Note from Beth: I hosted a small army of guest bloggers, grantmakers, who attended the GeoFunders National Conference taking place this past week in Seattle. The GEO community is united by a common drive to challenge the norm in pursuit of better results. GEO’s 2012 National Conference shared a range of perspectives and new ideas for smarter grantmaking that leads to better results and presents opportunities for participants to learn from the wisdom and experience of their peers. If you did not attend and are curious what funders are learning, you still have an opportunity to read some of the ideas and questions discussed right here on this blog.
On Turning 4, Grit and Imagination Emergencies! – guest post by Rafael López, Annie E. Casey Foundation
Tuesday, March 13 was my youngest son’s 4th birthday. Where was I? Participating in my first, big Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO) conference. Fortunately for Mateo, this guilty father is helping him celebrate with some of his favorite things and places this past weekend.
I couldn’t help but think of Mateo as I sat on the edge of my chair, ideas swirling, agreeing and disagreeing (inside my head, of course) with the boundless concepts shared by breakfast plenary speaker Jonah Lehrer. Jonah shared a 1972 study on four-year-olds by psychologist Walter Mischel known as the “Stanford marshmallow experiment.”
The experiment studied deferred gratification in children by offering one marshmallow to each child and one additional marshmallow if they could resist the temptation of eating the first one for fifteen minutes. Fifteen minutes for a four-year-old?! That is an eternity! Children devised all sorts of innovative ways to successfully pass the time including turning their little bodies away from the marshmallow or imagining it was a pet. I kept wondering whether Mateo would eat the marshmallow…
Jonah also spoke about the importance of “grit,” a concept that is the subject of greater attention in educational circles given the work of Angela Duckworth who defines grit as the “perseverance and interest in long term goals.” I thought of the countless stories I have read about or personally encountered in the lives of people who, despite seemingly unbearable obstacles, accomplished amazing things in their lives. Time and again, they persevered in the interest of a dream or goal that they were often told was unreachable or unrealistic.
I was continually inspired and challenged by a series of speakers and conversations throughout the day, formal and otherwise. Personal stand-outs included Monitor Institute’s Katherine Fulton, Groupaya’s Eugene Kim and Kaboom’s Darell Hammond. Each time, I made connections which strengthened my own work and was also reminded of Mateo and his older brother, Adán.
The ubiquitous world of Disney is inescapable when you have small children. In fact, one episode of Imagination Movers sparked a term that my boys have borrowed and rephrased as their own. Sometimes, when one of them is really frustrated or challenged you’ll hear, “I know, we’re having an imagination emergency!!”
You could never convince my boys, at the adventurous ages of 4 and 6, that they are not the best artists, singers, dancers, ninjas, runners, hide-and-seekers, Spiderman or the Pumpkin King. They simply ARE. Their imaginations are unconstrained and their examples of being “gritty” when we least expect it demonstrate a willingness to dream big and to articulate all sorts of possibilities.
Perhaps it is this connection between the curiosity and immense possibilities involved in turning four, the willingness to solve “imagination emergencies” in our seemingly complex world, and demonstrating “grit” in pursuing our most audacious goals that most resonated with me at the GEO conference. I met and learned from so many wonderful people. And, I still heard a series of quiet whispers throughout the conference that included well-known phrases like “We tried that idea already and it didn’t work!” or “…there’s NO WAY that would ever happen!” or “Foundations would NEVER agree to choosing one big, national goal on which to work together…”
Though still relatively new to philanthropy, I imagine that we could all use a bit more of that unconstrained dreaming that is a hallmark of many four year olds and to which Jonah Lehrer referred. I imagine we could all be even more “gritty” in our individual and collective work by taking even greater risks as we tackle some of our society’s greatest challenges. What if every nonprofit and philanthropic organization actually agreed to work on an audacious goal together? What if every single child in America graduated from high school ready for college or a career? Or, what if we reduced by 50% the number of children in poverty in 10 years and eliminated child poverty by 2025? We may have “imagination emergencies” on our hands, but I do not doubt our collective ability to do great things if we…
Rafael Lopez is the Associate Director for Talent and Leadership Development at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a private charitable organization dedicated to helping build better futures for disadvantaged children in the United States.