Giving Thanks 2021: Shola Richards, Community, and Ubuntu (“I Am, Because We Are”)

November 29, 2021

“Community” and “collaboration” have been at the heart of what I have loved and what I have been doing for many years. Combined, they give me myriad reasons to be grateful for the people in my life and for the circumstances in which I find myself. They are, furthermore, essential elements of the training-teaching-learning opportunities I design and facilitate for the “co-conspirators” in learning I serve. They were at the heart of the Hidden Garden Steps project—creation of a ceramic-tiled staircase and adjacent gardens—I helped shepherd to success here in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset district with artists Colette Crutcher and Aileen Barr, dozens of volunteers, and hundreds of donors from 2010-2013. And they certainly are keys to any success I see in the social causes I support.

Shola Richards

So when I read Shola Richards’ heartbreakingly beautiful Facebook post (May 20, 2020) about how he “would be scared to death to take…walks [around his own neighborhood] without my girls and my dog” and how, “in the four years living in my house, I have never taken a walk around my neighborhood alone (and probably never will),” he immediately had my attention. Because Shola’s piece struck me as being painfully honest.

“…without them [his daughters] by my side,” he explained, “almost instantly, I morph into a threat in the eyes of some white folks. Instead of being a loving dad to two little girls, unfortunately, all that some people can see is a 6’2” athletically-built black man in a cloth mask who is walking around in a place where he doesn’t belong (even though, I’m still the same guy who just wants to take a walk through his neighborhood). It’s equal parts exhausting and depressing to feel like I can’t walk around outside alone, for fear of being targeted.”

Within the space of several beautifully-written paragraphs, he effectively evokes the experience so many Americans have when community and collaboration are not anywhere near as fully developed as they should be. He also provides a call to positive action, to the spirit of developing communities through maximum amounts of collaboration as much as he provides an indictment of inaction on our part in the face of obvious injustice.

When I come across writing that is this powerful and this honest, I immediately (and gratefully) crave more. So with gratitude for what he had already inspired and anticipation of so much more, I took the actions that made sense to me. I responded to his post and engaged in what continues to be an occasional exchange of notes about what he is doing and how powerfully and positively it motivates me in my own work. I learned more about his work by watching his TED talk on the concept of “Ubuntu” (I am, because we are.) I developed a deeper sense of how he worked as an advocate for greater levels of civility through empathy and collaboration in our workplaces by watching the brief promotional video on his website. I took advantage of an opportunity to join an online session in which he was the keynote presenter. And, ultimately, because what I was really seeking was more of his writing, I devoured his two books, Making Work Work: The Positivity Solution for Any Work Environment and Go Together: How the Concept of Ubuntu Will Change How You Live, Work, and Lead.

Making Work Work is both a manifesto and a paeon to those would are committed to and want to be engaged in fostering greater levels of civility in our workplaces. Published in 2016, the book lays out a roadmap toward workplace civility and offers a very enticing invitation and challenge to become a “Solutionist” dedicated to “keeping it R.E.A.L.”—creating workplaces and a world where Relentless respect, Endless energy, Addressing the ABC’s of Workplace Negativity, and Lasting Leadership combine to address the bullying and meanness that takes us down. Reading Making Work Work a few years after it was initially published and within the highly-polarized context of the final year of the Trump administration made me appreciate it at a level far beyond the focus on workplace bullying; it clearly, without overtly doing so, was laying the groundwork for what he wrote in that Facebook post and what he turned to in Go Together.

While we are still firmly grounded in keeping it R.E.A.L., we find ourselves, in Go Together, more overtly confronting bigotry, hatred, and intolerance. We are challenged to work first upon ourselves—our assumptions, our day-to-day behavior, and what he refers to as our “self-awareness crisis,” which is the situation in which our lack of self-awareness prevents us, as a mentor of his once said, from recognizing that we are “the raindrop responsible for the flood.” Some of the chapter headings hint at the gems we will encounter here: “the unpleasant reality behind good intentions,” “the importance of healing yourself first,” and “kindness is not weakness: the heart of the Ubuntu leader.” But it’s not a book that tears us down or opens wound then left untreated; it’s a book from one wonderful American to any other American horrified by the path so many of us have chosen and looking for an outstretched hand offering a path to stronger communities with greater levels of positive collaboration designed to address some of our greatest challenges.

