We just concluded the opening session of the seminar. We’ll be here another six days so there’s a lot in store.  There are many brilliant thinkers here, and it’s going to be a challenge for me to step out of my listening stance to speak more. A lot of good insights arose in a very short time, and I can see how these readings and discussions will build on each other throughout the week.

We have two capable moderators in Jerald and David. Jerald led the opening reception and introductions while David facilitated the opening discussion. Although I’m not at liberty to report on who said what, I do want to share the question which framed our talk this evening: Why do people disagree? It’s a great question, and one which can frame many conversations across a range of topics.

teachers-23820_640True dialogue, which is not about debate or persuasion, but about understanding, gets at the heart of this. When you endeavor to dialogue with another, you work to peel away layers. To reveal values. To listen. To learn.

Sometimes you find that disagreements are based on different life experiences or values, language barriers or misunderstandings. In some cases, the disagreements might be quite minor and consensus close at hand. In the others, especially in the case of values, disagreement might be profound, with seemingly no resolution forthcoming.

As the eternal optimist, I believe that even in the case of divergent values, there is room for empathy and compassion. Across large institutions, governments, societies, groups can still find some common ground.

Our discussion was on An Agreement of the People. We spoke specifically about politics and civil law, power and property, but my mind was most interested in the idea of insider/outsider status.

  • How do we identify other insiders?
  • How do we treat outsiders and (how) can they come to be invited in?
  • What is the role of trust in the insider/outsider relationship?
  • If you extend trust to those on the outside, do you, in that very act, bring them inside?

Tomorrow is Session I: Human Nature. I had trouble with some of the readings because I disagreed with some of the fundamental arguments the authors presented. We don’t have to agree to contribute to the Great Conversation. And really, disagreement is what makes the Conversation worthy of having.

Read the next post in the Aspen Seminar series.

Telephone and Politics

We sat in a circle. Maybe there were 15-20 of us, I’m not sure. But there we were, all sitting crossed-legged in a circle on stained, graying berber. We ranged in age from maybe 6 or 7 to perhaps 11 or 12 and it was one of the many games we played at the nursery center after school.

We called it Pass it Down, but you might know it as Telephone. The chosen person began by whispering a word, phrase or sentence into a nearby ear. The owner of that ear “passed it down,” and relayed the message to the next person. And on it went around the circle until the message got back to the originator.

“That’s not what I said!” was the originator’s oft-heard reply. Whatever word or words were passed down were distorted by the time they got through everyone. He said, she said, and apparently almost everyone said or heard it wrong.

It’s a game, but sometimes versions of it happen in real life, too. Notably, in politics. Something happens and folks “hear the message” and get all up in arms about what they think the message is, when what they heard (or read via social media) is a word or phrase or sentence removed from the truth.

Today, the FAMU Board of Trustees had an “emergency called meeting” to discuss the FAMU-FSU college of engineering.  The Chair, Solomon Bader, released a statement which read, in part,

We are aware of an amendment filed on Tuesday evening by Senator John Thrasher that would create a second college of engineering in Tallahassee at Florida State University.

The statement was cause for alarm for those who support the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering – a joint venture between the two universities. The college was founded in 1983 and shares resources including facilities and professors. Students can attend either Florida A&M University or Florida State University and take classes at the college.

I wanted to know what Senator Thrasher’s amendment actually said, so I went searching.

I found out Senator Thrasher’s amendment did not create a second college of engineering. Instead, it added $3 million to the proposed Senate Budget (See SB 2500) which already provided $10 million of capital outlay to “FSU – College of Engineering.” The amendment did not “create” a second college, but it added additional funding to a new college. A previously non-existent FSU College of Engineering is listed in the proposed budget, and there is no accompanying narrative to explain the capital outlay.

Section of SB 2500 funding the FSU College of Engineering.
Section of SB 2500 funding the FSU College of Engineering.

As I discovered this, the Florida Senate debated the budget and passed it, 37-2. The Florida House debated and passed its own version of the budget (HB 5001) which did not include the controversial item.

Some are calling for pressure on Senator Thrasher. I’m not sure what that can accomplish. After all, the Senate has already voted on the measure in question. Others are lamenting it’s over and nothing else can be done. The new FSU College of Engineering is on its way. But this fatalistic approach ignores the conference that must occur to reconcile the bills, and any additional steps required to approve a new program.

