Back to Basics: Part 2--Discovery


How do you write a peer-to-peer adult education curriculum that guides participants to find answers for themselves?


It’s much more interesting to learn something through investigation than to be told the answer upfront. Plus, something you discover yourself is easier to remember in the long-run.

Discovery can happen any time someone has to look for an answer.

For example, to teach participants about the danger of taking too much pain medication, the peer facilitator can use this exercise.

“Partner up with the person next to you and look at this label of a common over-the-counter medicine.  Answer these questions together and be prepared to report back to the group." 

What is the recommended dose? Hint: It’s under DIRECTIONS (ask group to respond)

  • 20 mL every 4 hours
  • only use with dosing cup provided

What warnings does it give you? (ask group to respond)

  • Don’t take more than 6 doses in in 24 hours
  • Don’t take with other drugs that have Tylenol (acetaminophen)
  • Severe liver damage can occur if you take too much, or combine with another drug that has Tylenol (acetaminophen)
  • Ask doctor of pharmacist before use if you are taking blood thinners
  • Ask a doctor before use if you have diabetes, high blood pressure, liver disease, heart disease, thyroid disease, trouble urinating, persistent cough (such as asthma).
  • Do not use if taking prescription MAOI (certain drugs for depression, psychiatric or emotional conditions, or Parkinson’s disease).  If you do not know if your prescription drug contains MAOI, ask your doctor or pharmacist.

Based on these warnings, what actions would you take next time you need to take an over-the-counter medicine? (ask group to respond)

  • Read the label!
  • Ask the pharmacist or my doctor before taking!


Is this information still dry and dense?  SO. VERY. YES.  But the act of DISCOVERING the answers and sharing with others is empowering.  And it gives participants practice in a critical real-life skill (reading labels) to protect their health.

Using discovery as a tool of peer-to-peer learning takes the pressure off the facilitator to be the expert, is much more interactive than talking AT people, and makes participants contributors in their learning.

This style of learning lasts; people can actually implement and sustain it in their lives.  Here is Deliverance, talking about how the skill of reading labels has helped his family.  

Back to Basics: Part 1, Crowdsource


How do you write a training manual that helps a peer facilitator guide their co-workers towards learning new behaviors, without having them read a script of Do’s and Don’ts AT people?


Crowdsourcing is a great teaching tool to create a peer-to-peer learning environment.  First, the person facilitating doesn’t get stuck in the role of “expert.”  Second, people participating in the workshop have a chance to share their own knowledge and experience, and learn from others. Crowdsourcing creates an atmosphere where everyone can feel empowered.

For example, in a session where the key learning outcome is for members to recognize the danger of taking too many over-the-counter and pharmaceutical pain meds, the facilitator can begin by asking questions.

  • How many of us have pain from repetitive physical stress on the job? (Ask for show of hands)
  • How many of us take pain medicine regularly? (Ask for a show of hands)
  • How many of us take pain medicine on a daily basis? (Ask for show of hands)
  • Can you give some examples of what kinds of pain you have? (Allow members to share)
  • What kinds of pain medicines do you usually take? (Allow members to share)
  • How many of us know someone, and it could be ourselves, that has taken pain medicine every day for years? (Ask for show of hands)

Crowdsourcing member experience on pain medication does a few things simultaneously.

1. It includes the facilitator in the discussion, illustrating that they are not separate from the other participants.

2. It lays the foundation for explaining the problem.  The facilitator COULD begin with an opening such as, “Pain medicine is a big problem in our society.  30% percent of people report taking pain medicine every day.”  But that style would not be as authentic for the facilitator, and it wouldn’t be as engaging for the participants.  It’s UNITEHERE! members, not “people in society,” that this training is for.

3. It fluidly positions the training to move forward into discussing the risks.  Once everyone in the room has shared about their pain medicine usage, there is a natural opening to explore precautions.

Simple techniques like crowdsourcing allow a written curriculum to be led by anyone!  And it’s a great way to involve members in their own learning.

Here are a couple UNITEHERE! members sharing the big-picture benefits of learning through crowdsourcing.

Back to Basics

This summer, I was commissioned by UNITEHERE! to design a 10-month adult education curriculum that teaches hundreds of  food service workers in Los Angeles, Orange County, Boston, Chicago, Washington DC, Connecticut, and New York City to make smart choices about their health.

This curriculum had 3 major parameters:

1. Cover complex topics such as:

  • appropriate use of over-the-counter medicines and pharmaceuticals,
  • what to do if you are hospitalized,
  • managing anxiety and depression,
  • sticking to a healthy exercise routine

2. Can be easily taught by UNITEHERE! members, who are not experts in medical terminology and intricate medical systems.

3. Be participatory and engaging for members who are likely to be tired by the time they come together in the evening to focus on managing their chronic conditions.

Over my next few posts I will cover some of the tools I used to hit these parameters and make topics like “Oral Health” if not FUN at least dynamic and interactive. 

Why I Got a Master's of Divinity

My commitment to empowering communities and transforming social systems surfaced early in my life.  When I was 21, I studied Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. intensively, and was deeply moved and inspired by these incredible leaders who channeled their spiritual and ethical values into direct social action.  That’s why, when I decided to become a community organizer, I joined the largest faith-based organizing network in the country, PICO.  I wanted to work alongside people who were passionately driven by their spiritual and ethical ideals to pursue and create peace and justice.

In 2010, I was managing a PICO National health reform campaign in Washington, DC.  And something happened that changed my trajectory.  I joined a small group of friends that were reading Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way on Tuesday evenings in Dupont Circle. For me, it was revolutionary. 

The Artist’s Way is a call to find and express your creativity.  Cameron suggests that exploring your creative instincts is a spiritual path to uncovering new solutions, new directions, and coming more closely in line with your life purpose. I followed the books exercises and began digging more into own creativity.  I drew and painted, wrote more, sang and played instruments, took and edited photographs, rearranged my home, and just generally approached the world through a creative lens.  What I experienced was a profound shift in perspective—encountering life from a place of creative discovery gave me a rich sense of power.  It made me feel more like an agent of my own destiny, like I was creating a new and exciting story for myself. In essence, I found that seizing my own creativity was deeply empowering.  And it wasn’t just an internal experience of empowerment, it was manifesting very real and exciting external changes in my life. 

This realization sparked a huge inquiry in myself:  how could I incorporate this orientation towards creative discovery in my career? 

In my work as a community organizer, I supported local communities to lead innovative social change, from reforming the criminal justice system, to challenging immigration policies, to fundamentally changing the healthcare system.  The bedrock of community organizing is empowerment--it is all about helping people discover their unique leadership abilities and harnessing that power to create real concrete changes in their cities. 

An itch of curiosity began.  I wondered if weaving creative practices into community organizing would enrich leadership development and deepen the experience of empowerment for local communities.  And I wondered if it would help to accelerate the changes we wanted to achieve.  What it would it be like for the communities I worked with to uncover the power in their stories and their vision for a different world using art—images, movement and dance, song, and theatre? Might it make our vision for justice clearer, more lucid, more compelling, both to ourselves and to the policymakers we wanted to influence?  As a faith-based organization, might it help us to practice our faith in a radical way, to experience ourselves as modern prophets, heroes united, bringing forth God’s justice and equality?

I decided to earn a Master’s of Divinity because I wanted to test my thesis.  I wanted to see if cultivating creativity in social movements would strengthen leadership development.  I wanted to see if using the arts would empower communities to not just paint the picture of their vision for justice but to call it forcefully into reality.  And I wanted to grow in my own capacity as a leader, in the same tradition of MLK, Jr and Gandhi.  

The Director's Cut

Building a powerful movement depends upon telling our stories—that’s why it’s critical for organizations working for social change to share their work in a fresh, vibrant, exciting way.

The UNITEHERE! HEALTH Better Living video shares the transformation that's happening in the lives of the union members I work with everyday.  It is a valuable tool to encourage other members to join. And now it’s being used by health organizations across the US and internationally!

Power of Story
One of the reasons the video tells such a great story is because it captures a holistic picture of the leaders featured.  As director, I collected hours of conversational footage with Barbara, Elizabeth, Mark and others to make sure that we honored their fears, their motivations, and their hopes.  That essence, that heartbeat, is still present, even when it couldn’t be included in the short final cut.

Leadership Development
Behind the scenes, creating this video strengthened my leadership team.  Intensive story collection is profoundly empowering.  Veteran leaders, and new people who are just getting involved, have the experience of seeing their stories lifted up, to recognize themselves as vital and important to the movement, and to know their example is guiding deep change and inspiring others to join.

The communities we work with are transforming!  Capture the story and make it the fuel for the wide-scale change we imagine!  

The Value of Relationship Building

Wow, the Better Living promotional video I directed is kinda going viral in the world of people who follow the Stanford Chronic Disease Self-Management Program.  It's not even officially released yet, but already has close to 900 views, and The National Council on Aging featured it on their website!

I'm pretty sure the video tells such a great story because of the relationship building and teamwork taking place behind the scenes with the UniteHere! Healthcare Committee.  Bravo!

better living comments page.png

Lifelines: Culture Change in Oakland

In 2006, I started working as a community organizer in Oakland, California. I spent the first few weeks on the job driving around West Oakland, meeting with church pastors, families who lived in the neighborhood, teenagers at the district high school, and people who ran local service programs. Everyone was talking about the same thing: gun violence and homicides in Oakland. 145 people were murdered in the city that year. Mostly men, these were the lives of sons, brothers, nephews, fathers, cousins. The community was devastated. And angry.  And wanted to do something about it. 

That’s when I learned about Ceasefire. Ceasefire is a national violence prevention model that grew out of Boston and was gaining traction in other cities, like Chicago.  My community organizing network flew the Boston Ceasefire leaders out to Oakland to tell us what they did to dramatically reduce homicide in their city. What I heard hooked me.

Ceasefire is based on the premise that building strong relationships between local community, social services, and police can fundamentally alter patterns of gang and drug violence.

Violence isn’t random. The goal of Ceasefire is to focus on people actively involved in violent circles, in order to interrupt shootings before they happen. What’s innovative is that the Ceasefire model doesn’t target violent offenders in order to to arrest them. The goal instead was to CONNECT them. To connect young people to real job opportunities beyond drug dealing, to connect young people to supportive social services that could help them make different choices, to connect young people to community members who cared about them, and to connect young people to former violent offenders who had changed their lives and who could help mediate conflicts and disputes. 

This was different! It was a strategy that wove new relationships between community, social services, and police, to take a stand together, in order to protect and support a group of young men who have been marginalized.

It was hard work to get this new strategy off the ground in Oakland. A lot of people said it couldn’t be done. But my team of community leaders and I met with the police chief, we met with the department of social services, we met with job-training programs, we met with church leaders and community-based programs, and we got them to commit to work together for the Ceasefire violence prevention model. We mobilized thousands of people to stand before the mayor and police in support of Ceasefire. We declared: “This is the new way to handle violence in our city. This is what Oakland should invest in.”

And we won!  Oakland hired street outreach workers to build relationships with young people involved in violent circles to interrupt conflicts. The police started partnering with community and social services to connect potential offenders with help. We built an alliance between community, faith leaders, social services and police that hadn’t existed before. 

It was an uphill battle, but we slogged along because we knew that Ceasefire was a new chance for Oakland, a new chance for the next generation of Oakland youth.  We were saving lives, and we were radically changing the culture of Oakland. 

Oakland is still changed. This week, eight years since we started our campaign in Oakland, the East Bay Times ran the headline: "Steps Towards Peace: Ceasefire seen as a cultural shift in Oakland," reporting that Oakland has a 30 percent decrease in homicides. The article states that Oakland has undergone a transformation, that the city is different because of its commitment to build new relationships and persevere to achieve new outcomes for the people who need it most.

I’m proud to have worked, with community leaders, to catalyze this change. I’m proud that over time (which is how culture change works!), we moved Oakland towards more peace and justice for the families and communities who deserve it. Bravo, Oakland!

Photos:Oakland Community Organizations

Photos:Oakland Community Organizations

Art and Change: The People's Climate March

"Artists were not just a side component of the People's Climate March.  Artists were the glue."  --Artist-Activist Favianna Rodriguez, poster art above.

Over 300,000 people flooded NYC streets this last Sunday (9/21) to demand just action on our swiftly warming planet.  This historic march was an impressive display of solidarity among a diverse crowd of people, including indigenous communities, folks who work on Wall St, local high school students, vegans, labor, and every kind of religious and spiritual tradition. 

I walked away even more convinced about the power of art in social change movements. 

Artist-activist-intellectual Favianna Rodriguez, in partnership with CultureStrike and 300 other artists, were out in full effect at the march, telling the many stories of migrant communities, communities of color, shoreline communities, and all the people hardest hit by global warming. 

Photo: CultureStrike

Photo: CultureStrike

Art has the power to communicate a strong compelling message, FAST.  This is the point of public demonstrations, and why art is so vital. 

Art also has the power to engage new voices and lift up the experiences that have been marginalized.  At this march, artist collaboration helped bring forth the participation and expression of people who are not stereotypically thought of in the "environmental movement," radically embodying the march slogan, "to change everything, we need everyone." 

Photo: Mark Thompson

Photo: Mark Thompson

"The power of culture is often underestimated within the field of social change.  Culture is the realm of ideas, images and stories; it is where people make sense of the world, where they find meaning and forge community.  Culture alters the way people think about—or choose to ignore or reject—an issue or policy.  It affects how people think, interact, react, speak, write and vote."  (The Culture Group 2011, p.1).

Photo: Mark Thompson

Photo: Mark Thompson

As an organizer, I am committed to integrating art and culture into my work because I recognize it is a powerful tool to shape our stories and our prophetic voice, strengthen leadership development and build more vibrant campaigns.  To shift culture and move social justice policy, we have to move away from relying only on data and statistics to make our case.  In order to ignite and engage our society, in order to paint a new vision for the future, we have to let creativity lead. 

Pictured:  Me working with CultureStrike and Communities Creating Opportunity in Kansas City (May 2013) for an immigration reform action with Senator Moran.  We made sunflowers, the Kansas state flower, to represent people's desire to become citizens.

Better Living

For the last four years, I have been organizing to help communities overcome injustice in the food and healthcare systems (see my recent post Sugar and Social Justice).  When I was in Washington DC, the work focused on making sure that low-income people with diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol have access to doctors, so they can better manage these chronic conditions and stay out of hospitals and emergency rooms. 

But what if we could actually support people to become healthier?

At UniteHere!, I’ve organized a committee of low-income union members who are focused on making sure that their co-workers stay healthy.  This summer, we launched a program called Better Living.  It’s a six week workshop where people with diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and other chronic conditions learn together about taking better care of themselves through nutrition, exercise, and stress-management.  Together, the group sets goals to make concrete changes in their daily lives that support health.  Eating more vegetables, laying off the sugar.  Regular exercise.  Meditation. 

This week, 28 people graduated from our first workshop.  These union workers are from all over NYC, from the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, Harlem and Washington Heights.  And they are taking what they learned back to their workplaces, back to their families, and back to their religious communities.

Carlos is one of the first graduates of our Better Living workshop.  He works in the cafeteria at the American Museum of Natural History. 

Carlos: “I’ve had diabetes for 27 years.  Before this workshop, my doctor told me to change my diet but I didn’t know how to do it.  I felt really alone.  It was hard to stick to a program when I was trying to do it by myself.  Better Living gave me a lot of support.  Now I am starting to stick to my goals.  I didn’t even realize before that I was feeling depressed.  But by working with others and taking better care of myself, I feel so much happier!

The Unite Here healthcare committee is all set to get another 30 people through the program in October. Together, we are working to transform the health of our families and communities.

Sugar and Social Justice

In 37 years, the rate of diabetes in the United States QUINTUPLED.  According to National Geographic from August 2013, there are now more than 22 million Americans living with diabetes.

The primary cause?  Sugar.  It’s in everything.  Bread and cereal, processed lunch meats, yogurt, ketchup, and of course, soda.  The average can of coke contains 8 teaspoons of sugar. Low-fat yogurt has more than 6 tsp. National Geographic reports that the average American consumes almost 23 teaspoons of sugar a day!  For perspective, that’s equivalent to 1,135 cups of rice. 

As the rate of diabetes skyrockets, sugar in the US diet also contributes to high cholesterol and high blood pressure. 

Who suffers the most?  The poor.  People who live in neighborhood food deserts, where it's challenging to find fresh, whole food.  People who can't afford to buy food for a week at the grocery store and rely on fast food.  People who have Medicaid, which can make it hard to access good primary care doctors.

This is why I organize around health care.  I support communities to win the policies and the practices that will help them not only overcome the injustice in our food and healthcare system, but to THRIVE. Check out my recent work on Better Living! here.