The Grey Havens Group has existed since 2010. We began as an informal network of book discussion groups. Now, we are a tax-exempt nonprofit, serving hundreds of families along the Front Range of Colorado. We have dreams of expanding to serve more. Our organization’s values are literacy, imagination, community and inclusion.
In this series of blog posts, we will focus on our efforts to protect and promote our values as we transition from a group with simple aims–to meet in small, informal groups to discuss beloved books–to an organization that takes what we learned around those small tables and uses it to build a much, much bigger table.
All summer long, we will be pausing our adult discussion meetings to conduct training sessions. The first two will be focused on our values of community and inclusion. Here’s why:
As with many nonprofits that began as a small group of people with common interests, we are making the transition from existing in an environment with few official boundaries, in which we did not designate official leaders, to an environment with boundaries, guidelines, and clear expectations for everyone. We have discovered that a healthy environment requires boundaries. Inclusion requires boundaries.
Even when no one is designated as the person in charge, someone always leads but, without boundaries, they do not necessarily lead by consensus and there is no system in place to assure us that such leaders have the community’s values and interests at heart. This becomes more of a challenge as an organization grows but the informal structure remains in place.
A growing organization, especially one that hopes to be effective in reaching out to and bettering the community at large, needs boundaries. Boundaries shape our organization. We need a shape, so that people know what to expect and know when something is wrong.
Some of the ways we give our organization shape are:
- A responsive leadership structure
- Trained discussion facilitators, volunteers, and staff
- Clear policies and procedures
- Advocates who can hear the stories of the vulnerable among us and speak up when needed
- The ability to safeguard our name and image so that it is not exploited for the gain of one person or group of people
- Staff advocacy and protection: Staff can suffer the most in a boundary-less environment because people often want what they want from the organization, not what they have been led to expect based on what is best for the community as a whole. They might take their frustration out on staff when their expectations are not met. Staff are often not visible for the work they do; they become visible when people don’t get what they want. A healthy organization cares for its staff and volunteers so that they can, in turn, care for the community.
- A structure in which everyone within the organization who has authority or influence, whether official or implied, must also have accountability.
In an informal environment, people can be excluded or even hurt, sometimes deeply hurt, because no one is trained to see abuses and no one is trained to prevent them. People can be hurt by speech, by unwanted attention or neglect, by the assumptions of others, and by the invisible privilege that can make it seem that some have more authority to speak than others, that some naturally belong while others must justify their presence.
It happens and it usually happens invisibly. People probably don’t see it or know how to speak up when it happens to others. People very often don’t see it or know how to speak up when it happens to them. Unless we take the time to learn all of the subtle and even invisible ways that communities can hurt and communities can heal, we will not be able to say that we have truly done all we can to live the Grey Havens Group’s values.
If we stand for something, we have to do everything we can to live up to that, even if it means taking away some of the laxity people are used to and even if that makes people very unhappy that things cannot be the way they once were. This will probably leave some wondering why we have to go to all this trouble when, to them, everything seemed to be going along just fine. Maybe everything is just fine for most but, without education and skills, how can we know that it is fine for all? In an organization without shape, how will we know when something is out of place?
Some will inevitably be disappointed and even angered by new guidelines and expectations but this is part of what happens in a community that is taking shape by establishing boundaries. The loudest voices cannot be the only ones we hear.
Grey Havens Group must take representation and advocacy for our members very seriously. We must take free speech very seriously but we need to be very clear when these essential values are being distorted by the loudest voices. We need to be very clear when these values are being invoked by those who would rule our organization through their own personalities, rather than according to principles. We need to be very clear when an objection to rules is really an objection to those rules that some people do not like and especially when it is about making sure the vulnerable remain vulnerable.
I hope that we will always ask ourselves how we can shift our focus from what we want as individuals to what is best for the community and our mission. I also hope that time will show that caring for each other is, in fact, a way of caring for ourselves.
Some of this summer’s training sessions, such as “Active Listening and the Observer Role” and “Cultural Sensitivity,” will be open to the public. Please join us to see how we can work together to create welcoming, inclusive spaces for all our participants. Discover with us how those clearly defined spaces can set our minds and imaginations free. We are making room for all the voices!
Kelly Cowling, Founder and Executive Director of the Grey Havens Group, Inc.
Community: Through our literary and philosophical discussions, we create communities of people who connect with and care about each other. We are a fellowship.
Inclusion: Grey Havens is a safe place -a haven-for everyone who walks through our doors or participates in our programs.