Examples of meta stories from narrative analysis

In my previous post, Narrative analysis with benchmarking, I explained how you can search and filter among tens of thousands of stories in the GlobalGiving Storytelling project in a few steps:

story-exploring-babyblueMy hope is that by making it easy to explore the rich data we already have, we encourage project leaders, community activists, entrepreneurs, researchers, and other curious globally-minded people to think about our world, and continuously refine their ideas:

story-exploring-curiosityThis behavior is the essence of a knowledge feedback loop; you learn things that help you, so you keep trying to learn more. As the diagram also shows, the tool requires your own curiosity, ideas, and sweat to work.

As a tool builder, I can help by creating a simpler interface and the means to manage knowledge. I have started baking in controls that hide data when the quality is poor, so that you can trust what you see. Future upgrades will allow users to import any data set from a spreadsheet (CSV), google spreadsheet, or RSS. And more advanced statistics are coming. The system is already extensible, for those who are thoughtful and creative in how they filter stories.

But this tool will only change projects — and improve lives — when the people who use it are free to work within their organizations in a true idea-experiment-cycle:


As of today, I’m am happy to announce that everything one needs for the analysis and experiment parts of the loop is available online, for free, and has been extensively tested:


We’re just looking for the missing ingredients – thoughtfulness and curiosity – that only you can provide. If you work for an organization, you should sign up for a training program that will not only help you “jump tracks” onto the innovation-cycle one shown here, but might also help you win more funding grants:

Apply Apply to the storytelling-grantwriting programme

Owen Barder recently wrote an essay which underscores the importance of putting more tools like these into the hands of those who will change the world, because “solutions” cannot be directly copied. They must be reinvented for each local context:

owen-barder-twitterWhere it is not possible to replicate success directly, it may be possible to support systems to enable them evolve more rapidly and more surely towards the desired goals. – Owen Barder

“Evolve” is precisely the right word, as I’ve explained previously. If you’re looking for ways to boost the rate that your organization learns, you may find these next illustrations inspiring.

This approach is about applying simple rules to semi-structured content, with complex consequences. The compare tool allows you to search for two collections of stories. You “build” a collection by choosing which answers to questions matter to you, and which words in stories people share are relevant to your idea.



Example: Female Circumcision vs Female Genital Mutilation FGM

There is an organization in Kisii, Kenya that rescues girls from families and gives them a home in a boarding school, so that they can escape female genital mutilation (FGM). The language they use is very different from the language that Kisii tribe members use to describe the same thing.

On the left: stories about “female circumcision” excluding the word “hiv.”(male circumcision has been shown to reduce HIV infection rates, so I’ve excluded those stories)

On the right: “genital mutilation” or FGM:


The size of the people represent the proportion of stories that come from those demographic groups. The color (red-yellow-green) represents how negative or positive stories were compared to what we expected (based on all stories collected). This is how you read it:

reading demographics icons - and school

The teenage boy icon is larger because they are more likely to talk about “female circumcision”; the teen woman icon is smaller because they are less likely. No girl icon appears on the left because no girls used those words at all. Some girls did talk about FGM, and these icons are red because these stories are associated with negative emotions. (We asked them how they felt about the story they told and they checked the box for a negative emotion):


Upon merging (dividing left by the right), you see that women and men have very different perspectives on the issue.


Men are very positive about “circumcision” whereas women are negative. The women icon is smaller, because women are more likely to talk about FGM and not “cicumcision.” And looking back at the demographics that were merged, men were less likely to talk about this than some other topic. It seems to be unimportant to older men and women, and more important to younger people.

How is this useful? If you are Kakenya’s Dream, you could use this in a grant to underscore just how divided the community is about FGM. It would also be fair to include narratives from those who vehemently oppose your work, so you can talk about your efforts to reconcile “tradition” with the rights of women.

While I’m at it, why don’t we just broaden our search and see how people talk about those two ideas? I’ve searched for two new collections. On the top, stories with  (women and rights) or (FGM or mutilation). And on the bottom: (tribal tradition ethnic kisii) and “practice”:

women-rights vs traditional practices

Explore narratives with bubble plots

The bubble plot tool puts all the words that get used “enough” into bubbles and sorts them up or down, depending on how often they tend to appear in either the top or the bottom collection. Words more likely to appear in the overall 57,220 stories are excluded. Common two-word phrases (“human rights”) also appear and gobble up the individual words (“human” and “rights”).

Bubbles are more like the tea leaves of understanding people and cultures. Sometimes the patterns are meaningless, and sometimes they offer deep insights. It is up to the reader to decide what to focus on, but the basic computer filtering ensures that anything you see appeared in a good portion of the stories. When you understand what you are looking at with the basic bubble plots, click the [CUSTOMIZE] button next to the bubble button and change how it calculates and displays patterns. Like with the compare tool, I tried to hide the full barrage of options. This is a new way to interact with data, and it may take an hour of playing iteratively before you can really get the most out of it.

So what do these bubble say about women’s rights vs traditional, tribal practices? Well for starters, women’s rights are human rights (to those who talk about it) and female circumcision is NOT a part of it. Also – the other side is very concerned about HIV/AIDS, and stories about “practices” include specific mention of “old men,” “early marriages,” and “young girls.” So I would venture to say that any successful program needs to deal with the practice of old men marrying young girls under the guise of “tradition” head on to be effective. Rescuing girls from homes may not do much to improve their lives if they later return to the village and are forced into marriage to old men.

Example: What is “food security,” really?

By comparing stories with the NGO speak “food security” against a much larger collection of farm-grow-plant stories, we see who talks about it, and what words they use:

food security mostly adult women and positive biased

Adult women talk are more likely to about food security. The topics generally are more positive than the typical stories. Below: words above the dividing line are more likely to appear in stories about “food security” than other stories about farming, growing, or planting.food security vs grow-plant-farm

What do girls dream about, hope for, or want?

By searching the texts for phrases “I dream” “I hope” or “I want” and then splitting left/right by female-male, you can see…

what kenyan and ugandan females dream hope for or want

Girls are much more likely to frame their aspirations in a “if I work had… then…” mindset than are males. (Words above the line are more often in female-narratives; below = male centric words). Boys talked about World Vision much more. And both sexes talked about education and starting a business equally (bubbles on the line).

Taking a broader step, you can see cognitive patterns change in women throughout life in rather interesting ways:

women hope and thinkIn stories where women talk about “hope” and use at least one thinking word, they tend to be more negative than women who hope for things without thinking much about it. As women get older, stories of hope are more likely to be negative, but especially so if they have also thought and written about examining it.

The author of the book, The Secret Life of Pronouns, finds a similar pattern as we see here – critical thinkers are more negative about the events:

people are less introspective as they grow older

But the other trend is something unique to our international development storytelling: People become less likely to describe a story with introspection as they age. I’ve speculated this is because government and civil society don’t listen.

Returning to the “hope, dream, want” collection – after you merge both collections, divinding patterns on the left by those on the right –  fun, freedom, and respect are the talked about more by women than men. And whereas women are more positive in their stories tagged with fun and freedom than men, respect is neutral. From the two stand-alone data sets (upper left and upper right) it is clear that these aspirational stories tend to be more negative than the typical East African story collected.


