Posts Tagged ‘culture’

All of the Feels (#FailEpic, part 3)

Thursday, November 5th, 2015

Why is it so hard to foundations to talk about failure? In the last two posts, and the lively comments therein, we’ve seen a few reasons: lack of incentives, presence of disincentives, lack of context, lack of clarity about when failure has actually happened and who owns it.

There’s a dimension of these reasons on which I want to dig in further, because it’s one we’re not that well set up to deal with in the sector. This became clear to me when I sat in on a local convening of funders talking about how to identify high-impact opportunities. (Another trusted network.) The concept of risk came up, and risk aversion. We dug in on, “risk of what?” What are we afraid will happen? Here are some of the things that came up:

  • Embarrassment: you got something wrong, you made a mistake, you messed up, you did damage
  • Ignorance: looking like you don’t know everything, or enough, about a particular topic or idea or community
  • Damage to relationships: you’ve wasted someone’s time, you’ve let down your colleagues, you’ve made others question your judgment.

These are not the concerns of technocrats! This is emotional stuff, what Jan Jaffe is calling philanthropy’s “second discipline,” the relational and interpersonal skills program officers need to do the work well.

I daresay we are spectacularly ill-prepared in the social sector to talk about and deal with this stuff in any kind of systematic way. There are any number of great program officers who move through these issues sensitively, effectively, and with nuance. CEP highlighted several a few years back. But that’s, as CEP put it, “luck of the draw,” not something that we hire or train for systematically.

I’m reminded of my former colleague Anne Sherman, who talked about change management as an inherently emotional process. It’s the CEO’s job, Anne wrote, “to help staff and board cope with the emotional aspects of change—the painful aspects of the process that involve letting go of something in order to make room for something new.”

What a discussion of risk helps us see is that it’s not just at times of change that emotional dynamics need to be managed; it’s in how we deal with uncertainty on a day-to-day basis. So, what might this look like?

  • Part of it is self-management, and self-awareness. GrantCraft has a great guide to leveraging your whole self in your grantmaking role. Hiring for that kind of emotional intelligence and self-awareness is part of equipping foundation staff to deal with risk, and failure.
  • But it’s also about the social dynamics within the organization. Individual self-awareness isn’t enough; the practices of how people generate ideas, talk about them, and decide whether or not to implement them deserves attention. Who gets to talk during your staff meetings? (How often do you have staff meetings in the first place?) Is there a de facto division between program staff and other staff? Are program staff the only ones looked to for program-related ideas, or suggestions about what’s working or what could work better?
  • One element of social dynamics that often doesn’t get discussed in philanthropy, because we’re oh-so-polite, is the role of education and social class. Look around at your next staff meeting. Are only the people with graduate degrees talking? Do we overly value the perspectives of those who’ve gone through the slog of post-secondary education? And do the cultures of those institutions sharpen our vulnerability to failure, because we’re so used to high achievement and reward?
  • Another element of social dynamics that does get discussed, all too often in a superficial way, is diversity, equity, and inclusion. As you’ll hear me say if you spend more than ten minutes with me, diversity is a checklist exercise about who’s at the table; inclusion is about how we treat each other at the table and who gets heard; and equity is about what results from our deliberations at the table. It’s time to get beyond diversity and engage inclusion and equity. And to do so in a way that allows for our vulnerable, fragile, human selves to work through unfamiliarity and difference toward understanding and comity. As the new Canadian premier said yesterday while announcing his new cabinet, when asked why it was 50% women: “because it’s 2015.”

All of this connects back to the relationship between internal openness and external openness. Do you need to be more internally open to enable you to be more externally open? Or you can be a structured, hierarchical, fear-driven place that delivers great customer service? This is an empirical question, but a moment’s reflection about how the corporate sector operates suggests that the two aren’t necessarily related. You can have places that are run very traditionally but are great at listening to customers. But how sustainable is this approach? And is greater harmony between the internal and the external conducive to better relationships? Again, this is an empirical matter.

But I would suggest, based on a discussion with some colleagues brought together by Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO – another trusted network), that there are multiple points of entry for engaging with openness. These can include strategy, branding, technology, processes, leadership succession, and even physical space. This morning, I visited the Foundation Center’s beautiful new location in the financial district of Manhattan, which has open-plan architecture – no one has offices. It seems like it sends an important signal to have Brad Smith, the president, sitting at a workstation among everyone else. Making a change to the space is fostering a discussion about how the organizational culture shifts to incorporate open-plan. For us at Ford, a major strategy shift is spurring us to think about organizational culture. For others, it’s about branding, or technology.

These multiple paths are a gift: they give us different ways to engage with internal openness, including a willingness to talk about failure. And I think that means that we don’t have to wait to feel like we’re entirely internally open before being willing to be externally open. Rather, we can identify what point of entry to greater openness is most available, whether internal or external, and follow the thread that it provides us. What lies ahead is sure to be a labyrinth, but in the tale of Ariadne, Theseus, and the Minotaur, in the end, the heroes emerge from the maze. That’s a feeling worth working towards.

 

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Hollywood Ending

Thursday, October 31st, 2013

Kudos to Public Interest Projects for a great conference yesterday. “Breaking Out” was a thoughtful series of discussions about philanthropy in the 21st century.

One thing stuck in my craw, however. I appreciate the power of storytelling, and get that narrative is an important tool for engagement. The videos shown for the Girl Effect (an oldie but a goodie) and the trailer for the new documentary “A Place at the Table”, about hunger in America were compelling. They told a clear story, with a call to action, and were shot/animated and scored in a way that stirred the emotions. Their makers touted them as a useful tool for engaging broad audiences.

Part of the reason such narratives are so powerful is that they tap into mental models that have been shaped by a lifetime of consuming fictional narratives. Hollywood has taught us how to read stories, and those stories almost always have a happy ending. What’s more, movies purposely skip over the mundane details. The hero wakes up, then she’s at the office. You don’t see her hellish commute.

But here’s the thing. It’s in those mundane details that social change really happens. And more importantly, it’s where social change goes wrong, or just fails to happen. But narratives that draw on the instinctual grammar of fiction encourage us to see the world through a Hollywood lens – whether they intend to or not. Our mind fills in the blanks in the story, but does so hopefully, or with the best-case scenario. But often the scenario plays out differently. And there’s nothing more demoralizing than a story that falls flat. Look at what happened to #kony2012.

So I have to question the value of narrative and storytelling for social change, at least in the form of a three-minute video. Let’s have ground truth, in all its complexity, and not a fairy tale. I’m hopeful that the full version of “A Place at the Table” does this. And I’m looking forward to Jose Antonio Vargas’ “Documented.”

Have you seen examples of videos advancing social change that don’t draw on the Hollywood logic of happy endings, and are still powerfully motivating?

A Matter of Trust

Thursday, October 24th, 2013

Brad Smith hits it out of the park again with “The Brave New World of Good,” a very useful synthesis, reflection on, and pertinent critique of major trends in philanthropy and nonprofits such as open data, transparency, innovation, and markets. One phrase in particular stood out for me:

“Collection of data by government has a business model; it’s called tax dollars.”

It’s ironic that this timely piece came out during the latest government shutdown, because I would say that the business model is actually tax dollars and legitimacy – and the latter is in short supply these days.

Sadly, foundations have had a fair amount to do with the creation of the partisan echo chamber in which we find ourselves. It’s well-documented how a number of conservative private foundations funded the intellectual infrastructure of think tanks and policy experts that over time have moved the center of political discourse ever rightward. We’re at the point that a model of healthcare reform championed by the Heritage Foundation and implemented by a Republican governor is excoriated as a progressive overreach.

A further irony is that progressive funders are practically envious of the success that conservative foundations have had in shaping the policy discourse, not least because the tactics used are ones that progressive critics of foundation practices have championed for years: long-term, general-operating support of organizations explicitly working on policy and advocacy issues.

The success of one side has prompted a kind of intellectual arms race, with mirrored (but asymmetrical) infrastructures touting conservative and progressive ideas through relatively closed systems of think tanks, policy shops, and in the case of the conservative movement, talk radio and TV news.

Can funders instead support the emergence of a vibrant, active center that draws energy and attention away from the partisan battle consuming Washington and threatening the national and global economy? As Phil Buchanan helpfully points out, the National Purpose Initiative seeks to do just that. I applaud this effort and particularly its spirit.

