Sometimes the real gift is hidden deeply within the gift we think we have received—or the tragedy we have experienced.
A case in point: a few years ago, a friend gave me a couple of beautiful, exquisitely crafted knives far sharper and far more beautiful than any I had ever owned. Because I love to cook and because I love working with good-quality tools, I immediately fell in love with those knives and looked for opportunities to use them as often as I could. But the more significant gift, it turns out, was something included with the knives, not the knives themselves: a simple sheet of instructions emphasizing the benefits of sharpening those knives after each use rather than sporadically.
So, like any good trainer-teacher-learner, I adopted that tip and applied it to all the terribly-dull, far-less-efficient knives we own. And, after months of after-each-use sharpening, I had an entire kitchen full of knives that were far more useful—and required far more attention and caution if I wanted to avoid inadvertently slicing something I would rather not have sliced. And I also experience cherished, rekindled memories of this friend—who is no longer with us—every time I use the knives she gave me…and all the others I own. As if her spirit had become embedded within the knives themselves.
And, for those of us who find comfort and inspiration (in challenging times) in the work of writers, musicians, and other artists we admire, we have the gift of finding ourselves able to carve out time to revisit that work—and finding the work of additional writers, musicians, and other artists—because of some of the experiences we are currently having.
The result, as I devoured his most recent collection—The Way of Imagination—was to more fully and viscerally immerse myself into the idea of lightning as a metaphor for creativity/creation/acts of creation. As a force that lights our nights. And as a force that carries the potential for and reality of tremendously devastating destruction. Something reminding us of by the double-edged sword of creativity and destruction, opportunity and loss.
The gifts are obvious, complex, and ever-expanding. We see the world through the eyes of one of our master storytellers. We feel a bit more connected to him and to the world he describes. We feel inspired by what he reveals and what he unleashes in us. And we feel a bit less isolated, less overwhelmed, than we might have felt without hm.
Suzanne Lipsett, a writer I very much admired, insisted at the beginning of Surviving a Writer’s Life that what we do with our experiences—i.e., write about them—is as important as having those experiences in the first place.
Living and then sharing our lived experiences through storytelling is at the heart of the communities I most adore. I see it in my continuing interactions with colleagues in the #etmooc and #lrnchat communities. I consistently look forward to it within the context of the biweekly gatherings of Maurice Coleman’sT is for Training podcast community. It’s what keeps me connected to Jonathan Nalder’sFutureWe community. And it is an idea that resurfaced for me earlier this week—and, of course made me immediately want to write about it—when members of one of those communities (ShapingEDU) released a free online “Toolkit for Producing Collaborative Events to Shape the Future,” the third in a continuing series of online publications that celebrate what we accomplish together by documenting those successes.
Formally (and playfully) titled ASU [Arizona State University] ShapingED-YOU!, the ASU ShapingEDU toolkit follows the pattern employed in the earlier online resources: Stakeholder Inclusion Framework, an online inclusivity and access resource jointly produced with the Penn State CoAction Learning Lab to help those involved in the technology planning process, and a second ShapingEDU/CoAction Learning Lab collaborative resource, Building Effective Communities of Practice, which included contributions from more than 20 co-authors drawn from the ShapingEDU community and working together—often asynchronously—online. The publications, like the community itself, are dynamic examples of the commitment to playfulness and collaboration that runs through and nourishes this community of “dreamers, doers, and drivers shaping the future of learning in the Digital Age.”
More importantly, the publications and the ongoing work produced through ShapingEDU are tremendous, positive examples of how some communities entered this social-distancing/sheltering-in-place/pandemic-plagued world creatively and positively and continue to thrive in spite of the tremendous challenges and tragedies we face every day. Thriving because of the commitment to positive action. To creativity. To playfulness. To collaboration. And to looking forward to creating a new and better future without ignoring a far-from-perfect past and present.
And that’s where the entire endeavor becomes tremendously, wonderfully, twistingly “meta” in the sense that the events themselves become examples of how creative blended communities can and are thriving as much because of the challenges they face as because of their commitment to exploring and addressing those challenges. Using both events as case studies, the writers of the toolkit begin with four “top tips”: “Identify your North Stars” in terms of what those guiding stars are for your event; “Foster Interaction” by creating “spaces and mechanisms for community members to connect”—connections are the center of the ShapingEDU universe; “Set Everyone up for Success” by setting expectations and making every possible effort to “empower the community with resources, templates, support systems and clear instructions”; and “Tell Your Story…though focused emails, social media, and multimedia” along with graphic facilitation as “a co-creation tool.”
The case study centered around the unconferences takes us engagingly through the process of setting the stage through interactive exercises before the events even begin: community members submitting questions/suggestions, community members being invited to serve as event participants/designers/facilitators—and much more. The importance of fostering high levels of face-to-face and/or online interactions that are meaningful to participants and conducive to achieving the concrete goals the gatherings are designed to pursue. And the need to end the gatherings with a significant, community-developed catalyzing action (e.g., a communique that serves as a roadmap for continuing collaboration) that offers everyone a clear view of how the event fits into the community’s long-term, results-oriented work.
Moving into the theme of “community camp” as a way to energize changemakers and catalyze action, the Learning(Hu)Man virtual summer camp becomes another inspiring story for any teacher-trainer-learner seeking ways to creatively foster productive, positive learning experiences within the learning communities we serve. The combination of tips, photos, screenshots, and descriptions provides a concise roadmap that can easily be adapted for use by a variety of educator-trainer-learning activists.
And, in the spirt of collaboration and resource-sharing that is at the heart of this publication, it concludes with an invitation to contact ShapingEDU community members for further information and opportunities for collaboration—which is, when you think about it, the greatest gift of all to anyone struggling to survive and thrive in a rapidly-changing topsy-turvy pandemic-driven world.
My re-immersion into the arts has also brought me into contact with the work of wonderful singer-songwriter-satirists like Roy Zimmerman, who in the most dazzling yet down-to-earth ways mixes humor, biting social satire, and a sense of humanity that runs deeper than any river upon which I have ever rafted. Watching videos that capture his work spanning nearly a couple of decades has given me a strong appreciation for what he does and offers. Seeing some of his latest videos—including new, powerfully poignant collaborations along the lines of what he does in “Driving While Black” with Clovice Lewis, Jr. and the two versions he has recorded of “The Liar Tweets Tonight”—suggests to me that no matter how much recognition he receives for his work, he will always deserve even more. And catching a few of his free online “Live from the Left Coast” concerts over the past few weeks on Facebook and YouTube makes me wonder what rock I have been sleeping under while he has been out there entertainingly, provocatively, and lovingly shining light so effectively where it needs to be shone, how I could have missed, for so long, wonderful songs like “I Approve This Message,” which is as funny, poignant, and moving a song as any “protest” song I have ever heard, with its litany of “I ams” beginning with “I am the doughnut lady, I am the civil engineer, I am the tractor salesman who is a stand-up comic at his own daughter’s wedding…” and becoming more engaging as the song continues.
What has been most rewarding and transformative, however, is spotting the artistry in places where I usually do not seek it, as in letters from friends and colleagues. Those letters, like the one I received via email a couple of days ago from someone who is married to a firefighter in a rural part of Northern California devastated by wildfires, absolutely floor me through their combination of honesty, poignancy, and razer-sharp focus. They remind me of the inner artist each of us carriers and so often fails to take the time to nurture. And they further awaken the storyteller in me who wants to highlight other people’s stories as much as, if not more than, I tend to highlight my own.
With that in mind, I contacted the friend for permission to reprint a lightly-edited version of her story here—edited not because it needed any sort of rewriting, but because she and her husband are incredibly private people who do not, in any way, want to call attention to themselves at a time when so many others need our attention and support. The edits, therefore, remove references by specific name to the people she is describing and to the area in which they are living. But even with those omissions, the piece stands out to me as an example of the “…and I am…” approach Zimmerman adopts in singing about those people we mistakenly think of as “average Americans” when, in reality, they are so much more than the word “average” can ever begin to convey:
“It’s been an absolute life-changing devastation for almost everyone in our lives. And it’s so layered it’s hard to stay focused these days. My husband’s parents lost absolutely everything. He and I and his sister had a lot of belongings there too because we all still had our two “bedrooms” to stay in while visiting and store stuff. Not to mention all their childhood stuff. All the pictures and mementos. Not to mention hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of items and equipment and vehicles. They had been in that house for over 30 years. When the house got surrounded and his parents had left, my husband got there right after and tried to turn the sprinklers on, but the power was out, so the water pump wouldn’t work. My heart aches for him having to watch it all go up. And then he had to watch his aunt and uncle’s house go up. His dad’s sister and husband’s. And then watch all of our friends lose all of their homes. He was working with four of our close friends who are also firefighters, and they all lost their homes too. I believe two lives (an older gentleman who wouldn’t leave his home, and a lady who got trapped) and 150+ houses were lost so far.
“So much has been lost. There are so many displaced families and people. So many people with just the shirts on their backs. And, sadly, many people down there couldn’t afford fire insurance, so that adds a whole other problem to the list of problems. Almost everyone we know with family and friends is completely homeless. So many animals lost, too, which is absolutely heartbreaking. Many died and many are just missing. Thankfully, people from local agencies have gone down, collected, and are housing a lot of displaced animals until they can reunite.
“It’s an absolute chaotic nightmare. But there’s some things to be thankful for as well. My mother and her husband have not lost anything so far. And I’m so happy everyone we know and love is safe and alive. Stuff is just stuff. Lives matter more and cannot be replaced. If that had happened in the middle of the night on that one way in-one way out creek road, in the dark, people confused from sleep, in a fire going 50+ mph, it could have been even worse. When we lose one or two people in town it’s horrific. But to think we could have 20-30+ people missing or dead right now would make it so much worse. And to see everyone help one another and pull together brings hope. We can always rebuild.
“There’s so much hurt right now, I’m trying to just stay focused on my husband. Because he’s my priority, and I know how much family and friends mean to him, and he’s the biggest softie sweetie in the world. He’s being exceptionally hard on himself, feeling like as a firefighter he should have been able to save everything or anything. Feels like he’s failed his whole family and all our friends. But he’s so exhausted he hasn’t had a moment to process or grieve in any way. And everyone grieves differently, so I just have to give him time. He worked for over 40 hours straight before finally getting four hours of sleep. Hopefully, he will get a little more tonight.”
I devour Sanders’ work. I sink into Zimmerman’s music. And I immerse myself into my friend’s powerful description of how the current wildfires are affecting her and the people around her. And because they all are so compelling in their ability to capture essential truths and inspire empathy, Zimmerman’s refrain “…and I am…” makes me more of whom I am than I otherwise would be.
I’m sensing growth. Rapid change and evolution. A blossoming of gorgeous flowers that were aching to unfold their petals, reach for the sun, and revel in a summer day they suspected that they would, one day, experience—even if they lacked a sense of when that day would ultimately arrive. It’s the sort of blossoming that we can never fully anticipate in all its myriad permutations. The sort of blossoming we question while it is actually underway. But when it does arrive, it is clear. Tangible. And nothing around it will ever seem the same to any of us present for the wonderfully explosive moment.
The tremendously engaging and wonderfully transformative activities have been overwhelming positive and well worth describing even if at only the most cursory of levels—you’ll be able to more fully see and experience some of those events and activities online as members of the Camp Team continue posting recordings on the ShapingEDU Community YouTube channel. The real story well worth telling late this evening is how the ShapingEDU community is rapidly becoming so much more than any of us thought it might become even a few months ago.
It’s the sort of community that under expert leadership and with a firm commitment to collaborative effort and action produces the kind of extraordinary day we have had again today. It began with an early-morning breakfast in the virtual Mess Hall—a Zoom meeting room created as a gathering place for camper-colleagues interested in beginning-of-day breakfast and warm-up activities. That Mess Hall gathering today included an exploration of mindfulness combined with a brief yoga session led in that online environment by wonderful facilitators, and was followed immediately by a dynamic panel discussion exploring “The Rise of the Digital Campus.”
The community is also one that produces the daily Learning(Hu)Man sessions along the lines of what we were able to chose from today: explorations of Slack in collaborative learning, Zoom as a learning platform, storytelling in learning, and so much more. Deciding to begin my dive into those sessions by attending one (“Surfing Chaos: Narratives Across the Digital Divide”) facilitated by my fellow ShapingEDU Storyteller in ResidenceTom Haymes, I again found myself learning in layers: Tom’s amazing ability to lead us through some explorations of how to tell the stories we need to tell to promote the best possible responses to teachers’ and learners’ struggles with the rapid transformation of onsite learning into online learning for so many contemporary learners was layered over demonstrations of and hands-on experience with how to effectively use online collaborative tools such as Google docs to fast-forward discussions and planning sessions we need to be completing now. The result is that we walked away with usable ideas and, at the same time, had begun developing relationships with colleagues with whom we can continue to learn and work long after this first offering of Learning(Hu)Man formally concludes four days from now.
[Image by Karina Branson/ConverSketch]
This is also a community that, even though firmly grounded in a commitment to effectively incorporating educational technology into lifelong learning while never losing its learner-centric approach, seems to be in the middle of an important pivotal moment—that moment in which we are overtly acknowledging and beginning to grapple with some of the toughest social challenges facing anyone involved in lifelong learning. That became a bit more clear to me as I sat through the third of the three end-of-day plenary sessions Learning(Hu)Man has offered during the current virtual conference. The first plenary session—two days ago—was centered around a highly-interactive panel discussion on the theme of “Digital Equity, Social + Racial Justice”—something far removed from the sort of tech-based sessions which have been a staple of our previous ShapingEDU onsite gatherings and online offerings in the form of webinars. The session late this afternoon was equally compelling, thoughtful, and inspiring: “Digital Education and Tribal Rights,” a session masterfully led by Leah Gazan, Matt Rantanen, Traci Morris, and Brian McKinley Jones Brayboy. They framed what easily could have been an educational-technology conversation much more deeply—in terms of Internet access as a “human rights issue,” something integrally intertwined with the issue of “sovereignty” for indigenous peoples, and centered on “self-determination” as those lacking access to work and learning opportunities online work together to gain that access. Listening to them and briefly interacting with them within Zoom provided an expansion of the reach of the ShapingEDU I had really not seen coming even though I’ve seen several of us, over the past few months, taking on challenges including seeking solutions to the student debt crisis and fostering universal broadband access for work and learning throughout the United States.
[Image by Karina Branson/ConverSketch]
Rather than immediately following my fellow campers into the evening play and entertainment session, I stepped away from camp long enough to meet a friend here in San Francisco. As I returned home and made a spur-of-the-moment decision to join the last portion of the evening activity—a live concert, via Zoom, featuring several performers—I continued thinking about how completely immersive and transformative Learning(Hu)man has been in its first few days. And as I settled in to watch the last few performers, I again began chatting (through the chat window Zoom provides) with other campers who were attending that lovely series of performances—having exactly the sort of chats I would have had face-to-face with colleagues at any of the onsite conferences I have ever attended. And as we continued to chat and enjoy the music, I realized how completely the Learning(Hu)Man summer camp was providing the same richly rewarding experiences I have had onsite—which prompted me to remark to a colleague (via chat) that after this week of camping out at Learning(Hu)Man, I’m not going to be at all patient with anyone who tries to tell me we can’t be completely engaged, moved, and together in online settings. The comment drew agreement from a few others, and then we turned our attention back to one of the performers, who had just sung the line “Your purple mountain majesty is only for the free…”—a wonderfully poetic line that somehow seemed to fit right in with all the attention we had increasingly been giving to the social-issue side of the work we are pursuing together. That, in turn, prompted me to float the idea, in the ongoing chat, about how rapidly this community seems to be evolving/maturing. At which point the singer, Terra Naomi, was drawing to the end of a song that included the line “I believe in love more than I want to hate.” And then Walt Richardson took the virtual stage to sing “Light Revolution” (a song written by his brother), which made me think even more about the “revolution” I am sensing in this community.
The ongoing backchannel discussion quickly led me to respond to a colleague’s comment about our last community gathering, just days before many of us began officially sheltering in place in March 2020, with the observation that the moment when our last onsite gathering switched overnight into an online gathering “came at such a difficult time for so many people [and] really set the tone for much of happiness and success I’ve had in spite of and because of sheltering in place. We might, at some point, look back and see that as a pivotal moment–at many levels–in the development (at light speed) of this community and other dynamically blended, creative communities.
“When I’m at onsite conferences, I attend sessions, sometimes facilitate sessions, have hallway conversations (like we are having here and now), share meals, sometimes draft some writing while sitting with others and then stay up late fine-tuning fragments into blog pieces—just like I’m doing right now [and continued to do well after midnight to finish this piece before going back to camp in the morning].
“I suspect my next ‘letter home from camp’ is going to feel somewhat familiar to anyone watching this rough draft of it taking shape here in a chat window….And, being really meta about this: I often thought it was fun to watch writers who would sit in bookstore windows and write as people walked by and watched a bit of the creative process in progress…and here I am, knowing I’m on camera, writing in front of colleagues without the slightest bit of self-consciousness.”
At which point I began to laugh, because Walt had just sung the line “there will never be a time so right,” prompting me to add to the chat: “See? Now even Walt has worked his way into the piece-in-progress. It’s all about timing.”
His final song, “Love Wings,” seemed to hold all of us spellbound, but I broke away from the spell long enough to react to the line “We’ve got to share our battle scars” and observe that “it feels as if Walt is offering us the balm to soothe and heal those battle scars. If we came to Learning(Hu)Man feeling a bit beaten and scarred, at least we will go home having been provided with a bit of what we need to sustain us.
Two more lines from the song then floated across the virtual concert hall:
“With Love Wings we can fly
Into the clear blue open sky…”
As I draw to the end of my third letter home from camp, I’m among those who feel as if Walt’s beautifully poignant and wonderfully-delivered song has lifted us up; reminded us of what is possible online as well as face-to-face; and given us our own set of love wings to carry us through the rest of Learning(Hu)Man and into the work and challenges we face and willingly are going to work to address.
Effectively transformative humor, at its best, evokes a strong mixture of raucous laughter, anguished sobs of grief, and overwhelming outrage—something that has been on abundant display as we continue adapting to shelter-in-placeguidelines implemented in response to the current coronavirus pandemic and as we attempt, once again, to collaboratively address some of our most divisively tragic challenges. Humor can bring us much-needed relief when it inspires the (currently muted) sense of optimism some of my most cherished colleagues display during our “face to face” online conversations via Zoom and Google Meet and through their social media posts on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook. It can also inspire us to positive action when the brutal, over-the-top dark nature of that humor inspires action through outrage in response to overwhelming challenges including systemic racism and police brutality directed at Americans, as we see through the work of satirists like Roy Zimmerman, Shirley Serban, and Don Caron.
At a personal level, I’m deeply moved and at the same time frustrated by posts along the lines of what I have been seeing from one particularly cherished friend and colleague. He’s a bright, intelligent, very funny, very upbeat, very compassionate friend. His posts, focusing on what he refers to as “good news” during a time of pandemic, are wonderfully inspirational, provide much-needed humor, and remind me why I have considered him a cherished friend and associate over a very long period of time—a combination of relationships I very much look forward to continuing for as many more years as we have left to us.
My own mood, in contrast, has fluctuated wildly during this entire period of sheltering in place while maintaining strong social interactions and attempting to foster positive responses to all that we are facing. I try to maintain and inspire a sense of optimism and a commitment to fostering positive action in very small and very large ways in tragically discouraging and divisive times.
Humor as a catalyst to positive change is often at the heart of what my friend/colleague, many other friends and colleagues, and I attempt to promote at a time when I am relearning that humor comes in all sorts of sizes and shapes. There is the wonderfully optimistic spin my friend consistently manages to give to what he sees and hears. There is also the deeply poignant, sometimes bittersweet, and sometimes just kick-them-in-the-gut humor/satire that inspires that raucous laughter, those anguished sobs, and that sense of outreach I mentioned earlier—which is why I decided to write a version of this article to my friend earlier today and then expand it into this invitation to join the conversation and seek ways to reshape our world in a way that makes it more compassionate and more responsive to the pain, suffering, and inequality that many members of our communities continue to feel.
I wrote—and am writing—very much in the moment, with his two most recent posts in mind. But. With. The. Sense. That. This. Captures. Much. Of. The. Wonderful. Work. I. Have. Seen. From. Him. Over. The. Past. Couple. Of. Months. I’m seeing celebrations of what may be coming down the pike—mostly celebrations of what others are doing (e.g., working on vaccines) while we wait around (without doing something as simple as wearing a mask) and hope for the best. I’m also seeing some important much-needed call-outs against those who seem to want only to focus on bad news without acknowledging what very much is worth celebrating. What I’m not seeing—perhaps because I’m not paying close enough attention and perhaps because it’s not yet there—is a celebration of positive actions taken by the unsung heroes. Those who understand that wearing a mask and engaging in social distancing are ways of protecting others as much, if not more than, they are ways of protecting themselves/ourselves. Those who from positions of leadership encourage positive, collaborative, sometimes unpopular actions to attempt to address the challenges we face rather than placing individual liberty and rights above the equally strong needs of the community and holding (thankfully underattended) political rallies that encourage people to celebrate their unwillingness to help limit the spread of the coronavirus.
He accurately and justifiably points out that there are places in the U.S. where the spread of COVID-19 is not devastating communities. “It’s not, by the way, what the media would have you believe that it is,” he says in his latest post. “The cases are rising in a few states and that is painting a distorted picture of what’s happening nationally…Despite the fear-mongering that you’re hearing right now about the cases exploding…what we’re seeing is the death rate continuing to decline…the actual fatalities continue to decline…”
Looking at COVIDLY as a reliable tracking site for COVID-19 cases and deaths, on the other hand, reminds us that Australia had no reported deaths in the past 24 hours (midday, June 26-27, 2020)—a period of time when the United States had 834 deaths reported as directly related to COVID-19. Looking at the latest reports from The New York Times on June 27, 2020, furthermore, shows us that more than half the states in our country reported increases in cases and that, overall, ‘[m]ore than 2,509,400 people in the United States have been infected with the coronavirus and at least 125,300 have died.”
This hit home for me again late this week as I was in face-to-face-online meetings via Zoom with colleagues in Australia—where preventative actions have led them to halt the spread of the coronavirus much more effectively than we have so they can already be working on building a new and better normal. We might have been in a position to be doing this now if we had more aggressively taken the sort of individual actions they took rather than waiting for someone else to develop a vaccine—which, of course, doesn’t have to be an either-or choice! We can hope for development of effective treatments and vaccines while, at the same time, actively promoting and taking individual and collective action to slow or stop the spread of COVID-19 now. We can, while celebrating the numerous calls to action in response to the displays of racism and the almost daily documented reports of police brutality directed at Americans, also be doing things small and large in our own lives to build the foundations for a new and better normal in our country.
This is one of our challenges: to find whatever common ground we share. To produce and benefit from humor/satire that produces laughter, grief, and outrage. And to work toward creating a time when our laughter celebrates our small-scale foibles with far less need for evoking grief and outrage.
The connections between the stories of March for Our Lives and Fridays for Future provide particularly noteworthy examples of how quick, consistent attention to the complementary nature of online and onsite (blended) interactions, and onsite-online organizational skills, led to successes for both groups. The process of creating a strong, sustainable March for Our Lives movement and organization, well documented in Dave Cullen’s book Parkland: Birth of a Movement and Lauren and David Hogg’s book #NeverAgain: A New Generation Draws the Line, rose out of the activists’ almost immediate recognition that building a strong organization would be essential to success; they drew upon experienced, knowledgeable supporters to help them after quickly recognizing that they needed to establish a nonprofit foundation to manage the large donations made in support of their efforts. Inspired by March for Our Lives and an earlier protest, in which students stayed away from school to stage a “climate strike” timed to coincide with the opening day of the 2015 United Nations Climate Change conference in Paris, Greta Thunberg began her school strike—an initially solitary effort calling attention to climate change—by standing alone (with a handmade sign in hand) in front of the parliament building in her own country in August 2018. Recognizing that she would need a well-run organization to support her efforts, she established Fridays for Future that month. She continued to combine her onsite efforts with online posts (through Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram) to call attention to her climate strike—an effort that steadily attracted a growing, yet relatively small group of supporters. The moment of transformation in terms of the amount of attention she was drawing to her cause came when that combined onsite-online effort led her to the opportunity to address members of the United Nations late that year, when she was 15 years old: attention through mainstream media outlets as well as through tremendously larger numbers of responses via Twitter (going from a few thousand responses on Twitter before the UN speech to more than 483,000 mentions by August 2019) allowed her make “an unquestionable impact,” and “nowhere is that more apparent than on social media,” Paul Herrera notes in an article for Maven Road.
At the heart of all this is community—onsite, online, and at the level of the blended efforts so frequently apparent to you as engage in your own world-changing efforts and as you follow the work of those you admire for their world-changing actions.
Tips designed to create, nurture, and sustain these blended communities include establishing organizational plans—with strong mission, vision, and value statements—that help keep community efforts focused and measurable in terms of achievements vs. goals that remain unreached. They include a commitment to building relationships that allow your colleagues and supporters to see themselves as your partners in creating the change you are proposing to make. They are centered around a commitment and ability to tell your story briefly and engagingly through all means available to you onsite and online—in ways that are personal and invitational rather than coldly factual and distant. They are built upon an understanding that change—small-scale as well as large-scale—is a step-by-step process that requires building upon the successes you achieve and that are not derailed by the inevitable setbacks, opposition, and even harassment you and your colleagues will face. They include a commitment to learning from others—those who support you as well as those who oppose what you are attempting to accomplish—with a well-maintained commitment to empathy so you can understand why others might not be as enamored of what you are attempting to do as you are, and they require a strong commitment to frequently thanking those who support you and doing everything you can to keep those supporters informed, involved, and energized—actions that take you far beyond any mistaken belief that social media is a magic bullet that, once fired, resolves everything you and members of your community are attempting to resolve.
When you think about the stories you have heard or read regarding online harassment—including trolling—through social media, you can easily make the mistake of thinking it won’t affect you. You might even unconsciously—as I have occasionally and unexpectedly found myself doing—mistakenly assume that those who are on the receiving end of trolling and other forms of online harassment are only the highly-visible world-changers taking controversial stands (as if that somehow fully explains why they are being harassed).
If you follow social media at all, you know that many people—those affiliated with Black Lives Matter, March for Our Lives, and Me Too, for example—have been subjected to trolling and other forms of harassment that are vicious, tenacious, threatening, and, at times, emotionally overwhelming. It interferes with their ability to continue or complete their work. It leaves them emotionally drained and feeling isolated. And it takes a toll on those around them, including family, friends, co-workers, and employers.
What you might have missed is the fact that plenty of others who are attempting to foster positive change in their communities through what they see as routine, uncontroversial actions have been equally traumatized by those who oppose them or simply take pleasure in provoking strong emotional responses among those they perceive to be weak, appropriate targets to torment. A study released by ADL (the Anti-Defamation League) in October 2019 suggests that more than a third of all Americans have “experienced severe online harassment”—which means that you don’t have to look very far to find someone who has had this experience (if it hasn’t already happened to you). And if you are at all confused by what a troll is and what behavior helps you identify a troll, you’ll find Todd Clarke’s list of “5 Signs You’re Dealing With a Troll” helpful in making that identification: “1) They’ll try to make you angry. 2) They act entitled. 3) They exaggerate. 4) They make it persona. 5) They often can’t spell.”
When the reaction of those who wanted to torment each of the librarians began to hit, several of the recipients of trolling and other forms of online harassment were stunned and transformed by what they experienced, they said. They were “doxxed”—their contact and other personal information (e.g., email addresses, home addresses, and home phone numbers) were widely disseminated online—as part of a campaign to not only discredit them but also to interfere with the work they were doing. And, in some ways, it worked. At least one of them asked her employers to remove her contact information from her university’s website—a process that took far longer than expected because no one seemed to be prepared for the trauma that the librarian was experiencing as a result of a weeks-long barrage of threats and hate mail, nor seemed quite sure of how to respond expeditiously to the request. A few of the librarians sought help from a variety of sources, including members of police departments, but found that support was lacking because no actual crimes had been committed by those threatening (rather than actually committing) acts of violence against the librarians and their families.
A fifth librarian (who was originally scheduled to be part of a panel discussion I attended, but ended up telling her story online after she was unable to attend the conference) offered a bit of positive news: her employer was behind her all the way from the time the harassment began.
What all of this suggests is that in preparing for that awful moment when—not if—you are on the receiving end of trolling or other forms of online harassment, you need not be or feel as if you are alone; there are steps you can take to lessen the trauma and frustration harassment is designed to provoke; and you can draw upon your community of support to help you through the experience in ways that allow you to continue engaging in positive actions to help change your world.
On the theme we were pursuing earlier: it seems pretty clear that EveryLibrary sees part of its work as the work of training/educating prospective supporters. How do you train your own trainers (e.g., board members, volunteers, other supporters involved in reaching out to prospective supporters) to serve effectively as supporter trainers?
That’s largely a personality issue. People who want to be trainers will be—and if they want to be, then we’ll take the time to teach them how. It’s really hard to teach people to be trainers if their heart isn’t in being a trainer. It’s much easier and more efficient, in my experience, to hire for personality and then teach skills. I can teach anyone to do the work, but if they don’t want to do it, or if they have a personality that doesn’t engage like that, then I can’t teach someone to change their personality.
Are you doing those trainings face to face, online, both, or in some way that I’m just not putting out there through this question?
Training to do the work of the organization or the work of advocating for libraries in general?
Was thinking specifically about the advocacy side of the process…
Sure, so we do a ton of speaking, workshops, webinars, etc. every year. We don’t do enough “onboarding” of people who want to get involved, and we’ve had complaints about that from the community. But, we are doing so much so quickly that it’s hard to onboard someone. We have about a dozen really active volunteers that do a lot of work for us and for libraries, and it’s admittedly one of our weak points that we don’t have hundreds. We’re trying to change more into the networked change model of organizational development, but that’s a big curve and we just don’t have the capacity to make that switch this second. But we’re really close to being able to do a lot of advocacy training and onboarding of board members, volunteers, etc.
We are using Facebook to identify volunteers and find the kinds of people who want to be engaged at a much deeper level. So, we have volunteer sign-up forms and everything. We also organize volunteer days and other events for volunteers to get involved, but we’ve gotten mixed results with that. Still, the only people showed up were people who had more personal relationships to us beyond just Facebook ads or posts or whatever.
Anything else you want to offer in terms of tips about Facebook?
A million things…but one of the biggest things that we use are all the deep data tools that Facebook allows to help us create really significantly data-driven ads. So, we can run ads about donating to just people who are known donors to causes that are similar to libraries, and we can target them by a bunch of consumer index models. So, people who are donors, who have kids, who like libraries, who make 50,000-100,000 a year, and are in their thirties, can get an ad that is specific to them and their beliefs and Facebook gives us a ton of data about those people. For example, I can see that these people are mostly made up of “Tenured Proprietor” and those kinds of people are made up of “households are large, upper-middle income families located in cities and surrounding areas. Activities, media and spending all reflect priorities of home and children.” This helps us craft ads about libraries and donating to libraries around those interests. Of course, we can also see what their top “likes” are on Facebook and other issues that they care about, and [then] tailor ads just for them. Connecting the value of librarianship to their already held beliefs is how we radicalize them about libraries. We aren’t changing their mind about libraries; our goal instead is to connect libraries to their already held beliefs and then, by doing that, we are raising the value of libraries to them.
When you think about exploring how online fundraising can contribute positively to your efforts, you might want to start by spending time online reviewing the work of GoFundMe Chief Executive Officer Rob Solomon who, Smart Company suggests in a headline to a story about Solomon, “wants to change the world.”
As is the case with so many other social media tools we can explore, it is a service and an endeavor very much grounded in the art of inspiring action through storytelling; people are moved to contribute through the heartfelt descriptions provided by those organizing and managing the various campaigns showing how donors make positive differences through their generosity and willingness to collaborate with people they didn’t previously know.
“The biggest surprise is how much positivity there is in the world,” Solomon said in an interview, with Shubert Koong, that was published on the WePay blog. “News cycles and the social web often present a barrage of negativity. Yet I’ve been surprised by just how much people are compassionate, sympathetic, and empathetic—they genuinely want to help. And the power of the people collectively—which we’re happy to support—can have an impact that is massively outsized even compared to some of the largest foundations and individuals in the world.”
It clearly does not operate in a vacuum; the most effective campaigns, regardless of the fundraising goals set, reach potential donors through the use of a variety of other social media tools (including Twitter and Facebook), other mainstream media resources (e.g., newspaper articles; news coverage on television locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally; and radio programs), and numerous, creative outreach efforts from individual to individual and organization to organization. It is one of those social media tools that can be integrated easily into other social media tools to extend the reach of the messages posted and requests made. And as is the case with any good fundraising effort, it requires honest, well-planned, and well-executed campaigns that leave no doubt as to the veracity of the stories told and the positive impacts donors can have by giving at any level that is comfortable to them.
GoFundMe also provides a magnificent infrastructure for those using its services. It offers easy-to-assimilate guidance on how to set up and manage campaigns; provides plenty of ideas on how to reach the largest possible audience for any campaign posted on the site; and maintains a dynamic set of pages listing current campaigns as well as documenting campaigns that have reached successful conclusions. It reminds you, once again, that one of the best ways to understand social media is to explore it to see how others use it successfully to further their causes and reach their goals.
An example cited by Solomon during a 2016 Startup Grind Global session involves James Robertson, a 56-year-old factory worker in Detroit who could not afford to buy a car, so was walking twenty-one miles every day to go to work and return home—leaving him with just a couple of hours every night to sleep before beginning another excruciatingly long walk and work day. Evan Leedy, a 19-year-old who became familiar with Robertson’s story, was moved by Robertson’s plight and his commitment to not losing the job he had struggled to obtain, so he started a GoFundMe campaign with a $25,000 goal to help Robertson buy a car and obtain payments for automobile insurance for at least a few months. Donations began pouring in almost immediately, and by the time the campaign was terminated 51 months later, more than 13,000 people had donated a total of $350,044 to change Robertson’s world in a positive way—and brought Leedy and Roberton together at a personal level that would never have occurred if GoFundMe hadn’t been—and provided—a vehicle to connect them.
An obvious lesson learned from GoFundMe success stories is that small dreams and plenty of hard work can and often do produce huge results. Online platforms like GoFundMe can help you obtain the funding that supports the changes you are attempting to foster.
When members of the Elders Action Network want to meet, they don’t immediately begin booking flights, hotel rooms, and meeting sites. They often turn to Zoom, one of several videoconferencing tools that are increasingly becoming low-cost (or no-cost) go-to places for meetings that can combine onsite and online interactions.
The Network, primarily comprised of older activists living throughout the United States and actively engaged with each other locally, regionally, nationally, and through international travel and online interactions, includes educators, nonprofit administrators, environmentalists, writers, and others actively working together to change the world. Among the nearly three dozen representatives listed on the organization’s website and promoting positive solutions to societal and environmental challenges are Michael Abkin, National Peace Academy board chairman and treasurer; Lynne Iser, founding executive director for the Spiritual Eldering Institute, founder of Elder-Activists-org, a symposium facilitator for the Pachamama Alliance, and a participant in the making of the film Praying with Lior, which explores the story of how a member of her family (her stepson) with Downs Syndrome interacts in his community of faith as he prepares for his bar mitzvah; and Paul Severance, administrative director for Sage-ing® International, is a member of Al Gore’s Climate Reality Leadership Corps.
Their live and archived Zoom sessions provide a dynamic example of how you can easily use what you already have—a desktop or laptop computer, or a mobile phone or tablet—to incorporate videoconferencing into your work to consistently develop communities committed to fostering positive actions regardless of where you live. Zoom—with free and low-cost versions—offers them a dynamic social media tool that creates an onsite space for workshops, book discussion groups, webinars, and monthly community conversations among members of the organization’s “Elder Activists for Social Justice” and “Elders Climate Action” groups. In the live sessions, participants can see any colleague using a webcam and can hear any colleague enabling the audio capabilities of his or her computer or mobile device. Zoom, like many other video-conferencing tools, offers visual options including a screen filled by the image of the person speaking; a screen that has thumbnail images of all participants using their video feed; sharing of material (including slide decks) from a speaker’s desktop; and a live chat function that allows for backchannel conversations augmenting what is taking place in the main audio feed.
Some of the community conversation recordings are archived so the life of those meetings/conversations extends far beyond the live events themselves to engage others who are interested in but unavailable to participate live during the recordings. They become part of the seamlessly interwoven conversations you, too, can be having with members of your own community.
As members of the Elders Action Network have discovered, you don’t need to be physically present with your colleagues to have “face-to-face” conversations. Using Zoom or other videoconferencing tools can, under the right conditions, make participants feel as if they are in the same space, having productive, community-building interactions regardless of where each participant is physically located. Recordings that are well produced can even leave asynchronous participants feeling as if they are/were in the live sessions. (I have repeatedly found myself reaching, without thinking, toward my keyboard to respond to comments in a chat feed before remembering that I am trying to respond to a live conversation that ended days, weeks, or even months earlier.)
In many ways, Zoom offers a great contemporary example of how your onsite and online interactions are increasingly merging if you take time to explore how Zoom, Skype, and other videoconferencing tools can create a sense of presence—telepresence or virtual presence—that creates engaging, global spaces where activists work together to foster social change. When you begin exploring the possibilities of collaborating online through the use of telepresence tools—those ever-evolving platforms including Skype, Zoom, and Shindig that, when used effectively, can make you feel as if you are in the same room with people who can be sitting on the other side of your state, your country, or the world—you discover what so many others before you have realized: our options for communicating with each other regardless of our physical locations are continuing to evolve rapidly in ways that can make our work easier than would otherwise be possible.
Exploring the technical side of telepresence tools provides a somewhat cold, efficient understanding of what they can offer you and those you serve. Actually seeing them used or using them yourself to achieve concrete results carries you right where you need to be: understanding that they can create a sense of presence and engagement that further expands the breadth and depth of your community, your levels of engagement, and the size of the community in which you work, live, and play. And remember: play, as always, is a key element of using these tools to their fullest potential; bringing a sense of playfulness to the ways in which you incorporate them into your change-the-world efforts is a surefire way to use them to produce results rather than making them the focus of your work and, as a result, detracting from rather than supporting what you and your colleagues are attempting to accomplish.