A lethal national disease that no vaccine can cure

Americans are waiting eagerly for a life-saving vaccine to address the scourge of the Coronavirus epidemic which has claimed more than 125,000 lives and which has turned our world upside down.  We know that vaccines have been responsible for the successful treatment, and in some cases, the eradication of deadly and debilitating diseases.

Evidence exists that the Chinese employed smallpox inoculation as early as 1000 CE. In 1796 Edward Jenner’s early innovations eventually resulted in the eradication of smallpox.  Scientists worked for years to develop vaccines which liberated us from the effects of rabies, diphtheria, tetanus, anthrax, cholera, plague, typhoid, tuberculosis, polio, measles, mumps, rubella and other devastating health threats.

For all of these scientific successes there still remain other life-threatening conditions like AIDS in desperate need of a vaccine.  Though the work continues our hopes remain high that successful vaccines will one day be available for every disease, disorder and condition that kill so many of us each year.

And yet Americans are afflicted with a rapidly spreading disease for which no vaccine will ever be discovered.  A disease so insidious that it appears in the open for all to see as well as in the darkest of private places where it spreads virulently hiding in plain sight.  A disease that sometimes kills bodies but always kills souls.  And it is a disease that cannot be found in medical journals nor studied or taught in medical schools.  A disease which is discussed every day in homes, offices, places of play, places of worship and in our varied media outlets.

We all know about it.  Most of us recognize it as a genuine threat.  But few want to address it for what it is or even name it.  But I’ll name it right here and right now.  This dreadful disease is ISM.  Not a name you immediately recognize but with some quick prompts you’ll know the various versions of ISM.

Racism…Ageism…Ableism…Heterosexism…Misogynism…Sexism… Classism…Vigilantism…Antisemitism…these are just a few of our country’s underlying conditions of hate and discrimination that should be recognized as a national public health epidemic that is eating away at the body of our republic.  They are as toxic and lethal as any infectious disease.  They are slowly eating away at our values and our morals.  And yet they are not to be found in any catalog of diseases or conditions physicians and clinicians use to identify and classify threats to our health.

It’s not as though we haven’t passed laws and even amended our Constitution to attempt to ensure equal rights for all.  In fact we’ve done it a lot and we keep on doing it but somehow we haven’t been able to eradicate all of the ISM’s that afflict us and which cause so much pain and even death.

  • In 1863 we enacted the Emancipation Proclamation and two years later in 1865 we passed the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery.
  • In 1920 we passed the 19th Amendment which gave women the right to vote.
  • In 1964 we passed the Civil Rights Act and the next year in 1965 the Voting Rights Act was enacted.
  • Title IX became law in 1972 assuring that there would be no discrimination based on sex in any Federally funded activity.
  • The Fair Housing Act passed in 1988.
  • In 1990 the Americans With Disabilities Act became the law of the land.

For all of these and other noble attempts which Congress has passed to protect the civil rights of all Americans and eliminate discrimination we continue to see these the rights and privileges bestowed on every citizen shredded every day.  The laws haven’t wiped out the ISM’s for one reason and one reason only – you cannot legislate morality, ethical behavior, and inclusion.  Laws alone will not wipe out prejudice, bias, bigotry and intolerance.  It is just not possible to punish people into submission and force them to embrace fairness, equality and justice for all.  You cannot legislate morality.

ISM’s have been a divisive disease afflicting our nation from the time of our founding.  And as America is about to celebrate its 244th birthday it is not enough to say what has been said so often: “We have problems and challenges but we have made so much progress.”  That may be true but it is awfully much like damning the problem with faint enthusiasm.

This year as we celebrate our Independence Day holiday, instead of igniting fireworks we should commit to igniting an unprecedented spirit of activism and advocacy toward the goal of wiping out the insidious disease that are the ISM’s spreading virulently throughout our society.

We know that unlike so many other diseases, these ISM’s are not congenital.  We are not born with hatred, discrimination, or bias.  These are learned conditions.  They are taught and modeled by family, friends and neighbors.  And worse yet, the worst behaviors and instincts pour out of the words and actions of our nation’s elected leaders.

The diseases that are the ISM’s that infect our society will not be conquered by a vaccine, or therapeutics, or surgery.  They can’t be prayed away.  And they won’t be eliminated by laws, rules and policies.  Only through an active, consistent, pervasive, and exhaustive effort to change our national ethos will we make the progress we need.

The events of 2020 be they political, economic, race-related, or resulting from the pandemic will hopefully take us to a national tipping point which, like most critically important causes, makes advances when Americans of good faith and good will unite around an agenda.  The progress we have made throughout our history by grassroots activism helped free the slaves, enabled women to vote, broke barriers to employment, education and housing and moved the needle closer toward the goal of making this a more perfect union.

Let each of us ignite the fire in our bellies and the justice in our hearts to conquer all the ISM’s that keep us from being a healthy America.

Police Departments Need Less Brawn and More Brain

Words have profund meaning both positive and negative. So when I read that nine members of the Minneapolis City Council on Sunday announced they intend to defund and dismantle the city’s police department I was both puzzled and disturbed.

I spent most of my career in the business of marketing and branding so I know how easy it is to oversimplify both a public relations problem as well as a substantive problem with the core values of an organization. I don’t want to fall into the trap of oversimplifying the real issues that the city of Minneapolis needs to deal with with respect to its police department. There is no doubt that the Minneapolis Police Department, like so many others, needs significant evaluation and assessment by an independent and objective entity. Such an analysis will no doubt reveal many systems, policies and practice changes that will need to be instituted. And the most challenging of all of these will be a change of organizational culture which for any business or institution is often the most difficult of all the challenges to deal with.

I can’t help but think that the multitude of problems with the American law enforcement sector should at least include the way in which they identify themselves as systems and personnel. The word POLICE is often defined as “the civil force of a national or local government, responsible for the prevention and detection of crime and the maintenance of public order”. When used as a verb, POLICE means “maintaining law and order”. Maybe the law enforcement field needs to abandon the use of the word POLICE and begin thinking about themselves as being in the PUBLIC SAFETY business.

