“When all hope for release in this world seems unrealistic and groundless, the heart turns to a way to escape beyond the present order.”
Howard Thurman (philosopher, theologian, educator, civil rights leader, author)
“The entire self-generative process is supported by compassionate acceptance extended through the relational field. This requires the felt experience of the heart, as distinct from compassion as an idea or an ethical imperative.”
“The longest journey you will ever take is from your head to your heart.”
Attributed to various sources, including the Sioux people
About five years ago, my dear friend and colleague Melinda Weekes-Laidlow turned me on to the writings of Father Richard Rohr, and in particular his book Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. As Melinda and I are of a similar age and stage, I think we were both contemplating in our own ways what life held for us during what felt like a time of significant transition. The timing of this gift ended up being quite auspicious, as I would then spend the next number of years (up until now) going through something of an unraveling, precipitated by work burnout that revealed unaddressed patterns in my psyche and body that were begging for attention. It was not a complete breakdown, but something of a slow crash. Control freak that I have often tended to be in my life, I spent a fair amount of time trying to direct the descent.
All my efforts to manipulate and steer really did was make a bit more gradual what has been at times an excruciating experience. That said, it has also been very rich, putting me more deeply in touch with my feelings, my body, and (as hard as it is for me to use this word sometimes), my soul. Interestingly enough, about a year after starting the book, Melinda and I (along with Jen Willsea) found ourselves working directly with Father Rohr and his staff at the Center for Action and Contemplation (CAC) in New Mexico, guiding an internal equity learning and change process. If you know anything about the nature of this work, and especially in these times, you will not be surprised that this only added more fuel to what was at best a “cool burn,” not because of CAC in particular, but because it is a fractal of the hurting whole that is the broader culture, and because that process dared to approach this work from a deeper contemplative place.
This was a blessing in many ways. Melinda and I, and other IISC colleagues, discovered that there is a crucial need to put in place certain structures and supports for the organizations with which we work, as well as for ourselves, as we undertake this kind of learning and change facilitation process (see this post “An Ecosystem of Resourcing for Racial Equity Culture Change Work”). During one of our early trips to New Mexico, Father Richard gave us a copy of his book Just This: Prompts and Practices for Contemplation, which I received gratefully and with intention to put straight to use as a part of our support ecosystem. During the plane ride home, after completing a silent meditation, I was skimming through the last half of the book, when I came across what might otherwise have been a throw away line. It mentioned that doing contemplative work was not meant to be heady, and really needed to be centered on the heart. Heart-focused. “Heartfulness practice.”
I tucked this away and then a few months later found myself in a situation that I would say is the closest I have come to a “mystical” experience (another word that does not come very easily to me). I will spare the details here, but essentially what happened was that for the first time in my life I understood what my heart is, to have a direct experience and view of the world through it. I don’t remember ever having that feeling of being so unconditionally held, enveloped in love. Not to say that I was instantly transformed. The experience passed and my body memory faded. But not completely. It has been rekindled by a few other experiences, not quite as intense, and also through my own ongoing practice.
What I’ve found in doing heart work is that it brings me warmth in varying degrees, an actual physical feeling, as well as something emotional. This often leads to a subtle smile, if not an outright grin. And with that comes a sense of softening, letting go, loosening my grip. I’m reminded of what Barbara Fredrickson, who runs a research lab dedicated to the power of emotions (including love), once wrote, that love constitutes “moments of warmth, connection and openness to others.” Fredrickson and her colleagues have discovered that when love is in effect:
“Your outlook quite literally expands as you come under the influence of any of several positive emotions. With this momentarily broadened, more encompassing mindset, you become more flexible, attuned to others, creative, and wise. Over time, you also become more resourceful.”
While I cannot claim wisdom (another one of those words), I can vouch for the others when I am tuned into my heart – a sense of being renewed, that has implications not simply for how I feel personally, but how I see others and interact with them. It feels, in many ways, like a more right way of relating. See, in this vein, the short video below for some thoughts about how support for the regeneration of our oceans might link to the heart, and love.
It turns out that this is all very much in alignment with longstanding wisdom traditions and what those who are dedicated to contemplative practice experience. Father Rohr has defined contemplation as “a long loving look at what is real.” That long look is not simply about time, but also depth. It is about sinking below the neck, into the heart and other regions of our bodies. Without that sinking, Father Rohr says, we can simply fall into “stinking thinking,” addictive repetitive thought that is more circular than anything and often leaves us more disconnected and unreconciled – split, at the mercy of overly analytical and fractured thinking. When we come from the heart, we come from more of a place of wholeness or natural inclusion (to borrow a phrase from Alan Rayner).
