Thursday, January 2, 2014

Using the talking stick to understand organizations

What NASAGA Means to me.
Analyzing the results of the Play Talking Stick for empowerment and connection workshop.
By Tamara Stenn (, Dec. 2013

For a workshop at NASAGA (North American Simulation and Gaming Assoc.), Play Talking Stick for empowerment and connection, I experimented using an ethnographic research tool I developed to identify values and challenges in unfamiliar cultures.  I used it successfully in training workshop developed for two different studies and got a better understanding of how indigenous women experienced Fair Trade in Bolivia – as handicraft artists and as coffee farmers.  Each group reported data different than what was understood about them previously and what had been reported in others’ studies.  I found the talking stick training enabled people to speak openly about their experiences in an empowering, non-threatening way using their own voices and lenses.  This gave legitimacy to their feelings, perspectives and created a platform upon which further meaning could be developed.
I suspected this could be a useful tool for training needs assessment and community building in the US, especially in corporate training environments, where outside training was often used to “fix” something that was wrong.  I felt trainers did not always know the underlying dynamics of a department/organization and, like I found in my research, how others understood the situation was not always the same way the participants did. 

My NASAGA, Play Talking Stick for empowerment and connection, workshop was an experiment to see how this exercise worked in a US environment.  The following is a short report of the results followed by details of how the tool/workshop works.  Feel free to use this yourself.  Please tell me how it goes and let me know if you would like to be contacted for further follow-up.  Also please contact me to go over these steps if you are unsure of how it works.
Overall participants found NASAGA to be a warm, trusting family that supports, nurtures and understands them.  Fig. 1 captures the main themes that came from people’s monologues describing what NASAGA meant to them.  Participants spoke of how NASAGA is, “home, embracing, supported” and is a “really incredible positive experience.”  Participants spoke of inspiration in that they received advice, encouragement and guidance from others.  One participant explained, “I got all of the responses back I needed and really good ideas of things to do.”  On a personal level a participant explained, “it is a part of me and I am a part of it.”  This sentiment seemed to be shared by many in the group.  People felt supported professionally as well. “The person in front of me actually has the same dreams and totally gets where I am coming from,” explained one participant talking about the personal connections, inspiration and spiritual connectedness felt within NASAGA.
    (Fig. 1)  NASAGA, 2013

Reflecting upon each other’s experiences, the group identified some shared language about what NASAGA means to them collectively.  It is connection, belonging, the family one always wanted, welcoming, something to look forward to, high energy, excitement, comfortable, continuity, a span of integrated personal to professional interactions, understanding, generosity, sharing, inspiration, trust, safe, encouragement, big dreaming, real support, a place that will “help launch” and nurture possibilities, fun on steroids, and a blast.  The following wordl ( captures all that was said during the talking stick part of the session (Fig. 2).

                                                                                     (Fig. 2) NASAGA 2013

Going deeper the challenges of maintaining a NASAGA connection were discussed.  There is the cost of the event and also travel, though most agreed the event price was a “good value.”  There was also the challenge of taking the time to attend a NASAGA conference though participants agreed that five to four days were really essential to have three core days of feeling completely “in it.”  Though at times NASAGA can feel mentally and socially overwhelming, participants felt that there never seems to be enough one-on-one time with everyone or enough social interactions.  Most felt that a conference composed of 60 or so extroverted NASAGA members is perfect.  It was noted that all of NASAGA seemed extroverted.
Despite the challenges there were plenty of benefits to be associated with NASAGA.  These include the opportunity to “stay connected with people we love” and the fun nurturing environment.  Participants reported feeling revitalized, encouraged and that possibilities seemed, possible!  Participants felt they learned a lot, connected with peer mentors, and acquired new tools to make them more competitive in the marketplace.  They reported a positive ROI – for the investment of time, money and travel angst -  noting that, “the best things cost you something.”  In conclusion, it was “way worth it!” as one participant enthusiastically exclaimed. 

After experiencing Play Talking Stick participants brainstormed ways it could be used to support training.  It is a good tool for a check-in or debrief after an activity.  It could be used in a conflict situation to understand better the dynamics of the situation.  It could be used as an introduction where people share their experiences and feelings, it can be sued in organizational behavior situations to create a safe environment for sharing, to have executives and mid managers share thought together or separately and to build collaboration amongst disparate departments such as marketing and operations.  It is a brainstorming tool and can also be used with restorative circles.