While POLICE certainly encompasses the notion of PUBLIC SAFETY too often and for too many it carries with it the idea that it is a group of armed, frequently macho, night club wielding forces rather than a collection of public servants who walk and drive America’s streets to do what their vehicles often say: “to serve and protect”. If more people believed that the POLICE were there to help them in the same way that FIREFIGHTERS and other first responders do then maybe the image of POLICE would turn from being a menacing and threatening band of civil militia to a group of women and men who are committed to helping maintain public safety… “to serve and protect”.

Perhaps our law enforcement organizations would do well to have more nerds and less knuckles. Officers who are as capable of using their brains as their brawn. It’s a choice and police need to choose wisely.

Community policing, as important a concept as it is, is not new. It is what policing was about when cops walked the neighborhood beat. Admittedly that became more difficult to do as urban communities gave way to suburban development in the post WWII period. But when cops lose touch with those they are supposed to serve the idea of community policing, the process of identifying community problems by police officers in co-operation with the community, is a slogan rather than a core mission value.

Maybe in part it is at least a little bit about branding. And if the POLICE brand is tarnished then maybe it is time to re-brand. So don’t defund police departments and certainly don’t dismantle them. Instead, reallocate the budgets of law enforcement organizations so that sworn officers and associated civilian staff can focus more on improving the safety of their communities and dealing with the systemic root causes of crime and civil unrest. And by all means, don’t expect that even the best run departments in the country can effectively do their jobs well unless and until the there is an equal commitment to bring about change in the judicial system, the way in which we incarcerate people, and the social safety net systems that have been torn to shreds allowing fragile and vulnerable people to fall through.

There is much to be grateful for in the American law enforcement system but it can’t be fixed by adding more testosterone and muscle. Law enforcement leaders need to think about ways in which they can be part of the solution and not part of the problem. Every American wants to live in a safe environment so let’s stop thinking about the inherent threats that police too often represent and start thinking more about the way officers devoted to public safety can be welcomed to their communities when they are seen as helping not hurting those they serve.

We Need Courageous Voices Now

I grew up as a very precocious child of the 1950’s.  I was as comfortable in the company of adults as I was with my peers.  And I seldom shrank from conversations where I often held a contrary point of view.  I would frequently push back against my family or their friends spoke and acted on the wrong side of social justice.  I was seldom shied away from calling out those whose language or points of view I found offensive.   I guess you could say I felt comfortable speaking truth to power, a Quaker concept first coined in the mid 50’s as a non-violent political tactic employed by dissidents.  I didn’t know about this phrase at the time and I certainly never thought of myself as a dissident.  I simply behaved instinctively to take a position or stand up for a principle I felt strongly about.

Throughout my childhood my father would often try to caution me from speaking up or speaking out saying “don’t be a Nachshon”.  He wasn’t a scholarly man and I have no doubt that he was unaware of what it meant to be a Nachshon or where that phrase came from.  He must have heard it from others and placed his own meaning on those words.  I have no doubt that he believed being a Nachshon was a pot-stirrer or a trouble maker.  I’m sure he had no understanding that Nachshon was actually an Israelite slave in Egypt who, together with 600,000 recently un-slaved Jews fled Egypt and reached the Red Sea.  With Pharaoh’s chariots behind them and the sea in front of them it was Nachshon who summoned all of the faith and courage he could muster to enter the sea only to watch the waters part allowing the Israelites to cross to the other side where they would watch as Pharaoh’s army drowned as the parted waters came together again.


Nachshon was no pot-stirrer or troublemaker.  He was a humble man who exhibited extraordinary courage to save a nation.  I wish my father had understood the difference which I would only come to learn about later in life.  Only when I discovered what being a Nachshon meant was I able to think of his admonition differently.  Only then did I realize that I was exhibiting the slightest glimpse of courage as I took a firm stance for what I believed in and what I thought was right.

The world has always depended on the Nachshons who, in every generation, have fought injustice and behaved courageously to do and say what was right at the time by speaking truth to power.

America has had countless Nachsons from the time of the nation’s founding, through all of its battles and wars, through times of economic calamity and when the fate of the democracy was imperiled.  Each of them, in their own way, has helped save the nation.  Sometimes from outside aggressors and often even from within.  That courage comes from many places.  One’s own sense of right versus wrong…good versus bad…a moral compass that always points to true north.  Those who have taken various oaths of allegiance have pledged themselves to “…support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic…”

In good times, the oath is a lovely sentiment.  But in times of strife, when our democracy is on the line, the oath is the very embodiment of the courage required to use everything in our individual and collective power to protect and preserve the nation.

America has been blessed with millions of courageous heroes.  Some wore stars on their shoulders…some wore stripes on their sleeves…some have been known to us all…more were only known to their family, friends and comrades in arms.

And from time to time, courage has been seen and heard in the halls of Congress.

In 1950, as McCarthyism began to divide Congress and America, Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, a Republican from Maine, issued her “Declaration of Conscience,” asking for bipartisan cooperation to protect national security. “It is high time that we stopped thinking politically as Republicans and Democrats about elections,” she said, “and started thinking patriotically as Americans about national security based on individual freedom.”  Senator Smith and others in Congress put their own reputations and careers on the line to put a stake in the heart of McCarthyism, a courageous action that helped preserve our freedoms and democratic way of life.

Margaret Chase Smith

Two decades later, on March 21, 1973, then White House Counsel John Dean, told President Richard Nixon that as a result of the cover ups associated with the Watergate break-in that there was a “cancer growing on the presidency” and that if it was not cut out it would kill Nixon’s presidency.  Dean’s willingness to testify before Congress about what he knew, and what he himself was implicated in, contributed to the end of the Nixon Presidency.

John Dean

The end, of course came, on August 7, 1974, when Republican leaders, Sen. Barry Goldwater, House Minority Leader John Rhodes, and Senate Minority Leader Hugh Scott, R-Pa., made it clear to the embattled Nixon that he faced all-but-certain impeachment, conviction and removal from office in connection with the Watergate scandal.  The next evening Nixon addressed the nation and announced his resignation.

