Archive for ‘Stuff in the World’

April 17, 2012

All Things Must Pass


This is going to be my last post on this blog. I have enjoyed writing here over the past year – kind of sliding back into it after a long and difficult period of my life, without much fanfare… I’ve been able to explore a lot of different topics here with some great support from my readers. I will miss this spot.

But it’s time to move forward. My new blog is called She Says Yes. I hope you will come visit me there and share your thoughts, often!

While it’s true that all things must pass, I am also learning that so much is possible.

Thanks for coming along for the ride,


April 1, 2012

Keeping Our Kids Sweet Without All the Sweets!

On the heels of this evening’s story on 60 Minutes about the toxicity of sugar, I thought it would be fitting to reprint this story I recently wrote for my son’s elementary school magazine, due to be published later this week. I figure it’s worth sharing, especially if you do not maintain an absolutely sugar free household. Perhaps someday I will be there, but I’m not now. This article is dedicated to all the other parents out there who are straddling their desire to indulge in the earthly delights of sweets and also maintain the health of themselves and their families.

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One of our biggest daily challenges is to find new and interesting ways to feed our children in a healthy manner. I am lucky that my son loves all different kinds of foods, including vegetables, fruits, meats, cheese and fish. He actually counts broccoli as one of his favorites! Still, I often find myself staring at the refrigerator shelves, wondering what the heck I can conjure up for dinner.

These days, there are a lot of opinions as to what constitutes a healthy diet. Some people espouse a vegetarian or vegan approach, while others focus on fat intake. Some people swear by a high protein diet, while others stick more to lots of whole grains. While I am not a dietician or a nutritionist, I did work in the holistic health field for nearly twenty years, and I have tried to carry a spirit of moderation into my outlook on cooking and eating. Although I know that different diets work for different people, one thing I believe is central to good nutrition is the need to cut down on refined sugars.

It doesn’t take a medical degree to be able to recognize what happens to our kids when we sugar them up. We’ve all lived through enough birthday parties and holidays (especially the big candy fest, Halloween!) to have observed our kids running around like lunatics, only to collapse in tears of frustration hours later when they come down off their sugar high.

The thing we need to recognize is that candy, cake and cookies, while obvious sources of sugar, are not the only culprits. Breakfast cereals, sweetened yogurts and processed fruit snacks and drinks can also be responsible for negatively affecting our kids’ moods and energies… not to mention their ability to focus and be productive in school as well as in their hobbies or other leisure activities. Moreover, we are seeing increasing links between the national rise in sugar intake and corresponding levels of childhood obesity, diabetes and other chronic conditions.

Sadly, like many other substances, sugar is pretty addicting. Unless you want to deal with a major withdrawal reaction, I wouldn’t suggest suddenly banning sugar from your household in one day. (Do the words “cold turkey” mean anything to you?) I recommend a more gradual approach, without fanfare, to help your family, and their palates, slowly adjust to a new way of eating. I’m pretty sure you will find that over time, moods will improve and energy will balance out a little, and as a bonus, you will be helping yourself and your family to maintain a healthier weight and guard against preventable forms of diabetes, heart disease and other inflammatory conditions.

Wanna see if your children are addicted to sugar? Try this simple test. Take a quick look at your daily diet. If you are in the routine of serving something sweet at every single meal, with juice or soda to drink, and dessert to top it off, try eliminating one of those elements. Just one. If you find that your child begins crying and having a tantrum at the suggestion of not serving dessert one night, you might have a bit of a problem.

I realize it may seem pretty radical to eliminate sugar altogether. It takes a lot of concentrated effort. Some have done it, but of course it’s easier for those who have raised their children that way from birth, so their kids have never really had a chance to develop a sweet tooth. While I started out that way, by the age of three, it was no longer possible to keep all sugar away from my son, because there is just so much of it out in the world! Birthday parties and holiday gatherings were the first places he began to sample sugary goodies. It became hard to limit them completely after that, especially since I have a bit of a sweet tooth myself!

Still, I do find that we all do better when we limit the really sugary treats to these special occasions. It makes us all appreciate them more, and I really do perceive a difference in our collective energy. I will share some of the choices I’ve made that seem to have a positive effect. Maybe they will be helpful to you, as well!

1) No soda in the house. I just don’t buy it. We drink flavored seltzer, water, milk, and fresh apple cider or other juices.

2) Candy, ice cream and cookies. Once in a while, I crave some chocolate. I buy it. Same goes for cookies and ice cream. However, I don’t make them regular items on my shopping list, and I go for long stretches without having any in the house.

3) Fresh fruits. I like to make sure there is always some kind of fresh fruit in the house. Our favorites include mangoes, apples, grapes, strawberries, blueberries, bananas, oranges and cantaloupe. Whenever possible, I buy at a farmer’s market or choose organic. Personally, I believe locally grown is more important, and most of the local farms are pretty chemical free anyway.

4) Vegetables. I experiment with vegetables all the time. I chop them up small into my spaghetti sauce. I bake them, steam them, stir fry them… I get my son involved in helping me buy and prepare them. They say when it comes to veggies and fruit, you should eat the rainbow – every different color offers different vitamins and other nutrients. We try to mix up the selection every time we go shopping.

5) Shopping and cooking together. The more we share these activities, the more excited my son gets about eating well. Of course it helps that I love to cook, so I’m pretty sure that my enthusiasm has rubbed off on him. However, even if you don’t love spending a Sunday afternoon puttering around in the kitchen, you can still find some easy recipes on the internet that are sure to please the whole family. Things like soups, stews and pasta dishes are fun and easy, not to mention delicious and good for you!

