I’m a creator, an entrepreneur, a public philosopher, a conscious citizen, a writer, and a father.
I was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York (roughly the first half of my life), and I’ve lived in Idaho for more than 20 years (about the second half of my life). From an early age I was something of a free thinker. When I was twelve I dropped out of Hebrew school and refused to have a bar mitzvah because I didn’t accept the conventional notion of a personal god. I wrote my first philosophical paper, titled “Metaphysics,” while in the sixth grade. In addition to being a free thinker, I’ve always wanted to make a difference in the world. In the eleventh and twefth grades, my career focus was on designing a secret action group called the Deimoclast (a word I made up from Greek roots, “destroyer of fear”) to help relieve communities and nations around the world from chronic situations of fearfulness.
After high school I went off to a small liberal arts college in Ohio, intending to major in international relations, which seemed to make sense given my interests. However, I quickly shifted into cultural anthropology, as it seemed to offer far greater insight into the way things are in society today. I did very well academically, but as a self-directed learner, I grew bored with the structure of college and left to explore a different path.
After leaving college, I spent two more years in Brooklyn, part of which was occupied with caring for my terminally ill father. It was during this time that I began writing, beginning with an article (“A Culture-Tao Hypothesis”) about the possible relationships between cultural factors and a person’s inborn sense of “tao,” or the way things naturally move. This piece, to my great surprise and delight, was soon afterwards accepted for publication by an anthropological journal in far-off Lucknow, India after being rejected by some US-based journals.
In 1990, I left New York to volunteer on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Browning, Montana for six months. I didn’t go as part of any formal program, but simply asked for (and received) permission to live there and to volunteer. I was assigned to a shelter for abused and neglected children, where I provided clerical support, and I was housed at the local homeless shelter. I studied Blackfeet language at the community college, and wrote an unsolicited action research paper on reforming tribal government, which I gave to the local activists. I also took a professional turn in Montana: due to the windy climate and my interest in helping the Blackfeet find an economic base, I became interested in wind energy.
Upon my return to New York, I immersed myself in the study of energy storage as a means of helping wind energy compete with conventional energy resources. I continued to get my feet wet in activism by joining a little group called The Brooklyn Greens. I began research for a new book that would greatly expand upon my earlier article, and I prepared for a permanent move out west. I’d grown uncomfortable with the scale of big city life and its effect on people, and I had aspirations of purchasing a small piece of land and learning to live by hunting and gathering. I didn’t end up doing that, but in 1991 I did move to Ashland, Oregon, a town I’d visited during my months in Montana. I lived there for nearly two years, during which time I started a business to do lighting efficiency audits and retrofits for local businesses. I also was hired for my first gig in wind power consulting, which involved scouting potential wind energy development sites in Washington State for a developer based in California.
Running out of business in Ashland, along with money, I approached a leading renewable energy consulting firm in the Seattle area about hiring me, which they did. I spent only a few months in Washington, however, because I decided I was more interested in project development. I accepted a job offer with a wind developer based in Boise in 1993. That job didn’t last long, but for the next seven years or so I earned an income as a consultant to a much larger wind developer, to whom I presented strategic ideas for getting more wind energy to market.
In 1994, I finished writing One Nature, which was a partly scientific, partly philosophical, partly action-oriented book on the three-way relationship between nature, culture, and human fulfillment. During its writing, I first encountered the ideas of systems theory and general evolutionary theory (a la Ervin Laszlo). The action proposal part of the book led into my starting Coevolution Southern Idaho, which was essentially a small group of people working on nonpartisan culture-change projects. One of those was the creation of a first-of-its-kind reference book titled The Southwest Idaho System, which was a profile of our region from a social and cultural perspective, with an emphasis on the systemic relationships between all aspects of community life (education, economy, environment, energy, etc.) With support from local donors, we were able to print enough copies for every public and high school library in the region. Coevolution also conducted an illuminating survey of local religious institutions to assess their attitudes and values about the environment.
As for the book One Nature, I had printed and given away nearly 50 copies. I received two responses to the work. One was an appreciative letter from a professor at the University of California. The other response was a phone call from Dr. Jonas Salk, who said (in my view, with some exaggeration) that it was good that someone “had finally appeared on our planet with a paradigm appropriate for our times.” I met with Salk several months later in 1995, and during our meetings he was very interested in my community-based efforts to bridge theory with reality. He called me a mutant, and he said we should work together. Unfortunately, he passed away unexpectedly the day after our second meeting. The last thing he said to me, while shaking my hand, was “It’s a great adventure.” I remained in touch with his son for many years about undertaking an effort to complete Salk’s last and unfinished book, which dealt with societal evolution in the cosmic context. Territorial squabbles prevented that from ever happening.
