There are several reasons why an institution might decide to invest in professional development trainings on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Some organizations are motivated by a mandate from a funder, for others it’s precipitated by an internal call from staff who want to create a more inclusive culture. Hopefully, you haven’t hit a crisis point triggered by a failure of leadership to interrupt oppressive behavior in the workplace.
At Create Forward we specialize in designing gatherings and training the facilitators of those gatherings. We believe that every major change that we seek to create in our communities, our institutions, and in the nation begins with a gathering of concerned people. We’re constantly thinking of ways to make those gatherings more generative containers for discovering shared values, solutions to problems, and collective visions for a more equitable future.
“We have 50 Billionaires”, my Uber driver Han proclaimed as we drove along the beautiful mountainous winding road from Snowmass to Aspen. The affluence of Aspen is the first thing you notice. Rich people do stake out the best views and Aspen is beautiful. It’s also 8000 feet above sea level and the altitude felt like a boulder pressed across my chest. I spent much of the first day both in awe of the beauty of the place while taking gulping breaths and reminding myself that I was not having a panic attack. My arrival in Aspen was overwhelming. It felt a little like an extreme sport and I wondered if I was up for it, but I didn’t come all this way not to try. Then, as I was walking through the Aspen Institute campus, looking like a rapidly welting flower, another Black woman made eye contact, smiled, stopped to say hello. In seconds, she became my impromptu orientation advisor: “Yes, it can be overwhelming at first…” She went on to tell me that she keeps coming back because as a leader she owes it to herself to be in rooms where she is challenged to think outside the box. Ok, I can totally get into that.
Over the next three days, I am provoked, inspired, humbled, baffled, frustrated, challenged, and activated. I am asked to share my story or why I do what I do more times than I can count. I told the story of founding my company, Create Forward, three years ago. Proudly shared what we have accomplished in the world to date. But I’ve also been pushed to consider just how much greater the impact could be if I thought about our work in different ways. I’ve gained fresh perspectives from people I would never consider contacting if I just saw their LinkedIn profile. But more than anything I left Aspen Ideas Fest with new questions and a commitment to stay on the edge of my own knowing, where I can’t be lulled into the safe complacent place of surrounding myself with people who confirm what I already believe to be true. There are few ideas I packed up and carried with me as I left Aspen to lower altitudes. As a facilitator and experience designer, these are concepts I want to continue to explore in my work.
There is an art to the invitation. In his conversation with Erick Liu, Damian Woetzel talked about the importance of the invitation. He describes the ways his first invitation into Aspen Institute changed his life. An invitation can take so many forms. In fact, getting to the festival was a series of invitations, starting with my friend Marine Biologist Extraordinaire, Ayana Johnson recommending me for the Aspen Ideas Scholars program where I joined 300 leaders from around the world. Once I arrived, the invitations kept coming in big and small ways. I wandered into a cocktail party at the PayPal tent. I was standing outside a circle of very impressive people. Before I could turn and find a less intimidating opening around the room someone turned out and said, “come, join us.” On the walkways along campus, at the cocktail parties, and standing around after sessions, conversations happened easily. Each time I was met with genuine interest and appreciation for what I brought into the world. Each invitation has led to new connections, relationships, people who only in just meeting me became very determined to see me succeed.
A little bewilderment is a good thing. There were over 300 hundred sessions at Aspen Ideas Fest and then lots of tents with spaces to talk, think, meet, write, eat, and nap. Yes, it can be overwhelming and confusing navigating so many options but there are no bad choices here. The entire festival is a lesson in the iterative nature of meaning-making. Ideas collide from one session to the next forging new understandings and awakening dormant creative knowings. The session you attended at 9am will surely take on a whole new meaning the next day after you’ve attended a session with different presenters exploring a completely different topic.
Be challenged, it’s exactly what you need. “Know your own mind, but don’t define your own reality”, said David Milibrand, President of the International Rescue Committee. He went on to explain the way to avoid defining your own reality is to engage with people who are not like you, who you may not agree with. Aspen Ideas Fest is a place to do just that. The people on the stage don’t have all the answers and that really isn’t the point of them being there. In engaging with their ideas and perspectives you gain something much more generative, new questions to explore.
The day after I returned from Aspen I was in a classroom inside of a maximum-security prison with the twelve incarcerated men I teach in an accredited college program. I teach a course on public speaking. As I was discussing the importance of engaging with counter arguments I shared the quote from David Milibrand that was imprinted on my brain, “Know your own mind, but don’t define your own reality.” We puzzled over this idea together in a classroom inside a prison in upstate New York. It truly is amazing where ideas can travel: from a beautiful mountainous terrain, home to a prestigious think tank, to a maximum-security prison with men preparing for their return to society, and it all begins with an invitation.
This Criminal Justice Reformer's Secrets to Tough Conversations
Piper Anderson is no stranger to difficult conversations. As an educator and cultural organizer, she’s spent over 17 years facilitating discussions about some of the most hot-button issues facing U.S. society. In 2016, for example, she gave a TED talk about Mass Story Lab, her storytelling series focused on how the U.S. criminal justice system impacts communities of color. “Yes, I’m the person who brings mass incarceration into polite dinner conversation,” she quipped.
This is the first of four-part blog series about Leading In Times of Disruption. Sign-up for our newsletter to get future posts in the series.
We’re living in a time great disruption and communities everywhere are bracing themselves against the rapidly shifting tides of political and social change. More than ever, the world needs less talking heads and more skilled facilitators capable of creating dynamic spaces for dialogue, connection, mutual understanding, and problem-solving. So how do we resist the urge to claim ownership of “the truth” and instead learn to hold complexity? We need to become Empathic Facilitators.
An Empathic Facilitator possesses three qualities that make them uniquely suited for leadership in a time of disruption.
1. They listen to understand and be changed. The author and spiritual teacher Mark Nepo says "To listen is to lean, softly, with a willingness to be changed by what we hear.” So much of what we thought we knew about each other is proving to be incomplete. I’ve spent more than 16 years facilitating groups in a range of settings. Some days it looked like leading writing workshops inside a prison and other days facilitating conversation about the history of racial segregation in the U.S at a community theatre in rural, predominately white, Michigan. What I’ve discovered is every time I set aside my own agenda and listen to the people in the room I am changed. When I’m curious about who they are and what they believe in I can be in the moment and intentionally responsive to the group. When people see this in a facilitator they soften, they open up to dialogue, they are less resistant, worried that you are there to indoctrinate them into your belief system.
2. Adaptation Reigns Supreme: Which leads me to the second quality of an empathic facilitator. They are adaptive. I love facilitating. I think I love the planning of my curricula for a group session even more. I love to think through how I scaffold an experience step by step until completion. I want to create a process that is transformative and revelatory for the group. Yet, I also know that despite all the planning, when I get into the room I have to hold that agenda ever so lightly and be ready to pivot if that is what the room is calling for. Being an empathic facilitator means being attuned to the room through curiosity and deep listening and then adapting to meet them where they are and sometimes adaption meanings throwing out the agenda you’ve so carefully planned.
3. Conflict is Generative: The one constant in life and work that we are not trained to deal with is conflict. We avoid it. We snuff it out when it begins to rise up in the room. We pretend to address it by appeasing the parties in conflict and most importantly we are taught that it is a sign of failure. That if we don’t play nice with each other and agree it means the whole experiment that is social interaction has failed. But for an empathic facilitator, and for anyone invested in transformative change, conflict should be regarded as really good news. Because conflict is generative. There is no change without it. The empathic facilitator doesn’t resist the collective contraction of the room when conflict arises -- they breathe into it. They become more porous and accessible, they model for the group the way to lean in, become curious, ask the hard questions, and stay in the process even when it feels most difficult. They read the room to discover where are the points of connection and shared values that can serve as an anchor as we move through this difficult part of the process. Now that doesn’t mean that it gets solved in that moment. It doesn’t mean that people walk away every time feeling a cathartic release because the tensions have relaxed and “whew! We got through it”. But maybe that’s not the goal. Maybe what this collective moment is calling for is more people capable of holding without destroying, more than one truth, more than one belief, more than one idea of what the world should be. Wow. How amazing would that be?
Well, my fellow changemakers it's difficult but rewarding work if you're the adventurous type. I hope you are. The world needs you.
If you want to continue building the skills to lead transformative change than join us in NYC Oct 27-28th for The Empathic Facilitator.
Do you remember your first internship experience? What was it like? Did it suck? Was it one of those grueling rites of passage that you finished not because you believed you’d learn something but because otherwise, you’d enter the workforce with a page full of summer fast food gigs and high school community service credits?
At Create Forward, we don’t think internships should suck. We’re more than capable of getting our own coffee and usually like to do lunch communal style. As a company committed to advancing equity and justice, exploiting the labor of college students while they take on student loan debt just to pay for the credits they get for working for us, is the kind of contradiction of values we try to avoid. Furthermore, we want to nurture young people of color who often don’t have the family financial cushion to spend a semester working for free.
Two years ago, when I first launched our internship program, I didn’t know where to begin. I put together an internship description and just sent out to various schools and networks hoping to find someone. No one applied and I couldn’t figure out why. Then a friend and fellow entrepreneur, Nia Austin-Edwards of Purpose Productions, offered some really good advice. She told me, interns want to feel like their time and effort is valued. There are lots of ways to create that sense of value you just have to use what you’ve got.
I’m not saying that our internship program is perfect. In an ideal world, we’d be able to pay our interns, compensating them their time or at least cover their transportation costs. One day we will have the resources to do that but right now we’re a small start-up and it’s just not feasible. But that doesn’t mean that an internship can’t come with other creative benefits.
So here are some ways to create an internship experience that creates value for the intrepid humans who think interning with a startup sounds like just the right kind of adventure.
Three ways to add value to your start-up’s internship program:
Extend Their Network:
Host a “lunch and learn” once or twice a month where you invite the awesome people you know to come in and share their expertise with your whole team.
If “lunch and learns” aren’t practical (like, say, because you don’t have an office) then find out who in your network they’d like to connect with a set-up them up on an informational lunch meeting with a colleague who can help advance their goals.
Provide Professional Development Benefits:
When I was thinking about the unique skills that I can share with my interns, I realized that I’m positioned to offer something that most young professionals can’t afford, leadership coaching. Over the course of a semester, Create Forward interns have the opportunity to receive around $1000 worth of coaching support. Figure out what unique skills or assets you can share with your interns. Maybe you can offer a master class on marketing or tutoring in software like Adobe InDesign.
Another benefit we offer is a $50 PD credit. You can use this PD credit to attend a workshop or conference of your choosing. One of the most creative ways PD credits have been used was to cover the cost of a 1:1 Skype session with the owner of a community farm.
Provide an Opportunity to Shine:
An internship should be an opportunity to build your portfolio, which is why we invite all of our interns to contribute something new to the company. Once they’ve spent a few weeks getting to know the organization they can pitch a new idea, a new system or way of getting things done or even a new project that advances our mission. If it’s the right time and the right fit, we give them the green light to begin working on it. Past interns have researched story archival strategies, developed case studies, or pioneered new ways of documenting and assessing our work.
At the end of every semester long internship, we complete an exit interview with each intern. We ask them what they gained from the experience, we praise them for their offerings, but most importantly we ask for feedback on how we can improve.
Since launching this value added internship program a year ago we’ve had three incredible cohorts of interns come through our doors. They’ve become an integral part of our community and continue to be long after they’ve completed their exit interview. Not only have we infused value into our internship program but in turn, our program design has raised the quality of the people who apply to intern with us.
But the best indication that this value-added approach is working is that half of our interns each semester are already college graduates excited about the work we’re doing and eager to learn. Which is the best part, Create Forward is a place where people know that an internship really is an opportunity to learn and grow.