Dog vs Cat: the Pleasures of Debate

Do you remember a time when arguing wasn’t a blood sport, an opportunity to be mean and forget everything we know about civility? When it was fun to have friends who believed different things than you do?  An exercise we did at our staff retreat last week brought that all back.

It was an exercise designed to exercise our flexibility and challenge muscles through debate. We did it, not because we are too acrimonious as a staff, but rather, too polite and careful sometimes, too much the same in our views.

I was assigned to be one of the demonstration debaters before we broke into small groups to practice debate. I was assigned the position: dogs are better pets than cats. This is a race I have absolutely no horse in, as I share my home with a dog, two cats, and an irrelevant rabbit.  And that is one of the things I loved about this exercise. It was fun to have to make the case for something in which I have no stake.  Being assigned a position to argue forced me to be flexible, to imagine how I could argue it. And debate was good for me in other ways.

First, it’s fun to do something one does all the time (talk) under the formal constraints and rules of a game. Two minutes to present; two minutes to rebut my opponent. Like the boundaries of a tennis court or the rules of scrabble, there’s joy at being let loose to play in a confined, agreed-upon structure.

Second, it forced me to think about evidence, and thus, my audience. What would be persuasive to them? And that, of course, made me think about who my audience was. What did I know about them? How diverse were they? How many different arguments and pieces of evidence would I need to persuade them?

Third, it forced me to imagine why my opponent would take the position he did. What case was he likely to make? Why might it be credible to others? How could it be countered?

The whole experience led me to think about what persuades. Let’s face it, we are not an evidence-based society. I knew I would have to make my evidence memorable by expressing it in clear themes. I knew that stories, humor, connection to my listeners, might be important, and that a cute picture of my dog and daughter lying on the ground with the exact same smile might be more convincing than anything I would say.

And, because I had to rebut, I had to listen, really listen to my opponent. That’s a good antidote to my natural tendancy to drift away and think about what I’m going to say next.

So an exercise that builds our sympathetic imagination and listening skills and makes our thinking more rigorous has got to be valuable.

Some staff members felt that the debate exercise made them  more fixed in their position. For me, it had theopposite effect. As I listened to my opponent (Heiner Baumann, our director of global giving), I found myself admiring and appreciating what I was hearing.  I had based much of my argument on dogs as pack animals and their great need for company. Heiner rebutted by saying that “cats teach us we must find our own happiness.” Wonderful point! I thought more, and more deeply, about this somewhat silly question than i would have otherwsie.

I saw the benefits of debate last summer when I visited one of our grantees. The Boston Debate League (check them out at brings after school debate clubs to Boston’s high schools. They also train teachers to use debate across the curriculum to build critical thinking and anlalytic skills. I got interested in debate when I saw a study of debate in Chicago’s urban high schools that found that students who participated in debate did better academically and were more likely to stay in school than their counterparts in a comparison group. This was particularly true for African American boys.

It was fun to visit BDL’s summer institute, where I saw kids who were debating for the first time and students who’d been in debate for one or two years. The difference in confidence, presentation skills, and quality of argument was remarkable.  After, I had a conversation with a wonderful young woman who was on her way to college in the fall. She told me that pre-debate, she only showed up at school most days for English class, because reading was the only thing that called to her. Debate made her want to show up for the whole day, and eventually, to put her whole self in, to school and to life.  Other kids talked about how debate had changed the culture of their high school so that smart was a little bit cooler. I watched English language learners struggle successfully to put together a polished argument. I left thinking that a little debate is good for everybody.





Ver. 1.3

Cutting back, doubling down

I am planning an exercise for our program officers that poses the following questions:

_ what if your portfolio’s budget was cut in half? What are you certain you’d keep? What might be discarded? How would you decide?

– what if it was doubled? What would you grow? What would you add? What would you deepen?

– in each of these scenarios, how would your job change? What would be important to do?

I have a feeling that asking these questions – whether about a grant program, a nonprofit, or personal finances – might yield some interesting insights about what is essential, what might be grown.

What do you think?


Ver. 1.3

Slumped on the imaginary sidewalk

There’s a yiddish proverb that goes “a man with money is smart, good looking…and he sings well too.”  When you go to work for a foundation, you become, no matter your ethnicity, gender, or life circumstances, a “man with money.” That’s why it’s always good to have an experience where you remember what it’s like to be marginalized.  And I had that a few weeks ago when I participated in Liftopolis, a brilliant “game” developed by LIFT.

LIFT is, in its own words:

“a growing movement to combat poverty and expand opportunity for all people in the United States. LIFT currently runs centers staffed by trained volunteers in Boston, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC, to serve low-income individuals and families.

LIFT clients and volunteers work one-on-one to find jobs, secure safe and stable housing, make ends meet through public benefits and tax credits, and obtain quality referrals for services like childcare and healthcare. Simultaneously, the LIFT experience pushes volunteers to grapple with our country’s most challenging issues related to poverty, race, inequality, and policy. Since LIFT’s founding, over 6,000 volunteers have served more than 40,000 individuals and families.”

One of the things I like about LIFT is it’s “no wrong door” policy. They serve anyone who asks, regardless of whether they qualify for public assistance, are low income enough, homeless enough or meet other criteria often imposed by social service providers (which are, in turn, often imposed on them in order to receive government funding.  A LIFT volunteer  serves as a kind of concierge, linking a client to organizations or services that might help. Respect for the client, viewing him or her as a person with assets and strengths, is fundamental to LIFT’s work.

Another thing I like about LIFT is the dual mission: helping people, but also helping volunteers (many of whom as college students) really understand the damage and stress of living in poverty from the inside out.

One of the ways they do this is through a training exercise  based on an imaginary city called Liftopolis, that seeks to show how difficult it can be to navigate the current service system. After hearing about LIftopolis from the very able Maicharia Weir Lytle, head of its Boston office, I knew I wanted to try it. So together, we invited about 75 other funders, staff, and community leaders to a special Liftopolis session.

Liftopolis is elegantly simple: you enter a room, are handed a card that assigns you a role based on a real LIFT client (I was a 39 year-old,  mentally ill person with a substance abuse problem, living on the streets – the jackpot of hard-to -serve clients), and given a goal. Mine was to get off the streets somehow.  The room is set up with  about a dozen folding tables labeled “City Hall,” “Department of Transitional Assistance,” “x shelter,” “Housing Authority,” etc. You are set loose to wander with your peers,  spending the next two hours approaching the people seated at the tables and asking for help.

My first stop was a housing program, where the friendly woman behind the desk told me I couldn’t stay because I didn’t have proof I was homeless.  I then went to a job training program where I couldn’t be served unless I could show I was in substance abuse treatment.  Some of the providers tried to be helpful, but often they had incomplete information about where I should go next. Some were, just as in real life, passive, rude, and condescending. Some closed for “lunch” just as I got to the head of the line. A sheriff walked around the room, randomly stopping people and issuing chance cards that ranged from the great good fortune of landing a job to the catastrophe of jail. I tried to become a day laborer, but the guy hiring turned me down when he heard my hispanic last name.

A lot of the game was very much like real life. The problems I encountered, the attitude of providers, their narrow view of the rules, was a lot like the experiences I’ve had the few times I’ve tried to get homeless people into housing in the past.  But living it, while pretend, was powerful.

Within about ten minutes, I, completely in character,  realized I was trapped in an endless frustrating cycle of journeying from agency to agency.  It felt impossible to get off the street.   I became more an more belligerant in the face of smooth, faceless bureaucracy. Pretty soon, I was acting irrationally, distancing the people who wanted to help me even though some of them were sympathetic. I could feel my imaginary mental health problems incitingme to act out more and more. My rudeness triggered more rudeness from providers, an endless, escalating circle of disrespect. Finally, I spent some time slumped on the imaginary sidewalk, thinking “what’s the point?”

Eventually, I realized I needed papers, went to City Hall to get them, but failed because I didn’t know the right thing to ask for.  I sat outside yelling for a while, and then a nice guy (playing a homeless dad with a minimum wage job) came to my rescue by telling me what to ask for, and I learned all over again that when you’re down, a social network can be everything. And then I figured out I needed to lie about my substance use, swear I’d been sober six months, in order to get a room in a rooming house.

So I went from the streets to temporary housing, learning along the way that without my job in the eyes of the world I was nobody, that friends are important, and that the  line between seeing yourself as an honest person and lying and cheating to get a bed for the night is  thinner, more flimsy than the cheap sheets in a shelter. Not bad for a two hour exercise.

I should mention that the service providers in this exercise were not demonized. Rather, LIftopolis brings home how trapped they are in a web of rules and practice.  You leave seeing why the system  behaves the way it does, and why poor people do things that might not always appear to be in their best interest.

There are lots of very rich lessons in this experience.  I think every foundation executive and service provider should do something like this once in a while.  Don’t you?





Ver. 1.3

Work heartbreak

There is such a thing as work heartbreak, you know. It can happen when you’ve worked with others to build something beautiful and someone comes in and wrecks it, casual as kicking down a sand castle. It can happen when you know what the answer is to an issue, like putting funds into prevention and rapid rehousing instead of a burgeoning shelter system, and you pick up the paper and see there are still 1600 families in Massachusetts still in motel rooms without kitchens that cost the state $80 a night (think about the money these operators are making!).

It can happen to founders who find their organization has grown up around them and there is no place for their kind of leadership any more.  A crushing defeat, realizing you’re in the wrong job,  losing a hard-fought election campaign, a show closing, can all bring on a familiar desolation that lingers on. It affects your work – although you often don’t recognize that – and your optimism level, sometimes for a couple of years after.

The point is that heartbreak is heartbreak, at home or at work. It’s real, and no matter what else you have to be grateful for (it always could have been and was worse for someone somewhere), it hurts like any other heartbreak.I first realized this a few years ago when I found myself listening to Betty Lavette singing the wonderful Joan Armatrading tune Down to Zero, over and over again It begins:

Oh the feeling, when you’re reeling

You step lightly thinking you’re number one

Down to zero with a word, leaving

for another one.

Now you walk with your feet back on the ground, down to the ground, down to the ground.

I walked the dog for days, humming “down to the ground, down to the ground,” before I suddenly asked myself why this song was resonating with me so much. I wasn’t, thankfully, experiencing difficulties in love or remembering the past. And I realized – it was work!  I had fallen – “down to the ground.” And though I’d gotten up, I was still living down there, viewing things from the floor, letting the action go on above me.

Realizing this, naming it work heartbreak, was the beginning of getting better. The repetitive lyric was like the incessant talking one needs to do after any disaster, repeating what happened, making it into a story, a song, so it becomes bearable, becomes, eventually, history.

So if you know someone who is experiencing work heartbreak, let them talk. Let them play and replay the sad song over and over. And remind them that it’s never too late to start over, to build again.



Ver. 1.3

Sometimes I feel like a hypnotized chicken

The NYT ran a piece a couple of years ago  “We have met the enemy and he is powerpoint” (, about the military’s overuse of PP. In it, General James Mattis asserts “powerpoint makes us stupid” because it oversimplifies and creates the illusion of understanding and mastery of an issue or situation.  In my work I’ve seen a lot of powerpoints that make too much sense: reduce a complicated wicked issue into something that can be magically solved with a simple intervention and some of the Foundation’s money.

But in this piece I also learned that about the practice of deliberately creating long , complex and boring powerpoints that take up most of the time in press briefings and leave reporters so paralyzingly bored that they won’t ask pesky questions. This kind of presentation is referred to as “hynotizing chickens.”

I’ve been put through a lot of both kinds of powerpoints –  some as simple as a Dick and Jane reader, others as dense as an Escher etching.  Sometimes I feel like a hynotized chicken when I am meeting with grant seekers. They come in with a deck of 20 to 30 slides and go through them,  often, forgetting I can read,  line by excruciating line. They show me logic models that make my eyes glaze over, org charts my non-visual brain can barely follow. They talk and talk about why their work is important, why it should be supported. They are so thorough that at the end, I am exhausted and can’t think of good questions. I feel  cranky, like I’ve been bludgeoned with goodness and have no right to complain because good has been done to me.

