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At the Assembly

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At the Assembly

Hey—I know you!

the wriggly one

the curious one

the one who needs glasses

the tiptoer

 

You probably don’t remember me. This is your first time through here.

(It’s my ninety-seventh, I think.)

 

hello, clumsy one with shoes untied

and charming one

and deflector

 

I’m excited to see what you learn today.

Often, this is not what I teach.

 

hello, not-speaker

and first volunteer

and mischief-sassy

and scarred-over-sassy

and little one without enough sleep

 

You are absolutely, invaluably special

and at the same time so laughingly the same

that I’ve met you

in the Bronx

and Kenya

and Palestine

and I imagine you’re in Siberia too

and also every stage of time

 

Someday you’ll grow up.

I kind of wish you wouldn’t do that

Because once you do, there’s this sheen of

armor stuff

on your skin

This is a loss.

 

But then again

You never do grow up

because you always show up again—

So, there’s that.

 

I’m awfully lucky to know you, friend.

Hi!

September-October 2018

Here’s the third in a series of updates on travel and projects.

 

Where I’ve Been (September)

The first week or so of September was pretty quiet—mostly at-home work, keeping up with emails and letter-writing and Quaker Open Book and Holy Experiments. I also started working with a group of 50 Friends from a total of 19 meetings on the FGC Digital Outreach project. This project includes training for participants in using Facebook as an outreach tool while simultaneously running ads in the local meetings’ areas. (As of the end of September, these ads have reached a total of almost 98,000 people. I don’t want to go into the other results/data quite yet, though I might at the end of next month when the project is officially over.)

Mid-September, I spent an evening at Westbury Friends Meeting, first talking with their ministry and counsel committee about social media presence and then—after a lovely potluck dinner—doing some storytelling to the meeting in general about the world of Friends and 1 Corinthians 12. That same week, I did a Saturday workshop on building a healthy multiage meeting community at Monadnock meeting in New Hampshire. They are an hospitable, friendly crew, and I was so glad to get to know them.

Later in September, I did a little consulting with some Friends on how to market a new retreat series they’re planning to offer, and then I headed to Maine for a gathering of recipients of the Lyman grant. This grant is provided for the purpose of helping people to pursue whatever they are Spirit-led to do, and though the monetary amount isn’t huge, the affirmation of receiving it was very helpful to me—and the gathering for recipients was relaxing and warm and full of opportunities to connect and hear stories of how God is moving in each person’s life. Oh—and I had some super fun, very geeky conversation with a couple of Baha’i about systems analysis and organizational effectiveness. (The gathering was hosted by a Baha’i retreat center.)

 

Where I’m Going (October)

It’s a big month—exciting and a little intimidating. In the first week of October, I’ll serve as a facilitator for a community period at Friends Seminary lower school on the topic of “being a bridge.” This basically means speaking to a group of kids, teachers, and parents, the kids falling between the ages of 5 and 12. The next day, I’ll head to New Jersey, where a small group of Friends is gathering to create a strategic plan for how New York Yearly Meeting can support local meetings and Friends in outreach in the next few years.

In the second week of October, I’ll fly first to Dallas to spend a couple of days with some extended family and then to Indiana for a Friends United Meeting general board meeting. From Indiana, I’ll fly to Chicago and Amman and Tel Aviv—in that order—on my way to Palestine, where I’ll settle in to spend a couple of months at Ramallah Friends School. RFS, for those who don’t know, is located in the West Bank. It’s a ministry of Friends United Meeting and educates Palestinian girls and boys from pre-kindergarten through twelfth grade. This school year is their 150th. I’ll be working in their special education department through the first week of December, though I’m told I’ll still have excellent and consistent access to Wi-Fi, so I won’t be disappearing from the world online.

Transitions: An Application of Cultural Theory

A couple of weeks ago, I posted this article based on some research I came across in the Harvard Business Review. Just as a refresher, in case you don’t want to go back and reread—basically, the original HBR article identified eight culture types, which can be distinguished from one another by the community focus, the general feeling of the environment, and the uniting force of the group. Two of the culture types don’t seem to appear in Quakerism. Two more probably appear sometimes but not terribly often.

Four of the types seem fairly common among Friends’ communities. Those are Type A (focused on relationships and mutual trust), Type D (focused on fun and excitement), Type G (focused on planning, caution, and preparedness), and Type H (focused on respect, structure, and shared norms).

In thinking about all of this, I realized pretty quickly that different Friends’ communities are manifesting different cultures, even within my personal experience. Here’s how I mapped that:

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Now, suppose that you’re a child in my monthly meeting. You’re accustomed to a Type D culture. Your group in First Day School focuses on fun and excitement; the environment feels light-hearted and full of people doing what makes them happy; you are united with other attenders of First Day School by a sense of playfulness and stimulation. Over a course of several years, you’ve learned to associate these cultural characteristics with Quaker meeting.

Then, one day, when you’re about ten years old, you’re asked to attend meeting for worship with a concern for business. Maybe you’re giving a report from the First Day School; maybe there’s a special query or a membership application to be considered. You find yourself in a culture that’s a blend of Type G and Type H. The group is focused on planning, caution, preparedness, respect, structure, and shared norms; the environment feels predictable, risk-conscious, methodical, rule-oriented; the group is united by a desire to feel protected and by cautious cooperation.

In other words, as far as your personal experience tells you, Quaker meeting is supposed to be about fun and excitement—but suddenly, you’re seeing planning and structure instead. Quaker meeting is supposed to be about light-heartedness—but suddenly, you’re seeing methodical rule-following. Quaker meeting is supposed to be about playfulness—but suddenly, you’re seeing cautious cooperation.

How do you respond to the disconnect?

Most likely, you reject the new culture entirely. “I don’t like business meeting. It’s boring.” It’s not your Quaker culture, so it isn’t your Quakerism. Maybe it’s just something grown-ups do. It has nothing to do with you.

Now, what happens when you’re twelve instead of ten? What happens when you’re fourteen? What happens at the point that you feel too old for First Day School—that’s just a bunch of little kids—but the only thing you’ve ever see of grown-up Quakerism is “boring” and completely detached from your previous experience. What are you going to want to do then?

Probably sleep in on Sundays.

In my yearly meeting, many teens continue with the youth program even when they drop out of regular attendance on Sundays. The youth program has some elements of fun, but it’s really a Type A culture—focused on relationships and mutual trust, in an environment that feels warm and collaborative and welcoming, and where the group is united by mutual loyalty.

The emphasis on a strong peer group is by no means a bad thing—in fact, it’s vital for many of our teens. But again, this becomes the experience of Quakerism for those teens who are involved. Most—not all—of the kids transition pretty successfully from fun-and-excitement First Day Schools to the relationship-and-mutual-trust youth program. This is helped by the fact that they get a healthy dose of fun and excitement in the youth program, especially on the younger end of the scale, when first they start attending as fourth- and fifth-graders.

But eventually, they finish high school and graduate from the youth program. Then what? Where do they go to continue their experience of Quakerism?

Do they go back to their monthly meetings—where they’ll find a community based on caution and rule-following and, yes, a certain amount of relationship and mutual loyalty, but with people they don’t really know?

