When I was young, I was involved in programs at a church in the low-income, predominantly African American neighborhood where my family lived.
One day when I was 16 years old, some friends and I were walking down the street when we came across a couple of shiny new vans delivering a small hoard of white kids dressed in optimistic clothes to the church.
Curious, we we asked some of the youth what they were doing. Nonchalantly, they said they were here to paint this ghetto church, pointing at our fortress of hope.
When we asked if we could help, an adult with the group told us it was their project, and they’d be doing the painting. We brought our concerns to the minister, who explained they were missionaries from another state and this was mission trip, to paint our church.
That didn’t make any sense to me then, and I spent more than a decade trying to reconcile their well-meaning intention and my sense of dejection.
As an adult, I’ve met bunches and bunches of well-meaning middle class people and white people who want to save the world without ever looking at how to empower people to save themselves. These same folks rarely examine their own complicity in oppression and the ongoing slight of snobbery in volunteerism and philanthropy.
With so many people more focused on “changing the world” today, I think it’s high time that we reflect on Gandhi’s call for us to “be the change we wish to see in the world. We each have to examine our motivation.
I’ve been writing about that process for a long time without ever offering rationale for why that matters. The story I share here is meant to show one reason.
If you’re interested, check out my PETS (Personal Engagement Tip Sheets) for practical ways to look inside yourself before you try to change the world. You might also read my poem, Missionary. One of the most powerful pieces I’ve ever read about examining our motivations is a speech given by Ivan Illich called “To Hell With Good Intentions,” where he critically examines what it means to serve others. I also recommend Paulo Freire’s last book, which pushed me to embrace my own assumptions in new ways. Its called Pedagogy of Indignation.
In places throughout our society, people are wrestling with a challenge that feels insurmountable: People just don’t care, they aren’t showing up, or they’re not doing what we need them to, what they’re supposed to do, or even what they want to do.
Causes of Disengagement
First obvious in schools, in the 1970s this was originally identified as a dropout problem. After struggling through early community action agencies, Rock the Vote type projects, and national service programs, in 1999 a sociologist named Robert Putnam put a face to the problem when he published Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.
Putnam successfully diagnosed the problem with society’s social capital, which is a metaphor for the interactive networks people keep with other people who live and work around each other. Since we’re constantly exchanging these visible and invisible gestures in conscious and unconscious ways, social capital is what allows our society to actually work.
What Disengagement Causes
Wonder why it feels like our society doesn’t actually work? According to Putnam, its because social capital isn’t being circulated like it used to be. Given the emergence of anarchistic capitalism and hyper-libertarianism, I believe we’re reaching a fever pitch and revealing the real problem, which I am calling the Crisis of Disengagement.
However, I think we need an accessible approach to the Crisis of Disengagement for everyone, not just academics. So let me name and define what I think we’re talking about here:
Engagement is any sustained connection anyone has to anything in the world around them and within themselves.
Disengagement is the absence of sustainability in our connections.
That said, the Crisis of Engagement is a solvable problem, much like poverty and war. As Nelson Mandela said,
“Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice. Like Slavery and Apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.”
Disengagement is a solvable problem.
My work is about helping YOU solve the Crisis of Engagement. Check out the rest of the Personal Engagement Tip Sheets to learn more!
I don’t understand. In the neighborhood where I grew up, in this last week there have been A LOT of shootings, several murders, three home invasions, and a lot of robberies. I turn on pop music though, and here’s another rapper claiming to “rep the hood” while they’re driving expensive cars, wearing expensive jewelry and shooting guns. I don’t understand.
Shooting guns. With the rash of mass shootings over the last year, I don’t understand how people can still assert their supposed Second Amendment rights, allowing corporations to flood the streets with mass amounts of weaponry and exploiting peoples’ feelings of insecurity and doomsday-ism. I don’t understand.
In the place where I was born, there’s a lot of joblessness and fear washing into the lives of everyday people. With the North American oil market collapse, my cousins and brothers-in-law, their families and friends, and a lot of people are suffering from economic insecurity. Yet these same people are damning the election of a Liberal prime minister who wants to build sustainable power options across the nation, create a new economy that’s not reliant on raping the Earth, and building community among a damaged people. I don’t understand how anyone can hate that.
