Jenny Raitt has served as a long time instructor for the Mel King Institute, where she teaches our Group Facilitation training. She is a long time Massachusetts native and has worked and taught at several organizations around the Boston area, including the Metropolitan Area Planning Council and Boston University. In her free time, she loves to binge TV shows and keep up with wellness goals. We had a conversation about her experience as an instructor at MKI and transitioning to online trainings this past year.
LD: How did you first find out about the Mel King Institute?
JR: Probably because of Shirronda [Almeida]. She’s so vibrant and she was so excited about putting this whole thing together. She was actively involved with Metropolitan Area Planning Council with work that we were doing at the time. What happened was I suggested a couple ideas for different types of trainings, and we talked about community outreach and engagement, group facilitation…I have been doing this training for a while now, in some shape or form. [MKI] is housed within MACDC, and I have worked with MACDC my whole career. I was working at a CDC, and we were a member of the association, and I have always admired the work, including Joe [Kriesberg, MACDC President] and his leadership.
LD: Even though I have only worked at Mel King since August, I have come to appreciate the strength of the network. You have mentioned that you worked at MAPC and different CDCs over time. How did you first start teaching?
JR: I have always been in the kind of role to provide technical assistance or support, to either peers or a consulting type of relationship. A big element of my career has always been about capacity building and helping other people or communities to be able to thrive. I think my desire to teach has always been a big part of my career in some shape or form.
LD: Shifting gears but on the same theme, do you have any thoughts about how the pandemic has impacted how you see group facilitation training?
JR: I had to revamp the whole thing and redefine it last year. The Institute was amazing in supporting that journey to make it virtual. It is usually a very interactive and long training. It was hard to imagine turning that into something so short with the same level of content without the benefit of mock meetings, so I had to figure out how to incorporate certain elements of that. I think there are newer techniques that will be useful for virtual meetings as much as they will be online through the fall and even potentially after. I think there’s a lot more to learn.
One thing that is more prominent to me now is just how important it is to make this technology accessible to as many people as possible. That is something new compared to what I was thinking last year. It is hard to sit for a long time looking at flat people. I love binging on a good TV show and what not, but even that is not the same as sitting in one place and having to learn for a long period of time. If you’re a teacher, you have to engage your students, since they are understandably distracted by other things in their space where they’re working.
LD: That totally makes sense. Have you found that there has been any difference in the level of engagement? I’m curious what your experience has been for town meetings.
JR: Participation has increased so much. Earlier on there were even more people, but there’s still a lot of people I’ve never seen before. Even having been through lots of these types of meetings, you usually have your regulars and people who come out for a particular item on the agenda. We still see that, but we also see people we have never seen before. In terms of how that has an impact on the meeting, it’s great! It is wonderful to have more people interacting with information and learning something new about their community. It helps to hear people talking about it, hear people processing it, especially their town leaders. And if that information is accessible to people, I think it’s very positive from an educational standpoint and also from the perspective of people processing the information and being able to actively contribute. I think it is a great outcome. And the geography is definitely different. People from throughout Arlington come to meetings, instead of just abutters around a development.
LD: That’s definitely heartening from my perspective.
JR: If you are in planning and community development, you’ve been hoping for alternative ways for people to participate for a long time. You didn’t think it would happen this way, and you certainly wouldn’t wish it, but this is hopefully a transition to have more people participate in this really important decision making that happens in communities. I think it is so important. But the training is all about finding people to lead these conversations and do a good job. And that’s still hard! It is maybe harder in Zoom.
LD: How does your role as Director of Planning for Arlington affect how you teach?
JR: I bring my experiences from my daily job as well as my service on a local housing advisory board in the community where I live. I think that sharing my personal experiences is important, but I would not say it’s the most important thing. I am much more interested in hearing about the participant’s experiences and having that become a shared experience and understanding about how people running and how people feel about cofacilitation or how we create agendas for meetings. How people understand different points of time in a decision process. In my work, things are often iterative – one meeting is not the beginning or end to the process, but part of a much bigger process. Communicating that to people is important and somewhat challenging.
LD: I’m looking forward to your training! What is your favorite part about being an instructor?
JR: I get so much energy from students. Being part of someone’s career growth is very inspiring to me. The students add so much to the training and share so much and have helped me to shape the training over so many years. All the feedback I have received has made the training what it is. I absolutely love working with people. A lot of times after these trainings, students will ask me for advice for some meeting that they are planning or perhaps it’s a hard conversation with a supervisor or volunteer board member. I love staying in touch with people and hearing how they are doing. I have had students come back and take the training twice because they liked it that much! I am very heartened by the relationships that get fostered by the Mel King Institute. I do think there is a special something about it that is unique to people in the community development field and people who want to become really good community development practitioners, so it’s special to be a part of that. I don’t take it for granted.