Open Space Happens

Noticed this bit recently in the NYTimes, by an MD expert reflecting on the edge at not knowing. Sounds a lot like open space occuring naturally in the wild of everyday living and working:

While I was able to reel off statistics on the latest treatments and medications, I found I had little to offer when it came to issues most pressing to them. I wasn’t sure of the best way to organize and remember the dozens of medications they were required to take. I didn’t know the most efficient way for them to schedule follow-up visits with me or my colleagues. I had no suggestions other than more pills for dealing with the nausea induced by their anti-rejection drugs. And I could only listen, speechless, to stories about co-workers who continued to discriminate against them by treating them like “sick people.”

I watched as the audience spontaneously broke out into smaller groups, people’s faces lighting up as they recognized their own travails in the stories of others.

The event organizer, a transplant patient herself who regularly coordinated lectures like this, approached me. To my surprise, instead of being upset with me, she bubbled over with praise.

“What you’ve done tonight is to help each of these people begin talking with someone who has been through the exact same experience,” she said. She looked out at the audience and smiled. “This,” she said, pointing to the clusters of conversations, “means more than you realize.”

The story also relates a study in which diabetes patients were given added physician support, monetary rewards, OR peer mentoring support. After six months, only the peer-supported group had significantly lowered blood sugar levels.

I’m continually surprised by how much we have to learn from each other and how often important learning (working, creating, connecting) happens in spite of, rather than because of, the way we usually structure our work and relations.

No Child Left INSIDE: Weblog Working

Last Fall, we did a one-day summit event in Open Space to help establish a central Ohio contribution to the national Leave No Child INSIDE movement. Nice to see them growing the KidsAndNature weblog we started with the conference notes. This is my current favorite example of how to keep the Spirit of an Open Space meeting alive and working.

Recognizing that creating a universally meaningful logo graphic for such a diverse group would be difficult, we opted for a flicker badge of four photos, pulled from a kids and nature tag at flicker. This means that the logo actually shows what they mean by kids and nature. It’s able to be displayed by any member organization, the main criteria for membership being that you’re helping to spread the word, or really the vision, embedded in the photo badge. And anyone with great pictures of kids and nature can add them to the tag group, and thus add their view of kids and nature to the emblem and the sites of every member.

Outward Bound Again

Nineteen years ago this week, I graduated from the University of Chicago’s Graduate School of Business, having studied Finance and Healthcare Administration. After two years of working long weekdays to crunch financial projections for huge hospital projects and working long weekends training for and leading Chicago Center Outward Bound programs for high school kids, I quit my “day job” and went north to Ely, Minnesota, and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, to lead wilderness trips for the summer.

The plan was to return to Chicago and run corporate programs to support the youth programs, but the Chicago Center closed a month after I returned from Ely. With only two years of “real” work experience, I dared to be self-employed rather than unemployed — and that’s what I’ve been ever since. After corporate programs work, with New York City Outward Bound and Chicago Center founder Steve Proudman, I eventually lost any formal ties to Outward Bound.

That said, the picture atop this post is from the first Michael Herman Associates homepage, in 1998. When Katrina hit, I sketched out a community preparedness curriculum/plan under the heading of “Ready for Anything.” It’s still here in my draft blogposts, never posted because I realized that I was essentially recreating Outward Bound. Another time, as we stood reading HRH The Duke of Edinburgh’s explanation of Outward Bound on the wall of an OB school in Scotland a few years ago, my wife, Jill, exclaimed “That’s what you do!”

And so it was an Outward Bound homecoming of sorts, as I worked with other alums this past weekend, to build raised beds for the students of Polaris Charter Academy to grow food this Spring. Polaris is one of 160 “expeditionary learning” schools that are grounding in neighborhood elementary and high schools the experiential learning principles of Kurt Hahn, refined through more than 60 years of Outward Bound wilderness practice. Polaris students, grades k-2 (so far), learn by doing. By getting out and exploring, finding out for themselves where food comes from, and where garbage goes. Learning to read and write and count and present in the process of exploring the World.

In many ways, from personal backcountry tripping and seventeen years of sole proprietorship, to my frequent framing of Open Space as a sort of wilderness expedition inside of organization, I really have been Outward Bound all along. To see my OpenSpaceTech and OpenSpaceWorld sites, I’ve certainly been educator. But I’m Outward Bound all over again these days — coming home from the wilderness, coming home to the wilderness, and wilderness coming home to Chicago, all at once. Confidence and Community. Ground touching ground. Breaking new trail in rugged old boots.

There is talk of two more expeditionary learning schools coming in Chicago. And of restarting the Chicago Center. I’m looking forward to an organizing meeting next month.

