Tuesday, October 16, 2018

It Takes a Village Having Fun

From The Cultural Organizing of Blowout Consciousness
a book and cultural organizing tool-kit by Mike Molina
Available on Amazon now

A flock of crows is called a “murder”. The snarky poet who thought of this moniker must have heard a flock of crows cawing—with that awful scream that curdles into a gurgle—and thought of the discord and distress that accompanies a murder. This poet must also have been an educator.
If you have ever attempted to shepherd humans engaged in education, whether students from grades to graduation, teachers from tradition to innovation, or administrators from bottom-lines to highest standards, you know that school leadership can feel like a murder of crows. Heaped atop the many challenges indigenous to education are the challenges of social discord that can make this work exponentially more difficult. Having taught and led in educational environments as diverse as Yale University, San Francisco public schools, Atlanta-area charter schools, and now a Baltimore all-boys independent school, I can attest that social discord knows not race, class, religion, or gender. While privilege is not evenly distributed, discord most certainly is. How might we overcome social discord to get to the work of nourishing hearts and minds? The design approach of biomimicry can help us imagine how to create functional, healthy, sustainably interdependent social environments.
According to the Biomimicry Institute, biomimicry (or biomimetics) is an approach to innovation that seeks sustainable solutions to human challenges by emulating nature’s time-tested patterns and strategies. While universities like Stanford use this approach at their Biomimetics and Dextrous Manipulation Labto design robots of the future, organizations such as the non-profit Bioneerspromote the use of biomimicry to design restorative food systemsIf this approach can be useful for such massive opportunities and challenges as these, can we also use biomimicry to design ways to mitigate the social discord typical in educational institutions?
One answer can be found in Fast Company magazine’s 2010 Biomimcry Challengewhich inspired IDEO to team with the United States Green Building Council (USGBC) to redesign the type of hierarchical organizational structure that Lindred Greer of Standford Graduate School of Businessasserts “makes people turn on each other when they face an outside threat.” Together IDEO and USGBC studied the relationships between fungi and tree roots, the reproductive strategies of octopi, and the way flamingos signal their health and diet, among other biological phenomena. Ultimately, IDEO helped the USGBC design “an interlaced system of shared information across an entire network.” This innovation is typical of IDEO, but we should wonder if there are design solutions closer to home. Are there solutions to social discord that we can mine from the ways communities have responded to immense challenges, such as recovering from the natural disaster of a hurricane or educating in the midst of the human disaster of injustice? Spoiler alert: there are.
After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, 400,000 people were displaced to cities around the U.S. to start new lives, new jobs, and new schools. As a New Orleans native lawyer and teacher, I was called do something to help during the tough years of rebuilding lives and communities. After securing a New Voices fellowshipto work back and forth between Atlanta and New Orleans through a non-profit called the Young People’s Project (YPP), I was introduced to the educational design mastery of Bob Moses. 
A legend of Civil Rights who helped to organize share croppers to demand the right to vote in 1960s Mississippi, Bob Moses returned to Mississippi in the 1980s. Back to combat a new form of inequity, the “digital divide”, Bob Moses applied his advanced degree in mathematics and his experience teaching illiterate adults to read so they could pass voting poll tests. Moses designed and patented a gamified method of teaching algebra, an essential building block to tech literacy. Called Flagway, Moses’ algebra game engaged high school students in teach-playing with junior high school students who could then teach-play with elementary students, helping cement the principles of algebra in the minds of all three groups. What Bob Moses knew, and what the graduates of his program who went on to found YPP knew, is that education is a community-wide endeavor that is strongest when rooted in something people could enjoy together, like physical play. It takes a village, yes. And it takes a village having a good time. 
Following this example in order to meet the challenge of the dislocation and dearth of information following hurricane Katrina, we took a similar design approach in developing a series of community events to deliver access to everything from FEMA guidelines to secure rebuilding funds, to charter school admissions policies, to connections to employment, legal, and health service providers. We called these events, Blowout Consciousness, to reflect New Orleans cross-generational cultural tradition of brass band blowouts or street jazz band competitions. In addition to having a wide-range of service-providers and community organizations present to distribute important information, we invited community elders and leaders to speak between band sets. They shared stories about New Orleans’ history of recovery from disaster—what it took in the past and what it would take this time. We learned that this cross-generational approach is a boon to community despite the many challenges that physical displacement creates. 
Though these examples don’t necessarily fit the standard definition of phenomena that might be instructive from a biomimicry standpoint, opening our minds to place human resiliency and invention squarely in alignment with the genius of nature can open new wellsprings of insight. Yet even a more technical application of biomimicry can lead us to similar insights. Re-enter the crow.
The labeling of a flock of crows as a “murder” couldn’t be more inaccurate and undeserved. Scientists know now that crows are among the most intelligent animals on the planet. A recent research paper by psychologists out of the University of Iowa and biologists from the State University of Moscow aptly titled “Crows Spontaneously Exhibit Analogical Reasoning” reports that crows exhibit advanced “higher order” reasoning, including the ability to analogize relationships between colors and shapes in order to obtain food, abilities once thought only possible for humans and some great apes. Additionally, other studies have shown that crows seem to recognize and spread the news about specific researchers who have captured themand seem to have warned flocks of up to 600,000 birds to shift long-held migration paths to avoid specific places where crows have been shot. Video taped experiments show crows using tools for multi-step processes of acquiring food. Other studies have proven that they can quickly solve problems that require collaboration. How are crows so smart?
Social Structure of Crows, a study of how crows relate, proposes answers that suggest a scalable solution for human endeavors in education. Among a gathering of adult crows, “nonfamily juveniles were tolerated” in feeding areas because of complex social networks and established social norms. As a result, young crows expand their pool of adults to model beyond the model their parents provide, and thus learn more from more diverse sources for longer periods of time. If we interpret this information through the lens of biomimicry, how might we imagine and design learning institutions that reflect this approach?
What we can learn from a crow society is that a flock doesn’t become a flock by the mere act of moving together. A flock becomes a flock by the complex set of interconnected commitments across the spectrum of a community that allow the group to take the complex and coordinated action of mass movement. Key, also, is the ability to learn from more people than those typically charged with teaching—parents and educators. So how might we restructure our school communities to engender the type of resiliency, resourcefulness, and cooperation across a spectrum of people inside and outside of the school environment? How might we transform our school communities from the “murders” that they sometimes are into flocks that they could be? 

