Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Intertwining Practice and Theory

"Students from the 2015 class of PA5190 in action, practicing facilitation skills to convene a challenging multi-stakeholder conversation about labeling genetically-modified produce."

I have been in various events recently where I was asked to speak or share my experience at the Humphrey School. “Which perspective would you like me to share?” I had the privilege of doing my Masters degree here, am an active alumnus, and now working as staff and adjunct instructor, thus giving me a way to experience the Humphrey School on many levels. There is usually an angle that was sought for, and I would be asked to speak from that one perspective. After one of such event recently – an information session hosted by the Admissions team – I thought to myself, “Well, what of my experience do I enjoy or find rewarding?” 

That was a difficult question. I valued my experience here as a student, and I love the interactions I am having (yay mentor program!) with current students due to my status as an alumnus. But for now, my favorite experience(s) are that as a staff person and an adjunct instructor. Both of these experiences allow me to combine practice and theory, and have them reinforce each other in a way that keeps me rejuvenated in the work I do, be it in the classroom or out engaging community partners.

My work – one I affectionately call my practice – involves a blend of human-centered design principles and the Art of Hosting methodologies. It is in the intersection of these practices that I find myself most engaged and challenged to grow and be better. Both practices share similar tenets: the practice of empathy and consideration for others, the ability to get a group to work together on knotty, difficult problems, and the nurturing of emergent ideas and solutions. Most of my work is in the human services area, one that is often riddled with complex policies, stigma and mistrust, and an increasingly jaded workforce struggling to do good by those they serve and adhering to seemingly impossible administrative hurdles. We partner closely with state agencies, counties and local service providers, and it can be dangerously easy for me to feel too much for the challenges within this field and the people in this system. The practice of self-care, or as Jodi eloquently puts it in her blog post, hosting oneself, is crucial to do good work continuously in this space.

It turns out, fascinatingly, that one of my act of self-care or hosting myself is my role as an adjunct instructor. I was invited to co-teach on the Spring 2015 PA5190 Section 01 course, Leadership to Address Global Grand Challenges, a course that provided students the opportunity to learn and practice integrative leadership and facilitation methods, all in an intensive one-week period. It was a course that I had fond memories of, having taken it the year before.

It was a humbling and exhilarating experience to find myself in a space where I had to deconstruct my practice to present them as theory to my students, to surface what had become tacit knowledge, and create ways to ensure my students got to learn them too. The questions asked by my students, the perspectives and experiences they shared with me, and the learning environment fostered by my co-instructors (I had a teaching team of six!) created a wonderful little microcosm for me to reflect on my practice. It was hard work to teach a course, but it was also my time to remind myself of why I do the work I do, and to learn from my students what they see in the practices I have taken for granted. The experience made me see my daily work as a program manager in a whole new light.

I have taught that course twice, now, and I am eagerly looking forward to the next year to do it again. In two weeks, the second-half of the Spring 2016 semester begins, and my new course PA5190 Sec 02 Human-Centered Public Service Redesign will begin. It is a new course, and will allow me to explore another area of my practice (the human-centered design aspect; my other course was more steeped in the Art of Hosting concepts). New students, a whole new experience, and an opportunity to host myself in a shared space with others.

By: Sook Jin Ong
Sook Jin (MPP '12) is the manager of a partnership between the Public and Nonprofit Leadership Center and the Minnesota Department of Human Services to engage the state and counties in systems redesign, and to improve service delivery in the human services sector. Ong comes from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, with prior experience in the corporate sector. She earned her bachelor’s degree in management and economics from the University of Sydney, Australia. Her current research interests and practice are in the application of human-centered design principles to public sector innovation, policy implementation practices, and leadership. She will be teaching the Spring 2016 PA5190 Sec 02 course, Human-Centered Public Service Redesign (starts March 24, 2016).

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