadership for a Healthier World (LHW) teaches five basic principles of Transformational Leadership, a term coined by leadership scholar James McGregor Burns.  “[Transformational Leadership] occurs when one or more persons engage with others in such a way that leaders and followers raise one another to higher levels of motivation and morality… it raises the level of human conduct and ethical aspiration of both leader and led, and thus it has a transforming effect on both.” 

Classic examples of transformational leaders are Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  LHW teaches this philosophy with the specific intent to create transforming, positive social change in the context of the health crisis of obesity and diet-related disease. 

“I’m here and ready to learn.”
This is the beginning mindset of successful leadership.  Half of leadership is just showing up.  The other element is a willingness to learn.  As Burns notes, Transformational Leadership is a reciprocal relationship between the leader and follower.  Leaders must be willing to be shaped and influenced by followers and the changing environment related to the goal.

Leadership thrives where there are no clear answers.
In his landmark text, Leadership Without Easy Answers, Harvard researcher Ron Heifetz, says that when, “No clear expertise can be found, no single sage has general credibility, no established procedure will suffice… these are the times for leadership.”  In the context of the health crisis, there are no clear pathways for success.  As such, teaching and empowering leadership is essential to creating a new path forward.

Leadership is an action.
Another principle from Heifetz is that leadership is an action.  “Rather than define leadership either as a position of authority in a social structure or as a personal set of characteristics, we [define] leadership as an activity…. the activity of a citizen from any walk of life mobilizing people to do something.”  Defining leadership as an action empowers every community member to be part of the solution.

Values are the language of leadership.
At the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. greeted the crowd at the Lincoln Memorial saying, “I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.”  He does not mention civil rights legislation.  He speaks of freedom and justice.  That is the language of leadership.  Connecting higher values to the end goal of health-improvement is critical to success. Values provide us the reason why we must change and community members are best able to identify which shared community values will provide the greatest motivation for that change.  Values guide decisions, and decisions become actions.

Leadership is a process of community.
“A leader is best when people barely know he exists… [and] when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say, ‘We did this ourselves.’” –Lao Tzu

The act of service to others is inherently an effort of community that is also self-sustaining.  When leadership is defined as an action, our paradigm shifts from the question of identifying “who is the leader?” to the more sustainable, “who is leading next?” Each LHW project that is launched is a short-term effort to create a transformational health-improvement environment.  When one project is followed by another project and followed by another, a community can create a much larger, sustainable movement made up of small individual efforts.  Many hands make for light work.   

November 9, 2011

Over Budget!

The first week came to a close with an unexpected twist.  We went over budget the equivalent of two full days worth of food for the whole family.

What put us over?  An unexpected trip out of town to see family and the need to eat out on occasion.  These were not fancy restaurants.  Meals were $5 - $8 each, but add in tax and tip for the family and suddenly you are tipping one family member's entire day's worth of food stamp money. $4.73.

While this experiment is not perfect, any person could be called to make a weekend trip away for family matters.  Eating out with any regularity would easily blow up any person's budget.  You don't stand a chance at success, even eating the cheapest fast food.

So what do we plan to do?  Stop eating out if we can avoid it at all.  It is the only hope for success.    

November 8, 2011

Just Like The Rest of the World

I had to share this exchange I had with a friend about our experience with eating on a food stamp budget.  After telling her about our plan, I said we would be eating a lot of beans and rice.  To which she responded, "just like the rest of the world."


Just like the rest of the world...

November 4, 2011

One Day of Food from the Farmer's Market

The picture above is what I was able to purchase with one day worth of SNAP money for a family of four with the assistance of Wholesome Wave Georgia, doubling my SNAP benefits at participating farmer's markets.  While this benefit is not available at every farmer's market in Georgia, they have partnerships with 13 locations, including the one in my town.

The total cost of this food was $37.  Thanks to Wholesome Wave, the cost to a family on food stamps would be $18.50... approximately one-day worth of SNAP money for my family.

When I cooked it, it provided approximately 12 family meals worth of greens and veggies.  Wholesome Wave benefits made the difference between what felt expensive and what was a deal.

The surprise for me was that I was not familiar with probably a third of the veggies and greens at the market.  Many Asian varieties were offered that I had never seen or heard of.  It begs the question:

Even if it is cheap, even if it is organic, if people don't know what it is or what to do with it, will they buy it?  A humble farmer's market became an intimidating experience very quickly.

As well, more than half the market was not farmers but start-up food entrepreneurs selling baked goods, pies, salsas, cookies, doggie treats and more.  Is it helpful to the health effort when pre-made goods are sold at the farmer's market?  Not sure we can answer that one yet.

