Promoting Universal Broadband Access With Lev Gonick (Part 2 of 2)

December 10, 2020

This is the second half of a two-part interview conducted with Lev Gonick, Chief Information Officer, Arizona State University, one of the driving forces within the ShapingEDU community, and a longtime advocate of broadband access for work and learning. An article drawn from the interview will be available on the ShapingEDU blog.

Let’s move to another area where you’ve been active—the annual Broadband Communities Summit. Would you tell me how you first joined that summit and describe what you and your colleagues do there each year?

Lev Gonick

Before there was Broadband Communities, the same collection of national leaders were organized under the name BroadBand Properties. They generously awarded me a national recognition for our community vision of connecting the community in Northeast Ohio in 2011. Thereafter, I was invited to share some of our work at the annual meetings and met a number of broadband leaders who were working on what would become known as the National Broadband Plan and the National Broadband Coalition. I had an opportunity to support both efforts through my experience at Case Western Reserve and our work at OneCommunity, which later became DigitalC.

Thanks for so nicely connecting the dots there. Would you mind describing the panel discussion and any other presentations you were involved in during the summit this year?

Jim Baller, one of the nation’s foremost legal authorities on broadband, has convened a “blue ribbon” panel each year on Economic Development at the Broadband Communities conference for at least the last eight or so years. I have had the pleasure of being the moderator for that panel for most of those sessions. The topics typically include a review of where we’ve come from over the past year, and the opportunities and challenges ahead. This past year, as we were remote, Jim chaired the panel and I was happy to share some of the great work that we are doing at Arizona State University (ASU) on economic development and educational attainment by leveraging community networking partnerships.

Obvious follow-up: what is some of the work you’re doing at Arizona State University?

2020, for all the tragedy of COVID and the toll of human life and collective anxiety, is the year that universal broadband access moved from being a quixotic call in the wild to a near table stakes reality, especially for education needs. At ASU itself, we have provided thousands of laptop and hotspot loaners to students in need, including hundreds of students from American Indian reservations in rural Arizona. We have also worked to develop a coalition of partners working on digital equity including incumbent providers, new entrants, community anchor institutions like the State Library, healthcare organizations, K-12 school districts, the Maricopa Community Colleges and, of course, the remarkable breadth of talent across ASU itself. We have also worked with key education broadband network organizations, like the Sun Corridor Network, which provides network connectivity to universities, colleges, and schools across the state. Recently, we started working with cities and the State government to align policy objectives to integrated network architectures to the priorities and needs of the community, as the community itself has articulated. What took a decade in Northeast Ohio is happening here in Arizona in under a year. The big difference is COVID-19 and the realization that broadband being provided to advance remote K-20 learners across the state, especially in our inner cities and rural communities, can also be used for health and wellness needs, next generation workforce development and skills, business attraction, and economic development. That has always been the promise. Now we are seeing the coalition coming together in unprecedented fashion. ASU is a strong and capable partner, and we are advancing the needs of Arizona in alignment with our mission.

As we continue making that transition from “a quixotic call in the wild” to positive results, how optimistic are you that the current situation will continue to lead us on a path to universal broadband access throughout the United States? 

If not now, when? If not us, who? This is our time and our calling. There is strong non-partisan support across most (but not all) of the actors from policy to providers, to community interests. I am bullish that we will see significant progress in the next calendar year.

Drawing upon your extensive experience, what would you suggest individuals can do to support broadband access locally, regionally, and nationally?

There is a role for everyone interested in and committed to broadband equity. There are personal and organizational investments of not only cash, but also equipment, policy and community coalition building, legal work, broadening an understanding of community needs and, of course, volunteering to support the orientation to and education of the more than 30 percent of Americans who do not have access to nor use the Internet. Something for everyone. The regional and national angle is about identifying existing forces working to address access, equity, adoption, and use and supporting them, whether those are libraries, community centers, the national coalition digital inclusion and so forth.

N.B. — Paul is one of three Storytellers in Residence for ShapingEDU (July 2020-June 2021).


Promoting Universal Broadband Access With Lev Gonick (Part 1 of 2)

December 10, 2020

This is the first part of a two-part interview conducted with Lev Gonick, Chief Information Officer, Arizona State University, one of the driving forces within the ShapingEDU community, and a longtime advocate of broadband access for work and learning. An article drawn from the interview will be available on the ShapingEDU blog.

Arlene Krebs, during our recent interview/conversation about efforts to foster universal broadband access throughout the United States, mentioned your longtime interest in the topic. What first drew you to broadband access as a challenge you wanted to help tackle?

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is gonick-lev1.jpg
Lev Gonick

In 1987, I helped my friend Rob Borland from the University of Zimbabwe establish MangoNet, an early FidoNet network in Southern Africa providing connectivity to rural healthcare providers in Zimbabwe through GreenNet and WorkNet—all part of the pre-commercialization of the Internet. My wife and I managed to bring in 1440 baud modems which were installed at the Swiss Embassy in Harare. For four years, from 1990-1993), I took a group of students from across Canada and the United States to Zimbabwe for intensive study and non-governmental experiences. We continued our work with MangoNet, which eventually became HealthNet. Thereafter, I realized how important connectivity was both for health and wellness, as we were working on the detection of tuberculosis (TB) as an early indication of AIDS, but also AIDs education using early Internet protocols. When I started working in California in 1995, I took my learnings from Africa and began thinking and working on connecting parts of Pomona, which were on the “wrong side of the tracks,” with poverty, low education attainment, deteriorating public housing and little to no Internet. That marked the beginning of my 25-year effort to contribute to Connecting the Unconnected.

Any other early lessons you, Rob, and those students learned about the advantages and challenges of broadband access from the experience you just summarized?

The most important lesson I learned was the importance of designing and building coalitions of the willing. MangoNet was built with support from both Canadian and Swedish International Development agencies, donations from volunteers like me and my students, and trusted relationships in communities being impacted.

Watching your TEDx talk from 2011, I was struck by themes that seem to run through much of your work, not the least of which is the need for community and the “building of coalitions of the willing” you mentioned. How are you seeing broadband access—or lack of access—support or hinder the strength of the communities in which you work?

There is a mixed reality facing unconnected communities. During my time in Cleveland and Northeast Ohio, I worked with homeless shelters, public housing families, low income housing projects, and groups of returning vets. For some, there was a deep interest and desire to take advantage of the Internet access we working on with OneCleveland, that begot OneCommunity, and then/now DigitalC. For others, there was an equally deep suspicion and profound distrust of all things digital and Internet. Many individuals believed that the Internet was part of the surveillance state, to be avoided at all costs. We worked on reducing the well-placed fear and distrust by partnering with those individuals and organizations that were trusted by those involved. We brought doctors to the community members to meet and then invite them to continue remote doctor visits online. We brought community financial literacy volunteers to the community and invited them to do the same online. Most profoundly, once we provided Internet access to those in our service area, without any promotion on our part, their kids or grandchildren found their way to visit. We traced packet routes and found that the first wave adoption in public housing, for example, was from grandma’s public housing kitchen to the local school district. These are important elements in building the foundations of a sustainable approach to netizenship.

That really takes us to the heart of what Arlene described—rethinking our approach and making a transition from referring to this as a “digital divide” and, instead, looking at it as a “social justice divide,” and so much more. Building upon what you just said, let’s humanize this even more: can you tell a specific story about how someone in Cleveland was positively affected by the work Digital C was doing or continues to do in Cleveland?

There are hundreds of stories, Paul. Custodial staff at the Cleveland Clinic found themselves with digital skills after completing classes, working themselves from minimum-wage jobs to medical-records-entry positions. This upskilling represents a profound change in the arc of both the worker and their family’s life prospects. We worked with workforce development teams to take young people who had timed out of the justice system and provide them with certifications for digital technology skills, which supported job placement opportunities with great success. We worked on pathways through coding camps to new economy jobs. Men in some of the largest homeless shelters in Ohio learned how to use the Internet to apply for public housing and began to regain their way forward. We worked with men and women re-entering society from prison to provide them with Internet access to prepare them for relevant skills for workforce opportunities. All of these efforts were about coalition building and supporting partners and partnerships in the community.

Anything else you want to add about Digital C in terms of how it serves as a positive example for anyone interested in promoting universal broadband access throughout the United States?

DigitalC is not only into workforce development. Under the leadership of Dorothy Baunach, who succeeded me as CEO (and who was on the Board throughout my time), [DigitalC] continues to expand broadband access, bringing network connectivity, to tens of thousands of households. She and her team have done a remarkable job, partnering with the Cleveland Council on Digital Equity and the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, with a particular focus on providing connectivity during COVID in 2020.

N.B. — Paul is one of three Storytellers in Residence for ShapingEDU (July 2020-June 2021).


Adapting to Change, Loss, and Possibilities: Dennis Maness

December 6, 2020

It’s been a time of reflection. A time of thinking about how much I miss having meandering conversations with friends over coffee and dessert. And, most recently, thinking of long-time friends including Dennis Maness, who succumbed to cancer just a little over seven weeks ago. There was no opportunity to attend an onsite memorial service; the pandemic and sheltering in place made that impossible. But it hasn’t prevented me from thinking about this latest loss—and all the gains I had from knowing Dennis.

Dennis L. Maness

He and I worked together at the main library here in San Francisco for nearly 15 years—which was just a little over a third of his 41-year career with the library system. We had numerous brief conversations and countless laughs together over the years—the brevity of the conversations initially driven by the fact that they took place within the context and constraints of work interactions that didn’t leave us a lot of time to really kick back and get into long conversations about our overlapping personal interests. That brevity continued after his retirement, when his preferred form of communication always seemed to be short notes and shared links sent back and forth via Facebook. Which is why I have been thinking about Dennis with such great regularity since he passed away.

It almost always happens when I come across a link to an article or a video—generally something with wickedly humorous roots that parallel Dennis’s own wickedly lovely sense of humor. I read (or watch); I laugh; I think to myself, “Dennis would love this. Have to send it to him”; and then I feel a bit crushed to realize I no longer have a way to send it to him other than through recollections of all the lovely laughs we shared over the years.

Gumby in Ireland, by Dennis L. Maness

As is always the case, the very thick veneer of humor was a tough, but not impenetrable, barrier tightly wrapped around the core of a friend of great depth, empathy, and artistry. He was, among many other things, a lifelong photographer with a distinctive, engaging point of view that consistently shows up through the work he posted (and which remains available for viewing on the website he maintained). Glancing at that wonderfully extensive record of his photographs and skimming some of the many categories into which he had broken his work hints of his range of interests and the playful approach that he often took: “Scottish Games & Gatherings,” which included images captured between 2004 and 2017 and remind me of how much he loved all things Scottish; “Hula,” a stunningly beautiful set of photographs taken over a similarly long period of time and reflecting that facet of his interests; “Flamenco”; “Renaissance Faire”; “Portraits”; “San Francisco,” which included his fabulous effort to follow and photograph each of the 29 walks that were included in the latest (at that time) edition of Adah Bakalinsky’s Stairway Walks in San Francisco; and, of course, “the Adventures of Gumby,” which includes subcategories along the lines of “Gumby and the Ladies” (beautiful photographs of women holding Gumby), Gumby in Washington, DC, “On a Road Trip” with Gumby, and Gumby in Ireland. The Gumby pages make me giggle. Bring back memories of the Gumby figure he always had in his office at the library and which obviously accompanied him and his wife (Gloria) during their frequent travels. And make me wonder how Gumby is getting along without Dennis to chronicle his adventures…or whether, in fact, Gumby and Dennis are still, somehow and somewhere, hanging out together and sending photos to Gloria.

He was also what all of my best friends and colleagues are: a combination of friend, colleague, muse, and mentor. During our years at the library, he often asked about the writing I was doing away from work. This was an extended period during which I was immersed in trying to produce and publish works of fiction. He consistently asked how the writing was going as I completed drafts of two novels and was working on a variety of short stories and other novels. He was consistently encouraging in spite of the non-stop series of rejections I was receiving from literary journals, agents, and publishers. And he provided no room for (rare, thankfully) moments of self-pity: he was always there to remind me that I was writing because I had to write, and that stepping away in discouragement would be a surrender I could not afford to accept. (I still have and cherish the multi-panel Grant Snider “All I Need to Write” cartoon he emailed to me in 2014—long after I’d given up the fiction and was focusing more on short nonfiction pieces for a variety of online publications/blogs. “All I Need to Write: a room with a view; no other work to do; a childproof lock; a ticking clock; natural light; a chair that fits just right; new paper and pens; some animal friends; the right phase of the moon; ancient runes; a world of my creation; or internal motivation.” And our personal, shared punchline was that we both had more than a lifetime’s worth of internal motivation to pursue what our hearts told us we had to do.)

There were three cherished encounters with Dennis, after he and I left the San Francisco Public Library system, that very much broke the pattern of talk-laugh-and-run: a half-day photo shoot he did for me when I was in the process of upgrading my website; an exhibition of his work arranged, sponsored by, and held on the premises of the Main Library here in San Francisco; and a breakfast with Dennis and Gloria at a Denny’s restaurant  (of course, fate determined it had to be Denny’s if I were going to have a meal with the friend who consistently, tongue in cheek, referred to himself as “Uncle Denny”).

Photo by Dennis L. Maness

The photo shoot came about as a result of my reaching out to him to find out what he would charge to do a series of shots I could use for the website and other publicity materials as I was making the transition from being a writer-trainer-instructional designer-consultant to being a writer-trainer-presenter in the areas in which I work. He was adamant about not taking money; he just wanted to do it for the pleasure of taking on another challenge with/for a friend. When I kept insisting that I actually had created a budget to do this the right way (e.g., doing it without taking unfair advantage of a very talented friend), he finally, with obvious exasperation, came up with an ultimatum: he would do it for free or he would do it for a million dollars. Not being able to afford the second option, I settled for the first and had one of the most wonderfully inspirational mornings I have ever had. Dennis and Gloria picked me up from my home that morning and took me on what I still think of as one of the most fabulous Magical Mystery Tours imaginable. We went out to areas along Crissy Field (with San Francisco Bay as a backdrop), then went to a lovely area near the Golden Gate Bridge, and finally circled back to my own neighborhood for a less formal set of photos taken on the Hidden Garden Steps ceramic-tile mosaic before having lunch together in the neighborhood. What still remains vividly etched in my memory is the process of watching Dennis think on the spot and find opportunities most of us might never have sought; as we were walking by a combination gift shop/coffee shop along Crissy Field, Dennis, on the spur of the moment, suggested we go inside for a minute. What I saw was tables and shelves full of tchotchkes, bookshelves lined with materials about the San Francisco Bay Area, and that very appealing coffee and sandwich counter. What Dennis saw—and used—was a small window where the soft morning light was streaming into the building. He positioned Gloria behind me with the collapsible circular reflector disc he had brought along; positioned me next to the window so I was bathed in the glow of that incoming natural light; and, standing in front of me, caught images that rival the best of anything I’ve ever seen come out of the controlled environment of a photographer’s studio. That was the brilliance of Dennis: he could see and capture things most of us could not even imagine.

Dennis, with Dennis

Our joint visit (again, with Gloria) to his retrospective “Summer of Love” exhibition held in San Francisco’s Main Library in Summer 2017, was equally playful and inspiring. From the moment we walked past the promotional image in the lobby of the building where he had served the public for decades until the moment we parted ways, he was in his element: talking with friends and colleagues who quickly left their work stations and went running over to greet and embrace him; looking at and talking (all too briefly and modestly) about the work we were viewing; and even staging a photograph that captured the Dennis I knew, admired, and loved: mirroring that image, in which he was leaning out of the Volkswagen Bug he and Gloria had used many years earlier when they relocated to Northern California, he peeked around the edge of the display and gently directed me on how to best capture the image of Dennis peeking around the picture of Dennis peeking out the window of the car. I believe it was a moment that would have inspired a round of applause from all his colleagues if they had been with us when he created and became part of that image.

Our final visit—that breakfast in Denny’s—started out as a result of a typical urban annoyance: someone had broken into my car (an act that produced nothing of material value for the vandal/thief and left me facing the cost of replacing that window). A few calls around the city led me to the decision to drive down to South San Francisco, where a vendor had offered to replace the window at a very reasonable price the morning after the break-in; the only problem was that I’d have to find a way to kill a couple of hours while the work was completed. Spotting the Denny’s restaurant across the street from the vendor’s building in an industrial part of the city, I immediately thought of Dennis—knowing that he and Gloria lived in South San Francisco. Less than 20 minutes after I reached out to him via Facebook, the three of us were sitting together in a booth and catching up on what we had been doing since we had last (physically) been together. And that’s when the punch in the gut came: Dennis told me he had been diagnosed with cancer, was undergoing treatment, and had no idea how much time he had left with us. But, in typical Dennis fashion, he spent more time talking about what he was doing than what he was facing, and he and Gloria did their best to assure me that they were taking advantage of every moment remaining to them—a commitment they clearly kept as he continued taking walks and producing photographs; sharing notes and links via Facebook; and interacting with friends as he always had: as a colleague, a friend, a cherished mentor, and a source of inspiration.

Our Facebook exchanges continued, but at an ever-decreasing rate, so I wasn’t particularly surprised in October of this year when a library colleague sent a note letting me know he had entered hospice. An attempt to reach him via Facebook did not attract a response…until, a couple of weeks after Dennis had left us, a family member saw and responded to the note.

So, Dennis is physically gone. The Facebook account has been removed. But our sporadic email exchanges and that lovely website remain. As does my hope that, somehow, he is seeing this. Being reminded of how much he meant—and continues to mean—to me. And taking the best photographs he has ever taken.

–N.B.: This is the twenty-fifth in a series of reflections inspired by coronavirus/ shelter-in-place experiences.


Promoting Intergenerational Leadership With Natalie Miller (Part 2 of 2)

November 13, 2020

This is the second part of a two-part interview conducted with Natalie Miller, a systems engineer with Booz Allen Hamilton, active member of the ShapingEDU community, and a University of Maryland graduate student. An article drawn from the interview is available on the ShapingEDU blog.

Switching gears, has broadband access been an issue for you and your colleagues in online learning environments?

In a work and personal setting, yes.

In a personal context I have mainly just had connection issues on different days that prevented me from getting work or school done online. It is amazing how much we rely on these connections and how much stops when they disappear.

The hardest situations I have heard today are the power outages in Los Angeles county. The power companies in the area keep shutting off power because of the risk of downed polls and fires, but every time there is a power outage, it sets students and teachers a day behind, keeps individuals from working, and takes away connections for everyone in those areas. At the end of the school year, students are going to be in classes much less than other areas because of this situation, meaning they may be behind other students and may not be meeting the mark as often as other districts.

Seeing how broadband can affect an individual so dramatically shows how essential it is for everyone to have equal opportunity to resources, and how stressful not having these resources could be. I actually took the train up the coast this past weekend, and I know I was stressed when my call was cut out for five minutes! With public locations including libraries and Starbucks being closed for a period of time, it was even more difficult. 

During the pandemic, having outdoor Internet cafes, or opportunities to receive more reliable, battery operated/remote access equipment are two ideas that could be helpful.

One last switch to hit a topic that clearly is of interest to you: I know you have a long-standing passion for and impressive involvement in advocating for open education resources. Care to add anything more to what you’ve already said about how you were drawn to that topic under the tutelage of your dean, and some of the work you’re doing or have done?

Open Education is the future of education, and it can teach everyone so much. In times like the pandemic, creating open materials could help to foster the communities everyone misses, and help individuals to gain development or show progress from opportunities they may have lost. Today’s emotional climate has been so unstable; by working on open publishing or assisting on making materials for students, individuals can provide the assistance and compassion that these students need in times where funds and emotions are tight.

Natalie Miller

From my experience, groups like College of the Canyons Open Educational Resources and ShapingEDU have been some of the most positive and supportive communities I have been a part of, which is why I continue to come back and be a part of them. The synchronized mindset of wanting the best for others, and for the community is what drives them, and that is honestly the type of communities America and the education system need right now. Education will always be the future, and supporting the students in the system is how to support the future.

What have I not asked that you hoped to cover regarding learning, leadership, broadband access, or open education resources?

“How would you advise someone to become a leader in education?” 

One of the most unique things about education is how many different individuals are involved. In the educational community, there are almost no limits to the number of backgrounds, races, specialties, ages, genders, or any other identifiers that exist, but with all this diversity I want to remind everyone that you can be a leader, especially in education. 

“How?”

Find what you are passionate about. Surround yourself with individuals that will support you. Make a plan. Think about what you see that needs to be improved. 

When I just started school, I made the mistake of thinking I was just there for the degree and all I needed to do was show up to classes. When I started doing more than that, I became more than that. When you become passionate about something, like education, you should learn about it enough that you have no doubt in your mind that you are an advocate, and then people will listen. 

Being a leader is also listening. Once we all start listening to each other, we can all lead each other to better systems and processes that will drive us toward equality, equity, and opportunity for all. 

N.B. — Paul is one of three Storytellers in Residence for ShapingEDU (July 2020-June 2021).


Promoting Intergenerational Leadership With Natalie Miller (Part 1 of 2)

November 13, 2020

This is the first part of a two-part interview conducted with Natalie Miller, a systems engineer with Booz Allen Hamilton, active member of the ShapingEDU community, and a University of Maryland graduate student. An article drawn from the interview is available on the ShapingEDU blog.

Let’s start with an easy one: what initially drew you into ShapingEDU?

When I was doing my undergrad at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo (I was a transfer student), the CSU Chief of Innovation, Michael Berman, had suggested me for this event because of my work in Open Education. Being so involved in Open Education, and just passionate about my own journey, as well as other students’ journeys, I wanted in. I wanted to make a difference in the education community, and the fact that there were others who would be willing to listen to an undergrad student is amazing. The act of listening to students alone is what brought me on board and gives me hope for an education system that listens and caters to their students more. 

You have, since that introduction, actually jumped right into a leadership position in the community as one of two “co-mayors,” with Trevor Ellis, for the “Bolster Intergenerational Leadership for Learning Futures” neighborhood. Can you describe what you and Trevor are doing there?

In the “Bolster Intergenerational Leadership for Learning Futures” neighborhood, Trevor and I are working toward creating proposals, solutions, and ideas to help integrate different levels of learning and leadership in an educational path. 

There are two ways to look at “Bolster Intergenerational Leadership for Learning Futures:

*Having different levels (i.e., elementary, high school, college) come together to support each other and learn. This could be extremely effective because less-developed-level students could learn from more developed students, and more developed students could prove their knowledge by sharing it with less-developed students. The leadership would also promote confidence.

*The second way one could look at it is simply giving more leadership to students in classrooms, which is closely related to the concept of Open Pedagogy, a close cousin of Open Education. Open Pedagogy is the idea that students should be able to create their own classroom: e.g., make their own tests, help create their materials, and even teach lessons to each other. The professors are still very much involved, but it is more [that] they are encouraging, correcting, and cultivating students minds than lecturing. Students should have more of a say in what their education path is, and by doing Open Pedagogy, they would have more control over what assignments and things they want to learn. 

Detail from ShapingEDU 10 Actions document
Illustration by Karina Branson/ConverSketch

Trevor and I are specifically looking into what communities we could cultivate to meet goals like the ones above, as well as what materials would be helpful in guiding individuals to understand how to encourage leadership at different levels. In the end, I think a toolkit will be helpful in doing so.

Your description of Open Pedagogy very much parallels what I experienced in connectivist MOOCS [massive open online courses], where “faculty” and “learners” were co-conspirators in the learning process. What experiences have you had with that experience of being a co-conspirator in learning?

In my education path, I have had more opportunities to be a co-inspirer than most students, but I hope to not be the exception one day. 

One of the best classroom settings I was in, a professor split us into groups of three to four students to teach different lessons throughout the quarter. This was great because it made sure that the group presenting knew the material front and back, and it also gave the class a slightly different style of learning each period that would keep it interesting. The professor would look at our lesson plan ahead of time, advise us, and bring up anything that we missed, but it allowed students to control what was talked about a little more, and make it in a language that was relevant to their peers. 

Outside of classrooms, I have been so fortunate because I was pulled into Open Education by the Dean of the Library and Distance Learning at College of the Canyons in Valencia, California, James Glapa-Grossklag. When I was nineteen, James pulled me into a position where I had no idea what Open Education was, and told me to run with it. I ended up creating a full program: a workflow, marketing materials, and a website [Zero Textbook Cost] that grew so fast that five individuals had to replace me when I left the program. Seeing a previous teacher—and current Dean—give me that opportunity and responsibility so young in my educational career allowed us to be inspired by each other and opened up other opportunities like public speaking, faculty assistance, and heading grants. This allowed me to believe there is no limit to what a student can do. [Note: the website has changed, but still all work is done by other students.]

Returning to the theme of leadership: would you mind telling a story of how a leader in education or elsewhere has fostered your own interest in promoting leadership for learning futures?

Open Education Consortium logo

Honestly, the Dean at College of the Canyons, James Glapa-Grossklag, is the individual that inspired me to want to promote leadership for learning futures. After working with him at College of the Canyons, he continued to promote me: helped me to receive the Open Education Consortium’s first global student award in 2018 for my work at College of the Canyons, continued to introduce me to individuals in education who helped me on my journey, allowed me to give advice to one of his sons and mentor him, and advocated for me to be a keynote at multiple conferences. He had so much confidence in me and spent a large amount of time mentoring me even after I left College of the Canyons, I knew I wanted to help empower and encourage others. It was all for the wellbeing of others and my peers, and he just made it look so easy. He also mentored many individuals after me which was amazing to see as well. 

At Cal Poly I also got involved in Entrepreneurship. Seeing my peers inspired me to promote leadership for learning futures because I could see how ready and eager they were to learn, and they were creating startups while in college, which is very ambitious. Seeing how my peers hadn’t had the same opportunities of having a voice in their education as I did, I knew I wanted to take on the role of raising awareness and empowering these incredible students who were already capable of so much.

This all sounds closely related to the ShapingEDU “Connecting Student Voices” initiative that ShapingEDU Innovator in Residence Anita Roselle is beginning to develop. Do you have any connections to that initiative?

I don’t think I have any direct connections to that initiative yet, but I can easily see how it would connect. What I love about ShapingEDU is how closely everything is connected because it has the intention to improve education for students. 

[The] “Connecting Student Voices” initiative sounds inspiring because a consistent gap in student’s education is often that there is a limited span of two to four years to accomplish things in school. If there was an opportunity to help students come together and unite their educational thoughts, their education would be improved even more!

“Coming together” has always been an issue for students, and it has become even more challenging given our current pandemic/shelter-in-place situation. How is that affecting you and your colleagues in school? 

The pandemic has been a hard time for everyone, and it I have seen individuals from my undergraduate degree, workplace, and graduate degree suffering because of the lack of social interaction. I actually signed up for online classes knowing I would be starting my graduate degree in the pandemic, and although they are not in person, I have been able to chat on the phone with many individuals, chat online, attend online classes, and still make a few friends. 

The difference between pre-pandemic classrooms and post-pandemic classrooms for me is that I was able to meet strangers just by asking for the homework, or greeting them, where now it seems more direct. I am still learning a lot, but losing the lessons of social interaction are rough because in undergrad, the social interactions are often where one learns the most. At my workplace, I have been fortunate because in all of my undergrad I was able to practice communication in person, over email, in stressful situations, and public speaking in front of others, but so much of that connection between individuals is disintegrating and it is hard to gain if one does not already have it. 

Education is so strongly based on personal connections, convincing and critically thinking together, and pushing the limits together, and online education has not pivoted to meet that fast enough. Seeing students suffering because they are limited to individual paper projects is isolating and lacks the human nature education needs. Education needs to make sure it continues to shift to bring individuals together and keep it collaborative and approachable to everyone involved. {done}

What steps would you recommend to anyone (instructor or learner) who is struggling to succeed in our current learning environment?

Disclaimer: I have become more of an extrovert over the years. 

Individuals who are currently struggling in this isolated learning environment should start with the basics of forming or assigning groups. Throughout my whole education, having individuals to talk to and ask for support on missing assignments, or not understanding topics, has been essential. Most individuals were not made to function alone, and everyone needs a support system. Plus, everyone’s learning style is different, and the kinetic and auditory learners (because they often like to have conversations and visuals to think through things) are the ones suffering the most. Being away from a traditional learning environment is most likely limiting everyone’s learning abilities. With groups, each individual could get the attention they need, collaborate, ask questions in a more private setting, and socialize virtually. Be sure to also organize meetings just for socialization because it is just as essential! 

Besides groups, I think it is essential to understand how to step away from screens. Lately, I have been finding myself on a screen for 10+ hours a day, and when things don’t make sense, it is essential to stand up, stretch, and get some fresh air. One thing many individuals who are not on computers as often may not realize is how positioning to the computer can cause pain, and to remember that humans were not built to live on a screen. Getting up from a screen and doing a little exercise is a great mental reset.

N.B. — Paul is one of three Storytellers in Residence for ShapingEDU (July 2020-June 2021).


Adapting to Change, Loss, and Possibilities: Living With and Through Virtual Concerts

October 30, 2020

Set aside for a moment the claims and fears that pandemic-induced social-distancing is making it impossible for us to engage in some of life’s greatest pleasures. Forget the unfounded claims that live, “face-to-face” performance and other activities (e.g., learning together or collaborating for social change) are hibernating until we can once again safely gather in physical spaces.

Think, instead, of the best experiences we have had when drawn together for live performance.  A curtain rises. A performer or ensemble of performers remains quietly poised, in that tension-filled silence before the music or play or evening of improvisational comedy begins. It is a moment full of possibilities. A harbinger of unexpected, unpredictable surprises—sometimes as much for the performers as for those of us gathered as an audience present at the moment of creation. An invitation—and a mandate—to set everything else aside. For an hour or two. In exchange for an opportunity to be part of an audience carried into a transcendent experience. Through art and artistry.

It is a reminder that when members of communities overcome challenges and creatively seek/find ways to gather for performances (or learning or fostering social change), their communities thrive, regardless of the challenges they face outside of the performance (or learning or collaboration) space.

Three virtual concerts—two by Roy Zimmerman, the other by Canada’s Phoenix Chamber Choir—over the past week again bring home for me, at the most visceral of all possible levels, the power of shared experiences within virtual communities. The online, ticketed events also highlight the inspirational levels of creativity, passion, and adaptability which are helping us reshape—at least temporarily—a world much different than the one in which many of us were living a year ago. And they show how a commitment to being responsive to audience needs and unexpected technical glitches enhance rather than diminish these efforts to create new opportunities in a time of tremendous challenges.

A point to be emphasized here: Zimmerman and members of the Phoenix Chamber Choir are not trying solely to find a substitute for the live face-to-face performances they have been presenting for more than two decades. They are, at significant levels, asking what we can do to keep art, artistry, and community vibrant in a time of social distancing. The results, frankly, are opportunities that I hope will continue to exist long after social-distancing stops governing and limiting what we are able to do within our communities. In the meantime, the creative “face to face” online approach they are taking is providing unique opportunities that are socially, emotionally, and artistically rewarding at many levels.  

Zimmerman’s first online ticketed event, set for October 21, 2020 and then rescheduled for October 23, showed resilience in action—and the results of more than two decades of preparation through recordings and live, onsite performances; the preparation also clearly included the series of shorter, free, online sessions he had been doing regularly on YouTube and Facebook since summer 2020 to further hone his online presence and learn how to deal with, overcome, and, with his signature sense of humor, embrace part of the online performance experience. The October 21 event began as scheduled at 6 pm Pacific Time…and then came to a halt minutes later when messages from several of us let him know that we were unable to access that live performance. His co-writer/wife, Melanie Harby, was monitoring and quickly responding to incoming comments, so the show-that-wasn’t-a-show was halted while the two of them tried—unsuccessfully—to resolve the problems. To their credit (and our benefit), they made the decision to postpone that performance and offer members of their community a few options: receive a refund; join, at no additional charge, a rescheduled show two days later at the same time of day; and/or receive a link to an archived recording of whatever live show emerged if the time for the rescheduled show wasn’t convenient.

Joining the performance that Friday evening, I was able to set aside the temporary disappointment of the postponed performance; enjoy the live, virtual concert as much as I have enjoyed any live, onsite performance I have ever seen; and, thanks to his consummate ability to engage audiences live onsite as well as online, was drawn into those wonderfully playful moments when he encouraged all of us to sing—from our own homes, as if we were all in the same room—the refrains from a couple of his more popular songs that have received tens of thousands of views (and in one case—the original version of “The Liar Tweets Tonight (Vote Him Away)”— nearly 10 million views) online.

There was, for those of us captivated by the spirit of the event, humor on top of humor on top of humor…and engagement: laughing at/with him and at/with ourselves over the idea that we were singing “together” even though none of us could see or hear anyone other than Zimmerman; laughing when he jokingly teased us because he couldn’t hear us, just as he and so many others have teased audiences face to face when sing-alongs initially produced less than rousing responses from reluctant audience members; and even laughing at ourselves for singing “alone together” within physical spaces that were not quite virtually connected in any real sense of the world “connection,” but were offering the sense of connection fostered through comments we made to him and to each other through the live chat window. No, it wasn’t the same as being part of a live, onsite performance. But then again, it wasn’t meant to be. What it actually had become was a best-under-the-circumstances response to a world that seemed hell-bent on keeping us apart while we remained hell-bent on finding ways to be “together” in any way we could be. And by the end of the evening and the follow-up one-hour live virtual performance I attended earlier this evening, I was as happy and as inspired as I have ever been through the experience of being drawn together onsite with others through art and artistry.

The Phoenix “live” event carried similar unexpected tech challenges and, ultimately, the same positive sense of having been drawn together with rather than (socially) distanced from others through art and artistry as the result of the creative, audience-centered, highly-responsive approach taken by members of that Phoenix Chamber Choir family—including seeking solutions for those of us who had difficulties accessing the program. Just as Zimmerman seems to be building upon his experimental short “Live from the Left Coast” sessions on YouTube and Facebook, Phoenix members seem to be building upon—and growing creatively/artistically as a result of experimenting with—the pandemic, shelter-in-place-inspired parodies they have created and posted online this year. These are not stop-gap, let’s kill time until we can perform together again productions; they are invitations to engagement every bit as inspiring, far-reaching, and moving as anything I have ever seen/heard in physical settings for performances.

Their “Gathering Together” concert, the first in their 2020-2021 (virtual) season, featured “music from around the world, sung by singers from around the city [Vancouver]…to reflect this new chapter of choral singing,” they note on their website. It was an engaging example of how to create a virtual live performance that combined, through masterful editing, live performances from choir members; brief introductions to the music and to the performers themselves; and photography that was seamlessly interwoven into parts of the performance. We were drawn further into their/our Phoenix community through those moments when we were reminded that choir members include doctors, paramedics, teachers/music educators, a speech-language pathologist, an arts administrator, a librarian, a student, and a sous chef—all drawn together by their love of singing music from around the world, from a wide range of time periods.

The same playfulness that is evident in their parody videos was evident up front (through the song “Seven Days of the Week (On Mondays I Never Go to Work)” and at the end (through a pandemic,shelter-in-place-inspired parody of “Part of Your World,” from The Little Mermaid). Between those opening and closing segments, there were numerous other moments of tremendous engagement and artistry. Admitting straight up that each of us approaches music and other art forms with our own preferences and expectations firmly in place, I have to say that the inclusion of two songs I have always adored—Maurice Duruflé’s “Ubi Caritas,” with an opening line translated—from Latin to English—by a choir member as “Where charity and love are, there God is,” and the Flower Duet from Léo Delibes’ Lakmé went a long way in further dispelling the notion that online experiences can somehow never match onsite experiences.  Both pieces were performed so lovingly, so tenderly, and so exquisitely that I have to admit I’ve never been more moved by them.

Attending a live performances or other live event, for many of us, produces one of those extended, timeless “moments” and experiences that would seem to be lost to us during the current pandemic, with its shelter-in-place guidelines. But, as those three performances suggest, that experience is far from gone or even dormant. It, too, is simply evolving into another pandemic-inspired opportunity for us to work toward creating a new and better normal. And we can be thankful to our artists for their willingness to invite us along as joyful co-conspirators in that process.

