Monday, May 7, 2012

Emergent Design for nonprofits I: problem statements

For a while I've been frustrated with certain aspects of the work I do. I feel increasingly less effective, work increasingly more, and itch for something completely different. Having read half of the article "Emergent design and learning environments: Building on indigenous knowledge" by D. Cavallo (from IBM Systems Journal, v.39, no.3&4, 2000. pp.768-781), I feel not-so-much-qualified but at-least-enabled to start talking about this. Among other things, Cavallo points out that educational reforms often get lost because of the "grammar of school," by which he means the ways of talking about and understanding what an educational/learning environment is officially supposed to be. He lays out some principles (which I'm not finished reading) and gives some concrete examples of a different approach he calls Emergent Design.

In my work (nonprofit social service programs), I think we face the same issue: stuck in the grammar of nonprofits or the grammar of social services, we are increasingly less effective as the need goes up and thus the amount of work and organizing goes up - while at the same time there is an illusion of scarcity of resources & increased competition for financial resources via grants and contracts. Maybe it's time to think differently. This is my way of trying to think about this. If anyone reads this, and if anyone reading this works in a similar field or is familiar with emergent design, please feel free to comment on this.

I'll start by naming some of the concerns I see:

1. Perception of Diminishing Resources: Money is less available to nonprofits. Individual donors are giving less. Foundations have less resources. Government budgets are shrinking. Yet with unemployment higher, more people with more skills are looking for work, and/or for opportunities to keep their skills current, and/or for a switch to a more meaningful career. Additionally, monetary wealth is still being generated and it's going somewhere.

2. Increasing need: Higher unemployment, noticeable increases in the price of basics like food, gas, and housing. Greater numbers of people falling below the poverty line. Workers taking on increasing workloads as staff size shrinks. This results in, for example, reduced quality of services, reduces responsiveness to shifting or individualized needs, increased risk of staff burnout, an often frantic work environment, etc. See Laura van Dernoot Lipsky w/ Connie Burke, Trauma Stewardship, for example.

3. The Volunteer Problem: How to find, train, retain, and create a feeling of fulfillment for volunteers. This occurs within a system where some people are paid to get volunteers to do unpaid work. There is a perception of unfairness in this system. It also potentially undercuts the happiness of the volunteer unless there's a good process for matching volunteer talents, skills, and desires with the needs of the volunteer position. Not to mention that there is a cost for the volunteer - in transportation, for example, and loss of time spent doing something else economically productive. Not to mention that volunteers are feeling the same pinches I've already mentioned.

4. The EBI Paradigm: While evidence-based interventions are an important component of service delivery, the underlying assumption is that an intervention is a template that can be overlaid across a broad array of organizations - a top-down approach that may or may not work, based on the correct alignment of all kinds of factors within an organization.

5. The Professionalization of Social Services: Let's be clear - I benefit from this system. I applaud the approach that pays people to (in my view) do the work of our society. I believe that our moral/ethical duty as a society is to care for those who are (a) unable to care for themselves due to disability, injury, etc.; and/or (b) need assistance because they are on the receiving end of social ills like labor exploitation, racial injustice, and the like. I believe that we as a society are in - or nearly in - a position to provide basic services like food assistance, medical care, etc. to those who for whatever reason need it. In the same way that we hire fire fighters, teachers, and others, we hire social service providers to do the work of the collective community. However, as we do that, we have created a professional class of providers which can set up a structure that can be inaccessible to consumers/clients by creating a "grammar of social services" and a set of unquestioned ideas about how social services should be run. I'm not saying this is all bad, but it does seem to have some unintended negative outcomes.

6. The Provider-Client Paradigm: Similarly, the professionalization sets up a dynamic where there are providers and those who receive the service. Like nearly all dualisms, this creates a lopsided power dynamic. Such a power dynamic, coupled with some of the other things above, can make a pretty hot mess. Including power struggles, superiority complex, perceptions of dependency, and all kinds of other manipulations on both sides. Let me be clear - I'm not blaming individuals within this system. This is a problem with the system itself and people, regardless of their good intentions, can sometimes fall victim to this stuff because everybody is really just trying to get by the best way they know how. Consumers and providers are just trying to get their needs met. Yes this doesn't excuse individual abuses, but I want to keep my focus on the system right now.

