3 ways I brought the Thousand Currents Academy home with me

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July 9, 2015

Guest post by Pia Infante. This post originally appeared on The Whitman Institute’s blog

The Thousand Currents Academy* brought a globally-sourced faculty together with U.S.-based donors/philanthropists to cultivate creative, collaborative, culturally competent ways to up-end inequality through giving (locally and globally).

During our last circle, someone wondered how to be as authentic, vulnerable, connected, and radically honest in donor-grantee relationships, particularly when historical memory (both individual and institutional) is long. It’s a question that I’ve often asked myself – how can I be my “retreat self” in the “real” world?

As I pondered this question on the journey home, my first instinct is this: it starts with a personal practice – a radically honest relationship to self before relating to others. Here’s what I want to carry with me from The Academy:

Become, and remain, critically aware of the “glasses” I’m wearing.

Professor Mutumbo Mpanya, fellow faculty at the IDEX Academy, offered the following:

Everything we see in the world, we see through a glass. Glasses of psychology, biology, culture, ideology… We will never meet reality naked. So, if we want to work together, we have to negotiate our perceived realities with humility.

If I come to donor-grantee relationships with an unresolved need for affirmation. The “glasses” through which I perceive my grantee partners are colored by that need, particularly because there is a power differential created by money. Do they really like me? Why are my ideas not being implemented? Am I important here?

I think it is best to get clear with myself first: What is my purpose? What do I bring to this relationship? What deeply colors my perceptions of others and the cultures/contexts in which we meet? How do I show up in a way that inspires trust and demonstrates equity?

There are many routes to increasing self-awareness, no prescriptions here. But, to come to the table with an awareness of our own limitations and biases begins to create the conditions for authentic relationship.

Because, let’s face it, the “work” many of us do, particularly in subverting inequality, is done in and through relationship.

It follows that if the courageous intention to be my “retreat self” starts with a rigorous honesty and personal practice in listening in to my own intentions, limitations, and purpose, the next would be a willingness to practice listening to others.

The simple act of listening can be a radical one.

Listening without agenda, interruption, or re-direction is actually a sophisticated skill set. In retreat settings, we are often scaffolded to practice deep listening in highly structured pair and group exercises. In fact, those are the moments where my heart and spirit feel most nourished by having my vulnerabilities witnessed and standing as witness to the courage of my peers.

Deep listening notices what is being unsaid, body language, energy and context. Deep listening requires that we are quiet in body and mind – not forming our next question or thought.  It can happen in formal meetings, over meals, while walking together, over the phone – the essential intention is that the listener seeks to truly understand.

What if we routinely practiced deep listening with grantee partners, wherever we may be in the timeline of a funding relationship – at the start, in the middle, or at the end – and were willing to shift our agendas based on what we hear?

Relationships do not exist in a vacuum.

We are situated in a wider ecosystem of relationships within an interconnected set of social, political and economic systems. It is very possible that the problems grantees are trying to tackle with my support are not going to be solved singularly by this relationship, no matter what the funding scale.

A lesson to take from the study of leadership through ecological resilience is to pay attention to the wider planes, the connected problems and strengths, and to examine what’s happening through the lens of intersectionality and interconnectedness. Listening can then broaden from listening to a person to listening at landscape level.

Listening at a landscape level is helped immensely by continuous connection with people who have different vantage points and perspectives. Part of being able to access my “retreat self” is staying connected to my “retreat friends.” In fact, becoming embedded in an ever widening network of others with similar aims and values is the secret gold of any cohort experience.

One of my long cherished notions (and one that I practice vigorously) is that friendship and vocation often intertwine as fellow travelers become meaningful parts of our own ever evolving development as humans and global citizens. I no longer overestimate the value of logic; nor underestimate the value of authentic friendships with colleagues and peers who are willing to tell the truth about what they see in themselves and in me.

The final “aha” here is that my “retreat self” does not exist in a vacuum either, it exists within the courageous and authentic relationships that are often carefully cultivated in retreats settings.

So, the path ahead is not forged by perfecting some mythical version of myself; it is to know my intentions, listen radically and invest in relationships at every level that call my best self into expression, and pay that forward over and over again.