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 cactus or 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.

Amazon

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 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. Aside from 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’s 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 make 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 the 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 original thinking. 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. Salutogenesis 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 or 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 nudged you towards positive behavior. And imagine if these nudges were sorted and prioritized so not to overwhelm you – but to provide you with the most effective means to achieve enhanced well-being. These messages could be advice from your doctor, healthy deals from your neighborhood small business or even alerts of volunteer opportunities to better your community. Your engagement nudges, whether they be via text or email, would be your conduit to engaging with the environment in and around you. Your participation could be automatically tracked, (along with periodic physical monitoring) to determine how far along the path of well-being you’ve traveled.

Constructing a well-being environment in your community is a collective project. Efforts must be coordinated to outfit all residents with their own personal engagement assistant, 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 alway 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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The “Kernel,” Your Community’s Cross-Generational Ecosystem

“Beth Jacob is a New Orleans architect and historian whose research specializes in the historic preservation and adaptive reuse of New Orleans’ public markets. Jacob found that these markets and public spaces did more than just offer a space for communities to buy staples. They were true neighborhood places that served as anchors that attracted other businesses to the area as well as providing a physical space for civic discussion.”

These community oases, such as the public markets described above by Beth Jacob, won’t create themselves. In fact any community based effort is competition and will face obstacles put in front of it from big business and very often local government compliant in their activities. It’ll take a concerted effort by all residents of the community, young and old. In my previous piece I discussed the need for us to “Bridge the Gap” between generations as a vehicle for community and societal sustainability. Now it’s time to become pragmatic.

“We can’t just ignore the fact that our generations aren’t connecting and it’s hurting our ourselves and our communities. However disconnected we are today, it will probably be even more in the future. Change isn’t slowing down. And we can’t just wish or legislate away this divide. We have to make a concerted effort to connect the ages – for everyone’s benefit. We have to create the environments and situations that accommodate and nurture these connections.

Imagine if we lived in communities where “shared generational experiences” were a priority. These communities would have abundance of opportunities for “shared experiences; serendipitous opportunities for the young and old to enter each other’s “experience worlds, worlds where the mentee could also do the mentoring. We can do it. And I described in my previous piece, we don’t need a Lady Gaga reaching out to a Tony Bennett on every corner in each of our communities and neighborhoods. We just have to give serendipitous encounters some space to happen.”

But to do this we need to expand our minds to the definition of what these spaces can be. Public markets are just one type of these ‘spaces.’

What this bridging of generations will do is form the foundation for the re-building of the ‘Middle Ring’ housing the melting pot that innovation needs to percolate. And we have a movement, or should I say a mindset, afoot right now that may well prove to the perfect vehicle for this foundation, the makerspace.

A makerspace is a community-operated workspace where people with common interests, often in computers, machining, technology, science, or art can meet, socialize and collaborate. In general, makerspaces function as centers for peer learning and knowledge sharing, in the form of workshops, presentations, and lectures. They usually also offer social activities for their members, such as game nights and parties. Makerspaces function as open community labs incorporating elements of machine shops, workshops and/or studios where makers can come together to share resources and knowledge to build and make things.

“Bridging the Gap” through film and 3D printing

“With one somber PBS documentary and a second project about “negative addictions” under his belt, William D. Caballero wanted to lighten the mood for his next film. That’s when he started giving a close listen to the rambling phone messages left by his Puerto Rican grandfather. “I’d laugh and play them for my friends,” Caballero recalls. “I realized I should do something with the voice mails because I felt like my grandpa’s messages had a universal quality that anybody could identify with.”

But instead of crafting a conventional documentary portrait of the colorful old man, Caballero twisted technologies, including 3D printing, to his own filmmaking ends and made the hilariously charming “How You Doin’ Boy?”

With his 3D printed inch-tall protagonist primed for action, Caballero drove from his New Jersey home to North Carolina and shot the short film’s co-star: a 20th-century rotary dial telephone, in his grandfather’s house. As a final touch, Caballero used Flash software to transform his grandfather’s handwriting samples into a custom font that spells out voice messages on screen.”

