Situational Leadership

Greg Owen never thought of himself as a leader; and I’m sure today he still doesn’t. But he a man who who saw an opportunity to help others in his community and took advantage it, for no other reason than he thought he could. His story is inspirational, aspirational and just plain unfathomable. It shows what a regular person, like you and I, can do if they choose to do it. Please, please read his story here.

In 1986, John Gage, then of Sun Microsytems, organized NetDay in California. NetDay was a historic grassroots effort in the classic American barn-raising tradition. Using volunteer labor, the goal was to install all the wiring needed to make five classrooms and a library or a computer lab in every school Internet-ready. If the same work was financed by taxpayers, it would cost more than $1,000 per classroom. Volunteers from businesses, education, and the community acquired the equipment, installed and tested it at each school site.

As a result, 20,000 volunteers helped to wire twenty percent of California schools to the Internet – all on one Saturday in March. By bringing together these diverse elements, NetDay established a framework for lasting partnerships among business, government, educational institutions, and local communities providing ongoing support for the schools to this day. In addition, by the end of 2001, just five years later­, NetDay events were held in 40 states and engaged more than 500,000 volunteers to wire more than 75,000 classrooms across the USA.

Stories like Greg Owen and John Gage are everywhere in our world. There’s teenagers Greta Thunberg and Billie Eilish providing the beacons of hope among their peers in a generation littered by uncertainty and crisis. Some we hear about, and some we don’t. Some are huge and affect our entire society … and some just a single neighborhood. Regardless the magnitude, regular people have enormous power to affect change, literally on their own.

No one elected these leaders to lead – they just stepped up and performed. And others around them saw the leadership in them and followed. This is the prescription for civic engagement and decentralized problem solving. The situation dictated that they were needed and they responded. There was no established hierarchy, nothing to inhibit true leaders rising to the top when their skills and drive dictated so. These are just people with a passion and an empathetic vested interest in the missions they chose to pursue.


Situational Leadership and the Power of Peers

Last month in the piece Consciousness of Community, I detailed a breakthrough comparison study that highlighted a group out of the University of Wisconsin who have theorized that consciousness is a function of foundational experiences we have that establish the architecture of our minds. I believe this theory can be extrapolated to describe underpinning working of our communities.

At the foundation of every community is its consciousness and what it stands for. This consciousness doesn’t come from governmental edict or legislation. It doesn’t come from its institutions. It comes from the values and expectations of its people and the norms that evolve from them. This foundation will determine a community’s actions and effectiveness of those actions as they address their needs and opportunities. This consciousness, the architecture, can either form on its own often through default from the actions of nefarious actors – or it can arise due to dedicated inclusive efforts of residents. These dedicated efforts are most effectively accomplished through the empowerment and nurture of well-meaning peer leaders and their use of Situational Leadership.

But how can we create the type of community consciousness that will help guide us in making the type of community we truly want to live in? Strategic micro-managing, haphazardly designed and implemented by politicians and civic officials, seldom lives up to the task and has proven time and time again to be bad policy. Even for those competent and well-intended, situations and circumstance change daily rendering even the best laid plans outdated almost immediately. While I don’t condone anarchy, there is a middle ground; one where a strategy is tempered with the realism of societal messiness and uncertainty. This is a direction that relies on the strengths of the entire community, not just a chosen few. It creates an infrastructure that nurtures the inherent talents of those in the community, across all socioeconomic levels and ages; and empowers them to rise and lead in a project-by-project manner. This situational leadership follows the example of Greg Owen, John Gage, Greta Thunberg and Billie Eilish.


Rhizomes and Civic Decentralization

How can we design our communities in a way that we encourage an inclusive journey of contribution and well-being for all our residents? How can we create environments where everyone has an opportunity to realize their place – whatever and wherever that may be? 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.

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.

In 2016, during the construction of my 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 how rhizomes and their actions in nature can be extrapolated to visualize 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 permission on a community level.

  • 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 towards its conclusion, 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 rhizomes resists chronology and formal organization, instead favoring a nomadic system of growth and proliferation. In this model, influence spreads like the surface of a body of water, spreading towards available spaces or in the application of a community – maximizing the resources available to it, regardless of 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 unfettered by systems of organization. The goal of the nomad is only to continue to move within the “intermezzo.” (the journey rather than the destination). This constant state activity prevents itself from existing for the sake of existing as conventional organizations and institutions most often do. Its purpose is to make things happen, to find opportunities and solutions; not just to “be.” This nomadic behavior also lends itself best to the individual, focusing on what interests them and where they can contribute most, rather than 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 Danish philosopher Søren Kiekegaard – being 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 and experiences that inhabit it. These influences can include meaningful communications as well as social norms, ideals and community expectations. In the context of Community 3.0, the Smooth Space emanates from the Front Porches network, through members of the community who frequent them as they create the community’s societal norms. What a community does and creates with its Smooth Space will determine the well-being of its populace. It’s the Smooth Space that defines the community’s consciousness and personality created from the intangible, serendipitous, sensual and tactical engagements of all the members of its community (i.e. empathy, creativity, collaboration and self-actualization).
  • Body Without Organs: Body Without Organs is what happens on the Smooth Space. It is the result of what the rhizome social philosophy using the nomadic actions of its components (residents) 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 overall state of well-being are the results of the interactions between its members, businesses and other organizations; it’s the 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 silos. Wall Street or Main Street. These actions built on the consciousness contained in its Smooth Space is who your community truly is.


Constructing the Smooth Space and Changing Attitudes

In the Billie Eilish piece I wrote a couple weeks ago, I introduced us to her as an example of what we should be looking for in our influencers and peer leaders. She advocates for the normalization of mental health, lead by example in the war against the sexualization of teenage girls, and worked with the mayor of Los Angeles to register and get out the young vote; all the time using empathy, connection and most of all love as her conduit to do it.

Billie, along with Greg Owen, are the exact people we need to nurture and protect in our communities. They show us examples of the Situational Leadership we need to break our addiction to institutional malaise. Neither Billie or Greg are probably cut out to be a governor or president or even a mayor – but no one wants them to be, least of which are them. But for the roles they’re playing – they are perfection. That is very definition of Situational Leadership.

Much discussion, especially in liberal circles, has been put into empowering the masses. This vision is that if everyone is given a chance these same “everyones” will rise up and create an equitable society. It’s a admirable cause, a bit utopian, but admirable nonetheless. But the truth is – not everyone has the potential or even the desire to rise up and be the next Greg Owen. Instead of focusing on only empowering everyone, how about we also focus on identifying the true impact players — and help them lead the way in their own idiosyncratic manner to better the world for all of us. What we should be doing is ferreting out those people, especially young people, who show themselves in unique ways to be able to rise and inspire others – instead of rewarding conformity and their ability to stay in the lane society has chosen for them. It should be everyone’s job to find these leaders among us and they get the support they need.

We need to reassess what we value as a society and in our communities. This will take a hard look at ourselves and what and who we have traditionally put on a pedestal. Our traditional norms and expectations are going to have to be challenged – since they too often don’t align with true leadership. We can’t continually fall prey to the inertia of hierarchy. We have to let the power of the consciousness of the Smooth Space and Situation Leadership take over.


Collaboration organization

Creating a Situational Leadership ecosystem


Determining Your Community’s Consciousness Vision

At the core of the transformation to Situational Leadership-based community is the vision or tenets. Laid out by a core group of you and fellow changemakers; it’s not so much a plan as it is a set of desired observations. How you get there will be dependent upon the foundational conscious or Smooth Space our community creates and the actions and engagements (Body Without Organs) that are laid on top of it. The development of both the Smooth Space and Body Without Organs will be spearheaded by the peer leaders in your communities we uncover and nurture. Components of your community’s conscious vision should include (but not limited to): empathy; inclusion; creative expression; designed and serendipitous engagement; and a permission to pursue for all residents, regardless of socioeconomic level, age or any other demographic labeling.


Creating Your Community’s Infrastructure

  • Front Porch network: Identify locally owned centers of current activity (commercial and other) that can be transformed into civic hubs of engagement working from peer leader efforts. Very often these will be small businesses. Enlist participation from prospective Front Porches through a combination of direct sales (via evangelists and peer leaders), public relations announcements and referrals through guerilla marketing efforts. Leverage the Front Porch owners (managers), employees and patrons to build your network’s Member base (specifically peer leader targets).
  • Member base: Build your community participant base via the efforts of your Front Porch network. Provide Member acquisition, training and guidance to Front Porch management and employees. Reach out to and organize in local high schools and colleges seeding younger generation volunteer movements (e.g. green and conservation actions). Use social media and public relations to identify specific community needs, opportunities to build cause actions around – and in turn act as Member recruiting vehicles. Use the Community 3.0 Member health and well-being Assessment (Three Pillars of Health) as a conduit to attract and spur Member participation – both individually and collectively.
  • Solutions (volunteer projects): Develop Solutions that address the components of the Vision Statement as well as building off the strengths and focuses of peer leaders (both enlisted and targets). Use your Front Porch network as the physical presence and base for Solution implementation as well bringing in a diverse offering of participants. Create a clearinghouse for Solution ideas from all people in your community to be implemented now and later as appropriate. Make dedicated efforts to diversify input socioeconomically and generationally. Use the The Art of Collaboration as a guide to flesh out the ideas and develop implementation strategies. Engage with other communities adopting the Community 3.0 model by sharing Solution ideas and execution techniques — as well as creating cross-community collaboration (regional and beyond).


Building the Peer Leader Team

Often hidden in weeds are the true leaders of your community – the ones people really follow. These are are your team of evangelists you will need to anchor your ground-up civic engagement efforts. Fight the urge to fall back on community icons from the status quo; instead identify key community segments (often underserved). Ferret out the influencers and solicit their input. The goal is finding that one key member that will contribute in outsized proportions.

  • Breakdown target segments and research peer leader prospects — connecting with the Solution project you’ve identified.
  • Identify the referral sources (Sourcers): Find people in public access position who see what is happening in the community. These aren’t necessary peer leaders as they are eyes to the community. Focus on referrals from the Front Porch network.
  • Recruit the referrals: Meet people where they are using their physical hubs (Front Porches). Offer the access to the system with the blessing of the entire Community 3.0 network.


Nurturing the Talent and Working the System

Journey of Engagements: Imagine a journey of permission and incremental engagements that specifically aim benefit each individual and the collective health and well-being of the community. This is not rigidly following a plan or adhering to a predetermined destination. It is recognizing the flow that arises from our appreciation for situational awareness and adjustments constantly needed due to the dynamic nature of our relationships.

