How could it happen?

After reading a recent blog piece about a New York State brain injury council being in total disarray a friend of mine asked, “How could it happen?”

Good question.

How could a council, formed by an act of a state legislature, drift so glaringly far from its mandated purpose? The New York State Traumatic Brain Injury Council (TBISCC) is, “Under Article 27-CC of the New York State Public Health Law…mandated to recommend long-range objectives, goals and priorities, as well as provide advice on the planning, development and coordination of a comprehensive, statewide TBI program.” Yet, as readers of this blog already know, nothing has happened.

There are two people claiming to be chair and vice-chair who aren’t. If the council were to abide by its by-laws, one of the two hasn’t been a member of the council for more than nine years.

What is it that leads people to turn a blind eye, remain silent, including other council members, when others blatantly break the rules? That, and what leads those who break the rules to do so knowing their actions will damage the lives of people with disabilities, in this case New Yorkers with brain injuries? It is not a coincidence that several of the current vacancies on the council are meant for people with brain injuries, yet the agenda for the upcoming December 10 meeting doesn’t mention this.

Back to, how could this happen?

When my friend first asked the question the first thing that came to mind was Abraham Lincoln’s quote: “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” 

Sit in on a few meetings with Michael Kaplen ( he still insists he is the council’s chair) and you’ll quickly learn he is a bully. I’ve been in meetings with him as participant and observer and witnessed him yelling at people and threatening people. Judith Avner, whose term on the council has been over for more than nine years yet still claims to be the council’s vice-chair, is another kettle of fish entirely. She charms, cajoles, and, were there awards for lip-service skill, would win gold or silver every time.

Having said all this, Avner and Kaplen are not hard to understand. Both strike me as being rather weak and insecure people who, by inflicting their will on others are able to feel some sense of control in life and some sense of, well, power. But what’s the cost? New Yorkers with brain injuries and their loved ones suffer as a result. The fact Kaplen and Avner, both attorneys, know their behavior leaves New Yorkers with brain injuries in the lurch reveals a lack of character.

The real question is, what empowers the enablers? The New York State Department of Health knows full well the council is a mess. Thus far it has said and done nothing. In fact, it sends high-ranking staff to council meetings and answers some council questions.  Perhaps one reason for the lack of DOH oversight can gleaned by  considering a July 5, 2011 blog post: “Minutes from a September 9, 2003 meeting say the council drafted a letter to then DOH official Betty Rice expressing the council’s dissatisfaction “with not being allowed to review (TBI Waiver Manual’s) revisions.”  This underscores what has been an ongoing pattern with the DOH for years; they are not interested in outside input. An ineffective council is to its liking.

But why the silence from other council members? Why the silence from members of the NY State Legislature? What are people afraid of, if, in fact, it is fear that gets in their way?

Perhaps, if council members, and others, listened to and heeded the advice of two heroes of mine (and many others) things might take a turn for the better.

  • Elie Wiesel: “Take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
  • Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr:  “Our lives begin to end the day we become  silent about things that matter.”

This writer did send an email along with information about the council to Dr. Nirav Shah, the New York State Commissioner for the Department of Health.

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An advocate’s thoughts on accountability

We are all, unless determined otherwise by a court or healthcare professionals, accountable for our choices, our actions; let’s call it, our behavior. None of us gets a pass, at least when it comes to our personal and professional lives, nor should we.  When we are public servants, i.e. elected officials or employees (contract or otherwise) of state, federal and local governments, we are also accountable for our behavior. If we are members of non-profit agencies pledged to help some segment of the population, we are accountable for our behavior.

As I see it, my responsibility as a human rights advocate, is to hold people and agencies and governments and government officials accountable for their behavior, and to do so openly; bring the behavior out into the light of day. When the behavior is good and healthy, it deserves the accolades, the gratitude, the recognition. When the behavior is not good, not healthy, it deserves the response it will get, and it deserves to be publically recognized; people have a right to know. President Obama once said, “Sunshine is the best disinfectant.” True. Martin Luther King Jr once said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” True.

