Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Hosting a community conversation

Change is hard for most of us. My community is particularly challenged by change. In fact, in one recent issue of our local newspaper three stories ran that amplified the voice of a few loud citizens who opposed three separate new proposals in our community. In our communities and even our country conversations with those who think, act, look or believe differently than we do are extremely difficult or nonexistent. We seem to have lost the skill to hold both mutual respect and differing beliefs in the same place. Some would say that social media pushes these divisions even wider apart by providing a space where we talk to only like-minded folks. Yet, civil discourse is an essential component of our democracy.

About ten years ago the Athens County Foundation began to host conversations in the community to better inform our investments and to be a catalyst for new projects and partnerships. We are a community foundation serving Athens County for the past 37 years and providing over 2 million dollars in grant support to local nonprofits and governments. The board of the Athens County Foundation began looking at the problem of Civil Dialogue and what other communities are doing to encourage it. Over the years we have trained a core team of facilitators in “the art of hosting” practice which is a process to support conversations that matter. We now have 15 trained practitioners working throughout the County.

The Art of Hosting is a group of practices and techniques that allow people to self-organize and harness collective wisdom, ranging from World Caf├ęs to Open Space Technology. In just a few years, Art of Hosting has evolved from a handful of meeting facilitators to thousands of practitioners who are helping corporate and civic leaders worldwide set the stage for honest and meaningful conversation.

This past fall, The Athens Foundation was asked to facilitate a difficult conversation in our community. The Athens City School Board was facing a challenging dilemma. They manage a collection of old and not so old buildings built for about 1000 more students than currently are enrolled. Additionally, the State of Ohio has continued to drastically cut back on school funding. Predictions are that funding will only get worse. Faced with less students, less money and too much space, much of it needing serious work, the school board decided to ask a 16 member, steering committee, representing all the school PTO’s, the teachers union, local citizens, teachers and parents to spend some time contemplating the problem and coming up with some recommendations.

Three art of hosting practitioners were engaged to host 6 months’ worth of conversations with the Athens City Schools Facilities Steering Committee (SFC) and to help them draft a recommendation for the school board about how to plan for their future building needs.

We were asked because these practices can radically shift the quality of any conversation toward a more civil and democratic process, whether with one person, or in a small circle or with hundreds of people. Here are some of the agreements that we use to promote deeper, richer and more respectful group work:

  • Focus on what matters. We have no time to lose for what doesn't.
  • Suspend judgments, assumptions, and certainties. No one knows it all and it is not about             knowing who is right or wrong. It is about exploring together and discovering what we do not know or see yet. In the case of the school committee, we asked them what they needed to know and provided all the background, data and research they asked for.
  • Speak on at a time, with clear intention. This is a hard rule to follow with a room full of   passionate people. But when everyone feels heard, people begin to listen on a deeper level.
  • Listen to each other carefully with your full attention. This means side conversations are discouraged.
  • Listen together for insights and deeper questions. Go beyond what you already know
  • Link and connect ideas. This where discovery and innovation happen.
  • Slow down. Slowing down helps to foster more reflection. It also allows for the space for ideas to emerge.
  • Be aware of your impact on the group. Do not monopolize the speaking time. Make sure everybody has an opportunity to contribute.
  • Focus on what is in the middle, rather than what is in your mind.
  •  Accept that divergent opinions are okay. We don’t usually need to reach a consensus.   Innovation comes from putting different perspectives together. In the school facilities       conversation, the committee decided to present divergent opinions.
  • Contribute with your minds and heart. Bring your full self into the room. Allow yourself to be both a professional and a human being. The SFC shared cookies, personal stories, tears and      laughter.
  •  Play, doodle, and draw. Use a large paper, markers, crayons, play dough event toys in your  group as a space to capture the results of your collective reflection.
  • Have fun! What if enjoying ourselves was the key to improving our learning and performance?

We are passionate about this work because we have seen what it does. In this time of uncivil discourse, Facebook diatribes and tweeted rants, it’s restorative to sit in a room with diverse people and perspectives and listen to understand. What emerges is often unexpected, delightful and absolutely right for now.

In my next piece I will write about how this process played out in the Athens City Schools Facilities Steering Committee.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Rural Action Grant

Rural action is in its 9th year running youth summer camp. Their goal is to contribute to the overall wellness of youth and to also give children the tools they need to care for the land and improve their quality of life through environmental stewardship. These camps run for only one week, but in that one week kids have an opportunity to learn about the nature around them, which is a big change of pace from being cooped up in a classroom all school year. From hiking to canoeing to hanging out on the beach, kids get to do it all in a week's time.

The campers lead by Joe Brehm, Rural Action's new Environmental Education Program Director, see many different parks in Southeast Ohio in the week they have together. They began the week at the Glouster Community Park, followed by the Trimble Community Park, and then they traveled to the Wilds, located in Cumberland, Ohio, where they were able to get a look at the wide array of animals such as Rhinos and Giraffes. Thursday they traveled to Monroe Outlook and they ended the week at Burr Oak State Park on Friday. Guest speakers teach the kids in small groups. While I was there the children were learning more about a fish's natural habitat. Later, every camper was given a fishing rod and they were taught how to tie a fishing hook and learned how to properly cast a fishing rod. Earlier in the week the kids were taught a survival program by the Program director Joe which included how to properly make fire without a set of matches.

None of these camps and the learning experiences that go along with them would be possible if it wasn't for funding from outside organizations such as the Athens Foundation. Rural Action receives a substantial EPA grant during the school year which helps with environmental learning projects in the classroom, but this grant does not apply to extracurricular activities such as these camps during the summer. That is where the Athens Foundation and other organizations come into the picture to help Rural Action with their mission of fostering social, economic, and environmental justice in Appalachian Ohio. The Athens Foundation awarded Rural Action a $3,000 grant to fund these youth summer camps. Specifically, this money has gone towards paying for increasing transportation costs for the children to and from parks. This money has also gone towards giving the kids two meals a day as well as more supplies and equipment such as butterfly nets and fishing rods. Besides the summer camps, the money will also be used to conduct eight library programs throughout Athens County focusing on environmental and leadership issues among youth. Also, money will be used to provide outdoor programming for at least sixty children through Kids on Campus and Trimble Elementary School. The rest of the money will go towards outdoor leadership activities at the Hocking Valley Community Residential Center that will include at least twenty at-risk youths. The Athens Foundation can undeniably say that the grant money they have awarded to Rural Action is being used to enhance the quality of life of people throughout our region in a productive way.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Athens Food Security

Worldwide around 852 million people are chronically hungry due to extreme poverty, while up to 2 billion people lack food security intermittently due to varying degrees of poverty (source: FAO, 2003).

Food security refers to the availability of food and one's access to it. A household is considered food-secure when its occupants do not live in hunger or fear of starvation. According to the World Resources Institute, global per capita food production has been increasing substantially for the past several decades.

Southeast Ohio ranks 2.5 percent higher in food insecurity than the national average. There are over 13,000 people (or around 20 percent) of people in Athens County are food insecure. 40 percent of the residents in Athens County qualify for food stamps.

The Southeast Ohio Food Bank is the only food bank in Ohio that serves in an area with no metropolitan draw. There are 21 food pantries or meal sites in Athens County alone. While they serve all of Athens, the volunteer leadership within these pantries is aging and fresh produce storage is a problem for them. Also, food producers do not donate as much to food banks because of improved quality control. These factors have reduced donations by as much as 60 percent.

There are several state programs which directly benefit Athens food security. The first, the Ohio Agricultural Surplus Program pays Ohio growers and farmers fair market value to harvest products and transport them to food banks and their networks. Two million of the eight million pounds of food distributed by the Southeast Ohio Food Bank came from this program (or 30 percent). Second, there are Purchase Programs designed for the state to purchase canned goods in bulk for food.

Because of increased demand for food, it has become increasingly difficult for food to be distributed to families across the area. Due to the economic downturn, demand for food from food banks has dramatically increased and pantries are not able to be open for enough hours because they are run solely by volunteers.

Those who run food the Southeast Ohio Food Bank not only aim to increase the number of volunteers in food banks and increase the amount of preservable food given to them, but they aim to educate those who are in need as well.

They hope to help educate in the areas of food preparation, self-sufficiency and preservation.

The proceeds from the first annual Athens Key Event on September 24, 2011 will benefit food security initiatives in Athens.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Women's Fund commemorates its fifth year anniversary

On June 7th, The Athens Foundation will honor members and donors of the Women’s Fund with a special evening reception. The event will take place at 5:30 p.m. at the Eclipse Company Store, located in The Plains.

Celebrating its 5th year anniversary, the Women’s Fund Celebration will honor members who have met their pledge goals of $5,000 over a five-year period as well as new donors who have recently pledged to the Women’s Fund. In addition, the gala aims to honor the founders of the Women’s Fund, who created a legacy of stewardship and philanthropy in the region.

The Women’s Fund is especially important for Kate Leeman, one of the original founders of and contributors to the Fund.

“I first became interested in this project because, although women and girls suffer the most from poverty, they simultaneously offer the greatest hope for change,” Ms. Leeman said. Her longstanding involvement with The Athens Foundation and the Women’s Fund stems from her desire to help educate women and give them opportunities to succeed, in turn encouraging them to give back to and better their communities. “With the Women’s Fund, I think we were hoping to encourage local nonprofits to develop programming specifically targeted to meet the needs of low-income women and girls,” she continued.

The Women’s Fund endowment is used to award grants for projects that may not receive support from more traditional sources. These include start-up or ongoing social, educational and artistic endeavors for and by women and girls.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

First Annual AF Key Event

The Athens Foundation will host their first annual Key Event on September 24, 2011.
The event is modeled after the Key Event held at the West Chester Liberty Community
and will raise money for Food Security in the Athens area as well as support the ongoing work of the Foundation.

The event will take place in the Baker Center Ballroom, and in host homes throughout
Athens. Upon arrival at Baker center, attendees will take part in a live and silent auction in which they will bid on vacation destinations and other luxury items.

At the auction, the attendees will select a “key” to their dinner destination, which will be revealed at the end of the auction.

Each key gives the recipient access to a host home in the Athens area. There will be
approximately 20 homes available each with a gourmet chef from a restaurant or caterer in the region. Guests will join their hosts in their homes and will be treated to a homemade gourmet meal prepared right in their kitchen.

The following chefs have been secured for this year’s event:

Hilarie Burhans – Salaam

Matt Rapposelli – Ohio University

Tom Landusky – Hocking College

Libby Markham – Busy Day Market Catering

Doug Weber – Hocking College

John Gutenkanst – Avalanche Pizza

Fran McFadden – Ohio University

Andy Henry – Inn at Hocking College

Ty Williams – Athens Country Club

Anthony Schulz – Inn at Cedar Falls

Scott Bradley – Zoe’s

Kevin Hurst – Lattitude’s

Jon Lang – Ohio University Inn

Barbara Fisher – Salaam

Early online bidding will begin soon on the Athens Foundation website.

For more information about the event, please continue to follow our blog, and check our website.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Federal Valley Resource Center

The Federal Valley Resource Center is using their spring grant money from The Athens Foundation to bring the buildings up to safety code. The $2,550 is being used to purchase the proper exit and safety lighting and fire extinguishers for all 24 exit doors and seven hallways in the three buildings. The safety essentials will be put up with volunteer labor.

In May of 2003, the Federal Hocking School Board initiated the formation of the Federal Valley Resource Center to manage the campus for the benefit of the community. The Center serves eastern Athens County and is the only site in the area that can meet so many community needs. It is equipped with exercise machinery, a gymnasium, a concert hall, a thrift store and a computer lab. A senior club meets in the basement of the Center, and karate classes and summer programs for children are available. Reasonably priced hourly or monthly rentals are available for studios, offices, classes and parties.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Grant Application Deadline

The Athens Foundation is accepting applications for grants now through September 15th. Grants will be awarded to projects focused in the areas of health, social services, animal welfare and community improvement. Grant application forms can be found on our website at

The Women’s Fund is also accepting grant applications now through September 15th. The Fund supports social, educational and artistic projects aimed at improving the quality of life for low-income women and girls in Athens County. Grant application forms can be found on the Athens Foundations website at The Women’s Fund is a component fund of the Athens Foundation, and in just over 20 years it has donated $1 million to local charities and has an endowment of over $3 million. Any money that is donated to the Women’s Fund is used to support projects that are unfortunately not supported by other traditional sources. It only took $50 donations from eight local women to start the fund, so get your grant applications in and “be the candle that lights the way for Athens County’s women and girls.”