Technology is often a great divider amongst generations. But it doesn’t have to be. Technology is nothing but a means to an end. And it’s this that can be the common ground that connects people regardless of age. Remember the workshops of our fathers and grandfathers, and the tinkering that went on there? It was the same with our grandmothers and their crafts. How many grandparents homes aren’t adorned with needlepoint on the walls. Our grandparents didn’t buy art, they made it.

Bill Zimmer, a middle-aged software engineer at the Asylum in New York City, says that what’s going on in the maker movement would be more familiar to denizens of the year 1900 than any period since, because manufacturing is not only being domesticated — it’s being democratized.

Makerspaces aren’t a new thing, they’re an old thing. They’re that old shoe box on the top shelf of the basement closet that you’ve now figured out there’s a lot of interesting stuff in it – stuff that is surprisingly relevant today. Regardless of age, boys and girls like to make things, just like their grandparents do. Why don’t we create a ‘space’ where they can do it together? And let’s make it a space where one can mentor the other.

The older generations can teach the younger generations on the basics and history of ‘making things.’ And then the younger ones can teach their surrogate grandparents on how to bring these basics into the year 2015 through technology advances.

A makerspace should be a community serendipity hub where collaborative ideas can turn into real life things. And the more generationally inclusionary your makerspace is … the more your community will benefit from it.

This ‘space’ can be the seed of the “Bridging the Gap” initiative. We need a ‘Kernel’ … a space where things can grow – physically and sociologically.

chaos

A cross-generational co-creating ‘space’ where everything and everyone is a project

Imagine your community having a ‘space’ where everyone is welcome regardless of age, wealth or any other differentiating factor. Your ‘Kernel, would be a place where things happen, not just talked about. Your ‘Kernel’ is a ‘space’ where people come together under common goals, working together. Imagine your ‘Kernel’ being your community’s hub … a place where anytime of the day of night – things would be discovered, transformed and created.

Imagine your ‘Kernel’ being a makerspace not unlike a modern-day version of your grandfather’s shop – only where the skills and knowledge of yesterday are synthesized with the technology of today. Imagine your ‘Kernel’ being craft center much like you’d see in grandmother’s spare bedroom when you visited her, filled with yarn, paints, fabric and any other material you’d need to ‘make things’ you’d end up taking home to hang on your wall.

Imagine your ‘Kernel’ being a ‘space’ where the smells of its latest culinary concoctions emanate from its doors and windows, all created in a  physical melting pot representative of the metaphorical melting pot making up your community’s residents; young and old, male and female, rich and poor. And all these creations are started right there at your ‘Kernel’ in its greenhouse and gardens. And of course what isn’t eaten of premise is delivered to your community’s unfortunate and those most in need.

“The greatest good you can do for another is not just share your riches, but to reveal to him his own.” ~ Benjamin Disraeli

Your ‘Kernel’ must be about help, cohesion and collaboration. Every member of your community in unique and adds to its social and intellectual fabric. And every member of your community has gifts, talents and resources to offer. Sometimes they are evident to those who possess them. But often they’re not. It’s at this time when it’s up to you and your fellow community members to uncover them and expose these talents to the light so all can see them and benefit.

All too often people treat the knowledge and expertise as possessions to be kept close. It’s up us to show them it’s better for this knowledge to be is spread throughout their community … especially to the young. Your ‘Kernel’ should act as a nexus for these mentoring activities. Research indicates that community centers, even in much lesser forms than what I propose here with the ‘Kernel,’ provide young people with a physical and emotional safe haven. These ‘spaces’ result in higher levels of self-esteem and confidence for its participants than any other social settings including family and school.

“Small opportunities are often the beginning of great enterprises” ~ Demosthenes (384 BC – 322 BC)

Mentoring and guidance in your ‘Kernel’ need not be limited to the young though. Consider your ‘Kernel’ an “Idea Farm” where through collaboration and expertise sharing, pipe dreams turn into community entrepreneurial ventures. Consider your community’s ‘Kernel’ a technical innovation hub where it’s power is derived from solar and clean energy. And the tools available for creative endeavours include 3D printing technologies, laser cutters, screen printers, electronic lathes and all the latest software to run them. And imagine everyone, regardless of age having access and teaching other.

Gugnad (Norwegian): Unpaid voluntary, orchestrated community work.