The price I’ve paid for my advocacy -I’ve paid and still pay some “bills” to be sure – pales in comparison to what those being denied their rights go through. I know too that there have been and are people, some of whom I like very much, who have been and still are very upset with me; angry with me. I take no pleasure in this, but I have no control over where the facts lead. And, for me, silence is not an option. If I worked for or knew of a company or agency that discriminated against people who were Gay or Lesbian or Transgendered, I would not be silent. If I worked for or knew of a company or agency that discriminated against people who were disabled, black, Latino, Jewish, Muslim, etc., I would not be silent.

There are also instances when people or agencies take my actions are personally. They believe, honestly I am sure, that my actions are aimed at them on a personal level. Not so. My actions are not aimed at anyone on a personal level. But let’s be unflinchingly clear about something; it doesn’t get more personal than when someone’s rights are being denied. And when I watch and experience this happening to others, I do take it personally. Perhaps this is a character flaw, that’s for others to judge, and I’m sure they will, and have. But it buckles me into tears sometimes when I hear of how inhumanely people are treated.

When I hear people have taken my efforts personally, I always think of a scenario along the lines of the following: A husband and wife are home one evening.

The husband says, “Some sonuvabitch cop gave me a speeding ticket!”

His wife says, “What was the speed limit?”

“Thirty.”

“How fast were you going?”

“Sixty.”

I very much doubt the cop wrote out the ticket as part of some personal vendetta.

And so what’s the moral of this story? Don’t speed. And if you do, and you get caught, don’t blame the one who caught you. If you weren’t speeding, if weren’t discriminating, if you weren’t trying to beat the rules, the laws, you wouldn’t be in the position you’re in now, would you?

My advice? Don’t speed. If you do, you’re likely to be held accountable. And that is as it should be.

Memo to OWS: More water and more water still

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once accurately compared the use of non-violent protest in response to injustice to putting water on fire. He said if you throw a bucket of water on a fire and the fire doesn’t go out, it doesn’t mean water doesn’t put out fire. It means you need more water.

It seems to me more and more of this water is being used by the nationwide-and-beyond Occupy Wall Street movement. Some of these actions are achieved in stunningly creative and effective ways. One example would be the  emotionally powerful response exhibited by hundreds of students from the University of California, Davis  after police pepper sprayed students who were doing nothing more than sitting on the ground in support of OWS. The video of this brutality has been viewed  well over half a million times at this writing. University Chancellor Linda P.B.Katehi’s authorization to use police force in response to this non-violent student protest has resulted in justifiable calls for her resignation. You can’t call in law enforcement in full riot gear and then act surprised when they use pepper spray which is essentially what she is doing.

Hundreds of students inflicted a breathtaking display of the power of silence when Katehi walked three blocks to her car after her press conference.

What is becoming increasingly clear is the fact that this movement will not be stopped by pepper-spray or by any other acts of authority-sanctioned violence. The OWS movement is not running out of water. Civil rights movements like this never run out of water. In this case, this truth is stronger than ever. 99% is far bigger than 1%. In other words, the numbers and the water supply are on our side. After all, they’re always on the side of justice.

Silence is not an option

If you are going to truly be an advocate for equal rights there are a few things I’d like to share with you.

First, there will be times when you will be wildly unpopular. People in positions of power and those whose advocacy efforts are primarily a form of self-serving lip service will not like it when you bring their realities into the light. But, if your commitment to equal rights is sure and heartfelt, bringing their realities into the light is a must.

Second, there will be times when the facts, as you honestly understand them, will bring you to places and circumstances you wish they didn’t. Nevertheless, these are places you must go if your allegiance is to the equal rights of each and every individual. Sometimes the facts will lead you to places where you will discover people you may like are, in fact, part of the very process that is impeding or outright denying equal rights. Still you must proceed and bring the truth into the light.

Third, at times you will pay a price. Some advocates have lost their lives. Others have lost jobs, financial stability, relationships, and much more.