  • 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.
  • The bleedingEDGE system: Enlist a personalized communication platform that nurtures these engagements. The platform uses the information gained from the Assessment upon Member onboarding and periodic updates and uses it to best direct the most applicable engagement suggestions (including where they come from) to each Member


Creating a Society Within Itself

“It is not necessary to tear down the old system … but rather to create a second system to which to flourish in.” ~ Nelson Mandela

“Current models for encouraging citizens to participate in civic life are geared around citizens influencing decisions making or servicing delivery, rather than individually or collectively making change themselves. This needs to change. Participation must enable citizens to take action rather than just have a conversation.” – Tessy Britton

Now the question is how do we build this new society, one that can function and flourish within the bounds of the greater one we see as grossly inadequate? And how do we build it by reestablishing the neighborhoods and communities that worked effectively in the past, yet rebuilding them on a base firmly planted in the technological world we live in now? However we have to look past how things have always been done. No longer should government and traditional institutions be looked at as the first line defense … rather should be looked at only as a last resort. Power must be decentralized, “Unlocking the Productivity of the People.” It won’t be the ones in power that voluntarily give it to us though. In fact, those in power will do everything to prevent that. Power must be acquired by “solving our community’s problems” in a situational manner, working around the “system” rather than tearing it down leaving only chaos in the aftermath.

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 we’ve always been done it.


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The Failing of a State

Two years ago I wrote a post called The Failing of a Town. This tragic piece features the story of Deon Gillen of Livingston, Montana. Gillen was repeated bullied in school, often being called stupid and retarded. After numerous failed attempts over several years by his mother to get the school to intervene, Deon finally relented to the abuse and committed suicide.The school’s excuse was that the main instigator of the bullying was “sneaky and hard to catch.” According to a law suit filed by his mother, Deon was diagnosed by a Billings Clinic doctor as suffering from aggravated post-traumatic stress disorder. Livingston only has a population of 7,500 people. Situations like this do not go unnoticed. This was a collective failure by the community not to take action even when the school wouldn’t. Livingston’s “boys will be boys” or “man up” culture instilled at a young age took precedence over the life of Deon and who knows how many other nameless children who have gone through similar plights in life.


The Decay of our Civic Consciousness

Recently I’ve focused on the importance of a community creating a set of foundational norms and expectations to guide their civic actions. This was articulated in the piece Giving Permission. At the core of a community’s well-being is its willingness to “grant permission” to its residents to dream and be truly be who they are without prejudice or marred by past societal traditions often irrelevant in today’s world.

In the piece Consciousness of Community I extrapolated on a model of the advent consciousness developed by neuroscientist Giulio Tononi of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Tononi theorized that consciousness stemmed from specific learned features in the mind’s architecture. This integrated information theory (IIT) suggested that consciousness was an intrinsic property of the right kind of cognitive network. In the case of a community, this “right kind of cognitive network” was the values, norms and expectations a community instills in its residents. Before we can expect to undertake specific actions to produce substantive change, the right architecture needs to be set – resulting in its foundational psyche or personality.

Pragmatically, I believe before we can successfully address any mental health issues such as those encountered by Deon Gillen, we have to address the norms of our community and the expectations we put on our residents. Does the community stress inclusion, creativity, empathy, out-of-box thinking, diversity and benevolence? Or does it prefer to lean on tradition, hierarchy, passivity, ancestral background and preservation of the status quo. These seemingly benign implications will dictate how residents react when confronted with a situation like that encountered by Deon.

Earlier this month I ran across an article by Montana Public Radio about how the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Gallatin and Park, and Sweet Grass Counties had secured $250,00 in funding for youth suicide prevention. I started reading the piece not expecting much revelation; but then I hit the second paragraph:

Youth suicides in Montana are about triple the national average. One in ten high school students and one in seven middle school students reported attempting suicide in 2018, according to the state’s health department.

One in seven middle school kids tied to kill themselves last year. Why is it that everyone in the state isn’t scared shitless for their kids? Why isn’t this newsworthy on a daily basis? Why should I have to find it buried in a MPR story online? How much longer are the people here going to quit hiding behind the Montana mystique and the facade of perfection in the big sky country … and wake the hell up!

Whenever I talk to people about living here they always ask, “it must be wonderful there.” The same goes for the national media. You can see it with the talking heads on MSNBC and CNN fawning over Steve Bullock and his ill-advised presidential bid. It’s like he’s going to bring some wonderful insight on how to solve the country’s problems because he is governor of Montana — a state where one in seven middle schools kids tried to kill themselves because because they have no hope. I’d hardly call that an exemplary track record.


“Cowboy Up” and Mental Illness

Reigning supreme in Montana and the neighboring states is the cowboy. It’s an all encompassing lifestyle; down to the mandatory skin-tight Wrangler jeans. This romanticizing of the cowboy has been proliferated in no small way by Hollywood and big screen portrayal of their ideal; Gene Autry, John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, among others. Their world wasn’t one of community: it was one of the outsider – stoic and always hiding their emotions, often not even verbally communicating. This emotional repression was seen as strength – thus the “cowboy up” mentality. Sharing feelings or god forbid seeking out help was a show of weakness. And this went not only for males. Women adopted the “cowboy up” mental also.


