50 years ago it was Kitty Genovese who couldn’t breathe…

As the tragedy of the death of Eric Garner and the call for action and justice, has played out nightly with demonstrations coast to coast, and cries of “Black Matters” and “I Can’t Breathe” have entered into our cocktail chatter and business conversations, I can’t get the thought of Kitty Genovese out of my mind.

Do you remember Kitty? 

Kitty was a 28 year old woman. She worked as a waitress. One night, around 2am, she was murdered – stabbed and raped – right outside of her own apartment – by a 29 year old man who said he simply went looking for a woman to kill “because they didn’t fight back”, he later revealed. Kitty fought. She screamed. It was a loud, disruptive incident. Yet – no one called or came to help Kitty. Over 37 people later said that they were aware she was being attacked. They had heard her screaming for help.  Each person believed someone else was doing something. Calling for help. Rushing to her aid.  Yet, no one did.


The social psychological phenomenon became known as the “bystander effect”, and, Kitty had her immortality, in the study of the “Genovese syndrome”, which continues to this day in colleges all across the country.  Literally, books have been written about Kitty – and the syndrome that bears her name.

While a student at Providence College, I studied social psychology.  I became rather fascinated by the development of group consciousness, group mentality, and “diffusion of responsibility”, and the “bystander effect”.  How could it be that one or two people would have more probability, individually, of helping someone than a group would?  How does the instinct to act become dissipated when they see themselves as members of a group?

We see this demonstrated with Kitty, yes.  We also see this on our college campuses when we talk about rape and sexual assault.  Often, the worst take place in fraternities or at parties, where society’s boundaries morph to the new society of the moment.  Where actions one person would never think about, much less act on, become the group’s behavior, and the individual becomes but one cog in the wheel that has been set in motion, with its own outlying concepts of right and wrong, its own shady sense of rules. As but one cell of the whole, the power to pull away is exponentially difficult.

The collective brain often rules.

The study of this has led to some good things.  It only took 25 years or so for CPR training groups to realize that there was a fatal flaw in step #1 – “call for help”.  How many of us were first taught to shout at the downed person, “are you all right” and then to shout out into the air or the group gathered, “call 911”!   Groups that were forever tweaking their CPR compressions, breaths, etc, heard about this, studied it and realized it was true that sometimes no one called for help – each thinking another member of this newly identified group had done so.  New instructions were written that when you called for help you should specifically select one or two people – looking at them directly and address them with a powerful order.  “You! Get help – Call 911 – now!”  What did this do?  It charged the specific person with a specific action.  The burden to do something – to move – was extremely powerful – and effective.  Some others in the group may act, too, but assuring that one person carried the full weight of that charge is now known to be crucial in a successful “chain of survival”.

How can this study – these concepts – help us better understand what happened to Eric Gardner – and offer critical retraining to our police officers?

We know his name.

Daniel Pantaleo. He is the police officer who put Eric Gardner in a fatal choke hold. But do you know who Justin Damico is? He’s one of the other officers. There were four others, too. There were also four EMTs/paramedics.  All told there were 10 “first responders” engaged with Eric that day.  And a score of others watching. The five police officers were given immunity to testify about the choke hold actions of Daniel Pantaleo.  The EMTs were suspended for their lack of lifesaving efforts at the scene, though they were later put back into duty.

Yes, Daniel Pantaleo was the officer who performed the fatal choke hold.  But there were four other officers there in that heap on top of Eric.  Did anyone say, “hey, back off a little, I think you’re killing this guy?”  Was that even a whisper? Or did the “diffusion of responsibility” have a powerful effect to have five officers believing that their actions were justified – there was no individual cry-out because there was no individual any longer – just ‘one of the five’.  Add onto this the layer of Eric being black. Add on to this the layer of poverty – all of this was happening in a poor section of the community.

What questions and answers can the study of group phenomena bring to retraining? Another group has used this information to help stop wrong side surgeries. Collective conscious thinking has been responsible for operating room errors when there was an assumption that the surgeon was cutting into the right appendage of his or her patient – even in the face of serious doubt or question.  It is a strong phenomena that makes an individual, maybe someone low on the hierarchy in the room, frozen from questioning, from saying, “wait, let’s check this again”. It is hoped that by retraining, and allowing all members of the group to have equal voice, this can change. To be effective, there must be a real promise of no repercussion, even if the person is incorrect, and all members of the group must believe that, to be so empowered.


Did those officers, did Justin, and the four others, and David – approach Eric – with individual decisions that they were going to make this day one Eric would never forget – they were going to take this guy into custody – and if he resisted, they were going to kill him.  Right there, on the street, in front of groups of people, and while being film?

The overlay of race and poverty.

Did race – and bigotry – and fear – and poverty overlay these dynamics making the situation beyond salvation? Of course.  Exponentially so. So, yes, we need to do our cultural education and racial education, and our retraining.  We need to also restore the power of the individual to question tactics, protocols, and moments when common sense has gone haywire. Shoot to kill? Arming our police force like they were at war? Match our law enforcement to the diversity of the community? Teach individual responsibility and empowerment?

“I can’t breathe!”

There were lots of people around Eric.  Lots of people cried out.  But the most important ones who could have stopped it – the officers, themselves – didn’t hear.  They were bonded by a powerful magnet creating one new entity, made even stronger by fear. Each, by their silence to the others, reinforced the actions – the holds, the knee into the back, the smashing of Eric’s face into the cement – the fatal choke hold growing tighter and tighter.  They could no longer see with their own eyes, or hear their own thoughts – and they certainly did not the 11 cries from Eric – “I can’t breathe! – I can’t breathe! – I can’t breathe! – I can’t breathe! – I can’t breathe! – I can’t breathe! – I can’t breathe! – I can’t breathe! – I can’t breathe! – I can’t breathe! – I can’t breathe!


Swimmingly Disruptive

Heat. Water. Poverty. Children. Bureaucracy. Politics. Convening like a perfect storm in the summer of 2013. A community pool was empty. In the heart of the inner city of Providence. More than empty, it was riddled with damage. Rusted and old and hot, the sun reflecting off its chipped and peeling white paint. A pool shouldn’t be hot. It should be an oasis. This one had a history of being more than an oasis. It was a lifesaver. A veritable lifesaver to children who had nowhere to go in the heat of the summer. Adults remembered learning the lifelong, lifesaving, skill of swimming. For others it was a diving board out to a pretty cool life of success.


Last summer, in the throes of heat and humidity, the absurdity of the situation steamed to a flashpoint. Open the pool. Fix the pool. When would it be done?  A poor neighborhood with small children who wanted to swim in the heat of the summer waited. And then the answer came – it would not be opened. It would be destroyed by a city administration hellbent to make a “cement pond” (to paraphrase Ellie Mae Clampett) out of the whole thing.  Maybe make a water “park”, with little fountains spraying up out of concrete. Or, as one radio talk show host said – let’s watch the kids get their crotches spritzed instead of learning how to swim.

It seemed like an outrageous injustice that would bring so such negative press that surely the administration would see the error of their ways and reverse themselves – maybe even throw a pool party to prove their mea culpas – and ‘what were we thinkings’.  But alas, the wingtips of a politician, and maybe more than one, who all should have known better started to grind into the sand. The more the people asked ‘why’, the louder the silence from the brick office space became. A grinding, seething silence that grew deeper each day. The incredulity of it all was shocking – almost to a one.

Figuring out the ‘why’ is usually what happens next.  But there was no time – there was no time.  Cement trucks were hovering in the dark people thought.  They might have been.

What happened next happened without plan, yet it was exquisitely executed.  It did not involve parading young sweating children out to beg for their pool.  The tactic was a classic disruptive model for change.  For those visual learners, here is a graphic to illustrate the paradigm.  (Credit here to Ted Santos, CEO of Turnaround Investment Partners).  What happened could have been planned out but it wasn’t. It happened by instinct, and was fueled by expediency – and the injustice of it all.leadership_disruptive_model_ts

People began to talk – each coming from their own perspectives and interests. There were advocates for the black community, one coming with a historical perspective who began to organize under the banner of Swim Empowerment.  He even put his own money towards a comprehensive study of why many African-American children and adults do not know how to swim as compared to their white neighbors. He held a community meeting. More people came and talked. The director of the department of health attended and shook his head. Local legislators came. Swim professionals from the “Y” and coaches got involved.  All establishing the bottom of an effective disruptive change pyramid – people with integrity, responsibility and accountability.

2013-07-25 17.56.49


Social media began to flicker as social media does. The conversations rose to a din. The din rose to outrage. People felt passionate and didn’t hesitate to say it.  A “Save the Pool” page on Facebook was born and hashtags developed.  A solid core of people were “in” – they were a committed core, giving this life. The next tier – commitment.

The engagement of a local talk show host quickly won an ally to the cause. Daily he raged on and on, and was joined by others – demanding the official who was ultimately responsible return his calls. No return calls. Silence. More talk show chatter. Support came as a gushing splash, spurred on by the silence from the hot brick building downtown. The community had taken its stand. (see tier 3 of our pyramid).


Compromises began to be discussed.  “How about filling in part of the pool so it wasn’t deep enough to dive in?” No, the group said. You can’t learn how to swim in a wading pool. “No money to fix the pool.”  Legislators and contractors and community leaders rose up and said – we’ll fix it for free.  “We need to study this whole thing.” “And, oh, by the way, we’re going to fill in the other pools in the city.” By now it was clear the short summer season was passing by. Don’t touch the other pools, the group said, not to everyone’s agreement – but if you don’t touch them, we’ll agree to a [dreaded] commission to “study this”. The goal was clear – the only purpose of the commission was to get the pool open for 2014. We will “study” how we will do this, but we WILL do it. A declaration was made.


Early in the process – the action step – began. The pool would reopen. Not to be fooled again – and recognizing the devilish details, questions were asked – when, where, how, who. Pressure. More pressure.  July 1st. The pool will be repaired and it will open on July 1st.

Construction began this June, and it was watched diligently, for any possible delays. In the last week of June, the repairs were completed. The water flowed into the pool. And it waits now – warming up – for its debut as this community’s oasis.

It will open tomorrow with a press conference. This year, the talk of making more water parks or cementing in of deep ends is gone – the whole crazy no-pools issue has had a complete breakdown.  There is talk of swim lessons. Around the city. And BBQs for families around the pool. There have been no apologies or explanations – still silence. There will be a lot of people to thank, but for fear of omitting, perhaps it’s best to say this: the story is about the kids smiling, happy to be swimming in the pool, not about the politicos who will want to claim victory or credit in a big splash. Not about any one person really.

This spontaneous, informal, beautifully executed disruptive model – one where people risked possible retaliation, their jobs and votes – bolstered by historical data and facts – spurred on by the urgency of it all and permanency of any failure – with its effective use of the raising of voices and the disruptive media of talk radio and digital news – what can we learn from this stunning success? I don’t propose an answer, but I do pose the question – and I think we should pose it more often.

It is said – “The Disruptive Leadership Model™ empowers organizations to purposefully reach that point which is outside of the business as usual current instead of depending on hope and luck. It is a very effective model for empowering people and organizations to responsibly come out of a comfort zone and produce results that would have never occurred in the paradigm of business as usual. In fact, most breakthroughs change the future of the person or company [or organization] forever,” – Ted Santos.

In this year that has witnessed the loss of Maya Angelou and before that, of Nelson Mandela – what causes speak to you?  What change do you want to see? Make a little noise. Tweet a louder tweet. There are great tools today to bring disruption into very staid systems. Think less about the same ol’ way of doing things if you want to see big change in this, your, lifetime.

Try being more disruptive.  Once you dive into that pool and you learn how to swim – you might very well have changed your own future – and society will be the better for it.




Hear Me Roar! Women as Storytellers…

Story telling to impact change, right wrongs, pass bills, and be successful in advocating a position….women seem to have in innate ability to do this, perhaps because we are often in the role of advocate in our families. Be interested in your thoughts…. Have you given up your anonymity on behalf of a cause? How did that settle with you? Were you effective? Would you do it again?

My article in the November issue of the RI Small Business Journal addresses the power of story telling as a PR tactic, but goes beyond in talking about why women are particularly comfortable in doing so – who has not had the experience of facing a school administration meeting on behalf of our child, feeling strong, secure and empowered, when we may not have felt that way at any other time in our lives when going up against a system.  That probably holds for men as well as women.  You know you have begun something – the road is only open ahead of you, because the one behind you has disappeared.  Forward you go, with a loss of anonymity, with a risk, with hopefully good independent advice and due diligence, with a higher goal in mind.  Perhaps a whole new life mission.  Felt great to write this, to remember a school conference room, and my little girl – and I felt as powerful as a lion.  We won, my little girl won – well, of course she did!  I wouldn’t have settled for anything less.