The Grove welcomes Giselle Chow, senior consultant, to our team! In this article, excerpted from a conversation over tea, Giselle reflects on the roots of her graphic facilitation practice.


Q: When did the role of “facilitator” first take hold for you?

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Giselle Chow: Back in 1996, I began work as an elementary school teacher while I earned my teaching credential. Along the way, while I was primarily focused on teaching and learning in the classroom, I started becoming interested in the larger cultural issues of the school, some of which are pervasive in many private schools around access and opportunity: who was there and who wasn’t, who succeeded and who didn’t and why.

Many independent schools were founded with a particular mission and vision, and around a set of particular values. Schools that had previously been exclusive enclaves were struggling to become inclusive places, which hadn’t necessarily been part of their original mission. In some ways they were trying to make 180 degree turns as institutions.

The major questions for me became: how do you take a place that was founded under a certain set of circumstances, and then take pieces of that story and innovate? What do you retain? What do you conserve? What do you leave behind?

It fascinated me to see the ways that the school’s various constituencies approached the process, whether consciously or unconsciously. This is part of what sparked my interest in doing more diversity work and setting my sights on school leadership.

Q: What about the visual part? How did you first encounter visual facilitation?

GC: It’s actually a pretty cool story. In 2001 I came to work at an independent high school in San Francisco. As many schools do, we had weekly staff meetings in the faculty lounge. It happens that a giant piece of paper was up on the wall with images and words. Although I had no conscious idea what this was or what it meant, on some level I understood exactly. It told the school’s story and lifted up significant milestones along the way.

Something about the image resonated deeply. Every week during our staff meeting I would find myself staring at the image. It revealed a nexus of things that I was, and remain interested in: storytelling, history, narrative, visual thinking, and institutional and organizational change.

I learned as much about the school’s culture from that visual history as I did from anything else that happened in my interactions with people that year. It supported and confirmed what I was noticing from my own experience. I could connect events at the school to specific things that had happened previously.

About halfway through the school year I asked a colleague, “What is that thing on the wall in the faculty lounge?” He replied that the previous year, David Sibbet (from The Grove) had done a strategic plan with our community and with the board. “Afterwards,” he said, “they put this graphic history up in the faculty lounge for us.” Finally I had a name for it: it was a graphic history.

Q: The image clearly had a strong impact on you. Given your art background, did you have any inkling that you might incorporate this sort of thing in your work?

GC: Well, I started looking around online and found The Grove. I saw that they had public workshops and they happened to be located in SF, and I thought, “That’s really interesting,” but I just kind of put it away; I didn’t do anything with it.

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At the time a friend of mine who knew about my work and interests said to me, “You know, that’s something you could totally do.” I had an instant visceral reaction to the comment. It struck me as deeply true, although I had nothing to base this on, but it was also scary as I had only imagined a life in schools, and I was still at the early stages of my career. I felt some sort of deep resonance that was a bit beyond my understanding at that time.

By the time I took the PGF workshop, I had developed a bit more in my career and was a dean at that point. Later on I was a department chair and moved into upper-level admin roles. In many situations I found myself leading/facilitating meetings, or I found people looking at me to take on this role.

Q: With your mix of education, leadership, and artistic skills, and your interest in organizational dynamics, it’s almost a no-brainer that you would eventually land in this field.

GC: As a teacher and facilitator, I was always more focused and passionate regarding the delivery of content, the pedagogy of it, than I was on the actual content. To me the juicy part was: you can know all the content in the world, but how do you deliver it to people in an engaging way? How do you design the work of a group most effectively? How do you ensure that you are delivering the intended learning outcomes? How can people demonstrate learning? What does culture have to do with it? How can I help people develop and talk about their own ideas?

I have always been interested in how things interconnect. Sometimes people would tease me and say, “You’re such a generalist. You know a little bit about all these different things.” I think the reason I might be cast that way is that I’m interested in the nexus of things. I’m interested in how things connect – the points of intersection and the boundaries. That’s where the really interesting work happens.

I think that’s why I have always enjoyed work around access and inclusion. There’s a funny edge where lots of interesting stuff happens – some good stuff, some tense stuff, but those are the moments that invite the most growth and learning. Much power can be harnessed in expecting and inviting in those moments, and not brushing conflict aside.

I try to bring that spirit into my work at The Grove. We are often called upon to bring various and sometimes conflicting points of view into alignment in the service of organizational development and change. It is extremely gratifying to help organizations hold conversations that matter, and to capture the content dynamically and visually so that it can continue to inform their work.