Yearning for A Different Conversation, Yearning for a Turning Point

One of the teams I have the pleasure of being part of is an Art of Hosting team comprised of me, Jerry Nagel, Dave Ellis and Bob-e Simpson Epps. We most often have hosted open enrolment programs in the Twin Cities and we have worked together on a few other initiatives. One of the joys in working with this team is the rich and deep learning we are in with each other all the time. Our backgrounds are more varied than the colour of our skins as are our experiences.

When we check in together about hosting conversations, the topic often turns to difficult and challenging conversations, particularly around race, power and privilege, the need for which is growing more pressing every day. The essence of our many conversations is floating through my awareness as I read about the great unrest that is alive in the world today; so great it has its own pulse, its own life force and it will not stop until we turn to face it with courage, compassion and humility. All of us, not just some of us.

As Bob-e and Dave and my other African American or African Nova Scotian friends remind us regularly, this is not a problem people of colour can fix. Not alone for sure. It is not a problem of their making. And it is a complex problem that is an entangled, interconnected mess that fuels and feeds itself beyond what any one person or any one organization can do.

An article this morning in the Waging Non Violence newsletter pointed out that Policing Isn’t Working For Cops either. Kazu Haga wrote:

“This is not about being an apologist for the individuals responsible for the killing of black life. It is not about comparing the suffering of black communities to that of law enforcement. But in nonviolence, we know that if you don’t understand the perspective of those who you are in conflict with, you do not understand the conflict. You do not need to agree with, excuse or justify the other’s perspective, you simply need to understand it so you can see the complete picture.”

 “Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote that “the white man’s personality is greatly distorted by segregation, and his soul is greatly scarred.” He said that the work of defeating segregation was for the “bodies of black folks and the souls of white folks.” He understood that to be a white supremacist, to hold hatred in your heart for so many and to inflict violence on others destroys your soul.”

<> on July 8, 2016 in Dallas, Texas.

Dallas Police Chief David Brown – embodying grief well beyond his own

People’s lives are at stake. As near as I understand it, this has always been the case. The unrest that is being stirred up – whether by presidential campaigns, referendum votes, violence and terrorism or the killing of unarmed black men or policemen in the line of duty is not going to go away. It will not be suppressed.

At the last AoH training in the Twin Cities, we were reminded by participants in the room, that many people – especially people of colour, people who are part of minority groups – walk in multiple worlds – the predominant culture that does not easily see its own worldview or predominance and the world of their reference groups be it their family, culture, colour of skin, way of being or lifestyle. Many who walk in multiple worlds do so with such grace that those in the dominant culture has been able to turn a blind eye to it, filter it out as if it does not exist. And they do so because it is a matter of survival. They do not have the luxury of turning a blind eye. It can too easily be a matter of life and death.

In that AoH training, I sat with a Hmong man in his forties who has lived in the US for most of his life. He, like at least one other person in the room, moved to the country that at the time was oppressing his own country and his culture. A large family of siblings, many did not survive. He shared with me the structure, ties and traditions of his culture which he feels bound to and in which he lives in community with his family and other community members. He shared how that world differs from the larger world he interacts with every single day. A world he has learned to navigate because he has to. He is aware of the differing worlds and differing cultures in a way that many who interact with him daily have no awareness.

A couple of months later, in Boston, sitting with a distinguished Black man in his 60’s who works with the Massachusetts’s Teachers’ Association, I am heartbroken as we speak about life in general and our children. He has two sons in their 20’s. I have two sons in their 20’s (and one in his early teens) and we have very different experiences of “educating” our children when they became of driving age. For me, it was to make sure they went to Driver’s Education so they knew the rules of the road and learned from someone who could teach them to drive without my or their dad’s bad habits. For him, it was teaching his sons, over and over again, what to do if/when they got stopped by the cops. Because they would sometime get stopped – as some of my friends point out – for “driving while black”. And now we know even that might not keep them safe.

There are many more stories I could tell, but I’ll stop here. What I know from the conversations I am able to have with the people I know and love, the people I come into contact with in heart filled spaces, is that we are longing for a different conversation, one that leads to different results, that transforms our differences into progress by acknowledging, seeing and validating others’ perspectives and experiences as real and true. We are yearning for a turning point. We’re not quite sure what this conversation or the “space” it needs to take place in looks like yet. But it cannot involve guns or jail. It needs to invite exploration, compassion, curiosity and understanding. And we need it now. It is already late. Too late for those whose lives are lost but not forgotten. Very late for many who are deeply traumatized. How do we confront ourselves and each other in such a way that we put an end to the violence? How do we do it across whole countries?

I saw a picture today that said something like don’t be overwhelmed, be true and you have an obligation to continue the journey. I didn’t repost it because I thought, Yes, be overwhelmed. It is overwhelming. And, even in the overwhelm you can look for things to help you remember who you are – watch the birds at the birdfeeders, listen to calming music, go for a walk, pet the cats, remember your purpose and your soul’s journey – then do what you can in the places that you can. I cannot, in this moment, affect a whole nation. But I can carry on my work, I can hold spaces for the pain and overwhelm, I can NOT turn away from all that troubles me in the posts rolling across my screen. I can stay in it, with it and with my friends who more than ever need me to be in it with them, who need me to be a disturbance in the world so we can all live in it in truth, beauty and grace. It is only together that we will find the turning point for which we yearn.

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Dave Ellis, Jerry Nagel, Bob-e Simpson Epps, Kathy Jourdain

Risky and Courageous – Stepping Into Community Engagement Differently

It is a risky and courageous thing to step out of a usual way of doing things to engage others, engage community, differently and this is exactly what the Halifax Regional School Board (HRSB) is doing as it embraces a new school review process. I had the pleasure of being the facilitator for the Eastern Passage School Options Committee (SOC), with the support of Susan MacLeod with graphic facilitation, in what HRSB Board members and the Metro News called “an historic first recommendation under the new school review process”. (There is another process ongoing at this time for Citadel High.)

Metro News – School review suggests reconfigured grades in Eastern Passage _ Metro News

The whole experience has been a beautiful example of the classic dynamic tension that emerges when an organization or group makes a decision to move to more collaborative, engaging processes from more traditional, top-down driven processes where there has often been little room for strong collaboration to emerge or community voice to truly be heard.

The biggest question, the biggest learning is around what does leadership look like now? The biggest unknown is how much guidance, support and structure to provide so the process and the committee is well supported and has expertise and data to draw on when it comes to making evidence based decisions and how far to back off to let the SOC do its work?

As our friends at the New Jersey Education Association say, we are leading through learning and learning our way into new process, new relationship and new ways of engaging.

The SOC was mandated with reviewing four schools in Eastern Passage – one junior high school and three elementary schools – to look at grade configurations and school usage. This review became necessary because of previous reviews that recommended a new high school be built in the area with boundary changes to support that development. The new high school will take Grades 9-12, removing the Grade 9s from the junior high, resulting in an underused school and an opportunity.

It was clear that HRSB was committed to acting differently. Staff came to SOC meetings and community conversations when invited. Even the first meeting was different. Well, the very first one was just the SOC. Meeting each other in a new way, reviewing the mandate and beginning to imagine what engagement could look like.

When HRSB staff were invited, it was a meeting of curious equals. Where are we, where do we want to go, how will we get there? HRSB staff answered questions (lots of them), and shared knowledge and expertise that was critical to decision making about optimal school utilization. They provided excellent behind the scenes support on many different needs – publicity and meeting space being two. And they stepped back to leave the decision making process in the hands of the committee. The committee stepped up.

There were three community conversations. Your Voice Matters was the theme. Before, in between and after, the SOC met to design process, plan meetings, review data, provide options and ultimately a recommendation. The purpose of the first community conversation was to present the process and ask community members what they wanted to see included and considered in the process. A world café process was utilized. The second community conversation presented several options and utilized a modified open space format. A recommendation was presented at the third community conversation, which used a full group conversation process that invited the spectrum of opinions and perspectives that existed in the room.

March 9-2016 Meeting Summary                                                                                   April 20-2016 Review Process and Meeting Summary                                                  May 24-2016 Community Conversation #3 Meeting Summary

The SOC realized early on that the decision they needed to make would be influenced by a number of factors outside of their control – projected enrolment numbers, English, early and late French Immersion programming considerations and the number of classrooms available in each school. And they operated with a set of principles, two of which were predominate in the discussions: more optimal and balanced use of the school facilities and minimal disruption to students and the community.

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Members of the SOC presenting options

The SOC was also as transparent as possible, posting SOC meeting notes, Community Conversation reports and evaluation results and other information on the HRSB website. Members of the SOC felt the responsibility of making the best decision possible on behalf of the community, recognizing that not everyone would be satisfied with the final decision. The second and third community conversation reports included an FAQ section addressing the most common questions and concerned raised by community members.

The SOC also operated clearly with shared leadership and shared responsibility. Each member of the committee played a role in hosting the community conversations and in presenting the final recommendation to the HRSB board. On more than one occasion, there was a tremble in someone’s voice or tears in their eyes, demonstrating the passion they carried for this work and their decisions. A passion which caused them to review data on more than one occasion, be as responsive as they knew how to the questions and concerns of community members and to be fully conversant and committed, as a team, to the final recommendation put forth.

SOC Recommendation to HRSB 2016

HRSB Recommendation GraphicAll of this was recognized, acknowledged and affirmed by the response of the school board members. For sure there were questions – good questions – and even more there was a strong validation for the SOC of the many hours and clear commitment they put into a recommendation created by and for community.

Very proud of this mighty group of committed volunteers. And it was an honour to be part of a long established organization stepping into a new pattern of community engagement.

What If Schools Are Communities That Learn?

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What if schools are communities that learn and not just places where content is delivered to students? What if school systems could truly draw on the wealth of wisdom and intelligence it has access to through all its students and staff as collaborators? What if we didn’t just use the word collaboration but lived it till it meets its full potential?

This is an inquiry Mike Ritzius and Rich Wilson have been in, not just recently with the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), but in one form or another over the course of their varied careers.

Attending an Art of Hosting Conversations that Matter training in Minnesota in March 2015 not only helped them, each in their own way, make sense of bits and pieces of practices and fragments of things that had shown up over time, but also gave them more options and greater vision for what is possible.

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Rich Wilson, Associate Director of Professional Development, NJEA

Rich says he has been practicing “advocacy” for 30 years. “For twelve of those years,” he shared, “I lived in an impoverished community and became involved in community organizing around education issues, working with college students and volunteer tutors. This eventually took me into the political sphere supporting community leaders as they moved into political office.”

“For the last 15 years I’ve been working with the LGBT community to create safe spaces for students and teachers.”  Rich is now Associate Director of Professional Development at NJEA and in the last couple of years has been focused on teacher evaluation, a topic with many points of view, some of them divisive. He works in partnership with Mike , which is how he became aware of EdCamp, a derivative of Open Space Technology.  He and Mike had been monitoring the AoH website looking for opportunities for a training when they saw the Minnesota offering. He took it to his Director who said, “I’m not sure the organization is ready for this but trust you enough that if you think it is valuable you should go.”

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Mike Ritzius, Associate Director of Professional Development at NJEA

Mike’s journey into education came from a very different background. He said, “I’ve backed my way into every chapter of my life. I am a molecular biologist.  The lab I worked for had to do some teaching in mid-school and I got tasked with it. Turns out, I liked teaching better than research.”  He certified as a teacher in 2000 and started working with students with special needs. “It was different for me. I was frustrated with the way teaching happened, so I ran for my local office and won.” That began a change-making journey.

Mike encountered Open Space Technology at a technical conference called Bar Camp and fell in love with it. From there, Ed Camp was created. The first event was in Philadelphia with 100 people. It is now 500,000 strong across the globe. The Bill Gates Foundation gave $2 million to the charitable foundation that runs Ed Camp.

Two years ago, Mike took on the position of associate director. His focus was on professional learning as well as teacher evaluation. “I loved Ed Camp and it was hard for me to reconcile how it, or processes like it, would be useful in the classroom,” he said.

During our interview for this post, Rich and Mike gave quite a few examples of where and how, internally and externally, Art of Hosting patterns, practices and methods have been used and they will be the subject of a couple more posts. They include experiencing the Chaordic Stepping Stones for planning for the Division, bringing World Café and Open Space to a meeting of Union Executives in the District Office, using Levels of Listening and Talking (from Theory U), offering engagement processes for a group of teachers and parents known as HOPE (Helping Out Public Education) to use across the State, for mobilization in the 2016 election and on the controversial topic of evaluation.

Philly Invitation headerAnd it has inspired both of them to be on the calling team for an Art of Hosting offering in Philadelphia in February 2016 called The Art of Collaborative Leadership: Leading Together in Complex Times. The calling question is: How could conversations of possibility shift your work? This is a question they have seen manifest in remarkable ways in their work.

What surprised them the most since bringing more collaborative and engagement practices their work?

For Rich it is, “How quickly other people have embraced the processes. Four more people went to a different AoH training. Others have done their homework and come to talk to us. I am surprised at people’s creativity, where they are using the practices, the questions people are asking, the interest that has been sparked. The ‘coalition of the willing’ keeps growing. It is affirming.”

And Mike came to the question from a different perspective. “The effect it has had on me. I look at things from a very different perspective now and it’s evolving fast. I am more intentional with the way I say and do things and in analyzing my own actions.”

What’s the hardest part? “Trusting the process and not second guessing things,” Rich reflected.  “Fortunately, having experienced the training together, Mike and I support each other in bringing new processes.  I am not feeling that I have to control every little thing.  What needs to happen is what is going to happen.”

“I agree with Rich,” said Mike. “We work with not bringing an agenda every time – to bring process rather than content. This is tough when you are employed as the expert and people want us to show up and tell them what to do rather than engage their own wisdom and knowledge.”

What is their greatest hope arising from their experience with these patterns and practices?

“I’d like to see a few more people feel like they have more voice,” said Mike. “To know they can contribute, bring their ideas forward and build a better community together. Schools are communities, not just about content delivery and it would be great to get away from the notion of ‘hero educators’. All voices have value and are valued.”

Rich agreed. “All people in schools count. This could be the beginning of an examination of what schools should be and they should work. If we get more people beginning to talk about it, we can leverage it into change. Where we don’t just use the word collaboration but it reaches its full potential and we are using hosting practices to bring it about.”

What if schools are communities and not just places where content gets delivered? What if school systems could truly draw on the wealth of wisdom and intelligence it has access to through all its collaborators? What if we didn’t just use the word collaboration but lived it till it meets its full potential?

A Decade of More People “Stepping Up”, Engaging in Nova Scotia

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Stepping Up Conference – 2015

On January 11, 2005 (what later become fondly known as J21 within Envision Halifax), I walked into a day long community gathering hosted by Envision Halifax, along with more than 100 other people, at St. Matthew’s Church Hall on Barrington Street, and my life and the way I work were forever changed. And, more than that, a movement began, sparked by a mission to “ignite a culture of civic engagement”.

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A visual depicting the Envision Halifax Leadership Journey – 2007 – which used Theory U as the journey and Art of Hosting as the “operating system”.

I had cause to think of that moment earlier this week when I walked into the new public library in Halifax for the Stepping Up Conference (#StepUpNS) hosted by Engage Nova Scotia, along with more than 350 other people in Halifax, even more gathered at 10 other locations in the province with an additional 500 or more people at their own computer screens following the live streaming.

A decade ago it was Envision Halifax. Something new and meaningful was sparked. Then a sabbatical to check back in with need, purpose and approach, some work in the background and the emergence of Engage Nova Scotia as a next iteration ~ different, stronger and with greater reach.

Danny Graham and Kathy Jourdain at an Envision Halifax public gathering where project teams shared what they were working on in that year (2007).

Danny Graham and Kathy Jourdain at an Envision Halifax public gathering where project teams shared what they were working on in that year (2007).

During the Envision days, Danny Graham and I had a chat about whether we were just “preaching to the choir” as many liked to say or was it something more? Maybe it was preaching to the choir, but I wondered then and I wonder now, is that so bad? Is that not a good starting place? I thought about this because I overheard someone remark at the Stepping Up conference that “we are only preaching to the converted”, since that is who shows up. That may be. But something happened over a decade to grow the number of “converted” in this province by at least 15 fold and probably more.

I was honoured to facilitate the group conversation focused on a new attitude. There were many gems of wisdom in that conversation including: expand your own bubble and do more of what you can, ignore naysayers and time how long it can take you to shift a negative conversation into a positive one. These gems are reflective of “new attitudes” sparking all over the province as individuals recognize their own circles of influence and focus their attention on what they can do and impact.

What struck me in a deep and meaningful way, reflecting over a decade is – more. More people in Nova Scotia are paying attention. More people are asking questions. More people are longing for a future that looks different than the past. More people are Stepping Up. And that is a very exciting ongoing evolution over just one short decade of quiet but growing change in and across our beautiful little province.

A decade ago and this week (and in many other places and times in between), Danny quoted a favourite poem of his:

If you always believe what you have always believed,
You will always feel the way you always felt.
If you always feel the way you always felt,
You will always think the way you always thought.
If you always think the way you always thought,
You will always do what you’ve always done.
If you always do what you have always done,
You will always get what you have always gotten.
If there is no change there is no change

Well, in Nova Scotia, if you stop a moment to reflect, it is clear that beliefs, feelings, thoughts and actions are changing. Thank you Nova Scotia, thank you Engage and thank you to everyone who played, and continues to play, a role in changing the future in the place I am delighted to call home.

Itasca County, MN – Art of Hosting Works – Background, Application and Impact

In just over one year, community citizens of Itasca County, who were not familiar with the term Art of Hosting Conversations that Matter, went from showing up at the first three day training in November 2013 with a healthy mix of curiosity and scepticism, to hosting a one day community wide conversation at the first ever Grand Gathering of Itasca County just one year later that attracted over 85 people who engaged in 50+ conversations that mattered over a five hour period.

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How does a community do this? By being passionate about influencing their future and believing it is possible. Support from the Blandin Foundation, (and thanks to the vision initially held by Bernadine Joselyn) made it possible for Jerry Nagel of the Meadowlark Institute and Kathy Jourdain of Shape Shift Strategies Inc. to offer (with other AoH practitioners) five three day Art of Hosting trainings, two Community World Cafes, one Grand Gathering using Open Space Technology and nine days of Advanced (or more in-depth) Training on specific topics. The Community Cafes and Grand Gathering were brain childs of participants in the trainings who stepped up to community engagement and hosting in beautiful and collaborative ways.

Participants understand that good community conversations on important issues offer everyone who shows up the opportunity to speak openly and without fear, to be listened to authentically and respectfully, and to leave feeling an ownership in the outcomes of their conversations. Community or civic engagement is also about accountability and commitment, a request not only to show up but to engage. This is happening in Itasca County in abundance now.

A report on the background, application and impact was compiled for the Blandin Foundation to show the value of the investment made in this series of program offerings for the community and you can access it here: Blandin Harvest 2013-15. (It might take awhile to download as it is full of pictures and stories that Highlight AoH in Action.)

Because Blandin supported this initiative, it made it possible for diverse cross sections of the community to participate – including artists, teachers, business people, not-for-profit staff, government staff from the county commission, natural resources, corrections and more, people from the Leech Lake Nation, people in transition, volunteers and more to participate. People met new friends and brought a variety of worldview perspectives into the room, where people “met” each other in the most interesting and sometimes unexpected places because they brought their curiosity to the conversations.

The stories of impact are still being collected. It is the stories that bring alive what is possible. The stories convey both subtle and large examples of bringing the practices to life. The last set of deeper dive trainings is happening in August 2015 and the programs are filling fast with previous participants, many of whom are planning to bring more people with them.

Itasca County is a beautiful example of the ripple effect that emerges as people change the way they approach meetings and conversations to get to the heart of what matters quickly, to evoke action that impacts, lasts and makes a difference across the region.

Art of Hosting is a Lived Process – Participant Success Story

In Grand Rapids, MN, since November 2013, over 150 people have experienced an Art of Hosting training. It is a community of real people, real lives and real impact. Jerry Nagel and I have begun to document some of the success stories – many of them small miracles that provide inspiration to us and so many others who might be wondering where you start once you have been to an AoH training. This account was provided by Audrey Moen who attended the training in September 2014.

Audrey Moen in the circle with others taking in a teach by Jerry Nagel.

Audrey Moen in the circle with others taking in a teach by Jerry Nagel.

When I first signed up for the AoH training some people asked me, “Oh, why would you want to do that? It is just facilitating. You already know how to facilitate. Why go for three days?”  I knew, just in the title, before I even read the details of what AoH is, it was indeed going to be much more.  

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September 2014, Grand Rapids – Teach by Karen Zetner Bacig

I was able to bring a diverse group of people with me who normally never attend training like this.  They are considered on the outside as poor, disabled, or have histories that do not allow them to secure basic housing. They may have had a criminal background. They may no longer have the right to vote.  It did not matter. They were welcomed as if they were Kings or Queens. 

What they took away from it has increased their lives.  One is on his way to attend the Day on the Hill at the Capital; one is now leading a group locally; one stated that she feels a sense of confidence and acceptance she never had before.

The learning that took place is something that will, for me, be life-long.  I use it every day in the little things. I think about table conversations in a different light.  I encounter situations that in the past may have been met with roadblocks. With the AoH and Worldview skills this does not happen.  If anything, I find that the skills learned open doors to communication; barriers or walls fall down, and people open up – trust is alive in the room.

The three days went by in a blink. I met people I never knew, developed stronger community links, shared values, insight and ideas that were priceless.

I also was able to participate in the Grand Gathering in Grand Rapids, MN.  What a day of positive energy and inspiration!  I also participated in the Theory U advanced training day which has already helped me in my career, my volunteer work, and in my home life.  

The facilitators for AoH are well trained in their field, they are engaging, accepting, and are an inspiration. 

My thanks to the Blandin Foundation for providing this training.  I would like to see it continue. The community needs to keep the momentum growing so the seeds can continue to take root and grow. The Foundation is very good at keeping things rooted as long as needed. 

I met other AoH participants who attended the training in our area and in other areas. They consistently state the same thing; AoH is a process; it is not a day, an hour, a moment. It is about taking the time, always learning, developing, reaching out, community building, and engagement.

Thanks again for offering the AoH to our area.  I can honestly state I hope it can continue.  There is so much to learn and put into practice!