Growing Pains #16: And Beyond

Well… All is well that ends well.

If you’ve read this far, you have had a pretty intimate, authentic look into my life. Truly, thank you for journeying with me along the way. Sharing part of myself that I thought I would never share has been restorative to my spirit and passion.  I am both honored by and grateful for everyone that has read even one post.

I have a group of friends that I hold very dear to me. Each one knows who they are. No matter where we go, what we do, or how little we may see or talk to each other, we know that there is an “and beyond” that propels us deeper into friendship. I think about all the people who have help guide and shape my life – family, friends, barbers, mentors,  past teachers and coaches, passing strangers, and fellow travelers. I’ve learned a great deal from you all. Each of you has been a mirror. Each of you has in some way reflected exactly what I needed to see at the time I needed to see it.

After 24 years, countless experiences, a revolutionary change in myself, and 15 blogs, I am free to say that I love myself, I am earnestly seeking a more authentic self each day, and I invite others to love themselves as well. Regardless of what the world shows you, tells you, or thinks of you, you are significant, you matter, you have something to contribute, you deserve to feel whole. With a full heart and a peaceful mind, thank you for growing with me.

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Growing Pains #15: Authenticity

“I Pledge allegiance to myself…” “…I became the country I deserve.” – Chace Morris (Mic Write – Link to Music Video)

If you’ve made it this far, you know parts of my journey are dark, hazy, and uncomfortable to read about or even experience. Other parts are lighthearted, positive, and characterized by persistence and tenacity. That doesn’t mean my journey is over.

You see, I’ve gone from seeing the world as isolating and having no place for me to a person with a great confidence and ownership of nearly all parts of myself. (The work continues). I am constantly learning how to be my most authentic self. As I learn more of what I want, I seek that out and I let my curiosity guide me. It sounds deeply selfish and to some degree it is. I am trying to become the best version of myself, and I’m doing that for me and the people I care about. I’m learning about myself so I can give someone meaningful to the world. I want others to do the same. I compel others to do the same, but I have no qualms if they don’t. You get to choose – and that choice is not free of consequences or rewards. I am who I am and I believe I will continue to learn more of what that means.

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I pledge allegiance to myself and all that means – It means prioritizing what is important to me – caring for self, caring for others, building relationships, creating opportunities for others and taking advantage of my own, being creative, seeing the good in the world while staring evil in its face with honest eyes, giving love and positivity to the world and recognizing that my reality is not the same for others, recognizing my privilege and power and using it to lift others up alongside me and even higher, giving a damn about making this world better for others, while also living out my dreams and plans.

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I became the country I deserved – one that communicates the value of black people and blackness to himself and others. A country that advocates on behalf of all marginalized people because I know what it feels to believe you have no value in the world and to live in a world that tells you that you have no value. I became a country that is aware of the fact that some people suffer more than others and need more support that others. A country of equity and equality. A country that is complex and full of human qualities. A country that does make mistakes, but seeks to learn how to be better. A country that is full of love and joy and frustration and hope. A country that honors himself and respects his brothers and sisters. A country that is compelled to challenge, breakdown, dissect, and replace any and all broken systems that has “evolved no place” for him and others. A country that enjoys the things he enjoys with no guilt or shame or care of what others think (well maybe care for what the 5-15 really important people in my life think – I love yall, but some of yall opinions don’t matter that much because of the context in which it’s being shared. I don’t know everything about everything and neither do you – let’s keep it 100).

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Something about Know They Self – Learn about yourself – What do you want? What is taking your energy? What is giving you energy? When are you at your best? When are you at your worst? Who are the people that enrich your life? Who are the people that take from it? What is important to you? What do you want to prioritize, but feel bad about prioritizing? Who are you? Every few months, I ask myself a similar list of questions – I do so to see if I’ve changed, and most often how I’ve changed. Am I being true to myself? How does being true to myself make me a better person to be around? How does being authentic leave room for others to be authentic as well? Am I who I want to be right now, and is that leading toward were I want to be in the future?

Become the country you deserve. I’m working on it too.