One friendly suggestion: take a page from the success of progressive movements like LGBTQ rights and immigrant rights and embrace cultural-change strategies. Putting a human face on a cause, and making the “other” relatable on a personal level, is more important than ever. Our intellectual infrastructures – which again, I’m not pretending are anywhere near evenly matched – move us toward ever more bloodless forms of analysis and abstraction. And the filter bubbles in which most of us are enclosed, providing only information that shares views we already hold, reinforce this exclusion from each other. As Sally Kohn helpfully described at a recent TedNYC talk, “Absent unquestioned evidence to do otherwise, I would like to start to see a country where we all assume that we want what’s best for each other.” And this starts to happen through honest, authentic engagement with those who share views unlike our own.

This can happen usefully at a local level. An overwhelming number of foundations are local entities. Here is an opportunity to leverage the strengths of the sector in service of a less polarized political discourse. Remember that business model of collection of data by government: taxes and legitimacy. Where foundations can help build up the store of legitimacy of our political system by fostering an alternative civic culture, they should consider doing so.

How have you seen foundations play this role? What are models worth sharing?

Jealous Guy

Thursday, August 8th, 2013

“I didn’t mean to hurt you / I’m sorry that I made you cry / I didn’t want to hurt you / I’m just a jealous guy”

I wonder if implicit bias is the progressive version of unintended consequences.

A truly powerful idea that’s associated with conservative thought but has become widely accepted is “unintended consequences.” You try to alleviate poverty by providing a village with a better paved road, and the town becomes attractive as a route for drug smugglers to use in transportation, bringing violence to the town. You create certification processes for businesses so that consumers are protected, and business is disincentivized because the red tape becomes unmanageable.

For foundations, you provide grants in your focus area, and nonprofits that are desperate or don’t know any better modify their missions to go along with what you fund. You try to be clearer in your grant guidelines, and nonprofits hew ever more closely to what you say.

Unintended consequences are usually marshaled as an argument against government intervention, which makes them a popular resource of conservatives. But the reality of their existence means progressives are aware of and care about them as well, even if they don’t like some of the thinking behind them. They’re a hard-to-deny reality that undermines a central tenet of progressive thought, the value of intentional collective/government action in pursuit of greater social welfare.

I wonder if implicit bias is the progressive version of unintended consequences – a hard-to-deny reality that undermines a central tenet of conservative thought, that, as Chief Justice Roberts put it in a recent decision on affirmative action, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of by race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” If despite our conscious efforts, our unconscious minds betray us, Roberts’ notion is not enough.

Implicit bias is the idea that even if you don’t consciously hold racist beliefs, even if you would reject them with your conscious mind, you have still learned patterns of thought and behavior that encode biased and racially invidious beliefs.

Studies have been done looking at the way recruiters handle job applications differently based on something as superficial as people’s names (example, see page 4).

For foundations, implicit bias can affect the way that leaders of nonprofits are seen as legitimate or not, authoritative or not, trustworthy or not. There’s a gender dimension as well, as the study linked to previously points out as well.

My question is whether the moment for implicit bias to emerge as the counterpoint to unintended consequences has come. The beliefs that George Zimmerman had about Trayvon Martin based on the limited visual information he initially received – some were explicit (“they always get away”) and some were no doubt implicit. “Suspicious-looking” – so much is encoded in this slippery phrase.

We live in the era of the algorithm – they calculate what to recommend on Amazon or Netflix, what ads we see on Facebook, what search results we get on Google. We all walk around with implicit algorithms about race and propriety and danger. George Zimmerman’s came to light, tragically, fatally. How long before it becomes abundantly clear to all that implicit bias is real?

In the meantime, foundation folks who review and approve grant applications would do well to ask themselves about potential sources of implicit bias, and investigate means to mitigate them. Because it would be a tragic unintended consequence to allow implicit bias to undermine the laudable goals of philanthropy.

Stone Soup

Thursday, July 11th, 2013

Whether or not comprehensive immigration reform passes this year – and after this week’s initial reaction by the House Republicans, things are looking less certain – the need for immigrant civic integration is a reality.

Here’s a modest proposal: philanthropy can help by creating and supporting spaces where communities can celebrate traditions of giving across cultures. Mutual aid societies, hometown associations, tithing, potlatch – most if not all cultures have established practices of individual collective giving.

“Everyone is a philanthropist” – and in being so, they draw on a wide variety of traditions. Let’s name those, lift them up, and learn from each other.

