Weaving community–through stories

weaving shuttles and multi-colored yarn in a basket

Last week, I had the privilege of once again participating in a Story Bridge event in Seattle. A very diverse group came together to share and perform our stories as a way of exploring issues facing Seattle’s historic African-American neighborhood, the Central District, now challenged by gentrification.

In an early exercise we each shared a story with a partner, in response to a story prompt to talk about a time when we rose to an occasion in our lives. My partner-in-story was a tall African-American man who offered a poignant story about surviving a health crisis. I offered him my story about moving to New York City, lonely and afraid, only to be mugged during my first week living in Brooklyn.  As I started to share my story, I looked at my partner and wondered if it would be offensive to mention that the assailant who had pointed a gun at my head was a tall African-American man. But my partner, who had lived for years in Harlem, listened with warm attention, and said, “That’s terrible, How did that feel?” And once again, through the magic of Story Bridge, I found myself feeling held and supported, and falling in love with this partner whom I had only met thirty minutes earlier.

What a gift it is to be able to see in the lives of people whose lives have been so different than ours!

When I can’t be participating in a live experience like Story Bridge, another way I learn about people’s lives is by reading memoirs. Unlike an autobiography, a memoir gives us a slice of a life, not the whole pie. A memoir is an author’s attempt to make meaning out of the shards, scraps, and stories of her or his life.

I’ve heard it said that there are too many memoirs being written today–I disagree. That’s like saying there are too many stories! Memoirs offer a way to travel into lives we would never otherwise know.

Here are a few memoirs I’ve read recently

My Life So Far by Jane Fonda

Love her or hate her, Jane Fonda’s has had a lot of influence throughout her seventy-plus years. Who would have known that behind the curtain, she was a very vulnerable woman, born to a father who could only express himself emotionally when he acted. Fonda ended up subordinating herself to men, making some bad decisions, and only beginning to feel like she could really be herself when she turned sixty. This isn’t a “poor me” story, which would have been ridiculous from a woman with such a global presence. Fonda transported me back into memories of my own youth, growing up in the 50’s and then at college during the Vietnam war when social change was exploding everywhere. Fonda, like all of us humans, is complicated: a woman who was a sex-object in some of her films, but also a feminist; a social justice advocate who married and divorced a former radical and then married a multi-millionaire; a bulimic who brought health and fitness to millions of American women. Today, she continues acting but spends much of her time helping young, indigent women in Georgia. She’s definitely not done yet.

Born a Crime  by Trevor Noah

When Trevor Noah took over The Daily Show on TV’s Comedy Central, he began as “Not Jon Stewart” (the famous former host). Reading Noah’s memoir, Born a Crime, I see Trevor Noah now as his own guy and a great choice for the show. In his book, Noah brings humor and history together, offering us a view into South Africa’s stratified society during the apartheid and post-apartheid periods–as seen by someone whose mixed-race status and education insured that he didn’t fit in anywhere. Unlike the satirical books authored by Daily Show alumni Steven Colbert and Jon Stewart that flamed and faded, Noah’s book is built to last: funny, gritty, and worth reading.

Trying to Float: Coming of Age in the Chelsea Hotel by Nicolaia Rips

Who’d think that a high school student could write such a magical tale of growing up in New York City’s famous Chelsea Hotel, home to artists, derelicts, poets, and prostitutes? The setting is fascinating, her writing fresh and engaging. And, as quirky as life in the Chelsea was, Rips spins a story that reminds us of what it was l like to never-quite-fit-in at school and in our pre-adolescent years. I was captivated!

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

How do you take a truly terrible childhood, and bring it to life without trashing the people who should have taken care of you but didn’t? Jeanette Walls does this in The Glass Castle. She begins the book with an opening scene of her, as a successful adult, happening upon her mother dumpster diving in New York City. I was riveted and continued so throughout the book. This book has been already made into a movie–but I wouldn’t want to have missed her heartfelt and gripping prose.

Another way to learn from the power of storytelling is to write about your own life, whether it be in a book, journal, or on the back of napkins. In writing, we learn that stories aren’t static and we can reshape the narratives we grew up with.

Whether it be through live community events like Story Bridge, memoirs we read, or our own writings, we create a rich tapestry of community as our stories are woven together.

Create a world. In six words.

Remember when you were in grade school and you returned from your summer break, knowing that your new teacher would ask you, once again, to write a story called My Summer Vacation.

Why not write a story now that can convey the essence of your summer, in only six words?

You know that images can say so much, and it takes very few words to evoke an image.

But don’t take my word for it, have some fun and try it!

The assignment

Here’s the assignment I give to managers in my class on Leading Through Story: Write a story in six words. It will test your ability to create an image in a few words–and it’s really easy. No poetry or great art required. Hopefully, it can stir the imagination of your readers, regardless of whether they see exactly what you see.

Here are a few six-word stories from my summer:

Buffoon mocks buffoon. Scary. “Rocket man.”

Too much: Drought, Northwest. Floods, Texas.

My book. Moving forward. I hope.

Seattle housing prices rise. Teachers leaving.

Dahlia glows. Hope survives drought.

Mom lives. In hospice. Two years.

Your turn! Have fun. Then,

Please share. Your words. With me.

Here’s to fall!

When “I” Becomes “We:” Letting our stories connect us

I’m looking forward to helping a new friend work on a grant application for his nonprofit. He does critically important work inspiring disadvantaged teenagers to recognize their greatness and stay in school. He uses his own story to show how a bad choice can affect your life forever.

I was moved to help because I heard him share his story. I now carry it in my heart, thanks to an event last weekend that turned thirty “I” stories into “We” Stories.

A diverse, multi-racial, intergenerational group gathered as strangers and friends for a “Story Bridge” event. Within thirty minutes of following the artful facilitation of Richard Geer and Qinghong Wei, we began to become a community.

Tell me about a moment when your life changed

One exercise in particular shifted the space for me.

We paired up and Richard asked the question: “Tell about a moment when your life changed.”

Soon I was sharing a two minute, improvised, unpolished recounting of an episode from my life. While I spoke, my partner listened–deeply.

An instruction was then given to him: “Tell your partner back the story you just heard.” My partner captured its essence as he recounted my story. Even though he missed a few details, I felt truly heard. He then shared his story and I spoke it back to him.

Within this short period of story-sharing, you could sense a new spirit entering the room, one that would buoy us through a long day. I don’t use the word love lightly, but that’s the word I heard as people described their experiences.

Meeting a big challenge

Then Richard gave the group a big assignment: to select eight stories from those that had been told, and arrange them in an order, a narrative arc, so that they could be performed as a play. With an audience arriving at 7 pm, we had to make decisions and start practicing immediately.

The heat was on. I’ve done story-to-stage work before using processes like Tanya Taylor Rubinstein’s Story Healers work. With her process, we used four days to prepare individuals to create a story and read it on stage. Richard and Qinghong gave us little more than four hours.

From I to We

With Tanya’s work, participants performed as individuals. With Story Bridge, the work is about community. While the stories started out as the creations of individuals, once the group negotiated the final selection of pieces, and each of us took on roles, either as actors or musicians, the stories belonged to us all.

Our “I” stories had morphed into a “We” performance. Former gang members, refugees, Native Americans, Mexican-Americans, Caucasians, teenagers and elders stood in front of a small, caring audience at seven o’clock. I didn’t fret that my story wasn’t performed because I was so enmeshed in the stories of others, watching them be woven into my heart.

I’ve never known what it was like to lose a buddy in a drive-by shooting, leave my tribe, or be beat up in high school. Yet my soul heard, under all of the differences, some deeply human commonalities. We had found the magic of community.

I loved Story Bridge. It’s the kind of process that lets “We” emerge in communities with big divides. Even though our event occurred in “blue” Washington State, Story Bridge has strong roots in some of the South’s most disadvantaged small towns. It has helped distressed, rural communities find their pride and get back on their feet.

Richard Geer says that Story Bridge succeeds because it taps a deeply seated human instinct to come together and share, especially in times of crisis.

Qinghong Wei documented some of the elements that make Story Bridge succeed in her doctoral work, noting that it:

  1. opens up a space that is welcoming and safe enough to encourage risk taking;
  2. fosters the collective creation of beauty in a way that also validates individuals;
  3. engages great diversity;
  4. offers participants a big challenge that requires them to pull together.

Richard’s background is in theatre, but experience has taught him that Story Bridge thrives when the direction for a show comes from the community, not from the director.

Experiment for yourself

You can learn more about the theory and practice of Story Bridge by reading Open Circle: Story Arts and the Reinvention of Community and  Story Bridge: From Alienation to Community Action.

As Richard writes, the processes of Story Bridge aren’t proprietary but reflective of what humans do when they band together to support each other. They can be adapted. So why not use story to experiment in your own way:

  • As people who are different from you tell their stories, listen deeply to what has meaning to them.
  • Dare to share your own story with people you don’t know.
  • Create spaces where people feel safe to come together and talk about their experiences.
  • Trust the collective wisdom that can emerge in a group that is diverse yet connected in spirit.
  • Make art, theatre, music, or creative stuff together, as an antidote to the growing, collective discouragement experienced by many today.

And test whether the arts, and story, can help heal our divided world.

I’d love to hear what emerges for you. And, special favor, would you throw some good thoughts and fairy dust on a deserving grant application!!!

Dare to ask a bigger question

Several years ago, when I started to reinvent my business, I faced a sea of unknowns and many questions. I wondered: What was calling to me? How would my passion for story, or performance, fit into my leadership development work? Where would my work be most useful, valued and needed? Would I be marketable at all? What should I do to learn and develop my practice?

Starting out on a voyage of uncertainty and upheaval in my career, I figured that the sooner I could get to the land of answers the better. After all, time was running out! I had just turned turned 60. Surely all the personal growth, prayer, and contemplation I had done, together with my maturity and the earnestness of my quest, would serve to help me find my answers quickly.

I now smile at my hubris.

Because the big questions, the ones worth living into, don’t give up their answers just because we are in a hurry.

Instead I watched the years tick away. Questions didn’t seem to care about my timetable. I received information and answers, but they came at their own pace, not mine. I learned to stay open, curious and wait. (More truthfully, I did the best I could.)

Write out your questions

I have a great new client who’s just entering the discovery phase of her career reinvention process. As she sets out to interview people and check out new options for herself, I suggested that she make a list of the questions she wants to explore.

Listing the questions is a powerful tool, especially when it leads you to the bigger questions, the ones underlying your initial questions.

You may start with “What…?” and “How do I…” questions, and then find yourself discovering new “Why…” questions.

If you want to try this, take a sheet of paper and write forty questions about a subject that is important to you (like your life, your work, your relationships). If forty come easily for you, keep going. One teacher I worked with insisted that I write out a hundred questions. That was a stretch.  As you start to get tired of question writing, keep going. Just when you feel as if your questions are getting repetitive or silly, that lone question that’s going to be really useful could jump out at you.

When you’re done, review your list. What questions have you missed? Which ones inspire you? Which ones make you curious? Those are the questions that can point the way forward.

Permission to ask the big questions

Last week, I was applying to be considered for a cool conference sponsored by author and podcaster Krista TIppett, a champion of big questions. Instead of asking  “Why do you want to go to this conference?” questions, the application asked:

“We live in a moment of uncertainty and change – of vast open questions at the heart of our life together. Rilke spoke of “living the questions.” What questions would you like to pose, hold, and live with others in the period ahead?*

That made me think. And for a moment, while filling out the application, I stepped away from the obsessive, small questions I live with like “which garden bed most drastically needs my attention?” “What’s for dinner?” and “Is there gluten in the salad dressing?” and took a moment to think.

I wrote out a few unapologetically big and maybe uncool-to-chat-about-at-parties questions that I really care about, such as:

  • How do we embrace the pain of the world, and feel the gross inequalities without surrendering to despair?
  • How do we stay connected to what’s happening in the news, including our crazy politics, while staying connected to our own hearts and inner work?
  • How do I acknowledge the benefits I’ve received from being white while reaching out across interracial and intercultural divides?

Fortunately, I was only given 600 characters for my answer, because I could have kept going.

As today’s daily political quagmires are reported through the news, we’re presented with a near constant stream of allegations and disturbing news bites, and it’s hard not to be reactive. (“That’s bad.” “That’s really bad.” Do you realize how really bad that is?”) I feel taunted to come up with quick, easy responses.

But what if we could slow it all down and look for the questions that could take us underneath all the chatter?

What is we started with just one question: “What are the questions we should be asking?”

What’s your big question? I’d love to hear.


Why Some Meetings Fail Before They Begin

If you work in an organization or business, or volunteer regularly in the community, how many hours do you spend weekly in meetings? Count them up and I think you’ll agree, meetings are America’s growth industry! And because of this, improving meetings is the low-hanging fruit for bettering our productivity.

What if we could shift just ten percent of them from gross to great?

Have you ever had the experience of crashing to finish your work, end that telephone call, or put aside something you really wanted to do, in order to rush to a meeting? Then you arrive, watch people straggle in and spend their time waiting, day-dreaming, gazing with false fascination at their cell phones. The meeting leader isn’t even there. And the place feels like a morgue.

That meeting is probably dead before it starts.

We humans are highly adaptable and we shape our expectations based on experience. We learn that the weekly planning meeting for “Project Y” is going to start late (so don’t come on time), its purpose will be cloudy, and conversations will zig this way and that. Or maybe the group will be ramrodded through the agenda like an army platoon marching in lock-step, people will not offer what they really think, and the meeting will end in confusion with no clarity about who is going to do what. We learn to expect the worst and then our low expectations are met!

As I prepare to teach a workshop on facilitation to faculty at a local college, I’ve re-discovered a secret truth: the key to a successful meeting often lies outside the meeting itself. To quote a consulting colleague of mine, who used this phrase as if it were a quote from the Bible, context is king. What he meant is that the set-up of a meeting will determine its success. Elements include having clarity about its intent, knowing how a meeting fits into the organizational landscape, understanding how results will be used, and choosing the right structure.

Here are a few things to think about before you sit down to craft an agenda or launch a meeting:

Why do you need to have this meeting?

Do you need to report out on new developments? If what you’re planning to share can be read, spare me the agony. I can read far more quickly than I can listen. And never read me the treasurer’s report or the secretary’s report, (our garden club used to think this was necessary), unless you have the dramatic flair of a stand-up comic. Nothing deflates meeting momentum like listening to someone read an information document (exceptions allowed).

But it doesn’t have to be like that. A great meeting is a way to build relationships, inspire synergy, increase engagement through participation, learn from a variety of viewpoints, get everyone on the same page, make essential decisions, and even have fun!

What decisions, coming out of the meeting, will make your heart sing?

Or, if not sing, at least beat happily. Be clear on what you need to do or decide, but don’t get greedy. If you try to do too much, and end up having to jam your agenda with decisions to be made every five to ten minutes, (more about that in a future post), I know your meeting’s not likely to work. (If decisions were that easy to make, why aren’t they already made?)

Is there a hidden agenda?

Be honest. Sometimes I’ve entered a group in which there were so many elephants in the room, you could smell the poop. A frank discussion with your planning team or facilitator about the background of experiences people will be bringing to the meeting, and what’s at stake, is critical. Don’t surprise your facilitator (I speak from painful experience).

What format will work best?

Sometimes we get stuck thinking we need to have a 90-minute monthly meeting because we’ve always scheduled a 90-minute meeting. What if the heart of the work could be accomplished in ten minutes? Or maybe a deeper discussion could be better done in a two-day offsite retreat?

Who needs to be there, really?

Don’t sweep the organization inviting everybody, (unless going to a meeting is the core work of your organization), but do make sure that the right people are there. Even if people are “required,” why not treat them as volunteers and make it attractive and alluring to attend? Market your meeting. Enroll people in the benefits. Treat them as if they have choices about what to do with their time (they do), rather than as drones. (Maybe a poor choice of words these days.)

My colleague, visual facilitator extraordinaire Claire Bronson, created a series of fun cartoons we attached to emails in advance of a retreat we were co-directing. Even though participants had already registered, we wanted them to feel jazzed about coming.

Where will you meet?

Typically, you’ll meet close to where participants work, maybe down the hall in the conference room. But that cavern-like dungeon of a meeting room without windows at the back of the building? Not so good. Environment matters. (Look for good light, air, and quiet.)

Occasionally, it may help to go off-site. I worked with a group of executives who went brain-dead when they met in the executive conference room or similar white table-clothed hotel room. They needed to break the routine, be able to walk about, and slump in comfortable chairs. We started meeting in peoples’ homes and at a beautiful retreat site; conversations improved immeasurably leading to a marked difference in the group’s performance.

Do you need a facilitator?

Often not. You, as board chair, program manager, vice president, or volunteer, may be perfectly capable of running a good meeting. But if it’s not your strong suit, it’s OK to ask a member of your team to facilitate the meeting, or bring someone in from outside, so you can be free to participate with the group.

A facilitator can be particularly useful when issues at a meeting are likely to be contentious, stakes are high, and competing factions will be attending. Or sometimes you may want a facilitator to give your off-site a special boost. If you’re unsure whether you need a facilitator, I’m happy to help you think it out.

(Truth in lending, I do this professionally).

What’s next?

The above is just for starters. I haven’t talked about how you plan the meeting, run the meeting, or order muffins. We can talk about this later! Just make sure that your meeting has its best possible chance for success, before it even starts.


A Manifesto for Disruptors and Manifesto-makers

Recently, I had an opportunity to interview two cool, world-class disruptors who are challenging society’s beliefs about aging:

Dr. Bill Thomas, author of Second Wind: Navigating the Passage to a Slower, Deeper, and More Connected Life and leader in the world of innovative, human-centered nursing/eldercare, is a seasoned disruptor. He revolutionized the world of nursing homes when he began bringing in plants and animals for nursing home residents to care for. Then he pioneered care facilities that were structured to feel like families, not institutions. Now he’s challenging baby boomers to rethink how they are approaching elderhood, asking them to leave behind a “achievement-oriented, performance-oriented, outcome-oriented, materialistically-oriented, hyper-caffeinated, hyperactive, vision of adulthood” and choose new values that will allow them to embrace being older.

Ashton Applewhite, author of This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism is another crusader, railing against ageism in its many forms. When we’re ageist, she’s says, we’re really attacking our future selves, (assuming we will have the good fortune to get old). Ashton insists that attitudes about aging make meeting the challenges of elderhood more difficult than they need to be.

Through insight, humor and stories, both authors offer manifestos for change, which sent me down the road of thinking about writing manifestos. (From the Latin manifestum, meaning clear, apparent, evident.) Basically a manifesto is a statement that makes clear what’s important to you, in which you can offer your beliefs, opinions, and intentions. It can be as powerful as the Declaration of Independence, or as simple as what follows:

I offer this for those of us who are interested in creating manifestos that can transform issues and offer new ways of thinking and being.

A Manifesto for Disruptors and Manifesto-makers

Play the long haul. Who wants their life to be a series of one-night stands? (You don’t need to answer!)  In our fast-moving culture, we worship instant success and crave blasts of viral attention, but the truth is that  real change takes time and commitment. My African-American colleague, John Perkins, once reminded me that only entitled people think change has to happen fast. “My people have been working for change for 150 years. We’re not stopping.” So I ask fellow disruptors: are you in it for the duration?

Don’t fly solo. Disruption doesn’t happen in a vacuum. If you think you’re the only one challenging that old conversation about “X,” then 1) “X” may not be so important, or 2) you ain’t looking. Give credit to others. Collaborate. (And if you want to be radical, acknowledge that even your adversaries can teach your something.)

Bold is beautiful. Be willing to stick out and take a strong stand. Who wants a manifesto that whimpers? Give it your boldest voice. At the same time, keep an ounce of humility, knowing that you’re going to be wrong some piece of the time…guaranteed. Life is nuanced. We can’t know everything about an issue or foresee all the eventual consequences of our actions.

Write it out. Despite all the new  media channels available, people still read, whether it’s a book, a manifesto, or the back of a box of Wheaties. Writing makes you think things out and it’s still the most accurately quotable way to share information.

Engage others with a creative dash. Talking heads, abstractions and pontifications are boring. Using creativity, artistry, and imagination helps people care. Maybe you combine your words with graphics. Or add stories. Bill Thomas lectures with a band of musicians, dancers and storytellers, and strums and sings his message when he goes on tour.

Live your manifesto from the inside out. Are you consistent— mostly? (see below). I remember how disappointed I was when the brilliant student radicals who tried to change the world in the 60’s with their Port Huron Statement (manifesto) turned out to be narcissistic and sexist. I don’t need people to be perfect, but I don’t like playing with those who don’t take responsibility for the baggage they carry.

Embrace your contradictions. Who doesn’t have contradictions? Perfection is so passé. I want to change ageism, but I maintain the right to dye my hair. We’re all human, and being transparent about our shortcomings keeps us real. So does laughing at ourselves!

Help us hope. Yes, the sky may be falling and the cumulative catastrophe of today’s politics is pretty discouraging, but disrupters and manifesto-makers need to take us somewhere. Please.

See the change you want to be in the world. (Twisting a popular saying a bit.**) Point out where positive change is happening, however small. And then remember, in your body and heart, that good things are possible, always.

So now I turn back to you because I know you have something worth declaring. You can find a lot of examples of manifestos on-line. And I can’t wait to read what you have to say!

**Interesting factoid. Gandhi did not say “Be the change you want to see in the world.”  His words were even better:

 We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.” – Mahatma Gandhi