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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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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“What do we do now?” A 2017 Call-To-Action!

From way back I’ve been interested in politics. Actually interested may be an understatement. I remember being consoled while crying by the principal in 1968 as a 4th grader in North Dakota. It was the day after the Humphrey/Nixon election and I couldn’t understand why the black constituent in the South side of Chicago didn’t turnout to vote as Democrats expected. If they would have; Illinois would have swung to Humphrey, no one would have had a majority (George Wallace was also in the race) – and the election would have been thrown into the House of Representatives. Having a Democratic majority, the House most likely would have voted in Hubert Humphrey as president. And at the time that was a big deal to me … for some reason.

It wasn’t that I liked one party more than the other – I just seemed to like Humphrey. I hung around at the campaign headquarters for both parties that year, pretty much every day after school. My room was so full of campaign paraphernalia that I had to move yard signs to even get in bed at night. When you’re nine, reasons for doing things don’t seem to make as much sense looking back. Regardless, the event was permanently imprinted in mind and started me down the path of political obsession.

Well here we are in 2017 … and it was another of those: “What the hell happened?” But this time I need to add: “Why the hell did they vote like they did?” Only the it’s not just the south side of Chicago – it’s a good portion of the whole damn country.

Tell me why 42% of women voted for Donald Trump. This is astounding since the proof is overwhelming he seems to have only marginal respect for the gender. And then we have the recipients of Obamacare who because of financial hardship or pre-existing conditions had previously no access to health insurance. While receiving heavy subsidies often enabling them to be insured for the first time – they chose to vote for Trump even though a cornerstone of his campaign was to repeal Obamacare. What gives?

alice-in-wonderland

It’s been a few weeks since the election and I’ve been trying to write a piece that will help me understand this whole political craziness that seems to have overtaken us in America. Yet again I feel like Alice in the rabbit hole. I’ve probably started and stopped more times than I can count. I have five drafts going in different directions only to metaphorically rip the paper from the typewrite and crumple it up.

Maybe I was going through the stages of grief with each draft being a stage I progressed through. That might a bit strong since I had no real affinity for Hillary Clinton even though I did vote for her. But for the sake of the metaphor, let’s say I arrived at the acceptance stage. Now since I’ve accepted the fact that a guy known for “You’re Fired” will be president of the United States – this is me coming to grips with it. So here is my 2017 Call-To-Action.

But first …

The election is over and it’s time to spend our collective energies, Democrats and Republicans alike, building up America – not tearing it down. With a Republican congress, and considering politics trump (pun intended) civic responsibility and even basic human decency … there’s no hope of Donald Trump of not taking office – and probably little chance of impeachment either. Plus there was a hell of a lot of problems that needed fixing before Trump. How much more self-inflicted damage can the country take.

And I’m not in favor of protests and civil disobedience for the sake of protesting what might happen. You wouldn’t know it but Trump hasn’t done anything yet. Will he? That remains to be seen. What comes out of Trump’s mouth is not a good indication of his future behavior. The monumental barriers to getting anything done in Washington will likely be his biggest obstacle, not protests. Right now the last thing we need is to risk further division. And living in Montana, further division will not be a pleasant thing. The people doing the pushing back are well-armed and are pretty excited about Obama not being in the White House. There’s not a day that goes by when there’s not letters to editor in the Billings Gazette hating on Hillary Clinton … still. Anything to temper this euphoria won’t be met laying down. Plus, time spent protesting is time spent away from building your community, which is positive regardless of who the president is … especially Trump.

We can all obsess over our country’s government and its merry band of narcissistic lords and ladies climbing all over each other to be the first up the stairs to the top of the ivory tower. Their actions are little different from a meth addict “chasing the bag.” And as with the addict, where the only thing that matters is the drug … most of them are motivated only by the psychopathic drive for power. Nothing we do is going to change this.

This behavior is not limited to Washington D.C. either. Let’s look at North Carolina. Successful efforts by a Republican governor and a Republican legislature has gerrymandered the state into a farce of inequity. According to recent report by Electoral Integrity Project, the state can no longer be considered a democracy with an electoral score falling next to that of Cuba and Sierra Leon. In fact North Carolina is not only the worst state in the Unite States for unfair districting – but the worst entity in the world ever analyzed by the Electoral Integrity Project. Chalk one up for our system of checks and balances.

Partisan behavior at the expense of the people is not limited to Republicans either. As they come to the realization that Trump is the leader of the free world – how will the Democratic party react to his administration? Will they follow the example of the Republicans after the Obama election and take obstructionism to even higher levels, putting the American people they are sworn to protect, directly in the crosshairs? That’s the tactics Elizabeth Warren, a probable 2020 presidential candidate, wants to use. With the old battle-ax Nancy Pelosi still firmly planted on the throne of the Democrat party in the House — it’s a safe bet that delegation will do the same. Being a long time adherent of the party of supposed progress and new ideas, saying this gives me no pleasure.

Over just last week I’ve pruned over 100 people from my follow list on Twitter; not Trump supporters (there wasn’t a whole lot there to start with), but people I love. Unfortunately they’re avid (and sometimes rapid) Clinton voters who can’t let go of the election. “The election was stolen by Putin” or “Trump voters aren’t smart enough to know what’s good for them.” Whether that’s the case or not isn’t their’s to say – nor mine. In many cases they weren’t even voting for Trump. They were voting against Clinton – and that’s a Democrat problem. Regardless, I shutter to think what the streets of America will be like as Trump’s verbose campaign claims fail to materialize, and Democratic obstructionist policies are made out to be the reason why – regardless if they are.

But enough of the doom and gloom. I see little value in this masochistic exercise that results in little more than depression, anger or worse. I’m already close to the tipping point.

A few of days ago I had a Twitter exchange with a buddy of mine from Oregon, Christina Bowen. She suggested I put together a list of action items people can do locally as a response to the upcoming Trump Armageddon (my word, not hers). This conversation dovetailed with my own official realization that “we are where we are” and “it is what is.” I’ve worked through my personal stages of grief and “where I’m at” is angry and very motivated. I’ve been beating this “government isn’t the answer” drum for years now so this Trump thing really shouldn’t surprise me. What it’s done though has ratcheted up my sense of urgency.

Build Your Community With Direct Action

Building a playground accomplishes a lot more than just raising money to pay a contractor or expecting the government to do it. It’s yours. You and your neighbors built it. It’s a point of connection, a commonality – something we need desperately right now. The act of coming together and working together with those of opposing views, political and other, is a greater benefit than what you built. Now you’re looking at your neighbor as exactly that, a neighbor – not a Democrat or a Republican. He’s not just a label reduced to a single polarizing characteristic. He’s a person. He has kids that go to the same school as yours and play together. He’s a person who has hopes and dreams like you. And none of it have anything to do with who he voted for in 2016 presidential election.

Helping a family inflicted with cancer goes a lot further than participating in a cancer walk where who knows where the money ends up … except probably not where you were walking. While I applaud the camaraderie of cancer walkers, and runners and bikers – the same can be accomplished by directly helping those inflicted by the disease, and family members alike. Having recently gone through chemotherapy and likely having to face it again this year, cancer’s tentacles of horribleness do not end with the patient. Being a pseudo-caregiver to my elderly parents – I know.

These situations exemplify why I built the Community 3.0. When I began, Obama was president and Clinton by all accounts was up next. At the time the need for direct civic action was important … but now local civic action and volunteerism is an imperative if we expect to hang on to any semblance of a developed nation, let alone one like the one we’re accustomed to. And a case could be made that the very survival of the planet lies in the efforts of us in our cities and neighborhoods. Our cities are us – not the city council, the county commissioners or the mayor. 

Our work in the streets must be arm and arm with our friends and neighborhoods – no matter if they’re conservative, liberal, progressive or libertarian. The unemployed miner in conservative Wyoming and the minimum wage hotel worker in liberal Los Angeles will have to deal with the same government action and inaction. We have to resist the urge to hate and be vindictive towards other of the opposite political party. We must be the antidote for the unbridled narcissism of our politicians hell-bent on the retention of power at any expense … including ours.

Jennifer Lawrence’s turn as Katniss has come and gone but I fear the Hunger Games may very well be upon us in a real sense if we don’t band together and mend the social safety net and change our expectations of civic responsibility. How far away are we from literally fiction become reality. For some – we may already be there.

“What we need is a an entirely new world of possibility that transcends the insane politics and diminished leadership of our times.” – Andrew Markell

In the piece What do the genetics of a Bengal Cat and the evolution of economics have in common? I concepted an alternative governance model birthed from the union of the David Hume philosophy of “spontaneous order” and our inherent benevolence, and Elinor Ostrom’s “opportunity of the commons.” Government will still exist in its present form but relied upon less, economically, psychologically and sociologically. It would be augmented by pragmatic community-based action originating in the locally owned business community. The Norwegians have a name for this type of civic calling – dugnad: Unpaid voluntary, orchestrated community work.

Central to this hybrid alternative is collaboration of small businesses and the community in solving civic problems directly through the Front Porch civic gathering concept. In Minot, North Dakota where I grew up we had Charlie’s Restaurant and Elks Lodge. These were the places where the “business of the community” was done – more so than at the weekly city council meetings. These Front Porches were where ideas were hatched, risks taken and the future of Minot was mapped out … often under the influence of a libation or two. There was no formal membership or no elections – just people who voluntarily wanted to make things happen and better the town.

Make 2017 The Year Of The Front Porch

Why not make 2017 the year you start a Front Porch in your community?Don’t just include the usual suspects, but those the usual suspects pay little attention to. Find the people in your community who always seem to be new helping out – yet aren’t part of the power elite. Most of all – encourage people from all socioeconomic groupings to participate. Imagine what a single mother raising a child in a motel has to offer in perspective.

But most of all, include your community’s young people. Your local students should be your “foot soldiers of change” empowered to create a community that fits their needs and desires, not just those of their parents. They have the ideas and energy to guide your community into the future, not hold it in the past. You can’t afford to ignore this invaluable asset.

Under this model Front Porches (small businesses) will sponsor volunteer campaigns or Solutions. These Solutions can range from organizing a cleanup effort, to fixing a playground, to even spearheading a high school mentoring or apprentice program. Whether young or old, any community resident should be able to get involved. And on top of it helping and supporting others may be key to living a longer and healthier life, according to new research from the University of Basel in Switzerland.

I could add more action items to the list, but I’m taking the advice from the New Years resolution experts. Focus on one thing. So there you be. Go out and start a Front Porch and organize a Solution to one of your community’s pressing needs. Just imagine if everyone did the same – or least helped out with one of them. You’d have a community on volunteer steroids.

old woman posterize

Isolation, Illness … And Hate

Over the last couple of weeks several articles surfaced on the detrimental health effects of loneliness on the elderly and how it’s becoming an epidemic. And things always seem 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 elderly either. The same can even be said when we feel isolated in our communities because our religious, social or political views.

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 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?

I don’t remember a time when there’s been a civic Call-To-Action like this. Will we use this urgency to build a more connected society focused on doing and helping … or will we let it slip further into the abyss of intractable allegiance to political ideology and hate? No party or candidate is going to do it for us – no matter how many campaign promises.

This is an opportunity for America to wake up and create a new set of civic habits – habits that revolve around direct engagement and extreme neighborliness – regardless the neighbor.

