Friday, October 5, 2012

Interactive CA Voters Guide


TWI partner City Club is happy to introduce a new resource, powered by the wisdom of California voters.  This free, non-partisan resource is intended to support thoughtful civic engagement by lifting up the voices of citizens who will be impacted by the policy initiatives on the ballot this November.

In fact, a few days ago, Living Voters Guide was awarded first prize is the Evergreen State Apps Challenge, a brand new competition hosted by the State of Washington, King County, and the City of Seattle to encourage local entrepreneurs to build mobile software applications that help people create useful experiences out of the data that government provides.

An interactive Voters Guide for Californians
to exchange thoughts and opinions on statewide ballot propositions
written by the people and for the people

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Reflections of an Art House Filmmaker in a YouTube World


By Sam Green

These are exciting times for documentary filmmakers like myself. With technological advances from newly affordable HD video cameras to avenues of dissemination like YouTube revolutionizing the field, it’s never been easier to make a film and get it out there. People all over the globe who had once been voiceless can now be heard.

Some parts of this new world, however, are less great. Filmmakers now have to accept that people will often watch our work on tiny screens––an iPad, a laptop––while checking their email, the weather, and dealing with a million other tiny distractions. The old world where a viewer sat in a movie theater giving your film her rapt attention is no more.

Many filmmakers, myself included, find ourselves at a crossroads: we either embrace this new viewing paradigm, or we make something that cannot be consumed in such a fleeting manner. I’ve actually tried to do both.

Over the past few years I’ve begun making “live documentaries”––these are events where I narrate a film in person and cue images from a laptop, while a live band performs an original soundtrack as the film plays. (I have a new “live documentary” touring this fall called The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller, which I'm performing with the legendary indie rock band Yo La Tengo.) I adore this form of filmmaking because it’s a way to hang on to the live experience of seeing movies, which I feel is a precious thing. It shouldn’t be lost. When you see a movie in person you experience it with others. You share in some sort of communal time and space, and then continue the experience through conversations afterward. All of these connections around the film are often as important as the film itself. So the "live documentary" format is a way for me to fight the tide of isolation and home viewing, and try to bring people together to experience my films.

That said, I am also very interested in utilizing the power of the Internet as a distribution system for a diverse and disparate viewership. I recently made a documentary about Esperanto called The Universal Language and decided that there would be no better project to experiment with online distribution than this one.

Esperanto is an artificial language invented by a Polish eye doctor named Ludwig Zamenhof in the late 1800s. Zamenhof believed that if everyone in the world spoke a common, neutral language people could overcome war and racism. Although Zamenhof’s dream might seem naive to us today, during the 1920s and 30s there was a huge Esperanto movement worldwide.

Today, surprisingly, a vibrant Esperanto movement still exists. Estimates range from 50,000 to 2 million present-day speakers of the language, and every summer there is a world Esperanto congress in a different city. I attended a couple of these and was surprised to find 2,000 to 3,000 Esperanto speakers each time, traveling from all over the world.

Because Esperantists (as they are called) are such a scattered, global community, how could I effectively reach out to broad swathe of them? The Internet!  Right now, for the first time ever, filmmakers can distribute our own work online solo––no iTunes, no distribution company, no one else needed.  Last year, my Bulgarian friend Stoyan Dabov set up a great website for the film (in both English and Esperanto) where people can download a file and watch the film instantly on their own TV or computers.

It can’t be overstated how radical this new technology is for filmmakers. In the past a filmmaker was dependent on a distributor or studio in order to get a movie out into the world. They were the ones who had the networks and relationships to put a videotape or DVD on store shelves and ultimately into the hands of a viewer. Filmmakers occasionally did this on their own, but it was an epic and uphill struggle.

It’s only been in the past year or two that the technology has evolved to the point where a person can download an entire film relatively quickly (movie files are generally huge files!). With The Universal Language, we're able to do this through a company called Topspin, which actually takes care of the downloading and billing, but the person who is purchasing the film never leaves our site. Again, this is revolutionary; it's the first time ever that a filmmaker can get a film out into the world this independently, and it is an exciting moment!

It’s been interesting to see how this kind of thing can work. Over the past months, I’ve been surprised by the steady stream of people downloading The Universal Language from our site. Every day there are people all over the world watching the film and hopefully thinking about Esperanto, the concept and role of language, and other issues the film raises, which is so neat. 

On the other hand, it’s been clear that the notion that one can just put something out on the Internet and people will flock to it, or that it'll “go viral,” is plainly naive. With the deafening roar of so many books and movies and albums and causes all vying for attention online, we really had to promote and market the film like crazy in order to get people to notice. But this has been a good challenge. It's spurred us to create a blog on our site where we've posted interviews and short articles for Esperantists and non-Esperantists alike, for which we've been continuing to research new and interesting Esperanto-related leads. (A recent example: an interview with one of the many Esperanto-speaking members of the Pirate political party in Germany.)
So this whole thing has been a real learning experience. Yes, technology is making us all more scattered and frazzled and isolated, but it's also providing us with first-time-ever opportunities to reach out and make contact with each other. The other day some Esperantists in the Congo got in touch to let us know about a screening of The Universal Language they had recently. I was struck by the fact that although we might not have reached the world of peace and internationalism the Ludwig Zamenhof imagined when he created Esperanto, in some small ways technology is helping us to lurch in that direction.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

A Network with No Expectations

By Pia Infante

The practical magic and inspiration of Boston's Barr Fellows Network story is captured simply by the following admission from Lyndia Downie, Executive Director of Pine Street Inn, - "I'm not sure I buy all this network theory, but I love the people in this network."

I encourage you to study this living history of how providing sometimes long divided (and very different) local leaders with opportunities to renew, connect, innovate, and be fish out of water together (in the global south) are some of the building blocks of "networking a city." 

In the Barr Foundation's learning partnership on networks with the Interaction Institute for Social Change, they coalesced existing understandings of networks and decided that the network they sought to seed and support was one of connectivity for the sake of connection and relationship.  Nothing more.  Nothing less.  And waited to see what would organically emerge from this.  

These are 3 distinctions I found useful:
  • Connectivity network: loosely structured with no expectations of shared accomplishment (read here: relationship over time without pressure to perform)
  • Alignment network:  shared vision
  • Action network:  people mobilize towards common goals and collective action
In the event that this case study not only intrigues, but inspires an open source open spirited desire to copy, here are some guiding thoughts:
  1. Prepare to invest in sabbaticals and disruption.
  2. Select from a broad base and be flexible. 
  3. Engage a network knowledge partner and assess early and often.
  4. Recognize that the funder-grantee relationship is complex.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Reflections of a Reflective Leader: Authenticity as Authority

by CJ Callen

TWI Trustee CJ Callen, who has recently taken the helm at the Youth Leadership Institute, blogged about her learning so far in this new role.  Take a peak at CJ's thoughts on leadership transition, the importance of reflection, and translating learning into practice - in this piece, published on CompassPoint's blog earlier this month.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Is Grantmaking Getting Smarter?

By John Esterle

In 2011
Grantmakers for Effective Organizations heard from 775 foundations about grantmaking practices GEO identified as contributing to healthy and successful nonprofits (general operating/unrestricted grants, multiyear funding, and capacity-building support) With Is Grantmaking Getting Smarter?, GEO reports on the results of their survey.

Unfortunately, the answer to their question is "no."

On the bright side, grantmaking isn’t getting dumber as GEO found “little to no movement across a variety of practices from whether a foundation provided some level of general operating or capacity-building support to whether they tracked administrative requirements to their reasons for conducting evaluations.” As they point out, no backsliding is something to note in the current economic climate.

That said -- and in what will come as no surprise to nonprofits -- GEO states that "general operating and capacity-building support are still some of the hardest funds to come by." This, despite the fact that over the last decade, "Groups like the Center for Effective Philanthropy, FSG, The Bridgespan Group, Nonprofit Finance Fund, TCC Group, GEO and others have built a body of research about what works."

