Author Archives for Miriam Messinger

October 10, 2018

Reclaim for Liberation: A way to start your day

The board and staff of Interaction Institute recently gathered to learn from others working to bring about racial equity and to talk about how we build a board structure that supports or propels our work in new ways. To start the day, we did an icebreaker I called, “Reclaim for Liberation.”

A colleague planted this seed. What are the qualities or traits we once had that have been taken from us—by family dynamics or trauma, by histories of oppression, or as we have become adults and try to live in the dominant culture? And which of these do we actually want back?

Sometimes, as we are reaching for liberation, we find ourselves fighting against what exists. What we need more of is the vision of what we are heading toward. And sometimes, we imagine that we need completely new tools and skills and ways of being to get to our vision. What if we actually know (or used to know) most of what we need for transformation?

Growing up in this culture and transforming ourselves to fit, particularly as women and/or people of color and/or queer people, we shed things that are not only elemental to us but deeply important for our ability to move forward. Much of this is related to how white supremacy impacts our ways of being and asks most of us to be much smaller than nature would have us be.

When we did the exercise below, people told each other short stories of what they wanted to reclaim for the journey. The words that came up included play, song, dance, carefree, silly, laughter. And then the members of each small group used their bodies to create a sculpture embodying the words and feelings of their group.

It would have been even more effective if we then had kept those ways of being fully present throughout the day, particularly when more challenging conversations emerged. I would like now for us to practice bringing those skills into difficult conversations and see if they help us to speak and solve together.

Try this meditation and share what you see in the group. Do more possibilities or new pathways forward emerge as a result?

Reclaim for Liberation

Allow 20-30 minutes, ideally.

Let people know that in this work for liberation we sometimes feel that we don’t have all we need for change. And perhaps some of what we need we have lost on the way or was taken from us. We are going to spend time individually and as a group reclaiming some of the lost qualities that can be important to us now.

1. Start with a guided meditation (5-6 minutes to set up and lead people in and out)

  • Ask people to take up space in the room; to spread out; can stand or sit
  • Get planted—feeling souls of feet on ground, butt on chair if seated; close eyes or soft gaze
  • 10 deep breaths
    • Feel your body planted—feel the souls of your feet touching the ground, feel your hands resting on your legs or by your side
    • Roll each shoulder back—breath into your full breadth, feel connected to those around you
    • Hear the sounds of the room
    • Breathe to elongate—feel the roots shooting down from feet, up from the crown of the head reaching toward the sky—feel your full length and integrity
  • Ask people to travel back in years; begin to imagine a place you felt joy or lightness, a sense of freedom
    • What sounds do you hear?
    • What are you seeing around you?
    • Are there any smells?
    • Look around
      • Are you inside or outside?
      • Is this a place you recognize or a specific setting that is important to your childhood?
      • Are there people around you or are you alone?
    • Play in this space, enjoy the feelings.
    • Is there a piece of yourself that is present that you may have left behind? Is there a feeling or essence of that self that you want to bring forward and reclaim? Is there something (playful, clear, relaxed) that may be useful for your liberation today?
  • Draw people back to the room – come back into your body, hear the sounds around you, become more conscious of your breathing again, take time to come back into the room, and – when you’re ready – open your eyes.

2. In Trios (8-10 minutes) [decide in advance if there are any instructions needed about how to form trios—such as with people you don’t know or with whom you work less frequently]

  • Each person gets a minute to share the quality that you want to bring forward. Ask yourself: What did I see in my younger self that might serve me in my liberation work today? Share a picture, words or a posture.
  • Each group decides on a way to share back with the full group—encourage a physical sculpture or representation that captures everyone’s words or the quality of what was shared

3. Share back with group—up to 1 minute per group.

4. Ask people to call out some of the other words or feelings they want to carry into the day. You may want to capture some on a chart so you have a visual for your time together.

5. Decide as a group how you will keep pulling in these useful ways of being. This can be particularly useful if you have decisions to make or tensions to address. Ask people to consider an embodiment of their word or quality before engaging in such a conversation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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April 16, 2018

Dayenu: What is enough? White people confronting racism and privilege.

At Passover, there is a song about being thankful for each thing we are blessed with. Dayenu means “it would have been enough.” It is a call to appreciate the small things and to recognize that they are enough. And yet, within the “enough” there is a simultaneous recognition that the first gift or step is not enough without the next one.

In a world where racism is rampant, and where the impacts are real – often deadly, even – is there an “enough” in terms of being collaborators for change? It feels like it is never enough when lives are at stake.

