Wow – a chance to work with 4 key mentors in the dynamic field of community building, how could I say no. So off I went to Cincinnati April 24-26 and had three days of learning and conversation with Peter Block, John McKnight, Angeles Arrien, Harrison Owen, and 150 community builders. Peter Block is a master and focuses on possibility conversations – we began the gathering with Peter asking us to discuss in small groups – “Why is it important for you to be here?”
Peter Block was the host, as he lives in Cincinnati, and we used his process of hearing some provocation from one of the mentor/elders and then we would break into groups of 3 with a focus question provided by Peter and would work at understanding the ideas together and translating them to our community. We were urged to not to try to be helpful, instead we were guided to listen to the others, be curious and allow them to wrestle with the dilemmas they were faced with and resist giving advice. We used this small group approach to making sense many times during the day. Peter has a great book – Community, the structure of belonging that outlines this process.
Angeles Arrien hurt her ankle and wasn’t able to travel so she joined us by phone and told the story of Pandora’s Box. She told us that while this is a well-known story, the versions we usually hear miss out on a key idea – that there was something left at the bottom of the box – in Asian cultures it is compassion, in western cultures it is hope and in aboriginal cultures it is truth. She asked us how are compassion, hope and truth showing up in our relationships?
Walter Brueggemann, an old testament scholar talked about the Israelites plight in Egypt and how they became slaves to the pharaoh. This was a long story with a purposefully crafted metaphor for how power emerges in today’s business, political, and community spheres. He summarized by saying that the story is about departure (going into the wilderness), disruption, and de-legitimizing the system. And bingo from the small group discussion a disruption emerged. This was interesting as we had been urged to look at disruption as necessary, as a vital force in change, and perhaps the only way to shift dominant culture power over community.
The disruption was an objection to us as a group being asked/required to listen to a bunch of “old white guys”. The person asked where were the people of colour, the women, etc.
For the rest of the day we processed this. The elders suggested we have small group discussion right away to start the processing and then throughout the day it was a topic for most of the informal conversations that occurred. At supper that night with four others I discussed this and the sense that emerged for me was this:
- the pattern of the pharaoh is strong and we repeat it constantly – even in community building gatherings
- we need to learn more about how to balance elders wisdom and fresh learning from emerging leaders and players
- my pharaoh is alive and well and I want to understand how and where it emerges and make conscious choices about how I lead
- disruption is uncomfortable but incredibly helpful – especially when it can be upfront, acknowledged and processed
- it is very difficult as a privileged person to understand the weight of oppression
I gained so much from this disruption and from the whole event. I loved how it went slow and respected a more human pace so that we really could connect. I learned from the elders and even more important for me was what I learned from the sense-making conversations. I made some key connections with people that I have been following up on since the conference and that processing (with the reflection time in between) has been invaluable as I try to understand the complexity of my relationship to the pharaoh metaphor.
Key for me was to see Peter using questions to help us do our work. He says that questions need to be:
- sufficiently ambiguous
- deeply personal
- provoking anxiety
I have learned this in my work on school board and other arenas. When you use this approach people give up positions and simple answers and engage in a way that goes deeper and broader and it honours the complexity of the situation and the gifts of the group to address the challenge/opportunity in front of them.
I also had two wonderful evening experiences – one was to go visit Nick Nissely and his family – Nick was the Executive Director at Leadership Development at the Banff Centre where I facilitate – the other was looking at the full moon from the balcony of my hotel and having Quanita Munday suggest I follow an old ritual of making a wish to the full moon – I did and my wish to feel the warmth of connection came true over these days.
While on a walk around downtown Cincinnati I came across the Underground Railway Museum and this amazing quote in the walkway: