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October 29, 2007

Process?

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for socrates.jpgThe New York Times continues to run a series of in-depth articles on Hillary Clinton, not just because she is a U.S. Senator from its fair state, but clearly because it is has an inkling she may well be our next president. The most recent, an October 26, 2007 Times article on Hillary Clinton's management practices, referred frequently to her attachment to "process" (and for some reason, the reporter typically puts this word in quotes when referring to it - as if it is so foreign, so unfamiliar, that we can only become attuned to it if he does so.) Here are the mentions of process (or should I say, "process"): 

1) It is indeed likely that a Hillary Clinton White House would be more punctual, precise and process-oriented than her husband's.

2) In the White House, Mrs. Clinton often sat silently for long stretches during strategy sessions that could spiral into long-winded free-for-alls. She would grind her elbows into the table, then let fly.
"If she felt a discussion was being organized in a haphazard way, she would not hesitate to challenge the process and say, 'What are we doing here?'" Mr. Panetta said.

3) When Mrs. Clinton was first lady, her ill-fated effort to overhaul the nation's health care system was clearly a political defeat, but it also involved management missteps for which she drew wide criticism. "There was a level of perfectionism there," said John B. Breaux, a former senator from Louisiana. Determined to create a comprehensive "process," Mrs. Clinton allowed the project to become unwieldy -- convening a "task force" that included 412 government employees, 82 "special" or temporary staff members and 17 consultants who helped produce a 1,342-page document.

Mrs. Clinton concedes she made numerous mistakes in the effort. "I'm very interested in how you reach and implement decisions in a very efficient way," she said. "Certainly, there was a lot of pressure on us to do things that, now in retrospect, I don't think were in the best interests of the overall plan."

4) The people who thrive within Mrs. Clinton's "process" are those who best provide the currency of choices. "She wants to know, 'O.K., what are my options here?'" Ms. Solis Doyle said. "She wants a Plan A, a Plan B and a Plan C. She wants recommendations. Then she'll make a decision."

I have a sneaking suspicion that if Senator Clinton becomes our next president, the word "process" is going to become a new catchword in the American lexicon - much as "organic" became so popular in the last decade, when big corporations realized its moniker would sell billions of dollars more in products, and so was no longer a lonely, marginalized concept, the use of which was confined mostly to longtime progressive farmers and their customers. As the concept of process becomes more popular, I fret that it will become diluted of its value - that it will come to stand for so much, it in fact will connote very little.

Because the time may loom when the concept of process may come to mean so many things that it means next to nothing, the time may be nigh to explore not only what we are explicitly referring to when we are talking about process, and particularly as it relates to deliberative discourse and decision-making - but to explore types and degrees of process, the values that must undergird process inquiry if it is to be of worth, the ends and ethos, method and means with which it should be imbued.

In reading the Times article ballyhooing Hillary Clinton's managerial style, I kept asking myself, what in the world does the reporter mean by "process-oriented"? Just because Senator Clinton and her staff describe it as such, does that make it such? I was further befuddled by what he meant when he said that during her failed attempt as first lady to pass sweeping health care reform, her principal shortcoming in doing so was her insistence on creating, come what may, "a comprehensive 'process.'" I fail to see what was comprehensive about it. I remember that it was chaotic, that it was largely put together behind closed doors, that it did include a lot of federal bureaucrats and consulting groups (who made a lot of money in putting it together), but I don't recall that it ever comprised many, if any, everyday people. To be sure, it may have claimed to be the result of the nightmarish experiences of ordinary people who could no longer afford healthcare, but the "experts" who planned and plotted it did not seem to encompass them as equals in the decision-making "process" - and if this is so, I wonder whether a Clinton presidency will be much different from preceding ones.

In announcing her candidacy, Clinton said that in an ideal world she would like to enter the living rooms of each American family and pick their brains before making any decision. But it would appear that she covets the role of being the ultimate "decider" (as our current president coined it) as much as any of her predecessors. It doesn't appear that she wants us to come out of our respective living rooms and take part as equals in deciding policies that affect us all. Rather, as sympathetic as I might be with her politically in some respects, all evidence so far would seem to indicate that she would leave the decision-making institutions and apparatus within the government intact, and yearns to attain the highest office in the land in order to decide for us what is best for us. The mere fact that she engages in a process that at least provides her with some variety of options may make her (or most other contenders, for that matter) a welcome relief over her predecessor. Yet I can't help but feel we are still selling short ourselves and our capacities to steer and be equal contributors to the process.

The Times article notes that those who best thrive in Clinton's particular decision-making process are those who provide her with a "currency of choices" - and "then she'll make a decision." What if - and I know this is pie in the sky right now - there were no sole decider? What if, the more critical the decision and the more citizens it potentially impacted, it was incumbent that the process include a vast array of citizens of diverse experiential, educational, and socioeconomic and political backgrounds?

Even if one considered this possibility, one might well say I'm putting the cart before the horse. One might ask: What in the world do we mean by process? What is its function? What should be its overriding ethos? What should be its ideals and ends? Should it have fixed ideals and ends, a fixed method of deliberation, or should it be evolutionary in bent, changing continually over time? What constitutes "sound process" in any sphere of discourse - social, spiritual, professional, political, aesthetic, what have you? Are there "universals" to process that transcend any particular human sphere, or does sound process change from context to context, situation to situation, culture to culture, sphere to sphere? Is all process-oriented dialogue good, redemptive? Or can there be bad or not-so-good types? If so, how so?

What IS process?

Here's a Merriam-Webster definition: 1 a: progress, advance b: something going on : proceeding (1): a) natural phenomenon marked by gradual changes that lead toward a particular result (2): a): continuing natural or biological activity or function b) : a series of actions or operations conducing to an end.

One process, or set of overlapping processes, we need invest much energy and passion in now, in my view, is one that rescues our attenuated democracy. To do this, the process must ever widen the circle of inclusivity when it comes to the public citizenry, problem solving, and decision making. It is one that should not just lead to a concrete end in any specific context, but should be a dynamic entity whose overall end should be to engage all Americans, to bring them together to discourse and experiment in ways in which we can evolve our ideals over time, even revolutionize our functional notions of what democracy might be. Process may well be a natural, organic phenomenom, but this is not to say it will ipso facto grow in healthy ways; indeed, depending on the process used, it may lead to a further withering on the vine of our beloved democracy.

In coming years, those of us involved in bringing about more participation in the public sphere need give great thought to the processes we hope to cultivate as ingrained habits among citizens and mainstays of the democratic fabric. Moreover, it behooves us to consider that, contrary to dictionary definitions, process -- in the context of deliberative discourse for the ends of evolving a creative participatory democracy -- may not, in some contexts, lead to gradual changes, but, as with the processes inherent in physical evolution, may at times lead to sudden and dramatic changes, and we need to be expectant of and open to that exhilarating (and, perhaps at times, alarming) possibility and prospect.

Most of all, dictionary definitions typically are devoid of making mention of the fact that our concepts are human inventions laden with values, with philosophies, with functions - and depending on the values and philosophies we bring to the table when engaged in process, we may well wind up evolving our society (and the concept of process itself) or devolving it. At least, it's something to think about - just as we may want to incorporate types of process that do not always lead to particular results, but that lend themselves to leading us continually to the surprise of the novel and unfamiliar, to what Emerson called "newness," to new discoveries about ourselves, our capacities, and those of the universe itself. Dewey for one believed that all processes, not just physical ones, were natural and organic, and that only if we grasp how wedded our political processes are to the larger physical sphere could we then be inspired to harness it in ways that made the universe itself more emancipative.

©2007

October 26, 2007

Here We Are. And Here We Go.

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A week ago, TWI began a weekend retreat that brought together board members, staff, grantees, and one of our funders' reflection partners. Our idea was to create a space for a great group of people to come together and cross-fertilize questions, ideas and experiences. We hoped that providing this opportunity might lead to new connections, deepened relationships, and dialogue that would inform our respective work going forward. We also wanted people to have fun and leave feeling both refreshed and energized.

Speaking for myself, those aims seemed to be realized in a big way.  It was wonderful to witness all the different connections being made and to experience "the whole" of the Institute in such an engaging, informal way.  We had some structured time, of course, but as Edd Conboy described it afterwards (I hope I'm paraphrasing correctly!) the weekend resembled a series of self-organized world cafes.  I was reminded once again of the value of not over-scheduling; of having an expansive pace that allows people time to breathe and just be - either by themselves or with others.  In those times some of the richest and meaningful discussions bubbled up.

I have found many conversations from the weekend percolating throughout this past week, either talking with other people or reflecting by myself.  Conversations that touched on advocacy and assessment, relationships and responsibility, language and learning.  Conversations that explored the use of media to spark dialogue and widen perspectives; the nature of what we mean by "leadership" when the term is used so ubiquitously; and the challenges inherent in collaborating across organizations, disciplines, and sectors when our incentive systems reward staying in our silos.  And just as importantly conversations filled with humor and laughter. 

So, yes, there was a lot of talking going on.  But for an Institute passionate about promoting cross-perspective dialogue, that's to be expected!  Where we go, what we learned, what comes from the new and deepened connections made will play itself out over time.  What rings true for me at this moment is that the weekend felt in many ways like the beginning of a new story of what TWI might become: a "member network" with a shared commitment to, and passion for, process-oriented work.

Such a vision brings with it immediate questions of what "membership" in such a network might mean, particularly what happens to a grantee's sense of membership if they are no longer funded. We weren't going to answer those questions this weekend, but I think the retreat did give us a solid platform for further and deeper inquiry.

 A story is emerging of how TWI can become more than the sum of its parts; how it can serve as a wellspring of support and resources not limited to money.  A week out from the retreat I feel both excited and grateful to have so many inspiring, dedicated, smart, compassionate, generous (you get the picture) co-authors involved.


Community of Process

Thumbnail image for socrates.jpgI'm still jazzed from the Whitman Institute's first ever retreat comprising all the organizations it funds. It was great to meet the inspiring people who founded these seemingly disparate groups. It didn't take long for me to come to the notion that we all were part of what I'd call a greater "community of process".

For a good while, I'd felt that SPI's mission was more kindred spirit to organizations/endeavors that don't necessarily have dialogue as their centerpiece. I came away from the TWI gathering with a more articulate understanding of why that is so. One can engage (or claim to engage) in various forms of dialogue without necessarily having process as its underpinning. Indeed, it may be the case that some forms of dialogue can impede process. On the other hand, as I came to learn about the organizations that TWI funds, there's an array of undertakings in which dialogue per se is not the principal driving force. I remember one participant saying that John Esterle enabled him to realize that his project was process oriented -- that his undertaking was more about the journey than a fixed or finite destination, which might well change over time as he continues with it and engages in the experimental-creative process.

But what all taking part in the retreat clearly seemed to share were similar processes and shared ends -- namely, working towards doing their part to achieving a more inclusive, open society, and directing their singular energies and efforts and talents to breaking down divides that make the world less connected than it ideally can be.

I know I wasn't the only participant who professed at times feeling a sense of going-it-aloneness. It isn't that we didn't know there were many other kindred endeavors out there, only we hadn't had an opportunity to meet with them in an intimate setting and come to a keener realization of how connected we are.

I left the retreat with keen sense that most of us on hand were, in spite of ostensible differences, involved at our core with virtually precisely the same effort and ends and ideals. It left me more inspired than ever to do what I can, in my modest way, to keep fighting the good fight.

Everyone from the retreat is still "present" with me. I want to praise John Esterle for going out there and discovering so many involved in seminal ways in this community of process, and bringing us all together. As we move forward, it will be intriguing to see how this circle ever widens, changes, morphs (probably because of its inherently creative and unpredictable bent it will become less of a circle than a sort of fractal which takes off in all kinds of unexpected directions and ways). Onward and upward and outward.

OTM-Reach Institute's Teacher Program Credentialed

OnTheMoveLogo.jpgCredentialing Committee "enthusiastic"

The Reach Institute, part of Whitman grantee organization, On The Move, was granted accreditation for its teacher credentialing program. One of the hallmarks of this program is that 15 new teachers from throughout the Bay Area created the design and implementation process themselves.

Read what Reach's director, Page Tomkins, wrote in a letter of thanks to their many supporters and sponsors after the jump...

As many of you know a dedicated group of 15 young teachers worked tirelessly last year with a number of staff from On the Move to build Reach, the first teacher designed credential program in California. We opened in August with our founding class of 30 students from schools in San Jose and the East Bay. Over the past three months we have worked closely with the staff of the Commission on Teacher Credentialing to get final accreditation for our program. And today we are thrilled to announce that we have been fully approved and accredited with a unanimous vote!!!!

I was asked a lot of questions as you can imagine since our approach is highly innovative and unique. But with all of that the responses from the Commission members were incredibly enthusiastic! One committee member said, "As a working teacher, I know how much we need programs like this. I hope you will share what you learn with the field." My response, predictably, was to invite her to come visit the program and our schools.

After the meeting I felt a bit overwhelmed by what we have collectively accomplished. I thought to myself, "Who does this? What kind of a crazy group of believers thinks, "let's really change things, let's start a better teacher education program?'" And I was also filled with gratitude. I want to thank each of you for believing in this project, and believing in us.

Congratulations to everyone involved in this wonderful effort.

Innovative Use of Media

20071024_link2_70.jpgA teacher in a suburban Philadelphia elementary school has developed an innovative yearlong program for young people with Asperger's syndrome. The teacher, Randi Rentz, works with her students to produce an Action 7 newscast that is shown to the entire school community at the end of the year. Using the news cast as a focal point, she can help these children practice various social skills that are often such a challenge. Appropriate social space, eye contact, listening postures, all these social and communication skills come together as these kids take on all the various roles on the newsroom.

Another creative use of video and other media similar to the interesting work by the Whitman grantees at JustThink.org

Details about the Action 7 Newsroom here.

October 5, 2007

Playing the Learning Game

Thumbnail image for BPlogo04smst.gifLast year Lucy Bernholz from Blueprint Research & Design in San Francisco published a paper, Pedagogy, Playstations and the Public Interest, as part of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation's Digital Media and Learning initiative.

In the paper she addresses these three important questions:

1. How do digital media influence what and how youth learn, and what they should learn?

2. What, if any, public responsibility do we have to provide these media as tools for learning?

3. If there is such a public purpose, how can it best be met?

What may be most interesting is that she focused her research specifically on one aspect of digital media - video games and gamers. Here is a peak at some of her conclusions.

What skills games teach, how they might be used to build content expertise, and how to use them effectively in both formal and informal learning and work environments is a series of questions to which researchers are approaching answers. How games matter - framed as a more complex issue than merely their relationship (or not) to violence - is a conversation that we can move toward, both in the general public and among policymakers. Games that are both fun and educational - either in the creation of them and/or while playing them - may be successfully introduced into the marketplace, if certain deliberate investments are made.

There are both public and private interests at stake in this work...


A good read. Download the PDF from Blueprint's site.