Saturday, December 30, 2017

We have to be honest with ourselves before we can be honest with other people...

Lately I’ve been having a lot of conversations, and doing a lot of reading, to help find ways to short-circuit the resistance and ambivalence many white people express when invited to (or confronted with) conversations about race relations.

A lot of people are quick to say that they have “candid discussions about race,” as one article put it, on a regular basis. Based on my experience with people who are quick to say that, however, most of the people in this article are probably quick to assert that racism is at an all-time low, that the continued problems of disadvantaged people of color are now their own faults since they have more opportunity now, and then laundry-list ways they think demonstrate their open-mindedness, such as that they have black friends, they personally “don’t discriminate,” played with dolls or action figures of different races without consciously considering those differences relevant, and so on.

Even the assumption itself that race is irrelevant or doesn’t matter at all can do more harm than good, because negating people’s heritage and specific needs with dismissals such as “we’re all human, so individual race shouldn’t matter” is disempowering to people who are still struggling to have their voices heard independently of the negative stereotypes that our white-centric culture has judged them by for so long.

Getting past the filters, misconceptions, and lacks of self-awareness that keep people from honestly acknowledging that racism does in fact still exist, and that they may actually be unwittingly part of the problem, starts with doing two things.

The first is, admitting to ourselves that we are still capable of, and may still actively maintain, prejudices. It doesn’t seem humanly possible to have no prejudice whatsoever. If we are so quick to insist that we have no prejudices of any kind, and quickly shut down any conversation about the subject of prejudice, then we are probably not being honest with ourselves, let alone with anyone else. I admit I still have some: While they aren’t based on race, there are certain categories of people that, after all these years, even after encountering plenty of stereotype-breakers, I still have a really hard time respecting or not wanting to openly repudiate at least 50% of what they say and believe.

When we acknowledge who or what kind(s) of people we are still hard-hearted about, we are taking the first step to keeping those prejudices in check (meaning, not acting on them in any way, including in conversation), and weakening them over time.

The second thing is, not treating ourselves or each other as ambassadors of a whole group. While we each represent a group to some extent, we can only truly represent ourselves when expressing our beliefs and personal experience. When we drop the assumption that all of “our people”—whoever those people are—feel as we do, or have been affected the same way we have by various social-justice challenges, it’s a lot easier to be honest about our experience and to listen to other people expressing their experiences as members from the same or a different group. 

To truly get a good understanding of the experience of a particular racial, cultural, or religious group, it’s essential that we talk with multiple people, not just expect our one friend or coworker from that group to represent the whole. For example, if I’m talking to a friend who’s black about what Detroit is like for him now, I start my question with something like “In your experience…” rather than “As a black person…”

So, thus ends my blogging for 2017. Thank you so much for reading, and I look forward to sharing with you about my intercultural and interfaith adventures next year. We’re even going to kick off January with some planned, structured discussions about race and intercultural relations, including the topic “What is whiteness?” at a gathering in Romeo next Friday. If another Snowmaggedon or work doesn’t prevent me from attending, I’ll give you a full report. 

Until then, Namaste, and Happy New Year :)

Image: detail from "Re-Enchantment #1" by Karla Joy Huber, 2017; Prismacolor marker, Sharpie marker, Prismacolor marker-blender

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

More thoughts on the difference between race and socially-contrived identity -- and the dark implications of why our ancestors contrived such identity to begin with

One of the most memorable themes for me this year has been the expansion of my focus from interfaith and intercultural relations into race relations. One of the first crossovers for me was an event at the Holocaust Memorial Center which helped clarify the concept of Jewish identity as a race and not just as a religion. While discussing my blog post about that event with Dan, we attracted the attention—and quickly the friendship—of a Jewish couple who helped us expand our understanding further into the story of the Jewish experience and into the idea of “white” being a social construct instead of a race. We had a few excellent opportunities to discuss race relations in the context of Detroit, both in our private small-group conversations and at the SGI Buddhist Center for the fourth installment of the Vanguard Discussion Series.

I also became aware of the most recent additions to the Michigan State University School of Journalism’s cultural competency guides series, including honest and accurate answers to common questions about Jewish people, African-American people, and certain immigrant groups to the U.S., which can serve as great ice-breakers to help mainstream Americans get over the fear and embarrassment that stops them from truly connecting with people from other colors and cultures.

And during last week’s conversations, both at Starbucks and during a Chanukah celebration, I realized that perhaps the biggest contributor to the recent intensification of racist actions in the U.S. is the idea that for “white” people to make more room for diverse viewpoints in conversation, media, the workplace, and politics, they must forfeit their power and compromise their beliefs and values.

As I pointed out last week, it doesn’t have to happen that way. White people don’t have to forfeit anything that’s truly good for them to help people of other colors and cultures to catch up. Allowing more voices at the table doesn’t have to mean that the voices of the people who’ve been there longest must be silenced or cancelled out. They will have to limit their talk-time, however, and that just means they will benefit all the more by spending more time listening.

As a person who was raised “white,” with no sense of ethnic identity of origin coded into that, I realize that the steep price white people have paid for their cultural dominance is the loss of their identity. “White” is not a race. “American” is not a race or a culture. These designations represent a social construct that resulted from many diverse groups of people forfeiting their original identities to break free of whatever negative value-judgments had been historically used against them to create a new identity in a foreign land based primarily on the achievement of social power and economic prosperity.