6) Concentrating on the savory instead of the sweet. I get very excited about the prospect of a big tray of lasagna, or a yummy roasted chicken, or some new vegetable dish. The more we focus on the main meal and savory snacks like cheese, pickles, olives, veggies and dips, the less attention we pay to dessert and sweets in general. I think shifting the focus is the first step towards lessening the feelings of deprivation associated with cutting down on sweets.

Some of you may feel that I am preaching to the converted. Fantastic. You don’t need my advice, you’re already there! Some of you may think I am being judgmental or implying that it’s really easy to make these changes. Hardly. It’s a constant balancing act, and I don’t always do as well as I’d like. Luckily, I’ve started to develop headaches whenever I eat too much sugar… and since it’s very hard to eat just a little, I’ve been tending towards not eating it at all, just so I don’t end up feeling crappy.

The more we support each other by serving healthy foods to our kids and their friends when they come over, experimenting with non-sugar options for parties and other gatherings, and sharing recipes with one another, the better we all do as a community. I really believe this is one of the best gifts of having children – the opportunity to do things better for them than we have done for ourselves. And when it comes to sharing healthy meals with them, it’s something that benefits us all!

For more information, here is a great online resource: – a wonderful blog focusing on fresh meats & fish, dairy, vegetables, fruits and grains as the mainstay of a healthy, family centered diet by Chef and Mom, Emily Duff.

Photo courtesy of  rick

March 16, 2012

Adventures in Jury Duty


Jury Duty. If you’re like me, you see those words and you inwardly groan, start thinking about ways you can get out of it. Well, this week I reported to the Bronx court for the third time since I’ve lived in this borough. I thought I knew what I was in for, but I was hardly prepared for what ensued…

The first time I was called for jury duty, I sat around for three days but my name was never called. I was let go early on the third day, told thank you very much, and that I would be contacted again in no less than four years.

The second time I was called, I knew I did not want to sit. I figured there were any one of a number of ways I could get out of it by saying something objectionable. I was inspired by a story a good friend had told us about how he had gotten out of serving on criminal court. An African-American man, he happened to have a very identifiably Muslim name. When asked whether he felt he would be able to be objective on the case for which he was being considered, he replied, “I have an inherent distrust of the police.”

Needless to say, he was not picked for that case or any other.

I figured I could do as well as he had. So when my name was called in consideration for a case, I dutifully went with the group of prospective jurors and prepared to be interviewed by the attorneys. They began by outlining the basic facts of the case. A New York City bus driver was injured on the job when the bus he was driving went over a large steel road plate that had been improperly placed by Con Edison (the local utility company). He suffered injuries as a result, and he was looking to be compensated.

When the attorneys asked if anyone had a conflict of interest or other reason why they felt they could not serve impartially on this jury, my hand shot up. They took me into a separate room to hear the details. I said, “The guy’s a bus driver, doing his job, and he gets injured. It’s Con Ed for goodness sake, they should just pay the guy’s damn medical bills… I’m already pissed off…” to which the attorney for the plaintiff chuckled and said, “I have no problem with that.” The attorney for the defense of course, responded, “I don’t think so.” We all agreed that I would be moving on.
Although I was returned to the jury pool, I was not picked for another trial. For the second time, I was released from duty without having actually served.

I started my latest bout with jury duty yesterday. They have a wonderful orientation video now, narrated by Ed Bradley and Diane Sawyer. It’s filled with some terrific history of the justice system (did you know one of the ways they used to try someone was to throw him in the lake, and if he floated he was guilty and if he sank he was innocent – woo hoo!)… but most of all a kind of pitch to our sense of civic pride and responsibility. How can you refuse Ed Bradley? I was inspired.

When I was brought in as part of a group of about two dozen prospective jurors on a civil case, I was prepared to formulate my strategy for disqualification. As the first eight people were questioned by first the attorney for the plaintiff and then the attorney for the defendant, I listened, fascinated by the content of the unfolding discussion. These would-be representatives of justice were being asked to talk about their personal sense of responsibility and safety, as well as how you can tell whether someone is in pain or not. It seems this case was about a car accident. The plaintiff had been rear-ended by the defendant. This was not in dispute. What was being tried was whether or not the plaintiff had indeed suffered injuries worthy of damages, and if so, to what level of compensation.

Well, I figured… there’s no way they’re going to pick me for this jury, because I just lost a husband of over twenty years who suffered from chronic pain. No way I can be objective about that. I’m good to go.

And then today, when it was my turn up in the box, a funny thing happened. I began to get into it. I started to enjoy sharing about teaching my son about responsibility and personal accountability and hearing similar stories from my fellow Bronxites. I appreciated the young woman who worked at a clothing store but also helped care for her little sister with cerebral palsy. I appreciated hearing about the woman who had to mete out justice each day to her class of pre-schoolers.

I appreciated hearing the single mom sitting next to me talk about her son, a few years older than mine, also very smart and funny and athletic, and how there was only so safe she could keep him when he was playing football and fractured his ankle. Here I was, with members of my community. Would I be comfortable making a decision about someone who lived here among us? Could I be fair and thoughtful, and examine all of the evidence and make a decision based on the facts? Of course I could! I would be proud to participate in this flawed but excellent system of justice.

I leaned over to my fellow mom and said, “Wouldn’t it be funny if we both got picked?” She laughed… “We’ll just have to go with the flow.” Just yesterday we had both been talking about how neither of us could afford to take the estimated trial time of a week off from work. And yet here we both were, qualifying ourselves with distinction…

When the lawyer for the plaintiff asked about our history with people who had suffered car accidents, I realized I had a couple of related pieces of experience that would be worth describing. I mentioned about my husband with whom I had shared over two decades of care giving related to his chronic illness, and dealing with the subjective nature of pain. How many times had nurses or doctors said to him or his fellow sickle cell defiers, “You don’t look like you’re in pain,” or “I just gave you medicine three hours ago, you shouldn’t be in pain again.” How many hundreds of encounters like that had we weathered together over the years?

