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Collective VisioningHOW GROUPS CAN WORK TOGETHER FOR A JUST AND SUSTAINABLE FUTURE
By Linda Stout
Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2011 Linda Stout
All right reserved.
Chapter OneHow Collective Visioning Works
In a time of great global change, humanity is still relying on the old myth of survival and domination. We need a new myth, a new vision, a new definition of power and leadership. We must go away from the old model and toward one of creative cooperation on our small and threatened planet. JONETTA COLE
If you can't imagine a better world, you can't create one. If you can imagine a better world, you can make one. In order to do this, we have to vision collectively.
Collective visioning happens when a group of people, with guidance, envision a future together. The approach to collective visioning in this book begins with leading people through an individual guided meditation around a theme. The theme can be a very broad question, such as, "What do we want our world or community to look like twenty-five years from now?" Or it can be really specific: "If we could change the media to truly reflect our community and the wishes of ordinary people, what would it look like in ten years?" When I did collective visioning with a group called Rethink: Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools, we asked. "What should our schools look like so we can feel safe and healthy and have a positive learning environment?"
To me, "visioning" is a verb, something active that people do together as the essential first step of any successful effort to make change. You probably won't find that use of the word in the dictionary, but it comes naturally to me, and it is a common way to talk about this work in my communities. As someone who grew up poor in the rural South and who has been working with others for deep change for decades, I learned early on that it's important for me to use and trust my own language, no matter what the dictionary says. I vision with others to make change, create new possibilities, and bring about justice. I want readers of this book to have everything they need to vision, too.
Visioning helps people move from being stuck in problems to creating solutions. Both expert research and my own experience show that organizations and societies do not flourish without a collective positive vision of the future.
what's the difference between collective visioning and other types of visioning?
Perhaps the most popular type of visioning in this culture is personal visioning, focused only on ideas that benefit individuals and their families. Personal visioning is powerful, but it does not usually lead to collective action. I'll explain more about personal visioning in chapter 3.
A collective vision is not a utopian vision. It is grounded in reality. Grounded, collective vision creates a pathway to power. It keeps us focused on the destination as we travel together toward it, sometimes with many detours and emergency stops. Some groups may get there in a year or, as I will tell in one story, more than twenty years. But holding the vision keeps people inspired and hopeful as they move forward, no matter how many bumps they hit along the way.
Many visioning practices look for a common vision in which people have full agreement on what the future looks like. Expecting this level of agreement can be a trigger for a failed process or at least unnecessary struggles within diverse groups that come together from different places of power and voice. In my experience working with oppressed groups and communities, as well as with social change organizations (which often have a culture of critique, debate, and disagreement), even the word "common," as in "a common vision," can set off tensions and bring negative feelings, especially to those who have often felt silenced within groups. Sometimes I have used the words "common" and "shared" (it's important not to get hung up on words), but I'm always ready to make clear that what I'm talking about is not total agreement but a vision that many different people are willing to work toward together, often with different issues and strategies.
Some people sincerely believe that simply because they say we all have an equal voice, it will happen. But there are barriers to this goal. First, many people come from backgrounds of poverty, racism, sexism, or other oppression where they have lost their voices or their power because they don't fit society norms. Second, without being aware of it, groups often base their work by default on a culture of middle-class white people—a culture we learn throughout our lives in school, in society, and in media. People who are middle class and white are often unaware that there are different ways of working, so they unintentionally set up meetings that work in ways that exclude others. We need to understand that we have to step out of the status quo if we are going to be inclusive and empowering to everyone. Therefore, we need to create the visioning process in thoughtful, intentional ways so that every person can speak and know he or she will be heard.
In collective visioning, having everyone's ideas and thoughts included from the beginning is critical. Before a group starts to vision together, a lot of work must be done to build trust and agreement so that all participants feel that they have an equal voice.
