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It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time

 

There are things I’ve done to facilitate group discussions that, in retrospect, make me roll my eyes and yearn for witness protection.  Even more astonishing than the cockamamie things I asked people to do is the fact that 99.9% of the time, people would do them!

Without flinching,

  • The head of UMOS agreed to write a ‘pressing community need’ on a balloon and tack it to the wall to be popped later by the expert facilitator as we established need priorities.
  • Waukesha County’s budget director along with his key staff wrote their ‘most important outcomes’ on paper airplanes and sailed them at me and my co-facilitator in a flurry which had us scrambling around the floor trying to pick them up and read them.  (We planned pre-flight but not post-flight.)
  • A police chief used crayons to draw his favorite summertime memory as a boy which had him on his bike in the hills overlooking his town and then label the picture “Lucky.”  (This was actually one that worked pretty well – helping a new Youth Collaborative harken back to the golden days of freedom and playfullness of their youth.  Unfortunately, they then went on to plan more structured activities for kids.  Oh well.)
  • Emergency shelter directors constructed their ‘visions’ of how the Shelter Task Force should operate using (what else?) Tinkertoys.  (Didn’t work – they all looked like spaceships.)

In addition to this kind of stuff, I went through a period of taking little jars of Play-Doh to every meeting.  I probably have more Play-Doh in my office right this second that Milwaukee’s biggest day care — because, you know or maybe you don’t, that you really can’t use Play-Doh twice.  Has to be new.

Anyway, participants in a planning meeting will generally do whatever the facilitator asks them to do if the facilitator conveys a genuine commitment to the process and a real enthusiasm for the results.  If the facilitator equivocates, then people will hang back.  I witnessed someone at a large gathering not so long ago open the meeting by promising a great icebreaker and then, surprisingly, losing his nerve at the last minute.  If you’re going to do something different, you have to plunge in like you believe it. 

Now I pretty much stick with the simple and striking.  Like this ball.  This is possibly the most enticing ball on the planet.  So I use it to do introductions or I’ll just have it sitting on the table available for people to  pick up and fiddle with.  People like it that I thought to bring some toys; most people will get into it.  It helps them play while being serious.  Takes the edge off.  Gives them something to laugh about.  Makes the room warmer and happier. 

Sometimes, though, people gather to plan or discuss or strategize and they are just too up tight to pick up that ball.  The ball will sit there the entire session.  Like it was made of crystal.  Everyone is afraid of the ball, ignores it, looks at their hands.  When that happens, witness protection is looking better and better.


Good Enough

A project is a thing of beauty in your mind’s eye.  It’s the implementation of it that’s the bear.  Yesterday’s project was repainting our sauna.   It looks like a little house – about 9′ by 15′ with a peak that you need an extension ladder to reach. 

The project started out hopeful and cheery like most projects do.  Using red paint helped.  Looks new.  Going fast.  Lots of jokes between me and my painting partner.  This is great – we’re going to be out of here in an hour. 

Dry wood sucking up paint like crazy.  Very hot sun and hotter wind that blows the paint off our brushes on to our arms.  Weeds in the way.  And so are the remnants of a Northwest Indian tribe totem pole which fell over in a Lake Superior storm about ten years ago. (Is this an odd story yet?)

Anyway, so we’re getting tired and very hot.  Painting partner sees a little hornet’s nest.  Good reason to skip the two slats right below.  First shortcut.  Last side has the weeds and the totem which of course we shouldn’t move out of respect to its what? imminent total deterioration? Second shortcut.

Now at least one of us is nearing heat stroke.  Spectator saunters over and suggests we just paint the bare spots.  “That’s crazy.  It’ll look like polka dots.”  The sauna was already red, so I actually considered that option. The two of us are now slapping paint on the last side wherever we can reach and starting a little chorus of “nobody’s going to see this side anyway.”  Which is perilously close to a really defeated “who gives a crap, haven’t we worked hard enough, the rest of it looks ok, let’s just bag it.”

And I realize that this surrender to good enough happens a lot when two people are working together.  It’s like cutting class — it’s contagious.  What the heck?  We could be drinking a beer and admiring the front of this damn sauna – where it actually looks pretty good.  If one person isn’t a high quality hardliner, two people will talk themselves into doing just enough to get by. 

Does it matter?  Sometimes.  Not everything needs to be perfect.  But some things do.

Still.  Sauna looks pretty good.  Don’t you think?

Jan Wilberg Janice Wilberg


Hello. Can I Come In?

For years, I’ve complained about human services agencies with locked front doors.  Agencies that require you to push the little doorbell, then talk to the receptionist, then get buzzed in, and then sign in.  One agency I frequent even asks me to include my license plate # on the sign-in sheet.  When they let me in, it’s not clear what criteria I met or failed to meet.  Did I not look dangerous?  Did they assume I didn’t have a cute pink pearl-handled revolver in my big Coach bag (like I even know what a revolver is….although, happily, I do know what a Coach bag is).  So agencies are worried about security — after 9/11, everyone got intense about security so I always attributed it to that and shrugged, oh well.

A dear colleague of mine, Ramon Wagner, had a completely different approach.  He talked all the time about front porches and how agencies had to sit on their front porches (figuratively) to understand the world and their place in it.  He didn’t believe in locked doors and, to this day, Community Advocates, the agency he founded, is a walk-in place. Stop in any day and you will see dozens of people in the waiting room who just walked in looking for help.  This is more than just not having a locked door.  Community Advocates, probably without knowing it, was on the cutting edge of a new way of thinking about human services than can be summed up in the word welcoming.

For the past few months, I’ve been assisting the Community Services Branch of the Behavioral Health Division in its efforts to establish a Comprehensive Continuous Integrated System of Care.  Fundamentally, this is about integrated substance abuse and mental health treatment services but, to me, the overarching value in the approach is the concept of welcoming.  Drs. Minkoff and Cline, the primary consultants to Milwaukee County on this effort, explain this concept in an article “Developing Welcoming Systems for Individuals with Co-Occurring Disorders: The Role of the Comprehensive Continues Integrated System of Care Model,” found at http://www.kenminkoff.com/articles/dualdx2004-1-devwelcomingsys.pdf.

Welcoming is about not having a locked door to anything.  At least as I understand it so far, it means that a troubled person presenting him or herself for help is welcomed, helped and respected.  “You’re in the right place.  We’re glad to see you.”  That’s the message.  Even if a person ends up needing to go to another program with more expertise or somehow can’t qualify for what’s available on-site, the message remains – “it’s good that you’ve decided to seek help and we will help you find it.”  This isn’t just at the front door but throughout an organization.

When people are sick and down, when they feel they’ve lost everything and have no choice but to ask for help, they don’t need locked doors and stern looks.  They need ackknowledgement, a smile, and maybe a nice cup of coffee.  In short, they need to be welcomed.

 

Jan Wilberg Janice Wilberg


Girls Rule!

I’m not saying sexism is dead, but it’s been a long time since I walked into a meeting feeling apologetic because I didn’t bring the coffee pot.  This is a bit embarrassing but I actually had a secretarial job once that included not only making the coffee but having a hot cuppa joe in my hand as the boss walked by into his office.  This came after the job where I typed the exact same letter (I’m talking typed here, folks, as in the key hitting the paper and having to erase same if said key was the wrong one) for eight hours a day for two straight weeks so the coffee making/handing thing seemed like a small price to pay to get free of that damn letter.

Remember how Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said he couldn’t define pornography but he knew it when he saw it?  Once you get past the obvious like huge disparities in pay and opportunity, that’s what sexism is.  It’s a bad electricity a woman feels the minute she walks in a room.

It’s something I can feel in an instant but can’t explain or define.  It’s the feeling of being tolerated, considered to be taking up space, not possibly being able to contribute, regarded as fundamentally nonessential.  It brings on a visceral, angry, fear-like feeling that dips really fast into believing that maybe some of that disregarding, dismissive attitude might be warranted.  The sickening thing about any ism is how quickly its victims absorb its judgement.

I’ve often told people that I decided to get a Ph.D. so people would listen to me in meetings.  Sounds flippant, but it was actually my driving force.  I wanted to be taken seriously – I figured the extra letters would help.  It did.  But hard to tell if the Ph.D. lessened the extent to which I absorbed others’ sexist attitudes or whether the degree changed other people’s attitudes toward me.    Chicken-egg.  All I know is the degree coupled with the fact that I now look like everyone’s mother has really made my recent encounters with sexism pretty darn rare.  But not non-existent.  Not yet.

Jan Wilberg Janice Wilberg


Show of Force

If you’ve got a lot of fire power, it’s hard to resist the urge to show it off.  Hence, the Blue Angels and the Thunderbirds and the whole concept of Shock and Awe which I’m kind of ashamed to admit I’ve used in various efforts to try to beat out competition for one thing or another.

But like every other tool, you have to be strategic about when you use it.  As an evaluator, I frequently meet with programs to review progress.  Usually, I meet with the agency director and the program coordinator.  But sometimes, I walk in and there’s a sea of people – from administrators to line staff to the receptionist.  Then I think to myself, why do they think they need all these people here?  I thought about putting a limit on the number of people at an evaluation visit but then, I thought, doesn’t a program’s decision about who needs to be there telling me something important?

Lobbying elected officials or meeting with bureaucratic higher-ups is another area where people often miscalculate the appropriate show of force.  Do you want a roomful of supporters if you’re trying to get a touchy piece of legislation passed?  Of course.  Standing room only.  But do you want a crowd when you’re meeting with an individual elected official about a delicate policy issue?  Different matter.  If each person in your delegation represents an essential and unique expertise, it’s probably ok to bring them along.  But if they are just taking up space or helping you feel more confident or important (it is nice to have an entourage), think again. 

When policymakers see a gaggle of people heading for their office, they put on their public face.  Not their ‘let’s get to know each other’ face or ‘let’s work out this problem’ face.  They glad hand, listen politely and move on.  And then they wonder why you needed a small army to talk to them. 

Advice?  Think about who will add essential value to a meeting; who will make the outcome better.  Make sure you’ve determined who is going to play what role.  Think Blue Angels.  Each one of them knows the plan and sticks with the program.  That, and the fact that they’re maneuvering those amazing planes within inches of each other, makes for a very impressive show of force.

Jan Wilberg Janice Wilberg


Pants on the Ground

My son is trying to get some traction in his life/work/career.  He’s 23, Nicaraguan, and wants to be an actor.  He’s also kind of short which hasn’t helped his acting life but that’s beside the point.  Right now he’s working on a landscaping crew with 8 or 9 other guys, all African-American, most of whom come to work with their pants on the ground, just like in the song.  After a couple of days of being the only Hispanic guy, my son fell in with these guys as work friends.

A couple of weeks ago, he told me that the group was chastised by their supervisor because one of the ‘pants on the ground’ guys had talked to a white woman who worked in the office and scared her.  Turns out he’d said good morning and tried to strike up a conversation.  Nothing nasty.  Just guy – girl chat, or so he thought.

So, my son says, “Are you not supposed to say hello to people because it’ll scare them?”  Of course, right there, I’m thinking that it’s an interesting predicament he’s in — is he in solidarity with his crew or wanting to distance himself?  Is Mr. Theatre getting radicalized?

“They use the N word alot which just makes the white people more nervous.” And does it ever. The N word, the pants on the ground, scary rap lyrics, cool poses make the white people more nervous, for sure.

Pants on the ground – just the latest in a revolving door of reasons to not want to talk to young African American men.  The big pants make them scary?

So everyone tries to fix the ‘pants on the ground’ kids as if their pants signify a much bigger pathology.  My pants, therefore I am? 

I don’t buy it.  We aren’t our pants.

A guy in skinny jeans can be just as messed up as a guy in baggy pants or they both might be graduate students at UW-M.  Who the heck knows unless you talk to them?


Going Off Half-Cocked: Business Lessons from My Dad

One reason why I don’t have ulcers or lose sleep over work is that I keep in my back pocket a finely honed ability to go off half-cocked. I don’t do it all the time and, as I get older, tend to do it less and less, but I have no fear of pushing my chair back from the table and saying “I’m done with this” if the foolishness quotient goes beyond a certain level.

I learned this from my Dad.  Well, learned probably isn’t accurate.  It’s more like I absorbed it.  My father didn’t do a lot of direct instruction and probably wouldn’t have known a role model if one sat in his lap.

My dad knew how to pick up and leave.  Now, get this right.  My dad was not a rich man.  He couldn’t always afford to go off half-cocked and several times his family paid the price for his unilteral decisions to sell his business, move to a new town, buy a business, move again.  There were a lot of 29 cent chicken pot pies eaten while he played in dance bands at night or sold Muntz TV’s door to door in Detroit to pay the mortgage and keep his day business operating.

But you know what I respected about him?  He didn’t take a lot of crap from people or situations.  He took some.  He wasn’t some super-sensitive guy who was always getting his nose out of joint or running out the door because his pride was hurt.  He would negotiate, try to change things, come at problems from a new angle.  But if none of that worked, he’d just get to a certain level and, man, that was it.  He was done.  He was on to making a new plan.

Without even thinking about it, I realized early on that I approached my work life the same way.  And it has brought a value to my work that might be underestimated by many people.  Because I know I am not afraid to walk away from a bad situation, I’m less stressed about staying in one.  As a co-worker in a nonprofit organizations where we both worked said when the agency was going through a particularly wicked period, “This isn’t the kind of place you should work if you don’t have options.”

I have colleagues who just seem to suffer every single day on the job.  “How’s it going,” I ask.  Then the torrent…”they don’t use my skills, I never have any say about my assignments, no one ever listens to me, I’m not appreciated and on and on.”  To which I say, “You’re smart.  You’re competent.  You have options.”  Invariably, I get the arguments back about how they don’t have options, they have families, it’s a bad job market, they’ve got a pension to worry about.  A hundred reasons why they can’t control their own lives.  I feel bad for them - not really. 

Going off half-cocked — important skill to have. It’s not about being flaky or temperamental or egotistical.  It’s about having standards and a sense of one’s own capabilities and contribution.  And knowing what you will and won’t do to make a buck.

And believing, at the end of the day, you can make a new plan.