Social Justice and the Cloud

cloud_social justiceLast week I picked up Thomas L. Friedman’s book, Thank You for Being Late, and today I came across the NPR article, Could You Help Rewire Income Disparity? Both address the monumental shift in network science and how cloud computing and the connectedness of our world is altering the landscape of everything around us: Friedman’s book a giant, global perspective and the NPR article a tangible, in-the-moment example of how the power of computing will continue, at ever increasing rates, to put social justice into our individual hands.

The NPR article tells how four French network scientists looked at the question of income disparity in the context of neighborhoods and shopping trips. They asked some key strategic questions:  “What if people changed their shopping habits and picked up that cat food somewhere else? In particular, what if those paper towels were bought in a less economically advantaged neighborhood? Could just changing shopping trips change the city’s map of economic disparity? If so, how much change was needed to make a difference?”

Their results were fascinating. They found that individuals only need to alter 5 out of 100 shopping trips to create significant change. “The addition of small changes in the shopping destinations of individuals can dramatically impact the spatial distribution of money flows in the city, and the frequency of encounters between residents of different neighborhoods, even if the total number of changes remains small.”

When asked about the implications of their study, one of the researchers “spoke of the possibility of developing apps that might give people different shopping options to rewire the economic health of different neighborhoods”, enabling participative solutions for individuals to create the change they wish to see in their communities.  This is the possibility of philanthropy I find thrilling: that as our networks become smarter, and provide us with the tools to act more effectively in our world (whether by calling a taxi or rethinking where we shop), we have the increasing ability to question the status quo and find individually powerful ways to give back. Not just a transaction of money and time, but a way of being in the world that allows our doing to be impactful. A transformational way to align our actions with our intent.

Granted, there are messy implications to Big Data. No solution comes without unintended consequences. But by harnessing the power of this data, we have the potential to understand and solve social problems in new ways, enabling us to make thoughtful and intentional choices to help others, not to mention humanity at large. Which makes the work of a philanthropist ever more important and timely. By grappling with our concept of what enough looks like in our life and creating personal giving plans, we can begin to answer what kind of world do we want to live in? And what are we willing to do in order to achieve it?

The tools are being built faster than we can manage, but as we catch glimpses of this future, we can prepare ourselves to create a just and peaceful world. The tipping point is yet unseen, but it’s coming.

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I went for a walk last weekend, through drizzly rain against the backdrop of Lake Washington, on a stretch of road I was unfamiliar with. I came across a gathering of wowomen carrying watermen collecting water and I stood crying, thinking of all the women throughout history loving babies, caring for families, supporting each other to make the world safer and saner. We take turns carrying the load, whether grief or groceries. And we carry each other when one of us can no longer walk.

And I thought, How we show up for each other is all there is. That’s it, full stop.

It’s been a tough week, as our community tragically lost a young mother, a friend from my son’s preschool. I’ve been overwhelmed with grief for her family, her two little girls wide eyed and searching. And I won’t lie, it’s terrifying to be reminded how quickly you can be gone, regardless of how important you are to your kids and husband. We’re always one day away from the possible unthinkable. That’s just how these things happen.

Then I started reading Anne Lamott’s new book Hallelujah AnywayToday I got to this passage and it warmed me:

I’ve lived through times when a connected group of humans in grief and shock stayed together as things unscrolled, when a person was dying too young, or after. What could we do? We showed up. When our best friends’ teenagers disappeared, when their fathers lost their minds, or their babies or mates were in the ICU. We lay beside them in bed and held them in our arms. We brought the bereaved a sandwich. We let them vent, maybe watched a little TV together. We offered our presence, our warm bodies, and the willingness to feel like shit with them. One even bigger gift: no snappy answers. We could nod, sigh, cry with them: maybe go to a park. Against all odds, these things work, however imperfectly, when a closed system breaks open and turmoil ensues: this collective, imperfect, hesitant help is another kind of miracle.

As with any tragic loss of life, ‘a closed system break(ing) open’, we are reminded of our need for each other. To take the time today to appreciate the people around you, to flash easy smiles and listen with interest and compassion. Our individual experiment of living is brief, some more so than others. How important it is to treat each day as an entire snapshot of a life, birth through death mirrored through awakening and sleep. How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives, as Annie Dillard said.

So I’ll channel a little of what I came to know of Adriana: I’ll be present, direct, no nonsense and kind. I’ll step into that vulnerable space of generously giving, reaching out in anticipation of need. I’ll show up for the grieving around me, however imperfect and hesitant it might be.

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Establishing Our Resources For Giving

2410-closeup-of-a-bee-with-pollen-flying-by-a-flower-pvWe all have something to give, and our potential to give is equal to anyone else’s, depending on how we acknowledge and structure our giving. Just as we breathe in and out, exchanging oxygen and carbon dioxide with the plants and animals around us, we are constantly in this dance of giving and receiving with everything in our world.

We often don’t recognize the giving that we’re doing as ‘gifts’ or place them within a framework of philanthropy, because they don’t fall into the classic philanthropic category of money spent. But our time and attention, our networks, our skills and stuff are all aspects of giving. Taking stock of our resources is an essential step in deciding what we have available to give and creates clear boundaries around that giving.

It also provides us with an opportunity to cultivate and nurture certain areas. After doing an inventory, you might decide you want a higher paying job to provide more financial support to the causes you care about, or that you want a less stressful job so you have more time to give to your family. For the first time, you might view your networks or your interest in a certain hobby as viable sources of giving and include them in your philanthropic plan.

Consider the following examples in order to do a personal audit and make a comprehensive inventory of the things you have available to give. 

     Your time and attention:

  • You allot your mornings to focused playing with your children.
  • You set aside 2 hours a week to do the books for a low income day care center.
  • You visit elderly patients at a retirement community and listen to their stories.

      Your skills and strengths:

  • You make people laugh and put them at ease.
  • You can design websites and marketing materials.
  • You enjoy fixing bikes.

      Your networks and influence:

  • You instigate and inspire others to come together.
  • You know people with untapped resources.
  • You have a wide social network and influence on twitter and Instagram.

      Your money:

  • You set up a personal plan for tithing 10% of earnings.
  • You build a ‘giving back’ philosophy into your business plan.
  • You pay off the unpaid lunch fees at a local school.

      Your stuff:

  • You have a garage full of sports equipment that you don’t use anymore.
  • You’ve collected an assortment of designer purses that sit in your closet.
  • You have multiple sets of china that have been passed down to you that go unused.

I advocate being insanely creative with what you have available to give, because essentially, philanthropy is our desire to give away our life energy to make something better. Think about that for a minute. You are exchanging bits of yourself to create something outside of yourself. This is the totality of what life is: an exchange of energy and resources. Trusting the flow of this energy exchange is the heart of philanthropy.

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The Story of Money


Maria Bamford shares her money story with Wealth Simple in Money Diaries, where interesting people talk candidly about money

When I worked for a community foundation, my job entailed reviewing hundreds of grant applications each year. And while I had skills in writing and editing and was an avid reader, numbers were not my game. However, for the first time in my life, I was able to read the story of the numbers and I began to relish reviewing the financials. Sometimes they told a completely different tale than the narrative; sometimes they added detail and nuance that created opportunities for fresh conversations. It had never before occurred to me that numbers were just another alphabet, scaffolding whole structures of meaning.

Years later when I read Your Money or Your Life by Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez it brought all of this experience to life for me personally. Their book transformed my understanding of ‘abundance’ into appreciating the concept of ‘enough’, and it gave me the perspective of viewing my time as my life energy, which is the greatest gift I have to give. Life energy, the vital anime that wakes us up each morning, is our most valuable commodity. It provides us our time, purchases money and cultivates skills and networks. Our life energy is the original gold coin.

We all have a money story in our lives. It’s a story that society shapes for us, one that our parents and friends help nurture. It can be about anxiety as well as freedom, about joy as well as sorrow. The concept of money holds a lot of power, personally and politically; it is abused and misused in our society and economy, creating and filling voids that we never knew we had. It is a way to buy power and influence.

Yet it’s important to remember that money is a human creation; it doesn’t exist in nature. It’s something we imbue with whatever ideas we have about it. Money is a tool that creates a distinct transaction between what we have to give and our needs and wants. It is just one of the many conduits for human experience, representing a concrete manifestation of our life energy. And therefore, it’s important to your philanthropic journey to become clear about the role of money in your life.

Consider your ideas of money: What does money mean to you? What does money do for you? What would having more or less money look like in your life? Consider where your money comes from and where it goes. Then ask yourself, “what’s my money story?” The details will add greater appreciation, nuance and meaning to your narrative.

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Philanthropy is not inherently good

This article in the Atlantic caught my eye today, which discusses David Callahan’s new book, The Givers: Money, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age. It also taps into another discussion I’ve been enjoying about the harmful impact of disruptive philanthropy, defined as philanthropy that competes with government rather than collaborates with it, in order to provide services. “Disruptive philanthropy seeks to shape civic values in the image of funders’ interests and, in lieu of soliciting public input, seeks to influence or change public opinion and demand,” write Stanford sociologists Aaron Horvath and Walter W. Powell in an essay published in the book Philanthropy in Democratic Societies. This is the elite philanthropy of money as power and influence. It is a philanthropy based on transaction rather than transformation.

So what does this have to do with the little guys? The yous and mes who don’t have millions of dollars to “shape civic values in our image”? It speaks to the need to collaborate across systems. To remove ego and personal interest from our giving. To consider multiple voices, especially those directly impacted. And it reminds us that all of our actions create unintended consequences.

Further, we must recognize that all of us are participating in the current economic system of haves and have nots, of givers and receivers. Through our actions, how we make and spend money, we are influencing civic values. Regardless of the scale of our impact, until we recognize the system we’re in, we’re unable to do anything about it. Similar to Albert Einstein’s thought that we can’t solve problems by using the same thinking we used when we created them, we can’t promote justice using the same economic model that created the injustice. This was Martin Luther King, Jr.’s thought as well – that while philanthropy is admirable, “it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.”

The way to untangle the innate power structure built into philanthropy is first to become informed about your position in and contribution to the system you’re swimming in. By honestly engaging with the power and influence of money, you begin to recognize that the binary philanthropy of giving/receiving supports the status quo. Philanthropy is not inherently good; it is an action and a way of being that must be cultivated to do good. Regardless of what you have to give, and how much  power and influence you think you have, the most important consideration for any philanthropist is self awareness. Otherwise, philanthropy is merely another tool to establish dominance.

Next week: Let’s talk about money! No, really, let’s talk about it.

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Values: Your Internal Operating System

all about meWe give to the people, places and things that we care deeply about. And our ability to be generous starts with appreciation and gratitude. Philanthropy is love in action. Aligning our actions with our passions and values enables our giving to become increasingly powerful and intentional. Yet many of us haven’t quite figured this alignment out. Or we realize that the alignment is always shifting as our lives change, and our giving hasn’t caught up with the new territory we’re in. It becomes especially challenging as we build our families and find that our personal passions aren’t shared by our spouse or kids, or by our extended families who might question where we’re spending our resources of time, money, attention and skills. Developing a solid values framework allows you stand strong in your commitment to see change occur over time – to be an advocate for the long run, not swayed by popular opinion or a newly highlighted charity. Find your thing and stick with it. Especially today, when we are being bombarded at every moment with new things to careaboutdeeply, it helps to focus.

When you begin to cultivate your philanthropy (which is simply your desire and ability to give of yourself), you recognize that your passion is integral to becoming a genuinely generous person, who acts not out of obligation but a willingness to give. And your passions are cradled within your values. Being an informed philanthropist starts with knowing yourself.

Here’s a quick and easy exercise to identify your values: circle 10 of the values listed in the chart below (and/or add your own).

Adventure Authenticity Balance
Control Peace Power
Faith Recognition Family
Security Friendship Service
Happiness Status Hope
Success Influence Truth
Self-reliance Freedom Humility
Integrity Wealth Joy
Wisdom Justice Love
Creativity Discipline Education
Forgiveness Fun Growth
Health Spirituality Humor
Independence Kindness Progress

Great. Now cross out 5 of them. When I run this exercise with groups of people, I hear a lot of groaning here. You can do it! Get focused.

Now cross out another 2, so that you have 3 core values. Yes, this is even more frustrating. How can you go from 10 to 3 values? All of these values are meaningful and you just can’t possibly cut them down further. I’m not asking you to remove a leg. Often you’ll find that one or two of the values fit neatly up and under the final value you chose. This is fair and legal in my universe. But reduce down to the three and write them down.

Look at these three words. Consider what they mean to you. How would you define them for yourself? When taken together, what images do they conjure up? Reflect on how they show up in your life and why they’re important. How does each one support the other to create a three dimensional portrait of what you’re passionate about? Let’s say your values are education, growth and justice. And you’ve been on the sidelines watching discussions of equity and charter schools and lack of funding. As you review these values and think through how these weave into your life, you might realize that rather than volunteering in the classroom, you’d like to run for school board or join the PTA advocacy committee. Your passion is more than just being at school with your own children, but affecting systemic change for all children.

Passions start within your set of values. What you perceive has value in your world greatly determines what kind of change you want to see and how you will apply yourself to supporting that change. Often our values are playing out implicitly throughout the day, without us being aware of them. Making them explicit, being informed about your internal operating system, is a powerful way to focus your energy toward what you care deeply about.

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Make It Personal

Attention-is-the-rarest-and-purest-form-of-generosity.-1Central to the idea of philanthropy is a personal definition of generosity and the role it plays in your life. Understanding and highlighting your generosity is integral to your philanthropic plan.  Take a moment here and ask yourself if you are a generous person. Roll the word over and think about what generosity means to you. If someone asked you for a few descriptive words to describe yourself, would generous be one of the adjectives you’d give them?

I’ll be honest, when I began this journey I didn’t feel much like a generous person. While I recognized generosity as something I valued and I saw how significantly it played into the description of a philanthropist, the word didn’t seem to fit. What was it about this word that was elusive to me? Was it because I attached the definition of generosity with money and the major donors who could give away more than I could? Was it because I equated the word with the selflessness of Mother Theresa, or the commitment of Peace Corp volunteers? As I mulled these images over I realized that, to me, generosity felt like a deep and overflowing well. I was imagining a woman with a smile and a graciousness of someone much more well rested than myself. Right now I’m home full time raising two young boys, and my well is not deep and overflowing. Generosity feels like a state of being that I do not currently reside in.  So if generosity is important to my philanthropy, and my sense of self, how do I cultivate this value?

The answer is a simple truth: you can’t give what you don’t already have. In order to be generous with others, you must first be generous with yourself. If you’re feeling tapped in your ability to serve others, I’d encourage you to ask if you’re first being kind to yourself. Are you meeting your own basic needs? For me a basic need is the time to read and write, and clearing the space to do these things is an act of generosity (because Lord knows there are many other duties pulling for my attention). When I prioritize the time to do things that matter to me, the message received is, you’re important enough to get what you need to fill your well.  Without this personal generosity, I don’t have one generous bone to throw into the soup pot to feed the rest of my family, let alone anyone beyond them. And this couldn’t be more important right now, as many of us are battling activist fatigue and feeling spread too thin across issues. Start with yourself, find the things that are an expression of generosity for you, and you’ll see the well begins to overflow.

And this ‘overflow’ of giving don’t necessitate an abundance of money or complete selflessness or even a long term commitment. Generosity can be the time spent listening to a neighbor, or making eye contact and saying hello as you pass people on the street. It might be taking dinner to the family who just had a baby. Or offering to make the kids’ lunches and clean the kitchen so your partner can retire to the TV early. There are no insignificant acts of generosity. How you show up, for others as well as yourself, builds the foundation of your personal philanthropy.

Ask yourself:

  • What does generosity look like in my life? Where do I feel generous?
  • Who is being served by my generosity right now?
  • What are some ways I could be generous with myself?
  • Is there a simple action I could take today that would expand my generosity?

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