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On Brave Actions and Bold Speak

By Carrie Fox

Above my youngest daughter’s bed hangs a framed sign that reads “Be Brave”.

My husband and I were intentional in hanging that sign, and we remain focused on instilling its message in our children: to stand up for what is right, to speak up when something feels wrong, and to use their voices and actions for good in this world.

But on this third Monday in January—Martin Luther King, Jr. Day—when the complexity of their young questions is mounting— about the world we live in, about the actions of those in power, and about the federal workers, small businesses owners and families hurting in this government shutdown— those two words “Be Brave” are far easier to speak than they can be to live.

This weekend’s protests at the Lincoln Memorial—including a now viral incident of young people hooting, hollering and mocking a Native American activist and Vietnam veteran—reinforce my sense of urgency as a parent, a business owner, a board member, a Girl Scout troop leader, and a white woman of privilege. I must be willing to do the hard work: to acknowledge and leverage my power, to bold speak when I witness injustice, and to own when I have allowed an injustice to occur if I am to raise racially-conscious, brave and bold girls. Professionally, I must expect just as much from myself if I am to build a racially-conscious business.

“Our lives begin to end when we become silent about things that matter.” 

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Frankly, it’s hard to know if I have the tools that this requires. And it’s hard to know how best to translate the same lessons I’m working to instill in my daughters to our work at Mission Partners. But I know one thing for sure: we learn to be brave by watching. We learn by what we see, and what we don’t see.

Remaining silent on issues of race and injustice at home or at work is the worst we can do. And so, just as we intentionally hung that sign above our daughter’s bed, and just as we’ll intentionally mark Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life this weekend in service, there are a few other intentional changes we’re making at Mission Partners this year that I hope will inspire other brave actions, as well.

  1. We’re strengthening our skills in bringing Race to the table. Last year, Mission Partners committed publicly to advance issues of equity in our work, but this year, we’re naming it. We started this year with a frank conversation on the themes in Bryan Stevenson’s book, Just Mercy, and we recently invested in Race and Identity training for all full-time employees. We hired Becky George, as our full time Director of Community Engagement, who will bring these same skills to our clients and network. And every Tuesday from here on out, we’ll feature a story on our weekly newsletter that sheds new light and understanding on issues of race in the workplace. Our personal commitment to addressing individual, interpersonal, institutional and structural racism will be a theme for this entire year and will extend into everything we do as a team.
  1. We’re creating new platforms to bold speak. Mission Partners last week hosted the first meeting of our Loyola University Social Impact Fellows, with 12 brave students who will journey this year together, identifying injustices around them, building the muscles to bravely explore solutions, and boldly speaking out for change. This group of undergraduate students across disciplines will work together over the course of the next 10 months to advance issues of social justice in communities where we live, learn, and work. If and when we don’t feel we have the tools, we will build them, together.
  1. We’re prepared to challenge injustices when we hear and see them. Throughout this year, Mission Partners will place a continued focus on questioning, challenging, and boldly speaking up about the systems around us. We will use every communications skill we have to advocate for social change and systems change in our communities. We’ll challenge clients when we hear words that reinforce negative stereotypes, and we’ll speak up when we see actions that reinforce racism, because we know, just as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “our lives begin to end when we become silent about things that matter.”

This is a moment in time to be brave and to bold speak, but it certainly won’t end at the close of this new year.  At Mission Partners, our way of working with one another and with our clients is steeped inside understanding, learning and applying a racial equity lens to all that we do- this year and every year moving forward.

If we’re lucky, our Congress will choose to be brave this year, too. But while we wait for necessary signs of progress there, it’s time right now to get to work here—to use the tools we have to bravely act and boldly speak in the name of justice.  Our kids and our future deserve no less.

