Connecting Across Difference – My Answer to the Question: ‘What Do We Do Now?’

We’re coming up to 2 weeks since the American Presidential Election, when Donald Trump was elected on Nov 8th 2016. I, like so many others, are still walking around in shock, disbelief and in a state of sadness. My sadness comes from the realization that there are so many people out there who are racist, sexist, anti-immigrant, and quite frankly, mean. For me, the election of Donald Trump has taught me a difficult lesson: that I live in a lefty bubble, I have lived in this bubble for pretty much my whole life, and that bubble has now burst.

And at the 2 week mark, my question is: what do I do now? I have seriously contemplated hiding under a rock (with my guitar of course), and pretending this world out there doesn’t exist. But that doesn’t seem sustainable or hopeful. I think we are all asking this question: what do we do now? For those of us who have been committed to social justice work for many years, this political reality can feel so discouraging and exhausting. We thought we had made progress but it feels like we have taken a giant step backwards. So utterly discouraging.

In the midst of this despair, reading Facebook articles and disturbing acts of racism that are becoming normalized, I have been kept afloat by an article that has given me inspiration during these dark times. The article ‘The White Flight of Derek Black’, by the Washington Post (which I read just before Nov 8th) is such a powerful story of the power of connection and dialogue to create positive change in our society. The full article is here. Briefly, Derek Black was born into a family of prominent white supremacists and was completely indoctrinated into this ideology of white nationalism. He went to New College of Florida, a liberal arts college, and students found out that he was a racist. While most of the lefty students ostracized Derek Black, a Jewish student by the name of Matthew Stephenson, decided to invite Derek Black to his weekly Shabbat suppers. This was after knowing that Derek Black had written extremely anti-semetic statements on his Stormfront website, such as ‘Jews worm their way into power. They must go.’ and ‘Jews are NOT white.’ To make a long story short (and I highly encourage you to read the full article – it is an amazing story!), Derek Black becomes part of Matthew Stephenson’s Shabbat community, and they build a relationship that is strong enough to start to honestly dialogue about his viewpoints. Derek begins to question his views, and in the end, he publicly denounces the white nationalist movement.

The article is very focused on the story of Derek Black, which is a fascinating story. But I have been thinking a lot about Matthew Stephenson, who is only featured briefly in the story. In my opinion, Matthew Stephenson is an unsung hero, and I am inspired by his bravery, to consciously invite someone who is publicly anti-Semitic to his Shabbat supper table. He extends a hand and expresses love, to someone who hates him (or fears him). And that connection changed the trajectory of Derek Black’s life in such a profound (and positive) way.

I wonder what gave Matthew Stephenson the bravery to make this critical choice, to invite Derek Black to his supper table. Could I make that choice, to invite someone who hated me (or feared me) to break bread together? How many times have I done this – consciously reached out to connect with someone who doesn’t share my lefty politics, my anti-oppressive practice, my enthusiasm for social justice? I sheepishly have to say, never. I do the opposite – become defensive and angry, turn away, create a barrier, and encircle myself with ‘my people’, those who share my views. But what could life look like, if I was open to real, difficult dialogue?

Maybe change can happen for the good, through connecting across difference and engaging in honest and authentic dialogue. By that, I don’t mean fights on Facebook, but I mean breaking bread with people who are different from us, in their viewpoints and policy perspectives. By authentic dialogue, I mean staying in the conversation even when it gets tough and feels painful, listening with an openness that allows space for silence instead of constant rebuttal. Dialogue instead of debate.

I think there are so many valid responses to the messed up society we are living in right now, and I don’t want this post to invalidate anyone else’s response. We have a right to our anger, and there is a lot to be angry about right now. But for me, in terms of where I’m at, I am putting my ‘eggs into the basket’ of connection and dialogue, where I believe there is potential for fundamental, radical change. If Derek Black could change his perspective and denounce white supremacy because of Shabbat suppers, then I believe there is hope for widespread change.

P.S: I need to do a shoutout to the amazing Colour Code Podcast about race in Canada, by Denise Balkisoon and Hannah Sung. It is through listening to this podcast that I was introduced to the Derek Black article, and I am thankful for this! If you haven’t listened to Colour Code yet, it is amazing, and so important that we openly talk about these issues.

 

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Inspired by the Internet

I remember being in my last year of high school and my father sitting me down in front of a computer screen, excitement in his eyes, saying ‘This is called the world wide web. It is going to change our world forever.” I remember feigning vague interest to be polite, but frankly, I didn’t believe his prediction. More than twenty years later, it is clear that my father was right.

Being on the young end of the Gen-X demographic, I am not a digital native and didn’t grow up online. Even among my age peers, I have been accused of being a luddite – I resist new technology and I have been slow to embrace this seismic shift in our society (ask my partner, who has been pushing me along for 15 years!). However, now that I have a smartphone and am connected to so many amazing folks through various social media (namely, Facebook and Twitter), I cannot imagine a day without the internet. And I am so thankful that it exists – I embrace the learning/teaching and collaboration/connecting that happens every day!

What I love most about the internet is the opportunity and experience of collaboration. Sharing and collaboration has been the cornerstone of what sets the internet apart from its ‘cousin’ screen – the tv. While the tv is one-way communication (we receive entertainment, news etc from it), the internet is (or has the potential to be) two-way collaboration. While we may use it as one-way consumers of entertainment or info, as a tv/book/magazine (ex. Netflix, youtube videos, articles etc), to me, the real magic of the internet is it being a tool for collaboration.

And to go one step further, for me, internet collaboration beats other forms of collaboration because it is open to the whole world, crossing all boundaries of geography, race, age, expertise, education etc. Collaboration through the internet has been termed ‘crowdsourcing’ (See Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crown is Driving the Future of Business by: Jeff Howe), which harnesses many people’s knowledge in order to solve a problem or create something. Another term used for this is ‘collective intelligence’, making the case that groups with their collective intelligence, have the capacity to far outperform individuals. And the theory behind the success of crowdsourcing is that diverse groups (and the internet is the epitome of diversity) outperform homogenous groups. As Howe argues in his book, ironically experts often experience greater barriers to problem-solving because their expertise narrows their ‘out-of-the-box’ abilities. Individuals with passion but without expertise come at the problem with a creative openness to fresh ideas.

The other critical factor of collaboration on the internet is that people are not being paid for collaborating. They are doing it for free. The motivation of a monetary reward is taken away, and that frees people to connect and collaborate based on their internal motivation – to make a difference in the world, to share their knowledge, to connect with others etc. Daniel Pink’s amazing TED Talk “The Puzzle of Motivation” illustrates what research already knows – monetary rewards stunt creativity, narrow thinking and limit the ability to effectively problem-solve.

The example of amazing crowd-sourcing internet collaboration that is most widely known is Wikipedia, where 31.7 million registered users have contributed their knowledge (with an estimation of 100 million total volunteer hours) and research has shown it to be just as accurate as expert-written encyclopedias. Here are a few other internet collaborations that I find incredibly inspiring:

  • Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choirs – Eric started the concept of a ‘virtual choir’ where people from all of the world join the choir, learn their part in a song and upload a video on youtube of themselves singing their part. The videos are all put together to make beautiful music and a virtual choir of thousands of voices singing together is unbelievably powerful! The most recent Virtual Choir was made up of 8,409 videos from over 100 countries in the world. You can read more about Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choirs here, and check out the newest song, Fly to Paradise, here.
  • Participatory mapping projects – technology has been amazing in providing an opportunity to crowd-source geographically, so that maps are created to share information quickly and effectively, and to visually represent our communities accurately in real-time. There are lots of examples of participatory mapping – globally, Unicef is on the cutting edge of using mapping as a tool for social justice (one example – youth mapping environmental risks in their communities). And at the grassroots community level, participatory maps are being created using Google Maps to map out and better understand the underground sharing economy.
  • Sharing science and experimenting together: Michael Rubinstein is a computer scientist who created a ‘motion microscope’ that captures and amplifies the smallest of movements, so you can for example, witness the pulse under someones skin or the constant movement that is taking place in our bodies even when resting. But for me, what is more amazing than his invention, is that he is sharing his code so that others can play around with his tool and innovate further. On his website, anyone can download their own video and virtually try out his microscope to see what motion magnification will do. Through this shared technology, people have seen their babies wiggling around in-utero, their friends move differently (when they are supposedly standing still), and even their pets heartbeat. And the innovation continues.

And last but not least, I am very inspired by the “Humans of New York” site/Facebook page, where a guy named Brandon decided to photograph people on the streets of New York, and he now has over 12 million followers on Facebook (including me). His reach is so far, that when he photographed Vidal, a middle school student from a dangerous neighborhood in Brooklyn who was inspired by his principal (who made him feel that he mattered), people were so inspired that a fundraiser raised $100,000.00 in 45 minutes and $1,400,000 in one month. What started out as a fundraiser for a class trip to visit Harvard (so students can expand their idea of their own potential), has now turned into a scholarship fund for students to go to Harvard! And of course, the first student who will receive this scholarship will be Vidal, who started this tidal wave of social media support.

Asset Based CD – The Importance of Identifying The Bright Spots in a Problem-Solving World

I was introduced to the concept of “Asset Based Community Development” back in 2003 when I got a job working at a busy drop-in for homeless people in Toronto. I had already worked in community work for several years, and was very committed to social change and social justice. The E.D. who hired me was passionate about community development, and told me that she wanted my work to come from a Community Development lens. I really didn’t know what that meant, but I searched out the core CD literature and read John McKnight’s paper “Mapping Community Capacity”. The Asset Based concept blew my mind and challenged me in my work – here I was, taking care of ‘those less fortunate’, literally feeding, sheltering and comforting homeless people who came to our centre hungry and in crisis. And John McKnight was challenging me to step back and facilitate change by building on the strengths in the community. So I did. My self-concept changed, from being a ‘social justice crusader’ to a ‘CD facilitator’, and I began to, tentatively at first, and then creatively, look for ways to honour and foster strengths. I asked the homeless community members about their strengths, and learned a lot. They were happy to talk and share, and of course, each one of them had unbelievable stories of strength. We did amazing work together in a short period of time – we started a group called HEAT, our ‘Homeless Education and Action Team’, made up of homeless and housed community members who wanted to work on changing the perceptions of homelessness. We started a program where we went into the schools to speak with students, all the way from grade 1 to high school, about the realities of homelessness. Students were shocked and transformed through these workshops. We organized an art show, to highlight the amazing art that was done by homeless community members in our neighborhood. The art show was unbelievably successful, in terms of attendance and art purchased as well as media attention. And the pride in our drop-in the days and weeks after the art show was unmistakable.

Fast forward 13 years, I am now teaching Community Development, and my students are really challenged by the “Asset Based” concept. I believe, and teach, that this concept is what sets Community Development apart from all of the other ‘helping’ fields, and stemming from the perspective, CD work is much more focused on facilitating change, leadership and process instead of ‘fixing problems’. When I teach ABCD (Asset Based Community Development), I show the wonderful TED Talk of Angela Blanchard, from Neighborhood Centers Inc. about changing our first questions. Her passion is deeply moving, as she challenges all of us who work in the community sector to change our question from “What is wrong? What is the problem? What are the gaps/needs?” to the questions: “What’s working? What’s strong? What’s right?” Her most important message is “You can’t build on broken.”

I think this concept is deeply unsettling and needs to be consciously considered, not just in the CD field, but to all of us. Everywhere we go, the focus is on fixing problems. Problem-solving is a buzz word these days, in our work places, in our home life and in our approach to day-to-day living. With all of our problem-solving, are we missing the assets, or as conceptualized by Dan and Chip Heath in their book “Switch”, the ‘bright spots’? Their concept is similar to ABCD, that innovations emerge from finding the ‘bright spots’. When we are faced with a problem, we are naturally steered towards analyzing the problem, spending our time and money on analyzing statistics and trying to understand why this problem exists. Instead, finding the ‘bright spots’ means looking for the exceptions to the problem. For example, even though 90% drop out of school, who are the 10% who don’t drop out and why? What is unique to those who are exceptions? What can we learn from these bright spots to understand and share?

Another model that shares the same spirit is the Appreciative Inquiry method, which is a business strengths-based consultancy approach to Organizational Development. Once again, in the business world, AI was born out of the realization that the problem-solving approach is limited and flawed. The AI approach poses strengths-based questions in a strategic change process, to vision and bring out the best in an organization.

I catch myself working from a problem-solving mentality. It is so easy, and prevalent in our culture, that I need to consciously challenge myself to find ‘the bright spots’. This is in all of my work – at my paid work, volunteer work and in my family/parenting work. What I tell my students, and what I need to tell myself as well, is that it doesn’t mean that we don’t acknowledge the needs/gaps/problems. Of course we do. We acknowledge it, and do what we need to do. But, then we move on. We are deliberate about how we spend our time and energy. To truly transform our communities, we need to dedicate ourselves to seeking out and fostering the ‘bright spots’. In doing this, I hope we can make the world a little brighter.

