The Exchange Project

20 06 2011

This year’s Peace Development Award will go to Rev. Dr. Andrea Ayvazian. The event will take place on September 25th in Amherst, as part of the Peace Development Fund’s 30th Anniversary Celebration. Rev. Ayvazian was the creator and first Director of PDF’s Exchange Project. She has been active in movements for social and political change since 1970. An anti-racism educator, published poet, and singer/songwriter with three albums and CDs in circulation, Andrea has been living in the Pioneer Valley since 1980. She is now Senior Pastor of the Haydenville Congregational Church.

From The Exchange Project: Summer 1995

“The Early Years of PDF’s Exchange Project: A Look Back with Meg Gage and Andrea Ayvazian”

Recently, Exchange Project Director Kenneth Jones talked with Meg Gage, co-founder and first Executive Director of the Peace Development Fund, and Andrea Ayvazian, the creator and first Director of the Exchange Project, about the origins of the program ten years ago.

KJ: How and why did the Exchange Project start?

MG: The EP grew out of our grantmaking program at PDF, where we realized how weak organizationally some of the groups were. There were questions about whether they could even use the money; it was like putting water into a basket that has a big hole in the bottom. I remember when I was researching proposals I would ask groups what their budget was, and they’d say, “Well, I don’t know – we don’t have a budget.” And I’d say, “Well, how much do you think you’re going to spend this year?” And they’d say, “Well. As much as we raise,” and I’d say, “Well, how much do you think you’re going to raise?” And they’d say, “Well, as much as we can!”

KJ: What did that tell you about such organizations?

MG: Obviously, it’s impossible to hire staff, impossible to do anything with program planning like this. You’re reduced to planning a series of events. So I found myself doing training over the phone as I researched these proposals: “Why don’t you try this… have you thought of that… maybe you need to change this way of thinking…” It became clear quite early on, that groups really need the technical assistance as much as they need the money.

KJ: What kind of training was available ten years ago?

MG: The Youth Project had a staff of six around the country who were very autonomous in terms of their own groups. They weren’t available to go traveling or to go to strategic places and work with groups somebody suggested they work with. Kim Klein was doing fund-raising and boards. Nobody that I knew of was doing long-range planning or the talks on burnout that we gave a lot. We were very lucky to hire Andrea, because she developed whole units that really nobody had ever tried before. Especially around leadership issues, what she called the “seven deadly sins.” These really hit on some key issues that many groups were struggling with. It was extraordinary the creativity that Andrea had in developing the curricula and also the high energy level to get herself out there all over the place all the time.

AA: PDF invested in me, because at first the EP was just me. Initially, I turned to Meg, who has a background in training and performance, and who had been talking to groups on the phone. I spent days shadowing and co-training with Kim Klein, practicing with Meg, going to see Grant Ingle and every trainer we could find. We also evaluated very carefully what groups were telling us – and they were very frank – and we would change it when something didn’t work.

KJ: What were you teaching and how did you decide just what to teach?

MG: I’ve learned a lot from Andrea about the importance of a real curriculum. Real material is something to be learned, it’s not just group process. There is a body of information that people learn, and then have help implementing: I think that has always been one of the strengths of the EP program. The second great strength was Andrea’s natural instinct for constant evaluation, refining and honing down what you want to do, then looking back and seeing how we did. Our material was always under development. This was balanced with Andrea’s personal discipline and rigor – a real intellectual rigor that was expansive and open, not rigid.

AA: Our content was very clear – it was sort of empowerment through education. People came with “tool boxes,” but they were missing some key wrenches, like board contracts and development plans. We could fill their tool boxes with concrete skills, not just handholding, although we also listened. A trainer can just be a good talker, and people will like you and they will feel good, but if you haven’t got content and some kind of rigorous curriculum that is directly shaped to what they need, it’s kind of a waste of time.

KJ: What was happening in those first trainings?

AA: The unbelievably fortuitous thing that happened was that we were able to subcontract Kim Klein to be part of the EP. Kim met us on the road from California to Little Rock to Tampa, and brought her genius. There is no trainer like Kim in terms of background, authority, humor, presence, and experience. We got feedback that we worked people very hard and that we needed to play more, and so we started adding things like singing them to sleep with guitars and singing to wake them up. The energy level you wouldn’t believe – it was fun!

KJ: Who else was working with you in those early days?

AA: After a year, we hired Andy Rothschild, who worked part-time as administrator, and part-time as a trainer. Groups loved him! We worked closely with Kim for two and a half years and then decided we needed a full-time trainer on staff, so we hired Randy Kehler. Randy not only did beautiful trainings on boards and long-range planning, but he would also sit up late at night at trainings and discuss strategy and the Freeze with a level of wisdom and authority that was extremely significant.

KJ: How would you sum up your experiences working with the EP?

AA: The strongest feeling I have is gratitude. We brought a good program, solid people, a good curriculum. But it was the people. They were so giving and loving and patient. We stumbled a lot, tried things that didn’t work, so then we had to really revamp. But people were so generous of spirit. I worked hard and I gave a lot, but I received so much more back than I could have given in those five plus years.

MG: I think the EP training program is important because it acknowledges how essential it is that we constantly work on our organizations and how we relate to each other doing this work. The techniques and technical things are important – they embody what the work is about. The means are as important as the ends in some ways. So we need to continue to build organizations that become the way we think the world should be – the only way to peace is peace. We need to be what we are seeking and I think with the training program that’s what the message really is, that it’s here and now. We need to stop being racist, we need to build organizations that value people, that accomplish their goals and build a movement. I’ve always felt the training component has been at least as important, if not more important than the grantmaking.

AA: Those really were life-changing years for me. They made me so full of life about social change, what we could do, how many people are dedicated and tenacious, and endure, and what a heartbeat the movement in this country really has.

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