Changing the World Through Facebook

January 15, 2018

When Klaus Schwertner (Managing Director of Caritas in the Archdiocese of Vienna) posted a lovely photograph on Facebook to celebrate the first birth of the year in Vienna earlier this month, he could have had no idea that his sweetly-intended routine action would attract thousands of comments and become the subject of an article in The New York Times within a few days.

There was nothing inherently alarming about that photograph; it showed a young husband and wife, with their newborn baby girl, shortly after the child was born. It was, for me, no different and no less heart-warming than any other “New Year’s Baby” photo published in newspapers around the world during the past several decades or posted on Facebook or any other social media platform during the past several years.

This one, however, caused enough of a reaction to inspire Melissa Eddy to write the article that appeared in print and online editions of the newspaper on January 4—because the parents and child are Muslims, and the smiling mother in the photograph is wearing a pink scarf. A version of the article in a print edition carried a headline capturing the initial shockingly brutal nature of many of the negative responses: “Vienna Welcomes 2018 Baby With Online Hate and Racism”; the online version that was also available as I was reading the print edition that morning included a more balanced, positive headline: “Vienna ‘New Year’s Baby’ Greeted First With Hate, Then Hearts.”

Those joining the online conversation extended the conversation beyond Facebook, into Twitter, and the hashtag #GegenHassImNetz (AgainstHateOnTheNet) helped bring many of the online participants together, but the controversy didn’t stop there. Schwertner’s updates included a post expressing astonishment that someone at Facebook had taken down his original post about the birth—in which he playfully called for a “rain of flowers” to commemorate the birth. His follow-up post publicly asked Facebook Chairman/CEO Mark Zuckerberg for an explanation for the disappearance of the now-controversial post, and asked for helping in restoring the post to Schwertner’s Facebook timeline—an action that was taken later that day, to Schwertner’s obvious delight.

“When you share something with the world, you’re sharing it with a lot of people who don’t think the way you do—who have different upbringings, values, and perspectives. If you believe in something, know that others believe in the opposite just as vehemently,” Samantha Becker, an independent consultant and President of SAB Creative & Consulting, noted during an interview we did earlier today. “There is still a lot of blind hate, and you have to separate the downright hateful reactions that have no basis. At the same time, the situations like the one you described…serve as an important reminder that though there has been a lot of social progress, we still have a long way to go. These kinds of incidents should incite more action towards positive change. Sadly, nothing brings people together like tragedy. It takes people’s hope for change and inspires them to make it a reality, in service of helping people they care about who have been impacted.”

There are numerous elements worth examining here to better understand the power of incorporating Facebook into efforts to foster small- and large-scale positive changes through the use of social media. First and foremost is a recognition of how quickly even the most innocuous posts on Facebook can become a central part of your responses to an issue you are interested in pursuing, e.g., the global effort to combat hate speech and bullying in public discourse by moving it into the context of #GegenHassImNetz. A second, nearly-as-important element, is acceptance of the fact that what happens on Facebook doesn’t stay on Facebook: my own awareness of the reaction to Schwertner’s post didn’t come via social media: it was a result of reading a copy of a print edition of The New York Times on January 4, 2018; feeling a mixture of amazement and horror as I read the language used against the parents and the child herself (solely because they were perceived to be different than those posting those hateful comments); using a mobile device I had with me to locate Schwertner’s Facebook account and use Google Translate to examine the source material; my discovery of the #GegenHassImNetz hashtag (mentioned in the newspaper article) and my subsequent exploration of the it to locate and read some of the positive comments posted on Twitter with that hashtag; and a quick decision to take positive action by posting a link to the article, along with an expression of support for Schwertner, the parents, and the child, on my own Facebook account to draw my own friends and colleagues into what had become a global conversation.

None of that, however, takes full advantage of the potential power of social media if we ignore the social aspect of Facebook and other social media platforms. I decided to pursue the social side by sending a “friend” request to Schwertner as a way of reaching out to him to express support and determine whether he would be willing to discuss the situation for inclusion in this book. I’m hoping that our eventual connection will be yet another example of how social media creates fruitful opportunities to produce positive change that would not otherwise be available to us

Equally important is a third element built into any attempt to use Facebook or other social media channels to nurture social change: there is no guarantee that we are reaching those we are attempting to reach. We often have far less control and far less reach than is apparent. The removal of Schwertner’s post reminds us that we cannot completely determine which of our online efforts remains accessible to those we want to reach, and the dissemination of Schwertner’s subsequent messages hides a common problem encountered in posting on Facebook: the algorithms that determine who sees a post often result in those posts reaching far fewer members of an intended audience than expected.

Love it or hate it—and my colleagues and I often find ourselves having both reactions—there is no denying that Facebook is a potentially powerful tool anyone interested in fostering positive social change has to understand at some level. As Tim O’Reilly notes in his book WTF: What’s the Future and Why It’s Up to Us, “…Facebook is the defining company of the social era…it has challenged Google as the master of collective intelligence, uncovering an alternate routing system by which content is discovered and shared.”

That’s a tool that cannot and will not be ignored.

N.B. — Paul is currently writing Change the World Using Social Media, scheduled for publication by Rowman & Littlefield in Fall 2018. This is the third in a continuing series of excerpts from the manuscript in progress.

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Innovator’s Mindset MOOC (#IMMOOC): 461 Words About the #OneLittleWord Challenge

January 3, 2018

I may have been overthinking the challenge a bit after first coming across references to the #OneLittleWord and #OneWord2018 challenge a few days ago on the #IMMOOC (the Innovator’s Mindset massive open online course) Facebook page. After all, how difficult can or should it be for a somewhat self-reflective writer/wordsmith to identify and agree to adopt the one word that will serve as a guide and source of inspiration for the upcoming year?

As it turns out, it was more difficult than I anticipated it would be. Looking at examples from others who had already chosen their One Little Word for 2018—now there’s a possibility: “overachiever”—was daunting: “Adventure.” “Appreciate.” “Brave.” “Create.” “Engaged.” “Find.” “Forward.” “Gumption.” “Hope.” “Kindness.” “Passion.” “Peace.” “Present.” “Transformation.” “Unfold.” So many choices; so little space to house the right one. It felt as if I were trying to select and love one solitary bird when my real love was for the beauty of the entire flock.

“Creativity” quickly pulled itself into my intellectual driveway as an option that always looms large for me when I think about what gives me pleasure. But, somehow, it felt too easy—not enough of a challenge.

“Completion” came knocking at my door soon after I found a parking place for “Creativity.” After all, this is the year when I have committed to completing an entire manuscript for a new book (Change the World Using Social Media, to be published in autumn 2018) for my wonderfully supportive colleagues at Rowman & Littlefield. But “Completion” seemed to be putting the horse before the creative cart in the sense that it focused on the destination more than on the journey—an element of creative writing that I very much adore.

“Exploration” briefly took its place among the contenders as I found myself thinking about how the act of exploring Rich, Intriguing, Inspiring (three more options!) Options (yet another possibility) for the role of One Little Word this year.

“Writing,” “Collaboration,” “Creativity,” “Improvisation,” “Partnerships,” “Friendship,” “Creativity,” “Learning,” and “Creativity” all offered themselves up at one point or another (are we seeing a trend here?), but none of them carried the promise and spontaneity that so often leads an inveterate over-planner like me to the most unexpectedly fruitful and rewarding experiences that feed my soul. None of them felt Spontaneous enough to leave me open to the Spontaneous choices that so fully satisfy me.

Except for the word “Spontaneity” itself—which, of course, spontaneously became my #OneWord2018.

I would love to assure you that, in the spirit of the #OneLittleWord and #OneWord2018 challenge, I will be writing throughout the year about how Spontaneity is leading me down some lovely paths. But we’ll just have to wait a bit to see where that #OneLittleWord carries us.


Hate Speech vs. Legitimate Political Expression: A Wicked Problem in Our Social Media Landscape

October 21, 2017

It’s a stunningly blunt and emotion-laden headline: “Facebook’s Secret Censorship Rules Protect White Men From Hate Speech But [Do] Not [Protect] Black Children.” And the full ProPublica article posted online in June 2017 appears beneath an equally blunt subhead: “A trove of internal documents sheds light on the algorithms that Facebook’s censors use to differentiate between hate speech and legitimate political expression.” The discussion extends into the ProPublica Facebook account (irony, anyone?), which includes a series of slides summarizing how “Facebook has used these rules to train its ‘content reviewers’ [aka “censors”] to decide whether to delete or allow posts.” And there is an additional thought-provoking follow-up in an article (“What Does Facebook Consider Hate Speech? Teach Our Quiz”) published in The New York Times this month.

The articles and that post provide a highly-nuanced, very thoughtful examination of the difficulties we face in establishing universally acceptable standards in a world where universal standards appear impossible to establish—and raise questions for at least a few of my colleagues as to whether we should even be attempting to establish those standards.

Let me be blunt: when I read the six statements included in The New York Times article to see how our own conclusions might differ from the conclusions resulting from those Facebook guidelines for its content reviewers, I don’t see a single comment there that I’m comfortable expressing or defending. I’m not going to tell anyone that they can’t say any of those things, but I’m also not going to remain silent face-to-face or online rather than expressing my firm opposition to those words and other thoughts that are so patently and disgustingly uncivil, incendiary, and destructive; terribly hurtful to friends, colleagues, and other members of our extended onsite and online communities; and in opposition to so much of what I hold to be foundational beliefs as to how we should be treating each other. I want us, collectively and collaboratively, to be seeking ways to make America (and our social media environments) a bit more civil again, and I believe that starts with us doing our best to find some acceptable minimum standards to which we can comfortably adhere.

Let’s start with the six “true-false” statements cited by Times staff members Audrey Carlsen and Fahima Haque, including their up-front statement and question (“Most readers will find them offensive. But can you tell which ones would run afoul of Facebook’s rules on hate speech?”) and the same question (“Would this statement meet Facebook’s criteria for hate speech?”) posted after each of the six statements:

  • “Why do Indians always smell like curry?!They stink!”
  • “Poor black people should still sit at the back of the bus.”
  • “White men are assholes.”
  • “Keep ‘trans’ men out of girls (sic) bathrooms!”
  • “Female sports reporters need to be hit in the head with hockey pucks.”
  • “I never trust a Muslim immigrant…they’re all thieves and robbers.”

The final entry on the ProPublica slide deck provides answers purportedly taken from the training Facebook has provided to its content reviewers, and a follow-up article in The Times provides additional information on that topic. It’s not pretty; as ProPublica suggests in its in-depth article, some of those comments make it past the Facebook guidelines, as users of Facebook must know from reading some of what comes into their feeds. But that doesn’t make them defensible, acceptable, or right—at least to many friends, colleagues, and acquaintances, from a variety of political spectrums, with whom I communicate via Facebook and other social media platforms.

I have the same reaction to those six statements that I had last week to some extremely crude and derogatory comments an acquaintance made the mistake of making to me, face to face, in front of my wife and another woman—in a way that suggested he thought he was being clever and funny: I want to—and in this case did—ask him what made him think that what he was saying was acceptable discourse among friends or acquaintances (although my wording was much less civil and much more crude than the paraphrase I’m offering here). Being tone-deaf to the question, he continued in a similar vein for a few more seconds until I explicitly told him—again, in much cruder and far less clever language—that he could take his trash to a different garbage can.

As I carry that thought back into that ProPublica article written by Julia Angwin and Hannes Grassegger, and the responses Facebook representatives provide in that article, I’m not left feeling that the people at Facebook are completely tone-deaf, despicable, or out of touch with the world around them. One important conclusion reached by reading and re-reading that article is that they—and we—are struggling with some very wicked problems here. I also acknowledge the truth behind one of the many thoughtful observations included in the story:

“‘The policies do not always lead to perfect outcomes,’ said Monika Bickert, head of global policy management at Facebook. ‘That is the reality of having policies that apply to a global community where people around the world are going to have very different ideas about what is OK to share.’”

That article is also very good about citing positive steps Facebook employees have taken when they create their own do-not-cross lines (“graphic violence, child abuse, revenge porn and self-mutilation”) and how they have apologized when some of their decisions and actions (including deleting comments and temporarily locking users out of their Facebook accounts).

But what we’re left with is a classic example of a wicked problem: how to establish minimum community standards when significant numbers of people within a community are far from being in agreement. Which, of course, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

N.B. — Paul is currently writing Change the World Using Social Media, scheduled for publication by Rowman & Littlefield in Fall 2018. This is the first in a series of excerpts from the manuscript in progress.


How We Work: Asking the Right Questions—And Then Doggedly Pursuing the Answers

September 29, 2017

Don Bennett, a friend whose work and play has included making music and architectural models for a very long time, once suggested that we make the mistake of thinking that work and play are two different things.

“Man,” he suggested with an impish gleam in his eyes, “is never happier than when he is picking berries.”

Don Bennett

And although I don’t combine the work and play of picking berries nearly as often as I should, I was thinking of Don again this week when a colleague interested in expanding his writing and training efforts asked a series of questions about what leads some of us to the successes we have. The implicit short form of my answer was to share Don’s advice to make work and play as seamless as possible. The longer version took the two of us down a path of thinking about simple, yet essential, moments and actions that move us closer, ever closer, to the world of our dreams.

When I think about what has given me the moderate successes I’ve had using my writing and teaching-training-learning skills, I think about the unwavering long-term commitments I’ve made to and the decades of effort I’ve put into developing those skills—something Malcolm Gladwell captured so well in his book Outliers: The Story of Success. Writing, for me, is something requiring a very serious, meticulous, dogged approach—yet it also involves a great deal of playfulness.

I’ve been writing since I was a teenager. I wrote daily news stories for the campus newspaper at UCLA, which was tremendously valuable experience in terms of learning how to write quickly, effectively, and engagingly (not that I always do that). Writing seems to be one of those passions embedded in my DNA: it gives me pleasure, drives me to continue working, and connects into virtually every other endeavor I pursue.

The same is true for me in my teaching-training-learning endeavors, the instructional-design work I do, the work I do as a social media strategist, and the consulting work that is fully integrated into nearly every moment of my days of work and play.

I also, as I told the colleague who was asking questions, benefit tremendously from ongoing, first-rate mentoring from very supportive colleagues. Without the support of those fabulous, generous, altruistic mentors—some who are peers, some who are much younger than I am, and some who have many more years of experience than I’ve managed to acquire—I wouldn’t have the breadth and scope of knowledge that I attempt to bring to work and play. With all of this goes a lifelong commitment to learning, accompanied by a rich, ever-expanding community of friends and colleagues who are there to support and encourage me on a daily basis.

This carries us quite a way down the road of responding to my colleague’s questions, and leads to the all-important question of how to identify topics that would be well-received by my (ever-changing) target audience. My own approach involves lots of reading (my friend/colleague/mentor Jill Hurst-Wahl consistently teases me about my inability to carry on a conversation without dropping titles of the numerous books I seem to always be devouring; I can hear her saying “See? See? What did I tell you?” as she gleefully points to my mention of Outliers earlier in this piece). Lots of listening. And, most importantly, close attention to the reactions my work produces (positive as well as negative). A simple process I follow involves identifying ideas that seem worth spreading (very TED of me, right? my influences are showing again), then researching them, discussing them face to face and online with colleagues, and writing about them. If an idea proves productive, I continue working on—and with—it; if it doesn’t, I put it on a back burner to see if something might come of it later in a different context or with a different approach.

A commitment to continue learning is obviously a key element of the approach I take. Every informal and formal learning experience has proved useful to me at some level. Earning a B.A. in Political Science nourished my passionate interest in politics, social movements, community, collaboration, history, and positive social change. My M.A. in Arts Administration (a degree for nonprofit arts organization administrators) gave me transferable business skills that continue to serve me to this day. My MLIS (Master of Library & Information Science) degree more closely connected me to what was and is happening in Library Land—one of the primary countries in which I travel. And the numerous workshops, webinars, online courses (including connectivist MOOCs), and conferences I attend reinvigorate me while also reminding me what it feels like (in the best and worst of learning situations) to be in the learner’s seat; this helps keep me from subjecting others to what has troubled me about how we approach training-teaching-learning-doing.

A final, essential element that seems to produce wonderful results is to be flexible, responsive, and attentive—to listen and then react. Many years ago, when I was looking for opportunities to write more book reviews than I was producing at that time, I unexpectedly met the editor of a monthly book review publication. We were at a conference and were chatting about the possibility of my submitting reviews to him. Without thinking, I blurted out the question, “What unfilled niche can I fill for you?” That led to a number of very interesting book review opportunities I wouldn’t have otherwise sought, and taught me the importance of asking that question of any potential or current client. Very simple. Very effective. Very playful. And it produces enough work to leave me with time to go pick some berries if that’s where heart leads me.

N.B.—Thanks, Jeff Marson. for inspiring this piece through your wonderful questions.


Telling Secrets (Josephine V. Signorelli, 8/5/1925 – 1/22/2017)

January 27, 2017

The following post is the final draft of the eulogy I delivered at my mother’s funeral service on Friday, January 27, 2017. The draft—as all drafts do—differs a bit from the spoken version delivered to the more than 100 friends, colleagues, and family members who gathered to commemorate all she meant to us during her long and richly rewarding life.

Let me share a secret with you. Josie was really concerned about how this was going to go. She and my father [who is still alive as of this writing] had attended so many funerals over the past several years, lost so many friends, that she had convinced herself that no one would be left to attend hers. She kept telling me she was worried that we wouldn’t even have enough people available to serve as pall bearers. Thanks for proving her wrong.

josephine-2012-08-05Our mother, wife, grandmother, great-grandmother, friend, parishioner, business colleague, confidante, and overall playground director had a thing for planning. She and Dad had this whole thing organized years ago, and occasionally revisited the arrangements to be sure that it would go smoothly and wouldn’t be burdensome for any of us. It’s the same way she led every day—every single day—of her life. She had a plan. Get up. Take her pills. Make sure Dad took his bills. Prepare breakfast. Eat Breakfast. Do the dishes. Take a walk. (During Lent, all of this would be preceded by daily attendance at Mass.) Clean the house. (God forbid she should leave home without having cleaned at least three closets, done five loads of wash, shouted “scat cat” at the neighborhood felines who were lounging in her backyard, baked 20 dozen cookies, and started a library. Well, maybe I’m exaggerating a bit on those last items, but that amazing, upbeat Energizer Bunny of a woman could send the rest of us to bed to recuperate from extreme exhaustion for weeks after we listened to her describe what she had done before noon on any given day of the week.)

Her afternoons often included reading time—for herself as well as for the other kids in the neighborhood! Recitation of her daily chaplet. Making sure Dad was comfortably situated to take his nap. Talking with friends by phone. (She and my sister Carol apparently taxed the limits of the local phone company with their marathon conversations.) Getting dinner ready. And after dinner, she was back to reading, watching television, and, if necessary, starting another library. (Ever wonder why there are more libraries in American than there are McDonalds restaurants? Now you know.)

I jokingly focus on the library part of my mother’s life because I know the earliest memories my sisters and I have are of sitting with Mom as she read to us from library books. Making sure we understood where the Main Library in Stockton was and what day and time the local bookmobile visited our neighborhood. (I checked this with my sisters: we may have been the only kids in Stockton who were familiar with the term “Library Summer Reading Program” before we knew who Captain Kangaroo and Captain Delta were on our local TV stations.) She worked diligently and ceaselessly and lovingly to instill in us an appreciation for and commitment to lifelong reading and learning. And she carried that commitment over into the work she did here at St. Bernadette’s, where she introduced at least a couple of generations of the parish’s youngest learners to the mysteries of their shared faith.

st-_bernadettes_churchHer church and her faith were the foundations of her sense of community. You couldn’t be at St. Bernadette’s without seeing Josie Signorelli engaged in doing the weekly readings from the front of the church. Or working with her colleagues in the Ladies’ Guild to organize social events—this was a woman who was a social maven decades before social media came along—or serving on the parish council, or helping to count the proceeds from the weekly collection plates, or or or…we could spend the rest of the day today (and part of this evening) recalling all she did with and for The Church and not even begin to scratch the surface. But an important point to remember here is that her Church was her family, just as in many ways her family was her church. She honored them. She worked tirelessly for them. She loved them. She embraced them. She cooked for them—oh, God, you cannot think or talk about Josie without thinking about all she cooked. And she never wanted or expected anything in return.

josephine-at-st_bernadettes1So, Church as family, and family as Church: let’s hone in on what family meant to Josephine Signorelli and how her attitudes and actions touched so many of us. I believe her parents, her nieces and nephews, her cousins, and other members of her extended family were with her in spirit every day of her life—long after many of them had preceded her in death. In fact, I know many of them were and are—we just need to look around the church this morning and see two of her beloved nieces, Peggy and Donna, who flew in from New York to be with us when they knew Josie was about to leave us. We look up at the altar and see Father John Peter and Monsignor Moore—yes, Monsignor Moore, who was the pastor at St. Bernadette’s for 30 all-too-brief years and surprised members of our family two days ago by driving up here from Monterey to sit with us for a lovely afternoon conversation filled with comforting reminiscences and appreciations for all she did for all of us. We look around this church and see my father, my siblings—including those who, by marrying into this family, were embraced as sons and daughters, not as sons-in-law or as daughter-in-law. We see the grandchildren, the great-grandchildren, her church family, members of the business community who were like family to her.

My wife, Licia, made an interesting observation as a few of us were talking this morning: we often focus on my Mother, and all too rarely explicitly acknowledge the complementary halves of what our mother and father bring to themselves and to the world overall. As Licia noted: Josie was the sun. Paul Frank was and is the moon, fully reflecting and contributing to the brilliance that the sun brings to our world. And I would add this: all of us in this room—and many who are with us in spirit today—are the billions of stars, the constellations that shimmer in a dark night of the soul that will lead us to much brighter days together.

We are family. We stand alone and we stand together in numerous ways. If Josie leaves any long-lasting legacy—and let me assure you, she leaves a legacy larger than the state of Texas—it is the extended family, now spread out all over the country, that will convey bits and pieces of her to countless people who will never physically meet her, but will know somehow they have been touched.

She was unique. She was an inspiration. She was humble. She was persistent. And in the end, when she told us she was ready to go, she left as quietly and peacefully as she could. But she was wrong about at least one thing. She may have returned to the God in whom she so fervently believes. But she is far from gone as long as any of us continues to build upon all she did and cherished and loved.

January 27, 2017


ALA Midwinter Meeting 2017: The Stuff You Don’t Plan For

January 22, 2017

Anyone familiar with the richly rewarding experience of attending an association’s conference knows that the most precious gems often are those we don’t anticipate.

alamw17_logoWe fall into a business deal we didn’t even know existed. We see someone we didn’t even know was there and, as a result, rekindle a relationship. We learn about an innovation that directly and positively affects the work we do. We discover and quickly act upon opportunities to better serve the onsite and online communities we absolutely adore.

everylibrary_logoAnd that, to absolutely nobody’s surprise, is what has been happening for some of us here in Atlanta since the American Library Association (ALA) 2017 Midwinter Conference formally opened yesterday. I know, from the numerous intensively action-oriented conversations I had throughout the day yesterday and today and well into the evening hours, that there were abundant enticing opportunities—expected and unexpected—to pursue. Several colleagues and I, as a result of chance encounters, continued the conversations (inspired by our EveryLibrary co-conspirators) designed to help us identify and take positive, concrete, results-generating action in response to opportunities to build productive, meaningful collaborations between libraries/library staff members and other stakeholders in our extended, multi-faceted, tapestry-like onsite-online communities. These were and are not pipe-dream “wouldn’t it be nice” discussions; each of them ended with commitments to taking small-scale individual as well as collaborative steps that, when combined with similar steps within our extended communities, will lead to community collaborations with potentially far-reaching impacts. (The 2017 EveryLibrary Agenda, on the organization’s “Leaving Our Silos — Coalition Work in 2017” page, is a seminal online document that offers an opportunity to become engaged and is a wonderful call to action for those within the library world as well as to those who currently are not; friends and colleagues can expect to be hearing plenty from me about what this offers us and those we serve.)

signorelli200x300[1]But it gets even more personal. A wonderfully serendipitous encounter in the ALA Store resulted in another sale of the book Lori Reed and I co-wrote a few years ago (Workplace Learning & Leadership) and an impromptu, tongue-in-cheek book-signing for the buyer of that book. Which then unexpectedly led to a conversation about potential involvement in another results-oriented training-teaching-learning project scheduled to happen during the second half of this year. And, as if this were all being choreographed for the muse of publication, I then found myself involved in a conversation about writing a new book—a conversation that ended with a tentative agreement to pursue the project as soon as we can take care of all the elements that are part of codifying a formal contract leading to publication of a book.

The day continued at this frenetic, almost dream-like level well into the evening. More discussions. More confirmed opportunities for positive engagement with members of my ALA professional family. More reminders that, even in the most troubled of times, we never are really alone. And a reminder that the aforementioned precious gems often arrive when they are most needed.

For, in the midst of all this positive engagement, I was also fully engaged in that most horrible, inevitable rites of passage: the impending loss of a loved one.

The news that my lovely, vibrant, dynamic, inspirational mother—my lifelong parent, mentor, friend, confidante, and fellow chocoholic—is in the final days or even hours of life on the other side of the country was not unexpected. (A sign of how much I rely on her: after initially receiving the news that she might be in her last 72 hours of her life, I quickly ran through the short list of people I could call for comfort, immediately thought of her, and then found myself laughing as the words “Oh, wait, she already knows about this” ran through my mind.) She has been suffering from congestive heart failure for several months now, and the options for providing her with comfort and any acceptable quality of life have been dwindling rapidly during the past two weeks. Receiving “the call” from home shortly after I arrived in Atlanta was a nightmare emerging into a darkening day: she was back in a hospital emergency room, where my father and others were onsite to be with her during what a Franciscan friar I know once referred to as “the most sacred of times.” The subsequent calls involving arrangements for hospice care quickly followed. And then the news this morning, just before all the conversations and activities I’ve described in this post took place, that the hospice plan had been abandoned because treatment that might have offered her another 72 hours of comfort were failing. We were quickly reaching the point where we were counting hours rather than days.

When you have two parents who have led wonderfully blessed lives for 80 or 90 years, you’re always aware that each day could be the last. You go out of your way, as I have for more than a decade, to thank them every time—every damned time—you talk to them and let them know in very specific terms how grateful you are for all that they have given you. And yet “the call” is always as shocking as you know it’s going to be. Always overwhelming. And yet somehow manageable because you viscerally understand that, at that horrible and devastating moment, you are right where you were meant to be. Like here, in Atlanta, among some of the best friends, colleagues, and confidantes I have. Caring. Understanding. Sympathetic. And capable of shining sparkling-gem light where only darkness would otherwise seem to reign.

So I’ve had a day of precious gems that included wonderful stories from friends. Plenty of cross-country conversations that had me right there with my family even though we remain physically nearly 2,500 miles apart. Time spent working with wonderfully sympathetic and responsive United Airlines representatives arranging for an earlier-than-expected return to California. Positive paid and volunteer opportunities that I will be pursuing for months, if not years. Just as my mother and father always encouraged me to do. And as I prepare to try to catch a bit of sleep, I relish the bittersweet words a member of my ALA family shared during a conversation earlier today: It’s always the stuff you don’t plan for that has the greatest impact—for better or for worse.

[Deepest gratitude to my former writing coach/mentor Margo Perin, who always insisted that the best writing was that which was most difficult, honest, and drawn directly from the heart. This piece would not exist if she had not led me, nearly 20 years ago, through the process of working through a dark night.]

Addendum: In loving memory of Josephine V. Signorelli, August 5, 1925 – January 22, 2017. She lived and passed with grace.


AEJMC 2015 Annual Conference: Journalism, Supporting Communities, and Learning Online

August 12, 2015

There were plenty of intriguing juxtapositions for teacher-trainer-learners to observe and absorb last week while attending the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communications (AEJMC)  98th Annual Conference here in San Francisco—not the least of which was differing attitudes expressed toward serving audiences onsite and online.

AEJMC_2015--Logo[2]It’s a familiar and sometimes far-from-necessary either-or dilemma that exists in many of our contemporary venues—e.g., printed vs. online publication, onsite vs. online learning, onsite vs. online communities and collaboration—and often ignores the idea that looking for ways to blend those two proffered choices into something much more far-reaching and magnificent is sometimes (but not always) possible.

The context for the first of the two stimulating panel discussions was the topic “Who Will Serve the Civic Communication Needs of Cities?: Legacy Media, New Media and Community Discourse in Urban Life,” while the second, “The Experiment: Stopping All Print and Moving a College Newsroom Over to Medium and Twitter,” offered the compelling story of how a journalism instructor and her students transformed an unread print publication into an online multi-platform publication reaching a global audience.

Given the difference in focus—Civic Communication focused on the roles journalism plays in fostering community at a local level, particularly in urban metropolitan areas, while The Experiment was a success story drawing upon lessons learned by staff of the community college newspaper at Mt. San Antonio College in Southern California—there was plenty to be considered for those of us interested in contemporary journalism as well as for those of us committed to providing first-rate training-teaching-learning opportunities to those we serve.

Iris-Chyi--Trial_and_Error--CoverCivic Communication was a spirited conversation involving moderator Gary Gumpert (Urban Communication Foundation) and five other panelists (Chris Barr, Knight Foundation; H. Iris Chyi, University of Texas at Austin; Sharon Dunwoody, University of Wisconsin-Madison; Peter Gade, Gaylord College; and Jan Schaffer, American University), so there was far from complete agreement. There was, however, a strong foundation laid during the initial parts of the conversation suggesting that media outlets are making a huge mistake if they ignore the power print publications play in fostering community—particularly at that mid-level metropolitan newspaper level of operation. Among the concerns mentioned by panelists were the short duration of visits to newspaper websites (4.4 minutes); research showing that information read online doesn’t stick with us the same way information read in printed publications does; and an overall sense that online content is “inferior” to printed content—what Chyi referred to as the equivalent of Ramen Noodles as opposed to more nutritious products.

Others on the panel suggested that the whole concept of “mass media” needs to be rethought as our online resources provide access to powerful niches well worth serving within markets/communities. Media today, one suggested, are networked, social, connective, and niche; the quality of the audience is every bit as important as the idea of reaching a mass audience—all of which suggests that journalists need a new “knowledge base” that allows them to engage with members of the communities they serve and to foster citizen participation within those communities. It’s a theme with parallels in our training-teaching-learning environments: we continue to seek ways to engage learners and foster learner-centric, learner-driven engagement that produces positive results within local, regional, national, and global communities through our blended onsite-online interactions.

sac.mediaMoving to the conversation within the Mt. San Antonio College session, we heard instructor Toni Albertson and student journalists Albert Serna, Talin Hakopyan, and Jennifer Sandy describe how they responded to their target audience’s preference for online rather than printed publications by taking the campus paper online across a variety of platforms—and how that affected their approach to identifying and covering newsworthy events. Creating “sac.media: College news without the ink,” the student journalists took on a newly-found enthusiasm for what they did, covering a variety of issues, including how journalism itself is taught and fostered. They also carried their publication across platforms including Medium, Twitter (through @SAConScene), and YouTube so they could give each story the attention and platform they felt it deserved. They also were—and remain—innovative in reaching out to their target audience: when promoting stories they believe are significant, each staff member identifies 12 potential readers who might be interested in that story, then uses Twitter to reach out to those readers—a nice echo of the Civic Communication panel discussion about the need for journalists to more directly engage with members of their communities. The result, according to Nieman Lab writer Dan Reimold, is “one of the most daring college media outlets in the United States.” And if any of us manages to learn from and be inspired by what those Mt. San Antonio college colleagues are doing, perhaps our own writing-training-teaching-learning efforts will be the better for our having encountered them.


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