Well it’s almost the beginning of another year; this one being 2019. And with it comes a resurgence of optimism taking form in our annual resolutions (all things considered). We all want to believe that this year will be the one when all the promises we make to ourselves to lose weight, save money, stop smoking, or whatever – will last longer than just the end of January. Who knows, maybe you will be one of the few where they do. Or maybe you’re one of those cynically realistic ones who believes the whole resolution exercise is pointless. In the past I kind of fell somewhere in the middle. But I still can’t let go of this optimism thing.
Being 2019 – we just got over the midterm elections from two months ago. And already we’re hearing about the plethora of candidates jockeying for position for the 2020 presidential election. It’s all about the horse race (i.e. the election) … and very little about the governing that will follow. Personally, the logistics of governance is far more interesting to me than the popularity contest of the election. Most specifically, I’m intrigued by the role of the ‘gatekeeper’ otherwise known as the Chief of Staff.
According to Wikipedia, a ‘Chief of Staff’ provides a buffer between a chief executive and that executive’s direct-reporting team (among others). The chief of staff generally works behind the scenes to solve problems, mediate disputes, and deal with issues before they are brought to the chief executive. Often a Chief of Staff acts as a confidante and advisor to the chief executive, acting as a sounding board for ideas.
Don’t we all have an internal Chief of Staff; the part of us that determines what we’re going think about, what we’re going do and how we prioritize?
Reigning in the Lilliputians
Metaphorically speaking, our minds are kind of like Gulliver of the famous English work of satire by Jonathan Swift . Every minute of every day we are pushed, pulled and tied down by our own Lilliputians. These mental intruders can be our family, our friends, our co-workers, social media or even the cable news we see on television. They are making us afraid of things we shouldn’t be afraid of. They make us preoccupied with our To Do lists – lists that often are prioritized with tasks that are more habits than anything else. “We have to check our Facebook and Twitter feeds first everyday rather than write a letter, play with the kids or just relax and clear our minds.”
These Lilliputians that dictate our thoughts and actions are really no different from what the President deals with daily. He is bombarded by his staff, members of Congress and lobbyists … all with their own personal agendas and priorities. These priorities often have little to do with those of the President. If he (or she) had their way, they’d probably spend their time thinking – pondering the big picture … hopefully trying to make the world a better place (again my naive optimism showing).
It’s the job of the Chief of Staff to determine who occupies the President’s attention, and in turn his agenda and priorities. Imagine if there was no Chief of Staff though. It would be endless barrage of “squeaky wheels” … with no WD40 anywhere in sight.
But how does your personal ‘Chief’ interact with these intrusions? Is your Chief of the “in your face” mode of Rahm Emanuel, from the first Obama term, or more of the “in the background” demeanor of Obama’s second term Chief of Staff (who was so much in the background, I don’t even remember who he was). You probably don’t want to be hostile to your kids for wanting a ride to the mall (that’s so ’80s); but conversely, you don’t want to be so passive to let every mundane intrusion run your life.
First you need to communicate with your Chief or Staff about your priorities and the methods required to accomplish them. A changing of the process can often be the most important component your journey. Make sure your ‘gatekeeper’ knows the things that excite and energize you … the things that allow you to be who you want to be – not just tasks on a To Do list. Don’t let other’s representation of the world and what they think should be important dictate yours. Yes media, I’m talking to you and all your scare-mongering terrorism hysteria. It’s hard to concentrate on ‘good things’ and on helping the world when you’re scared of anyone not like you because underneath you think they’re nothing but a terrorist or some other “trumped-up” threat promulgated by the media (most often for their own financial benefit) and worse yet, the current administration.
Is your Chief of Staff a holdover from past administrations such as your parents or even your grandparents. Societal expectations such as the white picket fence, the virtue of a college degree (and the erroneous assumption it’s a guarantee of financial and social success) are little more than distorted memories seen through rose-colored glasses of those generations past. Society is changing at breakneck speeds and that requires a realist view of the world today and your potential role in it. Your Chief of Staff, the priorities you dictate and the processes to achieve them must reflect that.
If you’re one of those who still believes in resolutions – your resolutions can’t operate in a vacuum. It’s like addiction recovery. Just ‘stopping’ doesn’t work. A wholesale change needs to happen within the addict’s ecosystem. Going back to the same environment, with the same acquaintances (I hesitate to call them friends) and performing the same daily routine will lead nowhere but the road to relapse. First the addict has to not only change the priorities of their Chief of Staff, but give them the boot and start new. While your situation starting out 2019 may not be as drastic as this … your world may still require a changing of the guard to accomplish the goals you’ve set for the new year.
Who you select for your own internal Chief of Staff, and how they act, is up to you. Remember you are the President of Yourself (and let’s hope you’re not using Trump to emulate) … and your mind is your White House. And maybe it’s time to shake things up.
“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference. Because of indifference, one dies before one actually dies.” – Elie Wiesel
Seven years ago I moved from Los Angeles to Billings, Montana to help take care of my aging parents. Billings is a city of a little over 100,000, the largest in Montana. It’s nondescript. It prides itself on being a cowboy town, but it’s more about chain stores than anything. I grew up in North Dakota: while it’s a little different, I still knew what to expect from a rural environment. Aside from my caregiving responsibilities, my goal was to launch my Community 3.0 small business engagement platform in Billings and then scale it beyond from there.
During my tenure here I met civic and business leaders and heads of education. I even offered to assist on political campaigns. In summary, I networked. Now over my lifetime I’ve been involved in a wide variety of entrepreneurial projects, some successful and some not. But for the most part, I was given the opportunity to try. Billings though was different. It’s not that people were unfriendly. That wasn’t it. It was they were guarded; not really interested or willing in letting me into their world.
Following my various meetings I’ve had in Billings (formal and otherwise), I performed my normal routine; sent a social media request (LinkedIn normally, since virtually none were on Twitter), and an email recapping our conversation and suggestions going forward. And then I waited … but nothing. Time and time again – no response. No acknowledgement. Nothing. The level of universal indifference was astounding. And it didn’t matter who it was or what the topic of the meeting was. It was like I wasn’t given permission to even participate in their little town. “You stay over there and we’ll stay over here. Thank you very much.”
Later on I found it wasn’t just me either. I had an opportunity to spend a semester teaching a class with the president of the local liberal art college in Billings. He confirmed my experiences. “People just don’t respond in Billings.” This is the president of a college saying that. And talking with my students, I heard the same from them. This was a senior level leadership class and these were some of the best future prospects in the area. They all echoed the same sentiment: “No one listens to us here.” And because of it – none of them had any desire to stay in Billings after they graduated. As with me … they hadn’t been given permission either. It’s like we all had been relegated to the folding card table your grandparents set up in the living room for the grandkids during the annual Thanksgiving dinner. The adults sat in the dining room and you and your cousins … not so much.
I’d never been in situation like this since … well, not since the grandparents’ house in Alamo, North Dakota when I was twelve years old. Even when I was in college, promoting concerts (e.g. Alice Cooper, Rush, Yanni, Cheap Trick, Bob Hope, etc.) was I never not given permission to participate with the “big boys.” Even though I was half the age of the promoters I competed for concert dates against – I was still taken seriously. The same was true in Minnesota after school when I published commercial art directories or started a check recovery service. But here, the scarlet letter of an outsider was indelibly stamped on my forehead.
The badge of honor here in much of Montana (and apparently here in my part of it) is how many generations your lineage goes back. This was especially evident during the onslaught of political propaganda on the airwaves during the last election. “How can he know what’s good for Montana if he’s only been here twenty years.” Geographic cross-pollination is to be avoided at all costs. “Stay over there at the card table and watch so Joey doesn’t stick peas in his nose.”
A couple of weeks ago I was on the phone with my daughter, Alexandria, in Los Angeles. Even though she complains about Southern California (mainly after driving home an hour from work), she said she would find it hard to move away. “You can do anything here. You can start any type of business or project and no one is going to say you can’t do it because most everyone is doing the same thing – trying things.” Los Angeles is the land of permission. You may not succeed or realize your dreams, but people sure as hell aren’t going to tell you don’t have permission to try. Permission is implied. You don’t have to be told you have it – you just do. In Billings, you don’t have to be told you don’t have it … you just don’t. Either you’re in or you’re not. And regardless of how you’re trying to get noticed, or how persuasive you may be … the blanket of indifference is difficult to shed.
