July 29, 2009
Tomorrow is the 18th anniversary of my friend Scott Lago’s death.? Scott was as much a brother to me as a friend and we worked together bringing the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt around the country in the late 1980s, setting up and managing displays of the quilt, a memorial for those who’ve died of AIDS. He affected my life in many ways, many of them very funny – but the one I’m remembering today is that when we’d be working with a group of people on setting up a display of the quilt, if someone started getting into what seemed like endless details about things he felt were unnecessary, preventing the group from moving forward, you’d notice Scott quietly tapping his watch face with his index finger. He was saying to those of us who knew him, “Can’t we get on with it? We don’t have a lot of time here.” While Scott knew on a cellular level that he didn’t have a lot of time here, I find myself sometimes looking around to see whether anyone else might be tapping their watch face.
And so it is this fine balance we seek to find in social change work – between not wasting what is, truly, precious time with endless details and at the same time, “going slow to go fast” – making sure we build solid agreements and cover enough to set things up for success. Might we sometimes spend a little too much time planning? None of us really have a lot of time here – the world is waiting!
And wherever Scott is, he’s watching what’s happening in the world and quietly tapping the face of his watch.
July 23, 2009
“Beware of the stories you read and tell.They are shaping your world.”-Ben Okri
I’ve been very interested to read more about the research of social psychologists focused on the impact of the order of thoughts when it comes to making changes in behavior. David Hardisty has conducted experiments in which people considering whether or not they would agree to a carbon tax to offset their air travel were asked to jot down the sequence of their thinking as they went about making their decision.
What showed up was that in constructing their preferences, the order of participants’ thoughts really mattered, with early thoughts significantly biasing subsequent ones. For example, people who ultimately rejected a carbon tax had negative first thoughts along the lines of, “I will be dead by the time the world is in an energy crisis,” whereas those who ultimately supported the tax had more positive first thoughts about the welfare of their children or subsequent generations. More intriguing, in a follow-up study, when Hardisty asked people to first make a list of the benefits of a carbon tax and then make a list of cons, this affected their preference in a more supportive direction no matter their political inclinations.
July 15, 2009
Many of us in the United States have been assured from an early age that knowledge is power. While this is true, it is incomplete. Knowledge is half the power. (And if not exactly half, some percentage of power). There are a number of other factors which make up power including but not limited to, race, class, age, sexual orientation, finances, who one knows, societal norms of one’s environment and most importantly, action. Knowledge means little, if it is not acted upon.
We learn every day. Every now and then, we learn of an injustice in the world which hits us just right, to the point that we want it to change it. Often however, we are far removed from the injustice, so either we forget it or become overwhelmed by the task of taking action. As a result, we may fall into a cycle where we simply read more about the issue, or keep telling others of the injustice, but never get around to concrete action. And while action may be hard part, it also seems to be the most rewarding. How do we make that leap to act when the injustice seems insurmountable? How do we harness the energy of those who came before us, who know what tactics work for each issue?
May 28, 2009
“The destiny of the world is determined less by the battles that are lost and won than by the stories it loves and believes in.”
As current President and CEO of the Orton Family Foundation Bill Roper tells the story, a couple of decades ago Lyman Orton, proprietor of the Vermont Country Store, was involved in local town planning efforts in Weston, Vermont. In the 1980s, at a time when the state was experiencing a building boom due to the rise of second home ownership, Weston and other small towns found themselves struggling to preserve their unique character while continuing to grow and embrace change. The local town planning commission in Weston, of which Orton was a member, discovered that it was ill equipped to address existing zoning restrictions and bylaws, which left town members powerless around policies that affected land use in their community. The frustration of this experience spurred the creation of the Orton Family Foundation, which began supporting small towns by providing resources, including user-friendly GIS mapping and visualization tools, to citizens to help them envision and ultimately have a say in their communities’ future.
Under Bill Roper’s leadership, the Orton Family Foundation places a particular emphasis on helping towns identify and protect the essence of their community through the collection of shared stories. Like all of the work of the Foundation, efforts have been made to make planning accessible to non-planner types. To this end, language is everything. Roper and his staff avoid jargon by asking residents simply (but profoundly) to identify the “heart and soul” of their community. As they say on their website, “Traditional quantitative approaches use important data about demographic and economic shifts, traffic counts and infrastructure needs, but frequently fail to account for the particular ways people relate to their physical surroundings and ignore or discount the intangibles—shared values, beliefs and quirky customs—that make community. . . . Furthermore, a collection of quantifiable attributes without an understanding of shared values and a sense of purpose does not motivate citizens to show up and make tough, consistent decisions.” In other words, when it comes downs to it, it’s about people.
Time and again, this revelation comes up in various policy debates where experts come together and more often than not leave out the people who are most impacted by (and who have much to offer) their decisions. We know the devastating impact this can have, and yet it continues. In a recent blog post, Dave Snowden rails against obsessions with outcomes measurement when it comes to reforming social services, saying that we continue to look for fail safe, quantifiable, and expert-driven solutions to problems that are much too complex to lend themselves to expertly engineered solutions. He makes a case for greater involvement of the system (including everyday citizens) and the use of narrative to understand the dynamics of and ways of working with the system. With the Orton Foundation example, we might add the importance of using language that invites broader and deeper engagement. This is about creating space for people to share their own experiences and perspectives, allowing not only for the relevance of these stories, but their power to shape something new.
How might we do more of this in our work, to make room not just for the sharing of facts and figures, but stories? And what are the stories we are telling ourselves that are shaping our worlds?