In 2017 I challenge all of you to pull yourself away from Facebook and Twitter, go out get your hands dirty and actually make your community a better place. The United States constitution begins with “We the people…” not “We the minions under the spell of the clowns in Washington D.C. waiting passively for someone to save our asses.” If we can’t muster up enough energy and care enough about our neighbors to make an effort … maybe we don’t even deserve to live in the country our forefathers founded. Think about it.

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

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Related Posts:

Plugging the Small Town “Brain Drain”

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.” They are revered not unlike that of the gladiators ancient Rome. Stories of their exploits hold high priority in the morning newspaper and on the 10:00 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 of this same age group 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 the 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 … especially in small towns and rural America.

I grew up in a relatively small city in North Dakota of 35,000. However, because of the neighboring Air Force Base and structure of my high school my graduating class was fairly large, 600+ students. Like other towns and cities, the students athletes were highly regarded and well-known. I participated in sports and was on the varsity on a couple of them, but was no means a star – far from it. My focus in school was more academics and government; I was the Student Body President my senior year. My tenure at this position was far from passive. Programs and events I initiated improved student participation to levels never seen (and probably not since then) at our high school. Yet when I walked down the down the street with my friends from the basketball or football team, adults (even community leaders) stopped to engage them – not me. This didn’t make any difference to me at the time. In fact I hadn’t even thought about until recently. But when I did – it became the genesis of this post.

Unfortunately, I think this dynamic is all too common on the streets of most American communities. As a society we celebrate our student gladiators – but our student leaders … not so much. But what would happen if both were celebrated – or at least acknowledged. And why limit it to just leaders and athletes, but also to any young person who had shown a drive to excel in their field of passion, say art or music or entrepreneurship? What effect would that have on the engagement level of students other than athletes? And what effect would this acknowledged engagement have on them after graduation (assuming that even happens)? Imagine the sense of community kinship that could be nurtured with these engaged young people early on. Recognition plays a critical role the in the positive psychological development of the young brain. Any parent with teenagers can attest to this.

And aside from the positive individual development – what other effects would this evolved way of how we look at our youth have. After all, those that excel early in life, whether it be in government, in leadership or creatively – will probably excel as adults somewhere when opportunities present themselves. And why shouldn’t they excel in the towns and cities they were raised in. After I left my home town to go college – I returned after I graduated. I tried to get something entrepreneurial off the ground, but after a year, I left and moved to Minneapolis never to return. Most college graduates in my position wouldn’t have even given it a year. Fortunately for me, there was a local entrepreneur who was a friend of my father who extended a hand to me. It was this hand, the recognition that someone in my hometown cared enough to want me to come back – that brought me back. Unfortunately the community infrastructure wasn’t set up or integrated enough to accommodate young entrepreneurs or provide me a creative platform that would keep me around.

Small town

Plugging the “Brain Drain” and Cheating the Grim Reaper of Small Town U.S.A.

The phenomenon of the defection of young talent, or “brain drain,” is very real in rural America – even if many civic leaders and politicians don’t want to admit it. Small town communities have pride when they graduate their kids off to big town universities. But really all they’ve done is provide the minor league system to ready their young people to star in the big leagues elsewhere.

Rather than provide their high achieving young people the platform to return to and excel, they practice the “out of sight, out of mind” thing. Or worse yet, many small towns are so seeped in tradition and “the good old days” there’s no room for the next generation and the new ideas of what they think their home town could look like. One of my most read and shared posts ever was “Cheating the Grim Reaper” of Small Town U.S.A. In this piece I discussed a strategy how small towns and rural communities could create a sustainable strategy for the future to counteract the inevitability of decline that would occur if they didn’t adapt. One common thread was prevalent throughout the piece: embrace change and specifically embrace young people. And if this holds true – then why not have the young people who you embrace be ones you already know and who know you and the traditions of you community. We dedicate entire industries to offering expertise on business and family succession planning. Why do we not have or do the same for the places we live?

Shouldn’t our goal be to create a platform designed to engage our younger generations in their home towns while they are still a captive audience in high school – in hopes they will return after college and succeed us in the roles of civic leadership.

The Community 3.0 Student Civic Engagement Model

The purpose of my community empowerment project, Community 3.0, is to connect small businesses to the members of the community in efforts to solve its community’s problems directly by bringing back the Front Porch civic gathering concept. 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 allows us to organize and take action directly, not wait on the sidelines while traditional institutions and government may or may not act.

Under this 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. These Solutions can range from organizing a cleanup effort, to fixing a playground, to even spearheading a high school mentoring or apprentice 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.

The Student Anti-Congress is Community 3.o‘s vehicle for the younger generations to get their voices heard civically. Here they devise strategies on how they can build their community into a place where they would like stay or come back to after college. It’s way for them to actively engage and create a sense of civic ownership in their community, presently and for the future.

“The Bridge is a group of civic oriented teachers and other community members who wish to bridge the chasm to engaged adulthood for today’s students. They help transition young people (members of the Student Anti-Congress) and pave the way into their communities outside of school by offering direction to Front Porch based volunteer and apprenticeship opportunities. The members of “The Bridge” also act as coordinators connecting students to the community’s strategic master plan or “Well-Being Vision Map” that is tactically implemented by the community’s Front Porch network with direction from the community’s Vision Team.

Student engagement can take place on an individual basis through mentoring and internships with the community’s merchant Front Porch network. The liaison efforts of “The Bridge” will help coordinate these efforts. But also engagement can also be jump-started through larger school-sponsored programs designed.

The Center for Green Schools provides participating “green schools” the opportunity to reduce the environmental impact of school facilities, both buildings and grounds, while having a positive effect on student and teacher health, and increasing environmental literacy among students and graduates. Working directly with teachers, students, administrators, and their communities, green schools create programs, resources and partnerships that transform schools into healthy environmentally conscious learning environments.

