Stories that never ran: Rwanda at risk of repeating the past

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A scene of normal life in Rwanda. UmbertoBattista/Pixabay

Over the years, I’ve been hired to write stories for various organizations which for internal reasons (change in focus, change in editor, outside pressure, etc.) never were published. It hasn’t happened often, but sometimes interesting stories have wound up not seeing the light of day. This is one of them — in its unedited form.

Rwanda: Looking back and fearing for the future

By Nick Patterson

To understand Rwanda today, it may be helpful to realize that it is against government policy to discuss ethnicity in public.

That the government in Kigali fears or seeks to suppress such distinctions clearly arises from what happened in 1994, when the Hutu majority slaughtered their Tutsi neighbors with machetes and guns. From April 6, 1994 and for the hundred days to follow, 800,000 Rwandans were murdered by their fellow Rwandans strictly on the basis of ethnicity. In recent years, the death toll has been ultimately placed at around 1 million people – in a genocide that still shocks, even as it promotes both research, and intellectual handwringing not likely to cease anytime soon.

Twenty-three years ago, putting an end to the genocide, the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front swept into power, and has since instituted reforms and a nationwide effort to reconcile victims and perpetrators. At the same time the RPF government has sought – with some success to provide economic growth for this African nation of 12 million, the most densely populated on the continent. But to do so, the government of Paul Kagame has, among other things, ruled, by many accounts with an iron fist.

“You have a government that is really hell-bent on economic development but is doing so in a  top-down, centralized and oppressive way,” said Susan Thomson of Colgate University, author of dozens of articles and several books about Rwanda, including Whispering Truth to Power: Everyday Resistance to Reconciliation in Post-Genocide Rwanda. Since being banned from the country in 2006 for her research, she has continued to collect data about the state of Rwanda from colleagues who can still travel there.

“Yes, definitely, there has been economic growth and there definitely is cause for excitement and success in Rwanda,” she said. “One good example is healthcare. They have produced universal healthcare. But the system is creaking. I think we’re so keen to have an African success story that we overlook the bad in favor of the good… The economic successes are actually built on the backs of people who are oppressed and have no freedom. And the gains of the government are accruing to a very small group of elites. It’s not things which are being shared throughout society.”

Rwanda is not simple. It is not simple for people who live there, every day in the shadow of a government-enforced reconciliation,  or mandated agricultural programs which, Thomson said, force the largely peasant population to grow what will sell in the market instead of what their families need to eat. It is not simple to an international community which cheers the Kigali government’s economic successes, but shudders at evidence that the RPF-led government supports the unrest fomented by rebels fighting in the nearby Democratic Republic of Congo.

It is not made more simple when journalists and political dissidents are muzzled. For instance, “The leadership of the Rwandan League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights has been ousted because of its independent stance,” Human Rights Watch wrote in August 2013. “People believed to be favorable to the government have taken over the organization in what has become a typical state tactic to silence human rights defenders…. Rwanda’s domestic human rights movement has been almost destroyed by a combination of state intimidation, threats, manipulation, infiltration, and administrative obstacles. Most leading human rights activists have fled the country. The government’s actions to silence human rights groups are part of a broader pattern of intolerance of criticism, which extends to independent journalists and opposition parties.”

Rwanda also is not simple when seen through the lens of history. But it’s the nation’s complex history that puts the unimaginable genocide into context.

By all accounts, the Belgian colonists who arrived in 1918 accorded the minority Tutsi favored status, viewing them as racially superior to their Hutu countrymen. That would have far-reaching import, said Dr. Moses Tesi, a professor of Political Science and Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Political Science at Middle Tennessee State University, in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. His work focuses on African Politics, International Relations and Political Economy.

“The Rwandan genocide was the result of long-standing animosity between two ethnic groups resulting from Belgian colonial policy of promoting and imposing the over-lordship of the minority Tutsi who are lighter in complexion over the darker Hutus who constitute the majority,” Tesi said.

The societal inequalities fed the hatred, said Dr. Kofi Nsia-Pepra, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Ohio Northern University, who served with the U.N. Assistance Mission in Rwanda. “Pre-colonial institutionalized discrimination and structural inequalities by the Tutsis, reinforced by the Belgian colonizers, culminated in radicalized animosity and ‘moral exclusion’ of the Tutsis by the Hutus in the post-independence era and eventual genocide in 1994,” he said.

In the 1950s, the Belgian colonists withdrew support for the Tutsi king, and from 1959 through 1962, the period when Rwanda became an independent nation, “Tutsi royalists fled the country, fearing reprisal attacks and hoping to regroup in exile,” wrote Sarah Lischer, an associate professor of political science who has written extensively on Rwanda. “Between 1959 and 1967,” she wrote, “at least 200,000 Tutsi fled to Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi and Zaire [now the DRC], reducing by half the Tutsi population in Rwanda.” The Hutu came to control the country.

But in exile, the children of Tutsis who originally fled the country formed the Rwandan (or Rwandese) Patriotic Front, a revolutionary group which invaded Rwanda in October 1990. “The civil war that followed brought Rwanda to a standstill both economically and politically,” said Dr. Allan Cooper, a professor of history and political science at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio.

During the civil war, there were massacres committed against both ethnic groups. And elements in the Hutu led government planned a concerted effort to wipe out the Tutsi. “The genocide itself was a strategy to eliminate challengers to the regime – both Tutsi and moderate Hutu – and unify the Hutu population in an effort to exterminate the Tutsi minority,” said Timothy Longman, director of the African Studies Center and associate professor of political science at Boston University.

The plans for genocide were in large measure, right out in the open, in the media. “The pre-genocide propaganda campaign was prolific, well planned and specifically designed to incite hatred against all Tutsi (not solely the RPF),” said Dr. Michelle Martin of Dominican University’s Graduate School of Social Work, who recently competed a three-year study comparing the anti-government propaganda used in Rwanda before and after the genocide. “The propaganda did not consist solely of inciting ethnic hatred, but of overt manipulation of the population and intentionality, meaning that the former regime knew precisely what it was doing, and there did not appear to be any aspect of the campaign and ensuing violence that was spontaneous.”

She said that “By creating fear in the Hutu population that if they did not strike first, they were destined to become slaves of the Tutsi once again, the government successfully mobilized an entire country of civilians to perceive all Tutsi as the enemy and not ‘real’ Rwandans (i.e., as foreign invaders).”

Even as the country’s Hutu president, Jouvenel Habyarimana, sought to negotiate a cease fire with the RPF, hardliners from his own ethnic group opposed the peace. The president’s plane was shot out of the sky on April 6, 1994, by many accounts by Hutu extremists who merely blamed the RPF. In the aftermath, those extremist elements took to the airwaves and called on Hutu to massacre Tutsi.

To explain the unexplainable – how neighbor could rise up against neighbor so ruthlessly to commit murder, rape, theft, and then to justify doing so — survivors, researchers, and others have attributed the genocide to the evil of man, to the devil, to the complicity of the churches. But for many experts it has its roots in the unrelenting campaign of Hutu officials. “The genocide was an official policy that was systematically expanded from one region to the next across the country,” Longman said.

“While a small group of extremists hated the Tutsi, particularly government officials who felt themselves challenged, most Hutu participated in genocide out of fear – fear from not knowing what was happening as the RPF advanced across the country, fear of what might happen to them and their families if they refused to participate. Some of those who participated because they felt they were obliged to do so were at the same time protecting Tutsi friends and family in their own homes.”

Having lived in Rwanda prior to the genocide, Longman is convinced: “The vast majority of people were opposed to the spreading violence and would not have engaged in genocide left to their own devices. But bad leadership pushed the country down a path of violence.”

Meanwhile, as the horror continued to unfold, the international community did little to stop it. The “international community‘s  response  to the Rwandan genocide was pallid, tepid, divided and slow and has revealed to the global community that geo-strategic interests override altruistic criteria in interventionist decisions to protect civilians from atrocities,” Nsia-Pepra said.

“At the time of the genocide,” said Hanna Garry, clinical associate professor of law, director of the International Human Rights Clinic at the USC Gould School of Law, “a large portion of the international community was either ignorant or indifferent to what was happening in Rwanda. Most did not know of the decades of violence preceding the genocide in Rwanda, particularly following decolonization, or had ever heard of the two rivaling groups…

“For some, even finding Rwanda on a world map was a problem. For those who did know, and who had received warning signs well in advance, the response was one of abandonment. Other world crises at the time, including the war in the Balkans, took precedence. Rwanda was a sideline issue, if given any attention at all,” Garry said. “Further, the U.S.’ experience with peacekeeping intervention in Somalia in 1993 and the shooting down of two of its Black Hawk helicopters, that led to the deaths of 18 U.S. soldiers, led to a reticence to get involved in any African conflict at the time, where a certain level of violence was often tolerated.”

As the genocide began, the United Nations pulled 4,000 foreigners out of Rwanda. But the humanitarian crisis left its marks on many. Susan Thomson was doing doctoral research in April 1994. “I was out with UN development workers looking at women’s cooperative projects in a town southwest of Kigali called Gitarama, so we had come back around 6 p.m. that evening,” Thomson recalled.

“Later that night the president’s plane went down. We heard the boom. We then heard that the plane had gone down, so we were already in the UN compound when all these things happened. We learned through the street rumor, what they call ‘the bush telegraph’ what was going on outside. So the UN compound was also adjacent to the prime minister’s home and she had been murdered the night the genocide started along with her Belgian peacekeepers. So we had trickles of news in the UN compound.”

Five days later, Thomson’s compound was evacuated. “I didn’t see that much per se because we were hiding in the UN building,” Thomson said. “But we certainly heard violence, we heard the ominous tones from the radio which were translated for us by Rwandan friends. And we definitely, when we left the compound, saw the results of massacres. There were bodies in ditches and on roadsides and people were armed. Military men had machetes. Some young men had machetes. A lot of men with weapons. Very few civilians walking around.”

She had to leave friends and colleagues behind because they were native to Rwanda. Yet, like Thomson – who freely admits to being obsessed by Rwanda — many touched by the still incomprehensible events of that year, can never truly leave Rwanda completely. Many remain intensely concerned – worried, even – about the country and its people.

While acknowledging the economic growth, some see signs that the ethnic hatreds, or political enmities now suppressed by a government striving to avoid repeating history, will one day boil to the surface. “I can say from colleagues who were in Rwandan just last month that people seem more angry than they’ve ever seen them in the arc of their research,” Thomson said. “These are people that have been researching for 15 and 20 years. There’s a level of frustration and anger that …there’s no outlet to channel it.”

Just as there are those to persist in denying the holocaust, there are some who now deny the genocide, Michelle Martin found. “One of the most profound findings in my research was the vast amount of genocide denial and historical revisionism disseminated through such social media sites as Facebook and Twitter, online blogs, online ‘newspapers,’” she said.

Some note, that while tribunals were set up to bring those who committed genocide to justice, those who were allied with the Tutsi RPF – which also, by most accounts committed acts of genocide against Hutus – were not punished in the aftermath. For some the truth of what happened in Rwanda is far from simple. The conflicts that led to the genocide – “our big mistake” as one Rwandan, quoted by Lischer, called it – seem to still be simmering even as the government hopes for reconciliation. “The repressive political development since the genocide,” she said, “leads many observers to expect future violence as long as underlying tensions remain unaddressed.”

Thomson sees the same potential. “The people that I consulted considered reconciliation to be imposed, rather than sincere,” Thomson said. “And they don’t have less fear in their lives. They have more, because it’s now illegal to talk about certain aspects of the genocide. People know that Hutu killed Hutu because many of them were forced into doing so by the previous regime. They know the current regime also committed acts of genocide during and immediately after,” she said.

Observers fear that in a Rwanda where an elite, authoritarian minority rules over an impoverished majority, where even the ruling powers are starting to factionalize into rival movements, where dissent is repressed, the division of resources leaves most people struggling for necessities, and ethnic and regional conflict is always just over the border, the troubles may not be over.

“What is missing is the clear spark that could prompt the RPF into a civil war,” Thomson said. “There wouldn’t be mass political violence unless there’s that clear spark. What we saw in the genocide was the RPF invaded Rwanda in October of 1990 and in the context of civil war, Hutu extremists made a plan for genocide. We don’t see that happening at the moment. But are the preconditions in place? Absolutely – which is why we would like the international community and others to take notice. Rwanda is at risk of repeating history.”

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Rwandan rice fields. Pixabay

Sidebar: Justice after Rwanda

After the atrocities in Rwanda, the United Nations set up a tribunal to hear changes against those accused of participating in and directing the genocide. Even as the tribunal reached its end in 2014, 20 years after the nation became a slaughterhouse of Tutsis and moderate Hutus, many believe that the path to justice is incomplete.

One reason: many of those who carried out the genocide fled the country afterward and are living abroad free of prosecution,. A January 2014 New York Times story focused on Alain and Dafroza Gauthier, a couple from Rwanda, then living in France who have collected evidence for more than a decade against 24 people French residents who they believe were behind the genocide.

“The suspects are members of the Hutu ethnic group who now lead comfortable lives in France and deny any involvement in the slaughter of more than 800,000 people — most of them Tutsi — in just 100 days,” the Times article said. The writer quoted Dafroza Gauthier as saying that, “Here, the fugitives live in denial… They’ve always denied, they have created another story, they have completely erased that part of their lives. They were obliged to do so, otherwise you end up in a mental institution. You can’t live with a crime like that.”

“Some of the original architects of the genocide were flown out during the first days of the genocide, including the former president’s wife, Agathe Habyarimana, who was evacuated courtesy of the French government and lives there today,” said Sara Brown, the Stern Family Fellow and the first comparative genocide doctoral candidate at Clark University’s Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies.

“Millions fled the country en masse in order to avoid prosecution for their crimes. They evaded justice due in part to France’s Operation Turquoise, a feigned humanitarian corridor established in Rwanda that ushered many perpetrators to refugee camps in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.”

Still, Brown points to the success of special courts set up in 2006 in Rwanda, which have moved more than a million genocide suspects through a system attempting both justice for the perpetrators and reconciliation in the devastated nation. Called Gacaca Courts, the “innovative hybrid model for justice and reconciliation” relieved the burden then facing Rwanda’s national courts which otherwise would have needed more than a century to try all of those accused in the genocide, Brown said. “Was it perfect? Perhaps not. It is difficult to deliver justice when so many people committed crimes and when the genocide affected so many. But I would argue that they have blazed a new path for post-genocide justice and reconciliation.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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So you want to write for Weld? We appreciate your interest, but here’s what you need to know first

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By Nick Patterson

From time to time at Weld: Birmingham’s Newspaper, we receive inquiries from people who would like to write for Weld. While we appreciate the interest, the fact is that not all queries can receive a timely and detailed reply. The following may answer some of the most common questions and help those interested in proceeding.

1.Are you a journalist, or do you have journalism training?

 

 

Many people who want to write for Weld have no journalism training. Because we’re interested in promoting good journalism for the benefit of the community, we prefer to hire people who understand what’s involved and what’s at stake in reporting the news.

If you have journalism training, the first step is to send your resume and a link to your clippings to editor@weldbham.com, along with a brief cover letter explaining your qualifications and what you’d like to do for Weld. If we’re interested, we’ll follow up with you.

2.Are you a student looking for an internship?

If you are a student in college, the chances are that your journalism program has an internship component. Your first step is to get in touch with whoever is in charge of the journalism internship program and find out what is required. After that, follow their instructions, or see point 1 above. However, we will expect interns to comply with the rules, regulations, and expectations of the institution where you are enrolled.

What if you’re not connected with the journalism program at your school? In that case, the first step is to seek out whoever is in charge of that program and find out what’s required. This is especially true for English majors interested in learning journalism in connection to Weld.

What if you don’t want to take the classes, but just want to jump into journalism? The first step is to try to get in to your student newspaper. Once you’ve been edited sufficiently by someone else and have the work to prove it, you may qualify for an exception (see below).

What if you’re in high school? The first step is to convince your teacher of your interest and then to get him or her to write us at editor@weldbham.com to convince us that giving you a shot would be a good thing for both you and this community newspaper.

3.Are you a non-journalist only interested in sharing your opinion through Weld?

Non-journalists can contribute to Weld’s regular op-ed column, Perspectives, or our occasional narrative story feature, Storyboard. We will generally only consider content that is unique to Weld in this market.

The first step is to write what you want to say, making sure that it clearly sets out the point you want to make. For Perspectives, write no less than 650 words and no more than 1100 words. For Storyboard, write what you think it’s worth. In both cases, be advised that anything we choose to publish is subject to editing, a submission does not guarantee acceptance or publication, and that Weld does not pay non-journalists for Perspectives or Storyboard submissions.

4. Do you fall into an exceptional category?

What if you graduated with an English degree and never took any journalism classes, but just really want to practice journalism with Weld? What if you’re a student or a graduate or a member of the community who for some reason is suddenly fired up and inspired to create journalism or make journalism a career, but you don’t fall into one of the categories above?

You may wish to attempt a rogue act of journalism by going to, and covering a public meeting — the neighborhood association meeting in your community, the school board, the city council, etc, and then writing up a report of no more than 1,000 words, which conforms to the rules of good journalism (which you need to figure out first), and submitting it as a tryout. Any tryout will require that you submit contact information for the sources in the story, to allow us — if we choose to pursue it — to verify your attempt at reporting.

There is no guarantee that we will publish a tryout and in any case you will not be paid. Tryouts are unsolicited, and will be addressed as time permits. After that, if your tryout is good enough, we will let you know what we think.

Any tryout needs to be accompanied with a cover letter from you explaining who you are, what you covered and when, and why you think we should give you a shot. Do not submit an unsolicited tryout (or any other piece intended to be treated as journalism) without a cover letter.

5. What if you know somebody associated with Weld?

Your first step is to see points 1-4 above. Journalism is a serious professional public service, not to be undertaken lightly, no matter who you know. Weld publishes, for the most part, journalism. We have limited use for creative writing, poetry or standard prose, and practically no use for outright fiction. We will not publish advertisements or other strictly promotional material as editorial content. Advertising considerations do not determine editorial content.

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Batman v. Superman: The critics are wrong

BATMAN v SUPERMANMaybe its the number of comics I’ve read. Maybe my understanding of the differences in storytelling between comics and movies is colored by how many variations on these characters I’ve seen — there must have been hundreds — and how many different writers and artists I’ve seen taking on both Batman, Superman, and all their fictional associates. Maybe the fact that I’ve actually read the classic The Dark Knight Returns, and The Death of Superman makes a difference in how I reacted to Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.

It could just be that professional film critics have become so convinced that they know what works best that any story line that confounds their expectations is met with scorn and derision (“I wanted to see Clark doing a news story. They didn’t show that, so this movie is bad!” “What? Lex tricked them into fighting? Preposterous!”). Or maybe they’re just tired of comic book-based movies and want to see them transform into something they aren’t.

Whatever the case, I went into Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice with pretty low expectations based on critics who found the movie overly dense — “incoherent” one wrote — too dark, and a number of other negative adjectives. Listening to the critics, I really expected to hate this movie. “DC has done it again,” I thought, “taken an idea with potential, burned up three years of development and failed to deliver.” That, however, was before I saw the movie.

After watching it, I can say that while it certainly has its flaws — what film doesn’t these days — Dawn of Justice was certainly not a train wreck. It was not bad at all, purely from a storytelling point of view. The acting was solid all around. The special effects were as good as they ever are in a superhero flick. And it accomplished what it set out to do — apart from wowing the critical masses.

So if you decide to see Dawn of Justice, go in with an open mind. You might find, as I did, that the nattering nabobs got it wrong this time.

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HISTORY IN PLAIN SIGHT: THE STORIES OF BIRMINGHAM’S FOOT SOLDIERS

1-Fullscreen capture 1212016 92210 AMThe civil rights movement in Birmingham changed the course of the law in this country, and much of that change owes directly to the willingness of ordinary people, many of them children, to risk their safety in a bid for freedom. For Birmingham Foot Soldiers: Voices from the Civil Rights Movement, I interviewed several of those brave souls, each with their own incredible story.

With such stories floating around can you imagine a whole group of competing news reporters just passing up hundreds of opportunities to regale their readers with tales of heroism, sacrifice and courage? Not just one reporter, but almost all of them, missing opportunities to put a human face on one of the biggest stories of the day.

That’s what happened in Birmingham in 1963. There were hundreds of people, many of them exuberant and on fire for change, who could have told the inside story of what may have been the most extraordinary mass movement in American history, when a seemingly powerless people rose up and risked their necks in resistance to oppression.

And yet, most of those individual stories have gone untold.

That’s why the stories in Birmingham Foot Soldiers were compelling for me to share and why they are worth reading.

Think about the context in which the Civil Rights Movement happened. Imagine waking as a third generation second class citizen. Imagine that your grandparents were slaves, and that the best you can hope for is a lifetime filled with lower wages and scarce opportunity for advancement, inferior school resources, derogatory slurs in the daytime, and random acts of terror at night, some committed with impunity by the very people sworn to protect and serve – the police.

If you could change things – would you?

Birmingham residents by the thousands lived that life and took a bold stand against it. Birmingham Foot Soldiers tells the stories of individuals who fought against institutionalized racism. They came to the Movement from different places, but they were all striving for the same result: freedom.

I learned about the foot soldiers as a reporter at the daily Birmingham Post-Herald, slowly becoming aware of the depth of history still living in the memories of people right in our figurative backyard. I interviewed Fred Shuttlesworth, the firebrand minister who had been the leader of the Birmingham movement. I interviewed James Armstrong — who later became the subject of the award-winning documentary The Barber of Birmingham – then still working in his shop and speaking out about social justice.

I interviewed Lola Hendricks, the former corresponding secretary of the ACMHR, the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. And I got to talk to her daughter Audrey who, in the 60s, had defied her mother (as many teenagers did) to get into the protests. I also had the privilege of talking to Nettie Flemmons, Annetta Streeter Gary, and Myrna Carter Jackson, who became a principal figure in Birmingham Foot Soldiers.

Many, though not all of those interviews were featured in a series I did with fellow reporter Sara Foss and photographer Chris Jacobs, called “Foot Soldiers.”5-Foot Soldiers images of Birmingham 2013-07-12 069

It was a profound experience, one that would remain with me long after the Post-Herald’s “Foot Soldiers” series, and the Post-Herald itself, had faded into memory. So in 2013, as the 50th anniversary of those pivotal civil rights events were being celebrated in Birmingham, when the editor of History magazine contacted me about submitting something, what I wrote about was that part of the Birmingham Movement called the Children’s Crusade. And weeks later, when the acquisitions editor of History Press contacted me about pitching book ideas, the first thing I thought of was the foot soldiers.

As I worked on the book, I learned that even with what I already knew, there was so much more, so many other facets to the story of those brave souls who had faced down Bull Connor, his fire hoses, his police dogs and every conceivable lockup in Birmingham.

These people created history, but not all of them wanted to be heroes or martyrs. Some had joined the movement, sure enough, for idealistic reasons or because they were fed up with being denied opportunity. Some joined because their friends or family persuaded them to go to movement mass meetings. Some got involved because their friends said, “Hey, let’s cut school and join the march!”

Some were poor, some were middle class. Some were teenagers, some were a bit older. Some were fired up and determined. Others were scared – or soon would be. But they put the mass into the mass movement behind Shuttlesworth, King and the other leaders of the freedom movement. They were the foot soldiers — ordinary citizens who just happened to change the course of the lawin the most powerful country on earth. Some shared their stories with me.

Ultimately, Birmingham Foot Soldiers proved to be an act of uncovering those experiences which still live among us today if only we take the time to listen. It was and remains an act of approaching history – hidden in plain sight — which I was privileged to uncover.


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Posted in 1963, AL, Birmingham, Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, Civil disobedience, Civil Rights, communications, History, Human Rights, journalism, leadership, news, newspaper, Nick Patterson, protest, stories | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Birmingham Foot Soldiers: Their Lives Mattered

As Black History Month approaches, it seems appropriate to remember why I wrote Birmingham Foot Soldiers: Voices From the Civil Rights Movement. I think this video sums it up nicely:

Posted in 1963, AL, Birmingham, Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, Books, Civil disobedience, Civil Rights, History, History Press, Human Rights, journalism, news, Nick Patterson, protest | Leave a comment

Waging war on the ignorance of ageism

Someone once told me that I must always wage war on ignorance. As I see it, I’ve been quietly engaged in a cold war on the ignorance of ageism, at least since I turned 50. I have discovered the fact that professionals my age often confront: that many younger hiring managers and perhaps older ones who are nearing retirement, think that over 50 means slowing down, looking only backward, resisting change, leaving the new to younger minds.

How often have the resumes of perfectly qualified, seasoned and still dynamic  professionals been completely ignored just because of age? How often have I, or people just like me, been denied opportunity because of pernicious assumptions that we can’t cut it?