I’m grateful for all Shola offers. For the heartfelt stories. For the challenges and accompanying support he extends to any of us willing to join him. And for the inspiration he so consistently provides. Looking at his Facebook account this afternoon as I was finishing this piece, I came across a quote he offered: “What we allow is what will continue.” And it makes me think, again, about how important it is that we allow Shola and others as honest and inspirational as he is into our lives. And reciprocate by inviting them into ours. For community. For collaboration. And for our future.

Next: ShapingEDU Promoting Internet Access

N.B.: This is the fifth in a series of year-end reflections inspired by the people, organizations, and events that are helping to change the world in positive ways.


Giving Thanks 2021: Howard Prager and the Commitment to Make Someone’s Day

November 26, 2021

We all know plenty of people who spend lots of time talking about what we (rather than they) can do to change the world in positive ways. And we also—if we are extremely fortunate—know a handful of people who, through the examples they set with their own behavior, inspire us to emulate them in their diligent, well-focused, heart-felt world-changing efforts.

Howard Prager

Howard Prager, author of Make Someone’s Day: Becoming a Memorable Leader in Work and Life as well as being a cherished friend and colleague through ATD (the Association for Talent Development), consistently sets an example worth following. He incorporates into his daily actions a simple, easily replicable pattern of expressing gratitude to those who do something that makes his day. And that is the simple, powerful, transformative key to what Howard encourages us to do: by telling someone that they have made his day, he makes their day—as he did with me when we were repeatedly face to face while attending the 2021 ATD International Conference & Exposition in Salt Lake City.

At a time when we are often preoccupied by the challenges and tragic effects the spread of the coronavirus has had on work and play, Howard has found a way, through what he does and through his wonderfully inspiring book, to spread an entirely different sort of virus—one that “infects” us with joy and gratitude to combat the depression, divisiveness, and meanness that has become such a prevalent, overwhelming, and often unchallenged part of our daily lives. His story-driven book, full of examples of people who have made his and other people’s day, consistently circles back to how the simple act of telling someone that he has made their day does, in fact, make their day as well. Very much grounded in the spirit of engaging in random acts of kindness, Howard’s approach turns simple acts into an almost subversively positive way to give us one of the greatest gifts anyone can give us: a sense of joy and an overt acknowledgement of the power supportive individuals play in nurturing and sustaining the best of the organizations and communities to which we belong.

“Compliments can be thought of as little gifts of love,” Howard writes (p. 51). “They are not asked for or demanded. They tell a person they are worthy of notice. Complements are a great way to acquire and practice social interaction skills because the returns are immediate. They foster a positive atmosphere and further communication and allow for better two-way exchanges. The more specific you can be and the closer to the actual event, the more people know that they are being complimented about and makes their day.”

It’s a strong passage in a book filled with strong passages and full of advice we can adapt immediately. But what makes it—and much of the rest of the content of the book—meaningful is that it is immediately followed by an anecdote that brings the message home strongly and clearly to any reader: the story of how Howard’s brother-in-law John made a fifth-grade student’s day by telling this “amazing girl” (who was clearly lacking in self-confidence in spite of having just won an award for an essay about how “beauty comes from within and that everyone is beautiful in their own way”) that she, too, “was an amazing girl,” a “beautiful” girl (“Don’t let anyone tell you differently”), and one with “a bright future.” Her reaction, Howard tells us, was to thank John for the kind words as “tears welled in her eyes.” And the wonderful punch line to John’s action was, as he told Howard, that “I hope that in some small way I made her day, because her tears and essay certainly made mine.”

“There are many benefits in giving compliments,” Howard continues (p. 52). “First, focusing on and noticing the good qualities of the people around us gives our moods a boost. Second, a feeling of positivity is enhanced by compliments. The effects of positivity rebounds to us, creating a positive atmosphere. And third, it provides positive neurological impacts for the person doing it.”