So when the attorney for the defendant mentioned me by name, wondering aloud if I would be able to remove myself from the emotions related to my personal experience with my husband’s pain in order to view the facts of the case fairly, I had to wonder. Could I do it? I had already begun to embrace the feeling of being part of this group of good citizens. I know that I am an intelligent, fair-minded person. I know how to interpret medical information. I am a good judge of character. I am a good listener, and I can pay attention to details, follow instructions well…

But then something strange happened. Suddenly feeling exposed and vulnerable in front of my peers, I felt a bit fuzzy in the head. The clarity and confidence I had embraced moments earlier was dissipating. Instead, I sensed some long harbored sadness slowly rising in my throat. I thought of my sister, still recovering from injuries suffered in a bike accident, possibly left with permanent, chronic pain issues as a result. I thought of the intense challenge and burden a life of chronic pain can be to the person who experiences it, as well as to their loved ones. I felt the memory of my husband’s relentlessly stoic management of his own pain, like physical waves, moving through my own body. I recognized the return of these memories and feelings as the first steps in coming emotionally undone.

So when they took a final poll down the line of us, asking whether or not we each felt that we could render a fair decision based on the case they would present to us, I looked at the lawyers and said, I think I need to talk to you guys. They called a five minute break and the three of us met privately.

I told them that I just didn’t know if I could trust myself. I had thought I was OK, but now these emotions were coming up, and I was starting to get kind of overwhelmed and just then I felt a hot flash coming on and my shoulders started tensing up and my lower lip began quivering and I knew that I could not risk taking on this responsibility. They had gotten me very excited about fulfilling the noble mission of participating in our justice process. I had been frank about who I was, carefully articulating my positions in a way that I knew qualified me. So as proud as I had begun to feel about myself, I was that disappointed that I didn’t feel capable of living up to the standard of objectivity that was required for the task at this particular moment in my life.

I told them, “This is bringing up a lot of stuff for me that I didn’t expect… I’m a writer – a communicator. I can be very persuasive. I just don’t trust myself to do justice to both of your clients if I’m going in with all of these very intense emotions, and potentially pushing them onto the other jurors.” Maybe I was overestimating my own significance, but they had gotten me to take this thing very seriously. I felt that being honest about my situation and my potential shortcomings was the best way I could demonstrate my civic responsibility.

They thanked me profusely. They appreciated my honesty and gave me a lot of credit for sharing my experiences with them, (as well as living through them). It seems that I was part of an exceptionally thoughtful and forthright group of jurors that day, and they felt very fortunate to have enough responsible people to choose from to facilitate this trial on behalf of their clients. Even without me, they would be able to fill the jury box successfully. It was a peak moment for all of us. Yay for truth, justice and the American way!

So I never did have to fabricate some pretext for not being able to serve. Sure, there’s some gray area there – I won’t pretend there’s not a part of me that’s breathing a sigh of relief right now that I can return to work and my regular responsibilities. But I learned something important over the last couple of days that has really gotten me thinking. I met a group of individuals who were really excited about doing their part for their community – a social worker who was also a Caribbean immigrant who felt extraordinarily grateful to be an American, a single mother, a teacher, the sister of a disabled girl – all ready to interrupt their regular lives to participate in this trial. I was proud of them.

I am grateful that we have this process in place, and I only hope that if I ever find myself on the other side of the jury box, that all of its inhabitants are as thoughtful and articulate as the people I met who will be trying this particular case. I may not be up for joining them on this go-round, but next time I’m called upon, I am pretty sure I’ll be approaching the entire scenario with a different set of eyes.

Photo courtesy of dweekly

February 12, 2012

Whitney, Etta and Amy

Damn it. First Amy. Then Etta. Now, Whitney. Some heavy losses this past year have rocked us. Their bigger than life presence and unearthly talent have transported us to other places. That’s just the way it is with artists of the caliber of Amy Winehouse, Etta James and Whitney Houston. They sing our hopes, our sorrows, our joys, our rage. As women, they speak for us. The intensity and passion that they put into their music makes the singing of their songs a ritual experience for us. They know us. They cry our tears, and suffer our losses, radiate our joy.

Then of course, their personal lives become fodder for public criticism and comment. One day we watch in admiration, the next we shake our heads as their terrible vices are exposed in detail for all of us to ogle. We cringe at their awful imperfections, and some of us may judge. But how would any of us hold up in their position, having to bear the weight of freakish excellence? How would it feel to be known the world over for our abilities, and have to maintain that standard, year after year, despite the inner turmoil, the doubts, the terror we might be feeling? When would we just get to be imperfect or less than stellar, a little confused, or unsure, or maybe needing a break from being brilliant, without someone declaring we’ve lost it, our careers are over, we are yesterday’s news?

The fact is, most people can not bear that kind of pressure. That’s why there are so few who rise to the levels of these extraordinary women. And that is why we expect so much of them, because in some ways, they do it for all of us. They are the embodiment of so many of our secret wishes and desires – to be rich, to be famous, to be loved by millions the world over, to be so talented we can channel a level of the divine into our music, and tap into deep wells of joy and hope that inspire others to live up to that impossible beauty.

Yes, it is impossible, isn’t it. Almost as impossible as comprehending the vast silence that lives on in their absence. The death of a loved one brings a great, yawning emptiness where before there was life – chaotic and at times untenable, perhaps, but vibrant and full and impactful, nonetheless. My heart aches tonight for young Bobbi Kristina. Her life will never be the same. Her mother’s fans around the world may feel pain at having lost someone who moved them deeply with her talent, but Whitney Houston’s daughter’s life has been temporarily shattered, and she now must begin the hard work of putting it back together.

