Barbara Spraker, faculty member in the Center for Creative Change at Antioch University Seattle (AUS) is the director of this Project, and has been passionately assisted by a Kitchen Cabinet (volunteer board) of Antioch University alumnae including Roslyn Ericksen, Jennifer Etchison, Patricia Hughes, Laura Vieth, Kathleen Swirski, Wendi Walsh, and Graduate Assistant Nicole Theberge.
Local women leaders in Ethiopia, Uganda, Burkina Faso, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Vietnam, the Muckleshoot Nation, and at Antioch University Seattle participated in the Project conversations. These women were selected as Country Conveners because they are respected leaders in their local areas. They called together six to ten other women and engaged them in dialogue on projects and passions, leadership strengths and skills, and a consideration of what more they want to do to enhance their leadership influence and impact. Each of these groups will have the opportunity to learn from one another and build community across the globe. We know that we amplify our influence and our impact as we connect with one another.
As Kofi Annan highlighted when he was Secretary General of the United Nations, the 21st Century is the Century of Women. From the Learning Journeys led by Margaret Wheatley, to the leadership of Jean Shinoda Bolen urging a United Nations-sponsored 5th World Conference on Women, significant efforts have been aimed at supporting the leadership of women around the globe (Spraker, 2011, p.3). This project adds to these efforts in important ways. Barbara Spraker, through her role as an Antioch University Seattle faculty member and as an organizational development professional, has focused her efforts on nurturing women’s leadership. Over the past decade, she has convened groups of women in Conversation Circles around the question, “What is the role of women in global leadership?” In Shanghai, Beijing, Johannesburg, Cuenca (Ecuador) and at AUS, these conversations have revealed the need for women to have a safe space where they can share their accomplishments and concerns, and where they can support and challenge one another.
This project is designed on the premise that women already possess the knowledge they need to succeed as leaders; they do not need to be told. The Project honors women’s inherent leadership skills by using Conversation Circles as a vehicle for women to identify their unfolding needs as leaders as they experience them in a small group setting and to share what they perceive to be effective strategies for leadership development. The information collected and synthesized through this Project is provided back to each of the Conversation Circle participants, through this Capacity Guide and website.
This Guide will empower local groups and AUS students to see themselves in solidarity with women from other parts of the world, and with men who lead similarly. As one participant in Uganda recognized, a good women’s leadership project should make a difference by empowering women without disempowering men. Finally, the Project will capture and expand the impact of each Conversation Circle process by formally documenting and sharing Project learning outcomes with other organizations.
Informed by Kurt Lewin’s (1976) Field Theory, the Project assumes that women’s leadership is both enabled and constrained by multiple, interdependent forces. These Conversations create a container in which women can shift the balance of forces in their field. To use Lewin’s language, “unfreezing” occurs as they express their concerns and lack of voice; “movement” occurs as they acknowledge the contributions they actually are making to their communities;; and “freezing” occurs as they collectively embrace a new norm of empowerment (p. 228-229).
Margaret Mead and Lewin conducted experiments together that revealed the power of working with groups to create social change. From these studies they learned that groups of people “can do a thing better when they themselves decide upon it, and also how they themselves can elect to reduce the gap between their attitudes and actions.” (Marrow, 1969, p. 131).
The Conversations that comprise the essence of this Project illustrate this power. They are far from opportunities to “just talk.” The Conversations create a safe space where a small group of women can talk about matters that are important to them. That this Constructionist way of knowing is particularly resonant with women is powerfully affirmed by the research of Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, and Tarule (1986). “All knowledge is constructed and the knower is an intimate part of the known” (p. 137).
The Conversations create a context where women can be comfortable communicating in what Carol Gilligan (1982) calls their “ethic of care” without needing to defend themselves to an ethic of logic that may dominate their culture (p. 30).
Further theoretical underpinning of this Project comes from current studies in leadership and community development. The power of relationship and conversation as a powerful strategy for change is supported by on-going research on leadership and complexity theory by Janet Shaw (2002) and Ralph Stacey (2012) at the University of Herfordshire. Additionally, Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze (2011) illustrate practical examples of the power of local groups to generate feasible, creative strategies for positive change in their communities.
The Project was seeded by a grant from the C. Charles Jackson Foundation, whose mission supports institutions of higher learning in developing human potential in the area of leadership for diverse populations. If you are interested in participating in the Project in any way, or would like more information about the Summit, or other aspects of the Project, please contact Barbara Spraker.