Maybe It Takes Getting to Know One Another

“People aren’t being seen”

For a long time now I have been pointing out to anyone who will listen that community is broken in this country. At least where I live, in California. I think we are seeing the consequences of that brokenness all around us; in our crazy political environment, our high homeless population, the ridiculous numbers of people in prisons and jails, even in the wide wealth disparity. Our rising suicide rate, our daily mass shootings, the mind-boggling amounts of money we spend on health care – the list of symptoms of our broken community just seem to go on and on. Oh, our lowering life expectancy too.

Since I work with people who are homeless, I do a lot of reading specific to the field. Street Roots published an article about the cognitive reasons why housed people struggle to feel empathy for people who are homeless. Not only is the article relevant to homelessness, I think it’s relevant to every aspect of our civic culture today. The italicized portions below are from that article.

“People aren’t being seen,” (Harris) said. “If I’m a busy person, going through a city where there are tons of homeless people, and I have to stop and consider the minds of all of these people, that might make me feel very uncomfortable. Moreover, if I don’t feel like I have the resources to help, there’s nothing I can do to alleviate that suffering. That feeling stays with you. Our brain says, instead, if I take a second to stop and think about your suffering, it’s going to make me feel bad. So, dehumanization becomes a kind of emotion regulation strategy.”

Online, with social media, we have all faced a time where we were forced to consider the mind of someone who clearly has wildly different views than we do. How much easier is it to tune those people out than is it to actually think about what they are saying? How much easier is it to, then, just write off people who share those views and de-friend them or block them out entirely? How hard is it to have your ideas challenged online and to refrain from yelling or letting the conversation devolve into insults?

“We readily help kids and cute animals, in part because we know that whatever trouble they’re in, they can’t really be held accountable,” (Zak) said. “We’re less likely to be so understanding and forgiving when it comes to homeless adults or drug addicts. This tendency to judge rather than help is partly the result of a spot in the prefrontal cortex called the subgenual cortex. It’s full of oxytocin receptors, and it appears to modulate the degree of empathy by regulating the release of dopamine. No dopamine means no reward from engaging with the other person, which makes it less likely that we’ll reach out empathically.”

In America, there seems to be a very strong desire to withhold services from people who don’t “deserve” them. This makes sense if, when we feel powerless, we dehumanize the people in our communities who need help. Since they are still suffering, they are living proof of our failures….

I’ve been wrestling with the idea that humans have an innate desire to help other humans. That commerce is based on contribution. What do people pay for? They pay to be contributed to. Whether it’s food, housing, entertainment, interaction. We pay for other people to contribute to us, and we want to contribute to other people. When we see people who are homeless, most of us see people we can’t contribute to. Most of us see that we have failed to help them.

Is it easier to blame the homeless than to take responsibility, as a community? I would guess that most of us don’t even think in terms of our community. We don’t think about what services we want to be sure that our community members have access to. We don’t think about what we as a community are doing to alleviate suffering in our midst. Is it easy to say “they made their choices,” “they are addicts,” “they are getting what they deserve?” Maybe the people who say those things felt the powerlessness of dealing with someone who’s choices were chaotic and out of control. Maybe they had to detach from a loved one to maintain their sanity and control over their own lives. A real community has each other’s backs. What’s it going to take to start thinking like that?

“If we design interventions to help people meet members of such stigmatized groups and get beyond the stereotype and see the person behind the social category, they tone down their judgments and feelings,” (Hewstone) said.

Hewstone is literally saying that if we get people from different social groups to meet and interact, then we will ratchet down the judgement, the yelling, and the divisiveness.

WHAT A THOUGHT

So then, if we had strong communities, maybe we wouldn’t be having this problem in the first place?

Now I’m going to talk about politics. I think that the level of division in our country is a security threat. It is a threat to our democracy. It appears that multiple foreign countries have figured out how to manipulate our elections and political process for their own gain. Almost exclusively, they are preying on our own divisions to do so.

