Change-makers I love: The Mycelium Project

In nature, mycelium is the vegetative portion of a fungus; it is a complex interwoven tapestry that connects the organisms it touches. In the human world, The Mycelium School is an educational organization that “opens up new pathways for change-makers and business leaders to affect the world”.  I got to speak with Matthew Abrams, co-founder and vision keeper, and Dana Pearlman, lead facilitator and coach, not just about their innovative educational model, but about big topics like transforming education, authentic leadership and working across difference.

Sally: What is the change you are creating in the world?

Dana: In the learning environment I was brought up in, you were supposed to go and do your time and learn things that were pre-determined. But, with Mycelium, it’s really about being centered on the learner and asking them questions to get to the center of what they’re trying to understand. And doing that in a collective with others who are also asking questions. When you get those elements together, that is where magic happens.

Matthew: We use a living systems framework. We look at the participant both as an interconnected being in an interconnected, complex world. So, one of the major challenges and opportunities that we have is really honoring the whole of both the participant and the world and looking for that meaningful alignment of the two.

At the individual level, we look at: What is that authentic essence of who they are? And how do we draw that out more? Then once we have some clarity around what that living essence is (…) we look at what can you create from that place? Maybe that’s starting a purpose driven business, making a documentary, writing a book or being an entrepeneur.

Sally: Could you tell me about the founding of the project?

Matthew: I had participated—or not participated—in traditional education for 16 years, and was really at this cross roads where I was so lost, I didn’t know what my role was in this world. I spent 7 years travelling on and off, and noticed that so much of learning is done in relationship to others, and that learning really honors the complexity of the world and others. So much of my educational experience was so transactional: Information went from one person to a bunch of people, but there was so little engagement around the learner.

I started holding a vision for education that was learner-centered and experiential. Then I started learning about Permaculture, and how nature follows certain principles, and then learned about mycelium, the underground network of mushrooms, which communicates nutrients across the forest floor, maintaining the vitality of the host ecosystem. That framework fit perfectly into this idea of relational, learner-centered education. That was a huge “Aha!” moment for me. I started to ask questions: How can we design an education system inspired by the principals of nature, and specifically, Mycelium. That was the real inquiry that drove the first few years.

Sally: The leadership you are fostering in your participants seems to be different from that of many powerful leaders in our world today. What is the difference?

Dana: It relates to the question of: How do I navigate my leadership in a way that is not egotistical or fear based, but is in service to the world? That is a constant check in question. So, we are attracting people who are creating something better in the world, who are seeing a need greater than themselves.

Mathew: One of our guiding principles is diversity. As we move into an uncertain and volatile future, we need to know how to organize effectively to create health and life within humans and in relationship to the world. We are not transmitting information, but building the capacity of humans to be in diverse groups, to accept and actually embrace that diversity. Within diversity, therein lies health and therein lies the conditions for creating whole, human expression.

Sally: How do you work with diversity at Mycelium?

Dana: Often, when you have these kinds of spaces, one of the things you try to look for is: Where is coherence in the group? And one of the things that Mycelium is trying to experiment with is being aware just not where the coherence is, but where the healing is needed. It is about increasing our capacity to understand how we impact others and how to create the space where people can get together and get work done, despite the fact that we are coming from a culture that has a lot of racism and sexism and homophobia and we’re showing up with all of that.

Sally: What kinds of changes have come out of this kind of transformative education with participants?

Matthew: One of our participants from the second learning journey was an international corporate lawyer. He worked for corporations whom he would defend them when they were harming people or the environment. He came to understand that the life he was living was really draining his soul. Then he participated in the learning journey when he was at the cross roads of realizing that the life he was living was not what he wanted. So, the learning journey really offered him community and reflection and the space to feel like he wasn’t crazy, there were others like him. Then, he started asking meaningful questions, he started to check in with what was his authentic expression. What he came to was how liberating it could be if he lived on purpose. Now, he’s starting a business called Offscripting. At the core of it, it’s about the fact that we’re all given a script to follow, but that script doesn’t always serve everyone. Now he’s developing a book, workshops and resources all around off scripting.

Mycelium is gearing up for a new program, the Startup Venture Program, to help people launch that venture of their dreams. You can read about this, or any of their other programs, on their incredibly informative website, www.mycelium.is, or in this Huffington Post Article.

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