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I’m a black man who interacts with lots of different people in many different environments. As such, the racial unrest has made me a prime target for conversations about the African American experience. Two of my colleagues and I (Gena, a black female, and Chris, a white male) recorded one such conversation recently. You can listen to it here. I’m learning firsthand the amount of progress our country needs to make to overcome racial disparity.

I’m convinced more than ever that building relationships must be at or near the very top of those priorities. Through my conversations about racial differences with Chris and several others, here’s what I’ve learned.

1. The lack of awareness and disbelief of many has been surprising.

The black experience in America is extremely difficult to comprehend. The trepidation of an encounter with the police. The thoughts which flood my mind anytime I drive past a confederate flag. The feelings we experience so often when we enter an environment as the only black person or family present. Being able to relate to the mentality of the black experience is hard. In many of my conversations, I’m realizing how oblivious to it my white friends are.

2. The conversations about racial differences definitely can create a level of discomfort.

At times, I can see or hear the natural urge which Chris and others have had to want to deny my experiences, explain it away, justify the actions of themselves or others, or not accept that the culture created in America could produce such oppression. Some things are flat out hard to hear. Whether it’s social norms, housing policies, or law enforcement, to know that you have willingly or unwillingly participated in oppressing others is a difficult pill to swallow. Resisting the urge to be defensive and prove the opposite is not easy. 

3. Relationship strength has made conversations productive.

It was definitely eye-opening to Chris that someone with whom he has had hundreds of conversations and someone that he respects lives such a different reality. We can discuss these realities of being the minority and thinking differently about safety and opportunity because of the high level of trust that we have for one another.

4. There are people who genuinely want to fix the problems but feel frustrated and powerless.

Chris and I have talked about what he can do. That question consistently comes up from my white friends. How can we fix this? I appreciate the desire.  I’m not sure if we, as a country or as individuals are willing to put in the long, diligent, hard work that it takes to recalibrate our country on these matters. Everyone is looking for answers.

Before we can truly find answers, it’s important that we understand the root of the problem and its compounding impact. (And if you’re expecting me to state the root of the problem here, then you’re missing the point that there’s long, diligent, hard work needed to recalibrate the country.) Although I will say, I believe at every step along the way, it’s important for my friends to feel encouraged and empowered to call out both blatant and subtle racism in their homes, workplace, and community. 

5. My own testing mechanisms for gauging one’s willingness to engage in dialogue.

I believe that Chris and many others truly genuinely desire to learn, understand, and value the challenges blacks have faced. I’ve recognized that being genuine and open and willing to work to be a part of the solution can be two different things. Lots of people are interested in being a “good” person that treats people the “right” way. Being open and willing to understand how you may be falling short of that is another matter altogether. When I trust that you’re open and willing, I become more willing to share the depths of my own experiences. 

6. I have mixed emotions about the sudden interest to have these conversations about racial differences. 

  1. Disappointment and Frustration that it’s taken a series of blatant events and a quarantined environment to open the country’s mind to many of the poignant realities of the African American experience. That, in itself, is disappointing and frustrating.
  2. Thankful for the humble and honest engagement that Chris and others within my work and social circle have been willing to participate in.
  3. Skeptical. Turning a huge ship like systemic racism requires sacrifice, change, and urgency, a patient urgency. Those that reap the biggest benefits of the current system must be willing to give up some of those benefits. I’m skeptical because I believe that the cost for true equality is greater than some are willing to pay.
  4. Proud of the effort my parents worked so hard to instill in me to ensure that I knew my value as a human being, as their son, and as a black man.  Given that my father was arrested during the Civil Rights movement in the 60s for protesting and that my mother has achieved the title of “First Black Woman to…” for several of her professional and civic accomplishments gives me a sense of pride for what’s possible for a black man in America.

I walked away from my conversation with Chris more convinced that these conversations must happen. They do help me to remain aware of the progress that needs to be made for true equality. They also illuminate the need to help our white friends comprehend the gravity of what’s at stake as a country if we aren’t willing to do the hard work to push for equal value for all.

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We’ve all heard someone’s “value” calculated as their Net Worth, but what about cultivating the value of your Network? I’m talking about your true friends, accountability partners, and mentors. People that know your goals and will help you achieve them.

