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.
Yesterday, as I found myself going down the rabbit hole of Tweets about Donald Trump Jr.’s emails, I stopped mid-scroll realizing that once again I had gotten distracted.
It’s busy day. I’ve got proposals to write, client projects to design, and emails to respond to. It’s a Tuesday, which means that most of my team is in the office today and I want to be available to them if they need my input or support. I don’t have time to be distracted.
But distractions abound.
We’re only halfway through 2017 and the year has already presented us with more terrifying distractions than we can all handle.
Working within social justice with a commitment to making the world a more equitable place often means not only facing the difficult realities but responding with urgency to protect the most vulnerable. It can feel like we’re putting out fires in a fire swamp. Just when you think you’ve made it out, here comes Donald Trump Jr. and his email-gate quicksand threatening to take you under. (That’s a Princess Bride reference.)
In moments like this, you have to remember your “Why”. Why do YOU get up every day and commit to making an impact in the world? Why is it worth it to keep getting up and fighting back no matter how down and dirty the forces of chaos and destruction decide to get? In times like these, you have got to be anchored to your “WHY”. Allow it to be the thing that brings you back when you find yourself working so hard to keep up with the never-ending assault on our civil and human rights.
Three ways to make your "WHY" your anchor in times of mass distraction:
1. Define and Refine your Three L’s. I love this exercise I learned it from my coach, Jlove Calderon at Move the Crowd. It’s a staple of the MTC methodology. How do you "Live, Love, and Lead"? Three statements that clarify your values and vision for your life and work. When I find myself losing sight of the big picture I come back to my 3Ls. Some days/weeks I need it to be an open tab on my laptop as a daily affirmation of why, who, and what I want to bring to the world. I look at my commitments and use my 3Ls as a litmus test to ensure that the work I’m doing aligns with what matters most to me.
2. Create a Flame Keeper Circle. These are the folks who know you at your best and know the signs when you are losing your light. This circle is who you turn to when you need to be reminded, affirmed, or held to account. They hold you up and they also keep you grounded. They might be mentors, friends, a Mastermind group of other leaders who meet monthly. Maybe you have regular check-ins via Skype or just a group text chain as long as you know you can depend on them to support you when need it most.
3. Accept that Change is a Constant. At any point, we have to be prepared for the possibility that what drives you, what feels like your purpose may one day change. Perhaps you woke up after the 2016 election and decided that your new purpose was to protect and preserve American democracy or maybe your “Why” became more radical as you realized that scientists no longer have the luxury of being agnostic when it comes to social justice. Move toward what excites you, makes you feel most charged and ready to take action. But most of all don’t be afraid to say yes, to change when she comes a knocking.
Lastly, keep telling stories. Stories are how we remember what matters.
At Create Forward we use storytelling to help our clients identify what matters most to them. In defining the moments when we feel most excited about our work and the communities we serve, we discover what we most value, we see the kernels of an irresistible vision for the future, and most of all we’re reminded of our “Why”.
For Immediate Release
Mass Story Lab: Designing A Future Beyond Prisons
RELEASE DATE, New York City - On June 29, 2016, Mass Story Lab will kick off a national tour to 20 U.S. cities grappling with the impact of mass incarceration, starting with Mass Story: Rikers Island.
Mass Story Lab is an innovative art & design project by Create Forward that seeks to arm communities with creative tools to design solutions to mass incarceration.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1 in 36 adults is under correctional supervision. In 2015 when the Justice Department took the historic step of releasing 6,000 people from Federal prisons, the largest one-time early release of prisoners in history, it signaled the end of an era marked by tough on crime rhetoric and a ‘war on drugs’. Yet the federal system accounts for less than half of the U.S prison population and efforts at criminal justice reform on a state level continue to fall short.
“There are as many criminal justice systems as there are states. So if we want to change the systems then we need to give each a community a voice and platform to envision change.” Says, Piper Anderson, creator of Mass Story Lab.
Mass Story Lab is currently being incubated in the TED Residency Program in New York City. Known for the thousands of filmed talks given by innovators from around the world, TED is now incubating and supporting break-through ideas in-house through their 4-month TED Residency program. Piper Anderson is a member of TED’s first class of Residents who work out of the TED office and receive support to develop their ideas.
“I spent the last 15 years traveling the country using poetry, theatre, and community art projects to inform the public about the impact of mass incarceration on communities of color but it just never felt like it was enough.” Says, Piper Anderson, creator of Mass Story Lab.
Mass Story Lab brings together some of the best tools available to create empathy and cultural change from the worlds of arts and design; storytelling and design thinking. “Its time we give people the tools to actively design a world beyond prisons,” explains Anderson, who is also the founder of Create Forward, which delivers creative strategies for social change to activate the collective imagination. Mass Story Lab is the first national initiative Anderson has developed under the banner of Create Forward.
The project will launch in New York City on June 29th, from 9am – 12pm at The New School 55 W 13th Street, with Mass Story: Rikers Island. To launch this ambitious initiative Create Forward has teamed up with national criminal justice advocacy organization, JustLeadershipUSA. JLUSA’s Close Rikers Campaign is calling for the closure of the country’s largest jail complex sighting decades of violence, abuse and mismanagement. The launch will be hosted at the New School in partnership with Humanities Action Lab (HAL). HAL produces public history projects to create dialogue on urgent social issues. Their most recent project is “States of Incarceration”.
At Mass Story: Rikers Island, ten people whose lives have been changed by Rikers Island will share their story, and audience members will then break into small groups to begin a imaginative ideation sessions to generate creative strategies to redesign justice.
Some of the stories you’ll experience at Mass Story: Rikers Island include:
- Khalil Cumberbatch, who witnessed the senseless and brutal beating of an inmate by correctional staff to instill fear in the population.
- Johnny Perez, was 16 years old when he was detained on Rikers Island. He recalls a feeling of helplessness and a culture in which survival meant a transformation from victim to victimizer.
- Ann Pastorasta spent several days searching for her son in the system before she was informed that he was sent to Rikers Island. “I kept searching on the internet and could not find Riker’s Island until I finally located a gray spot on the map.
These stories and many more provide a fuller picture of what Rikers Island represents in the lives of so many New Yorkers. Mass Story Lab aims to ensure that their stories drive a movement to build safer, healthier communities while eliminating that dark ominous spot called Rikers Island that is a blight on the New York City skyline.
Mass Story: Rikers Island
Wednesday, June 29, 20169-12pm
The New School 55 W 13th Street New York, NY
Create Forward, the company, officially launched on February 9, 2015 but the Create Forward the idea began with a broken heart and a willing spirit Labor Day weekend 2014. I was on a personal retreat at Omega Institute, as a guest of the Omega Women’s Leadership Center. OWLC offers retreats to women leaders from around the world. A rare yet vital opportunity to rest and reflect on your leadership for a few days while staying in the beautiful Juno Cottage on the grounds of Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, NY. It had been a long while since I had a break but I was also at a crossroads professionally and wanted to determine my next steps. I wanted to make good use of the three days away to do some planning. Yet, once I walked into my cottage the full weigh of fatigue seem to descend upon me and I just couldn’t do it any more. I couldn’t keep doing, doing, doing without stopping a moment to check in with my spirit and make sure all this motion was in alignment with what matters most to me. In fact, I wasn’t sure I really remembered what mattered most to me.
What I needed more than anything was to be still and so I did nothing. I made no decisions that weekend. I did not plan and chart out my path. I just made myself fully available to the present moment. I meditated, walked the grounds, got a massage, sat on the porch, read, and rested. Then it happened: the end of the 2nd, I grabbed my sketchpad, and I wrote the word “INQUIRY and then the word IMAGINATION. I stayed with those two words and trusted that when the time was right I would know what it meant. I returned home having made only one decision about my career: I did not want to go to work for another non-profit. There was not one job out there that I was excited about applying for, which meant that I was going to work for myself. So I had one decision: I would work for myself, and I had two words: inquiry and imagination.
Two days later, I received an email from 651 Arts inviting me to facilitate a creative think tank that would be guided by a single inquiry question. And that is how Create Forward began to take shape: Faith, listening to spirit, and saying yes when opportunities were revealed.
Five months later, I left my job and woke up on Monday, February 9, 2015 the founder and Chief Creative Strategist at Create Forward LLC. A year later and I stand in awe of what we’ve accomplished:
- Designed and facilitated imaginative containers for dialogue, community building, and social change with 18 clients and partners.
- Reached more than 3000 people through events, trainings, and performances.
- Convened the first Summit on Youth Education at Rikers Island to question, challenge, and exchange best practices across organizations serving incarcerated youth. We centered the arts and social justice education in this convening.
- Joined the Humanities Action Lab team as Community Engagement Strategist to design the “States of Incarceration” exhibit, which will travel to 20 cities and reach over 500,000 people in the next three years.
- Received funding from North Star’s Let Us Breathe Fund and the New York Humanities Council to fund creative strategies dreamt up in our Forward Innovation Lab.
But most of all we built community and we believed, believed, believed in the radical possibilities of the collective imagination. Cheers to another year! Let’s Create Forward!
This past December the NYPD orchestrated a ‘work slow down’ that revealed that most everyday policing practice amounts to taxing people of color in low-income communities through quality of life violations.
Having spent the last 15 years doing cultural organizing and healing work in response to mass criminalization the truth about policing was not new to me but it occurred to me that many people might just be discovering this fact for the first time.. Maybe this is a critical moment to engage people in the conversation that practitioners of transformative justice have been theorizing, analyzing, and experimenting with for well over a decade: alternatives to policing.
So what does it take to get people to imagine a world without police? This is not a new inquiry. Again community organizers have been engaged in this work for some time on many different levels and in communities across the country; much of this work led by queer folks of color have created alternatives to calling the police in order to survive and combat state violence and marginalization.
So the conversation is not new but by no means is it over. In fact, it’s more urgent than ever.
In January I began teaching a winter term course at The New School on the intersections of community art practice and transformative justice. It was a course idea I proposed a year ago. I wanted a reason to explore the ways artists were thinking about community accountability, prison abolish, challenging state violence by working with communities to envision new possibilities for how we create safety in our homes and neighborhoods. By the time January 2015 rolled around the course was more urgent than ever. The questions more ever present. I deployed my students into their communities with a few simple questions:
What makes you feel safe?
Do police make you feel safe?
What resources does your community have or need to be safe?
They came back with a range of responses which of course differed based on the age, race, gender, class, citizenship status of the people they talked to. We shared the results of these interviews with a small audience at The New School. What I thought was most interesting was when asked about what made them feel safe most people talked about the people close to them-relationships, recognition in space, visibility. Not police. Yet the moment the word police was introduced imagination shut down. Suddenly our conditioning kicks in and we remember to give deference to the security force we’ve come to expect and depend on.
There’s a concept called the Constructivist Principle, which suggest that we create the world through the words and metaphors that we use. What we focus on becomes our reality and that reality is born out of the meaning that we make from language.
So when invited to facilitate vision boarding process at the Brooklyn Museum’s First Saturday for Harriet’s Apothecary. I knew that this would be a perfect opportunity to revisit the project in a new way. What if we ask people to create an irresistible vision for community safety? How might they respond? Questions posted around the table, images pre-cut from magazines, colorful crafts paper, glue sticks, and a wall 7 x 5 feet waiting for their collective visions of community safety.
What does it taste/feel/smell/look like to feel safe in your neighborhood?
What words, symbols, images, represent wholeness in a community?
Who in your neighborhood makes you feel most connected to the place and seen?
What would it look like for EVERYONE to be safe in your community?
As the 10,000 museum visitors traveled around the various healing stations being held by Harriet’s Apothecary healers and volunteers dressed in white our vision tables were never empty, there was a constant flow of folks coming in, sitting down, creating intricately thoughtful boards, beautiful visions, adding them to the large collective board, fusing them together on that wall. People of all ages, races, and gender expressions created a vision of community safety.
I understand that it takes a lot to even get here: to be able to imagine community safety when the right to feel safe in your body as been stripped taken away by state agents. I know because I’ve been there and the journey back home to myself is a privilege I don’t take for granted. I want us all to get there and then I want us to create a world where we live in healthy, safe, supportive communities free from all forms of violence; where we are accountable to ourselves and each other.
I’m not quite sure what is next for this project but I’m actively seeking thought partners, visionaries, healers, and artists to join me on the journey. Let’s build.
Email me at email@example.com