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Blog Tour!

Meet Alan King!

Meet Alan King!

In everyone’s life, at some time, our inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit.
-Albert Schweitzer

I want to thank Lisa Panepinto, who first tagged me last month for the blog tour (sorry it’s taken me a minute), and Bianca Spriggs for rekindling my inner spirit when the fire went out.

Each writer of the blog tour is asked the following questions. Here’s what I had to say: 

1) What am I working on? 

Right now, I’m trying to get my manuscript, Point Blank, published. Some of the poems were written before I started the Stonecoast MFA program. Once I started grad school, Point Blank took on a life of its own —  exploring race through various Black male archetypes.

The characters that populate these narrative poems exist between urban and suburban areas. The imagery in Point Blank is influenced by natural landscapes, hip hop, and the urban scene. It’s my hope that Point Blank also speaks to injustices committed by or against people left in the margins as a result of racism, classism, and related economic disparities, while showing their humanity in a way that invites the reader to reconsider what s/he thought s/he knew.

I was honored that my mentors, Joy Harjo and Tim Seibles, helped me shape this manuscript. Tim showed me how sensory and psychological details intensified a reader’s experience of each poem. I added details to earlier drafts that not only make the reader feel like they’re inside the poem and experience, but also takes them inside the head of the speaker.

When I struggled during my first semester with how detailed I wanted to be in my poems, Tim offered this bit of advice: “We love soloists for what they give us, not what they hold back.” That’s become my mantra whenever I approach the page.

I owe just as much to Joy Harjo, who, with my title poem “Point Blank”, had me consider the age of my speaker and his friend, both 12-year-olds, which Harjo noted was the age most guys are at the edge of puberty. Adding those extra details helped make the poem richer. Harjo also had me consider alternate time (what’s happening in another time that connects to the moment in the poem).

“A poem is an energetic system,” she once told me. Because of her suggestions, I now consider various levels on which my poems work. Because of Joy and Tim, I’d like to think the poems in Point Blank pose like bodybuilders, showing off their new muscles. Seibles and Harjo forced my poems to do extra bench presses despite them being tired and wanting to relax.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

My work differs the same way we’re all different. I can only bring my point of view, which is shaped by personal experiences, to a subject. While I’m not the only writer to explore certain issues through persona — Peter Parker, an earth-bound angel, Hulk and others — I do bring my own insights, which are going to be unique to other writers the same way their insights differ from mine.

3) Why do I write what I do? 

The late John Wooden, basketball player and coach, once said: “Be true to yourself…make each day your masterpiece, make friendship a fine art, drink deeply from good books…”

With that said, being true to myself requires me to write what I’m passionate about, what inspires me after drinking deeply from life.

Most of my work is autobiographical because I pull from my own experiences. Being true to myself requires me to bear witness to my life while I hope my experiences speak to someone else’s. Tim Seibles said it best during my interview with him for BOMB magazine:

What I’m trying to do, as a poet, is to bear witness to my life because I believe my life is like other lives. What I mean is that my problems, my anxieties, my passions, my loves, my disappointments link up pretty readily with those of other people.

…[I]f I talk explicitly about sexual desire, I’m not the first man in the world to look at a woman and feel that burn in the gut…

With my poems, whether they be explicitly erotic or explicitly political, I hope I am simply putting language to something that many people feel.

That’s what I strive to do in all of my poems: speak truth to power.

4) How does my writing process work?

I am not productive away from people. I need the sounds of life as my backdrop — overheard conversations in a restaurant or coffee house, the squealing bus brakes, car horns, the loud scrape of a chair leg sliding across floor tile, etc. I need something happening in the background while I write.

I also don’t do good carrying a pen and pad. The expectation of writing turns off my creativity. That’s why I love my EVERNOTE app, which I’ve installed on my android phone and my laptop. So when I’m hit with an image or a few lines, I whip out my phone and start typing in that app. When I get to my laptop, I can flesh out the ideas and keep going.

I’m often inspired by people-watching. The conversation of things unsaid between strangers. I’m big on body language and the narrative therein.
________________________________________

Let’s keep the blog tour rolling with these next two bloggers:

Robert Hookey is an author and a bellman at a hotel on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. He grew from a “stereotypical shy, retiring kid” to a wonderful storyteller, who’s days as a bellman aren’t short of funny and awkward adventures. He’s the personality behind the blog, You’ve Been HookedThe funniest story he told me was the situation with him and Min. Louis Farrakhan. You have to read his profile here to find out the rest.

Meet Ned Hickson.

Next up is Ned Hickson, an editor and humor columnist for the Siuslaw News, a small Oregon newspaper where the motto is: Your dependable source for local news. Twice weekly. Unless we lose count. He’s the personality behind the blog, Ned’s Blog: Humor at the Speed of Life.

 

The Proper Yardstick

(PHOTO: ehow.com)

Today, I started — then stopped reading — the article, “The Top 10 Worst College Majors, Definitively Ranked.”

