Activism

Dear Kevin…

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img_6547Dear Kevin,

For the last couple of months, I’ve been thinking a lot about your recent disappointment. You passion for the top job was clear. Maybe too clear.

I know the impact of unwelcome news can be demoralising. No one likes to be let down by the institution.

It has taken me a while to respond because I didn’t know what to make of your expression of grievance by turning to the media as a direct channel to express your sense that this was somehow unfair.

I know some people will disagree with my opinion here. I know that you were passionate to help the global community in the top job at the United Nations. And you clearly have a lot to offer.

Your strength of having a sharp insight into the dynamics of international affairs is well regarded, and no doubt this would have been beneficial for the myriad of challenges tackled by the United Nations, not the least of which are the wicked problems which the recently adopted Sustainable Development Goals seek to address.

I have an interest in where the United Nations goes because I, in my own small way, am trying to contribute to game changing impact relating to child survival. Some might say and with good reason that to date I have been unsuccessful in my pursuit, but I continue to see what I difference I might make.

As I was reflecting on your grievance, expressed so publicly through the media, I remembered the seeing collateral that the Australian Government was using a few years ago when it was lobbying for a non-permanent seat of the United Nations Security Council. Some this collateral use photos showing the work of many of our Australian veterans who were on deployments under the banner of the United Nations. Many sailors, soldiers, airmen and airwomen deployed away from their family, often in danger, for long periods of time. Privation is part and parcel of service to country. And yes, we were all volunteers.

And it made me think about how some veterans feel. Many veterans feel completely abandoned by the government after they take off the uniform. And often these feelings held by veterans are not unjustified.

Often the grievances the veterans have relates to government decisions or government policy. Certainly, this often is a matter of interpretation by the veterans involved, but when people have given so much, aren’t they entitled to have this opportunity to express a grievance?

Sadly enough, most of the time their complaints seem to be stonewalled by bureaucracy. Or they get treated like just another number, their surname the unremarkable heading of a file or a letter. There is no sense of dignity reflecting the uniform they once wore in the service of country.

The military culture can be unforgiving at times. Often, in the face of a complaint or grievance the advice from superior officers is to get over it. Suck it up. Move on. Deal with it.

I have listened to the exasperated comments of many colleagues, and more other veterans who I don’t know but who have been brought into my circle of friends through social media such as Facebook. Their complaint is genuine, even if the technicality of their grievance has no basis according to government policy. I know this, and I suspect you know this too.

Worse still, it is these unanswered complaints held by many that I suspect has often been a large factor in many veterans deciding to take their own lives through suicide. Such a tragic waste and loss.

I mentioned that I am committed to making change about child survival. I am spending a lot of time thinking about my approach, and am writing about my experience in the form of a memoir that I think will be of value to others. This memoir will also point to a way forward. In the meantime, I am training up for a marathon at the end of October in Washington DC where I will focus my energies on raising awareness for the need to improve mental health among veterans. As I get more experience in having success in raising awareness in an area I am familiar with, I will deploy that knowledge into this pressing problem of child survival.

It hasn’t been easy, but I think back to the number of veterans who are suffering in silence and know that more needs to be done.

I’m a little disappointed that you didn’t use your platform in a more constructive way after you became aware that it seemed that the rug had been pulled from under your feet in your endeavours for the top job of the United Nations. There are so many problems bigger than your own grievance. Why did it need to come down to political point scoring? Why back yourself? Even if you were right, was there not a better way to have used that opportunity better?

And I think about all those photos of veterans used as collateral for campaigning to the United Nations that wove into your story to strengthen your platform for credibility as a contender for the top job. Many of those photos of veterans who now suffer in silence. Have you thought they feel let down, used and abandoned too? They have no platform to go to the tabloids.

We need better leadership in Australia. This begins with me and you. It is a responsibility for all of us.

I’m sorry for your disappointment. Suck it up. I hope you might contact me as there are more important fights that need your help.

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And How About Today?

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ruok-skywritingRUOK Day has come and gone. Let’s all get back to watching the rugby…

I know, I know. This is not a binary choice either way. It is good to be critical, and it is also good to try. You never know the consequence of your actions.

