Did you know that there are more women holding elected office in Afghanistan than there are in Canada? The Canadian Women Voter’s Congress has worked long and hard to ensure women in Canada have the skills and confidence to actively participate in democracy. They offer longest-running non-partisan Women’s Campaign School in Canada. They’re currently seeking nominations for its Board of Directors; the deadline is May 26, 2013. It’s a fantastic leadership opportunity. Click here for more information.
I just got off the phone with one of my coalition clients, as we committed to planning our next meeting together well in advance. There is nothing like well-organized face-to-face meetings for collaborating, bonding and pooling a group’s collective brain-trust and creativity. But as we all know, meetings can have a Dark Side. If done poorly, meetings can suck a group’s life force; I swear they can! And they can squander money. Consider a two-day meeting of 15 non-profit members, each receiving a salary equivalent of about $25/hour. It costs a whopping $6,000 for their time, and that’s before even considering food, travel costs, facilitation fees and venue rental.
Solid preparation is one of the keys to ensuring that that $6,000 of face-time is invested well. That means doing as much pre-thinking about the meeting overall, and specific topics within it, as possible. Anything that could just as easily be addressed via email, should be.
Obviously a well-designed agenda is the first step to making the most of valuable face-time. For larger group meetings, when there isn’t time or budget to contact each participant individually, I often use an on-line survey, like SurveyMonkey, to get a sense of agenda priorities across the whole group.
And I always have the client group do a quick “P.O.P.”, clarifying the Purpose, desired Outcome and best Process, both for the overall meeting, and for each agenda topic.
Another key tool I’ve been working with for several coalition clients is the classic Briefing Note. If you do government relations, the concept will be familiar: it’s a tightly-written 1-2 page document aimed at bringing extremely busy decision-makers up to speed on an issue quickly. A briefing note typically includes key background facts, analysis, options – with well-considered risks and benefits for each – and recommendations. A decent template for writing government-focus briefing notes – for example, the format a Ministerial Assistant might use when informing a Cabinet Minister about essential elements and possible responses to an issue – can be found here; just check one of the “background” buttons to download a sample.
Briefing notes are also useful for extremely busy non-profit or coalition members. When well-crafted briefing notes are circulated (and of course, read) in advance, they allow groups to skip past the preliminaries or simple updates – which can easily be done via email – so they can dive right to the heart of a meaty agenda topic fairly quickly.
The concept is pretty straightforward, but here are a couple of structures that I’ve seen work well for teams and coalitions:
1. Briefing notes for decision
Topic: include the topic, date, authors’ name
Purpose: “For Decision” (ie the group will need to consider the issues raised in the note, in addition to others that may arise, then make a decision about how to proceed)
Background: (include a summary of key facts, including main actors, major events/activities to date, analysis, public opinion data, highlights of media coverage and framing to date, etc)
Options: 2-5 possible courses of action, including a brief assessment of the pros and cons for each.
Recommendation: proposed course of action, and the rationale
2. Briefing notes for information/updates
Topic: include the topic, date, authors’ name
Purpose: “For Information”
Background: include a summary of key facts, new/emerging trends, new analysis, etc
Activities: clarify key activities to date as they relate to the overall strategy
Results: clarify the outcomes and results to date based on the activities
Outstanding questions: here’s where the group can get important ‘heads-up’ about unclear issues
Next steps: note upcoming decision points, key actions/events others may need to be aware of
Briefing notes can be used for other purposes as well. I’ve worked with groups that use them to prepare their colleagues for a brainstorm or idea-generating session: sometimes a smaller team just really needs a larger pool of creative thinkers to ensure they have a robust pool of ideas and strategies. Then those ideas can later be explored and tested outside of the meeting. These kinds of creative sessions can be really invigorating for a team, too – a stimulating shift from more business-like or process-focused topics.
I’ve also seen briefing notes used to shape the way a group provides face-to-face feedback on a key strategy or funding proposal. This can be helpful when real dialogue is needed, so that trade-offs can be explored in more depth. Circulating a proposal to a series of individuals via email or googledocs just won’t allow for that kind of synergistic, collective reflection and discussion.
Well-crafted briefing notes require a fair bit of work and discipline on the part of the presenter. They also require discipline on the part of participants – who need to commit to reading them in advance. But over and over I’ve seen individual and collective thinking sharpened considerably with this kind of pre-work, allowing groups to do what they do best – think creatively, dig deep, explore trade-offs and shared values, and find collective solutions to complex problems.
What does it mean to be a white facilitator wanting to actively support racial justice, and what Martin Luther King described as “Beloved Community”? And specifically, how might that intention be reflected in the subtle use of language when facilitating or training? Looking back on two recent experiences as a facilitator working with diverse social justice participants in the U.S., this question has me flummoxed. Let me share two stories (actually, two stories-within-stories).
Tale of the Bus-Stop Crack Addict
Last February I was in the hills of California co-facilitating a leadership training with an incredibly inspiring multi-racial group of participants. We were teaching a skill called ‘meshing’ to help leaders stay centered and resourceful in the face of aggression or hostility from others. To illustrate, I described an early evening last summer in Vancouver, when my two boys and I were waiting at a bus stop in the downtown east side – one of the lowest-income neighbourhoods in Canada. A young, powerfully-built man walked up and started hassling my teenaged step-son. The man was high, red-eyed, agitated and extremely aggressive, jerkily swinging his fists as though he were about to strike. Like many of our street homeless, he was probably mentally ill. I stepped up between them, actively ‘meshing’, grounding my energy and started calmly talking with him while the boys watched nervously. By the time our bus arrived, he’d calmed right down. As we stepped aboard, he clutched my shoulder and said in an almost pleading voice, “I’m not such a bad guy you know.”
Later on, a Vanessa*, a brilliant young African-American participant, shared that while the story was a good illustration of meshing, it also reinforced the stereotype of black men as violent and drug-addicted.
I was startled. Not for one second did it occur to me to mention his race. And, as I’d recounted the tale, I saw the man’s white face, curly reddish hair and blue eyes ringed with red as vividly in my mind’s eye as if he’d been standing right in front of me. To the extent I thought of it at all, I implicitly assumed that everyone saw the same thing.
Was I being naïve? Obtuse? ‘Colour-blind’? Well, in a way, yes. I was unaware of what author Drew Weston describes as the unconscious ‘networks of associations’ the story may have triggered for the participants. In Vancouver’s Downtown East Side, a neighbourhood I’d worked on the edge of for 12 years, the vast majority of street homeless and drug-addicted people are white or aboriginal. As a Western Canadian, I simply have not been inundated with the kind of relentless media portrayal of black men as violent criminals that Americans are subjected to every day. As a result, I don’t automatically picture black men when I hear stories about street crime. I picture white men.
My take-away from Vanessa’s feedback? Don’t risk leaving my participants to ‘fill in the blanks’ with their own racial stereotypes or unconscious networks of associations. Recognize that, as another African-American woman noted in a training this past weekend, “it’s always in the room. Race is always the first thing people notice.” So name it – use a quick adverb: “white”, “black” (especially in Canada), “African-American”, “woman of colour”, and so on. In the last few months, mindful of this lesson, I’ve started doing exactly this, usually as a quick aside in the process of sharing longer stories. As part of this effort, I try to interrupt the often unconscious assumption that ‘whiteness’ is normal (and everything else is exotic).
Tale of Two Hunky Candidates
But wait – is this always the way to go? Consider Story Number Two. This past weekend I was facilitating a fantastic group of multi-racial, progressive political and policy leaders in Philadelphia. At one point we were talking about the classic “message box” used in most political campaigns to clarify the central message and differentiate between two candidates. I was recounting an electoral race I’d been involved in where the two candidates were seen by the media as being virtually identical in several ways. “They both rode their bikes everywhere and advocated for sustainable transportation,” I explained. “They were both successful business leaders, middle-upper class, and both were athletic, environmentally progressive, white and good-looking.”
Afterward, Joan*, one of the participants asked if we could speak privately in a break. “Suzanne,” she said, “I’m curious. Why did you mention their race at all? And why did you describe them as ‘good-looking whites’?” There was a lot to unpack in those two simple questions, as we discovered. First, from her perspective – and she was a white woman married to an African-American – it was klunky and unnecessary of me to mention that they were white at all. Secondly, she felt I was playing into racial bias by implying that white men were generally better-looking. Whoah! How did I imply that? Who even thinks that? Again, I found myself blind to the automatic assumptions or networks of associations of at least some of my participants might have.
Once gain, I found myself back squarely in the “flummoxed” box.
After I’d explained the crack-addict story that had led me to start noting race, Joan suggested that next time I might consider separating adjectives like “white” and “good-looking” in time and space – maybe slip another adjective in between them – to ensure the people don’t fill-in-the-associations. It’s another idea I’ll add to my growing ‘language toolbox’ when it feels appropriate.
But is the ‘answer’ clear to me? Not at all. It’s an ongoing dance between being skillful on all the levels any facilitator has to track (agenda, timing, participation, group energy levels) while also being mindful of the subtleties of language and other dynamics connected to racism and privilege. There is often no “right” answer in how to frame issues or use language. But that’s the work, isn’t it? As a facilitator, my goal is to help provide the most supportive, safe space possible for participants to learn and collaborate. As a woman committed to social justice, I see my job as being awake to the dynamics of power and privilege – to be an effective ally in the collective journey toward beloved community. And I am so damned lucky to be surrounded by generous participants like Vanessa and Joan, and so many of my fellow facilitators and trainers, as I stumble along that path.
(* not their real names)
Training the next generation of progressive political leaders is the focus of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Progressive Leadership. Their particular focus is on under-represented candidates and leaders, including women, people of colour, and GBLTQ folks, in 5 key US states. I’m thrilled to be on the team of trainers for CPL’s upcoming training in Philadelphia this weekend (April 10-11, 2010), focusing on message development, story-telling, public speaking and mainstream media tools.
Training the next generation of progressive political leaders is the focus of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Progressive Leadership. Their particular focus is on under-represented candidates and leaders, including women, people of colour, and GBLTQ folks, in 5 key US states. I’m thrilled to be on the team of trainers for CPL’s upcoming training in Philadelphia this weekend (April 10-11, 2010), focusing on message development, story-telling, public speaking and mainstream media tools. This will be my first training with CPL, and the second of five intensive weekend retreats for their 54 participants, as part of a year-long fellowship for leaders in Pennsylvania. Philadelphia, friends tell me, is “the quintessential American city” – diverse, blue-collar, crammed with classic diners and home to the Liberty Bell. I haven’t seen much yet – the training starts tomorrow – but I CAN say Philly has fantastic restaurants, tons of snappy energy and the CPL team is really, really smart. It’s intoxicating to be hanging out with people who regularly refer to “message boxes” and “progressive narratives” in the same breath!
How does social change “happen”? And what can social change leaders and groups do to help it happen? Before getting into the philosophy or techniques for movement-building, or for ‘accelerating’ or influencing social change, I’ve found it helpful to unpack the basics. So I’ll start with what, to me, is the seminal and still-useful model for how social change takes place.
Back in the early 1960s, Everett Roger and his academic pals developed the “Social Diffusion Theory”, outlined in the book Diffusion of Innovations. Picture a basic bell-curve: The model describes the trajectory of new idea or technology as it spreads through a community. First, the idea is taken up by “innovators” – a small group educated risk-takers. From there it spreads to a larger group of popular, socially influential “early adapters,” followed by the socially-connected “early majority”. The idea continues to spread through the community, through to the more skeptical, traditional low-income “late majority”, and finally to the cautious and less-connected are “laggards”. Awareness has a role – but “just give the people the info” doesn’t do it on its own.
At the personal level, Rogers’s theory outlines five steps: Knowledge (just becoming aware of the issue); Persuasion (‘coming to judgment,’ as Daniel Yankelovich would describe it), Decision, Implementation, and finally Confirmation. Other factors are interest, evaluation, trial and finally, adoption. These last five stages more or less correspond to the seven-staged model outlined by the “dean” of public engagement, Daniel Yankelovich, in his seminal book Coming to Judgment. When about 15% of the community’s population has taken up the idea, then it has reached its so-called “tipping point, ” as Malcolm Gladwell describes in his book of the same name. Continue reading “The Trajectory of Social Change”