So, if evidence based research isn't changing anyone's mind, what is? GEO posits this answer: 
"When we looked at the data to see what kinds of funding practices are common among grantmakers with an ear to the ground, an interesting pattern began to emerge. It turns out that when funders had strategies in place for listening to and learning from grantees, they were more likely to increase these types of support."
Makes sense to me!

So, it appears you can amass a pile of evidence about the value of certain grantmaking practices, but it is only when you create opportunities for real listening and dialogue, when you build a different kind of relationship between funder and grantee, that behavior shifts (something to think about when we look at the "impact" of process and relationship-based work). GEO also notes that "there does appear to be a link between looking outside the foundation's walls and the kinds of funding decisions grantmakers ultimately decide to make."

Foundations of course are not the only organizations and institutions struggling with how to bring new voices and ideas into their decision making processes. Indeed, they have lots of company on that score. And often those ignored voices are not only outside an institution's walls, but inside them as well. For instance, if foundation staff, rather than trustees, made more of the decisions about types of support, I suspect we would see more widespread implementation of the practices GEO is advocating for. So, how do we create opportunities for more trustees to listen and learn from grantees?

As I read GEO's report, I was reminded of Joaquin Alvarado's recent commentary following his sudden exit as American Public Media's senior v.p. of digital innovation. I met Joaquin through TWI's support of the APM's Public Insight Network. I think Joaquin's insightful reflections about public broadcasting are well worth reading and have implications for many fields. Here's something he wrote that sticks with me:
"Change cannot be a complaint. It cannot be motivated by frustration or disapproval. Change is a creative enterprise. It requires courage and clarity. Change is about realization, not real estate. We cannot occupy our way to it. If we seek change, we must accept responsibility for creating it. We must take risks -- personal and institutional. The ratio of risk-takers among the stakeholders is not high enough in public broadcasting to motivate significant change. The ratio can rise, however, if leaders act with that intention and take responsibility for bringing the outsiders into Public Broadcasting."
We hear about supporting risk-taking all the time within philanthropy, yet as the GEO report makes clear, in fundamental ways the status quo remains alive and well when it comes to how grants are made and how foundations interact with nonprofits. Shifting that means bringing the voices of grantees more intentionally into discussions of not only what gets funded but how it is funded. In an environment where foundations are continually developing strategic plans, that seems like one strategy well worth pursuing.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Cross Fertilizing with InCommons

In the interest of continuing to cross fertilize ideas with others interested in promoting listening, trust and relationship building processes, and respectful exchange, here's a blog post about TWI's 2012 retreat by Catharine Jordan, of the Bush Foundation.

Friday, March 30, 2012

The Whitman Institute Retreat 2012

By Pia Infante

TWI's 4th retreat, like many of our previous retreats, was marked by bountifully good weather, rich conversations and connections, and a sensibility of community and renewal.

Yet, something happened this time. Something distinct, and extraordinary. I left, and many reported similarly, feeling powerfully connected, renewed, vibrant and inspired. One participant thought that this year's retreat was 100 times the potency of the last one. Perhaps the gatherings have simply built momentum over time.

There were certainly some structural distinctions:

  • Doubling previous participant cohorts, the group numbered 71 people - including current and former grantees, the trustees and staff, other funders, and kindred spirits.
  • It was our most diverse group of participants in terms of experience, region, race, age, culture, affinity, gender, orientation, roles and relationships to TWI.
  • More structured elements, where storytelling and topic-based conversations were baked into a more facilitated design.
  • The location, Chaminade in Santa Cruz, offered a wonderful blend of shared and private space.
  • We sometimes started or ended with the reading of poetry.
Perhaps, too, it is that TWI has recently set off towards a distinct point in time when the foundation will sunset. The inquiry and exploration about the living legacy the Institute will leave behind was a profoundly awakened one.

As Jill Blair noted in a recent email strand about the many sparks of connection and collaboration that have already followed the retreat:

"When we speak about the value proposition for the Institute's approach, this (collaboration/connectivity) is what we mean. The time we take to talk and to trust is time well spent - it is worth it because it builds better understanding and because it builds a basis for better collective work."