The complexities of our food system are revealing themselves...


November 2, 2011


$4.73 is the Georgia SNAP allotment per person, per day for the poorest families in Georgia.  In preparing for this month, my focus has profoundly changed around any purchase I make.  Suddenly, everything I buy, I think about it in terms of this number.

A $4 latte at the coffee shop suddenly comes into sharp focus as your entire food budget for a day.  $8 to park your car becomes two days worth of food in exchange for parking.  $50 to fill your gas tank?  10 days worth of food.

Public transportation seems much more attractive than it used to be.  Walking is even more attractive than public transport.

In Georgia, food stamps count double at select farmer's markets.  Thanks Wholesome Wave Georgia!  With private funding, they make my $4.73 become $9.46.  Truly an oasis for many living in a food desert, if you can get to a farmer's market.

November 1, 2011

Unto This Last

I am announcing today that my family is going onto food stamps for the entire month of November... financially and symbolically.  The SNAP program provides food assistance to poor Americans.  We will make any and all food purchases within the SNAP allotment for the poorest families of Georgia - $4.73 per person, per day.  This allotment includes eating out.  My wife and I are uncomfortable with the immense privilege we have while so many go without.  It is time for us to make the changes that align our lives with our values.

As you know, I have been extensively reading and studying Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. and the influences on their lives.  Gandhi took a voluntary vow of poverty saying to the world that he did not want to have anything that those who have the least could not have.  In struggles for housing justice in Chicago, Martin Luther King moved his family to the poorest area of the city.

It is in this spirit that we take this step.  I will also be blogging about our efforts.  However, I want to be clear that this is not a publicity stunt nor a flight of fancy.  It is part of our journey to get our lives in alignment with our values.  Our hope is to continue it beyond November.  Countless Americans do not have a choice to go on or off food stamps and we want to understand better the realities Americans face every day in relation to food, money and health.

We are hopeful that we can actually live below this amount and donate any surplus money to the Atlanta Food Bank.

Please pass along the word to those who you think may be interested in our journey.  While our reasons are personal, our learning will be public and we hope to serve as an inspiration to others as we work to create a healthier and more just world.

"There is no wealth but life.  Life, including all its powers of love, of joy, and of admiration.  That country is the richest which nourishes the greatest numbers of noble and happy human beings; that [person] is richest, who, having perfected the functions of [their] own life to the utmost, has also the widest helpful influence, both personal, and by means of his possessions, over the lives of others."
- John Ruskin, Unto This Last

October 19, 2011

Fed Up with Halloween - comments

Great comments following my article on Fed Up with Lunch.  One person even called me the God-anointed, self-righteous, candy police!  I enjoyed the discussion immensely and wrote a comment of my own to give more context to our efforts.  These are important conversations to have in our homes, neighborhoods and online.  Where there is passion and energy, there are solutions if it is channeled in the right direction.   

It is exciting to see all the comments, both in support and against my efforts of Healthy Halloween House.  It indicates that people are passionate about the issues which is far preferable to cold indifference and apathy.  So, let's continue the discussion...

I want to give readers some more context about what I am doing as well as a few things to consider.  I think it is important to separate out some of the language in the comments so we can address the issue of childhood obesity directly.  Healthy Halloween House is a grassroots movement that is not from the government or anointed by God.  We are not taking away anyone's candy, rights or childhood.  Rather, we are a group of ordinary Americans standing in support of parents, families and neighbors who wish to make an alternate choice and create a healthier environment for our kids.

Given that, I think it is also important to acknowledge two things:

First, Halloween is a nostalgic time for parents.  We all have memories of costume-making with the family, going door-to-door, seeing neighbors and friends, finding the best piece of candy in your bag, and going to haunted houses.  We want to give that same nostalgic experience to our kids.  Who does not wish to pass on the traditions that we hold close?

Second, we live in a different world than we grew up in.  In a post-9/11 world, no longer will any child find the joy in running off an airplane into grandma's arms at the gate, no matter how nostalgic.  The environment has changed and we have learned to create new ways to connect and bring meaning to our family experiences.  We live in a time now where every stranger is seen as a kidnapper and every apple has a razor blade.  We don't know our neighbors and we don't trust anyone with our kids except those we pay to care for them.  Our environment has changed.

Health-wise, we live in a different world than we grew up in too.  According to the National Cancer Institute, three out of four deaths in America are caused by diet-related disease.  These diseases are primarily heart disease, cancer, strokes and diabetes.  All four of these diseases show up in the top ten causes of death for Americans beginning at age 15 (CDC Health report, 2010).  That is not, "my child has high cholesterol or diabetes."  Those are causes of death due to preventable, diet-related illnesses that we can choose to contribute to or not every time a child knocks on our door at Halloween.