Goldwater et al

Courageous heroes are people who put others before themselves. Courageous people have good moral ethics.  They do things for the sake of being good, and not just a means to an end or to be rewarded for their good deeds.  Those with courage are willing to sacrifice themselves for the greater good.  They are like Nachshon, often a humble person who reaches within themselves to save their nation and their way of life.

Today, America is at a crossroads.  Will we take a courageous path that will lead to the preservation of our democratic way of life or will fear of retribution overtake us as we succumb to the lesser angels who would take us on a path of havoc and morale implosion?

Crossroads of Fear & Courage

Who will be today’s Nachsohn?  Who will be brave enough to tell us that our nation’s values are in jeopardy?  Who will show the courage necessary to help stop us from what might be an inevitable future of isolation, intolerance, divisiveness, and hate?   Who from places of power are the unlikely voices who will speak truth to power?  Who will have the courage to do what it takes to bring an end to a regime that is endangering our democratic way of life.  Who will do what it takes that will help us hear the echo of Gerald Ford’s words when he said “our long national nightmare is over”?  When will the best interests of the nation become more important than political self-preservation?

We urgently need that courageous voice.  We need a modern day Nachshon and we need him or her now.  Nothing less than the ethos of our nation, the characteristic spirit of our culture, our beliefs and our aspirations depends on it.

Elijah Cummings

Dancing with angels

America’s Third Civil Rights Movement

Proclamation 95, better known as The Emancipation Proclamation, was a presidential proclamation and executive order issued by U.S. President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863. It changed the federal legal status of more than 3 million enslaved people in the designated areas of the South from slave to free.  The signing of the Proclamation was the pivotal event that helped to hasten an end to the four year Civil War which cost the lives of 620,000 and thus ended America’s First Civil Rights Movement.

Emancipation Proclamation

On July 2, 1964, more than 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, President Lyndon Johnson signed the landmark civil rights and US labor law known as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin.  Four years later and just seven days after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Johnson signed a second Civil Rights Act of 1968, which provided equal housing opportunities regardless of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

JBJ and MLK 1964

Before equal rights could be granted to virtually all Americans, America’s Second Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s would claim the lives of innocents and activists alike.  Among them were Emmett Till; Medgar Evers; Eldridge Cleaver; four little girls in a church basement in Birmingham; Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner; and Martin Luther King Jr.

Today we are witnessing the first skirmishes of America’s Third Civil Rights Movement…the fight for the lives of school children, people of color, and potentially anyone walking the streets of any U.S. city whether large or small.  This new Civil Rights Movement is not about equal opportunities in the labor force, accessible housing, integrated schools, or other public accommodations.  This new battle is not about universal access to seats on a bus or at a lunch counter or which drinking fountain may be used.

Instead this new fight for equality derives from America’s seminal document, the Declaration of Independence which speaks of three unalienable rights, the first of which is LIFE.  The founders described the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as having been given to all human beings by their creator and which governments are created to protect.

Life Liberty and Pursuit of HappinessDeclaration of Independence

But the words of the Declaration, though implicitly promising these fundamental rights, ring hollow for the 13,000 Americans who are murdered each year by one of more than 300 million guns in the U.S.  The unalienable right to life is alienated on average 96 times every day when an American is murdered by a gun.  And, of the 96 people killed every day by a gun, seven are children and teens.  On average, 50 women per month are shot to death by an intimate partner.

America’s gun homicide rate is more than 25 times the average of other high-income countries.  An analysis of gun homicide rates in developed countries— those considered “high-income” by the World Bank — found that the United States accounted for 46 percent of the population but 82 percent of the gun deaths

If every person killed by a gun last year avoided being shot and instead they were a passenger on a Southwest Airlines flight it would take nearly 100 planes to accommodate them.  Now imagine that all 100 planes plummeted to earth.  The carnage would be unfathomable.  13,000 murders each year by guns is like five Pearl Harbors or four September 11’s…EVERY YEAR.

None of this data include accidental deaths from guns or suicide by self-inflicted gun shots.  These are murders.  The same robbing of life that befell those lynched, blown up, or killed by other violent means.  And in each case that fundamental and unalienable right to life was violently stripped away.  Each was an infringement of someone’s civil rights.

The plaintiff cries of Enough is Enough are resonating across this country with the loudest coming from America’s youth.  High schoolers have become this generation’s civil rights leaders. They are the brilliant, articulate and passionate voices of what started as a grief stricken protest but which has evolved to a national movement.  The voices of the students from Parkland where the civil rights of 17 students and teachers synced in harmony with student-led sibling marches in more than 800 cities across the globe.

Capitol  March for our Lives - New York Times

What was first thought to be a short-lived protest has grown rapidly to a real movement that has and continues to capture to attention and commitment of millions of everyday people as well as leaders in the highest seats of government, faith leaders, and other celebrities and notables.  And it appears to be a movement that will not soon go away.

March 4 March 10

This third American Civil Rights Movement appears to have an endless supply of fuel to sustain the passion and energy last seen in the 60’s by those who marched for equality or in protest of a war.  We are witnessing the evolution from a moment to a movement.  And as with all movements, change may not come easily, quickly or even completely.  Change comes about incrementally by those who pledge to sustain the movement until voices become victors.

March 5   March 3

The courts have long held that the wrongful death of an innocent by at the hands of a police officer can give rise to charges of a civil rights violation.  The basis would seem to be that the victim has been robbed of the fundamental right to life.  And though infrequently used, this legal oddity was actually first conceived in the Civil War reconstruction in the 1870s as a way to prosecute criminal activity when local authorities either wouldn’t or couldn’t convict someone committing crimes against black people.

Exactly what remedies can be developed to slow or even eliminate the epidemic of murder by firearms is yet to be discovered.  But one thing is certain.  The youth of America have launched a movement and as they will tell anyone who will listen, they’re not going away.

March 1

We’ve seen their faces and heard their passionate pleas.  We feel like we know Emma Gonzalez, David Hogg, Cameron Kasky, Alfonso Calderon, Sam Zeif, and Delaney Tarr.  But the image of one young girl who spoke at the Washington March for our Lives was the one speech that connected the most famous Civil Rights leader of the modern era with the newest Civil Rights leaders of this generation.

