Youth Engagement Impeded by Pressure of Elder Legacy Need?

It is a freshly minted question for me.  Is youth engagement impeded by the pressure of older adults wanting to leave a legacy or the need to get it right?

The question began fermenting for me during the Art of Community Building training for African Nova Scotian facilitators in June of this year (2013).  It was an Open Space question posed by the (now) late Rocky Jones: how to engage the youth?  I used the Law of Two Feet to find my way to that conversation and listened in for a few minutes, trying to understand more about a question that is asked all the time in all kinds of situations.

I wondered out loud, if they really knew what the youth wanted?  That’s what they were trying to find out, they told me. You know those moments when you feel that vague stirring in your soul because something is not connecting but you’re not sure what or why?  I was in one of those moments, feeling that there was a point that was wanting to emerge – in my own mind anyway – but none of us in the conversation were hitting on it.  It was a vague sense of somehow missing the mark and it kept stirring for me.

Later at dinner, the hosting team and a few others of us continued the conversation.  Rocky and Roshanda Cummings, a young leader and apprentice host on our team who came from San Francisco to co-host with us,  got into a beautifully intense conversation about the role of elders, about Roe wondering where her elders were, with Rocky listening intently as she poured her heart out about what it was like to be a young black woman in the places she lived and traveled.

I thought about how Roe had been invited into this work – not with the question of “how do I engage you” but with the open hearted invitation of “what can we do together and I would LOVE you to come to Nova Scotia to do this work with me!”

Stillheart Roe and Kathy

I began to wonder how many conversations around youth engagement (or engagement generally) come from a place (unintentionally of course) of fear, regret, reproach or judgment.  Reproach and judgment because youth are not meeting some standard of engagement or community participation that may no longer even be relevant or of interest to youth.  Fear and regret that elders may have let youth down, let themselves down in the process, worried about what kind of legacy they are leaving youth and community.

And then I wondered, “What if a conversation with youth about how to engage them had a totally different starting point?”  Inspired by Mary Oliver, for instance, and her great question: “Tell me what it is you plan to do with your one wild and precious life!”  What if a question like that was the invitation to a conversation where we really listened to each other instead of suppositioned?  What if everything about the conversation said, “I care about you and what you care about,” if engagement came from the place of how do I support you in that which calls you from the soul, and what could we do together and learn together if we jumped into engagement from that point?

Just sensing into these two approaches, the energy shifts shape from one of burden and how do I get someone else, in this case youth, to do something they don’t seem to be particularly interested in doing to one of curiosity and eagerness as I anticipate listening in to what makes someone else come alive and imagining with them how they could do more of that!  And maybe I could do it with them!

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Seeing and Being Seen, Having Voice

St. Cloud is a small city in Minnesota known euphemistically as “White Cloud” because of its reputation as a racist town.  Some residents of this community have decided this is a reputation that needs to shift.  They are taking action in the form of Conversations that Matter.

Mayuli Bales became aware of the Art of Hosting a couple of years ago through one of the early trainings in Minnesota.  She began to dream of what might be possible in her home town and the seeds of the multi-cultural community gathering for conversation began to take shape, seeds just harvested mid-November 2012.

It was the first gathering in St. Cloud about race and culture convened by people of colour.  Mayuli pulled together a local calling team despite not being able to explain clearly what the Art of Hosting is and they got to work, supported by InCommons and the Meadowlark Institute.

Some of the most passionate discussions in the hosting team were about seeing and being seen, having voice that is acknowledged and recognized. The experience of so many people of color is that they are invisible, not seen, not heard. Heartbreaking. For them. For those of us on the hosting team too.  For me.

The dream was to Color the Cloud. The purpose for our gathering co-evolved by the hosting team the day before was:

Discovering together our community, to build the future by:

  • Seeing each other
  • Contributing all of our voices
  • Getting skillful at being in conversations that matter to us
  • Co-creating the evolving story

So much anticipation.  So much hope.  So much anxiety. Could it really happen? The three day design that emerged used the themes in the purpose as themes for each day.  Day 1 was Discovering Community: Seeing and Being Seen.  Day 2 was Building Community: Getting skillful together. Day 3 was Practicing Community: Co-creating the evolving story.  The design included the usual interweave of patterns, practices and teaches.

Drummers who opened the community conversations in St. Cloud

We were welcomed into our space by drummers – three members of a family with Aztec heritage, a father, mother and their three year old son who took up his place as a drummer.  The father shared with us, “You’ve been told in school and in your museums that Aztec’s are extinct.  But here we are, my wife, my son and me.  We are not extinct.  Neither is our culture.”  Culture must adapt to survive while cherishing those elements which make the culture distinctive.

He shared with us the story of the drum – as a grandfather, as a heartbeat, as part of community voice with its own message for each of us.  We were all invited to drum.  All of us.  Latinos, Somali’s, Oromo, African Americans, White Americans (and Canadians too) – broad categories of culture which do not do justice to the full multiplicity of culture in the room.  One world where many worlds fit.  Could fit.  Could be invited to fit.

The container was set, to be strengthened over the next few days. The invitation to see.  To see who else is in the room.  Who else cares enough about coloring the cloud to show up – for a morning, an afternoon, a meal, for three days. To be seen.  To contribute voice.  All voices.  Welcoming the languages present to be spoken aloud for all to hear.  Slowly at first but building so that by our check out circle, people were freely speaking their language, interpreted for the English speaking among us to comprehend, to see, to witness.

We became aware, as a hosting team, that these people, showing up day after day, did not need to hear our voices introducing teaches into the room.  They needed to hear each other’s voices, each other’s stories.  In ways and on a scale that had not yet happened in this community.  They needed and wanted to become skillful in practicing conversation with each other.  And to use conversation to support each other in initiatives and projects called out during the proaction café.  So we let the teaches of frameworks go and we focused on processes, ways and means of continually inviting them into conversation with each other.

The story of the new began to emerge during Open Space, Collective Storytelling, World Café, Proaction Café and smaller deep check in circles.  Surveying the small groups at any given time or in any given process, it was easy to see the diversity in each circle.  It was heartwarming.

Two of many stories to share here.

The first is of a member of our hosting team, a beautiful Somali woman dressed in the full traditional garb of her culture and often in the most brilliant of colours.  At the end of Day 1 she is part of the check out team.  Sensing the energy is low, she has a plan.  She looks down at her dress, begins to pull up the top layer of it, tying it in a knot, exposing the next layer of dress which still goes down to the floor.  Just this is so unexpected she has our full attention.  Then, she invites all of us to imagine with her that we are cats, to get down on the floor moving around on all fours, meowing.  Amidst gales of laughter, all who were able in the room, get down on all fours and move through the room with varying degrees of gracefulness and hilarity.  Be prepared to be surprised!  How many stereotypes did she smash through with this simple gesture of fun and delight?

The second story is of a self-proclaimed native son of St. Cloud, an older and retired white man.  He was asked to share his story in the collective story harvest and, to be honest, I wasn’t sure how it would unfold.  He offered his story, not only as his story, but as the story of his mother and his grandparents too.  Among the people in his group were three young Somali women.  Later in the collective harvest, one of these young women stood up and said, “We are always asked about my culture and what it’s like to live here. I have realized that we don’t stop to ask the people who have always lived here about their culture and what it’s like for them to live here.”

Later, when we reconvened in our full circle, someone pointed out to me that this man was now sitting in the middle of these Somali women.  Still later, when I thanked him for bringing his story to the group, he thanked me for the opportunity.  He told me he had arranged for these women to meet his mother and hear her story directly.  Delight all around.

These are just two small examples of how we the purpose of our gathering gained life and vibrancy.  People were beginning to see each other and to feel seen by each other, to give voice and be heard.  It is a beginning for a town that is coloring the cloud, shifting the shape of its reputation and sending out the message that the future is being co-created by people who care about where they live and about each other.

