10 Principles for Kind Marketing and Communications in 2019

As a kindness practitioner and communications professional, I think often about whether the materials and messages that I put out into the world follow kind principles.

Any time we take our audiences’ time and attention, we tap into a limited resource, perhaps even more so in a world where every brand wants its customers to engage as well as to buy.

We also have to take a hard look at the attentional environments in which we work. In the three years since I initially thought through principles for kind marketing, serious questions about the social and political impact of media have emerged.

Kind marketing and communications means looking at the modern marketer’s engagement imperative as an ecological problem. We compete for, and ultimately affect, limited resources of emotion and cognition. Prospects and customers have to divide these resources in smaller and smaller slices to accommodate all the demands placed on them by brands and, more important, by their lives.

We also have to consider the channels where we disseminate our messages. In 2019, it’s a genuinely open question whether we can operate ethically and still use channels such as Facebook and Twitter. I just don’t have an answer to that question, although I have stopped using both for my own purposes for now.

If we look with compassion at the cluttered lives most people lead, and the toxic potential of the channels we use, marketing and communications seem inherently unkind, even complicit with destructiveness.

But by following the ten principles below, we can shift to a better way of contributing to the lives of our marketing audiences.

  1. Tell your truth: Before anything else, to practice kind marketing and communications, you must believe in the value of what you are promoting. You cannot compromise on authenticity. If you work in an internal marketing or comms department for a company you don’t believe in, then leave. If you work in an agency, take only the projects that align to your truth. If the product, service, or messages you promote do not increase the well-being of the world and of people in it, allow yourself the courage of moving on. While it may seem scary, it ultimately plays out to your benefit. The income comes back as you make yourself a stronger, truer kindness practitioner. I have left lucrative employers and clients, at the risk of short-term pain, but not once do I look back and regret it.
  2. Seek first to enrich, and only then to engage: The collateral you produce, from a simple tweet to a website, brochure, or video, should bring something more to your audiences than just a call-to-action. Kind marketers and communicators stand behind collateral that genuinely makes lives better. Stir up the audience’s kindness, appeal to their best emotions and selves, entertain them, or educate them. For example, in my recent work with a healthcare company, we directed all of our efforts to help patients focus on wellness. While we do intend to increase business through the use of the services we market, we put wellness first, then create experiences that allow patients to engage more directly in their own healthcare. Only then do we guide them to the care and services they need.
  3. Put empathy first in your plans: All good design thinking begins with activities that focus on empathizing with the customer. Put yourselves in people’s shoes to understand how they use your products and services, and what matters most to them. That empathy should drive your content strategy and marcomm plan. In addition, you can empathize with your audience beyond their role as customers. If one of your audience segments is working single mothers, for example, think mindfully of the pressures on their time and attention before you start making demands on it. Not only does this reflect kindness, but also it increases your chances to connect with them on the basis of something they will need and buy.
  4. Give customers just what they need, and no more: The low cost and relative ease of email marketing offer many temptations to marketers and communicators. Speaking from my own experience, I can think of several companies from whom I’ve made an initial purchase, only to regret giving them my business. Why? I enjoyed the product, but I did not expect multiple emails a day about every promotion and offer they might have. Much better to allow shoppers to opt in, at the time of purchase, and to specify their desired frequency of communication. To give a more positive example, one of my favorite online apparel companies sends me a discount or free shipping promotion along with anything they ship to me. I only see the one promotion, at the moment when I am opening a package and I am most excited about being their customer. That’s kind AND smart.
  5. Release only the best collateral: We all work within limited budgets, but we can create quality collateral even at low cost when we drive ourselves to produce the best. When cost matters, dozens of sites now exist where we can acquire good stock photography, video, or audio. We can hire professional voice or on-camera talent for individual jobs. We can always make sure that our copy does not contain grammatical errors, logical errors, or inelegant style. When cost matters less, we can really push ourselves to meet the standards of an artist rather than a hack. Neither style nor substance depends on budgeting, if you put the full force of your commitment to quality to the collateral that you release into the world.
