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May 7, 2009

Where Is the Wildness?

“Shhh!  What was that?!”  I barely heard my wife over my concentrated efforts to keep my marshmallow from falling into the fire.  “Curtis!  Did you hear that?  Something’s out there!”  I looked in Em’s silhouetted direction and saw that she, my daughter Annabel, and my mother-in-law were all peering into the darkness and at the bushes on the edge of the pond.  “What is it, Daddy?” Annabel asked.  I got to my feet, grabbed a flashlight and slowly walked towards the now clearly audible rustling, my daughter right behind me.  “There it is!” I heard someone say.  I saw it too.  I gradually moved the light onto the shadow moving across our line of view, and had the glint of two beady eyes return the beam.  Annabel’s hands clenched my calf.  “A porcupine!”  A very big slow moving porcupine.  After a few seconds’ stare-down, the creature turned and went lumbering into the woods and out of view. “That was cool!” cried Annabel, still clutching my leg.

Cool indeed.  An adrenaline rush, a mystery uncovered, a dramatic stand-off.  Everything any child, or adult, might want on an excursion to the woods.  Our weekend in Vermont was filled with moments of exciting encounter like that, from having tussling and territorial woodpeckers dart over our heads, to finding crayfish under rocks, to hearing and deciphering the distant whistle of a black bear; much of this done in bare feet (or sandals), with dirt under our fingernails.  I find our forays into the wilderness to be liberating and invigorating, and as much about wildness as wilderness.  In the North Country I feel certain veils drop, inhibitions lift, and an inner aliveness bubble up.  I see this palpably in my daughter, and it makes me long for more of this in my life overall.

Wildness is something that often seems to get cast as chaotic and “uncultured”.  And yet I know from experience that it can be a gateway to something wonderful and powerful.  I think about those times when, as a trainer or speaker, I have been unleashed, more uncontrolled and less measured, when unbridled passion took hold.  I think about the impact that this has had on me and those around me.  As scary as it can be to let go, these moments have given me a glimpse of something profound and true that may be overlooked in a more buttoned up existence.  And so I’ve been thinking about bringing more Vermont to Cambridge.

What would it mean to be wild in the work we do?  What would this look like and what might it achieve?  For a humorous peek at a possible answer, check out professor and nature writer David Gessner’s “transformative” performance . . .

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May 6, 2009

People's Stories

Sitting in the Atlanta Airport with some random thoughts. Marianne and I worked with a pretty amazing group of LGBT Funders this past Sunday, talking about systems thinking and how it can be used to create strategies to move the community forward in these economic times. It was a wonderful and very inspiring session, in large part because of the amazing people in the room and their willingness to grab hold and go deep right away.

I then went and spent a couple of days with old friends in Birmingham, Alabama – a wonderful time both because Dorothy and Cindy are such amazing humans, because we’ve now known each other for 20 years (we met in 1989 when I was helping bring the NAMES Project Quilt around the country), and because being someplace else often brings new things to light.

One of those was that we went Monday and tried to visit the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (which is, unfortunately for me, closed on Mondays), and instead walked through the Kelly Ingram Park across the street, the former staging area for large civil rights demonstrations where fire hoses and police dogs were set on the demonstrators, most of whom were children. The park is now full of amazing statues of the demonstrators and has been dedicated as “A Place of Revolution and Reconciliation,” words which are read throughout the park and at every entrance. The park is across from the Civil Rights Institute, kitty corner from the 16th Street Baptist Church and around the corner from the motel where King and others stayed in Birmingham. This is important history to me, and I’ve spent much time over the years reading these stories, learning about the people and events. To my friends, on the other hand, these were people they knew – or know now. The father of one of the girls who was killed in the bombing is a photographer they know well. Dorothy’s uncle was one of Rosa Parks’ attorneys – and almost every name and every picture is someone she knew or knows. The stories and people are alive and contextualized as she talks about them. It is not history from a book or a documentary, but a part of her life.

As, when the movie Milk was playing last year, many of the “characters” are people I know. Real people who were involved in making change.

