Acting Together

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For its first two and a half years I was the “knowledge dissemination adviser” for the Acting Together research project. Based at Kwantlen Polytechnic University and funded by a federal Social Sciences and Humanities Research grant, the project’s goal was to identify “positive” characteristics that help Surrey, BC-area teens stay out of gangs. My role involved helping to create the project’s website as well as various other multimedia materials, including a video program shown on Shaw Cable TV. This week the project is hosting its “capstone” conference.

From the news release:

This week, over 200 researchers, policymakers, police officers, parents, youth and community members will meet to discuss how to reinforce strengths in youth that will prevent their involvement in violence and gangs.

Building on research conducted over the past five years, Acting Together (AT-CURA) – a federally funded research project based at Kwantlen Polytechnic University (KPU) – is hosting a three-day conference in Surrey that will focus on the sustainable ways in which communities can empower youth to make positive life choices.

Titled Youth Strengths and Prevention of Delinquency and Gang Involvement: Academics and Community Acting Together, the conference will present research, strategies and ideas to a sold-out audience on topics including: how focusing on strengths equips youth for lifelong success, how to build strengths in youth, the work of Acting Together, nurturing youth resilience and ending gang life. The conference will end with a moderated panel on bridging policy and practice.

“Our youth are our future. Ensuring their well-being is our collective responsibility. Parents, police, policymakers, teachers, front line workers and academic researchers must all work together to protect our youth from wandering down the dark alleys of a dangerous life in gangs,” said Dr. Gira Bhatt, the project team director and principal investigator of AT-CURA. “This conference will offer an opportunity to collectively share knowledge, research, expertise and experiences on how we can best target violence and gang-prevention.”

“CIBC is proud to be the presenting sponsor of this conference that is tackling this difficult topic head-on as it is only through the collaboration of all of our community stakeholders that change will happen and young people will be empowered with the skills and strengths they need to make positive, healthy choices…and reject violence,” said Mike Stevenson, senior vice-president and region head, B.C. and the Northern Territories, retail distribution, CIBC. “With a focus on helping young people reach their full potential, we believe it is by educating and engaging young people as they work through the many challenges of adolescence, that we will not only save kids from a life of violence but also build stronger communities.”

Keynote speakers and plenary session leaders include academics internationally recognized for their research, professionals with decades of experience working with youth, and individuals who have experienced first-hand the consequences of when violence and gangs meet a lack of awareness and education.

“The remarkable work of the AT-CURA project and academic researchers at KPU, in conjunction with the support and partnership of the various police agencies in B.C., and community leaders in the province, has resulted in the development and implementation of a number of gang-prevention initiatives in the community,” said RCMP Acting Assistant Commissioner Dan Malo. “By arming the public with information derived from years of research, we are empowering the community to take a stand against gangs, as well as deterring youth from falling prey to organized crime.”

Dr. Bhatt and Dr. Roger Tweed, co-investigator and lead research for academic studies with Acting Together, will lead the conference programs.

They are joined by the RCMP Chief Superintendent Dan Malo; Dr. Michael Ungar, an internationally recognized youth resilience researcher based at Dalhousie University and co-director of the Resilience Research Centre; Dr. Robert Biswas-Diener, author of several books on positive psychology for professionals, happiness and courage, and; Dr. Kimberley Schonert-Reichl, applied developmental psychology and associate professor in the department of educational and counselling psychology and special education at UBC.

Author Katy Hutchison will be the event’s community forum keynote. Now a professional speaker, Hutchison has shared her story of forgiveness at TEDx, and across Canada via print, radio and television. Her book Walking After Midnight: One Woman’s Journey Through Murder, Justice and Forgiveness details her journey through the trauma of family tragedy and healing. Hutchison has been an advocate for educating youth and communities of the risks associated with unsupervised alcohol consumption by young people.

Conference sessions and presentations will take place July 24 and 25. A reception and opening ceremony, with a welcome address from Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts and greetings from BC Ministry of Justice Deputy Minister Lynda Cavanaugh, will kick off the event this Wednesday.

For more information, visit: The conference program  is available here.

Acting Together received a $1-million Community-University Research Alliance award from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) of Canada in 2009. The project’s research has identified factors that potentially protect youth from violence and gang involvement, and has helped develop community-wide strategies derived from those findings. The KPU-led project has championed and led unprecedented collaboration between service agencies, community organizations, government and academic institutions across the region. Learn more at:

Kwantlen Polytechnic University has been serving the Metro Vancouver region since 1981, and has opened doors to success for more than 250,000 people. Four campuses—Richmond, Surrey, Cloverdale and Langley—offer a comprehensive range of sought-after programs, including business, liberal arts, science, design, health, trades and technology, horticulture, and academic and career advancement. Over 19,000 students annually have a choice from over 124 programs, including bachelor’s degrees, associate degrees, diplomas, certificates citations and apprenticeships. Learn more at

(Cross-posted at basil.CA)

Communications Exemplar: Gender Shenanigans

I was delighted today to find that my friend Snipey (aka Alison Gianotto), whom I met last Defcon, was newly conspiring with her friend K2 to create a blog they’ve called Gender Shenanigans, which, as they describe it,

. . . is a library of non-discouraging gender political plays. What does that mean? That means people addressing gender inequality in unique ways, using humor, snark, and other methods to educate people in a way that doesn’t make them feel like crap, but does demonstrate that their words or actions reinforced gender inequality.

We’re highlighting brilliant, positive, unique and fun ways people are pulling this off. We believe these types of actions have lasting effects, and encourage both women and men to look critically at the world around them, and the stereotypes and roles many people have come to accept as accurate – or that they never actually thought about at all.

I was pleased to find an example so soon (and superb) of the coyote communications tactics I wrote about last week. In many ways gender politics and sexism are a stagnant, stuck situation. Perfectly polite-but-assertive professional communications are proving futile, even provoking some pretty insane backlash. I love that Snipey and K2 are stepping outside of the usual prescriptions and instead inventing and honoring creative ways to turn the conflict sideways and upside down. I don’t know K2, but I know Snipey, and she’s always been courageous, outspoken, irreverent, and funny. She’s a born coyote communicator.

You can read about the inception of Gender Shenanigans on Snipey’s blog [warning: expect Snipey’s usual lovable profanity]. Or you can visit Gender Shenanigans directly.

Advanced Communications Tactics: Coyote Wisdom

I’ve been thinking about coyote wisdom. Coyote is a main character in the stories of many North American aboriginal cultures; he is a trickster, a wise fool who shows up when everyone’s taking themselves a bit too seriously. He transforms through disruption and often humor and playfulness, pointing out absurdities and hypocrisies. The trickster archetype pops up in many different cultures in different guises, but I like to call him Coyote.

Communicating like a coyote is a powerful tactic, but not one that’s typically taught in schools and universities. Unlike writing a cover letter or a recommendation report, there is no set protocol. Indeed, coyote communications operate entirely outside protocol.

First, let me give you some examples.

The Oatmeal vs. Funny Junk’s lawyer

It’s no surprise that Matt Inman is a master of coyote communications, since he writes the popular comic The Oatmeal. Matt had contacted the folks who operate the website Funny Junk after discovering his comics had been repeatedly posted there without credit. He asked them to remove his comics from from their site, and when that proved ineffective, he blogged and cartooned about the dispute. Funny Junk’s lawyer responded with a letter claiming defamation and demanding money.

This is where the story gets awesome. Undeterred, Matt drew a comic of the lawyer’s mom seducing a bear, and suggested that, rather than spend money making lawyers rich, it would be better to call the whole thing off and donate the money to charity. He began a crowdfunding campaign called “Operation BearLove Good, Cancer Bad” to benefit the American Cancer Society and the National Wildlife Federation. He set the initial goal at $20,000, which had been the lawyer’s demand, but raised over 10 times that for the two charities.

After some additional comical and sometimes bizarre back and forth, Funny Junk’s lawyer dropped the complaint. He still claimed victory, but it was quite clear to everyone else who really won: Matt Inman, bears, the American Cancer Society, and The Oatmeal community.

Deescalating a domestic dispute

The first chapter of Verbal Judo: The Gentle Art of Persuasion, begins with a coyote story.

It was the most outrageous way to bust up a fight I had ever seen. I’d been a rookie cop ten days when my partner got the call. At two a.m. we were dispatched to break up a nasty domestic dispute in a tenement on the east side of Emporia, Kansas, notorious for drug dealing and random violence.

We could hear the couple’s vicious, mouth-to-mouth combat from the street. My training sergeant and partner, Bruce Fair, and I approached and peeked through the half-open door. Then Bruce just walked in without bothering to knock. I watched as he strode right past the warring couple, took off his uniform cap, sighed, and planted himself on the couch. Ignoring the argument, he picked up a newspaper and thumbed through the classifieds!

. . . Bruce kept reading, and the couple kept arguing, occasionally glancing at the cop on their couch. They had yet to notice me. As the man cursed his wife, Bruce rattled the newspaper. “Folks. Folks! Excuse me! Over here!”

The stunned husband flashed a doubletake. “What are you doing here?”

Bruce said, “You got a phone? Look here. A 1950 Dodge! Cherry condition! Can I borrow your phone? I know it’s late, but I don’t want to miss out on this. Where’s your phone? I need to call right now!”

The husband pointed to the phone, incredulous. Bruce rose and dialed, then mumbled into the phone. He slammed it down. “Can you believe they wouldn’t talk to me just because it’s two in the morning?”

By now, the fight had evaporated, the couple standing there as dumbfounded as I was. “By the way,” Bruce said pleasantly, as if just becoming aware, “is anything the matter here? Anything my partner and I can do for you?”

The husband and wife looked at the floor and shook their heads. “Not really, no.” We chatted with them a bit, reminding them that it was late and that everyone around would appreciate a little peace and quiet. Soon we were on our way.

Dealing with Internet Trolls

A few weeks ago I came across an IRC (Internet Relay Chat) transcript [warning: language]  on the channel for the programming language Haskell. The person who tweeted the link to the transcript commented, “It’s hard to troll the haskell community.”

Here’s how it goes down.

A young man (presumably) who calls himself xQuasar shows up and begins slinging homophobic insults at the chatters and touting the superiority of Javascript.

They respond in unexpected ways:

“Wow…I suddenly see the error of my ways and feel compelled to write Node.js!”

“you might be pleased to learn that you can compile haskell to javascript now”

“I don’t blame him, I’d be this angry to [sic] if I had to write javascript all day too”

xQuasar changes tactics, but no one takes the new bait. “This is sort of like a puppy trying to be angry with you…it’s just kinda adorable to see him think he has any effect :)”

Finally, xQuasar admits his true purpose. “i just want to get kicked out of a bunch of channels for fun. . . why is no one cooperating with me”

“We are cooperating with you,” someone responds, “you’re just not aware that your goal is learning Haskell.”

In no time, xQuasar admits defeat — “alright i’ll admit i lose” — and actually begins asking intelligent questions about the language.


First, you have to recognize that societal (and personal) prescriptions and habits have got you in a stagnant, stuck situation. There’s no rational way out, because all parties involved have taken a fixed position and no one is budging. Or the rational way isn’t feasible. Of course Matt Inman had every right to pursue legal means against Funny Junk, but resolving the situation in that societally prescribed manner would have come at too high a cost.

Second, you have to be able to envision the creative possibilities that exist outside these prescriptions, habits, and rules. A less experienced cop in our domestic dispute story would have followed procedure, separating the warring couple and calming them down. Indeed, Bruce and the rookie had done just that earlier in the evening with a different couple under different circumstances. But Bruce was able to see outside procedure to the opportunity that the newspaper on the couch presented him.

Third, you must be willing and able to set personal importance aside. If the person you’re dealing with is still pushing your buttons, you’d be better off writing that angry message and never sending it, or taking a walk around the block and then writing a nicely worded, professional response. But if you want to communicate like a coyote, you must be willing to give that all up and risk appearing crazy, foolish, even clueless. You have to let insults slide, as the Haskell chatters did. And you have to be willing to see conflict as not just a zero-sum contest of winners and losers, but as an opportunity for transformation.

“We Agree”

“We agree much more than you think.” This was Niels Bohr‘s kind way of indicating profound disagreement with a colleague’s point of view.  The genial physicist knew that the literal truth of that statement – after all, all scientists would agree on basic mathematical principles, for example – would camouflage his rebuke and foster a continued, friendly dialogue.

Bohr was perhaps the greatest scientific and collaborator mentor of the twentieth century. Although his talks were notoriously digressive and hard to follow, his spoken manner was otherwise congenial, drawing talent to his laboratories and conferences. People responded well to him. The phrase “we agree” is an excellent way to indicate that your relationship with someone is important. A lot can be accomplished on that basis alone.

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On Being Forgiven

I began training in the martial arts when I was 17. I’d read George Leonard’s book The Ultimate Athlete a year or two prior and had fallen in love with a martial art called aikido. It was offered at my university by Shihan Bowen, who taught both aikido and karate.

One day in class he demonstrates the difference between the arts.

“Let’s say I have a student who wants to cause trouble.” He motions to his assistant to come at him with a punch, and demonstrates disabling him with an arm break but doesn’t follow through. “If I use karate to stop him, I break his arm, and I am not forgiven.”

“But if I use aikido to stop him,” he says, motioning again to his assistant, who throws the punch and is wheeled around and quickly pinned to the floor, “I don’t break his arm, and I am forgiven.”

When faced with a communication that you find threatening — a complaint or a conflict — do you strike back, or do you respond in such a way that you will be forgiven?

Image used under Creative Commons license from toosuto’s Flickr feed.

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