Thursday, August 26, 2010

Pick Your Battles; Lessons Learned from my Grandfather


Often, I share about my grandfather (Daddy) and the love he showed his grandchildren. He really was a good man. He was not perfect by any means but he did not waiver on things that were out of sync with doing what was right when no one was around to see. One of his favorite sayings was “fair is fair”. Those words were usually followed up by “ball or strike”. One day, I am going to write a book about his poetic sayings.

Once, I accompanied my grandfather to a meeting held at our community lodge. Watching Daddy on the front row, I thought I was going to hear one of his fiery speeches about doing what is right because it is the right thing to do. But on this particular night, things would not be normal . The tone in the room was not what I had expected. Even at the age of nine, I knew something was different about this crowd.

The crowd had gathered to debate a hotly contested ordinance being proposed. Some community leaders were urging folks to vote for a law that was not good legislation according to my grandfather. Daddy adamantly opposed the measure and did not hide his disdain for those supporting it. In this public hearing, Daddy’s critics never called him by name but there was no doubt that he was the object of their dissatisfaction. I watched for hours as one speaker after another took pot shots at my grandfather. He never said a word and a few times, I caught him smiling. I sat in disbelief wondering why Daddy was not speaking up for what he believed in or refusing to address the group to defend his point of view.

On the drive home, I asked Daddy about the meeting. With much confidence, Daddy responded, “Never bet against the truth; you must learn to pick your battles”. At nine, my lack of comprehension showed on my face so my grandfather served up this nugget of knowledge that I use often, “Never argue with a fool, they will either win the argument or kill you.” Later that week, several individuals met with my grandfather to thank him for not debating with the noise makers. His silence spoke volumes, they told him. That was the first of many meetings where I saw my grandfather win the battle of words by never uttering a sound. He was an old school passionate orator but from time to time, he would fall silent and allow his lack of verbal engagement diffuse a situation or get others to speak up instead of waiting on him to be the messenger.

Several weeks ago, I got to experience how my grandfather felt firsthand. I attended a meeting that left me wondering had I a missed a Prozac pill. I thought I was attending a meeting to discuss empowering others to be the best they can be and mobilizing individuals to be more educated about issues in the community. I was ready to soak up whatever knowledge that was going to be shared. I had my sleeves rolled up to learn new ways to tackle old issues with relevant goals and defined action plans. As with most folks and good intentions, you get what you get. Nothing in life is a guarantee.

Folks, I sat in a meeting, which I initially thought would be informative and motivating, dodging bullets and daggers. Damn! I did not get the memo to come dressed in amour. One speaker took great pleasure weaving belittling comments into a message about leadership. There was no hiding the fact-less infused lecture with its saccharine coated ugly tones, there was an issue with me. Before you ask, my name was never spoken. Are you surprised? Me either. As my amusement grew by the minute, I saw out the corner of my eye several individuals sitting stoned faced and showing signs of being uncomfortable with what was taking place for all to see and hear. I thought to myself, Daddy would have loved this meeting! I could visualize him twisting his Mason ring around on his finger while never looking away from the speaker. Channeling my grandfather, I twisted my diamond ring on my finger and found myself fascinated with counting the number of biting remarks that were meant to either hurt or humiliate.

At one point, I started taking notes because I would hate to leave this one out of my upcoming book. Not to get even but because I needed to record what was taking place within my spirit. I did not get upset or walk out. I pinched myself several times to make sure I had not dozed off or was having an out of body experience. I was actually listening quietly to words that were not having an effect on me. My grandfather words came rushing back to me, “pick your battles”. This was not a battle; this was a pissing match and I was not a bed wetter. I had nothing to prove. I had spoken truth to a few folks and the result of speaking up was this angry crazed tirade I was pinned in my seat hearing. Riveting. On the drive home, I found myself laughing as if I seen a comedy routine. Does personal growth and revelation come with bouts of laughter? Instead of fuming and ready to take folks to the shed, I was laughing at what I experienced. Prozac does not produce that kind of response.

