The John Hughes Effect

The John Hughes Effect

When I was 15, I wrote a fan letter to John Hughes and became his pen pal.

This isn’t that blog post. If you want to know that story, you can read it here.

But this blog post is about reaching out to people to ask them for something—even when you think they might be too busy or too important or some other such nonsense—because, in my experience, it’s pretty likely that they are going to come through for you. (I call it “the John Hughes effect,” because it was Hughes that taught me this lesson.) In fact, if they are indeed “busy” or “important,” it’s likely because they have asked other people for help, and those people have come through for them. They’re ready to do the same.

Last week I did an exercise to demonstrate this idea to my staff, whom I am encouraging to be more willing to reach out to people who can help them to understand issues we’re working on, to connect them with people we don’t know, to solve problems for our clients, or to uncover opportunities for us to take on new projects.

My “exercise” involved sending an email to 179 people I know, combing through my 1,200+ LinkedIn connections (who are all these people?) to identify folks from a range of fields and parts of the world. They were friends, former classmates and colleagues, and people with whom I may have had a cup of coffee. Once.

In the email, I asked each recipient to send me 1-2 conferences they had attended that they thought were inspiring so that I could share their recommendations with our clients. Within a week, I had a thirty percent response rate. (For those of you who are bad at math that means about 60 people got back to me.) Some of the people even asked others they knew to share their ideas and they did. Random acts of stranger kindness. Crazy.

It was heartening—it’s nice to hear from people with whom you haven’t spoken in a while. It was interesting—I learned about people’s new jobs and newly developed areas of interest. I got a dinner invitation last week; a drink invitation this week; a new client; a bunch of phone calls; a new Facebook friend; plans to have drinks when I am next in DC, Los Angeles, and New York; plans to have drinks when they are next in Seattle; an invite to Detroit and an invite to Belgium; a baby picture; a report that would be useful to one of our clients; and a couple of exchanges about just how useless conferences can be.

One of my favorite responses was from Farai Chideya, who reports for FiveThirtyEight:

Hey — I’m running around on election duty but look up Spark Camp.”

People who are reporting on this crazy ass presidential election have time to respond to random requests for help. The people in your network do too. People you don’t even know do as well.

The secret? Just ask. To listen to your idea. To introduce you to someone. To teach you about something that is their passion or area of expertise. If they can’t do it, they won’t.

And life goes on.

A couple of the people to whom we reached out asked to see the list when we had pulled it together, which I did last night. It was, after all, the least I could do. I’m sharing it with you as well, because you’ve read this far. If you have ideas for additional conferences to add to the list, share them in the comments.

Now go ask someone for help. 

(By the way, one of the things we do for some of our clients is to support them to attend conferences. We identify conferences that might not be on their radar, pitch them as speakers, help them prepare their talks and presentations, identify people who will be speaking or attending with whom they may want to meet, and provide them with background information and suggestions for topics to discuss. We also support them to use social media to make the most out of their attendance—primarily to connect with those who are also in attendance, but also to promote their talk if they are giving one. And we support them once they have returned as well, helping them to think through how to follow up with connections they made and to share or act on ideas that were inspired by a conversation they had or a presentation they saw. If this is something that might be of value to you or your organization, let us know. We might be able to help.)

streetwise revisited: one story among the countless

streetwise revisited: one story among the countless

I first came across this photograph in May 2015 when I learned the photographer, Mary Ellen Mark, had passed away. I felt entranced by the photograph’s irony: a child living in Seattle dressed up to look like an adult French prostitute. This costume wasn’t far off from reality.

This photo is part of a larger collection of photographs by Mary Ellen Mark for a 1983 LIFE magazine piece “Streets of the Lost,” that documented the lives of street children in Seattle who made their living as prostitutes, pimps, and drug dealers. Among these children was Erin Blackwell (pictured above), known as Tiny, who spent her time on the streets with her friends as a prostitute and lived with her alcoholic mother who said she thought Blackwell’s prostitution was “just a phase.” A year later, in 1984, Mary Ellen Mark and her filmmaker husband, Martin Bell, released STREETWISE, a documentary film about the same children that was nominated for an Academy Award. While at the time Seattle was credited as “America’s most livable city,” this story painted a stark contrast.

A few weeks ago, I went to the Seattle Public Library to see a collection of Mary Ellen Mark’s photographs—“Streetwise Revisited: A 30-year Journey”—that included images from the Life feature, stills from the film STREETWISE, and new photographs that fill in the gaps in Blackwell’s story over the decades.

Thirty-three years later, it’s heartbreaking how Blackwell’s story is still relevant today. Families with children make up a quarter of King County’s (where Seattle is located) homeless population. The number of people without shelter in Seattle increased by 20 percent between this year and last. As the city continues to grow, so has the homeless population, which includes many with mental health issues. Blackwell’s is therefore just one of countless similar stories in Aggregate’s backyard.

I’ve come to learn that one story doesn’t change the world, but many iterations of the same tale told over time does. Hopefully Mary Ellen Mark and Martin Bell’s retelling of Blackwell’s story will help sway public policy in Seattle and the state of Washington to come up with effective ways to address homelessness, and the trauma, abuse, and addiction with which it is associated.

In fact, I like to think this is why Mark and Bell were relentless in sharing Blackwell’s life with us. The story must continue to be told. We must continue to listen and talk about the issues. We must be empathetic and take action to help those around us.

If you have the chance, go and see “Streetwise Revisited: A 30-year Journey” at the Central Library before it closes on November 3. Mark and her husband were working on a follow-up documentary on Blackwell’s life since STREETWISE. Despite Mark’s passing last year, the film, “Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell,” is complete and will be screened at the Central Library on October 14. Martin Bell will be present for a Q&A session following the screening. I hope you can make it. Bring a friend and keep the conversation alive.

 

Photo credit: Mary Ellen Mark

The Art Points to Something: Kehinde Wiley’s “A New Republic”

The Art Points to Something: Kehinde Wiley’s “A New Republic”

I’ve never been as excited for a museum exhibition as I was for the opening of Kehinde Wiley’s “A New Republic” at Seattle Art Museum (SAM). The New York-based, Yale-trained artist is known for his larger than life, vividly colored portraits depicting young men of color in historical poses and scenes. His Anthony of Padua (pictured above), for example, is based on El Greco’s 14th century original, and like so many of his pieces, seeks to draw attention to, and counter, the historical absence of people of color in painting and art.

 

The inspiration for this body of work was a discarded mugshot of a young African American man, which Wiley found on a Harlem street. He started thinking about mugshots as “a perverse type of portraiture,” where subjects have no control over their positioning, in contrast to 18th century portraits of subjects “positioning themselves in states of stately grace and self-possession.” (A portrait of that mugshot is part of “A New Republic,” and it’s one of my favorites).

 

My enthusiasm about Wiley’s SAM exhibition is twofold: the art is strikingly beautiful; and, Wiley’s work is rooted in deep social questions of race, identity, power, and privilege. The work is powerful, and in my book, a must-see. It was also an important reminder that a single story does not change the world, and that art is art––it doesn’t necessarily exist to change the world, but to spark conversation, and perhaps, set viewers on a path towards action down the road. As Wiley told The Stranger’s art critic Jen Graves, “In the end, I’m not changing negative history or stereotypes. All I’m doing is rubbing these two oppositional forms together and creating a sensation that’s bittersweet because the art points to something, but it’s not in and of itself a redemptive act.”

 

“A New Republic” is on view at Seattle Art Museum through Sunday, May 8. Discount tickets are available on Thursday, May 5 (the first Thursday of the month).