On the one hand, there is never enough until we have envisioned and called into being the liberated and equitable and pleasing community that allows us all to thrive. This reality requires a commitment that is bone deep. It is the kind of commitment that requires constant thinking and action to live into new ways. It is held knowing that upending racism and racist systems is something to die for.

On the other hand, each action, each change to the individual and to the system, needs to be celebrated. For that one moment, it is enough. As long as we know that a new moment emerges when more is needed, and the past action is certainly no longer enough.

What is the first step and what is the next one? For many white people striving to be collaborators, the work begins with learning and knowing and then shifting awareness, then teaching, then ultimately embodied anti-racism practice in relationship with other white people and people of color. Perhaps a move from external to internal; from pointing out the faults of others to seeing how, despite best intentions, we are each implicated in racist systems; from tight vigilance to looser living and correcting.

  • Reading books and learning by black artists and intellectuals who have created parts of the world we want Dayenu
  • Understanding the history of racism and how it got institutionalized in the US and globally Dayenu
  • Bringing a new consciousness to my actions as I walk through the world Dayenu
  • Naming racism in all-white spaces Dayenu
  • Building authentic relationship across difference Dayenu
  • Helping other white people along the journey through openness and kindness Dayenu
  • Showing up as a vulnerable person who can acknowledge my mistakes and own my racism Dayenu
  • Ongoing learning through books, workshops, conversation, community Dayenu
  • Contributing to and investing in multi-racial community at work and at home Dayenu
  • Putting my life on the line Dayenu

The work of a white ally or accomplice is never ending, to be sure. It requires a lot of effort. And yet, it should not be a slog. We are doing this for ourselves as much as for anyone else. We recognize that ending white privilege and white supremacy allows us to be full human beings as we disrupt the notion of superiority on which this country was founded.

In my work in trainings and coaching, I encourage both the ongoing effort and the need to celebrate.

Maybe this is one way to be gentle and joyful in our work for liberation – to celebrate each small step as if it were enough while also knowing that it is never enough until we are all free and that we need to want and to create more.

What does it mean to you to do equity work with both insistence and gentleness, step by step?

“Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach…  What is needed for dramatic change is an accumulation of acts, adding, adding to, adding more, continuing.”      – Clarissa Pinkola Estes

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December 18, 2017

Aligning: It’s a verb (part two)

I wrote last month of my own work to take more pauses, to pay attention to my body, and to ensure that how I work is more aligned with what I do and what I care about. I started with a story of how slowing down actually allowed me to see my agitation and what was not aligned. I began to understand that not being aligned was partly external– the ways our country is out of synch with justice– and partly internal– my mind was still moving at an unrealistic pace…although my body and breath were beginning to slow.

Let’s consider how this work of aligning, and often of slowing the pace of work, might play out in social change organizations and networks.

We live in a culture that dissuades us from attending to ourselves and to our alignment. I have learned this lesson as a woman in this society that has been taught to attend to others even at my own expense, from a family that is great at doing and acting and less so at being, and as a white person raised in a white supremacy culture that values efficiency, productivity, and movement regardless of impact.

What is at danger, as change agents, if we are not attending to our internal condition and are not aligned?

Everything!

First, our relationships are at stake. We cannot truly be effective if we are operating in ways that are not healthy for ourselves or for our colleagues. When we make unrealistic promises, get too little sleep, or are short with someone because we are stressed, we are not aligning ourselves with our commitment to justice.

Second, our effectiveness is at stake. If we are working in community and not taking the adequate time to build relationship, we ignore a critical step; even if the event or work gets done, it is not truly as effective as it could be. It is not deep justice work.

Third, our ability to create impact is at stake. We teach people to create great meetings as one of the practices in our Facilitative Leadership for Social Change course. We also teach about the importance of attending to one’s interior condition. A great agenda facilitated by a person who does not hold themselves and others with love will likely fall short of its potential.

Lastly, our integrity is at stake. There is no time like the present to see that many people, especially men, in social change work have been of the belief that they could work in movements or in politics and “do good” while simultaneously abusing their power and assaulting colleagues. These are people deeply out of alignment.

As people involved in social justice work, we each owe it to ourselves, our organizations, and our movements to attend to our interior condition and work on aligning such that our values, our mindset and heartset, and our work are functioning in concert.

The simplest way I know to do this every day – and something I continue to grow in – is to take time. That can be time to talk to people and express our kindness, time to express appreciation and gratitude for what we have and what others do, and time for breathing. In a time of assaults on justice it feels counter intuitive to slow down and to breathe more. And yet, what we have been doing for years is not working. Let’s try something new.