Those relationships don’t happen by accident. We have to be open to them. We have to be intentional. We have to invest. Often, when I need those kinds of people in my life the most, my instinct is to go into hiding. I run the opposite way. I find ways to build taller fences, not longer tables.

  • This isn’t where I point out that according to recent research, Americans report being more lonely than ever- but they do.
  • This isn’t where I point out that social media Friends, Followers, Shares, Likes, and Upvotes aren’t the true measure of your Social Capital- but they aren’t.
  • I’m not even going to say that old fashioned, healthy, Rugged American Individualism has often changed us into unhealthy, Radical American Individualists- but it has.
  • I’m just going to quote something my father drilled into me: “Show me your friends and I’ll show you your future.” He was onto something.

It’s easy to surround yourself with people that always agree with you or always take your side. I get it. I do it. That can feel good. It also feels good to have people in your life that you can have fun with and be yourself. But who in your life is helping you be the best version of yourself?

Who is truly helping you be the best spouse or partner, the best parent, the best person that you can be? Who in your life has permission and is willing to confront you and say the hard things? (You know, those things that sting a day or two, but you know they’re true.)

Community, true Social Capital is more important than ever:

  • -I never once got a job solely based on an application. It always involved someone I knew and built a connection with before I even knew a new job was even a possibility.
  • My wife taught me the value of finding married couples deeper into the season of life we were in or heading toward and risking getting real with them.
  • The best thing we did as parents was to connect with other parents for coffee or dessert just to talk about parenting stuff- especially parents with kids heading out of the stages that our kids were heading into.
  • I’ve never regretted cultivating relationships- real friendships- with a couple of guys that I could be honest and transparent with, knowing that in return they would ask me the tough questions about the kind of husband, father, and man I am.

These kinds of people and couples and parents can be difficult to find. Maybe the best way to find them is to first work at being that kind of person for other people.

I could not begin to tell you my Net Worth. It probably isn’t much. I’m positive it isn’t much. My Network though- priceless. Where are you investing?

Image from Unsplash.com

Every time I introduce myself to a group, I always lead with the fact that I have been married for 24.5 years. I often see wide eyes and hear deep sighs after that. Then I tell them we’ve been together for 30 years, which is often longer than some of the participants have been alive. Some will even give a round of applause. I say my husband needs a standing ovation for being with me all these years.

As we move toward our silver anniversary, I’m thinking about and reminiscing on the things that allowed us to make it when so many didn’t make it to five years, much less 25, especially since my husband and I are so very different. I think there are two main things that keep us together.

For us, quitting is not an option.

We’re both from families where our parents were married for many years. My parents were married for 35 years before my mother died. My in-loves will celebrate 56 years of marriage in August. Plus, our grandparents were married for 50+ years. We saw marriage lived out in all of its complexities, and I saw my parents stay together through ups and downs. When I was a child, my parents came close to the point of divorce. Seeing them happy and in love as an adult reinforced my view that marriage is HARD WORK, but it’s so worth it.

We choose to accept and respect the differences we have.

From the very beginning of our relationship, my husband and I were different. He liked Lakers’ Showtime of the 80s while I was a fan of the Bad Boys of Detroit. I loved pro-football and he was big college fan. I am an extreme extrovert who loves being around a lot of people while he is much more comfortable around a small group of close friends.

For a long time, I wanted him to be more like me. I thought it would make our relationship better if we liked ALL the same things. I now realize and respect our differences. If I were with someone JUST LIKE ME, one of us would certainly be unnecessary. The fact that we are not the same and see things differently makes us STRONGER. We lovingly and consistently challenge each other to see old things in a new and unique way.

No matter where you are in a relationship, it’s important to love and accept your partner for who they are without spending all of your energy into shaping them into the image you want them to be. If they are not who you want them to be, or if their actions don’t mesh with you, you have another difficult decision to make.

Perhaps the person who needs to change isn’t them; it just might be you.

***If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, contact the National Hotline for Domestic Abuse. At this link, you can access a private chat with someone who can help you 24/7. If you fear your computer or device is being monitored, call the hotline 24/7 at: 1−800−799−7233. For a clear understanding of what defines an abusive relationship, click here.***

College was a good time for me, but something happened when college wasn’t the center of my life anymore: It was like I woke up and didn’t know who I was. Change is hard, and I almost lost myself trying to adjust to my new situation in some unhealthy ways.