What is permission? Most believe in United States, permission is a given. After all, this is the land of the free, free to pursue your dreams. Human beings are social creatures. We don’t live in a vacuum. Unless you tend sheep six months a year far removed from civilization, your life is intermingled with that of many other people. How these other people interact with you affects you and what you perceive you have permission to do.
Communities often say they’re inviting and inclusive. People say hello – sometimes: they hold the door open – occasionally: but much of the time this guise is little more than an exercise in being polite. In Billings, they say they don’t discriminate towards gays, but they refuse to pass an anti-discrimination ordinance. They say they don’t need to since they don’t discriminate. You have to love the circular logic.
But what Billings is really saying is that we’re not giving you permission to be part of “our” community; because even though we’re not going to say it to your face – you’re not really one of us. “You stay over there and we’re just fine over here.” We’ll be polite if we encounter you in the street. But aside from that – you’re over there and we’re over here. Thank you very much.
As expected just last week, the Billings City Council (and the mayor) filled an open council seat with a long-term male member of the Billings power structure – instead of opting for a highly regarded young woman from the healthcare industry who has done extraordinary things in her young career.
This community behavior can also be very limiting to young people and how they view their future prospects. All too often certain professions reign supreme, for no other reason than they always have. I get that in a company town where a single industry dominates, say mining or manufacturing. Much of the time few other opportunities exist staying locally. That said, why is staying in town the only option? Young people are curious and there’s little worse than extinguishing that curiosity by imposing a geographically cautious worldview more applicable for their parents, or even yet their grandparents. This implied indifference to their out-of-ordinary career choices can be debilitating.
Inclusion is more than just being inviting. Maybe more important, it’s letting go of past societal norms and not being indifferent to the dreams and aspirations of outliers. The operative word is “indifferent.” If someone disagrees or takes issue with you, you know where you stand. You have a point of reference. You can retrench and either come back; or you can retreat, venturing out elsewhere. But indifference is something else. It’s saying you don’t warrant an acknowledgment of “being.” Meeting someone and discussing a mutually beneficial opportunity, following up … then hearing nothing back: and then after running into them in the street and hearing, “Sorry I’ve gotten back to you, I’m not very good at getting back to people,” is completely unacceptable. They might as well say, “I suck at being a human being.” Unfortunately this type of behavior isn’t just individually isolated. It’s a character trait that can spread throughout the community … like a virus. People just don’t engage because … well, they just don’t think that’s what’s expected since maybe in the past (during their formative years) no one engaged with them either. Indifference has been bred into the community DNA. Engagement hasn’t. And without engagement, you can’t give permission. And without permission your community will repel the newcomers it desperately needs to stay relevant.
The Unease of Diversity
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
Cross-pollination; whether its gender, sexual-preference, ethnic, racial, age-based or geographic – must be a community’s priority. A community is a product of its residents. Social inbreeding creates weak species and weak communities; vulnerable to adversaries, internally and externally. Inbred societies rely on decision-making founded from a narrow geographic and historical perspective – severely limiting their options of response to challenges and opportunities.
But truly being inclusive is a lot more than many people can deal with. Ethnic and racial differences get most of the press, and rightly so. This nation has a long way to go in achieving any semblance of true tolerance. Decades of institutional prejudice needs to be deconstructed and put back together while we learn from our many horrific policies of the past. That said, we can’t ignore geographic bigotry either.
With the latest political season being a reminder of the obsession of where you’ve live and how geographically pure your ancestry is reminiscent of Nazi Germany. In Montana anything less than being born here makes you virtually incapable of having any idea what the Montana experience is, has been or should be. In other words … PERMISSION NOT GRANTED. This may seem benign to legacy residents, but to the rest of us (even though I was born here), knowing that your ideas and views will be ignored at face value can be crippling. The bigotry is covert and omnipresent. One’s comfort zone and all things familiar are to be preserved at all cost. Unfamiliarity breeds uncertainty – and uncertainty makes many people uneasy. As they say, “curiosity is something that killed the cat … and it may damn well do the same thing to me if I don’t watch out.”
Nurturing a community of inclusion and permission is as much as what you’re not allowing to happen as what you’re doing. You have to help people not be afraid when they venture into unfamiliar territory, personally or professionally – especially those lying on the outer edges of society. They need to know what they’re not hearing isn’t holding them back. It might be just that one thing you do or say that makes all the difference; a compliment, holding a door … that gesture that shows we’re both in this together. It breaks the proverbial ice of a new community’s frigidity.
Creating your own world is scary for anyone. Imagine a recent college graduate thinking about starting a business only to run indifference when bringing up their idea to someone they respect. Or imagine a Persian family from thousands of miles away just trying to start new, looking for an apartment, and automatically assumed they’re Muslim (and with it all the potentially negative connotations). Think about that gay couple who is trying to enroll their daughter at day care – only to get stares of disapproval from the other “conventional parental units” waiting in line. These situations don’t scream prejudice or exclusion, but to those on the receiving end, they cut deep – often deeper than if the reactions were overt.
The more someone is perceived to be outside the purview of conformity and “sameness” – the more they risk being socially isolated. They have to be tuned into their environment, being always on guard. The prospect of threats, physically or psychologically, looms everywhere – or at least they think it does. But they also bring with them an implied sense of empathy. They identify with others who may be going through it too … regardless what the “it” is. But it’s these risk takers who will lead your community into the future. To stifle them, through indifference, only damages your community’s prospects going forward — all in the name of the shortsightedness and insecure egos of those in positions of influence and power. These are the exact people you need … the ones who think differently, bringing new perspectives to vexing problems that might have been saddling your community for years. But if you don’t give them permission to join – they won’t be around for long to make those contributions. They’ll go somewhere that does give them permission: and with them they’ll take all that they would have given your community and you’ll be left with what you’ve always had … only it’ll be less and less relevant day-by-day.
Who will you see?
How do you see your community? Is it more than just city hall and the same politicians that seem to have become permanent fixtures there? Is it more than just a few off ramps exiting the interstate highway going north and south or east and west? Is what you see what you want to see? Is what you see what you want your children and grandchildren to see?
What do you see when you climb up and look in that metaphorical window you’ve been avoiding; the one tangled with last year’s vines of civic and social issues unresolved. Who will you see in there? Do you want them to all look like you … having the same experiences, ideas and goals as you do? Or do hope you see someone different; someone we you can learn from? Do you dare risk being curious? Do you dare risk being uncertain?
And if you do see someone different; someone who makes you look and think twice … will you give permission to be what they want to be?
Or will you treat them with indifference … keeping them forever behind that window.
We assume our way of life in 2018; one of governments and states, and the endless media coverage of their every detail are the pinnacle of civilized existence. We depend on these hierarchies to delivery us from evil or whatever else ails us. I suppose we believe this since that’s all any of us have ever known. And in contrast, we view leaderless societies stereotypically as less-evolved primitive groups of hunters and gatherers running around in loincloths hunting mastodons with spears made of tree branches and flint.
What if this wasn’t true. What if the more evolved society was the one closer to that of the ones with the spears. What if the societies they created, ones that didn’t need to be dictated by an overarching authoritarian power, represented a higher state of human evolution. These communities of hunting and gathering were not governed by force, intimidation and manipulation; but rather by group norms of altruism, fair play and cooperation. Isn’t this what we teach our children in kindergarten? Why does our society abandon it as we supposedly mature.
Hierarchy In The Forest
Through decades of research in the fields of conflict resolution, altruism, and moral origins; cultural anthropologist Christopher Boehm makes a compelling case our assumed anthropologistic evolution isn’t so much “evolved.” Boehm, director of the Jane Goodall Research Center at University of Southern California, believes the decentralization of power represents a higher level of human behavior.
Boehm outlines decades of research in his seminal book, “Hierarchy in the Forest.“ Combining an exhaustive ethnographic survey of human societies from groups of hunter-gatherers to contemporary residents of the Balkans with a detailed analysis of the behavioral attributes of non-human primates (chimpanzees, gorillas, bonobos), Boehm investigates whether humans are hierarchical or egalitarian by nature. Boehm also suggests that democracy, both ancient and modern, could be understood by looking at the egalitarianism of nomadic bands and sedentary tribes. In short, do the ideals we strive for in a truly democratic society actually originate with the actions and norms of the hunting and gathering tribes of Africa and Asia thousand of years ago. And is the version that has permeated our government today actually one that is a step back on the evolutionary scale.