“Facing the sorrows of the world requires that we remain intimate with the world.”
Francis Weller (psychotherapist, author, specialist in grief work)
And the heart is not all. It turns out there are other seats of intelligence and wisdom in our bodiesthat can also be easily neglected, including our guts. Over the past couple of years, I have become more familiar with the power of tuning into my lower abdomen through practices taught by Joe Weston and The Weston Network. Just before the pandemic locked things down in March of 2020, I attended an in-person Respectful Confrontation workshop with Joe in New York City. It was a profound experience. Through the use of different techniques, including the “core exercise” which centers our attention and breathing on the Taoist energy core in our bodies – three inches below our bellybuttons and a third of the way into the body – I was able to ground myself in ways that feel, well, very grounding. From that place, and breathing into that part of the body, we were then invited to explore our selves (sensations, emotions, thoughts), our relationship to our surroundings, and our relationship to others. Even on Zoom, I have experienced how re-charging this is, that my energetic batteries fill up, and I am able to engage with a fuller sense of self and of boundaried presence.
In a particularly powerful moment during the in-person training, Joe invited us to face some of our articulated fears, represented by other people in the workshop physically approaching us. We experimented with standing in our “strength pillar” by concentrating on our abdomens, stamping our feet and saying out loud, “No!” This was initially a bit awkward, and slowly I got the hang of it. That said I did not expect the visceral shaking that then happened and took over my whole body. It sent wave after wave through my esophagus and solar plexus, each time I spoke more solidly from the gut. While initially a bit unsettling, I realized that it was actually a long overdue release and reclaiming of what Joe would call our authentic personal power.
As outlandish as this all may sound to some, those more familiar with the intelligence of our amazing bodies will not be surprised. As one of Bessel van der Kolk’s trauma book title states, our bodies know and keep the score, and are incredibly intelligent at protection and expression. Science is showing us that a stable and solid sense of self is in fact rooted in our hearts, our lungs and our bellies. A recent article in the Psyche Newsletter points out:
“An important limitation of contemporary psychology and neuroscience is that scholars replaced the old Cartesian dualism – mind versus body – with a new dualism: brain versus body. The new dichotomy was even cruder than the old one, and certainly no less rigid. Experimenters refused to take note of whatever happened south of the neck because the scientific picture of the day dismissed what previous ages had carefully noted – the wisdom of the heart the power of breathing, and the intelligence of the gut. Now, thanks to a wave of new research findings, with more to come, we know that these intuitions can be fully reconciled with a scientific outlook on the self. Your consciousness really does have deep, rich roots in your bodily feelings.”
Of course, this is validating what many spiritual traditions and indigenous peoples have honored for a long time. I continue to be very influenced by my reading of Tyson Yunkaporta’s Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World, which I finished about 18 months ago, during the first pandemic summer in the US. Yunkaporta is an academic, arts critic and researcher who belongs to the aboriginal Apalech clan in Queensland, Australia. Towards the end of this book, Yunkaporta sums up what he and a number of other indigenous people with whom he “yarns” see as an indigenous approach to engaging and being in right relationship with living systems – respect, connect, reflect, direct. Interestingly, he offers corresponding embodied centers for doing this work as: gut, heart, head, hands. He also makes the point that Western colonizer cultures tend to reverse this progression, leading with action and control (direct/hands) and intellect (reflect/head), and only perhaps later capitulating (connect/heart, respect/gut), if at all. More rooted cultures suggest that right relationship begins in our guts, not our heads!
Renewal, revival, restoration; spiritual transformation; an aspect of living systems without which there would be no life; a process through which whole new organisms may be created from fractions of organisms; an adaptive and evolutionary trait that plays out at different systemic levels.
All of this to say, that in many places people may be approaching the work of regenerating and renewing ourselves, one another, and the larger living systems of which human beings are a part in the wrong (or certainly an incomplete) manner, if they are trying to at all. Case in point, I was once in a weekend workshop with a long-time teacher of so-called “regenerative development” and was joined by my wife. During one of the exercises, my wife began to cry, and this made the workshop leader very uncomfortable. Em (my wife) was essentially told to get herself under control, as this was not in the spirit of the disciplined approach we were learning. Now if you knew my wife (a therapist who does a lot of work around trauma), you would know how amazingly embodied she is and attuned to her environment and to other people. This regenerative “guru” was in essence asking her not to be herself, not to access a crucial part of her wisdom and intelligence, which is a wisdom and intelligence our species shares. That did not sit well with either of us.
