Sunday, January 25, 2015

How Shall We Sing the Lord's Song?


At the Third International Conference on Creativity and Innovation at Grassroots, I had the great fortune of meeting the luminous Catherine A. Odora Hoppers, South African Research Chair in Development Education at the University of South Africa.  In her presentation, "Epistemology of Hope" she articulated the vital importance of emancipating the language of and social models for "development" from the implicit and explicit influences of colonial hierarchical values.  As her animated presentation captured the audience at the Indian Institute for Management at Ahmedabad, I kept hearing the echo of Boney M's Rivers of Babylon in my mind.

"When the wicked carried us away in captivity;
Required from us a song,
Now how shall we sing the lord's song in a strange land?"

Somewhere between the song and musing whether Catherine was channeling the wisdom of Gregory Bateson's Steps to an Ecology of the Mind, I reflected on my presentation the day earlier.  During the Doctoral Colloquium, I made the observation that many of the terms that were being used in the conference: "development", "economy", "knowledge", "innovation", "creativity" and the like have a phenotypic neutrality that belies the energetic framework from which they arise.  And in their unconsidered use and propagation, there is a chance that we may enter into double binds where what we aspire to promote is in fact impaired by an implicit ontological dissonance. 

Let me offer an example.  A young lady in the audience stated that she was involved in "human resources" management at a government sponsored innovation center in India.  Much to her surprise, I asked her if she could give me the Sanskrit word for "human resources".  She looked puzzled.  Those around her had various expressions - some smiled, some shook their heads, and other looked entirely perplexed.  One of the students offered what those around him seemed to concur was the best approximation.  Not familiar with the word, I asked for it's literal translation.  The consensus response centered around a meaning that was basically "humans as tools".  I asked the young lady if she felt that her colleagues would warmly receive being treated as tools or implements to which she recoiled.  "Of course not, Sir," was her response.  "So is there a chance that your title, if altered, could impact your work and the experience of colleagues?," I queried.  What if her job was a purposeful productivity optimization facilitator?

Raghubir, another participant in the Colloquium took the example a step further.  He shared that "economy" in Hindi and Sanskrit is "arthashastra".  He explained that artha is a term describing meaning and purpose while shastra is a term for a body of knowledge.  Would we speak of "economic development" in the same way if what it involved was expanding the base of knowledge around meaning and purpose?  No!  We would need to actually focus on knowledge rather than the propaganda derived from the Adam Smith intoxication which has led to massive resource extinction and wealth disproportionality.  To the Greeks oikonomía (from which our word "economy" was derived) was the management or administration of a household.  Would we use the same language we do around markets and money if we were speaking in reference to how we engage our own families?  Don't answer that one!  Just think about it.

As we were told, "You are what you eat," so too is it the case that the lexicon you use or adopt should be considered carefully.  If you want to perpetuate the system that is dominant, use its lingua franca.  But if you want a different outcome, it may be prudent to consider being more precise with the words we choose.

Rather than exploration in which we the intrepid "explorers" forge our way into unknown lands or fields of inquiry, could we adopt a more suitable posture of education where we are explicit about our own ignorance thereby allowing the unknown to inform?  Rather than discovery where we use old frameworks of familiarity to isolate within, could we adopt a stance of observation in which we see perspective and context?  Rather than conquest in which we lay claim to ownership of what we reduced to description, could we consider integration where we place ourselves into the expanding network of utility?  Rather than colonization where we impose frameworks upon what we shortly before didn't know, could we contribute what we have to build out a more complete experience for ourselves and others?  Rather than commoditization where we exploit and extract to extinction, could we consider fruitful cooperation in which we experience without extermination?  And rather than innovation in which we separate and make special the individual who adapts matter and energy for efficiency, comfort or utility, can we celebrate integral perception in which our focus is on the action giving rise to the artifact?  Sure, these terms won't count on scorecards of development and GDP but who's keeping score?

Note:  For regular Inverted Alchemists, I will be off-line next week in Antarctica and will be back in two weeks.  So, next weekend, share your favorite post with your friends and I'll see you soon!


Sunday, January 18, 2015

Of Pots and Kettles - MLK Day 2015


If you were in Goshen Indiana 55 years ago this past week and had two bucks rattling around in your pocket, you could have gone to see Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speak on "The Future of Integration".  If you were on a tight budget, you could get the cheap seats for $1.25.  In the Union Auditorium you would have encountered a number of passionate northern college students deeply committed to address the scourge of racism that was wracking the country.  With any luck, you would've met my dad there.

This past week I was asked to address Rev. Jesse Jackson's RainbowPUSH Wall Street Project conference in New York City.  This event - part of Rev. Jackson's on-going effort to highlight the absence of minority participation in the economy with a special focus on the tech sector - was about as diverse as the Union Auditorium would have been in 1960.  And, regrettably, though the pages of the calendar have long faded in oblivion, the Sheraton Time Square was not filled with evidence of the giant strides we made as a society to eradicate ethnic bigotry.  Instead, it was an echo of aspiration to access that is still denied humans by virtue of capricious contempt and toxic xenophobia.

