Two Years of Cancer (Not My Own)

This has been the Two Years of Cancer (Not My Own). That’s the title I’ve given a period in my life where close friends my age and a young family member, as well as a slew of acquaintances, battled monsters within their own cells. Some won — even achieved miraculously complete recoveries — and some we lost.

Teshima Walker Izrael, RIP (with Marie Nelson and me)

Teshima Walker Izrael, RIP (with Marie Nelson and me)

My friend Teshima was my radio producer when we covered Hurricane Katrina. That experience changed me, and gave me a deeper appreciation for and fear of both natural and manmade disasters; and for our government, as I saw civilian law briefly suspended in New Orleans. How fragile our cities and civic space can be.

Our friend Mary Honore and her friend Bernie, a law school classmate, put me and Teshima up. We lived in a state of hypersensitivity to the destruction and the mangling of cultural nuance in the news, but then Teshima and I got to come back to Bernie’s place and discuss race, disaster, hope and faith in the context of an extended family brought together by disaster. It was beautiful. And that is just one of many ways I will remember Teshima Walker Izrael, former executive producer of NPR’s Tell Me More. My condolences to her family and I will miss her.

Danielle Hudson after surgery with her parents Wil and Olivia Hudson

Danielle Hudson after surgery with her parents Wil and Olivia Hudson

Danielle was a lover and a fighter. My cousin’s child, she had a dark chocolate birthmark on her face, and as when she smiled widely — as she did often while playing as a little girl, or computing or making cupcakes later — I thought it set off a beauty that was uniquely hers, and a bit ethereal. But along with her gentle manner, she was a competitor– running cross country and playing basketball and excelling in her studies (and her duties as an older sister to her two younger ones). She was diagnosed with pontine glioma, an aggressive brain stem tumor that takes most people (often children) to the grave. I helped research an extraordinary surgeon, Dr. Alfredo Quinones-Hinojosa, and his colleague Dr. George Jallo, who performed a surgery the family hoped would save her life. She was left with partial paralysis, but learned for a while to walk again. I took the research I’d done on pontine gliomas and started sharing it with people in need.

The surgery did not save her life, ultimately, but it extended it. She saw another Thanksgiving and another birthday. She died at fifteen. She raised money for cancer research to help others even as she was dying. She had the spirit of a Bodhisattva, someone who devotes their life to helping others.

So did my grandmother, Mary Catherine Stokes. She took such good care of so many, sometimes pushing her own limits to do so. She died ten years ago in summer, but had her doctors not been negligent in treating the symptoms of what turned out to be colon cancer, I believe she could still be with us today. I believe deeply that the fact she was an older black woman was one of the reasons she was not given the care or respect she deserved as a patient. Our family didn’t sue, but sometimes I wonder if we should have just to demonstrate the value of her life, even if in an inadequate way (as no amount of money can compensate for a life.) The poem below, published in her chapbook, is about the emotional toll of watching my uncle with schizophrenia come and go from her life.


All of this death has of course made me think about my own life — fairly predictable since I, like most humans, am fixated on my own being and well-being. The Two Years of Cancer (Not Mine) made me turn back to a spiritual practice, in a Buddhist tradition. I meditate to mitigate what some teachings call “self-cherishing,” but I still cling to my self-obsessions dearly. And I wonder, as we all proceed towards death, how much we can change those parts of ourselves that seem baked-in, whether by nature or nurture? And what about the stuff that really is baked-in, the hidden secrets of our genomes.

Despite the untimely deaths of those around me, I have no desire to have my genome scanned or sequenced just yet. The cancers in my immediate-extended (grandparents and their progeny) family have tended to occur late in life or spontaneously. I’m not convinced that now is the time for me to fish around finding out what diseases I might or might not fall prone to. I know I don’t have the trait for sickle cell, because that was something black families got tested for when I was a kid. I know my blood type, my cholesterol level, and my blood pressure. I don’t know a lot of other things, and that’s okay with me, for now. I’m working on a science fiction novel that gets into bioengineering and genomics. I know as years pass we will learn so much more about how our bodies work, and how to fight disease and prolong life. But I’m assuming our human problems will remain — how to allocate resources, including medical ones, and who to save first, at what price.

