When magic happens

April 21, 2011 · by Allison Porter · Filed Under Choices, Previous · 6 Comments

You might not say it was a thing of beauty if you saw it. A bit rickety, you might say, disheveled even. One of us, halfway through making it, said “my pre-schoolers could do better.” And we all laughed.
But to us – and miraculously to many others – it was magnificent.

This is the story of how four people came together and made something happen that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. We were members of the 25-person design team who put together the program for SEIU’s 1,600 Member Leadership and Action Conference in Los Angeles in March. The conference was inspiring and impactful on a big stage. This is a small story, but it’s my story and I take meaning from it, so here it is:

It was the last meeting of the design team, on the morning the conference began, and four of us – Lily, Linda, Kim and me – volunteered to take the notecards that were filled out at the end of the day and do something with them. They were to be filled out in small group debrief conversations and were answers to the questions “what inspired us today?” and “what did we learn?”

On the first night we sat in the bar and read through the cards – about 200 of them – and I could feel the energy draining out of us. We didn’t want to pick some over the others to post, but the hotel wouldn’t let us put them on the wall. What could we do? Finally, one of us set off to pick up packing tape and scissors from the office and we all met in front of the empty plenary room. From there, we commandeered flipchart stands and cardboard boxes – and magic happened.

What we created was a wall that combined the cards with white space, with markers hanging from lanyards to encourage people to write their “reflections.” By mid-morning the next day there was a steady stream of people reading the cards and most of the space was filled in. One person wrote, “we’re making history,” another wrote, “to make a difference you have to start with self,” and of course, “Tam was totally here.”

a word reducedThe second night we added more cards and more blank space and moved the whole display to a new location. There we were, four grown women, all with better things to do, hauling flipchart stands on elevators and tearing reams of tape. As we were finishing, several conference participants were having their picture taken in front of the display. And when it was all done, we wanted our picture taken too.

All in all, it was a great experience: We showed up. We took real joy in each other’s creative inspirations. We were eager followers and willing leaders. We felt we were giving a public voice to the members at the conference. We laughed a lot. I look back on it now and recognize the feeling as what in our line of work we call “engagement.”

So why were we so engaged? I am thinking it was four things: 1) we felt responsible 2) we felt creative 3) we felt it mattered and 4) we felt connected to each other.

If our organizations could engender those conditions for staff and members on a regular basis can you imagine what we could accomplish?


6 Responses to “When magic happens”

  1. Dave Snapp on April 22nd, 2011 8:26 am

    Great story, and suggests the energy and agency many people felt together in LA.

  2. Allison on April 22nd, 2011 8:51 am

    Interesting point about the larger context. Magic begets magic. Is it an essential factor? How difficult would it be to create an engaged team within a static or even toxic environment?

  3. Kim Cook on April 22nd, 2011 10:21 am

    You captured beautifully one of many amazing moments and experiences from that powerful event! I’m guessing everyone there has such a story to tell. I hope they will, and will carry it on.

    Can you post a link to this on the Facebook page?

  4. Suzanne Wall on April 22nd, 2011 11:11 am

    Isn’t beauty surprising sometimes? I second Kim on posting a link or reporting on the TEAM Leaders page– you could also suggest that writing on the FB wall is like continuing to share on the MLAC wall.

    Maybe we could push this out with another invite to join FB and reminder to do the survey?

    The energy reminded me a lot of early womens’ movement conferences, when it was such a surprising joy to be together and to find strength out of oppression (not victimhood). I think this story could also be a debriefing exercise, using Allison’s question “If our organizations could engender those conditions for staff and members on a regular basis can you imagine what we could accomplish?”
    Thanks to you 4 and everyone who helped sprinkle invisible fairy dust on MLAC!

  5. Kim Patterson on April 25th, 2011 9:47 am

    Lol! One of the many reasons I smile when I think of the conference is three very amazing women who spent 2 evenings with me stressing over how to interpret the excitement from the report outs to everyone at the conference and in the end with paper, scissors, flipcharts, stickers and tape (Yes, Linda – lots of tape) inspired ourselves! As things heat up in Pennsylvania and sometimes seem to move so fast, I can’t help reflecting on the frenzy of our work and the doubt that it would inspire – and know that it did.

  6. George on July 18th, 2011 3:21 pm

    Nice to see there are still bits of “magic” happening somewhere.

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