That's what I'm thinking about, as I'm reading. Feel free to pass along suggestions. I know I'm not the only one - and judging by the date on the article, I'm coming rather late to the game here.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Six Kinds of Sky

Six Kinds of Sky: A Collection of Short Fiction Six Kinds of Sky: A Collection of Short Fiction by Luis Alberto Urrea

This collection reminds me that one of my favorite genres is farce. When it's done well, farce makes you laugh at the situations without turning away from the hard realities it describes. This book does that - makes me laugh and almost cry at the same time. While I don't know much about the realities of Mexican-US border life, I suspect that the underlying realities that Urrea describes are actually as stark and unjust, even if the actual people are not as broadly drawn, as slapstick, as he writes them. His descriptions of American missionaries are perfect! I'll be reading more of his books. View all my reviews >>

Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Good Dance: Dakar/Brooklyn

Review for The Good Dance: Dakar/Brooklyn

Reggie Wilson & Andrea Ouamba / Fist & Heel Performance Group and Compagnie 1er Temps

April 3, 2010 at YBCA

Most collaborations I see are all about the love of working together. Artists share compliments and tributes with each other in a general lovefest. Dakar/Brooklyn was something much more complicated and beautiful. While it was obvious the two choreographers and the two companies worked well together – and had tremendous respect, and trust for each other – this work showed a more complicated view of collaboration.

The dances were full of conflict, frustration, and even violence. Imitation, correction, disjunction, domination, and even lynching figured into the piece – even as beautiy, grace, lyricism, and intimate collaboration also threaded through the series of dances. Witness the direct and muscular challenges between dancers of all sizes, the almost fighting that happened at some points – and at the same time, other moments in which couples and trios of dancers climbed, held, swung, and morphed their bodies together into singular creatures.

Given that these artists are portraying not only their own collaboration, but a complicated history of continental African and disaporic (especially American) African people. This tone was apparent from the beginning dance, a single dancer looking back and trying to imitate a series of singles and couples dancing together. Her own movements were more graceful in comparison with the crispness of those she imitated. Yet she showed her frustration in trying to adapt her own style and body in imitation of the others.

This show was not beautiful in the traditional sense, but more beautiful in the variety of bodies, styles, and combinations. The water bottles glistened magically in a rather obscure reference to…the Mississippi and Congo Rivers, concerns about potable water, the waves and floods of influence, or the work of building up and tearing down?

The wide-open set, spare and harshly lit to the point that flying sweat and dust were visibly part of the mix, added to this feeling of a spacious ground for the complicated nature of collaboration. Reggie Wilson’s role as a sort of fatherly narrator and caretaker added an interesting and welcome addition to highlight the often-hidden role of the choreographer. Andreya Ouamba’s role was made more subtle, but no less powerful, by not identifying himself until near the end, when he walked among the sprawled bodies of the dancers, speaking in another language – and dance the final, almost-awkward duet with Mr. Wilson.

As someone unfamiliar with the language of dance, as well as possessing little knowledge about the African diaspora, I found the piece to be uncomfortable in a good way. Rather than a feel-good back-to-Africa piece, this one portrayed how histories of separation, violence, romanticism, paternalism, slavery, and co-optation leave a legacy on bodies and movement. One of the poignant references throughout all the pieces portrayed dancers lynching each other and lynching themselves. Toward the end, dancers donned gauzy costumes that seemed to reference the American Southern gentry, a surprisingly emotional reference to the cultural histories that hang around all of us – sometimes hampering movement and sometimes providing a strange enhancement to the performance.

On the evening I was there, the audience seemed to not know what to do with the performance. It was certainly uncomfortable for me as a progressive white person to see the embodied truths portrayed directly in front of my eyes – the effects of history and culture on bodies, and the difficulties as well as possibilities inherent in partnership. And perhaps more difficult – the imperfect relations between the many peoples in Africa and their disasporic kin.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Ode to the Muse, in the voice of my ancestors

I will make you a useful painting.
It will keep you warm at night.
It will dry your dishes, dust your table,
And praise God, it will
Not be too prideful.
It will not be extravagant
Or brightly colored or adorned.
People will not admire it -
Or at least I will not
Acknowledge their praise.
I will make it in tiny pieces,
After all my duties are done,
A few minutes while boiling
The potatoes, rocking the baby,
And praising God, I will
Not be too happy painting it.
Useful - putting food on the table,
Teaching my kids, planting crops,
I will first use the paint to
Paint my neighbor's barns
And use the leftovers
If there are any,
For my useful painting.

(part of The Artist's Way exercises, 11 Jan 2010)