THOSE THINGS are all true. But I want to tell you what I DO understand.
I understand radical personal engagement. Everyday I’m faced with the choice of whether or not to maintain the connections I have within myself and to the world around me. Everyday I get to decide who I am, how I connect, and whether something matters to me or not.
I do understand the world is working exactly how it needs to right now. There are crappy situations for a lot of people in a lot of places, and even though they look compromised and painful, they are the right things for this moment. From the tragedies and drama, hurt and discouragement, something is getting dismantled, and something else is getting built.
That’s true for me, too. For the last several years, I’ve struggled to make sense of this career I’ve made for myself. I’m a bit of a consultant, a bit of a writer, a bit of a speaker, a bit of a designer… I’m a little bit of all of these, and yet, none of them. My audience wavers, bringing me in when its popular or convenient, but forgetting me when there’s more to be done. But this is exactly how its supposed to be!
Right now, the fiery furnaces of our individual bodies, hearts and minds, are working in concert with everything, everywhere to create the massiveness that is within each of us. The gangbangers and the concert maestros, the mothers and the children, the vandals and the politicians… all of us are within this place doing this thing in concert with one another.
Maybe Neil DeGrasse Tyson said it best:
“Recognize that the very molecules that make up your body, the atoms that construct the molecules, are traceable to the crucibles that were once the centers of high mass stars that exploded their chemically rich guts into the galaxy, enriching pristine gas clouds with the chemistry of life. So that we are all connected to each other biologically, to the earth chemically and to the rest of the universe atomically. That’s kinda cool! That makes me smile and I actually feel quite large at the end of that. It’s not that we are better than the universe, we are part of the universe. We are in the universe and the universe is in us.”
Just by being alive, the world is moving along perfectly, imperceptibly excellently. I have lived through a lot of things, lost a lot of things, and done a lot of things, and I know this one thing is true for me. This is what I understand today, and what I wanted to share with you.
I really wanna hear from you. Give me a call or reply to this? Take care.
Beyond the research, statistics and reports, there’s a simple truth about youth engagement: When young people experience sustained connections to the worlds within and around them, their lives become better, and the lives of those around them improve, too.
For a long time, I forgot to say that. Instead, I focused on the studies that said youth engagement improves youth development, helps adults get our jobs done, and can foster social justice in communities. I shared research-proven examples that identified important pillars of youth engagement, identified deep routes for youth/adult partnerships, and showed effective ways to infuse youth voice throughout organizational transformation.
But I left out this slice: Youth engagement saves lives. I’m not talking about hypothetical situations either; I’m talking about my own life, and the lives of many young people I’ve worked with over the years. 25 years of experience in this field has shared a lot of learning with me. One of those lessons is that when you’re young, disenfranchised, and growing up in a depressed community, youth engagement can embed three important things in your life: Purpose, Power and Passion.
I know that because before I was engaged, I hadn’t experienced those three things in any substantive ways. However, after I became senior patrol leader in my Boy Scout troop, I felt purpose like never before. Spending the decade before that mostly homeless with my family, there didn’t seem to be a purpose to life, a purpose for doing anything, or a purpose for breathing beyond survival. When my dad told me he and I were going to sleep on the roof of an empty Habitat for Humanity house to protect it from being vandalized, I felt empowered to impact the negative circumstances I found myself in. And after I spent three summers working with a mentor to teach drama in public housing projects in my city, I felt a passion for sharing power like never before, and I knew that’s what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
What’s your purpose? Where have you found power? How do you share your passion?
Answer those three questions and you will become engaged in what truly matters to you…
Sometimes I get anxious or excited, and I want my way to be the way. I get disappointed when I set myself up that way.
I’m learning not to be in the immediate gratification crowd that believes you can actualize your dreams almost the instant you form them. When I was younger and spent so much energy advocating for youth involvement, this is what I believed: If I trained enough people, changed enough policies and moved enough mountains, things would change for young people immediately.
That’s not true.
Honoring the process of change requires accepting the boundaries of time. Moving hearts and minds takes more than education, it takes time and acceptance. People and systems and communities rarely change immediately, on the turn of a dime. Instead, they have to take their time. That doesn’t mean we don’t incentivize or motivate or move what we can, when we can. It does mean accepting our role in the ways things work.