Starting about five thousand years ago … societies functioned as chiefdoms, with highly privileged individuals at the top of the food chain. But before then, humans basically were egalitarian. They lived in what might be called societies of equals, with minimal political centralization and virtually no social classes. Everyone participated in group decisions, and outside the family there were no dominators. For more than ﬁve millennia now, the human trend has been toward hierarchy rather than equality. (Overcoming Bias)
All primate societies, Boehm notes, were governed by similar dynamics. If any one individual had the opportunity to climb the hierarchy, he or she is likely to seize it; unfortunately, as soon as power is gained, others resent it. In such a society, there are three potential outcomes. One is conflict, in which newcomers continually and overtly challenge the powerful for a position at the top. Another is stable dominance, where the powerful relentlessly and permanently dominate the rest. And a third is an equally stable social structure which Boehm calls “reverse dominance hierarchy,” in which those on the bottom of the pyramid figure out a way to band together and “deliberately dominate their potential master.” In such a society, dominance is still exercised. It just comes, collectively and consistently, from below.(New Yorker)
Boehm’s main thesis is that forager egalitarianism is sustained by moral communities that enable the rank and file to build coalitions to put down would-be “alphas.” Forager bands, in his view, have “reversed dominance” hierarchies that prevent bullies and aggressors from creating a dominance hierarchy of their own: egalitarianism (equality) is sustained by the coordinated dominance of the strong by the weak. Without the ability of the rank and file to form large coalitions to put down would-be dominators, the primate tendency is to establish dominance hierarchies, as we see in chimpanzees and bonobos (and now ironically in the vast majority of human societies, even our current so-called democracies). The ability to form large and stable coalitions in turn depends on the development of the capacity for communication. Low-ranking chimpanzees can sometimes band together and put down alpha males (as the chimpanzees at Yerkes Primate Research Center are reported to have done) but they do not seem to be able to create stable coalitions that get rid of the entire dominance hierarchy, unlike human beings can [in theory].(Abandoned Footnotes)
In order for status and functional equality to be resilient against attempts to subvert it, it requires a vigilant community to sanction provocateurs and bullies; primarily made possible via a set of norms that strongly promote values such as generosity, altruism and sharing. These values in turn eclipse those of arrogance and selfishness.
That said – critical to establishing these values in a complex society is a universal assumption of “permission.” This societal state of permission must empower everyone in the community, regardless their socioeconomic standing (or other outlying difference), to be able to contribute to the community. This is easier said than done though. Existing hierarchies will fight, both figuratively and literally, to retain their power. Fortunately for the most part (although in an anything but perfect manner), technology and social media can level the playing field. It gives us implied permission, as well as vehicle, to express ideas and organize around a cause. I view it as a modern-day means of “reverse domination.”
Advantages of Self-Policing
Team survival has a fundamentally different logic than self-maximizing. Hunter/gatherers are ever vigilant against free-riding and elite-exploitation; as both can be as threatening to team survival as any predator would be. This self-policing rigidly enforces social rules to ensure that skilled cooperators fare better than self-maximizers. For example, meat is never distributed by whomever made the kill, but by another stakeholder. Enforcement can be by ridicule, shaming, shunning, and, ultimately, exile or execution. Socially enforced rules create powerful pressures. Lowest-cost strategy to avoid social penalties becomes preemptive self-control. This phenomenon even applies to powerful humans, as “counter-dominant coalitions” punish “resented alpha-male behavior” (like hogging an unfair share of meat). Ultimately this becomes inverted eugenics: eliminate the strong, if they abuse their power. In addition, our moral emotions enable “self-policed” social contracts. Conscious, reputation-based social selection for collaborative activities become dominant. Those known to be poor cooperators would not be selected for joint ventures – ultimately acting as a societal control mechanism.
Competitions for positional rank in a hierarchy generally drive added, and often avoidable, overhead costs. Resources expended for these “arms races” (longer trunks, larger antlers, fancier cars, etc.) could be minimized by intelligent coordination and better allocated for mutual group benefit.
The Evolution of the Theory of Evolution
A few months ago I explored an alternative theory of evolution, spurred by the work of Bill Hamilton in the piece “The Evolution of the Theory of Evolution.” Hamilton believed evolution extended beyond the individual organism to that of the family unit. He proposed that altruism could have evolved within family groups, whether genetically or through shared environmental habits and tendencies. Normally an individual altruist would seem to be at a disadvantage, but that was not the whole picture because other individuals who shared the same genes associated with altruism would all influence each other’s “inclusive fitness” by reward this behavior through increased involvement.
Hamilton’s extrapolation of Darwinism, while seemingly radical – made complete sense. By choosing to open the door to new thoughts on evolution – we’re not necessarily kicking Charles Darwin to curb, but expanding on his work based on new levels of research and observation. Consider it letting the theory of evolution evolve. I believe any scientific discovery should be looked at not as an end – but rather a journey down a new road to another level of enlightenment.
“I believe that the community – in the fullest sense: a place and all its creatures – is the smallest unit of health and that to speak of the health of an isolated individual is a contradiction in terms.” – Wendell Berry
If we embrace Hamilton’s idea that evolution can occur in family units as well as in individuals – what’s saying we can’t take it a step further and expand it to that of the community unit as well.
If we view our community as an evolutionary unit, then we must look to enhance the components that can contribute to its sustainability and prosper – specifically those that proliferate benevolence and kindness. A community is really nothing more than the aggregation of individuals and the interactions between them. 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. If they are not included in the conversation, or given permission – they still will be heard, but it may not be in a socially accepted way (e.g. crime). Prejudice, bigotry or even indifference hurts not only them, but us as part of the overall community. All of our actions, or lack there of – have collective consequences and establish norms that will be carried forward … whether we want them to or not.
The question we should be asking ourselves is how can we evolve our actions (and as a result our norms and expectations) to ones closer to that of the egalitarian societies of hunters and gathers of the past … while adapting them to today’s societal complexities? How can we prioritize generosity and cooperation from early ages and not hypocritically abandon them as we fall into adulthood – adopting them not only individually, but also as fixtures in our beleaguered institutions.
Breaking Hierarchies to Combat Authoritarianism
A lot of us, me included, are still wallowing in the “sugar high” of the mid-term elections. The last two years of Trumpism seems a little less dark looking at how voters repudiated it by establishing a new Democratic majority in the House of Representatives. We shouldn’t be so quick to think the battle has been won though; nor should we think a similar result in 2020 in the next presidential election will be the panacea either. While these steps are definitely an improvement: the underlying reasons we are in this situation, and by us I include Europe also, are still very much with us. We have turned over the state of our political affairs to mechanisms and the manipulation of often corrupt hierarchies. We might get lucky and elect a “leader” with integrity and compassion – or at the sight of inevitable demographic changes, where “things just ain’t like they used to be” … we fall for the next modern-day Pied Piper. In the end, we’re giving up our agency by absolving ourselves from any personal or civic responsibilities, responsibilities our fore-fathers fought with their lives to acquire.
We have to step up and take control — and not just at the voting booth, even though that’s a positive step. And it’s not enough to lobby for local control if that control still resides in just a different level of government. While I’m not an anarchist and believe government and institutions hold a valuable place in our society, over reliance on them in lieu of personal agency is rendering us impotent to dictate the terms of our own futures.
We have look to ourselves and our neighbors for the solutions not only for our problems – but also for societal norms that will dictate the composition of our communities’ relationships far into the future. And we need to build the infrastructure (physical and virtual) that will empower them. Existing constructs only reinforce the hierarchies we must disassemble.
We need to look to altruism as what we should teach our kids – not just rules and laws that we take to the very brink of what we can get a way with (and often beyond that). We need to aspire not to dominate, but cooperate. We have to establish expectations of rising to the occasion and embracing those around us by helping them see what they can contribute to tapestry of our community – and not penalize them for not adhering to the rigid framework of hierarchical preconceptions set forth by those who reside in ancestral positions of power in their ivory towers.
We must mold our modern-day society to synthesize a rational and appropriate level of self-maximizing with collective self-actualization. This needn’t mean being “devoutly egalitarian”; nor delegating our interdependent futures to mindless market forces and inept governments we entrust to control them that is neither rational, nor survivable. We can and must regulate better than the invisible hand’s invisible brain.
But for us to accomplish this we need everyone on board. Inclusion is paramount in today’s diverse society, one of inhabited by a plethora of ethnicities, religions, ideas, wants and needs. To feel included is synonymous to be given permission to truly be who we want to be, free of encumbering societal norms and expectations. And when society gives us permission … anything is possible.
See Community 3.0 for my version of a prescription for speaking truth to power by organizing your community around decentralized empowerment, inclusion and altruism.
When my daughter Alex was in third grade she had the reigning Marin County (California) Teacher of Year. Her name escapes me (I’ll blame it on the chemo brain). The parents of all the kids in this Tiburon classroom were beside themselves with praise for her. Me … not so much. A big one thing I had a problem with was she encouraged the students to use calculators in her class. Her reason was that it would be good practice for real life – where no one did math long hand anymore. Well,I do.
Now I still use a calculator, but daily I make every effort to do math problems in my head. Percentages, grocery bill estimates, gas mileage … anything and everything. it’s something I’ve always done and probably always will. It’s cerebral exercise, and it’s something I’ve encouraged my daughter to do also. On road trips as a grade-schooler, she’d have to look at the mileage, take in account our speed, and determine when we’d get to the next stop. I don’t know if she liked it … but she did it anyway.
Now I don’t mean to sound like a Luddite. On the contrary, I self-taught myself how to program in college on FORTRAN 77 on my college’s IBM 360/370 (how many of you remember FORTRAN or a 360/370). I’d sneak in to the computer center at night and drop off my boxes of punch cards. I wasn’t so bright that I used a terminal like the other nocturnal geeks in training though. I used punch cards … and for a many months carried around my three boxes of 1400 cards.
I bought my first Mac in 1985 and I was transferring data online before there was an online. My first email address was at the Well in the San Francisco. In fact I gave Well email addresses for Christmas presents. Alexandria was raised on a Mac, and instead of going to college when she graduated high school … she went to Apple.
That said, I didn’t like the idea of supplanting the exercise of the brain for the exercise the fingers hitting the calculator buttons. And the excuse: “they’ll need to learn how to use a calculator in real life when they’re older” is lame. What they’ll need to learn is how to use their brain. And considering who this country elected as president – we’re in short supply of those that either can or will.
Now I’m not blaming calculators and their use in grade school for the orange clown in the White House and utter disintegration of the democracy before our very eyes … but then maybe I should. Maybe we should look it as a symptom … a touchstone of sorts, emblematic of how we view intellectual development in this country. I get the whole “recognizing the value of tools” thing. But unless the foundation is built for which the tools are to be used (and hopefully complement) – we’re building a skyscraper or citizens’ equivalent of it – on a landfill.
During that time Alex was in grade school, I ran a recruiting firm that specialized in electronic prepress. Over the fifteen years I was a headhunter, I saw the prepress industry evolve from journeymen craftsmen working on stripping tables manually composing high-end film and color etching dot-by-dot … to everything being done via electronic workstations (Photoshop for example). Many of my candidates made the transition and some didn’t. Those who did, those who had the conventional experience and knew how everything fit together manually, were worth much more than candidates who came to me with only electronic background. The latter didn’t have the fundamentals and didn’t know the reasons the code behind the screen was designed to do what it did. Working every day with these people is what flamed my visceral reaction to Alex’s 3rd Grade teacher. Without doing it long-hand or better yet in your head … the numbers on the calculator are just that – numbers. They don’t have history and context.
The mind is like a muscle. The more we think and figure things out … the more we’ll be able to figure other things out. Even something as mundane as a grocery bill guess is like walking a cerebral mile. Every bit counts. Shouldn’t we be looking for opportunities to think more – not less? Just because we can automate and mentally farm something out … should we?
This brings me to A.I. – artificial intelligence. In my Twitter stream, my curated portal to the world, there is no single topic at present that takes up more characters than AI. And if it’s not A.I., it’s what feeds it – big data (I hate that term). Google has even created an A.I. app that can make a haircut appointment for you and sound like a human doing it. Great … no not great. Do we really need our computer to set up a haircut appointment for us? What happened to the opportunity to communicate with someone? No one can tell me they’re so busy that they can’t spend two minutes to make a phone call and engage with a fellow human. And if they are … they shouldn’t be.
This is insane – even while writing this, I’m getting bombarded by more A.I. obsession. Teaching A.I. in grade school just popped into my stream. We’re going headlong into STEM at the expense of everything else (different topic for a different day). Where are the visualists, the artists and the social scientists who will help us communicate with each other and nurture our humanity rather than sending us in the other direction of letting us avoid each other. Never before in my sixty years on this earth have we needed more engagement.
It’s like we’ve just given up on the concept human-to-human interaction. I’m wondering if the ultimate goal of all this is just machine-to-machine engagement. Us humans, at least the majority of us, will sit on the sidelines of life waiting for yet another algorithm to tell us what we’re suppose to be doing and what we’re suppose to be feeling. Those creating the algorithms will run the game — because … well, most of us don’t know any better and can’t do anything about it.
Silicon Valley and all its other “silicon” siblings seem to have this competition for who metaphorically has the biggest one. “What can we have the computer do that will be cooler than the guys (and it’s always guys) down the street are doing?” Driverless cars are the big thing; and I’m sure there will be a time in the not so distance future where knowing how to drive will be a long-lost art. Even with the prevalence of automatic transmissions, operating a manual transmission is one of these arts. Alex, who can, is always called upon to help when there’s moving to be done. It’s not because of her sinewy 120 pound physique – but rather her ability to drive a manual truck. Driving a manual transmission is more than just not shifting. It’s knowing when to shift – and that means thinking … again, like a walking a cerebral mile.
I’m sorry if I’m coming off like Luddite again – and I’m not against A.I. or technology. In fact my Community 3.0 project uses A.I. and database marketing to elevate the health and well-being of our communities by bringing people together. But we can’t let advanced human-like technology displace our own human functions in the process.
“Nothing pains some people more than having to think.” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
In the future, King’s quote will become even more applicable if we continue on our current path. Our epidemic of physically obesity will be replaced by cerebral obesity as our brains turn to mush from lack of use. The exact thing we need to train our minds for, more complex thinking – is what we are weaning ourselves of. The daily task of navigating our car has been supplanted by GPS. The days of “fixing things” are long gone and with it are the critical thinking skills we need for the remaining jobs not taken by the artificial intelligence we’re suppose to be embracing. Quite the paradox.
I recently read an article about physicians second guessing themselves and their intuition honed from years of experience because they instead default to data interpretation. Many of my radiologists fiends on Twitter are struggling with the spectre looming in the future that will push their careers to be among the first casualties of A.I. in healthcare. Would A.I.-driven diagnostics improve outcomes? The data says it would – but will it really? I suppose if it replaces physicians who aren’t using their minds to their fullest, it may. But what if these same physicians, didn’t default to technology – but instead used technology more as a complimentary tool, with their minds being the primary processor. But if they don’t continue to think and use their stores of experiences – they won’t run (or even walk) those cerebral miles needed to keep in shape. All too often the EHR software at your healthcare provider operates as malignant shadow government. The interface design of Epic and its competitors covertly dictate our relationships with our doctors, PAs and nurses. If there isn’t a field for it, it doesn’t matter – or worse, doesn’t exist. Technology, and especially artificial intelligence systems are only as good as the algorithms that drive them and interfaces that allow one to interact with them.
The proponents of A.I., or should I say the obsessionists, say that it frees up our minds from mundane activities in order to pursue cerebral deep dives – deep dives that will result in societal fixes that will save our imperilled world. These deep dives don’t just come when called though. There’s no magic bag of pixie dust that when sprinkled liberally, life-saving ideas will fly out our eyes like butterflies. More often nothing comes out. When we over-rely on technology, we haven’t trained of brain to do much of anything – let alone save the world. But to question the pious of A.I. is akin to blasphemy. Ironically IBM just announced significant layoffs of 50 to 70% in their Watson Healthcare division. Its Watson division was supposed to bring artificial intelligence to markets such as healthcare, although it ended up attracting the wrong sort of headlines when some projects faltered, and financial analysts described it as a money pit.