Flash forward a few years … During the March 2020 Respectful Confrontation workshop with the Weston Network that I mentioned earlier, we engaged in deep somatic/embodied work, individually, in pairs and in the group as a whole. This was done with great care, consideration and skillfulness by the facilitators, and also with a spirit of encouraging us to push on the edges of our physical, psychological and emotional resistance. There were moments of great energetic release throughout those few days. I remarked at how rare this is in a group setting, how uncomfortable it felt to many, and also how liberating it seemed to be to everyone- tapping into fuller and more resilient sources of power, connection and expression. What is more regenerative than that?!
A quote I am known for by some of my colleagues at the Interaction Institute for Social Change is “we are not simply brains on sticks.” And yet for many, this image seems to be the dominant vision and sense of who human beings are. As a result, many people are disconnected from a fuller sense of belonging to themselves, others, and the rest of Life. Social and cultural dissociation. In her book How to Be Animal, Melanie Challenger chalks this kind of dissociation up to a false belief in “human exceptionalism” that attempts to separate us from our basic animal nature. Having a category of “non-human” allows animals to be objects for disgust and victims of mistreatment and control. The same goes for parts of our selves (our “disgusting bodies”) and humanity (“the unclean”, “bad others”). This is literally and figuratively rejecting our roots and appendages.
All of this considered, questions I lean into in some form each day, at times with others, include …
What do I/we need to reclaim and repair?
How can I/we practice re-spect (looking again) for who I am and others are?
How can I/we ground in our guts, orient to our hearts, and align our brains with that more ancient foundation?
What might I/we re-member that has otherwise been forgotten?
The Food Solutions New England 21 Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge for 2021 is moving into its last week and shifting from the theme of “Reckon and Repair” to “Regenerate.” And it just so happens that the Revolutionary Love Conference happened this past weekend, providing amazing array of speakers, deep wisdom, inspiration and what feels like a rich transition that aligns with where the Challenge is heading (both thematically and in its encouragement of learning and action that takes its thousands of participants from 21 days to 365). This year’s theme of Revolutionary Love was “The Courage to Reimagine,” and while I was not able to attend all of the gathering, what I did catch was nourishing, and the social media stream (#RevLove21 on Twitter) was on the best kind of fire. What follows is a harvest of 21 quotes from the presentations and conversations.
“We have become a people who accept racism and poverty as conditions, when they are actually crises.” – Rev. Traci Blackmon
“We all know someone who is more outraged by Colin Kaepernick’s knee than Derek Chauvin’s… No one hates like a Christian who’s just been told their hate isn’t Christian.” – John Fugelsang
“Public confession without meaningful transformation does nothing.” – Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg
“Too often, our framing of God prevents us from moving toward a just society—just as capitalism uses theological vocabulary but centers predatory self-interest.” – Otis Moss, III
“How can we retrain the eye to see all others as part of us, one human family. We can train our eyes to look upon the face of anyone and say, ‘You are a part of me I do not yet know. I will open myself to your story. I will let your grief into my heart.” – Valarie Kaur
“White people need to stop being white and start being ethnic again. When you leave the US no one is seeing you and saying “Oh hey you’re white!” They’ll want to know where you’re from, ethnicity carries stories – what is your STORY?” – Otis Moss, III
“I would like to get rid of words like inclusion and say democratization. I’d like for us to get rid of words like diversity and say democratization.” – Ruby Sales
“We must demand a society that will not withhold from others that which we would not want withheld from ourselves.” – Dean Kelly Brown Douglas
“I want white evangelicals to stop talking about reconciliation and talk about justice and repair.” – Robert P. Jones
“I want to stand as a bulwark that things can be different, even in the most stalwart, white supremacist, bigoted families.” – Rev. Rob Lee
“Change is possible when we stop seeing others as needy and start seeing each other as necessary.” – Rev. Traci Blackmon
“Speaking truth to power isn’t only about taking on the President or the GOP, it’s also about taming the power of our own ego.” -Irshad Manji
“Too often, our acts of moral courage go unacknowledged—even by ourselves. We don’t realize the impact we have on others who observe us, and benefit from small mundane acts of resistance in the face of unimaginable daily horror.” – Wajarahat Ali
“I love my enemies for purely selfish reasons. It moves me toward a cure for the life-denying disease of returning hate for hatred. Love may lead to defeat. It may lead to death. But it will not let hatred have the final word.” – Dr. Miguel De La Torre
“White relatives, we’re not asking for a handout of charity. This [reparations] is an invitation—a lifeline to your own humanity and liberation.” – Edgar Villaneuva
“This is a time of reckoning and reconstruction, and policy is my love language. . . . There’s been hurt and harm legislated for generations. Long before our pandemic, our nation was already in crisis.” – Ayanna Pressley
“What would you do? What would you risk, if you truly saw no stranger? How will you fight with us? … It is the practice of a community, and we all have a different role in the work at any given time.” – Valarie Kaur
“Love is always asking: How do I tell this truth and still stay in relationship?” – Krista Tippett
“Think of how much change we leave on the table when we assume that the other will never see things from our point of view, so we must get in their face and humiliate them. Think of how much social change we may be leaving on the table.” – Irshad Manji
“There are so many awesome people in every political party, every demographic of age, sexuality, gender, etc. – these awesome people have GOT to find each other.” – Van Jones
“Racism is a putrid, festering hole in our nation’s soul, and that will only change when we have the courage to love a different way. That love must become an everyday spiritual practice, like flossing or brushing our teeth.” – Dr. Rev. Jacqui Lewis
“If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation, are [people] who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning.”