 

Image: Anthony of Padua, 2013, Kehinde Wiley, American, b. 1977, oil on canvas, 72 × 60 in., Seattle Art Museum, gift of the Contemporary Collectors Forum, 2013.8. © Kehinde Wiley. Photo: Max Yawney, courtesy of the artist and Roberts & Tilton, Culver City, California.

the loudest day for american women: international women’s day

the loudest day for american women: international women’s day

Five years ago today, a man in Paris stopped me to give me a flower as I walked down the Boulevard St. Germain.

“For you, on your special day,” he told me. Reading the confusion on my face, he quickly added, “Happy International Women’s Day!”

I smiled and thanked him as I accepted the flower.

Twenty-one years I’d been living on this earth, and March 8, 2011 was the first time I had ever heard of International Women’s Day. Why did I have to move abroad to learn about this important commemoration?

Women’s Day isn’t a foreign concept. Its roots can be traced back to February 28, 1909 in the United States when the Socialist Party of America observed the first National Women’s Day, but progress on national recognition for this occasion stalled with the dissolution of the party and earning the right to vote. It wasn’t until 1975 that the United Nations began to recognize and celebrate the day. In 1977, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution proclaiming a United Nations Day for Women’s Rights and International Peace.

Perhaps the occasion’s ties to labor ideals associated with Lenin’s socialist party affected its success in the United States. Perhaps male politicians thought it was enough to give women the right to vote in 1920 or allowing women to permanently join the workforce after World War II was significant progress.

Whatever the reasons were that have stopped International Women’s Day from being as widely-celebrated in the United States as holidays like Mother’s Day, they are no longer valid. It’s 2016. We should be celebrating all women at all stages of life, especially the independent, working woman.

According to a study by Dalberg Global Development Advisors, women today drive the global economies. We invest more of our income than men in education, health, and nutrition, yet in the global workforce, we make 10 to 30 percent less money than men. If women were paid an equal rate, $28 trillion (26%) could be added to the global annual GDP by 2025. If you really think about it, parity in the workforce would open up opportunities and resources to address some of our biggest social challenges.

Today should be celebrated as loudly as Mother’s Day, if not louder. The conversation today should be about gender parity, but it should also go beyond that. We should be talking about empowering women of all ages by: celebrating female friendships, heroes, and matriarchy; embracing singlehood as an opportunity for independence, strength, and growth; vocalizing our right to choose what we do with our own bodies; and, sharing the gifts of diversity in age, physical appearance, and culture. Most importantly, today’s conversations should include men. We cannot expect them to know or share in our thinking if we exclude them.

March 8, 2011 marked the first time I was acknowledged for being a woman in this world—no strings attached—and I continue to celebrate International Women’s Day with my family and friends each year.

Join me in loudly celebrating double X chromosomes today by sharing your appreciation with your friends and family. You can join the larger conversation on social media by using the hashtag #IWD2016.

the grandma magda guide to building relationships

the grandma magda guide to building relationships

My grandmother, Magda Brown, excels at building and cultivating relationships. This is inherent in her nature, but she is also driven by a personal mission. She is determined to share her story of surviving the Holocaust with as many people as possible. Through telling her story, she hopes to make future generations conscious of the signs of genocide so they can prevent future atrocities.

Grandma Magda has reached tens of thousands of people through her speeches at schools, synagogues, churches, and events, podcasts and media interviews, and the website I created to share her story. “God blessed me with a positive personality. I love people. I love to communicate,” she said. “I feel that my message should be heard and it is being heard, so I take full advantage of that.”

I recently sat down with my grandmother to talk more about her approach to relationships – lessons I strive to apply in my own life.

1. Sit by someone you don’t know.

“I tell my friends, ‘Don’t save me a seat. I like to sit with people I’ve never met before.’ It took a while for my friends not to be offended,” Grandma Magda joked.

Years ago, my grandmother struck up a conversation with Jonathan, a young man sitting next to her at a concert. He was a Methodist pastor and invited my grandmother to speak at his church. Jonathan went on to become a professor at Aurora University, and my grandmother spoke to his class year after year. She became so involved with the university that they gave her an honorary degree. And Jonathan became such a close family friend that he officiated my sister’s wedding. That stranger you sit next to could be end up having a large impact on your life.

