At its core, Appreciative Inquiry (AI), developed by Weatherhead faculty David L. Cooperrider, PhD and Ronald Fry, PhD, was designed to bring together multiple and divergent stakeholders for the purpose of positive change. But how well that process works was recently put to the test in the city of Houston.
First, the city’s Mental Health Association was facing impending legislation that would radically change the way the organization was to be funded and how services would be provided.
"Everything we, as an organization, advocated for would have changed,” explains Betsy Schwartz, recent Weatherhead AI certificate attendee and executive director of the Mental Health Association of Greater Houston. “We knew that we were not positioned to make the huge shift the new legislation would have required.”
Not only was Schwartz’s organization facing radical change, but because of the process by which mental health and substance problems are diagnosed and treated, any change in the process would involve a number of different and important players.
“By the nature of what we do, we have a large number of stakeholders – including the police, emergency room workers, clergy, schools and a number of other public and private organizations,” she says.
Schwartz believed there would be a small window to be proactive about the law change rather than wait and have to react to it. That's where Ron Fry and Weatherhead's AI Certificate program came into the picture.
Through a friend, who was presenting at the Aspen Institute, Schwartz was introduced to the concepts of AI, and subsequently called Ron Fry to inquire about how the Weatherhead program might help her organization.
Because Schwartz needed a process that would allow a large number of stakeholders to reach a consensus, she signed up for the AI certificate course in June. The 4-day program integrates fieldwork with an education in the foundations of AI, so that participants can engage in a project specific to their organization.
Under Schwartz's direction, a 2-day AI summit was organized, and invites were sent to more than 1,500 members of the mental health community. "We really thought we wouldn't have too many people attend, but we eventually had to cut-off the number at 275 and people were still accepting the invitation," Schwartz says.
Using the AI process of evaluation and positive discussion, stakeholders who previously had never before met, spent 16 hours discussing benchmarking, pulling funding and other common goals.
What makes the AI seminar in Houston all the more unique was not only that both public and private interests came together, but that these stakeholders often compete for funds.
“I figured if the U.N. can do it, we can,” adds Schwartz.
The process, in the end, was responsible for five ongoing work groups and electronic newsletter and database to keep attendees up-to-date and connected. And the whole experience was so successful that legislators are looking to take AI to the state level.
“One of the biggest successes has been the momentum and the dialogue. The change is long term and now we are working on building a world-class mental health system,” says Schwartz. “There really is power that comes from having the consensus of the masses.”
Ironically, the legislation did not end up making it into law, but Schwartz stresses that the work done in the AI summit was not in vain.
In fact, the city of Houston soon discovered that it would need all its resources to deal with a new crisis of national proportion.
“The AI process helped us be more organized for what came about with Hurricane Katrina,” she says. “As much as you can be prepared to have 150,000 people move into a city overnight.”
If statistics bear out, Schwartz estimates that anywhere from 10 to 20 percent of the more than 100,000 Katrina/Houston transplants will have serious mental health problems, which does not even take into account the staggering number of cases of post-traumatic stress predicted.
“Our comprehensive mental health plan for post-Katrina is linked to the tools and concepts of AI,” Schwartz adds.