Dancing Your Way Through A Revolution

Again I'm privileged to host the insights of an 21yr-old - Emily Goldman (Brown '14) gives us life-time learnings on discernment, judgement, critical thinking and getting the facts for yourself.  She has been studying Arabic and the impact of local rap movements on the revolution in Alexandria, Egypt for the past year - just your average American Female Jew in Egypt!  Read and re-read this - it has profound implications on how we view the rest of the world, and our place in it - especially in light of the recent NSA revelations.

I have always been a little weird. When I was younger, I used to obsess over one topic and learn everything about it—anything from Lucille Ball to the Brain Trust— and then get bored and move on. My mom called these cycles “phases.” One of the longest “phases” was my revolution phase at the beginning of high school. I had just learned about Che Guevara and the Latin American revolutions in history class, and was immediately enthralled. I read everything from biographies of Che to theoretical texts about Latin America’s liberation movements. I was captivated by this idea of a “revolution”ion in Development Studies"t STude to dig deeper as i  about revs in a general sense. I expected you to be like " and decided to feed my curiosity as I began my academic career at Brown University. I am a Development Studies concentrator who began with a focus on Latin America, then Social Entrepreneurship, and now Egyptian Hip Hop. Looking back, I think I might have been revolution hopping. During my first three years of college, I reveled in the way that phrases like “postrevolutionary state” and “direct foreign investment” rolled off my tongue. Armed with a hefty political science vocabulary and my slightly obsessive self-study, I felt that I truly understood what it means for a state to have a revolution. Wrong.

Inspirational graffiti in the city of Luxor about resisting tear gas and trying to build the country anewWhen I moved to Egypt in January, there were some things that I noticed: traffic is insane and has no rules, there are no taxes in daily life, the electricity sometimes goes out, there are checkpoints on the roads in Cairo run by civilians, the police often decide to go off duty (especially when they are threatened with actually performing any duties), and Fridays are protest days. After about a week, I got used to all of these things. One thing that I absolutely could not get used to, though, was the media.

I had been living in Alexandria, Egypt for about one month when I was watching TV this one Friday afternoon. When I turned on the TV, the correspondent was announcing widespread violence in Alexandria and a march down the street next to the seaside. My host family was traveling at the time, and my host mom called me: “How is Alexandria?” she asked, panicked. I peered out my window, looking onto the road where all of the violence was supposed to be, and saw absolutely nothing besides some stray cats playing in the garbage can below my window. Convinced I must be wrong, I called a friend in a different part of the city. “Are there violent demonstrations today?” I asked him.

“No,” he told me, “There was a peaceful march near the train station this morning, but that is seriously all that’s happened in Alexandria today.”

That night, my mom called me from the US. “Are you ok?” she asked, “I heard there’s been a lot of brutality towards women in demonstrations and that there were a lot of demonstrations today.”

I reassured her and, upon talking to a friend who works for a women’s rights group in Cairo, found out thatEmily dancing outside a temple the brutality article was published in the New York Times. According to my friend, the real story was not protestors harassing women but instead policemen harassing female protestors. While all of this conflicting information is confusing and annoying, it still leaves one essential question to be answered: who should I believe? Should I believe the news that tells me that people are attacking each other outside my house even when I can look out my window and see a totally different reality? Should I believe the New York Times correspondent when my friend who was actually at the event tells me that the correspondent got the story wrong? I choose to believe what I see with my own eyes and ears. But what about people like my family who can’t get this information first hand? What about the ENTIRE AMERICAN PUBLIC that, thanks to the media, thinks Egypt is a lawless and—to borrow a word from my Development Studies classes—“postrevolutionary state?”

“The media won the revolution” is a refrain echoed throughout Egyptian society these days. As anger at President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood boils, I am discovering that it is an amazing time to be a researcher of Hip Hop, an art form that has given the finger to the media time and time again. My research in Ticket from Emily's first Egyptian rap concertEgypt focuses on Egyptian rap and its role in politics during and after the revolution. Both the rappers that I work with and the music that they make refuse to fall into the media categories of “smart/dumb,” “religious/not religious,” “revolutionary/not revolutionary,” etc. The Egyptian rappers refuse to deal in these binaries. These rappers are incredible, multidimensional people who refuse to let the revolution, society, or anyone else silence them.

This morning I met with one of the earliest Egyptian rappers, a guy in his thirties who I will refer to as S. I hopped on the back of his motorbike and we took off through the Alexandria rush hour traffic as he shouted over his shoulder to me about everything that got worse in Alexandria after the revolution.

“What do you think of the traffic?” he bellowed over wind as we weaved dangerously between stopped cars along the seaside road.

“Um, well….” I stuttered, trying to formulate a response that was not offensive but also truthful.

“HA,” he responded, “Not like America, huh? Honestly, Egypt was not like this even three years ago.”

Over the course of the next three hours, our conversation meandered seamlessly from the politics of Egyptian rap to the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood on artistic expression to the intricacies of the Egyptian stock market interest rate fluctuations. S, like many other rappers and Hip Hop artists I have gotten to know here in Egypt, is brilliant. He speaks four languages fluently, is getting his Master’s degree in Development Economics, writes and produces his own music, and cannot find a job. He does not rap because he has nothing better to do or because he thinks it makes him look cool, but rather because he has something to say.

“The Egyptian people have a problem with being afraid of expressing themselves, “ he told me as we strolled along the sea, “Maybe it is left over from Mubarak or something, but we rappers, we don’t think about these things. We just say what we think.”

That is exactly why I choose to work in Hip Hop both here in Egypt and in the United States. In the US, I work with Hip Hop 4, an organization that I co-founded in my sophomore year with another Brown student named Pierre Arreola. Hip Hop 4 uses Hip Hop as a tool to provide character building in after school activities for underprivileged youth. The idea came from our observation that kids in underprivileged neighborhoods have infinitely fewer opportunities to express themselves artistically or otherwise. I would say that the same goes for Egyptian youth who suffer because of high levels of education, low levels of employment, an increasingly oppressive Muslim Brotherhood influence, and a crashing economy. So, in a way, Egyptian rappers are doing the same work as Hip Hop 4. They are modeling frank and public self-expression by refusing to let the political, societal, and media obstacles get in the way.

On our way back home from our seaside conversation, the police stopped S and me. The policeman was tryingView from a friend of Emily's countryside home to give a taxi driver in front of us a ticket for blocking the road. The policeman took down the taxi driver’s license plate number at which point the minibus driver next to us hopped out of his van and told the policeman, “You can write whatever you want, but he is a taxi driver. This car does not belong to him. If you want him to move, you have to MAKE him move.” He then leaned down into the cab and screamed in the taxi driver’s face until he moved his cab out of the way.

That is Egypt right now. If you want to get something done, do it yourself, make it happen. As harsh as that might sound, it actually makes me feel safe in my daily life because there is an incredible sense of unity, of Egyptians helping Egyptians to make it through this hard and confusing time. I have met unparalleled kindness and selflessness here every day. I have been embraced as an American, a Jew, a female, and every other part of my identity that I was afraid of revealing based on stereotypes I had heard about Egyptians before I came. When I walk outside every day, I don’t see a country plagued by senseless violence like the media wants me to, but rather a country still yearning for change. I am not afraid to be here and I refuse to let the news sources bully me into fearing a country and culture I have come to know and love. However, I would like to ask one thing of my fellow Americans: Do not assume that what you hear about Egypt from the media is true. Please use your judgment and think critically about what you hear about this country and the Middle East in the upcoming years. Most importantly, let’s take a cue from the Egyptian rap community and remember that people are not one-dimensional characters, but instead complicated beings with the natural urge for self-expression. Egyptians may be demonstrating against President Morsi each week, but they are also finding ways to prop each other up and protect each other from the difficulties in this postrevolutionary period.

Igniting the Invisible Tribe

I’m privileged to have one of the very first, hot off the press, copies of Josh Allan Dkystra’s new book, Igniting the Invisible Tribe. It is about a new way of business and work for the 21st Century.  It’s a fabulous, must read book on how the world of ‘work’ can, and should, evolve and what we can do, with practical real questions to answer, to make that happen.  4 things are particularly remarkable to me in the book:

  1. The book itself – the physical book
  2. Unusual and powerful analogies
  3. New Rules
  4. Tools

The Book.  Josh’s new book is one of the reasons I think e-books are great, but will not replace the real thing.  The “architecture” of the book drives its message home by its design, flow, breaks, artwork, phrasing, spacing, footnoting style, even the texture of the cover.  It’s not a typical business book and I found myself not only enjoying the “what” of the book but the overall experience of reading the physical book itself.  This greatly enhances the book’s message and importance – it makes the need for changing how and why we work in the 21st Century more palpable and real.

Analogies: I love analogies so perhaps I’m a bit more critical of the usual mundane analogies that get used to portray the need for change in the 21st Century.  Josh’s analogies capture the essence of the shift that is underway and needs to be increased in speed and depth:

  • Revolution as a complete cycle – e.g., a trip around the sun.  If you think of it in these terms, it’s a natural progression of cycles, creating and breaking traditions and evolving beyond the status quo – it’s a revolution that is also a revolution – and if we stop, and don’t complete the revolution, we are indeed stuck in the status quo.
  • Mosaics – the need for the pieces to make the whole, the different ways you see it from up close to farther away – the various perspectives you get when you look at it from different angles and depths highlighting the fact we see it from our own individual and collective perspectives make a mosaic a perfect symbol.  We need every piece of the mosaic to make it whole and complete – no piece, regardless of size, shape, color, pattern is less significant or needed.  This is especially important, and frankly poignant, in Rule 3 (see below).

Rules:  Josh has 5 rules for the new world of business,

  • Rule 1: Start with Why – rarely do we question why we do things (makes me think of us as sheep – just following the shepherd blindly).  Why do we work? To make money – why? To buy the things we need and want.  Fundamentally, we should be working because it “is valuable to us and valuable to society.”  If we feel our work is valuable, it will energize us and fill us up instead of sucking the life out of us.  Stop and think – would the world miss your company if it weren’t around?
  • Rule 2: Build a Mosaic – we have spent the last century breaking things down into micro-level parts – like atoms, neutrons, etc.  This isn’t bad as long as you can still see the whole – but we haven’t.  The reason for many of our ‘wicked problems’ today is that we’ve focused on the micro instead of the macro – we’ve lost sight of the big picture.  The pieces have owners but who owns the whole?  The new economy’s value is in the mosaic – in seeing how the pieces connect and interact.  It’s in the blending of the science of deconstruction (or destruction?) with the art of recombination – what I call innovation.  It’s an AND, not a false dichotomy of either/or.
  • Rule 3: Dignify the Detail Doers: Respect and Dignity pretty much sum up how we should treat people no matter what.  Let’s face it, we may be friendly to janitors but do we really view them as equals? As ‘as good as’ us? What about people who are very different from us? They are ‘interesting’ – but, nah, not ‘as good as’ us.  Each person is a potential collaborator and a human being – maybe it’s time we started to view him or her accordingly.
  • Rule 4: Make like a Shark and Swim – this rule really hit me.  We are all in businesses where the market or customer segments we serve are changing all the time.  So how is it that we haven’t thought to change how we are structured to align ourselves with these markets and customers? Amazing when you stop and think about it, isn’t it?  Josh uses the example of a book – we don’t re-read a page, we read the next one and next one.  But for some reason, we’ve kept on the same page in business.  The fact is, humans resist change so organizations do too.  And because of that, they not only resist, they aren’t organized to absorb and adapt to change.  Guess what? The Gen-Y & Z’ers expect change – it’s all they’ve ever known.  We better get with it or they’ll never share their talent with us.  Life and work and business are an eternal experiment – we have our hypotheses, we test them, learn, apply and iterate, if we are successful.  Otherwise we die.  That’s the theme of the Lean Startup movement as well.  So see, the Scientific Method still applies.
  • Rule 5: Be Connected, Human and Meaningful – as a Network-o-Phile, I love this rule.  We need to connect to others inside and outside our organizations – at all levels – with our partners, suppliers, customers, their customers etc.  And we need to be human – not super-human, not artificial, but genuine and authentic.  Bill Taylor challenged us to be more human in his BIF8 talk this past September.  And finally, work has to have meaning – it must benefit someone in some way at some point instead of merely be a means of making money - even if you are ‘just’ the janitor.  Josh’s discussion of giving our discretionary time to our organization reminded me of Dan Pink’s “non-commissioned work” BIF7 talk – that for 2 physicists led to a Nobel Prize.

Tools: Josh concludes the book by providing 6 tools to help us create the new world of ‘work’.  Again, a few of them were significant for me:

  • Architects & Builders: instead of leaders and followers, which imply hierarchy, power, authority and subservience, what if we called people architects (designers, ‘big thinkers’ etc.) and builders (makers, doers)?  We need both – equally – and using this language starts making the inherent need for human and customer-centered design front and center.  It applies to virtual and physical, it lifts both up to their true value without diminishing their roles.  I love this!  The change in language is so very powerful, symbolic and visual
  • G-d is in the Details:  A parody on the Devil is in the Details to stress the positive side of details – we need people who worry about details, they matter.  Even little ones can make a huge difference in an organization’s culture and environment – just think of what you are saying when you have to put a code into the copy machine? When you have parking spaces reserved for the C-suite?  And imagine if you had people who worried about making it easier for you to do your job? Amazing, huh?  One of the huge ‘ahas’ for me in this tool is the natural vs. ‘forced’ shift to focus on leading indicators instead of trailing indicators.
  • The Pyramid vs. The Bridge:  This image was visceral for me.  The pyramid is a great work – created by a dictator (Pharaoh) and executed by slaves.  Talk about command-and-control!  It’s pretty much up and down.  A bridge on the other hand provides more flexibility in terms of design – there are many ways to design and build a bridge.  It spans different locations, cultures, organizations, encourages Random Collisions of Unusual Suspects (RCUS), and relies on all parts contributing to the integrity of the bridge.  It’s a place to bring people, ideas, solutions together, collaboratively.
  • Drawing Better Lines: All the lines we’ve drawn have been linear, predictable and clear.  No more.  We’ve measured outputs – like revenue and profit, not outcomes – like “customer WOW”.  Josh points out that our organization’s budgets reflect our organization’s values and morals (just like our calendars and checkbooks reflect our personal values).  We need to draw the lines so they encourage value creation – at individual and organizational levels.  This is far far from trivial.
  • Fewer Armies, More Orchestras: Josh proposes a new type of organizational structure that can quickly adapt to and leverage change, led by a conductor, just like one for an orchestra, who conducts the Builders and the Architects.  Imagine the music that could be made!  Have you noticed, when you’re at a concert, you’re usually not (or shouldn’t be) doing anything else but listening, and if you enjoy that music, you’re enthralled with and in it? What if your organization could make that same kind of ‘music’ for your customers? What if they were enthralled – Wowed – with and in it? Big difference huh?

Well, I didn’t mean to go on quite so long in this book review, but I couldn’t help myself.  This is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time – on many levels.  It’s a simple and profound read – one that should hopefully encourage you to look at your own organization and see how you can make “work not suck.”  Think you can? You’ll never know if you don’t try.