My State Department Lectures in Italy: Activism and Change

Reblogged with permission from

On my recent speaking tour in Italy, I presented six lectures in eight days to NGO representatives, ethnic media journalists, and minority community leaders to discuss best practices for social web tools and movement-building in general. In an earlier post I wrote about some of the big conversations that I had with Italians, but now that I’m removed from the tour by a few weeks, I’ve ferreted out a few more reflections about what I saw and heard.

1. The extensive history/proliferation of civil society organizations (NGOs, regional/city nonprofits, etc.) in the United States is not mirrored in Italy, with the exception of faith-based institutions. The Catholic Church has done that heavy lifting for a while, apparently. American social sector development as of late has revolved around the buzzword “collaboration,” and this movement is gaining traction in Italy, too. Italian nonprofits are finding each other and working together. Organizations promoting dialogue and/or action with the “other” will have to struggle at first, but there is plenty of room to grow.

2. At times during Q&A sessions, my audiences were quite vocally frustrated with the glacial pace of reform in Italy. They described cases of personal and community discrimination. They heaped scorn upon Italian media for its complicity in promoting xenophobia, and wondered why other Italians weren’t interested in having simple dialogue with them. These conversations could just as easily have taken place in America. I felt that frustration, which seems a dominant undercurrent in young people globally. We’ve got all these tools and all of this intelligence and the capacity to network across vast distances to solve huge problems, but we’re held back by old (and generally white) men.

3. The Arab Spring offered a glimpse of these frustrated young people employing social media to organize, share, and connect. Let’s not forget the other examples of the powerful nexus of protest movements, youth, and social media: Russia, Belarus, Moldova, Colombia, England, China, and Occupy. The increase of social web density across the world will have an incredibly powerful impact on how we run future mass information campaigns. This is not only about “flattening” and democratizing media; I think that the real change zone will be bringing people together around issues of common concern. I spoke about this in a web video filmed during my last lecture in Milan. In a place like Egypt, for instance, which has clear minority and majority populations in terms of religion, class, and education, social tools allow people to promote a common cause (in this case, revolution) without having to agree personally on everything else. Digital coalitions, perhaps?

It’s like an analogy of interfaith work: We may not all have the same idea of what happens when we die, but we can certainly work together on the important things before then.

I was stunned at the readiness of the young Italians that I met. They won’t stop agitating for full representation and civil rights. They may have Moroccan or Senegalese or Romanian ancestry, but they are Italian through and through. I especially sensed (and observed firsthand) young Catholics’ eagerness to work with their fellow Italians across faith lines. The country’s de facto gerontocracy, and the frustration that young people feel as a result of it, has brought them together just as much as issues of civil rights. There is change in Italy’s future, and it will come from the second-generation children of immigrants.

My State Department Lectures in Italy: Immigration and Faith Identity in Catholic Italy

I have a newfound appreciation for how easy it is to promote and “do” interfaith and social justice work in America. Our lengthy and diverse experience with immigration, our relatively equal access to civic rights, and the penetration and thickness of social networks (online and offline) have created the perfect storm for bringing people together around shared values. This is not the case in Italy, where I am nearing the end of an incredibly busy week of presentations, lectures, and meetings with civic and religious leaders, students, NGO representatives, and a variety of other activists (and proto-activists). Each audience has been vastly different, so I’ve really gotten a 360-degree view of the situation here.

Italy has only had to “deal with” extensive immigration in the past two decades. Sudden waves of immigrants (many from North Africa and the Levant) have made themselves a huge part of the Italian population. By some counts, there are between three and five million immigrants in the country. Many of them are Muslims from various countries. They don’t look like “proper” Italians, and they certainly aren’t filling the churches on Sunday. Italy’s history as a Catholic nation-state is a weight that I feel every time I walk past an impressive cathedral – of which there are many.

My lectures and workshops have centered around a few key issues:

  • Immigrants and their path to citizenship – Italian law doesn’t allow children born here to immigrant parents to gain citizenship-by-birth, and the regular procedures for attaining citizenship are terribly convoluted and difficult, not to mention expensive.
  • Interreligious (or inter-confessionale, as it’s said in Italian) dialogue and understanding. Consider that until recently, most Italians were Catholic. There haven’t been many large-scale attempts at bringing diverse communities together.
  • The use of social networks and the social web to promote and explain the above two points – Facebook, Twitter, and their kin are used more for personal interest here than as professional organizing and publishing tools.

I’ve gotten into some deep conversations with groups here. I’m talking sweeping cultural and political change stuff. This is a place where open discrimination against a population that comprises something north of 10% of GDP is still widely accepted. The immigrants and children of immigrants (2Gs – second generation) that I’ve met with are Italian through and through, if not Catholic. They speak Italian and follow AC Milan. But they can’t vote for those who would represent their communities.

This isn’t to say that Italy is a bad place, or that the government(s) refuses to fix things. The Democratic Party, and perhaps some other regional parties, actively work to engage these issues head-on. Furthermore, Italy is still taking its first steps in the immigration debate. They haven’t had to deal with these issues until now.

