If you’ve ever participated in an in-person workshop from the Presencing Institute or taken an online u.lab or Ubuntu.Lab course, chances are you have encountered Julie Arts somewhere along the line. As one of our senior faculty members and consultants, Julie is based in Mechelen, Belgium, but works internationally, designing and hosting multi-stakeholder transition processes and leadership programs.
Julie describes her work as having three different levels, the first of which is as part of the Presencing Institute faculty, delivering programs like the Presencing Foundation Program and the Ecosystem Leadership Program. The second area of Julie’s work is to apply Presencing and Theory U as a practitioner, consultant or coach to support organizations, institutions or individuals in the transition they wish to bring about. The third role she takes on, is initiating and co-shaping new formats from within PI, trying things out and adapting previous experiences and learnings to specific contexts in innovative ways.
So, how did Julie arrive at the Presencing Institute? “I studied economics and then had a year in banking, which wasn’t my natural habitat,” she explains. What followed was a path of discovery, which included a backpacking trip and working in communications and strategy. As she felt drawn to using creativity and innovation processes in institutions and organizations, she started working independently in 2004. A few years later, she had her “first encounter” with Theory U, as she received a slide deck by Otto Scharmer from a colleague for inspiration. “Something really resonated, so I dove into the Global Classroom and became a practitioner,” she recalls.
January 2015 marked the launch of the very first global online u.lab course, which is where Julie eventually found her true “natural habitat”. She hosted a u.lab hub in Brussels, while being highly involved in the collective sense-making around this global online platform — to the extent that Adam Yukelson, who was coordinating the course, noticed this and said: “We should really make you part of the u.lab team.” The rest, as they say, is history.
The Online-Offline Sweet Spot
Julie reflects on her current work situation:
“My work is partly online, and partly across the world. I have very little work in my own country, which is different from other practitioners who are dedicated to bringing about change in their local area.”
The beauty of this work consists in supporting others in bringing about transformation in their respective contexts. “Our work has the most value if it connects to where people are,” she shares. Therefore, she considers it her role to adapt the framework and ground it in local contexts and communities. What Julie particularly enjoys, is working with online-offline formats that combine an online infrastructure for learning and peer connection, while also mobilizing communities to come together locally and bring about meaningful change.
Ubuntu.Lab is an example of this and was born from the observation that u.lab participation in African countries was relatively low, even though the platform was global. As Julie’s Zambian colleague, Martin Kalungu-Banda, had a vision for building u.school in Africa, they joined forces to bring together their experience and various ingredients from u.lab, grounding them in a specifically African context. As Julie says, the lab is a great example of what it means to “use technology in a positive way to have a good dialogue and move towards a shared goal or purpose, which in the case of Ubuntu.Lab is to co-shape Africa’s future.”
New Horizons to Explore
Having found her professional sweet spot in this body of online-offline work, Julie is also seeing two new areas of interest for her: one around what is emerging in the business world — with new types of requests coming in and different kinds of questions being asked — and another around the exploration of body intelligence and spatial awareness as a deep and innovative approach to change.
Considering the fact that Julie also works with embodied methods like Social Presencing Theater, we wondered what it requires to bring in that kind of new approach to the various institutional and organizational contexts she operates in. “Well,” she responds, “it starts with making it absolutely your own. At the beginning of my professional path, I was not very connected to my body. I think the one-liner of ‘having a body to move your head around‘ did apply to me for a while. And then Health called me.” She describes how the confrontation with her own health issues helped her explore what it means to be present with yourself and with your work.
“While I was learning about health and my own body, how much I learned about systems change and systems work!”
For Julie, this is “so core in this entire work… You have to really go through it in every cell of your body, before you can bring it to others in a way that is valuable, connected, and rooted — and not just a mental model, of which there are thousands out there.”
