This is a lyrical short story about a workshop I facilitated amidst the jangling context of COVID19. I offer it as a way to share the energy these workshops create and hope you feel nourished by the ripples of connection and reflective space. Although our work is usually with individual social purpose organisations and their executive teams, this one was part of a leadership program. Thank you to the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies and Lynda Ben-Menashe who seeded it and the WAAS participants of 2020. Our world is richer for your efforts.
The phone calls and emails start weeks before the event.
Lynda, the passionate creative director behind the innovative We Are All Sydney (WAAS) program was back in touch. “I think we need to postpone. I’m worried” she said. “Western Sydney has lots of cases”.
It was a Sunday in the school holidays, and we discovered we have both escaped the city and happen to be in the same little coastal town for the weekend. She is calling about the successful WAAS program, now in its third year which she has imported to Sydney from New York to strengthen and bridge intercultural and racial understanding. I facilitate the Personal Leadership* module, one of the first sessions in the program because it helps to bond the group as well as generate insight about personal leadership, people management and team dynamics.
We delay by 2 weeks. Then the next date approaches. Back on the phone we um and ah about whether to deliver it remotely or in person, given the COVID-19 situation.
The program brings together local leaders from ethnic communities across Sydney. Diverse in its’ make up which is unique, ambitious and profound – Cambodian, Iraqi Kurd, Jewish, Sudanese – and with language, culture and context complexity and a large group of 25 – for this one I know Zoom will be a poorer second choice.
The day approaches and we’re back and forth on the phone. “It’ll be so much more impactful in person” we agree. We set the date.
It is 5am the day before the workshop. Both of us are nervous, still not sure if we are doing the right thing. We confirm we have reminded the group about masks, social distancing and sanitiser. Goodness what a strange world we’re adjusting to!
It is so hard to capture the relief and joy of finding ourselves all together in a room despite the delays and the awkwardness of the COVID situation. Elbow tapping, signing in, we can’t see half our faces. Straining to hear each other across unnatural amounts of space, softly spoken unfamiliar accents through surgical masks. But we are here. Together.
A beautiful welcome to country, delivered with honesty from one of our group. Her Australian South Sea Islander heritage of indentured labour connecting her to our Indigenous brothers and sisters.
As the day unfolds the smells of our Persian lunch fill the air. Skewers, lentils and baclava, making for such a wonderful and refreshing change from sandwiches. There’s the usual extra food. Takeaway containers appear. “Please”, says Lynda. “Take it home to your families.”
As we progress through the day, the whole energy of the room changes and deepens. We walk and stand and listen to each other. We explore our strengths and our shadows. We fill the oversized room with laughter and thoughtful conversation. The group talk about the people they manage, the pressures of supporting teams remotely, the open career direction of a redundancy. Listening so quietly to each other as we reflect on how we build better relationships with people we struggle with.
Nearing the workshop’s close, I invite each person to share what has been meaningful to them from the day and a feeling. Mawat stands when it’s his turn and turns to me. “Thank you” he says. Tall and quiet and full of generations of dignity. “You came and we are so grateful.” My hands bow. So lovely to briefly see his face. Surprised to see the beard so completely hidden by the mask appear. Goodness I’d never recognise him without it I realise! “Thank you. I’m so glad we did.” I really really mean it.
Blinking out in the light. Pulling off the masks and breathing fresh air with relief.
What a wonderful and surreal moment in time we are living through, where connection like this is rarer, and therefore all the more wonderful. We leave with fuller tanks.
A little more about the programs:
Personal Leadership is a half day workshop we run mainly with executive and management teams. It strengthens the foundational elements of self-awareness and shared language as the building blocks of communication, decision-making and collaboration. It’s particularly useful as a way to fast-track team forming, strengthen trust, prepare for important tasks like strategic planning, and to reconnect after a restructure. For more information, drop me a line at email@example.com.
We Are All Sydney (WAAS) is a free-of-charge community leadership training program developed and presented by the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies, bringing together emerging leaders from Sydney’s diverse ethnic, faith and NGO communities and organisations.