Rekindling Community

Anyone who’s a parent can probably concur with me. You’ll do anything for your kid to get good grades in school. In a perfect world it would be straight “A’s.” If you have the resources, you’ll pay for tutors or whatever other leg up it’ll give your little genius. Straight “A’s” means getting into a good college – and for many that’s everything? And don’t get me going on the recent “pay to play” college scandal.

Mitra, my ex-wife, and I split up when our daughter Alex was young. She spent time between us and both Mitra and I cared a lot about Alex’s school performance (as would be expected, of course). My GPA in high school was about 3.9 (back when 4.0 was all you could get). While I don’t remember what Mitra said her’s was, I know she got a 4.0 in college. Grade point average was obviously a big deal to us.

That said, Alex was her own person and had her own scholastic agenda. She rebelled within the excepted norms … for the most part: and she didn’t necessarily hold our views of GPA. If she didn’t connect with a subject – she didn’t see any real reason to work extra hard to get that “A” (and there wasn’t a lot of moving her on that). Instead she concentrated on the classes that resonated with her. Instead of being satisfied with an “A” – she wanted to do even better. Instead of competing against the grade scale – she competed against herself. Personally I grew to accept and embrace her philosophy. Mitra … not so much: “GPA should be the goal.” In the end Alex did what she wanted (no surprise there) and focused on writing and Mr. Marx’s classes (government and economics); leaving math and whatever else was left to whatever little time and cerebral energy was left.

Alex played to her strengths rather than just hone up her weaknesses.

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“Discoverables,” Not Deliverables

Recently I’ve had the privilege of previewing Cormac’s Russel‘s new book, Rekindling Community: Democracy Redefined. Cormac is the Managing Director of Nurture Development in Dublin Ireland, as well as a faculty member of the ABCD Institute. Cormac’s work spans the continent of Europe. I look at Cormac as a visionary in the thought space of local empowerment and decentralized civic engagement. His views transcend the normal soundbites and rhetoric, instead diving deep into the nuances and unintended consequences of policy.

Cormac’s vision of society is a collection of unique communities rooted in principles of self-sufficiency and citizen empowerment. At the core of Cormac’s vision is the concept of “playing to the strengths.” He coined the phrase “Discoverables,” Not Deliverables. Cormac believes communities have the resources they need, they just have to “discover” them, nurture them and put them to the most effective use for the collective good.

“Communities are all around us, close at hand, awaiting the community building that will make the invisible assets within them visible in all their abundance.” – Cormac Russell

It’s easy to fall into the trap of looking at society as a runaway train careening ever close to a fate of Armageddon. Whether it be climate change, increasing income inequality or the threat of authoritarian governments; it’s all doom and gloom. Regardless what end of the political spectrum we reside, we’re looking to the man “on the white horse in the white hat” to ride in and take us away from all this. We’ve seen the trends throughout the world; whether it be populism on the right or grand plans such as the Green New Deal on the left. What they both have in common is they both defer to some overarching force, whether it be a strong-arm ruler or the omnipresent federal government; we’re to be recipients … not producers of the solution. Thomas Hobbes vision of the Leviathan is alive and well.

Hobbes Leviathan

On the contrary, as Cormac lays out in his book; “the underlying goal is start with what is strong, not what’s wrong, then to liberate what’s strong to address what’s wrong, and to make what’s strong even stronger.” This is a far cry from the usual institutional way of doing things. The map an outside agency has of a community is never the same as the one that actually exists – and communities do not work in silos with institutional goals primarily in mind. Much of the work of what makes a community healthy and well is being done by those who don’t even know they’re doing it.

Cormac introduces to us to his concept of White Swans and Ugly Ducklings. He contends most communities are the latter, not because they’re in need of repair or a make-over, but because we don’t see them as what they can be, White Swans; made up of relationships where relatedness can flourish – not just of strangers in a shared geography. The reason they haven’t transformed is that we haven’t seen their potential and we haven’t nurtured them to realize it.

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Rekindling Community

In United States, before World War II, our neighbors were our support. They were the doctors, the midwives and the handymen. They were where we could go to get food when we needed it. It’s what got America through the Great Depression. But with Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, the government became America’s de facto support system. The help of your neighbor wasn’t as important as before. The New Deal was needed at the time, but as a result reliance on the township, the community, the neighborhood and in turn the nurture of our Middle Ring of neighborhood relationships … began to wane. It wasn’t so evident at first. But the chinks in the armour, so to say, were beginning to show, even back then. Now we’ve seen the full effect of it. We have turned into consumers … consumers of services of most everything. In turn, we’re no longer producers; not of the support we once provided our friends, family and neighbors. And this transformation from producers to consumers wasn’t isolated within the borders of the United States. Unfortunately, like a disease, it’s something we to other nations worldwide.

The Cargo Cult

“The island of Tanna is one of the world’s most remote places. Prior to World War II, its inhabitants had few encounters with the outside world. That all changed with the arrival of American soldiers who set up their military base on the island. They arrived en masse in ships and planes brimming with cargos of medicine, clothes, food and equipment to sustain the troops across the Pacific. They also arrived with their military customs, their uniforms, radios and a myriad of other behaviors and regalia previously unseen by the inhabitants of Tanna.

On Tanna the American soldiers regularly shared items of cargo with the local inhabitants. Then war ended in Europe on May 8, 1945, and Japan surrendered to the U.S. on September 2, 1945. While the rest of the world celebrated, the inhabitants of Tanna were bereft. The soldiers systematically left and with them took the “cargo.” Not surprisingly, after the soldiers left, in an effort to invoke similar favor from the gods, many of Tanna’s inhabitants took to imitating the militaristic “rituals” of their visitors – [literally forgetting their traditional ways cooperation, collaboration and self-reliance].

The name “cargo cult” is used to describe those imitations even though it is a pejorative one. The term impugns the motives and intelligence of the island inhabitants and carries little critical comment about the behaviors of those who landed on the island and then abruptly left, having forever altered its culture.” (Cormac Russell from “Rekindling Community: Democracy Redefined”)

Is the cargo cult really a metaphor for the United States? Has seventy years of a service-oriented entitlement mindset, increasingly more austerity-leaning government policies and corporate bombardment of convenience and solving our every problem; created a society void of community and only of individuals looking to the next “box”?

All is not doom and gloom though. Cormac remedies this community deficit by preaching the “small is beautiful” concept coined by E.F. Schumacher in his work promoting the Global South. This concept of “small” is at the root of community production. Cormac then elaborates on it by giving us a prescription for designing our communities around their residents by focusing on what they inherently bring to the table.

Included in this far-ranging treatise, Cormac delves into building a health system that is citizen centered, using the community as the center, not the institutional healthcare system we’ve become addicted to.

The evidence clearly shows that it is not services and programs, but our community assets that primarily determine our well-being––that is, the extent to which we are well and how quickly we recover when unwell. (Cormac Russell from “Rekindling Community: Democracy Redefined”)

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The Science of Deepening Community

Most discussions about community speak on platitudes; instead Cormac dives deep into the sociology of what it takes to actually create community. He introduces us to Connectors, Conductors, Circuit Breakers and Dynamos. For all those familiar with Malcolm Gladwell and his seminal book, The Tipping Point, and his definitions of Mavens, Connectors and Salespeople – Cormac’s philosophy will be easy to grab hold of. Aside from Gladwell and Russell though, few burrow down into the mechanics of how community actually happens.

Cormac also bring up inspiring examples of connected groups banding together to address community issues. He gives us the citizen-organized Bikers Against Child Abuse (BACA). BACA is a worldwide organization that fights child abuse but doesn’t only approach the issue from a punitive traditional hierarchical approach (as most do). They also stress having the perpetrators “take ownership” while providing support in conjunction to local authorities and NGOs. This is using the strength of a common connection to be there for one another and not just sitting by waiting for the next box to arrive.

After Cormac outlines how to meticulously rekindle our communities, he takes us through the process of unlearning the habits of acting subservient to the metaphorical Leviathan. This process could almost be viewed as a detoxification or civic rehab.

After we set the stage in our own communities, designing them from the bottom up to be rekindled – we look beyond our individual borders to how we can collaborate with the state to spread our model nationwide and even further. Cormac gives us instruction here too.

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Two things ring true in Cormac’s book. The first is that we are not problems to be solved, waiting passively to be served. Each one of us are opportunities to be realized, both for ourselves and in the context of those around us in our communities. It’s not that our government needs to be participatory … our society needs to be also.