Yolanda Renee King, the nine-year-old granddaughter of Martin Luther King, Jr. told the world that her grandfather had a dream that “his four little children will not be judged by the color of their skin, but the content of their character.”  Then little Yolanda shared her dream… “that enough is enough. And that this should be a gun-free world. Period.”


The day before a gunman snuffed out the life of Dr. King, the iconic Civil Rights leader said:  “I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land.”  The young people who have inherited Dr. King’s zeal and commitment will undoubtedly take this country to the victory lane of America’s third Civil Rights Movement.  They will be the activists whose advocacy will bring about the day when Americans may never again experience the catastrophic death toll caused by guns.  And following Dr. King’s teaching, they will succeed nonviolently but with all of the passion of every Civil Rights leader whose legacy they have inherited.

Knotted gun sculpture

The Day That Cable News Died

We’ve all heard the expression: “The day the music died”.  The date was February 3, 1959.  The place was a field in Clear Lake, Iowa where a small plane carrying music greats Ritchie Valens, Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper fell out of the sky killing all aboard.  It wasn’t literally the death of music.  It wasn’t even really the end of the emerging music genre in which these three young Rock and Roll pioneers excelled.  But it sure felt that way.

The Day the Music Died

Two decades later another pioneer, Ted Turner, launched the Cable News Network with a flourish that would put him atop the news broadcasting industry just like those three music pioneers taken too soon sat atop their trade.

Ted Turner

Turner’s bold idea was to create the first all-news television network in America.  And while it got off to a shaky start, CNN together with its shorter format affiliate CNN Headline News soon became the go to place for late breaking news from their bureaus and correspondents around the world.  If there was a story to be covered or authentic breaking news to be reported you could count on CNN to deliver it to your television.  Turner’s experiment evolved into one of the most dependable sources of immediate journalistic excellence available.  If you wanted to know what was happening in the U.S. or abroad all you needed to do was turn to CNN or its Headline News cohort.

Bernard Shaw

And because imitation is the highest form of flattery, MSNBC came along in 1996 to emulate the Turner model with another 24/7 new cable news channel.  And it too was a respectable source of information both domestic and foreign.  Early anchors like Jodi Applegate, John Gibson and John Siegenthaler brought the nation and the world right into our homes with their world-wide cadre of reporters, photo journalists and producers.


Even through the sordid stained blue dress event that ultimately led to impeachment proceedings against Bill Clinton, CNN and MSNBC continued to cover the nation’s and the world’s most important news stories.  In fact from the time they first launched you could always depend on these cable news networks to keep many journalistic balls in the air and juggle a multitude of stories simultaneously.  Cable news was the place to turn for the latest information about:

  • Terrorist attacks
  • Wars
  • Coups
  • Nuclear threats
  • Space exploration
  • Technology and science
  • Medicine and health
  • Popular culture
  • Environmental issues
  • Societal changes
  • and much, much more

Unlike the tragic crash in Clear Lake, Iowa that killed three American music celebrities it’s hard to point to a specific date or event when cable news died.  Oh, I know, it didn’t really die any more than the music died in in 1959.  But it has certainly felt that way.

When did cable news devote virtually its entire broadcast day to the repetitious coverage of politics and the sordid and unseemly events that inevitably grow and multiply like germs in the petri dish of modern American politics?  When did reporters with superb journalistic credentials become talking heads repeating the same narrow story lines over and over again from dawn till dusk and beyond?  Where have assignment editors gone who would have previously ensured that important events would be covered in depth?  When did cable news feel compelled to take the path of false equivalency by having surrogates and spokespersons delivering predictable talking points and over talking their counterpart from the other side? When did Americans thirsty for information about what’s happening in far flung corners of the world feel the need to turn to foreign news sources like the BBC, DW News, Sky News and others?

Death and famine are rampant in the world.  Natural disasters are wreaking havoc and changing lives and landscapes.  Conflicts are raging in more than 20 nations taking thousands of lives but many of those war zones are never discussed on cable news.

Ongoing armed conflicts

News does not always take the form of death, destruction and tragedy.  There are events and happenings going on around the globe that should be celebrated and which will positively change the quality of life for the citizens of the world.  Yet they largely go uncovered by American cable news channels that give us almost nonstop politics.

CNN and MSNBC have drastically reduced their resources for news gathering and reporting.  They have taken what were previously respectable all news channels and turned them into a news version of so many sporting events where the attraction is less about the sport than it is about the carnage caused between competitors.

The music didn’t actually die in that 1959 plane crash.  And the news didn’t really die on a date of less certainty.  But it sure feels that way.

America Needs More Courageous Servant Leaders


In October 2015 Pope Frances made his first official visit to the United States as the 266th Pope of the Catholic Church.  Shortly after his departure I published the following commentary about the Pontiff’s visit in which I wrote about his modest charisma and the lessons he taught about the true meaning of servant leadership.

I have thought a lot about this article over the last year as I have watched the human train wreck that is the Trump presidency.  Yesterday’s comments by Donald Trump in which he used vile and racist language to once again show his hate and disdain for black and brown people in the U.S. and throughout the world should be a tipping point for this wholly unfit occupant of the Oval Office.  But it can only serve as a tipping point if we see unprecedented courage from leaders in government, industry, clergy, and the nonprofit sectors who are willing to speak truth to power and condemn with a united voice Trump’s indefensible actions, comments and attitudes.

I could write volumes about what is wrong with a society that would elect a Donald Trump as its President with the full knowledge of his history of misogyny, xenophobia, and racial animus.  Rather than one more commentary on what most enlightened people know to be the problem I thought it would be helpful to offer a possible solution.  And the best way for me to do that is to re-publish my October 2015 commentary about the meaning of and the need for courageous servant leaders to step up and help re-direct the moral compass of the nation.

Here is my commentary written more than two years ago which I believe is as relevant today as when it was first published more than two years ago:

(The following commentary was first published on October 21, 2015)

The security barriers have long been taken down, the Vatican flags and banners have been folded and stored, and the Popemobile and Papal Fiat are garaged waiting to be sold or auctioned to benefit the poor. Pope Francis may be back in Rome, but the lessons he imparted during his first U.S. visit continue to inform and inspire not only the Catholic faithful, but all who had the opportunity to hear and see him.

