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6 January 2009
Reggio Emilia: A Story of Place, by Madelyn Blair

Madelyn Blair is the founder of www.pelerei.com and has been an early advocate and practitioner of Appreciative Inquiry.  More recently she has become a leader in the field of Storytelling in Organizations and is a co-founder of the Worldwide Story Work collaborative space on ning.com  She lives close to Washington DC and participated in the Reggio Emilia in October 2008.
This is her story

Reggio-Emilia, A Story of Place: How Landscape Becomes an Active Force

I met Leif Josefsson virtually. Leif is one of the coordinators of the European Appreciative Inquiry (AI) group. When he invited me to come to the group’s meeting in Reggio Emilia, Italy, I went to their web site to get more information. What I read were words like ‘landscape’ and ‘begeistring.’ I knew Leif only a bit, and I could not imagine what these words meant in relation to AI. But I had a gut feeling that accepting his invitation was the right decision to make. There was nothing explicit about the language of landscape or begeistring on the web site; it was just this feeling.

Now, Landscape to me means the view from my office window where I see hills and trees, gardens and barns. What was it about the landscape that they would include this word in the description? And begeistring?! What in heaven’s name does that word mean? The web site did use the words ‘strength-based’, but how did that relate to this begeistring? Moreover there were no words that I could find about appreciative inquiry on the web site.

So with all manner of things that I didn’t know but feeling that something could be learned – simply trusting my feeling – I booked the trip still with no clue what these words meant in relation to appreciative inquiry – or anything.

Reggio Emilia is about a ½ hour from Belogna and reflects the settled look of a city that has its roots in Roman times. The meeting was being held there in a former monastery. The monastery was located on a quiet side street of Via Guasco. The buildings were quite plain, and I almost missed the door to the monastery. It was painted a dark color, was set in slightly from the wall, and had no distinguishing marks except for its size. However, as I walked through the enormous door, I stepped into another century. Pink marble, arched ceilings topping 20 feet, terra-cotta tiles under foot, a center atrium with trees. This was a different landscape right from the start.

When the sessions began, unlike the usual conference, they began with a historian telling the history of Reggio Emilia. For the entire day and evening, different individuals told us about Reggio-Emilia’s history, its culture, its business, its politics, who the people are, what they do, even how they educate their children.

For example, Carla Renaldi, the founder of the famous pre-school teaching approach (for more, see http://zerosei.comune.re.it/inter/reggiochildren.htm), came and talked about the school. (To give you a sense of perspective, she is responsible for research projects being carried out in conjunction with Harvard, the University of New Hampshire, and the University of Milan.) She revealed that teaching the children was only a part of what they did. They were actually teaching the entire community through this approach. I couldn’t understand all that she said, but I knew that what she was doing had impact on this city.

Now because the city was under Nazi occupation long after the Allies freed southern Italy, they developed a deep sense of community by working together to oust the Germans. This sense of community today is reflected in the socialist cooperatives that form many of their businesses. It’s probably one of the most socialist areas of Italy. But they are also one of the most vibrant economies in Italy.

People actually emigrate to Reggio Emila because it is such a strength-based city. Talk about a unique landscape! I became completely absorbed into it. I could feel how the occupation forced the people to work together to free the city. I could sense the families changed by the work of the pre-school programs where the rights and potential of every child became the rights and potential of every person. I even found myself wondering what it would be like to live in Reggio Emilia.

We were all soaked in Reggio-Emilia. And even though they never spoke of the physical landscape of the area, you could not escape it. Starting with sitting in a former monastery to walking the streets filled with buildings of yellow ochre, ringing bell towers, clear skies. Who needed to talk about the physical when it was so present. They didn’t have to talk about the physical landscape. We just lived in it and were surrounded by it in this old monastery. I was beginning to have a sense of why they chose the word ‘landscape.’

Begeistring? It turns out that it is actually a Norwegian word that refers to the spirit-filled aspect of an organization. As they described this word to me, I could see so clearly how this particular city was indeed a reflection of the spirit that filled it. A spirit of working together, a spirit of appreciation of the past, a spirit of the value of the children for the future, an appreciation of those who still come there to add their energy and talents to the city. Thus, the reference to strength-based began to make sense to me, too. If it weren’t built on its strengths, how would it ever feel so energetic.

The second day looked more familiar. It was about the group itself. Using different techniques – one from Sweden, one from England, one from Norway, and more – the group began to explore ideas about the community assembled there. What was its landscape? What ideas came from this? There were about 50 people there, we were divided into 10 small groups, and the ideas began to flow. It became almost totally chaotic.

As I watched (and participated in) this, I saw something different. They did not act like Americans who must know the purpose, the end result, the rationale for everything. They simply talked about what they saw. They talked about what they might do. Frankly, I had to sit on my feelings of frustration as I thought, where is this going? How will they do anything of value in only one day? How will they wrap this up?

As I watched with the patience I have cultivated over many years of living, they talked and slowly let their ideas melt and blend without seeming effort. Having created pictures of our group, we each talked about the pictures and what they meant. There was little connection from one to the next. And there were quite a few of these. Then they mixed us up and asked us to work with another group’s idea and make sense of it. Yet, while they were disconnected, the convergence that came from the discussions was remarkable. The resolution simply emerged.

As they talked, there was no defense made of any idea, no argument, just description. And slowly the descriptions came together. My mind began to make connections, too. It was a continuation of what they had done with the city – listen to each of the parts of the landscape and let them melt together in our minds. The group was like a mirror to the city. It explored what the landscape might be and let it emerge through the descriptions -- without judgment and with great appreciation of each of the pieces.

This experience reminded me a great deal of a story that a dear friend of mine told of a time when she went to Panama to work with the indigenous people there. They had to make a decision about whether to allow a highway to be built across their nation.

She remembers the entire population was assembled to begin the meeting. She hoped that it would be done in 3 hours, yet it lasted three days. What was so amazing to her, aside from the length, was that the people from the nation only told stories. They told stories about yesterday, about last week; they told their legends. They told the same stories over and over again. At the end of three days, the people began to dissipate, and when she asked what was happening, she was told that the decision had been made. From many stories came a single decision that just emerged. I felt I was observing the same phenomenon.

The people at the conference had used the inspiration of the landscape of Reggio Emilia to inform what they did. They allowed the stories from this city to enter into them. Nothing was explicit. They were simply letting the connections of landscape of this place be absorbed and become a part of them. Then they let this shape what they saw about themselves as they worked together.

When I returned to their web site, there it was – “our purpose is to build something together.” This group allows appreciative inquiry to act as a philosophy, not a process. It allows the landscape of strengths to shape the thinking. Regardless of where they meet, they invite the landscape in as they “build something together.”

Yes, something had been built in me, too. Landscape is so much more than what I see out my window.

Updated 08/01/2009
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