Is it unreasonable to propose that perhaps we need to be gentler with our cherished ones who entertain us out of the doldrums or stresses of everyday life? The ones who set the standards of style? The ones who show us what is possible with the human instrument and spawn generations of copycats, mimicking their unique phrasing and the peculiar ticks and timbres of the sounds they emit? We demand of them what we could never deliver, and then reject them when they do not sustain the impossible promise of perfection.

If we choose to turn our adoration into forgiveness, then we will be able to let these great women rest in peace, while the memories of their profound contributions to the world live on in the gift of music they have left us. Then maybe their surviving loved ones will stand a chance at healing from their personal loss. For we may have indeed said goodbye to another musical superstar, but tonight a daughter is mourning the loss of her mom, a mother is grappling with the death of her child, and countless other family members and friends are grieving deeply for the sister, niece, cousin, friend and woman they loved. Let’s send all of them some love, shall we?

February 7, 2012

EJUSA Reframes the Debate About the Death Penalty

Not long after Troy Davis was executed following a controversial decision this past September, I sat down and had a conversation with Shari Silberstein, the Executive Director of Equal Justice USA. I confess that I walked into the interview with a number of preconceptions about her and the organization. I assumed that they were a typical leftist group, fighting an uphill battle against a conservative, right wing pro-death-penalty lobby. What I found instead was a thoughtful approach to re-framing the entire discussion about crime and punishment, one that included reforming the criminal justice system with an eye towards providing services to victims and their families, as well as more fair and equitable treatment for those accused of committing what we currently term capital crimes.

According to their website: Equal Justice USA (EJUSA) is a national, grassroots organization working to build a criminal justice system that is fair, effective, and humane, starting with repeal of the death penalty and increased services to families of homicide victims.

Imagine a dialog that does not pit anti-death penalty advocates against victims and their families. Imagine a conversation that focuses on prevention rather than punishment. This is the vision that EJUSA is putting forth. Here are some excerpts from my in-depth conversation with Shari:

DOP: So Shari, tell me about EJUSA.

SS: SS – EJUSA was founded in 1990 as a program of another organization, and it’s always been about criminal justice issues in the USA. We spun off and became independent about three and a half years ago, and we’ve been working I would say almost exclusively on the death penalty for the last ten years, but our mission is broader. It’s really to remake the criminal justice system into something that actually works, since it’s completely dysfunctional… with more of an emphasis on prevention – preventing violence from happening in the first place, and when it does happen, making sure that the responses to violence help rebuild communities instead of tearing them further apart.

Right now you really have almost a zero sum game within the criminal justice system that pits these different sides against each other. Somebody has to win and somebody has to lose, and what we’ve learned just from working with all of the different parties, whether it’s law enforcement that are trying to keep the public safe, or victims and crime survivors who are trying to rebuild their lives or defendants who are trying to not only get due process and fairness within the system but also rebuild their lives, as well, is that none of them are actually gaining from this system, and the only way we’re going to have a system that really works is when we recognize that it’s not one vs. the other, but that actually, we all have to benefit from the system.

So, we do a lot of work on the death penalty, because that is in a lot of ways this microcosm for what’s wrong with the whole system. It’s this sort of uber-visible, high profile little tip of the iceberg for what is happening across the board. With this incredible emphasis on after the crime occurs, there’s already someone dead, there’s already a grieving victim’s family member, we’ve already failed to stop the crime, and now we’re going to pour millions and millions and millions of dollars to spend twenty years chasing down one execution at the benefit of absolutely no one.

Most of the murders don’t get prosecuted as death penalty cases, it’s less than 1% in the country, so they’re usually these cherry picked cases in certain counties that seek the death penalty and the rest of them don’t even use it, and… they say, oh, it’s for the victims, or, you need the death penalty for deterrence and public safety. So, it’s not a deterrent… every study has either shown it’s not a deterrent, or the few that have shown that it is a deterrent are really flawed scientifically and have been discredited. And then in terms of the victims’ families, if you need it for the victims, then what do you say about the fact that 99% of victims’ families don’t get it, and the other 1% that do, most of those cases at some point get reversed and then resentenced to something else?

Then you have this whole class of victim’s family members that are promised, ‘you will feel better when this execution happens,’ and then they wait around for twenty years in limbo, and they never get the execution, and the waiting has wrought emotionally havoc, and in the meantime, nobody is getting grief counseling and trauma response and things that will really help them rebuild their lives and cope with the loss. Funeral expenses covered, you know, you have a sudden death in your family and you gotta pay thousands of dollars just to bury them… there’s all these ways in which the victims are ignored by the system and end up feeling powerless and abused by the process of seeking these executions…

And I think a lot of people are well intentioned when they say this is for the victims, they’re sort of channeling an outrage that is very legitimate when horrible crime happens, so I don’t think it’s all about manipulation, but if you really break it down and you look at what does this actually do for the victims, it does mostly damage.

DOP – So what I hear you saying sounds really thoughtful and really sensible and I see no problem with any of that, but I would imagine that you guys will often get pigeonholed as a certain type of organization. What kind of obstacles do you guys feel that you face in terms of getting that message out?

SS – To answer your first part, I would say we’ve worked really hard not to be pigeonholed. We are completely non-partisan, we work with people on all sides of the political spectrum. Just yesterday we had a meeting with a national conservative leader, talking about how we get the conservative voice on this issue out more. So we have a lot of conservative allies, of course liberal allies and we really work across the spectrum. We do a lot of building bridges with law enforcement, with the victims community…

You know I think for a long time there was this assumption that if you’re against the death penalty, that you are an offender-focused organization, and where we’ve come down is this isn’t about pro-offender or anti-victim or pro-victim and anti-offender, it’s about stopping violence and helping people rebuild their lives… and in my view in a lot of ways, that’s very much a pro-victim and a victim-centric kind of orientation towards thinking about the criminal justice system.

