Leadership and helping

Ranging from a remote village in South America to a city in the USA, the journeys to communities documented in ‘Walk Out, Walk On’, challenge our conventional approach to aid.

In the West we are taught to value efficiency, top down leadership, professionalism, control, result oriented thinking, protocols, etc. But repeatedly on these journeys, the authors came to see entirely different principles at work and succeeding. They and others involved in these communities have had to re examine their approach to leadership and to ‘helping’. And of course by proxy, as a serious reader, so have I.

To make this post a manageable length, I won’t go into the special attributes of each of the communities visited. Let’s just say, that they all had unique problems to solve in the areas of education, self organisation, livelihood, health, etc. And these problems had not been previously been  solved by conventional methods.

As we increasingly see in our failing governments and corporate systems, command-and-control leadership doesn’t work.

it…’smothers basic human capacities such as intelligence, creativity, caring, dreaming.’

People resist the imposition of force by withdrawing, opposing, sabotaging. Leaders react by first cajoling and rewarding, then resorting to harsher measures like threatening, punishing and policing,  and a destructive cycle results. This cycle destroys motivation, and sense of worth. We come to believe what those in power say about us – that we’re lazy, worthless, useless.

Power of this kind breeds powerlessness.People believe they need a strong leader to rescue them, The leader believes he must take control or nothing will get done.

Oh goodness, don’t you recognise this dynamic? Haven’t you been on both sides of this, either being forced or manipulated into acting; or trying to get someone else who was unwilling, to do something? I certainly have, both in toxic organisations and in relationships. And it is an absolute lose-lose situation. Even if you manage to get the person to acquiesce through one of these methods, you know deep in your heart that you’ve not acted kindly or wisely. Yet we’ve all been victims of this reality in one way or another.

But there are other ways:  continued in part 2


Leadership and helping part 2, Community’s wisdom

Waiting for the community’s wisdom to surface:

Control-command leadership doesn’t work

Deborah Frieze writes:

Yet I know my heroic side is always there, too, the leader who wants to leap up and say, ‘I know how to solve that problem! Follow me!’ Then I forge ahead, bent on solving the problem myself, losing friends and colleagues along the way. And of course, my single-minded approach doesn’t solve the problem, it just creates more of them….

I’ve learned that when I listen rather than tell, when I wait for the community’s wisdom to surface rather than impulsively offer my own, then so much more is possible….

This, too, is familiar to me. On any number of committees, boards, how often am I the one with my hand up, just bursting with my creative solution to everything? This is how we were brought up in the US- to shine, to perform, to be special, to lead.  But as Frieze says, it is counter-productive and ultimately isolating.

What this kind of take-over approach tends to undermine is ‘co-motion’.

Co-motion is the opposite of promotion, it is spreading ideas through contagion rather than pushing people in a particular direction. Co-motion is walking at the pace of the other rather than at whatever pace you want to go. It is a horizontal movement that begins with being rooted in your own purpose and place and then connects with others in theirs.

Running through the book are new, gentler approaches to organising people, getting work done, improving a situation. They all sprung naturally out of the wisdom of community which says we are stronger and smarter together than apart. They have to do with letting people self organise and trusting them to find the solutions they need. They are about walking out of the idea of an expert or heroic leader coming to the rescue, and walking on to respecting that people have the power and wisdom they need to find their own solutions.

In part 3 I’ll conclude with ‘The Art of Hosting’ – a practical example of this from WOWO,  and how it is bringing positive change to an American city.

Leadership and helping part 3 – From heroes to hosts

Leaders, from Heroes to Hosts

From ‘Walk Out, Walk On’:

Leaders in some of America’s largest institutions are changing how they lead. They’ve given up take-charge, heroic leadership, choosing instead to engage members of their community in difficult social issues…

The Art of Hosting is a philosophy, including a number of tools which host a variety of conversational processes used to resolve conflicts, develop strategy, analyse issues, and develop actions. People are invited to work together on what really matters to them, and in doing so they will own it and take responsibility for it.

One of the reasons this approach works so well is that when a leader eventually leaves the project, rather than it collapsing for want of a strong, charismatic focal point, it continues because it has a base among the participants. Let’s look at this in practice:

Columbus, like any major city, is a collection of institutions locked in hierarchy and politics trying to do useful work…the institutions and problems that leaders in Columbus took on: hunger, healthcare, homelessness, law enforcement and more- were huge, seemingly intractable problems encased in giant immovable bureaucracies.

Like ‘start anywhere, follow it everywhere’, the leaders didn’t start by trying to tackle the entire system, instead, they started small and invited people to come together to explore a good question.

And rather than focusing on curing a problem, in this case, ‘How do we change the poor healthcare system in our city?’, they asked,’What should be the purpose of the health care you want and need for this city and its future’. This was discussed in a 120 person (including representatives of all stakeholders)  world café (a conversational tool of Art of Hosting where small groups around tables discuss a point then rotate to other tables through the room, so that at the end, many discussions in many groups have taken place).

The existing system is built on illness management. The central conclusion from the world café was,’We want optimal health’.  The conversation moved from troubleshooting to how can we produce wellness in our communities. And how can we make this a personal responsibility.

The program which emerged was called ‘Our optimal Health’, and residents, healthcare workers etc in each of several counties were invited to explore ideas around a new and different system. Some of the initiatives which grew out of these meetings were:

  1. In Clintonville, residents set up a parallel health system consisting of small local modules, each containing 5 doctors and 5 nurses.
  2.  Also in Clintonville, a number of Health Block initiatives are being explored, instead of a crime watch, you have a health watch where neighbours pay attention to each other’s well being.- they might invite each other to join a walking club, or spread the word about yoga classes, check on seniors and home-bound residents, recruit local dentists to provide free care for neighbours who can’t afford it, or enroll volunteers to transport people in need to medical appointments.

These people aren’t waiting for the government to do it. They are ‘Changing the national conversation by experimenting locally and inviting others into the conversation’.

…Leaders learn to trust that everyone has gifts to offer, and that most people want to work on behalf of something greater than themselves. Leaders and those they work with take on large-scale, intractable problems and discover they are capable of solving them.

In future posts I’ll be reflecting on how these ideas are affecting how I think about my role as a teacher, as well as a participant in local change. Your thoughts on how you lead or teach are welcome.

Life-changing books

The way I know when a book has been truly life-changing is when my behaviour starts to change.

Pivotal books in my life have shattered certain perceptions, as if a wall in my brain had come down, letting certain concepts out of their box. For awhile it is a muddle in there until all the material reconfigures to a new view.
For me, to fully integrate the changes a key book has initiated, can take as long as two years.

Life-changing books first change consciousness which then leads to taking different actions.

Several of these kinds of books have come into my life in recent years, but the one I want to focus on here is Walk Out, Walk On (WOWO).

Start anywhere and follow everywhere, was an operating concept in my life long before I read the book. It is key to every creative process. If I am uninspired, pushing myself to start on a large painting is  ineffective. I either balk, or ruin it. Rather than demand inspiration where there is none, I start somewhere by cleaning my brushes or looking through resource material. Often this will be enough to at least get me sketching some new ideas.

In the WOWO context, the authors say that no one in the book started by saying,’We are going to tackle the big problems like world hunger or homelessness’. Rather, one person saw a way right in front of them to solve a little problem. When this joined with the surrounding community’s wisdom, then the act became viral and catalysed system-wide changes. Microcredit is an example of this. But there are also less known acts, like the ones in Joubert Park (see previous post), or a woman planting a tree over a compost toilet pit.

In the light of these stories, I doubt I’d want to start an initiative all on my own. After 40 years of living a fairly traditional visual artist’s existence (aside from my years of art healthcare work) , the emphasis was on me and my career, and less on collaborations.

But to be effective, I need community. For my own well being at this phase of my life, I need community. And the world is also at the point where cooperation, collaboration, and community building are the buzz words- not in a trendy way,but because that is where we are in our development.

My personal mini-drama is that the community I find myself in in northern Holland has never been that kind of place for me. But…….

Starting anywhere, I wrote my transition story on the WOWO site. That led to contact with other women in a similar place, which led to more conversations with some of them, a guest blog at Cat’s, and finally starting Tending Time here.And by the responses to Tending Time, I feel to be part of a new community.

And by some bizarre synchronicity, I’ve been invited to participate in a work group here in the village to improve a dangerous traffic situation. And it appears that finally, contrary to previous experiences here,  there is some promise of a truly collaborative and friendly group effort.

So go figure!
But looking at it again, if I hadn’t been so moved by the stories in WOWO maybe I’d not have identified my own longing for community action quite so clearly, and perhaps I wouldn’t have been so open to joining the work group. And if I’d not had such positive contacts with my new community online, I might have not had the confidence to expect the same here where I live.

Hopefully, what I’ve learned from the examples of working together in the WOWO stories, will help me avoid common pitfalls and enable me to work optimally in this situation.

Books really can change lives.

Start anywhere, follow it everywhere

One of the key concepts revealed in the visits to 7 communities by the Walk Out Walk On authors is the power of small individual actions to radiate out and change large systems.

Starting anywhere and following it everywhere is illustrated best, I think, in the chapter on Joubert Park, South Africa – during apartheid, a lush, sequestered recreation area for whites. When apartheid ended, things changed.

After decades of being prohibited by apartheid from living in the city center, in the 1990s blacks from all over South Africa and beyond migrate to Johannesburg seeking opportunity. With the city’s train station nearby, Joubert Park is the first port of entry for new arrivals in Johannesburg.

The change is sudden and dramatic, bringing a surge of crime, homelessness, prostitution and drugs.

In this park, shootings, HIV and homelessness ruled. It is still a derelict area in many places, but not all. Here is what happened.

The first small act

Photographers, seeking their livelihood realized that people wouldn’t come to have their pictures taken if the park wasn’t safe. They formed a small band of neighbourhood crime watchers- nabbing muggers and sending photos of stabbings to the police. Their efforts led to a reduction of crime and the possibility of children being able to play safely in certain areas of the park.

Day care centre

Most of the preschool children in this area, for safety,  spend their days in the inner spaces of the tenements. Several women took the initiative to create a day care centre in the park-  Lapeng Day Care, the first ever child development centre for black children.
But caring for 65 children daily wasn’t sufficient to create a systemic shift in the welfare of local families. The Lapeng team started to invite parents to participate more actively in the care of the children, offering them courses in math, literacy, science etc. Teenagers began to drop by to teach the younger children simple math and art. This initiaive grew into the Lapeng Family and Childhood center.

The arts

Originating in the belief in the powerful effect the arts have in building self-esteem and in connecting youth to their culture, the Ziyabuya Festival, a celebration of indigenous culture and arts was born. And this was followed by the establishment in 2002 of the Creative Inner City Initiative (CICI) to give inner city youth the chance to express through the arts, to build the capacity of local artists, and to connect them in the trust that these networks would create a local web of support. This has been successful.

Mathibedi Nthite, one of the Lapeng team who helped launch CICI noticed how many parents at Lapeng had arrived from rural areas and yearned to be able to grow their own food to feed their families. This need was recognised by others and the GreenHouse project was born.

The GreenHouse Project

Claiming land on which to grow crops, repurposing derelict structures- this project , too began with small hands on actions. It was started with the conviction that people once knew how to grow their own food, build their own houses, deal with their own waste. It is based on an holistic approach to environmentally friendly city living.  The aim is to empower people so they know they already have the knowledge they need to survive and thrive. Food is grown which also feeds the day care centre and school, there are learning projects in sustainable building and agriculture, there are compost toilets in the buildings, as well as a recycling centre.

Thriving network of organisations

Now in Joubert park there is a thriving network of organisations, including what we have just named as well as a Youth Empowerment Network, Neighborhood network, a Public Art Project.

It started with the small act of photographers figuring out how to secure their livelihood. As the park became more secure, people’s attention turned toward the children; with day care established, people could focus on the parents; as the parents learned to read and obtain employment, attention shifted toward the youth. And so on. No one planned this process. The professional problem solvers would hardly have recommended that a start up child care centre begin teaching adults mathematics, or that a ragtag band of entrepreneurial photographers become the catalyst for system wide transformation.

Nonetheless, a conversation that began among a few men led to a level of collective engagement that would transform Joubert Park from resignation and despair to hope and possibility.

This is the pattern of systems change: We act locally, inside the intricacies of a place. We achieve success in one area, and then we notice where to pay attention next.


Sorry this is so long, I didn’t want to break it up into parts. This story is such an inspiring example of how to approach a situation, even as dire as this, in terms of possibility rather than problem solving.

My next questions will concern how I/we, in our own comparatively well off lives, can apply the wisdom gained from this story.

Walk Out, Walk On

The book, ‘Walk Out, Walk On, a learning journey into communities daring to live the future now’ (Frieze, Wheatley), documents changes happening in 7 communities around the world. Most of them are located in difficult, even dangerous political, social and economical circumstances, yet each of them has managed to become healthy and resilient without outside aid.

This simple given doesn’t adequately explain the impact this book has had on my life and world view. Deborah Frieze touches on it when she says:

The culture I was raised in taught me to solve problems, pursue success, maximize profit, gain influence, leverage power, and be compensated well for doing so. If I choose to walk out of that world view, what then will guide my actions?…

In her brief summing up, Deborah has pinpointed the place many of us find ourselves in- dissatisfied, not just with a job or a facet of our lives, but questioning the very foundations of our society’s ruling paradigm.

Where do you go if you choose to walk out way from that? Is there even anywhere to go to?

A core tenet of this book is the phrase ‘walking out, walking on’.  (slightly paraphrased):

‘Walk outs’ are people who leave behind situations, jobs, ideas, relationships that constrict them and ‘walk on’ to discover the ideas, people, and practices that lead to new possibilities.

Walking out and on we have two competing roles- the thoughtful attending to what’s dying, known as ‘hospicing’, and the pioneering edge-walking of leaving the dying systems altogether.

Inside dying systems, Walk Outs who walk on are those few leaders who refuse to work from the dominant values that permeate the bureaucracy,…speed, greed, fear, and aggression.

Many people have opted out of the existing society completely, we see their experiments in the book, but I think most of us will dance between the two poles, dealing with the challenges of giving birth to the new in the midst of the old.

Walk Outs sense that more is possible.

I have had that sense for years, haven’t you? That is part of what this blog will be exploring.

I’ve walked out of the paradigm that has annexed art into the consumer system and sublimated its transcendence into a set of marketing principles. I’ve refused to pursue the gift aspect of my art as a career, and have walked out of ‘selling’ and fame being the ultimate goals for my skills and gifts.

What now? How do I create meaning, how do I act, how do I redefine my role as a creator and maker?

This is why WOWO (Walk Out, Walk On) has impacted me so profoundly. It doesn’t just raise questions, but illuminates vigorous, practical solutions- not abstractly or in some new age fairyland community, but rooted in the soils of some of our poorest countries and neighbourhoods.

The quiet heroism and innovation of the individuals in these communities can serve as a model to rethink every aspect of our lives, from how we grow our food to how we teach a course or build a house.

More posts on this thread will follow.

Do check out the site, and if you are interested, buy the book-  the journeys to communities in Mexico, India, South America, South Africa etc,  are beautifully documented, and interspersed with valuable poetic reflection.

Intro to Enlightened Agriculture

I was writing an essay about socially engaged arts when I stumbled into an article about new directions in agriculture. Agriculture!?

Yes, and the main themes struck a chord and made me realise that this impulse towards renewal is present not just in the arts, but in all areas of life. And that the arts are not separate from the food system, and the food system and arts are not separate from healthcare, etc.

In this time where many of us are letting go of old ways of thinking about the arts and our roles as artists, there are countless new initiatives, but as yet no real new framework to step into.

But one thing is becoming clear, to renew the artist’s role we have to expand beyond it.

My sense of where the artist role is going is toward an integrated function within a resilient, sustainable society. And perhaps as well, as visionaries for how that society could look, and multidisciplinary practitioners for bringing that society into being.

Back to the agriculture article (Why we need to re-think the world from first principles -and start with farming  by Colin Tudge, seen in the first issue of the SKGR journal, January 2011), I think we could start anywhere and re-think the world, and we would find the same principles running through every area in need of renewal. Tudge starts with farming.

Agriculture has become  a business.

Instead of having as its goal providing good food for everyone and enriching the Earth as part of this process, the emphasis is on making money, maximising turnover, and doing it fast.

The fact that the Earth’s ecosystems are being destroyed in the process, huge quantities of oil are needed to produce food, the agro-chemicals are causing disease, the industrially produced foods are causing disease, indigenous people are being exploited, etc are not relevant to those in power. Ethical values become compromised or disappear altogether and scientists are paid to do research to uphold this system.

If a researcher, journalist, ecologist, or anyone comes up with suggestions for creating more sustainable solutions, she is sidelined, and ridiculed.

This corruption can be traced, too, to our education system which is locked into the same vicious circle of producing the kind of people to keep the system going rather than creative thinkers who challenge and change it.

continued in part 2