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Do I Belong Here?

Last month, NBC News’ Generation Latino blog published the story of 18-year old Jason Mero, who headed off to Brown University this fall, “proudly staking claim to his Latinx heritage, but mindful that the sacrifices his immigrant parents made for him.”

Born in Queens, New York, to parents who emigrated from Ecuador 30 years ago, Mero would ruminate with his family growing up about the challenges facing an American with Hispanic roots: how to deal with a more hostile environment against Latinos, and how to assert his U.S. citizenship, his birthright, while staying connected to his community.

What stuck with me about Jason’s story is how, in a country built in part on immigrants, so many people across ethnic and minority groups are actively questioning their belonging here. And how, in this divided America, we ever get beyond that feeling.

There are so many “competing narratives” about the American experience. The New York Times’ David Brooks has argued that there are four, to be exact.  As said in this column, “Different groups see themselves living out different national stories and often feel they are living in different nations.”

A Pew Research Center: Hispanic Trends study from a few years ago found that most young Latinos are “satisfied with their lives, optimistic about their futures, and place a high value on education, hard work, and career success. Yet they are much more likely than other American youths to drop out of school and to become teenage parents. They are more likely than white and Asian youths to live in poverty. And they have high levels of exposure to gangs.”

As Pew stated in its report, “these are attitudes and behaviors that, through history, have often been associated with the immigrant experience. But most Latino youths are not immigrants.”

Like Jason, two-thirds of Latino youths were born in the United States, many of them descendants of the big, ongoing wave of Latin American immigrants who began arriving in this country around 1965. According to Mark Hugo López, director of global migration and demography research at the Pew Research Center, one million Hispanic-Americans will turn 18 this year and every year for at least the next two decades.

Sitting here in Washington in the lead up to this year’s midterm elections, one particularly loud narrative is the role that Hispanic and Latino voters will, or will not, play in determining the outcomes of the election. But, there’s far more at stake beyond this midterm election, if we don’t find ways to come together. If we don’t challenge ourselves—and by extension, our businesses, our governments, our faith communities, and our families—to listen to and learn from the massive wave of Hispanic Americans who will play a significant role in the future of our country, we are setting ourselves up for failure.

At Mission Partners, we live by person-first communications. We listen beyond the loudest voices in any conversation to the voices often struggling to be heard. We listen to challenge assumptions, and to close gaps in our understanding of issues. And it’s a philosophy that extends to every issue we take on. Whether we’re tackling equity in education, women’s issues, public health or affordable housing, we believe that every voice in our community matters, but there are far too many voices that aren’t being listened to in meaningful ways.

On Thursday, November 15, Montgomery County-based Identity, Inc. will release a new report on Latino youth in partnership with the Pew Research Center called the Promise and Potential of Latino Youth. Mark Hugo Lopez, referenced above, will be on site to share his findings and elevate trends that nonprofit, government, and philanthropic decision makers must be aware of and acting upon.  It will be an important conversation and one that I look forward to attending.

The next day, Mission Partners will gather community members, business, academic and social sector leaders, entrepreneurs, and students at AFI Silver Theatre & Cultural Center to take the conversation one level deeper. Most importantly, at Mission Forward: Narrative Change, we’ll hear from Hispanic and Latino youth living in Montgomery County who will bring Identity’s research report to life, through a conversation with Emmy-award winning reporter and Montgomery County resident Armando Trull. We’ll also hear from award-winning freelance journalist Valeria Fernandez who covers the intersection of migration and politics, and the people in between. And we’ll look at the issue through a post-midterm election lens with American University Professor and CBS News Political Analyst Leonard Steinhorn, and MacArthur Genius Award Winner Mauricio Miller, who will give new perspective to the dangers of competing narratives.

We’ll close the conversation with best-selling author Anand Giridharadas, whose new book “Winners Take All” challenges us to consider whether we are inadvertently perpetuating the social problems we seek to solve.

But it won’t end there. This November’s Mission Forward event will launch a series of community meals and conversations, hosted in the DC region and across the country, during which we will listen and learn from voices that often go unheard. We hope you’ll join us for the first of many conversations, and that you’ll be part of this wave of change.

If you’d like to be part of the conversation, please register to join us today.

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Why Sabbaticals Matter at Mission Partners

Children Play in Haiti

By Hannah Lee

 

 “It’s not the answer that enlightens, but the question” –Eugene Ionesco

As a communications professional, an important part of my job entails developing and delivering clear messages—researching, structuring arguments, writing concisely. Like many of my peers, I am laser focused on execution and solutions, and I often forget (or don’t find I have the time) to step back and critically think about the questions I am asking, or the answers I’m being given.

But earlier this summer, I was given a special opportunity to do just that.

In July, I had the privilege to truly step back—to take a sabbatical. At Mission Partners, we believe in the value of giving back to local communities through volunteerism, and we realize the impact of volunteerism on our day to day work. After the one-year mark with Mission Partners, each full-time employee earns sabbatical days—a unique and special model for a small firm like ours.  In my case, I had the privilege of spending my sabbatical in Bercy, Haiti. Located 40 minutes outside of the Haitian capital, Port-Au-Price, Bercy is where Mission of Hope operates.

Mission of Hope brings life transformation for every man, women, and child in Haiti—including those who volunteer. The organization takes a comprehensive approach to building and strengthening communities by creating jobs, providing food and clean water, educating kids and adults, teaching agricultural skills, and caring for the sick and elderly. While volunteering, the phrase “we believe Haitians will rebuild Haiti” was constantly said throughout every activity, empowering Haitians to the leaders of their own success.

Through this experience, I learned much more than I will ever be able to give. Most importantly, my sabbatical reinvigorated my joy in asking questions, and listening intently to the answers.

On the first day, right after arriving at the airport, I was greeted by a Haitian staff member at the organization. He asked me what team I was rooting for in the World Cup. Before I could even answer, he stated that it better be Brazil. Immediately, I felt connected to him. In that conversation, I had learned my first lesson.

With a simple, intentional question, you can relate to anyone—even those who appear most different.

In that conversation, I was reminded that thoughtful questions can lead to connection. That was a powerful moment to start my sabbatical. Each day during the week, our group of 40 volunteers traveled to a partner village to collect survey data. The data collected was used to better serve families in the community. This information is vital to meet critical needs in the community like clean drinking water, health care services, food, and shelter. Each day we were assigned up to six homes, some made of brick and some still composed of blue tarp—a reminder that Haitian communities are still feeling the effects of the 2011 earthquake. At each home, we built new connections. We made new friends.  We washed and then dried clothes on cacti while others played tag with kids. By the end of the week, survey data collection was our favorite thing to do.

But, it didn’t come easy.

To collect the data the organization needed, we received a list of survey questions. Right away, at our first house visit, we started asking “do you have access to clean drinking water?” and “when’s the last time you visited the dentist?” without even getting to know the people in front of us. We just dove into these personal and somewhat intrusive questions without thinking to step back. Without thinking to first build a connection with the single mom of two kids. My group fumbled through those thirty minutes, relying only on the awkwardly worded survey questions. Walking away, I felt disappointed. At the next house, we ditched the formulated questions and asked simple, intentional questions.

That changed everything.

Suddenly, the formatted questions were coming up naturally. Our conversations were full of mutual laughter, joy, and prayers for one another. I often pride myself on asking good questions, however in an unfamiliar place, I learned I have room to grow.  And that was my second lesson of the week.

Asking intentional questions takes practice.

After a week of practicing asking intentional questions, it was time to head home to the U.S. Although I was sad to leave such an incredible place, I was ready to return home. As we were boarding the bus to the airport at 4:30 am, our flight was canceled. But not just our flight. For the next 72 hours, all flights in and out of Haiti were canceled due to political protests.

The Haitian government had raised fuel prices by 51%, making it nearly impossible for many Haitians to continue traveling to work, school, church, or really anywhere. In response, Haitians created blockades along the road in protest. As they awaited a response from the Haitian government, they continued to protest.

And we waited.

As Americans, we are used to quick answers, but in this situation, we couldn’t find the answer on our phones. And no question we asked could have given us a solid answer.  We were safe, but as we waited, we grew anxious, tired, and confused. When would we go home? Would we have enough food? Would we be able to leave before the impending tropical storm hits? All good questions, but when volunteers asked, they knew there was a slim chance of having an answer. Which led me to my next lesson…

In times of uncertainty, too many questions may not always be the answer. Sometimes all you can be is present.

Returning home, I didn’t immediately take the time to process the last part of the trip. I felt overwhelmed and flustered. Even as friends asked, “how was your trip to Haiti?”, I went blank.

And then someone asked, “tell me about someone who inspired you” and I found words again. By drawing on a specific moment where I was present in relationship with someone, I could bring to life my experience instead swirling in the final 72 hours of uncertainty.  And there was my final, and perhaps most important lesson.

It’s the thoughtful questions, not always the perfect answers, that enlighten.

This sabbatical pushed me to be a better version of myself, to come back to work with a new energy, and most importantly, to step back, reflect, and ask better questions.  It’s just the answer I had needed.

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Changing the Narrative

By Carrie Fox

I was 16 and working my earliest job in public relations when I first experienced the power of narrative change.

It was coming on Christmas and I had been tasked with telling the story of another 16-year old girl living with a severe case of juvenile arthritis. The condition limited her ability to walk but this young woman was determined to run a local road race to support the Arthritis Foundation. She was determined to change the narrative that she believed others had set for her.

I pitched her story to the New Jersey Star Ledger, and one Sunday soon after, it landed on the front page. It seemed that her story resonated with far more people than just me. I remember her parents’ gratitude for sharing her story, and the boost of confidence they believe it gave her to continue challenging the perceived limitations of her condition. I also remember how that story changed my own attitude and response to persons living with disabilities.

She was my first agent of change. She was an expert-by-experience who showed me the power of positive storytelling to shift perceptions. Telling her story cemented my desire to pursue a field in storytelling, and to pursue a certain kind of storytelling—the kind that could challenge people to look, and then look again at the issues.

I placed that story in the New Jersey Star Ledger almost 25 years ago. Since then, I—and later, my team—have had the blessing of supporting hundreds of people to tell their stories, in their own words, to close gaps in understanding on issues as varied as foster care, homelessness, economic mobility, access to education, and the environment. To many, narrative change is just another jargon term that gets tossed around in politics and philanthropy. To us, it’s a powerful tool to shift how people interpret and understand the world around them, with the goal of making the space between us as humans smaller.

This November, Mission Partners will host its next Mission Forward® convening, and, you guessed it, we’ll take on narrative change. We’ll open the doors wide to our community, and we’ll create an experience that allows every participant to hear and examine the stories behind the issues. We’ll be joined by award-winning national journalists who will retrace their steps on how they’ve told stories on issues of immigration, criminal justice, public health, and education, and we’ll spotlight community members who have experienced those issues first hand.

I invite you to join me in this journey, and to dig deeper in your own understanding of the issues. You might be surprised by what you discover.

Mission Forward: Narrative Change will be hosted on Friday, November 16th at AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring, MD. If you’re interested in attending, please email bayonia@mission.partners to be added to the invitation list.

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Out of Office

Carrie Fox

“Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.”

Anne Lamott

If you know me even a bit, this next line won’t surprise you.

I work a lot.

It’s not a bad thing, on most days.  I like to think it is quite the opposite.  I feel completely blessed that I get to enter every day at Mission Partners enthralled and excited by the purpose of our work, and the potential of the day ahead. Especially amid the weighty issues we take on, I realize the place of privilege in which I sit.  I am full of gratitude for the people in this with me, and the assignments I am invited to take on, in support of causes that matter deeply to us. The only challenge, for me, is turning it off.

But this week, I will.

This week, I’ll be up in the mountains of Colorado, taking in never-ending views and star-filled skies with my husband and our growing-too-fast little girls.  I’ll be riding horses with my newly minted five-year-old, who wants to be a cowgirl when she grows up, and paddle boating with my eight-year-old, who I am certain is far more coordinated than I ever will be at such activities.  Without the buzz of technology, and the pressures of this day’s deadlines, I hope to sink back into a slower pace, knowing that this trip is just as much for my good as it is for my family, and my business.

I don’t share any of this to flaunt a family vacation. In fact, the whole idea of this post feels very uncomfortable. I share it because I have, for far too long, lived by a self-imposed rule that I not be disconnected during the week.  I commit to be always on, and always ready….which means always juggling and always walking faster than I should. Generally, it works. Surprisingly, it often works very well.

But this week, I need a different focus.

I realize that life at its best, is happening right in front of me.  But, its not on this screen, and it’s going by way too fast. There are two little girls and one very sweet man who deserve far better than a multi-tasking, marathon-working mom.

So, give me a few extra days to get back to your last email, and hopefully next week we can pick right back up where we left off.

This week, I’m happy to say, I’m booked.

Was it Your Mail I Opened?

By Carrie Fox

Given my line of work, I receive a significant amount of mail from social good organizations. That means I’m on the receiving end of a lot of fundraising appeals, annual reports, and marketing materials—some very well-produced and others less so. But, I look at them all very carefully, and most follow a similar formula:

  • Start with a story
  • Describe what the individual or family needed
  • Show how the organization helped
  • Ask for money

The words aim to say one thing, but the way in which most of the stories are told say something else.

Over the last couple of years, especially, something hasn’t sat well with me about this formula. It clicked last month when I received a solicitation from one well-intended social services nonprofit organization.

For people working to create change in communities, there are a few terms that get tossed around regularly. Terms like promise, social capital, equity, initiatives, injustice. We talk about investing in initiatives that help build community, and we work to build equity in the communities we serve. We recognize injustice and we see the importance of social capital for communities to thrive.

But, where is the humanity in those words? If we believe that building equity and investing in community is key, why do we very rarely hear from community members in their own words, not through the filtered lens and carefully crafted voice of an organization? 

There’s a curious line between what we say and do when it comes to building equity.

Since the inception of Mission Partners, we have been on an intentional journey toward the practice of inclusive marketing. We believe it is our responsibility, as designers of messages and marketing materials, to ensure that the words and images we use do not reinforce negative, false, or misleading stereotypes. On the contrary, they must build a better understanding of the human experience. We believe communications has the power to change the world—if that communication can be used to bring people together, not to push us apart. That means being intentional and aware about how stories are told in marketing materials: who is telling those stories, who is being included in the creative process, and who is being overlooked.

Earlier this year I wrote an article on building equity and breaking bias in storytelling in which I wrote that “as writers, we inherently believe that we’re telling our best stories. If asked, we’ll say we conducted multiple interviews and sought out several sources, but the reality of implicit bias is that we bring it to the table without realizing it is there.”

As I continue to add to my own knowledge on this topic, I wanted to share a few more thoughts for consideration before you hit send on your next fundraising appeal:

  • If you have featured even one individual or family in any one of your publications in the past year, how often have you compensated them for sharing their story, given the way you use their story to drive resources to your organization’s bottom line? And perhaps the bigger question is: what is your organization’s policy for compensating talent? Do you have an equitable definition for even defining the term “talent”?
  • Are the people in your fundraising appeals given an opportunity to review and edit their stories? How many people have you asked to fact check their success story? How might the story look different if you had? And again, perhaps the bigger question is: What is your organization’s policy for reviewing materials before they are published? Who gets to hold that red pen?
  • Rather than feeling tied to the frame set out above, what do you think might happen if you flipped the narrative to be from a different perspective? What voice other than the carefully crafted executive director or beneficiary could you consider that delivers your message in a compelling way?
  • When is the last time you authentically connected with your community? Not on your terms, but on theirs. We all make assumptions based on who we believe our community is, and what they need. To reduce those assumptions, how often are you authentically connecting with your community; asking them to share their own narrative, in their own way? And how often are you asking your community if they feel adequately and factually represented in your marketing materials?

These are tough questions, and not standard for most nonprofit organizations. But, if you believe that equity and inclusion are important to your organizational culture, the actions you take to the above questions are ways to prove your commitment.

Like what you read? Want to learn more. Join me next Tuesday, July 17th at the American Marketing Association’s Nonprofit Marketing Conference, or join us for our next Equity + Design Thinking Day on September 6.

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Connecting and Communicating on Mental Health

By Carrie Fox

After the great chef and storyteller Anthony Bourdain passed away last week, his mother, Gladys Bourdain said in an interview with The New York Times that “he was absolutely the last person in the world I would have ever dreamed would do something like this.”

As a mother, that line sat heavy with me. How do you know if your child is pain, if they are not showing outward signs of it? How do you know if anyone close to you—a spouse, a sibling, a coworker—is dealing with mental health challenges? And are there ways to see or spot the signs that someone is struggling, perhaps for longer than we may have realized?

Suicide rates are climbing in nearly every demographic, age group and geographic area, according to new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), but there’s so much that stands in our way as parents, friends, and colleagues, to do something about it when we think we see signs of someone struggling. Questions like “How do I raise this issue with someone in an appropriate way?”, “What if I’m wrong?”, and “When and how do I even think to say something?”, can often stop us before we start the conversation.

I thought about this a lot yesterday, as I had the opportunity to sit down with our dear friends at the Youth Mental Health Project, an incredible nonprofit founded and run by Randi Silverman and Wendy Ward, parents who believe that mental health is imperative to all health. The Youth Mental Health Project empowers young people, parents, and caring adults with practical knowledge, support, and resources they need to nurture their children’s mental health and intervene when they recognize warning signs.

Mission Partners helped The Youth Mental Health Project in its early stages of growth with scale, but I believe their impact on us was just as powerful.

Here’s a bit from their website:

Half of all cases of mental illness begin in childhood, according to the National Institute for Mental Health. As research has consistently proven, early detection and intervention dramatically improve the long-term outlook for anyone with a mental health disorder. In addition, early detection and treatment can prevent an escalation of symptoms and possible co-occurring disorders, which are oftentimes more difficult to treat. Stereotypes, discrimination and fear, however, cultivate deafening silence around youth mental health. This makes identification and treatment extremely difficult. Families cannot seek help for a problem if they do not know it exists.

The following excerpts are shared from the Youth Mental Health Project’s free online resource Mental Health 101: Talking with Kids, which can be downloaded here.

  • How do I talk with my child about their concerns, and how do I know how much information they can actually handle?

You can begin by asking your children one or two open ended questions (e.g., What was the favorite part of your day today? What is one thing that has been on your mind lately? What do you think of what has been happening in the news lately?) Make certain to stop talking and listen carefully. Find out what their words mean to them.

  • How do I know if my child is dealing with depression, vs. going through a period of sadness?

The fact is that children do not try to feel unhappy, so prolonged or frequent emotional discomfort may be a sign of depression. If you are concerned, it may make sense to keep a log of the frequency, duration, and intensity of your child’s feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. Also, keep note of your child’s ability to function. How often is your child unable or seemingly unwilling to do something or participate in an activity that seems typical or ordinary for other children the same age? The important thing to remember about depression is that the earlier it is recognized and treated, the better the outcome will be. Untreated depression can seriously impede functioning and healthy development and can lead to substance use, school avoidance or dropout, self-harm, and even suicide.

 

  • How do I know if my child is struggling with their mental health to a degree that requires intervention?

Brain research has taught us that what our brains forget, our bodies don’t. For this reason, if your child is struggling, you may witness noticeable changes in your child’s behavior, social activities, academic performance, physical health, or appearance. Signs a child is struggling can include, but are not limited to: Disruption in sleep/nightmares, lack of motivation, inability to focus, connect, or control impulses, loss of appetite, changes in personal care, long-lasting, intense, painful emotions, Intense worry, Increased irritability, anger, or moodiness, feelings of worthlessness, increased stomachaches or other persistent unexplainable ailments, or Disinterest in extracurricular activities or too nervous to attend.

As Wendy and Randi say, “we all have mental health, and in these unsettling times, it is more important than ever to remember that caring for a child’s mental health is just as important as caring for their physical health. To learn more, or to download a copy of their resource guides, please visit ymhproject.org.

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Communicating Outside of Comfort Zones

By Carrie Fox

To communicate effectively, we know that the people with whom we’re speaking—the humans at the receiving end of our messages— are just as important as the words we use. But we also realize that the human element of communicating can be the most difficult element to master.

I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately, as we’ve been guiding several organizations to challenge the audiences they deem their priorities; to assess the words they use with their employees; and to consider what might happen if they broke out of their comfort zones in their communications messages. Across all assignments, it comes down to one key word: language. Is the language that you use having the desired impact with the people whom your brand is intended to serve?

In the weeks leading up to the now infamous Starbucks incident in Philadelphia, I had been reading “It’s Not About the Coffee: Lessons on Putting People First From a Life at Starbucks,” a great  business book by Starbucks’ co-founder Howard  Behar. It was fascinating to watch the scenario in Philadelphia play out because it completely contradicted Behar’s core philosophy to be human, first.

For Behar, the secret to building Starbucks had everything to do with building a company that had the potential to become their customers’ third place: there was home, then work, and then Starbucks. But, to win that coveted spot, Behar knew the company needed to foster a place where all felt welcome. And they needed to build a language of welcome across all class and color lines. But for one store in Philadelphia, and in hundreds of other stores where similar incidents have been reported—that language of welcome wasn’t deployed. In far too many instances, Starbucks employees lost sight of the person who was right in front of them.

I’d wager to bet that the Starbucks story can be found inside most of our organizations, whether it’s been reported or not. The language we build, inside the walls of our organizations, is often built with certain audiences in mind and there can be dangerous consequences if we don’t stop to think about how our language sits with those outside of our respective comfort zones. Who is understanding our message, and who feels left out? Even worse, who is receiving an unintended negative message?

The language we use to communicate across age lines is equally critical. Take for instance Generation Z. They are self-aware, self-reliant and drive, and they do not respond well to companies that don’t take their values and priorities into consideration. According to Marcie Merriman, author of the recent report Rise of Gen Z: new challenges for retailers, Gen Z is almost uniformly tech-savvy and content-hungry, and tend to be pragmatic, entrepreneurial, socially conscious and highly tolerant. “They represent a major opportunity for businesses attuned to what they want and how to deliver it,” she says. “The question is whether these businesses are ready to speak the language of this rising class.”

What language do you use in communicating your brand story? Is it one of welcome and inclusion, with words and actions that are accessible across audiences, or has your organization built a language of insiders, designed primarily for those inside your comfort zone?

If the latter is likely, a willingness to break out of your communications comfort zone may be just what you need in the year ahead. The real question is: how open are you to embracing it?

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What Bias is Hiding in Your Writing?

“You can observe a lot by watching.”

Yogi Berra was right.  You can, in fact, observe a lot by watching. The baseball great, who would have turned 93 this weekend, had his fair share of Yogi-isms, but this one has always been my favorite.

Yogi Berra was one of baseball’s greatest catchers, one of the Yankees’ greatest players, and one of the game’s greatest ambassadors. He didn’t set out to be a communications icon, but the little delights of his catchphrases have lived on far beyond the baseball diamond.

I was thinking of this particular phrase recently, while hosting a workshop for a group of communications professionals who wished to examine how their stories were sticking with various audiences. Early on, I could sense that the group was confident about their individual approaches: they were doing what they needed to do in order to inform the content they were producing.

Everything seemed in good working order until I asked a few additional questions about how often members of the group listened to their readers, how they curated story ideas and how they collected feedback.  It wasn’t long before the group realized that they could all stand to do a bit more listening, and a lot more observing. Not necessarily of others, but of their own individual practices.

Observation is so much more than just watching, or listening–it’s a much deeper mental process. Observation allows us to understand information in new ways; it helps us see what’s possible, what’s feasible, and what’s avoidable. And while it is one of the most critical aspects of storytelling, it’s not always employed effectively.

Think about it: How much time do you spend observing your work, and what do you do with the information you collect? If you’re developing content for your organization, who are you calling on for interviews, and who might you be leaving out? How often are you inviting in feedback from your community, and how are they informing what you write about?  How does that investment of time in observation compare to the time you spend formulating ideas, opinions, or content?

Observing is hard, I get it. There’s so much to be done, in so little time, often with so few resources, that we must just keep pressing forward.  Press the story forward, press the campaign forward, press the strategy forward. Observe as best as you can along the way.

But, what if you’re missing something crucial in how you’re presenting information, or packaging stories?  What might more regular observation uncover?

Later this week, I’ll sit down with Ed Yong of The Atlantic to talk about one very important observation he made about his own work, and what he has since done as a result of that observation. We’ll be joined by the founder of StoryCollider, Liz Neeley, who is pushing the envelope in how science stories are told, and how they can be told more simply, and authentically.  They’ve both mastered the art of observation, and I’m thrilled that they plan to share some of their well-honed tips with us.

Our daily lives are busy, and our task lists endless. The notion of observing our own storytelling practices doesn’t always seem feasible.  But, to get to the heart of your best stories, consider Yogi Berra’s words. You may be surprised by what you might uncover.

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The Trouble with Assumptions, and How to Keep Yours in Check

“Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.”  Isaac Asimov

Do any of these sound familiar?

  • I can only assume they’re going to do A…
  • For the sake of this exercise, let’s assume B…
  • I’m assuming they’ll have access to this information through D, E, and F channels.

Assumptions are baked into so much of what we do, and so many of the decisions that we make. We don’t always know the full story or the exact facts, and so we make assumptions to fill the gaps. They help us make sense of complex information, and can serve as an important guide so we know what questions we can ask.

But assumptions can be just as harmful as they are helpful. When we fall into the trap of not challenging our assumptions and instead begin accepting them at face value, or when we fail to recognize them at all, much bigger problems can set in.

The proven way to combat assumptions? Ask more questions.

Yesterday, we hosted our first of several Design Thinking days at Mission Partners. We convened a small group of curious people who each agreed to look closely at their current communications practices for where the traps of assumption lie. Within the first 30 minutes, it became clear that even when we believe we’re being open to information (myself included), we might not always be getting enough of the right information to make an informed decision.

Consider this: How many of the first impressions you make today will be based on false assumptions?

Think about this the next time you’re in line at the grocery store, or riding the Metro, or in your next team assignment at work. What assumptions are you making about the people you see, or about certain policies or practices as you move through your day? Take time to recognize your assumptions as you’re making them, and then consider how those assumptions might be wrong, ill-informed, or worth examining further.

For years, research showed that someone had 7 seconds to make a first impression. That’s not much time at all. But, it’s a lifetime compared to newer data which showed the actual time it takes for someone to judge another person’s character is .01 seconds. Milliseconds. So-fast-you-don’t-even-know-it-happened seconds.  And once that very initial assumption is set, it’s hard to break it. So, it’s even more important that we not only recognize when we’re making assumptions, but we understand how to be intentional about listening, learning, and understanding one another in order to differentiate false assumptions vs. reality.

Here are three more ways you can challenge your assumptions, and help to keep them in check:

  1. How well do you really listen? As in, listening without simultaneously forming a response in your mind. In yesterday’s session, we performed an exercise in radical listening. For 60 seconds, participants were instructed to just look at their partner. Learn one another’s faces. Stay connected to one another’s eyes. Then, we repeated the exercise, but gave each person 60 seconds to talk to their partner. And something interesting happened: the room softened, the relationships deepened, and people began seeing each other in new ways, picking up on little details they hadn’t noticed before. Assumptions we had made about one another in those first few seconds of meeting melted away.
  1. If you’re the curator of content for your organization, where are you sourcing your news? The easy assumption is that the sources we’re pulling from give us a well-rounded picture of the situation. But, what stories could we be missing? Are your sources the same sources week after week, or do you challenge yourself to go beyond the traditional news set? How often are you reaching out into your community to request news for future editions? How often are you exploring the news within the outer rings of your audience set—beyond your primary audience and into your secondary and tertiary audience—to see how the conversation and news is different there?
  1. What are the things you mean to know, but just keep assuming that you’ve got it figured out? There was a great episode of This American Life last fall, in which David Kestenbaum spoke with producer Diane Wu about her list of things she “means to know.” It made me think of all the things I mean to know, but never seem to find the time to explore enough to fully understand. So, I started a list too. And while right now the list seems to grow faster than I can check things off, it’s become a great exercise in intentionally learning and breaking my own assumptions.

There’s little we can do about first impressions. Our brains are hardwired to fill gaps of information with assumptions, and that won’t soon change. But, it’s what we do with the seconds, minutes, and hours that follow that make all the difference in this world.

Learn more about our Design Thinking Days, where you can safely explore and challenge your assumptions, and register for our next session at Mission Forward.

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Finding Swing: Syncing Up Your Team for Success

Rowing

In rowing, we call it swing.

All four, or eight, members of a crew cut through the water, their oars at the same speed, pulling with the same pressure, at the same time. It’s exacting. And difficult. But, when it happens, magic occurs. The fiberglass shell lifts, almost as if it’s floating on top of the water. And the crew, working smarter, not harder, is operating at its maximum efficiency, reserving energy for the final sprint to the finish.

Achieving swing can happen in the workplace, too. When a team crystallizes around a shared focus and common goal and focuses on working smarter, not harder, an incredible efficiency occurs. Workplace efficiency requires outlined roles, but on the outside, it’d be difficult to identify where the work of one team member stops and another starts. And the team always, always has each other’s backs.

Swing is what we aim for every day at Mission Partners. We work to achieve continuity across each project team we build, ensuring efficiency for our clients and effectiveness. We take the time to define exactly what it is we are working to accomplish, something we refer to as being “fierce in our focus.” Mission Partners takes this seriously from an operational perspective, but—especially for an agency that spends a significant amount of time helping organizations think about the words and messages they use—also from a communications perspective. Think about the confusion that could arise within an organization where team members are inconsistent in how they talk about the work they do or are out of sync in the ways in which they share the message.

Whether approaching swing from an operational or communications perspective, here are three ways you can build it within your workplace:

  1. Outline the Assignment

At Mission Partners, we always begin a project by defining the specific assignment and receiving approval on it from our client. No exceptions. If we can’t all express in crystal clear terms what we’re working to achieve, the chances that someone will be out of sync are too great.

In Action: Think about a project that you have on the horizon; it could be work, school, or personal related. What are you working to achieve? Write down, as specifically as possible, what the assignment is. If the project is feeling too large, try breaking it down into two or three smaller projects and write an assignment (and a due date) for each. Remember to always keep it simple.

  1. Define Roles

In the boat, every position has a clear title and clear responsibility, with no overlap. This even goes for talking; it is the responsibility of only one person—the coxswain—to give commands, call cadence, and provide spoken motivation. All other crew members are expected to be silent. Similarly, but perhaps not quite so severely, Mission Partners has adopted the Management Center’s MOCHA model to assign responsibility and accountability to every aspect of a given project. This model eliminates any questions of ownership, ensures smooth execution of projects, and serves as a quick reference for internal and external stakeholders.

In Action: Consider a team project at work, school, or in your personal life. Using the below chart, detail each task associated with completing the project. List the team member who will play which role for each task. Remember, the Manager and Approver are often the same person, and not every task will have someone who plays the role of consulted or helper.

Task MOCHA Model
Manager Owner Consulted Helper Approver

For more on the MOCHA model, visit http://www.managementcenter.org/

  1. Practice

A few years ago, I returned to my high school as an assistant coach for the school’s novice crew team. Over the course of practices that season, I was reminded of two things:

First, that we all are all novices when we begin. That goes for rowing, and it goes for everything else, too. No one is born knowing how to play a violin or ski down a mountain. And—while there’s certainly something to be said for natural talent—no one gets to be an expert at anything without loads of practice.

The second thing I observed is the time it takes to form a team. When the team first started rowing together, this disparate group of women had almost nothing in common and barely knew each other. It took a few weeks of practicing before norms were established and the team was comfortable working together. This happens quickly in rowing; try lifting a 200-lb. boat overhead and not immediately feeling trust and appreciation for the seven other rowers helping you out. But in those first few weeks of practices, swing would’ve never been a remote possibility—regardless of the team’s skill at that time.

In Action: Practice. Practice at your own work and practice at teamwork. Find opportunities to build trust and deepen relationships. At Mission Partners, we end every staff meeting with team appreciation, sharing ways in which our colleagues go above and beyond with each other and with the clients we serve. Reflect on what the 200-lb. boat is within your organization. How can you build trust and deepen relationships on your team to ensure that someone will be there to help you lift it overhead?

Want to learn more about how to find swing within your workplace? Subscribe to the Mission Partners newsletter to find inspiration, resources, and the latest on events and workshops that we’re hosting on this topic. And, if you have a specific question, email it to me at bridget@mission.partners and we can explore it together.