Teaching the Power Flower

This has been a disturbing month for racialized killings. Michael Brown, a Black teenager who was unarmed with his hands up, was shot and killed in Ferguson Missouri. Tina Fontaine, a 15-year old First Nations teenager, was mutilated and killed in Winnipeg. There is no denying that both of these deaths are intricately linked with deep, very real and very disturbing racism. As Andre Picard wrote in the Globe and Mail, “If non-native women were dying and disappearing at a proportionally similar rate, the number would exceed 20,000”. And it is well documented that young black men are stopped and carded by police at a much higher rate than the rest of the population.  Amidst all of this, the most pointed comment that I read recently on Facebook was someone who wrote “the white people on my feed are all Robin Williams and the black/brown people are all Ferguson”. This comment stopped me in my tracks, because it is so true. And whether we like it or not, we are very much influenced by what messages and articles that we receive (or don’t receive) through our Facebook feeds (or Twitter for that matter). And racism is continues to be a conversation that primarily takes place within racialized communities.

I don’t think that is any different from the other ‘isms’. Homophobia is primarily discussed by those of us who experience it, sexism, ableism etc. Let’s be honest – when is the last time that we able-bodied individuals have talked about our privilege and the barriers that exist for people who aren’t able-bodied? However, all ‘ism’s’ can’t be rated the same. Let’s be real. When you are killed for being a young Black man out of your home after the sun goes down, then racism trumps the other isms. I think death trumps all of the other consequences of discrimination: being poor, denied a job promotion, laughed at, treated badly, social isolation etc.

Why don’t we openly talk about the ‘isms’ (except the ones that affect us personally)? Is it because we are afraid to confront our own privilege, the gains we implicitly make (whether we want these gains or not) because we’re on the winning side of the coin? Is it because we feel guilty, or we worry that we will offend? We don’t talk about privilege, because the defining factor of privilege is that it is invisible (unless we consciously expose it) so we don’t have to acknowledge this as a critical factor in our success Privilege is only maintained when it stays invisible, and those who benefit from privilege deny its power.

Amidst all of this, I am getting ready to teach my college class. For one of my classes, I facilitate the Power Flower exercise with my students, which introduces the concepts of power and privilege and personally mapping your own social factors of identity with levels of power. Students are given a flower, and they identify ‘social/identity factors’ that exist in society where some people hold power and some do not (for example – race, gender, age etc). In the exercise, the students work in small groups to identify for each ‘petal of power’, who has the most power and they write that down in the inner petal (for example – for gender – men, for race – white, etc). Then I ask them to locate themselves on the flower privately (because some of this is very personal and they may not be comfortable to share – for example, sexual orientation, class etc). We then talk about power and privilege in society and I teach about how that impacts on peoples access (or lack of access) to opportunities, resources and engagement in society. I give lots of examples and statistics about how power and privilege is played out again and again, how power positions (government, business CEOs etc) are 99% white males, and how the rich get richer while the poor get poorer.

I remember doing the Power Flower in my first year of university, and it was transformative in challenging me to acknowledge and recognize my privilege, so that I could be able to work for social change and social justice. This exercise, along with reading the “Unpacking the Invisible Backpack” article by Peggy McIntosh, fundamentally transformed my perspective. I continued to actively confront my privilege as I discovered the amazing writing of anti-racist, feminist writers – Bell Hooks, Audre Lorde, Dionne Brand, Beth Brant, and Himani Bannerji. These writers, and others, carried me through my undergrad and graduate studies, constantly challenging me to confront my privilege as a white, able-bodied, (relatively) economically secure woman.

However, my college class is filled with students who ‘rate low’ on the power flower – most of my students are non-white, English is their second language, low-income, juggling family responsibilities, and many struggling with health and mental health issues. While it is critical for students to understand the concepts of power and privilege and social location, I worry about the underlying message. My experience of doing the Power Flower was realizing my privilege, and this understanding is core to my how I approach my work and my daily life. However, I wonder about the students who do the Power Flower and realize that they have very little power in society. Does this make them angry, and motivate them to work for change? Or does my emphasis on power in society mean that they feel more powerless and not able to change their situation?

And the question always inevitably comes up: What about Oprah? Oprah Winfrey would rate low on the power flower before she became famous – she is a Black woman and grew up dirt poor in terrible family circumstances. Oprah beat the odds, and is now the richest, most powerful woman in the world. Oprah also tells a different story, starting with her own personal life. Her story is that you can beat the odds, live your best life, and she continuously has examples of individuals who are amazing in triumphing over their struggles. I worry about this story too – that it is ‘pie in the sky’ and individualistic, that Oprah-esque/The Secret “If you try hard enough, you can be anyone and accomplish your dreams”.

Where is the middle ground? How will I approach teaching the Power Flower this semester? I think that I need to be upfront with my students the next time that I teach this, to show the different perspectives, and to give examples of how they can beat the odds and triumph. I think I need to be open and honest about my own personal perspective and my relationship with the power flower based on my position of privilege. This is a very personal story. While I believe it is critical for all of my students to understand the concepts of social location and power and privilege, I don’t want this to dampen their spirits or take their autonomy away. I want them to walk away from the lesson knowing that they, and we all, have the potential to be agents of change.


Showing My Work…

I just finished reading “Show Your Work!” by Austin Kleon, and it has inspired me to think differently about my humble little blog here, The Ignition Condition. Kleon has challenged me to be more open, to share my process and thinking and my true vulnerable self. Just starting my blog over a year ago was a bit frightful, so I am proud of the work and writing that I have done so far. However, I have been pretty safe in this blog, sticking to my topic of ‘community and volunteer development’. While I continue to be passionate and curious about community and volunteer development, I find myself everyday thinking and wanting to write about other topics that I am passionate about and that I want to explore. So, whether in the long run, I need to change my title or tag line of this blog, for now, I’m just going to let myself be open and write about what I care about and what I want to share. I definitely know that community and volunteer development will still be a central theme, but I don’t want to feel restricted. What else am I passionate and want to write about? Parenting, parenting as a lesbian mom with a chosen ‘alternative’ family (you can read a description of my family here – http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/the-new-canada/article12913575/), parenting two boys and wrestling with the complexities of masculinity and boyhood and how to raise my boys to be amazing men. What else? Mind/body awareness, mindfulness, Buddhism/spirituality, awareness of the present, trying to live my life with integrity and passion and how I struggle in doing this every day. What else? Teaching and learning, struggling with how to teach and make impact, how learning can be transformative (or not), how to support post-secondary students to be successful and what does success mean in the long run. Lots and lots of questions surfacing here. And last but not least, music, oh sweet music…integrating music into my life, singing and writing music, sharing music with others and listening to great songs. So, who knows what this will look like, but I want to be open in my writing and see what happens. I want to explore my thoughts and ‘share my work’. Thanks Austin Kleon for your inspiration!



The Three Pillars of Effective Volunteer Engagement

There is much written about volunteer management and more recently, volunteer engagement. This language shift from ‘management’ to ‘engagement’ has been hopeful, as there is recognition now that volunteers don’t want to feel managed, and that beginning from that place is the first step in turning off a volunteer. Traditional volunteer management literature has always felt very HR, treating volunteers the same as paid employees, and borrowing best practices for training/orientation, retention, evaluation etc. However, volunteers are not paid employees – they are not PAID! This distinction sounds simple, but quite frankly, as a ‘Volunteer Manager’ (for lack of a better word) for over 10 years, I have had to reiterate this message again and again: ‘volunteers are not paid’. Every time a volunteer walks in the door, they are doing this from their own generosity of giving their time, they are doing this ‘voluntarily’, and they are not paid a penny. Are we, as paid employees, treating our volunteers with the respect that they deserve?

I believe that there are three critical pillars for effective volunteer engagement. Like the three legs on a stool, if one leg breaks, then the stool falls down. The three pillars are: 1. Organizational Commitment and Capacity, 2. Attractive and Diverse Roles, and 3. Culture of Belonging.

  1. Organizational Commitment and Capacity
  • Collaborative and strong partnerships between staff and volunteer team
  • Top-down commitment to fostering effective volunteer involvement
  • Consistent best practice framework to support Chapter staff in their partnership with volunteers, while allowing for flexibility
  • Ensuring adequate resources are in place for volunteers to do their job effectively
  • Centralize front-end volunteer management process so Chapters can focus on volunteer engagement
  • Volunteer roles established at all levels of the organization, and confirmed in official org chart

 This is the behind-the-scenes work, that needs to be organizationally, for volunteer engagement to be effective. It MUST be top-down, with clear direction and policies endorsed by the CEO/ED and executive team. Without this endorsement, it is next to impossible to create a volunteer-friendly environment.

  1. Attractive and Diverse Roles 
  • Diverse roles mean community members can find a suitable match
  • Design roles based on trends (episodic / group volunteering)
  • Pilot ‘out-of-the-box’ roles (ex. Virtual, episodic and micro volunteering, and role-sharing)
  • Flexibility for volunteers to change roles
  • Leadership roles, succession planning, and targetted recruitment for leadership volunteers

People want to donate their time strategically, and either use the talents/skills that they possess, or else, volunteer so that they can stretch and develop new talents/skills. There are FAR TOO many ‘joe-jobs’ for volunteers and not enough creative, and higher skill level roles for volunteers. We need to stop giving  fun the fun and creative work to paid employees, and leave the work that no one wants to do to volunteers. I believe this is the biggest factor for people who get turned off of volunteering.

  1. Culture of Belonging
  • Volunteers feel that they are valued and they belong
  • Communication strategy using social media tools, photos, videos, so volunteers can engage with staff (especially senior staff) and engage with each other
  • Recognition is meaningful – Professional Development opportunities, certificates for portfolio, role promotion, asking for feedback
  • Community building atmosphere – the environment should be welcoming and fun

Bottom line: many volunteers feel like outsiders in the organizations where they volunteer. Volunteers want to feel that they belong, that they are heard, that they are recognized for the amazing work they do, and their commitment to the cause. For inspiration, learn about Santropol Roulant (in Montreal) which as a ‘living organization’ embodies this commitment to volunteers and culture of belonging better than any other organization that I know of – http://santropolroulant.org/who-we-are/a-living-organization/.

I leave you with my favourite volunteer quote, for inspiration:

“We do not create volunteer motivation. We discover it and then link it creatively to organizational need.” (Linda Graff: Best of all: The quick reference guide to effective volunteer involvement, 2005, p. 65)