Crowdsourcing: Looking for Case Studies!




One of my responsibilities at the University of California, Davis, is to develop ways to engage students in “global learning.” Global Learning is a concept that may seem intuitive, and what might come to mind is “study abroad.” While study abroad may be a means of helping students to engage in global learning, it is far from the only approach.

Global Learning, as we define it at UC Davis, is a process of “helping students develop their capacity to be informed, open-minded, and responsible people, who are responsive to diverse perspectives. Global learning prepares us to address the world’s most pressing issues collaboratively, equitably, and sustainably. Global learning helps students understand that pressing issues must be faced in an interdisciplinary way given the complexity of environments and competing needs and interests.”

Teasing that out a bit it includes

  • helping students appreciate diverse perspectives;
  • preparing students to participate in addressing global challenges; and
  • helping them problem-solve in interdisciplinary ways with an appreciation of the complexity of environments in which they develop solutions. 

As you can see, global learning involves building intercultural learning skills and reflection processes and preparing them to solve global challenges.  

Our global learning goals for students are: 

  1. Global Awareness – Students examine actions and relationships that influence global systems from multiple perspectives, analyzing how complex systems impact self and others.
  2. Global Diversity – Students explore complex dimensions of diversity, equity, and inclusion around the world, including language, culture, and identity. 
  3. Global Action – Students create strategies to apply knowledge, skills, and abilities to collaboratively and equitably foster global well-being and resilience. 

A useful way to introduce students to global challenges and global actions is through the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The 17 goals are a concise summary of responses that communities and nations can take to create a more sustainable world. The SDGs are attractive to students because they can connect their interests, majors, and research and internship interests to them and feel connected to efforts that are “bigger” than themselves.

As educators, one challenge is to help connect students to the reality that the SDGs are not merely problems “out there” somewhere in the world but are relevant to their local communities–here in Davis and at home, wherever home might be.

Another challenge is to help students not approach the SDGs as technical problems to be solved via narrow disciplinary approaches. Further, we want them to consider the full historical and social environment in which they develop and offer solutions. 

This means that they must contend with historical forces of exclusion, local power dynamics, questions of equity, and the role of policies shaping people’s ability to benefit from the solutions they offer. 

All of this is a pretty big task, but it is possible by sharing real-world examples to students–case studies.

So, here is my “ask” of you. I want to collect case studies of real-world problem solving around the SDGs (broadly) in a local context you know or about which you have heard. Here are the criteria:

Case studies should

  1. be about addressing one or more global challenges as articulated by the SDGs;
  2. offer a solution or solutions–ideally arrived at through interdisciplinary problem-solving; and
  3. demonstrate a complex social or historical context that affects the solution’s effects on people, how it is targeted, or how people respond to it.

Here is an example from a recent graduate student (simplified):

An engineer seeks solutions to the problem of small community wells drying up in the Central Valley of California. An answer she considers involves diverting seasonal rainwater to locations that will promote recharge. In the process of her research, she discovers that the communities most affected are non-native language speakers–farmworkers primarily. Further analysis shows that wealthy landowners control the fields over which the water must flow to recharge the ground. Finally, she learns that these same communities have been, by policy, excluded from obtaining sustainable water supplies by connecting to nearby municipal water systems.

Notice that this case study does not require proof that the solution will work, but it addresses the sixth UN SDG: Clean Water and Sanitation. Notice also that there is both a social and historical context that affects the solution. The setting determines whether it is feasible, and history demonstrates why other solutions have not worked. Finally, it brings in social science as well as engineering tools to offer a targeted solution.

So, my request to you is to get creative and provide me with some ideas. I can work with them and develop them further as case studies for use in classes and trainings I will conduct this fall and beyond.

I look forward to hearing your ideas!



For weeks I have been trying to define how I feel about my daily work, my regular engagements with family, and my routine volunteerism that spans several different domains. They have all seemed to take on a “sameness”: a sense of everything flowing the same way, at the same pace, towards the same place. 

Of course, they are NOT all flowing to the same place, real or metaphorical, but I have not been able to define the overarching sense of what is happening now all the time.

Until today.

Today it finally came to me that everything I do is “preparing.” It feels like there is no ultimate doing, just getting ready to do something else. Now I know that life is like that. I tell people I train to design better workshops that the time spent preparing the event is what counts. With proper preparation and sound design, the workshop will take care of itself. I believe and have proven it throughout my career.

We don’t just get up on any given day and take a trip. We prepare. We don’t simply get married, or get a college degree, or buy a house. We prepare, sometimes for years, to get to the place where the ultimate “doing” occurs.

So preparing is part of everything. But now, I feel like that is all that is left.  

Maybe every summer feels like this, but I just never noticed. After all, I work in higher education, and summers are supposed to be about preparing. We prepare for new student arrivals, for classes we will teach in the fall, for new activities.  

But this year, life has an aura of being about a preparation that may never lead to anything. I am not morbid (I don’t think). My mind is not drifting to my demise. The feeling is not about me getting older and starting to look for my mortality.

But it is about a road that has no clear endpoint. It is about developing a course I may never give, about contacting students I may never meet, or presentations with no audience. 

It is not just the changes we have experienced. Change is a constant. It is not only the uncertainty of these times.

It is the continually changing uncertainty.  

Even uncertainty has a certain rhythm if you think about it. We know we will live with it for some undefined time but the nature of the uncertainty–will I get the job, will this project be of sufficient quality, will my choices trap me–is predictable. Yes, I said that uncertainty is predictable.

But not this year. The uncertainty has taken on a random quality that suggests that almost anything might happen. Uncertainty has come loose of its moorings in the routine and is adrift in currents that could send it crashing away. And then what?

Uncertainty gone–replaced only by a randomness that makes you fear to peak out the door?

I think it is a particular feature of privilege that says we do not have to stand for the randomness and that we are entitled to our predictable (and therefore controllable) uncertainty.  

I think most people on the planet live with the randomness, not the uncertainty they can control. Further, it is my experience that they spend most of their time preparing

  • preparing the fields,
  • preparing for the harvest,
  • preparing to fend off disease,
  • preparing to face the inevitable losses that will come,
  • preparing for a tomorrow that is too far over the horizon ever to imagine. 