And second, Cormac continually uses the word rekindle.” He doesn’t propose revolution or disruption, so often bantered around in reformist communities. Anyone who’s spent time camping knows that gathering kindling for the camp fire is the management of the resources at hand, a process in itself – and one of continual exploration. It’s using what’s nearby to provide heat, warmth and sustainability. Whether conscious or not, Cormac is using this metaphor in his vision of an inclusive resourceful society.

Sticks

When Cormac’s book comes out, it isn’t enough to buy it and read it. It has to be read, and reread. It has to become dog-eared and full of notes in the margins. It has to be stained with pizza droppings from late night strategy sessions with fellow community activists and builders.

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Living in a Time of Identity and Entitlement

Here in the United States (and in many other western countries) we live in a society overwhelmed by the victim mentality, fueled by identity politics. Maybe some of it is justified, but only some of it. Political parties have become conduits for this. Candidates on the stump fall over themselves offering up an endless array of “gifts” to different groups of constituents; whether it be African-Americans, Latinos, students, suburban moms, laid-off Rust Belt white males, etc. – all reduced a single demographic or socioeconomic characteristic. Most often these characteristics highlight weaknesses. Collective strengths seldom come into play.

Whether it’s the “identities” liberals target pacifying those in the inner cities, or conservatives rallying MAGA wearing Trumpites in the rural heartland; this country has taken on the role of the victim as its default collective identity. With this alleged victimization (some legitimate, some not so much) comes a feeling of powerlessness that has permeated through our entire psyche. We wait impatiently for someone to save us from all that ails us – real and imagined. And now the political rhetoric and pigeonholing has shifted into high gear with the 2020 presidential election squarely in the media’s cross hairs. There can’t be enough promises, no matter how wild and unrealistic. How we pay for it – we don’t bother with that now. “They” will pay for it … whoever “they” is.

Our obsession with identity and “entitled services” leaves no oxygen left in the room for developing the skills we already have; the skills we need to build our communities so they can shine in their own light (regardless what group we’re put into). Instead we ignore our strengths and focus only on our collective group weaknesses.

We render ourselves functionally impotent.

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The Advantage of Empowered Inclusion

“Every member of your community is unique and adds to its fabric. Everyone has something to offer and everyone should be heard – no matter their age or social standing. It’s up to us to find it and help them see it.” (Cross-pollination and Creating You Own Renaissance)

Wouldn’t it be safe to say that the confidence of excelling at something, making a contribution to your community (no matter what it may be), has a good chance of spilling over in other areas of life? I would think it does. But if these talents are never uncovered and developed … we’ll never know.

We need to create community ideals that nurtures an environment for everyone to venture out and attempt whatever they choose. This society of permission is made up of residents who don’t just lobby for services, services they feel the government entitles them to – but rather celebrate their capabilities and create nurturing bonds with family and friends building on everyone’s strengths. Our focus must be on managing relationships for synergy, not just maintaining the static status quo, often one of dysfunction. Your community should be a workspace of relationships, not a finished relic. It’s a collective journey … not a destination idealized by a select few.

The flow arising from our appreciation for this situational awareness of inclusive engagement will be the basis of our community’s success. Below are its pillars of support.

  • Journey of Engagements: We must value the incremental journey of permission and engagements that specifically benefit the individual and collective health and well-being of the community … not the plan and destination.
  • Unique solutions: There are no “best case” solutions (since there is no one context); only engagements specific to one of multiple contexts. The specific engagements that prove to be most beneficial are the ones most applicable to the parties involved and the situation at the time.
  • Stories of engagements provide context: Proper context is best arrived at through stories and anecdotes of our engagements as they depict unique alternatives that lay on the matrix of our community’s workspace. It’s with these stories we can manage the relationship that make up our community’s every-changing intermezzo.

Whether it be Cormac’s Nurture Development, Michel Bauwens’ P2P Foundation, Community 3.0 or any of the other projects that have been created worldwide – their success has and will rely on local execution, inclusive participation and most of all a commitment to the idea that solutions are best created by focusing on unique assets and strengths of the community … not waiting for a Leviathan in an ivory tower far away to bestow you with a litany of services you feel entitled to.

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Creating Communities of Permission

In Giving Permission,”(posted December 20, 2018), I did a deep dive into what I believe it means to have a community of inclusion; one that is built on giving its residents permission to be and do what drives them. While it can be, we cannot assume that this permission is implied. Permission requires engagement. It is the antithesis of indifference, which is too often commonplace. It’s taking the time and exerting the mental energy to acknowledge that your fellow residents, whether or not they hold the same demographic characteristics or social standing you may (for better or worse) … still warrant your attention, reaction and respect. Without this acknowledgement, your community has little chance of equitably moving forward in a sustainable way. Through this acknowledgement we build healthy communities founded on neighborly engagement that can act as an ad hoc social safety net; one to compensate for the one too often left to fray by our decaying institutions.

“A rising tide lifts all boats.” ~ John F. Kennedy

The first step to achieving this model of embrace is for us to individually reach out and actively make it a point to include – to give permission, to our neighbors and fellow community members . Every encounter is an opportunity to “raise the collective tide.” And the more we engage, the easier it becomes. Turn acknowledgement and benevolent engagement into new community norms and expectations. Through these norms and expectations of inclusion we are giving permission for others to feel comfortable in being who they are and pursuing what they may dream. We are making engagement and permission contagious. We’re creating an ecosystem of strength and support under the assumption that engaged diversity will benefit us all. Repeating what John Kennedy famously said: “A rising tide lifts all boats.”

The higher our levels of engagement are individually and collectively, the more well; physically, mentally and socially we will become. Engagement creates agency and self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is defined as the extent or strength one believes in their own ability to complete tasks and reach goals. The more a person believes their actions will help their situation, the more likely they are to try. The more a person does, the more they’re likely to do. And the more they do, the more they feel what they’re doing is helping … creating a cascade of positive results and well-being.

Our community focus should be to “get the ball rolling” by nudging activity – personally, socially and civically through behaviors that benefit us physically, mentally and socially. 

The question is … how do we create this ecosystem that nudges people towards this positive activity? Forcing people to be benevolent and kind will probably only produce the opposite effect. Our efforts must be rooted in action, not just conversation; physical engagement that organically grows from the individual and collective needs and desires of the people. We need to create a journey where all citizens will travel together … all pursuing our own dreams in parallel – but also in collaboration for the good of the community.

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“On the Road” … Embracing the Journey

About twenty years ago while building my recruiting firm, I coined a term, “On the Road to Your Perfect World.” In a nutshell it means; in life and all its nuances (including work): it’s the journey that matters not the destination. It’s our experiences that create the human beings we are. But maybe more than that – it’s how we think about those experiences and most of all … how we react to them.

Not being tied to the destination through an overly rigid plan can provide a sense of relief; a freedom to act, assess and adjust; a going with the flow. All the best laid plans will eventually go awry. Being unnecessarily shackled to an arbitrary figment of utopia creates a detachment from what’s happening around us. As community leaders and change instigators we too often relentlessly pursue control; trying to stay meticulously on task in pursuit of this utopia. Regrettably this “utopia” was probably conceived under circumstances far different what we are confronting today – bringing a disaffected approach to the issues of current relevance.

 

“The difficulty we face is that the ecology of the biosphere is at odds with the ecology of our institutions.” ~ Nora Bateson

Decision makers and the researchers they depend on have an overwhelming habit of thinking in terms of functioning parts (especially those in the academic, scientific and medical communities). Our human tendency is to deconstruct our complex world into smaller, digestible, independent parts. These “parts” are much easier to understand in isolation rather than in their entangled, chaotic whole. This is misleading for our future inquiry of living, co-evolving systems.

We must evolve to a modus operandi that can appreciate the messiness of uncertainty and contextual interconnectedness. Our mission can’t be control – but rather the management of ever-changing relationships. Nora Bateson has led pioneering work in the world of this “messiness.” Like with my “On the Road to Your Perfect World,” Bateson looks at the world as journey of relationships – and the actions and reactions needed to respond to the volatility and unpredictable nature of them. All we can do is prepare best we can and adapt accordingly. By no means should we trash our goals and objectives, but see them in more nebulous terms; more of a guiding force than an equivalent of a personal and civic GPS unit. The destination we’ve plugged in may not be anything like what we’ll see when we arrive there, assuming there’s even a place to arrive to. We must be always collectively learning and readjusting as we go. Batesom calls this phenomenon, Symmathesy: learning together. It’s imperative we understand that all parts are connected and the learning opportunities due from changes in circumstances are available to all parties.

Just as a virus is constantly adapting as the immune system trying to defeat it, the change movement must learn to evolve. Being wedded to the form that leads to early success is a sure route to failure. Unless the change effort mutates to fight the organisational anti-bodies, its legacy will be nothing more than a sense of what might have been. You may not be able to plan in advance just when or how you will need to change the way you change, but you need to be very aware that at some point you will have to. What you end up with may not be what you first envisaged, but it will be real and lasting.

