Making It Real

An IN CONTEXT focus group discusses
the role of personal authenticity in building community

One of the articles in We Can Do It! (IC#33)
Originally published in Fall 1992 on page 43
Copyright (c)1992, 1996 by Context Institute

Cultural transformation requires the engagement of people who have a strong sense of self, who are willing to seek solutions to the most difficult problems we face, and who have the compassion, courage, and support to implement real change in their own lives.

IC associate editors Carla Cole and Duane Fickeisen convened a focus group (see Participants below) in Seattle of leaders of the human potential movement to look at the conditions that foster personal transformation. The purpose of the discussion was to get fresh insights on the development of the authentic self and its relationship to the community engagement needed to bring about effective cultural change.

The conversation was wide ranging; we’ve excerpted parts of the two-hour session here.

Editors: We are interested in the possibility of community change. What role does community play in addressing key problems in our culture?

Charles Johnston: Very few of the critical questions of our time can be addressed without a remembering of community. You can’t deal with the crisis in education separately from the context of a healthy community, nor the drug crisis, nor the environmental crisis, nor the other crises we face.

But we’re not going back to a community based on blood ties and absolute dogmas. We are instead going forward to communities of empowered whole people, in the same sense that in our relationships we are learning to move beyond gender roles. There are not many guideposts in this new territory. We are taking baby steps together as we explore what it means to be whole people in relationships. Similarly we are taking baby steps in terms of the notion of what community is.

Community works when people are engaged in things, rather than just being together. It works best when it fosters diversity. I am struck by the amazing degree to which we spend most of our lives talking with people of one or two colors in the personality spectrum. I’m speaking in a metaphor here. I want a group to have a very high capacitance to be able to handle difficult questions, so I want the whole spectrum of personality types in the room. We need all those voices, not just to answer the questions, but to see what the questions are.

In a sense we have defined community in the past by getting all the oranges together, all the reds together, and all the blues together. But now the problems we face require a larger picture. We need to recognize the very, very different ways that the truth is experienced and manifested out of different parts of the diverse whole.

Editors: If effective community is dependent on a diversity of whole people engaging each other through what matters to them, isn’t a strong sense of self, authenticity, and integrity of being its foundation? How do we get to that sense of authenticity?

Mary Ann Woodruff: A lot of my own personal work has been about searching for my authentic path, so that my actions are motivated by my own internal compass. The actions I took while I was fighting to be on the "good" path were guided by what all those others out there told me was the good wife, the good mother, the good Presbyterian elder, the good whatever.

But it’s the authentic path that enables me to not feel lonely so much, to prize solitude, and to bring me fully into relationship with community. I no longer come to a group and merge with it by trying to be what others think I ought to be. Now I pick and choose what I do as a professional in the community, and it is much more creative and satisfying; it has more quality and depth than crowding my calendar with a cheek-to-jowl schedule defined by others.

Donna Moore: I think many people are missing the spiritual feeling that there is something they are here to do. I don’t know how to say it so it doesn’t sound sappy, but you can see people’s eyes light up when you ask, "Do you realize that there is something you are here to do? You’ve been given special skills. We’re just waiting for you to discover it."

And they respond saying, "You mean I’m OK, I really am? I really could do something? Wow! You bet! I better get on with it!"

Charles: There is a way to do it that isn’t drippy. It is simply asking – really, really asking – "What most matters to you?" over and over and over again.

It’s not the same as telling someone that there is something that should matter to them. That’s not the issue. The issue is that you only exist to the degree something matters to you. The task of living a meaningful life is to ask that question with every bit of courage you can bring to it.

When people ask what matters with courage, they often discover that what matters to them is their participation in something larger than themselves. It’s not sappy; it’s not a do-good kind of thing. If you really want to be selfish, then have the courage to be involved in something larger than yourself.

Donna: I frankly think of this as one of the most radical things that could happen! Once we begin to understand that we are our own authorities in our own lives, then we don’t put up with people telling us what to do, no matter whether it’s a political figure or a religious figure or anybody else. Rather, I’ve got to reach into myself and make sure that what I am doing is spiritually and morally correct. I’ve got to be responsible.

Charles: Our times are asking us for a new kind of maturity in how we engage in culture, and literally a new kind of maturity in culture itself.

One of the edges of the human potential movement engages around questions of responsibility and maturity. At the same time, within it there is a significant thread that says maybe we can still be children. Yet one of the things that marks wise people is remembering the child, but not becoming the child.

A major part of this is the recognition that limits in life are not only important, but indeed, they form the foundation for living and a foundation for sustainability.

Editors: What you are all saying seems to be that a sense of self that includes both deep, authentic awareness of a calling and recognition of limits is very, important as the foundation for doing effective work in the community. But how do we discover what most matters to us, and how do we ensure that our work in the world has the necessary grounding to be effective? How do we get that balance?

Dorothea Jewell: Personal transformation for the sake of personal transformation so that I can be the best that I can be, in and of itself, becomes navel gazing and leads to despair. And going out to transform the community to make the world a better place without the understanding of the importance of the individual, without honoring that and helping people to be their authentic selves, leads to the same thing – leads to despair and to burnout.

Paula Hendrick: Another way of saying the same thing is that I have one process going on that’s the creation and moving toward my vision of myself. Then I have another process that’s always going on that is the creation and moving toward my vision for the world. As those two start to …

Dorothea: … dance and spark, and if the context is big enough, broad enough, expansive enough, and deep enough at the same time to encompass the whole thing, then transformation takes place.


We gathered a group of people who have experience in the human potential movement as practitioners, presenters, and participants and who have an ongoing interest in community and transformation. Ten of us met in Seattle for a conversation about the role of the human potential movement in community transformation. This brief excerpt does not include all the participants. Those we do hear from, in the order quoted, are:

Charles M. Johnston: Director of the Institute for Creative Development, a think tank and center for leadership training in Seattle. He is also a psychiatrist, author, and artist. As part of his work with the Institute, he leads year-long intensive leadership training programs, which focus on the large questions facing our culture and the skills and sensibilities that leadership in the future will require. His work appeared in IC #19.

Mary Ann Woodruff: Organization development consultant and self-described community builder. Most recently, her formal personal growth work has included Jungian therapy and work with John and Joyce Weir’s laboratory for self-differentiation. She consults primarily with groups that want to clarify and achieve their purpose and vision, using strategies that are connected at the heart.

Donna Moore: Consultant to federal agencies and career counselor. Donna worked for 30 years for the federal government, doing training and personnel management in the foreign service, among other things. Since retiring five or six years ago, Donna has been taking the advice of her book, Take Charge of Your Own Career. Writing the book piqued her interest in empowerment issues. She studies shamanism and teaches Tai Chi.

Dorothea Jewell: Staff member of the Institute of Cultural Affairs and member of Context Institute’s board of trustees. Over the years, Dorothea’s work with ICA has shifted from doing community development projects, to supporting others who are engaged in community development through group facilitation and training. In her introduction to the group, Dorothea emphasized the need to see the capacity, ability, and creativity present in a group and to experience each member of a group at a deep level.

Paula Hendrick: Volunteer with the New Road Map Foundation. The Foundation is a non-profit organization that promotes volunteerism and sustainable lifestyle choices and markets the tape course Transforming Your Relationship with Money, and the book, Your Money or Your Life. She helped edit IC #31, in which some of her writing appeared. She has studied meditation with the Sufi Order in the West for 18 years. Paula reads science fiction to gain creative inspiration.

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