 

 

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The 5.5 Million Women Protest in Kerala You Should Have Heard About

Vanitha Mathil - Womens Wall // Vincent Pulickal-EPS

By Becky George

On New Year’s Day,  our world experienced a beautiful display of women standing together in solidarity against gender inequity.  Reports state millions of people in Kerala, India stood together to create a literal 385 mile vanitha mathil or “women’s wall,” in contestation of  the Sabrimala Temple’s refusal to abide by a Supreme Court ruling that lifted a ban on women from entering the temple. My family hails from Kerala and for as long as I can remember, I have known that I am a descendant of fiercely powerful women. Malayalee women have an undeniable strength in their being. Perhaps it was the courage of my aunt who left her home in Kerala to create a better life for her children while paving the way for her sisters and cousins. Or the determination of my mother who somehow convinced my father to leave his comfortable home to put down roots across the world in Texas. Maybe it was the thoughtfulness of my family to ensure I always had a connection back to their birthplace. Possibly, it was the bravery of my cousin that led her to leave an abusive marriage to create a better life for herself and her daughter.  These stories of the women in my life, among many others, are the reason I work towards building a better world for future generations. With the support of my family, I have spent my entire adulthood fighting for women’s rights and justice here in the United States. It is also because of my family that my story will always be connected to Kerala.

In September of 2018, India’s Supreme Court voted 4 to 1 to confirm the ban on women or girls of menstruating age from entering the Sabrimala temple in Kerala was unconstitutional. “The golden-roofed temple, which is thought to be more than 800 years old, is considered the spiritual home of Lord Ayyappa, a Hindu god of growth. Nestled atop a steep mountain amid a lush green tiger reserve, it’s the site of one of the world’s largest annual pilgrimages, with millions of Hindu devotees making the journey each year. Sabarimala had previously been off limits to women of menstrual age on religious grounds, with proponents of the ban arguing that since Ayappa is considered celibate, allowing “impure” women into the shrine would be disrespectful. Others have maintained that women cannot complete the 41 days of penances, a condition required to undertake the pilgrimage.”[1] Since the protest, three women have managed to access the temple, sparking outrage and violence from opponents of the Supreme Court ruling. Many are calling this time period the “Kerala Renaissance.”

Kerala, known for its beautiful lush green landscape, stunning backwaters, and delicious food—Anthony Bourdain once raved about it—is also known for fostering a long history of women’s rights’ movements, holding the highest literacy rate and lowest sex-selective abortion rate in India. Kerala was the first state in the country to open a school for transgender students, which provided a safe space for learning and decreased dropout rates. In short, Kerala’s history of women’s empowerment and gender equity in India was the foundational support to this event. The demonstration was a collaboration of 176 social and political organizations with the support of the Kerala government. One of the protest organizers aptly said, “Social change doesn’t happen in a day. It needs time. But with these small steps, we’ve made it easier for the next generation to embrace it.” [2] Perhaps this will be the catalyst for systemic change in India beyond patriarchal ideas on menstruation and a move towards higher levels of girls receiving education, lower rates of female infanticide, and true equality for women in the country.

Starting the new year with this story from my motherland gives me such hope for the year. I am inspired to continue to fight inequities based in the systems of oppression of the United States. Here at Mission Partners, we work towards creating more equitable communities and are inspired by this moment in India. As we map out the strategy for the year, we are determined to dismantle the systems in place that prevent liberation and equity.  We stand with the women of Kerala and hope you will as well.

[1] “Sabarimala temple history – Tag – Konitono.” https://www.konitono.com/tag/sabarimala-temple-history/. Accessed 5 Jan. 2019.

[2] “Millions Of Women In India Fan Out For 385 Miles To Champion … – NPR.” 4 Jan. 2019, https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2019/01/04/681988452/millions-of-women-in-india-join-hands-to-form-a-385-mile-wall-of-protest. Accessed 5 Jan. 2019.

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Time to Begin Again

Another year has arrived and with it, millions of little moments to start anew. New routines. New commitments. New projects that will surely pull us in all sorts of directions. But isn’t that the beauty of new beginnings? We get a fresh start, each day a blank page, and each day an opportunity to move towards making our world a better place for everyone.

At Mission Partners, 2018 gave us a solid glimpse for what’s to come in this year ahead. As our nation continues to grapple with issues of justice and equality, our work was and will continue to be bound together by a commitment to build more equitable communities, and a fierce acknowledgement in the power of people to break down barriers and build connecting lines between even the most divisive of issues.