The FSNE Challenge is a remixed and more topically focused form of an exercise created by Dr. Eddie Moore (founder of the Privilege Institute), Debbie Irving (author of Waking Up White), and Dr. Marguerite W. Penick-Parks (Chair of Educational Leadership and Policy at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh). A small design team saw the potential of using the Challenge to invite more widespread conversation about the connection between race, racism and sustainable food systems and ultimately greater action for racial and food justice.
Furthermore, we saw an enhanced on-line version of the Challenge as a way of creating “network effects” around the justice work that many are already doing in our region and beyond. Participation in and the complexity of the Challenge have grown significantly and organically over time. In 2015 we had 200 participants, mainly from the six state region of “New England.” Last year we had over 3,000 people participate from most states in the US and some places in Canada. As of the writing of this post, we already have over 2,000 people registered.
The point of Challenge is not simply to spread but also deepen the commitment to racial equity and food justice. As such, we hope that participants return each year, and many do. Accounting for this, no two Challenges are exactly alike in terms of content, and we are continuously nudging people to go from learning to action. See the image below as one way that we have thought about encouraging people to move up a “ladder of engagement” through their involvement.
Over time, numerous organizations have self-organized to take the Challenge in-house, convening staff colleagues, fellow congregants, community members and classmates to reflect together on learning and making commitments to action. We have heard from groups such as Health Care Without Harm; the Wallace Center at Winrock International; Michigan State University’s Center for Regional Food Systems; Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University; Southside Community Land Trust (Providence, RI); Agricultural Sustainability Institute at University of California-Davis, Georgia Organics and many others who have convened around the Challenge and are planning to do it for the first time or again.
This year the Challenge is being widely promoted in a variety of places, including through sessions that Karen Spiller and I offered at the White Privilege Conference in Rapids City, Iowa, and at the New Hampshire Food Alliance state-wide gathering. In addition, the Challenge is being promoted campus-wide to students, faculty and staff at the University of New Hampshire, where FSNE’s convening team, the UNH Sustainability Institute, is located.
So what exactly is the Challenge?
It is a self-guided learning journey examining the history and impacts of racism, different kinds of racism, how it is connected to our food systems, examples and tools on how to undo racism and build racial equity and food justice.
How does the Challenge work?
People sign up (YOU can register here) and then starting April 1st, they receive daily email prompts focused on a different theme along with links to related resources (readings, video, audio) that take about 10-15 minutes each day. In addition, there is a robust Resource List for people to look through and continue their learning. Those who register also have access to an online discussion forum for those who want to talk and think out loud about the daily prompts and other learning along the way.
How is the Challenge evolving?
To meet the demands of a growing number of participants and the expressed desire for many to go deeper and to replicate the Challenge in different ways, we have developed a variety of additional supports. This year we again offered an orienting webinar that featured Drs. Moore, Jr. and Penick-Parks along with testimonials to the value of the Challenge, including perspective from Sister Anna Muhammad who works for NOFA/Mass and is on the FSNE Network Team and the FSNE Racial Equity Challenge Committee.
In addition, this year we have produced a Discussion Guide to support groups at schools, colleges, businesses, churches or other organizations that may want to do the Challenge together. The Guide along with the Resource List essentially form a ready-to-use “bake box” that groups could use to run their own exercise if they would like, or to keep the Challenge going 365 days a year!
