Lost in the Woods

vani-authorFor the past one and a half years (ok, maybe two), I’ve been developing the Foundation’s strategy in the area of child and youth mental health. This part of the panarchy cycle is affectionately referred to internally as “walks in the woods” – time spent understanding the field and its players, the key challenges and opportunities, and the ways in which philanthropic involvement can have the greatest impact. This exploration phase is an important “time to reflect on the dynamics you intuitively sense so that you are able to accurately articulate the environment and the issues at play” before launching into action. For me, this stage of work was at once both inspiring and, well… uncomfortable. Let me explain.
I began my walk with no preconceived idea of where I would end up – a mindset that translated to lots of open-ended questions and a vast array of issues to consider. I spoke to many passionate people who had dedicated their lives to improving the mental health and wellbeing of our young people, and who, together, painted a complex picture of the system we were dealing with. Dedicating this length of time to research and consultation was extremely valuable to our process, and enabled me to see the system from multiple perspectives.
At the same time, it was kind of nerve-wracking. For someone who is outcomes-oriented (I know there are many of you who can relate!), spending this amount of time on process was difficult for me. For a long time, I felt like there was no light at the end of the tunnel. The more I learned, the less I felt I knew – an anxiety which compelled me to dig deeper and think more broadly at the same time. It was also a non-linear process: just when I thought I had landed on an area for action, something (a conversation, something I read, an experience) would cause me to see things in a different light, and I would be back to the drawing board.
July 2014 was a turning point. We had begun to hone in on schools as a setting for advancing wellbeing, and as the result of a national convening held the previous month, we began to explore how a social innovation lab could potentially serve as a platform for our work in this field. “Hurray! Progress!” I thought. But, while the edge of the forest did seem more imminent, this stage of work also opened me up to an entirely new set of vulnerabilities.
questioningRather than retreating inward – sitting diligently at my desk, coming up with a neat and tidy framework – we made a conscious decision to consult publicly during this design phase. If a lab platform was going to be effective, it would have to be informed by its potential participants – educators, students, school administrators, policy makers, mental health experts and more. Doing so meant talking to people about an idea that wasn’t fully formed, even in our own heads. As a result, I struggled to clearly explain what a lab would actually look like, or even answer basic questions about structure, scope, and budget. We were figuring it out as we went along. While every bit of consultation helped inform our thinking, it was also a public display of our uncertainty.
Ultimately, this entire process has been well worth it. I learned that in order to truly be open to others’ point of view, you have to be a little bit uncertain about your own. I practiced what it meant to really, truly listen to people and allow myself to question my own thinking, even if it meant taking a few steps backward. We are excited about where we’ve landed, and are looking forward to sharing more details with you in the coming weeks and months. Until then, what do you think? Have you ever felt lost in process? What are your thoughts on the tension between transparency and vulnerability?