Episode 2 of Just 1 Story is now available and airing. It is titled “The Pay-It-Forward Mentor.” This episode tells the story of a man whose career and life was transformed by a chance meeting. Just 1 Story features stories of defining moments and personal leadership in the lives of people. Do you have a story that has defined your life and work? If so, consider sharing it in the second season of Just 1 Story. Click here to learn more about how you can share your story in the Just 1 Story podcast.
Four years ago I worked with the Prevention Institute of Saskatchewan to help leadership and staff establish a province-wide community of practice. The community of practice was originally set up for people and organizations working in the field of adolescent sexual health.
Of course, adolescent sexual health is one of those issues that is impacted by many other adolescent issues: healthy relationships, substance use, bullying, body image, gender norms, etc. As a result, groups with a secondary or even tertiary focus on adolescent sexual health benefit as well.
Hardly a week passes that I do not receive something new on the list serve from a member of this community of practice. I learn about resources, upcoming training, funding opportunities, and other useful bits of information. Sometimes I even get something that is just downright inspiring.
Recently I got a link to a music video produced by young people who are part of the Kawacatoose First Nation in Saskatchewan. It is a well done video with a powerful message of hope for First Nation youth. Take about 4 minutes and 36 seconds to watch it, listen to it, and feel inspired by these young people.
A community of practice can be done in a way that is so complicated and time intensive that nobody benefits and, eventually, nobody participates. Alternatively, it can done simply and effectively so it will increasingly attract new participants and remain relevant to the needs of the participants. This community of practice from Saskatchewan seems to have evolved into the latter rather than the former. Congratulations to the Prevention Institute of Saskatchewan. Kudos to the Kawacatoose First Nation youth for a powerful, inspiring video.
Be greater. Do good. Everyday. Change forward!
Rural Texas, like the rest of rural America, is often overlooked by the rest of the country. Like my native state of Iowa, much of rural America is viewed as “flyover” country, and of little importance because it thought to be occupied mostly by livestock and farm fields. What a sadly mistaken…and, frankly, ignorant…understanding of rural America.
Fortunately, groups like the Community Action Corporation of South Texas (CACOST) know better. CACOST serves an extraordinarily large part of the state – 16 counties that cover the entire southern tip of the state. For the past several months I’ve been working with CACOST on the implementation evaluation of its teen pregnancy prevention initiative, the South Texas Teen Leadership and Development Program (STTLD). Sadly, this is one of 80+ programs of the Office of Adolescent Health Teen Pregnancy Prevention program that is going away due to significant budget cuts under the current administration. STTLD serves a very rural part of Texas with some of the highest rates of teen births in the state and the U.S. It is a significant loss to the youth, families, schools and communities it serves. But what does it matter? Isn’t it just all livestock and fields down here, anyway? Does any good thing come from rural America? (Read with a “sigh” and eye roll for effect.)
For the past several months I’ve been reviewing the weekly facilitator logs that
document the work of the STTLD program facilitators. These facilitators conduct approximately 50 classroom programs each week, for at least 25 weeks in the school year. Now, let’s do the numbers and see if they are seeing anyone other than livestock. 50 classrooms X an average classroom size of, say 20 (to be conservative, since we know there are few if any people in rural America), equals: 1,000. Now it is true that the STTLD facilitators have to travel large distances to see 1,000 students a week but there are still at least 1,000 students in rural South Texas who will lose the program on June 30th unless something changes.
Each year the leadership of CACOST sponsors a board and staff leadership retreat in Corpus Christi. About 125 to 150 board and leadership staff attend. This is only about a fourth of the number of all CACOST employees in all positions. This is the second year I’ve had the privilege to attend this meeting. Last year I did a plenary session that focused on the poverty of hope experienced by too many people in our country. I was asked back this year to do the closing keynote on working more effectively together. I have come to understand the value and appeal of the meeting to board and staff…it feels like a family reunion and it is wonderful!
While I was here, I also did interviews and focus groups with the STLLD leadership and staff as part my evaluation work with CACOST. The STTLD leadership and the leadership of CACOST are doing everything they can to continue the program because they know how important it is to the youth and communities they serve. What impresses me most about CACOST is that the organization and its leadership are intentional about keeping the people they serve foremost in their thoughts and plans.
Case in point…yesterday several CACOST staff led the retreat in a very complex yet
powerful poverty simulation. I was assigned the role of being a disabled grandpa (Zeke), with diabetes, who was raising his two young grandchildren (Xander and Zenobia) with his wife, Zola, who did not speak very good English. Zeke’s disability kept him from working and Zola had a low wage job. Our grandchildren came to us from a daughter who was incarcerated on a drug distribution charge. One of our grandkids, Xander, dealt with ADHD. His medication requirements and Zeke’s need for insulin, meant the family faced a pretty big monthly prescription bill plus the regular monthly expenses. It was a moving simulation for people in the room as they experienced a full range of emotions including, embarrassment, shame, frustration, anger, and hopelessness. Several were moved to tears. In debriefing the experience, it was clear that it was a powerful tool for helping CACOST board and staff experience, or re-experience, what it is to live without enough resources or opportunity.
Organizations like CACOST are critical to the survival of families in rural America. But is that all they deserve…to simply survive? I don’t think so. Neither does CACOST or the other Community Action Agencies that were created in the 1960’s as part of President Johnson’s “War on Poverty.” I have the privilege of currently working with CACOST and another Community Action Agency in San Luis Obispo, CA. I’m very proud to be associated with these two organizations and to be helping them to achieve the greater good in their service areas. They both know it is not about helping their clients just survive poverty, but to thrive and rise. Both CACOST and the Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo are being impacted by the cuts in teen pregnancy prevention at the Office of Adolescent Health. Even worse, the youth they serve are those that suffer. Both organizations know all too well what happens when we fail to invest in the future of our country and care for those in greatest need. We must never forget…poverty is not a choice. That is the lesson we learned again in the simulation yesterday.
On a personal note…I had a wonderful surprise today when I finished the keynote for
CACOST. A young CACOST staff member, at the urging of her colleague, approached me for a selfie. Now, I’d like to tell you that I get that request a lot, but I don’t. So, I asked, “Of course…but why?” The young woman replied, “I’ve got two of your books. I heard you speak last year but it was only this morning that I realized you were they same person that wrote those books. They were recommended to me by a professor in a counseling class I took and I found them incredibly helpful both professionally and personally.”
Okay, I was shocked speechless. Both books were written over 25 years ago and I had no idea any even still existed…except on my shelves. I was really honored and moved by her request. Thank you Nisa and Megan for making my day!
If you’d like to join Nisa as an owner of these books, you can still find them on Amazon: If Your Parent Drinks Too Much and Counseling Helpsheets, co-authored with my good friend, G. Lamar Roth. I cannot vouch for their condition…I’m still stunned they are available.
Be greater. Do good. Everyday. Change Forward!
Uh…oh…my inner researcher has been awakened!!! You are invited to participate in the WWJD Redux Project.
In addition to my consulting work at Tenacioius Change, I also do occasional research on topics related to leadership. The WWJD Redux Project is a new project related to the topic of ethical and moral leadership. I am conducting this informal study for a possible article or other publication.
If you have a clear memory of the 1990s (though there was much to forget), you may remember that the initials “WWJD” referred to the question, “What Would Jesus Do?” It entered American pop culture and “went viral” as a way to motivate Evangelical Christians, particularly youth, to “do the right thing” which was, in general, to demonstrate the love of Jesus through their actions and behaviors. As most things that make their way into American pop culture, the question became hackneyed, cliched, and even parodied. Still, it came to represent an acknowledgment of the need for a higher ethical and moral standard for people. You can find a brief, interesting article on the origins of the term here.
The WWJD Redux Project seeks to learn how people are answering that question with regard to President Donald Trump.
You can participate in four simple steps.
Decide to participate. Anyone with an opinion can participate. Feel free to share this invitation with anyone else you like. (For your convenience, use the social media
Read John Pavlovitz’s brief blog titled, “White Evangelicals, This is Why People are Through With You.”
Reflect on these two questions:
- After reading and thinking about Pavlovitz’s blog, where are you at in this moment?
- Still thinking about Pavlovitz’s blog, what WOULD Jesus do in this time?
Respond. You have two ways to respond. You can make a private response or enter into a public dialogue with others. Of course, you can do both, if you like.
- To make a Private Response: Follow this link to a private response form in my Survey Monkey account.
- To engage in Public Dialogue: Go to my posts on the Tenacious Change Facebook page (if needed search for the post titled “WWJD Redux Project Dialogue”). Then reply to the post there. If you participate in the public dialogue, please be civil and respectful. This means no cussin’, no spittin’, no name callin’, no wedgies, and no noogies – virtual or real. If you do choose the public dialogue option, at the start of your post, please tell us how you religiously self-identify using one of these four options: 1) Evangelical Christian; 2) Christian; 3) No identification; and, 4) Other – then explain what the other is.
Finally, thanks to my friend and colleague, Mark Holmgren who inspired this project with a link to John Pavlovitz on Facebook.
I hope you take a few minutes to read Pavlovitz’s blog and participate.
Thanks for your consideration and remember to be greater, by doing good, everyday. Change forward!
All things considered, I prefer sameness in my personal life. Okay, actually I more than prefer it. I really like the comfort of my personal routine when I am at home.
I get up and go to bed at the same times everyday; I eat the same breakfast each morning (baked oatmeal – be sure to ask me for my recipe); I have used the same bar soap, shampoo, and other personal products for years; I have had the same haircut for years (of course, having little hair poses certain limitations); I walk our dogs at the same times every day; when my clothes wear out, I replace them with the same brands in as close to the same style as I can find; and my work day follows the same pattern as much as possible when I’m not traveling for work – I do research and writing in the morning, meetings and calls in the afternoon.
Despite this love of routine, I have come to appreciate there are many facets of change, whether it is personal or group change.
Both have been and continue to be areas of focus in my work – from developing leaders, to organizational change to community development. In recent months I found myself thinking nearly nonstop about change as I was coming up with a name for a new initiative I started piloting and rolling out at the first of this year – Tenacious Change Approach℠.
One mostly certitude of change is that even when we say “yes” to change with our mouths and bests intentions, we can say “no” to it with our hearts. We outwardly go along with it and yet we may inwardly resist the change. At the personal level, even when we know a change would be good and we decide to do it, the change does not automatically happen. For many years I weighed at least 75 pounds more than was healthy for me. I knew I needed to lose weight and made several decisions to do so. However, it was not until I had a crisis with weight induced sleep apnea that my internal “no” became a “yes” and I made the change.
In a group setting, whether it is a team, organization, or community-wide change initiative, we outwardly comply with the change – maybe even enthusiastically support it – but, then, we can work quietly behind the scenes to slow the change or even prevent it. We can even be unaware of our own passive resistance.
Resistance to change, whether merely passive or passive aggressive, is frustrating though it is not a form of evil. It is a characteristic of humanity.
Let’s be honest…what do we humans really love about change? That’s right, pretty much nothing. I know…we act like we love it, especially in our professional worlds. Why? Because we want to appear innovative, original, experimental, inventive, cutting-edge, forward-looking, state-of-the-art, trend-setting, pioneering, Bohemian, groundbreaking, trailblazing, revolutionary, unorthodox, unconventional, offbeat, cool, avant garde…yada, yada, yada. Yet, when we peel away all of that feigned love of change we are human creatures of habit. This is another one of the mostly certitudes of change.
Change is inevitable, regardless of how we feel about it. This is beyond being a mostly certitude of change…it is a certitude. We cannot stop change or, as one of my favorite musicals puts it, “you can’t stop the beat.” We only deceive ourselves if we think change will not occur simply because we do not want it.
If change is inevitable, what choices remain? We can choose to do nothing and let the change unfold without our participation. In that case, we will likely be swept along in whatever direction the change moves things – for good or for ill. If we do not like the change, we can complain about it but that will be too little, too late, and quite annoying to everyone around us.
We can choose to respond pro-actively to change. This choice opens other choices to us. First, we can choose the type of change we want. Our basic choices are evolution (gradual developmental advancement) or devolution (gradual degeneration of advances). Then, we can choose to anticipate it, facilitate it, manage it, and prepare for it to happen again.
To anticipate change is to do some forecasting to imagine what the future holds and then decide what change is most needed. To facilitate it is to take an active role, often in collaboration with others, in deciding the strategies and tactics that will initiate change and move it forward. To manage it is to institutionalize the change which occurs to prevent things from slipping back to the way they were before the change. To prepare for it to happen again is to begin the process all over again. Why? Because change is continuous, which is a another certitude of change.
Change is inevitable and it is constant, regardless of how strongly we resist it. Our role lies in choosing the type of change that occurs and in how we assist it.
To be a Change Agent is to be an active participant in change. Even though I like routine in my daily life, my spirituality and ethic compels me to be a Change Agent to make our world a better place for all. As we close out 2017 and prepare to boldly begin a new year, I have a wish for all of us. I wish for us to be active participants in changing our worlds – whether neighborhoods, communities, states, or whole countries – to be places where everyone, can feel welcome, accepted, heard, respected, cared for, and loved.
Be greater. Do Good. Everyday. Change Forward!
This week finds me in Vancouver, BC attending my fifth Tamarack Institute Community Change Institute. For the fourth time, I’ve been honored to facilitate a Learning Lab. Yesterday our Learning Lab co-created a story (actually, more like a poem) about our experience together. It is wonderfully profound and simultaneously simple, making it terrifically elegant. It is titled “Moment by Moment Awareness.” What do you think?
I woke up.
I stopped taking notes.
I heard things I wasn’t listening for before.
It became clear.
Process is the most important.
Process is where the work is done.
Be greater. Do good. Everyday.
“Would you have sex with a person whom you knew for certain had AIDS and your only protection was a condom?” That was not a question I had expected, though I had responded to plenty of difficult questions in the preceding three hours of the meeting. For two years I had been piloting a sexuality education curriculum to prepare it for wider dissemination and replication in public schools. My visit to the rural Midwestern community on this winter evening was to meet with the curriculum committee of a local school considering adoption of the program. When I arrived at the school, I learned the meeting was to be held in a large multi-purpose room that served as both a theater and cafeteria. This seemed an odd location for a committee that was typically comprised of less than a dozen people. As I walked into the room, I realized it was not a committee meeting after all, but a community meeting and up to 200 people were expected. My mind raced to understand what this could mean.
I took a walk through the empty hallways of the school to center myself, focus my thoughts, and calm my nerves. I had not prepared for 200. I did not have nearly enough handouts. I could not understand why someone at the school had not given me advanced notice. I puzzled why so many people were expected to attend a committee meeting that even the official members probably skipped as often as possible. The knot in my stomach told me this was not going to be a good evening and that I had better remain calm and focused. I resolved to keep my comments and answers short, simple, and embellished with only a touch of gentle humor to convey friendliness. Walking back toward the meeting room I passed a large group of people huddled in the corner of the school’s main lobby, busily taking notes, and listening intently to the instructions of a man who was obviously in charge. He would be, as I would shortly learn, the first inquisitor of the evening.
A single member of the curriculum committee finally greeted me. I never did meet the other members.
By the time my host escorted me to the podium at the front the room had nearly filled to capacity. The leader of the group in the lobby was seated in the middle of the front row, surrounded by his followers, directly in front of the podium. My host briefly introduced me. I delivered a 15-minute opening presentation as requested and then invited questions.
The man from the lobby rose and asked in a booming voice, “Do you believe in moral absolutes?” and then smiled broadly, while his followers murmured their approval. I breathed deeply, remembered to smile, and said quite simply and very succinctly, “Yes.” For half an eternity, we simply looked at one other, smiling. Slowly, his face began to flush and his feet shuffled uneasily. Finally, he nervously turned to his followers for guidance, his confidence and certainty quickly dissipating. He mumbled something and hastily sat down, even as others in his group leapt to their feet and began shouting their questions at me as if to protect and defend their leader. Some of the questions were about the curriculum, some were about me, and many were philosophical and even theological. Thus, the evening began and continued for more than 3 hours until a man in the last row of chairs stood up and asked: “Would you have sex with a person whom you knew for certain had AIDS and your only protection was a condom?”
I smiled, thanked him for his question, and said, with a touch of humor to diffuse a tense situation, “I don’t think my spouse would appreciate me having sex with another person.” The man exploded in rage. He jumped up and screamed, “I asked you a question and I demand an answer! Would you have sex with a person whom you knew for certain had AIDS and your only protection was a condom?!?” All eyes flashed toward him, then shifted back toward me to see what I would do. I stood silent for a moment to quell my fear and compose myself. Finally, I calmly replied, “I’m sorry, I don’t believe that is an appropriate question.” All eyes turned back to him and throughout the room I could hear the whispered pleas from embarrassed community members for him to, “Sit down and shut up.”
Mercifully, the meeting was soon over…but the evening was not.
As the meeting was breaking up I was gathering my wits and materials. A woman strode up, stood in front me, glared into my face, and said, “I cannot believe you were ever a minister of the Gospel.” I was stunned and did not respond, so she moved closer and repeated it louder. I still did not know what to say so she came even closer and yelled it at me. I finally managed to mumble, “Thank you for your comment,” turned quickly, and started walking for the door.
Just before I reached the door, a man ran into me…hard…knocking all the materials out of my hands onto the floor. I was shocked to see he was a priest. I bent down to pick up the materials, keeping one eye on my “assailant.” To my surprise, the priest bent down and started helping me pick up the material. As we were both bent over, our heads close together in the gathering work, he whispered to me: “I really appreciate what you are doing and support it. I just wanted you to know I can’t say so publicly.” He handed me the last paper he collected, straightened up, and walked out the door.
The drive home was nearly 200 miles in the middle of the night over frozen roads, and I would finally get home at 4:00 AM. I never once feared for falling asleep as I intently watched the road ahead of me, and wondered what kind of place I had been where I would be accosted by a priest, just so he could speak to me. I nervously watched the rearview mirror for fast approaching headlights on the isolated rural highways.
It was months before I would sleep well again, even in the security of my own home.
As I drove home my mind tried to make sense of the evening. I also tried to make sense of my career move barely two years before. I had moved from a career in religious work to social services, where I was put in charge of piloting and replicating a teen pregnancy prevention program. I wondered if I had made the right move and if this kind of thing was going to be a regular part of the job. Even more, I wondered if I should stay with it. I did. Now, more than two decades later, and many similar community meetings, I am still in the field, as are numerous other veterans of the conflict over sexuality education on both, or many, sides. Since that winter evening I have wanted to more fully understand why and how we provide leadership amid such conflict.
This true story was featured in the opening pages of my doctoral dissertation, which was completed in 2013 after years of living the intractable conflict over sexuality education in public schools. It is a battle for public support and funding that still rages today, having originated in Chicago in 1913.
When I completed the study, I promised everyone who participated that I would share a summary with them. If you are interested in reading it, you can find it here and are welcome to download it free of charge.
The study focused on the intractable conflict over sexuality education in public schools. However, the “lessons learned” in the study can be applied wherever competing ideologies keep people from working together for a greater good. Have we not seen this competition in many community change coalitions, collaborations, and collective impact initiatives? Of course, it happens regularly in politics, leading to the infamous gridlock that hobbles any administration and legislature from leading and governing.
I am not offering this summary because it has all the answers. I am offering it because it may have some insights that are timely, especially for those of us who live in the United States. Indeed, it raises some important issues and questions if we are going to find a way to work together – regardless of our cause and despite our differences.
Be greater, do good, everyday.
For most people, Father’s Day is over for 2017. Mine extends into next week. I am privileged and blessed to claim several young adults as my children though I have only one biological son. Due to my work and volunteer schedule, I was not able to enjoy brunch with him yesterday as we had planned, so we are doing it next Sunday. Therefore, I still have time to post this essay, which I originally wrote about 10 years ago. I hope you enjoy it.
First, a brief bit of background on the essay.
I love oatmeal: plain (with a little salt to bring out the flavor); not so plain (with a touch of vanilla and cinnamon); exotic (with walnuts, apples, craisins, lots of cinnamon, more than a touch of vanilla, and freshly ground nutmeg). In fact, I eat the exotic oatmeal everyday for breakfast. I love oatmeal made on the stove too and I love it baked. By the way, I have an incredibly good baked oatmeal recipe. Let me know if you want it.
If I am ever invited to have oatmeal at your house, know that I have at least three oatmeal limitations, or requirements if you will:
- I am not a fan of microwaveable faux oatmeal. It contains too many chemicals and I worry that a universe-ending explosion will occur when “nuking” it.
- My oatmeal must be made using the “old fashioned” rolled oats, not the ground-to-a-pulp “quick” oats which have no substance, no taste, and no reason for existence.
- I will not eat oatmeal without salt. Period. The salt (which is always listed as an optional ingredient on the box) is what makes the flavor “pop.” Warning: Most restaurants and hotels with the complimentary breakfast buffets do not put salt in the oatmeal. Such an inhumane action is probably not yet worthy of a boycott or class action lawsuit but do know you will need to salt you own oatmeal.
However, it should be a criminal offense when anyone (and you know who you are!) try to pass off the faux oatmeal as “homemade” or “freshly made.”
Shortly after moving to the East Coast, I wrote of my passion for oatmeal in an essay I submitted to National Public Radio’s “This I Believe” segment that was a regular feature at that time. Now I believe they did not care much for the essay because it was kindly rejected in that soft-spoken NPR way by someone with a delightfully inimitable NPR-type name like Dharma Chung-Nunberg. Despite the heart-wrenching, soul-shattering rejection, I liked the essay and decided to publish it here anyway. (Ha! Take THAT, Dharma!)
I believe in the magic of oatmeal. My palate prefers the old-fashioned, whole grained oatmeal, but the magic of oatmeal usually transcends its form.
As a child, a steaming bowl of oatmeal, generously trimmed with farm-fresh cream and heaps of sugar, seemed to warm the kitchen of our Iowa farmhouse. On frigid February mornings the oil-burning stove at the end of the kitchen strained against the toe-numbing cold. Still, the oatmeal warmed me inside-out and the warmth seemed to mystically radiate throughout the drafty house. On those mornings of school bus windows frosted-over for the entire ride into town, I still remained warm and satisfied until the noon bell rang. At the bell, fueled by the oatmeal, I would race my best friend down the steps to the basement lunchroom of Morning Sun Elementary School.
As a young man and new father I introduced my baby boy, Jake, to oatmeal’s magic. Having wrestled him into his high chair and locked him into place, I would begin the
morning breakfast routine. He would strain against the unyielding high chair and vocalize his hunger. I would mix his oatmeal with just enough water of just the right temperature. As the first spoonful of the oat concoction reached his lips he would begin to emit a low “mmm” sound. He would eat and coo as I would whispered to him with each spoonful of his goodness and strength and my love for him. For the next several minutes we were connected, father and son, by the warmth and satisfaction of oatmeal. These early bonding moments have been built upon through the years as he grew and became a man and I, well, just became an older man.
Today, for the first time in my life, I live far from both the farmhouse and the son. Preparing to move from Des Moines to Washington last December I gave away nearly every food item in my kitchen…except my near new box of oatmeal. Upon arrival in DC, I unpacked it and shelved it in a cabinet where I could not miss it. The following morning it became my first meal in my new home.
Middle age demands I eat oatmeal more for its physical benefits today and, sadly, I now must trim it with skim milk and less generous portions of brown sugar. As the morning’s first spoonful triggers my taste-buds, it also triggers my memory. It takes me back to winter mornings in which I remained warm despite the bitter cold. Even more, it warms me with the memory of being a dad. It transports me back to a series of wonderful mornings when my son and I became a part of each other through the magic of oatmeal. I can close my eyes and recall the sounds, sights, smells, and smiles of those moments. When I open them I realize it is only a wonderful memory that will not happen again.
