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I'm participating in a learning experience called "Storytelling for Cultural Competence." The experience begins with writing and reflecting in a "Personal Storytelling Journal." The journal has daily prompts, weekly reflection questions and storytelling tips to help you get started on your cultural competence journey.

The second week of writing focuses on passion and purpose. As noted in the journal, by telling stories with passion and purpose, you’ll feel your connection to the “kinship of humanity,” and help others feel their kinship as well.

Your passion and purpose is also an important part of telling your origin story. David Hutchens has a simple formula for creating your origin story. Start with your purpose statement (What lights you up? What do you care about? What are you and advocate for?), then think of an event in your life that led you to that purpose. Finally, connect your purpose and event together with a relevance statement explaining why that event led you to that purpose statement. The power of Hutchens' formula is that it produces an origin story that focuses less on how you became who you are and more on why you became who you are.

Here's mine.

I light up when I see people come together, as equals, to work toward positive social change.

When I was 20, I got a work-study job at the public radio station on campus. The format was news and jazz and my first shift was "Jazz Overnight", 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. The music director pointed me to the stacks of LPs and CDs and turned me loose. He must not care, I thought. It’s the middle of the night, no one’s listening, so he must not care what I play. I pored over the stacks, knowing little about jazz, choosing records based only on their album covers. I played Coleman Hawkins and John Coltrane and Miles Davis and a particularly interesting-looking record, Tauhid by Pharoah Sanders. It was full of atonal piano crescendos and cymbal crashes punctuated by Pharoah’s honking and screeching saxophone. I knew it probably wasn’t “radio-friendly” but I didn’t know how to stop it. Should I just stop the record, mid-song, or should I wait it out? That’s when the phone rang. It was the music director. He wasn’t angry or scolding. He just said, that’s probably not the right record for right now. Just get something else set up, fade down Pharoah Sanders and fade up the new record. He was listening the whole time.

Pharoah Sanders, "Tauhid"
By Source, Fair use,

Until that moment, I thought work was something you were told to do. Something constrained by training manuals and policies. Thinking of work as something to be explored within wide boundaries, as something to bring your individual sensibilities to, changed my view of how things could get done. It started me on a path toward the belief that empowering individuals and loosely connecting them is the best way to produce positive social change.

That's my origin story. I'd love to read yours. If you feel comfortable, share it in a comment on this post. If you'd like to share it in a safer, more private space, join me in the "Storytelling for Cultural Competence" discussion forum. You can sign up at


Storytelling for Cultural Competency

I'm participating in a learning experience called "Storytelling for Cultural Competence." The experience begins with writing and reflecting in a "Personal Storytelling Journal." The journal has daily prompts, weekly reflection questions and storytelling tips to help you get started on your cultural competence journey.

The first week of writing focuses on self-knowledge. As noted in the journal, learning about other cultures occurs "through increasing levels of cultural self-knowledge" (Nakanishi & Rittner).

Each time I take the time to really think about myself, I discover something that surprises me. A few years ago, I did an exercise call "50 Facts About Me," as part of a Working Out Loud circle. The exercise is to write as many facts about yourself as you can in 3 minutes. It started out pretty easy for me. "I'm a dad. I'm a husband. I live in North Dakota", etc. But once I got beyond the obvious, it became more difficult. I had to start peeling back the layers that separate me from my past experiences. "I played alto sax in high school band. I've been arrested. I'm estranged from my parents." Some of those layers have built up as a result of inattention, but I think I've created others intentionally to keep my past at bay.

I had that same experience of peeling back layers as I responded to the prompts in the "Personal Storytelling Journal." Writing about where I grew up, my ancestry and my family's socioeconomic class have led me to explore the boundary between who I am today in my everyday life and who I am at a deeper level. It's that deeper level (my experiences, theories, and judgments) that support my beliefs, and cultural factors have influenced my experiences, theories and judgments. Who I am and how I act today rests, in many ways, on those cultural factors.

I'll share more as I continue the "Storytelling for Cultural Competence" learning experience. If you want to join me, follow the link above and sign up for the "Discussion Forum." It's a closed forum, where we can share this experience with others.

Storytelling for Cultural Competency

Starting Monday (August 20, 2018), I'm going to be participating in a learning experience called "Storytelling for Cultural Competence."

My colleague Jessica Beckendorf and I created the experience as a part of the upcoming 2018 Military Families Learning Network (MFLN) Virtual Conference focusing on cultural competence. When we started working on the learning experience, our goal was to get participants more comfortable talking about cultural competence in advance of the conference, but as the experience developed new goals emerged.

We discovered that developing cultural competence is a journey, something to be worked on over time, not just over a few days. We also discovered the connections between storytelling and cultural competence highlighted in the work of Jan Carter-Black. As a result, "Storytelling for Cultural Competence" changed from a pre-conference activity into a learning experience that frames the MFLN Virtual Conference, but also serves a a launching point for and, hopefully, a way to sustain your momentum on your cultural competence journey.

The experience begins with the "Personal Storytelling Journal," which provides daily prompts, weekly reflections and storytelling tips that encourage self-knowledge (an important part of cultural competence), cultivate empathy and connection, and provide a space to practice the vulnerability and authenticity required for cultural conversation.

Over the next several weeks, I'll be sharing my experience using the journal on this blog. I hope you can follow along, but I really hope you'll try the "Storytelling for Cultural Competence" learning experience yourself.

We've Tried That Before Book and Gift Box

Paul Hill and Jamie Seger are the editors and co-authors of the new book, "We've Tried That Before: 500 Years of Extension Wisdom." The book, inspired by T.J. Talbert's "Extension Worker's Code" (1922), features the insights of 30 Extension professionals from 15 states (including me!). You can order the book in a gift box at

This conversation with Jamie and Paul kicks off a series of podcasts in which we'll hear from several of the book's co-authors and discuss some of the important themes the book addresses.

I have been teaching in a way that suggests I believe learning is episodic. I’ve been designing learning events as discrete points in time with a beginning, middle and end, as if the learners had been intellectually born into this one particular session and with my final Powerpoint slide they will pass peacefully away never to be thought of again.

My actual belief about learning is that it is continuous and interconnected, that it is collaborative and subversive, but my actions have not lived up to that belief. This inconsistency between my philosophy and actions has been highlighted in my mind by “Bojack Horseman,” the animated series on Netflix.

I watched the first couple of episodes when the show debuted in 2014, but I never really connected with it. I think I expected something different from an animated show for adults, possibly something more pointedly “joke-y”, like “Archer.” I went back to the show last year on the recommendation of my son. What I found, after sticking with it for more than a couple episodes, was funny, dark, beautiful, sad and thoughtful.

In his excellent video essay about the show, Will Schroder argues that one of the things that makes “Bojack Horseman” so good is the fact that it is serialized, not episodic. Instead of resolving the problem or question of each episode in that same episode like most sitcoms, it “shows life going on with all its complexity and uncertainty.”

Schroder, using “Bojack Horseman” creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s own words, makes the case that stories that give us fully-resolved endings lead us to chase endings of our own where everything will make sense. Instead of endings, life gives us a series of positive and negative moments in time.

By focusing on those positive and negative moments, Schroder says, “Bojack Horseman” asserts that “happiness is ephemeral. There is no one thing, or experience or person that is going to make us permanently happy. The best we can hope for is temporary happiness.”

I think it’s the same with teaching and learning. There is no one course or workshop that will result in us achieving our learning goals or in us becoming a better or more learned person. Teaching and learning are a series of positive and negative moments to be experienced, connected and leveraged in an effort to take better care of each other.

So, how can I practice teaching and learning in a way consistent with this philosophy? I’m not exactly sure, but I can take another lesson from “Bojack Horseman.”

“It gets easier. Everyday it gets a little easier, but you’ve got to do it everyday. That’s the hard part, but it does get easier.” - Jogging Baboon

Featured image: "Lisa Hanawalt" by Rachel Lovinger CC BY-NC


In his post, "Principles for engaging human systems for wellbeing and innovation in a connected world," Jeremy Scrivens shared what he has learned from Margaret Wheatley, including her 10 Principles for Healthy Communities.

Principle #3 struck me, "Conversation is the way human beings have always thought together." It makes sense. We've been talking to each other for 1.75 million years, give or take. So why do we suck at it?

A couple of years ago, Steve Judd put me onto a paper that highlighted how bad we are at conversation, why we're so bad, and what we can do about it.

Ed Gallagher is a professor in English at Lehigh University. A dozen or so years ago, he hoped that online discussion boards would solve his students' inability to talk to each other. He found that the technology alone did not magically make his students competent social communicators, but he did find a way to teach them conversation.

Gallagher's paper, "Teaching Students to Talk to Each Other: Improving the Discussion Board," is full of great insights about conversation.

Gallagher explains why we suck at conversation: "our culture almost exclusively values, practices and rewards closure and competition and winning, precisely what should be suspended in discussion." Just today, in the midst of a rich conversation with a colleague, I apologized for being unproductive. I felt if I wasn't clearly moving us toward the stated goal of the meeting, then I wasn't adding value. We want to achieve closure, to produce a result, to check the unchecked box. Deep conversation may not generate checked boxes, but it does foster creativity, collaboration and innovation.

Gallagher combated the values of the predominant culture by growing a new culture built around the idea that "Conversation makes us colleagues. Community is job one." How would such a vision change your organization? What would happen if our relationships to each other were more important than the unfinished project of the unfiled report? Jeremy Scrivens shared that Margaret Wheatley led him to the insight that how we relate to each other is actually the most important thing, "It was Meg who opened my eyes to see enterprises - not as hierarchical constructs or work processes with people as operators of these processes - but as living human systems in relationship with each other."

"The art of writing on the discussion board is to keep the conversation going," Gallagher wrote. He used the metaphor of an noncompetitive racquetball game to explain this to his students.

Instead of a typical racquetball game where each participant is trying to win, Gallagher asked his students to imagine a game where each participant's only goal was to extend the rally as long as possible. In the discussion board, students were encouraged to avoid behaviors that would end the "rally." Comments like "Great point!" might be validating but they don't extend the conversation. Neither do replies explaining how the previous post was completely wrong. The point is not to hit the unreachable shot in the corner, but hit a shot that stretches your opponent but allows the rally to continue.

Gallagher offers some strategies for giving discussions "legs:"agreeing (The improv tenant "Yes, and" should be kept in mind. The point is not just to agree but to agree and add on), questioning, enhancing, answering, building, disagreeing, weaving, re-directing and re-thinking.

So let's stop sucking at conversation. Let's use some of the strategies Gallagher suggests. Let's start avoiding, rather than seeking closure. Instead of focusing on our ideas winning, let's try to extend the rally. If, as Margaret Wheatley said, "...very great change starts from very small conversations, held among people who care," our future depends on it.

Image: Arthur Blythe at a Concert at the North Sea Jazz Festival 1989 with "The Leaders" by Alephalpha (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Arthur Blythe died this spring.

He was a saxophonist who easily jumped between more traditional jazz and the avant-garde. His recording Lenox Avenue Breakdown is considered a near classic, but he was no superstar. He was best as part of the collective.

I was introduced to jazz through the neo-classicism of Wynton Marsalis, so when I stumbled into the stacks of LPs at my college radio station, I gravitated towards the classics of swing and bebop. That changed in 1990 when I heard Metamorphosis.

