Getting Beyond “Business as Usual”

Yes, this post is tardy. I don’t have any apologies to offer. I will say, though, that analysis paralysis is real and that sometimes the best way to get started with something is to just start :).

As I mentioned in my intro video as well as in my first post, as part of my day job, I manage a network of business support organizations (BSOs), all nonprofits and CDFIs that serve small business owners in Detroit. The network was convened as part of a broader, philanthropy-led initiative to promote entrepreneurship in the Detroit region. The initiative emphasizes creating more on-ramps and supports for minority and women owned entrepreneurs to participate; “Inclusion” or “an inclusive economy” are terms often used in messaging around the initiative.

Of course the elites at the helm of these foundations are the best equipped to define what it means to foster an inclusive economy and the roadmap for getting there….(for a critical analysis of this idea, see this).

Anyway, the network that I manage is made up of BSOs who tend to serve entrepreneurs with fewer resources and supports. They come together through committees and quarterly gatherings to connect around their work and also galvanize around higher-level issues impacting Detroit’s entrepreneurs at more of a systemic level like creating greater access to capital and more equitable access to commercial real estate.

As I’ve mentioned, in my view, the broader initiative and many members of the BSO network are focused on making “business as usual” accessible to more people. This work is not about transforming the fundamentals of the economy, how we do business or economic development. It’s about making sure that aspiring and current women and minority owned business owners have the supports needed to gain a seat at a broken table.

What does this look like in practice? I once moderated a panel in which an entrepreneur stated that he was frustrated that when he approached multiple BSOs about wanting to scale up manufacturing of his product, they wanted to help him get set up to have the manufacturing done oversees. The entrepreneur, however is a proud Detroiter, who very much wants to use his business to invest in the community. He wants to use space in Detroit and hire Detroiters to manufacture his goods.

The idea of “community wealth building” is certainly not a priority for the .001%ers at the helm of these organizations (who probably have to represent the interests of founders and boards who are probably the .000001%ers). It’s also not an articulated priority for members of the BSO network, which is more perplexing.

For this exercise, I’ll try to get inside of their heads.

Why isn’t “community wealth building” (here: practices which prioritize investment in local institutions, local people, local spaces) a top priority for members of the network?

  1. Philosophy/Belief: The goal of a business is to be profitable. At my organization, we view our work as helping entrepreneurs launch businesses that can be profitable and sustainable. There are organizations at the periphery of the network who talk about co-ops and things like that, but that’s not our focus.
  2. Funding: The funder led initiative has funded my organization for the past 5 years to provide xyz technical assistance to entrepreneurs. They’ve become a large part of our funding portfolio, such that we don’t have funding to do other entrepreneurship programs that are not related to the initiative. How, then, am I supposed to have time and capacity to talk to entrepreneurs about structuring their businesses so that they’re paying a living wage, etc.? I’m in the same boat as many people from peer organizations within the network. Most of us rely on the initiative for a large chunk of our annual budgets. Also, I can’t help but notice that none of the organizations that participate in the network who come from organizations that talk about community wealth or co-ops receive funding from the initiative. If the funder isn’t interested and my organization doesn’t have the time or expertise to work with entrepreneurs  to get them to understand why it’s important and how they can structure their businesses  from a community wealth building lens, why would I bring the topic up in our committees or gatherings?
  3. Priorities: When we set the annual priorities that the network will work on collaboratively, we start by sharing the most consistent or pressing needs that we hear from entrepreneurs in our day to day work. At my organization, we encounter entrepreneurs who want to achieve profitability or increase their profits. We talk to entrepreneurs all the time who were unsuccessful in accessing loans to build their businesses. We hear every day from them about how they’re sales would be better if they just had better marketing to reach more customers. What we don’t see as much is business owners (or aspiring business owners) coming to us because they want to know how to most effectively reinvest the wealth being generated through their businesses into the communities they serve or into their workers. We spend out time covering the basics that businesses need to be sustainable; “community wealth building”, therefore, is low on our priority list.

This exercise was helpful. Given this reality, I wonder whether/to what extent the organizations that DO prioritize investing locally, investing in workers, etc. can come together to create their own network and either attract funding from like-minded funders or pool their resources to start pushing their own agenda.

RS – Thank you for your questions and insights, Jessica and Michelle! Ironically, when I wrote this post, I didn’t think about what this could mean for me personally, as in, I didn’t write it with the intention of acting. I started the Incubator thinking of it as an escape/breath of fresh air from the dynamics of my day job, not a way to get better insight into how I could rethink my work. When I read “to help these BSO’s join you on this journey” and questions related to approaches that I might take (talking to the program officer, talking one on one to the BSOs), I started to see that I could possibly have a role in trying to shift the dynamic, rather than just complaining on the side lines. As it happens, I have a pretty good rapport with our program officer and he’s definitely someone with whom I could have a conversation about this. I think the biggest hurdle to making any movement in terms of trying to leverage this platform that I manage to advance an agenda from any side (i.e.working with BSOs who are grantees, the community wealth building advocates on the fringe, the funder) has been me mentally having put that part of my work in a box labeled with things like “missed opportunity”, “case study: what’s wrong with the nonprofit sector”, “to the extent possible, avoid thinking about this”. Maybe it is time for me to get in the game and try to create the change that I want to see! 

A Slice of Empathy

First, it is only fitting – and, hopefully, not eye-rolling – that I request empathy of my fellow cohort members for my tardy post this week. I spent most of the past few days asleep and resting, home from work, afflicted by some unknown ailment from which I am only now recovering. I apologize for not routing my energies to my post before Wednesday to provide you all with more time for review and comment as all of you have done despite your own busy schedules.

One of my goals for this incubator is to convert PizzaPlex to worker ownership in 2020. The dependency upon which all conversion activities rests are improved financials. In this scenario, the exercise of showing empathy for people who buy from our competitors only makes for critical competitive analysis – so I welcome this activity with open arms.

Why People Who Eat Non-PizzaPlex Pizza Are Right

First, before I empathize with the non-PlexPeople, a word on PizzaPlex (ok, this part is actually very many words):

The mission of PizzaPlex L3C (low-profit LLC, a structure of incorporation in Michigan that – despite its name – does not mean the LLC is subject to low profit only, but that it can offer a social benefit along with striving for profit) is to serve delicious pizza while uplifting people and planet. We offer pay-it-forward programs where any individual can redeem a free pizza, food, or coffee – no questions asked. We scale this up for community organizations who need pizzas for their meetings or events. Our customers have helped us serve hundreds of pizza at no-cost to non-profits and Detroiters since opening in September 2017. Our entire restaurant reduces, reuses, and recycles, and is the second entity in the entire city to leverage a green infrastructure credit program with the water department. We compost all our organic scraps and even accept residents’ compostables in case they do not have access to composting. We throw out the equivalent of less than two residential bins of trash per month because we reuse, recycle, or compost the rest. These are some examples of our regard for people and planet.

So, back to the product: PIZZA. PizzaPlex is Detroit’s first and only pizzeria serving certified Vera Pizza Napoletana (VPN). This means, the pizzeria applied for and received approval from a third-party entity known as the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana (AVPN) that the restaurant is preparing pizza in a centuries-old style from Naples, Italy, that uses specific ingredients (e.g. finely milled flour called 00 flour, certain types of tomatoes, cheese, and yeast, etc.) and employs very precise equipment and techniques for baking. We have an oven from Naples in the restaurant that blisters each pizza curst at nearly 800 degrees F for less than two minutes. Pizzas must be approx. 12” wide and have a softer, chewier dough compared to US-style pizza – making individual slice sales very difficult or infeasible.