In 2018, we

  • developed bold new strategic plans for nonprofits, foundations, and socially responsible organizations who committed to increase their impact—and to challenge the status quo.
  • built fresh, new narratives that led with strength and simplicity—and that were based on insights gleaned through research—about housing, health, higher education, philanthropy, and public media.
  • led and facilitated board meetings and community convenings that challenged long-held ways of working, and identified new solutions to bring often unheard voices to the forefront.
  • hosted and facilitated community meals and working groups to drive changes in antiquated systems, including philanthropy and the workplace.
  • designed creative campaigns that presented the impact of established organizations in new ways, driving increased community impact and engagement.

Perhaps most importantly, we committed ourselves even further to the work of equity, inclusion, and identity in our practice with clients and in our own organization. We expanded our leadership team with Becky George as Director of Community Engagement, which will allow us to scale our Mission Forward trainings, workshops, and convenings in the year ahead, and we elevated Bridget Pooley to Director of Client Services to ensure that our work and impact is consistently strong across all projects and teams. We introduced a new series of Equity + Design Thinking Workshops, and we’ll soon begin offering a new workshop series focused on deepening conversations around Race + Identity.

We believe that communications and collaboration can change the world. In this new year, we plan on challenging ourselves to be the best we can be for ourselves and our community. We look forward to building a better future with you in the year ahead.

With gratitude in our hearts and fervor in our souls,

Carrie Fox

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Do I Belong Here?

Last month, NBC News’ Generation Latino blog published the story of 18-year old Jason Mero, who headed off to Brown University this fall, “proudly staking claim to his Latinx heritage, but mindful that the sacrifices his immigrant parents made for him.”

Born in Queens, New York, to parents who emigrated from Ecuador 30 years ago, Mero would ruminate with his family growing up about the challenges facing an American with Hispanic roots: how to deal with a more hostile environment against Latinos, and how to assert his U.S. citizenship, his birthright, while staying connected to his community.

What stuck with me about Jason’s story is how, in a country built in part on immigrants, so many people across ethnic and minority groups are actively questioning if they belong here. And how, in this divided America, we ever get beyond that feeling.

Competing Narratives

There are so many “competing narratives” about the American experience. The New York Times’ David Brooks has argued that there are four, to be exact.  As said in this column, “Different groups see themselves living out different national stories and often feel they are living in different nations.”

A Pew Research Center: Hispanic Trends study from a few years ago found that most young Latinos are “satisfied with their lives, optimistic about their futures, and place a high value on education, hard work, and career success. Yet they are much more likely than other American youths to drop out of school and to become teenage parents. They are more likely than white and Asian youths to live in poverty. And they have high levels of exposure to gangs.”

As Pew stated in its report, “these are attitudes and behaviors that, through history, have often been associated with the immigrant experience. But most Latino youths are not immigrants.”

Like Jason, two-thirds of Latino youths were born in the United States, many of them descendants of the big, ongoing wave of Latin American immigrants who began arriving in this country around 1965. According to Mark Hugo López, director of global migration and demography research at the Pew Research Center, one million Hispanic-Americans will turn 18 this year and every year for at least the next two decades.

Sitting here in Washington in the lead up to this year’s midterm elections, one particularly loud narrative is the role that Hispanic and Latino voters will, or will not, play in determining the outcomes of the election. But, there’s far more at stake beyond this midterm election, if we don’t find ways to come together. If we don’t challenge ourselves—and by extension, our businesses, our governments, our faith communities, and our families—to listen to and learn from the massive wave of Hispanic Americans who will play a significant role in the future of our country, we are setting ourselves up for failure.

Elevating Important Voices

At Mission Partners, we live by person-first communications. We listen beyond the loudest voices in any conversation to the voices often struggling to be heard. We listen to challenge assumptions, and to close gaps in our understanding of issues. And it’s a philosophy that extends to every issue we take on. Whether we’re tackling equity in education, women’s issues, public health or affordable housing, we believe that every voice in our community matters, but there are far too many voices that aren’t being listened to in meaningful ways.

On Thursday, November 15, Montgomery County-based Identity, Inc. will release a new report on Latino youth in partnership with the Pew Research Center called the Promise and Potential of Latino Youth. Mark Hugo Lopez, referenced above, will be on site to share his findings and elevate trends that nonprofit, government, and philanthropic decision makers must be aware of and acting upon.  It will be an important conversation and one that I look forward to attending.

The next day, Mission Partners will gather community members, business, academic and social sector leaders, entrepreneurs, and students at AFI Silver Theatre & Cultural Center to take the conversation one level deeper. Most importantly, at Mission Forward: Narrative Change, we’ll hear from Hispanic and Latino youth living in Montgomery County who will bring Identity’s research report to life, through a conversation with Emmy-award winning reporter and Montgomery County resident Armando Trull. We’ll also hear from award-winning freelance journalist Valeria Fernandez who covers the intersection of migration and politics, and the people in between. And we’ll look at the issue through a post-midterm election lens with American University Professor and CBS News Political Analyst Leonard Steinhorn, and MacArthur Genius Award Winner Mauricio Miller, who will give new perspective to the dangers of competing narratives.

We’ll close the conversation with best-selling author Anand Giridharadas. His new book “Winners Take All” challenges us to consider whether we are inadvertently perpetuating the social problems we seek to solve.

But it won’t end there. This November’s Mission Forward event will launch a series of community meals and conversations, hosted in the DC region and across the country, during which we will listen and learn from voices that often go unheard. We hope you’ll join us for the first of many conversations, and that you’ll be part of this wave of change.

If you’d like to be part of the conversation, please register to join us today.

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Why Sabbaticals Matter at Mission Partners

Children Play in Haiti

By Hannah Lee

 

 “It’s not the answer that enlightens, but the question” –Eugene Ionesco

As a communications professional, an important part of my job entails developing and delivering clear messages—researching, structuring arguments, writing concisely. Like many of my peers, I am laser focused on execution and solutions, and I often forget (or don’t find I have the time) to step back and critically think about the questions I am asking, or the answers I’m being given.

But earlier this summer, I was given a special opportunity to do just that.

In July, I had the privilege to truly step back—to take a sabbatical. At Mission Partners, we believe in the value of giving back to local communities through volunteerism, and we realize the impact of volunteerism on our day to day work. After the one-year mark with Mission Partners, each full-time employee earns sabbatical days—a unique and special model for a small firm like ours.  In my case, I had the privilege of spending my sabbatical in Bercy, Haiti. Located 40 minutes outside of the Haitian capital, Port-Au-Price, Bercy is where Mission of Hope operates.

Mission of Hope brings life transformation for every man, women, and child in Haiti—including those who volunteer. The organization takes a comprehensive approach to building and strengthening communities by creating jobs, providing food and clean water, educating kids and adults, teaching agricultural skills, and caring for the sick and elderly. While volunteering, the phrase “we believe Haitians will rebuild Haiti” was constantly said throughout every activity, empowering Haitians to the leaders of their own success.

Through this experience, I learned much more than I will ever be able to give. Most importantly, my sabbatical reinvigorated my joy in asking questions, and listening intently to the answers.

On the first day, right after arriving at the airport, I was greeted by a Haitian staff member at the organization. He asked me what team I was rooting for in the World Cup. Before I could even answer, he stated that it better be Brazil. Immediately, I felt connected to him. In that conversation, I had learned my first lesson.

With a simple, intentional question, you can relate to anyone—even those who appear most different.

In that conversation, I was reminded that thoughtful questions can lead to connection. That was a powerful moment to start my sabbatical. Each day during the week, our group of 40 volunteers traveled to a partner village to collect survey data. The data collected was used to better serve families in the community. This information is vital to meet critical needs in the community like clean drinking water, health care services, food, and shelter. Each day we were assigned up to six homes, some made of brick and some still composed of blue tarp—a reminder that Haitian communities are still feeling the effects of the 2011 earthquake. At each home, we built new connections. We made new friends.  We washed and then dried clothes on cacti while others played tag with kids. By the end of the week, survey data collection was our favorite thing to do.

But, it didn’t come easy.

To collect the data the organization needed, we received a list of survey questions. Right away, at our first house visit, we started asking “do you have access to clean drinking water?” and “when’s the last time you visited the dentist?” without even getting to know the people in front of us. We just dove into these personal and somewhat intrusive questions without thinking to step back. Without thinking to first build a connection with the single mom of two kids. My group fumbled through those thirty minutes, relying only on the awkwardly worded survey questions. Walking away, I felt disappointed. At the next house, we ditched the formulated questions and asked simple, intentional questions.

That changed everything.

Suddenly, the formatted questions were coming up naturally. Our conversations were full of mutual laughter, joy, and prayers for one another. I often pride myself on asking good questions, however in an unfamiliar place, I learned I have room to grow.  And that was my second lesson of the week.

Asking intentional questions takes practice.

After a week of practicing asking intentional questions, it was time to head home to the U.S. Although I was sad to leave such an incredible place, I was ready to return home. As we were boarding the bus to the airport at 4:30 am, our flight was canceled. But not just our flight. For the next 72 hours, all flights in and out of Haiti were canceled due to political protests.

The Haitian government had raised fuel prices by 51%, making it nearly impossible for many Haitians to continue traveling to work, school, church, or really anywhere. In response, Haitians created blockades along the road in protest. As they awaited a response from the Haitian government, they continued to protest.

And we waited.

As Americans, we are used to quick answers, but in this situation, we couldn’t find the answer on our phones. And no question we asked could have given us a solid answer.  We were safe, but as we waited, we grew anxious, tired, and confused. When would we go home? Would we have enough food? Would we be able to leave before the impending tropical storm hits? All good questions, but when volunteers asked, they knew there was a slim chance of having an answer. Which led me to my next lesson…

In times of uncertainty, too many questions may not always be the answer. Sometimes all you can be is present.

Returning home, I didn’t immediately take the time to process the last part of the trip. I felt overwhelmed and flustered. Even as friends asked, “how was your trip to Haiti?”, I went blank.

And then someone asked, “tell me about someone who inspired you” and I found words again. By drawing on a specific moment where I was present in relationship with someone, I could bring to life my experience instead swirling in the final 72 hours of uncertainty.  And there was my final, and perhaps most important lesson.

It’s the thoughtful questions, not always the perfect answers, that enlighten.

This sabbatical pushed me to be a better version of myself, to come back to work with a new energy, and most importantly, to step back, reflect, and ask better questions.  It’s just the answer I had needed.

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Changing the Narrative

By Carrie Fox

I was 16 and working my earliest job in public relations when I first experienced the power of narrative change.

It was coming on Christmas and I had been tasked with telling the story of another 16-year old girl living with a severe case of juvenile arthritis. The condition limited her ability to walk but this young woman was determined to run a local road race to support the Arthritis Foundation. She was determined to change the narrative that she believed others had set for her.

I pitched her story to the New Jersey Star Ledger, and one Sunday soon after, it landed on the front page. It seemed that her story resonated with far more people than just me. I remember her parents’ gratitude for sharing her story, and the boost of confidence they believe it gave her to continue challenging the perceived limitations of her condition. I also remember how that story changed my own attitude and response to persons living with disabilities.

She was my first agent of change. She was an expert-by-experience who showed me the power of positive storytelling to shift perceptions. Telling her story cemented my desire to pursue a field in storytelling, and to pursue a certain kind of storytelling—the kind that could challenge people to look, and then look again at the issues.

I placed that story in the New Jersey Star Ledger almost 25 years ago. Since then, I—and later, my team—have had the blessing of supporting hundreds of people to tell their stories, in their own words, to close gaps in understanding on issues as varied as foster care, homelessness, economic mobility, access to education, and the environment. To many, narrative change is just another jargon term that gets tossed around in politics and philanthropy. To us, it’s a powerful tool to shift how people interpret and understand the world around them, with the goal of making the space between us as humans smaller.

This November, Mission Partners will host its next Mission Forward® convening, and, you guessed it, we’ll take on narrative change. We’ll open the doors wide to our community, and we’ll create an experience that allows every participant to hear and examine the stories behind the issues. We’ll be joined by award-winning national journalists who will retrace their steps on how they’ve told stories on issues of immigration, criminal justice, public health, and education, and we’ll spotlight community members who have experienced those issues first hand.

I invite you to join me in this journey, and to dig deeper in your own understanding of the issues. You might be surprised by what you discover.

Mission Forward: Narrative Change will be hosted on Friday, November 16th at AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring, MD. If you’re interested in attending, please email bayonia@mission.partners to be added to the invitation list.

