A Gestalt Case Study (2)

A Gestalt Individual Intervention

by Herb Stevenson


To continue the work completed in the team intervention (Part IV of this book), one of the team members, the native American male, sought permission from the agency to continue the project as an individual. Permission was granted by the CEO and thee Board of Directors.


The agency had been made aware of the incongruence between the internal and external cultural expressions of the organization. It had been made clear that the organization had developed and maintained “vanilla” marketing materials for fear of reprisal from government and grant funding sources for being “too black”. Seeking to continue the visioning process, the author was enlisted from the intervention team to assist the organization through the process. The task would be to create a culturally congruent vision statement, mission statement, and core values that are consistent and shared by each person throughout the organization including external marketing and other publicly available materials,


The team intervention had revealed that the agency was constantly in motion. The organization’s culture is focused towards service of clients. As such, people moved in and out of meetings like a recycling water fountain. To accommodate this style of operation, meetings were loosely framed similar to open space technology. (Owen, 1997a; Owen, 1997b).

During discussions with the officers, managers, and directors, it appeared that the traditional visioning process (Abrahams, 1995; Campbell, 1997; Carver, 1997; Johnson, 1999; Jones & Kahaner, 1995; Kouzes & Posner, 1995; Lewis, 1997; Nanus, 1992; Wall, Sobol, & Solum, 1992; ) was not congruent with the needs of the organization. Prior experience with traditional approaches to visioning had not resulted in culturally inclusive marketing materials. Furthermore, as the active founder of a spiritually-based, national, “rites of passage” program, it appeared to the author that an alternative approach would be more applicable. The author suggested the use of the spiritually based visioning process used by indigenous cultures (Brown, 1988, Deloria, 1996, Riddington, 1996, Foster, 1992) and by many religions (Ensley, 2000, Torrance, 1994). The CEO agreed that an alternative approach, one that is more spiritually based, might better serve the needs of the agency. Nonetheless, certain criteria are important to the successful development and implementation of a vision regardless of the approach.

Vision Process

“[V]ision is generally used to describe a form of organizational vision that wins the commitment and compliance of those people who are needed to implement it.” (Johnson, 1999, p. 336). Research indicates, that to be effective, the vision should incorporate the following features:

  1. The “...vision includes a visual image of a future state that would not exist without the creative activity of the people concerned.
  2. The concept of sharing in the creation and development of the vision.
  3. The vision will involve beneficial effects for people affected by it and also incorporate personal values of the participants.” (p. 336).

Moreover, it appears that the organizational vision must include several qualities in order to be successful. These qualities are listed below:

  1. “It shows a future achievement aim that can be readily visualised [sic].
  2. It receives contributions from a variety of sources.
  3. It attracts the involvement of individuals with the specialist skills needed.
  4. It can be communicated easily and in detail
  5. It is powerfully motivational in effect.
  6. It intends to serve an important need for other people.
  7. It is in accordance with the personal values of the prospective supporters.” (p. 337)

Furthermore, a vision is a shared image or picture that represents what will occur or will be different in the world because the organization exists if the organization is successful. It is worded in the present tense so that it seems to be happening in the moment. It can describe the emotional benefits of achieving the vision. More often, however, the emotional benefits are implied as the vision tends to create different emotional responses for each individual. (Carver, 1997; Campbell, 1997)

Vision Components

The vision statement is the formal document that includes a desired future that is explained in a mission statement, a glossary of key terms, and a set of guiding or core values that support the mission statement. (Wall, Sobol, & Solum, 1992, pp. 32-33). In corporations, ...“mission statements—sometimes called value statements, credos, or principles—are the operational, ethical and financial guiding lights of companies. They are not simply mottoes or slogans; they articulate the goals, dreams, behavior, culture, and strategies of companies more than any other document.” (Jones & Kahaner, 1995, ix) It is common for an organization to have a statement of vision as well as mission statement that conveys how the organization will create the vision.

Symbolic representation of the vision can be very powerful if it captures the intended meaning. Corporations invest heavily in the development of corporate symbols that can convey the desired meaning of the corporate vision and mission. For example, use of “the Rock” to represent the stability of Prudential as a company is widely recognized. Similarly, one of the most powerful visions in native American lore is the White Buffalo Calf Woman. It is an image of transformation that has been shared among all tribes and nations for many centuries. However, the core story, or the essence of the meaning of the image, is maintained regardless of who tells it, yet it is totally unique as told by each individual.

Consequently, the vision statement, composed of a vision, a supporting mission statement, and core values, is the primary force for meaning-making throughout the organization. It creates a common understanding of what distinguishes the organization from other organizations (Abrahams, 1995). It creates a special identity (as compared to other organizations). This special identity taps into the power of unified diversity. More specifically, at the core of every individual within the organization will be a shared or common understanding that may not be expressed in words beyond the vision statement itself. However, the meaning of the vision statement touches parts of the person that is unique to them individually and yet binds them organically to everyone else. In many ways, it is the creation of a community comprised of many individuals held together by common meaning (Lewis. 1997).

Core Values

Over the last few decades, organizations have recognized that the vision must be steeped in common understanding and meaning. This led to conscious development of core values that would support the vision and how the organization hopes to be in the world. A value is an enduring belief pertaining to preferable personal or social behaviors and outcomes from such behavior (Rokeach, 1973). “It is the absolute or ‘black or white’ learning of values that more or less assures their stability and endurance” (Bumpus & Munchus, 1996, p. 169). “Collectively.... value systems provide an inner, often invisible, governance system which can allow individuals and their organizations to stay on course in turbulent times” (Kriger & Hanson, 1999, p. 302). More basically, “[c]ommon values are the glue which binds an organization together; they motivate and create a sense of community” (Brytting & Trollestad, 2000, p. 55).

“Today’s organizations, both profit and not-for-profit, have to balance an increasing array of conflicting forces and values. Stakeholder demands are diverse and numerous. No individual is in a job without conflicting demands—for innovation and stability, for quality and efficiency, for goal clarity and flexibility, for short-term results and long term effectiveness” (Kriger & Hanson, 1999, p. 302). Moreover, within this malaise of conflicting interests, “[a] fundamental issue in organizations is that ‘right’ human relationships are essential for effectiveness in our work systems”(p. 305). At issue as discovered by many organizations is that if the organization does not “stand for something” through a set of organizational values, then “it stands for nothing.” In other words, organizational success is dependent upon organizational values that convey a deep concern for the employees as individuals and that reinforces the meaning and purpose of the organization (Kouzes & Posner, 1995). “With people-oriented values, successful organizations were found to use employee groups to solve problems, promote cooperative interaction, and have employees influence important issues” (Tjosvold, Dean. 1998, p. 44).

Visioning Process

As a process, developing an organizational vision has been done in a variety of ways. Some organizations have an individual or a team develop a vision statement, comprised of a statement of vision, a mission statement, and/or set of core values. Some base the vision statement on their intuition and personal knowledge of their organization and the external environment, while others complete extensive research of the internal strengths and weaknesses, the competition, if applicable, and the external environment, including the economic, political, and social climates. Once the vision is developed, it is shared with other individuals for review, revision, and acceptance. In some organizations, this process may involve officers and directors. In other organizations, it might involve all levels of management, and in others, it may involve representation from all ranks within the organization (Abrahams, 1995; Carver, 1997; Nanus, 1992; Wall, Sobol, & Solum, 1992).

An alternative method of developing a vision is to quest or search for the vision as done by indigenous and religious leaders for thousands of years. As a process, it relies on what is inside the people seeking to develop the vision and yet can incorporate the findings of the various qualitative and quantitative research methods2. Harrison Owen has brought this form of visioning process into modern organizational meetings through his development of the process called Open Space Technology. (Owen, 1997a; 1997b).

Figure 1: Gestalt Awareness Process
Active, Directed Awareness Open, Undirected Awareness
Goes to the world Lets the world come to you
Forces something to emerge Waits for something to emerge
Uses Structures/framework to guide what you wish to see, hear, etc. Investigates without being organized or “prejudiced” in any way as to what you wish to see hear, etc.
Focuses questioning; strives for a narrow, sharp field of vision Maintains widest peripheral vision; little foreground and everything of equal importance
Attends to things in terms of knowledge of how they work, what is present and missing in a normative sense. Is naive about how things work; hopes to find something new about how things work
Searching of sensory modalities Receptive use of sensory modalities
Supports work by content values and conceptual biases Values are process-oriented, tend to be content free

(Nevis, 1987, 11)

Vision Questing

Vision questing, in native American terms, is a different process than the visioning done in most corporations and organizations. Using the Gestalt awareness process model, corporations and organizations tend to lean more towards an “active, directed awareness” model to establish a vision whereas vision questing would be an ”open, undirected awareness” model. In truth, the actual process involves both forms of awareness, whereas depending on the focus and intent of the organization, one of the forms of awareness becomes more figural in its use.

Native American Approach

Riddington (1996) suggests how the open, undirected awareness process works in the native American visioning traditions. The fourteen fundamental principles are Tao-like in their presentation. For those that have not experienced the visioning process, the principles might seem like oriental philosophies filled with paradoxical riddles.

Visioning is a personal process that is begun in isolation however it is fundamentally conversational and social. Implicit to this principle is that we are never truly alone. At a minimum, when in isolation we are left with nothing but the internal though­ts and compelling pictures of one’s self. These thoughts and pictures lose their power to dictate how we see the world and begin to make a transition that returns us to relatedness. In organizations, this would be a shift from dictates and discussions to dialogues.

Even though it may seem that nothing is happening at the time, it is the experience that changes the person, the group, and/or the organization. The questing process is like opening the eyes for the first time. Initially, the personal and social constructs of “what is” reality clouds the awareness. As the questing melts these constructs, a new and/or broader way of perceiving evolves. Often it is like a deep, internal knowing that surface through the creation and/or acceptance of compelling internal pictures.

The experience enables us to become more of whom we are or what we are and therefore changes how we are in the world. Questing is like allowing the innermost parts of whom we are to surface and shine within our awareness and therefore our day-to-day world. This is similar to the paradoxical theory of change which states that the more fully we are able to be whom we are, the more we will change

Visions come to children and to adults that can make themselves like children. This principle is similar to Dannemiller’s approach to bring open-mindedness together with open-heartedness. It is that place where judgment is suspended and playfulness is possible. It is the place where “what is” is defined moment-by-moment instead of through various internal dictates from the past.

Vision comes when we are humble and pitiable. Vision questing in its earliest form h­as been called “crying for a vision” and “lamentation3” It is more recently referred to as being recepti­ve and vulnerable, at the boundary of oneself, and/or maki­ng contact with the Self or Others at the edge of discomfort. It is at that place where the veiled defenses of how to be in the world are lifted, much like the moment before it is acknowledged that the emperor has no clothes.

Vision’s power comes as we listen to our own, internal stories. We all carry voic­es from the past as well as the unwritten, yet indelibly known rules of being a member of a family or organization . Gestalt theory refers to these as introjects—ima­ge creating and behavior controlling concepts that were swallow­ed whole. These introjects maintain imag­es unconnected to the present yet are still impacting every moment of life. In many ways, they are the personal and/or social constructs we have maintained as how we do ourselves. Vision questing encourages these internal stories to surface. As these internal stories are heard, old stories can begin to be reborn.

Vision’s power comes as we learn to communicate with our deepest selves. As we communicate with our deepest selves, fears and “unspeakabl­es” become clear so that we can release what is no longer applicable. Old dreams and hopes surface to remind the individual and/or the organization of the forgotten self—whom we really are.

Vision’s power comes when we can honor dreams that energize the very essence of whom we are and how we want to be in the world. Remembering the dreams of the soul, reminds us of our sense of purpos­e and that which creates meaning in life. It is often referred to that which soothes the soul, whereas forgetting one’s dream so as to comply with social expectations is what burnishes the soul.

Vision’s power comes to us when we can be open to something greater than ourselves. In religious terms, this would be referred to as the power of Spirit, God, the Great Mystery, All That Is, Buddha, etc. In personal and organizational terms, all of these descriptions apply, but the essence of this sense of something greater than ourselves is also tied to our sense of relatedness or belonging to something larger than ourselves. In the U. S. Marines it is call Espirt de Corp...t­he spirit of the corp. In many books, the complementary action of one that understands it is called service.

Vision’s power comes as we listen to the stories around us. The heart begins to open as we listen­ to others, pondering what is being said without judgement, and noticing how the story is physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually impacting us. It is not creating a story in a response that can be used to keep distance between our souls. It is allowing the stories around us to touch our heads and hearts. Part of the success of most all large scale changes is through story telling.

Vision’s power comes when the story of a person’s life joins the circle. Building sufficient ground for a clear and compelling picture to surface enables the person to regain a sense of community with all of mankind and nature and to assume responsibility for one’s place in the world. Hence, as the vision of the individual surfaces and joins with others, a deep sense of belonging occurs. This belonging becomes the container that holds the shared vision.

Power of the vision comes when a person realizes a story that already exists. Often the vision is experienced as a deep-knowing. It is akin to double loop learning and the 100th Monkey phenomenon. It is something that already existed, however the awareness of the deep knowing is new. Hence, much of what makes a true vision so powerful is the development of awareness of what has always existed.

The power of vision comes when we add a new episode to that story. Creation of the personal vision of how the world is different because of this single person, or the realization that fate is not what happens to us; it is what we are, if we are true to ourselves. Hence, it is like the phrase “coming into one’s own” wherein the individual has stepped fully into whom they are as a mature and contributing adult.

As an organization, the vision becomes an awareness of how the world will be different because of its existence. The experience is akin to understanding the fullness of existence in terms of people that will be fed and not the number of jobs provided or in the improved quality of life and not in the amount of profit made. Vision provides depth to the organization.

The power of vision comes when the story of a person’s life becomes that of life as a whole. The questing process results in a sense of Interrelatedness. This is the basis of the Lakota phrase Mitakye Oyasin, which means All One Tribe or all my relations. It is the sense of oneness or wholeness with all of life. It is a deep-knowing that each action of each individual or organization has significant consequences for the lives of all forms of life. Such understanding shifts the focus to a truly world view.


The implementation of the vision questing as a model for the work was two-fold. First, the fourteen points were used as guidelines or guiding principles. As a process that is investigating an open undirected form of awareness building, it is contradictory to try to solidify each of the fourteen points into an exact procedure to be used in the visioning process. Rather, it functions more as a set of principles superimposed over the visioning process. Second, beneath these superimposed principles, the actual process involved using open-ended questions, free association, and dialogue. Spread over six months and approximately 10 meetings, the process proved to be challenging and fruitful.

Process and Results

On April 23, 2000, the author met with the executive officers, board chair, and two managers. The meeting continued the dialogue established two weeks earlier. Acting as a facilitator, the meeting continued to build ground between the group and himself and towards developing a new vision of the organization. The initial focus was to revise the vision of the agency, the mission statement, and incorporate cultural values that drive the agency as part of a revised strategic plan. Five or six more meetings were to be held to continue this process. Anticipated completion time for the project was August of 2000.

Impact of Team Intervention

The officers, managers, and several directors noted that the intervention by the team from the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland was impactful and had caused a shift in thinking and acting for each of them. For example, during a presentation to acquire an agency partnership concerning the Rites of Passage program, the program director provided a history of the program, including its derivation from the African-American principles of Kwanzaa. He noted that he was surprised that he could name and own these principles in public without a negative reaction. Another member noted that he was concerned that the black churches may have a problem with the agency advocating it’s cultural heritage so openly. These two statements reflect the perceptual range of the organization. On the one hand, there is a desire to incorporate the cultural heritage into the organization’s public presentation. On the other hand, there is continued concern that there will be negative repercussions to the organization for such public displays.