The key is to see change as not simply about moving from A to B. The key is to see it as a much more fluid and organic process. You never really know where it might end up. As the organisational identity acts to re-assert itself, the rebels and radicals need to morph their efforts into something else. The approaches and energy that provoke the response are not the same as the approaches and energy that overcome that response. The leadership that manages the status quo is not the leadership the moves into a radically new space. (How the Organization Subverts its Subsersives – John Atkinson)

A primary obstruction to the “fluid and organic process” Atkinson described above is silos. Traditional institutions and conventional organizations are built on hierarchy and the silos that support them. Communication, let alone collaboration is seldom fluid in these situations. Their structures are built for preservation and the illusion of certainty. What we need is the antithesis of this – a phenomenon constructed to accommodate uncertainty and a flow that optimizes resource maximization, taking advantage of the situational skills and abilities of those in our community.

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Building a Rhizomes-based Decentralized Ecosystem

How can we design our communities in a way that we encourage an inclusive journey of contribution and well-being for all our citizens. How can we create environments where everyone has an opportunity to realize their place – whatever and wherever that may be. Just resorting to traditional social and civic institutions and the hierarchies that reinforce them is not the solution. We need new alternatives: and what better place to look than in nature.

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

One of nature’s most effective means of sustainability is the rhizome. The rhizome is a modified subterranean stem of a plant that is usually found underground, often sending out roots and shoots from its nodes. Rhizomes develop from axillary buds and grow perpendicular to the force of gravity. The rhizome also retains the ability to allow new shoots to grow upwards if resources permit. If a rhizome is separated into pieces, each piece may be able to give rise to a new plant … and a new node of above ground activity.

Plagiotropic-rhizome-sampled-for-lepidochronology-at-the-colonized-side-of-patch-4.png

In 2016, during my construction of the blog series On the Road to Your Community’s Perfect World,” I came across “A Thousand Plateaus” and the philosophies of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari – specifically their concept of rhizomes and how their actions in nature can be extrapolated in terms of an alternative view of societal development.

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

Deleuze and Guattari broke down their rhizomatic social philosophy into components. From these components we can engineer our version of a locally based civic engagement platform that nurtures inclusion, self-expression and most of all permission.

  • Rhizome: Rather than using the organizational structure of the root-tree system which charts causality along chronological lines and looks for the single origin of “things” and looks towards conclusion of those “things” (the destination); a rhizome continually establishes connections between threads of meaningful communication, organizations of power, and other influences (including arts, sciences, and social struggles). The planar movement of the rhizome resists chronology and formal organization, instead favoring a nomadic system of growth and proliferation. In this model, influence and application spreads like the surface of a body of water; spreading towards available spaces or in the application of community – maximizing the resources available to it, regardless of the type.
  • Nomad: Nomadism is a way of life that exists outside of the traditional organizational or societal norm (at least in modern times). The nomad is a way of being in the middle or between points. It is characterized by movement and change, and is unfettered by systems of conventional organization. The goal of the nomad is only to continue to move within the “intermezzo.” (the journey rather than the destination). This constant state activity prevents itself from existing for the sake of existing as organizations and institutions most often do. The goal is to make things happen; to find opportunities and solutions, not just to “be.” This nomadic behavior also lends itself to the individual focusing on what interests them and where they can contribute the most, rather than just working within the constraints of a pre-defined, often inefficient role or job. In short, being a nomad can greatly enhance ones sense of engagement and well-being. Or according to the Danish philosopher Søren Kiekegaard, be the evolved man.”
  • Smooth Space: The platform or naked infrastructure on which the community and in turn the array of “need and opportunity based activities” operate is called the Smooth Space. This platform is not formally defined, but rather takes the form of the influences that inhabit it. These influences can include meaningful communication, existing organizations (government and other) as well as social norms, ideals and community expectations. In the context of Community 3.0, the Smooth Space is the Front Porch network (the small business community), healthcare providers,NGOs and the members of the community who are their patrons, along with the societal norms they create. What a community does and creates on its Smooth Space will determine the well-being of its populace. It is the duty of the rhizome structure and its Smooth Space to nurture the intangible, serendipitous, sensual and tactical engagements of all the members of its community (e.g. empathy, creativity, collaboration and self-actualization) that produce positive societal outcomes.
  • Body Without Organs: Body Without Organs is what happens. It is the result of what the rhizome social philosophy using the nomadic actions of its components operating on the Smooth Space. In itself the Body Without Organs has no form until the variables of the community are injected into it. The community’s personality and overall state of well-being are the results of the interactions between its members, organizations and businesses; it is its Body Without Organs. It can take a conservative form or a progressive one; NIMBYism and gated communities, or more communal; tolerant and welcoming, or closed and siloed; Wall Street or Main Street. This is the community’s personality. But rather than the personality being dictated by those in the high rungs of a traditionally mandated hierarchy (e.g. government) – it will come to form through the participation of those who live there … those on the streets, no matter their social stature. How the community directly responds to its needs and opportunities will be what it is.

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james rizzi city main
James Rizzi

Nurturing a Societal Evolution

How do we tie all this together into a functioning array of response to needs and opportunities while not resorting back to traditional top-heavy hierarchies? Our focus must be on the empowerment, not just the management of our civic ecosystem. The Smooth Space is your community’s desktop, its workspace. Let it take form as the situation dictates.

“Too many algorithms are centrally designed with a singular philosophical view of the world, using contextual data but via a single lens” ~ Indy Johar

The flow arising from our appreciation for situational awareness and adjustment will be the cornerstone of our community’s inclusive success.

  • Journey of Engagements: It’s about the incremental journey of permission and engagements that specifically benefit the individual and collective health and well-being of the community … not the plan and destination.
  • Unique solutions: There are no “best case” solutions (since there is no one context); only engagements specific to one of multiple contexts and delivered in a decentralized manner. The specifics of the engagements that prove most beneficial are the ones most applicable to the parties involved and the situation at the time.
  • Stories of engagements provide context: Proper context is best arrived at through stories and anecdotes of our engagements as they depict unique situational alternatives that lay on the matrix of our community’s Smooth Space. And it’s with these stories we can manage the relationship that make up our community’s every-changing intermezzo.

“Our challenge is not bringing order to successful chaos but creating successful chaos within a well-ordered failure.” ~ Charles Marohn, ‘Strong Towns’

Let the journey begin …

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Giving Permission

“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference. Because of indifference, one dies before one actually dies.” – Elie Wiesel

Seven years ago I moved from Los Angeles to Billings, Montana to help take care of my aging parents. Billings is a city of a little over 100,000, the largest in Montana. It’s nondescript. It prides itself on being a cowboy town, but it’s more about chain stores than anything. I grew up in North Dakota: while it’s a little different, I still knew what to expect from a rural environment. Aside from my caregiving responsibilities, my goal was to launch my Community 3.0 small business engagement platform in Billings and then scale it beyond from there.

During my tenure here I met civic and business leaders and heads of education. I even offered to assist on political campaigns. In summary, I networked. Now over my lifetime I’ve been involved in a wide variety of entrepreneurial projects, some successful and some not. But for the most part, I was given the opportunity to try. Billings though was different. It’s not that people were unfriendly. That wasn’t it. It was they were guarded; not really interested or willing in letting me into their world.

Following my various meetings I’ve had in Billings (formal and otherwise), I performed my normal routine; sent a social media request (LinkedIn normally, since virtually none were on Twitter), and an email recapping our conversation and suggestions going forward. And then I waited … but nothing. Time and time again – no response. No acknowledgement. Nothing. The level of universal indifference was astounding. And it didn’t matter who it was or what the topic of the meeting was. It was like I wasn’t given permission to even participate in their little town. “You stay over there and we’ll stay over here. Thank you very much.”

Later on I found it wasn’t just me either. I had an opportunity to spend a semester teaching a class with the president of the local liberal art college in Billings. He confirmed my experiences. “People just don’t respond in Billings.” This is the president of a college saying that. And talking with my students, I heard the same from them. This was a senior level leadership class and these were some of the best future prospects in the area. They all echoed the same sentiment: “No one listens to us here.” And because of it – none of them had any desire to stay in Billings after they graduated. As with me … they hadn’t been given permission either. It’s like we all had been relegated to the folding card table your grandparents set up in the living room for the grandkids during the annual Thanksgiving dinner. The adults sat in the dining room and you and your cousins … not so much.

