We were debriefing after a day-long workshop. I was reaching the end of my energy level and feeling anxious about some of the feedback from Type A attendees asking for more, more, more. And then I saw the high school student in the middle of the room with her hand raised high.
Not eight hours before, she had lingered at the doorway. Putting on my biggest smile I rushed over to greet her, help her find her "buddy" and joked about the overly ornate room our workshop was held in. "I think we might need to all speak in British accents today," I told her. "They call this place the castle."
She smiled shyly and let me lead her to her table.
Over the course of the day, I had watched her and other fellow high school students navigate a totally foreign experience for them. They were participants in a design studio workshop I was facilitating with the ambitious goal of building a new city-wide network of STEAM education interventions for students in the most underserved areas of the city. The eight students were taking one day out of their spring break to brainstorm alongside executive directors, foundation leaders, corporate donors, deans of major universities and representatives from the state Department of Education. It was a highly participatory experience and their comfort and empowerment to join in the sessions as equal partners was critical to the success of the workshop.
We spent a portion of the morning directly addressing the power dynamics at play, using a game my team and I had developed for this experience: POWER BINGO. It worked like a charm. The participants shouted and laughed together competing with the other tables to get BINGO as many times in a row as they could by identifying with various levels of power and experience on the board. Then in reflecting on the exercise the mood grew solemn. One person noticed that in order to get BINGO, they had to have varying levels of power, background and experience present at the table. I asked, "Will this impact how you participate in the sessions today?" Silence. Then a smarty in the front, "Now that you said that it will." Laughter.
I saw the students' voices grow throughout the day. When given the option to switch tables, I got worried when I saw six students together at a table with just two adults. When I realized that the topic that table was assigned to brainstorm was how to identify leaders in unexpected places and I kept my mouth shut.
So in the final debrief when I saw the student's hand shoot up, I didn't hesitate to ask her what she wanted to share. Her question was profound:
"How can we be sure we are invited to the next meeting like this?"
Her question was simple, but said so much. She acknowledged that it was rare for leaders in an industry to invite the people they are serving to the table to design the strategy for engaging them. She recognized that she had an important voice. And she was empowered enough to hold everyone in that room accountable to make sure they didn't leave her out at the next session. I challenged everyone in the room to promise they wouldn't.