Changing the World Through Facebook

January 15, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Next Steps for a Beyond Horizons (2.0) Community

January 4, 2018

The following piece was prepared collaboratively by Lisa Gustinelli, Jonathan Nalder, and Paul Signorelli; each of us is publishing and sharing it on our own sites in the spirit of the collaboration that the piece documents. Please repost.

We’re a community that knows how to work, play, and, when necessary (as we have recently learned), grieve together. The key to dealing with those unexpected moments of grief seems to be in looking ahead as we bury our dead and tend to the survivors.

Those of us who were part of the NMC (New Media Consortium) global family, tribe, and community of learning for many years were stunned, a couple of weeks ago, by the sudden, completely unexpected news that our NMC friends/staff/colleagues had been suddenly laid off during the holiday season and, as the official (unsigned) statement distributed by former Board President Gardner Campbell via email noted on December 18, 2017, the “NMC will be promptly commencing a chapter 7 bankruptcy case. A trustee will be appointed by the court to wind down NMC’s financial affairs, liquidate its assets and distribute any net proceeds to creditors…” Those who loved the ed-tech reports issued through NMC’s Horizon Project, which documented ed tech projects, developments, trends, and challenges across both formal and informal learning sectors, are concerned that a project with more than 16 years of insights and impact worldwide could die along with the NMC.

Here one minute, gone the next: It’s the classic Talebian Black Swan—something so stunningly unexpected and world-changing for those involved (akin to the first, completely unanticipated sighting of a black swan where only white swans had previously been seen) that it shakes our beliefs and perceptions to the core. (None of us has been able to overlook the irony that one of the biggest Black Swans we have encountered came in the form of the dissolution of the very organization that had brought the concept of the Black Swan to our attention through a combination of conversations, articles, and a summit some of us attended in January 2015—three years ago this month.)

Dissecting the situation to determine what caused this particularly unwelcome Black Swan to land in our pond is going to keep a lot of people busy for a very long time.

Frankly, that’s not our concern. As we heard so many times decades ago on the original Star Trek television show, “He’s dead, Jim,” and others will have to handle the NMC funeral and respectfully deal with what remains of the corpse.

In less than two weeks, however, numerous members of the community that was originally fostered and sustained through the New Media Consortium have come together to determine what we will do to continue our work and play and exploration together in a post-NMC world. It only took us a few days of intensive online conversations and phone calls to determine that our greatest asset—one that cannot be monetized by any trustee or sold  through any bankruptcy proceedings—is the extended, collaborative, global group of innovative educators-trainers-learners-doers (what one of us lovingly calls “Edunauts”) who produced, under Creative Commons licensing, much of what made NMC such a dynamic organization with such far-reaching impact.

We are members of a vital, vibrant, dynamic community. That community is not dead, even if the organization that helped it grow and thrive is. By the end of the same week the announcement of the NMC’s immediate dissolution appeared, four of us (Lisa, Jonathan, Paul, and Bryan Alexander) had initiated community-wide conversations that led to creation of a landing place for the community: the Beyond the Horizon community on Slack.

We are at a very early stage in the evolution of this community—in some ways, it feels as if the NMC’s body hasn’t yet been placed into the ground—but we are already seeing the genesis of a community bootstrapping itself forward in hopeful and promising ways:

We are, individually and collectively, working as friends/colleagues/collaborators/cultivators, each tilling the vineyards we know best, collectively working toward the same goal of moving past this tragedy and keeping the momentum of this community going. And we hope you’ll join us, informally and formally, as we continue the learning journey the NMC community was on for nearly 25 years.


Innovator’s Mindset MOOC (#IMMOOC): At the Intersection of Innovation, Community, and Zombies

October 17, 2017

Yet another article—this one from Inside Higher Ed—is purportedly documenting the idea that MOOCs (massive open online courses) are dead—again. Which is news to those of us who are current relishing and being transformed in dynamically positive ways by George Couros’s #IMMOOC (the Innovator’s Mindset massive open online course). #IMMOOC and others are far from being the educational equivalent of the zombies inhabiting the mythical Land of the Living Dead Learning Opportunity; in the best of situations, they are dynamic learner-centric, inspiration-laden learning spaces where communities of learning can and do develop.

My experiences with #etmooc (the Educational Technology & Media MOOC) a few years ago provided numerous surprises that I’ve documented extensively on this blog and elsewhere: it showed me that online learning is every bit as productive and rewarding as the best of my onsite learning experiences have been. It helped me realize that creating seamless blended (onsite and online) learning spaces was far from a dreamy never-in-our-lifetimes possibility. It has helped me foster an appreciation for an extended use of blended learning among colleagues and other learners. And it has transformed the way I approach my own training-teaching-learning-doing endeavors.

One of the most unexpected and rewarding aspects was the realization that the communities of learning that develop in a course (onsite or online) could, as soon as they become learner-driven by those who see themselves as “co-conspirators” in the learning process rather than sponges striving for little more than a grade or a certificate of completion, take on a life that can and will continue far beyond the timeframe of any individual course or other learning opportunity. The #etmooc community continued actively online for more than three years; it was only when numerous key members of the community changed jobs or retired that the impetus community members had for continuing to meet vanished and the community became dormant.

Yet another unexpected and rewarding aspect came with the realization that the community of learning fostered by a well-designed and well-facilitated is not a closed community. Many of us in #etmooc found that our course-based explorations put us in touch with others who were not in the course—but who became interested in the #etmooc community—because of the two-way (and sometimes multi-way) face-to-face and online conversations that started in #etmooc, continued via social media tools and other resources, and further added to the development of the #etmooc community by drawing those non-#etmooc players into the land of #etmooc. For me, it was a wonderfully expansive example of what Frans Johansson so clearly described as “The Intersection” in The Medici Effect—the type of third place (e.g., a pub) where strangers briefly come together, exchange ideas (involving plenty of listening as well as talking), then disperse and help disseminate those ideas among others whose paths they cross long after the original pub discussions (or MOOC community of learning discussions) took place.

I saw this in action again last week in terms of the #IMMOOC community expanding beyond its tremendously permeable walls when I helped initiate a one-hour conversation about one particular aspect of The Innovator’s Mindset with colleagues who meet online to record sessions of Maurice Coleman’s podcast T is for Training. The conversation began with little more than participants having a link to an online resource—“8 Characteristics of the Innovator’s Mindset (Updated)”—that George Couros wrote and eventually incorporated into his book. We summarized the resource during the first few minutes of that episode of T is for Training, then used it as a springboard for a discussion exploring how it could be incorporated into the library training-learning programs that we help shape and facilitate.

The result was that, by the end of the hour, we were energized and ready to transforms the words from The Innovator’s Mindset into concrete actions designed to support innovative approaches to learning within the organizations we serve. We had also created a new learning object—the archived recording of the discussion—that contributes to the resources available to those exploring the topic—including those of us participating as co-conspirators in #IMMOOC. And we had created a new, ready-to-expand Intersection whereby the T is for Training community and the #IMMOOC community might meet and grow together. And the next possibility—that others who have not participated in T is for Training or #IMMOOC might now begin interacting with the fostering the positive actions both communities support—is a possibility ready to spring to life. Which is not, all things considered, a bad result coming from a form of learning that has just, once again, been declared dead and active only as one of an ever-increasing league of Zombies of Learning.

N.B. — This is the sixth in a series of posts inspired by Season 3 of #IMMOOC.


Innovator’s Mindset MOOC (#IMMOOC): Sorry, I Don’t Do That Anymore

October 16, 2017

The last person who tried to convince me I should learn about something that, to me, held no value probably pushed me well down the road of transition from lecturing and advocating to facilitating, listening, and co-learning—something I remembered while attempting to answer the questions “What is one thing you used to do in education that you no longer do or believe in? Why the change?” as part of my participation in the third season of George Couros’s #IMMOOC (the Innovator’s Mindset massive open online course) last week.

She was a wonderful colleague, deeply immersed in and a strong proponent of using Twitter. And she seemed to believe, in her social media heart of hearts, that anyone not using Twitter was somehow leading a sadly diminished existence somewhat akin to living in the gray, war-devastated zone of a dystopian novel. So, while we sat side by side during two days of meetings, she attempted to convince me that I, too, should be using Twitter. She tried all sorts of things: telling me how great it was. (I wasn’t convinced.) Telling me what it could do for me. (Other social media tools were already doing those things for me.) Talking about who else was using it and how I could be in touch with them via Twitter. (I was already in touch with them in many other ways—including sitting with them in that room during the dynamic conversations we were having during that two-day period.) And finally—after nearly a day and a half of friendly cajoling and strong advocacy on behalf of Twitter, she asked a question that resonated: if I wanted a relatively quick answer to a question or situation that was stumping me, would I want quick and easy access to thousands of people who might be able to provide that answer? When she pointed out that Twitter could provide that level of access, she—and Twitter—had me.

What she also had was a learner who could see how the (minimal amount of) effort required to learn about and use Twitter might provide magnificent, appealing, productive results. So I was won over to Twitter. But not—as I realized at the time and now again as I recall that moment—by her zealous advocacy. It was the act of finally identifying an unfilled need and offering a proposed way to fill that need that finally led me to my long-standing engagement with colleagues through Twitter as one medium for that engagement.

I walked away from that experience with at least two valuable transformations: a willingness to adopt and embrace Twitter as one of many tools I use every day to work and play (including the weekly tweet chats that are an integral part of participating in #IMMOOC), and a visceral understanding of and appreciation for the power a trainer-teacher-learner-doer wields in fostering positive transformations through collaboration more than through wordy explanations and coercion.

It’s a lesson that actually embedded itself into the “Rethinking Social Media” course I have taught many times and will again be teaching in November 2017 for ALA Editions. I start, in the pre-course publicity and in the Week 1 course introduction, with an assurance that I won’t be requiring learners to become short- or long-term users of any of the social media tools we will be exploring. I also assure them that our online learning space is a guilt-free zone: they can spend as little or as much time as they care to spend with Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or any of the other tools we will be studying as potential tools to further connect them with colleagues, library users, and anyone else they want to attempt to reach through those tools—as long as they reach the learning goals they (and their employers) have established for themselves. I also strive to keep the “lecture” part of the course as short and engaging as I possibly can, with frequent interruptions designed to stimulate responses and learner-centric activities.

Learners in my courses are, as much as they want to be, co-conspirators in the learning process. We learn from each other. We have as much fun as we can as they alter assignments to meet their own specific learning needs in ways that they can quickly apply within their own work (and other day-to-day) environments. And, in the best of situations, we stay in touch for weeks, months, or even years after a course formally ends. Because we understand that learning doesn’t have to be an endeavor with definitive starting and ending points.

We learn by exploring. Doing. Failing. And failing again and again. Until we finally reach the goals we have helped establish and that are meaningful to us, to our employers, and to those we ultimately serve. So I no longer deliver long lectures; my face-to-face and online presentations are designed to be as short as they can be; highly interactive; and responsive, in the moment, to the responses my co-conspirators offer. I try to keep my advocacy to a minimum. And we all seem to be a bit better off—and happier—as a result.

N.B. — This is the fifth in a series of posts inspired by Season 3 of #IMMOOC.


Innovator’s Mindset MOOC (#IMMOOC): Down the Blended Reading Rabbit Hole Again

October 10, 2017

The new-to-me practice of reading intensively beyond the page as part of my participation in the third season of George Couros’s #IMMOOC (the Innovator’s Mindset massive open online course) struck gold again this morning.

Slowly making the transition from Week 2 to Week 3 of the six-week virtual voyage in this highly-interactive, rhizomatically-expanding course, I was rereading the section of The Innovator’s Mindset: Empower Learning, Unleash Talent, and Lead a Culture of Creativity detailing the eight characteristics of the Innovator’s Mindset and decided to spend a little more time with the fourth item, which centers around the idea that “Networks are crucial to innovation” (p. 52). Because I was following my newly-established habit of reading a print copy of a book while sitting in front of a laptop computer or with a mobile device handy ­so I would have immediate access to online resources, I made the leap from printed page to an online resource to learn more about a writer Couros mentioned in that section of his book. The result was that instead of having only a passing familiarity with Tom Kaneshige through Couros’s one-line reference to his work, I ended up reading the entire (short) piece Couros mentioned. Picked up a new, wonderfully evocative phrase (“Liquid Networks”) that connects with other familiar but differently-named ideas (including Ray Oldenburg’s concept of the third place as a place where ideas are exchanged, are nurtured, and thrive). And walked away with a much richer, deeper appreciation of Kaneshige’s work than I would have had if I had stayed within the confines of the print edition rather than making the piece by Kaneshige an integral part of the book I am re-reading.

I almost made it through the next paragraph without again weaving print with online content, but wanted to know more about Couros’s next reference—to Steven Anderson’s remark that “Alone we are smart, together we are brilliant.” With little more than Anderson’s name and the knowledge (from Couros’s writing) that Anderson is a “well-known educational speaker and writer,” I had little difficulty tracking him down with the keyword search “Steven Anderson educator.” And was completely surprised to find the full quote at the top of Anderson’s Twitter account. Which struck me as being a bit odd since the tweet was posted in September 2013 and it is October 2017 as I write these words.

“Could he,” I wondered, “be one of those people who rarely uses Twitter, so hasn’t been active since that four-year-old post was written?

“Did someone just finish retweeting it so it again appears at the top of his feed?

“Or is something else going on here?”

It only took a few seconds to see that there were more recent—much more recent—tweets there, including four posted within the last 24 hours…one of which was a link to a magnificent resource (a chart displaying “12 Principles of Modern Learning” and including short descriptions of the “principle,” along with a “reality” and an “opportunity” for each principle).

My head is spinning. I have, in less than 10 minutes, gone from being completely unfamiliar with Anderson’s work to seeing that he has a tremendously valuable (free) online resource (his Twitter feed) for any trainer-teacher-learner-doer. Exploring that resource in the most cursory of ways, yet walking away with another resource (the 12 Principles chart). And taking the natural step of following that Twitter feed so I will have Anderson’s wisdom and resources as additional elements of my own ever-expanding blended (onsite-online) learning environment.

And the learning doesn’t stop there. I’m still curious about why that four-year-old tweet is at the top of the feed. So I go back to the top of the feed, look at it a little more carefully, and realize that he has used the “pin” function within Twitter to assure that it remains in that top-of-the-feed position so any of us visiting his feed will see that tweet before we see any others. Which makes me laugh at myself because I have been using Twitter for several years. I help others learn how to explore and use Twitter. And am seen as being fairly adept at using Twitter. But. This. Is. The. First. Time. I. Have. Noticed. That. I. Can. Pin. A. Tweet. And it’s very simple: highlight a tweet I have posted. Choose the drop-down menu in the upper right-hand corner of the tweet on display. Choose the “Pin to your profile page.” Accept the “Pin this Tweet to the top of your profile” option that has now popped up on my screen.”

There’s one final step to take before I return to re-reading that chapter of Couros’s book. I’m doing this for #IMMOOC as much as I’m doing it for myself, and a central element of participating in a connectivist MOOC like #IMMOOC is to connect with my course co-conspirators, so I use tinyurl.com to create a link to the tweet with the “12 Principles,” transfer it into a tweet I am composing, then add the #IMMOOC hashtag to the tweet and send the whole thing out into the Twitterverse so my MOOCmates, friends, and colleagues will have access to it. Learn from it. And retweet it so this latest personal learning moment grows rhizomatically and helps change our view of our world—one tweet at a time. Then return to The Innovator’s Mindset to finish my morning reading.

