‘Cross-pollination’ and Creating Your Own Personal Renaissance

A few years ago, when I still lived down in Los Angeles, I was on my morning walk through West L.A. when I ran across a homeless man collecting cans and bottles from a dumpster. I stopped and we talked for about for fifteen minutes.

We talked about a lot things; the weather, the BP oil spill and eventually the economy. His take on the economy was that he thought things were getting worse, rather than better – as what we’d been hearing from the news media. “How did you come up with that?”  I asked him.

“Well I see more cheap brand cans in the garbage than I used to. Even last year when things were supposedly worse, people still drank Coke and Budweiser. But now it’s changed.”  It’s Shasta and Natural Light.

His astute observation was definitely not a perspective I wouldn’t have gotten through my normal channels. But it made sense – and for this locale it was probably more accurate than any economics professor would have come up with a few blocks down the street at UCLA.

Dumpster

The Medici Effect … circa 2015

At the end of the Dark Ages, during the 13th century, poets, artists, painters, sculptors and the like came to Florence, Italy to study and collaborate thanks to patronization of the wealthy Medici family.  Those sponsored by the Medicis included  Ficino, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Galileo, Boticelli and Michelangelo. Many scholars believe this melding of different backgrounds and disciplines ushered in a significant portion of the Renaissance.

Imagine if we used this same cross-pollination strategy of  backgrounds and experiences to create environments like this today. Maybe we won’t see Renaissance figures on the scale Galileo and Michelangelo, but for our communities it could significantly change the welfare and wellbeing of us and our fellow inhabitants.

“We need a marriage ceremony between the humanities and social and behavioral studies. Only then will we be able to start solving real-life problems in these disciplines.” ~ Thomas Scheff (UC Santa Barbara)

Every fall Mayo Clinic, one of the most acclaimed medical facilities in the world, conducts an innovation conference to explore how ‘people power health’ can redefine the dynamics of health and health care. This conference isn’t just for medical professionals, rather it’s cross-discipline. Not only are people from other industries and interests allowed to attend … they are encouraged. Mayo routinely collaborates on processes and strategies with other Minnesota corporate giants such as Target, Medtronic and Best Buy to achieve higher levels of customer service and hopefully satisfaction. Mayo Clinic treasures the value of cross-pollination. 

“People bring different cultures, backgrounds, and personalities to the table — and those differences shape how they think. Some people are analytical thinkers, while others thrive in creative zones. Some are meticulous planners, and others love spontaneity. By mixing up the types of thinkers in the workplace, companies can stimulate creativity, spur insight, and increase efficiency.” ~ Deloitte (Business Insider)

The benefits of cross-pollination extends past the corporate world also. In the excellent Vanity Fair piece, “An Oral History of the Laurel Canyon,” Linda Ronstadt articulated the societal benefits, “The good thing about musicians in terms of making advances in racial discrimination or sexual-gender identification is that musicians don’t give a shit as long as you can play. If you could play, hallelujah.”

But to cross-pollinate ourselves we have to expose ourselves and create relationships with people we wouldn’t otherwise. Humans are creatures of habit. We tend to do the same things, associate with same type of people and be influenced by the same sources as we always have. Strength comes in diversity and the synthesis of this diversity. On the contrary, if we limit our exposure; social, professional and politically to only those like us … we only further entrench our beliefs and ideologies.

Adherence to the status quo is a habit. Some aspects of the status quo are fine, and change for the sake of change can often be problematic. But even more than ever, the ability to not only accept change, but embrace it is a mandatory life skill.

Resistance to change is a very broad ‘habit’ to try to break. It’s composed of a multitude of components. And that’s how it needs to be addressed, one component at a time. You can’t change everything at the same time.

Gradually, block by block, this ‘doing the same thing, the same way, at the same time’ can be chipped away at. Even changing the time you get up in the morning or go to bed at night is a step. Change what you eat for breakfast, the route you take to work and even the method you get to work. Just taking public transportation when you normally drive can be a huge change. Eventually, this phobia of ‘the different’ will become less debilitating. And maybe even change will become exciting, something to look forward to … not fear.

Now is the time to get out of your comfort zone

If you are a doctor, hang with a plumber. If you’re white, talk to a black person. Take the bus sometimes (no – people on buses don’t bite). If you live on the west side, have dinner on the east side. And most of all if you’re old (yes Boomers you are old) … get some insight from someone young – someone that’s not your own kid.

Our brains are nothing more than synaptic connections which are built and strengthened through habitual activity and thought. Build some new ones. God only knows we could use more.

“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.” ~ Steve Jobs

The two sides of a mind

Sociology of the American neighborhoods and ‘Extreme Empathy’

The French political philosopher Alex de Tocqueville theorized that the concept of American township and its extension, the neighborhood, was the reason for the envied American exceptionalism of the 1800 and 1900s. In Europe people resided around common characteristics such as language or ethnicity.

“But beneath it all, our history of broad inclusion is not rooted in some blithe paean to the American generosity of the American spirit. Rather, like the foundation for America’s economic ingenuity and political accommodation, our commitment to melding new and different people together was forged in the rhythms of everyday life.

Townshipped community was unparalleled in assimilation because neighbors weren’t able to avoid one another; quite the opposite, they were frequently compelled to become codependent. The very essence of American exceptionalism was born from the architecture of American community.

It’s impossible to overstate how important our unique sociology has been to the nation’s dynamism. In the United States, our “little platoons,’ Edmund Burke’s term for the contacts who comprised the core of any individual’s social universe (that is middle rings) – were organized around the diversity of people who lived nearby – the people who comprised the local townships.

In Europe, by contrast, the network of people who shared the same class or language or profession were more likely to define any individual’s contacts. And so America’s exceptional capacity to metabolize the infusion of new ideas, new cultures, and new populations wasn’t derived by some commitment to inclusion. America has been unique in its social fluidity. Even with all the blatant counter examples, through most of the 20th Century, American were relatively unencumbered by division. Life in the United States provided citizens with an unusual degree of access and exposure.” ~ Marc Dunkleman, “The Vanishing Neighbor”

To forget this phenomenon and not take advantage of it is a great disservice. Of course we look at this as an advantage for the community. But first we open our mind individually and let these different views and experiences in.

A community is the product of its people. Diversity is an advantage if not a necessity. A community is a living thing, a microcosm, and a lack of diversity makes itself open to disease (metaphorically speaking). Social inbreeding creates a weak species, vulnerable to adversaries, internally and externally. And a community that only relies on past thinking will not be able to combat the problems of the future.

Every member of your community is unique and adds to its fabric. Everyone has something to offer and everyone should be heard – no matter their age or social standing. It’s up to us to find it and help them see it. To view our neighbors and fellow community dwellers like this I call, “Extreme Empathy.” “Extreme Empathy” is the basis of my vision for the new evolution of the physical living space, Community 3.0.

Now is time focus on inclusion, not retreat into ‘personal protectionism.’ Resist the temptation of “sameness.” Step outside your comfort zone. You’ll never know what lies on the other side.

And who knows … maybe your next source of inspiration may come next to a dumpster.

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You can follow me on Twitter at @clayforsberg and on Google+

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Empathy and ‘Shared Experiences’

“I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person.” ~ Walt Whitman

Society has a problem with silos. I don’t mean the ones that farmers put grain or corn in. I mean metaphorical silos. Whether it’s a neighborhood, town or city; we seem to look at them as being a separate entity – much like an enclosed silo. We consider a nation being enclosed by its borders. We assume they ebb and flow, making decisions on their own volition. But really aren’t they just a collection of relationships … relationships dictated by individual people interacting with each other? And a single interaction between the right (or wrong) two people can alter the entire dynamics of what is enclosed within their ‘silo.’

In more extreme cases one of these interactions can change the direction of decision-making (or policy) for an entire nation. We saw this in the Middle East and world’s conflict with ISIL. The murder of one young American girl tipped the scales so much that a intractably divided United States Congress united in near unanimous agreement to allow the President to send ground new troops to Iraq and Syria. And how can we forget how World War I started. The assassination of a seemingly nondescript duke in Austria set off a cascade of unprecedented military action by intertwined alliances.

With the wellbeing of our communities being dependent on individual relationships and the events that stem from them, isn’t it tantamount that we discuss ways to establish positive and productive dynamics in the neighborhoods that make up our communities? Shouldn’t we care about how the people of our communities interact and communicate. Even the most seemingly benign remark and response could set off a ‘butterfly effect’ of unintended consequences no one can foresee. While we can’t mediate everything that happens in our community, we need not to. We need only to provide a platform or ‘space’ that encourages interactions that are as fruitful and as synergic as possible. Then maybe we can maximize our resources and realize our potential rather than constantly mitigating the damages from antagonistic interactions … or worse yet ignoring them and let them metastasize.

Empathy

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Atticus Finch ‘To Kill a Mockingbird”

At the heart of any relationship is communication, and at the heart of any communication is an understanding of the other person, or empathy. Empathy is being able to remove yourself from your own perspective and ‘walk in their shoes’ or ‘see the world through their eyes’ (the metaphors are endless). This isn’t easy though. It’s easier just to step up on your soapbox and preach, letting ideology take over – however well intended.

Empathy isn’t sympathy though. I view the road to empathy as sharing another’s experience. It’s not enough to look at the world on ‘the other side of the tracks,’ you actually have to take that risk, step across and look at the world from that other side.

The phenomenon of ‘Shared Experiences’

Congressman Patrick Murphy of Massachusetts made headlines a couple of years ago when he slept on the streets of Boston one night to see what it was like be homeless firsthand. This is what I call a ‘shared experience.’ He was living homeless, if it was for just a day. And I’m sure it’s an experience that will never leave him and hopefully will alter his public policy views and actions accordingly.

However noble Murphy’s effort was, he still wasn’t homeless though. He knew he had a place to go after that night in the cold. He knew the hunger he felt would pass as soon as he wanted it to. The effort he had to make to be sure he found a safe place to close his eyes (relatively speaking), didn’t have to be repeated the next night.

“The greatest good you can do for another is not just share your riches, but to reveal to him his own.” ~ Benjamin Disraeli

Every member of our communities is unique and adds to the fabric of the community. Everyone has something to offer and everyone should be heard – no matter their age or social standing. It’s up to us as individuals, as a community and as a society to find that something and help them see it. Because not only does it benefit them … it benefits all of us.

Empathy can be taken to the next level when one multiplies these ‘shared experiences’ and joins someone in their world for a longer period of time. An ‘experience world’  is not spending a night with a homeless person, it’s being homeless. It’s sharing their world to the point that it’s not their world … but your world also.

Cottonwood

Cottonwood

Ten years ago I went on what I call my Nomad journey. In reality, I was homeless for three years – two of which was with my daughter, Alex, as she finished high school in Southern California. Some of the time we spent in motels, and some of it was in a tent – a good tent, but a tent nonetheless. My recruiting company collapsed, a combination of the economy, changes in my niche (printing), and probably as much as much anything – just being burned out after fifteen years of wrangling with my product – people.

Without going into copious detail about the peaks and valleys of a life unsettled and uncertain, I do want to share my experience at Cottonwood. After Alex finished school and moved to Washington (to work for Apple), I camped exclusively. The last campground I lived at was Cottonwood, about two hours north of Los Angeles. My car had broken down, so I hitched along with a couple who was also on a Nomad journey. After landing in Cottonwood, they left after about a week to venture to New Orleans. I stayed, carless (not careless) about ten miles from civilization except for my fellow Nomads scattered throughout the campground.

Ironically, Cottonwood turned out to be a community as close-knit as any I had ever lived in. J.W., a grizzled old cowboy who had done a stint in San Quentin, became my site mate and eventually my tent mate (after Jake his Border Collie had a run-in with a skunk he decided to share with J.W. – in his tent).

But J.W. was just one member of my community. There was Kenny, a thirty year-old just out of rehab. And there were others of all sorts. They were all my neighbors and my friends. We trusted each other and looked out for each other. We shared stories each night dinner. And most of all we shared dreams. None of us believed we be living the Nomad lifestyle forever.

After a month and half, Kenny, J.W. and myself ended up leaving Cottonwood to set up and manage a new KOA Campground an hour down the road. A couple of years later I found out a couple of our compadres from Cottonwood had passed away. We reflected on the times we all shared. Cottonwood was no different from in any other community. You always lose a few people who we have shared worlds with.

No one at Cottonwood was remotely like me or had previous experiences like I had; living in Newport Beach, on the water in the Bay Area or a in downtown high-rise in Minneapolis. Nor had I had experiences like them. But that didn’t matter. In fact it made it better, and my life was enriched from my time there and with them. Every member of our community was unique and added to the fabric of our Cottonwood world.

Rebuilding the ‘Middle Ring’ using ‘Shared Experiences’

This concept of sharing ‘experience worlds’ only seems logical if we want re-build the ‘Middle Ring’ relationships we need as the foundation of our neighborhoods and communities. We need to use ‘shared experiences’ to rebuild our communities for the benefit of not only of us today, but also for the others who will join us later. Even if these ‘shared experiences’ are as brief as the neighborhood picnics I grew up with in Green Valley in Minot, North Dakota – or as long as the one I had at Cottonwood, they provide us that valuable opportunity for connection with those we’d not likely to connect with otherwise.

Left to their own volition many people will associate only with others like them (including age), not taking that chance to step outside their comfort zone. But if we won’t make this step on our own, how can we truly acquire the empathy and the trust needed to have constructive conversations, the conversations required to build the relationships necessary to create the consensus and collaborations needed for the neighborhoods and communities that serve all its residents?

So how can we create the opportunities for our community members that will result in ‘shared experiences’ and even delving into others ‘worlds?’ If we truly want to create sustainable inclusive communities, that should be what we ask ourselves.

And it shouldn’t have be as drastic as spending six weeks together in the dirt in a tent.

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You can follow me on Twitter at @clayforsberg and on Google+

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The “Pop-Up Community” and the Evolution of the Commercial Space

More than any other human artifacts, buildings improve with time … but only if they’re allowed to. ~ Stuart Brand

Several years ago I read book called “How Buildings Learn” by Stuart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalogue. The premise of the book was that a building whether it’s a house, a factory, or an office building, should be designed to adapt with its inhabitants. As a family goes through the different stages of its life, so should its home. If it can’t then the family will have to pack up, move and find a new home more suitable to its current needs. Such is the same for businesses.

Unfortunately this is not always the case. In fact, normally it’s not the case. Brand vilified vaunted architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright because his buildings, especially his houses, were built for one specific family at one specific time of their life. If anything in this family’s life changes … their residence wasn’t appropriate for their needs since it couldn’t adapt.

We can take this same principle and apply it to communities. Inevitably communities and cities change over time. Detroit is a dramatic example of this. The auto industry moved out from the city’s core leaving vacant blight in it’s wake with no evolutionary strategy. And unfortunately, unlike a family, a community can’t pack up and move down the street or to the next town. Its stuck where it’s at, abandon buildings and all.

But it doesn’t need to be like this. There are three main impediments to a community’s adaptability; individual design of its buildings, zoning laws and mindset. I believe the first two can be overcome with a little effort. A building, with imagination – can be converted into something more appropriate for the community’s needs at the current time. Zoning laws can be changed, maybe not without a lot of kicking and screaming … but they can be changed.

The third impediment, mindset – is not so easy though. Adaptation and evolution can either be embraced and helped along, or it will come on its own terms. And in the latter, it’s often not pretty. Again we look at the example of Detroit. Once the decline of the Big Thee American auto industry started in the eighties, the city (and especially the auto unions) turned a blind eye to it. “This can’t be real. Nobody’s going buy those foreign cars. We’ll be back bigger and better than ever.” Detroit did not embrace the enviable. Now we see what happens when evolution comes on its own terms. It’s pretty much like a real life version of the four headless horsemen in the “Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” (On a positive note, Detroit is finally making some headway on revitalizing itself by recognizing the the past isn’t coming back).

“Nothing pains some people more than having to think.” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

It’s easy to do the same old thing the same old way, day and day out – and just expect the world to take a break from change. But it doesn’t work that way anymore than expecting the world to stop spinning. This reluctance to change and except new ideas is the core reason for any generational gaps we’ve had in past, have now or will have in the future. The older generations want things like they were, and the younger generations want things like they’ll be. Well, let me tell you – there ain’t time machines, so we’re not going backwards, at least in time (attitude maybe). For a community to prosper, or even survive – it needs to embrace adaptability. It can hold on to its heritage and history, and it definitely should. But it has to take that heritage and bring into the future and make it relevant to not just generations of the past.

This embrace has to take place with the local presence, the locally owned businesses and commercial property owners. It has to happen with the city policy makers and planners. Adaptability requires being on the pulse of the community, recognizing where its resources are and maximizing them. That’s the advantage local businesses have over the box stores and the national chains. Locally owned businesses can adapt immediately, while the latter change course like the Titanic. In fact that’s the prime advantage a local business has over an “out-of-town conglomerate.” They can’t compete on price. But they can compete on relevance.

But there’s more to adaptability that just changing product mix or revising hours or even sponsoring local events and sports teams. It’s about changing one’s mindset from the old fixed location “brick and mortar” two-year lease – to none of the above. Imagine if you had never known a world where a business was committed to a fixed location for a fixed time period.

What if a business could adapt: come and go, and move around according the to needs of its clientele. This stretch of the imagination is the foundation of the “Pop-Up Community.”

You ever walk around an old downtown area and see all the buildings with nothing in them. It’s not like the downtown is dead or doesn’t have potential, a new potential – it’s just not be utilized or maximized. What if a business could go into one of those buildings for two months and then pack up and leave. And then another business, of a different type would come in a couple of months later for stay three months and leave. It may not be a two-year lease for the building owner. But then again the building owner isn’t getting the two-year lease anyway. Plus having the building occupied, generates traffic and revenue for neighboring businesses.

This is “Resource Maximization.” And this is what communities will need to do to prosper in our “warp speed evolving future.” And the people navigating this “warp speed.” are the younger generations. These “kids” want flexibility to grow with “trial and error.” And a two-year lease in a fixed location just doesn’t cut it. This is the main reason for the boom in “office hubs” or shared office space in recent years. I belong to one in Los Angeles. It works perfect for me since I’m only in L.A. a couple of times a year, but for a month at a time. When I’m there, I pop into The Hub LA, and do my thing, network, attend events or just socialize.

That means, above all, that they are able to live in a community that is a collective expression of their social being and their social ideals, rather than being an obstacle to them.

If a community truly wants to move ahead then it will have to position itself to attract these young entrepreneurs and their crazy ideas, whatever they are. On that note, I’d like present my idea of the next evolution of community, or I call Community 3.0, and the “Pop-Up Community” is a big part of it.

Pop-up store

How to Create Your Own “Pop-Up Community”

  • Customer focused: Be where are the customers are and when are they going to be there.
  • Permissive zoning laws: Flexibility will create more business for everyone including neighboring businesses, thereby raising property values.
  • Special permitting processes for pop-up and temporary businesses: Make it easy for small low capital businesses to operate legally by cutting the red tape.
  • Walkability: Pop-up businesses encourage geographic consolidation therefore access via foot rather than automobile. The less time in a car … the more time in a store.
  • Specific pop-up business network loyalty programs: Having a common loyalty marketing program operating under consistent rules will bind this nomad community together and make it more stable and more likely to be less transient. These programs can also take the form of cooperative promotions.
  • Co-op ventures between property owners and tenants: Rather than relying on old the “fallback” of the two-year lease with set rental rates, property owners should participate in the success of their tenants’ businesses.
  • Street activity: Create a fun, festive environment including visual art, performance art, food carts, etc. which will draw people to an area. This increased traffic (by foot) can only help all neighboring businesses.
  • Pop-up educational opportunities: Make everything, everywhere a learning experience. “Label your community.” Every building, bridge and park has a story just waiting to be told and passed on to the next generation.
  • Encourage community entrepreneurialism: Rather than just focus on attracting big business – a community should grow its own through their own start-ups. The nurturing process should happen on all levels including the chamber, colleges, tech schools as well as co-op ventures with existing community businesses.
  • Office hubs: Pop-up and temporary ventures need not be limited to retail. A community should have multiple micro co-op office space hubs with shared facilities, such as meeting rooms, kitchen facilities and technology areas to make it easier for fledging entrepreneurs to succeed.

I’m all for nostalgia, and I’m definitely for keep the flavor of community’s Main Street. But ’70s suburbia and all it’s physical constraints … not so much. I believe a community’s value lies in its past, its present and its future. The art is to balance and synthesize the requirements of the three. That takes flexibility. And a “Pop-Up Community” provides the flexibility to do that.

Steve [Jobs] felt that most people live in a small box. They think they can’t influence or change things a lot. I think he would probably call that a limited life. And more than anybody I’ve ever met, Steve never accepted that. He got each of us [his top executives] to reject that philosophy. If you can do that, then you can change things. If you embrace that the things that you can do are limitless, you can put your ding in the universe. You can change the world. ~ Tim Cook

Maybe it’s time to let our cities and neighborhoods climb out of that small box.’ It may not change the world … but it may very well change our communities.

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I can be found on Twitter at @clayforsberg and on Google+

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The Real Problem With Higher Education

This week President Obama unveiled his Higher Education student loan relief program. The program has nice sound bites. Lower interest rates, an extension here and there and so on. I’m not going to get into it here. I’m sure you can find more than enough on the details elsewhere.

In my humble opinion, it’s like bringing a box of band aids to the Texas Chain Saw Massacre. The problem is fundamental and rooted in behavior – no band-aid is going to stop the bleeding. And the problem and solution lie well beyond the pearly gates of our esteemed institutions of higher learning.

The problem lies at home … with us.

A big part of the traditional “American Dream” is going to college – and even more so having your children go to college, especially if you didn’t. Every parent envisions standing in the audience, watching their child walk across that stage receiving their college diploma in full cap and gown. After all, what parent wouldn’t want that experience. And plus it gives them standing with their friends. “The better the college my kid went to (i.e. most expensive), the better the parent I must be.”

That’s the problem. It’s the parents dream as much, if not more than their offspring’s. It’s a dream that is rooted in tradition. How could someone not want a college degree. Unfortunately, that revered degree comes with a price … and that price can be more of a liability than the asset generated by the degree itself.

The cost of a college has become exorbitant at best, and some cases outright crippling. Stories of graduates coming out of school $100,000 in debt are not uncommon. And with this debt – there is no guarantee of a job to pay it off. And on top of it, guaranteed school debt is one thing that cannot be dismissed in a bankruptcy. In other words, there is no key to unlock that ball and chain your child will carry around for years … and years.

Imagine yourself as your child, an eighteen year old about ready to graduate from high school. Let’s assume there are no parents in the picture, no grandparents either. And even better yet, no societal expectations pressuring you about what you should, and what you shouldn’t do. The only thing that matters is you – your wellbeing, and your future.

Let’s break convention, and consider alternatives to four-year college bound route to the traditional American Dream.

  • Don’t go to college. Or if you do, wait a few years until you have some experience in the real world. Not all careers require a college degree. And contrary to popular belief, a lot of the opportunities in the fast growing tech sector are among them. These companies need a lot more than engineers and degreed computer scientists. This is the route my daughter took. Well able to get into, and do well in college, she chose to take a job with Apple out of high school and became an Apple Genius. Now at twenty-five, she’s part of Saucey, a tech start-up in Los Angeles, handling logistics. Being a voracious learner, she is alway in a ‘school’ of her own direction. This ‘life-long learner’ attitude and the experience she received at Apple has been an invaluable way for her to spend her formative years. And the financial obligations of traditional college … she has none.
  • Go to school, but wait a year. Get your feet wet. Find the path you want to take. College is not the real world. Only the real world is, well … the real world. Too often we enter college with no idea why we’re there in the first place. Maybe we listened to some, average at best, high school guidance counselor  – but that’s about it. The first year or two in college is for many just an extension of high school, a postponement of reality (and an expensive one at that).
  • If you’re hell-bent on going to school, go to a community college for the first two years. The first two years of college, especially in a major university, consists of taking entry-level classes with three hundred of your not so closest friends taught by a teacher’s assistant not much older than you are. With a community college you get smaller classes taught by a real professor, probably one with real world experience. With any other purchase, getting more and paying significantly less – pulling the trigger would be a no brainer. But with higher education … ironically we lose our minds.

But with the ball and chain … you go nowhere, literally and figuratively.

None of these options will saddle you with tens of thousands in debt, at least not before you can actually start paying it off. Obama’s trying to help you, but his efforts are misguided. Debt, restructured or not, limits your options. It limits your mobility – mobility that very well take you to the opportunity, that great opportunity that you went to college for in the first place.

But debt is only one part of the equation. The age a student spends in college is between eighteen and twenty-two (if you can get out in four years). This is the prime time for learning. Kids (and I use that term with endearment) are sponges. How they spend this time and what they are exposed to will make a major impact on their lives for years to come. To waste it away in classes that may or may be relevant to their future is unfortunate, if not tragic. If a student is hard and fast on what they want to commit their professional life doing, then allocating these formative years is fine. If not … then it’s not. 

Now there’s certain professions where you must have a degree, and for several, an advanced one is mandatory. In these cases, medicine, law, engineering, etc., you’re just going to hunker down, take initial financial hit and hope it comes around in the long-term. Hope is the operative word here, especially with the unfortunate de-evolution of several of these vaunted professions. If you want to go into business or become entrepreneur … it’s a questionable decision to go down the traditional four year college route.

The world of the Millennial generation is not the one of their parents. These young people don’t have the professional security awarded their parents. Unions are in shamble. Careers based on working with one company, or even in one industry are gone. Professions, traditionally bastions of prosperity and prestige such as law – are anything but that now. To impose the rules and norms of ‘work’ relevant decades ago is doing a great disservice to those we entrust the future of our country with. And we will all suffer because of it.

Several months I wrote about the ‘Nomad Movement’ taking hold amongst Millennials. By being nomads, these young people (and others) are forging their own version of the ‘American Dream.’ They do contract work with Uber, Lyft and others on their way to carving out their own niche in the world. Often this is done through creative and entrepreneurial means. Such behavior twenty-years ago would have been looked at with disdain and shame by parents. Now it really doesn’t matter. It’s survival.

Everyone has their own “Perfect World” and their path will be different from the person sitting next to them. But the education taken should be the education appropriate for that path. Understand there are options … and the four-year university degree is not the only avenue to success. In fact it very well could be the barrier to success.

The “American Dream” of a college degree and a white picket fence may have been right for your parents … but is it right for you?

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I can be found on Twitter at @clayforsberg and on Google+

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“Will we let ourselves be pillaged?” Serena … circa 2015

This weekend I watched the newly released movie ‘Serena,’ directed by Susanne Bier and starring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper. The source material for the movie, the book ‘Serena,’ written by Ron Rash of Appalachia, takes place in North Carolina at the beginning of the great depression in the 1930s. ‘Serena’ is a riveting tale of greed and the obsession for power. The main characters are George and Serena Pemberton, husband and wife timber barons hell-bent on cutting down every tree in the country (and even in Brazil). And they will stop at nothing. It’s not so much about money as it is power … obsession with power to the point of being psychopathic.

Partially based on true events, a major sub plot included is the United States government wanting their land for a proposed national park. This park would eventually become The Great Smoky Mountains National Park. To counter this threat and accumulate more power, the Pemberton buy politicians, law enforcement officers and kill anyone remotely suspected not being on their side.

The tale is Shakespearian, specifically Macbeth – with Serena being Lady Macbeth, the driver in the relationship. She is the equal of any man in the mountains. Serena even travels with an eagle that hunts rattlesnakes. And the snake symbolizes the ruthlessness of their efforts and intentions.

Serena … revisisted

It’s now 2015 and it appears the Pembertons have risen from the dead. We need to look no further than last week’s Republican CPAC convention where as their slogan says, “Conservatism Starts Here.” In attempts to rally their ardent followers, 2016 GOP presidential candidates and other faithful spewed venom far and wide. Of course their primary targets were Obama and the democrats. But it didn’t stop there.

Scott Walker, one the GOP frontrunners, figuratively connected the peaceful protesters in his home state of Wisconsin to the murdering zealots of ISIS (even if he is backtracking a bit). This is Madison, Wisconsin – once considered a nest for progressive discourse during the civil rights movement of the ’60s. Not to be outdone, Phil Robertson, patriarch of the ‘Duck Dynasty’ reality television show, went so far to say AIDS was payback for the hippies ‘godless’ wanton behavior. And this is just the start of the twenty month mass media propaganda deluge disguised as the American 2016 presidential campaign. We can only imagine what the media has in store for us next. And neither political party is immune from nonsensical ideology.

No matter how these politicians are legitimized, they not leaders, they are addicts. Only their addiction is political power, influence and money rather than heroin, cocaine or alcohol. And their addictions are just as strong. But while substance addictions are mainly self-destructive, addictions of the former destroy others. And the others being us.

Serena

Being 2015, it’s not just our timber and landscape being ravished. Now it’s virtually everything. Down to basic tenants of the constitution this country was founded on, nothing is off-limits. Whether it’s ravenous multi-billionaires; tax-evading, oil spilling, “above the law” corporations; or even our own government … the resemblance to the Pembertons in ‘Serena’ is uncanny.

The Koch brothers, the godfathers of disgust (through their political front ‘Americans for Prosperity’), along with gluttonous corporations such as Exxon Mobile, Wal-Mart, Morgan Stanley, Monsanto and others – are the Pembertons of today. Their henchmen, rather than Rhys Ifans’s character Galloway in ‘Serena’ … are our beloved, paid-off, elected officials. And worse yet these ‘officials’ tell us their actions (or inactions) are good for us. After all, isn’t anything that produces ‘jobs’ what this country is all about – no matter how detrimental to society the by-product may be? You could literally substitute George Pemberton with Mitch McConnell or John Boehner as Bradley Cooper stands on his soap boxes cursing the alleged demons of environmental oversight and stewardship in front of a group indentured loggers.

My home state of Montana is on the front lines of this hideous mockery of popular grassroots sponsored legislation. ‘Americans for Prosperity’ operatives have practically set up cots on the capitol chamber floor in their “24/7″ pursuit to ‘arm-wrench’ state legislators to assume control over federal lands so their daddies, the Koch brothers, can rape and pillage the Montana forests – Pemberton style.

The institutions created to serve us have turned on us. They have become nothing more than pawns of the perverse oligarchy in their ivory towers. And it will not get better. These institutions and the special interests that fill their pockets will not magically become enlightened … especially the government. The decisions they make only benefit themselves, and those that insure their political longevity … not us. And we are naive to think any different.

The recent superbug outbreak in the UCLA hospital in California has highlighted this fact. Rep. Louise Slaughter of New York, the only microbiologist in Congress, has repeatedly warned of this type of phenomena happening. Yet thirty years of attempts at legislations curtailing the exorbitant use of antibiotics in our food supply have been stymied by the big-pharma lobbying money and the politicians they buy off. What will it take to break these unsavory ties … deaths piling up from routine cuts or trips to the doctor’s office?

The democracy created by Jefferson, Madison, Adams and Franklin is long dead and nothing more than a relic of the past. In the beginning politicians were leaders and were chosen to make decisions for the populus because they were more learned. Today I’m willing to bet that the people reading this piece are every bit as informed and learned as their supposed elected representatives, and a whole lot less narcissistic. And no mythical Phoenix will rise from the ashes in Washington or for that matter in any state house to change that.

The people can prevail however

But not all is lost. In the tale of Serena, the Pembertons and the evil they embodied are eventually toppled through the nobel efforts of the beleaguered workers of the Pemberton logging empire. We can do the same. But as long as we let these obscene institutions and their conspiring maniacal excuses for capitalists keep us dependent on them – they will win. And we will be nothing more than modern-day serfs. 

But we can recreate this country’s original participatory vision, a vision born from American compassion, ingenuity and self-reliance by the founding fathers and mothers of the United States. This is the vision that is other democracies wish to emulate … not the one we wake up to every morning staring at us in our morning newspaper.

To do this we must regain control of our communities and our neighborhoods, the footholds of our daily lives – where we spend our time. We must take back the streets where we live and work. We must take back our parks and create new ones. We must build our cities for us … not for an automobile culture designed to ferry people out of their neighborhoods to mass replicated Wall Street box stores.

And we must take responsibility for the preparedness of our young, the future of our country. We must resist the assumption that schools will be the all-encompassing answer (however well-intended they may be). As communities, we must provide the support and mentoring most often ignored. For it’s the young, when properly educated and emotionally adjusted, that will be our Davids in the face of Goliath.

There are signs of hope

We have reason to believe there is hope though. Just last week, the people through our relentless internet barrage of millions of comments, letters, tweets and posts – persuaded the FCC to keep the internet neutral. This was no small feat considering the millions of dollars cable companies and internet providers poured into Congress and the media. We will see if this decision holds up however. Goliath will not go easily into the night. 

Greec euro

Oversees, Greece elected a ‘people first’ administration to lead them in the fight against the oligarchy and the Euro bank overlords. While by no means is Greece’s war on austerity over – its Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, have won initial concessions to stave off the wolves from the door. We’ll see how strong their door is and wish them luck.

Elsewhere in Europe, Spain braces for an election this year in which the Podemos party, originated in the aftermath of the 2011–12 Spanish protests, is gaining support fighting against inequality and corruption. It’s leader Pablo Iglesias, found his inspiration in the 2010 Occupy Wall Street movement.

But for every Tsipras and Iglesia there is a Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s far right National Front party, stirring up the anti-immigrant ‘roll back time’ sentiment by riding the coat-tails of the reaction to Paris Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks.

We must find the strength in our neighborhoods

Taking back our neighborhoods, our cities and our countries won’t be easy. We must shun the Wal-Marts, the Targets and rest of the Wall Street owned purveyors of consumerist conformity. We must treat them like the plague. We must do same to the McDonalds, the Taco Bells, the Popeyes and the plethora of other low quality chain junk food pushers. Our local restaurants, bars and stores are owned by our friends and neighbors. These are the places that give our communities, our little part of the world, its personality and individuality. And these are the places and people who are dependent on us for their survival. And we can’t let them die. Because if they do … a part of us dies too.

And our diligence is especially important. City governments and municipalities routinely hand over the keys to the city to outside corporate conglomerates in hopes they will be the proverbial “white knight, in the white hat on the white horse.” Seldom, if ever, does this work out though. Rural, suburban and even urban communities are littered with a plethora of stories of corporate subsidies pledged in return of promises of “jobs.” Oh that word “jobs;” it’s as intoxicating as the snake with the apple in the garden of Eden. But the apple and the snake … that didn’t work out either.

Capitalism, as like democracy, can be a good thing or it can be a bad thing. But it’s up to us to make sure it exists for the benefit of the community, the commons … not the few with unfettered public access via money. We have gotten complacent, assuming once an institution is put in place, it will forever work the way we idealistically believed – without any effort on our part. Like anything, capitalism and democracy need constant oversight and maintenance, no different from a car … or even yourself.

With the 2010 the United States Supreme Court “Citizens United” decision, democracy and in turn capitalism has come under frontal assault. It has opened the flood gates to corporate and “Pemberton” like money primarily designed to help irresponsible mega-corporations in their malignant metastization attacking our communities.

But remember it’s only money.

Unfortunately the embedded structural corruption in Washington and most state capitols prevent us from just “throwing out the bums” like in Europe. Our two-party only system virtually prohibits that. The bums are everywhere, regardless if their affiliation is Republican or Democrat. But as we found out, the people can en mass and reassert their power when sufficiently motivated. Well, it’s time to get motivated. We won’t be able to change the “Citizens United” decision, but we can change its effect.

Eventually we can starve these gluttonous behemoths until they wither from our communities and from our neighborhoods. And who knows, maybe they’ll even wither from our governments, giving us ones that serve us not the behemoths.

But most of all – we must ween ourselves from the illusion that government is on our side. We can do this by caring for each other instead. We can do this by sharing our possessions with our neighbors rather than looking at theirs with disdain and jealousy. We can do it by extending our hand (literally and figuratively) when we would normally … just walk by. And most of all we can do it by looking for opportunities to give … rather than for opportunities to receive. We all have it in us. 

We just need to let it come out.

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Note: To start, check out this wonderful organization run by my friends, LendOneHand.com.

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You can find me on Twitter at @clayforsberg

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Nurture your “Weirdos” … and let them bloom!

“We have a new bigotry in America. We don’t want to be around anyone who disagrees with us about anything.”~ Bill Clinton at the 2013 GLAAD Awards

We live in world of conformity. Being different, being … “not like everyone else is or like your supposed to be” – is bad. Because if you’re different, then you’re unpredictable. And most people need predictability. Their minds aren’t programmed to understand, or even accept these “outliers.”

And it seems like it’s getting worse.

In the misguided (and ineffective) effort to be globally competitive in the education world, we have sacrificed all for the pursuit of rote math and science instruction. This relentless focus has left all creative pursuits, such as art and music, nothing more than carnage in the ditch along the academic road to mediocrity. It’s like we’re programming an army of drones.

nonconformist

Instead of nurturing creativity, we test. Instead of teaching applicable real world problem solving, we test. And we test by filling in ovals on multiple choice tests. Easy to teach, easy to grade … and mostly irrelevant. We do this instead of nurturing art and music – disciplines proven to ignite synaptic connections, ironically the same connections used in math and science proficiency.

The march towards further standardized testing is only intensifying with the implementation of the Common Core Standards. On face, these standards don’t seem to be so bad. But digging deeper, you’ll find that the initiative is headed by David Coleman, president of the College Board. The College Board is the testing behemoth behind the SAT and all it’s siblings. Reading the signs … with its focus on math and English, Coleman’s appointment as “overlord” of American education curriculum, does not bode well for a well-rounded instructional approach.

The education dilemma in the United States has deteriorated to the point where hundreds of thousands high paying, intellectually stimulating jobs go unfilled. But it’s not so much because of lack of math and science … but lack of creativity and problem solving skills in math and science.These are skills that can’t be acquired when all attention is paid to short-term memorization designed around ovals and #2 pencil. This situation is detailed in a recent piece in the Atlantic, “Why are American schools obsessed with turning kids into robots.” 

So disperate are these technology companies … a years worth of H-B1 Visas are snatched up in a matter of days. Foreign educated prospects have been schooled in real world application of the fundamentals. To these students, the fundamentals are means to an end, not the end itself – only to be forgotten in a couple of weeks.

Normal is not something you aspire for … it’s something you run away from! ~ Jodi Foster

It’s the creative people, the out-of-the-box thinkers … who are ones who push the boundaries and shatter the status quo. They tremble at the words – normal, or conventional. These are the “Weirdos.” The ones that don’t conform, the Albert Einsteins, the Steve Jobs, the Truman Capotes and the Orson Wells. These people “scare” other people. They scare the normal people, the ones who do what their parents did. The ones who are “politically correct.”

When this country has made strides and moved ahead – it’s the “Weirdos” that blazed the way for others to follow … often to much prejudice and ostracism. But we forget that those proverbial roads we often take for granted – were the result of the chances they took … and not us.

It’s easy to say to point to successes of the people I mentioned above and recognize them for their accomplishments. But what about the “Weirdos” close to us. The guy down the street with the dreadlocks. The Goth girl who always keeps to herself writing … always writing. Or even the boy next door that his teacher is “hell-bent” to get him on ADHD meds because he doesn’t sit still (through her boring detached lectures). These “Weirdos could be the next Bill Clinton or Jennifer Lawrence, both of which were bullied and looked at as outcasts. But too often instead of embracing them – we brand them with a Scarlett Letter.

Last night at the 2015 Academy Awards, Graham Moore, winner of the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, gave an inspiring acceptance recounting his adolescence where feeling ‘weird’ almost drove him to suicide. These are the exact people we need to nurture … not ostracize and shun.

They say, “all politics is local.”  So is misunderstanding. So is prejudice. What you do to accept the “Weirdos” in your community, whether young or old, will help construct the flavor and individuality of your community.

And it’s how you nurture these nonconformists may very well influence the future of your community … the nation and even the world.

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You can find me on Twitter at @clayforsberg

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‘Farm-to-School-to-Market’ … Cross-Generational Rural Synthesis

A couple of days ago I was having a Twitter discussion with Sandra, from Nebraska. Sandra is hard-core in the ‘farm-to-school’ movement. Actually it really shouldn’t even be called a movement since it’s just common sense. She posted an article from NPR discussing the fact that revenue from farmers markets nationwide have more or less peaked and in some locals even declined. There are areas that are still seeing increases, but overall the trend is not what you’d expect considering all the publicity of the last few years.

The article detailed several of possible causes. According to Sarah Low, a USDA economist and lead author on the report; “Farmers are increasingly using middlemen to sell to restaurants, grocery stores and distributors. With an increasing share of their produce, dairy or meat going to those channels, some farmers may choose to forgo the farmers market.” Simply put, the farmers market phenomenon may just be ‘growing up.’

However there was one quote that caught my attention.

“It’s just not as cost-effective for producers to be face-to-face with consumers,” Low says. “A lot of farmers like to spend their time farming, not necessarily marketing food.”

IMG_445732030

Thinking about it, this makes sense. And taking it one step further – what if this reason is a major factor why there’s not more locally grown food available overall. This especially hits home with me. I live in a farming community outside of Billings, Montana. The farmers around here grow either corn or sugar beets if their land is irrigated, or barley and wheat if it’s not. And that’s it. Aside from an occasional ‘corn-on-the-cob,’ nothing grown in the fields here make it to my table.

I have a small garden and grow herbs, kale, tomatoes, carrots, etc. And they all grow very well. Yet our local farmers don’t grow any of this, and most don’t people in my town don’t even know what kale is. I know since I give away a lot of it. Their crops are put in big trucks and driven to processing plants owned by multinational corporations headquartered in lands far removed from this little farming town.

But what if the farmers had another option, an option where they didn’t have to spend their time marketing to and groveling in front of those picky consumers looking for ingredients for their next caesar salad or Chicken Florentine (just kidding).

Now on a different subject, but not really, as I’ll come back to this in a minute: My town has a big generational gap. I’m not saying this divide is intentional, but rather I just don’t think there’s much contact between the teenagers and the retirees (or even just adults). And I guessing this might be the case in a lot a small towns and even big cities in America. We’ve always seen age divides, but with the advent of the diversion of personal technology, these chasms may be getting even wider. There seems little opportunity for common ground.

Schools are part of your community – and your community should be part of its schools

I believe a lot of this is the fault of schools. After all, aren’t schools responsible for developing the young talent that supposedly is the future for the community it serves? Yet how much connection is there actually made with its community? And yes schools are supposed to serve the community. The residents pay property tax to fund the schools. But schools are often viewed as the castle on the hill … including the moat. I’m not going so far to say there are crocodiles in the water under the drawbridge, but what hell. In some schools there might as well be. For example, in my little town, even my father, a high school teacher with 25+ years experience, is uncomfortable even going in the building. Here’s someone with a wealth of knowledge at their disposal he’s willing to share … and nothing. Yet they have no problem sticking their hands out asking for money for renovations to update a school that should be closed and consolidated with those of the neighboring towns.

But what if we could change this, especially in rural and farming communities. We have the perfect vehicle for it too … the farm.

Now, let’s get back to my previous point about farmers wanting to farm and not be marketers. After Sandra initially posted the NPR article I mentioned above, I tweeted back:

What about a middleman between farmer and a  handling marketing, packaging, distribution, etc.

And her response was:

One local farmer I know hires students from a nearby school to come out to help him get ready each season. Great experience.

And there was the synthesis that sparked the fire that created this piece and my Farm-to-School-to-Market’ concept.

What if rural high schools and middle schools created programs where students could be the marketers for local farmers producing farmers market ready crops. Not only could the kids market the crops, they could handle the whole post-harvest process as fledging entrepreneurs. Heck they could even help with the harvest if need be. And why stop there, they could even work out co-op deals with the farmers helping grow the crops in the first place. And who says the Farmers Market has to be their only outlet for sales? The students could negotiate deals with local independent grocers and restaurants for additional revenue streams for their products.

Kale 2 crop posterize

I’m sure virtually all rural schools have Vo-Ag programs in their curriculum, but what I’m outlining here isn’t just a farm project. It’s a hands-on exercise in entrepreneurialism and business development. Imagine each school having several groups of students, each potentially spanning different grade levels – creating mini-produce companies. The students in each group would be responsible for all aspects of their micro business, possibly even working with the farmer for crop selection down to the branding and packaging of their product. They would also determine where they would sell them; retail through farmers markets, door-to-door in town, or contract out for wholesale (stores and restaurants). And who knows, maybe some enterprising group could create packaged products from their raw crops – like kale chips. Their options are limited only by their imaginations.

Each group would structure their company how they wanted and allocate duties and decision-making accordingly. Some members of the group may want to take on more responsibility and then be compensated accordingly. I want to note that ‘Farm-to-School-to-Market’ is not meant to be a school fundraiser. It’s the kids who are putting in the work, so they should be the ones who are rewarded financially. The school benefits by the fact that here’s a ready-made curriculum piece dropped in their lap that actually provides real-world benefit, unlike most activity associated with the dreaded standardized tests, so much in vogue.

Many aspects of ‘Farm-to-School-to-Market’ could be integrated directly into regular class activity, either as part of traditional instruction or as independent projects. Each student group would also have to keep an account of their experience with their company, probably through an online blog. Their ideas, tips and suggestions would also be included and shared as other ‘Farm-to-School-to-Market’ groups spread geographically and became commonplace in the rural eduction curriculum.

Students who attend schools with farm-to-school programs are 28% more likely to choose healthy food options. This is especially important given the recent findings showing that once a person becomes obese they will most likely fight obesity all their life, regardless of whether healthy eating and exercise routines are adopted. Anything that can be done at early ages to promote healthy eating, must be done. And imagine if these healthy eating habits were taken home as homework to benefit the whole family. But these farm-to-school programs can’t happen with just desire. They need a supply of healthy food. And that means local farmers raising it … the core tenet of ‘Farm-to-School-to-Market.’ 

Be part of making your community’s school a real world experience

America’s public schools are often accused of creating test-ridden robots of their students. Here’s a way to counter that accusation, and at the same time help bridge a generational divide all too prevalent in rural America. Combine this with helping seed and nurture a much-needed ‘farm-to-school’ movement … you have trifecta of benefits.

Rural America needs outlets for its young people. The best and brightest of these communities will go where they can express themselves creativity, artistically or through business endeavours. Whether they flex these creative muscles in the towns they grew up in is up to their communities and the metaphorical canvases they provide. Their home towns have the advantage. Retaining talent is a lot easier than attracting new. But make no mistake, having young talent is not an option for a community to flourish. It is mandatory.

Literally and figuratively … it’s on your plate. Now it’s up to you. Wake up your schools! After all … they are your schools.

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I can be reached on Twitter at @clayforsberg or on Google+. And also please follow Sandra at @_prairiespirit. If it wasn’t for her … you wouldn’t be reading this.

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