The group asked the author to develop a sample vision or mission statement for the group to use. Instead, the author asked the group begin to think about vision statements. To assist in this process, the author provided a small hand-out that briefly discussed the fourteen point visioning process that was being employed (Riddington). In addition, a questionnaire was issued as an assignment for the next meeting.(See Figure 2). The questions were designed to uncover what internal image or dream that each of the members carried and/or possibly shared with others in the agency.

Figure 2: Visioning Questions

What excites you about East End Neighborhood House?

Are there stories about East End that will help others understand your excitement?

What excites you about your work at East End?

Are there stories about your work that will help others understand your excitement?

Subsequent Meetings

May 22, 2000

The officers, managers, and directors met to discuss visioning and to try to determine the driving forces of the agency through the answers to the questionnaire issued at the prior meeting. Each person took turns answering the questions. The focus was to share the stories about the organization that the group held as impactful to them personally. The answers and questions are as listed in Figure 3.

Figure 3: Visioning Questions with Answers

What excites you about East End Neighborhood House?

“The new building–combining the new with the old”

“The children’s programs”

“The people”

“It is a privilege to live and work and have an impact on the local neighborhoods and overall community”

“The people–the community”

“Collaboration is respected, internally and externally”

“we’re cutting edge in service offering”

“Sense of family amongst everyone”

“The possibilities are endless with the staff, the board, the community.

Are there stories about East End that will help others understand your excitement?

None given

What excites you about your work at East End?

“Freedom of expression amongst officers and directors”

“Support for new ideas”

“Support for each other—we cover each other’s back”

“Same values and culture as being at home”

“We care about people, each other”

“East End is an extension of home–it is safe, comfortable”

“I feel supported as a person”

“The energy and dynamics of the people working together”

“The opportunity to fully be who you are”

Are there stories about your work that will help others understand your excitement?

None Given

Other Comments


After each person had shared their stories, the author asked the group to provide single words that describe the East End Neighborhood House. The group cited the following words:

Safe, comfortable, family, caring, community, culture, safe-space, comprehensive, continuous, holistic, incubator, organic, evolving.

Next the group was asked to brainstorm symbols or images that might reflect the East End Neighborhood House. The group described the following:

Cradle to grave: The agency provides client services from pre-birth to post-death.

Based on the above exercises, the group was asked to try to develop a single sentence that would describe the dream or vision of what could happen to the local community if East End Neighborhood House is successful. What would the local community look like?

The group played with the list of words and images that had been developed until the following sentence was created:

A safe, caring community holding space for others.

The meeting ended with the group assigned the responsibility to consider that vision statement

June 7, 2000

The officers, managers, and directors met to discuss any thoughts or feelings that had developed subsequent to the last meeting. Two members noted that they were not sure that the statement meant anything. When asked to elaborate, both noted that they liked the old mission statement. The remaining members noted that they liked the new statement. Each was asked to describe what they liked about the statement or what it meant to them. The consensus was that it described what each of them hoped will happen to the local community if East End Neighborhood House is successful. It was elaborated that the local community is predominantly low-income, with significant drug abuse and alcoholism. The crime rates tend to be high making the community to feel unsafe.

The meeting ended with the group asked to take the time to describe in their own words what the tentative vision statement means.

June 19, 2000

The author met with the officers, managers, and directors. Asked them to report their thoughts on the vision statement since the last meeting. See Figure 4.

Figure 4: Comments to Vision Statement

“It says that we are a stop along the way of life”

“The vision statement reflects our foster grandparents programs–holding space for others”

“It reflects or captures the history of the agency and where it is going”

“It reflects who we are”

Each of the officers, managers, and directors was polled to verbally express any hesitancy towards the new statements. It was agreed that the vision statement reflected the agency.

A review of the information concerning vision statements as they relate to mission statements was done. It was briefly noted that a mission statement reflects how the organization will operationalize the vision. It was noted that the mission statement mirrors the vision in terms of describing what the organization must fully reflect to be able to accomplish the vision. The group made several comments as shown in Figure 5.

Figure 5: Comments on Components of a Mission Statement

“East End is a caring community”

“We provide services for all of life’s passages”

“We care”

“We’re a family”

“We provide a safe place for people of all ages”

The group began to formulate a sentence that would describe the mission of East End Neighborhood House based on the prior approved vision statement and the comments in the exercise. Several sentences were developed until the group felt that the following represented the East End Neighborhood House.

A caring community, safely aiding others in life’s passages.

The author issued a set of values adapted from the Kwanzaa principles. Each member was asked to review the mission statement and the principles for the next meeting. Noteworthy is that through conversation with officers outside the meeting, an additional principle pertaining to honor and respect was added to the Kwanzaa principles.

Figure 6: Values Supporting the Vision and Mission

The principles of Kwanzaa provide wisdom and guidance in setting values..

July 19, 2000

The officers, managers, and directors met. The vision statement was approved with little discussion. All were in agreement that it reflected the vision of the agency. The proposed mission statement was reviewed. All agreed that the mission statement reflected the agency. The statement incorporates the services that are provided by the agency. To ensure a consensus, each member was polled for comments and any concerns that might subvert acceptance of either statement.

Because the proposed Kwanzaa principles were already a part of the culture of the organization, they were reviewed and approved.

The author issued a revised service brochure that incorporated language more consistent with the principles/values of the agency. Furthermore, the service offering was rearranged to incorporate the cradle to grave concept. Finally, a tree of life was incorporated as a symbol to reflect the agency. Each officer, manager, and director was assigned to review the brochure for changes. In addition, with the vision statement mission statement, and core principles completed, each officer and/or manager was assigned responsibility to review the existing strategic plan. Furthermore, each officer and/or manager was to revise the plan for the next five to ten years.

August 22, 2000

The officers, managers, and directors met to review the strategic plan in its entirety, now incorporating the new vision statement, mission statement, and core principles. Regression developed as several members wanted to make further revisions to each of the prior approved parts of the strategic plan–vision, mission, principles. These changes were style preferences. The group agreed to reopen the issue and make the changes. Approval would be withheld until the next meeting when all changes would be incorporated into the document.

The group reviewed the sample brochure. Several stylistic changes were suggested and approved. The brochure was approved to be sent to the printer and then used for marketing purposes of the East End Neighborhood House.

September 21, 2000

The officers, managers, and directors officially met to review the plan with the changes from the prior meeting. The strategic plan was approved with all the revisions from the prior meeting.


The intervention was successful. The organization worked through the visioning process and created a culturally congruent vision statement, mission statement, and set of core values/principles, which were incorporated into marketing materials and a revised strategic plan. Moreover, it is believed by the author and the President/CEO of the organization that much of the success was created by adapting Owen’s “open space technology” as the meeting format and by adapting the native American principles for a vision quest. In terms of impact, it is believed that the process enabled “unthought knowns” to crystalize at the individual and group levels.

Technologies Used

The open space technology and the vision quest formats were critical to the success of this organization. Both procedures utilize an open, undirected approach to the creative process and awareness building. This non-judgmental approach allowed each individual, and the organization as a whole, to be fully present to what was being evoked from the process. As a result, during the formation of the vision statement it was revealed that each individual had a shared image or concept of how the work being done by the organization would make a difference in the local community.

The most interesting and difficult aspect of the use of the technologies was for the author to remain outside of the process. When discussions became difficult and the energy of the meetings became low during the development of the vision statement, it was common for those in attendance to demand that the author complete the tasks or to blame the author for the process taking so long. However, once the vision statement had been finalized, the process accelerated. The mission statement was developed in one-fourth the time that it took for the vision statement.

Use of Self

Impactful interventions throughout the process were the author’s “use of self”. In Gestalt theory, it is believed that the relationship between the consultant and the client is essential to the process. To develop this relationship, the consultant must be congruent. (Nevis, (1987). “An oversimplified definition of congruence is that one looks like one feels, says what one feels and means, and acts in accordance with what one says. Such congruence develops trust.” (Satir, 2000, pp. 21-22)

The power of this “use of self” can be understood in an example. “One of the characteristics of the dysfunctional...system is a lack of constructive feedback between members regarding the impact of their behavior on each other. When the therapist [or consultant] does not allow his or her own self to be present with a [client], the therapist [or consultant] operates under the same system as the [client]. When, however, the therapist [or consultant] uses his or her own reactions as a therapeutic tool [or an awareness building intervention], by sharing with the [client] how she or he is impacted by what is happening, and asking how his or her actions are impacting the [client], a new way of operating is modeled which can effectively change the...system.4” (Baldwin, 2000, pp. xxii)

The author commonly reported his internal experience during the meetings including his concerns about being “too public” as a person of color—native American and how to be inclusive to other races without negating the anguish that has been experienced from racism. The impact of such disclosures appears to have increased the level of trust between the members of the organization and the author. This trust became imperative during discussions surrounding the brochure. Several members expressed their outrage at the white community. Momentum started to build towards developing the brochure around black culture using language that could be viewed to exclude the white population. The author was able to redirect the energy by acknowledging the outrage and reminding the group that the agency was originally a white agency that has served a mixed community for the last few decades.

Racial Identity

The author’s racial identity impacted the results. It is believed that the frame of reference as a native American is similar to this organization’s world view. The author often used words such as “tribal”, “communal”, and “community” as ways to frame how he saw the organization. In addition, because the author openly makes-meaning of what is happening from an experiential and a spiritual perspective, it is believed that the organization was more receptive to exploring the incorporation of cultural and spiritually based principles.

The Organization’s Racial Identity

It is noteworthy that the board of directors, officers, and managers had a shared understanding and/or belief concerning the negative repercussions that result from the expression of black cultural values in a white world. Though beyond the scope of this report, an analysis of the organization’s racial identity development may reveal insights that could prove useful for the client. For example, in Cross’ model for black racial identity development, within the pre-encounter stage of development, one of the characteristics is that the “person believes that incorporation, integration, or assimilation is the black man’s most effective weapon for solving his problems.” (Hall, Cross, & Freedle, 1972, pp. 159). Further study within this organization might reveal that the stages of racial identity development correlate with organizational development, and that the organizational stage of development is independent of the stages of individual development. As such, it may assist in the developmental process of the organization to measure the stages of development of the officers and directors, and then of the organization. (Helms, 1990) Insights into these stages of development would allow the agency to examine its operating assumptions, and determine if any of them might be impacting the agency’s effectiveness.

Implications for Racial Identity

The study reveals that cultural values may be critical to organizations of color and possibly all organizations. Typically, these are developed as codes of ethics or codes of conduct, but rarely include cultural specificity that would more personalize the meaning making. Moreover, this study suggests that identifying the stage of racial identity development at an organizational and at an individual level will be a source of insight if not critical to the creation of a shared vision for any organization. The shared belief that this organization could not be culturally expressive without losing its” white” sources of funding suggests that individuals as well as organizations move through a developmental process.

Research supports the idea of a developmental process. “Scientific and nonscientific literature concerning identity transformation among black Americans falls into two categories: (a) nonprocess and (b) process. The nonprocess work focuses on differences between conservative and militant black Americans in terms of traits, attitudes, opinions, and other personal characteristics. Work representing this point of view concentrate on simple before-and-after explanations in which specific and general components of the behavior of nonmilitant persons are contrasted with those of militant ones....The process-oriented works attempt to describe each of several stages, states or levels, that a person or group traverses in identity transformation. The work emanating from this point of view emphasizes the details of what a person under goes during the process of change. Moreover, it attempts to uncover some of the mechanisms that initiate and consolidate many of the stages. It is well to point out here that...[the author joins others in the belief]... that this approach gives a deeper and more accurate insight into black transformations in identity.” (Hall, Cross, & Freedle, 1972, pp156-157.)

In this case, the shared belief became an inhibiting factor in how this organization functioned. Assessing these stages of development at an individual level would provide insights into how people relate to their own race and to people of other races. Clearly, this could begin to allay some of the unspoken issues of “getting along” in our changing multi-cultural and multi-racial world.

Assessing these stages of development at an organizational level has the potential to provide insights into the developmental stages of organizations. It appears that the application of racial identity theory to organizations would begin to explain the different levels of embracing social justice and diversity management. Several people (Jackson & Hardiman, 1983; Helms, 1990, 1994) have focused on the development of the racial identity theory at the individual level. Others (Jackson & Holvino, 1988; Thompson & Carter, 1997) have focused on the implications of racial identity in terms of the stages of development of a multi-cultural organization and the incorporation of racial identity theory in the development of a diversity management program for organizations. As an extension of this work by others and in this study, it appears that being able to determine the stage of development of the organization’s racial identity would reveal insights that would enable new creative solutions to the racial and multi-cultural challenges of our world.

In terms of specific research for this social service agency, the belief that white funding sources might withhold money and/or that African-American churches might negatively react to the public presentation of cultural values was not tracked or incorporated into any follow-up form of study. It was discussed and concluded by the author and the agency directors and executive officers that these were most likely unfounded projections. Nonetheless, it would be interesting to track and determine if the agency does experience a reduction of funding and/or a backlash from the black churches in the coming months following the printing of the new marketing materials and the revised strategic plan both of which incorporate the new vision, mission and cultural values.

Visioning Processes

The study suggests two major issues for future study. First, the study used the premise (Carver, 1997, Riddington, 1996) that the vision statement must reflect how the world or the environment being impacted will be different. The more typical approach used by organizations is to describe how the organization will be different. Implicit in this alternative approach to visioning is that the organization is responsible for what it creates, not only within itself as an organization, but also as an organization within the larger economic, political, social, and spiritual systems of the world. Instead of the narrow view of making widgets, this alternative perspective includes the impact on the world from the process of making widgets. Studies of organizations that incorporate this form of social responsibility into the visioning process would reveal the degree of myopia present in most visions.

Second, in terms of diversity, when the premise of how the world will be different because of an organization’s existence is included in the visioning process, the implications are more easily moored to an organization. As the single most defining statement of an organization’s purpose, the vision should clearly indicate the organization’s desired social, political, spiritual, and/or economic impact from its actions. If diversity within an organization is actually a goal, then the organization should reflect the diversity of the society from which it exists. Generally, this appears to occur more reactively wherein the organization reflects what presently exists within the larger social, economic, political, and/or spiritual systems. As a new process, the visioning process described in this study suggests that it is the responsibility of the individual organizations to create a vision of how the social, political, spiritual, and/or economic systems should and/or will change as a result of the organization. Research on visioning statements within this more inclusive perspective could be revealing for organizations as well as for larger systems.


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1This part was adapted from Stevenson, (2001). Developing a Vision for a Non-Profit Social Service Agency. Unpublished thesis. Cleveland State University.

2A native American description of this statement provides a deeper perspective. “In the Turtle Mountains, North Dakota, Harry Boise...was with me eight months. At his request, I allowed him to teach the old Chippewa and Cree Indians there the modern scientific attitude with its view of things....The chief among his pupils was old Sakan’ku Skonk (Rising Sun).....But Rising Sun, speaking the conclusion of all, pronounced ‘the scientific view’ inadequate. Not bad, or untrue, but inadequate to explain, among many other things, how man is to find and know a road along which he wishes and chooses to make this said progress unless the Great Manitou by his spirit guides the mind of man, keeping human beings just and generous and hospitable.” (McG. 6-7)

3A passionate expression of grief. A song, piece of music, or poem expressing grief or regret.

4An oral communications from Virginia Satir, November, 1985).

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