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.

SOC Presenting

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.

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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.

IMG_0986

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.

Documenting Our Work: Three Simple Guides to Harvesting

Central to good process design is understanding what needs to be captured for posterity – documented or recorded in a way that serves the purpose of the work. In the Art of Hosting Conversations that Matter, we call this harvesting. In an AoH training we will often invite a harvest team to take care of this on behalf of the group and offer harvest in from time to time – using words, like through slam poetry or story telling, visually in graphic facilitation or with a wordle, with music, movement or in any other number of ways. In a consulting process for strategic planning, community engagement, innovation or other processes, the question of what needs to be documented is in play from the very beginning. At least one or several of the team holds a primary responsibility for it.

The term harvest is used to invite us to imagine beyond the traditional (sometimes wordy, sometimes boring) report that is often the way we capture and record our work. There are many ways to approach harvest but until July 2014, in Grand Rapids, I had not seen really simple clear guidelines to use in consideration of helpful, useful documentation. Sheila Kiscaden offered the best teach I have personally witnessed so far – clear, easy to understand with beautiful analogies and diagrams that have inspired me to harvest her harvest teach in my blog.

There are three simple guides to consider in documenting your work: what is the purpose of the harvest, who is the audience or recipient and what are the methods available for you to choose from?

Purpose

Is the purpose of the harvest or documentation for immediate consumption, as an ingredient in something else, for preservation and perhaps later consumption, or to be transformed into something else? The analogy of grapes offers a beautiful visual that helps us think of the purpose of the harvest.

  1. Consume

grapesPerhaps the harvest is for immediate consumption – you want or need to eat the grapes now. In a training situation, the group might hear the themes and patterns emerging from a world café process but have no need to capture what they are hearing beyond that moment.

As an additional step you might want to have the themes that have been identified at a table or in a small group IMG_0890captured on post-it notes so there is a visible harvest as well as an auditory one. The post-it notes can be displayed on a wall, clustered into the themes and patterns that have emerged. Clustering can be done by someone on the hosting team and is usually more powerful when done by the people in the room. You might only need a visible harvest for immediate consumption or it might play a later role in one of the other categories identified.

  1. Ingredient

fruit saladIt could be that the grapes are needed as an ingredient in something bigger, like a fruit salad. They still essentially look the same but now are mixed in with other ingredients, adding flavour, new insight and new perspectives. The harvest could be an instigator for something else or something more, part of a mosaic that creates a more complete picture. A synthesis of themes and patterns might be incorporated into a report, ideas might become part of a strategic plan. These ingredients might be essential to an ongoing dialogue.

  1. Preserve

grape jamYou could turn your grapes into jam or jelly – preserve the harvest as a record of an event, a gathering, a meeting or conversation, perhaps when it is important to have a record to note or acknowledge that this event or conversation transpired – like an annual report for an organization. People can go back and look at it and it is an end in and of itself although perhaps a useful reference point in the future when scanning the past.

  1. Transform

wine and grapesLike grapes can be transformed into something else through a process – like dried into raisins or distilled into wine – it could be that the harvest will also be transformed into something else. Themes and patterns might become part of a generative conversation leading you into new conversational spaces, opportunities or ideas – like what can happen in the emergence phase of divergence-emergence-convergence. Input in stakeholder dialogues or community engagement meetings might transform into a larger purpose. A synthesis of many conversations will still hold the essence of the original ingredients and look very different in a transformational process.

Who is the intended audience or recipient?

The harvest might be just for you, a personal harvest, or it could be contributing to a group process or needed for public consumption. This will cause you to also consider how you will harvest.

  1. Personal harvest. It could be that you are harvesting for yourself – taking notes or drawing in a personal journal, creating reflective space for yourself for your own current and future learning.
  1. Sharing with small circles. Is the documentation required for committee meetings, to inform a sponsor of progress in a project, a record of what is shared in a circle of friends or colleagues? If so, what needs to be captured, how is it shared and how often?
  1. Share more broadly. Perhaps your harvest is part of a larger initiative and information needs to be shared with larger audiences, inside your organization, as part of a marketing or public relations strategy, within a community, as part of a public engagement initiative. Who your audience is or needs to be will influence how you think about your harvest.

Methods

There are a myriad of methods of harvest available and the methods you choose will be influenced by the purpose of your harvest, the intended audience and the nature of the work you are engaged in. Some ideas follow. They are categorized but many of these ideas could belong in more than one category and you could be using any combination of methods at any given time. Be as creative as is helpful for your work.

Documentation

  • Reports – which might look like a traditional report or document or could be enlivened with pictures, quotes and sidebars which are more likely to attract and keep attention.
  • Blog posts – many individuals and organizations provide a record or reflections through blog posts which can be captured in the moment or, more likely, provided afterwards.
  • Mindmaps – a diagram used to visually track information and, more significantly, relationships between information. It can be crafted in the moment, with the group identifying and mapping the relationships, where they could also “vote” for the themes that have the greatest energy for them, and later (or in the moment) it can be transcribed into mind mapping software and distributed in a report.
  • Videos – within the process, later in editing or recapping. Understanding what you hope to do with the video and having a videographer and editor who is familiar with the topic at hand, the intent of your work and the language you use is helpful in creating the best record possible.
  • Interviews – people involved in your process can be interviewed about their experience and those interviews posted somewhere for access by the intended audiences. Good questions will produce good interview results.
  • Post-it notes – can be used to capture information, particularly themes and patterns from conversations and processes and then used to cluster the information into a meta themes and patterns.

Art

  • IMG_0892Graphic facilitation – the use of large scale imagery produced live in the moment to capture the essence of the conversations and outcomes of the process. It activates a different part of the brain and helps people see what they are experience and what they know.
  • Photography – of people, processes, flip chart notes and of the other ways that information is being captured. This is a very common form of harvest for individuals and for collective purposes.
  • Table top documentation (like from world cafés) – while oftentimes this provides too much information and most is not that usable, sometimes there is some amazing artwork that does capture some of the important essences of the experience and this can be used also to enliven a report.

Physical

  • Body sculptures – this is often an on the spot harvest of the experience where participants are asked to “sculpt” their experience – perhaps using only their own body or having participants do this in small groups, using group members to create a “sculpture” that reflects their experience. This rotates so that every person either creates their own sculpture or the group might evolve a collective sculpture.
  • Movement – People are asked to offer a movement which we sometimes ask everyone else to mirror. This is a powerful experience that enables the group to embody the collective experience.
  • Dance – it is not uncommon for people who have some form of dance practice to be part of a group or a process and to offer their practice as one way to harvest or even simply to introduce movement into a process at a time when it is helpful to awakening body intelligence.
  • Skits – this is a beautiful way to harvest a conversation, a learning journey experience, a process evolution that illuminates other ways of knowing and gives us a glimpse into any patterns in the system that maybe at play.

Voice

  • Poetry, including slam poetry and other forms of poetic harvest – many people are gifted with a talent for poetry. Sometimes it is a live capture of a circle check-in or other process. Participants always listen carefully to hear their contribution reflected back into the room and it is easier to do than most people imagine. Sometimes there are some very gifted poets in our spaces who offer their work and/or a capture in the moment. Sometimes a poem written by others shows up in the space because it is the perfect harvest in the moment.
  • Story telling – on the spot storytelling invited through a question or later storytelling captured in blog posts, interviews or recordings. Using story brings the experience alive for others who were and were not there.
  • Music/song – this may be music or song that someone brings that resonates with the experience of the group or it may be co-created by the harvest team or the group.
  • Voice recording/radio interviews – this is a way of capturing the experience and spreading the word more widely in a community or amongst an audience.

Other

  • Virtual repositories of information – websites, listservs (like the AoH listserv) – public or internal, community sites, other virtual networks and social media.
  • Any combination of ways and means to document and distribute information – identified here or emerging in new ways.

In these days of a proliferation of media tools and short attention spans, sparking imagination with harvests – both within the team and for the intended audiences – can make your work more accessible to your audiences and bring it alive in new ways. It is a place where people can bring their talents, sometimes gifts they don’t use in the regular course of their work. The more we access the range of learning and information styles at our disposal, the richer the resonance of our work.