A post-script: in the process of completing and posting this piece on my blog a few hours after attending Zimmerman’s latest Friday evening “Live From the Left Coast” performance, I realized I was unintentionally creating the virtual version of a common post-performance activity—reliving the experience with friends, including some who weren’t present for the initial event. If any of us who attended the performances or manage to experience them through archived recordings engage in follow-up conversations, we will have carried this evolving experiment in pandemic-collaboration-through-virtual-performance a step further…and built upon what our artists are helping to create.

–N.B.: This is the twenty-fourth in a series of reflections inspired by coronavirus/ shelter-in-place experiences.


Adapting to Change, Loss, and Possibilities: Knives, Lightning, and Awe

October 20, 2020

Sometimes the real gift is hidden deeply within the gift we think we have received—or the tragedy we have experienced.

A case in point: a few years ago, a friend gave me a couple of beautiful, exquisitely crafted knives far sharper and far more beautiful than any I had ever owned. Because I love to cook and because I love working with good-quality tools, I immediately fell in love with those knives and looked for opportunities to use them as often as I could. But the more significant gift, it turns out, was something included with the knives, not the knives themselves: a simple sheet of instructions emphasizing the benefits of sharpening those knives after each use rather than sporadically.

So, like any good trainer-teacher-learner, I adopted that tip and applied it to all the terribly-dull, far-less-efficient knives we own. And, after months of after-each-use sharpening, I had an entire kitchen full of knives that were far more useful—and required far more attention and caution if I wanted to avoid inadvertently slicing something I would rather not have sliced. And I also experience cherished, rekindled memories of this friend—who is no longer with us—every time I use the knives she gave me…and all the others I own. As if her spirit had become embedded within the knives themselves.

The often-unnoticed gift within a gift—and its corollary, the initially unnoticed (potential) tragedy within something that initially is pleasurable—is something that has been on my mind quite frequently this year. We have the gift of opportunity (the opportunity to build a “new and better normal”) mixed in with the terrible tragedy of the losses caused by the coronavirus pandemic and our radically-different environment resulting from the shelter-in-place guidelines implemented in response to that pandemic. We have the pandemic-inspired opportunity to better explore and use our online resources in response to the sense of social isolation many of us are feeling while continuing to follow modified shelter-in-place guidelines.

And, for those of us who find comfort and inspiration (in challenging times) in the work of writers, musicians, and other artists we admire, we have the gift of finding ourselves able to carve out time to revisit that work—and finding the work of additional writers, musicians, and other artists—because of some of the experiences we are currently having.

Scott Russell Sanders

This becomes completely circular for me through what I continue to see as an ever-expanding “extended pandemic/wildfire moment” that began a couple of months ago during an hours-long bombardment of lightning and thunder here in the San Francisco Bay Area and other parts of California. My initial reaction to the pre-dawn visual and audible bursts was a rekindling of a sense of awe—a rekindling that sent me back to Scott Russell Sanders’ memories (in his book A Private History of Awe) of being a four-year-old and feeling awe at the sight of lightning striking and splitting a beautiful old oak. The lightning filled me with a positive sense of awe; the wildfires that spread rapidly over the subsequent days and weeks grounded me in a sense of loss and grief I hadn’t been astute enough to anticipate initially. And, in the middle of the grief and loss friends and so many others experienced from the wildfires, I found a bit of comfort in re-exploring Sanders’ work and absorbing much more of it than I had ever before taken the time to read.

The result, as I devoured his most recent collection—The Way of Imagination—was to more fully and viscerally immerse myself into the idea of lightning as a metaphor for creativity/creation/acts of creation. As a force that lights our nights. And as a force that carries the potential for and reality of tremendously devastating destruction. Something reminding us of by the double-edged sword of creativity and destruction, opportunity and loss.

Sanders’ richly complex and lyrically stunning body of work and the interviews he has given over a long period of time weave together all of that, and so much more. His appreciation for and love of nature. His commitment to place and community. His dedication to taking principled stands that are rooted in a belief that we should be looking far into the future to be sure what we do lays the most positive foundations for a future we can be proud of helping to create. And his invitation to us, as readers, to share the moments of awe and the moments of tragedy he and those around him have experienced during his own lifetime of writing about life, love, community, and place in ways that inspire us to join him for as much of that journey as we care to take with him.

The gifts are obvious, complex, and ever-expanding. We see the world through the eyes of one of our master storytellers. We feel a bit more connected to him and to the world he describes. We feel inspired by what he reveals and what he unleashes in us. And we feel a bit less isolated, less overwhelmed, than we might have felt without hm.

–N.B.: This is the twenty-third in a series of reflections inspired by coronavirus/ shelter-in-place experiences.


Adapting to Change, Loss, and Possibilities: Virtual Collaborative Learning (and Doing) With ShapingEDU

October 16, 2020

Suzanne Lipsett, a writer I very much admired, insisted at the beginning of Surviving a Writer’s Life that what we do with our experiences—i.e., write about them—is as important as having those experiences in the first place.

Living and then sharing our lived experiences through storytelling is at the heart of the communities I most adore. I see it in my continuing interactions with colleagues in the #etmooc and #lrnchat communities. I consistently look forward to it within the context of the biweekly gatherings of Maurice Coleman’s T is for Training podcast community. It’s what keeps me connected to Jonathan Nalder’s FutureWe community. And it is an idea that resurfaced for me earlier this week—and, of course made me immediately want to write about it—when members of one of those communities (ShapingEDU) released a free online “Toolkit for Producing Collaborative Events to Shape the Future,” the third in a continuing series of online publications that celebrate what we accomplish together by documenting those successes.

Formally (and playfully) titled ASU [Arizona State University] ShapingED-YOU!, the ASU ShapingEDU toolkit follows the pattern employed in the earlier online resources: Stakeholder Inclusion Framework, an online inclusivity and access resource jointly produced with the Penn State CoAction Learning Lab to help those involved in the technology planning process, and a second ShapingEDU/CoAction Learning Lab collaborative resource, Building Effective Communities of Practice, which included contributions from more than 20 co-authors drawn from the ShapingEDU community and working together—often asynchronously—online. The publications, like the community itself, are dynamic examples of the commitment to playfulness and collaboration that runs through and nourishes this community of “dreamers, doers, and drivers shaping the future of learning in the Digital Age.”

More importantly, the publications and the ongoing work produced through ShapingEDU are tremendous, positive examples of how some communities entered this social-distancing/sheltering-in-place/pandemic-plagued world creatively and positively and continue to thrive in spite of the tremendous challenges and tragedies we face every day. Thriving because of the commitment to positive action. To creativity. To playfulness. To collaboration. And to looking forward to creating a new and better future without ignoring a far-from-perfect past and present.

A glance at the table of contents for ASU ShapingED-YOU! sets the tenor for what awaits you. The publication begins with an introduction to this “value-led,” “action-oriented,” “community-driven” community’s work, and then focuses on two of the community’s most engaging, productive gatherings: the annual “unconference” which began as a yearly face-to-face working session to dream and drive and do before switching, in the middle of the 2020 unconference, to an online working session/virtual conference, and the newly-established online Learning(Hu)Man weeklong campy summer camp for teacher-trainer-learners exploring concrete possibilities for shaping the future of learning.

