Sense of Decency

Listening to others, seeing things through their eyes.

Plasma donors wait outside a donation center in Brownsville, Texas, May 2021. Photo © Jim McKeever.


Mexicans can be heroes again. 

A U.S. District Court judge last week overturned a 2021 U.S. Customs and Border Protection policy that had stopped Mexicans from crossing the border to donate plasma.

In May 2021, I noticed long lines outside the three plasma donation centers within a few hundred yards of the US-Mexico border in Brownsville, Texas, where I was volunteering. 

Every day, dozens of Mexican men and women lined up on the sidewalks waiting to make money selling their plasma (which is illegal in Mexico). 

The sign on one building read, “Héroes Entran Aquí.” (“Heroes Enter Here.”)

The scene every day was a stark reminder of the steps people are willing to take when facing poverty. Donating plasma twice a week can bring in hundreds of dollars a month, which goes a lot further in Mexico than in the U.S.

But when I returned to Brownsville in May 2022, I saw no more lines outside the centers.  

Last June the U.S. government, in typical arbitrary fashion, put a stop to the decades-long practice, causing more economic hardship for donors from Mexico. ProPublica has been following the impact of the ban  — a global plasma shortage and loss of American jobs in the “$21 billion global market” for plasma, which is essential for many treatments for patients with serious medical conditions and immune deficiencies.

Plasma centers near the border reported losing up to 94 percent of their collection volumes. 

According to the lawsuit, five percent — millions of liters — of plasma collected in the U.S. has come from Mexican donors. 

The lens through which this particular “border crisis” is viewed is mostly economic, with an obvious nod to global public health — unless you’re Mexican. 

In granting a preliminary injunction to overturn the policy, U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan said the need for plasma outweighed potential health risks for frequent donors, which include weight loss and reduced levels of antibodies. 

In the lawsuit that resulted in the ban being lifted, pharmaceutical companies cynically described Mexicans’ plasma as a substance that “originates in Mexico” and should be treated as just another imported product. 

At least the judge rejected that argument. “A person is more than just a shopping cart of biological products to be bought and sold at a later date,” she wrote.

Forgotten — or ignored — in all of this is the stark reality of the poverty in Mexico that leads so many of its citizens to make money this way. 

I’ve reached out to the pharmaceutical companies that filed the lawsuit (they are based in Spain and Australia) to ask if they have any type of program in Mexico to alleviate poverty or at least provide followup health care for frequent donors after they return to Mexico. 

Stay tuned.

Jim McKeever is a co-founder of Sense of Decency.

Photo illustration © Michelle Gabel


We need a better word, something stronger.

When we talk about divisions in the country and the ways we reinforce and protect our beliefs, we fall back on words like “echo chamber” and “bubble.” 

This is where we prefer to stay — our “safe space,” to use another popular term bordering on cliche. 

But bubbles can pop, and echo chambers don’t conjure up a sense of impermeability or invincibility.

Fortresses. There we go.

That’s what we have surrounded ourselves with — imposing structures with walls thick and high, with strategic vantage points we can hide behind to ward off attackers. 

Let’s throw in a moat. 

Without a bridge or even a drawbridge. 

We need at least one flag, of course, to fly high and let everyone know what we stand for — and what we are willing to fight against.

From the comfort of our fortresses we are secure and superior. 

From up high we can shout down at or fire upon any enemies who dare come close enough to even think about attacking our space, our ideals, our beliefs. How dare they! 

We focus so much on the enemy that we have forgotten about everyone else, those who don’t want to fight but rather are desperate for our help.

How about you?

What is your fortress made of? How high are your walls? How thick? 

What does your flag look like? What does it mean, what does it say about you?

Have you carried your flag into battle, waving it menacingly in the wind?

We all feel damn good about ourselves, so righteous, don’t we?

But here’s the thing. 

Confusion has set in. We haven’t thought things through, haven’t looked far enough into the future — or the past — if at all.

Inside our fortresses, conversations have become arguments. We spend precious time fighting among ourselves. How do we make the walls higher and thicker? Who gets to decide?

While we bicker over who should be in charge, we don’t notice that our flags have begun to tear, that the colors have started to fade.

No one notices the cracks in the walls or that the foundation has begun to crumble. The moat has dried up. We don’t even see the bodies in the dirt.

We are running out of food and water. 

We have plenty of weapons and ammunition, but where have our enemies gone? 

They are over there, trapped in their own crumbling fortresses. 

Who are they, anyway? 

What do we know about them? 

Why were we fighting against them?

What were we fighting for?

Jim McKeever is a co-founder of Sense of Decency.

Photo © Michelle Gabel.


If life seems more than a little unsettled these days, here’s one thing you can control. 

We’re running out of time, so here’s the plan: 

Put something in writing that epitomizes your life, your world view, your beliefs — a mantra, of sorts — for your family, friends, loved ones, even people you don’t know or never will meet, to read and ponder.

The catch? It must be 15 words or fewer, and whoever reads it must smile or think fondly of you long after you’re dead.

You can choose a phrase, a favorite saying, a colloquialism, an expression often used by a loved one.

My preference is that you compose something original, but a well-known quote, song lyric or line from a poem, or a variation thereof, would be acceptable.

Why the 15-word limit? 

Brevity not only is the soul of wit, it won’t cost as much if it’s something you want on your tombstone.

Fair enough?

Think about it, and whatever you come up with, please share it in the comments. 

Your parting words, or perhaps your parting shot, could be serious or humorous or somewhere in between. 

Need inspiration?

While I have yet to decide what to leave for posterity, the idea for this assignment came to me during one of my regular morning walks in the local cemetery. 

For years I’ve walked past a tombstone for a family whose members died more than a century ago, but I had never paid attention to the epitaph (not an epithet!) until the other day — “Until the day break, and the shadows flee away,” a biblical verse from the Song of Solomon. 

Then I revisited the gravesite of 19th-century activist Matilda Joslyn Gage, a contemporary of more famous suffragists who eventually distanced themselves from her because of her more inclusive and progressive activism. 

Gage’s 14-word epitaph on her tombstone in Fayetteville, NY reads: “There is a word sweeter than mother, home or heaven. That word is liberty.”

My mind wandered to another gravesite I had visited more than 30 years ago, in County Sligo, Ireland, of poet William Butler Yeats. His epitaph reads, “Cast a cold eye on life, on death. Horseman, pass by.”

I don’t know how many Irish people smile at that or think fondly of Yeats, but I’m sure they argue about what he meant by those 11 words.

I considered choosing, “Time wounds all heels,” the title of a longish letter I wrote to my three sons many years ago in an attempt to dispense whatever wisdom — and to confront my failings — of my life at that time. 

That clever turn of phrase comes from a former journalism professor at The Ohio State University, Walt Seifert, who began every class by writing (in chalk on a blackboard) an “Rx,” a prescription of sorts for life. Or at least for that day. 

I can’t plagiarize a journalism professor, of all people.

I have a shortlist of other possibilities, but I’ll hold off on sharing them for now. 

The clock is ticking. You have homework.

Jim McKeever is a co-founder of Sense of Decency. He wants to be remembered fondly, but is tempted to leave a snarky parting shot, rather than something kind or inspirational.

Photo illustration © Michelle Gabel


In the days since the Uvalde massacre, there have been more questions than ever as to why America has more gun violence than anywhere else.  

Having worked for 35 years as a professional treating alcoholics/drug addicts, I see some parallels between the rise in mass shootings and the opioid epidemic.

Per the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, addiction is defined as “a compulsive, chronic, physiological or psychological need for a habit-forming substance, behavior, or activity having harmful physical, psychological, or social effects and typically causing well-defined symptoms (such as anxiety, irritability, tremors, or nausea) upon withdrawal or abstinence.”

Some addictions are biochemical (substance abuse), many others are behavioral with no obvious chemical component (gambling, workaholism, eating disorders, sex addiction/pornography being several of many examples).  All addictions have three universal criteria: continued use despite negative consequences to self or others, increased need for the escalating amounts of the substance/behavior over time, and marked distress/withdrawal when deprived of the opportunity to engage in the use of the substance/behavior to which the sufferer is addicted.

In 2022, there are many more definable addictions than when addiction was first recognized by the medical/psychiatric community: compulsive online shopping, internet and video game immersion, plastic surgery and spiritual obsessions.  Advances in technology created new mediums in which addictions can and do occur, and addictions to behaviors made possible by these advances have developed, and in some cases escalated to catastrophic proportions. 

Guns weren’t a big problem when the only firearms that existed were single shot muzzle-loaders.  The development of assault weapons hadn’t been predicted when the 2nd amendment was written, but those weapons have created a new set of variables that our laws have not caught up with, but maybe the mental health community can.

It is time that the psychiatric community recognized a mental health disorder which has engulfed the nation with results at least as catastrophic as the well-known opioid epidemic — addiction to firearms.

Guns have a use, and a proper place and context in which to use them.  So do hammers. 

I own a hammer, occasionally have use for it, but I have no emotional reaction to my hammer.  I don’t live in terror of someone taking away my hammer.  I don’t amass hammers to the detriment of my or anyone else’s well-being.  I don’t attend rallies of other hammer enthusiasts, form friendships based on common feelings about hammers, or plaster my vehicle with bumper stickers ensuring that you know exactly where I stand on hammers.  I don’t belong to societies, public or secretly, based around hammer ownership, and I sure as hell don’t think of my primary identity as a proud hammer owner whose hammer will only be taken from me when pried out of my cold, dead fingers.  If I did, there would be something seriously wrong with me, and you don’t need a college degree to figure that out.  

The NRA spends millions of dollars to bribe (let’s call it what it is) politicians who prioritize the rights of the gun addicts over public safety; in the 2020 presidential race alone, it spent $4.5 million to support Donald Trump — and more than $12 million to attack Joe Biden.  The gun addict’s mentality is so distorted by their obsessive terror of being forced to go through withdrawal that the insensitivity of holding an NRA convention within immediate proximity in both time and distance to the nation’s most recent massacre of children makes perfect sense to them.  

For better or worse, people have a right to be addicted.  They don’t have a right to break laws because of their addictions, but many, many addicts have banded together and used their financial resources to warp laws to their advantage, allowing them to practice their addictions with impunity.  Predatory organizations have paid off politicians or watchdog agencies which are supposed to protect us so that they can financially profit off the addictions of others.  The alcohol and tobacco industries have done it, big pharma has done it, and the NRA has done it.  Comparable corruption in other countries might lead to an equal epidemic of gun violence there.  Let’s hope we never find out.

The 2nd of the 12 Steps widely recognized as highly effective in recovery from addictions states that the addict can come to believe that they can be restored to sanity.  Both the mental health professionals and our elected officials need to recognize the insanity of firearms addiction for what it is: a serious mental health disorder, and a public health crisis which has reached epidemic proportions.

Mike Donohue is a father, grandfather and friend who hopes for a better world for his family and loved ones to live in.  He is a licensed chemical dependency counselor, former professional musician, political moderate, and has published articles related to local music, addiction recovery, and human rights.

A sign over a building in San Diego, Calif. Photo © Jim McKeever


For the past few months — has it been longer? — I’ve half-jokingly said that we should change the name of this website to “Sense of Despair.”

It pretty much sums up where many of us have been lately, whether it’s the pandemic that won’t go away, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, lies spewed by hypocritical politicians and television personalities, another mass shooting or the continued erosion of civility in society. 

Some days — most — it feels as if we’re just waiting for rampant violence to run amok, for innocent people to run out of luck and find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. The general sense of safety, which of course not every demographic in this country enjoys, seems to erode day by day.

When the pandemic first hit more than two years ago, the catchphrase became, “Stay safe.” As someone wrote after yet another mass shooting a few years ago, the more appropriate phrase in today’s America is, “Stay lucky.” Which mass shooting was it? It’s hard to remember them all.

So what’s to be done?

How can a website with a small following change things for the better? Is it even possible? What can give us hope for the future? Or are things hopeless?

For guidance (and hope) I turn once again to a courageous man — Bryan Stevenson, civil rights lawyer and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Ala. 

During a lecture Stevenson gave in Syracuse, NY, five years ago he spoke of the excruciating work of representing inmates on death row. 

Two things he said have stuck with me: 

* “Incredible things happen when you’re proximate to those who suffer.”  

* Change only happens “when good people are willing to do uncomfortable things.”

Stevenson told of a mentally disabled client whose appeal had failed, and he had to tell the man he would be executed. The client sobbed but thanked Stevenson for trying.

“Why do we want to kill all the broken people?” Stevenson asked after that exchange. And then he asked himself why he continues to do such incredibly difficult work. 

“My answer shocked me,” Stevenson said. “I realized I do what I do because I’m broken, too.”

This kind of work, Stevenson said, “will break you. But it is in brokenness that we come to embrace others and feel connected.”

Not everyone can summon the courage of Stevenson — or the willingness to risk the “brokenness” of raw despair — but the rest of us can do something, however small. To the recipient of an act of kindness from someone willing to get close, from someone willing to be “uncomfortable,” it is huge. 

Here’s a quick example from my recent trip to the US-Mexico border to volunteer with Team Brownsville in Texas: 

Another volunteer told me about a man from Cuba who was among hundreds of recently released asylum seekers who came in one day to receive food, hygiene kits and other supplies. 

The man asked if he could have a pair of underwear, since he had been wearing the same pair for five days before being released by the U.S. government.

I wasn’t there at that moment to see the man’s reaction or to speak with him, but I welcomed hundreds of others who were so grateful for a sandwich, a blanket, a toothbrush, sanitary napkins, socks, shoelaces, etc.

Asylum seekers endure incredible hardship, violence and trauma during the journey through other countries before they finally get through Mexico to reach the U.S. 

But still … 

The act of giving someone a fresh pair of underwear can be, as Stevenson said, “an incredible thing.”

Jim McKeever is a co-founder of Sense of Decency. He wrote this a few days before the massacre of school children and their teachers in Uvalde, Texas.

A mother holds her son close as the wind picks up and snow falls at the Palanca border crossing, a jointly operated division between the Republic of Moldova and Ukraine, March 8, 2022. More than 85,000 Ukrainians have passed through Moldova, fleeing Russian attacks. Photo © Maranie Staab. Follow her on Instagram @maranierae or on Twitter @MaranieRae.


We are heartbroken.

News reports, photos and video of the suffering in Ukraine, images of innocent families dead on the ground, have infuriated us, sparked us to act.

We send money, food, supplies, weapons. We attend rallies to show solidarity with Ukraine and speak out against Vladimir Putin’s cruel war.

America’s empathy and compassion are on full display.

And yet …

Refugees from other parts of the world aren’t afforded the same empathy, and receive far different treatment by the United States. To name a few:

Haiti. Mexico. Afghanistan. Central and South America. Cameroon.

What’s the difference?


In other words, most people fleeing Ukraine have white skin.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is an overt act of war being played out on social media for all of America to see, unlike the following: Cartel violence (rape, kidnapping, extortion, murders of journalists and others) in Mexico; “ethnic cleansing” in Myanmar; gang violence in Haiti; terrorism in Cameroon against English-speakers. Etcetera.

Al Otro Lado, a legal aid organization based in Tijuana that aids those seeking refuge, posed this question recently on Instagram:

“What’s the difference between someone fleeing violence in Ukraine and someone fleeing violence in Cameroon? The world’s explicit bias is on display (and) the message is clear, if you’re Black or brown, you don’t deserve protection. Humanitarianism must be extended to ALL people.” 

Immigration attorneys, scholars and activists also point out that the U.S. often expels asylum seekers of color back into danger that America has created or enabled.

President Joe Biden’s continuation of his predecessor’s Title 42 policy to expel migrants under the guise of public health has been decried as a scam. At last count, 20,000 Haitians have been expelled under Biden, more than 1.2 million people in all.

We don’t know how many people turned away at our southern border have been killed. Because we don’t see them. We don’t hear about them. We don’t talk about them.

Americans don’t post the equivalent of sunflower photos or change their social media profile photos in solidarity. No one flies the flag of Cameroon or wears the colors of Haiti.

This is not just an American problem.

Since Putin began his war, there have been reports of students and others of African descent in Ukraine who have been denied transport out of the country.

“Videos show Black people being pushed off trains and Black drivers being reprimanded and stalled by Ukrainians as they try to flee,” the Brookings Institution reports. “There are even reports of animals being allowed on trains before Africans.” 

Groups of Nepalese, Indian and Somalian men told TIME magazine how they were kicked and beaten with batons by Ukrainian guards who later begrudgingly allowed them to cross into Poland — on foot. A 24-year-old Black woman said she encountered hostility from the Ukrainian military, who were dividing people into two groups — those who were white, and those who were not. 

Some journalists and European officials have made remarks that are insensitive at best.

“Now the unthinkable has happened to them,” an ITV journalist said of Ukrainians. “And this is not a developing, third world nation. This is Europe!”

Apparently “the unthinkable” should only happen in what Biden’s predecessor called “s***hole countries.”

Please don’t misunderstand.

Refugees from Ukraine deserve our solidarity and our empathy, as well as political and economic intervention to stop the suffering and death at the hands of one evil man — a man who is admired by an uncomfortable number of Americans. Even now.

Ukraine’s much smaller neighbors like Moldova and Slovakia are taking in tens of thousands of Ukrainians. From 2015 to 2019, Germany took in more than 1.5 million refugees, many of them fleeing Syria’s civil war.

Why don’t refugees from Haiti, Cameroon, El Salvador and Guatemala deserve the same open arms and hearts in America as people from Ukraine?

Why do our hearts not break for them?

Refugees, no matter where they come from, are human beings. Men, women, children.

Some of them just happen to look a little different than we’re comfortable with.

Jim McKeever is a co-founder of Sense of Decency. He volunteers with several humanitarian and legal aid organizations at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Historian Ty Seidule will speak Friday, March 4 at 7 p.m. at the Catherine Cummings Theater, 16 Lincklaen St., Cazenovia, NY. The Cazenovia Forum presentation is free and open to the public and will be followed by a reception at the Lincklaen House, where copies of Seidule’s books will be available. Masks are required at the presentation. NANCY L. FORD PHOTOGRAPHY.


Ty Seidule never thought of himself as a white supremacist. He didn’t think about white supremacy at all.  Growing up in the South, first in Virginia and then in Georgia, he had one dream: become a southern gentleman, like his idol, Robert E. Lee. He accepted without question the narrative of the Confederacy as a glorious lost cause, a defeat of right by might. 

“I mainlined Gone with the Wind and overdosed on the Lost Cause,” he writes in his 2021 memoir, “Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner’s Reckoning with the Myth of the Lost Cause.”

But during a lifetime of studying history Seidule realized that he had grown up accepting a myth and that all he had been told and taught, all he had experienced as a white person, was part of a system dedicated to the perpetuation of white supremacy.

Now, he’s on a mission to correct the narrative of the glorious and virtuous cause of the Confederacy and especially the idolization of its heroes, starting with Lee. After spending a career as a soldier in the United States Army, Seidule does not look kindly on those who killed men like him and so refuses to honor the Confederate dead. The Confederacy went to war against the United States and before it was over, more than 350,000 United States soldiers were dead. Only in World War II were more U.S. soldiers killed. (If one counts the Confederate dead, the Civil War killed more American soldiers than any other war.)

Seidule says to make no mistake: The Civil War was first and foremost about the perpetuation of slavery. Many will argue the war was about states’ rights. Seidule agrees. “Sure, they fought for states’ rights,” he says. The states’ rights to perpetuate the enslavement of human beings.

He cites South Carolina’s given reason for seceding: “the hostility … to the institution of slavery.” Mississippi argued that it was seceding because “our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery – the greatest material interest in the world.” And he cites the speech given in March 1861 by Alexander Stephens, the vice president of the Confederacy. Stephens said that the Confederacy’s “cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man … that slavery is his normal and natural condition.”

Seidule’s book follows his youth in Virginia and Georgia and then his 36-year career in the United States Army retiring as a brigadier general. As he studies history and begins to tear away at the fabric of the myth of the Lost Cause, he comes across innumerable atrocities committed against Black people for which there was no official memory. Statues and memorials to Confederate soldiers abound across the south (and the north) but there was little or no mention of the thousands of Black people who were murdered under a reign of terror that lasted well into the 20th century (some would say it continues to this day).

In the years following the war, the Confederacy was anathema to the United States. But toward the end of the 19th century, the myth of the lost cause began to take hold and a spirit of reconciliation and national unity fueled a new narrative. Seidule notes that this spirit of reconciliation extended only to white people and that the repression, terror and murder in the South continued unabated. 

Meanwhile, the U.S. Army, which had lost so many soldiers to the South’s rebellion, began to honor many of those who fought for the Confederacy by naming forts after them. Forts Bragg and Benning are two of the better-known forts named for “unrepentant white supremacists,” Seidule writes. He takes special exception to John Brown Gordon, for whom Fort Gordon in Georgia is named. Gordon never served in the U.S. Army, but rose through the ranks of the Confederate army. After the war, he helped lead the Ku Klux Klan, calling it a “brotherhood of … peaceable, law-abiding citizens.” Much like those “ordinary citizens engaged in legitimate political discourse,” of whom the Republican National Committee recently spoke.

Other forts include one named for George Pickett of Gettysburg fame. Pickett, who executed 22 captured U.S. soldiers, was a war criminal, Seidule says. 

And then there is Fort Lee, home of army logistics. At Fort Lee, “our most racially diverse post,” Seidule writes, “the army honors a man who wore army blue for three decades and then refused to stay when his nation needed him most. Instead, he fought so well and so hard to ensure African Americans stayed enslaved.”

But over the course of the 20th century, Lee had gone from traitor to hero. Even Franklin Delano Roosevelt praised Lee as “one of our greatest American Christians and one of our greatest American gentlemen.” As Seidule writes, “The South had lost the war but won the narrative.”

Having grown up worshipping Lee, Seidule is now unsparing in his contempt for the man. A great general, yes, Seidule says, but that makes Lee even more guilty for taking up arms against his country. “Because he fought so well for so long, hundreds of thousands of soldiers died. No other enemy officer in American history was responsible for the deaths of more U.S. Army solders than Robert E. Lee.”

In spite of his catalog of horrors, Seidule remains optimistic. He writes “never underestimate the ability of Americans to do the right thing – eventually.” He cites the gradual, grudging acknowledgement of the white supremacist legacy of the United States and the movement toward a reckoning of all of our history.

And he finds hope in stories like that of Ted DeLaney, who grew up attending segregated black schools in Virginia. He was offered a scholarship to attend Morehouse College, but was hesitant to move farther south and instead took a custodial job Washington and Lee University (Seidule’s alma mater). DeLaney’s intelligence got him promoted to a lab assistant job. In 1979 he began taking classes and graduated with a history degree in 1983 at the age of 40. From there he went on to a PhD in history and returned to Washington and Lee as a professor. He retired in 2019, 56 years after he started as a custodian, and died in 2020. “Ted DeLaney represents the America I love,” Seidule writes.

Seidule admits his passion for setting the record straight “can verge into righteousness,” but he is determined to keep on talking, teaching and writing in the hope that not only will we stop honoring traitors and white supremacists, but that we will begin honoring the stories of countless Black people whose stories remain untold and unknown. “The only way to prevent a racist future,” he writes, “is to first understand our racist past.” 

Dennis Harrod is a co-founder of Sense of Decency, and in the spirit of full disclosure, he is a member of the board of the Cazenovia Forum. For more information on Seidule’s March 4 presentation, go to Cazenovia Forum.

A house in Earlville, NY, has had this sign on the lawn for many months. Photo © Dennis Harrod


“The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.” 

— Isaiah, 11:16

We should be ashamed.

Amanda Gorman wrote in the New York Times Jan. 20, 2022, that she almost did not recite her poem at Joe Biden’s 2021 inauguration because she feared for her life. 

“I was terrified,” she wrote. “… at the inauguration I was going to become highly visible — which is a very dangerous thing to be in America, especially if you’re Black and outspoken and have no Secret Service.”

Friends “not so jokingly” told her to buy a bulletproof vest. Her mother was terrified as well. “My mom had us crouch in our living room so that she could practice shielding my body from bullets.”

In the end, Gorman did put herself in front of the multitude and recited her poem, “The Hill We Climb,” and gave a gift of hope to a nervous nation.

“… what I found waiting beyond my fear was all those who searched beyond their own fears to find space for hope in their lives, who welcomed the impact of a poem into protests, hospitals, classrooms, conversations, living rooms, offices, art and all manner of moments.”

Is this where we are? A 22-year-old poet, not even five and a half feet tall, is fearful of reading her poem in public. She’s afraid because much of America is afraid of her. Afraid of her and her words. Words that, God forbid, might make us think.

We should be ashamed, all of us, and not just those bad guys on the other side of the political divide. It’s all of us, hating and fearing “the other” and refusing to stop and consider that someone whose views are anathema to us may have more than one dimension, may have something to say. It’s too easy to hate and be done with it. And as we’ve seen with so many of our “leaders,” hate pays. Hate’s easy. Far easier than trying to see the other side as anything but a one-dimensional villain. And you don’t have to think.

Part of the problem is that we mistake the loudmouths and bullies who make their living spouting division and hate for the people they are talking to. Maybe the people they are talking to are listening because they don’t think anyone listens to them. Maybe if we listened for a minute, we’d hear something more than what we’d expected from the caricature we have created based on one aspect of their lives.

It can be done. It has been done. Daryl Davis, a Black blues musician, has for more than 30 years befriended members of the Ku Klux Klan. And in those 30 years, more than 200 of the Klansmen have recognized the irrationality of their hatred and have turned their robes over to Davis. And all because he sat down and talked to them, knowing who and what they were.

Back in the middle of the last century, Jesús Colón wrote a short piece examining how society’s prejudice affects us all and makes us less than human. Finding himself, a Black, Puerto Rican man, alone on a subway platform late at night with a white woman who was struggling with packages and three small children, Colón wondered if he should offer to help her. Helping others was second nature to him. 

“Courtesy is a characteristic of the Puerto Rican,” he wrote. “And here I was—a Puerto Rican hours past midnight, a valise, two white children and a white lady with a baby on her arm [badly] needing somebody to help her, at least until she descended the long concrete stairs.”

But he hesitated as he wondered what she would think if a Black man with an accent approached her in a lonely, all but empty station late at night. Would she accept his gracious offer without a second thought? Or would she succumb to the prejudice of the age (and now) and be afraid and scream? 

“Here was I, way past midnight, face to face with a situation that could very well explode into an outburst of prejudices and chauvinistic conditioning of the “divide and rule” policy of present-day society,” he wrote.

In the end, he walked quickly by the struggling woman. 

“I passed on by her as if I saw nothing. As if I was insensitive to her need. Like a rude animal walking on two legs, I just moved on, half running by the long subway platform, leaving the children and the valise and her with the baby on her arm.”

 And he never knew what might have happened. 

“This is what racism and prejudice and chauvinism and official artificial divisions can do to people and to a nation!” he wrote. And he resolved that, if ever confronted with such a situation again, he would take his chances and be true to his nature and offer to help, whatever the consequences.

And Amanda Gorman decided to recite her poem. She stood before a nation because, she wrote: “What stood out most of all was the worry that I’d spend the rest of my life wondering what this poem could have achieved. There was only one way to find out.”

Now it’s up to the rest of us. Do we have the courage to lie down with the lions and the leopards and with those we fear? Do we have the courage to hear what they have to say and see if we can find common humanity? Do we dare climb that hill of which Amanda Gorman spoke?

“… to put our future first, we must first put our differences aside,” she wrote in her inaugural poem. 

Can we?

Dennis Harrod is a co-founder of Sense of Decency.

An inviting path into the woods was made ugly by racist graffiti at a trailhead last year. Photo © Dennis Harrod.


At a trailhead leading to a path through woods and fields

flush with late summer’s abundance of gold and green,

where the wind rustled leaves and shook a few loose,

and a scent of fall hinted at what was to come, someone 

had scrawled a message of despair meant to harm any who read it,

or perhaps it was meant to please those filled with equal hate or fear

of people whose color or sex or beliefs were different.

And despair spread in stomach-turning waves, especially 

in all of those targeted by the message, who had come to spend

time in the woods, and in the fields, hoping to freely breathe the forest air.

A woman lately arrived in the community came to the trail  

with sunny ideas of a long slow walk and found herself instead a target

and turned away, nature’s open offering turned to cruelty that was 

anything but indifferent.

Dennis Harrod is a co-founder of Sense of Decency. On a nature trail in Central New York last year, he (and others) saw that someone had scrawled racist graffiti on the sign at the trailhead.

Buffalo Federal Detention Facility in Batavia, NY. Photo © Michelle Gabel.


I won’t give you their names, but names shouldn’t matter anyway. 

They are voices at the other end of a phone call, faceless men ages 18 to 48, who tell me their stories in 60, 90 minutes. We say good-bye, I wish them luck and I have no idea what happens to them after that.

These men tell me horrific stories of threats, beatings, guns, machetes, death, lost friends and loved ones. Sometimes they cry, these men often stereotyped as macho Latinos or “bad hombres.” 

Who are these men? 

Sons, brothers, fathers who break down when talking about the 7-year-old child they left behind, their mothers and sisters back home hiding from gangs, the newborn son they have yet to see, the family farm they had to flee when men killed all their animals and said, “You’re next.”

These traumatized men call me — actually, their captors call me and put the men on the phone — from detention centers in the U.S., because the captors who make a living this way are bound by law to allow phone calls for legal assistance. 

The captors comply (most of the time). Is it out of the goodness of their hearts, their humanity?

Or is it because it keeps the watchdog advocates and prying journalists at bay, doesn’t jeopardize the revenue stream to the detention centers, the private corporations and stockholders raking in millions from government-sanctioned human trafficking?

I listen to the men’s stories. I try to visualize their faces as they tell me of pressure to join gangs, of participating in street protests against corrupt governments and police, of getting robbed in one Central American country or another en route to Mexico and to the locked-and-loaded southern border of the United States of America.

For the most part I focus on getting as many details as I can, facts that can help them in their asylum applications, crucial information I add to the forms I send to lawyers who work pro bono to uphold international and U.S. law, who value human rights more than billable hours.

As much as I try to visualize the faces of these migrants, I can’t. Maybe it’s self-preservation. These calls take a toll; their stories haunt me, as do the inhumane conditions they are forced to endure in detention.

The recurring image I have is of a faceless, brown-skinned man sitting at a bare table in a cold room under harsh fluorescent lights, wearing an orange or blue demeaning outfit they are forced to wear. 

These men are incredibly polite, never show impatience with me despite the difficulty I often have understanding their Spanish and accents, which vary depending on their country of origin.

These men are desperate, and they hope I can connect them with dedicated lawyers who may take their case and, with luck, reunite them with their family or a sponsor in the land of the free. For most of these men, this literally is a matter of life and death. 

Can you visualize these men? 

Whatever your political leanings, can you stop for a moment and consider that there are tens of thousands of men and women behind concertina wire in American detention centers? And thousands of other men, women and children trying to survive in shelters and on the streets at our doorstep just over the border in Mexico?

Can you see them? If not their faces, can you at least picture human beings — not “aliens,” as our government calls them — breaking down in tears as they relive trauma they are trying to escape and forget?

If you cannot, you’ll never know that these men even exist.

And if you don’t know or don’t care that they exist, it’s not just their loss. It’s yours.

Jim McKeever is a co-founder of Sense of Decency. If anyone is curious about volunteering for the legal assistance volunteer program described above, please e-mail the author at


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