Cuba – Part II

Journeying through historical sights and visiting Cuba’s LGBTQ community…here is Part II of our Cuba series.

Each new day brought with it new excitement and wonder.  We stopped in the Plaza de Revolución; the focal point of the Cuban government and one of the largest city squares in the world.  At 77,000 square feet, the Plaza has been the site of many political rallies, and it’s where Pope Francis famously held mass in 2015.  It’s two steel memorials, featuring two of the most important heroes of the Cuban Revolution, Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuego, is one of the country’s most iconic images.

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We traveled through Fidel’s childhood neighborhood, and ate lunch in a restaurant with his son at the table behind us.  Speaking with some locals, we learned about Cuba’s churches, and how many of them are considered “sanctuary locations.”  Places where groups meet in secret to discuss the hardships of communism while plotting its demise.

We passed pockets of revolutionary groups gathering on street corners and proselytizing communism at the top of their lungs, as they waved pro-socialist literature in the air.  They’re called CDR Watchers (Committees for the Defense of the Revolution), and their job is to remain vigilant and vocal, while spying on their neighbors…looking for those who oppose authoritarian rule.

By mid-week we’d talked with dozens of people on a wide range of issues.  History, art, food, weather, and the importance of smoking a good cigar.  As well as politics…an often times jailable offense should the conversation happen to spill into the wrong ears.

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And while life on an isolated Communist island is hard enough, being gay and living there presents an entirely new set of challenges.  Maintaining an LGBTQ lifestyle in Cuba isn’t an illegal offense, but it is offensive in the eyes of the government.  We witnessed it on our last night in Havana.

On the other side of Chinatown is a bar called, Cabaret Las Vegas.  We’d read about it earlier in the week, as we trudged along on the government-monitored-wifi-hotspot we’d picked up on in the park.

Las Vegas boasted the biggest drag show, in the biggest gay section of Havana. The term “big” is relative, as the “section” was nothing more than a corner with a bar, restaurant, pizza shop, and the club at the opposite end.  Big or not, it was a popular spot.  Hundreds of people gathered along the sidewalks, laughing and dancing to the muffled sounds of different disco tracks, all blending together from the four locations.  It was a festive party in the street…a mini Mardi Gras, where beads had been replaced with slices of pizza and Caipirinha’s.  Just under the surface, however, a germ of danger was waiting to be exposed.

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Standing at the door to Las Vegas was a gaunt young man in a ripped white shirt, with skinny white jeans and worn out white Converse sneakers.  He reminded me of an emaciated John Lennon walking across Abbey Road.  Although, his hair and height was considerably shorter.

“We don’t open for another hour.”  He said.  Looking at my watch it was nearly midnight.  We asked if there someplace to get a drink.  Someplace other than the crowded spots on the corner.  “Follow me.”  He said, as he left his post at the door.

Walking 10 feet in front he asked us to stay behind.  “It’s better not to draw attention.”  He said.  “I’ll go first.  You follow.  We’ll meet at a table once we get inside.” 

Our new friend entered the coffee shop, briskly brushing past a police officer who was arguing with 3 teenage girls standing on the steps of the shop.  The girls wore matching knee-high denim miniskirts, and shared a terrified look on their face.

We entered the shop thirty seconds behind the mysterious man in white, who had secured us a table.  Gesturing with both hands, he offered us a seat in the remaining two chairs.  It was all very covert.

“What’s the story with the girls outside?”  We asked.

“They’re waiting to get into the club and the police don’t like the way they’re dressed.”  He replied.

“And the police don’t want us talking to tourists.  That’s why I needed to walk ahead of you.”

Through sad brown eyes that stared right through us, he began his story.  His name was Martez; 33-years old, soft spoken, and recently released from prison, having spent 12 years of a 15-year sentence.  His crime; selling Marijuana cigarettes.  Although, his real crime, he told us, was being gay.  Martez had never left the island and his parents had never clued in on his lifestyle.

“That’s got to be difficult.”  I said.

“It was easy.  I’ve spent half my life in jail.  They never visited.  They never paid attention to me before that.  I don’t have a relationship with them.”  He said.

His words lacked any form of empathy.

We talked about the Pulse shooting in Orlando and asked what the communities response was.  “What’s Pulse?”  he asked?   An asteroid could be hurling towards us with only a few days of human life remaining.   And while the entirety of the world’s population braced for impact, Martez and his friends would be going about their normal routine.  Closed off from all things news and all things social media.   And for a moment his unplugged world seemed comfortable enough.

“Behind you.  Quick!”  Martez said, motioning with his head.  Outside the three young girls had apparently lost the argument with the police office and were being placed in the back of his car.

Finishing our drinks, we made our way to the Cabaret, as Martez resumed his spot – 10 feet ahead of us.

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By the end of the trip we’d met people who were happy, content, frustrated, scared, and downright angry.  And while the political spectrum ran from one extreme to the other, the one thing everyone had in common, was the struggle.  Whether for freedom with capitalistic independence, or communist state-run assistance, everyone was aware of the restrictions and poverty that surrounded them.