The Value of Waiting / Non-Action

Alex and I have been struggling with integrating Jewish traditions into our life, in a way that feels authentic and in line with our values and who we are. We are a gay, inter-faith family – Alex is Jewish and I am not. We have tried out different congregations, and nothing felt right. This struggle amplified once we had children, and we feel strong that we want our boys to understand their roots and history and feel pride in their Jewishness. So we started a little group this past January, along with other good friends who are an inter-faith couple with a small child. We named our group “Progressive Jewish Families of the East End”, with the idea Our idea that we would get together for monthly Shabbats, and to build a Jewish child-friendly community. We set up a Facebook group, shared it with a few friends, and hosted our first Shabbat.

Well, three Shabbats later, and our little group has grown to about 15 families, and continues to grow! The last Shabbat was wild, with tons of food and kids running around and lots of new faces. I am thrilled – we have made new friends, deepened existing friendships, and we have fostered a Jewish community beyond what I could imagine. So far, the Shabbats have been very casual with lots of great food and wine and celebration, and only a very time focused on Judaism (the prayer over the wine and Challah before we eat). However, what is amazing is that it doesn’t need to be explicit – it is clear that we are all connected in Jewish community (which means something unique to each of us).

What has also been interesting is my self-reflection on my own personal tensions in building community. While I teach Community Development at Centennial College and have worked in CD positions, it is very different when you are personally invested in building your own community. I teach about the organic nature of community, and the need to be flexible and wait and listen, instead of trying to take control and act. Change doesn’t happen quickly, and authentic change, from a bottom-up CD approach, needs to be dynamic and organic. This is great to teach, but so challenging for me to put into practice.

I am a go-getter, take-action, kind of person. I enjoy waking up each morning with a list in my head of what I need to accomplish and then getting it done, and feeling a sense of satisfaction when I go to sleep at night. I used to battle with this, as it seemed in tension with my Buddhist philosophy, but I have made peace with it now. I have learned through the years (especially as a parent!) how to be more flexible with what I accomplish and more in peace with the moment, through my work and my daily life. However, I still love action, the feeling of moving forward, doing more, improving, making a difference!

Our Jewish group has taught me the value (and challenge!) of waiting and hanging back and ‘not acting’, in order to give community a chance to move at its own pace. We had a lull of no one offering to host Shabbat in April. I wanted to offer to host, but we couldn’t because of both Alex and my crazy April schedule. Some of the group members expressed to me that they couldn’t host Shabbat because their house is too small. How to solve this problem? – my mind immediately went into problem-solving mode, and I mentally wrote a list of community spaces that I would call and get free space and we could do Shabbat there! Before I made any calls, Alex (my wise wise wife) said “hold on and wait!”. Wait? For how long? Wait for what? “Just wait” she says. And so we waited. And sure enough, someone has offered to host Shabbat next week (thanks Ruth!). Her house is small but we are all comfortable to sit on the floor or stand. What is most important is that we get together to build community.

Wu Wei is a central Taoist concept, translated as ‘non-action’. It is often understood as “action without action” or “effortless doing”. Wu wei is not about passivity and just giving up, but its about being engaged in the process, and alert and aware of what is happening. Action is not to be forced, but should be effortless. I need to remind myself that ‘non-action’ is just as important as action, and often more important.

*P.S: If you are an East Ender who fits the ‘Jewish Progressive Family’ demographic, please feel free to find our group on Facebook and send a message to join!

Rob Ford does an excellent job in community engagement…

Don’t worry – I am not a Rob Ford supporter at all, and I am as shocked as the rest of you that he is still in office. However, amidst all of the controversy, this Toronto Star article on why low income supporters support him definitely caught my attention –  http://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2013/12/06/rob_ford_lowincome_supporters_stand_by_their_mayor.html. I think this is a must read if we’re going to seriously strategize about changing the voting patterns in Toronto, and getting someone decent, who cares about people and social justice into office. What this article tells me is:

-Policies and politics are too far removed from the day-to-day life of many low-income people to matter. Education on civics is needed at the grassroots level for sure, but more than that, showing people the connection between their personal life and the policies that get passed at City Hall is critical.  Why are you poor, when others are not? What policies or lack of policies has caused you to be in this situation of broken down housing and social isolation? This conversation needs to start happening at the grassroots level, through community leadership, at the bbqs and through the youth centers etc. 

-Community based actions speak louder than words. It doesn’t matter what Rob Ford has said or reported to have said, he has showed community based action, in terms of fixing a wall or putting in a new playground. It doesn’t seem to matter that he voted to reduce social housing despite the years-long waiting list and clear dire need, but at the community level, Rob Ford is seen to respond to community calls for help. 

-Despite the fact that Fords rally to reduce taxes was aimed at the middle to higher income group, lower-income individuals are also enthralled with the idea of paying less tax. In my opinion, the tax system is a reflection of our communal values, and taxes provide a critical social safety net. However, on a personal level, it seems that most people want more money and don’t want to pay more taxes. I don’t think this perspective is only held within lower-income communities. I personally know several left-leaning friends who, while they vote left and believe in social justice, they still look for ways to get out of paying taxes. How do we change this?

-He speaks the ‘community talk’ – “He said to me that it only takes one person to make a difference in the community, and when he looks at me, he can see I’m going to be that person,” she recalls proudly. While we may talk this talk in our CD circles, how often do we say it to people when it really matters? Are we empowering enough? These community members feel empowered through Rob Fords words.

I think we need to seriously look at what Rob Ford has been doing right, and how he has strategically captured the votes of so many people, especially within the lower-income communities in the inner suberbs. If we don’t, we risk a repeat performance on voting day, and another 4 years with Mr. Ford.  

 

Sharing is Caring…

Of course, with two small kids, I’m constantly talking about sharing in my household, and trying to uphold the value of “sharing is caring”. I am interested in how we can carry out this value in our community life, in small and simple ways. By sharing, we are buying and consuming less, and pulling ourselves a little bit away from this individualistic, capitalist society. I have always loved the concept of bartering, but I think true sharing isn’t bartering. Bartering is making a deal – “If I give you this, then you give me that” which to me doesn’t completely embrace the essence of the gift of sharing. To me, the sharing economy includes the sharing of things as well as the sharing of space, time and talent (volunteering). Libraries are all about sharing, and traditional lending libraries have been focused on books and other academic materials. However, lending libraries can be don’t need to be just about book sharing! The other lending libraries that I know about are: Toy Libraries (which I remember my family visiting the Toy Library many times in Orillia, when we were on a tight budget!), Tool Libraries (a new one has just opened in Toronto – http://torontotoollibrary.com/about-2/), and even the Kitchen Library (also in Toronto – http://thekitchenlibrary.ca/)!
We definitely do informal sharing of things in our neighborhood. We don’t own a lawnmower and borrow our neighbors on a regular basis. We own a Radio Flyer red wagon that our neighbors are welcome to take off our porch and borrow at any time. Our neighbors have all the tools we would ever need and we borrow all the time.
We participated in some sharing activity of our own this summer. My partner and I wanted to go to Montreal to visit family but we needed a place to stay for our family of four. Using Facebook, we put out a call, actually first asking if anyone wanted to do a ‘house swap’ (pretty much a barter arrangement – they can stay at our place in Toronto and we’ll stay at their place in Montreal). We found someone who is a friend of a friend (who I don’t know but my partner knows as an acquaintance from childhood), who said “I don’t want to do a house swap but we’re going to Europe for a month and would be happy for you to stay at our place.” We said “Thank you, thank you…” and planned our trip to Montreal. In the meantime, Alex (my partner) went to a wedding in Chicago and met someone (a friend of a friend of a friend) who was planning to get married in the summer and was looking for a small outdoor space to use. She doesn’t have much money so was asking Alex about spaces. Alex said – “Hey, you can use our backyard while we’re away in Montreal if you want?” And sure enough, she did. We felt so happy that we could somehow ‘pay it forward’ in terms of reciprocating generosity and sharing space. Sure enough, all worked out wonderfully. We went to Montreal and found chocolates on our pillow (so sweet!) and had an awesome (free) trip in Montreal. In the meantime, there was a wedding happening in our backyard (with our awesome neighbors pitching in to help with prep and calm down the bride!). We saw the photos on Facebook, sent our congrats through the internet and imagined the love in the air.
Sharing is truly about caring. I am going to try to look for new ways to share, and challenge myself to actively share more often in my daily community life.