The truth is, you look at a lot of people who are committing crimes, and they were once crime victims – abused, raped, assaulted, lost a loved one to homicide – any number of things, and they didn’t get any help. So what would it look like if we had a criminal justice system that really took care of people at the moment that they were victimized by violence? Would that in and of itself start to reduce crime because you wouldn’t have these traumas sitting in people and repeating out? You know there’s obviously a lot more reasons that people commit crimes, and a lot of crime survivors do not go on to commit violence, so there are a lot of other factors that go into crime beyond that. I’m not trying to minimize it or oversimplify it…

The biggest obstacle when it comes to the death penalty [is that] a lot of time the perception on this issue is more emotional than it is rational. When you talk about the death penalty in a rational way, more and more people are sort of like, this isn’t working, this is dumb, this is stupid, let’s give it up. But, when you just ask people straight up do you support or oppose the death penalty, they answer from a very emotional place, from a more theoretical place… and from a theoretical place, lots of people believe that it’s ok for the government to kill people who commit murder. They don’t think it’s wrong. But they don’t have to think it’s wrong in order to think it’s a failed policy, which is really what it is, and which is where we come from. Some people think it’s wrong, some people think it’s right, but we all can agree it’s a failed policy.

But what happens is that, I think, particularly the perception of lawmakers and political candidates and the people who are actually making these decisions, is that they respond to this theoretical position that people have and they assume that’s the whole story. When really, when you look at the policy side of it, people also are ready to let it go.

DOP – Sounds like they don’t feel like they can respond any other way. It almost sounds like they’re afraid to not respond in that way because that’s the popular way that people are thinking about it. Ya know there’s that knee jerk process I would imagine for politicians to think about things in terms of popular sentiment. And votes and all that…

SS – But the point is that it’s old. That perception is old, and this issue has evolved so much. A, you’re not going to be voted out of office if you oppose the death penalty. There has been poll after poll after poll done… something like over 90% of people wouldn’t vote you out of office if they agree with you on other issues, so this is not an issue that will set you apart from your voters… so for one thing, lawmakers really should feel free to vote the way they think is a sane and logical choice – which means getting rid of the death penalty – because they’ll be safe in doing so… but they don’t necessarily see that, because the 1980’s still haunts people, and people still mention the Dukakis thing…

DOP – Was that Willie Horton?

SS – No, he was asked when he was running for president, what if your wife was raped and murdered, would you still oppose the death penalty, and he gave this very non-emotional academic response, and people say that really hurt him, and that was a different time… The peak year of executions in this country was in the 90’s, so 80’s and 90’s was when there was a real rise in support for the death penalty, and it’s completely gone down the other way since then…

DOP – How do you measure your progress? How do your gauge your success?

SS – Well, when you’re talking about the death penalty system, it’s, How many states have the death penalty? How many of these people are being sentenced to death? It’s all very measurable… The first state that ended the death penalty in this country in the modern era was New York in 2005, which was a campaign that we led in conjunction with the local group here in New York, New Yorkers for Alternatives to the Death Penalty… and the next one was New Jersey two years later which we also were sort of the leading national partner in, and a lot of the strategies that we developed in those campaigns now have kind of spread across the movement, and a lot of those messages are sort of becoming more the norm nationally… bottom line, both states have ended the death penalty in the last few years, and before that no state had ended the death penalty in over fifty years, so NY, NJ, New Mexico and Illinois have all ended it since then.

DOP – I remember Chicago, I remember that…

SS – Yeah, so that right there is a huge indication of a sea change and the fact that a lot of other states have gotten really close – Montana, and Colorado.



  1972 – The Supreme Court strikes down the death penalty nationally.


  1976 – States are allowed to bring back the death penalty.


   1976 – 1995 – 38 states bring back the death penalty – the last one was NY in 1995.


  12 States Never Had It – Vermont, Mass, RI, Maine, Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa,                  North Dakota, West Virginia, Hawaii and Alaska


  4 States Have Gone Back the Other Way and Abolished It – New York, New Jersey, New Mexico      and Illinois


DOP – What you’re talking about sounds like you probably have… a lot of what people think of as unlikely allies… So, I’m interested in what you’re doing, because to me it’s real communication.
SS – It’s one of the main hallmarks of our organization – this idea of sort of cutting through the polarization and recognizing that if the system doesn’t work for everyone, it doesn’t work…

There are ways in which the different movements are very entrenched in kind of old ways of thinking, and in particular I think there’s been a huge divide between, these are the movements that try to get longer sentences and are seen as pro-victim and right-wing, and these movements that try to get lighter sentences are seen as pro-offender and left wing, and never the twain shall meet. But this division is a completely false dichotomy. Those groups that identify with offenders and with the left care about the poor, the disenfranchised, people of color – well those are many of the same people who are also the victims of crimes. So thinking about the needs of crime victims – their real needs to rebuild their lives and reduce violence – should not be a different agenda for those groups.

For EJUSA, we just see the whole debate – more sentences or less sentences and pro-victim or pro-offender – as the completely wrong debate. Crime tears people’s lives apart and the criminal justice system should provide some positive intervention, and instead it just tears them even further apart, including the lives of crime survivors. So I think that that’s less about confronting power than it is about breaking down false assumptions that have created entrenched divisions between people who want the same thing – safer and healthier communities for everyone.

I’m not trying to put down other organizations, but I think the biggest thing that I’ve seen is this polarization that I think happens in the criminal justice system is also happening among the reformers of the criminal justice system… the way that the reform movement has broken down into these camps is basically just buoying the same exact entrenchment and polarization that’s not working for anybody.