It drives me and my friends bonkers when people insist that being German, Croatian, French, Cameroonian, Lebanese, Chinese, Slavic, English, Mexican, Japanese, Indian, or Peruvian is irrelevant to the fact that we’re all “American.” This insistence on being “American” totally misses the point that for many—if not most—people who don’t fit under the white umbrella, the idea of being American means very little in terms of social status or economic power, because their groups have always gotten the short end of the stick in the so-called New World.

A great book I intend to read to help deepen my understanding of this cultural phenomenon is 
Working Toward Whiteness, which covers the creation of the defense-mechanism of European immigrants who de-emphasized, or shed altogether, their original identities as Italian, Irish, German, and so on, to equalize their social ranking.

Such attempts at cultural white-washing are not limited to people of European descent; Dan introduced us to the book Brown Skin, White Minds, which explores the heavy toll of colonization among Filipino people, particularly since they are still surrounded by predominately white beauty standards.

A third book Dan brought to the table is The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, which can go a long way in helping white people understand that the disproportionate representation of people of color (particularly black men) in prison is a systemic problem that can’t be solved simply by blaming and punishing individual people for their criminal behavior.

In my next post, I’ll share some thoughts about ways we can help bypass or short-circuit the resistance and preconceived notions that block many white people from being willing to listen long enough to understand any of this.

Image: "One World Heart," by Karla Joy Huber, 2017; Prismacolor marker, Sharpie marker, metallic gel pen, white gel pen

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Power is meant to be a shared resource, not a commodity transferred from one group to another

Last Sunday I had the pleasure of attending my first ever observance of Chanukah with my best friends Dan and Joe, at the home of our new friends Lea and Mikael. Dan and I met Lea and Mikael last month at Starbucks, when they jumped into our conversation upon hearing us discussing my blog post about visiting the Holocaust Memorial Center, and we all bonded over our shared passion for interreligious and intercultural dialogue. In addition to sharing food, prayers, and lots of laughs, we heard a detailed accounting of the historical events that Chanukah commemorates, which Mikael read to us from the book The Feasts of the Lord (and which you can find a good summary of by clicking here.)

We also continued our ongoing conversation about race and identity. I wrote previously about the idea of “white” being an American social construct rather than a race, and Dan gave more details on what he’s learned in his social-justice classes to help us clarify the true implications of the dark side of this social construct.

Our current “inside joke” (used more to express our exasperation than amusement) that we’ve unfortunately found ourselves saying more and more lately is “only white people say that!” For example, “racism doesn’t exist anymore;” “I grew up poor too, and I managed to overcome it just fine;” “I played with dolls of all colors as a child, and I didn’t discriminate among or rank them;” and, of course, the defensive declaration that “I’m not racist.”

Rather than demonstrate a truly open-minded and diversity-embracing outlook, such comments actually reveal deep ignorance, to think that just because they don’t personally perceive a problem for people of color, the problem must not exist. This belief that the problem of racism no longer exists then makes it easier to dismiss any further grievances as the complaints of bitter people who are stuck in the past, or who aren’t getting what they feel they deserve because they aren’t “working hard enough,” or they “don’t want to work,” they need to try harder to assimilate, or are simply being hostile.

“White fragility” is the buzzword for this phenomenon. “Any white person living in the United States will develop opinions about race simply by swimming in the water of our culture,” Dr. Robin DiAngelo says in her excellent article about the subject (which I encourage you to read by clicking here), and then goes on to point out that the content provided by our education system and info-media are sorely lacking in different perspectives. “Our socialization renders us racially illiterate,” she says; “When you add a lack of humility to that illiteracy (because we don’t know what we don’t know), you get the break-down we so often see when trying to engage white people in meaningful conversations about race.”

Since most of my close friends are people of color, it doesn’t faze me to talk about race relations almost every time we get together. That being said, I freely admit that many years before I met them, when I was surrounded almost entirely by people whose skin is as pale as mine, I was clueless about many of the important points I now discuss regularly. My friends have suffered racism since they first came into the world, and I didn’t even start to learn what racism is until I was ten—from the protected perspective of observer rather than from direct experience.

After many conversations and much reading about race relations, it occurred to me that the defensiveness in white fragility comes from a scarcity mindset. Power and privilege in our society have for so long been based on the idea that for one group to have power means that power must be withheld from others, that it’s difficult for people in the group that has always had the social power to realize that power can be a synergistic instead of a finite resource. One of my favorite quotes about empowerment that I read somewhere is “Power: Share it. It grows!” 

Giving social sanction, equal opportunity, and better resources to people of color doesn't have to equate with taking it away from white people, which many white people seem to think it does. This mindset is the first thing that must change in order for the concept of white fragility to be dismantled so that we can treat power as a shared resource instead of as a commodity to be transferred from one group to another.

I’ll go further into this topic in my next post, including some recommended reading from Dan's race and communication class.

Image: "Eye of an Enlightened One" by Karla Joy Huber, 1995; chalk pastel

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Rather than trying to create successful bridge-building dialogue out of thin air, there are some great ice-breakers available to help get us started...