Fourth, find ways to replenish your spirit, your body and your mind. For me it’s nature, conversations with those very close to me, thinking about and reading the words of people like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Father Mychal Judge, Gandhi, Shirley Chisholm, Soujourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and others of similar ilk. And then, of course, the people whose rights you are fighting, in my case primarily individuals with brain injuries. My life is all better and then some for knowing as many as I do. As remarkable and resilient and courageous a group of human beings as one can imagine. And then, lastly, for me, reading books!

No matter what you do to keep your spirits up, there will be times you’ll want to give up. There will be times the fear and heartbreak will be so bad you’ll want to curl up into a ball and vanish into the earth. Please don’t give up. For if you give up, you hand those who deny equality a victory because giving up means you’ve surrendered your humanity.

While I will not get into specifics at the moment, I am beginning to realize I may need to  bring certain things into the open that may bruise people I like and, perhaps, in some instances, end friendships or acquaintances. Then again, perhaps some of these individuals will look into their hearts and discover that they too will put equal rights ahead of their honest, but perhaps misguided allegiance, to governmental or private agencies as well as for-profit and non-profit companies.

We’ll see. Being an advocate can be an unsettling, upsetting, heartbreaking, and scary experience. But, the experience of remaining silent in the face of people be denied their rights would be immeasurably worse.

Now, if you’ll permit me, I’m going to go read. I wish you the best.

I Miss My Father

He was born February 20, 1914 and died August 16, 1969 when he was 55 and I was 15. He was my closest friend and remains the greatest gift life has ever given me.

While I know there will be more missives like this one about him, I also know that any words of mine will fail in their attempt to tell you what a truly special human being he was. There are things I can tell you that may, I hope, give you a glimpse. For example, there was not an iota of bigotry in him. He comfortably accepted people for who they were. It didn’t matter to him, and I mean, it didn’t matter to him if someone was gay or straight, if someone was black, Latino, Asian, Jewish, Muslim and so forth.

My father experienced people as individuals, and was not adverse to stinging back when confronted by bigotry. When we moved from Pearl River, New York to Nyack, New York somewhere around 1967, the house in Pearl River had not yet sold. While Nyack was a truly integrated community Pearl River was, for all intents and purposes, snowflake white. We were known as a civil rights family. Our minister marched with Dr. King and all of us were very open about our commitment to civil rights – for all people.

One day my father returned to check on the Pearl River house to discover someone had written the words Nigger Lovers on the front window. My father either lost sight of the fact selling the house might be a tad easier if he removed the words or he simply didn’t care because, rather than remove the words, he added some of his own. When he drove away, the words Nigger Lovers were still on the front window, however, they were now followed by the words, And Proud of It.

Staying with this theme, my father let me fight my own fights but would, at times, be nearby in case things got out of hand. Soon after we moved to Nyack I became enamored with a beautiful girl who happened to be black. Anyway, some kids found out. One day me and about three or four boys my own age were hanging out in our garage when one of them told me they weren’t going to let me out of the garage unless I said the word nigger. Now, while I supported Dr. King’s non-violent movement I must admit I wasn’t very good at it. I punched the kid right in the face and next thing I knew I was in a fight with all of them. Suddenly one of the boys saw my father approaching the garage. Everybody froze. I went out to see father. I was disheveled and may have had a bloody nose.

“You okay?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said. I told him what they wanted me to say in order to get out of the garage.

“You want some help?”

“No, I’m okay.”

“Okay. I’ll be nearby if you need me.”

And so I went back into the garage and ended things when, after more punches were thrown, I picked up a long-handled shovel and begin swinging for the fences which caused my opponents to flee.

When I went back into the house my father ran a bath for his bruised-up son. I sat in the bath and my father sat in the bathroom with me and we talked.  In a tone that told me he knew the answer he asked, “Did you say it?”

“Nope.”

“Good for you. I’m proud of you.” He stood up, leaned over,  kissed me on top of my head, and said, “I’ll get you some aspirin.”

I miss my father.