Drawdown Celebrates One Year Since Publication;
Heads, Hearts and Hands Keep Moving it Forward.
Poetry has a unique power to say so much with so few words, artfully placed. Using the same linguistic elements we find in a scientific treatise or a piece of legislation (or a blog post!), poems somehow carry us beyond head-thinking into heart-thinking, beyond the rational mind into truths of human experience. Brevity, it seems, can hold the greatest depth and expansiveness.
April 18th marked the one-year anniversary of the publication of Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, and pull for the book’s message only continues to grow. It is a great joy to be something of an itinerant preacher these days—roaming from town to town, conference to campus to company, sharing this blueprint of possibility. (I write, on Earth Day, from Waterloo, Ontario, where young leaders from across Canada are gathered.)
Of late, I find myself concluding most talks with the wise, supple words of the American poet Mary Oliver, whose work I first came to love at age 16. So very many of her poems are relevant and resonant—“Mindful,” “Messenger,” “The Summer Day,” and “Wild Geese” all come to mind. But the poem that most potently expresses the sentiments I want to share, and from which I take the most sustenance, is “The World I Live In,” found in Oliver’s recent collection Felicity.
I have refused to live locked in the orderly house of reasons and proofs, she writes. And why is that, Ms. Oliver? The world I live in and believe in is wider than that. And anyway, what’s wrong with Maybe? Capitalized, she lifts “Maybe” to our attention, making it more official and consequential than a common, lowercase word. (Yes, what is wrong with Maybe? We may find ourselves asking.)
You wouldn’t believe what once or twice I have seen, she continues, conveying the wonder that is her hallmark as a poet. And then she seems to let us in on her truest secret. I’ll just tell you this: only if there are angels in your head will you ever, possibly, see one. “Maybe” becomes much more—an angel in our heads, a vision that has faint but magnificent contours.
Many see in Drawdown a catalogue of technologies and practices that, deployed together, can reach “drawdown”—that point in time when the quantity of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere peaks and then declines year over year. Drawdown certainly is that: 100 means to avoid the release of emissions and to bring carbon back home. But by collecting those solutions in a single mosaic, it is also much more. The book begins to envision the world we might create in the process of reversing global warming. The solutions to reach drawdown are also means of building a more vibrant, equitable, and beautiful world—a world of greater health, wellbeing, and happiness.
The most important solution to reverse global warming, I believe, is one that isn’t explicitly catalogued in Drawdown. It is our human capacity to have and continually renew a vision of possibility. For me, real vulnerability and courage are involved in holding space for “Maybe” against long odds, yet that is what I do every time I speak about Drawdown. The great teacher and thinker Parker Palmer calls this “the work before the work,” or the work to stay in the work, of social transformation. It’s deeply necessary and deeply human work. Humans, after all—our heads, hearts, and hands—will be the ones to move the drawdown solutions forward. May we support one another, as we take threads of possibility, one by one by one, and weave the reality of our future, together.
IMAGE CREDIT: Penguin Random House
SEVEN AUDACIOUS IDEAS TO REVERSE GLOBAL WARMING
June 14, 2017
"How do we solve a problem like climate change? In the new book Drawdown, a team of over 200 scholars, scientists, policymakers, business leaders, and activists propose 100 practical solutions. Here, the project's senior writer Katharine Wilkinson reveals seven of the most audacious and surprising ideas proposed so far."
Living buildingsHow do you make a building that improves the world? That’s the central question behind the Living Building Challenge (LBC), first issued in 2006 and now a program run by the International Living Future Institute.
LBC’s holistic approach has seven categories—Place, Water, Energy, Health and Happiness, Materials, Equity, and Beauty—that together define what a living building is and does. Living buildings should grow food and use rainwater, for example, while integrating elements of the natural environment ('biophilic design') and eschewing toxic, 'red-listed' materials.
When it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, living buildings make their greatest impact by producing more energy than they consume. More than 350 buildings are in various stages of LBC certification, showing us that our constructions can do more than simply be less bad: they can generate a net surplus of positives for people and planet.
Imagine an energy source accessible and affordable to all—and available almost anywhere on the planet. That is the aim of the artificial leaf project, founded by Daniel Nocera, a Harvard professor of energy science. The inspiration is obvious: leaves are masterful at harvesting the energy of the Sun through photosynthesis, converting it into energy-rich biomass and sequestering carbon in the process.
Last year, Nocera and fellow professor Pamela Silver announced a giant step towards the goal of inexpensive fuel made with sunshine, water, air...and bacteria. First, a solar-powered process breaks water (H2O) into hydrogen and oxygen. Then, engineered bacteria consume the hydrogen, along with carbon dioxide, and synthesise alcohol fuel. With higher efficiency than natural photosynthesis, the artificial leaf may someday become a real source of energy.
Direct Air Capture
Like the artificial leaf, direct air capture (DAC) takes its inspiration from photosynthesis—the capture and transformation of carbon dioxide into plant matter. DAC machines act like a two-in-one chemical sieve and sponge. As the air passes over a solid or liquid substance, the carbon dioxide binds with chemicals that are selectively 'sticky', ineffective on other gases. Once those capture chemicals become fully saturated, molecules of carbon dioxide can be extracted in purified form.
DAC shows promise for sequestering the planet’s most abundant greenhouse gas. What’s more, captured carbon dioxide can find a wide range of uses—from enhancement for greenhouses to synthetic transportation fuels to plastic, cement, and carbon fibre—though most are still nascent technologies. If DAC developers prove the technology can be both energy-efficient and cost-effective, its future will be bright.
On 29 kilometres of highway located south of Atlanta, Georgia, an initiative called The Ray is working to morph a stretch of asphalt into a positive social and environmental force: the world’s first sustainable, 'smart' highway.
Electric vehicles and clean energy are focal points for The Ray: infrastructure for solar-powered car charging, a solar photovoltaic (PV) farm along the highway right-of-way, and even PV road surfaces. The aptly named Wattway, a French technology, is a road surface that will produce solar electricity while improving tyre grip and surface durability.
Modern motorways have seen little advancement in design since their inception. Given climate change and the arrival of electric and autonomous vehicles, they need a smarter way forward. The Ray and other pioneers may prove that this dated infrastructure can become clean, safe, and even elegant.
Can we move transport beyond planes, trains, and automobiles? Inventor and entrepreneur Elon Musk imagines that humans and freight will, before long, have the option to travel through low-pressure tubes by levitated pod. He calls that vision the Hyperloop.
The promise of the Hyperloop is two-fold: speed—up to 1200 kilometres per hour—and efficiency—trimming energy use by 90 to 95 per cent. Both are aided by eliminating the friction of wheels and resistance of air.
Musk has made the Hyperloop concept public, tapping competition as an accelerant for its development. To date, various entities have built prototypes, and successful test runs are now on the books. Ultimately, passengers could glide from Amsterdam to Paris or San Francisco to Los Angeles in roughly half an hour—for the cost of a bus ticket.
Plants need nitrogen to grow. Today, many farmers supplement their fields with synthetic nitrogen fertilisers. While crop yields may rise, producing such fertilisers is energy-intensive. Unused nitrogen also migrates into waterways, causing overgrowth of algae and marine 'dead zones', and into the air as the potent greenhouse gas nitrous oxide.
Enhancing the soil microbiome—the microbes that call the soil home—offers a better way of nourishing plants. In a thimble’s worth of soil, there can be up to 10 billion microbial denizens: bacteria, nematodes, fungi, and more. Legumes, such as alfalfa and peanuts, have a symbiotic relationship with select bacteria, passing carbon to them in exchange for nitrogen.
Most crops lack this ability, which is why scientists are looking to harness microbes that can work more broadly—with wheat, rice, and more. Someday, farmers may opt out of nitrogen fertilisers and use nitrogen-fixing bacteria instead.
Repopulating the Mammoth Steppe
Permafrost is a thick layer of perennially frozen, carbon-rich soil that covers a quarter of the Northern Hemisphere. Perma indicates permanence, but this soil is thawing as the world warms, releasing greenhouse gases in the process. Sergey and Nikita Zimov, father-and-son scientists, are piloting a solution in Siberia: returning native fauna to the area.
