Giving Permission

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

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

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

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

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

Educational neglect

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

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

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

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Defining Permission

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Unease of Diversity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Are you afraid

Who will you see?

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

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

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

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

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Moving Beyond The Hierarchy

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

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

Hierarchy In The Forest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advantages of Self-Policing

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

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

The Evolution of the Theory of Evolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breaking Hierarchies to Combat Authoritarianism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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 clayforsberg@gmail.com 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.

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 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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Rebuilding Alexandria

About twenty years ago, my daughter Alex and I were living in Marin County above San Francisco. During this time I became addicted to reading. I don’t know if I was trying to make up for lost time or what; but a pile of five books (all in various stages of completion) became a permanent fixture on my dining room table. At least once week, and more often more than that, I made the trek to my local independent bookstore in Corte Madera down the road to see if there were any new current event titles I could add to my menu of cerebral digestion. Normally a book stayed a couple of weeks until I was done with it – only to make way for another to take its place. There was one book however that stuck around a lot longer. The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History by Michael Hart written in 1992.

Hart’s book was fascinating to me. Since I was in grade school, I’ve been a history buff – even reading the entire encyclopedia sitting on the living room floor when sub-zero temperatures and three-foot snow banks put a damper on outdoor activities (obviously it was a pre-video game era). What intrigued me about “The 100” was that Hart didn’t pass value judgement on whether the influence the person had was good or bad – just that the person had influence. Jesus and Sir Issac Newton figured prominently, but Hitler and Genghis Khan were also ranked. He also went into copious detail on why he ranked them where he did. A lot of the reasons weren’t obvious, but once brought to light – made complete sense. George Washington for example, was ranked in the top 40 not because he was the first president of the United States, but rather because he chose to voluntarily relinquish his office after only two terms, setting a precedent that would remain intact until Franklin Roosevelt 150 years later.

Being immersed in the printing industry as a headhunter, I loved the fact that Johann Gutenberg and his printing press made the Top Ten. But the one person that took me by surprise was the one Hart ranked as Number 10 overall. That was Euclid. I didn’t know who Euclid was – even with my encyclopedias and three-foot snow banks.

Euclid and Alexandria

Now for those of you who are as uninformed as I was, Euclid is known almost solely for writing the math text, Elements.

Euclid (fl. 300 BCE) was a Greek mathematician, often referred to as the “father of geometry”. He was active in Alexandria during the reign of Ptolemy I (323–283 BCE). His Elements is one of the most influential works in the history of mathematics, serving as the main textbook for teaching mathematics (especially geometry) from the time of its publication until the late 19th or early 20th century.

But the most interesting part about Euclid was that Elements wasn’t really that much of an original text. He didn’t make any groundbreaking revelations like Newton or Copernicus. He pretty much just took the works of other scholars, many of which lived and worked in Alexandria, and synthesized into one book a comprehensive guide to geometry. In summary – Euclid was a curator; and a prolific enough of a curator that Michael Hart had him ranked Number 10 in the list of the most influential persons of history. Holding a curator in such high regard, especially at that time in history where personal contact was really the main way to spread knowledge – brings up an interesting point. Euclid was a product of his geography and those who resident in his civic proximity. Euclid embodied the very essence the of Alexandria, Egypt … the diverse cross-pollinated intellectual melting pot of the world. Rather than beset by religious and societal division, it was a bastion of inclusion and open thought. Thinkers worldwide traveled from afar to participate in the collectivism.

In January of 1989, my wife Mitra and I found out she was pregnant. I vividly remember the discussion of names. Before we knew the baby’s gender, we picked both a boy’s and girl’s name. We didn’t necessarily agree on the boy’s name (which I don’t even remember). The girl’s name was a different story. The decision on Alexandria came quick as our first pick, even though our reasons were different. Mitra liked the name itself (as did I). But I really liked what it stood for. It’s hard to set the bar much higher for your child than being named after arguably the most prolific center of learning in the history of the world. If some of that rubbed off on her … all the better.

On October 11, 1989 in Burbank, California – Alexandria Noelle Forsberg was born.

Two years ago, as part of my series on community-based societal evolution, I wrote “Silos.” “Silos” outlines the need for communities to rise above their provincial jingoism in order for them to truly pursue sustainable policies. Cross-pollination; whether its gender, sexual-preference, ethnic, racial, age-based or especially geographic – must be fundamentally encoded in a community’s civic DNA. All to often however, especially where I live, the opposite is often preferred. How far back your Montana roots go back somehow makes you a better person – not more geographically myopic which is actually the case.

Community and the Value of Diversity

Everyday the environment we live in changes. These changes are a response to external stimuli. Darwin’s theory of evolution states that the flourishing and ultimately the survival of a species (or any other anthropological entity) is based on its ability to adapt to stimuli. Diversity is an advantage if not a necessity. Lack of diversity makes itself open to disease (literally and figuratively).

My daughter Alexandria breeds exotic snakes, specifically Rainbow Boas. She goes to extreme lengths to make sure the gene pool of her breeding stock is as diverse as possible. It may be a lot easier and less expensive to acquire stock domestically – but due to inbreeding (often unintentional) by less diligent breeders, genetically based pathologies often occur. To counter this, Alex has imported snakes outside the genetic pool from Finland and Great Britain. It’s much more difficult and more expensive – but it’s her only option with the bar she’s set for herself and her projects.

