Friday, November 22, 2013

TWI Grantee Voice of Witness receives the Smithsonian “Ingenuity Award” for Social Progress

by Pia Infante

We are proud to share that on November 21, 2013, mimi lok, Executive Director of Voice of Witness was joined by the organization's founder to receive the Smithsonian's "Ingenuity Award" for Social Progress. 

Smithsonian magazine editor-in-chief Michael Caruso wrote in the official announcement: “We’ve polled the directors, curators and staffers at the Smithsonian Institution to find those innovators who are revolutionizing their fields with recent, high-impact achievements. While their work is different in objective, each winner is embracing the Smithsonian’s mission to increase knowledge and shape the world of tomorrow. We are delighted to showcase their work across all platforms.” 

Read the full feature here.

Congratulations mimi and Voice of Witness!

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

ivoh explores and defines restorative narrative

This post was originally posted at and has been written by Steve Myers.

Nailing down the attributes of hazy concepts is never easy, and the early going of ivoh’s exploration of “restorative narrative” was no exception.

Maybe that’s why the room came alive when journalism professor and ivoh board member Jon Funabiki (photo above) suggested we make a list of “what’s in and what’s out” to help us define this emerging media genre.

“No gloss,” Funabiki began, echoing the view of ivoh founder Judy Rodgers, who first got the organization thinking about restorative narrative and insisted it be rooted in often painful reality.

“Knowledge-based,” Funabiki added, picking up on one of the elements listed by Harvard professor Tom Patterson as he discussed his forthcoming book, “Informing the News.”

Funabiki, Rodgers and Patterson were among several dozen participants in a gathering ivoh (Images & Voices of Hope) sponsored earlier this month in the Catskills to examine the idea of restorative narrative and brainstorm ways that ivoh could encourage its practice.

Reading from his notbebook, Funabiki added a few more attributes: “Not so broad-brush,” “authentic,” “leading to positive outcomes,” “journalism with purpose and intent.”

He also put some things on the “what’s out” list, including: “happy and misleading,” “exclusive focus on the negative,” “leading to despair.”

John Yearwood flanked by Kelly Cornell and Keith Hammonds
Although not especially visible on the current media landscape, restorative narrative is an idea that, in one form or another, has been under discussion for some time. Other organizations are pursuing media forms with significant overlap, including The Solutions Journaland the Solutions Journalism Network, and ivoh leaders expressed interest in collaborating with such ventures. Keith Hammonds, COO of the Solutions Journalism Network, participated in ivoh’s gathering.

Much of what was on Funabiki’s list could be said of other forms of journalism and media, of course.

As the group discussed several stories and documentaries (see list in right rail beneath our Twitter feed), we quickly identified ways that these stories were different. It became clear that these stories didn’t simply transmit facts, but helped to transform a situation. We noticed they didn’t dwell on human suffering — neither did they overlook it — but they looked beyond to see what comes next.

Restorative narrative defined and deconstructed

Many questions remain, but a working definition emerged: “Restorative narrative is an honest and sustained inquiry that reveals opportunity in times of disruption. It expresses empowerment, possibilities and revitalization.”

Roberta Baskin, president of the ivoh board, suggested boiling that down to six words, perhaps these: “Restorative narrative reveals opportunity in disruption.”

Here are some characteristics that, considered together, help differentiate this type of work from most types of storytelling:

It’s forward-looking. It highlights hope and choice. While most stories focus on what brought us to where we are, a restorative narrative pays special attention to what’s next. It searches for resolution. Conflict and challenges are necessarily part of the story; the difference is that the story focuses on how people respond.

Watch The New York Times’ video about Boston Marathon bombing survivor Jeff Bauman. The story isn’t about him losing his legs in the blasts; it’s about him learning to find a new equilibrium on his prosthetic legs.

It considers the effect of the narrative on the audience. A story can change its audience. It can stay with them, a constant reminder of what’s possible. As several people mentioned, witnessing an act of kindness has an effect on someone — they’re more likely to do something kind themselves. Restorative narrative seeks that effect; it’s deliberate without being manipulative.

Participants view a CBC report about a student who
returned to high school after dropping out.
It’s authentic. Storytellers may have to look harder for a restorative narrative, and they may have to ask different questions to find it. But the process must be intellectually honest, rooted in an inquiry rather than an argument. This framework cannot be imposed upon every story. Storytellers cannot gloss over important challenges and questions.

In an authentic restorative narrative, the hope comes from within. Listen to Dan Grech and Kenny Malone’s radio story about an unexpected moment of hope in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake. The characters in the story are lifted up, and we along with them.

It’s sustained. Time is a key factor in discovering a restorative narrative. The story of a disaster does not have to end with the last funeral or moment of silence. Jeff Bauman’s story would have been different had it been told after a few weeks rather than a few months. It’s difficult to stick with a story when there are no obvious events driving it forward, when you can’t see where it’s going. As storytellers, can we pay attention long enough to see the signs of the new normal?

It awakens a sense of human connection. A restorative narrative resonates with audiences by making them feel connected to their communities. It creates a forum for discussion, perhaps literally. And it reminds people of what they can accomplish by working together.

It’s action-oriented, though not prescriptive. A restorative narrative empowers the audience to act, but it doesn’t necessarily advocate for a particular solution. The action could vary; it could be as basic as enabling people to connect with other members of their community or to help the victims of a disaster. Perhaps it brings a massive social problem, like Detroit’s blight, down to human size by showing how some people are improving the blocks around them. The story may equip people to deal with their own suffering.

Storytellers may want to consider a strong post-publication action plan. Philip Lauri, one of the creators of “After the Factory,” which shows similarities between the Polish city of Lodz (prononced “woodge”) and Detroit, said his team is directing some of the film’s proceeds to community initiatives.

Martha Bebinger, a WBUR radio reporter whose report on “moral injury” was reviewed by the group, asked how journalists can best allocate their time among conflicting responsibilities of pursuing new assignments vs. sticking with stories for the long haul.

It’s responsive to the community. In the aftermath of a tragedy, people are often searching for answers and ways to help. A restorative narrative can help with both (though answers may not come as quickly as ways to help). The best storytellers get in tune with the community to know what people are searching for at that time. If not, one risks telling a story that rings false or fails to respect what the community has been through.

It reveals something universal, yet localized. The most moving, most memorable stories connect us to a universal truth or experience. Restorative narrative aims to address a common experience, truth or feeling that reveals something about a universal theme as well as the particular focus of the media at work.

Lorie Conway’s documentary, “Beatrice Mtetwa and the Rule of Law“, focuses on the human rights lawyer in Zimbabwe who serves as the film’s main character, but also highlights the universal theme of “the rule of law” that supports the film’s relevance to circumstances far removed from Harare.

It’s character-driven. Not just a compelling character, but the right one. In discussing a series of stories he supervised for Canadian Public Television, Eric Le Reste described how he guided his reporters on a story about a teenager who had dropped out of school, then returned and was about to graduate. Suddenly, the presumed story line was interrupted when the student cheated on a test.

Bob Walter, Vanessa Trengrove and other participants
As the reporting unfolded, the main character shifted from the student to the school principal who refused to give up on the young man. And sometimes, as illustrated in “After the Factory,” it’s something other than a person — in this case a couple of cities — playing the role of main character.

It looks for root causes. Many stories address symptoms and effects; restorative narrative requires the storyteller to look deeper. Lorie Conway could have produced a documentary about the poverty, violence and decay underway at the hands of President Robert Mugabe. The filmmakers looked at what lay beneath the decay of a society and found that it was the erosion of the rule of law.

Some risks inherent in this type of storytelling

Most of the potential problems we imagined involve insufficient intellectual honesty — succumbing to the temptation to let the best of intentions overwhelm the facts of the matter. Some examples:

Overreaching. Not every search for a restorative narrative will find one. With inquiry rather than argument as the guiding technique, the media maker is better equipped to root the reporting in reality. Timing is important. Especially in the aftermath of violent or tragic events, restorative narratives often take time to take shape.

Lack of context. Authors of a restorative narrative may be tempted to omit details that complicate or conflict with the arc of the story. Smart decisions about what to leave out is a hallmark of good storytelling, and restorative narratives will often focus more on the hope ahead than the horror behind. But taking that too far results in a distortion that serves no one.

Understanding key stakeholders is key. In describing how the journalists at the Newtown Bee covered the Sandy Hook shooting, The New Yorker reported that Editor Curtiss Clark “wanted the paper to draw the community together, to reclaim its routine. … In crafting a redemptive narrative, the Bee avoided much of the story. For weeks, the paper simply focussed on documenting acts of benevolence.”

One could argue that the rest of the story was being amply covered by other media. It’s important to tell the audience, perhaps explicitly, what is being left out.

False positives. Restorative narrative does not mean the good guys win, or that the positive narrative promoted by a company or community should be accepted without question. Especially when an uplifting angle serves particular interests, skepticism is called for as much in restorative narrative as it is in other forms of nonfiction storytelling.

Journalists aren’t trained to do this kind of work. Most journalists have been trained, on the job if not in the classroom, to begin their reporting with a focus on a problem. Although effective as far as it goes, such an approach often fails to discover the full arc of the story. Other approaches (ivoh favors the Appreciative Inquirymethod) pursue what is working and will require new training.

Eric Le Reste discusses Canadian Public
Television project on returning student
Restorative narrativists are probably a self-selecting group. Journalists who think of themselves as storytellers, not newshounds or systems analysts, will want to do this kind of work. Some already are.

As an organization, ivoh is focused on all forms of media, including music, the arts and advertising as well as journalism. A presentation by artist Riki Moss and a performance led by cellist Michael Fitzpatrick prompted discussion of restorative narrative in those media. But for the most part, this initial inquiry focused on various journalistic platforms.

Help us figure out this niche of storytelling

In the process of trying to define this thing called “restorative narrative,” we often felt the need to defend why this is a valid form of storytelling — why it isn’t a whitewash of reality.

Conflict is one of the core elements of journalism. When people complain about the media’s focus on “bad news,” the standard response is, “It’s not news if the plane lands safely.”

If we were to dig into people’s complaints, perhaps we would discover that they aren’t really talking about good news vs. bad. Maybe people simply lack the media vocabulary to explain what they would like to see more of.

We hope that we’ve laid the groundwork for this discussion.

In the coming weeks, we’ll point out stories that have characteristics of restorative narrative. You can help us by tweeting with the #restorativenarrative hashtag or tweeting to @ivohMEDIA. Ivoh is planning a larger gathering June 26-29, 2014 to further explore restorative narrative. If you’re interested in taking part, please contact Bill Mitchell.

In the meantime, let’s continue the conversation in the comments below. What’s your view of restorative narrative? How might media makers pursue it to maximum effect?

(Bill Mitchell contributed to this report.)

Friday, August 30, 2013

An Interview with David Inocencio of the Beat Within

We're pleased to re-post Katy McCarthy's recent interview with David Inocenio of The Beat Within, which appeared in Juvenile In Justice. TWI has been supporting The Beat since 2007.