Pope visit

So what exactly did the pope teach that was neither religious, spiritual, moral nor ethical (which is, after all, what we expect to hear from the head of the Roman Catholic Church)? Simply put, the pontiff taught us through his words and deeds the important lesson of servant leadership. Every organization and institution has a titular or nominal leader, but too few are led by authentic servant leaders as exemplified in the way we got to know Francis in Washington, New York and Philadelphia.

Pope Francis

In his book, “The Culture Engine,” organizational consultant S. Chris Edmonds defines servant leadership as “a person’s dedication to helping others be their best selves at home, work and in their community.”

Edmonds says that all servant leaders share two fundamental beliefs about the people they lead, and engage in five practices that put these beliefs into action. He describes servant leaders as those who believe that:

  • Every person has value and deserves civility, trust and respect;
  • People can accomplish much when inspired by a purpose beyond themselves.
  • According to Edmonds, the five practices of servant leaders include the following:
  • Clarify and reinforce the need for service to others;
  • Listen intently and observe closely;
  • Act as selfless mentors;
  • Demonstrate persistence;
  • Lovingly hold themselves and others accountable for their commitments.

Characteristics of Servant Leaadership

Jeffrey Krames, a Jewish American business author and son of Holocaust survivors, in his book “Lead with Humility: 12 Leadership Lessons from Pope Francis,” offers a practical guide for how any leader can take these same principles to become an authentic and humble leader. Krames sums up the four characteristics that he believes make Pope Francis a model of servant leadership:

  • Be authentic;
  • Advocate for the least among you;
  • Lead with humility;
  • Avoid insularity.

Those who shoulder the important responsibility for selecting and evaluating leaders of communal organizations would do well to measure current or future staff and volunteer leaders to determine if they embody the characteristics and practices of a true servant leader. At the end of the day, it will be genuine servant leaders who do more than lead their organization. Instead, they will contribute to leading an entire community to change for the sake of shared greatness and the common good.

What we saw from Pope Francis during his U.S. visit was the very best example of a quiet, authentic and humble servant leader who offered lessons worthy for us all to follow.


I fervently hope that the time may have come when we hear those who are devoted to America’s values that enough is enough.  A time when people of good will and good faith can set aside their self-interest and political agendas to begin to talk more about what’s right and less about who’s right.

Monday is the annual commemoration of the life of the reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  It is fitting that we remind ourselves of the words of 19th century clergyman Theodore Parker which were often spoken by Dr. King:  ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’”

But that arc does not bend by itself.  It only bends toward justice guided by the moral compass of courageous servant leaders and not by those who believe that America’s best days are behind her.

Arc of the moral universe

America’s Annus Horribilis

On November 24, 1992 Queen Elizabeth II gave a speech at Guildhall to mark the 40th anniversary of her Accession. In it The Queen referred to recent events as part of an annus horribilis.  In typical understatement The Queen said: “1992 is not a year on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure. In the words of one of my more sympathetic correspondents, it has turned out to be an annus horribilis.”

Annus horribilis

The unpleasant events which happened to the Royal Family in 1992 included:

  • Prince Andrew, Duke of York would separate from his wife Sarah, Duchess of York.
  • Anne, Princess Royal divorced Captain Mark Phillips.
  • Diana, Princess of Wales’s tell-all book revealed the unhappy truths of the princess’s marriage – particularly, the affair between Charles, Prince of Wales and Camilla Parker Bowles.
  • Scandalous pictures of the Duchess of York being kissed on her feet by her friend, John Bryan, were published in Daily Mirror.
  • Intimate conversations between the Princess of Wales and James Gilbey from a tape recording of their phone calls were published in The Sun.
  • The affair between the Prince of Wales and Camilla Parker Bowles was confirmed by a transcript of a recording of their phone calls published in the Daily Mirror.
  • Windsor Castle – one of the Queen’s official residences – caught fire and was extensively damaged.
  • John Major, then Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, announced to the House of Commons that the Prince and Princess of Wales had decided to separate.

While they were admittedly sad events, 1992 represented a year of personal tragedy, personal embarrassment and personal loss for The Queen.  None of these events, as upsetting and traumatic as they were to the Royals, brought into question the future of the Monarchy and certainly none of these events rocked the United Kingdom to its core.  Not one single event or even all of them combined came close to calling into question the viability of the U.K.’s democracy.

What was an “annus horribilis” for The Queen was little more than fodder for the tabloids and gossip sharing for many Brits.  It did not represent a constitutional threat nor did it threaten the values, freedoms and lives of The Queen’s subjects.  In the final analysis it was a very personal annus horribilis” and not one that created upheaval and division throughout Great Britain.

Contrast The Queen’s year of personal misery with the kind of year the U.S. has had since January 20, 2017 when the 45th President took the oath of office on the West Front of the Unites States Capitol. As 2017 draws to a close many are asking if this past year has been America’s “annus horribilis.  It was a year of shameful and divisive language, hostile and racially motivated acts, misdirected economic and social policies, and dangerous rhetoric and threats on the world stage by the first President to be so widely characterized as wholly unfit for office.

From the moment the Presidential oath of office was administered by the Chief Justice, a dark cloud appeared over Washington and it has grown wider and darker throughout the year.  We were shocked that our new President’s questionably disingenuous statements gave way to documented and well proven lies.  We watched suspicious activities increasingly become supported by facts and evidence.  We experienced what was hoped to be just an overactive political ego become dwarfed by the severe and continuous manifestations of chronic and consuming narcissistic personality disorder.  We became frustrated when our hopes for transparency regarding his tax returns and allegations of previous sexual harassment and abuse were answered with angry defensiveness and obfuscation. We hoped against hope that the campaigner’s vile language, racial slurs, humiliating words directed at and about minorities, people with disabilities, women, and those with different lifestyles or gender choices would, once he was elected,  give way to the chief executive’s more moderate and inclusive attitudes.  Such was not the case and we were left to learn to live with yet more disappointment.