Green School learning environments show students how the connection to their environment both in school and in their community, is not only important … but imperative. Imagine high school students canvasing their city giving businesses complementary energy audits and then recommend and help implement solutions through internships. The intent is to take these experiences in school and turn into to a lifetime of environmental stewardship. And through the Green Apple Day of Service program The Center for Green Schools is taking this instruction to the streets through inclusive community service projects, often those organized by students. Any of the above mentioned Community 3.0 Solutions qualify here.

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

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

Green School efforts and Farm-to-School-to-Market are excellent examples of how organized school-sponsored programs can plant the seeds of positive student/community engagement and the collaboration that can bear fruit long after high school graduation … often directly benefiting the communities the students grew up in.

But that’s only half the story …

But 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 for their home towns. Therefore it’s integral that the our local colleges assist in the continuation of the civic engagement planted while their students were still in high school. Think of their role as that of an incubator. Whether it be specific classes designed for students to learn the mechanics of being leaders in their respective home towns – or just endorsement and synthesis with the programs began during their students’ years before college. 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.

“Going Home” College/Community Initiative

The “Going Home” Initiative is designed around a progression of organized college participation levels. However wonderful it would be if all institutions of higher learning recognized they are tied inextricably to the communities from which their students come from and acted accordingly … we’ll take whatever effort we can get. Below are five levels of commitment – gradually increasing in participation.

Acceptance: The bar is pretty low if 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 – but it’s often not recognized. This interconnected view of the individual (student or other) as a part of the community ecosystem is a fundamental tenet of Community 3.0.

Transition program support: A step up from acceptance is acting on it. This 2nd level recognizes the programs that were started in the high schools of the communities that feed their student body have merit and should be continued even with the originating student being away from home. Ways to support this is nurturing the continuance of communication between the mentoring parties at home and the student. Dialogue during 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 home town issues and Solutions into existing classwork. College resources should be opened up to non-credited home town project work. Colleges can even sponsor entrepreneurial or cause-based contests to further develop college relevant opportunities in the home town communities.

Authorized independent credit: Level 4 expounds upon “Transition program augmentation” by authorizing independent credit for community-based research and project development. 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. It’s also crucial to have professorial and staff support during this level since they will also be acting as informal mentors via their involvement.

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, 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 “Going Home” set of goals.

It is the intention of us at Community 3.0 to make the “Going Home” Initiative a major player in the battle to fight the rural “brain drain.” Institutions willing to join in and commit to active participation in this battle will be acknowledged so by Community 3.0. With this acknowledgement member institutions will have a potentially potent marketing tool in their recruitment efforts with small town talent and the civic leaders from those locales.

Student Engagement and the Big Picture

Imbalance in talent across geographies benefits nobody. And this is exactly what we’re seeing in the United States and many other western nations. A deficit of talent in a community, such as rural ones, starves it of a sustainable future. And an over-abundance of talent in an area drives wages down, while raising housing costs. We’re currently seeing this in many large urban areas that are witnessing high levels of inequality and social strife. Neither situation is sustainable … let alone preferred.

These unbalanced situations are remedied by creating opportunities in the towns where young people are raised … rather than having them “jump ship” to supposed greener pastures elsewhere. The most effective solution is to empower these young people by offering them opportunities to help design their communities while still high school and then having them gain further relevant knowledge in college so they’re prepared to implement their ideas when they return.

But the boon to small town talent retention does stop there. Imagine the cross-generational benefits and co-mentoring opportunities that can materialize when the elderly teach the young and young teach the elderly. Aside from alleviating underlying generational tensions, community talent retention accommodates the ‘carrying on’ of traditions and skills. These relationships will then form a cohesive sustainable community designed to last and prosper in the future while retaining its sense of historical identity.

Many generations ago a community had to look after itself – the young and the old. They had no choice. Their survival was at stake. They didn’t have the sophisticated market system of exchange spanning unseen geographies nor live in the relative luxury we do now. They just had themselves. And with age expectancy increasing and the Millennial generation being smaller than the retiring Boomer generation was at this time in their lives, we have a ticking time bomb. Cross-generational cooperation will not be an option it’ll be a necessity – and mainly one for the older generations.

Young people pursuing higher education attainment are trained to think. And hopefully their college experiences includes interactions and collaborations with those different from they are. From it let’s hope they will develop a diverse mindset, one that shuns polarizing ideologies often prevalent in small towns and rural areas. This resulting more diverse and accepting worldview will hopefully then rub off on their neighbors in their home town, both young and old. And better yet these expatriates will return with friends and significant others in tow ready to assist, socially and economically.

This “bridging of the gap” of ideologies and political views is especially vital today in America’s current toxic intolerable political climate. Existing residents will need to mix with those who are coming back. The young and old (with different views) working together to strengthen what they both call “home.” This is how we combat the “brain drain” eating away at our small towns.

All this won’t happen on its own though. Even with the release of the new long-waited Happy Potter book, there are no Hogwarts graduates ready to wave a magic wand.

First – as leaders in our communities and schools, we need to realize that there’s more to our young than football and basketball. All our students need to be acknowledged and be given the support to be what they can be. Their input and ideas must not to be shunned – but embraced. And we need to realize the “brain drain” is real, not just something that happens in other places. The rose-colored glasses of our home town fanaticism provides us little help when we need to focus on the stark reality of our town’s future.

Next – our youth organizations, both local and national, need to realize they have an important role in this initiative. It’s not enough to just lend developmental hand – but acknowledge our young people look to you for guidance. You need to tell them with the right planning and community support, their best opportunities for the future might very well be in the towns where they grew up.

And finally, last but definitely not least – our colleges, the storied institutions of high learning, you must realize it is your job to not just send our young people out to sea of “real life” untethered after graduation, but rather help them help the communities where they come from and where they choose to reside. For without these communities you’d have no students … and no institution.