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Tomorrow the series ends! The Growing Pains series will continue each day until the full story is shared. It is an honest look at how socialization, poverty, changing circumstances, and perceptions influenced me to hate myself, my skill, and my community, but ultimately how authentic relationships, challenging questions, and a deep look inside helped me learn to love myself and love my people. You see I’m black and I love it, but that wasn’t always the case. Check tomorrow for the next chapterGrowing Pains #16: And Beyond will be up and ready for your reading.

Growing Pains #14: Curiosity

” I got, I got, I got, I got loyalty, got royalty inside my DNA.” – Kendrick Lamar

My passion for learning and having unique experiences has led me to some interesting places. Most importantly though, I’ve searched for the feeling of “home” for quite some time. In fact, it was something that claimed my attention until the summer of 2016. I’ve been fortunate to travel abroad a few times and build relationships with people from different pockets of the world. I traveled out of excitement and curiosity, but also because I was searching.

I spent the start of 2016 in Ireland. My friend Rachel and I decided to go to Ireland and parts of the UK and we ended up in Dublin for New Years. On one of our other days of traveling we decided to go out with some people from our hostel and we ended up meeting up with people from Montreal (Canada) and Geneva (Switzerland). We ended up walking back to our hostel with our new friends. We found out that they were both engineers on vacation and that they went to grad school together.

Grego, from Geneva but working in Burkina Faso, asked, “Where are you from?” I said the United States, and after recognizing confusion on his face, I asked did if he meant something else. He changed his question. “No, no, what is your origin?” He was speaking of my ethnicity. He was curious about my heritage, which sparked my curiosity as well. He had seen my features before, but not my complexion. He also displayed genuine curiosity when asking. My family always talked about our Black, Native American, and Irish roots, but I never really looked too much into it. His question prompted a mini-identity crisis, but in a positive way. I just gave a generic response, but that question stuck with me. What is your origin? (PS. It’s definitely a United States norm to explain your genetic make up to other people.)

The question carried me into this year. I decided to try the Ancestry DNA kit. I sent the package in and eagerly awaited the results. What is my origin? Where do I come from? One of the common statements that prominent black people in the US frequently use is that “we don’t know where we come from.” Because of slavery, we don’t have a definitive place to point back to and say “I am from X and this is My Culture.”

The day came when I received the email, and I would discover the direction in which I could travel to learn about my heritage. I take great pride in family heritage, generational stories, lessons, and ties to the past, but this gave me a place on a map, well a few places. I intend to visit most, if not all these places. I discovered my origin and no I’m curious to learn about the cultures and histories so I can better understand myself and the world.

My curiosity is at an all time high right now. I’ve loved learning all my life, but right now I have more access than I’ve ever had before. I have time and resources to have new experiences. I am in the mindset that possibilities are endless and that I can become more and more myself each day by peeling that the curtains back one by one. It is a privilege to have time and freedom to seek these things out. There are so many who don’t have that luxury, which is why I’m also compelled to make a better world for others through my work. I am living my best life right now, and it is only the beginning. The relationships, interests, jobs, and opportunities have aligned and continue to align in such a way that I get to do all that I want to do, which isn’t me saying that I can go and do anything I want. But instead, saying that I can choose. I can say no to the things I don’t want and yes to what I do want. I’ve found direction, but most of all, I’ve found home, in myself.

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The Growing Pains series will continue each day until the full story is shared. It is an honest look at how socialization, poverty, changing circumstances, and perceptions influenced me to hate myself, my skill, and my community, but ultimately how authentic relationships, challenging questions, and a deep look inside helped me learn to love myself and love my people. You see I’m black and I love it, but that wasn’t always the case. Check tomorrow for the next chapter – Growing Pains #15: Authenticity will be up and ready for your reading.

Growing Pains #13: Mirrors

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There is no “right” way to be black, but because of how culture works, there are similar or shared experiences. Being a member of the culture and seeing myself as different caused me to reject some ways of displaying culture norms and widely accepted behaviors. Trying my hand at archery, being a gymnast, camping (which I’m still not sold on, but I’ll do because I love spending time with my friends), and a variety of other things are examples of “non-normal black people activities” (Stereotype).

My context has most often been US-based so my perspective is influenced by the culture in the United States. Consciously and unconsciously, I received information about what it meant to be black in the world from all sides. From how to speak and dress to the types of lives we “lead” and what we’ll be successful at. I needed to find representation. I needed to unlearn the stereotypes I, myself, held about blackness and black people, while also being true to myself. I needed to find present-day mirrors that reflected me back at me, while I worked to embrace blackness as a whole so not to exclude others.

I found a treasure trove of artists, friends, family, peers, icons, people larger than life and historic figures that transcended generations. I think of Donald Glover who is as creative as it gets. He continues to dive deeper into the work that inspires him, while also addressing issues affecting black communities through shows like Atlanta. I think of Andre 3000 who challenged the notion of black masculinity, while giving us great music and meaningful messages. I think of rap music and all its form. I think of Ava DuVernay who’s given us amazing films and commentary on issues that affect our people generation after generation. I think of Michelle Obama, and the grace and commitment she shows through her health and women’s initiatives. I think of where I was when Barak Obama was first elected. I think (often) of James Baldwin, who shared the feelings of wanting to leave or escape the US, but ultimately felt compelled to come back. (In some places around the world, the grass is actually greener for black people.)

I think of Nikki Giovanni who said “If you don’t understand yourself, you don’t understand anybody else.” I think of Ta-Nehisi Coates who discussed stolen moments created by fear as he explored Paris with a new friend he thought might bring him to harm because of what he experienced growing up in Baltimore. I think of Chadwick Boseman, John Boyega, and Idris Elba as the superheroes I looked for in all my Saturday morning cartoons. I think of my parents, black barbershops, family, laughter, creativity, travel, fellowship, and community.

I found mirror after mirror, all of different shapes and sizes and colors. I was seeing myself in my community. I learned that it’s not how you show up, but rather showing up at all and being authentic. A lesson learned early on, but later forgotten and learned again later, is that people just want you to be real. No two-way glass. No distorted funhouse mirrors. Just a mirror that might hold a reflection from time to time.

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The Growing Pains series will continue each day until the full story is shared. It is an honest look at how socialization, poverty, changing circumstances, and perceptions influenced me to hate myself, my skill, and my community, but ultimately how authentic relationships, challenging questions, and a deep look inside helped me learn to love myself and love my people. You see I’m black and I love it, but that wasn’t always the case. Check tomorrow for the next chapter – Growing Pains #14: Curiosity will be up and ready for your reading.

Growing Pains #12: Reflections (i)

I am black. I own my blackness. I love my blackness. I love your blackness. I see my reflection. I see myself in the black community.  I see my blackness as valuable. I see my blackness as worthy and equally as important as all the other parts of me. I see your blackness as worthy and equally as important as all the other parts of you. I am happy. I am proud. I am thankful. I am who I am and that included my blackness. I reflect that into the world.

“I love myself.” – Kendrick Lamar

“I am my ancestors’ wildest dream.” – Ava Duvernay

The Growing Pains series will continue each day until the full story is shared. It is an honest look at how socialization, poverty, changing circumstances, and perceptions influenced me to hate myself, my skill, and my community, but ultimately how authentic relationships, challenging questions, and a deep look inside helped me learn to love myself and love my people. You see I’m black and I love it, but that wasn’t always the case. Check tomorrow for the next chapter – Growing Pains #13: Mirrors will be up and ready for your reading.

Growing Pains #9: Space & The Escape

Solitude. Reflection. Silence. Empty Space. I crave it. I need it. I can’t operate without it. I attribute this to the way my mind works, but also always having people around as a child. I can’t process information in overstimulating environments. In crowded spaces, I check out. In busy or loud environments, I’m unfocused or hyper-focused on one thing. In moments characterized by loud sounds, lots of people, and conversation, I just take in all the information, noise, and movement around me or I take in none of it. I need empty space to find clarity. Sometimes, I even need to be outside because some spaces aren’t large enough. I need the entire sky to fill my thoughts.

The summer after sophomore year, I got all the solitude and silence I needed, two months worth of it. Not total solitude for two months, but I spent more time alone than I did with people. It may be my favorite summer. It was the perfect time to “restart” my life. I had time to grieve, process, learn, make sense of, and understand all that I had gone through and was going through. I just needed to stop creating distractions. I know myself very well now, but at that time I knew nothing about myself. I saw no reflections. I wasn’t trying to see any.

