Monthly Archives: February 2015

Are you laughing enough?

Seriously, are you having any fun?

No matter how passionate you are about your career/cause/job, or how important/critical/time sensitive it is, I don’t think you’re doing it right if you aren’t laughing. Not like a hyena, not like the Joker from the 1980s DC comics, not like an Elmo doll. More like the Dalai Lama, or Lily Tomlin, or Missy Eliot. You know those people are conscious, and working hard, and finding the humor and joy in their world. You can too.

Let’s talk about some ways to bring healthy laughter to your workplace or class or project.

Telling a story on yourself

Sometimes if we’re a manager or a teacher or in some other position of power we don’t want to show any vulnerability. If we could all just tell meaningful, funny stories about times that we learned something the hard way or the dumb way, we’d model growth, learning, and demonstrate trust in our colleagues. I promise you, the times that I’ve shared moments of young dumbness, my students, have gasped, laughed, and trusted my authenticity.


One of the moments from my last job that I treasure is the time that my boss imitated the Prancercise lady to put me into a better mood. One of the lessons learned was that prancercise IS a good work out. But I also took note that my boss and I bonded over foolishness. Whatever tiring task I was working on, was made easier by our brief break. Sometimes it can feel like to be “productive” you have to be task-driven, but that 5 minutes looking at a lady with a prominent camel toe can give you the drive to get back to work.

Hyperbole and Wordplay

For me and my nerd friends, playing with the words we use– the sound, the spelling, the semantics– becomes a way to enliven our discussions. With my students, I consciously and unconsciously pepper my speech with regional idioms and colloquialisms. Sure, if I was designing classes for international classes, I’d use standard business English, but I’m not. My students live in Central Virginia. When I use some silly expression, it becomes a teachable moment, but with humor. They ask me what on earth I said, shake their head at Americans, and then usually ask me for clarification that’s been puzzling them from a previous conversation.

Unacceptable Forms of Laughter 

There is absolutely no place for laughter that comes from a place of derision, humiliation, racism, sexism, or othering of any sort. Yes, laughter can be a way to bond, and form community. It can also be used to humiliate and cheapen people in power differentials. Stop asking, “Do you mind if I tell a racist joke?” The answer is yes. Yes, yes I do mind if you tell the racist joke. Besides the fact that as a white person I don’t find it funny, I also see that the black server who doesn’t have the power to tell you to shut the hell up, feels ostracized. I see that if your Hispanic dishwasher is laughing along, it’s not in good humor, it’s going along to get along. I see that the laughter that your “joke” caused is malicious and hateful. I see that your “joke” continues racist norms, even if you proclaim that you aren’t a racist. As always, be aware of power differentials, and be kind.

Communication is Key

It’s amazing to me that with so many means to communicate with one another, most of us still do such a terrible job at it. I think that 90% of the work that I do with my young people is coaching and encouraging them on how to communicate more effectively.

Communications 101
Why is it important to learn how to communicate effectively?

  • You’re going to want to get and keep a job.
  • You’re making agreements and signing contracts that have long-lasting impact on your life, and you need to make sure that you and the other person are on the same page.
  • Most of getting through life is forming and keeping relationships, and communication is the key to maintaining those relationships.

Here is some practical advice, particularly for the young folk, on how to more effectively communicate with others.
Communicate with Purpose.
When you are in touch with someone it’s probably to

  • ask for help,
  • volunteer help, or
  • gather or clarify information.

Before you call or email, think about what you are trying to achieve, and make sure that you’ve provided all the information to complete your mission. Don’t make the other person work to extract the information from you.
Use your Manners
In written correspondence, include salutation, closing and a nicety. A nicety can be as simple as saying, “Thanks so much for all of your help.” or “Hope that you enjoy your weekend.” or “I really appreciate your time on this.” The 10 seconds that it takes to write this is well worth the social lubricant. When calling, be sure to identify yourself, speak slowly and completely, and close with a nicety. When leaving a message, be complete, but succinct. Don’t assume that people have caller ID. Most businesses do not have them.

Manage your Email
Sure, email will be obsolete in 20 years, but right now, you’re dealing with professors, managers and business owners who are in in their 30s-40s, who live and breath email. Use all of the tools included in your email. Unsubscribe, identify as spam, archive read emails, delete un-needed emails— these are all ways to manage your email. Your inbox should only have emails that you still need to follow up on. Any professional job will require that you know how to manage your email.

Close the Loop
As you communicate with others, make sure that you send the last email, send the last text or leave the last voice mail. This can be as easy as saying thanks, but it can be as critical as saying thanks and acknowledging a gift.

Open Letter to College Students

I’ll be honest here. I’ve been a bit frustrated with some of my college-aged young adults recently. While I tell them that I am happy to edit papers at the 11th hour if the alternative is no editing at all, reading some of these last minute papers that they’ve admittedly rushed through push me into haranguing mode.

So here’s the tricky part. I don’t want to come off like I’m being insensitive to my students’ realities. Here is what I know. These young people are often:

  • juggling very busy schedules, replete with school, jobs, sports, and family obligations,
  • Dealing with challenging living situations, often with a great deal of transition,
  • Without a role model in the family who has completed college (or even high school) themselves.

So, with that noted, I remain annoyed.

Here are some challenges I throw down for my students.

  • Be your absolute best. If you’re going to college, and paying thousands of dollars, and likely mortgaging your future, you’d better make it worth your while. Demand the best out of yourself. Turn off the TV. Go talk to your professor. Stop taking selfies of yourself. Get out your agenda book and write down the due dates. If you don’t want to do these kinda small things, stop paying the college you and your parent’s hard earned cash, and start looking for more hours at your job.
  • Demand more from your college and your professors. You say your classes are boring. First ask yourself: Am I doing the readings? Am I participating in discussion? Am I doing the homework? If the answer is yes to all those questions, and you’re still bored, then talk to your professor, talk to your chair, and demand better classes. Are your texts racist? Probably. Does it promote a world view that you disagree with? Probably. Then supply some thoughtful, research-driven alternative work to your professor to supplement your reading list. But don’t be intellectually lazy. You’d better be reading or watching something other than TMZ.
  • Develop your skills. Nobody is interested in hiring someone who has been rubber-stamped through a degree. Here’s what you need to be effective in the larger world:
    • Communication skills. Know how to communicate with others using a variety of media– this includes face to face, email and social media. This skill is so that you can persuade people to do stuff for and with you.
    • Prioritizing. There is no question that the students that I work with know how to work hard. But increasingly I see them working hard at things that don’t make sense in the long game. It’s not “don’t have fun”; It’s don’t get stuck on social media for 12 hours and then tell me you don’t have time to fill out a scholarship.
    • Follow-through. From sending a thank you note to checking in with your professor about a test score, following up and following through makes you memorable, and shows that you know to how to see something through to the end.
    • Connecting. During college you have the ability to connect with other people– from the secretaries filing your paperwork, to the professors who are grading you, to your fellow classmates who can support you now and in the future. Figure out how to connect those people– using the skills listed above. Your connections make the difference in the world you will be making for yourself.

Here’s a secret. You don’t need to finish college to learn these skills. But you need these skills to finish college. You’re going to need these skills regardless of what you are going to be. And here’s what you’re going to be:

  • Business owners,
  • Lawyers,
  • Web designers,
  • IT specialists,
  • Prosecuting Attorneys,
  • Chefs,
  • Radicals,
  • Leaders,
  • Wonderful.

BE Accomplished: 6 months of Building Experiences

I began an experiment about 6 months ago. I decided that I wanted to work with young people. I decided that I wanted to do it in ways that felt genuine to me. I decided that I wanted to interact with the young people as a mentor, friend, and unabashedly myself.

I surrounded myself with friends who share similar values and who are also creating the world they want to exist in. We are working to create an inclusive and supportive community for our young members. We made some mistakes, but mostly it’s been joyous and fun. It doesn’t fit into our normal non-profit paradigm. Thankfully.

Scroll down to read quotes from students, see some raw data, and some lessons learned.


Comments from BE Youth Members

Community dinners are special to me because I get to meet new people, learn about their jobs and what they do. It’s fun and you learn about other people and you get to know them.
–H.P. CHS Junior

You were helpful because you were keeping us on track and you were there to help us go through personal and school related problems… you actually directed some of us to go talk to our professors  and advisors…and you never ever for once give up on any of us…some of the time when we push other people away they will stop coming but you were always there.
–F.O. PVCC student

Ms. Dolly spent her whole morning helping me edit my research paper that was due within couple of hours. I hate to admit it, but I usually do my work last minute. I hadn’t started on my research paper that was assigned on the first day of classes, until few hours before it was due. I got a B though. I don’t think I can ever forget the all-nighters I spent fretting, and how with the help of Ms. Dolly I got a B. We were not expecting that at all, but we were both happy.
–D.U. GMU student

Being a part of BE gives me the chance to help others understand that being a mother is not the end of the road.
–M.H. Certified Nurse Associate, and Pharmacy Tech

Having someone to give you honest advice about college and other things really makes a big difference. I’m blessed to have so many wonderful people like you in my life who I can turn to, ask advice about certain things and can be sure that I’m getting a honest answer.
–M.A. VCU student

You put smile in my face, make me think about my future. Ask me what’s going to be next step, every Monday and it feel neat to be asked. I am thankful for that.
–B.O. PVCC student

You were a means of support for me personally and academically. You are always there showing me the way and the steps I need to take to get there. I know I can come to you for help regarding anything, and I appreciate that you are always there to help and listen.
–G.N. PVCC student

Summary of Services

Building Experiences has worked with 35 students this fall. All services are free to students, and to date; all work has been done on a volunteer basis. Our income has been $1705 cash donations, and about $785 in in-kind donations. Expenditures have equaled $1,440.53. Please donate to support our work.

  • We have shared meals with 68 community members, including 26 youth members in the months of December and January.
  •  BE held 10 check in sessions at PVCC and reached 23 students, including a core group of 11 students who sought BE out each week. Topics of discussion included transferring to 4 year schools, dealing with financial aid, improving relationships with parents, peers and professors, and how to balance school and work.
  • BE has provided help to 10 students with editing papers, college essays, resumes and/or cover letters, sometimes even at the last minute.
  • BE has hosted 5 special events since August. We’ve enjoyed EpiCroqueTournament, a long distance, mixed terrain croquet game, held a “Tool Day” where we built birdhouses and carved in stone with a dremel tool, constructed natural wreaths, and attended a multi-day Youth Conference featuring bookbinding, knitting, car-care, college prep and a falcon(!). We celebrated the MLK Jr. weekend by having a delightful walking tour of local, downtown businesses. 17 students have participated in these special programs.

Lessons Learned/Guiding Principles

This has been a glorious experiment, with no end in sight.

  • Reject the “rules” I’ve been instructed in my professional life to establish boundaries, keep my distance, be equitable and fair. And yes, in many ways these are sensible, protective measures. But they are so limiting. There are young people who need hugs, young people who need money, young people who need rides, young people who need to be told what is up. I think many of the rules put into our institutions are based upon fear. I reject that fear.
  • Play the long game Fiscal and academic years lull us into measuring progress with met outcomes and completed classes, but ultimately we’re raising people. People who need to know their stories, understand their strengths, and have a network of supporters. Sometimes there are issues that can’t be resolved in one month, one semester, or one year. There are so many people that we can gain inspiration from who kept persevering. We must give ourselves permission to slow the pace of our aspirations, and honor those who work towards goals years in the making.
  • Don’t let shiny gadgets distract you from the true magic  I wanted to be famous. I wanted to be an old school professor. I wanted to be an avant garde artiste type with shaped hair. I wanted to be a thought leader. What I love to be now is a connector of people, someone who helps dreams come true, people become their best selves. Occasionally I get offers or suggestions that divert me from that passion. Fame, prestige flickers enticingly. And then I remember that that is false promise, and what makes me happiest is knowing that I made one of these young people see and realize their potential. Finally I have found the focus that eluded this jack of all trades for so many decades.

Thank you to BE’s Partners, Volunteers, Donors
Blue Moon Diner
Frazier Family Foundation
The Local Restaurant
Virginia Organizing
Gibson’s Grocery
Camp Holiday Trails
Whole Foods
Denise Interchangeable Knitting and Crochet
Peggy Harrison
Sammy Kaplan
Vu Nguyen
EcoVillage Charlottesville
Cha Cha’s
Frozen Motion Glass
Taiwan Garden
Join our over 50 individual donors, volunteers, and supporters, Give Today. 

Building Experiences Steering Committee is
Laura Galgano, Ellen Krag, Mia Logan, Davina Fournier and Marissa Turner-Harris.

Dolly Joseph is the Chief Facilitator.