 

 

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November 27, 2017

Aligning: It’s a verb (part one)

I slept in a platform tent hearing the burbling brook, the food at the progressive retreat center was delicious and made with love, we learned life-shifting somatics exercises with wise teachers,* and I meditated each day. And yet, in the time since I left this beautiful restful setting, I have been more agitated than is my norm.

I first understood it as a principal of physics. While I slowed down physically, my cells and mental functioning continue to operate at their usual faster pace, and are hitting against a now constrained container.  While I may be moving into alignment, it is not a simple shift of all systems at the same time. It will take patience to live into focused and productive energy.

Then I read a wonderful piece on creativity and connection by Elissa Sloane Perry at MAG. She helped me to understand this agitation in a metaphysical way as well. In her article, she reminds us that at a time of instability and insecurity, agitation might be a sign of alignment. She quotes Jiddhu Krishnamurti: “It’s no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”

Today I am choosing to practice embodiment – the work of aligning myself, attending to the spiritual, intellectual, and physical manifestations of myself and my work as the interconnected sphere that it is—as an ongoing activity as the word “practice” implies. I don’t leave a retreat aligned. I choose to take steps toward alignment each day. I choose to slow down and to rest when my body reminds me I am tired. I choose to pause and think about how my actions impact others. I choose to listen better to feedback, be it from my son or a coworker. I choose to take in the emotion of a movie about liberation and not just intellectualize the political activity.

Today I recommit to aligning, knowing that does not mean that I will always feel grounded or that I am acting with my fullest purpose. I choose to acknowledge how off-kilter our world is and allow that to affect me, not just to plough on as if all is normal.  I then keep trying to align internally, and to work to make the world one I want to be aligned with.

This balance is critical to our social change work; as participants and leaders in change, we need to attend both internally and externally. What are the ways you are experiencing this tension?

 

*Note: I highly recommend #practicingJUSTICE, a somatics (“soma: the body in its living wholeness”) retreat, sponsored by Universal Partnership and led beautifully by Rusia Mohiuddin and Reverend angel Kyodo Williams

 

 

 

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July 18, 2017

What I Learned From My Kids About Work

One recent night, my son stomped out of the house, hurt, telling me that I should stop defining who he is and what he can do. My daughter followed after him, asking that I think about what I had done to cause the blow out. I meditated, cooked dinner, and two hours later we were eating a great puttanesca together.

That evening – and other parenting moments – have led me to recognize that my best liberation and change work these days is mothering. While there is so much to write and share about parenting, here I will glean what I can from my children about ways to improve work.

Here are five things I do with or learned from my kids that might work for you as well.

  1. Play

Just do it. Be silly, open up new parts of the brain, laugh, release endorphins. Do it at home and do it at work. Brain science tells us that laughter and play opens us and what flows is much more effective than working from worry and constriction. It does not mean that there are not real-life worries and real dangers everywhere—poor health and racism, for starters—but it is an invitation to play along the way. I re-learned how to play from my kids. I invest time in being as goofy with them as possible and bringing some of that spirit of laughter and fun into my work. We work a lot, it should be fun and fun generates new possibilities. What is the work equivalent of running through the fountain or blowing bubbles? What do you do at work to create fun and be creative?

  1. Honor who they are and not only what they do or how well they do it

In work settings and movement building efforts we of course need to keep our eye on results. In racial equity work, that focus is particularly important as we have seen how changes in laws do not necessarily lead to changes in heart, nor does understanding lead automatically to reducing disparities. And yet, we know from parenting that honoring who a person is and valuing them for that is so much more important for long term well-being and success than a good grade or accomplishment. How can we keep our eye on the big changes as we honor ourselves and our co-workers for who we are and the spirit and talents we bring and not just what we produce?

  1. Be present

Walking down the street, it is often the adults walking with children—holding hands or skipping or watching the trains – who seem most present and look happiest. It is a reminder that of how critical presence is for all of us. At a recent convening, The Confluence sponsored by MAG, someone offered this gem: “less prep, more presence.” Let’s make sure that we bring impeccable presence to our workplaces. Whether at large gatherings, staff or member meetings, or one-on-one conversations, bring your full presence. How do you stay present, planting seeds that flourish in the moment and over the longer term?

  1. Show love and caring

While this may be an “of course” in family, it needs to be just as much so in the workplace. At a network gathering last week, I went to the bathroom, tired, after facilitating a challenging session on health equity. I found someone there in tears, having just lost a family member. I was able to show her some tenderness. The next day she reminded me how important the care I offered was for her and, in fact, opened her to learning. These moments, large and small, present themselves daily. What is the workplace equivalent of the schnuggle? Can you find more moments to show love to your co-workers and partners? What might that elicit?