A grassland ecosystem called the mammoth steppe once spanned the regions where permafrost is found. Today, herbivores no longer roam the region, except at the Zimovs’ Pleistocene Park. When Yakutian horses, reindeer, musk oxen and the like push away snow and expose the turf underneath, the soil is no longer insulated and drops a couple of degrees in temperature—just enough to remain frozen.
Repopulating the mammoth steppe more broadly, the Zimovs say, could help to keep the permafrost frozen, and the greenhouse gases locked up.
link to article
BEYOND THE TYRANNY OF SHOULD
Co-authored with Jen Robinson
In 1977, twenty-four women arrived in Oxford as the first female Rhodes Scholars. In the spring of 2008, we celebrated the 30th anniversary of that event with a global, cross-generational gathering of Scholars at Rhodes House. For many of us in residence at the time, the highlight was a talk by Karen Stevenson (Maryland/DC & Magdalen 1979). In a space so often marked by efforts to impress, posture, upstage, Karen shared her own story with authenticity and vulnerability. She spoke openly about the taboo topic of coming unhinged at Oxford – and about finding a critical community of support amongst Rhodes women.
Over seven years later, many details of her talk have become hazy. But the feeling in the Beit Room that day remains palpable, as does Karen’s crystallization of an experience we, as Scholars, were watching unfold around us, if not encountering ourselves: “unhinging.” Unhinging is decidedly not included in scholarly criteria laid out in Cecil Rhodes’ will. It is decidedly not depicted in portraits adorning the walls of Milner Hall, nor is it catalogued in class letters. And how in the world can anyone coming unhinged “fight the world’s fight”? Yet, for many Scholars, it’s a defining element of the Rhodes experience and, as we have learned since, one of the most critical elements in discovering how we might each fight a good fight in our own way.
What is that unhinging all about? We can only speak with confidence about the stories we know well: our own and those of our close community of Rhodes women, specifically Jeni Whalan (Australia-at-Large & Balliol 2005) and Alex Conliffe (Quebec & Hertford 2004). So that’s our dataset, and we’ll use it to tease out the insights we’ve uncovered through explorations in and with that community – insights that are, necessarily, still emerging and far from definitive.
Let’s be honest, most Rhodes Scholars are really, truly excellent box-tickers. Throughout adolescence and as undergraduates, we diligently, passionately, meet and exceed the expectations of our elders and institutions – wowing teachers of all subjects, setting high water marks for our coaches and instructors, impressing anyone excited by excellence, amassing accolades and awards. Indeed, identifying and excelling at ticking boxes of “success” paves the way to the Rhodes.
We arrive at Oxford, then, having perfected the art of should, and often keenly attuned to the shoulds that can feel bound up with the Scholarship itself: to live up to the potential perceived in us, to pursue a path that befits a Rhodes Scholar, to “fight the world’s fight” in some terribly (and conventionally) impressive way. McKinsey. Google. Yale Law. Prestigious government jobs. Even as Scholars are transitioning to Oxford, they’re already wrestling with the transition beyond the dreaming spires. And deploying should against one another, assessing one another’s notions and choices, can become all too regular a pastime.
As Katharine described in The American Oxonian during our second year: “As we squeeze out of Oxford rich and wonderful experiences, we are haunted by anxiety about what comes afterwards. […] For a group of people who, in many ways, have gotten where they are by seeking to please and have received the constant confirmation that comes along with being a pleaser, the real challenge is being our own evaluators and finding our own sources of satisfaction.” It is no small task to discern a sense of direction and purpose in what Mary Oliver has called our one wild and precious life, and that challenge is only intensified when should looms so large. Too often it blurs our vision, rather than sharpening it, and hems us in, rather than fostering exploration of richer paths.
For our band of Rhodes women, our wrestling with Oxford-and-beyond came in waves – as did the unhinging that accompanied it. For Katharine, it started with transitioning out of an ill-suited MSc and into a deeply enriching DPhil, despite American academic mentors urging that she pursue a “real PhD” in the U.S. Jen, on the other hand, recalls that it started during the DPhil:
I came to Oxford as a lawyer with a passion for human rights and casework that effects tangible change. But after completing the BCL and MPhil, I found my clarity of professional direction muddied. “Of course you should do the DPhil!” people I respect and admire told me with conviction. The world’s top international law academic, my supervisor, assured funding. And the title of “Dr.” was alluring. As a Rhodes Scholar, why wouldn’t I go for the highest academic credential? Of course I should.
But it was a recipe for unhappiness – and then depression. Ultimately, I quit. People told me I shouldn’t “cop out,” I should just buckle down and do it. But after much reflection, I realized the true cop out was staying at Oxford and opting for the path of should. The alternative should of big, prominent law firms was safe and recommended. But I let myself be drawn by the truth of my passion to a small firm where I could do the work I love. And I went from languishing to thriving.
This change of course was hugely victorious for Jen – for her sense of aliveness and her ability to contribute to the world. It opened up a set of professional opportunities she could never have imagined. But while Jen’s work was hitting the front page of the New York Times, hidden behind the headlines was the group of confidants that enabled her to shed a debilitating should.
The four of us are now scattered across three continents and four countries, but somehow continue to gather, once or twice a year. Amidst cocktails and long meals and storytelling, continued exploration of our post-Oxford paths remains a central focus. We have all had our experiences of hitting a dead end of one kind or another – in consulting, in government, in academia – of finding ourselves in roles or ecosystems that we had chosen but ultimately found stunting or even soul crushing. We have all experienced our own unhinging, our confidence deeply knocked and a sense of ourselves as dreamers and doers thrown off kilter.
We have navigated unhinging with one another’s help and support. Our little community provides encouragement to counter the malaise we sometimes find ourselves in and creates space to dream anew. Perhaps most importantly, we remind each other of our authentic selves – the selves our dearest friends see with clarity – and reaffirm the value of being guided by authenticity, rather than the familiar pull of should. This ritual has created a powerful bond between us, and it’s also helped each of us find our way, and continually re-define it.
Katharine, for instance, took a leave of absence from strategy consulting to take an academic book on the road – a seeming detour that helped her realize the necessity of shifting to a professional space where big questions of why take precedence over what and how. Jen also recalls a second critical inflection point, with matters of authenticity at its core:
Just three years after leaving the DPhil behind and beginning legal practice, an unexpected opportunity arose: creating a global program to support emerging human rights lawyers. It would mean another significant rerouting – a very different role at a little-known foundation – and again mentors counseled me to stay put and stay the course. Feeling beaten down by the stress of my work, this should seemed both reasonable and appealingly straightforward.
But Alex, Jeni, and Katharine helped me re-evaluate again amidst new circumstances and to trust my instincts. With their support, I came to see that the law firm job that once excited and sustained me was now limiting, making me deeply unhappy. Beyond titles and conventional trajectories, I gained clarity about the content of this new role and its potential for impact on social justice – both profoundly aligned with who I am and what I believe. Why be one human rights lawyer when you can facilitate so many more?
Jen now spends her days with brave, like-minded young lawyers and their allies, supporting their bold and important work around the world. Much to her surprise, her greatest contribution to “fighting the world’s fight” has not been fighting cases herself, but creating opportunities for so many others to do so.
All four of us are on paths different to those we chose out of Oxford. The journey most definitely continues, but we feel more aligned with true north. We have found our way into roles and ecosystems that allow us to be our more authentic selves, play more to our strengths, and thus make more significant contributions. Getting to this place has had everything to do with the community of reflection and support we share.
For Karen Stevenson, for the four of us, and for so many others, the Rhodes experience sparks a lifelong journey – a journey of navigating away from should and towards authentic choices that allow our true selves to thrive and give. There is no obvious or clear answer on this journey and no path that will resolve the questions. Heeding Rilke’s advice, we can, instead, love the questions themselves, and live them. The Scholarship opens an incredible opportunity to embrace uncertainty, to take risks, to test, tumble, and try again, uncovering insights – often unexpected – along the way.
In this spirit, we reimagine “fighting the world’s fight.” Instead of a dictate – another should – to strive towards, quarrel with, or rebel from, what if we approach this call with a deep sense of curiosity? We might begin to see it as an invitation to explore the intersections where, in Frederick Buechner’s words, our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need – where we can bring the best of ourselves to bear on work that matters. We might begin to see it as a call to support one another in exploration and evolution, rather than a bar by which we can evaluate and should one another.
Remembering that spring afternoon in the Beit Room, we share Karen’s deep appreciation for sustaining relationships among Rhodes women, especially when the road gets rocky. We also know now what we didn’t realize then: there is an unlikely beauty in the unhinging. It injects rich data into our continual process of learning and listening to the lives that want to be, of bringing who we are and what we do, our inner worlds and worldly work, into alignment. It’s amidst unhinging that we may hear the powerful call of must and move beyond the tyranny of should.
April 8, 2015
Stepping onto a liberal arts campus always feels like coming home. It feels that way for lots of reasons. Because they’re communities where ideas are the connective tissue. Because they’re places where the libraries have friends. But especially because there’s no better ecosystem for a hopeless interdisciplinarian. My advisor at Sewanee, Jerry Smith, would say emphatically: “specialization is for insects.” Perhaps because specialization eludes me like, very much like a zippy winged bug, I wholeheartedly agree.
So I’m going to take this setting and its deeply interdisciplinary purpose as an invitation, maybe even an excuse, to give a wide ranging talk that weaves together multiple, seemingly disparate threads: evangelicals and climate change, civic engagement and dinner parties, a bit of Shakespeare for good measure. It runs the risk of giving you too much insight into the veritable smorgasbord of my educational and professional life, but clemency is what the wine’s for.
The thread that holds these topics together is a question that can be found living comfortably on a leafy green campus like this one, in hearts and minds of all ages, in a high-powered boardroom, or amidst the hustle and bustle of a city: What does it mean to find a sense of purpose? And how can purpose be an animating force for individuals, institutions, communities, and social change? This exploration will give us our conceptual backdrop for conversation over dinner and dialogue about Charleston’s present and future – a weighty, timely topic, given the grievous events of this week.
The dictionary definition of purpose is “the reason for which something is done or created or for which something exists.” That is, the singular raison d’être of a person or a place or an entity. This is the definition we use in our work with companies at BrightHouse. Not what you do or sell, not where you’re going, not how you operate – purpose is the why, why you exist as an organization. We help companies define and live into their reason for being in the world.
“But don’t companies exist to make money?” I am often asked. Sure, companies have to make money to exist, just like we, as human beings, have to eat to stay alive. But as we all know, human life isn’t just about subsistence; it’s about love and laughter, community and connection, struggle and sacrifice, making memories and making a difference. Think of a company you truly admire – not just like or have loyalty to, but really, truly admire. I suspect your admiration isn’t just about shareholder returns; we admire companies that stand for something, that have a compelling role in the world.
Purpose, in this context, is powerful. It gives companies an essential north star that can align and inspire thousands of employees, that can guide the organization even as markets shift and industries transform, that inspires stakeholders, drives societal impact, and ultimately does benefit the bottom-line in significant ways.
It may come as no surprise that the other question I’m often asked is this: “Can you help me find my purpose?” On the one hand, I see each of those questions as a hopeful data-point, suggesting that impact and fulfillment are trumping conventional definitions of success, that meaning is the currency of greatest value, that the human need for wholeness is being heeded, rather than bifurcating “what I do” from “who I am.” But it’s also a question that’s come to trouble me more and more, not just because of the angst that often accompanies it.
What troubles me is the sense of singularity and clarity implicit in the question – and in our public discourse about purpose generally. It suggests that purpose is a thing, a capital “A” Answer – perhaps sitting out there somewhere, waiting for me to find it, if only I had the map; or in here somewhere, if only it would come out to play. It somehow suggests that I’m stuck, waiting for purpose to find and redeem me, so we can be together forever and ever amen. It also suggests that until I have that thing, purpose, I’m simply muddling about in no man’s land, frittering away my life, lost in some kind of unenlightened fog.
This way of thinking about purpose can foster fear and trembling, a sense of paralysis, a wait-and-see approach to life. It can also foster a terrifying level of certainty and resistance to growth and evolution. But if we turn the kaleidoscope just slightly, we can start to see purpose not as an end game but as a way of being.
To begin unpacking this way of thinking about purpose, let me turn back the clock to 2006. At the time, I was a newly minted BA, working for the Natural Resources Defense Council – one of the big environmental advocacy groups – on forest and land-use issues in the Southeast. To wield some blunt stereotypes, I was spending a lot of time in country music, NASCAR, mega church country – and I was struck by how often the environmental movement speaks right past audiences it really should engage. And I was wrestling, as an idealistic 22-year old, with how to build political will and public engagement around issues that had such a strong hold on my own heart and mind – but consistently ranked near the bottom of most people’s concerns.
In the midst of this wrestling, I encountered a surprising full-page ad in the New York Times announcing: “Our commitment to Jesus Christ compels us to solve the global warming crisis.” It was a coming out notice for the Evangelical Climate Initiative, a coalition of evangelical leaders from across the country who were standing up and speaking out on the issue of climate change – in stark contrast to the conventional wisdom about evangelical issues and politics.
Not an evangelical myself, I was both perplexed and intrigued by this burgeoning phenomenon and its potential to be a force for change. A Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford gave me the opportunity to indulge that interest at length. For my PhD research, I left behind the pubs and punts of the UK and toured across the American evangelical landscape, interviewing evangelical leaders who had taken up this charge, doing focus groups in churches, and getting immersed in what I came to call the climate care movement – its history, strategy, successes, and struggles. Ultimately that research found a home in my book, Between God & Green, which chronicles the story of evangelical climate care.
Many of the conversations I had were fascinating, eye-opening, inspiring, but one story stands out. In the summer of 2002, two unlikely acquaintances found themselves walking together along a park path, beneath Oxford’s “dreaming spires.” At the time, Richard Cizik was the head lobbyist and public policy guru at the National Association of Evangelicals, in Washington, DC. Sir John Houghton had recently wrapped up 14 years of chairing the scientific arm of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – a big name for an organization with a big task: synthesizing peer-reviewed climate science from around the world. The two men were there for a gathering of climate researchers, policy makers, and Christian leaders, but slipped off at some point for a more personal conversation.
In addition to being a preeminent atmospheric physicist, Sir John is also a steadfast evangelical – he and Cizik share a core set of beliefs and religious identity. And as they strolled, he spoke to Cizik about his own experience at the intersection of faith and science, making the case that no Christian could “shirk, shrug, rationalize, or escape” the biblical responsibility to care for God’s creation and, hence, to address climate change. Cizik describes feeling his heart “strangely warmed” and experiencing what he identifies as a conversion to climate change – echoing his conversion to Christ two decades earlier. Sensing that God had intervened in his life at this crucial moment, Cizik departed Oxford with a passionate commitment to addressing the issue – joining other key advocates back on this side of the pond.
Cizik’s is a powerful story, and we could tease out many lessons from it. About the power of shared identity and sense of trust is can foster – especially when you get the right match between the message, the messenger, and the audience. About the power of real, interpersonal dialogue on a thorny political issue, rather than the black-and-white debate that limits us to half-truths and half-solutions. We could take from it insights about the power of going beyond the nuts-and-bolts of an issue to the values, beliefs, and meaning at play – in this case, beyond the what of climate science to why it matters and why we’re called to engage. But there’s a rich lesson here about purpose as well.
For Cizik, his “climate conversion” isn’t a moment of finally finding his purpose, invalidating all that came before and dictating everything yet to come. It’s a moment of listening, both to his own being and to the world around him, and realizing an incongruity in his life – that he can’t be a Christian and not care about the future of our planet and its inhabitants. It’s a tension he can’t abide. He must bring his beliefs and identity into alignment with the ways he lives and leads. It’s a powerful moment, but, I imagine, just one such moment in a lifetime of them.
Cizik’s story reminds us that purpose isn’t singular, and it isn’t static. It isn’t about getting to an answer that makes everything simple. Purpose is about spending our days in worthy ways – many worthy ways, ways that may even surprise us or rub up against entrenched ways of being or doing. So rather than keeping a hopeful ear out for our purpose, our calling, we need only hear the call to live purposefully – with purpose – with intention and resolve. And we can heed that call to live with purpose in ways small and large, in circumstances of all stripes, wearing all of our different hats from friend to citizen to professional.
In a nod to the library, we can think of this task of living purposefully as the ongoing task of being a reader. Reading ourselves – applying the power of introspection to understand who we are, our true nature, and what we stand for. But also reading the world – using the power of “outrospection” to see ourselves in context and perceive the needs of others and society. Inviting a dialogue between those two – the inner and the outer – and taking part in the constant evolution of their confluence – that’s what purpose is about.
It’s this meaning of purpose that finds a home in the name “Cities of Purpose” – the civic venture I co-founded with Dar Vanderbeck and Jenn Graham, two fabulous partners in what civil rights icon John Lewis calls “good trouble, necessary trouble.” We kept finding ourselves in similar conversations: “I know there are exciting things happening in Atlanta, but I can’t find a way to dig in.” “I want to be involved in shaping the future of our city, but there aren’t any good footholds.” “I’ve been here for three years, but I can’t find my people. I guess I’ll have to move back to New York.” They nagged at us, these comments.
There’s so much energy in the city, for the city, for helping to write its next chapter, but forums to channel that energy are wildly deficient. There are certainly meaningful platforms for engagement, but they’re largely inaccessible, behind closed doors, pay-to-play – they privilege older, wealthier residents, often more white and more male. And then there are accessible platforms for “engagement,” but the irony is that they couldn’t be less engaging – lengthy online surveys or drab town halls, where you, Citizen Jane, can make your 45-second plea beneath the buzz of fluorescent lighting. If it’s called civic engagement, shouldn’t it actually be engaging??
We think it should be – and we think it can be. So, we’ve set out to reinvigorate the way we foster community and engagement in the 21st century city. We believe places are made by making places at the table: that people want to be connected in and to their cities, but often struggle to find footholds; that the most successful cities create open access to community and voice; that relationships are a key ingredient to vibrant societies. So we’re reinvigorating an age-old tradition: gathering around a table to break bread, forge new relationships, and have purposeful conversation about our greatest hopes for the places we call home.
Let me paint a picture for you: It’s a Sunday evening. Ten Atlantans from six different neighborhoods are gathered around an old wooden table in someone’s home. One was born in Atlanta; another just arrived three weeks ago. They’re sharing their favorite secret spots in the city. They’re articulating their greatest hope for Atlanta. They’re exploring what the world would lose if Atlanta were gone tomorrow. It’s a conversation they’ve never had about this place they share. New connections are being formed; old relationships are being enriched. Fresh ideas for change are bubbling up. The people around the table feel a sense of place, of community, of belonging. They feel more connected to and more engaged in their city than they did two hours before. Now imagine scenes like this popping up all over Atlanta. That’s what happened last year, when we launched our pilot Civic Dinner Party Project.
The recipe was simple, as most good recipes are: 8-10 people around a table, 3 big questions about Atlanta’s purpose and potential, a single, important conversation – and, of course, food! We deployed an open-access tech platform, through which people could register to host and attend dinners, and a carefully curated toolkit for hosting. Across Atlanta, people took their places at the table. We heard feedback like this: “I’ve never sat a table this diverse; I share a city with these people but never had a venue so open to get to know each other.”
Bootstrapped with passion, our Atlanta pilot taught us that the hunger for a place-based community of engagement is deep – even deeper than we had realized. But we desperately need more relevant and vibrant platforms to build and sustain it. Having created our prototype last year, we’re now deploying the Cities of Purpose model in a variety of ways, all designed to invite fresh voices into charting the course of our city and to capture ideas and insights from these “dream big” and “think bold” dinner conversations.
We hope Atlanta is only our first testing ground because, of course, we aren’t alone in our civic engagement challenges, nor in the incredible opportunity of tapping into citizens’ energy and interest. In 2008, humankind officially became an urban species, with the majority of people on our planet now residing in cities – and that percentage continues to climb. Our complex urban systems face huge challenges of mobility, sustainability, equity and inclusion, and competitiveness. At the same time, the success of cities depends upon their openness, hospitality, and associational quality – inviting civic connection and participation, building social capital. Research suggests social networks may, in fact, be a city’s most essential asset – helping seize the highs and make it through the lows.
So we have to face these challenges in community, bringing together people and place, with purpose. And something as simple as an old wooden dinner table can be the birthplace of social change – connecting thinkers and doers, raising questions worth asking and issues that matter, creating a catalyst for connection and an engine for ideas. The dinner table can make a powerful invitation to be a citizen of purpose and join a community of engagement. And for us, as co-founders, cultivating that invitation, sustaining that community, creating a sense of belonging that forms the basis of long-term change – that’s a noble purpose indeed.
The dinner table, of course, is not far off from the seminar tables dotting this campus, nor from an intimate roundtable once held in John and Libby Winthrop’s home. As a deeply, intentionally place-based community, the liberal arts college can cultivate the kinds of purposeful people – neighbors, citizens, professionals, leaders – our society depends on. When I passed through Sewanee’s gates with diploma in hand, I could never have imagined what the next 10 years would hold in store. I had some notion that my life’s purpose was sustainability – “to work for the world’s benefit, maintaining its treasures and repairing its wounds.” What I didn’t realize was that Sewanee had equipped me in critical ways – not to pursue a purpose, but to live purposefully in the world, to craft a life mosaic with intention and resolve.
That’s because, at their best, liberal arts colleges aren’t just shepherding the life of the mind; they’re also tending to the life of the heart – something we under-index on in higher education today. When these institutions are at their best, students hone a critical eye with many lenses, as well as a hopeful heart, committed to a brighter future. As the current of our world becomes increasingly swift and unpredictable, graduates’ ability to read themselves and the world around them will become more and more important. For straight paths will elude them, and straight paths, I would argue, have never been the point anyway.
I concluded my undergraduate valedictory address with poet Mary Oliver’s poignant question: “Tell me, what it is you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” But I would propose now that the task of life is not to have one answer to her question, but to engage with it over and over again. It’s less about planning, and more about living into life’s wildness, life’s preciousness constantly and with plurality, learning from the moments when it all happens beautifully, and from the moments when the train really jumps the tracks. My life has certainly spoken to me through both – including instances of indisputable insistence that I change course, or risk a full-fledged revolt.
I promised you Shakespeare, so let me end with the Bard before we feast. When blind Gloucester and mad King Lear encounter one another on the heaths of Dover, Lear asks his old friend, “Dost thou squiny at me?” Though Gloucester has nothing more than a case of eyes, Lear makes a piercing assessment: “yet [Gloucester] you see how this world goes.” Yes, Gloucester says, “I see it feelingly.” To see the world, and our place in it, feelingly is at the heart of the journey of purpose and the purpose of the journey of being human. For all of us who’ve wondered, “what might my purpose be?” this may be the best news of all. Forget nailing it down once and for all; purpose is in the process and being purposeful is limitless proposition.
LUMINARIES: SHINING A LIGHT ON PURPOSE
March 10, 2015
Purpose is as much about looking outward – to the landscape of needs in society – as it is about looking inward – to identify core strengths and values.
To enhance an “outrospective” view, BrightHouse engages a network of Luminaries. These diverse and divergent thought-leaders collaborate with our interdisciplinary strategic and creative team, to shine light on the needs in the world our clients serve, the role in the world they can play.
We use the term Luminary purposefully. The word comes from the Latin lumen, meaning light. In a literal sense, our BrightHouse Luminaries are people who influence and inspire – leading lights with deep expertise ranging from social movements to ecosystems, family flourishing to empathy. They bring a perspective that illuminates relevant but unexpected insights. Figuratively, they function like the radiant energy of light itself – the very force responsible for human beings’ capacity for sight.
With its combination of different sources, properties, and movements, light makes it possible for us to see. The sun, fire, bulbs, bioluminescence, and even bodies produce light. Light is both wave and particle, short wavelengths and long. Light reflects, bouncing off one surface and taking a different path; it refracts, bending as it moves from one medium to another; and it scatters, dispersing into many directions.
Curating a Luminary workshop – an essential step on the purpose journey we take with our clients – is like curating a light show. We bring together light from different sources – from leading academics, renowned authors, and hands-on change-makers. We mix photons and waves – the latest findings on networks, the history of hospitality from Ancient Greece to today.
Like a magnifying glass, BrightHouse amplifies what matters most to our clients, bringing precision to the light Luminaries provide. And the dialogue between Luminaries, corporate leaders, and the BrightHouse team always produces unexpected results. True to the multiplicity of light, part of the magic is always in the making.
But this is never a completely intellectual excursion. The insights illuminated always point to practical, tactical implications for our clients – what they might do differently tomorrow than they do today, inside the organization or externally in the marketplace. And “a-has” of the head are always complemented by “a-has” of the heart. Both clients and Luminaries describe these days as personally transformative.
“I always come away from these sessions with a head buzzing with new ideas.” – David Haskell, Professor of Biology, Pulitzer Prize Nominated Author, and BrightHouse Luminary
“Transformative is the closest word to describe our experience with the group and Luminaries. At the risk of sounding like an exaggeration…it was one of the highlights of our history at New Chapter. Each Luminary was like a profound piece of a puzzle that suddenly started to come together.” – Paul Schulick, Founder and Chairman of New Chapter and BrightHouse Client
Light has never had a single meaning in our language or a single role in human life. A metaphor for truth and enlightenment, light lets our eyes see the world around us but also enables vision of our more perceptive inner eye. As blind Gloucester tells King Lear on the stormy heaths of Dover, he sees the world feelingly. To see the world, and our role in it, feelingly is at the heart of our work with Luminaries and the journey of purpose.
WHY DOES THE NFL HAVE A DOMESTIC VIOLENCE PROBLEM? LOOK IN THE MIRROR
Co-authored with Sam Gill
The weeks long controversy surrounding former Ravens running back Ray Rice has reached new lows. Initially rapped on the wrist with a two-game suspension for attacking his then-fiancée, the National Football League has now placed Rice on a lifetime ban, based on a direct video of the assault. Sports commentators and pundits alike are taking the NFL to task for not being zealous enough to obtain this new video in the first place.
But the attention being paid to this particular series of events misses the bigger, more worrying picture: This is only the most recent, explosive example of a broader and more systemic problem in the NFL – one the league has yet to discuss, much less address.
Recent analysis conducted by FiveThirtyEight.com is stark. Comparing NFL arrest data to national crime statistics, we see that while overall arrest rates for NFL players are well below the country overall (just 13% of the national average), the domestic violence arrest rate shows an outlier spike (55.4% of the national average). It’s by far the NFL’s worst performance relative to the rest of the country.
Taking into account income effects, the data grow more disturbing. While wealthier households typically have a lower rate of domestic violence, NFL players are an exception. They are more likely to be assaulting women than their high-earning peers, and women affiliated with NFL players are more likely to be assaulted than other women. This is the very definition of a systemic problem.
When Rice’s crime is contextualized statistically, the real question for the NFL – and our society – becomes clear. It is not whether the league has adequate protocols to collect and review evidence when players violate conduct policies, but whether the very structure of the NFL, or any environment essentially bereft of women, tacitly encourages the perpetuation of domestic violence and other gendered crimes.
Start with management. It’s surprisingly difficult to find a public listing of NFL executives, but the latest public tax filing for the league (which, gallingly, is a tax-exempt association) shows that all of the top executives are men. Twenty-five of the NFL’s 32 teams are owned exclusively by men, and one of the seven that isn’t is owned collectively by public shareholders (Green Bay).
The sports media that covers the NFL is also composed largely of men. Women in sports programming are too often shunted into sideline reporting roles, a trend especially pronounced in the NFL. No broadcast network has a female booth reporter or a female co-host for Sunday NFL coverage.
This is no trivial matter. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, one of the founders of modern democratic thought, argued that society depends on people being able to take each other’s points of view, to step out of their shoes and into another’s. Centuries later, we know we can’t really rely on individuals to have that empathic ability on their own. What we need, instead, is to bring lots of different perspectives together, in our society’s institutions, so we can engage, face-to-face, with how others think and feel.
The NFL is largely bereft of any women in its leadership ranks. There is no countervailing, enriching perspective on gender permeating NFL decision-making – or pre-, in-, and post-game banter for that matter. At best, there are men armed with good intentions, but who are simply unable to fully appreciate the perspective of another group – in this case, women.
This is why the NFL’s response to Ray Rice has been a cascading series of missteps. And it’s at least a contributor to the continuing problem of domestic violence among NFL players.
Systemic problems require systemic solutions. The NFL can continue to tinker with its punishments for domestic violence, but if we want more empathy and, more importantly, more empathic action anywhere in our society, we need to do more than rebuke it’s opposite. Only a concerted effort to introduce diversity and inclusion into the league will help.
A good start would be to open an NFL office of diversity tasked with conducting an independent assessment of the league’s structure, composition, and policies, followed by recommendations for how the NFL can cultivate a more diverse workforce. The office should have a wide grant of independence to conduct its investigations and propose policies that are then tested over time to gauge their impact.
Changing player culture is a more substantial, long-term challenge, but the good news is that there are many worthy organizations around the country that could begin conducting regular trainings to counteract the insidious effects of an all-male culture.
Domestic violence is not just a systemic problem in the NFL – it’s an entrenched epidemic the world over. Sports are at their best when they actually provide a forum for us to begin to recognize and surmount our human frailties. Jesse Owens in the 1936 Olympics. Jackie Robinson’s 1947 debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers. The 1996 South African world cup rugby champions.
When it comes to violence against women, the NFL is far behind a mainstream culture that itself still has a long distance to travel. It would help all of us if the league moved to the front of the pack.
MORE THAN A MISSION: WHY NONPROFITS NEED A “WHY”
September 11, 2014
Nonprofits are mission-driven organizations. Why in the world would they need purpose? We see it over and over again. Nonprofits are often very articulate about their what – their mission – and they can talk at length about their programs and initiatives. Many even have a well-defined where – their vision. But few have articulated why they exist – their purpose.
In the absence of a “why”, these nonprofits leave too much on the table. The ability to tell their story, a critical tool for engaging stakeholders and, specifically, donors. A source of inspiration for employees, giving them shared reason to get up in the morning. Clear guardrails for everything the organization does. Purpose galvanizes advocacy and generates alignment – things every nonprofit needs.
Over the last year, BrightHouse has collaborated with Atlanta’s East Lake Foundation and its sister organization, Purpose Built Communities. They work with neighborhoods stuck in intractable cycles of intergenerational poverty, to break that cycle and create communities rich with opportunity. Already deeply purpose-driven organizations, we helped them distill, define, and activate that purpose: Possibility Takes Place.
The work has given East Lake and Purpose Built Communities a set of core ideas that underlie all communications for the organizations. We brought it to life in print and on screen. And we harnessed their purpose to reinvigorate corporate partnerships, including the PGA TOUR Championship by Coca-Cola.
So what does all this mean? The East Lake Foundation and Purpose Built Communities can imagine a world without poverty. And they’re making that vision a reality. It’s a story we should all know, a story we could all take part in. Purpose is helping to make that vision a reality.
PROFILE WITH KATHARINE WILKINSON
Rhodes Project: Where do you call home?
Katharine Wilkinson: Atlanta, Georgia.
Rhodes Project: What was the first job you ever held?
Katharine Wilkinson: When I was fifteen, I ran a snack shop as a summer job.
Rhodes Project: What was the last book you couldn’t put down?
Katharine Wilkinson: I just read Brené Brown’s book, Daring Greatly, about the power of vulnerability and imperfection. I got hooked on her work after her first TED talk, and I’ve been a big fan ever since.
Rhodes Project: When you were a kid, what did you aspire to be later in life?
Katharine Wilkinson: I was a totally horse-crazy child — and still am a pretty horse-crazy grown-up — so I wanted to be a professional equestrian. In 5th grade, I pasted a photo of my face onto a picture of Olympic dressage rider Carol Lavell with her horse Gifted!
Rhodes Project: I know that you recently wrote a book, and I was hoping you could tell me what your favorite part of that process was?
Katharine Wilkinson: The book is based on my DPhil research from Oxford. For me, the most meaningful part of writing the book was getting to jailbreak the research out of academic prison. I wanted to share the story with broader audiences — with folks who are actively engaged in climate advocacy, from both faith-based and secular perspectives. I was really hoping that my work would have an impact beyond the Ivory Tower, sparking conversation and maybe even collaboration.
Rhodes Project: What would you say was the most challenging part of writing your book?
Katharine Wilkinson: Definitely the most challenging part was re-writing the dissertation, going back to something you kind of never want to look at again and giving it another round of love.
Rhodes Project: What advice would you give to a young woman in your field?
Katharine Wilkinson: There are lots of worthwhile pieces of advice. I think connecting with fellow travelers is key — mentors and advocates more senior than you, peers and colleagues, or more junior folks. Across the board, building relationships with people who share similar passions and who you really love working with is essential. I’ve realized that whatever field you’re in, so much of success has to do with who you are collaborating with. So it’s very important to seek out people who inspire you, who you enjoy, and who also support and challenge you. Plus, that’s what makes it fun.
Rhodes Project: What do you do to relax?
Katharine Wilkinson: I still ride horses — though not as often as I’d like. I’m never going to be someone who is good at meditation. I have a hard time shutting my brain down, but somehow being on the back of a 1400-pound animal helps me do that, to be totally present. And I try to spend as much time as I can in the mountains with my dogs.
Rhodes Project: What inspires you and why?
Katharine Wilkinson: I get really excited by the power of people to effect change. I am really lucky to serve on a Rhodes selection committee and on a leadership council for the Posse Foundation. There is nothing in my life that inspires me quite like interacting with these incredibly engaged, passionate, concerned, smart, and capable young people, who are just beginning their journeys to make the world a better place.
Rhodes Project: If you could meet one female historical figure, who would it be and why?
Katharine Wilkinson: I’d really like to meet Rosa Parks. I went to college on the Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee, near the original location of the Highlander Folk School, which played a key role in the Civil Rights Movement. Parks spent time there doing nonviolent resistance training right before the Montgomery bus boycott. The story we hear suggests her act of defiance just suddenly happened — I’d be interested to hear the more complex back-story. I would also love to have a three-way conversation with Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor, whose stories I love. If I get to meet a historical figure, why just pick one?
CROSSING THE AISLE
November 8, 2012
When we recorded this podcast, I complimented Jisung and the Sense & Sustainability team on their cultivation of thoughtful, nuanced public discourse, which is, unfortunately, all too unique — especially on the topic of climate change.
These worthy efforts stand in heightened relief during an election season marked by the binary, simplistic, black-and-white discourse of political campaigning.
The emblematic low point: Mitt Romney’s climate laugh-line at the Republican National Convention.
“President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet . . . My promise is to help you and your family.”
Journalists, bloggers, pundits and Facebook users decried the disregard, the denialism, the downright poor taste of this comment. But the implicit dichotomies of people versus planet and economy versus environment are, perhaps, even more disturbing.
This is a prime moment to recall fruitful examples of, and ongoing possibilities for, productive exchange and even alliance building among strange bedfellows.
The evangelical climate movement — what I call climate care — is one such example.
In 2006, much to the surprise of onlookers from both sides of the aisle, evangelical leaders launched an advocacy effort on climate change with an announcement in theNew York Times and Christianity Today: “Our commitment to Jesus Christ compels us to solve the global warming crisis.”
The Evangelical Climate Initiative emerged amidst public perception that evangelicals marched in lockstep with the GOP, which, under the Bush Administration, maintained entrenched opposition to action on climate change.
Yet these high-profile evangelical leaders stood up and stepped out, challenging dominant stereotypes.
They went on to partner with non-evangelical, even atheist, scientists; politicians red, blue and purple; and leaders from the mainstream environmental movement.
In thought and action, these climate care leaders cross the chasms of persistent binaries: liberal / conservative, secular / religious, human / environment, material / spiritual, science / faith.
As I write in Between God & Green, such dichotomies may provide good soundbite fodder, but they ultimately limit the ways we understand and respond to issues.
[C]learly, religion and environment are not inimical, nor are scientists and evangelicals or political liberals and theological conservatives on definitively opposing sides. Synergies between them are apparent and increasingly intersect on climate change.”
We can reject the unhelpful, black-and-white language of the season and instead heed the lessons, and embrace the hopefulness, of the climate care story.
To investigate and re-investigate our own dichotomous thinking is an urgent necessity. Maintaining tired frames needlessly limits us to half truths, half solutions and missed opportunities to build alliances on the issues that matter most.
COLUMN: HOW NFL CAN TACKLE CULTURE CHANGE
Co-authored with Sam Gill
As a new NFL season kicks off, we're seeing a greater emphasis on safety at all levels of organized football, all the way down to the Pop Warner League's decision to limit contact in practice.
While this has been a refreshing shift, the current approach won't achieve the "culture of sportsmanship, fairness and safety" promised by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. If the NFL wants to achieve culture change, it will take more than punishments and new rules. It will take meaningful rewards as well.
These policies have had a limited effect. Just last season, Cleveland Browns quarterback Colt McCoy was allowed to re-enter a game after displaying obvious concussion symptoms. And although players are now penalized at a higher rate, there's no sign that the game is growing any softer.
The problem here is cultural, and it extends from the commissioner's office all the way down to the field. Rules might prohibit dangerous conduct, but the culture of football supports it. If the NFL is really going to become a safer league, it needs to reset its culture.
And culture is all about the habits that accumulate within an organization over time. If we want to change culture, we have to change those day-to-day behaviors.
Most organizations seeking culture change mistakenly throw all their weight behind things such as communications, training and new rules. They might even dole out punishments to curb undesired actions, achieving minimal compliance at best.
But they neglect the far more powerful lever for impact: utilizing positive reinforcement to unleash voluntary effort.
The power of this positive approach is clear in our own lives. Consider frequent-flier programs or racking up points while playing a video game. Football knows how to manage rewards too. Just look at the collections of stickers on college helmets these days. All are examples of targeted positive reinforcement encouraging desired behaviors and above-and-beyond performance. The threat of reprimand, a fine or even jail doesn't inspire us to do more and be better the way these incentives do.
From this perspective, the NFL faces a challenge. Today, nearly all the positive consequences in place encourage the very behaviors Goodell wants to root out. Money, prestige, the thrill of victory and the rush of attack all belong to those who break the rules.
To truly achieve culture change, the NFL has to flip the current system of consequences. This begins through a system of positive reinforcement to activate, accelerate and sustain safe and sportsmanlike behaviors.
What might such a sportsmanship program look like? It could begin with a "reverse bounty" to reward player safety. The league could review games for instances where players put safety first, award points and then make corresponding charitable donations or offer high-profile awards. Better yet, sportsmanship points could be tallied by team to take advantage of the power of peer pressure. Coaches could be trained to spot critical safety behaviors and give real-time feedback to players.
Because attentiveness and teamwork on safety has spillover effects on performance, the ultimate reward could lie in the game itself: improved Super Bowl prospects for the safest teams.
These are small, inexpensive steps and they don't require significant rule changes. If the NFL is serious about player safety, it's time to take a look at the proven science of behavior.
Katharine Wilkinson is author of Between God and Green: How Evangelicals Are Cultivating a Middle Ground on Climate Change. Sam Gill is a political consultant and has written on the intersection of sports and society for the New York Daily News and USA TODAY. They studied together at Oxford as Rhodes Scholars.
OP-ED: OIL DISASTER SHOULD SPARK BOLD REFORM
Co-authored with Sam Gill
July 6, 2010
As 20-somethings who grew up under the shadow of the Exxon-Valdez spill, we don’t agree with those who believe Deepwater Horizon will create lasting momentum for energy reform. Even the president recently compared the spill to the 9/11 attacks, saying it would shape “how we think about the environment and energy for many years to come.”
Far from an indelible mark on our national psyche, history tells us that the Gulf spill will be forgotten soon after the well is finally controlled.
Despite a succession of environmental catastrophes, our nation suffers from a short-term memory problem that inhibits sustained attention to addressing our dangerous reliance on fossil fuels. The lesson should be clear: If we don’t act now, we never will.
We were 6 years old in March 1989, when the Exxon-Valdez oil tanker ran aground off the coast of Alaska. The images that followed — more than 10 million gallons of oil gushing into Prince William Sound, birds coated in black muck, and oil-stained shorelines — remained etched in our young minds.
In elementary schools on opposite ends of the country, we learned about the spill and the cleanup, and environmental protection became the subject of countless classroom activities. Like our teachers and parents, we assumed the dire lesson of Exxon-Valdez would stay with our generation, making us lifelong warriors for a cleaner environment. But soon the images faded and, for many of our peers, the passion subsided.
Every generation experiences an environmental disaster that captures the national spotlight, occasionally forces congressional action, and then rapidly fades from public view.
A June 1969 fire in the Cuyahoga River helped spur the modern environmental movement and propelled creation of the Clean Water Act and the EPA.
March 1979 saw the meltdown at Three Mile Island, and in April 1986, Reactor 4 at Chernobyl, Ukraine, set off the worst nuclear disaster in history — killing dozens and sickening thousands more.
The power of these catastrophic moments derives from the way they put intense scenes of devastation on display, making it impossible to discount the costs of environmental negligence. The drama is critical. Polls show that issues such as jobs, the economy and national security routinely trump environmental concerns. Just three months ago, a Gallup/USA Today poll asked whether we should protect the environment if it risked economic growth, or focus on growth even if it harmed the environment. Over half (53 percent) chose the economy.
By the end of May, the numbers had reversed: 50 percent sided with the environment, and only 43 percent stuck with economic growth.
This same trend has created a rare opportunity for the prospect of a new energy bill —which only weeks ago had been left for dead. Recent polling by Joel Benenson, one of President Barack Obama’s pollsters, shows that support for clean energy and fossil fuel regulation enjoys substantially higher support now than in early May.
Energy and pollution reform suddenly appeals to voters far beyond the traditional “Green Base” of liberal Democrats. Nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of independents support an energy bill, as do a large minority of Republicans (45 percent — compared to 47 percent who oppose).
When major environmental disasters strike, we tend to treat them as if they accrue in our collective consciousness over time, each contributing to the overall reform cause.
But they are actually much more fleeting. They tend to provoke strong initial reactions but soon retreat from public view.
Deepwater Horizon may be the closest we’ll come to feeling the effects of our fossil fuel addiction here and now.
Now it’s time for Washington to capitalize on this moment before it passes — as it almost surely will. In time, we may erase the stain of oil from the Gulf. National support for energy reform is likely to fade much more quickly.
Katharine Wilkinson of Atlanta and Sam Gill of Minneapolis were Rhodes Scholars at the University of Oxford.
THE SEMINAR TABLE
Anywhere else it would be a simple, unremarkable piece of furniture. But atop the Cumberland Plateau, nestled concentrically within the University’s wooded Domain, a stone-laid classroom building, and a ring of thoughtful religion students and their professor, it served as the nexus around which my academic experience at Sewanee revolved: the Seminar Table. Literally or figuratively, the Seminar Table is the touchstone of liberal arts education for all Sewanee students. Whether its essence emerges in a secluded cove, over a microscope, or on a theater stage, this sacred altar of intensive, communal learning plays a fundamental role in the University’s ultimate purpose: preparing students intellectually, morally, and humanly for life.
At the helm of Sewanee’s Seminar Tables are professors wholeheartedly committed not only to teaching but also to learning. They come to each class, each semester, with a fresh eye and willing ear. Believing they have as much to gain from attentive, open exchange as do the students, these teachers challenge their classes and welcome challenges in return. Sewanee is populated by deeply, personally invested professors who inspire their students to do hard, necessary work and who create a climate in which intellectual, moral, and emotional inquiry can flourish.
Texts serve as the shared foundations of seminar work and ground us in our academic task. From this grounding, oral and written discourse spring and a web of intellectual meaning and scholarly community can be crafted. Indeed, the true effectiveness of the Seminar Table lies in the conversation that takes place around it: readers converse with texts, readers converse with each other, readers and texts converse with the world – past, present, and future. This dialogue is rooted in questions posed by the teacher, raised by the students, and presented by the text itself. As we confront these questions and engage, oppose, or concur with the texts before us, writing becomes a way of life.
The ultimate aim of the Seminar Table is not for the professor to convey a set of predefined information, but for the group to grapple communally with complex, unwieldy questions that may defy concrete answers but demand consideration nonetheless. In doing so, seminar classes move beyond binary debate to collaborative reasoning – together. Holding objectivism and subjectivism not in opposition but in alliance, we embrace the ambiguity of examined life and gain the benefit of richer understanding.
Working with a small group of peers and sharing an investment in the texts and questions up for consideration allows a rich meaning-making, community-engendering process to take place. These weekly seminar meetings are often complemented by out-of-class exchanges: collaborative dinners at professors’ homes, festive gatherings at Shenanigan’s, treasured conversations at Stirling’s Coffeehouse. Through the intimacy of these experiences, a seminar of students and their professor becomes a community within the broader campus body, and these smaller, interlocking communities in turn enrich our larger one.
The simultaneously intellectual, moral, and emotional work conducted within the community of the Seminar Table helps prepare us for deeply ethical social engagement. Through texts and discussion, the seminar experience creates opportunities to develop deep empathy and to engage imaginatively with the world. What we learn as seminar students radiates concentrically back out, but this time beyond the bounds of classroom and campus to the global community of which we are a part and to which we have responsibilities.
Given the challenges of a complex and diverse world, the seminar experience does not attempt the impossible task of imparting upon students all the answers. Rather, our time around the Seminar Table prepares us to be lifelong learners and, in doing so, edifies us for our enduring undertaking: to investigate difficult problems, to grapple with questions that refuse easy resolution, and to do so not in isolation but in community. A Sewanee education cannot anticipate the challenges its graduates will face, but it can and does prepare us with the ability to approach those challenges with good hearts and disciplined minds.
Though we may be unaware of it at the time, when we take our last excursion into understanding, push our chairs away from the Seminar Table a final time, and pass through Sewanee’s stone gates and into the world beyond, we carry with us an education that will endure. The professors and students with whom we have shared rich academic and personal relationships will continue to inform our lives well into the future. Sewanee’s liberal arts experience, grounded in the Seminar Table’s many forms, allows us to remain focused on difficult, morally pressing problems, to deploy the capacities necessary to tackle them with sustained compassion and resolve, and to find therein a sense of interconnected humanity. It is at the Seminar Table, then, that we may find the true meaning of Ecce Quam Bonum, reaching deliberately past Sewanee’s bounds, and thus, indeed, become prepared for life. “Behold how good.”
LETTER FROM OXFORD: BUT WHICH DOOR?
“You’re a woman with a lot of options. You’re acting like the world’s backing you into a corner, bouncing from one thing to the next [...]. Maybe you should stop bouncing and pick something. What do you want?” – Toby to CJ, “The West Wing”
Central to American conventional wisdom on the benefits of being a Rhodes Scholar is expanded career opportunity. “So many doors are open to you now,” a second cousin applauds the week after the awards have been made. “You could be the president some day!” says a college friend, only partially in jest. And, without giving it much thought, a family friend remarks, “Well, your resume is now complete.” You are fairly certain all of these comments indicate something good—that this thing you’ve just received, made possible by your hard work but in large part thanks to a heavy dose of luck, will benefit your career and have a positive impact on your life. Yes, of course it will.
But as you breathe an exhausted sigh of relief and joy, suspicions begin to sneak in that you now have to live up to the potential the selection committee perceived in you, that you must do something terribly impressive with your life, that with so many doors open it may be hard to choose which one to walk through or which one is best suited to your strengths and weaknesses, and that if you end up twenty years down the road in a career that leaves you unhappy or unfulfilled, you have no one to blame but yourself. After all, once upon a time, at twenty-three, the world’s oyster was cracked open for you, just waiting to be (successfully) devoured. Louisiana hot sauce anyone?
Columbia University professor Sheena Iyengar studies choice. Her research flies in the face of the notion that more choice is always better, always improves the well-being of the chooser. Too many varieties of jam, chocolate, or mustard can be de-motivating, even paralyzing; there are very real limits to the benefits derived from choice.
Working with two colleagues, Iyengar studied a group of college students in their final year of school as they went through the process of seeking out, applying for, and accepting jobs. The researchers categorized the students according to their choice making tendencies—as either “maximizers” or “satisficers”—and surveyed their experiences of searching for and taking up employment over that period. Their findings, outlined in a recent paper, indicate that students who felt compelled to consider a wider range of options—“maximizers”—tended to derive less satisfaction and enjoyment from their ultimate job choices (even in spite of 20% higher starting salaries) than did students who considered a narrower range of options—“satisficers.”*
Iyengar and her colleagues suggest that “maximizers may be less satisfied than satisficers and experience greater negative affect with the jobs they obtain because their pursuit of the elusive ‘best’ induces them to consider a large number of possibilities, thereby increasing their potential for regret or anticipated regret, engendering unrealistically high expectations, and creating mounting opportunity costs” (p. 148). In other words, “Even when they get what they want, maximizers may not always want what they get” (p. 149).
As a Rhodes Scholar considering the many doors available to me, I suspect I may resemble a Whole Foods shopper paralyzed by an immense selection of organic green teas. If able to overcome this paralysis and make a purchase, the careful shopper may return home, brew a pot of loose leaf, and find that, despite reviewing his options for 9-? minutes, a pang of dissatisfaction nags. This discontentment may sound like a contrived yuppie psychological ill—something to be written off because only the very privileged could suffer from it—but if the act of considering options really does undermine well-being and thus our potential to do good work in the world, the maximizers among us might benefit from paying greater heed to the choice process and its challenges.
Having a sense that, faced with tradeoffs, the more options we forgo, the “more” we are in effect giving up, some of us seek the escape of not having to choose. “I want to keep all my options open,” says a scholar who’d like to combine non-profit, academic, and business pursuits. Regarding summer plans, another scholar debates between working for a presidential primary campaign, interning at Google, or taking time to “think, read, and write”—but really desires to do all three. For me, this means resisting the disciplinarity of academia despite my hope of becoming a professor and university president—or maybe a….
For others, the solution is to go with prestige as a form of external approval. But, in many ways, the Rhodes is the end of this line. Yes, we may receive more awards or grants, but there is no external authority “out there” waiting to give us a pat on the back and reassure us that our hand has been well played. For a group of people who, in many ways, have gotten where they are by seeking to please and have received the constant confirmation that comes along with being a pleaser, the real challenge is being our own evaluators and finding our own sources of satisfaction.
Here at Oxford, I often struggle with the necessity of giving up options or settling on something less than “perfection.” I endeavor to think through and clarify what “success” would mean for me personally and on a variety of fronts. I consider the ways choice paralysis could impact not only my career but my relationship decisions as well. I attempt to align values and goals, interests and responsibilities, and to create a coherent mosaic of often discrete and at times contradictory elements. And I find this process all the more difficult given a general dearth of mentorship here.
So which door should we choose? Or, as a beginning step, which doors should we remove from consideration? Frustratingly, I have no answers to these questions, and perhaps my personal answers would have no relevance to others. I do know that while we have big, multifaceted dreams, the hard reality is we must take small steps to get there. (The trick here, of course, is discerning which small steps to take.) A steady mosaic of life won’t be achieved by age twenty-six. It took a succession of efforts—some small, some large—to reach this point in our lives. Can we learn to be satisfied with the reality that we can only pass through one door at a time, or will we eternally search for the mirage of a door that leads simultaneously to two rooms?
I also suspect we may find comfort and aid within the Rhodes community (or some semblance thereof) itself. With so many interdisciplinarily-minded, schizophrenically-passionate people about, we are bound, at the very least, to find companions in our efforts to sort through these challenges, if not excellent sources of guidance and sanity. Though our lives are singular, we are bound together by the search to create a career and a life that pulls together a diversity of interests, brings positive change to the world, and achieves balance amidst the many open doors. In the end, this may be the real gift, the true opportunity made available by the Rhodes.
Wait a second. I think perhaps that conclusion is too neat and tidy—too wrap-up-the-valedictory-and-send-graduates-off-into-the-worldfull-of-hope, too lifestyle-magazine-I-learned-to-embrace-life’s-challenges-by-finding-joy-in-the-little-things. I began working on this piece last Trinity term in an effort to make some sense of this aspect of the “Rhodes experience,” and that closing line is what I told myself (and any potential readers) when I first put pen to paper. And I do think there’s some truth to it. But a couple seasons later, I’m still stuck, and not for lack of trying. In fact, during a Labor Day gathering, two 2005 scholars and I mapped out and analyzed the post-Oxford range of possibilities. Despite our best attempt to impose form on this amorphous challenge, we were left with more questions than answers. To be frank, I think many of us are stuck, and the resources for unsticking are in short supply.
Nearing the end of Michaelmas during this, our second year at Oxford, the days are growing short and cold and most of my classmates and I are beginning to sort out what comes next. Some may postpone such decisions for another year or two as they pursue D.Phils. Of late, a handful of firms have emerged from the mentorship abyss to help us with this choice, hosting recruiting events and hoping to inform and woo potential applicants. In the case of Google, this took the form of an extravagant party in London. As many things do, these happenings have elicited pointed e-mails on the Rhodes listserv or, at the very least, biting comments amidst more lighthearted postings. Are America’s “best and brightest” mindlessly or, worse, greedily “selling out”? In my mind, the better question is this: are we successfully preparing students to tackle complex problems in an increasingly complex world while leaving them high and dry on how best to apply their newfound knowledge and skills?
Poring over public sector job postings, openings for newly minted graduate students that aren’t essentially paper pushing or research-based seem few and far between. For those scholars looking to leave academic study, the question arises: where are jobs that would challenge me intellectually, provide an avenue for working on high-level problems, and allow me to have an impact? Should I do something entrepreneurial (try my hand at a writing career, for instance, or, a crowd favorite, “start my own non-profit”) or look for a position well within the establishment? Should I follow my idealistic side or my pragmatic side, and could the two be aligned? Are my expectations just totally unrealistic? What can I do now that will prepare me for and launch me into the things I see myself doing in ten or twenty years? Many of us feel we have a strong set of qualities and skills to “bring to the table.” But where is the table?
So while confronting choice paralysis, many scholars also seem to be encountering a discouraging dearth of immediate opportunities, and both struggles are further entrenched by a simultaneous shortage of guidance. As I have suggested, we can certainly be each other’s greatest supporters and advisees in many aspects of life, but when it comes to taking the next step, even self-reliant self-starters need the input of more experienced mentors. As we squeeze out of Oxford rich and wonderful experiences, we are haunted by anxiety about what comes afterwards and we flip through the AARS directory—filled with people who’ve somehow managed to make this transition!—looking for suggestions it doesn’t contain.
In Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” the speaker appeals to his beloved: “But at my back I always hear / Time’s winged chariot hurrying near.” On the topic of youthful love, the choice is clear: embrace! But for those of us haunted by time’s winged chariot in another sense—that our years to make an impact are finite—what should be our response? While I acknowledge that attending an intimate liberal arts college biased me in favor of mentorship, I wonder: Can we move beyond choice paralysis without genuine guidance and counsel? Or are we destined to depart Oxford nagged by the question: Which door?
* Iyengar, S. S.,Wells, R. E. & Schwartz, B. (2006) “Doing better but feeling worse.” Psychological
Science, 17:2, 143-150.
KATHARINE K. WILKINSON
© Katharine K. Wilkinson