The Queen called it “annus horribilis” but for the more plain spoken Americans who have been outraged by what we’ve witnessed since the inauguration it was just a damn horrible year.  A year of shame, humiliation and fear about the true State of the Union.  And even greater fear for the irreparable damage that will be left behind when the reins of power eventually transfer to more responsible hands.


The anger and frustration with the President has divided family members and torn friendships apart.  He has been one of the most divisive figures in American political history.  He has been the butt of nightly attacks by late night comedians in a way that no other President has ever been so consistently lampooned. He has changed cable news from media outlets that carry world-wide news events to virtually 24/7 political shows.  And his predictable twitter rants that follow reports about him on television or by political opponents has changed social media more than anything since the first major commercial Internet Service Providers hit the scene in the early 1990s.

For the first time in modern history the American President is no longer universally regarded as the “leader of the free world”.  Many have relegated him to a second tier leader with German Chancellor Angela Merkel often identified as the most influential world leader.  Extreme American nationalism and exceptionalism have served to wear out the U.S. welcome around the world.

Mt. Rushmore

As the president becomes increasingly isolated by world leaders it only follows that he will see a growing movement by members of his own party moving away from him as the 2018 mid-term elections approach.  His coat tails will likely not be seen as an advantage to those Republicans seeking election in 2018 but instead he will feel like an albatross that they will fight to rid themselves of.

The old saying “with friends like that who needs enemies” could not be any more true than when the President’s former close and trusted adviser Steve Bannon makes public statements such as:  “Trump is like an 11 year old child.”  Or, “He’s got a 30% chance of finishing his first term either because of impeachment or the 25th amendment.”

With the lowest approval ratings after his first year in office of any previous President it is hard to understand why he believes that the way out of his political predicament is to try to dig himself out of his hole.  Two thirds of Americans view him unfavorably and the CNN poll shows that voters favor Democrats over Republicans in 2018 House midterms by widest margin in years with 56% favoring Democrats and 38% favoring Republicans.  This could result in a seismic shift in the political balance in Washington with a real possibility that Democrats might have a chance to re-take both the Senate and House.  The underlying reason has as much do with Trump’s style, personality and demeanor as it does with his policies.


Such is the report card for year one of the Trump presidency.  The real question is what will year two bring.  Only time will tell.  But the one thing that seems clear to so many is that 2017 has been America’s “annus horribilis or less eloquently put, a damn horrible year.


Many Americans will undoubtedly be glad to see the end of 2017 hoping against hope that 2018 will help restore dignity, admiration, trust and confidence in their government and in their President in particular.  But hope is not a plan.  It will take increased and unrelenting activism to regain the government we deserve.

Change may be just around the corner

The Silver Lining in Houston’s Dark Cloud

Silver lining

Twelve years ago today Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc on New Orleans.  The Category 5 storm ravaged the area with particular death and destruction in the Lower 9th Ward.  More than 1,800 people died.  Most of them were poor African Americans whose lives were largely ignored because they were not fortunate enough to have been born privileged or live in the more attractive neighborhoods of New Orleans.  The loss of life in Katrina was in large part a result of racial injustice by a community made up of far too many who lacked sufficient empathy, care, compassion and basic decency to work to save ALL of their fellow New Orleanians not just the ones that looked like them.

New Orleans 9th Ward

Fast forward to August 12, 2017 in Charlottesville, VA when the ugliness of racial animus and hatred reared its head in the shadow of the home of the author of the U.S. Constitution.  The images of neo-Nazis, White Supremacists and Ku Klux Klan members marching, battling, beating and ultimately murdering set off renewed conversation about the myth that we live in a post-racial period in our history.  Nothing could be further from the truth as demonstrated by the vile and hideous comments of the 45th President who failed repeatedly to put a stake in the heart of racism and to unequivocally lay blame for the Charlottesville tragedy where it belonged.

Charlottesville 1   Charlottesville 2

But the tragedy of Hurricane Harvey and the unfathomable devastation caused by the flooding of the Texas Gulf Coast ironically revealed the proverbial silver lining from within a very dark and tragic cloud.

Goodness often comes in the wake of grief, anguish and loss.  I know this to be true having lived through two floods.  Watching the horrific scenes of the Texas floods brings back the terrible memories of the 1959 and 1961 floods in my hometown of Hull, MA. Our home was seriously flooded twice in 13 months with water from the Bay during two violent Nor’easters. During the first flood I was just 11 years old and I was home alone when the flood waters started to rise through the floor boards. Eventually I was rescued by the Coast Guard but their amphibious boat was not able to get close enough to the front door because of a chain link fence in our front yard. I had to wade through neck high freezing water to get to the boat. Everything in our home was lost and we were displaced for nearly a year. And then 13 months later, after having been back in our home a very short time, the same thing happened again. This time I was home with my parents because it was the day of the inauguration of John F. Kennedy. Once again everything was lost including our car. Those memories and images are seared into my mind like it was yesterday.  But as awful as those events were I am to this day grateful to the local Hull families who took us in and let us stay with them for very long periods of time.

The memories of basic goodness I experienced as a child victim of floods are refreshed now as I watch the extraordinary acts of humanity by so many ordinary people in Houston who are risking and sacrificing much to make repeated efforts to rescue those stranded in rising flood waters.  It is hard not to be moved by the scenes of endless trips by a flotilla of privately owned watercraft piloted by citizens who are determined to reach those in need with no regard to the race, faith or beliefs of the people they are helping.  Whites saving blacks.  Blacks saving Latinos.  Christians saving Muslims.  It is a tapestry for compassion that has been color blind by the words and actions of community leaders and folks who just want to extend a hand of friendship and humanity.

Flood rescue 1

Rescue 2

White guy Black guy

The relief efforts are not just the silver cloud for Houston and South Texas but a show of unity that is needed now more than ever.  No one wishes for a disaster but if one is to come it is heartening to know that something good can come out of what is so bad.  The efforts of cable news reporters to not just cover the story but repeatedly become rescuers themselves is proof positive that that the media is more often part of the solution and not the problem.  We didn’t need Harvey to convince us that journalists do not deserve to be painted as “Fake News” by the President.

Cajun Navy

Houston will re-build.  It will survive and eventually thrive again.  And when some sense of normalcy returns, which may take months or even years, Hurricane Harvey’s legacy may best be remembered not for the devastation it caused but for the message of unity and harmony it has sent.  Disparate parts of a community who, without even knowing it, have beaten back racial and religious tensions and intolerance at a time when their help was needed not just by the local flood victims but by an entire nation.

Love Houston

We should all feel a deep debt of gratitude to every first responder, community leader, faith-based and charitable organization and ordinary citizen who has shown their true mettle and humanity.  Their actions during the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey far exceeds what has been done to heal the local community.  They have helped to heal an entire nation.

Thank you

Sitting Shiva for the American Presidency

Most mornings these days I feel like I’ve awoken in a shiva house (Jewish house of mourning).  Why do I refer to a shiva house? Because it feels like I’m grieving for the death of the American presidency as I’ve known it and studied it for my entire life. The numbing sense of loss is as though I’ve experienced a death in the family. The difference is that the initial period of Jewish mourning, shiva, lasts a week. Sitting shiva for the American presidency may not be able to be accomplished in the span of a mere week.


I grew up as a child of the 50’s and 60’s in the post-World War II and Korean War era when there was enormous pride and unity in our nation energized by our military successes and ironically by our fear of nuclear annihilation.  Civil Defense shelters were everywhere.  You could barely walk through the streets of an American city without seeing the ubiquitous signs directing us to bomb shelters.


Our AM-only car radios had two logos showing us how to find the Conelrad station where we would hear emergency broadcast information in the event of enemy attack during the Cold War.


And of course, none of us who grew up in that period can ever forget the “duck and cover” drills in school which naively taught that in the case of an enemy attack crawling under our small wooden desks would keep us safe.

Duck and Cover

It was a terrifying but unifying time for a nation that turned to its President for a calm and steady hand and voice to bring us together and allay our worst fears.

Without doubt we had, and still have a long way to go as a nation to fully deliver on the promise of the founders that “All men (and women) are created equal”.  And we still had much to overcome in terms of racial and religious animus and bigotry; violence that would assault neighborhoods and eventually assassinate a president and civil rights leaders.  But despite it all we were able to feel as one nation under God thanks to respected leaders in The White House, in Congress and in our own communities.  Under all of the debris of civil unrest and injustices there was still a sense of pride and respect if not always agreement.

As a child I remember feeling the unbounded pride and respect for the Office of the President.  I was born when Truman was president but it was Dwight David Eisenhower or Ike as everyone liked to call him that are my earliest memories of a U.S. president.  The admiration and affection that the nation had for Ike was something I remember vividly.  And in my hometown of Boston it was demonstrated daily by a most unlikely group of patriots – young school children.

Bob Emery was an enormously popular Boston after school TV host known as “Big Brother Bob”.  Every day upon returning home from school I turned on the TV to watch Big Brother look into the studio camera directly at me and all the kids in his viewing audience and then ask us to raise our glasses of milk in a toast to the President. On the wall of Big Brother’s set was a portrait of President Eisenhower.  That sign of respect is seared in my childhood memory.

Toasting Ike with milk

As the years went on I developed a passion for the American presidency.  No doubt that was in large part because by the time I was maturing Boston’s favorite son, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, had become the nation’s 35th president.  So beloved was JFK that you could barely find a Boston home without something on the wall of the kitchen or living room that paid tribute to him and his wife, Jackie.

JFK & Jackie

There have been 13 presidents in my lifetime.  None were perfect men.  Some were decidedly better than others.  Even the one who resigned his office in disgrace was, before the scandal that brought him down, generally credited with having achieved many important accomplishments for the nation.  Yes, even Richard Nixon, reviled by so many, was able to achieve a long list of achievement for the American people.  Among them he:

  • Opened relations with China
  • Ended the Vietnam War
  • Ended the draft to create an all-volunteer military
  • Founded the EPA and signed the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act
  • Dedicated $100 million to fight cancer creating national cancer centers
  • Signed Title IX opening doors for women collegiate athletes
  • Signed a civil rights act preventing gender bias in universities and colleges receiving federal funding
  • Lowered the voting age from 21 to 18
  • Gave Native Americans the right to tribal determination ending a policy of forced assimilation and returning their sacred land

But we now live in frighteningly different times.  Though there has always been an active or latent threat to the nation from outside our shores we have never been as threatened from within.  And by within I mean specifically within the curved walls of the Oval Office.  And the prospect of anything good or positive springing forth from this president is an extremely remote pipe dream.

I won’t attempt to enumerate or re-litigate the countless offenses of our 45th president both legal and moral.  That long list has been the focus of non-stop attention by news and social media reports and commentaries.

It is the cumulative impact on our national psyche that is most alarming, disturbing and dangerously insidious.  Fanning the flames of hate and intemperance as Donald Trump did in his comments following the events in Charlottesville and soon thereafter at his Phoenix rally embolden and empower those who support an agenda that does anything but make America great(er).

The most worrisome part of Donald Trump is that he demonstrates no positive leadership qualities whatsoever.  He is not LEADING us to hate and division as much as he is REFLECTING it. The hate and division that has been waiting beneath the surface for Trump’s clarion call are like millions of 17-year Cicadas that emerge when the environment is right for them to break through the earth and blot out the sky like locusts.

Cicadas 2

Trump empowers and enables the ugliness that has always been a part of our society.  Not until leaders from politics, business, clergy, NPO’s, and others universally and courageously denounce him, marginalize him and hopefully pressure him to vacate his position do we stand any kind of a chance to effectively swat the insects that are spreading the disease of hate in our country.

The unkindest cut of all is that even when Trump leaves office those that wore the red ball caps at his rallies and blindly supported him even against their own self-interest will retreat below the surface like the 17-year cicadas waiting to re-appear when the next Trump-like figure comes along.  While we nervously wait to see what the fringe produces as its next champion we will watch the most revered and awesome office in world democracy die a slow death.  Oh, we’ll continue to have presidents and there will be an Oval Office in the West Wing.  But the bar will have been lowered so far by the current occupant that the presidency will perhaps no longer exist to be admired and respected in the future as it was in the past.

