Ward Mailliard: One of the things that we discovered in the process of the learning journeys was that the “return” is a extremely important aspect of the journey that is rarely observed. It’s something that, in the educational field for example, is completely unacknowledged. We learned from Sobonfu Some that it’s the job of the village to welcome you back from the initiatory experience.
The village, after they would send the young people out to their rite of passage between being a youth and adult, the village would all come out to greet them and acknowledge the transformation that the initiation produces. Without that, without the return, the result can be isolation, alienation and depression. What’s interesting to me is when we give language to that, how often I’ve seen this look of knowing in somebody’s eyes. When they feel the woundedness of not being witnessed when they’ve gone through an enormous initiation or transformation in their lives. We look the same, we talk the same, we’ve got the same habits, and people think we are the same. And yet something has happened. On the journey there is emotional learning, when learning connects with the emotion, it goes deep.
That’s why the actual journey is important. It’s not theoretical. It’s real. It is the affective, experiential, and the emotional aspect, and that is when transformation occurs. It grabs hold of you, as you grab hold of the experience. And when you come home, after the journey, like when we came back from Africa, after mentioning the rhino, the elephant and the cheetah, or whatever the big five are I can never remember, even your family’s ready to move on because there’s no way for you to really express the feelings and emotions or for them to get it.
This is because we’re asking the wrong question. We’re asking, “Oh what happened, how was your trip?” And that’s actually the least important part of it. What is important is how have I changed, how was I touched, how was I moved? What shifted in me? What new awareness do I hold now? What gifts have I discovered that I’m bringing back to community?
When we put the students on stage and we assemble two or three hundred people in this room and say, “Ok let’s talk,” and the students see the emotion of their parents, then they know. They’re talking about the experience, what it meant to them and often you see parents weeping. You know, “Is this my child? Is this my child’s friend- Is this the one that spends all their time in my refrigerator?” Is the them, coming out with these deep life lessons.
So there are two stages in the return that we’ve seen so far. For those of us on the journey there’s a moment where only the people who have experienced the journey can understand what happened. It’s only in that dialogue, because we were there. We experienced it together in this little microcosm that we’ve created of a community taking a journey together. As I was reflecting on yesterday and some of the ups and downs of the day, I realized interspersed in that euphoria and the crash and burn moments, that the constellation that was connecting me was the relationship of how I was seeing and feeling in relation to the people in the room, realizing we were all having a shared experience.
The first stage of the return is for us to engage with each other and say, “Well, what happened for you? What was your experience? What moved you? What touched you? What mattered to you? What dismayed you? What surprised you?” The second stage is when we come back to the larger community, and we don’t have this in our culture. Generally there’s little or no witnessing that takes place. So we are going to have learn how to create the ritual of return. We have to develop literacy in this. What’s the literacy of the return? Do I have the courage to set up my own return?
You could say after I go home I’m going invite three or four people over for dinner but the cost of the invitation is that they’re going have to be curious and ask questions. So how do we set up our own ritual of return? We handed out some questions yesterday. These questions are probably infinite. You know, “What happened on the journey that had meaning? How was I transformed by the experience? What am I bringing back that’s useful to me and to my community? What did I learn, how did I change? How can I be seen by my community for who I am now? How do I tell the story of my journey? What am I conserving of the experience? What’s the story that matters?”
What we conserve, what we give validly to in our experience, we build a story around that, and that story travels with us. And I think that the most important thing is to realize that you’re in charge of your own story. And if it’s not working change it. I think Meg Wheatley, “And I don’t’ know where it came from said, “All stories are false and some are useful.” Think about the utility of the story. Is the story about how I was disappointed by someone else? Or is it a story of how I encountered a challenge and I discovered some depth in myself that I didn’t know I had?
So at what point do you shift the story in order to conserve the experience that moves you forward in your own life? Because we tend to be patterned by a repetitive story. If you discover you’re telling the same story over and over again and the story that you’re conserving is not moving you forward you might consider shifting the story.
And I think Desmond Tutu said it very well in terms of talking about forgiveness. That if we don’t forgive, we tie ourselves to perpetrator, to the negative experience and “we never experience the sweet liberation that comes from forgiveness.” So in addition to gratitude at the end of the journey is, “Please forgive me, I forgive you, I love you and farewell.” So in the larger journey, the journey is the circular. The return is the beginning of the call and the call is the beginning of the journey. And if there wasn’t a “return” the call and the journey would have no meaning. So we have a job to do in the return, which is to bring to consciousness, to connect with the emotion as well as the story that we put on top of that emotion and to work with that material.
We do that by figuring out what are the questions I need to ask myself in order to bear witness to my own experience? Or as Angeles would say, “Tracking the four rivers.” “How was I delighted? How was I surprised? How was I challenged? How was I deeply touched and moved?”
So that’s it. We need to find a way to bring the return into the process. For those of us setting up learning experiences, we need to be curious, and that’s one thing we are not doing. We are not curious enough. So let our curiosity begin, we get an opportunity here today to play a little bit with the return. Thank you.
Peter Block: A comment on the place of art in this learning process. Next year the piano will just be part of the circle instead of outside the circle. Avril and Mary and Mariah need to face us not turn their back to us. And so we thought that for the end of our journey, they will join us as full participants and have something in mind for us. This is the rightful place of art.
The question when we drew these pictures yesterday was, “In drawing the pictures where did it take us that we couldn’t have gotten there without it?” This is the question for art as part of this methodology of communal transformation. It is the question for art in an education system that can restore our humanity. If this question is not asked, there is a dead spot in our way of educating. A black whole. And the reason we do not ask the question and art has been relegated to a stepchild of math, science and English , is that the art has a revolutionary impact. Math, science and English are counter revolutionary.
If the purpose of a community is to raise a child, which it is, then we have to restore their humanity and our own. This is what the major project is; how to restore the humanity in a world held bent on performance and producing low cost workers for our corporations. Art is part of that and that’s wonderful.
I wrote something this week, I want to share, this is the height of arrogance, to read to you something of my own writing. It reminds me of Joel Barker a very famous consultant. I once saw him give a talk in which he had power points on the screen of his own quotes. This is him giving a talk, quoting himself and putting it on a slide. “Life is what you make of it, Joel Barker. 1987” And so I always had it mind to do that. You know, “Let’s break into small groups, Peter Block. 1976.” This is a small version of that. All that is missing is the screen. It proves I am capable of arrogance as you might have suspected.
Here is the way I make order out of an experience like this. This is what I spend my life trying to do, pursuing the illusion that if you can make order out of experience, if you can name it, it gives you access to it. Then I can take it with me. It’s an answer to sustainability.
Part of what we are doing here in this room is creating an alternative narrative for what education can become. I like the thought that all transformation is language. So my transformation is my adopting a different story. A different narrative, a different constellation that organized my experience. I looked in the skies and I saw moments of my experience like stars and I tied them together and gave it a name.
One of my old story names was Peter: Loner, Wandering Jew, Marginal Person Living on the Edge. And that was the story I’ve lived into and chose to take my identity from. I’ve been a consultant, I’ve been an outsider. My narrative.
At some point that constellation of how you’ve threaded together your own experience, doesn’t serve you any longer. So if you’re in this room it means you came for something to shift. Me too.
Well what shifts is your narrative. We come for a different constellation or alternative narrative. All of a sudden instead of living a Loner, I declared, “I’m a citizen of Cincinnati.” A citizen is a participant, not a guest or customer. If I left Cincinnati, which I might at any moment, I’ll miss it. That’s the first time in my life that I’ve lived a place that I would miss. I’ve left lots of places and people. Never really missed them. So I am longer loner, outsider, I say I’m citizen of Cincinnati. I’ve decided to call myself an artist now. I’ve decided I’m a writer.
And so in some ways you came here to re-constellate the narrative you have about yourself. To re-constellate the narrative you have about education. So if you say your job in the “return” is to get complete with the experience, this is the work. To name for this moment the personal and educational narrative which you are living into. We will do this in a minute if I stop talking. A part of it is I need to re-constellate or rename the narrative that I am living now.
My narrative now is participant, member, citizen, neighbor, artist. To get specific, I’ve decided my job is to train my dog. Something I am totally unqualified and incapable of doing because it requires consistency. It requires common messages to an animal that wants nothing more than to please me. Well I send mixed messages. So I’ve decided this is my work. If I can train a dog my life will be complete.
Second element of my narrative is that while I always liked gardens, I have no interest in learning about them. I’ve decided watering flowers is the second thread of my life as an artist. Every morning I walk the dog and confuse him as best I can, reward him for bad behavior and ignore his good behavior, much like I raised my children. When you walk a dog, you meet neighbors. The answer to my old story of loner. The last thread of this new narrative is to write. Dogs, gardens, writing have always been in my experience. Its just that they were background.
This is how the new story is created. For yourself, ask what are the stars that were in the old story that you thought were background and now become foreground. This is how new narrative is created, it’s not created out of nothing, it’s created out of re-constellating, or the coming home. As Michael found that grand piano beautiful. Beautiful image.
In addition to your narrative, the other thing is the communal narrative. You came her to create a narrative of what education can be and I think that’s what Ward is ushering us into. He’s our messenger. He’s taking us across the river into hell and back. Who’s the oarsmen across the river Styx? It was Charon.
So we’re here to create a communal narrative. Let me give you some elements of what I think the communal narrative is for education. This comes out of the work in positive deviance, it’s a wonderful book called Positive Deviance. Here is what they did to change social systems. First they looked for signs of health, this is in healthcare but it could be education. They looked for the gifts, they looked for what was working instead of what was not working.
The second, they decided to listen, that listening became an action step. Most people in education they’re busy teaching, busy talking. And so the Positive Deviance people , they go into a community and they listen deeply for what’s working. They listen for people who on their own have figured something out that works in a desperate situation.
Jill goes into that part of Watsonville that everybody has as a problem story about now, right? Jill doesn’t go there with Watsonville as a problem story. She doesn’t go with her classroom as a place where kids can’t learn. She goes and sees in those children little spots where insight, learning, grace, generosity exist. And it’s always there even in the most difficult kids.
So another thing is the Positive Deviance people did was decide that people act with good will so that positive intent becomes an element for the new narrative. And I don’t care how many youth are at risk, how many kids in the neighborhood, how many kids on the street corner where I live, I decide that they are gifts waiting to be delivered and if they are doing funny things, if they’re into mischief that’s not what they had in mind. And so that’s the positive intent.
The other thing about the new narrative is that leadership plays a minor role. In every narrative I know of real transformation, leadership was irrelevant. Top management wasn’t needed. All we need from top management is to not really get in the way. We don’t need their support, we don’t need their vision, we don’t need a laminated definition of the future. All real transformation starts in the middle or the bottom. So that’s’ what I’m interested in. it’s a peer based learning process. I know that if you got anything out of these days together in this room, despite the fact that all us facilitators and artists did our part, but its from each other where the real learning occurred. This is what Ward is giving voice to; it’s the classmates with each other. And so what people came for they’ll find from peers, not from leaders, not from experts, not from those who have been around, not from elders. What the elders do is let us know that it is possible to live a long time and not get too discouraged. That’s my gift to the next generation. If you didn’t die too depressed you won. Peers with each other.
Here are some more thoughts and then I’ll stop. First is that everything is organized around choice and invitation. Forgive me for reading.
The thread in all reform is initiated by choice and invitation. It holds deep respect for the present existence of local wisdom. Real reform is neurotically wary of experts under any disguise. Even people who stand up and say we’re going to break into small groups. They allow for local customized solutions, which take advantage of the variability of what it means to be human. Instead of consistency and control, I’m interested in exceptions. Real reform comes from people who have given up on their ambition. Who realized their future’s behind them. Human system reforms are initiated by people who are at the stage of life where they have given up on ambition. They are people in life, in age or spirit, who reach the point where they are ready to look far outside what they were conditioned and trained to find. I can’t reform whatever I’m into from thinking that exists within that medium, you have to go outside of it.
That’s what art does. It’s organized by acts of dissent. Jung said, “All consciousness begins with an act of disobedience.” So if right now you are betraying the expectations of others you love and who love you, you’re on the right track. I’m not the son you had in mind, I’m not the husband that you were looking for, I’m not the father that you were looking for. It doesn’t go well but that’s the process.
This part is that it’s a betrayal of those that the traditional culture has authorized to speak. So I want to know where the legitimate voices are and then I want to not listen to them. What is not useful is the clergyman at church, the physician in medicine, the professor in education, or the economist in commerce. What you’re looking for is voices that up till now have not been authorized.
It’s based on the gifts and capacities, which we’ve talked a lot about, the gifts and capacities of ordinary people. Reform does not come from extraordinary people. I’m not interested in people who live to 96 and are still skydiving. That’s not a role model because the chances of me doing that are less than 0. I would not sky-dive when I was 36, 46, why would I do it when I’m 96? Everybody says, “oh don’t worry about getting old. You know I have a grandmother who’s still doing pushups.” So I’m interested in ordinary people.
The reform in education is to take not just the stars and decide how high they can rise, but to take the middle lower people and say what’s the gifts and capacities that they bring into this room. And there’s just a lot in there.
And the other thought and then I’ll be done is that community is “it.” Without connection and community, what Ward is giving us, what this two days is an example of there is no reform. This leads us to ask, ‘what does the landscape and texture of a communal experience look like?” Whether it’s a circle, whether it’s the room, whether it’s the structure, whether it’s letting light in or art in or music in, whether it’s hearing from people, whether it’s doing a structured exercise.
So basically what’ you’re here is to invent is what a community feels like. And like I said yesterday it goes from the inside out, I’ve given up on that, I’ve been working on the inside and it’s doing as good as it’s going to do and I’m all for that. But outside in I need a community around for me to live out find my voice, find my legs, do what I came to do in this world. And I think that’s the real reform.
The last thing is that the project is about the restoration of humanity.
What that really means is that reform has to accept the fallibility in each of us. That what steals my humanity is my perfectionism. My not wanting to get it wrong. This is the idea of the restoration of humanity. Ward and I were wondering talking this morning, whether the purpose of a school is to teach the community how to re-discover it’s own humanity.