  6. Open a dialogue: You may not directly interact with your audience, but kind marketers always find ways to treat marketing as a conversation. Tactics can include well-known tools such as Voice of the Customer surveys, focus groups, or Net Promoter. But tools alone may not suffice. As a marketer, you can make a mental shift by treating everything you do as part of the possible conversation between yourself, your product, and your audiences. You can listen to the way your friends and family talk about similar products, or how they react to various ads and promotions. You can watch what people do on social media, even how they move through stores, interact with products, and make buying decisions. As a kind marketer, you find the entire world becoming part of your conversation.
  7. Work with others: Going it alone can result in unfortunate missteps. I know this from my own experiences at the beginning of my career. It only takes a few sessions with product teams or with end consumers to realize that you do no one any favors by talking over their heads or speaking in an essentially private language. I also vividly remember, when in the role of a creative director, I had to break the bad news to a web designer. “Those are swastikas,” I pointed out. Having creative talent may feel that talent gives us permission to go rogue, but we ultimately must remember that we don’t see our own blind spots. A team of trusted colleagues and stakeholders helps us make the shift from arrogance, or even offensiveness, to kindness.
  8. Own what you produce: Even as part of an extended team of peers, stakeholders, customers, the more you connect with the products and services you promote, and the more you take ownership of the work you do, the more you can imbue them with your own deepest commitments to the world at large, including kindness. When I speak about ownership, I mean the feeling of finding and committing to what matters most, rather than keeping things to yourself. That feeling keeps you from slipping into alienation, where you begin to make compromises because “it’s ‘just’ my job,” or “it’s ‘just’ the client.” Alienation, in turn, leads through inauthenticity even as far as to lies and ethical lapses. When you remain mindful that “I am doing this” and “I am saying this,” even though it’s on behalf of something else, you escape that negative loop and enter a positive loop of kindness instead.
  9. Promote sane consumption: As marcomm professionals, we don’t do our work in isolation. We operate against a background of constant consumerism, where brands push people to seek “bigger, better, and more.” Marketers can go a long way by triggering acquisitiveness and status anxiety, but that long way is the wrong way. “The overall effect of advertising is to stimulate the craving for consumption,” as Erich Fromm describes it in his masterful To Have or To Be (essential reading for kind marketers with a philosophical bent). In a world of limited natural resources and in the face of a distressed environment, we can focus our messaging on giving people choices to actualize themselves and increase their well-being, rather than buying and wasting more. For example, in the case of an educational product, rather than focusing on the anxieties of potential students, we focused on unlocking potential and on long-term life outcomes, with much better results than a fear-and-doubt based consumerism.
  10. Improve the world: Finally, without inflating the importance of marketing or communication in the grand scheme of things, we still must realize that what we do pervades almost everything in the modern world. Researchers place the number of brand exposures we experience each day in the thousands (including not just commercial but ambient messaging in the streets, on store shelves, online, etc.). By acting as kindness practitioners, by reflecting that kindness in the content of the collateral we put into this mix of constant brand exposures, and by actively fostering the connection between what we promote and our customers’ richer, more deeply engaged and compassionate lives, we can change the underlying tone of this branded economic environment. We can do this with the images we choose, the attributes we highlight, the channels we select, and the stories we tell or ask others to tell about our brands. While our work still focuses on the immediate choice of our product or service within the marketplace, it can also focus on the broader choice of how people consume and how they choose to be in the world, and that focus becomes the ultimate kindness we have to offer to those whose attention we call upon.

Use Annual Themes to Get Past Limiting Resolutions

Several years ago, I abandoned the idea of New Year’s Resolutions and replaced it with the concept of an annual theme.

A theme has greater transformative power than a simple point solution. Moreover, you can’t really “fail” at a theme. You can grow more or less mindful of a theme as the year progresses, but it doesn’t set you up to disappoint yourself or beat yourself up over an unmet goal.