So again and again and again, it is people’s stories that light my imagination, that show that change is possible, and prove that resilience is all around us. I’m grateful for the generosity that allows people to share their stories. And am walking through the airport in a different way right now – wondering what stories these thousands of people, heading someplace or another, carry.

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May 6, 2009

People’s Stories

Sitting in the Atlanta Airport with some random thoughts. Marianne and I worked with a pretty amazing group of LGBT Funders this past Sunday, talking about systems thinking and how it can be used to create strategies to move the community forward in these economic times. It was a wonderful and very inspiring session, in large part because of the amazing people in the room and their willingness to grab hold and go deep right away.

I then went and spent a couple of days with old friends in Birmingham, Alabama – a wonderful time both because Dorothy and Cindy are such amazing humans, because we’ve now known each other for 20 years (we met in 1989 when I was helping bring the NAMES Project Quilt around the country), and because being someplace else often brings new things to light.

One of those was that we went Monday and tried to visit the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (which is, unfortunately for me, closed on Mondays), and instead walked through the Kelly Ingram Park across the street, the former staging area for large civil rights demonstrations where fire hoses and police dogs were set on the demonstrators, most of whom were children. The park is now full of amazing statues of the demonstrators and has been dedicated as “A Place of Revolution and Reconciliation,” words which are read throughout the park and at every entrance. The park is across from the Civil Rights Institute, kitty corner from the 16th Street Baptist Church and around the corner from the motel where King and others stayed in Birmingham. This is important history to me, and I’ve spent much time over the years reading these stories, learning about the people and events. To my friends, on the other hand, these were people they knew – or know now. The father of one of the girls who was killed in the bombing is a photographer they know well. Dorothy’s uncle was one of Rosa Parks’ attorneys – and almost every name and every picture is someone she knew or knows. The stories and people are alive and contextualized as she talks about them. It is not history from a book or a documentary, but a part of her life.

As, when the movie Milk was playing last year, many of the “characters” are people I know. Real people who were involved in making change.

So again and again and again, it is people’s stories that light my imagination, that show that change is possible, and prove that resilience is all around us. I’m grateful for the generosity that allows people to share their stories. And am walking through the airport in a different way right now – wondering what stories these thousands of people, heading someplace or another, carry.

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May 5, 2009

A Subprime Story

I’m trying to negotiate the relationship between simplicity and complexity, and I find this video a perfect example of what can happen when this negotiation is successful. The subprime crisis has been sold to us as the byproduct of a highly complex financial system, but it wasn’t just that, was it? We also know that it had something to do with what turned out to be high-stakes gambling sold to us as banking, but it wasn’t just that either, or was it? This piece gets us closer to the answer, and I wonder what we can do to bring such capable storytelling and visual imagery to the work of social change and the development of more skilled organizations. It’s only 2.5 minutes, check it out!

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May 5, 2009

Change You Can Believe In

“Change you can believe in”, “Be the change”, “Yes we can”…words to live by but what about the how? As I work with so many diverse groups across so many issues I’ m struck by the similarity of the struggles. It all centers around trying to bring their system into more coherence for greater impact. Whether it’s bridging the so-called divide between grassroots and advocacy organizations, public and private foundations or the larger more recalcitrant divide across the public, private and nonprofit sectors. And, what kind of change are we seeking? Let’s start there.

In an article written by Don Beck, founder of the Spiral Dynamics Group, he articulates the many dimensions of change in the following way

First Order Change has several variations: make minor adjustments or tweak the system; re-align the elements within the system; upgrade the givens within the present modis operandi; adjust by hunkering down and going back to basics; push the envelope.

Second Order Change: attack the barriers, remove the status quo (revolutionary rather than evolutionary); transform to the next level of complexity (subsume the old into the new); quantum shifts of epochal proportions i.e. modern to post-modern -integral, change across the entire landscape.

Important, it seems, for all of us working for transformational change to locate the specific change efforts with which we’re involved to be clear on the kind of change they are seeking. Assuming there is no right way, but what is right at this time is for this system to move forward toward greater health and wholeness.

