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.)

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.

making media, making change: a conversation with jesse hardman

making media, making change: a conversation with jesse hardman

In early September, we were excited to welcome our friend and newest collaborator Jesse Hardman when he visited our offices in Seattle. Jesse is a reporter and media developer currently working in New Orleans, Louisiana, where he manages and curates a community media engagement project called the Listening Post. Using text messages, public signs and roving recording stations equipped with microphones, the Listening Post provides the opportunity for people to capture and share information, opinions and news about the local issues they feel are most important.

Before starting the Listening Post, Jesse and his voice recorder travelled around the globe experimenting with different ways of gathering and delivering information in local communities. He shared stories about teaching radio classes at an all-girls Catholic school in South Chicago, building an information exchange in war-torn Sri Lanka, working with tribal radio stations in the Southwest United States, and establishing a two-way conversation about important issues with community members in New Orleans. He understands how to listen, how to get important information to people who need it the most and how that information is a lifeline for communities to thrive.

He sat down with us to share stories about his travels and his work, and to talk about the transformative experiences that changed the way he looked at media, information and social change—and how it led him to where he is today. I decided to take a page from Jesse’s playbook and experiment with audio recordings from his visit. Be sure to click through and listen! Here are some highlights from our conversation:

  • Media can be a powerful tool in catalyzing community development. While teaching radio classes in South Chicago, Jesse saw that his young students responded intuitively to their assignments and used the power of narrative to create change messages that reflected their personal experiences and environment. “What they did was intuitive.”
  • Having a clear understanding of what people want to know drastically influences the process of gathering news. Jesse traveled to Sri Lanka in 2007 to join a humanitarian information initiative funded by Internews. While there, he trained and worked with a team of local reporters to create a newspaper and radio show that shared information with the country’s war-displaced population. “We asked people, ‘What do you need to know?'”
  • To adapt the way we communicate in different situations, we need to first consider the factors that influence the effectiveness of our messaging. For example, to adapt your communication style effectively, you need to understand who you are talking to, how they listen, where they are located, and what their point of view may be. Messaging needs to be impactful, clear and relatable to your audience. Whether it’s engaging a classroom of young students or appealing to a group of people who have survived a war, the way you communicate information can drastically influence an audience’s response and the overall outcome. In Sri Lanka, Jesse discovered quickly that the framework he was used to, having worked in public radio in the U.S., did not work well and he had to adapt. “Couldn’t play more than three minutes of informational radio without a Bollywood song in between.”

Lifeline

  • Media not only offers new opportunities to engage directly with people and communities, but it also transforms the ways in which people can take part in the process of information sharing. People should feel empowered to assess the information needs of their communities and think creatively about solutions for their own environment. Jesse visited with about 40 tribal radio stations across Arizona, New Mexico and California to learn more about how they share their information and the support role they play in Native American communities. Here and elsewhere in the U.S., media, storytelling and the sharing of information are tools for transformation and progress—an everyone should have a voice. “These community radio stations [. . .] are the lifeline.”
  • Public radio needs more diverse voices and perspectives if they are to facilitate important conversations in cities and communities. For example, 78 percent of the audience for public radio is white and upper middle class while New Orleans is more than 60 percent black and middle to working class. “78% of audience for public radio is white, upper middle class.”
  • Don’t be afraid to get creative and experiment with information, especially when there is a lack of funding and manpower. Jesse applied the concept of citizen journalism to focus on the capacity of community members in New Orleans to create narratives, share perspectives, and start a discussion about public concerns, visions and plans. “I was down in New Orleans [. . .] and seeing things that you see in developing countries.”
  • To engage an audience, you have to think about what would get their attention and why they would want to participate. Understanding your audience has profound implications for any strategy. It is an important step in the process to discover what will reach an audience most effectively and what will appeal to them. The Listening Post uses text messages and funky microphones designed by a local artist to attract the attention of passersby who are likely to be interested in what it is and how they can participate. “In New Orleans, [. . .] people are used to being weird and creative.”

listening post fish

  • The challenge in having a meaningful conversation lies in crafting the right question. That is, thinking about the words you use, how you phrase it, the sentiment behind it, and the way it is delivered. Sometimes changing a single word can alter the way people view your approach and their decision to engage with it. For example, the Listening Post endeavored to have a conversation with New Orleans residents about their feelings towards gentrification. To do so, they decided to present questions as real life situations or scenarios—such as what they would do with a blighted property if they had an opportunity to buy it—rather than use the word “gentrification.” “How do you ask a question that gets you stories and experiences?”

