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

What Will You Choose as Your 2017 Theme?

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 three 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.

10 Kindness Imperatives for a New Era

Note: I wrote far too long of an introduction to this, and then moved it to its own post. Read the introduction here.

  1. Do what you can when you can. Every kind act towards another being makes the world a better place.
  2. Treat all life with caring respect. All living beings merit kindness and compassion.
  3. Set your intentions for kind actions each day. Kindness should be as much of a factor in your to-do list as importance and priority.
  4. Spend time each day wishing the best to people you pass. By adapting this time-tested meditative practice, called metta in Buddhism, you increase the well-being around you.
  5. Bring joy to each encounter. If you see a friend unexpectedly, or see a baby, or an animal, you likely feel a jolt of spontaneous joy, and you can channel the essence of that joy every time you interact with others.
  6. Ascribe only the best intentions to others. Even when you are in conflict with someone else, you can defuse “me or you” oppositions by not treating the other party as the bad guy.
  7. Dare to be inspired. It takes an attitude of open kindness to see models for the good in what you see, hear, and read.
  8. Value yourself. You need self-compassion, focus, and energy to be an effective kindness practitioner in the world.
  9. Give. Really, right now, find a cause you care about, and give them even a small donation. Do it.
  10. Never forget that you are the steward of your own world. The duty of your stewardship is kindness.

Rethinking, Restarting

When I started Kindness Communication back in March 2015, I wanted to promote kindness to achieve better results and greater focus in companies and organizations. I loosely imagined it would act as a spawning ground for a kindness-based professional services offering, a mix of training, coaching, and resources that would help people and organizations implement kindness as a core, lived value.

In the eighteen plus months that followed, I’ve learned many things, but most important, I’ve learned that a movement won’t start itself, and that an ill-conceived goal quickly becomes its own obstacle. I might have been able to state those lessons as a truism well before my experiences with Kindness Communication, but now my awareness of them is sharpened. I believe the business goal I envisioned has actually prevented me from writing and thinking about kindness to full potential.

Moreover, the world looks a lot different in December 2016 than it did in March 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.

In short, I don’t think I have time to wait for business inspiration to come as a way to amplify my voice. It is urgent 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 want to meet that urgency by writing differently, and more often. In order to do that, I have to put aside the business goal for now.

I also have to put aside the thought patterns I have absorbed as a career-long consultant who focuses on rigorous, fact-based work. I have to take risks and make bold assertions, even with little backup, and let my claims about kindness sit on the power of principle rather than of proof.

So, take all of the above as a long preface for my long-term readers to explain a change of tone and approach, letting you all know why things will be different from here on out, And with that, many thanks to those of you who have been following Kindness Communication to date.

Read 10 Kindness Imperatives for a New Era
to see where this new approach is leading.

Random Acts of Kindness (Guest Post)

I’m lucky to come across some wonderful people in my work on kindness. Recently, one of these kindness practitioners, Jennifer Wilhoit, reached out to me with a post she had written on how to offer spontaneous kindness to the people around us. She kindly agreed to let me repost it here.

RAOK: Random Acts of Kindness … Or, A Mini Primer on Kindness

Original Post

Kindness matters. It matters a lot. Being kind is not optional, frivolous, extraneous, or insubstantial.

A random act of kindness is: “a non-premeditated, inconsistent” action designed to offer kindness to the world.

Kindness has emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual benefits for the giver as well as the receiver.

I would add…

A RAOK shies away from recognition.

A RAOK is not imbued with an expectation of a particular outcome.

A RAOK is not always received when it is offered. It is in the offering of something, whether received or not, that kindness is added to the world.

A RAOK can alleviate stress, anxiety for a good long healthy moment.

A RAOK stretches a minute into an eternity, but does not demand any future engagement.

A RAOK does not concern itself – at all – with the many ways in which we separate ourselves from others (i.e. judgments, race, class, party, nationality, status, religion, gender…) for it is inherently unbiased and connective.

A RAOK joins hearts; thus, divisiveness is impossible.

A RAOK might never be remembered beyond the moment in which it is received, but this does not diminish its impact.

A RAOK is sometimes never, ever noticed or known by anyone other than the kindness-doer; it is still a kindness to and for the world.

A RAOK has a ripple effect.

A RAOK is soft and friendly. 

A RAOK has limitless manifestations.

A RAOK focuses a person outward – on others – giving their inner life a chance to heal, replenish, clarify, bloom anew.

A few possible verbal responses to a RAOK:

What are you celebrating?

Thank you.

Why are you doing this?

You’ve made my day!

Do I know you?

For me? Really?!

Or, the unfolding of a story about why this person needed this particular kindness on this particular day.

Or, the deeper unfolding of a much larger life story…

A few possible physical reactions to a RAOK:

A smile.

Giggling.

A Shrug.

Tears.

A deep sigh.

A hug.

The reaching for a hand.

Closed eyes.

A stunned expression.

November 13th is World Kindness Day: a global 24-hour celebration dedicated to paying-it-forward and focusing on the good.

February 17th is National Random Acts of Kindness Day.

I can personally attest to the power of RAOK! Just ask me…

Editor’s Note: You can find the full blog here. I’d especially like to note two other recent posts:

Kindness in Action: Gender, Power, and Expectations

People in positions of power can do enormous damage when they project their gender expectations onto others, and even use those gender expectations to wield power.

You can jump down to some thoughts on putting kindness in action to dispel that damage, or first read a few stories that help illustrate the point as a preface.

In my last year of graduate school, just as my own academic job search began, my department hired a new chair from another university. As with any year in recent memory, few schools were hiring in the humanities. Even landing interviews with “top” schools did little to make me optimistic in the face of tight competition and a shifting discipline that favored identity studies and non-canonical texts. After on-campus interviews, departments told me that my work wasn’t “political” enough. One department told me flat out they decided it would be better to hire a woman for diversity. I didn’t want to give up yet, however. I sought out my new chair for his advice.

I sat in the chair’s office, facing his desk and silhouette in the glare of sunlight from the enormous window behind him. I brought him up to speed with my job search, where I had interviewed, where I had call-backs. I asked for his insight. Sure, I could delay finishing my dissertation and stay another year, but how could I connect better with potential hirers? Some of the advice made perfect sense, if not seeming a bit opportunistic. I could pump out an article or two to appease shifting attitudes. I listened politely, willing to consider what I needed to do for professional survival. “But, you know,” he said with an oddly dead-eyed look, “you can’t get away with being so demure. It’s not suitable.”

“Ok, sure, well thanks for the input.” I scrambled my CV and papers into my bag and went out to meet some friends on the quad. They wondered why I had so little to say. One friend finally got the story out of me. “What an asshole,” everyone agreed.

But that’s not the point of the story. And that wasn’t the end of it; as I found out much later, the powerful mentor I had reached out to was actively undermining me on the job market. The word choice says it all. “Demure.” Not “reserved,” or “shy,” or “introverted.” And presented as something I was trying to “get away with.” I had been gender-bashed for not meeting his expectations for suitable male behavior. Beyond the casual slight of a callously chosen word, it stuck with me, became gossip, and harmed my career (where, that same year, I ended up getting a job after all, and left the profession for other reasons–a story for another time).

Fast-forward to some ten years later, and I’m in a senior position at a consulting firm, on my fifth promotion in as many years. In my annual performance review, my new manager talked about my strong performance, tripling the size of one of the firms largest accounts. “The problem is we all think you’re only doing it for yourself, not for the good of the firm.” I had toughened up a bit since my days in grad school, so I asked what that meant. What was the evidence for my performance having hidden motivations and what can I do differently to change perceptions? “Now you’re just being difficult. People think it’s hard to make a point with you. You come across as being kind of bitchy.” The discussion petered out quickly from there. Again, a seemingly casual word that spoke volumes. I was being held to account for some sort of invisible characteristic and again, gender-bashed with a mis-gendering term.

In hindsight, I’m perfectly happy to own “bitchiness” as a word used by people uncomfortable with my own form of toughness, and “demure” as my own way of listening attentively. In hindsight, these subtle gender-bashings only fueled my motivation and helped move me along to the journey I have taken since, a thriving company of my own, and a path that I make mine with my own ways of being intact. Without experiences like these, I would never have come to a point of focusing on advocacy for kindness in the workplace.

But, despite the good fortune I’ve had in the meantime, these words and moments show just how much damage people in positions of power can do when they project their gender expectations onto others, and even use gender expectations to wield power. The dynamics of the presidential election this year further strengthen my awareness of the way gendered terms are used to level unfair judgment. And finally, I was inspired by a recent piece my long-time friend and colleague Carol Barash posted on LinkedIn, which triggered my thinking about gender, power, and self-empowerment.

As promised, after my long run-up to the topic, here are several kind things I recommend people do about the gendered misuse of power and judgment.

  • Be mindful of the words you use. It doesn’t matter whether you keep these words to yourself or use them in interactions. “He is so…, she is very…, you seem…” Fastidious, bossy, difficult, take your pick. Are these words that embed a gender stereotype? In my examples above, gender terms other than the gender I present were used, but stereotypes about men or women are often used to police a gap between what a person is doing and what is expected of them. Instead, you can pause, think about how else that label is used in other contexts, and why you perceive it here, and whether you should separate it from your expectations of gendered behavior.
  • Step back. It can be hard to admit to yourself that you are using gender to wield power, especially at first, but you can start even by observing and reflecting on how gender dynamics work between other people. Try it at the next meeting you attend. What are people saying and how are they interacting with each other? When are they open or closed to others’ input and how?
  • Refocus on outcomes. Sometimes, gendered labels are shorthand. Underneath them, you may have a concrete need for someone to change what they are doing. When you give feedback, the onus is on you to stake specifically and actionably what you are asking the recipient to do or do differently. In fact, that’s the only appropriate request. Instead of holding people accountable for your perception of them, be clear you are asking them to speak up more directly in meetings, with specific examples, or you are asking them to soften the way they assert themselves, with specific techniques. Don’t hang hidden, mysterious allegations over their heads.
  • Recognize it for what it is. If you ever feel gender-bashed, take a clear-eyed look at what happened and why. In the same way that you can think about the gender dimensions of your outward labels and judgments, you can think about whether words used to you or about you come from a someone wielding gender stereotypes, consciously or not, in order to exercise power. While you may not be able to “fix” it, you can at least not torment yourself trying to address feedback that cannot, maybe even purposefully cannot, be addressed.

7 Ways To Be Kind To Yourself and Get Unstuck

I’m late. I thought I would write a new piece on kindness in the workplace last month, and then this month, but until now, nothing. I found myself writing “kindness post” on my daily to-do list, each morning rewriting it, rewriting it, starring and circling it, but still, nothing. I needed a way to get unstuck.

Over time, the disappointment became louder than anything else I might have felt about the piece, the elusive piece, whose theme I kept failing to catch when looking at my values and experiences. Even though I moved it to my next day’s list again and again, the prospect that I ever could, or would, get it done receded. The tide of motivation went out, exposing all the dead fish and debris of dread and failing to meet my own expectations. I even questioned my resolve to keep up this project.

Today, however, is different. As I looked at my day ahead, at my desk, sunrise coloring the sky behind me, I realized that I couldn’t write because I wasn’t being kind to myself. I had fallen into the self-compassion trap. I had stopped giving myself credit for all the hard work I do for my clients, for my dedication to my partner, for the time I spend caring for my two cats, for making myself available to friends. Every time I thought about writing the now dreaded “kindness post,” I let the fact that I hadn’t yet written it become the focal point, eclipsing any thought or passion for the topic of kindness itself.

By some sudden grace (yes, I believe in it, even with no apparatus of faith behind it), forgiveness came. I forgave myself for not writing, I acknowledged the task for what it was, and I felt not obligation but gratitude for all the relationships and all the beings that had received my time in the interim. I allowed kindness to return, not as an imperative, but as a gift, a gift whose benefits I, too, share. That was the answer to help me get unstuck. By letting self-kindness in, I saw the very topic I needed to write about was kindness to oneself.

I hope my long preface sets the stage for the rest of this post, with 7 specific ways you can break through motivation blocks to help you get unstuck by being kind to yourself.

1. Take inventory.
When you have something undone hanging over your head, you can lose sight of all of the positive, constructive ways in which you spend your time. Make a list of ten valuable things you have done recently and recognize yourself for what it took to do them. Even the smallest things you do depend on your skills, your authentic self, and the ties you have in this world. You can easily take them for granted.

2. Take action.
While you may not be ready to pull out of the procrastination-guilt loop quite yet, you can help break up the logjam by doing kind things for others and by directing kind intentions to them. Offer to help a colleague, do something unexpected for your friends or family, or help a stranger. I don’t have a scientific explanation for why, but it does somehow clear your energy and open you to the task that’s haunting you.

3. Take a break.
You won’t get very far sitting and staring at a screen, or paper, or a workspace. If you stay stuck in a working context, you may find your level of anxiety increasing, to the extent that you lower the chances you will find a way to start or resume work. Instead, just walk away. Read something unrelated, or even take a literal walk to change your surroundings and allow serendipity to take over and motivate you.

4. Take a shower.
There’s a reason why the idea that your best ideas come to you in the shower has become a sort of cliche. A shower is a place to relax, take time to do something for yourself, and let yourself be both distracted an purposeful at the same time. In fact, numerous studies on brain chemistry and brain activity tie our mental state when showering to increased creativity and increased likelihood of mental breakthroughs.

5. Take a picture.
You can overcome obstacles to motivation by making efforts to be creative in another medium. Even if you don’t believe that you need creativity to get your looming tasks done, the act of creativity can help you look at your motivation differently and find ways to overcome it. You can use the camera on your phone to capture an unexpected angle in your office, in your home, or somewhere in your daily perspective. Look closely at it and open yourself up to seeing the world, and your responsibilities, from a new angle.

6. Take solace.
You’re not the first person to get stuck, and you won’t be the last. This is not the first time you’ve gotten stuck, and it won’t be the last. You can reflect on times when you have gotten stuck, and unstuck, in the past. Tell yourself the story of how it happened and how you eventually broke through. Ask people you trust and respect to tell you a story about a time when it happened to them. You’ll find those stories can heal, and overcome.

7. Take care.
You may find that you start to beat yourself up over an uncompleted task. It’s entirely natural, and often gets worse the more committed you are or the more accountable you feel. You can, however, forgive yourself for not doing something that you needed or expected to do. Just remember that you are more than your responsibilities. If you let yourself off the hook for this, chances are, you’ll stop writhing and start writing, or doing, or working, whatever it is that’s blocking you.

Apply these 7 techniques, or your own variants of them. You’ll make great progress, clear the way, and find that they help you get unstuck.