I learned the most important lesson about myself that summer. I learned how to learn about myself. It was a know thy self type of situation. I needed to learn how to be authentic. I went inward. I learned how to ask myself questions that I needed answers to, but may not have wanted. I learned how to be honest with myself about everything. I recognized myself for the first time and I was just lost. I was a black man (still a teenager at the time) who had grown to outwardly hate and avoid anyone who looked like me, thus hating myself. Feeling guilty and unsure of what to do next, I saw my reflection for the first time.

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When I had the space to think about it, I started to notice my behaviors. My unconscious actions that distanced me from other black people. I noticed that my unresolved frustrations and biases influenced how I built relationships. I spent what felt like all my life separating myself from other black people – intellectually, socially, emotionally, psychologically. I found ways to not see the mirror. The reflections were always present, but I chose not to see them. This was the first time I was seeing myself as a black man. How could I possible come clean about this? Who can I tell? How will they feel? What do I do now? What does it mean to be black? These questions left me wanting, but paralyzed by guilt and uncertainty. Critical reflection started me on a path toward self-love, but I’d need a few earthquakes to shake the path so I would move forward.

The Growing Pains series will continue each day until the full story is shared. It is an honest look at how socialization, poverty, changing circumstances, and perceptions influenced me to hate myself, my skill, and my community, but ultimately how authentic relationships, challenging questions, and a deep look inside helped me learn to love myself and love my people. You see I’m black and I love it, but that wasn’t always the case. Check tomorrow for the next chapter – Growing Pains #10: Resentment will be up and ready for your reading.

 

Growing Pains #4: The Escape (Gymnastics and the Ocean)

Growing Pains #5 – The Escape

You’ve probably reached this point and have thought, “wow this guy’s childhood was rough.” We all have our rough spots, but my life was full of love. It took me some time to see it and appreciate it. It wasn’t all bad. In fact, there are bright spots that I reflect on now. I was a competitive gymnast in traditional gymnastics as well as trampoline and tumbling. (I’ve included links for trampoline and tumbling because people are less familiar with them.) I started at age four and rounded out my competitive journey at 17 before I left for college. Gymnastics gave me freedom. It was my escape.

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First National Competition. First National Championship. (It sounds cooler than it is. It was me and one another kid in the division. I only beat one person lol)

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I could spend hours in the gym. I wouldn’t even have practice and I’d want to be at the gym. It helped that my mom coached and eventually started her own team. There’s a certain level of peace you get from leaving the ground and just being still in the air for a moment. Yes, there’s the rush of trying newer, more difficult skills, but there is nothing like flying through the air detached from everything for a moment.

 

Our family vacations coincided with Nationals or the Junior Olympics. My favorite competitions happened in Florida and Virginia. I was near the ocean. Similar to the feeling of flying through the air detached, there’s nothing like the stillness beneath the waves in the ocean. I felt so much peace in the ocean. My life felt less chaotic, less loud, and less crowed. The ocean gave me rest and it always seemed to come at the perfect time.

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The Growing Pains series will continue each day until the full story is shared. It is an honest look at how socialization, poverty, changing circumstances, and perceptions influenced me to hate myself, my skin, and my community, but ultimately how authentic relationships, challenging questions, and a deep look inside helped me learn to love myself and love my people. You see, I’m black and I love it, but that wasn’t always the case. Check tomorrow for the next chapter – Growing Pains #5: Resentment will be up and ready for your reading.

 

Growing Pains #2: Where Do I Fit?

“It comes as a great shock around the age of five or six or seven to discover that the flag to which you have pledged allegiance, along with everybody else, has not pledged allegiance to you. It comes as a great shock to discover that Gary Cooper killing off the Indians, when you were rooting for Gary Cooper, that the Indians were you. It comes as a great shock to discover that the country which is your birthplace, and to which you owe your life and your identity, has not in its whole system of reality evolved any place for you.” – James Baldwin, novelist, essayist, playwright, poet, and social critic.

Quiet hallways. Cinderblock walls painted white with deep brown stripe painted to divide the top from the bottom. A sea of brown faces. No Mirrors.