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May 1, 2009

Zone Is Where the Heart Is (or, More Light On the Golden Hour)

I loved this blog post entitled, “Overthinking Is the Enemy of Creatives”, because of its practicality and its resonance with my inner conversation these days. I hope you find it as valuable. I wanted to share it, as well as vibe on it, as a testimony to the truth of its conceptual premise. Check it out!

It’s a wonderful feeling to be in your zone….and, to personalize: I feel wonderful when I’m in my Zone. Last week’s co-training experience, so eloquently described in Curtis’s post, was certainly a Zone experience for me. Its when mind matters, but does not overbear – she is in collaboration with so many other parts of Me. It feels beauty-full, freeing, effortless, magical, transformational. It is an unusually special phenomenon, not only for me, but for those around me who are observing, flowing, engaging, vibing with me as a result of it. The twinkles in the eyes, a spiritual knowing, and testimonies on the impact: that my being and doing what I am doing indeed helps – inspires – lifts – changes – another. I, too, am changed.

This is not a boast. This is a plea. My declarations here are themselves helping me give way to an emerging wisdom inside me. It nudges me to recognize the Zone, revere Her, and focus more intentionally there, so that I may live…and give life with as much meaning and power as possible.

So its true – I am often in my head about things. And it is also true –- that I not as often experience being in the spaces and places where I am out of my head (usually not out of my mind!) and into my heart, soul and body…with my mind doing its part as well. There, I find purpose, pleasure, power and promise.

I think it might be the essence of living itself.

As a personal goal in what is a transitional season for me, I am intrigued by the idea of taking this gift of Zone, and orienting my life goals and resources (time, talent, treasure, energy, time left, giftings, etc.) to build, re-design Self, from this place. I am assessing whether I have the courage enough to utilize Zone as a reference point for personal possibility. I hope this public confession entreats you to hold me accountable to this aspiration, provokes you to consider Zone, and to celebrate aloud the feeling, the reality, and availability of such, I believe, in each human life.

I can get down with philosophically complex, sociologically deep, analysis of intractable social justice concerns another time – but for this week, in this space, I owed it to Self to vibe it out, flow it out, and pay homage to The Zone…The Golden Hour. Light it up, folks! Light it up!

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April 30, 2009

The Golden Hour

Last week Melinda and I had one of those experiences where everything seemed to come together. We were in Farmington, Connecticut with grantees of the Graustein Memorial Fund’s Discovery Initiative, training them in collaborative leadership techniques for their community-based work around improving early childhood education and care. For starters, the group was remarkable. The chemistry of those that came together from around the state was what any trainer or participant dreams of, and the shared passion for and commitment to their work was nothing short of inspiring. Beyond that, Melinda and I just seemed to be on our game, pulling from a wide range of tools with a well-coordinated readiness to go as deep as the group seemed willing to go. Collectively we created a space that filled gradually with rich learning, self-revelation, strong connection, and things that are still difficult to articulate. It was the kind of session that people left saying, quite literally, “I am different than when I arrived.”

Later as Melinda and I were driving back home on Friday evening, still savoring those three days, we turned a corner on the Mass Pike, and the city of Boston leapt up to greet us. It was around 7:30, the end of a beautiful clear spring day, and the sun was in such a position that it illuminated everything in a rosy hue and accentuated every nook and cranny, making buildings seem almost more than three dimensional. I have always loved that time of day, when the world becomes softer and more vibrant. Come to find out from Melinda that there is actually a name for this in photographic circles – “the golden hour” – the first and last hour of sunlight during which the sun’s rays travel obliquely through the atmosphere, lending indirect radiance and enhanced color to whatever they touch. Read More

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April 29, 2009

A Blog for the Blog-less

I find this video fascinating. My girlfriend showed it to me a few months back as she presented on theology and social media for her graduate program. Aside from the breadth of topics that bloggers can post on, this video gives us an insight on how vital technology, and specifically the Internet, is becoming to our everyday lives.