I saw it this morning on Facebook and, despite the red flags it, and other titles like it (“top ten” this or that), usually raised, my curiosity told me to click the link and skim the list.

It didn’t take an educated guess, however,  to know where the article was going.

Of course, the fine arts was among those listed with anthropology and archeology as well as film/video & photographic arts.

The only point of those articles is to reaffirm this hierarchy of personal pursuits and professions, as if success, whatever that is, could only be measured by the same yard stick.

And why are we measuring against one another anyway? The Canadian author Ann Voskamp said it best: “Pick up a yardstick to measure your life against anyone else’s, and you’ve just picked up a stick and beaten up your own soul.”

These soul-beating articles, like “The Top 10 Worst College Majors…,” aren’t only pointless, but do more harm than good.

(PHOTO: madamenoire.com)

They discourage people from pursuing what they’re passionate about and, instead, encourage them  to major in what they think will get them good jobs that, while paying generously and offering great benefits, will ultimately make them miserable.

My father didn’t understand that then (study something that’s going to make you some good money, he usually said), so I majored in computer science — convincing myself that it made sense because I loved video games.

Nevermind that I didn’t have any coding experience.

After graduation, I could make $90,000 starting pay. That’s what I kept telling myself until I flunked my major and ended up on academic probation.

It took an advisor, running off a list of other possible majors, to help me rethink things.  When I asked her how much money I’d make after graduation, she frowned.

“What do you enjoy doing?”  she asked me. “What gives you the most fulfillment?”

That’s when I remembered the poems my classmates and I studied from Elementary through High School. That’s when I remembered the short stories I wrote to get the characters out of my head. That’s when I remembered how fulfilling it was to — having sweated out each line and stanza of my own poems — to see a draft that got closer to what I wanted to express.

That’s when I decided to study journalism.

(PHOTO: hqdesktop.net)

Yes, the publisher paid pennies for work that always followed me home. Yes, that same publisher laid me off and I went unemployed for a while.

But doing what I thought was fulfilling allowed me to explore other careers in writing. I worked a handful of gigs — from a contract consultant on a book project, to teaching middle and high school students creative writing, to touring D.C. Public Schools as a visiting writer for a prestigious literary organization.

During that time, I went to grad school and published DRIFT, which continues to open opportunities for me.

After graduating with my MFA in Creative Writing, my pay jumped by $15,000 when I landed a full-time position as a communications specialists for a national nonprofit.

If there’s anything I learned during those days of uncertainty, it was this: diversify your income streams; never just have one source of income.

Right now, I have four – three in addition to my full-time job.  And guess what? I wouldn’t trade my experience for another.

To paraphrase Vince Lombardi: fulfillment of all we hold dear is that moment when we work our hearts out in a good cause and lie exhausted on the field of battle — victorious.

And that, not the “Top Ten” articles, should be the yardstick with which we measure  both our personal and professional successes.

A Saturday Cipher

(PHOTO: Words Beats & Life)

Gathered in a circle, with our backs to each other, a woman walked the circumference of bodies, tagging each of us with a celebrity’s name .

Without saying a word, and without knowing our assigned characters, 14 labeled staff and Board members wandered around a board room, reading one another’s back to match up with their pair.

On this Saturday afternoon, it wasn’t unusual to see Ossie Davis looking for Ruby Dee or to see DJ Premier greet GURU with a pound and a hug.

This activity was part of a team building exercise at the Words Beats & Life (WBL) staff retreat. Talk about a way to engage employees and board members — all of whom grew up during hip hop’s “golden age” and who ranged in age from early 30s to late 40s.

WBL, a DC-based hip hop nonprofit, started as a conference at the University of Maryland, College Park in the fall of 2000.

Since its incorporation in 2003, the organization has set out to transform individual lives and communities through hip hop with its programs. In addition to its multi-media hip hop arts Academy, a global journal and a hip hop business incubator is WBL’s annual festival that started in 2008.

(PHOTO: Words Beats & Life) DC muralist Aniekan Udofia

The nonprofit recently hired me as their Arts & Culture editor.

At today’s retreat, me and my partner,  a talented emcee and teaching artist, were among the pairs that developed an impromptu commercial for WBL, which was part of the day’s second exercise.

During the event, the staff and Board reminisced on 90s LPs (“Yo, Raekwon’s ONLY BUILT 4 CUBAN LINX! That’s my joint”) and discussed the organization’s future in addition to hip hop’s potential for youth development.

In a 2012 Teach-in video, Tim Jones, director of Education in the Elementary to Career initiative at Martha’s Table,  rhapsodized on hip hop as a form of gang resistance, helping rival crews take the battle from the streets to the dance floor.

A WBL Board member noted how hip hop’s also used as a coping mechanism. “There’s always a song that helps you cope or deal with a situation,” she said.

Hip hop helped a popular local DJ with public speaking. “DJing helped me build confidence to be in front of people,” he said.

The self-affirmation from mastering the turntable, according to another DJ, helped him question, then reject the negative perceptions some people had of him.

That self-confidence helped him build a record of both professional and personal successes.

(PHOTO: Words Beats & Life)

As for me, hip hop helped make me a better writer. I’m always amazed when I hear emcees like Pharoahe Monch, Jean Grae, Invincible and John Robinson, among others.

They always challenge themselves to switch up their wordplay and cadence so their LPs are more a showcase of their various styles — each song a surprise exciting my spirit.

As a writer, the lesson I take from hip hop is to push myself to  always go with a fresh approach or new way of tackling topics in a poem or article.

With WBL’s wonderful work, hip hop is helping a younger generation realize, and fulfill, their potential.

Learn more about WBL. You can #dogoodbetter as a donor or volunteer. You can also join the cause by following them on Facebook and Twitter

A Poet on his Way to a Reading

(PHOTO: Courtesy of Sidwell Friends School) That’s me, right there!

Yesterday, I left work around 9:30am and hopped the red line to the Tenleytown Metro Station.

During my 13-minute walk, I took a deep breath and exhaled – praying that I don’t bore the students and that I don’t get caught off-guard with a question.

While the nervousness is normal for my school visits, that day’s session was a special one.

My friend and poet Hayes Davis invited me to speak to his class at Sidwell Friends, a prominent private school just north of D.C.

Chelsea Clinton and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Margaret Edson are among the highly-selective Quaker school’s notable alumni. It’s where Malia and Sasha Obama are currently enrolled.

So you know I wanted to make a good impression with it being National Poetry Month, the only time “the world,” as blogger Marie Basile put it, “recognizes our obsession with white space…”

How’d I do? Read the school’s write-up to find out.

Meet Edward “Ned” Hickson

(PHOTO: Courtesy of Ned Hickson) Edward “Ned” Hickson

Editor’s note: This profile is part three of an on-going series on successful bloggers and their process. Read part one here and click here for part two. 

Edward “Ned” James Hickson doesn’t believe in “road blocks.” Instead, the editor and humor columnist sees each perceived obstacle as a catalyst for him to blaze his own trails.

It’s a lesson he learned from his stepdad, Glenn, who was a problem solver. “Nothing was ever a road block to him,” Hickson said in a recent interview, “it just meant a reason to discover a new route.”

And those wise words gave an aspiring journalist, whose formal education stopped at high school, a survival plan. The Lawnsdale, California-native’s life story is analogous to those of born geniuses like George Burns, Julie Andrews, Sean Connery and Wolfgang Puck among others. They succeeded despite their limited formal education because of hard work, sheer luck and natural talent.

Hickson’s natural talent is his comedic timing. It helped him during the 10 years he worked as a chef for Morrison Inc., which owned several restaurant chains (including L&N Seafood, Silver Spoon and Ruby Tuesday’s.)

During that time, he rose from assistant chef to regional chef, overseeing restaurants and openings in Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee, New York State and Alabama.

Hickson’s humor seemed to follow him wherever he went. “I tried to keep things light during high-stress meal periods and restaurant openings,” said Hickson, who now  lives in Florence, Oregon. Humor was so much a part of him that, “if I stopped making quips, the kitchen knew it was time to get serious.”

(PHOTO: Courtesy of Ned Hickson) Edward “Ned” Hickson, 15-year veteran journalist.

But he’s rarely serious about anything — except his wife, Alicia (who he affectionately calls “Alicia The Beautiful”), and their four kids who range in age from 12 to 19.

Otherwise, Hickson’s always in joke mode. “Humor plays such a big part of my everyday life,” he said. “I grew up surrounded by funny people in my family — my parents, grandparents, cousins, my older half-brothers. They always had me laughing.”

Now, he entertains readers as a humor columnist at the Siuslaw News and on his personal blog, “Ned’s Blog: Humor at the Speed of Life.” When he started with the paper, he covered sports until he pitched the idea for a weekly humor column.

His editor, who already took a chance hiring Hickson despite him not having prior journalism training and experience, asked: “You really think you can be funny every week and not run out of ideas?”

To this, Hickson nodded. That was 15 years ago, when the paper hired him to replace the sports editor who quit. “A friend who was working there jokingly suggested I apply,” he said. “I had no journalism experience and am not really a sports nut.”

He submitted his application and got an interview. “I was up against some recent journalism grads from the University of Oregon,” Hickson recalled. Fifteen years later, he still wonders if the editor was drinking that day because he got the job.

But Hickson has no regrets. “Taking that job was one of the best decisions I ever made,” he said. Then chuckling, the columnist added: “I’m not sure he feels the same.”

(ARTWORK: Courtesy of Ned Hickson)

Hickson’s readers are still laughing. “My first rule is to always make fun of myself before someone else,” the veteran columnist said. “Unless it’s Justin Bieber; I’ll always make fun of him first.”

