Our firm works with the ERA Coalition, which gathered for a fundraiser to watch Gloria: A Life, a wonderful play about Gloria Steinem. The production tracks her life, from childhood to journalist to activist. It is honest about her mistakes, her hopes and fears, her highs and lows. And the scenes include so many other important women who influenced her along the way, such as Ms. Magazine co-founder Dorothy Pitman-Hughes and Wilma Mankiller, who was principal chief of the Cherokee Nation.
At the end of the play, Steinem herself unexpectedly walked onto the set and explained that one of the most important things she learned from Mankiller was that her native culture was matriarchal, with women controlling property and being highly respected for their work cultivating and protecting the tribe. They also held talking circles, where everyone could be heard -- the opposite of top-down communicating.
Steinem said she embraced this approach to engaging women across the country, giving them an opportunity to express their views, their experiences, their feelings, while connecting with other women experiencing similar things. This approach was one of the keys to her grassroots organizing, enabling the movement-building that soared in the 1970s.
As I listened to her talk about this, it struck me just how far so much of corporate and organizational communication today is shaped more like a pyramid than a circle. What is lost when not everyone in an organization has a voice, or a platform, to express ideas or concerns? So much, I am certain. The talking circle validates our own tried-and-true process for client storytelling, which insists on having everyone around the table share their thoughts.
As a parting gift after the play, Steinem conducted her own talking circle with the audience, using these principles as guides for what to say and how to react:
She asked people to share their thoughts about anything. The foreign minister of Sweden noted how alarmed she is by the rise in autocratic governments around the world. Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney said she feels hopeful about a “blue wave” for the midterms. And another woman described herself as a 20-year-old student distraught over the current political climate.
(Here was Steinem’s response, accurately reported by Lauren Duca.)
So many said they left the event feeling renewed and engaged -- which is what we all want from an effective communications campaign, and well, from life in general.