David Sibbet | The Time is Ripe for Social Entrepreneurs
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The Time is Ripe for Social Entrepreneurs

The Time is Ripe for Social Entrepreneurs

Coro Alums Using GS Tools

I found myself in Aptos, CA recently at an alumni gathering of Coro, the leadership training organization through which I got my start professionally. It stirred my thinking like an ice cream beater on a hot summer afternoon, and the results are exciting me almost as much as the ice cream I can remember from those days long ago.

I’m beginning to believe that our country can reinvent itself in the civic arena much as we did in the early 1900s, after the very uninvolved 1890s when millions were coping with the industrial revolution and the isolation and confusion in the new cities. Robert Putnam’s book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Communities, made this appeal to me several years ago, but I wasn’t optimistic then. I sense a quickening now.

Let me explain something of how Coro has shaped how I look at things. Coro is a very unusual organization. It’s more than 50 years old, and one of the most innovative educational institutions in America, but really not well known at all. It began in San Francisco in 1948, using the GI grants after the war to research local government and its dynamics, in the hope of discovering what makes democracy with a small “d” work. The Internship in Public Affairs, as its first year-long program composed of 12 “researchers” was called, became the tail that wagged the dog. What began as an experiment became a flagship program that has driven the creation of Coro Centers in now eight different cities—San Francisco, Los Angeles, St. Louis, Kansas City, New York City, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland.

Jill Hultin, current president of Coro National, a fellow consultant and a member of my own Coro class of 1966 in Los Angeles, gave a speech after dinner in the brisk air of the outdoor patio of Ray Roeder, a Coro supporter who lives in Aptos. (The conference is being held at his home of 28 years). Her report on what Coro has been doing these last years since 9/11 was lucid and visionary. For Coro to thrive in these times it needs to change. The fiercely independent centers need to link and network together. They need to build a learning community across regional boundaries, yet sustain their uniqueness.

Jill finds hope in Dee Hock, founder of Visa, ideas about chaordic organizations. She sees a framework in Collins Good to Great research. She sees potential in the new web site created by the alums and Centers. But to understand why her comments and subsequent conversations with some of my old colleagues stirred me up so much, you need a little more context.

The format Coro stumbled on back in 1948 was that of having bright young leaders explore the power dynamics of a metropolitan area and come to their own conclusions about everything works. They did this through a series of internship assignments in government, politics, business, labor, media, and communication organizations. It was a breakthrough format. There was nothing like it before.

This was before the Peace Corps, before service learning, before action learning, before the term experience-based education was even a concept, before systems thinking was a term you could use without having people think you were an engineer. This was 1948. The country was working overtime to get back to something people could believe in. Democracy had triumphed over dictatorship! But the depression and then the war had left a legacy of government expansion and control and a public sector transformed by the changes.

What is democracy when an overwhelmingly powerful nation state has tasted the fruits of centralized power, and used this power to unleash the most powerful weapons known to humankind? These were kinds of questions Van Dyn Dodge and Donald Fletcher, the founders of Coro, asked their young GIs to investigate. They did it by attending city council meetings and studying the language patterns of public officials; by trailing labor officials as they negotiated contracts; by working with public affairs officers in corporations on policy campaigns that would benefit trade, and by coming together every Friday to try and make sense out of their separate experiences as a group, to, in the language of today’s consultants, see the system whole.

If Coro has a secret sauce, it was Fletcher’s unyielding refusal to answer questions with answers. He forced the interns to use their owns wits in a full immersion process, using only their ability to interview, to observe, to work on projects, and learn as a group. He was the Socratic provocateur in their midst, never letting them settle. He believed that clarity stops thinking, that the processes of osmosis (absorption) and mimesis (mimicking)—the way we learn as children—still function for adults. He and the staff he trained were buttressed by the writings of John Dewey, a strong advocate of discovery-based education, and Alfred Korzybski, creator of the field of general semantics, a breakthrough way of thinking about the relationship between our symbolizing intellects and the world of action. Korzybski’s Science and Sanity was rated one of the most influential books of the 1930s, and its concepts are part of any communications curriculum even if their origins in GS have been lost.

It was Korzybski who first talked about ladders of abstraction, the map is not the territory, and the traps of identity in language. The concepts were addressed by having interns read Dewey and Korzybski and train each other with what they made of these men’s thinking. The results of this stew of real experiences and radical insistence on self-learning was a group of ignited interns. Consistently the program has been life changing for the people who went through the nine-month program and was for me.

I stumbled into Coro in Los Angeles in 1965 during my senior year in college at Occidental. Sid McCausland, a graduate working in Sacramento, came into our offices at the campus paper where I was editor and asked to place a story. It was only two years after Kennedy had been shot. The Vietnam War was underway. Students were beginning to question authority and I was no exception. I hadn’t heard of Coro. It must not be anything important. But Sid convinced me that it would be no loss to apply and a good back up for by applications to Columbia and Northwestern Schools of Journalism.

So I went into the daylong selection process with no expectations. Judges baited me. We had to sing songs in groups. Fletcher had devised a miniature pressure chamber experience to detect who of the young people that applied would be up for real learning, real breakthrough thinking. He wasn’t looking for orthodoxy. I got in.

And the year I spent was the most incandescent learning experience I have ever had, and was for our class of ten interns in Los Angeles. That summer in 1965 Watts went up in flames, the first full scale urban riot in our lifetime. We were in shock. Berkeley students were holding full-scale sit-ins and teach-ins about the war. Women were on a march about their status, still wincing from having been brought into equity positions during the war and then swept aside by returning GIs.

Our class was on fire with learning. I spent six weeks in Watts investigating the flood of leadership programs coming into the scarred community to see what might work. We looked at automation’s effect on blue-collar workers. We spent a week in the aerospace industry and sat in the Gemini capsule before it was launched. Little did I realize that year that Coro would be the force that shaped my professional life.

Three years later, in Chicago, Bill Whiteside, the Executive Director of Coro in LA, visited me at the Chicago Tribune, where I then worked. I’d gone on to Northwestern after all, then spent a year at Chicago State Mental Hospital being a “mental health educator” in return for their stipend through J school, and was now reporting for the Chicago Tribune. Bill convinced me to come on the Coro staff and move back west.

So in January of 1969 I moved to San Francisco with my family and began working for Coro. One of my first jobs was leading a two-unit local government class at Stanford, using the same experiential, interview-based process I had learned in my internship. As I saw how even this much less intensive format ignited the students, I became hooked.

I stayed at Coro for eight years. It was a crucible for much of what I have contributed since. I developed Group Graphics there. I studied general semantics in depth. I found that the Peace Corps and others were discovering how to do experiential training. I discovered systems thinking and facilitation and organization development, and in my last year discovered Arthur M. Young and his Theory of Process. I began my own business in 1977, quite consciously thinking that it would be a way of having young people learn about the longer-cycle changes and processes that are required for real social change. They would be staff, not interns, but I always thought the staff jobs at Coro were the best learning assignments anyway.

So all these rivers of influence were being stimulated by the Coro Alumni conference. After Jill’s talk I was standing around talking with Don Kornblet and John Greenwood, my two counterparts as Executive Director in St. Louis and Los Angeles back in 1973. It’s too long a story to explain fully how we all got to be executive directors in our mid 20’s. Coro always biased toward the program and was much less skilled at the organization side of things. Tough financial times required a change, and we inherited the job of turning Coro around. Given the revolutionary flavor of the early 1970s, and our own youth and fearlessness, we entered into a period of entrepreneurship that succeeded in righting the Coro ship.

We all have gone on to continue to be entrepreneurs for the social good. John became a member of the Los Angeles school board and is involved in the city’s most successful Neighborhood Council projects. Don became a businessman later and is a deeply involved player in the St. Louis community.

“You know,” he said as we stood around the fire. “Coro is missing the fact that it is probably the greatest school for social entrepreneurs in the country. They talk about being in leadership development, but they’re missing the sizzle.”

My mind immediately connected with all the graduates I’ve know and respected. Most end up taking jobs that play on the greatly expanded systems awareness one gets in the program. They are liminal, synaptic forces, connecting and networking, working the membranes and filters of society.

The man we were honoring as a graduate later was Gary Fazzino, twice mayor of Palo Alto and Vice President of Government Affairs for hp. I thought about my own civic work—helping found the Headlands Center for the Arts, serving on the Coro Board in the 1990’s, working for years on the transition of the Presidio into being a National Park, facilitating countless planning and cross-sector projects through the region. Very little of this would ever be noticed. We are a culture that prizes figure over ground; credit the individual over the group, look at event rather than context. This is a profoundly reductionist way to think, but it’s the operating system for our media and much of the public discourse.

Then I began thinking about the worldwide network of people who have been influenced by The Grove and our integrated systems of tools for facilitation, team performance, and visioning. I began to see that the patterns I learned those many years ago have been playing out in my work, and I began to imagine the rippling influence of those thousands of other graduates.

Here, this weekend, in Aptos, I was in a bipartisan community of people that see things differently. This gives me hope that we can actually make democracy work. We analyzed the recent elections. Statistically, it wasn’t a sea change, but an incremental change, the way things have always changed in Congress if you look at the patterns. But the increment is heading in a new direction. Young people are beginning to vote more.

I thought back to hearing Robert Putnam at the Commonwealth Club right after his book was released. “We need a new period of social invention, like the early 1900’s,” he appealed. It wasn’t clear to him the new technology would necessarily swing that way. “It could become another for of entertainment, rather than a new source of community and connection.” For Putnam, the fabric of society is social capital, the time we spend affiliating in groups, getting to know people, understanding neighbors. This is what has gone into huge decline since the invention of TV in the 1970s and the explosion of suburbs. “Every 10 minutes of commuting is 10% less time affiliating,” his studies conclude.

So we ended up with a generation, my children in fact, who spend very little time in clubs, movements, groups, or other affiliative behavior. My generation was the peak of involvement for some reason.

Yet there is a quickening, I think. I see it in the rise of social networking software and the moving away from television. I see it in the increased number of young voters. I see it in the groups I work with that hunger for real conversation and engagement, who are sick of PowerPoint and push communications. I see it in the hundreds of little organizations springing up to accomplish this and that. I see it “long tail” economics, and the market of niches.

And I saw it recently at a conference of educators and architects looking at the future of education, a forum sponsored by Target and the American Architectural Foundation. They overwhelmingly agreed that educators and designers alike are now understanding that team-oriented, discovery-based education works, is being empowered by the new technologies, and can be supported by new school design.

My Coro-trained heart leaped with joy at the end of this meeting. Now, even a few weeks after the alumni conference, I can taste the “ice cream” of my imagination, quickened into hope by my old friends and the organization that connects us.

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