N.B. — This is the fourth in a series of posts inspired by Season 3 of #IMMOOC.


Innovator’s Mindset MOOC (#IMMOOC): Preparing for a Future We Can’t Yet See

October 3, 2017

The experience of immersing myself in the third season of George Couros’s #IMMOOC (the Innovator’s Mindset massive open online course) continues to take me down intriguing, dynamic, transformative paths well worth exploring. This exploration of innovations in training-teaching-learning with co-conspirators from all over the world (connected via live, interactive YouTube presentations; a drinking-from-a-firehose rapid-fire Twitter feed and weekly tweet chats with a learner’s guide; interactions on a course Facebook page; cross-pollinating blog posts such as this one, where conversations continue; and probably myriad other learning threads I haven’t yet discovered) is high-energy, high-level learning at its best. And the very act of participating stimulates the types of innovation the course itself inspires us to explore.

Couros--Innovator's_Mindset--CoverContinuing to “read beyond the pages” of the printed copy I have of The Innovator’s Mindset, for example, I once again viscerally feel the difference, this afternoon, between the act of simply reading a line of text and the act of enriching our understanding of that line of text by going back to the source that inspired the thought behind that line. Reading Couros’s one-line summary of Simon Sinek’s talk “How Great Leaders Inspire Action” from TEDx Puget Sound in 2009 (in Chapter 1 of the book), I was left with the following perfectly serviceable idea: “…he [Sinek] explained that all great organizations start with their ‘why’ and then move toward the what and the how.” I had a vague idea of what that implied. I was perfectly ready to keep reading to see where Couros was going to take us. Then I remember how much I enjoyed taking advantage of the access online resources provide to deeper levels of reading/thinking/learning last week, during Week 1 of this six-week course. So I stop watching the clock and worrying about whether I have enough time to take another deep dive. Take the 18 minutes required to actually watch that TEDx talk. Re-view parts of it. Take notes on my laptop. Then transfer those notes into a rough draft of this piece-in-progress.

By the time I am finished, I have an ocean-deep appreciation for what Couros is trying to convey and, more importantly, what Sinek, in his TEDx talk, calls “The Golden Circle”: circles within circles (sort of like the circles within circles of learning in which I’m currently engaged). Sinek’s Golden Circle is comprised of a small, middle one having the word “why”; a middle circle containing the word “how”; and a larger outer circle holding the word “what.” He explains that by starting with the word “why” when we address someone with whom we are trying to make a connection, we are engaging deeply-embedded brained-based feelings and motivations that hook our intended audience. Make those audience members part of our dream. And invite them to actively be part of making that dream real.

By reading that line from Couros and then watching the video and then looking for related resources (including an online reproduction of The Golden Circle), I have gone from seeing an almost throw-away line of text morph—through this blended on-page/online approach to reading—into something that is becoming a memorable extended two-hour moment of transformative learning—simply because I give it the time and effort it so obviously deserves. And by the time I reach Sinek’s concluding lines in that TEDx presentation—“…those who lead, inspire us. Whether they are individuals or organizations, we follow those who lead not because we have to, but because we want to…”—I realize that simply having read that line without having heard the preceding 17 minutes of set up (as you are doing at this moment) would have meant the words had far less impact and stickiness than they had as a result of my mini-deep-dive into what Couros described in a subsection (“Have Schools Forgotten Their Why?”) in his chapter “What Innovation Is and Isn’t”—part of our reading for #IMMOOC this week.

future-u_logoAs I finish reading the first chapter of The Innovator’s Mindset, I circle back to one of the opening sections and reread the words “We need to prepare kids for jobs that don’t exist”—a theme I’ve been exploring for many years, most recently with my colleague Jonathon Nalder at Future-U. I think about how this course is preparing me for actions I hadn’t even thought would exist for me as a result of becoming part of the #IMMOOC community. And I hope that if you have the time and inclination to do so, you, too, will create training-teaching-learning-doing opportunities you might not yet know exist—by reading the book and joining whatever part of the #IMMOOC community you can find as you read these words.

N.B. — This is the third in a series of posts inspired by Season 3 of #IMMOOC.


Chris Duderstadt: Building Community One Bench at a Time

October 2, 2017

While we often talk about taking positive actions step by step to improve our communities, Inner Sunset Park Neighbors Board Vice President Chris Duderstadt has persistently been making San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District and other areas better bench by bench. His Public Bench Project is now responsible for having created and added 100 colorful, attractive, welcoming places to sit, so a group of Inner Sunset neighbors gathered with Chris a week ago to celebrate the contributions he and other collaborating members of our community have made to enriching our public spaces.

Public-Bench_Project[2].pngHe built and installed his first public bench 40 years ago, and his own Inner Sunset home continues to feature one of the earliest benches. Interest in his work gained increasing amounts of attention over a very long period of time, he recalled during our conversation last week. The effort began growing rapidly approximately five years ago, when he formally created The Public Bench Project. Supporters have brought increasingly large amounts of loving attention to the project. Articles in local publications have helped to spread the word about the project and the presence of those lovely, hand-crafted benches. Those involved in offering space for additional benches are often involved in adorning them with the playfully colorful patterns that make them so attractive (the bench at the foot of the Hidden Garden Steps was painted by artist/art instructor Angie Crabtree and her students from the Woodside International School here in our neighborhood), and Chris himself has painted wonderful designs on a substantial number of those benches.

Many of us—residents and visitors alike—have enjoyed numerous conversations fostered by the availability of those lovely little meeting places where we interact with people we might not otherwise have met. And like the two neighborhood large-scale ceramic-tiled steps projects that serve as meeting places for people from all over the world, the benches are spectacular variations on Ray Oldenburg’s concept of the Third Place—those places where people know they can meet, talk, plan, and dream together.

Public_Bench_Project[1].pngIt certainly hasn’t been an easy process for Chris and others who continue to make this project thrive. There are always those who express concern that the introduction of a new bench (or a new ceramic-tiled staircase) will somehow attract “unwanted” people to the place a bench or other attraction is placed—and, of course, the homeless are generally the first to be mentioned as examples of those who are unwanted. But the success of the benches, the Moraga Steps, and the Hidden Garden Steps serve as a strong response—as so many of us remind those who are concerned—that being homeless is not a crime; it’s the uncivil behavior of some people (not all of whom are homeless, by the way) that is a concern, and that’s something we can and do address firmly when that particular problem arises. What some of us have found is that by sharing spaces with a variety of people—including the homeless members of our community—we have an opportunity to get to know them better so all of us can work together to make the neighborhood a better place.

With all the celebration that took place at that 100th-bench celebration came a bit of sadness for those of us who know and admire Chris and what he does. He explained an imminent hiatus in the project in a recent email:

“Let me thank you for your support of the Public Bench Project. We have made our neighborhoods more walkable and just plain friendlier. Over the past 40 years I have been able to place 100 benches in publicly accessible locations.

“It’s with great sadness that the Public Bench Project will be going on the disabled list for a while. I’m having major back surgery and, if successful, it will be at least 6 months before I can make benches again.

“From the outer Richmond and Sunset, to Dog Patch, to the Bay View, and even across the bay in San Pablo, you have allowed me to place benches. I believe we have all made the world just a little bit better.

“I trust you all have been able to experience the joy of doing this. While recovering, I hope to be able to figure out Facebook and create a venue to share our experiences.

“Thank you again. It’s been a good run.”

And it’s a good run that many of us look forward to continuing as soon as Chris is ready to get back on the bench and create more community meeting places for all of us.


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