  1. I don’t need to be in something with my kids to know how incredible it is for my kids.

While my daughter plans a social justice orientation program for students at her college, I can simply watch her and her peers create and experiment; I can stand aside and watch it blossom. I have to let my kids experiment in the world and experience their ups and downs. I don’t have to help or be in it to know it will be an incredible learning experience. This is a good reminder to allow people to try new things and to flourish and stumble with their work, and learn from it all along the way. How do you practice standing aside?

People in organizations – just like in our families – need this level of tending and love. We all need play, space, and autonomy to create great things. It is a truism that change starts at home. Perhaps it is less clear that home can improve our work. Let’s garner those lessons.

What else can we learn from the kids?

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April 26, 2017

Moths to the Flame of Simple

The human heart is the first home of democracy. It is where we embrace our questions. Can we be equitable? Can we be generous? Can we listen with our whole beings, not just our minds, and offer our attention rather than our opinions? And do we have enough resolve in our hearts to act courageously, relentlessly, without giving up – ever – trusting our fellow citizens to join with us in our determined pursuit of a living democracy?       ~Terry Tempest Williams

In Turkey, voters just granted the Prime Minister additional powers. In the US, many people have long been fond of simple solutions. Today that plays out with support of a bombast who is inconsistent and offers solutions that exacerbate underlying problems.

When we work with clients, it also seems like there is a pull to simplicity, especially around issues of diversity and equity.

We field many calls from organizations and networks eager to address issues of racism. In its caricature state, which is all too common, the request is for a two-hour workshop for staff. The hope is that with a few hours of filling smart brains with a new understanding—of the history of racism, or of implicit bias, or levels of oppression—that then things will be okay.

This is false. A two-hour workshop can open some new understanding or potentially be used to make a case for change, but in no way does not even put you on the road to okay.

How is it that smart people believe that a little more in the way of “smarts” will undo a complex historical reality routed in policy, cultural narrative and economics?

Some of it seems to be a wish for easy and for ease. Many white people want the magic bullet or the easy solution to our own racism and that of our country and our organizations. We are not used to acknowledging that it took a lot of work to dig the hole that we are in and that it will take even more work to get out. Hoping that two hours or one day can give a diverse group the knowledge, tools, and understanding to create systemic change is simply a wish for simple.

In addition, there are systems that support the quest for this to be simple. For example, funders may offer relatively small dollars for organizational change efforts or not prioritize learning about systems of oppression at all. The push is almost always for fast outcomes and it seems risky to slow down and support the harder efforts that will ultimately be successful. Many leaders of our organizations, foundations, and government institutions have ourselves benefitted from the structures of racism and are content (wittingly or unwittingly) not to rock the boat.

For people working on systemic change, our job is to communicate that change is both hard and worthy. To want change requires more than a workshop; it is a commitment to put in the time, the dollars, and the effort. We know that effective equity efforts require work on multiple levels.

It may not be easy but it is fun and powerful to see the changes along the way. Change can beget more change. Change includes:

  • New and deep relationships that expand what is possible and build new ways of being
  • More equitable hiring and purchasing policies, investing in long term economic change
  • Policies in an organization that are constructed to undo the bias that is both implicit and explicit in our minds and our organizations.

I will write more in the coming weeks about examples of change as a motivation for those moments when we think oppression, racism, and inequity are solvable in a two-hour workshop. IISC is interested in working with groups that choose to avoid the simple and invest with their hearts and time the work that can lead to meaningful change.

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July 11, 2016

In times of anger and grief and sadness… dance

(Above: Video of a Boston #BlackLivesMatter protest)

In times of anger and grief and sadness, it is easy for me to retreat or to read endlessly or, worse, to tune out as if lives are not at stake.

There is much to depress us this week and, if we are awake, most weeks. I remembered this week that it is also possible to have joy during these hard times. In fact, as a colleague said to me, perhaps it is not just possible but necessary. We need to connect and celebrate because of all the craziness, not in spite of it. Perhaps it is a way of creating the world we want for ourselves and our children while in the midst of the world we need to drastically change.

Here are some moments of connectivity that brought me comfort or joy this horrible and regular US/global week:

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November 24, 2014

Who will be violent?

While the police are stockpiling_wide“They were so aggressive. They incited violence.”

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

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July 16, 2014

The Fast of the 17th of Tamuz

I have never observed the Fast of the 17th of Tamuz. Yesterday, I did. I fasted in solidarity with others who were making a stand with our bodies for peace and in mourning lives lost in Palestine/Israel. At a time of horrific violence and avowed enmity between so many Muslims and Jews, it was a comfort to be fasting together, during Ramadan.

2014-07-12-IsraelPalestinePeace

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