See the World Differently – Doing Differently

Living and thriving in a new world

Creating frameworks for others to take decisions and make change

Editor's Note: This Op-Ed first appeared on Thomson Reuters on September 6, 2016 and is written by Hon. Henry F. De Sio, Jr. He is the Global Chair for Framework Change at Ashoka, with its Lead Young campaign. Henry previously served as deputy assistant to President Barack Obama.   Students going back to school rejoin an educational assembly line designed to get them to adopt vocations which are now phasing out. It’s estimated 65% of children entering primary school will someday have jobs that don’t yet exist.  We’ll need to prepare young people very differently to handle the coming changes. There is plenty of rhetoric about “change” and “change makers” in the US presidential campaign, but millennials understand “change” more viscerally.   It’s a paradigm shift they feel happening under their feet. The shift is not about trade or immigration.  It’s about technology flattening hierarchies, tearing down silos, and lowering barriers across society.  Changemaking capabilities once reserved for elite leaders are now available to anyone with a smartphone: e-commerce, printing presses, distribution channels, broadcasting networks. That’s causing social change to explode in every direction, and creating the opposite of the top-down, one-leader-at-a-time world Boomers grew up in.  In the emerging landscape, everyone leads; everyone is a changemaker.

  This is at once enormously positive and massively disruptive. Technology empowers but will render millions of jobs obsolete, as smart machines take over repetitive tasks that employed previous generations. Alibaba lends billions with a self-correcting algorithm producing better results than human bank officers do. IBM’s Watson software will soon do half of doctors’ and nurses’ jobs. A White House study estimates American workers making under $20 an hour stand an 83% chance of losing their jobs to robotics and artificial intelligence. Globally, young people bear the brunt of the dislocation. Youth unemployment is at crisis levels – 45% in Spain, for example.  Only 27% of young people have full time work in Australia.  Half of university graduates in South Korea become unemployed. There is some policy discourse about helping young people navigate the next economy, but it’s limited to traditional ideas about policy and education, missing the volcanic, cross-cutting nature of the changes underway. For example, Hillary Clinton and a pending bipartisan “innovation” bill in Congress both propose to expand STEM education.  Clinton would also suspend young entrepreneurs’ student loan payments while they get their ventures off the ground. Such steps are welcome, but don’t go far enough.  Beyond easing students’ debt burden, we should transform their learning, teaching them not only STEM but how to thrive on disruptive change.  Core competencies for that include building empathy for more fluid collaboration; cultivating co-creative teamwork where everyone sees themselves as an initiator and a leader; and applying those skills to real-world changemaking with other changemakers for the good of all. That curriculum may sound outlandish to someone raised on the “Three Rs,” but it’s mission-critical for the emerging changemaker economy, and mastering it early predicts future success. LinkedIn data on 400 million professionals shows those who started young and created noteworthy ventures in their teens were four times more likely to become successful entrepreneurs or top corporate executives. “Today’s great entrepreneurs almost all changed their world in their teens,” says Bill Drayton, founder of the Ashoka network of leading social entrepreneurs.  “That’s true for Richard Branson and for over 80% of Ashoka Fellows.” 

At 16, Branson started a magazine whose first issue interviewed Vanessa Redgrave and reported on white slavery.  He went on to found Virgin Records, the Virgin Group, and a slew of social change organizations. At 19 (about the same age Hillary Clinton became a prominent Wellesley campus organizer), Robin Chase started Wellesley’s Philosophy Club and grew it into the biggest organization on campus.  She later co-founded Zipcar, Buzzcar and Veniam. Like them, our kids need to cultivate an innovative mind, service heart, entrepreneurial spirit, and collaborative outlook from a tender age.  If a teenager hopes to play fully in the new game, she’d better start practicing now:  develop her ideas, build her team, and work collaboratively to change the world for the better. Educators and aspiring changemakers-in-chief take note:  creating opportunity for Americans requires a new national apprenticeship so young people acquire and practice those skills.  In an everyone-a-changemaker world, changemaking is the new literacy, and the most effective changemakers start in their teens.

