It was 1973 when Beth Mount visited a state institution for individuals with intellectual disabilities for the first time. Looking back now that at that first visit, Beth remembers her awakening to the situations of people with significant disabilities who were left in custodial and institutional care and the witnessing of conditions that were dehumanizing and not supportive. She remembers the sensation she had in that moment that change was truly needed.
For the almost 50 years following, Beth Mount has worked towards the ideal that every person with a disability can be a valued member of community life, promoting the positive futures and potentials of people with disabilities throughout the world who are together working to create more inclusive communities.
“A Powerful Sense that Another World was Possible”
Beth views that moment in 1973 as inseparable from the context and learnings of her youth growing up during the civil rights era in Atlanta, Georgia.
“I grew up during racial desegregation in the 1960s. My childhood was affected in so many ways by the possibility of social change, and by the call to beloved community. There was a powerful sense that another world was possible. You had Dr King’s vision and leadership, and much of the civil rights movement was being lived out in Atlanta.”
“Then,” Beth continues: “to go to a state institution to discover yet another entire group of people, people with intellectual disabilities, who were being seriously dehumanized in the worst possible way, and at that time of awakening about human possibility. I felt inside of me this voice: “no, this doesn’t have to be this way, more is possible.’”
She has developed numerous initiatives to support community inclusion and innovative designs for individualized, self-directed supports with the emphasis on “Person-Centered Planning,” and in her work has often involved or embedded Theory U, Social Presencing Theater, and other intersections with the Presencing Institute. In discussing these Thriving Communities initiatives, Beth makes it clear she is certainly not alone: she works within a wide network of global inclusion activists who find creative ways to search for and amplify the positive as they work together to build more beloved communities.
From Industrial Care toward Relational Care
Beth introduces the context of her work, in her own voice:
“I’ll speak for America, because that’s where most of my work has happened, however thankfully there are beautiful, incredibly powerful examples all over the world. The industrial care system is so powerful [in the U.S.] and it is so invested in people being just clients and objects of the system,” Beth explains. “America epitomizes both capitalism and racism gone amok, and this shows itself in our industry and in our culture in a most extreme way. This structural violence leads to incredibly high levels of holding people back from their own freedom, holding people in the position of being labeled deficient, or poor, or dependent, and then segregated. In our work we frequently ask the question: ‘What more is possible?’ because people’s idea about what is possible is often so limited. Someone has to have the courage and commitment to be disruptive. Regrettably, we’ve often lost the sense that disruption is an important part of the process. This is our job in a sense, to disrupt our comfort levels, disrupt our old patterns, and disrupt the way it has been. That’s a great gift of Theory U in the way we practice it, because it is woven into civil and human rights, this notion that disruption is hugely important.”
Beth sees a majority of people still trapped in an industrialised care mindset, which is power over people, who are seen as clients, objects, or less than. Beth notes: “In the industrialized care world, we don’t see possibility because we’re not looking for it.’
“With Theory U, we look. We imagine that more is possible. We stay open to revelation and take the next step. We love people, we stay devoted to the creative process, and we stick with it for reasons we may never understand. So do what you can, with what you have, wherever you are.”
Organizational Change and Theory U
For the last fifteen years Beth has been using Theory U and Social Presencing Theater in her work with individuals, families, collectives, communities and organizations.
“Everyone involved in Theory U says this all the time,” relates Beth. “But this is a truth: the capacity for people to go deep into difficult situations and sustain real innovation over time is directly related to the quality of their relationships. You can’t do any of this without care, without love, without continual tending of relationships.”
Beth’s doctoral work in the 1980s was in political science and organizational change. From this work, she created Personal Futures Planning, one of the first Person-Centered planning methods.
“Many of the roots of the organizational change theories that I studied are also at the roots of Theory U,” Beth notices. “Person-Centered Planning is based on a style of interactive planning which, looking back on it, maps onto Theory U perfectly.” Beth came to this work in her own way, as she reflects back on her development of Personal Futures Planning — “that is going way back before we met Otto.”
When she did intersect with the work of the Presencing Institute, Beth and several of her colleagues, familiar with the work of Peter Senge, Ed Schein and many others calling for fresh ways to think about change, went to a workshop at the Omega Institute with Otto Scharmer and Peter Senge now 15 years ago.
“It was Woah! It was electrifying,” Beth remembers.
“At the organizational levels, people were still doing the same old styles of change: top-down, blueprint, technical planning that was completely mismatched to supporting innovation and individualized supports,” Beth recalls.
In Theory U she found a kindred and different way to think about change at an organizational level.
Then, In 2007, Beth and many colleagues began organizational learning institutes in New York State focused on supporting individuals with intellectual disabilities.
“This enabled us to bring teams together from throughout the state who were invested in Person Centered Planning at the individual level,” explains Beth, “while also grappling with change at the organizational level using Theory U as the roadmap.”
Beth and partners designed the first Learning Institute for New York State using mapping with Theory U. Since that first workshop, about 80 of these learning institutes have been hosted with Theory U as a heartbeat — even if the core team and the people involved in the learning institutes changes each time.