The Two Years of Cancer (Not My Own) have been brutal, but informative. I hope this period of my life — the watching people fall sick and die part — subsides for a while. But it will return. Death always does. And life goes on.

An Open Letter on Diversity to Washington Post Buyer Jeff Bezos

Jeff Bezos's letter to the Post's staff

Jeff Bezos’s letter to the Post’s staff

Dear Mr. Bezos:

Congratulations on buying the Washington Post. And no, I’m not saying that while waving you off into the sunset. I hope you succeed. It will be a tall task to “invent” and “experiment” while also living by your statement that “The values of The Post do not need changing.” — all words from your letter to the employees of the Washington Post.

In 2010, the Post’s Ombudsman, Andrew Alexander, wrote a piece titled “Newsroom diversity: Falling short could be fatal.” He stated, “All told, journalists of color comprise about 24 percent of the newsroom, comfortably above the ASNE [American Society of News Editors] census average of roughly 13 percent in recent years. But here’s the problem: Minorities are 43 percent of The Post’s circulation area, and a large part of the region is edging toward `majority minority’ status. For The Post, being `good on diversity’ isn’t enough.”

I agree with Alexander. As I outlined in a recent article for The Nation magazine, staffing and editorial diversity is critical for good journalism, and critical to good business decisions generally and specifically within the context of this industry. Truth-telling is not a franchise owned by any one group, and the lack of diversity undermines our ability as reporters to get to the core of important stories. When you say “The values of the Post do not need changing,” you may want to consider that some of them do. Valuing the monetary and journalistic value of diversity more greatly could be a great change in values — a critique not so much of the Post but of our industry broadly, and an issue that as a new newspaper owner should be of great interest to you.

I realize that you’ve bought The Washington Post with your personal fortune, not as an acquisition for Amazon. However, I noted that Amazon was one of the technology companies that refused to release it’s EEO-1 data: an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission mandatory filing on staff diversity. While the filing is mandatory, its release is not. And although some other tech companies voluntarily released their statistics, Amazon did not. The technology industry has a deep-rooted but not intractable problem with attracting women engineers and coders (less of whom are in the pipeline to begin with), as well as racial diversity challenges. But the only way to address these issues is by recognizing them and facing them head on, not by hiding your data.

So let’s return to the newspaper industry. The Washington Post is a paper of great renown which has served to tell stories of national and international importance, and has never quite (as is true with many newspapers) done justice to coverage of the racial, cultural, and income diversity of its home region. When I lived in DC in the mid 1990s, it was called Chocolate City. Now, although the name sticks, the city is more like Neapolitan ice cream. Still, according to 2012 Census data, the District of Columbia is 50.1 percent black. The Asian- and Latino-American population in the city continues to grow. That same 2010 piece by the Post Ombudsman cites an internal report by Milton Coleman, who stated: “Already we know that we are losing black readers and not gaining Asian and Spanish-dominant readers. Immigration is driving population growth, especially throughout our increasingly important suburbs.”

Whether you are talking about local news or national reporting, there is a compelling business case for investing in diverse staffing and rewarding storytelling that goes outside the box by reaching deep into communities.

I wish you good luck. Perhaps you’ll create a model that exceeds our current low expectations for how to deliver excellent news in a fiscally responsible way. I hope so. Remember that America, and media’s potential audiences, are getting more diverse by the day. Staying in touch and in step with an evolving America is the key to political and cultural coverage; local coverage; and, I believe, to greater revenue.

Journalist since 1990: print, television, digital, radio

Bus ‘Em to the Border

Credit: qbac07/Flickr Creative Common

No, the headline of this piece does not refer to undocumented immigrants. I’m talking about Congress: the men and women who are right now deciding the future of the United States via immigration legislation. After months of wrangling and years of inaction, immigration reform seems to be closer to passage than ever. But what, exactly, is on the table? And how much firsthand knowledge does our legislative branch have about the practical and economic issues of border enforcement?

I would love to see the entire body of Congress bussed to various parts of the U.S./Mexico border — in shifts and between votes, of course. They might find that what they’re planning to execute has little merit and very high cost.

