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?