Thankful for my Teachers at Brockport Central School District | Mrs. Steinebach & Mr. Follman

Friday was the StoryCorps National Day of Listening also known as Thank A Teacher Day. Reflecting on my early education, I’ve had amazing teachers, and each has left lasting imprints on my life. Far too rarely have I expressed my appreciation to them, so here’s a small step in that direction:

Kindergarten: Mrs. Steinebach

I am going fishing (kindergarten, age 4)

Thank you, Mrs. Steinebach/Ms. West for your warmth and understanding. I remember being overwhelmed by the school experience and was too shy to speak much in class. I remember my parents sending my older sister Chika with me to class one day to teach you and the other students how to say my name correctly. I don’t remember what I had been called up until that point nor of clinging to your skirt but I know I did the latter because I still have my report card, where you mentioned it.

Nap time was my refuge, although, I think I’m the only one who actually slept. That was, of course, until I made my first friend, Meghan Schuth who helped me come out of my shell. Thank you for never making me feel bad about needing speech therapy classes to pronounce th, r, and L correctly, unlike my siblings who teased me mercilessly.

Thank you for saving some of my work to include in my permanent writing folder, which I continue to treasure until today. And thank you for teaching us the alphabet in sign language. I was just reflecting on this with Chika this past week and she also remembered that you taught her class some sign language as well.

First Grade: Mr. Follman

My family (age 5, first grade)

Thank you Mr. Follman for always pushing us to excel. I remember (or at least I think I do) racing with you to complete the mad minute math problem worksheets and our medieval castle unit. I think I was one of the first students to reach the highest level and be knighted.

I remember learning many patriotic songs including the Marine Corps anthem. Songs I would sing to myself or with my siblings and whose lyrics still echo in my mind today. I’ve always thought that if I ever joined the military that I would join the Marine Corps. I don’t really have a good reason for that especially when my friends say I’d be better off in the Air Force or Navy other than the positive influence you as a former Marine had on my life. And thank you for introducing us to ice fishing!

To be continued…

Penn State & Workplace Ethical Dilemmas | Why We Behave Contrary to Our Morals

The unfolding scandal amid allegations of sexual abuse involving a former Penn State coaching assistant has led as it should to a number of resignations and terminations. The biggest names to go are Joe Paterno, the long-serving Nittany Lions football coach and the university’s president.

Sexual abuse is devastating not only for the victims but also for their loved ones. Many commentators observing the scandal from afar are shaking their heads in disbelief at how so many people could witness abuse or receive reports about it and not act more forcefully to protect and seek justice for the victims. The story is shocking and should be as President Obama suggested a cause of much “soul-searching.”

However, in addition to personal culpability, I’m inclined to believe that there are elements of corporate/team culture, which negatively impact the natural impulse to report or challenge wrongdoing. Fear of losing one’s job or income potential can be a powerful silencing motivator.

At one former job, I informally overhead some of my colleagues discussing an incident, which occurred several years earlier, before I began working there. The description, which as far as I can tell only happened once, might make one suspect that a vulnerable individual had been sexually abused.

I believe the staff narrating the incident reported it, as in the Penn State case, to their immediate supervisor. I do not know if any further action was taken at that time. But it does not appear that a report was made to either Adult Protective Services or to the police.

When I first heard the story, several years later, I was shocked and honestly did not know how to follow-up on the report. There was no direct evidence that abuse had occurred, the vulnerable individual and possible victim could not be interviewed, and there seemed to be a lack of clearly communicated agency protocol detailing the reporting of such incidents.

I have a deep respect for many of my former colleagues as they are among the most hard-working, dedicated, and caring individuals I know. They have a sincere love and concern for the welfare and well being of the people they serve and would want to protect them from harm. I say this not to excuse anyone’s actions, least of all my own, but to humanize people with very real lives and emotions put in difficult situations at work. The best way forward is not always clear.

The Penn State assistant coach who testified before a grand jury to witnessing the rape of a young boy has been threatened and vilified for not doing more to intervene. It’s very easy to claim to know how you would react if put in a similar situation. I’m sure we’d all like to think we would be the first one to stand up and jump in to intervene but I reckon some of us might respond the way the then graduate assistant coach did. If we’re honest, we must admit that we cannot know how we will react until faced with a similar situation ourselves. Others also saw or received the firsthand accounts of abuse and few seemed to act in a way we all hope we ourselves and others would act to protect these children from a sexual predator.