Saturday, January 14, 2017

And Every Tomorrow

I tell my son, Miles, he is my dream boy -- the boy of my dreams.

His sense of humor is my hope -- where I laugh proud, loud laughter.  Miles' earnestness and diligence in caring for his things feels like eternal validation of my existence.  His quirky, quick-twitch mind and fluid gait feel like DNA at its most unfurled and flourishing magnificence, at it's best and in the flesh and in my own son in my own home.  I love my boy.

But I'll be damned if his hunger for my attention doesn't sometimes grate the nerves above my lip.  Sometimes I have to turn away so he doesn't see it curl when he asks for me to play with him for the twelfth time, like some twelfth night of dawning epiphany that he'll carry around like a log until he sits in some therapists office saying "my dad never wanted to play with me."  The uselessness of that obscurely stream-of-consciousness reference not withstanding, this annoyance has bothered me and driven me to an epiphany of my own.

Why would I feel annoyed about my son wanting to play with me?  I love playing with him.  We have similar playing styles:  Rough and silly and lots of flipping; fart jokes and s#!t-talking and making up games galore.  It is among my most pure joys.  So why the annoyance about something so pleasurable?

Then it dawned on me.  My son is exactly the age I was when my father left.  And, like Miles, I must have been clamoring, feinding, grasping for my father's attention... right as he left our home.  Maybe some child-like part of me, the part that comes out when we play, is a little jealous.  I even caught myself saying to him once, when he complained that we "never get to play" after I told him no once in the midst of two full days of play over christmas break; I caught myself barking at him:  "I never got to play with my dad half as much as we play!"  Epiphany!

Or as we say in the community of people who knew the nineties were the Wayans' decade:  Message!

The story I've always told myself is that when my dad, in his wisdom, sat me down to tell me that he was leaving and why (and I can see the moment as a misty movie even now as I write over 30 years later), is that I didn't cry and didn't say anything.  And I didn't say anything because I didn't want to hurt his feelings.  I was secretly glad my dad was leaving.

