Know who you are: The SUNY system’s role in equity

Sean Kirst speaks at SUNYCUAD conference

Sean Kirst — an award-winning journalist and author who is a SUNY Fredonia graduate — was both a keynote speaker at the recent SUNYCUAD conference and one of many SUNY success stories.

The recent SUNYCUAD annual educational conference had a lot of great information, but perhaps most appropriate were some of its keynote speakers reminding us of just what SUNY is. It’s not the Ivy League. It shouldn’t be. Instead, it has a much bigger role in addressing a more equitable society.

Sean Kirst, an award-winning journalist, author of The Soul of Central New York and a SUNY Fredonia graduate, recalled his own modest upbringing and how a SUNY education was really the only way up. Kirst — a top-notch storyteller who several people said gave one of the conference’s best keynotes ever — recalled the “lightbulb moment” in college when all the authors he’d read in his English classes finally made sense in their relevance to life. For decades at The Syracuse Post-Standard and now at The Buffalo News, Kirst introduces readers to wonderful humans, many of them underdogs in some way, but his own ability to tell these stories and his own underdog tale would not have been possible — as he said repeatedly — without a SUNY education.

Famed pollster John Zogby, while not a SUNY graduate but a longtime Upstate New York resident, brought up an important point as he talked about educational trends. While he notes it’s important that SUNY schools continue to attract top-tier students — the most talented and prepared — he said SUNY can’t forget about students who don’t have the flashiest SAT scores or high-school GPAs but can benefit the most from an affordable education. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting so many of these students who colleges don’t compete for because of their high-school academic profile yet have flourished in college with the opportunities they have — and who will excel (or have already excelled) in whatever field they choose.

As a conference organizer, I’m so happy we also booked Robbye Kincaid — director of Stony Brook’s Responding to Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Project — as a keynote speaker, because she emphasized SUNY’s mission of creating opportunity and a more equitable society. We can never forget the inclusive mindset that realizes diversity’s central role in our campuses and society, a point of view that benefits us all.

Chancellor Kristina Johnson added her own affirmation that even with challenges come opportunities to grow, and that the SUNY system is a gem. I agree, and it’s the combination of shining stars and diamonds in the rough that make it so valuable.

I am blessed, as a campus-based storyteller, to see opportunity create these success stories regularly. One of my very favorite assignments from the past year was speaking to winners of our Diversity Graduate Fellowship, which is the SUNY ideal in action. One winner used to be homeless and is now poised for a counseling career helping at-risk and homeless individuals. Another is a single mother teaching at a science charter school with an eye on those who most need support. Another was raised by a single mother in the Bronx and knew a SUNY education was the only way out — and after her master’s degree will bring her important diverse viewpoint to the counseling profession.

The latter winner is Stacy Araujo, who came through the Equal Opportunity Program, which helps low-income, first-generation and other college students who might need more help in transition. (Another Oswego graduate who came through the EOP program is Al Roker, America’s favorite weatherman.) Araujo explained SUNY and the EOP program about as well as anybody I can remember:

“Without this program I would not be the hardworking, focused and determined student I am today,” she said. “And more importantly, I would not have thought myself capable of succeeding during my undergraduate years and pursuing graduate studies.”

As somebody who has an associate’s degree, bachelor’s degree and master’s degree from SUNY schools — and might not have been able to get them otherwise — I know this is truth. And it’s reason that every day I get to work at a SUNY institution, I know I can be part of making a difference for the better.

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Anthony Bourdain’s end was a tragedy, but his life was a triumph

(Courtesy of WikiMedia Commons)

Like so many others, I was shocked to open my computer on Friday morning to the stunning news that Anthony Bourdain — the intelligent and irreverent, charming and charismatic chef/author/wanderer — had taken his own life. It has led to discussion of suicide and mental illness, which is always important, but I can’t help but also think of the beloved Bourdain as such an unlikely and uplifting success story.

The man that his friend and CNN co-worker Anderson Cooper aptly described as “one of this country’s greatest storytellers” was, despite his immense talent and work ethic, a very unlikely star.

He worked his way up from dishwasher to star chef in the course of two decades. While he earned his degree from the Culinary Institute of America, he did not follow a path of privilege so much as the old-fashion practice of learning the business from the inside out. He also picked up a drug habit that could have derailed his journey many times but instead deferred to one more obstacle to overcome as he rose to the coveted role of head chef of Manhattan’s beloved Brasserie Les Halles.

But who knew that behind the chef’s hat sat the mind of a tremendous storyteller? It took an impish and impulsive gambit — sending an essay on the inner workings of NYC kitchens that The New Yorker published in 1997 as “Don’t Eat Before Reading This” — to begin to unwrap his successful second act. In 2000, he became an author, and a bestselling one at that, with Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly.

And then, in his mid-40s, Bourdain’s quick wit, tremendous people skills and unquenchable curiosity about food and cultures became a marriage made in TV heaven. Starting with “A Cook’s Tour” on the Food Network, Bourdain evolved his storytelling knack and ability to get anybody to open up and share their cultures further with the successful and surprisingly sublime “No Reservations” on The Travel Channel. To watch Bourdain’s effortless charisma and ability to connect, it’s easy to see why CNN decided to work with him, and change the direction of their network programming, with the launch of the series “Parts Unknown” in 2013. It won awards and yet another legion of fans for Bourdain, but for him it was never about just earning fame and fortune.

Bourdain described “Parts Unknown” as “a series of … standalone essays that generally try to focus on the subject of food and where it comes from, but not always.” It was wickedly funny serial storytelling, bound by a sense of place on any given episode … and yet much more. Appropriate given his background, Bourdain was a champion of the underdog and of marginalized people. Food was how he connected with them, but empathy was how he attained their stories.

As he mentioned in an interview with Cooper, he never ever refused a meal offered to him in his travels, no matter how gross or unappealing or not-so-fresh it might have appeared (the worst thing that could happen, he joked, could probably be cured by antibiotics). This is such an important lesson for all of us — he treated cultures, peoples and food with great respect, realizing the way to the hearts of his hosts was through his own stomach. If a person accepts your food, he accepts you on every level.

For all of Anthony’s famed gift of gab, this was the real bedrock of his shows. He may have been profane, hard-drinking and sarcastic, but he did not see humans as greater or lesser, only as fellow humans.

“I still feel I have the best job in the world,” he told CNN a few years ago, “and it’s still fun.” He seemingly had everything to live for — it’s no stretch to spin the old cliche to say men (and women) wanted to be him, and women (and some men) wanted to be with him, because he was so magnetic and magnanimous. For all the travel, logistics and occasional dangerous food, it really did look like a job any one of us would want. That he had a young daughter that gave him a sense of purpose seems like icing on the cake.

Except that seeming to have it all ultimately would mean nothing to him.

I wrap this up with lines from my favorite book of poetry, Edwin Arlington Robinson’s Spoon River Anthology. The elegy for Richard Cory, the successful and most envied man in town, ends with a twist that has become sadly recognizable in our modern society:

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,

Clean favored, and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,

“Good-morning,” and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich—yes, richer than a king—
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything

To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

 

We’ll never truly know what went through Anthony Bourdain’s head in those last lost moments. But we’re learning what a tremendous impact he’s had on his fans, followers and the friends he made so easily. Godspeed, Tony, and thank you for feeding our bodies and our minds.

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Being remarkable by being unremarkable.

Author standing in front of a LeRoy Island sign

Maybe the only person that day to take a selfie on LeRoy Island.

Upstate New York is full of wonder. I’ve lived within an hour (or much less) of Lake Ontario for 40+ years but hadn’t heard of LeRoy Island until Friday night. And when I visited it, I realized why.
I planned a random Saturday roadtrip to clear my head out a bit, which I do from time to time, starting with fixed points of Waterloo Prime Outlets (to clear out my wallet) and Sterling Cidery. But what to do in between? Captain Jack’s on Sodus Bay? Nice, but nothing new. Chimney Bluffs? Been a while, maybe. Then I saw it floating on the map on the east side of Sodus Bay: LeRoy Island.
A map of Sodus Bay, with an arrow pointing to LeRoy Island

Thar she blows.

Go ahead: Google “LeRoy Island.” I’ll wait.

You back? Kind of a mystery, yes? Some Facebook checkins but no official presence. Some real estate listings. Not much else. My interest was piqued.
So after supporting the Seneca County economy at the outlet malls, I headed north on 414 but instead of turning right on 104, I went straight on something sometimes called Lake Bluff Road. Orchards and vineyards and farms lined the road. Off on the left toward Sodus Bay, I started to see the nouveau riche fabricated monstrosities, million-dollar plots individually or in cul de sacs boasting the coveted lake view. Those disappeared and the countryside returned. Following winding roads and instinct, at last I reached it: LeRoy Island.
What’s remarkable about LeRoy Island is that it is generally unremarkable. You drive across a bridge lined with fishermen, past a gritty marina that says parking for customers only (read: not a tourist trap) and onto the island’s main road, where water remains in view on both sides of you. Marina aside, it’s all residential. And quaint. The main road ends in a loop, and you can explore the one-lane camp roads (I met no traffic) and see the whole island quickly. The camps and houses are nice but not showy; not a McMansion in the bunch, and the cars are not luxury vehicles and sports cars or enormous Land Rovers but the kinds of vehicles driven by everyday folks.
A little free library, where people will finish a book and leave it for a neighbor to enjoy

When you finish a good book, you share it with your neighbors.

It feels like a throwback but in the best way — to a time when the middle class could afford waterfront property, where people liked and respected and said hello to their neighbors (there’s even a little free library where residents put their books when they’re done with them so others can peruse them), where folks talk across campfires and wooden fences and fishing lines. I saw nobody with their nose in a smartphone (as opposed to the outlet mall, where you couldn’t go 10 feet without seeing somebody absorbed by technology).

The people of LeRoy Island know they have a bit of paradise but don’t have to brag about it or showcase it in selfies, because it’s so much more rewarding to just soak in what’s around you and appreciate your blessings.
In the attention-craving world of 2018, LeRoy Island is in no hurry to be found. And in that dedication to being unremarkable, it is a remarkable find.

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Strategy, not stunts: The way forward in social media management

Pictures of fishing bait and lures

Courtesy of publicdomainpictures.net

Lost in the recent news about changes to the Facebook news feed to favor people over brand pages (among other things), which continues to generate both panic and purposeful planning, was an announcement that anybody who cares about the social media ecosphere could support.

Facebook’s decision to devalue “engagement bait” is great news for all of us. Chances are, your feeds have had the weeds that include phrases like “tag a friend,” “share for a chance to win,” “life if you …” and other lazy substitutions for developing actually engaging content.

According to Nathan Mendenhall of Social Media Today, discouraged behaviors include:

  • Tag Baiting – Asking people to tag their friends.
  • Comment Baiting – Asking people to comment with specific answers (words, numbers, phrases, or emojis).
  • Vote Baiting – Asking people to vote using reactions, comments, sharing, or other means of representing a vote.
  • React Baiting – Asking people to react to the post (includes like, love, haha, wow, sad, and angry).
  • Share Baiting –  Asking people to share the post with their friends.

All of those represent desperate calls for attention more than anything contributing to social media community. They generate only noise.

Asking people to share a Facebook post should be part of something urgent. Looking for help to solve a crime? Absolutely. Trying to find a lost person (or dog or cat)? Totally. Trying to win a $10 gift certificate because sharing enters you into a contest? Get off my feed, already.

Mendenhall’s piece has also mentions video, a popular format on Facebook. The downside if its effectiveness is so much video that is trash … including video that is actually a static graphic or some kind of inspirational or funny quote that tries to game the system.

But Facebook is placing greater emphasis on video that matters. “Don’t make video for the hell of it,” Mendenhall notes. “If you want to get value out of your investment in social video, especially on Facebook, make content that people will want to watch and will come back to view more than once, or focus on episodic content to boost repeat viewership of your subsequent posts.”

Again, think of video as not just a thing to do, but as a medium that can tell a story in a compelling way. That’s how we should always think of our content.

Whatever the Facebook changes bring our way — and I’m sure I’ll be among those not pleased with all of them — one takeaway is to concentrate on quality content and on content strategy, which is what we should be doing the whole time. Taking away people who use stunts and shouting for attention is one positive development.

We can make a better Facebook — and social media experience — by concentrating on stories that matter and on delivering value to our audience. It’s a shame that a bunch of news feed changes have to remind us.

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Being useful is more important than chasing vanity metrics

I recently had a call from a vendor who brusquely said she thought our Facebook posts could do better and that their tool could help (a dubious argument). That week happened to be, in retrospect, one of our lowest for engagement rates, in part because Facebook was seemingly squeezing everybody’s reach at the time and because I was trying new content features, but it also brought to focus something I’ve been thinking for a while:

We spend a lot of time looking at social media the wrong way.

Graph that shows a rising and falling Facebook reachSocial media isn’t — or shouldn’t be — a popularity contest. If you’re only concerned with vanity metrics (likes, reach, etc.), you’re not really concerned with your audience.

Don’t get me wrong: I like seeing one of our posts getting hundreds of likes and shares and a big reach, but there’s something I like way better:

Seeing that one of our posts has helped somebody or had a positive effect. Maybe it makes an alum smile and remember their days. Maybe a parent comments on how thrilled they are their child goes here. Maybe it convinces somebody to come to an event or donate or maybe even choose to enroll at our college.

And in at least one case, a very helpful post made people mad and convinced them not to come, but ultimately was the right thing, engagement rates be damned.

Without getting too specific, we have a popular annual student-organized event that I happily promote when I heard about it because it’s one of the most cherished offerings to the community. But then, on the afternoon before the event (!), they emailed they didn’t have their resources aligned and would have to cancel it.

I knew what I had to do wouldn’t make us popular or that beloved in the short term, but it was the right thing: I had to post ASAP that this event was canceled.

People were mad. They chewed us out. They were rightfully upset that an event their children looked forward to wasn’t going to happen and they’d have to find some alternative. I checked around and found a couple of similar events they might enjoy.

The post did get shared quite a bit to make sure families didn’t show up to a canceled thing, which would have led to temper tantrums and the like, and the comments with which it was shared were not kind. Understood. I did a follow-up post the next morning, realizing it could bring more anger, although by then people saw it as more helpful.

If somebody only cared about sentiment tracking, would they have posted it?

If somebody didn’t think it would get a bunch of likes, would they have posted it?

I’d like to think the answer to these questions is “yes” for most people in the field, but if all you chase are likes and positive sentiment, you’ll miss the bigger purpose of social media, and that is being of value to your community.

If somebody doesn’t want to post something helpful or of interest to a key (albeit niche) audience because it might not get good engagement rates and could potentially lower EdgeRank, then they are managing numbers, not a true community.

Because posting something that genuinely helps one person, or moves one person to action that will have positive results, is more valuable than 100 likes any day.

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New position and role: making stories happen

Charles Kuralt on his typewriter

Back around elementary school, as I watched Charles Kuralt wrap up one of his magnificent “On the Road” segments, I decided that I wanted to tell stories for a living. And I now have a new role, new title and new responsibilities at work that makes this more of a reality.

I’m taking on a new title as director of news and media services, although if such a thing was possible, I’d like to think of it as the director of storytelling. I now head a four-person professional team that includes writer Jeff Rea, videographer Jim Kearns and photographer Jim Russell, plus a squad of great student storytellers as always, with our main goal of telling the stories of SUNY Oswego, and why the college is a special community.

Maybe that comes in the form of a news story (once known as a press release), maybe it’s a video (although topping the Oz Chicken Patty’s virality will be a challenge), a photo that transmits a thousand words, a narrative Facebook post, a tweet, a ‘gram, a Snap or a blog post. It’s rather exciting to think of stories taking so many potential forms, and working with a talented team that can help bring these tales of awesome people doing amazing things to life.

The main challenge will be trying to figure out how to make our resources meet the possibilities, as every member of the Oswego family is a hero with an interesting story (or two or nine) that we could tell, but whether it’s a Campus Update Spotlight, a video about student research or a Friday #oswegram, our job is to work together to bring this content to the world.

And while it’s not traveling around America in an RV telling the extraordinary tales of ordinary people, it’s still pretty cool.

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‘Heaven is a better place today’: RIP Gordon Downie

Gordon Downie performs live

“Heaven is a better place today
But the world is just not the same.”
— “Heaven is a Better Place Today,” The Tragically Hip

There may have never been, and may never be, a better frontman in a rock band than Gordon Downie. That’s a high mark, to be sure, but if you’ve ever seen The Tragically Hip live, you know that he belongs among the greats for his vocals, his sense of flair and drama, his showmanship and connection with the fans.

That’s why I was so saddened to learn that he has succumbed to the brain cancer that robbed us of one of the great songwriters and minds in rock and roll.

The first time I saw The Hip live, he wound up on the floor shouting “let me out!” during “Locked in the Trunk of a Car.” I can’t explain it other than to say it was one of the most powerful things I’ve ever seen live.

When I saw the band live at Highland Park in Rochester, a rainstorm moved in and scattered most fans, but Gord wanted to keep playing despite the not-so-safe conditions because he had that kind of connection with the audience. The band came back and played to a much smaller crowd after the rain passed and the stage cleaned up, but he put forth the effort as if he was playing to a packed stadium.

I mapped a visit to the Pacific Northwest around the time the band played in Vancouver and my friend Laura somehow scored us second-row seats. I’d seen The Hip a few times in the States but to see Gord up close in his home and native land, where he was revered and among the most beloved statesman, was to see a performer in all his glory.

Throughout the years, he had so many small and entertaining running bits, almost blending pantomime with performing. He would do crazy antics with a handkerchief, scuffle with a microphone stand and generally make the smallest things entertaining.

But even as he improvised bits, he also improvised songs on the stage that later became tracks on records. His extemporaneous brilliance was awe-inspiring.

And when the band made its last tour last year, despite the circumstances of his illness, it was a kind of victory tour: Venues sold out, fans packed every stadium, ovations were loud and moving, and Gord and the boys kept their emotions in check (mostly) to return the love letter to the fans. I cried then.

I’m fighting back tears now. I knew this day would come and I thought I could write something profound. But my heart hurts for his family, his friends, his fans. This man meant so much to me, so much to those who loved him — and maybe more to his native Canada then any entertainer.

You were ahead by a century, Gordie. Your music will continue to be a treasure. We’re all richer for hearing you.

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