These thematic thoughts provide a touchstone through all the ups and downs of the year. Actions make more sense with reasons behind them. Think about previous years when you’ve tried resolutions, especially common resolutions like exercise, weight loss, quitting smoking. You can’t just get commitment off the shelf as a pre-packaged “product,” which is really what resolutions like that typically are.

If you didn’t succeed with your past resolutions, ask yourself whether you really anchored that goal on a deep reason – to perform better at work, to live longer and with greater health for your loved ones, to have more impact in the world around you. When you do have a deep reason, which you can keep in mind using an annual theme, you’ll do better with your goals.

You can use an annual theme in many more ways. A resolution typically only applies when the topic comes up, even if it comes up in your thoughts often. You can use your theme as a lens through which to look at many circumstances and situations. You can even use it as a mantra if you choose to meditate.

For 2019, my theme is “grow.” I appreciate the double meaning of personal and business growth and of cultivating in the world around me. A grower prepares the soil and plants seeds. A grower acts as a committed steward from green shoots to flowers and fruits. A grower pulls out weeds. A grower cares and cares for.

I can’t think of a more apt metaphor for the level of focus on priorities and outcomes that I intend to bring to the coming year.

What would you choose as your theme for the year?

“My Own Heart,” Gerard Manley Hopkins

My Own Heart

My own heart let me more have pity on; let
Me live to my sad self hereafter kind,
Charitable; not live this tormented mind
With this tormented mind tormenting yet.
I cast for comfort I can no more get
By groping round my comfortless, than blind
Eyes in their dark can day or thirst can find
Thirst’s all-in-all in all a world of wet.

Soul, self; come, poor Jackself, I do advise
You, jaded, let be; call off thoughts awhile
Elsewhere; leave comfort root-room; let joy size
At God knows when to God knows what; whose smile
‘s not wrung, see you; unforeseen times rather—as skies
Betweenpie mountains—lights a lovely mile.

Two Years of Kindness Advocacy and Practice

I noticed today that I launched my blog and supporting social media a full two years ago. To everyone who has supported this venture in any way, I feel enormously grateful. Your comments, your shares, and even your simple, precious gifts of time and attention mean so much to me.

As I sit here on a cool Los Angeles spring evening, watching the sunset, I want to acknowledge how much you’ve all helped me on this two-year journey of kindness advocacy and practice. And I’d like to reflect briefly on what I have learned so far.

Kindness Communication began in order to focus upon the idea that there is a missing piece, a missing heart in how we talk about the way we treat each other at work. When I launched the blog, I described that missing heart as kindness. As much as I have learned since launching, the principle has not changed:

“Kindness Communication wants to bring kindness back to the heart of how we speak with each other, and how we speak about improving the workplace.”

Along the way, I have learned that people will help you more than you may realize, if you approach them with authenticity and openness. Other practitioners and bloggers have offered me guest posting slots in their efforts. Journalists have sought out my perspectives and quoted them generously. People have agreed to take time and let me interview them. Especially in an area such as kindness that depends on mutual support and positive interaction, this help has reinforced my belief that like begets like, and that kindness triggers unexpected loops of positive outcomes.

I have also learned just how much work we kindness advocates and practitioners must do to achieve the goal of better workplaces. A Kindness Communication workplace kindness audit showed a rather dismal picture: on a 100 point scale of kindness, the average among respondents was only 66. Beyond those numbers, I have spoken with many people about the impacts of disregard, territoriality, conflict-seeking, and selfishness. These traits and behaviors pop up again and again at every level of a workplace, from company cultures down to individual dynamics. They indicate much work to be done.

In addition, of course, the world overall looks a lot different in 2016 than it did in 2015. When measured against values of kindness and pluralism and tolerance, it looks a lot darker. The need for kindness advocacy has only grown since I started, but the luxury of waiting to get traction is no more. This realization prompted me to shift focus beyond business, to promote kindness in all domains by all means available, and to make it accessible to all by keeping it as simple as possible. I continue to view the purpose of Kindness Communication this way today.

