Thursday, April 24, 2014

40 Days of Helping

At sundown this past Saturday, Lent ended. For many who observe those 40 days, it means they can now resume with the activities they had otherwise forgone. One of my friends had given up coffee, which seemed like a horrible choice from my perspective, and she was thrilled to get her beloved Starbucks Saturday evening.

For the past several years, I sought to add something during Lent, rather than give up behaviors. Abstaining led to resentment, which seemed to be missing the point of the activity, while adding behaviors did not have the same effect. Inspired by one of our priest's sermons, I decided to do one extra thing for a person each day of Lent. Some of the activities included:

  • Unloading the dishwasher, which is usually one of our daughter's duties,
  • Taking out the neighbor's trashcan during trash pickup day in our neighborhood,
  • Buying lunch for a stranger, and 
  • Penning hand-written notes to people, among other activities.
I have several conclusions from my 40 days of helping. 
  1. While I had to intentionally plan or think about things at the beginning, near the end of the 40 days, I was doing extra things for people out of habit. Clearly some things, like buying someone's lunch, is an purposeful act. But, other things, like stopping to help someone on the side of the road or writing notes, became something I just wanted to do. Researchers suggest that habits are formed after 21 days, so I suppose the 40 days of Lent allowed plenty of time to make helping habitual. 
  2. In many cases, the extra activity was appreciated. My younger daughter was more than willing to let me unload the dishwasher, and I received nice feedback on the note writing. In other cases, my good intentions turned out differently than I had expected. For instance, on one trash day, the wind picked up, knocking over my neighbor's trash can. They had known it would be windy, so had planned on taking out the trash immediately before the truck arrived, but as I took out the trash before work, they instead spent time picking up their debris that was all over the street. Luckily, they still speak to me. 
  3. It is much easier for me to help than to be helped. This was made abundantly clear at one of the church services called Maundy Thursday. This service is the Thursday of Holy Week, and makes the occasion where Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. At our parish, we have a service in the evening, and people can wash other parishioner's feet, and have theirs washed as well. I found washing the feet to be an act that was actually an honor, much like the extra helping hand I had tried to provide during Lent. On the other hand, having my feet washed was not comfortable, to say the least. It is hard to articulate how moving and humbling that experience really is. 
So, what does all of this have to do with diversity in sport? There are actually a couple of points. First, it is easy for some (including me) to point out what "ought to be done" in relation to diversity and inclusion, but not actually put those perspectives into action. But, if I learned anything during Lent, it is that actions cannot only be endeavored, but they can become habitual. We can, through practice, be thoughtful and intentional about speaking up and positively affecting climate, and over time, these behaviors will become easier and easier.

Second, we need to be careful with our actions. What we might consider a well-intentioned act can actually negatively affect others. Just as I should have looked at the weather before taking out the neighbors' trashcan, we should think about how our actions will affect not only us, but also those we are seeking to positively impact. 

Third, for some, it is easier to give help than to receive it. For others, it is just the opposite, as offering assistance to others or to causes is quite difficult. I suspect some introspection is helpful here, such that we thoughtfully consider where we are on the continuum and why are situated there.

I am always glad when Lent is complete, but this year, I will hopefully take my helping behaviors with me past the 40 day timespan. 

Monday, March 31, 2014

"People of Grime and Glory": Addressing the Individual, not the Aggregate

Those who know me well will be hardly surprised to learn that I love data. And, by data, I mean quantitative data collected from large surveys or experiments. These allow one to collect statistical tests and move beyond idiosyncratic stories. I have found this to be particularly useful in my research program and in developing strategies to better serve students in my role in the dean's office. As Miles Brand (former head of the NCAA) used to comment, "In God we trust. Everyone else bring data."

It is with this perspective in mind that I was particularly struck by a sermon I heard this morning. (For my readers who might not see much value in sermons or church-related things, I do urge you to stick with me, as the application is broad). The priest was discussing when people "really see us" for who we are: see us as for all our warts and for all our positive attributes. She then drew the parallel to how God sees us--that God sees us as "people of grime and glory" and loves us, not in spite of our faults, but because we are who we are--uniquely us. In closing the sermon, she called on members of the parish to do the same: to see people in our world for who they are and to adopt a similar mindset, reaching out to them, helping them, working with them. Simply put, to love them. 

I saw so many connections between the sermon and what I (we) do in diversity and inclusion work. As noted, it is tempting to see people as members of larger groups and working for the rights and privileges of those groups, as a whole. But the more powerful is to see the individual for who she or he is, to love that person, and act in ways reflective of that perspective.