School Uniforms in Busia

Innovations for poverty action ran a randomized controlled trial in Busia a decade ago, proving that providing school uniforms improves school outcomes and is more cost effective than school fees. Looking only at stories from Busia and comparing “uniforms” stories to “school” stories (it will automatically remove overlapping stories from the benchmark for you), we see:

uniform-vs-school-busia merge

Teen women talk about uniforms positively, but younger girls are slightly negative, compared to stories from them about school. Adult women are also negative, and men 17-30 do not talk about uniforms at all. The topic analysis shows that uniform stories are much more about security, and less about knowledge (the books are smaller). Looking at Busia, then Kenya, then East Africa – I find that uniforms are a much less talked about problem than school fees.

Point of view: When ” I ” go to school

Words above the line come from stories that mention “school” and include first person words, such as “I” or “my”. Below: a random selection of school stories. Note how the top is about who the person has to thank for education (mother, father, god, family) and include a lot of positive words. Below, impersonal groups appear (orphans, students, village, pupils, schools, youth, teachers, needy, girls). “I” stories are much richer (higher quality data) because they can teach us more from specific anecdotes than the generalized observations of the stories below the line.

Analyzing Tip: search for ” I ” instead of just “I” so that djotjog.com/compare/ finds the space before and after the “I”. Otherwise, all stories containing a word with an “i” in them would be included.

school i-words or without

When you look across two of these examples (people who are thoughtful and introspective in their stories vs those who tell a school story from their own perspective, we achieve nearly opposite patterns in what is positive and negative:

school i-words vs why stories icons

Children (especially boys) are more likely to ask “why” in a story about anything, and these stories are always more negative. Telling a story about school and putting yourself in the story is typical neutral. But when it comes to stories about the topic of respect, both groups are more positive than the rest.

Program-specific benchmarking

The next four examples use stories about specific organizations or projects and compare them to their respective issues.

  • The Mrembo project was designed to train adolescent girls about life skills and avoid teen pregnancy and early marriage. It eventually focused on preventing sexual assault and rape because of the storytelling project.
  • Tysa is a youth-sports organization. Looking at stories about them compare to their benchmark (youth sports stories), they do a lot more to pay school fees, target young girls more, and work with parents more.
  • Retrak is an organization that works with street children in Kampala, Uganda. These stories show that family problems are a major influence in why kids run away.
  • Comparing the “Street children” stories to a random sample, we see what is least related in all of development: water, health, HIVAIDS, development, business, and women. All these other issues come up more often in stories NOT about street children.



Extensibility is the degree to which an existing system can accommodate new features with a minimum of changes. It’s a word that never escapes the lips of monitoring and evaluation experts, because evaluations rarely boast this feature (By rarely I mean, never, period. Until now). Not that that they couldn’t, mind you – it just requires reworking the way we gather evidence and rethinking the way we organize it.

I made these tools extremely flexible, both in how data gets in and how we pull insights out because it is much easier to innovate by changing your own world than to wait for others to change theirs. But enough philosophizing. Here are examples of new, meaningful ways to interpret story data that are as powerful as if we’d asked users more survey questions. In every case, you can simply cut and paste the “how to ask it” text into the story text search box, and it is as if you are filtering by answers to the question in the “question” column. You can combine them with specific topics (i.e. (“thank you” “to thank” ) and school):



 How to ask it in djotjog.com/compare/

gratitude words Is this story about thanking an organization for their effort? (“thank you” “to thank” )
cognitive words How thoughtful were you in the story you just told? (know knew realize understand understood think thought consider ponder wonder remember cogn conceive believe speculate why )
exclusives (but without except however )
aspirational words Did the storyteller hope for more than what actually happened? (hope aspir promise predict ambition )
organization words Words associated with narratives where an organization was involved. (organization organisation admin accountable addressing collaborating development association “women group” “self help” cooperative constituent intervention “youth group” ministry foundation project program initiative )
negative  words How bad did you feel about the story you told? (” no ” ”  not ” never noone nobody )
negative emotion words (angry depressed confused helpless irritated upset enraged disappointed doubtful alone hostile discouraged uncertain paralyzed insult shame indecisive fatigued powerless perplexed useless annoyed “not happy” embarrassed inferior upset guilty hesitant vulnerable hateful dissatisfied empty unpleasant miserable offensive detestable disillusioned hesitant bitter despair despicable skeptical frustrated resentful disgusting distrustful distressed terrible pathetic despair unsure tragic infuriated uneasy ” bad ” pessimistic indignant )
positive emotion words How good did you feel about the story you told? (open happy good great playful calm confident courageous peaceful reliable joyous energetic “at ease” easy lucky liberated comfortable amazed fortunate optimistic pleased delighted provocative encouraged sympathetic overjoyed joy impulsive clever interested glee surprised satisfied thankful frisky content receptive important animated accepting festive spirited certain kind ecstatic thrilled relaxed satisfied wonderful serene glad cheerful bright sunny blessed merry reassured elated jubilant love strong loving eager considerate keen affectionate fascinated earnest sure sensitive intrigued intent certain tender absorbed devoted inquisitive inspired unique attracted determined dynamic passion excited tenacious admir engrossed enthus hardy warm curious bold secure touched brave sympathy daring challenged loved optimistic comforted drawn confident hopeful )
question words Did the storyteller ask a question in the story? why
discrepancy words Did the storyteller talk about what could have happened? (could would should )
tentative (maybe perhaps sometimes might almost “more or less” )
first person “ I “ is used more by followers than leaders, more by truth-tellers than liars, (” I ” “I’m” “I’ll” “I’ve” “I’d” )
cause-effect Story shows cause-effect thinking (because reason effect ” if ” )
analytical (but without except) and (because reason effect) and [cognitive words above]
black-white thinking Does he/she see world in absolutes? (always never absolutely surely )
relationships (mother father sister brother son daughter grandfather grandmother parent friend lover husband wife relative uncle aunt )
time-space words Associated with truthfulness (day time started year morning evening night) and (after before while next around above often )

My “Claimer” (e.g. the opposite of a disclaimer)

If this kind of analysis seems too abstract to be useful in international development, I’d caution you to try using community feedback to think about the root causes of the problem before jumping to the conclusion that by measuring the countable goods and services delivered better (the “outcomes”), we solve the problem. Today you can study the root causes much easier than ever before, and our understanding of the problem is ultimately going to be the less complex part of the problem to “fix.” As Anais Nin says,

We don’t see things as they are…

…we see things as WE are.

Outcomes vs monitoring: While the logistics of every intervention requires a quantitative measurement and real-time tracking approach, this is not that. USPS, UPS, and FedEx are masters of logistics, but they can’t tell you what to buy your mother for Christmas. This is a tool to understand your mother.

Impact evaluations answer the question, “what would have happened if we did nothing?” and  “What tangible improvements with we make?” This also, is not that. It doesn’t want to be that. Take education, for example. If educators applied the “impact question” they would ask, “how will this lesson plan change a student’s income 25 years from now? How will it make them more likely to vote, to volunteer, to avoid breaking the law, or cheat on their taxes?” This is a performance monitoring system, with aspirations to be a real-time feedback loop system between citizens and civil society/government/corporations/media. I take my lessons from educators who learned long ago that the “impact question” cannot be answered quick enough to provide course-correction (pun intended). Instead, they ask, “what are students retaining from this lesson plan?” and “can they apply what they learned today to real world problems tomorrow?”