View your community’s ‘Kernel’ not just a technical incubator, but also one for social innovation. Imagine a social hub where organization, groups and individuals can come together under no auspices of hierarchy to create a new evolution of community involvement and betterment … a hybrid or sorts. And these ideas being shared amongst other ‘Kernels’ throughout the world.

Your community’s ‘Kernel’ should be a melding of librarians, civic leaders, students, professors, union members and trades people. It should combine high teachers with grade school students and grade school teachers with high school students. It should mix small business owners with the unfortunate who make their way via the streets and shelters along with the retired. And your ‘Kernel’ can even bring government and elected officials into the mix … as long as they understand their position is no higher or their influence no more than anyone else.

It’s impossible to calculate the effect your ‘Kernel’ will have on your community. The old will transfer their valuable professional and life skills to the young who are so in need of them. These same young will in turn have a ‘space’ where they can focus their attention and their dreams, other than biding time waiting for the other shoe to fall – standing on the street corner.

Your community will turn into one of a problem solving mentality where everything is a resource and waste has been truncated to a ‘four letter word.’ ‘Resource Maximization’ will be imprinted in the minds of everyone. The elderly, rather focusing only on their next doctor’s appointment, will be exercising their minds, their bodies and the most of all … their spirits. And they’ll be doing all of it in an outwardly community benevolent fashion rather than just holed in their home obsessing about their personal condition.

Your community will be revitalized. New businesses will be created. Not those derived from Wall Street chains and franchises, but ones of ideas born in your community and run by people from your community. And these will be the businesses that provide the genesis for the future to build on – ensuring its legacy and prosperity.

Old building

The concept of ‘Resource Maximization’ should not start once the walls of your ‘Kernel’ have been constructed. It must start at the very beginning. Assume traditional methods of financing won’t be available. Assume bids will be irrelevant, let alone the lowest one. Your ‘Kernel’ is about community and the resources it has available. Create your ‘Kernel’ with materials that are indigenous to your community’s locale using what’s at its disposal. And most of all … assume money is not first priority, but only the last resort when all other acquisition options have been tried and exhausted.

Your ‘Kernel’ should be a co-op venture between property owner and tenant. Rather than relying on old the “fallback” of the two-year lease with set rental rates, landowners should participate in the success of the ‘Kernel.’ This success can be defined in returns on joint ventures created in the facility, or it could be participation on monthly users fees by members of the ‘Kernel’those not on scholarship because of age (young or old) or waivers due to income restrictions.

Schools and existing community buildings could be co-oped. In return the landlords would get use of the facility for projects they would otherwise be able to do. Your ‘Kernel’ could even act a recruiting firm for local businesses in need of talent. A business could pay a retainer for access to contract expertise and mentoring generated by your ‘Kernel’ or a contingency is a member referred to them is hired full-time.

“Start your own personal industrial revolution” ~ Mark Hatch, CEO TechShop

Your ‘Kernel’ is an ‘opportunity ecosystem. It is the physical manifestation of my community employment platform, Community 3.0. It provides a ‘prototype’ cross-generational, cross-collar, entrepreneurial learning Hub for smaller communities and neighborhoods in larger communities.

Your community’s empowerment starts with a seed … it starts with a ‘Kernel.

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I invite you to start by delving into my ideas by reading the series, On the Road to Your Community’s Perfect World,” This is my articulation of how we can create better, more inclusive, unique communities as the solution to our society’s pressing issues. Consider each week’s post a Mile Marker (MM), a cerebral off-ramp from the highway of your daily routine, taking a you little further down this road to a better version of society.

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

Nurture your “Weirdos”

“We have a new bigotry in America. We don’t want to be around anyone who disagrees with us about anything.”~ Bill Clinton at the 2013 GLAAD Awards

We live in world of conformity. Being different, being … “not like everyone else is or like your supposed to be” – is bad. Because if you’re different, then you’re unpredictable. And most people need predictability. Their minds aren’t programmed to understand, or even accept these “outliers.”

And it seems like it’s getting worse.

In the misguided (and ineffective) effort to be globally competitive in the education world, we have sacrificed all for the pursuit of rote math and science instruction. This relentless focus has left all creative pursuits, such as art and music, nothing more than carnage in the ditch along the academic road to mediocrity. It’s like we’re programming an army of drones.

nonconformist

Instead of nurturing creativity, we test. Instead of teaching applicable real world problem solving, we test. And we test by filling in ovals on multiple choice tests. Easy to teach, easy to grade … and mostly irrelevant. We do this instead of nurturing art and music – disciplines proven to ignite synaptic connections, ironically the same connections used in math and science proficiency.