This post is about RUOK Day- it was earlier this week, and you can read my post that I posted then here.

The point is that all too often ‘raising awareness’ ends once the enthusiasm from the celebrity laced event concludes. It becomes namedropping collateral, humblebrag for another time. Or is it?

Yes, I jest. Sort of. My point is though that if we care, then we should do more than just be satisfied with a minimalist approach to slacktivism.

This blog is about improving child survival. My earlier post was about improving mental health among veterans. Where is the connection?

This is what is on my mind: too often there is great enthusiasm to talk about an initiative, especially among politicians. After the press brief, it is back to business as usual. Not for those who are in the thick of it. Not for veterans struggling. And importantly not in the remote villages where child mortality is an unwanted blight.

No, while these things still prevail, I am not ok. And neither should you be.

RUOK?

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img_7611Well, are you?

RUOK? A campaign which began in 2009 as an initiative of an Australian whose father was lost to suicide. The rationale is that many more people consider or attempt suicide that actually are successful, and that by having one day a year to ask this question it might raise awareness to help those who are struggling.

In some respects, RUOK? and the 22 Push-up Challenge are examples of “slacktivism”. An intervention which requires the bare minimum of effort. The collective effort is seen as the benefit of this intervention.

Many people ask whether this is of any value. It is a fair question.

Consider this: if someone is really struggling and you ask them “RUOK?” can you really expect for them to give you an honest answer. Our default towards avoiding pain and shame is that we will mostly brush off the question with a polite smile, and possibly even the even result in a stinging sense of alienation because the question seems to be so superficial.

So what is the alternative? Is it better not to ask?

Derek Weida is an American Iraq War veteran whose leg was amputated as a result of injuries while sustain on duty. He is is skilfully provocative with his posts on Facebook. Far from just seeking attention, I really believe he cares about what he talks about. Recently, he gave a lot of focus to ranting about the 22 Push Up Challenge. His view that people we far too obsessed with the number 22. Rather than being focused on strengths, it pushed us into a culture of victimhood. You can read more about this and see his video on this post at Task And Purpose.

Similarly, is RUOK? pointing to the hole which someone might be silently suffering in, rather than constructively building a way out? We could discuss this all day and not come to an unified response.

What do you think? Much like the 22 Push-Up Challenge, I believe that the RUOK? initiative is good, but it can’t stop there. There must be some action orientated activity following the question, often involving taking time to listen to another person.

Part of the reason I have been asking people to join me vicariously in the training for the marathon by adding “+10” to my daily post is that it gives a sense of the daily attention we need to bring to helping those who might need our support. It takes effort.

This current training and marathon is associated with raising awareness for the need to improve mental health among veterans. It is real, not just some social experiment.

I believe that the learnings from this will help in our understanding of what makes a difference in other areas too. I am doing this now because I care about the health of veterans, partly because I am a veteran myself. I also know that the benefits we realise from working out what works will help in this overarching pursuit that seeks to improve child survival.

Enough of the big ideas. I just want to finish by asking one question. Yes, I’m asking you. RUOK?

Beyond The Backswing: An Update, Part 2

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IMG_6054The entire journey I have been on has been risk-filled. Precarious at every step.

Mostly, this is a reflection on my financial capacity to undertake the next step at each point. It is not as though there has been one or two dilemmas where I had to decide whether to continue or not. In fact, the whole journey has been like this. A high level of risk has been normal.

I don’t like to talk about this too much because it enters into territory that is intensely personal for me. So much so that I am less inclined to even clarify what I mean by that very statement. You will just have to take my word for it. I’m sure you can join the dots.

I concluded the running stunt, as I mentioned in the earlier blog post. I was dissatisfied with my performance, and for some time had considered that I would need to do it again such was my disapproval of my own achievement. Slowly, I came to recognise that I had completed the stunt. It might not have been as dramatic as I might have wanted, but there it was. It was done.

Some of the things that were not done well include my use of publicity and media, inclusive of social media. This was largely a function of my reticence to speak about my experiences. I felt uneasy about putting myself out there in front in public, partly because I knew there were critics who might be looking for some hidden agenda, and partly because I didn’t feel qualified to be representing the issue. After a little time and soul searching, I have come to terms with both these issues. Firstly, to hell with the critics. And secondly, I am entitled to my own opinion, and have as much right to set about making a dent in the universe as anyone else (to borrow the encouragement from Steve Jobs which was recorded in an early interview he made).

I still have some way to go, but I am getting there. Every time I post a blog or share a video is another training day for me, another lesson, more practice. I want to communicate with you, and I also know that by doing so I will improve my ability to better articulate that which I seek to achieve. I owe you, the audience, a considerable debt of gratitude for allowing me this indulgence to improve my skills in the service of helping others less fortunate. Thank you.

While the running stunt was concluded, the two key outputs for the 10 City Bridge Run remain incomplete: the Design Forum, and the book Life Bridge. The Design Forum is where this question of child survival will be addressed, and the book Life Bridge is a photo essay of 100 photos of human bridges to communicate the central theme to this initiative.

After completing the running stunt, I wondered how I might get closer to completing these two outstanding tasks. I could have easily slapped together a publication and posted that out, as well as convening a glorified town hall meeting and calling it a Design Forum. But that is not my style. The issue deserves more from me, and the supporters deserve more although the cost of doing so is that there is a time delay in the delivery of product which I consider to be less than acceptable. I feel rather sheepish about these delays, and I have also accepted this as how it is rather than just giving up and saying “well, I tried…”

Toward the middle of last year, I began meeting with an elderly lady who lives near where I get my dry-cleaning done. It soon became obvious that she benefited from my company as a visitor to talk, and I benefited from the role of mentor that she unknowingly began to fill. We shared many interests, namely Papua New Guinea, and would meet on a weekly basis. I would bring coffee and cake, and we would sit together for an hour or so and have a good talk.

The outcome of this was that she provoked me to start writing. I began with a few paragraphs and a series of notes, and then before too long it was a page. When I was happy with what I had written, I asked if she wouldn’t mind hearing my work. She was happy to do so, and with all the graces of an refined lady listened politely with an encouraging smile as I read this page and a half. I concluded, and she dispassionately asked “is that it?” as if to say that she was expecting much more. I explained that it was just the beginning, and described where I thought it might go. With a cheeky smile she leant forward and threw down the challenge. “Get on with it!” she exclaimed in an amused fashion.

And so I have. That one and a half pages is now sitting at a near completed narrative consisting of 100 short stories that run together in a memoir titled “Beyond The Backswing”. The book explores the necessity of failure in the epic pursuit of game changing impact, and more than just simply narrating my own experiences I place these into a context that I believe will be useful for many to read.

The benefit of writing this book is that it has enabled me to develop a strong sense of clarity to describe how and what the Design Forum and the book Life Bridge ought to be.

The stunt is behind me, and thankfully because of the encouragement of Paddy, the culmination of this endeavour will soon be realised. First, the book Beyond The Backswing will be published, and I’m looking forward to sharing more about this in the coming weeks.

The next blog update talks about an unexpected pivot through The Mission Continues.

The Credit Belongs To The Man Who Errs: An Update, Part 1

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ny image The ImpossibleAfter some recess from the blog, it is well time to continue this narrative.

The 10 City Bridge Run was conceived in 2010 to help address the problem faced by high child mortality. It emerged from lessons learnt following an initiative called the 9 City Bridge Run. The 9 City Bridge Run was focused on using resilience and wellbeing as a counterpoint to depression and suicide.

In many respects, the two issues faced by the 9 City Bridge Run and the 10 City Bridge Run were distinct and unrelated. At the same time, these were two issues linked by a similar thread of design and social impact.

I wrote a discussion paper after the 9 City Bridge Run. If you want a copy of an abstract from the paper, leave a comment below and I will forward you one and point you to where it is located. For a range of reasons, I thought that I had left the issue of suicide and depression behind, and was cracking on with addressing child survival as much as I was able.

It is worth noting that my efforts in both cases were well-intentioned, albeit Quixotic. What is one to do? Give up because they don’t have enough knowledge, or desist because the method chosen is not entirely workable at first?

I had sought to partner with large institutional organisations before committing to action, but I found that their capacity to embrace the sense of change I was looking to find was mired because of their obsession with messaging and fundraising.

In hindsight, it is easy for the critic to lean back in their comfortable chair and point to all of the flaws in what I chose to do. This could have been done differently, it would have been better to do that. But the journey of the 10 City Bridge Run is now in its sixth year. There has been untold and tremendous levels of heartache and sweat equity poured into this, and while it has been clumsy at time, there has been learning along the way.

Most of the financial risk was borne by myself. Essentially, this was a foolish move, and I was fortunate to receive the support from many generous people who contributed during a series of fundraising campaigns. The amount of  money raised was modest, but enough to steer me through such that I would not give up.

The 10 City Bridge Run was based on a stunt: to run 10 sub-marathons each of 24 km in 10 cities across 10 countries inside the space of a month so as to open a conversation about improving child survival. That was 2010, and it wasn’t until a dark, wet and cold night on 3 January 2015 in New York that this running stunt was completed.

The stunt was to enable something else to occur, and that was what I had described as a series of Design Forum to open this conversation about improving the delivery of child survival. To help fund the initiative, the crowdfunding was based on the pre-sale of a book that would feature a photo-essay of 100 photos of human bridges to communicate that it was the connections between us was the greatest resource at our disposal to make change happen. What that change was and how it would occur was unanswered during this process, and is indeed the work of the Design Forum.

Here’s the thing: unless we try things, how will we know if something is going to work. Theodore Roosevelt was right in his frequently quoted address about the man in the arena:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

This has not been an easy journey, but progress is being made. Maybe the issues have yet to be impacted upon, but then again neither is the deeds in the arena complete.

Picking up this conversation again through this blog, I wanted to backtrack a little so you could know where it has come from.

The next post will talk about where the 10 City Bridge Run stands at the present.

Turning Point Or Tipping Point?

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ny image The Impossible
Graffiti on a bridge crossed during the final leg of the 10 City Bridge Run in New York. “The impossible will take a little while” it read. It will, but we’re getting there, step by step.

December marks the exhibition of my next public art work as part of a themed exhibition at the local gallery titled ‘Turning Point’. Turning Point is deliciously open to interpretation. Maybe your imagination begins considering a change of direction, then a change of season, a rite of passage, a traumatic event, a particular moment in time. Let your mind wander for a few moments and consider the possibilities.

I will be creating a work drawing upon my journey towards achieving this quest to improve child survival. My first submission to the curator was challenged with some great questions, and I have refined where and what the Turning Point means for me.

The work will be titled ‘The Next Step’, and points to 100 moments in my journey to date, any of which could be ‘the turning point’. The point of the work is that none of those moments, or neither the complete whole story told through this narrative of the 100 photos, is of itself the Turning Point. The Turning Point remains an elusive moment represented by the realisation of the collaborative effort necessary for this task of addressing how we might use our networks to deliver on the promise to improve child survival to be addressed. The Turning Point won’t be the completion of the journey. Far from it. The Turning Point will be the beginning of a new chapter in this journey, and only made possible by my efforts that were often inadequate at best in the past.

ny image will take aThe work points to the hope that comes about from action, an action that is arrived at by being unreasonable in an ambition for change, and change that can only occur with radical collaboration with others. To achieve this Turning Point, it is necessary for us to take The Next Step, together.

Let me just explain how these 100 photos will be presented, because it is important to understanding a nuance in this work. They will form a 10 x 10 matrix in which the photos are close together, but not joined. Each moment is separate from the others, but at the same time part of a bigger journey. If a picture tells a thousand words, then this will speak volumes.

As I create the idea of work in my mind, I am becoming aware that somehow this gridded matrix of 100 photos will be bookended either side by two discrete grids, both also containing 100 tiles across the same 10 x 10 matrix. Every tile or photo will be the same dimension: 10 cm x 10 cm, and the two bookended grids will be empty containing no photos at the beginning of this work.

ny image little whileThroughout the duration of the exhibition, these two adjacent grids will slowly take form. Photos will be added to each of the 100 tiles in each, ending up with three grids each containing 100 photos. 300 photos in all.

One of these adjacent grids will take the form of the 100 Champions of Change that I am seeking from the broader global community. People can nominate themselves, or even share the invitation to their networks. This is not just assembling a list of monitors to help with a project, but is an exercise that is rich with possibility. Who would we, from our small corner in Auburn of this expansive global community, like to see represented in this collective of Champions of Change? Is the request even too ambitious itself?

Seeking this participation of 100 Champions of Change to be assembled during the life of this art work draws upon another favourite quote from the Brazilian philosopher Roberto Unger who I referred to in my post yesterday titled “Hope Is The Consequence Of Action” . “To establish a transformative imagination at the centre of our understanding of society” is the task which Unger speaks boldly about. This art work is not just about my efforts and perspective during this project, but it demands the participation of others to be complete. That is risky. That is reality.

The other grid of 100 tiles will also begin absent of photos, and during the life of the exhibition will come to represent the 100 photos of human bridges that will comprise the photo essay to be featured in the book Life Bridge that is central to the completion of the 10 City Bridge Run. This will also be a co-created process, inviting people to contribute, and encouraging people to help assemble a wondrous deck of photos to tell this story of a human bridge drawn from people across the globe. Will we settle for less, or will we seek to attract an awesome collection of 100 photos of human bridges that will defy what the imagination at present even believes is possible?

It is the beginning of a conversation. It is both a statement and an invitation to collaborate.

A good mate today reminded me of the book ‘The Tipping Point’ by Malcolm Gladwell. Our friendship goes back literally decades. It was with two of our classmates from school that the kernel of this epic quest began. The journey has taken a completely different direction from the discussion of that evening, but it does go to further illustrate where we identify a Turning Point. Phil’s point is a good one, and I think that the Turning Point and the Tipping Point for this epic quest will be reached at the same time.

Hope Is The Consequence Of Action

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sunrise over manhattanThis has been a time of inspiration. Perhaps this is unwarranted, because it also has felt like a time when the sands of opportunity seemed to be avoiding my grasp as they slipped away through my fingers.

Trying something, and it not working. It is a very common experience. A quintessentially human experience. Is it strange that we have forgotten all of the failures from the early years of life during a time when walking might have seem to have been an impossibility? Perhaps it is stranger that we can get so hung up on a point in time when it would appear a plan has ended in failure. Not that we can remember, but if we were to think back to childhood, we would know that through perseverance we would eventually overcome.

I’ve been caught up in the words of a Brazilian philosopher called Roberto Unger recently. The title of this blog comes from a quote of his that I like:

Change requires neither saintliness nor genius. What it does require is the conviction of the incomparable value of life. Nothing should matter more to us than the attempt to grasp our life while we have it, and to awaken from the slumber of routine, of compromise and prostration, so that we may die only once. Hope is not the condition or cause of action. Hope is the consequence of action. And those who fail in hope should act, practically or conceptually, so that they may hope.”

This post is an update about an epic quest I undertook in 2010 and have yet to complete. I called that quest the 10 City Bridge Run. The purpose of the quest was to address an ambitious question through a conversation asking: “how might we use our networks to improve the delivery of child survival?” The method was all the more ambitious to the point of ridiculous: I proposed a stunt to highlight the conversation about child survival where I would run 10 sub-marathons each of 24 km in 10 cities across 10 countries.

Long story short, I have completed the stunt, but not yet done justice to the conversation. And in between these two events there is a book I am yet to publish and send to my supporters. That book is to be called Life Bridge, and will feature a photo essay with 100 pictures of human bridges to illustrate that it is through our connections that change can take place.

I am very aware of ways this could have been simpler, or ways the execution to date could have been more effective. It has been lumpy in parts, but that too is part of the journey.

And so that brings me to this point about failure, about inspiration, and about hope where I began the post. A reasonable person would at this point in time cut their losses and apologise saying that it was all too much trouble, and that they were not up to the task. As I write that, I know that I cannot accept this as failure, and hear the words of George Bernard Shaw. You know the ones: “the unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself.”

And so yes, I have been staring down failure as I interpret what this journey has meant.

Staring down failure because there is inspiration. Inspiration from the fresh initiative called the Sustainable Development Goals which will replace the United Nations Millennium Development Goals when they expire at the end of this year. Inspiration because I know there is purpose in holding this conversation, and that hardship is part and parcel of trying to achieve difficult things. And inspiration from a conversation I had in Newcastle recently where someone challenged me to look again at what I had achieved.

Let me explain this incident from Newcastle briefly. Back in 2009, I ran what was the initiative that preceded this 10 City Bridge Run initiative. In 2009, I called it the 9 City Bridge Run, and it was undertaken in response to the suicides of many friends as an effort to show that resilience and community wellbeing could be counterpoints to the conversation that was prevalent about depression and suicide. Long story short, that journey was personally a success, but a complete failure in attempting to have some impact on an issue which I considered to be important.

Unger refreshingly argues that change can be piecemeal, fragmentary, gradual and experimental. His words help to reframe our perspective: “we should not associate radical change with wholesale change, and gradual change with inconsequential change.”

The strength in Unger’s words to me is this: “To grasp what it can become” is necessary to embrace is we are to overcome the failure of structural imagination. To be sure, I have take Unger’s words out of the context they were written for, but I believe that remain entirely relevant to this situation.

And so from that conversation in Newcastle, I realised a few things. And this is where you come into the picture.

I realised that my efforts have been too much me pushing. As valiant as that might be, it leaves little room for the ‘us’ to truly collaborate on this epic quest.

I realised that concluding this quest through the publication of the book Life Bridge and the holding of a series of Design Forum to address this conversation about child survival required more input from others. It was possible, but it wasn’t just a matter of pushing harder from where I am now. I need to relent a little to invite others in to this space.

I also realised that what I achieved in 2009 and in the recent 10 City Bridge Run was worth exploring further. And this has pointed me to the next steps. And I’ll come to that shortly at the end of this blog.

Mao famously had a quote to ‘let a hundred flowers bloom’ which was actually a ruse to out the intellectuals within Chinese society so that their influence could be purged by “enticing the snakes out of their caves.” I think that Mao was definitely onto something. Not the crackdown of dissidents, but an openness to others being involved.

One of the last acts of the 10 City Bridge Run involved me delivering a letter to The Hon Julie Bishop MP, Australia’s Foreign Minister, asking her to be the champion for this initiative. Her staff replied in time, and I recorded a video when I was in Korea earlier this year just after receiving their message. Watch it below:

And this is where you come in. I’m asking for some help. I’m inviting 100 people to be our champions of change, to pick up the slack where Julie Bishop is unable to put her shoulder to the wheel. Returning to Unger, I note his words: “Great ideas are not beyond the reach of ordinary people.” So please note that I am looking for 100 champions of change, and you could be one. There will be more on that in a later blog post.

But here is the final comment, and the point of this blog post. Hope is the consequence of action. What I am proposing is to return to my initiative from 2009, and next year in March 2016, to run 16 runs in 16 towns across NSW in 16 successive day, and in each of those towns it is conducted where there is a group, individual or organisation that is prepared to host a Design Forum. The issue will be the same one I championed in 2009 which was to address the taboo issue of depression and suicide. The reason for this activity in March is to provide a rehearsal for the big event in September/October 2016.

So then in mid-September through until mid-late October over the course of a month, I undertake to run 17 sub-marathons each of 24 km in 17 cities across more than 10 countries. In both the March and the September/October dates, I will be inviting others to run with me, and more about that later. And importantly for the September/October event, in each of the cities, and in other cities even where running doesn’t take place, I will be asking people to organise these Design Forum for me. Why 17? Because that is the new number of Sustainable Development Goals. What about child survival? That remains a key focus, but also we will be taking a holistic focus in line with the Sustainable Development Goals.

Many friends have given me very good counsel about my execution of the 10 City Bridge Run, noting my shortfall on a reliable team, social media strategy and media coverage. Those are all very good comments, and I completely accept the need for improvement in those areas as well as many other. We now have an opportunity to get this right, but I seriously need the help from others.

We are at a Turning Point where Hope is the consequence of Action. And to achieve this Turning Point, it is necessary for us to take The Next Step, together.