Hunting for story

I’m on a mission.

I have a very special friend, Kris, who is lovely and complicated and talented – all in the best possible ways. We met at work over 10 years ago and still share similar – not identical by any means – but similar interests and passions.

One is a love of things creative. I’m definitely more of an observer and Kris is more of a Maker – in the truest sense. Some people sew (I try), knit or crochet.

Well, she does all of the above (and way more), often using her own exotic fibers and textiles and tools she procures from all over the world. It’s not the exotic that makes her talented. It’s what she does with her God-given abilities, powered by the tools, that is so spectacular. And she is so open to sharing and teaching. (Check out this great project she’s involved with that is empowering women in Uganda to generate their own income and support their families.)

unyunga-journals

Just a few of my friend Kris’s handmade journal gifts. I usually have at least one journal with me, wherever I go. If the occasion is special enough, I use one of hers.

A few of my favorite things

While I don’t know what the heck she is talking about half the time, I simply LOVE hearing her dream about and brainstorm her projects. It certainly doesn’t hurt that she shares – pretty liberally, I might add – her incredible handiwork. Kris has gifted me with some of my favorite writing instruments, beautiful handmade scarves and so many gorgeous journals, I can hardly count them.

Lord knows, as a paper-and-pulp lover, I hate to violate these pieces of artwork, but sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do. Like many I know, I love to write by hand, but it is getting harder and harder to write as fast as I’m thinking these days. Such is the plight of a straddling generation – one foot in the analog, the other, digital.

Had paper, did travel

Anyway, Kris, who did much of her growing up in West Africa, challenged me sometime ago to blog about my own international experience and travels.

Thing is, many of those memories are locked up in my travel journals…somewhere. I’m getting warmer in my search, but so far, those little pocket-sized Moleskines are eluding me.

To be honest, I’m kind of nervous about finding and unbundling them and rediscovering what I first learned on my first trip to Haiti in 2003 and one of my last trips to Dominican Republic. So I pray again for courage as that wall of memory comes down.

I guess que será será.

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Imagine the other side

other-side-2

Sometimes I look back through my social media posts to see what they tell me about where my heart and mind have been the last few months.

It looks like lately, I’ve mentioned – a lot – the longer days, starting with Dec. 22, the day after winter solstice. I used not to care a lot about winter (or summer) solstice – the shortest and longest days of the year, respectively.

These days, I care a whole lot about them. I guess it’s because they have everything to do with getting to the other side: the other side of winter, short days, cold. Or, the other side of tennis season – a break for my body and muscles, a time to slow down with the seasons.

I won’t lie – I love winter solstice most. Because on the other side of that is spring, summer, my garden, new life, fresh perspective for a new year.

Missing the other side

There was a time, for about five years, when I spent a lot of time on airplanes, trying to get to the other side of the world and back again.

Most of those trips lasted 10-15 days each. A few were longer. One thing I learned then was this mind-blowing fact about myself: I’m a home body. I love to be home.

Good thing my name comes from Latin “nido,” meaning “nest.” Because I took my nest with me wherever I went, settling into my aisle seats with music, pillow, book, travel wallet, journal and favorite writing pens.

I would set up for the long haul – literally – and miss home every minute I was away. Never mind the wonderful relationships on the outbound side. Nothing ever can replace those. I just like to be home, that’s all.

Envision the other side

So I had to devise a strategy for keeping myself “up” for the duration of each trip, whether I was there for training, story-gathering, meetings or whatever. I prayed for health and strength and presence for what I went there to do.

What I came up with was this very simple formula: Imagine myself on the other side of my trip. Imagine what I’d do when I first got home, besides eat a cheeseburger. That didn’t count. Enjoy friendships, spend time with my hubby, get groceries, talk to my mom every day. Simple things.

So on every trip, each day I would tell myself: In 9 days, I’ll be home in my own bed, or In 3 days, I head back on the midnight flight.