Nonetheless, Julie recommends bringing in embodiment work “carefully, and step by step”, building it up over time, especially in more intellectual and rational environments. “It starts with raising the awareness,” she reflects, “so I do talk a lot about it, and then I bring in little experiences.” She smiles, as she says: “It can be seen as something very new and different or even awkward. While for me, it’s the most natural thing now, I remember the time when it was also ‘different’ for me.” Therefore, she is mindful of the fact that “it’s not something you push, it’s something you invite.” Moreover, she shares:
“In more institutional contexts, it helps if you can really frame it. Frame the Why: Why is this relevant, and what does it allow if we connect with it, if we practice it, and develop this capacity more? And the moment people understand why, they’re very willing to step into exploring the practice.”
From Hope to Faith
When asked about what future she is working towards, Julie answers: “I don’t have this very fixed image of the society we want to create. I think that can be a pitfall.” Instead, she advocates for learning what the future could look like for everyone, rather than working towards solutions for a particular group that subscribes to a certain belief or philosophy. Julie calls it one of her most profound life lessons, as she shares one defining experience in particular.
Participating in a learning journey for women led by Margaret Wheatley, Julie encountered a clip from the movie Dirt! about the hummingbird, which “woke me up, as it made me realize that I was still looking for that ultimate solution… I had to become very aware of who I am, and see what I can do in my sphere of influence instead. To become the hummingbird from the clip, so to speak.” Something else she says she needed to let go of, is hope as a driving force.
“The moment you have hope, you have an idea about what something should turn into and look like … that inevitably leads to disappointment.”
Instead, she has learned to replace hope by faith: “Faith in the human spirit and life.” That way, you do what you do, simply because you want to, because you “cannot not do it.” It might sound like a small shift in perspective, but it hugely impacted Julie’s work and the way she shows up.
A Shift in the Work Field
Julie sees a shift happening in how people would describe this work. Whereas not long ago it might have been seen as idealistic, and after that even as activistic, people are now increasingly moving towards the notion that it might actually be realistic. Julie notices that the field is opening up, and that the diversity of contexts in which this work is requested is increasing.
“As Arawana Hayashi or Otto Scharmer might say, ‘The awareness around awareness is rising‘, and more and more people are becoming aware of the externalities we have created, and that we can all contribute in smaller ways, rather than waiting for big solutions — from the government, for example.”
Adaptability in Business
An area that is catching Julie’s attention in the field nowadays, is the business world. She shares that, in corporations, there increasingly is a sense of: “We want to adapt to the changing world, and the structures and systems we have created are not allowing us to do adapt or move quickly.” She observes that institutions and companies, but also governments, are dealing with major and complex issues, such as climate change and social inclusion. These are big questions, which leaves them wondering: “How do we even start with such big transitions?”
That’s where Julie’s Work with a capital W comes in. What greatly interests her is always learning and evolving the question of:
“How do we find a way of designing what I call ‘the art of intervention’ in such complex challenges? How do you pace your interventions? And who do you involve at what time, in a way that people feel included and invited, and that the change will be lasting?”
The focus on innovating through ‘learning by doing’ is important here, as she sees that organizations no longer just need external consultants to come in with solutions from outside, but rather aim at building capacity internally and achieving collective ownership and responsibility. What makes such projects exciting for Julie is that they bring together change, innovation and capacity building in one.
A New Skill Set
When Julie receives these kinds of requests, she has a specific way of starting that process. “The first thing I do is click the pause button,” she says with a smile. “Often, the question is formulated as: This is the change we want to implement. This is what we want to move towards. Can you help us get there?” Julie points out that in this work we first need to take the time to really understand the current reality and what is going on in the present situation. Only on the basis of such deep sense-making can we describe what the desired change could look like, and use that as a starting point for designing the process.
“That’s a difficult skill: To sense currently reality, see clearly what’s going on, and then make sense of that. That’s a skill that’s not very present in organizations. … If we are part of a system, it’s very hard to see it clearly.”
Learning Journeys With a Bank
Julie shares two concrete examples of her work with businesses. The first one is a leadership development program she hosted at a Belgian bank, in which the CEO invited a cohort to contribute to his vision for the future and solutions for organizational challenges they faced. The old pattern of wanting to jump into brainstorming showed up right away, but Julie and her colleague invited them to first step outside of their own bubble instead. They went on learning journeys to listen to leadership stories of transition in very different contexts, such as that of the creative director of a local opera, the founder of an NGO and the financial director of a private television network. Of course, this exercise was initially met with skepticism, as the people wondered: “What can we learn here, since this is not a bank?”
