Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The importance of having the same conversation [Because sanity]

Something has been happening in my feed this election season. It's been tickling in the back of my brain and I couldn't quite put my finger on it. I tend to get closer to clarity by asking questions and engaging in discussion. So yesterday, I posited the following on my Facebook page:

It isn't about the actual candidates, it's about the way in which so many people are framing the discussion. And I think that I see/feel that because I am very personally invested in whether or not we are having the right discussion.

If one person is talking actual policy and another person is talking about how all [people of a certain type] are [horrible thing], newsflash: they are not having the same conversation. This is dangerous because one of those conversations (policy debate) is familiar, well worn, habitual and while tense, comfortable. Talking about hate, racism, otherism and ethnic targeting: not comfortable.

If we don't call out what is actually happening, we run the risk of not actually dealing with what happened.

If we end up with a certain winner, it's not because of how the political machine works. It's because we have enough people walking among us who think Olympic bullying is ok to choose that winner.

Targeting entire groups of people based on their [insert characteristic here] is not the same as disagreeing with policy decisions and being put off by the predictable trappings that come with participating in our political system.

Not the same thing.

And if we can't properly diagnose that problem, we're doomed. I would possibly go as far to say that our inability to see the difference in these conversations is actually more dangerous than the potential outcome of our current media circus.

And so I've been wrestling with this the past 24 hours. And in the shower this morning, the following articulation came to me:

And so, for those who asked what I was trying to say, and in closure to the wrestling in my brain, I give you the above.

Because I've got work to do.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Blah blah blah progress unicorn [Because perspective]

Monday night, the work of the Ferguson Commission reached a major milestone in the affirmation of over 140 calls to action (for a total of over 200) in response to the Governor's charge of November 2014:
  1. First, to conduct a thorough, wide-ranging and unflinching study of the social and economic conditions underscored by the unrest in the wake of the death of Michael Brown;
  2. Second, to tap the expertise needed to address the concerns identified by the Commission – from poverty and education, to governance and law enforcement;
  3. And third, to offer specific recommendations for making this region a stronger, fairer place for everyone to live. 
As I type this, I'm realizing that technically, the Commission has met that charge already. But hold that thought for a moment, that's not the point of my post (yet/maybe).

The inspiration for this brain dump is that even after the months of meetings, negotiations, tensions, debates, research and sheer time that it took to get to Monday night, I must recognize that there is a very vivid 2014 version of myself who is not inside the Ferguson Commission work and who is all "blah blah blah, great. A bunch of people, 300,000 feet from the actual ground, sat around and fancified themselves up a list of 200 unicorns in the form of 'shoulds.' What we need is some actual 'do-s.' Blah blah blah."

So when people point me toward reactions and comments like this one, I have to be like, well, yeah.

But my sausage-making seat inside the Commission work comes with the first hand knowledge that enough of the 100+ people involved are on or have intimate knowledge of the actual ground. Just as importantly, enough of them are also people who are in places of traditional power – a very important ingredient in making unicorns a reality. People whose passion and commitment are on fire. People who are scared and tired and see real things at stake (even when those are material things, the momentum is useful).

I also see and accept that whatever you think of the Governor, government in general, institutional or corporate power and/or "the establishment," they are real and very much in charge. That as empty as it may seem to some, there is an impact when an entity like the Ferguson Commission says something (the 2014 version of me is still screaming "are you kidding me?" while the 2015 version of me is watching it happen in realtime). Also true is that real human voices are very much present in the things being said, despite their semi-governmental PowerPoint delivery. Fast enough, loud enough, real enough, connected enough — these are all scales on which one could argue about the effectiveness of the Ferguson Commission. In the meantime, all the versions of me acknowledge that in a different St. Louis, affirming some of these things on paper in public in any official setting would just not happen.

There is something undeniable to that. The public, organized, sanctioned acknowledgement of some of these issues – and of some of these tangible solutions – has not previously happened. And now it has. Like it or not, sometimes it takes a certain type of people in a certain type of setting with a certain sort of anointment to sit around and argue about something before a certain segment of people can begin to hear it. What's the saying? The first step is admitting you have a problem.

Which brings me back to the part about the end being the beginning.

Make no mistake. Almost 8 months and over 10,000 volunteer hours from people at all levels of leadership, academia and community went into the 200 plus calls to action produced by the Commission as of Monday night. The relationships and understanding gained by individuals who have been working on the issues of our community for decades is in itself a deliverable, a product and a gift that St. Louis will benefit from regardless of what happens (or doesn't) with the Commission's calls. The process is ripe with byproduct. And all of it's not roses. The uncomfortable tension filled interactions and times when people left everything on the table (more of which are to come, I am sure) are possibly the most valuable. St. Louis is very good at niceties. Niceties and transformative change do not go hand and hand.

As I mentioned at the outset, if you take the Governor's charge literally, the recommendations are the thing. And yet the work just ramped up a notch. The Commission now enters a prioritization process, where 200+ calls to action will become something like 20 and then the full Commission will publicly work through that 20 to develop "signature priorities" to anchor the report. Those signature priorities will then move into a translation phase, were the community will work together to articulate the moving pieces of implementation.

The other 200 calls that don't become signature priorities? They are ripe for the picking. This isn't about the Commission. This is about substantive and lasting generational change in our region. A Commission can't and shouldn't do that. The people of our region have to do that. If a Commission and an extremely raw and painful moment in time can be the catalyst, so be it. Some of the calls have already been implemented in pockets, some are very much in line with existing or nascent conversations, initiatives and partnerships. All of them have come out of the brains and hearts and scholarship and experience of people who live and work and invest in this region. It has now been spoken. Let it be done.

Because progress.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

10 things all people can do to maybe stop yelling at each other all the time [Because noise]

It's loud out there.

It has always been loud out there, but it seems the events of August 9th have touched off a new era of Yelling at Each Other. An unprecedented era likely due to things like The Internet and The 24 Hour News Cycle.

I'm not really talking about literal yelling, more so figurative. I'm talking about words flying through the air, taking up precious space, landing nowhere, or maybe landing as a gut punch - but without knowledge, or sometimes with intent to harm. I'm talking about the act of using communication for its most divisive and destructive purpose. Wasting it. At a time when collectively, we are thirsty for understanding and evolution.

With every event, every announcement, every sound byte, every new piece of information, there's an opportunity to listen, to consider, to reach across, to gain new understanding. Each time I find myself deflated as I watch the space of opportunity fill with conflation, dismissal and the digging in of heels. A battering ram instead of an olive branch.

The communication strategy nerd in me keeps trying to analyze what I see happening in those moments of opportunity-turned-brawl, mostly because I've got to do something besides just watch it happen and sometimes I need a break from wading in myself. What are some of the things I/we can employ/accept to maybe grab a little bit of progress each time the roller coaster starts up again?

Because more of the same? No, thank you.

1. Nothing is simple. Well, maybe the only thing that is simple is that everything is complicated. I'm sorry, there's just not an easy answer, a concise explanation or a quick fix. It's. Complicated. So by definition, generalizing will get you nowhere real. The next time you find yourself about to generalize, stop and challenge yourself to find a very specific way to say what you're attempting to convey. You might find that it leads you to a question or two. You might find that once you go through that exercise you realize you don't have anything to add to the conversation, but perhaps something to learn.

2. No name calling 2.0. Let's expand the age-old playground rule to include, perhaps, labeling someone with an ideology, an action or a political party. When you start to put a label on another person that isn't you, stop. Maybe every time you do it, donate a dollar to a cause working toward progress around any of the 20 social issues on the table right now.