Apropos of my recent posts about dialogue in peace-building, I recently got an update about some great tools that can assist us if we find ourselves needing some conversation-starting assistance.

wrote last year about the cultural competency guide series, produced by Michigan State University’s School of Journalism and published by Read the Spirit Books, and I’m pleased to report now on what they’ve been up to since then.

In addition to their seven books I mentioned previously, the team has since added 100 Questions & Answers About African Americans100 Questions & Answers About American Jews100 Questions & Answers About Immigrants to the U.S., and 100 Questions & Answers About Veterans. These guides are meant to be concise, practical, and realistic, using real questions that people commonly ask about groups unfamiliar to them, especially those groups that have been heavily stereotyped.

The journalism students who create each guide conduct authentic research, by compiling teams of experts – including clergy, advocates, and elders from the subject communities – as well as citing sources that have been confirmed credible by such experts.

Read the Spirit co-founder David Crumm reported at a recent interfaith networking meeting that one of the first responses, especially from people familiar with or part of the group covered by a book, is that “these are dumb questions” or “this is very basic stuff; people should know this.” The truth is, Crumm pointed out, people actually don’t know.

“We ask the questions that everybody’s asking and no one’s answering,” he said. “These are the actual questions that people ask around the office, or in church group, or in a neighborhood group.” He then challenged us to “walk into Barnes and Noble and find a resource book that answers half the questions in these books.” I know I haven’t found anything else that comes close; any attempts I have found are often blatantly inaccurate, such as what I wrote about here.

To date, the guide series has focused on particular cultures with a solid immigrant presence in the United States, and MSU Journalism Professor Joe Grimm reported that the team is planning to branch out into particular religious groups, including a Chaldean guide that eighteen students are currently working on. The team is also considering requests for a guide about Mormons and a guide about Sikhs (who are often confused with Muslims but whose religion actually has no relation to Islam).

Other identity-related topics being considered are gender identity; sexual orientation (distinctly different from gender identity, Grimm pointed out); generational groups such as “Millennials” and “Generation X;” and police. There have even been discussions about producing a guide regarding human trafficking, which is also (tragically) very timely right now.

Another thing the team decided to do per Crumm’s suggestion is two-page samplers to promote each guide, and give people a quick, free conversation-starter if they don’t have the whole book in their hands. At the interfaith networking meeting, Grimm distributed copies of the first one, featuring ten questions from the guide about Muslim Americans across a two-sided  8 1/2” x 11” sheet, which is great for making copies of and handing to the (unfortunately many) people we know who really have no clue what real Muslims are like and what they really believe.

I'll keep you posted as this series develops, and I encourage you to please read these guides!

To see all the titled currently in the series, you can click here to see Read the Spirit’s online book catalog or check out the individual pages:

Image: "Highland Creek Bridge" by Karla Joy Huber, 2008; oil pastel

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Changing the world, one coffee-talk at a time...

“Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend that part of the world within our reach. Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely.”

I read these words today in the December e-newsletter of the Song and Spirit Institute for Peace, and thought them to be a great summary of the way I've chosen to contribute to kosen-rufu.

I’ve always been a person who prefers to minimize the amount of time I spend in crowds and who needs a lot of alone-time for reflection and art. Thus, if I thought I had to attend marches and rallies, give regular presentations to groups, or be engaged with a social-justice organization’s weekly activities in order to truly support diversity and inclusion, my contribution would be minimal.

SGI President Daisaku Ikeda says, “The fundamental aim of Buddhism is to live in a way that is true to ourselves” (Faith Into Action, page 26). I’ve found one-to-one and small-group dialogues, and writing about what I learn through these dialogues here, to be much more sustainable ways for me to make authentic contributions toward positive change in the world around me, and I’ve been surprised at how effective these simple and subtle means have proven lately.

The regular holding of such dialogues—most of them impromptu and often with people I didn’t previously know—involves a level of social comfort that I wouldn’t have if I was trying to do this by myself. Thankfully I don’t have to, having had Daniel Moen to team up with for over seven years. These dialogues usually occur when our coffee-house conversations attract the attention and interest of people around us, who express how encouraged they are just by hearing people talking so openly and honestly in public about race relations, interfaith relations, and other social-justice concerns without the usual clichés, labels, or self-righteousness.

The most recent example was a couple weeks ago, when I shared with Dan at Starbucks my November 15 blog post about an interfaith event at the Holocaust Memorial Center, and we were overheard by a nearby couple who happen to be Jewish. We become instant friends with Lea and Mikael, who enriched our conversation—and our cumulative life experience—through their personal connection with the subject matter, including about relatives who perished in or survived concentration camps and the discrimination-based challenges that Jewish people still face even today.

Leah also gave a great example of why we must try harder to rid ourselves of slapping limiting labels on each other. I once heard a Jewish coworker say she was offended whenever anyone implied that, as a Jewish person, she was not “white.” Lea was amazed at this, because in her experience, she feels her identity negated and misunderstood every time someone tries to tell her she is classifiable as “white” because her skin color is the same as theirs. Jewish people were never extended the privileges of being white, so to her the idea of calling herself such is as inauthentic as it is inaccurate.

“Whiteness” is a social construct, not a race or an identity, as Dan, Carolyn Ferrari, Laurent Schiratti, Khary Frazier, Loralei Byatt, Zen Zadravec, and others discussed earlier this month at the fourth Vanguard Discussion series event at our local SGI Buddhist Center. The idea of being just “white” (to contrast with and at the expense of being “black”) is a purely American construct, created out of self-defense against being given a lower social and economic ranking for being Irish or Italian or Greek instead of English or German or French.