Hard to say, of course. Certain legalities make it unlikely that anyone in a position to make such a decision would ever admit to making it for such discriminatory reasons.

I understand the law and the reality. I understand the assumptions. And I say those who make hiring decisions based on the presumption that a professional of a certain age is necessarily less than one more newly minted, are acting in ignorance, and denying their organizations valuable talent.

So here’s a shot over the bow for all you ageist hiring managers. I’ll make it easy and bullet-point it. Here’s a short list of my accomplishments just since I turned 50.

  • Created a podcast
  • Created a blog
  • Directed a public relations and marketing department for a nonprofit
  • Made videos for a nonprofit and two news organizations
  • Directed social media for a nonprofit
  • Consulted on social media and personal profile presentation for an executive transitioning from one big corporation to another
  • Edited a doctoral dissertation
  • Designed and delivered corporate communications workshops
  • Wrote a book, saw it published, and promoted it through a book tour and speaking engagements
  • Edited someone else’s book
  • Managed the editorial functions of a weekly newspaper
  • Wrote news and feature stories for newspapers, magazines and websites
  • Mentored young journalists
  • Taught journalism to college students
  • Shot photographs for publication
  • Appeared numerous times as a guest on radio news programs
  • As a volunteer, directed local public and media relations for a large organization

And I’m just getting started. More important, I’ll bet I’m not the only professional in my age group who is nowhere near ready to throw in the towel on a productive, active career, unwilling to go gentle into that good night of obsolescence.1-DSCN1759

It’s time that people check in with the new reality: there’s a lot of experienced talent out there, possessed by people like me, who are still aggregating skills and still ready, willing and able to contribute  meaningfully to any organization smart enough to take advantage of it. Ignoring that actually makes no sense at all.

I’ll close on this note: Open your minds to the possibilities. Free yourselves and your corporate strategies from the shackles of ageist ignorance.

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Old humor

Some years ago, I started a blog – a different one than this one. It was called “IroNick,” a title which confused anyone who didn’t know my gmail handle. Anyway, I was looking through the posts and found one from November 20, 2009, complete with fuzzy picture. I hope you enjoy it, at least a little. It was called….

There’s an App for You, Buddy

   I was conversing with the rather brilliant editor[ and now author!] and former girl detective Amy Bickers, when she revealed a great idea: Someone should build an iPhone app for detecting lies. If they can’t build one that works on everybody, they should at least build one that works on people who want to service your car.
   She envisions a world where you can go up to Joe-The-Mechanic-You-Don’t-Really-Know-But-Would-ReallyLike-To-Trust and say something like, “Please speak into the screen of my trend-forward mobile device exactly what you think is wrong with my car.”
   Then, you could look at the screen, and say, something like, “Are you sure? Because, my phone, here, doesn’t seem to believe you.”
   Brilliant idea, which is why, apparently, a few other clever individuals have also come up with it.
   Of course, in the real world, such a device would lead to much longer conversations with Joe, who might not take kindly to the suggestion that your phone doesn’t believe him:
   Joe: “Are you sure your phone has a full charge? ‘Cause I don’t think it’s playing with a full battery.”
   You: “Oh, it’s charged, buddy. And it’s on to you.”
   Joe: “Who you gonna believe? Me or your stupid phone, which, by the way, doesn’t even have the best coverage. Talk about lying…”
   You: “How dare you insult my state-of-the-art device! Why, I’m the envy of all my neighbors who don’t have iPhones, as proven by this Who’s Envying U App –“
   Joe: “Get outta my shop and take your hipster techno-bling with you.”
   You: “I still need to know what’s wrong with my car.”
   Joe: “Maybe there’s an app for that.”
   Joe’s got a point. That would be cool, an app that diagnoses what’s actually wrong with your car. Or an app that tells you which car not to buy in the first place. Or an app that explains how Joe got such a long last name. Or…
   Clearly, things could get out of hand if we start depending on our mobile devices too much, if we turn to our little mechanical boxes instead of using our own intuition and judgement. No, it’s much better to just trust Joe, who will figure out what’s wrong with your car by using his experience, laying his hands upon your vehicle, and hooking it up to a diagnostic computer.
   That’s better, because his mechanical box is bigger than yours.
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