I was involved in a giving circle for a number of years that wasn’t culturally based, but I found it worked best as an “onramp” for people new to New York who wanted to learn more about philanthropy and nonprofits.

Community Investment Network is doing really interesting work bringing together leaders from giving circles across the country rooted in communities of color. A number of community foundations have ethnically- or racially-focused giving circles, and certainly women’s funds are popular, as the strength of the Women’s Funding Network attests.

Where I’d like to see this go is as a vehicle for immigrant civic integration at a local level. Philanthropy, community foundations, and other grantmaking public charities can be a venue for communities – both recent immigrants and immigrants from 100, 200, or 400 years ago (not necessarily voluntary…) – to learn about and from each other’s traditions are giving.

A lot of this will be based around faith traditions. As nervous as this may make some progressives, I think it’s a great place to start. Religious traditions can be  a source of social-justice righteousness or daunting fundamentalism. But they’re large and accommodate many points of view. Not saying there won’t be disagreements, but faith just has to be part of the equation. That’s what drives a huge percentage of individual giving, right, isn’t that what we always read about in Giving USA?

So: community foundations, grantmaking charities, and other place-based funders – think about building shared traditions of giving as a means to promote immigrant civic integration. Because whatever happens in Congress, communities across the country are transforming as a result of migration. It’s another moment in a cycle that has repeated throughout the history of this country. Let’s use philanthropy as a way to make this one smoother.

~~~

P.S. Congratulations to New American Leaders Project on three years of trailblazing and important work. Missed out by one on being their 1000th “like” on Facebook.

Who Wants to Live Forever

Thursday, May 31st, 2012

Privacy

Autonomy

Perpetuity

As I’ve talked about the last two times, these are the tenets of the archetypal charitable foundation in the U.S. How does perpetuity interact with autonomy and privacy?

Of the three tenets, perpetuity is the one experiencing the greatest change. A growing number of funders are seeking to spend down during their lifetimes. There are examples big and small. Warren Buffett’s gift to the Gates Foundation is in $1 billion tranches, with the disbursement of each tranche contingent on entirely spending down the previous one. I don’t want to say that’s literally unprecedented, but that’s kind of unprecedented. Atlantic Philanthropies is another well-known large spend-downer. (Spender-down?) On the medium to smaller side, the Beldon Fund chose to spend down entirely and even wrote a case study about it. The Center for Philanthropy & Civil Society at Duke even has an online library of studies of spend-down.

What’s the big deal? Current tax law, which dates from the ’60s, mandates that private foundations have to pay out at least 5% of assets in exchange for those assets being exempt from tax for the donor. Turns out that over the past forty-odd years, if you stuck to that level and managed your investments wisely, you could make grants out of the interest on the endowment and not have to touch the principal – in fact, the principal could grow. And many did. The law – and the stock market – therefore, if not encouraged perpetuity, at least made it relatively straightforward to achieve. No surprise then that many private foundation boards spend much of their time focusing on their investment performance and policies.

The argument for perpetuity is that it allows the foundation to be a community resource over time, something reliable. In a world of ever-shorter time horizons – elected officials are thinking about the next election, corporate leaders are thinking about the next quarter’s earnings report, nonprofits are thinking about next year’s sources of revenue – foundations that exist in perpetuity can afford to take the long view. Along with universities, religious denominations, and the Federal Reserve, they’re among the few entities in American life that can. And if political science taught me anything, it’s that it’s remarkably hard to build a coalition for social change without someone having an incentive to take the long view, and sacrifice current gain for longer-term welfare.

The argument against perpetuity is that current needs are urgent and require more than 5% payout. This argument comes up especially strongly during recessions. And indeed, as the Foundation Center was admirably quick to document, during the last (current?) recession, many private foundations increased their payout levels to meet their existing grant commitments, even as their endowments took a big hit.The other side of this argument is about donor intent – “giving while living,” to quote the title of the aforementioned Beldon Fund report, ensures greater control for the donor. Lawsuits over alleged trustee mismanagement of donor intent crop up periodically in the philanthropic and even mainstream press. The Philanthropy Roundtable has an online library of resources on donor intent.

