Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Weather and Us

I'm home for the holidays, which means that I've traveled from a land of rapidly-shifting weather (Denver) to a place where the weather rapidly shifts to terrible (Northern Illinois). Last night, my family and I were going to have a nice dinner at a local Thai restaurant some 8 miles away. A great fog had come upon the land, so we cancelled the excursion.

This morning, I set out from the farm to head into Chicago for a visit with an old roommate and some other friends. The radio barked on and on about visibility being 1/4 mile. I put it at about 200 feet! It was horrifying. The creek that runs through our property was nearly overflowing the bridge. The hour-long trip to the suburban trains was unusually long - I couldn't go much over 50 mph. It was like everything, air and land both, had turned into water.

It got me to thinking about how important "talking about the weather" really is to us. It's a cliche, really, when you think about it. Asking about the weather, making fun of it, praising it, etc., are all vital parts of how we have made, make, and will continue to make conversation.

We make fun of how we "talk about the weather," but are such disparaging remarks simply a cover for not having anything else to talk about, or is it something that we have to do? I'm betting on the latter.

My guess is that if you look back far enough, to the Epic of Gilgamesh or something similarly cuneiform, you'll find somebody gabbing about the weather. It's always available for dialogue. And since it is an unmovable, non-responding thing, it is frightfully easy for us to deride it or compliment it as we see fit; it can't talk back and we can't change it. So we'll continue, on and on, until we either find a way to "fix" the weather or we get our heads on straight and talk about the important things. The weather is an easy target - we need to set our sights higher.

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Thursday, December 18, 2008

Rick Warren, Interfaith Dialogue, and Obama

Barack Obama has selected Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church to deliver the invocation at his inauguration ceremony in January. Not everyone is happy. The furor from LGBT activists (many of whom supported Barack Obama) is especially understandable. Only a few hours after the announcement, the Human Rights Campaign's Joe Solmonese had released a letter expressing HRC's frustration. Warren is a very important figure in the religious life of America, and indeed the world. I've talked about him at the University of Denver's Interfaith Student Alliance blog. The post I refer to mentions Warren as being a powerful mobilizer for Christian youth worldwide. He spoke of "armies of compassion" that could perform services for others. He is also very vocal about AIDS and poverty relief.

The guy is exceedingly influential. Obama's choice of Rick Warren to invoke in January is thus a nod to the President-Elect's acknowledgment of the importance of religion in the lives of Americans. But not all Americans subscribe to the Christian faith, and not all American Christians are in step with Warren's admittedly conservative views. What does this all mean?

Some say that Obama and Warren see eye-to-eye on social justice issues, which is true, and that they both recognize the important role that faith plays in America. But Warren's selection is seen by many as an exclusionary choice, one that Obama, for all his talk of "bringing everybody together" has apparently missed. As an interfaith activist, I am perturbed by the choice, to be sure, and I hope that Obama will prove to be a fierce advocate for building bridges among our nation's diverse religious communities. On January 20th, the world will be watching.

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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Social Magnetism: Gravity, Guys, and Gals

I spend a lot of time working on hypotheticals, constructing "what if" questions about the future. This is part of the curse of being a political science guy - it's up to us to figure out what's going to happen in the future (I say this to anger my historian friends - Drew, that's for you). So in my latest WHAT IF, I thought about what might happen if someone quite famous, say Al Pacino or @Kofi Annan were to hop on Twitter tonight.

I refer to @THE_REAL_SHAQ to further my what if. The guy tweeted for the first time back on November 18th, largely to tell the world that he was, in fact, the real Shaq. That's less than a month ago. As of right now, he's being followed by 21,356 people. That's insane. Once we get enough case study data, I'm sure we'll be able to chart exactly how quickly big names expand their follower count. So let's say that Pacino hops on Twitter tonight and starts tweeting about whatever strikes his fancy. Within a few days he will have thousands of followers. We know that this happens, but it can't be just as simply as celebrity worship. I follow @Ban Ki-moon, but I'm more interested in what the Secretary General of the UN is up to than merely curious about a big name's daily plans.

