Monday, December 28, 2009

2010: Serving the Emerging Paradigm

by Pia Infante

In this New York Times’ 2009 Year in Pictures snapshot, I was reminded that this Administration, for all its disappointed high hopes for year one, does attempt/intend to do a successively modern iteration of public dialogue.  And even though this picture documents the improbable meeting of four men, the public dialogue I’m thinking of is actually far more wide-spread (think 308,243,000 residents in the U.S. alone) and much more viral (think gmail or twitter), but retains the premise of engaging folks across spectrums, geography, and (most importantly) preferred company.

As evidenced by the Open Government efforts (expertly followed by NCDD) and the tech/social media savvy of the initial campaign still evidenced by the ongoing personalized messages directly to our inboxes, the emerging paradigm is increasingly integrative.  Whether it’s integration like the blurring of lines between the public and private sectors through increasing social entrepreneurism, or the integration of agendas like climate justice and women’s rights to create fuller and more effective initiatives for policy change, integrative strategy and solutions are the order for 2010.

And this paradigm requires that leadership also show up as integrative, inclusive, and open to the influence of others.  We hosted a lively dialogue this past October about leadership moving beyond a Rockstar paradigm, a discussion echoed in many other chambers, including V. Robinson’s article “Struck by the Stars:  How the Search for Celebrity CEOs is Undermining Diversity in Philanthropy” in Responsive Philanthropy’s Fall Newsletter.  

It seems to me that the emerging world economic, ecologic, political and social order increasingly requires that all of us, positional leaders in particular, be willing to be influenced by others, especially in high stakes conversations and dialogues.  Arguably (I’m inviting your argument here) an emerging paradigm for both discourse and leadership is one that requires us to be open to each other’s influence.  This does not simply mean open to hearing each other’s perspectives, it means open to being changed by each other.  

There are a handful of concepts put forth by Charles Randall Paul that I find particularly inspirational and could serve as guideposts for the coming year:

·    Fluency in each Other -  Demonstrate that you are respectfully informed about the worldviews of those with whom you disagree (and are willing to talk with).  A basic competency of others’ cultures, beliefs, and values will go a long way toward building trust.

·    Trustworthy Opponents  -  Build up your associations with trustworthy opponents.  This is not to say add 300 new Facebook friends from the other political party!  It is an invitation to deepen your connection with a few folks who are willing to be honest, transparent, and critical in discussions about areas of difference in an ongoing way that increases the depths of each of your understanding.

·    Respectful Contestation  -  A dialogue about oppositional beliefs and understandings will require some contestation.  It is sometimes the situational norm to sweep such differences under the rug and focus on areas of agreement.  Yet, engaging with trustworthy opponents in respectful contestation actually requires that folks talk into their differences using respectful inquiry, sincere listening, sensitive criticism, and direct communication.

·    Peaceful Tension -  The idea is that when differences are spoken rather than suppressed, and respect is demonstrated in this process, that folks can co-exist (in work situations, in families, between warring populations) in peaceful tension.  In the very process of increasing intimacy with trustworthy opponents, an indelibly human occurrence may take place where enough empathy and understanding is incurred such that previously oppositional parties become less oppositional after being respectfully (and mutually) seen and heard.  

     Charles Randall Paul astutely observes that “what seems by tradition and inertia to be something that cannot change - changes the instant an honest discussion of it commences.”

So.  One of my New Year’s Resolutions is to serve the emerging paradigm by spending more time in the company of Trustworthy Opponents. I will report back at the end of 2010 whether or not I’ve noticed that the very act of committing to and following through on this does, indeed, change me.

Lastly, we at The Whitman Institute want to express deep appreciation and gratitude for all of the many ways you, our grantee partners and community, are the inventors of emerging paradigms every day.  Thank you for all that you do, and especially, all that you are.  

Happy New Year!  



Tuesday, December 8, 2009

What are the Rules of Engagement in Copenhagen?

By Pia Infante

As the UN Conference on Climate Change in Copenhagen kicks off a two-week gathering of 110 world leaders and roughly 15,000 delegates, I must admit that I’m intensely fascinated about the mechanisms for dialogue and decision-making at an event that some analysts have already predicted will fall quite short of a unilaterally signed treaty to effectively reduce carbon emissions by 2020.  Oh, to be a fly on the wall somewhere among the 60,000 square meters of the Bella Center, the largest conference center in Scandinavia. 

The conference agenda discloses few process secrets, looking very much like many conference programs  – there are opening plenaries, televised speakers and panels, document reviews, elections within the official delegate body, and a mixer at the end of the day.  There is also a concurrent body of work  that runs alongside the official delegate sessions described as “ad hoc working groups and subsidiary parties” that seek to influence the official proceedings much like lobbyists.  I imagine that this is where the action is if you are one of the over 10,000 conference participants who are not government delegates or special appointees.  There’s a telltale note at the bottom of each agenda page, an appeal for those groups to streamline the amount of attention they demand:  "In order to complete the plenary meetings as expeditiously as possible, and allow the ad hoc working groups and subsidiary bodies to begin work without delay, the President appeals to Parties to limit statements to those from groups."  Yet, these are potentially the groups most representing the voices of the least heard among the delegate din, groups like "The Alliance of Small Island States" or the "The Least Developed Countries Working Group."

My anxiety and interest are particularly piqued, given the high stakes for humanity and what Changhua Wu (Greater China Director of The Climate Group) describes, in an environment 360 article, as an epically “ongoing lack of trust between the major (read US, China, EU, India, Japan) parties” in the context of a global recession.  An over simplified characterization might be something like the countdown to global warming meltdown vs. the current economic meltdown, or science vs. economics/politics.  In my experience, trust requires relationship building over time - I wonder how this happens on the global problem solving stage.  I'd like to trust that there is powerful relational work happening within the conference.  It might behoove me to set aside my conference skepticism and be open to the miraculous in what appear to be pre-scripted settings.

My attention is still riveted on the “how” of this endeavor.  How does an event of this nature actually engender authentic relationship, dialogue, and trust?  How does it truly attend to problem solving at such an immense scale?  Does the technology embedded in the Copenhagen conference (all sessions are streamed live then digitally accessible within an hour after closing, iPhone and hand-held apps synced to the conference, the inevitably lightning quick circuit of a text leak) increase the possibility for public dialogue?

I want to know what the rules of engagement are – how are they similar or different from what happens in the communities and projects of our grantees?   How might we influence or learn from the Key Players in the negotiations?  Where do the UN conference planners lag behind meeting architecture innovation and where are they ahead of the curve?  How might more of us participate in influencing what happens in decision making at this level?

Monday, November 23, 2009

With Or Without God

By Pia Infante

A couple of experiences of late call my attention to a rather large question.

First, I sang with my choir at the How Sweet The Sound gospel choir competition to 13,000 people who congregated to hear gospel music … which is, well, about God, or Spirit, or the Universe, or the Divine Essence, or the vast Unknown, or the power of Song ~ however it strikes you.  It struck me with the roar of thousands that this crowd, which easily filled Oakland’s Oracle arena, was by far the largest gathering of people I’d seen in months and months.  Larger than any protests or rallies I’ve attended or driven past on any number of issues at the city, state, and national levels.

Second, I attended TWI grantee Interfaith Youth Core’s 6th Conference on Interfaith Youth Work called “Leadership for a Religiously Diverse World,” along with about 600 others – student leaders, faith leaders, educators, civic leaders, funders, innovators, community activists and policy influencers.  [Here are the Opening Remarks] And, this, was, by far one of the most interesting gatherings I’ve attended in months and months.

These two experiences renewed a question I’ve held for a long time ~ where, in secular arenas, are we missing the boat with an unspoken aversion to … well, God?   

Saleemah Abdul-Ghafer, of Malaria No More (an organization formed to advance the United Nations Millennium Development Goals) commented during a plenary that the only way to reach the multitudes unnecessarily dying from a preventable disease (1 million a year, no less) is through partnerships with their faith communities.  It is the imams and faith leaders who know the communities intricately and can provide safe avenues of access for resources that are culturally appropriate.  She chided that if secular groups did have any aversion to these collaborations, they are now vested in them out of an “enlightened self-interest” towards actually being effective in their goals.  Hmph.

The truth is faith communities are the largest, most widespread, and most organic “social networks” on the planet, and evangelicals of every kind already tap into them.  What I believe Eboo Patel, IFYC Executive Director, and many others of the interfaith movement, might say is – let us be and inspire multi-faith cooperation and religious pluralism evangelicals!  Evangelicals whose message is about building relationship and trust through conversation, collaboration and community service. 

This was the deep inspiration of the IFYC conference – a vision of a world that structures and scaffolds connections across vastly different worldviews (from the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem to the indigenous Maori in New Zealand to agnostic Humanists worldwide), instead of passively accepting divisiveness and war as an inevitable outcome of difference.  Let me take a moment to express how important it is to make space at the Interfaith table for the many without religious affiliation who deeply believe in “good works” (as Greg Epstein, Humanist Chaplain at Harvard and author of Good Without God might say).  I notice that often those who believe in humanity’s responsibility to itself (whether or not they claim “humanist” as moniker) turn away from anything labeled "Interfaith," imagining that they are not included.  As was evidenced at the conference, a movement of inclusivity would clearly be false without them.

This is not a “kumbaya” vision of handshakes for the camera, but one that takes into account the many layers of economic power differential and political influence, regional and cultural nuance, and an over-arching understanding that because religious divides haves spawned generations of violence across the globe that there is some wisdom in our seeing interfaith cooperation as an essential nutrient to this world’s survival.

And by what mechanisms would such an Interfaith Youth Movement be rolled out?  Dialogue.  Partnership.  Serving Communities Together.

Given TWI’s mission, I was particularly attentive to the role that dialogue could play in creating a context for a consciousness shift that Eboo is aiming his life towards – in 30 years “interfaith community service” could be just another Americorps program, an opportunity for development and learning for this country’s next generation of servant leaders.  And, embedded in that would be an embrace of each person’s unique take on the Universe, from “non-believer” to devout, as well as a built-in requirement that we learn to talk with and work alongside with people who are different from us.

Simple.  But not easy. 

·       What does it take to be able to spend time with, work with, and learn from folks who are unfamiliar to us?  Do you do this?  How do you do it?

·        How would/does this capacity enhance your work, your leadership, your life, and social movements? 

·       How could/does interfaith collaboration strengthen your secular efforts? 

There are many of who tirelessly effort in the direction of these questions and I invite your wisdom.  In my next post, I will share some particularly inspiring work from the likes of Charles Randall, Najeebah Sayeed-Miller and others.  In the meantime, I look forward to hearing from you, with or without God ... 

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Beyond the Rockstar Paradigm

By Pia Infante

During a plenary at TWI grantee Interfaith Youth Core’s conference Interfaith Youth Work: “Leadership for a Religiously Diverse World”, I was struck by Representative Keith Ellison’s, 5 th Congressional District of Minnesota, vehement statement: “let’s differentiate between leaders and leadership.”  Clearly positional leaders can demonstrate very little leadership while those of us without positional authority can offer leadership at any moment.  Think about the volunteer who, in June of 1963, acted to print 50,000 instead of 5,000 fliers for the march (an immense effort in pre-Kinko’s times) that eventually helped bring over a million people to hear MLK speak in the mall.  Or the first Iranian protester to “tweet” about the government crackdown on demonstrations at Tehran University this past June.

This plenary on “Interfaith Leadership, Social Entrepreneurship, and Movement Building” left me asking:  What is the construct of leadership embedded in public consciousness and dialogue?  In our social movements?  In philanthropy?

It occurs to me that I can hardly begin to conceptualize leadership without calling to mind individual, inspirational people.  Even my example above of the civil rights volunteer implicitly holds MLK at its center.  Yet, this plenary got me mulling over an understanding of leadership in the form of “the invisible hands that move millions” vs. “the Rockstar.”

Every sector and community has its beloved Rockstars.   I’ll bet you can name 3 of your favorites now as you read this.  They are highly profiled, often tokenized, win awards like the MacArthur or the Gardener and are invited into prized cohorts like the Prime Movers or the Ashoka Fellows. 

An evolving definition of leadership might shift the attention into the "invisible" multitudes.  Though, given the proliferation social medias, is invisibility even an option?  Some might point out that open sourced leadership is already proliferating via social medias at rapid rates and scales, in ways that have yet to be truly absorbed by most of us.  So, my evolving definition here isn’t exactly a demand to make of everyone a Rockstar or to de-Rock our stars.

What I’m getting to is a both/and understanding.  It’s not about scrapping the model (and existing infrastructures) of the Rockstar paradigm over a completely faceless, open source model.  

Those "hubs" or "outliers" (i.e. Malcolm Gladwell) we dub Rockstars have a crucial role in social movements and are in symbiotic relationship with the 10,000 people following them on Twitter as well.  The edgiest, most strategic people in positional leadership that I know stay in the closest contact possible with the folks that are on the ground, moving their shared vision forward.   So the both/and is an awareness, attention, and resourcing not just the Rockstars but also the 10’s of thousands who are leading from their cell phones, doing what needs done in their homes, neighborhoods, and communities without waving a flag about it, launching untold projects, positively influencing their environments, or, in a million other ways, demonstrating leadership in their own contexts.  And connecting beyond those contexts in order to inspire and be inspired.

I’ll be honest.  This is incredibly refreshing to me.  Having been engaged on many fronts with the “issue” of a supposed “leadership crisis” for several years, conversations about leadership development that stick to a model of finding that singular bright star and resourcing her/him strike me as fantastical as the NBA draft.  The “one in a million” construct feels out of date to me.  If we understand leadership not as spread among on a chosen few, but shared amongst all of us, what then can we imagine? 

How do we (those in philanthropy, those designing civic engagement, those guiding non-profits organizations, those influencing social movements) imagine resourcing that lateral movement of many beyond supporting (funding, endorsing) a leader who is vertically at the top?  What does supporting leadership beyond the Rockstar paradigm look like?

I’d love to hear from you.  Especially if you are one of the many Rockstars that may be reading this.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Indepedent Sector's Future Lab: They Built It and They're Not Coming

By John Esterle

I recently got another email from Independent Sector trying to solicit input and ideas for Future Lab: An Ongoing Challenge for the Nonprofit Community to Chart a Vibrant 2020. The Lab is a well-intentioned effort to promote online dialogue and collaborative thinking that IS has clearly devoted considerable time, energy, and money to. The Lab is one part of IS' Envisioning Our Future initiative that was kicked off in July with their Strategy Lab convening in Colorado.

Unfortunately, hardly anyone -- including me -- is taking up their invitation to participate online.

My non-participation brings to mind my own recent post about the challenge of people not leaving comments on blogs. So why haven't I participated? Here's some of what comes up for me:
  • Shyness about participating in such a high profile platform.
  • The lack of comments discourages me from making one of my own.
  • I am not a member of IS nor do I have any personal history with the organization that would prompt me to support them on a relationship level.
  • Doubts about the whole Envisioning Our Future effort.
All in all visiting the site has that sad quality of going to a party that no one has showed up for even though you've arrived fashionably late. I'm struck by how quickly a judgment can seemingly be rendered that makes such an elaborate online platform feel lifeless. And once that perception is there I think it's hard to reverse.

Perhaps Independent Sector's upcoming conference will spark people's participation. My understanding is that the online exchange of ideas is supposed to be the fuel for a series of discussions at the conference (which I'll be attending for the first time). I would imagine there's some rethinking about that design going on at the moment, but it seems that the lack of participation in Future Lab provides a real opportunity for learning and dialogue about what makes for successful on-line and in-person engagements geared to promoting "a national conversation" that enables people to "work across fields" and be part of an "iterative process for problem solving. "

One final thought. Observing the level of participation so far in America's Giving Challenge, recently launched by The Case Foundation, Causes on Facebook, and Parade Magazine, I wonder about the invitational quality of competition and tangible rewards. Would Future Lab be having a different result if it had been set up before the Strategy Lab? For instance, would there have been more buzz if the authors of the highest rated ideas would have been included in the invitation list to the Colorado summit? It was held at the Broadmoor Hotel after all.

Anyway, hindsight is easy but The Envisioning Our Future effort brings up a lot of questions about processes of invitation and engagement, on-line and in-person dialogue, co-creation and collaborative problem solving that are ripe for continued exploration and experimentation. With that in mind, I'm curious to see what the IS conference will be like and will no doubt have more thoughts to share about this effort afterward.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Maya Enista: Utne Visionary

By John Esterle

The Utne Reader has published their annual list of "50 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World" and Maya Enista, CEO of TWI grantee,, is among them. Congratulations, Maya!

As I went down the list of the other 49 visionaries without recognizing a single one, I couldn't help but think of the countless people working in so many different places and in so many different ways to make the world a better place. Given the constant drumbeat of bad news we get it's important to remember, and be grateful for, just how many forces for good there are in the world. Thanks to Utne for highlighting that.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

21st Century Skills

By John Esterle

Mark Wilding, Executive Director of The PassageWorks Institute (a TWI grantee) has written an insightful post on "21st Century Education from the Inside Out" that makes the case for moving beyond polarized debates within education (e.g. skills vs. content, discipline vs. an open heart; ends vs. means) if all of our kids are going to be able to participate in schools that "are safe and intellectually challenging environments -- so that they have the cognitive, physical, emotional, and social skills to be successful and ethical citizens in the 21st century."

Mark touches on a couple of themes present in my recent posts (how emotion affects learning and thinking; the importance of working with people who think differently than you) while raising others that I'll no doubt write about in the future: the need to practice what we preach when it comes to how we think and talk and act together; the importance of expanding our definition of what it means to be literate; and the need for new kinds of coalitions and collaborations if we are to foster new educational and civic cultures.

Also, when he writes, "This brings up another cosmic education question. Are so-called learning and life skills 'ends' in themselves or are they means to an academic end?" I couldn't help but think how that echoes the tensions that surface around the question of 'impact' in so much process and relationship-based work (talk vs. action, relationships vs. results). These questions and tensions are not just academic of course; they carry much weight in terms of what types of work and approaches receive funding and resources.

Thinking of those things put me in mind of Eamonn Kelly's closing comments about assessment, measurement, and change in the 21st century when I interviewed him a while ago:

"There's an increasing disconnect between the tangible assets that we can actually account for, literally, and the intangible assets that are about relationships and are fundamental. These questions are starting to become more visible and meaningful and will lead, I believe, to really important changes. Will we end this century with our same measurement systems for value, growth, and development? I truly hope not and I don't believe we will."

Needless to say, I share his sentiments.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Harvard Decision Making Lab

By John Esterle

I had a fun "aha" moment when I was noodling around and discovered The Harvard Decision Making Lab, which was founded less than a year ago. They're studying all kinds of interesting stuff around the science of decisions, with a particular interest in the role of emotions in decision making. And the favorite emotion to study for the Lab's director, Jennifer Lerner, is anger. For more about her interest in this topic and her ideas about the Lab I recommend reading this introductory profile. In the meantime, here are some statements from her that popped out at me:

"We have approximately 3,000 executive education students come through each year -- over and above the enrolled students. The executive ed students are often leaders of governments around the world. And many of our enrolled students will go on to lead governments or multinational corporations. In one capacity or another, they will have international influence. I get to reach people who are in a position to structure the decision environments of their governments. I cannot think of another place in the world where I could do that."

And this,

"Anger is a more positive emotion in the States than it is in cultures that are more interdependent and collectivistic. In America, anger pervades political culture and many styles of organizational leadership. Indeed, research shows that the effects of being in power resemble the effects of being angry. So if any emotion needs to be contextually defanged, it's anger."

She goes on to note what her research shows is characteristic of angry deciders: "Not feeling you need more information. Underperceiving risks. Being prone to take risks. Attributing causality to individuals rather than situations. Simplistic thought." Reading these charactersistics certainly supports her observation that anger pervades our culture!

So, what works with angry decision makers?

According to Lerner, you shift their environment; you create situations where they are more accountable to others for what they say and think. Her research supports the finding that "being accountable created the conditions by which they could consciously monitor their thinking and perceive the issues with more nuance and complexity....In other words, context matters. The environment in which a decision is made turns out to be more important than the decider."

The themes the Harvard Lab is exploring around leadership and designing optimal decision making environments immediately brought to mind TWI grantee Mark Gerzon's nascent Global Leadership Lab project at Mediators Foundation, which aspires to "design an environment that raises the level of awareness of leaders in order to optimize their decision-making abilitities and to apply that environment to critical global issues." Hmmm. Perhaps they should talk.

In the meantime, if you were designing an optimal decision making environment to address complex issues or problems what would it look like?

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Social Media Storytelling: Seeing and Thinking Differently

By John Esterle

Continuing the thread about the power of stories, check out Kari Dunn Saratovsky's brief interview with Mark Horvath on the Social Citizens blog at The Case Foundation. It offers a brief, compelling, primer of how social media can be a powerful storytelling tool to make the invisible visible (in this case homelessness).

Mark's line about the importance of organizations losing their "lone ranger" mentality is instructive. What especially pops out for me are his comments about the value of helping people that think differently in terms of expanding your own thinking and increasing your impact in relation to the causes you're standing up for. With that, he's certainly preaching to the choir here at TWI. As always, though, we recognize doing so is far easier said than done.

Speaking of media and thinking and choirs, of course, puts me in mind of TWI grantee, Active Voice, and how they use film, television, and multimedia to spark cross-perspective dialogue and inform policy making. Telling compelling, character-driven stories is central to Active Voice's approach and I can think of no better place to go for smart thinking about how to use media to help us to see and think differently about a range of important issues.

So, here's a question (or three): Has reaching beyond the choir changed your thinking? If so, how? And how did this change in thinking manifest in your work?

Monday, September 28, 2009

Inside Stories

By John Esterle

It seems more and more of us in the public benefit sector are thinking and talking about the power of stories to connect and inform, to spark dialogue and action, to shift perspectives and policy. And with this talk comes familiar questions: How do we tell our story? How do we get it out there? What will break through and stick in our media saturated environment?

A new blog and podcast, Inside Stories, offers an intriguing and wide-ranging vehicle for exploring these and a host of storytelling related questions. In his introductory post and podcast, writer and researcher, Paul VanDeCarr, says:

When I say "storytelling" I'm talking about everything from fairy tales, to psychotherapy, to sermons, to gossip, to journalism, genealogy, courtroom cases, the theatre, film, literature and lots more. You'll hear stories and conversations about how and why people tell stories. I'm especially interested in how people use storytelling to build community, advance peace and social justice, and engage in civic affairs. In both the blog and podcast, I'll be aiming for insight, imagination, and fun.

The site's been up since the end of August, and though I haven't checked out every entry, I'd say Paul's eclectic mix of posts and brief podcasts appear to be more than hitting that mark.

So far, I'm especially interested in the thread of how stories appeal to emotion rather than reason to shape opinion. Not a new thread to be sure, but certainly a topical one when you consider our current public discourse and media landscape.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Re-Launching the TWI Blog

By John Esterle

When we first launched our blog* in the fall of 2006 I dipped my toes in the water with a few reflections, but seeing consistently zero comments gave me pause. Writing is usually a struggle for me, so when doubts -- who was reading, whether anything I was saying was of interest, blah blah -- predictably raised their heads, I pulled back. Indeed, it's been over two years since I posted anything.

TWI Fellow, Edd Conboy, however, didn't lose hope that the blog might be a source of connection, conversation, and community and has faithfully contributed occasional posts. I'm grateful for his perseverance. And zero comments is still the norm for what he posts....

Edd recently wrote to me "that current research indicates that fewer than two percent of a blog's readership ever comment. Regardless of the size and popularity of a given blog, this percentage seems to be a constant. The reason most often cited is a pattern of self-consciousness related to having their writing viewed by others."

Well, let's just say that I can relate to the that part about being self-conscious! It's also time for me to get over myself and starting posting again because I believe the blog can be a helpful way for TWI to amplify ideas, highlight the people and work we are connected with, and expand our ability to listen to others. It's also time for me to start contributing elsewhere as I can hardly expect others to comment on our blog if I don't do the same.

Allison Fine recently noted that the basic principles of social media are to be yourself, engage in a two-way conversation, listen, and learn. Those sound like great guidelines to follow as we seek to make our blog consistently fresh and lively.

I'm pleased to say that I'll have help in this endeavor as others, including Edd of course, will also contribute. And those of you reading can help by letting us know what you think. With enough of us jumping in, we just might create a new kind of TWI conversation.

* is now an archived page