Another feature this year is a robust Outreach Kit that has been pulled together by FSNE Communications Director, Lisa Fernandes. The Kit includes sample communications that can be used to recruit others to participate in the Challenge through email, social media (Twitter, Instagram and Facebook), as well as a one page information flyer.
All of this is in line with how FSNE sees itself evolving as a network into its next 8 years, creating resources that might be shared easily through aligned, diverse and robust connections and adapted by others in the region and beyond (stay tuned for a New Food Narrative Messaging Guide).
Please join us, and spread the word, the invitation, the conversation and the commitment to others!
Very recently I brought this poem to a group of community organizers from a state-wide political action network, and after hearing it, many said they were really touched by this notion of there being a vastness they do not enter, and are therefore limited by. References were made to systems of oppression, to antagonism, to fear and lack of love. There is so much more to this world and by extension to ourselves that we do not tap into that keeps us repeating patterns of behavior and systems that do not serve our fuller humanity.
“We use language not so much to convey factual information as to construct worlds.”
– Barbara A. Holmes
Image by NASA Goddard, shared under provisions of Creative Commons Attribution license 2.0.
Holmes’ book extends this same theme of vastness, drawing from the fields of quantum physics, cosmology and ethics as a way of inviting a broader perspective and creating new language and thinking that points in the direction of a world where everyone belongs. She writes, for example, about “dark matter” and “dark energy,” which is pervasive and cohesive in the universe, the essentially creative energy that holds things together. Considering this profound and primordial force, Holmes says, we can only wonder at and celebrate “darkness,” not fear or denigrate it.
Holmes also invites us to consider that physics and cosmology point to the fundamental nature of reality as existing in relationship and interdependence and that systems of oppression go against the grain of the unfolding cosmos. She writes, “Our desire for justice is deeply rooted in systems that are holistic and relational. We have not forced, created, or dreamed this shared destiny; it seems to be the way of the universe.”
In times of breakdown and cynicism, both Ortiz and Holmes tell us that creativity and hope are to be found by looking more deeply into nature and more widely into the heavens to re-member who we are and that there are so many more possibilities than what we have created and perpetuate.
What vastness have you not yet entered, what wonders in our world and beyond have you not allowed to grab hold of you that might liberate and generate new possibilities in your change agency?
“The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence.”
The quote above has been cited every now and then over the past dozen years or so that I have been with IISC, including a later line – “The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace.” Some combination of these words seem to come to mind and lips more frequently as many of the organizations and networks with which we work are are dealing with oppressive dynamics of overwork and urgency, whether they identify as activist or not.
These dynamics are increasingly recognized as an aspect of white dominant and supremacist culture and hyper-capitalist fervor that reduces many people to “producers” in the workplace and extracts as much labor as they can give. In our race equity and social change work, we see this as part and parcel of the structures that must be named and addressed for justice, liberation and sustainability to be realized.
In a recent workshop with an organization we are supporting through a two-year race, equity and inclusion transformation process, we invited the predominantly white staff into a dialogue circleto unpack their self-identified culture of overwork and urgency, to look more deeply at what they are gaining from this (and who in particular gains most), what they are losing (and who loses most), and what it would take to do commit to creating something different. Here is some of what we have heard, aspects of which are being echoed in various other organizations, networks and communities (curious to know what resonates): Read More
“I need love Not some sentimental prison I need god Not the political church I need fire To melt the frozen sea inside me I need love.”
– Sam Phillips
Image by Luke, Ma, “Love by Nature,” shared under provisions of Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0.
I started this year with a post focused on love, and this idea that 2018 would be the year of love. This thinking wasn’t offered through rose-colored glasses, but from a shared sense and conviction that love would be required to see the year through. And not just any kind of love. In that original post there were a few definitions and quotes that we have been playing with at IISC, including these:
“All awakening to love is spiritual awakening… All the great social movements for freedom and justice in our society have promoted a love ethic.”
– bell hooks
“Justice is what love looks like in public.”
– Cornel West
“To show compassion for an individual without showing concern for the structures of society that make him [sic] an object of compassion is to be sentimental rather than loving.”
– William Sloane Coffin
“Love is seeing the other as a legitimate other.”
– Humberto Maturana
“The ultimate act of love is allowing ourselves and others to be complex.”
This week, my boss told me she loved me. It was not problematic, in fact it was beautiful. It was following a few days we had taken as the IISC network to get clear on our next strategic steps, considering how we are part of a movement of racial equity change makers.