The Failing of a State

Montana Governor Bullock has spent every ounce of his political capital over seven years fighting unsuccessfully for pre-school education. While I’m not against this, I can’t see how a more structured environment for three and four year olds should take precedence over every other aspect of a young person’s upbringing. On the contrary, their most difficult period is when they navigate the transition through adolescence to adulthood – especially for those facing a sexual identity crisis in communities where the “real them” in shunned.

The meteoric rise of seventeen year old goth-pop recording artist Billie Eilish demonstrates the need that young people, especially young girls, have to have someone to identify with and be heard.

The contrast between the siblings’ warm, gorgeous pop undergirded by the eerie and sinister may be indicative of our times which for many are filled with tension, unease and anxiety. Seeing a world with so much division and strife, how can this younger generation not feel disaffected or alienated by such an uninspiring, regressive older guard and its inability to effectively lead? That this simultaneous light and dark filled music so deeply resonates with such a wide-swath of youth may speak to the next generation’s understanding of what’s happening and it may help them commune, “feel” and experience that tension together and hopefully move them and us far beyond this moment —something so desperately needed. (Non-Disposable Pop for Now People)

The issues they face in their lives are all but ignored in society. As long as they’re in school, all is supposedly good. Too often that is not the case. The adults of the world have created a world rife with gun violence, unrealistic expectations, environmental catastrophe and hyper-competition. All this is happening while the schools they’re made to attend often have little relevance to the creative world they see online. It instead requires conformity and adherence to societal expectations of their parents. The hypocrisy and disconnect is disconcerting to these formative minds in search for meaning in their lives going forward.


There’s a lot of attention being paid to human trafficking in Montana, especially in Billings where I’m at. Our civic leaders’ solution is more police, as it is for most every social ill here. Mostly these are not girls who are technically being kidnapped, but are being persuaded to join a group of sorts in search a better situation than they are currently in. It’s a classic gang recruiting technique; providing a family where one doesn’t otherwise exist. No amount of police is going to fix the underlying environments these young people are trying to flee from — or worse yet, kill themselves to escape.

In addition to increased law enforcement, Montana also believes the solution to outlying behavior and nonconformity is more school counselors and mental health professionals. While I don’t disagree, should we focus only on “after the fact” treatment when we ignore addressing the causes and the environments that breed the behavior and reactions in the first place? That said — too often the “after the fact” is poorly executed. For example in Billings they shut down the only place young people can go at night to get out of the cold — as they attempt to flee the horribleness of their home lives. Budget cuts they say. Or when adding school counselors, why do they always put them in the administrative area next to the principals? Gossip spreads like wild fire, even among adults. It’s hard to expect a vulnerable young person to reach out for help when they have to walk past the principals office to get it. This lack of thought in execution dismisses the social dynamics and complexities of a young person’s life.

Communities always 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 they’re 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.

These community attitudes can also be very limiting to how young people view their future career 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 or distrust to their geographically nonconformist career choices can be debilitating.

Montana is known for the pride it has in its state. This pride results in a refusal to acknowledge areas of improvement. It borders on zealotry and has turned out to be dangerous to its populace, as documented in its suicide rate topping the nation across virtually all categories, especially the youth. Until its tempered – no shortcomings will be acknowledged or addressed; first and foremost its alarmingly high suicide rates. This behavior is akin to that of an alcoholic or any other addict. Unless you admit you have problem … you’ll never fix it. And in Montana, the problem is pride and the “cowboy up” attitude where showing emotions and asking for help is considered a weakness.


Intimate Couple

How Do We Fix It

We need to get to the core of our community’s behavior, not just blindly prop up our hope on more institutional action that accomplishes little except prolonging the suffering – all in the name of saying we’ve done something.

A person’s behavior is most influenced by their relationships and interaction with their peers; not their parents, not their teachers and sure not what the government says. As in the post searching for your own Billie I outlined the impact Billie Eilish is having on millions of girls and young women worldwide. Eilish is a misfit popstar. She is unconventional in her music, in the way she dresses and the image she presents to the world. In a society where teens are constantly struggling with feelings of inadequacy, low self-esteem and self-deprecation, Eilish provides hope that misfits too can reach their dreams and take control of their lives. But she’s still looked as a peer. Just go into the comments section of one of her videos on YouTube. You’ll read a plethora of fans who say how her words and music saved their lives. To know they weren’t alone and someone as famous as Billie had and is going through the same thing and is their age, gives them comfort … comfort that can’t be gotten from an adult. She is the spokesperson for their transition into adulthood … saying what they cannot themselves articulate, yet feel daily.


First we have to understand we’re addicts; addicted to the cultural norms that are literally killing us. In Montana it’s the so-called manly “cowboy up” attitude and emotional repression. We have to allow everyone, especially our young people, the permission to be who they really are and express themselves accordingly – without being ostracized for not conforming to some archaic societal norm ill-designed for any sort of an inclusive society.

And the vehicle we’ll need to get there is not the monolithic institutions designed to proliferate these exact toxic norms in the first place. No government is going to fix this. You can’t legislate morality or cultural norms. Instead we’re going to have use the our most effective leverage of society and community – us, through the use of influential peers. To quote my last piece, we’re going to have to find our own Billies … and lots of them.

