“What’s most systemic is personal”

December 10, 2014 1 Comment

“What’s most systemic is personal . . . and interpersonal.”

– rift on a Peter Senge quote

what's your story?

At IISC, one of the three core lenses that we bring to our collaborative capacity building for social change work is love as a force for social transformation. How this lens impacts what we do as practitioners depends on context, though often it comes down to ensuring that there is time for people in the collaborative change efforts we support to connect on a personal and interpersonal level. One way to do this is to invite people to share stories and do this beyond the parameters for their professionally defined roles. I did this recently with a group and as is often the case, there were a few areas of resistance in the collective body. “Why are we doing this?” asked someone with a hint of consternation. That became my opening. Here is what I offer as a response to discomfort around what some people call “touchy feely” exercises.

Why are we doing this?

  1. In general terms, to expand collective potential.
  2. To help each of us to be more fully seen and appreciated for who we are, beyond abstractions and implicit assumptions. When people do not feel seen or appreciated they can disengage, or “act out” to get the attention they want.
  3. To deepen connection, build trust and increase social velocity.
  4. To test and stretch the boundaries of “appropriate” and “legitimate” ways of knowing and being with one another. Otherwise people can default to ways that privilege those most comfortable with certain ways of being (often strictly professional and cerebral).
  5. To grow “positivity” – that is, to expand the overall collectively felt sense of positive emotions (which includes pride related to the demonstrated ability to have and hold difficult conversations). Positivity has been scientifically linked with greater physical and psychological capacity to see and take in more (of systems and one another).

I offer these, like a yoga teacher, with compassion for any expressed discomfort or tightness felt in different parts of the collective body. And the invitation is to breathe through this and to see what might be loosened up for the benefit of the whole. For another take on this, I highly recommend my friend Joe Hsueh’s piece “Why the Human Touch is Key to Unlocking Systems Change.”

Curious to hear your own experiences connecting what is most personal and interpersonal with systemic change.

1 Comment

  • Cynthia Silva Parker says:

    Thanks Curtis. Whenever I have facilitated a multi-racial group that is focusing on racial equity issues and I ask folks to share what brought them to the work, a familiar pattern emerges. The people of color say something along the lines of “I was born into this work.” or “I didn’t choose this work. It chose me.” The white people in the room typically say something like “My family taught me to value everyone or pursue justice.” or “Seeing the unfair treatment of people I loved caused me to see the injustice. I couldn’t stand on the sidelines.”

    It’s true of me too. I didn’t choose this work so much as it chose me. For as long as I can remember knowing about injustice, I was committed to doing something about it. As the mother of three black sons and the wife of one black husband, the particularly systemic challenge of unarmed black and brown men being killed by police and vigilantes is especially personal. Whenever I see a mother expressing her grief and rage over the unjust killing of her son, I think, “There but for the grace of God go I.” The fact that my husband and sons have certain economic privileges does not create a bulletproof bubble around them. The fact that my children have educated, praying parents does not create a bulletproof bubble around them. They are black men, and the deeply embedded, unconscious bias against them, will cause them struggle though I pray not an untimely death.

    Hardly a day goes by when I don’t recall the words to a Sweet Honey in the Rock tribute to Ella J. Baker. “Until the killing of black men, black mothers’ sons is as important as the killing of white men, white mothers’ sons, we who believe in freedom cannot rest. We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.”

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