First, the policy side. The immigration bill is still in flux. As of Friday June 21st, Politico reported about a new amendment designed to bring conservative Republican support to immigration reform.

Requirements in the amendment include completing 700 miles of fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border, adding 20,000 border patrol agents, adding an entry-exit and implementing an E-verify program to prevent illegal immigrants from getting jobs, the senators said.

The price tag for the new border agents: $30 billion dollars. While that may be a great economic stimulus for hard-hit border regions, the math doesn’t make sense.

Over the past two decades, I’ve visited the border over and over again. The first thing I learned about was the law of unintended consequences. When I went to the border in the early ’90s, in the El Paso, Texas/ Ciudad Juarez, Mexico region, I went out on a ride-along with a border patrol agent. We picked up some day laborers illegally crossing the border. They were carrying tools, and many of them, according to the agent, were expected and welcomed by the employers on the other side who hired them. (It’s hard to believe those employers didn’t know their status, given the sub-minimum-wage, off the book cash payments many undocumented laborers work for.) The men, according to the agent, would likely be deported within 24 hours and return (or try to) the next day.

Sounds futile, right? Well, with the militarization of the U.S. border — a fence to the tune of a billion dollars; a rapid escalation in the Border Patrol’s size; and its move, after 9/11, under the umbrella of Homeland Security — there was, if anything, an escalation of the impact of illegal crossings. First of all, more undocumented immigrants — fearing they would be held rather than quickly returned home — crossed with the intention of staying in the United States rather than crossing for day labor. In other words, the border security push acted as a lever for long-term undocumented immigration.

Second, with the rise of the border fence came the big dig under the U.S. border. Narcotrafficantes have burrowed under the fence in places like Nogales, Arizona. Sheriff Tony Estrada, whose territory is Santa Cruz County, Arizona — across from Nogales, Mexico, where Estrada was born, supports the border fence and greater border enforcement. He stated that while there were more than 70 tunnels funneling drugs and undocumented immigrants into the area, by and large the traffickers did not want to foul their own waters. “It is definitely not raining bullets in Santa Cruz County,” Estrada said. “Those who conduct this trade do not want to draw attention to themselves or to bring down the wrath of the law enforcement community before they reach their real destinations.”

Estrada is the only sheriff, out of seven in Arizona, who is Latino. His better-known counterpart, Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, has been investigated for racial profiling by the Department of Justice and is considered by some a hero and by others a demon. At the very least — per an interview I conducted with him below in 2010 — he has some unrealistic and potentially nation-state damaging ideas, like starting a ground war with Mexico.

We interviewed Sheriff Estrada for the same project, in 2010 (you can listen to an hour-long radio documentary about Arizona and border issues here). First he stated, “I think, like everybody else does, I’m sure, that people should come across the border legally.” Then he added firmly, with an air of disgust at the politics of immigration:

Some of the politicians say there will be no immigration reform until we secure the border. There is no such thing as a secure border. The border will always be porous. Why? Because they’ll eithr dig a tunnel to get under it; they’ll come through the ports. Illegal immigration…follows a path of employment and demand. And it’s gonna continue. There’s no way you can stop it.

So, to members of Congress: go to the border. See if zero tolerance works. And ask how our money is best spent.

Alec Ross: Can Connectivity Ease the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict?

Alec Ross, the former senior advisor of innovation at the State Department under Secretary Hillary Clinton, has put forth an intriguing proposal for helping ease Mideast tensions. In a piece for Foreign Policy (registration needed for full article; cited below), he makes a compelling argument that connectivity — and related policy — are key to breaking a cycle of animosity and increasing opportunity.

In recent years, public figures from Stephen Hawking to Stevie Wonder have boycotted Israel based on the nation’s treatment of Palestinians.

Ross, who is writing a book on globalization after leaving the State Department, begins his article by laying out the isolating lack of connectivity faced by West Bank Palestinians and visitors.

When international businessmen cross into the West Bank, they take out their passports, turn off their now-lifeless smartphones, and change their mindset from investment to assistance. The only parts of the Palestinian territories with reliable mobile coverage are in major cities or Israeli settlements; high-speed mobile Internet is all but nonexistent. So here’s an idea: Light up the West Bank with long-denied 3G wireless Internet connectivity and create an exception in the Arab League boycott of Israeli products for those that have Palestinian-controlled companies in their supply chains. Without 3G — and the economic opportunities that come with it — the territories will likely continue their slide toward militancy.

He continues:

Third-generation (3G) mobile communications technology might seem like a frivolous luxury to some, but it is foundational for economic development. The Palestinian territories will not be able to compete and succeed in today’s technology-rich, knowledge-based economy without the basic infrastructure for participation — and that means access to mobile broadband. In low- and middle-income countries like the Palestinian territories, the World Bank has found that a 10 percent increase in broadband penetration translates into a 1.38 percent bump in the GDP growth. Access to 3G would have a very positive impact for the Palestinian information and communications technology sector, generating an additional $60 million annually in addition to the $150 million in new revenues for the Palestinian Authority.

Most intriguingly, he posits a scenario in which Israeli companies would be rewarded by the international community for opening up broadband access.

[C]onfidence-building measures should move in both directions. If Israel allows for 3G access in the Palestinian territories, then Arab states should relax their boycott of Israeli goods and make an exception for those that have Palestinian-controlled companies in their supply chains. Arab states should also allow their citizens to provide labor and services to those companies. If they need to slap a “Made in Palestine” sticker on the products, so be it.

Connectivity is not food, water, or freedom — but as we have seen time and again, it can be both a precursor and a companion to the tangible goods and indefinable freedoms of human existence. Will Ross’ scenario gain traction? Tell me what you think.

Ode to the Black Tiger Mother

Me and My Tiger Mom (shortly after my sis was born)

When I read my friend Andrew Lam‘s graduation speech, I laughed in recognition. Although he — author, most recently, of Bird of Paradise Lost — was born in Vietnam and I in the U.S., just to name one of our many differences, we’re kindred spirits… and children of different Tiger Mothers. These women wanted nothing second-best for us; but like all children, we had our own ideas of what “best” was.

Andrew said:

Yes, I betrayed my family’s demands [to study medicine], but to the Tiger Mothers who insist that your children must be doctors, or else! my answer is simple: Love your children instead. For whatever they do with compassion and with heart, whatever they do to stay in touch with their inner truth – they are practicing medicine.

And this a good example of his sly social commentary:

I know you didn’t get to choose your speaker since Michael Cera is not standing where I am, but given your budget crisis, instead of the Arrested Development star who played a freshman at UCI on Netflix, what you got is a “Vietnamese Refugee Boy turned American Writer” instead, and he didn’t even go to your school. And besides being much cheaper to get, half of my relatives attended school here, and the other half continue to sell Banh Mi Sandwiches, Pho Soup and café sua da — to feed the entire campus so I feel that I am very connected with UCI.

I tried to be slyly humorous here. I actually attempted to write this piece in verses to be rhymed to the sounds of Tupac’s Dear Mama. I failed.

I’m not a great satirist, and what my family achieved is too serious to get that tonality wrong. My father and mother split when I was eight, and my mother became the Superparent –that mix of mom, dad and enforcer who helped me become who I am. She deftly navigated my and my sister’s path through the troubled Baltimore City School system, ensuring we got a solid education from a not-so-solid system. I had some extraordinary teachers, but none more so than my mother. She taught me to read; to ride a bike; to speak my truth. She was and is an urban farmer. I didn’t think it strange that we had corn and potatoes and fruit trees in our city back yard. She saved her money for educational enrichment: computer coding classes at the local community college; anatomy at Johns Hopkins (I loved the cadaver dissection). I, like Andrew, was supposed to be a doctor.

I switched my Freshman year from pre-med to English, and although I sometimes regret the structural and financial hailstorm hitting journalism and creative writing, I still love the craft. I have two books under contract and one that I’m messing with on my own timeline. The ability to surf the choppy waves of my chosen profession is something I pull from my mother. And so is a spirit of reinvention. My mother served in the Peace Corps; got a master’s degree in communications and became a writer; then a medical technologist; then a science teacher. Now, in her retirement, she’s a master gardener.

