A day of TEDx talks at Kent State University

With Mary Louise Allen at Kent State University, Ohio

With Mary Louise Allen at Kent State University, Ohio

On Saturday I was reminded of how much fun it can be to be back in school again, but without those pesky exams and term papers. A weekend trip to Ohio to see a dear friend included a visit to Kent State University for a day of TEDx talks sponsored by the school’s student government association.

The TED brand of lectures features a subject matter expert giving a short, punchy stand-up talk on a topic of compelling or emerging interest, closing with an instructive or inspirational message. The format has proven so popular that the TED organization now licenses other groups to host “TEDx” talks on topics of their own choosing, with the local host groups recruiting their own lecturers.

Kent State’s student government leaders took advantage of this opportunity to organize a day of TEDx talks on the broad theme of “Rewind. Rethink. React. Respond,” drawing mainly on the university community (educators, students, alumni/ae) for speakers. Personal development, entrepreneurship, and social change were recurring focal points throughout the day.

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The Kent State event made for a great day of thinking and learning. My friend Mary Louise and I were among the, uh, more mature folks in attendance, the lion’s share of the audience being students. Nevertheless, many of the talks related easily to a more middle aged population as well.

This started with sociologist and entertainer Bertice Berry‘s opening remarks, which included a warm, funny story about an airport encounter with a woman whose demeanor and beautiful, blonde appearance initially pushed her insecurity buttons but quickly grew into a mutual understanding of how bad experiences and messages planted in us as kids can burden us well into adulthood.

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In fact, two of my favorite speakers were among those who shared important experiences from their youth. Keri Richmond, a student leader at Kent State, talked about growing up in the foster care system and how her experiences have inspired her to advocate for foster children. Phil Kim, a business professor from nearby Walsh University, talked about being a high school dropout and the importance of giving people second chances. Another speaker, Krish Mehra, shared part of his childhood in real time, as this brilliant 11-year-old young man talked about the importance of understanding digital coding! 

For me, the day was one of being an appreciative listener. Usually when I write about conferences and workshops, I’m including my experiences as a speaker or participant. Here I had the luxury of being in the audience and appreciating the work of others, without having to worry about my own presentation! The rich variety of talks once again reminded me of the linkages of between individual and social change. They also reinforced how difficult personal experiences can lead people to become advocates for positive change.

In these anxious times, let’s nurture our core communities and connections

Image courtesy of Clipart Panda

Image courtesy of Clipart Panda

In my last piece, I spotlighted an important long-form essay in the Guardian newspaper by Indian writer and public intellectual Pankaj Mishra, opining that “we find ourselves in an age of anger, with authoritarian leaders manipulating the cynicism and discontent of furious majorities.” Mishra’s “age of anger” theme resonates strongly with me, capturing the emotional center of gravity that now appears to be shaping too much of our civic and public lives on a global scale.

Obviously developing solutions to this state of affairs is complicated and multifaceted stuff, surely beyond the reach of a short blog post. I would like to propose, however, that at the very personal level, one of our most affirmative responses can be to nurture the core communities and connections in our lives. In other words, we should identify the clusters of people and activities that mean a lot to us and do our best to support their humanity and purpose.

Whether those communities and connections are grounded in a workplace, civic group, creative endeavor, family grouping, neighborhood, cohort of friends, or even a valued online network, times like these call upon us to do our best to strengthen the most positive bonds in our lives.

This is easy to write out on a keyboard, but it takes sustained intention to carry out in practice. I confess that sometimes I fall well short of meeting my own exhortations. Nevertheless, I find that this challenging era is helping me to clarify what is important, and reinforcing the most meaningful connections in my life is heading toward the top of the list. I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking this way.

Transforming our “age of anger” with care and understanding

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In a compelling long-form piece for the Guardian, Pankaj Mishra writes that “we find ourselves in an age of anger, with authoritarian leaders manipulating the cynicism and discontent of furious majorities.” Invoking Donald Trump (“the biggest political earthquake of our times”), Brexit, the Middle East, “insurgencies from Yemen to Thailand,” terrorism, and other disturbing events, he acknowledges that “we cannot understand this crisis because our dominant intellectual concepts and categories seem unable to process an explosion of uncontrolled forces.”

