My biggest fear as a scholar is that I become locked in an ivory tower and lose sight of the goals and values that led me to become a researcher.
Tikkun olam, a Hebrew phrase that I translate as “constructing the world,” is ubiquitous in Jewish discourse. My first real engagement with tikkun olam was at summer camp – an unusual institution that was light on religion and heavy on social justice. The summers involved the typical hikes, sports, and bonfires, but the songs we sang at meals were about labor and revolution, and the fun group activities usually doubled as educational workshops on political and social issues. Every summer, the camp worked together to plan and execute a tikkun olam project. By the time I realized how radical these activities were, this annual experience had shaped my core values, internalizing the belief that building a better world is not a choice – it is the activity of life.
I first began to feel the pull of the ivory tower at St. John’s College in Annapolis, seduced by the contemplative bliss of Aristotle and Euclid. However, Annapolis is a deeply divided city, and offered a constant reminder that philosophy is a luxury which is not easily accessible to everyone. In response to the inequities around me, I first volunteered as opportunities arose, and was eventually appointed president of the campus community service club. With this step, I learned that I could accomplish more by organizing than by direct service.
At this time, I also took my first pedagogic role, teaching Sunday School and advising a youth group. Suddenly, I was the one facilitating workshops on tikkun olam. In contrast with my role as an organizer, my job was not to allocate labor but to produce an entirely new cohort of volunteers. My first real lesson was that I can do more good as an organizer than as a solo volunteer, and my second was that I can accomplish more as a teacher than as an organizer. In my last year of college, I worked with other students to run a summer leadership program for at-risk youth in Annapolis, funded by the 100 Projects for Peace foundation. This project was our modest attempt to reduce the stark resource inequity between our homogeneous, echo-chamber of a campus and the surrounding community. One goal of this kind of work is to promote diversity among the ranks of activists and intellectuals working for social change.
After college, I took a position as an AmeriCorps member with Community Mediation Maryland, providing no-cost community education and mediation to residents of Baltimore. One principle of the inclusive model of mediation is that building understanding is key to facilitating productive group decision-making. Although the mediator cannot make people equal – people typically leave the room with the same power structures they bring in – it is the mediator’s job to provide equal access to the process. Another principle in mediation is that people are at the table because they are for some reason bound together (they can't or won't just walk away) and the most productive approach to problem-solving is collaboration.
Learning and teaching mediation skills changed the way I approach social relations, communication, and life. I study collective decisions because I am seeking ways to promote an inclusive and collaborative society, an uphill battle in our individualist and competitive culture.
I stayed on with Community Mediation as an employee, again moving from direct service to capacity building, training mediators and mentoring AmeriCorps members. However, while writing a grant to support mediation as planning tool in substance abuse recovery, I became frustrated that our practice was based on surprisingly little evidence. It was at this point that I decided to become a researcher, with the belief that I can accomplish more as a researcher than a teacher, and also that I can use my research to support my teaching.
I have focused so far on my commitment to community building, and how it has led me in the past to engage in projects that promote a more inclusive society. As I developed my intellectualism along with my activism, the goal of tikkun olam lead to my topical interest in collective dynamics and my passion for basic science.
My favorite book in college was Newton’s Principia, for two reasons. First, I learned that without basic science, there is no applied science. Newton did not know how build a rocket ship, but we could not have gotten to the moon without him. Second, he taught me the power of formal modeling. Through careful thought and clever geometry, Newton uncovered basic principles of the universe that support countless practical applications.
For social scientists, formal theoretical models are useful in designing interventions because they force us to carefully identify our assumptions. At the same time, my experience in the field guides my theoretical work, which is most useful when it reflects the constraints that shape social dynamics in practice. Given the current state of research on collective intelligence, I believe that the best way I can support tikkun olam is by helping establish a formal theoretical foundation for a basic science of collective decisions.
Writing on diversity, I feel compelled to acknowledge my privilege – as a cis white male raised with a solid education in a loving two-parent household – which both circumscribes the methods I can use as an activist and translates into social capital of which I am obliged to make good use. Another key Jewish value is education, and my greatest privilege is the environment of critical inquiry that defined my household growing up, surrounded as I was by books and high-brow discussion. My parents, a rare split Republican/Democrat couple, constantly modeled the principles of openminded inquiry and promoted ideas over ideology. I strive to take advantage of the intellectual resources I have been given to build a more inclusive society.
By contributing to the science of collective dynamics, I have two goals. First, I want to promote better understanding of collective decisions. My research on decision-making highlights both how networks can increase or decrease equity of representation in deliberative democracy and also how networks can be used to optimize facilitation methods and support community organizations in solving complex problems. Second, I hope that research on collective dynamics encourages people to think more from a systems perspective by highlighting the idea that we all play a role in shaping our own social environment. By teaching people about collectives, I hope to challenge individualist perspectives and promote a culture of inclusive collaboration.