My colleagues reported their observations to their supervisor at the time and the situation did not progress further. My memory is hazy but I think I may have asked my supervisors for their guidance and ultimately a course was decided, which would require that I take the initiative to report the suspected abuse. Continue reading “Penn State & Workplace Ethical Dilemmas | Why We Behave Contrary to Our Morals”

How To Avoid a Rick Perry Texas-sized Debate Gaffe

I cringed as I watched the online replays of Texas Governor Rick Perry’s brain freeze in this week’s CNBC debate. Every public speaker forgets points, gets sidetracked, loses their train of thought, or makes a gaffe usually by fumbling over words. What makes Rick Perry’s gaffe all the more lamentable is that he could have avoided it altogether with better public speaking and debate skill technique.

Technique #1: Respond to general questions with general answers

The candidates were asked a general question about how they would work across the aisle with Democrats. A general, I’m open to working with the other party by reaching across the aisle to find common ground and form partnerships that will benefit the American people would have been an acceptable answer.

What sunk Perry was his overconfidence, competitiveness challenging Ron Paul’s five federal agency elimination plan, poor preparation and note-taking, and anxiety.

Technique #2: Prepare beforehand with notes (mental and written)

It is always a good idea to prepare even if just mentally with a few points you want to mention before you respond to a question or make a public speech. If I have to speak publicly, I make a mental list of what I want to say and try to limit my main points to  not more than 3 items. Once I have my 3 main points, I mentally review them frequently and outline or plan what I hope will be the course of my talk. If there’s time, I’ll also write them down and perhaps jot down supporting sub-points.

Even when I prepare intensely, the actual speech rarely accords flawlessly with my mental image of it. My own anxiety or technical issues or audience reactions have a way of giving the speech a life of its own quite different from how I planned it.

Technique #3: Gloss over your mistakes

Studies have shown that more people fear public speaking than death so when you’re up there and on the spot most of the people listening or watching (unless they’re somewhat evil) really want you to do well. It’s just as painful and uncomfortable for those in the audience to witness a speaker’s public meltdown.

I’m currently listening to a lecture series and the speaker’s English could use some work and his manner of speaking is awkward and even I cringe while sitting alone in my car hoping it gets better for him even though I know the lecture has already happened.

At certain classes and lectures, I get nervous before the start, wondering how the speaker will perform. Public speaking is a type of performance art. Some speakers who I’ve come to expect good talks from immediately put those in the audience at ease. But even they have off days.

Technique #4: Start off and finish strong

Listeners tend to remember the first and the last thing you say. Never set yourself up for low audience expectations by admitting weakness in the beginning. Don’t apologize for speaking, don’t tell us you didn’t prepare, and don’t tell us that you’re nervous. Just try your best to start off and finish strong.

Many articles commenting on Rick Perry’s gaffe had the word “oops” in the title, which is the last thing Perry said at the end of his 53-second meltdown. While the beginning of his response was not that memorable, people do remember the gist, which was his inability to remember the third federal agency he claimed he wants to cut if elected president.

If there was ever a time for an interfaith prayer and unity event, we should pray that Rick Perry never makes it to the Oval Office. Although, it is stunning to see how poor public speaking technique, evidenced by both George W. Bush and Rick Perry, does not seem to be an impediment to reaching the Governor’s office in Texas.

Technique #5: Stay calm

This final technique is much easier said than done. Anxiety is a major mental stumbling block. I try to ground and center myself before I speak in public. I take a deep breath, say a silent prayer, and try to reflect on something that makes me smile.

I also find that scanning the audience with my eyes helps me relax me, I try not to let my eyes rest on any single person for more than few seconds because that may actually increase my nervousness. Although, scanning your audience for their interest and understanding or fatigue and confusion is an important feedback measure. But if I focus on a single person, I may become distracted by that one person’s reactions rather than focusing on the audience as a whole.

How Muslims Don’t Express Condolences

I’ve always had an awkward relationship with death. I didn’t attend my first funeral until after I became Muslim. I’m still not comfortable and don’t feel competent in expressing condolences to someone grieving the loss of a loved one. I’ll often say the common Muslim phrase about how how we all come from God and will eventually return to him and a prayer asking God to have mercy on the loved ones left behind.

If I meet someone mourning, my tongue becomes knotted and my chest constrained. I want to offer a word of comfort but am never quite sure what to say. I remember in high school, the husband of my Spanish teacher committed suicide. So she took a leave of absence for a few weeks and when she returned, I wanted to say “I’m sorry” or express some compassion but no one mentioned her loss and I didn’t want to put my foot in my mouth or make it worse. So I didn’t say anything.