I feel like a jerk complaining about this. Don’t get me wrong: working for a foundation provides an extraordinary, wonderful window on countless worlds and enterprises. I feel lucky to get a glimpse of them in these meetings. I hear great stories and powerful data- an unbeatable combination -sometimes. But too many fund raisers diminish their organization in presentations; take the richness, complexity and uncertainties out of the work in order to make a better case for it. And I think that’s a shame.

Too often, the groups who come in to see me lead not with vision or purpose but mechanics. Activities and events are presented as if they were ends in themselves. To show they’ve read our website, they deliver all the reasons we should support this enterprise, parroting the  language of our website and guidelines. It all feels strenuous and formulaic.

The one-way nature of this kind of presentation makes the leader delivering it appear less dynamic and engaged with the world.  At its worst, it seems  as if, as Woody Allen once wrote about his mother’s cooking, the chicken has been put through the deflavorizer.

Often, more experienced  leaders have received some training that has taught them that building a relationship is important. So they tend to lead with a couple of questions in a painfully obvious effort to “connect.”  But instead of building my responses into a conversation, they quickly move to the deck and the endless monologue. Instead of the elevator speech, I feel I  am getting stuck on the elevator.

I understand why it happens.  There’s a lot we do as funders to create this dynamic. We  are always talking about how busy we are (trying to convince grant seekers how tough things are on this side of the table – as if!) It’s not easy to get time with us, so by the time you get a meeting it feels like your one and only shot. Often the only way to get a meeting is to pretend you are coming in for advice instead of asking for money.  And there’s a natural and earnest desire when the work is important, to show ’em everything you’ve got. I made the same mistake over and over again when I taught grad students. I was supposed to be the expert, and I desperately wanted to give value, so I talked way too much, cramming everything I knew into a rushed nonstop monologue during class. When I learned instead to frame things up and ask questions, encourage students to connect what I was talking about to their own experiences, things went better.

And some leaders do that when they present. A meeting with them is like an invitation to take a walk together, to look into their world. There’s a story to start maybe, one that tells us how and why this project was conceived, the hopes and dreams it represents. Sometimes there is an invitation to stand side by side and gaze at some difficult and discouraging data. Often there’s a deck, but it’s used like a map, taken out occasionally to illustrate something in the conversation; or its left behind as an artifact of the meeting.  The meeting itself, somehow, becomes a conversation.

There’s no blueprint for how to craft a presentation that does this. But for me, what the best leaders do is somehow convey what Harvard Physics Professor said when she talked about the work of science:

It’s how to ask the right questions, how to understand the questions we are asking. How to understand what our assumptions are. what are the uncertainties that go into these assumptions? What are the uncertainties about the predictions that we make?

When I have a conversation with a leader who is open to and about the questions presented by the work, willing to poke at them with me, I am wide awake and wanting more. And often, in the end, recommending the grant.


Ver. 1.3

On falling in love with work.

This winter, we were lucky enough at Barr to have Bill Strickland speak at our trustee meeting.  We were considering a grant to help build the New England Center for Arts and Technology. NECAT will be located in Grove Hall, and  will offer after school arts programming and career training. NECAT is modeled after the Manchester Bidwell Corporation, the very successful organization Bill built in Pittsburgh.

Manchester Bidwell is Bill’s life work. It is a unique organization and it has been shaped by his unique path, which he’s told in a terrific book: Make the Impossible Possible (Bill Strickland and Vincent Rause)

What is remarkable and compelling about his story is that it started at the potter’s wheel. Bill’s book  describes his path in detail, falling in love with clay and its many possibilities, the lessons of broken pots which led to his creating an arts center in the poorest part of the city in very troubled times.

