“As long as it remains invisible, it is guaranteed to remain insoluble.”
Margaret Heffernan, from Willful Blindness
Photo by Marie Aschehoug-Clauteaux
As I look back on 2014 through the lens of the work we have done at IISC supporting networks and movements for social justice and system change, one of the most significant themes that I’ve distilled is the value of “making the invisible visible.” This month I’ve facilitated a number of reflection sessions with diverse groups to gauge the development and impact they have felt and observed from our work over the course of the year. I tend to ask people how they see change happening at different levels: self, group, larger systems (organization, neighborhood, community, state, region, etc.). I also like to ask them to reflect via the use of stories, which I find often help to capture and convey developmental processes.
What has come from this sharing is that even though some of the big goals around equity and sustainability remain elusive, there has been movement and a significant part of this development comes down to seeing what had previously been unseen. While the methods for getting to this recognition have varied – from system mapping and analysis to network mapping to structural and power analysis to learning journeys to dialogue and tackling difficult conversations– by creating ample space to see, share and suppose, there has been significant deepening of relationships (to self, other, the work), change processes, and potential impact.
“The way of the Essentialist means living by design, not by default.”
– Greg McKeown
I’m currently reading Greg McKeown’s book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, which I’ll admit I had been tempted to look at earlier in the year and then decided not to for a couple of reasons. First of all, to me the sub-title smacked of a certain level of privilege, given that there are so many people who need more not less – more resources in the face of poverty, more fundamental regard for their humanity and rights in the face of injustice. In addition and seemingly validating of my initial wariness, the book’s opening stories focus on Silicon Valley executives and other corporate players. And yet at the same time I was pulled in by this notion of “essentialism,” embodied in one of the opening quotes attributed to writer, linguist and inventor Lin Yutang:
The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of non-essentials.
“What’s most systemic is personal . . . and interpersonal.”
– rift on a Peter Senge quote
At IISC, one of the three core lenses that we bring to our collaborative capacity building for social change work is love as a force for social transformation. How this lens impacts what we do as practitioners depends on context, though often it comes down to ensuring that there is time for people in the collaborative change efforts we support to connect on a personal and interpersonal level. One way to do this is to invite people to share stories and do this beyond the parameters for their professionally defined roles. I did this recently with a group and as is often the case, there were a few areas of resistance in the collective body. “Why are we doing this?” asked someone with a hint of consternation. That became my opening. Here is what I offer as a response to discomfort around what some people call “touchy feely” exercises.
Why are we doing this?
In general terms, to expand collective potential.
To help each of us to be more fully seen and appreciated for who we are, beyond abstractions and implicit assumptions. When people do not feel seen or appreciated they can disengage, or “act out” to get the attention they want.
To test and stretch the boundaries of “appropriate” and “legitimate” ways of knowing and being with one another. Otherwise people can default to ways that privilege those most comfortable with certain ways of being (often strictly professional and cerebral).
To grow “positivity” – that is, to expand the overall collectively felt sense of positive emotions (which includes pride related to the demonstrated ability to have and hold difficult conversations). Positivity has been scientifically linked with greater physical and psychological capacity to see and take in more (of systems and one another).
I offer these, like a yoga teacher, with compassion for any expressed discomfort or tightness felt in different parts of the collective body. And the invitation is to breathe through this and to see what might be loosened up for the benefit of the whole. For another take on this, I highly recommend my friend Joe Hsueh’s piece “Why the Human Touch is Key to Unlocking Systems Change.”
Curious to hear your own experiences connecting what is most personal and interpersonal with systemic change.
In a recent TEDx talk, attorney and diversity consultant Verna Myers shares powerful stories and three concrete ways we can all intervene on our own and others’ biases and help stop the violence against young black men:
“Get out of denial!” Acknowledge unconscious bias; “stare at awesome black people!” and look for data that discomfirms stereotypes.
“Move toward young black men instead of away from them. Go away from your comfort into a bigger, brighter thing.”
“When see something, we have to have the courage to say something, even to the people we love … and not shelter our children from the ugliness of racism. We have an amazing country with incredible ideals … but we are not done yet …
“We need to reach out to one another from a perspective that makes group membership less determinative of opportunity and more related to enhancement of self and community. We need to increase our sense of abundance and improve our sense of well-being, as individuals and in relation to one another. “
I’ve had a number of conversations lately about mindsets and how they relate to effective collective and net work, especially work for justice. Most recently I had the opportunity to talk to Jim Ritchie-Dunham of the Institute for Strategic Clarity about his research into “thriving” organizations and communities in a number of diverse settings – sectors and countries. What he has noted as a shared and distinct (though surely not entirely sufficient) difference-maker for these groups is an orientation towards abundance.
Jim has recently published a book entitled Ecosynomics, which is also the name of a field he has helped to found, which looks at “the principles of collaboration” and more specifically, “the principles of abundance.” Research from Jim and his colleagues shows that even amidst what may appear to be a scarcity of resources and hope, some groups thrive in large part through the conscious construction of “agreements” that can create more opportunity.
I have questions and look forward to further conversation with Jim about the starting point of these groups and the degree to which dynamics of power and privilege come into play with respect to their respective successes and who ultimately benefits. At the same time, I have been aware in my work how much of a difference it can make for groups to be conscious of their ability to choose how to be with one another, and how this can help get beyond otherwise self- and collective-limiting behavior. Read More
It is hopefully a sign of things to come. Last night, a multiracial, multigenerational crowd of 3,000 – 5,000 took to the streets of Boston, shutting down parts of the city as part of a protest organized by #BlackLivesMatter Boston (@BLM_Boston). Read More
I have earned a reputation among family and friends as being “no fun” or “too serious” for pointing out the oppressive underpinnings of many elements of popular culture and U.S. traditions. At the risk of reinforcing that reputation, I want to offer a few reflections as Thanksgiving approaches. Read More
I wish we would only need that sign in another year. It’s crazy to me that it’s already relevant, and that its relevance stretches far into the past as well. In just the past few days alone, Tamir Rice, Tanisha Anderson, and Akai Gurley all died at the hands of police. Twelve-year old Tamir Rice was shot by police while playing with a BB gun in a Cleveland park. Tanisha Anderson died in a police “take down” when she resisted being taken in for mental health services, though her family called for an ambulance, not police. Akai Gurley was killed by a rookie cop in a dark hallway in the Pink Houses in Brooklyn. Gurley was described by Police Commissioner Bratton as a “total innocent” who was shot in an “accident.” His death has already been ruled a homicide. Read More
Sitting with the grand jury verdict in the killing of Michael Brown, I’m reminded of a blues song that I first heard sung by Sweet Honey in the Rock more than 30 years ago. It’s as poignant today as it was then.
I struggle to find my place in this year of insurrection against the state sanctioned murders of young black men. My knees are too old to run from riot police, my lungs too scarred to survive teargas. I’m wrestling with what it means to be a 50-year-old black American woman who has inherited the benefits of civil rights advancement, and upon whose shoulders the next generations should safely and securely stand. And I am struggling with what it means to have failed.
I have failed to properly name the extrajudicial killings of Sean Bell in 2006 and Trayvon Martin in 2012 and Jonathan Ferrell in 2013 and Eric Garner, John Crawford, Mike Brown and Darrien Hunt in 2014, and I have failed to stop their deaths. I wasn’t there bravely sewing letters on a banner to be dropped in protest that stitched past and present together: “a man was lynched today.” I have failed the memory of 41 bullets striking the body of Amadou Diallo in 1999; failed the decapitated body of James Byrd, dragged to death behind a truck, in 1989. Most of all, I have failed to be watchful and articulate after the revenge killing of Michael Donald in 1981, that moment which destroyed the private club of the Ku Klux Klan and left its role to be taken up by the state.
I want to believe that I stand in solidarity with young activists in Ferguson, but their very existence indicts me.
We have just heard that the Grand Jury did not indict Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown. The brilliant and courageous young people of Ferguson know that justice has not been served. The relentless profiling, criminalization, harassment and killing of young people of color is a an old an ongoing crisis in this country. It must stop.
I heard a Ferguson resident speak these words on the radio about the actions the Ferguson Police force took in August. And yet, as we await a grand jury decision on whether to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the killing of Michael Brown, most of the media conversation is about whether there will be citizen violence and, assuming yes, requests for calm. Read More