“How do you spend your days?”
This unexpected and welcome prompt question began our May 11 ELNYA workshop, “Acting Out: Leadership for Social Change.” The group of 35 responded one by one to the question (and other “getting to know you”s), delighting in the opportunity to share the human side of their daily experience, beyond their job titles, elevator pitches, and affiliations.
“I wake up and take care of my children.”
“I stare at infinite spreadsheets.”
“I make up stories.”
“I strategize ways to increase equity in my field.”
The question launched three hours of community building and engaged listening. Far from providing a “tool kit” or “expert” advice to emerging leaders in the field, my intention (in envisioning and structuring the event alongside a team of inimitable facilitators) was to remind us of what we already have, and allow us the opportunity to uncover our tool kit, instead of frantically searching for things to fill it up.
Facilitators Daniel Banks, Petrushka Bazin-Larsen, and Ty Defoe, came from varied experiences and practices, yet would likely agree that among a leader’s most necessary qualities is their ability to authentically connect with those around them. And for those interested in social change, no amount of skills development can hide the lack of this essential characteristic.
Our limited time together was structured around three exercises: a pair share; a story circle; and mind blazing. With each exercise, the number of people with whom participants interacted grew, subsequently expanding our sense of intimacy to more members of the group. While in pairs, Daniel asked participants to share simply "What did it take for you to be here tonight?" and “What are you excited about right now in your life?” and we watched as the experience of listening fully (without interrupting) and being listened to (without interruption) sunk in. It wasn’t easy.
In small story circles, groups discussed leadership qualities that are most important to them, and how they developed those qualities. We discussed the idea of “radical empathy” and “shine theory,” reflected on what it means to take care of all of the voices in the room, and marveled at the fact that, in reflective spaces like the one we’d created, we really didn’t waste any time talking about “stereotypical” leadership qualities.
Our final exercise was community building at lightning speed. Petrushka led the group in “mind-blazing,” a technique that originated at the Highlander Research and Education Center.
Each person in the circle wrote a question on an index card:
“How do you dispel or address stagnancy?”
“If you operate with a non-hierarchical/shared view of leadership, but not everyone in your work circle does, what are tools to open dialogue to shift styles?”
“How do we infuse resistance, opposition and deconstruction with joy?
"How can tearing things down be a positive act?”
“Where can I find a physical store in Manhattan with a massive variety of shoelaces?”
“When is it time to quit your day job?”
Each question was then read by a different person out loud in the circle, with the reader and the group taking two minutes to respond with advice, support, or direct answers. Mind-blazing activates everyone in the circle, allows for anonymity, and makes space for after-the-fact responses by leaving the index cards in the back of the room for additional response.
By the end of the evening, the room was buzzing. Having taken several detours for longer conversations (including a discussion of color conscious casting), we were nearly out of time when Daniel asked everyone to return to their original pairs. Pairs became “accountability partners,” and each individual was asked to commit to one action they wanted to take in the coming weeks or months at the workplace, on a creative team, in the classroom - wherever their leadership is on display. They were challenged to not only make their commitment a reality, but to check in with their accountability partner on the way to that goal, ensuring that the work of change wasn’t happening in a vacuum.
For me and for many I’ve spoken with since May, lessons learned at the workshop still resonate. These spaces - spaces that breed support, care, and healthy collaboration - are rare. But as arts leaders who are looking to move the needle on an issue they care about, who are interested in creating radically inclusive spaces, or are looking to build a culture that is uncompromisingly values-driven, they are a necessity.
Suggested Meeting Template
Welcome Table Initiative Facebook page (Daniel Banks' recent initiative)
The Question of Cultural Diplomacy:Acting Ethically by Daniel Banks
SM from Horses Make a Landscape More Beautiful by Alice Walker
How do Leaders Deal with Failure? (TED Radio Hour)