November 19, 2018
“By coming to the edges; by staying longer in the place that is supposedly without utility, empty, null and void; by dwelling with the bewildering awkwardness and staying with the trouble; other places of power become visible.”- Bayo Akomolafe
At a recent community of practice gathering of IISC consultants – a space in which we reveal our learnings and challenges – we explored the radical importance of creating spaciousness in our personal lives, as well as in our training and facilitation rooms. I believe spaciousness is the slow food of facilitation.
Slow food is used in progressive circles to describe living an unhurried life and taking time to enjoy meals and simple pleasures. It’s the complete opposite to fast food culture which, much like American work culture, is based on white and capitalist dominant norms of urgency, desperation, quantity over quality, and progress as always bigger and more.
We have forgotten to slow down. To say “no” lovingly. To just stop and pause lightly even for a few moments or minutes. IISC affiliate and former long-time Senior Associate Andrea Nagel shared at our community of practice session, “We can’t just talk our way into being. We need to be ‘in being.” Miriam Messinger, IISC’s director of practice, agreed and pointed out that “We have a fear of ‘being’ and we are rewarded for ‘doing’ in our culture.”
In our work with a client organization’s Race Equity Design Team, a member shared in a recent gathering, “We do have people who say no, but they have little power – we dismiss them. There is an unspoken sensation that we realize that ‘no’ is really not an acceptable word.” The team challenged themselves to slow down and get to the heart of things.
As facilitators and trainers, we can uproot white supremacy and capitalist culture just by adding spaciousness and slowness to our approach and design of meetings and gatherings. We can start with meditation and art, and we can focus on flow. Reduce the number of topics on an agenda. Pause to give people chances to breathe or take in moments of silence. Encourage people to empty their thoughts onto a page. Bring them into nature to walk and stretch. We can be firm on allowing at least one hour for people to eat lunch at day-long meetings so they can eat with intention and connect to people, and give no fewer than 15 minutes for a quality break. We can talk slower, walk around the room slower, and let space and time ebb and flow to allow people’s emergent thoughts to come into conversations. These thoughts are often the most strategic, brave, and authentic, and often the ones that allow new ideas to come into being and new cultural norms of collaboration to take hold.
There are times for high energy in a training or facilitation, but we can still offer spaciousness — more time for conversation and more time for self and group care. The rush of life and dominant culture will take us and our conversation over unless we intentionally create spaciousness. We have to re-condition ourselves to slow our minds and reduce or focus less on our “tasks”. If we disrupt the dominant pattern for one minute, one hour, or one day, it’s a victory in our current society. We can engage in practices to help us “be” in true and transformative collaborative relationship with one another.
Let’s breathe together. Thanks for listening.
September 28, 2018
At IISC, we are using guided meditations to spark transformation in the hearts and minds of participants in our facilitation and training rooms.
This is one I offered to thirty Black leaders brought together by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene in New York City this summer. They were asked by First Lady Chirlane McCray, wife of NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio, to develop recommendations to increase the numbers of Black mental health providers. But our job in the end was so much more. It was helping them to discover ways to re-imagine mental health care for Black communities, and to encourage Black people to go into mental health fields to free Black people from the emotional and spiritual binds of pain rooted in systemic and historical injustice.
It was the deepest honor to create and share this meditation with the group as I lost my mother in 2002 to mental illness and the health care system that “treated her”.
Anchor your feet and back
Breathe natural breaths at your own pace
See what’s on your mind about today
See your obligations outside of this room and let them float past you and away
Call on your images of your ancestors
See the faces of your family
Think about the history of Black people
What images do you see of pain?
Of pain as they face hardship? As their mental health deteriorates?
As they triumph over, and their mental health improves and sets them free?
What supports did they have to help them heal and achieve wholeness?
Who helped them?
Who helped you in times of need? In times of mental burden and stress?
Thank your ancestors
July 11, 2018
Breathe once again those breaths of life
And come back when you are ready
Many articles have been devoted to running effective meetings that build collaboration among teams, yet many fail to discuss the hidden element that can destroy a meeting almost without fail.
Power dynamics – the ways in which power works in a setting – can either sink a meeting and negatively impact relationships for years, or produce more shared power and capacity to get things done. A lot of the difference comes down to how we attend to power dynamics in meetings, how well we plan our meetings, how well we determine what happens within and outside of meetings, and how well we facilitate in the moment.
In every organization, there are people who hold formal power and informal power. Formal power is attributed to someone by virtue of their title or position in the organization. People carry informal power if they have influence over others or their organization, either because of their experience, force of personality or persuasion, unearned privilege, or because they have strong relationships with decision-makers and peers. Power is also deeply influenced by diversity and equity dynamics. In most Western societies today, many decisions in organizations are still controlled by people with certain backgrounds: over 40, male, white/European, heterosexual, and middle class and wealthy people. Many feel empowered to lead, speak, and make decisions by virtue of the standing society gives to them on the basis of their background. They get a lot of practice leading and people are acculturated to following and respecting them.
Power — the capacity to get things done — is neither positive nor negative in and of itself. It’s all about how we construct, reconstruct, and practice power. Individuals can exercise their power in healthy ways if they stay focused on making space for others and growing power to achieve positive outcomes by building “power with” others. Individuals and groups can exercise their power in unhealthy ways if they are focused on establishing “power over” others or concentrating power in a few.
At IISC we have made some key observations about power in meetings:
- Power dynamics are always present in meetings whether we see them or not.
- Every meeting is a chance to build a group’s power and transform power dynamics. It’s important to design and facilitate meetings to create opportunities for power to be shared and openly discussed.
- Meeting designers and facilitators must attend to formal and informal power and the dynamics that come along with it.
- Meeting facilitators should be mindful of and acknowledge their own power and enact it in a way that builds the power of the group.
- Every element of meetings needs preparation to make power and decision-making transparent. Consider questions like: Who is at the meeting and who is not? Why or why not? What’s on the agenda and what’s not on the table for discussion that should be? Who will be making the decisions that flow from what will be discussed (both in the room and beyond)? Who plays which roles and why? What work will happen outside of the meeting? What information from the meeting should be shared and with whom?
So, what are some ways to attend to power dynamics in meetings?
- Assume power dynamics are always present in meetings. Design your meeting agenda to include multiple voices and perspectives. Lightly encourage people to step forward to lead and participate, especially if they have less power in the organization either because of role, positional status, race, gender, or other factors. Encourage people with traditional forms of formal power to do more listening than speaking.
- Build a culture of collaboration in meetings. Think of meetings as an opportunity for a team to build relationships, learn leadership, design good processes, and counteract unhealthy uses of power. Design your meetings for relationships, joy, and creativity. Good things will follow! Always build an agenda that allows people to first interact on a human basis, such as starting with opportunities for people to do a “check-in” to share how their day or week is going or to learn more about each other on a personal level. Ask people a question that surfaces their personal and professional purpose. Encourage honesty, vulnerability, and calling people “in”, instead of calling people “out”. Spread a little business love around the room, creating openings for people to feel heard and noticed, and to experience a sense of belonging and interconnectedness.
- Openly discuss power in meetings. Discuss openly with your team the question, what would be the benefits to our group if we shared power? Remind them that power is not a finite pie; rather, it can be infinite, expanded, and shared among people and leaders. Prompt them to explore how they can share “power with” each other instead of “power over.” Make a list of meeting agreements the group will use to share power. Ask people to monitor the agreements and be brave enough to intervene if people are not practicing them. Make a list of “power over” moves, so people learn the behaviors that reinforce dominant voices and power and exclude others. Have people take mental note of who is speaking the most and who is not. Make sure your discussions of power go beyond yourselves as colleagues to the people or communities you serve. How are they “at the table?” How are their priorities, assets, and skills driving the discussion?
- Remember that power is a social construct. We can design spaces where individuals and groups experience their own and others’ power differently. Be proactive about ways to amplify the power of people who are typically at the margins of the conversation. Challenge the group to pay at least as much attention to the expertise that comes from lived experience (say, of poverty) as from formal theories and data. Flip questions on their head by asking “why not do things differently?” instead of “how can we work within given boundaries?” Ensure that people who are affected by the issues you’re working on are at the center of the conversation and have meaningful roles in the work over time (inside meetings and beyond).
- Use your role intentionally and thoughtfully if you’re the meeting facilitator. Don’t dominate the discussion. Don’t come up with all the ideas. Stay as impartial as possible, even though you can never truly be completely neutral. If you want to contribute an idea or experience, tell the group you are switching from facilitator role to express your view as an individual and then step back into your facilitator role. Examine who gets to facilitate meetings and who doesn’t. Meeting facilitators can change the outcome of the meeting just by how they design and run it. Rotating facilitation and supporting people to learn how to facilitate and run meetings distributes power and makes meetings more dynamic.
The skills of meeting facilitation with a lens to share power are teachable and replicable. At IISC, we share some of those skills through training and consulting. We have learned that meetings that are both well facilitated and that attend to power dynamics can transform groups into highly functioning teams with deeper purpose and intention for social change.
April 13, 2018
And you will be undone forever.
Pursuing racial equity and systems change is a forever equation. I am noticing that our clients and friends believe that if we just implement racial equity, diversity, and inclusion “the right way,” our organizations, movements, and networks will immediately become effective multiracial ecosystems that produce transformative results.
We will always be undone. People and systems – the very world we live in – are ever changing and reverting and that’s why I have to be honest that the work of racial equity will always be unfinished.
People are always coming in and out of our organizations, some with knowledge of our path to create racial justice and others completely unknowing and beginning the discovery of systemic racism. Even if we root out systems of injustice and racism in specific institutions or sectors, they will exist in other places and invariably slip back into our ecosystem. The world is encased in racial stratification. We can dismantle racism in one territory and it can spread elsewhere as people and their ideas travel.
Oppression cannot be fixed. It’s not a linear proposition. It swarms, grows, gets attacked at moments, dissipates, and then finds its way back into our systems as fearful ways of thinking and unproductive ways of doing. And because we are a species and planet dependent on each other, the chronic patterns of racism can reenter our minds and societies. We are imperfect people in deeply imperfect systems.
We are making progress but it’s not the kind where there’s a clear end in sight. We’re learning together. We’re trying new practices of shared power. We’re rooting out racist policies in our laws and organizations. Our systems are feeling the pressure because of our joint actions.
But we won’t do it “right” and we won’t get it “right.” We will be undone.
But don’t let this disappointment get in the way of persistent bold action.
We will have moments of clarity. Moments of seeing new possibilities. Months of progress in our leadership for equity and justice. Years of growth and learning. Examples of power shifting and sharing all around us. Detrimental laws defeated. It will feel like freedom, like less damage is around and inside of us.
Let’s see ourselves as equilibrium makers, re-introducing people to see the problem of racism once again, re-balancing power as the dynamics return, re-calibrating systems when they revert, revisiting change in ourselves and others with humility, and re-birthing our best nature and ideas toward liberation.
Each of us are needed to extricate the roots of racism. We can still be a constant catalyst for change all the while knowing that we will be undone.
December 11, 2017
“We must make just and liberated futures irresistible.”
Toni Cade Bambara (via Adrienne Maree Brown)
At IISC, we are asking ourselves what we are trying to accomplish by helping the ecosystem of organizations, networks, and leaders pursue racial equity. Are we clear what we are fighting for? I believe we need to imagine what a society without oppression would look like in order to be able to explore this question. If oppression were a thing of the past, what would the world be like? If white supremacy and the drive to dominate didn’t ravage our cultures and minds, what would be available to us?
At IISC, we talk about the “Fourth Box,” the box that remains after we have eliminated inequities and achieved human liberation. I believe equity will exist when enough people and structures in societies have successfully dismantled the tools and ideology of oppression. But what is the liberation that follows after the breakdown of oppression? The word “liberation” can get a funny reaction in some quarters because it sounds like a 1970’s throwback civil rights expression, but it’s a deeply important concept.
What if liberation is the personal and transformational freedom that comes when our society is no longer rigged for the few – those who share similar characteristics or benefit from systems to concentrate their power?
What if liberation instead created a society that is centered on the notion that all human beings naturally belong in this universe? A society in which people live with autonomy, resources, creativity, inspiration, love, and human connectivity that makes life joyful, meaningful, and in alignment?
If we were to be fully liberated, what would that look like? I believe we would simply have time for being human. We would naturally spend time with those around us, appreciating their gifts and uniqueness. We would create play, laughter, and art in the ways we did as children but with the knowledge and insights acquired from our adult experiences. We would bring to human beings around us the power of presence – the relaxed unrehearsed connectivity that brings forth love and harmonious existence with all things living. We would build a fortified earth that yields food, sun, beach, ocean, sky, moon, mountains, lakes, clouds, and a vibrant and healthy climate to all.
We will soon be spending time at IISC examining our racial justice approach and methodology. It is my hope that we will start from the premise of the world without oppression and then think about how we can best help our clients and networks discover what that looks like, feels like, tastes like, and sounds like. Let’s suspend time and give people the opportunity to imagine themselves free from oppression and the tools they were taught to dominate others so they can live into practices that transform our world.
What would it look like to design racial equity interventions by helping people envision the end of oppression?
October 12, 2017
A secret I don’t share with many people is that I have trouble reading books. When I went to law school, they made us read so many dense pages of legal reasoning I lost my love of story – until I discovered the podcast. In the comfortable confines of my car I stand witness to stories of personal accomplishment, quirks in our daily lives, and social commentary about our world. The other day one really caught my attention.
It was about Toys R Us, the biggest toy store in America. I love toys and I thought everyone else did, too. So I was surprised to learn that Toys R Us had filed for bankruptcy. Turns out, Toys R Us had invested in bricks and mortar without seriously expanding into the internet sales market. And at the same time, they kept those physical spaces disorganized, stale, and predictable. Amazon swooped in and sold toys at a record pace.
A toy and business analyst said if Toys R Us could have jumped in early and creatively into internet sales they would have avoided their decline. And if they had made their stores places of experience, fun, mystery, and discovery, they could have saved their business that way. He believed they should have created large and open areas where kids could ride around on bikes and play with other toys. He thought another miss was not thinking about how to combine physical toys with technological interactions.
As I was driving on the highway heading into traffic, I started thinking about lessons IISC or our network of clients and partners could learn from this story. Are we missing opportunities for integrating our knowledge and expertise with web-based learning and social media? Are we creating experiences in physical rooms and meetings that kick leaders and participants out of the norm and into experiences of fun, exploration, and surprise? Are we combining online and in-person strategies to more effectively and creatively share learning and ideas around collaboration, leadership, equity, and network building?
IISC is not a for-profit corporation like Toys R Us, and we have different values and approaches from them, but we can benefit from understanding that the way we do our work now and how we do our work may not be the standard for the decades to come.
IISC has started piloting some unique approaches in our workshops, in our consulting work, and through our experimentation with public engagement that use web-based learning, social media memes, and narrative. We are cooking up ways to fashion our training and consulting expertise in modular and less expensive ways so we can share it more broadly. I think that’s an early sign of us growing and stretching. We are pushing ourselves to domore experimenting and I know it’s going to help us stay relevant and live into the power of the future.
What experiments might you try out that will help you live into your future? What’s the risk of not doing so? Supporting leaders, organizations, systems, and networks to engage in social change is never out of date, but the way we as consultants and leaders approach that work might be. We may know at a gut level that something new and different is called for, but are we leaning into what’s necessary to make the leap?
Check out how Toys R Us plans to turn around: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-toysr-us-bankruptcy-brandon/toys-r-us-ceo-sees-future-with-smaller-shops-idUSKCN1BV2Y7