Only after this trust-building process do the participants begin to look for commonalities and discuss their differences. When individual participants feel heard, seen, and empowered, they are able to begin to look for agreement. More about how to do this is discussed in the next three chapters, especially chapter 2. This prework is a critical difference between collective visioning and other types of visioning.
how to create a collective vision: a starting point
Collective visioning comes more easily to people who come from a "collective" culture, like tribal communities, rural mountain folks, immigrant communities, farmworkers, many spiritual communities, or other communities that are used to taking care of each other and working together. People who are in touch with cultural traditions of art, music making, and storytelling often find collective visioning invigorating. People who have been in oppressive systems so long that they've given up can have more difficulty moving to vision, but I find that young people are especially quick to really get it. I believe that we all have the ability to contribute to a collective vision, whether it comes as a life-changing breakthrough, as it does for some people, or feels like a variation on something that we've done all of our lives.
People vision in different ways. Letting people know this ahead of time is very important because some will feel a sense of failure or anxiety or even protest against the process if they are unable to "see" a vision. Some people will see concrete outcomes, such as community gardens and schools, or parks and green energy sources, while others will see people working cooperatively together and a positive community spirit. Still others may not experience pictures at all but have a sense or feeling of well-being or happiness. Some may "hear" laughter and children playing. All of these different ways of visioning are important and become part of the whole vision.
Occasionally, you might run across someone who re fuses to vision or loudly proclaims skepticism. In this case, I usually ask if the person will just be with the others and stay in the process. Folks like this have their own role to play and often get very involved during the prioritizing and planning stage.
Sometimes words can get in the way of visioning. For ex ample, I recently led a visioning exercise with students about what schools would look like in five years. I asked them to draw their visions together. One boy was sitting in the corner, refusing to participate. When I asked what was going on for him, he said, "I didn't have a vision. I didn't see a school."
"How did the young people learn?" I asked.
"From people in the community," he said.
"That's a beautiful vision!"
He proceeded to draw it with the collective. It's important to tell people that their visions may be different from those of others. I now say, "If the questions, words, or guidance that we're using in the visioning exercise don't work for you, ignore them. Stay with what you are seeing or feeling in your hearts and minds."
Once everyone has participated in the visualization individually, each person shares his or her part of the vision with the group. The way I most often do this is through having people draw a large collective picture on paper taped to a large table or wall. People who haven't seen a concrete vision are encouraged to depict their feelings as well. Some do this by drawing a group of people (often stick figures) dancing or holding hands, while others draw something as simple as the sun shining, trees, and flowers to depict a feeling of happiness. As folks participate in this exercise collectively, they begin to share and add to each other's pictures. Those who may not be able to draw what they want ask others to help. The creative process of drawing their collective vision becomes a community-building exercise.
leading a visioning exercise
Something magical happens as I watch folks begin to draw together after participating in a collective visioning exercise. One person starts to draw a community school, another person adds to it, drawing a garden in the schoolyard. Another adds a connected elder center where young and old teach and help each other. Someone else starts working on a sustainable energy source, and others join in to add their ideas. All of a sudden, there's excitement as hands reach across each other, expanding on each other's drawings. Those who have drawing skills help others who don't feel they can illustrate what they saw. Other people ask for help on how to attach a picture to the feelings that came up for them. There is laughter and amazement as people begin to see how much they are thinking alike.
This part of collective visioning is only a starting point. The group can now begin to find where their common ground is and work together to take the next steps to build power and make their visions a reality. Visioning doesn't stop with the guided questions or meditation but continues as folks begin to share and exchange ideas. For example, when the young boy who came out of the corner drew a school, marked an X through it, and then drew students learning from people and groups in the community, other students laughed at the idea of no school, but then, after talking, they decided it was a great idea to include community learning in the curriculum, both inside and outside the school walls.
Sharing and exchanging ideas can bring groups together in unexpected ways. At one collective visioning retreat I led, the organizers insisted that I have two separate tables for members who came from two very different communities and cultures. The leaders felt it was essential that the groups vision separately, not only because they came from different communities with different issues, but also because they were immigrants from countries that had once been at war with each other. After a process in which both groups were led in the same guided visioning, they went to different ends of the room to draw their collective visions. Afterward, members of each group shared their visions with the other group. As they explained their drawings, both groups were shocked that the visions were almost identical. They realized that they shared many of the same concerns and that their wishes and hopes for the future were the same. I then explained that even though these drawings were from two different urban immigrant communities, what they had drawn was similar to collective drawings I had witnessed from groups all over the country—from young and old, urban and rural, and different classes and ethnicities.
In every collective vision I lead, people always start by de scribing the community, even when I ask them to vision about a particular issue. Ideas such as sustainability, clean air and water, alternative energy sources, gardens and local food sources, and joyful people working cooperatively are part of every vision I've seen people participate in. Most often, community art, music, dance, and alternative transportation are included as well. Almost always, technology is a part of people's visions, but as a useful tool, not as a way of replacing community. Always, people are excited and happy over the collective vision they have created, even though they might not agree on every single idea. Of the hundreds of visioning exercises I have led, only once have I had a serious disagreement in a group about the collective vision, and that was over twenty-five years ago. In that situation, younger people and older people divided over a vision of a world with or without technology. As you might guess, older people wanted much less or no technology. The younger people would have nothing to do with that vision.
Often after having drawn their visions, groups go on to create a skit about them. I call these skits commercials so that people understand that they have to be short and to the point while communicating their message. The skits continue the excitement of the visioning and get people to internalize the vision in a different way. They capture the enthusiasm and hopefulness that visioning creates. They also lead to laughter, which pretty much everybody loves. In one skit, a man made little zapping noises and joyfully danced all around the others as they acted out their vision. Afterward the group explained that he was the renewable energy source and networking that the whole community shared. In another skit, each person squatted separately, looking sad and desolate. A man in his eighties entered holding a magic wand and then hopped around and laughed as he touched each person with the wand. As they encountered his magic, they joined in the collective community, showing their good feelings at being part of something bigger than themselves.
Now I'd like to tell you more about Rethink in New Orleans because the story is a beautiful example of how collective visioning leads to inspired action.
rethink, new orleans: just pretend until we make it true
Even among people in extremely tough situations—public school students in New Orleans right after Hurricane Katrina—creating a collective vision and following it up with action leads to amazing results. After the hurricane, several folks who had been involved in working on a remarkable project in Tallulah, Louisiana (I'll tell that story later in the book) came together to do some visioning about "what's next?" Most had lost their homes and offices and were deeply affected by what had happened to their city. What could they do to help rebuild their once-vibrant community?
They decided that there was an opportunity in the re building efforts. The public schools had long been a sore spot in many parts of the city. Because of a lack of funding and other resources, New Orleans had some of the worst schools in the country. The key organizer in envisioning the next steps, Jane Wholey, knew that young people had to be involved in the dreams and decision making about the rebuilding of their schools. Jane lives in New Orleans and I live in Massachusetts, but we have been part of each other's social change communities for more than twenty years.
In the summer of 2006, when most of the families with children returned to the city for the first time after Katrina, Jane engaged her friends in recruiting a group of middle school children and developing a summer program for them. The idea was to challenge the students to envision the schools of their dreams and influence city officials about how to rebuild the schools.
The program was held in a public school building that had been under several feet of water. Despite the cleanup, it was clear that this school had been in deep need of repairs before the flooding. The toilets only half worked, with water almost always covering the bathroom floors. The air conditioning didn't work well at all (in temperatures over 100 degrees daily), and if we did turn it on, it drowned out all of our voices. The cafeteria was shut down, so food had to be brought in from outside. The paved playground, with one basketball hoop, doubled as the parking lot. The line where the floodwater reached was a constant reminder of what had happened.
I was asked to lead the visioning for junior high school students and high school interns for what Jane called Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools. The students soon dubbed themselves the Rethinkers. Before the visioning, I asked the young people to talk about what they loved about their schools before Katrina happened. They had lots to say about what they liked: the culture, the music, certain teachers, other students, and the sense of community.
Then I asked them to get into small groups to talk about what they had wanted to change about their schools before Katrina. The first item that every small group listed was the bathrooms. "What do you want to change about the bathrooms?" I asked.
"Well, we want doors on the stalls, toilets that work, toilet seats, toilet paper, bathroom mirrors, and, oh yeah, soap!" Some told how they always made sure they had enough money to go across the street to Taco Bell to buy a drink so they could use a working toilet.
Excerpted from Collective Visioning by Linda Stout Copyright © 2011 by Linda Stout. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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