“We need everyone’s wisdom for the wisest result.” Sounds like a naive statement. But when the stakeholders in the results are participants in creating them, not only are the results better but the group itself has the potential to be transformed.
Once, sometime in the 1990’s, I was working with a client, a non-profit agency in a small remote community that served developmentally challenged people, to design a participatory strategic planning process. I asked them who had a stake in or were affected by their plan. They listed staff, board, and family members of developmentally challenged people. “Oh, and of course our clients.” I then asked who would be participating in the workshop. “Parents, staff, board… But not our clients, because this is an intellectual process.”
I asked them to reconsider, and they decided to invite several “higher functioning” clients, by which they meant “better behaved in a group”. One of these participants was Jacques.
We started with a vision workshop. The focus question was “What do we want to see in our community in 5 years, especially for developmentally challenged people?” I gave them time for individual brainstorm, then broke into small groups to write cards, with one labelled person in each group. While they were working, I went to the back of the room for a cup of coffee. Jacques, who was wandering around the room, came up to me and grabbed my arm. “Tree!” He said to me urgently. “You hear? You hear?”
“Yes, I hear, Jacques. Go on.” (He did have a hold on my arm, after all.)
“Tree! Forest! Fall down, die. Bring workshop, make furniture. You hear? You hear?”
“Oh yes, I do hear, Jacques. Come over to your group.” I gave him a green marker and a card and asked him to draw his tree on the card. I told the group what he had said, and they understood what he meant. What he meant was that people who were marginalized and considered dead and useless would be brought into the community and made a useful part of it. But he could only speak in metaphor.
When his card came up on the wall, it clustered with the other cards that were pointing to an inclusive community. The group was amazed that someone like Jacques could contribute meaningfully to their work.
The next workshop was Obstacles. The focus question is a bit more abstract — “What is blocking our vision?” Jacques wandered around through the whole small group work, and I thought we’d lost him. “Oh, well, at least he was able to contribute to part of this work.”
But then I started reading the obstacle cards out loud and putting them on the wall. Suddenly Jacques jumped up and shouted “Ring ring ring!” Everybody slumped down, thinking “there goes Jacques again.” But someone on the other side of the table said, “Oh I know what you mean, Jacques! You mean the fire drill we had last week!”
“You hear, you hear!” cried Jacques. “Ring, ring! Everybody go out! Cold! Can’t get back in!”
I gave Jacques a red marker and a card and asked him to draw the fire bell. What Jacques meant was that there were physical barriers keeping people excluded. His card grouped with others that pointed to physical barriers to inclusion in the community.
By this time the whole group was in awe at Jacques’ contribution, and started to understand how everyone has wisdom that is useful to the group.
Eight years later I had incorporated this story into my teaching about facilitation. I was asked to teach the course in the same community. I wondered if I should tell the story there, since it might have involved people in the room. I decided to use it, to see what would happen.
Sure enough, a woman came up to me at the break and said, “That happened here, didn’t it?” I nodded. She said, “I want to tell you what difference Jacques’ participation made. That was the turning point for a 180 degree change in our organization. Before that time, we created programs and slotted our clients into them. Jacques’ participation let us see that our clients knew what they wanted in their lives. It took us 5 years to change, but now we start by asking our clients what they want and creating supports around them. It still looks much the same to an outsider, but the starting point is completely different, and everyone, especially our clients, is much more satisfied.”
When you are designing a facilitated event, consider who all has a stake or will be affected by the results of the work, and include them as participants. Examine your own first assumptions that someone cannot participate, and find ways around them. Not only will the results be wiser, but the group or the organization just may be transformed by their participation.