And while there’s much to envy about the wealth the rest of the world has, many Cubans we met were mindful of what else those foreign countries endure:  a populous with soaring education debt, low literacy rates, homelessness, out of control gun violence, and a health care system in disarray.  Those things are available in Cuba.  Everyone can go to college.  In fact, many Cubans have multiple degrees.  Crime is barely visible and health care is available to everyone.  And while it seems the younger generation appreciates those benefits, those we met were fully aware of the toll it is taking on them and their country.

Beauty permeates Cuba like flowers poking through a rusted metal fence.  We found it in  music, food, culture, architecture, and most of all her people.  People equipped to live a life, but forced to do so in a controlled and confined space.  Traveling is about understanding cultures and embracing the unknown.  We were fortunate to have been able to take advantage of president Obama’s easing of Cuban/American relations.  Now, with the new administration’s policy rollbacks, it’s anyone’s guess as to how those relations will be impacted.

 

Cuba – Part I

 

Taking advantage of the Obama administration’s easing of Cuban/American restrictions, we accepted a project with a group of writers and photographers.  Our directives were simple; assigned to various places throughout the country, we were asked to document our experiences.

Our knowledge of Cuba was limited.  We knew the country was roughly the size of Tennessee and we were aware of its complicated history with the United States.  The disaster at the Bay of Pigs, and a missile crisis which took the world to the brink of nuclear war.  We also recognized that reading about something is entirely different than experiencing it.  And while a week in any country does not an expert make, what was packed into that time gave fresh insight into what had been an otherwise stale perspective.

Here is Part I of our two part series.

“Revolution is a Bitch”

Havana Airport security, we were told, could be a bit complicated to navigate.  I’ve always had success while visiting new places by appearing to know what I’m doing and where I’m going.  “Act like I’ve been here before” is my mantra.  Nonetheless, this was Cuba.  So, our small group of journalists prepared ourselves for the peppering of suspicious questions.  But not one came our way.  Cuba’s security officials decided, instead, to interrogate the large group of American tourists that had entered Passport Control just ahead of us, looking a bit dazed and thoroughly confused.  The tourists were asked all sorts of questions; where they were from, why they were there, and if they knew anyone on the island.  While they stumbled through the inquiry, we seized the opportunity.  Moving quickly and unnoticed to the counter, where our passports were stamped without incident.

Stepping out of the airport and squinting through the mugginess I noticed a long line of taxis waiting with their engines running.  A few were “modern” New York Yellow taxis, but most were vintage cars that looked as if they’d driven straight off the set of a Happy Days episode.  “If the engines were still working, then maybe the air conditioning is too.” I thought, as I pulled my damp shirt away from the back of my neck.

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I slid a stack of Euros under the glass partition at the currency window and waited.  Cuba has an exchange tax on U.S. currency, so to save money I’d traded out the bills the day before.  The officer on the other side of the window divvied up two piles of Cuba’s two currencies.  The CUC which is used for tourists and set at a 1:1 fixed rate against the Dollar.  And the CUP, or Cuban Peso, which is worth far less, and used at ration stores and street stalls selling juices and assorted fruits.

We piled into the back of a faded blue 1961 blue Chevy, and made our way towards Havana, roughly half an hour away.   It was a time traveling trip where everyone shared the road.  Antique cars rumbled over potholes, while improvised horse drawn buggies trotted alongside, trying to keep up.  Mopeds, which appeared to be held together with duct tape and pieces of erector sets, sped through the traffic.  Backfiring as they shifted gears and raced around the ancient automobiles.  Not to be outdone, bicyclists with boxes of fruit and other household goods strapped and stacked higher than the riders themselves, peddled along the sidewalks, leaving beads of sweat in the dirt behind them.

 

 

IMG_3639We drove past dilapidated buildings with chipped paint, cracked windows, and exposed blocks of concrete set behind pro-revolutionary billboards of Fidel Castro coolly smoking cigars.  Clothes, gently swaying in the warm, sticky breeze were pinned along clotheslines attached from one tin roof corner to the other.

The homes gradually turned more pleasing as we neared our hotel; a one-hundred-year-old mansion in a quiet section of south Havana.  The house-turned-hostel was nestled amongst a depressed collection of homes, each one hidden behind beautiful bougainvillea, banana palms, and multi-colored hibiscus bushes.  The outside of our hostel was tattered with years of disregard, but the interior boasted a carefully preserved décor of spotless Italian marbled floors and imported onyx columns that supported frescoed ceilings.

In the communal bathroom, water slowly dripped from the sink faucet regardless of how hard the nozzle turned or which direction it went.  There were half a dozen rooms, each with ten-foot hand crafted wooden doors that even when fully opened, required a sideways entry.

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The streets were caked with broken bits of asphalt, piles of dirt from unfinished roadwork and an assortment of other debris.   Trash cans were overflowing with flies circling above, hoping the garbage trucks would forget to make their runs.

We found our way to The Malecón; an esplanade roadway where the ocean kisses a 5-mile stretch of the Havana coastline.  It’s a popular hangout for those who have very little and are looking for entertainment without a cost.  We stopped there to capture a few images of life along the wall, when we struck up a conversation with two locals who were offering a tour through the city in a 1952 Chrysler.