I started to notice differences immediately. I couldn’t see myself in the people around me. At St. Mike’s, I couldn’t tell you the ethnic make-up of the class because it didn’t matter. I mean I didn’t know it mattered to me. When I arrived at Thomas Gist, there was a pronounced feeling of difference. I was different. I didn’t see myself as black. I saw everyone around me as black. I was the exception, which is why I was ahead of everyone else. Unconsciously, I thought myself better than others because I was different, and at the time different meant better to me.

I understood this difference to be “black people are less capable of achieving,” which is absolutely not the case. However, there was something more significant that was influencing my perspective – social class. At both St. Mike’s and Thomas Gist, messages of success, brilliance, and imagination were espoused weekly, if not daily. Each teacher communicated that we were all capable students and that we’d one day succeed in reaching our dreams. There was only one difference, a subtle one to a six year old – less resources. Without similar resources and support, I recognized the difference as being the result of the people and not the system around the people.

In unconsciously blaming the people around me, I struggled to make connections with students who were “so different” than me. I didn’t fit. I didn’t know how to build new relationships with other black kids. Martez was my only friend, which was probably a result of him looking like my cousin Josh. For those years, I was very much an outsider and very much alone. I became more introspective and unwilling to interact with others. A quiet second and third grader found himself trying to understand why he felt so alone.

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Martez is in the front row and to the right of me.  He is wearing a gray shirt, black pants, and black/white tie.

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The Growing Pains series will continue each day until the full story is shared. It is an honest look at how socialization, poverty, changing circumstances, and perceptions influenced me to hate myself, my skin, and my community, but ultimately how authentic relationships, challenging questions, and a deep look inside helped me learn to love myself and love my people. You see, I’m black and I love it, but that wasn’t always the case. Check tomorrow for the next chapter – Growing Pains #3: Space will be up and ready for your reading.

Growing Pains #1: Bad Genes

Context:

For the past five years, I’ve been reconciling all the hate for myself that compounded over my short lifetime of 24 years. At that point, I was 19 and just starting my journey. Leading up to the middle of Black History Month (February 2017), I found the freedom to tell the story you’re about to begin (There was a long Facebook post). Growing Pains is be a blog series that reflects my personal journey and the semi-universal feelings that came from it. Pain, disappointment, frustration, loneliness, confusion, honesty, compassion, hope, curiosity, love, and peace of mind. My hope is solely to uncover my wounds so that others may see how to heal their own. In sharing this, I aspire to be vulnerable, authentic, humorous, creative, and instructive. Please journey with me from Self-Hate to Self-Love that extends back into a community that has given and still gives me so much joy. I love myself and I love my blackness.

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Bad jeans – I mean bad genes. Sixteen and wishing for color contacts to have the ocean blue eyes like the porcelain skinned girl I had a crush on in the first grade. Five years old, white oxford shirt, smirk, pressed blue pants, Reebok sneakers, Detroit Lions backpack, Hercules folder. I was ready for the first day of first grade at St. Michael’s School, a private school in Southfield, MI. Didn’t even know I was Black. I was a kid trying to figure out which one of the eighth graders was going to push me on the swing set during recess. I was a kid trying to figure out how the Gingerbread Man got from room to room. My mind was bursting open as if the sun was exploding and my imagination was a deep and as wide as the ocean. Day after day there was a new adventure to be had and a new lesson to be learned.

Decades before Arthur memes, I was dressed in a yellow sweater vest and jeans with the fake round glasses on for Arthur Day. We were paleontologists wearing 13-pocket vests looking for fossils in the dirt on Paleontologist Day. We made wax candles on Valentine’s Day after receiving a valentine from every person in the class. On Saturdays, I sat in a rocking chair with a blanket over my legs next to my brother, who sat in a power ranger chair, to watch Saturday morning cartoons while eating a mini bagel with cream cheese and drinking apple juice. I was 85 in a six-year old’s body, assuming that 85 year-olds sit in rocking chairs. Life was good. Life was amazing in fact.

