Tag Archives: discussion

when “calling out” is bullying

A student in one of my classes raised her hand to say something about 20 minutes into a university class guest-lecture I was doing, then smugly told me she didn’t like my use of the words target and setting my sights on something, because these were “references based in violence” (her words).

I didn’t feel like it was a moment of enlightenment for me, nor that she was trying to be helpful; I felt like it was a moment to humiliate and to control. It felt belittling. And I admit that, later, I oh-so-smugly chastised her over her own use of the phrase rule of thumb, a phrase she didn’t realize is tied to an excuse for spousal abuse that can be traced as far back as 1782.

I can be petty. It’s true.

As I noted in a blog called Have I offended?, this and other incidents prompted me to put a slide called modus operandi at the beginning of all of my presentations. I tell the group there are no stupid questions, that I welcome all questions though I might not have all the answers and will freely admit such, etc. And I also ask for no GOTCHA moments, where an attendee immediately becomes outraged at something I’ve said. I ask that, if anyone hears me say something that he or she thinks is offensive to please raise a hand and ask me to clarify, or to take me aside at a break and ask for clarification. I love training and teaching, and if there is an obstacle to my overall message getting out because of something I’ve said, or a perception of what I’ve said, I want that obstacle addressed post haste. So far, it’s been a good strategy: it’s cut down significantly on these gotcha moments where there’s very little learning and listening – but there’s a lot of efforts to control, and often, at least a bit of humiliation.

This all came to mind as I read this outstanding essay, What Makes Call-Out Culture So Toxic, by Asam Ahmad. It’s from 2015. From the essay:

Call-out culture refers to the tendency among progressives, radicals, activists, and community organizers to publicly name instances or patterns of oppressive behaviour and language use by others. People can be called out for statements and actions that are sexist, racist, ableist, and the list goes on… In the context of call-out culture, it is easy to forget that the individual we are calling out is a human being, and that different human beings in different social locations will be receptive to different strategies for learning and growing. For instance, most call-outs I have witnessed immediately render anyone who has committed a perceived wrong as an outsider to the community. One action becomes a reason to pass judgment on someone’s entire being… It isn’t an exaggeration to say that there is a mild totalitarian undercurrent not just in call-out culture but also in how progressive communities police and define the bounds of who’s in and who’s out. More often than not, this boundary is constructed through the use of appropriate language and terminology – a language and terminology that are forever shifting and almost impossible to keep up with. In such a context, it is impossible not to fail at least some of the time.

I actually teared up as I read this. I so want to connect with my audience, or with other people at a community meeting, or my neighbors, on a human level, and for all of us to be able to treat each other with respect and openness. But sometimes, I’ve felt shut down by call-out culture, by people playing gotcha, and I haven’t felt like they were trying to be helpful or educational – I’ve felt like they were trying to humiliate me, to silence me. I love Ahmad’s assertion that “There are ways of calling people out that are compassionate and creative, and that recognize the whole individual instead of viewing them simply as representations of the systems from which they benefit. Paying attention to these other contexts will mean refusing to unleash all of our very real trauma onto the psyches of those we imagine represent the systems that oppress us.”

Ahmad cites Ngọc Loan Trần’s earlier essay to explain this further, and it’s also excellent at explaining how “calling out” can turn into shutting discussion down and shutting certain people out of a discussion altogether.

This isn’t AT ALL to say someone shouldn’t call out threatening, harassing, abusive, oppressive, dangerous and/or illegal behavior. Absolutely: call that out! It isn’t to say that there shouldn’t be debates about what is and isn’t appropriate to say – English is a living language, culture is evolving, and there’s no reason to fight against it, to not be a part of it. Sadly, there will be those that will claim anyone saying that calling out can sometimes be used as a tool for bullying is just an effort to stop people from calling out threatening, harassing, abusive, oppressive, dangerous and/or illegal behavior. I’ve already had two people say just that when I shared a link to Asam Ahmad’s essay on social media, and I’ll expect it now as I share this blog.

Particularly when working with cultures very different from my own, and working abroad, I’ve heard words and phrases that I felt were inappropriate, even hurtful, but sometimes – NOT always, but sometimes – I also know the words might be open to interpretation in terms of meaning, motivation and intent, and I need to ask for clarification to make sure I’m understanding the speaker’s intent. And sometimes, asking the speaker some questions, getting clarification and even saying, “When you say that, here’s what I hear…” is a more effective strategy to elicit a change in mindset than immediately branding someone as racist, sexist, etc. And sometimes, the person doubles down and they really are a racist, sexist, etc. – and now, I’m sure, and it’s going to be very hard for them, later, to claim it’s not what they meant.

One way of addressing with compassion an issue someone has for what he or she perceives as inappropriate words or actions is “calling in”, which means speaking privately with the individual, addressing the word or behavior without making a more public spectacle of the address itself. I have appreciated this very much when it’s been done with me, when someone tells me, privately, that this or that word or phrase may be offensive to some people and why that is. Sometimes I agree with them and alter my language. And sometimes I don’t. But I always appreciate outreach that comes from a place of sincerity and care, not gotcha.

Also see:

Has the Internet democratized engagement?

This week, I’m going to blog and launch new web resources based on my experience as the Duvall Leader in Residence at the University of Kentucky’s Center for Leadership Development (CFLD), part of UK’s College of Agriculture,Food and Environment. My visit was sponsored by the W. Norris Duvall Leadership Endowment Fund and the CFLD, and focused on leadership development and community development and engagement as both relate to the use of online media.

First up for discussion: Democratizing Engagement. Specifically: has the Internet democratized community, even political, engagement? To democratize something is to make it accessible “to the masses.” So, my answer during the presentation in Lexington at the Plantory, to launch discussion in Lexington, was, “Yes… and no.”

On the “yes” side:

  • People can access information they need most, like weather forecasts, communicate with people remotely, even bank and community organize, through text messaging on a simple cell phone. This has been revolutionary for people in the developing world.
  • People with even more sophisticated tools, like laptops and smart phones, can do even more, like access pension information, journalism-based media sites, business information, etc., apply for college or jobs, even run entire organizations and undertake a remote career.
  • Even before smart phones, when cell phones were becoming popular in the developing world, text messaging played a key role in political movements in the Philippines, in helping AIDS patients in Africa remember to take meds, and in appropriate amounts, etc. See this paper from October 2001 for more on these early examples. Handheld, networked devices continue to play important role in political movements.

On the “no” side:

  • Social media has been instrumental in reviving incorrect and, sometimes, dangerous folklore that interferes with humanitarian efforts, government health initiatives, etc.
    Negative consequences for the opinion-sharer.
  • Government and corporate entities are monitoring and recording users’ online activities and sometimes using the information they find against citizens/consumers to curb their rights or voice.
  • Many web sites cannot be accessed by people without the absolute very latest, most advanced laptops and smart phone.
  • The Internet has never been slower.
  • People with disabilities are often excluded from being able to access Web-based resources – the site isn’t configured for people using assistive technologies, an online video has no subtitles, etc.
  • Not every organization is developing online tools for people who use only feature phones and text messaging, and that leaves out millions of people who don’t have smart phones.
  • Not everyone is on the Internet.

And I’ll add one more to the “no” list: many people are made to feel unwelcomed online, to the point of their being threatened with violence if they don’t refrain from saying certain things or even being online altogether. #gamergate is a good example of this. Also see this blog, Virtue & reputation in the developing world.

Even with all that said, and the “no” list being so much longer than the “yes” list, I said that the Internet is playing a role in democratizing information for everyone, but it’s got a long way to go.

What do YOU think? Share your thoughts in the comments section.

(and I have to note that my favorite moment of the evening was when we went around the room to ask why people had come and if they got what they wanted out of the evening. One of the attendees said that, in fact, she was in the wrong room – she had come for something else – but once I started talking, she was so interested in the topic that she stayed!)

Say yes to filling out that online profile

I help manage the TechSoup Community Forum, for employees, volunteers and consultants that work at or with nonprofit organizations, libraries, NGOs and other mission-based organizations. The focus is to discuss challenges, advice and questions regarding their computer, Internet and other network-tech use.

Before I reply to a question or respond to any post, I usually click on the person’s TechSoup community profile (here’s my profile). And most of the time, the person’s profile is blank. That’s frustrating for me, not just on TechSoup’s forum, but on any online forum I’m a part of. Who is this person that’s posted a question or comment? What kind of nonprofit do they represent – what’s its mission or how big is it? Why should I adhere to the person’s advice? All of these are questions that get answered with a profile.

I look at profiles on almost any online discussion group I’m on at some point – that includes YahooGroups, GoogleGroups, Facebook groups, LinkedIn groups, or any other platform. I look at a profile usually because someone has posted a really helpful post, and I want to know who the person is behind that excellent information, particularly what kind of organization they represent. I also always look at a person’s profile before responding to them on any group if I’m about to disagree with them – it’s a way for me to know a bit more about where they are coming from, so I can craft my response carefully and appropriately.

I also have looked at profiles because someone has said something that has made me realize that I might work in a similar field, or be in the same geographic area – and that’s lead to some great off-list conversations, lunch, coffee, even professional collaborations. In fact, my profile has played a role in some of the paid work I’ve gotten (people see some of my responses, click on my profile, read more about me, maybe click on the link to my web site to learn more about my credentials, and, boom, gig offer).

I treat online conversations like face-to-face meetings; I’d never get up in a group of people and espouse all sorts of opinions or professional advice, but not say who I am, what org I represent, etc. Not unless it was a group where all attendees are *supposed* to be anonymous (like many self-help groups). My profile is my name tag, where I can say as much or as little as I want. Imagine going to a panel discussion on a particular topic, and not having any information on the people in front of the room speaking – no organization name, no summary of the person’s background, etc. – that’s what it’s like, to me, when people talk on online groups but don’t fill out their profiles.

For me, a profile with even just a bit of info – a real name, a name of an organization or a link to a web site or LinkedIn profile – equals credibility. I’m going to take that person much more seriously when he or she offers up advice or questions, because I know at least a bit about who that person is.

TechSoup has advice that takes people step-by-step in filling out their TechSoup community profile.

A lot of people want to stay anonymous in online communities, even those groups focused on their professional, public work (IT, human resources management, social work, arts marketing, aid and development work, community garden management, etc.) because:

  • Their employer (or the organization they volunteer for) would frown on such participation, even if it contributes greatly to employees’ professional development, because they see it as a waste of time.
  • Their employer is afraid of a breach of confidentiality or the airing of dirty laundry (but that same employer probably doesn’t blink at an employee going to a conference, even presenting at a conference).
  • They want to ask questions and offer advice freely, without worrying about any on-the-record association with their employer (or where they are volunteering).
  • Even if they wrote in very general terms, if they were discussion a problem in the workplace or with a client, it would be easy to know what organization they worked for just based on the kind of nonprofit they have said they represent and the city in which they are located.
  • They work somewhere that is a highly-desired workplace, and know that if they provide their real name and/or the name of their employer, they will be inundated with inquiries by job seekers.

If any of those apply to you, you should still fill out your online profile, providing enough information so people know you are for real and credible, but not enough information to be identified. It’s NOT difficult! You could just say:

I work at a nonprofit organization based in Kentucky, focused on helping the elderly. I’m in charge of IT.

I volunteer at a Red Cross chapter west of the Mississippi. 

I am a social worker at a very well-known, large nonprofit in the USA.

No name for you or the organization, and not even a specific city name – yet, each of these profile statements give community members a sense of the kind of work you do, and helps us to better understand the advice you offer or questions you ask on an online community.

The discussion about why to fill out an online profile – or not – is happening over on TechSoup. Post there or here in the comments.

From just a bulletin board to a DISCUSSION

Too many online discussion groups are really just online bulletin boards: a place to put up some information, but not discuss it. If that’s all you want from your online group – a place to disseminate information one way, from messenger to audience – that’s fine. But if you want more… what does “more” look like? And how do you get to “more”?

bulletin board / announcement board content:

  • announcements about events, policies, reports, new staff appointments, etc.
  • reminders about policies, events, reports, etc.
  • most content generated by 1 – 5 people; most staff & volunteers in the program don’t generate content (and may not even read it)
  • content is available elsewhere/is not unique to the forum
discussion forum content

  • people responding to comments and reminders
  • people asking questions
  • people inviting discussion or debate about specific topics
  • content generated by a variety of people, including staff members of the programs tied to the discussion forum
  • there is content that is not available anywhere else, meaning the forum is essential, not just a repeat of announcements from newsletters, etc.
  • unique content is essential; forum members need it for their work
bulletin board / announcement board method:

  • ad hoc, as events happen, policies and reports are created/updated, etc.
discussion forum method:

  • questions are regularly introduced, in a strategic manner, particularly when questions and discussions aren’t happening organically
  • specific people are contacted and asked to respond to a question, announcement, debate, etc.
  • discussion forum is highlighted (not just mentioned) during webinars, onsite workshops, onsite events, and attendees are invited to continue discussion on a specific place on the forum.
  • specific, current threads in the discussion forum are highlighted in meetings, newsletters, reports, etc.

Share your thoughts! And please see the wiki at http://knowledgenetworks.wikispaces.com/ for advice on how to make a transition from an announcement/bulletin board to a discussion forum.

Support Your Local Online Discussion Manager!

logoI’ve dealt with a LOT of debates and conflict on a variety in online discussion groups, and that vast experience lead to creating this resource on how to deal with such, especially for nonprofits, NGOs, government agencies and other mission-based folks. It’s one of the most popular pages on my web site.

Recently, an experience made me realize there was a crucial piece of advice missing on that resource. Here it is:

Support Your Local Online Discussion Manager!

When you, the Executive Director or Marketing Manager or Program Director, see your online discussion manager facilitating an online debate about something your organization is or isn’t doing, the temptation may be for you, the senior person, to jump in and start posting.

That may or may not be a good idea.

It’s a good idea if there is something you need to clarify that you can say better than your online discussion manager, particularly if it might relieve pressure on that person and allow him or her to move the discussion forward. It’s also a good idea if you see the manager under fire – it can be wonderfully motivating for an online community manager that is bruised from an online virtual debate to see your public support for him or her, and it can help for discussion group members see your faith in that person.

However, it’s a bad idea if you are seen as “taking over;” your posting to the discussion can disempower your online discussion manager, reducing his or her importance to the community. Why should the community look to that person as their liaison with the organization online, when you’ve made it clear that YOU are higher up and in-charge, and you took over the discussion?

If you think there is a different way to handle an online situation than your online discussion manager is doing, talk with that person FIRST, and if at all possible, have the discussion  manager continue to be the lead in facilitating the discussion. If you must post something, be sure to add verbiage that shows you still have faith and trust in your online discussion manager, and that you fully support that person.

Read more about how to deal with online criticism / conflict.

Share! Spout! Debate! Discuss!

You’re work or volunteer at nonprofit or an NGO or a government agency – some sort of mission-based organization. Or you want to.

Therefore, you have things to say, or ask, about the Internet, or computers, or smart phones, or any tech that plugs into those. YES, YOU DO!

There are some terrific threads on TechSoup awaiting your comments and questions, like:

GooglePlus – forcing users to use it?

UNV campaign: #actioncounts

Scheduling Volunteers for Therapeutic Riding Center

Library computer system needed for equipment reservations and checkout

Bohemian broadband & fossmaker culture

small nonprofit seeks affordable, reliable automated reminder call service

How to start a computer distribution program for low-income/needy people

Will Facebook kill your web-based online community?

Writing for the web

Which apps would people like?

what video conferencing tools have you really used.

Or start your own thread! You have things to say, to discuss, to share, to whine about when it comes to how you use the Internet, or computers, or smart phones, or any tech that plugs into those. YES, YOU DO!

You can also:

View the TechSoup community by subject matter/branch

View the TechSoup community by latest post


Your questions/comments re volunteers & technology

There are several topics on TechSoup right now that would be great places for those of you that work at nonprofits, NGOs, schools, government agencies – as employees or as volunteers – to share some of your knowledge, your questions, your confusions, etc., regarding using computer, handheld and Internet tech. Jump in!:

Just click on any link and join in the discussion with your comments or questions. Brag about what you or your volunteers are doing. Whine about what you can’t figure out. Ask a question and get help!

Registration required, but it’s easy and so worth it.

Nonprofits & Tech Discussions – Jump In!

Share a resource, ask a question, or offer your own thoughts about any of these hot topics relating to nonprofits, NGOs, libraries, schools and other community-focused initiatives over on the TechSoup Global Community Forum. Here are four threads on TechSoup that I’m watching in particular:

Tags: communications, public relations, engagement, engage, community, nonprofit, NGO, not-for-profit, government, library, libraries, school, schools, outreach, innovation, non-traditional, innovative, staff, employees, volunteers, civil society, social media, technology, microblogging, microvolunteering, micro, volunteer, volunteering

Three Cups of Tea Fallout

The media and nonprofit world is abuzz regarding the allegations against Three Cups of Tea author and Central Asia Institute founder Greg Mortenson. And they should be. There is no question that Mortenson has done a pathetic job of managing donor money. There is no excuse for his lack of financial accounting – I’m annoyed by his aw-shucks-I’m-not-a-nonprofit-professional-I’ve-never-done-this-before-therefore-I-get-a-pass attitude as anyone.

But that’s where my condemnation ends, at least for now. I think this is a nuanced story of misunderstanding, mismanagement and exaggeration – not just on Mortenson’s part, but on some others’ as well, including Jon Krakauer. Many of the accusations by 60 Minutes and Krakauer are as in dispute as Mortenson’s claims.

That facts and recollections are in dispute regarding events described in Three Cups of Tea, that one person’s kidnapping is another person’s hosting of a foreigner, isn’t surprising to me at all. It’s not even alarming. I worked in Afghanistan for six months. In that region, reality is in flux. Many people will tell you what you want to hear. That approach has kept many Afghan and Pakestani individuals, families and villages alive – but can make evaluation and reporting a massive challenge. This village member says such-and-such happened yesterday. Another says it happened last year. Another says it never happened. A perpetual real-life Roshoman. Although, really, I can’t single Afghanistan out for this behavior – have you ever watched Judge Judy?

It’s been revealed that a school Mortenson’s organization funded is being used to house hay instead of educate children. Some schools may not have been built. Some are claimed by other donors. None of that is surprising – I knew of a school funded by the Afghan program I worked for that was housing the local village elders instead of holding classes. I knew of a local employment project that had paid everyone twice – once by our agency and once by a military PRT, for the same work. Not saying it’s right, not saying you shouldn’t be upset when you hear those things, but you should know that in developing countries with severe security problems, widespread corruption and profound poverty, this happens ALL THE TIME. Humanitarian professionals are told again and again: give local people control over development projects. And we do. And a result is that, sometimes, local people double dip, or don’t do what they were paid to do, or exploit others. How do you stop that? Are YOU ready to go on site visits in remote regions of Waziristan every three months? Are YOU ready to be called culturally-insensitive or overly-bureaucratic in your efforts to ensure quality in development projects in remote places?

Let’s also remember that many people have criticized Krakauer’s own “facts” in his best selling non-fiction book Into Thin Air. 1. 2. I remain unconvinced that many of his accusations are true.

Do not confuse incompetence with corruption. It sounds like Mortensen was and is completely out of his depth of competency in running a nonprofit, and he deserves every ounce of blame for not remedying that situation when this was made clear to him – repeatedly! But I have yet to read anything that makes it sound like he, and his work, are completely fraudulent. Or even mostly fraudulent. By all means, call into question Mortensen’s accounting and call for a verification of results. I look forward to further investigations. But to dismiss everything Mortensen has said as fallacy is ridiculous.

Absolutely, let’s demand Mortenson and his agency adhere to the basic fundamentals of financial transparency and program evaluation. Let the line between his personal, for-profit activities and his nonprofit activities become thick and very tall (something Bob Hope never did, it’s worth noting – his USO tours and his Christmas TV specials were underwritten by the US government, and Hope profited handsomely from the television broadcasts). Let the Montana Attorney General’s office to do its job of investigating the finances of both Mortenson and the organization he founded. Maybe Mortenson should resign as Executive Director and become an unpaid spokesperson. Maybe he should pony up the salaries of one or two super-nonprofit-fixers to get the organization back on track (yes, those people do exist), and the board should hire a seasoned nonprofit, NGO or humanitarian agency manager to lead the organization.

Maybe when all the facts are in I’ll be calling for Mortenson’s head as well. But I’ll be waiting for the facts first.

Why does this concern me so much? This quote from Joshua Foust’s blog captures my feelings well:

Sadly, Mortenson’s good work is going to be overshadowed — possibly destroyed — by this scandal (albeit one that looks like it was largely of his own making). And the losers, besides wide-eyed Americans who’ve lost an unassailable hero, will ultimately be the people his schools were helping.

I care about Afghanistan, and I not only chide Mortenson for putting support for children there in danger, I chide people and publications like 60 Minutes and the Nonprofit Quarterly for making a judgment without all the facts yet.

UPDATE: New York TImes‘ NIcholas Kristof also offers a caution on claims that everything Mortenson has done has been a lie. “I’ve visited some of Greg’s schools in Afghanistan, and what I saw worked. Girls in his schools were thrilled to be getting an education. Women were learning vocational skills, such as sewing. Those schools felt like some of the happiest places in Afghanistan.”