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November 27, 2011

Back to the Future – Return of the Extended Family Household

The US housing market is still moribund.  New single family home sales were only 323,000 last year, the lowest since records began being kept by the Commerce Department.  On top of that, the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey reports that 2010 household formations, at about 981,000, were still significantly below the 2004 high of 1.48 million.   Both numbers represent troubling news for home builders.

However, according to a recent article in BusinessWeek, some builders may have found a profitable new niche in an otherwise bleak market – the multi-generational home.  These are residences that cater to families where multiple generations are living under one roof.  Pulte, the nation’s largest builder by revenue, is offering new homes with stand-alone smaller units or the option of converting garages to “casitas,” the Spanish word for small houses. Other Pulte features to accommodate extended families include ground-floor master bedrooms for elderly family members who can’t climb stairs.

multi-generational livingThe reason builders see this as a new opportunity is evident from the numbers in a recent study by the Pew Research Center, The Return of the Multi-Generational Family Household.  Multi-generational living arrangements were common up until the 1950’s, then declined.  Since the 1980’s, however, such households have grown steadily, and in 2010 it is estimated that 51 million American households (16.7% of total households) were in this category.

The economic and social factors cited in the Pew study are informative:

  • Both men and women are marrying at a later age, 28 and 26, respectively.  This is about 5 years later than in 1970.  For these 20-somethings, home may be the best living situation in a down economy where it is difficult to find a job or  launch a career.
  • Immigration also is a big factor.  First- and second-generation immigrants are the most likely to live with extended families.
  • The Great Recession, in particular, has hastened the return of  the extended family.  Adult children may need to move back in with their parents for economic reasons.
  • Older family members are moving in with their Baby Boomer children due to ill health, widowhood or financial necessity (e.g., declining health coverage due to cutbacks in Medicare programs).

These trends illustrate the shifting context in which the American dream is played out.  The extended family residence is just one more way that Americans are dealing with the Great Recession.  Whatever the economic and social fallout from this new family togetherness, the builders will happily oblige by filling our need with the latest version of the mother-in-law apartment.


November 25, 2011

The Penn State Scandal – An Ethical Meltdown

There are many dimensions to leadership. One of those is an ethical dimension, which often remains unacknowledged until circumstances conspire to bring it into full public view. Consider the Penn State sex abuse scandal which exploded into our national consciousness on November 5, 2011.  It is instructive because it shows how, within an institutional setting, ethical lapses can cascade, wreaking destruction like the waves of a tsunami tearing through a coastal city.


Jerry Sandusky

Like so many stories of child abuse, the Penn State scandal has a long timeline.  The alleged abuse of young boys by former football Defensive Coordinator Jerry Sandusky began in 1994 and continued at least until 2008.  After numerous complaints over a ten year period, investigations into Sandusky’s behavior began in November, 2008, and resulted in a Grand Jury report which led to his arrest on November 5, 2011.

Sandusky, 67, coached at Penn State for more than 30 years. From 1977 until his retirement last year, Sandusky had also run a foster home in State College, Pa., for troubled children called The Second Mile.  Sandusky founded the organization in 1977 as a group home for troubled boys, accepting children who would benefit from positive human interaction. The charity has expanded into a statewide charity with eight chapters across Pennsylvania.  Many of Sandusky’s alleged victims were boys from The Second Mile.

The buildup to Sandusky’s ultimate arrest may have been slow, but the consequences following the release of the Grand Jury report have been swift and stunning to those who were unaware of what had been taking place over the years.


Joe Paterno

In the space of a few weeks, Joe Paterno, a college football legend with more wins than any other coach in history, was fired.  Tim Curley, the university’s Athletic Director resigned and was charged with perjury and failing to report suspected abuse.  Gary Schultz, VP for Business and Finance resigned and was indicted for perjury and failure to report suspected abuse.  Graham Spanier, President of the university was fired along with Paterno by the university’s Board of Trustees. And Jack Raykovitz, CEO of The Second Mile, was forced to resign leaving the future of the charity in doubt.

As in many such cases, there were opportunities to stop the abuse early on, but in each instance, allegations were not referred to the police.  Instead, those responsible for handling the matter chose to conduct internal inquiries.  This leaves a strong impression that the need to protect the victims was a lower priority than the desire to protect the institutions where the abuse took place.  In the fallout that has already occurred and will continue for years to come, the institutions have been irreparably damaged.

All the individuals involved in the scandal claimed they were doing the appropriate thing,  but in each case there was an ethical lapse.  Joe Paterno’s case is instructive.  He is easily the highest profile figure in the scandal, and came under intense pressure for his alleged primary role in the abuse scandal. He was reportedly the first to know about the alleged abuse.  As Time correspondent Nick Carbone noted in a recent article:

Paterno hasn’t been charged, and the Grand Jury investigation notes that Paterno appropriately reported the abuse to a higher level, alerting Penn State Athletic Director Tim Curley about the incident. “Joe Paterno was a witness who cooperated and testified before the Grand Jury,” said Nils Frederiksen, a spokesman for the state Attorney General’s office. “He’s not a suspect.” Pennsylvania state Police Commissioner Frank Noonan also said that Paterno fulfilled his legal requirement to report the matter upon referring it to Curley.

But meeting the legal requirement is not enough in such situations; there is a more demanding moral and ethical requirement to which we are held in such cases.  Meeting the legal requirement is insufficient.  It is equivalent to standing by while the wrongdoing continues.

There is a lesson from the Penn State scandal for administrators, executives, and others in positions of responsibility who face similar situations.  Looking the other way or passing the buck are not acceptable options.  The human drive for justice and the righting of wrongs is ultimately more powerful than the money, prestige or influence of any institution or the bonds of longtime personal allegiances.


November 21, 2011

Mystik Sounds – Hip Hop Tries a New Rap

Hip-hop has a bad reputation when it comes to its portrayal of women.  Groups and record labels have been criticized for songs with lyrics about gender-based violence and videos which show women in a negative manner.  But Mystik 703, a popular Haitian hip-hop group from Kafou, is trying to change that.

Mystik 703Founded in 1999 by K.libr’, Ouragan and Ded Kra-Z the group was initially called Soldiers and recorded an album that never got released. After many frustrations with the label, they changed the name to Mystik 703 and spent the next few years performing shows and winning many competitions in Haiti. In 2005 they started working on their first album under the new name. The trio released their debut album Nou Nan Lakou a in November 2008. In the summer of 2009, they officially added eUd (with whom they had collaborated on recordings and shows) as the 4th member of the group. With eUd on board, the group started preparing D-C-Ni (pronounced Decennie), which they finally released in November, 2009.

Recently, Mystik 703 partnered with global humanitarian organization International Medical Corps in a campaign to end violence against women.  Dedkra-Z talked about the band’s reasons for joining in the campaign:

“We all know that violence against women has drastically increased since the earthquake.  When International Medical Corps approached us about making this song, we all agreed that it was a great opportunity to give the fight to end violence against women a stronger voice in Haiti.”

Their newly released song, Pa Fè Yo Abi (which means “Women, Symbol of Life”), is inspired by the women of Haiti and seeks to create awareness, particularly among the country’s youth, that violence against women cannot be tolerated.  The campaign began with a concert in Jacmel, in southern Haiti. The song is getting plenty of airplay on Haitian radio stations, and now they are distributing the song so that it can be shared widely throughout the country.

Mystic 703: Pa fè yo abi

The band counts Bob Marley, Tupac Shakur and the Fugees among its influences.  The success of Mystik 703, with this its positive message, could encourage other hip-hop artists to follow suit.


November 14, 2011

IMC – Giving the Gift of Self-Reliance

These are busy times for the world’s disaster relief organizations.  International Medical Corps (IMC) is one of many global relief organizations that  provide emergency assistance to countries stricken by natural disasters or violent conflict.  However, International Medical Corps goes beyond providing assistance.  It also rehabilitates devastated health care systems and helps bring them back to self-reliance.

Introducing International Medical Corps

imc volunteers with babyIMC accomplishes this by setting up programs training local people to provide medical care so they can carry on when the relief organizations leave.  For example, in its first year in Haiti, International Medical Corps physicians worked with Haitian medical staff, local organizations, and the Haitian health ministry to identify gaps in knowledge and skills.  Together they developed training programs and provided on-the-job support to improve quality of care throughout the existing health care infrastructure. IMC trained primary health care staff on triage, drug and pharmacy management, infection control, STI/HIV management, disease surveillance and outbreak preparedness, vaccinations, nutrition, and mental health diagnosis and case management.  IMC also established a program in coordination with the Hopital de Universite d’Etat d’Haiti (HUEH), which will train 50 physicians and 100 nurses in nearly every component of emergency care delivery. The program goal is to rebuild Haiti’s virtually non-existent health care system.

As Jocelyn Zuckerman observed in a recent article she wrote about IMC’s work in Haiti for Fast Company:

Most important, the organization encourages its trainees to return to their native communities to serve, using skills they never would have developed without IMC. This commitment to empowering locals–the whole teach-a-man-to-fish thing–is what distinguishes International Medical Corps from such better-known NGOs as Doctors Without Borders.

robert simon in afghanistan

Robert Simon in afghanistan

The founder and chairman of IMC is Robert R. Simon., M.D., Professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine at Rush University, Stroger-Cook County Hospital in Chicago, Illinois.  He started International Medical Corps in 1984 in response to the need for medical services and training inside war-torn Afghanistan. During that time, he developed the model that IMC now uses in all its deployments.  He  recruited locals from underserved areas of Afghanistan, trained them for nine months, and then sent them back to their communities with supplies, medications, and skills to set up clinics. By 1990, IMC had graduated more than 1,000 health-care workers who helped establish 57 clinics and 10 hospitals throughout rural Afghanistan.


Nancy Aossey

Since that time, IMC has delivered more than $1.1 billion of humanitarian assistance, health services and training to tens of millions of people in more than 65 countries.  It now has 4,000 staff and volunteers.  Overseeing its operations is Nancy Aossey, President and CEO.  She joined the organization in 1986 and manages the delivery of assistance to the world’s hardest-hit places, including Haiti, Darfur, Congo, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia, Uganda, and Iraq.

Recently, IMC has been active in Libya, where through a $1 million grant from USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA), it is addressing immediate health care gaps in the strife-torn country.  Teams are also assisting in establishing a unified mechanism for reporting needed medical supplies and coordinating donated items.

Despite its size and scope of operations, IMC has avoided the bureaucratic inertia and waste that can plague not-for-profit organizations.  Charity Navigator, which evaluates and ranks charitable organizations, gives IMC its top 4-star rating (62.7 out of 70) for its financial stewardship and accountability / transparency.

With its focus on training locals to take over the delivery of healthcare, International Medical Corps provides a gift that keeps on giving.

November 14, 2011

A Grandmother Reimagines Thailand’s Most Notorious Gang

“The youth is the hope of our future.”
Jose Rizal, Filipino Author (1861-1896)

Violent gangs of young people, most 12-18 years-old but some as young as eight, are a global fact of life. There are numerous programs focused on eliminating what is seen as a growing scourge ruining the quality of life in societies worldwide. But when we look into the gang lifestyle of today, could we stumble on an unexpected answer to the pressing question, “What can we do about gangs?”

In the existing body of scholarly research into the phenomenon of gangs, there is general consensus that as population grows, specific negative social conditions grow proportionately. Often cited as causes for gang formation are:

  • Income disparity and persistent poverty
  • Elimination of governmental support for necessary social services
  • Marginalization in the form of racial discrimination and gender discrimination

There are other causes, of course, but some of them are harder for researchers to agree on. One such cause is the breakdown of the nuclear family. Our understanding of the roles adults play in the development of children has widened to include “non-traditional families” like those with single parent or same sex parents, and influences from adults in the broader community. It is along this same path of enlightenment that we find the story of how a grandmother in Thailand chose to face the reality of youth gangs in her city.



Laddawan Chaininpun watched as her grandson took a step that parents, guardians, and anyone involved with the welfare of a child fears profoundly. He joined a gang—and not just any gang. Out of the 50 or so gangs in Chiang Mai, a large city in northern Thailand, Laddawan’s grandson joined Na Dara (NDR), the city’s largest and most infamous gang.

This observant, caring grandmother immediately discarded the option of trying to pull her grandson out of the grip of the gang with criticism, threats, and pleading for him to just come home. She knew that such a reaction would drive him deeper into a culture she had heard only the most negative things about. Instead, Laddawan determined to learn everything she could about what the gang offered that appealed to her grandson, as well as to other young people in Chiang Mai. She accepted that her grandson had needs that were met by belonging to Na Dara. She recognized that the gang offered her grandson the kind of “family” he needed at this point in his life. This family was populated with others who understood exactly what it was like to be a 12-17 year-old because they were too.

Laddawan Chaininpun decided to offer her skills and wisdom as a counselor helping gang members work through family and other personal problems. She also helped gang members communicate more effectively and successfully with the police. As she worked with the gang, her perception of gangs evolved from the prevailing completely negative one in Chiang Mai, to one of possibility for change. Laddawan observed that the gang operated as a support system for youth and did many aspects of that function very well. She encouraged the gang to expand the areas of support they offered and begin to be a positive force in the community. This amazing woman was able to put a “No Drugs Rule” into operation within the Na Dara (NDR) gang, which in turn inspired the gang to change its name to “No Drugs Rule.”

Laddawan wasn’t finished yet! She went on to establish the Chiang Mai Youth Community Center (CYC). Here youth gangs can learn about many kinds of needs they can then offer to new members. The result of this effort is that the negative, violent, criminal behavior of gangs is reduced because members feel that they can be a productive, accepted part of the community.

Laddawan-Chaininpun-w-DNR-gang membersIt is time that the governments and taxpayers in all places where gangs are perceived to be a problem accept that gangs are here to stay because they meet basic human needs for youth who do not have other options. The choices made by governments at every level to not fund, or to underfund, social services capable of meeting basic human needs for all who are in need, make it necessary for people to find other options. Only through tolerance like Laddawan Chaininpun displayed can we hope to become enlightened enough to end conflict and attain peace. The great lesson that Laddawan teaches us is that when we think something is insurmountable, it really is just a wonderful opportunity to learn more about being human.

November 7, 2011

Cognitive Surplus – A Potent New Force for Social Change

clay-shirkyThe rapid growth of the Internet and the low cost of collaborative technology (e.g., Facebook and other social media) offers us an extraordinary new opportunity to apply our creative energies to the world’s problems.  Clay Shirky, social media commentator and author of Here Comes Everybody, has written a book, Cognitive Surplus, which explores the implications of this.

Shirky defines cognitive surplus as the free time we have available to us.  It grew out of the forty hour work week.  In the second half of the last century, this cognitive surplus had few outlets and was channeled mainly into consumption.  Most of our free time went into watching television. Media production costs were high; as a result, what got produced and how it got distributed was the province of experts.  We were consumers, an audience, a collection of target markets.

Today the Internet and social media have given us new ways to connect and apply our creativity that are not constrained by geography or economics.   Online collaborative communities can organize around the need to solve specific problems.  These range from the social to the scientific.  These communities tap into and are driven by the generosity and intrinsic motivations of the individuals who participate. As Shirky points out, these communities are not chaotic; members establish their own rules and governance.

The emergence of these online communities offers the tantalizing prospect of directly funneling time, talent, and energy toward the solution of social and political problems in a way that bypasses institutional inertia and politics.  What’s exciting about the emergence of low cost online tools for collaboration is that they provide us with both awareness and the power to act; we become both audience and actor.  For would-be social entrepreneurs who want to tap into the cognitive surplus, Shirky provides some guiding principles for successful communities, based on his study of these communities.  These were nicely summarized by Valeria Maltoni over at Conversation Agent:

  1. Start small — See if it works, first. And the best way not to have an idea killed prematurely is by testing a small version of it, then bring results to the table.
  2. Ask “why?” — It’s still surprising how this is often overlooked. Why would people do this, whatever this is that you want them to do, over something else? Why will they choose you/this system?
  3. Behavior follows opportunity — Can you design a system that provides opportunity people understand and find valuable?
  4. Default to social — Social value is stronger than personal value, so allowing people to see what others are sharing and bookmarking is a better setting to encourage adoption.
  5. A hundred users are harder than a dozen and harder than a thousand — The middle ground between large and small can be confusing for users trying to figure out how to interact with each other.
  6. People differ. More people differ more — As in they will have different behaviors, things they like to do, etc., so think about tiering levels of involvement.
  7. Intimacy doesn’t scale — You either have large groups all paying attention to one thing, or people split into smaller active groups.
  8. Support a supportive culture — This taps into people’s sense of fairness.
  9. The faster you learn, the faster you’ll be able to adapt — And the best way to learn is by watching how people behave using the tools at hand.
  10. Success causes more problems than failure — Planning down to the details and potential problems you will have is a poor substitute for experience; planning won’t teach you how to solve the problem that arises while you do.
  11. Clarity is violence — This point is about putting process in front of experience and before its time; regulate something too soon, and you won’t know what you’re regulating.
  12. Try anything. Try everything — The applications are many and there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach that works in every instance.

angry-birdsYou would be forgiven for questioning whether our cognitive surplus will actually be applied in this manner.  After all, consider that Angry Birds, a popular game for smart phones, consumes 1.2 billion hours of that surplus each year.  But in fact, when the surplus is so large worldwide, it doesn’t take much of a shift to make a huge difference.  Using data from ComScore, Adam Hevenor created a table (see below) which shows the difference that applying just 1% of our collective average time online toward socially meaningful activities would make.

With such a potential reserve of creative energy, the prognosis for the beneficial use of our cognitive surplus is hopeful; the impact could be astounding.