We are delighted that many of those who joined us are continuing to cross-fertilize, connect, and collaborate in myriad ways. We are also excited to join in, where possible, the proposed regional gatherings and re-groupings that are in the works. Lastly, we deeply appreciate the rich contributions of each and every person who joined us, and will take into deep consideration all that was shared.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Cultivating the Habits that Support Democracy

By Terry Chadsey

Many years ago I had a formative experience in my own understanding of democracy. I was invited to facilitate a Land Use Task Force public meeting in a community best described as transitioning from rural to suburban. Their last meeting had ended in a fistfight.

I began the meeting by playfully talking about how I was invited to help guide the process, but that I was neither a referee nor a police officer. Rather, I told those gathered that evening in a school cafeteria that I was a teacher and I had spent many years learning with school children about our democracy.

I said that the most important thing I learned was that we often mistakenly think that democracy means, "I get to say my truth" but in fact that's not quite accurate. What democracy means, I said, is that we get to protect the rights of others to say their truth even when we feel they are wrong. Many in the room smiled and nodded knowingly. As we listened to the wide-ranging public testimony, I invited everyone in the room to hold that thought: that we were gathered to protect the rights of each other to speak even when we felt they were wrong.

One of the Task Force members had brought her ten-year old son and eight-year old daughter to the meeting. With the children's and mom's permission, I place the two young people front and center facing the crowd. On my signal, they held up signs to mark the speaker's allotted time. The gathered adults help those children hold the space for each person to have their say.

Over the years, I've thought a lot about that night. Such a gathering created to hear a wide range of opinions and viewpoints is all too rare. Therein lies a collective dilemma that Parker J Palmer, founder and senior partner at the Center for Courage & Renewal, has brought to public discussion with his latest book, Healing the Heart of Democracy: the Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit. Parker explores how rebuilding the failing infrastructure of our democracy involves each of us cultivating five habits of the heart in our daily lives and work. These habits form the foundation of democratic society. They include: an understanding that we’re all in this together, practicing hospitality across lines of otherness, creative tension holding, developing a sense of voice and agency and the capacity to create community. The group gathered in that school lunchroom struggled to practice all five.

At the Center for Courage & Renewal, we're exploring ways to help interested citizens cultivate these habits. In partnership with writer Courtney Martin, we've recently launched Healing Democracy Action Circles, with an invitation and resources for people to organize actions circle to explore and apply these habits in their own communities. I hope you will join us.

What stories are formative in your own experience of democracy?

Where do you practice and learn about the habits of the heart in your community or your organization?

Terry is the Executive Director at the Center for Courage & Renewal.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

TPOWS: Media As Mediation

By Evelyn Messinger

There has been a flurry of attempts lately to connect the two political movements of our time, Tea Party and Occupy. As a television news producer who often works to expand participatory democracy, this one hits my sweet spot: it’s newsworthy, it’s dialogue, and the way the media report it will really matter.

The Tea Party burst on the scene in 2009, and Occupy Wall Street in 2011. On a superficial level, their rallies look surprisingly similar: compare this typical Tea Party event in Medford, Oregon; and an Occupy protests in the same place two years later. Journalists and commentators have noticed some shared concerns, and numerous polls show a large majority of Americans, cutting across divisions of race, class and political orientation, are unhappy with the current state of affairs. The ideological, economic and cultural divisions among Americans are real, but were these groups to join forces, even on just a few issues, the results could be profound.

This is where the media come in. So far, there are only sporadic accounts of meetings between Occupy and Tea Party activists (for simplicity, lets abbreviate these as TPOWS). The number of spontaneous TPOWS gatherings that go unreported cannot be known, but when they are covered (for example, this one in Memphis, the discussions focus on participants’ shared interests, and people do not scream at each other. When a news event leads and doesn’t bleed, it bodes well for reasonable discourse. Besides Tennessee, there are reports from Virginia, Louisiana, and a handful of other places.

But TPOWS encounters have, generally speaking, taken two forms: besides the “Let’s sit around the table and seek agreement” model, there are debates, usually generated by news media and staged for TV, that focus on political differences:“Let’s argue with each other on TV.”

These conflicting forms of news coverage raise the question: what narrative will come to define TPOWS: A powerful union of the majority intent on sweeping away corruption, or another brick in the wall of division? The future depends on which narrative takes hold. If argument supersedes agreement, efforts to unite the citizenry around shared concerns will have very limited effect, while the divisions that have paralyzed our government will be held in place, even expanded, through a focus on rancor and discord.

First, let me wear my journalist hat and make the case for the “debate” version. News has value precisely because it roots out differences and reports on conflict. The perfect example of this is an adventerous online TPOWS “discussion/debate” livestreamed on MSNBC’s website, which used the Google+ Hangout multiple-webcam format to interview three Tea Party and three Occupy stalwarts. The goal was to bring up the differences between the two groups’ philosophies. To its credit, the program did not slow its hectic pace to focus on arguments that erupted. Then again, when issues arose that might have led to agreement, the host did not stop to discuss these, either. The result is an enlightening exploration of the philosophical differences between these groups.

And yet, despite its title, the MSNBC online encounter was rarely a “discussion” or a “debate.” It was a serial interview of six people, with the news host firmly in charge. Participant’s comments were cut off as needed, and the subject was changed whenever the host said so.

A sadder example, in which the news process defeated dialogue but very little was learned, appeared on the NPR program, “Tell Me More.” Ironically, the segment is titled, Tea Party and Occupy: Can’t They All Get Along? Well, no – because the reporter won’t let them! Although the segment included the respected facilitator Richard Harwood, who was apparently shanghaied into participating, the host Michel Martin cut him off as Harwood asked his very first question! Apparently she was just too eager to get to the disagreement part to bother with fuddy-duddy facilitation. The Tea Party and Occupy guests obliged, and the result was a predictable battle.

This is the crux of the issue we are exploring here, the degree to which the media call the shots. Rule of Thumb Number One: the more the conversation is controled by TV producers, the more “differences” rather than “similarities” will set the tone.

In a blog post after the NPR program, Richard Harwood drew a conclusion from his experience: in-person “talk-around-the-table” is the only way to successfully connect Tea Party and Occupy activists. But this means that the powerful forces of mass media are free to shape the TPOWS narrative as one of conflict. Harwood’s instinct, to take advantage of the offer to use media, is likely based on knowledge we all share: in today’s world, leveraging change requires media presence. So let’s turn the issue on its head: if an attempt to engage citizens in dialogue using media doesn’t work, then what aspects of the media format should be changed to make it work?

Some years ago, this thought would have not occurred to anyone. We all would just throw up our hands and accept that this is the way media work. But today, broadcast, print and web outlets of every type are exploring citizen engagement, and willing as never before to allow the public a voice. So, rather than trying to wedge meaningful dialogue into news formats designed to create conflict, better to begin working with media outlets interested in allowing citizens to drive the dialogue, and create formats that serve the needs of the people.

There is an excellent example of this approach, an experiment by the Southern Oregon Public TV series, Immense Possibilities, in which the host, Jeff Golden, brought together activists from both sides. To a TV producer’s eye, the show lacks a certain pizzazz, but fancy elements are easier to create than a genuine discussion in which Tea Party and Occupy adherents are willing to talk – and listen – to each other on camera. Golden made it work in a surprisingly simple yet brilliant way, which is the Second Rule of Thumb: He invited people who were curious about the other side and willing to talk, rather than seeking the ‘leaders’ or people representative of one specific aspect of each movement. The fact that the participants turned out to be leaders of their movements, though not necessarily officially, says a lot for this approach.

I must note that Golden is a long-time resident of Southern Oregon, a skilled facilitator, journalist and former County Commissioner, so he is known and respected by both Tea Party and Occupy activists in his area. Yet I believe his program could be a template to help pioneer a format that is not yet defined. Our non-profit organization, Digital Citizen, is developing a process to leverage the voice of the citizen into the policy discourse that shapes our nation, and we will soon be working with Jeff and the TPOWS folks (the aforementioned pizzazz is our job).