Is it an incorrect conclusion then, that the best way to fight for and save our democracy is to get to know our neighbors? To meet and get to know people in our community who don’t think or live like us? To talk with the homeless, the middle class, and the rich? To talk with brown, black, white? To talk with young, middle-aged, and old? With men, women, and everyone in between?

That seems like a logical conclusion to me. It seems to me that it is time to do our patriotic duty. It seems like, all it’s going to take to stand up for the principles that our country are founded upon, is for you and I to go out and bridge the gaps in our own lives.

Bridge the gaps, instead of fighting for our point of view. No one is going to do it for us.

‘MERICA!

Reuniting the US sounds like a Herculean task

How can I accept my country slowly, painfully tearing itself apart? A country who’s founding motto is “Out of Many, One.” A country that calls itself the United States.

A comedian friend of mine posted on facebook, that he wore a shirt that had some American flag themed decoration on it for his comedy set. That after his set, a lady came up to him and told him that he should not wear that shirt because he was obviously a liberal and liberals aren’t patriotic.

This is where we are at today.

We’ve been leading up to this for a long time. Way back in 2003, if my memory serves, I was working on a bond campaign for a local library. I was talking with a potential volunteer for the campaign, and he asked me if I was a Republican. I said no (I’m not registered with any party), and he said good – that he would never work with a Republican. But it was different then, than it is today. It wasn’t quite so… visceral.

I remember reading about a time when the political parties in this country could get along. Or at least, not view each other as the enemy. It seems to me that all that came crashing down when Newt Gingrich was the speaker of the house in the 1990’s. But the days of seeing allies across the aisle, if they ever existed, seem to be gone.

This is very upsetting for me. Because at some point, this state is a conscious choice for everyone involved. We choose to badmouth our political adversaries. We choose to lie about them. We choose to heap endless tons of criticism upon them. We choose to distort what we see to serve our political ends. We choose to tear down our fellow countrymen and countrywomen. We choose to shut out wide swaths of our own people from the political and policy making process. We chose this, and we choose it again every day. We are 327 million people (last I checked) choosing to do this to ourselves.

How does anyone turn that around?

I don’t know.

Maybe I have an idea, though. What I can do, is bring people together locally. Maybe that will make a difference. Maybe there are other people, in other parts of the country, who are doing the same.

Maybe getting people off of the internet, out from in front of their screens, and talking to each other – maybe that will make a difference. I feels, to me, that social media and media in general today is just designed to inflame. That we are all inflamed, and that’s why we don’t hear each other. That’s why people who think differently than us look like the enemy.

Normally, when I write about something that is bothering me, I write until I feel better. In this instance, I don’t know that I will be able to feel better about this. How can I accept my country slowly, painfully tearing itself apart? A country who’s founding motto is “Out of Many, One.” A country that calls itself the United States. A country where every man (and woman) is equal. The land of the free and the home of the brave. Maybe all that great stuff I was told about our country as a kid was hokum.

But that hokum is worth fighting for.

I don’t have easy answers here. Maybe all there is to do is to continue to move forward. To continue to try things, and to see what works. To continue to stand for what I believe our country should stand for.

Right now, that’s all I’ve got.

Why I Endorse Kalen Gallagher for San Jose City Council

And you should encourage anyone who lives in San Jose’s District 9 to vote for him

If the next generation of leadership in America is like Kalen, then we are going to be okay. Sorry if that’s not super enthusiastic – but as someone who is deeply disturbed by current political events – being okay would be a huge win. If Kalen is elected, I’ll literally be able to sleep better at night knowing that, finally, a portion of our country is in good hands. Even if it is just a district in San Jose.

Alright, that may be slightly melodramatic. But it’s also real, so let me get into why I feel that way. I’m not looking at platforms when I evaluate candidates, I’m looking at character. When it comes to character, Kalen is the sort of person I wish would hold office throughout our nation.

Also, I took that photo from his website. I hope he doesn’t mind.

