Saturday, June 28, 2014

Where's the Puck Going?

This past week I attended a nonconference hosted by the Tamarack Institute for Community Encouragement (Kitchener ON) entitled "Community: Programs and Policies." (Actually, it looked a great deal like a conference, but the organizers wanted very much for us participants to consider it a series of conversations, and not at all stuffy like a conference—which goal they largely achieved.)

In the opening plenary. Al Etmanski interviewed John McKnight (known broadly for his articulation of the theory and practice of Asset-Based Community Development). Toward the end, Al wanted to know what was ahead for John as a visionary about community organizing. As Al lives in Vancouver BC and this event was happening on Canadian soil, he phrased his query: "John, where's the puck going?" Always one to enjoy a good sports metaphor, I smiled at this colorful framing in the land where ice hockey is king.

At the front end of the event, keynote speakers McKnight and Peter Block (who joined us via webinar from Cincinnati) drummed home the message that neighborhood assets and community capacity are abundant—despite a general sense of diminishment and paucity in those arenas. The overwhelming majority of care is given not by government agencies or well-intended nonprofits, but by volunteers (93% apparently, though I have no idea how that was measured), and for those of us who want more community in our lives (is there anyone who doesn’t?) it is mainly a matter of harnessing what we already have available all around us, rather than lamenting that we don’t have more.

As you might imagine (at least I wasn’t surprised) there was an accompanying theme of engaging on all fronts—bringing policy makers, implementers, and clients to the table to make common cause. While there were some encouraging stories from places where this has been happening, by and large decisions affecting communities are made without the active involvement of all constituencies, and many people in the room were reporting fatigue and overwhelm.

Hmm. Asking overworked people to be sufficiently pumped up to go home and do more seemed uphill. In contemplating where this particular puck was going, I became interested in two leverage points, both of which I want to explore.

I. Moral Oxygen
In his closing remarks Etmanski named a handful of key concepts to hold in view as we move forward, and the one that grabbed me most he labeled "moral oxygen," by which Al meant making sure that we, as caregivers and community builders, take time for renewal and support. Given that the need is bottomless, it's not unusual to allow our giving to get out of balance with our receiving, to the point where we're running on empty.

Not only is it not much fun (both for ourselves and those around us), but it markedly undercuts our effectiveness. Truly, less can be more. And while I'm all in favor of canoe trips in the North Woods for refilling spiritual reservoirs, or reading Margaret Atwood or Robertson Davies after dinner instead of another report, I want to take this in another direction.

Community is not a spectator sport. It is something you do with others; not for them. In that regard, participants at the Tamarack event were challenged to consider how they can be part of the communities they're hoping to foster—to think of themselves as members of the family, and not just as midwives. 

While on the surface this may seem to be yet another claim on everyone's (oversubscribed) time, there's magic that can happen here. Being a member of what Tamarack Director Paul Born might style "deep community" (in contrast with shallow or fear-based community) participants can get support and sustenance even as they give it. Thus, if service providers are willing to be vulnerable and more heart-connected with their constituencies there is the prospect of being renewed in the giving, rather than having that be something accomplished only on the weekends or during holiday.

I'm hopeful that many of the good people who were touched in their hearts during the time we were together will take away the insight that this kind of connection can happen through their work—and not just at annual nonconferences in Kitchener. You can't just gulp moral oxygen once a year and expect it to sustain you for months at a time without regular replenishment, and I think the most exciting strategy is figuring out how to find oxygen in the work, rather than around the edges.

II. Harmonizing a Cappella
My second point of leverage comes from contemplating the moment when you have everyone in the room for the first time—especially when there are people present who do not ordinarily talk with one another. It seems to me prudent to anticipate that at least some of the time (if not most) the various voices will not all be singing from the same hymnal. Then what?

If the music is sour, or too off-key, people will not be inclined to come back for more. So it's important that those initial all-skate sessions go well. In the course of our four days together, there was little attention given to how to do that, or the primacy of this initial conversation going well. 

To be fair, there was one workshop on The Circle Way, that explored the power of sharing circles designed to enter heart space. This is a format that tends to be heavy on ritual and proceeds at a deliberate pace. And there was another session in memory of Angeles Arrien and her work with the Four-Fold Way (an introduction to the archetypes of warrior, healer, visionary, and teacher). These offerings are directly relevant to the question of moral oxygen, yet there was nothing focused on consensus, facilitation, conflict, or power dynamics. Were all of these so well understood among participants that no attention was needed?

Maybe. But I doubt it. In particular, I foresee three primary challenges, none of which I consider trivial. I want to explore these by walking through the hypothetical example of a rundown low-income urban neighborhood, where all parties have come together for an initial conversation about how to strengthen the community. For the sake of simplicity, let's say there are four main stakeholders: municipal government, nonprofit social service agencies, local churches, and neighborhood residents. (I know I'm oversimplifying, but it's enough complexity to illuminate my points.)

—Culture Clash

Culture can be viewed through many lenses, including racial, ethnic, national, class, and meeting. While any of these may be in play, I want to focus mainly on organizational culture—the ways in which service agencies see things differently than city hall, which sees things differently than the local churches, which is different again from the people who actually live in the neighborhood. It's not enough that everyone is in favor of strengthening the sense of community in the neighborhood. Each may be holding a different part of the same community elephant.

Agencies may be looking for a lower incidence of unwed mothers or a decrease in people receiving welfare. The municipal government may want less violent crime or fewer drug-related deaths. The churches may be aiming for higher attendance at Sunday services, or more households willing to temporarily place refugees. Residents may want a heated, well-insulated meeting space, or lighting at their playgrounds.

Each of the stakeholders comes to the table with a somewhat different agenda and is beholden to somewhat different constituencies. While these disparate goals are not mutually exclusive—no one is "wrong"—it's not obvious that the conversation won't devolve into squabbling over limited resources.


In most situations like this, the neighborhood residents will be inured to being told what they need—rather than asked their opinion and actually listened to. That is, they'll have already had a lifetime of experiences where they weren't asked what they wanted, or else weren't listened to (perhaps because the decision had already been made and the public hearing was just window dressing).

Understandably, this leads to deep discouragement about public process and cynicism about "meetings among all stakeholders." As the rep of one of those other stakeholders, it can be hard having your well-intended offer spurned and not even being given a chance to show that this time might be different. While it's not fair to judge you for the sins of those who preceded you, there's truth to the adage: fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.

At the outset residents are likely to be suspicious of outsiders' motives, so the current will be moving against you as soon as you put your canoe in the water. Better have your paddle out.

—Cooperation Versus Competition

Ostensibly, meetings of all stakeholders are attempts at being cooperative. But are they?

It is not enough that you intend to be cooperative. You have to understand that achieving that requires a culture shift, and unlearning deep conditioning in a competitive, hierarchic, and adversarial world. The key moment comes when someone presents a viewpoint that appears antithetical to yours and the stakes are high. Do you respond with curiosity or combativeness? Are you open to having your mind changed (based on an expanded understanding of what's going on) or do you want to win?

In general, this is where skilled facilitators earn their fees—gently, yet firmly reminding people of the way they intended to be and providing graceful, face-saving ways for belligerents to back out of dead-end confrontations.

• • •
In fact, it's my sense that skilled facilitation may be needed to manage all three of the pitfalls I've outlined above. In the dynamic moment, you need the ability to reach out and show everyone that they are not just genuinely welcome at the table, but that they are seen accurately, not judged, and that no decisions will be made unless everyone signs off on them. You need to create a container in which people not only say their truth, but that they feel fully heard (note that I'm not promising that they'll get their way or that others will agree with their thinking), and that it's worth their while to make this attempt. If the first meeting goes well, the second one will be much easier.

Hmm. You might be wondering if these objectives can be managed by The Circle Way or Four-Fold Way, both of which encourage deep sharing and reflection. My experience is that they can help, but they will not work in all situations. Think back to the point about culture clashes. Slowing down and speaking deliberately can drive some people crazy, and what is meant as an even-handed circle that is open to all, will be perceived by others as a noose—choking off spontaneity, passion, and natural rhythm. Meetings should never be one size fits all, and it's incumbent upon the facilitation team to think through formats that will invite and bridge. It's OK to ask participants to stretch, but it won't work well if you're asking only some participants to stretch while others are left in their comfort zone.

What the Puck?
I admit that that's a lot to accomplish in an initial meeting, yet the good news is that it's possible. And when you think about it, can we afford to aim for anything less?

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