The phenotype expressed through pigment is still an agency of social division no matter how much we may wish it to be otherwise.  Access to capital, interest rates, access to business opportunities, access to education, access to housing, and access to many other opportunities are still mediated by the wavelength of reflected epithelial light.  This is as wrong now as it was 55 years ago in Indiana.  And our approach to addressing this human rights abuse (that's right, the U.S. is still a supporter of human rights abuses) is potentially more harmful today than it was 6 decades ago.  Why?  Well let me answer the question and then unpack my perspective.  By thinking that we're doing something - like the Congressional debates on 49 U.S.C. § 47113 regarding "minority and disadvantaged business participation" - we are confirming our unwillingness to have a zero tolerance policy for any form of bigotry and racism.  And worse, by the persistent use of "set-asides" and "accommodations", we allow racists to persist in their bigotry by imposing a participation tax where minority businesses are seen as a necessary social cause rather than a valued player on an equivalent field.  Sure, we'll grant minority and women owned businesses 5-10% of our government procurement or corporate supply chain but we'll do nothing to provide the capital infrastructure to let that glass floor ever be breached.

President Richard Nixon established the Office of Minority Business Enterprise with his Executive Order 11458 and with it formalized the access agenda.  This unleashed the formation of many acronym-laden committees, councils and boards all with an aim towards…, um, well, apparently, conversations about how access should be equivalent.  But with 20% of the U.S. population identified as Black or African/American and roughly half of the population women, it's clear that we are not serious about the access "aspirational goals" to say nothing about representational mandates.  As recently as the past two years, we still define economically disadvantaged individuals and businesses as, "those socially disadvantaged… whose ability to compete in the free enterprise system has been impaired due to diminished capital and credit opportunities as compared to others in the same business are who are not socially disadvantaged."  But the same Congress that defines disadvantage in the past tense also recommended limiting sole-source contracts to "disadvantaged businesses" at values capped at $4 million and construction contracts at $65 million.  In short, what we have done in 55 years is opened the door ajar to afford a modicum of access but we've insured that no one actually makes it into the ballroom.

In 1969 the U.S. Census Bureau reported that there were about 163,000 black-owned and 100,000 Spanish-speaking minority-owned firms.  You read this correctly.  One wave-length of light and one cultural acoustic discrimination.  The same survey taken in 2007 reported 5.8 million minority-owned firms.  And to be sure, the MBDA, NMSDC, RainbowPUSH, and others have done an amazing job of getting more businesses into the foyer of enterprise.  But, the idea that the next tech IPO, the next financial services innovation, the next social media tsunami will be led by someone categorized as "minority" is as remote at the RainbowPUSH conference as it was in Goshen.

I don't know what it is about the Sheraton Times Square in NYC that gives me that "minority feeling".  Several months ago, I attended the Emerging Women's Summit to absorb the wisdom of my dear friend Sera Beak.  Being one of the only guys in the room, I was acutely aware of being the one that stands out.  This week, I was one of the few appearance-minority wave-length reflectors of a particular hue.  In both instances, I had something to add to the conversation.  And in both instances, what I had to share was indecipherable against the backdrop of segregation.   We The People are not merely the wavelength of light our skin reflects.   We are not merely the genitals which grace our loins or the fat deposits which adorn our chests.  Or the hair that some of us have!  Our experiments fueled by reflexive revulsion to our pathetic impulse to separate and segregate have morphed the impulse towards access into an anemic accommodation.  We're willing to tolerate each other on the best of days.  But as we are not engaging conversations or experiments in integrated activation leading to emanating productivity we are destined to aspire to much and achieve very little. 

This is not a U.S. phenomenon.  Segregation and the violence it engenders shows up in religious, political, class and gender illusions the world over.  It comes in the form of ethnic and gender adjective-laced population generalizations, colonial "development" bribes to usurp landowner and citizens of the rights and resources, impulses to "development", "poverty eradication", "Aid", and other insidious social schemes to reinforce disintegrated illusions to reinforce power delusions.  And it's as likely to show up harming and diminishing communities of persistence from the Lakota and Navajo to Bougainville and Amazonia - all justified by the appearance of "the other" at the expense of their explicit engagement by those who wield the agencies of power and domination.