Social Arts and SPT at the Heart
Social Presencing Theater (SPT) and other social arts embedded in Theory U work captured Beth’s imagination and her heart. Beth and Arawana Hayashi, who leads SPT at the Presencing Institute, have had the opportunity to collaborate for the last fourteen years on different initiatives. The social arts “levels the playing field,” helping listen with our whole selves, and kindle creative action.”
“The social arts create fresh ways for people to cross over differences in a multi literate world,” Beth explains. “We level the playing field related to languages spoken, social class, intellectual ability, and literacy. The social arts support people to engage in other ways of knowing, to have insight together, to express their discoveries and work together in fresh ways. I don’t know how else to do this work without artful engagement.”
At the start of their long partnership, Beth and Arawana were able to host stakeholders at retreats during which people with disabilities and their allies engaged in conversations with organizational leaders. One such time, they grappled together for two days at the Garrison Institute with the question: “What does it look like to support innovation at all these different levels?” The impact of the Social Presencing Theater practices, small group conversations, and collective sense making, ran deep. Following a SPT exercise, Beth recalls that the then-Commissioner, who was head of office for people with developmental disabilities, a ten-billion-dollar entity in New York State, said:
“I’ve come to see that of our 10 billion dollar budget, about 98 percent of it is being spent on things people don’t want.”
There were other agency executives in that group who were in charge of large organizations who witnessed both this sentiment and their own journey; Beth recalls that people were deeply changed by that experience.
That learning journey, formally entitled “Job Path and Theory U; A collaboration using the Theory U approach to create solutions for disability inclusion in New York State,” was Beth’s first in bringing Social Presencing Theater to life in the service of a deep organizational change. It was selected as one of the top ten examples of “Creating Breakout Innovation” in an article by Joanna Levitt Cea and Jess Rimington featured in the 2017 Stanford Social Innovation Review.
In the future, Beth believes,
“I imagine that the social arts will have a bigger part in bringing people together and supporting people to co-create change. The next wave of young activists are wired for artful co-creation, and co-creation is going to be the life blood of new communities.”
Beth continues to find inspiration from Arawana Hayashi’s frameworks of Awareness-Based Social Art.
“The heart of this work is creative, so we try to incorporate a variety of art forms into all of these initiatives. We don’t talk so much about the methods, we just do the work with heart and art.”
Beth describes one project: the “Harlem Urban Innovators,” as an example of Awareness-Based Social Art. In listening to people and by graphically mapping their neighborhoods, the group recognized that while they were helping some find jobs, most people were still isolated from their community. They realized that the agencies involved needed to change their way of seeing, and invest more in working within neighborhoods. A video was produced about the Harlem Project, and it can be seen how Theory U practice is woven throughout, says Beth. Most importantly,
“the video demonstrates what it looks like and feels like when we’re doing the work at a deeper level as part of the fabric of a local community.”
Supporting Change Projects
From that initial spark in 1973, through her doctoral work in the 1980s, through many initiatives over the years, Beth has a part in supporting many people involved in countless change projects.
There’s a different core team for each of these initiatives, using their own combinations of Theory U as a way to think about change, both for individuals and for organizations. Beth says:
“Think about it as a gigantic puzzle, where there are pieces of people activated around change, who are working at it from whatever angle they have a hold of at the moment.”
For example, here are some of the 2022 initiatives focused on individuals with disabilities:
“Home Is the Heart of Shared Living:” a virtual international gathering of more than 200 people from 12 countries creating innovative ways for people to establish co-living situations.
“What More Is Possible?”: an in-person New York State gathering of 250 people whose goal is to strengthen participants to self direct rich lives in their communities.
“Pathfinding Outfitters”: 24 teams from the US and Canada who are co-designing supports that promote thriving relationships and neighborhoods.
“Just Us Cafe” a virtual platform for artists and activists exploring awareness-based social arts in their local communities.
New York Department of Health (DOH) Learning Institutes: supporting 8 cohorts of cross-sector providers, about 240 people each year, who are using Theory U informed practices to cultivate leadership, creativity, and innovation in Person-Centered Planning.
Much of the time, this work is made possible across the inclusion network because of the relational aspect, so that many people stay connected over time and continue to create reflective learning spaces. Much of this relational work takes time. There is a new cohort starting in early 2023 that includes eight organizations who began the U journey ten years ago; these teams are joining for a retrospective journey to discover what people have been learning about innovating in individualized supports.
Prototypes: from Seed to Impact
The growth of some of those initial prototypes has been astounding. From one college program in Staten Island for eight people, there are now five college programs throughout NYC with over three hundred graduates from every corner of the five boroughs. “Job Path” offers another example: fourteen years ago the agency began to support five people in customized employment. Customized employment can be an applied Theory U process, Beth explains, using “discovery, brain storming, creativity, prototyping, to get your foot in the door, setting out to make a seed become a real job, and then finding fresh ways to support people by changing organizations.” Now, they support three hundred and fifty people throughout New York city who work in employment with high job quality. Job Path has hosted many other organizations to use similar practices and bring change into their organizations.