DOP -Yes, I agree…

SS – [With] criminal justice issues, I just think the wrong conversation has been happening for 30 years. The conversation has been should we increase sentences or should we reduce sentences? And when you start talking about sentencing, you’ve already missed the boat, because the crime’s already happened, and there’s already a victim. So if the debate stays in that place of more time in jail, less time in jail, where are you solving the problem about violence?

Because the truth is… we’ve seen that the growth of the prison system and this mass warehousing of people doesn’t actually reduce crime and isn’t helping people and is ineffective, so there’s good reasons to not have that be the solution, but when all you can talk about is less sentences, where is the conversation about the fact that when violence happens, people’s lives are really torn apart? And that has to still be part of the conversation, and what’s the response going to be to that, and the people whose lives are torn apart, who are victims of crime, end up becoming the other side instead of being collaborators in what the system should look like. And I think that’s sort of the piece we as an organization have really tried to look at differently than I think the way a lot of other organizations have looked at it over the last few decades…

DOP – Talk to me about the Troy Davis case.

SS – Well, it was huge.  I have never in all of my years working on this, I’ve never seen the death penalty covered to the extent that it was covered around this case. I mean you had live coverage the night of the execution the way that they have live coverage when there’s a war, or a natural disaster. Like I’ve never seen around a death penalty case.

DOP – I don’t have cable anymore…

SS – It was on CNN, MSNBC, I mean my mother watched it. My mother watched live coverage of the Troy Davis execution – several hours waiting to see if Troy Davis was going to be executed that night on CNN, I think.

DOP – That’s huge.

SS – I mean it was really unbelievable –

DOP – I know Amy Goodman was covering it –

SS – But it was mainstream cable stations too, and they had a lot of time to fill, so there really was this kind of airing of a lot of issues that you know, we’ve gotten out locally in different campaigns, but haven’t necessarily become big national conversations, like for example, there was a group of corrections officials who signed a letter saying that the experience of carrying out an execution is traumatizing to you later in your life, and a lot of these people who’ve carried out executions, they’re just doing their job… There’s one guy… named Ron McAndrew, who oversaw 8 executions as a warden, and he said the men that he executed, he sees them sitting at the foot of his bed at night when he goes to sleep. They come and they haunt him.

And a lot of them, you know, they have nervous breakdowns, or they become alcoholics… You know, it’s a very hard job, and I think a lot of people just think they do it, because it’s their job and they’re following their job, but it has serious real impact on real human beings that had nothing to do with the crime or anything in the system, and so this is a very real message that hasn’t gotten out very far… So that letter was sent during the Troy Davis execution, I think 6 or 7 corrections officers had signed onto it, and I think that it was read on the air, and then one of them, Dean Ault, who carried out executions in Georgia and another state which I don’t remember, he was then on the Rachel Maddow show the next night… There’s been an elevation of some of the lesser publicized problems with the death penalty. [They’ve] really started to come to the surface, because there’s just been this space for all this attention, and people are ready to hear it in a way that they weren’t before. Not that it’s necessarily new information, but there’s not been the receptivity to it before.

DOP – Interesting…

SS – It was a devastating night for a lot of people, for sure, and I think millions of people really saw what the death penalty is about for the first time that night, and a lot of people are fired up now that were not fired up before.

DOP – Wow.

SS – And I think that makes a huge difference.

SOP – So have you been working with that, I mean has it made a difference to you strategy wise and program wise working with that now?

SS – Yeah, I just think it expands the number of constituencies we can work with and a lot of groups that you think might’ve taken the death penalty on before, but they hadn’t, and now they’re much more interested.

DOP – Like what kinds of groups? I mean do you get a lot of faith based groups?

SS – Yes, definitely, always. Always have… And I don’t want to say that groups didn’t care about the death penalty before, you know a lot of them did… I mean the NAACP for example, which has always played a role in the movement, especially in certain states has been very, very active, but I think now, they got REALLY, really involved in this case, and I think that they now kind of want to carry that energy forward that came from their base and from their membership. I think the leadership always cared about that, it’s an issue, it wasn’t like it wasn’t important to them…

DOP – Do you think their base got energized?

SS – Their base got really energized around this case, and so I think there’s a real energy and real excitement there, and other groups like that are more excited now.

DOP – That is exciting.

SS – I think we’ve seen more, even Move On for example, which has never put anything out on the Death Penalty, has now put out one of their petitions around Troy Davis.

DOP – I think I signed it.

SS – You just see a little more energy and interest from some of the more natural progressive allies that could have always been there, but it ratcheted up the interest level. It’s not so much about, did it convert these groups? Because they were already there, but it definitely put the issue on the radar in a way that it wasn’t before.

DOP – Do you think there were any conversions?

SS – Oh yeah, definitely… I mean in fact – this is a very very minor, minor story, but… we’re hiring an organizer… and she was telling us the day after the Troy Davis execution, she just facilitated a discussion at her school, her college, and she said a lot of people said that they changed their minds about the death penalty after the execution… that was just in this little group at her school… I just think a lot of people have stories like that, I feel like a lot of people have been talking to me about this case who hadn’t ever talked to me about this issue before, even though I’ve worked on it for 11 years, you know, just people in my life… I think it’s just opened up a lot of eyes, and people who didn’t think that this happened, that somebody with so much doubt about whether they’re actually guilty and so much attention and almost a million people signing petitions and sending letters, and they still go ahead with an execution.

DOP – Because, why? People’s careers are made on it or what do you think?

SS – You know, I think part of it is the system and the way that it’s set up, I mean, I think there’s a real misperception when you hear that for example someone like Troy Davis, you know is on death row for twenty some odd years, and you think wow, 20 years worth of appeals, a lot of courts have looked at this case, clearly everything’s OK, right? What’s happening, what people don’t understand is what’s happening in those 20 years of appeals is not that the courts are actually looking at the case most of the time… what they’re doing is they’re arguing amongst each other about which court should look at it, and under which provisions should it be looked at and which component should come into this argument… so you can have all of these different levels of appeal where you’re just arguing whether or not the court will look at the case, before the court actually looks at the case.

