Rockefeller legacies intersect to do good work

This article first appeared in the Roaring Rock, a Rockefeller family newsletter.

The legacies of two family members separated by a generation and 1,500 miles converged earlier this year. The impact of Winthrop Rockefeller on his adopted state of Arkansas lives on through the work of the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute, located on what was part of Winthrop’s cattle farm atop Petit Jean Mountain. So, too, does the work of Laura Rockefeller Chasin live on through the organization she founded in Boston – Essential Partners.

These two organizations with two separate missions and in two different geographic locations came together accidentally around a common purpose, resulting in a new and wonderful partnership.

How did this happy accident occur? The Winthrop Rockefeller Institute convenes leaders, thinkers and practitioners to address issues and search for solutions that improve the lives of Arkansans and others. We do this by employing the Rockefeller ethic given to us by the example of both John D. Rockefeller Sr. and JDR Jr. of first framing the issue, then bringing the foremost expert(s) together with others who care about the issue, and structuring the conversation in a way where all voices are respectfully heard and solutions are sought.

The Institute’s mission naturally involves us in the work of civil discourse, so we were recently contacted by two state representatives whose districts had played one another in football. The game was played during the campaign phase of the 2016 presidential election, and because of inappropriate behavior by some of the adults involved, the evening resulted in ugly activities from both sides. The two legislators asked the Institute to guide the students and school/ community leaders through a civil discourse exercise to help students learn how to respect and understand the views of others, even though different from their own. As we began to frame the issue and design the program, we reached out to our partners at the Clinton School of Public Service. That is where we learned about Essential Partners (EP). The Clinton School told us that EP provided effective training in Reflective Structured Dialogue, a method that guides people through a safe and respectful process, to first turn inward and examine themselves, and then turn their focus to listening and understanding others, appreciating their similarities and differences. At the time, the Clinton School did not realize that EP was founded by Winthrop Rockefeller’s niece, Laura Chasin.

Coincidentally, one tidbit of Winthrop Rockefeller’s advice to his son, Win, in A Letter to My Son was to “Never be quick to blame others—turn first to an examination of yourself and your own shortcomings in your relations to them. Enjoy and understand others for the qualities that are good about them—not their faults.” Laura called this a “journey into the new,” providing a new way to engage people with whom we deeply disagree.

Since our early encounter, the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute has utilized what we learned from Robert “Bob” Stains, whose mentor was Laura Chasin, to successfully facilitate a conversation around the divisive herbicide dicamba for the Arkansas Department of Agriculture. The result of that conversation was new agricultural policy in Arkansas, and it has the potential to affect ag policy across the country. Likewise, Essential Partners encourages other clients by using the Institute’s example of employing reflective structured dialogue to help groups reach consensus on difficult issues. We have since learned that our founders shared other values and beliefs also. They both believed in rolling up their sleeves and working alongside those “doing the real work of making the world a better place.”

Bob Stains summed it up nicely by saying, “It is like a family song that is sung across generations or an underlying melody that informs and sustains the passionate commitment to changing the world in a way shown to us by both Winthrop and Laura and many other family members we’ve had the privilege to meet. That kind of music seems in such short supply today.” 

Both organizations and those with whom we serve remain forever grateful to Winthrop and Laura for their big ideas on human relations, reminding us what is possible and how people can connect across a big divide.