Emotion, Nonprofits, Reflection

Courage. Coragem.

Two weeks ago, nonprofit and community leaders gathered together in Yakima, Washington, to work in teams on hard issues. In several different conversations, people used the word “courage.” They described some people as having it, others as needing it, and a general hope that the community could muster the courage needed to do things differently.

I couldn’t help but think back to a time when a different community of leaders used the word “courage” to describe what they needed to have. I wrote about that experience in 2012, and the lessons from then seem as relevant now.  

As we go into the Thanksgiving holidays, I am tremendously grateful for the women I got to know in Salvador, Brazil– and the nonprofit leaders and partners across Washington I work with today. 

Coragem

Originally posted in February 2012

NancyTeachingSalvadorI was in Salvador, Brazil, last month teaching a class on NGO capacity building and grant writing, sharing everything I know about building community and structure around a mission that makes the world a better place.  On Friday, as all of the tools and tricks it takes to run an effective organization settled into the minds of class participants, one leaned forward and said, “Temos que ter coragem.”  We have to have courage.  Courage that allows them to pioneer new ways of doing things, knowing that they will make mistakes in front of each other along the way.

Indeed, courage was on the minds of these women that day.  A discussion about program evaluation shifted from graduation rates to measuring any gain in self esteem that might come through education and social support.  They described trying to get young women to even consider taking a university entrance exam within a culture of presumed failure.  Each of the women in the room had taken the Vestibular at least twice—several three and four times— before passing, and the young women they work with know that it is uphill battle to learn enough to pass this rigorous exam.  Their dreams of achieving a university education required courage to march through the pain of endless study with no guarantee of success, foregone wages, and, for some, social stigma for even trying.

As it turns out, the inner demons that haunt young African-Brazilian women were in good company. The night before, a police strike began, resulting in violence and looting in the neighborhoods to which these women were returning to that night.  By the time this conversation was happening, over eighty people had been killed, and randomness of crime had uprooted any sense of public security for the poor residents of the city.  The fear of what might happen was written on their faces.  They left early to journey home on public buses, some traveling alone as far as the airport.

Courage was on their minds, and now it is on mine.  These women are working in a space in which they have to muster together personal, professional, and social courage, battling internal and external demons around every turn.  They have to lift the spirits of others—giving others hope for a better tomorrow—when the same demons haunt them.  The success they achieve in these circumstances is heroic and humbling.

There I sat, listening to their discussion, aware of the space between their experiences and my reality.  What was my role in this partnership? Encourage? Encourage has someone else as its object.  It is passive, distant, and possibly condescending.  I was on a flight out the next morning.  Who was I to tell them to keep up the great work?

What struck me about my week in Salvador was how open these women were to learn and to teach, how they had made a commitment to social change and were in this work for the long term, and how they intuitively understood that their big societal issues were made up of many small problems, all of which could be tackled with the right resources.  They weren’t afraid to have the hard conversations.

Our alternative to encouraging them is to have courage with them.  We can be partners in hard conversations that cross cultural and power boundaries, giving each other the benefit of the doubt along the way. We can challenge our own limits, professionally and personally, in solidarity with them.  And we can build a long-term community in which to learn, celebrate, and labor together through whatever demons come our way.  To make a difference in this world, they reminded me, temos que ter coragem.

Adult learning, Nonprofits

Project Runway: A Lesson in Adult Learning

Binge watching reality television provides a lot of time between the drama to think about learning. Such was the case when my daughter and I watched a season of Project Runway over the course of two weeks. It was my first deep dive into the world of high fashion design and catty criticisms about whether one contestant can stitch straight or not. The design side was amazing to see.

cut up shirt
Exhibit A: The shirt that did not make it.

I’ve sewed since in high school, though seldom anything I would wear. By the second show, I had pulled out fabric and a pattern and sewed a jacket. By the end, I had my computer propped on a box to be able to watch while sewing, and I was pulling shirts out of my closet and sketching patterns to try and replicate them. One is already in the scrap pile. The other is a viable shirt, albeit one my daughter declared “something an old lady would wear.” I ignored the old lady part and went with the “would wear” possibility.

All of this to say that watching experts do something over and over again demystifies the process. It quickly became clear that sewing is really just geometry, carving shapes out of fabric in a way that allows seams to fall flat. Sleeves all need a certain give to allow movement; zippers add a rigidity that needs accommodation; the characteristics of the fabric make or break any design.

What does all of this have to do with adult learning?

First, what we know going into an experience determines what we get out of it. I watch Project Runway and am inspired to sew. My daughter watches Project Runway and decides sewing is too hard. The difference? I knew enough to see possibility. Prior knowledge serves two functions: it provides a foundation for new knowledge and shapes our confidence and curiosity. It can’t be said enough that teaching and learning begins with them, not us. How can we better draw on the prior knowledge of the people we teach? How can we strengthen prior knowledge going before a training?

Exhibit B: Success

Second, watching a show like Project Runway demonstrates that every fancy final product is constructed through a series of discrete steps, often the same steps repeated garment after garment. A complicated whole is achieved through simpler parts.  When you watch dress after dress being sewn, you see the design decisions that lead to a standard set of outcomes. Nothing is sacred; an evening gown can become a cocktail dress with the cut of a hem. While watching a video alone does not mean you will be able to do it too, it gives you a boost when combined with practice. Imagine if we created more opportunities to see experts at work. What if we could capture their decision-making in real time and give people time themselves to practice similar decision-making in real settings? And when it comes to content, imagine how powerful it would be if we cut away everything extra to be left with something simple and classy.

Lastly, watching Tim Gunn as a mentor is delightful. He anchors his critiques in a clear sense of the goal, often bringing designers back on track after they meander off course. His comments are crisp and honest, delivered with a sweet sense of love and protection. What any of us could achieve with a Tim Gunn by our side. The nonprofit sector would be vastly more effective if we invested in coaches to support the one-and-done learning that we too often provide.

I hear a new season of Bachelorette is starting up. I have a shirt she can borrow.

Adult learning, Nonprofits

Thinking Out Loud: How to Make Conferences into Learning Experiences that Lead to Action

We put a lot into conferences. We spend months lining up speakers with ideas intended to shift our thinking. We curate workshops and plan networking time; we publish conference programs and name tags enough to fill a table. And we aren’t the only one with a lot on the line: participants commit registration fees, travel costs, and time out of the office.

How we can make conferences worth all of this time and effort? How can we place the conference in a larger constellation of learning that starts before the big day and runs well after the conference concludes?

These are the questions that led me to try some new ideas at our most recent conference in Yakima. In the spirit of “thinking out loud,” I share them here to expand the conversation.

  1. CONFERENCE PLANNER
ConferencePlanner-page-001
Click here for the Conference Planner in pdf form.

Reflection helps us in the long run, yet getting people to stop and think before a conference can be a challenge. This year I created a two page Conference Planner and sent it with a five-article reading list five days before the conference.

During the last session of the day, I sat down at a table at the back of the ballroom. Next to me was a woman with a fully completed conference planner in front of her. She had used it to navigate through the day. Later I got an email from a local nonprofit director: I recall that you had sent out a really helpful worksheet to get the most of the conference. Could you send it to me? I’ve got some staff gearing up for state and national conferences this summer, and I’d like them to be much more focused on what they hope to learn and bring back. Just spending a few minutes with your worksheet helped me get more out of the [conference last week].”

Music to my ears! We’ll now make conference planners a regular feature.

  1. KEYNOTE PLACEMAT

Keeping people following along during a keynote address can be hard. It is too much paper—and too lecture-like—to make copies of the powerpoint itself. Still, you want to encourage reflection and note-taking that happens during pair-sharing and table conversations.

I worked with the talented Margaret (Meps) Schulte, a graphic designer with 3 Great Choices, to create a legal sized Keynote Placemat.

Keynote graphic organizerI spent far too long sharpening 280 colored pencils to have enough for a complete rainbow on each table. While some people left the placemats untouched, many of them were filled by the end of the hour.

img_0325.jpg

  1. KEYNOTE FOLLOW-ON DISCUSSIONS

Most keynote speakers challenge us to think differently, and our two keynote speakers were no different. They introduced the concept of network leadership, which requires a new mindset within a community of people who see the value in changing collaborations. Change is going to take time and a team. How do we do support follow-on conversations with smaller cohorts of participants?

DiscussionguidePage1
This is an excerpt of the complete guide. It draws on the content covered during the keynote.

We are trying something new—one month later conversations in four Central Washington communities (and one conference call)—to build on the keynote address. A local person will facilitated these conversations; we have created a discussion guide to support them. It is hard to say how many people will turn out for this. There’s only one way to find out!

 

Nothing replaces conference energy: so many people coming together into one space! That energy can propel a community forward when participants have opportunities to reflect, connect, and plan together. I’m curious to see how these activities make a difference. Hopefully I’ll have something to report back.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Action, Adult learning, Nonprofits

Wonder Woman needs her shield.

 

It is kind of like Wonder Woman leaving her lasso of truth around a rock on Themyscira. It’s as if she forgot her vibranium shield in that tower before setting off for London.

And her bracelets of submission? Back in the Paradise Island bathing grotto.

Diana still has her cunning curiosity and empathetic outlook. But her tools of the trade aren’t there to help her take action on saving humanity. She can stand nobly in that foxhole telling Steve Trevor everything she knows about rescuing women and children under siege over yonder. But knowing isn’t doing. The only way this woman can cross “No Man’s Land” is with the full package of knowledge, skills, tools, courage…. and a shield.

This is what comes to mind when I see leaders talk about the big changes they want to see in the world and then organize the same activities done for years. They call together the same people who have been called together before. They lean on experts of the topic of concern  to share what they know.

Here’s the thing. We know so much about adult learning, psychology, behavioral economics, and human development. We know about strategy and outcome-based planning. We have at our fingertips really talented people who know the process to get results that reflect the interests of others.

Our system respects the knowledge of experts and not the experts of knowledge. Paradoxically it relies on content experts and not experts in transferring that content to others.

Too often our lassos and bracelets are left in the closet. Its time to take them out.