Even though it has “foundation” in its name, Kettering is best described as a “research institute.” (We aren’t a grant maker.) As a program officer, I am responsible for one or more portfolios of research. This begs the question: What does Kettering research?
We study how democracy can best work as it should.
By “democracy,” we do not mean a particular mechanism for choosing leaders (contested elections), nor popular representation necessarily. These are things that may be in place in a democracy, but they do not themselves equal democracy. Our definition is simple:
Democracy is a system of governance in which power comes from citizens who generate their power by working together to combat common problems—beginning in their communities—and by working to shape their common future, both through what they do with other citizens and through their institutions.
A shorthand for this that I use is “citizens working collectively to shape their future.” Note that this definition implies that the democracy we study can in fact take place in all manner of government regimes. It is human-scaled, expressed in communities, and fundamentally implicates people acting together in such a way that they recognize the power they have to address shared problems.
So that is the principle we are operating from. Here is how we describe the actual research:
Kettering’s research is intentionally citizen-focused. We do research on: how people become engaged as citizens and make sound decisions; how they can work together to solve problems and educate their children, beginning in their communities; and how a productive citizenry can engage governmental and civic institutions as those institutions attempt to engage them.
So we have three main areas that we are exploring: How citizens make decisions together; how people in communities work together; and how citizens and institutions engage with one another.
We never do our research on citizens, communities, or institutions — always with someone. Some group or coalition is experimenting with changing how they work so as to increase the control citizens might have over their future. They share with us what they are learning, and we share with them what we have learned over the years of exploring these questions with a wide variety of others. So our work takes place in a learning exchange.
Today I came across a relatively new (month-old) feature in Facebook Messenger: you can hail an Uber from within the app. Both Facebook and Uber act as (and have aspirations to be) interesting “front door” or “gateway” apps. For instance, for more and more people Facebook is not a page on the World Wide Web: it is the Web. All browsing starts in Facebook. Similarly, Uber has aspirations to be the first thing people think of when they want to move themselves around in a place.
Both of these “front door” functions actually are about reducing hassle, or friction. It is a hassle to find links to visit. It is a hassle to get in a car, drive yourself to a place, and park. Facebook and Uber remove those hassles (or intend to).
This frictionless society has been building inexorably, and it is interesting to think about its timeline and to reflect at how different the world has become and is becoming.
In thinking about this timeline, it is possible to start as early as 1969 when Arpanet was created, or 1989 when AOL was launched, or 1991 when the first Web page was published (actually that link points to a replica).
But instead I am thinking about the efforts and effects of major companies. Depending on your viewpoint, this could be a dystopic history or the description of a pathway to an easier lifestyle — or it could be both.
In any event, think about it:
- Amazon (buying things) established 1994
- craigslist (local want-ad stuff) established 1995
- Wells Fargo Web banking established 1995
- Peapod (groceries) established 1996
- Google (searching) established 1998
- PayPal (paying people) established 1998
- Wikipedia (knowledge) established 2001
- iTunes (digital music) invented 2001
- Gmail (best email) launched 2004
- Facebook (social community) established 2004
- YouTube (video) established 2005
- Google Maps (wayfinding) launched 2005
- Twitter launched 2006
- Apple TV launched 2006
- Hulu (broadcast TV) established 2007
- iPhone launched 2007
- Spotify (even easier music) established 2008
- Uber (transportation) established 2009
Just the above list does not do justice to the massive dislocation that a handful of these companies have created. Just think about how altogether possible it is to:
- Buy everything you need through Amazon (groceries through local delivery service like Peapod)
- Maintain connected to community, communicate, and learn about news through Facebook
- Pay all bills through web banking
- Listen to any music you want through Spotify
- Watch any filmed entertainment (TV shows or movies) through Apple TV
- Get around using Uber
- Find people to do housework through craigslist and pay them through PayPal
Each of these services is attempting to create a total “front door” ecosystem, and they have to varying degrees created footholds among and between each other (Facebook + Uber for example).
What else is ripe to become more frictionless? Making objects (3d printing)? Learning (Lynda)? Remembering things (Evernote)?
I study democratic politics and I mean both of those terms in the most fundamental way possible. I understand “politics” to mean “the way people who live in a place make choices and address shared problems and opportunities, where there are disagreements about what should be done.” And by “democracy” I mean “people collectively deciding how to exert control over their future.” In this way of understanding, democratic politics is not the same thing as “organizing.” Politics involves tension. Something is political if there are tensions about what we should do.
Note that this is a much deeper sense of both words than the ones in which they are normally used. For instance, “elections” are not themselves democracy. They are a mechanism for choosing representative leaders. And having representative leaders is a strategy for acting democratically. One challenge in studying democratic politics in the way I describe is that it can be hard to see — or perhaps better put, other related things are easier to see. In democracies that include elections, you can see elections. You can see how many people vote, for whom, and how open or inclusive the voting is. It is also easy to see institutions such as government. Often, in trying to see and examine democratic politics, these and other easily visible things occlude the whole of politics. But describing and understanding a government is not the same thing as understanding politics. (This is not to say that such institutions are not a part of politics — they are. And they are important. But looking solely at institutional structures provides an incomplete view of politics.)
One level of democratic politics I am quite interested in is the community level — community politics. What does it look like? How can you see it?
One way to see community politics (any politics, really) is to look for evidence that the things that make up politics are happening. And if you are looking to find democratic politics on the level of community, you might look for evidence about how these practices are taking place. So:
- Where is there evidence of people trying to understand what the problem is?
- Where is there evidence that people are exploring options?
- Where is there evidence that people are choosing deliberately from among options of what they might do?
- Where is there evidence that people are trying to identify resources through which to act?
- Where is there evidence that they are taking action, and to what extent are these actions complementary or not?
- Where is there evidence that, seen collectively, the community is learning from its experiences?
The area where I live, in a suburb of Washington, DC, recently had an historic blizzard. Thirty-five inches of snow were dumped in my neighborhood. The snow removal resources of every government entity, and indeed of every business, were severely taxed. My street is a dead-end that inclines away from the nearest through-route, which itself is not a major street. So on dig-out day, everyone on the block was pretty much stuck, and we weren’t going to get plowed out for quite some time.
As people do, we all began our digs. And here is where we began to see politics.
Just responding to a crisis is often not really that political — it is clear what must be done and there is no real choice to be made. You just do what must be done. But this was not quite a crisis and it was not clear exactly how we should move forward. We each had our own interests: we wanted our driveways cleared and to be able to reach the outside world. But “reaching the outside world” was also a collective interest. And there were some elderly neighbors who did not have any means of moving their own snow — what should be done about their situation?
Furthermore, we all had varying resources available, and some of those were communal. Most of us had snow shovels and at least one person willing to use it. But some of us also had small snowblowers. One neighbor had actually purchased a very large snow blower a few years back, and regularly made it available to neighbors. Furthermore, eventually we would get plowed out by the city.
In figuring out how to respond collectively to this problem, we were doing politics in exactly the way described above. Our approach was to begin our resources — which is often how it happens on a community level. Who has what? What can we use? The neighbor’s snow thrower could not take care of the whole problem for us, but it was up to the task of clearing sidewalks and helping cars get dug out from under snowdrifts. Some neighbors with four wheel drive trucks went to get gas for the snow thrower, while another truck owner started driving back and forth through a few deep drifts to mush the snow down and make it a little passable. Someone shoveled the elderly neighbors’ drive.
To be clear, this was not “organized” in the way you might imagine. It was loose. It was not like a barn raising. We were mostly tending to our tasks, but we were doing so mindful of the whole. We were acting in complementary ways.
During this work, we stopped occasionally and assessed what the problem was we were tackling. (Again, informally.) Is it that we all had our cars stuck? Or was the problem that we couldn’t even walk anywhere safely? Or was the problem that some of our vulnerable neighbors were truly up a creek? Was it that we had not prepared well enough in advance? Did someone leave their car in a place that made it worse for everybody?
Similarly, we addressed our options. Should we unearth cars first? Sidewalks? Should we just wait for the city, as they would eventually come by? Should we think about buying a small tractor with a snow blower, and splitting the cost, for future snowfalls? We decided to try to clear all the sidewalks and driveways, and somevpeople would go beyond that individually (for instance I dug out a separate parking space for myself).
We coordinated what we would do. Some neighbors dug a space for one car, and then were able to use that “extra” parking spot as a staging area while digging out other cars. It was arranged who would do what: snow blow, dig, drive. We didn’t all agree and we had to work through tensions between the various possibilities. For example, everyone who had parked on the street wanted their car dug out first — but only one or two could get freed up that first day. Though we all wanted our own vehicle moving, the work van of a neighbor who needed it for his livelihood took priority.
Over the years we had also learned what some of the best things to do for our particular stretch of the street in big snowfalls was, and we added to that learning this time. Some of us, acting on previous learning, had parked their cars up the street, in the road at the top of our small hill. The reasoning was not to get stuck. But this snowfall was so large this turned into a liability — when the city plow finally came, the cars that had not been unstuck yet were really socked in under almost insurmountable walls of gunk. We agreed that in future the best call would be to keep all cars in our driveways so city plows could plow curb to curb.
None of this was formal. It unfolded over the course of the day, bit by bit, and you could see it in a building series of conversations between different neighbors. All very casual. Politics does not have to be serious, even when it is solving serious problems.
[Updated (twice!) to fix some typos and clarify some points.]
I note a repeated missed opportunity in teaching across many of the courses in my executive-level graduate program, an opportunity missed due to design decisions. Often, instructors develop exercises where students work (individually or in teams) to develop their own work product. The instructor then evaluates the work according to some framework, or compares it to some existing professional version of the same work. The idea is to have students try their hand at manipulating some framework, and then provide constructive feedback on how they did.
The problem arises when it comes time for the instructor to provide feedback. Over and over I have observed instructors engage in Herculean efforts to make incorrect work seem correct. There is a strong disincentive to say students’ work is “wrong” in such a public setting. (This may be more the case with adult learners versus younger students.) Because of this, learning opportunities are missed and frequently students are left thinking that they have mastered material that they have not mastered. This seems especially prone to happen in “judgment” fields where there is not an objectively correct answer but there are definitely best practices. For example, in a communications class where students are asked to develop an influence campaign, there may be no objective basis to criticize poor campaigns. So the impression is left that anything goes. But this can happen also in “harder edged” fields such as budgeting or economics. Students are rarely told that they missed the mark.
The conclusion? Avoid such situations unless you are a very unusual type of instructor, with the gumption to publicly make clear, constructive criticism. Develop some other mechanism for giving students hands-on experience and useful feedback. Two potential means of doing that would be for students to evaluate each others’ work, or to give them a rubric and ask them to evaluate their own work. However, the challenge remains of providing feedback from an expert perspective.
This morning, early before anyone else was awake, I did something that has become a habit over the past year. After letting the dogs out, and then back in, and giving them food along with the cat, I walked down to a small sofa I have in my basement.
I sat down and once again did a set spiritual practice, as I reported back in May.
Every morning I read spiritual literature, pray a set prayer, and meditate. I end by writing a letter to God in a little journal I have.
There’s nothing special about the letter. I could just as easily call it a “journal entry,” or I could say I “write in my diary.” The approach I use, that works for me, is a letter to a higher power.
I don’t have a specific format for the letter. It changes from time to time, depending on what is on my mind. Sometimes I have shortcomings or transgressions from the day before to confess and address. Sometimes I have anxieties about what is to come, or the well being of a family member. Sometimes I am angry or hurt, and I need to express it. Sometimes I am ecstatically grateful for the gifts that have been showered on me.
No matter. It all goes in the letter. I typically close my missive by writing this: “God, grant me knowledge of your will for me, and the willingness and power to carry it out.”
What the letter contains is unimportant. What matters is that I have written it. I only allow myself to write once I have done the other things (reading, prayer, meditation). In that way, the written letter becomes tangible proof that I have engaged in the practice I intend.
Like many people, I am easily distracted. I make resolutions, or “set intentions,” only to abandon them when something more interesting comes along. With spiritual practices this has been the pattern. I tell myself I will meditate more, or pray more. And I do for a week or so . . . then one day I’m in a hurry, or oversleep a bit. And, poof, it’s gone. The resolve evaporates like fog under the sunlight.
The letter has worked for me where willpower and intention has not. I think about why, and it is a silly thing. I have become superstitious about the letter.
Some time ago I began to write down the consecutive number of each entry. Each day it goes up by one. I have got it in my head that if I miss a day, something dreadful will happen.
Intellectually, I know that’s not true but I don’t let that stop me. I revel in this superstition, because it has given me resolve where all my good intentions have failed.
This morning, I wrote my 365th consecutive entry. One full year.
What can I say has been the result? I don’t have anything specific to point to. I have had the usual ups and downs throughout the year, and I have responded in the ways we all seem to — never as well as I might hope, but I do the best I can.
The best, most helpful news I can give is that praying and meditating every morning for a year has allowed this practice to become part of my identity. I am someone who prays and meditates. Do I do it well? No. But I do it.
If I can do one year, I can do another. Maybe I will look back on decades of this practice in my final days.
A few days ago, as 2015 waned, I sat with a friend and we shared our annual reviews with one another.
While I do this with a friend with whom I share recovery, it is not solely focused on spirituality and sobriety. This really is a kind of year-end annual review, the kind one might do at work.
We each do it our own way. My friend writes out a number of goals in a a series of categories. He then pulls out the lists and sees what kind of progress he made on each one. Some items he will cross off as completed — or he may add new goals.
I, too, look at a number of categories. But I don’t typically have hard-and-fast goals for each one. Instead, I reflect on what yearly progress (or lack of it) I have made in each area, and think about some concrete intentions for what I will do in the upcoming year.
While we each do it differently, there are two things we have in common: Our categories are similar, and we are careful to do this work in writing. This is a serious review and we take it seriously.
Here are the categories I used in reflecting on my actions in 2015, and my intentions for 2016. In each area, I ask myself what progress I made, and what I plan to do moving forward. I try to capture specifics.
- Body (health, fitness, nutrition, rest)
- Mind (learning new things, staying sharp)
- Spirit (Recovery and program, faith, mindfulness, generosity)
- Social (family relationships, other close relationships, community)
- Finance and administration (how well I pay my bills, savings, income, orderliness of my affairs)
- Work and professional (diligence, responsibility, development and growth)
- Creativity (writing, music, other pursuits)
In talking to my friend, I invariably recall areas where I have real shortcomings as well as progress that I hadn’t recalled. I write those down as they come to me, during our conversation.
Throughout the year, every few months, I review the list in order to help me stay on track.
In my household, November 18 is referred to as “You People Day.” We celebrate it.
Here is how it came about. My stepfather is an attorney. A long time ago, he was working at a mid-size firm. He and a few of the partners and associates decided they wanted to strike off on their own and start their own firm. The day came when they had to announce their intentions to the founder. He exploded and went on a diatribe that my stepfather describes in epic terms.“I don’t know what you people are thinking. You people are betraying me. You people are going to fail utterly and you people will come crawling back.” The exact words are lost in the mists of time, but two things remain: The sentiment, which was clear, and the repeated use of that phrase, “you people.”
I know that today the phrase has a negative set of connotations that invoke race and ethnicity. It was not meant that way, but it was meant derisively and critically.
My stepfather’s new firm thrived and prospered. They came to know the day they decided to set up shop as “You People Day” as an ironic point of pride.
Knowing this background made it possible for me, many years later in 2003, to take action on a dream I have had since my youth. I quit my job and struck out on my own. November 18 was the day my arrangements were finalized.
I did not have a detailed plan and it was risky. But my little enterprise thrived well enough that I held up my end when it came to supporting our family. And with some pride I came to think of November 18 as “You People Day.”
Almost ten years after my own You People Day, I went back into the organizational world and took a traditional job. I love my position and it affords me the opportunity to do important work on a platform that I did not have otherwise.
But I admit I miss the sense of self-satisfaction I got from being an independent worker, foraging for my own sustenance and thriving in my own way.
And so, even though I am no longer an independent worker, I celebrate You People Day.
Today is an historic day in the life of our nation. Today the Supreme Court ruled that it is unconstitutional for states to prohibit or fail to recognize marriages between partners of the same sex. I am lucky enough to have an office near the Supreme Court building, and I could not help but walk over and watch the celebrations.
Walking back to my office, I reflected on the nature of this decision. It ratifies a social move toward equality that began long ago as mores started shifting in the social upheavals of the 1960’s. (Indeed the roots stretch back much farther.)
Institutions have been catching up ever since, too slowly for almost everyone and in fits and starts. Different parts of society have benefited at unequal rates and in unequal amounts. But the general progression has been for the major institutions in our lives take note of and respond to the changes in our society.
Institutions are a special kind concept — not just some kind of organization. We establish institutions so as to provide permanence. We ask them to be slow to change, because they are meant to undergird society for the long haul.
The institution of the judiciary, the entity charged with being the memory of our collective conscience, embodies this “slow to change” concept. It operates according to a concept called stare decisis. This is Latin for “stand by things decided.” This is the meaning of precedent. Judges decide conflicts. They look for the universal rules underlying the conflicts and ask what the rule ought to be. The intent is that for future, similar conflicts, this decision is the binding rule by which they should be decided. This “common law” is equally binding as other forms of laws or regulations.
But today’s decision is more sweeping than a law, or a regulation, or a vote, all of which can be undone. The operating system of the judiciary is built such that decisions only rarely get unmade and then only under exceedingly special circumstances. The decisions of the Supreme Court are permanent.
Today’s ruling is an unequivocal statement for equality. As such it will be the law of the land from here on. Only a cataclysm will unmake it. It took a long time to get here, but here we are.
So much more progress to be made, in so many more arenas — but today is a good day.
Today (June 10, 2015) marks the 80th birthday of Alcoholics Anonymous. In popular culture and even among those who are a part of “the program,” AA is seen as a useful oganization, or as a set of support groups for people who are trying to follow the directions of a particularly enduring self-help book. Of course, to some it is seen as a cult. But all of these views miss the important genesis of this spiritual movement.
I use the term “spiritual movement” with care, for I believe that is what it is. It is spiritual in nature and it is a movement in the strictest sense of the word: a polycentric, wide ranging, collective sense of direction marked by complementary actions toward a common goal and with no central director but instead many smaller coordinating entities and individuals.
Nowadays, when someone has a good idea about how to do something, they may write a book that sets forth their principles. It will often be structured in ways similar to a workbook or a textbook. It may have boxes sprinkled liberally throughout, questions to ask oneself after each chapter, even spaces for notes. Then the person or group who published it will set out to develop some kind of organizational structure based on that. Even when gently and empathetically directed, this is a prescriptive organizational enterprise and it has at its core the model of school: We know something that we are going to teach you, and your job is to learn it.
AA came about differently.
Beginnings: An Insight
AA started with an insight that one of the co-founders (Bill W.) had while in a New York alcoholic asylum after literally losing all. He had had what he saw as a spiritual awakening and felt that this may well help keep him away from a drink when all else had failed. (He had been visited by a friend who had joined the now-defunct Oxford Group, which was an evangelical Christian movement started in 1908. This started him thinking spiritually.) But Bill’s further insight was that only by trying to help other alcoholics would he himself be able to stay sober. So he started looking for drunks to try to help. He had no real success in terms of helping people, but his insight held: he himself stayed sober.
On a business trip to Akron in 1935 that fell apart catastrophically, Bill was at loose ends in his hotel. A big talker, he had been trying to corner the market on rubber and his deal was in shambles. He had no money to pay his hotel bill. He could use a drink. He hovered in the lobby, looking into the hotel bar on one side, and at a church directory on the other. For some reason he chose the church directory and started dialing. Not looking for a sermon — he thought churches would be good places to find alcoholics he could help. When the chips were down, his original insight held: he’d better go help someone, or he might drink.
Eventually, after much dialing, he got put in touch with a local doctor who had also pretty much lost all (Dr. Bob, the other co-founder). Dr. Bob had been trying to stay sober to no avail, and had almost lost his practice completely. They met. Bill told Bob what he knew about alcoholism: that it was like a disease over which he had no control, that one had to figure out a way to seek power greater than oneself, and that in order to keep any kind of sobriety one had to try to help others. Because Bill was a fellow alcoholic and had been through the same wringer Dr. Bob had, he listened. Bill knew what he was talking about where (it seemed) all the previous moralizers did not. Bill was not forcing anything on Dr. Bob, just telling him his experience and what worked for him.
Dr. Bob felt his problem was behind him and the two began to help others. Bill stayed in Akron. They sought out drunks and tried to help them. Bob eventually took a business trip during this time, and got drunk. He came back with his tail between his legs and a renewed sense of purpose. He had to work harder at this thing, which didn’t even have a name.
AA’s “birthday” is seen as that day, the day of Dr. Bob’s last drink. June 10, 1935.
The book Alcoholics Anonymous was not even an idea at that time. It would not be written until 1939.
What Bill and Dr. Bob did was to continue to try to find and help alcoholics. A small group grew up around them, and they spent almost all their time together, like people in a lifeboat. They started to meet together at night, drinking coffee and smoking, and sharing with each other so they could collectively stay sober. At first they met in local Oxford Groups, but eventually split off and met on their own. As each person achieved sobriety, they began to try to help others. There was nothing written down, no organization, no rules to speak of. Just hard, practical work. Dr. Bob was sneaking patients into hospitals so they could sober up, and the administrators of such facilities were looking the other way because it seemed to work. (Bill eventually went back to New York and this same kind of growth happened there, too.)
Eventually, when it seemed clear they were onto something, Bill wanted to create a huge (and moneymaking) organization complete with treatment centers. Others were skeptical and thought this might ruin what they had. They had a vote. The group was not interested — but they would be willing for a book to be written that would set forth what they had been doing thus far in order to stay sober. (This idea passed by just one vote.) The book “Alcoholics Anonymous” came from this decision — collectively written, a literal effort to capture what they had been doing for the last four years that seemed to be working.
A Movement Today
Since publication of that book, AA has grown remarkably. But it has maintained its practical roots and remains a movement. It has, by design, as little organization as is possible, only such that is necessary. Its functions are governed by a simple set of traditions that keep all power (what little there is) in the hands of local groups and places the central office in a service role, answerable to the collective conscience of AA groups and members. Anyone who has run or worked in organizations knows this is no way to run an enterprise, as it makes decision-making enormously difficult. But it is how a movement can retain its essential character as a group endeavor run by no one person and democratically aimed.
I find this history remarkable both for how amazingly that small 1935 meeting has grown into a global phenomenon that has literally saved millions of lives, but also for how unlike other organizational stories it is. AA is not the story of a centrally directed organization coming to power. It is the story of a social movement.
I used to know someone who was the “town drunk” (his words) in a port town on a remote island nation. A merchant marine vessel docked there. On that ship was a recovering alcoholic. He had with him a pamphlet he had gotten from the central office (one of its duties is to publish such pamphlets). My friend came into contact with the seaman (who, as a good AA member, was seeking people he could help get sober). The ship left port. My friend was left behind. He and his friends started meeting together and talking, basing their interactions on that one pamphlet. AA now thrives on that island nation. Not because they wrote to New York to get permission, but because they started working together, and it seemed to work.
Happy birthday, AA.