3. Speak truth to yelling. When someone is being a bully, step to them. And I don't mean by calling them a bully or saying they are wrong (see "no name calling" above) or yelling louder, but maybe just pointing out that their language or tone is not helpful. Maybe help them frame some questions or things they might want to learn more about. Maybe you just state that they are making you really uncomfortable by using divisive language which leads me to

4. Choose your words. Don't use divisive language. How do you know if your language is divisive? Are you yelling or typing in all caps? Are you repeating the same phrase or idea over and over again? Are you dismissing someone's personal experience? Are you walking into a room of hurting people and pouring salt on the wound with your need to assert "facts?" Are you using words that completely demoralize, blame or categorize generally an entire group of people? You're being divisive. Stop it. It's really not cool. In any of the cases above you might be right, but it's still divisive. A fun game I play sometimes is to try to come up with the least divisive way to convey an idea. It's not easy and I'm sure in the end I always offend someone but without fail the process of trying yields some understanding or new perspective, if only for myself. 

5. Don't take the bait. People everywhere are exercising their frustrations out loud. Anger and confusion and fear are showing up in the form of "debate" - and not nice debate like your debate club debate with rules and structures and a winner.  This is the stuff we've been watching on comment sections and on Facebook. Don't take the bait. Don't get dragged in. Standing up, speaking up, asking questions, yes. Name calling, generalizing, divisive language - not helping. Don't take the bait. Walk away. Pet a kitten.

6. Know your choir.  I believe there is such a thing as psychic space - like digital bandwith or printed space in the newspaper - that there's only so much we can hold in our heads simultaneously. So, know who your choir is and don't waste your energy (or theirs) preaching to it. Emotions are high and energy short. How many debates of semantics have you watched go down between people who agree about the big picture? It might seem a safe space to work out some energy (whether conscious or not), but in these times consider stretching yourself. Find a conversation where you can move the needle, not one where you're moving food around the plate. You're hogging precious psychic space by publicly exercising your ability to agree. 

7. The devil's in the details. What's happening around the country is not about what happened on August 9th or any other date following. It's about hundreds of years of laws and hurt and power and a system steeped in all of the above. Even if no one has articulated it to your liking, it's bigger than right now. Therefore, debating the facts of a case that is not the core issue will not win you friends or influence people or help or open any minds. It will take up space that is needed for healing and change. Understanding or articulating how the system works or doesn't ("understanding," "articulating" not "declaring," "shouting," "insisting"), yes. Understanding or articulating how our systems and structure tie into our day to day interactions, yes. Trying to dismiss the entire concept through the actions of an individual, not helpful.

8. No sides. Unless you are ordering at a BBQ restaurant, nix the sides. Here's the thing: we all inhabit this earth/society/region/neighborhood/block together. The singular side is survival, thriving, health. If you want the violence to stop or the protesting to cease or the system to change, get on the side of progress and put your hands on deck. Get in where you fit in and work from where you are. But this whole "side" thing? Not helping. Human side. 

9. Recognize your station. If you're a politician, getting into a Twitter spat with a citizen - nope. If you're a community-serving media outlet, not bothering with sourcing/selective coverage - nope. If you're an organization, shaming the behavior of individuals and name calling - nope. Sorry folks, with power comes responsibility. No matter how tense things are you don't get to selectively be in power and get down in the mud whenever it suits you. Sometimes you have to take the high road. The rules are different for you. We have to demand that consistency from our organizations, institutions and politicians. Recognizing the same on an individual level is important as well. 

10. Stop throwing apples at oranges. This is a play on some of the above, but I think important enough to pull out on its own. Part of communication that is not yelling is seeking to make sure you're speaking the same language. When someone articulates that they feel the weight of hundreds of years of injustice and someone offers obeying policemen as an anecdote, that conversation isn't going anywhere. When someone articulates that the tools they are given to enforce laws and a system that is broken are inadequate and someone offers the universal use of body cameras as an anecdote, that conversation isn't going anywhere. Maybe resist the urge to offer an anecdote and instead learn more about what someone is trying to convey. Maybe you'll help them express themselves better. Maybe you'll learn something.

BONUS! Leverage love. We fight hard for those we love. By nature, we want to support and understand them. Seek out someone you love who has a different viewpoint than you do and make it your goal to understand where they are coming from. We've all got one (or two) of those people. If you don't think you do, maybe dig a little deeper into those family conversations you keep on the surface. You might know that you're that person for someone else. It will likely break your brain a little - if not a lot. But brain breaking is exactly what we need if we're going to get anywhere new. 

Don't mistake this as a plea for everybody to get along and for it to be all sunshine and roses. Evolution and true growth is hard. It hurts. It's inconvenient. It gets ugly before it blossoms. My plea is for us to begin recognizing which uncomfortable energy is wasteful self-serving gnashing of teeth and yelling at each other and which uncomfortable energy is part of a very necessary very hard process. 

Because progress. Please. 

Monday, December 1, 2014

Watching St. Louis fall to peaces [Because meaning]

Image: STL-Style
"Peace for St. Louis."

The visual that comes to mind is that of a life raft. Everything seems to be going under, but there's this ring of "peace" and everyone's grasping onto it amidst the debris. The one thing everyone can agree on. The sentiment it seems most everyone can get behind. The common ground we so desperately need.

"Praying for peace."

While initially it felt like a solid, unifying message, I soon found myself feeling a little sad every time I heard a word with the root "peace" float out into the ether. It started to feel empty. "I don't know what else to say, what other words to use, so here. How's this one? It's got a long, storied history. A warm fuzzy one, even. And it won't piss anyone off."

Then I realized that in some corners it was being used - and in other corners heard - as a directive. Code for "don't do the opposite of peace. Your city is counting on you, behave."

"I know St. Louis will handle this peacefully."

Then today, as I watched/overheard/texted about the 180th round of "violence isn't the answer/it was a peaceful protest/get off my lawn" it hit me: the wedge is so wide, the damage so deep, that most words fail. We are so wounded, so on edge, so passion filled, so sad, that even a sentiment of the most empathetic intent can get hijacked by words. But more accurately by pain. It's really just that the words are no match for the pain.

"Peace for St. Louis" - No more rioting and looting

"Peace for St. Louis" -  No more hate-filled comments sections

"Peace for St. Louis" - No more blood on the streets

"Peace for St. Louis" - No more teargassed churches

"Peace for St. Louis" - No more chanting mobs

"Peace for St. Louis" - No more illegally operating courts

"Peace for St. Louis" - No more tough conversations

"Peace for St. Louis" - No more passive acceptance

"Peace for St. Louis" - No more blaming the system

"Peace for St. Louis" - No more fighting authority

"Peace for St. Louis" - No more interrupting my normal

"Peace for St. Louis" - Justice

"Peace for St. Louis" - Acceptance

I could go on, but you get the point. Everyone does not want the same thing. Everyone's version of peace is not the same. Everyone's version of peace, to someone else, is scary, offensive, inconvenient, hard.

Words are a vehicle between intent and impact. The impact of our actions - all of our actions - has been exacerbated over the past three months and has made the wedges between us ever wide. So wide that we mostly cannot hear the sound of the disconnect from one end to the other, only the words in between.

I don't have any answers. But I know that I am watching words fly and seeing them land as fuel on the fire when they were meant as a salve. Watching people hurt each other when the intent is to help. Watching people so crushed by the many things brought out into the daylight over the past few months that they have no words left. Hearing the absence of words speak louder than the best crafted sentence.

So many of the expanded definitions of the word "peace" are about the absence of discord. The agreement to stop conflict - not necessarily resolve it. There is much discord in St. Louis. There is much conflict. It is complex, it is deep, it is raw, it is personal and it is not going back into the box. We've said too many things and made too many moves. I don't think any of us want to go back to before, because going back to before means the possibility of ending up here again. And before sounds a lot like a series of co-existining versions of individual peace.

So where to? I don't know. But wherever it is, we've got to work together to decide it, envision it, articulate it on purpose and with collective intent. I don't care what we call it, but we've got to lay that plan out together. Otherwise, we fail before we start.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The 9/11 in 8/9+ [Because parallels]

I've been thinking about this for a few weeks, but today seemed like as good a day as any to try to verbalize how the feelings I had during the aftermath of the conflict in Ferguson felt a little 9/11.

There are plenty of things to point out as not parallel - scale of the loss of life, external conflict versus internal and so on. I am sure many people would balk at my even mentioning the two incidents in the same breath. I am sure I agree with you on a conceptual level. Here I'm talking about my personal experience which, if we've taken one thing from Ferguson, is mine. I realized as the past month unfolded that there was a familiarity to the decentralized anxiety, focused-unfocus, and, well, heaviness drenched in hope.

Something happening in my back yard (I currently live in St. Louis, I lived in NYC then) that impacted me but didn't impact me.

Watching the national and international filter while simultaneously living (some version of) the on the ground reality.

Obsessive consumption of news and information, hitting refresh/flipping the channel/scrolling in anticipation of new information, a new piece of information to help make sense out of something that doesn't make sense.

Having that news and information permeate every conversation - from the personal to the professional - to the point that the absence of a reference could call into question the validity and importance of the entire interaction.

Fear and self-hate fueling words and actions agains and for entire groups of people as if they were a monolith.

People wanting desperately to _do_ something but there being few tangible things to "do" to "help."

Angering and bristling at the theatrics on the back of the pain, confusion and uncertainty.

Feeling guilty about feeling impacted and emotional when there are so many people so much closer to the "ground zero" of it all.

A date/city name morphing into a keyword for an entire set of events, experiences and opinions.

Wanting desperately to push myself that much harder to move through fear and live my best most authentic life, believing that will somehow help keep the collective pain from being in vain.

Monday, January 27, 2014

This is what PR looks like in 2014 [Because basics]

On Friday, John Wheatley, co-founder of Need/Want, tweeted the link to a blog post he wrote about why he is moving his startup from San Francisco to St. Louis.

Madness ensued.

And by madness I mean a flurry of re-tweets, follows, shout outs, welcomes, recommendations and invitations for coffee. Many from some of the most influential in the St. Louis Twitter-sphere and startup scene.

Oh, right, and media coverage (so far) from KMOX, the St. Louis Fox station and the LA Times.

I knew the post was coming because I happened to run into Wheatley's co-founder Marshall Haas's girlfriend Tara Pham a week or so ago while at coffee with a mutual friend. She was putting together the recommendations for the post and the mutual friend is associated with the Contemporary Art Museum - one of the number of places listed as an example of why St. Louis is great - and she was checking on guidance for their preferred photo. Immediately I thought, "brilliant."

Here are some of the things that made this smart and successful:

  1. Knowledge of the existing conversation. St. Louis is obsessed with being awesome. Our tendency to need to play the comparison game sometimes feels too negative to me, but it's what we do. Baseball and beer and pointing out why we're awesome. The startup scene is getting a good deal of buzz, finally, after many years of some very passionate people putting a lot of effort behind its care and growth. 
  2. Distribution by inclusion. The act of including and checking with the locations, organizations and businesses mentioned in the post allowed them a genuine sense of ownership and buy-in before the post ever went live. It made them part of the story with a small stake in the outcome. It was a given that it would be shared and retweeted and cheered. 
  3. Making news not waiting for it. That it had a readymade and public set of distribution channels to land in made it an event independent of and consequently interesting to traditional news outlets. This kind of thing is on the list of things they are looking for. They want in on the conversation too. This scenario set up a situation where the news outlets were coming to them, not the other way around. 
  4. They mean it. This was not a fabricated high-production publicity stunt. This was a person, with an investment and passion for his work, sharing his genuine thoughts on where its headed next. This happened to intersect with a number of very active and very engaged ongoing conversations. Need/Want simply joined the conversation publicly and new how to simultaneously leverage that to serve their overall goals. No shame. A transparent exchange. 
I tweeted. I shared. The tone of the article and the way in which they offered an outside perspective on my city made me interested in learning more about these guys and their company. And in that process I found the iPhone case I've been looking for for two years (seriously, ask anyone who spends time with me about my ongoing dilemma about my "naked" iPhone). Which is the whole framing of their company ("making products that solve problems"). And because I signed up for their newsletter, I'll get 15% off when I buy it later today.

That, I believe, is the exact desired outcome of PR.

And that's how it works in 2014.

Monday, January 20, 2014

When your biracial 5-yr-old asks about MLK [How do you balance The Dream?]

So, this happened:

SCENE: Getting ready for bed. Post-bath. Long day, long week, everyone's exhausted.

Me: Guess what we get to do tomorrow?

Boys: What?

Me: Nothing! No school. We can sleep in and have some screen time. No school because it's Martin Luther King Day. Do you know who he is?

Boys: No.

[Really? We're having this conversation now? I guess I did do this to myself. How do I answer this question? My adult mind is conflicted about so many aspects of this whole thing but this 4 and 5 yr old don't care or need to know. How do I answer this question honestly and simultaneously not become a hypocrite to myself (that only I will really know about but that's enough)?]

Me: Well, he was a man who helped people come together to make sure everyone had equal rights. It used to be that there were things that white people could do that brown people couldn't do. MLK helped to change that.

[At this point my 4-yr-old is jumping on my lap, not really listening to any of this, just really concerned about whether or not the Roku will really pick up right where he paused Oscar's Oasis before coming to bed. My 5-yr-old on the other hand, my ever-pensive always shockingly deep when you never expect a 5-yr-old capable 5-yr-old is staring at me. He's mid-dressing, twirling his curls in his fingers like he does, looking at me. And his brain is working in that way it does when you know he's calculating things you think far beyond his grasp but he totally gets. He does this for about 90 seconds. No ruffled brow, no whine, but not moving, not distracted. Concentrating. And he says:]

5-yr-old: I can't understand that.

Me: [without missing a beat because how can I] Good answer. You shouldn't. Because it didn't make any sense.

And we proceed to continue with the bedtime ritual.

But when it's over, it kind of all hits me. He didn't say he didn't understand. He stood there, in front of me and he did a bunch of calculations and his answer to me was honest. He was unable to calculate what I'd just told him. "I can't understand that."

This is the child who has a white daddy and a brown mommy. Brown cousins and white cousins. White grandparents and brown grandparents. A white nanny and brown babysitters, mostly white teachers and family friends of all shades. He watches Jake and the Neverland Pirates and Doc McStuffins and Dora and the Power Rangers.

This is the child who, upon being read Ribsy last summer, declared that when he grew up he wanted to drive a bus that was solely for lost dogs looking for their owners because he felt it such an injustice that Ribsy was not allowed on the bus without a human in order to find Henry.

So I know he's capable of understanding the general concept of injustice. But the idea that his grandma and his other grandma wouldn't be allowed to do the same things? Can't compute.

And again, I say "good."

But at the same time that I say "good" (ok, no, really HALLELUJAH!), I get a few things:
  1. Reality exists, and "the world" will one day teach him this context
  2. Because of the way he looks, he may or may not have a choice as to how much of and at what level of personal depth he learns this context
  3. Many of the people he loves will not have this choice
  4. At some point, he will grapple with the nuances of all of the above
  5. I am in a position to help him be better prepared for #4
  6. I am in a position to totally screw him up re: #4
So I find myself, on this MLK Day (Observed) 2014 wondering about the balance of "the dream." My child is there. He has no context for racial inequality. So, dream realized? No, because he will go out into the world and someone will impose reality upon him. So, then what's my role? Literally break his brain in order to "prepare" him to face harsh reality? That seems wrong. Drown him in multi-culti bliss and pretend the rest of the world isn't institutionally imbalanced? That is delusional. 

After being so plainly and directly faced with where he is, I feel like my challenge is to support him in discovering his own context: the context of a biracial child growing up in the early part of the twenty-first century. Something that can't be "shown" or "taught" to him because his context is unfolding around us. How to do that? As with all things, the answer is in the gray. Until tonight, I thought I had a much better grasp on where to start. As with all things, it's a process. 

Because progress.