I recently returned from Santa Fe, New Mexico, where I applied family activism tools to deepen community and increase inspiration among a network of 40+ notable authors and organization development consultants from throughout the USA. My intent here is to illustrate how several family activist principles and tools can be used to foster community, inspire and encourage positive action. These include the facilitation of conocimiento (communication to connect), and the use of ceremony, the talking stick and inspiration table.
The group who met was the Berrett-Koehler Authors Cooperative, a unique network of individuals who consultant and write about advancing personal, management, and social change. They all publish with Berrett Koehler, a company dedicated to advancing a world that works for all, and they meet once a year to learn and support each other. As a new author, I was invited to attend and participate in designing this 8th annual retreat. As a cultural activist I sought to position myself within the program to best encourage community building and to develop an appreciation for the power of family activism.
In the half dozen telephone conferences to plan the retreat, I nudged acceptance of the retreat theme, “Becoming a B-K Community that Works for All”; then suggested for our retreat design the use of the inspiration table, opening ceremony, and small group conversations using the talking stick. The intent of combining these tools was to open the possibility for connection to spirit, deepen connection to each other, and increase the expression of love. These tools are part of the Familia Approach which I describe in my book Family Activism.
For the opening of our retreat I arrived early to our site to organize the inspiration table so it would stand as a part of the large circle of chairs comprising our council space. As participants arrived I introduced myself to each and invited them to place their inspiration items on the table. While everyone had been invited to bring a couple of items, some had and some hadn’t. Yet, the items brought by a dozen plus participants began to bring “spirit” into our space.
The evening welcome provided by Mailee Adams (author, Change Your Question, Change Your Life, 2004) included a message she brought from Peter Block, author of Community: The Structure of Belonging, 2008, which sounded something like, “The retreat won’t have much depth if people don’t fall in love with each other first.” We were invited to introduce ourselves to another; then, later each person introduced their partner to the larger circle. The process took about 90 minutes. At the end of the evening I requested several volunteers to assist me in the opening ceremony for the next morning. I requested of my four volunteers that each support the ceremony by extending a prayer reflecting the wisdom lessons of each the cardinal direction, east, south, west and north. I reviewed more of this with them.
The next morning was warm and fresh. I used by drum to draw our group together and form a ceremony circle in the garden space outside our meeting room. I lit several leaves of white sage which in my indigenous tradition we do to designate sacred time, and to invite the spirit of ancestors and unborn children to be present. I explained that our gathering together was so important that we were starting in this way; then I requested that we all turn to the east. The first prayer was shared and we repeated this ritual to each of the directions and then to the center. I went around the circle stopping at each person to permit them to smudge that is to draw the sage smoke to their head and heart as means to be more present and connected to their spirit. Completing the circle, I asked that each person turn to a neighbor and share what they were grateful for and to name any persons they desired to invite in spirit to our circle. Their dialogue became beautiful music of sacred conversation between people becoming more like friends. Afterwards, I invited several call-outs about our gratitude and the special people we were inviting to our gathering.
Feeling the open hearts of my new colleagues, I explained our next step to become more community. The circle was divided into groups of six with each possessing a designated convener, a talking stick, and a list of several questions. The convener was to find a place for the group to meet and to initiate a conversation utilizing the talking stick. In this tradition the person holding the stick is responsible to express their truth, and everyone else is to listen deeply. The questions were: name, how did you experience community growing up, and what are you currently doing to advance a better you, family or community?
In the conversation of the small groups magic happened and because of these conversations miracles later occurred. Some groups shared tears, others laughter, yet in each circle simple stories were exchanged that created connection among participants. They were doing what in Spanish is called conocimiento, sharing of each other to develop mutual understanding, trust and connection. The trust developed within each group rippled out so that most of our participants felt increase trust and connection with all others. Many who had attended several of these retreats on prior occasions remarked that they were experiencing the deepest connection they had ever felt with this group. I, like many of my colleagues, were beginning to fall in love with others and what we could be with each other—people connected by purpose and authentic conversation. This feeling of relationship inspired several to make calls during the subsequent day to members of their own family to create with them similar feelings of connection and love. Later, we were to hear about these miracles of connection.
This sentiment of connection only deepened with the use of what I call “inspiration hits”. Periodically throughout our program I invited a few people to briefly share about the items they had brought for the inspiration table. Every time someone spoke it nurtured feelings of trust and connection within the group. Several expressed that it made them feel more authentic and courageous in their other conversations within this community.
Over the course of the subsequent two days, the connection between people got stronger and deeper as the group utilized “open space technology” to organize small conversations to talk about issues and concerned that really mattered to them, e.g., how do we use electronic technology to facilitate sharing our message and building community? How do we design workshops to optimize learning? What are we each doing to advance the “Great Turning” (the betterment of society and world)? How can we establish a mentoring program for new authors? What can we do as authors to support the election of Barak Obama?
For many of us the highlights of the retreat occurred within the talent show of the last evening and our closing ceremony of our final morning. The talent show surfaced a phenomenal collage of songs, music, comedy and poetry, in which each presentation felt like a love offering to the group. To close the evening I collaborated with Juanita Brown (author, The World Café, 2005) to facilitate the 70th year birthday ceremony for her husband David Isaac. Within David’s passage ceremony, the group not only shared in honoring one of the pioneers of authentic conversations, we demonstrated that a mix of strangers and old friends could in two short days join together and inspire each other with mutual gifts of expression and love. Our closing ceremony reflected our opening with the burning of sage, prayers, smudging, expressions of gratitude, and a spontaneous acknowledgement ceremony of a special wedding anniversary. Many of us had indeed fallen in love with others, sometimes as individuals and very much as a group. We had become community.
Over the past several days, it’s been inspiring to witness the e-activism in which Noah Blumenthal (author, You Are Addicted to You, 2007) and many of the authors have followed-through to organize support for an open letter to the public expressing our support for the leadership qualities of Barak Obama (www.authors4obama.com). I have also received several thank you notes for my contribution to our experience. My response is to request that we reflect on our retreat experience to become similar movers of community building and inspiration for our families, friends and work groups. All our networks could benefit from increase connection with spirit, deeper mutual understanding, and increase opportunities to express and model love. What is needed is mindful facilitation, patience, and the use of various tools to inspire our caring spirit and provide people the opportunity to talk to each other in authentic and heart felt ways.
I attended the B-K author retreat with the same spirit that I approach most gatherings–to advance love and the Great Turning (see David Korten’s The Great Turning, 2006). To save our civilization from self destruction we must become a culture and society that is more respectful and responsible to earth and each other. As a culture or family activist, my part is to help us learn how to be true community or familia that is more connected and committed to mutual support and more mindful of our purpose which is to become individuals, families and communities committed to advancing love in the world.