That’s the best way Hickson gauges what’s funny. “If I can laugh at myself, then so will readers,” he said.

It also doesn’t hurt that his approach to humor nearly mirrors that of Larry David, whose sitcom-engine style made “Seinfeld” a successful show.

Developing the story for each episode, David picked a mildly annoying habit of a character or their lover and blew it out of proportion. It’s successful because that annoying habit is relatable to viewers.

Hickson’s approach is slightly different. “I’d rather take an everyday situation, blow it completely out of proportion and put myself right in the middle,” he said. “The more absurd the situation, the funnier it gets.”

It worked for a Chuck Norris bit he did for this interview. Here’s his response when asked what his readers would be surprised to know about him:

Readers would be surprised to know I recently got into a tussle with Chuck Norris over the last t-shirt at a One Direction concert. It turned out to be an extra-large, and my daughter wears a small, so I let him have it. The shirt, I mean — not my fists of furry. And yes, I meant “furry” not “fury.” Ok, fine. That didn’t really happen.

(PHOTO: Courtesy of Ned Hickson)

It’s those random creative moments, which spring from simple “what ifs,” that make his columns successful. In response to this question — What if the guilt associated with throwing away unwanted fruitcake became an actual disorder? — came his series of columns on FDAD (Fruitcake Disposal Anxiety Disorder).

That column is his most successful one at the paper. With the outpouring of encouraging words, he also got some hate mail. “I discovered there was a strong lobby of fruitcake supporters who weren’t amused,” Hickson recalled.

In fact, they were so hell-bent on defending the candied-fruit treat that they mailed dozens of them to the paper.

Hickson’s response? “I held a taste test in our newsroom and wrote a column about the results,” he said, adding that he actually enjoyed two out of the 12 fruitcakes he received.

But that stunt in the newsroom is nowhere as daring as what he writes about for his blog. “The creativity blogging offers has given me an opportunity to explore humor writing in ways I couldn’t do as a columnist,” said Hickson, who started blogging for over a year and a half ago.

Since then, he’s guest blogged on other sites, met other humor writers he admires, published his book (Humor at the Speed of Life), and built a following.

(PHOTO: Courtesy of Ned Hickson)

Michelle Terry’s among them. “OMG…I’m going to love reading your stuff,” the fellow blogger and proud mama of two posted. “…hope you don’t mind another gushing fan.”

Another fellow blogger, Claudia Felsberger, felt she’d hit a goldmine. “Skimmed through your blog. It made me draw the conclusion that you’re awesome!” the freelance journalist and photographer posted. “Humorous, entertaining, thought-provoking, maybe even a little bit awkward, but awesome!”

Encouraging words aside, blogging gives Hickson what his job couldn’t. “There’s a real sense of immediacy in blogging that you can’t get with newspaper writing,” he said. “I love getting an idea, writing it up, posting it and seeing the ‘comment’ icon light up.”

His actual process for creating each post is more involved. It starts with him arriving to the newsroom at 5:30 a.m. “I prefer to write early in the morning because, in addition to fewer distractions, I’m not really awake yet,” Hickson said.

That helps his freethinking in addition to blasting AC/DC through his iPad headphones while sipping coffee. He usually has a rough idea of his topic and doesn’t over-think it until he’s at his keyboard.

“I’ve learned to  trust my instincts, so I like things to develop as I write, as opposed to using an outline,” Hickson said. “This works well for humor because the funniest things are almost always born out of spontaneity.”

He likens the process to stand-up. “Except I get to sit down,” the blogger said. “If I bomb, no one knows it but me.”

(PHOTO: Courtesy of Ned Hickson)

Another thing most people didn’t know is that he responds to comments and/or tweets if they pop up while he’s writing. “They don’t interrupt my flow,” Hickson said. “At least for me, they  keep the creativity flowing by maintaining that level of spontaneity.”

Then it’s time for the oral test. “I read the piece out loud. If my tongue gets tripped up, it needs more polishing,” the columnist said. “That’s also when I check for timing.” Does he need to add a pause? Elaborate more? What can be cut? Those are the questions his internal editor ask before he hits “Publish.”

He’s usually done before 9 a.m. when the other reporters roll into the newsroom. That he posts daily, sometimes twice a day, gives you a sense of his dedication.

But the labor’s not without a pay-off. In addition to new followers, he got the WordPress administrators’ attention, resulting in them selecting two of his posts — both a year apart from each other and within a week of Hickson’s birthday — among their eight favorites to showcase. This process, on WordPress, is known as being “Freshly Pressed” and results in a major traffic surge.

The first time, WordPress “Freshly Pressed” his blog piece, “Surgery is Safer When Patients Come With Instructions,” which resulted from a report on an increase in cases of wrong-site surgeries.

Hickson’s post was a response to his question: What precautions would I take to make sure my vasectomy didn’t turn into an appendectomy?

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

That post recorded 1,200 hits in two days and gained him nearly 300 new followers. “I always answer every comment and email, so my weekend was a busy one,” the blogger recalled. “I had no idea what to expect. I couldn’t believe it.”

He also couldn’t it when he got “Freshly Pressed” again last August for his piece, “If You Can’t Fix It With Gum and Duct Tape, It’s Not a Real VW Bus.” The idea for that post resulted from the buzz of new generation Volkswagen vans that Hickson felt lacked the character of their old counterparts.

That post recorded 878 hits the first day and hundreds of comments, along with 400 new followers. Though the earlier experience prepared the blogger for this time, he recalled: “It was still overwhelming.”

It’s the creative process that keeps him grounded. His advice to first-time bloggers: “Write with regularity. Whether it’s once a week or once a day, be consistent.”

That consistency doesn’t just benefit the reader. “Writing is a form of meditation,” the journalist said. “The more you practice it, the more focused and instinctive it becomes.” He added, “Eventually, your creativity will begin to anticipate that routine and be waiting for you when you sit down at the keyboard.”

What also keeps Hickson grounded is another lesson his stepfather, Glenn, passed on to him: “Do something well and the rest will take care of itself.”

Everything the journalist and blogger approach with that philosophy worked out well. “I started with one newspaper column and just focused on the writing,” Hickson said. “Today, it’s in 30 papers in the U.S. and Canada.”

(ARTWORK: Courtesy of Ned Hickson)

Scott Write and Sandra Walker are among the editors happy to run Hickson’s columns in their papers. ” I only had to read one of his columns to realize his humor transcended regional lifestyles and geographical boundaries,” according to a testimonial from Write, editor of The Post in Centre, Alabama. “That was almost two years ago, and his column is now an eagerly anticipated weekly feature.”

In her testimonial, Walker pointed out Hickson’s intergenerational appeal. “Ned’s column has attracted not just the usual middle-aged class of newspaper readers, but also the high school students who enjoy seeing something lighthearted in the newspaper,” she said. “We are thankful to have his entertaining wit and wisdom as part of our newspaper each week.”

The philosophy of doing something well gained him additional blog benefits. “I’m approaching 3,000 followers, which is something I never suspected, particularly with my limited social networking knowledge,” said the blogger, who managed to link his site to Facebook and Twitter.

“I’m just focusing on the funny,” he added, “and letting the rest take care of itself.”

Hickson’s also focused on taking care of his family — whether it’s cheering on his kids at sporting events or helping them with homework. “Any time I can spend with my family is quality time,” he said. “My wife is truly my best friend and someone who makes every moment together quality.”

In fact, the few pleasures he enjoys, once the kids are in bed, is curling up on the couch with his wife while she reads aloud his post for the day. “When something catches her off guard and she laughs out loud — that’s the best,” Hickson said. “If she were my only fan, that would be enough for me.”

A Christmas Post

A lot’s happened since October. I started two new jobs — one full-time (communications specialist for a national nonprofit) and the other part-time (senior editor at a global hip-hop journal). Though the former, more so than the latter, leaves me less time and energy to blog here, I couldn’t be happier. With both positions, I make a living doing what I love: writing. And they help me get my work to a larger audience, even if — at times — with the the full-time gig, I’m a ghostwriter.

They’re also the reason this Christmas is special, why it’s the first one — in a long time — of which I’m excited. It took me working a regular schedule to appreciate this week off. I took advantage of the break and knocked out my holiday shopping before the last minute rush. I also baked an eggplant parmesan, worked with my wife on a gluten-free veggie lasagna and assisted her with baking four 7-Up cakes and dozens of muffins (the 7-Up replaces baking powder, helping the cake to rise).

This morning, I’m looking forward to the chicken and waffle breakfast with Kirk Franklin’s gospel Christmas album on repeat. I’m looking forward to sipping hot cocoa and to eating dinner at my parent’s with my wife, siblings and my niece, Anicia — who, as I’m writing this, fills the house with her sweet sounds, bugging “Nana” and “Poppa” for attention.

(This is Anicia’s  fourth Christmas and the third she’ll actually remember). I’m also looking forward to dessert at my aunt and uncle’s, hanging with my cousins and some family my wife and I haven’t seen since our wedding nearly two years ago.

In addition to my new jobs, I started my newsletter, The Hourglass Flow, of which I snatched the title from a friend’s poem inspired by MF Doom’s verse on De La Soul’s “Rock Co.Kane Flow“: “…to write all night long/the hourglass is still slow/flow from hellborn/to free power like Wilco”. (Check out the back issue and the holiday sale I got going with said buddy that will continue through New Years, then subscribe to the newsletter).

Besides inspiring the title, Doom’s verse also alludes to the love and energy  we bloggers put into our posts, especially since we’re willing “to write all night long” because we have something to say. Every time I wonder how long I’ll keep this up, I think about how fortunate I am to have a platform that promoted several authors and helped a film student raise funds for his feature-length thesis film.

I’m fortunate for a platform to post my articles and essays that would otherwise sit somewhere, collecting dust. I’m grateful to have this platform, without which my ramblings would stay idle voices echoing in my head.

So here’s a short post, checking in, and a long way of wishing everyone happy holidays. I’m excited for what the new year will bring such as, among other things, a piece I wrote on an amazing photographer that will debut in the next Words Beats & Life hip hop journal. I’ll keep you posted on when the new issue is out. Also, if you have anything you want promoted in The Hourglass Flow, hit me at nyckencole@hotmail.com with “Newsletter Item” in the subject line, and it’ll go out in next month’s newsletters (it’s bimonthly). Peace!

(PHOTO: Samantha Paul) For her ninth birthday, Rachel Beckwith asked her family for donations to help bring clean water to people in poor countries. She died in a car crash before she could see her $300 goal exceeded a thousand times over.

Ryleigh Kastra and Joshua Williams fed needy people in their communities. Rachel Beckwith brought clean water to African villagers. These young people, all of whom Youth Service America (YSA) recognized as Everyday Young Heroes, weren’t in their teens when they decided to make a difference…they were children.

Yesterday was Universal Children’s Day, which the United Nations and its member countries observed for two reasons: 1) promote mutual exchange and understanding among children and 2) to promote the welfare of the world’s children.

Of the former, these young people weren’t waiting on anyone to take action. They did it, themselves – like Rachel Beckwith of Seattle, Washington. On her ninth birthday, Beckwith asked her family for donations to Charity: water. She set up a website with the nonprofit, hoping to meet her $300 goal (she only reached $220 by her birthday).

Ryleigh Kastra from Charlottesville, Virginia, was just as ready to affect change when she joined a national food drive initiative started by another Everyday Young Hero. Kastra was 8 years old when she created flyers, asking for canned goods donations. She distributed nearly 400 of her flyers. She collected 700 pounds of food to deliver on her first trip to Neighbors-4-Neighbors.

Joshua Williams, of Miami, Florida, and his family were on their way to feed the homeless when officials told them it was against public health laws to distribute food without a permit.

(PHOTO: Lance Cheung) The White House recognized 11-year-old Joshua Williams, of Miami, last year as a “Champion of Change” for strengthening food security in the United States and around the world.

He was initially inspired by what he saw on TV. “I was watching Feed The Children, and I felt sad for the children,” Williams said in the Sodexo Foundation’s video, which included interviews with Williams’s aunt KerryAnne McLean and his friend Alexander Bailey. Of Feed the Children, Williams added, “I wanted to do [something similar] in Florida.”

That’s when his mom, aunt and a consultant helped him start his own foundation, Joshua’s Heart, when he was 5 years old. “It was amazing because his friends and other family members — everyone — was excited to help…and put a smile on someone else’s face,” McLean said.

The Foundation has since raised over 400,000 pounds of food to needy families in South Florida, while teaching some recipients how to prepare healthier meals. “We have volunteers and elves,” Williams said. “Volunteers are adults, and the elves are children. They’re my friends, or friends of my friends.”

An elf admired Williams’s selflessness. “I think Joshua has a very big heart,” Bailey said. “I would say that he’s a very thankful person and he’s very helpful.”

Universal Children’s Day is an opportunity to be as helpful in promoting the welfare of the world’s children. Two years ago, Generations United teamed up with the MetLife Foundation to help the Ryleighs, the Joshuas and the Rachels out there, looking to put their entrepreneurial spirits to work.

(PHOTO: Stock)

Through our youth-led jump-start grants, young people developed volunteer projects working with, or on behalf of, older adults. I remember what a teenager, who took part in our project, once reported. “One thing I learned through this project is to respect your community and your history,” he said. “For all of the retired teachers we worked with, most had lived here for a while, and even though they are done working and could leave if they wanted to, they did not. I learned through their stories that your community has a way of shaping you and your history, and that your community never leaves you.”

Generations United promoted the welfare of the world’s children by stating our support for the victims of Typhoon Haiyan that devastated the Philippines two weeks ago – leaving thousands, who lost everything, struggling to survive without food or medical care. We used our weekly e-newsletter, Generations This Week, to direct support to HelpAge USA and Save the Children.

At our Signature Report event next month, we’ll tackle the zero-sum framework (funding programs like Social Security and Medicare for Americans over 65 vs. addressing college debt and youth unemployment), which sets up a false conflict between our older and younger generations.

As we celebrate Universal Children’s Day, let’s nurture our children’s potential and show them there’s no age limit on affecting change.