Since becoming Muslim, my anxiety over how to offer condolences has only increased. I’ve been taught that as a point of theology, we can and should pray for everyone while they are alive but that it is improper for Muslims to ask forgiveness or pray for a person who died as a non-Muslim.

In the Muslim tradition, the Prophet Abraham’s father was not Muslim but out of his mercy and gentle disposition, Abraham continued to pray for his father’s forgiveness even after his death. Although, it is later said that Abraham eventually gave up these prayers for his father.

It is narrated that the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) asked God to visit the grave of his mother, who had died while he was very young, and to pray for her forgiveness. He was granted permission to visit her grave but not to pray for forgiveness.

Along with other evidence, the dominant opinion in Sunni legal orthodoxy appears to be that a Muslim should not pray for a non-Muslim person after their death. Some will even argue that saying a phrase like “rest in peace” is also prohibited.

Thus, I’ve tried to be careful and conscientious in adhering to this legal opinion even as I sometimes still find myself out of a habit that flows from an emotion in my heart wanting to say a word of gentleness and comfort or “rest in peace”  for the deceased. But then I quickly catch myself and ask, “Am I supposed to say that?” or “Was that a prayer?” If it is I try to internally disavow that statement and reword it as a prayer for the person’s living loved ones.

I do find it challenging to understand this edict. And I can’t help thinking about my own family, none of whom are Muslim, yet. I can’t imagine how painful it would be to lose one of them and to not be able to pray for them after their death.

In the Islamic tradition, one of the most praiseworthy acts is to continue to honor your parents after their death either by your own good deeds or by praying for them. For many converts with non-Muslim parents, the reality that this path of goodness is cut off for us is very painful.

I’m a little envious of the outpouring of prayers easily offered up by my fellow Muslims upon hearing of the death of another Muslim even if they didn’t know the person. And I wonder what will be said or more likely what won’t be said when my own family members pass away. Continue reading “How Muslims Don’t Express Condolences”

African Women | Nobel Peace Prize Winners | Role Models of Courage and Grace

I’ve grown up surrounded by strong successful African women (and men). Many of these women including my own mother left their home countries to pursue education, marriage and family, and professional development abroad. They sought and the many that have come after them continue to seek greater opportunities than were available to them at home.

Wangari Mathaai, the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize passed away last week in Kenya. She founded the Green Belt Movement and stood up to the authoritarian government of Daniel Arap Moi to advocate for improvements in society and for the protection green-space so vital to the livelihoods of many Kenyans.

She and the countless other courageous women who joined her made the simple act of planting trees a powerful symbol of resistance. A protest against the prevailing politics of short-term greed and self-interest that is common in many lands. Despite arrests and other abuse, she was unbowed, and determined as ever to continue the struggle for what she was right.

Former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan said about her that, “She will be remembered as a committed champion of the environment, sustainable development, womens’ rights, and democracy.”

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the President of Liberia and the first African woman elected as head of state has long been a role model of mine. Since moving to Maryland, I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to meet, work with, and befriend a large number of Liberian women. I am amazed by their strength as many of them lived through untold hardship during the recent war there, but they remain fiercely proud to be Liberian and are as committed as ever to a lasting peace and seeing their country develop and prosper.

It’s not surprising that part of the Peace Prize was awarded to another Liberian woman and anti-war activist, Leymah Gbowee. She’s a fiercely independent woman, I love and admire her strength and courage. Hearing her Liberian accent evokes memories of all the strong Liberian women in my life that I am thankful to know.

Gbowee refused to be marginalized and in 2003 confronted then President Charles Taylor directly offering sharp words of rebuke to a man not used to being criticized so publicly to his face. You can hear her speak about it here on NPR’s Tell Me More program (about 5 min 30 sec in) or below:

Any thoughts of fear were pushed aside by her anger witnessing the turmoil and suffering experience by ordinary Liberians. She used her intelligence, courage, and tenacity to unite Liberian women, both Christian and Muslim, for peace.

At the end of the interview with Michel Martin, Leymah Gbowee left some words of wisdom for other activists: 

“Never despise a humble beginning, no matter how small. If you have a conviction that this is something that will change your community, if you have a conviction that this is something that will change your family, if you have a conviction that this is something that will do some good, step out and do it.”

To my mother and my other African mothers, Wangari, Ellen, Leymah, and the others, I am proud to follow in your footsteps as I too am stepping out.

And a shout out to our Arab and Muslim sisters and Tawakkul Karman, the Yemeni activist, who also shared in the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize.

