November 19, 2019

Two Lessons We Learned From Hosting Convenings That Heal

Convening

By Meghan Venable-Thomas

This September we convened 11 of our Culture and Creativity grantees from across the country to share a few days together in Boston. Our goals were to continue investing in a network of practitioners working to integrate arts, culture and creativity into the community development field; identify their challenges and opportunities; and more deeply understand the tools necessary to make this work impactful. 

What we as the hosts learned was that a convening space could be one that provides an opportunity for so much more: support, inspiration and healing.

Lesson 1: We not only needed time to discuss the work but also needed time with other allies to take a break from the work. 

As a former military officer who has been deployed overseas, I recall the mandatory requirement that each soldier had during a 12-month deployment to take Rest and Recuperation, or R&R. This was a compulsory 15 days of no work. We would hand off our work, shut down our computers and completely unplug. Now, many of us have vacation time that our jobs provide us, but we are often still connected to the work, dreading how many emails are piling up in our absence, or worse, being exhausted by all the activities we are cramming in to whatever few days we’ve taken off. Vacation, more than often, feels less like rest and more like a moment away. What if we thought more about what kind of space we needed to feel recuperated to perform our work more effectively; to provide the self care we need to be fully engaged when we return?

What we know about community-based work is that it’s challenging. It takes a lot on a personal, interpersonal, and community level to continue to push back against, in many ways, what is the outcome of decades of structural violence, racism, and disinvestment. At times, this work can feel like a battle and if we thought more about the types of rest and recuperation necessary to prepare us for this work, we might think differently about what tools our organizations, intermediaries and funders should support and invest in for practitioners’ success. 

This convening, a time to reflect on the work we were doing, to hear the similarities in experience of others, and to validate and be validated in those experiences, was truly important. Hosting this convening reminded me, that time-off is not the only way to recuperate. That as practitioners, we often need moments with folks who can reenergize us about the very demanding work we are engaging in on a daily basis. This convening demonstrated to me how useful that is, how necessary that is, and how many opportunities are missed for convening’s to be those spaces. 

Pictured: Participants in the Culture and Creativity grantee convening take a moment of reflection.

Lesson 2: When we make time for nothing, we gain so much more.  

It has frequently been my experience during conferences or convenings to feel over-programmed. As a facilitator and coordinator of convenings, I often feel the urge to ensure there is something planned for every moment of our short time together. However, with this convening we decided to create space with no program. We learned some very valuable information, while also learning that we needed even more space in the schedule than we afforded. Our cohort taught us to leave openings in the agenda for them to discuss what they need. 

Not only did they take the space once offered, they came back with objectives, goals and requests of what they needed as a group from us as the conveners. Not all of the feedback was positive, but it was constructive and created an environment where folks felt heard and gave us the opportunity to improve.  

As a practitioner grounded in community-based participatory engagement, the most equitable environments create opportunities to shift power by lifting all voices as equally important.  As conveners, modeling this can inform process and practice. If we don’t hear from the folks we work for, then we can never truly meet their needs.  

Our next convening is the real test of our ability to shift the experience to reflect how well we listened. It is also the next step in building a trusting partnership with our cohort. Like all good marriages, each partner must demonstrate that they can meet each other’s needs effectively and as they do so, can create the types of spaces that are loving, inspiring, supportive, resilient, and healing.

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