Marian Wright Edelman Fires Up Intergenerational Advocates

Edelman

(PHOTO: Alan King) Marian Wright Edelman after her talk at the Public Policy building in Dupont Circle

EDITOR’S NOTE: I’m writing this article as the Communications Specialist at Generations United. I had a great opportunity to catch Ms. Edelman’s talk earlier this week.

Marian Wright Edelman’s pep talk earlier this week came from a different place. It wasn’t the usual eloquent oration of a gifted speaker whose decades of fighting for disadvantaged Americans earned her the status of civil rights legend.

Instead, she delivered her appeal as a grandmother. “I love my grandchildren,” she told a packed room Oct. 28 at the Gray Panthers’ National Convention in D.C. “They have re-radicalized me all over again.”

Edelman’s initial spark came from the racial injustice she saw as a lawyer with the Mississippi office of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. She tackled segregation laws, represented activists during the 1964 Freedom Summer, and helped setup a Head Start Program. In 1973, she founded the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF), an advocacy and research center for youth issues.

The CDF is also a co-founder of Generations United, a national advocacy group whose intergenerational strategies improves the lives of children, youth, and older people.

Evoking the inspiration her granddaughters gave her, Edelman re-radicalized the Gray Panthers, an intergenerational advocacy organization. She charged them to be “pit bulls up there on the hill” for young people disadvantaged by poor educational systems (“We want universal preschool through K,” Edelman said, “it shouldn’t stop at kindergarten”) and gun violence (“a violent crime occurs every 26 seconds,” according to the FBI’s 2012 crime data).

Though we weren’t mentioned by name, Generations United was present in Edelman’s address, especially when she urged the older adults to advocate for children and youth. “We’ve got to make a raucous,” she said, “but it’s got be a continuous raucous.”

Through our Seniors4Kids program, older adults make a continuous raucous in support of early childhood development whether they’re in Colorado, Kentucky, Nebraska or New Jersey, to name a few.

“1 in 6 Americans live in a multigenerational household,” according to Generations United’s data.

“What does early education have to do with older adults?” Drs. Joan Lombardi and Mary Catherine Bateson asked in their May 14 Huffington Post Op/Ed, “United Across the Generations to Assure a Strong Start for Children.”

“The well-being of our nation’s children and our own grandchildren will have a huge impact on our quality of living,” according to Lombardi and Bateson. “If our children emerge from our education system ill-prepared for the work world, we will suffer along with them, because we will be dependent upon them.”

Edelman echoed that sentiment at the Gray Panthers’ National Convention. “You are the indispensable,” she told the grandparents – some of whom mentored troubled teens and young mothers through the foster grandparents program.

“You’re the most talented and educated generation of grandparents and advocates,” Edelman continued before expressing her admiration for grandfamilies, or multigenerational households headed by grandparent caregivers. There are now 2.7 million grandparents in the U.S. who have sole responsibility of the children living with them, according to Generations United’s data.

Edelman joked about her experiences as a grandmother. “I love my grandchildren, but I sure am happy when they go home,” she told a laughing crowd. “They wear you out.”

But Edelman doesn’t take the social enrichment her grandchildren give her for granted. “I have three great sons,” she said, “but when I had my first two granddaughters, I didn’t know how lonely I’d been all of those years.”

The Human Thing To Do (for National Blog Action Day)

(PHOTO: Tunisia Live)

In the spirit of Blog Action Day, a friend challenged me and a few others to join bloggers around the world in raising awareness about a single subject.

The premise hasn’t changed since this free annual event started in 2007. The goal is that what we post will start positive global discussions about an annually assigned topic and urge support for advocacy groups whose work coincides with that issue.

This year’s topic, “Human Rights,” is right on time with 800,000 federal workers out of a job because of a congressional showdown between the President and Tea Party Republicans. But I don’t want to tear House Speaker John Boehner a new one for not reigning in his “Young Guns”.

I don’t want to talk about how those loose canons are holding middle class families for ransom, how they hope the President and Senate Democrats cave so they can delay or de-fund Obamacare, attempting to tarnish the President’s legacy. I don’t want to talk about those human rights violations, with Congress so close to a deal.

I do want to talk about an email I received this morning about 46 women fatally shot every month by domestic abusers. That’s the issue that hits even closer to home with me — someone who admires his wife’s brilliance, his mom’s big heart and quiet wisdom, his sister’s strong spirit and his adorable 4-year-old niece’s inquisitive nature (“Uncle, what’s that?”).

This issue is also on-time with October being Domestic Violence Awareness month. This year, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a bipartisan coalition of more than 1,000 mayors, got a petition going to toughen gun laws that make it difficult for dangerous people, including violent partners, to buy weapons.

I wholeheartedly agree with this coalition’s efforts to stop what former Congressman Mark Green considered a threat to national security. “If the numbers we see in domestic violence were applied to terrorism or gang violence, the entire country would be up in arms,” Green once said. “It would be the lead story on the news every night.”