Educational neglect

I’d never been in situation like this since … well, not since the grandparents’ house in Alamo, North Dakota when I was twelve years old. Even when I was in college, promoting concerts (e.g. Alice Cooper, Rush, Yanni, Cheap Trick, Bob Hope, etc.) was I never not given permission to participate with the “big boys.” Even though I was half the age of the promoters I competed for concert dates against – I was still taken seriously. The same was true in Minnesota after school when I published commercial art directories or started a check recovery service. But here, the scarlet letter of an outsider was indelibly stamped on my forehead.

The badge of honor here in much of Montana (and apparently here in my part of it) is how many generations your lineage goes back. This was especially evident during the onslaught of political propaganda on the airwaves during the last election. “How can he know what’s good for Montana if he’s only been here twenty years.” Geographic cross-pollination is to be avoided at all costs. “Stay over there at the card table and watch so Joey doesn’t stick peas in his nose.”

A couple of weeks ago I was on the phone with my daughter, Alexandria, in Los Angeles. Even though she complains about Southern California (mainly after driving home an hour from work), she said she would find it hard to move away. “You can do anything here. You can start any type of business or project and no one is going to say you can’t do it because most everyone is doing the same thing – trying things.” Los Angeles is the land of permission. You may not succeed or realize your dreams, but people sure as hell aren’t going to tell you don’t have permission to try. Permission is implied. You don’t have to be told you have it – you just do. In Billings, you don’t have to be told you don’t have it … you just don’t. Either you’re in or you’re not. And regardless of how you’re trying to get noticed, or how persuasive you may be … the blanket of indifference is difficult to shed.

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Defining Permission

What is permission? Most believe in United States, permission is a given. After all, this is the land of the free, free to pursue your dreams. Human beings are social creatures. We don’t live in a vacuum. Unless you tend sheep six months a year far removed from civilization, your life is intermingled with that of many other people. How these other people interact with you affects you and what you perceive you have permission to do.

Communities often say they’re inviting and inclusive. People say hello – sometimes: they hold the door open – occasionally: but much of the time this guise is little more than an exercise in being polite. In Billings, they say they don’t discriminate towards gays, but they refuse to pass an anti-discrimination ordinance. They say they don’t need to since they don’t discriminate. You have to love the circular logic.

But what Billings is really saying is that we’re not giving you permission to be part of “our” community; because even though we’re not going to say it to your face – you’re not really one of us. “You stay over there and we’re just fine over here.” We’ll be polite if we encounter you in the street. But aside from that – you’re over there and we’re over here. Thank you very much.

As expected just last week, the Billings City Council (and the mayor) filled an open council seat with a long-term male member of the Billings power structure – instead of opting for a highly regarded young woman from the healthcare industry who has done extraordinary things in her young career.

This community behavior can also be very limiting to young people and how they view their future prospects. All too often certain professions reign supreme, for no other reason than they always have. I get that in a company town where a single industry dominates, say mining or manufacturing. Much of the time few other opportunities exist staying locally. That said, why is staying in town the only option? Young people are curious and there’s little worse than extinguishing that curiosity by imposing a geographically cautious worldview more applicable for their parents, or even yet their grandparents. This implied indifference to their out-of-ordinary career choices can be debilitating.

Inclusion is more than just being inviting. Maybe more important, it’s letting go of past societal norms and not being indifferent to the dreams and aspirations of outliers. The operative word is “indifferent.” If someone disagrees or takes issue with you, you know where you stand. You have a point of reference. You can retrench and either come back; or you can retreat, venturing out elsewhere. But indifference is something else. It’s saying you don’t warrant an acknowledgment of “being.” Meeting someone and discussing a mutually beneficial opportunity, following up … then hearing nothing back: and then after running into them in the street and hearing, “Sorry I’ve gotten back to you, I’m not very good at getting back to people,” is completely unacceptable. They might as well say, “I suck at being a human being.” Unfortunately this type of behavior isn’t just individually isolated. It’s a character trait that can spread throughout the community … like a virus. People just don’t engage because … well, they just don’t think that’s what’s expected since maybe in the past (during their formative years) no one engaged with them either. Indifference has been bred into the community DNA. Engagement hasn’t. And without engagement, you can’t give permission. And without permission your community will repel the newcomers it desperately needs to stay relevant.

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The Unease of Diversity

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

Cross-pollination; whether its gender, sexual-preference, ethnic, racial, age-based or geographic – must be a community’s priority. A community is a product of its residents. Social inbreeding creates weak species and weak communities; vulnerable to adversaries, internally and externally. Inbred societies rely on decision-making founded from a narrow geographic and historical perspective – severely limiting their options of response to challenges and opportunities.

But truly being inclusive is a lot more than many people can deal with. Ethnic and racial differences get most of the press, and rightly so. This nation has a long way to go in achieving any semblance of true tolerance. Decades of institutional prejudice needs to be deconstructed and put back together while we learn from our many horrific policies of the past. That said, we can’t ignore geographic bigotry either.

With the latest political season being a reminder of the obsession of where you’ve live and how geographically pure your ancestry is reminiscent of Nazi Germany. In Montana anything less than being born here makes you virtually incapable of having any idea what the Montana experience is, has been or should be. In other words … PERMISSION NOT GRANTED. This may seem benign to legacy residents, but to the rest of us (even though I was born here), knowing that your ideas and views will be ignored at face value can be crippling. The bigotry is covert and omnipresent. One’s comfort zone and all things familiar are to be preserved at all cost. Unfamiliarity breeds uncertainty – and uncertainty makes many people uneasy. As they say, “curiosity is something that killed the cat and it may damn well do the same thing to me if I don’t watch out.”

Nurturing a community of inclusion and permission is as much as what you’re not allowing to happen as what you’re doing. You have to help people not be afraid when they venture into unfamiliar territory, personally or professionally – especially those lying on the outer edges of society. They need to know what they’re not hearing isn’t holding them back. It might be just that one thing you do or say that makes all the difference; a compliment, holding a door … that gesture that shows we’re both in this together. It breaks the proverbial ice of a new community’s frigidity.

Creating your own world is scary for anyone. Imagine a recent college graduate thinking about starting a business only to run indifference when bringing up their idea to someone they respect. Or imagine a Persian family from thousands of miles away just trying to start new, looking for an apartment, and automatically assumed they’re Muslim (and with it all the potentially negative connotations). Think about that gay couple who is trying to enroll their daughter at day care – only to get stares of disapproval from the other “conventional parental units” waiting in line. These situations don’t scream prejudice or exclusion, but to those on the receiving end, they cut deep – often deeper than if the reactions were overt.

The more someone is perceived to be outside the purview of conformity and “sameness” – the more they risk being socially isolated. They have to be tuned into their environment, being always on guard. The prospect of threats, physically or psychologically, looms everywhere – or at least they think it does. But they also bring with them an implied sense of empathy. They identify with others who may be going through it too … regardless what the “it” is. But it’s these risk takers who will lead your community into the future. To stifle them, through indifference, only damages your community’s prospects going forward — all in the name of the shortsightedness and insecure egos of those in positions of influence and power. These are the exact people you need … the ones who think differently, bringing new perspectives to vexing problems that might have been saddling your community for years. But if you don’t give them permission to join – they won’t be around for long to make those contributions. They’ll go somewhere that does give them permission: and with them they’ll take all that they would have given your community and you’ll be left with what you’ve always had … only it’ll be less and less relevant day-by-day.

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Are you afraid

Who will you see?

How do you see your community? Is it more than just city hall and the same politicians that seem to have become permanent fixtures there? Is it more than just a few off ramps exiting the interstate highway going north and south or east and west? Is what you see what you want to see? Is what you see what you want your children and grandchildren to see?

What do you see when you climb up and look in that metaphorical window you’ve been avoiding; the one tangled with last year’s vines of civic and social issues unresolved. Who will you see in there? Do you want them to all look like you … having the same experiences, ideas and goals as you do? Or do hope you see someone different; someone we you can learn from? Do you dare risk being curious? Do you dare risk being uncertain?

And if you do see someone different; someone who makes you look and think twice … will you give permission to be what they want to be?

Or will you treat them with indifference … keeping them forever behind that window.

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Moving Beyond The Hierarchy

We assume our way of life in 2018; one of governments and states, and the endless media coverage of their every detail are the pinnacle of civilized existence. We depend on these hierarchies to delivery us from evil or whatever else ails us. I suppose we believe this since that’s all any of us have ever known. And in contrast, we view leaderless societies stereotypically as less-evolved primitive groups of hunters and gatherers running around in loincloths hunting mastodons with spears made of tree branches and flint.

