Collective Visioning

How Groups Can Work Together for a Just and Sustainable World

Linda Stout (Author)

Publication date: 05/16/2011

Collective Visioning

Shows activists how to develop an inclusive, inspiring vision of the future they want to create

  • Shows activists how to develop an inclusive, inspiring vision of the future they want to create

  • Offers a process that guarantees the voices of marginalized people are heard and enables people of all backgrounds to work together with honesty, passion, commitment, and joy

  • Filled with examples and exercises taken from Linda Stout's decades of organizing

All of us want a future that's promising and a way to get there. For decades, activists and community groups have worked to create equitable solutions. Why then are so many of us disappointed at the results?

Despite sincere and well-intentioned efforts, organizers often fall short in creating groups in which people from all backgrounds feel comfortable speaking up. And while progressives are good at articulating what they're against, for a variety of reasons they have a tougher time getting specific about what they're for--creating a positive, energizing vision.

Linda Stout, a lifelong agent of social justice, introduces a process designed to ensure that all voices are heard, an inspiring vision of the future is agreed on, and an action plan is developed that leverages everyone's diverse talents and abilities. Used successfully by over 120 organizations, it creates hope for change among those who've stopped believing change is possible.

Stour lays out the extensive and innovative prework that must be done to buyild trust and openness before any kind of meeting is held--a distinctive feature of collective visioning. She describes creative approaches for encouraging people to share their histories and most deeply held personal values, and she explains how understanding why each person is drawn to the work is vital in designing action strategies that build on people's particular strengths. She illustrates her points with inspiring stories of what collective vision can accomplish, drawn from her decades of committed activism.

Collective Visioning is a complete guide for leaders seeking to create inclusive movements that work from a place of hope to create a better, more just tomorrow.

  • Shows activists how to develop an inclusive, inspiring vision of the future they want to create

  • Offers a process that guarantees the voices of marginalized people are heard and enables people of all backgrounds to work together with honesty, passion, commitment, and joy

  • Filled with examples and exercises taken from Linda Stout's decades of organizing

 

All of us want a future that's promising and a way to get there. For decades, activists and community groups have worked to create equitable solutions. Why then are so many of us disappointed at the results?

Despite sincere and well-intentioned efforts, organizers often fall short in creating groups in which people from all backgrounds feel comfortable speaking up. And while progressives are good at articulating what they're against, for a variety of reasons they have a tougher time getting specific about what they're for--creating a positive, energizing vision.

Linda Stout, a lifelong agent of social justice, introduces a process designed to ensure that all voices are heard, an inspiring vision of the future is agreed on, and an action plan is developed that leverages everyone's diverse talents and abilities. Used successfully by over 120 organizations, it creates hope for change among those who've stopped believing change is possible.

Stout lays out the extensive and innovative prework that must be done to build trust and openness before any kind of meeting is held--a distinctive feature of collective visioning. She describes creative approaches for encouraging people to share their histories and most deeply held personal values, and she explains how understanding why each person is drawn to the work is vital in designing action strategies that build on people's particular strengths. She illustrates her points with inspiring stories of what collective vision can accomplish, drawn from her decades of committed activism.

Collective Visioning is a complete guide for leaders seeking to create inclusive movements that work from a place of hope to create a better, more just tomorrow.

Read more and meet author below

Read An Excerpt

Paperback:
9781605098821

$17.95
(member price: $16.16)
Free shipping on all orders from the BK Publishers store.
Or find a local bookseller with Indiebound.

Other Available Formats and Editions

9781605098845

$17.95
(member price: $12.57)

9781605098838

$17.95
(member price: $12.57)
Bulk Discounts
Rights Information


Featured Books



The Hidden History of Guns and the Second Amendment

Thom Hartmann, the most popular progressive radio host in America and a New York Times bestselling author, looks at the real...

The Making of a Democratic Economy

Our economy is designed by the 1 percent, for the 1 percent. This book offers a compelling vision of an equitable,...

Why We Elect Narcissists and Sociopaths–And How We Can Stop!

Bestselling author, therapist, lawyer, and mediator Bill Eddy describes how dangerous, high-conflict personalities have gained power in governments worldwide—and what citizens...

More About This Product

Overview

Shows activists how to develop an inclusive, inspiring vision of the future they want to create

  • Shows activists how to develop an inclusive, inspiring vision of the future they want to create

  • Offers a process that guarantees the voices of marginalized people are heard and enables people of all backgrounds to work together with honesty, passion, commitment, and joy

  • Filled with examples and exercises taken from Linda Stout's decades of organizing

All of us want a future that's promising and a way to get there. For decades, activists and community groups have worked to create equitable solutions. Why then are so many of us disappointed at the results?

