Oddly, I don’t think I have written much about my own leadership development experience, which was profound on many levels. As I sat down to write about vision I found myself remembering two experiences as a participant in the Kellogg National Leadership Program that shaped my thinking and beliefs. The first was a week long, small seminar for 12 lucky fellows, self included, with Paulo Freire. His book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed was sacred text to me. I could write dozens of blog posts about that experience, but for the sake of focus I will go straight to one of many punchlines. On about day three, he walked over to me and kindly put his hand on my shoulder as he said, “Your problem is that you don’t dream.” He went on to explain that while power might change hands in the fight for justice, we will recreate systems oppressions without imagining a society in which we are able to reach our full humanity by liberating ourselves from oppressive relationships (either as oppressor or oppressed).
This takes a lot of imagination! This was one of the things I loved about the film Black Panther. To be transported for a magnificent 2.5 hours to a society that had not been colonized and whose resources had not been exploited by others. There is something really powerful about seeing a visual representation of what you can only imagine. The Urban Impact Lab in Miami used this approach to inspire a community to organize for a transit line by actually holding an opening of an imaginary train station for the purple line that did not yet exist. The station had been created in sidewalk chalk under an overpass complete with pop up concession booths. The ‘opening’ attracted thousands of people.
As part of the process during a human centered design lab we did as part of work to understand what it would look like to create the conditions for health and well-being for all Californians, we we prompted to remove all obstacles to our dreams...imagine we had unlimited resources, decision making authority, and on and on. The group in the photo was producing and freely distributing resources (yes, while they chanted Wakanda). The joy level of the room began to rise. We used a modeling exercise that I highly recommend, borrowed from Theory U processes, to help our board imagine its way into a future in which everyone could lead and act together. The design process reminded me of how difficult it can be to untether ourselves from the “but this and but thats.” Donella Meadows designed a visioning exercise to help people expand their vision and capacity to imagine an ideal future, 10 years, 20 years out.
Another colleague I have great respect for, Eugene Eric Kim, kicked off the year with a great blog post about visioning called, “The Art of Thinking Really Big.” I loved the post that talked about the evolution of this own thinking from an earlier focus on anchoring one’s vision to appreciating the importance of really stretching in our visions. (Please read his post because I am not doing it justice). He introduced the term ‘radical hope’ which I hope to hear more about, an intriguing idea for these times.
His post did get me thinking about the relationship between vision and hope, which leads me to the second story from my own leadership experience. I had the opportunity to travel to Nicaragua in 1989, not long before Daniel Ortega was defeated in the election by Violeta Barrios de Chamorro. During the visit, we met with a cultural worker who had been a teacher and shared stories about friends murdered by the Contras, and still he sang and spoke enthusiastically about what he wanted for his country. I wondered how he could remain so hopeful in the face of such economic hardship and political uncertainty for the country, so when I had the chance I asked him. He laughed and said, “Hopeful?”, “I am like a flea nibbling on the heel of an elephant.” Incredulously, I thought about the songs he wrote and asked him, “How do you do it?” He pointed to his children and asked, “What choice do I have?” At the time, I felt despair and something else I could not quite name.
My understanding of what it means to take the long view has grown, as I had children, and they had children. And in a way, the long term view is liberating. I am not derailed by the pain and horror of what seems like daily assaults on people I consider brothers and sisters. My vision is definitely big. It’s big enough that I know it can’t be achieved in a lifetime, or at least this one. And because it’s big, it inspires me, so I keep planting seeds that I hope will yield a more just, equitable and humane world. Maybe this is radical hope. While I don’t ascribe to a specific religion, when I returned from Nicaragua a friend gave me a excerpt from Archbishop Romero’s sermon, that I carried in my wallet for a decade.
From the sermon, “We are Prophets of a Future that is Not Our Own”
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an
opportunity for the Lord's grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master
builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.