Friday, March 9, 2012

Kony and beyond

I'm on an OPB radio show this morning called Think Out Loud. My friend Courtenay Hameister suggested they invite me, so they did. They invited me to be part of a segment called Culture Club, where a handful of locals talk in conversation about the events of the week.

They asked that I give them a list of three or so topics that had caught my attention this week. The other guests would do the same, and then the Think Out Loud team pick what we'd discuss on the air.

Yesterday I gave them four topics that had grabbed me this week. It wasn't hard; it's been an interesting week.

First, the Neil DeGrasse Tyson interview! It trumps everything, as far as I'm concerned.

TIME magazine has a video series where they ask leading thinkers 10 questions. The video being passed around this week is excerpted from their interview with Neil DeGrasse Tyson, the director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Museum of Natural History.

The interviewer asks: "What is the most astounding fact you can share with us about the Universe?"

I won't botch it, you have to watch it, and hear Neil's precise language, along with the spectacular visuals that accompany it - but in a nutshell, he tells us that we are not just in the Universe, we are the Universe. We are made of the Universe. What are the implications of that? Too much for words. (Not picked. Darn!)

The second topic I suggested was the Kony 2012 campaign. I'm sure I don't have to describe it, it's exploded so big and so fast on the Internet. 50 million views of the thirty minute video since Tuesday? Wow. I had to buy a copy of the New York Times this morning when I saw it had made the front page, above the fold. Wow.

The third topic I suggested was "Super Tuesday," and the Republicans' failure to construct a relevant or working narrative.

Finally, I told them as a Timbers fan, I can't help but spend a fair amount of time this week thinking about Monday's opening game. Mostly I'm thinking about heaving log slices, but it's also pretty interesting from a social/cultural perspective...

Yesterday they called me back and told me they had selected Kony as our primary discussion topic. It made me a little nervous but also excited. It's a fascinating and rich topic.

This Monday I'd never heard of Joseph Kony. Few had. That morning I got an email from a colleague I'm working with, a web designer, also a critical theorist. "Have you seen this?" she wrote. "Smart and targeted storytelling with meaning."

I clicked on the link. It was a landing page with instructions that I was to watch the video (thirty minutes!?) and then share it on Facebook because it was going to be the biggest thing ever!

I was immediately dubious, but respected the source, so I thought, okay, I don't have time to watch the whole thing, but I'll watch a few minutes and see what it's about.

Thirty minutes later, with tears in my eyes. I sat stunned, staring at the screen. Betsy and Mark had both come in while I was watching, and were sitting at their desks. "You have to see this," I told them.

And, since Monday, that's happened several million times.

What's the film about? Well, nominally the campaign is about stopping an obscure Ugandan warlord named Joseph Kony. But for me, the reason the video is remarkable is that it's the best combination of cause marketing, emotional storytelling, internet swellery, power to the people and Hope marketing I've ever seen. Yellow band meets Girl Effect meets Obama '08 meets Arab Spring. I'm sure it's being studied by all the marketing folks already (How can we do this for Bleu Cheese Pringles?), it'll be a college case study next semester.

And even as I suppressed my cynicism, my emotional reaction was evident that there's something undeniably powerful about the storytelling here, especially the people who tell their story in the film, particularly the Africans. You haven't seen it? Take a look. It's gone up by 5 million views since I started writing this blog post. Holy cow.

Four of us discussed the campaign over coffee Wednesday, all of us astounded by it. In barely a day, 11 million had watched it. Yes, a couple of us also had some problems with aspects of it, particularly how the filmmaker exploited his young son - and his suspiciously egoic and charismatic central role - but mostly, we were impressed by the way the team had combined a lot of tools and best practices around a meaningful cause and the reaction it had created.

Later that afternoon, the friend who had turned me onto the video was now sending me a link from Wil Wheaton's blog with a critical counterbalance to the Kony video. Wow. Confirmed some of my initial instincts... Hm. How am I to think about it now? Out loud. Live. On the radio. Shortly.

Well. It's a lot to think about. I have to take a deep breath. It's complex.

I still have an optimistic and positive to reaction to it. Wheaton's criticism seems fair to me, with important questions asked about the people behind the project and efficacy of the proposed solution. But the center of the energy of the story for me is just how many people have been drawn to it, wholeheartedly. My guess is that this energy will translate not to the filmmaker's desired outcome necessarily, but thoughtful discussion around the issue.

It's inspiring to me to see the internet being used as a force to draw us together around our greatest aspirations. I wonder how the Internet's presence might have accelerated progress on Apartheid in South Africa or Civil Rights in the US, or Hitler's rise in the thirties? What will it mean for the future? It's mind-boggling to think about.

I also believe the Kony phenomenon is evidence of our hunger for meaningful story. We're story-deprived right now, socially. Many of the stories we've depended on in the past are bent and distorted and broken and no longer relevant. This is the cause of a lot of our cultural confusion. How we behave as a people and in our systems, aligned with old and broken and irrelevant stories, is not consistent with the deepest truths that we know about ourselves and the Universe. Buckminster Fuller was saying it years ago, and it's even more true now. All the churn we feel around us, is, I believe, us struggling to write and create and step into and live new (old) stories, relevant to the world we live in, and the people we are, at this moment.

We're hungry for a uniting story, a narrative that feeds and nourishes our greatest potential. That's what Kony is about, to me.

I'm not sure if we'll get into this deep on the radio, but we'll see. Tune in and ask questions at 9:40 this morning! I think it's live! I'm nervous!


Wednesday, March 7, 2012

On faith and falling

I park my car in a parking lot that spans a city block. I get here early, so I have my pick of spaces, and I park in the corner. I park my wheels right next to a cement curb the size of a balance beam, about six inches high. It runs the length of the lot from Davis Street to Couch.

When I arrive really early, 5:30 or 6, sometimes I see something strange. It happened again this morning.

It's dark out. Chinatown is always sketchy this early, with rough characters. On the opposite end of the lot, I see a well-dressed man, maybe in his 60s - suit, tie, wool overcoat - step up on the curb and proceed to walk, trapeze artist style, from one end of the block to the other. Sometimes he carries a briefcase or expensive looking umbrella. He is sober looking, with nothing in his expression to indicate he is doing something playful, or unexpected. He walks with calm concentration.

I have seen this several times now. His feet never touch the sidewalk. When he gets to the end, he steps off the curb and proceeds across Burnside to his work, perhaps in the Bancorp Tower? Perhaps he's a lawyer?

This morning it timed that he was walking towards my car just as I was parking. I was hurrying to get out of my car fast so as not to interrupt him, but just as I was closing my door, he looked up at me and stepped off onto the sidewalk to walk around me.

"I'm sorry," I said. "I messed up your tightrope walk."

His warmth surprised me. "Oh, that's okay," he laughed.

His gentle response gave me the courage to ask a question. "How many times do you think you've done that?"

He smiled again. "Oh, quite a few times. I've been here quite a number of years."

I nodded and gave him the look that said: "Impressive."

We parted and walked towards our respective offices, and then he added, "I fall a lot, too."

A simple exchange, but it echoed in me in a funny way as I walked up the steps to my office. An encouragement for my efforts to stay on the beam?

It brought to mind a conversation I had once with an executive coach. He was one of those guys who always seemed to hold it together, despite whatever insanity was happening around him. His serenity and gentle humor and clear-headedness were a marvel. What was his secret? Had he figured it out?

He also smiled. "It's a faith walk," was all he would say. "We have to walk it every day."

The frost on the car this morning reminded me that it's still Winter, with everything that it brings. Winter has brought its share this year, especially to people around me. Sometimes I haven't known what to do with it.

But Spring is indeed coming. When I look, I see it. Trees are budding, it's getting light earlier. Miracles happening everywhere. I'm inspired by the people around me.

It's a faith walk. We have to walk it every day. You fall sometimes. You get back on it the next day.