“So this is where we say ‘look, a prototype can begin with one person, or five, of maybe ten people. Don’t push for big numbers in a top down way, just start, and then support viable ideas to grow over time. “
This capacity for people to generate change at the level of a small group resonates for Beth with the quote from Margaret Mead: Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.
“That’s it!,” Beth says. “In our community it’s not the theory that changes people, it’s a road map for how change can unfold. Our community is filled with so many stories of small groups who trust the process, start small, and then nurture small things to grow. The hardest part is working at the organizational level because if people in organizations are not able to innovate, then positive change is not sustainable. We are challenged, over and over again, to support people to change the way they think about personal and organizational support so that more is possible.”
Weaving Theory U into Practice
Beth rarely explicitly mentions Theory U or one specific framework, viewing instead the methodology as implicitly woven to inform tools and approaches that are context dependent.
“Our great challenge is to bring our hearts into deep listening spaces and then stick with people over time.
Particularly at the Grassroots level, Beth explains that
“people have been subjected to so many ‘experts’ who come across as knowing more, or knowing better, and intellectualizing and frankly seeming arrogant.”
In change practice, Beth finds it helpful to describe the many different audiences as five segments. This helps to create another map for exploring the work together. There’s the individual and family level, which is where Person Centered Planning enters, and then the organizational change work, which has more to do with “systems, money, and taking on structural violence.” The third is strengthening neighborhood belonging, as exemplified in the Harlem story.
“The fourth segment, which I think is very significant,” says Beth, “is supporting people to imagine better in small collectives. I think that’s where we keep our courage up. In almost all of my work, we bring small collectives of people, their families, and allies together where people can engage and learn together.”
This is a space between individual work and organizational work. Beth explains:
“The Harlem story is about neighborhoods, and you also get a feel for the collective of people at the local level who were on this journey together.”
And the fifth segment? It is the inner journey, described by Beth as
“the heart of everything, the inner work of being present, strengthening courage, and staying alive.”
In the Face of Attentional and Structural Violence
Beth is very clear about recognizing the barriers people face, and that staying present and alive when faced with obstacles, attentional violence, and structural violence, as well as the devaluation so woven into society — is difficult, and it is key.
“The issues that people are up against that relate to organizational change are so massive, and so if people try to figure it out on a large scale it’s just overwhelming. We stay stuck. People give up and/or end up doing more of the same. A Theory U approach liberates people to work at whatever level they can find a foothold for taking the next step. The possibility of co-initiating, co-sensing, letting inspiration come and then prototyping on a small scale is liberating. This helps people cut loose into a level of creativity that most organisational change methods do not cultivate. The Theory U space creates a wide range of possibilities in which everybody can be a leader. People can be leaders in their own lives and take the next step, a team can take on an initiative and make a huge difference just by focusing on one thing and then sending that off into the world and watching it multiply and grow. We saw that happen, over and over again.”
Hope for the Future: Leadership from Young People with Disabilities
Beth holds hope for the future.
“The most exciting thing for me is to see a very significant number of young people with disabilities becoming leaders,
says Beth, as she sees many young activists much more oriented towards inclusion, as well as the social arts.
“What will take the movement forward is a growing ability for allies like myself to support those young leaders to be the driving force on many levels.”
Beth does think the world is changing.
“I do think that the inclusion of so many people with disabilities has demonstrated that the fabric of communities is revitalized and becomes stronger by the presence of people who are bringing their gifts and their contributions to communities,” Beth says. “Many fires have already been lit in the hearts and souls of so many. As long as we don’t extinguish those embers, this next generation is bringing a whole new wave of what’s possible to the forefront.”
Beth notes that these days, institutions or organizations may say they are being “person-centered,” but it is not always the case in practice. The real shift needed, from Beth’s perspective and experience, is from
“extractive, industrialized care, to relational and restorative care. And relational care is a code language for love. The real shift towards love as the key element is a relational way of supporting people and supporting deep change, that’s such a very different way to think about the work.”
“There is the matter of the heart,”
says Beth, seeing the trajectory of her life as an artist and surrounded by artists as informing her work and practice.
“Artists have to fall in love with what they’re making or they don’t stick with it, otherwise it can just be too hard to bring something new into the world, especially against all odds.
Beth shares a quote from her story quilt mentor, Harlem artist and quilter Dindga McCannon:
“You have no idea how it will turn out, but you trust the process. You trust that what you do to create order (out of the mess) will heal the world, maybe not in your life time, but in some way you might never understand. Something always comes from your commitment to the process. You will have no idea what that might be… but the new is revealed through the creative process.”
As she says
“Everyone involved in Theory U says this all the time but this is a truth; the capacity for people to go deep into difficult situations and sustain real innovation over time is directly related to the quality of their relationships. You can’t do any of this without care, without love, without continual tending of relationships.”
To learn more, Beth Mount and John O Brien wrote a book: Pathfinders: People with Developmental Disabilities and Their Allies, Building Communities that Work Better for Everybody (Inclusion Press, 2015).
Interview and article by Kathryn Ghent
Editor Emma Paine