Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Ideas on Creating Success - an Imagine Chicago example...and some thoughts from Margaret Lawrence

Positive Change gets you there faster...

A few years ago, I had the chance to sit in on a session with Bliss Browne.  Bliss is a remarkable woman from Chicago.  Her work contributed to transforming a large urban concrete jungle into one of the greenest cities in North America - green roofs, solar energy, improved public transit, etc.  Although her work wasn't focused on athlete development in cross country skiing, the lessons she learned and shared are valuable and very transferable to any situation where you aim to transform the landscape - figuratively or literally.  I recently have become reacquainted with Bliss' work in Chicago and the processes she used to accomplish amazing things when the odds were against the work she thought was important.  I want to share some of that learning with you - because I think that it is very relevant to youth athlete development and the world that we live in.  Here are some of the things I have learned.

The best way to bring about change is to cultivate hope, to build capacity, to unleash collective appreciation, and focus on positive change.  Bliss' work is really built on the notion that human beings move in the direction of what we ask them about.  When groups focus on exalted human values and achievements, peak experiences, best practices, worthy accomplishments what is found is that these things tend to flourish.  Instead when a deficit based analysis is undertaken, what is found is that motivation is undermined and there is a deference to expert heirarchies.  These are simple ideas and make cognitive and emotional sense.  Most people like to be positive.  Positivity engages people.

In her work in Chicago, Bliss and her community (the Imagine Chicago initiative) had a vision that Chicago could be the most desireable urban centre in America to live; that Chicago could be the greenest city.  The approach used focused on deliberately asking positive questions around affirmative topics to ignite constructive dialogue and inspired action.  She focused on having her community envision positive images of the future grounded in the best of the past leading to deep and sustaining change.  In so much of our work in ski clubs across north america, this is the work that set out to do - to build a place that has enduring appeal to youth, where youth embrace fitness and hard work, where adolescents and children start to dream about how good they can become as an athlete.  Imagine Chicago's approach can be used to build ski communities.

I have recently undertaken to lead a discussion with coaches and club leadership from across southern Alberta about where we have come from, what we envision for our region, and how we can get there.  I have decided this is important enough for me to do, because of many discussions with coaches in my own club and across the region about how we can strengthen our region's ski community.  The fact is that if you look back on the last twenty years, skiers from southern Alberta have been among the top performers in Canada and the world.  Canmore Nordic Ski Club has more olympic cross country ski medalists than any other club in Canada. Our region has had a disproportionate percentage of skiers on national teams and world championship and world junior championship teams than almost any region in Canada.  The work I have put on my plate isnt about fixing something that is broken. The work is about strengthening and building on the incredible success of our region as a place where young people aspire to and accomplish incredible things.  This is important work because the world is a changed place from 5, 10, or 20 years ago.  There are different leaders, different coaches, different clubs, different support structures, different events, different priorities - all of which contribute to a huge need to constantly re-engage our community about what where we have come from, what we envision, and how we will get there.

My own work as a coach, phys ed teacher, university instructor, leadership facilitator, summer camp director and child and youth care counsellor has focused for the past 20-25 years of youth and children.  I have been the dude in the trenches and on the front line.  There are many, many of us out there.  People who care about our own children deeply, but who also care about the larger community.  What a region we would have if instead of having two large successful clubs who attend and organize events regularly, we could instead have a dozen clubs, two dozen clubs, each of whom have a shared vision about what is possible and their role in creating an environment where southern Alberta continues to be a place where kids dream and accomplish amazing things with their lives.  That is the goal.

Here is what I plan to do with an upcoming meeting in Calgary where club coaches and leadership have been invited to take part in a discussion about creating a new event series for youth in our region that moves away from the superclub model and instead to broad based participation.
- choosing the positive as the focus of inquiry
- inquiring into the success stories
- locating themes from those stories and selecting topics for further inquiry
- creating shared images of a preferred future
- finding innovative ways to create that future

It is important to recognize the source of this work - David Cooperrider of Case Werstern Reserve University and ideas shared by Bliss Browne and the common sense of our local leadership in the greater Calgary area. 

The work of creating a new event series isn't rocket science, and its not earth moving, and it certainly is just a small piece of the bigger structure required to create a space where kids can become their best as adults.  This all reminds of an excerpt from a speech titled My Final Hour, by Margaret Lawrence, Canadian author, to the Trent University Philosophy Society.  I'll share it here because I think it is a powerful reminder to embrace the opportunites we have as individuals and communities to make the world a better place.  Here is the excerpt from Lawrence's speech from March 29, 1983.

"So, if this were indeed my final hour, these would be my words to you.  I would not claim to pass on any secret of life, for there is none, or any wisdom except the passionate plea of caring.  In your dedication to your own life's work, whatever it may be, live as though you had forever, for no amount of careful devoted doing is too great in carryng out that work which you have set your hands.  Cultivate in your work and your life the art of patience, and come to terms with your inevitable human limitations, while striving also to extend the boundaries of your understanding, your knowledge, and your compassion.  These words are easily said:  they are not easily lived.  Learn from those that are older than you are; learn from your contemporaries; and never cease to learn from children.  Try to feel, in your own heart's core, the reality of others.  This is the most painful thing in the world, probably, and the most necessary.  In times of personal adversity, know that you are not alone.  Know that although in the eternal scheme of things you are small, you are also unique and irreplaceable as are all of your fellow humans everywhere in the world.  Know that above all, your commitment is to life itself. Your own work and friendships and loves will come to an end, because one day you will die, and whatever happens after that, it will not be on this earth.  But life and work and friendship and love will go on in others, your inheritors."

The work of engaging communities, whether in sport, education, work, or residence is incredibly important work.  In the case of Chicago, its an incredible example of the unlikely becoming the reality.  This might be the same in your setting.  Good luck with your important work...