The march towards further standardized testing is only intensifying with the implementation of the Common Core Standards. On face, these standards don’t seem to be so bad. But digging deeper, you’ll find that the initiative is headed by David Coleman, president of the College Board. The College Board is the testing behemoth behind the SAT and all it’s siblings. Reading the signs … with its focus on math and English, Coleman’s appointment as “overlord” of American education curriculum, does not bode well for a well-rounded instructional approach.

The education dilemma in the United States has deteriorated to the point where hundreds of thousands high paying, intellectually stimulating jobs go unfilled. But it’s not so much because of lack of math and science … but lack of creativity and problem solving skills in math and science.These are skills that can’t be acquired when all attention is paid to short-term memorization designed around ovals and #2 pencil. This situation is detailed in a recent piece in the Atlantic, “Why are American schools obsessed with turning kids into robots.” 

So disperate are these technology companies … a years worth of H-B1 Visas are snatched up in a matter of days. Foreign educated prospects have been schooled in real world application of the fundamentals. To these students, the fundamentals are means to an end, not the end itself – only to be forgotten in a couple of weeks.

Normal is not something you aspire for … it’s something you run away from! ~ Jodi Foster

It’s the creative people, the out-of-the-box thinkers … who are ones who push the boundaries and shatter the status quo. They tremble at the words – normal, or conventional. These are the “Weirdos.” The ones that don’t conform, the Albert Einsteins, the Steve Jobs, the Truman Capotes and the Orson Wells. These people “scare” other people. They scare the normal people, the ones who do what their parents did. The ones who are “politically correct.”

When this country has made strides and moved ahead – it’s the “Weirdos” that blazed the way for others to follow … often to much prejudice and ostracism. But we forget that those proverbial roads we often take for granted – were the result of the chances they took … and not us.

It’s easy to say to point to successes of the people I mentioned above and recognize them for their accomplishments. But what about the “Weirdos” close to us. The guy down the street with the dreadlocks. The Goth girl who always keeps to herself writing … always writing. Or even the boy next door that his teacher is “hell-bent” to get him on ADHD meds because he doesn’t sit still (through her boring detached lectures). These “Weirdos could be the next Bill Clinton or Jennifer Lawrence, both of which were bullied and looked at as outcasts. But too often instead of embracing them – we brand them with a Scarlett Letter.

Last night at the 2015 Academy Awards, Graham Moore, winner of the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, gave an inspiring acceptance recounting his adolescence where feeling ‘weird’ almost drove him to suicide. These are the exact people we need to nurture … not ostracize and shun.

They say, “all politics is local.”  So is misunderstanding. So is prejudice. What you do to accept the “Weirdos” in your community, whether young or old, will help construct the flavor and individuality of your community.

And it’s how you nurture these nonconformists may very well influence the future of your community … the nation and even the world.

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You can find me on Twitter at @clayforsberg

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“The Art of Empathy”

Over the years I’ve been involved in many projects, professionally and personally. Some have been successful and some … not so much. A friend of mine, Yvette Dubel, posed a question to me in reference to an eBook she’s writing. What piece of advice would I share to current and future business leaders? What’s the one thing I could take from my experiences, my successes and failures, that would benefit others.

Empathy

After thinking about it, one thing keeps surfacing, actually one word – empathy. Put yourself in their head or your feet in their shoes. It doesn’t matter if that person is your business partner, a potential client or a homeless man collecting bottles and cans. Try to understand their plight –  and if you’re trying to help them … really help them.

Normally we look at a situation from our perspective, which is only natural. Our experiences, views and biases provide us with our own personal perspective. But how relevant is that perspective to the person we’re trying to convey a message to?

Most companies can’t get their head around the concept of empathy either. They seem to be locked into this myopic view of what they think we should want. They resort to features and gimmicks, ‘bells and whistles.’ The auto industry is a perfect example of this. How many people really want a driverless car? They all seem to have jumped on this bandwagon and rationalize their seat by touting the potential safety aspects. But isn’t it just a gimmick?

Politicians are another example. How many of them know what’s it’s like to live paycheck-to-paycheck, or spend a year looking for job that’s fast becoming obsolete.

Empathy isn’t just listening and taking everything at face value. It’s actually hearing what someone says. It’s looking past the words or the actions. It’s the art of ‘pulling back the curtain’ as Dorothy did in The Wizard of OzWhat are the whys?

Empathy will be the physical fitness of the future.

I call this ‘the search for the whys,’ ‘looking behind the curtain’ … ‘The Art of Empathy.’ This isn’t about truth or deception. Much of the time, the person you’re talking with doesn’t even realize there’s a disconnect between what they’re saying and what’s deep down inside them. But when it’s time to act, they will act on what’s inside … not what they say. 

Unless you live on a mountain top or spend your life in solitary confinement, you’re going to have to communicate with people. And this communication requires understand what the other person is saying … really understanding. This is empathy at its core.

And one can never fully master the ‘Art of Empathy’ anymore than you can master any other art. It’s a life long pursuit. You can always find a new and better way of interacting, of delving into the true meaning behind the action. 

And that’s not a bad thing.

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P.S. ~ Special thanks to Yvette Dubel for providing the genesis for this post.

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You can find at Twitter @clayforsberg and on Google+

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Why the George Zimmerman trial wasn’t really about race or even George Zimmerman!

As we all know by now, George Zimmerman was quitted on all counts against him for the murder of Trayvon Martin. A jury of six of his peers (in theory), found that Zimmerman acted in self-defense under the conditions of Florida’s “Stand your ground” law.

Now if you’ve been watching television or read the major newspapers, you’d get the impression this case was all about race. While the anchors or columnists weren’t so blatant in their coverage, the pundits they paraded out made up for it. “George Zimmerman was racist and it was his disdain for black people who motivated him to gun down Tayvon. Plus the police didn’t handle the case right from the beginning because there was a black youth involved, and of course he was probably up to no good.”

Zimmerman_Trial

But then again we have to give the media a break. No matter if it was the Washington Post, CNN, ABC or MSNBC, we know they aren’t in the business of objective journalism, but rather have an agenda of “stirring the pot” for the sake of readership and ratings.

I disagree with the majority our vaunted Fourth Estate however. I think what we saw was the unfortunate aftermath of a “Perfect Storm.”

What we had in George Zimmerman was a wannabe cop. And I’m not saying that with negative connotations. It’s obvious he had a police mentality. Otherwise why would he been out there in the first place as the head of a neighborhood watch. It takes a certain personality, someone who’s probably looking at everything suspiciously, looking for something out-of-place. And in turn, wanting to engage (obviously).

And also we have the phenomena of the prejudice of “preconceived ideas.” We all have them. We look at a situation or a person through the filters of our own experiences. These experiences can come from real life, or they can just be result of the media’s depictions. It’s how we learn, it’s built into our DNA. After a first encounter with a Saber Toothed Tiger, cavemen learned not to mess with them … or least not without a spear in hand.

These “preconceptions” aren’t necessarily racist, or at least overtly. They’re more under the surface, most of the time due to lack of exposure to people who are different from them. It’s very difficult to look at someone totally objective, no matter how hard we try. Our experiences always sneak in, just like the caveman. Even Jesse Jackson once said if he was walking down the street coming up on three black youth, he would probably cross to the other side.

And this bias doesn’t have to be racial either. I remember driving through Wyoming with my daughter Alex. We were stopped at 7:00am by a highway patrol entirely because I had California licence plates. After asking for my ID and registration, his next question was: “Do you have any drugs or weapons in your car?” This elicited a “WHAT!” from Alex. Obviously his preconception was that all drivers from California were likely to have drugs or weapons on them, regardless if there was a five-year girl in the front seat. The only way I got out of completely emptying my car was to call my best friend Jerry who we’d spent the last three days with. Jerry also happened to be the airport manager in Cheyenne, the capitol of Wyoming.

The media said that Zimmerman probably didn’t even have any black friends. Again, probably not because he was racist, as much as he just hadn’t had enough personal encounters to feel comfortable around them.

Adding to the “Perfect Storm” is where is the incident took place. Florida is a relatively conservative state with a conservative legislature. Gun ownership is a valued right, as much as it is in the western states. In fact Florida has issued over a million concealed weapons permits, more than any other state. Guns, and especially ones hidden from sight, are a fact of life in Florida.

And then finally topping off the “Perfect Storm,” we have the Castle Law, or better known as “Stand-your-ground.” If you feel threatened and you have a gun … then go ahead and use it, no matter where the hell you are!

I suppose the Castle Law in itself isn’t so bad if you didn’t look at where it came from. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), and its extreme right-wing agenda funded by the NRA and other less than desirable entities (with self-interests well in tow) have literally drafted the template bills for states to use verbatim. It’s in the NRA’s best interest to have more guns and Wal-Mart (a big backer of ALEC) to sell more guns. This self-defense paranoia also fuels anti-immigrant causes. Because as we all know, immigrants vote for Democrats, the arch-enemy of the NRA and ALEC.

So again what we have is the “Perfect Storm” of events and backdrop. And as a result, Trayvon Martin is dead for no real reason except being a victim of circumstances. And what the trial comes down to is whether George Zimmerman feared for his life.

If you look past the media sound bites … you’ll see he probably did. Should have he? Looking in hindsight, of course not! Trayvon was a 150 lb kid with a pack of Skittles and George Zimmerman outweighed him by almost hundred pounds. But you can’t ignore Zimmerman’s preconceptions, bias, and that he hadn’t the luxury of objective hindsight. You add this to his psychological state; knowing he should (in his mind) engage this young man, as well as if things went bad he had his weapon he could legally defend himself with … you have the “Perfect Storm.”

And all the jury had to do was empathize with him and agree he “feared for his life.”

So what can can be done to make sure this doesn’t happen again?

You’re always going to have wannabe cops, looking at everything suspiciously and being the first to volunteer for their local neighborhood watch.

Can you change how people perceive others who are different from them? Probably not. Or as Bill Clinton said: “You can’t legislate morality.” Are you going to put the nation in a big room sequestered from all outside influences? Of course not. Ideally we can maybe try to get people out of their cocoons and venture out and experience other cultures and “people not like them.” Maybe.

It’s obvious that we’re not going to get rid of guns. If the Sandy Hook massacre can’t move the gun control meter, I don’t what can.

That brings us to the “Stand-your-ground” law. I’m afraid to say that any attempts to repeal it will involve a fight of biblical proportions against the NRA, its membership, and ALEC and it’s supporters especially the Koch Brothers. This would not be a fight for the faint of heart.

So what it comes down to is as long as you have the conditions that make up this “Perfect Storm,” it’s unlikely it’ll stop anytime soon, no matter what color the person being shot is … or the person doing the shooting. There will be another Trayvon, and another George Zimmerman … and another case, probably decided the same way.

It’s kind of  … “is what it is.”

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You can find me on Twitter at @clayforsberg and on Google+

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The Science of Being Jennifer Lawrence

Update Wednesday, January 15, 2014:  With the 2014 Oscar nominations happening tomorrow morning, it’s a good time to revisit some thoughts about a sure-fire nominee … if not another winner.

About a year ago I started down my road of dystopian rant about the dysfunction of government. It was right before the mega-movie The Hunger Games was about to be released. Also about this time my daughter had switched jobs and joined a movie production company in Los Angeles. Even though I spent over twenty years in Southern California, I never really paid much attention to the movie industry even though many of my printing clients made their living from it. But with my offspring joining their ranks, I felt I had to get up to speed and learn something so I could have an intelligent conversation with her. Knowing I was going to The Hunger Games as soon as it hit theatres to acquire ammunition for my my rant, I thought I’d start with there.

Jennifer Lawrence Winter
Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone

The lead role in The Hunger Games was heroin Katniss Everdeen,  played by Jennifer Lawrence. I’d never heard of her before then. With some research I found out she received a Best Actress Nomination in 2010 for a small dark independent film called Winter’s Bone. I watched it. I was memorized. This eighteen year girl, with no training and limited experience completely carried the film to a Best Picture Nomination also. How could this be? So I watched her first movie, The Poker House. The Poker House is a low-budget, extremely dark true story of prostitution, drugs and gambling. Lawrence was sixteen when she filmed it. She was as good, if not better, in this one. Her performance was gripping.