As an example, it is one thing to write about the need for more just sport organizations for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals; to document the levels of sexual prejudice and the harm it does to all people in the workplace; and to statistically demonstrate the value inclusiveness brings to the overall effectiveness of the workplace. We have done this, and it has helped shape policies in some workplaces. It is equally powerful--indeed, likely more powerful--to see my sexual minority sister or brother as an individual, with all their multiple identities, including that of a member of the LGBT community; to love them "as a people of grime (re: who has faults) and glory (re: for all her wonderful positive attributes)," and to engage in actions that reflect that love. This means listening to them, empathizing  seeking understanding, following them, advocating for them, and fighting along side them for a better life, including that in sport and physical activity. It means personalizing rather than seeing them as one of a collective many. 

I do not see a time when my research perspectives or paradigmatic assumptions will drastically shift. That is, the large scale surveys and experiments will continue. I am struck, though, for equal attention in my personal and research life to see people for who they are, and to love them accordingly. 

Friday, February 21, 2014

Tough Lessons Concerning Girls' Physical Activity

My partner and I have two daughters, and we are firm believers that life lessons should be taught early. The stakes are much lower for an 8 and 10 year old than for (say) an 18 and 20 year old.

As one example, when our older daughter was in second degrade, she forgot to take her homework to school. The first time this happened, we took it to her but told her that was the first and last time it would happen. A couple of weeks later, she forgot the assignments once more, and when she arrived at school and realized her mistake, she was quite distraught. She cried, the teacher called and asked if we could bring it. We explained we would not and that it was a life lesson the daughter would not soon forget. I think the school punishment was no recess, but it was enough of a consequence to remain with her since that time. She always remembers her homework now.

While the older daughter remembers this episode, it has really stuck with my partner and me. It is tough to watch your child fail and know that you can prevent it. But, as I mentioned at the beginning of the post, a lesson of responsibility and accountability is much better learned at a young age than when they get older and the stakes are much higher.

I mention all of this because it came up again last night. Our younger daughter was relaying her big plans for recess today. The boys in her class play football during recess, so she and her friends were going to dress up and act as cheerleaders. I saw this as another learning opportunity and explained to her the following:

  • For a long time, girls had limited opportunities to be active, so were forced to be on the sidelines. 
  • Once they did have opportunities to be active, there were entities (friends, parents, teacher, society, etc.) telling them they should be in supportive roles rather than active ones, and this resulted in girls remaining on the sideline. 
  • She knows as much about football as those boys do, so there is no reason she should not be out there playing with them. 
  • If her friends want to stand by and cheer on the boys, that is up to them. But I expect her to be a leader--a leader on the playground, in the math class, in the science class, with her friends, and so on. She should not simply do that because her friends want to.
Tears ensued. She thought I was angry with her, and I think she was disappointed that he big plans might not materialize. So, I asked her to repeat back to me what she thought I was telling her. She did, and after some more discussion, we had a common understanding. 

Some might take this as being overly strict. Why not just let her do what she wants to when she is at recess? But, I saw it as a teaching opportunity--one of those lessons that is tough to understand or deal with early on but that will help her in the long run (I hope). 

Our daughters will have countless social forces telling them how they should conform to gender stereotypes and expectations. This will impact the school and career choices they make, the clothes they wear, how they see their bodies, and how physically active they choose to be. So, if she learns at age 8 that she can do things differently, she can do "what the boys normally do," or that she has choices and can be active, those are good lessons learned, no matter how hard they are for both of us. 

Your thoughts?

Friday, December 6, 2013

Privilege and The Gospel According to Malcolm

Those who know me know I am a big fan of Malcolm Gladwell, having read each of his books and regularly consuming his New Yorker articles. I am always struck by people who are able to observe different phenomena in the world and integrate them in a way so as to create new means of understanding and knowing. My former advisor, Chella, was able to do this, as is Gladwell. My affection for Gladwell's work is so strong that when I picked up his latest book, David and Goliath, I jokingly told a friend I was reading the Gospel according to Malcolm. 

While his latest work is no Blink (one of Galdwell's earlier books), it is good. I was particularly struck by his writings related to the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. He outlines the strategies Martin Luther King, Fred Shuttleworth, and Wyatt Walker used in Birmingham, AL, likening it to the activities of Brer Rabbit. Some of their techniques, such as encouraging school-aged children to participate in their demonstrations were criticized by others and couched as wrong. 