The presidency may not be dead though it surely feels like it is.  Maybe it is just so irreversibly diseased that like a patient devastated with Alzheimer’s Disease it is unable to remember how it is supposed to behave.  And as was said about a former president who actually died from Alzheimer’s, for the patient and those who love him or her, it is a devastatingly long goodbye.

We may now be witnessing that long goodbye of the institution of the American presidency which has become infected by its incumbent with the least, not greatest, of the virtues he inherited from his 44 predecessors.

So, I mourn for what has been lost.  Was the loss of righteousness of the presidency caused by a self-destructive fire starter who self-immolated himself leaving the heart of the presidency extinguished along with the dumpster fire that was the Trump era?  Or was it incinerated by extreme right wing flame throwers in an act of unwitting arson?

Whatever the cause, the shadow of death has blanketed our democracy.  So as for me, I sit shiva for the noble design which the founders crafted and which most of our first 44 presidents lifted up, though a few let down, but none of whom let die.  As with most mourners, I pray that there will be an end of the grieving period and as is Jewish custom, I will arise from shiva, go outside for a walk around the block to symbolize re-entry into the day-to-day world.  For Jews, that shiva period typically lasts a week.  I’m afraid this period of mourning may need more time before normalcy will return.

Lady Liberty crying

It should be easier to repurpose household goods for those in need


One of the many challenges faced by those who care for aging family members who are downsizing their home, moving to assisted living facilities or who pass away is the overwhelming task of sorting through and disposing of unneeded or unwanted furniture, furnishings, household goods and clothes.  Most of us spend a lifetime acquiring “stuff” with little or no thought to what will become of our belongings when they are no longer needed or when they simply won’t fit in a dramatically smaller living space.  When our elderly relatives face a move or when they die and all but a few sentimental items and family mementos need to be emptied from the home and disposed of a frantic search often begins for a suitable way to repurpose a relative’s property.

I’ve been dealing with this challenge as I take responsibility for helping an elderly family member move from her current home to a nearby assisted living community and into a space one third the size of her current home.  The task has been even more difficult because I live 2,600 miles from my family member.

Downsizing 2

After dozens of phone calls to thrift shops, consignment stores, charitable groups, religious organizations, downsizing advisors and estate liquidators I learned to my dismay that it is very difficult to give away someone’s households effects either for cash or donation.  As Richard Eisenberg writes in his recent article:  Sorry, Nobody Wants Your Parents’ Stuff ( https://tinyurl.com/mkrhx9g ) “the hard truth is that nobody wants the prized possessions of your parents — not even you or your kids.”

So what’s a caring family member to do?

There are businesses in many cities which will come to a home and clear out everything that is not bolted to the walls.  These entrepreneurs may try to place some of the more salable items on their showroom floor for consignment.  Despite the excellent condition of some furniture the reality is that many items are just not appealing to buyers.  I discovered that the table and chairs of a dining room set in absolutely perfect condition could be sold but the china cabinet is an anachronistic piece of furniture that hardly anyone wants.  The firms that clean out granny’s house may only consign for sale a handful of items.  They will arrange to donate rest of the furniture and household goods to charities with whom they work in exchange for a donation receipt.  But where those donated items wind up is anyone’s guess.  And those items which can neither be sold nor donated are likely to find an eternal home in a nearby public dump.

But what about the many individuals who are in desperate need for clothing, household goods and furniture?  Why is it so difficult to get those items from a vacated residence into the hands and hearts of new immigrants, refugees, or others living in poverty?  The sad reality is that there are precious few charities willing to take it all and then triage the items for distribution to those in need.  Most charities will select very few items and often don’t even have the facility to pick up things from the house.  They’ll accept what they have an immediate need for to put in the homes of a needy family.  But they have no capacity to warehouse items for those in the community to come and help themselves to clothes, furniture and household goods.

Charities that are in the business of providing social services would do well to collaborate and develop a shared facility and service capable of clearing out homes of ALL unwanted and unneeded personal effects making all usable goods available to anyone in their community in need of clothes, furniture and household goods.  By sharing the costs of warehouse space, trucks and personnel the burden can be shared and the costs spread among many faith based and secular organizations in a true co-op serving the poor and underserved.  It could be the ultimate Leave-a-Penny/Take-a-Penny system but on a much grander scale.  People with home goods and clothing to donate could bring the items to a central warehouse or have the items picked up.  And those with need for any of the items at the warehouse could receive what they need and either pick up the items or ask that they be delivered.

It shouldn’t be so difficult for donors to give and those in need to receive.  Give what you can; take what you need.

Take penny dish

Immigrants, refugees and others in our communities are in need and many of us have the ability to make things available to them that are no longer needed by our families but which could make a world of difference for someone else.  It’s time for the nonprofit community to step up and meet these needs in an unprecedented model of cooperation.  Private nonprofit organizations and faith-based houses of worship throughout the community should use this as a way for genuine ecumenical and interfaith collaboration, cooperation and service that no single organization could accomplish by itself.

Too much stuff

So what is the best advice for families who want to prepare themselves for the inevitable downsizing of a loved one or ultimately the final disposition of their property?  Immediately begin a process to dramatically pare down and get rid of items now that have not been used in a long time.  Don’t wait until you are under a deadline to reduce what is in your loved one’s home.  Repurpose items by working with charities, thrift shops and consignment shops.  As difficult as it is to convince a family member to let go of some of their belongings talk with them about whether many of their unused items can serve a higher purpose by giving them to others rather than by holding onto them.


The transition of a loved one, whether to a new and smaller location or the inevitable and ultimate transition at the end of life can be physically and emotionally challenging.  Change is difficult.  Letting go of personal items is hard.  But the satisfaction that comes from repurposing personal items for the benefit of those in need can be very satisfying.  The knowledge that the lives of others can be made easier and happier with the gift of items of a family member can provide joy and happiness to both the donor and the recipient.

Items that are not wanted by trendy or kitschy consignment shops, or rejected by charities that have no immediate need in site, could make individuals grateful and happy.  But the burden and responsibility of creating the right kind of co-op environment for all of your loved one’s rummage which could be turned into someone else’s treasure should be a shared priority for every community.

Ann Frank