Follow this format to create transformative Touchstone Events.
This is Part Two of a two-part article.
Every Grand Challenge initiative thrives on regular infusions of the energy that only events can generate. Within the Grand Challenges I facilitate, I've pioneered the Touchstone Events pattern (introduced here) to tap into the remarkable social connections and synergy that emerge when individuals land in the same physical space. (Yes, I mean in-person. In a pinch can you make a hybrid or virtual event serve as a Touchstone Event but it will not achieve the same impact.)
Whether it's a small meeting or a large-scale assembly, these events play a pivotal role in welcoming newcomers to a Grand Challenge, converting individual uncertainties into a shared passion, and aligning the actions of working groups. In this time when the world is burning and churning and wicked problems are everywhere, we need effective tools to tackle the large systemic problems facing people and the planet. I have found that Touchstone Events are crucial in launching and maintaining collective action that drives positive system-wide change.
The ability to craft events that harness the best qualities in each of us and channel them towards addressing complex issues is a fundamental skill in this field.
I always start with the basic ritual format drawn from the work of the ethnographer, Arnold van Gennep; the cultural anthropologist, Victor Turner, and the comparative mythologist, Joseph Campbell. This format includes The Calling, The Threshold, Liminal Space, and Reincorporation.
- The Calling. People can be summoned to a transformational experience involuntarily, such as when they contract a life-threatening disease. Or they can come to such a transformation of their own free will, such as when they undertake a bar or bat mitzvah. Either way, they find themselves at the beginning of a journey that will change their lives. When I invite people to a Grand Challenge event, I make a point of drawing out their deeper reasons for participating. I often do this by telling my own story of being called, and then asking to hear theirs.
- The Threshold. When participating in a rite of passage, you must cross from ordinary life into the liminal space where day-to-day rules are suspended. The threshold is the boundary between the mundane and the sacred. As people arrive at a Grand Challenge event, there should be some tangible form of greeting that delivers them out of their regular responsibilities and into the special atmosphere where transformational work will be done. When we held our first meeting of the HMHI Mental Health Stigma Grand Challenge, we formed a reception line. As people entered the room, we had members of the Huntsman family, the Huntsman Institute’s CEO, and me welcome every person individually, expressing how glad we were that they had arrived. The spirit this action generated was incredible.
- Liminal Space. Magic happens during a rite of passage. Two individuals become a couple. A boy becomes a man. How is this possible? It is a social construct so fundamental to our survival that it is a recognized transition. For example, a wedding unites the couple in their own minds, in the hearts of their families and friends, and in the eyes of the law, bestowing irrevocable and profound new qualities. Liminal space is a name for the time and place between the familiar and the unknown where major change can take place; participants can let go of old behaviors and choose something new and more effective. In liminal space, we break molds. At every Touchstone Event, be explicit about what is taking place. Name it. At that first meeting of the HMHI Mental Health Stigma community, one of the participants took the floor to say, “This is where we can be ourselves and speak the truth. Let our gatherings always be a safe harbor.”
- Reincorporation. Translated literally, this means to take on the body again. In the context of a Touchstone Event, this is where we move back from liminal space into our day-to-day world, but with new powers and corresponding implications. When a young man returns home from his bar mitzvah, he now has control over his own spiritual development. He begins his religious studies in earnest and gets to decide how he will practice. He no longer simply follows his parents’ example. When we return from a Grand Challenge event, we not only have new responsibilities, we have new resources. The community is with us, helping to navigate the new terrain. We feel part of a tribe, working to change the world. We receive emotional, psychological, and logistical support from the larger group. When I am creating Touchstone Events, I highlight this support as people are leaving, and then act on it myself as soon as is practicable. This can be as simple as providing a list of names and contact information. Or it can be as sophisticated as mobilizing to define metrics, develop fundraising strategies, and coordinate across previous divides.
Touchstone Events take ordinary meetings and turn them into powerful surges in capacity while uniting the participants in a higher calling. This simple framework has concrete and utilitarian impact. Draw on it for your own successes.
Touchstone Events are one of three patterns in The Upward Spiral, the model I have developed in my work as a Grand Challenge facilitator. The others are Group Learning and Group Action. You are welcome to adapt and customize each to fit the nuances of the challenge you are facing. I will continue to publish articles about each of these topics.
Solving social problems is inherently SOCIAL–it happens in community. I’m looking for researchers, academicians, and those on the front lines who are battling overwhelming issues. The community will include leaders in all aspects of society: nonprofits, corporations, government agencies, independent agents, and thought leaders.
If you’re passionate about Grand Challenges or would like to be, visit my Medium account, where I am publishing on Grand Challenges. Let’s work together to address these sticky, systemic, complex, and wicked issues once and for all, for the sake of future generations of life on Earth.