Despite sincere and well-intentioned efforts, organizers often fall short in creating groups in which people from all backgrounds feel comfortable speaking up. And while progressives are good at articulating what they're against, for a variety of reasons they have a tougher time getting specific about what they're for--creating a positive, energizing vision.

Linda Stout, a lifelong agent of social justice, introduces a process designed to ensure that all voices are heard, an inspiring vision of the future is agreed on, and an action plan is developed that leverages everyone's diverse talents and abilities. Used successfully by over 120 organizations, it creates hope for change among those who've stopped believing change is possible.

Stour lays out the extensive and innovative prework that must be done to buyild trust and openness before any kind of meeting is held--a distinctive feature of collective visioning. She describes creative approaches for encouraging people to share their histories and most deeply held personal values, and she explains how understanding why each person is drawn to the work is vital in designing action strategies that build on people's particular strengths. She illustrates her points with inspiring stories of what collective vision can accomplish, drawn from her decades of committed activism.

Collective Visioning is a complete guide for leaders seeking to create inclusive movements that work from a place of hope to create a better, more just tomorrow.

  • Shows activists how to develop an inclusive, inspiring vision of the future they want to create

  • Offers a process that guarantees the voices of marginalized people are heard and enables people of all backgrounds to work together with honesty, passion, commitment, and joy

  • Filled with examples and exercises taken from Linda Stout's decades of organizing

 

All of us want a future that's promising and a way to get there. For decades, activists and community groups have worked to create equitable solutions. Why then are so many of us disappointed at the results?

Despite sincere and well-intentioned efforts, organizers often fall short in creating groups in which people from all backgrounds feel comfortable speaking up. And while progressives are good at articulating what they're against, for a variety of reasons they have a tougher time getting specific about what they're for--creating a positive, energizing vision.

Linda Stout, a lifelong agent of social justice, introduces a process designed to ensure that all voices are heard, an inspiring vision of the future is agreed on, and an action plan is developed that leverages everyone's diverse talents and abilities. Used successfully by over 120 organizations, it creates hope for change among those who've stopped believing change is possible.

Stout lays out the extensive and innovative prework that must be done to build trust and openness before any kind of meeting is held--a distinctive feature of collective visioning. She describes creative approaches for encouraging people to share their histories and most deeply held personal values, and she explains how understanding why each person is drawn to the work is vital in designing action strategies that build on people's particular strengths. She illustrates her points with inspiring stories of what collective vision can accomplish, drawn from her decades of committed activism.

Collective Visioning is a complete guide for leaders seeking to create inclusive movements that work from a place of hope to create a better, more just tomorrow.

Back to Top ↑

Meet the Author


Visit Author Page - Linda Stout

"Linda Stout takes her own place in that long tradition of women leaders--in the antislavery movement, the Populist movement, the labor movement. Her work forms a link between that history and the struggles to come in the twenty-first century."  -- Howard Zinn, author of A People's History of the United States

Linda Stout grew up poor in North Carolina. Her father was a tenant farmer, later factory worker and her mother worked in the textile mills until she became disabled when Linda was five. It was growing up in poverty and really wanting to make things difference, not only for herself and her family, but for her whole community, that got her started working as a grassroots organizer. She wanted to maker her community better, but thought the only way to do that was through prayer and making small changes.

Organizers seemed to speak only to college-educated people who were also well-versed in politics and spoke a language that excluded her. But she began to realize that there were many others like her: people who joined groups working on issues that concerned them but who dropped out because they didn't feel at home with those who spoke theoretical language of change that felt distant and apart from their experience. She decided that she might not be able to be an organizer with the peace and women's movement, but she could organize other poor people like herself.

Linda went on to become a community organizer, but with a keen awareness about the need to speak the language of people who didn't know the language of social change and organizing. That awareness of her own roots and of the people she wanted to reach let her build the Piedmont Peace Project. One of the most successful grassroots organizations in the southeast in the 1980s, PPP was formed in the midst of a daunting mix of well-organized corporate interests, including textile giant Cannon Mills, and icons of intolerance such as Senator Jesse Helms and the Ku Klux Klan. PPP made historic political and social change in local communities, and brought Linda such experiences as writing her first book, Bridging the Class Divide and Other Lessons for Grassroots Organizers, being featured in the PBS documentary, The Rage for Democracy, and appearing on a panel with Hillary Clinton and Bill Moyers on national public television.

A key moment that Linda remembers that helped her want to bring different people together was when a well-known organizer of the Ku Klux Klan walked into a rally that PPP was holding against the first Iraq war. He moved to the wall of over five hundred names that the group had put up to honor their friends and family members serving in the military and quietly added his son's name.

Now, with Spirit in Action, the organization she founded in 2000, Linda follows her passion to make movements for change welcoming to people of all backgrounds, not just college educated, middle class white people. She helps bring people together to build trust so that all voices are heard as part of creating a collective vision for the future. She loves her two dogs, Sassafras and Smidgen, and raises backyard pet chickens, some of which lay colored eggs.

Back to Top ↑


Table of Contents

Preface

Introduction: Creating a Different Future

Chapter 1: How Collective Visioning Works

Chapter 2: Laying the Groundwork for Collective Visioning

Chapter 3: Personal Visions

Chapter 4: Storytelling to Build Trust and Community

Chapter 5: Same Vision, Different Strategies

Chapter 6: Creating a Road Map: Vision to Action

Chapter 7: Grounded in Vision for The Long Haul

Conclusion: The Next Step: Hope, Vision, and Action

Notes

Resources

Acknowledgments

Index

About Spirit in Action

About the Author

Back to Top ↑

Excerpt

Collective Visioning

chapter one
How Collective Visioning Works

In a time of great global change, humanity is still relying on the old myth of survival and domination. We need a new myth, a new vision, a new definition of power and leadership. We must go away from the old model and toward one of creative cooperation on our small and threatened planet.

JONETTA COLE

image If you can’t imagine a better world, you can’t create one. If you can imagine a better world, you can make one. In order to do this, we have to vision collectively.

Collective visioning happens when a group of people, with guidance, envision a future together. The approach to collective visioning in this book begins with leading people through an individual guided meditation around a theme. The theme can be a very broad question, such as, “What do we want our world or community to look like twenty-five years from now?” Or it can be really specific: “If we could change the media to truly reflect our community and the wishes of ordinary people, what would it look like in ten years?” When I did collective visioning with a group called Rethink: Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools, we asked. “What should our schools look like so we can feel safe and healthy and have a positive learning environment?”

To me, “visioning” is a verb, something active that people do together as the essential first step of any successful effort to make change. You probably won’t find that use of the word in the dictionary, but it comes naturally to me, and it is a common way to talk about this work in my communities. As someone who grew up poor in the rural South and who has been working with others for deep change for decades, I learned early on that it’s important for me to use and trust my own language, no matter what the dictionary says. I vision with others to make change, create new possibilities, and bring about justice. I want readers of this book to have everything they need to vision, too.

Visioning helps people move from being stuck in problems to creating solutions. Both expert research and my own experience show that organizations and societies do not flourish without a collective positive vision of the future.

what’s the difference between collective visioning and other types of visioning?

Perhaps the most popular type of visioning in this culture is personal visioning, focused only on ideas that benefit individuals and their families. Personal visioning is powerful, but it does not usually lead to collective action. I’ll explain more about personal visioning in chapter 3.

A collective vision is not a utopian vision. It is grounded in reality. Grounded, collective vision creates a pathway to power. It keeps us focused on the destination as we travel together toward it, sometimes with many detours and emergency stops. Some groups may get there in a year or, as I will tell in one story, more than twenty years. But holding the vision keeps people inspired and hopeful as they move forward, no matter how many bumps they hit along the way.

Many visioning practices look for a common vision in which people have full agreement on what the future looks like. Expecting this level of agreement can be a trigger for a failed process or at least unnecessary struggles within diverse groups that come together from different places of power and voice. In my experience working with oppressed groups and communities, as well as with social change organizations (which often have a culture of critique, debate, and disagreement), even the word “common,” as in “a common vision,” can set off tensions and bring negative feelings, especially to those who have often felt silenced within groups. Sometimes I have used the words “common” and “shared” (it’s important not to get hung up on words), but I’m always ready to make clear that what I’m talking about is not total agreement but a vision that many different people are willing to work toward together, often with different issues and strategies.

Some people sincerely believe that simply because they say we all have an equal voice, it will happen. But there are barriers to this goal. First, many people come from backgrounds of poverty, racism, sexism, or other oppression where they have lost their voices or their power because they don’t fit society norms. Second, without being aware of it, groups often base their work by default on a culture of middle-class white people—a culture we learn throughout our lives in school, in society, and in media. People who are middle class and white are often unaware that there are different ways of working, so they unintentionally set up meetings that work in ways that exclude others. We need to understand that we have to step out of the status quo if we are going to be inclusive and empowering to everyone. Therefore, we need to create the visioning process in thoughtful, intentional ways so that every person can speak and know he or she will be heard.

In collective visioning, having everyone’s ideas and thoughts included from the beginning is critical. Before a group starts to vision together, a lot of work must be done to build trust and agreement so that all participants feel that they have an equal voice.

Only after this trust-building process do the participants begin to look for commonalities and discuss their differences. When individual participants feel heard, seen, and empowered, they are able to begin to look for agreement. More about how to do this is discussed in the next three chapters, especially chapter 2. This prework is a critical difference between collective visioning and other types of visioning.

how to create a collective vision: a starting point

Collective visioning comes more easily to people who come from a “collective” culture, like tribal communities, rural mountain folks, immigrant communities, farmworkers, many spiritual communities, or other communities that are used to taking care of each other and working together. People who are in touch with cultural traditions of art, music making, and storytelling often find collective visioning invigorating. People who have been in oppressive systems so long that they’ve given up can have more difficulty moving to vision, but I find that young people are especially quick to really get it. I believe that we all have the ability to contribute to a collective vision, whether it comes as a life-changing breakthrough, as it does for some people, or feels like a variation on something that we’ve done all of our lives.

People vision in different ways. Letting people know this ahead of time is very important because some will feel a sense of failure or anxiety or even protest against the process if they are unable to “see” a vision. Some people will see concrete outcomes, such as community gardens and schools, or parks and green energy sources, while others will see people working cooperatively together and a positive community spirit. Still others may not experience pictures at all but have a sense or feeling of well-being or happiness. Some may “hear” laughter and children playing. All of these different ways of visioning are important and become part of the whole vision.

Occasionally, you might run across someone who refuses to vision or loudly proclaims skepticism. In this case, I usually ask if the person will just be with the others and stay in the process. Folks like this have their own role to play and often get very involved during the prioritizing and planning stage.

Sometimes words can get in the way of visioning. For example, I recently led a visioning exercise with students about what schools would look like in five years. I asked them to draw their visions together. One boy was sitting in the corner, refusing to participate. When I asked what was going on for him, he said, “I didn’t have a vision. I didn’t see a school.”

“How did the young people learn?” I asked.

“From people in the community,” he said.

“That’s a beautiful vision!”

He proceeded to draw it with the collective. It’s important to tell people that their visions may be different from those of others. I now say, “If the questions, words, or guidance that we’re using in the visioning exercise don’t work for you, ignore them. Stay with what you are seeing or feeling in your hearts and minds.”

Once everyone has participated in the visualization individually, each person shares his or her part of the vision with the group. The way I most often do this is through having people draw a large collective picture on paper taped to a large table or wall. People who haven’t seen a concrete vision are encouraged to depict their feelings as well. Some do this by drawing a group of people (often stick figures) dancing or holding hands, while others draw something as simple as the sun shining, trees, and flowers to depict a feeling of happiness. As folks participate in this exercise collectively, they begin to share and add to each other’s pictures. Those who may not be able to draw what they want ask others to help. The creative process of drawing their collective vision becomes a community-building exercise.

leading a visioning exercise

Something magical happens as I watch folks begin to draw together after participating in a collective visioning exercise. One person starts to draw a community school, another person adds to it, drawing a garden in the schoolyard. Another adds a connected elder center where young and old teach and help each other. Someone else starts working on a sustainable energy source, and others join in to add their ideas. All of a sudden, there’s excitement as hands reach across each other, expanding on each other’s drawings. Those who have drawing skills help others who don’t feel they can illustrate what they saw. Other people ask for help on how to attach a picture to the feelings that came up for them. There is laughter and amazement as people begin to see how much they are thinking alike.

This part of collective visioning is only a starting point. The group can now begin to find where their common ground is and work together to take the next steps to build power and make their visions a reality. Visioning doesn’t stop with the guided questions or meditation but continues as folks begin to share and exchange ideas. For example, when the young boy who came out of the corner drew a school, marked an X through it, and then drew students learning from people and groups in the community, other students laughed at the idea of no school, but then, after talking, they decided it was a great idea to include community learning in the curriculum, both inside and outside the school walls.

Sharing and exchanging ideas can bring groups together in unexpected ways. At one collective visioning retreat I led, the organizers insisted that I have two separate tables for members who came from two very different communities and cultures. The leaders felt it was essential that the groups vision separately, not only because they came from different communities with different issues, but also because they were immigrants from countries that had once been at war with each other. After a process in which both groups were led in the same guided visioning, they went to different ends of the room to draw their collective visions. Afterward, members of each group shared their visions with the other group. As they explained their drawings, both groups were shocked that the visions were almost identical. They realized that they shared many of the same concerns and that their wishes and hopes for the future were the same. I then explained that even though these drawings were from two different urban immigrant communities, what they had drawn was similar to collective drawings I had witnessed from groups all over the country—from young and old, urban and rural, and different classes and ethnicities.

In every collective vision I lead, people always start by describing the community, even when I ask them to vision about a particular issue. Ideas such as sustainability, clean air and water, alternative energy sources, gardens and local food sources, and joyful people working cooperatively are part of every vision I’ve seen people participate in. Most often, community art, music, dance, and alternative transportation are included as well. Almost always, technology is a part of people’s visions, but as a useful tool, not as a way of replacing community. Always, people are excited and happy over the collective vision they have created, even though they might not agree on every single idea. Of the hundreds of visioning exercises I have led, only once have I had a serious disagreement in a group about the collective vision, and that was over twenty-five years ago. In that situation, younger people and older people divided over a vision of a world with or without technology. As you might guess, older people wanted much less or no technology. The younger people would have nothing to do with that vision.

Often after having drawn their visions, groups go on to create a skit about them. I call these skits commercials so that people understand that they have to be short and to the point while communicating their message. The skits continue the excitement of the visioning and get people to internalize the vision in a different way. They capture the enthusiasm and hopefulness that visioning creates. They also lead to laughter, which pretty much everybody loves. In one skit, a man made little zapping noises and joyfully danced all around the others as they acted out their vision. Afterward the group explained that he was the renewable energy source and networking that the whole community shared. In another skit, each person squatted separately, looking sad and desolate. A man in his eighties entered holding a magic wand and then hopped around and laughed as he touched each person with the wand. As they encountered his magic, they joined in the collective community, showing their good feelings at being part of something bigger than themselves.

Now I’d like to tell you more about Rethink in New Orleans because the story is a beautiful example of how collective visioning leads to inspired action.

rethink, new orleans: just pretend until we make it true

Even among people in extremely tough situations—public school students in New Orleans right after Hurricane Katrina—creating a collective vision and following it up with action leads to amazing results. After the hurricane, several folks who had been involved in working on a remarkable project in Tallulah, Louisiana (I’ll tell that story later in the book) came together to do some visioning about “what’s next?” Most had lost their homes and offices and were deeply affected by what had happened to their city. What could they do to help rebuild their once-vibrant community?

They decided that there was an opportunity in the rebuilding efforts. The public schools had long been a sore spot in many parts of the city. Because of a lack of funding and other resources, New Orleans had some of the worst schools in the country. The key organizer in envisioning the next steps, Jane Wholey, knew that young people had to be involved in the dreams and decision making about the rebuilding of their schools. Jane lives in New Orleans and I live in Massachusetts, but we have been part of each other’s social change communities for more than twenty years.

In the summer of 2006, when most of the families with children returned to the city for the first time after Katrina, Jane engaged her friends in recruiting a group of middle school children and developing a summer program for them. The idea was to challenge the students to envision the schools of their dreams and influence city officials about how to rebuild the schools.

The program was held in a public school building that had been under several feet of water. Despite the cleanup, it was clear that this school had been in deep need of repairs before the flooding. The toilets only half worked, with water almost always covering the bathroom floors. The air conditioning didn’t work well at all (in temperatures over 100 degrees daily), and if we did turn it on, it drowned out all of our voices. The cafeteria was shut down, so food had to be brought in from outside. The paved playground, with one basketball hoop, doubled as the parking lot. The line where the floodwater reached was a constant reminder of what had happened.

I was asked to lead the visioning for junior high school students and high school interns for what Jane called Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools. The students soon dubbed themselves the Rethinkers. Before the visioning, I asked the young people to talk about what they loved about their schools before Katrina happened. They had lots to say about what they liked: the culture, the music, certain teachers, other students, and the sense of community.

Then I asked them to get into small groups to talk about what they had wanted to change about their schools before Katrina. The first item that every small group listed was the bathrooms. “What do you want to change about the bathrooms?” I asked.

“Well, we want doors on the stalls, toilets that work, toilet seats, toilet paper, bathroom mirrors, and, oh yeah, soap!” Some told how they always made sure they had enough money to go across the street to Taco Bell to buy a drink so they could use a working toilet.

The second item on their list was books. “What about books?” I asked.

“Well, we want our own textbooks so we don’t have to read with others who are slower or faster and so we can take books home to do our homework.”

Anthony raised his hand to say he wanted the population to change. When I asked what he meant, he said, “I want there to be only enough kids so that everyone has their own desk and I don’t have to sit on the floor.” Others quickly chimed in to agree, telling their stories of having to sit on tables or chairs with no writing space.

The next day, we did visioning. All the children had survived Katrina in some way—some at a distance in an unfamiliar town or refugee center, others on rooftops and highway overpasses, some as witnesses of the deaths of family and others, all of them at strange schools for many months. It was understandably hard for them to settle down and pay attention. I asked them to sit down in a circle because we were going to go on a trip, a special adventure. When I told them we were going to travel twenty years into the future, they laughed and groaned about such a stupid idea. But once we got started, the trip we took together in our time machine whooshed us into possibilities that we never would have imagined otherwise.

As we went into the future, I had the students walk around their neighborhood to see what it looked like and think about what they were now doing as young adults. Then I asked them to enter the school they used to go to and see what had changed. What did the entrance look like? The halls? The cafeteria? The bathrooms? And especially the classrooms? Did everything take place in a building, or were classes also held outside? Where? How were the students learning? What kind of people were helping them learn the most? What else was happening at the school that had changed since it was designed by kids?

Then I asked the participants to leave the school and continue on their way to their next adventure. Were they going to work? What were they focused on? As they began to walk, I directed them to go through the park. All of a sudden we noticed something going on at the outdoor stage. The mayor was there (“and she or he used to be a Rethinker—maybe it’s you!”). Then the participants heard from the mayor. A young woman in the group, Ardeene Goodridge, stood up. She was wearing a name tag that read “Mayor of New Orleans,” and she said, “I can’t accept this international award for the best schools in the world by myself. A whole group of us did this together, and many of them are in our audience today. So I would like to share this award by calling each of them up and giving them an award as well.” The mayor called each student up to the stage, where she handed each one a beautifully prepared certificate with his or her name on it, thanking the recipient for helping New Orleans create the best schools and teachers in the world. The certificate was signed by the mayor and dated June 14, 2026.

As soon as the beaming, proud students had received their awards, Jane Wholey came running into the room with a microphone, announcing that she was a CNN reporter here to interview these people who, as kids, had created the best schools in the world because they were designed by students and had what students most wanted and needed. Jane interviewed each student, asking, “How did you make this happen? What was your role? And what do you do now?” The students began to talk about designing, building, being architects and teachers, and changing the school culture. These young students’ dreams became a reality in their minds and eventually would become a reality in the schools as well.

One student, Isaiah Simms, jumped up, rolled his certificate, and began following Jane, saying, “I’m the cameraman.” At the end of the interviews, Jane turned to Isaiah and said, “I just learned that my cameraman was also one of the Rethinkers who were a part of this incredible effort in 2006.” Isaiah, in his slow drawl, said, “Well, actually I’m not really a cameraman. I just do that to put a few extra bucks in my pocket. I’m really a veterinarian.”

Then it was time for lunch. I told the students they would stay in the year 2026 and that when we returned from lunch they would get to put their visions into drawings and paintings. I was surprised to be met by several kids saying, “But wait! What? How can we have lunch without traveling back to 2006? Don’t we have to go back in the time machine?”

I looked at my watch and began trying to explain that we had no time to make the trip back, when Anthony jumped up and said, “But we’ll have better lunches in 2026!”

He rushed out the door to the cafeteria across the hall. My heart fell because every day we had been served cold sandwiches or rice and beans that volunteers brought in. But before I could respond, Anthony came running back in, exclaiming, “It worked! It really worked! We’re having fried chicken and mashed potatoes!” At first I thought he was kidding, but it was true. A facilitator’s dilemma was solved by generous volunteers who had cooked a homemade hot lunch for the students that day.

The young people got so into the reality of the future that when we did prepare to return to the present, the high school students who were working as interns asked if we could please stop the time machine in 2008 so they could watch themselves graduate. So we stopped the time machine in 2008, and the high school students rejoiced in the circle. We all applauded their graduation before continuing our journey back to 2006.

When it was time for the students to put their visions onto paper, a group of young artists called YAYA1 (Young Aspirations/Young Artists) came in to help. In small groups, the students and YAYA artists designed the bathrooms, library, classrooms, cafeteria, hallways, and outside grounds, which included vegetable gardens and fountains.

Then one young man complained, “This is just pretend.”

I explained that he was right—it was just pretend unless they came up with a plan on how to make it come true. That was why we did visioning first: to help us see what we wanted in the future so we would know how to create a plan to make it happen. We would start working on that the next day.

At one point during that first summer program, a newspaper article announced that it would take ten years for New Orleans to rebuild the public schools. As the Rethinkers began to realize that this would be after their graduation, Betty Burkes, one of the organizers, asked each of them to bring in a picture of a child in their life—a baby brother, sister, niece, nephew, or cousin—to put on the table of inspiration that always sat in the middle of their circle. This small, beautiful table was filled with messages of hope and encouragement from their elders along with flowers and a candle. Because all of the students held a vision of change for the long term, they realized that the work they were doing might not benefit them personally during their years in school but in the future would benefit children close to them. This understanding helped keep them focused and invested in the effort.

In that first year, the Rethinkers decided to evaluate the post-Katrina schools from the point of view of the students. They developed a report card for every student to use to grade the conditions of their schools. They held a national press conference to present their dreams for the future of their education and unveil their plan to evaluate and report on the conditions of the schools. Not only did every city newspaper and television station cover their story, the Rethinkers were also featured in Weekly Reader, in the Christian Science Monitor, and on Nickelodeon, the youth television channel. Pretty soon, “rethinking public schools” was regularly repeated in the news about New Orleans.

In the second year of working with the Rethinkers, we led a visioning of what it would mean to build environmentally green schools. The Rethinkers decided to design the bathrooms of their dreams using the concept of green building. With help from an architecture student from the University of California, Berkeley, the students developed a viable design with giant barrels on the school roofs that captured rainwater to flush the toilets. At Rethink’s now-annual press conference, Global Green, a national environmental group, stepped forward and offered any New Orleans schools using the Rethink design $75,000 to help build environmentally friendly bathrooms.

Further, after the school superintendent, Paul Vallas, who had just arrived in New Orleans, heard the Rethinkers describe the terrible conditions of their bathrooms, he was so moved that he immediately ordered the repair of 350 school bathrooms. He later made sure that the Rethink green design was made part of the school facilities master plan for the city of New Orleans.

Soon after that, Lona Hankins, the woman hired by the school superintendent to supervise the rebuilding of the New Orleans public schools, called Jane Wholey to say that she had been instructed by the superintendent of schools to work with Rethink, and what did they want her to do? The Rethinkers asked that she come listen to their ideas. Lona has been doing so ever since and has continued to add Rethink school design concepts to new schools as they are built in the city. She is one of the city’s biggest Rethink fans. Due to the Rethinkers and Lona’s listening to them, every new school built now has hand-washing sinks in the cafeteria, a well-situated garden plot, and outdoor meeting spaces.

The third year, the Rethinkers focused on school food and cafeterias. In the visioning, we focused on the question, “What does it mean to be healthy in mind, body, and soul?” The Rethinkers talked about the kind of food that should be served in the cafeteria, where the food came from, and how the use of local, fresh food not only was healthier but would help local farmers and communities economically. They learned how to design community gardens on the school property and how to offer viable and affordable alternatives to school officials working with a limited budget.

Each year, a new group of Rethinkers enters the circle, and many of the older members become interns and mentors. The first two high school interns that watched themselves graduate in the time machine are now college interns with Rethink. Rethink has grown from a summer program to a year-round organization. A citywide program now includes the Rethink summer school and Rethink after-school clubs at several schools.

Through this process, the Rethinkers have become powerful leaders, spokespersons, lobbyists, and organizers, traveling across the country to speak at an array of social justice events and conferences, including the US Social Forum and Farm to School convocations. At an early age, in the wake of both the destruction of their city and decades of neglect of their schools, these young people are making change real. They have gone on to work on restorative justice issues and continue to work for the rebuilding of schools. Many Rethink students have gone on to become empowered leaders in their own schools and in coalitions around New Orleans. As Isaiah Simms, a senior and still active Rethinker, told the Christian Science Monitor in the summer after the storm, “I came to Rethink with a big hole in my heart. Now it is filled.”2

chapter takeaways


In this chapter, we defined collective visioning, explored how it works, and offered a starting point for creating a collective vision. Here are some points to take away:

• Visioning helps people move from being stuck in problems to creating solutions.

• A collective vision is not Utopian but grounded in reality.

• Before a group starts to vision together, work must be done to build trust so that all participants feel that they have an equal voice.

• People vision in different ways.

• Collective visioning is a starting point for groups as they build power and work together to make their visions happen.

image exercise 1


The goal of this exercise is to lead a group through the process of creating a collective vision.

Collective Visioning: Imagining a World in 2036*

You can do this exercise with your organization, family, friends, or faith group. I’ve led a version of this exercise that lasted a whole hour with a weekend to process it. I’ve also lead a three-minute miniversion. I’ve led it with as few as three people and as many as five hundred—and once at a commencement speech with students graduating from college. To really do it in the way I describe below you need about two and one-half to three hours to allow for all participants to draw their visions and reflect on them.

In order to do this exercise with a group, you need to choose a facilitator. You can also have a few people to lead the different parts. If you want to be a participant yourself, you can record the visioning exercise first, although I find that people respond better to a live voice. I usually have people sit in a circle and light a candle in the center of the circle for people to focus on if they don’t want to close their eyes. Don’t worry if one person is distracted or even goes to sleep. Do remember to have people turn off their cell phones. If young people are participating, you might even want to collect their cell phones because of texting. Cell phones tend to be the most distracting issue that comes up during the visioning process.

While I have written a sample script below, I change it depending on who is in the room and how much time I have. I often don’t follow my script, making adjustments for the group in the moment. The most difficult issue for facilitators new to this process is the timing. In the beginning, almost everyone moves too fast. For that reason, I have included guidelines for timing.

I start by asking participants to imagine how old they will be in twenty-five years. I ask them to think of a child in their life (their own, a niece, a nephew, a sibling, a cousin, a grandchild, a student, or a friend) and think about how old that child will be in twenty-five years. Thinking of the child helps ground people who have a hard time seeing the future for themselves but can see it through another’s eyes. When we visit the future, I usually have the participants talk to the now-grown child and find out what’s different for her or him.

Remind people to use the words and questions that work for them during the visioning—not to get stuck on something you might say in the guided meditation. Also, tell them that if they don’t see something concrete, note their feelings and any other thing that they might notice. Read slowly, leaving a few seconds between each sentence. Leave about thirty to sixty seconds between each bullet point to allow people time to fully vision and imagine.

In this particular meditation (see others on my website), we travel by using a time machine. The time machine was first added by a young man, Maurice Mitchell, in one of our leadership trainings. I loved it and started using his idea immediately, especially with young people, who are able to vision much better when they imagine physically traveling in time. I have found that adults also respond well to the time machine unless they’re part of a very serious crowd. Maurice made all the fabulous sound effects. I usually find someone to do the sound effects for me now, but I have also downloaded sound effects onto my IPod. But you can get to the future in any way you wish—for instance, by walking down a hall, going through a door, or using any other way that makes sense to you for your audience.

If you like, play soft meditative music in the background. I like to do this because it helps some people stay more focused and relaxed.

Here is a possible script for the guided meditation:

Take a few deep breaths together and imagine your hearts being connected. Think about your connection to the earth and all living things. Call in spirit, whatever that means to you, whether spiritual being, ancestors, nature, music, poetry, or friends—anything that inspires you or feeds your spirit.

Take some time to imagine a world that you want to live in, that you want children to grow up in. Picture what it would look like, feel like. Think about one hope or seed of hope from this current time that you would like to see grow into fruition in the future.

• Now, imagine stepping into a time machine and turning the dial to the year 2036.

• As you speed through time, know you are headed to a place that is the future of your greatest and most hopeful dreams. As you step out of the time machine, you are aware that we have made tremendous changes and that the seeds you helped plant years ago have now become a reality. Continue creating your vision.

• Imagine stepping out into your community free of any fear or anxiety over your own and your children’s safety and security. What would that feel like? What are people doing?

• Imagine having all your needs met. Imagine everyone’s needs are met—we have free quality education and health care, and we are working in a safe environment for fair wages. What would be different for you?

• How have human interactions changed? What do you notice that is different as you walk around the community, into the food market, in the park, and on the street?

• Imagine you are living on a clean and cared-for earth—with safe, clean energy sources; pure, clean water for all; locally grown food free of toxic chemicals. What would that look like? Feel like? Smell like?

• Imagine a world in which fairness, honesty, and justice are values shared by everyone, including our institutions, government, and corporations. What do you see in that world?

• Visit with the child who is now an adult in this time. What is he or she doing? What has he or she seen? What is different for this person because of the work we’ve done to create the current world?

Ask people to spend the next ten minutes in silence imagining what the world looks like in the new future time. You can change the time—five minutes is plenty for children, for example. I usually say, “Spend the next few minutes,” then pay attention to when several people start getting restless.

Ask people to look around before leaving and bring one gift, symbol, or memory that they can take back to 2011. As people who have witnessed the future, they return as ambassadors from the future. They know what the future can look like, and their job is to help make that future possible.

As they step back into the time machine, turning the dial back to 2011, ask them to think about their experience and what they want to tell people on their return. After a few moments, you can arrive in the current time and ask people to come back to the space they were in before. I usually ask adults to sit for a few moments in silence, journaling or jotting down ideas or images they want to remember, before starting the collective drawing.

Now, tell the participants to draw together what they saw or felt. (In large groups of fifty or more you may want to ask them to get in small groups of four to five people. Or in the case of an auditorium, ask people to share in pairs.) Ask them to share these images and feelings with each other. After everyone is finished, suggest that all participants share their drawings (or if it’s a group picture, their part of the drawing) of this future world with each other.

Spend a few minutes in reflection once everyone has shared (I give more detail on this part in chapter 6). Here are some questions to ask:

• What are the similarities, connections, and themes that have arisen out of your collective sharing?

• Do opposing ideas exist?

• How do you feel seeing and hearing about this future world?

• What have you learned?

You’ll find more detailed information on leading a collective visioning exercise and different variations for groups, on my website.

Back to Top ↑

Endorsements

"To listen to Linda is to be inspired, to gain new hope that a fundamental transformation of our culture is not only possible but maybe much nearer than we expect."

--Dr. Ron Miller, President, New Visions Foundation

Back to Top ↑