He concludes his thoughtful analysis with a call for understanding:

With so many of our landmarks in ruins, we can barely see where we are headed, let alone chart a path. But even to get our basic bearings we need, above all, greater precision in matters of the soul. The stunning events of our age of anger, and our perplexity before them, make it imperative that we anchor thought in the sphere of emotions; these upheavals demand nothing less than a radically enlarged understanding of what it means for human beings to pursue the contradictory ideals of freedom, equality and prosperity.

The complete article is well worth the time of anyone who is trying to comprehend our world today. Also, a fuller explication of Mishra’s analysis will appear in his forthcoming book, Age of Anger: A History of the Present. For now, however, I’d like to take Mishra’s core points and apply them to clusters of events over the past weekend.

Marches and rallies

It could be argued that the marches and rallies that took place around the world on Saturday were a manifestation of that age of anger. After all, the original Washington D.C. women’s march was organized in the immediate aftermath of Donald Trump’s election, fueled by outrage and alarm.

But something funny happened at these events: Though perhaps prompted by anger, the large marches and rallies were voiceful, peaceful, and — yes — loving. Here in Boston, some 175,000 people (mostly women, but with a good number of men and kids) gathered to be heard, with reportedly not a single incident requiring police intervention.

Throughout Saturday and into Sunday, friends on Facebook posted photos and personal accounts from these female-led rallies in cities and communities across the country. Yes, anger and defiance may have brought them to these places, but their posts and photos communicated a sense of bold, joyous, and uplifting solidarity.

I have been on Facebook since 2009, and I can’t remember that social media site ever feeling so energetically alive. The posts from march participants were fresh, vibrant, even jubilant. My friends felt, quite accurately, that they were participating in historic events. I was so happy for them, and deeply appreciated what they did.

Meanwhile, in a small Boston conference room…

While many of my friends were at the marches, I was participating in a two-day “Integral Practitioner Lab” in downtown Boston, hosted by the Center for Transformative Learning at Meridian University in California. Here’s a partial explanation of the program from the university:

Many of us are are called to lives of sacred purpose where we seek to join professional livelihood with personal meaning and passion. However, there is a widening gap between the challenges of complexity and our individual and collective capabilities.

To realize our potential for passionate and meaningful livelihood, we must close this gap by building a bridge of capability.
The Integral Practitioner Lab at Meridian University offers the opportunity to identify, develop and refine a unique constellation of competencies that are required for impact.

This was, in essence, a gently directed, co-created series of conversations, guest speakers, and demonstration exercises embracing the broad topic of building bridges between individual and social change, facilitated by Meridian president Aftab Omer and Meridan faculty member Zak Stein. There were about two dozen of us in all, drawn from a surprisingly varied list of locations.

The major highlight was getting to know a warm, smart, and impact-making group of individuals. Our gathering included coaches, therapists, entrepreneurs, educators, consultants, and writers. With nary a PowerPoint slide in sight, we engaged in some 16 hours of dialogue and exchange about the state of the world and how we can contribute to its betterment. During this time, we learned about each other’s interests and projects, with our final focused activity being a break-out session of small group coaching.

Another highlight for me was an interactive session, via video conferencing, with Jean Houston, a renowned, visionary author and researcher who has joined Meridian as its chancellor. Dr. Houston addressed the anxieties and concerns about the world’s current political, social, and economic disruptions felt by many in the room. Pointing in part to Saturday’s peaceful marches and rallies around the world, but without offering false hopes, she suggested that these stark challenges have led us to a singular, mythic moment of opportunity to transform our society in healthier, more humane ways.

On a personal level, I was gifted with the opportunity to participate in an extended coaching exercise involving the full group and guided by Dr. Omer. In it, I was a client of sorts, attempting to learn more about my “developmental edges,” i.e., those aspects of ourselves that we can develop in order to be more effective in matters that we care about. This session deeply clarified my self-awareness of how I can be a more fiercely effective change agent toward making our laws and legal systems more receptive to psychological health and well-being, while working through feelings of anger over injustice, unfairness, and abuse. (To any of my fellow participants reading this, thank you, I am grateful beyond words.)

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I admit it: Current events of the past year or so have sometimes put me in a funk, capped off by the presidential inauguration on Friday. But between those marching on the outside and the dialogue in our conference room, the weekend gave me a true lift, providing hope — to borrow from Pankaj Mishra — that we can better understand our society and achieve “greater precision in matters of the soul.” Our talents and commitments are needed, so let us work on ourselves and the world around us to make transformational changes.

“Being present with intelligence, knowledge, skills, and strength, but anchored in heart”

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If you can spare an hour to listen to a remarkably far-ranging and compassionate mind at work, please click to this December 2016 lecture by Dr. Michael Britton at the annual workshop of the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies network in New York City. The occasion is the workshop’s Don Klein Memorial Lecture, which provides the speaker with an opportunity to paint — in strokes both broad and hard — a connective, contextual, historical picture about our society and how we move forward in the quest for human dignity. Here’s Michael’s bio, and here’s how the lecture is described on its YouTube page:

Michael Britton gives the Don Klein Memorial Lecture on the morning of December 8, 2015, Day Two of the 13th Workshop on Transforming Humiliation and Violent Conflict, which took place at Columbia University in New York City, December 8 – 9, 2016. Michael Britton is concerned with integrative thinking across neuroscience, in-depth psychotherapies and historical/cultural living, Michael’s work looks at how participation in the historical life of our times and interior life are deeply intertwined.

At the outset of his talk, Michael acknowledges the “struggle between how you keep faith, love, and joy strong in the midst of . . . also feeling fear and angst about some of the things going on in our country and our world.” He goes on to recognize the challenges of “being present with intelligence, knowledge, skills, and strength, but anchored in heart.”

Michael has a unique ability to integrate individual change and social change, making connections between topics such as childhood neglect and abuse, politics and policy, the environment, and human rights. He is not a hell fire and brimstone speaker, so if you’re looking for someone shakes the rafters, you may want to look elsewhere. Rather, he is a calm, intelligent, impassioned voice who gives us reason for hope without ignoring the challenges we face.

Dear readers, in this age of short attention spans and Twitter, suggesting that you invest some 60 minutes in an old-fashioned lecture is asking a lot, I know. My suggestion? Give this lecture 15 minutes and decide whether it’s worth your time to watch the rest. I hope you’ll agree that it’s worth watching the rest.

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Group photo of our workshop

Three 20th century voices inform our understanding of modern American society

 

Three important, insightful voices from the last century may help us understand the social and political state of today’s America.

In his frighteningly prescient Preface to Friendly Fascism: The New Face of Power in America (1982 ed.), social scientist Bertram Gross identified two conflicting trends in American culture:

The first is a slow and powerful drift toward greater concentration of power and wealth in a repressive Big Business-Big Government partnership. . . . The phrase “friendly fascism” helps distinguish this possible future from the patently vicious corporatism of classic fascism in the past of Germany, Italy and Japan.

…The other is a slower and less powerful tendency for individuals and groups to seek greater participation in decisions affecting themselves and others. . . . It is embodied in larger values of community, sharing, cooperation, service to others and basic morality as contrasted with crass materialism and dog-eat-dog competition.

Gross went on to identify a group of people who were consolidating power in America:

I see at present members of the Establishment or people on its fringes who, in the name of Americanism, betray the interests of most Americans by fomenting militarism, applauding rat-race individualism, protecting undeserved privilege, or stirring up nationalistic and ethnic hatreds.

In the spring I cited the rise of Donald Trump as the prime exemplar of the mainstreaming of Gross’s 1982 scenario. This dystopian reality is now before us, front and center, as Trump goes about the task of forming his new administration.

In her final book, Dark Age Ahead (2004), the late Jane Jacobs — the brilliantly iconoclastic observer of urban and contemporary life — expressed fears that we are entering a new “Dark Age” marked by a sharp decline in core societal institutions and values. Here were the key markers behind her thesis:

  • Family and community — Consumption, consumerism, debt, and wealth supplanting family and community welfare;
  • Higher education — Higher education becoming a tool for credentialing instead of a process for learning;
  • Science — Denigration of hard science, along with the elevation of economics as the primary science shaping public policy;
  • Government — Ending the notion of government for the common good, replaced by government acting on behalf of powerful interests; and,
  • Ethics — Breakdown of ethics in learned professions.

Dark Age Ahead did not receive rave reviews upon its publication. As I recall, it was greeted with a sort of polite acknowledgement of the author’s concerns, along with a nod to her reputation and overall body of work. I felt the same way, too. But it turns out that Jacobs was merely a decade ahead of her time. Her analysis is now spot on, having anticipated our current milieu with scary accuracy.

For reasons I wish were not so, I believe that the work of philosopher and writer Hannah Arendt also will be increasingly relevant toward understanding how individual behaviors impact broader concerns in today’s America. As I wrote in 2014:

…Hannah Arendt invoked the phrase “banality of evil” to describe how Adolf Eichmann served as one of Hitler’s architects of the Holocaust. Since then, the phrase has come to represent — in more generic terms — how ordinary people become easily invested in the values of a morally bankrupt status quo and participate in terrible behaviors that seemingly are unthinkable in civilized society.

