The Power of Questions

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”- Rainer Maria Rilke – Letters To a Young Poet

I passionately found and read Rilke’s writing over and over and over again when I was a teenager and into young adulthood, and his words continue to resonate for me.

I have been thinking a lot about the power of questions lately, and our relationship to questions. My three year old is at the stage where he is constantly asking questions about everything – how does this work? Why do we do this? What does this mean? He spends his day questioning, and that is how he is learning so much about his world. I try to be patient and open with providing the most (and age-appropriate) response to all of his questions, as well as encouraging his curiosity.

But something happens when we get older – we seem to lose our questions. We become more comfortable with answers, and limited answers at best. We lose our capacity for questioning. Questioning is perceived in a negative way, and interpreted as defiance. Our natural ability to ask questions seems to disappear.

I teach at a college, and for one of my assignments, students are asked to come up with a research question about a social service topic that they care about. I thought it was an easy exercise, until I went into my classroom and my students looked at me like I had three eyes. Overall, they are challenged to develop questions that they want to think about and research. We now do extensive collective brainstorming to help each other with developing questions, but it doesn’t come easy. While most of my students can identify a topic that they are interested in, when I ask them: “What is it that you want to know or better understand? What questions do you have this topic?”, their mind is blank. They haven’t thought about questions.

I have realized that questioning can be used as a powerful pedagogical tool in my teaching. I try to encourage questioning as a way to challenge students to think differently and deeper. For example, once we have discussed and learned about a subject, I ask my students to come up with questions to look up online and dig deeper into their learning. I crowdsource my test questions, asking my students to come up with good questions that would effectively test their learning (at an understanding/not fact based level), and then I promise to use some of their questions on my tests (ironically, their questions are often harder/more complex than mine would be!). I find that while, at first students are uncomfortable with the task of creating questions, once we have done it together a few times, they enjoy the challenge.

Michael Wesch, in his amazing Ted Talk “From Knowledgeable to Knowledge-Able”,  speaks about gauging student engagement by the questions they ask when learning. The typical questions that we hear from students sadly show a lack of engagement: “What do we need to know for this test?”, “How many multiple choice questions will there be?” “When will my assignment be due?” etc… Wesch passionately states, “A good question is one that leads you on a quest.”

The quest is lifelong, through our ups and downs and windy paths alone and together. There will always be more questions than answers, and questions that arise from existing answers. In the words of Rilke, let’s ‘love the questions themselves’.

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.

International Day of Persons with Disabilities

Today, December 3rd, is recognized by the UN and around the world as the “International Day of Persons with Disabilities”, and in that spirit, I want to share two examples of community based projects that I think are amazing, by breaking down barriers – both physical and attitudinal barriers. Both of these projects have inspired me:

1. The StopGap project – Luke Anderson, who is an engineer by trade and in a wheelchair, started making these cool ramps because he was frustrated by the inaccessibility of so many places in the city. He now has an army of volunteers and is giving out these ramps for free to businesses, so they can be accessible – see the StopGap website here – http://stopgapblog.blogspot.ca/. I love especially love this project for a few reasons: 1. It’s Toronto-based so I get the pleasure of looking out for and seeing these bright StopGap ramps in my city!, 2. It shows that a small piece of wood has the power to change our behaviors and connection to place – accessibility means that people make different shopping choices and may interact different with others in our community. and 3. Luke Anderson has not trademarked his ramp and is not trying to make money from his initiative. On the contrary, he provides a very detailed handbook on his website with instruction on how to build the ramps, as well as how to connect with businesses and recruit volunteers, so you can start this in your own community.

2. DanceAbility – http://www.danceability.com/index.php. I have a personal connection to this project, as I used to do Contact Improv and through that, participated in some DanceAbility workshops. I am not a very physically coordinated individual but I have always loved dance – not to perform but to experience it. Contact Improv really pushed me out of my head and into my body, and profoundly changed me in how I live in my body in this world. DanceAbility is about promoting dance for all people, regardless of ability or disability, and through this openness, danceAbility performances challenge unspoken societal perceptions of what people with disabilities should look like or should be doing or not doing. See this amazing video to see what I mean – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fNS106c8iXw. Most of our interaction with others is through words – verbal, and now more and more, through written communication. DanceAbility provides a space for community interaction on a profound and transformative level, through bodies moving and communicating through dance.

Shout out to St. Chris – Happy 100th Birthday!

St. Christopher House is a neighborhood centre located in the downtown west-end of Toronto, and I worked there as the Volunteer Coordinator for 4 years, from 2004-2008. I learned SO MUCH from my time working there, at an organization that truly works from core community development principles. 

St. Chris celebrated recently celebrated its 100th birthday, as it began on June 12, 1912. St. Chris was started by Sir James Wood, from the settlement house movement, and its roots are located in Kensington Market. Take a look at the 100th Birthday video – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wMGda12CPPo!

So many people have been involved with St. Chris over the past 100 years, and I feel very privileged that I spent four years working there. I learned so much, and I want to share just a few of my learnings here:

1. A community centre can and should blur the lines between ‘client’, ‘member’, ‘volunteer’ etc. There is no problem with ‘clients’ volunteering within the center, and this model actually significantly shifts the power dynamics that are seen in traditional social service agencies. For example, the Meeting Place (a drop-in for homeless community members)  ‘clients’ are called ‘members’ and take ownership in the space, of providing workshops to each other (sharing strengths), cooking food for each other etc. 

2. Serious social policy work can and should be done within a social service context – it makes for ‘on-the-ground’ discussion and authentic community engagement. When I was there, we were working on two social policy projects – MISWAA (see http://www.stchrishouse.org/get-involved/community-dev/modernizing-income-work-adults/C) and Neighborhood Change/Gentrification (http://www.urbancentre.utoronto.ca/pdfs/curp/Bringing_People_Together_%20First_%20Final4.pdf). Working on these projects within a large neighborhood centre meant that many diverse community members got engaged and involved with the issues and leaders were supported from within this context. 

3. Inclusive volunteer management is easier in theory than in practice. It is much easier to run a traditional volunteer management program where you recruit, screen and select the best, most educated easy-to-handle volunteers, who want to give back to their community. I was 100% committed to ensuring that ALL community members who lived in our catchment area, was given the opportunity to volunteer. I felt so strongly that we couldn’t call ourselves a community development organization and then turn community members away from getting involved. However, this is easier said that done. I had to convince all the program staff in the organization that it was their job, along with their regular job of running their program, to support volunteers who might face challenges. I feel very proud of the work that I did in this area (and I know this model is still continuing to this day) but it wasn’t easy. 

East Scarborough Storefront – The Little Community that Could

I just finished reading East Scarborough Storefront’s book – The Little Community That Could – http://www.thestorefront.org/ourbook/, and it was very inspiring! I must admit, I only knew a little bit about this organization before I read the book, even though its in my backyard and it embodies the community development ideals that I care so much about. I knew that it was a hub model, where many agencies provide services under the same roof so that individuals can access many diverse service in a ‘one-stop shop’. I knew that the storefront was the first hub model, and now that is being replicated all across Toronto because it is effective and cost-efficient service delivery. I knew that the Storefront was a project of Tides Canada, meaning that it isn’t a legal charity on its own and therefore is released from the burdens of many administrative/legal/operational duties that come from being a registered charity.

    What I didn’t know, and what inspired me the most, is the depth of its commitment to community collaboration and development, seen through its decision-making model, HR policies, community engagement strategies, and work in partnership with residents. East Scarborough Storefront exists to foster collaboration leading to collective impact! Collaboration is critical to solving complex social problems, and so the role of ‘relationship-building’ is needed to keep this process moving.

   I especially LOVE the volunteer model. Most traditional volunteer coordination is done to support the organization. East Scarborough Storefront does volunteer recruitment/retention/coordination to support the COMMUNITY! One of the ‘services’ they provide is a pool of quality volunteers who can help out at any community events or activities that a resident is organizing. Therefore, if you are a resident needing some volunteers to support your activity, you don’t need to start from scratch in terms of recruiting, screening, training, retaining volunteers. This makes it much easier for a community resident to take the first steps in starting a project, knowing this support exists.

   Anyways, I can’t say enough great things about this book. Read it!

Candy Chang again – Philosophers Library …

Another post about Candy Chang, because I have become very interested in her work. I love this project of hers, to turn this old abandoned gas station into a ‘philosopher’s library’ and she’s using a crowdsourcing strategy to select books and have them personalized. Of course, I couldn’t resist! I love books and I love reading, so it was very difficult for me to pick the one book that has inspired me. I finally did pick one, which you can see if book #259 – http://thephilosopherslibrary.com/library/?success=1. Maybe its a little bit cliché in terms of it being a ‘self-help’ book, but I have read it over and over again, and whenever I feel restless and stressed, as soon as I start reading it, I find myself and feel grounded. It has been a book beside my bed, now for 10 years or so, and I go to it time and time again.

So I only picked The Power of Now for this project, but here are a few other books that have inspired me greatly:

-Fugitive Pieces – Anne Michaels – I love this book and have read it three or four times. I’m not a huge fiction reader, but I love the metaphor and writing and the description of Toronto.
-Night – Elie Wiesel – amazing story of resilience during the Holocaust
-Born to Run – Christopher MacDougall – I just read this past year but I felt so inspired that I know I need to read it again. I’m not really a Runner in the capital R sense of the word, but I still LOVED this book

I love libraries, and I am most definitely a super-user of our most fantastic library in Toronto – the Toronto Public Library. Most people don’t know that our local library has the highest circulation rate per capita and is the largest neighborhood-based library system in the WORLD. I am proud to be contributing to this statistic. I love the library for many reasons – not just the books, but also the community space, the accessibility as a space where people can go for free and be comfortable together. But most importantly, I do love the books – the holds system is amazing where so many books can come through the system and into your hands within a few days to a week. Another library project that inspires me and is so local/neighborhood based is the Little Library movement – these have been popping up in Toronto and several in my neighborhood – http://www.littlefreelibrary.org/.

On that note, I am on holidays and have brought many fun books to read – I must say goodbye and get started reading!

Time – raising, banking, dollars

I’ve been thinking about the concept and value of time, in relation to volunteer and community development initiatives. How does our feeling of a ‘lack of time’ impact on our decision to volunteer or not volunteer? Volunteering, in definition, is the act of donating ones time (and self – skills, personality, ideas etc) to a cause. While there are usually implicit and explicit benefits to volunteering (for example. networking opportunities, change to improve a skill, job reference etc), volunteering in definition is about giving ones time freely and without pay or compensation.
I’ve been thinking about this in relation to some other models of citizen engagement, where time is seen more of a valued ‘commodity’. Two examples to ponder. 1 – Framework Foundation has the Timeraiser event – I am a huge supporter of this organization and initiative, which is one of the most innovative initiatives that I have witnessed around volunteering. The Timeraiser is an awesome event – part volunteer fair, part art auction, where participants meet and match with non-profit agencies where they could potentially volunteer. The clincher is that participants bid for art, but not with money but with time. If they win the art auction, they can only receive their art piece when they have completed the time that they committed to.
2. The other example is the project of ‘timebanking’ which exists in USA and Europe, but I don’t believe in Canada. I don’t know a lot about this yet, but I want to read more. It’s interesting to note that I’ve been working in the field of volunteer management for over ten years and have read widely on volunteer practices, but haven’t come across this project of timebanking. I believe that is because it is seen as almost diametrically opposed to volunteering, where time is donated freely. Timebanking is a grassroots bartering system, where time (and skills) is a valued commodity and a medium of exchange between individuals in a community. Timebanking is really built on community development concepts, that every individuals has assets, that assets are far more than just money, and that sharing assets is the key to community building. I need to read more on this to understand.
Is traditional volunteering, the idea that we give freely of our time without the expectation of anything in return, coming to an end? And is this necessarily a bad thing? Has this traditional concept of volunteering led to exploitation, a hierarchical system of paid employees versus unpaid employees within the non-profit sector that works against goals of social justice? Perhaps its time that we look at other models of citizen engagement, one where time is truly valued.