After negotiating a price, we scooted into the backseat where the carpet on the floor had been removed, displaying a metal that hadn’t seen the light of day since it rolled off the assembly line.  This car was born a few years before seat belts.  So, the head rest on the seat in front of me would have to do.  Lowering the window to allow fresh air, I cranked the handle – delicately – as if I were churning butter.  Everything about the car was original.  From the engine and the paint, to the steering wheel and its radio knobs.  Everything except the Boss Stereo system that lived in the glove box.

Elon, our navigator, fiddled with the stereo, while Carlito, our driver, pointed out landmarks.  So much was happening…and all at the same time.  In-between shout-outs, Carlito struggled to keep the door from falling off its hinges.  Opening and closing it in rapid succession to get the latch to catch properly.  That, while a bassline of reggae-infused Spanish music thumped through crackling speakers, with a decibel level so loud it may have interrupted communications with the International Space Station.

It was our very own Cuban/American Graffiti moment, passing a collection of vintage American cars, while cruising the streets of Havana with music blaring.  We stopped several times to take video and pictures.  And as our tour guides explained the relevance of what we were seeing, we were wondering when the door might fall off completely.

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We pulled into a bar – a juke-joint type of place – where Mojitos were made on the small patio, and live salsa and merengue music was made in the room next door.

“Mr. Obama sat right here and drank a Mojito!”  Carlito told us proudly, while ordering us the same drink.

“You don’t want one?”  I asked.

“No.”  he shot back, disappointingly.

“I can’t afford them…it costs 6 CUC.  Revolution is a bitch.”                                                                       

We ordered drinks for them both, then sat down at a corner table.  In hushed tones, we started talking about things locals weren’t supposed to be talking to tourists about – things they couldn’t do:

  • Travel abroad without permission.
  • Change jobs without permission.
  • Read unapproved books or magazines.
  • Visit or stay in tourist hotels.

Their list went on.

While they were ticking off the “Do-Not’s” of a Cuban citizen, a drunk man staggeringly made an unwelcomed entrance at our table.  Interrupting our conversation with slurred speech, he called our friends prostitutes and chastised them for conversing with “the westerners.”  A bouncer forcibly removed the man, pushing him back onto the street.  I watched him walk away, teetering and talking to himself as he disappeared around the corner.

Finishing our drinks, we climbed back into the car as Elon reached for the stereo before slamming the door.  Cranking Bonnie Tyler’s, Total Eclipse of the Heart, to an uncomfortable level, we sped off.

“You want some cigars?” Elon asked.  “I know just the place.”  We’d said, no.  But Carlito was singing the “Turn Around Bright Eyes” chorus so loudly, neither of them heard us.

IMG_4469Winding through a narrow alley in a neighborhood where the streets truly had no name, our Chrysler careened its way around pedestrians.  It wasn’t the derelict environment that stood out, in so much as it was the idleness of those living in it.   Everyone seemed to be waiting for something to happen.  Some squatted inside entryways where the doors had long since vanished, and others wandered the street aimlessly.

Carlito pulled the car up alongside a corner and stopped, abruptly, with the left front tire slightly scraping the sidewalk.  Exiting quickly, the four of us headed down a dark, dingy passageway to meet a man we didn’t know so we could buy cigars we would never smoke.

The smell of urine hung in the warm air as Elon reached through wrought iron bars and banged heavy on an even heavier wooden door.  “Julio!” he called out.  Banging a few more times.  No answer.  I got the impression “Julio” hadn’t been around for a while…seeing as how there was a giant padlock on the front of his door.  Satisfied Julio would not be selling us Montecristo’s, we climbed back into the Chrysler and bounced our way down the broken street once more.

The day was getting away from us and it was time for dinner.  We chose, at the behest of our new friends, La Familia. One of Havana’s many paladeras – privately owned small businesses used as restaurants.

La Familia’s food was simple and home cooked; black beans, rice and half a chicken.  There was nothing fancy about it.  But we preferred it that way.  It reminded us that those who prepared it weren’t professionals.  They just simply enjoyed cooking it for us.  The ambiance far outweighed the meal, as family pictures of people long since passed hung crookedly on the wall, and newspaper articles lined every inch of the ceiling.  Two guitar players performed acoustic Spanish renditions of James Taylor songs in the far corner, as the patrons sang along in between bites.

With dinner over we set out in search of a Wi-Fi Hot Spot.  Cuba has the lowest internet density in the Western Hemisphere.  Less than 2% of the population even has access.  And although the government is slowly lifting those restrictions, this a country where not that long ago chewing gum was illegal.

With only half-a-dozen hotspots in Havana, we stumbled into a park where hundreds of people sat shoulder-to-shoulder on benches and sidewalks.  A fluorescent glow bouncing off their faces, signaled to us we’d found one of the six.   We bought a one-hour internet card for 4 CUC from a kid who looked as if he were selling fake Rolex’s.  The cards had a scratch off username and password on the back that when scraped away, revealed a long set of random digits and symbols.  Everything we surfed was being monitored by the government.  And the speed at which we were doing so was the equivalent of two hamsters running in a cage to activate the filament of a lightbulb.  An hour’s worth of internet service was barely enough time to send a few texts and answer an email.  Skype didn’t work, and a simple phone call distorted the voice on the other end, turning their speech patterns into an alien lifeform with an indecipherable language.

It had been a long day and we’d seen quite a bit.  So, as a self-anointed “cork dork” I felt a nice Cabernet would be a good way to say goodnight to Day 1.  We hadn’t seen a wine shop all day.  And if one existed, our guess was that it would be in the center of downtown Havana.  Standing outside El Capitoilo Nacional, we heard a voice from behind.  “I can find you wine!  1 CUC per bottle.” The voice said.

We’d been chauffeured all day successfully.  And while I was skeptical of a taxi driver promising dollar-a-bottle wines, I figured there was no harm in searching.

 

IMG_3539The darkness did little to hide the fractured facades of the homes we drove past.  And as our car came to rest in front of a nondescript door, I took notice of the dozen or so doorbells, each one connected with exposed wires that shot off in all directions.  Careful not to touch anything, I traced my finger along the wires, trying to find the doorbell that matched the wine store.

“Put your CUC in the bucket.”  Our driver said from behind me.  Pointing to a small sign above the door that read simply, “Vino!”

What do you mean, ‘the bucket?’” I asked.

Your money.”  He replied.  “Put it in here and I’ll send it up there.”

‘Up there!” was a fourth-story balcony where the bucket had just been dropped, hand-over-hand with a frayed rope.

There were four bottles to choose from.  And while I knew slightly more about wine than the average person, I was more than confident the listed varietals were made up.

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Figuring we’d been had, we decided to buy all four.  Which, we believed, would raise the chances of at least one bottle tasting better than cough syrup.

I dropped a 5 CUC bill into the bucket and watched as it ascended upward towards a shadowy figure on a balcony just below the roof.  The figure, never saying a word, pulled the bucket over the ledge and disappeared.  Within seconds, four separate sounds of glass against tin echoed through the street as I stood underneath … waiting with outstretched arms.

Retrieving the bottles of God-knows-what from the bucket, we got back into the car and drove towards the hostel over an uneven and bumpy street.  Our bottles clanking together on the seat between us, as we wondered – aloud – what they were going to taste like.  And what in the world the rest of the week had in store for us.

 

 

Signs, Sounds, & Thoughts From My Experience At The Women’s March in Washington D.C.

One Man’s Story: Why I Marched With Women on Trump’s First Day
By: Dan Beckmann/Orlando Sentinel
25 January 2017 

Last week, rather excitedly, I posted, what I thought was a fairly innocuous tweet; “Heading to D.C. for the March!”  I wrote.  So, I was surprised to read the first response.  Not because it arrived so quickly, I have nearly 10,000 followers.  Rather, because it came from a friend with an ambiguous quip. “Last I checked you were a man…is there something you’re not telling me?”  She wrote.  Surely my well-educated friend could not be so confused to think a Y chromosome would be a disqualification for taking part in a Women’s March?  Nonetheless, there it was.  That comment…hanging like a piñata, just waiting for me to crack it with a great big stick.

So, to my friend who wrote, what I’m sure she thought was a comment in jest, I guess there are some things I haven’t thought to tell you.  Allow me to fill you in on a few of them.

For 15-years, as a cameraman, writer, and producer with NBC News, I sat on the front line of many struggles.  This was the first time I would be at the epicenter of something of this magnitude as a participant.  I knew why I was marching because I had the checked boxes all filled out in my head; women’s rights, minority issues, climate change, education.  All the big ones.  But it wasn’t until I was nestled amongst a sea of pink hats and humanity that I realized why I was really there.  By the way, there were quite a few disqualified Y chromosome people marching with me.

Women, and those with minority voices, have always played crucial roles in my success.  They are too often underrepresented, undermined, and undervalued.  So, from what some might call my “privileged” seat in society, I felt it was even more important for me to walk out my allegiance to them.

I marched because Donald Trump promised to serve all people.  And so far, his immediate circle of influence lacks the diversity to make that possible.  Having him hear our voices from his new home on his first day in office was a great start. Not everyone who needed to be heard could be there, so I was marching for them…and for all the people who’ve made a difference in my life.

I marched for my mom, who as a single parent took odd jobs teaching tennis lessons, tending bar, and fixing lawnmowers.  Always making less than the guy next to her who did the exact same job.  My mom never failed to take a college course and never got a failing grade.  Receiving her doctorate 35 years after taking her first class.

I marched for, and alongside, my friends Kent and Caanan.  Showing up with my support to protect their right to stay married.

I marched for my daughter Lauren, and my friend Tiffany.  Each survivors of sexual assault who now must watch a man who’s bragged about assaulting women lead our country for the next four years.

I marched for those so confused that they now believe in “alternative facts.”

I marched for my friends who lost all hope, and got suckered by a manipulative liar who placed a large bet on their fears and won bigly.

