Postcards from the Cutting Edge

April, May and September, 1998 Washington, DC Children of 2010 Dialogues

Not all work in community and social change is fruitful. My facilitation of the “Children of 2010 Dialogues,” sponsored by the WK Kellogg Foundation and the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) falls in this category. I was selected by these two sponsoring organizations, based on my work in the fields of youth development and race relations, to facilitate what had the potential of being a very significant national policy and advocacy movement.

The vision of these two organizations was to bring together national leaders from government, race relations, education, child development, media, and business for three three-day vision-to-action sessions that would hopefully provide guidance to a nation that will see children of color be the majority of the youth populations in its four largest states in 2010 (CA, NY, FL and TX). The outcome objective was to develop a movement that would shape policies and stimulate action for a more inclusive democracy that focuses on the needs of children and youth.

The right people were in the room... what an amazing group of over 30 leaders from all kinds of backgrounds. The purpose was compelling and stimulating. But, in my experience, the project fell far short of its potential. Worse than that, I believe it was due to internal sabotage. Ironically, it was my experience that the two co-convenors--one from NAEYC which is one of the largest and most influential non-profits in the country, the other from one of the largest foundations in the world, the Kellogg Foundation--were not capable of practicing democracy. Instead, they shaped and controlled most aspects of the process. While the word dialogue was used prominently in the project’s title, what I ended up facilitating was not a dialogue. It was a controlled discussion within preset boundaries set up by the organizers.

I went in knowing it would be a challenge to bring these individuals together as a community, to truly draw out the best thinking, and to lead the group to strong plans of action. I picked up on the organizers’ controlling nature in our first planning meeting a few months before the dialogues kicked off.

I called my mentor after that first meeting. He listened intently, as always, then suggested I do it even though I might be controlled by the co-convenors. “Anyone who goes to do this will face the same thing. You are very good at what you do,” he told me. “Go give them you.” So I did. Well, at least for one of the sessions. By stepping outside of the plan on a couple of occasions where I was facilitating a true dialogue I was relieved of my facilitating duties for the final two sessions although I was asked to participate because of my experience and insights.

Would you like to guess who facilitated the second and third sessions, in May and August? Good guess... the two organizers.

So, what had the potential to truly impact our country was nothing more than nine days of “mental masturbation” as I’ve heard it called before. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were wasted, dozens of our nation’s brightest and most passionate leaders were not tapped into, and it had no impact outside of the circle of participants. What a shame.

This experience changed me. I went in with so much hope... just as I had the Race Relations Institute at Fisk University the year before... because of the incredibly talented and committed people that were there. But, just like in the other experience, the environment did not bring out the best that everyone had to offer... in fact it stifled it. Everyone’s thoughts, emotions, and experiences were caged up in polite, controlled discussion. We were less effective collectively than each person in the room is individually.

These days, I know some of the reasons we still have so many challenges in race relations, why so many of our children do not have the resources they need to flourish, and why so many young people “check out” through their risk-taking behaviors. It is because, at least in part, some of the organizations and projects with the greatest potential for change undermine their own efforts.

Postcards from the Edge index