We could spend all day sharing stories from Make Someone’s Day, but you can read them yourselves. A far more productive use of our time at this moment is to acknowledge and document how Howard himself lives and promotes his philosophy. During one of our conversations, Howard was kind enough to ask me how my own recently-released book (Change the World Using Social Media) was doing in terms of reaching its potential audience. Admitting that I am consistently looking for new ways to connect that book to readers, I was overwhelmed by how Howard immediately turned the conversation into a very fruitful half-hour impromptu workshop on how to pursue opportunities I might not otherwise have considered. And, in the spirit of adopting a Make Someone’s Day approach, I did not miss the opportunity, at the end of that particular conversation, to tell Howard that he had just made my day. Which, unsurprisingly, made Howard’s day, too!

As I think about the people in my life who inspire gratitude, I can’t help but think about how understated they often are in their approach to the transformative work they do. Howard, for example, is someone I have known through mutual friends/colleagues at ATD, as a solid, thoughtful, often-reserved participant in conversations we’ve had in group settings (in spite of his own assertion that he is an extrovert). He never consciously makes himself the center of attention when he is part of the lively, sometimes raucous conversations that take place when ATD members gather—a remarkable achievement in our training-teaching-learning environment, where all of us thrive on telling stories that inevitably cast at least a bit of a spotlight on ourselves as well as on the work we are doing. He never is overtly self-aggrandizing. The word that best describes him, for me, is the word “listener.” He listens. He reflects. He makes an occasional contribution to the conversation. And if we are particularly insightful and diligent, we take note of those gemlike observations he lightly tosses our way and we look for ways to incorporate them into our daily routines and our overall approach to the work we do. So that we spread the spirit of those wonderful colleagues, like Howard, in ways that make someone’s day. And then circle back to make ours, too.

Next: Stephen Hurley and voicEd Radio

N.B.: This is the second in a series of year-end reflections inspired by the people, organizations, and events that are helping to change the world in positive ways.


Changing Ourselves as We Try to Change the World Through Social Media

January 2, 2018

Change often starts small, with the most simple, innocuous of acts. For some of us, it was our reaction to the news that a Minneapolis Public Schools administrator, DeRay Mckesson, had driven from Minneapolis to Ferguson to witness and document what was happening in Ferguson in the aftermath of the shooting of Michael Brown by a member of the Ferguson Police Department in 2014. We had been reading about shootings of fellow citizens who were African-Americans—by members of our police departments, by private citizens who felt threatened by the presence of a young men like Trayvon Martin because those citizens were Black. We were—and continue to be—increasingly horrified by what we were and are seeing in “post-racial” America.

DeRay Mckesson, from Wikimedia Commons

When McKesson began reporting from Ferguson, via Twitter, we recognized that something had changed significantly. In addition to all the other forms of media that provided first-rate, reliable information about critically important issues we were facing, we now had an ever-increasing level of access to and involvement in defining, reacting to, and seeking information about and solutions to those issues. This was raw and visceral—far beyond the polished, often pseudo-objective reporting that comes from our cherished mainstream-media representatives. We were experiencing and willingly joining multi-level, non-curated, expansive reports and conversations and calls to action through Twitter, Facebook, blogs, podcasts, and other online resources. Social media was not completely replacing one-way broadcast media including newspaper, radio, and television as important, significant, much-needed primary sources of information; those resources remain the meat and potatoes of information-gathering at a time when we struggle to distinguish between fake news and reliable reporting. On the other hand, social media tools were increasingly adding an important, dynamic, potentially world-changing element to our conversations and our perceptions about our world, how we interact with it, and how we might attempt to change it in positive ways.