I marched as a reminder to those “who won” that they cannot ignore those who didn’t.  And I marched as a reminder to our representatives in Washington that they are bound by an oath to represent all those in their districts.

I marched to promote a global community of diverse members. The outcry of values and priorities aren’t solely “American issues” with isolated consequences.  Millions of others, on all 7 continents, took part in over 670 solidarity events. Our leader may say, “America First”, but we cannot claim to be “America Only”.

And I marched for that friend of mine, the Twitter commenter.  Apparently, there were some things I didn’t tell you.  I’m glad I told you about them now so we can put down our phones and get to the business of building a brighter future for us all.  And that’s something worth tweeting and re-tweeting about.

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Food & Wine Unite To Support Pulse & Orlando LGBT

A group of popular Orlando chefs and hospitality leaders decided to Just DO Something…Anything! by joining together for a barbecue to benefit The LGBT Center of Central Florida (www.thecenterorlando.org). Over 500 people came out to enjoy great food, live music, and a butterfly release and remembrance ceremony in the courtyard. There was no ticket price to attend the event, which ran from 4-8pm at East End Market (eastendmkt.com).

The benefit, Food and Wine Unite Orlando (foodandwineuniteorlando.myevent.com), was organized by chefs Kevin Fonzo of K Restaurant and Jamie McFadden of Cuisiniers Catered Cuisine & Events. After the Pulse Nightclub attack, chefs Kevin and Jamie wanted to give back to the “The Center,” which has helped so many victims’ families and survivors.

100% of the proceeds were donated to The LGBT Center of Central Florida for assistance in rebuilding resources.

Participating Orlando-area restaurants included; Smiling Bison, Hawkers, Swine & Sons, The Rusty Spoon, Chef Tim Keating and Wild Ocean Market, Se7en Bites, The Courtesy Bar, and all of the merchants at East End Market.

Wines were provided by Craft & Estate: a member of The Winebow Group, Tim’s Wine Market, Stacole Fine Wines, Winesellers, LTD., Augustan Wine Imports, and Breakthru Beverage Group.  Sponsors for the event included K Restaurant, Cuisiniers Catering, East End Market, The Boathouse at Disney Springs, Quantum Leap Winery, Breakthru Beverage Group, Overeasy Events, Platinum Parking, Orlando Wedding & Party Rentals, and Linens By the Sea.

 

Central Florida Public Schools Tackle Human Trafficking

JDSA recently partnered with the Florida Department of Children and Families, coordinating a project designed to create awareness and educate Central Florida teens about the dangers of Human Trafficking.

Just DO Something…Anything! funded and assisted Appleton Creative in the design of the campaign: a series of 4 colorfully designed posters, each depicting the dangers of modern day slavery, and distributed to every middle and high school in Central Florida.

Created with the youth audience in mind, the posters feature strong graphics, bold text and eye-catching call-to-actions. The campaign will effectively help make human trafficking top-of-mind and remind students of their value and where to go for help.

Orange County Public Schools (OCPS) is the 11th largest school district in the United States, where the posters are now being distributed to over 100 schools, reaching nearly 200,000 students in Orange, Osceola and Seminole County.

Last week, Crimeline displayed the posters at a joint forum at Valencia College Criminal Justice Institute.

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While Lake and Brevard County schools were expressing interest in displaying the posters, news of our project reached the Governor’s office in Tallahassee, where the Florida Department of Education has asked to initiate an extension of our campaign: organizing distribution of the posters to all public schools statewide – reaching more than 2 million students in over 4,200 schools.

JDSA was honored to have worked alongside the Greater Orlando Human Trafficking Task Force, their School Awareness Committee and Appleton Creative; an award-winning, full-service advertising agency with long-term ties to supporting community giving and bringing awareness to local causes. Throughout the years, Appleton has worked with many nonprofits such as Kids Beating Cancer, Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and Pet Alliance of Greater Orlando, shining light on their issues through public service campaigns and advertising.

In a similar fashion, Appleton works closely with the Zebra Coalition, a network of organizations that provides services to LGBT+ ages 13 – 24, creating an annual anti-bullying poster series that gets placed in over 100 Orange County public schools. Appleton is also responsible for Zebra’s branding, website, advertising and video work.

 

3 years – $1 million – & 110 Countries Later

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Three years ago this month Just DO Something…Anything! was created.  At the time JDSA was just a few letters … and Social Discussion was just a blog with a catchy phrase: We have the right to remain silent.  We just choose not to …”

For two months our computer screen sat blank … a blinking black cursor in the middle of an empty white page.  The first piece we posted was an Op/Ed political story I wrote after covering the Republican National Convention in Tampa for NBC News. We thought we were starting a revolution.  But really, we were just beginning an evolution.

We weren’t political writers.  We were social storytellers.  And that’s what we set out to do – tell stories through producing video content: writing commercials and shooting PSAs, developing creative strategies and concept planning for social organizations around the world.

But with nearly 12 million nonprofits, it seemed a daunting – if not impossible task.  So we decided to connect – both ourselves and others – to some of the more unique social organizations in existence.  Everyone knows about The Gates Foundation and Amnesty International.  But how many know about Rebecca Pontius and http://dogoodbus.com? A school bus she “decked out” so as to offer once-a-month community rides to volunteers to and from great causes in her Los Angeles community.

Or Shawn Seipler’s nonprofit, https://cleantheworld.org, who, while on a business trip had an idea for soap recycling after learning the barely used bars of hotel soap he left behind ended up in a landfill.  Today, Clean the World has more than 50 full-time employees in Orlando, Las Vegas, and Hong Kong.  And they’ve distributed more than 25 million bars of soap to over 99 countries.

And we met Shannon O’Donnell, who created http://grassrootsvolunteering.org and built a dual database of organizations all over the world … helping empower travelers to connect to the causes and communities in the places they travel.

JDSA’s evolution is ongoing.  Today, we’re a 501C3 nonprofit who’s helped raise over $1 million for several unique and innovative nonprofits.  And we couldn’t have done it without you – the 30,000+ followers in over 110 countries. Thank you for turning JDSA into a verb – for JDSA’ing in the social causes you’re passionate about, and for telling us about the one’s that are making a difference in your life.

Please keep us posted on those unique organizations you come across!  In the meantime, check out a few we’ve found – from a variety of social causes.

The Pollination Project – https://thepollinationproject.org

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A Gift For Teaching – http://agiftforteaching.org

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Curbside Chronicle – http://thecurbsidechronicle.org/about-us/

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Zebra Coalition – http://zebrayouth.org

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The Prospector Theatre – http://www.prospectortheater.org

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Soaring Paws – http://www.soaringpaws.com

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Wildlife SOS / India – http://wildlifesos.org

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To learn more about those organizations, and some of the others we’ve come across, check out our “Your Connections” tab on our web site: http://www.jdsanything.org/#!your-connections/czy8

Sam is a Ram! St. Louis Rams Just DO Something in NFL Draft

Rams Pick Michael Sam, First Openly Gay Player Drafted In NFL

Michael Sam…A Distraction to Whom?

Just doing something isn’t about one thing in particular.  It isn’t just about giving or volunteering or organizing.  Sometimes it’s just about voicing opposition towards injustice.  And that’s just what we did here…  

Murder, Drugs — Now those are NFL distractions, not Sam

March 14, 2014
 – By Dan Beckmann Guest Columnist for the Orlando Sentinel 
 

Later this month, the National Football League will hold its annual meeting in Orlando to discuss a wide range of subjects, such as rule changes, safety, labor agreements and free agency. As important as those may be, one issue, in particular, seems to be a distraction for NFL owners: Michael Sam.

All last season there was talk the standout defensive end from the University of Missouri could be selected between the third and seventh round in the NFL draft later this spring. Following his announcement last month that he is gay, the conversation has changed. Rumors are that his draft stock may be sinking. Why? Because, as his detractors say, he’s a “distraction.”

He was a distraction, they claim, at last month’s NFL Scouting Combine, where critics called his drill performances and athletic times “lackluster.” But plenty of NFL superstars performed below their potential during their combine tests. Drew Brees fell short of expectations, both in height and his throwing accuracy, and I can’t recall anyone calling his performance lackluster.

So Sam’s 40-yard dash was off. NFL.com sportswriter Michael Lombardi doesn’t think it was that big of a deal. “Some players are fast, but do not play fast, while others time slow, but play fast in pads. And that is the key for finding the right balance when using the 40 times as a measuring stick. Like all things, when evaluating college players, everything falls back to the evaluation of playing the game. Does this player play fast? Can his 40 time be seen when he puts on his pads?”

Will Michael Sam ever get the chance to suit up in pads and demonstrate his skills on an NFL field? Doubtful, say some coaches and team officials, who spoke to Sports Illustrated — on the condition of anonymity, of course — saying they now believe Sam faces “long odds and a lonely path from the draft room to the locker room.”

And it’s not just coaching staff.

At the end of last season, Sam was the SEC Defensive Player of the Year, at one point getting nine sacks in three games against Vanderbilt, Arkansas State and Florida. Now, some critics are calling those numbers inflated. One scout says fans are being deceived and are — here comes that word again — “distracted” by those numbers. Because, as this scout says, those teams were considered “garbage competition.”

While some players have voiced support for Sam, former Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Patrick Crayton voiced opposition, tweeting, “Oh wow!!! There goes the NFL!”

But where are the voices saying, “There goes the NFL!” for the 31 active players arrested during last year’s offseason? What has distracted fans from not being angry over charges of truly dangerous behavior? Child abuse, criminal mischief, having a gun in their airport luggage, drug possession, failure to appear in court, public intoxication, resisting arrest, DUI, third-degree assault, battery, disorderly conduct, solicitation, aggravated assault and attempted murder.

Where’s the outrage over the four arrests by active NFL players already this year? Assaulting a police officer, driving while intoxicated, disorderly conduct and public intoxication. What’s distracting Richie Incognito’s nearly 93,000 Twitter followers from being outraged over his racial epithets and homophobic slurs?

Who, exactly, is distracting whom from what?

At least disenchanted Patriot fans weren’t distracted after Aaron Hernandez was arrested on charges of first-degree murder. Last year they were allowed to exchange Hernandez’s jersey for another player’s replica. That’s a distraction worthy of conversation.

Decades ago, Branch Rickey didn’t let distractions get in the way of signing Jackie Robinson to a Major League Baseball contract. Robinson was a great athlete who appeared different from his teammates. Rickey understood there could be no real winning when a majority excludes a minority based on misguided values. Will there be a Branch Rickey at the NFL meeting this month?

Sam’s romantic life shouldn’t impede him from proving himself on a football field. It’s a diversionary tactic that should be discarded from all conversation. Regardless of what NFL owners discuss later this month, let’s hope they stop talking about this. Dating is not a worthy distraction. Felonies are.

To some, Sam’s lifestyle may seem unsavory. But he’s certainly not a detriment to football. Don’t be fooled by those who claim his combine performance disqualifies him for the NFL, or that his sexual orientation is dangerous. To fall for all that chatter is to buy into yet another unworthy distraction.

A Life With “Out” Limits: Growing Up Hindu and Homosexual

by Arati M. Jambotkar

Sometimes I have dreams about my future wedding day.  I hold hands with my Indian husband – an engineer maybe, or a doctor – as we circle the ceremonial fire in traditional Indian garb, flanked by gold jewelry and extravagant ornaments.  We are filled with the certainty that we will be bound together in harmony for life, and everything is perfect – just the way it’s supposed to be…
There’s only one problem: I’m not straight.  But it took me a long time to realize that it’s not a problem.
I grew up in a small town forty miles west of New Orleans, the younger of two daughters of immigrants.  My parents are the most self-sacrificing people I know.  My dad was raised in a tiny village in India with no electricity or running water, oftentimes studying by candlelight during his childhood and eating nothing but a boiled egg a day.  In contrast, I was raised in America with things that far surpassed mere necessities.  Although I felt grateful for these luxuries, along with that gratitude came an equally strong sense of guilt over being spoiled.  The combination of that gratitude and guilt sparked a self-imposed pressure to succeed and to live up to the ideals of the culture.
Being born into a family of devout Hindus, I frequently visited the local temple as a child.  I recall sitting on the hard linoleum floor amongst a throng of worshippers, surrounded by statues – idols adorned with silk and flowers and grains of rice.  I was obedient and quiet as chants were muttered in tongues I did not understand, to which I could not connect to  emotionally.  I found myself detached from my religion, from spirituality altogether.  Such was the case for many years.
I started noticing girls shortly after my sixteenth birthday.  During the summer before my junior year, I attended a club conference in Texas with a group of young women from several Louisiana parishes.  On the bus ride there, I chatted with a girl who –I kid you not – was the spitting image of Alicia Silverstone.  Sigh.  I recall sitting alone with “Miss Silverstone” at a table in Planet Hollywood in downtown Dallas two days later as she complained for three and a half hours about her boyfriend’s indiscretions.  As she spoke, all I could think about was how magnificent she was, how pleasant her voice sounded, her warm and endearing personality, the insanity of the boyfriend, and how odd it felt to be overcome with extreme nervousness.  It was the kind of anxiety that is blissful, surreal, and simultaneously shocks the core.  Basically, these were butterflies that only a crush can bring.  I never saw her again, but I’ll never forget her.
From that point until the age of eighteen, I experienced the most agonizing torment I’ve ever gone through in my life: the questioning period.  I was plagued by incessant thoughts about the true nature of my sanity – second-guessing whether my emotions were part of the reality I had always known, or whether they were part of some alternate universe where delusions were actually reality.  I chastised and berated myself constantly.  It was my own version of self-imposed electroshock therapy.  My feelings towards my inclinations and urges went beyond guilt to a dark place of shame about who I was and what I feared I would become: a second-class family member, an ostracized Hindu, a spiritual failure.  This daily self-lashing lasted two years.
When I turned eighteen, I decided to come out to my parents.  And I chose the morning of December 25 to do it.  I didn’t select it for shock value.  Christmas, although a Christian holiday, was always celebrated in our household as our favorite day of the year – a time when the familial bond that we always valued became something that was renewed and strengthened time and time again.  I remember sitting at the kitchen table with my mother, post-wrapping paper cleanup, post-dishwasher loading, and pre-trying to figure out how these words were going to somehow magically form themselves into sentences that I could verbalize.  But sometimes, anxiety prompts a person to act on impulse before the mind can object and before the body can resist.  I blurted out the three words, not even stuttering on “l.” All I remember after was the unsurprised look on my mother’s face as she said, “It’s just a phase.”  And suddenly, I felt like a kid who had woken up on Christmas morning with all the anticipation and hope in the world, only to find that the one thing she had wished for that year wasn’t under the tree.  I was that kid, and I was crushed.
From that moment on, I experienced an emotional distancing from my family that filled me with some of the greatest emptiness I have ever known.  It was like trekking through a tundra, surrounded by nomads, but blindfolded and feeling like no one else was there.  I tried to wash away that emptiness with a series of failed relationships, including the horribly violent one about which I wrote a few weeks ago.  I didn’t want to face rejection, abandonment, and judgment by the people whom I had always considered to be closest to me, by this spiritual being.
Out of desperation, I went to a temple in Houston one weekend, about fifteen years after I had last been inside of a religious establishment.  People oftentimes describe spiritual experiences as monumental, dramatic events that are blissful, surreal, and simultaneously shock the core.  Mine was ordinary, I suppose.  But in crossing that threshold, I felt a transformation, one from a lifetime of feeling displacement to just one moment of feeling balance, peace, and belonging.  That’s when I realized that this puzzle of life is only complete when the last piece of it stops struggling.  When I accept that the puzzle maker truly wants me to stop fighting the puzzle itself and just “be,” only then can I accept myself as the piece that fits.
Today I am grateful that I am that piece, that I have the capacity to enact change in this world based on who I am, based on just “being” – on just being me.  And since I’ve come to that place of self-acceptance, of self-nurturing, I have been blessed with the ability to embrace that puzzle instead of shunning it, to feel compassion for the other pieces and to love myself regardless of whether they are in acceptance of me, or even of themselves.  My family doesn’t exactly welcome my homosexuality today, but they don’t reject it either.  They love me for just being, and I love them in the same way.  I thank that spiritual someone, that threshold in Houston, for giving me the power to truly know that.
So these days, I still sometimes have dreams about my future wedding day.  I hold hands with my wife – whoever she may be – as we circle the ceremonial fire in traditional Indian garb, flanked by gold jewelry and extravagant ornaments.  We are filled with the certainty that we will be bound together in harmony for life, but everything isn’t perfect.  Instead, it’s just the way it’s supposed to be.