However, after these visits and the guided sense-making that followed, the solutions they arrived at had a highly different quality than usual. One of the reasons for this, according to Julie, is that it helps to also listen to stories that are not so closely connected to your own situation. Then what follows will be influenced by entirely different contexts and can hold surprising and new elements.
Sensing in the Rice Fields
The second example Julie offers is a process she guided for a group of scientists in rice research, who were tasked with finding solutions for various rice farming villages around the world. Their objectives were, for example, to achieve two harvests per year. “These were bright, smart scientists,” Julie says, “and they would usually go into the rice fields to check four criteria: What seeds were being used, the planting methods applied, the distance between plants, and the irrigation methods. On the basis of those four things, they would come to a diagnosis and decide what the farmers should do differently.”
At the start of the process, Julie asked them: “Have you connected to the social complexities of these villages and communities?” Their answer was that they often visited the farmers, but the conversations mainly revolved around the four checkpoints mentioned above. “So,” says Julie, “we took them on a witnessing walk, connecting them with the farmers, their families and the rest of the villagers. For the scientists this exercise felt unconnected to their work, but we wanted them to see the social complexity within which the farmers operate, and how this might relate to how they plant and irrigate.”
Then they organized dialogue walks with farmers and scientists in very small groups. “We invited them to come up with one alternative to the four questions they usually ask,” says Julie, “one that would allow them to get the real and full story of what it means to be a rice farmer. They came up with: Would you want your children to become rice farmers?” This powerful question generated at least a good hour of conversation. The solutions that came out after that were of a very different quality, as were the ways in which they were brought to the farmers.
This Pump is Not a Pump
Julie describes a clear example of how the decisions that were arrived at after this process with the irrigation scientists differed from business as usual. “When we entered the village for the first time, we could immediately see that the pump that was responsible for the irrigation of all the rice fields around it was not functioning. Even I could see that.” She points out that, normally, the scientists would just come in, criticize the pump and come up with a solution to replace it. However, what they learned through their conversations with the farmers is that this pump had been offered by one of the children of the villagers, who had gone through school and made it into local politics. Upon election to local government, he had gifted the village that pump.
“So that pump is not a pump! It’s actually a symbol of hope for the future, and a reminder that something else is possible… The irrigation solution offered after this experience was to add an extra pump or to change something else, but not to say that the pump is not working, because you cannot touch such a symbol. The villagers would never have adopted such a solution.”
For the coming year, Julie looks forward to deepening some of the work she’s been involved in over the past 12 months. This includes a project with the UN, for which she worked with country teams in Uganda, on the one hand aiming to integrate ongoing reform into the UN (in the way of working, both internally and with partners), and on the other hand working on the Sustainable Development Goals. “The programs we run in Uganda and Cambodia are formats I really like,” she says, “as we bring together people for powerful learning, after which they then go out, do some sensing activities over the span of several months, come back together in person for sense-making and then proceed with prototyping. I love this rhythm in projects.” She aims to deepen these formats.
Another thing she’s looking forward to is continuing with the Ecosystem Leadership Program, which is a new advanced program for change-makers launched earlier this year. “It’s really a new body of work that greatly excites me,” she explains. This program dives into the question of “How do we collectively lead within an ecosystem?”
Finally, Julie is also excited to continue work around Ecosystem Activation, which focuses on application in context.
“In the past fifteen years, so much has been achieved within the Presencing Institute. Bringing together the many individuals who have been touched by this work is very powerful.”
The question Julie increasingly hears is: “It’s amazing to be part of a global community, but what if we bring people together to bring change in our region? What becomes possible if we share and connect what we have learned and co-create new things together?” This is where the future seems to be heading, and Julie will undoubtedly be part of that next evolution.
Watch Julie’s video interview here: