Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Shelbyville Multimedia: Why the “It’s Complicated” Relationship is Often the Best Kind

February 22, 2011

By Maikiko James, Active Voice Program Manager

For the last decade, Active Voice has built its portfolio of work around stories of immigration, an issue that becomes increasingly polarized while solutions seem to be dimming. With Shelbyville Multimedia, we’ve embarked upon our most ambitious and challenging project on the subject to date. Initially conceptualized as a series of web videos chronicling the experience of a small southern town undergoing rapid demographic shift, the project eventually grew into a full-length documentary and multimedia campaign that explores the characters’ journeys and transformations, and invites others to share in the process. Now with a documentary film, webisodes, an interactive website and social media campaign in our arsenal, we proudly unveil a project as multifaceted as the issue of immigration itself.

So what exactly comprises Shelbyville Multimedia and what’s it all about? The independent documentary, Welcome to Shelbyville, directed and produced by Kim A. Snyder and executive produced by BeCause Foundation in association with Active Voice, paints a vivid picture of what demographic change in America looks like today - a black and white population transformed by a wave of Latino immigrants followed 15 years later by Somali and Burmese workers arriving for jobs at the local meatpacking plant - and lets viewers intimately get to know Shelbyville’s vibrant residents as they address this shift. The more compact resources like the webisodes and video modules (produced by Kelly Whalen, a producer for Not In Our Town) delve deeper into some of the major themes from the film and provide quick hooks for training and dialogue. The on-the-ground film and clip screenings, many helmed by Welcoming America and a cadre of other faith-based, policy and community organizations, have sparked real relationships and diverse action plans around the country. The website (developed in collaboration with Free Range Studios) and social media tools provide an interactive forum for immediate reflection, and of course, connection and story sharing.

It’s incredible to think that all of this started three years ago, when we asked our allies in the immigration policy world what kind of story would help address the volatile nature of immigration discourse in America. It was clear that they needed a conversation starter that pushed past the rhetorical noise and uncovered the layers of the issue - the nuance, the complication, and the connectivity. Shelbyville’s story is one of revelation by local residents that life has changed. Like it or not, newcomers and long-time residents are connected, and avoiding that connection has led to tensions that strain a community over supporting it. Building on that connection, while a long and challenging road, results in more livable dynamics for everyone, no matter what side of the political issue they may find themselves.

In a case of art (or engagement) imitating life, the success of Shelbyville Multimedia rests in our deep relationships, collaborations, and commitment to the long term processes of developing those. In a world of glorified quick-fixes, what started as a “little” initiative of short online videos morphed into its own solution to the problem. To be what it truly needed to be required both telling the whole story and having more concise access points, creating an “ecosystem of change” or symbiotic network of not just organizations but genuine personal relationships bridging them, and not willingness but eagerness to work together. This is not to say in the formation of Shelbyville Multimedia we’ve found the adhesive for our broken immigration system, but maybe we’ve found a bit of it. Progress for any community, national or local, requires the investment of the community, investment requires personal stake - which generally requires an authentic and meaningful relationship of some kind. And as far as I’ve learned, most good relationships have a pretty sweet story attached to them. We hope you like this one. www.ShelbyvilleMultimedia.org.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Power of Vulnerability

By John Esterle

Recently, someone sent me the link to this TED talk by Brene Brown. Then, just a couple of days later, someone played it to end a meeting I was in. Hmmmm. Curious to see how things start to get passed around and manifest in the world. So, I thought I'd do my small part to contribute by highlighting her talk here.

Brown is a wonderful speaker -- or as she describes herself -- a wonderful "storyteller/researcher." Hearing her speak about connection and vulnerability, about courage and compassion and the importance of embracing uncertainty and living wholeheartedly, I kept thinking of how interrelated her themes were with dialogue and the work of our grantees.

Anyway, it's a really lovely talk and I'd be curious to hear what you think.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Play like it Matters: Why Words Mean (A lot)

By CJ Callen

Rosencrantz: What are you playing at?

Guildenstern: Words. Words. They're all we have to go on.

-- Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard

Words matter and strike at the heart of what it means to engage in respectful dialogue with others. Alas, respectful dialogue remains elusive in our Hollywood black and white view of the world. We tend to fire loaded words at each other to confirm, “I am the hero and that makes you the villain.” Grey areas make us queasy. And yet the grey areas - of intersections and fuzzy boundaries – contain the seed of the most profound solutions to our most perplexing problems.

Today I found, I found myself struck by how people who want to move an agenda for positive social change oftentimes use language that alienates people who are potential like-minded supporters. This is not a revolutionary “ah ha” thought but rather a recognition of the work of linguist George Lakoff who has written extensively about how progressives lose on issues in large part because of their inability to frame them. Here’s an interview of Lakoff that reveals his point of view about the dominance of conservatives in American politics:


And so let’s say you are a social justice activist, probably the people you need to persuade are not fellow members of the "choir" but the folks who fall in the middle of the political spectrum. To reach them, do you drop use of the very term “social justice”? Well, that depends on what you want but here’s a story that illustrates why I think it might be worth considering: I was talking to a woman whose family had a foundation that invested in strategies to help low-income workers. When I mentioned the term “social justice,” she noted how that term brings up negative connotations for her dad and so with him she uses the term “expanding opportunity” instead. And to good effect: the foundation led by her father funds important social justice work. This would not have happened BUT FOR her willingness to play with and find the right language. What mattered most of all was not language, after all, but underlying shared values.

