Sunday, January 31, 2016

How A Collective, Connected Community Can Stand Up for Those Who Are Down - RIP @DevenKBlack @BobSprankle

As I shared a few days ago, friend and award-winning connected educator, Deven Black was violently murdered in a homeless shelter. Many of those who knew Deven at the height of his career, just a few short years ago, tried to make sense of what had happened. Some felt guilty because they hadn’t reached out to Deven with a call or an invitation to meet.  As one person said, “I think this highlights the power of social media to bring people together, but also its power to make us think that we're helping when we really aren't.” Another put it this way, “"We posted kind words to a social media profile and assumed that was enough."


Some people conveyed that they were connected to Deven through their online conversations though they never got to meet him. Some called him an online friend who they never got to know in real life.  Some warned of the dangers when we let the the lines of online life and real life blur.  


We need to take a step back from the notion that online communication is interaction in a world that is not real or is somehow less valuable than face-to-face life.  This impulse to dismiss social media as less than other communication is detrimental. It leads to a false belief that if only we had selected a different medium in which to communicate, there would have been a different outcome. I'm not so sure.

Here's why.

Social media is a modern day tool that many of us use to make important, deep, and meaningful connections. In Deven’s case, those messages we shared with him via social media meant a lot. Deven felt a tremendous amount of value and appreciation because of what his friends shared on Twitter, Facebook, and his blog.  In fact the recognition and support he received was just as, and in some cases, more special than his face-to-face encounters.


Deven’s decline was not due to the fact that many of us failed to connect face-to-face or over the phone. The friends Deven engaged with via social media were not online friends. They were just friends. People whose minds he connected with, whether or not their eyes had met. They were real friends in the real-life world that includes engagement in a multitude of possible formats.


What happened to Deven was not because as one person said,” there was no one who would care for him in the end.” It was not that we didn’t reach out. What happened to Deven was a result of a system who failed a man who had a serious, incurable mental illness. As reported in the Daily News Deven was suffering with Behavioral Variant Fronto-Temporal Dementia (BVFTD). The symptoms include hypersexual behavior, impulsive acts such as shoplifting or  impulsive buying, apathy,  loss of emotional warmth, empathy and sympathy. Those with the illness often do not recognize the changes in his or her own behaviors, nor do they exhibit awareness or concern for the effect these behaviors have on the people around them.


You can see evidence of these behaviors in the last year of his Twitter feed as well as his actions. His wife of 30+ years, who he was separated from, told the Daily News that “He sort of lost all capacity for a suspension of disbelief,” she said. “There were times when I would say, ‘They are scamming you.’ ... He basically gave away all of his money.” Donations went to overseas scams in Ghana and Nigeria, along with another ripoff from a woman who convinced him to cash a bogus check in return for promises of sex and a piece of a nonexistent “cocoa company.” Black pleaded guilty Oct. 30, 2015, was sentenced to time served and ordered to pay back $146,000. He was unemployed, and wound up living at a men’s shelter.


Deven’s demise was not the result of his connected community not being there for him. We were. Our online outreach during his health issues after breaking his neck meant a lot. But what Deven needed was not a call from a friend or an invitation to grab a coffee. What Deven, and so many others with mental or other health issues, need is a system that supports them.


Why is it that seasoned teachers like Deven Black, and just a few short months ago, Bob Sprankle, were not put on disability when they received health diagnoses that left them unable to work? Why did both men have to face a life in danger of losing their homes and being out on the street?  Why is the system failing so many?


Deven’s son, Jonas Black put out this call to action:

Jonas is right. We must talk, and write, and be courageous enough to do so, not just in private, but in public and social platforms as well.

Already, we have made strides forward. As Jonas Black shared:




In the end, Deven's last sentiments were realized. The usefulness of Deven’s life did not end with death. As a result of Deven’s death the de Blasio administration announced steps to increase security as well as the number of mental health workers at the intake centers where homeless people first enter the shelter system and improve communication between city hospitals and the Homeless Services Department in cases when people with mental health issues go back and forth between hospitals and shelters.

Unfortunately, what both Deven Black and Bob Sprankle needed, came too late. But it is not too late for the connected community these two men were a part of. What we can do in the future when a connection is lost is to try to find out why. If we learn they have been let down by the system, we can use our collective, connected voice to make noise, stand up and start a movement demanding that those who have done so much for others receive the help they deserve and need.

Read the Daily News coverage here.

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