It seems to me that the universe takes it’s time. Sometimes it allows me to see the fruits of my life and other times it holds back the results until another, undetermined time further on down the road. Maybe I get to see the outcomes, maybe I don’t – mostly that’s not up to me to worry about.
Instead, I look to nature for evidence: Trees almost always have more leaves than they technically need, and that’s why they’re able to serve the planet by processing CO2. The ocean laps too many waves, and that’s why it’s capable of wearing away the weight of the land while pulling beaches and seaside cliffs into the depths. The sun burns too brightly, and that’s why life is so abundant on this world. It all works in abundance, and I get to trust my life will, too.
By the same token, all of those things take time and processes, and nothing works independently of anything else. I don’t know if sunflowers require patience while their seeds germinate over the wintertime. I don’t know if birds simply have to trust that they’ll know where they’re going when they get their after their long migrations. But I do know that I have to let go and let the universe do its thing, work in it’s time, again and again, over and over.
If I look to the world around me for fulfillment, I’ll always be disappointed, because the world around me doesn’t work on my cues! But when I take a look inside me and find contentment in who I am, how I am, with the way things are instead of how I want them to be, then my life gets easier.
The old turtle in Kung Fu Panda might’ve said it best: “Yesterday is history; tomorrow is a mystery; today is a gift – that’s why its called the present.” I get to learn to appreciate the gifts! That’s my work these days…
My childhood was rough. As a way of coping with the experiences I had, somewhere along the way I started to gloss over details of my days by concentrating on big pictures. That was fun when I was younger, as it afforded me views I didn’t experience a lot of my peers having. However, it has cost me as I’ve grown older, since operating at 30,000 feet doesn’t make for close connections with a lot of people. I want those connections.
As part of my work, I get opportunities to talk with a lot of youth workers and community educators. Their perspectives of young people are fairly unique, and their jobs are always demanding. Every time I interact with them, I try to thank each one for what they do because youth workers saved my life as a teenager.
Recently, I’ve had the privilege of being in contact with a youth worker in the upper Midwest who has reminded me of something very important to me. In my email exchanges with him, BC comes across as a down-to-earth, authentic person who is conscientiously, intentionally working to be real, true and honest with the people he serves and the ways he’s serving them.
I’ve been pouring over his blog for the last few days. In the course of 100s of entries, he continually lays it on the line, connecting deeply within himself in order to have a more genuine relationship with himself. For me, it’s been a refreshing, ernest reminder of the power and potential of personal engagement.
So, I’m committing myself to reconnecting with two things in my writing from this point:
My personal experience in life and through my work that allows me to do what I do, and
My practice in personal engagement that sustains me.
In doing this, I hope I can speak as truthfully as BC has reminded me that its necessary to do. Over these last several years, I’ve been learning to let my feet truly soak into the Earth as I walk, whether or not I let my hands brush the bushes I past or keep my eyes to the skies.
When I was very young, my cousin cut off a section of an oil barrel and hung it from a gate header. He spray painted it “Adam 5” and used to launch me on wild rides inside of it. Today, I can’t imagine that would be any fun, but then I thought it was the bees knees!
Sometimes, being transparent can seem like a losing proposition. Openness leads to vulnerability, and being soft can lead to getting hurt. However, the old way of self-defense is slowly making its way into history. More than ever, we need leaders and followers who can be truthful, ernest and real with people.
Here are a few things I try to remember when I want to connect with my reasons:
What matters most to me?
Where do I come from?
Where do I want to go?
What difference do I want to make?
Those questions bring me back to my heart when I’m drifting, and nearer to my essence.
That’s where I strive to work from. Thanks BC – I appreciate you reminding me to do that!
“Your vision will become clear only when you look into your heart. Who looks outside, dreams. Who looks inside, awakens.”
While a lot of things in our world want us to watch shiny, flashy stuff going on around us, the practice of personal engagement encourages us to look inside. That doesn’t mean you have to sit uncomfortably and call out “Om” for answers, or spend hours journaling alone in your backroom.
When I look inside, I’m most often in a contemplative space.
When you take a look inside you might be sitting in traffic or getting dressed for work; walking your dog or grocery shopping. Of course, you can meditate, do yoga, journal or paint, or do anything that you know gets you inside of yourself, and away from the world.
Becoming personally engaged means we learn to do look inside on purpose, instead of by accident. Personal engagement is a choice we make in our every breath, whether consciously or unconsciously. Engaging in a practice of personal engagement means that you are choosing to become engaged on purpose.
Here are a few ways I looks inside myself.
Get alone. Whether I’m rushing through the airport or cooking dinner, when I want to look inside myself I have to get alone. That means turning inside myself and away from everything going on around me. When I do that, I can hear the small inner voice that animates my heart, and I can hear what it says. Sometimes I need to go away from everyone else, while other times I can be alone in the middle of a crowd. Either way, getting alone lets me look inside myself.
Still the racket. Good ol’ Carl Jung. “Your vision will become clear only when you look into your heart. Who looks outside, dreams. Who looks inside, awakens.” I have big eyes that like to see the world around me. I love traveling, exploring, being enticed by motion and getting absorbed in doing things. However, to look inside myself I have to still the racket. I have to acknowledge the things distracting me and then consciously, deliberately look away and turn them off.
Hear the small inner voice. In the middle of everyone is a small inner voice calming waiting to usher us through life. This voice is our connection with the middle of us. For me, it can come in the dark of night when I’m rolling around and unable to sleep; as I walk down the street and I’m approached by someone for a few dollars for a coffee; or when I’m rushing around and trying to do too many things at once. Its can be inconvenient! But its always true. Your small inner voice is waiting to talk with you.
Looking inside is an avenue towards personal engagement. In his classic work, Siddhartha, Hermann Hesse wrote,
“‘I shall no longer be instructed by the Yoga Veda or the Aharva Veda, or the ascetics, or any other doctrine whatsoever. I shall learn from myself, be a pupil of myself; I shall get to know myself, the mystery of Siddhartha.’ He looked around as if he were seeing the world for the first time.”
What are the ways you look inside you? I would love to hear your ideas – please share them in the comments section!
The sound of flip flops slapping across the old oak floor of the gym greeted me every hot summer night of 1995. That year, I was a determined youth worker in the neighborhood I grew up in. The news blared to the rest of the city that our hood was racked by gang violence, drug abuse and rampant vandalism and theft. I thought it was home.
I was a goofy 20-year-old white guy who moved from Canada as a kid to grow up in a hood I knew nothing about. I was jumped more times than I could count for ten years of my life. Crips and Bloods and Vice Lords roamed our blocks at all hours, with drivebys, drug deals and all kinds of crap happening all the time.
I could have been afraid of life then, and I wouldn’t have been wrong. But instead, I found inspiration in the strife and disruption; motivation from the pain and struggle. My parents struggled to teach me better, and their friends expected more from me. Adults who mentored me, including ministers, nonprofit workers and cultural teachers in the community, helped me decide early who I was and what I wanted to do in my life. My fears didn’t have a choice but to be allayed.
Eventually the sound of flip flops slapping went to the back of my mind, but the fear of living hung around somewhere in the back of my mind.
Growing Into My Future
A lot of life has conspired since I moved from my hood. I’ve made mistakes, learned lessons, built some things, destroyed others, made amends, held hands, grown vegetables, prayed, stolen, travelled, taught, broken stuff, and all the other sundry things some people do when they’re living. I’ve loved some people who’ve stayed on straighter and narrower paths than me, and envied others who veered so far astray that they never made it back.
It was when I was a youth that I found my trajectory in life. Growing up as a homeless child of a Vietnam veteran, border hopping ad naseum and unable to develop healthy attachments to the world around me, I struggled to make meaning in the world around me. However, as my life became more stable and I grew more adapt at learning (both through formal education and self-learning), I became more capable of finding meaning, constructing knowledge, critically evaluating, and sharing what I’d been through, as well as going into new experiences again and again. Transferring learning from one situation to the next, keeping an open mind in new situations, and critically thinking about what I’d experienced and learned let me become a knowledge creator, instead of simply collecting learning from other places.
All these experiences, from the “slap, slap” of flip flops to the challenges, rewards and realities of daily living have constantly startled me into living larger and more spectacularly than I ever expected to. The fear of living stayed in my imagination along the way though, as I moved from being a youth program worker to becoming a youth researcher and trainer, and then as I transitioned towards writing and speaking more. I’ve found that knowledge isn’t armor: As I’ve learned more, I’ve become more vulnerable and insecure. Where I stand, the world is becoming less and less firm under my feet, and I’m becoming more anxious to move. For a while now, I’ve been afraid of confronting the reality that I face today, rather than living in a projected fantasy that simply isn’t what’s happening.
This insecurity is the fear of living.
I am not a fearful person. I am generally not an immature person. However, just like everyone, I have my moments. Sometimes I am a chicken; sometimes I flinch; and sometimes I disappoint myself and others.
The days when I’m not busy ill-serving myself, I expect that I will grab a hold on my life, and do what Charles Fillmore affirmed to himself every morning at the age of 93:
“I fairly sizzle with zeal and enthusiasm and spring forth with a mighty faith to do the things that ought to be done by me.”
I want to live that! There’s the book I’m afraid to write, and the physical shape I’m afraid to get into. There’s the studying I’ve been neglecting, and the speeches I haven’t given. So many flights to be taken and world to experience, and the classes I want to teach. I want to love another person freely and endlessly, and raise more kids – I love kids! There are places I want to go with my family, including my awesome daughter, my wise mom, my spectacular sister and my best friends. I want to have great long conversations with old friends, and make new friends in places I want to be. There are so many things and places and people and opportunities and experiences I feel I’ve only been preparing for in all my life, and so much ahead of me that I look forward to.
Those aren’t the words of a fearful person. I hold onto life truly and honestly, and I hope for all that’s ahead of me to happen, good, bad, ugly and lovely, all of it. They didn’t come to me overnight.
Five Ways I Challenge the Fear of Living
In order to move ahead in my life, I have used a lot of different ways to embrace what I’m doing, why I’m doing it and when its getting done. Here are five ways I face the fear of living.
Affirm what works in life. Whether or not your life is filled with suffering and pain or happiness and fulfillment, there are things that work in your life. When I’m feeling most fearful of living, I affirm what works for me by writing it down, drawing it, and otherwise naming it. Sometimes that kicks my butt back into seeing hopefully.
Listen to people who aren’t afraid of living. I talk with people about life a lot. In my workshops, I regularly lead participants through exercises that let them celebrate what they’ve done by sharing it with other people. If you can’t see fearless people in your own life, then listen to music, read poetry, watch movies and do what you can to listen to people who aren’t afraid of living.
Give thanks. When I’m afraid, I find that I’m refusing to face things in my life. Whether its a deadline, my bills, projects, my relationships, or any other situation that I don’t want to face at a particular moment, I have to face my fears. I start doing this by giving thanks for the things in my life that work, have worked, expect to work or simply want to work. Sometimes I give thanks for other things too.
Name what doesn’t work. When I’m struggling, I have to be honest about what doesn’t work in my life. Instead of spouting off random disappointments, I get deliberate and actually name what I’m struggling with. That can be a firm, strong and pointed way to face my fears and make a change. If I lied because I was afraid of living, I name that. If I ghosted people because I was afraid of living, I name that. If I screamed, cursed, cheated, stole, manipulated or otherwise didn’t something that didn’t work, I name that. There’s power in facing my fears head on.
Take action. I have to do something to make a difference. When I’m feeling afraid of life, I try to face it head on, and the best way for me is to do that is by taking action. That action can be as varied as the ways I show my fear of living. Facing my fears often starts with making honest amends to others. My apologies can be a simple “sorry”, or much more. I have to get vulnerable though, and be earnest with the people I’m apologizing to. Other times it means getting back on my bike after the crash and giving it another go around. I’m scared to do that, but I still will. It means actually talking with people who I avoid, even when I don’t want to talk to them. It can mean being candid, and sometimes it means being bold. I want that book published, and I’m going to tell the publisher that I’m a good risk just because of that determination. But in some way, I take action.
I might never overcome my fear of living, entirely. I might not feel like challenging it somedays. However, I can always face it, and the steps above are how I’ve learned to do that.
I may not know much about living or loving or being, but I know that when I follow my own intuition and do what’s right for me, my life feels more familiar to me, more knowable, and mine. That’s a good, firm and real goal for me, because when something is mine, I’m not afraid of it.
More than a decade ago, I attended a seminar where the facilitator talked about clients’ walls. They felt stonewalled by someone they were trying to reach out to. Focusing on in-person meetings, using the phone, email and even social media, this facilitator shared 5 ways to destroy client walls and overcome reluctant prospects.
From the start, I felt there was something wrong with all of this.
Since 2001, I’ve been working with organizations around the world to understand their clients. Studying research carefully, I’ve also collected hundreds of stories of when people said they felt most engaged in things they needed to do.
From my work, I’ve learned that when client walls go up, the problem isn’t them—its us. That can be hard for people to understand or accept, so I want to share a tool I have created to think differently about it.
Following is my Engagement Box. It can be used by anyone trying to connect with other people, including salespeople, managers, teachers, social workers, politicians and others. It can be especially useful when client walls go up!
Description of the Engagement Box
The Engagement Box is made of four walls, and divided in four by an x axis and a y axis. The x axis is marked “Traditional” at the left, and “Nontraditional” at the right. The y axis marked “Convenient” at the top, and “Inconvenient” at the bottom. This tool is from your perspective as the user.
Each quadrant of the Engagement Box should be labeled accordingly:
Between “Traditional” and “Convenient”, the quadrant should be marked “Traditional & Convenient Engagement”;
Between “Traditional” and “Inconvenient”, the quadrant should be marked “Traditional & Inconvenient”;
Between “Nontraditional” and “Convenient”, mark the quadrant “Nontraditional & Convenient”;
In the last quadrant between “Nontraditional” and “Inconvenient”, mark the box “Nontraditional & Inconvenient”.
Using the Engagement Box
To use the Engagement Box, the first thing you should do is pull out two blank pieces of paper. On the first, draw a line down the middle.
In the left column, write all of the things—everything—you currently do to engagement your clients, whether they’re potential customers, employees, students, food stamp recipients, or others. Write all of this on a piece of paper.
In the right column, brainstorm all of the things you could do to engage your current and potential clients and list them. Remember that in a brainstorm there are no dumb ideas, so don’t inhibit yourself.
When you’ve completed that, take out the blank page and draw the Engagement on it, filling the entire page. Follow the directions above.
On the second sheet, copy the graphic of the Engagement Box detailed above.
Then, read through the columns you’ve written already. On each, circle the items you want to keep doing or start doing.
Then take those items, and write them into the corresponding quadrants of the Engagement Box using the following questions:
Is this activity something that is easy for you? Then it belongs to the “Convenient” axis.
Is this activity something you or your organization has always done? Then it belongs to the “Traditional” axis.
If an activity is “Convenient” and “Traditional” then it goes in the quadrant you’ve labeled “Convenient & Traditional”. Do this in all four quadrants.
Its NOT All About You
When you’ve finished filling out all four quadrants, take a quick tally. Are most of your current activities in the “Convenient & Traditional” quadrant? That means that you’re doing most things for yourself and not for your client. The reason their walls are going up is that you are not meeting them where they are at. Instead, you’re insisting they come to where you are.
Differently, if all of your brainstormed activities are in the “Inconvenient & Nontraditional” quadrant, then you are trying to meet people where they are.
Engaging with your clients, whoever they are, is not all about you—but a lot of it is. As I’ve led thousands of people through this activity, I have seen eyes open and heard the power of learning to see things a new way. Suddenly, business owners have seen where they’re losing customers, principals have seen why students are dropping out, and managers have seen why they can’t retain employees.
By shifting your perspective from meeting your own needs to actually meeting your clients’ needs, you can also see other effects. You might grow compassion, discover empathy and feel reciprocity. You could also stop some of your bad habits and rejuvenate your perspectives towards the people you serve and work with everyday.
Teddy Roosevelt once wrote, “No one cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.” Ultimately, the Engagement Box can teach you how to show people how much you care.