To learn more about Jesse, visit his website at jessehardman.com or find him on Twitter @jesseahardman. To hear what people are talking about on the Listening Post in NOLA, visit listeningpostnola.com and follow them on Twitter @lp_nola.

part of the argument: lgbtq storytelling and social change

part of the argument: lgbtq storytelling and social change

“You think you can change America through film?” – Charlie Rose

“Oh, I don’t know. That’s not even in my job description. Storytelling. Get the story right. Do what you can with the story. Try not to cheat the story. Whatever happens after that is in the purview of other people. I felt that way as a reporter; I feel that way doing this. But every now and then you get to be a part of an argument, and that feels good.” – David Simon

 

Despite desperate efforts to create the next “viral” video or to fund a social impact film that turns the policy agenda on its head, the contribution of storytelling to social change is cumulative–and it takes time.

A single story can evoke passion, promote empathy, teach, enrage, or empower its audience to take action–but it alone will not change the world. But every now and then you get to be part of an argument, and that feels good.

One TYPE of story can’t change the world either; we cannot live on didactic social issue films alone. Pop culture–even the really bad stuff–contributes, as do the personal stories we tell each other (online and IRL) or that we hear on the news. Art and music inspire us to see the world differently, or to be willing to do so.

Even a simple photograph can make a difference. The image of Michael Brown’s father yelling in pain at his son’s funeral, sweat soaking the front of his shirt, must have led even some of the most callous among us to realize something must be done to stop the war on young black men in this country.

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Over the past few years, the acceleration in the movement to ensure the civil rights of the LGBTQ community has been remarkable–even dizzying at times. While in the past decade there has been a sense that progress—particularly marriage equality—would come simply through the passage of time and a change in generational leadership, many of us still presumed the “inevitable” was years down the road.

Without a doubt, this progress can be attributed to a whole bunch of activists across this country, busting their asses and using their smarts to change the minds of policymakers and judges. But storytelling has been an accelerant to the pace of change, including the personal “coming out” stories so many have had the courage to tell at the risk of rejection, discrimination, and even violence.

In a 2013 Pew survey of LGBT Americans, 70 percent expressed their belief that “knowing someone who is LGBT helps a lot in terms of making society more accepting of the LGBT population.” When President Obama sat down with Robin Roberts on ABC News in 2012, becoming the first sitting U.S. President publicly to voice his support for marriage equality, he shared that dinner table conversations with his daughters Sasha and Malia about their friends’ same sex parents were what contributed to his changing views.

It is more difficult to hate when the object of your hostility is your child, your colleague, your neighbor, your teacher or, it seems, the parents of your children’s friends.

We created a timeline, LGBTQ Storytelling and Social Change, out of our own curiosity. We knew that storytelling – personal and pop culture – had played a role in progress in the LGBTQ rights movement, but we wanted to map the progression and to see the relationship over time of storytelling, social milestones and policy change. From Henry Gerber to Jennicet Gutierrez, from The Ladder to How to Survive a Plague, from President Eisenhower’s policy to ban “homosexuals” from working for the federal government to the U.S. Senate’s repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, we’ve done that.

It is a timeline that reveals small steps and giant leaps forward as well as frequent and devastating falls backward. It is, oddly, a testament to both impatience (with injustice) and patience (with the long haul). It reflects that, even as gay characters became more prominent in films and television, gay people of color did not. It reflects the actions of presidents and other policy makers, bigots, activists, writers, actors, filmmakers, designers, magazine editors, murderers, artists, reality show stars, judges, musicians, athletes, and Dear Abby.

The triumphs remind us of how much has been done to get us to where we are and of the people who carried the burden, both the names in bold and those who will never be adequately acknowledged. They also remind us of how much more work still needs to be done.

We can celebrate love, but we can’t allow a wedding veil to block our view of the discriminatory practices that prevent many gay and transgender people–particularly people of color–from getting or keeping jobs or finding a home.

We can smile at a photo of Laverne Cox with the President and First Lady, but we shouldn’t forget to weep in response to the transgender women who have been murdered in the United States since the beginning of 2015: Lamia Beard, Ty Underwood, Papi Edwards, Bri Golec, Yazmin Vash Payne, Taja Gabrielle DeJesus, Penny Proud, Kristina Gomez Reinwald, London Chanel, Mercedes Williamson, India Clarke, K.C. Haggard, Amber Monroe, Shade Schuler, Ashton O’Hara, Kandis Capri, Elisha Walker, and Tamara Dominiguez.

The process of putting the timeline together made it clear how much we have (and want) to learn. We’re confident that, despite our efforts, we’ve left things out that should be included. If you think there’s a story we should add to our timeline, let us know. Email me at alison AT whatisaggregate DOT com. Tell us a story.

storytelling, time and grit

storytelling, time and grit

How long does it take to tell a story that makes an impact?

Susan B. Anthony’s speaking tour in 1873 in support of women’s voting rights brought her to 50 towns and villages in upstate New York, where she repeatedly delivered a 533-word speech calling for women’s rights to the suffrage.

