What if the Way We Respond to Crisis is Part of the Crisis?Bayo Akomolafe, Emergence Network
At Starter Culture we see the ‘how’ of change to be as important as the ‘what’. For us the how is about co-creating healthier and more transformative cultures in service of love for our whole earth community. We believe this depth and breadth of change happens through deep cultural transformation and the radical shifts in consciousness needed to bring this about.
The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's HouseAudre Lorde
Below is a taste of some of the many design principles informing our approach to inner-led cultural transformation. We are sharing these to enable transparency, feedback and evolution of our assumptions, perspectives and processes.
Our approach to transformative change is grounded in a whole-systems perspective. This means looking at the way seemingly different elements of any system connect at a deeper level. The transformative potential of many current efforts around social and ecological change is being hindered by the marginalisation of the inner dimension of change. Our approach aims to find ways to re-integrate inner-led change into social and ecological change efforts through depth [e.g. working with individual and collective trauma and connecting with other-than-human realms] and scale [e.g. identifying leverage points to enable greater access to and integration of inner-led change]. This requires openness, inclusion, feedback and balance between the different dimensions of progressive socio-ecological change work: our thinking, feeling, sensing, imagining and doing, at individual and cultural levels.
If you have come to help me you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is tied up in mine then let us work together.Lila Watson, an Aboriginal educationalist and activist
For a long time ‘justice’, ‘equality’, ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ (JEDI) have been buzzwords which for many have been implicitly understood as desirable - rather than as an essential lynchpin at the very heart of any change process.
Contemporary Western culture conditions us to push away or repress feelings, experiences, ways of being, people and dimensions of life that we find uncomfortable and which we have been conditioned to believe are somehow a threat to us, our identity or our privilege. This cultural conditioning gives rise to the polarized and polarizing states of our consciousness, cultures and politics while simultaneously depriving us of the key to understanding why they have come about and why they persist.
Radical Inclusivity draws on a whole systems approach to change, recognising the necessity of diversity and the transformative potential of approaches that seek the seeds of solutions within the problems themselves. Radical inclusivity requires us to do the liberatory work of revealing what we have been conditioned to make wrong, fear, reject, marginalise and oppress at all levels - from the personal to the cultural, and learn how to welcome these aspects so that they start to work with us, rather than sabotaging our transformative potential
This process of developing radical and authentic self-love requires us to strengthen our muscles to tolerate the discomfort of the shame, fear, grief, sadness and rage that tend to accompany this process of learning to love all of ourselves - and one another. It requires developing curiosity about how and where these feelings are held within our bodies and within our culture. This is what lies at the heart of Brazilian popular educationalist, Paulo Freire’s, seminal ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’.
A healthy boundary is one that supports us to create the conditions we or our group need to be able to learn to love more of what we currently resist, reject and marginalise. Radical inclusivity can be misunderstood to mean saying yes! to everything and not holding boundaries around behaviours that may undermine the health of an individual or group. Holding healthy boundaries is essential for health, at the personal and collective level. Many social and ecological change groups struggle or fall apart due to unexamined beliefs that holding boundaries is bad and wrong - when in fact they are an essential ingredient for health and transformation.
Imposing boundaries unconsciously to avoid feeling discomfort is not at all the same thing. Boundaries need to be introduced with an awareness that they are needed due to our own limitations to welcome difference, rather than any behaviour being wrong per se - unless of course the behavior in question is clearly an abuse of structural or physical power inequalities. Healthy boundaries require us to be aware of and work through our reactions and biases around difference to enable more informed choices about how to proceed in ways that are in service of the whole, whilst not going over our limits in ways that undermine our, or our group’s, ability to be healthy and contribute in the world (see example of working through white fragility below).
Myriad inner practices and approaches can help develop the self-love and compassion needed to embrace the behaviours or ways of being that cause us discomfort and/or nervous system dysregulation, and to hold space for others to do the same. The more we learn to understand, welcome and love those aspects of ourselves that we are culturally conditioned to reject, the more we learn to love and have compassion for any difference that shows up in others, even and most vitality those behaviours we have been conditioned to fear, reject and oppress.
White fragility refers to the tendency for those racialised as white to resist acknowledging racism because it generates feelings we don’t want to feel in relation to the role white supremacy has played in the systemic oppression and abuse of Black, Indigenous and People of Colour. A culture of white privilege has created and reinforced norms of silence to avoid feeling the discomfort that acknowledging racism generates. When our ability to hold this unconscious boundary comes from privilege, this is oppressive and bolsters the oppression already built into the status quo.
Framing this situation as ‘white fragility’ is not about making white people wrong for experiencing this fragility. For us it is vital to recognise that white fragility is a trauma-response rooted in the historic trauma from our lineages of being oppressors - which almost always contains within it the experience of also having been oppressed and the heart-rending reaction of oppressing others in turn. This understanding tends to cultivate a sense of compassion for ourselves and/or others, rather than defensiveness - which in turn increases the chances of us feeling resourced and able to do the work to become resilient in the face of our white fragility. Whilst white fragility is not our fault, it is our responsibility as white people to cultivate the resilience needed to welcome and alchemise the discomfort it elicits so that we are more and more able to become active allies in challenging racism and white supremacy - and in the cultivation of racial unity and justice.
Anti-racist work can be supported by creating healthy boundaries for caucuses [groups of similar identities] to do the transformative work of exploring white fragility and working to understand and address the oppressions of white supremacy culture. Caucusing can also perpetuate divisions, so needs to be approached alongside developing relationships and taking responsibility to transform boundaries within and without. Finally, it is important to remember that the term ‘white fragility’ can be extended to all the other identities that our mainstream culture systematically marginalises and oppresses. For example; male fragility, able-bodied fragility; hetero-normative fragility; gender-normative fragility; neuro-normative fragility.
Perhaps the greatest hoodwink of our times is the conditioned belief that something can only be either ‘this’ or ‘that’. The epitome of which being: if I am right, you must be wrong. This form of logic lies at the heart of our sense of separateness and disconnection. When we embrace life as paradox we surrender to our inherent state of inseparability and wholeness. What’s more, embracing the truth of paradox liberates us from the zero-sum game currently fueling the demise of our species and beyond. A zero sum game is essentially when we perceive that one person’s gain is another person’s loss, and implies a scarcity mindset which favours competition rather than collaboration.
When we start to experience life as paradox rather than as a black and white zero-sum game, we begin to taste the delicious freedom of life’s everythingness. The stuff that poets, storytellers and mythologists live and breathe. Living life as paradox unleashes life’s inherent magik and beauty. It liberates us from our insatiable need to be right and our debilitating fear of not getting our needs met - both of which limit our capacity to love and transform, and lie at the heart of our current crises.
"I once heard that to become a sovereign of Ireland you had to attach a chariot to two wild horses. One would lurch one way, one the other. You revealed your spiritual maturity and general readiness for the task by so harnessing the tension of both that a third way forward revealed itself. The holy strain of both impulses created the royal road to Tara. A road that a culture could process down." Martin Shaw
Will we harness our current cultural tension between ways of being fuelled by love, and those fuelled by fear? What will be the new third way this pandemic portal reveals as us in the throes of our love-fear polarity?
Whilst thinking and cognition tend to be the most valued ways of knowing in Western culture, inner practices draw on the interrelationship between all our ways of knowing and intuiting - thinking, feeling, sensing and imagining. This requires developing our awareness of how we know what we know, and the influence that our different ways of knowing have on our actions, narratives and beliefs. How do we recognise or experience our emotions, and how do they influence our thoughts and actions? Which senses do we mostly rely on, and how can we widen our sensory feedback loops? How can we develop our imaginative capacities, what constrains them, and what happens when we are given the creative opportunities to imagine?
“... emotions have been a ‘sticking point’ for philosophers, cultural theorists, psychologists, sociologists… this is not surprising: what is relegated to the margins is often, as we know from deconstruction, right at the centre of thought itself” Sara Ahmed, 2014, p.4
Using all our senses can enhance our capacity to challenge dominant narratives (e.g. the thought-based belief that ‘there is no alternative’ to neo-liberal capitalism) that have foreclosed and colonised our past, present and future - and enable us to imagine the potential for transformative change.
What’s more, it is only when we are in relation with all our ways of knowing and intuiting - thinking, feeling, sensing and imagining, that we can begin to access the deep imagination - that which emanates from beyond the individual self/ego, and which connects us with an intelligence and wisdom commensurate with the scale of crises we now face.
Another key ingredient within deep cultural transformation is learning how to work with emergence as part of the wider system we are working in.
Despite uncertainty and change being the only constant, contemporary Western culture attempts to defend against the discomfort of uncertainty through ‘predict and control’, projecting culturally conditioned ideas of how things will or should be. Working with emergence invites us to learn how to tolerate and transform this discomfort so that we can meet the constantly-changing truth of any given moment or situation.
Working with emergence involves letting go of trying to ‘predict and control’ how things should go, instead meeting life where it actually is. We go about our immediate next steps receiving and responding to the feedback life gives us, adapting our next steps accordingly - much like a skipper ‘tacking’ their way to their destination in response to whatever weather arises in each moment.
Working with emergence involves re-membering how to receive and respond to this constant feedback life offers us in the form of thoughts, feelings, sensations, intuitions and deep imagery.
Emergent Strategy brings together working with emergence with a more long-term strategic approach. We begin by dreaming into our vision - what do we long to bring about? What will life look and feel like then? Next we sense and map the changes needed to manifest this vision and identify immediate next steps to help move towards this change - all the while finding ways to keep our north star bright and alive at the centre of our being.
Hierarchical and rigid structures favour those who have most structural power and rank within our current culture, at the expense of the collective intelligence and creative genius of the many. However, those who are marginalised by our current culture have needed to work with emergence for their very survival because ‘predict and control’ has never been a strategy they have the privilege of drawing on. Our current global pandemic and resulting lockdowns have highlighted the necessity and importance of working with emergence.
Holding an intention to ‘be the change you wish to see’ is an invitation to embody the changes we long to see in the world through our relationships with ourselves, with others and with the other-than-human world.
“The personal is the political” - a rallying slogan for black feminism
This requires us to combine a commitment to radical self-responsibility for co-creating the world we long for, with a commitment to cultivating the self-love and compassion needed to forgive ourselves and others when ‘being the change we wish to see’ is simply beyond our limits. Simply put, it is about taking responsibility for where and when we are unable to offer unconditional love, to others and to our-self. We would live in a very different world if we were all able to take responsibility for our own limitations around love, rather than unconsciously feeling guilty about this and then needing to make other people wrong so as to avoid feeling the pain of our guilt. As we learn to feel compassion for our limits to love everyone and everything - and the cultural conditions that led to this - we tend to find ourselves less in need of ‘othering’ those and that which we find hard to love, and more able to simply take responsibility for our inability to love everyone and everything.
‘Walking our talk’ and ‘being the change we want to see in the world’ is also sometimes referred to as ‘prefigurative politics’ - the practice of enacting our desired approaches and relationships, rather than blaming, or waiting for, others to implement change on our behalf. It can often require us to act in counter-cultural ways that risk us being projected onto and potentially marginalised. This is why it is so essential that access to support around inner-led change is made widely available to all - so that we all become increasingly empowered to walk our talk and be the change we want to see in the world.
So many of the approaches, tools and practices needed to transform our current crises already exist, yet may not be visible or accessible. Collaboration can help reveal, amplify and co-create common cause with others aligned with inner-led approaches to social and ecological change. It can increase our confidence to centre and amplify these approaches to enable greater visibility, leverage and traction within the wider process of cultural transformation.
Genuine collaboration relies on building relationships, trust and skills, negotiating difference and having the tools and safety to transform arising conflicts into potentially transformative breakthroughs. Without this, the shadow sides of collaboration can flourish, which includes power-dynamics going underground, cultural and political appropriation and diluting the radical potential of approaches to suit a neo-liberal agenda.
Collaborating across difference offers an opportunity to strengthen our muscle around learning how to sit with and transform the discomfort that different perspectives, approaches and ways of being can activate within us. Collaboration that does not actively seek to welcome, include and navigate difference tends to exacerbate the status quo, that is, the very culture that created our current crises.
Knowing our limits and holding healthy boundaries around those behaviours that make it impossible for our group to function healthily, is also vital - as long as these boundaries are being held within a wider context of working towards becoming more able to collaborate across difference, whilst also taking responsibility these boundaries being due to our own limits to embrace difference, rather than because certain behaviours are wrong.
Many of the behaviours that groups and institutions dedicated to social and ecological change find challenging (e.g. being emotionally sensitive) or undermining of safety (e.g. displays of anger or aggression) are the result of nervous-system dysregulation resulting from trauma - which tends to be most present in those with the most experience of marginalization and oppression. This is why it is essential not to make these behaviours wrong, but rather acknowledge our own, or our group’s limitation in being able to include them just now.
Cultivating resilience means the ability to ‘bounce back’ from adversity, often experienced as one-off or complex trauma. When we are able to access support and tools that enable us to begin to experience an embodied awareness of what this adversity and trauma feels like in our bodies, we start to develop resilience around it. In recent years trauma is more and more revealing itself within our groups and community spaces. This often occurs in the absence of the understanding, skill and experience needed to hold and meet this in healthy ways that enable its transformative power to unfold. This is happening at a great cost to both individual and collective wellbeing. What’s more, it is significantly undermining the effectiveness of our social and ecological change groups and movements and the cultivation of the regenerative cultures our collective future rests on.
Healthy cultures are trauma-informed in that they provide us with, and signpost us to support and tools that enable this embodied awareness of what adversity and trauma feel like in our bodies, and how to develop ways of being and relating that enable this to be gently met and transformed. The culture of our groups, and society at large, therefore plays a big role in the degree to which we are able to cultivate this resilience in the face of adversity and trauma - be that the culture of our families, schools, places of worship, work or play, or our legal and health care systems.
Trauma-informed approaches can enable the recognition and acknowledgement of cycles of trauma and interrupt them at individual and collective levels. The beauty of this is that many people then have the capacity to use their experiences of cultivating resilience in the face of trauma to work towards transforming the systems that created the initial adversity.
At the core of our approach to change lies a belief that collective trauma underpins our current crises. Increasing evidence demonstrates the epigenetic nature of trauma such that it is passed on across generations and held in our bodies at both the individual and collective level. In light of this we believe trauma exists in everyone - and that it makes itself visible when someone is ready to heal it.
Perhaps one of the juiciest and most existential questions of our time is how and when did this collective trauma begin? This is not the place to go into that vast question, suffice to say that arguably the process of birth itself seems to represent our species’ original trauma which has given rise to our ubiquitous core wounding that seems to reside at the heart of our individual and collective trauma. Historically it is useful, albeit partial, to recognise the role that power-over ‘Coloniser Culture’ has played in creating our current collective trauma.
“Trauma in a person,
decontextualized over time,
can look like personality.
Trauma in a family,
decontextualized over time,
can look like family traits.
Trauma in a people,
decontextualized over time,
can look like culture.”