Helen Starkweather is an organization development consultant and coach with ten years of program management experience in retail, media, museums, and the arts. A former magazine editor for Smithsonian, Helen brings an affinity for narrative and story to her OD practice. While pursuing a Master of Science in Organization Development (OD) from American University/NTL Institute, Helen earned a distinction for her field work and received the Hal Kellner Award for demonstrated commitment to diversity. She is currently a program associate with the NTL Institute and is pursuing her professional leadership coaching certification from Georgetown University. Her article, "Embodied Differences," was recently published in the journal OD Practitioner.
What brought you to the field of OD?
After a decade as a journalist, I found that I needed to take my natural curiosity about human systems from the page to the person. I wanted to find work that was meaningful and that supported effective human and organizational functioning, especially in the areas of communication, relationships, professional development, differences and inclusion. I already had extensive experience in communications, strategically managing projects and programs, and building and leading teams. Furthermore, I was often the person at work who established rapport, enjoyed staff meetings, tracked interpersonal dynamics, and actively worked to improve processes and procedures.
What drew you to the work you did for this article?
The work for this article came from my personal journey involving the tension between social group and individual identities, as well as my own focus on conversation and language as a way to influence change. As someone who possesses a largely invisible but significant difference, I often felt, growing up, like a "cross-dresser" between cultures. Over the years, I have had conversations with people across many kinds of differences, who felt similarly that their unique, often marginal, experiences were not sufficiently talked about within the more dualistic kinds of diversity conversations taking place in society, subcultures and organizations, thus inhibiting fuller engagement. It seemed to me that we could better leverage the wealth of these "cross-dressing" or "bridging" experiences to facilitate change in whatever kind of status quo we find ourselves. I began to notice similar themes and language use in these stories and in my own. At the same time, many OD professionals admitted to me that they had little direct experience in working with people with disabilities. I found this curious, since people with disabilities are the world's largest minority. I also noticed some parallels between social groups around disability and gender. The article's combined lenses of disability and Queer Theory, already used in some academic circles, helps to bring nuanced concepts to organizations in a fresh way so as to raise an appreciative awareness of a variety of perspectives, as well as the social construction and cultural narratives around disability and gender differences.
What was the most interesting thing you learned through writing this article?
First of all, I learned that there is a wealth of information available, more is emerging, and that there is a lot that I am still learning about. Based on the stories told by other OD professionals, I am learning how hungry many are for pluralistic, relevant, cutting-edge theories, methods, and philosophies that can support people and systems in workplaces that are very different than when Kurt Lewin first proposed his three-step change model in the 1940s. The combined lens that I use seems to help to create energy as well as open the space for more intentional conversation around how we frame and work with visible and invisible differences.
How do you hope OD practitioners will use your work?
I'd be thrilled if this provides OD professionals with an "a-ha" moment, whether about themselves or others. Hopefully they will consider this work (as nascent as it is) as another resource for their own practice in support of client engagement, collaboration, and problem-solving. Perhaps this can be a reminder for practitioners to continue to consciously attend to narratives and stories that inform, expand, or constrict understanding, behavior, and systems-awareness regarding disabilities and other differences in organizations. I hope that this work invites OD professionals to more fully leverage practitioner/client "bridging" experiences to enhance some of their diversity and social justice work, rather than as an aside or after-thought.
What do you see as the top one or two emerging trends for OD?
More people are working virtually across national and organizational cultures, so being able to effectively intervene in virtual settings is, in my opinion, probably too pressing an issue to be considered an emerging trend. Given that people are increasingly working across a variety of differences, geographies, cultures and mind-sets, I believe how we converse with each other to jointly make meaning and create the environments in which we live and work will be critical. This is where social constructionism, neuroscience and other cognition, dialogue-type practices, cultural competencies, and studies in consciousness, for example, may continue to play even larger roles in our work.
Tell us a little bit about the sort of OD work you are doing right now.
Right now, my focus is on finding an organization development/training position in the DC area with an organization or consulting firm. Meanwhile, I have been coaching in both the private and public sectors; and working with various nonprofits to support leadership development; team building; and volunteer engagement. This spring, I will be co-presenting at a conference on Clinical Legal Education in Baltimore, MD. I am also on the Board of the AU/NTL Association, in addition to volunteering with CBODN's 2010 conference.