Thoughts from the Network

Going Beyond the Blue Dot

Sarah Wolf headshot

Sarah Wolf, MFA, MSSA Candidate
Community Innovation Network Graduate Student Research Assistant
July 6, 2021

For me, it kept coming back to a blue dot in the center of a blank space. 

Dr. Mark Chupp showed this image to all of us who were participating in the Appreciative Inquiry for Social Change workshop, which he co-lead with Carolyn Colleen over three days last week. He asked us, “What do you see here?”

“A blue dot,” someone said.

“A black ring around a blue dot,” someone else said.

“I see a 4,” someone chimed in, noting the slide number at the bottom of the screen.

“Very observant,” Dr. Chupp said.

But what were we missing? We were missing most of what the image before us showed: a blank, white space surrounding a relatively small blue dot with an even tinier black outline.  Instead of seeing the entire picture, our eyes were drawn to one focal point -- all of our attention and effort went there, with the only exception being a page number.  But what about the rest of it?  What could we see if we took it all in?

Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is a strengths-based method of posing that very question.  With AI, it’s about looking outward, it’s about gathering information, it’s about not assuming anyone already knows all the answers.  AI asks participants to dream big and populate that dream with concrete ways to make that dream manifest.  AI asks participants to focus less on the blue dot and, instead, take in the full vision of what they want to see in their world, including a recognition of what is already working well.

You begin with a topic -- let’s use the example of policing.  Maybe you are interested in examining policing in your community and want to think through methods of reforming or altering accountability for police.  The AI process begins with an interview that may ask a question like, “Tell me about a time when you felt really safe in your neighborhood.”  Maybe you tell a story about a great block party or about when you moved in and one of your new neighbors immediately introduced themselves and told you about a few great places to grab takeout or about how folks always seemed to be hanging out on their decks and porches at night, calling “Hello” to you as you walk by.  Maybe you realize that having police patrol your neighborhood isn’t what makes you feel safe -- it’s that camaraderie you feel with the folks who live near you.  OK, interesting!  The next AI question might ask, “What is your dream version of a safe community and the role of police?”  Maybe the answer is more block parties, less police.  Maybe you are beginning to rethink the focus of your process.

Each member of your team goes through the same AI interview and then you meet to discuss what came up.  What are the common themes?  What is surprising, what is expected?  You have space to think creatively about your topic.  You practice verbalizing it -- you practice explaining it to each other.  

The next step is to take your dream and put it into bold and radical statements called provocative propositions.  These statements are to verbalize your dream and give it some shape.  For this example, the statements could be:

  • Emphasize neighbor-to-neighbor connections.
  • Define “public safety” through a broader lens than simply the police.
  • Reallocate “public safety” funds to support programs and initiatives that align with this revised definition.

And maybe also: “More block parties, less police.”  That’s not a terrible slogan for your campaign.

Finally, you come around to putting your hands in the figurative (or maybe literal) clay as you start to build a visual that can illustrate your plan.  Maybe it’s a photo collage, maybe it’s stick figure drawings, maybe it’s a word cloud, maybe it’s an asset map.  You take your provocative propositions and show what public safety would look like if they were employed.  In doing this process, you are also imagining the steps it would take to get you there.  You are imagining the round-table conversations with neighbors and city officials.  You are making a list of stakeholders and partners and who needs to be part of these conversations.  You are creating a vision for what the next steps would be in order to move your dream to reality.  

You are seeing the whole board, not just the blue dot.

What I love about AI is that it doesn’t contain participants to something singular that may be stuck.  What it does, instead, is ask participants to consider what is movable, what is possible.  It might be true that we can’t “fix” policing, but what if that’s not the right place for so much of our emphasis? What if the answer was to think about what public safety actually means and see the many, many ways to find greater balance from this wider perspective?  Using AI, clarity can arise through storytelling and wisdom-sharing.  It is such an inspiring and possibilities-opening process that invigorates participants who might otherwise feel drained and exhausted.  This is impossible falls away as possibilities populate the field of vision.

It’s pretty cool.

Often in processes like this, there is a shift in clarifying the purpose of the work.  In the group I was working with during last week’s training, one of the women had a specific issue in mind, but as she spoke about it, what I kept hearing was more related to a power struggle.  She thought people were unwilling to get involved because walking in the room alone was daunting -- she wanted strength in numbers, but she mentioned it repeatedly as an aside. I pointed this out, suggesting that maybe Step #1 wasn’t how to confront this systemic issue but really was to build the coalition.  That perhaps the process would be best served by empowering folks to come together and share their own experiences within this system as a way to build each other up to take on the system together.  

“You may be right.  I hadn’t thought of that,” she said.

What a process like AI does is encourage active listening and through that process, pick out the themes that are really present, not simply defaulting to what we “assume” are the issues at hand.  

Less blue dot.  More whole picture.  Basically.

Employing a process like AI may take longer than a typical problem identification → standardized solution model, but utilizing AI may uncover needed truths about what the big picture really looks like. Its all-hands-on-deck creative solutions methodology leads to greater cohesion with the path forward.  Instead of a bandaid, how about a breakthrough?  That’s what AI can offer.

We were asked often during the three-day training how we thought we might use AI in our professional or even personal lives over the next ninety days, and my answer was in all the ways.  In two weeks, I graduate with my MSSA (or is it now an MSW?  Either/or) from the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences. I can imagine the next ninety days being quite pivotal as I embark on a job search and hope to begin a career as a community-based social worker.  I choose to look at this with excitement as I take my toolbox full of strengths-based approaches and practices into the field with me.  

I will dream it.  I will verbalize it.  I will build it out of clay.

I will see more than the blue dot.

Thanks to AI, I will do this with a framework and methodology that will radicalize my ability to dream big for myself and for the community I serve.  The door is always open for innovation.  Whenever I get “stuck,” I have to remind myself it’s not the blue dot -- it’s the whole board.  It’s a world of possibilities -- I just have to see them.

Join the next Foundations of Collaborative Community Change workshop, Conflict Skills Fundamentals, July 29 & 30 from 9am-4pm via Zoom. This workshop will be co-facilitated by Erika Jefferson Rivers and Mark Chupp. Details/registration here.