Have you ever felt like you were losing your identity?

Author Anne-Marie Alger defines “identity” as “a group of attributes, qualities and values that define how we view ourselves, and how others may also view us.” Identity involves the labels we place on ourselves, the activities we do or even the places we work. But what happens when we let those labels take over our whole lives? We get consumed by one attribute or quality, and then we begin to lose the rest of ourselves. What happens if we are stripped of that one quality or attribute that we strongly identified ourselves with? A guest on Oprah’s podcast Food For Thought said it this way: “We lose ourselves because we are betraying ourselves in some way.” Now that’s food for thought!

For my entire life, people have viewed me as upbeat and very social. But then adulthood hit me after college graduation and I was not ready. I’ve always had people around me, but I wasn’t nearly as social the last semester of school and after graduation because “adulting” required me to be alone more.

Seeing less people and having fewer social interactions caused my moods to change and I was not the upbeat and social Akeyla that everyone knew. My friends and I had to work, so our relationships felt like they were changing in a negative way. We were too busy to connect with each other. I noticed I was changing, and my energy was so different. I felt depressed because my social life wasn’t as full as it had been. And I began to hate that my social life dictated my feelings and mood.

Recently, something hit me while I was teaching at a summer camp. I began to realize that I had let my social life become my identity. This realization helped to change my perspective and as a result, my relationships with my friends and family began to improve. Moving into adulthood, I now know can have faith and confidence in myself, my talents and my abilities.

Here are some tips to remember when you feel like you’re losing your identity:

  • The most important relationship you have is with yourself! Knowing who you are will make it easier to seek help if you begin to lose yourself.
  • Remember to invest in yourself. Alone time can be the best time!
  • You don’t have to build your life around socializing, but there are lots of ways to keep in touch with your friends. The older I get, the more I realize that people are just busy. We can’t be around each other 24/7 but we can still keep in touch.
  • Stay connected with your family. They are your biggest supporters. And guess what? They know you the best! They will probably notice any changes before you do. For example, my Nana noticed the changes in me first.
  • Change isn’t necessarily a bad thing, so get used to it. Find healthy ways to deal with it since it will be happening for the rest of your life!

Carol Dweck is a pioneering researcher in the field of motivation. In her book, “Mindset,” she  addresses why people succeed or don’t, and how to foster success through  the power of yet.

She tells the story of a Chicago school where students had to pass a series of courses in order to graduate. If they did not successfully pass the courses they were given the grade of “not yet.” Dweck thought that was brilliant. 

“If you get a failing grade, you feel like a failure,” she says, “But if you receive a not yet, it means you are on a growth track.”

In an effort to more fully understand how children cope with challenge and difficulty, Dweck gave a group of 10 year olds math problems that were slightly too hard for them. Some of the children said things like, “I love a challenge,” or “I was hoping this would be informative.” Dweck says they had a growth mindset because they innately understood their abilities could be developed. 

Another group of students thought their inability to solve the problems was tragic. They believed their intelligence was up for judgment and they failed. In fact, Dweck shared that in one study the young students said they would cheat the next time instead of studying more if they failed. They also looked for someone who did worse than they did to make themselves feel better. Dweck refers to these students as having a fixed mindset – believing that personal qualities are carved in stone, which creates an urgency to prove one’s self over and over. 

In a TED talk about mindset, Dweck asks, “How are we raising our children? Are we raising them for now instead of not yet? Are A’s so important to them that they have no idea how to dream big dreams? Are they carrying the need for constant validation with them into their future lives?”

Dweck contends that choosing to praise wisely would be helpful to children. Instead of praising intelligence or talent, praise progress, effort, strategies and improvement. This helps build children who are hardy and resilient.

She also points out that equality occurs when teachers create a growth mindset in their classrooms. For example, in one year, a kindergarten class in Harlem scored in the 95th percentile on the National Achievement Test. Many of those kids could not hold a pencil when they arrived in school. Also in one year, fourth grade students in the South Bronx who were way behind became the number one fourth grade class in New York on the state’s math test. And, in a year to a year and a half, Native American students on a reservation went from the bottom of their district to the top – and that district included affluent sections of Seattle, Washington. Dweck believes this happened because the meaning of effort and difficulty were transformed. Before it made them feel dumb, but now effort and difficulty enable their neurons to make stronger connections.