There is no denying that blogs allow individuals to have a voice. If that voice is read and responded to, communities are created, not limited by physical space. These virtual, content-oriented communities are especially strong in arenas such as Twitter. Twitter is a dynamic and responsive interface for conversation. Blogs have the same ability, though the conversation is not necessarily as seamless as it can be on Twitter. Regardless, the powers of shared thought, understanding and education are alive in these worlds and there exists a great potential to create real action, and even social change.

What I often question is how this will all play out over time, because though blogs are a tool which are not limited by physical space, access to their creation and use is limited. Blogs, and social media overall, are limited by the resources one has at their fingertips (pun somewhat intended), be it a computer, Internet access, electricity or even literacy.

History shows us those with technology often grow at an exponentially greater rate than those without it. So how do we most effectively create sustainable social change with the aid of social media, without further separating ourselves from the majority of the world (which doesn’t have constant access to a computer)?

Hugh Jackman, Australian dreamboat and actor, recently said he wanted to donate $100,000 to charity and asked his Twitter followers who he should donate to. After thousands of suggestions, Jackman said he would donate $50,000 to two different charities, Operation of Hope and Charity:Water. Both are incredible organizations. Most inspiring though is that this a success story on the power social media has to aid in social change. (Credit where it is due, my knowledge of Jackman’s charity donation is again the result of my girlfriend.)

Today we can communicate in ways rarely dreamed of five years ago. To have a voice, to contribute to conversation, to act, are all invaluable to the promotion of justice in our world. From Iran to Twitter, our need to bridge the gaps has never been more pressing, and our potential to create sustainable social change has never been so great.

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April 28, 2009

Decentralization and Human Development

I have been a zealous (some would say over-zealous!) proponent of networks and the application of network theory to the work of social change. I have been pushing and working for a radical rethink of our very approach to social transformation. I believe we have to move away from a model that is organization-centric into a mission-based model that maximizes the potential of decentralization. My vision calls for an approach that creates the conditions for the emergence of ideas, opportunities and formations that we could not have been imagined through our visioning and strategic planning efforts.

I am still a believer, and I’m probably still a zealot, I still see the ways in which an unbelievable wealth of passion, conviction, dedication and self motivation is wasted away, trapped by organizational structures that constrain this energy rather than liberate it. However, I have also been delving into a multiplicity of frameworks and studies addressing human development and it is increasingly evident that we are all at different stages of development. Being an adult does not always mean one has advanced through every stage of development and so not everyone can work with the same layers of complexity.

Now, I am clearly aware that I’m delving into dangerous territory, and I have no intention of getting into “who decides who is how developed,” but I will be bold enough to agree with the proposition that human beings evolve through a set of developmental stages, that these stages allow us to deal with greater and greater levels of complexity, and that we are not all at the same developmental stage. This is an important insight for someone working to shift organizational structures. It is possible that the more idealized decentralized models we are looking at might actually be making an idealized assumption about the developmental levels of the human beings involved.

However, rather than pulling back from this push forward along the paradigm shift, I think that what is important is that we understand that such developmental dynamics are always at play. Accounting for this layer of complexity does not mean that we move away from facilitating decentralized, self-organizing systems, it means than in fomenting this next phase of social movement we also seek to create the conditions for developmental progress among the human beings involved. Our job is not to assume that some people just can’t shift, but to understand how certain organizational parameters can support our evolution while liberating our will to create change.

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April 28, 2009

The Power of Positive

I have been boning up on systems theory and thinking because of an upcoming presentation that I will be delivering and because I am so interested in applying its wisdom to our own organization.. Oh to find the trim tab!!!!!

So, I am seeing everything through the systems lens when I stumble across this article on positive emotions and there it is in black and white with systems sprinkles to go. See below!

As background: Two distinct psychological states are positive emotions which are triggered by our interpretation of our current circumstances and pleasure which is what we get when we give the body what it needs right now!! Positive emotions tell us what we need emotionally, what our future selves might need. They help us broaden our minds and build our resources…they have that go-forward quality.

Happiness is the overall outcome of many positive emotions which are more narrow, more day to day, moment to moment. It’s not about being happy in general but focusing on being positive day to day which ends up building up our resources so that we can become the best version of ourselves.

