Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Friends, Neighbors… Networks and Communities

By Edd Conboy

January 26, 2011

For darn near as long as I can remember there has been a meme afoot (do memes have feet?) about the global village, how small the world is, how flat the earth is becoming, and so forth. More recently, a contravening force, or at least an alternative view, has been emerging that seems also to be in a kind of creative tension with this world view – creating sustainable neighborhoods. I suppose it is in some ways a kind of implementation of the “think globally; act locally” bumper dictum seen on just about every Prius on the road. (It may well be that this bumper sticker is standard equipment for every hybrid coming off the assembly line!)

Two strong and focused voices are powerfully engaged in this neighborly conversation – Bill McKibben of, who speaks and writes convincingly about how our reliance on fossil fuels has created a false premise about, and unsustainable infrastructure for, this global village. And Peter Block – shifting his organizational development lens in the direction of community organizing ­– looks at concrete conversations we might have with our neighbors to respond to the fragmented neighborhoods in our cities, and isolated small towns across the country.

Block is advocating for an inversion of common wisdom – about what it means to be a citizen, a leader, and a member of any group invested in change. In his recent book, Community, The Structure of Belonging, he articulates the notion of an “inversion of cause”, which is a compelling one: To create communities where citizens reclaim their power, we need to shift our beliefs about who is in charge and where power resides. We need to invert our thinking about what is cause and what is effect. This is what has the capacity to confront our entitlement and dependency. [pp 65-66]

As he articulates the implications of how these inversions impact leaders, community members, dissenters and owners, Peter also fleshes out a series of conversations and inquiries that serve to deepen the possibilities for sustainable community. With his book, Community, The Structure of Belonging – a must read for those of us who believe deeply in the transformative quality of deep dialogue – Peter addresses the one question we often skirt in our more theoretical conversations and dialogues about community: How do we get there?

While Bill McKibben’s scientific and empirical world view that addresses environmental issues in general and air quality in particular is at times less accessible for me, he does possess the one quality common to every true genius – the capacity to make complex issues simple and clear without over-generalizing to the point of simplemindedness. His proposition that our atmosphere can tolerate a CO2 level of 350 parts per million (ppm) is straightforward enough. The fact that the current level is 388 ppm is alarming. The realization that, until very recently, we humans got along nicely with the rest of nature at a level of 275 ppm of CO2 is revealing.

Where McKibben’s work aligns nicely with Block’s is embedded in his descriptions of “neighbors” and “joiners”. In his article, Where Have All the Joiners Gone?, McKibben writes, “…cheap fossil fuel has made us the first people on Earth with no need of our neighbors. Think, in the course of an ordinary day, how often you rely on the people who live near you for anything of practical value. Perhaps carpooling your kids to school or soccer. If you live in a rural community, there may be a volunteer fire department, which keeps your insurance affordable. But your food, your fuel, your shelter, your clothes, and your entertainment most likely come from a distance and arrive anonymously at that.” For him the fact that our oceans are warming, and our ice caps are melting mean (among other things) that we will soon need to develop a modern sense of neighborliness, a new appreciation of locality that is practical as well as a congruent way of living.

“Take farming...” McKibben says, “The local food movement is helping to build demand for small farms. If it continues, we may someday reach the point where we once again have more farmers than prisoners in America—which will be a good thing, if we’re hoping to grow our food with less oil. But if that’s going to happen, it will take more than farmers’ markets—it will take farming communities, with enough small growers in the neighborhood to teach each other what needs doing.”

So, as we develop even more sophisticated technological networks that connect us to people and places throughout the world, we may also need to become even more “radically local”, and less dependent on unsustainable energy sources.

These visionaries are two of the many cartographers mapping that possible future.

Hopefully by the next time I have the opportunity to post here I will have finished Peter’s latest book, The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods, that he has written with John McKnight. Looks like another important one!

Also, check out Peter’s blog at The Huffington Post.

Other books on my nightstand:

Operation Mincemeat by Ben MacIntyre – a World War II yarn about “a man who never was”. It’s about a British counterintelligence program to confuse the German High Command. (Among any number of interesting characters was one Ian Fleming of James Bond fame.) A great read in itself, but also a cautionary tale about the power of preconceptions in how we determine what is so, and likely to be – a TWI staple theme!

A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick – an immensely interesting novel about the loneliness and desolation of a Wisconsin winter, and the smoldering desire that lurks just below that icy veneer of its main characters. The Washington Post reviewer says: "A Reliable Wife," isn't just hot, it's in heat: a gothic tale of such smoldering desire it should be read in a cold shower. This is a bodice ripper of a hundred thousand pearly buttons, ripped off one at a time with agonizing restraint...” Don’t say you weren’t warned.

What are you reading?

Thursday, January 20, 2011

"Read All About It"

By John Esterle

January 20, 2011

Following up on yesterday's post about the blog being a place where the TWI community can share what we're reading, here are three articles I received this week that folks wanted to share:

Ellen Schneider of Active Voice comes a New York times article on a U.S. State Deparment project, the American Documentary Showcase, that conducts "documentary diplomacy." Welcome to Shelbyville, which AV co-produced, is prominently mentioned.

Mark Gerzon of Mediators Foundation forwards a Christian Science Monitor article on the Arizona shooting and the movement to promote broader civility in our political and public discourse. Mark and Laura Chasin, founder of the Public Conversations Project, are among those quoted.

Denise Caruso of the Hybrid Vigor Network sends along a Sacramento Bee article highlighting a new research report that shows large numbers of college students are graduating without the ability to think critically. She diplomatically refrains from saying this is hardly surprising news. She does, however, send her greetings from Pittsburgh to the TWI community along with New Year's greetings!

Anyway, hope you find these all of interest. I did!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A TWI Community

By John Esterle

January 18, 2011

As Pia noted in her recent post, TWI starts 2011 with a recommitment to seeding our blog on at least a weekly basis. Why? Because we think it can be a way for the TWI community to stay connected with what we’re thinking, feeling, and doing; what we’re reading, observing, and hearing. Hopefully, that connection will enable our community to grow and connect with like-minded individuals, organizations, and networks.

In the past I’ve resisted publicly naming that there is a TWI “community.” Given that community is a strong, somewhat overused word,I was leery about using it in terms of TWI. I guess it felt presumptuous in a way, especially given that TWI is a foundation and money is a connecting thread in our network. Yet, at our third retreat this past October for grantees, board, staff, and friends the feeling of community was palpable – and named by many there. As I noted in our recent newsletter, this time I let what people were saying about community really sink in and I took it to heart in a way I hadn’t before.

In that context, we also heard folks express a desire to stay connected and in conversation beyond our retreats, which is why our blog will consistently feature a number of guest posters from the TWI community.

Since I’m referring to the retreat, I thought I’d share some ideas and feedback that came from our last, unplanned morning together. Building off of the weekend’s conversations, there was a spontaneous suggestion that participants contribute their ideas about how TWI might think about the roles of convening and storytelling going forward (areas we had identified as wanting to explore more in our funding portfolio).

The feedback we received was a gift, one that I’m glad to publicly acknowledge here. Here are some themes that emerged from what we heard:

In terms of the design of possible TWI convenings (including TWI’s retreat):

  • De-couple grantmaking from the building of the TWI community
  • Work at intersections, bringing together and cross-fertilizing different people and organizations
  • Bring other funders into the conversation
  • Have multi-generational participation and ethnic diversity be institutionalized as key design elements
  • Have nature be a key design element, not just in terms of setting but as a metaphor for systemic thinking
  • Creatively share the stories of what transpires when we come together

In terms of possible themes for dialogues/convening:

  • Intergenerational leadership and collaboration in the civic engagement arena, as well as in other organizational sectors – both nonprofit and profit
  • Making the case for dialogue: assessing impact, including capturing “data” that supports the importance of relationship building as a metric of success; sharing dialogue success stories that demonstrate concrete results
  • Storytelling as a catalyst for dialogue, critical thinking and citizen engagement: explore effective models and approaches (e.g. documentaries, online activity, journalism)
  • Funder and Grantee relationships: power dynamics, how to work with tensions and authentically collaborate

Aside from its link to convening, other aspects of storytelling for TWI to consider:

  • How might it help grantees to showcase their work?
  • How might it help grantees to understand and build social media channels?
  • How might it support a storytelling portal for “allies”?
  • If shifting to media based work, be conscious of building the capacity of shut-out or marginalized communities to participate (e.g. infrastructure, resources, equipment)

These bullets don’t do the input we received justice, but I hope they not only capture some of the ideas we’re thinking about as we look to the future but spark thoughts and conversations in our community as well.

I find myself inspired and grateful all over again as I reflect on these suggestions from the TWI community and look forward to seeing what may emerge as this year unfolds.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

A Civic Dialogue on the Tools of Social Media

By Jill Blair

January 11, 2011

Thanks to TWI, I was referred to and just finished reading Malcom Gladwell’s article Small Change: why the revolution will not be tweeted, (New Yorker, October 2, 2010). The article resonated with me. I wondered if the echo was generational – me being my age and he being his, but truly, it doesn’t matter. I am an out of the closet skeptic about the power of virtual connections. I believe that the tools of social media have power and even potential yet unrealized, but my tendency is to see the introduction of new communications technology as adding to rather than substituting for the tools we already possess. Moreover, I worry about what we don’t know about social media and its effect on our relationships, our beliefs and our actions.

