What’s your name got to do with it?

The diversity of names in this small group led us to ethnic and racial differences. The facilitators were curious how much these differences lead to cliques in school. For these young people, hanging out with people of similar appearance is something that happened up until about 9th grade, and they think most of that was because of location. Who they went to school with before was who they hung out with, at least until they got to know each other.

It is a deeper question to wonder if the clustering of certain groups in particular areas is simply coincidence. Where did you go to elementary school? What section? Which house? Were you in 16 Acres? There was a hint of class difference….

Dialogue: Identities
Whiteness (Race), Gender, Culture…

Ten high school students in the circle.
(Another observing from outside).
Their regular teacher.
Three facilitators from UMass.

“I wanna have a cool name like that!”

“I hated the first day of school. For days, they couldn’t figure out how to say my name.”

“I like my name. It’s different.”

“[My full name] and I don’t get along. I use [a nickname]; it’s short and sweet.”

“I want an extra letter!”

“A vowel on the end makes it girlie.”

“I like writing my name.”

“[With my first and middle name], I have the same meaning twice.”

“My name is mispronounced often and people don’t accept correction.”

“My dad liked Slavic names. I like my name.”

“I wasn’t named by my mom or dad… I’m known as [a nickname].”

“It’s weird to think the people in [that city I’m named after] are my relatives.”

“I literally became a different person when I came to the U.S. because people couldn’t say my name.”

“I don’t like how I got my name.”

“People see my name and think something; then they meet me and I don’t look like what they expect.”

It’s about the structure

Talking about our names brought up a lot of feelings. Some experiences have been good, others not so much.  “Should names follow the stereotypes?” Most in the group said no or shook their head. “Would you throw [that kind of] a curve ball to your kid?” Hmm.  What values are involved in this kind of decision? What does your name have to do with who you are? What does your name have to do with who other people think you are?

The diversity of names in this small group led us to ethnic and racial differences. The facilitators were curious how much these differences lead to cliques in school. For these young people, hanging out with people of similar appearance is something that happened up until about 9th grade, and they think most of that was because of location. Who they went to school with before was who they hung out with, at least until they got to know each other.

It is a deeper question to wonder if the clustering of certain groups in particular areas is simply coincidence.  Where did you go to elementary school? What section? Which house?  Were you in 16 Acres?  There was a hint of class difference…. and some groups seem to get swallowed up by others…. Dominicans, for instance, get lumped in with Puerto Ricans.  Relations within families are complicated too. “I’ve spent more time with white people, so I get along with my relatives who live in the North more than the ones in the South.”  And this quick exchange: “I’m the darkest one in my family.” “You’re not even dark!” “I know!” Some students aren’t sure “what” they are. “I’m confused. I’m a bunch of stuff.”

One young man was fifteen when a friend pointed to a photograph in his home and asked, “Who’s that white lady?” “Uh…” he sortof stammered, “Grandma?” raising his voice as if in doubt. What was obvious is how deeply he is connected to his Grandma, the pigment of her skin being inconsequential to their relationship.

language plays a part

“I start speaking in Spanish when I want to tell a secret.”

One student (a girl) wants to know: “¿Que? ¿Que? Translation?”

Another one (a boy) lets it go.  “I just walk away.”

That could be the gender dynamic. The boys were described as “a pack,” “they just get each other.”  “There’s no drama.” “They just let things go.”

…and then there is the future

“What happens when you go to college?”

This conversation was brief, but the immediate responses seemed to project a future environment similar to the one they’re in now. What these kids value is the intimacy of their 600-student high school, where everybody knows each other and the Principal knows everyone’s name.

tweaking the turns: resilience is systemic

Resilience requires, among other things, “distinguish[ing] between those catastrophes we can repair and those that require us to face a new reality” (p.35). I’m interested that “resilience” is typically invoked as a counterpart to crisis, as if it only emerges spontaneously in the face of a sudden unexpected event rather than persisting as a durable property of a system. Resilience is also most commonly described as a characteristic of individuals rather than groups. How we comport ourselves when wounded, however, is a matter of relationship that is fundamentally inseparable from the co-occurring internal psychological struggle.

Excerpts from Resilience
by Elizabeth Edwards

Sixty pages in to this Christmas gift, I found myself enjoying it more than I at first anticipated.  Some malicious news/gossip drifted within the realm of my awareness some months or a year or two ago about Elizabeth Edwards selling out some part of her soul either by publishing this book or – maybe it was going on a talk show circuit afterwards or… I don’t recall the details. It was a reflection of one of those distasteful, distressing tendencies of the media spotlight to grind away at character, seeking and exploiting flaws of integrity, as if there are so many of us who could withstand such scrutiny well.

Context: Whiteness

The back cover sports a quote from pp.37-38, in which Edwards admits a preference for avoiding difficult things in life while reconciling herself to the fact that they are going to happen, no matter what. By this point, she has already painted the picture of herself as a person living a dream and believing it could continue unabated. She had noticed tarnish, but not allowed it to dim the glow of her idealized vision, such as (among other things) recognizing “that the color of your skin gave you a whole different, less hospitable country” (p. 15).  Edwards attributes most of her fantasy to growing up in a magical-military lifestyle framed by Armed Services Radio. Seems like a classic example of how lives become meaningful within a context shaped by media.

It is my interpretation to lay her idyll at the feet of whiteness – not the simplistic version of white skin privilege, but the attitudes and assumptions of whiteness – which can be embedded in any human body of any ethnicity, given enough socioeconomic privilege and cultural conditioning.  You may consider the evidence sketchy, but when Edwards describes how she is changed after the infidelity of her husband (coming very soon after a diagnosis of breast cancer, and some years after the life-altering death of her teenage son), I thought to myself, this is what whiteness shields you from:

“I was not wounded, not afraid, not uncertain before, and

now I always will be.”

Many pages later, discussing a transformation in her Christian faith necessitated by the death of her son, she writes:

“I had believed that God would intervene to protect the innocent. How, at forty-six, having seen what I had of the world, having walked around the site of the children’s hospital at Hiroshima, near the epi-center of the atomic bomb, having seen injustice and misery reposed among the innocent across the globe, I still believed this, I cannot say. I only know that I did…” (p 110).

Whiteness enables this kind of magical thinking.

“What we know is apparently no match for what we need” (p. 70)

Faith is a kind of map that orders a belief structure, enabling coping mechanisms and strategies for survival and – if accompanied by luck – individual and social thriving. “In my life,” Edwards admits, “the map has almost always been wrong.” She is referring to a saying of her friend Gordon Livingston: “When the map does not comport with the ground, the map is wrong” (p. 32). In lieu of a god who protects the innocent and guards the righteous from random trauma, Edwards comes to believe in a God who “promises only salvation and enlightenment,” continuing:

“This is our world, a gift from God, and we make it what it is. If it is unjust, we have made it so. If there is boundless misery, we have permitted it. If there is suffering, it came from man’s own action or inaction” (p. 111).

Later, she adds:

“I remind myself: This is the world we made; its flaws are our flaws; its shortcomings are our shortcomings; and the degree to which there is injustice or unprovoked suffering is just a reflection of our failures…God gave me this world, and He gave me free will. It is my world, and now, if I am able, I have to fix it” (p. 119).

Resilience requires, among other things, “distinguish[ing] between those catastrophes we can repair and those that require us to face a new reality” (p.35). I’m interested that “resilience” is typically invoked as a counterpart to crisis, as if it only emerges spontaneously in the face of a sudden unexpected event rather than persisting as a durable property of a system. Resilience is also most commonly described as a characteristic of individuals rather than groups. How we comport ourselves when wounded, however, is a matter of relationship that is fundamentally inseparable from the co-occurring internal psychological struggle.

a small slice of the middle (or, in-between the turns)

In the subfield of Communication that studies language and social interaction, one of the things we pay attention to are turns at talking: who talks when, how much, after who, about what, how often, and so on and so forth. Turn-taking is a particularly intriguing subject of study because transitions require a rather complex coordination (rarely thought about because the norms for how to do it are so internalized). Edwards quotes a line from Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem, Interim, about turning the world back a click or two, “just a turn and…” this or that would not have happened, “just a turn and…” we would be living some other reality. Living in the wishfulness of turning something back, however, is not resilient.

“In time, I learned that I was starting a new story. I write these words as if that is the beginning and the end of what I did, but it is only a small slice of the middle, a place that is hard to reach and, in reaching it, only a stepping-off place for finding or creating a new life with our new reality…” (p. 31-32)

Perfection is not a requirement (p. 9)

Effective systems have safeguards and backups in case of normal accidents. It seems like an oxymoron, but accidents do happen. Accidents occur with enough irregularity that they cannot be predicted and controlled, thus any comprehensive system assumes a certain “normalcy” to the fact that accidents will need to be managed. If one adopts the stance that, loosely, accidents are normal, one’s map is already prefigured to minimize damage by building resiliency in. One adapts as best one can, as soon as one can, in the best ways one knows how given the circumstances. This includes recovering from shock, such as Edwards describes:

“The Greatest Generation from World War II was not simply too humble to take credit for their accomplishments in battle (though they were often that), they were also good men too stunned that what they had seen was now part of their own life story” (p. 27).

We are all living our own life stories, and to varying degrees – depending upon exposure and attention – aware of unspeakable inhumanities being done by human beings to other human beings. We need to be resilient, not just in our own self-centered orbits but as persons in relation with the people whose lives we interact with daily, whether through the products of their work or because of direct contact.

the fullest breath (p. 17)

“The only contest we have,” Edwards concludes, “is with ourselves” (p. 212). She is mainly referring to how a parent finds the way to go on after losing a child, but she also means how a spouse recovers from the infidelity of their partner, and how one chooses to glean the most from every moment in the face of a terminal illness. Her answers, she emphasizes repeatedly, are hers alone, and every one must find their own ways to continue living in the face of pain and challenge. Resilience, however, is not only a feature of the the solo, noble human spirit, but of the community and relationships and ways of talking that guide and nurture the spirit through.  Yes, so much rides on single moments, and yet, with each breath, there is a new moment imbued with new possibilities, new paths leading to new and different places.  A friend just taught me this Albanian saying:

The minute does not determine the year.

There are, of course, minutes that do change years, moments whose occurrence changes lifepaths irrevocably and forever. Moments that teach “what it means to scream” (p. 17). But any moment, even those that require years from which to heal, does not have to foreclose the future. It may not be the future one dreamed, but it can still be worthy, happy, and whole. In a recent talk on Resilience: Talking, Resisting, and Imagining New Normalicies into Being (Journal of Communication 60, 2010), Patrice M. Buzzanell argues that “resilience is developed, sustained, and grown through discourse, interaction, and material considerations,” and lists five specific communication processes, all of which are evident in Edwards personal story.

Social relations and ways of talking contribute to individual resiliency but it is still, in the end, the individual who has to learn breathe deeply – either again, or perhaps for the first time.  If Elizabeth Edwards’ life had played out along her original fantasy script, she admits:

“I don’t know..if…it would have occurred to me that I had never taken the fullest breath I could. It had been diaphragmatic breathing, matching my inhaling and exhaling to some rhythm I wanted, some song that fit my life at the time, or I thought did. I had never had to find my own rhythm, never needed to search for my own cadence…For all of the times that followed those carefree days…for all of the pain I endured, at least I learned … what it meant to breathe for myself.”

Dedicated to Alec Kent
and the family who survives him

Laughter is Important

United in Hope:
Celebrating Literacy through a Community Voice

Springfield, MA
14 November 2010

Wally Lamb emphasized the significance of humor responding to a question from an audience member about his new book, Wishin’ and Hopin.’ The United in Hope community event promoting literacy sparkled with humor, inspiration and poignancy. The program was anchored by the words of women prisoners writing about their lives. Lamb was introduced by Tim Black, who explained a process of selective attention:

“We don’t see the signs of pain and suffering…

We don’t understand the consequences of pain and suffering.”

Tim acknowledged that everyone encounters and experiences pain, asserting: “We’re all experts of our own lives.”  Tim made it clear that he is not discounting anyone’s pain – still, he suggested that we usually “don’t understand pain and suffering” (emphasis added).

Breaking the Wall of Mistrust

Wally Lamb spends a day a week leading writing workshops for women in prison.  These are women who know the meaning of “doing time”  (something I learned while reading Tim Black’s book, When A Heart Turns Rock Solid).  I wonder how much the acute awareness of time and space feeds Lamb’s motivations for establishing and maintaining his weekly routine and its associated relationships. Relevant relationships include (not only) the women writers but also the prison guards, other prisoners who aren’t writing, and his own sphere of friends and family who are effected (to greater or lesser degrees) by his commitment. He shared with us the story of “Natasha,” who insisted (at first) on a pen name and refused to allow her work to be shared. Then – suddenly – she decided she wanted to read her own work out loud, and began to claim authorship using her real name, Diane. Diane’s act of courage signaled a momentous shift in the early days of Lamb’s work at the York Prison: in his words, “the women’s writing started to flow.”

Lamb read us several short works or excerpts of the women’s writing. I was not able to catch all of the titles or author’s names, but here are some:

  • Dancing in Leg Irons,
  • something by Shannon Roche describing herself as an “inmate” and “a woman of the world,”
  • Under-Where? by Lynne M Friend, and
  • Flight of the Bumblebee, by Kathleen Wyatt.

As I told Tim afterwards, my eyes teared up about seven times. “Their words must have touched you,” he said. Yes, and it is the timing – the juxtaposition of their words now, the invocation of images from their lives intersecting with memories and current realities of my own interacting to generate the heartfelt response.

A Second Start

My emotions were more than personal, however – they were inspired by the context and setting. Lamb read Robin Ledbetter’s work about her grandmother and forgiveness.  The topic of starting over (or otherwise finding ways to carry on) was fitting in this high school auditorium full of young people, their parents, grandparents and other family members, and a diverse range of community activists and committed citizens.  The collective effort to remain open and hopeful toward all the possibilities yet to come, to refuse to surrender to whatever grim goblins of despair haunt dreams of healing and wholeness – for individuals, communities, even the entire city – requires energy, dedication, and focused effort.

“…the heartache it surrounds…”

This phrase floats in my notebook, unattached.  The “it” has lost its referent, becoming ’empty’ – ready to be filled by whatever I might put there.  What shall it be?  Does the City of Springfield embrace the heartache of its residents? I bet Springfield Public Schools Superintendent Alan Ingram thinks so! “Get involved in schools in a meaningful way,” he exhorted us. “Challenge the naysayers, see Springfield’s glass as half-full – not half-empty.” Hampden County Sheriff Michael Ashe spoke in compelling terms about law “enforcement with decency.”  I (unfortunately) arrived late and missed the opening talk by Springfield  Mayor  Domenic Sarno and also Gianna Allentuck, the United In Hope founder and key promoter of this particular event. The program itself is testimony to her passion. I enjoyed several student performances, as well as a reading from audience member Lisa Wood.  Then I went downstairs to check out the Community Resource Tables.

“Seeing a question mark, [then] trying to understand the question”

I had a series of terrific conversations with half-a-dozen awesome people who are trying to surround the heartache. It was great to see a few familiar faces and touch base. The conversations I had with people I met for the first time also got me buzzing.  Irene from the Community Accountability Board filled me in on some of the infrastructure  under Sheriff Ashe, complementing information I learned from Stephanie (of the awesome name) from Dunbar Community Center about the Shannon Project. The hands-down winner, though, in terms of making a connection and cutting to the chase, was with Emmy from Teatro V!da.  We had a conversation about communicating across language difference. Emmy said:

“The real language is the language of the soul.

Not English.

Not Spanish.

My soul speaks for me.”

I’m like, go grrl go! There are so many different ways that understanding can cut – according to this or that “language.” The language might be spoken or signed (think American Sign Language), fluent or not so much, written according to all applicable grammar rules or not.  Maybe the language is the same but the field or context is different – I’m from the West, you’re from the East, I study Communication, you study Biology, you excel in music and pop culture, I think maybe I heard of that band!

What matters is that moment when, in Tim Black’s words, you “see the question mark.” Oftentimes, in this crazy-with-going-fast world, there’s no time to even register the presence of a question, let alone slow down enough to try and figure out where the other person is coming from, what they are wondering about, what ‘gap’ is being made visible which could – in that moment, with a little attention and a bit of care – become a bridge for connection rather than a chasm of separation.

All around me, those few hours at the High School for Commerce in Springfield, MA, I was surrounded by people who were willing to take the time to notice. Not only that, they’re willing to work with what they notice in order to turn it into something good.


Read women’s writings from prison in “Couldn’t Keep It To Myself: Wally Lamb and the Women of York Correctional Institution” and “I’ll Fly Away: Further Testimonies from the women at York Prison.”

When the learning curve is a wall

The hybrid nature of innovative business

The Roundtable on Social Entrepreneurship with Leticia and Victoria Hale that Pamela facilitated was one of the highlights of the conference (although it is hard to generate a ranking because everything was of such high caliber). “Real systems change is not just [the provision of] palliative goods and services,” Pamela explained. Systems change requires forging “partnerships […that…] leverage off each other in the positive sense to create synergies.” Learning how to accomplish this new balance between established modes of doing business (e.g., short-term, bottom line profitability for discrete individuals) with new sustainable modes of doing business (i.e., long-term, continuous resiliency with dispersed community benefits) was the main topic of this roundtable conversation.

Womensphere with Newsweek
Global Summit (Day Two, 25 September 2010)

Manhattan (Goldman Sachs)

Leticia Jáuregui described her experience starting up a business within the rapidly expanding field of social entrepreneurship to Pamela Hartigan, author of The Power of Unreasonable People: How Social Entrepreneurs Create Markets that Change the World.  I cite the whole title of Pamela’s book because I was thrilled to discover such a simple explanation for most of my biography:  I’m unreasonable!  The Global Summit reinvigorated hope that I can leverage this unreasonableness into new market creation which ripples out and contributes to positive changes for the world – especially we people living on earth now  and in the immediate next few generations. I realize this is a species-centric perspective, but there is tremendous potential when such selfishness is coupled within a matrix of relationships. Suddenly your health and well-being is recognizable as deeply intertwined with mine. By extension other living beings and the planet become relevant and valued, too.

The hybrid nature of innovative business

The Roundtable on Social Entrepreneurship with Leticia and Victoria Hale that Pamela facilitated was one of the many highlights of the conference (although it is impossible to generate a ranking because everything was of such high caliber).  “Real systems change is not just [the provision of] palliative goods and services,” Pamela explained. Systems change requires forging “partnerships […that…] leverage off each other in the positive sense to create synergies.” Learning how to accomplish this new balance between established modes of doing business (e.g., short-term, bottom line profitability for discrete individuals) with new sustainable modes of doing business (i.e., long-term, continuous resiliency with dispersed community benefits) was the main topic of this roundtable conversation.

Being (perceived as) unreasonable means one necessarily attracts a lot of negative attention: critiques, people telling you you’re foolish, resistance of all sorts. This can wear you down if you’re not able to apply a productive frame.  “You know you’re on the right path when just about everyone says you’re nuts.”  Victoria matter-of-factly told us about the importance of setbacks, teaching us how to interpret them as a way to “appreciate that the universe is moving.” Rather than viewing resistance and the need to alter or modify plans as a setback, view them as “revelations.”  “You can’t be too much of a fighter, not too committed to ‘my way’,” she told us, otherwise you miss important information about the world that you need to be aware of and adapt to in order to succeed.

“Kill all the Negative People”

Pamela proposed this a bumpersticker, and she’s only half-teasing!  Analisa kept reminding us that leadership and invention do not have to be lonely (at least not persistently and characteristically so), and no one would argue against constructive criticism. But there is a difference between criticism that contributes to one’s understanding about issues relevant to success, and complaints from people whose outlook is systematically negative. “Spend time,” Victoria continued, “with people who get it.” Her work in medical research goes against the grain. “Strategically, we do what the world needs,” and “In R&D, things change.” In practical terms, this means “work[ing] with funders who are very hands-off” and, in Pamela’s words, focusing on “the issue as the unit of development.

Drawing from history, Pamela reminds us, “Many people come together from many different areas to make social movements.”  The challenge, of course, is how to work with the complexity and hybridity of all the various ways difference can cut across contemporary social forms of interaction.  Pamela suggested applying The Three P’s: Passion, Patience, and being with Positive people as a way to assess whether one is “in the right place at the right time.” She distinguished between “entrepreneurs” who don’t stick with bureaucracies for very long, and “intrapreneurs” who chip away from the inside, coming at things from within an organization or institution.

Dismissing the label of “social entrepreneur” as a term that has served its time, Pamela argued that we must begin to distinguish between “value appropriation” and “value creation.” We need “visionary pragmatists” who “refuse to take no for an answer” and thus come up with “fascinating solutions to intractable problems.”

“People are poor, not stupid”

Molly Tschang made this point a bit later in the afternoon during the presentation of Case Studies of Impact of Corporate Investments & Innovations on Global and Local Problems. In a significant way, Molly was talking about the power of “no.” Sometimes, no is the answer which has to be respected! Pamela did not mean “no” is always to be disregarded, she meant “no” should not stop us from persisting – with wisdom and awareness of consequences – in search of the goal. Victoria’s openness was quite beautiful in this regard: “I didn’t know how to ask; I was told.” When we’re working with intercultural differences, we have to become sensitive to nuances along a continuum that spans when it is the difference and when it is our reaction to difference that provides the stimulus for powerful learning.

Victoria, Pamela, and Leticia provided us with living examples from the ground-up of Molly’s top-down challenge regarding, “how to engage the full diversity of resources and bring them to bear on solving issues.”   If the goal is “how to make things work in disadvantaged communities,” then you cannot rely only on top-down policies and institutional vision. Molly insisted “you must adapt” and embrace the fact that “people see where they are” and are able to articulate their daily realities in ways that people from a distance are simply unable to perceive.

Future markets, Peer partnering, and the Wrong Question

Molly told us about a TED Fellow who inquired, “What’s the one thing you want to tell the world?” This, she insisted, is the wrong question.  There is no one thing, “its everything!” We are not, as Pamela put it, “generating the next widget.” We are engaged in behavioral change, systems change, and political processes. Molly encouraged us that the only way forward is to “acknowledge the complexity [rather than] be daunted by it.”  In other words, you’ll know you’re in the right place at the right time when you are aware of multiple realities intersecting in complementary ways.

When you sense the future with a vertical slope of 90-degrees, you are facing the moment described by Pamela as the juncture when “complex problems become opportunities.” You will inevitably be engaged with people who are – in some fundamental way – essentially different than you, and you will consider them peers because the knowledge base they bring is equal and necessarily in proportion with your own experience and skill. Leticia captured the phenomenological experience perfectly: “We started as an idea, got funded as an idea. The reality on the ground? The learning curve is still a wall.”

It’s the economy AND the environment (stupid!)

Womensphere with Newsweek
Global Summit

Day 1 at NYU: see photos!

I almost bailed out. My back was out of whack when I woke up the day before the two-day conference. I thought: I need to listen to my body. It isn’t up for this trip. As I lay in bed imagining the five hour bus ride to NYC, the additional hour (or more) to get out to Maria’s in Queens, the intensity of the two-day conference schedule, the return trip on Sunday and subsequent “loss” of the entire weekend in terms of everything else I needed to do, I decided not to go.

The luxury of a long weekend of “extra time” stretched out before me as I settled into a hot bath and began reading a gift from my former roommate – a partner in the (idea of) my start-up. As far as I know, Joan Borysenko did not attend the Global Summit, but she got me there by reminding me that I am on to something…

Resiliency (not only Sustainability)

Leaving aside the question of whether or not human activities have caused global warming, the need for climate recovery is the fundamental context for the current and future societal organization of, by, and for homo sapiens. When Goldman Sachs states that without change the planet will be two degrees warmer by 2030, they signal the seriousness of the matter for every human being on the planet, not just the wealthy. The concept of  sustainability, however, is severely limited:

a) “sustainability” – as used in the media, politics, business, academia and grassroots movements – can refer to anything (what linguists call an empty signifier), hence is prone to being misunderstood among people using it (what interpreters call a communication breakdown), and

b) the premise of “sustainability” is continuity: the avoidance of change. Hello? This is not a newsflash: change is already here.

From a discourse and group dynamics perspective, continuing to use the term sustainability in the current ways is evidence of mass rationalization of reality. During the Community Circle conference review sessions at the end of the first day of the program, Amy, Devon, Cynthia, Judy, Katie, Marika, Jenny, Mary, Teresa, Nancy, and Mr. Manbassador helped me realize there are similar challenges with the term resiliency. As I’ve continued to consider our conversation about Building Green Economies and Enabling Sustainability, what I realized is that we need the interplay of these two terms – conceptually and in practice – if we are really going to recreate institutional systems capable of maintaining and spreading high qualities of human existence.

“The World Flows on Credit”

The economy, leadership, and change were consistent themes of the Summit. We learned about the current state of the economy, including historical factors and future projections. Barbara Byrne was, as she said, “in the front car of a railroad train that went off the tracks.” She had worked for Lehman Brothers for 28 years prior to “that Sunday morning,” September 15, 2008, “the morning I no longer had health insurance or job security or anything else…(and) had lost 60% of my net worth just like that.” Barbara emphasized the psychological elements of group decision-making during and after the “12 Standard Deviation Event” that was the unintended consequence of Lehman Brothers being deemed a moral hazard.

I was particularly intrigued by Barbara’s perspective  because of having watched the Frontline program, Inside the Meltdown, which included an instance of a problematic moment. James Cumming has distinguished group-level problematic moments from difficult interpersonal interactions. During a PM, conflicts in social realities emerge, becoming temporarily evident and available in ways that open possibilities for restructuring hierarchies of relationships within a given sociocultural field. Problematic moments are leverage points for fundamental social change.

Barbara spoke of the select group of male CEOs gathered with Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson at the White House making decisions according to the restricted focus that characterizes group communication during a crisis. Decision-making during crisis is especially challenging when the group lacks diversity. Barbara argued that society needs guardrails (government regulations), while insisting:  “Business is important. It’s what makes the wheels turn.”  She emphasized the “need (for) diversity in the room,” listing demographic features and knowledge sets so that people can test and push the boundaries of decision-making processes. Ultimately, she argued, “No matter what you think of TARP, [in this instance] government worked,” because Paulson confronted the credit freeze fallout “one piece at a time to open everything up.”

Time, Timing, History and the Future

Barbara emphasized the “need for long-term thinking.” This could have been interpreted as a poke at Abby Joseph Cohen of Goldman Sachs, who (earlier) had opened her talk with a joke: “I was just told I have ten minutes to tell you how to fix everything.” Chuckles spread through the room – we’re all looking for the quick fix, the right answer! This is (unfortunately)  not forthcoming.  Abby gave us “the one minute CNBC summary”:

  • There will be no double dip, what we’re experiencing is the continuation of a natural deceleration
  • The slow improvement in the labor force is a big problem that comes from longer-term structural issues – not just the credit crisis or recession (emphasis added)
  • The equity market is priced below value, bonds are priced for perfection

“Something has happened…”

Abby described two historical trends in jobs and education. She spoke at the macrosocial, institutional level in the context of global competition, lamenting, “We have not seen this in generations. It goes to the heart of the American dream.” Barbara too expressed concern that Americans are losing our mojo, acting on the basis of fear instead of remembering and celebrating that the US “is fundamentally the most optimistic place on earth.” Abby’s diagnosis was sharp. The problem is the lack of job creation in the United States.

Abby explained that there has been “an ongoing deceleration of new jobs for a decade preceeding” the credit crisis; a 5% loss in jobs overall, and a 10% loss of blue-collar jobs were evident before the financial crisis erupted into public awareness. “When,” Lynn Tilton asked a short while later, “was there a taint on being blue?” Described by Vanessa Angeles of HSBC as “a private equity rock star,” Lynn minced no words arguing for bottom-up restructuring. Abby described the policy decision about the American economy when we switched to “what you know” from “what you can carry.”  Lynn put numbers on the current fallout: 1 in 5 Americans is unemployed. One in seven American families is below the poverty level.  “Why,” she challenged, “can’t we admit we made a mistake when we decided it is what you know rather than what we make?”

“What do we want for the future?”

Dr Mae Jemison (self-described as “the only person on the Star Trek set who had actually been in space”) put the problem in context by defining globalization in terms of two opposing possibilities.

Jemison: We can design globalization by emphasizing “the ability [of business] to make all markets homogenous,” or we can emphasize “the capacity of business to deliver to people the capacity to do what they want.”

Tilton: Describing how – contrary to the general historical drift – she had become an industrialist: “Nobody really wanted to rebuild the companies, they just wanted to focus on balance sheets.”

Cohen: “Our educational system is not keeping pace” with the rest of the world,” there has been “no improvement” in graduation percentages (especially from college) in more than a decade.

Tilton: “When parents are out of work, children are focused on survival, not education.”

The Blue-Collar Challenge

“We have the most extensive collegiate and university system in the world,” Abby insisted. “This is an important form of foreign aid.” International students who come here to earn degrees need to be allowed to stay.

“We also lose technology,” Lynn reminded everyone, “when we ship manufacturing overseas.”

Barbara was explicit: “We need to open the borders. We need to let the immigrants in.” Rally for Sanity. Pass the Dream Act (this suggestion is an editorial supplement).

Lynn argued for subsidized employment as “a better route than welfare.”  “We are a nation that doesn’t have enough jobs,” she repeated, describing institutionalized unemployment as an illness which needs to be attacked at the root. “We can recreate jobs if we revisit the policy not to manufacture.”

While Lynn emphasized the absolute necessity of bottom-up restructuring, others focused on top-down policy-making that can “align business with social concerns,” as asked by someone in the audience during the lunchtime roundtable on Women & Innovation: Driving Innovation and Creating a Culture of Successful Innovation.

Later, in the session on The Future of the US and Global Economy: Market Dynamics, Growth, Black Holes & Public Policy, Andrea Feingold described the outdated logic of mortgages, in which people planned to live their lives in a single place, so it made sense to buy in one’s thirties and pay-off by one’s sixties in order to enjoy retirement in a home owned free-and-clear. Overall, however, the top-down discussion about solutions is a muddle. During the same panel, talking about tax incentives, Stephanie Breslow warned that “we can’t wean ourselves off foreign oil and just replicate another kind of dependency.” Joyce Chang described the necessity of ensuring “coordination of regulation or we will just transfer risk to another part of the world.”

Actionable Solutions

Although we teased about HVPS, there are known and established facts which can guide the processes of defining problems and creating solutions:

  • investing in women generates greater returns
  • supporting the spread of international law serves to counter injustice
  • defining terms and coordinating language use builds community
  • creating desire promotes motivation to achieve goals
  • considering others’ welfare enhances personal well-being and safety
  • facing fear enables cooperation at new & different levels

In other words, as Angela Leaney emphasized, “When the plane is going down, its not time to be a jerk. Put your oxygen mask on and help others.”

Desire to Action

It is impossible to overstate the achievements of this third Global Summit by Womensphere. Analisa spoke of “socializing ideas” and the laws of physics, especially the laws of attraction and inertia. What we experienced is the constitutive power of language: together – the members of the event team, presenters and moderators, and all of us participants – we spoke a culture into being. Kavita Ramdas put it like this: “I just made a community of sisters.” Those 48-hours was an instance of planning coming alive, as expressed by one of the event team members (whose name I unfortunately didn’t catch).

Womensphere with Newsweek Global Summit
Manhattan (NYU Kimmel Center & Goldman Sachs)

“I am honored and inspired and intrigued.”

Nina summed up the third Global Summit from her role as a member of the event team. Sarah described how positive everyone was behind the scenes, which was elaborated upon by Nancy as “so much energy and spirit put into action….[this event] was about doing, not just cheering.” Vanessa emphasized everyone’s generosity and authenticity, summed up by Robin as “passion with a splash of compassion.” Was it Aidan who was so eager for the final round of acknowledgments to end? She also made sure that Claude received special recognition for superb orchestration of the nuts-and-bolts of a flawless large group event for several hundred women who just want to be allowed to row.

“Loving good, boys!”

The Maud Scientist shared her version of “Good boys, good!” with us while introducing the Innovation Roundtable after the first morning’s series of keynotes. Shelly Lazarus had told us about a presentation she had attended about the rowing team at Cambridge, which was studied for five months by cultural researcher Mark de Rond en route to beating historic rival Oxford for the first time in seven years. A mere ten days before the ultimate competition, the team made the unprecedented replacement of the male coxswain with a woman.

In 2008 Cambridge was coxed by Rebecca Dowbiggin (a Ph. D. candidate in Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic) who tips the scales at a slight 102 pounds and stands 5’4” tall. Her teammates were all a foot taller and a hundred pounds heavier.Rebecca is not capable of making a meaningful contribution to the speed of the boat through the water by pulling on an oar. But then, that’s not what she’s in the boat to do. She has a different purpose. The rowers sit in the boat, oars in their hands, with their backs to the finish line. The cox sits in the stern and faces forward, the only member of the team who can see where the boat is going, who can adjust for wind or current or course. The cox shouts encouragement, and coordinates tempo and teamwork. She can’t win without strong oarsmen, but they can’t win without her either. Without mutual trust and respect the team will surely lose, if not drown.

Shelly told us that Professor de Rond attributed the team’s risky group decision to three factors:

  • the breadth of nuanced calibration of the team,
  • the depth of trust established on the basis of intimacy generated by cultivating the capacity for such finely-tuned calibration, and
  • the distinct difference in leadership style of each cox.