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Connecting and Communicating on Mental Health

By Carrie Fox

After the great chef and storyteller Anthony Bourdain passed away last week, his mother, Gladys Bourdain said in an interview with The New York Times that “he was absolutely the last person in the world I would have ever dreamed would do something like this.”

As a mother, that line sat heavy with me. How do you know if your child is pain, if they are not showing outward signs of it? How do you know if anyone close to you—a spouse, a sibling, a coworker—is dealing with mental health challenges? And are there ways to see or spot the signs that someone is struggling, perhaps for longer than we may have realized?

Suicide rates are climbing in nearly every demographic, age group and geographic area, according to new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), but there’s so much that stands in our way as parents, friends, and colleagues, to do something about it when we think we see signs of someone struggling. Questions like “How do I raise this issue with someone in an appropriate way?”, “What if I’m wrong?”, and “When and how do I even think to say something?”, can often stop us before we start the conversation.

I thought about this a lot yesterday, as I had the opportunity to sit down with our dear friends at the Youth Mental Health Project, an incredible nonprofit founded and run by Randi Silverman and Wendy Ward, parents who believe that mental health is imperative to all health. The Youth Mental Health Project empowers young people, parents, and caring adults with practical knowledge, support, and resources they need to nurture their children’s mental health and intervene when they recognize warning signs.

Mission Partners helped The Youth Mental Health Project in its early stages of growth with scale, but I believe their impact on us was just as powerful.

Here’s a bit from their website:

Half of all cases of mental illness begin in childhood, according to the National Institute for Mental Health. As research has consistently proven, early detection and intervention dramatically improve the long-term outlook for anyone with a mental health disorder. In addition, early detection and treatment can prevent an escalation of symptoms and possible co-occurring disorders, which are oftentimes more difficult to treat. Stereotypes, discrimination and fear, however, cultivate deafening silence around youth mental health. This makes identification and treatment extremely difficult. Families cannot seek help for a problem if they do not know it exists.

The following excerpts are shared from the Youth Mental Health Project’s free online resource Mental Health 101: Talking with Kids, which can be downloaded here.

  • How do I talk with my child about their concerns, and how do I know how much information they can actually handle?

You can begin by asking your children one or two open ended questions (e.g., What was the favorite part of your day today? What is one thing that has been on your mind lately? What do you think of what has been happening in the news lately?) Make certain to stop talking and listen carefully. Find out what their words mean to them.

  • How do I know if my child is dealing with depression, vs. going through a period of sadness?

The fact is that children do not try to feel unhappy, so prolonged or frequent emotional discomfort may be a sign of depression. If you are concerned, it may make sense to keep a log of the frequency, duration, and intensity of your child’s feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. Also, keep note of your child’s ability to function. How often is your child unable or seemingly unwilling to do something or participate in an activity that seems typical or ordinary for other children the same age? The important thing to remember about depression is that the earlier it is recognized and treated, the better the outcome will be. Untreated depression can seriously impede functioning and healthy development and can lead to substance use, school avoidance or dropout, self-harm, and even suicide.

 

  • How do I know if my child is struggling with their mental health to a degree that requires intervention?

Brain research has taught us that what our brains forget, our bodies don’t. For this reason, if your child is struggling, you may witness noticeable changes in your child’s behavior, social activities, academic performance, physical health, or appearance. Signs a child is struggling can include, but are not limited to: Disruption in sleep/nightmares, lack of motivation, inability to focus, connect, or control impulses, loss of appetite, changes in personal care, long-lasting, intense, painful emotions, Intense worry, Increased irritability, anger, or moodiness, feelings of worthlessness, increased stomachaches or other persistent unexplainable ailments, or Disinterest in extracurricular activities or too nervous to attend.

As Wendy and Randi say, “we all have mental health, and in these unsettling times, it is more important than ever to remember that caring for a child’s mental health is just as important as caring for their physical health. To learn more, or to download a copy of their resource guides, please visit ymhproject.org.

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Communicating Outside of Comfort Zones

By Carrie Fox

To communicate effectively, we know that the people with whom we’re speaking—the humans at the receiving end of our messages— are just as important as the words we use. But we also realize that the human element of communicating can be the most difficult element to master.