Ingredients for Hosting Team Success – An Inquiry

How is it we can take a group of people who may or may not know each other, throw them into a prep or planning day together and have them emerge out the other side as a team, ready to co-create and co-host a three or four day Art of Hosting training, to greater or lesser degrees as a cohesive, fluid team?

In the last few years, I have had powerful experiences of this happening in Atlantic Canada, in Brazil, in the United States, as I’ve invited or been invited onto hosting teams with a wide variety of backgrounds and experience, different levels of readiness to step more fully into hosting and different size teams from six to fourteen. And these days, in my experience, although individuals on the team know each other, the whole team has only met each other in person on that prep day.

Cohesive, fluid hosting teams hasn’t always been my experience.  Especially in my early days of hosting.  Having contrasting experiences offered me opportunities to notice and reflect on what worked and what didn’t.  Hosting myself, I became aware of how to, more often, invite the kind of experiences that work well.    Recently a good friend invited me into a deeper inquiry of, in my experience, what makes strong teams possible?  What are the ingredients for hosting team success?  These are not definitive by any stretch of the imagination, but they are some of the themes I’m noticing that consistently support strength and capacity in hosting teams I’ve been part of.

Some of it is in what happens in prep day.  Most of it is the quality of invitation to all of us on the team whether we are seasoned hosts or stewards, practitioners, apprentices, or logistics coordinators to show up fully.  We are all equally human, equally beautiful, equally valuable and  each of us holds a part of the whole.

There is no question the space for this invitation is held by the stewards.  It is not just a verbally issued invitation, it is one that is fully and authentically supported in all our actions and in our energetic field, in the space we create and hold for others to step into, in the responsiveness to all the voices that show up.  When, as seasoned hosts, we are able to step into our own humility and support the field from what might seem a less visible place, we open the space for others to step in more fully.

There are, of course, times that what we have to offer from our experience is what is needed – a thought, an observation, a question, a teach, a framing for what’s in the room, making something visible, stepping into our own brilliance in service of what is needed now. Knowing when to step in and offer what is needed now is also important – a part of the art.  Doing it in a way that builds on what others have offered, in the spirit of expansion and illumination, is a gift to self, a gift to others and a gift to the field in which we work.

To seed this field of invitation I want to have at least one other person on the team I know well, where mutual full trust exists, with whom I know we can handle anything that comes along.  With a minimum of the two of us (and one or two more is even better), we can hold the space for whatever wants or needs to show up in the team – and then in the gathering we are co-hosting.

Co-hosts and apprentices are wanting to know and understand their role, what they can contribute and how welcome their contribution may or may not be.  We are all wanting to know where all our learning edges are, what each of us wants to step into and how this can best be supported.  In particular, I am wanting to support people stepping up to their next level of learning, hosting or offering.  It is a thing of beauty when people publicly step into their learning edges, usually with some fear, some trepidation and loads of courage.

Prep day itself begins with its own welcome, framing and flow.  And an invitation to the full team to find the places they want to step in.  We begin open heartedly.  Infusing the space with welcome, invitation and confidence.  We move to  a check-in process. First on a  personal level.  What draws us to this work? What are we most excited about? Whatever question that personally brings us into the work and into the team.  Then we move onto what we know about who is coming, what their questions are, what they might be hoping for.

The harvest from these two rounds of check in is a co-created purpose statement to guide our planning and design process.  From there we take a first crack at design.  What is the invitation for each day? How will we invite people in, invite them to stay in, create the space for what they want to do and the opportunity for them to reflect on what they will do when they leave.  It is at this point I often notice the energetic threads weaving amongst the team.  People connecting more deeply.  Similar thoughts and ideas emerging at the same time.  Laughter in the room as synchronicities show up.  The awareness we have tapped a deeper place.

We take a look at what we’ve crafted.  Identify day hosts, hosting opportunities, coaching opportunities.  We invite hosting team members to offer where they most want to play.  We step in where we know our wisdom, knowledge and learning will most serve and we look for balance in the offerings.  We create a field of caring and intention and we prepare ourselves to welcome the larger group in the same open hearted invitation instilled with curiosity and generosity.

As a team, we stay tuned into and aware of each other in subtle and obvious ways.  We continue to invite each other’s brilliance and to support each other.  We work with the ebb and flow of individual and collective energy and know that we have each other’s backs. We ask for what we need and offer what we can. We invite each other.  We check in at the beginning of the day and we check out at the end of the day.  Openly.  Honestly.  Speaking what is in our hearts, minds and awareness.  Tuning in to what is in the space.

I don’t know if this is a recipe for hosting team success.  I know it’s been working in the places I’ve been and in the teams I have the pleasure of being in learning with.  I am certain there are other ingredients, other recipes that work equally well and will continue to be in co-learning and inquiry to continue to grow my own capacity to support hosting team success.

A question very much alive every time we step into a team, those we’ve worked with before and those we are working with for the first time is: what is the humility, generosity, open heartedness and also the brilliance that needs to be present and available in me, in each of us and collectively that supports the environment of co-learning in service of the field we are entering and committed to holding?

“Until recently”…. a Very Simple Strategy

“Until recently, my office was really cluttered.  Now, I’m in the process of organizing it.”

“Until recently, even though I liked you and wanted to be in touch, I was a little afraid of you.  Now, I promise to stay in touch because I’m no longer afraid of the questions you’ll ask.”

“Until recently, I didn’t know how to approach difficult conversations.  Now, I’m learning strategy and gaining courage.”

“Until recently, I was just walking through the experience of my life because I was afraid of my emotional response.  Now, I’m living into it. And, it’s not as scary as I imagined it to be.”

“Until recently, I was struggling.  Now, I’m feeling more flow and a smoother road ahead.”

It is a simple little strategy that, until recently, I hadn’t heard about.  But, now that my friend Robert Newman from Columbus Ohio shared it with me when I saw him in June, I’ve been using it and I’ve been sharing it with my coaching clients.

One of the aims of coaching is to become aware of old patterns that no longer serve and awaken new patterns that serve us better, generating greater self awareness, one of the goals of hosting self in the Four Fold Practice.  It is really easy to get stuck in the story of what was instead of engaging the story  or the future we want to invite, the one that shifts the shape of our world and our interaction in it intentionally in the direction we envision, the way we want to show up for ourselves and in relation to other people.

It invites a gentle noticing: “until recently this is the way it was” – and it invites an intentionality: “now, this is what I choose. ” There is no harshness, no self judgment but a delightful invitation to choice.  To choose a better feeling story and invite ever increasing better feeling results.  It is like a mantra and a habit that can be remembered mid sentence in an old pattern:” I don’t keep in touch very…” pause, notice… “until recently, I wasn’t very good at staying in touch. Now, I’d like to set up a regular pattern of calls”.

It invites lightness into whatever it is we want to shift and grows the potential we will create the shift we want.  Try it.  Recently, I have discovered it is a very simple yet effective strategy.

Navigating the Groan Zone is an Art

For a such a simple little concept, the divergence-emergence-convergence model we use in the Art of Hosting sure packs a punch.  It is a simple teach that can be done in 10 minutes – or longer – if time, space and the opportunity to engage others in the conversation allows.  It sheds light on design process, the groan zone and people’s experience.  Navigating the groan zone is an art form that often arises out of our ability to host ourselves well.  Stories from a recent Art of Hosting training a bit later in this post.  First a bit about the model.

Divergence-Emergence-Convergence – a simple model with an interesting challenge

The divergent phase of this model is akin to brainstorming.  We want as many ideas as possible to emerge so we can later select the best ones to develop further.  It has much broader application than brainstorming though.  It is about expansion.  It is where ideas are generated, information is collected,  issues or challenges are sensed into to gain more insight or shift perspective or simply where we holding open the space for possibilities to enter in.  It is not a time for evaluation.  We don’t need to know what we will do with the information.  We don’t even need to know whether the information is ultimately useful while we are in the divergent phase of the learning, the work, the project.

As we begin to feel overloaded, overwhelmed or uncomfortable, or we begin to question “the process”, or the leaders or hosts of the process, or we are just tired and grumbly, we are desiring understanding and often looking for convergence.  What does it all mean?  What should we do now?  When can we be done?  All questions that indicate we are near or in the groan zone.

In an effort to avoid discomfort, end discussion, or just get to the end now, we are often tempted to circumnavigate the groan zone by picking an idea, or a solution prematurely – any reasonably good one will do – and developing it into “the answer”.

Some things happen when we do this.  One is that we may miss the truly important things.  By prematurely closing a conversation, the essence or pattern of it often comes back.  We think we made a decision but the decision is questioned and we end up in a new round of conversation about things we thought were settled, growing frustration and dissatisfaction later on.  Staying with the discomfort just a bit longer might emerge a different idea or opportunity or a new understanding of where are at and why. What if we became curious about where we are instead of wanting to shut it down?  What might then emerge?  What if we ask the question, what else is going on here?  What is underneath the conversation, the unrest?

Navigating the groan zone is an art of discernment in many ways.  It is also a skill we can develop.  I recently had someone send me a note, asking me how a training was going.  The note arrived exactly in the groan zone at the end of day 2.  I thought about replying and knew it was just impossible to explain succinctly where we were in our process – unsettled, a bit disconnected as a group, unclear about what all was bubbling.  Sure enough, the next day things flowed together, the group became more cohesive and new possibilities emerged.  I had a new story to share about the groan zone and the importance of staying in it in our processes, not prematurely attempting to assess the success or failure of a conversation, a training or a process. We don’t just need to stay tuned to the groan zone, we need to be alert for convergence and good timing of it.

A couple of stories about the groan zone from recent hosting experiences.  These two stories come from the first AoH training for Rio de Janeiro in Brazil at the end of April 2012.  Two of my co-hosts (on a team of nine) were Jerry Nagel from the US and Maria Barretto from Brazil.

The first story is from the hosting/calling team.  We met, as is normal practice, the day before for our check-in and design process for the training that was in front of us.  In the couple of weeks just before the training, it filled so rapidly most of us had no idea we had reached our capacity of about 50 people in the lovely retreat centre we were at near Petropolis.  Even in this last night before we were to begin, people were sending emails saying they wanted to attend.  In the normal flux of what happens leading up to a training, some people were appearing, some were saying they couldn’t come and we were left trying to figure out what to do.  We had five people  on a waiting list.  There were two possibilities: begin the list for the next Rio AoH or refer them to an AoH that was to happen in Sao Paulo a few weeks later.  We circled around a decision several times, even as we tried to move on, but never landed.  We were clearly in the groan zone.  Maria was the first one to suggest this conversation was not about numbers, there was something deeper that maybe we needed to become curious about and pay attention to.

After two hours we agreed as a team that we would just say yes.  Full invitational energy.  You want to come?  If you can still come we will figure out how to make room.  Calls went out to the five people, three of whom showed up the next morning, two of whom had a 7 hour drive to make it happen.  What was our conversation about?  Letting go.  Inviting.  Trusting.  When we entered full invitation, we passed through the groan zone as a hosting team.  Something shifted for us. Beyond the decision itself. Into the collective space of being a team.

The second story – this time from the full group.  Day 3 of a 4 day training.  The morning is all about hosting self – embodiment, art, silence.  Not everyone is comfortable with meeting self.  We decide not do a collective harvest of the experience but to leave it with individuals.  The afternoon is Pro-Action Cafe – one of the best I’ve ever seen as my Brazilian friends take it to new levels, engaging the participants while the conversation/project hosts are reflecting on what they have learned so far.  “What does it feel like to host other people’s dreams?” is the question they ask, a question that touches me heart.

After the proaction cafe, we enter a debriefing space.  It’s been a long day.  First comments are quite positive and excited.  Then there is a shift. The comments and questions that are now coming into the space do not, in my perspective and through translation, seem to reflect the proaction cafe experience.  So, I become curious.  As I pay attention, I begin to wonder, what is the level of discomfort from the morning experience that seems to be bubbling up now?

The day before, Maria taught the divergence-convergence model, speaking about the groan zone.  In this moment, as I listen I know we are in the groan zone.  I listen for an intervention point and take the talking stick – a paint brush from the centre that many who speak are holding as if it is a microphone.  I step into the centre of the circle and begin to walk it.  I say, “Friends, yesterday Maria talked about the groan zone.  Today, now, we are in it.”

Someone says, “So we should be celebrating.”

I chuckle.  “Yes,” I respond, “We should be celebrating.” I pause, “We need to be careful that we do not assume that our individual experience is the experience of the group.  The things that really resonate with me might be the things you are most challenged by and vice versa.  This is an invitation for us to each own our own experience and to become curious.”

From here, I am not really sure where we want or need to go next.  I invite the hosting team into a transparent conversation about how we want to proceed.  There is one more thing we had been planning but we are now into the time for that process.  Things take on a life of their own and we enter into a fishbowl experience.  I’m still not sure how that happens, but we flow with what is emerging in the space.  As a host team we have a little conversation about what will serve best now.  Participants enter the fishbowl and offer their experience and their questions.  One person asks, “Why don’t you, as experts, just tell us what to do now?”  Good question.  We invite it to sit in the room with us til a bit later.

After hearing from more people one clarity emerges for me.  I  want to be sure we honour the stepping in of volunteers to host processes they had never hosted before and I feared itt was being lost in the ripples showing up in this groan zone.  The response to the question of why we didn’t just provide the answers for people?  “Looking for someone to provide the answers is a typical reaction when we are in the groan zone.  Learning to co-sense and co-learn into what is needed next is the learning edge we are all on.  An answer too soon might not be what we need at all.”  People are nodding.

As we have heard the feedback and sensed the room, I suggest maybe we need to wrap up.  One of the desires in the room is to end for the day and dance – beautiful Brazilian circle dance.  Jerry states, with a beautiful level of intensity, “I didn’t come all this way to just stop and dance now.  There is more learning to be offered.”  People around the room nod.  This is another thread very present in our space.  Maria finally suggests we wrap up for dinner and, for those who want to, we will reconvene after dinner to hear stories of where the methodologies have been used and the impact of them.  This is ultimately the path we choose.  Pretty much everyone shows up for the evening of storytelling.  There is a hunger in the room.  It is a good call.

In the middle of the groan zone we modeled how we can hold the intensity of it, offer up various points of view, and maintain integrity and depth of relationship in our field.  We feel the relief in the room and we know the tension we have been holding in this moment.  Many people later thanked us for modeling what we speak about, that it was a powerful moment for them.

The next morning, we know we need to converge well.  We invite triad conversations as a check in.  People are asked to reflect on their greatest learning and how they are going to take their learnings home.  It is a powerful convergence moment as people reflect on their experience and how to apply it.

Convergence is not necessarily something that happens half way through the process as is depicted in the diagram.  More likely it will happen 2/3 or 3/4 of the way through.  And, when we have navigated the groan zone well, it happens swiftly.

In a lot of our planning processes, I will often say they are front end loaded. If we take the time to sense into what is needed, and the time to be in conversations that take time, with the curiosity about why, we create the conditions for “magic” to happen. I’m not sure I’ve ever been in a process where “magic” happens when we haven’t had to navigate the groan zone with attunement, patience and awareness.  There are ingredients that lend themselves to magic and navigating the groan zone with presence, patience and attunement are some of them.  It is sometimes the most challenging space we hold, but the rewards are bountiful when we do it well.  And whether we do it well or not, the learning is rich.