Putting Meaning into Convening

Posted on December 13, 2019 | Leni Dworkis, Weissberg Foundation

A few of the memorable moments captured during the Equitable Justice convening!

In mid-September, the Weissberg Foundation gathered staff and board representatives from our Equitable Justice grantee partners at our offices in Arlington. In building the grant program, we had hoped convening would be part of the program offerings, but it was important to us that we only convene if grantee partners saw value in it. We asked our grantee partners what they wanted. Initial temperature checks were warm enough to catalyze the planning stage, and – guided by their suggestions for content and our understandings of their values – we were able to see the process through in a way we hope felt deliberate, inclusive, and program-aligned.

The Who

Our Equitable Justice grantee partners work at the intersections of criminal justice, gender justice, and racial justice – confronting and shifting injustice in systems, exposing and undoing false narratives around those who are system impacted, and creating visibility for girls, women, trans, and gender non-conforming individuals of color whose lives are touched by incarceration. Our grantee partners include:

Participants included board members, program staff, campaign organizers, development staff, executive directors, attorneys, and collective members. In addition to our grantee partners, we were fortunate to have the wisdom and expertise of Aja Brown and Nicole Newman from Two Brown Girls, a consulting cooperative working towards transformational change at the individual, system, and institutional levels of society. Aja and Nicole work with organizations to achieve a living commitment to their mission and values in ways that build power within communities at the margins. Together as facilitators, they created an open and inviting space that was intellectually stimulating and tended to the emotional, spiritual, and physical needs of participants.

The Why

Time away to participate in convenings needs to be accounted for financially, administratively, programmatically, and personally. Organizations need to keep running; and time away from home also affects people’s personal lives and responsibilities.

To make these trade-offs worthwhile, we wanted to create space for participants to:

  • Share the stories of their organizations;
  • Connect with their peers and learn about their work;
  • Communicate and engage around the state of criminal justice;
  • Reflect on new concepts and ideas;
  • Acquire new knowledge, tools, skills, and connections to advance their work; and
  • Re-energize.

The What

Together, our grantee partners tackled huge and important issues in the field. They discussed strategies for change-making, unification of movements, dismantling institutional racism, cross-sector collaboration, centering of community, and narrative change. Each individual brought unique perspectives to the conversation influenced by personal, work, and community experiences.

With activists, visionaries, and creative thinkers in such a dynamic space, some conflict will arise. It is important to lean into tension – letting differences in how we achieve the “how’s” and answer the “why’s” of the work marinate. While disagreements were not solved, they allowed us as a group to think critically about collaboration, mobilization, and collective impact as means to acknowledge shared goals, alleviate silos, promote cross-sectional work, and unify action.

We also connected in a number of different ways. We used grantee presentations, open space discussion, performing and visual arts, reflective circles, and opportunities to socialize to build community. It was important to us that grantee partners could engage critically, casually, and creatively as needed to bring out different sides of every participant.

The Lessons Learned

  1. Planfulness is appreciated. Thoughtful planning can be built into convening at any stage and can be done in a way that is affirming, inclusive, and representative. We found that, despite it being scary, it was okay to let go of the firmness of our planning. Allowing more space for genuine conversation and exploration ultimately felt not only more productive to the space, but also better for everyone.
  2. Thoughtful facilitation can make a space. It was important to us that those guiding the convening were steeped in the work. Aja and Nicole intuitively read the room, skillfully pushed conversations, directly managed conflict, and thoughtfully grounded participants. They infused the space with a palpable energy that left grantee partners feeling invigorated, inspired, and refreshed. We learned that it’s okay to share power. We found by sharing the design process with our facilitators that the experience was ultimately better for our grantee partners; it’s important for us to trust the experts.
  3. Our grantees want to keep learning with and from each other. While we found a great deal of value in this convening, we recognize that two days in not enough to get at the full depth of the issues. Our grantee partners highlighted a desire to keep pushing as a cohort. As funders, we recognize our responsibility to continue these explorations. We plan to host follow-up conversations for these grantee partners to allow for deeper learning and engagement opportunities.

At the end of the convening our grantee partners were honest – they had not been sure this convening would be of use to them. Our fishbowl conversations at the end of our time together reflected the hesitancy many grantees feel about funder convenings. We should be mindful of how we bring people together and find ways to do so that are rewarding, fulfilling, timely, and stimulating.

We are deeply grateful for the time together, lessons learned, and feedback shared. As always, our grantee partners push us further to assess ourselves and the ways in which we support their work. We are excited to continue growing with the Equitable Justice cohort and look forward to its evolution.

Leni Dworkis is the program manager at the Weissberg Foundation, where she provides robust programmatic support to Grantee partners seeking to advance social, racial, and criminal justice. Prior to joining the foundation in 2019, she served in research and programmatic capacities at the Vera Institute of Justice where she contributed to strategic development initiatives, measurement and evaluation efforts, and exploratory investigation around reaching and serving under-resourced and marginalized crime victims. Her long-standing passion for working with and giving voice to underserved populations has fueled her interests in breaking down oppressive barriers and rebuilding social structures to better meet the needs of all individuals.

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