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VAT: Jan/Feb Volunteerism's Newsletter Vintage: 1996

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On Becoming A Dreamcatcher

Dr. Ivan Scheier

"Where there is no vision, the people perish."
Proverbs 29:18a

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful citizens can change the world.  
Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

Margaret Mead

"Nothing happens unless first a dream."
Carl Sandburg

"Life is a series of collisions with the future.  We are not so much the sum of what we've been,
as what we yearn to be."

Jose Ortega y Gassett


Here are some dreams people have shared with me, by and large described in their own words. Not incidentally, these people are called "dreamchasers" by my friend and colleague, Eileen Cackowski:

* To establish a National Museum on the History of Women.
* To educate and assist people concerning the value and feasibility of affordable housing, especially straw bale houses.
* To renovate old buildings, helping to revive the community.
* To write my autobiography, illustrating what one person can do to change a rigid and suppressive system.
* To establish a performing dance facility in the region.
* To rejuvenate an isolated Hispanic community whose young people currently have to leave in order to find work.
* To serve the birthing community by providing affordable health care for all women.
* To live closer to my values (a number of people, in one way or another, were seekers on this path).
* To help Russians expand their understanding of Volunteerism.
* To create a community center in a village almost totally without other financial resources.
* To create a healing practice based on donations and an infirmary "health hostel"

First, most of these plans are designed to impact directly on quality of life in a community. In some cases, however, the relationship is indirect; that is, the immediate goal is to free oneself up to devote more time and effort to projects directing impacting the community. I came to respect profoundly this freeing up as an often necessary preparation for the dreamchasing process; in the same way, I conceived a grudging respect for the enormously powerful materialistic and other seductions away from such service our society seems to embody.

Second, most of these dreamchasers did not have much money, certainly not nearly enough to purchase their dream outright. And yet, the only approach I consistently and decisively discouraged was:

Do not sit down and write a big grant, and

Do not sit down and write a small grant, either.

A dreamcatcher is not a grantwriter. So modify the job description to:

Making dreams happen - without much money.

This is where dreamcathcing connects to volunteerism in the broadest sense; not only involving volunteers to a trusting and humane maximum, but also a creative scrounging of other community resources.


A Dreamcatcher" in Native American culture, is a children's toy, I'm told, rather than a sacred object.
Looks like the web of an unusually artistic spider. 
Placed over your bed at night, it preserves good parts of dreams and filters out nightmares.

This is not what I mean by 'dreamcatcher."
Or, not exactly.  As I use it, the term refers to a kind of work, not a kind of object. 
The purpose of this work or role is to help people
acheive their dreams, where "dream" means a goal, purpose or vision, especially one which promises to enhance quality of life in a community. 
Dreams in this sense are mainly what one works on deliberately, while awake (though in mysterious ways they can also influence night dreams, and be influenced by them).

Origins of the Role
The dreamcatcher role evolved at a retreat residence called Voluntas in New Mexico. People came from afar or from nearby with visions of enriching their community. Over a five-year span, about 100 of these dreamcatchers were overnight residents for periods ranging from a few days to a few months. Approximately 150 others from neighboring areas used Voluntas in similar ways during the day.

A second source for role development was some 65 Challenge think tanks or reflection pools that I helped facilitate over the past ten years across North America. In all, about 700 people participated, a few of them more than once. The "blue sky" process encouraged creative thinking beyond the "how" to the "why?" and beyond the "why?" to the "why not?" The "why not? of course, is where dreams are born.

Qualities and Characteristics of the Role
From all this experience, a role emerged with the following kinds of ingredients. Order of presentation, below, should not be taken to imply order of priority. All the characteristics are important; they also overlap and interact.

1. The ability to leave people alone, resisting the itch to intervene. More positively, the willingness - and the skill - to give people personal space, psychologically as well as physically. To do this, even when it stretches your tolerance of ambiguity and your needs to organize other people. Beyond the "hands off" talent, this can also be a kind of deliberate engineering of the environment to encourage peacefulness (in China I'm told this is a high art called Jeng Shui) and at the same time provide a safe environment for passion.

2. When people are ready to involve themselves in the work at hand, permit and encourage them to define what the work will be and how they will deal with it - in a word, cultivation of an "Adult Montessori" atmosphere.

3. When people want to talk, Listen. When Voluntas dreamchasers were allowed essentially uninterrupted time to talk things out and talk thing through for themselves they were far more likely to arrive at clear and meaningful conclusions than when I talked at them.

 4. Do not fill white spaces in people's thinking by inserting your goals and methods. Good intentions be damned. It's all too easy in this way to subvert people's ownership of their own dreams - take it from one of the worst subversives! Instead, emulate the effective community organizer who carefully identifies the goals of those she/he is working with, then helps them achieve those goals.

Affirmation doesn't mean endorsing just anything at all. For starters, the goal must be ethically acceptable. Given that, the achievement of the goal must be at least conceivable in the light of resolute optimism. Affirmation then means the willingness to deviate from an - academically, at least - conventional wisdom that "critical thinking" is the best and only way to go, e.g., concentrate on shooting holes in the hopes of people. I'm being a bit heavy on the criticism myself, I know, but as dreamcatcher, I much preferred giving people ten reasons why they could do something than ten reasons why they couldn't. At least, be sure both lists are there.

Information should be available on demand with as many accessible choices as possible as to channel/medium. Include here, if you can, computer networks, a good library, people over the phone, and people in person, certainly include yourself, when relevant.

Connections are really one important kind of information. The dreamcatcher will have the humility and the sensitivity to recognize that enabling the dreamcatcher to talk to some other especially relevant person will often be more helpful than trying to be the expert on all things. Only be sure that you've thoroughly checked out the individual or organization you refer to, as "for real." Otherwise, playing "connections" is little more than a cop-out.

5. Be a 'blinder-finder;" that is, be pervasively paranoid about rigid preconceptions that restrict consideration of alternatives. Examples of potential blinders:

6. It helps if a dreamcatcher is a futurist; that is, can take a dreamchaser's action plan and run it out in terms of least several alternative future scenarios, creatively and plausibly. The creative part recognizes that this is not Newtonian physics. Where human yearning is involved, trends bend, bounce, and blend in ways more artistic than scientific. Indeed, two of the best Dreamcatchers I ever met are artists as well as experts on voluntary action.

Patience, Follow Through and Up
Most dreams take time, so be prepared to stay with it. Your "stay in touch" at the end of a session should be far more than perfunctory. Indeed, it's best to think of the dreamchase as having no definable ending. So, if they don't call or write, maybe you should.

This job description is no less important for being peculiar.

* Peculiarity #1: Frequently the strength to avoid is preferred over intervene.

* Peculiarity #2: Unlike most job descriptions, this is a role you can flick in and out of, even during office hours.

* Peculiarity #3: You can be your own dreamcatcher. Be quiet, for example, listen to yourself and look for blinders.

And that may be the most peculiar thing of all. For we are all dreamcatchers. Because we are all dreamers.

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