For all the problems that immigrants face here, and the irreducibly important issues that my conversations with second generation Italians center around, one thing remains constant: The people who I’ve met are all very optimistic about change in the near future. They are active, educated, and committed to bringing about a new era in the history of Italy. It’s quite exciting to partner with them as we look for useful solutions and novel approaches to these issues. Watch their space.

My State Department Lectures in Italy: Social Networks and Social Narratives In the Digital Era

Update: You can see some photos of me looking terrifying during the talk here, courtesy of Paolo Ricotti of Giornale dei Lavoratori.

I usually finish public presentations with a bit of an endorphin rush and energy for some hours afterward. It would appear that I’ve found a way to extend that feeling: consecutive translation from English to a foreign language.

I’m in Milan in northern Italy traveling as a Speaker and Specialist Grantee on behalf of the United States Department of State’s Bureau of International Information. Whew. I was summoned through my involvement with the Interfaith Youth Core‘s Alumni Speakers Bureau, and sure enough, I’ve already found myself talking quite a bit about interreligious dialogue.

My inaugural presentation on my inaugural day in Italy was held at the headquarters of ACLI (Christian Associations of Italian Workers), a network of organizations committed to work and social development like peacebuilding and entrepreneurship. My handlers from the US Consulate met me and walked me out to a local trattoria for a wonderful lunch. ACLI’s training department head was there, as well as a local imam (the funniest imam in Milan, as he was introduced to me), representatives from Yalla Italia, and some other consular staff. My recommendation: Check out Yalla Italia (with Google Translate installed). They are doing amazing work to publicize and connect the various immigrant communities in Italy. YI and its people totally rock.

I had some wonderful conversations at lunch (so much food) and on the walk to ACLI. As it was told to me, 12.5% of Italy’s GDP comes from businesses run by immigrants. That’s incredible. All the more incredible is Italy’s lack of useful or comprehensive immigration laws. Most immigrants aren’t citizens, which means that they can’t vote, which means that they can’t “elect their own”, which means that their representation stays nonexistent in the Parliament, which means that the immigration laws don’t change. Some of my meetings on this journey will focus on immigration reform and the messaging that goes along with it.

My presentation at ACLI was well-attended, with a wildly diverse audience: NGO folk, independent journalists, young and old people, and civic leaders. I talked a lot about storytelling and social narrative, pausing after every few sentences to wait for my amazing translator to catch up with me. The Q&A was twice as long as the presentation, which I view as a win. It felt that they “got it”.

I faced some tough questions, though, many about the frustration that organizations and individuals feel when using social networks and not seeing immediate return on their time investment. The density and penetration of the social tools that I take for granted in the US are different here. I had a blast, and as I mentioned earlier, I found that consecutive translation, aside from giving me a pause to gather my next (brilliant?) thought also extends the “speaker’s rush” that I feel. Part of my positivity comes from knowing that I’ve also learned a lot in a short period about the ways that the social web organizes people here. I’ll apply those learnings at my next meeting.

I leave in the morning for Rome and a non-stop schedule that will take me from there to Florence then back to Milan. Hopefully I will be able to check in like this after each meeting. Until then, ciao!

RIP Adam Yauch (MCA) – A public death

Adam Yauch, known by his rap moniker MCA, has died. MCA was one of the three Jewish kids from New York who changed the face of music (and often, their own music) forever. I haven’t had any experiences with public deaths that caused a soulful reaction in me until today.

I was conversing with one of my interns when I saw the tweet: “RIP MCA” I didn’t have to guess at who or what “MCA” was – my mind connected his protracted illness to his current age and figured that it was Adam Yauch. Sharp intake of breath, both hands to my mouth, a softly-whispered “Oh no”, that weird wet tickle behind my nose and between my eyes that signals the lacrimal glands to start shedding fluid, a pause. Naturally, my first post-pause action was to retweet the news with a “Speechless…” attached to it – I am human, aren’t I?

My tummy hurt. I thought back to that day in 1995 (probably) when, while wandering through our local Wal-Mart, I picked up “Ill Communication”* and bought it with my mother’s money. I don’t know what attracted me to the disc. The cover art certainly doesn’t say anything about the Beastie Boys, a name that up until that point I had associated only with rap music, about which I knew precious little.

But I popped that Grand Royal-branded green thing into my RCA CD player and grooved out. I had no idea what I was listening to, but I loved it. It was the first album that I purchased.

I’ve bought every album and b-side collection and documentary that the Beastie Boys created. Between awesome lyrics – occasionally sick, occasionally something that was clearly created to rhyme but made no sense – and a solid “in sound from way out”, the Beastie Boys encapsulated what is great about music, namely that it can (and should) change from time to time. Instrumental jams, punk rock, hip-hop, rap, gospel, acapella, chanting, experimental – they did it all.

These were guys that spoke out about urban America, poverty, Tibet, Islamophobia, and other social issues before it was vogue for bands to do so. They didn’t do it to attract attention; they did it because they deeply believed it.

MCA was my favorite B-Boy. Dignified, intelligent, and gruff in a friendly way, his voice was the experience. Mike D and Ad Rock both had high-pitched and rapid rhymes, but MCA hit like a sledgehammer when he grabbed the mic. This day has been great for reminiscing – the tweets with his best lyrics remind me of why I liked him in the first place. As an interfaith activist, I’ve also found solace in his embrace of Tibetan Buddhism. It informed his rhymes, his medicine, and his activism.

Adam Yauch was a humanitarian and a peacemaker, a documentarian and a true musician. Like all of the Beastie Boys, he was a person who made wonderful music that cut across all genres. He rhymed as if his life depended on it. But perhaps that last point bears a deeper look. The thing that I loved the most about the Beastie Boys was that for as serious as they could make their music, they were never a serious phenomenon to themselves. They took the piss out of themselves more often than their critics. That took balls and it created longevity and fierce loyalty.

We have lost 33% of what, for me and many others, is one of the most amazing musical experiences that this world has had. It’s not a good feeling. It’s a public death that has finally forced me to understand how the general public reacts to such things. I think of the weeping crowds after Michael Jackson or Whitney Houston or Levon Helm and realize that I’m just like them.

I was on the phone with my fiancee a moment ago. She’s driving to the other side of the state tonight and asked, “What are you up to right now?”

My reply was, “Oh, just writing a blog post about…the Beastie Boys…” *sob* “and MCA and how he’s gone now.” *sniffle* *sob*

I didn’t expect to feel this way, but it’s been a great ride. Thanks for all the memories and rhymin’ and stealin’, MCA. You will be missed.


Reverb 2011 – What did you discover?

I found amazing camping spots out and about with Jackie. Really, really cool places.

I discovered an entrepreneur’s spirit in me, and it wasn’t just because of the lifestyle design books that I enjoy. There’s some kind of DARK POWER that guides me through this world now. By “dark”, of course, I mean “light”. America!

I discovered (again) that I really do love Jackie – she is so swell and tiny and cute.

I noticed that all one has to do is be active and make a decision to have life happen at 1000 miles per hour.

Reverb 2011 – Let’s do it.

Gwen Bell said that she won’t be organizing Reverb11, but that we are indeed welcome to do it ourselves.

“Fine!” I said. “I’ll go right ahead and do it, then.”

And then I didn’t.

Instead, I waited for Cali Harris (of the Formerly Reverberating Triad of Gwen, Cali, and Kaileen) to serendipitously tweet about how I could outsource my Reverb prompts to Kaileen: [blackbirdpie url=”!/caligater/status/142627309692788736″]

After scraping Kaileen’s list and saving each item as a draft here, I am now ready to get it crackin’ once more.

It is time for Reverb11.

Reverb 2011 – Where did 2011 begin?

This year came in with a great WHOOSH. I was living with a little kitten named Jackie. Note: Jackie is actually a woman who I refer to as a kitten. She is also my girlfriend.

I was hopeful, I suppose. I had money in the bank, but the consulting gig that had provided my income for the second half of 2010 was gone. I knew that I’d eventually have to square away new work, but what it would look like and smell like and feel like was a complete unknown.

The support network that is Denver was ready to help, though, and I inherently knew that it would all figure itself out.

What I didn’t know was just how difficult and workful this 2011 would be.

Aaaaaaaaaand we’ll get to that soon enough. Still plenty more posts to go before I sleep.

Reverb 2011 – Who did you meet?

Most important meeting of 2011: Yet another version of Tim Brauhn – more on him later.

This is definitely a post that I should move further down in December, since four of the most interesting meetings will happen after Christmas when I’m back home in Illinois.

I have so many babies to meet.

Five, to be exact:

1. My little brother had a baby, so now I have a nephew. His name is Eli, and he seems fine.

2. My oldest buddy Murph’s wife is in labor as I type this, so that’s another baby.

3. I was home for a short time in June to attend my buddy Jason’s wedding. Now he’s got a baby named Benjamin, so I’ve got to meet him and tell him not to trust his father’s lies.

4. My cousin Jason had twins, like, forever ago, but his family moved back to Illinois from Florida so I’ll get to meet the babies at a family reunion/Christmas/New Year’s part of sorts.

So many new shiny little baby-people. I dig it.

Reverb 2011 – What books did you read?

Crush It – Gary Vaynerchuk (won it in a prize drawing and devoured it one sitting inside a tent at the edge of a large cliff)

Four-Hour Body – Tim Ferriss (pre-ordered it because I’m a sucker – if Ferriss wrote a book about punctuation marks I’d buy it)

Brewing Up A Business – Sam Calagione (he founded Dogfish Head – need I say more?)

The Glass Castle – Jeannette Walls (terrifying tale of a dysfunctional family)

Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight – Alexandra Fuller (another terrifying and offensive [in that special White African way] memoir that I guess I didn’t really finish)

Mirrors – Eduardo Galeano (bunch of vignettes from human history – I realized after the first page that Galeano had stolen my idea, damnit)

Buncha cook books (because I can’t not read them)

The Way to Paradise – Mario Vargas Llosa (amazing story weaving together the lives of the civil rights activist Flora Tristan and, many decades later, her grandson, the artist Paul Gauguin)

Couple others. Many. Books good.