And that’s where the entire endeavor becomes tremendously, wonderfully, twistingly “meta” in the sense that the events themselves become examples of how creative blended communities can and are thriving as much because of the challenges they face as because of their commitment to exploring and addressing those challenges. Using both events as case studies, the writers of the toolkit begin with four “top tips”: “Identify your North Stars” in terms of what those guiding stars are for your event; “Foster Interaction” by creating “spaces and mechanisms for community members to connect”—connections are the center of the ShapingEDU universe; “Set Everyone up for Success” by setting expectations and making every possible effort to “empower the community with resources, templates, support systems and clear instructions”; and “Tell Your Story…though focused emails, social media, and multimedia” along with graphic facilitation as “a co-creation tool.”

The case study centered around the unconferences takes us engagingly through the process of setting the stage through interactive exercises before the events even begin: community members submitting questions/suggestions, community members being invited to serve as event participants/designers/facilitators—and much more. The importance of fostering high levels of face-to-face and/or online interactions that are meaningful to participants and conducive to achieving the concrete goals the gatherings are designed to pursue. And the need to end the gatherings with a significant, community-developed catalyzing action (e.g., a communique that serves as a roadmap for continuing collaboration) that offers everyone a clear view of how the event fits into the community’s long-term, results-oriented work.

Moving into the theme of “community camp” as a way to energize changemakers and catalyze action, the Learning(Hu)Man virtual summer camp becomes another inspiring story for any teacher-trainer-learner seeking ways to creatively foster productive, positive learning experiences within the learning communities we serve. The combination of tips, photos, screenshots, and descriptions provides a concise roadmap that can easily be adapted for use by a variety of educator-trainer-learning activists.

And, in the spirt of collaboration and resource-sharing that is at the heart of this publication, it concludes with an invitation to contact ShapingEDU community members for further information and opportunities for collaboration—which is, when you think about it, the greatest gift of all to anyone struggling to survive and thrive in a rapidly-changing topsy-turvy pandemic-driven world.

–N.B.: 1) This is the twenty-second in a series of reflections inspired by coronavirus/ shelter-in-place experiences. 2) Paul is serving as one of three Storytellers in Residence for ShapingEDU (July 2020-June 2021), which includes producing articles for the ShapingEDU blog.


Adapting to Change, Loss, and Possibilities: Voice, Collaboration, Virtual Choirs, and Rising Up

October 10, 2020

There’s a heartbreakingly beautiful story to be told here—the story of how online interactions involving music, collaboration, the human voice, and activism are creating light and fostering positive action in times of darkness. The story of how online collaborations are drawing us together at a time when “social distances” are overwhelming so many people. And the story of why the arts remain an essential part of the human experience.

The story is rooted in the realization that there is something primally comforting and deeply inspirational about musical collaboration involving the human voice. It flows from the recognition that singing together can be a language of community. Creativity. And hope. Singing together and hearing others sing together in our online/social-distancing/sheltering-in-place/pandemic-plagued world are proving to be ways—for those of us not facing barriers to our access to the Internet and the tools needed to use it effectively—to build or further develop strong social connections rather than succumbing to isolation and social distances. Singing together and/or hearing others sing online are ways of using technology to overcome rather than to create distances, to bring us together in ways that allow us to build upon our shared interests and social needs rather than being dispirited by challenges that appear to be too large to tackle.

My own introduction to the concept of virtual choirs and online performances came a little more than a year ago (in May 2019), in a pre-coronavirus world, when I was lucky enough to see and hear virtual-choir pioneer Eric Whitacre demonstrating and embracing us with the power of global online choral collaborations in a closing keynote session presented during the ATD (Association of Talent Development) annual International Conference & Exposition (in San Diego). Hearing Whitacre describe and demonstrate what was involved in creating and nurturing virtual choirs and producing online performances was world-changing; it was a first-rate example of what we foster when we use technology as a tool and focus on the beauty of our creative spirit in the arts and many other endeavors—including training-teaching-learning, which draws the thousands of ATD members globally together.

Thoughts of virtual choirs and online performances receded into the inner recesses of my mind for several months. Then, in March 2020, we entered the “three-week” (now seven-month) period of sheltering-in-place guidelines put into place here in a six-county coalition within the San Francisco Bay Area and, soon thereafter, in other parts of the United States, in response to the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic on our shores.

It was a recommendation from friend/colleague/co-conspirator in training-teaching-learning Jill Hurst-Wahl that rekindled my interest that month in virtual choirs and what they suggest in terms of online collaborative possibilities for all of us: the recommendation to watch a virtual-choir rendition of “Helplessly Hoping,” performed and recorded by Italy’s Il coro che non c’è (The Choir That Isn’t There). As was the case with seeing and hearing Whitacre’s virtual choir a year earlier, the experience of hearing and seeing the students in Il coro was transformative. Encouraging. Emotionally-engaging. Inspiring. Tremendously moving. And it made me want to hear more. Which led me to the work of Canada’s Phoenix Chamber Choir. The playfully creative online performances of musicians involved in a live virtual “coffee house” concert, complete with audience interactions via a conference backchannel, during the ShapingEDU Learning(Hu)Man weeklong summer camp in July 2020 for dreamer-doer-drivers working to shape the future of learning in the digital age. The virtual sing-along videos (including two versions of “Vote Him Way (the Liar Tweets Tonight”) created by singer-songwriter-satirist-activist Roy Zimmerman and his co-writer/wife Melanie Harby. And so many more.

But it’s Zimmerman’s work that most effectively shows us how we might use social media and online interactions to create that intersection of music, collaboration, the human voice, and activism. Because he is engaging. Because he is part of that ever-growing group of first-rate artist-activists who are exploring online alternatives and environments in response to the loss of the onsite venues and interactions that were their lifeblood before the coronavirus arrived. Because he is effectively using Facebook and YouTube, through his “Live from the Left Coast” performances, to not only to stay in touch with and further cultivate his audience, but to nurture relationships between those audience members through his use of online chat within those platforms. Because he is among those participating in the new “Trumped By Music” project initiated by a Dutch/American team “that wants to provide a platform for anti-Trump musicians to be seen and heard… We want to provide maximum exposure for this passionate and vocal community! Our aim is to help our featured artists gain exposure for their message, as well as stimulate musicians to send us new content.” And because his work is reaching and inspiring others equally committed to using music in deeply-emotional ways to foster social change—as was the case with Wilmington Academy Explorations teacher Sandy Errante and her husband, Wilmington Symphony Orchestra conductor Steven Errante.

The pre-coronavirus virtual meeting of Zimmerman and the Errantes is centered around Zimmerman’s incredibly moving song “Rise Up” (co-written with Harby). It was inspired by the students who survived the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School [Parkland, Florida] on Valentine’s Day in 2018 and who turned their experience into the March for Our Lives/Vote for Our Lives/Never Again movement that, six weeks later, inspired marches in more than 500 cities around the world. His rendition of the song as a duet with Laura Love was included on his Rize Up CD in 2018. And that’s where the story becomes very interesting, as Sandy Errante explained in a recent email exchange we had:

“My husband and I had heard Roy perform at the Unitarian Church in Wilmington before. We loved his satire, his energy, his passion, his humor and his music. And then…

“One Thursday evening after my rehearsal with the Girls’ Choir of Wilmington, I was on the way home when our local radio station, WHQR, started advertising an upcoming concert at the UU with Roy. The radio announcer, George Sheibner, played a song I had not heard before—Rise Up. As I drove along listening, I was captivated by the lyrics, the music, the harmonies and suspensions, and the message. By the end of the song and the final chorus, I was in tears. I knew the Girls’ Choir had to sing this piece. But how to make that happen? 

