2016 – Apparently a Good Year for Josh

Dear 2016,

At this point, there doesn’t need to be much said in terms of the overall consensus feeling about you. You took lives, you took hope, you took and took from everyone and gave little back in return. Our heroes died, our liberties questioned, tensions mounting, and we still didn’t get season 3 of Rick and Morty.

Personally, professionally, tangibly, and existentially, this year for me was a disappointment. There has been a lot of opportunity, I’ve put myself out in ways that I considered big ways and scary ways, facing disappointment, hitting walls and road blocks all along the way.

I’m not going to list them, I’m not going to dwell in them, I’m not going to let them fester. I’m going to look back at some of the things this year brought that were pretty amazing.

My friends Josh and Leah Lipsky had a baby. Josh Silverstein got married. Josh Johnson went on tour. Josh Gondleman went on tour. Apparently it was a good year for Joshs.

I was present for the birth of Luke Christophe Hampt. Julia and Ben Whitehouse brought Domino into the world. Ben and Diana got married. Danny and Leah got married. Jon and Jen got married. Seena and Cosmo got engaged. My friend Bobby Carroll was elected to the State Assembly. I directed my first long form storytelling shows. I produced 2 seasons of a storytelling podcast. I’ve grown closer with many beautiful people. I learned how to channel my inner demons and share them with the world.

So many people are scared for so many legitimate and real reasons. So many people are waking up to nightmares they never thought would be tangible. So many people are getting ready to fight back. So many people give me hope and inspiration.

We may be facing unknown challenges ahead. We may have lost many of our heroes. That just means that we need to produce more. We need to create more. We need to rally more. We need to do more. Don’t give up just because it’s hard. Don’t sit down because everything says to lay down.

Get up.

Bring on 2017.

Asher

An Open Letter to my Bernie Supporter Friends

To all my friends who are Bernie supporters —

Bernie Sanders has been running an important campaign.  He has raised important issues.  He has raised awareness of certain issues that need to be talked about.  He has activated a base of voters who are getting involved and getting angry.  All of that is great.  All of that is important.  All of that needs to keep up.  This is my biggest worry: the base of people who have been activated, all of you at rallies in the Park and marching for what you believe in, my biggest worry is that you will lose your passion and anger once he doesn’t get the nomination.

Are you passionate?  Are you angry?  Good.  Don’t lose that.  Use it.  Use it constructively.  Use it proactively.  There’s a lot more work that needs to be done and being a moody, sobby, teenager upset that Mommy didn’t let you go to the party isn’t going to do anyone any good.  I don’t wanna hear your angst. I don’t wanna see your passive aggressive complacency. I don’t wanna read your unworthy and daily beast articles. I don’t care about your conspiracy theories.  

I want you to get on busses and travel to Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina. I want you to phone bank. To hand out flyers. To open honest and intelligent conversations.  

Here are some notes via Ballotopedia.org:

The big story of the 2016 congressional election cycle is whether or not the Democratic Party will be able to regain control of the Senate. In order to take the chamber back, Democrats will need to gain five seats in 2016, a difficult but not impossible task. The majority of vulnerable seats are held by Republican incumbents, many of whom are freshmen who were swept into office in the Republican wave of 2010. Additionally, Democrats only have 10 seats to defend in 2016, while 24 Republican incumbents are up for re-election.[2]

There’s a lot of work that needs to get done.  The Presidential race is only the tip of the iceberg.  One could even make the argument that it isn’t even the most important race to worry about.  The House is up for grabs.  There’s an empty Supreme Court seat, and if the House is Red, it doesn’t matter who’s in the Oval Office.  So get out and do work on what you really think matters.

I get it.  You like Bernie’s rhetoric, his issues, his lofty views of how government can and should operate.  They speak to you.  I get it.  You think Hillary is status quo and stale and rigid.  You trust Bernie, you don’t trust Hillary.  I get it.  But whether or not you agree with Hillary’s views on foreign policy and immigration policy and campaign finance, you have to look ahead a few months and realize that there’s a real target you should be setting your eyes on.  It’s not Hillary.  It’s a scary, real, fear-mongering presence.  Whether it’s Cruz or Trump, they are both real and threaten your life way more than Hillary.

The House is up for grabs.  The White House is up for grabs.  This is not the time to take a pouty stance on the sideline.  You’re already in the game, don’t take yourself out.

If you’ve been a staunch Bernie fan, attended rallies, handed out buttons, then don’t back down.  If you do, if you become complacent, if you ignore your Congressional and Senatorial races, if you don’t get on a bus and put time in a swing state, if you disregard your rights and shun your desire to be a part of a movement, then you’re no better than a Trump supporter.

In fact, you’re worse.

A Look Back on a Busy Year

Dear 2015,

Just about a year ago I laid in my bed and closed my eyes as I put on an audio recording of Carl Sagan reading his Pale Blue Dot to me. I reflected on the year I had just had and attempted to look ahead at 2015. The revelation  I had was that I had no idea what 2015 would bring, and needed, wanted, looked forward to not knowing. As I keep up with my tradition of looking back at my year and looking ahead to the next, I am proud of myself for keeping to my promise of not knowing.

2015 was a lot of uncertainty. Would I ever find a job? Would I find a new room mate? Would I get a new couch?

The beginning of 2015 casted a fair amount of doubt. Through the first several months of the year I was rejected from job after job. I was even turned away from more than one position that (I thought) were created specifically for me. It’s a hard feeling to describe. There’s an old Aerosmith music video in which a high school kid sort of Frankenstein’s/clones girl just to fall in love with him, and each one he makes goes off with a different guy (until he finds his nerdy friend in the end). It kind of felt like that.

I found odd jobs. I found a new work home. I kept moving forward. I learned to be ok not knowing what job was coming next.

I produced a video that intro’ed a workshop at the Tribeca Film Festival. I worked for a conference of some of the smartest people in the world. I produced a video for a fashion show.

My project HeartGov picked up steam and grew. Another project I’ve been helping with picked up a grant. One of the projects I worked on hired me on and flew me to Europe. I was written about in Time Out New York as an Undateable.

I traveled to Iowa, Wisconsin, Czech, Montreal, Puerto Rico, Hungary, and Germany.

I took on more work than I thought possible and started cobbling my life together. I got a new couch. I led a storytelling workshop. I finished a TV pilot. HeartGov opened up doors for low income people in Austin. Councilmatic launched. I officiated another wedding.

I work more and more with people I love more and more at Civic Hall. I went back to Prague and expanded my work load with Democracy 2.1. I wrote and performed a bi-coastal storytelling show with my friend Jake. I did more and more and more.

Now, as I look to 2016, I can’t help but feel like I don’t need to do more. I need to do better. I need to work harder. Communicate better. Write, perform, and support my friends and colleagues better. Do better is going to be my motto for 2016. Keep expanding, keep growing, keep reflecting. Now that I have all my objectives, it’s time to execute them and not make any excuses.

I was recently talking to a friend of mine about storytelling, producing shows, and she asked me the great question: “why do we do this?” Above all else, in 2016 I want to ask myself “why am I doing this?” more and more. One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned in 2015 was that I matter, my time matters, my feelings matter, when I make decisions about, well, everything really. It seems like it might be obvious, but the next time you make a decision about work or a relationship or even what you’re doing this weekend, are you asking “what should I do” or “what do I want to do”? There’s a fine and complicated line between the two. I learned what that line’s importance was in 2015. At least, I began to, now I just need to be better about asking myself those questions. Question better. Act better. Respond better. Do better.

See you in 2016!

Happy Democracy Day

Happy 4th of July!
Happy 4th of July!

Democracy takes many forms.  The goal of HeartGov has always been to simply create connections between government and people.  State Senator Jesse Hamilton, who has been a supporter of HeartGov from the beginning, wanted to see those connections happen, even if they weren’t about broader issues.  He believed that sometimes it would be nice if government just reached out to send warm wishes.

Earlier today we sent out a text to some constituents simply wishing everyone a happy 4th of July weekend.  That’s all.  Sometimes it’s nice to just reach out and send warm wishes to someone.  Government isn’t all town halls and legislation.  Sometimes government is just your neighbor saying hello to you.

The above picture is a graph of the messages as they went out.  The above picture represents an hour of true democracy in action.

Happy 4th of July everyone!

Real Change Happens in the Supply Closet

(editor’s note: this project took place several weeks ago.  I’ve spent the last few weeks looking back and reflecting.  Some of these notes were written right after the project ended, some were weeks later)

After two extraordinarily long and busy weeks of working on this project, I was walking to my local watering hole when I walked past a drunk hipster yelling into his phone.  It wasn’t that late, maybe 10 or 11pm, so his ranting was more driven from passion than from PBR, and I overheard him say the following: “we just need to act like people, you know?  If we just acted like people, like decent people, then we could fix anything.  We could fix hunger in Africa.”

The project I’ve been working on the last few weeks is one I’m proud to have worked on, and it also contains a lot of people, organizations, and acronyms, so bear with me.  First, there’s participatory budgeting, which I’ve written about here.  The basic idea is that local politicians will give their constituents the ability to propose and then vote on projects funded by the Councilmember, in a real embodiment of democracy.  Next is Stanford, who are looking at ways to improve crowdsourced democratic processes.  And Democracie 2.1, who I was working with directly, are looking at a new method of the voting process that will root out corrupt extremist parties and give the middle more of a voice.  These three converged to the PB process last week to bring digital ballots to New York for the first time ever.  We wanted to introduce digital ballots into a voting process for many reasons – saving money on paper, the ability to randomize to eliminate bias, accessibility – and the goal of the project was to introduce the concept to voters and see if it worked.

So we brought laptops and tablets to 5 districts, put them in front of people, and let them vote.  My job was organizing and coordinating all the field work.  That meant volunteer recruitment, training, coordination; equipment organizing, transportation, coordination; and then staffing the voting sites myself.  The work I took on was very much in the trenches, in the details, and mostly inside a massive spreadsheet I was living in for weeks.  I had to know where every laptop, mouse, wire was, who had them, how long they needed to be there, where they needed to go next, etc. for the 8 days of testing.  A rather large logistical undertaking for sure, but the key for me was to always keep perspective.

When your job is in the minute details of an operation, you need to be able to see the bigger picture.  You can get lost in the details of who goes where and what goes where and when, but the why is just as important.  We wanted to explore ways of opening up democracy to people using technology.  D21 is exploring ways to bring a more open and equitable democracy to the world.  And as much as the concepts all ring true, as much as the theories all seem right, until you can show that something works, until you can show the practical application of it, it’s just a thought on a napkin.  Taking something from that to real institutional change takes many, many steps.  The first part of those steps: making a giant spreadsheet.

The day before testing began we had to get our equipment into the supply room we were staging out of for the week (at the lovely Civic Hall) and we had to move a lot of boxes from our training room in a hurry before they closed for the day.  While I was shuttling boxes back and forth, I paused, and had a moment.  I thought, “this is it.  This is actually how we’re changing things.”  We were bringing new technology to open up accessibility to a purely democratic process, we were giving voice to people, but most importantly, we were carrying large boxes of flyers and cables back and forth between closets.  That’s the only way it happens, that’s how change actually happens – with carrying boxes back and forth.

You need to have big ideas.  You need to have a vision looking years into the future.  But you also need to carry things with your hands.  The drunk hipster was, not surprisingly, shortsighted.  We can’t just act like people.  We need to work.  Acting like we’re nice and decent humans only gets you so far.  You need to show it with hard work.  That’s how you fix anything, not by acting but by doing.

While we were testing the digital ballots, I was staffing a station in a district office in Brooklyn.  A man came in who was wheelchair bound, with a serious muscular disease.  He initially said that he needed someone to fill in his ballot for him, which he was used to doing at that point.  After he looked at the laptop alternative he said, “I can use this.”  And he did.  He voted using his own hands.  His vote doesn’t count any more than if he voted on paper and someone else filled in the bubbles for him, but he got to do that himself.  That only happened because someone had a big idea, which was broken down into smaller ideas, which was broken down into tasks, which were divided up in a spreadsheet, which were carried out by hard work and carrying boxes around.

What’s in an Ending?

Ever since Mrs. Kaplan’s 4th grade class, I was taught about the importance of story structure.  You have your beginning, your middle, and your ending.  This was the structure used for essays, stories, poems, eventually term papers, eventually screenplays, eventually one man storytelling shows.  It’s also a structure that follows us beyond the medium of writing.  Our relationships have beginnings (first dates), middles (being comfortable enough to pee with the door open), and ends (oops).  Our professional lives have beginnings (interviews and first days), middles (water coolers and office parties), and ends (oops).  We’re in a constant state of being either in the beginning of something, the middle of something, or the end of something, often times at overlapping intervals all at once.  A few months ago I was given the opportunity to work on a project that’s had me re-imagining this structure, and wondering about the importance of endings.

A few months ago I was invited to partake in a one day design session hosted by FIT.  FIT, if you remember, is a team that looks at innovating around disaster relief.  This one day session was a pure brainstorming session based around one issue – flooding in Pakistan.  The goal was to come up with 2 ideas of something that could be prototyped and then presented to a non-profit that’s been doing work with Pakistanis around disaster relief and emergency preparedness.  That was our beginning.  We had 1 day, some paper, a lot of colorful markers, and open space for creativity.  We split into two groups, mine being myself and Steph Brown.  We started our process very simply, very broadly, by writing down “storytelling”.  And then we dove in.

Screen Shot 2015-02-02 at 12.52.58 PM

The term “storytelling” is one that I grapple with on what seems like an every day basis.  Ever since diving into the storytelling community just over a year ago, it’s a conversation I have a lot.  What does storytelling mean?  In some ways, aren’t we all storytellers?  What constitutes a story?  Is a painting a story?  Of course.  Is architecture?  Public policy?  Culinary arts?  Sure, why not.  The sort of institutionalization of “storytelling” as a specific medium, ala the Moth, is a relatively new medium, especially when the argument of “weren’t cavemen who drew on walls also storytellers?” comes into play.  I have personally fallen in love with storytelling as a medium and have fallen in love with its powers and ability to bring together a community, also ala the Moth.  Having had the opportunity to work with their Community Program, I got to see the power that the storytelling process can have on people, both old and young.  There’s something special that happens when you sit down with people and bare your soul.

I think back to working on my one man show with my wonderful director Nisse Greenberg.  Sitting in his kitchen, eating freshly cooked vegetables, and just talking about the lowest points in my life.  Not just what happened, but what I felt when they happened.  The story, as Nisse would show me, is not the story of me thinking I had a job and moving back to New York and then not getting it.  The story is in the moment when I was sitting in what I thought was an introductory meeting and the moment I realized it was just an interview.  That moment.  The story isn’t about my friend who committed suicide the night before our senior play and how it resulted in me dressing up as a female monkey, the story is in the moment I was walking down the hallway to the dressing room.  The stories are in the moments we don’t think about mostly because we don’t want to think about them.  But these moments are the ones that we need to bring up, that we need to talk about with each other.  These are the moments that we wanted to foster for Pakistani flood survivors.

We started by talking about what modes of storytelling we could use.  What issues we wanted to bring out.  The tree branches of ideas grew and grew, some spiraled into vortexes of unusefulness, some begat new ideas.  This was our middle.  The middle of something is often the messiest, because you’re constantly creating and, in my opinion if you’re doing it right, breaking the rules.  This was the meat of the relationship, the most pressing work project, the action.  We start to narrow down our rules – we want to think of something that will be low tech.  Web?  Video?  No, too much.  Cell phones, SMS?  Good, but can we get it even less technical?  What does that mean?  New rule – accessibility.  We want to think of something that can be used by everyone.  New rule – replicability.  We want something that can be used by anyone whether or not there’s someone there telling them how to use it.  Where did that leave us?  Around our lunch break.  What was our purpose?  What was the goal?  To help people who had been through an ordeal we couldn’t even imagine.  Well, why don’t we just have a space where people can talk?  No tech.  No flash.  Just people sharing their stories.  So we took that idea, we sprinkled in some structure and rules that someone could implement, and we came out with an idea that we’re now calling the Story Troubadours.

The idea is pretty simple – create a space for communities to share stories amongst each other.  FOCUS, the group on the ground that FIT has been in partnership with, would set up the infrastructure and establish the idea, but then the communities themselves would gather and share stories with each other.  The stories would be focused on ideas that had some sort of tie to survivorship: coming home, rebuilding, passing information along from generation to generation.  What can we learn from our pasts?  What can we do to prepare in the future?  People should gather at community meeting places, and once FOCUS sets up the structure, it’s all community led.  Essentially, there would be a beginning and a middle, but no ending.

Troubadour template - FITFOCUS

Endings are important.  They help us wrap up what we just experienced, help us grasp what we learned, help us unpack or pack up what we need to move on.  They help us evaluate the effectiveness of a project.  They provide us with information on how to make something better next time.  But sometimes we don’t get the ending we want or deserve (I’m looking in your direction Quantum Leap, which wasn’t sure if it was being renewed or not, so it just ends with Sam jumping at the end and WE NEVER KNOW IF HE GETS HOME OR NOT).  Sometimes its ok if there isn’t an ending.  Sometimes its better if there is no ending.

I think we’re more and more dependent on endings, and it diminishes our beginnings and our middles.  We get wrapped up in the evaluative measures of something to wonder how well we did or if we impressed someone, we lose sight of what we’re actually doing.  We focus too much on where a relationship is going rather than the relationship.  We think about promotions and moving up the ladder rather than on the work in front of us.  I think it’s ok for there not to be an ending for the Story Troubadours, I think that’s part of the point.  In a storytelling class I took at the Magnet last year, someone asked the teacher (Adam Wade) how he comes up with some of these stories, since it seemed like some take place over the course of many years.  He explained that stories aren’t ever set in stone.  It’s not like you tell a story and then that’s it, but that they evolve over time.  The more he lives, the more he experiences, the more he learns, the more his stories change, and that’s a good thing.  There isn’t necessarily an ending, and there shouldn’t be.

We have since worked more on the project, worked up a prototype, and it’s now on its way to FOCUS to implement in Pakistan, which I could not be more proud of.  What started as a single word on a piece of paper written down by 2 people in a small room with magic markers is on its way to hopefully impacting real lives.  Will it be successful?  Will it help anyone?  That’s part of an ending not yet written.  But I’m growing more and more appreciative of embracing that.  I’m more and more happy falling deeper into the beginnings and middles.

Sorry Mrs. Kaplan.

Dear 2014 – With a Carl Sagan look ahead

I have a long standing tradition of writing letters to the year that is about to pass us by.  In 2013 I wrote about how 2013 was a transitional year of sorts that set up a lot of work for me to do in 2014.   2012 was a year that forced a lot of action to take place in 2013, and much of the last several years all came to a head in 2014.  Now, usually I have reserved writing these letters to my years on my Tumblr, but seeing as how Olivia Wilde and Jason Sudeikis are happily together and have a child, and this blog is more about process, and 2014 was such a year about process, I’ll write it here.

Dear 2014,

You sure have kept me on my toes.  In 2013 I knew that I had set up a lot that would all come to fruition in 2014, but I had no idea just how much I would be doing in the last 365 days.  To be perfectly blunt, I just did so much in 2014.  It wasn’t a theoretical year, it wasn’t an abstract year, it was a year where I had to get off my ass and DO things.  Somethings I was able to sit down for those things, but I was active.  I forced myself to be active.  I pushed myself to places and opportunities I never thought I would go.

Considering how my year started off – with an impromptu trip to Atlantic City – I’m pretty pleased with how everything turned out.

A quick recap of some of the things I did this year (in no particular order):

  • Attended 5 weddings
    • 2 of those weddings I officiated.  There are now 4 married people in this world that I had a strong hand in making happen.
    • One of those weddings brought me to a new state I’d never been to, and a city I fell in love with (New Orleans)
  • Involved with FIT (www.fieldinnovationteam.org) I was able to meet a great group of people, and even got to interview the governor of Utah
  • Finished graduate school, defended my Thesis, wrote my Thesis
    • With lots and lots of help from friends and colleagues, I built, implemented, and tested HeartGov in Brooklyn.  I presented it publicly, talked to people about it, got people using it, and look towards building it into my future, whatever that holds.
  • Didn’t move (this is a big accomplishment for me)
  • Started a storytelling show – So What Happened Was allowed me to grow as a storyteller and performer, but it also opened up a new community of wonderful people to me.  The show is going strong and will continue monthly through 2015.  
  • Became a CERT team member – wanting to get more involved with the community I joined CERT in Brooklyn 7, which I hope to continue to grow in.  
  • I hosted Thanksgiving dinner with my family.  My Mother got to put her feet up and play on her phone while her kids made the turkey, which we brined in my trashcan.
  • Appeared on numerous podcasts: I was lucky to be asked onto podcasts, including Can’t Make This Up (twice!), Abe Lincoln’s Top Hat, and the Brighter Side
  • Attended PDF (Personal Democracy Forum) where I was able to “meet” Edward Snowden, and meet a group of people who inspire me every day of my life.
  • I went to Vegas for a bachelor party.  There will be no links to pictures from this, but I’m just glad we all survived and can live to tell the tales.  Or not tell them.
  • 10 year anniversary show – with the help of the Tank and Nisse Greenberg (as well as Adam Wade and numerous other friends), I was able to write and perform a storytelling show celebrating my 10th year of living in New York.

I taught classes in storytelling, in media producing, I took classes, I attended meetings, I went on trips, I got a foosball table, and I experienced all of the ups and downs that come with living amidst the chaos which I’ve grown accustom to.  This year I’ve learned how to experience more.  I learned how to find myself within these events, not just look at them after the fact.  The snapshots we take, both mentally and on Instagram are important to take.  The moments we remember are what stay with me more than the events themselves.  It’s not easy to key into these, it’s not easy at all, especially when you live in an unstable environment.  But I’m learning to be more open to it and to experience it more.

2014 was, needless to say, a busy year.  But I wouldn’t have had it any other way.  If 2013 set up 2014, and 2014 was all action, what does that mean for 2015?  Is 2015 another transitional year where I have to set more up for 2016?  Will there be as much to do in 2015 now that I have started and finished so much in 2014?  I think more than anything 2015 is a mystery, and I want it to be.  For the first time in a long time I don’t know what’s coming next, and I need to be ok with that.  I see 2015 as a test for myself: can I walk into a world without sure feet?  Can I walk into a world that’s dark and murky?  Can I trust in myself and the people around me to keep me from falling?

In that vein, I want to leave 2014 with these thoughts, from Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot”:

We were wanderers from the beginning. We knew every stand of tree for a hundred miles. When the fruits or nuts were ripe, we were there. We followed the herds in their annual migrations. We rejoiced in fresh meat. through stealth, feint, ambush, and main-force assault, a few of us cooperating accomplished what many of us, each hunting alone, could not. We depended on one another. Making it on our own was as ludicrous to imagine as was settling down.

Working together, we protected our children from the lions and the hyenas. We taught them the skills they would need. And the tools. Then, as now, technology was the key to our survival.

When the drought was prolonged, or when an unsettling chill lingered in the summer air, our group moved on—sometimes to unknown lands. We sought a better place. And when we couldn’t get on with the others in our little nomadic band, we left to find a more friendly bunch somewhere else. We could always begin again.

For all its material advantages, the sedentary life has left us edgy, unfulfilled. Even after 400 generations in villages and cities, we haven’t forgotten. The open road still softly calls, like a nearly forgotten song of childhood. We invest far-off places with a certain romance.

It is beyond our powers to predict the future. Catastrophic events have a way of sneaking up on us, of catching us unaware. Your own life, or your band’s, or even your species’ might be owed to a restless few—drawn, by a craving they can hardly articulate or understand, to undiscovered lands and new worlds.

Goodbye 2014.

Best,

Asher