Whether you support or oppose an FSU College of Engineering, it’s time to do your own research and stop playing Telephone with politics.

Welcome to FAMU

On Tuesday, April 1, 2014, Dr. Elmira Mangum begins her first day as Florida A&M University’s new Rattler-in-Chief. To celebrate, the school will host a Welcome Rally  on the steps of Lee Hall, Thursday, April 4, at 12:15 p.m.

Dr. Mangum will be FAMU’s 11th president. She also has the distinction of becoming the first female permanent president in the university’s 126-year history.

Dr. Castell Vaughn Bryant served as interim president from 2005-2007.

FAMU’s Board of Trustees selected Dr. Mangum in January, in a 10-2 vote. After rounds of contract negotiations marked by efforts to decrease her compensation package, she was approved by the Florida Board of Governors on February 20, 2014.

Dr. Mangum brings over 25 years of higher education administration to the post. She was most recently Vice President for Budget and Planning at Cornell University.

FAMU Partners with Black Television News Channel

On Friday, March 21, 2014, Florida A&M University (FAMU) inked a deal with the nation’s only Black-owned cable news network. The newly established Black Television News Channel (BTNC) will be managed and operated from FAMU’s School of Journalism and Graphic Communication (SJGC).

With the creation of the BTNC, founding partners Congressman J.C. Watts, Bob Brillante, Frank Watson and Steve Pruitt, plan to fill a void in the news industry. Over the past twenty years, 18 Black-owned and operated television stations have gone out of business. The result? A dearth of content for Black consumers.

Said Congressman Watts, “The world only gets a sliver of who the Black community is today. We look forward to telling that story.” FAMU, an HBCU (historically black college or university), was the ideal choice for the enterprise.

The station’s connection to SJGC will provide authentic industry training and mentorship for its journalism students. The agreement provides career counseling, internships and job placement as well.

Said SJGC Dean Dr. Ann W. Kimbrough, “We are excited about this visionary opportunity that connects our mission with that of the black television news channel’s goals. This is not a singular opportunity. We see it as a multidisciplinary opportunity for our students, alumni and faculty.”

The contract, which includes a partnership with Sony, provides $10 million to the university over 11 years, including renovations and equipment upgrades to house the new enterprise.

 Watch video from the historic signingLearn more about the BTNC here.

The deeper business of being beautiful inside.

Blue and I saw 12 Years a Slave as soon as it was released in Atlanta.

The film was stunning.

We dined afterward and talked for hours about the the movie and the myriad topics it inspired: slavery, racism, privilege, wealth, the power of story, literacy, critical literacy and public schooling. We discussed the stories that get told or lost. We noted, with a healthy dose of cynicism, who “history” deems worthy of remembrance.

We retold scenes to each other. Relived predictions, twists. What made us look away, hold our breath, or more tightly to the other’s hand.

The writing, directing and performances were brilliant. And yet as moved as I was during and after, it was Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey who brought me to tears:

At some point I want to truly express what Patsey meant to me, but this post is about Lupita.

I’m overjoyed she has received accolades during this awards season, including the Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. She is being honored for being herself. Not a shrinking violet of herself, but a lantern. A ray of sunshine in what can sometimes be the the darkness of Hollywood. She overcame a childhood of self loathing to become someone who, quite literally, puts herself on stage, on screen, on view, for all the world to see.

Lupita relates her story in a loving response to a young woman drawn to her light. Watch it below:

And so I hope that my presence on your screens and in the magazines may lead you, young girl, on a similar journey. That you will feel the validation of your external beauty but also get to the deeper business of being beautiful inside. ~Lupita Nyong’o

No School, No Lunch

From NPR: When cold snaps and blizzards shutter schools, kids miss more than their daily lessons. Some miss out on the day’s nutritious meal as well.

Blue and I talked about this when the metro area shut down two weeks ago. Some folks were home when horrendous traffic and inclement weather collided in Atlanta, but thousands of others ended up stuck in the worst jam they’ve ever experienced.

People slept in their cars or abandoned them and hoofed it to nearby friends, restaurants and stores. But there were hundreds of students who had no such options – instead, they ended up at school over night when their buses were unable to maneuver the slick hills home.

For many parents, this may have been a nightmare. Many, but perhaps not all. For a few, knowing their child is at school with access to heat, running water and food, might be a comfort.

Over half of Georgia’s students live in poverty. I was a classroom teacher in what was then a middle class section of metro Atlanta. Even so, there were students who couldn’t always bathe at home and used makeshift facilities at the school, students who would’ve been cold without the socks, blankets and coats donated, or who were hungry but for free breakfast and lunch. We were never quite sure about their dinner. This was in the early 2000s and the poverty rate has increased since then.

So here we are, a mere two weeks away from the last winter storm, and kids are once again out for several days in a row. Parents with the resources to stockpile groceries did so, as evidenced by the numerous pictures tweeted from throughout the metro area earlier in the week. But still we wondered: What about parents who can’t afford take off work and are still expected to go? What about those who can’t stock up on food?

Summer Lunch
Hunger isn’t relegated to winter. When school is out for the summer, many students go hungry without community support. Growing up, I spent a good portion of my summer break in Savannah. In the afternoons, a truck would pull up to the park across from my grandmother’s house, and a throng of kids would crowd around. What are they doing? I remember asking once. Getting lunch, she explained. Grandma didn’t elaborate aside from explaining it was a special program and we already had lunch here. But given what I now know about some of the demographics of the area, I wonder if it was a free lunch program.

As The Washington Post has reported, one program in Tennessee retrofitted a bus carrying sack lunches and delivered free meals to kids in impoverished areas.

With Georgia’s slick, hilly roads, and kids who simply don’t have the wardrobe to brave the elements, we understand why schools and businesses close. But those in other quarters do wonder if keeping schools open isn’t the better response:

When schools close because of extreme cold, especially in areas where many families struggle to pay for heat as well, Alexander wonders whether closing schools is the best way to go.

“It seems to me the best place to be is in school,” she says. “At least we can get the kids a hot meal.”

Read the NPR article here.

Show me the money

Today I received the following email from Florida A&M University:

FAMU Board of Trustees Schedules Emergency Called Meeting

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The Florida A&M University (FAMU) Board of Trustees has scheduled an emergency called meeting for Thursday, Feb. 13 at 4 p.m. The general subject matter of the meeting is to consider the employment contract of President-select Dr. Elmira Mangum.

The public may access the meeting by dialing (877) 884-1929. The conference ID number is 23698072.

For more information, call (850) 599-3413 or visit,

A similarly worded release was issued on January 30, 2014 for a called meeting the next day. Earlier this year, FAMU announced its selection for university President:

Contract negotiations are ongoing, yet despite her robust qualifications, the Board of Trustees has had difficulty agreeing on the details of her contract. Mangum was initially offered a base salary of $425,000. reports this is $100,000 more than James H. Ammons’ initial salary in 2007.

Her base salary would, “put her in the upper third of Florida’s 12 state university presidents, according to analysis by Florida Trend magazine. However, her total compensation will likely put her more in the middle or lower end of the pack,” says the Tampa Bay Times.

But some members of the Board wanted to cut the offer to $385,000. A divided Board did agree to some tweaks in compensation, but ultimately voted against the base salary reduction 7-5. One of the suggested changes included the removal of a $1000 per month car allowance.

Any changes in the contract are reviewed by Mangum and require the Board meet again as negotiations continue. She has placed a counter-offer for a university sponsored vehicle. The Board will continue their review on Thursday.

If the Florida Board of Governors approves her selection, Mangum’s three-year tenure begins April 1, 2014, with an option to renew.

Go big or go home

Diana Nyad’s triumph serves as perhaps one of the most inspirational victories of 2013. I wrote about her story earlier this year:

It took Nyad five attempts  – five – over the course of more than 30 years. This tells as much about physical skill and endurance as it does about patience and perseverance.

Do you have the stamina to dream big and go after what you want? That’s what I’ve been working on this year and will continue to do so as we welcome the new year.

Diana recently gave a TEDTalk about her record-setting swim. I’ve embedded it below. Enjoy!

Freedom Fighters

Freedom fighting, creation and imagination my favorite topics to mull. Last night I was  awake past my bedtime, and a trip down the rabbit hole known as the Internet led me to this great find.

It’s a podcast in two main parts. The first features Angela Davis and Grace Lee Boggs speaking at the Empowering Women of Color Conference. The second features an excerpt from Daniel Rasmussen’s book, American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt.

The cast is from 2012, but conversations about freedom are always timely.

Shout out to Renina Jarmon for the recommendation.