Kalen is fair: If you approach him with a concern, and you mean well, he is going to hear you out. He’s not going to shut you down because of your political views or affiliations. Listening is probably the rarest and most essential skill for our political leaders, and he does it better than most. But, do your homework. Because he has done his. If you are quoting an article, or a piece of research, make sure the research is real and the sources exist. Kalen is sharp, and he will suss out flim-flam pretty quick.

Kalen is honest: He and I met when we were 10 years old (I think. Maybe we were 11? One of the two). We made it through the rocky middle school years, through high school when we were all trying different things, and into adulthood. On many occasions as a kid, I witnessed Kalen stand up for the truth even when a lie would have been more expedient. As an adult, he has learned the wonderful art of addressing what is real without alienating people. If only more people in politics today could do such a thing…

Kalen knows when not to take sides: Partisanship is literally killing our country today. I think that it fills a great need within all of us to not feed into the hyper-partisanship that rules our discourse nationally, and instead work to bridge the gaps between all of us Americans. That Kalen is doing the work to bridge the divides locally is exemplified in this excerpt from this article, that notes that he isn’t conforming to the normal business-labor divide that has defined the San Jose city council in the past:

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Kalen is prepared to hear your feedback: Full disclosure here, I volunteered a bit on his 2012 campaign for the school board of the Campbell Union High School District. I may have donated to that campaign as well (I don’t remember, sorry). What impressed me then, and continues to impress me, is the technical apparatus he has set up to make sure that he is able to hear feedback from his constituents. I don’t know how he’s done it exactly, but Kalen consistently reads and cites the emails and messages he receives through his work as an elected official. As someone who goes through life with 16,000+ unread emails, I find that nearly astounding.

Kalen is not beholden to special interests: And someone is scared about that. I don’t have to tell you how corrupt politics in America have become. This is a well worn truth at this point. Kalen can prove that he is more interested in serving his constituents than any special interests. He has a track record of doing so. As someone who has known him for about 25 years now, since we were both kids, I can tell you that this is a deeply held principle for Kalen. This is nowhere near some sort of political stunt. That being the reality, someone is using special interest funds to smear Kalen. He breaks it down best here. The blatant lies and misrepresentations that are being shared throughout San Jose just for a city council position are both sad and embarrassing.

Kalen is effective: I think Kalen best summarizes how he did as a member of the school board for our old high school here, from his website:

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I included that last sentence on purpose. I truly think that Kalen is finding the path forward in American politics beyond the divisiveness of today. I think we should encourage that, and embark on that path ourselves.

Please folks, if you know anyone who lives in western San Jose – share this with them or tell them about Kalen’s campaign. We need to be putting more good people in office.

When Does Someone Deserve Homelessness?

Is there a crime where homelessness is the appropriate punishment? I haven’t found one yet.

For those of you who may have missed it, I got a new job in November. I now am part of a team that gets homeless veterans into stable housing. It’s a great job, and I truly love to go to work every day. What has also happened, since I took this job, is I’ve been forced to reevaluate how I think about aspects of life. This is one of those aspects.

Before I fully address the headline of this blog, however, I’m going to ask you to consider something. What if we, as a people, have exactly the economy we have designed? If our normal way of thinking, that we are essentially powerless over how our economy goes, is simply a learned way of thinking and not actually true? What if, in the process of handing over the management of our economy to our government, we have forgotten that our government does actually manage the economy? And that, by working together, we have the knowledge and ability to change the economy in any way we see fit?

I’m going to assert that we do have the economy we have designed. I’m also going to assert that the powerlessness we feel over the economy is due to the powerlessness we feel over our political system. And that our political system has effectively declined to take effective action regarding our economy, or declined to obtain the knowledge to manage our economy as we see fit. Or declined to participate fully in the mechanisms that we use to make the economy work for us. That it is not a deficit of ability.

That homelessness is not an unhappy accident within our economy and society, but a feature. That homelessness could be a byproduct of the way we think about money, work, family and housing. It could be the byproduct of the broken way that we have all learned to work together.