So rather than lament the hopeless state we're in, we're actively changing the game.  Working with my amazing friends and colleagues Theresa Arek, Lawrence Daveona, Rodney Woods, Tracy McGrady, Michael Redd, Josh Childress, Duane and Kim Starks, Pam Cole, Robert Smith, Progress Investments, Valerie Mosely, Michael Lythcott, Jennifer Carter-Scott, Dustin and Michael DiPerna, Leo Burke, Colleen Martin, Pieter Fourie, Jimmy Smith, Katie Martin, Karen Knowles and dozens of others, we're answering the questions that Martin Luther King Jr. posed 55 years ago this week.  We're not waiting for a future - not tenaciously holding onto a dream.  We're forging a path defined by integrity and character - not by any agency of division.  We are deploying a technology in the social media space which will include a diversity ownership structure.  We have launched and are launching sophisticated investment platforms and products not available from any "majority" owned firm.  Silently placing fulcrum under systems of oppression and segregation, we're beginning to introduce a wobble that sees the vision articulated from the mountaintop and raises it to a whole new level.  And who knows?  Maybe we will, in so doing, form a More Perfect Union!  And it might not take us another 55 years. 

On this Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2015, let's wake from the Dream and start living!


Sunday, January 11, 2015

Killing The Artist


I recently facilitated an event organized to provide participants with a set of tools with which they more deeply access and engage the abundance that is around them.  As it happened, the event's launch coincided with the gruesome murders of aesthetic commentators in Paris and overlapped the violent end of the ensuing hostage taking.  While it is my custom to directly engage the events that were unfolding half a world away in an explicit fashion, the first day's experience with the group gave me an idea. 

One of the participants, a young woman, was note-taking in illuminated doodles and images which were quite elegant.  Rather than directly offering verbal commentary on the Paris events, I decided to conduct an experiment and conscripted the artist on the second evening.  "Would you," I asked, "be willing to open tomorrow's event by quietly going up to the board and drawing an image that represents whatever impulse you'd like to share?" She was delighted to do so.

At 9 am, the same time we'd started our sessions on the previous two days, we exchanged glances and she proceeded to begin her expression.  I sat conspicuously away from the front of the room deeply enthralled in her forming images.  She drew a man, then spectacles, then a woman veiled with a head-scarf enveloped by a globe prominently featuring the African, European and Asian continents, and then a string of people with interlocking arms standing next to the world - the person next to the globe placing a hand on the world and the person at the end of the line raising a hand as if to alert others to an idea.  The image creation took about 17 minutes.  During her drawing, there were a number of responses.  About 5 members of the group were deeply engaged in watching the art unfold.  A few more were glancing between the board and their fellow table-mates' conversations.  Most were engaged in small group conversations paying little attention to the art - some wondering "when we were going to start".  A few of the latter impulses would occasionally look my way as if to inquire if I was aware of the time. 

With the image complete, I went to the front of the room and expressed my frustration and anger for the insensitivity evidenced by most of the group while pointing out the deep honor and respect I had for those who were fully entering into the engagement.  For the next 45 minutes I sparred with several participants who were quite put out by the fact that I had not fairly alerted them to the sequence of events I'd orchestrated.  "I've completely turned you off," one participant bluntly stated as I explained the callousness evidenced by the majority of the group.  Suggesting that anyone exposed to a workshop aimed at expanding awareness and sensitivity to everything in the ecosystem had "failed the test" of expanded awareness and sensitivity was "unfair" on my part as I hadn't imposed the awareness of the exam.  When invited to offer her perspective on what she intended to convey in her drawing nearly 30 minutes after the deconstruction was underway, the artist smiled and stated that she was delighted to have contributed to such a dynamic process and learning activity and then went back to her drawing.

By the end of our critique of the morning's exercise, several people got pieces of the learning and several apologized to the artist for their callous neglect of her participation.  A few others were deeply moved by situations elsewhere in which they recalled their own neglect of awareness for artists sharing of themselves over the din of conversations and rudeness.  One or two were so absorbed in their sense of violation of decorum in my facility to access anger and frustration in a directional manner that they checked out entirely.  But ironically, I didn't hear anyone get the real point of the exercise.

While we were assembling, aesthetic commentators had been gunned down for expressing themselves with images that were deemed "offensive" reportedly by those who had no obligation to see them.  And there were, as we've been conditioned to do, marches and protests against violence and promoting free speech.  Yet when I invited an artist to open the event with an aesthetic expression in which she explicitly included a veiled woman suggesting a woman of Muslim engagement, no one in the room got the point.  She had demonstrated remarkable generosity in putting herself on the spot to create a performance piece and she was largely unseen.  She had rendered a beautiful image of a world in which diversity is celebrated and that insight was likely entirely unseen - certainly not rising to the level of being worthy of comment.  Why?  Because in a room full of would-be conscious people, there was a waiting for response rather than an awareness of and engage with presumption.  Was she too young?  Was her communication too abstract?  Was she not worth listening to?  Was she a she? 

No!  The problem was endemic to our modern expression of humanity and worse among those who delude themselves with "consciousness" and "sensitivity".  And, by the way, just because we don't shoot the artist - in this case - we kill the innovative, generative energy when we succumb to the illusions of credentialed power