The Impact We Make

I was recently in Massachusetts to speak at a state-wide Family Support Conference on social capital and the impact that relationships have.  While there, I reconnected with my friend, Larry Tummino from the Department of Developmental Services.  Larry has been in the field for many years and well understands how critical relationships are in life.  After my visit, Larry sent me the following reflection he got from his wife, a retired Unitarian Minister.  Read it and think.

The Unseen Power of Presence

He volunteered with a dying patient, expecting to go through the five stages of grief at the first meeting.  Instead she talked about hooking rugs: the needle, the thread, the cloth, the rhythmic movement of the hands.

He tried other matters in conversation - she talked of hooking rugs.

On the next visit she spoke of the intricacies and hardships of ice-fishing that her husband had done before his death.

Week after week, hooking rugs and ice-fishing.

Angered, he said to friends, "I can't go on with this interminable hooking rugs and ice-fishing."

One day as they sat in the nursing home cafeteria, she going on, he bored and vexed with hooking rugs and ice-fishing, the room went silent, air turned a luminous shade of green, hooking rugs and ice-fishing stopped.

She leaned over and said, "I could not have done this without you," then on again with hooking rugs and ice-fishing.

Soon after she died.  At the funeral relatives said to him, "Thank you, all she ever spoke about was you."

Reflections on Human Relations

This summer semester I am teaching a course at the University of Pittsburgh's School of Health and Rehab Sciences, titled, "Human Relations in the Health Care Environment."  It is a course I have taught for the past 15 years and each summer I have some 30 young Juniors and Seniors in my class.

When I first started teaching this class I tried to focus in on health care relationships, but it soon dawned on me that human relationships are just that - human relationships.  It doesn't matter, really, where you find yourself with others, how you build, maintain or nurture important relationships follow a similar path.  So I have framed the course in a more generic way, looking at values, aspects, and strategies that might be employed in any/all of our relationships.

For this class I use a book written by Steven Covey titled, "The 8th Habit".  You are probably familiar with Steven Covey and his "7 Habits of Highly Effective People."  This book was a monster best seller in the early 90's and still registers as one of the most popular books ever written in the past 50 years.  The book I use however, is a follow-up book where Covey added one more habit to his thesis.

The students like the book, not just because it is relevant and easy to digest, but it is also really inexpensive.  They can pick the book up at Amazon, or any other on-line bookstore for a couple bucks.  As a parent, who helped buy college text books for 3 children, I am happy that we can use such a relevant resource for such a low cost.

One of the first assignments I give the students is to have them write their own eulogy.  As you might imagine, their reaction is usually one of surprise and concern.  They think it is morbid and can't see the relevance.  But I clarify that I want them to think about their life, and surmise they have lived a long time, and when they die, their best friend will do the eulogy - what will they say.

In a way, this exercise really summarizes human relations.  The students write about things that you might if you were doing your own eulogy.  They talk about people they have relationships with, and what makes these relationships special.

So what about you - what would you say in your own eulogy!  If you focus on this legacy, and then act on it, you will surely enhance the connections you have.

Lessons From the Male Solarium

Along with my work with CLASS, I have been a long time board member of SWPPA (Southwestern PA Partnership on Aging), a nonprofit, advocacy group focused on aging and disability issues.  This work with SWPPA takes me back to my roots, where my first job in human services, way back in 1970, was at Kane Hospital in Pittsburgh.  When I first started at Kane, there were some 2,000 residents, mostly elders, is a large, gothic facility in the south hills. of Pittsburgh.

Working at Kane Hospital was a powerful experience for me for a number of reasons.  One was that it introduced me to the negative effects of institutionalization.  At Kane, I saw seemingly warm and compassionate professionals treat residents as objects or commodities.  These staff were not malicious, but there is something about institutionalization that can turn a warm heart, cold.

My first assignment was in an area of Kane, called the "male solarium."  This was a long, narrow wing of the hospital that housed over 500 patients.  Across from the male solarium, through a courtyard, was the female solarium exactly the same.  My job was as the male solarium social worker, and to cater to the residents needs, working with them individually and their families.  The average age of my 500 clients was 83.

As I wandered back and forth in this male solarium, for the 3 years I worked there, I can still hear the pleas of the residents.  They all wanted to go home and be with people they knew or loved rather than to stay in this facility.  I reacted to these pleas with countless phone calls to families, most who just did not have the capacity to care for their relative.  Certainly some situations were medically complex and the families were just not equipped - but these were exceptions.  Most of the rejections I heard were that the family had to work, and did not have the time, space, or wherewithal.

The other lesson from the male solarium introduced me to the wisdom and amazing experiences these folks had in their lives.  I would have individual conversations as well as group activities that would just amaze me.  I came to wonder who was helping whom.  It also saddened me in that this wisdom and life experience I was privileged to experience was locked inside the walls of that solarium

Today, some 48 years later, I continue to advocate for all people who are isolated, devalued, or institutionalized.  But these experiences, honed in the male solarium, were life-shaping for me.  In a personal way I learned that the more these folks are liberated to be a part of our communities, and to have opportunities to build relationships, the better we will become as a culture.

 

The Subtle Aspects of Friendship

As I share issues related to social capital with colleagues, the conversation usually starts with the notion of the importance of relationships in our lives.  We know that the more connections we have the better the life outcomes.  There is so much evidence of these realities that there is really no debate.  Relationships are tied to better health, more happiness, greater life accomplishments, and even longer life expectancy.

Then the explorations quickly shifts to the struggles of building social capital for some groups of people who are at social risk. We know that some people have a more difficult time finding, building, or fitting in with possible friends.  These folks then are at serious risk of social isolation, which has huge negative effects in people's lives.  In fact, we know today that as many people die in the United States from social isolation as from all smoke related diseases and conditions, annually.

The natural next step in the process then is to look at ways and means that presently isolated people might be able to build more social capital.  In this process, my colleagues and I have attempted to identify the important steps and stages.  These include identifying the interests people have, then to explore the general community for matching groups.  Next we want to identify the cultural expectations of these groups; and finally to find a "gatekeeper;" an indigenous member who is valued by others in the group to do some introductions.

All of this is well and good, yet there are friendship subtleties that are much harder to articulate and identify, that must be considered.  These are those softer behaviors that align people to us; they include things like how we greet people, the spacing with others, the nature of the conversation, what we talk about, questions we might ask, things related to the topic, and things related to life.

Just think about those subtle social issues that annoy you with some of the people you relate to in social gathering points of your life.  With these realities, most of us have learned through experience.  Very rarely do people teach us these things, or that we attend a class that might review the "dos" and "don'ts" in social relationship.

Yet, these subtle aspects in socializing might be the key to friendship building.  So, keep an eye on this blog as we explore more of these things down the road.  More, if you have some thoughts on how these softer elements of relationships can be enhanced, feel free to share them here.  Your ideas might be the key to helping folks build better social capital experiences.

International Impact

There is an old adage that our world seems to get smaller and smaller.  Certainly with the advent of social media, many of us have been able to develop, maintain or enhance international relationships with simple posts and updates on Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, and other platforms.

I have been blessed over the past couple of years to be invited to share ideas and build relationships in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Ireland, Sweden and the like.  This coming fall I will be presenting in Rome, Italy, and due to schedule conflicts, had to turn down an offer to visit Maputo, Mozambique, from a Mozambican intern we had the pleasure of working with this past fall.

In all of these international relationships and visits, I have been sharing information, strategies, and approaches on building social connections and the importance of social capital.  These invitations really speak to the universality of the message.  That is, it doesn't matter where you live, or the culture or politics of your setting, enhanced relationships will make your life better!

It also underscores that if people are devalued or off set from the culture due to a disability (or any other social variable) they are at serious risk of social isolation.  And no matter where you live, some people live in social isolation from other members of their community.

So lets work to share ideas, and reach out to people in our communities who are left behind. Get to know your neighbors and as you build social capital with these new people, everyone wins.

Attitudes - How Did Yours Develop?

I am a change agent.  In fact, most of us are (or can be)!  Through our relationships, even though it might not be our intent, we begin to influence others with our words, actions, and behaviors.  This impact is defined by sociologists as "social influence theory," and it has unfolded in your life more than you know.

Since the time of our youth, as we began to understand things, we were influenced first by our parents, then by our siblings, and then by our friends and relationships in the broader community. It is probably safe to say that most every attitude or assumption you hold today is because of someone else who influenced you in that theme.  This is not to say that we do not have independent perceptions, but that most of the things we think, and then advocate, have been planted in us by someone else.

Think about it; the notions you hold initiated with something you heard, read, saw, or seemed to be embodied by someone you respect.  And once these attitudes get framed, we often then look to confirm them, or seek out others who hold similar views.  Sometimes, when you encounter a person you respect, who has a different view than you puts you in a dilemma.  Either you need to begin to rethink your viewpoint (driven by the respect you hold for that person).  Or, you begin to distance yourself from this person who thinks differently than you.

So, stop for a minute now and think about the attitudes you harbor about things around us. Where did these attitudes come from?  When you look a little deeper, are you so sure these attitudes are correct, or inline with your values in life?  More, are you willing to change an attitude if there might be an inconsistency?

Changing the World

For most of my career, some 47 years, I have been a disability rights advocate.  This charge was instilled in me as a youngster when I would witness how some people treated my cousin Carrie, who happened to have Downs Syndrome.  She was often made fun of by other kids, and had limited opportunities, certainly far less than most of us had growing up in the blue collared town of McKees Rocks, PA.

Over the many years that followed my graduation from college, we disability rights advocates saw many gains unfold.  In the 70's we had "Right to Education," Housing, Transportation, and Vocational gains.  Through the 80's and 90's we pushed for broader civil rights and were able to pass the "American's With Disabilities Act," (ADA).  Know that all of these efforts, while not creating a true parity, were gains nonetheless.

Along with these regulatory changes came some funding; never really enough, but still helpful in the effort.  In a country as wealthy, and as abundant as the United States, there is no reason that people with disabilities, some 60 million Americans, should be denied the right to opportunity.

But as our country has made a strong right turn in attitude as witnessed by our last election, and now with a president who lost the popular vote, but somehow seems to think he has a mandate, we know that the strides made in disability rights (and most other important cultural issues) are now at risk of being changed, de-funded, or eliminated altogether.  

It is time we now come together to protect the many critical human strides we have made, and to safeguard that all people have opportunities to live the American dream.  Hubert Humphry, the respected Senator from Minnesota, and presidential candidate once said, "the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children, those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly, and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy, and the handicapped."

I See You

I have been doing some research to prepare for a training session I will be doing and am re-reading a profound book by Peter Senge, "The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook."  Senge is an iconic management/leadership guru and his 1990 book, "The Fifth Discipline," was (and continues to be) a "must-read" book in business circles.  In it he describes "learning organizations" and the Fieldbook, which came out shortly thereafter, offers exercises and strategies toward this end.

The book starts with an observation of a South African greeting used by the Natal tribes that caught my eye; and since I have written about the importance of greetings in building social capital, I thought it deserves a comment in this blog.

When tribal members meet they say: "Sawu Bona," which literally means, "I see you."  The tribal response then is, "Sikhona," which means, "I am here."  In this culture the order of exchange is critical since until you see me, I do not exist.

I love this simple notion.  We see and greet many people in the course of our days, but often don't think about the critical aspects of using our greetings to signal each others importance.  It is helpful to remember that our greetings initiate the first steps in building social capital.  How we greet people matters.

So the next time you connect with someone, take a moment to really see them.  This intention might help grow or strengthen the relationship.

As an Advocate, How do you use Social Media

Often when I am invited to do a presentation, the person introducing me will ask the audience to turn off, or silence their cell phones.  I appreciate the courtesy, but will often reverse this request and ask people to keep their cell phones on; and, if in the course of my presentation, if inspired, to take a photo of a slide I am using, or to post/tweet on social media information they are hearing.

Now most of us these days use some form of social media, and we use these sites to share, or compare, or rant, or recommend.  And, for most of us, there are 3 major platforms that often serve this purpose - Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.  Of course there is Instagram, Snapchat, and others, but the 3 mentioned seem to be the most common in my spheres.