This desire for greater control bespeaks a broader erosion of trust in institutions. The notion of the private foundation as a permanent community resource harkens back to a time when institutions were more reliable and relied upon. There’s a fascinating piece about George Romney’s failed 1968 presidential campaign in a recent New York magazine, the gist of which is that Papa Romney’s version of Republicanism flowed from his Mormon faith, which taught him that the institutions of civil society (rather than government) are the means to ensure social harmony. To the extent that Mitt inherited his father’s vision, he’s “an organization man without organizations” – our world continually erodes the institutions that undergirded the postwar consensus that made the mid-’40s to the mid-’70s a time of unprecedented economic growth and stability. That world, which created the conditions for the legislative components of the civil rights victories of the ’60s, is gone.

But the private foundation in perpetuity, one of its products, and in a way, one of its avatars, is still with us? For how much longer? The thing about the three tenets I’ve laid out in this series – privacy, autonomy, and perpetuity – is that they’re all under perpetual and sustained attack in contemporary life. Or rather, they’re all gradually eroding.

Transparency

Interdependency

Finitude

These are the forces that shape contemporary life. The archetypal private foundation is a throwback, is retro, is old-school. But there are lots of good reasons why retro sells, and not all of them have to do with nostalgia. I love my turntable because it acts as a time machine; I find physical artifacts of a bygone era – used records – and repeat an experience that my younger self – or a version of me now thirty years ago – had in the same way: spindle, needle, groove, crackle. It’s not perpetuity, or at least not entirely, because the record player is new – but the record is old. I wonder if there aren’t ways of preserving the longer time horizons that the archetypal model affords in different organizational forms. Those old records still play, and they still sound great – even if they’re on a brand-new turntable.

Help! I Need Somebody, Not Just Anybody

Thursday, August 11th, 2011

I haven’t read The Help, but I’m interested in the discussion surrounding the film’s release. I think of Colorlines as my go-to place for acute, well-informed critique on the politics of race and racial equity. So it’s intriguing to see a take there by Akiba Solomon, timed to the film’s release, that quotes as “the best review…I’ve read so far” a piece that appeared in…Entertainment Weekly. That’s remarkable! Colorlines seal of approval on a piece of critique that appeared in as mainstream a publication as you can get.

That’s no knock on Solomon. As a longtime loyal EW subscriber, I had been pleasantly surprised to Martha Southgate’s on-point rebuttal of the film’s presumption to tell the story of a key element of the civil-rights struggle from the perspective of those who were ultimately on the sidelines. Money line from Southgate: “the structure of narratives like The Help underscores the failure of pop culture to acknowledge a central truth: Within the civil rights movement, white people were the help.” The point that needed to be made gets made in a place where a sizable part of the film’s audience is likely to see it. Nice.

Now, there are several layers going on here, obviously. (And I promise one of them has to do with philanthropy.)

  • Who’s the dummy now? Or, the politics of literary and cinematic ventriloquism. I should probably dig up my college texts and re-read Gayatri Spivak’s, “Who Speaks for the Subaltern?” But the question of well-meaning members of an elite who sympathize with the downtrodden seeking to help them by “speaking for” them is a vexed and long-standing one. (Although really, any of the parody 60s protest songs in Walk Hard put it to rest.) Who has the right to represent another’s experience – no matter what the intention? One of the most controversial elements of the book of The Help is that Aibileen and Minnie’s voices are written in dialect. Are there any circumstances in which this is OK? Is it ventriloquism or empathy? Apparently while in the book, there are three voices including Skeeter’s, in the movie the voice-over is only Aibileen’s. That’s at least a step in the right direction. I don’t know if I buy the idea that it makes it easier to hear subaltern voices if someone from the elite channels them first. In such an unmediated (and yet entirely mediated) world, why not just hear from people directly – why does someone need to bring us the voice of the unheard, make it more palatable? Ultimately, I think the value of the book – and of its ventriloquism – is that it gives readers the feeling that they’re being exposed to the inner life of people they would probably never think about otherwise. So I imagine it feels like a deep and moving experience, even humbling. On some level, that can’t be a bad thing. To be humbled – and then chastened by the realization that even the story that was enlightening you needs enlightening of its own: that feels like a meaningful, and socially useful experience.
  • The “women’s picture.” What I haven’t seen anyone talk about yet in this summer of successful female-led comedies like Bridesmaids and Bad Teacher is that here we have a movie that’s all about women where men are the help in getting the story on the screen – the male director was handpicked by the female author of the book, a true rarity in Hollywood. (J.K. Rowling surely had some input on who directed the first Harry Potter movie, but it’s not like she said, “it has to be this person who grew up with me and gets the very English world I tried to portray in the books,” as happened with director Kathryn Stockett and director Tate Taylor.)
  • Voice, the gift that keeps on giving. There are texts and performances that explode their boundaries. I get the feeling that Octavia Spencer and especially the divine, regal Viola Davis have done such a good job with their characters that no matter who presents their story, it’ll be their voices and their experiences that remain in the viewer’s minds.

And it’s that last point that resonates with the concept of philanthropy. Sometimes the gift of voice is the gift that keeps on giving, well beyond the giver’s intentions or frames of reference. Ultimately, giving voice to the disenfranchised and then stepping the hell to the side, may be the best thing a philanthropist – whether an individual like the Skeeter character in The Help or a foundation making grants – can do in some situations. Once again, the Beatles get it right – “help! I need somebody, not just anybody” – there are good ways and better ways that donors can be…wait for it…The Help.

Meeting Across the River

Tuesday, June 21st, 2011

(About the title: One of my recent vinyl purchases was “Born to Run.” The title song is of course a timeless classic that’s also musically about a couple of time periods (50s and 60s rock and R&B), but this track on the second side is a keeper too. Not one of Clarence Clemons’ (RIP), but enhanced by soulful horn playing.)

It’s frustrating to me that so many of our theories of human behavior are just so dumb and literal-minded. Take this piece in yesterday’s NYT about the return of genetic explanations in criminology:

A rash of new research has focused on self-control as well as callousness and a lack of empathy, traits regularly implicated in the decision to commit a crime. Like other personality traits, these are believed to have environmental and genetic components, although the degree of heritability is debated.

Why not just say, “we have no idea how these things are connected, so we’re going to make some stuff up based on our immediate cultural milieu and take the unspoken assumptions that govern our own behavior as the default for human nature”?

It’s like there’s no imagination about the complexity of human motivation. Get some Jonathan Franzen in there.

I get that you need to simplify to make predictive models work, but does the simplification have to be to models that are so boring and pedestrian? The model of simplicity you’re looking for here is Emily Dickinson, not Jack and Jill.

It’s one thing when this happens around the dinner table and your uncle sounds off in a cringe-inducing way. It’s another when these just-so stories are hidden in the assumptions of analyses that end up shaping policy. From the same NYT piece:

One gene that has been linked to violence regulates the production of the monoamine oxidase A enzyme, which controls the amount of serotonin in the brain. People with a version of the gene that produces less of the enzyme tend to be significantly more impulsive and aggressive, but, as Ms. Moffitt and her colleague (and husband) Avshalom Caspi discovered, the effect of the gene is triggered by stressful experiences.

“The effect of the gene is triggered by stressful experiences”? Come on now, we have to be able to do better than that. What’s the mechanism here – is stress about a certain kind of intensity of emotion – but that can be good or bad? Intense experience? Intensely negative experience? Or can euphoric experiences generate a stress-like spike in emotion, like when people bust up a downtown after their team wins a championship? (Ah, Vancouver, I so enjoyed my trip to you last month, why do you have to go and be a counterexample to the point I’m trying to make?)

I think we need to keep pushing to put some more imagination and ethnographic detail into our assumptions about the dynamics of human motivation. They’re called “microfoundations” in economics, but they don’t have to be small-minded.

All of which leads to a recurring topic on this blog, people’s motivations for giving. To be continued….

The Song Remains the Same (again)

Thursday, May 26th, 2011

Yes, I realize I’m repeating a song-title-as-blog-post-title, but the alternative coming to mind was “I Write the Songs,” and after last time’s fiasco with a Spice Girls song, I couldn’t incur a second strike with Barry Manilow….

I saw a musical performance tonight that involved a kids’ chorus singing an-all vocal arrangement. Because I’m a huge philanthropy nerd, it got me thinking about the nature of replication.

I’ve been learning to play “Let’s Get Lost” by Chet Baker a few different ways: on guitar; then on ukulele; then the past couple of weeks while on the road without either of those two instruments, slowly and laboriously on a piano app on my iPad. I don’t play a lot of jazz, so the chord changes are tricky for me, but I enjoy the intellectual and musical process of figuring out how to make the chord voicings work on different instruments.

A voicing is which specific combination of notes you play to form a chord. A Cmaj7 chord, which starts off “Let’s Get Lost,” is C-E-G-B. But depending where on the guitar neck you play it, the voicing can be C-E-G-B-E (the most common) or C-G-B-E-G on the third fret (probably the next most common). They’re both Cmaj7, but they sound very different. The first voicing has three open strings, so it’s very chimey and ringing. The second voicing has no open strings, so it sounds tighter and more muted – jazzier, in a way. It also has a higher highest note, so it’s genuinely different sounding – the G is emphasized at a one-octave interval, whereas the E is emphasized more in the first version.

I don’t have the vaguest understanding of how this all works when you’re doing vocal arrangements, as the musical group I saw tonight did. There, you’re interpreting a song by emphasizing certain elements over others, building the harmonies in certain ways that may be similar or different from the “original” version.

Which is where replication comes in. When you hear a cover version of a familiar song, it can be disconcerting. Sometimes it’s even an improvement. But often it just seems strange and unfamiliar. The same lyrics, the same melody, the same chord progressions, can be interpreted in so many different ways, based on the artist’s, band’s, or producer’s predilections and tastes. Often covers deconstruct an elaborately produced original, like on those old “MTV Unplugged” shows. Sometimes they do the opposite, gussying up something that was originally very simple, like (shudder) 3-Tenors versions of popular songs.

Which gets me thinking about the uses of replication. In music, it’s often not intended to get the same result as the original: Nirvana singing “The Man Who Sold the World” wanted a different reaction than David Bowie singing his original. The Nirvana version made interesting use of the limitations of the “MTV Unplugged” format, using a cello instead of a sustained electric guitar tone in a way that was quite lovely.

So when we look at the replication of social programs, and what it means to achieve scale, I think about musicians and cover versions. What is this replication, this cover version, trying to accomplish? Will a new arrangement get a new audience, like when Glee brings a Journey song to the top of the iTunes charts? Replication has to be relevant or it won’t work, and relevance is so dependent on context and non-rational cues (back to the Imp of the Perverse).

Whether it’s the idea of “stickiness” or how certain videos go viral, social programs have a lot to learn from how popular culture handles replication.

Viva la Vida

Friday, February 4th, 2011

“I see culture as enabling, not constraining. It’s something we build, not just something we inhabit.”

Has it come to this, that I’m quoting myself? (Actually, I think worse than that is using a Coldplay song for the title of this post.) Anyway, continuing from yesterday on culture and causation: I’m trying to articulate a positive vision of culture-as-causal-factor – not something that constrains our choices, not something that explains away our inadequacies or inequality, but something that can be constructed actively, something that sets people free.

You have to start with multiplicity, or as I gather it’s now being called, intersectionality: we all inhabit multiple traditions, our identities emerge at the intersection of many cultural narratives: child, student, citizen, racial/ethnic tradition, religion (or absence thereof), gender, etc., etc. No one of these defines us completely. To me, this is structure: that you come into the world connected (or not) to all these other networks, and not by choice. You’re entangled in multiple strands. Not just entangled: held aloft – supported. Identity is the fabric each of us weaves from these multiple strands. Some of us try harder at it than others, reaching beyond what we’re given to weave in different strands – we leave the place we’re born, we take different kinds of jobs, we study different things, we take on new activities and networks. Others take what they’re given and say thank you, weaving an identity and a life from the strands they were born into.

These individual choices aren’t random, or at least they don’t add up to chaos; there are patterns. Cultures are the patterns different groups collectively weave from the strands they’re given. They make a new reality of the raw material of daily existence. This is another way of saying, civilization happened. We’re not still Paleolithic cave-dwellers, we made fire and language and all the rest of it. This process of individual and collective weaving of identities and cultures from the networks and narratives into which we’re born is a continual and active process.

To me, that’s a very hopeful and encouraging thing. We’re not fated; we can and do change things through the choices we make, even if we’re working with materials from birth that we haven’t chosen. We do something with those, and we bring in new strands through the choices we make in life, the networks we join, the relationships we cultivate or cut off.

Anyway, when I talk about “culture” on this blog, or find myself defending the notion of culture as a causal factor, that’s where I’m coming from.