Bob Herbert: Finding Inspiration Through Losing Our Way

January 28, 2015

Those of us involved in training-teaching-learning viscerally understand the power of a good story and the value of a good storyteller. So when New York Times columnist Bob Herbert left the newspaper in 2011 to accept a position with the public policy organization Demos, some of us felt as if one of the great storytellers in American journalism was vanishing—and that our world, consequently, would be a bit less vibrant.

Herbert--Losing_Our_WayHerbert’s writing in the Times was always strong, passionate, inspiring, and laser-sharp in its focus on stories that provided context and gave meaning to the overwhelming flow of reports that inundate us day after day. His final column (“Losing Our Way”), in fact, began with the observation “So here we are pouring shiploads of cash into yet another war, this time in Libya, while simultaneously demolishing school budgets, closing libraries, laying off teachers and police officers, and generally letting the bottom fall out of the quality of life here at home.” Those words provided a searing reminder to that learning, libraries, and involvement in the setting of public policy are integral parts of the overall responsibility each of us has to actively working to create the world we would like to have.

It’s a pleasure, therefore, to find that the storyteller has returned with a book that effectively and engagingly expands the thoughts included in that final New York Times column—Losing Our Way: An Intimate Portrait of a Troubled America—and continues what he has occasionally produced via columns for Demos.

Losing Our Way focuses “most intently on four specific areas: the employment crisis, which was badly underestimated and poorly understood; the need to rebuild and modernize the nation’s infrastructure and the relationship of that vast project to employment; the critical task of revitalizing the public schools in a way that meets the profound educational imperatives of the twenty-first century; and the essential obligation that we have as rational and civilized beings to stop fighting pointless and profoundly debilitating wars,” he tells us in his introductory author’s note (p. 6).

As always, the real strength and value of what Herbert produces is in his attention to the human side of the story—just as so much of what we do in training-teaching-learning benefits from focusing on the human element of our efforts. We don’t, in Losing Our Way, find the typical unengaging diatribe against our failing infrastructure; we follow—and are moved by—the story of Mercedes Gordon, a woman who was driving across the I-35 bridge across the Mississippi River the day the bridge collapsed and sent Gordon and others into a plunge that shattered and took lives. We don’t find ourselves in another exploration of the financial cost of wars; we follow Dan Berschinski from the moment he loses his legs in Afghanistan, through the unexpected story of how he struggles to regain an incredible amount of mobility, and then muse, with Herbert, over the way the honoring of Berschinski for his achievements carries with it the deeper question of why “there seemed to be no collective sense that it was insane to allow the maiming of men like Dan…to continue so may long years after the attacks of September 11, 2001….What was the point?” (p. 169)

And when we move into the realm of learning, via an exploration of what is happening in our public schools, we don’t simply rehash the failed policies that, according to Herbert, have undercut rather than enhanced our educational system; we see how individuals including Jessie Ramey and Kathy Newman, in Pennsylvania, refused to accept billion-dollar cuts to educational programs and, through hard work, created partnerships that drew attention to the human cost of those reductions.

“The United States needs to be reimagined…” Herbert writes at the conclusion of his book. “Ordinary citizens far from the traditional centers of power…profoundly changed American society. Through sustained, thoughtful, and courageous efforts they…shifted the nation onto a better path. A comparable effort by ordinary citizens is needed today if the United States is to regain its great promise of fairness and opportunity for all” (pp. 245, 247).

ALAMW15--LogoAs I sit here in Chicago, about to join colleagues for a variety of discussions at the American Library Association Midwinter Meeting, I think about Herbert’s earlier references to the closing of libraries, about the challenges we face in providing effective learning opportunities, and about his call for reimagining the world around us—and I think I couldn’t be in better company to explore what training-teaching-learning, effective collaborations, and engagement in active communities of learning and communities of practice can produce.


Abundant Communities in Action: Street Parks, Gardens, Steps, and Rainbows  

October 6, 2014

When San Francisco Department of Public Works (DPW) and San Francisco Parks Alliance (SFPA) representatives gathered over the weekend to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Street Parks Program, they were honoring something that is both quintessentially San Franciscan and something seen throughout the United States: our ability to find abundance where others see cast-offs.

