Over 500 attendees filled the Millennium Hotel in Cincinnati February 17-19 for the CoreChange Appreciative Inquiry Summit. The task? “Invent the New American City to Bring Peace, Prosperity and Health to our Core Neighborhoods.”
The CoreChange Summit is not the first city-wide Appreciative Inquiry summit. The 2009 Cleveland Summit had 18 major project areas. The following year you might think that enthusiasm would have waned. But in fact, there were 30 projects the following year. Cleveland’s Summit was specifically about sustainability, where Cincinnati’s task was more general. But like Cleveland, Cincinnati was fortunate to have the founder of Appreciative Inquiry, Dr. David Cooperrider, at the helm.
When we spoke during a break in the conference, Cooperrider spoke about the strengths movement as the intersection of three things:
- Individual strengths, where positive psychology has focused its research.
- Collective strengths, where David has spent his life’s work.
- Creating strengths on a citywide scale.
Cooperrider and Marty Seligman have given five speeches across Australia to discuss the intersection of individual and collective strengths, thereby creating concentrations of strengths that magnify each other.
There are other movements to create well-being cities in the United States, Australia, and China, including efforts in Cleveland (see Elaine O’Brien’s article about the SOMO project) and Chatanooga.
The Power of Appreciative Inquiry
David Cooperrider explained the power of Appreciative Inquiry with several compelling points:
- The image we have of the future and the stories we tell ourselves about it shape the future. When Cooperrider was in Russia, he asked a worker why they were taking down a picture of Marx and Lenin. The man replied: “We no longer believe in this image of the future.”
- The simple power of human conversation: words create worlds. Cooperrider was also in Johannesburg during the largest strike in history. The conversation between Mandela and De Klerk in the soccer stadium transformed history.
- Improbable pairs. Out of the Cleveland Summit grew a company called Evergreen Cooperatives. They were able to partner with the Cleveland Clinic, which started to use their laundry services.
- The role of the positive: Check out Christine Duvivier’s summary of Marty Seligman’s well-being theory, PERMA (Positive Emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, Achievement).
- Wholeness: not just top down, not just bottom up. What is most effective for making change is having the whole system involved, not just a subset of it.
Interestingly, it took some convincing to get David Cooperrider on board. “I turned down this Summit five times,” David told me. “You should speak to that man over there. He convinced me.” David was referring to Dr. Victor Garcia, a pediatric surgeon from Cincinnati Children’s Hospital.
Dr. Victor Garcia
Dr. Garcia was one of five African American cadets at West Point in 1964 in a class of 1100. When he spoke at the Summit, the room of 500 was completely silent. He opened the conference and spoke about why he was moved to make systemic changes in Cincinnati. He told a story of operating on a young child whom he was unable to save. As he went to give the news to the parents in the waiting room, he heard himself say, “I did all that I could.” As he turned to walk away, he thought, “But that’s not true. I did not do all I could.” The CoreChange Summit was something he could and did do for Cincinnati. “I was tired of working on kids and saying to parents, ‘I can’t save your child.'”
I spoke to him after the first day of the Summit and asked him why he felt it was important to have a Summit for Cincinnati and what compelled him toward Appreciative Inquiry.
Dr. Garcia: “When we shield ourselves from the truth, deprive ourselves of the opportunity to create our future.”
“There is an immediacy of bringing about change and a different way of thinking and acting. If this is microcosm of Cincinnati, we can become a tipping point and we have to act. We know how. Appreciative Inquiry is the way.”
“I’m a pediatric surgeon. Cincinnati has the highest infant mortality rate in Ohio. I fix boys with gunshot wounds. There was one friend of a boy I wasn’t able to save who said: ‘It wasn’t bullet that killed him. It was the system.’ The human face of the system is collaboration.”
Improbable Pair – Jack Cassidy and Anthony Smith
Appreciative Inquiry summits usually start with a Discovery process, where stories are collected of people and groups at their best. I heard this story at the CoreChange summit.
Usually CEOs only think about customers and employees – and they don’t see either in inner cities. Jack Cassidy is the CEO of Cincinnati Bell who decided after meeting Taft High School Principal, Anthony Smith, that he wanted to help these students at the worst performing high school in Ohio. Students were three times more likely to drop out than graduate. There were no lockers, they had gone through four principals in a year, and their books were outdated. There was no football, no baseball, no band, and no choir.
Jack Cassidy hardwired the school with five high tech computer labs andgave away internships and ten college scholarships. Cincinnati Bell employees came in to tutor kids and every child who was tutored graduated from high school. They were the subject of a Katie Couric interview on “Making the Grade”. Mr. Smith was the subject of an ABC segment, “Person of the week.”
The students went from 25% to 75% graduation rates. Attendance is now 95%. They have football and band. And there is a waiting list to get in. Upper classman with a B+ average gets use of laptop and cellphone. If they drop below that, they have to give the laptop and cellphone back.
Jack asked the 500 participants of the Summit, “Do you know how many laptops had to be given back? None.”
He went on to say, “My mission is to make every situation better because I was there. You have the power to make every situation better.”
Come back Monday for more stories from the 4 stages of the CoreChange Summit.
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Cooperrider, D. and Whitney, D. (2004) Appreciative Inquiry: A Positive Revolution in Change. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.
Seligman, M. E. P. (2011). Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being. New York: Free Press.
Please note: We are using the images of Jennifer Neutel of Axiom News with permission, but if you want to syndicate this article, please request permission directly from Jennifer Neutel. Unlike most of the images that we use, these do not have Creative Commons licenses for reuse with attribution.
Ideas for building a strengths based city courtesy of Jennifer Neutel
Dr. David Cooperrider speaking about Images courtesy of Jennifer Neutel
Dr. Victor Garcia courtesy of Jennifer Neutel
Cincinnati Stakeholders courtesy of Jennifer Neutel