DOP – And it’s never ever being argued on its merits during that whole time.

SS – A lot of those appeals are not really looking at meritorious issues. They’re procedural debates, basically between different courts, you know should this get kicked back to that level, should it move forward to this level, is it under this case law or that rule, you know it’s not the kind of review that the mainstream general public thinks is happening. And so the court system I don’t think is really set up to deal with these kinds of issues. You know you’re innocent until you’re proven guilty, but once you’ve been “proven guilty,” you have to prove that you’re innocent, which is pretty impossible most of the time, I mean if you don’t have DNA, which is not available in most cases, then it’s like proving a negative, it can’t be done, so you end up with a court process that isn’t really designed to catch mistakes like the Troy Davis case, because doubt isn’t the issue, it’s just have you proven innocence?

So then you have this kind of final step in the process which is the clemency process, and the parole board’s supposed to then be like the fail safe… once the courts have looked, if there’s still problems, there’s an opportunity either for mercy or for sort of a failsafe to catch mistakes that got through the system, and I mean at the end of the day, it comes down to a couple of votes… There were 5 people on the board and they vote in secret ballot and a majority of the five – it could be as little as 3, said go ahead.

DOP – That was the parole board.

SS – That was the parole board.

DOP – And that’s who voted this thing.

SS – Yeah.

DOP – It was just amongst those 5 people.

SS – Yes.

DOP – That’s frightening. Also he was accused of killing a cop, right?

SS – Mmhm…

DOP – That adds a whole other level to it.

SS – Sure.

DOP – That makes it very emotional for a lot of people. It’s like Mumia.

SS – Mm hm.

DOP – You know what I mean. He’s a “cop killer.” So, ya know…

SS – Right. Yeah…


The argument over the death penalty continues to be quite emotional and heated. The execution of Troy Davis ignited public debate in a way that is sure to result in additional policy changes over the coming years. This article by CBS News offers some  in-depth coverage of the responses.

Here’s another in-depth perspective from Nathan Thornburgh at Time US, examining the concept of “closure.”

In a related story, Troy Davis’ sister, who had been battling cancer, died a little over two months after he was executed. See story here.

September 4, 2011

Random Thoughts About Writing, Sadness and Community

I’ve been wondering why it is that I write, and specifically, why it is that I write this blog?

It’s not just that I write to organize the sheer volume and variety of thoughts that are constantly flying through my brain. It’s not just that I hunger for the feedback that tells me I’ve been seen, heard, understood and appreciated (although all of that is great). It’s for the feeling of being connected to other people. It’s for knowing that the things I think about and feel are shared by others, and that we are somehow part of something larger for sharing these things. It’s also the reason I love my work and anything that has to do with connecting people to one another in ways that bring joy or new possibilities.

I spend a fair amount of time on twitter. For business and pleasure. I find it a great communication and community building tool. Sometimes surfing the twitter stream brings me to unexpected places.

A few minutes ago, I happened upon the news that a well-known, respected and liked person in the marketing and social media world, Trey Pennington, took his life earlier this morning. As of this moment, his website is still up, as is his twitter stream. Hauntingly, his last tweet reads: Sure am thankful for online friends who are real friends offline, too. Love you. Trey Pennington. It was posted earlier this morning.

I did not know Trey personally, but we trafficked in similar online circles. As the news is spreading and the number of tweets by shocked and saddened friends & colleagues rapidly grows, I am expecting to see messages from individuals with whom I am directly connected. It is inevitable. This world is too small.

I suppose I am now a part of this wave of communication that is spreading like wildfire through cyberspace. I am sure many blogs will be written about him, and his life, and how someone who was perceived as so on top of things was actually suffering in silence. As for me, I am feeling oddly compelled to write this as a way to reinvigorate my online connection to my loved ones. Consider this a protest in response to the unfair demise of one whom many will mourn – like wearing bright pink at a funeral, or expressing grief by dancing and singing…

I do not generally suffer in silence. If I’m feeling sad, or overwhelmed, my friends and family will hear about it. I’m grateful that I’ve learned and been encouraged to reach out when I have the need to connect. And as I continue to express my thoughts and feelings via this blog, I’m reminded by this tragic incident that not only is it OK for me to explore matters of grief and sadness through these posts, it’s probably a good thing.

I KNOW I’m not the only one that experiences these things. Perhaps I’ve seen more than the average person’s share of illness and death in my family and close circle, but isn’t that what qualifies me to speak on them? It’s also what qualifies me to sometimes treat them with less than full reverence. It’s my humor and sarcasm that keeps me from becoming overly maudlin.

But right now, I don’t feel quite ready to muster up the humor. I am truly sad about this man I never met. I’m sad that despite the fact that he maintained an upbeat and positive online persona, he was miserable enough to take his own life. That totally sucks. And no amount of sarcasm can make that part go away.

My thoughts and prayers go out to the family and friends of Trey Pennington. May you all find solace and comfort in one another as you try to make sense of his untimely passing…

May 22, 2011

What, No Rapture?

Yesterday, I was driving in my car around 7pm, and I heard an interview on the radio with a man I believe was Robert Fitzpatrick, author of “The Doomsday Code,” and a well-known believer in yesterday’s scheduled Rapture. Obviously it hadn’t happened, and amidst the throngs of believers and curious onlookers, he was asked why. He replied that he just didn’t know. There was so much evidence in the scripture, but apparently they had been mistaken. As to what would happen next, he said, and I quote from memory, “I suppose now we just have to go on practicing forgiveness and doing good in our lives.”