So, many readers are absolutely correct in saying that a single day like Halloween is not the problem.  The problem is that every day is Halloween for our kids as they are continually bombarded with low-cost or free junk food.  We can either support that environment for our kids or we can create a healthier one.  

This is not about blaming ourselves as the problem.  It is about empowering ourselves as the solution... every day, including Halloween.  I look forward to your comments.

October 13, 2011

Thoughts on social change

Sometimes there is no need to explain things.  Here was a thought that hit me yesterday:

Justice knows no division.
Fairness knows no discrimination.
Truth knows no exclusion.

September 5, 2011

The Good Samaritan

A reinterpretation of the parable.

Three people were filled with the light of compassion.  One was a priestess.  Another a Levite.  The third, a Samaritan.  They saw suffering around them in Jerusalem and they wanted to help allieviate the suffering.  People were hungry, naked, sick and some were beaten.

The priestess spoke with a medical doctor, saying, "Have you seen the suffering?  My compassion urges me to act.  How should we help?"  The medical doctor replied, "You do not have the proper degree to help.  There is nothing you can do.  Help is the work of medical doctors who have been trained and certified."  The priestess heard the medical doctor and went home.

The Levite approached a wealthy land owner, saying, "Have you seen the suffering?  My compassion urges me to act.  How should we help?"  The wealthy land owner replied, "You have no organization to help.  You have no tax status that will benefit me in giving money.  I already give money that helps the suffering."  The Levite heard the wealthy land owner and went home.

The Samaritan approached a faith leader, saying, "Have you seen the suffering?  My compassion urges me to act.  How can we help?"  The faith leader replied, "You are not from our community.  You do not understand the realities of the suffering we face.  Your help is not welcome here."  The Samaritan heard the faith leader and went home.

Then a certain man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who both stripped him and beat him, and departed leaving him half dead.  By chance, a certain priestess was going down that way.  When she saw him, she was filled with the light of compassion.  She wanted to help but remembered that words of the medical doctor.  "You do not have the proper degree to help.  There is nothing you can do."  So, the priestess ignored the light of compassion and kept walking.

In the same way, a Levite came too.  When he came to the place, he was filled with the light of compassion.  He wanted to help but remembered the words of the wealthy land owner.  "You have no organization to help. I already give money that helps the suffering."  So, the Levite ignored the light of compassion and kept walking.

But a certain Samaritan, as he traveled, came to the same place.  He wanted to help but remembered the words of the faith leader, "You are not from our community.  You do not understand the realities of the suffering we face.  Your help is not welcome."

The Samaritan looked for the faith leader of the community of which he was not a part, but no one was present.  He looked for a medical doctor but no one was present.  He looked for any signs of improved conditions provided by wealthy landowners, but there were none.

The Samaritan saw the realities of the suffering and he understood.

He heeded the light of compassion.  He bound up the wounds of the man and brought him to an inn and took care of him.  And his help was welcome.           

August 13, 2011

The Sacred Reservoirs of Community

We live in amazing times.  We have more knowledge now than any time in history.  We have the technology that allows us to carry the collective knowledge of the universe in our cell phones.  We have reached the moon, and Mars and we can do scientific experiments millions of miles away.

We have access to cheaper and more abundant food than any time in history.  And we also have the best medical technology in history.  We can keep a person alive indefinitely in our hospitals staving off death until we are ready to release their soul to the heavens. 

Yes, we have accomplished more than ever in history.  However, we are now dying in greater numbers than any time in history.  The National Cancer Institute tells us that three out of four deaths in our country are due to diet-related disease.  We’re talking about heart attacks, cancers, strokes and diabetes. 

Three out of four deaths.  That is more deaths than all of the American military deaths in history combined.  Every single year.  In fact, just to approach the number of deaths due to diet related disease, you would need to total all of the American military deaths in history and add an additional World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Gulf War, Iraq, Afghanistan, and thirteen 9-11’s.  Every year.  And all due to the food we eat.  We’re talking about the Standard American Diet full of fried foods, highly processed junk, too much meat, cheese, fat and sugar.   

We have not yet begun to see the urgency of this situation.  When three out of four deaths are due to diet-related disease, the tsunami is not coming.  It has already hit us.    

