Staying Strong

Monday morning I got up early and prepared myself for I thought would be my last three-day session of chemo treatments for my lymphoma (Using the word “my” in reference to having cancer seemed odd writing it, but I suppose if I take ownership over it – it won’t own me) . Unfortunately I got bumped. My platelet count was too low and my ordeal is now pushed to next week. In the whole scheme of things this is no big deal – but it’s just another one those straw putting pressure on the proverbial camel’s back. It’s not just the all day infusion sessions: It’s the preparation, mentally and physically that’s a big part of it. Now I’ll have do it all again at the end of this week. Hopefully my blood levels are up so I can get on with this.

Later after I got back home, I check my email and came across an article in my Fast Company feed, “Why Telling John McCain to Beat Cancer Feeds Into a Dangerous GOP Narrative.” All things considered, this piece peaked my interest.

Now for those living under or in a rock and oblivious to current happenings in the world, John McCain was diagnosed with a fast-metastasizing cancer of the brain Glioblastoma to be specific. The outpouring of support was no surprise. And the tone of the support was really no surprise either considering who John McCain is and his personal history. No one is feeling sorry for him. Just the opposite. People are assuming he will fight this with the same tenacity he did as a POW in Vietnam.

Jean Hannah Edelstein, the author of the Fast Company piece had an odd take on the situation. In this brief, maybe 500 word article, she didn’t really talk about John McCain or cancer that much. Instead Edelstein chose to attack the Republican party and their healthcare policies. She also threw Barak Obama under the bus for good measure.

Now I want to pile on the toxic dumpster fire that is the Republican party as much as anyone. But I don’t really see why John McCain’s cancer is the place and time to do it. This isn’t a partisan issue. Access to treatment of maybe – but reaction to it … not at all.  To make it that – is to further feed the fire that has created the toxic political and civic environment we all now inhabit. If anything, McCain who for the most part is not a polarizing figure, may be one of the rare politicians who could generate a common sense of compassion and human decency. That being said, his vote repeal Obamacare yesterday did little to endear him or his situation to me. One would think he would have acquired a new sense of empathy for those less fortunate financially in situations similar to him. But apparently not.

Regardless, that doesn’t change Edelstein’s reaction to the outpouring of support for McCain – which occurred before the vote. She used the situation as yet another opportunity to further the political divide. Rather than encourage people diagnosed with cancer to fight the disease and build their self-efficacy, she thinks we should show them sympathy. To encourage them to fight the disease implies if they give way to it, they didn’t fight hard enough and the outcome is their fault. I suppose I get where she’s coming from. While I’m not against a show sympathy. While not my preferred reaction – it works for some people. But I have real hard time with the view that one’s own efforts have nothing to do with the outcome when it entails a disease. When does self-responsibility and personal power of affecting change come into play in Edelstein’s mind? Does it ever … for anything. Or are we just innocent victims of a predetermined fate – possibly only affected by the efforts of someone in a white lab coat and a fifteen minute visit.

For example she picked a bone with Paul Ryan, who I’m no fan of, and his views of self-responsibility.

Paul Ryan spearheaded the concept of personal responsibility in the context of health care in 2009, when he wrote in his Patient’s Choice Act that a “large percentage of heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes, as well as many cancers, could be prevented if Americans would stop smoking, start eating better, and start exercising.” Health policy should be built, he argued then (and now) to reward people who look after their health—to disincentivize illness, as if people are eager to pursue bad health.

While Ryan’s Ayn Rand extremism is exactly that, extreme … there are things we can take from it. Should we embrace Ryan’s view of “pulling ones self up by the bootstraps” wholeheartedly – probably not. But should we buy into Edelstein’s succumb to destiny and fate – probably not either.

Her views are affected by the death of her father, a non-smoker, of lung-cancer at age 69 (as the article outlines). For good reason, it’s obvious this has had a major impact on her life, specifically her views on healthcare. Her bio even says she’s writing a book on cancer and genetics. In addition, she’s a writer for the Guardian – which has become a go-to anti-GOP media outlet (no judgement intended, but it’s impossible to ignore its left-leaning direction).

Disclaimer: I used to read the Guardian, but can’t anymore. In my opinion, their political views have infested virtually everything they publish – whether the content should be taken as political or not. I suppose they believe they are doing a service. That may be – but they can do it without me. I believe Edelstein’s article in Fast Company follows along with this philosophy.

She takes the opportunity to rally us for a “healthcare for all” policy of government. While a noble cause (and philosophically I agree with – and I have enormous skin in the game) – its implementation is a completely different story. I’ll leave discussions of a single-payer government-run system for a different day and different couple thousand words. Let me just leave it with anyone who has had experience with American Veterans Choice program wouldn’t wish that experience on anyone, friend or foe.

To assume that we turn over everything to the government and expect them to sprinkle fairy dust on every problem we have and make it better, is naive at best and most realistically – pragmatically irresponsible. The government isn’t going to fix healthcare or much anything else – regardless of what party and color clown suit they’re wearing. The governmental apparatus is mired in operational malaise and void of innovative talent. Unfortunately, what our founding fathers created is no match for the complexity of today’s world and the narcissistic political behavior that has manifested in Washington D.C. under the guise of representative democracy.

My journey with cancer over the last two and half years has heightened my obsession with self-efficacy. I have no other option. I have to believe what I do and what I think makes a difference. I’ve never been one to believe in fate – and I sure as hell I’m not going to start now. My way of dealing with this is believing that self-efficacy is my partner in this battle. The stronger it is … the stronger I’ll be and better my prognosis. I’ve even created an engagement bot to help me in my journey – and named it MelvinOf course I have my medical treatments which I anticipate will work, but I don’t have any control over that. What I do have control over the is my attitude during this journey (both during treatment and afterwards) – to help ensure I don’t have to go through this for a third time (or more).

I can be positive and take care of myself; and most of all try to lend support to others by being part of the solution to issues in their lives. I believe looking outwards is a big part of internal healing. We are a function of so much more than just ourselves. We are products and parts (today and in the future) of those around us – in our communities. I’ve taken this stance and made it a cornerstone of my Community 3.0 project, right there next to Rhizomes and Front Porches

That is what I can do … and will continue to do going forward.

My very good friend Bob always tells me to stay strong. It shows he cares. But more than that, it shows he thinks enough of me to believe that my strength and self-efficacy will in some way lead me to a positive outcome. This makes me try harder. And that’s a good thing. How Jean Hannah Edelstein can justify taking that away from me is malignant in itself. I go through my own battle, and yes Jean that is what it is (and I wouldn’t doubt your father considered it the same), with the same passion and drive I’ve put forth towards anything else I’ve done in my life. Only in this case, the stakes are higher. Whoever wants to jump on board and give Melvin, my self-efficacy, a little push … I’m all in.

Battling cancer is so much more than just the end-game. It’s the journey. It’s the side-affects and the treatment. It’s the physical turmoil. And it’s emotional rollercoaster. It’s Chemo Brain and the struggle keeping concentration. And it’s not enough to take care of and worry about myself – it’s the affect my situation is having on those around me? And if I succumb to it, what effect will that have on those closest to me? Will they never be able to let it go – always looking for an answer, dedicating their lives or worse obsessing over of it until it consumes them too? Or will they turn it around and pull strength from it – much like a vicarious spirit of the Phoenix. Personally I want to lead by example, and as Bob says … Stay Strong!

May this post be a message to those close to me, and those close to others with cancer who are battling, often in ways you have no idea of. We don’t need sympathy. We don’t want you to feel sorry for us. We want to know our battle will transcend us as you take the baton our of strength and self-efficacy and carry it forward to use in your own lives – adding to your own personal emotional and mental toolboxes. Make our battle worth more than just the efforts of us alone. Use it fight to fight your own battles too.

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

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Rebuilding Alexandria

About twenty years ago, my daughter Alex and I were living in Marin County above San Francisco. During this time I became addicted to reading. I don’t know if I was trying to make up for lost time or what; but a pile of five books (all in various stages of completion) became a permanent fixture on my dining room table. At least once week, and more often more than that, I made the trek to my local independent bookstore in Corte Madera down the road to see if there were any new current event titles I could add to my menu of cerebral digestion. Normally a book stayed a couple of weeks until I was done with it – only to make way for another to take its place. There was one book however that stuck around a lot longer. The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History by Michael Hart written in 1992.

Hart’s book was fascinating to me. Since I was in grade school, I’ve been a history buff – even reading the entire encyclopedia sitting on the living room floor when sub-zero temperatures and three-foot snow banks put a damper on outdoor activities (obviously it was a pre-video game era). What intrigued me about “The 100” was that Hart didn’t pass value judgement on whether the influence the person had was good or bad – just that the person had influence. Jesus and Sir Issac Newton figured prominently, but Hitler and Genghis Khan were also ranked. He also went into copious detail on why he ranked them where he did. A lot of the reasons weren’t obvious, but once brought to light – made complete sense. George Washington for example, was ranked in the top 40 not because he was the first president of the United States, but rather because he chose to voluntarily relinquish his office after only two terms, setting a precedent that would remain intact until Franklin Roosevelt 150 years later.

Being immersed in the printing industry as a headhunter, I loved the fact that Johann Gutenberg and his printing press mad the Top Ten. But the one person that took me by surprise was the one Hart ranked as Number 10 overall. That was Euclid. I didn’t know who Euclid was – even with my encyclopedias and three-foot snow banks.