While we have spoken for several years about how love is a central part of our collaborative change lens, we are doing an ever-better job of embodying it, first with ourselves and then with our clients.
Cornel West tells us that justice is what love looks like in public. He and others have revitalized a tradition that is more holistic and does not segregate love, both in the feeling state and the action state, from our work for equity. Many have preceded us who carry that wisdom. In gatherings of activists and change makers, I hear people yearning for our full humanity, to be able to have emotions as we work, to feel whole in our beings, to feel like we each belong. In our work spaces, especially when we are working at our life purpose, we yearn for satisfying and impactful spaces where we are paid what we need, can bring a wholeness, and can enjoy people and art. One of our labor foremothers in Lawrence, Rose Schneiderman, put it this way– “The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too.”
Over the past five years, we have been trying to center love. We do that in light ways, by using the word, and by bringing a variety of practices to our IISC and client spaces: intentional breathing and meditation, appreciations, embodying joy and love as we start a day, reclaiming space and time for fun and playfulness and relaxation. While these can be light touch, they are also not to be underestimated. Too frequently, we and others, make it through many a work day without any of this.
And this year we have been committing to dipping our toes in further. Some of the ways we are experimenting with and aspiring toward love at IISC:
We prioritized a small group of practitioners to imagine what equity work with love at the center looks like and how that differs from an organizing or facts-based strategy
We let each other know that everyone belongs and that everyone is loved.
We take pauses before entering difficult work or conflict settings
We try to start our own and other gatherings from a place of vision and abundance
We are embedding more practices into our training and consulting and coaching work
Love is definitely an emotion and can be expressed in words. It can also be felt more fully if it is in everything we do from how we interact throughout the day, to how we design spaces, to how we use time and build in pauses, to how we deal with mistakes and conflict.
This week, as we gathered around what might be heady material, editing our theory of change and planning our next strategic steps, we used half a day to get to know each other and our cares through honoring ancestors, building an altar, and talking about our fears and anger. And this intent was spread throughout our time.
One activity that many found deeply connecting is described below. I am calling it “Greeting with love and joy.” It was intended to ground, to center joyfulness, and from there to greet one another in silence and with a depth of connection.
These are some of the ways the activities and spaciousness made me feel vulnerable, more willing to share more truth, more open to hearing others and more open to seeing them fully, less reactive, loved.
Love surely is the answer to many questions. And it is not easy. We need to honor the time it takes, and we need to take seriously how to prioritize and integrate love, especially during times of conflict, and in all our work, including finance!
We are curious how love comes to work for you. What are some examples? Where are you feeling challenged?
Greeting with Love and Joy
This activity starts with time in a standing meditation to get grounded and connected to the world around us, to “gather” some elements we might need and to recall a time of joy. We then spend time in silence, connecting to others in the gathering, by walking around and stopping to gaze at another person from that place of joy or love. We end with some music or a chant to allow people to shift back into sound and return to the circle.
Guided breathing to center and to gather elements.
Ask people to stand with legs shoulder-width apart and either eyes closed or gazing down. Lead them through a series of deep breathing:
into their centers.
into their length, grounding into the floor and connecting through the head to the sky, gathering an element from each place.
into their back bodies to feel supported by ancestors and into the front body thinking about their commitment to the work.
into their side bodies to connect to people on either side of them and in the broader community.
back to center to imagine a moment of joy or love, to envision the sound and smells and feel that so they can carry that into the next piece of the activity.
Now let that picture and feeling of joy expand in your body from a kernel in your belly, out through your body, and to begin to expand beyond you.
Walk around for a minute with your eyes mostly down, feeling your joy in your step.
Now, raise your eyes and with the joy throughout your body, stop as you encounter another person. As you encounter each person, you are invited to pause for 10-30 seconds, as you are comfortable, and gaze directly into their eyes. You are bringing your joy & love to the greeting, you are seeing them in their joy, and you are receiving the love and joy in how they are silently greeting you.
Continue this for at least 5-10 minutes so that people can greet most others in the room. Consider integrating virtual participants by having multiple video stations so that participants in the room can stop by those stations to gaze at their colleagues who are remote.
Invite people to return to the circle/their seats. I ended with a short song/chant that I know as a way to bring sound back to the room and transition out of this intense moment of connecting. You can also ask people to journal or share feelings or an appreciation after they return. The intensity is both in insisting that we are connecting from love and in the silent but powerful eye gazing.
“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.
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?
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.
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.
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
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.