And this epidemic is not just in the United States.   The World Health Organization states in the 2011 Global Status Report on Noncommunicable Diseases that:

"The epidemic already extends far beyond the current capacity of lower-income countries to cope with it, which is why death and disability are rising disproportionately in these countries.  This state of affairs cannot continue.  There is a pressing need to intervene.  Unless serious action is taken, the burden of NCDs will reach levels that are beyond the capacity of all stakeholders to manage."

Imagine for a minute the Pacific island of Nauru.  Through various circumstances, the entire diet of the people on the island has become processed food.  As a result, 95% of the population is overweight or obese and the average life expectancy is 48 years.

So, where do we turn?  Obesity and diet-related disease is one of the few medical issues that does not need a billion dollars worth of research to find a cure.  We have all the information we need.  What we need is the leadership in communities to create change. 

Now leadership is my specialty.  Some might call me an expert.  And of all my study, I know one thing to be true… leadership is a process of community.  When we look at the teachings and life of Jesus, he told us to heal the sick, clothe the naked, feed the hungry and he did not walk alone.  When we look at the life of Mahatma Gandhi, he was a brilliant man dedicated to the insistence on truth through nonviolence and Gandhi did not walk alone.  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. inspired us march and sit-in and teach-in so that we could come together as a Beloved Community and Dr. King did not march alone. 

In fact, our community is so powerful that without it, leadership is powerless.  Theologian Howard Thurman, the spiritual mentor of Martin Luther King, even goes so far as to suggest that the consummate battle between good and evil is a battle between community and chaos.

Leadership without community is nothing.  Therefore any effort of leadership must be an effort of community.  Martin Luther King worked his whole life to give us the Table of Brotherhood, the top worn smooth by thousands of Americans marching for freedom; the legs cobbled together from broken billy clubs and prison bars that lay in the turbulent wake of their glorious path to justice.  It was a Table forged from love and truth with the intent to give us a platform from which we could tackle the world’s most pressing issues like poverty, human rights, hunger and yes, even obesity and diet-related disease. 

I posit to you today that Dr. King did not give us the Table of Brotherhood in the Promised Land.  No, he did not.  He gave it to us because we can’t get to the Promised Land without it.  He had been to the mountaintop and he saw the dark and desolate valleys of poverty.  He saw the jagged and rocky cliffs of injustice.  He saw the turbulent rivers of cancer and the impassable crossings of heart disease and diabetes.  Martin Luther King knew he would not get there with us.  And through his life’s work, he was not delivering us, he was preparing us.  He was preparing us a like a teacher prepares a student and the test is before us now.  Like any test, we do not have the benefit of our teacher being present.  We must take what we have learned and with our own talent and intellect synthesize it into new forms of truth and justice to pass the test.

Harvard scholar David Putnam, in his book, “Bowling Alone,” discusses the loss of community in America.  His research demonstrates that the most direct correlation with the loss of community is a decline in community health.  Psychologist Abraham Maslow understood this too.

In Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the most immediate human need after food, shelter and safety is “Love and Belonging.”  Love and Belonging only come through community.  There is no way around it.  We cannot develop as a person or as a people without first bringing together our Beloved Community. 

So, our collective decline in health is not just about what we eat or whether we exercise, it is about how we interact.  Year after year, we have been pushing our Beloved Community out the back door.  We find creative ways to isolate and insulate ourselves from human interaction.  We get fast food from a drive-thru and then eat alone in our cars next to other people eating alone in their cars. We see every day exactly how many “friends” we have on Facebook and we can hide them if we don’t like them.  We hire people to care for our pets, our lawns, our children when they are young and our parents when they are old.  We have to purchase every service we can because our Beloved Community is gone.  The Table of Brotherhood is sitting empty.  The amazing gift that Dr. King bestowed upon us has been shoved in a corner and covered with a blanket and a flat screen. 

So, it is no surprise that our black brothers and sisters are dying prematurely from strokes and heart attacks at twice the rate of our white brothers and sisters.  It is no surprise that the poorer you are, the sicker you are.  It is no surprise that impoverished countries are predicted to go bankrupt from this issue.  Because where there is no community, there is indifference.  There is apathy.  There is fear and racism and poverty. Without community, we live in a wild west of morality.  Rather than letting love and compassion lead our actions, we let fear spawn re-actions.  We lose our humanity because people just become another set of bits and bytes in the apps on the high resolution screens in our pockets.  We can hide them.  We can shut them off.  We can uninstall their very being. 

Howard Thurman says that “within the walls of separateness, death keeps watch.”