Unless you’ve been under rock for the last year, you know how The Hunger Games turned out and how Lawrence carried yet another movie – this one to $700 million at the box office worldwide, with three sequels to come. Now with it being Oscar time, Lawrence is at it again. This time in the Academy nominated film, Silver Linings Playbook. And, yes she is also nominated, playing a mentally depressed widow, who on paper she is ten years too young for. It’s also a role she beat out Angelina Jolie, Anne Hathaway amongst others for, all supposedly more age appropriate.

This time however, she wasn’t just nominated … she won, and the second youngest ever!

Again how can someone with no training and still only twenty-two years old be so damn good. Many call her the best of her generation, if not the best period. Her record would certainly demonstrate that. If you’ve seen any interviews Lawrence does, she’s very down to earth. In fact she often acts like a knucklehead and can’t control what comes out of her mouth. Her interviews with Letterman and other talk show are as funny as it gets. She’s getting almost as many accolades for her off-screen personality as her abilities on-screen. She’s just a normal twenty-two year girl who happens to be maybe the best actress in the world. Or like Jay Cassidy, the editor of Silver Lining Playbook said, “she’s been touched by the angels.”

Lawrence does virtually no preparation. She doesn’t practice, other than reading her lines, and often only in the make-up trailer before the shoot. She’s cracks jokes and goofs around up until the last second before the camera roles. And then … Bang! It just happens. How can this be?

The normal course of action in the acting world, as with any profession, is to train for it. Virtually all accomplished actors have extensive training and schooling, often at elite institutions. And after that, it takes years to make it to the top echelon … if they ever do. And that top level has very few inhabitants. But this has not been the road that Jennifer Lawrence has taken. She started only with a role as a rebellious teenager in an average sit-com, “The Bill Engvall Show,” as her launching pad. Hardly the Yale School of Drama or Julliard.

Over the past few months I’ve read occasional articles and interviews on Lawrence – trying to figure out how she does it. The only explanations I’ve found is that she’s a natural. But what does that mean? First, I don’t believe anyone is a natural at anything. It has to come from somewhere. Somehow they’ve trained their brain to perform at a high level. The training need not be formal. But it still has to be trained to develop the synaptic connections to excel. There no such thing as cerebral alchemy. Jennifer Lawrence is no exception.

One interview I read got me thinking though. Jennifer recounted a time when a friend and herself were in the car when the paparazzi spotted her and chased them. Her friend, who was driving, abruptly stopped the car breaking down in tears and yelling, “we can’t live like this!” Lawrence first response was to ask her to do that again. Could she repeat what she just did, that emotive outburst. That was it … the secret behind Jennifer Lawrence! She’s a database of expressive memes.

Lawrence’s talent lies in her ability to observe, break expressions and reactions into bits or memes, and store them in her brain for later use. 

To her everything is source material that is converted into a synaptic database record. A simple reaction from a friend could very well end up in her next movie. Lawrence’s school is everywhere and she’s in class all the time, even sitting on the couch watching Honey Boo Boo (which she loves) or other trashy reality television.

Her skill is two-fold. First, she’s perfected the science of segmented expressional observation. And second, she’s developed a system of categorization and retrieval of her “bits” or memes. Subconsciously, she knows what type of expression or action to use for the appropriate situation. And she does it without thinking. It’s much like a professional athlete. After thousands and thousands of repetitions, their body just knows what to do in any given circumstance.

Now I have no actual proof to back my hypothesis, but I read something last night (after I started this piece), that makes complete sense. In an interview, Lawrence said she loves watching people and their expressions. This makes completely  sense. It’s her process. She doesn’t have a style, per se. Her style is limited only by the size of her internal database of expressive memes. And only being only twenty-two, her database is only going to get larger, and her retrieval ability more refined. Her limitation may be only the scripts put in front of her, and her discretion in choosing the ones that correspond to her current internal roster of memes.

All we can do is wait and see how her career develops and how she performs in roles unlike those she’s already conquered. For some reason I don’t think this will be the last time we see Jennifer Lawrence grace the Oscar platform and for roles that will surprise everyone.