“We can change students mindsets,” Dweck says. Every time children push out of their comfort zone the neurons in their brain form new stronger connections. Students who weren’t taught this growth mindset continued to show declining grades, but those who were taught the growth mindset strategy saw their grades improve.

Dweck received a letter from a 13-year-old boy which said, “Dear Professor Dweck, I appreciate that your writing is based on solid scientific research. That’s why I decided to put it into practice. I put more effort into my school work, into my relationship with my family and into my relationship with kids at school and I experienced great improvement in all of these areas. I now realize I wasted most of my life.”

Are we raising children in the environment of yet?

Once we know that people are capable of such growth, it becomes a human right for children to live in places filled with yet. Let’s not waste the time we have with the kids in our sphere of influence. Let’s teach them the importance of mindset, praise their efforts and give them amazing opportunities to grow and become the resilient children we all know they have the potential to be.

For better, for worse. For richer, for poorer. In sickness and in health. 

Starry-eyed in love, couples stand before friends and family and recite these vows with total commitment to each other.

“Many people believe that if they have found their soulmate and are deeply in love, they won’t have disagreements or bad things happen in their marriage. If they do, they think something must be wrong with their relationship,” says Diane Sollee, founder of the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education.

“I believe one of the biggest disservices we do to newlywed couples is not giving them expectations about how things are going to be when two lives come crashing together. They get married, go on a honeymoon and then come home thinking things are going to be great, only to find that there are these little things that keep coming up that are wreaking havoc in their relationship.”

For example, one newlywed couple lived close to the husband’s family and saw them all the time. Since they lived close to his parents, the wife thought they should go visit her family for Christmas and Thanksgiving. He thought that was totally unfair. She thought it was so fair it made her extremely angry and upset. Her didn’t see the logic between where you live and splitting up the holidays. This was an issue in their first three years of marriage.

Studies indicate that every happily married couple usually has approximately 10 irreconcilable differences.

“Learning how to live with your spouse is a constant adventure that requires advance planning,” Sollee says. “I think the first years should be called the ‘clash of civilizations stage’ instead of the honeymoon. This stage is when two people actually get to set up a new civilization determining how they are going to do everything from eat, sleep, work, raise children, deal with in-laws, make love, keep house, pay bills, etc. Couples who believe that because you love each other you will simply agree about how all of this should work are in for great disappointment. Instead of seeing these differences as part of the marriage adventure, this is the very thing that sends what could be a great marriage over time into a tailspin.”

It might come as a surprise to know that noted marriage researcher, Dr. John Gottman, found that happily-married couples disagree the same amount as couples who divorce. Studies show that all couples fight about money, sex, kids, others and time. Couples who understand that these disagreements are normal and learn to manage those areas do better.

“Finding these areas of disagreement is part of the adventure. It shouldn’t scare couples if they prepare for the journey,” Sollee suggests. “Entering into marriage without preparation would be like planning to climb Mount Everest and only hoping you have what it takes. When people first started climbing that mountain, many people did not make it because they did not know what to expect. Now the success rate is much better because people know how to prepare and often do so for years before they actually climb the mountain. The same is true with marriage. We know the tools couples need to be successful.”

If you are marrying soon or are a newlywed, think of it as if you were preparing to climb Mount Everest. It’s a great adventure with potential danger at every turn. You want to be as knowledgeable as possible about what to expect. That way, even the simple things do not pose a threat to your relationship. There are ways you can know what to expect from marriage – including how to navigate those annoying disagreements that keep rising to the surface.

For instance, you can take a premarital or marriage education class where you can practice handling the hard stuff.

“You can do almost anything in life if you know what to expect,” Sollee shares. “If you don’t know what to expect, you can fall in a crevasse and blame it on all the wrong things – your spouse, your mother-in-law, etc.”

For more information on becoming a newlywed, get our e-book, 10 Things Every Newlywed Needs to Know.

 ***If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, contact the National Hotline for Domestic Abuse. At this link, you can access a private chat with someone who can help you 24/7. If you fear your computer or device is being monitored, call the hotline 24/7 at: 1−800−799−7233. For a clear understanding of what defines an abusive relationship, click here.***