In a phone conversation earlier today, Professor de Rond clarified these lessons, explaining that the palpable difference between the two cox – as felt and experienced by the rowers – was that the male cox made the rowers nervous by exhorting them too much, generating a sense that something was off. Rebecca demonstrated more trust, synchronizing with their experience, and keeping focused on technical calls which allowed them to feel as if everything was proceeding according to plan. She had used the special call, “Good boys, good!” once during practice and – noticing the extremely positive response, did not use it again. Instead, she held that call in reserve, until at one very strategic and challenging moment in the race, she let it out. And the boys responded. No gender claims are being made based on this tiny sample (although basic heterosexual biology probably played some role). Professor de Rond did say, however, that “She used her femininity in a very clever way.” The strategic use of praise, tucked within a superb performance of technical calls that kept the team settled and steady, provides a strong undergirding for the main point made for us gathered at Womensphere. In the words of Shelly Lazarus,

“she just let them row.”[i]

“Leaders come in all sizes.”

Analisa Balares made the comment teasingly as she stepped onto the speakers’ box that had been removed to accommodate Shelly’s height. 😉 Womensphere is Analisa’s brainchild. It is not surprising that she pulled together a team, including an impressive alliance with Newsweek, and designed this Global Summit exemplifying Shelly’s recommendations for effective and powerful leadership: hire strong people, mean the questions that you ask, be generous – know that you cannot say thank you often enough, invite people who work for you into the decision-making process, share the glory, make problems bite-sized, celebrate successes and problems together, be passionate, and act in faith that the better people are then the less they want to be managed.

As I intuit my way through the upcoming series of blog entries attempting to distill the vast reserve of wisdom pooled during this incredible gathering, I keep thinking about the influence of the researcher on the Cambridge rowing team. Shelly told us that team members, in the beginning, kept trading technical competence for social competence. In other words, like all groups, the early stages of development are composed mainly by politeness and gravitation toward similarities. Usually, no one wants to be the first to rock the boat. Many groups never acknowledge, let alone resolve the roots of various tensions, choosing instead to try and leapfrog over them, as if by ignoring differences they will either go away or – at least! – not interfere with the ultimate performance or outcome of the group’s goal. Is it possible that the fact of being studied encouraged the team to become more forthcoming and bond so well that they could disregard conventional wisdom about the timing of crew changes and (possibly) even violate gender norms of male/athletic comraderie?

Passion: Collective Consciousness and Coordinated Action

It is impossible to overstate the achievements of this Summit. Analisa spoke of “socializing ideas” and the laws of physics, especially the laws of attraction and inertia. What we experienced is the constitutive power of language: together – the members of the event team, presenters and moderators, and all of us participants – we spoke a culture into being. Kavita Ramdas put it like this: “I just made a community of sisters.” Those 48-hours composed an instance of planning coming alive, as expressed by one of the event team members (whose name I unfortunately didn’t catch).

The Russian literary scholar Mikhail Bakhtin recognized the centripetal and centrifugal forces of language in use. Centripetally, Analisa gathered us together, attracting and holding us in orbit around a central core in order to share vision and perpetuate faith in our potential to collectively come together and generate solutions to crucial problems in order to preserve the planet for ourselves, our children, and theirs. Now, centrifugally, we scatter to the ends of the globe yet remain connected by the extent to which we claim the identities and relationships forged through the cultural communion of living by a common code. One of the beauties of this code is its inherently inclusive nature. Mustafa exhibited this in droll fashion: “I’m not your typical womensphere woman.” Then he exhorted:

“Keep in touch. Stay with the program.”

[i] FYI, I made an interesting discovery while searching for a cool link or two to embellish Shelly’s story. I spent about twelve hours worrying that Shelly had been hoodwinked!  Or perhaps heard what she wanted to hear? (Only because I’ve been known to be guilty of this, myself: its that desire thing. Ahem.)  I found myself in the uncomfortable position of finding several references to this research – none of which mentioned the female coxswain. Yes, the team chose social intelligence over technical competence, but in generic reports the emphasis was on the replacement of one of the rowers, two weeks in advance of the race. In a brief article in the Cambridge’s journal, Research Horizons (2007, p. 30), a “socially gifted oarsman” was chosen over another who was technically closer to the ideal individual performance because of the team’s “unremitting search for rhythm.” This video of the researcher, Marc de Rond, explains how social intelligence – being able to both cooperate with & compete against each other – is crucial to team performance. No mention of Rebecca.

What to do? Embarrass Shelly? Upset everyone? Rewrite the blog so as not to include any mention of this theme or its impact upon us?  Imagine my relief when I read Professor de Rond’s response to my inquiry this morning, explaining the details and clarifying that Rebecca’s role on the team “came out in my teaching more than the actual book.” I am even more intrigued, now!  It seems to me the struggle of leadership is one of calibrating rhythm, tempo, and unexpected perturbations. We need more men like those Cambridge rowers, able to choose the group’s goals ahead of the individual. And we need more publicity and public discourse about mixed-gender accomplishments!

The whole story is presented in de Rond’s account, The Last Amateurs: To Hell and Back with the Cambridge Boat Race Crew. Professor de Rond and I spoke a bit about why Rebecca’s part of the story was less emphasized, and I think there are important points to be learned from this, too.  The two men who were replaced were quite disappointed – as anyone would be who has trained long and hard for one specific purpose. The replacement of the oarsmen was more controversial – and informative, in de Rond’s view – of the importance of social competence even for teams with one hard linear goal: to win The Boat Race. In other words, the omission in the media isn’t only about sexism. There’s care for those who didn’t make the cut, too.

learning resiliency

Sunday, 25 July 2010
western Massachusetts

Did you see the full moon?

