Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Life 4.0: Bringing the worlds together

By Kyra Epstein

“Our modern western civilization began with a kind of cultural schizophrenia. Our scientific enterprise effectively decoupled itself from our humanistic-spiritual traditions at the beginning of the modern period…we can perhaps dare to ask if this was such a good idea, this splitting up of the universe.”
--Brian Swimme, The Universe Is a Green Dragon

Do you ever feel like your life is divided into little compartments? Open up one "file" and you are at work, open another and there is your family; others hold community or passionate hobbies?

I have felt like that, particularly since my life has led me in such seemingly disparate directions: writing/communications in the energy efficiency field, teaching as an adjunct professor in Colorado, pursuit of many mystical/spiritual traditions, studying and starting a small business in herbal healing and teas.

Earlier in my life, my 20s and 30s, I embraced this kind of fast-paced multi-tasking--especially since it meant I didn't have to have one full-time job sitting in an office all day. It was a challenge to see how all the pieces would get accomplished, to grow the contents of each "file" and hold all the pieces together. Working primarily with scientists and engineers—and growing up with mathematicians—I never questioned why it seemed inappropriate to bring emotion into a discussion, talk about creative process, or be anything other than an efficient and logical professional. The messy, wild, colorful and mysterious parts of myself were tucked away until after hours, if they even appeared then.

Now that I am in my 40s, I'm not as eager a multi-tasker, and I don't have nearly as much energy. Tendrils of my hair, once kept back straight in a hairclip, have begun to escape in unruly protest. I have felt a growing desire to see all the file folders merged.

I want to be able to be the same person when I'm working with a scientist from the Department of Energy that I am when I'm distilling essential oil from lavender, hiking in the new moon dark, spending time with friends/family, or when I'm with my aging parents. I want the messy and colorful to mingle with the efficient; the logical with the wild and mysterious. I want to be more fully me, all of the time.

I see my work with The New School at Commonweal, which I started almost a year ago, as one precious response to the intention for integration. Commonweal is a place where many of these parts of myself can come together. It is one of the most eclectic organizations I’ve been involved with, and it is a great container, holding all the parts of all of us that work there together.

As an example, I can arrive at work, share in a group meditation as part of a planning meeting, help host a scientist as she speaks about toxics in the environment, participate in a series of emotional discussions on end-of-life issues, and serve herbal tea to a group that truly understands the connection between plants, the earth, and healing. The file folders dissolve, and there are no "roles," only what we each bring to the discussion, to the group, and to the effort at hand.

I see Commonweal as a model for how we can begin to integrate and heal our selves just as we are working to integrate our communities and heal the earth. It's been a launching pad for me to meet other people and organizations (like The Whitman Institute) on similar journeys. And it is a safe place for testing the waters. With any luck, and another few decades of experience, I'll begin to cure the "cultural schizophrenia" within myself and help to bring the worlds together again.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

No time for Learning?

By John Esterle

May 19, 2011

How do you build in learning when there's no time to learn?

Grantcraft asked its readers (primarily grantmakers) that question and over 1,400 people responded. Grantcraft has captured the major themes that emerged from this survey in a concise new paper they just put out. Here are their main recommendations:

1. Establish a culture of learning by building learning into routine processes.
2. Raise the profile of learning by noticing when it happens and naming it explicitly.
3. Cultivate personal habits of learning that work for you.
4. Try new activities - but choose wisely and keep things simple.

They also note that a supportive learning environment has four characteristics: psychological safety, appreciation of differences, openness to new ideas, and time for reflection. I applaud Grantcraft for raising up the importance of learning but I must say that part of me felt really saddened by the paper's premise that there's no time to learn for many grantmakers. If that's the case, there's something really wrong with that picture and I'm afraid their recommendations might only nibble at the edges of rectifying it.

As I read I also couldn't help but wonder if we're overloading multiple meanings on the word
learning in a way that's akin to what we sometimes do with leadership. These words become catch-all umbrellas that provide cover in sense for a lot of processes and characteristics. The paper quotes people who frequently mention how important it is to create time to reflect, to ask questions, to engage in different kinds of discussions and conversations, so what if we started using some of that language to explicitly describe the organizational cultures we want to create rather than learning?

How would we react to this paper be if it was titled, "How do you build in
critical thinking when there's no time to think?" Does that feel edgier? More challenging? What if we talked about thinking organizations rather than learning organizations? We could even talk about creating supportive critical thinking environments and use the same criteria as above: psychological safety, appreciation of differences, openness to ideas, and time for reflection.

In short, what if we started raising the importance of critical thinking within philanthropy? Because if we're not creating the time to really think in and across our organizations (isn't learning linked to thinking?) what are we doing? Where is all that time going? Like TWI's tag line says, it's time to think for a change.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Whose Story?

May 10, 2011

By Jill Blair


Context: I proudly chair the board of TWI and hold a deep and abiding commitment to the power of process and dialogue. I live according to the belief that it is only what we work our way through in words and feelings that we are able to truly embrace and embody. I have always relied on stories to help me understand and to convey my understanding to others.

Living & Learning Abroad

Today is May 10, 2011. I am seated at our breakfast/dining table in our rental apartment in Jerusalem, Israel. Our family has been living here since August 2, 2010 and we are scheduled to remain until August 15, 2011. My partner, Fay, was offered an opportunity to work here for the year and she and I agreed that a year-abroad would be a growth experience for us and our two children. We have always been deeply attached to this country– by our religion, family, friends and fundamentally by our beliefs. Throughout this year I have kept a log to monitor our experiences and reactions to them. Sometimes I have used the log as a therapeutic tool to work my way through complicated matters. Kismet placed us here in the Middle East during interesting and turbulent times – the politics of the region that are ordinarily intense and complex have been more so – with uprisings and public demands for democracy and decency in governance and leadership.

As we enter our fourth and final quarter of this remarkable adventure, I am struck by how much I have learned and how much more there is to learn – in particular about the meaning of story. Story is never neutral, never new, and still necessary.

Happening Here…

This past week, including now today, are very important times in the State of Israel. Last week was Yom HaShoah – Holocaust Remembrance Day; yesterday, Monday, was Yom HaZikaron – honoring those who have given their lives in defense of Israel; and today, Tuesday, is Yom Ha’atzmaut – Israeli Independence Day, celebrating the establishment of the State of Israel.

My son and daughter attend an American International School here in Jerusalem. I volunteer there three days a week – mostly in the 4th grade classroom. The school of 100 students is a complicated quilt of colors, religions and languages with children from all over the world. The only thing they have in common are parents who want them educated in English.

Last week, on Yom HaShoah, the fourth grade teacher and I talked with the children about Anne Frank – who she was and what happened to her and her family. We had photographs up on the screen and short essays we read aloud. To commemorate those who died during the Holocaust, at precisely 10:00 a.m., sirens rang across the entire country for a full two minutes. Everyone stopped what they were doing. If you were driving on the highway, you stopped your car and got out. If you were walking to the market, you stopped your steps and stood still. After the lesson and the sirens, we asked the fourth graders to reflect on the meaning of what we had learned and witnessed. We asked them to write words or draw pictures – and we asked them to share.

Logan raised his hand and in an unsettled voice, began to read what he had written. “If I was alive during the Holocaust I would have been in the army in Germany and I would have been doing these terrible things to the Jews.”

The teacher and I caught one another’s eyes.

Whose story?

Yesterday was, Yom HaZikaron. At 11:00 a.m. the sirens blared once again. This time, the fourth grade teacher and I were particularly sensitive to how we described the meaning of this day. We explained, “Today we honor the fallen,” careful not to say more. In fact, Yom HaZikaron is specifically a day of remembrance of those who have died in the wars that Israel has endured in its struggle for independence and survival. It is solemn. Across the country high schools hold ceremonies in honor of their alumni who have fallen. Soldiers swarm the streets…there is a huge ceremony at the grave of Theodore Herzl – just down the street from where we are now living. The Israeli flag flies at half-mast.

One of our son’s closest friends is an Arab Israeli who is also a Muslim. He listens to our explanation of the day and pipes up, “I am not allowed to fight in the army…my religion prevents me from fighting against my own people.”

Whose story?

As Yom HaZikaron drew to a close last night, fireworks ushered in the start of Israeli Independence Day. The flag of Israel returned to full mast. Today there will be barbecues across the country. But most Palestinians and even some Arab Israelis who live in and are citizens of the State of Israel, observe this day as “Nakba,” – a tragic day, literally translated it means “catastrophe.”

Whose story?

The Meaning of Sound…

The sirens that echo across the country in honor of these events are the same sires that are used to warn us of rocket or missile attacks. In this latter case, we are also expected to stop in our tracks – and then find a “safe” and “sealed” room to avoid injury.

At dinner last night, before taking our daughter to a party outside of Jerusalem, our son asked the following, “What would happen if there was a rocket attack at the exact same moment that there is a siren commemorating Yom HaZikaron? How would we know the difference?”

Throughout this year our children have peppered us with questions. Often we have no answers but on countless nights these questions are the basis of our family dialogues.

“That is a good question,” we say, “and really worth thinking more about.”

Same siren…different story.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Trustworthy Opponents

May 5, 2011

by Pia Infante

I have to admit that I'm a basketball fan, and there is no time like the playoffs to be watching basketball. Actually, it turns out that this season's playoffs are the most highly watched season in the history of the NBA. From what I can discern - people are watching because there are some well matched teams, there is really no clear and dominant winner (including, you, Lakers), and while there are rules, there is no script. So what unfolds is somewhat unpredictable - and true fans seem to revel in the surprise element.

What does this have to do with dialogue and civic engagement, you may be wondering?

Well, as I was reflecting on the notion of a "good match-up" (when two players who play the same position on opposing teams are evenly matched, it's fun to watch the kind of game within the game between them) - the concepts of respectful contestation and trustworthy opponents came up unbidden. I actually posted about these notions, put forth by the Foundation for Interreligious Diplomacy in December of 2009.

In a playoff game, while surely there's a rash of elbow bumps and brushes that are not called foul - there is a mechanism for holding the line around disrespectful engagement. Players and coaches can be ejected from the game, even the league, for out of line aggression or verbal threats towards other players, coaches, and referees. I appreciate this accountability for good sportsmanship and wish we there was a similar sensibility, say, in the House of Representatives or the Senate - at the state or national level.

What if there were a referee blowing a whistle on bad behavior and language on the Senate floor?

I want to raise up the premise that conflict can be a powerful learning experience if there exists, at the base of it, a deep respect for difference and a willingness to hear into the space between and be changed by it. To me, the NBA demonstrates more respectful contestation than what I often hear reported back from many of our representative democratic bodies, embroiled in partisan politics and back room deals.

I truly believe that trustworthy opponents can sometimes help me learn what I might never learn from a trusted confidant who never questions my premises or leans into the dissonances of my thinking. Similarly, forgive another basketball reference, point guard Rajon Rando of the Celtics matched up against Derrick Rose of the Bulls could bring into being a level of playing that neither could achieve individually. They seem to be a good match-up, and I for one, would love to see them play against each other in the playoffs.

In my estimation, there can be no shortage of narratives that tell the story of how respectful contestation and trustworthy opponents are necessary ingredients in an engaged and vibrant life - individually and collectively.

Do you have a story about a trustworthy opponent who's helped evolve your consciousness?

The Foundation for Interreligious Diplomacy is actually seeking out stories for publication. So, if you have a story you'd be open to sharing with the world - send it along and perhaps receive $100 for your effort.

As always, because I consider you, dear readers, to be potential trustworthy opponents in the dialogic space we share - I welcome your considerations, stories, challenges, and questions...