Yeah, we’re doing that too. This is part of a larger program GlobalGiving is launching next month to provide all of our partner organizations with real-time feedback on their performance. Specifically, how well they listen, act, and learn in cycles as they do the work they are already doing. By interacting with a website (globalgiving.org) for a few years, they generate a behavioral profile that they can learn from, especially when benchmarked against similar organizations.

If the aggregate-filter-contexualize-benchmark-visualize features of that system resemble this system, it’s because I helped to create both. I think these may become the future steps of all big data learning feedback systems, but what do I know? We in the aid world are still talking about samples in the hundreds when corporations are talking about the coming brontobyte era – where we archive more data each day than we created in past 2000 years. Data, mind you, is not knowledge. You need to aggregate-filter-contextualize-benchmark-visualize it before you can listen, act, and learn from it.

Better narratives are simply better data: The problems in international development are going be an order of magnitude easier to solve if we have richer data. To get it, simply (1) Ask people, on a large scale, what they want. (2) Demand that they get involved in the process if they want it. Many will volunteer to improve their own lives. (3) Work with them to make sense of their own world, and fix the work being done “to them” and not “for them.” (4) When get it, you’ll “get it.”

This iterative approach requires more aggregation and less structure in the data itself. My next batch of tools released will support that need exactly.

Quality control: When working with narratives, “quality control” is not as hard as you think – but you need to follow the rules.

  1. Collect enough: Minimum viable sample size seems to be around 100 stories (when all answer the same prompting question). Collections of stories can be used to build a meta-narrative (and are viable for statistical significance testing), whereas individual stories can only be trusted as anecdotal evidence to support an idea.
  2. Calculate statistical power: Power is the chance of seeing a difference, if there is a difference there to see, and nobody pays attention to it enough. Power is related to sample diversity. Did you get enough independent sources? If you think this is “staff work” and not “community work” then you will fail. There are no experts you can outsource the evaluation to. You must engage your community for it to work. Future tool upgrades will auto-calculate the “statistical power” of collections for you. When you survey both the community and your organization’s beneficiaries you will have more power to detect patterns.
  3. Diversity makes it a meta analysis: The tool tells you how many scribes, storytellers, organizations, and locations are represented in each story collection you build with djotjog.com/compare/. Future versions will have the power to calculate meta analyses, with the power to provide results as rigorous as randomized controlled trials, if you have the power in your sample to detect differences, but without depriving people of what they deserve. In the school classroom example, to truly measure the impact of education, you would need to randomize the classroom and deny half the class an education, just to prove that it matters. We can’t do that. Instead, we have to aggregate real world data and look for natural experiments, such as comparing the thousands of narratives of people already denied an education to those who got the opportunity. It’s not as rigorous, but it will reveal the same answer. The way we “control for other factors” is to have a colossal sample of narratives so that these other factors are in the story but differences in them cancel out. This is the future. And the greater the diversity of sources, the more likely any differences are to be real, robust, valid predictors on a vast scale.
  4. “Ahem, they can see your raw data”: Because the data is public, we can check claims people make against their data in minutes. Wildly speculative claims will be easy to refute. And smart advocates will make more public use of the data in their arguments and reasoning to lend credibility to their claims in a trackable way. It’s like “open-sourcing” the evidence-based-decision-making of the aid world (not that I actually think they make evidence-based decisions, but now they can stop pretending and start attending to the needs, opinions, and insights of citizens.)

Why this is better:

  1. Easier to manage than “quantitative” indicators: Collections are extensible, aggregatable, and comparable.
  2. We can detect and correct bias with narratives, as explained in The Secret Life of Pronouns (James Pennebaker).
  3. Emergence: narratives and brief surveys provide “enough”.
  4. Focused on listening and collecting multiple perspectives.


Why aid fails (syndicated on how-matters)

These are the images that appear in my guest blog on how-matters.com:


I highly recommend you leave my blog and visit how-matters to read it :)

- Marc


fig1 how to use stories to sompare what groups of people think

fig2 adults and men more likely to be affected and less involved

fig3 learning lies at the heart of involvement and failure

This will blow your mind: As people get older, they become less introspective in the stories they tell, asking “why” less and less.

fig4 story perspective - the older you get the less you think critically

djotjog-searchdjotjog-compare-146x75freeBuild your own storytelling project

The curious aid worker




7 days on food stamps – Day 6

As soon as we “cheated” on Valentine’s Day and bought full price happy meals, it got harder to maintain a consistent food stamps diet over the weekend. On Saturday I was good, eating hash browns for breakfast and then fasting all day, until we ate chinese take out for dinner, because I really wanted it.

On Sunday I didn’t try. On Monday I kept it simple: Cabbage, apple, and a slice of pizza for lunch, and homemade burritos for dinner. I costed out the pizza slice at $0.88 (as part of an extra large) and believed I could afford it. In spite of keeping to just $2.38 for the day, I still couldn’t make the processed/restaurant food work on this budget. As tasty as it was, it didn’t fill me up, and I found myself hungry before bed, and I ate at least another dollar’s worth of food after my planned meals for the day were done.

My failure to maintain a $2.83 per day diet is mostly a lack of willpower, because a carb-heavy diet of grains works for billions around the world. The particular context in which I am trying this diet also makes it difficult. If I was living where there was no option for pizza, McDonalds, or General Tso’s Chicken, I wouldn’t crave and cave.

For comparison, Heather provided me with a record of her meals for the past week. Her diet is typical Kenyan cuisine and well within the USA food stamps budget:

Kenyan Diet (for two people)

rice-lentils-kenyaDinner day 1: Rice and yellow lentils

Tomatoes $0.11
Onion $0.11
Rice $0.93
Lentils = $0.81
Total = $1.96 ($0.98 per person)
Dinner day 2:  Rice and greens/mboga
Rice $1.04
Mboga = $0.00 (it was out of our garden!  But if we had bought it it would have cost $0.34)
Onion $0.06
Tomatoes $0.11
Total = $1.22 ($0.61 per person)
squash stew
Dinner day 3: Stew with squash, sweet potatoes and potates
Squash = $0.29 (1/4 of a big green squash)
1 Large sweet potato = $0.23
Potatoes = $0.11 (a few small ones)
Onion = $0.06
Tomatoes = $0.11
Total = $0.82 ($0.41 per person)
Dinner day 4: (Friday night Valentine’s Day out for sushi)
Sushi for two
Total $58.00 ($29.00 per person)

So except for the Valentine’s Day feast, her family eats for about $0.67 per person per meal, or $2.00 a day. This is less than what Americans get for food stamps! And it makes you wonder… why must things cost more in America than the identical foods elsewhere?

The Economic Illusion of Prosperity

This is what my week-long experiment has been leading up to. No matter what I do, I cannot make the meager food allowance of $2.83 work in America, and all attempts lead to a sudden and dramatic decrease in the quality of my life.

