Emergent non-leadership is hard to remember within a culture
that promotes extroverted directive leadership. Instead of culling organizers within the group
and activating folks to lead, traditionally we look to “leading” as something
that is done for others to follow or rally behind.
I was the organizer of three workshops in three different
regions of the state. This was the third round of workshops in these areas each
building off the last. In between each workshop we had monthly conference calls
with community organizations in the area to provide updates, successes and
challenges they were experiencing around farm to food banking. This third
workshop marked one year of work in these geographic areas. From what we were
hearing on conference calls, it seemed like a no brainer on what this next
round needed to look like. It needed to be about cold storage and the lack of
it. We planned an agenda that discussed funding tips, that we were looking for
funding, and cold storage ideas. The workshop would end with a deep dive into
mapping what cold storage could look like in each area that could help promote
farm to food banking. Ultimately, we thought this could be the foundation of a
grant proposal once we located someone interested. It was perfect. It had
forward momentum and strategized real solutions getting in the way of most organizations.
We lacked actual funding in the moment, but we thought this was going to get
the ball rolling.
By looking at the workshop evaluations you would gather that
the workshops were a success. Everyone gave us high marks and great feedback.
Only a few found the resource materials unhelpful. So, why am I sitting here
feeling like I’ve failed not only the communities but myself?
The first workshop did not discuss mapping of cold storage.
In fact, when I asked my leading questions to get the conversation rolling,
crickets were all you heard. Everyone stared at me in silence. I backed up and
explained the purpose once more and posed the questions in a different way.
Silent staring. Internally, at this point, I was sweating. What was going on?
Why didn’t they want to talk about this to form a preliminary plan for
potential funders? We had listened to them for a year now and we knew that many
programs had little to no storage. We knew this was a huge issue.
At the second workshop we discussed cold storage as a group.
Many programs were interested in the ideas we presented for themselves. However,
when I pushed for us to create a community-wide plan the room fell silent
again. Individuals said they liked certain ideas and one participant came up
with another idea for storage and transportation. The latter idea received the
most positive feedback and interestingly came from a community member. Even
more, we had a coworker present on funding tips and then at the end a
participant gave some tips that were exactly the same except this time people
I received an email while on the road from folks in the last
workshop. They said they had some topics that they were planning on presenting
at the workshop. I was glad and agitated to hear this. We had built an agenda
and the participants didn’t tell me until the last minute that they had not
only planned to present but had told other organizations to come because that
was going to be the main topic. The day of the workshop everything went fine.
We met early and reworked the agenda to fit their needs while also including
some resources we had to present. I turned over the storage conversation to a
community member who had funding. What developed was a conversation driven by
the community, for the community. They also had someone there ready to fund the
And there it was, my failure, for me to see, with crystal
clear eyes. First, I had no funders on the standby for the first two workshops
so there was no sense of urgency. Asking people to create a plan when there is
no pot of money to go after leaves little incentive to actually do it. Secondly,
and this is the big one, the agenda wasn’t built by the community. Myself and
my coworkers would swear that we knew what their issues were and we were
probably right to a certain degree. However, we didn’t directly ask the
participants what would be most useful for them to discuss at this workshop. We
didn’t bring our agenda and ask “what do you think” or “what are we missing”. Since we did not live in any of the areas
that we presented in, it was of the utmost importance to have agenda topics
from the community and even community members lead the agenda. Thirdly, while I
was agitated for not being included in the agenda changes the last community
made, maybe others were frustrated because I didn’t include
them. It goes both ways. Lastly, some members came with topics that they wanted
to discuss while they were all together and I didn’t originally build room for
this. Luckily, I was practicing deep listening and emergent facilitation so
that I could quickly modify the agenda and keep the conversation as rich and
beneficial as possible which is why we still received positive feedback.
Can something be successful and a failure at the same time?
I think it can. While I’m glad that all three workshops received great feedback
and all the programs felt the conversations were worthwhile, I know that they
inherently failed. They failed because I wasn’t following what I know is the
right way to lead and organize efforts like these. I got caught up in the
traditional leader role. I built a workshop for them. Sure it was based on our
conversations, but the workshops that have been built with participants in the
community have been my most successful workshops. I don’t live in the
communities that I hold these workshops. That’s a strike against me. I’m coming
in and telling others what might be best for them. In the first workshop where
we had to completely move on, at the end I asked if participants were more
interested in finding their own storage and not working on any shared or
community-wide storage plan. They all said yes. That would have been useful to
know beforehand. While they were interested in increasing their storage, they
didn’t want to necessarily do it together. If I wanted to move the needle on
storage, I should have reached out to participants prior to the workshop to
brainstorm best ways to handle this in their specific communities.
Emergent non-leadership activates the community
and creates leaders within it. The non-leader acts as facilitator holding space
where leaders are constantly appearing and activating. They hold space and
facilitate others to lead. Our last workshop of the week is an example of this.
Though this community has some very active members unlike some of our other
focus regions, it doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be handled the same. Maybe the
other regions could have activated members if the agendas were rolled out with
the community’s involvement. A participant from the last workshop even said to
me, “You should pat yourself on the back. It’s because of you holding space
like this for the last year that has motivated us to do all this work.” That is