Euclid and Alexandria

Now for those of you who are as uninformed as I was, Euclid is known almost solely for writing the math text, Elements.

Euclid (fl. 300 BCE) was a Greek mathematician, often referred to as the “father of geometry”. He was active in Alexandria during the reign of Ptolemy I (323–283 BCE). His Elements is one of the most influential works in the history of mathematics, serving as the main textbook for teaching mathematics (especially geometry) from the time of its publication until the late 19th or early 20th century.

But the most interesting part about Euclid was that Elements wasn’t really that much of an original text. He didn’t make any groundbreaking revelations like Newton or Copernicus. He pretty much just took the works of other scholars, many of which lived and worked in Alexandria, and synthesized into one book a comprehensive guide to geometry. In summary – Euclid was a curator; and a prolific enough of a curator that Michael Hart had him ranked Number 10 in the list of the most influential persons of history. Holding a curator in such high regard, especially at that time in history where personal contact was really the main way to spread knowledge – brings up an interesting point. Euclid was a product of his geography and those who resident in his civic proximity. Euclid embodied the very essence the of Alexandria, Egypt … the diverse cross-pollinated intellectual melting pot of the world. Rather than beset by religious and societal division, it was a bastion of inclusion and open thought. Thinkers worldwide traveled from afar to participate in the collectivism.

In January of 1989, my wife Mitra and I found out she was pregnant. I vividly remember the discussion of names. Before we knew the baby’s gender, we picked both a boy’s and girl’s name. We didn’t necessarily agree on the boy’s name (which I don’t even remember). The girl’s name was a different story. The decision on Alexandria came quick as our first pick, even though our reasons different. Mitra liked the name itself (as did I). But I really liked what it stood for. It’s hard to set the bar much higher for your child than being named after arguably the most prolific center of learning in the history of the world. If some of that rubbed off on her … all the better.

On October 11, 1989 in Burbank, California – Alexandria Noelle Forsberg was born.

Two years ago, as part of my series on community-based societal evolution, I wrote “Silos.” “Silos” outlines the need for communities to rise above their provincial jingoism in order for them to truly pursue sustainable policies. Cross-pollination; whether its gender, sexual-preference, ethnic, racial, age-based or especially geographic – must be fundamentally encoded in a community’s civic DNA. All to often however, especially where I live, the opposite is often preferred. How far back your Montana roots go back somehow makes you a better person – not more geographically myopic which is actually the case.

Community and the Value of Diversity

Everyday the environment we live in changes. These changes are a response to external stimuli. Darwin’s theory of evolution states that the flourishing and ultimately the survival of a species (or any other anthropological entity) is based on its ability to adapt to these stimuli. Diversity is an advantage if not a necessity. Lack of diversity makes itself open to disease (literally and figuratively).

My daughter Alexandria breeds exotic snakes, specifically Rainbow Boas. She goes to extreme lengths to make sure the gene pool of her breeding stock is as diverse as possible. It may be a lot easier and less expensive to acquire stock domestically – but due to inbreeding (often unintentional) by less diligent breeders, genetically based pathologies often occur. To counter this, Alex has imported snakes outside the genetic pool from Finland and Great Britain. It’s much more difficult and more expensive – but it’s her only option with the bar she’s set for herself and her projects.

Your community really isn’t a lot different from Alex Rainbow Boa community (aside from the preponderance of scales). Any community is the product of its residents. Social inbreeding creates weak species and weak communities; vulnerable to adversaries, internally and externally. Inbred societies rely on decision-making and responses founded in a narrow historical perspective – severely limiting its response to challenges and opportunities.

The fact is that if you want to build teams or organizations capable of innovating, you need diversity. Diversity enhances creativity. It encourages the search for novel information and perspectives, leading to better decision-making and problem solving. Diversity can lead to unfettered discoveries and breakthrough innovations. Even simply being exposed to diversity can change the way you think. This is not just wishful thinking: it is the conclusion I draw from decades of research from organizational scientists, psychologists, sociologists, economists and demographers. Scientific America

A community is the collective sum of the value of its individual inhabitants multiplied by the community’s ability to synergize these individual parts (by curating organized and random encounters). Every encounter or engagement has an opportunity to be a synergistic one. Empathetic cross-pollinated engagements are the key. The city of Alexandria during the time of Euclid was a perfect example of this. Even though there were organized discussions and forums, just walking down the street could lead to a serendipitous encounter that might result in a groundbreaking discovery.

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. The more expressively diverse a community is, the more resilient it is and more potential it has to invoke change – both inside and outside its walls. Our focus must actively be on inclusion, not retreat into personal protectionism and paranoia of those different from us. We must resist the temptation of the comfort of “sameness.” Nothing happens in our comfort zones. If we don’t venture into the land of unease … we’ll never see, let alone realize the possibilities life avails to us.

Designing for Serendipity, Synergy and Collaboration

Cross-pollination doesn’t happen easily though. People of different fabric may inhabit the same locale, but that doesn’t mean their views and ideas will synthesize and your community will be built on Alexandria-type collaborations. You have to reach out and try to understand these people not like you. You first need to empathize with them. The most effective way to do that is through shared actions – specifically shared community-beneficial actions. For example, building a school playground with your neighbors of different ideologies can bridge chasms that would otherwise be uncrossable. It’s amazing what work for the common good can do. This is what happens in disaster relief efforts. I doesn’t matter if you’re a Republican or a Democratic, everyone bands together to help rebuild the town they all live in. We just have to not rely on disasters to bring us together. Community commonalities are everywhere. We just have work to create opportunities for everyone to share in them.

From these opportunities and resultant actions will come serendipitous relationships; relationship that can create synergies that move your community ahead in ways no one envisioned. That being said, we have to design environments; physical, social and personal so that these opportunities, actions and relationships become baked into our society. In business applications we strive for economies of scale. These efficiencies are mainly mapped on vertically axis or are niche based. Building for serendipity takes community economies of scale and expands their opportunity on the horizontal axis across defined multiple niches and focuses. This solution thinking stemming from diverse thought breaks through conventional siloed vertical constraints.

Imagine if your community had a Department of Horizontal Integration, where its primary role is to break apart the silos of the status quo power structures and connect dots from the pieces. This department wouldn’t need to be housed in the government. In fact it would be best if it wasn’t – for obvious hierarchical reasons. It could rely on your community’s true assets; its people and where they congregate, the Front Porches of the small business network.

Rather than abide by a top-down governance model run by those embedded in the status quo of mediocrity – we must create a platform of serendipity where matchmaking happens organically through interaction uncovering commonalities between the participants. Think of a synergistic mixing bowl of opportunity; obliquitous, indirect, organic relationship building.

Now imagine organizing set gatherings where this serendipity is on the menu. While there’s no guarantee your group will change the world – increasing that chance through proximity of diverse thought and motivation sure increases its chance. And what if the overarching goal of your gatherings wa of improve the human condition in your community. How this is accomplished would be determined by those in the room not by a top-down bureaucracy mired in inefficiency and out-dated procedures. Everyone is here for the same reason and they are here because they WANT to be … not have to be because of an overriding need to fuel ego. 

For arguments sake let’s call your gathering, Serendipity. Serendipity could be a petri dish for how to solve civic and social problems directly rather than through government. It would be the platform for inclusion and experimental benevolence. The bar would be set so that no area of community need would be untouched. If something needed to be fixed, or something needed to be done – there would be no questions and no siloed jurisdictional squabbles … it would just happen.

In 1986, John Gage, then of Sun Microsytems, organized NetDay in California. NetDay was historic grassroots effort in the classic American barn-raising tradition. Using volunteer labor, their goal was to install all the basic wiring needed to make five classrooms and a library or a computer lab in every school Internet-ready. If the same work was financed by taxpayers, it would cost more than $1,000 per classroom. Volunteers from businesses, education, and the community acquired all of the equipment and installed and tested it at each school site. As a result 20,000 volunteers helped to wire 20 percent of California schools to the Internet. In addition, by bringing together these diverse elements, NetDay established a framework for lasting partnerships among business, government, educational institutions, and local communities provide ongoing support for the schools to this day.

What if we designed our communities around the idea of maximizing engagement from those in the streets? The more engaged our residents are … the more empowered they would be. They would feel more in control of their health and their futures. Imagine if a chance to engage, whether it was physical, mental or social was just around the corner. What if our physical security and well-being was not dependent on government assistance or the whims of a fickle market driven economy. What if our neighborhood was our safety net, a safety net that knew best in our time of need. What if the streets of our community became melting pots of diversity-driven serendipity – places where curiosity was bred. What if engagement, well-being and self-efficacy was how a community measured itself, not obtuse economic activity often distorted through the one-dimensional filter of irrelevant statistics. And what if getting up in the morning was a chance to nurture our hope … and engage with others to help them do the same.

Building Your Own Alexandria

It’s obvious the human species must evolve. The ascent of Donald Trump to the forefront of our attention has presented us with some hard facts. We all have to take look in the mirror and ask ourselves how we got here. We will have to change our thinking – or maybe just start thinking. Instead of relying on past expectations, and cultural assumptions and metrics as our guides — we have to envision what could be, not just what always has been.

But vision is only part of the journey. We have to look past how things in past have been done. No longer should government and traditional institutions be looked at as the first line defense … rather should be looked at only as a last resort. Our reaction should be to assemble our friends and neighbors at our local Front Porch, organize and do what has to be done — developing self-efficacy along the way. And we best accomplish that by inclusion and reaching out to those around us who normally we may feel uncomfortable doing so. These outliers of our social circles may be the exact people who ensure the very survival of those social circles.

We can make the change we need — but it won’t be by thinking the way we’ve always thought and doing what we’ve always done — the way it’s always been done.

If you’re interested in moving on from the status quo that will inevitably take anyone and anything down with it … please check out Community 3.0, my vision of an evolved society where self-efficacy and the well-being is priority. Or even better email me, at clayforsberg@gmail.com and we can set up time to have a conversation.

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Why Amazon’s Whole Foods Acquisition Will Revitalize Rural America

Friday, July 16 sent seismic shock waves through the grocery industry, as well as any other company on its peripheral. Grocery stocks plummeted and Wal-Mart heirs lost over billions. Friday, July 16 was the day Amazon announced it was buying Whole Foods, regulatory hurdles notwithstanding. Arguably the world’s most intimidating company has just gotten a whole (pardon the pun) lot scarier.

Amazon and its “anything you want you can get delivered to your door – with free shipping” is now about to add 450+ brick and mortar stores in prime (again pardon the pun) locations to its arsenal. The pontifications by pundits have spanned the gamut of views from outright alarm to guarded optimism of the opportunities that may arise.

Whole Foods organic

The Fallacy of Amazon as the Bad Guy

The chicken littles of the world will prophesize that Amazon will destroy what’s left of America’s Main Street small businesses – using the book industry as an example. What they won’t say is that since Amazon has entered the market, independent book stores have actually done better – the main causality of the Amazon’s online surge being chain stores like Barnes and Noble, and the dead and buried Borders. These two corporate piranhas were on a Sherman’s March to the Sea destruction plan of the industry before Amazon blew up their plans. We can never go back to the days of fifty years ago when independents were the only players in the game. But people will always go to physical bookstores – just not in the same numbers. Clearing out the homogenized corporate boxes like Borders help ensure those numbers flow to independents.

When we talk about small businesses it’s easy to myopically look only at retailers and resellers. What about the entrepreneurs that create the products sold in those stores? What about the writers that supply the bookstores? Under the corporate chain model, independent writers and other small batch producers have no chance of getting their work any shelf space. With Amazon – you, I or anyone else can write a book and sell it worldwide through their ubiquitous online distribution channel. Even with independent book stores we can’t do that; locally probably yes … nationally or worldwide, no. It’s easy to pick and choose the facts to back up our preconceptions and worldviews – but seldom are things so cut and dry. Whether they produce the product or sell it on the street corner or Main Street – entrepreneurs both produce and sell, and we must support the entire independent channel … even if not all parts of the channel are independent.

Self-Efficacy

Over the past two or three months I’ve been on a crusade of self-efficacy. The return of my lymphoma has put me in a “what I do matters to my very existence on this planet” mentality. While I have faith in the conventional chemotherapy treatment that has been prescribed to me (more or less) – I feel it’s my own efforts; whether it be nutrition, exercise and especially attitude, are going to be what makes or breaks the state of the journey down the road to my Perfect World.

In America the healthcare industry spends very little time, energy and resources working with patients to raise their level of self-efficacy. Even with overwhelming proof – discussions of diet, exercise and attitude are seldom raised, let alone made a priority. I don’t know if this is intentional, or just lack of training. It’s hard to believe it could be the latter since even the mainstream media has been covering the research ad nauseam. Whatever the reason – too many of us put way too much faith in “the man on the white horse and man in the white hat” and their ability to fix all that ails us (literally and figuratively).

Amazon and Whole Foods

This brings me to Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods. In American culture, Whole Foods is emblematic of healthy food – often overpriced health food … but healthy nonetheless. A trip through the isles of Whole Foods is not one populated by the brands normally seen at a Kroger’s, Albertson’s or other grocery chain. The shelves are filled with foods from providers and farms (all organic) that you wouldn’t otherwise find. Many of them sourced locally. Unfortunately Whole Foods is located in primarily in upscale areas, relegating those who often could benefit from healthier food choices less-than-optimum options

With Whole Foods, the hope is that through their ubiquitous distribution network; Amazon will not only find another piece to their puzzle of being the “everything store” – they’ll make the Whole Foods catalogue available to a wider less-affluent demographic. How this hope plays out, we can only wait and see. America is firmly rooted in an epidemic of obesity and bad food choices. Moving the dial away from the inevitably of chronic health conditions that result from these choices could go a long ways toward creating a society focused on well-being; rather than just the after-the-fact fixes that has immersed our country in the healthcare crisis we’re currently warring over. And that’s just the demand side of the Amazon/Whole Foods equation. The supply side offers up another set of possible variables and effects.

Current State of Affairs in Farming

For several years now I’ve lamented about the farming situation where I live in southern Montana. The climate is moderate and the land is irrigated. Most any type of food can be grown here – yet the only things that are; are sugar beets, feed corn and barley contracted by multi-national beer conglomerates. Ironically our farming community doesn’t grow food. It produces components for manufacturing processes –  beer, processed sugar, cattle or ethanol for our car’s gas tanks. The produce I buy at the grocery store is trucked in from hundreds if not thousands of miles away. The only local food I have access to in this farming community comes from the garden in my backyard.

What this type crop selection has done (along with other factors) is decimate the population of farm-supported small towns. Fewer people are needed to produce small-margin crops like corn. Automation and standardization has replaced craft labor and unique crops options – often those seen on the shelves at Whole Foods. We bemoan the decline of rural of America, often affixing blame on liberals living in the coastal urban areas – when short-sided business decisions by rural areas may very well be main causes. We’ve turned our food supply over to multi-national conglomerates on Wall Street and abandoned local businesses in favor of box stores; and the farms and small towns traditionally supported by food production are the ones suffering most from it.

This does not bode well for upcoming generations wanting to farm either. Small rural towns have made themselves unappealing socially and economically to the very talent they need to sustain themselves. Instead of nurturing young farmers and their fledging families, they sell out to factory farms furthering the cycle of rural exodus. Multiple generations need to evolve together, leveraging the traditions of the past while being willing to reshape them for the needs and wants of today’s generations. Simply expecting young people to fit into the world of their parents not only isn’t fair – it’s not practical as they’ll just abandon it, leaving the old world to simple fade away.

Amazon and the Opportunity for Small Towns

We can look at the Amazon acquisition of Whole Foods as bad for small towns and their local businesses, as many naysayers have. We can ready ourselves to play the blame game – even before-the-fact. Or we can look deeper, past the surface of a ninety second news segment or 400 word blog piece.

I see the acquisition as potentially empowering local producers with a new distribution channel they wouldn’t otherwise have. No matter how the media tries to compare and pit Amazon against Wal-Mart – they are nothing alike. First and foremost, Amazon is a distribution network of hundreds of thousands of suppliers – the vast majority of them small businesses. I see no reason this wouldn’t extrapolate to farms and the small-batch food industries. Rather than large corporate farms producing pesticide-ridden components for a manufacturing process – what if small plot farmers focused on producing food that can be processed and sold locally or through the Amazon/Whole Foods platform. My expectations are that Amazon, gravitating from the Whole Foods brick and mortar network of stores (present and future), will spur the increased demand needed to tip farmers to refocus their efforts towards growing actual food.

Organic farming

But we shouldn’t assume that this extrapolation of healthy food is automatically going to happen just because of Amazon has entered the market. It’ll be up to farmers and small local producers to take advantage this opportunity. It’ll be up to farmers in areas like where I live in Montana to decide to break from sugar beets and feed corn and venture into the unknown land of organic small-batch farming. This transition will be as much cultural as it is economic or logistic. Most farmers are not only economically conservative – they’re politically conservative. Irrationally so, organic food is too often tied coastal liberals and all they represent. For example, kale (my garden’s most abundant crop) embodies all that’s wrong with America to many people in the small town I live in. 

Demand dictates supply, but let us not forget supply also dictates demand. If the product isn’t there; no business, Amazon and Whole Foods included, will make efforts to market and sell it. I want to believe farming groups in locales such as mine can literally create demand for their product by simply making supply more readily available. And by coordinating efforts, they can make their voices heard and their product more competitively available. Imagine local coops acting as a logistical go-between and marketing arm for farmers and small-batch producers. And taking it one step further – these coops can unite creating an even more powerful presence.

Wal-Mart, Costco and the other box stores don’t source locally. Amazon, having the technical backend to do so combined with the Whole Foods small-batch organic focus – most likely will. Farmers will have to break free from their comfort zone and become creative in their crop selection. They will need to maximize local resources (geographic and economic) by identifying the assets of the area and leveraging them rather than just doing the same thing they did last year … worse yet a decade ago.

Building a Sustainable Community Around Healthy Food

Wherever possible rural areas must nurture an environment of craft and small business by taking advantage of local organic food production. With this should be a rebuilding of Main Street – not only as a center of economic activity – but one of civic engagement: all revolving around collective community well-being originating from the production and consumption of healthy food. I envision a societal momentum moving to a healthier, organically based food supply – and an emphasis on health, self-efficacy and well-being. Food (selection, production and distribution) should be the catalyst in all community health efforts. Without it the effort has little chance of sticking, let alone being built on.

None of this is going to happen on its own though. It’s going to take creative thinking, breaking free of “what is normally done.” Ironically it will be a return to our grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ time when farmers grew food for their table and that of their neighbors. Only we’ll be able to utilize the production and distribution technology and processes of today. This cross-generational synthesis will anchor the revitalization of rural America. Growing corn for ethanol and relying on Wal-Mart for our (sourced from god only knows where) is what has put rural America in the dire straits its in now. Now is time to break the cycle of the destruction of our well-being.

Whether the catalyst to a movement of collective well-being turns out to be June 16, 2017 – the day Amazon announced they would purchase Whole Foods, only time will tell. Regardless what’s not to say it can’t act like it is? What’s not saying we can’t our societal norm one of collaborative self-efficacy where our neighbors and our neighborhoods are center to the solution, rather than just afterthoughts at best.

Remember; “The man in the white hat, the man on the white horse” …

They still aren’t coming.

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“13 Reasons Why” … And Why It Matters To Your Community

I watch Netflix – as I’m sure quite a few of us do. A couple of months I was looking at their original section and I noticed “13 Reasons Why.” I had read about it and thought about watching it … but no matter how intrigued I was, I couldn’t get myself to dive into a series about adolescent suicide. On the surface it looked too much like the plethora of other young adult series you find on Netflix … only with a more ominous premise.

But then after a few weeks I noticed “13 Reasons Why” was starting to get a lot of buzz in the mainstream media, but not because it so good – but because many parents and the mental health profession considered it too controversial. The book it was based on was even appearing on banned book lists. This peaked my interest. 

A few years ago, Harvey Weinstein and his brother, Bob, of the acclaimed Weinstein Films produced a topical film about teenage bullying aptly named “Bully.” While not entering the territory of being banned, the Motion Pictures Association of America (MPAA) gave it an R rating; even though its target audience was high school kids and it confronted an issue too often ignored in our schools. Apparently the colorful language of real life in high school was just too much for the virgin ears of teenagers to hear on the screen. Outraged and standing behind their film and its significant societal benefits, the Weinstein brothers circumvented the MPAA and re-released with no rating (NR), leaving it up the each individual theatre to make the call who could see it.

I couldn’t get “Bully” out of my mind every time I thought of diving (or not) into “13 Reasons Why.” Much of the exact things overprotective parents, however well-meaning they may be, want to shelter their kids from are the exact things they encounter everyday at school. As with bullying – suicide, whether carried through on or just contemplated, is real their real world. And our reluctance as parents and adults to see this and confront it head on can have catastrophic consequences.

“13 Reasons Why”

“13 Reasons Why” revolves around a high school student, Clay Jensen, and his friend Hannah Baker, a girl who committed suicide after suffering a series of demoralizing circumstances brought on by select individuals at her school. A box of cassette tapes recorded by Hannah before her suicide details thirteen reasons why she ended her life.

As I mentioned above, the series was not without controversy. It seemed to initiate a united global front from psychology and psychiatric organizations. The outcry centered on the series’ over-simplification of the reasons behind suicide. Much of the focus of “13 Reasons Why” was put on the bullying Hannah had to endure. This reaction is not surprising. After all, the value of their profession is predicated on the assumption that our psychological maladies are rooted internally – and not fixed simply through external adjustments.

In Montana where I live, the state legislature meets for one three-month session every two years. Being heavily conservative, they don’t really do much of anything that involves spending money. They’re big on trying get more guns everywhere, restrict abortion and rid the state all that evil liberal stuff like environmental regulations. But spending money … not so much.

About only thing that both parties could agree on was a mental health and suicide prevention bill. Or at least that’s what they called it. The legislation established that insurance companies that operate in the state must cover mental health on the same level as physical health (welcome to the 21st century). It also dedicated a whole $1 million for local communities, school districts and tribes to develop their own suicide prevention programs. $1 millions doesn’t go far. That’s about one dollar for every person in the state – what a MacDonald’s double cheeseburger on the dollar menu used to cost when there was such a thing.  I suppose we should happy in the Big Sky Country they even did that, since about their only other accomplishment was to add a couple extra judges to deal with all the meth cases that have been piling up.

However well-intended this legislation is, it’s still after-the-fact. Granted, maybe more counseling will help persuade a disenfranchised kid to not take that final step; but anyone who has or has had teenagers knows, probably one of the last places they’re going to go to talk about suicide is to an office that sits down the corner from the principal. The risk of being on the principal’s radar, for whatever the reason, is too much  of a deterrent. School architects don’t think about these things. However, aside from where the counselor sits – too much of the time, the effort is put in is still after-the-fact.

Suicide is an effect of the circumstances thrust upon us by the current society we live in. For the most part it’s a reaction one has to the stresses of their lives, like doing drugs or drinking alcohol – only much more extreme. Granted some methods of coping are a lot more self-destructive than others – they are still all ways to psychologically vent, opening our steam valve. Releasing this pressure is going to have to happen one way or another. The question is how.

I believe how and when this release happens is a function of three components. These act in concert and the result of this interaction can often dictate whether someone lives or dies. Our goal as communities must be to sway these factors in as positive direction as possible.

  • What are the external factors that contribute to the pressures one undergoes in their lives (financial issues, bullying, academic pressures, etc.)?
  • What outlets are available, adolescent or adult, to release this pressure (sports, work, drugs, hobbies, etc.)?
  • How mentally strong is the person (level of self-efficacy) and how much pressure can they take?

It’s easy to simplify the phenomenon of adolescent suicide, as “13 Reason Why” was criticized of – by saying much of its root cause is bullying. Or we can blame parents – whether being over-protective, demanding of even just being indifferent. Or we can blame it on society as a whole by saying it’s just damn unjust and too many of our kids have poverty ridden upbringings (even though poor kids don’t kill themselves any more than rich ones do). Regardless, pinning the blame on external factors, whatever those may be, address only one of the contributing components. Unfortunately, no matter how much we try, there are always going to be reasons why; there’s always going to be monsters under the bed – no matter how well-feathered that bed may be.

Whatever the reasons why, the best way of combating destructive behavior, including suicide, is refocusing energy by providing positive outlets and alternatives. If your life has a purpose, you’re much more likely to spend your time and attention on that purpose rather than on self-annihilation. For example, it’s hard to feel sorry for yourself and drown yourself in a bottle of vodka if you’re too busy helping those less fortunate than you are. In fact volunteering often helps the person doing the volunteering more than the person being helped.

“The mind…can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” ― John Milton

Even after we’ve addressed the reasons why and created positive outlets to focus on, we still don’t live in a Perfect World. The human psyche is vunerable. The monsters will always be there and no matter how much we try to ignore them … they’re still going to find their way into our minds. Or in the words of John Milton; “turn our heaven into hell.” The question ultimately becomes … how do we deal with them when they do. Do we dive into the bottle or the medicine cabinet – or do we shake it off and put the haze of gloom behind us. How much can we, or in the case of “13 Reasons Why” our kids – take. 

Salutogenesis and Self-Efficacy

Salutogenesis is a term coined by Aaron Antonovsky, a former professor of medical sociology in the United States. The term describes a health approach focusing on factors that support human health and well-being, rather than on factors that cause disease (pathogenesis). More specifically, the “salutogenic model” is concerned with the relationship between health, stress, and coping. Antonovsky’s theories reject the “traditional medical-model dichotomy separating health and illness”. He described the relationship as a continuous variable, what he called the “health-ease versus dis-ease continuum.”

In 2008 Scotland, specifically Chief Medical Officer Sir Harry Burns, adopted salutogenesis as national public health policy. Burns helped Scotland conceptualize health improvement differently, being aware that the small gains that resulted from a range of interventions can add up to produce significant overall improvements. Much of these interventions were and are aimed at empowering the populace through engagement with their own health outcomes.

Engagement creates agency and self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is defined as the extent or strength one believes in their own ability to complete tasks and reach goals. The more a person believes their actions will help their situation, the more likely they are to try. When fighting adversity, self-efficacy is your tool chest, or for those in Montana, your ammunition stockpile. It’s your ability to fight the monsters under the bed. One of the most potent defenses we have is engagement. This engagement can be with ourself, through our minds and bodies, or with those around us in our communities and neighborhoods. “Doing” is a prescription for well-being. The more a person does, the more they’re likely to do. And the more they do, the more they feel what they’re doing is helping … creating a cascade of positive results and self-efficacy.

Now back to “13 Reasons Why.” Let’s assume that the story of Hannah was not fiction; what could those thirteen people have done that would have changed the outcome? But even more so, since the reasons why are just one variable, one factor in the suicide equation – should this even be the question we’re asking? Ultimately suicide is still a personal decision. If there’s a complaint I have with the show, it’s that it portrays Hannah too much as the victim; just a pawn of the external circumstance swirling around her, the poor girl at the peril of the “monsters under the bed.”

That being said, external factors can’t ignored. In fact external factors play prominently into all three of the components I’ve referenced above. What could have these thirteen people have done to create a community that was designed around positive engagement opportunities for young people so they their reaction to stress wasn’t addictive substances and self-destruction? What could they have done to nurture their young people so they could weather storms like these – because there will alway be storms in their lives, whether it be today or in the future? These are the questions we should be asking ourselves. We can’t restrict our focus to efforts after-the-fact … after the damage is so severe that whatever hole is plugged today is only going to reappear tomorrow or the next day. 

We have to wake the hell up otherwise our kids are going to kill themselves. It may not be one thing, but the accumulation of things that add up that gives them the feeling of inescapable hopelessness. Engagement refocuses and helps them break free of the downward cascade. It’s a positive release … and with this release comes hope.

Confederate flags
Livingston, Montana High School

The Failing of a Town and Creating Hope in Yours

Last year I wrote about a suicide that occurred in Livingston, Montana – down the road from me here. In The Failing of a Town, seventeen year old Deon Gillen committed suicide after years of being bullied. His plight was no secret though. On numerous occasions his mother brought it up with school administrators. When a Billings Gazette article came out detailing the incident, the public outcry was harsh – so harsh that the high school shut down their Facebook page, attempted to discredit the report and enacted a locked door policy during school hours. Just the time they have should embraced taking responsibility … they circled the wagons. This was not unexpected though.

I wish that was the end of the story however. It wasn’t though. Not even two weeks after Deon’s tragedy, two more people in Livingston (pop. 7000) committed suicide. This time it was two adults and they received barely a footnote in the paper. Not only had Livingston failed its youth, it failed its adults as well. In a separate article, I read that Park County, of which Livingston is the county seat, has the highest suicide rate in the state (in a state that has the highest rate in the country). And this was calculated before the latest rash of incidents. This dubious distinction is no small feat, but probably not one they’ll include in Livingston Chamber of Commerce’s next promo brochure. What the hell type of a place is this that access to engagement and positive outlets to stress release is so limited that the accepted alternative is to kill yourself.

“Leave every person, every place and everything better off from you being there.”

It’s everyone’s responsibility to make their community better for all its residents. We can’t push off this responsibility to only politicians and social workers. And that doesn’t mean just low taxes and more box stores. It’s up to all of us to contribute – not just take and lobby for our own interests. Helping others is not only the right thing to do … in the long run it’s a prudent economic strategy for a community to take. Going around proclaiming how great your town is when people have few opportunities to engage, reach out and be touched is hypocritical and will eventually be self-defeating.

Too much of the time we assume legislation is the only way to fix our societal ills – like here in Montana with the suicide prevention bill. In reality it’s just the easy way out for us adults to say we’re doing something – giving us an excuse to say we’re actually doing something for our kids. Bill Clinton once said “You can’t legislate morality.” No truer words have been said.

For two years I’ve stood on my soapbox and preached the need for us to rebuild the relationships with those around us in our physical neighborhoods. I’ve stressed focusing on our commonalities not our differences. These Middle Ring neighborhood relationships and the actions that come from them are what are going to determine the personality of where we live. It will determine what we do when someone, say one of our children like Dion, is in trouble. It’s how we raise them and whether we teach them to be empathetic and compassionate. It’s whether we view hardened ideology as a virtue or an obstacle. It’s whether NIMBYism is the norm or a condemnable exception. It’s whether we confront someone for bigoted talk and attitudes … or we just let it slide. These are the socially accepted attitudes and norms that determine what we do when it matters most. They determine our communities’ character.

It’s not easy to make the effort to do the right thing – especially if runs contrary to community norms.. It’s easier just to go with flow and expect someone else will take the chance and do it. But normally no one does. Be the one that does. And who knows … maybe someone else will start doing the right thing too.

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Melvin is a customer engagement platform that enables small businesses to combine their loyalty marketing efforts with messaging designed to improve the well-being of their community. This messaging is designed to combat mental, physical and social isolation through community and civic based engagement and volunteer activities. You can find out more about the Melvin Initiative and Community 3.0‘s efforts to improve the human condition at the initiative’s dedicated site here.

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Creating a College / Community Synthesis

America is obsessed with sports. And nowhere is this more evident than with high school sports. Very often 16 and 17 year olds are the masthead of a community’s sense of pride. How goes the local high school football or basketball team … so goes the collective psyche of the community. This is especially the case in “Small Town U.S.A.” These students are revered not unlike that of the gladiators in ancient Rome. Stories of their exploits hold high priority in the morning newspaper and on the 10:00 pm local newscast. In some areas of the country, Texas for example, high school football games can draw over 20,000 rapid fans. In fact the successful television series, Friday Night Lights, was based entirely on this phenomenon.

An unfortunate circumstance of this is that other students, their peers, are for the most part looked at with either irrelevance or outright distrust. “They don’t have any experience, so how can they know anything. And since they don’t know anything, how can’t we trust them. They’re all lazy, spending all their time staring at their phones or playing video games.”

I’m not trying to demonize high school sports and their student participants though. On the contrary, I want to use them as a template for a more inclusive view of how a community should view all its young people. And hopefully we can use this evolved view as the foundation for building sustainable communities of future.

The recruiting efforts of most colleges and universities in America mirror that of the 10:00 pm local news. Their attention is focused on high school sports and specifically on these sports’ top performers. Colleges gear up (literally and figuratively), falling all over each other, to sign four and five-star athletic recruits. The four and five-star recruits in leadership and science, well … they don’t have anyone gearing up for them, waiting in any lines anywhere.

Colleges wait for the rest of the non-athlete prospective students to come to them. They look at grades, or standardized test scores and maybe a recommendation (which are useless) to fill out their student body. But seldom do anything proactive. Why aren’t the student leaders in a high school recruited like athletes. These are our future leaders – the ones who will in turn will be influential alumni and donors. If you don’t recruit them – they’ll go somewhere else and become influential alumni and donors there.

Community 3.0 and Student Civic Engagement

The purpose of my community empowerment project, Community 3.0, is to connect small businesses to their community through volunteer projects. These connections will organize to solve its community’s problems directly by through Front Porch civic gathering hub set up at the businesses. The Front Porch empowers us to reclaim the priorities of our neighborhoods and communities – and do something about them through hands-on volunteer projects. It enables us to organize and take action directly, not wait on the sidelines while traditional institutions and government may or may not act (most likely the latter).

Under this participatory societal model, each business or Front Porch will sponsor Solutions as part of their involvement in the Community 3.0 network. They are designed to help their community pick up the slack and mend the societal safety net. We all know we need as much help as we can get considering our current political situation. These Solutions can range from organizing a cleanup effort, to fixing a playground, to even spearheading a high school mentoring program. And by being a customer of a merchant on the Community 3.0 network, whether young or old, you can get involved with whatever Solution fits your strengths and your desires. 

High school and college student involvement in volunteer activities is integral to anchoring them to the civic functions of their hometowns. For them to stay, they must look at their hometowns as more than just placeholders for a future somewhere else. For a community to truly grow and create a sustainable future, it needs its young to not only stay in town – but become educated and put that knowledge they obtain in college to work helping design their community’s future.

 The collaborative goal of all schools, high school and college – should be to nurture the local communities by replenishing them with educated talent, specifically talent who has a participatory vested interest in them.

Repositioning the Role of Higher Education

How many colleges consider themselves truly part of the community. Or more so – how many consider their role preparing their students to direct the future of the communities they’ve been part of for the last four years while in school? And for that matter, how many care about creating leaders for the communities where these students come from? I’m guessing most don’t care where their students end up – geographically or professionally. It’s a sad state of American higher education … but I’m afraid it’s all too much the case.

It doesn’t have to be like this though. 

Community colleges, the outcast of the higher education system, create a lot more of a community connection than their four-year counterparts. Four-year colleges could learn a lot from them. They don’t have offer the same curriculum, and don’t even have to follow the current needs of the community (though that wouldn’t hurt). They just have to be cognizant of where they are. Why can’t the role of a four-year college or university be to mold future leaders that will create the future of nearby cities and towns. These colleges could be a major influence in these communities direction … rather than just being passive revenue generators and focal points for sports jingoism.

While this would involve a rework of the college’s mission statement – it may be less than you think. As much as anything, it’s making a conscious effort to care where the students end up after graduation. The student transition from college to the real world is haphazard at best – and more often terrifying. Far too many don’t even make use of the degrees they spent four years of their lives and thousands of dollars to obtain. The hope is they will be prepared brave the world – mentally, emotionally and financially. And for most, they’ll have to do alone (if they don’t move back home with their parents). Some manage … and some don’t, mired in school loan debt, prohibiting any chance of creatively finding themselves in the first real unstructured life experience they’ve ever had.

For some reason higher education has chosen to emulate the medical industry (the worst aspects of it). Since follow-up isn’t a paid for service – it seldom happens. In this world of short-term thinking and transition-be-damned, the idea of striving for log-term positive outcomes, even only a year down the road – isn’t even part of the student/college algorithm. Too often the only post-graduation communication an alma mater has with its alumni is a donation request. And some of these requests come even before graduation. Imagine how much more effective it would be reaching out first, no-strings-attached, with an offer of help … especially at one the most difficult times in the life of an alumnus.  Helping them make connection with older alumni who can act as mentors could initiate a life-altering experience … for all of them.

The reason I’m obsessing on this isn’t to just bash the state of high education in America – but to present the academic side with a viable marketing and recruiting solution by emulating the sports analogy I mentioned above.

If we decide to tackle this new mission (and “we” since I want to join you on this journey), we must recognize that the repositioned role of the college is community building by providing and training the talent that will be responsible for its future. The curriculum and education processes a college provides must be a means to an end – not the end in itself. The college is not a destination or end point … but rather a conduit or vehicle for something much larger and more significant – geographically and chronologically.

Central to a higher education focus built around the community is obliquity. Obliquity is defined as, “solutions to complex problems are often best found through indirect means.” While at the helm of General Electric, the iconic CEO Jack Welsh was once asked a question by a reporter what his plans were to increase profit and revenue above its already record-setting quarter. His response took the report aback, “I don’t concern myself with profits or even revenue. My focus at GE is to make sure we are the most innovative company in each of the sectors we operate in.” And for many of them, they were – resulting in these record profits and revenue. This indirect approach to corporate financial management proved highly successful for Welsh and General Electric.

Central to our higher education indirect approach are two tenets:

  • Create future leaders from the raw hometown talent their communities refer to us
  • Assist these same communities by returning educated and well-rounded graduates to lead them in mapping and implementing their civic and economic futures.

The achieve this there would have to be a modest rework of the curriculum. This would take time, and that’s fine. Big ships, especially higher education ones, take a while to turn. But that doesn’t mean milestones can’t be achieved in the short-term and these accomplishments should have community impact. Below are the five stages of transition essential to a college commitment to a student/community focus. While personally I would love to see most colleges commit to the full five … I’m a realist and have built out the program so there can be success with only partial commitment.

Acceptance: The first progression is a simple acknowledgement that college has a responsibility not just to its students, but also to the communities they come from. This interconnected view of the individual (student or other) can often permeate indirectly through the normal actions both of those in the community and the school.

Transition program support: A step up from acceptance is acting on it. This 2nd level recognizes that community programs that were started in the students’ hometowns have merit and should be continued even while being away from home. Ways to support this is nurturing the continuance of communication between the mentoring parties at home (even if home is in the same city as the college) and the student. Dialogue during college counseling should also include discussion of the students plans after college graduation and how they fit into any current work being done with parties “back home.”

Transition programs augmentation: The 3rd level takes the support a step further by integrating issues with Solutions to these issues into existing classwork. College resources should be opened up to non-credited community project work. Colleges can even sponsor entrepreneurial or cause-based contests to further develop opportunities focused on community engagement.

Authorized independent credit: Level 4 expounds upon “Transition program augmentation” by authorizing independent credit for community-based research and project development, both in the school’s community and back home. The goal here is to spur dedicated “credit-compensated” projects that can take hold when the student returns home or even stays in the town the college is located. This is the “taking root” level – connecting the student to the community aside from just attending classes. It’s also crucial to have professorial and staff support and participation during this level.

Community-oriented class creation: Level 5 is the actual creation of a community-oriented curriculum. Classes could focus on disciplines that revolve around developing community-based sustainability efforts, placemaking, civic planning, entrepreneurship, nonprofit organization or any other related study. A further development of this commitment level is structuring a concentration or even major that would feed into a similar set of goals.

While the focus of this piece has been on recruiting new students, that’s only one of the benefits. The college that has refocused its mission around the community will more likely retain the students they attract. Once a student enrolls in the college, they are in fact joining the community. And the stronger that bond is, and not just with the school, the higher the likelihood they will stay in school. A simple 10% gain in retention is the same as attracting 10% more students. And anyone with any business and marketing experience knows – it’s a lot easier to keep customers (and yes students are customers) than to get new ones. Studies often site statistics that say it’s seven times more expensive (money and resources) to get new customers than hang on to the old ones.

And if attracting new students and retaining current ones isn’t enough, a student/community focus can produce other financial benefits also. Probably the strongest indicator of alumni financial support is the depth of the integration a college has with its community. Now some support can come from out-of-town, the bulk of the donations will come from alumni who still lives in, or have moved back to their college hometown. Get involved with the community and the community will get involved with you.

Guerrilla Marketing and Building the Referral Network

Now once the commitment is made, however deep that commitment level may be, it’s time to structure marketing and recruitment efforts accordingly. The program and the communication around it, should revolve around two main questions:

  • How will your college help the students
  • How will it help the community (either the college hometown and/or the student’s)

In a Perfect World you want a situation where a community’s leaders pitch together to persuade and support a top student to go to your college with the goal to get them back to their town after graduation. There has to be strong commitment from the community here. It’s something that your college should take an active role in establishing. This is the holy grail.

Target communities of a population 2000 or more. Don’t get hung up on state boundaries. This is especially important if your area has a regional attraction, such as ski resort or national park. If a community has multiple high schools, target each as a separate community. These will be your adjunct communities – communities where the college has a vested interest in their success since it will be molding their future talent. Ideally the town and community leaders have identified as the students they want to become educated and return to insure their town’s prosperity. Don’t take this responsibility lightly. This is the thing that’s “much larger” I mentioned above.

The stronger the contacts you have in the communities you’re recruiting from (adjunct communities), the stronger the talent who will be referred to you. Not only will top talent be uncovered (often ones that haven’t excelled in traditional ways), the higher the likelihood your school will have in landing these future stars.

Your prime referral sources of course would be alumni, but that might not always be possible. Other excellent sources are civic leaders, not just politicians, but business owners that have long-standing ties to the community and a vested interest in making sure the community prospers. School contacts are also good sources, but don’t fall into the trap of only enlisting the help of administrators. They often only focus on high-achievers from a traditional academic sense. Outliers with great potential might be over-looked. Instead, ferret out a teacher who has shown an ability to excel and inspire in unconventional ways (i.e a science teachers who creates community-driven experiments).

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of building strong community networks in these small towns. Very often their students are overlooked, except for athletics. And even then, only in a very limited sense. When asked to help – most people will, especially if they see the benefit to them and their town. It’s not far-fetched to imagine a town setting up a dedicated scholarship fund if they know the student recipient will return after graduation. In fact that’s something that can even be suggested.

Personally, even though I was student body president of a large high school, had a 3.9 GPA and earned multiple athletic letters (wasn’t a star though) – no one came knocking at my door. If a college would have shown they wanted me … I probably would have gone there. Don’t underestimate the power of “feeling wanted” to a high school student. You combine that recognition and a referral from a city leader (probably one the student looked up to) as well as the college reaching out … you have a strong chance of getting whoever you want to enroll. This is the greatest recruiting tool a college has.

Making a True Impact

All this isn’t going to be easy and it’s labor incentive. It’s not really expensive, but there needs to be people doing the ground work. No magic television ad campaign is going to be a substitute the grassroots effort I describe above. But effort will not only work, it’ll sustain itself once the network is put together. Far-flung communities will keep feeding the pipeline and family legacies at your school will be established.

Ostrich

But even more than developing a successful network and recruiting more students, your school will make a true impact. And you’ll be able to see first hand how it’s working. The college will not be the end point – but the vehicle. Rather than just blindly continuing on, doing things the same way and teaching the same material, you’ll be able to get direct feedback and adjust accordingly. We live in an incredible world where change is constant and feedback is mandatory to survive, let alone excel. Too many colleges and universities are seeing declines in enrollment and retention rates. Most have no idea why or who to blame it on. Demographic shifts are an all too common scapegoat, correct or not. Few recognize the problem is them and their inability to stay relevant – especially after a student’s graduation. They want to keep their heads in the sand and continue to think their responsibility ends with the graduate walking off the commencement stage.

The question is whether you’re ready to evolve … of feel comfortable being an ostrich. 

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Rhizomes and Front Porches: “A Cure for Societal Dysfunction”

“Small opportunities are often the beginning of great enterprises.” Demosthenes

In my last post, “Recognizing the Problem,” I vented my frustration, dismay and utter anger over the current political situation in the United States. But if I lived somewhere else, such as Great Britain, I’m sure my response would be similar. Regardless of the geography – it seems few governments can be considered worthy of the populace they supposedly represent.

Most can agree, the presence of Donald Trump and his circus put in a position of national power represents something malignant. But is he the cause or the symptom of the cancer? It’s probably safe to say it’s both – but I believe the latter holds greater weight. Our economic, physical and psychological dependence on government or some other sort of greater force to look over us has all but made us prey to any charlatan or clown, regardless the party, persuasion or power. Our current situation firmly underscores this fact. 

In several previous pieces, I have attempted to make the case for a societal effort to boost our collective self-efficacy.  In other words, we need to do a better job taking care of ourselves. And a “better job” should mean more than just us as individuals – but also our neighborhoods and communities.

Our government has proven to not only not be up to the task … they’ve morphed into a big part of the problem. But fortunately, the model for an alternative, one that emphasizes “we the people” not a self-serving hierarchy, may lie only as far away as our back yard.

Rhizomes and Decentralized Civic Engagement

Biologists say trees are social beings. They can count learn and remember. They nurse sick members, warn each other of dangers by sending electrical signals across a fungal network and for reasons unknown, keep the ancient stumps of long felled companions alive for centuries by feeding them a sugar solution through roots. (Marije van Zomeren)

To find a model for organizational structure built around resource maximization and decentralized civic participation and collaboration, we need to look no further than our backyard – in nature. One of nature’s most effective means of sustainability is the Rhizome. The Rhizome is a modified subterranean stem of a plant that is usually found underground, often sending out roots and shoots from its nodes. Rhizomes develop from axillary buds and grow perpendicular to the force of gravity. The Rhizome also retains the ability to allow new shoots to grow upwards. If a Rhizome is separated into pieces, each piece may be able to give rise to a new plant … and a new node of above ground activity.

rhizome
Credit: Debi Keyte-Hartland

“A rhizome ceaselessly establishes connections between semiotic chains, organizations of power, and circumstances relative to the arts, sciences, and social struggles … the rhizome connects any point to any other point, and its traits are not necessarily linked to traits of the same nature; it brings into play very different regimes of signs, and even non-sign states … The rhizome operates by variation, expansion, conquest, capture, offshoots.” A rhizome has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo. (A Thousand Plateaus)

This phenomena of decentralized activity in Rhizomes was best articulated in the philosophy or Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in the ’60s. Rather than using the organizational structure of the root-tree system which charts causality along chronological lines and looks for the single origin of “things” and looks towards conclusion of those “things;” a Rhizome continually establishes connections between threads of meaningful communication, organizations of power, and other influences (including arts, sciences, and social struggles). The planar movement of the Rhizome resists chronology and formal organization, instead favoring a Nomadic system of growth and proliferation. In this model, influence and application spreads like the surface of a body of water, spreading towards available spaces or in the application of community – maximizing the resources available to it, regardless of the type. This is a perfect alternative to the governmental morass of dysfunction we’re current immersed in.

First we must build the vehicle. This vehicle is not a place or even a thing, but the collective journey of our community. It’s about movement. This journey happens on a metaphoric road or as Deleuze and Guattari call it, the Smooth Space.

  • The platform or naked infrastructure on which the community and in turn the array of “need and opportunity based activities” operate is called the Smooth Space. This platform is not formally defined, but rather takes the form of the influences that inhabit it. These influences can include meaningful communication, existing organizations (government and other) as well as social norms, ideals and community expectations. In the context of my model, Community 3.0, the Smooth Space is largely your community’s small business network or Front Porchesthe members of the community who are their customers, and the societal norms they create. What a community does and creates with its Smooth Space will determine the well-being of its populace. It is the duty of the Rhizome structure and its Smooth Space to accommodate and nurture the intangible, serendipitous, sensual and tactical engagements of all the members of its community (i.e. empathy, creativity, collaboration and self-actualization).

The vehicle is just a shell. Who we allow in and what we put in it is really what matters. Any shell can house extraordinary activity … or none at all. Those included must not be limited by the title and organization on their business card – but rather be a diverse array able move freely like a Nomad traveling where the food and opportunities lie.

  • Nomadism is a way of life that exists outside of the traditional organizational or societal norm (at least in modern times). The Nomad is a way of being in the middle or between points. It is characterized by movement and change, and is unfettered by systems of organization. The goal of the Nomad is only to continue to move within the “intermezzo.” (the journey rather than the destination). This constant state activity prevents itself from existing for the sake of existing as conventional organizations and institutions most often do. The goal is to make things happen, to find opportunities and solutions; not just to “be.” This Nomadic behavior also lends itself to the individual focusing on what interests them and where they can contribute the most, rather than just working within the constraints of a pre-defined, often inefficient role or job. In short, being a Nomad can greatly enhance ones sense of engagement and well-being. Or according to the Danish philosopher Søren Kiekegaard, be the evolved man.”

Once we have the vehicle and the people … we need the fuel. The fuel is the processes, the sociological assistance and prodding needed to propel the vehicle down the road. It’s not so much a thing, but the result of a community’s past behavior and the systems put in place to modify or continue on in the future. Deleuze and Guattari called this formless set of influences the Body Without Organs.

  • Body Without Organs is what happens. It is the result of what the Rhizome social philosophy using the Nomadic actions of its components operating on the Smooth Space. In itself the Body Without Organs has no form until the variables of the community are injected into it. The community’s personality and overall state of well-being are the result of the interactions between its populace and businesses; it is its Body Without Organs. It can take a conservative form or a progressive one. NIMBYism and gated communities or collaborative and communal. Closed and silos or tolerant and welcoming. Wall Street or Main Street. This is the community’s personality. But rather than the personality being dictated by those in the high rungs of a traditionally mandated hierarchy – it will come to form through the participation of those who live there … those on the streets, no matter their social stature. How the community directly responds to its needs and opportunities will be what it is.

Front Porches

At the foundation of this evolved, altrusitically-based society are its Front Porches – physical hubs of civic gathering and serendipitous engagement. The goal is to take the principles of resource maximization and provide the conduit to incorporate them with the naturalistic examples of the Rhizome organization articulated by Deleuze and Guattari. This result is a platform or space for community engagement and sustainability built around informal but operationally significant gatherings, otherwise know as Front Porches. While these Front Porches can form anywhere, say even in your garage, the ideal locations will be in the locally owned businesses of our communities.

Rather than myopically obsess on economic growth as almost all civic governments do, a Front Porch network will focus on destroying the silos that retard our evolution while improving physical, cerebral (avenues to self-actualization) and spiritual health.

People will gravitate towards what they want to do … and in turn do what they do best. This lifestyle of self-management of interests and activities will not only benefit them, but also their community. Lives based on economic status will be replaced by those of self-actualization and self-efficacy. Civic participation and altruism will elevate them and empower them to evolve as humans.

It will be the priority of these Front Porches to create environments in our communities that nurture hope by empowering avenues for us to engage with our world and express our creativity through a Solutionist mindset – letting the inherent benevolence inside us bloom. By making “helping others” our societal norm and expectation … we will supplant that of the hopeless climb up the ladder of our current economic caste system.

Melvin and Sel-Efficacy

Amazon’s digital personal assistant is called Alexa. To say it’s been a runaway success is an understatement. Originally created to help you buy more Amazon products easier – if that was even possible, Alexa has turned into a repository of over 10,000 possible lifestyle automation uses and applications. It controls the heat in your home, it gives you a word definition and provides recipes for the finicky guests at your next dinner party – all by talking to you. And everyday its applications only multiply.

Melvin posterize 3

Imagine if you had an Alexa for personal and social engagement. Imagine if you had a virtual assistant that gathered possible ways you could engage with your body, your mind and socially with your community. And imagine if these were sorted, prioritized and forwarded to you to motivate you in positive ways. These communications could be based on advice from your doctor, your relationships with your neighborhood small businesses or even alerting you of volunteer opportunities. Your notifications, whether they be via text or email, would be your conduit to engaging with the environment in and around you. And at the center of all this positive prodding and empowerment is your community’s Front Porch network – all this designed to enhance your level of self-efficacy.

I call this Alexa for community-driven personal engagement, Melvin. For a full discussion on the power of engagement how it affects our health and well-being and how a non-assuming bot named Melvin can be the conduit to your community’s transformation, please check out its website, “Navigating the Road to Your PERFECT WORLD.”

Well-being, Hope … and Changing Your Mind

What if we designed our communities around the idea of maximizing engagement. The more engaged our residents are … the more empowered they would be. They would feel more in control of their health and their futures. Imagine if a chance to engage, whether it was physical, mental or social was just around the corner. And what if opportunities to help others realize the same were part of the fabric our daily lives. What if our physical security and well-being was not dependent on government assistance or the whims of a fickle market driven economy. What if our neighborhood was our safety net, a safety net that knew best in our time of need. And what if the streets of our community became melting pots of serendipity – places where curiosity was bred and benevolence was the norm.

What if engagement, well-being and self-efficacy was how a community measured itself, not obtuse economic activity often distorted through the one-dimensional filter of irrelevant statistics. What if we fixated on what we “could” and “will,” rather than what we “can’t” or “won’t.” And what if getting up in the morning was a chance to nurture our hope … and engage with others to help them do the same.

Your community, where you physically live, will turn into one of problem solving where everything and everyone is a resource. Your community will be revitalized. New businesses will be created. Not those derived from Wall Street chains and franchises, but ones of ideas born in your community and run by people from your community. These will be the businesses that provide the genesis for the future to build on by turning into Front Porches – ensuring your legacy and prosperity.

ChangeYourMind.jpg

It’s obvious the human species must evolve. But to do this, we will have to change our thinking. Instead of relying on past expectations, cultural assumptions and metrics as our guides — we have to envision what could be, not just what always has been.

But the vision is only part of the journey. We have to look past how things in past have been done. No longer should government and traditional institutions be looked at as the first line defense … rather should be looked at only as a last resort. Our reaction should be to assemble our friends and neighbors at our local Front Porch, organize and do what has to be done — developing self-efficacy along the way.

We can make the change we need — but it won’t be by thinking the way we’ve always thought and doing what we’ve always done — the way it’s always been done.

“If not us … then who? If not now … then when?”

If you’re interested in moving on from the status quo that will inevitably take anyone and anything down with it … please check out Community 3.0, my vision of an evolved society where self-efficacy and the well-being is priority. Or even better email me, at clayforsberg@gmail.com and we can set up time to have a conversation.

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Life during Trump, Part 1: “Recognizing the Problem”

“The mind…can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” ― John Milton

It’s hard for people to empathize with you when you’re going through chemo. I’m not looking for sympathy and I’m not saying people don’t try. It’s just one of those tough subjects. There’s always that specter of death that hangs over the conversation. This possible prognosis, correct or not –  supersedes any discussion of “how you’re doing.”

It’s hard to explain that things just change. And it’s more than just physically. The nausea gets all the attention, But that’s never been an issue with me. It’s a lot more than that. My senses has changed. I don’t smell, or hear, or taste or see like I used. Whether or not they’ll come back  remains to be seen. After my first “rodeo” my senses recovered some, but not entirely. And I’m sure with this latest group of treatments (I hate that term) this sensory wet blanket that I’m dragging around will probably be my new companion for the foreseeable future. Linus has nothing on me.

Mainly what people can’t understand is the mental changes that occur. I guessing it’s not unlike what PTSD sufferers deal with. Around every corner, there’s a trigger that can set off a memory that’ll send you into reactionary tailspin. In a wonderful book by Debbie Hampton, she re-accounts her recover from a suicide attempt where she injected over 90 pills. She literally fried her brain. It was so damaged she had to relearn how to live and with that her impulse control was severely impacted. Because of her frequent outbursts, her friends and family such had hard time dealing with it many just stayed away – including her mother. She had to rebuild her life mentally and physically, block by block, encumbered by this new uninhibited broken brain as its foundation.

By no means am I dealing with anything like what Debbie did, or probably still is. But I do get the brain change thing as my patience and tolerance level has been affected … big time. My world has triggers everywhere now. Most of time we go through life and just let irritating things pass us by without much notice – at least not letting it affect us. Such is not the case with me since chemo has fried my brain. I like to describe it like an archipelago. During normal tide, only a few of the islands are visible. But now I’m in a constant state of low tide. Everything is visible and everything affects me.

All this being said … it bring us to the insane asylum on the east coast, better know as Washington D.C. What’s happening in our political wasteland is having a big effect on me right now – culminating with the latest antics of the Republican Congress and the clown boy in the White House. For many the healthcare legislation ramrodded through the House by Paul Ryan is nothing short of a bus hitting us. I try to get my head around all of it and inject some reason into their decision making process – but I can’t. The group think that has reared its grotesque head is a modern-day tulip mania of Sherman’s March to the Sea (how’s that for a mixed metaphor). The insane mindset that has taken over this party is completely void of any compassion, empathy or even basic humanity. The days of Bob Dole and even Ronald Reagan are long dead. The zombie that has taken its place bares little resemblance.

Unfortunately I can’t just turn off the television, quit looking at my Twitter stream or let my newspapers pile up on the front porch and wait for it to all go away. I’m front and center on the preexisting condition issue. If all this comes to fruition (as in the poison fruit), I’ll be at the mercy of my greedy insurance company. Combine this with the crazy state my brain is in right now, and I’m spending time figuring how to stockpile and freeze chemo drugs from my current treatment sessions while I’m still covered – to be used if I need them in the future, if (more probable when) my insurance company drops me or prices me out of the market. Welcome to life in Montana, land of cowboys, guns and extremely limited healthcare options. I have to constantly remind myself of the John Milton quote, “The mind can make heaven of hell or hell of heaven,” to keep from digressing into obsession.

The man on the white horse, the man in the white hat … well, neither one of them are coming.

Running of Trump’s Lemmings

Regardless of my personal situation or more accurately, my perception of it … we can’t dismiss reality. If the picture couldn’t get any clearer – looking to these clowns in political zuit suits for the answer is pure insanity. Even someone with chemo brain can tell you that. Yet Trump supporters still support him and Republicans are, and probably will always be Republicans.

But not to be left out of the delusion soiree, Democrats still think that if they put someone of theirs in the White House, the federal government will magically become a bastion of implementation prowess. Regardless of who sits in the Oval Office – our country’s, and more importantly our individual problems will not be fixed.

Last Thursday night, I had very disheartening conversation with my daughter. Now Alex is a bright young woman in the midst of a very successful career with tours of duty at Apple and Amazon. She is grounded and informed, but her logical mind is having a very hard time understanding how this country, one that she has always felt even in times of craziness – will do the right thing. But after Thursday, those assumptions have been shattered. For her it was like realizing there’s no Santa Claus. With the this healthcare legislation, the Republicans have not just targeted the “outsiders” – but rather the very people who worship them and put them in power. The level betray is unprecedented. At least Hitler didn’t kill the Germans he viewed (in his demented mind) to be his true countrymen.

It’s safe to say “we the people” are on our own. We can only hope we have enough resolve individually and collectively to fend off the daily assaults waged on us by those we’ve entrusted to look after our interests. May today be the day we take our institutional naivete′ and bury it with the illusions of Santa Claus and the blanket we slept with when we were two years old.

Since Trump has taken the reigns as leader of the free world (theres’s so much wrong using those words together in one sentence), the mental health industry has seen a dramatic rise is suicide calls and psychiatric activity. Bluntly speaking, people are depressed. Normally optimistic people are seeing their world view might have been based on flawed assumptions.

Personally I’m not ready to throw in the towel on humanity. I’m still an ardent believer in David Hume’s philosophical premise that people are intrinsically good – not that of Thomas Hobbes and the need for a Leviathan overlord. I believe we just need to reset our social and civic perspective. No white anything, hat nor horse, is going to pay our house payment or make us healthy. That is up to us. The sooner we admit to this, like the alcoholic or the ten a hydrocodone a day housewife – the sooner we can get onto fixing what needs to be fixed.

Self-Efficacy and the Road to Recovery

In the past I’ve been accused of assuming people have too much control over their own destinies. Upbringing, environment, genetics or even belief in a higher being I’m often told are the determining factors – no matter what their own efforts. If you’re not white, probably male and connected – the deck is stacked against you. Getting dealt a “bad hand” is grounds for government intervention and assistance. Most recently, the in vogue means of this assistance is basic income – getting paid for basically existing and being a member of society. I’m all for the betterment of all people. Anyone who knows me or has read any of my 200+ posts on this blog will attest to that. In fact, that’s probably the one common tenet that runs through the entire site. That being said, I can’t believe a reward with no incentive to accomplish anything is the best way to achieve it.

Shouldn’t the road to our Perfect World be paved with the something that will produce a longer-lasting effect than just a monthly sustenance? Shouldn’t we base our societal actions around the assumption if we better ourselves good things will come for both us and those around us? It’s the “giving a man a fish vs. teaching him how to fish” thing in the Bible. And I don’t believe this is even a political issue anymore. Regardless of your ideological affiliation, relying on the government (or any other institution for that matter) to actually deliver is naive at best.

Shouldn’t we strive to create communities and social constructs that move us in a direction that empowers people? Shouldn’t we be teaching people how to fish – working with them to obtain the physical, mental and social tools they’ll need to not just persist, but flourish on a long-term basis? At the core of this empowerment is building a communal sense of self-efficacy.

Self-efficacy is defined as the extent or strength one believes in their own ability to complete tasks and reach goals. The more a person believes their actions will help their situation, the more likely they are to try. The key is to “get the ball rolling” by nudging activity and engagement – personally, socially and civically. The more a person does, the more they’re likely to do. And the more they do, the more they feel what they’re doing is helping … creating a cascade of positive results and well-being.

In America there is little effort put into getting people to engage directly with their health and personal well-being on the part of the established healthcare industry. Maybe providers are reluctant to relinquish control. Maybe it’s they just can’t be bothered. Regardless, the country lives by a healthcare methodology of reaction and “fixing things” … not proaction and “maintaining things.” It’s no big stretch to believe that transferring some of the responsibility for our own health to the ourselves will prove beneficial to us. And it’s not just focusing on the physical that creates impact. Developing one’s mental acuity is not unlike getting into physical shape. Having a stronger mind is the key to having better resolve and making better decisions in the first place. And schools should not have exclusive rights to that. Opportunities to learn and strengthen our minds are all around us all the time. We need to engage with our surroundings (people, places and things) to take realize the benefit though.

We can’t leave out the social component of well-being either. Using altruism and benevolence as a cornerstone by doing good things for others takes your mind off of your own ailments and gives you purpose. And even if you can’t actively participate in hands-on volunteer projects, you can at least feel you part of the solution by experiencing the joy of giving vicariously through passive attendance and moral support.

What we need is not a society where we look to institutions for the answers – whether it be the government, the healthcare industry or any other. We spend all our time and energy arguing over which institution and which version or it is best for us. And even if we agree, we never even discuss whether our interests are best served by any institution. The thought of responsibility and by association, self-efficacy, is too often mis-interrepted and dismissed as heartless libertarianism. While the personal responsibility calling can go a bit far … so can and has the leviathan of the institutional overlord. 

We need to resist the extremes. Full-on libertarianism isn’t the answer anymore than being beholden to the keeper of the keys of the Ivory Tower. We need to decentralize and deconstruct our current support structure but yet be vulnerable enough to depend on our neighbors and communities. We need to reach out and grab those close to us where we live and help … and allow ourselves to be helped. To do that, we need to engage. And the perfect model for this type of engagement may be only as far as our backyards.

Part 2 will take us into the “life of plants” and how patterning our lives around a model of engagement designed after a rhizome root structure found in our backyards might be the solution to the personal, civic and political malaise we’re presently immersed in. Out on May 16.

If you’re interested in moving on from the status quo that will inevitably take anyone and anything down with it … please check out Community 3.0, my vision of an evolved society where self-efficacy and the well-being of the populace is priority. Or even better email me, at clayforsberg@gmail.com and we can set up time to have a conversation.

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