If you ask economists why things cost more here, they will tell you that the relative cost of goods is higher in America because it costs more to produce here. They will defend this reality, saying that we pay our workers more, and so they have more purchasing power.


In my experience, the poorest have less here than elsewhere. We pay our workers more in absolute dollars, but not enough for their relative buying power to be higher. When you earn below a certain amount, you will actually feel poorer here than elsewhere. The economists are wrong because they don’t factor in community resilience, nor do they account for the difference in what one must buy in America versus the Tropics; the poor must buy everything at consumer prices here, but the poor (aka the largest class) in Kenya trade with each other in a non-cash economy at a discounted rate that gives them all somewhat more purchasing power.

Prosperity calculations should compare the cost of living against our assets and income. Instead, economists add up all the goods produced and divide by the population to get the gross domestic product (GDP). But GDP has nothing to do with prosperity. Quality life is built on more than what’s for sale, and more than just what we consume; a quality life is built on relationships, joy, meaningful work, a sense of possibility and opportunity, and love. It is foolish to read this chart and assume that the lines that go “up and to the right” are the best places to live:


China and USA are on the same wrong track. Leaders in both countries overwork their workforces to drive the economy and grow GDP, but for the masses, the fruits of that labor increasingly remain out of reach. This chart hides that reality.

Robert Kenedy said, “GDP measures everything that can be counted, except what really counts.” And I am beginning to feel the importance of that statement. Our leadership needs to undergo this experiment and see for themselves what kind of nation they are building through pure analytic decision-making without lived experience.

Day 0: The Menu

Day 1

Day 2

Day 3: Trade offs

Day 4: Community

Day 5: Love

7 days on food stamps – day 5: Love

Relationships take work. Living on a tight budget only exacerbates the challenges for couples living together. In spite of the way that money can strain relationships, Christy and I found that our food stamps experiment revealed the strength of our relationship.

When a work colleague gave her a bag of trail mix, she saved it to share with me. And when a colleague of mine gave me vitamin-C drink mix, I shared it with her. We encouraged each other, cooked together, and shared our feelings about food and hunger daily. Christy said that if we ever had to live on very little, she knew we would make it work.

Valentine’s Day

cubes o love

Valentine’s Day was a worry of ours as soon as we realized it would during our experiment week.

“What are we going to do?” she asked.

“We’ll make do,” I said. “Poor people are still celebrate Valentine’s Day somehow.”

Throughout the week we had been looking for ways to cut corners on our $2.83 daily food budgets, so that we could share a Valentine’s Day feast.

But on Day 1 we used up every last penny. Christy even wandered around the apartment looking for something tasty she could “buy” for $0.02 at the end of that night.

On Day 2 we actually went over a little bit, because we were still hungry at 11pm.

On Day 3 I did manage to save about 10 cents, and on Day 4 I saved 35 cents. But 45 cents wouldn’t buy much.

On Valentine’s Day, I skipped breafast in order to save more. By 6pm I’d only eaten PB&J and an apple for $1.08, leaving $1.75 for the night and saved $2.20 in all. Earlier that week Christy had noticed that McDonalds was offering a $1.00 happy meal special, and so we headed over to McD’s on the way to E-street Cinema to watch all the Oscar-nominated animated short films.

To pull this Valentine’s Day feast in real life, we would have needed to buy the happy meals the day before (it was only a Tue-Wed-Thursday offer) and eat them reheated a day later. But we decided that every experiment has limits, and we weren’t going “all oliver twist” on it. We bought the happy meals at regular price and enjoyed them without a shred of guilt.

It was the best McDonald’s I’ve had in a while – the kind of foodgasm I would get with my first fast food after living a year in The Gambia during Peace Corps.

peace corps tough

It was also the first meat I could have legitimately enjoyed on a food stamps budget all week. McDonalds serves the poor with really cheap food that tastes good, I have to concede – but they are also the number one beneficiary of the food stamps program. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics 42 percent of McDonalds employees are over 25 and have some college – and therefore are trying to living on the wage whether it is a “living wage” or not. Government SNAP benefits subsidize those that don’t earn a living wage, which is nearly all McDonalds employees.

But I didn’t start this journey in order to blame a system for failing. I took the leap in order to understand how living on so little affects the way a person sees the world – for better or for worse. And when I am hungry, getting angry at the system only makes me feel worse. If instead, I look at the situation as would a Zen Buddhist or someone on a spiritual fast, I feel immediately better, stronger, more grounded – even more resilient.

It reminds me of the parable of the monk who is being chased by a tiger.

The tiger corners him at a precipice overlooking a deep chasm. With no choice, the man climbs down the ledge and hangs on to the roots of an old tree, his feet dangling over vast emptiness.

While trying to climb down, he cuts himself.

The blood on his hands attracts a rat, that begins to gnaw on his hands. Slowly, he is losing his grip. Above the tiger growls, daring him to climb back up to certain death.

He cannot hang on much longer.

Out of the corner of his eye, he notices a ripe strawberry growing out of the side of the cliff. He reaches and plucks it. Carefully he bites into it, savoring the juice.

Nothing in life had ever tasted so sweet!

Love is what holds families together, and food sustains us most when we live in daily gratitude for the bounty that life gives us. Whether large or small, anything can be enough where we are surrounded by people that make us feel important, special, valued.

I imagine the hardest part of living on $2.83 a day is the process of arriving at that number and getting a couple to agree to that budget. The system makes it very difficult to know exactly what your monthly benefits will be, exactly, so how can anyone really plan for it? Getting to square one means knowing what your means are and accepting what your daily bread budget will be. If food stamps were at the end of a long, slow decline for a middle class family, it would be that much harder to get the most out of them.

And even when it is just an “experiment” we still found it hard to continue it for the full 7 days, as tomorrow’s post will explain.

Day 0: Menu

Day 1

Day 2

Day 3: Trade offs

Day 4: Community


7 days on food stamps – Day 4: Community

It snowed last night, so we made a snowman:


Christy will likely correct me when reads this; technically, she and our neighbors made the snowman. I just showed up during a break from working remotely to be in the picture.

Today’s theme is community. Christy and I depend on each other for planning, cooking, and moral support. Christy spent hours planning her meals and preparing a precise, well-researched shopping list. And we often do save money by preparing meals for two. Even though I could get more SNAP money if I were living alone, it would cost me more. Let me explain.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to even imagine living on $2.83 a day by myself.

The SNAP law has complex calculations do define people as part of “households” and adjust benefits accordingly. The legalese differs from the African communal understanding of society and welfare because it aims to define a formula for who is most deserving of what, rather than just calculate what a body needs to be healthy and give everyone the same benefit.

Roomers and boarders are not considered as part of a household if they pay a reasonable compensation for their room and board (ref), but moving in with one’s parents does end the benefit – because related people are part of a household. However, if one rents a room in a house (as I’ve often done) and shares meals/cooking with the landlord/roommate, these people are the same household.

The rules around income are quite messy too. Monthly net income limits for SNAP in DC is $958 for one person or $1,293 for two. For comparison, the rent for the last five places I have lived was $1600/3 people, $1200/2 people, $700, $975, and $600 — yielding an average of $681 in monthly rent. If I were on food stamps and making the maximum allowable salary, rent would be 71% of my total take home pay; clearly, few recipients earn exactly the maximum allowable monthly income. Working 35 hours a week and earning minimum wage yields $1155 a month, making one ineligible for food stamps, yet too poor to afford anything but rent ($681) and $474 for food, transportation, healthcare, and egads – entertainment.

That’s why many poor people will work 20 hours a week – earning $660 a month – and collect $170 more in food stamps for a total of $840/month in earnings. It allows them to spend the the other 20 hours of “free time” swapping child care services with other poor people. I did not factor in the $188-$253 per week they would need in childcare in the US, according to the United Way, but they must. There simply is no way to survive without community; Healthcare  ($122/month) and “professional” childcare ($800/month) are simply out of reach.

My rent is higher because I save a lot of time and money biking to the higher-paying jobs that exist in downtown DC, so moving farther away would not dramatically increase my savings when you factor in the extra hours I can work and the reduced cost of transportation. The poor must live together to survive, and they must live near their workplaces. This gives landlords immense power over the poor.

Today for breakfast I had oatmeal, banana, then after snow walking, blueberry pancakes (which are surprisingly affordable). Three pancakes cost $0.66 compared to a PB&J sandwich ($0.62).

For dinner, mac-n-cheese ($0.45), an apple ($0.42), and steamed cabbage ($0.33). The cabbage was so good, Christy wanted me to cook another pot of it.

My daily total was $2.48! I actually saved 35 cents towards Valentine’s day tomorrow!

Christy was feeling sick. She splurged on some get-well staples, including medication and chicken soup. Yesterday we posted a picture of our $11.50 in groceries. What we didn’t post was another $50 in non-food-stamp items we needed to keep the house running:

day three bought beyond food stamps allowance

There is no “emergency” fund in the food stamps budget. In fact, a household with more than $2000 in savings (not counting a house) is immediately ineligible. As these non-food supplies were 5 times more expensive than the regular food budget (medicine is expensive), the system reinforces the need for people to rely on neighbors, friends and community in order to survive.

This revelation came as a surprise to me. I thought the government was responsible for the “social safety net” but that is simply not the case. What would I do for the 30 days it took to get on the program? What would I do for the 5 days if I qualified for emergency benefits? (You must have less than $150 in wealth to qualify)

Christy struggled to keep up this self-imposed austerity experiment, but she was with it in spirit, spending only $4.58 on a day when she was sick and wanted to end it.

7 days on food stamps – Day 3: Trade offs

This morning Christy drank her free nasty work coffee, then took a tums to counter the acid reflux.

“So you’d rather take medicine to maintain your addiction?” I retorted when she told me later.

Day 3 of our experiment to live on $2.83 per person per day has been about trade offs. I skipped breakfast again and then gorged on a big whopping plate of beans and rice over a lunch meeting. That kept me filled for the whole day, which explains why 2 billion people eat rice every day.

At dinner I had plenty to spend. We each had a yummy homemade burrito, but the other staples were getting monotonous. I looked around the house for something besides popcorn, rice, bread, or pasta, before deciding to finish eating the pot o beans and bake a $0.17 potato with butter and salt.

After dinner I was up to $1.40 for the day, and I was too full to finish the potato. My stomach was tired of it I guess.

Christy only ate half her burrito too. Same thing.

So we went shopping in advance of the DC blizzard, and bought $11.50 more of groceries:

shopping day 3 11.50 of food

Here you can see that we’ve got a mix of healthy foods to make us feel normal and totally-carb foods to make us feel full. The mac-n-cheese was only 50 cents and contains over 1000 calories! Woo hoo! As a bonus, the disclaimer says “it may contain milk.” I’m hoping there are traces of milk; I need the dairy.

But in general, I’m trading better nutrition for the feeling of a full stomach.

Having lived around the world and fasted, hunger-struck, and Peace Corps dieted in the past, I thought it would be helpful to compare what can you eat in Africa or America for similar prices:

benachinBenachin (chebuchin), Senegalese/Gambian staple dish ($0.40)cheap bowl o ramenRamen noodles ($0.20)

mukimo-kenyan-foodMukimo (mashed potatoes & maize & collards), Kenyan staple ($0.30)

steamed cabbageSteamed Cabbage ($0.50)

sukumawikiSukuma wiki & ugali (collard greens and pounded maize), Kenyan Staple ($0.50)

baked potatoBaked Potato & butter, ($0.25)

ugandan lunch plateTubers, peas, french beans, rice & carrots — The standard Ugandan lunch ($0.90)

pasta and sauceSpaghetti and red sauce ($0.40)

In most cases, I prefer the African food to the American one. They’re getting more nutritious food and more of it for the same price (my cost estimates are restaurant prices, not home-baked ones).

This drives home an important point: Going hungry in America means depriving oneself of more calories and nutrition than those living on a meager income in Africa do.

Few Americans would believe that. How can food stamps recipients possibly be worse off than Africans living on $2 a day?

happy measuring stick

Economists define “prosperity” – the yardstick that we use to parse better off from worse off – too narrowly. Poverty should not be calculated by taking what you lack and dividing it by what you earn. It should be corrected for strong/weak community support, because resilient communities sustain their poorest. Membership in a group counts for something in Africa, and in America, the poor must look to non-government support networks to survive. That’s why the poor flock to churches or maintain strong ethnic ties to their heritage groups. Otherwise, they’d be starving alone.

If I were an economist, I’d calculate “social prosperity” – the kind of well-being that comes at a discount when communities work together. Trying to survive alone on $2.83 a day is unrealistic. And when people actually do factor more than just needs and wealth into poverty calculations – Costa Rica comes up as the country whose citizens enjoy the highest quality of life (and happiness) on Earth.

And when socio-ecological-efficiency is factored into the prosperity measurement, the United States of America ranks 105 out of 151 countries. Over 100 countries provide their citizens with more using fewer resources!

Day 0: Menu

Day 1

Day 2

7 days on food stamps – Day 2

I skipped breakfast with no time to prepare it this morning. On my way, I saw a Marine recruiting bus with this logo on the side:


And I wished that the rules of my food stamps experiment could allow me to earn a breakfast from the McDonalds across the street. But $2.83 a day is all you get. There’s no way to earn extra credit.

After my meetings at the open gov hub in DC, I caught a bus home to work remotely. My stomach growled. I got to thinking about Nick’s suggestion that I buy a box of Wegmans 49 cent mac-n-cheese:

trader joe mac-n-cheese label mac-n-cheese

Unfortunately, you cannot buy a box of macaroni & cheese in DC anywhere for under $1.99. I looked in four shops and gave up. But I bought some popcorn because it has a wonderfully low unit cost. It will fill us both up after dinner for $0.25 a head.

I also noticed that a can of sardines is only $1.00 (affordable fish on foodstamps!) whereas the cheapest tunafish is $1.80, putting it above my food stamps limit. Now I understand why all the bitiks (village shops) in Gambia, West Africa carried awful sardines and refused to carry tunafish, no matter how hard I lobbied. Tuna is just too luxurious for the masses. Even a bottle of coke (300ml for 3D, or approx $0.20 at the time) was more affordable, which explains why Coke is sold in every country in the world, except North Korea. No other product is as global.

For lunch I had PB&J ($0.62) and a banana ($0.21) but was still hungry. So I boiled a serving of spaghetti ($0.14) and to save money, added a tablespoon of tomato paste, oregano, pepper, and dried basil with some drops of olive oil – rather than use real pasta sauce. This made my meal cost about $0.25 instead of $1.59 – and also explains why Gambian bitiks all sell tomato paste cans (for D3, or about $0.20) instead of tomato sauce. Most rural Gambians live on $1 a day and they simply cannot buy consumer “final” products when the starting materials are about 25% the cost.

At work, Christy had similar adventures. She arrived work hungry, though we’ve only been on food stamps for ONE DAY. Imagine if we had to wait 6 weeks for the paperwork to clear? We’d be totally messed up, nutritionally and psychologically. She drank the office coffee but it was so acidic that she got a stomach ache. She didn’t sleep well the night before. All she wanted was a glass of warm milk, but it wasn’t in our budget.

At lunch her coworker took pity on her and gave her some chocolates and a bag of trail mix – the kind with stale nuts that she would otherwise have refused – but instead today she jumped for joy and thanked him profusely.

“My first thought when he gave me the chocolates was, I wonder what I could barter this for!” Then she realized this isn’t school lunch. Even if she wanted something more nutritious, you get what you get.

“Then, I was surprised to see myself saving them to share with you tonight, Marc,” she explained when she got home. “I didn’t realize I’d put my family ahead of my hunger.”

She did, however, enjoy everything she could afford, eating her sandwich, apple, banana, then shamelessly hunting down some sweet tarts in a common area. An hour later, still hungry, she reheated the oatmeal she didn’t eat for breakfast (because she doesn’t like oatmeal; she’s just eating it to feel full). She added a creamer to it to fix the flavor. Then she just drank four more creamers straight, and felt very satisfied. That finally hit the spot. And it was the only way we could afford to add dairy to our diet while on food stamps.


For the past day she’s had no cravings for chips or junkfood whatsoever. She just wants a square meal.

And both of us are feeling a little sick, though it can’t possibly be due to missing a few calories. I did drink three of the vitamin-C packets my ex-socialworker coworker gave me yesterday. She must’ve known that people get sick when they go on food stamps.

Prison within a palace

We have both fasted many times before. I’ve done a half dozen Ramadan fasts (where you eat nothing from sunrise to Sunset (*which I define as 5pm mostly), and two hunger strikes for political reasons. Christy fasts 19 days every year as a Bahai. But both of us agree – living on food stamps is a very different, surprisingly harder experience.

We’re not sure why. Perhaps it’s a “prison within a palace” feeling. We’re surrounded by plenty, only it’s not available to us. We can’t do anything to “earn” more food. Unlike religious fasting, we don’t break our fast nightly to celebrate with community. This is more like a hunger strike. We remain committed to it not because of wanting to improve our self-image – like a diet – but because this is how people actually live in America. We owe it to ourselves to live with our eyes open to the larger reality.

Food stamps feel like a leaner diet than I ate in Africa. And later this week I’ll post a menu of what Heather has been eating in Kenya with this same budget.

Marc’s total food spent today: $2.24

Christy: banana, 1/2 oatmeal, apple, PB&J, pasta & sauce, spinach, carrot, onion, dressing = 

0.21 + 0.05 + 0.42 + 0.62 + 0.40 + 0.37 + 0.10 + 0.02 + 0.18 = $2.37

FREE: 2 coffees, 6 sweat tarts, 16 creamers, nuts.

Excuse us while we cook another 50 cents of popcorn and gorge ourselves.


Day 0: The Menu

Day 1: Squeezing every last penny out

7 days on food stamps – Day 1

My first day sticking to a food stamps diet went well. In preparing our breakfast the night before (oatmeal in a crockpot), we had to face a trade off. A recipe with coconut milk would have been twice as expensive. To stick to our $2.83 a day per person budget, all we could afford was an apple slice and some free sugar packets from Wendys:

2014-02-10 08.53.24

In spite of Christy’s hours of planning and research, we were not able to afford any milk, meat, sugar, or dairy in our food stamps budget.

Christy       Marc    
Breakfast       Breakfast    
Item Serving Cost Item Serving Cost
Oatmeal 1/2 C $0.10 Oatmeal 1C $0.21
Apple in Oats $0.10 Banana 1 $0.21
Coffee 2 C free at work Apple Oats in Oats $0.10
Total $0.20 Total $0.52

Lunch was a breeze. Peanut Butter and Jelly with an apple and half my breakfast banana. Oh, and one free 12oz coke, courtesy of my workplace.

Lunch       Lunch    
Item Serving Cost Item Serving Cost
PB & J 1 $0.66 PB & J 1 $0.66
Apple 1 $0.42 Apple 1 $0.42
Lemonheads 4 Free at work Coke 1 free/work
Total $1.08 Total $1.08

After lunch, one coworker of mine who was a former social worker took pity on my experiment. “Please, Marc, take these vitamin C packets,” she begged. She has worked with too many poor people who struggle to survive on food stamps. So I took them. I’ll probably add them to my water tomorrow to flavor it up.

That got me thinking on my way home. In real life I’d imagine that churches, friends, and the food bank would have to fill the gap for weeks while the paperwork went through, had I lost my job. And being “on food stamps” quickly brought out the urge by many people to subsidize what the government thinks I ought to be able to live on. I wonder what kind of psychological effect this would have on someone. 

Dinner was yummy, though it didn’t fill either of us up.

Dinner Dinner
Item Serving Cost Item Serving Cost
Bean Burrito
w/ salsa
3/4 C Beans
$0.57 Bean Burrito
w/ salsa
3/4 C Beans
Broccoli 1/2 C $0.28 Broccoli 1/2 C $0.28
Total $0.86 Total $0.86

We both seem to enjoy snacking at night. Christy immediately started tallying up her budget for the day, hoping there was money for another meal. We found we both had some:

After Dinner
After Dinner
Item Serving Cost Item Serving Cost
Baked Potato
+ butter from work
1 $0.17 Baked Potato + butter 1 $0.22
Orange 1 $0.50 Broccoli $0.14
Total $2.81 Total $2.82

But Christy was still not satisfied. For while a while she started unit-costing all the items in our apartment that we can’t eat, because we can’t afford them. “What about one graham cracker?”

She could afford only one M&M. And that would make her even hungrier.

“What about a 1/6 of a candy cane? Those are really cheap.”

Finally, she remembered - “Oooooh! I get to eat my gummy vitamins!”

Technically, our daily dose of gummy vitamins are over 20 cents a person. But we agreed before hand that we would still take them, even though they exceed our budget.


Day 0: The Menu

Day 2

Narrative analysis with benchmarking

I just added this cool feature to our free, online story analysis tool that lets you build two story collections, then use one as the benchmark for the other.


You can use the story text or any of the associated survey questions.


two_2Click to analyze.

Review each collection side by side, before merging. In this example, I’ve searched for stories that contain “lover” to compare against the larger reference group of stories that contain the word “wife” or “husband”:


I was surprised to find that stories about “lover,” “wife,” or “husband” are all more negative than our typical story in the collection of 57,000 stories from East Africa (so the icons appear red). The default benchmark (all stories) isn’t very helpful. But watch…



Click “Merge A/B icons” and it will divide the left “A” side by the right “B” side and re-analyze instantly.

Whoa – something surprising happens when you use the wife/husband stories as the reference collection to compare ‘lover’ stories from East Africa: Stories about lovers are more positive and much likely to be told by men. This is quick-n-dirty gender analysis in a jar, using stories, frequencies, and meta data.


Just because you’re interested, “wife” vs “husband” is also revealing: Men speak more negatively about their wives than wives do about their husbands. And with some more sophisticated filtering, you can verify this precisely.


Go play. The tool is online and takes just a few minutes to learn:



Next: A longer explanation with many examples

Anatomy of a protest movement

In 1963 All Souls Church in Washington, DC paid a high price to support the civil rights movement when their associate minister Jim Reeb was beaten to death by KKK Clansmen in Selma, Alabama. Shortly thereafter, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, which effectively suppressed voter suppression tactics in this country.

Below, I’ll explain why this version of the story makes great news copy but is a poor guide for understanding how a protest movement really begins and eventually succeeds. But first, there’s more to the story.

Last year, 49 years after the Act, the Supreme Court gutted these protections. Days to weeks later, many GOP-led state congresses passed new laws to restrict access to the ballot box.


Within 9 months of the Court repealing key sections of the Voting Rights Act of 1963, all but 4 of the 27 GOP-controlled state legislatures have passed new laws that restrict access to voting, and the 4 exceptions illustrate why this is about one-party rule. Alaska, Utah, and Wyoming are the Whitest and most-Republican states, where denying blacks and latinos access to the ballot would have no effect. And in Missouri three bills were filed, but are still pending:

In contrast, not one of the 23 Democrat-controlled states passed new restrictive voting laws in 2013.

This pattern alone will not convince citizens who applaud the new voter-ID laws that they are wrong. Only by building a conflict narrative from the stories of poor people who try to navigate the broken bureaucratic ID procurement system will we change the hearts and minds of the majority of citizens, who feel unaffected. This “systematic documentation” of discrimination preceded the protest actions of both Martin Luther King, Jr and Ghandi – but few today study that component of their success. That’s why I felt the urge to write this essay on the phases of real protest movements.


Begin with a realistic grasp of the situation

By a recent Washington Post poll, 74 percent of citizens think voters should be required to show a photo ID. Even I believe that, though I think these laws harm democracy in practice while hiding behind the pretense of “rigor.” Leaders who can no longer win an election in which all Americans vote know best how to reframe issues and sell a “bait and switch” idea. So if you want to restore democracy you must study their craft. Begin with a reality check, visible through the contradictions between where people stand in surveys and what our world is actually like. In between you will find many unspoken assumptions.


The numbers prove that for every 100,000 citizens who will not cast a vote because of the photo ID hurdle – erected by one political party against citizens who usually vote for the other party, one person will cheat by not showing a photo ID (research attached). A 1 in 100,000 fraud rate is a lot lower than the electronic ballot error rate of 4.2%, and the paper counting error rate of 1.5% that the public (and the politicians) currently accept without outrage.

  • Assumption: Citizens assume electronic and paper ballots are very accurate, because nobody talks about them.
  • Assumption: Citizens assume lack of photo IDs is a major problem, because politicians and newsmedia talk about it, and pass laws about it.
  • Assumption: Because I have a valid photo ID, everyone must be able to get one easily.

Good information will not fix bad laws. Even if 74% of citizens were opposed to photo ID laws, no one will repeal them without protests. These New Jim Crow Laws are not erected by accident – they are a deliberate, thoughtful, systematic effort to change the balance of power. And now that these laws are in place, they will persist so long as most citizens feel unaffected. The Resurrect Jim Crow Camp knows:


Waking people up

A movement begins with awareness. Few issues are clean cut and isolated. For example, the new tactics of the Resurrect Jim Crow Camp are subtle and based on data mining, which most Americans don’t understand yet. You could try to win every election by one vote and thus gain 100% of the elected seats in Congress, but it is far better optics to win 61% of seats by a 1% margin each, thus ensuring you absolute power while maintaining the public perception of a two-party government. Big Data enables the Ressurect Jim Crow Camp to devise smart “Voter ID” laws that ensure a 51% majority, by doing the math (horrors!) on how to lower barriers to richer, home-owning, car-driving citizens with more banked vacation time, and raise barriers to poorer, hourly-wage earning, home-renting citizens who don’t own a car and move around a lot, and tend to vote with out-of-state IDs as students.

That last statement underscores why it is no longer necessary to enact race-based laws to discriminate. I need only ensure that hurdles to whites remain low while hurdles to students, blacks, immigrants, and the elderly remain high. That is the power of big data and statistics. Casino odds need only be stacked 52% to 48% in favor of the house for 100% of casinos to be profitable. The 1-percenters and their racist allies are reframing their agenda into laws that seem fair, while they exploit statistical covariates in the population to systematically cede power away from the people who did not write these laws. Elections are about populations, so statistics is the perfect 21st century tool.

Waking people up means educating them about 21st century power-grabbing tactics. It means learning statistics and also history.

We are not fighting the world of 1963. People are no longer being lynched in Alabama. Racism is subtler. People will not attribute what they see and feel each day to a voter suppression tactic that happens once every two years. The crimes, electioneering and gerrymandering, are invisible, unless we learn how to connect the dots.

Today’s movements need to exist in social media and on the ground. They need systems to measure engagement and tactics to sustain interest – especially when legislative successes are years away. For voter suppression, the obvious victims of fraud will only surface every two years, so we need to focus on proxy victims of the system instead. For this, I think we focus on people who try and fail to get their IDs ready, and expose the cost (time and money) for complying with this if you are a Democrat versus the time if you are a Republican voter.

Protests like the recent Mass Moral March in Raleigh, NC are what I call “awakening protests.” Just getting anybody to show up is a big deal. Chruches and groups are finding out how to mobilize around an issue. The people who do come are there to be inspired and to learn that they care about the issue. This is not the time to define success by the number of people who attend.

threeCoalitioning and iterative message design

In the next phase – when you have a cohesive organized group –  build a movement. This phase is about relationships, coalitions, framing and reframing the issue. Messaging. Testing and refining until you see incremental change in target groups slowly shifting from one idea to another.

One lesson comes from Arizona, where 54% opposed same-sex marriage in 2003. That number was down to 44% in 2011, with the margin (12%) unsure. By 2013, 55% supported same-sex marriage. Nate Silver of the fivethirtyeight blog (who predicted the 2012 election exactly) documents the ten year trend in public support for gay marriage:


What he doesn’t show is how and why this started happening in 2004. Partly, it was a generational demographic shift, but mostly it came from gay activists sticking to a systematic reductionist (like how scientists study reality) strategy. Just as the GOP pays Frank Luntz to figure out that people who don’t mind “estate taxes” seem to hate the “death tax” – though they are the same thing, civil rights activists can build a coalition by (a) branding gay rights as human rights, (b) passing laws about civil unions and civil rights protections that encompass gays without needing to legally affirmation of the gay lifestyle itself, and (c) using situational narratives (e.g. don’t you think that a loved one should have to right to visit his/her lover in the hospital?) to contextualize and humanize the issue.

What began as a broad issue in the 1980s – a fight for everyone to accept the gay lifestyle – changed into a series of carefully targeted fights where the data showed they could win. It was a “slippery slope” or a “gentle onramp” to marriage equality. This onramp bypassed the debate where everyone had to “accept” the lifestyle; instead they simply had to acknowledge that do define human rights so narrowly that gays were excluded was worse than whatever reservations they had about the lifestyle. And so the public mindset shifted. Acceptance of the gay lifestyle can and will come with demographic changes but cannot be legislated or propagandized into being (see Thomas Kuhn’s book – the structure of scientific revolutions for the theory and my blog about the NFL killing racial stereotypes for particulars).

For a massive issue, such as racism, we need to break it into smaller parts – such as voter disenfranchisement, and then subdivide it further until there are specific issues that we can build a strong coalition behind. Think:

  1. What vision would we achieve with a perfect outcome?
  2. What is the smallest part of that vision that we are willing to accept as progress?
  3. What part of that minimum incremental progress can we likely achieve in the next six months, given current support and resources? (analogous to the minimum viable product concept of Lean Startups)

fourBe patient. Gain momentum by changing behaviors, mindsets, and laws – not by counting bodies at protests or likes on Facebook

Smart coalitions will aim for something doable that is real progress, however small. Progress creates real momentum, whereas inflating protest numbers does not. If you look around and think 8000 people came to a march, it doesn’t serve you in the long term to go along with someone else’s reported turnout of 80,000 people, as many of my fellow protesters were happy to do at yesterday’s march. Just remember – the same news sources you shout at for buffoonery and incompetence every other day are probably your “reputable” source for that 80,000 number when you want to believe that you were part of a mass movement. Mass movements only happen once a decade, and if you need a count to validate your movement as important, you’re not there yet.

Defining success by turnout alone is also lazy thinking – because the hard work to be done happens when turnout is smaller than you’d like and most people are not woken up yet. The big turnout comes after dozens of cycles of breaking the issue – like voter suppression – into small chunks and whacking each chunk out of the law piecemeal. After you’ve had a few successes, you establish a pattern of taking down your opponent’s former fortress of “power=law” defenses around the privileged. Fence sitters will notice and start to show up, and bloat your numbers. I know, because I was the king of fence sitters. For a decade when a good cause came along, I didn’t ask – “should I put my scarce time into a fight because it is right?” No. Instead I asked, “are they likely to win? And will they win this year?”

I, like most fence sitters, made the mental error of thinking that time spent fighting a lost cause or pushing boulders up slopes was a waste. Eventually I realized that phase one marches are about making a change in our own attitudes, life priorities, and economics (buying patterns). Phase one protesting success stems from reading about Positive Deviance and the Diffusion of Innovation guidebooks, and not the lobbyist’s field manual.

Most movements die because people show up on a weekend expecting to change others and give up, never realizing that the early phase of every moment is about changing themselves. If enough people who show up to protest others are themselves transformed, what one speaker yesterday called “incarnation” – a movement will grow up and be ready for the next phase, which is about building relationships between groups and eventually coalitions which pose a real economic threat to the status quo (and thus, have real political power). “Incarnation” Is a good word for it. In greek it means for something to become flesh, just like we fare fleshing out our vague ideas on what will change things, and testing them in smaller experiments in phase two.

Don’t assume that because an idea has been buzzworded, it is understood. “Voter suppression” is a nice clean, tidy concept. But when you break it down into the specific laws that NC passed in 2014, you may not recognize it:

  • No more sunday voting – black churches were riling up the faithful and driving them to the polls right after church, and 88% vote Democrat.
  • One week less of early voting – In the last decade, the trend has been towards more convenience in voting. Poor people and blacks get at most 10 paid vacation days a year, and hourly wage earners get none, so some cannot go to the polls on election day, unless they want to lose wages.
  • Photo ID required

  • Must register months before the election
  • Address on ID must be where you currently live (and it will take weeks to update it each time you move. Note that poor people move often, but homeowners rarely ever move. And Millionaires NEVER move; they just buy 2nd homes). This is targeting students and poor people, and even PHDs like me who would rather change lives as a transient contractor than suck down a fat corporate salary at a pharmeceutical company.

  • Arrested the Moral Mondays preacher
  • Cutting hours at the DMV, to make it harder to get your paperwork in order (soon we’ll be the new shirpa state – like India – where you pay entrepreneurs to sit in line and work the bureaucracy just to get a license).

fiveKeep a generation-sized vision for change

Example, with equal voting rights for all transforming into a real democracy:

Imagine if we held a 21st century election (instead of an 18th century one): voting would start on Oct 15 and go until everyone had voted, with “everyone” being defined operationally to mean close enough 100% of the census (not the registered pool) that the number who have not voted is less than the current margin of victory, ensuring mathematically that the people have all indeed spoken. Anyone not voting would be fined $50 and everyone who did vote would get election day off as a paid holiday, subsidized by the government. Done. Now leaders have to rule knowing that in your next election, everyone you piss off will be required to vote against you.

The government and the NSA can already tell where you were last week, and google can predict your likely demographics, and likely voting pattern from data. This idea that everyone must register for the draft and pay taxes but only some people need register to vote is absurd, outdated thinking – again – by design.

We are the only developed nation that doesn’t make election day a holiday. Those in power never wanted 100% turnout. In Australia they fine you $50 for NOT voting, but when have American leaders ever really wanted a more perfect union? No, they want a union that submits to their will. Americans are the least awake citizenry of the 20 rich nations on Earth.

In the world of my near-future imagination, say by 2020, google will just send you a pre-filled ballot with all the choices matching up your values with the people the algorithm thinks you would like to vote for, and you just review it and submit it. Yes, secret ballots are a great, wonderful idea – but 100% voting turnout and smart balloting is a far more dangerous tool for holding those in power accountable to the people. And since they already know who you are more than you do, it’s time that big data was turned on its head to hold those in power accountable to YOU rather than the other way around.

This, of course, is not going to happen. The people in power don’t want anyone thinking this way. They want you to fear technology unless it helps them consolidate your power in their hands. But you can change your behavior. If you behaved in a way that was aligned with your values, that would really keep them up at night.

Imagine if everyone used pinterest boards to applaud and shame corporations that undermined the common good? As I begin my 7 days on food stamps experiment this week, I am realizing that I have a lot more buying power I could be using at the grocery store than a dozen poor people do, yet I lack the knowledge and the killer app that will filter all the products on the shelf and tell me which ones are the best match between my stomach, my wallet, my health, and my political life.

I recently created a card game (Oh No Jim Crow!) to help others understand just how screwed up the voter suppression laws were in the South. Games are powerful tools, and part of the activists’s arsenal.

Creativity will be part of fighting racism. Now go imagine how you will make your future brighter for yourself and others.

A hundred years ago, one anarchist was quoted as saying, “If voting worked, they’d make it illegal.”

Well, it works. And they’re trying.


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