In building Manchester Bidwell (which he literally did in the early years, putting in the drywall and hanging the pictures), Bill followed his own interests and longings. First it was helping kids liked him fall in love with the pottery wheel, or with some other form of expression. His fascination with Frank Lloyd Wright led him to recruit one of his disciples to design a gorgeous modern building as Manchester Bidwell became more successful. His love of jazz led to a concert hall and recording studio that has netted several Grammys.His fascination with orchids led to a greenhouse business, and a growing appreciation for gourmet food to a catering business that prepares residents to become chefs in fancy hotels and restaurants.

All these enterprises make money and help people, and have led several other cities to launch similar centers. They also – and Bill speaks with passionate conviction about this – change the way poor people are viewed, from passive aid recipients to enterprising and creative architects of their own destiny.

When Bill tells it, in a straightforward, funny, loping style, It all sounds like magic and it is: the magic of helping people find what they love to do and pursuing mastery in it. And that is what is unique about Manchester Bidwell.  There, art is not just a nice project or a hobby but a way of pursing what you are made of. Career programs don’t prepare people to get by doing an ordinary job – they instill a sense of pride and mastery, whether the task at hand is pharmacy, cooking, or throwing a pot.

This is because Bill believes, as he says in his book:

“Success is something you assemble from components you discover in your soul and your imagination. Authentic success, the kind of success that will enrich your life and enlarge your spirit, the only kind of success that matters, comes from knowing and trustingthe deepest aspirations of your heart. If you try to live that way, in harmony with the real needs of your spirit, then you can’t help but craft a life that will automatically make the world a better place for everyone who lives in it.”

Bill’s has so obviously achieved this harmony; he is radiant with it. This reminds me of something the great Japanese artist Hokusai wrote about his work. He’s the guy who did the great wave off Kanagawa and Views of Mt Fuji – images so fresh and distinctive that they have come to represent the ocean and that mountain in our minds 150 years after they were made:

“From around the age of six, I had the habit of sketching from life. I became an artist, and from 50 on began producing works that won some reputation, but nothing I did before the age of 70 was worthy of attention. At 73, I began to grasp the structures of birds and beasts, insects and fish and of the way plants grow. If I go on trying, I will surely understand them still better by the time I am 86, so that by 90 I will have penetrated to their essential nature. At 100, I may well have a positively divine understanding of them, while at 130, 40 or more I will have reached the stage where every dot and every stroke I paint will be alive.”

For me this has always captured the beauty and joy that a lifelong pursuit of the arts can bring. And Bill, ever and enthusiastically going deeper into his work, is a perfect example.

Imagine how great it would be if our education and  workforce development systems helped people build on their strengths and interests to find work that matters to them. Imagine if people were truly encouraged to bring artistry to ordinary jobs.  Poetry is lacking in so many parts of our society – no where more than at work.

Recently I was in New York and had the chance to speak to the person who manages the maintanence staff at Bryant Park. This guy, who started as a custodian and now manages a whole corps of them, talked about the challenges of moving a couple of thousand folding chairs out of the way after a concert so a morning yoga class could took place. He talked about how important it was that everyone visiting the park felt welcomed and could navigate. His sense of the importance of the work he did, its immediate connection to thousands of people who use and love the park was palpable and refreshing. I left feeling I’d met another artist.

So, I wish you work you love – not every day, maybe – but with the kind of passion and purpose you can imagine spending at least one lifetime on.


Ver. 1.3

Remembering Bob Hohler: to be continued

Before he died suddenly on a hiking trip last year, Bob Hohler of the Melville Trust and I often talked about creating a Change Practice. Our idea was to form a loose network of aspirational funders who want their vision of a more just and compassionate society to drive their philanthropy. With the Fireman Foundation and Strategic Grant Partners, we started to talk about how and whether we could work more closely together to deepen our impact and accelerate the pace of change. We realized that the wicked issues we were working on required a significant ramping up of allies, resources and knowledge.

This blog is, I hope, the beginning of a virtual community, a way to carry on some of the work Bob and I talked about. If you knew Bob, you know how much he liked to talk about big bold ideas. if you didn’t, here’s something I wrote about him:

So many people came home because of Bob Hohler. Could we count how many he helped so many get that fundamental thing,  a roof over their head, lighted windows to come home to? Bringing people home was Bob’s final and most ferocious passion, the central work of his last twenty years.  He came to it after a lifetime in which he was always, in his restless way, exploring the edges where justice needed to be made.

And the work was itself a homecoming for Bob, a circling back to his own past that fueled his formidable appetite for solutions. He brought to the work deep, particular and painful knowledge gained during a difficult childhood that few of his friends knew much about. Bob had already been head of the  Melville Trust for ten years when the feds started talking about bringing back orphanages. His rage at this produced a beautiful op-ed piece for the Globe. Reading it, I learned for the first time that he had spent time in one, that sometimes as a child Bob did not know where he was going to sleep that night.

Bob knew first hand the difference between being  a poor housed child roaming the South End, upheld by a close community, and the months he spent in an orphanage when his parents were unable to care for him. He understood the difference between not having money but belonging to a community, where you had a home and knew where it was, and the deprivation of being roofless or stuck in an institution.

Bob learned at an early age to use his powerful intelligence and natural people skills as a passport out of difficult life circumstances. The main breadwinner for the family at age 14, he hawked newspapers, and I like to think, honed the skills of relationship and selling that served him so well in so many different settings later in life. As a teenager, he found a second home at the Unitarian Universalist Arlington Street Church in Boston, where he fell in love with social justice and heard the call that eventually led him to a stint in the ministry.

While many of his friends, didn’t know much about his difficult early life, we could see he carried parts of it with him,  the way a depression era hobo carried a few belongings in a bandana tied to a stick.  Those included a certain mental toughness, fierce identification with  alley cats and underdogs, pugilistic instincts that made him love a good fight, and  deep skepticism about institutions that purported to help the poor –  they need so very much good done to them he’d say with eyebrows lifted – all that was part of that bedroll.  But so was the deeply generous, kind and curious spirit that led him to wander far and wide, wanting to be present for the major important events of our time.

Which took him to a bridge  in Selma Alabama where he marched with his  great friend Henry Hampton and spent time with the Rev James Reeb just before he was killed by segregationists. It carried him naturally to the next place Dr. King was going, to  the anti-war movement during the late 60s and 70s, staging a sit-in and hunger strike at Unitarian Universalist headquarters in Boston to protest the church’s investment in companies with Defense Department contracts.

In the 1970s, his passion for global justice brought him to work in the developing world as  Oxfam’s Director of development. There, he  helped bring it back from the brink of financial disaster  (he often told the story of the miraculous check that arrived at the very last minute) and to transition from being an aid organization to a powerful community development enterprise. He developed for Oxfam a powerful and distinct voice, what might today be called a brand, that enlisted many to repair the world by helping local communities do for themselves.  That work foreshadowed later work in homelessness, where he tried always to shift systems from a focus on emergency response to long-term solutions.

And finally, Bob worked on the other side of the table, in philanthropy he pursued the work at Melville with gusto, ingenuity and great love.  He put his whole self in, every day. He was lucky enough to have an extraordinary group of trustees who provided him with a spacious and welcoming home for his best work.

Bob realized that the great gift of a job in philanthropy was not to process grants, give other people’s money away, but  to sign on to a big bold impossible enterprise.  His was “finding and fighting the causes of homelssness,” the memorable tag line he composed for National Public Radio. And if any of you are lucky enough to be in Hartford Ct, I strongly suggest you go visit some of the fruits of his work. Melville has supported the construction of hundreds of housing units in Ct. In Hartford, Bob  saw the gorgeous bones under the derelict Lyceum that was a boarded up disco. Today it is a beautiful light-filled headquarters for the state’s key housing development and homeless advocacy organizations.  The red brick housing across the street has been rehabbed and a farm-to-table restaurant, the Firebox is a warm and hospitable beacon in the neighborhood. There’s  a farmers market in the summer.  Walking around the area, you marvel at how Bob built a community in the heart of blight, a place that embraces all its citizens, from the governor to the 14 year old kid in  precarious circumstances – like Bob at 14. The whole area has become, in the words of a local agency director “Bob’s Place.”

Bob understood that making connections between rich and poor was crucial to social change.  Bob was a great fundraiser  and a  great grantmaker because he believed that if the work was important, asking for resources to support it was the right thing to do. In the 80s I taught a course on nonprofit management, and each year in the unit on fundraising, I would invite  Bob to come  and critique the pitches that students were assigned to prepare for an organization or cause. He  always listened intently, head tilted and then speaking with urgency and purpose, he skillfully extracted the core message – what about the work they proposed was powerful and could capture the imagination of others. Then he showed them, enacted, how they might talk about in a way that would sweep people in to the cause. These demonstrations taught my students about the power of words, of message in a way that affected them profoundly.

Bob had such a way with words. I think of that op ed about orphanages, and also about a report he sent from New Orleans six months post Katrina to his trustees and colleagues.  Using that deservedly reviled tool, the powerpoint, Bob used simple words and pictures to take us with him on what he called the “misery tour,” the places where in his words “vast stretches where once houses stood were now monuments of debris, abandoned cars and fallen trees. And other than the distant sound of highway traffic on this stormy day, there was an almost eerie quiet.” Reading that, we are walking in Bob’s footprints, sharing the intensity of his gaze on this piece of American wreckage.

Bob was not always a glass half full guy.  There was something heroic about his commitment, his persistence in the face of his clear eyed view of just how screwed up things are, his efforts to bend the world to a better form.

For if Bob believed in the words of Dr. King in Selma that the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice, he thought it needed help in the bending. Sometimes I imagine him, standing on the end of the arc, urging others up beside him, jumping up and down, using every fiber of his body to show it the right way to go, to yield to justice. Making that arc into a bridge to cross, like the one in Selma.

That was his work. He was also a great and true friend. I first met him when he was raising funds for Henry Hampton’s Eyes on the Prize the great documentary series on the Civil Rights Movement,  and years later, I watched him see Henry through a long illness and work diligently to keep his legacy alive.  The Eyes Archive at Washington University – a precious and unique source of documentation of that remarkable era – exists because of those efforts.  Later I watched the tenderness and ferocity with which he supported our great friend Joe Breiteneicher  – who brought Bob to Melville, through a long and terrible illness.

In our long conversations, Bob was often certain, never tentative but -and this is a rare combination, endlessly curious . He was the first person who ever said to me “life is not a dress rehearsal” and he lived that way. He was truly, remarkably present for every moment of his life. I can never remember him being bored. In our long talks about homelessness or the change practice we wanted to create, his rebuttals, even his strategic silences often helped me discover what was wrong with the point I was making, called me to think more deeply, go further, do more. And the ample reward of his occasional “interesting,” – perhaps his greatest accolade, told me I was on the right track.

A conversation with Bob ranged all over the place, because he did. The past time we had tea together, the week before he left for England, we discussed mysteries, his pride in his son Rob’s work and life,  the disgrace that music education has become in the Boston Public Schools, the importance of farmers markets and strategies that allow poor people more choice and control over their destinies. As always, his face lit up when I asked about his wife Karen – we shared the great good luck of happy marriages. He was particularly looking forward to their trip to England, and as he sketched the itinerary in his usual simple vivid words, he made me want to walk Hadrian’s wall, to follow in his footsteps.  The conversation ended with his frequent closer: “to be continued.”

Thinking about that quality of Bob’s, his urgent  invitation to follow him on whatever thought path he was taking, makes me think about what Eknath Easwaren, a follower of Gandhi said about  leaders:

 They are like a relative who has disappeared for years and then returns to tell us of a fabulous land. They give us maps, fill our ears with tips about which roads are safe…tell us stories, show us their slides: anything to convince us that this country they have discovered is our real home and that, until we can find our way there, as Augustine says, nothing else can fill the homesickness in our hearts.

