What’s next? Everything.

Being in the ‘place between’ stories can get (too?) comfortable.

Place between stories

Place between stories

After several years of discomfort and kicking the constant quest for meaning and recognition via one’s profession, something settled. My life led me gently back to basics, and fulfilment came from simply doing things that came naturally. Walking, gardening, drawing and painting, writing, cooking, tending the home and relationships. That was all going on when I was focused on my work as well, but it was my work which established my rhythms, and now it is the day itself, the earth’s cycles, and my body.

The long periods of deep uninterrupted focus needed to progress on my book resulted in new insights and excitement as previously unrelated areas began to reach out across ideological space and contact each other. The book is also an excavation of sorts, and I am undertsanding better where I’ve arrived and how I got here.

In the meantime, I joined a neighborhood traffic action group and worked with them for 2 years. Our successes led to the town council wanting to work with us, and now several of us are involved with plans to take what we’ve learned to other villages. Added to our weekly meetings are also planning meetings with the municipality.

Then one of the people I was working with on that project is involved in a regional version of Let’s Gro, an alternative festival held in Groningen. I went to the first meeting for ‘Let’s Win'(short for Winsum, a largish town close by) and suddenly found myself in a group where for once, I wasn’t the only one interested in transition, and alternative forms of art and community building. It was just amazing, inspiring, and the dynamic of the meeting captured my imagination, highlighted my research on my book, and also let me see what my contribution could be as far as facilitating more creative approaches in a number of areas.

So, oops, I have another project to be committed to. All of a sudden, I can’t just take off on my Pieterpad walks, but have to schedule them between ….meetings! My life is suddenly full of meetings! And more responsibility! Is this truly the direction I wanted to move in?

One aspect of the place between is that while you are waiting for what’s next, the possibilities seem endless. I guess one reluctance is that when things start to take form again, I have to make choices, and all of a sudden things get narrowed down again.

So I’m thinking about these things now. It seems that this social engagement is a natural outgrowth of having pulled back out of society for several years. I now feel called to share some of the things that have become clear. And I definitely want to collaborate. So these needs are being filled by the path my life is taking at present. But I am reluctant to let go of the long easy (well,not always) days of doing what I want when I want, and having time to really listen and reflect.


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.