“It’s not important how you compare yourself to others,” Daisaku Ikeda says, “but how you compare yourself to whom you were yesterday.” He also advises that it's better for one hundred people to take one step together than it is for one person to take one hundred steps: “If you see that you’ve advanced even one step, then you’ve achieved a victory.”

This shared journey usually starts with dialogue; such dialogues are even better, of course, when they include tasty coffee.

Image: Detail from "Nothing Without Love" by Karla Joy Huber, 2016; Prismacolor marker, Sharpie marker, white gel pen, metallic gel pen

Monday, November 20, 2017

Detroit can save itself, if we actually listen to the residents tell us what they want and don't want from us

For the one-year anniversary of the Vanguard Discussion series, Carolyn Ferrari invited all the former panelists back and centered the discussion on race relations, particularly in the city of Detroit.

Specifically, our discussion centered on the commentary in the Focus: HOPE documentary “In Pursuit of Hope,” which features city residents’ reflections on the few-day-long 1967 Detroit riot, including what led up to it and what people in Detroit are doing now to help assure it doesn’t happen again.

The stark picture painted by the residents’ narratives really brought home the eerie similarities between the inner city and the reservations that the U.S. government forced Native Americans onto—Habitable patches of land from which the investment money, resources, and education that could help residents create viable businesses and prosperous communities have been removed, and given to the people in the surrounding areas which were deemed more deserving of them.

One point that really stuck out for me from the documentary was that all the attention (and judgment of Detroit as a failure) has focused on the people who fled the city, leaving abandoned, scary neighborhoods, burned-out buildings, and closed schools. Little attention or credit has been given to the people who stayed, and have been working to stabilize and help their communities prosper.

Focus: HOPE is one organization that has been empowering Detroit residents to help themselves rather than conditioning them to rely on “hand-outs” from “white saviors,” a term defines as “western people going in to ‘fix’ the problems of struggling nations or people of color without understanding their history, needs, or the region’s current state of affairs.” (For an informative analysis of this devastating socio-political phenomenon, please click here.) Another example is the Artists Village centered on Lahser and Grand River, which I’ve made a couple explorations into (and blogged about here).

The more dialogues I have with people who grew up in and/or still live in Detroit, the more I realize that Detroit is capable of restoring itself if we just let it.

By this I don’t mean cut all ties and just let them figure it out on their own in isolation; what I mean is that we need to let the people who live in Detroit have a chance to determine their own fate, rather than more affluent outsiders assuming what should stay and what should go in the city. What many people are lauding as Detroit’s supposed “comeback,” after all, is not so much a self-restoration that could truly be considered a comeback; much of what they’re actually referring to is gentrification—bringing in real estate, dining, retail, and entertainment that most long-term residents of the city can’t even afford to partake of.

That’s not saving Detroit, that’s taking it away from its residents.

All that being said, one thing that can help make discussions about interracial and intercultural reconciliation more productive is to stop insisting on the ideas of “blame” and “fault,” which have always gotten us nowhere.

If, because I'm mostly “white” (my Native American ancestry being invisible to most people), I treated myself like some kind of villain, or allowed other people to view me as a villain because the system favors “my kind” and not “their kind,” then I’m not going to come to any productive conclusions that will do anything other than make me feel defensive, ambivalent about my social position, and uncomfortable talking with anyone who isn’t in the “white” box.

On the flipside, I can say that, as a person who has something that many other people don’t, I have a social responsibility to share.

This mindset encourages me to think, What ways can I help my neighbors or friends who don’t have what I have? How can I encourage them, change my ways of thinking and behaving to help bring about a culture-shift that helps them prosper? What legislation can I support? What greed-based businesses can I boycott? What local businesses can I patronize and promote?

The way to finding these answers starts with dialogue, and sharing what we’ve learned from our conversations. That’s what I strive to do here, and I’ve got more to come next week.

Image: "One World Heart" by Karla Joy Huber, 2017; Prismacolor marker, Sharpie marker, white gel pen, gold gel pen

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

There's no such thing as isolated incidents in history...

My November is turning out to be just as inter-culturally and inter-religiously diverse as October was: Last weekend I attended the final 2017 meeting of the Michigan Professional Communicators with interest in religion and cross-cultural issues (MPC), an SGI Buddhist panel discussion about race relations in Detroit, and a panel presentation by two Filipino adoptees about their experiences growing up in white American households and then going on successful quests as adults to find their birth families in the Philippines.

The first of these events I’ll dive into is the MPC meeting, which was held at the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills, Michigan. This choice of venue was lauded by participants as very timely and apropos given the recent national rise in anti-Semitism, and in ignorant people’s sentimentality for (and defense of) Confederate, Nazi, and other oppressive symbolism from our not-so-distant past.

For the first hour of our gathering, the docent gave us an abridged version of the standard tour, presenting us with an excellent, concise accounting of the main points about how the Nazis were really able to develop enough power to do what they did—for years without anyone really interfering.

I was astounded that, nearly three-quarters of a century after the end of World War II, our society still lives with eerie parallels to the experiences of Germany and its neighbor-states leading up to the rise of the Nazis—and how ignorant most people are of these alarming warning signs.

We fail to see them only because of the surface-level differences: It’s so easy to say that our nation is too powerful (in contrast with the defeat and destabilization that left Germany wide-open for an authoritarian political coup in the years after World War I) or enlightened to ever allow such people to come to power again in the West; but the truth is that there’s nothing random about our current increases in authoritarian religion, authoritarian politics, mass shootings, terrorist infiltrations, human trafficking, institutional-level anti-Semitism, and so on.

Such people have never sprung up in a vacuum, and there’s nothing “senseless” or “pure” about their evil.

In her book My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me: A Black Woman Discovers Her Family’s Nazi Past, Jennifer Teege makes the point that dehumanizing Nazis—or any genocidal hate group for that matter—means we deny responsibility that humans could even be capable of such cruelty. As a misguided form of self-defense, we try to rationalize such experiences instead of think critically about what collective karma contributed to this, and thus identify ways to help prevent that thinking—and those actions—from coming back again.

Instead, we have been taught to disregard and dismiss Nazis as freaks and move on, instead of acknowledging their movement and their actions as symptoms of a much-larger and still-existent problem. We contribute to their re-creation every time we choose such dismissal over honest reflection about the true state of our society—every time we label current politicians and mass shooters and berserk police-officers as random freaks, who should be ignored or quarantined in the hopes that the larger problems they represent will just go away.

After contemplating what I learned last Friday, one thing I realized is that whatever I was taught about the rise of the Nazis and the resulting Holocaust when I was a child was not enough, and I clearly wasn’t old enough to truly understand it as part of the larger context of human experience.

Childhood education gives the impression that large historical narratives such as the rise and fall of the Nazis were isolated incidents in history, instead of as part of a continuum of living history, that hasn’t just abruptly ended to create a new volume of humanity’s evolution.

Recent events have shown that we’re still in the same book we were 70-plus years ago, if not in the same chapter.

Education about long-term historical movements should not stop with grade or even high school, which is why I’m so glad there are such institutions giving tours like this, and organizations such as the Interfaith Leadership Council (IFLC) hosting diversity-and-inclusion educational events for adults. Now that we’re old enough to understand it in its context, my vision is that, this time around, we finally own that because we as a species created this kind of evil, we have the power to stop it.

Image: "Interfaith Collective 2" by Karla Joy Huber, 2008 and 2015, Prismacolor and Sharpie marker

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

From Harry Potter to Diwali: Another fascinating convergence of neo-Americana and interfaith adventure in my efforts to be a world citizen without leaving Michigan

Part of my mission for this blog has always been to create a narrative reference guide for otherwise-unknown cultural and spiritual ideas, actions, and groups in our local area that are helping to contribute to unity in diversity. I realized recently that it has also served as a magnet, attracting more and more people into my life who agree with these cultural shifts and are glad to finally meet other people who are doing something to help slowly push them into mainstream consciousness.

One of the marvelous factors of this phenomenon is that I’m meeting these people not only at events focused on interfaith and intercultural exchange, but while doing more every-day or secular things, such as writing in my journal at Starbucks, going walkabout with my best friends in Detroit or Royal Oak, attending performances, talking with vendors at art fairs, or while attending a Harry-Potter-themed event at a tea house in Rochester.

The latter was certainly not an every-day thing, and I had simply expected to have a magical-themed good time there with my best friend Dan, who was treating me to the event as my birthday present. Dan was invited by Tonia Carsten, the owner of Tonia’s Victorian Rose Restaurant and Tea Room, whom he met several months ago after searching for a local tea house near him. He’s been an almost-weekly regular there ever since, and throughout his conversations with Tonia he realized that she is a kindred spirit, whose personal and cultural interests go beyond her own upbringing and running a local eatery.

Tonia too has a personal stake in interfaith and intercultural harmony, being from a Christian background and married to a Hindu man from India. Before she was a restauranteur she worked with an agency helping recent Indian immigrants with their transition to residency in the United States, which is how she met her husband and their circle of friends. I just read on her Facebook page that she has traveled to eleven countries, which is another great demonstration of her commitment to living a life with broader and more inclusive horizons than what’s in her immediate vicinity.

One of Tonia’s visions for her tea room is a variety of different themed parties, based on particular media interests, historical people, or eras that would fit well with the restored Victorian décor and style of her venue—including the several “Muggles & Wizards” dinners she’s hosted so far. She has a Oscar Wilde-themed dinner coming up this weekend on November 12, and Christmas High Tea events scheduled for December, and she mentioned a few other ideas to us. She’s also open to Dan’s idea of considering a Steampunk night, which we know for a fact would be popular in this area.

After the dinner, Dan extended Tonia’s invite to me to join her, her husband, and their friends for their Diwali party. Diwali is a festival originating in India, commemorating a particular victory of good over evil from Hindu Scripture, and also serves as the Hindu New Year festival. Historically, the main decorational tradition of Diwali is the lighting of clay lamps, and many other candles to signify the driving out of evil (darkness) by the light (good). In modern times, while people still light candles, they also light sparklers and firecrackers, and in India the fireworks celebrations rival big-city Fourth of July events in the United States.

We arrived at the house ahead of Tonia (who still had cleanup to do after the Harry Potter event), and were greeted warmly by her husband and their friends. Even though this was the first time Dan and I had actually met any of them, they greeted us as friends and we had free-flowing conversation about both Diwali (giving Dan and I an overview for our first-ever experience of it), and miscellaneous topics of both spiritual and secular interest. After some delicious Indian food (which we had just enough room for after our delicious meal at the Victorian Rose) and good conversation, the parents summoned the children to join us and we all went into the backyard to light sparklers and firecrackers.

If you’d like to read more about Diwali, you can on the Hindu American Foundation’s Diwali Toolkit Web page, a page of “fun facts” about Diwali from, and a recent USA Today article about Diwali.

This concludes my three-part series about my colorful birthday-weekend adventures, and in my next post I’ll have something to say about the November 10 Michigan Professional Communicators interfaith networking meeting to be held at the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills, Michigan. Stay tuned, and, as always, thanks for reading.

Illustration by Karla Joy Huber, 2011; Prismacolor marker, Sharpie marker, Sharpie pen

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Celebrating ten years of WISDOM, with over 20 new examples of how Friendship and Faith can “change the world—one relationship at a time”

People tell me they’ve never heard anywhere else a lot of what I write and talk about, and they can’t imagine how they would find such information and news if someone hadn’t personally presented it to them. For example, a few months ago I showed the book Friendship & Faith to a Buddhist friend, and she replied that she hadn’t even known books like that exist.

Friendship & Faith, which I first read in December 2011, is more than a collection of women’s interfaith friendship stories from the organization WISDOM (Women’s Interfaith Solutions for Dialogue and Outreach in MetroDetroit). The stories are grounded in recent major events in southeastern Michigan or in larger intercultural narratives, such as historic barriers between ethnic and religious minorities whose co-existence in the same communities has been characterized more by ambivalence than by cooperation. Some of the women describe how they even went beyond transcending their differences with individuals to becoming involved with (or founding) initiatives that create organized, systematic approaches to weakening the fallacy that some people are just too different from us to ever become our friends.

Earlier this year, I was informed by WISDOM co-founder Trish Harris that Read the Spirit Books was going produce an expanded second edition of the book in commemoration of WISDOM’s tenth anniversary as an organization of women dedicated to promoting unity in diversity in MetroDetroit.

The second edition of Friendship & Faith includes over twenty new stories, bringing the total from 28 to 51. I was honored to be invited by Trish and by Read the Spirit co-founder David Crumm to not only contribute my own story, but to assist with content-editing for some of the other new contributors. I had the honor of assisting Jeanne Salerno, one of WISDOM’s newest board members who shared her magnificent story about her spiritual bridge-building efforts as a Catholic Christian in Muslim Egypt while working for an international economic development organization, and Victoria Freile, a Baha’i friend whom I’ve been acquainted with for many years and was delighted to finally get to know better through helping her and her husband Pablo share her story. 

I was fascinated to hear that Victoria’s story had some similarities to the one I wrote for the book. Hers focuses on overcoming her family’s initial discomfort when she (and a few other family members) transitioned from being Catholic to Baha’i. My story focuses on my relationships with my Baha’i friends—many of whom have been like family to me for over ten years—when I began spreading the word among them that I had become Nichiren Buddhist.

The main narrative in my story is an extended version of what I shared last year in three posts (here, here, and here) about my experience losing the father-figure of my “fr’amily” (friend-family), John Suggs.

There are many things which make Friendship and Faith stand out from other books about building relationships across cultural and religious lines, including that many of them are candid and raw instead of sentimental. The writers “don’t sugar-coat anything,” as I said in my post about the first edition. “In a book about finding unity in diversity, one might expect to find cookie-cutter platitudes that romanticize humanity’s underlying homogeneity as a species. It’s true that human beings are all more alike than we are different, but this sentiment can be taken too far, to the extreme of neglecting the value of the uniqueness of individuals and cultures. . . . Most of the authors talk unsentimentally about how they’ve overcome religious bigotry or racism, and in some cases about how they’ve overcome their own initial prejudices and mistrust of particular types of people.”

With the book’s second edition, I also re-affirm that “I strongly recommend this book for anyone who would like to gain a better understanding of Metro Detroit’s history and what its contemporary interreligious, intercultural landscape is truly like,” and that this book is “a valuable resource for high school and college classrooms as recommended reading for comparative religion or social studies courses.”

I of course also highly recommend it for individuals who not only want to be inspired by heartwarming true stories but want ideas for how to get directly involved, particularly in the metro Detroit area—because it’s where I got a lot of my involvement ideas.

Image: Left panel of “The Inner World of the Heart” by Karla Joy Huber, 2016; Prismacolor marker, Sharpie marker, Sharpie pen, metallic gold gel pen

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Remember how we were told that we shouldn't discuss certain subjects in "mixed company?" In this case, the opposite is actually true

When I realized recently that last year was the seed-planting for changes I wanted to see in my life, and that this year has been the harvest, I felt like celebrating. This feeling was well-timed, because it happened to coincide with my birthday.

So, it was only fitting to celebrate the 38th year of my non-mainstream life in a non-mainstream way: Instead of throwing a party, I chose to have a great time culture-hopping these past two weekends, mostly with my best friend Dan—from a stage performance intended to help foster much-needed cultural shifting, to the ten-year anniversary awards dinner and book launch of one of our amazing local interfaith organizations, to a whimsical event at a new local culture hotspot, to celebrating a sacred festival with some new friends that they brought with them from their home country.

On October 14 was the first of these wonderful events, a performance of Eve Ensler’s “Vagina Monologues,” produced by the Detroit Actor’s Theatre Company and featuring our dear friend Carolyn Ferrari. I first read about this show nearly twenty years ago in the Detroit Metro Times, in a write-up that included Ensler’s grace in the face of critics going bonkers over a woman daring to use “that word” in the title of her show, and of course about daring to speak so candidly and unashamedly about women’s anatomical, health, social, and sexual issues that we are still constantly scolded for being impolite, improper, embarrassing, or even somehow immoral if we discuss openly, especially in “mixed company.”

The content of the “Vagina Monologues” is based on interviews with many different women from many different backgrounds, “including a six-year-old girl, a septuagenarian New Yorker, a vagina workshop participant, a woman who witnesses the birth of her granddaughter, a Bosnian survivor of rape, and a feminist happy to have found a man who ‘liked to look at it,’” as the Web site describes. The stories range from humorous to heartbreaking, including both examples of women reclaiming the power of their bodies (i.e., their autonomy as human beings), and stark reminders that too many women are still being robbed of their right to be free of abuse and ridicule based on their gender.

I’ve written before about the ample proof that we still have a long way to go in our long-standing battle against sexism, and this production—and perhaps more importantly, the resulting dialogues—is an excellent resource in that struggle.

One thing that makes the “Vagina Monologues” stand out from other candid media expressions of long-suppressed women’s voices is that it makes its controversy-confronting points without having to be outright accusatory of men as a whole. This is in refreshing contrast to the film “Miss Representation,” in which the emphasis on the misdeeds of men and male-dominated culture is, in many of the featured comments, downright insulting to men, and thus risks alienating male allies to its message.

There were several men in attendance at “Vagina Monologues”—including Dan and our friend Brian—and they commented on how much they appreciated hearing these stories and how the show made them think differently about the challenges that the women they care about still face today. The impression I got is that the show helped them have a more accurate understanding of the level of sexism that women still deal with regularly—and thus a greater respect for those women and willingness to increase their mindfulness about making sure they are not unintentionally perpetuating negative cultural conditioning against giving women as much public voice and social power as men have always been able to take for granted.

During intermission, our event host took the opportunity to share with us a bit about the mission of the Detroit Actor’s Theatre Company, which is as much about safeguarding and promoting local culture as it is about bringing good entertainment to the metro area at historic or otherwise distinctive small venues in and around Detroit. The company’s mission also includes social justice, which for this event included collecting donations at all of the performances for the Detroit-based outreach organization Alternatives for Girls.

As I mentioned above, I have a few other recent interfaith and intercultural adventures to share, so I’ll dive into them in my next posts.

Image: “Elemental Woman #2,” by Karla Joy Huber, 2007; Prismacolor marker and Sharpie marker

Monday, October 16, 2017

Some thoughts on breaking out of the uncanny valley between perceived failure and the breakthrough into success...

I’m finally starting to see changes that I’ve long been working for in my life—Some of which have been so long in coming that I had started creating Plan Bs to replace them with. I’m witnessing the foreshadowing of changes I’ve wanted to see at work, I’m gradually increasing the number of print books that my writing is featured in, and I’m clarifying what to say yes or no to regarding being of service to others in ways that are in alignment with the lifestyle I’m creating.

So, my recent lack of focus, lack of motivation, and lack of interest in community activities I’m usually passionate about seemed counterintuitive to how I expected to feel after tasting these recent karmic cookies that have been put on my plate.

SGI President Daisaku Ikeda makes the great point that “encountering a wall is proof of the progress that you have made so far” (Daisaku Ikeda, For Today and Tomorrow, October 8). So, after much reflection and daimoku, I decided that the wall I’ve been facing for the past few weeks is yet another valuable opportunity to challenge my long-standing self-doubts and skepticism that things can continue to “work out” in the way it now appears they can.

When I distilled the fruits of my recent reflections into four key insights, I realized that the factors behind these insights are not unique to me—which means that what I learned may be useful to you, too, if you fear sabotaging (or have sabotaged) your success with your self-doubts or lack of success-sustaining skills. So, here you go:

1) Our doubts and undervaluation of our successes are often much deeper-rooted than we think, and realizing this presents an excellent opportunity to finally challenge those delusions so we can enter the unfamiliar territory of self-actualization with empowerment and confidence instead of with disorientation and suspicions.

“It’s not important how you compare yourself to others but how you compare yourself to whom you were yesterday,” Daisaku Ikeda says. “If you see that you’ve advanced even one step, then you’ve achieved a victory.” (Living Buddhism, June 2017, page 28)

2) The unfamiliarity of this new territory means that now is the time to increase our diligence and our human-revolutionary efforts, not slip into complacency and think that the hard part is done. The transition period between what’s predictable (hard work with minimal or unrecognized payoff) and what’s unpredictable (seeing rewards and opportunities that require skill-sets we haven’t had reason to cultivate until now) is the most likely point for self-sabotage—such as relapse into addictive behaviors we think that good-fortune will help protect us against—because our new habits and new ways of thinking haven’t become firmly established yet. When I started looking at it this way, I realized why I’d seen some setbacks in my human revolution lately. It’s the whole “not seeing the forest for the trees” thing.