And it is when we lose sight of our humanity that large corporate food businesses creep into our communities where clowns and cartoons sell us food instead of farmers.  Doctors prescribe us a lifetime of pills because they have a three o’clock tee time and it’s faster than talking to us about eating healthy.  Drives thrus become drive-bys.  Schools feed our kids chicken nuggets and French fries and mac and cheese because it is what sells without any regard for the fact that the CDC has predicted that children born after the year 2000 are expected to have a shorter lifespan than their parents.  This is what happens when the Table of Brotherhood sits empty.

Was it not the teachings of Jesus who told us to heal the sick and feed the hungry?  Are these not the same lessons of Mother Teresa and Dr. Albert Schweitzer?  These acts of compassion are inherent in the context of community.  Leadership is inherent in the context of community.  Truth is inherent in the context of community.  When justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream, it is the holy waters of justice that spring forth from the sacred reservoirs of community. 

Because even if we don’t go to the same church, we go to the same grocery store.  Even if we don’t go to the same family reunion, we go to the same family restaurant.  And God does not distinguish between a Hindu heart attack and a Christian heart attack.  God does not distinguish between a Catholic stroke and a Lutheran stroke.  God does not allow us the luxury to be agnostic about diabetes.

So, I have a question for you today.  Gandhi, Jesus and King were not afraid to die for their causes.  They were filled with love and lived it every breathing minute they had on this earth until they gave the ultimate sacrifice for us all.  But when we are surrounded by death, my question to you today is not, are you afraid to die?  My question is, are you afraid to live?  Are you afraid to live out your calling to community?  Or will you merely endure the suffering and wait until it is all over? 

Martin Luther King said we cannot wait.  He spoke of the fierce urgency of now and when three out of four deaths in our country are diet-related, we cannot wait.  We cannot be afraid.  We cannot afford to be cautious.  Our destinies are interwoven in the fabric of human existence and for the inherent dignity and worth of all people, we must act now before that fabric is torn apart. 

So what does that look like?  How do we move forward?  It begins with bringing communities together around shared values.  It begins with standing firm in the belief that the values of my community do not come from a Valu-Menu.  We’ve got to reassemble our Beloved Community person-by-person, family-by-family and congregation-by-congregation.  We’ve got to start drawing the dots and then connecting them.  That’s what Leadership for a Healthier World will do and I want you to be a part of that.

We train people in transformational leadership.  We show them how leadership works and how they can create positive change in their community.  We then empower them to come up with a health-improvement project to assist their community. 

And this is not “pat yourself on the back” leadership.  This is not “add a new line to your resume” leadership or leadership for people who have been called leaders or voted as leaders or written up in the paper as leaders.  This is leadership for everyone because everyone can lead.  Remember that leadership is a process of community and you have a critical role to play in that future.  Author Peter Block, writing about community, says that, “the future appears as we gather.”  If we don’t gather, the future does not appear.  The stakes are too great now.  Too many lives have been lost.  Too many people are sick to waste our time in training for back-patting, self-efficacy.  Change is the goal.  Creating the Beloved Community is the goal.

Each project launched will be “of the community, by the community and for the community.”  I don’t tell anybody what to do.  In your community, you are the expert.  It is your knowledge, it is your wisdom that holds the key to the right answers.  You don’t need a degree in public health.  You don’t need a degree at all.  Just a willingness to learn because it is far easier to learn to cook kale than it is to cure cancer.  We help support your efforts.  We provide education and resources.  You provide the solutions.  We’ve got to lift each other up because if I can help me, I can help you and together, we can help others. 

Heal the sick.  It’s that simple.  It’s time to recognize what those dusty science journals tell us that heart disease, diabetes, strokes and cancer are not genetic.  You don’t get them because it runs in your family.  The research tells us that while genetics play a small part, like loading a gun, it is diet and lifestyle that pull the trigger. 

We can no longer face the probability of our own mortality while the possibility of healing stands before us waiting for engagement. Mother Teresa, Dr. Schweitzer and Dr. King all won the Nobel Peace Prize for their work.  But let’s be clear.  A Nobel Peace Prize is not a prerequisite for compassion.  It is not a prerequisite for leadership.  It is a postscript to a dedicated life of service.  The soaring legacies of Mother Teresa, Dr. Schweitzer, Gandhi and King are not meant to be buried in the pages of history.  They are meant to be a beacon guiding our path to the future. 

Dr. King told us, “The ultimate measure of man is not where he stands in moments of convenience, but where he stands in moments of challenge, moments of great crisis and controversy.  And this is where I choose to cast my lot today.”

So let us be courageous in our actions.  Let us be bold in our service to each other.  Let us believe in the possibilities of community rather than the probabilities of mortality because the test is before us, the Beloved Community is within our grasp and the Promised Land is awaiting our arrival.