By the time I made it home, calls apologizing for my experience were pouring in from many individuals that I respected. Each apology was heartfelt and genuine. Their phones calls made me respect them even more. Unbeknownst to me, several expressed their indignation at the meeting not being about serving others. I did not have to mention that the meeting was not as it was billed. Although my experience was meant to humiliate me, I witnessed folks willing to do the right thing even when no one was looking. I realized something had changed in me. Not one to hold my tongue when mayhem and foolishness rear their ugly heads, surprisingly, I was silent. By not engaging in petty words that faithful day, I took in what was said and made a decision to use my time building others up for the greater good of everyone, including myself.

Since the meeting, I taped the notes from that day near my calendar to remind me of the lesson from my grandfather that was revealed years later. It took courage for him to hold back. I cherish those actions from the lodge that I witnessed; his strength in his silence, the twisting of his ring and smiling while staring intently at a speaker hurling clandestine insults. He was showing me not every battle is worthy of my energy and to always leave foolish arguments for fools to debate. After a few days, I sent a note to the speaker expressing thanks for a presentation that had a positively profound effect on me. Growth is good. How was your week?

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Bill Haslam visits Jefferson Street



Over a year ago, I was introduced to Knoxville’s Mayor Bill Haslam by close personal friends, the Wolcotts. Mayor Haslam was a special guest at an event they sponsored. Since that time, I have heard Mr. Haslam speak at several business forums and I have also heard him on the campaign trail all over Middle Tennessee as I have blogged about the Tennessee’s 2010 Elections. I was at the televised debate at Belmont University earlier this summer as well. During this campaign cycle several times, I have been seated at the table with the Mayor for one reason or another and he spoke with common sense. Once, his daughter, Leigh, and I had an engaging conversation about her journey to becoming a public school teacher.


Not one to hide my passion for social media, I tweeted from many of those meetings to my followers on Twitter as I have with various other candidates. After many requests, Mr. Haslam finally made his way to 1501 Jefferson Street, the offices of The Tenneseee Tribune Newspaper on Monday. He arrived with one of his campaign staffers, Andrew, to answer questions from many in the African American community who wanted to hear from him. This was not a meeting I was going to miss. This was different. In all the places that I have been to hear Mr. Haslam speak, this was the first time that I seen him in an African America audience; Mrs. Perry’s staff and as well as a conference caller. No one will ask Mr. Haslam to weigh in on the building of a Mosque, what folks are doing in Arizona, or how much money he made at Pilot. This meeting was going to be straight and boxed, “What are your plans to bring jobs and to help improve education in this community?”


After greetings and introductions, there was some small talk but everyone was eager to get to the business at hand, hearing Mr. Haslam answers to questions to help the community that was feeling economic warfare much more than others. Mr. Haslam was as cool and calm as usual. I asked Mr. Haslam about his daughter, Leigh, and reminded him this was not our first meeting. Mrs. Perry cut off my small talk with Mr. Halsam (with a look) and the meeting started out the gate with questions centered around education, the Tennessee Board of Regents (TBR) and Tennessee State University (TSU). Since the Board of Regents recently named John Morgan as new chancellor, questions regarding his hiring were being debated statewide. To many individuals, the actions surrounding the hiring of Morgan was straight from the good old boys frequent awards government program that smells of cronyism at its best. Many throughout the state have noted that the qualifications for the Chancellor's job were downgraded to fit Morgan's education skills but still managed to give him a hefty pay raise from $180,000 to $385,000 without any push back. The group gathered wanted to know how would Mr. Haslam address this type of hypocrisy from the Board of Regents that has a long ugly history with TSU dating back to days when Morgan’s father was running Tennessee’s higher education ruling board. Mr. Haslam did not hesitate with his answers regarding the Board of Regents and its board members. He stated that members of TBR should be individuals who care about the mission of educating students first. “The board should represent the people who serve those institutions; people who understand the mission of each school”, he stated intently.