But--and this is what really draws me to the author--Gladwell challenges these notions. He writes: 
But we need to remember that our definition of what is right is, as often as not, simply the way that people in positions of privilege close the door on those on the outside. 
Those in positions of power and privilege--in this case, the Whites in Birmingham and in particular, the police chief Bull Connor--produce and reproduce norms, values, and systems that protect what they have. Notions of what is right or what is wrong are oftentimes created as a way to promote the interests of those in power and to subjugate those without it. And because these perspectives are so deeply enmeshed into our cultural fabric, challenging them is difficult, to say the least. 

The same deeply embedded and accepted norms that cast the fight for racial equality in the 60's as wrong are alive today. They portray questioning and striving against income inequality as a socialist (re: un-American) activity; they paint the quest to end prejudice against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals as contrary to "traditional" values; they cast efforts to ensure all have access to healthcare as ludicrous and bad for business. The list goes on. 

It is what challenging these norms--or to use Gladwell's words, "battling giants"--so important. Without questioning and sometimes going against what is considered "right", the taken-for-granted norms are reinforced and status quo maintained. I am thankful leaders like King, Walker, and Shuttleworth engaged in such fights. 

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

On the Role of Allies

Recently, Outsports ran two articles about the role of allies in the fighting and advocating for LGBT rights (you can find there here and here). The articles have generated quite a bit of discussion. One of my colleagues, who is lesbian and has conducted quite a bit of research on the topic, emailed me when the first one was written and was quite unsettled. She argued that the author (Patrick Burke) was missing the point and overstating the case. Given that Cyd Zeigler, co-founder of the site and author of the second article, acknowledged the blowback from the Burke's article, I suspect my friend was not the only one to have this reaction. 

That said, I do not think Zeigler, Burke or Outsports was trying to diminish the role of allies. Hell, they even have a section on the website entitled "Straight Allies." Rather, I think the point of both articles was captured in Zeigler's piece: "Straight allies are integral to our movement. When they know their role and do the work, they can be game-changers. Without the majority, we can't shift the culture. But we need those allies to serve their role of support, not the role of the LGBT athletes they aim to help." 

I agree with Zeigler's sentiments and find it somewhat troubling when allies of any cause try to personally benefit from the support they show. Instead, I see the role of the ally as one who offers support for a particular group or cause. This support can take several forms, including listening, encouraging, advocating, and everything in between. But the key is that the ally should be in a supportive role. 

Patrick Burke (the author of the first article) argued that it was time for allies to step aside, while Zeigler (the author of the second article) suggested news agencies and sport organizations should seek out LGBT athletes to provide a voice for the LGBT movement. Zeigler listed over 100 persons who would be willing to do so, which serves as a great resource. 

But reviewing Zeigler's list shows the importance of context, and in particular, the area of the country in which one is living. There were only three persons from what I would consider the South: one in Florida (youth soccer player Jazz), one in Orlando (MTSU football player Alan Gendreau), and another in Austin, Texas (UT swimmer Matt Korman). Being that a colleague of mine once referred to Austin as "an oasis in a cultural desert," it might not be as representative of the South as other areas, and the same could be said for certain parts of Florida.

This is an important point and the genesis behind my friend's frustration with the initial article. There are parts of the US that are quite supportive of LGBT rights and individuals, and in these places, LGBT athletes and coaches have led the charge for change and equality. There are others, though, where LGBT individuals are silenced because of a very strong culture of heterosexism and very real individual expressions of sexual prejudice. Consider, for example, that in most Texas cities, it is still legal to fire someone because they are LGBT. Less than a decade ago, 75% of TX residents supported a constitutional amendment ensuring marriage was between a woman and a man. Players in our research have told of their coaches threatening to out them to their parents (which the players reported would have been devastating) if they did not more closely follow the coach's instructions. Even Brittney Griner expressed feeling constrained to fully express who she was while playing at Baylor. 

It is in the cases that allies have a duty to engage in more active roles of support. It is here that we might find allies being more active in their advocacy and being more noticeable in the fight for equality. I do not doubt that some seek to do it for their own benefit and glory. But, if the allies I know are representative of the larger group (and I suspect they are), most advocate for LGBT rights because they find the current cultural arrangement wrong and unjust; they do it because their friends and family members have been threatened or otherwise silenced; and they do it because they have the cultural capital and privilege to spend. This is not to suggest that LGBT coaches, administrators, and athletes can't fight for equality; rather, the fight is so substantive and prejudice so firmly entrenched, that it takes the collective to create change. 

So, while I agree with Burke and Zeigler and feel the face of the LGBT equality movement should be LGBT individuals, it is also important to recognize that in many areas, allies are still needed. Stepping aside in some situations would equate to silence and tacit support for the norm of heterosexism. This cannot happen, and it represents the reason that Allies who I know will not step aside, but will continue to support LGBT individuals in whatever form of support is needed to generate change. 