(PHOTO: unknown on Flickr)

Right now, the lead story is the government shutdown, which is nowhere as pricey as domestic abuse services that include health care and counseling, along with social and welfare programs.

The Advocates for Human Rights did some additional calculating in their 2011 report, including the cost of “police and criminal justice services, legal services, transportation costs, and housing and other refuge services used by victims of domestic violence and special education services used to treat children of abused women.”

The advocacy group found that healthcare services, alone, for abused victims was $4.1 billion, according to figures from1995. That the government shutdown — which doesn’t occur often — gets more news ink and TV time than violence against women — which recent stats show is prevalent enough to victimize one in four at some point in her life — says a lot about where women’s rights fall on our priorities. Additionally, consider the irony of domestic abuse awareness kept to a whisper during its dedicated month.

But what do you expect from elected officials who, during last year’s General Election, tried to redefine rape and tell women what to do with their bodies. Those oppressive behaviors would disgust even a Republican tycoon like Leland Stanford. To hear him tell it, “Women having to suffer the burdens of society and government should have their equal rights in it.”

That’s why advocacy groups like Mayors Against Illegal Guns are important. We can do our part to promote human solidarity by adding our names to a petition “demanding action to end gun violence.” There are also other groups working on behalf of battered women such as American Bar Association Commission on Domestic and Sexual Violence, Battered Women’s Justice Project, Child Welfare League of America, and Equality Now, to name a few.

Here’s a full list of standout groups stopping domestic abuse. Let’s do our part to discuss a human issue. It’s a step in the right direction, according to actress and filmmaker Salma Hayek. “If you give me any problem in America I can trace it down to domestic violence,” Hayek once said. “It is the cradle of most of the problems, economic, psychological, educational.”

Our Government Shouldn’t Default on its Youth and Seniors

(PHOTO: Reuters)

This weekend’s forecast is rife with symbolism. Take the snarling sky and the thunderheads rumbling through the district.

Take the flash floods, the pounding winds, the power outages. And what you have is a local storm analogous to the one in Congress that shutdown the government last week, leaving this country’s defenseless citizens to wonder what this means for intergenerational programs.

Among those effected is the USDA’s Commodity Supplemental Food Program — which, in addition to serving 40 states and two Native American reservations — benefits Kent County, Michigan’s 1,300 low-income elderly. This older adult group is over 60 with an annual income below $15,000. According to NPR’s All Things Considered, the weekly food packages “include some dried milk, pasta and two different types of juice.”

This national impasse hit North Carolina’s Piedmont Triad Regional Council, trimming staff at the Area Agency on Aging (AAA). During the shutdown, the AAA reduced its full-time employees’ work hours by 25 percent, while temporarily laying off part-time staff. This limits or delays the agency’s ability to empower seniors and disabled people by affecting change in existing policies.

(ARTWORK: David Horsey)

If this shutdown continues, it could drain funds from the Older Americans Act (OAA) that secures physical and mental health services, retirement income and housing for older generations, while protecting them against ageism in hiring practices. The OAA also helps youth through its National Family Caregiver Support Program (NFCSP), which allows state agencies to use 10 percent of program-allocated funds to support grandfamilies, or households with caregivers over 55 raising a related young person.

Across the country, rental assistance programs aren’t sure how they’ll survive if the political deadlock, which stalled activity at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, stretches into November. These voucher services aid grandparent caregivers, who already face barriers to housing access (“More than 1 in 4 older caregivers live in overcrowded conditions,” according to Generations United, while “more than 1 in 6 pay over half their income in rent”).

It’s times like these, I wish Hubert Humphrey was here to lend Congress his common sense. “The moral test of government,” according to the former Vice President, “is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.” This was Humphrey calling on the American government to protect its vulnerable citizens.

(PHOTO: Stock Image)

A global example of helping the defenseless is The Girl Declaration, which fights intergenerational poverty by tapping into the potential of adolescent girls, who too often are without educational resources.

“Bringing together the thinking of 508 girls living in poverty across the globe with the expertise of more than 25 of the world’s leading development organisations, the Girl Declaration is our tool to stop poverty before it starts,” according to girleffect.org.

If three foundations and a coalition can start a movement that helps young girls abroad, there’s no reason Congress can’t help struggling households at home. To make matters worse, the U.S. is at risk of defaulting if legislators don’t raise the debt ceiling.

Last Thursday, AARP President Robert Romasco explained to Bloomberg TV’s “Market Makers” how a default catastrophically affects seniors hard. “It puts every single obligation we have — from bonds, to social security payments, to contractors — at risk,” said Romasco, whose organization lobbies for 37 million older adults. “Somebody’s not going to get paid. That could be social security recipients, it could be veterans, it could be bond holders.”

That’s why it’s important, more than ever, for some serious soul-searching on Capitol Hill. They can take a cue from Mahatma Gandhi, who once said: “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” Let’s hope Congress loses itself doing what’s right.

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