Category Archives: Your Voice Matters

We Must Educate, Not Censure

Choices are important.

Learning how to made them is even more so.

Like many Americans, I was shocked and dismayed at the outcome of our recent election. I’ve been further saddened by the events which have followed in the days since: expressions of hate and intolerance, protests which turned violent, the President-Elect’s selection of outspoken white supremacists to his senior staff— and now, news that many of the hate and fake news group sites and social media accounts are being banned or deleted.

Wait. I should be happy about that last entry, right? No. And neither should you.

This is Helicopter Parenting 101. I see something I believe will be a bad influence, or dangerous, to my children so I try to erase it from their lives. Eliminate it from existence. Yet, all this does is serve to ease my own mind, like eating comfort foods when I’m upset. The problem doesn’t go away. It only hides in the shadows, growing larger and more powerful the longer I pretend it doesn’t exist.

Censuring these people and their caustic, hateful ideology, won’t eradicate them. In fact, it may serve to garner sympathy and cause them to become more resolute in their mission. This doesn’t help to solve the problem, it only exacerbates it.

Education— showing people why these viewpoints are divisive, destructive, and unhealthy for humanity as a whole is what is needed.

Let’s look at some numbers from this past election to illustrate my point.

Print

These percentages come from Pew Research and, from the article…

This is by far the widest gap in support among college graduates and non-college graduates in exit polls dating back to 1980.

The sites and social media accounts which are being targeted are notorious for posing as news organizations while posting erroneous or completely false information. That practice is unquestionably bad and needs to be exposed for the damage it causes. I do not believe, however, that censure is the way to go about tackling this problem.

People can’t make good decisions if they aren’t presented with facts, but even further, they can’t make good decisions if they don’t have the ability to discern fact from fiction. If we don’t nurture and encourage active, informed decision-making in our children by not hiding what we perceive as bad in the world, how can we expect them to make good decisions when we’re not there to guide them anymore?

This problem is not just about hate speech, lies, and bigotry. It is about getting people to think for themselves and not being satisfied with having information spoon-fed to them. If we don’t educate why these ideologies are harmful or teach and encourage critical thinking, the hole we’re currently in will only get deeper.

The Adversary of Change: Acceptance

“Daddy, why do people die?”

I look down at my six-year-old daughter. Her bright red hair is pulled back in a sloppy ponytail and a dusting of freckles dots her nose and cheeks. How can such a such a serious question come from something that personifies adorable? “It’s hard to say, Honey. As our bodies grow and age, things start to wear out I guess. Kind of like the doll you got last Christmas. You played and played with it until the hair fell out and the arm fell off so many times we just couldn’t fix it anymore.”

“Yeah,” she says, pausing to blow the seeds off a dandelion and watch them flutter away in the wind. “But why do people wear out?”

“I don’t know, Sweetheart. Some things we just have to accept because we can’t change them.”

* * * * *

Sometimes I think back to those days when my kids were young and regret explanations like that. True though they may be at times, they encourage us to stop asking, “Why?” When we’re little, every utterance is a question. Eventually, even the most well-meaning parents tire of answering the ceaseless queries and the “That’s just the way it is” answers start to come out. After enough answers like this, children become less verbally inquisitive and the parents breathe a sigh of relief, but is this really a good thing? I can only imagine having a small child now.

“Daddy, why are those people fighting on TV?”

It’s a question that deserves an answer, but is it an answer we can give? How can we explain race relations, or income inequality, or religious persecution to a child without quickly coming to a spot where we give up and say, “I don’t know, that’s just the way it is, Sweetie.”

Unfortunately, what seed does that plant in our children’s minds? Social issues have no solution. Just accept them. That’s the way it is.

Members of the community hold hands in front of police officers in riot gear in Baltimore, April 28, 2015. Reuters/Jim Bourg

Members of the community hold hands in front of police officers in riot gear in Baltimore, April 28, 2015. Reuters/Jim Bourg

Can we afford to accept these problems any longer? Reach inside and draw on your inner child. Allow yourself to ask, “Why?”

And when figures of authority answer with, “That’s the way it is,” don’t accept it as an answer, because it’s not. Be persistent.

Science has progressed throughout our history because some people refused to accept conventional wisdom at face value. They repeatedly asked, “Why?” until they found answers to satisfy them. And later, those answers were questioned once again. Elements of science fiction such as artificial intelligence and warp drive are becoming teasingly close to becoming science fact. Who knows what other things we previously thought impossible will someday become commonplace?

In order to affect social change, we have to approach it in the same manner. Question why. Why are people, living in the richest country in the world, subjected to conditions that resemble life from two centuries ago? Why are we uncomfortable interacting with people who are different from us? Why does that discomfort seem to always lead to violence?

