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February 12, 2014

The Gifts of African American Innovation

African Americans have been prolific inventors, providing a multitude of gifts to the nation that once enslaved them.  Many of these inventions have had a wide and long-lasting impact and now form a part of our everyday lives.

George Washington Carver

Best known among African American inventors is George Washington Carver.  During his career, Dr. Carver researched and developed more than 300 uses for peanuts including chili sauce, shampoo, shaving cream, and glue.

In 1916, he published the research bulletin, How to Grow the Peanut and 105 Ways of Preparing it For Human Consumption. At the time, the boll weevil had destroyed Alabama’s cotton crop and many farmers had turned to peanuts as a cash crop. Cotton oil mills were converted to produce peanut oil. Livestock could eat the peanut plant and sharecroppers could feed their families on crops that weren’t sold. It is not overstating matters to say that Dr. Carver and the peanut helped save the economy of the South.

Alfred L. Cralle

Alfred L. Cralle’s name is perhaps lesser known, but as an African American inventor, he developed and patented the first ice cream scoop, something very familiar to ice cream lovers everywhere.  Even though ice cream has been around for centuries and no one can be specifically credited with its invention, thanks to Alfred Cralle, getting the frozen dessert out of the container became much easier.  Alfred L. Cralle was born September 4, 1866 in Kenbridge, Virginia and attended schools in his community. He showed an early interest in how things worked. After Cralle finished his schooling and worked for a time in his father’s carpentry business, he moved to Pittsburgh, PA where he worked in the Markell Brothers drugstore and for the St. Charles Hotel. Cralle noticed that while ice cream had become a popular dessert, it was a big problem to serve, sticking to spoons and ladles. Often it required two sets of hands and multiple implements to get it from the container to the serving dish.  It could be a monumental mess!

His first ice cream scoop looked like a wooden stick with a metal cone on top. Originally known as an ice cream mold and disher, it was designed to keep the ice cream from sticking and be easy to use with one hand. He experimented with scoops using various inexpensive materials for the cone, the part that held the ice cream when it was scooped from the container. This strong, inexpensive, and effective device allowed ice cream to be served faster and more hygienically.  Today the ice cream scoop is a common household utensil and its invention did much to make ice cream a popular dessert around the world.

A History of Innovation

The successes of men such as Carver and Cralle did much to dispel demeaning characterizations used to stereotype African Americans following the end of the Civil War.  Their tenacity in the realms of science and business inspired others to break down barriers for African Americans in the arts, sports, and politics.  A society gains strength in part from its ability to innovate and adapt.  The long tradition of African American innovation has contributed in a significant way to the growth of our modern economy.

December 7, 2013

The Real Lessons We Should Learn from Mandela

Nelson Mandela’s luminous presence shines radiantly. As a young white South African in the ninety-seventies I was captivated by his moral authority that no jail could imprison. In a world of leaders captive to tribal, religious or identity politics Mandela points to a more fulsome arc of inclusion.

As a college student involved in anti-apartheid activity I would sit on Signal Hill in Cape Town and look across the bay to the desolate isolation of Robben Island, Mandela’s prison home. It was the high security prison where Mandela and other leading black anti-apartheid activists were incarcerated.

Designed to break their spirit and crush the anti-apartheid movement Mandela transformed it into a school of leadership for the day when freedom arrived. The hardship of brutal prison conditions became a school of hope for what might be.

In my college years I worked as a freelance correspondent for a shortwave radio station which beamed stories from Ethiopia and then Zambia into the tightly government controlled media world of South Africa. At the time it was illegal to own Mandela’s writings, which were banned, and a criminal offense to portray his image in public.

My anxiety and nervousness about smuggling those writings back into South Africa were high every time I did that while crossing the border form recording interviews in neighboring countries.

His vision of a democratic country based not on tribal, racial or identity politics, but on the need for the full participation of all filled me with exhilaration.

It seemed ironic that the government at the time labeled him a “communist” in order to win backing to support apartheid’s antithetical philosophy from Western powers in the Cold War era.

I remember exactly what I was doing — leading a church service — on February 11, 1990 when Mandela was released from prison and appeared before tens of thousands of people on the balcony of Cape Town’s City Hall with his friend Desmond Tutu.

Joined by a global television audience Mandela offered a vision of democratic unity that stood in sharp contrast to the violently enforced racism of apartheid. “Our long march to freedom is irreversible” he declared. Like many, I was incredulous, at his release and the instantaneous way in which he became a global voice of moral authority.

At the end of that year I returned to visit South Africa with some skepticism about the new era.

Arriving in Johannesburg I discovered the once banished images and words of Mandela emblazoned on the front page of every newspaper which carried his New Year’s message. Around me were inter-racial couples freely holding hands. When I left South Africa in 1980 they would have been arrested and imprisoned for a love that crossed the legal boundaries of the country.

In the intervening years leading up to South Africa’s first democratic election in 1994 when Mandela was elected as president, a commission created a new constitution for the country. The framers included representatives of his African National Congress and other anti-apartheid organizations, the old apartheid regime, trade unionists, feminists, those involved in the cause of gay rights among others. The country’s religious pluralism was represented.

In the Mandela spirit, the “spoils of victory” were not celebrated by exclusion but by inclusion.

The resulting constitution, widely regarded as a model of constitutional law, reflects Mandela’s vision of a nation with no outcasts among its citizens. Unique among constitutions, it enshrines protections for children, women and gay and lesbian South Africans among others.

The irreversible march to freedom is a freedom for all.

In a bold move untried anywhere else in the world, President Mandela and Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu envisioned a Truth and Reconciliation Commission – a pro-active move to avoid the politics of vengeance. Chaired by Tutu, any South African could apply for amnesty from civil and criminal charges if they public confessed to and asked for forgiveness for any actions to sustain or overthrow the apartheid system.

Mandela never lost sight of the ordinary small actions of individuals for transforming even the most brutal of situations.

In 1998 I participated with him in a memorial service in New York City to celebrate the life of Trevor Huddleston. The service was scheduled so that Mandela could be present to honor this humble man – an English monk and priest whose book, “Naught for Your Comfort,” revealed for the first time to many people the brutality and moral bankruptcy of apartheid.

Mandela’s affection for Huddleston was palpable and the message was clear that every action taken in pursuit of human oneness and freedom matters.

When in South Africa I often visit Robben Island and the stone quarry there that Mandela was forced to labor in. Today it is a shrine pointing to unimaginable hardship giving way to hope.

At his 90th birthday in 2010 Mandela spoke about the cause of freedom that his life has been committed to.

“After 90 years of life, it is time for new hands to lift the burdens” he said. “It is in your hands” now.

In an era where so many are cynical about leaders who seek to divide, Nelson Mandela’s legacy is anything but frail. It is an invitation to realize that inclusive freedom for all is in our hands.

November 28, 2013

The Miracle of Hanukkah and Thanksgiving

thanksgiving-hanukkahThe Jewish Festival of Lights began yesterday, November 27, 2013.  In commemoration of the victory by a small group of followers of Jewish High Priest Mattathias over Greek oppressors in the second century B.C.E., Jewish people around the world light the nine-candle Hanukkiyah, sometimes spelled Chanukkiyah, one candle for eight evenings.  The ninth candle in the center is lit first and then used to light the other eight candles.

The miracle of Hanukkah is celebrated by the ritual of lighting a candle on each of eight days to symbolize the miraculous blessing of a single vial of olive oil, found in the rubble of the Holy Temple after its desecration by the Greeks, burning for not just one day,  but for eight full days.

The Thanksgiving holiday in the United States begins today, November 28, 2013.  According to calculations, it will be 77,798 years, the next time Hanukkah—the Jewish Festival of Lights and Thanksgiving, the commemoration of the first successful harvest, most often associated with the Puritans and Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony, will happen within a day of each other.

We can be especially grateful for the chance to celebrate the miracle of life itself in both Hanukkah and Thanksgiving.  May we strengthen our resolve to work toward the miracle of global peace, remembering this from the great Irish novelist and poet, author of The Chronicles of Narnia, C. S. Lewis:

“Miracles do not, in fact, break the laws of nature.”

October 7, 2013

Life Lessons Inspired by Desmond Tutu

Note:  This article was originally posted on the Ann Curry Reporting Our World page of NBC News.

Desmond Tutu and Robert V. Taylor, May 2012

Desmond Tutu celebrates his 82nd birthday on October 7th. I’m often asked what I’ve learned from this tireless peacemaker over three decades of knowing him. Alongside the wisdom that his life, work, teaching and spirit exude, five life lessons stand out which are transformative to the life of any person when they are allowed to be in dynamic inter-action.

Undergirding everything I’ve learned is Tutu’s witness to the philosophy of Ubuntu.  It is an African wisdom tradition which says that a person is only a person in the context of others.  Or to put it another way “I am only me because of you.” Everything that he says and does is a reflection of this fundamental belief in our need of one another combined with the teachings of his faith tradition about love, forgiveness and justice.

Trust. Tutu speaks often about his belief that we are made for goodness, in fact he’s even written a book about that. The belief is lived out through a striking willingness to trust others and a sense that when given the chance most people will ultimately make decisions that are good. It is a fundamental trust in the goodness of others.

Fifteen years ago I asked Tutu what made him offer to help me get out of South Africa in 1980—when he barely knew me—to avoid imprisonment for refusing to serve in the military. He thought for a moment then said, “I trusted you and wanted to help.”  This combination of trust in the goodness of others and the willingness to act on that guiding belief create a dynamic, interactive way of life.

Playful Delight. Like his dear friend the Dalai Lama, Tutu has lived with the threat of violence against him and witnessed some of the most wrenching atrocities in the world. At a breakfast conversation I once hosted at which these two men spoke about compassion the audience was mesmerized as they teased and poked one another in the ribs while on stage and then collapsed into peals of laughter.

In the midst of responding to the needs of the world Tutu is grounded in a playful mischievous delight about life that begins with making fun of himself. It is a choice to walk lightly through the world while being fully present to life and others.

Honoring Your Word. In a world of often glib promises I’ve repeatedly witnessed Tutu honoring the commitments he speaks about. In the late nineteen eighties at the height of the anti-apartheid movement I asked him when he might speak in support of LGBT rights. “Once apartheid is overturned” he said without missing a beat. Today he calls the struggle for those rights the moral equivalent of ending apartheid.

There is a theme to how he honors his word. The magnificence and belovedness of every person are, I believe, what drive his insistent words about the need for girl’s education, women’s leadership, the Girl’s Not Brides campaign, the environment and LGBT rights. It is about living an integrated life that honors one another and especially those who are denied equality.

Steadfast Loyalty. The varied expressions of loyalty that I and so many others have experienced and received from Tutu is a reminder of the steadfastness of his friendship with others irrespective of their successes or failures. I’ve come to understand that this gift is only possible because of his profound self-awareness of human foibles and frailty and his heartfelt empathy with others.

Overjoyed by his willingness to write a generous introduction to my recent book, I was completely unprepared for his enthusiasm about travelling to Los Angeles to participate in a book launch event for the same book. It is a reflection of a steadfast loyalty that is another reminder of the Ubuntu wisdom tradition at work.

Grounding Practice. Tutu has engaged many and offended some by declaring that “God is not a Christian.” He understands his God to be more loving, expansive and generous than the wisdom of any one tradition points to. Yet it is his daily practice of celebrating Holy Communion every morning wherever he is that grounds his life and informs it.

I’ve learned that no matter your tradition the ability to engage in a regular practice of meditative or prayerful mindfulness each day is foundational to being an aware participant in your own life and the human family. The particulars of what kind of practice you choose are less important than the practice itself.

While I’m profoundly grateful for all that I have learned from Tutu over the decades I am not unique in learning such life lessons from him. These five things are accessible to anyone wanting to live an integrated mindful life in the spirit of Ubuntu.  Above all, they reflect Tutu’s generosity of heart, mind and spirit. It is a generous way of living that beckons any of us.

July 7, 2013

Taking Down Digital Bullies

Social media technology has made it easier than ever for teens to stay connected with each other.  It has also made bullying easier.  Consider the story of Brandon Turley, as recently report by CNN.  In sixth grade, he didn’t have friends. He would often eat alone at lunch, having recently switched to his school without knowing anyone.  One day, while browsing MySpace, he saw that someone from his school had posted a message visible to multiple people stating that Turley was a “fag.” Students he had never even spoken with had commented on the post, saying they agreed.

brandon-turleyUnsure of what to do and upset, Turley wrote in the comments, asking why his classmates would say that. The response was even worse.  He was told on MySpace that a group of 12 kids wanted to beat him up, that he should stop going to school and die. On his walk from his locker to the school office to report what was happening, students yelled things like “fag” and “fatty.”

“It was just crazy, and such a shock to my self-esteem that people didn’t like me without even knowing me,” said Turley, now 18 and a senior in high school in Oregon. “I didn’t understand how that could be.”

“Cyber bullying” is defined as a young person tormenting, threatening, harassing, or embarrassing another young person using the Internet or other technologies, like cell phones.

Studies done on cyber bullying underscore the fact that it is widespread.  In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics calls cyber bullying the “most common online risk for all teens.”  Statistics compiled by DoSeomething.org show that:

  1. Nearly 43% of kids have been bullied online. 1 in 4 has had it happen more than once.
  2. 70% of students report seeing frequent bullying online.
  3. Over 80% of teens use a cell phone regularly, making it the most common medium for cyber bullying.
  4. 68% of teens agree that cyber bullying is a serious problem.
  5. 81% of young people think bullying online is easier to get away with than bullying in person.
  6. 90% of teens who have seen social-media bullying say they have ignored it. 84% have seen others tell cyber bullies to stop.
  7. Only 1 in 10 victims will inform a parent or trusted adult of their abuse.
  8. Girls are about twice as likely as boys to be victims and perpetrators of cyber bullying.
  9. About 58% of kids admit someone has said mean or hurtful things to them online. More than 4 out 10 say it has happened more than once.
  10. About 75% have visited a website bashing another student.
  11. Bullying victims are 2 to 9 times more likely to consider committing suicide.

Cyber bullying can be very damaging to adolescents and teens. It can lead to anxiety, depression, and even suicide. Also, once things are circulated on the Internet, they may never disappear, resurfacing at later times to renew the pain of cyber bullying.

cyber-bullyingMany cyber bullies think that bullying others online is funny. However, cyber bullies may not realize the consequences of these activities for themselves and their families. The things teens post online now may reflect badly on them later when they apply for college or a job. Cyber bullies can lose their cell phone or online accounts for cyber bullying. Also, cyber bullies and their parents may face legal charges for cyber bullying, and if the cyber bullying was sexual in nature, the results can include being registered as a sex offender. Teens may believe that if they use a fake name they won’t get caught.  But there are many ways to trace the true identity of someone who is bullying over the Internet.

Below are some steps that parents and teens can take to help stop cyber bullying.

  • Talks to teens about cyber bullying, explaining that it is wrong and can have serious consequences. Make a rule that teens may not send mean or damaging messages, even if someone else started it, or suggestive pictures or messages or they will lose their cell phone and computer privileges for a time.
  • Encourage teens to tell an adult if cyber bullying is occurring. Tell them if they are the victims they will not be punished, and reassure them that being bullied is not their fault.
  • Teens should keep cyber bullying messages as proof that the cyber bullying is occurring. The teens’ parents may want to talk to the parents of the cyber bully, to the bully’s Internet or cell phone provider, and/or to the police about the messages, especially if they are threatening or sexual in nature.
  • Try blocking the person sending the messages. It may be necessary to get a new phone number or email address and to be more cautious about giving out the new number or address.
  • Teens should never tell their password to anyone except a parent, and should not write it down in a place where it could be found by others.
  • Teens should not share anything through text or instant messaging on their cell phone or the Internet that they would not want to be made public – remind teens that the person they are talking to in messages or online may not be who they think they are, and that things posted electronically may not be secure.
  • Encourage teens never to share personal information online or to meet someone they only know online.
  • Keep the computer in a shared space like the family room, and do not allow teens to have Internet access in their own rooms.
  • Encourage teens to have times when they turn off the technology, such as at family meals or after a certain time at night.
  • Parents may want to wait until high school to allow their teens to have their own email and cell phone accounts, and even then parents should still have access to the accounts.

 Cyber bullying can have long lasting consequences.  A recent study in the journal JAMA Psychiatry suggests that bullying victims showed greater likelihood of agoraphobia, where people don’t feel safe in public places, along with generalized anxiety and panic disorder. People who were both victims and bullies were at higher risk for young adult depression, panic disorder, agoraphobia among females, and the likelihood of suicide among males. Those who were only bullies showed a risk of antisocial personality disorder.

Technology has made bullying easier and more pervasive.  Putting a stop to bullying – whatever its form – requires a community effort from parents, teachers and especially kids themselves.  Not doing so imperils the health of our children and our society.

July 7, 2013

Our Film to Create Awareness about Fracking in South Africa

My name is Francis Hweshe, Im a freelance journalist and indie filmmaker based in Cape Town. I understand that the Archbishop Desmond Tutu has spoken against fracking and I thought our initial trailer on fracking featuring South African Goldman Prize Winner and anti-fracking activist Jonathan Deal would be interesting. The links to the trailer are below.