Monday, May 21, 2007

Broadening the boundaries of inclusion

I just returned from my annual LeaderShape Institute at Allerton Park this last Sunday night, May 20, 2007. What an amazing week... It turned out to be a holding environment that I've seldom seen matched before. A vessel for exploration of very big and potentially life-changing questions.

Carla and I shared Lead with six terrific Cluster Facilitators (Janie, Jess, Patrick, Shailen, Susan, and Tom), and sixty-one participants from all over the country and beyond. To be honest, this was one of the more challening Institutes I've had for a while (interesting since this is the decade anniversary of the first time I led). The reason it was difficult has nothing to do with good or bad conditions, participants, or anything else. The reason was that this Institute pushed boundaries of inclusion I'd never considered before - political and regional.

I can't remember having participants from so many political and regional backgrounds. We had very conservative students coupled with very liberal. We had every corner of the country, with an especially prominent delegation of students from Ole' Miss. Ole' Miss is an institution that has long had the reputation of being a quintessential southern institution. Even though it is perceived by many to represent the status quo, it was one the first universities in the south to admit women and to integrate Black students. The students from Ole' Miss faced conservative stereotypes in the same way that students from other institutions face liberal ones. At one point in the week, I met with a delegation to explore what they were thinking and feeling only to find that they felt silenced and unable to speak honestly and openly about their beliefs. I don't know the degree to which this perception was real or perceptual; it doesn't really matter. The point is that they felt that they could not be open and this restricted their ability to participate.

The dynamics of the week were often very difficult. The beauty of it was that, despite the struggle, the participants stuck with each other, confronted one another when appropriate, and ended up affirming each other, even though it was clear that deep differences still remained. The students from other cultural backgrounds were as gracious and willing to participate as I've every seen. This openness resulted in everyone being able to take risks that otherwise would never have been possible. The supportiveness of students from multi-cultural backgrounds supported the journey of those with more traditional upbringing. The traditional students took the risk to own their own beliefs and to share them with others, allowing for exchanges that would be rare under most circumstances. With the exception of only a couple of students who simply were not ready for such a stretch, the participants fully gave of themselves to explore and discover both the difference and sameness that we share.

I learned a great deal during the week, as I always do. The most important aspect of this was to recognize that inclusion embraces very conservative political views, people who have had privileged and isolating life experiences, and participants from every possible faith tradition. I've known this at an intellectual level before but I've never really known it in my heart like I do after last week. I am so thankful to the participants who made it possible for us all to learn these amazing lessons. These lessons will transform many lives. I actually think that the unfolding experience for many of this Institute's students is only just beginning.

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