A Collective Call to Action
Steve Jobs was once asked about creativity and how one becomes creative. His response was epic:
Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they had more experiences and they have thought more about their experiences than other people.
They had more experiences and then they thought about those experiences more. The operative word was “thought.” We need to not sacrifice our minds for technological progress. And I rather doubt that’s intent of those who drive the artificial intelligence bus. But rather if it’s intended or not – it could very well be one of those dreaded unintended consequences – the ones who no one thinks about in the euphoria of the moment. Well I’m thinking about it … and we all should.
Being aware is the best counterbalance. We shouldn’t necessarily try to curb the innovation benefits of A.I. – not at all. We just must be aware of the price that may be paid if we ride along never taking off our rose-colored glasses. The old adage “use it or lose it” is especially applicable here. We all need to make conscious efforts to walk (or run) that extra cerebral mile. We need to trust our gut once in while. Dust off that map book and shut off the GPS for your next trip. A wrong turn won’t be the end of you. Don’t just default for technology. Be present and engage with the world around you. As Steve Jobs said; “have experiences and think about them.”
And don’t just have experiences; get out of your comfort zone. Humans are creatures of habit. We tend to do the same things, associate with same types of people and be influenced by the same sources as we always have. If you’re a doctor, hang with a plumber. If you’re white, talk to a black person. Take the bus sometime (no – people on buses don’t bite). If you live on the west side, have dinner on the east side. And most of all if you’re old (yes Boomers you are old) … get some insight from someone young – someone that’s not your own kid. Our brains are nothing more than synaptic connections which are built and strengthened through habitual activity and thought. If this habitual activity actually isn’t thinking (e.g. leaning on A.I.) – that’s even worse.
While we can all make efforts personally – we also have to look at how we can leverage these efforts. Make sure our kids’ schools aren’t over-relying on technological crutches. We must stress critical thinking and basic problem solving – and start early. Kindergarten isn’t for obsessing over reading. It’s about play and learning dispute resolution in the sandbox and on the playground.
Success does not mean looking to past, nor does it mean blindly ignoring it. Technology is a tool, and tools are meant to compliment. It’s our responsibility to evolve along with the tools we create … or the compliment will end up replacing us. We need civic and social solutions that take into account the unintended consequences. Societal norms need to be established. What if engagement and thought was how a community measured itself, not obtuse economic activity too often over-emphasized by the naiveté of the echo chamber. Rather than focusing wholly on jobs for “hard-working folk,” we create paths for “hard thinking” people. Too often, in efforts to include everyone, we lower the bar. We look for inclusion in the current state – not at potential. While hard work is fine, hard thinking provides the future – individually and collectively as a community.
Think about it.
If you’re interested in moving on from the status quo and help us build based on the true power of the minds of those in our communities … please check out Community 3.0, my vision of an evolved society where self-efficacy and well-being is priority. Or even better email me firstname.lastname@example.org and we can set up time to have a conversation.
Well here it is, May of 2018, and we’re six months away from the mid-term elections. We have descended into Dante’s Hell of campaign missives. All news is to now to be framed in a political narrative – yet none of it is really informing us to make better decisions at the polls. Combine this bi-annual event with Trump being at the helm of this Titanic of a federal government … and retaining ones sanity is easier said than done.
Here in Billings, Montana, I’m subjected to a daily barrage of GOP hopefuls on full display strutting their stuff in hopes of uprooting the Democratic incumbent Senator Jon Tester. You have Troy Downing, out-Trumping even the orange clown himself – trying dearly to conjure up a bucket of patriotism by enlisting Mike, the felon, Flynn on the campaign trail. Not to be outdone, we have Billings’ own former judge Russell Fagg. His message to the world is death to them murdering marauders from south of the border. But of course the vengeance will have to wait until after his weekly morning prayer meeting for the local business community. God help us all please … as I cry from the depths of Circle Five and the River of Styx just hoping Cheron the oarsman doesn’t toss me overboard with the other wallowing souls. Come to think of it … put me out of my misery.
Regardless of what end of this ideological political absurdity you reside – there’s still one question virtually no one asks. Can these politicians subjecting us to all of this narcissistic babble do the job they so desperately want. We just had the Tester/Trump battle over Trump’s pick for the VA, Ronny Jackson. All the attention was on whether on his character was suitable; as if that has really mattered for any of Trump’s other picks. While this definitely should be addressed – shouldn’t also the fact the man had nowhere near the background to do a job like this. Nothing indicates any level of ability coinciding with the magnitude of running the VA. Unfortunately this is normally always the case. Ideology trumps ability.
Corporations and business have interview processes that hopeful identify competent candidates and then from there a qualified decision is made. This isn’t always the case, but at least the attempt is there. Politics doesn’t work that way. And unfortunately neither do social movements and cause-based activism.
Let’s look at gun control efforts. Since Columbine, there’s been many opportunities to launch strikes against the NRA and those beholden to them. In addition to Columbine, the Gabby Giffords’ shooting and Sandy Hook being two in particular. None of them have really gained any traction. They have NGOs set up and I’m sure there are people out making an effort, but if anything the gun lobby is as strong now than ever. Donna Dees wrote an interesting article for Fast Company, just yesterday on her experience founding the Million Moms March after Columbine. She blames branding primarily for its lack of being able to “change the game.” I think it goes a lot deeper than that.
Now we have the #MarchForOurLives student crusade that seems to be making some headway. The founding high school students from Parkland, Florida have social media followings several times that of any effort to date. They may also be more organizationally adept than any other movement also … believe it or not. We’ll see how this all plays out come November and the midterm elections though. I’m hoping to be pleasantly surprised.
Let’s not forget Occupy Wall Street and all the other hundreds of Occupys. This was supposed to be the start of a decentralized push to bring down “the man.” No one was in charge, so all participating voices would be heard and no one could be targeted by the establishment. Emotional momentum is a hard thing to maintain though. This is especially the case if there’s no one leading when the inevitable push back comes from those in the status quo who are affected.
Historian Bill Moyer wrote an excellent account of movements called, “History is a Weapon: A Movement Action Plan.” Moyer’s essay is a strategic framework describing the eight stages of successful social movements. Moyer outlines the decades long fights for the curtailment of nuclear power in American. He details the eight stages activists and their opponents battled through. The piece is a must read for anyone who wishes to make it a life protesting against “the man” … and a life it is. Ask anyone fighting for a woman’s right to choose. Just when you think the battle is done and you can finally go home and put your feet up … out pops the latest reincarnation of pathetic sexist zealotry.
Another movement I’ve been following is #MeToo. For all accounts, it should succeed. It has potentially huge numbers with what should be virtually all women and the men who aren’t assholes. That said, what’s actually happening though? What’s being accomplished? We’ve had some women come up publicly and face their abusers. We had a favorable Bill Cosby verdict (which I attribute to #MeToo). But what about women’s equality in the workplace. What’s the game plan by those in charge? Is there anyone in charge? Unfortunately these questions are all too common.
Social movements normally arise out of nowhere with a tsunami of momentum – only to burnout just as fast. There will be a few people who will hang on, create an organization and try to stay relevant. Is anything accomplished … normally not. Implementation is hard, and those who ignite a movement (if many can even be called that) are not qualified or have the resources to sustain it once the media and its twenty-four hour news cycle moves on. These people are not hired to run and grow an organization like those hired to run a corporation. They weren’t chosen … most often the movement chose them.
New Power … and maintaining the momentum
Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms just released an excellent book called “New Power,” which has been getting a lot of attention. Jeremy’s organization, Purpose, has been groundbreaking in its support for “new power” efforts worldwide. And Henry made a historical impact with Giving Tuesday. New Power is a manual for anyone who wishes to create change through the empowerment of the “people in the street” in their battle against the status quo of what they call Old Power.
For most of human history, the rules of power were clear: power was something to be seized and then jealously guarded. This “old power” was out of reach for the vast majority of people. But our ubiquitous connectivity makes possible a different kind of power. “New power” is made by many. It is open, participatory, and peer-driven. It works like a current, not a currency–and it is most forceful when it surges. The battle between old and new power is determining who governs us, how we work, and even how we think and feel. (Amazon description)
Now let’s say we all follow Jeremy and Henry’s book – very well we could see results and things might start changing. But ultimately it’s going to come down to actions and leadership of a few to organize, and keep the momentum going. This is not easy and much of the time – it takes what seems like forever – as Bill Moyer so aptly chronicled with the anti-nuclear movement
Wael Ghonim, the main instigator (and I say that in the best possible terms) in the Arab Spring protests articulated the Participation Scale in tweet outlining the multiple steps we can take to sustain a movement.
Ghonim’s suggestions are excellent when it comes to making the movement go – and keep it going. But what happens after the movement? How do we keep the supply of devoted coming, not just for this cause – but for other causes that should follow? How do we create a fertile ground where there is always the manpower to fight that next worthy cause.
But it’s not enough to just have these often random and reactionary outbursts against the Old Power of the status quo. We need a new societal mindset that doesn’t default towards conformity and obedience to Old Power institutions in the first place. Today we have the modern-day Gutenberg printing press in everyone’s hand – social media. The potential is there to create a new way. We just have to decide that we’re willing to do it.
We need to create a new civic norm and power structure that isn’t so much a structure, but a flow. And specifically we need a flow that comes not through the whims and selfish obsessions of “representatives” (and I use that word loosely). We need direct response that truly represents an engaged populace. The advantage will go to those who are engaged, connected and informed; not naive and obedient to a “higher power” that falsely claims the path to the promised land.
Rhizomes and Decentralized Civic Engagement
An increasing mass of people agree that long term human survival depends on us replacing the status quo with a fundamentally different set of behaviours and structures. I believe the root of that challenge is essentially cultural, and the best place to grow culture is in small groups. And until we’ve got a critical mass of activists that are embedded in a new way of thinking, relating and communicating, any mass movement is going to replicate the errors of the past. (5 Reasons to Build a Network of Small Groups – Richard Bartlett)
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)
We need to look no further than our backyard to find a perfect example of decentralized civic participation. 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 retains the ability to allow new shoots to grow upwards, giving rise to a new node of above ground activity.
“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 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 a body of water, occupying 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 morass of governmental hierarchical dysfunction we’re current immersed in.
In every town and every neighborhood are places where informal leaders go to hang out and do the real business of the town. In Minot, North Dakota where I grew up, we had Charlie’s restaurant and the Elks Lodge. These were the places where the “business of the community” was done (not at the city council meetings). This is where ideas were hatched and where the future of Minot was mapped out … often under the influence of a libation or two.
Your neighborhood’s Front Porch can be anywhere or anything. It can be the local pub down the street or the coffee-house where you get your morning sustenance from. It can be Bill’s garage where everyone gathers to watch Sunday football games. It can even be your kitchen table. What happens at the Front Porch is what matters … not what is looks like or where it is. These Front Porches are what provides the bridge from the naturalistic examples of the rhizome organization articulated by Deleuze and Guattari and your community’s civic sustainability.
Growing New Power In Your Community
With a rhizome-based civic philosophy built around your community’s Front Porch network, the foundation has been laid for a sustainable implementation of New Power; one that will endure well beyond a single movement or display of activism. Your activism will be organized, but not from a conventional hierarchical sense, but rather from a case-by-case basis emanating from Front Porch tactical execution.
In the end, the effectiveness of a movement is dependent on more than structure. It needs the strength and abilities of the individual members of your community. It needs talent. This talent also needs to be schooled in the functions and use of New Power. Just as important though is training future members and new generations to keep the cause going. This is where long-term thinking and a decentralized activist game plan is needed. Sustained engagement requires a learned mindset of change, one that stresses inclusive involvement by all members of the community, regardless of age, gender, or socioeconomic level. Imagine if Front Porches were used as the classrooms and incubators honing the skills for mindsets of change, encouraging engagement at any level; be it simple participation, project organization and even social movement development.
Nurturing “Civic Self-Efficacy”
Now imagine this effort to build “civic self-efficacy” was a concerted effort nationwide, if not worldwide. The Front Porch concept scales well beyond neighborhood businesses in single communities. As long as the tenets of rhizomatic growth is adhered to, and local issues and needs prioritized – why can’t community empowerment scale worldwide?
Why can’t a farmer from Oregon, via their Front Porch, share a success story with farmer from Nigeria via theirs. Their civic needs and resource availabilities may be different, but the serendipitous sharing of insight could “turn on the light;” solving a problem with a solution not otherwise seen. And why do we limit collaboration to only those of common vocations when anyone, anywhere of any profession should cross-pollinate and share solutions to civic fixes in their respective locales. Why can’t our worldwide Front Porch network establish a civic empowerment help line. In fact the Parkland kids behind the #MarchForOurLives have done exactly that. They created Outreach For Our Lives to answer questions and lend assistance to student leaders setting up and running their own local chapters of gun control activism.
We need to find organizers in our communities’ Front Porches who can lead, much like the students of Parkland. We then need these leaders to train and mobilize fellow members and friends from these Front Porches … seeding the process to continue on. The act of activism is preparation for more activism. So in essence, a movement is not just cause or content, but rather a platform to individually build civic muscles, or “civic self-efficacy.” Collectively we can then build an organization (and database) that can be mobilized for additional movements, causes and even structural changes. And with each movement and each participation our collective New Power strengthens and proliferates. No longer will we be dependent on the illusion of the “man on the white horse” riding in to save us. We will save ourselves!
We must evolve, individually and collectively – even if some don’t seem to think so. But to do this, we will have to change our thinking. Instead of relying on past expectations and cultural assumptions as our guides — we must 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 the Old Power of government and traditional institutions be looked at as our 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 flex our New Powermuscle.
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 – join me in building a New Power coalition in your community … one that is more representative, inclusive and equitable. Please check out Community 3.0, my vision of an evolved society where self-efficacy and well-being is priority.
Eight years ago I wrote my first blog post here. The topic was silos; how cities and towns isolate themselves and competing against each other to the detriment of both – while cooperation would be mutually beneficial. Silos aren’t limited to civic strategy and geographic jingoism though. They’re everywhere.
Silos are easy to create. They allow us to compartmentalize. We can separate things, put them aside and go on. Diving deep, finding connections and trying to wrap our heads around how everything affects each other is messy, ambiguous and difficult. However making the connections between disparate issues very often shines light on them – producing clarity. In a strange way this inter-connectivity simplifies. Even though we say we want to simplify things – we actually go to great lengths to complicate them. As Einstein said: “The definition of genius is taking the complex and making it simple.” But genius takes work – work we seldom undertake … especially when silos are available.
We deal with civic and social issues at the most digestible level. We treat symptoms rather than underlying causes … creating even more silos. And with this come more policies, laws and power struggles that attempt to deal with them. This is what make bureaucracy so inefficient. It’s filled with unconnected silos all fighting over scarce resources, attempting to address symptoms rather than the root causes that often are connected themselves. Progressive civic problem-solvers call these often neglected root causes, social determinants. They’re buried deep and confronting them seldom produces the quick short-sided fixes politicians and policy-makers feed on. They’re indirect and obliquitous. But ironically these root causes are often obvious to those outside the confines of the echo chambers and ivory towers of public policy governmental malaise. For example: hungry kids will have problems performing well at school – yet so many remain exactly that – as year after year policy makers concentrate instead on the reform de jour, or worse yet threaten school shutdowns for those that under-perform.
The one thing …
What if there was one thing we could focus on that could simultaneously address many of the societal ailments that we encounter and at the same time fixed an important issue its own directly.
Every day there’s a never-ending stream of research and reports detailing the ailments affecting America. But seldom do we hear about any solutions for these ailments; isolated success stories yes – but not overarching policy, governmental or societal.
Obesity: No matter how many alarms are set off – the nation keeps getting fatter. It doesn’t matter, young or old – obesity numbers keep rising, regardless the efforts being attempted (and I say that liberally).
Dementia: Our current elderly, living longer and often alone, have become a generation plagued by dementia and Alzheimers. This is compounded by the fact that most look to doctors and the healthcare system to fix a problem there is no “pill” for.
Addiction: The chronic stresses of today’s non-stop, uncertain lives makes coping with it all a major undertaking … and too much for many. Combine this with the knee-jerk over-prescribing of pharmaceutical quick-fixes and we’ve created a culture who inevitably ends up addicted to whatever they can get their hands on.
Child care issues: No matter what our socioeconomic level is, we all seem to struggle with the same plight – adequate and available child care. Dual-income households as well as single parents find that finding that place to stash their kids during the day while they work – anything but easy.
Finding not just work, but rewarding work: Unemployment is at historical lows, but how many people are happy in their jobs. Many are either underemployed or just unfilled working for “the man.” In addition – college, once the panacea for future employment dilemmas, has turned into a nightmare of student loans for many.
Polarizing political views:Politics is no longer just a lightening rod for uncomfortable Thanksgiving family gatherings. Fueled by the election of Donald Trump and his daily stream of partisan controversy … the United States is anything but that. His divisive anti-social behavior has firmly taken root in our neighborhoods as social engagement has become replaced by isolation and an obsession of cable news.
Too often we look at these aliments in isolation – disconnected from each other. It’s as if obesity has no affect on why we hate our neighbor because he’s a Republican. But actually they can be connected. As are not finding rewarding work and why too many Americans have problems with quality child care. Our goal must be to find what ties all these things together.
Isolation, Illness … And Hate
Recently several articles have surfaced on the detrimental health effects of loneliness, whether it be physical or psychological. Everything always seems worse when we’re sick and there’s no one there to lean on for support. This is especially the case in rural areas where the sparse population adds to the isolation. This condition isn’t exclusive to the geographically remote either. The same can even be said in urban areas when we feel isolated in our communities because our social or political views, or just don’t have anyone emotional close to us anymore.
Can these health detriments due to isolation be a breeding ground for hate? The outsized elderly vote for Donald Trump and his message of division and national isolation makes a case for it. Sadly I’ve never seen hate rise to the levels of today. Why is this? Could it be the source of it is the unprecedented level loneliness and isolation in America? Maybe. Hannah Arendt in “The Origins of Totalitarianism,“ her chronicle on the rise of Nazism makes a parallel argument decades ago.
Terror can rule absolutely only over men who are isolated against each other… Therefore, one of the primary concerns of all tyrannical government is to bring this isolation about. Isolation may be the beginning of terror; it certainly is its most fertile ground; it always is its result. This isolation is, as it were, pretotalitarian; its hallmark is impotence insofar as power always comes from men acting together…; isolated men are powerless by definition.
Has America turned into a nation of isolated, sick and angry people – waiting impatiently for someone to ride in on a white horse to save them from their lives of misery – no matter the consequences? Politics is killing us, literally. If all this isn’t enough to make us wake from our cerebral stupor … then what will?
We need to call it like it is. It isn’t a preference. Only in extreme cases is loneliness a choice. It’s an epidemic … like the plague. Very few wish it upon themselves. This isn’t just another city or county budget item like a roundabout or off-ramp to pacify some well-heeled real estate developer. Loneliness is a scourge that is literally killing our country.
Lonely people probably aren’t just a damper on the national morale; they’re likely to be a strain on national productivity and health-care systems, too. The bodies of lonely people are markedly different from the bodies of non-lonely people. Prolonged loneliness can put one at risk for chronic health conditions, exacerbate various health conditions, and ultimately put us at increased risk for premature mortality. (What Loneliness Does to the Body)
Loneliness is a problem that is getting worse too. We are living longer. More and better healthcare is keeping us physically alive longer. Technology, while wonderful for some people, myself included – isolates (emotionally and socially) those who aren’t connected.
We’re geographically separated, and especially in small towns, it’s getting worse. Many parts of the country are losing young talent., such as rural areas that are not keeping up with the technological revolution. This talent are the exact people who would normally be around to keep elderly family members company. And our traditional institutions (churches, fraternal clubs, etc.) no longer hold the same attraction as they did in our parents time. The decline in bowling leagues, the moniker of the famous book on community sociology by Robert Putnam, “Bowling Alone“ – exemplifies the decay of the American social fabric. These are just a few of the reasons, and I’m sure we all can offer up others specific to our own situation too.
Pushing back …
“Our true destiny is a world built from the bottom up by competent citizens living in solid communities, engaged in and by their places.” – David W. Orr
What if the answer was as easy as just getting people back together again; physically engaging with each other. What if we as a society made a concerted effort to re-establish civic and social gathering places. And what if our social policies focused on physical engagement with one another. This engagement would create serendipitous civic resource maximization through synergy – a synergy we often didn’t even know was available to us all the time.
What if a renewed obsession with engagement put us in a place even better than we’ve ever had. By realizing that loneliness is a devastating social disease we can attack it by creating new norms of engagement and awareness. We can forge a new society – one evolved to be better positioned for inclusion and self-transcendence, focusing beyond just our own needs. We would be creating communities where connectiveness and well-being was how we measured themselves, not just jobs and obtuse economic activity often distorted through a one-dimensional lens of irrelevant statistics.
Imagine meeting with a fellow group of customers from the local hardware store to create a small community garden, only to find out the woman working the plot next to yours has a daughter who just moved back in town after college and is looking for a part-time job. And you just happen to be looking for someone to watch you daughter after preschool. A simple engagement at the local hardware store turns out to be a solution for fresh food and childcare.
Imagine coming together with your neighbors to rebuild the local grade school playground, including the one who you would never talk to due to his political ideology. Working side-by-side with him you find out he is an expert in the exact software program you been needing help with for weeks. Now that freelance opportunity you’ve been struggling with can now become a reality.
Imagine grabbing your teenage kids and hauling them down to your local coffee shop for its elderly outreach project. Instead of just brooding around the house every weekend – your lovely offspring are making connections, and changing lives, with those who have literally built the very town they live in. Your son is so taken by a 90 year-old gentleman he has befriended, he decided to stay in town for college and help the coffee shop expand their outreach program … and regularly stay touch in touch with his surrogate grandfather.
Community 3.0, Front Porches … a Call To Action
How do we makes this happen though? How do we transform our communities into ones where opportunities to engage are around every corner? How do we break the habit of the couch, cable news and waiting for “the man on the white horse” to ride in to save us?
In every town and every neighborhood are places where informal leaders go to hang out and do the real business of the town. In Minot, North Dakota where I grew up, we had Charlie’s restaurant and the Elks Lodge. These were the places where the “business of the community” was done (not at the city council meetings). These were the places where ideas were hatched and where the future of Minot was mapped out … often under the influence of a libation or two.
Your neighborhood’s Front Porch can be anywhere or anything. It can be the local pub down the street or the coffee-house where you get your morning sustenance from. It can be Bill’s garage where everyone gathers to watch Sunday football games. It can even be your kitchen table. What happens on the Front Porch is what matters … not what is looks like or where it is.
It’s not enough just have a place to get together though. Front Porches need to promote the activity that bolsters engagement. This activity should be more than just idle talk though. What if it took the form of informal volunteer projects. I call these street-level Front Porch based civic fixes, Solutions. They are designed to help pick up the civic slack and mend its societal safety net while bringing your community members together through action, not just talk. These Solutions can range from organizing a cleanup effort, to fixing a playground, to even spearheading a high school mentoring or apprentice program.
Community 3.0is my community engagement platform built around the concept of the Front Porch and the Solutions that are nurtured in them. Using street-level direct civic participation as an augmentation to governmental representation, I believe we can not only create a more responsive and inclusive society – but one that leverages its members to build an environment of physical, mental and social well-being.
Community 3.0 uses the bleedingEDGE 1-to-1 marketing system to mobilize Front Porch patrons and keep them emotionally motivated to help not only help their community, but also themselves through a set of pre-programmed event-driven nudges. These nudges not only focus on recruiting members for volunteer projects, its content advocates for healthy behaviors. Rather than just ‘push burgers’ … your local Front Porch can offer a deal on a Caesar Salad for those who helped with the Saturday morning clean up effort organized by them.
As a part of the Community 3.0 platform we’ve put together a roster of several examples of what can come from these Front Porch volunteer collaborations. These examples represent Solutions to many common needs and opportunities a community may encounter. By no means is this roster comprehensive, but it’s a start.
