The MindGen Experience: The power of community building with Social Presencing Theater.
(Disclaimer: this was written as an experience and not as an academic document)
Once upon a time, a group of teenagers from Fuengirola (Malaga — Spain) had a dream. They wanted to raise their voices and talk about things that were important to them in a world ruled by adults.
So, they met with city hall representatives, Rodrigo Romero Morales (deputy mayor) and José Manuel Martín López (youth councillor) and told them their ideas. And now, more than one year after that moment, I am writing about the first edition of MindGen talks.
I was called to be part of the project as an external advisor, due to my brief experience in TedX Malaga and my longer experience working with groups. It was supposed to be just for a few sessions, but I do not do anything halfway in my life, so, in the end, I stayed with them throughout the entire process. So much so, that we are now working on the second edition of MindGen.
MindGen is a teenager idea and initiative like Ted talks, but from youth to youth. The speakers are between 13 and 17 years old. The themes are divided into future, science, neurosciences, and ecology. You can read more about the initiative here.
A gift before Christmas
I met with the organisers, the inspiring teenagers, for the first time before Christmas. It was a great meeting to sense the idea, the group, the intentions and of course to let them get to know and sense me.
I had been living in Spain for a little more than a year and it was my first project in person after a long time of lockdown and working online. This was such an unexpected and true gift for me whilst going through the time we were facing because when everything started, I was living in a new country far from home and going through the pandemic, in the beginning, on my own.
They told me everything about the project, the process to choose the speakers and a little background about themselves. At that time, the name of the initiative hadn’t been decided. It came up during this first meeting.
I told them a little about me and someone asked: How are you going to work with us? I said I do not know yet, I have to understand you as a group first. The only thing that I knew at that very moment and even before meeting them, is that Social Presencing Theater (SPT) was going to be the core work of this process.
The first sessions were focused on working with the body and building the community narrative. Weaving the social body by first showing up in our bodies and then creating a narrative through working with words.
Specifically, the very first session when I got there, I found a very silent group of 20 teenagers. They were not saying a word. They did not know each other: the organizers knew a little the speakers, and the speakers did not know each other. Not surprisingly, the atmosphere was tense. We did our first check-in (sharing something about ourselves in a circle) and we started gradually.
I laid up the work that I was intending to do with them. I shared with them my “first layer” model of emotional intelligence as a source of achieving our goals and dealing with challenging situations, mixed it with the frame of 6 conversations (Peter’s Block model). I asked them if they were ok with working in this way, and they were brave enough to say yes and to jump on board.
The model that I work with is the journey from awareness of emotions first and how we create culture from there, which is how we do things. You can see the graphic in the next image to have a brief idea of the journey.
To context, Emotional intelligence is an ability that we have all human beings. To recognize, explore and understand our own emotions, to finally accept and manage them in an effective way to achieve our goals and to bond with others. Emotional intelligence means that our emotions move us, and the reason is the one that guides us. So, integrating reason and heart supposes an action based on emotion to be reasoned. Summing up, managing our emotions is the foundational point of more sustainable, effective and ethical behaviours, and in consequence, culture.
Coming back to that day, after the brief and theoretical introduction of the model, we jumped into our bodies. We worked with embodiment, a simple 5-minute dance (a core SPT practice) starting from standing still that day (instead of lying on the floor). I was setting the basic language that we were going to use. After that, we built up a more complex SPT exercise called Village. I had to shape it a little also for that very first occasion. The way I framed the exercise was about exploring levels, distance and speed and the movements were lying on the floor, turning, sitting and sensing the others. Can you feel the back of the body? It was one of the fundamental questions.
Once we finished, we did a little sharing. I was amazed by the things that they noticed! They connected the experience with their own bodies, with their own sensations, feelings, metaphors and, incredibly, with others. They had become aware of the larger body, the social body.
It was challenging for them to start with such practices with “bodies” I have to say. Imagine the situation, they were scattered around the room, nobody was talking to anyone at that moment, they were very nervous about having to talk in front of people and they didn't have any experience with the work, and, among all of that, at the same time, we were in the middle of the pandemic, we were all wearing face masks and being aware of physical distance after a lot of months of isolation. It was challenging for me also, to bring them into their bodies in that particular context, but I was confident of the work that I was proposing and fully committed while facilitating. I felt the crack during the practice. I sensed how all the possibilities opened up at that moment, for that little community that we were founding. I deeply believe in this work.
At the end of the session, however, they couldn’t stop talking. They were all very grounded and a new sense of energy filled the space, they were enthusiastic and committed. The field was built and ready to start to work.
Obviously, all speakers had different challenges in terms of skills, themes and ways to perform the talk, and started from different places, but we were together aiming for the same dream.
A little later, still, during that first session, we worked on our narrative. We started with a big question: Why was it important for each of us to be there, doing what we were doing? They discovered that new things they hadn’t realised were important (to them), which was our starting point for creating a collective story. It was not only Why I do what I do? It was also from what inner place I do what I do? Yes, again, purpose.
Afterwards, I placed the following question. What are the possibilities that open up here for us? And we explore the distinction that exists between possibility and problem-solving. A possibility is a future beyond reach. The possibility conversation works on us and evolves from a discussion of personal crossroads. It takes the form of a declaration.
And after that first session and for the rest of the process, my challenge as a facilitator became to keep them quiet and ask for silence most of the time. It was wonderful. The field was alive.
From that moment on, we always carried out embodiment exercises and self/collective reflections, building narrative spaces and, after a while, we introduced practising and shaping the MindGen talks, our main reason for us to be there, together.
As a facilitator, every session, I would come into the group and sense a question: What does the village (group) need today/right now? and from that point, I was ready to start the work.
On some occasions, people (teachers, others willing to participate) came to our session because they were curious about the work and they asked if they could stay to observe. Every time, I said yes, you are very welcome to stay, but we don't have observers in the group practices, you are welcome to be a doer and co-create the space with us. I gave them the chance to join but knowing that they would have a role. Some of them stayed and others left. As Peter Block says, you always should give people the chance to pass.
In this work, it is really important to take the time to set the values, purposes, intentions, and frame of the community that we will be working on, which is the way that I have come to set the foundation for the bigger work. We were not losing time; we were building trust and the conditions to be able to hold the space, as a community.
In my type of systemic work, the importance is about placing the right questions and it is not crucial answering them. The shift occurs more in asking than responding. How we frame the questions is decisive. And also is important to focus on how and not on what while asking. What I meant is How do we show up? How do we want to gather? How is the story that we are telling ourselves and to others impacting? Every single moment we have the opportunity to decide if we want to show up in one way or another and that decision at that precise moment could transform our narrative.
“Every time we gather becomes a model of the future that we want to create. If we really get this, we don’t need anything else”
The first day that we practised the talks I asked them to do it blindfolded. The idea was to feel the interior landscape of the body without being attentive to other visual stimuli. How was the talk flowing in the body? How was it sensing the audience without seeing them? How did it feel to be confident that nothing was going to happen at the stage because I was taking care of them?
In the kind of work that I proposed, the sitters/witnesses (the audience) and the Standers (presenters/speakers) are equally important in terms of contribution and creation of the space. That is why the rest of the group sat as the audience was taking care of the person on stage with a mindful and caring presence. We had a particular way and specific practices to do it. Every time someone was practising their talk, the sitters were practising too. If they were not on the stage, it didn’t mean that they could be checking mobiles, or talking to someone else. They also had an active role while witnessing. They could see and feel this importance by experiencing both roles.
It was wonderful to see how, through our bodies, we were building both a collective and an individual intention.
During the months working together, there were a lot of learnings, insights, and huge personal and collective transformations. I would like to highlight some learnings that are possible and safe to tell that came into the field.
Vulnerability is safe.
We practised the stuck exercise of SPT. Despite being their first time and weird in the beginning, then it made a lot of sense for them. It touched their fibres. Laura shared: “I was nervous until I did, afterwards I just noticed that it was safe to be vulnerable. I felt ok and calm, being vulnerable is much less stressful than not being. You need more effort to not be vulnerable and it is not genuine” Why are we putting so much effort into something that is inevitable?
I demonstrated stuck exercise like we always do when I facilitate. While we were debriefing the experience, after all the practice, Alejandro said something powerful “While you were demonstrating the exercise, I thought she is not afraid of being ridiculous in front of us, and yes, then I respected you even more”. His comment surprised me a lot and we reflected all together about that, being ridiculous.
What is that sense of ridiculousness that we many times feel? This, in turn, brings that the emotion learnt through culture and education: embarrassment. We are all embarrassed about feeling ridiculous, for many reasons. But when you see others not being afraid of being vulnerable, you respect the person showing themselves and the feeling of judgement disappears. Fully Acceptance of the other. How can we bring this quality from the practice into the outer world?
Again, YES! This work opens up the space for reflections by just demonstrating it.
Air. The pause.
I brought the experience of MA, what we call the pause/space in SPT. We named it using the metaphor of Air, especially when they were talking, or even thinking, about their ideas. Please, allow air to be in between was the advice. They said that it was meaningful for them and powerful to use the body as an anchor. Alejandro said that he learnt how to pause and noticed its importance. It became our main word during our meetings and a part of our co-created language. We would repeat Airrrrrrrrrrr many times per day.
They experienced the benefits of the pause, which they took to their daily lives.
Many times, they shared that they grew aware of the inner transformation just by hanging there, with the “unknown and uncomfortable”. They could tell the difference between getting away from that uncomfortable spot or just doing nothing and paying attention to how it finally dissolved and turned into something else. Guilherme said that he learnt great resources with the 20 minutes dance. Now, every time that he felt nervous or had an exam, he began to use this practice to deal with the situation instead of avoiding it. He said that, by staying with it, he felt better afterwards. What was powerful here was that, again, the insights happened outside our sessions.
We always organized our sessions around the following routine: a little check-in, then some embodiment and mindfulness exercises and finally, a sharing. They appreciated this routine from the beginning. For them, it was about generating that space to work in our purpose. Alejandro said: “As a result, because we “throw away” how we were before coming into the check-in, only because of that, we allow other possibilities to emerge”. This was really about creating an intimate and safe space. Additionally to the beginning, we also did a check-out every day to make the session's results visible. I mean, we embodied it also with words.
But this was not only with the starting activity, with every single practice and exercise, but we were also making space for new things to emerge.
Feeling the other
Field dance, another SPT exercise, was the practice they all were impacted by. And yes, it is my favourite practice if there is such a thing as a favourite. We used it a lot and with many variations.
They related to the fact that just watching the others standing in front of them, they cared about the other and when they noticed the “break” they felt relief and happiness for the other person, and also empathy and love. The standers felt the sitters holding the space and supporting them. They said it wouldn’t have been the same without the sitters because they felt that something happened by just being observed in that way. Those were their words. Yes, this generation can change the world.
On the day of the event
The day of the event finally came along. It happened on two different days: two Saturdays in a row. Even though they were nervous and rushing to have the final rehearsal, they wanted to check in and out and also to “use” their bodies with some practice, like we did every time we met. So, that’s what we did before the rehearsal and before the event.
The speakers were split into two equal groups: one performing during the first edition and the other during the second one. But even those who were not performing that day were there, sitting with the larger audience, holding the space and supporting their community. They were doing what they had learnt to do along the process with the practices.
We were ready to start. We all knew that they had something important to say, each of them. We had a system that day. While there was someone at the stage, I was with the next speaker, just in silence, observing her/him. The rest of the speakers were some steps behind, also at the service of the speaker. We brought the qualities of the field dance (SPT practice) that we had thoroughly practised.
As they were getting ready to go on stage, I was there, next to each of them, reminding the speaker of the importance of the message and the work we had been doing. My last words were always “you are ready for that, feel your feet on the ground, be in your body and remember the dignifying position”.
Then, that person would go on stage grounded and held by us. At the same time, the one coming back would be received with hugs, congratulations, and smiles. That was our own ritual, along with both sessions.
We were together feeling the support, love, tenderness, the friendship of each other. It was a success. We did it together.
We came to the end of the second edition, and we celebrated with a little dinner. We were happy and thrilled by what we did, together, as a community. I left the celebration a little earlier than the rest, and they asked me for the last check-out even though they were busy having fun. We did our last big circle, in our best clothes, smiling, and marvellous insights came. What I can say about this is that they felt their voices, they felt being seen and heard. I closed the circle, I said that I hope they know now, after this experience, that they can achieve whatever they wish. I hope they count on that. I was proud of what they did. I know that we are just starting in this community.
As I said before, they were all coming from different experiences. At first, some of them couldn’t manage with, and they were confidently telling their ideas. Also, during the practices, we had our hard times, sometimes tears, anger, sadness, frustration, anxiety. Yet, we coped with it. They stayed with hard moments. They accepted them as part of the process.
We practised communication skills, yes, body language, yes, but what we mostly did was to create a community and only community-building can change the world.
After the event
We met with the core team some weeks after the event. We did our check-in and shared our feelings. Mainly, we discussed what went well and how we felt about it.
We were talking and planning the second edition when one of the organisers said, “please, we need to work with the body, even more, this time, you can tell the difference when you do it”. These words not only moved me but also confirmed that I have to keep on bringing this work to every place I go, just as I have been doing so far. I am passionate about it.
Some final reflections
Apart from what I shared here; I would like to highlight some further thoughts.
I noticed, realised, and confirmed the importance of transformation in teenagers at a societal level. This is the age when founding impressions can shape our future, our beliefs about what is possible, ethical, and sustainable, in consequence, we need to support them while building those foundations.
Besides, It took my attention to the urgent need that they have for spaces to gather and share, and also to learn how to create those spaces. I can tell that they feel the stress of growing in a world in which the future looks uncertain.
Also, there is a stereotype about this age. How they think, what they do, what is important for them and so on, I confirmed that having a purpose, like any other human at any stage of life needs, is crucial to support that and shift their interests. Like this project did.
What did I propose as a key to engagement? First, In the intelligence model approach, we work with motivations. The primary motivation of each human being is belonging, to be a part of a larger whole. Currently, we do not consider teenagers as part of the crucial, active society that is willing to change the world. That’s why, from my point of view, we need to change this perspective. Moreover, just belonging is not enough; the secondary motivation is having the space to have their own “questions”.
Peter block says “Questions open the door to the future and are more powerful than answers in that they demand engagement. Engagement in the right questions is what creates accountability”
Accountability can transform people, communities and the world.
Those are the elements of real inclusion. That is what we did in this project: we belonged. And we all knew what was going on. This has the power to motivate, engage and, therefore, take action.
Then, I need to emphasise the role that the city hall of Fuengirola played as an institution, and especially that of Rodrigo Romero and José Martín López who believed in this work, in these young people, in me and who wanted to change Fuengirola and, from there, the world. Apart from their strong support of the project, I would like to add that they took part in almost every session. Clearly, commitment from different parties can create wonderful, powerful things.
Finally, and more at a personal level, that sense of community also touched me, I decided to stay in the city because of it. These amazing young people, who are trying to change the world, totally changed mine. I couldn’t be more grateful.
Thanks to MindGen organizers. MindGen Speakers and thanks to Rodrigo, José Martín for letting me be part of this dream. I'm really looking forward to what the future will bring.
Thanks to Arawana Hayashi, my SPT teacher, and Peter Block for being such a great inspiration in my work of community building.
If you want to learn more about these initiatives or collaborate with them, please reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.