learning resiliency

Sunday, 25 July 2010
western Massachusetts

Did you see the full moon?

Future stories of our first gathering could invoke the mythology of creation. We met on the front porch. Katie warmed us up with crazy tales of personal adventure while Nancy kept everyone’s beverage refreshed. Oliver chose to stay with us. Casual conversation carried us through the initial moves of acquaintanceship until Katie deemed the moment for introductions had arrived. Her seamless facilitation would soon be complemented by a perfectly grilled summer supper. Nancy and Bruce’s hospitality was gracious without pretension. We were at home with each other – relaxed.

Collaboration?” Vanessa’s critique rang out. “In grants they write about it, they have the script beautifully. But when it comes to working together? They don’t know how to do it.” Tim chimed in about how easy it is to become focused on “the Other” and how “they” are struggling, forgetting that “we are just muddling along, too.”  As outsiders, Raz and I spent most of the night listening and learning.

James spoke about creating “a safe space where learning can take place” and the need for “a strategy that is sustaining.” His work on fear and dominance in relation to masculinity linked him instantly with Tim, who wondered about the sense of power achieved from acts of violence. If you take that away from men who are otherwise rendered powerless by the way society is structured, what do you replace it with?

Following in her activist mother’s footsteps, Vanessa argues passionately that “people are just waiting for the moment….They’re asking the questions,” she continued, “but not to the right people.” She’s fighting what James described as his experience growing up in the Bronx: “the expectation that people who grew up where I did would not be instrumental in our communities.”  I recall Katie telling me about disenfranchised youth asking her, “How do we get to where you are?”

“I think of myself as an artist.”  Julie named one of the challenges of her work as avoiding preaching to the choir.  The Performance Project has successfully reached beyond immediate friends and family of prisoners to social workers and law enforcement officials. But did it effect change in policy?  I suppose that there must be an economic rationale to support any change. Tim told us about the “surprising conversation” he recently had with an economist working for the Connecticut Business and Industry Association. He told Tim that business has realized it can’t afford prisons anymore, and is also facing waves of retiring employees. This makes me curious about post-jail employment possibilities.

Meanwhile, in Springfield, there are signs of gentrification in the North End. Formal high school education is emphasizing four broad areas (financial, health/medical, math & science, and media), while the alternative vocational education for those “disconnected, adult learners who didn’t make it” in regular school focuses on culinary arts and machining, with an emphasis on automotive maintenance and repair. There are concerns with literacy, too. In this town boasting thirty different languages, it is a shame that signs in four languages about some specific public health hazards remain unposted. And what is (not) going on that leaves a school moldering in “mold, mildew and water issues” for twenty years?

Power and Transformative Development

In an email exchange about his book, Tim wrote, “the bottom line is always power.” Throughout the evening, questions to me from potential faculty for a resiliency learning lab were ringing in my ears: Who needs what we want to deliver? What are we doing to learn about their needs? How can we meet those needs and still satisfy ours? I don’t have the answers yet, but I was encouraged by similar patterns in each group’s ways of talking. Although, as ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ (among other possible distinctions), we are coming at the issues from different perspectives, we do share commitments such as those expressed by Vanessa and Julie about the importance of people “telling their stories in their words” and “mak[ing] the connection to larger systems.”

When James told about us leaving formal education because he refused to participate in a system that required him to be threatening and punitive, he and a colleague established “programming in a different way.” That’s what we’re trying to do, establish a different kind of structure for multiple, diverse stakeholders to learn together, practice formulating comprehensive images of the problems they face, and – ideally – facilitate a process in which community members develop specific solutions for targeted priorities.

In short, we would provide an infrastructure for “that whole organizing piece” discussed by Vanessa and James (and possibly between Julie and Vanessa in their extended huddle). With the right design, the lab for learning resiliency could be coordinated to cultivate the changing of the guard at the political level, so that people currently living in Springfield (in whichever neighborhood) can be responsible for solidifying the economic bedrock that can meet the new needs of a growing economy. There are so many global trends as well as demographic dynamics that visionary Springfielders could seize! I see Mary’s work on tensions between recent and long-established immigrant Poles as a specific resource in this regard.

All around us there are burgeoning industries in energy, increasing need for practical trades such as demolition and salvage, service needs such as simultaneous interpretation… the ingredients for turning Springfield into a thriving city where recent graduates (young professionals who are highly-capitalized and have no job opportunities elsewhere) and returning vets (who will be back in droves, soon!) would want to live. Give them the right incentives and they will come. Once they come, they will find ways to enliven the city – through small businesses and entrepreneurship. Couple civic marketing with real options for employing the poor that gives them a desirable better alternative to the street and you’ve got a transformation underway.

