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.


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