Thursday, June 08, 2017

Table to Action Design Workshop

Back in October 2016 I wrote about attending the initial SF Bay Area meeting of Table to Action[1].  I mentioned soliciting one or three of my local interfaith colleagues who are Roman Catholic, Buddhist, and/or Hindu.  Unfortunately, I was unsuccessful.  A college professor friend recommended a liberal Catholic at her institution, and introduced us by email.  I invited her and got her in the loop for the next meeting in February.  She responded that she was eager to come, but for whatever reason(s) she did not attend.

Sponsored by Auburn Seminary and Starr King School for the Ministry, that second meeting was very like the first one.  Table to Action had planned a longer follow-up workshop to take place in April.  It was an evening, followed by a daylong design workshop.  This is some of what the invitation said:

From September 2016 through February 2017, a multi-religious group of about thirty Bay Area spiritual and community leaders have gathered…to form a community of resilience and accountability and discuss common questions related to our struggles for justice.

When we began…the questions before us were related to our spiritual, emotional and physical sustainability in the context of relentless demands and challenges and frequent setbacks.  We approach the questions intersectionally, both from personal and communal standpoints,

We asked ourselves what kind of justice movement we dreamed of, one that would engage issues intersectionally, respected our different social locations and histories and honored our bodies and souls as we are in the struggle.  …

After the elections, we checked on how our bodies and souls and our community fared in the midst of constant multiple attacks on the values and communities we love.  We asked ourselves how we could best support each other across our different communities, and strengthen our capacity to build a sustainable and resilient local community or resistance and resilience.

This longer engagement culminated “with a DesignShop[2] … [to] imagine together where we might want to reimagine ways to collaborate for justice in the Bay [Area] in these times.”  The title was:

We Are Not Afraid to Reimagine[3]
A Design Shop Intensive[4]

We gathered at City of Refuge United Church of Christ in Oakland on the evening of April 23 and all day on April 24.  The Hospitality Services of City of Refuge, an excellent venue, conveniently located with plenty of parking and a small garden outside, catered our event.  The food was great, accommodating various dietary concerns, and the food preparers (all women, it seemed) friendly and kind.  They earned several applauses throughout the two days.

The first evening entailed a re-acquaintance with other participants, and for those who hadn’t attended the first two meetings, getting to know each person.  Again, I was unsuccessful in recruiting either Buddhists, Catholics, or Hindus, although I know that all three are active in interfaith, social justice, and environmental concerns.  To be fair, there are few Hindus in my immediate area except for a Vedanta retreat, which is a member of Marin Interfaith Council.  However, there are plenty of activist Catholics and Buddhists.  And since this was a Bay Area-wide effort and there are many Hindus in the Santa Clara Valley (aka Silicon Valley), I found their absence worth mentioning.  It wasn’t I who convened this group, so I don’t know how wide a net they cast.  Regardless, I did invite Felicity Grove, an interfaith colleague from NCLC-CoG.[5]  Surprisingly, among this group of about thirty, there were four Witches.  One, Courtney Weber Hoover works at Auburn and is part of the program, so she was an employee-participant.  The other was local Witch Luna Pantera, whom I’ve known for many years and knew of her involvement with NOW.  I had not encountered her at interfaith activity until now, although I’m now aware that she attended the second MountainTop in Atlanta in 2015, as I did in Nashville in 2013.  I was glad to see her taking the step of further involvement.

As in earlier DesignShop sessions, we gathered in small working groups, where we were given a topic or a problem to address collaboratively.  The specific configurations of these groups changed with each change of topic; all were timed to 30 minutes.

An artist documented our full group discussions on whiteboards around the room.  I described this here, starting at the sixth paragraph. 

Get on the Bus

Round One of this exercise involved teammates depicting “the Bay Area’s movement work as if it were a bus on a journey…traversing any kind of landscape.”  Includes details such as obstacles, challenges, landmarks, “as well as the nature of the interaction on the bus…”  After this we walked around to see what others had been talking about.

“It’s easier to get from THERE to HERE than it is to get from HERE to THERE.”
DesignShop Axiom

For Round Two, teams drew a bus that represented the ideal Future State, three years from today, then chose a team member to report the group’s final ideas to the whole gathering.

Design a Home

For this module we formed new teams in which each of us was given a description of a specific person and assigned to enact that individual in the discussion.  We were five people, each decidedly different from the other in terms of age, health, economic situation, ethnicity, et al., seeking to share housing in the Bay Area.  We were to consider each participant’s needs: cost; location; quiet hours or quiet area; rooms for entertaining visitors; sharing food and/or meals or not; accessibility of public transit; pet(s) or none; house meetings; levels of fastidiousness; chores; need for yard or garden area; etc.  No one knew who the other was portraying prior to the role-playing discussion.

My role was that of a 52-year old gen X-er, middle class, working in nonprofit, given to inclusivity, reflection and discussion, no rash decisions.  The names given to each participant were not generally seen as being gender-specific.  My name was Leslie.

“To add someone’s experience to your experience, 
to create a new experience, is possibly valuable.”
DesignShop Axiom

Then we debriefed for another 20 minutes, setting aside our roles and reviewing what just happened in our housemate meeting.  Questions we considered were:

1.              What process did you work out to make this decision?  Who took the lead?  Was it an explicit process or did it just evolve?

2.              What worked well and what could you have done differently in listening to what was important to each of the other housemates?

3.              How did you balance incompatible objectives and priorities?

4.              How was this scenario like some of the trade-off decisions that have to be made in creating a more racially and economically equitable Bay Area?

5.              What did you learn about design decisions like this one that you can use going forward?

At the end of that time, we reported what we learned to the whole gathering.  I felt okay about how this module went.

“Everything that someone tells you is true; 
they are reporting their experience of reality.”
DesignShop Axiom

Designing a Game
Design the Sustainable Justice Game

Beginning with the assumption that everything can be turned into a game, we were tasked with designing a “sustainable racial and economic justice game.”  Colored paper, beads, yarns, colored markers, and other game-making materials were provided.  Both Felicity and I were in this group together with two other people.

Questions we considered in devising this Sustainable Justice Game were:  Choosing a game to model; the objective of the game; what winning looks like; who can win and under what circumstances; strategies leading to success or failure; what advances play or sets players back; barriers/obstacles to winning and how to overcome them; resources/skills players need and whether they’re easy to pick up or can be offered from one player to another; who are the players and what are their roles and characteristics; player interactions and powers, limits or constraints; cooperation or competition; field of play; and rules.  And importantly, what unique characteristics of the multifaith movement for social justice can be built into our game?

We began by brainstorming a list of our favorite games.  There was one game that neither Felicity nor I knew anything about.  Both of us clearly expressed this numerous times.  Nevertheless, time was running out and we hadn’t settled on one game to use as a template that all of us agreed on, so the person most invested in using the game she suggested took the lead and began writing about it on our whiteboard.  We settled with doing the support work of making the board and the pieces according to what the other two were telling us about how the model game goes.  Personally, I felt excluded from designing the game and handicapped due to our ignorance of it.  And I will say that this exercise was not fun for me.  Nor was it an equitable collaboration.

Our result, ideally, was writing the rules, preparing the board (or other field of play), pieces, and other elements so that another team can actually play it.

“If you can’t have fun with the problem, 
you will never solve it.”
DesignShop Axiom

We then moved our tables together to hear what another group designed and to share what we designed.  The other group created a game I really liked.  It was a board game, with all roads leading to the center.  The object was to get to the center, and for those who reached the center sooner to work towards bringing along every other player.  I couldn’t hear their explanations due to the distance created by two large tables pushed together, the acoustically “live” room, and the softness of their speech.  I did the obvious, which was to request the speaker to speak louder because I wanted to hear what they had to say but couldn’t.  The first time I said this, the speaker duly increased her volume.  However, the next speaker again spoke softly and again I said I couldn’t hear.  This situation was exacerbated by people leaning in to hear better and thereby blocking my view.  Of course, I kept moving my vantage point so that I could see the speaker, but it didn’t do much good

We concluded the day by gathering once again in a circle, where Melvin Bray, the facilitator asked that someone from each team tell us what they did.  This is where things got dicey among four who participated in the game design segment.  The facilitator did not extend our talk so that we could express our frustrations and resolve our differences.  Perhaps others didn’t see the tension and bewilderment on our faces.  I was disappointed.  Normally I would do that myself  -- speak up.  However, we were at the end of the day and there seemed to good way to deal with the problem without being disruptive.  Instead, I spoke to another team member one-to-one after the close, expressing that I wanted to clear things up.  I have heard nothing more.

In hindsight, I see that we – or I, at least – participated in a lower key, less take-charge way because we were conscious that we were viewed as the seemingly privileged middle-class educated white folks, or using the term I prefer in such circumstances, Euros, among a minority majority assembly.  We tended to hold back more than we usually would in service, I thought, of good behavior, not bullying or trying to take over.

At each of the three Bay Area sessions, I met and talked with several very interesting people, folks it’s unlikely I’d meet otherwise, because they were primarily from the Abrahamic religions and I don’t usually have occasion to attend Christian, Jewish, or Muslim religious ceremonies.  At all three Table to Action events I attended, I met several people I’d like to know better, and perhaps ultimately either supporting each other’s efforts or perhaps collaborating.  I would have enjoyed more socializing -- just in general, not specifically at these events.  Because those of us to participate in interfaith (or, more appropriately in our case, inter-religious) activities know that it is in opening ourselves to and cultivating personal friendships that forge and sustain our efforts.  In order to make this happen, we would need to be able to remain in contact so we could deepen these connections to the extent that each of us was moved to do so.

So my primary frustration with this whole project is that we have been provided no way to continue our conversations and to help with and/or fortify each other and each other’s interfaith work.  For some reason I was under the mistaken assumption that this project was intended to forge alliances.  Some of us did, individually, exchange contact information.  I hope that a contact list is provided at some point, although I don’t anticipate more sessions.

[1]  Unfortunately the FAQs on the Table to Action website appear to be in Latin.
[2]  DesignShop is a method created by Rob Evans of Imaginal Labs.  Here’s a brief talk about it.  You may recall my post about MountainTop in 2013, which I explained as I experienced it.  The founders explain it here. 

[3]   “We Are Not Afraid to Reimagine” is a line from a poem written collectively at the Table to Action dinner on September 20, 2016.
[4]   “DesignShop is a methodology that puts participants into interaction with one another to identify challenges, concerns, problems or opportunities and to design together a way of addressing them.  The future is coming, whether we are ready or not.  Our desire is a future by design—that we shape toward justice—not by default.”

[5]   Northern California Council, Covenant of the Goddess