I will get up tomorrow and prepare and, perhaps, be thankful that I will have food in my stomach, health in my body, and a place to sleep when my preparations are all done.

Five Amazing Bike Rides in Northern CA


One of the great delights of my life–that thing, I say, that no one can ever take away–is to have lived, and ridden my bike, in Northern California. When I was young, I loved to bike and dreamed of crossing great distances on my ten-speed. But my meditations never brought me to this place. I could not have imagined it. But now I have had a chance to see it, to ride it, to experience a fantastic beauty that I wish more people could experience.

So, without further comment, here are five of my favorite rides in Northern California. Three of them are done best on road bikes, one is best by mountain bike, and the third is your choice (I have done both but prefer a mountain bike).

Click on the ride name to get “Ride with GPS” route instructions

Delta Loop 

Right off the bat, I must apologize for the starting places of these rides.  Some start from my house or my friend Andy’s house in the Outer Sunset neighborhood of San Francisco.  You should be able to figure out your own start.  This one starts at my house.

Except for the ride to West Sacramento, this is one of the most interesting and beautiful rides in the County.  While the River Road just south of West Sacramento can be busy at times, if you do this ride on a Sunday you are likely to have only four or five cars pass you by the time you reach Clarksburg, and then you will have 20 miles of almost no traffic at all.

I would check with the wind speed and direction before heading out because a southern wind over about 15 miles per hour can make this a tough ride until you head north and the wind will only build the further south you go.

This ride has a ferry crossing!

South of Clarksburg


The 20+ miles from Clarksburg to the ferry on SR84 are among the most beautiful anywhere, passing vineyards, and row crop fields for miles.  Summer can be a great time to do this but fall is amazing.

If someone picks you up in Rio Vista you have had a great ride.  But if you head back north you will go through what I think of as the heart of the agricultural delta, and, if the wind is behind you, you will fly home.

Warning: Crossing the Hastings Island Bridge is trespassing.  I did it, got away with it… but I can’t guarantee you won’t have problems.  My experience is that most people give cyclists a pass.  No promises.


The name of this one comes from a club ride (the club is from San Rafael I think), that I got to go to with my friend Dave Reynolds.  This particular configuration is not the actual Huffmaster route but pretty close.  This is the ride you can do with a road bike (700×30 tires please) but might be more fun on a mountain bike.

If you have not been over to this part of the coastal hills not too far from Clear Lake, CA, and not too far from Williams, CA, I highly recommend it.  The valley is secluded, there is no traffic on the roads and you get to ride through the open range for parts of it.

Unlike the perfectly flat Delta Ride, this one has a fair amount of climbing–about 3000 feet–but it also has a long descent.

Leaving Leesville you are on gravel for about 10 miles and then nicely paved roads as you climb to your first summit.  Then is a mostly downhill section that goes on for about 9 more.

Near Leesville


There are eagles and wildlife in this section.  You bottom out in Sites, the location of a future reservoir that will close this area off from biking if it is ever built.  You then began a long “fire-road-like” climb through pastures, rangeland, and typical coastal hills forest.  The fire road is not too bad.

Do this ride in fall.  In summer it can get pretty hot and most of it is out in the open.  In spring the climb out of Sites is muddy and may be impassable.  Autumn is perfect because there are lots of colors and the air is clear.

This is one of the most beautiful, never heard of rides in Northern California, but you do have to drive to get to the start.

Four Bay Bridges 

Ride with GPS has added this ride to their “Great Community Route Celebration” list!  If you want to see the Bay–actually the “Bays” Grizzly to San Pablo to San Francisco–this is your route.  It crosses these bays four times on interstates and Highway 101, with great views at every crossing. In between, you get to view the coastal hills and Mount Tam (see below).  The crossing of the San Rafael bridge (bridge 3) affords amazing views of San Francisco.


San Rafael
From the San Rafael Bridge

You have to get to Martinez, CA to start this one but a train is an option.  All the crossings are via dedicated and separated bike lanes, which makes for low-stress riding and plenty of opportunities to look around.


My favorite crossing is the Carquinez Bridge (bridge 2) because it provides great views of Mount Tamalpais and a large swath of the Bay.  Amtrak trains pass under the bridge.

Four Bay Bridges
From the Carquinez Bridge

Besides the bridges themselves, the ride from Pinole to Richmond is one of the most beautiful.  It passes mostly right along the bay at water level on dedicated bike paths and then out to Pinole Regional Park.


It is a bit tricky to find your way after you leave the San Rafael bridge but once you do you have to navigate some urban spaces before getting on bike paths that take you all the way to Sausilito.  This ride is challenging at 4000 feet of climbing but the hills are spaced out.

I recommend a weekday for this ride in any season.  Get out early and enjoy the varied microclimates as you go.

Tiburon Loop 

This one starts and ends at my friend Andy’s house so… figure it out.  You can leave from anywhere in San Francisco.  Now I realize that this ride shares some things in common with the Four Bay Bridges ride but, well, I kept it because 1) I love the Bay area; and 2) it has the most fun stretch of riding in Northern California.

Let me explain.  I am from back east and rolling hills are the norm.  Believe it or not they are hard to find in Northern California.  It is either flat or quite hilly, but there are few stretches where it consistently goes up and down for miles.  This ride has rolling hills!

When you leave Tiburon to head north along the Bay you have about 9 miles of sharp turns that rise and fall at a rhythm that make you feel like you are flying.  I love this section through wooded hillsides.  The views are not great but so what?  You are flying!

Mt Tam
Tiburon Peninsula (west side)


The ride out along the west side of the Tiburon peninsula is pretty nice with, again, great views of San Francisco, and you can interrupt the trip and take your bike on a ferry out to Angel Island for a ride if you want (recommended!).

Finally, if you want a bit more of a challenge, when you get back to Mill Valley on the return, head up Evergreen to Panorama Drive and then down into Muir Woods and then back up Route 1 and back to Mill Valley.  That is a hard stretch but it adds the Pacific ocean and great biking.  I know lots of people do not like Route 1 but the climb up from Muir Beach is challenging, beautiful and the cars that do pass you are going very slowly.  Trust me, and take the plunge.