Future stories of our first gathering could invoke the mythology of creation. We met on the front porch. Katie warmed us up with crazy tales of personal adventure while Nancy kept everyone’s beverage refreshed. Oliver chose to stay with us. Casual conversation carried us through the initial moves of acquaintanceship until Katie deemed the moment for introductions had arrived. Her seamless facilitation would soon be complemented by a perfectly grilled summer supper. Nancy and Bruce’s hospitality was gracious without pretension. We were at home with each other – relaxed.

Collaboration?” Vanessa’s critique rang out. “In grants they write about it, they have the script beautifully. But when it comes to working together? They don’t know how to do it.” Tim chimed in about how easy it is to become focused on “the Other” and how “they” are struggling, forgetting that “we are just muddling along, too.”  As outsiders, Raz and I spent most of the night listening and learning.

James spoke about creating “a safe space where learning can take place” and the need for “a strategy that is sustaining.” His work on fear and dominance in relation to masculinity linked him instantly with Tim, who wondered about the sense of power achieved from acts of violence. If you take that away from men who are otherwise rendered powerless by the way society is structured, what do you replace it with?

Following in her activist mother’s footsteps, Vanessa argues passionately that “people are just waiting for the moment….They’re asking the questions,” she continued, “but not to the right people.” She’s fighting what James described as his experience growing up in the Bronx: “the expectation that people who grew up where I did would not be instrumental in our communities.”  I recall Katie telling me about disenfranchised youth asking her, “How do we get to where you are?”

“I think of myself as an artist.”  Julie named one of the challenges of her work as avoiding preaching to the choir.  The Performance Project has successfully reached beyond immediate friends and family of prisoners to social workers and law enforcement officials. But did it effect change in policy?  I suppose that there must be an economic rationale to support any change. Tim told us about the “surprising conversation” he recently had with an economist working for the Connecticut Business and Industry Association. He told Tim that business has realized it can’t afford prisons anymore, and is also facing waves of retiring employees. This makes me curious about post-jail employment possibilities.

Meanwhile, in Springfield, there are signs of gentrification in the North End. Formal high school education is emphasizing four broad areas (financial, health/medical, math & science, and media), while the alternative vocational education for those “disconnected, adult learners who didn’t make it” in regular school focuses on culinary arts and machining, with an emphasis on automotive maintenance and repair. There are concerns with literacy, too. In this town boasting thirty different languages, it is a shame that signs in four languages about some specific public health hazards remain unposted. And what is (not) going on that leaves a school moldering in “mold, mildew and water issues” for twenty years?

Power and Transformative Development

In an email exchange about his book, Tim wrote, “the bottom line is always power.” Throughout the evening, questions to me from potential faculty for a resiliency learning lab were ringing in my ears: Who needs what we want to deliver? What are we doing to learn about their needs? How can we meet those needs and still satisfy ours? I don’t have the answers yet, but I was encouraged by similar patterns in each group’s ways of talking. Although, as ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ (among other possible distinctions), we are coming at the issues from different perspectives, we do share commitments such as those expressed by Vanessa and Julie about the importance of people “telling their stories in their words” and “mak[ing] the connection to larger systems.”

When James told about us leaving formal education because he refused to participate in a system that required him to be threatening and punitive, he and a colleague established “programming in a different way.” That’s what we’re trying to do, establish a different kind of structure for multiple, diverse stakeholders to learn together, practice formulating comprehensive images of the problems they face, and – ideally – facilitate a process in which community members develop specific solutions for targeted priorities.

In short, we would provide an infrastructure for “that whole organizing piece” discussed by Vanessa and James (and possibly between Julie and Vanessa in their extended huddle). With the right design, the lab for learning resiliency could be coordinated to cultivate the changing of the guard at the political level, so that people currently living in Springfield (in whichever neighborhood) can be responsible for solidifying the economic bedrock that can meet the new needs of a growing economy. There are so many global trends as well as demographic dynamics that visionary Springfielders could seize! I see Mary’s work on tensions between recent and long-established immigrant Poles as a specific resource in this regard.

All around us there are burgeoning industries in energy, increasing need for practical trades such as demolition and salvage, service needs such as simultaneous interpretation… the ingredients for turning Springfield into a thriving city where recent graduates (young professionals who are highly-capitalized and have no job opportunities elsewhere) and returning vets (who will be back in droves, soon!) would want to live. Give them the right incentives and they will come. Once they come, they will find ways to enliven the city – through small businesses and entrepreneurship. Couple civic marketing with real options for employing the poor that gives them a desirable better alternative to the street and you’ve got a transformation underway.

On this scale, cooperation is vital but does not imply or require collaboration. To achieve collaboration, there has to be more than an alliance toward a particular shared goal. Working together toward the same thing is ultimately only self-serving. The process of identifying and defining that one, “same” thing consumes energy and deflects progress. For a project to be collaborative, there must be investment in each other’s different things. The best example I have from the evening’s interaction is from James’ conversation with Tim about his apprenticeship with a master craftsman in how to work with large groups. James told us about one of his earliest conversations, in which his mentor told him – at age 14! – to go out and “act like a father” to boys younger than himself.

James was incredulous – how could he do that if he, himself, had not been fathered? Use your imagination, his teacher told him. What would you have wished your father did for you?  When you act this way to others, it will be as if it is for you. James’ career as a symbolic parent now spans forty years and several countries. If we were to collaborate, I would have to care that James’ work satisfies his own need to be parented, just as he would have to care that my work satisfies deep needs in me. While that level of relating with each other may occur, collaboration is not necessary for us to become effective co-actors in growing Springfield.

What is necessary is that we achieve alignment with each other. As long as we agree that we are heading in roughly the same direction, then we can cooperate in modeling a learning and problem-solving culture that incubates young leaders and fosters the development of ideas that can transform the city from within. After two or three years and proceeding on for decades, on full moon nights, parents can tell their children stories about where and how it all began…