My Play Talking Stick workshop: time 1 ½ - 2 hours, number of participants 6-21.
Participants sit in a circle.  The activity is introduced.  A voice recorder is placed in the center of the room.
The talking stick (a 12 inch long 1 inch wide branch or pole) is given to a person to start.  The person says their name (or not) and speaks as much as they want about the topic at hand.  All others listen.  When done talking, the speaker passes the stalking stick to the person to their left.  That person speaks while all listen.  The stick is slowly passed around the circle in this way, with one person speaking and all else listening.  Afterwards the voice recorder is turned off.
Participants are thanked for sharing and are then asked to identify the themes they heard emerging from the exercise.  The facilitator writes theses on a flip chart.  Then the facilitator takes another flip chart paper and divides it in half length-wise writing “Challenges” on one side.  The group identifies and talks about challenges they are currently facing which the facilitator jots them down.  Then the facilitator write “Benefits” on the other half and participants together share what these are (it is always good to end on a positive note).

Afterwards the facilitator transcribes and codes the spoken data from the tape.  Express Scribe is a great free program for transcribing data, I use the TAMS analyzer for data coding.  I look for common themes in what is spoken and identify them by a single word.  That word becomes my code for that theme.  I mark the text with that code each time I see that theme being referenced. TAMS then counts these up for me and pulls them from the text as coded items. This makes it easy for me to reference the exact phrase that I coded a certain way.  There is a free TAMS users guide online too.  I then take the TAMS counts and graph the quantified data using excel.  The group conversation that was captured on the flip chart paper can be analyzed against this core collected data.  One can look for repeated themes or dropped topics.  Items that were referenced during the talking stick but dropped in the group discussion can later be revisited to understand why – was the topic not important to the entire group?  Was it uncomfortable to talk openly about?  Was it merely forgotten or understood differently when in the group context?  (It is interesting to note that the talk of the spiritual aspect of NASAGA was lost in the large group discussions.)  Through Play Talking Stick, a more holistic, integrated, complex picture of an organization, department, or event emerges.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Rediscovering our own Suma Qamana

