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Monthly Archives: December 2012

A Note About the “Weird Kids”

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The shooting in Newtown affected me deeply, as it did many people. I think most of us are desensitized to the news by now, but we don’t have a frame of reference for the mass murder of children in our country, and it hit us all in a spot in our hearts for which we haven’t built up any armor. Regarding most parts of this situation, I don’t have anything to say that hasn’t already been said articulately by other people. But as more and more details come out about the shooter, Adam Lanza, I do have something to say about his inevitable portrayal in the media as a “weird kid” who was “quiet, shy….socially awkward.” The New York Times even irresponsibly repeated his classmates’ speculation that he had Autism or another developmental disorder.

When something tragic happens, it is natural to search for reasons or answers. But it’s so, so dangerous for the media to start correlating “weirdness” or social awkwardness with a crime of this magnitude. Among the weird kids, and among humanity in general, this guy is an outlier. I know reporters are trying to do their jobs, but there are more responsible ways to discuss mental health issues than to imply that every quiet, awkward, or different person we come across might be capable of something like this. People listen to media reports and simplify. That’s why stereotypes are so easy to create, and why racist or discriminatory backlash occurs whenever a minority group is in the news for hurting other people.

So, just so we’re clear, there is nothing wrong with being a weird kid. If the shooter was in fact Autistic, it says nothing about Autism in general. The only group of people he represents is the one that has easier access to guns than they do to community support.

And for the record, every single weird kid I’ve ever known has grown up to do amazing things and change the world in profoundly positive ways. I’m so proud of them, and join them – and everybody else – in grieving this loss.

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You’re never too old for mentors

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One of my tasks today is to make a list of five or so people in the Austin area who I really look up to and want to ask for help. I used to think that having mentors was a privilege that only young people can have, but now I understand it’s for everybody. When I look back on my life in Portland, my mentors were the ones who made all the difference. There were Brett and Amy, two genius filmmakers whose humor and tenacity taught me so much about running a business. And Jenn, my boss at the NELA Center. And about half of my classmates at the Northwest Institute for Social Change, even though they’re my age. And my big brother Marius, proof that gods can walk around on this planet in human form. And a whole host of other people who have easily and gracefully inspired me with their ability to live creatively and help other people in the process.

I’m missing that element in Austin, so I’m going to do some digging today. On my short list is a woman named Linda, who works here; and the awesome people who started Center 61. And even though he lives in Portland, I really, reeeeeeeeally want to talk to Stephen Marc Beaudoin, who started the best nonprofit ever and appears to be friends (of the Facebook variety) with about half of my friends.

If I can snag interviews with people like this, I’ll post them on my blog so you can read the words of people who have actually started stuff, and aren’t just attempting to. I’ll report back soon!

I am convinced that everything good in this world exists in the mind.

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If I could sum up the goal that isn’t on the list of the Great Exchange’s official goals, it’s to train people to bump up against the quirks that exist in the brain and forgive them. The more extreme cognitive differences are the easiest to notice and accept, and once you pull back from there, the subtle differences between all of us are easier to accept too. My sister, for example, does some frustrating things because her impulse control isn’t wired like the rest of ours. And by that, I mean I’m not entirely sure if it’s there. Literally. It could have been tied to the part of her brain that was removed.

One of her classmates is overtly blunt and comes across as quirky and rude. That’s because he’s Autistic and his brain’s rubric for social interaction isn’t the same as that of a non-Autistic person’s. Another classmate can’t contain himself when he gets excited. He’ll scream and shout and bang on the chairs. It’s perfectly natural, but the rest of us react to situations more quietly. We may be in the majority, but at the end of the day the rules that govern the “right” behaviors and interactions are pretty arbitrary.

Do you see where I’m going with this? If you can boil a behavioral, social, or intellectual difference down to something like brain wiring, then you are less quick to judge. There’s more than the brain, of course – the way people were raised, the experiences that line their faces, the mantras they’ve been repeating to themselves – but once you’re trained to start looking, you can build from there. The ultimate goal is that no matter who you interact with, friend or  coworker or stranger, you’ll be able to say, “The way in which your brain allows you to look at the world is fundamentally different from the way mine does, and that’s okay.”

Most of us aren’t there – I certainly am not – but at least I’ve had the privilege of growing up with someone who could teach me to start looking. I think she could teach a lot of other people to start looking, too, if only she had the chance to meet them. She’s my brain sage.

This was supposed to be a post about something I read in a Muhammad Yunus article, but I’ m really tired; and when I’m tired, I default to the mind. I find it incredibly soothing, like a bedtime story or a prayer.

What can special education teach us about nonprofit leadership?

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A lot, I would argue. A special education teacher’s job is to assess the individual learning styles and needs of each of her students, and create learning systems in which each person can thrive. IEPs, for example, outline a specific set of action items based on a thorough assessment of a student’s goals and abilities. Or they should, anyway; some programs are better than others. In the business world, IEPs are called “Performance Plans,” except they’re not as individualized and they’re not always mutually beneficial. They’re usually just a series of goals that will improve the company along with a financial reward if and when the goals are met (or sometimes, repercussions if they aren’t). That’s great if your business:

a. Has a lot of money to give, and
b. Works with employees who value the financial reward above other benefits

But because most nonprofit leaders won’t be working in a world where both a and b are true, they need to get a little more creative with their employees. And by “creative,” I mean “totally intuitive if you just focus on getting to know your employee and what s/he wants and needs.” That’s what IEPs are so good for. When I worked for Americorps, we didn’t really get paid a very livable wage, but one thing we did get was the privilege of devoting a certain amount of time every week to personal and professional development. This meant we could work on projects, take classes, volunteer at other organizations, meet with other people in our field, and just generally feel like our lives as well-rounded, multi-faceted people were being respected. For me, this made all the difference; incidentally, it’s also how I came up with the idea for the Great Exchange and started working on it.

If and when I’m lucky enough to hire employees, I’m never going to presume that their entire lives exist at the Great Exchange. It’ll be a lot more fun for all of us if we see each other as people. I really believe that people who work at nonprofits are motivated by being seen. Well, all people who work anywhere are probably motivated by that. I think it’s undervalued by a lot of leaders, though, and that the basic concept of empathy becomes replaced by band-aid solutions and abstract explanations of where the organization is going.

So, you want to be a good leader with happy employees? Here’s what I propose:

Sit in on a special education class. Notice how many unique learning styles there are and how many people react in different ways to different stimuli. Notice how the teacher treats each student as an individual. Notice how the language gets tailored to each kid, notice the use of visual cues and the amount of space each student is given. And then scale back and realize that, in a much more subtle way, your employees are just like this.

One of the reasons I think non-disabled people can learn so much from disabled people is because people who have intellectual or social disabilities are a more extreme, and very illustrative, example of how we all have brains that work differently. And if you look at any great leader, you’ll probably notice that they understand this concept very well. I’m not completely there yet, but I hope to get there when I’m ready to lead.