• “All human activity emerges from our inwardness…our outward work in the world is a projection of our inner condition.”

    These are the words of Patricia Thompson. In her paper Being the Change We Want: A Conversation about Vocational Renewal for Nonprofit Leaders she writes passionately about the connection between vocational vitality and social change. Through the telling of her own personal experience of burnout and renewal in the nonprofit sector, she makes a case that our ability to create social change in the world is dependent on how rooted we are to our own vocation: “the place where our deep gladness and the world’s great hunger meet.” (from Theologian Frederick Buechner).

    She goes on to describe how too many social change organizations forget this and, as a result, create organizational cultures that sap rather than feed vocational vitality. An excerpt from her own experience:

    As the volume of work increased, so did the need for some space in between activities. But I had lost my sense of having any control over the volume of work or pace of my days. I carried my undigested experiences around like excess baggage. There was less and less room for anything new. The lack of reflection had the same effect as a lack of exercise. I grew sluggish in my thinking, sloppy in my writing, and irritable with colleagues. I no longer recognized myself. I forgot why the work was important or what it had to do with me if anything. I felt like a pack horse, an economic unit of production, a machine. I was on autopilot.

    One of the author’s core inspirations for how to reclaim her vocation was the transformative work of Parker Palmer and his colleagues who, through their Courage to Teach Program, seek to create a deeper coherence in the education system between individuals, organization, and mission. Palmer’s philosophy is beautifully simple: “We teach who we are.”

    It’s not clear from the article the extent to which the Courage to Teach Program focuses on organizational culture- the idea that everyone involved in a school, not just the teachers, contributes to learning by teaching who they are. Rennie and I are feeling pulled to the idea of an experimental project focused on creating (or re-creating) schools where learning is at the core of everyone’s experience- kids, teachers, administrators, parents, janitors, neighbours, funders. Perhaps there will be opportunities to collaborate with the Courage to Teach Program and schools like South West Baltimore Charter School and St. George’s School of Montreal.

    I agree with the author that “social transformation is not possible without personal transformation”. We are not separate from the social patterns we want to change. We do not act on them. We act with them and through them. The social problems that we are so passionate about eradicating aren’t just “out there”. They exist inside us. They exist inside and between the very organizations, networks, and gatherings we create to eradicate them. And so do the possibilities for social transformation.

    (Thanks to Nancy Pole for sending me this article and for Sue and Tony’s highlights of Parker Palmer’s work in their comments to a past post)

    November 27th, 2010 | Tana Paddock | 11 Comments

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  • Simone 11.27.2010

    Thanks for this post dears! I have forwarded it to the core teams of two projects I am working on, Tasting the Future and The Finance lab, both aiming to be large scale systemic change processes in the Food and Finance sector. We have had some discussions lately what we should focus on and what you write there so hits the nail. We cannot continue to focus on the external and expect others to change, or even treat the system as something that we don’t belong to. I wrote a little blog on the Tasting the Future ning: http://tastingthefuture.ning.com/profiles/blogs/about-social-transformation

  • Tana, like to think of this relationally. I other words, at its fundamental sense, we have to actually enjoy and like (and love) people to be able to be successful in social change work. I really believe it’s the one core ‘must’ in this work. Without this relational capacity, we may e doing great work but it won’t be transformational.

  • Tana, thanks for sharing this. Simone just sent this link to me and Vanessa as a basis of a conversation that we will have around ‘social change agents and burn-out patterns’. Based on a conversation that we had in Kufunda in November.

  • Hi Simone- We’re interested in looking at how to apply this and other themes to large-scale systemic change so we’ll definitely take a look at what they are doing. I tried linking to your blog post but it requires a sign-in, can you post it in another comment here or send it to us via email? Thanks!

  • That’s a nice way to think of it. Over the past decade I’ve become a lot better at remembering that in my daily work in little pauses and appreciative feedback…an unappreciative sometimes too : )

  • Cool…glad that it was helpful to your conversation.

  • Great paper. Thompson is bang on when she raises that we often just don’t know where to begin, and how to engage others in such processes as reflection can feel awkward and even threatening. Reflecting might raise stuff we’d rather ignore, such as accepting that we are fixated on certain ideals or constructs of the will that don’t quite reflect reality. We need to tell more stories!! Make vocational renewal part of the strategy.

  • So true. I particularly enjoyed how so many of her reflections were based on her personal experience.

  • Hope it’s not too late to wade in. Glad to read that others are interested in Parker Palmer’s formative work on teacher renewal. If you’re interested in organizational culture, you may find his “movement model of social change” relevant and helpful — see http://www.mcli.dist.maricopa.edu/fsd/afc99/articles/divided.html. It is hard-wired into the Courage to Teach program. Parker has polished and refined the model since 1992 when this short article was written. For example, he now talks about “communities of congruence” instead of “corporate support” to frame the second stage in the evolution of a movement. Does it help you reflect on your experience and tell your story? Does it help you describe your current challenge? I’d love to hear your stories and any comments on the usefulness of this tool. Thanks, Tana, for starting the conversation.

  • […] was reminded of this moment, when reading Patricia Thompson’s paper. She talked about the simple, but powerful, practice she learned from Parker Palmer’s teachings- […]

  • Thanks for sharing this Patricia. I can definitely relate to the stages he speaks to. It’s a helpful reminder when in the muck of it all. Rennie and I have often found people responding in a similar way to workshops we’ve convened- inspired by the possibilities, but very discouraged about the likelihood that they could seed such change in their own organizations. It caused us to shift from focusing on inspiring ideas and examples to gathering specific doable practices that anyone can start in any part of a organization. Easier said than done for sure!

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