Coro’s Graduation: A Personal Adventure in Immersive Learning
I was moved and challenged by the invitation from the 2009 Coro Fellows class to be their graduation speaker. It said, “We as a class have decided that we would like to have a speaker at our graduation who can represent our experiences as Coro Fellows.”
I felt confident about this part since I was a Coro Fellow in Los Angeles in 1965, then on the staff from 1969 through 1977 in San Francisco, and on the Board in the 1990s and now again in the late 2000’s. I understand what it feels like to have a series of very disparate internship and projects experiences in government, business, labor, media, politics, and community organizations and try and make sense of the larger system. That’s what the 12 Coro Fellows do for nine months, along with the 66 different Tuesday evening and Friday seminars held to make sense out of it all.
But the invitation went on. “After more discussion, we decided we wanted a speaker that could address the crowd from a number of different viewpoints from within the program.” This was less clear. What did they mean by “different points within the program.” I immediately thought of the levels of experience the group of 12 invariably encounter. One is the diversity of points of view the different Fellows bring, gathered as they are from around the country. In this class Nicholas, who wrote the invitation, was from New York City. I knew another was from North Dakota, Andrea, who I talked to during the reception, was from Virginia. But they might have meant the different sector perspectives, or did they mean different levels of human perception—physically, mental, emotional, spiritual? Okay, I definitely could at least honor a multi-perspective perspective.
The last request made my breath quicken… “Finally, in truest of Coro fashion, after even more discussion, we as a group decided we wanted an individual who could speak about exciting world events during their time with Coro. We want an individual whose sentiment for the program can mirror the excitement we have had the past few months with all the events going on around us. From your insight as a Coro board member, to the stories you told us about you Logic Study assignment in Watts, to having your students arrested as a sign of class unity; we are confident that your range of experiences with the program will deliver an image of Coro that will last us long after the program has ended.”
Why Did I Get Invited?
I began to understand the source of the invitation. I had engaged a small group of them after one of the Coro Board meetings, and told them some stories about my experiences. I’d done my individual project in LA in 1966 in Watts, the year after the Watt’s riots—the first in my generation’s experience. My own understanding of the city of Los Angeles was informed by attended Occidental College in Eagle Rock, a district right in the middle of LA. Yet in four years I had no idea there was a community like Watt’s. When it erupted in flames and violence the summer after I graduated, and was still boiling with anger and frustration the following year when I was in Coro, I felt like my worldview had shattered. It was only three years after our President John F. Kennedy was shot.
I had also told them a story about one of my fellow’s classes that decided to sit in en mass at the Oakland Induction Center to protest the war in Vietnam in 1972. Their intention was to get arrested. I remember calling them the night before, as the director of the program, and saying “you are free to sit in and get arrested as individual citizens, but you are not free to represent yourself as Coro, or to create the perception that you as Coro Fellows are protesting the war, for Coro itself does not have a position and that would be misleading.” They did sit in, and did get arrested, and didn’t say they were from Coro, so my request was honored—but I lost the respect of that particular class and the trust was never restored completely. I had become “the man” in the jargon of the day. It was deep lesson in the dilemmas of leadership.
Since receiving the invitation I’d done a lot of thinking about what I might say and had an outline and some ideas, but had purposely not scripted my talk. I wanted to talk from my heart, and talk to them directly. I trusted being able to do this. They needed to hear the kind of words that an elder in circle would say in the most important times of a tribe. I would speak from that place.
Fellows Present Their Year
The Fellows’ presentation of their year was a spectacular review. Two fellows MC’d, and improvised being anchor newsmen, with humor and insight. They introduced each component and fellow Fellows to tell the stories – of their internship assignments, of Innovation Week down in Silicon Valley, of Agriculture Week out in the Valley, of their interview, their groups projects, their individual projects and 67 seminars. They were funny, articulate, excited, and clearly deeply moved by finally being done. There are few programs as challenging. ALL of the learning throughout the year is drawn from direct experiences. Coro is a benchmark and pioneer of full immersion learning.
After their presentation Nicholas introduced me, without a lot of fanfare. He didn’t repeat his e-mail invitation. He did say I had a “resume as long as your arm.” In that short sentence I did a speed flash through the hundreds of consulting clients I’ve had all over the world in very kind of sector. How could I say that I never really stopped being in Coro – that I became addicted to the kind of inquiry and systems-level thinking that is fostered by the program?
So I stood up and faced the 150 or so people in the standing room only Port Authority Board Room. The Fellows sat in the front row. Their parents and field faculty (the internship and project sponsors), alumni, and Coro staff all waited. I saw fellow Board members Lucia Dalton-Choi, Chairman of the Fort Mason Center Board, Bob Mendelsohn, former SF Supervisor, Beth Parker—class action attorney and Board Chair. I saw John and Carolyn Robinson in the back. John was on the staff when I joined in 1969. He came to hear me talk he said.
“I’m still reeling from your presentation,” I began. “It was like being back in the program.” The leaps and jumps and juxtapositions of perspectives and styles were breathtaking. “I’m going to address the question of what you can expect now that you are finished. What will the impact of this experience be on your life? I speak from my own continuing inquiry about this, since Coro has been one of the most powerful formative experiences unfolding in my life.”
I can’t remember verbatim what I said. It was as though some other force took over and I just began to communicate. But I can simulate it here in writing, imagining those bright faces in front of me.
The Impact of Powerful Experiential Templates
“I know from your presentation and my own experience that the impact of the Coro experience is profound on you as individuals, and on the community in which you were involved this year. It comes on several levels.” I said. “On one level there are first time experiences that become templates of understanding from then on. For me it was the experience of the Watt’s riots and my attempt to understand the community response – marked by thousands of dollars of philanthropic and government money pouring into leadership programs and other attempts to respond to the alienation and isolation of Watts.”
“Having the experience of seeing LA, one year getting the Readers Digest award for race relations and the next burning down on television screen across America, left me understanding that social conditions can fester and grow, and then erupt in unanticipated changes, and that the media can be a sorry lens for understanding these patterns. An iconic memory was of meeting with an African American high school principal in Watts. He told me about how his daughter was sitting out front of their school with her friend and their books one day right after the riots when a television crew drove by and stopped. The reporter jumped out and went up and asked that they put their books behind them so they wouldn’t show in the pictures they wanted to take. I’ll never forget the look and tone of this principal as he told this story. It had scarred him, firing the anger of a lifetime of discrimination. It burned into me as well, knowing as a reporter how much of our news is managed like that.”
“For you, I know you came into this class in September of 2008, and then there was October –the great meltdown of the financial industries and subsequent deep recession and even greater reset to their entire world order. You experienced the media missing this one like they missed Watts. This event will mark your lives. You can’t know now how, but it will be a seed of understanding and inquiry from this day on.”
The Impact of a Thread of Inquiry and Unanswered Questions
“A second level of impact from Coro is the planting of certain threads of inquiry that stay alive for years. For me one began with our group project —trying to assess the impact of automation on blue-collar workers in America. We had an intuition that there was a technology juggernaut headed toward workingmen and women, but we wanted to prove it. We went overboard to find studies, research and other evidence, but to our dismay we found nothing conclusive. If anything we found studies showing jobs were increasing because of technology. But who funded the studies? Who was advancing what ideas? Our report ended up being of little value, but the inquiry has stayed with me to this
“For your class, you experienced the blooming of social networking technology, Face Book and Twitter.” I pulled my i-phone out of my pocket. “Now I turn 65 next week. TWITTER! Is this really something I want to understand? You bet I do. We don’t know how, but this kind of technology is transforming the way we work, the way our organizations work, and the way politics is conducted. Can you prove it? Probably not any more than we could prove our thesis years ago about automation. It’s too early. But I predict that theme will stick and grow with your generation as you go forward.”
The Impact of a Multi-Sector Perspective—Systems Level Thinking
“My final point is about the impact of the Coro cross sector, cross perspective model of training. It’s a systemic level of impact, and the induction of a systemic thinking. It is, in the college parlance of the 1960’s a mind ______ .” (Everyone laughed. I imagined them thinking, My God, this guy is actually talking like we talk in private… people don’t do that. But I was in the zone and the talk was talking me.)” We know now, from all the work of cognitive scientists, that when the brain’s frames of reference are severely challenged, when juxtaposed realities clash—the mind moves automatically to resolve the dissonance—it moves to a higher level of integration and understanding or closes down. The Coro experience is one of the biggest conceptual meltdown you will experience in a compressed period, and there is no way you can do the reconstruction quickly. That is the biggest seed that has been planted for you. For to make sense of this year you will have to develop some truly new skills, and it may take a while, but the process has begun and is probably irreversible.”
This business of what kind of leader is needed in today’s world is the subject of a friend of mine’s book, Leader’s Make the Future, by Bob Johansen, distinguished fellow at The Institute for the Future in Palo Alto. I heard him talk recently and the ideas are still working me. It felt relevant to share some of Bob’s ideas, since they had visited with him earlier during Innovation Week. So I launched in.
“Bob’s done an interesting thing.” I began. “Being a forecaster he went out into the future, and stood intellectually in the midst of the forecasts that IFTF has made. He knows these forecasts aren’t predictions, but plausible possibilities, with some wild cards thrown in. But from that perspective he looked back and asked, what kind of skills will leader’s need to cope with these possible futures?”
At that point I strode out into the audience’s stage right, in the direction that most people would put a future timeline. Now standing in this future spot I turned and said, “out here we know there is a time when we are going to run out of oil. We also know there is a time when the global warming effects could spiral into a collapse. We know its possible that nations could fragment, fight and be immersed in wars over food and water. We also know that it’s possible that large masses of people will fundamentally change their values and return to a more connected, less consumptive, more respectful place with each other. We know that it’s already and will probably continue to be a VUCA world, as the Army War College calls a world that is Volatile, Uncertain Complex and Ambiguous.”
Leaders Make the Future
“So Bob comes back to our time and asks, what skills are needed now to face these things? And he comes up with ten skills. Let me share a couple with you. The first is having a MAKER INSTINCT. It means people who understand that when things are uncertain, those with creative energy and intention will literally be the ones creating the future. Then he says leaders need the skill of CLARITY. What he means by this isn’t clarity about means, but clarity of intention, or direction. It’s possible to be clear about where we are headed 10 years out, and not know what we will do tomorrow. Then he talks about DILEMMA FLIPPING. You will find as you get to the top of organizations, that at the top problems don’t get solved, there aren’t simple answers. There are contradictions and dilemmas. Do you plan centrally, and emulate France and the socialists, or stay entrepreneurial and free market? Do you control planning or encourage opportunism? These questions don’t settle when you are at the top, for both occur, and often both need to occur. Leaders can see the energy and opportunity in these dilemmas, and flip them.”
“And the fourth Bob mentions is IMMERSIVE LEARNING. Now Bob’s wife Robin was a Coro Board member for several years so he may have gotten this idea from us. But he says that in a VUCA environment, with so many plausible futures, the most skilled leaders will be the learning leaders, who continue to immerse themselves in other people’s points of view, the dynamics and processes of their own organizations, and the possibilities outside the bounds of conventional thinking.”
“So under the impact of the juxtaposed experiences you faced in Coro, you too are being dragged into a new set of skills and approaches. You are being called to a new level of insight and understanding.”
“I still remember the day I had a labor internship with John Cinquemani, head of the Labor Council in Los Angeles, who took me to a hog butcher’s union in Long Beach and showed me how they slaughtered hogs by slitting their throats with long knives, blood gushing out two feet in a squealing final arc of life. And in the afternoon I was in Beverly Hills sitting with the city manager in a meeting about how they could slant drill for oil under Beverly Hills from a derrick in Los Angeles next door disguised as a building! I’d never imagined either prior to that day. They weren’t in my mental model of the world but now they were, and my old mental model was bent and on the floor. I HAD to move to a different level of integration.”
“We are, as a society, in a time when the impact of our ignorance of the systems effects of our decision making is catching up with us. We’ve moved to a place where much of public discourse is focused on the here and now, in short term ‘fixes’ mediated by ‘bumper sticker’ slogans and thinking encouraged by the media, firmly framed within the paradigm of problem solving as if that can really happen. Never have we so needed leaders who can be in inquiry, immersed in learning, thinking systemically and humbly about their answers, and courageous enough to embrace a maker instinct and create the future we want and need.”
“I’ve come to believe that Coro and it’s commitment to embracing the whole of public life—honoring internal reality AND external fact, organized process AND confusion and inquiry, business AND labor, government AND politics— is supporting a kind of sensibility and collaborative leadership that is the beating heart of vital government in the communities it serves. You may think that this is a program for 12 Fellows, but in reality you 12 fellows are the staff of a program for the 300 people you touched this year in your programs and projects. It’s impossible for the people who hosted you in internships and projects not be entangled in the rush of inquiry and reflection that become magnified in you during in this program. Coro is one of the few places where civil discourse occurs in a truly cross sector community that is free of transactional ideology and narrow self-interest. So having a Coro Fellows Program in a community year after year is, if I may borrow a metaphor that is very indigenous to the SF Bay Area, is like getting Rolphed on a public level. It’s a massaging of the deep tissues of understanding that loosens the facie and frees up the energy. Can we prove it? No? Can you even understand it yet? No? But you can sense it! I think I’ve experienced it.”
“I’m very excited that you, from what I hear in your presentations, are graduating and still uncertain. You’ve made it through one of the toughest boot camps of public service. You are ready to help create the future.”
I sat down a little unsure of what I had said precisely, but sure that I had shared my truth, that I had modeling speaking from my heart and my frame of reference, rooted as all frames are in my values.
Minden and Jeff’s Finale
Minden Benyon, the Fellows Trainer followed with her thanks and acknowledgments. She graduated the class along with Jeff Sosnaud, the Executive Director, reading quotes from each and presenting them with a book of photos, a Coro pin, and their certificate. Then Jeff rang them out with a thoughtful and inspiring message.
“I’m often asked by graduates—how do we stack up to other years?” He began. “I don’t like to answer this, but I can say about this year, and the level of commitment you have brought not only to your program but to helping raise funds for our annual lunch or the first time, that you are one of the best classes I have experienced. I think there is something powerful happening with you generation.”
He went on to tell a story about a man seeking the answers to the meaning of life from a wise man. After considerable work, the quested was able to engage and ask his question. “What is the meaning of life?” the inquirer asked. “The wise man paused, thought, and then said ‘tradeoffs!” TRADEOFFS. That is what you are facing,” he teased. “You won’t be able to change jobs every four weeks from now on. You won’t have people whip out their credit cards to pay for your lunch because you are a Coro Fellow. Welcome to the real world. What you will now be facing is tradeoffs.”
He went on describe the way life presents itself in choices and partial fulfillments. “You’ll find it’s not about getting it right, or getting it solved, or having it turn out like you expected. It’s about keeping learning.” Jeff said. He then went on to talk about what shouldn’t be the focus of tradeoffs. “Don’t trade off your curiosity, or your appetite for learning. Don’t trade off your integrity. Don’t trade off your commitment to serve.” He quoted Bobby Kennedy, one of his heroes, and the possibility that each person’s personal commitment can send out a ripple of hope, and those ripples, when combined, can create a force that will topple mighty injustices.
“Don’t trade off your faith that this is possible.” He said. I felt a stirring in my heart as he talked.
With this class, this year, with this generation, I began to share the feeling that Jeff’s appeal was possible once again. There is a quickening. There is a great reset occurring. The seeds planted with this class could be those that grow into a forest of new understanding. I so hope so. I want to support this being so as a Board member of Coro. At least their invitation to speak and share my experience set off a reverberation in my own sense of commitment to be a part of the process. My oh my! I too am a part of this year’s Coro program. I too have found myself revitalized and renewed. So I’m program participant 301!
If you are interested in learning more about Coro, here’s their website.