So it’s been awhile.

As a matter of practice, I don’t write here about my family or politics. But I want to change that for maybe one post. It’s my attempt to come to grips with what has been happening in the U.S. And I want to get this out there before I move back into writing and thinking about my work. I am feeling a need to discover how to connect those dots – what is happening here, my role in it, my future role in it through the work I do now.


A little over a month ago, my father celebrated the 75th anniversary of moving into the home where he still lives today in Dearborn, Michigan. He moved there, with his siblings and parents, on Pearl Harbor day – Dec. 7, 1941. He was 14.

He remembers unpacking the radio and plugging it in to listen to the news. People in the neighborhood sat out on their porches looking up to the sky for war planes. My grandmother – a big woman with a hearty laugh and an unshakable Catholic core – asked her kids if anyone knew where her Virgin Mary statue was packed, and to go fetch it. They did. She placed the Virgin Mary on a table, had them kneel with her before it, told them “we’re in for a rough time ahead.” And prayed.

In the days before the move, that house had represented a dream come true. My grandparents were part of the migration to the industrial north to find work. Their move from Kentucky northward and the years of struggle before finally getting a home are the stories of trying to eke out a life during the Depression. Foraging and hunting for food. Living in the garage of a relative. Taking work where and when you could find it.

Meanwhile in Detroit, my mother and her siblings were playing out a similar story line. My mother died of cancer more than 20 years ago, and except for the loving life she shared with my father, she did not have it easy. The daughter of Polish immigrants, poor, abused. During that period family for her, I think, was defined entirely by her relationship with her sister. That special kind of sisterly closeness, forged in just getting past every day.

Neither of my parents graduated from high school (although my mother did check that box in her 60’s by going back to get a high school diploma). My father went into the grocery business and ultimately owned his own little store about a mile from where we all lived in my grandmother’s home. Life was comfortable and predictable by the time I came around.

I share this because by no means do my parents qualify as coming from privilege.

Except, of course, they did. They were white.

How, I wonder, would their stories have been rewritten were they black? I can say one thing for certain. They would not have lived in Dearborn.

From 1942 until 1978, Dearborn, a city of 90,000 people, was led by a mayor whose segregationist views and policies were more aligned with the deep south than Midwest. “Keep Dearborn Clean” was a phrase I remember clearly growing up – a thinly veiled reference to keeping black people out of the city. The mayor – Orville Hubbard – once told a Montgomery, Alabama newspaper: “They can’t get in here. We watch it. Every time we hear of a Negro moving–for instance, we had one last year–in a response quicker than to a fire. That’s generally known. It’s known among our own people and it’s known among the Negroes here.” (Source: See Hubbard’s NY Times obituary for more).

Mental illness

I have a very close relationship with an individual who has a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. A kind, creative, smart and loving individual who has the ability to connect and engage with people from incredibly diverse backgrounds.

For the past 13 years or so, I have seen the worst elements of someone trying to live a life with mental illness. Normalcy. Then streaks of chaos. Psychotic breaks, substance abuse, recovery, trips into and out of psych wards. Disappearance resulting in missing persons reports.

Fortunately the streaks of normalcy seem to be extending for longer periods. The chaos, however, will likely never really stop. Yet, I know this individual can be, and should be, a valued contributor to the community and the economy. The “normalcy” bit.

But finding (and keeping) a job, finding (and keeping) a place to live while managing a chronic health condition that impacts the way you act, think and feel – that is a different game. And it is a game where you cannot reduce the strategy of winning to depending on individual character or perseverance or grit. We love stories of heroic individuals who overcome incredible odds to do something “normal.” Some of us like to think that, facing similar struggles, we’d have the grit to do the same.

I have seen what it might take to win the mental health game up close. It is a wicked combination that relies on disability payments, Medicare and Medicaid, underfunded social services organizations, free clinics, complex medications, family, friends, neighbors, luck…I have no confidence – zilch – that I could beat the structural odds stacked against me, if it were me who was mentally ill.


Two close members of my extended family are immigrants. My daughter-in-law is Colombian. A sister-in-law is Chinese.

My sister-in-law is relatively new to the family. She and my brother live in Michigan and we see each other occasionally. But I have come to know a bit about her story.

She left China after having been a student at Beijing Normal University at the time of Tiananmen Square (1989). She – and a number of her university friends – left for political reasons. They did so by landing graduate school positions (she earned her Phd. in Detroit) and eventually leveraging that education to secure a life, and their place, in the U.S.

I know my daughter-in-law’s story more deeply because I lived it. My son met her in a serendipitous moment at a concert in Chicago, when my then future daughter-in-law was traveling through the U.S. with two friends from university. He asked them if they wanted to come see a particularly American event – our town’s 4th of July parade. It worked; they came, and that parade now holds a special place in family lore.

My daughter-in-law and her friends returned to school in Bogota after their U.S. tour. The relationship with my son grew through online chat. Then followed a trip to Bogota. Followed by a move to Bogota. A proposal. A meeting of the families in Colombia. A wedding.

Fast forward to today: The couple live in Chicago, where she is finishing her medical residency and he is doing policy and advocacy work for a not-for-profit. When I step back and reflect on it, I think one of the things that I admire most about them is how they are each, now, of two places. For each, it is “both/and,” not “or:” Head and heart in Colombia and head and heart in the U.S.

I don’t think the value of either place is diminished by this combination. From my own (ok, biased) viewpoint, I see it as enriching. There is a very deep and powerful sense of social justice that binds my son and daughter-in-law in the work that they do and how they make decisions about their professional lives. That sense of social justice is enriched by the history of both places, the family stories and struggles in that history, and the current experiences my son and daughter-in-law share as history and family stories continue to be written.

It is enriched, for me, by being close enough to my daughter-in-law’s family to know some of their history. As my parents were products of the Depression, her parents and grandparents were products of the political violence of the 1940’s and 50’s that claimed an estimated 200,000 lives. They lived it. The decades that followed also included political and social tensions, violence, and (more recently) rebirth that are just not part of our recent U.S. experience.

I imagine, in my daughter-in-law and her family, there is a deeper, visceral understanding of the way politics, leadership and power can go terribly wrong. As well my sister-in-law.

I was not at Tiananmen Square. I do not have close relatives who lived through La Violencia. Nor have I faced the prospect of being a refugee. But I value having citizens living here who have that deep, in-the-bones understanding of what it was like to be in those conditions, and the toll it takes to struggle out of them. We need them to wave us onto another road when we start moving down a path their experience tells us is dangerous.


My point here is…well…honestly I have no fucking idea. Still trying to connect the dots between what is happening now, my role now and in the future.

I think I have learned to appreciate the complexity of struggle. How underappreciated are the impact of structural privilege or pure luck in overcoming the struggle of [fill in the blank here]. How over hyped is the role played by personal responsibility.

And so I am exploring how to better connect what I do, or the skills I might have, with how we might do a better job of appreciating the complexity of struggle, and working toward solutions which fit that complexity. This is in part an exploration of focus (what projects might have important impact?) and part an exploration of mindset (how might we embed this kind of struggle-is-complex thinking as part of everyday work?).

In the meantime, I am working on checking my own thinking about struggle, as experienced by others.

It’s no secret that I have progressive political leanings. That certainly won’t change. But if there is growth to pursue – maybe the path is in the common ground of the experience of struggle. My intent is to be more open to trying to understand the experience of struggle no matter where people are on the political spectrum.

In the meantime, part 2, I am open to new ideas on how to contribute, through what I know and who I am.



MSLOC 430: March 3, 2016 working-out-loud class session

On March 3 from 6 – 9 p.m. Central Time the 22 M.S. in Learning and Organizational Change graduate students in MSLOC 430 will be working out loud on Twitter during class (hashtag #msloc430).

This is week 9 of the 10-week quarter and teams of students are finishing up outlining and designing possible solutions to business case challenges that they’ve been working on during class for the past three weeks. The solutions must be based on some innovative use of enterprise social networking (ESN) technology.

We’ve looked for inspirations by examining a few innovative models of using networks to facilitate new ways of learning or doing work. These include models such as communities of practice; MOOCs and networked learning; personal learning networks; working out loud/narrating your work; crowdsourcing; open design and idea management; and more.

Tonight’s class (and the past couple of weeks) have been designed to push our thinking about the possibilities of ESNs. Not just what others have done with ESNs, but what we could do with ESNs.

Consider these as pre-prototype ideas. If we had the time to prototype them, we’re learn where our assumptions led us astray. But each would also help us learn more about what is possible with ESNs and undoubtedly point the way to something new and valuable.

So join us in this working-out-loud exploration. We’ll post more about the outcomes of this exercise at (where you can also read blog posts from about half the the class who have chosen to blog publicly).

And many thinks to the good folks at The Garage at Northwestern for letting us use one of their spaces for the March 3 class.

Post originally published on my Northwestern University NUSites blog

A new open experiment:

We’re officially live at

See this blog’s MSLOC 430 category for previous updates on work-in-progress and some history of the course I teach at the Master’s Program in Learning and Organizational Change at Northwestern University. My current experiment is the second iteration of trying to create an open section of the campus-based course.

Classes began on campus the first week of January,  I put a few final touches on and now we’re off and running. As usual, I have only a vague idea of where this will lead. But I really like the idea of evolving the open section of MSLOC 430 via a course domain hosted via Reclaim Hosting.

Ok. I actually have more of an idea of how things will evolve for the students enrolled in the on-campus course. I have less of an idea of how other open participation may evolve – how practitioners or learners outside of the formal course may choose to contribute.

Here are some highlights of where the design sits, today.

The course has two main work streams.

The first is an exploration of how enterprise social networking technology (ESNs) and social media impact work and learning within organizations.The “open” product of this exploration will be student blog posts, Twitter activity and social bookmarking via Diigo. Blog posts and Diigo bookmarks will be syndicated to A Twitter widget on the site will provide a look at the most recent activity via the #msloc430 hashtag.

The second work stream is to purposefully create some new, innovative model of working or learning that uses the capabilities of an ESN platform. The innovations will emerge from students examining case study situations that they bring to the course. The open product of this work stream will be an innovation brief published on at the very end of the on-campus course (mid-March).

I expect to see a slow but steady growth of student blog activity over the next several weeks. In part because we created formal activities with set deadlines.

I left it much more open for potential participants outside of the on-campus student group. A simple suggestion to join in the conversations through blogging, Twitter, etc. And perhaps help us review innovations at the end of the class session.

This is where I am really intrigued to see what emerges, organically. How MSLOC 430 evolves to be a connected course – and how it “connects” with learners outside of the on-campus student group.

Where will the energy take us?

Day 1 #wolweek reflections: Idea selection in a project-based innovation course

My goal for this year’s International Working-Out-Loud week is to make some headway on MSLOC 430, the course I will be co-teaching in January. Today’s workday ended up being dedicated elsewhere. But it ended on an interesting note.

We are a little more than 2 weeks away from the end of our academic quarter and closing in on the finish of a project-based course we teach at the Master’s Program in Learning & Organizational Change at Northwestern University. In this course we take 10 working weeks to use a design process to address some challenge faced by an organization. This quarter we collaborated with the YMCA, whose national headquarters are based nearby in Chicago.

Eleven graduate students were divided into three teams. They were briefed on the challenge by Kathy Kuras, Sr. Director of Organizational Change Management at Y USA, along with other Y leaders representing the national organization and several local Y branches. Essentially the challenge was to look at new opportunities to build off of an existing Y strength – its commitment to connecting with and having an impact on the communities it serves. Might there be new ways that the Y can foster community engagement among staff and members? I am oversimplifying the challenge a bit, but the essence is intact. The focus is community engagement and the scope includes both staff and members.

What I thought worth sharing here is what we’ve learned about the design process in a context such as this.

The teams spent about 5 weeks of class time doing discovery research to understand the environment at the local Y branches and different perspectives about “community” held by staff and members. At the end of the research phase, each team shared observations with our Y project-team collaborators to assess potential insights. All three teams shared the research base and the assessment of potential insights.

We then went into generating ideas. Separately – each team generated 10 possible “framed opportunities” that might turn into ideas worth piloting. In reality – most teams brainstormed many, many more ideas and then used various rubrics to narrow down their brainstormed list to 10 ideas. Most of the rubrics were variations of voting techniques – i.e., each team member had 50 votes to cast across up to 10 ideas, and could allocate votes more heavily to ideas for which they felt were particularly innovative or addressed an aspect of the challenge most effectively.

Three teams, 30 ideas. We presented them all to a panel of Y project collaborators, who rated each of the ideas on desirability and feasibility (feasibility to pilot at a local branch). The Y collaborators also identified at least one idea per team as that team’s “most innovative idea.”

That’s where we were last Wednesday.

From that day until today, the Y project team continued to assess the ideas and came back today with recommendations on which ideas they would like to see further developed in the last two weeks of the quarter. We went from 30 ideas to 8.

That’s the process. Let me share some insights related to the results.

First, we have a few advantages:

  • Our graduate students come from a wide range of professional backgrounds, resulting in us having a fairly diverse set of thinkers in each class and on each team.
  • As a general case, our graduate students have a knack for empathy. They are pretty good at putting themselves into the mindset of others in some organizational context (in this case, Y staff and members).
  • We are working with collaborators – the Y – who truly trust the design process and value experimentation.

But still – the results today follow the pattern with other projects:

  • Every one of the 30 ideas paved new ground. This is absolutely a testament (in my view) of the value of diverse minds, who share a common (professional) language, taking on a shared challenge. Diversity of the background of members of our student teams is vital – but so is a common appreciation and language for the subtleties of organizational and individual change (which is what we study).
  • 80% or more of the ideas where characterized as “things we could implement today.” Those 20% that were not were intended to be stretch ideas. What we continually find interesting about this result (which is typical of our projects) is that we do pretty rapid research. We don’t live with the targets of our change. We observe, interview, listen. I don’t know yet how best to parse this out – but this is definitely some combination of process and having people who are skilled at “organizational empathy.”





Re-habiting the working out loud habit: What I am working on this week #wolweek

It is International Working Out Loud week. Which is serendipitous, as it coincides with my usual routine of a) having a lot of half-baked ideas about how to tweak the course I teach that begins in January (#msloc430) and b) waiting until the last possible moment to put it all together.

So here we go again.

My goal this week is to bring closer to completion. The site is my first attempt to put out a centralized class blog that syndicates student blogs as well as other interested “open” participants – practitioners or students from outside my class who wish to contribute their thinking or work products.

The “work product” bit is something that I really want to address this week. In the course, students work on potential innovations for leveraging enterprise social networks (within organizations or extended organizations) to do work or work-related learning differently. After exploring different models of doing work or learning in networked environments – for example, crowdsourcing, personal learning networks, MOOCs, communities of practice – students think about combining and tweaking these models to create something new. For example: What would a model of learning look like that combined and crowdsourcing and personal learning networks?

The bit that I want to work on this week is defining a template or some recommendation on how we might describe these new models. What I’d love to end up with is a growing list of new ideas that integration different existing models of work and learning. But it should be more than just a list of combinations; it should define and describe a new “model” in a way that might be useful for practitioners who are interested in adopting it.

How much detail is best for that use case? And are there examples that use visual representations (as well as some text) that might be fit for this purpose?