… end part one


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Wisdom from a 3rd Grader: “Boxes, Lockers and Islands”

Too often we fall into the trap of looking at everyone through the same lens. No surprise that our dealings with them don’t always turn out as we wish. This lens we use is normally the one we’ve constructed for ourselves. How we look at things is how we expect everyone else to.

I originally wrote this post eight years ago. I figured it would be a good time to dust it off and give it some light in today’s world.


I follow Sarah Hodsdon on Twitter. She’s a mixed media artist, author, DIY female McGyver and works in a bat cave … or at least that what her bio says. Maybe she does? Who am I to say. But what she really does is tweet about what her kids say – ages 7, 9 and 10.

I learn more from these three everyday by 8:00 am, than I do from all the gurus, experts and rockstars I follow all day. Their gift is to take complex sociological issues and boil them down in simple terms. We get to see the world through their eyes. The clarity they have, well … we could only hope for.

Well this me got thinking about when my daughter, Alexandria, was seven. Alex and I were living in Tiburon in northern California. At the time I was recruiting and living near and I was having difficulty communicating with a someone who was close to both Alex and I. Alex was in the middle of it. She told me how she dealt with the bone-headedness (her word not mine). “You can’t think she’s like the people you work with.”

Alex has always been a master of metaphors. And this time was no different. She divided people up into “types.” Each of these types were described according to how their brains worked (the big words are mine, but the descriptions still apply).

  • Boxes – with closed lids: Members of this archetype organized ideas and thoughts in large groups. They had lots of different types of thoughts in single boxes, and they could easily put them together. These people had more than one box. They could jump from one box to another, but not without effort. Also sometimes they moved their stuff from box to box. The close lids, however, made it kind of hard to do that; thus switching cerebral gears. She said most people we dealt with had “Boxes – with closed lids.”
  • Boxes – with open lids: This is pretty much like the “Boxes – with closed lids,” except that the person could move between boxes (e.g. Meta thought groups) easily. She said these people can be kind of hard to follow though. It took practice to see the connections they they were trying to make. Alex said I have “Boxes – with open lids.”
  • Lockers: People with lockers were organized: and they had multiple lockers.  Everything was segmented and in its place, more so than “Boxes.” People with “Lockers” were perfectionists and didn’t jump to quick decisions unless it was a micro-decision and all relevant input was contained in that locker. It just took a while to open the lockers. Alex had “Lockers.” As she’s gotten older though, I think she’s evolved to “Boxes – with open lids.”
  • Islands: People with “Islands” existed in their own myopic cerebral world. “If you are on an island how are going to be exposed to what other people are thinking?” Empathy seldom is a priority – if even possible. There might be other islands out there that they can see … but if they can’t swim or don’t want to learn – they’re stuck in their own world; on their own island. The person in question I was having problems with had “Islands.” And as Alex said, “and she’s not leaving her island anytime soon.” We  just had to deal with her that way.


Now, let’s come back to 2011. There’s a million books on relationships and how to communicate with people. But it all comes down to realizing that people are different and all our brains work differently. Whether they have boxes, lockers or islands, you just have adapt your communication style accordingly if you want to get your point across. What works for you, doesn’t necessarily work for them. And you can’t really change them. You just have to figure out how they use their brain.

But then again, there’s always help … maybe there’s 3rd Grader available.

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.


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.


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.


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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New Power! Using Those In The Streets To Make Change

Since Donald Trump has taken office, we’ve seen the streets of America come alive in ways we haven’t since the Vietnam protests of the ’60s. Last year millions protested in the #MeToo movement and for the rights of women. This year we’ve seen the students of #NeverAgain take their turn in like numbers to protest the insane gun culture that has infected the United States. And just last month, teachers in Oklahoma and West Virginia and beyond protest the equally insane disregard this country has for funding education. The country has had it. We are no longer willing to idly sit by and let this decimation of democracy continue brought on by Washington D.C. and state capitals nationwide.

In my last post I followed the lead of Parkland organizer Jaclyn Corin and implored we get up and scream at the healthcare industry for their refusal to make any effort in fixing the bloated fiefdom they’ve created. Now I’m asking for a new target to scream at: the Democratic party.

Now it’s easy to target the GOP. I’m not to go into why. Let’s just say – it’s been said, in copious detail – starting with Trump. The Democratic party on the other hand has been getting a free pass during this year of civil awakening. It’s time for us to rethink this though. The absence of their formal endorsement of either the striking teachers or the #NeverAgain kids is conspicuous.

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

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

Political parties have traditionally concerned themselves with the money and big backers of Old Power. They believe the road to personal and political power is paved by those outside of government in the private sector who hold the gold and silver. Once in a while a politician tries the buck the system and enroll the actual people in their cause – but the gale winds of Old Power eventually knocks the effort of course careening it in the rocks only to sink like yet another ship of democracy at the bottom of the political sea. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign of 2016 was a perfect example of this. Just when Sanders’ campaign was gaining momentum, Democratic kingmaker Debbie Wasserman Schultz extinguished it by cutting off access to the supposedly unbiased national party database and voter logs. These shenanigans would eventually get her tossed from her perch as the national party chair. But alas … the damage was done, Sanders stalled and Hillary Clinton was awarded the nomination. Now every morning we wake up to clown tweets … each one more absurd than the last.