Block--Abundant_Community_BookIt’s the sort of commitment documented by Peter Block and John McKnight through their Abundant Community book, website, and online discussions. It’s a movement beautifully grounded in Tactical Urbanism. And it’s a sustainable, community-based, volunteer-driven effort that celebrates the work of people we don’t often notice: the people behind the projects that make our communities far more rich than they otherwise would be. Not bad for country where we so often hear about how badly divided we are.

“The [Street Parks] project was started to enable and assist community members in adopting DPW parcels and then turning them from blighted lots into verdant gardens and community gathering spaces,” Julia Brashares, Director of Street Parks for the Parks Alliance, reminds us in a brief video prepared for the Alliance by students from San Francisco State University. “We, with community members, have seen the development of over 120 gardens in every district of the city.”

Those Street Parks projects are part of an ongoing program that brings City/County elected officials and employees, Parks Alliance staff, and hundreds of volunteers together to “activate” a string of City-owned parcels that, when combined, include approximately 500 acres of potential parkland. It’s an amazingly complex undertaking and, at the same time, it is amazingly simple. The complexity comes from the large number of stakeholders who have to be engaged to bring Street Park Projects to fruition; the simplicity comes from the idea that the projects begin when as few as two or three neighbors see the potential in an unused piece of public property and make the commitment to foster the numerous community collaborations required to produce positive results.

What’s even more fascinating is the obvious interest in transforming unused public land into additional green open space in a city that already has a magnificent, nationally-acclaimed park system, a reclaimed bayside gem in Crissy Field and an equally ambitious counterpart in the Blue Greenway project that is already in progress; the Green Connections project that is also underway as another effort to increase access to green open spaces throughout the City; an effort to create more vibrant plazas throughout the City; and many other local efforts where volunteers work with an amazing network of nonprofit organizations, City/County representatives, neighborhood organizations, local business representatives, and anyone else who sees abundant possibilities for community development and enrichment.

Street_Parks_LogoStreet Park Program projects are, in many ways, the epitome of individuals setting aside individual interests to collaboratively produce a public good—often something designed to last far longer than the lifetimes of those who initially gather to produce the street park. We see individuals bringing neighbors together to turn a short, blighted cul-de-sac along a freeway into a community garden that attracted a new coffee shop to the block. We see neighbors next to another stretch of land adjacent to a freeway create a dog park where members of the community meet and enjoy each other’s company. A third stretch of blighted land becomes Progress Park—the site where we gathered last weekend to celebrate 10 years of Street Parks progress. A median strip in the Outer Sunset District becomes La Playa Park. Another lot becomes Pennsylvania Garden. And a set of concrete steps originally built in 1926 becomes the Hidden Garden Steps—the second set to be transformed into volunteer-maintained gardens and a beautiful ceramic-tiled mosaic (designed and fabricated by project artists Aileen Barr and Colette Crutcher) in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District.

HGS--Steps_Visitors--2014-08-18

Visitors on the Steps

The real payoff for any local or extended community comes when we spend time at any of those sites, as I so often do on the Hidden Garden Steps. I see my neighbors come out every Friday afternoon to sweep the steps so the site looks clean and inviting to weekend visitors. I see volunteers gather onsite monthly to maintain and add to the gardens. I see the results generated by the volunteers who maintain the project website, blog, and Twitter and Facebook accounts. And I see and talk with visitors from all over the world as they enjoy and admire the site, marvel over how the extended community adds to all the site offers, and blurt out wonderful observations such as “It’s like being in a rainbow.”

Working on any Street Park Program project is, in fact like being in a rainbow. It’s inspiring. It’s overwhelmingly beautiful. And it hints at greater aspects of life than most of us would otherwise encounter.

The 10th-anniversary Street Parks Program celebration documents a bit of what that rainbow offers and brought volunteers together to dream of even bigger rainbows—those we can produce during the next 10 years. If we are successful, we will use what we have learned and done to inspire others to seek similar community-based collaborations to positively change our world.

N.B.: Numerous articles documenting the Hidden Garden Steps project remain available on this Building Creative Bridges blog. Steps updates can be found on the Friends of the Hidden Garden Steps blog. Stories provided by donors to the Hidden Garden Steps project are currently being added to the project website by Steps volunteer Liz McLoughlin, and a step-by-step virtual tour created by McLoughlin and by project volunteer Gilbert Johnson is also under development.


Alan Ehrenhalt, Inversions, and Developing Our Communities

June 2, 2014

There’s something viscerally appealing about a dynamic, creative community, regardless of whether it is onsite or online.

If we walk on a city street, through a public plaza or park, or in a library or museum where people are engaged with each other, we often feel the urge to be part of what it offers. If we participate in and contribute to a civil, active, well-facilitated, and creative online community of learning, community of practice, or community of interest, we frequently feel well-rewarded and stimulated by the positive interactions we have. Conversely, if we stumble upon or through communities that feel uninviting or in any way unsafe, we’re not going to remain there very long.

Ehrenhalt--Great_Inversion--CoverReading Alan Ehrenhalt’s book The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City tells us plenty about the state of some of our most interesting physical communities; it also, I believe, offers us opportunities to draw productive parallels about what makes online communities attractive.

The settings for his onsite explorations include urban and suburban neighborhoods in or near Chicago, Cleveland, Gwinnett County (Georgia), Houston, Philadelphia, Phoenix, and several other American cities, and he also draws upon several European cities (including the Paris of George-Eugène Haussmann’s time and Vienna as the Ringstrasse was opening in the latter half of the 19th century). He reminds us that a great European street served—and continues to serve—as “a center of activity, much more than of motion, a center of commerce and sociability, of nonstop human drama, of endless surprises and stimulation….To talk about a crowded city thoroughfare of the nineteenth century as ‘mixed use’ urbanism in the modern sense is to miss the point altogether. This was essentially ‘all use’ urbanism” (p. 23) He then explores various American cities to document ebbs and flows of population into and out of areas in an attempt to help us understand what makes contemporary cities appealing or lacking in appeal.

As we share Ehrenhalt’s journey through our physical sites, we consider the impact immigrants, the availability of public transportation, the presence of street life, street furniture, parks, residents’ commitments (or lack of commitment) to their communities, and even levels of housing available in downtown areas have on making or breaking communities.

And that’s where I believe we can draw parallels between what we see in The Great Inversion and what we see in equally dynamic or challenged online communities. The diverse points of view that can result from interactions between immigrants and well-established residents of a community also provide the advantages and challenges of welcoming various points of view in our online communities. The presence of engaging levels of onsite street life has its online equivalent in communities where friends and colleagues can drop into an online community with the assurance that their “neighbors” will be there to interact synchronously as well as asynchronously in rewarding and stimulating ways. The elements that contribute to a sense of safety and engagement in our onsite settings also have their online parallels: just as broken windows and large amounts of graffiti can quickly chase us away from onsite settings, the presence of spammers and haters in an online community can quickly inspire the departure of previously-engaged members of an online community.

Street life in our physical settings is returning in various forms, Ehrenhalt contends, and I see—and benefit from—a parallel level of street life in the best of the online communities to which I’m drawn. Although Ehrenhalt’s own conclusion is that “The more that people are enabled by technology to communicate with one another while remaining physically solitary, the more they crave a physical form of social life to balance out all the electronics” (p. 236), I believe that an equally compelling interaction is occurring as those of us who are lucky enough to meet in dynamic onsite communities continue some of our interactions online. The result is that for those of us who comfortably move back and forth within our blended onsite-online communities, the opportunities to engage and benefit from interactions from dynamically diverse communities has never been better.


Opportunity, Imagination, and Joy: Learning with Allan Jacobs, the Good City, and Street Parks

May 13, 2014
Visitors to the Hidden Garden Steps

Visitors to the Hidden Garden Steps

Walking up and down the ceramic-tiled Hidden Garden Steps and adjacent garden in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District on a daily basis brings at least three words to mind: opportunity, imagination, and joy. There is that daily reminder of the opportunity provided by a volunteer-driven community-based coalition that was strongly supported by colleagues in the Street Parks Program, a wonderfully supportive collaboration between the San Francisco Department of Public Works and the San Francisco Parks Alliance. There is the tremendous manifestation of imagination displayed by project artists Aileen Barr and Colette Crutcher through the mosaic they created for the site. And there is the sheer joy of seeing a long-ignored space brought back to life not only through the work of Hidden Garden Steps organizing committee members, but also by the numerous volunteers and donors who supported—and continue to support—the project, and the presence of people who increasingly are arriving from places all over the world to visit and enjoy the serenity as well as the camaraderie that comes when people meet, talk, dream, and share a space they treasure.

Good_City--Allan JacobsIt isn’t all that much different than what I find in the best communities of learning to which I’m drawn. We are united by a common (learning) goal and benefit from each other’s company over long periods of time. So when I read the sentence “Cities should provide and people should have access to opportunity, imagination, and joy” in Allan Jacobs’ The Good City: Reflections and Imaginations recently, I felt as if the world of city planning, park (particularly street-park and parklet) development, and learning had all come together on the pages of an inspiring and engaging book.

Jacobs, former director of the San Francisco Planning Department and a University of California, Berkeley professor emeritus, covers a lot of ground in a book comprised of essays and short stories. Beginning with a description of two years he spent in India as an urban planner working under the auspices of the Ford Foundation, he leads us through a series of vignettes that ultimately are connected through the theme of how community and collaboration does or does not develop in a variety of settings including Cleveland, Curitiba, Pudong, Rome, Tokyo, Toronto, Vancouver, and, in the final sections of the book, San Francisco.

His work is firmly rooted in what many of us fascinated by cities and community development have found in books by Jane Jacobs (The Death and Life of Great American Cities), Christopher Alexander (A Pattern Language: Towns – Buildings – Construction; The Timeless Way of Building; and just about everything he has written since then), William Whyte (City: Rediscovering the Center), Peter Harnik (Urban Green: Innovative Parks for Resurgent Cities), and many others who have written thoughtfully and in depth on what makes our cities work.

When he turns his attention to San Francisco, he obviously delights in exploring the themes of opportunity, imagination, and joy. There are his recollections of how he and his City Planning colleagues engaged community at a grass-roots level: “we called well-advertised meetings, often by delivering notices to all individual mail-boxes, to get people together for an effort or to confront an issue” (p. 143) just as Hidden Garden Steps volunteers began the project with face-to-face, door-to-door conversations with neighbors close to the proposed project site, and followed those efforts up with numerous postings of flyers in neighborhood businesses and bulletin boards in addition to online contact using social media platforms. Jacobs acknowledges seeing “our role as the professional staff as partners of people more than as facilitators” (p. 145)—something that increasing numbers of training-teaching-learning colleagues are embracing in the work we do, and something that is at the heart of all the positive experiences Hidden Garden Steps volunteers had (and continue to have) with our San Francisco Parks Alliance, Department of Public Works, and other City/County colleagues. As I’ve noted many times, our successful partnerships never descended into us-and-them disputes; we were unified by a common goal and that’s what held and holds us together.

Tactical_Urbanism--CoverJacobs notes the dramatic results achieved through various partnerships: “The most positive, dramatic change to San Francisco over the last 30-plus years is the northern and northeastern waterfront, from the Golden Gate Bridge to the kids’ mini-baseball diamond-park at McCovey Cove, a distance of about seven miles. Crissy Field, a gem of a restoration area, part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, has rightfully become a huge draw for walkers, cyclists, skaters, picnickers, fishermen, beachgoers, naturalists, people of all ages, and dogs….” (p. 160). He could have just as easily been talking about the smaller-scale Tactical Urbanism efforts that fuel San Francisco’s Street Parks projects when he discusses the changes that make our—and any—city great.

