Sindhu Knotz and Jan Jaffe caught up with June Wilson, board member and executive director emeritus of Quixote Foundation to learn about her reflective practices and the foundation’s application of reflective practices to racial equity work.
Jan Jaffe: We started this conversation at Philanthropy Northwest’s annual conference roundtable to exchange stories about how reflective practice impacts our philanthropic work. Can you share with us how reflective practices have shaped your work as a leader?
June Wilson: I can’t remember a time when I haven’t in some way been aware of my personal reflective practices. I will walk, run, or move in space to allow kinesthetic energy to give me a wider palette than just language from which to see, feel and know things. It’s an important source for reflection. I spent many years as a dancer and choreographer learning tools that physicalized the verbal. I often fall back on these techniques especially when I am puzzled by something or feel stuck or challenged by an idea, concept or way of working. For me, it’s a way of reaching farther when I feel like I’ve hit a limit. If I can start by finding even 1% more patience, presence, love, imagination, I can break through that barrier.
Sindhu Knotz: That’s interesting, because for me, I always separate these things. At home, I tend to pause and reflect, but at work I often don’t take the time to do it.
June: It’s rarely encouraged or supported in places of work. We are supposed to know and have the answers, to be outcomes focused, and we rarely build time in for reflection or assessment of the journey.
Sindhu: What are some reflective practices that you use?
June: Personally, I try to practice centering, grounding and opening: where I sit in silence, taking in a few cleansing breathes to feel my center and, with my feet on the floor, imagine roots going down from my arches connecting me deep to the energy of earth and bringing that energy up to my center. I then invite the energy that is greater than me down through my crown into my center. It helps me feel fully resourced and better able to make decisions that serve the whole. I know this sounds very “woo-woo,” and yet it calms me as I go through my day. It’s an easy practice that I have to do regularly to appreciate its value.
Sindhu: How do you use these practices in an office setting?
June: When I first began working at Quixote foundation, I’d ask for a moment to pause when I’d have feelings whether from enthusiasm, confusion, disagreement, or uncertainty and find myself unable to put my feelings into words. I knew that taking a moment to pause stopped me from immediately jumping to reaction or interpretation. It allowed space for me to integrate what I was feeling with the information that I was absorbing in order to express concrete ideas verbally.
Jan: Did you find the pause helped others explore what was going on as well? I think it would have been uncomfortable at first. What would typically happen with the pause?
June: At first, I think others may have found it odd. Odd that I asked to sit in silence for a few moments. Over time, I think our team got used to it, even grew to appreciate the opportunity for a pause. I am realizing now that my version of odd wasn’t actually new to Quixote Foundation. Keneta Anderson, one of our strategic consultants, periodically took the team out on snow and skis to help us gain new insights about our work. We explored concepts like balance, force and perspective shifts in our operations and grantmaking. At first I was skeptical. One, I wasn’t a skier and two, I was unsure how skiing might help us do our work differently. Yet, the experience was transformative. Talking about our work in a different environment, using tools that were unfamiliar while navigating perceptions of fear and safety opened us to alternative ways of engaging.
Jan: In addition to working with the pause, you brought body work as reflective practice into the racial equity work at Quixote Foundation. Tell us about that.
June: Our racial equity work began with the full Quixote Foundation team with monthly training lead by Heidi Schillinger, of Equity Matters in Seattle. By the fifth month, we needed to find a way to integrate the intellectual work of unconscious bias and structural racism with the personal and emotional feelings that were triggered as we navigated conversations about race. Honestly, I was about to give up on our racial equity work because of the internal tensions and resistance that were created. Then I had a “walking meeting” with Zarina Parpia, another Quixote Foundation strategic consultant and participant in our racial equity trainings, who suggested adding a reflective practice to the work.
Jan: I know from our earlier conversation that you have explored a variety of ways to reflect using your mind and body. So, you must have considered body work for the team?
June: At Zarina’s suggestion, we invited Arinna Weisman, a practitioner of insight meditation, who has done a lot of work supporting white people in racial equity training to work with Schillinger. In addition to our conversations and racial equity readings, we built in alternative reflective practices of pausing and breathing. Following this meeting we paired somatic coach Victoria Castle with Schillinger and incorporated practices of grounding, role-playing and reflection. Victoria challenged us to reach for that next 1%, and we saw less resistance and greater integration between heart and head. We continued to work with Castle and Schillinger over the course of three months and each time saw deeper learning, less resistance and deeper understanding.
Jan: Did you worry that people would find it too “out of the box” as a problem-solving tool?
June: Yes, sometimes it was out of the box – some things, even for me felt weird and touchy-feely and we did it anyway. We began each meeting with agreements that helped make it work. One of our agreements included being comfortable with the uncomfortable. After all, many of us were uncomfortable navigating a conversation on race so being uncomfortable exploring concepts physically, emotionally and experientially was not all that surprising. In fact, as I think about this, our racial equity work, our somatic work, our ski explorations, all utilized reflective practices that helped us see things differently, work differently, approach our grantees differently, and engage with each other differently. Reflective practices allow us to explore new modalities to get beyond assumptions and reactions that have become hard wired for all of us.
Jan: One of our hypotheses is that good reflective practices can actually help you get to better outcomes. Does your experience prove or disprove that?
June: It proves it for us. It has stopped us from being reactive and sure that we “know best.” We seek to look beyond specific measured outcomes to what’s happening in a system that we can’t see, or what’s happening emotionally or physically with an organization or grantee that is impacting specific results. Taking time to pause, reflect and consider a situation in terms of what is going on beneath people’s surface comments and reactions is powerful.
Sindhu: We know that Quixote Foundation is spending its whole endowment but if you were to continue, do you see a role for reflective practices in your grant making?
June: Yes, in fact our last public act as a foundation was our Symposium & Celebration, where we brought our grantees together with our team and colleagues to reflect on the work through the eyes of comedian W. Kamau Bell; to engage in somatic, meditation, communications, and racial equity workshops; to experience alternative ideas and modes of decision making; and to be in community through food, drink, music and dancing. If we were to continue we’d definitely keep convening our grantees and colleagues, building on what we’ve learned.
Jan: What advice do you have to philanthropy practitioners about using reflective practice to advance their goals?
June: I believe that Quixote Foundation’s reflective practices allowed us to hold multiple truths while engaging in internal and often uncomfortable racial equity training. Our ability to do this work at every level of the organization made a tremendous difference in our final year of grantmaking and grantee engagement. If we’re really stretching ourselves as grantmakers, and making our big goals more important than our personal biases and preferences, we’re going to experience moments of discomfort and anxiety. In those moments, I hear Victoria’s question, “What will it take to be 1% more… more present, more loving, more patient?” I remember why we’re here, take a deep breath and practice being 1% more.