Those already familiar with Twitter and other social media platforms need only glance at the most cursory list of the hashtags to become aware of the scope of our conversations and the way that the use of hashtags is making action-based conversation easier for even the most inexperienced of activists:

#BlackLivesMatter, #Brexit, #BringBackOurGirls, #DACA, #Dreamers, #Ferguson, #GunSense, #HealthReform, #MeToo, #NODAPL, #NotOneMore, #NotInOurName, #OccupyWallStreet, #ParisAccord

Let us make no mistake about it: This is a deeply personal, highly transformative level of change to some of us. It began changing the way we used and viewed social media tools including Facebook and Twitter. We began initiating conversations that we previously thought of as being too risky for online conversations; our shift came out of a decision that avoiding those online conversations that exposed and forced us to confront some of our deepest differences was far more risky than not exposing and confronting them. We openly reached out to friends and colleagues whose experiences and political beliefs differed tremendously from our own. We sought to listen, to learn, to find common ground, and to attempt to produce positive change in response to the difficult and often painful challenges that so often seemed to irrevocably separate us.

At times, our tongue-in-cheek approach (e.g., my own promotion and use of the hashtag #MakeAmericaCivilAgain in response to the disgustingly uncivil nature of discourse that was on full display during the Presidential election campaign in 2016) produced surprisingly encouraging results: colleagues from all walks of life found common ground in the idea that promoting civility in our interactions would be a great first step in trying to address some of our most wicked problems. We also realized that incorporating humor into our discussion was an important element in trying to re-civilize our exchanges.

We are drawn into these conversations, and we are engaged by small- and large-scale desires to positively respond to the challenges we face, because we all are potential activists. The use of social media tools is one of many resources we have in our personal and collaborative toolkits; the people I am interviewing for my book Change the World Using Social Media know and understand this because they use social media nearly every day.

Cayden Mak, 18 Million Rising

Some (e.g., Samantha Adams Becker, Maurice Coleman, David Lee King, and Jonathan Nalder) have been friends and colleagues for many years and are people who, before they agreed to be interviewed for this book, did not overtly identify themselves as activists. The fact that, as librarians, educators, and writers, they foster social change at small- and large-scale levels through their activity in a variety of social media platforms, will, I hope, encourage you to see that you don’t need to be famous or have thousands of followers in your social media accounts to be able to contribute to positive change in the communities you serve. Others (e.g., Cayden Mak, Elizabeth Myers, and Camila Mariño Venegas) have titles and responsibilities that put them at the heart of facilitating positive change within their communities; they are people I met through the use of social media and other online resources as I was seeking activists from a variety of backgrounds so I could provide examples of effective use of social media in a variety of environments and involving a wide range of issues attracting the effort of activists fostering positive social change.

Regardless of your current use of social media and your reach in promoting change, you can easily find plenty of examples via social media platforms themselves to help you see how social media, as part of your overall activist’s toolkit, can provide opportunities for conversation, planning, collaboration, and action that will bring you and others closer to riding waves of change rather than being drowned by them. You can also easily find plenty of examples of how some of our most creative colleagues using social media remain committed to honestly and openly cultivating a sense of trust and engagement with their online and onsite collaborators and those they serve.

“I think it’s not a coincidence that our staff still tends to be highly educated—not just in a book/academic way—but many of them, past and present, have been schooled so to speak in the history of social movements and stuff like that,” 18 Million Rising Executive Director Cayden Mak said during our initial interview for Change the World Using Social Media. “That kind of expertise allows us to speak from a very genuine place—I think the voice an­­d the tone that we built was intentionally comradely in that way because we share a set of cultural references, but we’re interested in bringing more people on board with those cultural references. I think it’s been a careful effort to ensure that we both demonstrate our expertise while making that accessible to people.

“The thing that this process taught me is the importance of trust. With other organizing formations I was a part of at the time, we were building trust in order to do high-stakes things like shutting down New York State Assembly meetings and risking arrest in order to highlight hypocrisy in the university system. Online, there isn’t necessarily a sense that there are high-risk actions to take. However, I think online organizers often do themselves a disservice when they emphasize that their tools and platforms make social action ‘easy’ or ‘simple.’ Because the whole point of organizing, to me, whether it’s online or off, is to build trust among a group of people in order for them to take calculated risks towards a goal.” 

N.B. — Paul is currently writing Change the World Using Social Media, scheduled for publication by Rowman & Littlefield in 2020. This is the second in a continuing series of excerpts from the manuscript in progress.