In much the same fashion, once someone creates an especially engaging blog post/article (more than likely a list!), it circulates wildly throughout the social web. If we're not keeping up with ourselves, it is almost impossible to figure out where our content ends up. People will cut it up, give credit where credit is due, and repost, retweet, and reshare it ad infinitum. It's like casting a satellite out into space. Even if you point it in one specific direction, it's still going to be affected by the gravitational pulls of other objects, i.e. stars, asteroids, planets. Its course will be determined by the larger (and smaller) bodies that inhabit space. In the social web, the role of gravity and social magnetism cannot be ignored. If we don't pay attention, we may end up floating out into the social web alone.


Monday, December 15, 2008


I finished off my whirl of a week in DC with a trip to Philadelphia to visit my aunt. She works for the Atwater Kent Museum, close to Independence Hall, the little brick building where such fine documents as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were signed. It was a real treat to walk around the city and see these things again.

I last visited Philadelphia in 1995 when I was a little kid, when seeing the chair where Washington sat only excited me as a history piece. Now, as a student of political science, I see these places (Philadelphia prides itself on American "firsts") as so much more.

It was inspiring to be walking around the places where some really, really important decisions in our history have been made. Despite all of the history and monuments, though, the place had a feel much like Denver - it's a big town with a small town feel.

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Washington, DC

Every time I go to DC, I spend my time there wishing that I was a resident. I feel the pulse of the whole entire world all around me, like being in the nexus of whatever happens to be happening. Even when I visit during the summer, when the fierce humidity reminds me of life in Illinois, I still think that I could bike to work, shower, and then put on my suit and tie. Going to meetings and conferences and lectures with some of the best minds. I dream of waiting in the Metro with its oddly graceful dim tunnels, and of walking past buildings where the Founding Humans did their best work. Note: Don't tell Philadelphia that I said that.

And usually when I leave the District, those feelings leave me, and I admit to myself and others that I could never, ever live there. I nitpick and find all the parts of Washington that I hate: again, the humidity; the obscenely fast pace of everything; the transitory nature of the people that inhabit the city; etc.

But this last time was different. I had my finger on the pulse and for the first time, I left the city praying to get that feeling back. Moving out there is, I think, the perfect opportunity for me to do some good. Of course, I would have to give up my bike trails and these mountains and Watercourse, but I think I could do it. We'll just have to wait and see if any of my applications get returned with a smiley face.


Thursday, December 11, 2008

Through the Swamp

I've been commenting a bit on Steven Hodson's recent post Is Social Media Becoming A Social Mess? over at Inquisitr. It's been a really lively discussion, and even though the conversation is a few days old, it is still pretty interesting reading.

Hodson is right - social media, and the interactive web in general, is a great mess. Early adopters and the like have to act as the pathfinders/explorers to figure out what works in the new digital world. Some things will fail, but other tools will become as ubiquitous as email. I've addressed the unknown future of social media in terms of governance before, and the discussion developing over at Inquisitr is keenly complementary.


Thursday, December 4, 2008

An Evening With Michael Seltzer

So I hit up the Denver Young Nonprofit Professionals Network tonight for a little speech and Q&A with Michael Seltzer. He's a nonprofit consultant, awesome dude, and the author of Securing Your Organization's Future. You can find a better bio of Seltzer here. We had some light refreshments and then gathered in the studio at Denver Open Media. Since there were only about 15 of us, Michael had us all pull our chairs into a tight little circle, which was just super.

He talked about how his life in the nonprofit world began with a trip to Cameroon under the precursor program to our Peace Corps. From there he bounced around to a handful of different places, gaining valuable experience in a wide variety of situations and cultural contexts. He was coming of age politically during the late 60s. It was, as we know, a crazy time full of hope and cooperation. His contention was that the social movements of the 1960s were based less on organizations and more on the Movement qua Movement.

Many nonprofit organizations precipitated out of these social movements, but as they did, they lost the "vision." Suddenly the game was about promoting the organizations themselves. Granted, they had to do this to survive, but a mentality of competition came to rule the sector. And so it goes.

Nowadays, as Seltzer noted in his talk, it seems that we are edging back toward being parts of movements as opposed to solitary organizations. This is not simply a matter of playing on the same team, but perhaps an entirely new organizational structure. It's all quite a grand vision, and we talked as a group about how technology is changing the ways in which we can work at this sort of retro-collaboration. Sure, the idea of macro-movements is back in force because it has to be, but also because it can - the spirit of the 1960s has broken upon the shore of the internet and social media.

We also spoke about "sector-jumpers," those people from, say, the corporate world who are finding their existence threatened by the market. They will head for an equally precarious, but far more rewarding place, like the nonprofit sector. Seltzer talked about seeing the explosive growth of "social entrepreneurship clubs" in major MBA programs - these people want to help.

After someone referred to nonprofits as the "third sector," Michael said, "No. Nonprofits are the first sector. In 1636, a minister donated his library and some money. The organization became the first corporation in the United States, and was named after the man. That man was John Harvard." Nonprofits have been an important part of the fabric of America for some time, and Seltzer noted that, especially during this past election, Americans voted not only through the ballot box, but through their checkbooks and their volunteer hours. He sees our democracy as relying in large part upon the continued activity of Americans in the nonprofit sector. As he noted - 80% of us either donate or volunteer. We can't get those kinds of numbers even for small-town elections.

One of the participants expressed confusion about the use of technology to build the aforementioned new organization structure of Movements. She wasn't a technophobe or anything, she simply didn't know how being able to communicate digitally (ubiquitously) was going to change anything. Seltzer asked us what we thought about that, so I broke into the song-and-dance about nonprofits being on the cutting edge of communication, collaboration, and social networking/media - not so much because it's good for us, but because we have to to survive.

Along with that, someone mentioned the seeming loss of depth in our connections for breadth in our connections, but pointed out that we therefore have a responsibility to "drill down into that breadth in whatever ways we can," and in essence, "humanize these new technologies." Seltzer agreed, noting that we are still very much about face-to-face interactions. We like touch.

The whole evening was very inspiring, really. He noted that we definitely need to think of ourselves as skilled people, with cultural competency being a chief proficiency. The social movements of the 1960s were anti-professional. Nowadays, we are the professionals. We have opportunities to build great big things with lots and lots of people. New Movements. Old Movements with new names. Lots of things.

It's going to be a grand old time.

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Monday, December 1, 2008

Christmas Comes But Never A Year

Frowny-face in England, from the Telegraph: Christmas banned in Oxford

It's not quite so frowny, though. The glimmer of true holiday cheer is the commentary by Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders in the city. As Sabir Hussain Mirza says:
"I am really upset about this. Christians, Muslims and other religions all look forward to Christmas."
And this from Rabbi Eli Bracknell:
"It is important to maintain a traditional British Christmas."
The concern expressed by these various religious leaders is both a refreshing example of interfaith cooperation and an illustration of the transmutation of Christmas into a holiday of "civil religion." Here in America, of course, the holiday season means a return to the discussion about "keeping Christ in Christmas." I'd be interested to see what the reaction of American Christians would be to having the leaders of different faith traditions backing them up!

Perhaps I have a romantic vision of this season. But if you've ever gotten "Christmas" gifts from a Jewish or Hindu neighbor, you'll understand what I'm on about. Happy Holidays!

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Bloggers Unite - World AIDS Day

Today is the 20th Anniversary of World AIDS Day, and Bloggers Unite has put together another massive action to raise awareness. Hence this post.

I collaborate and consult with The 1010 Project, a humanitarian nonprofit in Denver, that works to eradicate poverty in Kenya. One of our focus areas is HIV/AIDS support groups - civil society and community-based organizations that are providing hope and care to those infected and affected by HIV/AIDS. I've spoken before of the ways in which poverty holds back the developing world, but infectious diseases have their place, too.

It goes without saying that HIV/AIDS is retarding development. This happens on two levels:

1. When a head of a household is too sick to work, or worse, dies, that family becomes unable to support itself. It's like instant impoverishment.

2. When parents die, their children don't. This has led to what is essentially an "orphan epidemic," especially in sub-Saharan Africa. These orphans don't have options open to them, and they will likely end up in poverty.

Combating diseases like HIV/AIDS has become a global rallying point - something agreeable like climate change or nuclear disarmament. World AIDS Day will hopefully refresh the commitments of governments, organizations, and individuals to do whatever they can to stop the spread of AIDS, and to bring hope to those for whom hope is a dream.

Stop AIDS. Keep the Promise.

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