So, if we consider that homelessness in one way or another is happening on purpose (even if the “purpose” is simply us declining to take action where we can), then my question is;

What does someone have to do to deserve homelessness? People who commit serious crimes (murder, rape, etc) get to be housed in prison. Not ideal housing, obviously, but they have a roof over their head. Do you deserve to lose housing if you default on a mortgage? I would argue no, you deserve to lose that house but not housing. Don’t pay your rent? Lose your apartment, sure. Housing? No. Medical issues that wipe out your finances? Absolutely should not lose housing. Break up with a significant other? Should not lose access to housing. Lose work and have trouble finding new employment? Should not lose access to housing. Struggle with addiction and/or mental disorders? Still shouldn’t lose access to housing.

At what point should someone lose access to housing? I haven’t found one.

On a practical level, this makes me wonder if there should be some sort of safety net. We have a safety net if you lose your job: unemployment. What about a safety net if you lose a place to live? What would that look like? How would that work?

But putting aside the practical for one more moment, there are deeper issues to address. Lots of homeless people at some point were made to be homeless. Maybe we should stop doing that to people. How we stop doing that, I’m not sure…

I Think Our Leaders are Failing Us

Let me be more specific: People want to feel like the leaders in their life have their back.

I’ve got a hypothesis, but I have no real way to test it out besides testing it on you folks. So here goes: I think that there is a large portion of the population (in this country at least) that does not experience being served by the leadership in their life the way they want to be served.

This article’s incredible image is courtesy of my friend Joshua Coffy. Check out his work here.

Let me be more specific: People want to feel like the leaders in their life have their back.

And for most of us, at least at work, that experience is lacking. The other aspects of leadership are important as well. You need good strategy, tactics, and execution. You need to make sure that money continues to flow into your organization. There is a lot of expertise to accumulate and decisions to navigate as the leader of an organization. If your organizational leadership is highly innovative and pushes their team to innovate as well, that is great.

But how many organizations are going to have your back when the shit hits the fan? How many organizations do the work to make sure you are deployed in a way that inspires you and gets the best work out of you? How many organizations make sure you are getting paid a wage that works for you? How many work with you during organizational changes to make sure that your needs are also met?

Heck, how many organizations listen to feedback from their front line staff – the people who make everything work on a day to day basis? How many actively develop the talents of the folks already working for them, so when greater expertise is needed they can call on people who already have knowledge of the inner workings of the organization?

How many organizations make sure that there is enough institutional knowledge among their staff that there is always someone to train people who are ready to grow? How many organizations are constantly trying to cut labor costs, or cut front line staff costs so they can show a bigger profit and/or give their leadership bigger bonuses?

HOW MANY ORGANIZATIONS EVEN TAKE THE TIME TO TRAIN PEOPLE PROPERLY?!?

My thinking is that this is a big thing that is missing in the development of leadership today. That is, that people who are leading organizations don’t receive training in how to handle the fact that they aren’t just running a company or a non-profit – that they are in a leadership role in a community. That they are responsible for the health of the community, and the health of that community as well as the people inside of it often determines the health of the organization. That if you, as a business or non-profit leader, don’t realize that you are also in charge of nurturing a community you are missing the point.

I know that there is a line of thinking among some capitalists that labor should be interchangeable. But if labor is interchangeable, that means that any one person doesn’t matter. Everyone wants to matter, in their day-to-day life. They want to be treated like they matter.

I myself have seen firsthand what happens when employees feel like their leadership has their back, and it’s a beautiful thing. The things that I’ve seen those teams accomplish have been off the charts. It didn’t take fancy management training, or some whiz-bang consultant. It just took making sure everyone knew that the leadership had their back.

I would argue that political leaders in our country understand this. That they make sure segments of the population believe that they are going to have their back. The issue there is that they are often only playing to certain segments. But that’s another blog for another day…

My experience is only anecdotal. I’m not totally sure how this could be tested on a larger scale, even though I’m sure it could. What I’m looking for, for those of you who have stuck with this post this far, is more anecdotal evidence. Do you feel like leadership having your back is missing for you too, or missing for people around you? Have you experienced what it was like to feel totally supported by the leadership in your organization, and what was it like for you?

 

PS: Don’t take this as any way influenced by my new job. I frickin love my new job (more on that later). But I am at the point where I see this everywhere, when almost everyone opens their mouths to talk about their work. It’s been on my mind quite a bit, so I figure it’s time to put it out there.

This Might Be the Best Sunday of Football Ever

A couple of days ago, a friend of mine asked “What keeps your faith in the world?”

It’s days like today. Seeing, of all things, NFL players taking a knee together during the national anthem today is what keeps my faith. After Trump said anyone who kneels should be fired… as if kneeling is any disrespect to the national anthem.

I don’t remember being so moved by football.

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I honestly don’t remember being so proud to be American. Not about anything that happened in my lifetime. Seeing so many Americans kneeling against divisiveness. Kneeling to remind the country that too many black people are dying at the hands of police.

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Seeing so many people back the kneelers, or at least stand up for their right to kneel.

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I’m proud to see America finally show it’s true colors. It always takes a crisis…

Democracy Today

I’ve been thinking a lot about democracy recently. How, ideally it seems, what democracy allows in a society is the ability for a population to consent to their own governance. Which is really great. Like really great you guys, really this cannot be understated. The opposite of consenting to your own governance is oppression, manipulation, exploitation, disempowerment… and people generally having less say and control over their lives and the direction of their community than they want.

Image made by the very talented Josh Coffy. Check out his stuff here.

Democracy also requires people to engage in a certain level of civility. To really do democracy, you have to be willing to accept that the ideas and beliefs of other people are valid and need to be addressed – even if you think those ideas and beliefs are completely and totally wrong. Because otherwise, how can you work with them? Democracy, as is defined by google, is “a system of government by the whole population.” That means you have to work with the whole population, find common ground, and create agreement so that you can move forward in the best interest of your town, city, community, state and/or country.

I’ve been thinking about democracy a lot because everywhere I look in the news and world today I see either failures of democracy or people deliberately subverting democracy to achieve their political goals. There are a lot of reasons this is foolish, but I think the most important point is that when we erode democracy to reach our goals then our achievements are decidedly temporary. When you do not create consensus, or even agreement, what you get is instant resistance to your policies regardless of how good your policies are. It simply does not matter how right it is, the thing that you want to do. When you force that thing upon people they are going to focus on the negative aspects of it.

A textbook case is the most recent attempt by Mitch McConnell and the GOP to “repeal and replace” Obamacare. Whether you agree with that idea in principle or not, I can tell you with absolute certainty that writing the bill in secret, giving people an hour to read it, and then forcing a vote is not an effective way to create consensus. And what do you know? They couldn’t even get the 52 Senators in their own party to agree on the thing.

Another disparate example is the first post-Saddam Hussein government in Iraq. It seemed to be more interested in subjugating the Sunni parts of the Iraqi population than serving them… and then the Sunni militia Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad became Al-Qaeda in Iraq – which then became ISIS. Many more people have written much more in-depth than I will about ISIS, but making sure a significant portion of your country is not served by your government is a great way to destabilize your country.

“Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable” -JFK, according to the internet.

Whether or not JFK actually said that (I’m not going to believe stuff just because it’s been made into memes on the internet), I think that quote is the most prescient lens through which to look at events throughout the world today. Functioning and effective democracy is a means by which we allow for peaceful revolution, as well as peaceful change and peaceful growth. A judiciary based on the rule of law is another. When those institutions are subverted, we increase the likelihood of injustice. And when that injustice is not addressed, eventually people turn to violence.

Not that we should be waiting until people want to take up arms to secure the institutions of our democracy. I value consent, and a functioning democracy ensures that it’s citizens our governed by consent. Maybe not everyone values consent? I don’t know. But for me democracy is important because it is the best means we have to governing with consent. And we should always be working to make sure that whatever our government is has as much consent as possible.

That’s what I’m thinking about these days…

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