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A conversation with Tony in Atlanta

At the coffee shop where I found lunch today, I accidentally caught the eye of a person sitting alone, by the fireplace, with a tea. I chirped a greeting as I went to my table, and he mumbled a response that I didn’t quite hear. “Pardon?” I said.

“Just trying to stay strong, y’know?”

I wasn’t sure if I did know. I was just coming off having finished delivering a talk, and was about to eat some kind of vegetarian sandwich at this Caribou Coffee location.

“Do you ever wonder why you’re here?” he asked. “I mean, what’s the point, really?”

I wondered if this was a suicide-intervention type of conversation and moved closer to make sure I could understand his intent.

“Oh, yeah, come have a seat,” he said, and I joined him by the fireplace on a decorative stump.

He was a black man in his 20s, overweight and wearing a grey, fraying “Jasper Canada” zip-up over an all-black wardrobe. His eyes were weary and his posture slumped.

“Do you ever just feel so tired of it all? Just so fatigued?”

I wondered if he was referring to health challenges, like an iron deficiency or mono that had gone undetected — that would be certainly less urgent than a suicide risk, but still important. I kept listening.

“I mean, why can’t I just catch a break? I try so hard, and every where I turn, it’s just dead-ends. Don’t people understand I’m trying to make good choices? Like, how one minor decision they make ends up have major impact on a person’s life, and they don’t see it.”

It was clear there was a whole life story rippling under the surface of this man. I glanced over at my spinach-and-something sandwich at the table where I had intended to sit. I had been planning to check some tweets from the conference. This conversation had a little more urgency to it.

“People say to me, Here’s what you gotta do, just avoid people who give you trouble, and you’ll be happy, and I say, for what reason? Show me one person who is actually happy. I see people who supposedly have everything, and guess what. There is nobody who is happy.”

He sighed, rolling his eyes in despair and tiredness.

“And besides, everywhere, people are making selfish, greedy decisions, and those decisions affect somebody else — and what if that person doesn’t have a safe, healthy family to go back to? Do they even imagine how much their decision affects that other person?”

I was trying to imagine what he was referring to. I wanted to hear more to understand this. I grabbed my sandwich and kept listening.

“I was adopted. My mom couldn’t take care of me because she was a schizophrenic and a drug user. My dad was a thug and didn’t want nothing to do with me. So I was adopted by my grandmother. I found out later I have a sister, who I still have never met. I tried living with my other sister to save money, but she started asking me for money I didn’t have. The whole reason I’m staying with her is to save money. Just when I had finally saved enough money to buy a car to get out of here, I had to give it to her. ”

He looked at me straight-on.

“So many of my relatives are in jail. So many of my relatives are dead. These are the paths available to me. How do you get by in a world that just doesn’t let you get ahead? It just really fucks you up.”

Then he asked, “What’s your answer for why the world is as fucked up as it is?”

I looked at him. Here I am, a short-term visitor to Atlanta, Georgia, from a small city in Canada. A white guy, from comparative privilege. I don’t have answers for this guy.

I pointed at his jacket and told him I was from Canada — he hadn’t realized he was wearing Canada swag, and laughed.

I told him I was here for a conference, and that I was really grateful for him sharing his story. It sounds like he’s going through a lot.

I wanted him to know that, as best I could tell, his lived reality is because of generations of dysfunctional systems ignoring his voice and story.

I shared a concept I had just shared in my talk: that our systems of work and government were designed more than 100 years ago. We are now at a turning point where people are starting to recognize our systems need to be redesigned — our systems were created before the word “empathy” was even coined in English. That we are the people who can make choices to centre these redesigns on actual love and collaboration and teamwork, to set up the next generations for healthier systems.  That it starts by restoring love and dialogue and empathy to the relationships where we find ourselves. That he can do that today in his world, just as we are doing with each other now, in hearing each other’s stories. And I admitted that a long-term view like that doesn’t necessarily help a person like him, today, living under the crushing weight of a hundred years of broken systems.

Though I worried my words would seem hopeless and empty, he seemed to connect with them. He was with me, really with me, as I went through all that. For the first time in our conversation, he had a smile — as I labelled the trauma and terror of his lived reality as being broken and in need of redesign, he smiled.

But his response surprised me still:

“Somebody should communicate that properly to the children born into situations like mine,” he said. “We’re born, and we’re told that if we work hard we can get ahead. But it’s not true.When we work hard, we only find dead ends. Nobody tells us that we’re living in a broken system that needs to be changed. Somebody should notify the children.”

He is not being sarcastic about this. He is saying that the American Dream is advertised in such a culture-soaking way that those who are suffering within its dysfunction still don’t recognize that the system is broken.

I’ll repeat: They don’t believe the system is broken. They believe they are.

My new friend was asking:

Why isn’t this working for me?

Why can’t I get ahead?

Why are my relatives in jail?

Why is this so hard?

“Do you ever get tired like this?”

“What’s it like in Canada?” he asked. “How do you cope?”

I shook my head, at a loss for words.

I haltingly explained that we only have 35 million people in Canada, spread over more land mass than the US. I share that I was born into relative privilege, and that I had the benefit of a family that took good care of me. I wanted to talk about the suffering of indigenous people, but even then, I didn’t even enough first-hand experience to relate to my new friend’s reality.

I asked him his name — he said I could call him Tony.

I asked him what kind of work he wanted to get into.

He shook his head, as if I had asked the wrong question.

“People keep throwing themselves into jobs all around me,” he said, “anything to make money. But I want to ask different questions. I want to ask what kind of future we’re creating. I want to make sure what I’m working for doesn’t just keep creating the same fucked-up system we’re living in. I want to ask better questions. I want to make sure we’re working towards the right future.”

In the words he was speaking, he may not have known this, but he was cutting-edge. All those themes are on the lips of people doing the work of systems change: That’s Cascad.AI, that’s the Centre for Humane Tech. That’s the new movements for restorative justice. That’s the emergent future we talk about. That’s strategy. That’s inclusive design.

I wanted to respond to him in a way that would be explicitly encouraging as I could muster; though I was no longer picking up suicide-risk, Tony was clearly a person living within a daily reality that was highly discouraging. I didn’t know when the next person would be to speak something directly affirming and encouraging to him, so I decided to be it.

“Tony,” I said. “The way you are processing the world is brilliant.”

“You are a clear and amazing communicator. Please don’t give up. Don’t give up. I have no idea what somebody in a position like mine can do, but people need to hear your story and perspectives.”

“Oh, there’s something you can do alright,” he says.

I paused, not really sure if I could commit to much more than just this conversation. I did a time check and glanced across the street at the hotel where the conference was soon to resume.

Tony continued.

“When you find yourself the boss of something, or starting your own company, using your education to get yourself in a position of power, hire me.”

“Because it never works that way,” he says. “A person becomes the boss, gets in charge, and their greed takes over. They take shortcuts. They see a person like me and say, ‘I can’t hire him, I don’t like him…'”

“Yeah, right,” he said, exasperated. “You didn’t even get to know me!”

I thought back to my talk at the conference an hour prior, where I had said: “The goal isn’t just to prove that we as creators can produce great work. We need to create space to draw out the best contributions of all of us.”

All of us.

Can you imagine? If we were serious about co-creative practices that create the space for all, what would it really look like? If we were serious about inclusivity, diversity, and accessibility, what would it look like to hire Tony and train his curious, thoughtful mind and communicative, sensitive spirit to become a strategist and facilitator? To work with him on themes of citizen-centric government?

The time came for me to head back to the conference. Tony asked for nothing from me, and we exchanged only stories, not even contact information. As a visiting Canadian, I can’t hire Tony. But I can share his story here, in the hopes it could challenge us all to consider overlooked people and stories we can welcome and incorporate into our practices, to co-design systems that work for the next generation.