On this scale, cooperation is vital but does not imply or require collaboration. To achieve collaboration, there has to be more than an alliance toward a particular shared goal. Working together toward the same thing is ultimately only self-serving. The process of identifying and defining that one, “same” thing consumes energy and deflects progress. For a project to be collaborative, there must be investment in each other’s different things. The best example I have from the evening’s interaction is from James’ conversation with Tim about his apprenticeship with a master craftsman in how to work with large groups. James told us about one of his earliest conversations, in which his mentor told him – at age 14! – to go out and “act like a father” to boys younger than himself.

James was incredulous – how could he do that if he, himself, had not been fathered? Use your imagination, his teacher told him. What would you have wished your father did for you?  When you act this way to others, it will be as if it is for you. James’ career as a symbolic parent now spans forty years and several countries. If we were to collaborate, I would have to care that James’ work satisfies his own need to be parented, just as he would have to care that my work satisfies deep needs in me. While that level of relating with each other may occur, collaboration is not necessary for us to become effective co-actors in growing Springfield.

What is necessary is that we achieve alignment with each other. As long as we agree that we are heading in roughly the same direction, then we can cooperate in modeling a learning and problem-solving culture that incubates young leaders and fosters the development of ideas that can transform the city from within. After two or three years and proceeding on for decades, on full moon nights, parents can tell their children stories about where and how it all began…

6 thoughts on “learning resiliency”

  1. “Alignment”. Such a simple word, used often in our vocabulary. It reminds me of a game I played as a kid- huckle buckle beanstalk. In this game you had to find an object that was hidden in plain sight. The use of the word “alignment” is such a moment for me. There it was, hiding in plain sight. A word I desperately have been looking for.

    As a community planner and non-profit manager, we are always trying to “collaborate”. As Vanessa points out, not well. I believe this is because I have to make sure my mission is fulfilled. That’s a lot in itself. Do I really have time or capacity to worry about another organization’s outcomes? No- but I can benefit from an alignment of interests and activities that allows me to expand my own outcomes. An alignment becomes a resource network of sorts that we can use as a forum for support, creative re-fueling and productive interaction and problem solving.

    The question then becomes when is collaboration appropriate and when is an alignment what is needed. It seems we need to reframe how we think about this and not be so quick to call every interaction a “collaboration”. Further, how does “agreement” factor into each of these situations? Do we have to agree in both? Is it more important in a collaboration? Do I care less about agreement if we are aligned? Does alignment imply that we agree? Thoughts for future moments of reflection!

  2. Loved your account of the ‘power meeting’:-) In the Dutch translation some sentences are remarkably well phrased and a lot of the text is more or less understandable if one puts aside expectations about word order. Even in Finnish some of your writing makes sense. Amazing really, as your writing style is quite complex and sophisticated.

  3. Pomocommie, thanks for checking out the Dutch and Finnish translations! I’m particularly interested in picking up on Katie’s questions about “alignment” – is it a good word to use instead of “collaboration”? Do the translations carry the distinction over or does the attempted differentiation become a-muddle?

    Katie, I do think your questions are worth considering, not only during these early, introductory phases but as part of some checking-in processes along the way. It will be the behaviors we engage with each other that matter most; thinking carefully about how to describe what we want to accomplish can help us build overlap in shared values and increase our chances of success.

    In my mind, alignment is the first or largest frame for a more complicated process of calibration. The distinction is crucial when dealing with a complex system. “Alignment” implies linearity – we are all going in ONE direction, the SAME direction, and perhaps even at the same pace – or ‘should be’ – as is often implied according to the desire of whoever wants control.

    Linearity is a luxury of abstract theorizing. In human daily life, everyone is going several places at the same time, in roughly parallel – or intersecting, or opposite! – directions, towards diverse goals which may complement or compete with others’ goals. On the surface, there is chaos. If one backs away enough, there are patterns, but how does an individual work with patterns? This is something we can discover only through choosing to pay attention to connections and relationships among ourselves and the forces that influence our lives.

    If we agree, broadly, to align along some broad path of investigation in search of discovering these large patterns, then commit to try and understand the systemic nature of the patterns as phenomena in their own right (not personal, but at the structural level of groups and institutions), then we can target particular junctures where tweaking the system can ripple out and effect social changes that improve everybody’s quality of life.

    Back to Pomocommie and the matter of translations: it is patently obvious that humanity now needs systems that can handle difference (change, disruption, nonconformity, etc) more than systems that force everyone to be, to act, “to do” things in only one way. Systems (and especially the people implementing them), need to have the flexibility to “[put] aside expectations about word order.”

    Meanings are understandable whenever we decide to let them be!

  4. First thing I noticed about the Romanian translation: the “resiliency” in the title has been translated as “elasticity.” I would have guessed the machine would use the Romanian equivalent of “adaptation” (adaptare)… I just checked an English-Romanian online dictionary and they offer: 1) elasticity (elasticitate), 2) resistance (rezistentã), 3) liveliness (vioiciune)! To be resilient in Romanian, therefore, is to be elastic while smiling ☺. “Alignment” translated well (aliniere), as did “calibration” (calibrare). Another interesting finding: “on the surface, there is chaos” was translated as “on the surface, there is no chaos” (la suprafatã nu este haos)… I have no idea why the switch – the English version is very simple and the machine usually recognizes “there is” for “it exists.” Also, the translation machine was unable to come up with a Romanian correspondent for “tweaking,” so it just left the English word there. The quirky “a-muddle,” however, was translated perfectly into a slightly archaic Romanian expression (talmes-balmes). Apparently, the machine does not like chaos, but it can deal with a little bit of muddle…

  5. hello
    i had some fun translating some of this into ASL..of course, i couldnt do it all because some signs are not yet invented for some words (also true for vice versa).
    however , i was bemused with my best possible translation. it reminds me of some of the funny billboards around the world that we see on internet. e.g. child beer, children left unattended will get a free kitten, no swimming if you cant swim, dangerous game like yo-yo

    later on in this convo i like to discuss further the availability of international sysmbols and whether some of them should be updated. it is not always feasible or possible to get ASL down on paper. this will requires some scrunity.

    ok moving on here..i was touched by the poignant statement, “Linearity is a luxury…” how very true. there is usually chaos in the lives of deaf people. does this happen more often than with ordinary folks? i believe so and it has been my experience thus far..its the nature of the beast.

    i agree with katie and her questions. with some interagency efforts, there seems to be some agreement, and yet it is not always clear if the client agrees. to me, alignment strongly suggests “getting your ducks in a row” and not really convey whether an air gun is available.

    i have been involved in many scenarios to encourage deaf citizens to become better self-advocates. inspite of marvelous gains we now see that resulted in availability of certified,skilled interpreters, masterful use of technology, etc , i find that many “consumer tips” are woefully missing or not delivered in timely fashion. Language access is great and appreciated but it still “takes a village to raise a child” ??

    there are already some businesses that focus on clients’ success through capability-building approaches in five interconnected areas: organizational planning, acquiring talent, developing talent, deploying talent, and retaining talent.

    many organizations are using action learning as part of their leadership development efforts. i am not privy to information involving those efforts. however, with our team, it might be possible that we develop something along the line- “what they didnt tell you in business school”

    we are at an exciting crossroad here. i agree with steph..an opportunity exists for us to explore and implement “systems that can handle difference”

    wish you all a good day-

  6. As a non native English speaker, whose training has been more on numbers, formulas and short answers, let me comment on alignment, first. It was translated as “hizalama” which isn’t a commonly used word in daily language in this form. And calibration is translated as “kalibrasyon” which is a commonly technical term.

    It won’t make sense to say these were good or bad translations because overall I would say the Turkish translation (without looking at the original text) is practically impossible to understand. 10 being a perfect, I am going to give it … a 1. Let me try to translate back the first sentence: “first collection Future stories creation mythology could be begging.” It’s so confused, it couldn’t even figure out where to put the capital letter! 🙂 The rest of it doesn’t get much easier so I didn’t (couldn’t) go through it all.

    This might kind of make sense considering the fundamental differences between the Turkish grammar and English grammar, so there is a lot more to do than translating the vocabulary.

    Interestingly enough, to the translation of Raz’s comment I would give it a 2 for understandability. I think the translator uses the same rules that I do in my head to understand English. So what I understand more easily in English, translator does a better job in translating. When there is a lot of deviation from those rules things gets pretty incomprehensible.

    PS: “resiliency” is translated as “elasticity” in Turkish too. “She’s” couldn’t be translated and left as it is as others like “think” … (No really, we do have those Turkish… 🙂

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