Monthly Archives: August 2014

Michael Obel-Omia: Ice Bucket Challenge heats up social media, urge to do good deed

Published: August 24, 2014 01:00 AM

The Providence Journal

Michael C. Obel-Omia

I’m sopping wet. Like thousands of people, I have taken the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge and, I must admit, I feel great (cold, but great). I took the challenge because I wanted to raise awareness of and contribute money to combating this awful disease.

For the uninitiated, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge is a social media phenomenon, primarily on Facebook and Instagram, in which someone posts a video of him/herself dumping a bucket of ice water over his/her head, then tagging at least three more people to take the challenge or donate to the ALS Association, which fights Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Then the ice rains down, eliciting laughter and squeals of shock and joy.

The shock is obvious: even on a hot summer day — I think that it was 83 degrees when I did it — ice water stuns the senses. The joy, however, is more complicated and worthy of note.

Being raised Roman Catholic, in the shadow of my church, I have always understood and embraced the edict from Luke: “For to whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more.”

I remember scrubbing the floors of my church with Murphy’s oil and polishing the pews with Old English or Pledge. The smells of those products are still with me, and on the rare occasion I perform those chores at home, I am transported back to the Cathedral of Immaculate Conception in Albany. I also remember working in the church’s soup kitchen, and continuing that work all through high school.

In college and soon after, I was self-indulgent and had forgotten my charitable roots, until I started working at a school in Boston that firmly believed and promoted those words from Luke: they were inscribed in a frieze above the refectory. Daily, as we ate, we were reminded that to those of us who were so pleased to be at that school, much was expected.

That constant reminder led me to serve on numerous boards of trustees, complete several century rides for the Rodman Ride for Kids, run the Boston Marathon, cycle across the country to raise awareness of and funds for Nets for Life, ride in the Pan-Mass Challenge, and do the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. Each one of these events, almost always physically grueling, demanded that I look within and beyond myself to improve my world.

Some naysayers have disparaged the challenge, complaining that pouring a bucket over one’s head does little to raise awareness; instead, it is just a social media stunt that has quickly lost its true meaning, morphing into a macho exercise.

I think that there will always be an opportunity for well-meaning challenges, events or stunts to lose their original meaning, but so far, people’s willingness to cover themselves in ice has increased awareness of this disease incredibly, and boosted donations.

In The Merchant of Venice, Portia returns home after saving the life of her husband’s dear friend. As she sees a light shining in her window, she remarks, “How far that little candle throws his beams! / So shines a good deed in a naughty world.” Each one of us, regardless of our chosen communities or means, has an opportunity to shine a beam of light, often one ice cube at a time.

Michael C. Obel-Omia is a father and husband, educator and student, cycling enthusiast and baseball fan. He lives in Barrington.

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Michael Obel-Omia: I know I’ll be judged by what I wear and how I speak

By Michael Obel-Omia

Special to The Journal

“The apparel oft proclaims the man.” That quote, from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” is advice that’s been a part of my life for as long as I can remember.

Recently, I was out with a few friends, one of whom was a new acquaintance. The woman, who hadn’t spent much time with me, remarked that the top button on my polo shirt was buttoned. She noted it curiously at first, but then felt a need to unbutton it — yes, I am that irresistibly sexy in person — for it drove her crazy that I was so “buttoned up” on a warm summer evening. Smiling while dodging her furious hands, I told her, “I paid for the button, so I shall use it.”

Buttoning up, for me, is not only a matter of pride — I need to look good when I go out — but also a wonderful metaphor for how I view my world. As an African-American man who is predominantly surrounded by white people, I feel a need to be reserved, cautious, aware, well-spoken and even better dressed. I know that I am being judged by my words, by my actions, by my appearance.

Yes, I said “shall” to that woman, because I speak in a way that arrests attention. How I look and how I talk matter.

During last summer’s rush to buy school supplies, my wife, a white woman, allowed our biracial son to pick out a shirt. He came home and proudly showed me the T-shirt: “Wake Me Up For Lunch.”

I lost my mind. I told him in no uncertain terms that he wasn’t wearing that shirt to school.

I think my strong reaction has everything to do with my perception of how my son may be viewed: as a biracial boy in a whitewashed suburb of Providence, will his shirt be taken as a harmless joke, or will it trigger in the teacher some latent sense that this child, this half-black child, cannot and will not do the work?

My perception is probably as outdated as my conservative, ’60s country-club dressing style, but I still feel it — and, more important, fear it. As a black man, I, and by extension my children, need to be on point, both in speech and in dress, because I feel as if I am — we are — being judged.

I still remember my mother dressing me in the hand-me-downs of my older cousin. The shirts and pants could not have been more corny, and I was mercilessly mocked by my classmate Moses: “Michael, the 1950s are calling; they want their argyle sweater back.”

I fought with my mother about those outlandishly outdated clothes, but later, after elementary school, I started to choose to wear them. The reason is that I began to recognize that clothing says a lot about who we are. I had just entered a private school, and in order for me to fit in, I had to dress in ’80s preppy style (which seemed straight out of “The Official Preppy Handbook”).

Apparel doth oft proclaim the man, and we see that with “thugs” walking our urban streets with their pants halfway down their legs. Even when I, a black man, see these children, I don’t see innocence; rather, I see potential danger.

I button up not only to lower anxiety when people meet me, but also because it reminds me how to proceed — with caution. I don’t think I have the luxury of speaking and dressing as I like, because I fear that I am being judged by what I say and how I dress.

As post-racial and as accepting and as inclusive as we like to imagine ourselves, we are still a nation of people who quickly judge. By dressing as inoffensively as possible, I try both to blend in and to let my words allow me to stand out.

Michael Obel-Omia is a father and husband, educator and student, cycling enthusiast and baseball fan. He lives in Barrington.

Thank You

“It does not matter how slowly you go, as long as you don’t stop.”

A beautiful little girl held up that sign during the lunch stop of the Pan-Mass Challenge, and I saw many other ones that encouraged and inspired. Another one, “Thank you for riding and saving my life,” may have most simply and most eloquently expressed the reason for riding in the Pan-Mass Challenge: I did it to help raise funds for cancer research and to help save lives. It was a truly humbling and rewarding experience.

It rained. It rained, it rained, it rained yesterday, and by the time I reached the first water stop at 8:15 am, I was completely drenched! My cycling shoes, for whatever reasons, have a slight hole in sole of them—probably for aerodynamic reasons—and those holes let the rain rush right in! The opening ceremony at Babson College celebrated and thanked the more than 5,700 riders leaving from Sturbridge and from Wellesley. We left a smidgen early, hoping to avoid the rain, but to no avail: it started in Dover, let up at lunch in Rehoboth, but then continued for the remainder of the Ride. In spite of the rain (or, perhaps, because of it), the Ride was pleasant. We rode steadily and happily through the southeastern towns of Massachusetts, ignoring the rain and enjoying the camaraderie. We finished the day at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy in Bourne around 1 in the afternoon.

As a member of Team 9, the Red Sox Charitable Organization, I enjoyed a comfortable experience: we were feted at the beginning of the Ride, and when we arrived in Bourne, we had hot showers and eager masseurs and masseuses ready to attend to us! My friend, Stacey Lucchino, is the generous woman who has given me the opportunity to participate on Team 9 and to contribute to this exceedingly worthy cause. I am so grateful that our lives intersected more than a decade ago when I was at Roxbury Latin. Of course, being a member of Team 9 yesterday, with my bright yellow Sox jersey—check out pictures on Facebook—I was the subject of much trade speculation: “Hey, have the Sox traded you yet,” is what I heard at every water stop.

Overall, the experience was wonderful. Riding with people who had compelling reasons and listening to their stories motivated and humbled me. The Ride was populated with men, women, and children who profusely cheered, celebrated, and thanked us for our efforts, even in the rain. Many of the riders wore ribbons or pictures in honor of loved ones struggling with or lost to cancer. Every person I met rode with purpose, and I was grateful to be a part of such a well-organized, well executed, and important ride. We will raise over 40 million for Cancer research, and I am so pleased, because of your largesse, to have had a hand in such a brilliant event. I have to thank Stacey for nudging me to ride. She is an exceptional woman who has done so much for Boston in her 13 years in the city. I also want to thank Kathryn Quirk and Jack Verducci of the Red Sox, Dan Rea, a former student and present employee of the Red Sox, Gretchen Rice, a former student and volunteer extraordinaire for Pan-Mass, and Alison Rush of Pan-Mass. All helped me along the way. Last, I want to thank Billy Starr, the founder and executive director, for making this possible. This Challenge is one of the most life-affirming activities that I have ever done, and he should be proud of what he has created: a community of cyclists and volunteers who will move heaven and earth to help people stricken with cancer. What a powerful community.

These words from Isaiah are with me as I think about the Challenge, your generosity, and all the people that we helped: “…but they that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint (Isaiah 40:31). I feel renewed and ready for my next challenge. Thank you, friends, for your support and your belief in me.