I was kind of stunned by this response. For one, I’m not used to hearing public figures use phrases like, “I don’t know,” and “We made a mistake.” It’s just not common practice. Too bad, since I’ve found admitting to mistakes to be one of the best teaching tools, especially as the parent of a young child.

It struck me when hearing this, that it would be pretty amazing, after all the hype of the doomsday prediction (seriously, the Rapture PR firm definitely earned their fee), for a takeaway message like this to gain similar traction. Imagine that one going viral? “True believers say we must all now live lives of forgiveness and doing good for others.” Not the same kind of punch as “all of you sinners are about to die,” but hey, it’s pretty darn religious if you ask me.

I won’t lie. I’m definitely from the “can’t we all just get along” school. While I don’t actively practice any organized religion at the moment, I consider myself deeply spiritual, and I don’t begrudge anyone’s choice to fashion their own version or go with some established tradition of a belief system that gives form to the great unknown. We all have to deal with it… whatever works for you is fine by me! Where I draw the line is when someone tells me that their way is THE only way. Or takes it a step further and determines that because I don’t believe in their way, I’m inferior to them, or worse, a candidate for extermination. That’s not very nice, is it?

Call me crazy, but I thought that all the major religions were basically about worshipping their version of THE GREAT ONE by adhering to a code of ethics that entailed doing good, treating each other right, not stealing each other’s mates, not killing one another, etc. Perhaps this “end of the world” we’ve been hearing about is something more akin to the end of the world AS WE KNOW IT. You know, like the dawning of the Age of Aquarius? Shedding outmoded ways of being, treating each other, thinking? Stepping into a new era?

If someone who believed so fervently in this very extreme outcome can suggest that maybe we all just have to hang around for a little while longer in a state of forgiveness and goodness, I suggest we go with that. What have we got to lose?

Photo by Steve Jurvetson

May 8, 2011

Let’s Consider Our Humanity for a Minute…

Hi Everyone, it’s me again.

In honor of Mother’s Day and my maternal instincts that extend well beyond my own child, I want to present you with this thought. If we can get ourselves to think about at least one other person in the world outside our immediate circle and do something to more fully understand them and their suffering, their humanity, then we will be taking a significant step towards making the world a better place. For once we make that type of emotional connection to another human being, it’s hard to not consider following up with some action. We just have to take it one step at a time.

It almost doesn’t matter which person or people you choose. There are plenty of options of people in need. Just pick one and go from there. But in case you need an idea, here’s one: Iraqi refugees.

Many of us are living fairly comfortable lives. Even though we all have our share of problems and struggles, in general, the situation here in the US is qualitatively different from that of any people who are living in a war torn region where car bombings and other random attacks are a daily occurrence, and the very fabric of normal existence has been ripped apart by drastic deficits created in the basic infrastructure. Such is the case in Iraq. It has been like this for the vast majority of Iraqi citizens for over 20 years, largely due to the impact of US policy towards that country. The level of suffering of the Iraqi people has been well documented, and it’s pretty damn staggering. Currently there are over 4 million displaced Iraqis, many of whom are now living in a virtual state of limbo in neighboring Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.

After 9/11, Iraqis were unfortunately (and, as there is much evidence to prove, mistakenly) associated with those who would do harm to the US. With that kind of negative legacy, inspiring support for Iraqis among Americans continues to be a daunting task. Several artists I am proud to know have undertaken projects that provide a way to help American people to grasp the very basic human aspects of the situation and relate to Iraqis as fellow world citizens, not too different from ourselves. I truly believe that making this connection is our only hope. When people hear their stories, they are moved. It’s that simple.

Check out the following creative endeavors which I believe go a long way towards evoking appropriate understanding of and sympathy for Iraqi refugees and will hopefully inspire concrete action on their behalf:

No Place Called Home – A one-woman show written and performed by Kim Schultz, commissioned by Intersections International, based on her experiences hearing the stories of Iraqi refugees she met in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, performed in NYC, Washington, DC and South Bend, Indiana, and now launching a national tour.

The Unreturned – A documentary film chronicling the plight of five displaced middle-class Iraqis, living in Syria and Jordan, by filmmaker Nathan Fisher, seen at festivals in the US, Europe, Canada, Syria and Japan.

Erasing Iraq: The Human Costs of Carnage – A comprehensive book chronicling the last twenty years of the near destruction of Iraqi society, featuring searing historical documentation and in-depth interviews of Iraqi refugees living in Syria and Jordan, as well as western countries, written by Michael Otterman and Richard Hill with Paul Wilson.

These artists, who are each committed to making a difference in the lives of our Iraqi brothers and sisters, have my complete admiration, as I, too have worked on a creative project illuminating the plight of Iraqi civilians, but unlike each of them, I was unable to complete my own project.

My film, “Christmas in Baghad,” which I worked on from 1999-2001, looked at the impact of sanctions after the first Gulf War on the lives of Iraqi citizens and their family members living here in the US. I never forgot the quiet dignity and generosity of spirit I encountered in the families I met and grew to care about during production. I, too, had a similar experience of hearing the stories of brave and sad human beings who had endured incomprehensible suffering for reasons that were beyond logic. These stories also burned a place in my soul.

And that’s why I’m sharing this information with all of you. Read Mike’s book. Check out Nate’s film. See Kim’s show. Better yet, arrange for a reading, a screening, a performance. Maybe even a panel discussion with all three of them! Contact me, I know them all. I’ll hook you up.

I’m not trying to overwhelm you. This is just me introducing the topic. Take in what you can right now, I just wanted you to know there are options moving forward. But we can take it one step at a time. For now, just consider the fact that it could be important to all of us. To our humanity. Think about it. I’ll get back to you…

With gratitude,