Making Connections | Statewide Parent Network & stone circles

For a grassroots organization, the only thing harder than cutting back is expanding rapidly. Just ask Diana Autin, co-director of the  Statewide Parent Network (SPAN) of New Jersey, which supports children and families affected by poverty, disability, and discrimination. Several years ago, a period of heavy growth nearly overwhelmed the network as it went from 12 employees in a single office to 40 staff members spread across six locations.

“People working here identified more with their projects than with SPAN as a whole,” Autin recalls. “They knew what other projects were doing, but it was with their head, not their heart.” As confusion mounted and morale waned, it was only a matter of time before families relying on the network noticed something was amiss.

To regain a sense of cohesion, Autin and her colleagues turned to Claudia Horwitz, the director of stone circles in Durham, North Carolina. Horwitz founded stone circles in 1995, to sustain activists and strengthen their work for justice through spiritual practices and principles. “If we’re interested in liberation in the world, ” she explains, “then we need to be able to cultivate a sense of freedom on the inside.”

While leading a 2-day retreat at SPAN, Horwitz set up an exercise she called Stations of Reflection, posing a series of questions like:

  • What brought you to this work?
  • Are there beliefs you have never wavered from in your life?
  • How do those beliefs come to life on a day-to-day basis?

“Almost immediately you could feel shoulders relaxing,” says Autin, “as staff members began thinking and reflecting, thinking back to their children and their own frustration and hurt, how they got help, and how that made them want to help others.”

The next day’s leadership retreat focused on the organizational culture: its strengths and what people wanted to see changed. SPAN introduced a new meeting structure designed to build emotional connections, for example, and staff members took the initiative in forming new committees to tackle emerging issues. Ensuing discussions helped staff members see each other from a new perspective, no longer defined solely by work roles.

Exploring how inner values and beliefs affected their commitments and their work soon led them to speak of “the SPAN family,” a notion that has redefined the office culture. Meanwhile, the newfound sense of trust has provided a needed outlet for SPAN’s hotline operators, who can become worn down by callers needing help with acute personal crises; now operators can ask colleagues for support and know they will get it.

Significantly, the network has developed a much more comprehensive set of services. Where it once focused on helping children with special needs navigate the educational system, SPAN now offers resources related to health, parent training and support, public policy issues, disability issues, and violence prevention. It is also looking beyond these children and their parents to focus on entire families, including overlooked siblings.

SPAN has since won national recognition for its ability to strengthen connections between parent centers and state education systems. Autin traces this success back to the retreat and to follow-up training with stone circles. “It’s an outgrowth of the work we did in thinking about ourselves and about what enables us to do what we do,” she says. “We’re thinking of ourselves as a family and taking it out into the larger world.”

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