What the 3.0 Front Porch network will provide is an opportunity to engage through civic collaboration – often with people you don’t know and may be nothing like you. By taking advantage of these serendipitous engagements, you will provide yourself with the resources that will help you and your community strengthen individual and collective self-efficacy. And through this self-efficacy, and by breaking the habit of the “man on the white horse” our epidemic of loneliness will find a formidable foe … and that foe is us.
Ask yourself: “If not me … then who? And if not now … then when?”
I realize that we need more than just a prodding to “do something.” I suppose one way is just interacting with your neighbors more, or striking up a conversation with the person behind you in the grocery line. But no matter how many of these ‘one offs’ we do – they’re still just that … ‘one offs.’ Here’s how we can leverage our commitment and make our actions contagious. Just let me know how you feel you would like to participate at email@example.com.
Join the Community 3.0 as a Community Empowerment Concierge (CEC). As a CEC you will help find and set up Front Porches in your community.
Or you can help find a CEC in your community and assist them.
Or once your community gets set up on the 3.0 network – you can help develop engagement projects (Solutions) in your community’s Front Porches.
Since Donald Trump has taken office, we’ve seen the streets of America come alive in ways we haven’t since the Vietnam protests of the ’60s. Last year millions protested in the #MeToo movement and for the rights of women. This year we’ve seen the students of #NeverAgain take their turn in like numbers to protest the insane gun culture that has infected the United States. And just last month, teachers in Oklahoma and West Virginia and beyond protest the equally insane disregard this country has for funding education. The country has had it. We are no longer willing to idly sit by and let this decimation of democracy continue brought on by Washington D.C. and state capitals nationwide.
In my last post I followed the lead of Parkland organizer Jaclyn Corin and implored we get up and scream at the healthcare industry for their refusal to make any effort in fixing the bloated fiefdom they’ve created. Now I’m asking for a new target to scream at: the Democratic party.
Now it’s easy to target the GOP. I’m not to go into why. Let’s just say – it’s been said, in copious detail – starting with Trump. The Democratic party on the other hand has been getting a free pass during this year of civil awakening. It’s time for us to rethink this though. The absence of their formal endorsement of either the striking teachers or the #NeverAgain kids is conspicuous.
Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms just released an excellent book called “New Power,” which has been getting a lot of attention. I’ve known Jeremy’s organization, Purpose is groundbreaking in its support for “new power” efforts worldwide. “New Power” is a manual for anyone who wishes to create change through the efforts and empowerment of the “people in the street” in their battle against the status quo of what they call Old Power.
For most of human history, the rules of power were clear: power was something to be seized and then jealously guarded. This “old power” was out of reach for the vast majority of people. But our ubiquitous connectivity makes possible a different kind of power. “New power” is made by many. It is open, participatory, and peer-driven. It works like a current, not a currency–and it is most forceful when it surges. The battle between old and new power is determining who governs us, how we work, and even how we think and feel. (Amazon description)
Political parties have traditionally concerned themselves with the money and big backers of Old Power. They believe the road to personal and political power is paved by those outside of government in the private sector who hold the gold and silver. Once in a while a politician tries the buck the system and enroll the actual people in their cause – but the gale winds of Old Power eventually knocks the effort of course careening it in the rocks only to sink like yet another ship of democracy at the bottom of the political sea. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign of 2016 was a perfect example of this. Just when Sanders’ campaign was gaining momentum, Democratic kingmaker Debbie Wasserman Schultz extinguished it by cutting off access to the supposedly unbiased national party database and voter logs. These shenanigans would eventually get her tossed from her perch as the national party chair. But alas … the damage was done, Sanders stalled and Hillary Clinton was awarded the nomination. Now every morning we wake up to clown tweets … each one more absurd than the last.
Even without Wasserman Schultz – would Sanders have won the nomination? Probably not. I don’t believe he was the right vehicle to rally the “new power” to a level where it could have successfully scaled the castle walls of Old Power. Heimans and Timms believe change only occurs when a movement has garnered both enough Old Power and New Power to topple the status quo. Sanders didn’t have enough of either. Does the #MeToo movement or #NeverAgain or the teachers have enough ground-level support as well as traditional affluence to affect change. We’ll see.
That said, the GOP – helped by the extremist positions of anti-gun control NRA adherents along with religious zealots protesting abortion, Planned Parenthood or most anything else they deem a violation of their mutated take on the bible … have succeeded in rallying their disciples. Instant mobilization of this “new power” working in unison with bought and paid for politicians in all levels of government have taken the castle and turned it into a modern-day Caligula.
In the case of the NRA, much ado is made about how much they donate to political candidates – their Old Power. But where their real effect lies is in their New Power, or ability to rally their membership (as well as other gun owners) by using paranoia and scare tactics. Regardless of their views on other issues – the NRA faithful come out in droves to vote on that one thing – keeping their guns, however credible that threat may or may not be. The GOP have the NRA and the abortion foes at their disposal for New Power. These one issue voters will overlook any shortcomings, or horribleness in the case of Roy Moore and their other white-supremacists candidates, if they align on these two issues.
The Democrats, well I don’t what the hell they’re doing. They couldn’t ask for a better opportunity for a rallying cry. By Democrats, I don’t necessarily mean all of the individual candidates. I’m referring to the party establishment and the politicians that have been running it for decades. Few of these career power mongers have any idea what’s going on in the streets, let alone respect their efforts and take an encouraging role. The primary driver behind the New Power efforts has been social media. Most of those in the party establishment look at it as a threat, not an asset or a tool. Even though much their constituency lives on it (young people and technologically adept educated professionals) – few of those in the ivory towers can coherently compose an original tweet that isn’t self aggrandizing promotion.
Now what’s up here? Why hasn’t the Democrat power structure embraced this display of New Power? The logical answer is that the Democrat party, like the GOP, is beholden to corporate interests for campaign donations. The Democratic party steadfastly stands behind the House leadership of Nancy Pelosi due to her fundraising prowess. This is definitely Old Power thinking. It’s all about the money. The irony of the situation is money is only as good as it’s ability to deliver votes. And the votes of the current Democratic party are not to be had through traditional media buys and party bosses. It’s about making yourself relevant, accessible and immediate to the voters through the media of THEIR choosing – which is Twitter, Facebook and Instagram … not CBS, NBC and ABC.
The streets are full of voters who have passion for change in areas of gun control, women rights, education … but the Democratic party hasn’t joined them in this passion. This New Power is already organized and mobilized – and waiting for the members of the Old Power they can get behind. This is even more bewildering in the fact that these movements are intertwined. To sit on the sidelines while these voters, present and future, are “screaming” to be heard and represented is frustrating.
But just because we’re frustrated in the Democratic party or even the GOP if you believe in its older version of fiscal conservatism, not moral hypocrisy (back when it was a sensible alternative) – we shouldn’t dismay.
Politics aside, what can we do with this concept of New Power. Up to this point we’ve talked about New Power in the context of trying to get people, mainly politicians and elected officials, to do things for us. But how can we use this power of activism and engagement for direct civic action.
Instead of just lobbying for more money for education – why not organize a mentoring program implemented by you and your fellow community members. Every community, regardless of it socioeconomic level has human resources that go untapped just because they don’t fit into the normal realm of government-run programs. For example: the generational disconnect of retired people and adolescents is a crime of waste of resources that we can not afford to ignore any longer.
Instead of just lobbying for more money for elder care, what’s stopping you and your friends at your local watering hole from organizing a food give-away for elderly people and shut-ins. Or why not set-up a weekly coffee delivery for those who don’t get out, isolated from friends and family – if they even have any.
Instead of lobbying for legislation for equal pay across all genders – you and your neighbors should patronize those businesses that provide it without being legally forced to. And by the same token – those businesses who don’t should be shunned and avoided. No one’s forcing you to shop at the sexist bigot down the street. Hit them where it hurts most – their business.
Not all change can happen at street level through direct civic engagement though. Changes in federal laws – such as immigration policy, and international trade pacts can only be affected through lobbying and getting legislators to do the right thing.
But still, amazing things can happen without legislation. We just have to open our eyes to the possibilities.
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.
And John Gage didn’t have Twitter and Facebook.
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 well-being is priority. Or even better email me, firstname.lastname@example.org and we can set up time to have a conversation.