“The Beat Within” by Casper.
Image courtesy of The Beat Within.
David Inocencio is the coolest. He’s one of those guys who starts talking about his passion — bringing a voice to the voiceless incarcerated masses — and you think to yourself, “Why can’t everyone be such a badass crusader for human rights and the arts?” But that’s just what David does. As founder of The Beat Within, David Inocencio works to bring a crucial expressive outlet to kids behind bars. The Beat Within is two things: a biweekly publication of writing and art from inside juvenile halls and prisons, and a workshop program inside juvenile halls across the U.S.  It all started in 1996, when David started facilitating writing workshops in San Francisco juvenile hall. What he found was staggering, that young people behind bars had so much more to say than was perhaps revealed in a police report or psychiatric evaluation. He found that what he could provide them with, a voice and a place to air it, was critical to their self-esteem and ability to feel connected to the outside world. 

A San Franciscan born and raised, David always knew he wanted to make a difference in his community. “In the late 80s/early 90s I saw the drug (crack) epidemic, rising youth violence and the decline of the public schools and I figured that I needed to connect with this population because their truth wasn’t being told,” he said. “I knew it was important to tell their story to their peers and also to those outside the system.”

The writing and art produced by young TBW participants is poignant and tragic. Each piece — be it a poem or a drawing — paints a humanizing and complex self-portrait of a young person’s life history. Oftentimes, that is a history riddled with abuse, neglect, poverty, drug abuse and violence. The writing is also deeply insightful. Every piece I read is a reminder that these children are just that — children, with sorrows and hopes and dreams that need to be expressed and listened to.

Today, 17 years since their humble beginnings, The Beat Within has expanded exponentially to serve over 5,000 youth annually through workshops operated in 13 California county juvenile halls and at facilities in Arizona, Texas, New Mexico, Hawaii, Oregon and in Washington, DC. Good news for you, they are always accepting donations and volunteers! But if you’re not convinced yet, read on. You will be.

Katy McCarthy: So, how did The Beat Within get started?

David Inocencio: I saw a need for it. I was working at the juvenile hall in San Francisco and through that work I recognized a real need to give these young people a voice. They were being unheard in every aspect — everywhere from the courtroom to their day-to-day lives. In the work I did prior to The Beat Within, I did a great job of building relationships. So, when I approached the juvenile hall in San Francisco about starting writing and conversation workshops there was no red tape — with open arms they embraced my visions. I didn’t know I was going to start a publication. This was January 1996. I just knew the importance of listening to human beings and building trust. I saw what you got out of that. You got young people hungry to connect. That there was more to their stories than a police report, a psyche evaluation, etc. Little did I know at that point that my colleagues from Pacific News Service and I, especially Sandy Close (who believe in my work and my vision), were creating the template of The Beat Within, which would become what it is today.
Art from youth in Bernalillo County, New Mexico.
Image courtesy of The Beat Within.

Nine months later Tupac died and around the young people I was working with came an outpouring of response, and it was so moving I knew I needed to publish this writing quickly so that people could know how they felt. It was shortly thereafter, in September 1996, that we committed to being The Beat Within — a weekly publication of art and writing from inside the hall.

TBW is more than a publication. It is truly organic and has organically grown. It has moved beyond the city and state. There is a lot of hunger from other counties to be a part of this form. They see it as truly a lifeline for these young people — giving a voice to the voiceless. I am blown away by how many counties have embraced TBW and our work. We’ve been able to connect with so many institutions. People really feel a connection with the work.

A judge in San Francisco told me once that the TBW publication was a real window into the world of these young people. Young people who are up against it dealing with hard choices and raising themselves. We need to pull them into the conversation. It’s an amazing resource guide if you use it that way, a great indicator of what the struggles are. A lot of the same issues keep popping up. Issues of family, dysfunction, addiction, and above all a hunger to connect and be heard.

K.M: What is the most important issue TBW is working on today?

D.I: Giving a voice to the voiceless. Empowering these young people to realize how important their voices are and that there is a platform and a place for them to be heard. They have to make the ultimate choice — low road high road: do I abuse my body or feed it with knowledge? So we do our program, and they need to realize it’s their choice to change their lives. That’s a lot for a young person. They also have this amazing opportunity to tell the system (and their peers) where it’s broken and what it needs. We encourage them to be teachers and to share their truths.

K.M: I’m sure in your work you have encountered people with amazing/heartbreaking stories about their experience with the juvenile justice system. Can you share one with us?

D.I: There was a fourteen-year-old boy, James, charged with a double homicide for gang related killings. He raised himself in the youth system, before being sent off to adult prison where he would serve 30-years to life. James is someone I worked with closely. The juvenile hall feared him in a sense. They wanted to segregate him from his peers, because of the high profile nature of his case, so they kept him in isolation for long stretches for a couple of years. He should have been put in the maximum-security unit with others, yet they isolated him from everyone, so he wasn’t in our weekly writing workshops, but afterwards I would always stop by his cell and talk to him and give him a prompt and a copy of the beat. The facility administrators kept him disconnected, but they allowed him a pencil and paper. He would give me these amazing writings. He also, at that time, was a new father. Fresh out of 8th grade he and his girlfriend got pregnant. So he’s coming to terms with being a father. I worked with him over time, and he delivered some of the most powerful, eloquent writing I’d ever read at that time. I was able to watch him grow from a 14-year-old wanting to be the biggest, baddest gangster to an 18-year-old realizing he had thrown a part of his life away. It’s the whole idea of seeing him grow and how powerful an outlet The Beat was to him. He ended up with this amazing following because the facility allowed me to publish his work. Writing was his way of communicating with his peers, and it was so respectful that all of us could embrace it, despite the sign on his cell door saying that no one should communicate with this minor.