For advocates who are looking to promote a cause or situation, it is important to understand how posting something you are hearing at a conference can have the most impact.  In the work I do, I try to use all 3, but there are some key differences we should understand in being Social Media Advocates.  That is, Facebook, which seems to be the most dominant platform, is primarily a social outlet.  This is where we mostly see what people or eating, or birthday photos of a relative, or travel photos from exotic trips.  Certainly posting something informative or instructive works on this platform, but is often lost in the social clutter.

LinkedIn is thought to be a vocational site, where people look to get job or sales leads.  Here people are posting things that promote their business or get people to know their companies or products.  Again, as advocates for some social cause we can use this platform, but again, the message might get caught in the vocational clutter.

This brings us to Twitter.  Certainly any of us reading this post know that the President of the US is a "Twitter addict," using this media most every night to advocate something or another.  Of course most of his Tweets are attacking and put people down, but are still effective in what he is advocating, which seems to be his bully-ism or bias.  For me however, the major thing I like about Twitter is that unlike Facebook and LinkedIn, which mandate that the people you connect with or "friend," agree to accept your connection, Twitter allows you to follow whomever you are interested in hearing from.  This feature, a key difference, makes Twitter, I believe, a more potent advocacy platform.

So two key take-a-ways here - one is get on Twitter and to post about that which you are passionate.  For me, as a disability advocate, I try to post on things that are progressive to the inclusion of all people movement.  The second issue, is to chose to follow those folks that inspire, educate, or share aspects that are instructive to your advocacy role.  On an upcoming blog, I will share with you some of the folks/groups I follow who share items I have found to be helpful in the cause of disability advocacy.

In the meantime, get active on Social Media and share your passions with the world!

The Road to Character

I am reading a book recently released by David Brooks titled, "The Road to Character."  Brooks is well known as a columnist and for his commentary on NPR and the Sunday talk shows.  He usually takes a conservative bent, but with this book he examines the notion of character and it has nothing to do with politics, yet in the current political climate in the United States has everything to do with politics.

He starts the book by looking at the two sides of people, one he calls the "resume side," which focuses on skills, achievements, and things you might boast about.  The other he calls the "eulogy side," which speaks more to your character, the virtues at the core, like kindness, honesty, faithfulness, and other personal dimensions.

The book then profiles some amazing people who are known more for their character, the  "eulogy side," than for their direct achievements.  Brooks explores how they developed their deep character.  Though he never once refers to our current politics, the book seems to scream out the importance of character over accomplishments, integrity over bragging, cooperation over competition.

As I digest the social impact of "The Road to Character," I salute David Brooks for bringing out this critical dimension of character in our development.  In a time when we seem to think that people's accomplishments are the things that make them great, Brooks pushes us to look deeper at people.  He reminds us that in the end it is the virtues of our character that really matter.

If your looking to find the things that really count in life, get a copy of "The Road to Character" and then think!

Being Greeted: The First Element of Belonging

In developing more social capital, the first element to consider is the greeting.  This seems so simple that people rarely consider it, but I had an experience recently that brought this critical aspect to mind.

This past month I was invited to present in Auckland, New Zealand at the Imagine Better Assembly, a forward thinking conference held every other year in that wonderful country.  Given the respect held in New Zealand for the Maori culture, the conference coordinators started the event with an official greeting called a "Powhiri." 

Now the Maori's are the indigenous inhabitants of New Zealand, and the respect held for them is deeply woven into the culture.  The "Powhiri" started with Maori tribal members performing a tradition of greeting the visitors with song, stories, and ceremony.  The tradition ended with each visitor being approached by the tribal members with a formal "hongi," where we touched foreheads and noses, and then took a breath through our noses, symbolizing the fact that we are breathing the same air together.

This ceremony was so profound that it brought tears to my eyes.  To have that kind of greeting, symbolic or otherwise, was deeply touching.  The "hongi" signals a strong respect for the newcomer, and in a simple, yet elegant way, says you are welcomed in my space.

So the next time you encounter a newcomer, regardless of where this might be, think about how you greet them.  More, go out of your way to personally seek out these people you do not know and welcome them into your space.  You might not perform a "hongi" and touch foreheads and noses, but in a way are still breathing the same air.

Someone to Love

Most of you who look at my blog know that our work in disability rights focuses on the importance of relationships and social capital.  We have worked hard to explore this concept, study, create strategies, share ideas, and promote that rehabilitation would be better off to consider the critical nature of social capital.

Part of the challenge in promoting this message, however, is that there is (was) no credible evidence that showed that social isolation was a serious problem in the disability community.  Certainly advocates, family members, and many self-advocates know that loneliness abounds, but the notion had never been adequately examined.  This reality prompted the development of an international coalition we titled, The Interdependence Network, (www.buildingsocialcapital.org) and a focused effort to measure community engagement patterns of people with disabilities.  Using the "Social Capital Benchmarking Survey," developed at Harvard University by Dr. Robert Putnam, we set out to examine this issue.

I am happy to report to you that our work has completed and we have just published our paper in the Canadian Journal of Disability Studies,  The article is titled: "Somewhere to Live, Something to Do, Someone to Love: Examining Levels and Sources of Social Capital Among People with Disabilities."    You can track this paper at:  http://cjds.uwaterloo.ca/index.php/cjds/article/view/317: but it shows conclusively how isolated people with disabilities have become.  In spite of all the excellent work done by agencies and human service providers, the very people we serve are significantly socially isolated.

We are excited that this paper now sets the ground work for the challenging effort of shifting services from micro to macro efforts designed to help people build more relationships in the community, and especially between people with and without disabilities.  So if you have the time, or inclination, take a look at this groundbreaking article and then let me know what you think.  Better yet, join the Interdependence Network and help us promote macro change.  Together, we can change the world.

Facts are Facts

It is unbelievable that in today's world we could even hear someone talk about "alternative facts," let alone from the Oval office.  Most sane people know that the facts are just that, things that are truisms on an issue that is being debated or discussed.  Facts then, should guide a thoughtful and forward thinking society to address or make progress on things that affect us and are important.

I was taken aback recently when I read some facts on social isolation, an issue that I care about in the work we do at our organization, CLASS (www,classcommunity.org).  One of these facts was reported late last year in the NY Times that since 1980's the percentage of American adults who say they are lonely doubled from 20% in 1985 to 40% of people in 2015.  This increase in loneliness is incredibly troubling in a time when we have so many outlets to develop and nurture our relationships.

The second fact, however is even more intense as we now have a better understanding of what loneliness actually does.  Research has shown that isolated people have an increase in: disrupted sleep patterns, altered immune system, higher stress hormones, increased heart disease by 29%, stroke increases by 32%, and a 30% higher risk of dying within a 7 year window.

We know that social isolation is bad for us, and no altered facts can change this phenomena.  To this end, a civil and compassionate society must not just realize these facts, but to do something about it.  Social isolation is worse than smoking and it is time for some national actions designed to address this public health risk.

A Manual For Organizing

Last year, I wrote a book I titled, "The Macro Change Handbook" (LAPublications, 2015).  It was an exploration of organizing and advocating principles pulled from my 45 years in the disability rights movement.  The book looked at not just organizing principles, but examined the elements of power, change, and methods that can promote influencing others.

When I wrote this book, I could never have imagined that the notion of organizing, advocacy, marches, petitions, and other methods of resistance would become mainstream issues; but given the realities we are experiencing today in the United States, where basic human rights and dignities would come under direct assault by our own President, have now made my book almost a must read.

It is sad that this has unfolded in a country where advocates had to fight for civil, disability, women, environmental, and human rights.  All of these movements used advocacy and organizing principles and were successful in helping to create a more just society.  Yet it has and is a reality.

So advocates, and especially you folks who are new to movements, you might want to take a look at the "Macro Change Handbook."  You can track it on my website, at www.lapublishing.com, or at Amazon.  Remember that an organized group will surely be a more successful group.

Change - What Does It Take

I chose a career in Human Services because I wanted to help people be more included in the greater community.  Growing up I witnessed how people treated my cousin Carrie, who had Downs Syndrome, and although she was a natural part of our family, often the greater community members treated her in negative and distantiated ways.  These negative behaviors prompted me into the field.

When I started graduate school of social work at the University of Pittsburgh we talked about being "change agents," and I took the moniker to heart.  Initially, I was taught that the change that was needed for Carrie to be accepted rested more with how she functioned and behaved.   The manifestations of her Downs Syndrome suggested that she needed to learn things to behave more "normally" to fit into the community.

After years of trying this route it became clear to me that the change that was needed did not lie with Carrie, but rested more in the behaviors of the greater community.  This kind of change, we call "macro change," is much more challenging and hard to realize.  It demands a shift in thinking, and moving outside of the box.

This kind of change also starts with an external recognition that seems to defy that which seems clear.  It is captured in a quote I recently saw attributed to Henry Ford.  He said: "The light bulb was not the result of continuous improvement of the candle."  This quote suggests that meaningful change might requires that we move to another platform.

Einstein famously said: "The problems we face today can not be solved with the same level of thinking that created them."  Both of these quotes suggest a paradigm shift from what seems obvious to a better, more evolved place.  People in the greater community see disabilities as the problem, when, in fact, the real problem might be their attitudes.

So the next time you are looking at a problem that needs solved, or a change that needs to occur, look again.  It might be that the solution lie in another place.

Generations - Differences and Similarities

One of my colleagues at CLASS (www.classcommunity.org) attended a recent webinar that explored the unique elements of the various generations, starting with Baby Boomers (1946-1965), the Generation X (1966-1976), Generation Y Millennials (1977-1994), and Generation Z (1995-2012).  The training was to help supervisors understand the generations so that they can provide more informed supervision.

She shared what she was exposed to at our recent Leadership team meeting and I was taken by the information and approach that was shared at the webinar.  The presenters talked about the key things that these generations were exposed to while growing up, and some of the important elements that these generations value.  Some, like Boomers value loyalty, and others. like Millennials, see their private time as important.

The focus of the training was that supervisors could use the elements that staff value to better guide their work; and obviously there is merit to notion.  Still, for me, what was interesting was to explore the common areas of value for each of the 4 generations.  What was common for all the groups was the importance of relationships - that is, regardless of when you were born, or what the key influences of the times, relationships stayed constant.

This is further evidence of the power and potency of social capital.  No matter the swings of war, or peace, or what was happening on the home front, or in in the media; friendships/relationships/connections with other people matter greatly.  Trends come and go, but somethings are constant.

Everyday Leadership

I have been invited to keynote an upcoming conference in Toronto and the topic they want me to address is"leadership."  The group gathering are all upper level folks involved in human services and disability issues and they want to explore ways/means to lead change.  These thoughtful executives are all interested in shifting their program efforts from the classic "micro" focus, to a bigger, more "macro" sense of culture and community change.  It is an area I have been exploring in our work at CLASS (www.classcommunity.org) and my Canadian friends feel an exchange of ideas would be helpful.

Now most of my adult life, both vocationally as well as being a member of many community groups, I have ultimately found myself in leadership positions.  I was program director when I first started at CLASS in 1973, and became the CEO in 1991.  I have held leadership roles in the PTG when our kids were in school, founder and Commissioner of the Human Service Volleyball League, President of most of the Boards of Directors I have served on, Chair of state-wide advisory groups and the like.  I am a student of leadership, reading most of the key books/journal articles/blogs on the topic, and I teach leadership issues at the School of Health and Rehab Science at the University of Pittsburgh.

As I initiated my preparation for our Toronto conference, however, I began to broaden my perspective.  Most people think of leadership as something others do, people who are in charge, or have been elected or selected to lead, and that if you are not in these roles, there is not much that leadership training/reflection can do for you.  But in relooking at the key aspects, this is an erroneous perspective.

All of us, no matter our role or position, can benefit from thinking more about leadership ingredients, or traits; and, if we apply them to everyday life situations, we can be more effective and successful.  Think about these aspects of leadership, reported in a recent edition of the Harvard Business Review, but apply them to any situation you are currently dealing with in your life today:

Good leaders show "learning agility," that is they apply actions from lessons learned.  Good leaders "build and sustain important relationships."  They know the potency of social capital. Good leaders are "realistically optimistic," that is they know ultimate success happens in achievable increments.  Good leaders have a "caring nature."  Good leaders think about being a "host" rather than a "hero."  Lastly, good leaders "listen as much (or more) than they talk."

These aspects are not reserved for the elite, or upper level players - they are all aspects that can make everyday life better, no matter your position or issue.  So, the next time you see something in the paper, or on the bookshelf, or online regarding leadership, take a good look at it.  The information will probably be as important to "everyday leaders" as to the big CEO's or Presidents!

Neighbors - A Measure of Engagement

The holidays are now behind us and if you are like me you probably had opportunity to visit with neighbors and friends in either your or their homes.  These patterns, certainly accelerated during the holidays, got me to thinking about the notion of neighbors and community engagement.

Sociologists, most notably Harvard's Robert Putnam, have examined neighbor relations to ascertain how engaged people might be, and in the extensive Saguaro Seminar reported their findings.  The Harvard team interviewed over 30,000 Americans and asked a number of questions including ones like: "How many neighbors names do you know," or "Have you ever been in a neighbors home," or "Have you ever had a neighbor in your home."  They discovered that the more engaged people had stronger relationships with neighbors.

To this end, I wonder how your neighbor relations are?  Do you know your neighbor's names - or more, have you ever been in a neighbor's home, or had them in your home?  These simple notions are important in understanding social capital and community engagement. More, maybe you can make more effort to get to know your neighbors.  These efforts, according to Robert Putnam and other sociologists, enhance our culture and help build a better community.

Condeluci Hill: How Settings Matter

When I have the opportunity to share ideas about building social capital I often harken back to my upbringing on "Condeluci Hill."  Most folks who know me know that I grew up (and still live) on our family "hill" in McKees Rocks, just outside of Pittsburgh.  Our family has been on the hill going back to when my grandfather came over from Italy in 1915.  They settled in the Pittsburgh area because of relatives that came to America a couple years before.

When I was born on the hill, there were 8 Condeluci families who lived up there.  Today there are 11 families either on, or coming up to the hill.  Growing up on this hill was an amazing start to life.  As with any "tribe" all of us were automatically accepted and respected, regardless of our skills, abilities, or functionality.  It was a setting of unconditional acceptance and love.

As a cultural setting though, there were certain aspects and behaviors we were expected to carry out or comply with in daily interaction.  All of us children were expected to follow the rituals of the hill, position ourselves in deference to our elders, and learn key words (jargon) of the Southern Italian dialect.  This included many Italian words that described situations, or circumstances.  We were expected to behave with respect, love, being kind, forgiving, recognizing our blessings and giving back to our family.  These were all lessons from the "hill."

As I reflect now on these early years I am taken by the rules of the cultural settings that become important in community building.  When a newcomer to a community begins to incorporate the expected rituals, behaviors, patterns and jargon of the setting they are attempting to enter, they become more easily assimilated.  These are important lessons we can use when we are helping others become accepted in our communities.

So the next time you are in one of your regular settings, take a minute to consider the rituals, behaviors, patterns and jargon that you are aware of or use as a member.  As simple as these things are, they become critical pieces of cultural acceptance.

Art and Creativity

My dear sister, Cathy (we call her Aunt Cat) decided to winter this year in Gulfport FL.  She chose Gulfport because her daughter, my niece Suzanne moved there a couple years ago to open an art gallery to highlight the work she and her husband, August Vernon are doing.

So, while in FL recently I made some time to visit Cat, and Suzanne, and to tour the art colony that is Gulfport.  We had a great breakfast at Stella's, then walked the main street and took in the sights and sounds that is Gulfport.  It is a very cool artist destination with a number of galleries, street art, clubs with great music, and excellent restaurants.

For me however, one of the highlights was spending some time at the August Vernon Studio.  One side of the studio highlights the work done by August, incredible paintings all, each one having a story behind it.  They chronical places they have lived and people who have touched their lives.

The other side displays the work of my niece, Suzanne (www.suzannevernon.com).  She is accomplished in a number of medians, but her current work is in mosaics.  She has incredible pieces, of various sizes and designs, along with jewelry and crafts that are amazing. You need to check out her website!

As I left Gulfport, I thought about the "right brain" skills that artists like Suzanne and August have and how important creativity and art is for all of us.  I am so glad there are creative people like Suzanne, who through her work, stimulate our right brain elements and push us into a more creative zone. 

So the next time you see a local art gallery, stop by and take in the work.  Better, find a piece that speaks to you and buy it.  You will not only be supporting an important artist, but will have a "right brain" reminder that might just push you to a new creative zone.