The choice she made sounds simple. Professor Lakoff makes it sound so logical. Yet her response, in my experience, is the road less traveled. What gets in the way? The illogical and human heart and soul. Clearly, if people are holding on to language that stands in the way of their most heartfelt goals, they have to be getting something out of it. Language plays an instrumental role in constructing the identity of a group or movement. Who wants to give up their identity? Identity is a powerful force. To balance it we need to replace old ways of constructing identity with news ones that recognize the strength that comes from being able and willing to reach out and engage others on their own terms in respectful and persuasive dialogue, thus, laying the foundation for social transformation.

Here’s to letting go of words that don’t work, playing with words that do, and going about the business of making the world a better place with renewed verve and vigor.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Is it a strategy? An outcome? A tool? It’s a Network!

By Pia Infante

February 2, 2011

From the Hollywood hit The Social Network to the recently published non-profit “how to” guide The Networked Nonprofit, it’s clear that in the private, public, and philanthropic sectors - we are abuzz about the power of networks. Particularly social networks.

I had the opportunity a few days ago, at the Leadership and Networks Conversation co-hosted by the Leadership Learning Community and The Monitor Institute, to reflect with a lively and lovely group of smart people on the phenomenon known as networks. [Or perhaps formerly known as coalitions and associations.] My break away discussion group was made up of folks from foundations, leadership development programs, and staff from the host organizations.

We posed many questions: What precisely are we talking about when we talk about networks? Where is the power of a network (in the convening hub? The outcomes it can produce?) How do we measure the impact of networks? How is the social networking of today different from the coalitions and alliances and associations that have always existed in every sector to organize around specific agendas and solutions? Does the intuitive, proliferating advent of technology on a global scale “upgrade” our existing notions of networking? Are social media tools the 21st century evolution of communication tools like phones and copy machines that helped spread the organized wildfire of Civil Rights Movement in the 60's?

Some use the concept of network to mean something like membership – for instance membership around a cause the Sierra Club. Another understanding of networks is famously illustrated by Facebook “friends” – a large, loose grouping of people who an individual may know through professional, social, family, political, and shared interest channels. Allison Fine and Beth Kanter define social networks as “at their most basic level simple, intuitive structures…with two main components: people or organizations … and the connections between them.” (pg. 27, The Networked Nonprofit)

I gravitate towards the notion that networks are intuitive. And also that networking itself is an ancient (tribal, perhaps), not a new, concept. And, at the fundamental center of it, networking is about the relationships and connections between people. The Leadership Learning Community’s own suppositions that leading networks requires nurturing of trust and reciprocity, transparency, the bridging of differences, and multiple points of engagement are all built on very familiar strategies for creating, nurturing, and sustaining authentic relationships over time. Fine and Kanter themselves emphasize that social networking tools do not replace face-to-face engagement, though these tools make it possible to stay in stronger or lighter touch with people when time and geography might have inhibited that.

Indeed, Shannon Farley, the Executive Director of Spark in San Francisco (a participant in my group) often shares that relationship building and sustaining is the core engagement strategy in keeping Spark’s network of over 5,000 young professionals in touch with each other and the grassroots women’s projects that they support through mainly individual donations every year. She describes how low and high touch engagement opportunities (from taking two minutes to send an email to serving on the grants committee which decides how to direct funds raised), often enable members to self organize given that Spark accomplishes its sizable mission with one staff and a cadre of volunteers.

The Whitman Institute’s own John Esterle reflected on the networking phenomenon from a funder perspective. He noted that foundations have always been slow to fund the “soft skills” of relationship building and that sometimes the moniker of Leadership Development is used as an overly wide umbrella under which soft skills, like relationship building and reflection, are shoved. The Whitman Institute’s openly iterated support for relationship building, clear purpose, and reflection as integral components seems distinct from many other philanthropic approaches. And John wondered aloud if networking, as potentially the next “sexy” best thing on the funding horizon, might become another code word for explicitly funding soft skills?

Several participants who represented other foundations expressed yet another important edge to the conversation. To what end? We have mammoth economic, social, and political problems that are uprooting long-standing support structures of the poor and disadvantaged in California. What are the outcomes we want to see happen and are networks with distributed responsibilities the most strategic way to achieve those? What if certain efforts, like Rock The Vote, actually truly need a well-informed command center that gives out directives and delegates work to folks? [It seems Obama’s campaign was built on a platform that integrated both centralized command and self-organizing tools. See an interesting Conversation Agent analysis of the Obama's social media platform here.] It brought up some concerns folks had about what seemed to them a trend towards centralized, distributive, and non-hierarchical leadership structures being held aloft as a gold standard. The rich discussion that ensued is material for another blog post on the sector’s evolving understanding of leadership!

As a process aside, I was struck by how powerful it was to have foundation folk and folks who get funding from foundations sitting together in open dialogue. The perspectives being shared were unexpectedly wide ranging. There certainly wasn’t automatic agreement and, actually, several points of disagreement throughout the conversation. We did exchange respectful communication, curiosity, listening, and what I experienced as a cathartic moment of real engagement on the big questions we raised. In fact, the most refreshing take away from the experience is that the questions stay with me, even as any final answers elude.

So. Is a (social) network a tool? A mindset? An outcome? I’m undecided. What’s your take?