Our head pizzaiuolo has worked in a pizzeria in Naples. Photos of my Neapolitan grandparents adorn our walls as an homage to everything they did to provide me with the opportunity to share the culture of Naples in Detroit. The AVPN president made me a personalized video indicating how proud he was that I representing Naples globally.

So, as the resident Neapolitan whose extended family still resides in Naples while operating a pizzeria throughout my childhood, VPN certification was a must for any pizza business I started. In the spirit of “seeing the other side,” I’ll quote Chicago’s Giordano’s pizzeria history of pizza to explain why, beyond the cultural familiarity of the food, Vera Pizza Napoletana holds significance related to the mission of our social enterprise, to make delicious food accessible to all:

Naples was a thriving port city, and the areas near the waterfront were crowded with the working class. These people, many of whom were quite poor, had few places to cook. They often heated large, flat stones to cook flatbread, then topped the bread with cheese, meat and other items. Because they had to hurry back to work, they folded the cooked flatbread up into a pocket and ate it later, or ate it as they walked. The very first pizzeria was founded in the year 1760 in Naples. Da Pietro pizzeria opened its doors in Naples to sell their inexpensive flatbread concoctions to hungry dock workers.

In 2017, Unesco designated the art of the pizzaiuolo, or pizza maker, world heritage status. “The pizzaiuolo craft has been handed down for generations, Unesco said, and encompasses the social ritual of songs, stories and gestures that takes place between pizza makers (‘pizzaiuoli’) and diners in working class Neapolitan neighbourhoods.”

For me, pizza is personal. Pizza represents access and the right of all people to high quality, delicious food. I’m not naive to recognize classism in commerce. But I believe pizza is symbolic of a story that refuses to compromise quality for means. As a good Neapolitan, it’s a borderline irrational mantra.

And now, the moment we’ve all been waiting for. The competitor’s customer is right because…

  1. They don’t consider PizzaPlex pizza “pizza.” I spent paragraphs above explaining how “different” the VPN pizza is. A person in Detroit or the Detroit area familiar with pizza more commonly found in the US has many examples of pizza as it is traditionally known in this country, but – guess what – virtually no examples outside of PizzaPlex.* If a pizza customer is craving a pizza, what is the opportunity cost of trying something drastically different, and not at all obtaining what you expected? That can be high risk with such a notorious comfort food like pizza. I presume the majority of pizza-ingesting people in the Metro Detroit area would fall under this category.
  2. They are confused by PizzaPlex. Is this place a non-profit? (I’ve heard this question before in the restaurant.) Are you a charity? (Heard this one too.) I’m confused – where is the event? (Did I mention we are also a community event space?) Again, I spent paragraphs explaining our mission and the cultural importance of the food we prepare. To whom else does this matter? Is what we are doing clear? Or are we confusing people in our messaging?
  3. They have never heard of PizzaPlex. While we have some amazing regulars (thank you, dear, wonderful return customers!), we have been struggling with marketing and reaching new audiences. Am I demonstrating obliviousness by saying we might be a niche business?
  4. They don’t care about the bla bla bla acronyms and the Naples hoopla and the fancy imported ingredients. Try as we might to stress the mission, the affordability (our pizzas range from $5 to $14 for a full pie), that might not matter to someone interested in good food. Could we be alienating potential customers by celebrating what makes us different?
  5. They want a slice of pizza. We don’t sell individual slices.
  6. They want pepperoni. We don’t serve pepperoni. And when we start to explain that our spicy salame is close to pepperoni, would they like to try it? They check out. Don’t underestimate people’s love for pepperoni.
  7. They don’t like it. And when you only have occasion to try it once (literally) – it may be a hard sell to come back for it and give it another shot.
  8. They don’t want to travel to a specific neighborhood for pizza when they could access different styles of pizza much closer. We are in a neighborhood of Detroit and even our Grubhub delivery radius only goes so far.
  9. They have other pizzeria choices down the street from PizzaPlex in either direction. None of them are VPN-certified, but they may be a closer fit for that customer. Is our value proposition, our “edge,” strong enough to lure them away from their tried and true choice? Probably not.
  10. They can’t try our food during our open hours. We are open Wednesdays through Saturdays, from 4 pm to 11 pm. Unfortunately, we can’t afford to be open during lunch hours or other times on the weekend. We might be missing a segment of potential customers as a result.

What am I missing? Why is the competitor’s customer right?

* The first and only other AVPN-certified pizzeria in Michigan is in the Metro Detroit area; however, this is about 30 – 40 min away from PizzaPlex

RS – My reflection for this post is delayed, yet, this marks one of the posts whose comments surprised me the most and with which I had to sit longest. The messages were straightforward, simple, and clear. I think what I was not expecting was the depth of perspective hearing about the business both from the eyes of those familiar and those out of state, less familiar with PizzaPlex. Reading others’ impressions of a venture that I feel is so intimate and personal always gives me pause.

I appreciated the warm response to the vision and commitment of the business. Knowing the CPA incubator includes kindred souls who are motivated first by equity and radical transformation of broken systems, I felt so affirmed that my (long) post communicated the PizzaPlex mission in a way that like-minded people could digest (pun intended and I’m not ashamed).

I also appreciated the very practical tips commenters provided. Yes to all of the above! I had considered the suggested ideas in passing before, but seeing them succinctly captured in writing is invaluable for me. This incubator reminds me how I tend to overwhelm myself unnecessarily; that if I take things one step at a time with the long-term goal in mind but not stopping me before I start, I can accomplish more than I expect.

The Right Kind of Empathy?

This is a tricky prompt for me because I’ve struggled a lot with how to calibrate my own empathy.

I really like connecting to people who think differently and believe differently than me. That’s one of the best parts of working with a team of people, too. I welcome push back and alternative ideas and suggestions.

Growing up, I spent a lot of time with friends in our local Amish community. My Amish friends are some of the most curious and interested people I know. Because they are secure in their own beliefs, they have deep interest in other people’s views. I try to follow their example.

There are, of course, limits to the space I have for other points of view. Here at the PRC, we say that we’re happy to work with anyone as long as they’re working in a way that is healthy for them and for their organization. While not always perfectly clear, this guideline has worked fairly well for us, especially when we personally disagree with an organization’s theology.

The people that I struggle to find empathy for are not the people I disagree with as much as the people who seem to have no agency. The people who are inward looking always and seem to have a bunker mentality about whatever problem they’re facing. Perhaps it’s because I am relentlessly enthusiastic in my problem solving that I really struggle to relate to people who are bent on maintaining, even if it means failing.

Here’s an example: On Tuesday, a foundation we relate to called to say that they would like our help with a project they’re working on. Working with RIP, they would like to wipe out the $39 million in medical debt here in Lancaster County, which they can do for $39,500. They could do this on their own, but they wanted to include churches in this project, if they could. The publicity for this project will be strong and they wanted churches to benefit, if they can.

This is the kind of project I love because it’s a concrete step that, while small, makes a substantial difference in people’s lives and pushes back against a system that is deeply broken. I also love that it crosses theological lines and that churches with very different faith understandings can agree that eliminating crippling medical debt is a good and important thing.

And so it was with enthusiasm that my co-workers and I set about calling fifty local churches (with whom we have long relationships) to see if they wanted to be part of what felt to me like a small miracle. I’ve worked with churches for a long time, but the negative responses we received from many of them stunned me. Why didn’t they want to participate? Because it would take money away from them.

I think I understand this perspective, and it is a common theme when dealing with churches. But one thing I think that most likely indicates whether a church will thrive or barely survive is how outward facing they are in their approach to their communities. Maybe this idea isn’t right for them, but do they connect to their communities in other ways? Or do they hunker down and just hope things don’t fall apart?

Father Boyle, who I adore, always says of people who drop out of the Homeboy system that they just aren’t ready yet. I like this approach because it’s open, leaves lots of space for return or reengagement, and yet draws boundaries and honors the work of those who get sober, leave their gang, and choose a new path for their life.

I try to think of these inert churches in this way. They just aren’t ready yet. And frankly, part of my job is to get them there. But sometimes they’re never ready. And I still struggle to know how to respond to that.

Arguing that which has no(t as much) defense

Hi everyone! Sorry I’m late again with this week’s post. A lot of travel has been messing up my schedule. 

Anyways, I’m writing this post from my flight (now delayed and needing to switch my connection, smh 🤦🏻‍♂️). Because of how late this post is, I had the chance to skim some of the other posts before writing this one and I particularly liked Jonathan’s recount of class struggles and how they conflict with the notion of empathy.

While this exercise seems simple enough, but I can’t help but feel that this just barely scratches the surface. I imagine scenarios where people have conflicting interests that come from legitimate places where empathy can’t be divorced from compromise. 

Regardless, I think empathy is probably a powerful ingredient in consensus building, especially in topics outside of work (though we all bring our emotional irrationality to work, no doubt). 

I recall, throughout my life and recently as well, scolding people for their demonstrated lack of empathy. This has been especially common with the men in my life in the context of someone approaching them to talk about their problems. We men seem to have this almost knee-jerk reflex to try and solve someone else’s problems when oftentimes they just want to be heard and feel taken care of. But what happens when there is an ideological disagreement beyond a particular situation? 

Now, in the context of this prompt, I’m going to analyze a particular scenario I ran into a few months back with the Trump-voting, climate change-denying, “came from nothing” (I hear this one too much in the U.S, as if they weren’t born with their privilege 🤷🏻‍♂️) father of this guy I’ve been going out with. 

My first instinct is to say “you’re everything that’s wrong in the world”. Then I breathe (goosfrabba, for those who get the reference) and think “bless your heart, you’re just dumb as rocks”. Finally, when I get past that point, I usually try to fact check and educate to only realize their arguments are not actually grounded in facts but are entirely emotional. They find “logical” arguments to match their emotions even if the facts don’t add up or without bothering to do research to back up their positions. When I figure this is the case with someone, I’ll respectfully de-escalate because I consider them a lost cause. 

In this exercise, I’m going to try to empathize on a new level. I’ll take a look at 3 separate cringe-worthy (for me) qualities of this person, dig down to the whys underneath the whys and attempt to conciliate. These are: Voting for trump, denying climate change, and saying they come from nothing. 

Voting for Trump: In his case, I don’t find it hard to understand why he did this. He is a 55 year old man in IT who lost his job and is now having to work several temp jobs to make ends meet. Trump’s entire platform was appealing to the “overlooked, forgotten” masses in industrial and rural areas of the country, away from the technocratic, highly educated, better off progressives living in larger cities. He promised jobs and prosperity after a crippling crisis of which we were still kind of recovering from. He also addressed the issue of trade, corruption in Washington and its effects on jobs and even stoked the fear of mass immigration to the country. It was all based on fear. Fear that this man knows all too well because he lives it. In the end, I think voting for trump was a cry for help. Not because a wall or travel ban may be the best solution to immigration or a trade war the best way to bring jobs, but because they felt scared and then heard for the first time in a while. 

I’m sure many of them had higher hopes for this administration, but alas, the recent elections show that people are acting in their disappointment towards this guy. I get it. In his shoes, I might have done the same. Even if it were just to give a big middle finger to the system (and seeing what’s happening in Chile, we may expect more than just a rude gesture in the coming future). 

Climate-change denying: ugh, this one is tough for me to justify. I say this as I drink soda out of a single use plastic cup in an airplane, so the hypocrisy is not lost on me and maybe I’ll use this angle to argument on his behalf. 

The truth is that our entire way of life has been engineered around convenience and not having to pay for “the true cost” of things. By this I mean that, in a perfectly designed economy, we would all be internalizing all of the externalities our actions create into the cost we pay for the goods and services we purchase. For example, if using a plastic cup costs me 5 cents but recycling this cup further down the line costs 10 cents, I should be paying the 15 cents at the moment of purchase. If transporting this cup to the plant costs another 5 cents, I should pay for that too and so on (and not through recycling subsidies which are invisible to my decision making process). But because we aren’t used to it, and we’re so predisposed to want immediate gratification, we’ve been accustomed to living a life style that is not sustainable for our planet. And it’s hard because, by definition, this means we won’t be able to live like this forever and we’re going to have to give it up at one point.

While many of us try to do the best we can, that’s often not enough and we still find ourselves using our cars, taking planes and using single use plastics much more than we should. Now if I put myself in the position of a man who is struggling to make ends meet, who is not finding professional fulfillment like he used to and probably deriving a larger share of the pleasures of life from activities and things that some people are claiming to be “threatening our existence as a planet” when it’s just a coffee from a Keurig pod, maybe I’d be pissed and a little incredulous as well. Then hearing these same people espouse a theory about changing climate over decades would seem even more far fetched. 

If I also consider, in the back of my mind, that the effects are very long term, so much so that I may not even be alive to see them, then yeah…screw that. I’d be inclined to blissfully and with willingfull ignorance continue to eat my double beef patty burger, and not even bother to care about how cattle farming is one of the top drivers of deforestation. Oh well, maybe we humans are too short-term thinking to be able to make it out of this one. Many parasitic organisms and diseases operate the same way, eventually killing their hosts and themselves with them. I guess this is just the way of nature. 

“Coming from nothing”: While not precisely white, he is a white presenting Puerto Rican from New York who is used to the hustle mentality, and he admits to have grown up in a low income family. I don’t deny that he worked hard to be able to forge his path in the world a raise his family. I won’t also deny that he had a good head start because he was a white presenting man. 

But looking at this item, I can’t help but recall a particular argument I had with an ex in Chile where he basically said , supposedly not including me in this, that the achievements by anyone in upper middle class in Chile were moot because of their privilege. While I remember tearing him a new one for 1: excluding himself because he worked in the religious non-profit world (martyr mentality much?) but conveniently forgetting the fact that his entire professional life was a hand-me-down from his religious network from the small town he grew up in after bombing his college admissions, that he has fancy-last name privilege (our version of white privilege in Chile) on top of the fact that he went to the top school in his town and 2: for pretending that there is no dispersion within any given group of people. Specifically, while I was born with privilege, I have far outperformed and outworked 90% of my peer network from Chile from a professional and social-contribution standpoint ever since I was in high-school while he was basically the epitome of small town religious nepotism. 

Recalling this argument, I know that whatever privilege this man has had in his life probably doesn’t discount all of his struggles. It also doesn’t diminish his sense of achievement at all. Many people with more of a head-start did not do as well and I don’t feel inclined to take for granted that raising and providing for a family is trivial for anyone, even the most privileged. But as he’s gone through losing his job in his 50s, having to reskill to do other things, and continue to look out for his kids and grandkids, I can’t help but feel a lot of warmth and compassion towards him. We may all end up in a similar spot further down the road, where ageism becomes a real barrier to finding work. I hope he fares well moving forward. 

Anyways, that’s my post for this week. Oh well. I feel a little more compassion and understanding at least, but I struggle with justifying some actions, especially the ones that most impact climate just because of the massive danger it is proving to be. 

Anyways, I hope this wasn’t too tiring of a read. Until next time! 

RS: so as I think through the comments this week, my conclusion is that, other than M and J being right about the corporations’ ploy for lower and middle income scapegoats for the climate problem, is that I needn’t be so visceral on my judgement about people and that a little distance and time would favor me when coming up with responses to conflicting postures. I could imagine this being a useful skill when meeting religious leaders. We will probably have differences in ideology to spare. But I don’t need to get hooked on or react immediately to them. I can afford myself time to kill over and empathize, away from the sense of fake urgency that seems to plague our daily lives. I want to believe that we have more in common than different and that’s what gives me hope that we can find a solution to this and many other critical problems of our time. I hope we realize this soon.

Attempt at the Vulcan Mind Meld

In much of my work these days, when I encounter resistance, I don’t spend a lot of effort trying to persuade people and institutions to adopt an anchor mission lens. I try to inspire them with stories and examples, but I pretty much stop there. I feel that my energy is better spent with institutions that are ready to dip their toe in the water and see what’s possible. I think that helping birth demonstration projects with willing partners is the best way to create the change we are working towards. Additionally, it allows reluctant anchors to see that community wealth building strategies work, and we start to build a new norm for how anchor institutions are expected to show up in the community.

There is an exception to my current decision to not bang my head on an institution’s walls, as there is one institution where the stakes are too high. If they choose to reject the community wealth building lens as they build out their new campus, the surrounding neighborhoods, primarily home to immigrants from Latin America, will be displaced due to gentrification pressures. There is a long list of atrocities and injustices this neighborhood has endured since its early days, including being one of the most polluted zip codes in the country.

The governing body for the entity that will bring this campus to life and manage the public-private partnership, as well as the facilities and programming was seated by vote of the Denver City Council in early 2018 with the CEO and a skeleton staff hired in early 2019. The project gained traction in November 2015 after Denver voters approved extension of a tourist tax to provide $856 million in public funds for the campus redevelopment efforts. In addition to constructing a 250-acre campus, there are multiple infrastructure projects occurring simultaneously that are creating significant disruptions and inconveniences for residents, while also causing property values and rents to soar.

Their public relations materials not withstanding, increasing economic opportunity for their surrounding low-income neighbors is a low priority based on their actions to date. To help them be equipped to deliver on their stated intention of wanting to lift all boats, we proposed creating and funding a high level staff position within their organization that would be dedicated to applying the community wealth building lens to their operations. The offer wasn’t rejected out right, but the CEO told us he needed more time to convince his board that this was the right move for the organization. He asked us to give him six months.

We have a January meeting with them on the calendar (this is three months past the six months he requested). Our original idea to address their staffing capacity issues didn’t get us any closer to persuading them to adopt a community wealth building lens. So I am ready to dig into this week’s prompt to see if I can imagine the story they are telling themselves. Here goes …

Change is inevitable. Displacement is the story of the U.S. The land that Denver sits on was originally occupied by the Arapahoe tribe. Many of the original residents of the neighborhoods around this campus were Eastern European immigrants who worked in the smelter and refineries located there. The north-south Interstate (I25) divided the neighborhood, with construction completed in the late 50s and the east-west Interstate (I70) further bifurcated the neighborhood in the mid 60s. Today, the population is 90% Latino. Change is inevitable. We are making so many physical improvements to this neighborhood that it will at last become an amenity rich neighborhood. This is the march of progress.

We are building a campus from scratch and are responsible for animating this campus with programs and projects, scholarly research and world class entertainment, with the vision of being a profitable venue that contributes to solving global agriculture and water challenges. This is an audacious vision that we cannot be distracted from if we are to succeed. Our mission does not include creating a new economic development paradigm focused on an economic system that works for everyone. That is a huge undertaking that we are not equipped to take on. In fact, it isn’t congruent with the Western heritage of rugged individualism that our campus celebrates. We are under incredible pressure to deliver on the vision for this campus and building community wealth doesn’t fall within our wheelhouse or our mission.

There are so many different factions in the neighborhoods that it will be impossible for us to please everyone. We will become mired in conflicts that negate the good will we have been working so hard to secure. Bad publicity is the last thing we need.

We are already partnering with WorkNow to support residents in being hired for campus construction jobs.

Since we are creating this thing from scratch, we don’t know what jobs or goods and services we are going to need to purchase. The neighborhood businesses aren’t ones that provide the types of goods and services we are going to need. Fostering the development of new businesses and worker cooperatives to meet our business needs doesn’t fall within our mandate. We would be happy to communicate our needs, once we know them, to an entity that can help grow local business capacity.

We are really afraid of being distracted from our mission and afraid that we won’t be able to meet the mandate we have been given. We must stay laser focused on our mission.

We have expended considerable time and resources on engaging the community. We have bent over backwards to solicit input from our neighbors and many of our programming priorities have been shaped by residents. This reflects our desire to be a welcoming neighbor and to make this place one that is relevant to our neighbors. Yet, our audience is also the entire city, the region, the state, the West, the globe!! This hyper-local perspective you all are touting doesn’t mesh with our global vision.

We are slightly intrigued by the idea of having a national spotlight shone on us for our successful efforts to minimize involuntary displacement by deliberately creating avenues for residents to access new economic opportunities created by our presence. However, the majority of our board members are conservative and want to let the free market dictate who benefits from our presence.

It is so much easier to work with large corporations that are well-oiled machines in terms of handling concessions, security, building and landscape maintenance, etc. Again, we just don’t have the bandwidth to nurture new businesses.

The Vulcan mind meld would sure be nice, right about now.

Another idea that comes to mind:
We discuss whether a 6-month contract with a business analyst consultant would be useful. This person would complete a business plan for their operations, which would identify future staffing needs and their projected needs for specific goods and services, including recommendation regarding out-sourcing or developing in-house capacity. Similar to our earlier proposal, we would offer to raise the funds for this hire. We would then need to build capacity within the Center for Community Wealth Building to be able to connect the community to the opportunities identified in the plan. This solution takes the burden of action away from them.

This idea still reflects holding onto my original, probably naive belief that it is their fear of being unable to deliver on their mandate that is what’s driving them. I want for this to be true! If it is, we should be able to problem solve with them about how the community wealth building work can be accomplished by others, as long as they commit to providing us with timely information about their business needs and requirements.

However, I’m afraid that what is driving them is a commitment to the status quo for how business is conducted. Fortunately, the new City Council person for this district is a Social Democrat and close friend of Yessica. There are strong resident leaders and growing momentum for developing a Community Benefits Agreement. A lot can be gained from a CBA, but it doesn’t achieve igniting their imagination for building community wealth.

NOTE: After this exercise is complete I want to remove this post since its contents are sensitive!

RS: The plot thickens … or maybe the plot thins. I’m not sure! I had a good telephone conversation with the CEOs deputy on Thursday afternoon. I called her to follow-up on a request that came in from a board committee chair. This is the first time I have spoken with her. I was surprised that she excused herself from a meeting to take my call and we had about a 30-minute conversation. And it was a real conversation.

The bad news is that it looks like they are moving in the direction of turning over facilities management to whomever is selected in response to an RFP that the City is currently drafting. It’s a bit too complicated to explain all the details, but there is a possibility that negotiating on the requirements stipulated in the RFP, could be influenced by community input, if the process for engaging the community in this effort is done well. To date, their idea of community engagement is very limited and ineffective. Yessica and others have provided input on how to effectively engage community voices, but so far it hasn’t resulted in new ways of doing business.

Traditional CBA’s are between a community and a developer. It looks like that is the direction things are going here, too. I think it will be a stronger message for a developer if there are requirements baked into the RFP that address local hiring and procurement, as well as committing to supporting the launch of worker cooperatives to fulfill some of the sub-contracting spots. Hopefully they will also include requirements for significant numbers of deeply affordably housing units. I don’t think the City has ever issued an RFP that would have these kinds of requirements, but the deputy shared with me that the RFP is emphasizing an equitable development framework for this parcel of land that is connected to the campus that I described in my post. I have no idea if this is possible, but I think it would be advantageous instead of setting up a CBA negotiation after the developer has already been selected by the City. I am not knowledgeable enough about these processes to know if my ideas have any chance of even being considered.

The deputy also shared with me that she has an upcoming 1:1 meeting with the City Councilwoman previously mentioned. They are definitely scared of her, because she has already proven a formidable opponent. Yessica will share with the City Councilwoman the intel that I picked up this week. Whether my approach can work or whether a CBA process is launched, there will be considerable pressure applied by the City Councilwoman to run an effective and legitimate community engagement process.

The deputy also shared that their board is scared of a CBA and wary of what it means to adopt an anchor mission approach. I really like Sheila’s idea to connect the board more directly with residents on residents’ turf. I am going to find out if that has happened already. I believe that staff feels like they have been going to community tables to have real conversations — but I’m skeptical about it. And I’m doubtful that the board members have been out in the community. There is one resident that sits on the board with a vote, but he is hardly representative of the community. There is also a non-voting resident that attends the board meetings and can participate, but not vote. She is an excellent participant and is providing effective leadership even without voting privileges. The board is so stacked and very clearly reflects tokenism when it comes to community engagement.

Jenai the points you raise around how our negotiating position could be stronger if we more deliberately partnered with others raises some interesting issues. Yessica is very connected in this community and has been working behind-the-scenes and overtly as an advocate lifting up voices of resident and small business owners. The City and the authority for the campus are very adept at dodging responsibility and pointing away from themselves and then presenting things as ‘done deals.’ It’s been maddening, pretty much from day one. Center for Community Wealth Building has yet to position itself as an adversary. So far, we have tried to overtly work with the authority, while still very clearly being an overt advocate for community members. Behind the scenes, Yessica helps community organizers and leaders, the councilwoman and our few allies on the board develop strategy for how to prevail. Politically, I think it is probably important for us to continue in this vein, primarily because we want anchor institutions to trust that we want to work with them.

The drama continues.

Empathy: A Tool for Liberation or Simply Self-Preservation?

I must say that while I am excited to think about the role emotions play in the decision-making process, I also found this week’s prompt incredibly challenging.  As I shared with my amazing #TeamTuesday, this prompt brought up a lot of emotions. When I moved back to the US, I was told by white people that I should try to understand Trump supporters, and that I should just “grow thicker skin.” 

Don’t get me wrong, I definitely understand the struggle of rural Americans.  I understand that the concept of “privilege” is very different for them. I also understand the level of manipulation that has made a disenfranchised group of people believe that another oppressed group is their enemy.  It is this system of manipulation that convinced low-income whites that their poverty is directly connected to immigrants in this country. It is maliciously brilliant to point fingers at an oppressed group instead of addressing the root cause and the policies of greed that have created an environment where the top 1% of Americans own 40% of the country’s wealth (source: Federal Survey of Consumer Finances).  I get that. What I have a difficult time understanding is a decision based on hate. 

I cannot logically justify someone voting for a white supremacist and sexual predator who has instilled so much hate towards my people.  I do not understand how some can even vote against their own self-interest simply because their hate is stronger. How can I be empathetic towards those who hate my very own existence?  How can I be empathetic to those who protest Planned Parenthood in the name of life and Christian values but ignore the lives of the innocent children who are caged at the border? Do they deserve my empathy when, in their eyes, my people are not worthy of theirs? Can I have empathy and still have boundaries to ensure that I am not attacked? 

I find that it is much easier for me to empathize with the oppressed, but incredibly difficult to empathize with the oppressor, although I try. In fact, it has been empathy and honest curiosity that has held me back from reacting to hateful personal attacks. I have found empathy to be one of my strongest defense mechanisms in this new environment of normalized racism.

I also realize that power dynamics play a critical role. Can empathy be used to equalize power? Will we ever get there if only the oppressed are empathetic towards their oppressors? How do we gain power to spark social change and a radical transformation?  How do we change the systems that have manipulated human beings to play into a system that oppresses human beings? 

I guess I need to go back and re-read Paulo Freire.  I want to believe that the oppressed will not only liberate themselves but also their oppressors.  But, how do we abandon the oppressor’s tools? How do we develop and embrace our own? I guess, for now, I’ll just grow thicker skin while I continue to fight the systems of oppression and do my part to repair the world.   

Reflection Script

I continued to reflect on empathy for the rest of the week.  I deliberately thought about empathy every time I disagreed with someone this week.  When I started to feel that uneasiness with a statement, I automatically went to, “Why is _______ right?”  While I am currently dealing with empathy fatigue, I am excited that this simple question, in essence, engages my intellectual abilities and minimizes the emotion. I believe that this skill will serve me well.

I realize that my empathy skills can be credited for my success at building and maintaining relationships.  These relationships have contributed so much to CCWB’s work. I also realize that empathy is the foundation to CPA’s model.  Understanding where all stakeholders are coming from creates a deep sense of connection and responsibility towards each other.  I will definitely keep that in mind as we are building CPA in Colorado.  

I truly appreciated your questions and reflections. The reality is that we are currently in a difficult space, but this too shall pass.  For now, If I could have lunch with someone today, I would definitely choose Paulo Freire (and invite Sheila). I would love to hear his assessment of our current environment. What would he do if he were me? How would his approach change?  What can we learn from this?  

I also realize that I did not directly address the prompt.  I, instead, dove into the philosophical side of empathy and the many components I am grappling with.  I am no one to take shortcuts, so here is the condensed version of the assignment.    

Why Funders Who Don’t Fund CCWB Are Right

CCWB is a fairly new organization.  With only two and a half years of operation, some funders perceive us as a risky investment.

Funders prefer quick results.  Changing systems is a very difficult and long process.  It is much more attractive to funders when you can say, “we helped XX entrepreneurs with developing their marketing skills” than “we built XX relationships to eventually change the system.”  

CCWB is a small organization with big goals. Does CCWB actually have the capacity to deliver?   While we are nimble and flexible to community needs, we are a risky investment.  

Funding CCWB can be a risky political move.  Why would foundations want to be associated with agitating the system that has worked great for their entities? Investing in us might put them in a difficult position.   

Thank you all again for your contributions! 

The nay-sayers are right

 Why people who buy from my competitor are right


  1. Who is “me”: For this essay, we are going to assume I am still myself
  2. My “product” is CPA membership in Los Angeles during year one when I am slowly having one on ones with religious and nonprofit leaders discerning if they have an appetite for this model, asking them to share their procurement information with me, and agitating to see whether they would put forward an initial investment and/or join the steering committee with the promise that their investment is a loan that would be paid back if it isn’t reimbursed through savings within the first three years (Felipe please fact check if this is a reasonable assumption)
  3. I have been credentialed by someone who these religious leaders have some trust with.
  4. The model of CPA I am selling balances concepts of member savings and equitable procurement such that members may be getting both
  5. “People” for the purposes of this exercise will be religious leaders in South Los Angeles, with the base assumption being that many of the most powerful leaders in that area are black.
  6. My competitor is two-fold: it’s concretely whatever current contract the institution has, and it’s theoretically the ability to switch contracts without a broker.

Going back to my 5-paragraph Essay Days: Why joining CPA LA is the wrong choice

         Religious leaders in South Los Angeles are right to buy their waste hauling, janitorial and other property-related services from their current vendors, or switch vendors without joining CPA LA for multiple reasons. Many if not most of these religious leaders are already immersed within networks and coalitions that are meeting their need to build relational power beyond their individual congregation. Furthermore, although savings and equitable procurement might appeal to these leaders, if they were to invest in staff time to rewrite their current procurement process and switch vendors, their self-interest would likely be in hiring someone within their community who has a greater need for employment and more trust locally. Finally, anything requiring time has an opportunity cost. Given the depth and range of socio-political issues pastors in the South side are called to lead on daily, they are right to focus their time, resources and energies building power for policy changes that could impact the whole community, rather than one contract that will impact a handful of congregations and a vendor.

         One of the major value adds of CPA’s model is getting institutional leaders into transformative relationship with their peers. These relationships can be launching points for organizing around political and policy-related issues as well as simply increasing a network of support and solidarity. However, in the dense social network of faith and values based institutions in Los Angeles any pastor with an appetite to get into transformational relationships has many more than one option already readily available to them to link into. In areas of the city that are particularly impacted by gang violence, lack of investment, over-policing and low quality education these social and professional networks have been both formal and informal spaces for successfully building relational power towards addressing these issues. Creating yet another space whose main selling point is the creation of important relationships is not worth the effort and time of convening.

         The CPA model benefits four stakeholders: the member institutions, who either receive savings, greater alignment with their values or both, the vendors receiving the contracts, the community organizing organizations that get a share of the profits, and the individuals who get employment through CPA itself. Given the historic abandonment and victimization of the South LA community, religious leaders in that area should invest time and energy into co-operative models where all four of the benefits stay within the local community. Upon hearing the idea of the model it would behoove religious leaders of South LA who potentially are interested in the savings and equitable procurement ideas to employ a local leader to direct the organization rather than a white French-American newcomer who may or may not have the best interest of the community in mind, has less social connections, cultural competency, and need for employment as others within the community.  

         Building a cooperative from the ground up requires an investment of time, money, or both. Although the benefits may outweigh the initial costs in the long term, Los Angeles is currently living through a political moment that provides opportunities for social change that may not be available within 3-5 years. The county board, made up of five individuals who collectively hold all real political power over a county whose population would make it the seventh largest state in the nation, is progressive and set on making real progress around criminal justice reform, housing, and other critical issues. Every minute of organizing time, every dollar of investment in social change is important now more than ever if the faith-based and advocate community is going to make the most of this political moment. Within a context where the opportunity is to significantly increase access to substance abuse services and reduce rates of incarceration countywide on the one hand, or saving a few thousand dollars and shifting profits from unethical companies to smaller minority-owned businesses, the choice is clear.

         Religious leaders in South LA should either build their own home-grown version of CPA or wait to invest in this model until other higher-order concerns have been addressed. Sticking with their current property-related service providers is the right thing to do.


Reflection Script

I’m glad I still got my high-school skills and was able to be convincing. 🙂 It’s a strong argument, and there are counter arguments that address some if not all of the points raised.

I don’t know that I learned anything particularly new writing this, other than just putting words and order to the intuition I’ve had ever since starting to visualize myself beginning this endeavor. Keeping this 5-paragraph argument in mind is important for receiving a potential “no thank you” or even just “No!” with an attitude of humility and respect, rather than arrogance and frustration. There were some moments in my life as an organizer where I saw the shadow side of an organizing culture that seeks to agitate leaders of all stripes and which comes with a normative sense that getting into action (implicitly, with us, in our way) is the best way forward. It’s a certain kind of orthodoxy which I have both great affection and alignment with but, like all orthodoxy, see as overly rigid and needing to be treated with some internal critique, distance, and humor/humility. Now, I agree enough with Juan’s flip side of the argument, and honestly could easily write a 5-paragraph essay arguing with myself to know that my instinct when encountering a “no” will still be to agitate, to invite in, to keep the door open, if I think there is a persuasive counter-argument then to persuade. I do think that having a strong credential can make a difference. I do think that with a little up-front energy the long-term benefits could be a significant contribution, and I don’t subscribe to the view that people with privilege and/or outsiders ought not have paid positions within justice work. After all, playing that out to its logical conclusion is oddly dystopic. (I’ve had this thought a lot and written several 5-paragraph essays in my mind, creating mental mazes arguing every side of telling myself what I should or should not be able to do, what is most fair, etc.) I do think we need to radically change the economy so that there are more jobs that promote social good rather than ill, and that in whatever position we find ourselves in we need to respect the grassroots leaders and knowledge that preceded our involvement in a particular issue/community. (For a real mind f***, excuse me but that is exactly what it is, on this subject I suggest those without an overly weak stomach watch “Parasite”) But I digress. The point is that the arguments I outlined above are real. And I want to respect and acknowledge they are real always, and empathize with those for whom they are the winning arguments, even if there are others.

That being said, no, I will not be skipping south LA. In fact I think it’s incredibly important the vendor and members in that region be part of reaping the benefits of CPA. I love Sheila’s idea of potentially having micro-CPAs that meet under a wider county-umbrella. Especially in terms of contracting locally (skip the traffic, save the environment) and investing into local organizing efforts that structure makes sense. Once savings are significant enough to hire multiple staff having local leads makes a ton of sense. I can imagine my value-add being catching the vision, gathering the early-adopters, launching something that begins to grow, and then either becoming a local (someone into theology and/or into state-buildling and/or racial justice please let’s have a conversation about how long it takes to be considered “part of” or what the difference is between investing and genuinely inhabiting a community and being an extractive/oppressive presence within it) or passing it off to someone(s) else. Of the two scenarios I imagine the second as much more likely, given my community-living post and other factors.

Also thanks for the clarification on initial funding, Felipe. I’m assuming our final project is our business plan so this is timely information! 🙂

Are there limits to empathy?

  1. 1.     If you seek to work with people who are coming from a place that doesn’t match yours, realize that you either have to tell a story that matches what they’re able to hear (tell your jokes in Italian), or work hard to change what they believe and what they want (possible, but really difficult).

TRIGGER WARNING: My post this week contains reference to campus-based sexual violence, so please know that before you read further.

This week’s prompt raised a lot of intense and valuable conversation in our Tuesday group, to whom I am grateful for their openness and insights. We talked at the feeling level about our reactions to the prompt, given our experiences in a range of contexts where power, significant differences in power, was a core issue, and where power was exerted to humiliate, condemn, malign, or otherwise harm another person or group. In this context, I find going to empathy EXTREMELY challenging. While I agree that empathy does not mean agreement, it does mean understanding, or as Brene Brown would suggest, it means accessing that place in ourselves where we know the feelings the other person may be experiencing. But are there limits to empathy? As a beginning student in the practice of NVC (non-violent communication), I would imagine Marshall Rosenberg would have said that empathy is the bridge that fuels connection and makes change possible.

And yet… I shared with my group the example of a situation involving a gang rape on the campus where I was the women’s center director. Part of my job included accompanying students to the hospital for rape kits. In this particular instance, the student survivor, raped at an on-campus party by multiple people who actually carried her down a hallway while she screamed for help to the inactive bystanders whom they passed, came forward for help because her best friend was at another college and insisted she get medical attention. While we were at the hospital for the exam, she was already receiving text messages from the perpetrators, fellow student athletes, threatening her that she better not tell anyone what they had done to her. I was appalled, enraged, and filled with despair. Our motto was “Men and women for others”, yet when it really, really matter, no one helped her, to say nothing of the students who committed this crime.

So, I began reading everything I could find on responses to campus-based sexual violence. I met with experts. I came up with a plan, based on emerging evidence about best practices. The VP of my division gave me the green light to write a federal grant application to get funding for a bystander intervention program. It took me six weeks, working my regular job plus every night and all weekend each weekend until the deadline loomed. I had 12 of the 13 needed signatures, which I had gathered through many relational meetings, curriculum demonstrations, and organizing of students. The 13th, the University president, refused to sign. The project seemed dead. How would we move forward with prevention efforts without funding or institutional support?

My VP (poster boy for Catholic higher education, favored “child” of the University president, later disappeared from the university due to his participation as a client in a sex trafficking ring, but this all transpired before the local police came to campus to find him) washed his hands of the incident. He didn’t care what I did, so long as I didn’t involve him. I asked for a meeting with the EVP of the University. I pleaded my case. I tried to get him to see things from my point of view, from the point of view from the students who were being sexually violated in our own residence halls. During the meeting, he looked at his watch and stifled a yawn.

Less than a decade before, literally a stone’s throw from the campus, Cardinal Bernard Law was found responsible for hiding the sexual abuse crisis in Boston, throughout the diocese, and, as the story was exposed, throughout the U.S. He was rewarded by the Church for his shell game of moving priests who were sex offenders (mostly sexually abusing children from poor families led by single mothers) with a post in Italy as the archpriest of the Papal Liberian Basilica of St. Mary Major.

It occurred to me that my superiors at Boston College envisioned their own rewards for silence on this issue of campus sexual violence.

I admit, I could not see their points of view. I did not have empathy. I had rage. It was rage that propelled me forward, looking for anyone I could find who could help me know what to do. A colleague of mine who had grown up in higher ed (her father was a dean, a provost, etc.) and had honed her own skills at Harvard, an institution infamously indifferent to the needs of marginalized persons, explained: I would have to go back to them and let them know that not only were they violating federal laws (Clery, Title IX, and VAWA), but a student would be likely to sue very soon, and the story would be on the news at 5.

And so I went back to the VP and got another meeting with the EVP. It was brief. I told him, “We’re going to be sued over this kind of incident [referencing the gang rape] and it will be on the cover of The Boston Globe”. I left, feeling utterly defeated. And then several weeks later, I received a terse email from my VP, letting me know that in the new fiscal year, we would be given an internal grant for $100,000 to develop the bystander education program. This was a sum equivalent to the VAWA grant. Ten times more than any annual budget my office had had in its 37-year history on campus.

By this time, I had decided to go back to school for my PhD and knew I would not be on campus for the new fiscal year. And I wanted to be excited, but instead I despaired. We got the money, but only because they were fearful of keeping their jobs and maintaining the image of the institution. Is this a version of telling a story they were able to hear? They didn’t care about sexual violence on campus, they didn’t care about our campus culture, or even the culture of our athletic teams. They only cared about damaging stories that could appear in the local newspaper. Perhaps that was the end of my innocence, or the beginning of wisdom, or some insight about how the world and people work. But it felt like defeat.

To this day, I cannot muster empathy for these men and I do not understand their point of view. I can recognize that they had needs for power in their world, control. They used strategies of image maintenance to protect the reputation of their brand and to maintain their power. They had a lot of power. They also had no empathy for victims of sexual violence in our community, even as their brand was built on fuzzy warm ideas about belonging and service and cura personalis (care of the person) and even social justice. I am at a loss because I fundamentally do not understand this world view, just like I do not understand separating children from their families and keeping them in cages (one of the critical issues raised by a member of our Tuesday group); or punishing people who have the courage to be clear about their gender identities even when those do not match identities assigned at birth; or knowing children are mowed down by people with guns – police or others- and still refusing to close loopholes in gun laws instead of prioritizing the safety of the most vulnerable members of our society.  

All of these issues, the story I shared, the ones we discussed in our Tuesday group, and more, leave me wondering – where does empathy end and power analysis begin?

Paul Piff’s research suggests that after a certain point in the process of wealth acquisition, human beings lose our capacity to think with empathy. Our brains are literally hijacked by greed, and it is very difficult for us to make decisions for the common good. I think we are seeing this now with #45 and many of his decisions, as well as those of his political allies and their supporters. What is the role of empathy in this context? It is not appropriate to diagnose a person I have not actually seen in a clinical setting, but if I were to make an educated guess, I think it is likely that #45 and even those “poster boys” for the Catholic Church’s finest “family” men, would be considered to meet a threshold for narcissistic personality disorder. People who have this type of disorder often belittle others to make themselves feel superior, exaggerate their accomplishments, easily feel slighted and are quick to act with vengeance, expect special favors, and display a pathological lack of empathy for others. Does it matter if I understand them? Does it matter if I experience empathy toward them? If I am not willing to give in to their demands, accept the walls they have constructed, or agree to their worldview, is a relationship or a relational way of doing business, even feasible? This is not a rhetorical question. I don’t have an answer. I am curious about your experiences with people who lack empathy and who hold great power. Has empathy served as a bridge? Or has it been used to pervert the change you seeking to make? Or both? Or neither?

Reflection Script. Thank you for the empathy and support in each of the comments people shared on my post this week. I am grateful.

Juan Francisco wisely asked, “if you were to run into the same situation today where you work, how would you approach it differently? Assuming the years, writing and studying since those days have made you wiser, what would you do to stop that from happening again?”

I think this is a good beginning question. What would I do differently? I don’t think it is likely I could have done much about the senior administrators’ lack of empathy or interest, because the structure is so hierarchical there, as in many institutions, it would have been difficult to get much access to these leaders without a very specific purpose/crisis. And while my colleagues who knew what was happening were outraged, they were also afraid to say much. They didn’t know how. Sexual assault was a taboo subject. Openly questioning institutional authority was even more taboo.

However, as Carrie pointed out, even though it is not my/our jobs, I wonder if things would have been different if I could have imagined each of these men as confused children? That may have helped me to see them differently, and to hold that lens as I investigated Felipe’s questions about their own cultural waters and thought about how to change it.

Perhaps, then I could have used my NVC skills, while still being clear, especially with myself, about Magelette and Yessica’s wisdom about doing the work and the power analysis as part of the work.

I imagine saying to the EVP, “I see you yawning and looking at your watch. Are you feeling bored? Uncomfortable?” I could take some needs guesses, “Do you need some fresh air? Some movement? Shall we walk together?” He would have been so flummoxed by my directness (not part of the lace curtain Irish culture), I’m not sure what he would have said! LOL!!! He probably would have brushed off my questions as too intimate, inappropriate, or uncomfortable. The end result would probably be the same: I raised legitimate concerns about potential lawsuits and unwanted media attention, so he would have found the funds for the prevention education program, knowing he fulfilled his promise to the University president to keep the school off of the cover of the Globe due to negative press.

When I was preparing to leave the University, my favorite Jesuit, Fr. Jack, told me, “You’ll feel anger. Maybe not right away, but about six months from now, it will hit you”. I had not told him the story about the student who had been sexually assaulted by several other students in one of our residence halls, but he seemed to understand something about the place: enough people were invested in the status quo, it was not about to change. For those of us who could not tolerate it, leaving would bring relief and also a kind of internal reckoning, required for recalibrating to live in the world anew.

And perhaps this goes to two things we’ve discussed: why me/why us/WHY NOW? And Yessica’s question: If they are not capable of empathy, what does this mean for the rest of us? In the past year, that same University has had to contend with waves of protests about race-based bias incidents, multiple student suicides, and a federal lawsuit related to its handling of Title IX cases. The concerns I and others have raised in the past are recurring ones. And though it may be cold comfort, I can’t help but think that empathy or not, those guys who run the place will have to contend with history. I wonder if they are thinking about what it means to be a righteous gentile? Does Dr. King’s wise warning, “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice”, rest heavy on their minds? Maybe even that does not matter, because what we resist persists; perhaps this time, someone up there on The Heights will finally think to inquire how things are for their own students? Or not. But eventually, I have to hope, those old, rigid ways will dissolve in to the world’s unfolding.

willingness to be changed

Reflection Script: I’m putting this at the beginning because it’s more important than the first part.

I want to start by really affirming and respecting all the blog posts that have raised skepticism and tension and anger at the idea that we should seek to open empathetically to all relationships. I agree that empathy is not appropriate in many situations, particularly in unsafe ones. 

I did notice a few assumptions underlying some of these conversations, as well as in our broader societal questions on empathy. This is not meant to resolve those tensions. On the contrary. I’m curious how it will land.

I want to question the assumptions that:

  •  empathizing means giving up power.
  • empathizing with the oppressor or people who hate us is itself an injustice.


I’ve been working through this for two years with someone who hurt me. I find that empathy is the first step towards forgiveness, and I want to work towards forgiving him. Not for his sake, but for mine. I realize that actually holding on to the hurt is hurting me far more than it’s hurting him. On the other hand, I don’t want to forgive him!  First of all, because F*$k him! Secondly, because it feels wrong! Unjust! On a universe-level, I can’t let this slide. And I don’t want him with any part of his being to think what he did is OK. I don’t want him to ever do that to me or someone else ever again. And I don’t want to make myself vulnerable to being hurt again. In this sense, I feel a responsibility to hate him. 

What I have (slowly, slowly) been starting to see is that how I feel towards this person does not  have a sway on the justice scales of the universe. My actions do, but my feelings are not my actions. I fear, often, that they are, that letting my guard down will allow me to get hurt again. Enter anxiety. Enter depression. 

Through my process of healing, I have found that I am not my emotions, and that if I can see that and know that, I am not bound to them. That I can feel my own emotions fully and find space to empathize with this person who hurt me. That I can see he was acting out of his own fear and confusion, and that this doesn’t in any way eclipse my own experience, my empathy for myself. And that this clarity is not disempowering, it’s empowering! I can let go of the anger and allow for healing, and I can work to do whatever the world needs to stop this kind of bullshit from continuing.

What allows me through this practice of healing is safety. Emotional and physical safety. Enough that I can take what on the deepest psychological level feels like a risk – to practice forgiveness, to empathize with the “enemy”. I have not always had or felt that sense of safety. It has taken me a long time to cultivate it, and I leaned heavily on my privilege of time and resources that allowed me to spend time and money on meditation retreats and therapy and exercise and spiritual practice. It is not for me to assume that others are in a similar position, or that their process is like mine. It is not for anyone to judge. Judging others does not make the world more just, and it’s certainly not empathetic.




I’m an outdoor gear nerd. If you want to talk moisture-wicking base-layers, high-friction climbing shoes, and high-loft, baffled alpine parkas, I’m your person. In particular, I have a soft-spot for the company Patagonia. And not just their clothing and gear; the whole business. I’ve read all the books that Patagonia’s founder,Yvon Choinard, has written. I actually read their weekly e-newsletters. In Grad School, I participated in the Patagonia Case Competition, submitting a team proposal to Patagonia on how they might minimize their carbon footprint. 

I respect them because in addition to making excellent gear, Patagonia is a company on a mission. A stated mission. This mission: “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.” And they work towards it. They’re an industry leader in their efforts to lower their social and environmental footprint (for one example, check out The Footprint Chronicles, their supply chain tracker). They’re also radically transparent about their shortcomings in doing so. They have not reached carbon neutrality, and frankly they are nowhere close. But their work and their transparency is pushing the industry, the supply chain, the policy, the system.  

I was on a walk with a new friend the other day, someone I don’t know that well. We were somewhere on the conversation of looming environmental disaster when he said something to the effect of, “you know I really just hate the hypocrisy of these outdoor gear companies who talk a game about environmental solutions and brand themselves as part of the movement but actually are part of the problem.”

Woof. I love Patagonia! I think their activism work is in service of closing that gap between mission and practice. I think critiques based on “hypocrisy” are lazy and undermine our greater efforts. My own professional work and personal theories of practice in many ways mirror Patagonia’s path. What’s up with this new friend who disagrees with me?  


So here’s my set-up, as the prompt requests, of “why people who oppose an issue you support are correct to do so.” 


It’s important to me to keep this individual. Guessing at the emotions and rationales of a group of “people” isn’t empathy. Empathy requires personal connection, and, as Brené Brown so brilliantly defines it.

In that vein, I’m also not going to guess at what this friend meant. I’m going to call him and ask. And then really listen, which means I must be open, which means I must have some willingness to change, which means I must be vulnerable. 

Alas, the friend hasn’t called me back yet. Luckily, we have a Reflection Script! I hope to reach him in the next couple days, and I will report back.


RS. See top.

The Empathy Trap

Thanks to my cohort phone call this week which helped me craft how I might respond to this prompt.  I wish I could gather this group once a week in person to reflect on the deeper issues.  There is so much wisdom and empathy in the circle it fills me with hope every time we speak.

I deeply value the importance of empathy.  Solving our most complex issues in the world will require an intense level of empathy that builds stronger relationships and allows us to connect with one another at a deep level and move beyond the false assumptions we make.  Both Felipe’s video and the other video show how powerful this is.

Two other videos I love are:

Brene Brown:

and Mark Ruffalo on Sesame Street:

And, still, there is also a dark side to empathy which we discussed in our group.  Do I, as a privileged white male, really have the right to ask communities of color and women to empathize with my fear of losing power and my fear that my daughter might not have the privilege that I was raised with?  Or to empathize that taxing my inheritance means I cannot live quite as easily in my retirement?

For fifteen plus years I directed a university institute that had dialogue at its core and at the core of dialogue is empathy, learning to see from the perspective of “the other”.  I facilitated hundreds of “dialogue” sessions, many off the record, others with school districts and parents, with the Colorado senate and for the governor, with oil and gas and concerned communities.

Most people approached dialogue thinking that if just the other person understood me, they would get it and change their perspective (to mine!).  And then disappointment occurs when the other person doesn’t change or I have to change. Dialogue and empathy can be tools of oppression because they can force the marginalized and oppressed to modify their needs once again to accommodate mine and also give false hope.  Time and time again people and organizations met together, connected, agreed and then reality hit and power was not shared or met equally and what emerged was not sustainable or fair.  Empathy also means understanding why others might not or should not empathize with me.

One of the most powerful days for me was a small group of 24 people we brought together and met with David Trimble who jointly won the Nobel preach prize in 1998.  We brought two people from different sides of the same issue (oil/environment, Israel/Palestine, “pro-life”/”pro-choice”, etc.).  Each person, including David Trimble, shared how the hardest part in dialogue was actually being ostracized by your own people, once you reached out to the “other side”.   This happens when we begin to empathize with others as well.  Empathy means changing and there are consequences to empathy.  We cannot sell empathy without also preparing people for what that means in their own lives and in their own businesses.  There are costs as well as benefits to empathy.  Some as real as raising prices because you insist on fair salary and benefits.

As Brene Brown said: “Empathy is a choice, and it’s a vulnerable one.”

I find our best guide comes from Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic.  Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”

It is precisely this collision of immoral power with powerless morality which constitutes the major crisis of our times….”

I think this is true with empathy.  Empathy that is not grounded in the reality of power differentials is unjust.  And power needs true empathy, including the right of the other to not be ready to have empathy for me until I truly change.