Even without Wasserman Schultz – would Sanders have won the nomination? Probably not. I don’t believe he was the right vehicle to rally the “new power” to a level where it could have successfully scaled the castle walls of Old Power. Heimans and Timms believe change only occurs when a movement has garnered both enough Old Power and New Power to topple the status quo. Sanders didn’t have enough of either. Does the #MeToo movement or #NeverAgain or the teachers have enough ground-level support as well as traditional affluence to affect change. We’ll see.

That said, the GOP – helped by the extremist positions of anti-gun control NRA adherents along with religious zealots protesting abortion, Planned Parenthood or most anything else they deem a violation of their mutated take on the bible … have succeeded in rallying their disciples. Instant mobilization of this “new power” working in unison with bought and paid for politicians in all levels of government have taken the castle and turned it into a modern-day Caligula.

In the case of the NRA, much ado is made about how much they donate to political candidates – their Old Power. But where their real effect lies is in their New Power, or ability to rally their membership (as well as other gun owners) by using paranoia and scare tactics. Regardless of their views on other issues – the NRA faithful come out in droves to vote on that one thing – keeping their guns, however credible that threat may or may not be. The GOP have the NRA and the abortion foes at their disposal for New Power. These one issue voters will overlook any shortcomings, or horribleness in the case of Roy Moore and their other white-supremacists candidates, if they align on these two issues.

The Democrats, well I don’t what the hell they’re doing. They couldn’t ask for a better opportunity for a rallying cry. By Democrats, I don’t necessarily mean all of the individual candidates. I’m referring to the party establishment and the politicians that have been running it for decades. Few of these career power mongers have any idea what’s going on in the streets, let alone respect their efforts and take an encouraging role. The primary driver behind the New Power efforts has been social media. Most of those in the party establishment look at it as a threat, not an asset or a tool. Even though much their constituency lives on it (young people and technologically adept educated professionals) – few of those in the ivory towers can coherently compose an original tweet that isn’t self aggrandizing promotion.

Now what’s up here? Why hasn’t the Democrat power structure embraced this display of New Power? The logical answer is that the Democrat party, like the GOP, is beholden to corporate interests for campaign donations. The Democratic party steadfastly stands behind the House leadership of Nancy Pelosi due to her fundraising prowess. This is definitely Old Power thinking. It’s all about the money. The irony of the situation is money is only as good as it’s ability to deliver votes. And the votes of the current Democratic party are not to be had through traditional media buys and party bosses. It’s about making yourself relevant, accessible and immediate to the voters through the media of THEIR choosing – which is Twitter, Facebook and Instagram … not CBS, NBC and ABC.

The streets are full of voters who have passion for change in areas of gun control, women rights, education … but the Democratic party hasn’t joined them in this passion. This New Power is already organized and mobilized – and waiting for the members of the Old Power they can get behind. This is even more bewildering in the fact that these movements are intertwined. To sit on the sidelines while these voters, present and future, are “screaming” to be heard and represented is frustrating.


But just because we’re frustrated in the Democratic party or even the GOP if you believe in its older version of fiscal conservatism, not moral hypocrisy (back when it was a sensible alternative) – we shouldn’t dismay.

Politics aside, what can we do with this concept of New Power. Up to this point we’ve talked about New Power in the context of trying to get people, mainly politicians and elected officials, to do things for us. But how can we use this power of activism and engagement for direct civic action.

Instead of just lobbying for more money for education – why not organize a mentoring program implemented by you and your fellow community members. Every community, regardless of it socioeconomic level has human resources that go untapped just because they don’t fit into the normal realm of government-run programs. For example: the generational disconnect of retired people and adolescents is a crime of waste of resources that we can not afford to ignore any longer.

Instead of just lobbying for more money for elder care, what’s stopping you and your friends at your local watering hole from organizing a food give-away for elderly people and shut-ins. Or why not set-up a weekly coffee delivery for those who don’t get out, isolated from friends and family – if they even have any.

Instead of lobbying for legislation for equal pay across all genders – you and your neighbors should patronize those businesses that provide it without being legally forced to. And by the same token – those businesses who don’t should be shunned and avoided. No one’s forcing you to shop at the sexist bigot down the street. Hit them where it hurts most – their business.

Not all change can happen at street level through direct civic engagement though. Changes in federal laws – such as immigration policy, and international trade pacts can only be affected through lobbying and getting legislators to do the right thing.

But still, amazing things can happen without legislation. We just have to open our eyes to the possibilities.

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

And John Gage didn’t have Twitter and Facebook.


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


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Creating a Civic Self-Assessment

Thursday October 19, was the application deadline for hopeful North American cities to persuade Amazon to locate their second headquarters, otherwise known as HQ2, to their communities. It is anticipated over the next ten years the Amazon project will result in a $5 billion direct investment and as many as 50,000 job with salaries in the $100,000 range.

It’s been entertaining reading the editorials from local papers around the country. It’s been a civic who’s who of  “what’s great about our town.” Unfortunately it’s going to take a lot more than a nice videotaped speech by a mayor surrounded by Amazon shipping boxes to attract a $5 billion investment that could be leveraged into ten times more.


Needless to say there’s been an unprecedented frenzy of civic activity over the last two months in virtually every city of size in the United States and Canada. Even though Amazon has said they will only consider applications from cities of at least a million residents – that hasn’t stopped solicitations from locales a tenth that size. Some of the pitches have been nothing short of embarrassing. For example, Tuscon shipped a twenty-foot cactus 1500 miles to Amazon’s current home in Seattle. I wonder how a Sequoia will like Seattle’s weather?

Local and national, and in some cases international media, have spared no time and effort prognosticated on whether or not it’s worth it for a municipality to dive into this pool. Most of these article use academia as their “expert witnesses.” Specifically they use economics wonks to determine the viability of mortgaging their city’s future through what they claim is excessive tax concessions.

Whatever side of this economic debate these Rasputins fall on; their analysis, based mainly on whether concessions made will balance lost tax receipts, is short-sighted and shallow. I would hope we look at our communities as more than just a projected revenue stream. I would hope that we would look at our populace’s well-being as consisting of more than just a local government’s bank account balance. This analysis (if you want to even call it that) seldom discusses the social implications, good or bad. It doesn’t project the potential non-tax impact of what an influx of a population of this size and education level can mean to a community. Aside from only a handful of the largest cities, the indirect benefits (and costs) of this project this will forever change the underlying fabric of any community that is awarded it.

Civic Self-Assessment

Looking beyond whether winning the Amazon lottery is good or bad for your community; the process of putting together the proposal is an endgame in itself. Aside from flexing a city’s gimmick muscles, Amazon’s request for proposals can provide some very beneficial civic spillover benefits. City planning is a precarious endeavour. There’s really no right way or wrong way to do. It’s a confluence of politics, talent, culture (historical and future) and incumbant processes. It can be reactive or proactive. And it can be long-term or obsessively short-term.

Amazon created the the request for proposal  document to guide municipalities through the application process. Providing a roadmap, it gives planners and city officials an opportunity to see where their community rates in the eyes of one of world’s most progressive and dominant enterprises. It’s an opportunity for what I call a civic self-assessment. Each community will have to conduct a comprehensive civic development and competence evaluation. Below are the six areas which Amazon has indicated it will look at in their selection process:

  • Available physical sites (existing and buildable land)
  • Tax and other financial incentives
  • Talent synopsis (current and the ability to attract)
  • Higher education capacity
  • Transportation (internal and outside access to market)
  • Housing (available and costs)

It should be noted that even though something isn’t specifically mentioned in the formal “request,” it doesn’t mean it won’t be considered. In the end, it is human beings who decide where HQ2 lands. What if one (or more) are gay. Would they be inclined to choose a homophobic state with a “bathroom bill?” Doubtful. Seattle, Amazon’s home, is a progressive city in a state that legalized marijuana. Are Amazon’s decision makers going to want to subject their employees, or even themselves, if they choose to relocate – to a state or locale that has spawned what we are seeing in the current federal administration and their puritan ideals? There are many reasons the progressive tech industry is located where it is. Social and political climate plays no small role.

Even though only one community will be the winner … any one that goes through the rigorous application process can also reap benefits. The goal here for cities and municipalities should be an in-depth analysis that empowers them to build a long-term plan going forward. This is an opportunity to break from myopically reacting to the lowest common denominator of political noise and self-interest which too often monopolizes civic decision-making.

How many will create operable plans of action or modify their existing multi-year plans to reflect this new self-awareness? I hope many do … but realistically, most of these cerebral rays of light will be fleeting and become clouded over with a haze of civic myopia and lethargic “sameness.”

Looking Beyond Bezos

But let’s assume a community has seen the light and wants to keep from having this Amazon-lit civic self-awareness from being extinguished. And what of instead of just looking at this self-assessment through the eyes of Jeff Bezos and his fellow site selectors … your community chooses to take it further and looks deep inside, revealing to itself a more comprehensive perspective.

What if the goal was to look beyond your local economic development group – one that too often channels their vision through the single number of jobs … jobs and more jobs. Jobs are easily calculated. It’s one number, a number that can be compared to last year or the year before. Show improvement and the civic leaders are off to the local watering hole in celebratory procession. But isn’t there more? Isn’t there more to our lives and what makes them worth living?

What if civic and social engagement and well-being was how a community measured itself, not obtuse economic activity often distorted through one-dimensional rose-colored glasses. Rather than focusing just on jobs for “hard-working folk,” we create paths of self-actualization for “hard thinking” people … paths that help them and those around them navigate the “Road to their Perfect World” (which I hope is all of us).

In conjunction with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and building on the work of America’s Health Rankings; the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute created a model in 2003 to rank the health of Wisconsin’s counties every year. They expanded their efforts to nearly every county in the nation in 2010. The Rankings are based on a model of population health that emphasizes the many factors that, if improved, can help make communities healthier places to live, learn, work and play. 

This coalition broke down what they consider to be the factors that go into the good health of a community. Below are the components of their analysis along with the corresponding algorithmic weights they used to create a composite score for each county.

  • Health behaviors: .30
    • Tobacco use
    • Diet and exercise
    • Alcohol and drug use
    • Sexual activity
  • Clinic care: .20
    • Access to care
    • Quality of care
  • Social and economic factors: .40
    • Education
    • Employment
    • Income
    • Family and social support
    • Community safety
  • Physical environment: .10
    • Air and water quality
    • Housing

Note: The above components are further broken down into sub-areas and can be accessed through the approach section of the County Health Ranking and Roadmap site.

The Robert Wood Johnson/University of Wisconsin effort is an excellent benchmark for assessment. Knowing where your community stands is good. In fact it can even be a revelation. But this information is worth little if you don’t do anything with it. I suppose you can put together a few well-meaning programs: Maybe add a few bike paths. Maybe organize a few more cancer walks. Maybe if you work hard enough and package it well enough – you can get your fellow voters to pass a bond issue for more parks. All of this good … but where is it going to take you?

Over the last eight years I’ve written countless blog pieces on community building and societal evolution as the descriptive nexus for my Community 3.0 project. These pieces highlight different antidotes and feature diverse demographics – and mainly lean on my personal experiences. But what all these countless words have in common is one thing; “Elevating our human condition” … revealing ways (individually and collectively) for us to better ourselves to be more able to contribute positively to society.

Elevator 2

Elevating The Human Condition

Now it’s time to take the “where we’re at” and turn it into “where we want to be.” Think of this operational transcendence as an Elevating The Human Condition Implementation Plan.

The first step is to build your core group. Finding those to join you in shepherding such an undertaking is no small measure through. The natural reaction is to turn to the normal power players – your elected officials. This may not be the best approach though. Elevating your community’s human condition is not about politics, and your efforts can’t be held hostage by those with political aspirations, their ideologies and the civic money they wield power over. Not that these people can’t join in later after the ball starts rolling; in the beginning it’s important to populate your team with the ones who you want to define your initiative’s culture going forward.

Once a culture is set – it’s very difficult to undo it. Bringing someone into the initial flow just because of their influence may be a decision you’ll come to regret. Look for who your community’s true leaders are. Look for who is tirelessly mission-driven and able inspire those around them to be the same. You’ll see drive, expertise and imagination can come from the least likely places. Break through your own personal silos. Remember, the more work that is required – the more you should look outside of the normal circles for help. As Albert Einstein famously said: “We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.” The same goes for those who did the same thinking in the first place. Legacy thinking and myopia poisons creativity and innovation.

Once you’ve put together your team, now it’s time to journey down your community’s collective road to its Perfect World. Consider what follows to be your community’s doctoral dissertation. And when you’re done you have earned a PhD in “Elevating the Human Condition.”

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

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

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

Now our role as “elevators” must be to create an environment of engagement and nudge our populace along to positive behavior change, bettering their self-efficacy. Opportunities for engagement must be bred into every nook and cranny on every street corner. I call these opportunities or physical places of serendipitous engagement, Front Porches. What we’re creating is a platform or space for community engagement and sustainability built around informal but operationally significant gatherings. While these Front Porches can form anywhere, say even in your garage, the ideal locations will be in the locally owned businesses of our communities. Our Front Porches must be inclusive, diverse and responsive. It’s not enough to just talk – we must act to better our communities.

The Community 3.0 Front Porch network is about creating a platform that integrates all available resources, human and otherwise, in a proactive manner to elevate our community’s level of collective human condition.

Through our Front Porches network we must organize and implement Solutions, or patron and employee-organized community volunteer projects. These Solutions are responses to our community’s needs and opportunities. They are designed to help our community pick up the slack and mend its societal safety net as well as lead it into the future. They can range from organizing a cleanup effort, to fixing a playground, to even spearheading a high school mentoring or apprentice program.

Now we have the places and we even have the what we’re going to do once we get there. What we need are the “nudges” to get there – what we need to do to engage and “elevate” ourselves.

Engagement Nudges

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

Imagine if you had an Alexa for engagement. Imagine if you had a virtual assistant that gathered communications and ways you could improve yourself and the community you live in. And imagine if these were sorted, prioritized and “nudged” you to do things that best helped your physical, mental and social self. These Engagements could be advice from your doctor, special deals from your neighborhood small businesses or even alerts of volunteer opportunities sponsored by a community non-profit. 

Constructing a well-being environment in your community is a collective project. All residents must be included in the effort, no matter what their socioeconomic level is. And creating the well-being messaging content must be a community effort, especially including our healthcare providers. Their expertise is invaluable. This network of nudges must be monitored to see if they’re effectively motivating the populace. This system of feedback will be crucial to the success of this project aimed at empowering your community to be what it can be … well beyond the issue of just “jobs.”

The Opportunity Is Ours … If We Dare

Most so-called journalists are playing the big bad wolf angle against tax breaks for the Amazon HQ2 project. But in the end, all the money in world isn’t going to make any difference if the well-being and human condition of our populace, young and old, rich and poor – isn’t elevated. Regardless whether a city gets the bid or not … it’s an opportunity for civic self-assessment. What we do with it is up to us – win or lose.

It’s time to change our thinking. Our current political climate and the rate of technical evolution and opportunity – has necessitated this. Instead of relying on past expectations, cultural assumptions and archaic myopic metrics 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 beyond how things in the past have been done. No longer should government and traditional institutions be looked at as the first line defense. Our mobilization must be centered around us. Our reaction should be to assemble our friends and neighbors at our local Front Porch, organize what has to be done  … and do it!

We can make the change we need: but it won’t be by thinking the way we have 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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