There are so many stories of young people learning how powerful their voices were after working with us. In some cases there have been lawyers and advocates using TBW as a character witness in helping shed light that this young person, their client, has grown up quite a bit in the system and is not the same person who initially walked in, thanks to their writing. Of course, action speaks louder than words, but these young people have only their words until they are given, if they are lucky, a chance to put their words into action. The Beat is consistent in their lives when there isn’t any consistency, so these kids trust and share with you. There is so much more to them.

K.M: What are TBW’s goals for the future? Where do you want to see TBW go?

D.I: I want to take care of funding for the next year. We still do workshops EVERYDAY, but I had to cut the publications back to two double-issues a month. It’s just a matter of getting the word out, being the face in the community, and building relationships with folks that can share the vision. This year I’m blown away by how many folks in the Midwest want to get involved and get their kids involved — Illinois, St. Louis … We are also connected with a juvenile hall in El Salvador, where two Fulbright Scholars are working so we’ve been able to feature those kid’s writing for the past couple of months. I aim to see that The Beat Within is alive and well in 10-20 years, staying true to our mission of giving a voice to the voiceless.
Artwork by Rhonda Jones.
Image courtesy of The Beat Within.

When the initial workshops happened in 96’ I stressed to the kids that “no matter where you go, just keep on writing—whether it’s prison, a solitary housing unit, or freedom.” We publish works from those who have moved on beyond juvenile hall and want to stay connected and share their stories: The Beat Without. They want to reach out, to donate their words to help break the stereotypes. That prison isn’t cool. These stories speak to the youngsters. It’s important to get the elders to be a part of the conversation and to include that in our publication.

K.M: How is TBW distributed to those on the inside?

D.I: When we had money, we had an out-of-control mailing list of prisoners who wanted it and couldn’t afford it and we would send a copy to them. Now, things are tighter. Everyone who gets published gets a copy of it in the mail, and kids in every workshop take away a copy. At a workshop on Tuesday night, all 150 kids walked away with a copy to read in their cells.

K.M: What does a workshop look like?

D.I: Workshops are all one hour — they all have the same writing prompts, no matter where you are (D.C., S.F., N.Y.). The leaders give the kids the prompts, they discuss them as a group, the leader shares a passage, and then we all share our stories. Once we exhaust the 3-4 prompts we break off into writing groups. Ideally there are 2-3 facilitators per class and we walk around and check in, helping with grammar, sometimes checking in to talk about the stress of court tomorrow and just listening. Maybe there is another kid who can’t write, but wants to be in the publication… we may be helping him or sitting with him penning his story. They know its cool because it gets published and goes to all these interesting institutions — more than 25 — beyond their own. I want them to feel an ownership. The other night I told kids, “I spoke at SF State and told them about the success of our project and your writing.” It takes a whole community to pull it off. At the end we open it up for them to read what they’ve written aloud and we all clap. The counselors and the guards standing nearby are always blown away when they hear these kids talking about longing for the touch of their mothers, the fear of the unknown, saying “all I want to do is be home with my mom and I cry in my pillow.” When these kids write, a lot of pain and weakness comes out. And then we make sure that every young person walks out with a publication. Speaking of the publication, we also make sure that every entry that is published in The Beat Within has a response from us adults. We want the young person to know at least one person is paying attention to what it is they are writing about.

K.M: What is the best thing that a concerned citizen can do today to get involved in your work?

D.I: Donations of any size are always needed and appreciated and can help us with our printing costs for the 60-80 page publication. We are always accepting volunteers. We have monthly training sessions. We have over 200 volunteers, all just trying to touch lives. All it takes is an individual with an interest in wanting to touch lives. All ages are welcome, though you have to be at least 21 years old to go into juvenile hall.

Thanks David! 

Stay connected with the Beat Within!
Also: through their website you can get access, with a small donation, to most of their publications!

Friday, August 23, 2013

From The Kids’ Table To The Adults’ Table: Taking Relationships Seriously in a World of Networks

By John Esterle, Malka Kopell & Palma Strand 

Thanks to all our colleagues who shared this story! Thanks to PACE for making it available to its members and to Cindy Gibson who sent it to her national network. 
Follow the links to read the insightful introduction to this article from Niki Jagpal on NCRP’s Blog, the kind words of the NCG and Phil Buchanan's highlight on The CEP blog.

You can download the article on The Whitman Institute's website.

In recent years, funders, practitioners and academics have been paying increased attention to the key role social networks play in addressing issues of public concern. Collective impact, funder-supported grantee networks, and cross-sector collaborations all reflect this trend. 

Our own experiences—in philanthropy, consulting, and academia—lead us to applaud the network “crescendo” and join the chorus. We want to pause the music for a minute, however, to issue a challenge. 

Networks are made up of people—people who are in relationship with each other. But we’ve noticed that paeans to networks do not always encompass lifting up the importance of relationships. For networks to fulfill their promise, that has to change. 

It’s hardly news to say that personal relationships built on trust, respect, and empathy are an important factor in creating resilient, adaptive, and innovative organizations and communities. Indeed, people working in a range of contexts and settings often say that personal relationships are foundational to their work. Why is it then that when it comes to writing grant proposals and measuring impact, relationships - and the processes involved in building them—too often recede into the background? 

The need to start prominently raising this question is what moved the three of us to write this article. Our operating assumption is that taking networks seriously means that we all—especially funders—must take relationships seriously. Devoting adequate resources to building and sustaining authentic relationships is key to greater progress on a wide variety of fronts. 

From the Kids’ Table to the Adults’ Table

Photo Credit: Evil Erin on Flickr
There is often an awkwardness in taking relationships seriously. Particularly when it comes to funding decisions, relationships have been seated, so to speak, at the “kids’ table.” We think that it is time to bring them to the fore, to invite them to the “adults’ table”—even though this may entail a gawky “adolescent” phase. Identifying sources of discomfort will help. 

Four sources of discomfort are immediately apparent. First, our society has traditionally seen the cultivation of relationships as a “soft skill,” a manifestation of heart rather than head. Heart and head are understood to be two distinct aspects of the human experience, and Western culture reveres the head, the cognitive. As Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am.” Recognizing both that the dichotomy between “hard skills” and “soft skills” is false and that “soft” and “hard” skills are equally essential moves us toward taking relationships seriously. 

Second, we live in an individualistic culture. Independence, personal autonomy, and freedom have historically been our most cherished values. Networks and their relationships, however, embody interdependence. Liberian peace activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee has described the African concept of “ubuntu” as capturing an awareness that “I am what I am because of who we all are." Recognizing that the individual and the social are inextricably intertwined supports taking relationships seriously. 

Third, we lack agreed-upon criteria for measuring relationships and their quality, perhaps because of our historical and cultural inattention to and undervaluation of relationships. With increased attention to and respect for relationships, progress on this front is already evident. For example, work on “Emotional Intelligence” (Daniel Goleman) and on increasing the vocabulary of emotion (Marshall Rosenberg’s “Nonviolent Communication”) helps us assess and measure relationships. 

Fourth and finally, relationships take time, yet our culture focuses on the short term. Impatience is not simply an individual characteristic; immediacy is institutionalized. We discount the value of future costs and benefits in public and organizational decision-making in favor of those closer to hand. Countering this pull means intentionally lengthening our time horizon and allowing the time for relationships to grow. 

“Soft” relationships for “hard” problems 

But what do high-quality relationships really bring to the table? For one, they often bring a new perspective. According to Martha McCoy, Executive Director of Everyday Democracy, an operating foundation that focuses on community change, “if you and your network partners aren’t in a good relationship, you don’t listen to each other. And more important, you don’t have the potential to change each other. This inhibits problem-solving.” 

McCoy adds that high-quality relationships “have the power to disturb the status quo. Some people think that relationships are all about not rocking the boat – i.e., “can’t we just all get along?” But an authentic relationship can provide the catalyst and the support for difficult change.” 

Matt Leighninger, Executive Director of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium, a national network of civic engagement and democracy-building organizations, emphasizes that strong relationships open up perspectives on community problems: “Current problem-solving structures in communities are often fairly narrow. People in issue-based institutions don’t see the relevance of other issues or citizens with broader interests. Holistic, sustained networks of relationships help get past these silos.”

Funder Support for Relationships

These benefits aside, you can see how the sources of discomfort about relationships play out in terms of funding. Foundations can be notorious for their short attention spans. In the drive toward measurement and metrics, talking about relationship-building as a measure of impact may seem suspect, so it’s safer not to go there. Finally, if relationships are important, might that not apply to funders too? If they’re asked to walk their talk, what might that mean for their relationships with their grantees? With other funders? Exploring those questions asks a risk-averse sector to enter risky territory. 

Fortunately, we are seeing concrete examples of what can happen when funders recognize relationships as having a place at the theory-of-change table—when funders support strengthening relationships where they are weak … or absent. The Barr Foundation’s Fellows Program, for example, supports the “nurturing” of cooperative relationships among Boston’s non-profit leaders over time with the identified purpose of encouraging the emergence of a more “collaborative culture. “ (Stanford Social Innovation Review Summer 2012) 

Peter Pennekamp, President Emeritus of the Humboldt Area Foundation on California’s northern coast, describes a very intentional and strategic relationship-building initiative that addressed a stalemate between oppositional networks that pitted the timber industry against environmentalists. “By facilitating the development of relationships between local timber and environmental leaders, the existence of which at first had to be profoundly confidential due to both sides’ perceived risk in meeting, a third network, based on concern for a shared community, was born.”

Funders and non-profit leaders in relationship at TWI's 2012 retreat.

Funders as Community Members 

When funders support relationships, they open themselves up to becoming part of the relational web of their communities, which can provide additional opportunities for positive change. Leslie Medine, Executive Director of On the Move, an incubator for community initiatives driven by young leaders in Napa, California, attributes the effectiveness of a neighborhood initiative to create opportunities for Latino youth to this mutuality: “In this network, more than any other that I’ve ever been a part of, all the partners involved – the school principal, the local hospital outreach director, the primary funders and our key young leaders – all of us understand that our work is totally interdependent. To each of us this means that I literally can’t get my work done without you.” 

Similarly, Lyn Wallin Ziegenbein, Executive Director of the Peter Kiewit Foundation, a private independent philanthropic trust in Omaha, Nebraska, says, “We place a high priority and value on building enduring relationships with our grantees. That aspect of our work transcends individual grants and moves our entire body of work toward Mr. Kiewit’s fundamental goal for his philanthropy: to build and sustain the communities we share, literally and figuratively. As we see it, the Omaha community is relationships.” 

This true interdependence – including funders in the mix – paves the way for the kind of deep collaboration and problem-solving that is necessary to tackle complicated community problems.

The Civity Networks Project—Taking Relationships Seriously

Photo credit:
We are currently working together—John as funder, Malka as lead practitioner, and Palma as advisor—on a networks project that takes relationships seriously: The Civity Networks Project. Using Silicon Valley as a test site, and partnering with the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, the Project seeks to build the social trust that enables regional problem-solving by strengthening civic networks in the region. 

Rather than creating a new network, the Project is designed to “tune up” the networks that currently exist in the region. As a first step, 50 leaders are chosen strategically to represent a wide range of issues, groups, sectors, and geography. Then, a deep, individualized intervention invites each leader to see him or herself as a regional actor and to align his or her work with the good of the region as a whole. 

The centerpiece of the intervention is a one-on-one in-person meeting with each leader. The intervention focuses on crystallizing each leader’s intent to build relationships that enhance “civity”—the kind of cross-cutting social trust that underlies the region’s capacity to address regional challenges and seize regional opportunities. From that first one-on-one meeting grow additional opportunities for each leader to deepen his or her self-reflective experience and to take additional steps to act on that experience. 

The theory of change envisions these network “tune-ups” leading to “butterfly effects” that contribute to regional resilience by instigating small but important improvements in how each leader operates within his or her own networks. When key leaders pay attention to, cultivate, and enrich the location and quality of the relationships within their own networks, “civity” and social trust increase and regional problem-solving improves. 

The Project includes an evaluation component to both assess Project results and gain information about existing civic networks and the relationships within them. We believe that the relationship-focused Civity Network Pilot Project will enhance our understanding and therefore our ability to harness the power of networks. Taking relationships seriously, in our view, entails the kind of rigor the Project embodies.

Relationships in the Foreground 

The Whitman Institute, the independent foundation that John leads, periodically gathers its own “network” to build and deepen relationships and to cross-fertilize stories and ideas. After its last retreat, Jon Funabiki, the Executive Director of Renaissance Journalism, an interdisciplinary center in San Francisco that identifies and sparks new journalistic models that serve communities, wrote: “Relationships have been important to me for many years. Yet they have always been in the background, rather than the foreground. I will work harder to nudge them forward from now.” 

It’s time for all of us –in our various sectors—to move relationships to the foreground to enhance our picture of social change. Let’s begin; let’s experiment; let’s share what we learn. 

About the Authors 

John Esterle is the Executive Director of The Whitman Institute, an independent foundation that invests in the power of relationships, constructive dialogue and the connections they generate to trigger problem solving and creative approaches required to achieve a healthy, peaceful, equitable and sustainable world. As President Emeritus he serves on the board of Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement, is a member of LeaderSpring’s Leadership Council and Active Voice’s Advisory Committee, and co-chairs Northern California Grantmakers’ Organizational Effectiveness and Professional Development Committee.

Photo credit:
Malka Kopell is an expert in the field of civic engagement and collaboration. In 1990, she founded Community Focus, a non-profit that works with local governments to develop and facilitate cross-sector collaboration to address tough problems in communities. She served as a program officer at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, supporting civic engagement and conflict resolution programs around the country, and she was the first managing director of the Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society at Stanford University. She currently assists governments, non-profits and foundations to develop and support stakeholder networks.

Palma Strand is a Professor of Law at the Creighton Law School, where she is associated with the Werner Institute of Negotiation and Dispute Resolution. She teaches Civic Organizing and Democracy, Local Government Law, Alternative Dispute Resolution, and Street Law among other courses. Prof. Strand has done extensive civic engagement work in metropolitan regions including Washington, DC and Omaha, NE. She has ties to the creators of the civic organizing approach and developed the concept of “civity.” She is the current Chair of the University Network for Collaborative Governance.

For more information about the Civity Networks Project, contact Palma Strand at and Malka Kopell at

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Purpose & Passion: 3 Stories

By John Esterle

Jon FunabikiIn our summer newsletter, Jill Blair framed TWI’s theory of change as dialogue + connection + relationships = impact.  How to capture that equation in compelling and creative ways is an ongoing question for TWI – as it is for many who participate in gatherings that open up spaces for meaningful conversation and connection. 

Jon Funabiki, Renaissance Journalism’s Executive Director admirably meets that challenge with his recent posts about  “Purpose and Passion,” a storytelling retreat for journalists that RJ organized – and that TWI was pleased to support. I urge you to read all three.

In his first post, Jon provides a thoughtful overview of what transpired and some of the people involved.

His second explores the metaphor of wearing a mask and the question: “What does it mean if we can’t be our “authentic selves” with our colleagues?” Certainly, this is a question that applies to all of us no matter what field we are in.  I was in a small group conversation just this week that asked: What does it mean if funders and grantees (or grant seekers) can’t be their authentic selves with each other?

His third post, “Listening for when the bow string sings,” offers some wisdom and a lovely metaphor that emerged from their discussions.

Taken together, Jon’s three posts paint a powerful picture of what can happen when we create the time and space to share stories and engage in deep inquiry and reflection.  One of the journalists who participated wrote, “It is so rare to be able to connect with colleagues in this field in such a personal human way.” With more reporting like Jon’s, I think such efforts might indeed become less rare.  And if they become more commonplace ( a guy can hope!), who knows what might happen?

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Be the Cheetah! Nonprofit Leadership For Our Time

CJ Callen

By CJ Callen

While recently scanning The New York Times I came across this promo for the article “Cheetahs’ Secret Weapon: A Tight Turning Radius”:
“A study shows that the large feline’s key to hunting success is not its speed but its skill at leaping sideways, changing directions abruptly, and slowing down quickly.”
Perhaps no truer set of words capture what it takes to effectively lead a nonprofit organization in 2013. In the past, I have observed a reverence for powerful organizations that move quickly (though not necessarily adeptly or with finesse). Accelerating at their rapid pace they tend to catch the attention of investors, which fuels the cycle of speed and power. Of course, when things unexpectedly get in the way and impede progress, they are often not able to adapt and their fall can be a hard one.
I’m a firm believer in a different approach, one that honors power and control – and adaptability, and which will ensure ongoing success even when roadblocks pop up. As a nonprofit leader at the helm of an organization that is over 20 years old, I don’t think power alone will do. Because we are older we can’t move with the speed that comes from being the new kid on the block. We are mature and, so, more complex, which tends to reduce our MPH. But we have self-knowledge that we have learned in our journey coupled with some interesting moves and the flexibility of a studied yogi. This has helped our organization to stay focused and remain alert, to spot opportunity and pursue it, and to slow down quickly to seize opportunity and make forward progress. Like the cheetah, our success lies in our ability to adapt to what’s happening around us and to recalibrate our path accordingly. No time for strategic planning here but this approach reflects a deep appreciation of strategic thinking coupled with immediate action.
So how can we build organizations that can turn on a dime? How can we build in our board cultures a reverence for power combined with dizzying control? These are the true moves needed to ensure meaningful systemic impact. And just to be crystal clear, when I say to my fellow nonprofits, “Be the cheetah,” I don’t mean be predatory but, rather, use your skills in surprising ways for far superior results. Work in ways that build your “flex” muscles. Have fun with your new dance moves.
Image: Mara 1
Here’s my story of turning on a dime. Our organization was approached to support the work of the White House Council for Community Solutions my third day on the job. We had to shift course quickly and demonstrate extreme flexibility in order to take on this new area of work on a national stage. It has had its ups and downs but I am glad that we embraced the risk and took on the work. We have learned so much that will only make us more limber when the next opportunity rolls around and we need to leap sideways, change directions abruptly, and slow down quickly.
Ok, so now that you’ve got this concept flowing in your nonprofit executive blood stream, what do you do with it?
  • Use it to help your board understand how the strategic planning work you are doing will help you have the clarity and internal capacity to turn on a dime.
  • Use it to reassure yourself when others think that the way to the Golden Fleeceis a fast straight run for the goal and you’re the lone voice for growing something slowly and thoughtfully.
  • Use it to become a more adaptive leader who is not afraid to turn on a dime because you are confident that it is the key to success.
  • Use it to jump-start a conversation among funders and nonprofits about the adaptive approaches needed to build strong social justice movements. (For my action step on this, please see the invitation below.)
In closing, with the cheetah analogy in mind, I offer you a couple of resources that I continue to revisit because they help me build my flex muscles. They are ones you may be aware of, yet they are always worth another visit.
  • Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath – I’m a student of big ideas and how change happens. This book helps us think about how to make our ideas sticks. It challenges our thinking in the best of ways and builds our “flex” muscle to make us better, more adaptive leaders.
  • Tribes by Seth Godin – My last blog was about the importance of finding your tribe and this book is all about that. Every leader needs to find the tribe that will give her the support to try new things and to move with power and control.
  • The Little Prince by Antoine Saint ExupĂ©ry – This is one of the most popular reads in the entire world and no surprise why. It inspires us to be our best, most creative selves and strikes at the heart of what it means to be a leader who is both adaptive and true. It is a reminder that when I say, “Be the cheetah” I don’t mean “Be the predator” but, rather, “Be your best self.”

An invitation: Let’s learn together about movement building

On a related note, I want and need to be in conversation with others who are committed to and want to be better at building a movement for social justice and racial equity. By “others,” I mean activists and funders alike because we both play critical and complementary roles in building strong and effective social justice movements. On the one hand, my glass is full: I have change agent colleagues whom I can talk to about our work – the good, the bad, and the ugly. On the other hand, my glass is empty: I don’t have a group of funders whom I can meet with to discuss our mutual leadership roles in movement building. I want to bring together funders and nonprofit leaders who are ready for regular, open, and honest conversations so that we can engage in playful inquiry, learn from each other, and stretch our thinking.
In my last blog post I invited new nonprofit executives to join me in forming a conversation group; I was able to form a group that continues to meet and grow in numbers. My new invitation is a seemingly more difficult quest given the power dynamic that often exists between funders and nonprofit staff. But I am up for the challenge and have in my back pocket a few strategies for diminishing the dynamics – trust me, I’m a funder and a nonprofit leader. Wearing those hats has afforded me plenty of empathy to spare for both.
So donor or funder, if you are interested in joining in conversation, please let me know. I’m keeping my fingers crossed because I want a conversation and am tired of the dance. :)  I’m sure there are like-hearted funders out there who want the same. I look forward to meeting you.
You can reach me at or

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Find Your Tribe: The “Who” of Leading Change

Recently I found myself chatting with someone with roots in philanthropy about my current effort to lead my organization in a process of re-imagining our future to increase our social impact. That person provided her insights and support; she recognized that my “big idea” for my organization sounded like it built on our organization’s history and strengths. She also understood that I was doing this as a process of co-creation involving all our stakeholders.

Time flew by because I did not need to explain all my terms and she had no defenses up or agendas hidden. She told me to “Find your tribe!” so that I can be surrounded by positive supporters who can help me maintain the momentum as I shepherd my organization into a new era – a transformation that won’t happen overnight. “Will you be a member of my secret brain trust?” I asked. “Yes,” she responded. And with that, I have my second member of the trust. (The first member is a wonderful funder who is a thought partner but not a financial supporter.)

What a refreshing connection! The day before, I suffered through a meeting with a person in the world of philanthropy who (1) condescendingly asked me if I had involved anyone else in this process (huh?!) and (2) employed the arrogant royal “WE” when I used a term that they assured me only they really understood from where they sat. I sent the person a thank you note, but no response – and no surprise. Grace rarely follows arrogance. Looking back, I can now say “definitely not my tribe,” move on, and not let that weigh me down.

Splits by Mark Setchell, on Flickr
But it gets better: After my meeting in which my friend and colleague told me to find my tribe, I found another person who understood instantly what I was trying to do, and who encouraged me and started to connect me to others who might help me figure out how best to do it. (Yeah, another new member of my tribe!) In addition to providing me with instant inspiration, she gave me a great reading list for nonprofit leaders willing to engage in playful inquiry and to take on risks – and sometimes fail – all in service to greater impact:

Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Action by Scott Sinek – This book got me with the title alone. For years, when working in the philanthropic sector, I noticed that funders often discussed the “what” and sometimes the “how” of what they do but rarely the “why.” This book captures what I tried to do: to help funders connect deeply to the “why” of their work.

Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error by Kathryn Schulz – This book reminds me of the old song lyrics, “If loving you is wrong, I don’t want to be right.” Now the trick is to go from celebrating failure in all its glory in theory to placing it squarely in the reality of the nonprofit and foundation boardroom.

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg – The bad news is that we all have some bad habits and sometimes are blind to them, but the good news is that we can be intentional about changing them.

My addition to the above list: The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life by Twyla Tharp. Any nonprofit leader embarking on a major change to their organization is going to have to call mightily on their often underutilized right brain. This book provides some good guidance on how to do that.

Tulip Top by Pink Sherbet Photography, on Flickr
So here I am: building a tribe as I launch into an exploration designed to transform my nonprofit enterprise. My hope is to have the opportunity to share my story over the next two years, invite others to share theirs, and thereby break the isolation. As nonprofit leaders charged with the improbable and sometimes the impossible, we need to be proactive about creating the community or finding the tribe that will make or break our ability to advance change (from the inside and outside) that matters.

What will happen next? I don’t know but I promise to stay honest and share the true unfolding of the story. I stand before you vulnerable, excited, anxious but not alone!

Speaking of “tribes” and “community,” here’s an update: In my last blog post I asked for new executive directors (one year tenure or less) to join me in a supportive community for periodic discussions about our leadership experiences and I got it! Several new nonprofit executives jumped at the offer to start a conversation group. The five of us (with aspirations to be seven) now meet every six weeks for just an hour and a half to connect, share, and explore issues in a safe space. Will you join us in this tribe?

In community,

P.S. In the “so good I just had to share with you” category, there was a billboard with this slogan that resonated with me: “Humankind. Be Both.”

Read CJ’s 05.09.12 blog post: “Reflections of a Reflective Leader: Authenticity as Authority

Trapeze image: Mark Setchell
Tulip top image: Pink Sherbet Photography

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Connect To A Network Of Likeminded Organizations

At the Whitman Institute, we invest in the power of relationships, constructive dialogue, and the connections they generate to trigger problem solving and creative approaches required to achieve our vision.  As we move into 2013, we are looking towards inviting ever more opportunities for our network to connect to each other.  In that vein, we have "found" some of you online and compiled 2 lists of places to roam to better learn about what people in our network are up to, what questions they sitting with, and what they are working on. You can also find the list of blogs here and the Twitter feeds there. Enjoy!

Follow us @TWI_2022 and subscribe to our blog (on the right hand side of this post)!

Did we forget to add you? If you are a member of our network and we forgot to put you on our lists, send us an email with your links at

Friday, January 11, 2013

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year, everyone!  

We hope you have glided with grace, ease, and vibrance into 2013.  Here are a few notes for our network that we send with love into these first, fresh days of the year.

A New Face
We're welcoming Fabienne Doze to the team to provide much needed, hands on communications and administrative support a few days a week.
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Fabienne is a recent graduate of Golden Gate University where she received her Master of Arts in Psychology with honors. She volunteers for the International Coach Federation - San Francisco Bay Area Coaches as Director of Virtual Programs where she researches and tests technology for virtual meetings and coordinates gatherings in the Bay of San Francisco. During her studies, she worked as the Global Strategic Initiative Manager for a social media start-up and was responsible for developing and launching some the organization's largest Organizational Development programs. Prior to her Master, she pursued a Bachelor of Business Administration in France during which she worked in Business Development, Communication, Marketing, Public Relations and Management Consulting for a variety of businesses in many countries, such as France, England, Morocco, and the United States. Welcome Fabienne!

Connect, Connect, Connect
We want to gently remind you about the TWI Connection Fund.  Fiscal Year 2012-2013 Connections Fund:  As a way to encourage our network to be in relationship we have set aside resources for “connecting.” Up to $1,000 per nonprofit organization that attended the retreat is available. For budgetary reasons, we are limiting the eligible organizations to either current or former grantees. This resource is an invitation to follow up on conversations, to come together for mutual learning and support, or to just get to know each other and explore possibilities. The funds are unrestricted and can be used for travel, meals, renting space, etc. Configurations can be of any size as long as at least two of you are partnering on an endeavor to connect. This resource is available from August, 2012 until June 30, 2013.

Participation is completely voluntary and emergent. Our aim here is to experiment with how we can support connection and collaboration within the TWI community in ways that move both our individual and our collective work forward. Please let us know if you have any questions, and contact Pia or John if you'd like to pursue a connection.

You Make Us Smile
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We look forward to hearing your stories of struggle and triumph, and laughing with you in the coming year.  Without you, there is no magic amalgem of good people and organizations that we are happy to call our network.  Thank you for all the ways you creatively are demonstrating the potential and power of TWI's mission:

We invest in the power of relationships, constructive dialogue and the connections they generate to trigger problem solving and creative approaches required to achieve our vision of a healthy, peaceful, equitable and sustainable world.