“I reached out to my husband, who was on his way to a rehearsal with the Wilmington Youth Orchestra. Steve is an arranger and a composer, and I needed him to know right away that this was something we absolutely HAD to do. He asked me to find a recording of the song. I did. And I hunted down the contact info for Roy, using my contacts at the UU church. Once we had permission from Roy to proceed, we started imagining this song as told from the children’s perspective. We altered the lyrics just a bit [changing it from the point of view of adults addressing the Parkland survivors to the point of view of the students themselves]. Now we had a song that the girls could sing from their hearts. We had a youth orchestra that could accompany. We had a performance in the making.­

“After all was said and done, we concurred, this IS their world and this was their song.”

And it remains our song—our anthem—in this pandemic, shelter-in-place world, through its availability on YouTube (with the girls’ choir) and on the CD. It’s there for them—and for us—as we continue seeking light and inspiration while living through devastatingly tragic times. Times of great division and conflict. Times that are, for many, overwhelming. And, as is often the case in tragic, divisive, conflict-ridden times, times that are also inspiring tremendous levels of creativity and opportunities for collaboration designed to foster positive change—which we nurture through our support and engagement in any and every way we can.

Update: Roy Zimmerman and Melanie Harby have posted a piece about the collaboration that produced their recent “My Vote, My Voice, My Right” video and included links to other virtual collaborations of that particular song: https://www.royzimmerman.com/blog/my-vote-my-voice-my-right.

–N.B.: This is the twenty-first in a series of reflections inspired by coronavirus/ shelter-in-place experiences.


Adapting to Change, Loss, and Possibilities: “And I Am…”

September 13, 2020

Our most challenging times are generally the times when I am most drawn to the arts for comfort, solace, and inspiration. It is, therefore, no surprise to me that as I continue adapting to and working within shelter-in-place guidelines implemented in response to a coronavirus pandemic, I am spending inordinate amounts of time lately returning to and exploring, more deeply than ever before, authors I admire and adore—people like Scott Russell Sanders, who over a long period of time, has consistently produced lyrical, thoughtful essays and much more, including his newly-released collection, The Way of Imagination. I was drawn back to Sander’ A Private History of Awe a few weeks ago when intense, hours-long lightning and thunder storms reminded me of the stunning opening of that book, in which Sanders recalls being four years old, standing with his father, and watching lightning shatter a magnificent, stately old oak tree.

My re-immersion into the arts has also brought me into contact with the work of wonderful singer-songwriter-satirists like Roy Zimmerman, who in the most dazzling yet down-to-earth ways mixes humor, biting social satire, and a sense of humanity that runs deeper than any river upon which I have ever rafted. Watching videos that capture his work spanning nearly a couple of decades has given me a strong appreciation for what he does and offers. Seeing some of his latest videos—including new, powerfully poignant collaborations along the lines of what he does in “Driving While Black” with Clovice Lewis, Jr. and the two versions he has recorded of “The Liar Tweets Tonight”—suggests to me that no matter how much recognition he receives for his work, he will always deserve even more. And catching a few of his free online “Live from the Left Coast” concerts over the past few weeks on Facebook and YouTube makes me wonder what rock I have been sleeping under while he has been out there entertainingly, provocatively, and lovingly shining light so effectively where it needs to be shone, how I could have missed, for so long, wonderful songs like “I Approve This Message,” which is as funny, poignant, and moving a song as any “protest” song I have ever heard, with its litany of “I ams” beginning with “I am the doughnut lady, I am the civil engineer, I am the tractor salesman who is a stand-up comic at his own daughter’s wedding…” and becoming more engaging as the song continues.

What has been most rewarding and transformative, however, is spotting the artistry in places where I usually do not seek it, as in letters from friends and colleagues. Those letters, like the one I received via email a couple of days ago from someone who is married to a firefighter in a rural part of Northern California devastated by wildfires, absolutely floor me through their combination of honesty, poignancy, and razer-sharp focus. They remind me of the inner artist each of us carriers and so often fails to take the time to nurture. And they further awaken the storyteller in me who wants to highlight other people’s stories as much as, if not more than, I tend to highlight my own.

With that in mind, I contacted the friend for permission to reprint a lightly-edited version of her story here—edited not because it needed any sort of rewriting, but because she and her husband are incredibly private people who do not, in any way, want to call attention to themselves at a time when so many others need our attention and support. The edits, therefore, remove references by specific name to the people she is describing and to the area in which they are living. But even with those omissions, the piece stands out to me as an example of the “…and I am…” approach Zimmerman adopts in singing about those people we mistakenly think of as “average Americans” when, in reality, they are so much more than the word “average” can ever begin to convey:

“It’s been an absolute life-changing devastation for almost everyone in our lives. And it’s so layered it’s hard to stay focused these days. My husband’s parents lost absolutely everything. He and I and his sister had a lot of belongings there too because we all still had our two “bedrooms” to stay in while visiting and store stuff. Not to mention all their childhood stuff. All the pictures and mementos. Not to mention hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of items and equipment and vehicles. They had been in that house for over 30 years. When the house got surrounded and his parents had left, my husband got there right after and tried to turn the sprinklers on, but the power was out, so the water pump wouldn’t work. My heart aches for him having to watch it all go up. And then he had to watch his aunt and uncle’s house go up. His dad’s sister and husband’s. And then watch all of our friends lose all of their homes. He was working with four of our close friends who are also firefighters, and they all lost their homes too. I believe two lives (an older gentleman who wouldn’t leave his home, and a lady who got trapped) and 150+ houses were lost so far.

“So much has been lost. There are so many displaced families and people. So many people with just the shirts on their backs. And, sadly, many people down there couldn’t afford fire insurance, so that adds a whole other problem to the list of problems. Almost everyone we know with family and friends is completely homeless. So many animals lost, too, which is absolutely heartbreaking. Many died and many are just missing. Thankfully, people from local agencies have gone down, collected, and are housing a lot of displaced animals until they can reunite.

“It’s an absolute chaotic nightmare. But there’s some things to be thankful for as well. My mother and her husband have not lost anything so far. And I’m so happy everyone we know and love is safe and alive. Stuff is just stuff. Lives matter more and cannot be replaced. If that had happened in the middle of the night on that one way in-one way out creek road, in the dark, people confused from sleep, in a fire going 50+ mph, it could have been even worse. When we lose one or two people in town it’s horrific. But to think we could have 20-30+ people missing or dead right now would make it so much worse. And to see everyone help one another and pull together brings hope. We can always rebuild.

“There’s so much hurt right now, I’m trying to just stay focused on my husband. Because he’s my priority, and I know how much family and friends mean to him, and he’s the biggest softie sweetie in the world. He’s being exceptionally hard on himself, feeling like as a firefighter he should have been able to save everything or anything. Feels like he’s failed his whole family and all our friends. But he’s so exhausted he hasn’t had a moment to process or grieve in any way. And everyone grieves differently, so I just have to give him time. He worked for over 40 hours straight before finally getting four hours of sleep. Hopefully, he will get a little more tonight.”

I devour Sanders’ work. I sink into Zimmerman’s music. And I immerse myself into my friend’s powerful description of how the current wildfires are affecting her and the people around her. And because they all are so compelling in their ability to capture essential truths and inspire empathy, Zimmerman’s refrain “…and I am…” makes me more of whom I am than I otherwise would be.

–N.B.: This is the twentieth in a series of reflections inspired by coronavirus/ shelter-in-place experiences.


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