DOMA Is The End Of Scalia’s Gay (Happy) Reign

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Josh Gad is USA TODAY’s newest, and perhaps most unusual, columnist. Filing whenever he can – or whenever the “news muse” strikes!

 

By Josh Gad – USA Today 

Today, as many are celebrating the historic Supreme Court ruling in favor of gay marriage rights, there is one victim left in the dust. His name is Antonin Scalia. You may know him. He’s the judge whose face looks like a Panic Pete squeeze toy when he gets angry. He’s offended because he did not get his way. That’s right. Justice Kennedy and his four conspirators cheapened the law of the land by giving these “gays” the right to have equal benefits. Scalia and his marriage crusaders (including the divorced Justice Clarence Thomas, who chewed gum like an angry bovine as the decision was read) saw their precious straight-people-only utopia go up in flames. (Pun intended.)

In his scathing dissent, Scalia wrote: “It is one thing for a society to elect change; it is another for a court of law to impose change by adjudging those who oppose it hostis humani generis, enemies of the human race.” Going further, Scalia accused the majority of “declaring anyone opposed to same-sex marriage an enemy of human decency … In the majority’s telling, this story is black-and-white: Hate your neighbor or come along with us.” And how right he is! He even has the Latin language to back him up. The original dissent went further to say Gayus Manus Makum me Sickus. Fearing a backlash, however, the last part was redacted.

You see, as Scalia fights for the rights of people to not have rights (i.e.: yesterday’s brave decision to strike down a civil rights law providing protection against voter discrimination), moments such as the DOMA reversal are a dangerous impediment to Scalia’s legacy: that of being the Senator Palpatine of his generation. It’s unfair to call him unbending. Just because he doesn’t recognize homosexuals as individuals does not mean he has no heart. For example, his staunch defense of corporations as individuals was a fearless reminder that General Electric and Koch Industries have feelings just like you and me.

I remember the first time I saw General Electric crying on a street corner after he had his lunch stolen by Comcast. I was like, “Man, I hope the Supreme Court gives him the same rights as me one day.” And indeed, Scalia paved the way for corporations to provide unlimited funds toward elections without having to disclose anything. Now that’s brave. That’s a legacy.

You see, Scalia understands that laws are laws. It doesn’t matter that, in the words of Kennedy, “DOMA instructs all federal officials, and indeed all persons with whom same-sex couples interact, including their own children, that their marriage is less worthy than the marriages of others.” Who cares? Now, we’re just dealing with feelings. Under the nuance of Scalia’s wrath, we must remember that laws do not account for moral justice.

You see, it matters not if Frank and Bob, both crippled by the burden of not being able to share simple things like health and financial benefits, are subject to discrimination and are, in the eyes of their children, not as “worthy” as their friends’ parents. Forget that if moral equality weren’t adjudicated, women would still not have the right to vote and interracial marriage would still be outlawed.

According to the laws of Scalia’s land, we cannot judge on right or wrong or on conscience. Because the consequences of that might very well be…universal happiness. I shudder at the thought. After all, a happy gay is a dangerous gay. Pretty soon, we’ll all be drowning in a sea of confetti and satin. Now we must continue to abide by the LAW, not to be “interpreted,” not to be mettled with. After all, I’m positive there was no clause in the decision to make corporations individuals. There couldn’t have been. No.

That would be, to use a Scalia-approved Latin term, hypocrisy.

 

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