As a Family Coach and Community Builder, I enter into somewhat vulnerable relationships with many people of diverse socio-economic and cultural backgrounds. I have found I must be willing to approach these experiences with an open mind.
Now that may sound simplistic and even an overstatement of the obvious kind to some who might read this article; particularly for those with experience in capacity building in communities or performing direct service to families. Having an observing eye and ear is the key to mindful facilitation. Families are the experts on the subject of their families and communities come to the process of development with common values, beliefs and goals. As a mindful facilitator, it is up to me to shake the tree and have the already extant answers form into a meaningful, coherent and practical plan.
Becoming aware of one’s own presumptions and prejudices is an ever evolving process which rises and falls like hills. It is not something that can be learned in a three hour or three day training. The education around self-awareness and attending to our own preconceptions we bring to our work is best learned in the field or on-the-job. The support of a mindful or reflective supervisor is the polishing of this experience.
Below is an anecdote of one of my most “educational” experiences in learning this keystone element. It is not without irony and a deep sense of humility that this project began at a time in my life when I was eager and hungry for new involvement and was in a place of saying "Yes" to most opportunities coming at me. The universe provided obligingly.
I was living in a middle-sized town in northern Arizona and was employed for an agency which performed many of the child and family services needed in a very large county. I was chosen to lead a community development project in a remote mining town about 1 ½ hours’ drive from my office. Arizona is full of tiny remote towns but not too many "company towns" exist anymore. I was immediately nervous about the assignment because of the reputation of company towns: that they are not favorable to “outsiders” or someone who looked like me. At the time my hair was very short and I dressed fairly manly-much the same style I employ today. Gender biases have always bugged me and comfort has long ruled my wardrobe.
My understanding was Bagdad, AZ, Population 1,570 (back then), was church driven, god fearin’, and self-reliant. For the town to request assistance was unusual. It seems the mine was making money hand-over-fist back in those days of a small copper boom. The town leaders decided to use the increased revenue to create a place for kids to go when not in school. At least this was their first idea.
As I entered into the community with my unusual clothing and style, I was prepared for sidelong glance, double-takes and even outright verbal epithets. None of which occurred. My relationship with the town’s children and families began with holding large meetings to gather ideas and needs from the children as well as the adults. At first the adults showed little interest in coming together for these discussions, so the project began with an enormous amount of youth input on what they wanted in their community. I felt comfortable amidst all of the children. If the younger ones didn’t know if I was a boy or a girl, they would simply ask me. The older children responded well to tasks they would complete: (putting together a newsletter to the community to update the process, organize and perform surveying of what services were already in their community and what was lacking, and an inventory of people in the community we might target to become involved in the project at staggered moments to have them engage for a specific aspect of the project. For instance, the youth chose a certain person to solicit for help in creating the walking/hiking/naturalist trails leading to the center. And another who would spearhead an arts and crafts function at the center, etc.) The children took on tasks and projects with zeal. It was fun.
Then came the parents and adult community member meetings. These began with the youth combined but were quickly changed to only adults for some weeks. It was easier for them to speak freely and honestly and to really drill down to what their essential needs and desires were for the new center.
I was very hesitant about the adult collaboration. I had felt so tightly guarded against any judgment of me and how I looked, etc. that I felt constrained to permit free-flowing ideas and clamped down on creativity. Then one day, I went to the church where some after school arts and crafts-style activities were being held and poorly attended. Location was part of the reason for small attendance, and there was the whole church issue.
In this population of less than 2,000, there were 5-6 churches. The predominant ones were Catholic, Mormon and Southern Baptist with some free and evangelical/Pentecostal churches rounding out the rest. According to the Census from 2000, almost 70% of the Bagdad population reported themselves as religious with regular attendance at church. But Baptists weren’t too keen on the arts and crafts being taught by Mormons, and the Catholics shied away from services provided by the Pentecostals, etc. A Family and Youth Community Center was the answer to most of the town’s desires for a safe place for kids to go, and a place where some services may be rendered with a secular bent, or at least a place for services to be performed from the churches in a neutral place and with transparency of content.
As I began attending this arts and crafts “class” I was warmly received each week by the adult in charge. She apparently had a good bead on the pulse of the community-mostly the Mormons as this class was held in a Mormon church. Further along during the project I got to know some families more and really got to know some of the youth in depth. I felt fulfilled by the work and the project went along smoothly.
It was a weekly experience for me to come and go from this town: coming in with shields up and all guards on standby; leaving with humility and gratitude for the process of letting go of my judgments. I believe that because of the nature of community development: most often a facilitator for the process is from outside the community proper; there is always a protective shield around all parties, keeping safe that tender desire or need for something in their lives.
For me as the facilitator, I must walk into such a partnership with a wide-eyed, open-eared, humble and accepting nature, or else the project has a real chance for failure. By the town of Bagdad permitting me to facilitate first with their children-a great deal of trust was placed with me-and then feel comfortable enough to talk about some secrets, fears and hopes for what their community might be capable of, I became a part of their process. I had both feet on the ground and left my judgments in the Santa Maria riverbed somewhere out there-and for that growth I am eternally grateful. I feel my practice of mindful facilitation began in the Santa Maria riverbed and I have only built upon it in the years which have followed.