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You can find me on Twitter at @clayforsberg and on Google+

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The Tragedy of “The Scarlett Letter”

Autumn lives across the street from my parents. I’d say she’s in her mid fifties. About fifteen years ago she attempted suicide. Living in a town of five hundred, the news spread like a wildfire. As far as I know nobody really knows why she tried.  And I don’t know if anyone, other than her family, has even reached out to her. To this day if someone sees a relative’s car at her house – suicide rumors flare up again. All this is about an incident that happen well over decade ago. She in fact doesn’t even associate with anyone unless they’re new to town. This way she won’t have worry about explaining her past.

We just won’t give people like Autumn a break. We just can’t get it out of our heads. It becomes a smoldering fodder for neighborhood gossip. Anything to do with a mental challenge, whether it’s been overcome or not – makes no difference The “Scarlett Letter” will forever be front and center. And God forbid it’s an addiction. Thanks to AA and its many siblings, you’ve never conquered anything, your always in recovery.

We don’t act this way if someone breaks a leg. Once the bone is healed, it’s “past times behind.” But the brain … watch out!  After all, you’re “crazy.”

Mental illness?

After Sandy Hook, gun control has become all the rage. And then the blame turned to mental illness. It didn’t make any difference an arsenal was within arms length, “he did it because he was crazy!” We don’t need to worry so much about guns (much to the delight of the NRA), if we make sure the crazy people don’t get to them. And from there we move onto Obama’s 23 Executive Orders designed to curb gun violence, of which a good portion are related to mental illness. On the surface they sound fine, but if you delve deeper … you’ll see we’re looking into the abyss of a “Scarlett Letter” database. You can read my take here: “Yea … but I think I’m fine.”

But this post isn’t about gun control. It’s about you. Way too often we rush to label people. And way too often these labels are “black and white.” It easy for us not to think, to lean back on our ideologies and crutches. We don’t want to have to “peel back the onion” and see the layers underneath. After all that may mess with our preconceptions and prejudices. We can’t have that.

Someone who’s “not right in the head” fits dead center. We don’t know how to deal with them.

“What if they don’t understand what we’re trying to say. Or worse yet, what if they go off.”

“What if they’re drinking again or what if they’ve started drugs, I can’t have my kids around them. I just don’t know what they’ll do.”

Mass media’s portrayal of mental illness does nothing but fuel these misconceptions. How many times do you hear the term Schizophrenia and split personalities used in the same breath. Or even violence. Both have nothing to do with the disease. A more accurate description of Schizophrenia would be flattened emotions; social withdrawal; and be prone to delusions, hallucinations or paranoia. But in the age of hyperbole, it’s easier just to default to the extreme. Other mental illnesses and even just acts of nonconformity are also often misconstrued.

This life ain’t no straight line; it’s a swirly, messy, ugly-beautiful scribble.

A little over a month ago I saw the movie Silver Linings Playbook. I loved it, but not necessarily for the reasons I thought I would. The movie featured a cast of lovable, but mentally off-center, characters. It showed reality. And it showed acceptance and love in a world of labeling and dismiss. This is what I took home.

Over my life I’ve been fortunate to have lived in a wide variety of sociological environments. I’ve learned from all of them. But often the most from the most unlikely sources. Seeing Silver Linings Playbook brought this home. As humans we’re all unique. Too not appreciate this uniqueness is, well … an unfortunate shame.

And this appreciation should include everyone even us that are a little off, a little “crazy.” We cannot continue to stigmatize those difference by branding it with the “Scarlett Letter” and trying to fix it automatically with psychotropic drugs. Imagine all the great minds throughout history that would have never blossomed if they were anesthetized with the ADHD drugs we pump into our children these days.

The problem isn’t them though … it’s us – it’s our society and all the branding and labeling. We need to embrace people not like us, not shun them. Who’s saying they’re not saner than we are. In fact I’d say obsession with money and “things” is plenty “crazy.”

And by embracing, look at someone for what they “bring to the table,” not their level of societal conformity. Einstein, Galileo, Copernicus, Picasso, Dali, Jobs – they were all thought of as “crazy.” You don’t change the world by thinking the same way as the crowd.

Unfortunately even when we do accept these “outliers,” we do only to try to fix them. I acknowledge some types of mental illness do need treatment, whether it be therapy or medications. But just being different doesn’t justify automatic intervention.

After all … who’s saying you’re not the one who needs fixing!

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You can find me on Twitter at @clayforsberg and Google+

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