Checking Out Disagreements and Learning by Re-Viewing Our Landscape

March 26, 2014

One of the many inspiring and great learning moments to occur during recent community meetings sponsored by the Mendocino County Library with support from their Friends of the Library groups came during a discussion of recently-installed self-checkout machines at the Ukiah Library.

The issue was superficially clear cut. Some people in the community appreciate the convenience self-checkout machines provide. Others absolutely hate this introduction of technology in a setting they value for its person-to-person interactions.

Ukiah_LibraryThose appreciative of the service specifically mentioned that they like being to locate library materials online, visit the library to pick up those materials, and handle the checkout transactions quickly (without having to ask for staff assistance). Others mentioned that checking out materials without staff involvement might appeal to teens and others who don’t want others seeing what they are borrowing.

Opponents to the recently-installed machines expressed unhappiness with the appearance of the tall, upright machines for a variety of reasons—and it quickly became clear that more than anti-technology feelings were at the foundations of their objections. They said they didn’t like the fact that the machines, placed just inside the entrance (where those about to leave the library could complete their final checkout transactions just before they exit the building), were the first thing they saw; having the devices there made them feel as if staff were being replaced by machines (something that is not happening, particularly since a local ballot initiative to provide additional funding for library services passed in November 2013 and library administrators have been hiring more staff members to support increased hours system-wide). Further exploration of the feelings leading to their opposition revealed a sense that staff was becoming less accessible to them and that they were concerned they were losing what is extremely important to them: the person-to-person interactions that are a valuable part of their library experience.

Fort_Bragg_Library--2014-03-24

Mendocino County Library staff and users continuing conversation after meeting in Fort Bragg branch

The inspiring part of all of this was that although people attending the meeting and two others held in Fort Bragg and Willits—one element in the library’s current strategic planning process—offered a variety of (sometimes conflicting) opinions on several different issues, there was little overt animosity expressed between meeting attendees. By providing forums for discussion about the library’s future and how the library could even more actively be part of an effort to address community issues, library staff and users were able to document what is important to them, see issues from differing perspectives, and almost immediately begin looking for ways to address some of the less difficult challenges they face.

A few of us, in fact, continued the discussion after leaving the Ukiah meeting by using a technique employed by a colleague who helps library staff improve library users’ experiences: each of us walked into the Ukiah Library with the intention of looking at it as if we had never before seen it, and paying attention to what caught our attention.

Whereas I had, during my first visit one day earlier, quickly walked past the self-checkout machines and immediately looked for (and found) staff—easily spotted both at a desk almost directly in front of me (across the room) and at a service counter to my left after I passed the machines—I spent more time after the meeting looking at the self-checkout machines and how they did serve as a visual focal point to anyone entering the building and looking only at what was closest to the doors. (Wonderfully enough, a staff member approached me while I was looking at the machines and initiated a conversation.)

Conversations with library staff members produced at least a few options they plan to quickly explore for those who fear the loss of that person-to-person level of attention library staff strives to provide: rearranging the entrance in a way that makes the self-checkout machines less of a visual presence; incorporating a few visual changes that tone down the bright lights that are part of the machines themselves so they won’t, as one critical library user commented, look like “slot machines”); and determining whether volunteers (who were unhappy to have been moved out of public service areas and placed next to staff in crowded workspaces in the staff area) would be interested in sitting at a desk in the entrance area to greet library visitors and help first-time users familiarize themselves with the self-checkout machines—a nice solution to two different challenges (the introduction of the machines and unhappiness expressed by volunteers in search of more opportunities to support the library while interacting with other members of their communities).

It was impressive to see the library representatives react so quickly to the concerns expressed; even if whatever changes they propose and implement don’t please everyone, the changes will have come from a position of listening and learning by re-viewing familiar situations and settings. It was equally impressive to see how positively members of the community interacted even when there were clear disagreements that they recognized they, in collaboration with library staff, will have to work to resolve together. And it was wonderfully refreshing to contrast the visible and obvious levels of civility, respect, and collaboration with what we so often see elsewhere when people talk at rather than with each other until conversations sink into confrontation and an inability to address what is important within and to a community.


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