Are you familiar with runes? I was first introduced to these ancient Norse divination stones by Meg Wheatley when she told me that Berkana, the name of the institute she founded, was the rune for growth and rebirth. Ever since, I’ve cast a single rune each January 1st to give me a clue about the year to come. This year I drew Jera which means harvest and fruition, a time of reaping rewards from seeds sown long ago.
Every morning I wake up and watch life and death outside my bedroom window. We have two beehives perched on the roof of a first floor sunroom. As I watch the hive come alive with the morning sun, most of the bees begin their very full workday, zipping in and out, hovering as they await return entry. But a few of the bees have a different task: Their job is to pull the dead and dying out of the hive and deposit them on the roof, where some lay lifeless and others tremble with their last breaths.
A little over a year ago, I made my first visit to Järna, Sweden, home of the Youth Initiative Program (YIP), a one-year social entrepreneur learning program for 18-25 year olds. As I was preparing to depart, one of the YIPpies stopped by my room to ask me how I felt about my visit. It was then that I spoke the lyrics to what would become the first song I ever wrote when I said, “I feel like I’m packing to leave utopia.”
That was foreshadowing. It wasn’t until my third visit, two weeks ago, that I would really encounter utopia, a glimpse of how the world could be.
Last week, I spent a few days at Kufunda Learning Village in Zimbabwe. Here are just a few of the many activities that were going on:
In the herb lab, Patricia and Enock are blending tincture of Artemisia with lemon juice and raw honey to help a neighbor who is suffering from chronic asthma. They will provide a month’s supply of this remedy for free. Patricia dreams of opening an herbal clinic in town where she would work four days a week so she could spend the fifth at the Kufunda clinic and keep it free.
It is my tenth day in Mozambique, and the wind is howling through our thatched home. Rain poured in sideways through the night, dampening our beds and pooling on the concrete floor. Fifty feet away, three teenage boys are bailing out their fishing dhow, hoping to spare it from the sunken fate of its neighbor—though both boats will be dry enough in a few hours when the tide goes out.
It’s 9 AM on Black Friday (for those of you outside the U.S., explanation here), and I’m hiding out in my parents’ home on the North Shore of Boston. My uncle invited me to join him in bringing coffee to nearby Walmart strikers, but I can’t bear the thought of going out there long enough to accept his invitation. When did the conspicuous consumption of our culture become so crushing that some of us choose to cower in our homes?
A few weeks ago, as the holiday season was threatening to cast its glittery shadow, my Walk Out Walk On colleague Aerin Dunford and I had a conversation about how to navigate the transactional culture that dominates the six weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. We asked our usual question, “What would Walk Outs do?”, which shifted our attention from what’s wrong with this time of year to what’s possible. My learning from witnessing Walk Outs is that they tend to waste very little energy in trying to transform old systems—it’s debilitating and there’s minimal return on the effort. Instead, Walk Outs turn their attention toward the future—designing and experimenting with how the world could be. Read more
Last week, I participated in my first Tweet Chat. This was a four-hour, pre-arranged Twitter session using the hashtag #wowochat to link tweets together in a virtual conversation. Fellow Walk Out Walk On-er Aerin Dunford and I decided to co-host an inquiry among Walk Outs involved in learning and education. Our invitation was this:
Many educators unsatisfied with our current school systems are walking out of institutions and limiting beliefs about what’s possible. These brave folks are walking on to create new learning spaces outside of formal educational infrastructure; to challenge attachment to grades, diplomas and degrees; and to convene breakthrough conversations.
During this Tweet Chat, we’ll explore questions like:
- What has compelled you to walk out of mainstream education?
- How do you integrate your fears as you step into the unknown?
- What are you called to walk on to now in your life?
- Is it possible to create the new without engaging dominant institutions?
I am starting a new project. It is another learning journey, one that I’ve been poking around the edges of for a few years now. This time, I’ll be exploring the U.S. and Canada, instead of the Global South. But it’s still about Walk Outs who Walk On.
Let me start with a preview and explain the rest after. Here is a photo-film that I created with my dear friend and colleague, photographer Dan Séguin. The narrator is Paul Saginaw, the iconoclastic co-founder of Zingerman’s, a popular deli and community of food-related businesses in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
It’s been one year and two weeks since Walk Out Walk On was launched into the world. I just returned home from Denver and Boulder, Colorado, the final two stops on the book tour, and now is a good time to reflect on what I’ve learned over these last twelve months. And here it is:
The United States has lost its sense of subtlety.
Or maybe it was never there to begin with. After all, we’ve always known that when it comes to humor, the Brits have far greater mastery of nuance and irony than we Americans with our screwball and slapstick appetites. But this inclination toward the obvious and unambiguous extends beyond humor. It is part of our daily experience, shaped and amplified by politics and the media. As small differences and distinctions pass through the public lens, they transform into grand polarities, blocking each other out of the light. We find ourselves perpetually choosing sides, picking winners, condemning losers and generally orienting around good-bad, right-wrong, on-off, in-out and anything else we can reduce into simple and opposing parts.
“Without ethics, politics has no limits. America broke the rules of living systems, and lost its balance. All the oxygen flowed to a smaller and smaller section of the body politic. The history is brief and unquestionable: close to toppling, the society momentarily pulled itself upright, and then became even less ethical, less balanced, more endangered than ever as a lawless financial system came back from death, and like a foolish patient after a heart bypass operation, continued in its old ways.”
I read this last week in an essay by Earl Shorris about America’s latest pathology, published in the December 2011 issue of Harper’s Magazine. For several years now, I’ve been in conversations with people about the nature of our society’s failing systems—be those schools, healthcare, food, energy, economy, and so on. For better or worse, I’ve had a chance to be in rooms where each and every one of these systems that our society depends upon has been criticized, mourned and raged against. We’ve wrestled with what to do. Read more