Do they go into the adult group at yearly meeting sessions—where they’ll find a community focused on a set of shared norms that they haven’t ever learned? Think about the implications of that—theoretically, this is their yearly meeting, and yet, when they step into the adult environment, belongingness is defined by rules that are completely unfamiliar. This goes to this committee, that goes to that other committee, you can stand and speak at certain times but not at other times, some questions should be asked on the floor of the yearly meeting, other questions should never be asked on the floor of the yearly meeting, use the right code language, everybody knows when and where the meeting is, so nobody ever announces it…and so on, and so on. Is it any wonder that so many young adults disappear?

(Also, they move. I know that. But there are usually Quakers wherever they’ve moved to.)

I’ll stop here for a couple of caveats. First of all, the exact cultures I’ve identified in First Day School and in the youth program and in the yearly meeting are subjective. Some people would probably say that I’m wrong. It’s also possible that your First Day School or your youth program or your yearly meeting aren’t the same as mine. But actually, the exact labeling of each culture isn’t the point. The point is what comes next, and I think that what comes next applies to nearly all of us.

Because what comes next is: if the cultures are different, how do we transition?

I’m going to mention one solution that I believe doesn’t work.  Then I’ll offer three solutions that might.

A commonly attempted solution is continue-the-culture subgroups. This happens frequently among young adults. YAF groups—Young Adult Friends—appear in most yearly meetings, and the age range tends to fluctuate, especially on the upper end. In my yearly meeting, it’s “18 to 35(ish),” and that “ish” tends to creep well into the mid-forties.

Not everybody joins the YAF groups for the same reasons, but generally speaking, YAF groups are more fun, more openly loving, and less rule-oriented than the regular adult body. These groups can be enriching and spiritually nourishing and vitally important for the people who are involved in them—but ultimately, there comes a point when you stop being “young.” And then you have to make the transition—or else leave Quakerism altogether—and many young adults resist this. Some straddle the two groups, participating in “adult” activities and keeping a toe in the YAF group as well. But for many, the YAF group becomes the experience of Quakerism, just as the youth program was before that. I’ve even had Friends in their forties say to me, verbatim, “We need something for my age cohort, because that other adult group—that’s not for me. That’s not my Quakerism. I have nowhere to go.”

So what kinds of strategies might help with transitions?

One possibility is boundary-blurring.

Maybe the adults who work with the First Day School know that the next likely stop for their kids is the youth program. So they study the youth program—which has a culture rooted in relationships and mutual trust—and they intentionally incorporate more relationships and mutual trust into the culture of First Day School. They don’t drop the fun-and-excitement culture altogether, but they blend the two, so that First Day School culture becomes about fun, excitement, relationships, and mutual trust.

Then, the adults who work with the youth program know that their participants are coming from First Day Schools that tend to be centered in fun and excitement, so they deliberately fold in fun-and-excitement culture, especially with the younger groups.

But these same adults also know that the next step for aging teens is the adult groups in monthly and yearly meetings, so especially with the older kids, they could start to fold in the methodical-shared-norms culture, and in particular the shared norms of the adult Friends. This means teaching things like which committee does what and why, and it means practicing meetings for business using the shared norms of adult meetings for business. Sometimes this sort of suggestion meets considerable resistance: they’re still kids, there’s time enough for them to learn all that, that stuff doesn’t really matter anyway. There’s some validity in questioning the importance of the shared norms of the adult group and whether or not things “should” be how they are, but if we want our teens to transition successfully, we must start the cultural transition while they are still, by definition, kids.

Then there’s the adult group. Maybe those who are in the adult group know that the teens are coming from the youth program, so they deliberately incorporate more focus on relationships and mutual trust within the adult group. They work to shift the entire adult group from a culture of structure-and-shared-norms to a culture of structure-and-relationships-and-shared-norms-and-mutual-trust. This would mean that we would still have a structure and shared norms but that it would be part of our normal practice to sometimes prioritize trust and relationships over the structure and shared norms. That’s tricky. Many of our adult groups are accustomed to being careful and prepared and slow to change; prioritizing relationships and mutual trust will sometimes require unexpected risks, especially since trust is, by definition, risky.

So boundary-blurring could be one strategy. It takes a lot of effort. We’re not accustomed to it.

Another strategy—which could be practiced simultaneously, rather than being an either-or—would be porous boundaries. We make it normal for those near transition ages to travel back and forth. Children ages nine and up have permission to wander in and out of teen spaces; younger teens can wander back to children’s programs. Teens have permission to wander in and out of business meetings; young adults can be in business meeting for awhile and then go hang out with the teens and kids.

In addition to the informal wandering back and forth, each age group could have times specifically scheduled to join the age groups on either side. Children’s groups are occasionally scheduled to go to the teen space to do a joint activity, and vice versa. Teens’ groups are occasionally scheduled to join the adults in whatever they’re doing, and the adults are occasionally scheduled to join the teens in whatever they’re doing. Transitions don’t happen all at once. They happen slowly, over a number of years, with lots of time allowed for moving back and forth.

One last strategy.

Shared culture unites people and gives us a sense of belonging. But shared culture isn’t the only thing that can unite us; shared beliefs and goals can, too. We can make culture less important if other things are more important.

Do we speak passionately about our relationship with God?

Do we understand ourselves as a covenant people?

Do we tell the stories of living faith?

Do we strive to listen to the Holy Spirit—and obey?

Is this at the center of our communities? Can we live lives of faith together and out loud? Or do we keep quiet about all of this, by default allowing culture to take center stage?

What would transitioning from one age group to another be like if it meant transitioning from a passionate, faithful, God-led people to another passionate, faithful, God-led people?

August-September 2018

Here’s the second in a series of updates on travel and projects.

 

Where I’ve Been (August)

August began with New England Yearly Meeting sessions at Castleton University. There’s an official website with talking points that I encourage you to check out, but a couple of things really stood out for me.

The first thing that resonated was the anchor group that I facilitated. There were about fourteen of us, varying in number from one day to the next. Many large Quaker gatherings have some sort of daily small group meetings, and this tends to be really important because otherwise the crush of people and the pace of activities can become truly overwhelming. Different gatherings do this in different ways. In New England, the small groups are randomized rather than grouped by interest or age or other factors. This has its pluses and minuses, but a major virtue is the chance to know people that you might not otherwise meet. Small-group sharing with Friends outside our usual circles is vital in a time when many Friends are striving to build more fully inclusive spiritual communities. In my small group were Friends from a variety of gender identities, ages, classes, and theological paths.

The second memorable thing was a long piece of work in business meeting about contributions to Friends World Committee for Consultation, Friends United Meeting, and Friends General Conference. New England Yearly Meeting contributes financially to these organizations at nearly three times the level of other, comparably-sized yearly meetings. The question came to to the gathered body: should the yearly meeting cut back on these contributions in order to balance its budget? In the end, the group affirmed that it would continue its current level of giving, as led, stepping out in faith, doing what they understood to be right rather than what might be seen, arguably, as “fair.” It was not an easy decision. I was grateful to witness it.

It’s worth noting that I was Facebooking things that happened throughout the week. I encourage that others try this kind of sharing when possible; it can make a real difference in a sense of community for Friends who aren’t able to physically attend.

Much of the rest of August was quiet—lots of emails, lots of Facebook work, a certain amount of committee work, some writing. Quiet time’s not so bad, especially considering the travel coming up in the fall and winter.

 

Where I’m Going (September)

September 1st will be the first day for the Friends General Conference Digital Outreach cohort. I’m looking forward to working with Friends from Maine to Florida to Indiana—and maybe the west coast, too? Not sure yet. We’ll be running Facebook ads for local meetings while simultaneously training local Friends in the skills needed to maintain an effective social media presence. My primary goal in this program is to make myself—and any other outside assistance—irrelevant, with the meeting having everything it needs to do the work independently down the line. (Of course, I always recommend a community of practice. “Independently” doesn’t have to mean “alone.”)

Later in September, I’ll have an evening gathering at Westbury meeting on Long Island, which looks like it will consist of a brief social media training, a potluck, and a chance to do some storytelling about Friends around the world. These kinds of storytelling opportunities are among my favorite parts of travel in the ministry; there’s something wonderful about having the chance to share about the global covenant community.

Westbury will be followed by a day-long workshop at Monadnock meeting on multiage inclusion, and a week after that, I’ll be at a gathering for Lyman grant recipients in Maine. The Lyman Fund exists “to support individuals seeking to follow their deepest inward spiritual leading,” and I’ve received two grants from the Lyman Fund in the last year. This has been important because, unlike many other grants, Lyman grant funding can be used for the types of personal support (food, rent, etc.) that enable ministry work.

Faithfulness

Friend has been home now for nearly a week, having completed her first official voyage through the U.S. Postal Service. (You can read all about Friend here.) I wrote on Facebook before she left about how she was feeling a little nervous and had requested extra crackers just in case she got hungry. At first, it seemed like there was nothing to worry about. Her trip to New Paltz was uneventful, and her visit with Friends there—in which she joined an ordinary meeting for worship—went well.

Then came the journey home.

We don’t know exactly what happened, because Friend was inside her box and couldn’t see and because the only information I could get was the tracking info. But somehow, she wound up lost in the mail for 27 days. She bounced from New Paltz to Newark to NYC to Newark to NYC to a delivery truck in my neighborhood to NYC central processing to Albany to White Plains to NYC back to a delivery truck in my neighborhood to NYC central processing to Jersey City to New Paltz before finally being returned to sender with all her shipping labels ripped off.

(And it’s only supposed to take about a day and a half to make the trip by mail.)

Reflecting on this has reminded me of times when I’ve had similar experiences. It reminded me of my first experience of being called to travel in the ministry, when my visa was rejected after I’d already given up my apartment and my job. It reminded me of my first weekend facilitation experience, when an attender took me aside after the evening session and said, “You can change the content of the weekend to what I came to talk about, or I can just hijack it. Which would you prefer?” It reminded me of times when I’ve been judged wrongly, when I’ve been physically lost, when I’ve been alone in a room with a man who frightened me, when I’ve made mistakes that have resulted in painful consequences.

It’s a funny thing, the relationship between faithfulness and difficulty. On the one hand, Friends have this concept that we refer to as “way opening.” We tell one another that one indication of right discernment is that “way will open,” by which we mean that the necessary opportunities, support, and resources will appear so that we can move forward.

That’s a reasonable principle when we’re talking about it as one possible indication of right discernment, when we say, “If way opens, that’s one indication that it might be right.”

But it’s another thing altogether when we switch it around, when we say, “If it’s right, then way will open.” When we say this to one another, we are accusing those for whom way does not open of being unfaithful.

We don’t intend it that way, of course. But especially when we’re talking about money, that’s how it can feel. Any number of times, a Friend has said to me, “If it’s right, the money will appear.” I am curious what magical bank account they’re referring to. When I have done all that I can—reduced my spending, applied for grants, asked for help from multiple Quaker organizations—and the income is still insufficient, is that an indication that I have been unfaithful, or that I have wrongly discerned?

I’m actually less worried about this for me than I am for others, for those who don’t have a history of a well-paying full-time job, for those who didn’t have a family to help cover college expenses, for those who don’t have a savings account that can cover the leaner times, for those who don’t have the privileges that lead to the necessary time for things like applying for grants, for those who have children or aging parents or chronic illness and are prevented from reducing expenses.

So it’s a funny thing, the relationship between faithfulness and difficulty. If we listen to this idea of “if it’s right, way will open,” then that would seem to be an indication that faithfulness should be easy. I don’t believe this to be so.

On the other hand, there’s another perspective, one that glorifies suffering. Some have the idea that faithfulness should be hard, that there’s some sort of virtue in being lost in the mail for 27 days. I wonder where this idea comes from. For a few of us, it’s theological, rooted in a particular understanding of the cross (an understanding that many Christians don’t share). But for most of us, I don’t believe that’s it.

Sometimes I tell myself the story that suffering is virtuous. Usually, I tell myself this story when I’m suffering. I think it makes me feel better because I can imagine that I’m somehow earning God’s approval. It feels like I’m racking up faithfulness points, and that means I’m on the right track, doesn’t it? Or I tell myself that God must be teaching me something.

This is dangerous, too, though. For one thing, if suffering is virtuous, if there is such a thing as faithfulness points, then the natural next step is that I have more or less value based on my actions. And that isn’t true. We all have infinite worth, and we all have divine love, and there’s nothing we can do to earn or to lose that.

Worse still, if my suffering has virtue, so does yours, and where do we draw the line? What level of suffering is not an indication of faithfulness? This line of reasoning is unimaginable when applied to those who are born into hopeless conditions or who have had the kinds of experiences that—well. This line of reasoning is unimaginable when applied to those in circumstances that are unimaginable.

When I look back at the times when faithfulness has been hard, I can only see that whatever pain I experienced is neither an indication of rightness nor wrongness. I can’t say that faithfulness should be easy. And I can’t say that faithfulness should be hard. I’ve learned from many difficult experiences, and I’ve also learned from wonderful ones. Faithfulness is about relationship with God.

None of this means that relative ease or difficulty is irrelevant. Pain, whether physical, spiritual, or emotional, is a hugely important indicator of the kind of care we might need, of whether we should ask for help, of when we need to rest. But it is not an indicator of our level of faithfulness.

Friend will be traveling to Wisconsin tomorrow. That seems like the right thing to do. As for me—I’m grateful for the chance to stop and reflect.

Navigating Differences: An Application of Cultural Theory

In January 2018, there was an article published in the Harvard Business Review called “The Leader’s Guide to Corporate Culture” (authors Boris Groysberg, Jeremiah Lee, Jesse Price, and J. Yo-Jud Cheng). Following extensive research in corporations around the world, the authors have designated eight basic corporate cultures, defined by the primary focus of the culture, the work environment, and the uniting factors that bring the group together.

The original article gave names to each of the eight culture types, but I’m going to call them “Type A,” “Type B,” etc. because many of the words used in the original article have different meanings in the Quaker world, and I suspect that those different meanings might cause us to misidentify the cultures we’re living in.

Below, I’ve summarized the basic breakdown. As you read, think specifically of the Quaker faith community that you spend the most time with. That might mean the adult population of your local church or meeting; it might mean the First Day School or Sunday School or other children’s group; it might be a summer camp or a yearly meeting gathering or a retreat center or a young adult worship sharing group. Later, I’ll talk a little about comparing these, but for now, see which rings true for the Quaker community that you’re with more often than any other:

 

Type A

Community focuses on: relationships and mutual trust

When we’re together, the environment feels: warm, collaborative, and welcoming

What unites us is: loyalty to one another

 

Type B

Community focuses on: idealism and altruism

When we’re together, the environment feels: tolerant, compassionate

What unites us is: a focus on sustainability and doing good for the long-term future of the whole world

 

Type C

Community focuses on: exploration, expansiveness, and creativity

When we’re together, the environment feels: inventive and open-minded and full of new things

What unites us is: curiosity

 

Type D

Community focuses on: fun and excitement

When we’re together, the environment feels: light-hearted and full of people doing what makes them happy

What unites us is: playfulness and stimulation

 

Type E

Community focuses on: achievement and winning

When we’re together, the environment feels: outcome-oriented and merit-based, with an eye on top performance

What unites us is: a drive for capability and success

 

Type F

Community focuses on: strength, decisiveness, boldness

When we’re together, the environment feels: competitive

What unites us is: strong control from authority figures

 

Type G

Community focuses on: planning, caution, and preparedness

When we’re together, the environment feels: predictable, risk-conscious, with lots of careful thought

What unites us is: a desire to feel protected and anticipate change

 

Type H

Community focuses on: respect, structure, and shared norms

When we’re together, the environment feels: methodical, with people playing by the rules

What unites us is: cooperation

 

Did you identify the culture type of your Quaker faith community—more specifically, the portion of that community where you spend the most time? It’s possible that yours might be a pretty even tie between two culture types, but it’s less helpful if you say “we’re not really any of these.” Identify one or two that seem relevant and work with it for a few minutes here. Nobody’s looking over your shoulder.

It’s important to understand that the culture of the group can be one type even when an assortment of types are present in different individuals. You might find yourself saying, “Well, we have some Type D people and some Type C people and . . .” And that’ll be true, but there’s probably a certain type that describes how the group functions together as a whole.

When I started looking at my Quaker community—which is really my Quaker communities, because there’s more than one—I realized very quickly that I’m traveling in multiple cultural groups. My thought process went something like this:

I really wish all groups of Friends were: Type B

My own monthly meeting seems to be: Type A and Type G

But the First Day School (the children) of my monthly meeting are: Type D

And during business meeting, we become: Type G and Type H

When my yearly meeting gathers for sessions, we function as: Type H

Except for the children’s program at yearly meeting sessions, which is: Type A and Type D

And the child/teen retreat program that meets on weekends throughout the year is: Type A

But me personally? At heart, I’m probably: Type C

 

If we put that as a visual, it looks like this:

Navigating Differences

 

Why did I place the groups where they are?

Well, I really do wish that we were all Type B. To me, the very concept of building the kingdom of God on earth means focusing on the long-term well-being of the entire world. But I don’t see that as the way that any group of Friends is primarily functioning, really.

I placed my own monthly meeting in Type A and Type G because we are immensely loyal to one another, even to a fault sometimes, and because we emphasize relationships and trust. (We’re not always good at it, but we emphasize it.) But we’re also incredibly cautious about everything we do. Business meetings tend to last three hours or more, historically. New proposals are pondered for months if not years, even if their potential impact is really quite small. We are extremely slow to change.

In business meeting, my meeting continues to operate from caution (Type G) but also really operates from shared norms (Type H). In fact, we work so hard at shared norms that during meeting for business we tend to forget all about building relationships with each other and lose our Type A culture altogether.

All of this is totally different from how the First Day School community operates. That group of kids (and occasionally teens) is nearly entirely based in having fun together (Type D). There’s often a lesson, but the factor uniting the community generally is not what’s being learned; it’s a sense of playfulness.

There’s a similar adult/kid split at yearly meeting sessions, where the adults are mostly operating in a Type H culture, basing everything around our set of shared norms—the committee system, the rituals around business practice, the worship sharing rules, and so forth. Even the fun aspects of yearly meeting sessions are really rooted in shared norms. The talent show happens on Thursday night, and heaven help you if you suggest that we might try it on Wednesday . . . that sort of thing.

The kids’ program at sessions, on the other hand, mostly emphasizes fun (Type D) and relationships (Type A), with Type D probably being the dominant unifying factor—it’s hard to build relationships in a community that meets for three hours a day, six days out of the year.

The youth retreat program of our yearly meeting, which gathers kids for several weekends per year throughout their middle and high school years, has more chance to build authentic relationships and functions almost entirely as a Type A community.

And then there’s me. Yes, I’m altruistic, and I’m all about building the kingdom of God on earth, but I do it from a curiosity/learning/experimenting place. Anybody who’s likely to study the Harvard Business Review at length and then apply what they’ve learned to Quaker communities and write a blog post about it is probably most at home in a Type C culture.

It’s worth noting that some people would probably disagree with my analysis. That’s okay. Take it with a grain of salt. What’s most important is not that I’m exactly right about the groups I’m looking at; what matters is how we handle the differences from one group to another.

 

Why does all of this matter?

I think it matters in a lot of ways.

Today, I’m going to explore the difference between what I wish Friends were and what Friends are, and then I’m going to explore the difference between the community’s culture and mine.

Later, I’ll write some additional blog entries about how age group transitions are affected by culture change and how culture types can be altered.

And then, who knows? There might be more.

 

First—looking at the difference between what I wish Friends were and what Friends are.

This is important to recognize. For me, it’s about wishing that the community of Friends was Type B. You might wish that the community of Friends functioned as some other type. But we get ourselves in trouble when we start assuming that the community is what we wish it would be—or also, when we start assuming that everyone wishes the community were what we wish it would be.

A Type B community is united by doing good for the long-term future of the whole world. If I assume that my Quaker community is a Type B community (because that’s what I want it to be), then I’m going to walk in expecting to present Type B sorts of ideas and have the community respond immediately and uniformly enthusiastically. But this simply doesn’t happen. If I don’t understand that this stems at least in part from a cultural difference, I’m going to be confused and disappointed and angry.

In fact, I can get confused and disappointed and angry even when I assume that everyone wants to be Type B. (I have learned from experience that they don’t.) Almost everyone agrees that altruism is a good thing, but for many Friends, relationships or fun or caution or shared norms are genuinely more important. At least in the beginning, it’s good to hold off on any value judgment about this and just recognize what is.

Whether I choose to change my expectations, to try to change the community, to leave the community, or simply to live forever in dynamic tension, the first step is to see that a difference exists. What I wish Quaker culture were isn’t what Quaker culture is.

 

Second—looking at the difference between the community’s culture and mine.

As I said above, I function most authentically as a Type C. I might long to be part of a Type B community, but at my own heart, I’m really a Type C. (Which isn’t necessarily an inherent conflict; healthy communities often contain a mixture of individuals that align with the overall culture type and also individuals that don’t. If you’re all exactly the same, you become more and more collectively unhealthy—and less and less able to change.)

As a Type C person, I love—and live in—exploration, expansiveness, creativity, inventiveness, open-mindedness, newness, experimentation, and curiosity. At least as an individual (though possibly not in a group) I value these qualities above the other types. Inventiveness, experimentation, and curiosity mean more to me than relationships, collaboration, and loyalty (Type A), fun and playfulness (Type D), caution and risk management (Type G), and rules, structure, and cooperation (Type H).

My Type C nature doesn’t prevent me from valuing relationships, collaboration, loyalty, fun, and playfulness, and I do value those things. But my natural Type C instincts are often in direct conflict with the values of caution, risk management, rules, structure, and cooperation, and these values are a big part of the culture of my Quaker community, especially in the realms of business and committees.

How do I handle this?

The first thing I have to do is recognize that my yearly meeting—and often my monthly meeting, too—are functioning as Type G and Type H cultures, and I have committed to joining them nonetheless. We are different. Pretending we are not different will not help.

The second thing I have to do is recognize the value of my own Type C contributions. Just as I have committed to joining my Quaker community, my Quaker community has made a commitment to me. They may or may not have recognized my innovation/experimentation/curiosity tendencies when I came in the door, but they did accept me into membership—all of me. And now we have to engage with each other.

It’s important to name that, generally, when a Quaker body acts in a way that prioritizes caution and/or maintaining or shared norms over trying new things, everything inside me tells me that this is wrong. Not just different from what I would do, but fundamentally wrong. Then I have to move past the adversarial mindset that this tends to set up and find ways to work within the community culture to be faithful to genuine leadings from God. This can be very tricky. Sometimes I’m more successful than other times.

It can help when I flip things around so that I can imagine the opposite point of view. For a Type G/H person or group, the most important things are planning, structure, caution, shared norms, preparedness, and cooperation. From that point of view, my constant drive to experiment appears reckless and—it’s true—seems fundamentally wrong.

In reality, of course, neither of us is actually wrong. All of these values—innovation, planning, structure, experimentation, caution, shared norms, curiosity, preparedness, and cooperation—are worthy. The difference is which we prioritize and how often, and in my Quaker circles, the community as a whole mostly subscribes to Types G and H. No matter how I choose to respond to that, I’ll do better if I begin by understanding it.

To depersonalize this for a minute, remember that the individual/community culture conflict can materialize in a variety of ways.

If you’re a Type A (prioritizing relationships), you might struggle in a Type B community if the community’s drive to helping the whole world takes away time from forming relationships within the community itself.

If you’re a Type D (prioritizing fun), you might struggle in a Type H community if the community’s shared norms don’t include much time for play.

If you’re a Type B (prioritizing altruism), you might struggle in a Type D community where projects that make a difference in the world aren’t valued very much unless they’re also fun and exciting.

And so forth.

 

Summing it up . . .

– Most groups of people function within a certain type of culture. This culture can be identified by what the group values, how the environment feels, and what unifies the people within the group.

– Groups of people functioning within a certain type of culture aren’t necessarily uniform. The group culture is identified not by what individuals do or value but by what the group as a whole does or values.

– Within your own Quaker circles, it’s likely that different circles are functioning as different types of cultures.

– There’s often a difference between what type we wish a group would be and what type that group actually is. That’s when it becomes important to recognize the difference and then decide how to handle it. Pretending there isn’t a difference can quickly get us into trouble.

– There’s also often a difference between the culture type we, as individuals, most naturally fit in and the culture type of the group. Again, it’s important to recognize that difference and then decide how to handle it.

 

Next time—what are the implications of transitioning from one group of Friends to another, when the cultures of the two groups might be very different?

The 45-Yard Line

Let me start by saying that this would be a perfect American football analogy if I could use the number 50 instead of 45, but unfortunately, that’s just not how this works.

Though if we all wait another five years, it will be.

For now, imagine a football field with a 45-yard line right in the middle. (This football field is only 90 yards long in total. Go with me here.) Now, standing on the 45-yard line, you can go in one of two directions. If you go in one direction and get all the way to the end zone, you score points for one team. If you go in the other direction and get all the way to the end zone, you score points for the other team. In both cases, the objective is pretty much the same…dodge the obstacles, be agile, work as a team, get to the end zone. But to score points for one team, you’ve got to go one way, and to score points for the other team, you have to go in the opposite direction.

In the actual game of football, the two teams are competing. One group of people wants to score points for one side, and the other group of people wants to score points for the other side. Because it’s a competition, it’s a zero-sum game. One team scores points at the cost of the other.

In the past year, I’ve found myself in Quaker circles making lots of arguments about what I think of as the “over/under 45 strategy.” (Hence, the 45-yard line.) Essentially, my premise is that in modern society, we have a generation gap unlike any other in history. It’s not about these crazy kids and their music; it’s about a fundamental change in our way of thinking.

People who are 45 this year were born somewhere around the year 1972. This means that they were finishing high school in about the year 1990. While the Internet technically started in 1965 and first received its name in 1973, the early ‘90s were the time when the Internet went from a scientific laboratory thing to an actually-in-people’s-homes kind of thing—in other words, right when today’s 45-year-olds were either in college or starting their first full-time jobs. Both socially and neurologically, today’s 45-year-olds were moving into adulthood during the Internet’s first five to seven years. (The prefrontal cortex doesn’t finish developing until you’re nearly thirty.)

40-year-olds went to high school with the Internet; 35-year-olds, middle school; 30-year-olds do not remember a time without it. 25-year-olds don’t recall a world without smartphones. 20-year-olds were born after the invention of social media.

None of this is to say that people over 45 can’t be good at the Internet. Some people over 45 are extraordinarily proficient and spend a great deal of time online. But there is a difference between skills we learn as fully-formed adults and activities that influence the physical formation of our brains. There’s a reason why advertisers target teens and twenty-somethings; it’s because habits formed in those years tend to persist for a lifetime.

Scientists are still struggling to define the effects of Internet exposure during brain development. But there’s a fair amount of evidence that those under 45 process information in fundamentally different ways. For one thing, under-45s tend to sort information for relevance very quickly; this is the result of a lot of scanning, such as scrolling rapidly through a social media feed. Under-45s generally require more visual stimulation and struggle to learn from large bodies of text. They are less likely to develop a long and trusting relationship with a particular source of information, partly because Google searches and social media feeds link to websites and periodicals but don’t emphasize origin; it’s easy to read an article and never notice, much less recall, whether it came from the Washington Post or Huffington Post, from Buzzfeed or somebody’s blog. And there’s a tendency toward instant gratification. Under-45s expect to find the answers to questions within seconds.

I don’t find it terribly useful to focus on whether this is all good or bad. It simply is. And it is in abundance; some studies have discovered that exposure to the Internet causes neurological responses similar to heroin use. It isn’t going away.

So what does this boil down to?

Over 45 Under 45 Comparison

Let’s go back to our football game.

There you are on the 45-yard line. If you want to score a point for the under-45s, you’ve got to run one way—social media, photos, videos, impact storytelling, quick access to knowledge. If you want to score a point for the over-45s, you’ve got to run the other way—paper, phone calls, long pieces of text, institutional loyalty, building knowledge over time.

But are we happy with the idea of this being a zero-sum game? What happens if we want both sides to get points? I’d say that we have to decide this isn’t a competition, and we have to learn how to run both ways simultaneously. We might need two footballs. We might need more players. But for sure, we have to commit to cooperation.

When I talk about an over/under 45 strategy, I’m usually talking about either communications, fundraising, and outreach. The same principles might apply in religious education or pastoral care, but not to the same degree of intensity. An over/under 45 strategy is, at its heart, a bifurcated strategy. It’s doing quite different things, with the same ultimate intent, in order to reach both age ranges.

Let’s look first at communications. In Quaker circles, communications happen locally and at large-scale institutional levels. An over-45 communications strategy would mostly involve printed newsletters, with the same newsletters in the same format often emailed or posted on a website. Articles might be lengthy. Font, format, and illustrations would be less important, as long as the text was legible. Announcements would appear in list form. Content would emphasize the activities of the institution because the readership is likely to be interested in the institution, even if they themselves aren’t participating in the work.

An under-45 communications strategy, in contrast, would mostly involve social media (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, possibly Tumblr or Pinterest). Articles would be short and would contain mostly content directly relevant to the reader—or, if the content were not directly relevant, it would be single-story narratives with an emphasis on personal impact. Announcements would come out through messenger apps or text messages, with a strong element of user control about which announcements to receive and which not. Photos and videos would be used frequently.

An over/under 45 strategy is tricky because you can’t take the same content and post it on multiple platforms. Most of us know instinctively that you couldn’t take a bunch of Facebook posts, print them out, and call them a newsletter. But similarly, you can’t take a newsletter produced for print or email and simply paste a link on social media. An under-45 generally will not click on a link labeled “newsletter” because there’s nothing in that to indicate personal relevance. But the same under-45 might follow a link to a single article with a strong title and a vibrant illustration. The under-45 is also looking for additional links. If one article references another, there should be a built-in hyperlink to the second article. That serves the under-45’s expectation of instant information.

Fundraising, too, requires a bifurcated strategy. Over-45s have been trained, over their lifetimes, to establish and maintain long-term relationships with institutions. I trust this institution; therefore, I give money. Direct mail campaigns are effective, as are annual funds. Fundraising efforts might include long pieces of text written abstractly about the organization’s mission and intent. Over-45s are okay with writing checks, and they’re prepared to stamp their donation envelopes.

In contrast, under-45s have been trained, through Internet exposure and through a changing job market, not to establish or maintain long-term institutional relationships. Under-45s habitually hop from one institution to another according to which one best matches their current needs and interests. Capturing this audience requires impact storytelling, published on social media, with as many photos and videos as possible. “We are providing education to 200 children” is interesting, but it isn’t enough. A two-minute video of the school, in which a story is told about the direct impact the education has on the life of a child, is much more compelling. So, too, is immediacy. The under-45 thinks, I know where my donation is going and see it having immediate impact; therefore, I give money. A specific fundraising goal is important, and it helps to have an Internet-based indicator: can I see the exact percentage of the goal that’s been raised? Can I see a list of which of my friends have already donated? Under-45s often don’t write checks. Many of them don’t even have checks. They expect to donate instantly by credit card—on their smartphones.

By now, the difference in outreach strategies should be pretty evident. Over-45s might see a newspaper ad or hear a radio commercial and investigate. They might decide to visit your Quaker meeting even with very little information ahead of time—because they grew up learning things slowly, from books and encyclopedias. If your website has a collection of long articles about Quakerism, over-45s might actually read them. They also might take home and read lengthy pamphlets at the end of a first visit.

Under-45s will find you if you’re present on social media—or, at the very least, if you have a sufficiently strong website and pop up pretty high in local Google searches. They’ll want to see lots of photos of the people in the meeting, not a single thirty-year-old drawing of your historic building. They’re likely to click on a video titled “What is Quakerism?” or something along those lines, and if there isn’t a video, they want a FAQ page with clear answers to specific questions, so they can scan through and read what’s relevant to them instead of trying to process lengthy articles. Some under-45s will read in depth, eventually, but only if you provide easily scan-able information first.

It’s hard work to develop and enact over/under 45 strategies—in fact, it’s basically twice as much work. And people on both sides of the 45-yard line tend to find the other side mystifying, not to mention irritating—why don’t they just put out a little more effort? We wouldn’t need two strategies if that other age group would just learn to be flexible!

But it’s beyond flexibility. We are wired differently. Our brains work differently. If we want to reach both groups, we must learn to cooperate and to move in both directions simultaneously. Because we can’t abandon our over-45s, those who have been—and often still are—the lifeblood of our communities. But we also can’t ignore the under-45s, who will soon be the under-50s, and then the under-55s, and so on…at least, we can’t ignore them if we hope to have a future.

August-September 2018

A couple of Friends recently asked whether I could provide monthly updates on where I’m going and where I’ve been. The answer is yes, I can—and this is the first of those.

 

Where I’ve Been (July)

On the first day of July, I found myself in Toledo, Ohio, preparing for the Friends General Conference gathering. I spent my week facilitating a workshop called Building a Culture of Multiage Inclusion. I had seven vital and remarkable participants.

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We covered a number of topics, and often in a very lively way—but one of my favorite moments was when we got quiet and I asked the parents in the room, “What would you want other Friends to know about how to nurture you?” Below is their response. I’d love to bring this workshop to other places; feel free to reach out to me.

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July 1st was also my first day being an associate with Good News Associates, an organization to support non-institutional ministry. Through this group, I can receive donations for the first time, and I also have a cohort of other Friends engaged in non-institutional ministry. It’s really quite something to find that kind of home.

The second week of July brought two videoconferences with Friends involved in the Friends World Committee for Consultation traveling ministry corps. The first was a gathering of just the Friends from North America, and the second included Friends from all parts of the Americas. A very hard-working translator made sure that we all understood one another. The second call was an opportunity for the members of the traveling ministry corps from both language groups to engage in deep sharing of our experiences with travel in the ministry. It can be hard to maintain a sense of family and togetherness across continents and language barriers, but in the end, our connection goes beyond these things.

(And Skype helps, too.)

A handful of Friends gathered for a little swimming-and-picnicking day that week, as well, which was a rare opportunity to be together in a way that was strictly “off the clock.” You could also call it a Sabbath.  I ate some chives.

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The following week brought several meetings, including one for the advancement committee of the North American board of Friends United Meeting. This is a new field for me, and many of you know how I excited I get about new fields! I’ve raided the New York Public Library and am happily settling down with a collection of charts and spreadsheets. I’m passionate about this work because I’ve seen, first hand, the effects of FUM’s ministries. You can’t quite look at a budget the same way after you’ve had the experience of meeting a little girl in Kenya whose education relies on those numbers. Hidden in those rows and columns are a new car for a medical center and a periodical for aging Friends and peace work in troubled communities and extra pencils for child shepherds.

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Then came New York Yearly Meeting sessions, and what a week it was. My favorite moment was the announcement of a new preparative meeting in New York Yearly Meeting. “Christ is the Answer Friends Church” is a Swahili-speaking congregation of Congolese refugees outside Buffalo. Translation for Faith and Practice, anybody?

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Where I’m Going (August)

For today and the next two days, I’m spending quality time with my computer, catching up with—and getting ahead on—emails and so forth. This includes work on Holy Experiments and Quaker Open Book and ongoing research in several areas.

Next week I’ll head for New England Yearly Meeting annual sessions, where I’ll be a facilitator for a worship sharing group and where I’ll just generally have the opportunity to meet with Friends and to worship with them. There’s a healthy, ongoing relationship between New York and New England Yearly Meetings, with many Friends who travel back and forth. Both feel like home to me.

After that, the plan is to come home and do some writing, along with preparing for Digital Outreach (a project for Facebook training and social media outreach through Friends General Conference) and the upcoming trip to Ramallah Friends School.

Math

Yes, I’m about to talk about math. Real math. In my experience, a lot of folks back away when I bring this up, and I’m asking you not to, because that of God in everyone is getting lost in mathematical algorithms.

Seriously. Algorithms are affecting every part of our lives, and they’re perpetuating racist patterns while being sold as—and legally treated as—completely neutral. Quakers appear at statehouses, women’s marches, climate justice demonstrations, Black Lives Matter assemblies, and pride parades. We feel led to write minutes and send letters and pass around petitions. And I strongly suspect that, if we were open to it, we might also be called to witness in mathematics departments in universities.

Because I am not a mathematician, the concepts I’ll summarize below are not mine. For more information, solid scientific evidence, and a lot more detail, check out Propublica’s series called Machine Bias: Investigating Algorithmic Injustice or Cathy O’Neil’s book Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy.

And now, without further ado:

 

What Is An Algorithm?

An algorithm, for the purposes of this discussion, is a complicated math equation that can make assessments about the present—or predictions about the future—based on information gathered from the past.

An extremely simple mathematical algorithm might be used to predict the likely mean temperature in Anchorage, Alaska in December of 2020 based on the mean temperatures in Anchorage, Alaska in December in each of the last hundred years. A slightly more complex mathematical algorithm might take into account not just the temperatures themselves but the general trends in temperature changes in Anchorage in the last hundred years—is it getting generally warmer? cooler? or are temperatures oscillating?—and come to a more precise prediction based on that information. A very complex mathematical algorithm might take into account weather patterns throughout the entire world and the effects of climate change and come to an even more precise prediction.

A different example of an algorithm might be one used for university admissions. A set of data—such as SAT scores, GPA, and possibly a few other factors—is fed into an algorithm, which is a complex math equation, and the equation offers a prediction of the likelihood that the given student will succeed in that university.

The algorithm is the equation itself. Many algorithms are insanely complex. Especially when we’re talking about algorithms used by computers, it’s likely that you wouldn’t recognize one as math and wouldn’t have any idea what it was if you saw it.

 

How Are Algorithms Written?

As I understand it, even a mathematician or a computer programmer would be unlikely to be able to sit down and write even a moderately complex algorithm. Instead, humans write a piece of coding for a computer that teaches the computer how to write algorithms. Then, the computer is fed massive amounts of data until it has gathered for itself enough information to figure out how to make assessments of the present, or predictions about the future, based on data from the past.

This is much easier to understand with examples.

Suppose that you wanted a computer to recognize bone tumors in x-rays. You would do this by first feeding the computer thousands upon thousands of images containing bone tumors. You would show the computer where the tumors were. Over time, the computer would learn what particular types of x-ray shadows might indicate the presence of tumors, and it would write—for itself—an algorithm to recognize tumors. Eventually, you could give the computer any x-ray, and the computer could assess with reasonable accuracy whether a tumor were present.

(If you’re wondering about the accuracy rate, yes, computers are pretty accurate with this type of task. The highest level of accuracy, though, is a computer working in partnership with a human medical expert; the two working together detect tumors with more accuracy than either the computer alone or the human expert alone.)

Here’s another: suppose you were holding parole hearings, and you wanted to know the likelihood that a particular individual would reoffend if released. You would do this by first feeding the computer thousands upon thousands of records of people who had been arrested, imprisoned, and released on parole. Over time, the computer would learn various indicators that affected the likelihood that a person would be arrested again after parole. Eventually, you could give the computer any record of any person up for parole, and the computer could predict the likelihood that the person would reoffend if released.

Except. No. It can’t.

 

Where’s the Racism Part?

In the bone tumors example, the computer is only able to find new bone tumors because it has been taught accurately about past bone tumors. Computers are very intelligent in some ways, but if you fed the computer thousands upon thousands of pictures of kitty-cats and identified them as bone tumors, the computer would then, in the future, identify all kitty-cats as bone tumors and probably wouldn’t know an actual bone tumor from a turnip truck.

And in the parole example, we’re identifying kitty-cats as bone tumors. For one thing, the computer actually has no idea—even when reading past data—which individuals reoffended and which ones didn’t. What it knows is which individuals were arrested again and which ones weren’t. And we know from any number of studies that people of color are more likely than white people to be arrested, even if the two are engaged in identical behaviors.

But the computer doesn’t understand this. The computer also doesn’t care. Its job is to create an algorithm that can predict the chances of re-arrest, and it does this task amorally. It will use any data we give it, including level of education, zip code, and economic status, all of which are heavily influenced by race. Then it spits out a score. That score—just a number—is all the judge sees come out of the algorithm. The judge doesn’t know why the score was given. Even the computer itself doesn’t know why the score was given. There’s no explanation attached.

Famously, one computer—experimenting with correlations, but not actually building algorithms at the time—discovered that the level of margarine consumption in the United States is an excellent predictor of the divorce rate in Maine. When the United States eats more margarine, more people in Maine get divorced. When the United States eats less margarine, fewer people in Maine get divorced. No rational person claims that this is a direct causal relationship, but a computer wouldn’t hesitate to do so. Artificial intelligence doesn’t know what’s absurd.

So here’s the situation we’re in: a computer crunches a person’s data through a computer-generated algorithm and makes a prediction based on zip code or education or who-even-knows-what, and in many states, judges are using these scores to grant—or deny—parole.

Oh—and why are people of color more likely to be arrested than white people, even if they’re engaged in identical behaviors? One reason is because neighborhoods containing a higher percentage of people of color are more heavily policed. And why are these neighborhoods more heavily policed? Because police distribution is frequently determined by algorithm. The math itself is perpetuating a racist cycle.

 

Why Aren’t These Algorithms Being Checked by People?

In theory, there are two ways that a person could check an algorithm, although the first way—the way most of us might think would be obvious—is actually impossible. You can’t just print out a computer-generated algorithm, look at it, and detect racism. Most of the time, a human being can’t even print out a computer-generated algorithm, look at it, and determine what it’s designed to do. It’s way too complicated. When computers are generating their own algorithms, they don’t bother generating them in such a way that people can read them. Why would they? Computers generate algorithms for their own use.

The only other way to check an algorithm is to test it, to check its predictions against reality and, if you like, for racial neutrality. And here’s where things get really interesting.

In the case of one algorithm that’s used in actual parole cases, the algorithm was checked—and adjusted—for racial neutrality. When it is accurate, it is race-neutral. That is, it predicts recidivism accurately at the same rate for white people and for people of color.

But when it is inaccurate, it is not race-neutral. It is significantly more likely to predict that a person of color would be arrested again when they actually would not, and it is significantly more likely to predict that a white person would not be arrested again when they actually would.

The algorithm can’t be adjusted to be race-neutral both in its accuracies and in its inaccuracies at the same time because the data it’s working from is racist data, gathered from a racist society.

 

Are There Laws About This?

So far, not really. There’s an argument to be made (and I’ve heard lawyers make it) that there would be legal accountability for mathematical algorithms if anybody ever challenged one in court, but to my knowledge, that hasn’t happened yet. And no, there’s no legal accountability written into law right now for what comes out of a mathematical algorithm. And this is a problem, not just because many algorithms are perpetuating inequality but also because they are sold as neutral. Algorithms are sold as the solution to racism and other forms of bias. If we just take the human influence out of things, we will have solved these problems, right? How could math do anything but make a neutral, just, and rational recommendation?

But of course, this goes back to the fact that if the data’s not neutral, just, and rational, the algorithm’s not neutral, just, and rational, and neither is anything that comes out of it. And so far, nobody’s legally accountable. Not the computer programmers, not the companies that own the intellectual property and sell the use of the algorithms, and not the companies or the people that put the algorithms into practice. And certainly not the computers themselves.

 

What’s the State of the Ethics Conversation?

If anyone’s reading this who knows more about it than I do, I’d welcome updates and additional information here. But as far as I can tell, the ethics conversation hasn’t gotten very far.

There are some computer programmers and mathematicians who are talking about this. There are some people who are raising the alarm. But there aren’t very many of them.

I also question the quality of the overall ethics conversation. About a year ago, I attended an event at Columbia University. A statistics professor—extremely highly regarded in his field—was giving a speech about the ethical use of statistics. It lasted ninety minutes. For the first half-hour, I was thoroughly enjoying myself. The man was charming. But in the last hour, I realized that he wasn’t saying anything. Here was a person considered to be an ultimate authority in his field, giving a lecture about ethics to his students—theoretically, soon to be the next generation of authorities in the field—and he wasn’t prepared to say whether anything was or wasn’t ethical. He danced around a number of issues, feinted at commenting, made genuinely funny jokes, and then backed away without committing himself or challenging anybody.

Even if the ethics conversation in university math departments were robust, there’s an additional problem because the work done by programmers and statisticians and mathematicians often doesn’t belong to them. Many times, it’s a corporation that owns the intellectual property rights, which means that ultimately, the decisions about the use of such algorithms are made by managers, CFOs, and CEOs who may not even understand the ethical subtleties (and, of course, also might not care).

By the time the algorithm gets to an end user, it’s several steps removed from the human beings that originally worked with the computer that generated it, and whatever warnings or provisos those programmers originally made might very well never make it to the customer.

And then, of course, there’s the lawmakers, who’ve done little if anything about algorithms so far, though New York City is trying. I can imagine a number of reasons for this, starting with the fact that the lawmakers themselves may not know or understand the ways in which math is functioning. Even if they did, it’s hard to explain to a constituency, especially in a sound bite, why you’re focusing on computer programming “rather than” social justice, even if the truth is that computer programming is at the heart of what threatens social justice. And finally, there’s the matter of speed. How do you write laws to govern algorithms when artificial intelligence is developing so quickly that new technology goes from state-of-the-art to archaic in the span of a year or two?

 

Exactly How Widespread Are Algorithms?

Artificial intelligence-generated algorithms are affecting every part of your life: the ads you see online and physically in your neighborhood, the prices you pay (online and in stores), where you see police and where you don’t, your likelihood of being arrested, the jobs you get, the wages you’re offered, whether you receive loans, the types of insurance you’re eligible for, the rates you pay for insurance, which universities accept or reject you, the search results that pop up when you Google something, and what you see (and don’t see) on social media.

If you are poor or if you are a person of color, you often pay higher prices for the same goods or services even while you receive fewer jobs and less pay for the jobs you do get. You’re also more likely to be targeted by police and by a variety of predatory schemes to take your money. All of these trends are reinforced by algorithms that are being sold as “neutral.”

And no matter who you are or what your political views might be, search engines and social media are using algorithms to make sure that you only see information that reinforces your preexisting perspective.

 

What Can We Do?

For one thing, we can stop being afraid of math. Or if we can’t stop being afraid, we can act in spite of being afraid. We can educate ourselves. Start with Propublica’s Machine Bias: Investigating Algorithmic Injustice and Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy. Both are easily accessible; you don’t have to be confident with math to understand them.

Beyond self-educating, we can pray, and we can act. If there is a field of social justice that’s being overlooked and needs a spotlight, this is it. I don’t know what activism looks like in this field. Nobody does. But we can discern, be led, try things, fail, and try again…

What I do know is that the answer isn’t “stop using technology.” For one thing, it’s too late.  Artificial intelligence is here to stay, and our choice as Friends is only whether or not to be involved with it conscientiously.  (We don’t even really have the choice of whether to be involved in it, since the algorithms produced by AI are, as explained above, deeply ingrained in every part of our lives.)

Even if we could opt out, I don’t believe we ought to.  When it comes to technology, I feel led to minister and witness, not to withdraw:

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Harvard Business Review
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Truth in Recruitment

Are we, as Friends, prepared to deal with this complexity?  Are we willing to be?  How do we respond?

Grieving Abby Scuito

This post is a considerable departure from my usual, but it’s something I’ve been chewing on for months and seems worth talking about.

In 2003, a TV show called NCIS came on the scene. NCIS stands for Naval Criminal Investigative Service. It’s a shoot-‘em-up action crime show with heart, still in production after fifteen years, in my opinion because of the investigative-team-as-family theme at the center. Gruff ex-Marine Jethro Gibbs (Mark Harmon) is surrounded by a crew of coworkers, most of whom are at least a generation younger than he, nearly all of whom have serious trauma in their pasts, and between the moments of plot, Gibbs nurtures his little Gibblets (as fans refer to them) much like a tough-love dad.2c6b7d18524f70b7f139f3caa0b126bf

 

One of the show’s most popular characters is Abigail Scuito, generally known as Abby (Pauley Perrette). When the show premiered, the actress was about thirty-four, though the age of the character was never stated. Abby is a forensic scientist with all but superhuman abilities, beyond brilliant, though it helps that she’s working with technology that seems to be flavored with a soupçon of sci-fi. She’s also deeply religious and exuberantly loving and passionate about hard rock and tattooed and pigtailed.

AbigailSciutoAbby Scuito is so compelling that some researchers credit the character with an upswing in young women entering the sciences. They call it “the Abby effect.”

I really love Abby.

At the end of season fifteen, Pauley Perrette left NCIS. There are some pretty sad rumors around the question of why. I don’t want to repeat the rumors because the truth is that we just don’t know. Someday we might.

In the meantime, I am grieving Abby. (No, the character didn’t die, but it’s clear she’s not coming back, which amounts to the same thing.) And as I’ve mused about this character—warm, sassy, faithful, smart—did I mention smart?—I’ve realized something. It’s not really Abby that made Abby so special. It’s the people around her.

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Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to take anything away from this character. She’s unique on TV and fascinating to watch. But sometimes people talk about her and say things like “the world needs more Abbys,” and I think the truth is, the world has a pretty fair number of Abbys. Our problem is that most Abbys get squished.

When Abby dresses authentically, her coworkers appreciate her individuality, while many women in the wabigail-e2809cabbye2809d-sciuto.jpgorld have to dress according to someone else’s code in order to be taken seriously.

When Abby teases her coworkers, they tease her back, then get down to business and listen to what she has to contribute, while many women in the world learn to play things straight because otherwise they won’t be taken seriously.

When Abby expresses her fears or shares about her personal life, her cow10a735d0c644c3a82621e7e58ce86dab.jpg.pngorkers respect her honesty and respond in kind, while many women in the world don’t dare show vulnerability because this will be interpreted as weakness.

When Abby excels, her bosses recognize that and offer raises and promotions, while many women are consistently passed over because raises and promotions are more closely tied to golf course relationships than professional capability.

When Abby is smarter than her coworkers, they admire her and act on her contributions, while many women experience jealousy and doubt from the people they work with.

This is why I’m grieving Abby. It’s because I’m mourning the example of a workplace that embraces her: a workplace where an intelligent and highly competent young woman is automatically taken seriously and regarded with respect, where contributions are fa5ad7e5f65a897d4a8adaac83c5b8b5--pauley-perrette-story-ideas.jpgevaluated on their inherent value, where ideas are not ignored until a man repeats them, where it’s possible to be emotional and still viewed as rational because everyone understands that these two states aren’t mutually exclusive.

The very existence of Abby, in the highly respected professional position that she held, was frankly a fantasy.

But it doesn’t have to be.

Here’s what I take from knowing Abby:

Do I want to be like her?  Yes, absolutely.  I find Abby inspiring.  I hope to be as smart, as hard-working, as kind, as authentic, as joyful, and as loving as she.

But more importantly, I want to be like Jenny Shepard and Leon Vance and Jethro Gibbs and Ducky Mallard and Tony/Ziva/Cait/Tim/Jimmy.  I want to recognize and value all of those who cross my path for their authentic contributions to the community.  And given the world we live in, that means working really hard to see and put aside my own prejudices and–sometimes–to point to people who are being overlooked and, when necessary, amplify their voices.

I’ll miss you, Abby.