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If you enjoy the sensation of dizziness take a look at the UN’s recently adopted mission: the Sustainable Development Goals. There are no less than 169 targets grouped together under seventeen aims. The assembled states of the world expect to eliminate poverty, achieve well-being for all and end gender inequality (to name just three of the aims) by 2030. Ambitious enough to leave a newly arrived messiah sweating over a Gant chart. It would be easy to dismiss such lofty goals as little more than the pipe dreams of well-meaning UN officials and the PR gloss for some more or less savoury political leaders. But this ignores how much has in fact been achieved over the last few decades. Contrary to popular belief, for example, global inequality has declined massively (Sustainable Development Goal no. 10, if you’re asking). In 1960, the U.S. was eleven times richer than Asia. Today it is less than five times richer. There are now 130 million less people facing hunger (goal no. 2) than there were twenty years ago. That’s despite the global population growing by 1.5 billion over the same period. The percentage of the world’s population living in extreme poverty (goal no.1) has fallen from approximately 35 percent in 1990 to around 10 percent today. What’s driven this unprecedented shift to a better world? The truth is that hundreds of millions of ordinary people around the world have made this change for themselves by setting up businesses, coming up with innovations and generating wealth. A good portion of that wealth has been used to directly address some of the deep social and economic problems the UN’s goals highlight. What the last two or three decades show is that when people are given the freedom and the resources to improve their own lives and the lives of others they will seize the opportunity and do it far better than any state hierarchy. Indeed, the greatest contribution governments have made in that time, particularly in Asia and Latin America, has been to stop trying to do all the work themselves and instead let their populations get on with it. Governments are slowly becoming aware that the secret to positive change is to empower others to generate that change. But they are not alone. There are at least three other shifts underway that make this "age of empowerment" even more intense. What is Driving the Age of Empowerment? First, there is a new wave of empowering technology. Social media, for example, grew exponentially by giving millions the tools to create and share online bypassing the conventional hierarchies of the media. Companies like Etsy have well over a million small arts and crafts firms on their website empowered to sell across the globe without the need for wholesalers or marketing firms. 3D printing, the Internet of Things and blockchain are poised to introduce similar empowering disruption to manufacturing, energy generation and finance. Second, there is the massive shift in values charted in rigorous detail over forty years by the Michigan University Professor Ronald Inglehart. This is the move from populations primarily concerned with material issues such as having enough food to feed the family and a decent place to live to what Ingelhart’s collaborator Christian Welzel calls “emancipatory values”. These are the search for self-determination, free choice and creativity. As the research shows, this desire for freedom and empowerment becomes more widespread as a population becomes wealthier so we should expect such a trend to accelerate throughout Latin America, Asia and elsewhere just as it has in Europe since the 1950s. Third is the transformation in the way we organise ourselves. The traditional hierarchical business based on an elite of decision-makers and a mass of drone-like workers is increasingly struggling to survive in very complex and volatile markets. Under today’s business conditions, there is rarely enough time to refer decisions upwards let alone sufficient expertise at the top to make the right choices. Authors such as Frederic Laloux, Brian Robertson and Isaac Getz are revealing how business is reinventing itself around principles of radical decentralisation and worker autonomy and even abolition of management to survive. Firms like Buurtzorg, Zappos and Valve are showing the sorts of gains in productivity and competitiveness that result. Releasing the Age of Empowerment Despite this progress, big problems obviously still exist. Poverty, hunger and gross inequality may have been eroded but they have not disappeared. And, of course, the threat of runaway climate change now looms large over the globe. If we are to make the sort of leap the UN envisages by 2030 then the empowerment of the last three decades needs to be intensified. Billions more must be freed to take charge of their own destiny so they can generate the explosion of wealth and innovation required to solve these challenges. Empowered Individuals The starting-point, as ever, is education. Too many of the world’s schools and universities are modeled on the old, hierarchical elitism of the last century. Students are regarded as empty vessels that simply need to be filled up with knowledge and skills readying them for their niche in a static labour market. As a result, educational institutions disempower students through their teaching methods and simultaneously fail to prepare them to seize the benefits of empowerment. The institutions in Ashoka’s Changemaker Schools and Campus networks take a different approach. They treat students as creative, entrepreneurial problem-solvers and give them the power, skills and resources to generate change both while learning and after they graduate. But such inspirational places are still a minority and without a real shift in the way whole education systems work the Age of Empowerment will fail to reach its full potential by some considerable margin. Empowering Organisations There is also a great deal to do to break down wider organisational hierarchies. Business is shifting but too slowly. The sorts of imbalances of power built into large corporations that leave management and investors with huge influence over budgets, rewards and strategy feels increasingly outdated. It is an imbalance that explains why self-employment is an increasingly attractive option for millions across the world. It also explains why established corporations are rightly fearful of the way their sectors are being rapidly disrupted by new businesses that have placed the empowerment of staff, customers and other stakeholders at the heart of their business model. These trends need to be embraced and encouraged and the increasingly regular attempts we see by established, hierarchical businesses to defend their patch must be resisted. Empowering Systems The positive impact of empowered individuals and empowering organisations will be limited however if the economic and political systems within which they operate remain deeply disempowering. Although inequality between nations and regions has fallen in the last three decades, wealth and economic power is still highly concentrated. The top 500 global corporations earn one third of all business revenues. Sixty-two of the world’s wealthiest people are as rich as 3.6 billion of the earth’s population. Political systems also face a challenge to open themselves up so that ordinary citizens rather than party and media elites are empowered to influence big decisions. It is telling that research shows that a big driver of the recent success of populist parties and candidates in Europe and America is the sense that millions feel disempowered by the state’s decision-making processes. So humanity faces an important choice between two alternative futures. One where the full benefits of an empowered world are missed and we fail to rid the earth of the human suffering that has scarred it for so many centuries. Or one where all elites — educational, business, political — finally accept that the key to a better world is to let the people of the planet create that world for themselves. Maybe with such a shift we will look back in 2030 on the UN’s stretching goals and feel a little less dizzy. [ACTIONFULL=18203]
The world feels more fractious with every passing day. People who are different from each other, or who hold different points of view, struggle to bridge differences. Since January 2017, The People’s Supper project has been tackling this disconnect head on by inviting people, who often have never met, to sit at the same table and share their stories. At more than 200 dinner tables across the United States, people break out of their echo chambers and stop seeing each other as monoliths: one-sided stereotypes that can be reduced to a single word or phrase. Instead, they come to see each other has rich, complex humans, according to Ashoka Fellow Lennon Flowers, co-founder and executive director of The Dinner Party, one of the three organizations that have collaborated to create The People’s Supper. [FELLOW=15957] Lennon combined forces to create The Dinner Party with two other Ashoka Fellows Emily May (co-founder of Hollaback!, working to end sexual, gender-based, and prejudiced-motivated harassment online and in public spaces), and Jennifer Bailey (founder of Faith Matters Network, a people of color-led collective equipping faith leaders with tools to build healthy, equitable communities) to build bridges to make the shift from a place “where people began to assume the worst rather than the best of one another.” “This isn’t about a political party, or what is or isn’t happening in Washington,” Lennon said. “Rather, it was borne out of post-election ruptures at the family Thanksgiving table, and in communities where people began to assume the worst rather than the best in one other." “We Need a Way to Talk Openly” The People's Supper started as an experiment: the goal was to get people to sit down at 100 dinners during the first 100 days of the new presidential administration in Washington, D.C. “It seemed impossible, but we ended up doing 140 dinners,” Lennon said. “Since then, we’ve hosted over 200 dinners across the country. Due to demand and interest, we’re keeping the conversation going over the next year, at least.” “Lacking relationships across lines of difference, we reduce each other to caricatures and are led to believe our worst stereotypes," Lennon said. "Correcting that, we realized, could not be done with op-eds, or with arguments. We needed a way to talk openly about the kinds of experiences all of us share: the stories of grief and vulnerability and heartache — and joy and hope, too — that change the way we see ourselves and one another.” The People’s Supper “is designed to get people to sit down with one another across political views, across identities, and fully see and hear one another – to believe in and to see each other’s humanity,” adds Emily May. [FELLOW=12867] Lennon brought her four years of experience developing a network of dinner parties that create a space for people who are grieving over a loss. These dinners are a way to connect with others to share experiences of grief in a natural and comfortable way while building a community of friends. It Started with a Late Night Conversation About Grief Lennon’s mother was diagnosed with cancer when Lennon was a high school senior and she died of stage four cancer when Lennon was finishing her last year of college. Lennon had moved from the East Coast to Los Angeles and found “I had no vocabulary to talk about my mom, the life she lived, how it influenced the person I became, and how her absence complicated my family story. I didn’t know how to bring it into a conversation without scaring off new friends.” Things changed when her friend Carla Fernandez told her over coffee that her that her father had passed away six months before. Lennon did not mention her mother at time, not wanting to make Fernandez “uncomfortable with my life.” But then Fernandez invited Lennon for dinner one night and they talked until 2 a.m. It was the first Dinner Party. “What we found in that kind of space was that we could be in a community where you didn’t have to hide – you didn’t have to make a part of your life or story off-limits, or feel cagey about sharing. As relationships grew, it didn’t mean we talked about grief and loss specifically every time or in every moment. But you could talk about times when it was triggered by something, or you just happened to be having a hard day,” Lennon said. “It became a vehicle for processing all of that in a way that didn't feel embarrassing. It was simple but beautiful. It’s about turning loss from a conversation-killer into a conversation-starter and taking what are otherwise isolating experiences and turning them into profound sources of empathy and connectivity. “Through, intimate, peer-driven dinner parties, we work to turn our most isolating experiences into sources of rich community, empathy, and meaningful conversation. As cagey and self-conscious as we are about those stories, when we share, it is an invitation to others to share theirs.” Figuring It Out: What is a Dinner Party? Lennon used money she received from her mother’s life insurance to pay her rent and “dove in,” launching an Indigogo campaign to raise funds for initial Dinner Party trainings and staff retreats. By co-founding The Dinner Party with Fernandez, they found a way “to replicate the experience we had had around that first table, without our having to be in the room or resorting to formulaic conversation, or the same institutional feel that compelled us to create The Dinner Party in the first place.” What had begun as a casual gathering of friends became a quest to reimagine and reinvent "grief support," and the very way we conceive of and talk about loss. [FELLOW=15991] The Dinner Party has grown from a couple of dozen people at the end of 2013 to 600 dinner parties in 114 U.S. cities and more than 150 tables worldwide that has connected more than 4,000 one-time strangers to one another. “Our first step was to figure out what a dinner party is: everything from tips and tricks to breaking the ice, to the essential ingredients of open, honest, bullshit-free conversation among peers," Lennon said. "We developed a Host Guidebook and made it immediately available for download, encouraging anyone to sit down with people they know and talk about things they normally don’t." “The organic quality behind The Dinner Party and our evolution thus far has been key to our success,” Lennon adds. “It’s provided us with the agility to act quickly and a grassroots feel that is attractive to a generation wary of institutions and hypersensitive to authenticity. You would expect growth to produce a decline in quality, but we have witnessed the opposite: people believed more in the idea and were willing to invest more in it.” Recently, The Dinner Party has been experimenting with an initiative to help workplace managers hold a place for employees who are grieving from a loss called The Dinner Party at Work. “In the immediate months following a loss, we are informed very profoundly — not just by how your community showed up or didn’t — but by how your workplace responded. The feedback we’ve consistently received is that loss, and life afterwards, is indeed deeply affects organizational culture and the bottom line, and that no one feels equipped to handle it. “Nobody wants to be a terrible friend colleague or manager. The problem is an absence of knowing how to have these kind of conversations. We think we live in a grief-phobic society, but I don’t actually think that. It's just that with grief we are afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing, so we don’t say anything at all.” It’s Not Solving for Grief – Isolation is the Key As the dinner parties multiplied, Lennon began to see them “not exclusively as a vehicle for connecting around grief from death or loss, but for taking sources of struggle that are shared experiences and turning them into experiences of connectivity. It didn’t take us long to realize that our work isn’t really about grief – the thing we were solving for wasn't grief, because you can't solve grief and you shouldn’t want to. It's not a thing to be fixed but to be held. The thing to fix is isolation – because of the way we silence ourselves: whatever you feel, you feel alone – you should be feeling or doing something else. It’s the rupturing of relationships that undergird every other problem in the world.” “That’s where we can help stage an intervention and connect people around shared experiences – so we water the seeds of resilience that live inside everything.” The Dinner Party became a way to do bridge building, not just across political differences but across lines of difference so that people might stop making assumptions based on a label or a stereotype that they placed on each other. “We were thinking about this for a long time, and then the elections happened,” Lennon said.” In the wake of last year’s divisive presidential campaign, The Dinner Party began trying to create healing spaces “to combat the hostility that permeates our present politics” so “we could build real trust and meaningful connection across lines of difference, be they political, cultural, racial, religious, or generational.” Following the election people expressed a hunger for ways to restore connections and heal from the divisive political campaign, and this propelled the demand for The People’s Supper. Self-Organizing to Meet a Growing Demand The demand was met because three Ashoka Fellows came together and pooled their organizations’ networks to spread the word and organize the dinners. “We envision a future in which other organizations and peer networks comprised of people with a shared experience — veterans’ groups, organizations serving the formerly incarcerated and their families, or support networks for survivors of domestic violence or sexual assault — can launch their own tables.” Lennon credits Ashoka and its network for having supported the three Ashoka Fellows that collaborated and built this movement: The Dinner Party, Hollaback, and the Faith Matters Network. These organizations “were borne of this network, and the way in which we are thinking was borne of this network,” she said." “From the outset, our end-goal was one of culture change. “Ashoka has been everything for me — an extraordinary laboratory of the world's best ideas and extraordinary people. They were people who recognized their own agency and that their role in the world was to give other people that agency so they could claim their power to move the world. They combined this with a deeply sophisticated ability to understand and diagnose problems.”

New skills are needed in an “everyone leads” environment,

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