For me, for so many of us, Bob was that traveler. He pointed us towards our real work, our real home.  He believed, I think, that finding one’s true work, especially if it helped bend that arc towards justice, would help us fill the longing, the homesickness in our hearts, as he had filled his.

I never believed that mighty heart would give out. Despite his age and his medical history  I expected Bob to be what he always was  – what he is – a fierce presence, a kind friend,  a companion in arms. I thought we’d have many more conversations.

But, looking at a picture of him, an hour before he died, sitting on Hadrian’s wall in a sunhat smiling, happy to be with Karen and family, to have  had a good walk, I thought how right it was for him to be working, thinking, doing the work he loved right up to the very end.  Because, as I’ve said, Bob was both student and actor in the great social movements of the 20th century. The lessons of India’s struggle for independence, the civil rights movement, the end of apartheid – the proudest moments of the past century – seem terribly distant at times from our present leadership, our stance in the world. For Bob –  like Bob –  they were ever present. He always wanted to bring them home. He did for so many of us, right up to our last conversations with him. That, his great present to us, like his presence, remains., might light our way home, help us, in the words of the shaker hymn, to  turn and to turn until we come round right.  Thank you, Bob, for seeing  what your many friends are capable of, for seeing to and through us, and  for seeing so very  many of us home.




Ver. 1.3

Chicken flotation devices and map bending

This week, Barr sponsored a symposium at Massart that explored whether the arts could be used to raise awareness about climate change – awareness that would lead to action. It was great to spend a day with artists, scientists, and activists thinking about how we might enrich and fertilize each other’s endeavors.

One of my favorite moments came during a five minute presentation by Pablo Suarez. Pablo consults with the International Red Cross/Red Crescent, developing games and other activities that help communities at risk of flood, famine or other disaster better plan for and foresee the future. Red Cross/Red Crescent has realized that, with climate change, there will be so many more natural disasters – too many to respond to – that they have to change the way they work.

Pablo told us about a project that trained residents of flood-prone villages to film interviews with each other to document the best ways to minimize damage during inevitable floods. One of the best tips that emerged was “one we never would have thought of – get rid of your chickens and get ducks.” Chickens, of course drown in floods, while ducks…float.

“We would have spent years developing chicken flotation devices,” said Suarez, whose sunny enthusiasm for actually looking for solutions among the people affected by the problem  (as opposed to expert theories) is contagious. I can’t wait to learn more about his work.

For some reason, this put me in mind of something Laurence Gonzales says in Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why, an engaging and scary examination of people who’ve survived accidents and natural disasters.  Despite its focus on men and women getting lost, jumping with faulty parachutes, falling down mountains and many other things I have no interest or inclination to do, this book is full of wonderful nuggets about handling extreme stress and surviving llife’s more mundane problems.

In a chapter about the disorientation of getting lost, Gonzales quotes Edward Cornell:

Whenever you start looking at your map and saying something like ‘well, that lake could have dried up,’ or ‘ that boulder could have moved,” a red light should go off. You’re trying to make reality conform to your expectations rather than seeing what’s there. In the sport of orienteering, they call that ‘bending the map.’

Gonzales  warns that “everyone who dies out there dies of confusion,” and goes on to say:

Being lost, then, is not a location, it is a transformation. It is a failure of the mind. It can happen in the woods or it can happen in life.

Another nugget:

There is a tendency to make a plan and then to worship the plan, that ‘memory of the possible future.’ But there is also a tendency to think that simply by putting forth more and more effort, we can overcome friction.

That resonated in an almost painful way. How often in social change work do we design chicken flotation devices instead of switching to ducks?  Expanding a homeless shelter system instead of providing rent subsidies comes to mind. I’m sure you can think of other examples.  And how often, when things don’t go as I’d expected, do I fail to admit I’m lost? I’ve wasted a lot of time bending the map, holding on to plans that don’t redflect the present landscape instead of taking a clear-eyed view of what is there. My vow for the year is to try to do less of that.



Ver. 1.3

Here’s to us!

This is a blog about changing practice – and practicing change – in the world of philanthropy and nonprofits.   Ideas, responses, arguments welcome.


Ver. 1.3