Arendt’s work was deeply informed by European events during first half of the last century. In her Preface to Men in Dark Times (1968 ed.), an examination of how prominent European intellectuals, religious leaders, civic leaders, and activists responded to authoritarian threats of the era, she posited:

Even in the darkest of times we have the right to expect some illumination, and that such illumination may come less from theories and concepts than from the uncertain, flickering, and often weak light that some men and women, in their lives and works, will kindle under almost all circumstances and shed over the time span that was given to them on earth.

During the years to come, we’re going to need lots of “men and women, in their lives and works” (to borrow from Arendt) to shine a light on our society and to make life more humane, dignified, and inclusive. We don’t need more bystanders who submit passively to malevolent forces swirling around us, while hoping not to be among those swallowed up by them. This is a time for us to stand for something and be counted.

Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies 2016 annual workshop: Building a community of caring

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I just finished participating in the annual two-day workshop on transforming humiliation and violent conflict, hosted by Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (HumanDHS), a global network of scholars, practitioners, students, artists, and activists committed to the advancement of human dignity and to the ending of humiliating practices. Every December we gather at Columbia University’s Teachers College in New York City, immersing ourselves in highly interactive discussions and exchanges, amidst a genuine spirit of fellowship.

This card is one of the little gifts distributed at the workshop. “The Five Good Things” come from the late Jean Baker Miller, a psychiatrist and pioneer in the field of relational psychology, not to mention a key mentor to HumanDHS director Linda Hartling.

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“The Five Good Things” were at play throughout this workshop. It was a supportive, enlightening, and even loving gathering at a time when a lot of folks in our group (including yours truly) really needed it. (Summaries of this annual workshop have become a staple on this blog for good reason!)

I have been involved with HumanDHS since 2007, and in recent years my connections to it and the remarkable people who are part of it have grown deeply. In addition to joining the board of directors, I have been increasingly involved in the New York City workshop. This year I presented a short paper on the importance of understanding psychological trauma and moderated two of the dialogue sessions. I also led our group in singing “What a Wonderful World,” made famous by Louis Armstrong and an apt song for our event.

Group photo after our board meeting

Group photo after our board meeting

Being part of this extended global community is both a privilege and a blessing. Such a community is not, and should not be, our sole point of connection with the world. In fact, at the workshop we recognized the importance of sharing dignity-enhancing practices with those who are initially resistant to them. Nevertheless, at a time when raw exercises of interpersonal aggression and bigotry are too often rewarded by the dominant power structure, the need for people holding a different set of core values to come together in order to refuel and reenergize is significant.

I’ll be writing more about this year’s workshop and posting some photos from it, but for now I simply wanted to do this quick mention and express my gratitude to those who made it such a meaningful experience.

What does it mean to be “onto something”?

(Image courtesy of clipartix.com)

(Image courtesy of clipartix.com)

Say I’m at a conference, workshop, or seminar, and someone offers insights or ideas that appear to open a new door to understanding and solving challenges big or small. My usual thought bubble is, hey, you’re onto something here! And if I get a chance to share feedback during the session, that’s the gist of what I’ll say.

What does it mean to be “onto something”? Well, if you search “onto something meaning,” you’ll get several similar explanations of the term. I like this one from Oxford Living DictionariesHave an idea or information that is likely to lead to an important discovery. 

Most of the discoveries in my realm tend to be solution-based approaches to challenges facing law & public policy, workers and workplaces, and so forth. Events such as periodic workshops on workplace bullying and on therapeutic jurisprudence, the biennial Work, Stress, and Health conference, the biennial International Congress of Law and Mental Health, and the annual Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies workshop are among those that frequently prompt my “you’re onto something” responses.

For change agents in any field, and those who want to be, what does this mean? As I suggested in the close of my recent law review article, “Intellectual Activism and the Practice of Public Interest Law” (Southern California Review of Law and Social Justice), it means finding “a place where one’s networks, circles, and tribes feel right in terms of shared or compatible goals, and where one’s activities and values are largely congruent.”

As I further acknowledged, it took me until my fifties to find that place. So if you want to be a difference maker, but you haven’t found your niche yet, try to be patient and remain open to messages and opportunities. Sooner or later, you’ll be onto something.

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