I was tired of the fighting, the loud screams thundering through the walls and the icy silences that seemed to last days, weeks, years; that coated holidays and vacations with the bitterness that coats the tongue after you vomit.  I was ready for him to go.  My story was that, while most people talk about 'staying for the kids,' some folks ought to consider leaving for the kids.

At seven, I was relieved dad left.  That was my story.

Now I know different.  If I was like my son, I was devastated when my father left.  His attention was my highest aspiration.  His validation, my deepest desire.  To play with him, the purest joy I could find.  And right at that moment of peak need, he was gone.

I was angry at my dad for a long time.  And it didn't really come out untill I was in my twenties, when I took a most shameful vengeance on him; a vengeance I explain in an earlier post and won't wallow in now.  But even through all that, my 7 year old story stayed the same.  I wasn't mad because I wanted him to stay.  I was mad because he did 'this' when I was 16 or didn't do 'that' while I was in college.  But, at 7, I was glad that he left.  Yeah.

Now I know better.  And thank God in the form of my wife, siblings, step-mom and good friends, I've done some work on myself.  Instead of turning my 7 year old son into my 7 year old self and me into my dad; instead of feeling guilty about the annoyance I feel at his/my longing for my/my dad's attention; instead of responding to this epiphany by being on 24 hour call for his playing urges and never saying 'no' when I need a break; instead of all that, I will sit my boy down, look him in the eyes, and say "I don't want to play 'tornado pillow slam' for the 847th time, Miles.  Let's make a date for tomorrow."

And I can say that because I'll be here tomorrow... and every tomorrow thereafter, even if as only a warm memory of a 7 year old boy and his dad playing tornado pillow slam for the 848th time.

P.S... thanks Jessy, wife of mine and Miles' mom, for encouraging me to think and write this stuff out.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

On the Spectrum of Patriarchy

As a teacher at an elite all boys school where I also coach football, when I heard audio of Donald Trump boasting about weaponizing his wealth and power to violate women without consequence, I immediately felt a pre-exhaustion with the damage control ahead.  Trump essentially told my students, "do what you want to girls because you can."  We teachers have a hard enough time battling the negativity of the misogynist trash-rap on the radio to have a presidential candidate add the legitimacy of the highest public office to the cesspool of sexist mental pollution out there.  

But then, when Donald Trump made the excuse that his rape culture swagger was just "locker room talk," I was deeply disturbed.  I wasn't surprised that he would make this excuse or that he talked about grabbing women's genitals like an unabashed rapist, but I was surprised at how many women seemed to think that men actually talk like this in locker rooms.  Does my wife think I talked like that?  My friends?  No, not me, love.  Not us.
But when I spoke with my wife about it in order to clarify for her that normal men do not assault nor brag about assaulting women, she pointed out that we might still be communicating on a spectrum of patriarchy that bends toward Donald Trump.  The objectification of women that I certainly did partake in is part of the deal.  There's no way around it.  The mythic "strong man" pathos that Trump uses to charge up his throngs of male and female supporters emerges from the myth of patriarchy (male supremacy) itself; a myth that underpins rape culture.  

And as mythic as the narrative that men are superior to women is, the violence of patriarchy is real.  Patriarchy is the social, political, and economic ideology that justify systems of oppression that keep power in the hands of men and out of the hands of women.  Patriarchy is deeply rooted in the pillars of Western civilization, from the Bible to business schools.  And as much as I have learned this intellectually, the American open sore that is Donald Trump has helped me feel how Patriarchy actually works in the world, in real time, and in my own life.  If I'm honest, I have been on a spectrum of patriarchy that includes a vile cesspool of men like Trump and their apologists. 
I grew up under the spell of patriarchy.  I never had a woman head of school or a woman at the head of a church I attended.  I never had a woman mayor, governor, or president.  And though a woman headed my household, I was taught by most of the men in my life that men are better leaders, clearer thinkers, and stronger in every way that really matters.  These beliefs are pervasive and they have devastating impacts in society. 
Michelle Obama makes this crystal clear.  

