Taking the Leap
I took the leap. I went ziplining in the Cloud Forest in Costa Rica. I never would have done this alone, but it amazes me what I’ll do with an enthusiastic group. The scariest part was in the beginning. You put on your gear: helmet, harness, gloves. You wonder. Is everything on correctly? Will it be safe? Then there’s the moment where you take your first leap into the air, out in the treetops, zipping from platform to platform, each progressively more daring. When I reached the final jump, there was no chickening out. I went head-first, arms outstretched, superman-style, into the clouds. My fear turned to exhilaration as I experienced the closest sensation I can imagine to flying like a bird.
I worked with students from Pepperdine’s MSOD program who were on an intensive here to study complex change. They met with local organizations addressing the education/training needs of Costa Rican youth, followed by a two day Appreciative Inquiry workshop. Like zip lining, working on complex problems requires a leap into the unknown. There’s no planning, predicting or controlling. We were managing many moving parts: language translation, emerging plans and even an intestinal outbreak that hit almost half the class over the 3 days.
In the midst of these changing conditions, its easy to become anxious, or fearful or just check out. When we can quiet that in ourselves, and instead stay open, curious and engaged, it’s possible to see something new emerge. In our projects, we saw not only the squalor, but also the resilience and resourcefulness of children growing up in poverty. We saw hundreds of teenagers waiting in line for hours to get a chance at going to school. We learned about a government department that partners with volunteers, schools and businesses to provide disadvantaged youth a chance at an education and a good paying job. We were inspired as we saw those who took the leap: from indifference to caring, from isolation to connection, from domination to collaboration and from apathy to the courage to act.
Wordle Harvest from Color the Cloud
This week I spent five days with a multicultural team in St. Cloud Minnesota to host a community conversation called “Color the Cloud”. Local African American, Hispanic, Somali, Oromo and Southeast Asian groups met with white residents to build relationships, share issues and hopes for this community to become a more hospitable and inclusive place to live.
People came into this event with both excitement and anxiety. Planning team members were still getting to know each other and those of us who had come to support them from the Art of Hosting community and the Bush Foundation. Some participants did not speak English and needed interpreters. Some long-term community members questioned how this event was different than the dialogues on race they had hosted in the past.
From the planning to the hosting, it became clear that we were going to have to hold a number of opposites in tension. A sampling of those the planning team named included:
Honoring the past and looking to the future
Claiming what we know and being willing to step into not knowing
Attending to the needs of the individual and to the collective
Giving voice and deep listening
Acknowledging the pain and grief and the hopes and aspirations in the room
As a community we experienced many small and large group conversations as well as rituals from different cultures. Participants brought forth their stories, poems, and songs. We ate, drummed, sang, danced and laughed together. I’m guessing everyone at some point was pushed out of his or her comfort zone. We listened deeply to each other: stories, of dislocation and belonging nether here nor back there; of the history of racism experienced in the past and currently; of concern for children and the desire for good jobs and housing; of perseverance, resilience, and hope. In the end eleven community action projects were brought forward by and supported by participants.
The ability to hold paradox, in tension, enables us to create space in which entrenched conflicts can transform. The transformation is not one in which differences dissolve, we all become the same and everyone sings Kumbaya, although the St. Cloud group DID sing “Make New Friends” together by the end of the three days. What happens, instead, is that we learn to see and honor our deep differences and our common humanity. And find ways to move forward together.
They call it “Glitter”: a code word developed by my friends at the Allied Media Project that means “pause and reflect”. Everyone on staff at AMP takes a moment each week, before their staff meeting, to think about what they learned the past week. These reflections feed into their staff meetings where share successes, challenges and learnings.
My work with AMP is to create organizational practices and systems that support the organization’s principles. Their mission is to cultivate media strategies for a more just and creative world. In support of core principles to be strategic and solutions focused, AMP values continuous learning. So when we asked the question: “what does it mean to be high performing here?”; the answer was to not only meet job or program goals, but to also be continuously improving.
AMP is a feedback rich environment with streams of input coming back to the organization from its clients, partners, network members and the community. Their evaluation system sets up regular cycles to review the input, discern strengths and growth areas, and get “feed forward”: suggestions from their peers on how they can improve. Cycles are in place for individuals, programs and the organization as a whole to pause, reflect and reset expectations. The dazzle of glitter is not about looking good, its an ongoing process of curiosity and learning together.
Simmering on a Question
This week I have been working to craft questions that will ignite my clients conversation around what really matters. One client, a large public elementary school in St. Paul, is preparing for a World Café for 125 family members on the topic of Family Engagement. World Cafe is a collaborative dialogue process in which people talk in small groups and explore questions for collective insight. Getting the right question is a key ingredient in collaborative work, and not as easy as it sounds.
Working with school leaders, teachers and parents over several weeks, we started with the question “What does engagement mean to you?” After more discussion, the question became “how can we strengthen the partnership between families and school staff?” Closer, but not quite there. Simmering for several more days we landed on this series of questions: “Imagine all our students show up at school fully engaged and excited to learn. Families had an important role in making that happen. What did you all do? What do you need from the school to make your vision happen?”
A good question is not something you can pull off a shelf. It needs to be crafted to be:
Clear: Is the question easy to understand and answer? How would you answer it?
Purposeful: Does the question move you towards the deeper intention for why you are coming together?
Focused: Does the question provide enough of a boundary for where you want to go?
Spacious: Does the question also offer an expansion without squeezing the conversation into a prescribed direction?
Invitational: Does the question use language that speaks to and invites those who will be engaged?
Evocative: Does the question take people to a place of greater vision and possibility?
The Importance of the Pause
In several groups last week I became aware of how important it is to push the pause button. In team leader training for Global Citizens Network, discussing the cultural conflicts that occur when westerners visit indigenous people’s villages, the topic of women and leadership came up. A small group of experienced women advised women to not let their egos get in the way about “being in charge”. Although we were almost out of time, several young women’s body language indicated they were not comfortable. A pause was offered to allow them to speak. One woman spoke from her heart. “I can’t do my job as a leader if community leaders only speak to the men in the group and won’t make make eye contact with me.” By creating space for these young women to be heard, another perspective emerged, articulated by a young man who said “This is about mutual respect, respect for our culture that values women as leaders.” Exploring different perspectives expanded the group’s awareness of possible approaches to this challenge.
Later in the week I was with a newly forming training cohort to deepen our practice of the Peer Spirit Circle Process. The unspoken issue in the group was about diversity and inclusion. The pause allowed a subgroup of participants to raise concerns and awareness about not only cultural differences, but about the need to create a community that is inclusive and welcomes difference. Peer Spirit circle practice encourages groups to use a “guardian” who periodically rings a bell to signal a pause for silence. By doing this regularly, a group creates a familiar pattern that enables the pause when things heat up.
This weekend I was in a Women’s Leadership Community retreat, with Dr. Anne Litwin who shared her research on the challenges of women working with women. Again, the pause came up as critical to support all voices being heard, to invite different perspectives and to encourage individuals to speak their truth. The pause provides time and space, to percolate, to express personal feelings, to share an unpopular but perhaps
People need pauses to percolate, to express a personal reaction share a perspective from a new point of view. Creating a pause can be as easy as saying: “Let’s take a moment and stop the action to hear from those who haven’t spoken yet (or those who see things differently).” It can be a 2-3 minute time out for people to be silent or write about their reactions. If a decision is about to be made, a quick poll can be taken to quickly show where the group stands. A handy polling tool is the “fist to five”: 5 fingers means I fully support the decision, 4 means support with reservation, 3 means I have questions, 2 means I don’t agree but will support the group, and the fist means “I don’t support and will block this”. With a quick show of fingers you can take a pulse check on how people are doing with a pending decision.
Pushing the pause button helps groups maintain energy and commitment and results in groups that are more cohesive.
Center of the circle
Somali, Native American and Hispanic community leaders in South Minneapolis participated in a week long training to build relationships and learn new practices for solving community problems. But they weren’t sitting in a classroom. Picture a Lakota elder leading sixty people in a line to the singing and drumming of two young warrior men. Taste coffee bean and popcorn in a Somali ritual. Smell burning sage and copal in ceremonies of purification. What do these rituals have to do with community problem-solving?
Rituals are symbolic actions done together that express and reinforce a group’s experience, identity or values. Experiencing a ritual together takes us to a non-verbal, symbolic and sensory level of connection. Those deeper connections with one another makes it easier to solve problems across differences.
Sharing rituals can be used in several ways as a powerful tool in groups. Rituals are frequently used bring newcomers into the group. Sharing rituals between ethnic groups can foster greater cross-cultural understanding. Co-created rituals can accelerate the identity and sense of belonging to a new group. Simple rituals can be used to help transition in a group, such as ringing a chime to start or clapping hands to quiet chatter.
Rituals form powerful associations with our senses and our emotions and they can easily backfire. Here are some things I've learned working with group rituals:
1) Chose rituals purposefully and introduce with enough background information to help a group feel comfortable and be respectful in participating.
2) Sharing rituals from a culture need to done by those authorized from the culture.
3) Rituals can be created by the group themselves using significant moments, phrases, actions or gestures that emerge out of the group’s experience together.
4) The rhythm and timing of the ritual help keep a group's attention and, like music, its important to have a clear ending.
5) Group members need a non-judgmental way to opt-out if they are uncomfortable.