He weaves the various and varied themes together as he nears the end of The Good City when he describes what that city would include: “there would be opportunities to learn and to work, to earn one’s livelihood; and places to get to with ease, places for social interaction or just to see other people, or places to be alone; and opportunities to participate in local decisions; and places for fun” (p. 176)…“People should feel that some part of the urban environment belongs to them, individually and collectively, some part for which they care and are responsible, irrespective of whether they own it. The city environment should be one that encourages participation….The public environment, by definition, should be open to all members of the community. It is where people of different kinds meet. No one should be excluded unless they threaten the balance of that life” (p. 178)—all of which, to me, just as accurately describes what is foundational to great communities of learning.

Perhaps this is why so many of us are drawn to learning; to great cities; to parks and open spaces; and to libraries, museums, and so many other community resources: they share an all-important link—the magic that happens when opportunity, imagination, and joy bring us together to form, interact in, and sustain great communities that bring rewards far beyond any others we can imagine. They connect us to our past, through our present, and into a future we may not be around to see, but know will be much better for the contributions that we make to it.

N.B.: Previous articles about the Hidden Garden Steps remain available on this blog.


R. David Lankes, Learning, and Working Overtime

April 29, 2014

Listening to a recording of R. David Lankes’s “The Faithful and the Radicals” over the weekend felt like going to church. It’s inspirational. Transformative. And steeped in a sense of the divine. It is the sort of plea for community, collaboration, and action that runs consistently from the earliest seminal public presentations of our history through a continuum that includes more recent efforts including Jon Stewart’s speech at the end of his Rally to Restore Sanity in October 2010.

Lankes--Faithful_RadicalAlthough “Faithful and Radicals” is ostensibly about school librarians, libraries, and the society-shaping roles they play and need to play in the extended communities they serve, it’s really far much more than that. If we are at all interested in the present and future of our communities—and who among us can afford not to be?—Lankes’s thoughts can’t help but touch and move us.

He is, as always, funny. (Who else would jokingly threaten to slash the tires on our cars if we spend more time creating booklists and pages full of links to online resources that soon will be broken than fulfilling our potential to contribute to the success of our communities?) Engaging. (The positive reactions to what he says are audible throughout the recording.) Radical (in the complex, multifaceted way that the word “radical” in its varying definitions implies: foundational, rooted, fundamental, and cool as well as extreme). Visionary. (His proposed mission statement for librarians—“The Mission of Librarians is to Improve Society through Facilitating Knowledge Creation in their Communities”—flows right off the pages of The Atlas of New Librarianship into “The Faithful and the Radical.”) Poignant. And humble. (He actually pokes fun at his own title for the presentation, commenting on how it could serve equally well as the name of a PBS production or a soap opera.) Above all, he’s obviously an incredibly talented teacher-trainer-learner—as I learned while participating in his New Librarianship Master Class (a massive open online course) and writing extensively about it last year. And all of those attributes combine to make him the sort of mover and shaker who keeps the world alive, vibrant, dynamic, thinking, and smiling—which is, in itself, a point worth lingering over momentarily, for it wasn’t at all clear a year ago that he would still be with us. He has openly, painfully, and beautifully, via his blog, chronicled his experiences with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, and he begins “Faithful and Radicals” by noting that it’s his first major public presentation since undergoing stem cell transplants.

Altas_New_Librarianship--CoverBut that’s just the backdrop to much of what he accomplishes with “Faithful and Radicals.” His starting point is something every one of us needs to remember: that all of us—regardless of profession, interests, values, and experiences—has moments in which our faith is severely tested and doubts can become overwhelming. With that in mind, he recalls a recent, personal crisis of faith in which he asked himself why he continues to remain part of the group fighting to assure that libraries—and, more importantly—librarians (which, as I’ve written many times before, are our close allies in training-teaching-learning, and vice versa) are supported and that they are active participants in shaping their communities.