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Jennifer Lawrence Poker House

In 2008, a teenage Jennifer Lawrence starred in her first movie, “Poker House.” Three sisters fought for life with their prostitute, drug addicted mother in a run-down Council Bluffs flop house. In the opening scene, Lawrence, fifteen, who had just got done kicking out her mother’s last ‘john’ at 6:00 AM, explained her life in a nutshell … a line we should all take to heart.

“The man in the white hat, the man on the white horse … he ain’t coming.”

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Such is the same situation in the small towns of America. No one in any hat or on any horse is going to save the day.

I challenge you all to help me create and implement an integrated solution that will solve this problem of talent loss that is decimating small towns and rural communities. It’s not going away … and it’s going to take all of us to fix it.

I can be reached below in the comments section below, email at clayforsberg@gmail.com or on Twitter @clayforsberg.

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Let’s Clean Up the World!

When I started the Community 3.0 project a few years ago my goals was to synthesize community civic empowerment with organic small business development. In doing that I proposed the concept of turning locally owned businesses into a concept I termed “Front Porches.” A Front Porch was a hub for informal community gatherings designed to promote civic engagement through volunteerism. I created examples of twenty projects, or Solutions, a Front Porch could create to serve its community. These projects included both solving the problems that had fallen through the cracks or taking advantage of the opportunities that presented themselves.

The Solution that always seemed to gravitate to the front of my consciousness was“cleaning up the community.” Clean up efforts also seemed to be the one thing everyone could coalesce upon. No one wants their neighborhoods littered with unsightly garbage. Plus before anything else can be done – you need a clean slate … a platform to build on, literally and figuratively.

Do you ever walk past that vacant lot and wonder what could be … what could be if someone did something, anything. If someone just cleaned it up, that would be a start. But then, who knows what we could make it. And maybe if this vacant lot became something – something beautiful, then maybe it would catch on. In 1982, James Wilson and George Kelling wrote an article in the Atlantic Monthly titled “Broken Windows.” Here’s an example from the article:

Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it’s unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside. Or consider a pavement. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of refuse from take-out restaurants there or even break into cars.

This article became the basis on the “Broken Windows Theory.” In 1994 Bill Bratton became the New York City Police Commissioner under Rudy Giuliani.  A cornerstone of Bratton’s reign was the implementation of the  “Broken Windows” philosophy in New York. A portion of the police budget was put towards the clean-up of neighborhood in high-risk crime areas, including repairing broken windows in abandoned buildings. Bratton even went so far as to repaint subway cars each night if they had been “tagged” during operation that day. Every car left the terminal the next morning “clean.”

“Help Me … I’m Dirty” is Community 3.0‘s version of implementing the“Broken Windows” philosophy through its network of Front Porches. Its premise is that a when a community has a clean environment, free from debris, vandalism and of course broken windows … it has a much higher likelihood of staying that way. It’s a start to all other things a community can do to better itself and help its residents to realize their “Perfect Worlds.”

Lets Do It WOrld logo

Let’s Do It! World

A couple of months ago I was tagged on a Facebook post by David Wilson,Do NGOs Still Have a Right to Exist?“ The topic of the post centered around the lack of scrutiny we put on no-profits and NGOs (non-governmental organizations) on where and how they spend the money we give them. Seldom is there any public discussion on the effectiveness of the strategic and tactically operations.

I decided to comment; but little did I know that comment turned into one of those moments of serendipity that may prove to be a pivotal point in my life. As I was writing, another comment one popped up right in front me. Rather than finishing mine, I stopped and decided to read the comment that appeared first. That comment was from you Kadi Henk from the Estonia based NGO, Let’s Do It! World.” Kadi is their Director of Partnerships, and one of the core members of the organization.

Let’s Do It! World is a civic-led mass movement that began in Estonia in 2008 when 50,000 people united together to clean up the entire country in just five hours. Since then, Let’s Do It! has spread this model—one country in one day—around the world. To date, 112 countries and 14 million people have joined us to clean up illegal waste.

On September 8, 2018, World Cleanup Day, people in 150 countries will stand up against the global trash problem, making it the biggest positive civic action the world has seen. Imagine a powerful “green wave” starting in Japan and ending in Hawaii with hundred of millions of people taking positive action together on the very same day.

Let’s Do It! World has never been only about cleaning up waste. We also aim to unite the global community, raise awareness and implement true change to achieve our final goal– a clean and healthy planet.

Kadi’s response was articulate, and considering the topic of the post – very elegantly non-defensive. Personally, I don’t think I could have articulated the way she did without “throwing out some attitude.” Without even finishing my comment, which meant I had to open another Facebook tab – I had to find out who you Kadi was. And once I did, I sent a “friend” request. Within minutes you not only accepted, but ask for a LinkedIn “connection” and messaged me requesting we talk about collaboration possibilities. We did a few days later … and now I’m spearheading the efforts in the United States for Let’s Do It! World.

Be a Shepherd

It’s time for us all to assume a new role, a new place for us in our communities and in the world. It’s not enough to just agree the status quo isn’t working and move on expecting someone else will fix it. We must assume the responsibility ourselves. We must be the guides. In his brilliant piece from 2011, “From Patterns of Emergent Cities: 1. The Founder,” Seb Paquet gives us, those who must be the shepherds, a philosophical guide to what we must provide those in our communities.

A departure: an escape route from the old and tired, into an open space with few constraints;

A sense of possibility— the promise of a new freedom he has had a glimpse of, but has not yet experienced;

Mystery, adventure, and challenge— an experience; danger, even!

An opportunity to contribute his unique talents towards creating something meaningful that, in his eyes, deserves to exist;

And finally, the chance to design a new ‘home’, a new life for ourselves and others.

This departure from “the old and tired” of the our current civic malaise must be replaced not with just new faces; because the problems lie much deeper than just “who.” The problems stem from decades of systemic decay of an institution never designed to solve all that ail the 300,000,000 of us alone in the United States. The foundation of all society (both here and abroad) must rest on the underpinnings of direct civic participation and “sweat equity.” And by participation I mean volunteerism – whether that “sweat equity” be manual labor, expertise or organization.

Now is the time … and a perfect place to start is cleaning up our communities by joining me in the Let’s Do It! World effort. Even though Let’s Do It! is a worldwide ambition, my focus is here in the United States. America is big place, in all context, so please help me. We have a little over two years to put this together … but in a country of over 330 million people – there’s no time to waste. Our goal is to clean every neighborhood and community in the country. And while doing this I intend to create a platform to build on. Imagine this platform as a network of Front Porches and the clean up will be just the start. Because once we have the platform and network of grassroots civic empowerment – reliance on government dysfunction and juvenile political squabbling will be a memory.

I’m looking for individuals that are ready to transform their respective neighborhoods, cities, and the world by taking on the following roles. Roles correspond to geographic locales or as I call them – Nodes.

Each Census defined Micropolitan area (ranging between 15,000 and 150,000 and averaging about 50,000) will be a designated Node and will have a project leader or Community Empowerment Concierge (CEC) coordinating the efforts. Census defined Metropolitan Areas, being larger, will be Node segmented per 150,000 people, sub-divided by county (or further if necessary).

Director

Think of the Director as the one casts the production, only the production is a multi-community engagement platform. I’m looking for five Directors. Each Director will be responsible for identify and recruiting leaders(CECs) for each community Node. Once these CECs are in place the Directors will be responsible for training and overseeing their efforts. The Director positions are core members of Community 3.0 and their input on all matters is not only welcomed … but expected.

Community Empowerment Concierge (CEC)

A CEC is the local leader. Each designated Node (approximately 3000 nationwide) will be led by a CEC. He or she is the catalyst, or concierge to community and neighborhood engagement. Their main role is set up and organize Front Porches, normally in the community’s locally owned businesses, but not exclusively. Once set up, these Front Porches will act as launching pads community direct action volunteer projects, or Solutions. The CEC will also assist these Merchant Front Porch in installing the 3.0 Contributor Experience Platform. The platform is Community 3.0‘s proprietary 1-to-1 marketing and loyalty program designed specifically for locally owned small and medium-sized  businesses.

Once set up, the CEC will be the one to keep “stoking the fire” of civic altruistic momentum. The first order of business will be community clean-up organized in conjunction with the worldwide efforts of Let’s Do It! World.

James Rizzi - Summer in the City

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

We will discuss how compensation works for both the Director and CEC position upon contact. However, involvement in this project of societal evolution should not be determined by monetary compensation alone. We are looking for people who are cause driven and want to make the world a better place. However cliché that might sound, it’s imperative. The motto that underpins everything we do is: “Leave person, every place and everything better off from you being there.” You must want to be part of something that is only as big as the people involved and at the same time is only limited by our imaginations. You have to want to create something that can change society from the ground up … with you being one of the underpinning cornerstones. It’s this network and foundation that we build that will support not only the Let’s Do It! World project, but many other altruistic ones … possibly even one you are currently working on. Community 3.0 is a platform for everyone’s contribution and a vehicle to realize dreams and aspirations.

I ask for your help. Who do you think would be interested in this opportunity – colleague, a friend, a family member or even a student? Do you happen to know anyone who’s cramped in his or her job – someone who’s great but hasn’t been given the opportunity to do great work? Someone who’s stuck in a situation that feels like a job instead of a career? We need someone with drive and willingness to learn, and above all … a commitment to making things better.

And as I mentioned above – join me and, Make every person, every place and everything better off from you being there. This would be a great way to do it.

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Please direct your referrals, ideas and questions to clayforsberg@gmail.com.

America and Its Exceptionalism

I wasn’t going to post anything today, but Dave ‘Tex’ Smith, a good colleague of mine from Australia posted a wonderful tribute to America yesterday on Facebook. Aside from the fact that I was honored to be called out in it (in a good way) … it got me thinking about whether or not we really deserve the credit Tex gave us.

AmericanFlag
A symbol of exceptionalism?

Today a lot of you will be at the barbecue, waiving flags and celebrating the 4th of July. This is the day that us in the United States are supposed to celebrate our independence from the tyranny of King George III of England. And along with this comes talks of how great this country is … its exceptionalism.

Well, I ain’t waiving no flag! Now don’t get me wrong. I love the United States and have no intention of going anywhere anytime soon. But that doesn’t mean in its current state this country is exceptional. And I didn’t live in the past so I don’t how great the United States was or wasn’t.

But all I know … it isn’t that great right now. Let me first qualify. I’m talking about this country’s institutions (i.e. government, etc.) – not its people, well most of them. Most of the people are great.

I don’t know how a country can be great when its government is mired nonsensical partisan dysfunction and incompetence. Petrified in gridlock solidified by selfish ideology detrimental to the constituents it’s there to serve, this is a government bought and paid for by the upper 1%. This is a government filled with those who consider themselves leaders, when the real leaders are living next to you and doing the real work.

I don’t know how a country can be great when it seems it has complete disregard for its future, its children. It has let its public school system fall into rote memorization, standardized testing disrepair. And in addition to that, a good portion of the government wants to cut subsidies to less fortunately children … through no fault of their own, often go hungry.

I don’t know how a country can be great when it lets twenty percent of its population exist in a perpetual welfare state. And instead of coming up with ways to maybe help, the only talk on Capitol Hill is: “How can we add to this percentage by enacting a Hunger Games budget. America to many of them is the land of the survival of the fittest. The rest be damned.

I don’t know how a country can be great when it views its environment as its dumping ground – its toilet. At every turn it blocks international efforts to save the planet, siding with glutenous polluters and narcissistic oil companies instead. And instead of trying to curb further pollution, its government is making inroads turning back clock … back to a dirtier time when coal ruled.

This be an election year, I wish I could say the prospect for governmental leadership in the future looked brighter – but needless to say, I can’t. Our presidential options consist of a career politician who is the very definition of a Washington insider …  and an orange clown who nobody knows what level of Dante’s Hell he could relegate us to. To put our future in the hands of either, thinking they will lead us to the “promised land,” is well … very un-exceptional.

For the record, I have more faith in the insider.

In lieu of all of this, I’ve decided to come up with my own Declaration. I’m going to call it “The Perfect World Declaration” .. in honor of the name of this blog.

“The Perfect World Declaration”

I declare, we the people of the United States of America, break free of the tyranny of thinking the government and all its related institutions are there to act in our, the populace, best interests.

Instead, I declare we take care of ourselves. I also declare we assist our friends and neighbors in taking care of themselves. For what matters most when all else has let us down, is our community. And only we can save our communities.

I declare we not depend on the government’s ill focused education system. But instead, I declare we view ourselves as the primary educators of our children, with whatever coming from the system as an extra benefit. For more is learned in the time outside of school than inside the restrictive walls of the classroom.

And I declare we as humans acknowledge that we are connected to a system greater than just ourselves. Our fates are forever connected to the land, water, air and all its inhabitants – animate or inanimate.

If you take anything from this diatribe – may it be this:

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

I believe American exceptionalism lies not its past and definitely not in with government and its constipated institutions. Rather I believe it dwells in the potential of its people to band together and lead – not only here, but also by setting an inclusive progressive view all the world can gain from. But this potential will not surface on its own. It’ll take a collective effort – one that involve a focus of commonalities, not differences.  

Now go out there and make things better … and don’t burn the steak.

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I can be found on Twitter at @clayforsberg.

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Related Posts:

The Caregiving Dilemma …

One of the most difficult circumstances affecting families is the care of an elderly member. I remember when I was growing up in North Dakota thirty years ago, common practice was to put them in an “old folks home.” Or should I say commit them, commit them to their death. I hated visiting my grandmother in the Lutheran Home in Minot. Not because I didn’t want to see her, but rather the place. It was an abyss of hopelessness. Everyone there was just waiting, just waiting for the inevitable staring them in the face every morning … if they even dared to look in the mirror.

Often family members don’t live nearby. They’re states removed. And the patriarchs and matriarchs of the family don’t want to move. Often where they’re living, they’ve lived for decades. It’s the only place they know. What few friends they have left are nearby. The garden, the porch … it’s home. 

The only other option is to put them in an “old folks home.” Often these “old folks” can take care of themselves with just a little assistance. It’s the younger family members who want them sent away. It puts them at ease. Out of sight – out of mind. This way they can tell themselves they’ve done something. But instead – what if that “something” was just that little assistance. It may only be by checking in on them every other day, making sure they’re taking their medication, washing the dishes, washing their clothes or making sure they have a supply of healthy food. Or much of time it may just be sitting down and having a cup of coffee or taking a walk around the neighborhood and listening … listening to stories of the way things used to be in time when things were simpler.

old woman posterize

In the last few weeks there have been a couple newsworthy stories here in Montana on the caregiving front. First, Montana’s Democratic Senator, Jon Tester, announced he was proposing a bill in Congress intended to assist caregivers, often family members, who lend their time and financial resources in aid of others. Tester’s bill offers up to a $3000 tax credit for anyone who invests at least $2000 assisting the elderly.

While well intended, I look at the proposal as little more than political posturing. Caregivers who most need assistance probably don’t pay $3000 total in taxes, since a good portion of their time is spent rendering unpaid assistance to those needing care. And even if they did, I didn’t see the proposal offering any concessions for investment in time and labor – only hard financial outlay.

Being a caregiver myself for my two elderly parents, I can empathize with those put in this situation, voluntarily or not. To not take on this role isn’t even a question. You just do it, regardless of what effect it had on my personal life. I view my job description here as, “I make sure things don’t go sideways.” I make sure there’s good food on the table, food bought from the end isles at the grocery store … not from boxes in the middle. I make sure they realize they can’t do the things they used to do. What is it about ladders. Ladders and old men are like bees and honey. But all this is nothing compared to the effort needed to make sure “sideways” doesn’t include mental atrophy. I’m living in their world. Mine is fifteen hundred miles away in Los Angeles. But I recognize this is what I have to do and deal with it accordingly.

The second bit of news related to a work group put together by Montana’s Governor, Steve Bullock. Bullock announced the formation of an Alzheimer’s assistance plan for the state. Alzheimer’s disease falls dead center in the middle of the caregiving dilemma – stretching its tentacles of family overwhelm, economic and emotional, far and deep. From what I can gather, this initiative mainly concentrates of public awareness and connects dots between the different services the states and communities already have. In addition there’s some mention of training existing nurses on dementia and Alzheimer’s care. Nice idea but pragmatically naive since Montana already has a chronic nursing shortage.

The creation of this plan recognizes grim reality of the generational shifts America is facing. And with these shifts we’ll see also an increase in dementia and Alzheimer’s. Montana is projecting an increase of 40% by 2025. State governments are now starting to see the picture, but they have a long way to go.

However, government and formal institutions can only do so much, in fact they normally end up doing a lot less than even that. Even with the valiant attempts to streamline the formal assistance process  – the responsibility of navigating the maze is still up to the overworked caregiver, or worse yet the elderly person directly affected. Having dealt with my personal battle with lymphoma and its treatment, I know the integration between the medical system and the effects it has on the realities of a person’s actually life is greatly lacking. Formal institutions don’t play well others … and silos are their specialty. The healthcare industry is much the norm rather than the exception.

While much attention is directed to those in the most dire situations, such as what we’ve discussed above – dementia and Alzheimer’s patients, we can’t ignore our elderly that can still function in society. There’s always formal care in nursing homes as a last resort.But what about those who are just getting old? But shouldn’t we make every effort to keep our elderly loved ones at home if possible?

Being cut off from society is a killer for the elderly and shut-ins, literally. The less fortunate often have no family or friends around to make sure their basic needs are taken care of. They don’t have anyone to make sure they eat properly or take them to the doctor or get their medications. And that’s not even saying anything about mental support. Their likely future involves depression … or even premature death at home or worse yet, in an “old folks home.” And for those who have experience, “old folks homes” aren’t cheap. If caregiving family members can avoid bankruptcy – they are some of the lucky ones. My parents weren’t when my grandparents got old.

I’m not a fan of the government, but here’s an area they can help with and all they have to do is divert some of the money they’re already paying out to “old folks homes” and at the same time get a much better return on it.

Medicare pays these institutions at a rate of up towards, well who knows – it’s a lot. It’s well into the tens of thousands of dollars a year. What if in some cases this care could be handled at home with a periodic nurse and a live-in relative. The nurse would be paid by Medicare, but so would the relative – say a grandchild. This way not only would the care be handled, but the family ties would be maintained and the young person could have a source of income when they may not have one – or maybe not a full-time one.

This cross-generational solution is especially attractive in rural communities that are experiencing severe generational greying. These communities are literally dying off. And the ones that aren’t often move away to a care facility in a larger city. By compensating young family members, you’ve not only provided a healthcare and wellbeing solution … but are doing it by rejuvenating the small community. And imagine if these young people had children of the own who would replenish the schools, both financially and socially. And what if on the side a couple of young people worked together to breathe some fresh air into one of those abandon buildings on Main Street – turning them into organically founded and operated small business ventures. Small towns, specifically rural ones, rely on the maintenance of family ties to survive. Once those ties are severed – so is the lifeline. Hoping this lifeline will be repaired by unrelated newcomers is an unrealistic pipe dream.

Now I’m sure there are hurdles that would have to be overcome to create a system that extends Medicare vendor or provider status to family members, but there are hurdles in any new idea. But the institutional stakeholders in an idea like this are significant and diverse. Rural states, the elderly (i.e AARP) and small business organizations all could see their members benefit greatly. The existing players in the elderly care facility industry would most definitely provide resistance though. So be it. They’ve had a free ride for too long.

But let’s look past the government as being the solution. Even if they are, it’s just a bonus. Ultimately the solutions will found closer to home, and not just with family members – but also within the community as a whole. Through organized efforts of friend and neighbors, community caregiving efforts are a perfect application of solutions generated by the Front Porch method I’ve been advocating. We just need to adapt our social behavior to make this happen.

“Few Americans today say they know their neighbors’ names, and far fewer report interacting with them on a daily basis. Pulling data from the General Social Survey, economist Joe Cortright wrote in a recent City Observatory report that only about 20 percent of Americans spent time regularly with the people living next to them. A third said they’ve never interacted with their neighbors. That’s a significant decline from four decades ago, when a third of Americans hung out with their neighbors at least twice a week, and only a quarter reported no interaction at all.” (Community Ties in an Era Isolation)

This needs to change. We have neither the time nor the resources to waste to think that these issues, specifically with the aging, are going to solve themselves – or be fixed by the government. Even the Medicare idea I laid out above, however much common sense it makes, has little if any chance of becoming reality in today dysfunctional Congressional state. Instead, the clowns in Washington will pat themselves on the back celebrating Jon Tester’s pragmatically inept tax credit plan instead – or something equally vacuous.

The first step we need to take is to “bridge the gap”  between our generations. It’s the young people in our community who are our biggest asset. Not only will the young provide the physical care the elderly need, they’ll also be the ones we need to rejuvenate our communities so there’s something to live for … regardless of generation.

Back a hundred years a community had to look after itself – young and the old. They had no choice. Their survival was at stake. They didn’t have the sophisticated market system of exchange spanning unseen geographies nor live in the relative luxury we do now. They just had themselves. And with age expectancy increasing and the Millennial generation being smaller than the retiring Boomer generation was at this time in their lives, we have a ticking time bomb. Cross-generational cooperation will not be an option … it’ll be a necessity.

Through the program “I’m Not Alone Anymore,” Community 3.0, and its Front Porch network, aims to not only help these forgotten people with their physical needs but also provide emotional support by bringing them back into the community. Even if just means a weekly visit for a cup of coffee … they will not be forgotten for long. The weakest link of a community ultimately determines the health of the overall community.

We can’t let our neglect of the elderly and resulting burden that would put on our young be the undoing of our entire society.

Each “Client” (elderly person) can be entered into a central database that Front Porch “Helpers” will have access to. In addition to the basics, the database will include information such as contact information for friends and family, favorite foods and activities, historical info and anything else that can be used by the “Helper” to connect with and make the lives “Client” more meaningful. Also included will be logistic information: date of last visit, schedule date of next visit and relevant agenda information. The database will provide an informed point of reference for anyone that might have to step in for the primary “Helper” should they not be able to visit.

I’m not insinuating that the community can provide that magic pill that will solve everything. But what it can do is provide the tools to mend the “safety net” that we’ve let fray to point of utter disrepair. Turn your entire community into the caregiver who helps make sure “things don’t go sideways” by maybe catching things before they become problems that are beyond fixing.

And who knows … you might even make some new friends.

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If you haven’t, I invite you to start by delving into my ideas by reading the series, On the Road to Your Community’s Perfect World,” This is my articulation of how we can create better, more inclusive, unique communities as the solution to our society’s pressing issues. Consider each week’s post a Mile Marker (MM), a cerebral off-ramp from the highway of your daily routine, taking a you little further down this road to a better version of society.

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