I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately, as we’ve been guiding several organizations to challenge the audiences they deem their priorities; to assess the words they use with their employees; and to consider what might happen if they broke out of their comfort zones in their communications messages. Across all assignments, it comes down to one key word: language. Is the language that you use having the desired impact with the people whom your brand is intended to serve?

In the weeks leading up to the now infamous Starbucks incident in Philadelphia, I had been reading “It’s Not About the Coffee: Lessons on Putting People First From a Life at Starbucks,” a great  business book by Starbucks’ co-founder Howard  Behar. It was fascinating to watch the scenario in Philadelphia play out because it completely contradicted Behar’s core philosophy to be human, first.

For Behar, the secret to building Starbucks had everything to do with building a company that had the potential to become their customers’ third place: there was home, then work, and then Starbucks. But, to win that coveted spot, Behar knew the company needed to foster a place where all felt welcome. And they needed to build a language of welcome across all class and color lines. But for one store in Philadelphia, and in hundreds of other stores where similar incidents have been reported—that language of welcome wasn’t deployed. In far too many instances, Starbucks employees lost sight of the person who was right in front of them.

I’d wager to bet that the Starbucks story can be found inside most of our organizations, whether it’s been reported or not. The language we build, inside the walls of our organizations, is often built with certain audiences in mind and there can be dangerous consequences if we don’t stop to think about how our language sits with those outside of our respective comfort zones. Who is understanding our message, and who feels left out? Even worse, who is receiving an unintended negative message?

The language we use to communicate across age lines is equally critical. Take for instance Generation Z. They are self-aware, self-reliant and drive, and they do not respond well to companies that don’t take their values and priorities into consideration. According to Marcie Merriman, author of the recent report Rise of Gen Z: new challenges for retailers, Gen Z is almost uniformly tech-savvy and content-hungry, and tend to be pragmatic, entrepreneurial, socially conscious and highly tolerant. “They represent a major opportunity for businesses attuned to what they want and how to deliver it,” she says. “The question is whether these businesses are ready to speak the language of this rising class.”

What language do you use in communicating your brand story? Is it one of welcome and inclusion, with words and actions that are accessible across audiences, or has your organization built a language of insiders, designed primarily for those inside your comfort zone?

If the latter is likely, a willingness to break out of your communications comfort zone may be just what you need in the year ahead. The real question is: how open are you to embracing it?

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What Bias is Hiding in Your Writing?

“You can observe a lot by watching.”

Yogi Berra was right.  You can, in fact, observe a lot by watching. The baseball great, who would have turned 93 this weekend, had his fair share of Yogi-isms, but this one has always been my favorite.

Yogi Berra was one of baseball’s greatest catchers, one of the Yankees’ greatest players, and one of the game’s greatest ambassadors. He didn’t set out to be a communications icon, but the little delights of his catchphrases have lived on far beyond the baseball diamond.

I was thinking of this particular phrase recently, while hosting a workshop for a group of communications professionals who wished to examine how their stories were sticking with various audiences. Early on, I could sense that the group was confident about their individual approaches: they were doing what they needed to do in order to inform the content they were producing.

Everything seemed in good working order until I asked a few additional questions about how often members of the group listened to their readers, how they curated story ideas and how they collected feedback.  It wasn’t long before the group realized that they could all stand to do a bit more listening, and a lot more observing. Not necessarily of others, but of their own individual practices.

Observation is so much more than just watching, or listening–it’s a much deeper mental process. Observation allows us to understand information in new ways; it helps us see what’s possible, what’s feasible, and what’s avoidable. And while it is one of the most critical aspects of storytelling, it’s not always employed effectively.

Think about it: How much time do you spend observing your work, and what do you do with the information you collect? If you’re developing content for your organization, who are you calling on for interviews, and who might you be leaving out? How often are you inviting in feedback from your community, and how are they informing what you write about?  How does that investment of time in observation compare to the time you spend formulating ideas, opinions, or content?

Observing is hard, I get it. There’s so much to be done, in so little time, often with so few resources, that we must just keep pressing forward.  Press the story forward, press the campaign forward, press the strategy forward. Observe as best as you can along the way.

But, what if you’re missing something crucial in how you’re presenting information, or packaging stories?  What might more regular observation uncover?

Later this week, I’ll sit down with Ed Yong of The Atlantic to talk about one very important observation he made about his own work, and what he has since done as a result of that observation. We’ll be joined by the founder of StoryCollider, Liz Neeley, who is pushing the envelope in how science stories are told, and how they can be told more simply, and authentically.  They’ve both mastered the art of observation, and I’m thrilled that they plan to share some of their well-honed tips with us.

Our daily lives are busy, and our task lists endless. The notion of observing our own storytelling practices doesn’t always seem feasible.  But, to get to the heart of your best stories, consider Yogi Berra’s words. You may be surprised by what you might uncover.

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The Trouble with Assumptions, and How to Keep Yours in Check

“Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.”  Isaac Asimov

Do any of these sound familiar?

  • I can only assume they’re going to do A…
  • For the sake of this exercise, let’s assume B…
  • I’m assuming they’ll have access to this information through D, E, and F channels.

Assumptions are baked into so much of what we do, and so many of the decisions that we make. We don’t always know the full story or the exact facts, and so we make assumptions to fill the gaps. They help us make sense of complex information, and can serve as an important guide so we know what questions we can ask.

But assumptions can be just as harmful as they are helpful. When we fall into the trap of not challenging our assumptions and instead begin accepting them at face value, or when we fail to recognize them at all, much bigger problems can set in.

The proven way to combat assumptions? Ask more questions.

Yesterday, we hosted our first of several Design Thinking days at Mission Partners. We convened a small group of curious people who each agreed to look closely at their current communications practices for where the traps of assumption lie. Within the first 30 minutes, it became clear that even when we believe we’re being open to information (myself included), we might not always be getting enough of the right information to make an informed decision.

Consider this: How many of the first impressions you make today will be based on false assumptions?

Think about this the next time you’re in line at the grocery store, or riding the Metro, or in your next team assignment at work. What assumptions are you making about the people you see, or about certain policies or practices as you move through your day? Take time to recognize your assumptions as you’re making them, and then consider how those assumptions might be wrong, ill-informed, or worth examining further.

For years, research showed that someone had 7 seconds to make a first impression. That’s not much time at all. But, it’s a lifetime compared to newer data which showed the actual time it takes for someone to judge another person’s character is .01 seconds. Milliseconds. So-fast-you-don’t-even-know-it-happened seconds.  And once that very initial assumption is set, it’s hard to break it. So, it’s even more important that we not only recognize when we’re making assumptions, but we understand how to be intentional about listening, learning, and understanding one another in order to differentiate false assumptions vs. reality.

Here are three more ways you can challenge your assumptions, and help to keep them in check:

  1. How well do you really listen? As in, listening without simultaneously forming a response in your mind. In yesterday’s session, we performed an exercise in radical listening. For 60 seconds, participants were instructed to just look at their partner. Learn one another’s faces. Stay connected to one another’s eyes. Then, we repeated the exercise, but gave each person 60 seconds to talk to their partner. And something interesting happened: the room softened, the relationships deepened, and people began seeing each other in new ways, picking up on little details they hadn’t noticed before. Assumptions we had made about one another in those first few seconds of meeting melted away.
  1. If you’re the curator of content for your organization, where are you sourcing your news? The easy assumption is that the sources we’re pulling from give us a well-rounded picture of the situation. But, what stories could we be missing? Are your sources the same sources week after week, or do you challenge yourself to go beyond the traditional news set? How often are you reaching out into your community to request news for future editions? How often are you exploring the news within the outer rings of your audience set—beyond your primary audience and into your secondary and tertiary audience—to see how the conversation and news is different there?
  1. What are the things you mean to know, but just keep assuming that you’ve got it figured out? There was a great episode of This American Life last fall, in which David Kestenbaum spoke with producer Diane Wu about her list of things she “means to know.” It made me think of all the things I mean to know, but never seem to find the time to explore enough to fully understand. So, I started a list too. And while right now the list seems to grow faster than I can check things off, it’s become a great exercise in intentionally learning and breaking my own assumptions.

There’s little we can do about first impressions. Our brains are hardwired to fill gaps of information with assumptions, and that won’t soon change. But, it’s what we do with the seconds, minutes, and hours that follow that make all the difference in this world.

Learn more about our Design Thinking Days, where you can safely explore and challenge your assumptions, and register for our next session at Mission Forward.