Wednesday, April 25, 2007

2 Sides of the coin


A quick review of the last 10 days or so:

When keeping it real goes wrong AKA Cam on 60 Minutes - Killa on TV was the embodiement of the Dave Chapelle skit. Now, if you've read my writings before, you know that I'm anti-snitching in the context of the so-called 'war on drugs'or freedom fighters across the globe b.u.t. the examples that Cam gave were ridiculous... There's a big difference between 1)Person A who sells drugs & kills telling on person B who sells drugs & kills in order to get a reduced sentence & 2) Calling the cops about a person that abuses kids, rapes kids & kills without regard to consequences. The first is a rat of the lowest kind; the second, a person with common sense.

As I watched it, it reminded me of the unmentioned part of the "no snitchin ethic"; Street justice... There was a time where we didn't go to the cops when people trangressed against the community & the men handled it themselves. As our community has broken down, we stopped policing ourselves which made it easier for the police state to come in and oppress the community. Youth of today only know the most obvious aspect of the code, so they take it out of context & go bonkers with it. I know a kid (A&B student, by the way) who got kicked out of school for AA because him & his homies jumped a kid for 'snitchin'. It's up to those of us who know better to give the youth more context & culture in their lives so that they pass on healthy ideas in the future.

Violence is as American as Cherry Pie - The Virginia Tech massacre was truly tragic & my condolences go out to the families of those slain. The biggest thing that should come out of this horrible event is that violence is an american problem, not a Black/Brown problem. As I checked out the coverage of the tragedy & built on it with various people, the following questions came to mind:

1) How did he get more that 100 rounds off without the campus police catching him first?
2) How come there weren't any undercover police in the classes? It's a known fact that they have them at most major colleges
3) Why is our MH system in this country a total failure? All of the money spent to lock up non-violent first time drug offenders & no money for those who are potential threats to themselves & their communities if not treated
4) How come it's easier to get a gun than a passport?

Crew Love - Bush & his minions are as loyal a bunch as I've ever seen... Even in the face of obvious failure, they stick together! Attorney General Gonzales was clearly flustered & reaching for answers during his testimony for congress & still Bush has his back. A fair amount of idealism is good because it allows you to see beyond today's limitations; Idealism like GW will lead you into a gun fight with a pocket night. One has to respect their heart though; they've been able to defend the indefensible with the war bill veto. The Demos still haven't been able to find the right PR spin to really make the Republicans' insanity obvious.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Life's Like A... Pt.2


After doing my initial post on chess, I began to pay more attention to any articles about in the media. This morning (April 13th/Knowledge Understanding), I saw an article about a Puerto Rican youth & chess that is eye-opening to see the least. There's something seriously wrong when a expert chess player hates school, & I don't mean with him either. It's a sad commentary on today's educational landscape, & an indicator of the lack of community safety nets needed to grab youth with obvious skills & intelligence. Check the article, & tell me what you think!!

Teenage Riddle: Skipping Class, Mastering Chess
It is early afternoon, 20 minutes into G band — or sixth period — at Edward R. Murrow High School in Brooklyn. But today, Shawn Martinez, a third-year student, and one of the stars of its national championship chess team, is nowhere near school.

Instead, while his classmates memorize the periodic table of the elements, perform Shakespeare or solve for x, Shawn, wearing a black do-rag under a brown Yankees cap, distractedly watches a pickup chess match inside the atrium of a building on Wall Street. The place is a hangout for chess hustlers.

Shawn, 16, skips a lot of school — “It wasn’t weeks that I missed, it was months,” he says — but he is no ordinary truant. He is so gifted a chess player that he has claimed a place among the top young players in the nation after learning the game only four years ago. He is also important to Murrow’s chances of capturing its fourth consecutive national high school title; the tournament begins today in Kansas City, Mo.

Shawn comes to Wall Street to play a type of chess called blitz, a game in which the ticking of a three-minute clock eliminates the ponderous pauses of traditional chess and transforms the game into a fevered, trash-talking street sport in which money, not prestige, is the prime motivator. For Shawn, a large bet might be $10 a game.

“It helped my game to play for money,” said Shawn, dismissing as “average” the players he had been watching. “I love chess with a passion. It’s all the situations you get put in — it’s like life to me. It’s like anger to me. Sometimes, if I don’t like something that’s happening, I can take my anger out on the chessboard.”

Murrow has no varsity sports; its nationally known chess team is a source of deep pride at the school. And while Shawn’s story has echoes of the classic tale of the star high school athlete who struggles academically but remains on the team, it is also very different. Instead of marveling about quarterback options and touchdown passes, his supporters speak about castling and checkmates. And no one questions his intelligence.

Charming and funny, Shawn has a remarkable long-term memory, and parries easily with older members of the Wall Street crowd as he takes their money. He is by turns quiet and boisterous, open and defensive, and seems easily bored. He says he does poorly in English class, but he is well spoken. During nearly three years at Murrow, Shawn has missed so many classes that he is credited with passing only three courses.

Administrators and the teacher who runs the club say they have struggled with Shawn, and are seeking a balance of how to engage him in his studies without barring him from the one thing about which he is passionate. Beth Siegel-Graf, Murrow’s assistant vice principal for student guidance, said allowing Shawn to compete on the team is part of a strategy intended to keep him from dropping out altogether.

“What we try to make students and parents understand is that students doing poorly in school are hooked to the building because of their extracurricular activity,” she said. “We try to use that activity as a hinge.”

A math teacher named Eliot Weiss started the school on its road to becoming the powerhouse it is today when he formed a chess club; Murrow is now able to attract some of the city’s best young players. The team was the subject of a recent book, “The Kings of New York,” by Michael Weinreb, an occasional contributor to The New York Times. Two years ago, the team met President Bush in the White House.

Shawn, like many great players, has been blessed with the combination of an amazing visual memory and the ability to essentially see into the future by predicting various outcomes within a few seconds. During the past two years, Shawn has raised his United States Chess Federation rating more than 100 points to 2,028, giving him the rank of expert, a level just below master, and ranking him No. 19 among 16-year-olds. During that same two-year period, however, he has flunked every class.

His relationship with chess sums up his contradictions: he loves it, yet in one candid moment he said it had ruined his life. He had strong grades in sixth grade, he said, but was failing in seventh — the year he started playing. And he rejected the opinions of adults that he benefits from his relationship with the game.

“I became addicted to chess,” he said. “They think they did something for me, but they didn’t. Chess didn’t save my life. They want to make it like I’m a kid from the ghetto and I can play chess and that’s special. Why does it have to be like that? It’s embarrassing. They compare me to my environment — the way I dress to chess. You don’t have to be the brightest person in the world to play chess.”

Perhaps the most significant of those adults, Mr. Weiss has evolved into something of a father figure for Shawn, whose own father died when he was young. The teacher said he was taken aback by Shawn’s chronic underperformance.

“I have never had a student this talented in a particular skill — not just talented, but one of the best in the country — and so disinterested in schoolwork, not understanding what it means to fail high school,” Mr. Weiss said.

On some days, Shawn does attend classes with about 10 other students who are also behind. On many other days, he simply does not bother. He likes math, but the algebra course he has been forced to take repeatedly is too easy, he said, so he does not make an effort. “The sad thing is, some of the kids can’t even do it,” he said.

Murrow, a 4,000-student school in the Midwood neighborhood with a far-reaching variety of course offerings that are reminiscent of a small liberal arts college, was founded in 1974, and it gives its students considerable freedom. Periods are called bands. There are no bells, and no one is herded from class to class. Free time is scheduled into every school day, and students can choose to eat, to sleep, to do homework, to do nothing or, as Shawn has often done, to play cards in the cafeteria.

“It is a school where if you don’t have your personal responsibility together, you could drop out,” Shawn said.

Ms. Siegel-Graf, the assistant vice principal, said Shawn was allowed to accompany his teammates on the plane to Missouri on Wednesday afternoon after a conference at which he promised that, this time, he would begin going to school regularly. Shawn turns 17 on April 24 — 11 days after the nationals start — and Ms. Siegel-Graf said Shawn and the school had worked out an arrangement in which although he would still be technically enrolled at Murrow, he would begin taking courses to prepare for the G.E.D diploma.

The rules for the national tournament require students to be enrolled full time in school in the United States or its territories for the entire semester. They also state, “The coach is responsible for assuring that all of his players are properly registered and eligible to participate as members of his team.”

On a recent Thursday, a few weeks before the nationals, Shawn said he had not gone to school because he had a sore throat. Later, he said he had run out of minutes on his mobile phone and needed to win some money playing chess to pay the bill.

Here, among the businesspeople and tourists on Wall Street, Shawn sticks out with his Yankees cap, baggy jeans and well-worn red and black Nike high tops, but he also mixes easily with the stockbrokers and others who come to play.

They challenge Shawn and lose their money, even after he warns them he is an expert.

“What I do is allow them to think they can beat me,” he said, though he denies adamantly that he is a hustler. “It’s gambling, and gambling you do at your own risk.”

Playing chess for money is a gray area in the law. The state statute generally prohibits wagering on “games of chance,” but it is unclear whether chess falls into that category. A Police Department spokesman did not respond to a request to clarify the matter.

Shawn was taken away from his birth mother when he was one week old because of her crack cocaine habit. Lidia Martinez, a widow who is Shawn’s adoptive mother, said she knew immediately upon seeing the week-old Shawn that she wanted to adopt him. Ms. Martinez acknowledged however, that she, like everyone else, had failed to get her son to go to class. “He believes he’s too smart for school,” she said.

Shawn says he is able to remember his biological father, who died when he was 2. He says he can even recall his own first birthday.

At Murrow, Shawn is the third best chess player, behind the seniors Alex Lenderman and Sal Bercys, who are each among the top 2,000 players in the world. They were both featured prominently in Mr. Weinreb’s book, while Shawn appeared in fewer passages. In one he is described as being “monosyllabic” and unable to let his guard down.

“The kid’s been an enigma since junior high school,” Mr. Weinreb wrote. “He has a gift, that much is clear, and he’s managed to discover it amid a life that has been fraught, like so many in the city, with disappointment.”

While Alex and Sal have played since around the time they started kindergarten, have had private coaches, and have extensive experience at tournaments, Shawn claims to have never even cracked a chess book. “I never studied a book in my life,” he said. “I’m too bored.” Shawn said he learns by playing, often against opponents online. He favors an aggressive style that employs his pawns as attackers.

“When you put pawns together, there’s no stopping them,” he said. “You put two or three together and they practically control the whole game. People know me for my pawns.”

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Black & Brown: A tale of 2 Banks


Whenever the discussion comes up regarding immigrants & the effect they have on the economy, one of the main reasons that people say that brothers & sisters from Africa, Asia and Latin America come here & do better than indigenous original people is "They work harder". Maybe it's me, but in my estimation, nobody has collectively worked harder under adverse conditions than Black folks; There are plenty of people who are working smarter than Black folks, & that's the large reason for the swift upward mobility of many original people who get to this country. Here's an allegory that may add on: There are 2 families who want to go to Bob's Big Boy (I went back on ya); One family who has never been there, but decides to take a friend who goes all of the time; & another family who was given vague directions by a tv commercial plus a friend who went 4 years ago. Who's more likely to get there faster? The 1st family are immigrants & the 2nd are indigenous-born Black people.

Immigrants tend to utilize well established tactics to move up in society (Thrift, Industry Domination, Small Business Ownership, Communal Living, etc..), while we move with the flavor of the day to "make it". One day it's technical school; the next it's something else. Nothing exemplifies this like the article from the Washington Post that you see below. The Black bank focuses on opening branches in every city to appeal to the "Black Lifestyle" , while the Latino one focuses on a variation of micro-lending & community development. While both approaches are needed, one comes across as meat & potatoes, while the other looks like more glitz & glamour.

Two new Washington banks, one seven months old, the other about to open, are taking two different approaches to serving minority communities.

Urban Trust Bank, which opened its headquarters branch at 14th and I streets NW in September, has nationwide plans focused on African American customers. The federally chartered bank is owned by RLJ, the Bethesda-based company headed by Robert L. Johnson, founder of Black Entertainment Television.

NuAmerica Bank won approval from the D.C. Council last week to open a branch in Columbia Heights, from which it will target small businesses in the region's Hispanic sector, according to Julio Lopez-Brito, who will be its chairman.

But the banks' founders share the belief that their target markets are ripe for expansion that would benefit not only minority neighborhoods but also the banks' investors.

"A significant portion of urban consumers continue to be unbanked and under-banked," said Urban Trust's president, Dwight L. Bush. "We actually see these communities as viable, and our mission is . . . to bring these consumers into the financial mainstream, help them to become homeowners, to become entrepreneurs, and help them to create and maintain wealth in their neighborhoods."

Lopez-Brito, who got the idea for a niche bank serving the Hispanic community while working with a public television station aimed at Puerto Ricans, said his bank's goal was to create special relationships with Hispanic-owned businesses that need loans of $25,000 and more.

"It's marrying the idea of community banking, which has been such a proven concept in the U.S., and introducing the immigrant community and small businesses to take advantage of the community bank," Lopez-Brito said. "We will still do individual accounts. If you have a sole proprietorship, we are definitely interested is doing a mortgage for you and your employees. But the relationship will start with the business."

Low-income and minority communities are relatively untapped markets for banks, according to a study released last month by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition. Nearly 21 percent of all U.S. households do not have any relationship with banks, said John Taylor, president and chief executive of NCRC, a nonprofit group founded in 1990 that tries to attract investment to poor communities and neighborhoods. And "countless other consumers," he said, have personal savings accounts but often resort to expensive payday loans, pawnshops and check-cashing services to get cash.

The NCRC study documented the shortage of mainstream, regulated bank branches in working-class or minority neighborhoods, compared with white and upper-income neighborhoods around the country. The Washington area ranked eighth among the 25 cities studied for overall banking services available in lower-income neighborhoods. In recent years, a number of existing Washington area banks have opened branches in minority or low-income neighborhoods.

"Having full-service bank branches in under-served areas is critically important," Taylor said. "Much of the problem we have today in terms of mortgage foreclosures is the absence of full-service branches in low- and moderate-income and minority neighborhoods. "

Lopez-Brito is launching NuAmerica with $3 million from 15 investors, including $400,000 of his own money. The bank is trying to raise the equity to $20 million with an initial public offering, which will close April 30.

"Being owned and locally managed will make a big difference," said Lopez-Brito, a Venezuela native and a graduate of New York University's Stern School of Business. "From the landscaper to restaurant owner to a doctor who needs to outfit his office, we want businesses to be the nucleus of our bank. Second, any customer who wants to walk through the door and talk to the chairman, he can. I will be there. If he or she wants to talk to the chairman of Bank of America, good luck."

Urban Trust is operating on a different scale. It has $30 million in assets, offices in Washington and Orlando, and a federal charter under which it could expand to all 50 states. Johnson, who bought the bank a year ago, is talking with Wal-Mart about putting branches in stores around the country.

That prospect concerns Taylor, who said an Urban Trust-Wal-Mart partnership could undercut existing community banks that have strong relationships with their customers, just as Wal-Mart has been blamed for putting some small-town retailers out of business.

Johnson said a lot of Wal-Mart customers and employees are exactly the people who could use his bank. "We think this in fact gives us more access to people who need our services," he said. "The people who shop at Wal-Mart are a certain income level. They need financial services. They need financial information. They need credit. The people who shop there as well as the people who work there."

Urban Trust is targeting the African American market for mortgages, credit cards, student loans and small-business loans, Johnson said.

"We want to have a national footprint," he said. "There are no national brick-and-mortar African American businesses. You can go from cable companies or store to store and buy Ebony and Black Enterprise magazines, but I don't know where you can walk into an African American bank in Washington, New York, Boston, Charlotte and Richmond."

Johnson said African Americans are overcharged and underrepresented in the credit card market, and that basic credit-background checks overlook a number of African Americans who may be creditworthy.

"There's definitely a need for banks to focus on urban customers with different lifestyles and different financial needs," Johnson said. "Half of African American households are headed by females. They have unique financial needs that come about by being the only breadwinner and having to deal with the economics of meeting financial obligations without a second paycheck in the house, and having to deal with credit discrimination by not having been in the workforce that long. These are all kinds of things that our bank is designed to address."

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Mountains & Molehills


I'll tell you in advance that I didn't want to write about what I'm writing about... I wanted to write about something that was a much more important topic to me IME (In my estimation). I wanted to avoid the obvious & overcooked topics that are built about everywhere. Nonetheless, I find myself writing about the very thing that I was trying to avoid...



You know why I didn't want to write about Imus? There are a couple of reasons, but the most relevant is that the furor over the Imus issue is classic BLD (Black Leader Displacement). Black Leader Displacement is the focus on individual acts of racism & bigotry over systemic dysfunctions in American society that reinforce structural racism & discrimination. After BLD, what usually happens is PGBTS (People going back to sleep) because they feel that the strike against an individual represents a strike against the system that creates the condidtions that many of us live in.

Classic example: "Kramer" & his rant against "Niggers". There was a huge uproar, Al & Jesse came out against it, "Kramer" apologized profusely & went into rehab, Jerry Seinfeld gave him a polite spanking, & everyone went back to watching
Flavor Of Love. What actually changed? Not a thing. There's still a disparity in health related issues, We still earn less on the dollar, A large segment of men in our community are still unemployable, etc..

So when this came up, I was meditating that people would see it as it is; A redneck shock jock spewing the garbage that resonates with his listeners. You see lost in the hoopla is the fact that Imus is a mouthpiece for the demographic that he represents: working- to middle class white men who want America back. Talk show hosts don't say things that don't resonate with their listeners.

Early last week, I watched the Imus show on MSNBC to get a feel for the show. It was basically a hour of hyper-masculine white humor. They told a couple of bad jokes about Hilary Clinton, talked about politics with a conservative slant, had some musicians on, & shared a couple of bad gay jokes. At that time, I thought to myself "So this is how politics are transferred". I was actually going to write a blog comparing Imus & Steve Harvey before all of this jumped off. Now with the suspension, MSNBC can show that they are 'Politically Correct', Imus can say that he's served his penalty, Jesse can extort some fortune 500 company for 'sensitivity training', & we can all go back to sleep while 15 year-olds (who read at a 4th grade level) with AK-47s go to war in the streets for a dwindling drug trade. All this is not to say that those sisters don't deserve a apology; they do & are to be commended for their intelligent, well-spoken responses at the press conference. What I'm saying is that as long as we settle for the short win over the long victory, we'll find ourselves back here again.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

The Babies are the greatest


Alot of of the dialogue in Black America (as well as a good number of my posts)center around the issues & problems of Black youth in our community. While there are enough issues to go around, I wanted to take a different approach today and celebrate the positive acheivements of our youth who are braving the negative elements and being successful. Below is a article from the Philadelphia Daily News chronicling the success of Black & Brown babies in a national Mock Trial contest.

I never participated in mock trial; I joined the debate team in High School, b.u.t. I just went for the girls. Even with that, I learned a valuable lesson in the science of organization & preparation in communication. Check it out, & let me know what you think!

JASON PARKER doesn't get nervous.

Not when he's playing a lawyer in front of four real federal judges - and an audience - with nothing but his wits, his research and what he learned in Philly public schools helping him argue his case.

Not when he's opposed by smart students from throughout the nation, some of whom attend the nation's most privileged schools.

Parker was so cool, he earned a nickname at the National High School Moot Court Tournament Sunday:

Mr. Suave.

"Scared money don't win," Parker said with a grin, in an interview yesterday.

Parker, 17, a junior at the Carver High School of Engineering and Science(!), and fellow Carver student, senior Laeeqa Collins-Pressley, 18, made it to the finals at the moot court competition, held at the Washington College of Law at American University in Washington, D.C., on Sunday.

Two other Philadelphia School District students also did well in the competition: Marcelo Morales, a 13-year-old ninth-grader at the Academy at Palumbo, who made it to the semifinals; and Andrew Howard, 15, a ninth-grader at Constitution High School, who reached the quarter-finals.

It was a huge accomplishment for the students, who faced the top moot-court competitors from throughout the country and proved that Philly's young people are not to be out-argued.

"Our students competed against suburban kids from around the country," said Gwen Stern, director of the University of Pennsylvania Law School's Marshall-Brennan Constitutional Literacy Project.

The project sends about 30 law-school students into city schools to teach students about constitutional law issues that affect teenagers - cases such as police searches, student press rights and high school locker searches. It's in its second year at Penn.

The literacy project culminates in local moot court competitions. The four students who went to Washington for the national competition first won a competition among about 50 other Philadelphia students. In Washington, they competed with about 70 students from around the country, Stern said.

Parker eventually lost to the student who won the moot court competition - and who happens to be going to Stanford University next year, said Stern.

She added that the competition shows what Philadelphia students can accomplish:

"They are extremely bright kids when they are engaged in a subject they're interested in. They become excited and motivated to learn."

The students argued a faked Fourth Amendment case about two teenage brothers who allege that a police officer conducted an illegal search of their vehicle. In the case, the police officer took their photos without permission, searched their car without consent - and found drugs in it.

Students running the tournament at the Washington College of Law came up with the case, which mimicked the kind of illegal-search case that could be argued before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Parker argued for the teens' side; Collins-Pressley argued the government's position.

"This was a very difficult problem," said Penn law professor David Rudovsky, the literacy project's faculty adviser. "Some of my law students would have had a hard time with it on a final exam. But [the high school students] were able to work through it and understand it."

Parker said that when he first started high school at Carver, he was thinking of becoming an engineer.

"Now, after this, I think I'm going to be a lawyer," said Parker, who lives in Nicetown - and who celebrated his 17th birthday on Sunday, the day of the competition.

Collins-Pressley, from the Northeast, said she hasn't ruled the law out completely, but she's still planning on becoming a physics teacher. "I love math, and I just want to expand that into physics," she said.

Andrew Howard, from West Oak Lane, said the experience confirmed for him that law is in his future. Marcelo Morales used to think about becoming a doctor or dentist, but now he also wants to be a lawyer.

Morales' story is especially powerful. He came to the United States from Argentina at age 7, knowing only a small bit of English.

He started in second grade here but skipped third grade and went into fourth grade. He lives in South Philadelphia.

Morales is tall for his age and when Howard heard that he was only 13, Howard did a double-take.

Asked if he felt uncomfortable going up against much older high school students, Morales said he was nervous at first. But a practice round helped.

"After the practice round, that boosted my confidence. I wasn't nervous anymore.

"I was just trying my best." *