Growing up as a young man, we had a name for a tall, powerful woman like Michelle Obama.  It wasn't a title of respect or adoration.  It wasn't a name that would have captured her awesome intellect or that would have described her warm soul or wholly dignified spirit.  No.  Growing up, we would have called Michelle Obama a "stallion."  We would have objectified her body with the ridiculous and ironic metaphor of a male horse.  And even if we thought it was complimentary, Michelle Obama now shows how ass-backward this label was (and is).  Back then, I would have ignored the majesty that is Mrs. Obama for being lost in the male privilege to, even if only visually and verbally, possess a woman's body.
But maybe these actions were more about insecurity than power.  Maybe men like Donald Trump, and boys like us, were so intimidated by the female essence that we had to belittle it by minimizing it to a body that we could judge like some show horse.  Maybe we did it because we beleived we could subdue a woman's body, but knew we could never overpower a woman's soul, mind, or spirit.  I wrote a poem about it as a part of a series of verse novels, called the The Misbelief Tree, about mistaken beliefs and how they shape us.  Like to read it?  Here it goes:

Excerpt from The Misbelief Tree p. 49-52
We all paused in awe with slack jaws 
as if we saw the kingdom come.  
In walked a magnificent thing, 
what we used to call a stallion,
stalked by a stuttering battalion of babbling youths. 

Her body flowed in slow motion.  
Breath pet her parted lips.  
Her honey brown legs pressed up on cut pear hips, 
which switched in locomotion 
under her knee high sundress.  
That thin cloth might have been rocked right off 
had she not gripped the hem between her nail tips 
and tugged it down.  
But then how the color hugged her mounds of melon-round bottom 
could turn a pillar of salt into a man 

and make him run back to Sodom as fast as he can.

As she ambled the narrow lane of the aisle,
there was a bit of a hitch in her gait
that seemed to be an apprehension to engage 
the agitated state of males jockeying 
to whip her attention their way.

I wondered when she first felt the heat of men’s eyes 
vying to try her skin as if she were meat.
Was she thirteen, 
curious behind the spurious worry
of an uncle twisting his tongue 
to say “So young. So grown so young?”
Was she eleven,
whisking up a cousin’s concern
as he watched her body
wiggle and whirl in ways that made him squirrel
“come here girl.”
Is she even twenty now
and already somehow a triple crown 
(a trophy of face, breasts, and bottom)
for sporting crowds of loud men
(thirsty, graceless, and prodding)
endowing themselves 
with the right 
to say what they like on sight?

It dawned on me,
the absurdity of calling a woman a male horse,
and the paradox of the fact that it is such an accurate metaphor. 
To men, she is a stallion,
a prized creature
that men dream they can break and hold, 
that they bet they can ride and control,
while the shame burrowed in their souls
cowers at her power 
because they know 
it is greater than they can even perceive
or ever conceive.
Man knows he is weak.
And he knows 
woman knows.
It is time to solve the mental illness of patriarchy and the violence, aggression, and discrimination against women that it promotes, protects, and justifies.  

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

I Only Tweet Haiku: Make Politics Poetry

Fog horn bellow romps.
Many men, they brood, snarl, bark.
Bred fight dogs, panting. 


A world divided needs the poet in you.  The careful, deliberate voice in all of us needs expression now.  And the place where it most needs to be heard is in that often vulgar, vile, vicious vector of all things rash, rushed, and unreasonable:  social media.
You are hereby challenged to write only poetry in social media posts about politics from this point forward.  Be it haiku, rap, nursery rhyme, or some other meticulous mesh of well-meant words, take the time it takes to craft what you communicate to your fellow humans. Write like you have something of value to say.
And why poetry? Because poetry conjures the evocative, layered nature of language to help us suckle meaning from the muddled murk of what we think we believe we think we feel. Poets are to words and thoughts what watchmakers are to gears and levers, forging form and function to help us feel the pulse and rhythm of life beyond our current space and time.  Poetry is a song of Time, a humming hymn of action bowing to progress, to that which is greater than Itself.
Poetry is language evolved. And language is the first human technology. In language, humans converted the energy of grunts and moans into words the way computers convert digits into information.  Language was the Internet before electricity.  It is where we searched stories for meaning, for joy, for truth and understanding.  Language taught fire and taught medicine and taught philosophy.  Language is the driver of human evolution, the all-spark, the engine of human understanding, and the catalyst of human potential.  Language is the mortar of civilization and, as poet Margaret Atwood declares, war is what happens when language fails.
And these days war is the story every day.  Our earth is swollen with the waste of insatiable consumption as we wade through distraction bitter in the bliss of detached connections while the world awaits our fingertips offering a mood switch at every click of clicks from which consequence comes in a blizzard blitz of enticements we can’t resist leaving us desensitized and comfortably numb while death and destruction run amok among our young.  We are in a world of trouble.  And yet, that trouble breeds poetry.
And poetry is a sublimely designed vehicle, a finely tuned engine, and a masterful driver of ideas. And rhyming poetry is particularly effective at this because it is easy on the ears and easier to recall and can bring beauty to pain, empathy in small doses. And poetry offers answers in the questions it poses. And we need more questions pulled from the ashes and the dust, from trouble and the history from which it is thrust.
And we need poetry that rhymes; poetry that has correspondence in the terminal sounds of its composition. Breaking down the meaning of rhyme releases a powerful analogy for what we need in these times of discord and disunity. Rhyme is the correspondence in the terminal sounds of a composition.
And correspondence is a close similarity, connection, or equivalence; something that one thing shares with another.  This could be a value, an experience, or a moment in time.  Correspondence is a point of connection between things.  Yes rhyme is the correspondence in the terminal sounds of a composition and correspondence is a point of connection between things.
And if terminal refers to forming or situated at an end or extremity of something, and also refers to a transportation route or a station along a route, then terminal refers to an ending that serves as the starting point to something else. Terminal means transitional.  And rhyme is the correspondence in the terminal sounds of a composition. 
And if composition is the nature of something's ingredients or constituents; the way in which a whole or mixture is made up, or, alternately, a composition is a work of music, literature, or art, then composition is the make up of a creation.  And rhyme is the correspondence in the terminals sounds of a composition.  Thus, if after breaking rhyme down we put it back together, rhyme is a point of unity between things in transition as they make up a creation. 
The present rhymes in two directions with its past and its future.  Molecules rhyme in the various forms of matter.  Atoms rhyme in fusion and in fission.  Cells rhyme when they divide in anything that is living.  The artist rhymes the real and the imagined the way the builder rhymes the blueprint with the building.
We all rhyme with some ancestor who wore our faces in black and white, and spoke our voices in the darkest nights, and walked our gait in a day under the same sun, breathing the same oxygen in the breath you took as these words were written.
Rhyme is like that.  Rhyme is, like life, symmetry, balance, and the repletion of repetition.  Life is rhyme.  And any progress in this life must rhyme with the core, timeless needs that all people in all places at all times share:  self-expression, togetherness, purpose.  Progress, as it rhymes what we are with what we could be, progress is rooted in where we are and pulls us forward to where we should be.
And we who want the world to progress have to change our story from only powerfully pointing out what we are against and clearly calling out what’s wrong, to artfully attracting people to what we are for and building the beautiful on what’s right.  We need our politics to become poetry.
And thankfully our planet is round.   So if you walk your mind outside and go down left, all the way to left, as far left as you can go, you can greet your neighborhood Black Blocker with a warm “Anarchism is order, Government is chaos” in the morning.  Alternatively, if you walk your mind right, all the way right, as far right as you can go, you can say “minimum government, maximum freedom” to your friendly neighborhood Libertarian at the end of the day.  And they, being next-door neighbors, can be heard arguing across the narrow alley between them. 
Thankfully we are on a round planet so the extreme left and extreme right can yell at each other from across that dark alley of ideology.  And we can imagine them rhyming slogans back and forth at each other:
“Free Minds will make Free Markets!”
“Property is Theft, Eat the Rich!”
“Minimum Government, Maximum Freedom!”
“Political power comes from the barrel of a gun!”
“If your aren’t Libertarian, you aren’t paying attention!”
“The direction, insurrection.  The solution, revolution!”
And in all that confusion, there is still rhyme, a point of unity between things in transition as they make up a creation.  And in the rhyme there is a radical center, a radical center where white is a color and man is a myth, where we are all people of color, gender unspecific. Where humans are animals, and the planet is us all.  Where religion listens when science calls.  Where science acknowledges its limits.  There is a radical center that holds us together.  And you are there.  And all are welcome.  It is radical in the mathematical sense, meaning at the root.
And the root is clenched to the earth, balled up in twists like the veins in a fist raised for freedom.  And freedom is getting information instead of ideology.  Freedom is learning from it all, from the right to the left, to consider it all then take the best and leave the rest.  We can learn from capitalists about how to catalyze and learn from socialists about how to prioritize.  We can learn from politicians about how to compromise and learn from activists about how to lock eyes on the prize.  In Freedom even perceived enemies have something to teach.  Every heart and mind is within freedom’s reach.  In freedom is the ultimate rhyme.
Rhyme is why your children love the Hip Hop that recycles your favorite songs, and why so many who once loved Dr. Suess grew up to love Hamilton.  Rhyme is for dreamers and I ain’t the only one who believes there’s some reason Lennin sounds like Lennon and the literary Cannon wields a cannon and the only way to set the mind free is to hip hop hibby to the hibby to hip hip a hoppa you don’t stop a rockin to the bang bang boogie till up jumps the boogie to the rhythm of the boogie to be.   Yes even when rhymes are silly, they are, at least, silly.  
And believe it or not, there are those among us who look down on rhyme as childish and simplistic.  The same folks, I suspect, who look down on the insect; the spider perched above in a galaxy of web, spun from it’s own body.  These be the same folks who look down on the lizard whose every skin cell is an individual artist in a symphony of metachrosis; who even look down on the dogs whose love they cherish.  What fools we can be when convinced of our own garish complexity. 
But the most powerful poetry is the simple symbol, especially when it is rhymed with the infinite, divine, purpose of progress.  Every movement for progress has been rooted in simple symbols:  Gandhi in his Khadi at the loom spinning resistance to the British exploitation of an Indian cotton boom; the Zulu marching a dance to freedom; Freedom Riders singing Mississippi terrorism to submission. 
Progress is poetry, each one of us a syllable, a word in a phrase of days done, of days to come, of future people who wish you could see you:  a ménage of hues with treasures of talents and tools; the truth empowered to renew and rejuvenate, who refuse to resuscitate the old ways that confuse and reduce a human being to a gender, class, or race; who redefine politics as we know it as poetry.
And we are what democracy looks like.  We are power to the people.  We are the future in the flesh.  We hold the hands that weave tomorrow.  We think the minds that conceive what’s next.  We dream in color and we’ve come to wake the world up.  We reach out and connect like webs to form networks to keep in touch.  We destroy the constructs that divide us and build bridges of unity.  From every country to every city, we are the world community.  And we must be encouraged because the revolution will be rhymed and it is coming right on time.
So be you in the streets stomping for justice or in power writing policy; be you in schools deconstructing ignorance or as artist creating space for the visionary; whatever you be, be a poet and be encouraged.  If you can speak, speak poetry.   If you tweet, tweet poetry.  Take time to make your work a poem.
And if you can walk, walk a song even if you walk alone.  f all you do is listen, listen for the truth and listen for encouragement for whatever it is you do. Rhyme the history of progress with your every forward breath and make your dream world come true. Lift your little bit of this 7.532 billion and know that we are building a world for our children’s, children’s, children’s children. We are making politics into poetry.

And so you are hereby challenged to write only poetry in social media posts about politics from this point forward. Be it haiku, rap, nursery rhyme, or some other meticulous mesh of well-meant words, take the time it takes to craft what you communicate to your fellow humans. Write like you have something of value to say. Make your politics poetry.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Shadow of the Sun

I told my nephew, multi-instrumentalist Xavier Molina (trumpet, guitar, drums, vocals, keys), I told Xavier that I will only have one tattoo in my life:  a black sun, the shadow of the sun on my shoulder that reminds me that there is always a bigger star with a brighter light so bright that it can make the sun cast a shadow... the shadow of the sun.  He made a song to interpret his understanding of that concept.  I made this visual poem to interpret his song.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Politics is

Politics is 
raw meat in the Colosseum of thought. 
Poets have no business there.  
Political rhetoric is tangled
in crisscrossed veins of ideology, 
matted in dogma’s grey hair.  
Political prizes are big game, 
majestic symbols of freedom,
slaughtered and mounted 
for sport and fame.  
Politics is bloody tough 
when well-done, 
bloody when tender, 
blood-sweet and salty. 
Politics is the amplified grunts 
of cavemen in suits 
holding guns 
with scopes.
Politics is
not for me.