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Wedding 3: magnolias

Yesterday I spent a little time walking through the SF Botanical Garden and the Conservatory of Flowers. I sat under a magnolia tree - all sharp edges and sticks, no leaves, and a ton of buds as big as my fist, and big white and pink flowers, the size of my open hand. It felt embarrassing, obscene, ridiculous. It felt unnecessary, that these big, pretty flowers would be blooming on a tree with no leaves. It seemed impractical.
And then I realized that beauty is practical. Without knowing a ton about botanical science, I know that the flowers are a means of survival for the trees. Not that there is only one definition of beauty, but that it is profoundly important to have beauty, joy, and love. I wondered if I was deluding myself, or being silly, trying to scratch out a life lesson from a magnolia tree.
The truth is, I am being silly and ridiculous and deluded. I could also say that the tree was bred to be like that, that in nature the tree wouldn't have so many crazy blooms, and that the flowers drained energy from the tree, and that the water used to keep it alive might be better used to improve life somewhere that they're suffering a drought. I could say that it's just a tree, and not a religious lesson or a philosophical treatise.
But that's also deluded and silly. So I get my choice of what to be deluded about. I get to choose the connections I see between things in the world. That's one of the miracles of consciousness - I get to make connections out of the chaos of life. Maybe I'm wrong sometimes, but I get that choice, and I get to create the measuring stick to decide when I'm right or wrong. I get to say, for example, that I'm right when the produce of the connections is joy, love, and healing. I get to say that the magnolia tree teaches me something deep about the importance of joy and beauty and God.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Wedding 2

So maybe I won't be doing quite so much blogging as I thought. Every time I think of doing it, it feels like a task instead of something to look forward to. And I have quite enough tasks, thank you. It's funny how planning a wedding is a lot like another part-time job. A little more fun, a little better payoff - but I don't get paid for this. And I already work 40 hours a week plus commute.
Who knows how often I'll write. I'm also doing The Artist Way by Julia Cameron. It's a 12 week 'creative recovery' program that helps jumpstart my creative outlets, with a spiritual bent that coincides nicely with what I'm getting from the East Bay Church of Religious Science. I'm enjoying it so far, thought it shoves my face in a lot of things that I like to use as excuses for not being more creative and authentic, or as interesting as I actually am.
Today, in one of the exercises, I came across this idea that I've sort of held onto without realizing it. One of the exercises had me list 5 reasons I can't really believe in a supportive God (ie the God or force in the universe that created me uniquely, loves me, wants me to succeed, exults in my creativity, and is the source of abundance and joy). One of the things I wrote was "The God of my childhood keeps beating up this loving, gender-less movement that is a loving God. The loving God just seems like a weakling."
Ahem, can I get an amen about the monotheistic religious roots of violence? Remember Prof. Kuan's lessons about the ancient vision of God in Genesis and Exodus?
This relates also to those relatives' negative reactions I wrote about earlier. Their disapproval, their refusal to acknowledge (even if not agreeing with) that my relationship with my partner is a source of joy (not to mention a multiplication of love and a fertile soil for the good work we both do in the world) - that refusal is a slap in the face of that ever-loving, joyful God I believe in. There's a stubborn, brutish insistence that there is One Right Way, and that Way is vengeful, jealous, manipulative - the distant father-figure God, whose approval you always seek and never actually achieve.
But honestly, are fear and hatred, condemnation and joy-killing actually stronger than love, joy, creativity, passion, and the diversity of creation? I weighed it out in my mind. After all (as the film A Single Man pointed out) fear is a strong motivator. It causes us to buy toothpaste and breath spray, to assent to policies that hurt us or our neighbors. Fear breeds a certain kind of allegiance - if not loyalty. Hatred and condemnation, along with determined joy-squelching, do work well in psychological manipulation. It reduces people to mute livestock - who don't show their true colors, their authenticity, and who don't really live real lives. That's powerful.
But isn't love powerful, too? Love multiplies, builds goodwill, and feeds joy. Then again, so does fear. Fear infects. It builds acquiescence, and feeds uniformity. Like fascism.
I guess in the end, I'm not sure if love is more powerful. It is for me. Whatever feeds joy must be more powerful than whatever feeds acquiescence and conformity. Love spreads out like a growing plant. Fear pulls in toward itself like the sea building a tsnuami. So I guess that's why I'm getting married, or how I want to orient my life. I need to remind myself how to choose love and joy, and how to resist fear by acts of creativity, using the unique gifts that equip me to do the job.

Monday, January 25, 2010

wedding 1

After watching half of Julie & Julia, as you might expect I am not only inspired to cook, but also to blog. This happens at the same time as we come upon 50 days til our wedding. Since the Prop 8 challenge trial is happening right now, and since I'm overwhelmed by the responses we've received for our wedding, I want to share a little of the journey we're on. It will help me sort through my thoughts & emotions a little bit.
Yesterday was a marathon of shopping - to the point that I was cranky at the end. But the end result is my partner looks stunning, and I think I'll look nice too. We need a few alterations, but we're on track for clothing.
A significant number of relatives have responded negatively to the invitation. I'll explore that later. A more significant number of friends have responded so positively that it makes me cry in gratitude. We are receiving so much help and support - and I'm reminded that we're surrounded by people who are happy to celebrate with us (and commiserate with the tough things). What a wonderful place to be.
We're well on our way to mapping out the ceremony and the chapel design - as well as building our potluck reception (so many friends who are excellent cooks!).
I'm excited to see what happens when all of these elements - friends, family, food, spirit, joy, and most of all love - come together on the vernal equinox!