When all is said and done, the answer was quite simple. He decided that the strong role librarians play in serving communities—similar to the role I see any great trainer-teacher-learner playing—is so overwhelming powerful that he was “unwilling to be part of those who stood by and destroyed something I loved. Ultimately, the decision was, ‘I have a limited time on this Earth, and I’m going to use it to build up and be part of what I believe in because I have faith…that this stuff works. I have faith that we improve people’s lives. I have faith in you.”

It’s far more than the oft-quoted mission to support reading, he noted, adding that he actually hates the pervasive libraries-support-reading promotions because libraries and librarians promote so much more that is essential to learning, community-building, and creativity.

“Working with kids on an interest of theirs to develop an interest of theirs…this gets a big big big happy smiley face,” he reminds us as he moves us into a deeper, richer exploration of what it means to play leadership roles in our communities through libraries or any other significant learning organization. “It’s about using resources to learn, to improve, to build knowledge,” and to help prepare learners for their roles as “stewards of this world.”

The current movement to support the creation and growth of makerspaces within libraries, he suggests, is only part of the story—far from rooted in questions about whether to purchase a 3D printer or any other form of technology to create that makerspace: “If your library is not already a makerspace, you’re doing it wrong.”

Nearing the end of his presentation, he doubles back to overtly address his decision to undergo all the brutally awful treatment he has endured. Reflects on what it means to choose between giving up or fighting against a life-threatening disease through potentially lethal treatments. And acknowledge that surrender would have deprived him of the opportunity to be with us long enough to share “The Faithful and the Radical” with us.

From "Virtual Dave...Real Blog"

From “Virtual Dave…Real Blog”

“I have been at the edge of certain death. When I got my stem cell transplant…I had to go through terrible chemo, chemo that ripped sores in my tongue, chemo that tore out all my intestinal tract, chemo that took my hair, took my energy, took my ability to walk up a flight of stairs, and it even killed the very marrow in my bones. I voluntarily took a lethal injection. Why? Because I had faith. I had faith in my doctors. I had faith in my nurses, and I had faith in my caretaker and my wife and my family and myself that I was going to get there, that I was going to face down certain death and that I was going to move ahead, and I’m here without a hair in my head to show for it. But I’m here…

“Faith can be hard. Radical can be hard. Moving out of your comfort zone and seeing yourself as larger than you think you are can be hard. But it is essential. I have been through my crisis of faith, You have seen your crisis of faith. We will live through it, and we will use it to become even stronger radicals. We will use it to take that faith message to those who don’t really have it…”

Reaching the end of that recording, I was left rethinking long-held beliefs about what decision I might make if/when faced with the sort of life-threatening situation Lankes has struggled; I have to admit that what he says and what he does has, in the most significant of ways, served the purpose of great learning facilitation: he made me do some serious rethinking about personal comfort and preferences as opposed to the greater responsibilities each of us has.

Lankes could have opted to forego the fight. In a sense, however, he decided to work beyond the shift life had apparently decided to assign him and do some overtime by staying with us. It’s the sort of overtime for which there can be no adequate payment. But perhaps we can do our part in rewarding him by listening. Taking action. Thinking about the need to transcend our own comfort zones to take actions for the greater good of the people, the communities, and the societies that support us. And continuing to stand with those we love and admire through the best and worst of times in the hope that the best remains ahead of us.


Standing With Our Friends (Part 2 of 2): I Watched You Disappear

April 25, 2014

That awful moment has again arrived: a cherished friend within one of the communities of learning that sustains me has lost a loved one.

I_Watched_You_DisappearIt was not an easy passing. My friend’s mother succumbed to pancreatic cancer during Easter weekend after all the usual pain, struggles with a health-care system that just doesn’t seem mature enough to adequately support those who are ill and those who love them, and numerous literal and figurative dark nights that never quite produced an obvious dawn.

But among the most stunning elements of this entire passage was the consistent reminder of what it means to be part of an extended onsite-online blended community in which friends stand with friends.

My friend—a fabulously gifted writer in addition to being an inspiring trainer-teacher-learner—was never at a loss for words, nor was she at any point reticent about sharing the most intimate details about what she, her mother, and others within her inner circle were feeling and experiencing. The moments of rage at health-care providers who seemed remarkably insensitive to basic needs. The moments of gratitude expressed toward health-care providers who were the onsite guardian angels. The emails and phone calls and social media postings. And the sharing of information that might be helpful to others in similar situations. All of these interwoven elements combined to produce one of the most moving invitations to celebrate a life well lived and mourn a loss I can imagine accepting.

The results produced amazing reminders of how interconnected we all remain in spite of all the ridiculous assertions we encounter that tech tools and other changes in our rapidly-changing world are somehow stopping people from communicating with each other at a meaningful level. Each time I read a Facebook post from my friend and then followed the dozens of responses from people I knew and from people I had not previously encountered (but came know through these exchanges), I felt my world broadening a bit and also understood that our ever-extending community was gaining the additional strength it would need to adequately support our friend, her mother and father, and others close to them. Every time I followed a link to read something my friend had read and from which she had taken solace, I found my own emotional connections to her experiences and her impending loss growing.

An afternoon during which she mentioned Anya Krugovoy Silver’s latest collection of poetry—I Watched You Disappear—was one of many turning points. A few lines from the title poem (“That fucking doctor killed you. Killed you./But I keep sending e-mails to your account.”) sent me racing to my local bookstore eager to obtain and devour a copy of what includes some of the most beautifully moving poetry I have read in years. Those lines opened a door to conversations my friend and I might not otherwise have had.

My friend’s post written on the evening of her mother’s departure (“Go rest high on that mountain, sweet Mama—your work here is done but will live on…She looked up at me, took her last breath, and was gone…”) put me right there with them in ways I would have never have expected to experience.

From "Virtual Dave...Real Blog"

From “Virtual Dave…Real Blog”

And a from-the-heart set of reflections (“Stand for Those We Miss and Love”) from one of my friend’s colleagues (R. David Lankes) posted earlier this week included passages so searingly poignant that I feel as if our collaborative endeavors over the past several months should once and for all silence anyone who disparages the gifts provided through effective use of social media tools: “I stand as someone who has fought with cancer and as someone who will remember you. Someone who says your life was important. I stand to remind those who remain that life can be hard. I stand to remind everyone that cancer takes and takes and takes. I stand to remind everyone that no matter how much we are loved, or how much good we seek to do, we all can be taken too soon.”

This evening, as I write these words I have been trying to compose for nearly a week, I find cause to celebrate even while consumed by the sense of loss I keenly feel. I celebrate the members of my various communities of learning who help me understand and appreciative what I have. I celebrate the depth of experience those friends reveal and to which they lead me. And I celebrate the importance of remembering we can never be too busy to take the time required to stand with our friends.


Standing With Our Friends (Part 1 of 2): Communities of Learning

April 25, 2014

In learning, there is often the obvious lesson—which is rewarding—and then there is that difficult-to-anticipate moment that transcends anything we expected to experience—which makes it all the more potentially valuable and transformative. And that moment of transcendence is exactly what occurred again last Friday when I joined Maurice Coleman and other colleagues for an episode of his wonderful T is for Training podcast online.

Atlantic_LogoGoing into the latest hour-long biweekly opportunity to share ideas with those training-teaching-learning colleagues, I had no other expectation than that I would learn something useful from members of one of the best communities of learning to which I belong. And the conversation captured in the recording which now exists as an archived podcast (Episode #138) certainly delivers an interesting graze through a field with plenty of different topics.

What the audio recording doesn’t reveal, however, is the much more disturbingly moving exchange that began when a colleague used the program backchannel to post a link to “I Was Racially Profiled in My Own Driveway,” written for The Atlantic by Doug Glanville, “a retired Major League Baseball player [who] explains how he’s trying to turn an upsetting encounter with the police into an opportunity for dialogue.”

