Disagree and Commit

From Jeff Bezos’s 2016 Letter to Amazon Shareholders

“Third, use the phrase ‘disagree and commit.’ This phrase will save a lot of time. If you have conviction on a particular direction even though there’s no consensus, it’s helpful to say, ‘Look, I know we disagree on this but will you gamble with me on it? Disagree and commit?’ By the time you’re at this point, no one can know the answer for sure, and you’ll probably get a quick yes.

This isn’t one way. If you’re the boss, you should do this too. I disagree and commit all the time. We recently greenlit a particular Amazon Studios original. I told the team my view: debatable whether it would be interesting enough, complicated to produce, the business terms aren’t that good, and we have lots of other opportunities. They had a completely different opinion and wanted to go ahead. I wrote back right away with ‘I disagree and commit and hope it becomes the most watched thing we’ve ever made.’ Consider how much slower this decision cycle would have been if the team had actually had to convince me rather than simply get my commitment.

Note what this example is not: it’s not me thinking to myself ‘well, these guys are wrong and missing the point, but this isn’t worth me chasing.’ It’s a genuine disagreement of opinion, a candid expression of my view, a chance for the team to weigh my view, and a quick, sincere commitment to go their way. And given that this team has already brought home 11 Emmys, 6 Golden Globes, and 3 Oscars, I’m just glad they let me in the room at all!”

Beyond “Childcare Available”: 4 Tips for Making Events Parent-Friendly

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I was just talking to a group of activists about the fact that while a lot of events both in the activist and tech space do offer childcare, that childcare always seems to be sort of dashed together by a bunch of people who clearly have little to no sense of what people with kids need in order to feel welcome/ like they can attend. The people I spoke to admitted they were clueless about what was needed and felt that “Childcare Available” was part of the standard for inclusive events and not something  to which they actually gave much attention.

*sigh*

So, in the spirit of illuminating people and moving our communities forward, I’ve pulled together a few ideas to help move “Childcare Available” from just words on a page to an actual living breathing service that empowers people with children to learn/grow alongside their peers, engage in projects they care about, and frankly just have a little break from the rigors of childcare.

1) Schedule the Event At A Child-Friendly Time

Children — especially small ones — generally need to get to bed at a certain time, which varies from family to family but usually is sometime around 7/8-ish. At the very least, parents want kids home in the evenings to settle down, not trying to hustle them onto a subway or pull them out of their carseats and get them to bed at 10pm or later. It happens — and I certainly can’t speak for everyone — but if you want people with children to participate, consider scheduling some childcare-available events on weekend days.

2)  Childcare Provided By? 

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The ChiChiCo Team

Again, the gesture of providing childcare is a kind one, but as a parent, it’d be helpful to know who the childcare providers are ahead of time. I know, for example, in Chicago that the Chicago Childcare Collective (ChiChiCo) partners with many groups to provide free childcare at meetings, protests, and other events. Here in NYC, Regeneracion does much the same.

Whenever possible, partner with groups like this and let parents know who will be available to watch children and what sort of activities are planned. I am much more excited to bring my kid to a gathering if I know they are going to be engaged in fun things with other children and supportive like-minded adults.

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The Team at Regeneración Childcare NYC

3) Childcare Money Available

While it is great to be able to bring my kid to events and share my interests, sometimes it is easier for me to focus if my child is not on the premises. In those cases, it’d be great if organizers — and here I am focused mostly on the corporate-sponsored tech events — could offer childcare reimbursements. My kid is most comfortable at home with a trusted caregiver, so if I could provide that rather than having to take them to say a hack day or an all day skills-building event — and inevitably have to do care work — it would be preferable.

4) Center Mothers/Caregivers 

This is by no means an exhaustive list of things you can do to make your event more parent-friendly (for example I imagine nursing moms would want a clean, comfortable place to pump/breastfeed), so whenever possible just ask people what would help them attend/participate. Don’t fall over yourself making accommodations based on assumptions. Just ask, listen, and see what you can do.

Something in Commons

A little under a year or so ago, my dear friend Sumana suggested to a group of friends that we read some work by the late political economist and ecologist Dr. Elinor Ostrom and blog our thoughts. Ostrom’s work focused on the natural environment and the possibilities for cooperative management of common resources.  It was of interest to the group of us who have been involved in free and open source software and also something I wanted to know about as a long-time member of the co-op movement.

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Dr. Ostrom accepting her prize.

Well, weeks and then months passed and I didn’t have time to turn to the 2009 Nobel prize lecture, “Beyond Markets and States: Polycentric Governance of Complex Economic Systems” that it was suggested we start with. Nor (to my knowledge) did any of the others (well maybe Sumana did, she mentions it at the end of this post). Nonetheless, I still had it as an item on my lengthy digital to-do list, and I received regular reminders that it was something I’d told myself I wanted to do.

As the political tides turned dramatically over the past few months, I turned my attention to deeper study of radical history and alternative socio-political visions. In this spirit, I returned to the long- neglected Ostrom hoping she’d have something to share that would motivate and inspire.

Like most economics research, Ostrom’s is dense and builds on a long history of economic concepts only a few of which I feel I can convincingly discuss, but her work is at its core a rebuke to modern society’s Hobbesian belief that without hierarchical government, people would not be and do good. Her focus was on expanding the categories of goods humans could have, use, produce, and distribute, since traditional economics had long held that there were only two sorts — public and private.

Through studies of the collective management of irrigation systems in Nepal, pastures in Kenya,  and water basins in Los Angeles, she observed first-hand how human beings could band together to cultivate and maintain what she calls common pool resources. Common pool resources are goods that differ from more standardly-defined public goods in that they are depletable and also easily accessible; so they must be preserved at the same time that they are enjoyed and consumed.  At 28-pages, this summary of her many decades of academic study and field work is relatively brief*; so I won’t bother to summarize her summary, but I will point to a few key ideas that I am keen to pursue further:

  • the value of communication (both focused and small-talk) in building goodwill, increasing trust, and producing more favorable outcomes for all users of a common pool resource;
  • polycentricity – the idea that a  functioning system can have many different and independent centers of decision; and
  • the seven design principles of successful systems
    • boundaries – user boundaries & resource boundaries
    • appropriation and provision –  ensuring that costs and benefits are consistent with local environment/expectations and harmonized with each other
    • collective decision-making
    • monitoring – of users and of the resource
    • graduated sanctions – punishment for rule breaking starts out lax and escalates as/if a users’s violations continue
    • conflict resolution mechanisms
    • minimal recognition of rights – all users have right to make their own rules
    • “nested layer” structure of governance when operating within a larger ecological system

I was introduced to Ostrom around the same time that I began to learn more about the life and teachings of anarchist/libertarian scholar and activist Murray Bookchin and his concept of social ecology. Social ecology is the idea that for the good of the Earth and humanity, society should move to a system of smaller communal societies practicing direct democracy, and it seems to dovetail nicely with many of Ostrom’s findings.

Bookchin’s message — as succinctly summed up by Dr. David Schlosberg in his rather critical 2011 lecture on the life and work of Bookchin — was:

  1. Domination in human societies is not natural.
  2. We should pay attention to the liberatory and cooperative potential of nature.
  3. We must recognize the contribution that social movements can make to social thought.

Where Bookchin theorized about the failings of the centralized, hierarchical state, Ostrom observed first-hand its inefficiencies and corruption compared to the systems where participants came together to exercise their usufruct rights. Usufruct is the idea that you can use and profit from but not abuse or sell the common pool resource, and it was a central tenant of social ecology as Bookchin envisioned it.

I have recently been working with various groups on the campaign for single-payer healthcare in New York state, but now that I am digging into Ostrom, Bookchin, and others, I am excited about the ways in which Ostrom’s design principles for successful management of common pool resources might be applied to create an even more free and fair form of healthcare. I am frankly excited about the ways it can be applied to all manner of collective organizations towards a vision of non-hierarchical relations throughout society. I’ll share my thoughts on that at a later date… after I read more Ostrom!

*For now, I encourage you to read the paper or just watch the talk, which I just discovered is available here in video form and is very enjoyable!

Gratitude: March 2017

Another super quick and super-packed month! Just sneaking in here at the end of the month to share a few things that made me grateful.

Humble – Kendrick Lamar
This living legend just crept in with a blazing hot new song for us all. Kendrick is an imperfect hero (great critique here), but heroic he is indeed.

Ecology or Catastrophe: The Life of Murray Bookchin

 

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Image from this New York Times Magazine article on Rojava, Kurdistan.

I have been digging into radical thinkers of the 20th century. Last month was Manning Marable’s expansive biography of Malcolm X. This month, I dug into the life story of of this lesser-known but pioneering environmental thinker, who was inspired by anarchist thinkers like Pyotr Kropotkin. Though I don’t march in lockstep with all the ideas Bookchin puts forward (he was definitely not serving global intersectional feminism!), his vision is more in line with my political beliefs than nearly any other I’ve encountered. The fact that his ‘libertarian municipalist‘ approach articulated in the late 70s/early 80s is only being seriously considered and put into practice (in Rojava, Kurdistan) is a testament to how far ahead of his time he was. For a good, quick survey of his work, listen to this lecture by Dr. David Schlosberg.

For Colored Nerds on Get Out

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I finally got around to watching the much-acclaimed new thriller (I hesitate to call it horror) Get Out. I enjoyed it and as a long-time fan of thrillers and exploitation films I loved all the references to films like the original Night of the Living DeadAnnie Hall, A Clockwork Orange, and Rosemary’s Baby.  But my favorite part of the experience came after I left the theater, and I was able to listen to the close read of the movie on one of my favorite podcasts For Colored Nerds. Hosts Brittany and Eric devote most every episode to a deep dive on one topic and after (nearly) every episode I feel like I could talk to them for a couple hours more. They are totally my black nerd friends in my head and I encourage you to check out the episode and subscribe to (and Patreon-support!) the podcast!

If anyone finds a Lacanian psychoanalytic read of the movie, let me know. I appreciated this Buzzfeed article for more fun Get Out easter eggs!

Three Tips for Providing Tech Help to Non-Profits and Other Such Organizations

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Credit: Wocintech

Ever since I was a little one, I’ve been identified as a person who was “good with computers”. Because of my savviness, I was on hand to help all manner of family members, friends, family friends, and friends of friends with their software and hardware woes. As word got out, I was also asked to help out with the technical systems of various activist efforts and non-profit organizations. While this work can be fulfilling there are a few  things to keep in mind, and since so many new people are volunteering their time (and technical talents) to organizations these days, I thought I’d offer a few quick tips on how to do good with computers while setting realistic expectations and maintaining your sanity.

While this work can be fulfilling there are a few  things to keep in mind, and since so many new people are volunteering their time (and technical talents) to organizations these days, I thought I’d offer a few quick tips on how to do good with computers while setting realistic expectations and maintaining your sanity.

Three Tips for Providing Tech Help to Non-Profits and Other Such Organizations

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1) Define the Scope and Timeframe 

Although you may end up working with the organization for decades, you want to start small. Figure out what exactly they need help with and identify where you will help. Also be clear about how long you want the initial engagement to last and when/how you will be available to them.

2) Determine Technical Ability and Actual Needs

Take the time to talk with the people who work with the existing systems and figure out what they are comfortable with and what they need. In most cases, the organization needs you because their technical know-how doesn’t expand far beyond Gmail and Excel spreadsheets. While you may be itching to move their technical stack forward, it is generally wise to crawl before you walk.  For example, if they are using a certain CRM or CMS that they feel they are very happy with, you might want to see how you can improve on it rather than swapping it out. If you all eventually decide it’s time to move forward, the exercise of working with the existing systems will make you better equipped to help them make the switch. The world (and GitHub!) is littered with “brilliant hack day” projects that were meant to improve NGOs and empower communities. Whenever possible, meet people where they are and work to fix what’s broken first.

3) Document, Document, Document

Look, I am not doubting your commitment to the cause, I know you care, but life happens, burnout happens. So for the sake of all involved, please document how to use any systems that you’ve set up. Even if you stay on board for years, you can’t be available all the time. Give the people the tools and they have a good chance of figuring it out themselves.

Even in the case where a tool has existing documentation, whenever possible please still write out all the steps in language that the folks in the organization can easily understand and keep it in a place where they can all easily access it.


There are undoubtedly a lot more aspects to consider when signing up to offer your technical chops to a philanthropic organization but I think these three should help the engagement get started on the right foot. If you need more tips on how to evaluate potential new opportunities, check out my SupConf talk at the bottom of the post here.