Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Mental Models

Mental Models

"We are here (In Zimbabwe) and happy. The sun is shining--we pray for rain in church. Not many look like us so people are especially friendly."

Barrett Hazeltine, my friend and Brown faculty advisor, sent this last week. After celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary, and Barrett's 75th birthday, last year, Barrett and Mary decided to return again to Africa to help raise, this time, Zimbabwe's spirits and economy.

Rain came a few days later, but not enough to ease farmers' worries. What struck me was Barrett's last line.

One of my first friends in this world is Nayan Lassiter. We still stay in touch. Nayan was my next door neighbor in Madison, NJ. His family had a compound with his grandparents, great grandma, and visiting cousins, in one home, and Nayan and his family in another house. They also had a huge patio, studio, and pool. It was a great entertainment center.

When we were young, I never noticed Nayan's different skin tone. He was my friend, and we loved building forts, playing sports, and, on occasion, spying on, and visiting, his grandparents' / parents' numerous parties.

From my memory, solely African Americans attended some of the parties, and I remember people reaching out to Nayan and me, welcoming us, and asking us questions about who we were, and what we'd like to do with our time. They were "especially friendly".

In fourth grade, Gaye Newton invited several boys and me to her birthday party. The other boys decided girl parties were still too contaminated with cooties, but my parents made me attend because the Newtons were our neighbors, and Nayans' cousins. I was the only boy, and it was fun. I met people I hadn't known, and was treated really special.

A few years ago, I was asked to facilitate a leadership program at a Pocono's retreat owned by a New York City judge and his wife. The program was for high potential high school and college students. I was the only white person I saw, in my mirror, for four days. In addition to our seminar, the facility was hosting many other programs. Most of the people, again, were friendly, but I sensed some suspicion amongst those unaware of my role.

Many years ago, I facilitated a program for six protestant, and six catholic, 15 - 17 year old boys from Belfast Ireland. They were blended onto one soccer team, and played against a series of United States college teams before going home, undefeated. I worked with them on their first day together, to help forge their team. They looked, collectively, very much alike.

The protestants and Catholics could have been brothers; in some cases, twins. Yet, each knew who represented the other faith. In an early activity, elbows flew, almost followed by fists, before peers controlled it. By the end of our day together, even the most hardened boy decided to dedicate himself to the team. They'd proven they were trustworthy.

Yet, they all admitted, once they returned to Belfast, they could be killed if seen on the street with a teammate of the other religion.

Mental models can lead us to conclusions and decisions where we can change the world for good, as in Barrett and Mary's case, or restrict it, as was the case with the boys' return to Belfast.

Some people choose to focus on differences, physical or not, while others choose to solve common problems.

The choice is ours.

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