What if this wasn’t true. What if the more evolved society was the one closer to that of the ones with the spears. What if the societies they created, ones that didn’t need to be dictated by an overarching authoritarian power, represented a higher state of human evolution. These communities of hunting and gathering were not governed by force, intimidation and manipulation; but rather by group norms of altruism, fair play and cooperation. Isn’t this what we teach our children in kindergarten? Why does our society abandon it as we supposedly mature.

Hierarchy In The Forest

Through decades of research in the fields of conflict resolution, altruism, and moral origins; cultural anthropologist Christopher Boehm makes a compelling case our assumed anthropologistic evolution isn’t so much “evolved.” Boehm, director of the Jane Goodall Research Center at University of Southern California, believes the decentralization of power represents a higher level of human behavior.

Boehm outlines decades of research in his seminal book, Hierarchy in the Forest. Combining an exhaustive ethnographic survey of human societies from groups of hunter-gatherers to contemporary residents of the Balkans with a detailed analysis of the behavioral attributes of non-human primates (chimpanzees, gorillas, bonobos), Boehm investigates whether humans are hierarchical or egalitarian by nature. Boehm also suggests that democracy, both ancient and modern, could be understood by looking at the egalitarianism of nomadic bands and sedentary tribes. In short, do the ideals we strive for in a truly democratic society actually originate with the actions and norms of the hunting and gathering tribes of Africa and Asia thousand of years ago. And is the version that has permeated our government today actually one that is a step back on the evolutionary scale.

Starting about five thousand years ago … societies functioned as chiefdoms, with highly privileged individuals at the top of the food chain. But before then, humans basically were egalitarian. They lived in what might be called societies of equals, with minimal political centralization and virtually no social classes. Everyone participated in group decisions, and outside the family there were no dominators. For more than five millennia now, the human trend has been toward hierarchy rather than equality. (Overcoming Bias)

All primate societies, Boehm notes, were governed by similar dynamics. If any one individual had the opportunity to climb the hierarchy, he or she is likely to seize it; unfortunately, as soon as power is gained, others resent it. In such a society, there are three potential outcomes. One is conflict, in which newcomers continually and overtly challenge the powerful for a position at the top. Another is stable dominance, where the powerful relentlessly and permanently dominate the rest. And a third is an equally stable social structure which Boehm calls “reverse dominance hierarchy,” in which those on the bottom of the pyramid figure out a way to band together and “deliberately dominate their potential master.” In such a society, dominance is still exercised. It just comes, collectively and consistently, from below. (New Yorker)

Boehm’s main thesis is that forager egalitarianism is sustained by moral communities that enable the rank and file to build coalitions to put down would-be “alphas.” Forager bands, in his view, have “reversed dominance” hierarchies that prevent bullies and aggressors from creating a dominance hierarchy of their own: egalitarianism (equality) is sustained by the coordinated dominance of the strong by the weak. Without the ability of the rank and file to form large coalitions to put down would-be dominators, the primate tendency is to establish dominance hierarchies, as we see in chimpanzees and bonobos (and now ironically in the vast majority of human societies, even our current so-called democracies). The ability to form large and stable coalitions in turn depends on the development of the capacity for communication. Low-ranking chimpanzees can sometimes band together and put down alpha males (as the chimpanzees at Yerkes Primate Research Center are reported to have done) but they do not seem to be able to create stable coalitions that get rid of the entire dominance hierarchy, unlike human beings can [in theory]. (Abandoned Footnotes)

In order for status and functional equality to be resilient against attempts to subvert it, it requires a vigilant community to sanction provocateurs and bullies; primarily made possible via a set of norms that strongly promote values such as generosity, altruism and sharing. These values in turn eclipse those of arrogance and selfishness.

That said – critical to establishing these values in a complex society is a universal assumption of “permission.” This societal state of permission must empower everyone in the community, regardless their socioeconomic standing (or other outlying difference), to be able to contribute to the community. This is easier said than done though. Existing hierarchies will fight, both figuratively and literally, to retain their power. Fortunately for the most part (although in an anything but perfect manner), technology and social media can level the playing field. It gives us implied permission, as well as vehicle, to express ideas and organize around a cause. I view it as a modern-day means of “reverse domination.”

Advantages of Self-Policing

Team survival has a fundamentally different logic than self-maximizing. Hunter/gatherers are ever vigilant against free-riding and elite-exploitation; as both can be as threatening to team survival as any predator would be. This self-policing rigidly enforces social rules to ensure that skilled cooperators fare better than self-maximizers. For example, meat is never distributed by whomever made the kill, but by another stakeholder. Enforcement can be by ridicule, shaming, shunning, and, ultimately, exile or execution. Socially enforced rules create powerful pressures. Lowest-cost strategy to avoid social penalties becomes preemptive self-control. This phenomenon even applies to powerful humans, as “counter-dominant coalitions” punish “resented alpha-male behavior” (like hogging an unfair share of meat). Ultimately this becomes inverted eugenics: eliminate the strong, if they abuse their power. In addition, our moral emotions enable “self-policed” social contracts. Conscious, reputation-based social selection for collaborative activities become dominant. Those known to be poor cooperators would not be selected for joint ventures – ultimately acting as a societal control mechanism.

Competitions for positional rank in a hierarchy generally drive added, and often avoidable, overhead costs.  Resources expended for these “arms races” (longer trunks, larger antlers, fancier cars, etc.) could be minimized by intelligent coordination and better allocated for mutual group benefit.

The Evolution of the Theory of Evolution

A few months ago I explored an alternative theory of evolution, spurred by the work of Bill Hamilton in the piece The Evolution of the Theory of Evolution.” Hamilton believed evolution extended beyond the individual organism to that of the family unit. He proposed that altruism could have evolved within family groups, whether genetically or through shared environmental habits and tendencies. Normally an individual altruist would seem to be at a disadvantage, but that was not the whole picture because other individuals who shared the same genes associated with altruism would all influence each other’s “inclusive fitness” by reward this behavior through increased involvement.

Hamilton’s extrapolation of Darwinism, while seemingly radical – made complete sense. By choosing to open the door to new thoughts on evolution – we’re not necessarily kicking Charles Darwin to curb, but expanding on his work based on new levels of research and observation. Consider it letting the theory of evolution evolve. I believe any scientific discovery should be looked at not as an end – but rather a journey down a new road to another level of enlightenment.

“I believe that the community – in the fullest sense: a place and all its creatures – is the smallest unit of health and that to speak of the health of an isolated individual is a  contradiction in terms.” – Wendell Berry

If we embrace Hamilton’s idea that evolution can occur in family units as well as in individuals – what’s saying we can’t take it a step further and expand it to that of the community unit as well.

If we view our community as an evolutionary unit, then we must look to enhance the components that can contribute to its sustainability and prosper – specifically those that proliferate benevolence and kindness. A community is really nothing more than the aggregation of individuals and the interactions between them. Every member of your community is unique and adds to its fabric. Everyone has something to offer and everyone should be heard – no matter their age or social standing. If they are not included in the conversation, or given permission – they still will be heard, but it may not be in a socially accepted way (e.g. crime). Prejudice, bigotry or even indifference hurts not only them, but us as part of the overall community. All of our actions, or lack there of – have collective consequences and establish norms that will be carried forward … whether we want them to or not.

The question we should be asking ourselves is how can we evolve our actions (and as a result our norms and expectations) to ones closer to that of the egalitarian societies of hunters and gathers of the past … while adapting them to today’s societal complexities? How can we prioritize generosity and cooperation from early ages and not hypocritically abandon them as we fall into adulthood – adopting them not only individually, but also as fixtures in our beleaguered institutions.

Breaking Hierarchies to Combat Authoritarianism

A lot of us, me included, are still wallowing in the “sugar high” of the mid-term elections. The last two years of Trumpism seems a little less dark looking at how voters repudiated it by establishing a new Democratic majority in the House of Representatives. We shouldn’t be so quick to think the battle has been won though; nor should we think a similar result in 2020 in the next presidential election will be the panacea either. While these steps are definitely an improvement: the underlying reasons we are in this situation, and by us I include Europe also, are still very much with us. We have turned over the state of our political affairs to mechanisms and the manipulation of often corrupt hierarchies. We might get lucky and elect a “leader” with integrity and compassion – or at the sight of inevitable demographic changes, where “things just ain’t like they used to be” … we fall for the next modern-day Pied Piper. In the end, we’re giving up our agency by absolving ourselves from any personal or civic responsibilities, responsibilities our fore-fathers fought with their lives to acquire.

We have to step up and take control — and not just at the voting booth, even though that’s a positive step. And it’s not enough to lobby for local control if that control still resides in just a different level of government. While I’m not an anarchist and believe government and institutions hold a valuable place in our society, over reliance on them in lieu of personal agency is rendering us impotent to dictate the terms of our own futures.

