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.
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”.