It wasn’t the sort of topic we generally explore on T is for Training—or in many other venues I frequent—so we kept our exchanges to a set of backchannel comments through the typed chat window available as the podcast was being recorded. When the recording ended, a few of us briefly continued to explore the ugly, painful, gaping wound highlighted by Glanville’s beautifully written article; to ignore the opportunity to do so within a community of learning that has strong roots in confronting rather than ignoring our most difficult challenges would have been to further contribute to the turn-your-head-and-pretend-it-isn’t-there proclivity that plagues us through the mistaken and debilitating belief that we inhabit a “post-racial” society. And when it was time for us to virtually part and return to our other obligations, I wasn’t quite ready to set this aside, for I sensed I was far from finished with the learning opportunity my colleagues had extended through the posted link and the follow-up conversation.

There has never been a time in my life when I have not been conscious of the presence and effects of discrimination and inequality. I grew up in a Central California Valley town with geographic boundaries that mirrored the racial and economic divisions existing between the various groups which formed that still troubled community. I felt the relatively minor stings Italian-Americans felt through taunts that were nothing compared to what African-American, Latino, and the all-too-rare Jewish friends and colleagues experienced daily. I was occasionally the butt of not-so-funny jokes and racial epithets—but not in any significant way at the level those friends and colleagues were. My sense of what this meant grew during a three-year stay in Japan, where regardless of how much respect I was accorded as a teacher, I knew I would always be an outsider. Fair enough; I always had the option to return “home” when I grew tired of living in a place where I wouldn’t be accepted.

But here in our imaginary post-racial society, colleagues and close friends don’t have the luxury of going home in the way I envisioned going home. They are home, and it’s a home that never really offers the benefits of ownership that others can routinely enjoy.

T is for Training Logo

T is for Training Logo

A lovely friend was kind enough to draw me viscerally into that world again a couple of months ago through a series of moving online reflections during Black History Month. As The Month came to a chronological end, I decided to ask a simple question of this friend who has indisputably been on the receiving end of terrible–yet often subtle–acts of discrimination–but refuses to succumb to bitterness: “If I had been there, what is one concrete thing I could have done to reverse what you experienced?” The response: “If/when you see subtle racism against others, call people on it. Let folks know that you see it and you do not condone, agree, or approve…It would not have changed the world, but you would have made a stand.” That’s why, I wrote at the time, this person is my friend: I ask a straightforward question, and I’m offered a positive, actionable reminder that we don’t need special days, weeks, or months to confirm that each of us can make positive action a way of life that contributes to the creation of the sort of world we want to inhabit. Now. And for the rest of our lives.

It was a thought that remained with me as the T is for Training group dispersed after the conversation last Friday, so I quickly sent an email asking what I can be doing at a simple, personal, level to prevent others from experiencing what Doug Glanville describes in that article.

The answer produced that moment of transcendence I mentioned at the beginning of this article: “My answer is to continue being you. That means being welcoming and supportive. And be willing to stand with someone who is not being treated well.”

What struck me most was not the encouragement that I was somehow, in spite of myself, managing to be somewhat on the right path to being where I want to be. What struck me was that particular, thoughtful, and emotionally jolting choice of words: “…to stand with someone…”

I find it all too easy to stand up for someone when I see something I dislike; standing up for someone (or something) requires action, produces an expectation of results, and is empowering to the person doing the standing—it’s as much about the stander as the one for whom we are attempting to stand. Standing with someone is a much more intimate, risky endeavor: it places us quite vulnerably next to someone with the understanding that the person is in control and gains more from our presence than from the mistaken belief that some sort of representation from another person is wanted or required.

Standing with someone is a life lesson well (but not yet completely) learned. It makes me a better facilitator of learning to know that I stand with rather than for other learners. It makes me a better friend to those who think I’m better than I am intellectually, emotionally, and socially. And it reinforces the oft-forgotten lesson that learning, collaboration, and community-building are based on our ability to be empathetic, set our egos aside, and value the critically important difference between standing for someone and standing with someone.

Next: Standing With Our Friends (Part 2 of 2): I Watched You Disappear


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