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Neighborhood House programs

Neighborhood House staffer shares Gracious Space influence on work, life

Published in the August, 2014 issue of Center for Ethical Leadership
By Melanie Roper

The Parent Child Home Program (PCHP) was one of the first programs to begin the integration of Gracious Space at
 Neighborhood House. The neighborhoods we serve are a richly diverse mix of immigrant communities. PCHP sends trained home visitors into the homes of families with children aged two to four years old. Families are visited twice a week and home visitors bring educational books and toys, encouraging the parent on their journey to be their child’s best caregiver, advocate, and teacher.

Our program is unique in that our hiring criteria are not limited to college degrees and work experience. We look for people who represent the language and cultures of the families we serve. A mother learning English with an open heart, a love for learning, and knowledge of another language and culture is an excellent candidate to be trained as a home visitor. As a result, we have a joyful, exuberant team that also happens to be very diverse – 22 women who represent over ten distinct languages and cultures.

While the diversity of our team is one of the elements that makes it so unique and beautiful, it is also, as in any group, one of the challenges. A variety of languages and cultures leaves a lot of room for miscommunication, and we have had our fair share of conflict. Yet our focus on relationships first has helped us create an equitable and healthy work environment. When walking into any of our offices, we are greeted by a hug, and often, offered a hot cup of tea. Laughter is a signature trademark of our team. A couple of years ago, some of us went to New York City for a conference. Against the gray atmosphere of the subway, our team stood out, loud, laughing, and joyful.

As a team, we often reflect on our enjoyable workplace. In part, it is because we have hired amazing people. But there is something more. I believe our team is healthy because of our intentional implementation of Gracious Space. For example, we are very intentional with bringing a spirit and a setting that invites openness and honesty. If you walk into any of our team meetings, you will see that we always sit in a circle. In the center of the circle, there is food or a centerpiece. The simple act of looking at one another’s faces is humanizing. Because there is no person at the front or the back, no one dominates. Instead, the circle communicates that we are all equal and that all voices are welcome and honored.

At our meetings, we tell stories. This is a way to invite the stranger and to learn collectively, in public. We have an agenda, which always includes time for the gathering and creation of community wisdom through storytelling.  Some stories are about work and many are personal. Some stories are funny, and others are more serious. We have shared stories of escaping war, enduring hunger, struggling through divorce, dealing with difficult children, and acclimating to a new country. Using a talking piece, each person has equal time and opportunity to both listen and be heard.  In doing this, we create a safe and consistent space where people can be open and honest with both triumphs and mistakes, where they can learn and grow in a supportive environment, and where their authentic voices can be developed and heard.

Can you imagine home visits where we bring an intentional spirit of openness, where we sit in a circle with parents and children and join them as equals? A home visit where we invite the stranger by being open to a parent or child’s perspective, even if we may not agree? And where children see their parents learning in public and feel free to do the same? What might this do to the children’s motivation to learn, if they are free to make mistakes without fear of shame? These are the kinds of interactions we believe happen in our home visits. Our intentionality in our personal and work life can’t help but inform how we bring ourselves to families we serve.

Some may ask why having talking circles and using Gracious Space in the office is important. We believe it has a profound impact on children and families. Participating in storytelling through circle is an act of leadership development. As home visitors tend to their own issues and develop their own authentic voices, they gain a confidence that they bring into the homes. The more that home visitors are joyful, open, and free human beings, the more we give permission to those around us to do the same, bringing this energy of openness and acceptance to the families.