The cycle can only stop if we refuse to accept it.

The Real Price of Freedom: Tolerance

Being human is hard.

Who am I so wise in the ways of science to come up with that brilliant conclusion? I’m nobody, really. Just someone who attempts to make a living out of observing the human condition as we hurtle through space atop an unremarkable (or remarkable, depending on your point of view) ball of rock with a bit of water and oxygen tossed in, just to break up the monotony. I am recorder and participant, examiner and subject.

“All right,” You may say, feeling somewhat frustrated by my obfuscating answer to the first question. What drove me to my pithy opening statement?

Humans.

Now you’re miffed because this answer was too direct and implied an unsatisfying circular logic. Or, you smiled and maybe even chuckled to yourself.

And that is precisely my point. We all belong to a single species, yet at times we feel as different from each other as amoebas and elephants. We are complicated creatures who often find it difficult to understand our own reactions to things, let alone someone else’s. Two people can read an article or look at a picture and feel entirely different things. For instance, humor and cleverness on one hand, and hatred and violence on the other.

The attack in France recently showed us these opposing reactions. It’s easy to label the perpetrators of death as monsters, yet while their actions were certainly monstrous, labels won’t escape the harsh reality that they were also human. Emotions we’ve all felt — disgust, rage, persecution, fear, hopelessness — led to humans perpetrating violence on other humans. This isn’t something new either. Humans have waged war on each other throughout history for these very same reasons. Does that make us all monsters?

Some would argue it does. Others would say only those who perform the acts are monsters. Those we might call monsters claim they acted out of courage and self-preservation — noble attributes in most estimations.

“Ridiculous!” You say. “There’s nothing noble about the attack on Charlie Hebdo.” I would agree, yet there are many people in the world who would not. They are just as human as any of the rest of us.

Let’s look back at recent American history, to the abortion clinic bombings of the 1980s. People with Christian ideologies committed arson and murder, all the while in the firm belief they were doing the right thing. Were they any different than the Muslims who killed the people working at Charlie Hebdo? “Those were thirty years ago,” You may argue. “We’ve learned from our mistakes.” Unfortunately, violent attacks against these clinics have continued to happen, even as recently as 2012 and 2013 in Florida, Wisconsin, and Indiana. Dr. George Tiller was murdered in 2009 in Kansas.

Super Kitteh Fearz Change

We all hold different beliefs. We all feel right in our beliefs. It’s part of the definition of a belief. Where we run into trouble is extending that feeling of “right” to “righteousness” — the loss of tolerance for anything which conflicts with our beliefs. Freedom gives us the ability to feel and believe anything we want to. Freedom also means we must accept and tolerate those who hold beliefs contrary to our own, because, they too have the ability to feel and believe anything they want to.

Acting with violence toward someone else who holds different beliefs than you do is never acceptable. Neither is bullying them or suppressing their views or their ability to be heard. To live in a truly free society, we must all pay the price of tolerance and simply agree to disagree.

The Power of Yes (YVM 33)

356130_2421

Photo by Jaymarr from stock.xchng

Years ago, soon after the extinction of the dinosaurs, I coached a soccer team of eleven-year-old girls. I had them working on some basic dribbling and juggling skills one day when I decided to show them some different ways to pick the ball up without using their hands. They practiced pulling the ball back so it rolled onto the top of their foot and followed by lifting their foot and the ball into the air. After just a minute or two, each of them could at least pop the ball up enough so they could catch it with their hands.

Then, I showed them something a little more difficult. I placed the ball between my feet, applying pressure with the insides of my heels. I jumped, lifting the ball with my feet behind me, and twisted. Once the ball was in motion, I released it and landed again on my feet. My twist repositioned me so that I faced the ball in the air and collected it with a raised thigh and began to juggle. The girls all grinned and immediately began trying this new trick.

Most accomplished it after a few tries, or after a couple of pointers from me. One girl, however, quickly grew frustrated and stomped her foot.

“I can’t do it!”

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“The ball keeps hitting my butt when I jump. I can’t do it.”

“Here’s one thing I know,” I said. “If you tell yourself you can’t do something, you’ll always be right. But if you tell yourself you can do something, chances are you’ll still be right most of the time.”

That’s the first time I remember uttering those words — I’m still not sure where they came from — but I’ve used them many times since with soccer players, kids I tutor, and my own children. We positioned the ball a little further back between her heels and she performed the trick after only one or two more tries. I still remember the enormous grin on her face.

Positive self-talk is more important than we realize. Which brings me to the power of “Yes.”

Marian Bechtel is a sophomore at Bryn Mawr College studying geology, physics, and gender studies. At age 13, Marian had her eyes opened to the horrors of landmines. She met a group of international scientists working on a device that utilized holographic radar to detect buried landmines (RASCAN), and was inspired by their work. The one weakness in their device, they said, was that it was rendered useless in wet environments.

One day while playing the piano, Marian noticed that the strings on a nearby banjo resonated when she played certain notes or chords. This gave her an idea — she realized that using acoustic or seismic waves to excite a buried landmine could allow for its detection, even in wet soils. Thus, she joined her newfound passion for humanitarian de-mining with her love of music, and embarked on a long scientific journey, going through three different projects to further this idea, and eventually creating a simple prototype of an acoustic detection device on the frame of a scrap metal detector.

Marian’s research projects took her across the country to many science fairs, including Intel ISEF and I-SWEEEP, and even around the world, to the Royal Society’s 250th Summer Science Exhibition in London. Marian was a 2011 Davidson Fellow, and a finalist in the 2012 Intel Science Talent Search, where she was awarded the Glenn T. Seaborg award for passion in communicating science to the public. She was also featured in the August 2012 issue of Popular Science Magazine as one of their Top 10 High School Inventors.

Marian published her work in the Summer 2013 issue of the Journal of ERW and Mine Action.

The above is from this year’s TEDxTeen event and Marian tells her own story in the video below. It would have been easy for Marian to say to herself, “No, I could never do this. I could never make a difference.” And she would have been right. But, by telling herself, “Yes, I’ll give it a try and who knows what might happen!” she put herself on a path of discovery and invention she never imagined.

What can you accomplish by saying YES today? Age, education, gender, race — none of these matter. What does matter is opening ourselves up to possibilities. And your voice — Your Voice Matters.

Erik, Abigail, and Tomato and Pea (YVM 32)

I have to say, that’s one of the most interesting blog headlines I’ve written! I’ve got two fantastic young people to introduce to you today, as well as a book review, so let’s get to it!

mr90043940713Erik Weibel is a kid who reviews books! He’s going on his third year blogging about reading, writing, and all things books at This Kid Reviews Books. Erik is 11 years old and also writes articles for the Upper Bucks Free Press. He also goes to school and does all the things a regular 11 year-old boy does. I get tired just thinking about all that! Erik’s reviews are plentiful (he posts several times a week), intelligent, and insightful. Here’s a snippet from his review of a 39 Clues book, Nowhere to Run, by Jude Watson:

I was hopeful that this series would start off well. I was not disappointed! Ms. Watson not only tied up things from the last series, she sets this series up to be another great Cahill adventure. Ms. Watson puts in a bunch of action, humor, and adventure into her books and tells a great story for kids. I thought the plot of this book was especially intense and exciting because of the new bad-guy, Pierce. Pierce is very cunning, smart, and absolutely diabolical.

Erik also writes his own stories. His first book, The Adventures of Tomato and Pea, Book 1: A Bad Idea, is available now! (My review follows below) As if all that wasn’t enough, Erik also finds time to spotlight other kids who are doing amazing things, which brings me to Abigail.

img-20120827-wa0000Abigail Brand is an 8 year-old girl who has been writing and publishing picture books for kids since she was 6! Erik has a terrific interview with her on his blog as a part of his Creative Kid Thursday meme. Not only is Abigail writing great stories for youngsters, she also donates a portion of the proceeds from her books to Natal Intensive Care Units (NICU) in hospitals in her area. She’s raised almost $900 in donations so far! You can find out more about Abigail and her books here at her website.

These two amazing kids are just more examples of how your voice matters! What doesn’t matter is how old you are, where you’re from, or whether you’re a boy or girl. What does matter is making your voice heard and having an effect on the world. Even if that effect only reaches one person, you have made a difference!

finaltpcover1-7d1So, to wrap things up, here’s my review of The Adventures of Tomato and Pea, Book 1: A Bad Idea, by Erik Weibel

Erik Weibel may be 11 years old, but you’d never know it by the writing in his first story, The Adventures of Tomato and Pea. Told largely from the perspective of Pea, sidekick to the hero, Tomato, the writing is crisp and tight, with snappy dialog from all the characters that boys and girls alike from 7 to 14, and beyond, are sure to enjoy. Tomato, Pea, and most of the other characters are Smidges from the planet Oarg. They are very small, but don’t let their size fool you! Tomato wins a pleasure cruise aboard a spaceship, but it’s really the latest plot by his nemesis, Wintergreen, to take over the world. With names like these, you can imagine the fun inside this story. I look forward to seeing more from the talented Mr. Weibel!

Well done, Erik and Abigail both! How can you make your voice matter today? It can be something as simple as paying someone a compliment, or even just spreading smiles to those you meet. Little things add up to bigger things and can reach farther than you realize.