Knowing I was working in my strengths – bringing clarity to issues around children in poverty and equipping others for the same – gave me assurance I was in the right place at the right time. That helped a lot.

But when I missed home, I just imagined myself back with my family, and that peace carried me from that moment all the way through the rest of the trip.

That was how I got to the other side: by imagining it.

Writing about what hurts

Writing about what hurtsI recently reloaded content from a very old, long-running blog and just finished scanning it to see the type of stuff I wrote about. This is what I learned:

  1. I wrote some pretty good headlines back then.
  2. My topics were all over the place, like a journal.
  3. I never, ever wrote about my work.

That last one kind of stings.

Considering that time in my life changed my life completely, I sure managed to suppress how much poverty had taught me – how much I’d learned, how much I had let go of.

Still, in the words of Heather B. Armstrong, one of the first professional bloggers to monetize her blog before monetizing was cool:

“BE YE NOT SO STUPID. Never write about work on the internet unless your boss knows and sanctions that YOU ARE WRITING ABOUT WORK ON THE INTERNET.”

So I journaled (privately) a lot about work. I’m sure many people do. Maybe it’s what keeps us from breaking the law.

Anyway, I also had long hauls of multi-hour flights, with plenty of time to write about everything from:

  • eating in-flight, off-hours meals with my arms practically crossed (thank you, United);
  • miraculously getting from Jakarta to Singapore with absolutely no itinerary (I later learned); and
  • my “lost,” luggage somehow following me from Entebbe, Uganda, to London Heathrow with absolutely no tags on it.

That was the light stuff.

In fact, what I’d never blogged about is what weighed (then and now) heavily on my heart. It’s also the third – and so far, missing – leg on this blog’s intended three-legged stool: culture, communications and cause.

I’m not sure exactly how the topic of cause – of poverty – will unfold, but it’s feeling more and more like it’s time to let it happen. I’m praying for the courage to go there next.

I’m a product of Head Start

Welcome to my #Day4 post for #YourTurnChallenge.

I am a product of my parents’ generation, but I’m also a product of a government program that dates back to JFK’s successor, President Lyndon B. Johnson — LBJ.

It will soon be my privilege to work on a project involving this program that helped shape me.

Memories of Head Start
My memories of Head Start, an early childhood development program for low-income families, are mostly about my mom and the First Methodist Church in South Bend, In. It’s a Montessori school now. Head start provides disadvantaged families with essentials for children ages 3-5  and a place to develop socially, socially and cognitively.

Partnering with Parents
Not sure I knew this at the time, but I think Mom was a teacher’s aid. Or maybe parents had to volunteer time if their kids were enrolled.

Anyway, she was there a lot. To my surprise, I may have been a picky eater during my early years, because I can remember at lunch or snack time, my mom trying to make eating fun (sound familiar to you parents out there?):

“Mama Mia, Papa Pia – eat your lunch!”
— My mom

I fell for it – every time. Maybe I wasn’t a picky eater…

Then there was nap time.

My spot, just under the window near the middle of the room, was where I would lay my head for, oh, maybe 20 minutes. (Probably while my mom and the teacher took some aspirin and naps of their own.)

The only thing between me and that cold, asbestos-laden, marbly floor tile was a bath-towel-sized swath of white seersucker with tiny red hearts and a white ribbon border. It was like sleeping on Saran Wrap.

Still, I loved that blanket. My grandma had made it just for me.

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My 4th birthday. Mom was proud; my brother just wanted cake.

In child development, little things go a long way
It may not seem like much, but Head Start gave my family a much-needed boost while preparing me for school and giving me a love for learning. After all, we were a family of six on a minister’s income, which wasn’t much.

I’m not a child development expert, but for nearly 10 years I worked for a child development organization and communicated its mission and impact to donors.

For years, I traveled extensively to gather stories or coach others on it, and I witnessed first-hand how important it is to give children a healthy, strong start to life. It is often the difference between living a future of hardship and poverty – or not.

Like many programs from the Great Society era, Head Start is due for an update. It will be exciting to see how it evolves to serve the modern family and continue giving kids a strong start to a healthy and productive life.

Why the Surprise Journal Is a Great Nonprofit Storytelling Tool

Welcome to my #3 post for the #YourTurnChallenge – the best kick in the pants ever.

I’ve spent a good chunk of my career in nonprofit communications — building, scaling and realigning content programs for rapid growth.  Later in this blog, I hope to outline some ways to build and improve comms for nonprofits large and small, taking a deeper look on occasion at Hispanic philanthropy and causes.

In this post, I want to focus on a new journaling technique called the Surprise Journal (great Pinterest post and the original Fast Company article) and how this approach is the perfect tool for nonprofit storytelling.

Surprise Journal basics

The point of the Surprise Journal is to write down and record the things that, well, surprise you – and then examine the reason for it. It gets to the heart of assumptions and expectations, helping us reset our thinking accordingly.

It works great in brainstorming or team building settings. For Julia Galef, CEO of the Center for Applied Rationality: “I started thinking about surprise as a cue that my expectations were wrong.”

“I started thinking about surprise as a cue that my expectations were wrong.” — Julia Galef, CEO, Center for Applied Rationality

So what does this have to do with nonprofit storytelling?

To show how they make a difference in the world and in people’s lives, nonprofits use storytelling to paint a picture of what that change looks like — with skin on. Ideally, it accompanies good data the story embodies. (That’s a different post.)

If you’re a nonprofit communications person tasked with story gathering and storytelling, sometimes it can be hard to recognize the change when you witness it in gradual steps, day in and day out.

Frankly, it can feel like you have blinders on and are powerless to take them off at will.

However, there’s one set of tools every nonprofit should have: Volunteers, donors, board members – other people who share our passion for the cause but who may not see it every single day .

They notice the differences over a period of time, so let’s ask them. Here’s how.

Observing up-close and personal

At one organization I worked at, our donors and sponsors often visited the international work they supported, and even the children they sponsored through sponsor tours, where sponsors of individual children could meet them and their families in person.

That was a prime opportunity for our field writing team to learn from the first-hand experience of the visitor who didn’t often get to see the work they were enabling us to do and the difference they were making.

Our comms people were nationals, many of whom had grown up facing the circumstances of poverty the children we served dealt with. So, at first, it was hard for them to see how we could tell stories about change and contrast – the proverbial “before and after.” How could they tell a story of how the donor was making a difference? Different from what?

To train on the “surprise” element, we would send a comms person on those trips and ask them to observe visitors, capturing their surprise and what they were reacting to. Maybe they’d never witnessed extreme poverty conditions like lack of sanitation or access to clean water, or child labor.

Visitors’ reactions ranged from gasps, hands over mouths, sudden quiet, silent tears. It ran the gamut. There was no doubting their surprise. In fact, surprise was kind of an understatement for what they were experiencing.

It’s the journalist in me, but that’s where the gold is, folks. In our case, we would ask people, respectfully and via casual conversation, what they were thinking or feeling at that moment.

  • What had caused their reaction?
  • Did they see poverty like this in Australia or the Netherlands or America? If not, what did it look like there? How was it different?
  • What were they comparing their present experience with?

The rule applies here, too

The same works whether your work is across an ocean or in your own back yard.

To know the things you need to tell stories about to help others understand your mission and its impact, capture the reactions of your organization’s stakeholders as they experience your program’s work first-hand. This is especially effective of more newly engaged donors, volunteers or board members who are invested in the cause but still learning about it.

Their reactions will speak volumes while providing plenty of insights and material to work from.

I’d love to know some of your tips on telling a strong story that shows change and how you gather content to produce it. It’s hard, rewarding work whose impact – thankfully – has the power to leave an impression that lasts a lifetime.