May 11, 2011

On the Ground Denver: Another Leg on My Big Thinking Learning Journey

I've just returned from three incredible days with 60 of the biggest thinkers of the small grants world via Grassroots Grantmakers’ spring "On the Ground" learning gathering. The Denver Foundation was our host for this gathering, offering their powerful Strengthening Neighborhoods work as the platform for learning around our theme of learning-oriented evaluation.

Some of the conversations from this gathering are sure to find their way into this blog in the coming weeks, but I want to start with how we got started.  We began with a simple yet powerful exercise - a few moments of quiet reflection with pen and paper, drawing a "map" of our own (or our organization's) learning over the years.  This exercise was intended to help set the stage for two days of conversation about learning-oriented evaluation and its application in the grassroots grantmaking world, and connect us with our own experience with learning.

I first connected with the notion of journey mapping with I served on a consulting team that Rainbow Research gathered for work on the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation's Community Foundations Race Relations Learning Project.  Hedy Chang, another member of that team, suggested the journey map exercise as a way to help project participants get in touch with the personal and institutional experiences that have informed how they understand and feel about issues of race, language, culture and class.  Even ten years later, I remember the power that the journey mapping exercise brought to the conversations that we hosted.

In Denver, with less time and "ice-breaking" as well as "ground-breaking" in mind, this exercise was still very powerful.  I began by sharing the journey map that I had prepared ahead of time - shaped like a star because I found that my grassroots grantmaking learning journey had several dimensions that kept turning back on each other over time.  "Me as neighbor", especially my many experiences of being new in a community and either fitting in or feeling always the stranger is certainly an important part of my personal journey.  The life-changing time in my Memphis neighborhood when I was mentored, nurtured, and encouraged to move from the sidelines into a leadership role holds a special place on my journey map.  My academic training, with its focus on everyday people within different cultural settings changed the lens through which I view the work of philanthropic organizations, and my work at a neighborhood resource center and for a community foundation gave me practical experience with both the power and limitations of grantmaking as a community building tool.  I also learned about how much work it takes inside an institution - specifically how much institutional "unlearning" is needed - for the institutional to get out of its own way and act on its most noble impulses.    And then there's the tremendous learning that has come with my work with Grassroots Grantmakers.

After we sketched our own journey maps, we paired up with someone to share what we had done.  Time was too short to hear from every pair, but one story stands out for me.  One person said that the journey mapping exercise had helped her reconnect with an experience from her past that has shaped her and the work that she is doing.  She talked about being a refugee in a refugee camp in Southeast Asia - in need of the most basic things that are required for life while official "gate-keepers" managed the inflow of donations that were coming in for the refugees from well-meaning people all over the world.  She said that those who were giving were assuming that their contributions were helping those who were most in need, all the while there were people picking and choosing who got what, and even worse, selling instead of giving what had been donated.  She made the link to the well-intentioned gifts and grants that come from philanthropies, intended to generate change for those who are stuck in situations that are holding them back, but not reaching deep enough or offered in a way that was flexible enough to do what was intended.  I was moved by the story and loved that the simple journey mapping exercise had helped bring it forward to us and the person who was sharing.

I encourage you to try journey mapping personally and as a group exercise. Here are some basic instructions that you can tailor for your own purposes:

Invite people to sketch out their personal and/or organizational learning journey, thinking about pivotal experiences, people, situations and other factors that have shaped your and/or your organization’s current understanding of what it means to work from a “we begin with residents” perspective and help groups of everyday people be better positioned to enrich community life, lay the groundwork for the future that they desire, and address injustices that are limiting possibilities for themselves and their neighbors.

Possible elements to include:

For your personal map:
  • Individual encounters, interactions, interpersonal relationships;
  • Key people who have influenced your thinking;
  • Education and/or work experience;
  • Living experiences.
For your organizational map:
  • Major initiatives, programs or policies that have informed your organization’s work or point of view;
  • Key people who have influenced how your organization approaches its relationship with everyday people in their active citizen role;
  • Key successes or failures that your organization has experienced doing grassroots grantmaking-like work;
  • Forthcoming challenges or opportunities for work in this area.
 Once you have sketched out your map, connect with a friend or colleague to talk about your journeys.

If you have experience with journey mapping or similar exercises that set the stage for learning, please jump in here.

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