Sphere College Project

A New World of Learning

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Sphere’s Spring Courses at The Fortune Building

We’re happy to report that we have launched Sphere College Project’s first three courses in Asheville; we are excited about the possibilities that they bring for increased community engagement. The courses begin in two weeks; please tell everyone you know (we’ve put them up on our Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=88784573248).

We’ve opted to launch this as a soft opening, running the courses on a donation basis to raise funds for our Minority Contractor Mentorship Program. Sphere will always provide educfree, and pation on a sliding scale. While we believe that education should be eople in need may even earn a stipend to undertake schooling, this type of system will only thrive when people who have the means to pay do so. If you are able to pay, then, feel free to donate a larger sum of money; this will help us offer these courses for those who cannot afford as much.

Speaking of money, and the cost of education, it is well advised by many to consider the real “costs” and value of a modern education. It is shocking to learn that national student debt is $1.3 trillion today, and that the average student graduates with $37,000+ in student debt, sometimes without job prospects. The cost of a traditional higher education today continues to outpace the Consumer Price Index (CPI). In fact, since 1985, college tuition has risen by 538% compared to a 121% increase in the CPI (Deloitte University Press). Additionally, college enrollments peaked in 2011. What does all of this mean? It means fewer people will be able to actually afford college. The ones who cannot afford it but still want to attend will go deeply into debt to afford it, possibly affecting their lives forever.

What else? You will begin to see more and more colleges and universities across the country floundering. In fact, earlier this month, my colleague Bryan Alexander noted in his blog that Saint Joseph’s College , a private, Catholic liberal arts institution in northwestern Indiana, announced that it will “suspend all activities” after this academic year, due to financial difficulties. It turns out that these financial difficulties amount to some $100 million. And, Bryan says, this will not be the last. (https://bryanalexander.org/2017/02/08/indiana-college-to-close/)

Given all these realities, it might be worth it to ask yourself, “What is the most efficient pathway to what I want in life?” Exploring this question with a mentor – in advance of engaging in a form of higher education – could well save you time, money, and heartache. This is the kind of mentorship that Sphere can do. There are others in the community that can help, too.

Now is the time to be as clear as you can about what you want to do, or to find courses you can take within your means, like the ones we are offering at Sphere.

See you there!

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The Work of Mentorship

Nelson Mandela said “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” So how do we propose to change the world through education? Well, as I share with people, Sphere is a 3-Step Program: 1. Identify your passion, or goal, 2. Acquire the tools to do it, and 3. Put your newfound skills to test in the real world.

So here we are already knee deep in learning…about the construction contracting business, about fundraising, about Asheville’s African-American community, and about City and County structures and politics, to name a few. And that’s just us; our contractors are up to their own learning! However, Dee has already helped one contractor submit his paperwork. Amazing…in less than two weeks, we have been able to accomplish this, with one group meeting, and a little bit of mentorship.

From time to time, one of the objections we hear in our travels is that mentorship is expensive. This is because a lot of mentorship is one-on- one, mentor to mentee. Well, I’ve always wondered what is more expensive – spending the hours to assist someone in an important next step in their business or life, or allowing them to stagnate, possibly continuing to exist on public assistance.

There’s no doubt in my mind what is best, and if you could see the looks on the faces of the people we are meeting with, you would have no doubt either. They are excited, even thrilled, and perhaps a little nervous. But overall, they are grateful because they see that through our help there will very soon yield more opportunity for them and others in the community.

So, if we don’t stand for the right for any person who wants it to have access to the education that will help them learn and grow, and better their position in life, then how do we imagine we will create a thriving nation? Does it make sense for a nation that wants to be “the best” to not provide the “best” education, for EVERYONE? Clearly it doesn’t, and this is why I created Sphere. We simply cannot be the best if we are not willing to help every person be their best.

That’s what mentorship can do, and quickly. So let’s get to it.


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Contractor Mentorship Underway

We are now officially underway with our Contractor Mentorship Program; read more about it here. We met with 4 contractors from the African-American community and Dee is now actively working with them in the 1 st stage of our program – DEB/DOT certification.

While it is a bit of a departure for Sphere – from our general mentorship interests, and from the courses we are planning to start soon – we could not stand by and not provide a solution, when there is a clear one in front of us. All of the contractors we have met with told us that they would not have undertaken the certification process without us, and they would not have done it without Dee, who is a trusted member of the African-American community. We are learning that trust has eroded to a point where this project would simply not be possible without Dee. Hopefully, our success with this program will restore trust and provide an opening for much-needed healing for the black community in Asheville, and throughout our nation.

In reality, we are thrilled about becoming part of the solution for economic mobility and development in Asheville for the minority community. Dee shared with us that many years ago she worked at an organization called the Minority Economic Development Group. There, she was responsible for helping businesses of all kinds form, grow and flourish. So she’s got some history in ushering business owners along.

Now our minds turn to funding – several have counseled us about the monies available from the City and the County for economic development initiatives in minority communities. We’re in the process of identifying those now, and will keep you posted. Meanwhile, we have completed our interviews of prospective teachers for the Sphere Spring program.

There were several interesting courses submitted, but in the end, we have decided to do a “soft launch” for three courses. We will announce those courses shortly, but in the meantime, we have been fortunate to team up with Jonah Goldwag and members of his community to brainstorm ideas for Sphere’s expansion in Asheville.

It is really important to me that Lynn and I are not the only ones making decisions for Sphere: We need a community of people with an interest in reforming education to come together to create something magnificent. It is needed more than ever now. With the changing administration, education—including higher education—is sure to come under more scrutiny. As universities throughout the nation continue to suffer, smart solutions are needed. Now is the time, even if it takes some time to bring about a new reality.


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Our Starting Point: Mentorship for African-American Contractors

Well, we’ve found our starting point. After several dialogues with Dee Williams, and a bit of consideration about what to do to help the Asheville community, we are jumping in to begin a mentorship training program for African-American contractors. It seems an obvious place for Sphere to assert the value of mentorship as it relates to increased economic mobility.

We will begin the training program in the New Year by recruiting contractors who desire to become DBE-certified with the NC DOT. The certification is a rigorous process involving a plenitude of paperwork along with a “pre-qualification” process, where representatives from NC DOT in Raleigh travel to Asheville to review candidates’ qualifications to perform the work well. DBE-certification is viewed as a serious undertaking, and anyone with the qualification enjoys great esteem from the community.

The City of Asheville has been aware of the value of this certification; for many years it has hosted a number of “introductory” sessions to entice contractors. But it has failed to convert. We hope to find out why, as we embark on meetings next week with our first 4 contractors.

Dee will serve as our lead mentor for this project. As noted in the previous post, she is a DBE-certified contractor with NC DOT, and, while retired, is a storehouse of knowledge about the business. In fact, we recently found out that Dee was named Minority Construction Firm of the Year in Asheville in 2005, and was responsible for negotiating the first contract for an African-American owned firm from the City of Asheville. She was also the first African-American professional to successfully package/obtain funding for black firms in WNC for SBA Guarantee and SBA Direct Loans.

Since building successful contracting businesses requires much more than certification, Dee’s wide range of experience will most certainly come in handy. We are already in discussion on creating a program that will include mentorship in bidding and contracting as well as management. Our hope is to help these small, independent entrepreneurs grow into strong, mid-sized firms that can apprentice and employ members of the community at a living wage – an essential component for overcoming poverty.

Thankfully, there are others in the Asheville community, such as the organization Just Economics, who are helping work toward the reality of sustainable incomes for all. We are also progressing with offering courses sometime in the New Year at The Fortune Building in West Asheville. We are fortunate to have a great space to hold courses, and begin the process of bringing people together to create a new system of education.


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Economic Mobility Opportunities

Over the past several weeks, one of Sphere’s key advisors and lifelong Asheville resident, Dee Williams, has shared with us how years of systemic and structural discrimination against African-Americans has reached a critical point. Without specific strategies to increase economic development and economic mobility, Asheville will continue, she says, to witness much of what it has seen in this neighborhood for a long time – increasing levels of poverty and crime, and a decrease in hope.

Because Dee is a retired DBE-certified contractor (Disadvantaged Business Enterprise) with North Carolina DOT, she is intimately connected to the issues plaguing minority contractors, specifically those of color. As it turns out, of the approximate $1.8 million in FY2015 spent by the city of Asheville on minority-owned businesses for construction, general and professional services, and procurement, only $262.50 was apportioned to DBE businesses for construction. Additionally, we have become aware of a $50 million Greenway project that is due to begin construction in early 2017. At least 10% of these monies are slated for minority contractors, but there are few in Asheville positioned to bid. As Dee has described, there is no supply chain of African-American contractors in Asheville, so the work is channeled to firms outside of the city, which ends up costing more. We see this as an opportunity.

Because we are open to the possibilities for Sphere to assist with mentorship in the African-American community, we agreed to attend a meeting (this past Tuesday) with Dee and Asheville’s Economic Development Group, and a number of groups working on behalf of the African-American community to improve their standing in the community. We learned a couple of things from this meeting. People representing the black community are frustrated, and fatigued, about the lack of adequate funding for economic development. Unsurprisingly, the City of Asheville is very concerned about these figures, and is looking for viable solutions, saying they are very open to hearing from people in the community about how to solve these problems.

We left the meeting recognizing that in every case where there is a lack of economic development, there is a lack of education and support for it. This is no different. If there is one thing that we have learned, in the research we have done so far, the black community has different needs when it comes to education. This is where mentorship (and Sphere) can help greatly. Mentorship meets people where they are, and can quickly mobilize them toward specific learning and outcomes.

For several months now, we have been wondering where to “begin” Sphere in Asheville. While we review the several course proposals that we have received, we will be thinking about this. Perhaps this is an opportunity for Sphere to prove the value of mentorship. Stay tuned and find out.


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Introducing Sphere’s Social Enterprise

When I started Sphere seven years ago in Phoenixville, PA, I began by assembling two groups of 10 people. We gathered and learned together, and that lasted for about four years. As we begin now in Asheville, we’ve taken a different approach: We’ve spent our time planning, including developing our vision package, which describes what Sphere is and exists for. In some ways, I wish we had just gotten started with courses, as I feel eager to jump into teaching and mentoring, because it’s what I enjoy most. In other ways, I feel thankful for the time that we have spent understanding Sphere, but also the principles by which we operate and make decisions each day. I also feel grateful for our growing advisory group that has counseled us along the way and continues to bring critical thinking to everything, from what courses to offer to what to pay our teachers.

Sometimes, it’s difficult to know where to start: When you have such a wide vision of what is possible in education and so many new concepts for which you are trying to gain consideration, there are any number of places to begin. And then there are the realities, including financial ones. Thanks to insight from our friend, advisor, and team member, Dee Williams, about the needs of the Asheville community related to skill development, we have now decided to prioritize the creation of Sphere’s social enterprise, which will launch alongside the Sphere College Project this January.

Broadly defined, social enterprises are organizations that apply commercial strategies to maximize improvements in human and environmental well-being. There has been a broad movement among 501c3 organizations for several decades now to operate businesses in order to generate revenues and fulfill their missions. Goodwill is a perfect example of a nonprofit with a successful social enterprise: They fund their work-training programs through their retail establishments. They even go one step further to hire candidates from their work-training programs, thereby solving some of the placement issues that can plague some in the underserved or underemployed sectors.

There are a number of reasons a social enterprise is a good idea, among the most important is that the community views us as an innovative, responsive, results-oriented entrepreneurial business. Social enterprises are also practical, as they guard against fluctuations in funding, including government funding cuts to social programs, while building community wealth, which at the heart of our initiative. We believe that providing higher-level learning to all adults who want it in the community will result in the increased wealth of the community: The right amount of high-quality education along with support through mentorship is the key to happier, more engaged community members.

The plan is to launch Sphere’s “Tools for Effective Living” program in the Asheville community beginning in January of 2017. The program, which will include courses and skills tutoring, will be marketed to businesses and organizations for the purposes of improving employee skills and raising employee satisfaction levels. We are incredibly excited about this. Stay tuned for more information on this over the next several weeks.

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Sphere, the Media, and the Elections

When I started Sphere College Project over seven years ago, one of my key reasons for doing so was to illuminate the fact that the media is among the most compelling social force in America today. Why? Because the majority of Americans get their information (synonymous with “education” for many folks today) from these media sources – 55% from television and 21% from the Internet, according to a 2013 Gallup poll.(1)

As I frequently point out in my classes, a good portion of the American media is “owned” and controlled by a few corporations; most sources in a general Google search about the subject point to six organization (GE, NewsCorp (Rupert Murdock), Disney, Viacom, Time Warner, and CBS). The amount of the market the Big 6 own is uncertain – some put the percentage of ownership as high as 90%, which is highly questionable, other analyses point closer to 50%. Without taking time away from the development of Sphere to conduct meticulous research, I’d rather focus on the point at hand: Televised news has an undeniable influence on our perspectives, and its effects are far more reaching than most of us realize.

What most people think of as news is actually “rhetoric” – the art of effective or persuasive speaking or writing, and it is arguably the most egregious, insidious aspect of the media today. Famed political consultant and strategist, Frank Luntz, described his specialty in a PBS interview as “testing language and finding words that will help his clients sell their product or turn public opinion on an issue or a candidate.”(2) In the same interview, he noted that his job revolves around exploiting the emotional content of language: “It’s all emotion. But there’s nothing wrong with emotion. When we are in love, we are not rational; we are emotional…. my job is to look for the words that trigger the emotion…. We know that words and emotion together are the most powerful force known to mankind.”(3)

If you watched or listened to any of the election news coverage, you well know that the media thrives on emotion; and what sparks emotion more than controversy, divisiveness, and separatism? That’s the point, when we are emotional we are not rational; we become entrenched, closed down, and fixed. Is it any wonder why our society is so divided today?

So what does it take to be rational? In part, a broader perspective that is only available through education. This is what we are up to at Sphere. We believe that through investigation, not rhetoric, and inquiry rather than emotion, along with a little bit of searching into our cooperative nature that there is a whole lot that we could accomplish together, regardless of who holds office.

(1) http://www.gallup.com/poll/163412/americans-main-source-news.aspx

(2) “Interview Frank Luntz”. PBS Frontline. Retrieved 2007-03-23. Sourced from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frank_Luntz

(3) Ibid.

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Welcome to Our Project Manager

As most of you know, I am now actively engaged in reinvigorating Sphere, and damn happy about it. I’m also happy to report that I have hired Lynn Komlenic for our Project Manager position. Originally, I had thought to call this position Project Coordinator; however, given the level of work that we have been performing, “coordinator” just didn’t cut it. Lynn is new to the Asheville area but has a long history of contributing to start-ups with purposeful missions, so please join me in welcoming her. You will get to hear more from Lynn over the next few months as we share the responsibility of this blog.

So, what have we been up to? First, Asheville business coach Jacob Barrocas made clear to us the importance of having a well-defined mission, vision, values, goals, etc. We knew there was power in this, but didn’t fully realize it until we actually dug in. For the past couple of months, we have been working on all of this. Read more here. We have been a little surprised over the past few months how frequently we are referring back to these. They really do impact the decisions we have been making.

In addition, we have formed an advisory committee of some folks (teachers, students, consultants, etc.) – many of whom Lynn introduced to me through 1 Million Cups – Asheville’s entrepreneurial gathering on Wednesdays at RISC Networks – who are very inspired by the possibilities of Sphere. We are meeting weekly on Wednesdays and, with their input, are now planning some community meetings and a “soft-launch,” which will help us in working out the kinks. Currently, we are recruiting course proposals for awesome topics for our session beginning January 2017. If you would like to teach or know of someone who does, see the For Teachers page for more information.

Sphere also now has a toll-free phone number: 844-SPHERE1 (844-774-3731). You may refer anyone who has questions to that phone number, or our email: info@spherecollege.org.

It’s truly great to be up and running, again. Personally, I am eager to share some of the awesome teachings I was a part of a few years back in Phoenixville with the folks of Asheville. We are hoping for a very warm welcome from this community. After all, Asheville is the kind of progressive, artsy, caring and sustainable-minded community that just might latch onto this entirely new way of providing education.

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And… We’re Back

Hi Folks. In short, it’s time to reinvigorate this program. I now have the funds to hire a Project Coordinator, which is what we’ve needed all during the past 7 years, so I posted the following on Craigslist. If you know of anyone suitable here in the Asheville, NC area please let them know about this. Thanks!


Project Coordinator for the Sphere College Project

The Sphere College Project is a non-traditional educational environment
for adults that began in 2009 in Phoenixville, PA. We are expanding
into Asheville, NC and surrounding areas, and seek a part-time Project
Coordinator to support our expansion and activities. Our goal is to
establish a self-sustaining, growing program of part-time instructors
and students within 6 months.

The position will require up to 20 hours/week, $15/hour to start,
with evaluation after 60 days and increasing to $16/hour for
excellent performance; evaluation and increasing to $17/hour after
another 60 days for continued excellence.

Responsibilities include:
* Working closely with the founder to locate and secure a
suitable space for our office, classes and meetings
* Managing the space, equipment and supplies
* Paying bills and writing checks as directed
* Producing financial reports
* Updating and maintaining files and data related to SCP
* Scheduling meetings, classes and events, and coordinating
* Coordinating activities of the SCP community
* Maintaining the SCP community calendar
* Organizing and disseminating information via email, phone
and social networks
* Attending steering committee meetings and recording minutes
* Providing support to instructor/mentors and students
* Tracking student progress through the program
* Assisting with hiring and training others to handle duties
as we expand

Desirable qualities/abilities:
* Detail-oriented
* Comfortable handling various tasks
* Clarity in written and verbal communication
* Comfortable working with computers and technology in general
* Comfortable working in an environment with diverse populations
* Knowledge of Asheville and surrounding areas
* On-going commitment to improving skills and knowledge related
to the position

Please send cover letter and resume to: hiring(at)spherecollege(dot)org.


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Life Has Changed. Again.

Gee. I don’t know where to begin. I guess I’ll begin here:


Visit this site! Watch the video! And please watch the testimonial by Bill Hundley below. Share it with veterans! And share it with anyone who may like to be a part of making this innovative adult education project becoming truly successful and really helping people in their daily lives!

This is a joint effort by people either directly or indirectly associated with the Sphere College Project. We are determined to raise the funds ($150,000) necessary to support Sphere as we establish a base of operations in Asheville and begin supporting satellite locations in NC, PA and wherever it makes sense for us to expand.

In other news, I don’t yet know how to express the depth of my sadness over the loss of Barbara Read on July 4, 2015, except by trying to fix the system that allowed her to die. (I’m sorry if you’re learning about this for the first time on here. I’ve tried to notify everyone I could.) Barbara and I had been living together and working to establish Sphere when a series of life setbacks—including the loss of yet another dear, kind, brilliant, loving friend, artist, poet, entertainer and Sphere participant, Frank Kelso Wolfe—eventually found her spending roughly a week in detox in deplorable conditions at the Neil Dobbins Center in Asheville. She never found the help in Asheville that she needed to recover from her addictions to Trazodone, Clonazepam and alcohol. Barbara was a fundamental part of the Sphere Communication Workshop that Bill is giving testimonial about above. The Workshop wouldn’t have happened without her (and some others). So I’m running for Asheville City Council and the Neil Dobbins Center is the first thing I intend to fix about Asheville, and I intend to have made significant headway by the primary on Tuesday, October 6, 2015. If you know anyone living in Asheville, please ask them to take note of my candidacy and support me, at least in this effort.

Finally, to promote the GoFundMe campaign, Emily Neblock and I will be touring from Atlanta, GA to Phoenixville, PA by way of (perhaps) Greenville, Asheville, Winston-Salem, Raleigh, Virginia Beach, Washington, Baltimore and Philadelphia. We are connecting with our social networks to find suitable, intimate venues. (Please let me know if you have suggestions for whom to contact! Send me an email at jrichardliston <at> gmail <dot> com.) Our time frame is approximately Aug 3 to Aug 19. We’ll make more information available as we nail down the dates. When we do, we’ll be asking you to come join us, invite friends to enjoy some gatherings of art and music, and support the Sphere College Project.

Thank you for caring.