Arthur Blythe released the world music-inspired album as part of the World Saxophone Quartet, It was a critical disappointment, but it opened my ears to a style of music grounded in collective improvisation. It was music not exactly with no rules, but with new rules. A year later, Don Cherry released Multikulti which eventually led me back to his work with new jazz progenitor Ornette Coleman, and my worldview officially changed.

Like so many American boys, I had been steeped in the culture of the hero, the exceptional individual, the lone genius. Despite it's roots as an ensemble music, jazz had not challenged that view. It's supreme soloists and tortured geniuses have largely overshadowed the story of jazz as the most collaborative of musical genres. The story of jazz is based in the belief that the community is more important than the individual, even the individual genius.

Metamorphosis revealed that to me. Along with Milman Parry's  oral-formulaic composition theory of epic poetry, it planted the seed in my mind that would grow into my interest in human networks, cooperation and collaboration.

The music of Arthur Blythe, Don Cherry, and Ornette Coleman is the music of flocking birds. In Emergent Strategy, Adrienne Maree Brown writes, "There is an art to flocking: staying separate enough not to crowd each other, aligned enough to maintain a shared direction, and cohesive enough to always move toward each other."

I'm not sure there is a better description of collective jazz improvisation or of collective action networks.

At the National eXtension Conference in 2004, Harold Jarche introduced me to the "triangles" exercise (sidebar: Here's a panel session I moderated at that conference with Harold, Dave Gray, Jane Hart and Beth Kanter).

Here's how it works. You take a room full of people (having more than 20 or so makes it more effective) and tell them to arrange themselves in equilateral triangles with a person at each point. Here's the catch. They need to do it without speaking. Each person silently picks out 2 other people to make a triangle with, but those people don't know they've been chosen. They are trying to make a triangle, likely with 2 other people they've selected. So as each person moves another person must adjust to that movement to keep an equal distance between them and a third person. Once they have formed their triangle, they stop.

It sounds complex, and it is. The main takeaway is that a group of people, with positive intent, can accomplish just as much or more through silent cooperation than by putting someone in charge. At a workshop in Nebraska, Harold, Karen Jeannette, Steve Judd and I, conducted the "triangles" exercise by putting one person in charge of arranging everyone into equilateral triangles, then having them do it again silently without anyone in charge. We did it at the end if day 1 of a 2-day workshop, and we didn't explain why we had them do the exercise until the next morning. People were confused and some were a little pissed, which made me nervous, but Harold thought the uncertainty was great.

Last week, Karen Jeannette and I did the "triangles" exercise with the participants in our pre-conference workshop, "Working out loud: opening doors to personal and community change." at the NACDEP/CDS Conference. As we prepared for the workshop, we talked about some of the other lessons of the "triangles" exercise.

  • Alignment: To make the "triangles" exercise work, everyone has to understand the task. If someone doesn't hear all the instructions or doesn't understand them, the exercise will fail. This is a powerful lesson for those of us seeking to collaborate with others. We need to have a shared understanding of what we are trying to accomplish, what problem we are trying to solve. We also need to have agreed upon rules. I was recently collaborating with 3 other people on the script for an ignite talk. We agreed on the content, but we had a really hard time deciding the best process. Should we write the script and worry about the timing of the delivery later or should we try write 15-seconds of text for each slide or should we try do both at the same time? We were aligned on the problem we were trying to solve, but we had not aligned on the rules and process for solving it. In the end, we just appointed one person to write the script.
  • Positive Intent: I've heard Harold Jarche point out during the "triangles" exercise that it works because everyone enters into it with positive intent. Any individual participant could blow the whole thing up by staying in constant, random motion, causing anyone who is trying to align with them to stay in motion, which in turn causes anyone trying to align with that person to keep moving and so on. Collaboration only works if everyone comes to the table with positive intent, and it helps if everyone can also assume positive intent from others.
  • Standing Still: As mentioned above, if someone just keeps moving, it's difficult to align with them. In the "triangles" exercise, when you move slowly or stand still it allows others to adjust their positions and align with you. If we want people, especially those we don't already know, to connect with us, we need to stand still. If you're quickly moving from project to project, chasing the next item on your to-do list and putting out fires, how can people see where you are and connect with you ? We need to stand still to allow people to align with us. Standing still means declaring your intent and sharing who you are, what you're working on and what you care about. Standing still allows others to adjust their position to yours and look for opportunities for connection and collaboration.

Like almost everyone I've ever met, I have a to-do list that never seems to be completed, and crises to address and avert, but I'm working on finding more time and ways to stand still.I'm trying to stand still by writing this blog. I also include personal "mission statements" in my Twitter bio and LinkedIn summary. I hope you can see me and, if you want to, adjust your position, connect with me and explore making meaning together.


When I discovered kaptainkristian's YouTube channel earlier this year, I veraciously tore through every video he had posted. His pop culture video essays appeal to my cultural sensibilities. Bugs Bunny re-runs are soundly in my wheelhouse. "Batman:The Animated Series" echoed through my early 90's college years, and my kids have introduced me to Toonami, Pokemon and Gorillaz.

But there was something more in kaptainkristian's skillful editing, meticulous production and heartfelt writing, something I couldn't quite put my finger on. Early on I jotted down what I thought it was, "there's an art to curation. It comes from a genuine love of the material and the craft of curation, as well as a meaningful relationship with the audience." What kaptainkristian does is not really curation, however. It's more like passionate, thoughtful celebration, and that passion sets the work apart.

It was one of kaptainkristian's video essays that got me closer to why they were having such an impact on me.

In the video "Who Framed Roger Rabbit? - The 3 Rules of Living Animation," kaptainkristian talks about "bumping the lamp." There's a scene in the film where Eddie, a real-life character played by Bob Hoskins, is trying to remove the handcuffs that are binding him to the animated rabbit, Roger. As kaptainkristian points out, the scene would have been fine without any lighting changes. Hell, in 1988, having a real character interact with an animated character as seamlessly as they do in "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" was a pretty brilliant achievement on its own.  But the filmmakers didn't stop there.

For no particular reason during the scene, Eddie bumps the hanging lamp. For the rest of the scene light and shadow are thrown everywhere. It's doesn't serve the plot. It's not even good for a laugh. All it does is make the filmmakers' jobs harder. Try to imagine how hard it was to put a real character and animated character in the same scene, to light them evenly, to make them interact believably. Bumping the lamp made all those things much harder than they already were and created a lot of extra work for the animators, but it also made the scene iconic.

"Bumping the lamp" is going the extra mile. It's challenging yourself, pushing your limits, and showing your passion for and dedication to your work.

That's what kaptainkristian does in all of his videos. He could deliver his essays over the video clips and still images common to many pop culture video essays and listicles. Instead he puts in the time and work necessary to challenge himself, push his limits and show his passion for his subjects. The results are incredible moments of insight and brilliance.

It's that brilliance that I find lacking in my own work. I've spent most of my career in the non-profit and public sectors, but still most of my work has been ruled by the quest for efficiency, ROI and satisficing. In short, I've mostly tried to avoid bumping the lamp.

Early in my career, I worked at a public radio station on a college campus. I would sometimes spend more hours picking the music for a show than I spent actually broadcasting. I would see if I could construct a 3-hour music shift around a single narrative theme or if I could create a show stringing together biographical connections between each artist. Sometimes the results were disastrous, but sometimes I found moments of brilliance.

I'm much older now, and my time, focus and energy seem to be in shorter supply. I have an organization, a supervisor and colleagues whom I'm responsible to. I have every reason to chase efficiency as hard as I ever have. So....

Fuck it. I'm bumping the lamp.

Cooperative Extension is making a difference, but does it show?

I talked with Dena Wise from The University of Tennessee Extension about that very question. Dena authored the Journal of Extension commentary, "Evaluating Extension Impact on a Nationwide Level: Focus on Programs or Concepts?"