We have look to ourselves and our neighbors for the solutions not only for our problems – but also for societal norms that will dictate the composition of our communities’ relationships far into the future. And we need to build the infrastructure (physical and virtual) that will empower them. Existing constructs only reinforce the hierarchies we must disassemble.

We need to look to altruism as what we should teach our kids – not just rules and laws that we take to the very brink of what we can get a way with (and often beyond that). We need to aspire not to dominate, but cooperate. We have to establish expectations of rising to the occasion and embracing those around us by helping them see what they can contribute to tapestry of our community – and not penalize them for not adhering to the rigid framework of hierarchical preconceptions set forth by those who reside in ancestral positions of power in their ivory towers.

We must mold our modern-day society to synthesize a rational and appropriate level of self-maximizing with collective self-actualization. This needn’t mean being “devoutly egalitarian”; nor delegating our interdependent futures to mindless market forces and inept governments we entrust to control them that is neither rational, nor survivable. We can and must regulate better than the invisible hand’s invisible brain.

But for us to accomplish this we need everyone on board. Inclusion is paramount in today’s diverse society, one of inhabited by a plethora of ethnicities, religions, ideas, wants and needs. To feel included is synonymous to be given permission to truly be who we want to be, free of encumbering societal norms and expectations. And when society gives us permission … anything is possible.

See Community 3.0 for my version of a prescription for speaking truth to power by organizing your community around decentralized empowerment, inclusion and altruism.

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Related Posts:

Moving Beyond The Movement

Well here it is, May of 2018, and we’re six months away from the mid-term elections. We have descended into Dante’s Hell of campaign missives. All news is to now to be framed in a political narrative – yet none of it is really informing us to make better decisions at the polls. Combine this bi-annual event with Trump being at the helm of this Titanic of a federal government … and retaining ones sanity is easier said than done.

Here in Billings, Montana, I’m subjected to a daily barrage of GOP hopefuls on full display strutting their stuff in hopes of uprooting the Democratic incumbent Senator Jon Tester. You have Troy Downing, out-Trumping even the orange clown himself – trying dearly to conjure up a bucket of patriotism by enlisting Mike, the felon, Flynn on the campaign trail. Not to be outdone, we have Billings’ own former judge Russell Fagg. His message to the world is death to them murdering marauders from south of the border. But of course the vengeance will have to wait until after his weekly morning prayer meeting for the local business community. God help us all please … as I cry from the depths of Circle Five and the River of Styx just hoping Cheron the oarsman doesn’t toss me overboard with the other wallowing souls. Come to think of it … put me out of my misery.

Regardless of what end of this ideological political absurdity you reside – there’s still one question virtually no one asks. Can these politicians subjecting us to all of this narcissistic babble do the job they so desperately want. We just had the Tester/Trump battle over Trump’s pick for the VA, Ronny Jackson. All the attention was on whether on his character was suitable; as if that has really mattered for any of Trump’s other picks. While this definitely should be addressed – shouldn’t also the fact the man had nowhere near the background to do a job like this. Nothing indicates any level of ability coinciding with the magnitude of running the VA. Unfortunately this is normally always the case. Ideology trumps ability.

Corporations and business have interview processes that hopeful identify competent candidates and then from there a qualified decision is made. This isn’t always the case, but at least the attempt is there. Politics doesn’t work that way. And unfortunately neither do social movements and cause-based activism.

Let’s look at gun control efforts. Since Columbine, there’s been many opportunities to launch strikes against the NRA and those beholden to them. In addition to Columbine, the Gabby Giffords’ shooting and Sandy Hook being two in particular. None of them have really gained any traction. They have NGOs set up and I’m sure there are people out making an effort, but if anything the gun lobby is as strong now than ever. Donna Dees wrote an interesting article for Fast Company, just yesterday on her experience founding the Million Moms March after Columbine. She blames branding primarily for its lack of being able to “change the game.” I think it goes a lot deeper than that.

Now we have the #MarchForOurLives student crusade that seems to be making some headway. The founding high school students from Parkland, Florida have social media followings several times that of any effort to date. They may also be more organizationally adept than any other movement also … believe it or not. We’ll see how this all plays out come November and the midterm elections though. I’m hoping to be pleasantly surprised.

Let’s not forget Occupy Wall Street and all the other hundreds of Occupys. This was supposed to be the start of a decentralized push to bring down “the man.” No one was in charge, so all participating voices would be heard and no one could be targeted by the establishment. Emotional momentum is a hard thing to maintain though. This is especially the case if there’s no one leading when the inevitable push back comes from those in the status quo who are affected.

Historian Bill Moyer wrote an excellent account of movements called, History is a Weapon: A Movement Action Plan.” Moyer’s essay is a strategic framework describing the eight stages of successful social movements. Moyer outlines the decades long fights for the curtailment of  nuclear power in American. He details the eight stages activists and their opponents battled through. The piece is a must read for anyone who wishes to make it a life protesting against “the man” … and a life it is. Ask anyone fighting for a woman’s right to choose. Just when you think the battle is done and you can finally go home and put your feet up … out pops the latest reincarnation of pathetic sexist zealotry.

Another movement I’ve been following is #MeToo. For all accounts, it should succeed. It has potentially huge numbers with what should be virtually all women and the men who aren’t assholes. That said, what’s actually happening though? What’s being accomplished? We’ve had some women come up publicly and face their abusers. We had a favorable Bill Cosby verdict (which I attribute to #MeToo). But what about women’s equality in the workplace. What’s the game plan by those in charge? Is there anyone in charge? Unfortunately these questions are all too common.

Social movements normally arise out of nowhere with a tsunami of momentum – only to burnout just as fast. There will be a few people who will hang on, create an organization and try to stay relevant. Is anything accomplished … normally not. Implementation is hard, and those who ignite a movement (if many can even be called that) are not qualified or have the resources to sustain it once the media and its twenty-four hour news cycle moves on. These people are not hired to run and grow an organization like those hired to run a corporation. They weren’t chosen … most often the movement chose them.

New Power … and maintaining the momentum

Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms just released an excellent book called “New Power,” which has been getting a lot of attention. Jeremy’s organization, Purpose, has been groundbreaking in its support for “new power” efforts worldwide. And Henry made a historical impact with Giving Tuesday. New Power is a manual for anyone who wishes to create change through the empowerment of the “people in the street” in their battle against the status quo of what they call Old Power.

For most of human history, the rules of power were clear: power was something to be seized and then jealously guarded. This “old power” was out of reach for the vast majority of people. But our ubiquitous connectivity makes possible a different kind of power. “New power” is made by many. It is open, participatory, and peer-driven. It works like a current, not a currency–and it is most forceful when it surges. The battle between old and new power is determining who governs us, how we work, and even how we think and feel. (Amazon description)

Now let’s say we all follow Jeremy and Henry’s book – very well we could see results and things might start changing. But ultimately it’s going to come down to actions and leadership of a few to organize, and keep the momentum going. This is not easy and much of the time – it takes what seems like forever – as Bill Moyer so aptly chronicled with the anti-nuclear movement

Wael Ghonim, the main instigator (and I say that in the best possible terms) in the Arab Spring protests articulated the Participation Scale in tweet outlining the multiple steps we can take to sustain a movement.

Ghonim’s suggestions are excellent when it comes to making the movement go – and keep it going. But what happens after the movement? How do we keep the supply of devoted coming, not just for this cause – but for other causes that should follow? How do we create a fertile ground where there is always the manpower to fight that next worthy cause.

But it’s not enough to just have these often random and reactionary outbursts against the Old Power of the status quo. We need a new societal mindset that doesn’t default towards conformity and obedience to Old Power institutions in the first place. Today we have the modern-day Gutenberg printing press in everyone’s hand – social media. The potential is there to create a new way. We just have to decide that we’re willing to do it.

We need to create a new civic norm and power structure that isn’t so much a structure, but a flow. And specifically we need a flow that comes not through the whims and selfish obsessions of “representatives” (and I use that word loosely). We need direct response that truly represents an engaged populace. The advantage will go to those who are engaged, connected and informed; not naive and obedient to a “higher power” that falsely claims the path to the promised land.

Rhizomes and Decentralized Civic Engagement

An increasing mass of people agree that long term human survival depends on us replacing the status quo with a fundamentally different set of behaviours and structures. I believe the root of that challenge is essentially cultural, and the best place to grow culture is in small groups. And until we’ve got a critical mass of activists that are embedded in a new way of thinking, relating and communicating, any mass movement is going to replicate the errors of the past. (5 Reasons to Build a Network of Small Groups – Richard Bartlett)

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

We need to look no further than our backyard to find a perfect example of decentralized civic participation. One of nature’s most effective means of sustainability is the rhizome. The rhizome is a modified subterranean stem of a plant that is usually found underground, often sending out roots and shoots from its nodes. Rhizomes develop from axillary buds and grow perpendicular to the force of gravity. The rhizome retains the ability to allow new shoots to grow upwards, giving rise to a new node of above ground activity.

rhizome
Credit: Debi Keyte-Hartland

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

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

Front Porches

In every town and every neighborhood are places where informal leaders go to hang out and do the real business of the town. In Minot, North Dakota where I grew up, we had Charlie’s restaurant and the Elks Lodge. These were the places where the “business of the community” was done (not at the city council meetings). This is where ideas were hatched and where the future of Minot was mapped out … often under the influence of a libation or two.

These informal meeting places, most often locally owned businesses, are what I call Front Porches, named after the front yard gathering spots so often seen in Latino communities that are used for neighborhood discussion and connection to the street. These Front Porches are where the Middle Ring flourishes and what the French political philosopher, Alex de Tocqueville, observed in the 1800’s as the source of America’s “inclusive exceptionalism.”

Your neighborhood’s Front Porch can be anywhere or anything. It can be the local pub down the street or the coffee-house where you get your morning sustenance from. It can be Bill’s garage where everyone gathers to watch Sunday football games. It can even be your kitchen table. What happens at the Front Porch is what matters … not what is looks like or where it is. These Front Porches are what provides the bridge from the naturalistic examples of the rhizome organization articulated by Deleuze and Guattari and your community’s civic sustainability.

Growing New Power In Your Community

With a rhizome-based civic philosophy built around your community’s Front Porch network, the foundation has been laid for a sustainable implementation of New Power; one that will endure well beyond a single movement or display of activism. Your activism will be organized, but not from a conventional hierarchical sense, but rather from a case-by-case basis emanating from Front Porch tactical execution.

In the end, the effectiveness of a movement is dependent on more than structure. It needs the strength and abilities of the individual members of your community. It needs talent. This talent also needs to be schooled in the functions and use of New Power. Just as important though is training future members and new generations to keep the cause going. This is where long-term thinking and a decentralized activist game plan is needed. Sustained engagement requires a learned mindset of change, one that stresses inclusive involvement by all members of the community, regardless of age, gender, or socioeconomic level. Imagine if Front Porches were used as the classrooms and incubators honing the skills for mindsets of change, encouraging engagement at any level; be it simple participation, project organization and even social movement development.

Nurturing “Civic Self-Efficacy”

Now imagine this effort to build “civic self-efficacy” was a concerted effort nationwide, if not worldwide. The Front Porch concept scales well beyond neighborhood businesses in single communities. As long as the tenets of rhizomatic growth is adhered to, and local issues and needs prioritized – why can’t community empowerment scale worldwide? 

Why can’t a farmer from Oregon, via their Front Porch, share a success story with farmer from Nigeria via theirs. Their civic needs and resource availabilities may be different, but the serendipitous sharing of insight could “turn on the light;” solving a problem with a solution not otherwise seen. And why do we limit collaboration to only those of common vocations when anyone, anywhere of any profession should cross-pollinate and share solutions to civic fixes in their respective locales. Why can’t our worldwide Front Porch network establish a civic empowerment help line. In fact the Parkland kids behind the #MarchForOurLives have done exactly that. They created Outreach For Our Lives to answer questions and lend assistance to student leaders setting up and running their own local chapters of gun control activism.

We need to find organizers in our communities’ Front Porches who can lead, much like the students of Parkland. We then need these leaders to train and mobilize fellow members and friends from these Front Porches … seeding the process to continue on. The act of activism is preparation for more activism. So in essence, a movement is not just cause or content, but rather a platform to individually build civic muscles, or “civic self-efficacy.” Collectively we can then build an organization (and database) that can be mobilized for additional movements, causes and even structural changes. And with each movement and each participation our collective New Power strengthens and proliferates. No longer will we be dependent on the illusion of the “man on the white horse” riding in to save us. We will save ourselves!

We must evolve, individually and collectively – even if some don’t seem to think so. But to do this, we will have to change our thinking. Instead of relying on past expectations and cultural assumptions as our guides — we must envision what could be …. not just what always has been.

But the vision is only part of the journey. We have to look past how things in past have been done. No longer should the Old Power of government and traditional institutions be looked at as our first line defense … rather should be looked at only as a last resort. Our reaction should be to assemble our friends and neighbors at our local Front Porch, organize and flex our New Power muscle.

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

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

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If you’re interested in moving on from the status quo – join me in building a New Power coalition in your community … one that is more representative, inclusive and equitable. Please check out Community 3.0, my vision of an evolved society where self-efficacy and well-being is priority.

I can be reached via email me, at clayforsberg@gmail.com and we can set up time to have a conversation.

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Battling our Epidemic of Loneliness

Eight years ago I wrote my first blog post here. The topic was silos; how cities and towns isolate themselves and competing against each other to the detriment of both – while cooperation would be mutually beneficial. Silos aren’t limited to civic strategy and geographic jingoism though. They’re everywhere.

Silos are easy to create. They allow us to compartmentalize. We can separate things, put them aside and go on. Diving deep, finding connections and trying to wrap our heads around how everything affects each other is messy, ambiguous and difficult. However making the connections between disparate issues very often shines light on them – producing clarity. In a strange way this inter-connectivity simplifies. Even though we say we want to simplify things – we actually go to great lengths to complicate them. As Einstein said: “The definition of genius is taking the complex and making it simple.” But genius takes work – work we seldom undertake … especially when silos are available.

We deal with civic and social issues at the most digestible level. We treat symptoms rather than underlying causes … creating even more silos. And with this come more policies, laws and power struggles that attempt to deal with them. This is what make bureaucracy so inefficient. It’s filled with unconnected silos all fighting over scarce resources, attempting to address symptoms rather than the root causes that often are connected themselves. Progressive civic problem-solvers call these often neglected root causes, social determinants. They’re buried deep and confronting them seldom produces the quick short-sided fixes politicians and policy-makers feed on. They’re indirect and obliquitous. But ironically these root causes are often obvious to those outside the confines of the echo chambers and ivory towers of public policy governmental malaise. For example: hungry kids will have problems performing well at school – yet so many remain exactly that – as year after year policy makers concentrate instead on the reform de jour, or worse yet threaten school shutdowns for those that under-perform.

The one thing …

What if there was one thing we could focus on that could simultaneously address many of the societal ailments that we encounter and at the same time fixed an important issue its own directly.

Every day there’s a never-ending stream of research and reports detailing the ailments affecting America. But seldom do we hear about any solutions for these ailments; isolated success stories yes – but not overarching policy, governmental or societal.

Obesity: No matter how many alarms are set off – the nation keeps getting fatter. It doesn’t matter, young or old – obesity numbers keep rising, regardless the efforts being attempted (and I say that liberally).

Dementia: Our current elderly, living longer and often alone, have become a generation plagued by dementia and Alzheimers. This is compounded by the fact that most look to doctors and the healthcare system to fix a problem there is no “pill” for.

Addiction: The chronic stresses of today’s non-stop, uncertain lives makes coping with it all a major undertaking … and too much for many. Combine this with the knee-jerk over-prescribing of pharmaceutical quick-fixes and we’ve created a culture who inevitably ends up addicted to whatever they can get their hands on.

Child care issues: No matter what our socioeconomic level is, we all seem to struggle with the same plight – adequate and available child care. Dual-income households as well as single parents find that finding that place to stash their kids during the day while they work – anything but easy.

Finding not just work, but rewarding work: Unemployment is at historical lows, but how many people are happy in their jobs. Many are either underemployed or just unfilled working for “the man.” In addition – college, once the panacea for future employment dilemmas, has turned into a nightmare of student loans for many.

Polarizing political views: Politics is no longer just a lightening rod for uncomfortable Thanksgiving family gatherings. Fueled by the election of Donald Trump and his daily stream of partisan controversy … the United States is anything but that. His divisive anti-social behavior has firmly taken root in our neighborhoods as social engagement has become replaced by isolation and an obsession of cable news.

Too often we look at these aliments in isolation – disconnected from each other. It’s as if obesity has no affect on why we hate our neighbor because he’s a Republican. But actually they can be connected. As are not finding rewarding work and why too many Americans have problems with quality child care. Our goal must be to find what ties all these things together.

Isolation, Illness … And Hate

Recently several articles have surfaced on the detrimental health effects of loneliness, whether it be physical or psychological. Everything always seems worse when we’re sick and there’s no one there to lean on for support. This is especially the case in rural areas where the sparse population adds to the isolation. This condition isn’t exclusive to the geographically remote either. The same can even be said in urban areas when we feel isolated in our communities because our social or political views, or just don’t have anyone emotional close to us anymore.

Can these health detriments due to isolation be a breeding ground for hate? The outsized elderly vote for Donald Trump and his message of division and national isolation makes a case for it. Sadly I’ve never seen hate rise to the levels of today. Why is this? Could it be the source of it is the unprecedented level loneliness and isolation in America? Maybe. Hannah Arendt in “The Origins of Totalitarianism, her chronicle on the rise of Nazism makes a parallel argument decades ago.

Terror can rule absolutely only over men who are isolated against each other… Therefore, one of the primary concerns of all tyrannical government is to bring this isolation about. Isolation may be the beginning of terror; it certainly is its most fertile ground; it always is its result. This isolation is, as it were, pretotalitarian; its hallmark is impotence insofar as power always comes from men acting together…; isolated men are powerless by definition.

Has America turned into a nation of isolated, sick and angry people – waiting impatiently for someone to ride in on a white horse to save them from their lives of misery  – no matter the consequences? Politics is killing us, literally. If all this isn’t enough to make us wake from our cerebral stupor … then what will?

We need to call it like it is. It isn’t a preference. Only in extreme cases is loneliness a choice. It’s an epidemic … like the plague. Very few wish it upon themselves. This isn’t just another city or county budget item like a roundabout or off-ramp to pacify some well-heeled real estate developer. Loneliness is a scourge that is literally killing our country.

Lonely people probably aren’t just a damper on the national morale; they’re likely to be a strain on national productivity and health-care systems, too. The bodies of lonely people are markedly different from the bodies of non-lonely people. Prolonged loneliness can put one at risk for chronic health conditions, exacerbate various health conditions, and ultimately put us at increased risk for premature mortality. (What Loneliness Does to the Body)

Loneliness is a problem that is getting worse too. We are living longer. More and better healthcare is keeping us physically alive longer. Technology, while wonderful for some people, myself included – isolates (emotionally and socially) those who aren’t connected.

We’re geographically separated, and especially in small towns, it’s getting worse. Many parts of the country are losing young talent., such as rural areas that are not keeping up with the technological revolution. This talent are the exact people who would normally be around to keep elderly family members company. And our traditional institutions (churches, fraternal clubs, etc.) no longer hold the same attraction as they did in our parents time. The decline in bowling leagues, the moniker of the famous book on community sociology by Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone – exemplifies the decay of the American social fabric. These are just a few of the reasons, and I’m sure we all can offer up others specific to our own situation too.

Pushing back …

“Our true destiny is a world built from the bottom up by competent citizens living in solid communities, engaged in and by their places.” – David W. Orr

What if the answer was as easy as just getting people back together again; physically engaging with each other. What if we as a society made a concerted effort to re-establish civic and social gathering places. And what if our social policies focused on physical engagement with one another. This engagement would create serendipitous civic resource maximization through synergy – a synergy we often didn’t even know was available to us all the time.

What if a renewed obsession with engagement put us in a place even better than we’ve ever had. By realizing that loneliness is a devastating social disease we can attack it by creating new norms of engagement and awareness. We can forge a new society – one evolved to be better positioned for inclusion and self-transcendence, focusing beyond just our own needs. We would be creating communities where connectiveness and well-being was how we measured themselves, not just jobs and obtuse economic activity often distorted through a one-dimensional lens of irrelevant statistics.

Imagine meeting with a fellow group of customers from the local hardware store to create a small community garden, only to find out the woman working the plot next to yours has a daughter who just moved back in town after college and is looking for a part-time job. And you just happen to be looking for someone to watch you daughter after preschool. A simple engagement at the local hardware store turns out to be a solution for fresh food and childcare.

Imagine coming together with your neighbors to rebuild the local grade school playground, including the one who you would never talk to due to his political ideology. Working side-by-side with him you find out he is an expert in the exact software program you been needing help with for weeks. Now that freelance opportunity you’ve been struggling with can now become a reality.

Imagine grabbing your teenage kids and hauling them down to your local coffee shop for its elderly outreach project. Instead of just brooding around the house every weekend – your lovely offspring are making connections, and changing lives, with those who have literally built the very town they live in. Your son is so taken by a 90 year-old gentleman he has befriended, he decided to stay in town for college and help the coffee shop expand their outreach program … and regularly stay touch in touch with his surrogate grandfather.

Community 3.0, Front Porches … a Call To Action

How do we makes this happen though? How do we transform our communities into ones where opportunities to engage are around every corner? How do we break the habit of the couch, cable news and waiting for “the man on the white horse” to ride in to save us?

In every town and every neighborhood are places where informal leaders go to hang out and do the real business of the town. In Minot, North Dakota where I grew up, we had Charlie’s restaurant and the Elks Lodge. These were the places where the “business of the community” was done (not at the city council meetings). These were the places where ideas were hatched and where the future of Minot was mapped out … often under the influence of a libation or two.

These informal meeting places, most often locally owned businesses, are what I call Front Porches, named after the front yard gathering spots so often seen in Latino communities that are used for neighborhood discussion and connection to the street. These Front Porches are where the Middle Ring flourishes and what the French political philosopher, Alex de Tocqueville, observed in the 1800’s as the source of America’s “inclusive exceptionalism.”

Your neighborhood’s Front Porch can be anywhere or anything. It can be the local pub down the street or the coffee-house where you get your morning sustenance from. It can be Bill’s garage where everyone gathers to watch Sunday football games. It can even be your kitchen table. What happens on the Front Porch is what matters … not what is looks like or where it is.

It’s not enough just have a place to get together though. Front Porches need to promote the activity that bolsters engagement. This activity should be more than just idle talk though. What if it took the form of informal volunteer projects. I call these street-level Front Porch based civic fixes, Solutions. They are designed to help pick up the civic slack and mend its societal safety net while bringing your community members together through action, not just talk. These Solutions can range from organizing a cleanup effort, to fixing a playground, to even spearheading a high school mentoring or apprentice program.

Community 3.0 is my community engagement platform built around the concept of the Front Porch and the Solutions that are nurtured in them. Using street-level direct civic participation as an augmentation to governmental representation, I believe we can not only create a more responsive and inclusive society – but one that leverages its members to build an environment of physical, mental and social well-being.

Community 3.0 uses the bleedingEDGE 1-to-1 marketing system to mobilize Front Porch patrons and keep them emotionally motivated to help not only help their community, but also themselves through a set of pre-programmed event-driven nudges. These nudges not only focus on recruiting members for volunteer projects, its content advocates for healthy behaviors. Rather than just ‘push burgers’ … your local Front Porch can offer a deal on a Caesar Salad for those who helped with the Saturday morning clean up effort organized by them.

As a part of the Community 3.0 platform we’ve put together a roster of several examples of what can come from these Front Porch volunteer collaborations. These examples represent Solutions to many common needs and opportunities a community may encounter. By no means is this roster comprehensive, but it’s a start.

What the 3.0 Front Porch network will provide is an opportunity to engage through civic collaboration – often with people you don’t know and may be nothing like you. By taking advantage of these serendipitous engagements, you will provide yourself with the resources that will help you and your community strengthen individual and collective self-efficacy. And through this self-efficacy, and by breaking the habit of the “man on the white horse” our epidemic of loneliness will find a formidable foe … and that foe is us.

Ask yourself: “If not me … then who? And if not now … then when?”

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I realize that we need more than just a prodding to “do something.” I suppose one way is just interacting with your neighbors more, or striking up a conversation with the person behind you in the grocery line. But no matter how many of these ‘one offs’ we do – they’re still just that … ‘one offs.’ Here’s how we can leverage our commitment and make our actions contagious. Just let me know how you feel you would like to participate at clayforsberg@gmail.com.

  • Join the Community 3.0 as a Community Empowerment Concierge (CEC). As a CEC you will help find and set up Front Porches in your community.
  • Or you can help find a CEC in your community and assist them.
  • Or once your community gets set up on the 3.0 network – you can help develop engagement projects (Solutions) in your community’s Front Porches.

Community 3.0 will be up and running in the beginning of 2019.

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Why Amazon’s Whole Foods Acquisition Will Revitalize Rural America

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

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

Whole Foods organic

The Fallacy of Amazon as the Bad Guy

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

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

Self-Efficacy

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

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

Amazon and Whole Foods

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

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

Current State of Affairs in Farming

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

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

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

Amazon and the Opportunity for Small Towns

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

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

Organic farming

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

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

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

Building a Sustainable Community Around Healthy Food

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

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

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

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

They still aren’t coming.

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