I “left” (virtually that is) Gladwell’s piece and went on to read Allison Fine’s critique. And then I paused. I was struck by just how critical Allison (for whom I have great affection and whose work I hold in high esteem) was of Gladwell’s assessment. She wrote,”More than misunderstanding the role and power of social media, what I found most disturbing and disappointing about the article was that Gladwell doesn’t understand activism (emphasis added).” Fine was “disturbed” and “disappointed” and took issue not only with Gladwell’s challenge to the tool box but his whole construction project. I followed the Fine trail on the blogosphere. I was surprised by how emotional some of the reactions were – how committed we seem to be to the positions we hold with respect to these new connecting and communication technologies.

Some of us are promoting and defending these tools with great enthusiasm – crediting them with everything from changing minds and hearts to opening pocketbooks and solving profound social problems. Others of us (myself included) are fretting over whether these tools of instant and anonymous communication are diminishing our capacity for real connection and commitment – compromising our ability to care over time for anything long enough to actually change it.

These positions are extreme, perhaps. They represent our story frames about social media – some of us see it as an unmitigated panacea while others see it as a potential tool of mass destruction. How do we change our frames so that we can benefit from what we each bring, know and believe? Where and how can we explore the tools and the feelings they provoke in us? Or must we stay in our respective camps and “shout” at one another over our virtual fences? I’m looking for the conversation; not the easy argument or the deadly debate, but the real conversation – the success of which we measure by how much we learn, not how much we say.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Blopping - Blog Hopping

by Pia Infante

January 4, 2011

It is a crisp new year, as evidenced by this first TWI blog post since April 2010. As you may guess, we at The Whitman Institute have resolved to post weekly on our blog. Ta da! I am the lucky draw for week one.

As I anguished (for several long minutes) about what dialogic promotion of a more peaceful and sustainable world to bring to your discerning attention (no pressure), I found myself acting on advice from much more veteran bloggers. I started scrolling around through other people’s blogs for inspiration and ideas.

And, as is quite appropriate to the medium, I coined a new, if not frog-like, phrase to describe my journey through the billions of megabytes of others people's writing available online: Blopping. Blog. Hopping.

First, I blopped over re-read to Allison Fine’s response to Malcom Gladwell’s critique of social media as a platform for activism. I appreciated her blog’s easy to navigate layout and read several posts from 2010. Allison’s writing is quite insightful and she often refers readers to related posts elsewhere (might I suggest she points to good reading destinations for bloppers such as myself?). I noticed Allison’s blog roll in the right corner of the page (many blogs list other blogs in click through format) and blopped over to Britt Bravo’s Have Fun: Do Good blog because the name sounded enticing. And, as it turns out, Britt is a “Blog Coach.” Score. I found her post on non-profit blogging quite useful. I particularly liked her encouragement not to overly regulate the voices of different blog contributors because “blogs are all about authenticity, transparency and the voice of a real person.”

While scrolling through Britt’s blog roll, I took a quick content detour to check out Bryant Terry’s eco chef blog (his name popped out because he’s my neighbor in the Laurel neighborhood of Oakland). He’s been quoted in O Magazine. Go Bryant!

From Britt Bravo’s blog roll, I blopped over to pay a visit to an old familiar, the Social Citizen’s blog, and I appreciated the humorous good will of Kristen Ivie’s social media resolutions for 2011. I took a quick peak at Social Citizen’s sister blog at the Case Foundation and clicked immediately on “Scott Case’s top 5 reasons your nonprofit should go out of business.” I was mildly disappointed at the brevity of the post – without a link to some meatier writing and research to back up the claims.

From the Case Foundation blog, I clicked into the Tactical Philanthropy blog and was rewarded with a post by Lenore Hanisch, of the Quixote Foundation, on their decision to spend down their full endowment by 2017 (scroll down to her post, second from the top).

I reflected for a long moment on her good questions: Does institutional perpetuity actually create perpetual impact? How might your (I imagine she’s referring to foundations’) impact change if you were to spend more, or even spend everything?

It was a surprisingly reflective end point to a journey that started out very whimsical in nature. I appreciated a quiet pause in my whirlwind tour that took roughly 7 minutes.

So I end today’s blopping adventure with a deeper understanding of the vast universe of the blogosphere. I notice there are some truly deep wells, and sometimes shallower ones at the other end of a click through, and do not too harshly judge one over the other. There’s a lot of room here in cyber space.

I am humbled to re-establish a personal presence in this constantly flowing and growing ocean of discourse and am now inspired to lead the charge for the remainder of TWI’s 2011 blog-spectations.

p.s. = After completing this post, I was curious about whether or not I actually coined the term “blopping,” and while a google search did not elicit any other relevant hits on it, I was amused to find the following definitions:

"Blog hop, also known as blog hopping, is to move from one blog after another to read the entries or to leave comments." (

"Blog hopping is not surfing the net and reading some blogs here and there at random. Blog hopping is when you find a few blogs that you think are really cool, written by people you can really relate to and you visit them regularly. These people feel a special bond towards each other and visit and comment on the blogs in their circle daily!" (from Urban