Photo: Debra Jacobs and Andrew Spector at Council on Foundations 2024

5 Takeaways and Wonderings from the Opening Plenary at the Council on Foundations Conference

Posted on May 24, 2024 by Andrew Spector, TPF Fellow 2023/24
From May 6–9, I attended Council on Foundations’ 2024 national conference, Building Together. Professionals from foundations, philanthropy-serving organizations, and bridge-building organizations from across the country came together in Chicago, IL, to network and deepen understanding of how to cooperate across lines of difference.

There were myriad moments of learning and connection throughout the four days. A highlight for me was the opening plenary, which featured author and columnist David Brooks and author, speaker, and Senior Fellow for Public Practice at Braver Angels, Mónica Guzmán. Here are my top 5 takeaways and wonderings from that plenary:

1. Politics as a substitute for connection.
David Brooks shared that as Americans become sadder and lonelier, we are seeking a sense of belonging through political affiliation. This contributes to political polarization because it makes politics more tribal. Politics become a matter of identity and personal meaning rather than the process by which democracy is practiced. This makes me wonder: instead of community around partisanship, how can we cultivate connection around nuanced discussion and collaboration across differencees?

2. “The arch villain of curiosity is certainty.”
This gem was asserted by Mónica Guzmán. It makes me wonder: what am I certain about, and is there space for more curiosity there? What’s the right balance of curiosity and conviction?

3. “What’s underrepresented in life is overrepresented in imagination.”
This is another treasure from Guzmán. This makes me wonder: who and what is underrepresented in my life, and are they misrepresented in my imagination? Understanding that it’s impossible for all people and ideas to always be represented in my life, how do I guard against misrepresentation in my mind?

4. “Humility is being the right size in a given situation.”
I believe this was another one from Guzmán. I see this as the sibling quote to C.S. Lewis’s admonition that “humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.” Lewis’s quote advises people to honor their value while pushing us to lead with the value of others. Guzmán does this, too, and adds to it by advocating for a realistic self-awareness accompanied both by a commitment to other awareness and a strategic prioritization of the ultimate objective. I’m left wondering: how can I consistently ensure that I’m showing up as the right size in certain situations?

5. How you came to believe vs. why you believe.
David Brooks had lots of examples of good questions. One of my favorites was his insight to ask people how they came to believe something instead of why they believe something. He explained that the how is much more interesting than the why because it tells a story. Plus, when you hear the how, you build empathy for the other person’s viewpoint, and the person sharing feels more heard. The conversation can become a deep dialogue instead of an adversarial debate. Sometimes, sharing how we came to believe something can also help us realize that our beliefs are rooted in misrepresentative experiences. How did I come to believe many of the things that I believe? Which of those beliefs is it time to revisit?

I’m grateful for such a powerful learning and connecting opportunity at Council on Foundations and I’m looking forward to keeping these takeaways and wonderings in mind as I continue working to make a difference.

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