Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Praise and gratitude can improve solutions

A remark made at President Barack Obama’s inauguration has given me much food for thought.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, co-chairman of the presidential inauguration committee, started his introductory remarks with, “Ladies and gentlemen, the late Alex Haley, the author of ‘Roots,’ lived his life by these six words: find the good and praise it.”

Alexander, a Republican, went on to praise our process of electing leaders peacefully by exercising our right to vote.

Acknowledging this essential goodness of our democratic system affords us a better perspective, even as we reflect on the billions spent on negative messages and the evasive talking points of last year’s election season.

Find the good and praise it — six revolutionary words that Haley reportedly first spotted on a bumper sticker, then adopted as his life’s motto.

This concept of praising the good was alien to me during the first three decades of my life.

My training as an engineer taught me to look for problems and to offer solutions. I seldom focused on stating what was already working, as I identified problems in a quest for improvement.

The idea of change captures all our imaginations. Certainly every ecosystem, every community, every family and every individual can change themselves and things around them for the better.

Yet the idea of first finding the good and praising it could anchor us firmly to a feeling of gratitude, which can make us more effective in changing what needs to be changed.

Imagine people of two cultures meeting, with the idea of finding the good and praising it. Such meetings are commonplace today as more Americans work abroad and many from abroad work here. A bridge would be created, across which mutual learning could occur, benefiting both cultures even as changes that both cultures could make are registered.

Imagine Democrats acknowledging the good in Republicans and vice versa — and both openly praising it. There obviously is an inherent good in having at least two political parties, because robust opposition is essential and vital to democracy. Without it, there would be no hearings on Capitol Hill and no one to hold the party in power accountable.

Voicing the praise of what is good, of what we are grateful for, is preferable to taking it for granted. The British writer G.K. Chesterton once said, “Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it.”

Our modern education system teaches us to be more critical than appreciative. At school, we are encouraged to be curious, to challenge, to change things for the better.

Whether we are in teaching, medicine, engineering or law, or doing any kind of blue- or white-collar work or in our role as parents, we are expected to be problem solvers. Yet our training often leaves us not knowing how to be content, how to seek the good in what already is.

Consciously listing and verbalizing the good in any existing situation can actually improve the solutions that we arrive at. It provides a lens of gratitude, makes sure we do not fix things that are not broken and helps us retain and learn from what already works.

There are websites devoted to highlighting good news and achievements. Recently, at www.dailygood.org, stories describing research on the positive health effects of gratitude existed side by side with a story describing an innovative prison program at Rikers Island in New York, where 300 inmates were going through a Greenhouse Program, transforming the land and themselves.

Studies in positive psychology emphasize gratitude and its role in increased contentment, decreased stress and increased service to others. It is apparently one of the best ways to spread more good, be healthier and possibly even create lasting change.

So every night before going to bed, I have begun to reflect on five positive things that happened that day. I find myself extremely thankful for the six words that have serendipitously traveled across the ages from a bumper sticker to Alex Haley and then through Lamar Alexander to a national audience of millions of people, including me.

Read more here: http://www.centredaily.com/2013/02/02/3487187/nalini-krishnankutty-praise-and.html#storylink=cpy

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Voters Religious Bias Dogs Politicians

Published in Centre Daily Times, Feb 29 2012

According to the 2011 Census, India, the largest democracy in the world, is 80.5 percent Hindu, 13.4 percent Muslim, 2.3 percent Christian, 1.9 percent Sikh and 0.8 percent Buddhist.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh happens to be a Sikh. He certainly comes under scrutiny for his policies, but not for his religion.

In the U.S., our Constitution clearly mandates that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”

However, a 2003 poll by the Pew Research Center found that U.S. voters care about the religion of presidential candidates: 38 percent would not vote for a Muslim candidate, and 50 percent would not vote for an atheist. Interestingly, “64 percent of Americans felt that a candidate’s religion, or lack thereof, could lead them to vote against a well-qualified candidate from their own party.”

Coming to the current presidential field, a June 2011 Gallup poll found that “though the vast majority of Americans say they would vote for their party’s nominee for president in 2012, if that person happens to be a Mormon, 22 percent say they would not, a figure largely unchanged since 1967.”

In this survey, 18 percent of Republicans, 19 percent of independents and 27 percent of Democrats said they would not vote for a qualified candidate if the person happened to be a Mormon.

For any other job, not hiring a person who is otherwise qualified on the grounds of religion would be considered discrimination. But one fifth of Republicans and one fourth of Democrats surveyed had no qualms about doing this to a candidate for president.

These Republican responders would not vote for Jon Huntsman or Mitt Romney.

Would they have agreed to Huntsman serving as ambassador to China or Romney serving on the Salt Lake Organizing Committee and leading the 2002 Winter Olympics to success?

Do they have qualms about the service of Republican Sens. Mike Crapo, of Idaho, Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee, of Utah, Dean Heller, of Nevada, who happen to be Mormons?

Are these Democratic responders saying they would not vote for Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid, of Nevada, or Democratic Sen. Tom Udall, of New Mexico, if they were candidates for president, because they happen to be Mormons?

Do they have evidence of these politicians letting their faith interfere with their duties? If not, letting faith factor in to voting decisions reflects only the prejudice of the voters.

Where would these voters draw the line? In what capacities would they allow Mormons, who make up slightly less than 2 percent of the U.S. public, according to the Pew Forum’s 2007 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, serve the country?

The same survey shows that Jews account for 1.7 percent of the U.S. population and Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus each account for less than 1 percent of the population. In the future, we may have candidates for president who practice any of these religions, or who may even be atheists.

It is their constitutional right to run for president and to have no “religious test” applied to them.

I hope that by then we will cultivate the ability to choose people solely on their record and their stands on various issues.

The future of our country, our democracy and the integrity of our Constitution depend on this.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Discourage Silent Enablers, Speak up

Published in the Centre Daily Times, Dec 17, 2011
I spoke up a lot in my childhood. I was lucky to have parents who encouraged discussion, debate and questioning the status quo. They did not consider speaking up as a sign of disrespect, and we discussed everything from politics to traditions and hypocrisy to neighborhood issues.
But as an adult, I speak out less. I tell myself that this is a sign of maturity, of understanding that life is not black and white and of making choices of which battles to fight.
But often my silence reflects an unwillingness to expend the tremendous energy required to address conflicts and the other consequences of speaking up.
Proverbs regarding how and when to speak exist in all cultures. “Children speak only when spoken to” and “Empty vessels make the most noise,” send clear messages. Advice columns tell us how to network and advance careers and emphasize being a team player and getting along with others.
But what if the others are engaged in wrongdoing?
The enabling silence of witnesses to Jerry Sandusky’s alleged sexual abuse of children tells us that not speaking out is the immature option.
I am intrigued by the fact that two adults, one a janitor and the other a graduate assistant, did not call 911 upon witnessing a child being assaulted.
The graduate assistant told Joe Paterno, who at least reported the hearsay to his athletic director. But the janitor told his supervisor, who only informed him who he should report it to. The janitor never reported it and his supervisor took no further action.
Is this silence and inaction of ordinary folk, in the face of such horrendous crimes, surprising? Is it the only reaction we can expect from people who are less powerful than Paterno?
I have been consumed by these questions in the past month.
There is lesser outrage about the silence of these ordinary folk like janitors, supervisors and graduate assistants.
Is it because we collectively understand their silence, the limitations of their powers and the consequences of upsetting the hierarchy in our families, workplaces and institutions?
After all, in the real world, bosses have power over employees, teachers and coaches over students, parents over children, the rich over the poor, and so on. In the ABC show “What Would You Do?” John Quinones sets up ethical dilemmas and films people’s reactions to disturbing situations on camera. Interestingly, not every person speaks up or gets involved.
Do the instincts of self-preservation and fear of the unknown prompt them to mind their own business and stay silent?
However, silence speaks volumes — silence is acceptance and there are some things that are just not acceptable.
Ordinary folk must speak up. How can we encourage more of us to have the moral courage to do this?
Decreasing the negative consequences for speaking up would help us get lots of practice in standing up to wrongs — as children and as adults.
This is easier said than done, but we could try some small steps.
Have teachers give badges of honor to 5-year-olds who tattle. Tattletales do need courage and serve us better than silent enablers.
Commend those who are not team players because team players are useless when the team is doing wrong.
Encourage new hires and old hands who have contrary ideas to create invaluable change agents and whistleblowers.
Appreciate the person who sends a frank email, which appears rude, but contains kernels of truth. They will then continue to speak up.
Encourage the candid comments of children rather than silencing them with adverse consequences and lessons in politeness. Give them practice in speaking up.
These steps go against lessons of networking and of being tactful and diplomatic to “win friends and influence people.”
But they give us encouragement to speak up forcefully and effectively when the situation calls for it.
And this can help create an environment where we, the ordinary people, will readily perform acts of moral courage, like speaking up and dialing 911, even when it is only a stranger who is in trouble.

Read more here: http://www.centredaily.com/2011/12/17/3023089/discourage-silent-enablers-speak.html#storylink=cpy

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Asian-Americans enjoy a long history here

First published in the Centre Daily Times, June 2, 2011

A few days ago, I was flying back from India after visiting family and commemorating the first anniversary of my father’s death.

As the flight from London neared Philadelphia, the flight attendant handed out arrival-departure records for nonimmigrant visitors and customs forms for everyone, including permanent residents and U.S. citizens. I picked up a customs form.

Next, she asked my neighbor, a turban-wearing man of Asian-Indian origin, if he would like the arrival-departure record.

When he replied in the negative, she clarified, “All visitors need a landing card, sir.”

“I am a U.S. citizen,” he replied, and calmly took a customs card.

The flight attendant had thought I was a U.S. citizen or resident, but seemed hesitant to accept that about my turban-wearing fellow passenger.

I am a first-generation immigrant and have lived here for only a little more than two decades.

My fellow passenger, however, was Sikh by religion and could have been a descendant of the earliest Asian-Indian immigrants, Punjabi Sikhs, who came to California in 1899.

He could also be related to Californian Dilip Singh Saund, the first Asian-American and first Sikh elected in 1957 to the U.S. Congress.

Interestingly, Saund emigrated from India via Ellis Island to study at Berkeley. He graduated with a master’s degree in mathematics in 1922 and a doctorate in 1924, and became a farmer because of limited opportunities.

Saund campaigned to allow “Hindus,” as South Asians were then called, to become naturalized citizens. He became an American citizen in 1949 after passage of the 1946 Luce-Celler Act allowing naturalization to Asian Indians and Filipinos.

Pondering how Asian-Americans fit into ideas of American identity is a worthwhile exercise considering the recent observance of Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month in May.

President George H.W. Bush started this monthlong celebration in 1990 to honor the history and contributions of Americans with origins in Asia and the Pacific islands.

Contrary to common perceptions, the first Asian immigrants came to the U.S. centuries ago.

Filipino immigrants settled in New Orleans in 1763, followed by Chinese immigrants who came to California to mine gold in 1849. Significant Japanese immigration occurred between 1886 and 1911. Asian-Indian immigrants from Punjab arrived in California in 1899, and Korean workers came to Hawaii in 1903.

These immigrants faced hardships and discrimination while building railroads and working in farms, mines and factories. They were limited in their ability to own property, bring their families or become citizens.

Eventually, the 1924 U.S. Immigration Act shut down almost all immigration from Asia.

Four decades later, the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act abolished immigration quotas based on national origin and allowed far more skilled workers and family members to enter the country than ever before.

Twenty five years later, the Immigration Act of 1990, signed by President George H.W. Bush, allowed higher quotas from all countries with preference for certain skilled positions.

These skilled Asian-Pacific immigrants and their descendants have made immense contributions.

Some notable Asian-Americans include Jerry Yang, co-founder of Yahoo!; Sabeer Bhatia, founder of Hotmail; Vinod Khosla, founder of Sun Microsystems; and Vinod Dham, inventor of the Pentium chip.

Subra Suresh, of Indian origin, heads the National Science Foundation, and Nobel Laureate Steven Chu, of Chinese origin, who was born in St. Louis, is our Secretary of Energy.

According to the Census Bureau, 4.4 percent of Centre County residents are Asian-Americans, which is close to the national average of 4.8 percent.

The next time any of us encounters Asian-or Pacific-Americans, with or without a turban, it would be wise to assume nothing about their history.

Like others in the United States, they may be a descendant of an immigrant who arrived centuries ago, or they may be a pioneering immigrant who arrived just yesterday. And like all of us, they can be expected to contribute to and benefit from this new country they now call their home.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Respect Begins With Awareness

Published in the Centre Daily Times, Feb 4, 2011

In the United States, we are very sensitive in accommodating different abilities and individual styles of learning and functioning in our schools, workplaces and public spaces.

Differentiated teaching, accessible buildings and parking spaces and laws that protect against discrimination are examples of accepting the equality of and the differences among people.

Yet our current national focus on preventing bullying points to the existence of subtler hurdles that prevent the complete inclusion of everyone.

“No Name Calling Week,” celebrated annually in January, is an anti-bullying awareness-raising program aimed at schools.

This year, Barnes and Noble, which is one of the corporate sponsors, put together a compilation of short videos on its website of children’s book authors taking a stand against bullying.

The authors use their books and lives to share anecdotes and strategies, reminding us that we can all be bullies or be bullied, depending on the situation.

Name calling and bullying are not limited to children. Adults sometimes resort to name calling instead of offering specific criticism of a particular action.

It is much easier to ask someone, “Why are you acting so American, Indian, Chinese or like some other nationality or Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Jew or other religion or so conservative or liberal, or like a girl, boy or any other random group?” than to offer specifics of a disagreement.

Such statements stereotype people and assume that some groups and ways of thinking are superior to others.

Bullying is an international phenomenon, and people use many excuses for bullying: They are bigger, older, traditional or modern or know better. They are richer, more or less educated, very skilled or unskilled, closer to God, or pray to the right God or belong to the correct political party. They have the “right” kinds of names, and those they are bullying don’t.

I grew up in India, and bullying there had its own cultural specificity. Because age and seniority are respected, birth order and superior hierarchy can give people the ability to bully. Because education and money are respected, professionals and

the rich can appear all knowing, and bully by withholding information and access.

This by no means implies that everyone who can misuse their power does so.

However, when awareness of these actions as “bullying” does not exist, such behavior can be deemed normal, and those who stand up against it labeled deviants. Now that I have spent more years abroad than in India, I may take offense at things many Indians take in stride, and they may take offense at things I take in stride.

Some people hide their bullying behind humor to make it acceptable. And when there is no awareness that this is still bullying, anyone who reacts to this could be portrayed as being too sensitive and can be further bullied.

At Park Forest Middle School, where my daughter attends school, programs like P.R.I.D.E., or Park Forest Respects Individual Differences Every Day, are helping students get a better handle on the multiple facets of bullying. They are lucky to get an early start at learning lessons on respect that some adults are yet to comprehend.

These awareness campaigns are laudable steps toward a common language of respect.

Of course, the more sensitive we are, the more work we have to do to stand up against bullying and to make sure that we, ourselves, do not bully others.