Mountain Bike to Tam Fire Road and Back 

This is a VERY tiring ride. This is 5000 feet of climbing in four steep sections (the third is the steepest), with the final LONG climb on a single track with lots of ruts.  It takes you to the shoulder of Mt Tam and is the most amazing ride of the group.  It is a kind of “once-a-year ride that you do on Wednesday morning if you can.  If you do it on a weekend you will meet avid (young) mountain bikers screaming down at you from Tam and it will not be fun.

I have this one starting and ending at the waterfront near the Transbay Terminal. This ride is all about the Marin Headlands.  It has amazing views EVERYWHERE–EVERYWHERE.  The ride up from the Golden Gate seems challenging but it turns out to be the easiest climb.  Once you get to the Coastal Trail you are off-road for  most of the rest of the way.  You split time between fire roads and some non-technical singletrack.

Marin Headlands

Riding across this part of Marin can make you feel like you are on a lonely Irish coast. 

The ride takes you over several hills until you reach Tennessee Beach and then you get the steep climb up to Coyote Ridge.  I have done most of this ride without a mountain bike but you will not make this climb without it.  You cannot stand on your pedals here because you will lose traction and over you will go.

Expect to ride about 3 miles per hour up this climb but you will be rewarded by any hikers who will look at you with awe (or perhaps they will think you are crazy).

IMG_0054Once you get up, you have to head down to Muir Beach and this is no easy task.  But then you get to climb again all the way to the shoulder of Mt Tam.  This is a long hard climb but… did I mention views?  Mountains and seashore and open pasture and you get to see it all from your bike.  And by the time you get West Point Inn on the shoulder, before heading back, you get views of Mt Diablo, San Francisco and the entire bay.

This ride is so challenging, so tiring, but so achingly beautiful that you will never forget it.  And you will be able to say, like me, no one can take that away from me.

Enjoy the ride.



Community Health Workers: Initial Thoughts


This post is the first in a series on community health workers that I hope will lead to a discussion about expanding this model in U.S. communities. I will provide some limited background to the concept here and suggest some ways to use community health workers. In later posts, I will review evidence of their efficacy elsewhere in the world and the flesh out ways we might use them in Davis, California, and Yolo County, California.

Community health workers (CHW) is a general term that encompasses a variety of functions and activities. In some places, they are called health promoters, peer educators, community health representatives, or health educators.

In general, community health workers are volunteers. That is, they may or may not be part of some formal health delivery system, but they are generally not salaried staff. In some cases, they may receive various incentives or reimbursement for expenditures on behalf of the program (transportation costs, for example).

They are typically members of the community in which they serve. Ideally, they are well known and trusted, speak the local language, and understand local cultural practices related to health-promoting behaviors and healthcare-seeking practices. Because of their position in the communities they serve, they function as a critical link between formal healthcare provides or health departments and community members.

The WHO guideline on health policy and system support to optimize community health worker programs to which I will return in a later post, suggests three possible roles for CHWs:

  • Promotive
  • Preventive
  • Curative

A single CHW may play more than one role: they may provide education on smoking cessation program options (promotive); provide information and access to insecticide-treated bednets (preventive); or provide directly observed treatment of HIV antiretrovirals to those with the virus (curative).

Like all volunteer programs, and especially given the importance of CHWs providing appropriate advice or treatment, CHW programs must pay close attention to recruitment, selection, and training–including some form of certification. They must also provide supportive supervision and continued professional development. Finally, they must assure that CHWs are adequately linked to the formal services they support.

Each of these represent challenges and are a function not only of the characteristics of available CHWs (education level, availability), but also of the complexity and variety of tasks assigned to them.

With this brief background, a future post will provide further examples of how CHWs have been used around the world and the evidence of their effectiveness.

Leadership: Lessons from Mauritania (I)




November 1985. I was 25 years old when I first visited the African continent and began a 25-year apprenticeship: unlearning certain things and gaining new insights into many things I could not have learned otherwise.

We landed in Nouakchott, Mauritania (the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, to be exact). Almost immediately, I joined a group comprised of two expatriate nurses, two drivers, one expatriate project director, and two local community health workers. We headed to the desert north (not the profound north but far enough) to assess the nutritional needs of children in rural communities.

Photos thanks to Jon Shadid, friend, and former colleague

That year was towards the end of a multi-decade drought that had affected the Sahel region of northwest Africa. Villages were disappearing in the sand; formerly nomadic groups were settling in the capital or regional cities; everyone was hungry. When I say “hungry,” I don’t just mean food insecure. People were starving in out of the way places, and we went to find out just how bad it was.

We were going to weigh children, the most vulnerable group in the population, to determine the need for a food relief program the U.S. government was considering.

(I think back on that trip with shame. The children we saw and weighed were in such bad shape that in at least one village a child died before we could even register its weight to compare it to their age. The idea that we had to “prove” the need of these villagers struck me then as bizarre and now strikes me as wrong…)

About 100 km in, we came to the end of the paved road, and then it was a desert track through imposing dunes that were overtaking palm groves and any other living thing in their path.

The hamlets huddled up against the disappearing groves where water was near the surface, and soon enough inhabitants would have to leave to find the basics of life somewhere else. The final remnants of their meager goat herds stood passively by the remaining bushes, and everything was gray.

The two dozen or so hamlets we visited during those five days quickly merged into one another–a few walled compounds with drifts through the doors, roofs collapsing due to disrepair, a few tents inside the mud-brick compounds where people lived. And each community had a tree. It was on that tree that we hung our scale to weigh the twenty or so village children six months to 3 years old.

It would have been better to measure wasting–the weight of children compared to their height to assess the acuteness of the malnutrition, but we had no height board nor anyone trained to use one. We took the weights by sliding the children into a harness and hanging them on the scale, which hung from the tree. We used whatever data on age we could figure out. Most moms had vaccination cards for their children, and for those who did not, we asked when their child was born in relation to the others who had cards.

The results were terrible in almost every case. A point in time measure of weight-for-age is not ideal; you want a couple of points in time to judge a child’s growth trajectory to look for faltering. We could not do that, but the point estimates showed that these children were in a clear danger zone. They were wasting away to nothing.

(I recall picking up a child of just over two who was so light I remember thinking that their bones must be disappearing within them.)

Only three villages of all those we visited remain in my memory. Only two matter for this story. We arrived in the first, pulling in in our aging LandRovers (the only motor vehicles for possibly hundreds of miles around), and a man approached us, announcing himself as chief.

He greeted us with a laugh and welcomed us. He immediately asked what we had for him. He explained that things were terrible and that a little help from us could make things better. He could maybe build a school or hire a nurse (there was zero chance for either of things to happen, and he knew it).

We explained our mission, and he directed us to a tree and began screaming at women to bring out their kids. He had a kind of scourge made of sticks, and he threatened them to fall in line or else. They complied passively, eyes cast down. They, too, were gray. The men hung around, watching, and looking tired. We explained what we were there for and began.

The chief kept up his banter and his endless streams of requests, paying no attention to the women, the weighing, or anything else. He cracked jokes with the drivers and talked about the village’s needs that he needed money to fix and, couldn’t we help out.

Most moms had no vaccination cards, and it took us a while to discern the ages of the children. And when we started weighing, we realized that all these kids were in bad shape–every single one. The nurses whispered to me that most of these kids were going to die, and there was nothing they could do. Diarrhea was everywhere. When we finished, the nurses talked to everyone about rehydration and breastfeeding, and the chief berated the mothers for not doing their jobs. We left stunned. I felt ill, and probably the only reason I did not feel a lot worse is that I did not have any children yet (my wife back in the capital was pregnant with our firstborn).

About 10 to 12 kilometers away, we entered another village. As before, a man approached our vehicles as we entered announcing himself as the chief. He told us immediately that the children there were in a bad way. Had we come to help them, he wanted to know. Could we please check them out? What were his options for helping them? The questions poured from him, and he was desperate to find relief.

We explained our mission, and he went house to house, encouraging people to come. He offered us tea and bid us rest while the mothers arrived. He queried us about how soon the food might come pointing out over and over that the children needed help now. He organized the crowd by asking whose children were sick and needed help the most to line up first. Everyone knew the answers and quickly sorted themselves into groups.

As we began to weigh the children, he asked if we might stay long enough to give the community members advice on how to best care for their children. He begged us to stay on overnight so we could, perhaps, treat some of the sickest.

Every mother had a vaccination card, kept carefully in plastic bags, and the chief proudly told us how he had arranged for a vaccination team to come to the region from the district health office.

And, while the children were not healthy, they were doing okay. The nurses noted this immediately and wondered what resources this village had that others did not. They asked a lot of questions about goat milk, consumption of vegetables (there were none), but in the end, they could not figure out what unique characteristics helped these children be in such relatively good shape.

The nurses provided information on rehydration to everyone and talked about breastfeeding. The chief asked them to identify the children most in need of help and sat with them and the mothers while they counseled them in a smaller group. He encouraged them to follow the advice.

We talked about that village for the rest of our trip. Years later, I would learn of a concept that could describe such cases. We call them “positive deviants:” those places or families where children seem to thrive while others in the same area do poorly. It is always essential to identify the key characteristics of positive deviance, and in that case, we debated it as we drove on through the dunes.

Sometimes, I wonder how many children in those villages lived.

Lesson: Leadership makes a difference. Leaders who are focused on their community, the people in their organizations, and institutions can help create health and well being. Understanding one’s community, and those most in need within it, can and does make a difference to outcomes.

It was the first time in my life that I thought about the difference that a “good leader” could make. And over the many years I spent in Africa, and when I returned home, I found many examples to bolster my conviction that a leader’s focus on the needs of the least in any community is the key to a healthy community.

I still believe that.

I learned that in Mauritania. I relearn it every day now in my country.

Supporting Volunteers in Community-Based Programming


Local jurisdictions and non-profit organizations working in social and community services routinely use and benefit from volunteers’ work. From short-term (or even one-off) service projects sponsored by cities to ongoing service delivery, volunteers extend the organization’s efforts and allow for deeper outreach while keeping costs down.

Traditionally, volunteers may have provided “manual” labor—packaging, delivering, distributing, etc. In recent years, volunteers have been taking on more sophisticated roles—some using technical specialties they bring from careers.  

With an aging but healthy population, the potential pool of volunteers in the U.S. has grown. Also, more universities and colleges explicitly require some form of community service as part of degree completion or value it through transcript notations or other types of credentialing.

While these factors offer great resources to agencies that benefit from volunteers, many may not provide the support needed to maximize volunteers’ contributions, reduce unnecessary turnover, and establish themselves as a “go-to” organization that can recruit and keep the highest quality volunteers.

I offer here three principles and seven practices that can help get the most out of volunteers and create a culture that assures they benefit the organization’s goals. A quick Google search suggests that others have written about these issues, but hopefully, what I offer here is concise and actionable. 

Please feel free to add to or correct the items below.

Three Principles

1. Volunteers are employees – It is easy to separate volunteers from regular staff because they are not part of the “career” pool of workers, are not paid, and, typically, work only part-time. While their roles are different from paid staff, it is critical to view them as staff for human resource management purposes.

This principle means that volunteers need everything staff does—from clear position descriptions, to onboarding, evaluations, recognition, and professional development/training. The complexity of the volunteer work will alter the amount of time an organization needs to commit to any one of these things, but organizations should consider them.

Of most importance is absolute clarity of the role they play in the organization, to whom they report, and to whom they can go if they have questions or needs. Even fairly routine tasks can introduce issues for which volunteers will need support.

2. Volunteers are not employees – Despite the preceding, it also essential to hold the opposite reality that volunteers are not employees in many ways: in things like remuneration, for example, which signal the critical nature of staff to an organization. Employees have required work hours, are expected to communicate absences in a timely way, are sanctioned for inappropriate behavior in defined ways, and typically have recourse to legal and other systems if they feel the organization is treating them improperly.  

I do not want to suggest that organizations should not lay out clear expectations and provide similar protections to volunteers. Even though most employees these days are employed “at-will” like volunteers, the latter are typically not held to the same standards, and sanctions (beyond just asking them not to come back) are lacking.  

This reality has significant consequences: quality control of volunteer work may be more challenging; communication expectations may be more challenging to reinforce, and separation more sudden and unplanned.

3. Volunteers are the face of your organization – Whatever their status, volunteers are the face of your organization, just like paid staff. This is both an opportunity and a risk. It is an opportunity because committed volunteers are community ambassadors who can invite their friends and neighbors to participate in your organization’s efforts. That can lead to increased financial support, provide expanded paid staff and volunteer recruitment pools, and help spread goodwill about the work throughout the community.

The risk is that volunteers will not represent the organization well to clients or inappropriately speak on behalf of the organization to outside groups. For community-facing volunteers, the risks are most significant. Community members who receive services from the organization do not distinguish between the “official” staff of the organization and volunteers—the person in front of them is the organization. Organizational leaders need to pay attention to the representational risks associated with volunteerism.

With these basic principles in mind, I would suggest that there are seven practices necessary to enhance your volunteers’ work.


1. Clear articulation of why the organization needs volunteers and their roles

Every volunteer should understand how an organization can use their help and what the organization expects of all volunteers. Organizations should announce not just volunteer opportunities on their websites and printed materials; they should also define the distinctive role volunteers play and why they are essential. This information should communicate the organization’s high expectations for volunteers, creating a sense of seriousness about the role.

2. Clear job descriptions—including “representational” role

In addition to a general description of volunteer roles within the organization, every volunteer position type requires at least a brief position description laying out needed competencies, critical tasks, and job requirements (including physical ones). Job descriptions are a great place to lay out the “representational” role of the position and what this means for volunteer behavior.

3. Adequate onboarding of new volunteers

Onboarding includes an introduction to the work environment, I.T. issues (as relevant), work hours and expectations, organizational structure and volunteers’ place within it, and principles and practices of conflict resolution (among volunteers or between volunteers and staff).

4. Quality initial training with monitoring to catch ongoing or refresher training needs

The amount of initial training and frequency of refresher or re-training is a function of the complexity of the work, but laying out clear job steps, how-tos, things to avoid, and minimal requirements should be the norm. Given that volunteers rarely come to an organization in a block, this training may have both a virtual (asynchronous) component that goes through the basics; and an in-person part that acts to clarify issues and answer questions arising from the virtual training.

5. Stated communication protocols and pro-active and responsive communication from leadership

Communication protocols include what volunteers should do and commitments the organization makes to volunteers. Of most importance is laying out expectations of what volunteers are to do if they cannot, for whatever reason, fulfill their volunteer commitments. 

Also, staff should commit to regular (weekly or more frequently?) communication to all volunteers and ensure that all volunteer questions receive timely responses. There is no better way to keep volunteers connected to the organization’s ongoing successes and challenges than via regular updates.  

6. Volunteer assessments and planned recognitions

Volunteers should know that they will receive and can request feedback on their work. Assessment and feedback should be routine tasks of the staff who work with volunteers, and there should be regular times to celebrate and provide recognition to volunteers. These can be spontaneous or planned. Given that volunteers do not receive salaries, feedback, and recognition become THE KEY ways to remunerate them for their work. It is critical.

7. Ongoing recruitment plans

Because volunteers are not employees (see above), they can and do leave their posts in unpredictable ways. Many start with high expectations for themselves only to find that life intervenes, and the volunteer role (because it is not a job), has to end. Be ready for this—it can happen quickly and can be extremely frustrating, especially if some time-sensitive work goes undone because of their departure or failure to show up.

Use volunteers to recruit volunteers. Often people will volunteer in response to some great need that they have learned about. Initial responders may be the activists who “want to do something.” They are genuine in their desire to help, but if another “big need” comes along, they may be one of the first to leave to pursue it. However, because they are active and their enthusiasm is often contagious, “first responders” may be a great source of recruitment of others who may stick around longer. 

Volunteerism is a visible sign of the coherence of a community. There are vast untapped pools of highly talented and committed people who would benefit from volunteering, and organizations can extend their impact by finding and employing them.  

One final note, it is not unusual for volunteer “offer” to outstrip the need for volunteers. It is crucial to capture the interest and communicate to those waiting for an opportunity regularly. Those offering to volunteer need to understand where they are in the “queue” of potential volunteers. Maintaining contact with them can enable organizations to build goodwill and make sure that the pool remains strong if needs arise in a short time.

The Language of Anxiety

I did not know until years later, but at one point, my father’s anxiety was so overwhelming that he broke out in hives, left his job, and nearly was committed to a hospital.

That piece of information hit me when I was about 20 after I had started plumbing the depths of my own dark holes (that’s how I always saw them), that landed me in the emergency room with stomach pains so severe I thought I had to have some cancer or worse (and of course that made the hole even more profound).

And then, without getting too specific about it, I finally, well into my 40s, began to develop some coping mechanisms to deal with the whole nasty knot when I started to walk with my daughter through a period that ended up far worse than mine or my dad’s.

(Thankfully, she has moved on to a better place too, as we learned together how to tame the raging confusion—learning to go to our “rational place.”)

Like a lot of things—the constant ringing in my ears, or being able to do certain things with my left hand but incapable of doing them with my right and vice versatility—I assumed everyone had the same experience of the world as me.

I mean, I assumed that until I got to know my wife and realized that she simply did not experience the world like me. She let each day come, and each day go and wasted no time using those crazy tics that I used (secretly) to try to bring some semblance of control to those out-of-control places where I seemed to spend far too much time each day. No, she simply did not know about dark holes. Of course, like most people, she had moments when she was anxious—but those were the usual things that come with some big unknown: childbirth, marriage, or moving across the world.

Knowing others did not necessarily experience the (near and far) future as an inevitable place of reckoning did not make me feel lonely or inadequate or anything like that. But it did make me feel like I was going to have to live with this thing and that I was going to have to try to figure out how to think my way through it.

I say “think my way through it” because from an early age, and perhaps intuitively, I developed ways to just “step outside” sometimes and see my worries (as I thought of them) for what they were: vaporous substances that stood up to no rational scrutiny at all.

The problem with anxiety, though, is that, sometimes, by the time you realize what has seized you and driven you to chew off those fingernails to a dangerous and bloody level, clearing the vapor could take some time and lots of effort–days in some cases. And that was confusing.

The breakthrough I have made in recent years is to learn to identify the “hole” before I start slipping too far into it. That means a shorter “path” to walk back over to get to the origins of the most recent descent.

I know, I am mixing metaphors—anxiety as a path, anxiety as vapor, anxiety as a hole… But I have had to come up with a bunch of different linguistic handles to explain it to myself. So I think of each round of anxiety as having its own “foundation myth”—that event or experience that triggers a simple fear. Each series has its “force multipliers” the extra bad news that gets loaded onto a simple fear to make it seem doubly bad and dangerous. Each round has a “descent”—steep or less so—into some sort of dark space. And each has that thing, that “cataclysm,” waiting at the end that is always ill-defined but sure to be disastrous for me or someone I love.

(Quite frankly, I rarely experience that cataclysm as something that will happen to me; it is something that will happen to someone I love, and I know the pain of the loss will crush me.)

So, yeah, I have had to find my language to talk to myself about the whole process, and getting out has its word too—it is a “path.” It is a path I have walk back on—backtrack—to move past the “force multipliers” and discover that simple fear—that “foundation myth”—that always sits at the beginning, waiting for my return. And when I get there, I always feel the same: “So that’s what this is all about… are you kidding me?”

The “paths” have grown shorter in these past few years. Sometimes I don’t even get to the “descent” anymore, and I see fewer looming “cataclysms.” For that, I am thankful. I can “step outside“ more efficiently, and sometimes I see the “foundation myth” almost immediately, and that helps me get to my “rational place” so I can move out of my “hole” and face the challenges of another day.

COVID-19: What has brought us here, where do we go next? (July 2020)

Mid-July 2020 and we, in the United States, find ourselves in a difficult place vis-a-vis the virus. It is a challenging moment and past time to think about what brought us here and what we need to do right now to get out of the worst of it and move forward.


I offer the following as a way to get us to the place where we can use the tools of disease surveillance to manage the virus until longer-term solutions—therapeutics and vaccines—can be put into practice. Implementation of traditional surveillance tools will enable schools and universities to move to in-person instruction, allow many businesses to offer services, and give people confidence in being in these spaces.


All of these things—schools and universities in-person and businesses offering services—will NOT be done according to the standards of pre-COVID life.


They will not.


However, with appropriate disease surveillance, we can start to achieve lifestyles that are, psychologically and socially, healthier than the current situation.


But, to arrive at a place where the traditional tools of disease surveillance for infectious diseases—testing, tracing, isolating, and quarantining—can work is going to require several things and, most importantly 1) clarity about how we have gotten here and what we need to avoid going forward, and 2) the key behaviors we all need to adopt now AND going forward until therapeutics and/or vaccines are broadly available.


The second point is VERY important: our behaviors need to transcend any understanding that there are ones that are appropriate for when we are “open” and others that are appropriate when we are “closed”. Indeed, it is clear to me that the concepts of “open” or “closed” (or shutdown) have become a hindrance to having a rational conversation about the behaviors necessary to get us through the crisis until treatments or a vaccine are widely available.


We need a clear set of behaviors that hold no matter the level of openness; that hold whether schools are in-person or not; and that hold whether businesses are providing goods and services or not. Why? Because these are the behaviors we need to “live with COVID-19” as the infectious entity it is.


So, what has brought us here? I would suggest six things, some of which we do not control and most of which we do.


  1. SARS CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) is a novel coronavirus. We know a lot about other respiratory viruses, and coronaviruses have been around for a long time. But THIS virus is new. It is more infectious and more deadly than other coronaviruses and we know little about its long-term impacts on those who are infected but survive. We are still learning about how it is transmitted (though our knowledge has grown quickly). Many of the other points below flow from this virus’ “novelness” and our lack of experience in dealing with such an efficiently spread disease like it.


  1. There is a great deal of misunderstanding about how science works. This is something we could control if we wanted to. Science does not advance with statements of absolute certainty—especially when it comes to novel infectious agents. Science advances with evidence built, hypotheses proffered, and corrections made over time. Many of us are watching the “art of science” practiced in public for the first time and while science speaks in “evidence for” and “probable outcomes”, newspapers (and politicians—see below) speak in headlines and an appearance of certainty and confidence that scientists find horrifying.


  1. We lack humility. I say this in two ways: we lack humility about the need to learn more before we speak in any certain terms about this virus; and we lack humility about how we use information to score points in arguments. We need to step back and acknowledge that there is much we do not know and share our learnings in careful terms, ready always to self-correct, acknowledge errors, and move on to make better decisions based on the weight of evidence.


  1. We have politicized EVERY element of this virus and our response. From its origin, to treatments, to testing, to preventive measures such as the wearing of masks, it is hard to talk about any part of this that has not been mobilized to denigrate rivals or advance narrow political ends. This demonstrates both a lack of humility AND a willful misunderstanding of science (or it is pure cynicism). From the president, who suggests scientists are lying to us, to local officials who call for “reopening” so we don’t “fall behind” the next county over, our leaders have too often used the virus to their ends, not ours. This has given the impression to normal folks that EVERY recommended behavior is contested and that there is no evidence, no truth, no clear path.


  1. We have created unnecessary binary thinking. This is the main tool of the politicization noted above. We have created false dichotomies: health versus economy, or death of a few versus mild illness for everyone else, and the list goes on. These binaries have hijacked our discourse, created confusion, and have kept us from advancing a more nuanced understandings of how we might move forward.


  1. We have been extremely impatient. Did I mention that this is a NOVEL coronavirus? Did we forget that it is has been infectious to humans for under 8 months? Despite this, we want answers, we want resumption of a normal life, we want normalcy to return. NOW! Well, none of that is going to happen quickly. None of it. And so, we must prepare for a long struggle and rediscover the value of patience and waiting (traits that many people in the world consider virtues).


This is how we got here and the negative synergies in the foregoing list describe why we feel helpless and angry, and unable to find a way through. But there is a way. It is not an easy one, but it is one that takes all of the foregoing and turns it around in three clear steps.  

It is what I think of as the “Steps to Living with COVID-19”


First, we need to follow some very basic guidelines that have already been established AND expect them to be updated. Remember how science advances: it learns, it updates, it corrects. If every changed or updated recommendation is met with derision and hostility, if every correction is viewed as evidence of malintent, we cannot move forward. We need to see changes to recommendations as evidence that we are learning to overcome this disease and embrace them.


Second, and this is one of those recommendations, we need to wear masks indoors at all times when others are present, except at home. Period.


We also need to wear masks outside when in crowds or in any other context in which six feet cannot be maintained between us and others.


Third, we need to avoid what the Japanese have termed the three C’s. We need to avoid CLOSED spaces with poor ventilation. And since we typically do not know about the ventilation in closed spaces, we should be careful in all closed (tight, low ceiling, narrow, confined, etc.) spaces if possible.


We need to avoid CROWDED places with many people nearby. This means indoors and outdoors but especially indoors and especially for periods longer than an hour. Outdoor crowded spaces? See masks above. Indoor crowded spaces? Avoid them with or without a mask.


We need to avoid CLOSE CONTACT—that is, close-range encounters with people. We must use masks but even with them, we should avoid prolonged conversations close to people (<6 feet).


We should specifically avoid situations where all three of the “Cs” are present because those are the situations of superspread events.


Many other details could be hashed out in any of these but if you take them as a hierarchy—masks first and then the three C’s—they will guide much of your behavior.


If we do these things, we will drive transmission down to a point that we will be able to catch the few cases that occur DESPITE these behaviors. That’s right, none of these individually or taken together reduce risk to zero. We are facing a highly efficient virus that can spread despite our best efforts. 


But, if we do these things, we can manage the cases that slip through, with lowered mortality, with schools and universities having in-person instruction, and with local businesses offering goods and services to clients. All of these will be modified but our lives will begin to feel somewhat normal and we can begin to regain the full social, cultural, and economic health we desire.


Diversity as Telos / Diversity as a Means to Telos

Telos is a Greek word that means “ends”, specifically “ultimate” ends—what in French is “raison d’être” or the reason for a thing, why it exists.

The first enormous truth flowing from our civilization is that, today, everything has become “means.” There are no longer “ends.” We no longer know towards what we are headed.  We have lost our collective goals.  We dispose of enormous means, and we put into action prodigious machines to reach nowhere… Humanity is moving ahead at astronomical speeds towards nothing. (Ellul, J. (1948). Présence au monde moderne. Geneva, Editions Roulet. Pages 62 and 66—my translation)

Too rarely, in our public discussions, do we focus on the true ends of our actions.  We put forth policies often without clear reference to the kinds of ends we are trying to achieve.  For example, our industrial food system, as Michael Pollan has argued in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, can produce prodigious amounts of food commodity, but often without reference to the true end of food production: human health and well being.

Because this “human” end is not articulated, in reality, food production (food commodity production) has come to be about very different ends: tonnage produced, commodity value, commodity as a contribution to GDP, commodity as a factor in trade balances, etc.

His analysis seems to confirm what Ellul argued: we have lost sight of the ends we want to achieve as a society concerning food production.

This failure to articulate clear ends is common in much of our public discourse. 

I argue here that diversity—whether in biological systems or political representation—is an end we should articulate and then set out to achieve.

But, in addition to being an end in itself, diversity, especially in human decision making and policy formation, can also be a means to help us focus or refocus our attention on important ends related to human thriving.

Diversity as Telos

Mono-cultures are, perhaps, efficient, but they are brittle.  Technocracy—a kind of decision making monoculture that relies on narrow technical knowledge—may also yield more efficient decision making structures but fail to preserve key human values such as justice or inclusion.  

We see this, again, in modern food systems that overproduce certain commodities, but invariably require more toxic chemicals to maintain productivity.  

The overproduction itself can lead to disastrous health outcomes when, for example, the by-products of corn production are converted to products like high fructose corn syrup.  Highly efficient systems can lead to nefarious ends and can be hard to sustain simply because they are divorced from the complexity which is our world.

In the same way, human decision-making systems can and often are monocultures.  I have experienced this myself.  When I led a non-profit response to Hurricane Katrina, the “system” in which I operated suggested certain voices (leadership) should be at the table to help formulate our organizational response.  However, those voices, as expert as they were, were wholly disconnected from the people most affected by the disaster in New Orleans—African Americans. 

While it was less efficient to back away from the pre-determined system of decision making and invite a more diverse set of voices and experiences around the table, doing so enabled us to produce a more thoughtful and adapted response that was built upon the lived experience of people who had experienced exclusionary policies related to housing, jobs, and medical care (all relevant issues post-disaster).  

This is the first reason I believe we need to list diversity in decision-making systems, like our local school board, as a desired end in itself: it will help us to create a more robust and resilient (school) system that eschews mere technical solutions to consider a broader set of factors in decision making.

The second reason I believe we need to list diversity as a desired end is because of the unique history of exclusion of voices and experiences within the US context.  Though some writers claiming the “conservative” mantle (Patrick Buchanan comes to mind) seem to argue that history is for the victors and folks just need to move on and accept the status quo that history has established, there are many others who understand history as having a long arc of impact that constrains freedom for many people across many generations; but also that “history” is not buried in the past in some final way.

The former is argued most eloquently by Louis Gates Jr in his book Stoney is the Road and by Ibram X. Kendi in Stamped from the Beginning. What is striking in both books is the argument with carefully researched evidence, that exclusion of black people in this nation was deliberate, planned, was reinforced within legal structures, and, especially in Kendi, was done to maintain the benefits those in power (and white) had.

It is impossible to read either book without acknowledging that “history did not just happen” to black people but that exclusionary practices were carefully “curated” to assure that blacks would not be able to participate as full members of American society.

In other words, for deliberate reasons, practiced over many generations in this country, we have systematically excluded the perspectives, understandings, and lived realities of many of our black brothers and sisters. 

The other argument—that history is not buried—is on display all around us and reminds us that it is not just black people who have “a history” in this nation but that other people of color or simply “othered” people face exclusion every day.  If you are Mexican American—as are my grandchildren—you are suspected of not being fully American and, perhaps even “illegal”.  If you are Chinese American, you are lumped with the “bringers of plague” and told that you are part of a wave bent on destroying our country.

The point is, we have many historical and contemporary means to exclude the voices of people and it is only in recognizing this exclusion and declaring our intent to include and diversify the voices to which we listen that we can grow the more responsive and resilient society we say we want. This is why, I believe, we must declare diversity to be an end—a telos. 

A final note on diversity as telos: when I say it should be an “end” I mean that we should explicitly talk about the need for diverse perspectives when we make decisions about whom to elect as leaders and whom to put forward to serve as appointees to various advisory structures.  We should encourage electors to consider diversity as a factor in their decision making, and we should encourage people with diverse perspectives given ethnicity, race, or heritage to run for office and support them to succeed. 

Diversity as a Means to Telos

In addition to diversity being an end in itself, I believe that diversity has the potential to help us focus on other important ends we seek because it opens the door to different questions and different perspectives on what matters.  Here, I should be clear, I am speaking specifically about decision making or policy-making that affects community members—schools, policing, recreational programs, and others.

In my field of intercultural learning, a key pedagogical outcome is the ability to appreciate and analyze how I “make meaning” and consider how others “make meaning”.  The point is not to encourage an abandonment or denigration of “my way” or to argue that how others make meaning is desirable (I say this because I hear some voices who seem to suggest that modern liberal education is about forcing people to abandon their values—that is not the point).

A key concept in intercultural learning is “cultural humility” (developed by Jann Murray Garcia and Melanie Tervalon in the health care field) which positions each person as a learner concerning the “meaning-making” in the other.  We understand, because we live in a globally interconnected world, that people DO make meaning differently, but cultural humility places us on a quest to examine ourselves and be curious about others.  

Cultural humility requires suspending judgment about the actions and practices of others while engaging in perspective-taking that tries to examine the world through that elusive lens of the other. 

In addition to perspective-taking, cultural humility pushes us to ask how systems of which we are a part, exclude voices so that those voices might be considered and valued.

I share the foregoing as a reminder—the way I make meaning, the things that I value, the way that I set priorities—is not the only, or, in a given situation, even the most useful way of dealing with contemporary challenges.  An interesting example in this time of COVID-19 concerns whether a highly individualistic way of viewing my place in society is well adapted to the kinds of collective responses (wearing masks, testing/tracing/isolation/quarantining) that are necessary to stem the virus’ spread. 

And so, having diverse perspectives when policies are established opens the door not merely to a richer discussion of options, but can also help surface different questions, different values about what matters, and about whose needs are, or are not being met.  In this sense, diversity makes it possible to consider other ends that would not even be brought forward in its absence.  Diversity is a means to other ultimate ends. 

I support diversity, not as an abstract “feel good” concept but as an end towards which we should strive.  I do this because I believe it creates more resilient decision making.  I do it because we have, for too long in this country, excluded too many voices—and we are poorer for it.  But I also support diversity because it opens the door to consider in new and different ways the collective ends to which we should be working. Diversity is a means to new ends. 

Taught to Fear

The Soviet Union’s goal is to plant its flag in Independence Square in Philadelphia on July 4, 1976

(Radio evangelist Jack Van Impe c 1970)

I woke last night in fear.  York, PA.  Sometime in the late 1960s…

Taught to fear.

But wait, long before that… we were always afraid and our deepest fears concerned that vaguely understood world straddling threat from the east: communism. I heard it on the radio every Sunday on the drive to church.  Godless communism would destroy us.  At night I cried in my bed begging Jesus to save me from the coming fire that would engulf the world.

I never feared my dad.  I never feared my mom.  Ours was a peaceful, loving home.

But communism lurked at the door and would be our doom.  This is why my brother and cousins shipped off to Viet Nam. And the evidence of its advance was in the news, not just in “Indo-China”, but in Africa, at the wall in Germany, and, in 1968 in the invasion of Czechoslovakia.  We studied scripture.  We were taught the signs: signs of an impending war in the Middle East that would sweep everything away.  But before that the utter destruction of our homes.  This was the narrative that slept with me in many years of endless night.

But communism was not just out there, it was here, in America and we knew its face.  It was Martin Luther King, the Black Panthers, Angela Davis, and other subversives like Tommy Smith and John Carlos.  Their hatred of America was ill-defined and their links to communism vague.  It was all very confusing but, at least in my home, I was taught to fear them as the vanguard of forces that would sweep us away.  And if Europe had its Prague, the US had its Watts, its Detroit, and all its other burning cities.  It was all of a piece and we were taught to fear it.

York, PA is not a suppressed memory, it is one that just somehow faded for a while.  But last night it visited with a reminder that what we are taught–especially what we are taught via defining and emotive narratives–stays with us for a lifetime.

I breathed in the recollection that was anchored where the affective lessons learned are stored…

I am in a car with my pastor (can’t remember why) returning from some trip and we are in “downtown York”:  a place that had the same signification as “the 7th Ward” in Lancaster near where I live. A place where brown and black people subsist.  A place of violence.

We pull up to a red-light, windows down on a summer day.  A car pulls up next to us.  I see him.  A boy my age.  He’s black.  I smile, he smiles.  I wave.

“Don’t you dare do that!” says my pastor as he quickly rolls up the window and casts a stern eye my way.

“They will be out of that car so fast and in this one, you won’t know what happened.”

That is all.  I drop my eyes.  I wonder why they would do that.  But I am afraid.

And in the dark last night, I realize that I was taught to fear–taught to fear black people.  I was taught to see them as an existential threat to my life.

James Baldwin told his nephew that white people had to believe “for innumerable reasons” that black men were inferior to white men.  And though many of them knew better, to act on that knowledge represented a danger.  The danger was the fear that they would lose their identity.

I talk to my sister–15 years my elder–from time to time. We ponder our very strange upbringing and we return again and again to the fears of so many things that still lurk in our minds and hearts.  We have accepted that we will go to our graves with these fears.

We also realize that we have spent the better part of our adult lives unlearning and unlearning and unlearning the things we were taught to fear.