“The true victors in life,” Daisaku Ikeda says, “are those who, enduring repeated challenges and setbacks, have sent the roots of their being to such a depth that nothing can shake them.” (For Today and Tomorrow, March 15)

3) This is part of what Buddhism and other Eastern religions call “mastering your own mind.” In Nichiren Buddhism, we call this sort of thing “fundamental darkness,” which is a fancy and spooky-sounding term for the doubts we harbor about not only the value of humanity as a whole, but about the value of ourselves and each other as individuals. We doubt if we really are that important in the big picture, we doubt that we can really make the kinds of differences we want to see in the world around us, and we doubt if we even have the necessary qualifications to make any kind of worthwhile change in our current state—especially if we don’t have the college degree, community influence, wide acceptance of our peers, material success, or anything else society tells us are eligibility requirements for achieving greatness.

“The fundamental aim of Buddhism,” Daisaku Ikeda points out, “is to live in a way that is true to ourselves.” (Faith into Action, pg. 26)

4) And lastly, upon finally hearing some “yes” in areas of our lives that we’re far more accustomed to hearing “no”—or no response at all—an important question we now need to ask ourselves is: Now that we no longer have the protection of rejection, what do we want to anchor ourselves with?

Image: "Eye of an Enlightened One," Karla Joy Huber, 1995; chalk pastel

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Some thoughts on digging for the karmic roots of financial deadlocks…

In the book Faith into ActionDaisaku Ikeda cites Walt Whitman as saying he no longer seeks good-fortune, because of his realization that “I myself am good-fortune.” When I first read that a few months ago, I internalized it as a maxim about self-worth. When I read it again yesterday, with Ikeda’s elaboration that “Our lives themselves are entities of good fortune, entities of happiness, indestructible as diamonds” (Faith into Action, pg. 112), I tied it in with an interesting thought-stream created by some of my recent observations about different methods for making and maintaining financial security.

Apropos of my post last week about failure, the epicenter of failure for many people is finances. I’ve actually met some people who lived above the million-dollar mark and are now living closer to poverty, and another who now works a good-paying job he hates and feel trapped in until the debts from his failed multi-million dollar enterprise are paid off. Debts? I thought, after millions?

In addition to meeting people who were wealthy and now are not, several people have tried to persuade me to become part of some hidden aristocracy by joining a multi-level marketing organization that they just got sucked into, and were persuaded by to prey on the financial insecurities of their circle of friends, or pretend to have something legitimate to offer to job-seekers.

I’ve never been anywhere near “prosperous” by the mainstream financial definition, nor are any of my vocational passions likely to make me much surplus beyond what I actually need right now. I’ve always lived “paycheck to paycheck” and approached my finances through the filter of the reductionist budgeting mathematics I was taught. Thus, my prayers regarding my financial karma have been about increasing my self-discipline in how I manage my money, and for ways to increase my income through being paid more in the niche I’m already in (by doing more of it or getting a raise).

Thinking about my situation, and the above examples of how fragile abundant financial wealth can actually be, made me think differently about the true worth of putting all our happiness-eggs in the basket of financial security and prosperity.

A couple months ago I started a new personal campaign to finally change my financial karma, starting with re-casting how I think, pray, and take action to change it. Most of our prayers are about getting money in the first place, or having more security, consistency, and self-discipline with the money we already have; after reading Walt Whitman’s and Sensei Ikeda’s words I cited earlier, I realized that simply adding to this formula a basic understanding of the Law of Attraction still doesn’t go deep enough to really change the karma that keeps us “broke” or whatever other disparaging label we assign to our financial situations.

These mathematical formulas don’t work to help us manage our money for the same reasons diets don’t work to help us manage our weight. Overspending, and not being able to attract a consistent flow of income to begin with, serve the same purpose as overeating and other addictive behaviors do: They stem from unmet needs, which some of us have buried so deep that it can take years to really identify and meet them in ways that will allow us to release the compulsions to overspend, overeat, smoke, drink, or whatever.

Many of us haven’t saved money because the feeling of deficit is just too large to leave enough room to even think about saving anything for later, regardless of our intellectual understanding of why doing so would be in our best interests. The problem runs so deep, that this insight didn’t even occur to me until last weekend, after almost twenty years of not having any of what mainstream-thinkers think I should have to “show for” all my efforts.

There’s a holistic dimension of financial wellness, just as there’s a holistic dimension to maintaining good health and healthy behaviors. Instability in our finances and in our health-related behaviors are symptoms of the same cultural conditioning and other delusions that lead us to seek our highest selves (enlightenment) from outside ourselves, to not realize that we already have a shared access port we were born with to meet these needs, the same access port that enables us to all channel enlightenment ourselves without requiring an earthly or a divine intermediary.

The first step is attaining this new awareness. I’ll share with you how I put this awareness into practice when I find out how to do so. In the meantime, after reading this, maybe something has occurred to you that hasn’t occurred to me. If it has, and you make it work for you, I invite you to share it with me and your fellow readers. Thank you, and namaste.

Image: “Not all wealth is money” by Karla Joy Huber, 2017; Prismacolor marker, Sharpie marker, metallic gel pen, colored pencil