The United States was founded on a strong middle class. Since that time, distribution of wealth has become wildly unequal. We need to return to ideals advanced by Franklin and Jefferson and influenced by their observations of indigenous societies, especially The Iroquois. South Americans also are returning to these ideals, under the Aegis of the Inca Suma Qamana.
Popular indicators measure well-being and success by economic gain.  According to United Nations 2012 indicators, the US wins with the world’s highest GDP of $16.2 trillion.  Yet economic gain comes at a cost; the cost of the environment whose resources and space is used for production, people exploited for cheap labor, and community which is placed second to personal gain.  Besides great wealth, the US also has massive inequality.  It boasts the highest child poverty rate in the developed world with 21% of US children living in poverty according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development in February 2011, and an unprecedented accumulation of capital with the top 10% of US households controlling almost 75% of all wealth as explained economist, Richard Wolff.  This inequality and concentration of wealth, and power, is exactly what our forefathers set out to avoid when forming this country. 
The US was founded on principles of represented democracy, public opinion, shared property and “happy mediocrity,” as Ben Franklin liked to put it. These ideas were based on the indigenous ways of the Iroquois Confederacy which Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Hancock and many of the founding fathers knew well and were greatly influenced by.  The Iroquois Confederacy, formed more then 300 years before European settlers first arrived on the continent, united disparate warring tribes by focusing on collective gains, shared power and careful deliberation.  The Iroquois Confederacy was a democratic, cohesive, sustainable government and trade structure that met tribal needs and collectively solved challenges.  Over the centuries the US forefathers’ original indigenous-influenced ideals were eroded by greed, a loss of collective memory as native populations were decimated, and a growing lust for power and dominance by US leaders.
By 2006, the Inca descendents of the Andean region were tired of 500 years of unsuccessful development.  Though they followed the latest neo-liberal capitalist models, they were continually plagued by high poverty rates which the Economic Commission for Latin America reported fluctuated from 35% regionally to 70% in rural areas, and a according to the National Institute of Statistics, had a 7.3% infant mortality rate in 2007.  So upon electing a sympathetic indigenous president, Bolivians re-visited the times when things were better, before the Spanish conquest and colonization, to the Inca empire and Tiahuanaco era.  This was a time spanning more than 1,300 years with intact government and sustainable models of being.  Bolivia, being the most indigenous nation in Latin America, has a vibrant collective memory of governance and culture from that time.  Many people in rural areas still abide by rules and guidelines set up during pre-Inca times.  What resulted from this re-birth of indigenous knowledge was Suma Qamana in the native language of Aymara, or bien vivir in Spanish which means to live well together. 
The US does not have the opportunity to return to a collective, indigenous memory of how governance was in a time when people were content and needs met because this memory arguably no longer exists.  However, Suma Qamana offers a model that parallels those ideals.  Going back to the original doctrines and stated intent of our forefathers when setting up this country one finds many similarities from the Iroquois Confederacy-inspired government of that time to the ideas of Suma Qamana today.
There are six basic principles of Suma Qamana several of which match the principles the Iroquois Confederacy and the US forefathers also embraced.
·      Community first (working and thinking collectively)
·      Sufficient not efficient economy (slowing down and valuing community and nature over time and money)
·      Local production – local consumption (similar to the localvore movement and farmers markets)
·      Less is more (having what is needed but not more than that, no accumulation of excess wealth).
·      We are all part of mother earth (this links all people as having a shared humanity, making us more alike than not).
·      Owning our health, learning and communication (this is about shared knowledge and working together to care for each other)
As Bruce E. Johansen wrote in Forgotten Founders, the US Constitutional values based on the Iroquois Confederacy are as follows:
Represented democracy.  One of the core principles of the Iroquois Confederacy as explained by a commission of colonial leaders in 1775 was, “Divided, a single man may destroy you; united, you are a match for the whole world.”  Male leaders were elected by women from different tribal regions to represent their ideas and beliefs.  Leaders returned to the tribe to consult with the women before any decision was made.  If men did not represent the tribe correctly, they were removed from power.  This led to Jefferson writing about retractable governments guided by laws of impeachment.  He advocated for small states, the size of the original 13 colonies, which allowed public opinion to function most efficiently.  This ties in with Suma Qamana’s community first principle.  Decision making with Suma Qamana comes from a pre-Inca system of ayllu in Bolivia which has rotating leadership positions shared by members of communities one is born into and linked with for life.
Public Opinion.  The Iroquois Confederacy was a bottom-up structure.  The public elected the leaders to represent them and had power to remove leaders they felt were not properly doing so.  Jefferson promoted this in the First Amendment of the US Constitution.  Personal influence and persuasion were important societal controls for the Iroquois Confederacy because mis-actions were answered to in front of the whole community, which one was born into and knew intimately.  This resonates again with Suma Qamana’s community first principle.  Leaders work for the good of the community not a corporation, lobby group, PAC (public action committee), or their own personal gain.
Happy mediocrity.  This is a term coined by Franklin which meant striking a compromise between consumption, competition, and classism with the egalitarian, democratic ideas of the Iroquois Confederacy.  He saw this realized in a strong middle class.  However this could also be interpreted as the Suma Qamana principle of a sufficient not an efficient economy.  A sufficient economy could be a 30-hour week where goods are competitively produced for a limited time, just enough to meet needs.  Workers will produce and earn less and also consume less.  The US would no longer be a world leader in GDP but the quality of life would improve in non-monetary ways as the slowing down creates happy mediocrity, balance for nature and people, giving all a place to rest and rejuvenate. 
Shared property.  Jefferson looked at the Iroquois Confederacy’s manner of sharing resources amongst the entire community and embraced that idea as well.  He felt the accumulation of property led to power and dominance that advanced the well being of one at the expense of all. “Whenever there is, in any country, uncultivated lands and unemployed poor, it is clear that the laws of property have been so extended as to violate natural right,” wrote Jefferson.  He was also against inherited wealth which did not exist with the Iroquois as possessions were redistributed amongst all in death.  This idea of limited accumulation resonates with the Suma Qamana principles of less is more.
Under Suma Qamana success is measured not by accumulated wealth, but by how well the community is doing as a whole.  Community is broadly defined to include the earth and nature as well as people.  So a thriving town located beside the banks of a polluted river is not doing well under Suma Qamana, because a community member, the river, is ailing.  When one part of a community is damaged, it affects the whole.  This way of thinking of the community as being the responsibility of all can be applied to many situations, for example a person entering a school and shooting children, would be an indication of the failure of the community to properly care for its own, to enable a person to feel so alienated and detached that they lash out against the same community they are a part of.
Andean scholars claim that this is the time of pachakuti, or world change, and Suma Qamana is the model upon which the new world order can be formed.  The United Nations recognized this model in 2009 and funds research and studies to support it.  Suma Qamana is being taught in Latin American universities, written about in academic journals, and presented at world summits.  Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador have all adopted parts of it in their new constitutions and have ministries, think tanks and organizations supporting civil society in applying these principles to their everyday lives.  More than 300 years ago a great enlightenment grew from the Iroquois’ ways of being, influencing many European thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Thomas More, and Karl Marx. Today Suma Qamana is capturing people’s imaginations with new ways of being that are not much newer then our US Constitutional roots. 

Dr. Tamara Stenn is an Adjunct Professor in the Sustainable Development Program at the SIT Graduate Institute and author of The Economic and Political Intersection of Fair Trade and Justice (2013).  She can be contacted at

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

KUSIKUY in Brattleboro Again!

After a two-year hiatus from the streets of Brattleboro, KUSIKUY Clothing Co.’s irresistible hand knit alpaca sweaters, hats, scarves and glittens are now back.  Glittens are fingerless gloves topped with a flip back “hat” that turn them into gloves to keep fingers extra warm.  Formally carried by Save the Corporations and Sprout, KUSIKUY’s Fair Trade, eco-friendly clothing can now be found at At the Oasis at 80 Main Street, Brattleboro, Vermont 05301.  

Featured items include the classic Rainbow accessory set (hat, scarf, glitten), once carried by Timberland, and KUSIKUY’s most popular item celebrating the diversity and colors of the world;  a custom designed accessory set created by At the Oasis proprietor, Anne Senni, done in sage green, powder pink and sky blue; hand knit cable sweaters; and sumptuous hand woven shawls with macramé fringes. 
“The idea of a product that is handmade, sustainable, indigenous, and high quality fits our values,” explained Senni.  “We carry KUSIKUY because the items are natural products of great beauty and worth.  They are heirlooms,” she added.

All KUSIKUY items are created by indigenous women from Bolivia’s Andes Mountains in accordance with Fair Trade guidelines which guarantee a living wage and dignity to workers and environmental protection to the community.  In addition, they are made from sustainably harvested alpaca, a rare luxury fiber which is softer than cashmere, six times warmer than lambs wool and naturally hypoallergenic.  Alpaca has a gorgeous drape and is a durable fiber.  Once reserved for Inca royalty, it lasts through years of regular wear.

KUSIKUY in Korea

KUSIKUY Shawls are now available at mera hatt in Seol, South Korea!  We hand wove 100 lovely alpaca shawls for mera hatt adding hand knotted macramé trim on each one.  The alpaca fiber was sustainably harvested by a Fair Trade herder cooperative and processed in their mill which spins yarn to European quality standards.  The shawls are available in a natural light or dark grey.

Thank you mera hatt for supporting Fair Trade and sustainable development.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

My book, the Cultural and Political Intersection of Fair Trade & Justice, is now available on kindle.

kindle edition

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Content of Fair Trade book

Content of my upcoming book: The Cultural and Political Intersection of Fair Trade & Justice.  
Due out in Sept. 2013.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Keene State College Increases Sales of Fair Trade Products and Expands Awareness of Sustainability

IQL and Sociology Students Research Support and Understanding of Fair Trade and Find More Awareness is Needed in the US
Keene State College students, as part of their Introduction to Quantitative Literacy class, issued a report finding that the College continues its sustainability efforts with strong support for fair trade – a means of supporting disadvantaged producers and allowing for the sustainability of their products, culture, workers, and the environment. The report indicates that in 2012, Keene State consumed fair trade products on campus valued at $493,000, which is an 18 percent increase over those sold in the year 2011. The College has also greatly expanded awareness of the issue of fair trade.
Dr. Tamara Stenn, adjunct professor in Keene State College’s Sciences and Social Sciences Department, led student research in her Introduction to Quantitative Literacy course. The class teaches students proper analytical skills when examining quantitative data.
“The research conducted by my students and the resulting report provided both an important research opportunity and a snapshot of Keene State’s commitment to sustainability,” said Dr. Stenn. “Our study has shown that while fair trade is not yet a prioritized value in our society, there is much to be examined and great potential with the growth of its awareness. I look forward to the possibility of expanding on this research in the future.”
In conjunction with Professor Margaret Walsh’s Sociological Research Methods class, a study instrument was developed and tested in fall of 2011. The next year, students conducted studies of the Keene State College and Keene populations, noting their findings about local knowledge and support of fair trade. The students found that a large percentage of the US population is either uneducated on fair trade or do not feel it is their concern. The study also revealed a growing interest in fair trade through the presence of the internet. The research findings will be featured in a book authored by Dr. Stenn, titled “The Cultural and Political Intersection of Fair Trade and Justice”, which will be released in September of this year.
“It’s great to see a growing student interest in fair trade on campus,” said Mary Jensen, Keene State College Campus Sustainability Officer. “The fair trade products sold on campus and the awareness programs run by students and faculty help to address social justice issues that are a core component of sustainability.”
In 2012, the College made great efforts to increase awareness of fair trade, with 11 presentations and events attended by an audience of more than 2,500 people. The total audience attendance in 2012 increased by 72 percent over 2011. In addition, 14 other faculty members at Keene State have brought fair trade discussion into their classrooms.
Keene State demonstrates fair trade with its products sold on campus. The Dining Commons uses Aspretto coffee, Diamond Crystal Brand Sugar, and Numi Brand Organic Tea. For every pound of Aspretto purchased, 10 cents is donated to Stop Hunger. Keene State purchased 3,141 pounds of coffee, raising $314 for the Stop Hunger Foundation. Lloyd’s Bean and Bagel supports Equal Exchange Tea and Chocolate, and has sold various fair trade flavors of Green Mountain Coffee. Sodexo also paired up with the Stop Hunger Foundation, which aims to end child hunger.  More info: