Lesley: So my guest Bliss Browne, a mentor of mine for many, many years, known around. And maybe for some of you who have listened to chat talks her topic being “Thinking like a mother, acting like a skilled midwife”, would have some understanding of the orientation that this changed agent have several decades has taken. Take for example the nine months of gestation that she had talking to thousands of people throughout Chicago, of all generations and cultures in imagining what the future that city would and could be. And in the process of that nine months became imagine Chicago’s mother. What does being a mother mean in this context, Bliss?
Bliss: Well, being a mother came to me as an image first because…I remember…only it existed as a seed of an idea inside me seeking my commitment. So it felt very much toward being pregnant, and that was a helpful image to carry with me and beginning in the Michigan. Because, being pregnant was something is a process of attending to something which is growing but also has a life and dependent of youth from the beginning, and which depends on saying healthy and attendant to the future which is emerging. It’s very different from thinking about the the newer Michigan as something you could plan and organise. When i first started imagined Chicago, I thought about mothering as a public activity wonderfully because over the nine months in which it came to birth. My own spiritual director– when i had mentioned pregnancy as a motiff– had said, “Really, attend to this as a pregnancy, and pregnancy is kind of trimesters.” And when i did that, I recognized that being available to life was more important than planning it and trying to impose my walk upon it.
Lesley: So I wanna go notion you said because in terms of this seed you’re saying it found you. How does the seed find the initiator?
Bliss: (laughs) Well, anyone who’s gotten pregnant knows that usually what precedes getting pregnant is getting naked and vulnerable. And that was certainly the case in my life that…that shifting from a place of seeing myself as a person of competencies and power. And instead, seeing myself as a person of vulnerability who share the common vulnerability living with all other humans. And that awareness emerged from me, I was kind of a very powerful encounter with a homeless man in Washington who fed me in a way that was very moving to me. And, that was really the seed in my unconsciousness of recognizing. In a way we some kind of what’s with me in sidestep also, find out rather than that we determine or think our way into was somehow assured rather than something that had to be concocted. And that what i had missed along the way was that it might just be that our divisions were the ones that were socially constructed. And that helping people sense and live from a confident and an underlying unity of life which was best described as a shared vulnerability, could be a place from which the connections could be deepened and pushed. So, you know, if what i just said makes sense, it was really that the process of having the seed planted in me was first by being open and available to something new which was trying to happened. And like Mary said, you know, “So be it.” Let it be in me. And when that happens, it turned your world upside down. In my case, it involved setting aside a long standing corporate career simply because there was some units in me that demanded my attention, even though i have no way of knowing what it was. But it was almost as if my integrity depended on being available to that vocation. That’s a pretty terrifying thing as all pregnancies are at some level. You know, that sure is that’s moving growing in you, which you know that you’re not completely competent at any level to tend and bring in to the world. And you realise that it’s life as long as your own life depends absolutely fundamentally depends on support of so many others. And also, so importantly on trusting the life process itself which is coming birth in it. You fight against that life process, you create stress for yourself, ill-health for yourself as long as for the growing child. So, just learning to trust a process and to make myself available and present in the healthiest possible way to that process was a fundamental orientation which really shaped how i began what became imagined Chicago.
Lesley: So let me understand for any audience listener right now, who says, “Well you know what, i’m not a mother, I’ve had a mother. I’m not one now nor do I intend to be one, how do i relate to this analogy of this seed coming to me, and then being capable and open to letting it grow?”
Bliss: Yeah. Sarah Redek, thank you for the question. Sarah Redek read a wonderful book about maternal thinking. It says, “Mothering is a sustained response to the promise embedded in the creation of new life.” So, I love that definition of mothering, because mothering is not limited to biological mothers. Mothering is a process of listening and attending to new life, in a way which realizes its promise over time. Anyone who has created anything new, any entrepreneurs, any artist, anyone, any change agent, anyone who has really been inspired by the promise of something new which could happen and been disciplined about the hardwork, and hope, and pragmatic decision making. It takes to bring something new into the world and to sustain its life over time knows exactly what it is to be a mother. And i think the other dimension of that mothering is, i would also say anyone and fathers or mothers, and as my friends in the African-American community is saying moms often stand for mothers and other mothers. Meaning, everyone who sees that i say a business to take care of children and things that are growing at a fast clip. But fathers and mothers share this challenge and it’s a deep challenge of both attending and developing the individual potential of different members of the tribe, and also bringing them together on behalf of a collected good. So, it’s a very delicate balance between those individual needs and the needs of the whole, and you have to see it from the whole in order to be in a family. That’s true if it’s a couple with no children at all. That’s hard enough when you add children to the balance, we see that. And when the African addage about it takes…is a child. Anyone who lives in a world in which children are present is put in a position of having to think like a mother whether they’re men or women, or half children or not.
Lesley: So, as I think about that moment where or those series of moments where you felt that calling. I’mwanting to know what we can say to women who are out there in jobs and in occupations where like you in the corporate world are experiencing one type of reality, and yet are also starting to become aware of something else that’s awakening in them that is calling to them. What’s your advice to them if they start to feel that type of dissonance.
Bliss: I think the first thing is to take time to be quiet themselves and clarify their own values that is essential to be clear about what you care about, rather than to take your queues only from the environment. Having said that, it’s also important to notice who you become and what you become in the context in which you’re working. Too many people assume that context are fixed rather than created, and they also– i think — underestimate the power of context in shaping individual action. So, they think somehow that they’re immune from the context which is creating dissonance. And so, we can’t really survive in a context which is powerful in creating you, unless you’re coming into that context as a creater of values that are consistent with your own values. And then at least you have the potential of reshaping the context in a way which is more life giving. The third thing i would say is to be very, very sure that you have selected a group of midwives and spiritual companions for what it is in you that’s seeking your commitment. And that provide a context in which you can come to clarity and commitment about what matters most and what it might look like.
Lesley: One of the things that i find fascinating in your writings are that we have choices around those social values. Many of us simply go into our world with inherent beliefs and inherent perspectives that we really feel are who we are. And when we start to feel this kind of pull at us in terms of the environment — and you would put at the context in which we’re operating — starts to put a challenge to put a challenge to those. Sometimes we don’t know whether it’s the environment that is what is creating that dissonance, or is it the opportunity to take another look at what we value and how we value? How do you discern between whether it’s the environment or it’s something in you?
Bliss: Well I guess, I would, I always listen that it’s both that we become who we are in context. And that reciprocal relationship between indiviual life entity and social context is something which has been revalidated over, and over, and over again in the social sciences starting in the 1930s Kurt Lu and his work. And, what’s interesting to me is that whenever i come to a point of dissonance, instead of saying, “Oh my goodness this is a big problem.” To say instead, okay what’s creating the dissonance and what’s the invitation that’s at the heart of it? What would balance look like, what am i being pushed into? What was becoming more possible in this moment? I watched in my daughters who are both in their early 30s the fact that they have a lower tolerance for dissonance in institutional terms than I had. And in their early 30s as they’ve identified environments which they see as hostile to their own values or inconsistent or unsupportive of their values. They have reconstructed their professional lives in a way which supports and allows them to comeback into balance. And in career moves that i view as risky and brave, and that i have been really cheering from the sidelines which has not changed for change sakes. But saying, for heaven sakes don’t give up that which is most important to you, which is the things that you care about most for the sake of values which may prove to be more ephemeral. Like security and money, or institutional prestige, or things like that because ultimately those will prove to be not trustworthy anyway and you crack to live with its result. So, not only thinking of values as somehow possessions that are constantly true, but thinking of values has things which getting lived and can only be lived in context can be a helpful way of navigating through it. And to also think about ways of expressing those values, in a way that provides solidarity and support for other people who have them. Two very concrete examples come to mind, i used as a banker into being one of the people who interviewed many — if not most — of the incoming MBAs our institution. And i was giving a talk one time at the bank to that new class of MBAs; freshly meted, and brave and enthusiastic and talking about the importance of values. And one of them came up to me afterwards and said, “Wow! that was a real revelation to me and a relief.” He said, “I assume in coming to work for the bank that I had to check my values at the door. That was his… And i said, “First of all I’m curious about where you learned that. It’s out of message in the culture and someone in business falls say that to you? Why do you assume that?” And i said, “Secondly, if you thought that was true why in the world would you have ever wanted to come to work in the bank?” Now I said, “Values is I hope why we hired you, because of your values.” Everything else we can teach you if you’re brave and committed. But, if you’re values are out of alignment with the business which depends on trustworthiness, then the bank made a fundamental risk decision which was misguided. And I think sourly when women, i came up in the corporate ranks as a banker at a time that women were just beginning to move into executive positions within banking. And i was therefore as a kind of pioneer in those ranks and similarly as a pioneer in the church, something my arm unheard pretty heard against the glass ceiling. And other women were looking to me to have something to say about how to go about pointing that, because you’re constantly in an environment which was institutionally committed to limiting your advancement and potential. I’ve said, “Well, one thing that’s very clear to me is that you have to be articulate about what matters.” So when the bank made me a division head and they came to take a picture of me looking important, as they did when someone got into a position of executive leadership. I said to them, “Do i have to have this picture taken sitting at my desk looking important? Because that’s not very meaningful to me.” And they said, “No, you’re going to have a picture taken wherever you want.” And i said, “Alright, if I would like to invite you to come over to my home on Saturday morning.” And instead, the picture that they published when i became a division head was a picture of me reading the “Big Friendly Giant” to my three pre-school aged children. And the photographer said to me, “Why did you want this as your picture?” And I said, “Because I want other women in this bank to know that if we don’t stand up as mothers and defend our interest in being here while we raise our families and pay attention to them, things will never change.” And indeed, when that picture was published I got a call in tears from someone who worked in a lot box processing unit, three floors below ground, just saying, “Miss Browne, you just can’t imagine what it meant to me to see a picture of you as a mother.” She said, “I’ve been afraid to tell my boss that I’ve had kids.
Lesley: And i think that that we are not as far pass that in the sense of what priority we have to place those values in in terms of seeing ourselves quote on quote getting ahead. And what i think about next in my thought with you is you have been a master weaver of bringing people together with such serious diversity. I mean, such different points of view about what…I thought one of your examples was great. Let’s go in and look at this tree in a logger, look at that tree as if it is in economic requirement and the indigenous tree guardian looks at that as a statement of life. And so, aside from how we become clear in our own values, what have you found to be the way of truly gathering and allowing…I mean getting people to even show up who have these such diverse opinions? And then to have them move into a real conversation where those differences become gateways. How do you do that?
Bliss: I think there have been two things in my own prejudice that are probably didn’t consistently applied, and i say this with the wisdom of retrospect. Now that means were not intentions at the time, it’s only after 25 years I’ve looked back and say, “Are there things I always do that I didn’t even recognize I was doing? And i think there are couple. One is that my own initiating a process is and conversations always begins with something I’m wondering about. It begins with a deep question and intention, usually a deep hope that is way too big for one person to wonder about on their own. So, um, you know, I’d listened to the pope with great relish over the last couple of days and he taught about caring for our common home. And so, we might say, “What does it mean? What it is it you can take care for our common home and whose work is that? How would it be done and how can we do it together?” And when you answer a question like that, it triggers in people a, “What do i think about this?”, “How do i see this?”, “What did i contribute to this?”. It’s a big question. The question i was asking in the beginning of imagined Chicago was, “How can we create economies in which nothing and no one is wasted?” The question itself is a big strategic target your heart question. But it’s also a question that no one can hear and say, “I bet she already knows the answer to that and it’s gonna do it anyway.” It feels like a question that’s so big that it requires everyone’s attention and everyone’s participation. So that’s one of the things is that you gather people around a strategic intention about which everyone cares or could care and to which no one has the answer yet. So that it requires activating the collected imagination, collected intelligence, collected action in service of a whole good of a public good which is worthy of that level of attention, and connection and commitment. The second is that having in common together, you then ask rather than assume. So, imagine Chicago never had an agenda for social change or how things needed to happen, it had a set of pesky questions around which people gathered. And then once they were in the room, we said, “What do you see? What do we need to understand? What can you imagine? What could we create?” And by gathering people across a huge range of difference, one of the things that became magical was that you began to be able to see from the whole instead of from all your very limited perspective because you were engaging with a system across the fold which saw in very different ways. One of the benefits of human consciousness is that imagination is almost automatically triggered by stories of possibility. So, when I listen to your story as someone who maybe in a very vulnerable place on the mergen, and I listened to it as a personal human testament, as a witness to something. How in this community have you been able to gather people to protect the lives of your children in a zone filled with cons and plugs, how have you bought about doing that? And tearily I’m listening, I’m respecting, I’m validating the story that you’re telling me even though I have no idea what you’re answer will be. As soon as you tell me that story I also begin to think “Wow! You know, if she’s been able to live that, then that really means dot dot dot…whatever it is.” The imagination is triggered. And similarly you are listening to my story and maybe my story is about moving in the quarters of financial power. You’ve also said in here, saying, “Wow! I had no idea that they were even considering dot dot dot…” And now we’re feeding off of this new collective imagination in the service of…say and no one wasted, which harnesses our experience as an inventory of what’s possible. Harnesses are respectful listening as a sense of possibility about a new social dynamic in working together being possible. And then as we say, “Okay, now what can we do?” And we began to create it together, then it defies all the skeptics who say nothing new is possible because you begin to create things and interesting and imaginative ways.
Lesley: I think that the work you have done is so powerful. What are couple of examples of those types of actions that were created, the kind of partnerships that produced different types of outcomes for the community that could not have happened other than from this kind of dialogue?
Bliss: Well, two come to mind. One was it for…that imagine Chicago device called citizen leaders, and it was in response to an observation that in many communities there are so many people who are people of heart and goodwill, who may not have project management skills and often feel pretty isolated in their own hoping and dreaming. But when brought together it could connect what they know and see and care about to what others know and see and care about in a way that could produce some social change. So when I had Chicago put together, a very simple many grants inviting me. I mean, 250 dollars or 500 dollars not enough money to make any difference for anybody but enough to say, “We want a leverage or commitment with small grants that will enable you to buy things that are necessary to do what you see me to do.” So, if you want to start in a generational softball team this will pay for the balls and bats and some barbecue food. You know, it’s not gonna pay you to do anything but it’s gonna keep the money off the table as the thing that’s standing in the way of even getting started. Anyway, in that process, it brought people together across neighborhoods and also in….between neighborhoods, to first of all talk about what they saw what mobilized commitment. What they saw as things that were necessary to a healthy future in their communities that they were in a position to do or at least to start doing as a short term visible project which could mobilize other people’s commitment. So, another generational softball team in Austin led into a community cleanup before the softball game which led into citizen leader meetings on every block of 65 blocks, talking about the future of that community. And ultimately into a whole every block is a village, process on in that west side community in which the community got organized, but it all emerged out of the handful of local people in the community, just saying, “You know, we’re gotten to be afraid of our kids, and we’re pretty old, and we need to get to know our kids. Is there anything that we could do together that wouldn’t be threatening to us or to them, and it would just give us a chance to start talking to them?” And they said, “Kids love sports. We don’t have a lot of sports in the neighborhood.” And even as a grandmother I think i could play softball.
Lesley: And that’s how it started?
Bliss: That’s how it started. And similarly, you know, when other citizen leader project in uptown which was a neighborhood I lived in I had a 19-year old girl come into the program as a citizen leader, who’d been proposed by the local chamber of commerce. And the head of that chamber have the audacity to say to me at the time, “You know, I’m bringing Tina into the program but don’t worry she won’t amount to anything.” I said, “It is not my job to prove your wrong.” I was outraged by that comment. Well, she ended up, she couldn’t quite to know what to do and she ended up putting up a sign in the laundry of her public housing building, saying, “Is there anybody here that wants to play basketball?” Because she said, “I got so many friends who are young men, who are just hanging around because they have nothing to do and I’m worried about them. I don’t know what to do about it.” But she said, “The one thing i know they love to do is play basketball.” And the…said, “They can’t play.” So, she’s put up the sign-up list and she got 400 names. By the end of the summer, the kids were playing basketball in a league and it was responsible that summer for stopping the gang war in the neighborhood. Well, we didn’t set out, Tina didn’t set out to stop the gang war. She set out to help some friends of hers.
Lesley: And I think that’s…you know we’re drawing right to a close and we’re halfway through a first thought in this conversation, so we’ll have to have more of these. But I think what the comment is is that often as change agents, as leaders, if you see themselves as change agents they have a prediction about the future and then then they try to get people to come on board that see that same future. And what you’re saying is, is that you start from a completely different place which is from a question that we’re really curious about, of which we by definition don’t know the answer. So, I want to put you on the spotlight to wrap this up. What’s the question that you think would be interesting for women who are playing with the notion of leadership in today’s world? What’s the question that they might want to start asking themselves that would allow them to start seeing a whole?
Bliss: To put you on the spot Lesley, what I would do and this is honestly my answer is I would ask them that question.
Lesley: Yes! Perfect! (Chucles)
Bliss: I would simply say, “What is a question that you would appreciate being asked that would unlock your uncreative thinking about leadership?” And put the burden on them to device their own question which goes at the heart of what it is they’re shove on to do. And then find a friend or even a stranger and have them ask you the question and listen to what you have to say. And if you’re like me and you can’t remember what you just sought, tape the conversation on voice memo or on some recording device so that you have the benefit of listening generously to your own creative process.
Lesley: Well, I don’t think you could wrap this up any better, my sweet lady Browne. Again, thank you enough for coming and spending this time with me. You sitting in the land of Florida, reaching accross the ocean once again to me in Portugal. And I wish you godspeed my love.
Bliss: And to you my love, way back at ya.
Bliss: Um hmm bye!