Interview with Phil Bakelaar

This interview took place on July 14th in Phil’s home in New Jersey, where he was so kind to host us for a couple of days. We recorded the interview and typed it up. It might be a little wordy and long, we still wanted to share it with you :) Thanks to Phil!

Phil, would you mind introducing yourself to our readers?
Hi! I‘m Phil Bakelaar. I live in New Jersey in the United States and I’ve been on the IFVP board for the third year now. I‘ve gone to the conferences in Austin, in Washington DC and now in Decatur and so I met Frank and Carola. I took their workshop at the conference in Decatur – great workshop ;-)! I met Frank at the IFVP conference last year in Washington DC. We did a video interview for the preparation of the conference and so we got to know each other. They are visiting me now while they are on their tour through the US.
I do a number of things. I have taught at a state university for 25 years. This summer is very interesting because the Montclair State University asked me to teach an eight week course on visual practice so I‘ve been working with eight graduate students and six senior undergraduate students. We put in 48 hours of instruction time over eight weeks – six hours a week.

Which methods do you teach?
I share methods from the Grove and bikablo. I also take them to a lot of websites. And we‘re working on Brandy Agerbeck‘s book „Ideas Shapers“. This is the only text I’m using. We have had video interviews with a number of practitioners.

What is the purpose of the course?
The whole point is to think about information. In-formation. So how do you form information? And what forms can information take? Last night for example I was on the call with my students and we’re doing Edward Tufte and Steven Few about technical data visualizations and dashboard design work. It‘s a big field. It‘s very exciting so my students are picking up on it and want to use it in their career work.

Let’s talk about that in a little bit more detail later. What brought you to visual facilitation – how did you get there ?
I was teaching organizational communication at the university and went to the Pegasus communication conferences – which was often based on Peter Senge and his work. There were graphic recorders and I was captivated by it. I was asking them how did they know how to do this? And they said that they went to the Grove. So I went to the Grove. I met people there and learned about it and I took a couple courses. Then I started including visualization in my teaching. I brought one of David Sibbet‘s books into my required texts and the students used it for organizational team meetings and the rest is history.

What happened next?
Stephanie Brown invited me to be part of a conference team with the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation. So I went and I met e.g. Mark Korsak and Greg Gersch and a lot of people there. We all did drawings – 40 or 50 drawings for the conference. And we hung them all on the walls – I cut paper and I cut paper and I cut paper- Steph helped move me into it more. I was using the charter markers from the Grove and she showed me neuland markers. Steph gave me my first neuland marker and now I have bags of them.
I just started doing it in my courses with more people in university. There they had conferences and they asked: Would you come and record the conference? So I went and recorded for the conference. We have a project at our university called the Center for Collaborative Journalism and they often asked me to come to meetings and just capture during the meeting of maybe 20 people. They were talking about: „How we cooperate in our news reporting.“

You showed us already that you are working with your students with the bikablo icons and the emotion cards. How do you do that?
I went to your workshop and you showed us how to do it. Mostly I have the students practice. An interesting thing that happens is that I just show them drawings in the card deck and I say that they should practice some of these. And then I say to them: Now look at your drawing and make up a story from whatever it is you drew. Instead of having the story in mind first I say: „Just draw and then make up the story that fits afterwards! „They do that and they love it. It feels energizing, it feels engaging to them.
I also make an exercise where you take one negative emotion, you take an action and you take a positive emotion card. And then you create a story – a three framed comic story. The students love doing that. I show them how to take their iPhone and use iMovie with those drawings. They take the pictures of the frames and pull them into iMovie. It automatically gives them 15 seconds and gets them motion. We’re adding an audio track or a music track and you have a little 45 sec movie video.

Where would you say do your students see the benefits of the visual facilitation?
Are these typically people that are just interested or is it something where they say this will add value to the work that I’m doing?
It’s definitely the facilitation of teamwork or collaboration that my students are involved with. I have one student in my course who works in pharmaceuticals. She is just lit up like a lightbulb. She said: „Oh my gosh – I can do this in my meetings and it’ll be so much better.“ I’ve another student who is been a life coach for people and she just lit up too: „I could draw while I’m talking to people and I can use templates.“ I have a number of students who work in the production of magazines. One of them for example just drew a big illustration for a project that takes the magazine production from the beginning to the end. She used the roller coaster metaphor for how you can go through iterations of your business, or like there is an uphill climb to the final edits and so on. So she showed it to her fellow workers and they liked it so much they’re printing it out, putting it on the desks and on the wall.

Are the other professors also interested in learning how to do this? Because it’s also a skill in terms of how do I convey something to my students.
Hm. They like it an they like me to come and do it. But I don’t know if any of them are doing it.

You told us that you are supporting a refugee project with drawing. Can you explain that to us?
I’m part of an international organization called Church World Service (CWS Global). I was on their board for years and we had a meeting in Chicago a year ago or so and I had my iPad and was taking visual notes during the meeting. People came over, looked at it and asked me about it. We have an initiative – an incubation lab to try and to find new ways instead of the old ways of engaging people. And the incubation lab wants to do social media so they asked me if I could do some whiteboard animation to post for them. They wanted me to draw visual stories of refugees with the actual person doing the narration and more information linked from the visual – to inform and educate the public about that topic.
When we started to think about this I had to go to Phoenix for a family emergency and I was sitting in a Phoenix airport and used the work visual program on my iPad in the airport waiting room – sketching ideas – and I exported the drawings as movies and I sent CWS Global that little movie and they loved it. They said it was the greatest thing for our task. From my perspective it’s so simple and I’m happy that I can support with these little gifts.
I also met Matthew McGain at the IFVP conference, who does whiteboarding in Australia. And that’s great for businesses: they have a lot of money and they can get five weeks and pay of thousands of dollars. But nonprofit organizations don’t have that amount of money. So I’m just doing my best to give them whatever I can give. And perhaps it’s not the greatest but it’s something.
We’re now in the doing phase in my summer course: the other day we CWS developed the script and I gave it to my students in university. I said: „Let’s do something with this!“
I have some of those pictures that they came up with. So we’re going to keep working on it so at the end of the course we have something that’s ready to get out.

This text describes the pictures below:
It’s an actual story from somebody who flew from Somalia. When the girl was 11, terrorists killed her father and family had to flee. And so they went to a refugee camp for 10 years. And then they ended up in the United States refugee process. They had to go through all the interviews to do that and they kept getting retraumatized. They finally got here and brought the family and she has a job as an assistant in an office of the university.
The people don’t realize how long are it is. Our organization is particularly interested in the mental health of traumatized people. Because some of them, for example some
Yazidi people who had been severely persecuted recently. These people had been brutalized, mistreated and abused. So they have that on top of their relocation. So how do you respond to that? The organization that I’m with is actually having to specifically settle those people where there is adequate mental health services and medical services. So you can’t even send them with the regular refugee community. That’s the story. And these kind of stories we would like to share for the public to understand the situation of refugees better.

When will the course finish?
August 3rd. We are hoping the university considers a follow up course that would focus on projects.

What do you think are your students are going to do with the drawing skills or what will they be ready to do?
Some of them are entering graduate students. One of the things that I encourage them to do is when they read a journal article in their graduate program or masters program that they draw a one page visual as a summary of that article. Because you can write annotated bibliographies but it’s still all words. But my students who have done this in the past they found that if they staple that one page visual to their bibliography they just remember those articles immediately by looking at the visuals.
Some of them are using visualization for strategic planning. The Grove has a strategic planning model with templates. Some them are using that. My pharmaceutical person ordered the bikablo cards and the neuland whiteboard color markers and some other markers. So she’s doing it in her meetings already – when people are talking she is drawing.

You said your last course in the university was three years ago. Are there plans to do another one next year?
I don’t know. It’s up to the university. It’s a precious thing to get a summer course.
So it was a big honor when they asked me. I didn’t even get in line. They just came to me and said that students are asking for this – if I could do one. And in the new revised curriculum for the Masters program in Public and Organizational Relations they have included a Visual Facilitation course as a standard elective. That is progress!

Recently in the training in Philly we had somebody from the University of Boston and he said the group that he works for that they’re more responsible for teaching their professors in terms of: „How do I present?“. Because a lot of the professors are very good in their topic but not in presenting it.
I think there are so many different aspects when you look at it in terms of higher education. I don’t use PowerPoint any more – for many years now. I draw as I talk on board. And I draw the visual. It is a great way to help students see the whole picture of their program and the courses and put it all together.

I think one of the other terms our attendee used was chalkboard 2.0. When you remember the early days it was just the chalkboard. A lot of our participants say that they would like to retreat from PowerPoint and use more visuals with markers and paper and so on.
I was trained as a high school teacher in the United States. So I took courses in teaching. But college teachers don’t get all that. People love to have the simple visual that goes along with your presentation.
I also did a funeral for somebody (Phil is also a pastor). I was getting the funeral ready I had to go over their life in preparation. While I was doing this, I started to draw. And it came out so well that we printed it up and handed it out as a visual summary of their life at the funeral. That was interesting. There are all kind of ways you can apply it. I also was doing a family mediation. I put a flip chart paper on the table and they started talking and I started drawing. And later they were pointing and we talked about this pathway that pathway. And when they left they took pictures of it. There’s so many ways to use visual thinking.
My doctoral degree is in rhetoric and communication – the whole point is communication. Are we understanding each other? This is such a good practice for helping our left and right brains to be in the same place. How can we understand each other better? How can we create a better world? 99% of the people  I met around visualization are people who are interested making a better community, a better world. They do this for community organizations, for indigenous peoples or for listening communities seeking dialogue and deliberation . So it is a practice that commends itself pretty well today.

Thank you very much! And thank you very much for hosting us!