Reimagining Expertise: Curiosity, Shared Purpose, and Who We Invite into the Room

By Dr. Shira D. Epstein, EdD and Dr. Andrea Jacobs, PhD

We have all experienced the typical gathering of Jewish educational leaders and funders many times over: Launching the day with a keynote speaker, notepad and pen provided, followed by creation, in small groups, of bullet points on large Post-its smacked askew to the walls. Sneaking out during a breakout session to chat with an old friend, as it is the only opportunity for connection. We furtively return emails during a frontal presentation, as we cannot relate to the advice the panelist is sharing; it feels too distant from our own experiences. A wrap-up with a moderated panel at the end of the day where new ideas are offered. The conversations are often rich and textured. Yet, once we leave, the dialogue is complete and our notes are relegated to the bottom of a pile in our offices. We are so used to this model that it is often looked to as the gold standard. What happens when we design a convening, or gathering, through the lens of “relational leadership” and a stance of “emergent strategy” rather than expert solutions?

When the Leadership Commons launched its Gender Equity and Leadership in Jewish Education Initiative this past year, we wanted to imagine a different way of designing convenings that could be replicated both within our programming and offered as a model within Jewish educational leadership. We set the intention of bringing people together to both consider alternative models of leadership that might be implemented and to hear from institutions that support adaptive, systemic change. Through our work with Didi Goldenhar, co-author of Leveling the Playing Field, and Dr. Elana Stein Hain, scholar in residence and director of faculty at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, we reflected upon our assumptions of why we bring people together, starting with re-visioning: “Who is an expert?” “What is expertise?” Didi and Elana supported us in starting from a place of curiosity, designing a series of convenings where we would begin with asking questions, rather than launching from a modeling of solutions.

We recognized early on that our project was not simply about equalizing the numbers of men and women in leadership. Informed by feminist principles, we would need to question the models of sharing our expertise that had become the norm, as well as make transparent the choices that we made in pushing against these norms. Our choices in crafting the convenings were informed by Emergent Strategy by Adrienne Marie Brown, who espouses a “relational model” of leadership: “We would organize with the perspective that there is wisdom and experience and amazing story in the communities we love, and instead of starting up new ideas/organizations all the time, we would want to listen, support, collaborate, merge, and grow through fusion, not competition” (Brown, p. 10). We approached this year and our mandate to develop convenings from the perspective of what it looks like to gather and share expertise in a different way. Thus, we informed our design by who was invited into conversation, as well as how we can support those in the room to interact and guide them to be present.

We asked ourselves: What do our convenings look like when we start from a place of cultivating curiosity about change, rather than the assumption that we are gathered together to learn solutions from a small group of experts? What if we adopted the stance that we all bring expertise to the conversation and our job is to find those people who can push our thinking deeper? With this approach, strategies for change emerge from the group in the context of relationships—asking questions, sharing learning, and adopting an experimental mindset. All participants, through dialogue and experimentation, are able to identify interventions and strategies that are most relevant to their context. Those in attendance feel a deeper sense of ownership to the emerging ideas. Thus, they will be motivated to continue to explore and implement, with a greater chance of larger-scale success taking root.

We also drew upon this “relational model” in recognizing that there were others in our networks who had created similar programs with the goals of generating new ideas and questions. We reached out to them and asked them to share how they engaged in their own processes. What questions did they ask? What worked? What didn’t?

We started the day by asking participants to engage in thinking together. The convenings this spring in NYC and Chicago took participants through a process of examining:

  • Via Women and Power: What are our assumptions about what constitutes Jewish leadership? What models do we favor and employ?
  • Via a panel of offering alternative models of text teaching, imagining leadership, and using a gender lens in schooling: How can we ask the “What if?” questions and arrive at this from a place of curiosity?
  • Via small break-out sessions: How can we question ourselves around what we could try out and employ? What could we accomplish if we had more support to try, fail, and learn? What risks to create change might we take?

This approach to convenings melds with “design thinking,” considering how a day is structured in order to enable generative conversation, where the challenges we face are not solved through any one solution, but rather by asking new and different questions, trying different strategies, learning, and adapting. The preparation for these conversations launched from the moment we reached out to potential presenters. We invited those who have been engaged in trying out new ideas and models of leadership to share; we let them know that the emphasis was on what they learned in their efforts rather than presenting a polished result.

To guide our panelists, we asked them to present based upon the following questions:

  • What was the challenge that sparked an exploration to try something new in your setting? What was the catalyst for change?
  • What have you tried?
  • What could you try?
  • What have you learned and how does that lead to your next step?

The convenings are a model of how one fosters an inquisitive stance and engages within these day-long gatherings as a learning community. The goal is to apply lessons from success and failure to generate new ideas relevant to our own contexts and to recognize the shared challenge of creating change. We are each part of larger emergent wholes that can work together and support each other in making respective successes a reality under a unifying, shared purpose. We aim to shift from a solution-driven model to focus on the day itself as an opportunity for movement building and networks of support that are infused with shared curiosity, a sense of purpose, and a real opportunity to instigate large-scale change.

Dr. Shira D. Epstein, EdD, is assistant professor of Jewish Education in The William Davidson School, serving as area coordinator in Jewish Education, as well as coordinator of the concentration in Pedagogy and Teaching. Shira has authored curricula for JWI and MyFace, focused on healthy relationship building and choosing kindness. She served as founding director of the Evaded Issues in Jewish Education project and co-created Educational Jewish Moments – a methodology for addressing gender issues in schools. She is currently writing a book on using drama as pedagogy for engaging learners in “power talk.”

Dr. Andrea Jacobs, PhD, is the project director of the Gender Equity and Leadership in Jewish Education Initiative for the Leadership Commons at The William Davidson School. Andrea is also cofounder and partner at Rally Point for Collaborative Change, a consulting practice that focuses on working across differences to facilitate transformative change. As an educator, researcher, and organizational consultant, she focuses on developing resources and training programs to address gender equity, LGBTQ inclusion, and racial justice for a wide range of educational and communal organizations.

This article was originally published in Gleanings, the ejournal of the Leadership Commons of The William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of JTS; reprinted with permission.