Finally, however, despite endemic kindness deficits and dark times, I still do hope. I believe in the light that I see when I speak to others about their kindness practices, the warmth that I feel from all of the positive interactions that have gathered around this work. Even with no certain future for the NEXT two years, we can still tap into that hope as a source of steadying joy and open calm.

No matter what, we can still do right by each other.

Kindness, Vulnerability, and Resistance: An Interview with Ifer Moore

I recently had a chance to sit down and speak at length with Ifer Moore, a writer in Los Angeles. Ifer has a great story to tell about work she recently published as a zine. From the point of view of Kindness Communication, her story shows the enormous power of being kind enough to oneself to be vulnerable. It also exemplifies the unpredictable ways in which kindness can beget kindness. By sharing her story, and also by donating the proceeds from all sales to Planned Parenthood, Ifer triggered a kindness loop that has been unlocking more opportunities for her as a writer. You’ll learn more about her project and and the kindness loop it triggered in the lightly edited transcript of our conversation below.

Christopher Fox: Today I’m here with Ifer Moore. Ifer for has been working on some projects lately that caught my attention for Kindness Communication. I thought it would be helpful to have a discussion with her and learn more about what she’s been doing and some of the reasons behind it. So first of all, thanks, Ifer, for joining this discussion. Tell me about your project. How would you summarize it?

Ifer Moore: I have written a zine that is basically a collection of 10 vignettes of my history with sexual assaults. It’s called “Trump Reminds Me of My Rape.” It stemmed from just being so disappointed and upset during the election and after the results and continuing to feel so much anger towards that, so I dove into my own memories and shared them.

Christopher Fox: What challenges did you overcome in doing that? Those were clearly some challenging moments in your history. In addition to what prompted you, how did you find yourself overcoming those challenges and some of the resistance that you might have felt to being so open about it?

Ifer Moore: It was definitely scary and hard to write about. I feel like the biggest thing to overcome is the shame that you feel when you’ve experienced sexual assault. But also I wanted to explore how complex communication is, and how my rape affected my relationship with my family.

Christopher Fox: Tell me more about the complexity.

Ifer Moore: The title itself, “Trump Reminds Me of My Rape,” came from me trying to talk to my mother about how upsetting the election was. And the text itself, me texting my mom that Trump reminds me of my rape, just felt so profound. But also it didn’t lead to a conversation at all because it was too much for my mom to know how to respond to.

Then it led me to thinking back on the moments when she and I had talked about sexual assault and our own family history of covering up sexual assault. Even with that, I wrote everything right after the election, and then I spent two months just letting it sit there without touching it because just having written it felt like a lot.

I went through a guided meditation at one point, and I write about it in the zine at the end. I was confronted with the memory of how the women in my family have been silenced, and how probably inside of me there is leftover shame, just over the years of covering things up and how I’m not supposed to talk about these things and how it’s hard for my mom because my mom grew up knowing she wasn’t supposed to talk about these things, and how it’s all buried inside of us like, even inside women as a collective, just that shame of pushing those feelings down and these memories down. So that was the biggest thing I had to face.

And even still, knowing that this story is out there and people are reading it, and they know all these things about me, it feels better knowing I don’t have to push it so far down anymore, that it can just be out in the open.

Christopher Fox: Had you ever had conversations with your mother or with other people in your family about the specifics of this before or is this the first time some of them learned about your experiences?

Ifer Moore: My mom actually read my journal when I was away in college…

Christopher Fox: With permission?

Ifer Moore: Not with permission. That is how it came became known about my rape. I might have also mentioned it. I think I had mentioned that I had been raped and then that led to her reading my journals and us never really talking about her reading my journals.

But I thought about that moment and I try and have empathy for her, wondering what it’s like for a mother to know her daughter has been through something like that but not know how to talk to her.

I moved past feeling angry that she read this to understanding that she wanted to know more. When I found an artist to illustrate the moments in my zine, my direction was that I wanted it to look like a girl doodling in her journal, because I have this idea of anybody who reads it to read it and feel very intimate like you’re reading somebody’s journal. It wasn’t until it’s already been out in the world that I realized on a subconscious level that I was trying to have this project look like my journal, like a second time my mom has access to these very intimate things and how I’ve collected them in my mind.

Christopher Fox: So it’s almost as if your readers are looking over your mom’s shoulder as she read this.

Ifer Moore: Exactly.

Christopher Fox: That’s really interesting. It sounds like it must’ve taken a while for you to go from anger, a very common and expected response, to having empathy and trying to look at it from your mother’s perspectives, from the difficulty that a mother might feel in having a discussion about this openly.

Ifer Moore: Yeah. I think empathy is key, because until you step back to try and see where somebody is coming from you don’t really know. It’s so much easier to just be mad, to just be mad and upset and to point a finger and judge that person. But if you take a step back and try and understand, you can reach a place where you have kindness towards where they were coming from. You can maybe begin a conversation instead of continue feeling like you can’t talk to somebody about it.

Christopher Fox: One thing I noticed in reading your zine was that, even with the difficult circumstances you describe, there is no villain in this story. Is that something you did intentionally or did it just surface as you thought through how to approach it and took this more empathetic approach?

Ifer Moore: While talking to people during those two months of me not completing it but knowing I wanted to finish and edit and put this out in the world, I shared it with a couple of people and they pointed out certain things that I hadn’t even thought of. There is a scene where I am talking with my family about a celebrity who’s been accused of rape, and my family members are offending me by defending this accused rapist, by saying cruel things about the rape victim. They’re doing this all in front of me, most of them not realizing that I am a person who actually has been raped, because I’ve never talked about that.

A friend I shared it with explained that in a way my family members are dissociating the same way I’m dissociating. Because rape is so awful, it’s easier for them to disassociate that person that they like from having done this, maybe, whereas I’m dissociating because I don’t want to think about the thing that happened to me and I’m zoning out to another world.

Christopher Fox: Did this change the conversation that you can have with your family and have many people in your family actually read the zine?

Ifer Moore: I only last week started opening a communication with my mom about this, and we still have not had the conversation, but we’re leading up to it. I’m less scared about talking to her about it and more waiting to see if it will help our relationship.

I have a much younger sister who’s a teenager and she has been really supportive. I’ve talked to her about my rape. It was important to me that she know that that happened to me because she’s close to the age when it happened. I felt like it’s time for us to talk about this. So she was another person I thought about, “oh I’m writing this for her, so she can know what it what it felt like for me as a girl.”

Christopher Fox: More broadly I know you’ve had some very good success in getting distribution, placing the zine in some of the independent bookstores here in Los Angeles, and I think you’ve been around the country. You’ve had some other good results. So talk a little bit more about what happened since you released, what have been some things that stood out in your mind as really positive outcomes from putting this in the world?

Ifer Moore: One of my favorite bookstores is Powells in Portland. I sent them a copy and they’re selling it now. That was huge for me because I’ve walked up and down those aisles, especially in the small press section. I’ve thought, one day I’m going to be here, and it kind of happened. That felt huge to me. And just that now people in Portland are reading it and it’s at a couple other bookstores, Bluestockings in New York, City Lights in San Francisco, Quimby’s in Chicago, and a place called People Called Women in Ohio that has it.

Ifer Moore: I feel like that even more important than just having it in bookstores has been the individuals who have read it and found me online, and thanked me for my bravery, or told me that they feel less alone, that they have similar family situations where their family maybe covered up sexual assault and nobody will talk to them about it. I feel so glad that my voice could reach those girls.

Christopher Fox: How did you get it to the specific bookstores? Did you send it to a specific person you knew, or what was the process there?

Ifer Moore: I looked online. Most of the time I couldn’t find an actual person so I just sent a sample copy. I sent it with a letter explaining that I’ve written this zine… Oh, I should mention that when I first printed it, I passed it out at the Women’s March. I explained that in every letter or cold call to the bookstores, how I passed this out at the march, and I carried a sign that said “Trump reminds me of my rape.

That was how I presented to the world, so I felt like the bookstore should know that story. I included that in the letter. Some bookstores got back immediately, some bookstores, I e-mailed them, they didn’t even get a copy, and they just immediately right away ordered a bunch. Then others, it took a couple of weeks, and I just figured, “oh, it got lost or they’re not interested, and then voila, three weeks later, they are apologizing for their tardiness and ordering copies.

It’s been very exciting to hear back. But I guess it also took a bit to just send it.

Christopher Fox: People are responding. You’ve taken this bold step to be very vulnerable and open about something that typically people are reluctant to share. It sounds like a lot of people have been open to this, whether individuals or some of the retailers you’ve mentioned. How else have people helped, either during the process or after the process, in a way as a response to the kindness and the boldness that you’re putting out in the world by doing this?

Ifer Moore: With one person buying it I’m facing my memory of my relationship with this person, and now that person will know this. I thought of it as baby steps, first it was the friends I knew were going to buy it, then it was friends from a long time ago, girls I went to church with or played soccer with, and then even guys I’d slept with and families I’d babysat for. But with every person I sent a copy out to, it got a little bit easier for the next time I felt weird about sending it to someone else. For instance, when my boyfriend’s family members started to support my zine and to buy it, I was faced with that fear that now they will also know these parts of me. But after facing that fear, I felt it was a little bit easier for me, to say to my employers, “By the way I wrote this zine…” and of course they were completely supportive. But even with that support, it was still scary for me to say, “oh hey, read this thing that I wrote,” which they were willing to and excited about and so supportive. It did feel scary but I’m glad I had the baby steps of knowing like oh this person from college or this person from 10 years ago or a high school boyfriend is interested and supportive all of a sudden and so little by little it felt a little easier to know that I could share this with anybody.

Christopher Fox: You’ve mentioned to me how you’re handling the proceeds from selling the zine. Would you like to share that on this discussion as well?

Ifer Moore: I would love to share that. In the zine I write about a moment where I was at Planned Parenthood and that was the first time I talked about having been raped and how I maybe needed help and counseling for it. They actually offered to set me up with free counseling and that really changed things for me and helped me heal. It wasn’t until five years after I was actually raped that I sought that help but Planned Parenthood was there for me and I wanted to give back to them. So with the zine, all proceeds are going back to Planned Parenthood. So far I’ve raised over $2000 for them. It’s felt really, really great to be able to give that back.

Christopher Fox: Now that you’ve done this, what other projects do you have in mind? Anything specific?

Ifer Moore: I’ve been I’ve been talking with a lot of people who actually read the zine and asked if I would collaborate with them. I have one illustrator I’m a big fan of wanting to work with me, and she does movie scene art. I’ve tried to think of how to best use that.

There was also a screenplay that I was working on with a friend about teenage girls. I have a lot of little ideas that I haven’t figured out which direction exactly they’re going.

Christopher Fox: I hope this first step puts you on the path toward one of those projects, or something new that comes up for you.

Finally, to wrap things up, let people know where they can get a copy of “Trump Reminds Me of my Rape.”

Ifer Moore: I’m selling them on Big Cartel under Ifer Moore, and they’re also in bookstores. You can find them at Skylight Books in Los Angeles, City Lights in San Francisco, Bluetockings in New York, and Powells in Portland.

Christopher Fox: Thank you. It’s really great to speak with you.

Ifer Moore: I’m really happy to be here. Thank you.

May the Circles Be Unbroken

Starita Boyce Ansari designs out-of-school programs for elementary through college students. She studies the economics of discrimination and education equity, equality and access, and she has co-authored two books on youth leadership. Her work in the fields of philanthropy and social justice has been recognized by Ford and W.K Kellogg foundations. Reposted from ECE Policy Works by permission of the author.

By M. Starita Boyce Ansari

The 2016 U.S. presidential election has made so many people angry, anxious, and divisive.  Our nation, particularly its children, cannot afford the hate and separation our educators are seeing in the classrooms. Bigotry and bullying are on the rise, intensified by the tragedy of what the Southern Poverty Law Center and teachers are calling the “Trump Effect.”  My own fifth-grade son fears that our nation has returned to the “Ruby Bridges Days” of hate.

I believe that, in spite of all the hate, hope shines in the form of a generation of 83.1 million millennials, who have been primed not merely to make America, but the world, a better place. That means more than one quarter of the nation’s population can catalyze change.  We must be willing to come together so they can realize the power of their voices.

The millennials and baby boomers are America’s first- and second- largest generations.  Along with countless other Americans, I have benefited from the civil rights and women’s movements. We may call them different names today (Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, Color of Change, etc.), but we share many goals—from environmental justice to trans rights to equal pay to corporate social responsibility. We have the time, talent and gifts to bring to this task.

To get there, we must be empathetic and open our hearts. We must break down the silos between us so that we can help each other.  From there, we must commit to making sure that compassion has a real impact. We need to create responsive intergenerational engagement within our communities. We must be honest, however, about the collective challenges that face us.  Millennials often express the feeling that the system ignores their voices.  There’s a wall of suspicion between the generations. The time for listening, learning, sharing, caring, and mentoring is now.

Among the greatest challenges is the focus of our educational system on “racing to the top,” at the expense of the whole child. When we erase experiential learning, we deprive our children of the opportunity to reflect on the world and be problem-solvers.  From prekindergarten to college, we have not done our duty of creating empathetic citizens who understand how to be responsive in their philanthropy and considerate of others’ cultures, mores, identities, and personalities. Those who are empathic and inclusive have witnessed acts of kindness at home.

Education can become the bridge to leadership, civil discourse, community engagement, and commitment to change. Actually, not only can it do so, it must! Through responsive philanthropy, our educators will open the door to a new generation of civic leaders.

Part of the process is moving beyond test scores and career readiness. Educators must integrate empathy, community, and citizenship into the curriculum. In too many places, the misplaced priorities of the Common Core inhibit student participation in the community. Test-centered teaching leaves no room for our students to learn, appreciate, understand and respond to the feelings and experiences of others.

There are many ways to accomplish this goal.  Giving circles have shown the highest potential.  A giving circle nurtures students appreciation and understanding of others’ needs, enabling them to come together to support charitable organizations or community initiatives for a set period of time. Their members become more aware of and engaged in the causes they fund, and learn how to make our world better, not just for them, but for all.

A powerful model, a giving circle melds responsiveness and altruism with community engagement.  This isn’t about a tax deduction—often the focus of millennials’ parents and grandparents.  It’s a replication of the model used by civil rights, women’s rights and LGBT activists, harking back to a time when people of a wide variety of backgrounds and interests pulled their time, talents and resources together to work for social change. It is transparent, responsive, empowering and collaborative.

Creating space for giving circles means bringing philanthropy and civic engagement back into the classroom. We need to be pragmatic and strategic in our approach. Institutions can start by piloting giving circles that integrate administration, student government organizations, students, themselves, philanthropists, parents, and other community members.

Most importantly, we must break down the silos between us so that we can help each other.  We cannot return to the “Ruby Bridges Days” of fear and selfishness. A movement of philanthropy, in the sense of loving one’s fellow human being, is what we need. With so much ahead of us to do, we cannot afford hate and separation.  I have a higher goal in mind. We all do. We must protect our children from these misanthropic forces.

We were born to work together, like a man’s two hands, feet or eyelids, or the upper and lower rows of his teeth.

Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness – all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil. But for my part I have long perceived the nature of good and its nobility, the nature of evil and its meanness, and also the nature of the culprit himself, who is my brother (not in the physical sense, but as a fellow creature similarly endowed with reason and a share of the divine); therefore none of those things can injure me, for nobody can implicate me in what is degrading. Neither can I be angry with my brother or fall foul of him; for he and I were born to work together, like a man’s two hands, feet or eyelids, or the upper and lower rows of his teeth. To obstruct each other is against Nature’s law – and what is irritation or aversion but a form of obstruction.”

– Marcus Aurelius

Replace New Year’s Resolutions With Annual Themes Instead

The phrase “annual theme” doesn’t roll off the tongue quite as easily as “new year’s resolution,” but choosing a theme for the year may lead to better results. For the last two years, I’ve abandoned resolutions, and I have found several main benefits:

  1. You can’t really “fail” at a theme. You can grow more or less mindful of it as the year progresses, but it doesn’t set you up to disappoint yourself or beat yourself up over an unmet goal. Goal-setting has a lot of power. I don’t mean to suggest anyone should abandon it entirely. But arbitrary dictates based on the change of the calendar won’t help you attain goals and may actually undermine you.
  2. In 2016, I chose “look up” as my theme. I can’t say that I maintained consistent optimism in the face of all the twists and turns of the year, but looking up, more positively, looking up at the future, looking up at a higher goal for myself–these thematic thoughts provided a touchstone for me through all the ups and downs of the year. If I had decided to resolve to “be more optimistic,” I wouldn’t call it a success and would likely have given in within a month.
  3. Actions make more sense with reasons behind them. Think about previous years when you’ve tried resolutions, especially common resolutions like exercise, weight loss, quitting smoking. You can’t just get commitment off the shelf as a pre-packaged “product,” which is really what resolutions like that typically are.
  4. If you didn’t succeed with your past resolutions, ask yourself whether you really anchored that goal on a deep reason – to perform better at work, to live longer and with greater health for your loved ones, to have more impact in the world around you. When you do have a deep reason, which you can keep in mind using an annual theme, you’ll do better with your goals.
  5. You can use an annual theme in many more ways. A resolution typically only applies when the topic comes up, even if it comes up in your thoughts often. You can use your theme as a lens through which to look at many circumstances, and situations. You can even use it as a mantra if you choose to meditate.

In 2015, when I chose “make” as my theme, I committed to looking at the ways I spent my energy and time in terms of creative output. It resulted in specific outcomes that could have been resolutions (write more, create more art) but also colored my perceptions.

For 2017, I am choosing “open calm” as my theme. It works as a noun phrase reflecting a state of mind that balances equanimity and receptiveness to others. I intend to go out into the world and engage with living beings in a state of open calm. It also works as a verb phrase reflecting concerted, mindful effort to unlock the calmness of others, instead of seeking to raise discomfort and anxiety. I want others to be able to join me when I open calm in my interactions with them.

As in past years, this theme aligns to and enables specific resolutions, but it also transcends them, giving me a tool I can use to set my intentions more broadly.

What would you choose as your theme for the year?

Regifting Kindness

At this darkest time of the year (at least for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere), we celebrate light, joy, and kindness. Many traditions make it a time of gifts, buying or making, giving and getting.

This holiday season, I find myself thinking about gifts in a broader sense. What gifts do I have to offer in my world, to focus my strengths and do what I can to improve the lives of living beings around me, however much I can? What gifts do others have to offer, talents and perspectives that I haven’t recognized?

In other words, instead of thinking of material, transactional gifts, I am thinking of joy-making, world-building gifts. We all have them to give. We just need to allow ourselves to give them, and accord others respect by accepting theirs.

This holiday, give to your heart’s content, but you can also commit to going beyond that. In so doing, you transform the idea of gift from an action to a sustained mode of being in the world.

Carry forth the light of a dark time into everything you do. Commit to give it, and accept it, as you go about your days.

Regift what only you can give,
again and again,
as you offer kindness to all around you,
during the holidays and throughout the year.