In the 90-minute documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” director David Gelb was able to display the sushi master’s life, passion, and perfection in such a powerful way that we connected with someone we otherwise may have never known or noticed.

With a 110-character tweet and popular Facebook page, online activist and former Google executive Wael Ghonim (@Ghonim) was launched to the forefront of Egypt’s anti-government movement.

And in one instant, photographer Marc Riboud captured the 1960s struggles of war and peace in the iconic photograph “La Jeune Fille a la Fleur.”

We all have a story to tell and now there are stages that encourage every person to bring their own story to life…in five minutes.

In May, I attended the 27th session of Ignite Seattle. Ignite is an event that brings together local storytellers and gives them each five minutes to share 20 slides that flip through automatically every 15 seconds. I heard stories about harvesting bugs for people to eat, drawing comics and saving the world, mastering balance on a unicycle, connecting with kids through video games, the human experience of live-translated calls, the power of lone travel, and an experiment in saying “Yes” for 30 days.

As I listened, I thought about how storytelling takes true grit. It takes passion and powerful motivation, and it requires a continued sense of exploration. Storytelling is about being curious and sometimes getting into trouble. Particularly in the social issue space, it’s important to be disruptive and provocative without being irresponsible. Storytelling is about creating an emotional connection. It’s about moving people to laugh, cry, smile or to remind them how to savor life. Good stories impart some sort of wisdom that empowers people to think—to think differently, think deeper, or think at all. Stories are kept in words, images, digital manifestations, film reels, and 140-character tweets. They are spoken, sung, written, filmed, recorded, photographed, painted, and designed. Stories can be told in five minutes, they can be told in two hours, and some stories never end. This is, ultimately, the magic of storytelling.

the achievement gap

the achievement gap

We recently passed Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s new book A Path Appears around the office. From the publisher: “With scrupulous research and on-the-ground reporting, the authors assay the art and science of giving, determine some of today’s most successful local and global initiatives to fight inequality, and evaluate particularly effective forms of help such as early childhood education.” As we took turns reading the book and flipped those final pages, we were each struck by different chapters. This post is the third and final in a series inspired by the book. Read the first and second posts.

Grace:
When I was six years old, I was the lowest achieving kid in class. I knew it because our scores were clearly written on the board for all to see. And the one at the bottom, usually me, was given several hits with a bamboo switch.

This was the Chinese education system, and I was an American kid whose only other education experience at the time was half-day kindergarten, complete with nap and recess. After moving to my new school, the injustice I felt a age six was insufferable.

But here’s a twist: I wasn’t the only one who got the switch. The kids who sat near me also got it. To eliminate this achievement gap, the teacher made it the other students’ business to make sure I caught up. We were in it together.

As an adult, I now understand what’s truly unjust is that many children don’t have access to a good education. American elementary school students are also punished for underachievement. If an elementary school returns low standardized test scores, children often have school funding taken away, and some of their teachers fired.

In America—where a child’s ZIP code and skin color are significant factors that determine academic opportunity—it’s a grossly unfair way to be held accountable. It’s also grossly unfair that children are held accountable when CEOs are not, but that’s another story. With these pejorative tactics, there is little hope for lifting achievement, equitably or otherwise.

Dominique:
The achievement limited by those factors—ZIP code, skin color and the layered and complex challenges tangled up in them—isn’t just limited to academics.

My first job after college was managing programs for at-risk girls—from middle schoolers in gang-impacted neighborhoods to teens with incarcerated mothers and those who were incarcerated themselves. It was an up-close and personal look at the way cycles of poverty, abuse, and incarceration play out in real lives.

What really resonated with me from reading this chapter, was the idea that solving problems—teen pregnancy, job preparedness, academic achievement—requires looking far beyond the problem itself. Acknowledging and addressing head-on the complex challenges faced by vulnerable populations, and providing not only the technical skills they might need—like access to contraception and the knowledge of how to use it, for example—but the hope and determination to envision a future where there are other possibilities.

Grace:
Agreed! This book is about spreading opportunity. Kristoff and WuDunn offer innovative thinking and models that came with statistical evidence. They lay out a clear case that early investments offer the highest returns.

Dominique:
And it’s important to note that there are many individuals and organizations that are working to make meaningful change, particularly when it comes to children and disparities in education and elsewhere. We’re lucky to work with some, like the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. We count others as our neighbors here in Seattle, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation—particularly their work on education pathways in Washington state.

Grace:
Reading A Path Appears together connected us through stories—the stories in the book and our own. I hope as more people read this book and have substantive conversations, more people realize it’s in everyone’s interest to lift others up. If we don’t, we all hurt.

 

Photo credit: Don Harder, via Flickr.