Inviting Education

I woke up this morning thinking about public schools, career path, and teaching… specifically, brain rolled around with the possibility of getting certified to teach school, while body rolled around with the possibility of breakfast. (This isn’t exactly new, I’ve been an educator at heart since my Outward Bound days, nearly two decades ago.) But then this comes in the morning emails:

Dear Friends,

I’ve decided to offer myself as a candidate for the Waters LSC as a community representative. I have been at Waters since 1991 when I enrolled my son Jamal here. I was elected as President of the first LSC and held that position for 5 years. I went back to school (NEIU) and received a interdisciplinary degree in Education, Ecology and Neighborhood Studies.

We partnered with the Center for City Schools at National Louis University and began an intense and well supported period of professional development for our teachers. That first LSC learned that education could be an amazing, rich, challenging, and joyous experience for children. It all depends on how a school teaches and what its philosophy of education is.

Parents were invited to workshops to let them experience what this educational vision was about: collaboration, sharing, valuing each voice, going beyond text books to original works and sources, opening the doors of our school and its classrooms to allow the community in, and the students out into the world.

We learned that the arts, real work, and world experiences, could be combined with the core disciplines of literacy, math and science, to give kids a rich, multifaceted education. We were a local, poor, low-scoring, no-special programs school that decided that our kids were an amazing gift, capable of great achievement.

The 1990s were an amazing time of partnering, support, experimentation and growth. Our scores rose steadily. But our school paid more attention to other more meaningfull assessments: student writing, problem solving, ability to work with others, recognition of “other intelligences”, and projects, projects, projects.

Since 2000 our schools have been under a barage of mandates to test, to teach to the test, to reduce student assessment to a series of data points. We need, as a community, to educate our selves about what is “best practice” in education, and support it in our school. We have to produce a countervailing pressure in order to protect our kids, teachers and administrators.

I am known at Waters mostly for my work in ecology. But, the ecology program was an outgrowth, a sprout and flowering of the ideas planted in 1991. It is what every parent wants for their child: the best, most rich learning experiences in a caring and safe community.

Let us hold on to this vision and learn together.

Mr. Lucky
(Pete Leki)

I’m inspired and wondering again, fully awake and a little bit hungry, for something other than breakfast. Maybe I should have been more specific last week in updating Inviting Leadership. Inviting Community might should have been Inviting Education.

Opening Space on the Playground

…at Waters Elementary School. Chicago Public Schools and 47th Ward Alderman Schulter have each pledged $2 million for improvements. Inside and outside, to include saving the old fieldhouse as the center of the community classroom and gardens there, to depave the playground, and address parking, art, and other interests.

The school is already a thriving little hive of volunteer activity. When the institutions showed up with the money pot two weeks ago, my concern was that so much of the neighbors and parents talking to each other would dissolve into everybody talking through the designers, managers and other experts and money keepers at the front of the room.

So last week we convened three small openings on the playground, in the playground. Actually turned out to be sort of little world cafe gatherings with flipchart pages taped to the walls of the building. We asked people to talk about the past, who they are, how they got here, and how the school got the way it is. We asked them to talk about future, what they imagined and dreamed the place might be in a year. And we asked about gifts and skills and lingering questions, about how they want this whole process to turn out.

We’re feeding the results back this week, online and on the school bulletin board. And offering to convene more sessions, so that the community conversation isn’t overwhelmed by modern day institutional colonization, albeit very well-intentioned.

My favorite moment of the process so far? One child coming off the playground on the way into school stopped at one of our posters. “What does that say?” he asked. “Conversation #3…” his mom began, “What gifts and skills do you have that can help create the place you want here? What do you have to contribute? What do you want to know?” It’s working already!

Leave No Child INSIDE

I’m off tomorrow for Columbus Ohio, to open space for the Central Ohio Collaborative’s “Leave No Child INSIDE” Summit, part of a national movement in response to what Richard Louv has called “nature deficit disorder.”

I’ve built a blogsite for the summit and we expect to post proceedings, after we get back from camp. Looking forward to a couple of days at Campfire camp, no computer, and I’m told my cellphone won’t work there either. Nice.

Lunch with Shilpa Jain

Today was a rare treat, lunch with my friend Shilpa Jain. Rare because she lives in India, Udaipur to be exact. Once upon a time we ran a few days of Open Space Technology training together, for her organization, Shikshantar, the People’s Institute for Rethinking Education and Development.

My favorite of all the stories we told today was of a week-long bicycle trip 14 colleagues did last October in India — without cash. They rode out, with signs, juggling gear, sleeping pads, jewelry making tools and no food on their bicycles.

The signs invited conversation. The other stuff was some of what they used to survive… by offering entertainment, cleaning, carrying, and other “body labor” along the way, bridging the gap between urban and rural people, and learning a lot about simple, human relations, economics, exchange, humility and power. I think the humility of the endeavor is most impressive for me.

Shikshantar is doing community work with zero-waste and organic urban gardening. I shared my new Nestworking experiment and Shilpa has connected me with somebody here in town working on community gardens.

Finally, Shilpa brought me a copy of Expressions Annual 2005, a journal recently published by abhivyakti.org.in in which Shilpa interviews me about Open Space. Dialogue, walking, film-making, cooperative games, and a piece by Juanita Brown on World Cafe are also featured this year.

Jill and I are hoping to meet up with Shilpa in Udaipur this Fall, but likely not for the next cashless bike/work tour. Guess we’ll just have to organize our own tour here in Chicago!

Walkout Challenge

Walkout Challenge Day coincides with the day that Gandhi reached the sea and made his own salt (April 6). It is a chance for us to look at what we have been able to walk out of and walk on to, and where we feel like taking the next plunge. It’s an opportunity to honor the risks we are taking in our own lives and the exciting adventures we are embarking upon. And it’s a day to get together with friends, new and old, and remember that we have companions in our life’s journey.

On this second day of Spring, with wintry winds still howling here in Chicago, I’m hoping that it will yet be warm enough to start my (mostly) annual fasting routine to coincide with this day. For me, the walkout day is about cleaning up one’s act, taking responsibility for that which we can and must do for ourselves, like body, food and health. Changing ourselves is the most important kind of SmallChangeNews.

Thanks to my friend Shilpa Jain at Shikshantar – The Peoples’ Institute for Rethinking Education and Development, in Udaipur, India, for this.

Are You A Buddhist?

People sometimes ask me this question, usually because of my monk-like hairdo or some other Buddhist-like things I say and do. I always have a hard time answering. While some of my teachers are well-known Tibetans, what to say when they talk like this…

In Buddhism we have an incredible arrangement: universal education from beginning at birth up until death, as an old person. I feel these things could be put into a universal language. Give up religion, give up Buddhism. Go beyond the Buddhism. Essential aspect of the philosophy put into the scientific language. This I feel is my aim.

…about Essential Education? So, I don’t know if I’m a buddhist or not, but I care about awareness, education, practice, wisdom, and compassion.

OpenWorld: Land for Education

Mark Frazier at OpenWorld reports this progress on what I would call micro-democracy:

…the Explorers Foundation of Denver announced that its Cobden-Bright Award will help fund Openworld’s development of a new “Grassroots Land Registry” web site, whose aim is to pilot a new strategy for awakening dormant capital in poor communities.

Highlights of the strategy are described in the full text of the announcement below. In brief, the approach we are gearing up to demonstrate hinges upon creating new incentives for residents of neighborhoods to work together on resolving ownership disputes and creating private land registries.

The project will reward residents in pilot project areas who agree to a “good neighbor” covenant for arbitrating disputes, and who upload photos and brief video affirmations of uncontested property claims to an Openworld web site. Households in areas that take such actions will gain access to microscholarships for eLearning and microvouchers for health care resources.

Go, Mark! Go!

Socratic Practice

James Rehm’s review of Michael Strong’s book on Socratic practice makes me want to be a teacher.

“Socratic questioning,” writes Strong, “is an endlessly sophisticated art. It is the engine that drives Western thought forward. Socratic questioning is not a technique, it is an approach to conceptual understanding which contains within it an intrinsic craving for conceptual refinement at every level of understanding.” (p. 149).

…A good argument can be made, he says, that introductory science courses would teach more if they offered students an immersion in scientific method and thinking rather than flooding them with a sea of information. In the same way, Strong – who likes math and is good at it – believes that Socratic practice should be a prerequisite for all math education. Why? Socratic practice, whether it traffics in discussions of trust, love and betrayal or other ideas equally remote from square roots and tangents, improves students’ facility with abstract concepts, and abstract concepts are the basis of mathematics, which is at root a way of thinking rather than a body of knowledge.

In reading the whole of this review, I notice that I have some deep inner valuing of teaching and learning. They are self-inviting, self-satisfying, self-sustaining. The more I teach or learn, the more I want to teach and learn. And in Socratic practice these two seem to run together, as the flow of Awareness. Why stop with the humanities, math, and science? Why not paint all of our work with this care?

Strong’s book, The Habit of Thought: From Socratic Seminars to Socratic Practice is available at New View Publications.