There was another fairly well-known thinker whose path I crossed later that year, a psychologist and professor by the name of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. By that time he’d become well known for his concept of “flow” (part of what he called people’s “optimal experience”). But he, too, was a systems thinker who saw the need for cultural changes to better support human development. His proposal for “evolutionary cells”–groups of people at the community level who had an evolutionary and holistic understanding and approach to change–very much paralleled what I’d proposed as “coevolution” groups. He invited me to a dialogue at his ranch house in Montana, which was, if nothing else, a validating experience of the path I seemed to be on.
Having been impressed with the “systems” perspective, which emphasized the interrelationships among all phenomena and issues, I turned my attention to addressing the fragmented way in which subject matter was taught in schools. I began to think about ways to get systems thinking and systems perspectives introduced into schools, which led me to reach out to a gentleman named Bela H. Banathy. Bela had been a systems thinking pioneer since the 1950’s, and had long worked on education reform and transformation issues. He was very concerned with improving the human condition and with the idea that there is a desperate need for people to learn how to design their social systems anew, in a fashion democratic and based on values and visions for a desired future. Banathy told me that my idea for introducing systems thinking into schools was laudable, but wondered whether (to use the old adage), one could “pour new wine in an old wineskin.” Banathy invited me to join him as a “research fellow” for the upcoming Asilomar Conversation on the Comprehensive Design of Social Systems (November, 1996). This was a key experience for me, as I came into contact with a lot of powerful ideas and remarkable thinkers, both present and past. I was the only college drop-out at the conference; most others were scholars at the doctoral level. This did not matter to Banathy, who singled me out for my efforts to bridge theory and action. (Sidebar: Salk and Banathy were both members of the General Evolution Research Group, a transdisciplinary group of thinkers interested in the nature of evolution of all kinds of complex systems, from the physical to personal to the social, and they were said to be the two action-oriented members of the group).
Among the past thinkers who at this time made a profound impact on my understanding was Mary Parker Follett (1868-1933). She was required reading in Banathy’s research group. Her insights into social psychology, group organization, leadership, and democracy were new, refreshing, and powerful. I was so impressed with her 1918 work, The New State, that I approached publishers about re-issuing the book. With the support of political scientist and writer Benjamin Barber, we were successful in this effort, and Penn State Press reissued the work in 1998. With regard to impact, Follett turned my notions of politics and democracy on their heads, and she turned my attention to neighborhood as the focal point of organizing. I started to get involved in my neighborhood association, on whose board I served for some time. Within a couple of years I undertook an effort to create a neighborhood newspaper as part of a new and more wide-ranging democratic institution that I called the North End Agora. Our unusual newspaper, or “viewspaper” as I liked to call it, began publication at the end of 1998 and lived until the summer of 1999, when it died from simple lack of logistical support.
My focus on neighborhood also expressed itself in political form, when I ran for mayor of Boise in 1997. It was a spontaneous decision, initially just a whim, a thought that it might be fun to run for mayor, an interesting way to get ideas out, and a story to tell my grandchildren someday. After I turned in my petition with 140 signatures–about 100 more than needed to qualify–it turned out that I was the only one signed up to oppose the incumbent. This meant that I got a lot more attention than I’d bargained for. I suppose this was good, as my ideas for more participatory approaches and fostering neighborhood-based decision making reached a wider audience. But it also opened me up to the usual “pressures” one gets when running for office within the local American political culture, and I can’t say that it was a nice experience. I ended up receiving 30% of the vote, which wasn’t bad considering that I was a complete unknown and was outspent by the mayor by 35 to 1. I ran for office again in 2001–this time for city council. The race was a bit tougher, and I had no illusions about a chance of winning. The objective, again, was to inject some new thinking into the political conversation.
My focus on neighborhood also manifested itself in private enterprise. Around 1999, my friend Michael Bishop and I started a company called Neighborhood Services, which included the website Neighborhood.com. The company was going to provide template-based websites to cities and their neighborhood associations across the country, making it easy for them to use electronic media to build community. In addition to the dot com part, we planned a host of community-oriented services. I attended the Neighborhoods USA conference in Pittsburgh to present our services, and we even obtained a contract with the City of Boise to provide the web service to all of the city’s neighborhood associations. As a “dot-com,” we had something with a great deal of promise, but we came along just as the dot-com bubble was bursting. We never did get the investment needed to do our big launch, so the effort went by the wayside.
After returning from the Asilomar Conversation in 1996, I’d decided to start a non-profit organization in Idaho to spearhead all of the initiatives I’d been working on. It was called the Idaho Systems Institute, and my chief partners were Chris Francovich (at the time an educational consultant and tutor, now a professor of organizational leadership at Gonzaga) and Gary Alexander (an education professor at the University of Idaho who, tragically, passed away several years later). The Institute’s chief activity was called Designing Idaho Education for Tomorrow–a project to encourage and assist communities in completely redesigning their education systems from scratch, in contrast with the typical incremental improvement and reform. To lay some groundwork for this, I had written a 110-page history of education reform efforts in Idaho, spanning the mid-80’s to the present, and Hewlett Packard (a reform supporter) had their in-house print shop make enough copies to get to many school districts and stakeholder groups. We had some interest from rural school districts in our program, but I was naive in thinking that any school district we approached would be anywhere near ready to undertake the kind of radical change we were suggesting. One outcome of the effort was a unique workbook called Image of Education. Inspired by the framework of Bela H. Banathy, the workbook was designed to help laypersons think through the design of an education system.
The Idaho Systems Institute lived for a few years before being re-branded as the Mary Parker Follett Foundation. Taking on Follett’s name, the foundation would work both to promote Follett’s thoughts but, more importantly, work to promote participatory democracy, dialogue, evolutionary understanding, and the capacity for participatory design. The Foundation lasted until the mid-2000’s, its chief accomplishments being to serve as a vehicle for what became the Designing Communities of Learning project (an evolution beyond the original Designing Idaho Education for Tomorrow), and organizing the Mary Parker Follett Conversation on Creative Democracy, held at Boise State University in 2002.
While the Mary Parker Follett Foundation is no more, I’ve worked to help extend the Follett legacy through the Mary Parker Follett Network (hosted at Ning.com). The Network site features all of Follett’s key writings, and the Network itself consists of hundreds of people from all over the world.
Around 2001, I began working on the next phase of my more philosophical work. It took several years of thinking, writing, and re-writing, but in 2007 I’d completed The Pattern of One. It was really a labor of love, because I knew full well that a true metaphysical work might not be very easy to understand, at least with my limited writing skills. The work was inspired originally by this simple, and age-old, question: How can everything be “one” and “many” at the same time? In responding to this question, I ended up having to address the nature of reality itself, including our experience of self and the nature of objects, time, and change. The book is posted here (minus the hand-made illustrations, at least for now), for anyone who wants to give it a go.
While I’d been an advocate for wholesale community-based redesign of public education since 1996, I had little direct experience with systems of education outside of my own (not to be discounted) experience as a student. This changed in 2003, when I began to work as a special education assistant at my local junior high school. I enjoyed working with students so much that I decided to pursue a degree in education. I did this fairly quickly, earning a degree in elementary education at Boise State within about three years. But given my principles and my understanding of people and education systems, I could not imagine working in the traditional educational environment. I decided to put my knowledge of participatory design to work, organizing a few interested people to design and create a new school with a new approach. It would be known as the Garden City Community School.
The Garden City Community School was approved by the Idaho Charter School Commission in 2005, and the school opened in 2006. It was the first public school to be located within the Garden City (really a distinct group of neighborhoods surrounded by Boise), and it broke the mold in a number of ways. First, the school’s curriculum and approach was designed from scratch, so it pulled from many inspirations to form a unique system around the themes of student participation in the design of their own learning, hands-on and minds-on learning, positive discipline, subject matter integration, and responsiveness to the needs of the community and world. It also was an exception to the area charter schools in its population served–60% of students qualified for free and reduced lunch (atypical for Idaho charter schools). The school changed its name to DaVinci Charter School, and continued to delight students and their families until early 2013, when financial shortfalls led to its closure.
After heading up the school’s design and launch, I resigned from the board to teach the middle school group, which I did for two years before leaving the classroom to return to higher education and to service at the board level. I was allowed to skip the master’s program and directly enter the doctoral program in education at Boise State. While in graduate school, I began to develop two new projects. One was the idea for a charter high school that would be based on participatory, learner-centered design, integrated instruction and learning, and social entrepreneurship. The other idea really represented a transcendence beyond merely creating new kinds of schools. Having been impressed by Ivan Illich’s 1971 work Deschooling Society, I started to question the very need for centralized, bureaucratized schooling itself. I came up with what seemed to be an appropriate alternative for the 21st century: the “open learning network” through which anyone would be able to pursue the learning they wished to, in a manner that they co-designed, from whom and with whom they wished. Such a “system” could operate in parallel with traditional school until such time as it was sufficiently strong to replace the latter entirely. Like some other projects, however, it was a bit too much for me to undertake at the moment.
By 2009, I’d completed all but two credits in the program, including the educational leadership program. But by the end of that experience, I’d come to the same conclusions I’d reached many years earlier: the mainstream approach to change in education is stale and fails to address the core, Industrial Age design of education. Only ideals-based participatory design–the same approach that Banathy had introduced me to a decade earlier–could help us leap out. My dissertation work was to focus on this issue. However, upon completion of that program and before starting dissertation work, I became a new father (the greatest experience of my life), and financial needs came first. I left to return to the world of renewable energy. This remains my professional focus today.
At some point in the late 2000’s, I began working on a new book. Very much unlike the grand theory of everything, this book would be intended for a broad audience. I wanted it to be the kind of book that just about anyone might see on the front table at Barnes and Noble, pick up, and buy. This book would focus on what I’ve come to believe is the core issue behind most human problems at the individual and societal scale: our tendency to turn everything (ourselves, others, ideas, institutions, experience, God, nature, etc.) into objects while forgetting that we’re also intimately related to those objects. I finished hand-writing the book in 2012 and am in the process of typing it up.
The other focus of my public life today is the Social Planetarium. After more than two decades of searching for the most powerful ways to address social and societal problems at the roots, I’ve realized that the vast majority of people are not quite ready to support, let alone get involved in, change efforts that seriously challenge traditional patterns of thinking and acting. We need bridges, useful things that help people get what they need while perhaps getting a different perspective on things. Building upon Harold Lasswell’s idea of the “urban planetarium” and, going back even further, Scottish planner Geddes’ idea of the “civic museum,” the social planetarium will be a set of spaces, processes, events, and tools through which people of all ages can learn about issues facing the community, explore their interrelationships, learning how to engage in public conversations and create shared visions of the future together. It will really constitute a kind of “civic education system”. Useful, entertaining, educational, and empowering, the social planetarium will be a new and very much needed kind of institution for my community, and perhaps set an example for what can be done elsewhere. I and a few others began working to organize the Social Planetarium of Boise/Treasure Valley, under a non-profit organization of the same name.
Reconsidering the value of focusing all efforts on creating a single space (the “social planetarium”), it occurred to me that we could in the meantime be creating all kinds of activities and experiences that help to accomplish the same end. We gave our non-profit a new name–The Boise Commons–with a mission of fostering an inclusive and empowering civic life among the citizens of Boise and the greater Treasure Valley.
We did some interesting and innovative projects, indeed, which are documented on that organization’s website. At the same time, my attention kept turning to the deeper, wider mission that seems to have inspired me, which I realized was about with nothing less than helping the world shift from unconscious evolution to a more conscious, participatory evolution. I recognized that there are an abundance of people calling attention to that trend, trumpeting its need, yet very few “doing” anything to consciously catalyze it at the lived level–our local communities. This had been the standard to which I had tried to hold myself since the 1990’s.
While The Boise Commons remains a formal kind of entity (or perhaps just a place to archive past work under that name), I decided a year ago to return to the evolutionary mission that had been embodied by Coevolution Southern Idaho, specifically to the creation of locally-based evolutionary “cells” to focus on building the capacity for conscious evolution from the local (or “glocal”) level upwards. And, as always, I’d have to start at home. That local effort is called Boisevolve. The focus areas I suggest for evolutionary cells, including Boisevolve, are represented in the booklets now emerging under the name The Evolutionary Activist, a growing collection of which can be found in the Writings section of this website.
Getting Boisevolve off the ground, and positioning myself to be able to help catalyze the creation of other evolutionary cells worldwide (and even simply recognizing them where they exist) is my present focus and what I expect may be the focus of my advocacy and activism for the remainder of my life.
Even with all of this strange brand of “deep” activism and my lifelong intensive focus on trying to make a difference in the world on a “macro” scale, it occurred to me upon becoming a father that the most important form of “activism” would be to teach my child the singular importance of love, and to trust in the world. I look forward to many more years of deep activism, and to many more years of love.