Might this be an opportunity for you to re-imagine the quality and depth possible through better virtual spaces?
For me, most of the past 6 years I’ve built my organization while living at home in another city.
I’ve also built many of my deepest, most meaningful friendships, and communities online.
I’ve joined spirituality groups that only meet online.
I’ve started organizing 150+ gatherings online and made them meaningful for participants by using Zoom’s Breakout Rooms features — allowing us to have 1-on-1 networking and small group time.
I’ve also been using Zoom for enlisting my friends to help me make some of my hardest decisions, by facilitating virtual Clearness Committees.
Meaningful check-ins with friends from around the globe have made life easier in the hard times.
You can relate generously and in profound ways… all online.
What I really want to tell you is — I think you would be surprised how much depth and quality you can find from the right kind social interaction online.
Seth Godin offers some of the most helpful advice. I highly recommend this post, and the Akimbo Workshops:
Here are two of the four leaps Seth says we need to make:
Leap 2: There’s a difference between asynchronous and synchronous interaction. We know this intuitively in the real world (a letter is different from a phone call) but online, it’s profound. A discussion board isn’t the same as a Zoom call. It turns out that we can create rich and layered conversations with async communication, but we also have to be just a bit more patient.
Leap 3: More than one person can ‘talk’ at a time. In the real world, that’s impossible. At a table for six, we take turns talking. But in a chat room, we can all talk at the same time. Use it well and you can dramatically increase information exchange. (But if you try to follow all the threads, or you miss what you need, then it’s actually less effective.)
It’s possible, with effort, to transform business communications (and schooling) away from the top-down, synchronized, compliance-focused, off-the-record, hierarchical and slow status quo to something significantly more fluid and powerful. But we’ll need to do it on purpose.
Here’s what my experience has been:
Two years ago, I took the altMBA — a 4 week intensive workshop that was 100% online.
What I didn’t expect is that it transformed my perspective on how powerful virtual spaces could be. When the expectations are set for you to do your most important work and to embrace the emotional labor… and dance with your fear, I found myself being more vulnerable with the 3-4 others in my peer learning group. I found myself being more honest and real than I had been with some of my closest friends. My altMBA peers and I were together 3 days a week for 14 hours, so it was a lot of time together… but we also shipped 3 projects each week, commented on each other’s projects and wrote 3 reflections each week.
We got a LOT of work done together. I learned to give written feedback in a way that just mirrors back what I’m seeing. The every 3 day practice of writing a dozen set of comments taught me to ask better questions. The practice of writing and publishing online my reflection and synthesized learnings from reading other’s comments has led me to take more strategic risks. My peers in the learning groups taught me to create tension in a way that created change. The whole experience showed me that we can create a culture of reciprocity, where everyone actually does give generously, because they see how wonderful and liberating the culture can be.
The problem is, many of us interact online in crappy ways, and so we judge ourselves because some spaces are a bastion of negativity and distraction.
Take the leap. You, too, can create a culture of generosity, deep relating — all online.
My hope in this time where we increase our social distance and stop our large gatherings, that you might see this moment as an opportunity to leap. An opportunity to take a risk, try something new — and collaboratively create online spaces that build the culture of reciprocity, gift, and mutuality. You can create the kind of culture that we most want to see.
In the next few days, I’m going to share the frameworks and strategies for how the online communities I’ve been part of have completely re-shaped my thinking for what’s possible online.
I hope you’ll join me in taking a leap to try re-thinking the possibilities when you bring the right tools together. With Zoom, Slack other similar tools, I think you may find the transition easier than you thought.
But there are a few critical elements…
Let me know if you’re ready for the leap, I’d love to talk.
I also have a live Q&A, best practices sharing, and more intensive spiritual community workshop that I’m leading coming up.
Where do you start when somebody you look up to so much suddenly slips away.
Patrick or “Primo!” as we affectionately called each other was the cousin who I shared the most with.
In that spirit, here are 5 exhortations I think Patrick might have for us today as we seek to honor him.
Write to your spiritual / political / movement celebrity crush. “Dude, you should write to him!” Patrick would exhort me. “Just reach out, tell him what you’re doing and what you’re thinking about — they’ll love it!” Whether it was Fr. Richard Rohr, Marshall Ganz, a New York Times columnist, or Pope Francis, Patrick would see the potential in me and also in celebrities. He saw the way a potential new connection could be mutually nourishing. Patrick saw authenticity and integrity and was drawn to these values and a desire to connect people who shared these values.
“This should be a case study.” Patrick consistently wanted to elevate examples of authentic relationship-based organizing, movement building, cooperative business, and shared leadership. From his training at Harvard and MIT, Patrick saw how the next generation was learning and what kinds of ideas and possibilities they were exposed to through case studies. If he were here, he would try to persuade each of us to tell our story in a way that Harvard Business School or the Kennedy School would read and appreciate it. Go Deep. Define your terms. Explain your analysis, the hypotheses, the real impacts and the results.
Embrace the political challenges by leaning into relationship. One motivation for Patrick’s move back to Miami these past few years was a decision to lean into his most important work. It was about embracing the emotional labor of having really difficult conversations and making lasting change. It was about creating tension, but doing so from a place of real authentic relationship. I think this was the core of his approach at Miami Freedom Project and also to his work at Future Partners. For example, in exploring community wealth building strategies in Miami, he would tell me about conversations with our cousin Francis Suarez, the Mayor of Miami and others who had meaningful power and real relationships with Patrick. While he may differ from their thoughts and policies on many things, Patrick sought to engage them on topics where there was potential to work together — on economic development, housing, real estate, energy policy, entrepreneurship, faith partnerships and more. While Patrick held his views and values deeply, he leaned more into his belief in the power of relationships. I can hear his voice clearly: “I was just texting with Francis… I think there might be a real opportunity…”
Honor and take care of your parents. Patrick would often talk about his parents. He would give me a lot of credit for what my parents did as well. He often saw me as a continuation of decisions my parents made (for example, to live with and organize with and among migrant farm workers for many years in Immokalee). He always gave me credit for this work that my parents did, but it’s because he honored his parents as well. So much of the last few years of his life he was aware of his parents, and wanting to spend more time with them. I remember just a few weeks ago Patrick sitting next to his father in a big chair as they joined one of our Zoom video calls together to talk about Pope Francis and his call to young economists and entrepreneurs.
Live Generously. A few months ago, I was with Patrick and we were walking out of the Starbucks on the ground floor of the Citi bank tower in Miami. We were headed to one of the upper floors for a meeting with Ines & Valeria. “You want anything?” “How about a coffee?” He then proceeded to insist on buying me a bottle of Fiji water…. then chocolate covered espresso beans, then pivoted to grab something healthy… He was doing what any loving friend or Latino parent would do… pushing food on me to make sure I was healthy. It actually reminded me of Esperanza, and her unbelievable generosity to us when we would go back to Cuba and visit the Gaston family sugar mill — el Ingenio Dolores. Patrick along with his siblings, led our family in reconnecting with our parents’ roots and the lives of our parents and grandparents back on the island. He would want us to continue that work and to do so generously and with love. No matter what the situation, Patrick lived generously & would want us to do the same.
Patrick & I were part of a 5-person spirituality group that began gathering in early 2019. We took time in silence together. It was contemplative prayer that was so deeply nourishing for each of us. Then we would share vulnerably with one another. We would share our latest visions, hopes, but also the pain and grief, and suffering that each of us was in the middle of.
Patrick loved deeply. We all know how much he grieved the loss of his mother. For me, this was part of Patrick’s tuning in. He was being called into closer communion with the Spirit. He was feeling pain in a deeper way.
Patrick knew pain, heartache, and also joy in a very real way. Patrick was a romantic.
Patrick ached for love. Patrick yearned for a better world.
Patrick was always building community wherever he went. One of my recent memories was going to a rally for Elizabeth Warren last summer at FIU in Miami and everywhere we went, Patrick was introducing me to somebody new.
Patrick had this unique warmth. He would always speak so highly of me. Nobody in the world introduced me in the way Patrick did. He always spoke to the parts of me that I was still aspiring to. The way he introduced me made me feel so respected, so appreciated, and so “seen”.
Patrick really could “see” people for all that they were. He loved people. He fell in love often and lived his life from that place of love… that passion that takes hold and carries you.
Aching for Love
Thinking back to the Patrick I knew in Washington DC in 2011, he was somebody loved by so many. I remember an early February birthday party at a restaurant on the corner of 14th and U St NW. There were 25 or so folks there… many were colleagues of his from the Obama Campaign or Harvard or MIT folks or other “political elites” as he would say. Patrick was running in circles where people had lots of worldly success… and while Patrick loved those people, he was also aching for a deeper kind of love. He was wrestling with his own call to love more radically and profoundly. He was at once part of the material and political world and making change through institutions, but at the same time believing in a God that loves all people and has greater power to transform all things.
He was wrestling with how to give his life to public service in a way that paid tribute to all the privileges and opportunities he was afforded, but also listen to the cry of the poor and the call to organize for justice.
I remember this time vividly because I would recall ups and downs of his love life. The ups and downs over the years felt endless, but it was because he was aching for a deep love and part of that ache was his own searching and yearning.
A few weeks ago Patrick texted me a page out of Dean Brackley’s The Call to Discernment in Troubled Times. This book has had a profound impact on me over the years — it’s a modern-day re-interpreting of St. Ignatius Spiritual Exercises. At the end of the book it talks about “Downward Mobility”. It was something that I struggled openly with Patrick about all the time and I think it was something he was struggling with right now as well.
As the wealthiest country in the world — and as people privileged by our refugee/immigration status from Cuba — how do we make sense of our story? How do we make sense of all the privilege we have as people living in America?
How do we reconcile that with the pain and suffering of so many in Cuba? How do we reconcile that with the suffering and poverty of so many in the US and around the globe?
Patrick felt called to serve. He felt called to serve by being a public servant, but more than just being in politics, he was an organizer. He was a movement builder. He brought his whole self to the work of encountering other people, and building something from the relationships and the connections that formed when we were together.
I remember going to one of our epic Gaston family reunions — I think it must have been 2004 — and hearing about our cousin who had gone to live in Dubai. That was Patrick. He moved there for love.
I think Patrick’s journey to heaven this week is marked by his following God’s call of love.
Yearning for a Better World
My first real encounter with Patrick was in 2007 at a Raices de Esperanza conference.
He had convinced me to go and since I was just finishing a class with a professor who was a journalist who had spent several years in Cuba — I was just awakening to my own identity as a Cuban American.
Patrick was my older cousin who was already well known in this space and was the most generous cousin you could imagine. He made me feel so welcome. He introduced me and helped me feel at home as I came out and began to realize how it was okay to identify as the son of a Cuban immigrant. He did it in a way that made me proud.
My affection grew for Patrick when we hung out in 2008 and 2009 in Boston while he was getting his graduate degrees at Harvard and MIT.
One of the papers he wrote in grad school was about the need for a new kind of climate movement. He was very influenced by Marshall Ganz (Harvard Kennedy School sociology professor & community organizing guru, who had worked with Cesar Chavez) and Rebecca Henderson (MIT Sloan School Professor of Strategy) and at the time invited me to a special gathering in 2010 that had a profound influence on my life.
That 2-day gathering of environmental leaders helped me find a way to integrate the energy consulting world I had been in with community organizing, and the hopeful movement building that Patrick knew was part of what was and is needed to build the beloved community.
Most recently, over the past year, I’ve watched Patrick’s drive and passion come alive as he’s begun to birth the Miami Freedom Project. A couple weeks ago he was scheming with me about how this initiative could change the political and economic narrative of south Florida, by bringing together the best from Pope Benedict, Pope Francis, the call of St. Francis of Assisi, and our current political and economic moment.
He was in the middle of building the kind of movement, the kind of community that Patrick always built.
It was the kind of community that you wanted to be part of. It was one that was fun, liberative, free, loving… but also grounded in reality. It was sober in it’s assessment of the world as it is.
And at the same time it was full of possibility. It was full of hope and belief and trust that God would be in the midst of us, moving in and through us, and breathing life into every conversation.
I think Patrick trusted that with all of his being.
He knew God was present. He brought that intense presence to each conversation.
One of my last in person conversations with Patrick was in July 2019, on the roof of my aunt Maria Luisa Gaston’s apartment in Calle Ocho. We had just picked up some food and it was a warm night, but cool in that the breeze was blowing beautifully on the top of this building.
Patrick opened up with me about his writing life. He was finding so much meaning and purpose in his writing. He was integrating the story of his grief with his mother, with the new spiritual calling that he was finding more life in.
He was telling me about a retreat he had gone to in the Southwestern US with Mirabai Starr and how much spiritual nourishment and healing he was getting from that experience.
It was helping him live each day from a deeper, more grounded place. A place that I believe was more in tune with God — and the Spirit.
While I still have so much more to process, I wanted to share these initial reflections.
Composting & Buying “Compostable” Paper Goods in Durham, NC
A local environmental leader, Crystal Dreisbach, Founder and Executive Director of Don’t Waste Durham, invited me to join her and two local restaurant and food truck owners to imagine how we could help them purchase biodegradable plates, cups, and carry-out containers as a co-op.
The basic problem?
Tim Morris, owner and operator of Caffe Bellezza, started the meeting: “The compostable cups I buy cost 200% or more of what their paper counterparts cost.” He continued, “If it was just a matter of 15-25% more, it would be much more palatable.” Joe Choi, owner of Namu, said, “I have to pay 45 cents per bowl. The compostables cost so much more, I have to increase prices. Fortunately, my customers are willing to pay more for the compostables, but it’s a lot.”
The frustration was clear.
While many of Joe’s customers are willing to pay a premium, he did feel like he had lost some sales over the increased prices. Tim, whose coffee shop is much smaller, is paying 30 cents per 12 oz coffee cup with a Java Jacket and lid. Whereas Crystal shared that a larger coffee shop, three-location Cocoa Cinnamon, is paying 15 cents since they buy 12,000 per month. Buying at a much higher volume can make a difference for price.
Compost pick-up was another major pain point.
Joe shared this experience: “The service for compost hauling used to cost me $600 per month. They increased it to $900/month when I had to increase the service level. And then just a couple weeks ago, after Compost Now bought the smaller company I was using, they increased the price to $1,800 per month.”
Volume and Basic Feasibility Economics
We talked about how, between the 3 of them, they could easily come up with 100 restaurant owners and food trucks that they knew personally. We estimated an average spend of $4,000 on products that they might switch to compostables, if the price and quality was reasonably good. So we estimated $400,000 per year of purchases and a 2.5% rebate of $10,000 to coordinate & organize the effort.
For the compost hauling, we estimated that the average trash and recycling pick-up cost was $350 per month and the average compost hauling was $300 per month or about $7500 per year combined. Multiplied by about 30 restaurants we thought we could easily engage $225,000 per year with a 10% rebate of $22,500 to organize the co-op.
We quickly sketched a path to how this co-op for compostables and composting could begin to generate meaningful revenue to pay for the organizer entrepreneuer.
This vision relies on a few key assumptions:
The facts are in our favor. With 100 buyers of compostables and 30 buyers for composting & waste pick-up and a cumulative participation of $600,000+ per year, this co-op could:
Negotiate meaningfully better pricing and terms, so the value to the customers would be sufficient for them to join
Find suppliers and vendors who would agree to our terms. They would offer relatively small order minimums, an easy path to affiliation with the co-op, reasonable delivery terms, payment terms, return policy, and they would agree to pay the rebate required to fund the co-op in an on-going way
Tap into sufficient market competition. There are enough providers that want our collective business that we could use competitive negotiating to get what we’re looking for — or at least a minimum viable level to make it workable. Assessing the minimum viable level is one of the hardest parts of this calculation, but is essential to the early stages of a purchasing cooperative.
The buyers trust that the opportunity is real and worth their time. The art of organizing this process relies on:
Making sure we’re in close relationship with critical “early adopter” and “influencer” restaurant and food truck owners. Since the stakes are highest for them, they need to be at the table each step of the way to hear pushback from the suppliers and develop their own, more nuanced understanding of the market, so that they can make a compelling argument to their peers about why they need to organize.
Having enough data from a variety of buyers, from small food trucks to large restaurants, to extrapolate total potential purchase volumes with reasonable accuracy, while still being conservative enough to earn credibility with suppliers when more than we said actually show up to make the first few group purchases.
The suppliers believe us and are eager to serve us. When negotiating and talking with suppliers, providers, or distributors, they must feel that the opportunity with this group of buyers is viable. This occurs through sharing large projections of total spend that gets their attention, as well as specific anecdotes of real buyer needs and challenges that we’re solving through this process. We must present as established and prepared so the seller will believe that we’re going to be successful.
Relationships are key. The art of this negotiation also relies on an iterative process of getting to know suppliers and what they can and won’t do for us at certain levels of market power, leverage, and percent of their total revenue. We have to make sure that we’re relating to a person who’s up high enough in the company that they can make decisions with their own discretion and values and be impacted by a human argument.
Next Steps: Organizing More Buyers
Recruiting buyers actually starts with talking to providers to get a sense for their constraints, openness, and interest. What volumes would make up a meaningful chunk of their business? What value could the co-op add to their lives to make their job easier?
After that, let’s say the critical numbers are around $300,000 and we think we can do that through 12 of the larger & more influential buyers. Can we get 12 buyers to believe this might be possible, such that they show up to a meeting and follow up by sharing their spend data, what would make it worth it to them to switch, and what would hold them back.Once the organizer builds a successful network of 12, then the growth of the co-op becomes a matter of scale. Do the same thing, just do it bigger!
Because ultimately, the person who is in the middle of coordinating all of this is the essential ingredient. Even if purchasers and suppliers are aligned, without the right broker, the opportunity could fail. This person needs to be an intermediary that can deliver trustworthy, believable, and disciplined follow-through, negotiate well with all parties, and balance relational instinct with ruthless savvy when it comes to the numbers.
None of these skills rely on natural talent. CPA Co-op is here to train and support “Organizer Entrepreneurs” who have the passion to make a difference and change our local economy.
I believe you have a hunch about your most important project. The one that if it really succeeds could really make a difference. It could contribute to something extraordinary.
I’m writing because I want to invite you into a caring community that has also glimpsed this part of themselves and knows they need more support and encouragement to work on this most important project.
As an organizer, I see my work as bringing people together, helping to create and hold the space where we can listen and help each other see what’s really holding us back.
In this blog, I hope to share some of what I feel might be my most important work — reflections on co-op economics, heterodox economics, better ways of thinking about our retirement and college investing and personal finance…
But also to share other ideas and reflections on what I’m trying to do with a young small organization that is desperately trying to find where it can have the most powerful impact — on the economy, in our schools, in our religious communities, in how we collaborate.
The journey has been way more emotional and rigorous than I expected. The stakes keep feeling higher and the fear and anxiety grow. But our potential to do good in a deep and meaningful way is growing as well. My missteps and shortcomings as a manager — something I once thought I’d be great at and really enjoy — are also giving me lots to reflect on. I believe that in sharing all this with you, you might have some advice and suggestions for me.
My hope is that by writing an invitation to you every month (and perhaps a couple other quick notes in between) will feel compelling to you — so much so that you’ll write back and engage.
Once I hear from enough of you that you’d like to take a leap with me, I’d like to launch an intensive workshop. This would be a curated cohort that will combine the best of what I’ve been learning from a truly transformational leadership workshop I went on in early 2018, mastermind groups I’ve been a part of over the past year, a couple coaches and colleagues who have been shaping me, and my desire — my desperate desire — to see more of you deeply committed and ruthlessly pursuing what you feel might have the biggest chance at really making a very real and significant contribution.
I believe our economics can embody a greater democracy.
I believe our economic institutions can be more democratic and fair.
I believe the plurality of thought in economics would bring great benefit to society.
I believe in culture and that our culture is the sum of the ideas floating around inside of it.
We all know it’s much easier to take in others’ ideas than it is to create and share the unique combination of ideas your experiences bring to bear.
I believe we need to be talking more about certain ideas.
I believe George Saunders rightly characterized our media situation with his essay, “Braindead Megaphone”.
I believe our most important work is really matters.
I also know how easy it is to be distracted.
I believe that you spending more of your time on your most powerful work will change you.
I believe that creating tension is essential to producing work and creating change.
In organizing, we call it an “agitation”.
“Agitation is the art of challenging a person to be true to their values, true to self and to act on those values out of their own self-interest. It is the art of pointing out the contradictions between what a person professes and how she or he acts.” ~Gameliel National Training Manual
I also believe new kinds of connection are possible.
New curated cohorts learning together can cement new relationships that move us deeply.
I believe in coaching, good feedback, holding up a mirror, reflecting back to each other what’s most important and what we see.
This is the heart of it: Learning to see.
Learning to see inside ourselves.
Learning to see beyond the next turn.
Learning to really see the other. Be with them and help them see themselves.
As I was walking with my 5-year-old daughter Micaela last night, I asked her:
“Do you still want to be an artist?”
“I want to be an artist, a songwriter, a painter, and an art teacher.”
I want her to make good on that dream.
That’s why I’m here.
I’ve spent the last 28 days doing the hard work of writing everyday.
The scariest thing I wrote was a letter to Micaela.
I knew I was doing something right because the morning after I posted it online, I wanted to take it down. I was scared of what I said. Scared of what I committed to doing.
Scared because it felt like the stakes were higher.
The motto of the workshop I’m just finishing is:
“Do the Hard Work First | Embrace Emotional Labor | Dance with Fear”
I didn’t understand this third part “Dance with Fear” until the feeling I got as I woke up on Sunday morning. The feeling of wanting to quickly revise and take down the letter. The feeling of uncertainty. Is that really who I am? Is that what I want?
What am I for?
Those are the questions I want to wrestle with here.
The clearer I get, the more I believe I’ll be able to make my art.