Local newspapers with strong websites are also good places to create civilized dialogue formats. One of our partners, the Kansas City Star’s election site Midwest Democracy Project, is fertile ground for creating dialogue on similarities. Newspapers have a long history of editorial-page citizen engagement that puts a high value on the thoughts of their readers. Newspapers also have partnerships with local radio and TV outlets, which could lead to a successful version of the Tell Me More debacle.

Let me conclude with Rule of Thumb Number Three: Act while the formats are still evolving. All those who value unity over discord must get to work now, while the templates of the TPOWS narrative are still in play. If you are an activist, it’s time to look at those on the other side as fellow citizens and find shared concerns, lest both movements be divided and conquered by the very powers you are dedicated to reigning in. If you are a journalist, remember that the fame of no less a professional than Ted Kopple is based, in part, on his skilled management of televised Town Hall meetings in the 1980s. And if you are a facilitator, join up with the nearest journalist and make your mark on history, before its too late.


Our Guest Blogger this week is Evelyn Messinger, president of Internews Interactive, who is a television and Internet producer, and a pioneer of citizen engagement projects that define the parameters of digital connectivity. Her credits include daily news, features and documentary programs for the BBC, Link TV, PBS, PTV stations, CNN and others. She served as a non-profit executive for the Soros Foundation and the international media NGO, Internews Network.

This article is one of a series exploring the role of media in politics as the 2012 election approaches. Please see: Attack of the Attack Ads and Convergence 2.0.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Internet Blackouts, The Republican Primaries, & The Power of Silence

By Pia Infante

I've been thinking about the power of silence.

The successful, wide-spread website blackout and viral organizing of the past week to protest the SOPA bill in the U.S. House of Representatives and PIPA bill in the Senate sends a loud message. These bills have drawn the ire of many in the tech industry and beyond, citing that the legislation parameters proposed are "too broad" and will "threaten free speech, stifle innovation and most likely will not even effectively eliminate piracy."

Tracking the phenomenon, the NY Times reports that "by Wednesday morning, several lawmakers had reconsidered their support of the bills — one in the House, one in the Senate." And not just a handful of lawmakers changed sides after millions expressed their opposition online. In a graphic illustration, Mark Fraunfelder shows that 15 lawmakers abandoned their support for the bills while 70 lawmakers suddenly went public with their opposition.

In fact, CBS news reported in the last hour that "Senate and House leaders announced Friday they are postponing work on two controversial anti-piracy bills in the wake of large online protests that spurred several congressmen to rethink the legislation." This unfolding series of events hearten the wary dreamer in me -perhaps the promise that technology can increase public influence on how our democracy is governed is one that we can continue to live into.

The Republican presidential nomination circus, most recently taking place in the U.S. South, has also brought up for me the power of silence. I can't help but experience the vociferous voices of the potential nominees as a cacophony of blustery promises, threats, personal attacks,
and shameless self promotion. Now, I will own that I'm biased, en general, against the two party system - I'm not certain that it allows candidates who are truly in the game to help everyday people any real chance at the White House. In fact, the same kind of highly publicized drama on the Democratic stage might also sound much the same to me. In any case, when I do follow along I find that muting helps me observe the energy, body language, and messages of the candidates. I wonder how silence might serve any one of them.

I don't know that silence without a strategy could benefit anyone, but the power of ceasing normal activity or simply refraining from joining the fray cannot be under estimated. In high school debate, I remember the coach reminding us that we didn't have to fill up our allotted 3 minutes with words. She suggested that a thoughtful pause could enhance our point quite effectively. In my own life, I am attempting to invite silence into my daily practice - to remember that silence can invite others or innovation in or prompt the unnecessary thoughts and worries to take their leave of my mind. I also listen better, and hear more when I'm not putting anything into the space, which elicits untold gems of insight.

The website blackouts of the past week, with major industry giants like Wikipedia leading the way, were to me an indication of how thoughtful the strategy of silence can be. And how effective.