Being a Black Tiger Mother has its own specific variations on the theme. Because of the nature of race and class in America, many Black Tiger Mothers (and Fathers) — including my own — had to brew an entire racial education curriculum into the Tiger’s Milk. How do you retain a sense of dignity when people treat you as a second class citizen? Do you laugh it off, walk it off, or fight? When do you make that decision, and why? This may substitute for violin lessons in the regular Tiger Mom curriculum.

This isn’t just a praise-song, as much as I would like it to be. From my mother’s marriage to my father, and its dissolution, I learned to value independence over almost all else. That’s not a great attitude to bring into relationships, and only now, after years of both useful and navel-gazing therapy sessions, can I admit that in order to have the kind of relationship I crave, I have to become more vulnerable and malleable. Many children of Tiger Mothers I know are warriors. Warriors in full armor are less easy to embrace. We all have our blind spots, and overall I wouldn’t trade my Tiger pup training for anything else. But like all child-rearing, it’s left me with with questions about who I might have been if I had been raised differently — as useless yet addictive a question as there ever was.

I can’t remember who coined the phrase “Parents are to be loved, not understood.” I’ve tried my best to both love and understand my Black Tiger Mom, as she has me. In the end, I couldn’t say better than Tupac did to his mother:

Everything will be alright if ya hold on
It’s a struggle everyday, gotta roll on
And there’s no way I can pay you back
But my plan is to show you that I understand
You are appreciated

When Interns Should Be Paid: A #ProjectIntern Explainer from Pro Publica

by Blair Hickman and Christie Thompson ProPublica, June 14, 2013, 1:05 p.m.

Are today’s internships a grim affair?

This week, a federal judge ruled that Fox Searchlight violated minimum wage laws for not paying two production interns. So what are those laws? Are unpaid internships ever OK?

Here are some answers to commonly asked questions about intern pay.

What laws determine when an intern should or should not be paid?

The Fair Labor Standards Act, or FLSA, regulates minimum wage and overtime for U.S. workers, including interns. The Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division is responsible for enforcing the law, and has a six-factor test to determine whether interns at private sector employers must be paid minimum wage.

According to the Department of Labor, an unpaid internship must meet all these criteria:

  • The internship is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment
  • It’s for the benefit of the intern
  • The intern doesn’t displace paid employees
  • The employer doesn’t benefit from work the intern is doing, “and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded.”
  • The intern isn’t promised a job at the end (unpaid “tryouts” aren’t allowed)
  • Both the intern and their boss understand its an unpaid position

So are unpaid internships ever OK?

Very rarely, for work done at for-profit companies. According to the Department of Labor’s test, companies can’t derive an “immediate advantage” from an intern’s work. And in the private sector, work that doesn’t benefit the company is rare.

“It’s fair to say most private-sector employers who employ volunteers are violating the law,” said David Yamada, a professor of law at Suffolk University in Boston.

What if they provide a stipend or lunch money? Does that count?

Probably not, assuming it’s a private sector employee covered by the FLSA, according to Yamada. If an internship at a for-profit employer doesn’t meet the factors laid out in the six-point test, they most likely have to pay their interns minimum wage.

What about internships at nonprofits?

According to the Department of Labor, nonprofits have an additional exception for unpaid interns that “volunteer their time.” The government’s guidelines state that “unpaid internships in the public sector and for non-profit charitable organizations…are generally permissible.”

What about gigs with the government?

For most interns on Capitol Hill, it’s perfectly legal for them to be working for free. Congress conveniently exempted itself from the Fair Labor Standards Act, meaning they don’t have to pay their interns. (It’s just one of many workplace laws that Congress doesn’t have to follow.) Most federal-level internships, including the White House’s program, are also unpaid.

Does getting college credit mean it’s OK to not get paid?

Not really. Many companies attempt to use academic credit as legal justification for an unpaid internships. But this week’s “Black Swan” ruling suggests college credit is not a reason to not pay your interns, a move that, as Yamada put it, opens an “interesting door.”

From the judge’s decision: