Cosmic Connections, Lessons, and Some Blessings from the Social Web

I’ve written many times about how the social web is teaching us and opening us up to a greater understanding of ourselves and the world we live in. This week, I witnessed first hand the power of relationships, the immediacy of the social web, and learned a great lesson in tolerance and understanding, and dare I say, faith? I’ve written a few times casually about how I’ve been personally affected by the downturn in the economy. As a result of my own economic crisis, I was turned down as a worthy co-signer for Amie’s student loans. Mostly I have felt awful about the prospect that I would be the one, in the end, who stood in the way of Amie’s dream of going to New York University. Of course University of Texas, Austin is an excellent school, but Amie’s heart already moved into the dorms at NYU. For good reason, she convinced me over the past few months NYU is where she belongs and where she aims to fulfill her lifelong ambition to contribute toward improving our imperfect world.

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Last week, Amie graduated with honors from Westwood High School. Here she is pictured at the Erwin Center donning her IB bling. I forced her to stand with the Capitol Dome in the background to snap this photo. You can see how enthusiastic she is by her expression about the prospect of linking her graduation to Texas and UT. The reward of graduating from such a difficult school in such a competitive program was eclipsed by the heart-breaking disappointment that Amie would not be returning East to continue on her academic journey. To Amie’s credit, she accepted her fate and began to let her friends in the Northeast know she would be staying in Austin.

On Friday, last week, I was “facebooking.” A friend asked me a question on my wall regarding where Amie would be going in the fall. The difficulties we’d been having had been chronicled on my Facebook page for months, so a wide range of my friends were curious about Amie’s ultimate college decision. When I responded to my friend that we were unable to send Amie to NYU and she’d have to attend UT Austin in the fall, I received a pop-up IM from another friend who was on Facebook at that moment. That friend was Greg Grosh. He asked me why Amie couldn’t go to NYU, and I explained all the details over IM. Greg’s reply? “I’ll be happy to co-sign Amie’s student loans.” My knee-jerk response: “Are you fking kidding me???”

As it turns out Greg, who is in what he calls his “second retirement” is affiliated with The Point Foundation which “provides scholarships, mentorship, leadership training and hope for students of merit who have been marginalized due to sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.” Greg is helping a few kids get through school and is willing to help Amie too. This news floored me on a few levels. First of all, the cosmic connection here is Amie is more connected to gay friends and family than anyone I know. Her father is gay, in fact. I’ve always been mildly uncomfortable with the gay community that surrounds Amie.  Greg’s generous offer has forced me to take a hard look at my own repressed intolerance. Reading the literature on the Point Foundation’s web site has done me a world of good. I encountered something similar (via Facebook again) a few months ago relative to racism. Who knew I was a racist?

The SocialWeb that connects us is breaking down the ignorant walls that divide us. I’m living proof of the power of the SocialWeb to challenge our entrenched, stereotypical, ignorant biases by exposing us to new ideas and new freedoms. The second meaningful outcome relative to Amie’s new opportunity is related to generational poverty. Getting Amie to NYU is symbolic to me. Although I’m certain Amie would have done well at UT, the opportunity to attend a private university should break the cycle of generational poverty that has been shadowing my particular branch of the family tree. I was the first one to attend college in my immediate family, although I never completed my education. There have been many debates over the value of a good education. I could probably argue both sides persuasively. My most convicted arguments would fall on the side of pro formal education, however. It’s taken a lifetime of “breaking the rules” to understand this, but in this new era of social mobility and connection, I believe it now more than ever. Further, if this is the generation that is going to finally set things right, they’ll need all the ammunition they can stockpile. And the reinforcements they’ll need will come in the shape of empathy, knowledge, and compassion for those people and places that exist outside of our comfort zone.

So, congratulations Amie. You’re going to NYU. Thank you Greg for your generosity, and thank you Mark Zuckerberg for keeping us connected and integrating our public and private lives. Oh, the biggest news here is Amie finally signed up for Facebook. My rebellious day-dream believer is now a digizen.

Finding Happiness in Selflessness

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I always like to hear the story (although I’m not sure it’s still in effect) about how Google permits its employees to dedicate 20% of their time to pursuing creative and innovative work of their own choosing. Here at the newly launched SoCo Partners, we’re instituting 20% time not for innovation, but for pursuing civic activism. I’ve chosen domestic and international poverty as my issue. Here in Austin, there are many ways you can contribute to helping the less fortunate. Here are a few causes I am involved with or with which I am planning to be involved:1. For the past two years, my daughter and I have participated in Operation Turkey on Thanksgiving. Bryan Menell turned me onto this from Facebook when we first arrived in Austin. We love doing it. Every year it grows and is more impressive. I plan to do this forever more. Wonderful way to give thanks.2. I’ve recently become involved with Mobile Loaves and Fishes. Last Friday I saw an Austin screening of “Happiness Is,” a beautiful and moving documentary by Andrew Shapter, a local Austin film-maker. Alan Graham, founder of Mobile

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Loaves and Fishes is featured generously in the film and participated afterward in a live panel discussion with the director. Alan said a number of things that completely changed my worldview regarding the homeless. In Austin we have many intersections where folks hold cardboard signs looking for help. The individuals are as varied as the messages they broadcast to the uncomfortable drivers waiting for the light to change (hurry light!… don’t make eye contact!). I’ve committed to helping Mobile Loaves and Fishes in any way I can apply my hands and heart and possibly socialweb and collaboration know-how to helping their cause. We are cooking up a fun project for SXSW called “Twegg.” Details are still being worked out, and I will be blogging on that shortly. Be sure to plan to attend Jon Lebkowsky’s Plutopia Monday night, March 16, which will showcase a large part of the initiative. Information on Mobile Loaves and Fishes (MLF) is available on their web site. Please considering donating.3. I met Tina Williamson over a year ago at her Christmas party. Tina has launched a program called, “Women Worldwide.” Women Worldwide has as its mission to enable women to help other women around the world. She recently returned form a trip to Mali in Central Africa. You can hear Tina’s story about what her team did there and the inspiration for Women Worldwide over on vimeo. I’m helping Tina leverage social media to raise awareness for her initiatives.4. I’ve become a student of poverty and am particularly interested in generational poverty issues. I picked up three books on poverty and have set aside time to read each one. I’m currently reading, “Nickel and Dimed” by a wonderful writer, Barbara Ehrenreich. She also wrote, “Bait and Switch” which has a lot of relevance for today’s economic downturn, as it focuses on white collar unemployment. A book I bought for the shock value of some of the demeaning language is “Bridges out of Poverty.” More on that one when I read it all the way through. I’m also subscribing to the Poverty in America blog on change.org. Learning a lot there.It was @timoreilly who motivated me to “work on something that makes a difference,” while we’re navigating through the vagaries of economic turmoil. Even though in his most recent posts on the subject he wasn’t advocating pure charity work, it forced me to look carefully at what I’m going to commit my time to. My goal is to help my non-profit friends to learn how to leverage the social web to make their work more productive and rewarding.Finally, the trailer from “Happiness Is.” Enjoy.