He went on to state, “Tennessee colleges are behind national averages for graduating students from higher institutions. The boards of each university should have individuals who are invested in the university that they are appointed too. In education, Tennessee is ranked 42 out of 50 states. We must improve those numbers in order to attract corporations to come to our state and to get out students prepared for the workforce.” In regards to TSU, Mr. Haslam said he met with Dr. Johnson shortly before he announced his retirement that was a surprise to everyone. Haslam would like TSU to focus on raising graduation rates and he would work with the University with best practices for measurable goals to be reached. When asked would TSU be turned into a two year university, Haslam said TSU would remain a four year institution if he is elected Governor.


Several follow up questions regarding the TBR were asked that showed Haslam was not following sensational headlines but was aware of issues perceived and actual on the campus. When a comment about TSU’s Alumni Association wanting to give input regarding existing and future issues at the school, Mr. Haslam stated the incoming President would be the authority at the university and he would be willing to “listen to others and gather collective information” but he would not “circumvent the President’s role at the university”. His job, as Governor, is to work with the school to educate students not police the administration.(Wait, shouldn’t TSU’s Alumni main role at the school be to help recruit students and raise funds for the school? Just asking!)


Anyway, when Mr. Haslam was asked about his track record in the African American community, he pointed to his current administration’s staff diversity and political appointments. He also addressed the program Project GRAD that was implemented in Knox County schools that is modeled after a program from Texas. Project GRAD is a 501c3 partnership between public schools and private sectors that was established in 2001. Project GRAD serves over 7000 students in 14 schools that are mostly low income areas to help students: increased academic achievement, increased high school graduation rate, and increased college going (and success) rate.
He was asked about his leadership style which he attributed to working in the business sector, “there is a time to listen and a time to lead”. When Mr. Haslam was asked why he wanted to lead the state at a time when the national economy and the political atmosphere are at all time lows, he became passionate in response. He stated, “He was uniquely qualified to bring business leaderships skills to the state, not only in one region of the state but to urban areas and rural areas that are hit the hardest in an economic downturn.” He also stated he has proven experience to lead in the government sector because his experience as Mayor of Knoxville. Mr. Haslam shared that he was a graduate of Emory University and has been in the private sector at the helm of Pilot Oil, a successful business that employs thousands in 39 states, for over twenty plus years.

I have seen Mr. Haslam in many different settings over the last year; business, private, and public. I must say, he was exactly the same in Mrs. Perry’s conference room as was at the Wolcott’s event and at Chamber of Commerce meetings. He was at ease speaking with us as he was at events where I have attended and often was the only minority or at least one of ten in attendance. His tone and demeanor did not change nor did he appear uncomfortable or patronizing.


After the interview and thank yous, we gave Mr. Haslam copies of back issues of the Tribune as everyone was on the way out the door. I rushed out after my wrap up conversation with Mrs. Perry and Mr. Benson. I was scheduled to interview actor Barry Scott at J. Alexander’s. After arriving at J. Alexander’s, who did I run into at the restaurant? Mr. Haslam and Andrew. Surprised, I introduced Mr. Scott to him and made small talk before moving on to our table. What did I catch out of the corner of my eye as I was being escorted away? A copy of the Tribune! Hmm, this should be a very interesting campaign season.


Photo credit: Steve Benson for Tennessee Tribune

Thursday, August 12, 2010

My Very Special Frist Center Adventure



In May, I contacted Emily Harper Beard at the Frist Center to plan my summer of “Genma’s Frist Center Adventures”. I started my conversation with an enthusiastic, “Hey, you need me, and here’s what I need you to do!” I rattled off a list of upcoming events that I wanted to host at the museum because I wanted to make sure it was the Frist Center’s “best year yet.” Never mind the crazy phone introduction, we would work through all of that later, I thought to myself. After what seemed an eternity of silence on the other end, Emily finally said, “How do you say your name again?”

That was the start of a summer to remember for me. The museum has several wonderful exhibits that I believe everyone in Nashville and beyond must see. I decided this would be one of the best and most diverse years at the museum and I nominated myself to be the Chairperson of the “Committee of One” to make it happen. I have always loved art; it’s my other therapy! When I homeschooled, the museum was our art class every week. And my fashion background and love of fashion are not secrets in this town. To have an exhibition that features couture gowns was more than this girl from the country could bear. I have spent nearly every day at the museum drooling over the gowns or hosting tours.

By June, I had several events planned to bring young and old, ladies and gentlemen, art collectors and Crayola doodlers, church folks and heathens, as well as the fashionably challenged and ultra chic to visit the Frist Center. I called the Oasis Center, home school, private, and public school families to schedule tour dates; no one was left out. Of course, everyone is a friend or customer and had heard me talk non-stop about the exhibits, especially The Golden Age of Couture exhibit. This year, graduation and birthday gifts were tickets or family memberships to the Frist Center.

I got to know every staff member and volunteer by name. We all worked together to make each outing special and exciting for the various groups of friends I brought to see the exhibits. The staff adopted me as their official pesty ambassador. After several group tours, I expressed my desire to Emily and Ellen Pryor, Director of Communications, to do a fashion shoot at the museum that would depict looks from the exhibit with a modern twist. They thought the idea was wonderful and allowed me to set up the arrangements.

I was elated by my new project and would go to bed with the dresses and suits in my head. After bringing in several groups of women to see the exhibit, I heard firsthand what looks were everyone’s favorite styles from the exhibit. By the beginning of July, I had a similar copy of every suit, gown, or dress from the exhibit. Between my closet and Joyce Searcy’s closets, Gloria McKissack’s hats and gloves, and a few extra items I picked up here and there, I believed I had dresses that were worthy of being photographed at the Frist Center. The clothes and accessories were easy, but nailing down models and finding photographers to shoot for a day or two would be more challenging. I met with several photographers who stared at me as if I was a psycho talking when I told them of my vision. But after meeting with several, who were non-believers of my idea, Roland’s Photography agreed to shoot the fall suits at his studio and Aaron Crisler agreed to shoot the evening gowns at the Frist Center. After securing the photographers, the next item on my list was to contact my girlfriends who were models. Someone who modeled for years should not have a problem finding models right? Wrong. Never ask a professional model to do a job for the good of the community. One by one, I was asked “How much?” Or I was given their agents number! “Are you kidding me?”, I shouted, “How quickly we forget when you had roaches,” I said to a few. Anyway, God provides. I asked Joyce Searcy, Gloria McKissack, and Carol Creswell-Betsch to be my “role” models and had a mom, Pam Ward, to recruit her daughters and younger girls for me. Emily even recruited a friend of hers as well, Richelle Desire’. Hell or high water we were going to have a glamorous fashion photo shoot on Thursday, August 5.

Well folks, hell and high water came on Thursday. The rain reminded me of the day before the May flood. What a mess! The rain was so blinding, I drove two miles per hours it seemed. I had a vehicle packed with clothing and props while taking calls from Joyce and Gloria. Did I mention that the makeup artist cancelled ten minutes before I got to the Frist Center? I wanted to die. Wait, I mean I wanted to kill her! By the time I made it to the Frist Center, I ditched looking dignified. I pulled my pest control truck on the sidewalk on the Frist Center’s Broadway entrance with sponge rollers in my hair and started unloading in the rain. The looks on some folks faces were worthy of a masterpiece painting.

Once inside, things started to turn around and flowed in ways that were unexpected and welcomed. One of the security guards (Louis) knew a makeup artist, Skot Wilson, who I booked sight unseen. To my amazement, he was there in less than twenty minutes. Aaron Crisler came in all his glory and Ellen and Emily pulled interns from God knows where who spent the day helping. By the time the models started to arrive, we had lights and cameras ready to roll. Gloria, Carol and Joyce were photographed first. The young ladies, ages 15-22, sat without pouting or puffing. Their lovely personalities and gentle spirits made me so grateful I was not dealing with professional models with bad attitudes. They were in awe of watching the makeup artist and photographer work effortlessly. I gave each one an exhibition guide so they would know where their dress fit into the lineup. Many of them had seen the exhibit and were aware of the “look” we were recreating. When it was their turn in front of the camera, you would have thought I had pros from Milan. We actually started on time. Can you believe it? While we were in the fashion world’s hurry up and wait mode, I shared with my entourage the contributions that the Espy and Searcy, the McKissack, and the Creswell-Betsch families made during the Civil Rights era and the many firsts of our true “role” models that they were watching. Hmm, something magically was happening on my adventure. There we were on a photo shoot in one of the most beautiful settings imaginable, and I was giving history lessons. God is good.

I could not have planned a more perfect day. Young ladies who were eager to learn were being taught history; culturally, civic, and art. Mature women were teaching young ladies by their actions: volunteering, being leaders with their lives, and giving the girls memories that they would never forget. I had the opportunity to work with one of our country’s best non-profits that showed me they were open to new ideas and love to have fun at the same time while investing time and resources into young people. What an adventure! I can’t wait to share with you the photos from my very special day at the Frist Center.


Photo credits:
Top image: The Golden Age of Couture: Paris and London 1947-1957 by Claire Wilcox
Richelle Desire' by Aaron Crisler for the Frist Center
Joyce Searcy by Cassidy Teague @ Frist Center's Cocktails and Couture

Article first published as My Summer at the Frist Center on Blogcritics.


Wednesday, August 4, 2010

I hire White People

Feminists’ blogs have expressed disappointment with Essence Magazine for controversial issues over the last few years. But last week, the blogosphere was fired up when it learned that Essence had hired a White fashion director, Elliana Placas. This revelation was brought to us via Facebook, became viral on Twitter, and crossed over to mainstream media when the former fashion director, Michaela Angela Davis, shared with her Facebook friends this message:

“It’s with a heavy heart I’ve learned Essence Magazine has engaged a white Fashion Director. I love Essence and I love fashion. I hate this news and this feeling. It hurts, literally. The fashion industry has historically been so hostile to black people—especially women. The 1 seat reserved for black women once held by Susan Taylor, Ionia Dunn-Lee, Harriette Cole (+ me) is now—I can’t. It’s a dark day for me. How do you feel?”

Michaela Angele Davis was the Essence fashion director with the crazed hair, who dressed as if she had no fashion sense. Her messiness on Facebook got her booked on morning news, afternoon talk shows and radio programs across the country claiming that Essence, a magazine for Black women, should not have hired a White woman to work for them. Not only is Ms. Davis messy but she is delusional. She is on national television telling Black people to practice racism when we are at a moment in our country where race-baiting has become nightly theater. What nonsense!

Before I go any further, let me disclosed my relationship with Essence Magazine. I have been featured in Essence. I have also been a conference speaker at the Essence’s Women Who Are Shaping the World Leadership Summit. When I was chosen to be featured in the magazine, I was asked to come to New York for the photo shoot. I decided to use a Nashville photographer and makeup artists instead. The photographer was a close friend, Blair Morgan, and Nora, the makeup artist, had worked with Blair for many years. Curse me, both are White. In 2006, Angela Burt-Murray, the editor-in-chief of Essence, and I, along with 38 others, were chosen as the country’s most influential African-Americans under 40 by Network Business Journal Magazine. I spent two days in New York and conversed with Angela several times. She was energetic, full of bright ideas for the magazine, and filled with joy about her role as the new editor. Since that time, our paths have crossed at annual Essence events and at New York fundraisers.

The outrage that has been fanned by the former fashion director is not worth the login time to respond to her on her Facebook page but I will anyway. She has led many astray with her backwards thinking. Black Enterprise, Ebony, and many other national and regional ethnic publications have all hired White folks to work for them. The target markets for those publications maybe race-specific but the writers, the graphic designers, the sales team, the distributors, and many others are not limited to one color. Black publications, especially, should not practice what is done at so many non-color publications around the country: avoid inclusion.

If we look at the local newspapers in Nashville, we see that the Tennessee Tribune started with a diverse staff. There has never been a “white writer’s desk” in the back at 1501 Jefferson Street. For nearly 25 years, writers and staff members from every background have worked at the Black-owned newspaper. No boasting, just stating facts. There are several newspapers and magazines in the Nashville area that still have only White writers and staff. With so much diversity in our city, that is unbelievable. When asked about the lack of diversity at their publications, the usual “We can’t find anyone” is the reply. Really?

When Black folks start practicing “Blacks only need to apply” in the marketplace, the lessons about equality and inclusion that many died trying to teach us are lost. When Black folks sit on TV trying to address racism in others, they look hypocritical when they buy into Davis' thinking. When I listened to Michaela Angele Davis speak on one program after another last week, I did not know if she was speaking as a disgruntled employee or a misinformed spectator. For the record, Essence is not Black-owned anymore. It is owned by Time Warner which also owns CNN and Time. For a large conglomerate that is publicly traded to hold a “Black folk only” seat at one publication is a lawsuit waiting to be filed. Yes, I know there are many “White folks” chairs at large corporations but let us be honest: the rules for one group are not necessarily rules for another.

Now, Burt-Murray did not let this Facebook-inspired madness go unaddressed; she fired back like she had swallowed her big girl pills. The editor-in-chief of Essence took to the internet and shared about her decisions to hire the new fashion director and the fake outrage that had ensued. In an editorial on The Grio.com she said:

And when I set out to hire a new fashion director I certainly had no idea I would end up making this decision. I first got to know and came to respect Ellianna when she came to work with us nearly six months ago. We were conducting a search for a new director when she was hired to run the department on a freelance basis. I got to see firsthand her creativity, her vision, the positive reader response to her work, and her enthusiasm and respect for the audience and our brand. As such, I thought she'd make an excellent addition to our team. And I still do. This decision in no way diminishes my commitment to black women, our issues, our fights. I am listening and I do take the concerns to heart.

But interestingly enough, the things I think should most upset people and inspire boycotts and Facebook protests, often seem to go relatively unnoticed. Like when Essence conducted a three-part education series this year on the plight of black children falling through the cracks in under-performing schools. Crickets. When we reported on the increase in sex trafficking of young black girls in urban communities? Silence. When our writers investigated the inequities in the health care services black women receive? Deadly silence. When our editors highlighted data from the Closing the Gap Initiative report "Lifting as We Climb: Women of Color, Wealth and America's Future" that showed that the median net worth of single black women was $5? There went those darn crickets again. When we run pieces on how unemployment is devastating black men? Nada. When we run story after story on how HIV is the leading cause of death for black women age 18-34? Zilch. The things that really are the end of our world apparently aren't.

I love the hell out of her response! Wonder how many protesting are really subscribers? In our country, we have the right to protest. But when we see one knee-jerk reaction after another, the voice of reasoning is diminished greatly. When folks inject race into the question of what team a multi-million dollar ball player is on or why Reggie Bush don’t date Black women, folks come unglued. Trying to find out why so many young Black teens are killing each other or how to get young folks educated, the passionate outrage fades quickly.

Folks, we need to pick battles wisely. Remember the battles fought and won to overcome racism? When we work to better our community, we actually make progress. When we stop to address foolishness, progress gets sidetracked. We must stay focused on real issues and leave Facebook fights on Facebook.

For me, my staff at Inspired Media is White, and the hardest working people in the publishing industry, who work at Mrs. Perry's Tribune, a Black-owned newspaper, are White. All of my interns at pest control business are Hispanics. I could not run my multiple businesses without any of them.

Photo Credit: Blair Morgan for Essence Magazine



Article first published as I Hire White People on Blogcritics.