It’s one thing for individuals to build their resilience through focusing in the day to day on their strengths and assets, practicing kindness, expressing gratitude, staying in the moment but how does this work in groups?

In a study of 60 work teams conducted by mathematician Marcial Losada it was shown that the really high performing teams had a ratio of 6:1 positive to negative statements where as the low-performing teams had ratios of less that one to one i.e. more than half of what was said was negative. The high performers had an even balance between asking questions and advocating for their own point of view and an equal measure of focusing outward and focusing within the group. The low-performers were essentially not listening and simply waiting for their turn to talk.

He then looked at the behavioral data and wrote algebraic equations that related the positive and negative behaviors to each other and discovered that these equations matched the very famous equations called the Lorenz system. happiness-equationFamiliar to us from our reading on systems, Edward Lorenz is the scientist who identified the famous “butterfly effect” the idea of an attractor…an identifiable pattern or hidden coherence that appears in all that is incoherent. Some attractors are strong and some are weak. In this case Losada discovers that underneath the dynamics of the high-performing team was a “complex chaotic attractor” which produces unpredictable or novel outcomes. Underneath the structure of the low-performing teams was a “fixed pint attractor” that caused the team to spiral to a dead end.

And, p.s. there is research that shows that when married couples are in a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative emotions they are in a solid relationship.

It seems that no matter what corner one turns…you come up against the same wise messages be still, be focused, be grateful and breathe.

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April 24, 2009

The Praise Report

I write this on the eve of the 3rd day of a training session of our Facilitative Leadership course, where the last of 7 practices,“Celebrate Accomplishment”, often gets the short shrift on this last day of training. The verdict is still out in terms of whether we will give it its just due for tomorrow’s class. Yet, I find myself wrestling with a provocative body of information I became aware of through a recent tweet I received on the subject of praise.

According to a study performed by the National Institute for Physiological Sciences:

Our findings indicate that the social reward of a good reputation in the eyes of others is processed in an anatomically and functionally similar manner to monetary rewards, and these results represent an essential step toward a complete neural understanding of human social behaviors.

In other words, those of us who made a conscious decision some time ago that we would not be, as the hip hop heads say, “paper chasers”, may instead just be chasers of a different kind: the currency of good reputation. Yea, even Solomon in all his wisdom suggests the NIPS report understates the reality: “A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold.” (Proverbs 22:1). For this wise king, the pay off of a good reputation is not equal to money as the scientists suggest, it is better. Whoa. News flash: As far as this neurological stimulus package goes, we, in all of our do-gooding, may just be as excessive, greedy, and self-serving as the Wall Street titans and capitalist fat cats we are quick to condemn. At the end of the day, it may be, that we all, in a Pavlovian sense, seek the sensation of reward – and whether money or praise, its all about us/our feelings.

What, then, might be the implications of such a phenomenon for the non-profit and social change sector that we live, work and eh….strive, in? On one hand, it confirms what we already know: that for a job actually well done, where a million dollar bonus or even a competitive salary isn’t on the way, we ought to lavish folk with what author and psychologist Gary Chapman calls, “words of affirmation” – verbal appreciation, simple verbal compliments (Chapman, Five Love Languages)

But not so fast! Hold back on the flowery words, my friends, for just a sec!

Consider the words of Alfie Kohn in Punished by Rewards

“[The key factor] in a positive judgment is not that it is positive, but that it is a judgment.

Kohn makes the case that praise actually lowers confidence and heightens pressure to live up to the compliment in order to receive future compliments – setting in motion a “rat race”, or the “praise maze” if you will (explaining some folks’ negative reaction to verbal affirmation).

Not sure what all this means for outcomes, evaluation methods, organizational culture, American pragmatism, parenting or how to break the power of negative words/images over groups of people who have been systematically targeted with such, but I’m sure some of you have ideas. What of it? Anyone others who may be cash poor and reputation rich want to weigh in? (No worries if you want to say something, well, nice….;-)

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