GoViral 2018 – Almaty, Kazakhstan

GoViral was a whirlwind: a three-day festival in Almaty, Kazakhstan (June 15-18, 2018) focused on innovation of all stripes.

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listening is my jam

This is only the second year that the festival has been up and running, and I was floored by what the US Consulate General in Kazakhstan has been able to pull off. It was an honor to be a part of that magic––not just the official events, but all the side conversations that happened as a result of lots of people with ideas and passions gathering together.

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door to the US Maker Space in Almaty

I gave a talk in the opening ceremony about poetry, and the unraveling of my 4-year journey so far (video here).

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ye olde opening slide, complete with cardboard aesthetic (am I predictable? yes)

In preparing for the keynote I realized that I don’t know if I’m still a poet. Poetry is the place I come from, the soil I grew up in, but not necessarily where I’m going.

As I do this project for longer––going on 4 years this September (if you count the beginning as the NYC People’s Climate March), or 5 years come August (if you count the beginning as my bicycle journey down the Mississippi River)––I find myself transitioning out of poems and into multimedia forms that let each storyteller speak in their own voice, rather than having my words reinterpret theirs.

Audio / image / creative nonfiction: the 1,001 Stories project continues to take on a shape and form of its own.

Poetry will always be a homeland I return to. For now: here’s to movement & play.

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fun fact: I did a whole lot of dancing backstage to calm nerves before delivering this talk

After the opening ceremony I presented on three panels alongside some superstar activists and writers from Central Asia & beyond.

Art communities and creative industries changing modern cities: with Aida Sulova, Asya Tulesova, and Anisa Sabiri. Moderated by Galina Koretskaya.

Seeing other people’s worlds: travel writing that goes deeper than the surface: with Tynan and Jeff Miller. Moderated by Anuar Nurpeisov.

How to use storytelling for social change: with Denis Bihus, Mary Mitchell, and Lara Stolman. Moderated by Madi Mambetov.

(All presentations were dubbed in Russian & will be uploaded in English in the coming weeks).

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Big thanks to my Harvard classmate Didar KM for inviting me to be a part of the festival.

(Fun fact: we took Deborah Foster‘s class “The Art of Storytelling” together freshman year, the course that made me decide to study Folklore & Mythology in the first place. Best decision I ever made).

If you haven’t already, go check out Didar’s comics: Abai Cartoons. Seriously awesome stuff.

Other things that were wonderful / that I don’t want to forget:

A) Dancing backstage with the best volunteer anyone could dream of working with (Yekaterina Kolessina!)

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caught in a rare moment of stillness (most of the time we were dancing / discussing politics)

B) climbing the big mountain that overlooks Almaty with Anuar Nurpeisov and Ben Yu. We saw a sideways rainbow, and miraculously did not fall.

and C) making a whole lot of audio recordings on water and climate change in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan: 29, to be exact.

Backstory:

For ten days before the festival I journeyed to Lake Balkhash, Kazakhstan and Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan alongside translator Qanat and photographer Sardar. We listened to stories about everything from cotton farming in the USSR to the Aral Sea to the legend of Issykul Lake’s formation and what it’s like being a woman who runs a bottled water business (and how a lack of infrastructure maintenance has necessitated bottled water consumption in the first place).

One of these stories, told by a storyteller who grew up in Afghanistan, ripped me open & reaffirmed my conviction that we need to create more spaces to talk about water. Water is life, and a lack of access to clean water can be deadly. More on that in the future.

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The sometimes frustrating, sometimes amazing, always a learning experience magic of translation A.K.A. linguistic triangulation. (Step one: listen. Step two: listen again) 

We translated the cardboard sign into Russian…

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there’s a spelling error hidden somewhere in here –– we fixed it later

… with materials provided by a friendly fruit seller in Balkhash:

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that’s journey photographer Sardar shaping the cardboard sign in-progress

The stories I recorded in Central Asia will be available eventually on the 1,001 stories map. Stay tuned for updates!

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Yours truly. Photo by Sardar.

This was my first time documenting stories while accompanied by three dudes (translator, photographer, driver). It changed parts of the trip, but not the whole thing.

If nothing else, it was a relief to be able to bring up Rebecca Solnit‘s book “Men Explain Things to Me” in the confined space of a bumpy van ride, and not be attacked for being a feminist. Referencing that book on a van ride from Laos to Cambodia two years ago brought about physical violence. (Again, more on that later, perchance –– that’s the subject of another thing).

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toilet block on the way to Balkhash. ladies to the left.

Lake Balkhash itself was stunning, and also a site of great ecological complexity / layered histories. Half the lake is salt, half is fresh, and the shores are filled with great people to talk to.

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@ a place where lines blur

Sardar shot material for a 20 minute film about my journey to document human stories on water and climate change, feat. music by Kazakh composer Kuat Shildebayev.

Cultural Curator Timur Nusimbekov, creator of Adamdar, edited the film, and did a whole lot of organizing backstage to make all of this come together (planning events in Balkhash, Bishkek, and Almaty). Timur, you rock.

I’ll post the link here when it goes live.

UPDATE: the film will be shown in Kazakhstan at the Almaty Indie Film Festival!

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Photo by Sardar

In the process of recording material in Balkhash, I realized how little I know about the Soviet Union, and all that has happened after.

I asked lots of questions. (Stories are doors. I like doorways).

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Also: let’s talk for a second about architecture. Soviet buildings stick around long after the USSR itself has crumbled. Balkhash city was built about 80 years ago, and the bones of the town are still strongly reminiscent of that era.

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From Balkhash we zoomed to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan for an action-packed weekend. I gave two talks at Chicken Star, hands down the finest chicken/coffee/art establishment I have ever stepped inside.

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Seriously –– I love this place. Not for the chicken (although I hear that it is indeed quite good), but for the community.

If you ever find yourself in Bishkek, Chicken Star is not to be missed.

The founder, Chihoon Jeong, is the kind of person who can intuit what kind of drink you need before you even know that you need it. What a gift.

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talks on talks –– taste the joy?

Kyrgyzstan at sunset is its own kind of gorgeous.

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Like any responsible story collector, I did my best to see things from different perspectives.

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handstands are fun

In sum: it was a blur of a two weeks…

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moments before being eaten by a cloud, on the way up to Big Almaty Peak

… filled w/ beauty of a distinctly Central Asian variety:

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water is life (Almaty, KZ)

For now: the journeys continue.

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upwards & downwards & upwards again

Big thanks to the storytellers who talked to me about water / climate & the GoViral event organizers who pulled off the near-impossible feat of gathering so many fascinating people from around the world in one place.

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If you have the opportunity to attend or speak at this festival: go. You won’t regret it.

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until soon –– over & out

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Mississippi River bike trip-aversary!

GUESS WHAT?!

It’s my 4 year end-of-first-bike-trip-aversary!

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Zooming on the Natchez Trace Parkway, Mississippi.

That journey by the numbers: 

1 month 

(August 2013)

800 miles from Memphis, Tennessee to Venice, Louisiana

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I started just south of the star and pedaled to the southernmost end of blue

 
2 nights camping inside a fire station
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night 1 in Arkansas

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night 2 in Louisiana

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There weren’t any fires so I got to try on the gear at Plaquemine’s.

26 nights people took me in 

My favorite sleeping spot was possibly the Floating Bed at Quapaw Canoe Company, designed by Chris Staudinger. Not pictured: copious amounts of driftwood that decorate the space.

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I thought it was a southern hospitality thing, but people have been taking me in all over the world in the years since –– I don’t know how to possibly repay this gift, but once I have a place of my own there will always be a futon for travelers.

1 cardboard sign 

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Recording audio stories at the Sunflower River Blues & Gospel Festival

1 time I held a mastodon tooth 

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Thanks, Howard Brent! Howard took me out on a Sunday river boat ride with his friend Hank, too. He showed me how the river washes up a whole treasure box of things, like the skeleton of this boat.

Despite the best attempts of the Army Corps of Engineers, the Mississippi’s banks are always moving and jumping.

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1 night dancing at Reds in Clarksdale 

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This saxophone player’s jacket is the inspiration for the neon vest that I wear while cycling…

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made in New Zealand, March 2015

I embroidered myself a pair of poet pants in New Zealand, too.

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But back to the Mississippi River Trail… this was my home office that month.

I did a fist pump every time I saw one of these signs. MRT!!!

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That August 2013 I recorded 50 hours of stories.

I didn’t know what I was doing, but it felt right.

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I love everything about this quote except for the gendered pronoun.

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Nightfall in NOLA

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piles from Hurricane Isaac (2 years previous) at the side of the road, somewhere south of New Orleans on the way to Venice

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Cotton, growing

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Combine

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Music comes out of the water, I think.

Stop what you’re doing and go listen to the Shotgun Jazz Band. No, really. The night I spent listening to them in New Orleans was simply sublime.

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I chased after a car to get this picture taken at the End of the World, the place where Louisiana Highway 23 meets the Gulf of Mexico.

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If you’re wondering where the One Bike One Year logo came from, now you know: The End of the World / Venice, Louisiana.

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There were places in Venice where water laps over the road at high tide.

I’ll have to check when I’m back stateside to see if I can find the hard-drive with those audio stories on it. It would be interesting to listen.

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I’m immensely grateful to all the storytellers who have propelled me around this planet a few times since… I couldn’t keep going without the 700+ people who have taken the time to share a piece of their lives with me.

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Here’s to water stories, climate change stories, and everything in between.

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Stay tuned for more updates about 1,001 Stories in the months to come. I have 700+ audio stories from the last three years to share… still working on format, but a podcast might be bubbling on the back-burner.

xo from Stockholm,

Circus is Not Dead

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waist-high dandelions at roadside, Montreal

Two weeks ago I was in Montreal connecting with Jeremie Robert, a super-talented acrobat and circus performer currently performing with Compagnie XY.

Jeremie and I met through his work with ArtCirq, an indigenous circus in Igloolik, Nunavut, Canada.

I have been applying for grants to travel to Nunavut for about two years now (still no luck) and would love to write about these performers in the Arctic. It’s super-expensive to get to the far north, though.

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Image via ArtCirq

Climate change is occurring in the Arctic twice as fast as in the rest of the globe, with a predicted 5 to 7 degree Celsius temperature rise in the next century.

Igloolik is a community on the front-lines of climate change, and also a place deeply invested in the healing powers of performance art. I can’t imagine a better place to record stories.

What is circus, anyway?

I asked this question to a Compagnie XY acrobat at a barbecue a few nights before their first show.

“Almost anything can be circus in the right context,” she said, “and there are whole theoretical classes at circus school devoted to this exact question. Circus art is something that you have to train and study for years in order to perfect.”

(I’m familiar with this line of questioning, though I’m usually on the receiving end of it: What is Folklore & Mythology?“)

Circuses are generally performed in round tents, too––or so I learned from a mini-exhibition at TOHU.

Ringling Bros. is dead, but circus is not. Modern circuses don’t have animals. It’s more about skill and training than flashy oddities.

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flying

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If I decide to go to grad school in the coming years, Performance Studies is a field I’m considering. I love the idea of wrestling with the circus question, and interviewing / writing about performers in this sphere.

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👣

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Montreal though, what a place. Light tastes different in every city.

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circus-ing

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My favorite thing to do in Montreal was just wander.

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c'est moi

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Montreal is spiral staircases on the outside of homes.

(I love walking up and down these kinds of stairs. It feels like being inside of a seashell.)

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island full of curvy staircases

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…long afternoons in the park, eating fruit and watching the world go by,

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long summer days mean more time for adventures 🌞

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… rainbows everywhere,

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🌈

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I will take all the rainbows, please 🌈

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… and of course, poutine. (Pro tip: poutine tastes best after drinking local beer in the park with a new friend, and will keep you full forever & ever.)

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baby's first poutine 👍🏽

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I think I’m falling in love with public spaces / places where people can picnic. Afternoon light. Fists full of blueberries — blue blessings.

Montreal is full of bicycles. Jeremie let me borrow his for the week.

In attending a few performances at Montreal Completement Cirque, I learned that I’m fascinated with flying… maybe because I know it is something my body won’t do.

Is it too late to learn?

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#rouge #montrealcompletementcirque

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Why do I travel?

To see more fully. To be surprised. To search for the blessing that sits just outside of my comfort zone. To begin over and over again.

When I travel to a new place, the days are long. Empty and waiting to be filled.

 
Before I left the states I bought myself two rings, one for the middle finger on each hand. My left hand is a tree, to remind me to stay grounded:

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growing roots

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The right is a feather for flying free. Serendipity.

When I visit a city, there are always layers––the detritus of cities I have been. The shape of houses in Montreal is not unlike DC. The parks that make me breathe deeper remind me of Paris. And anywhere I feel disoriented in language has an odd similarity––I could be in Fiji, or Tuvalu, or Thailand again.

I’m grateful for the sense of dislocation that not knowing a local language can provide. I get lost in the recesses of myself that I didn’t realize were still there.

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I am the postcard monster.

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Montreal, I’ll be back. I want to connect with the Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling (COHDS) this fall, where I have been an affiliate for three years.

… and maybe find some Canadian folks to collaborate with on the audio map in progress.

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still one of my favorite signs — spotted in Suva, Fiji, 2014

More soon. Here’s to living the questions.

~

 

Send me on my way

LET THE ADVENTURES BEGIN!

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2.5 months around the 🌎  for climate / water stories (of course), starting now:

Montpelier –> Montreal –> Chengdu –> Beijing –> Copenhagen –> Stockholm –> Chicago –> Boston

Goals for this trip:

  • Record water / climate change stories in each place
  • Learn whatever it is that the journey has to teach me
  • Get more comfortable taking portrait photographs

I bought a used DSLR camera & I’m learning my way around the different settings / breaking through the shyness that I have of photographing people.

This is my friend Cora Brooks in Montpelier, VT. She writes poems and taught me how to bake bread.

We met 5-ish years ago through the archives at the Schlesinger Library, where I was doing a research project on poets who have their papers archived there.

I started alphabetically by last name, elbow deep in grey boxes and filing folders. After a few weeks I realized that Cora was still alive (most people donate their papers only after they’ve passed).

I wrote her a letter. She wrote back. We’ve been writing each other letters ever since.

I’ve visited Cora in Montpelier a few times over the years, and every visit is a new kind of magic. Today we walked to town and ate beetroot and orange gelato.

Cora teaches me how to enjoy slowness. Her home is full of words. She has a cat whose name changes every time I visit. Last time he was Zebra Tattoo. Today he is Barcelona.

Here’s to intergenerational friendships.

Stay tuned for more. I’m looking forward to updating you all from the road.

xo,
D

Collaborations are the Best

Back in February I met Rosie Summers and some of her Leeds College of Art classmates at a Greenpeace Leeds meeting in the UK.

They asked if they could animate one of the water / climate change stories that I recorded. They chose a story from Noelline Gillies, a woman in her 80s from Omarama, New Zealand who I recorded in 2015.

Here’s a trailer of the result.

I am so, so happy with their work! Enjoy.

The School of System Change Launches in London

Back in February I attended opening days of the School of System Change, a cross-cultural gathering orchestrated by Forum for the Future in London.

Here are some of the notes that I scribbled down during opening days:

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The world is a system that is constantly changing. Through storytelling, we can co-create what is needed to address complex challenges. Stories are a map for understanding the world, a microcosm of what’s happening in the larger whole.

The goal of the School of System Change is to build a community of people practicing those skills. We are alive and part of this ecology, this system.

What is the shape / thread / wave of your life? What is the context? Life is change, is motion.

If you frame things too quickly, it becomes your prison.

Sin crisis no hay crecimiento.

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Walking away from the thing often means circling back to it. Challenge your own story. Create a structure, a framework, but recognize when you’re holding onto old stories, and have the strength to let them go.

What is the story that you always tell yourself about your life? What happens when you let that story go, and tell another story?

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We can understand ourselves as agents of change. There are many roles.

(At the moment my role is Connector / Amplifier / Disruptpr / Archivist. I move between).

We can look at change through the lens of relationships. Working smarter means getting out of our silos.

People don’t like change. People fear change. To admit that your theory is wrong is really hard.

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London is dense with layers of time.

Become cunning. Bring others in. Give them the opportunity to become part of the change. Rather than telling them something, bring them on board.

System change is about partnerships. How can we create spaces where those relationships are built? People are very busy. We need to find spaces to step out of  busy-ness and reflect.

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#resist together (Paris)

The Latin root of the word “conversation” means “to turn together. Human communication is a dance ritual.

We live in language. Language is a place. You’re a different person in a different language.

Find the part of the system that you can twang. Seek a journey for maximum wobble.

The future is a figment. It doesn’t exist. The future is a product of the present.

Institutions aren’t immutable. They can be redesigned and reinvented. Think for the long-arc, the 100-200 year future.

Leadership in systems change requires that we have:

  1. Curiosity
  2. Courage (to look deeply at ourselves & our strengths and weaknesses / biases; to know them; to listen to others).
  3. Joy (because it’s hard to overcome the barrier of time and attention)
  4. A group of people who believe in the need to change and define the problem together.
  5. Fail fast. Fail forward.

What does your ideal future look like, feel like, etc.?

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textures of home, other side of the pond

How do we get people who have the power to change the system involved in system change?

We must have the patience to listen and seek to understand perspectives that are different than our own.

A map is a tool. A systems diagram embodies structure and causation.

What is the behavior in the system that we want to change?

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You don’t create systems change. You create the conditions for it. Do the thing because it’s the right thing to do, not because you expect the right outcome.

Keep options open. Do stuff and see what happens. Then re-frame your strategy, noticing things that were completely outside of your strategy that work well.

What is the underlying assumption of the system?

Everything is in a state of flux. Things are always in the process of becoming, just as a murmuration of birds flows and shifts.

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Image via alain delorme

Tensions make life rich. We have to deal with tensions that can’t be resolved. Unsolvable tension is, sometimes, good.

Things emerge when something changes that suits the local conditions.

Embracing complexity means embracing that the world is more systemic and emergent than we’d like to think it is.

~

Here is some audio I recorded from other participants on their thoughts on Basecamp’s opening days.

Balloons and Stories

Back in April 2013, I started listening. I walked around Boston for a day with a cardboard sign, an audio recorder, and bunch of balloons.

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People talked to me, all sorts of people.

I met homeless Vietnam vets, a woman dressed up as Lady Liberty who lost everyone on her block to the earthquake in Haiti, a T employee who swears that his mother was dead for 48 hours and came back to life after he prayed to have just one more coffee with her, and a retired Spanish teacher who swore that the Statue of Liberty was modeled after Marie Antoinette.

So, some backstory:

It started out as an act of healing. The Boston Marathon bombings had happened just a few days before. After being stuck inside on lockdown, I wanted to get out in my city––to talk to people and to listen.

Cycling home from class, I passed the tail-end of event in Conway Park. I don’t know what they were celebrating. Someone was giving away bunches of blue and green balloons. I took a set of six and tied the orange ribbon holding them together to the handlebars of my bike.

I cycled home and stashed the balloons in my room.

The next day, I scavenged in the recycling bin for an old cardboard box. I cut the box open and covered it with a paper bag. I used a Sharpie to write: “open call for stories” on its face. I poked a hole on either side of the top and threaded a green piece of ribbon through so that I could wear the cardboard sign around my neck, and use both hands to record audio unencumbered.

That was four years ago. Since then I’ve been recording stories about water and climate change in 11 countries, mostly on my bicycle. I haven’t intersected with balloons on the trip. Until now.

This weekend I’m visiting Julie Zauzmer in Washington, D.C. Julie is a bad-ass balloon twister who doubles as a reporter for the Washington Post. Back in college Julie started a club on campus called Class Clowns, which I joined because I know how to juggle and unicycle (but not at the same time). It seemed like a fun way to spend a Saturday afternoon.

Fast forward to 2017. So back in February I sent Julie a message asking if we could make “some kind of story-collecting-booth out of balloons.”

She said yes.

We spent today twisting.

Tomorrow we’ll be at Malcolm X Park starting around 9:30am. I’ll have my audio recorder with me. Tell me a story about water and/or climate change?

Here’s a small preview. More photos to come.

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