First grade came and went. It was an exciting year full of first crushes, field day, elementary school birthday parties, and the Scholastic Book Fair. Second grade rolled around and I found myself at a new school, Thomas Gist in Inkster, MI. I went from a private school that was predominantly white to a charter school that was predominantly black. My world shook and I didn’t know how to handle it. Making friends at that age was challenging enough, but to change school and communities made it even more difficult. My second-grade head was spinning. I was alone in a new place. I imagine I am introverted by nature, but the next few years reinforced that feeling. I didn’t spend much time in the second-grade class though, because what I had learned in first grade at St. Mike’s, they were just teaching in second grade at Thomas Gist. So, I was placed in Ms. Murphy’s third grade class about a month into the school year. Change after change.

This is where my 6-year-old brain started to rationalize what was going on in my life. I mean rationalize as a process, not as being rational about the situation. I had to make sense of the world around me. My best interpretation was “if this school is predominantly black and I’m a year ahead in every subject, then that must mean that white kids are smarter and because I was around them, I was smarter. I wasn’t very rational at 6-years-old, and I was upset because I missed my old friends and teachers. I wanted things to go back the way they were. I just wanted to go back to St. Mike’s.

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The Growing Pains series will continue each day until the full story is shared. It is an honest look at how socialization, poverty, changing circumstances, and perceptions influenced me to hate myself, my skin, and my community, but ultimately how authentic relationships, challenging questions, and a deep look inside helped me learn to love myself and love my people. You see, I’m black and I love it, but that wasn’t always the case. Check tomorrow for the next chapter – Growing Pains #2: Where Do I Fit? will be up and ready for your reading.

 

HUMAN – A Reflection on the Film

With a vision to truly capture the essence of what humans experience, Yann Arthus-Bertrand spent three years taking photos, recording stories, and creating a deeply personal and effortlessly human film that allows people to be vulnerable, authentic, honest, and free to share parts of themselves that we can all find in our own lives. (Yann Arthus-Bertrand is a French photographer, journalist, reporter and environmentalist.)

HUMAN the movie (Link to VOL. 1) strips away the complexity of human life to date and shares it with viewers who can immediately empathize or connect with the people who are sharing their stories. Universal themes are at the center of the film – disappointment, love, hate, pain, happiness, sorrow, frustration, change, isolation, difference, belonging, anguish, trust, kindness, and uncertainty.

Many have said, and will continue to say, that technology has isolated us. My usual response to statements and situations when it comes to human interaction, belief systems, and how we treat each other is “It’s more complicated than that.” HUMAN makes the perfect case for that. In the wake of seeing how it has divided us, Arthus-Bertrand demonstrates how technology can be used to bring people closer together.

Right now in the United States, we are publicly seeing people treat others an inhuman. We are desensitized to the reality that we are all people first who have lives, emotions, experiences, needs, desires, ambitions, love, pain, worries, fears, and people that we care about. We are being crushed by adding layer upon layer as to why we are so different from one another, why we have disdain for people, and why we could never even be in the same room as some people. Whether you are liberal or conservative or neither. Black or white or multi-racial. Gay or Straight or Neither. Even if you fit into not of those categories, you are a person first. I am a person first. Though our beliefs may differ, we are people first. Though our ideologies may differ, we are people first.

I understand that how we come together is much more complex than that. There must be acknowledgement and reconciliation from past and current injustices. There must be progress made in achieving equal rights and human rights, as well as in the enactment of those rights. Poverty must be addressed. Decades of work or harm must be undone in order to create a more peaceful world, a world that thrives through collaboration, mutual trust and respect, and honesty.

Even as insurmountable as it may seem to build a better world, it starts with taking a deeply honest look inside to say, who do I see as not worth of life, support, love, opportunity, friendship, happiness, joy, rights? Why do I feel this way? What has brought me to this mindset? How can I get out of the way of others? How can I change the minds of people close to me? Do I see others as human beings? If so, I know what it means to feel pain, be forgotten, and unloved. But I also know what life is like when I feel joy, connected, loved, and appreciated.

When we can acknowledge one another’s humanity, we will be able to have better conversations about our differences and gain understanding about one another’s lives. Even if we do not agree, even if we do not reach a place of true consensus, we have taken the time to acknowledge one another’s humanity and treat each other with dignity.

I’ve included the trailer for a short introduction and a link to VOL. 1 of Human The Movie near the start of the blog.