Monday, November 4, 2013

Your Neighborhood and "Making It"

A friend of mine sent me a very interesting article from the NY Times today (see the article here). In it, Seth Stephens-Davidowtiz conducted research to examine how where one was raised influences the chance of playing in the NBA. He collected data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, basketballreference.com, and per capita income from the census. 

Overall, his results show that "growing up in a wealthier neighborhood is a major, positive predictor of reaching the NBA for both black and white men." He also observed that Black NBA players were about 30 percent less likely than other Black men to be born to an unmarried mother and a teenage mother. 

Stephens-Davidowtiz draws two conclusions from these data: (1) growing up in wealthier neighborhoods with two-family households helps the players develop important non-cognitive skills, such as persistence, self-regulation, and trust--skills as important on the court as they are in other areas of life; and (2) "the results push back against the stereotype of a basketball player driven by an intense desire to escape poverty."

It is the latter point I discuss here. Given that NBA players are more likely to grow up in wealthier neighborhoods than are their peers, the author suggests a desire to "make it" and escape poverty is likely not the driving factor for most NBA players. That may or may not be the case for current players. 

But the author also seems to suggest that this desire is not present for the millions of Black and White players who seek NBA stardom but never make it. And this is simply not the case. Documentaries such as Hoop Dreams, book authors such as Jay Coakley and Shaun Powell, and various scholars who study this for a living (e.g., Reuben May) all point to a desire among Black players for social class advancement through sport. That is, they see sport as their primary way of moving up in society. This dream, though, is rarely realized, as high school players have far less than a 1% chance of playing professionally.  

Thus, I would not say that the "results push back against the stereotype" as Stephens-Davidowitz suggests, but instead, point how much players from low SES backgrounds must overcome to achieve success. 

To his defense, Stephens-Davidowitz comes full circle to arrive at a similar conclusion at the end of his article, noting: "Anyone from a difficult environment, no matter his athletic prowess, has the odds stacked against him." That is certainly the case.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Social Class, Privilege, and Physical Activity

In July of 2012, I went on a bike ride with a neighbor. It was my first time to cycle as a form of intentional exercise, and after 20 miles, I was exhausted. But, something stuck, and I have been regularly cycling since that time. As the graphic below illustrates, over the past 14 months, I have ridden approximately 5,000 miles, for 305 hours, over 152 workouts. 


Riding gives you a lot of time to think about things. This has been good for me, as I am able to think through things that arise at work, mentally develop the outline papers I am writing, and reflect on other events. During my ride yesterday, I started to think about what all it took to achieve this mini-milestone. The list included work autonomy, community characteristics facilitating active living, family life supportive of physical activity, and financial means. 


Reviewing this list, which is likely incomplete, led me to conclude that this form of physical activity is something for middle and upper class individuals. During that timeframe, I spent a little over 5 hours a week on the bike, discretionary time that not everyone has. I leave at 6:00 a.m. so as to miss a minimal amount of my family's waking hours. But this also means that I have the work flexibility and autonomy to do that, and that I have a partner who is supportive enough to facilitate morning activities (getting the girls to school) on the days I am away. Cycling also requires financial resources for the bike, repairs, equipment, and clothing. 

All of these represent a privilege that comes for my social class position. The other side of that coin is that those without such privileges are not afforded the same opportunities to be active.

Recognizing this, I started to wonder what could be done to make physical activity more accessible for people in lower social classes. In some cases, organizations develop worksite  exercise programs, which would seemingly address some of these issues. But, it is usually the upper level employees who realize these benefits, not the line workers or hourly employees. In other cases, communities have offered free or reduced cost activities at parks, schools, or churches. This might also address some of the accessibility problems, but it also assumes that the poor have the time engage in such activities and resources available for childcare. 

I suspect the most effective approach comes in large scale efforts, designing cities for active living. This means ensuring walkability, developing bike lanes and enforcing compliance with the associated rules, and planning facilities and stores such that people can access them by foot or bike, not car. (For other examples, see the following site). A number of studies have shown that such large scale efforts are effective in increasing physical activity across the population, but it is also quite expensive and takes years to facilitate.


(As an aside, "Portlandia" regularly comes to mind when thinking of active living cities. The mayor on that TV show embodies this). 

These are issues, though, that will only become more pressing. In some Texas counties, more than 60% of the population is overweight or obese, and there are similar trends across much of the US. The food we consume impacts this, but so too does an active lifestyle. We will need to ensure that active lifestyle is a possibility for all people, not just those with privilege.