Or will it? Who knows…in the latter stages of my life I may be the one who coos as my son lovingly feeds me my oatmeal. By then, Jake, cream and sugar really should not be a factor in my longevity…so be generous, my son.
“Here’s my promise: I will know your first and last name by the end of the week.” This didn’t sound like much of a promise really; until you consider that it was a promise I made to more than 100 youth, most of whom I was meeting for the first time.
Early in my career I was put in charge of a four-week summer youth camping program. I was barely aged out of the “youth” category myself. (Looking back at that period, I ask, “What in the world were they thinking?!?!” yet, it was a position I held for 11 summers.) Each week we would receive a new batch of campers and each week I tried very hard to get to know each of them by name. Sometimes I was successful; other times I was not. Occasionally, I’d stand before the whole group at the orientation and make that promise. Always, though, even unannounced, I would do my best to learn and remember each camper’s name so I could greet them by it…at least once by the end of the week.
There were two reasons I made this effort.
First, being known by our names feels good. Who has not known the embarrassment of being known as that “other person” or “hey, you” on occasion? Or the awkwardness of being called by another person’s name…even if it does look a lot like ours? Or the irritation of being called a different name that is a mispronunciation of our name? (You can imagine how many times THAT happens to me, especially during the holiday season, with the last name of “Klaus.”)
When I work with people, even on short assignment, I do my best to learn and remember their names – first and last – because I know how important it is. Sometimes, I even rehearse the pronunciation of their names, especially when I mess up the first time. A few years ago, I was working briefly with a woman whose first name was a lovely Spanish name that was nearly unpronounceable to me. I kept Anglicizing the name – not belligerently or uncaringly – but because I just couldn’t get my mouth and tongue to make the right Spanish vowel sounds. She became frustrated and corrected me rather directly. I came home that night, consulted with my spouse on the correct pronunciation (Spanish is her first language), and I rehearsed like crazy. The next day my effort was obvious even if my execution was still imperfect. This experience, which was a bit difficult for both the woman and me, reminded me how important it is to know a person’s name and to get it right.
Second, getting know, and correctly using, the names of people is a simple yet solid community building activity. From the moment those campers arrived, my staff and I had only six days to create a sense of community among them, which we knew would “make or break” the whole camping experience for many of them. By learning their names and being able to use them, and allowing them to know and use our names in return, we were taking the first steps in community building.
Correctly learning and using the names of people is still one of the easiest and best strategies in community building and community change. Each of us can do it and we can do it all by ourselves. The only permission we need is the permission of the person whose name we are trying to learn and use.
However, knowing a person’s name does not equate to knowing the person. This is a mistake commonly made in American culture which values fame and celebrity. Just because we know the names “Beyoncé” or “Lady Gaga” does not mean we actually know them. In community work we need to go beyond just knowing names. We need to know people and we need to be known by them. We need to get to know people as we let them get to know us. This is the beginning of trust. This is important because, as you may know already, change happens at the speed of trust.
At another point in my career I worked at University of Iowa Health Care as a fundraiser for the children’s hospital. As part of my orientation I received a packet of information that included a wallet card titled, “15 House Rules for Service Leadership.” I still have it today because I think it offers some great advice for learning people’s names, getting to know them, and building trust. See what you think:
- Break the ice
- Stop and help
- Take the time
- Keep people informed
- Anticipate needs
- Respond quickly
- Respect privacy and confidentiality
- Handle with care
- Maintain dignity
- Treat adults as adults and children as children
- Listen and act
- Help each other
- Keep it quiet
- Look the part
- Respect our differences
Be greater, Do good, Everyday.
What is the meaning of community for us; each of us, as individual persons? This question has been nagging at me since September when I attended Tamarack’s Community Change Institute in Toronto. It has come into sharper focus for me in the wake of the results of the U.S. Presidential election.
The institute’s theme this year was about the role of creative disruption in system change, which, of course, could also be an appropriate topic for a post-election blog. However, at the Institute, I kept running into people for whom community as refuge seemed important, even if they did not or could not name it as such. On Thursday evening of the event we went en masse to meet with a group of Syrian refugees and enjoy an evening of Syrian food, music, and dancing. It was not this experience, though it was powerful as well as enjoyable, that formed the question that has been nagging me. It was personal interactions with a couple of people at the event.
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One was a young black man from Florida, another American, who was attending his second Tamarack event. We connected early in the conference and shared a couple of meals together. As an act of remembrance, he wore a button with the picture of his friend, another young black man, who had been innocently shot and killed only a few months before. He was surprised to meet another American – especially a very white guy with roots in the Midwest – who did not hold the biases that made him feel threatened for his own life in his own country. He was finding among the Canadians a sense of community that did not judge him by the color of his skin. We became friends and together we experienced the refuge of community we had found at Tamarack and through our friendship.
The other was a young Muslim woman whose parents had emigrated from Iraq to Canada. It was not clear to me whether she had been born in Iraq, but it was clear that she was seeking community and had not yet quite found it. We also became friends at the event and had some nice conversations at breaks and between sessions. The night of the dinner and music with the Syrian refugees, I saw her and spoke with her again briefly. With a quiver in her voice and tears welling in her eyes she told me she had not known of this group that was so welcoming to Muslim people. “For the first time, I feel like I have a place,” she said. She, like the young man from Florida, was finding the refuge of community.
When I was at the Tamarack event in September many Canadians, and people from Denmark, Australia, and other countries as well, asked me what was going on with the U.S. Presidential election. I really did not have a good answer at that time. Now that it is, thankfully, over and I have had a chance to return to my musings about the refuge of community, a narrative has emerged that helps me make sense of the election. It is about the power of community and the need each person has for a community that offers a sense of refuge from the most troubling and disturbing aspects of life.
For American’s in the “fly over” states of the Midwest, this election was about finding the refuge of community after years of feeling like others had taken control of their lives and they had been left behind. I can appreciate that feeling. I am a native of Iowa in the Midwest and I have often heard – even my friends and colleagues here on the East Coast – speak with dismissive ignorance about the people in the middle part of the United States. (Does the same thing happen to people in the middle provinces of Canada, I wonder?) For example, people I know on the East Coast confuse Iowa with Ohio, even Idaho. They assume the geography of the Midwest is all the same – flat and bland – until you get to the Rocky Mountains. Even worse, they assume we Midwesterners are poorly educated, backward, and inconsequential. The 2016 U.S. Presidential election reinforced a lesson that we all should have learned a long time ago:
It is dangerous to stereotype and to allow our stereotypes make us believe others do not matter.
The U.S. Presidential election teaches us a powerful lesson about the need people have for the refuge of community. We all need to feel like we have a place in our community. Let me say that again. We ALL need to feel like we have a place in our community. This is true whether that community is a neighborhood, a city, a state, or an entire country. It is also true even when we consider micro-communities such as interest groups, sports teams, and places of worship.
Though I do not believe it is unique for our time, our world currently has many fractured communities in which some feel “in” and others feel “out.” Those who are “in” feel like the community is a refuge for them. Yet those who are “out” feel like their communities are not safe places for them. The young man from Florida has felt “out” of the U.S. community and the young woman in Toronto has felt “out” of the Canadian community. They remind me that as individuals we will be guarded and careful even as we seek the refuge of community for which we yearn. The U.S. election reminds me that when enough individuals who feel “out” of community finally come together they will disrupt the community and its systems. This is what I believe happened in the U.S. Presidential election. We experienced the disruption of people who have felt “out” of the national community coming together to re-establish it as a place of refuge for them.
The lesson of this U.S. Presidential election is a powerful one for those of us who work with communities. We must always be diligent to establish communities in which all can find and feel refuge. I know that is a very steep challenge; in fact, it may, in the end, be impossible. It looks impossible in the U.S. right now when one candidate, representing one vision of community, handily wins the Electoral College while the other candidate, with a very different vision of community, wins the popular vote by nearly three million. Nonetheless, we who work in community do so because we see a third way in which the whole community can come together to ensure a place where all can know and feel the refuge of community. Our unique gifts and abilities are needed now more than ever; and, so, our work continues.
Be greater; Do good; Everyday.