Anwar al-Awlaki’s Death and the Park51 Controversy

I was not  at all sympathetic to the recent messages coming from Anwar al-Awlaki. Neither when he questioned how my conscience could be at rest by being both American and Muslim nor when appeared to encourage young Muslims to take up arms against innocent people.

Yet, I can’t help feeling that in the rush to kill him without any sort of due process or trial, we as Americans have lost something important by sacrificing yet another principle preserved in the Constitution.

And being a part of this post-9/11 generation, I can’t help but feel as another election year approaches, with the president’s approval ratings in the tank, that the administration might be looking for another Osama-style notch in the belt and fleeting bump in the polls.

Learning about the sources of Islamic law, the Quran and hadith, reminds me of my love for the United States Constitution with its corresponding rights and responsibilities. One can be a strict or loose constructionist in both religion and politics.

It’s a strange thing, these multiple facets of one’s identity. I am both Muslim and American, the child of immigrants and so was Awlaki. It’s human nature to feel a sort of kinship with those who share part of your identities no matter how loosely. I’m from New York and I feel a special happiness when I encounter other people from my home state.

As a human being, part of the worldwide human family, I am saddened by injustice and the loss of innocent life. Unfairly, perhaps, even more so when the aggrieved parties have something in common with me like national, ethnic, or religious identity.

I was more deeply affected by the AbdulMuttalib affair because he was a young Nigerian Muslim trying to come closer to his faith and trying however misguidedly to put his faith into action. He, like me, is a child of the West, both part of it and in other ways distinct from it.

His story reminded me of my own story or that of my cousins in the UK. I started a post last year called The Road Not Taken but left it unfinished as these sentiments are easily misunderstood.

I watched the insightful PBS Frontline documentary The Man Behind the Mosque about Sharif El-Gamal and the Park51 project in lower Manhattan and the controversy it attracted last year. Continue reading “Anwar al-Awlaki’s Death and the Park51 Controversy”

Dr. Sherman Jackson | We’re American Muslims, Can’t Be Anything Else

If an American who’s awake and socially aware converts to Islam, he or she will encounter the cultural and intellectual imperialism of their fellow Muslims. Not only will you experience pressure to change your name but you will also be asked to choose between being fully American or fully Muslim as if the two are not compatible. An identity crisis is soon to follow but for many of us, it takes years to realize that we’re in it and climb out of it.

Photographer Mustafa Davis poignantly captures the sentiment through telling his own story in Who am I and How Did I Get Here, Reflections of an American Muslim:

But when Muslims tell us that we cannot be American because that means we support ALL things America… it means they are telling us we cannot exist. I will say that again… it means they are telling us that WE CANNOT EXIST.

They can always fall back on their rich cultural heritages (that are often mistakenly called Islamic cultures. They are not, they’re merely cultures where the majority of the inhabitants are Muslims). But I don’t have that luxury or ability. America is the only culture I have to identify with.

Telling me its not possible is pushing me into nonexistence. I don’t think people with such rich cultures and heritages fully understand what its like to not have that to fall back on.

This past weekend, I attended the United for Change conference in Washington DC, where Dr. Sherman Jackson gave the best speech of the night eloquently explaining the rhetoric so often used to confuse Muslims, particularly converts to Islam.

The following is mostly paraphrased from my notes and memory

Dr. Jackson explained that when many in the Muslim world hear us identify as American Muslims, they equate this identity with full support for unpopular aspects of American foreign policy. They mistakenly believe that American Muslims “identify with, condone, or want to whitewash” these policies. However, Jackson notes that “identifying as a Muslim American does not mean I go along or condone” the actions of the U.S. government.

Dr. Jackson points out that if an American Muslim offers condolences for the victims of 9/11, as we rightly should, we are immediately challenged by some Muslims and asked if we are equally empathize with the loss of thousands of lives in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In order to truly communicate with others we must respect their feelings, counsels Jackson, while not shying away from our principles and that which makes us unique. He told the audience that he prefers to say,”I’m Muslim American and I love my country, not the government, but as home.” “We don’t live in perfect countries or societies but they are our societies,” said Jackson so it’s “not fair to ask us to disavow our country due to its imperfect foreign policy.”

He advises that we not fall into the trap of believing that Islamophobia only affects Muslims because the Islamophobes are working against all of America, which has long been a multi-racial and multi-religious society. The “ambivalence” some Muslims feel towards being an American “feeds right into the rhetoric of the Islamophobes” who believe that being Muslim is incompatible with being a full citizen in Western lands. Continue reading “Dr. Sherman Jackson | We’re American Muslims, Can’t Be Anything Else”