Your community really isn’t a lot different from Alex’s Rainbow Boa community (aside from the preponderance of scales). Any community is the product of its residents. Social inbreeding creates weak species and weak communities; vulnerable to adversaries, internally and externally. Inbred societies rely on decision-making and responses founded in a narrow historical perspective – severely limiting its response to challenges and opportunities.

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

A community is the collective sum of the value of its individual inhabitants multiplied by the community’s ability to synergize these individual parts (by curating organized and random encounters). Every encounter or engagement has an opportunity to be a synergistic one. Empathetic cross-pollinated engagements are the key. The city of Alexandria during the time of Euclid was a perfect example of this. Even though there were organized discussions and forums, just walking down the street could lead to a serendipitous encounter that might result in a groundbreaking discovery.

Every member of your community is unique and adds to its fabric. Everyone has something to offer and everyone should be heard – no matter their age or social standing.  It’s up to us to find it and help them see it. The more expressively diverse a community is, the more resilient it is and more potential it has to invoke change – both inside and outside its walls. Our focus must actively be on inclusion, not retreat into personal protectionism and paranoia of those different from us. We must resist the temptation of the comfort of “sameness.” Nothing happens in our comfort zones. If we don’t venture into the land of wonder … we’ll never see, let alone realize the possibilities life avails to us.

Designing for Serendipity, Synergy and Collaboration

Cross-pollination doesn’t happen easily though. People of different fabric may inhabit the same locale, but that doesn’t mean their views and ideas will synthesize and your community will be built on Alexandria-type collaborations. You have to reach out and try to understand these people not like you. You first need to empathize with them. The most effective way to do that is through shared actions – specifically shared community-beneficial actions. For example, building a school playground with your neighbors of different ideologies can bridge chasms that would otherwise be uncrossable. It’s amazing what work for the common good can do. This is what happens in disaster relief efforts. I doesn’t matter if you’re a Republican or a Democratic, everyone bands together to help rebuild the town they all live in. We just have to not rely on disasters to bring us together. Community commonalities are everywhere. We just have work to create opportunities for everyone to share in them.

From these opportunities and resultant actions will come serendipitous relationships; relationships that create synergies that move your community ahead in ways no one envisioned. That being said, we have to design environments; physical, social and personal so that these opportunities, actions and relationships become baked into our society. In business applications we strive for economies of scale. These efficiencies are mainly mapped on vertically axis or are niche based. Building for serendipity takes community economies of scale and expands their opportunity on the horizontal axis across defined multiple niches and focuses. This solution thinking stemming from diverse thought breaks through conventional siloed vertical constraints.

Imagine if your community had a Department of Horizontal Integration, where its primary role is to break apart the silos of the status quo power structures and connect dots from the pieces. This department wouldn’t need to be housed in the government. In fact it would be best if it wasn’t – for obvious hierarchical reasons. It could rely on your community’s true assets; its people and where they congregate, the Front Porches of the small business network.

Rather than abide by a top-down governance model run by those embedded in the status quo of mediocrity – we must create a platform of serendipity where matchmaking happens organically through interaction uncovering commonalities between the participants. Think of a synergistic mixing bowl of opportunity; obliquitous, indirect, organic relationship building.

Now imagine organizing set gatherings where this serendipity is on the menu. While there’s no guarantee your group will change the world – increasing that chance through proximity of diverse thought and motivation sure increases its chance. And what if the overarching goal of your gatherings was to improve the human condition in your community. How this is accomplished would be determined by those in the room not by a top-down bureaucracy mired in inefficiency and out-dated procedures. Everyone is here for the same reason and they are here because they WANT to be … not have to be because of an overriding need to fuel ego and status. 

For arguments sake let’s call your gathering, Serendipity. Serendipity could be a petri dish for how to solve civic and social problems directly rather than through government. It would be the platform for inclusion and experimental benevolence. The bar would be set so that no area of community need would be untouched. If something needed to be fixed, or something needed to be done – there would be no questions and no siloed jurisdictional squabbles … it would just happen.

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.

What if we designed our communities around the idea of maximizing engagement from those in the streets? The more engaged our residents are … the more empowered they would be. They would feel more in control of their health and their futures. Imagine if a chance to engage, whether it was physical, mental or social was just around the corner. What if our physical security and well-being was not dependent on government assistance or the whims of a fickle market driven economy.

What if our neighborhood was our safety net, a safety net that knew best in our time of need. What if the streets of our community became melting pots of diversity-driven serendipity – places where curiosity was bred. What if engagement, well-being and self-efficacy was how a community measured itself, not obtuse economic activity often distorted through the one-dimensional filter of irrelevant statistics. And what if getting up in the morning was a chance to nurture our hope … and engage with others to help them do the same.

Building Your Own Alexandria

It’s obvious the human species must evolve. The ascent of Donald Trump to the forefront of our attention has presented us with some hard facts. We all have to take look in the mirror and ask ourselves how we got here. We will have to change our thinking – or maybe just start thinking. Instead of relying on past expectations, and cultural assumptions and metrics as our guides — we have to envision what could be … not just what always has been and try to bring it back to life.

But vision is only part of the journey. We have to look past how things in past have 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. Our reaction should be to assemble our friends and neighbors at our local Front Porch, organize and do what has to be done — developing self-efficacy, individually and collectively along the way. And we best accomplish that by inclusion and reaching out to those around us who normally we may feel uncomfortable doing so. These outliers of our social circles may be the exact people who ensure the our very survival.

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

If you’re interested in moving on from the status quo and helping me build a new civic alternative … 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 clayforsberg@gmail.com and we can set up time to have a conversation.

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Related Posts:

 

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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