2. Be open to new opportunities.

You never know what an experience may lead to. For example, one woman heard my grandmother speak at an event at the state capital, then suggested her as a guest to a Catholic radio station. The radio station interviewed my grandmother, then decided to distribute her testimony to all of the Catholic schools in the area. “This is how the message spreads,” she said.

3. Follow up and follow through.

When my grandmother meets people through her travel and speaking engagements, they often talk about visiting each other when they’re in town or bringing her in to speak at their school or congregation. The thing that astounds me (and this may be a reflection of my generation’s flakiness) is that everyone follows up and follow through on these discussions. There are no empty gestures. “I try to keep my refrigerator packed with homemade goodies so I can serve my visitors,” she said.

4. Know your audience.

My grandmother stays up to date on technology and trends to ensure she can relate to her audience when speaking and get her message across. “I have to know their language to connect with these children,” Grandma Magda said. She happily poses for selfies with middle-schoolers (she briefly called them “sophies,” until my mom corrected her) and has started to do Skype Q&As with classes around the country.

5. Find a great mentor.

As a young woman who had recently immigrated to the United States, my grandmother came down with pneumonia. The doctor who treated my grandmother – a fellow Hungarian Jew – saw great potential in her and offered to train her to work in his doctor’s office. My grandmother seized the opportunity. She went on to become a medical assistant and worked with Dr. Schwartz for 40 years.

My grandmother said that Dr. Schwartz taught her the importance of treating all patients – and all people – as equals, a lesson that continues to influence her approach to relationships today.

the power of food and potential of people: a visit from robert egger

the power of food and potential of people: a visit from robert egger

Earlier this month Robert Egger—Founder and President of L.A. Kitchen—dropped by our offices in Seattle for a visit. Over a tequila and tonic (his signature drink, for anyone who might be hosting him soon), he talked to our team about a lot of things—from economic sexism and the expanding constructs of what it means to be a refugee, to nutritional imperialism and aging. What struck me most is the number of issues Robert and his organization are addressing through their work, including “lovingly disrupting senior meals.”

Food waste, unemployment, poverty, senior nutrition—these are all treated as “solvable issues” within the L.A. Kitchen ecosystem. Considering the number of organizations focused on addressing any of these single issues, it’s especially impressive to see how L.A. Kitchen is addressing them all as part of one interconnected system.

They reclaim nutritious, local food that would otherwise be discarded (primarily due to cosmetic issues); provide culinary training to men and women (most whom are coming out of foster care or the criminal justice system) who turn those ingredients into healthy, delicious meals; then distribute those meals to social service agencies serving the city’s most vulnerable, particularly low-income seniors, who are so often provided with processed foods. It’s an impressive cycle all aimed at “ensuring that neither food nor people go to waste,” and one that was noticed by the AARP Foundation, who awarded them a founding grant of $1 million, the largest single AARP grant in its history.

Tapping into the power of food and potential of people, I’d say Robert is disrupting more than just senior meals. L.A. Kitchen has also started a for-profit subsidiary—Strong Food—which will compete for food service contracts, employ graduates of the organization’s training program, and ultimately support L.A. Kitchen to be self-sustaining. That’s important to Robert not just from a financial perspective, but from an advocacy perspective as well. Too often the organizations best positioned to advocate for policy changes are prevented from doing so because of their funding models (most grants specifically state that funding cannot be used for advocacy) or their 501(c)3 status.

I’ve seen the power of culinary training programs with my own eyes–someone close to me, who’s faced their share of challenges, is currently enrolled (and thriving) in one—but L.A. Kitchen takes this to a whole new level, in a way that truly inspires my farmer’s-market-shopping-foodie heart. If you ever have a chance to meet Robert Egger or hear him speak, do. And be sure to check out the amazing work that L.A. Kitchen and D.C. Central Kitchen (the organization Robert founded and ran for 25 years before heading to Los Angeles) are doing.