At the intersection of power and participation
Leaving New York today. It has been an incredible four days here working with my good friends Kelly McGowan and Tuesday Ryan-Hart and Lex Schroeder, Aniestla Rugama, Alissa Schwartz, and Aswad Foster. We were running a workshop called the Art of Social Justice in which we were investigating the intersection of participatory process and social justice work. Over three days we explored a framework that Tuesday has developed and investigated with Kelly for the past year. The framework includes and transcends the gifts and drawbacks of traditional social justice frameworks and of what we know about participatory process.
Tuesday is writing a lot more about this, but the essence of the framework is that neither social justice analysis nor participatory process are enough on their own to move us into the new forms of leadership that are needed in a world where social inequity and power are becoming increasingly complex, and where traditional forms of organizing are no longer reflective of the interconnected nature of global society..
A gift of traditional social justice analysis is the way it understands personal and collective power and privilege. This analysis concerns itself with transformation of both the personal and the social power dynamics in society, but it often contains within it an invisible current of control that runs deep in the architecture of social change process. It posits a social separation between those of us who are working for change in or allied with the struggle of oppressed peoples, and people in the system that are thought to be – traditionally – the enemy. Or it sets up a struggle between the system that perpetuates oppression and the people who are oppressed by it. In this world, in this time, that analysis is out of date. We are all connected to the entire system. As I showed in my last post, you can even discover how many slaves you employ. Even if you are heavily marginalized within the mainstream, you are connected to the system itself. As the sign said at Occupy Wall Street, “you are us.”
Those of us who are facilitators of participatory process often make grand claims about the power of processes like Open Space Technology and World Cafe to even out power differences. In a circle everyone is said to be equal and leadership can come from every chair. While participatory process does provide a useful methodology for decolonizing how we meet, it has several risks associated with it. For one thing, if we fail to take into consideration the context in which we are working, power can show up in participatory process in a dangerously invisible way. Some participants may be able to operate much more resourcefully because of their power or privilege by, for example, becoming the scribes for small groups and speaking for the group. Those who cannot write may not feel comfortable posting a session in Open Space, meaning that there is no way that their voices can be heard or their contributions incorporated. Furthermore, participatory processes, like all facilitation processes, heavily depend on the role of the facilitator. If the facilitators (and the process designers for that matter) are not aware of the currents of power and privilege within the context in which they are working, they run the risk of designing structures that keep marginalized people marginalized. If they come to the hosting role without awareness of and good practice around their own power and privilege, the social architecture that emerges can be very exclusionary.
Both of these fields of analysis have something to offer to one another and both have their own drawbacks, In Tuesday’s framework, she identifies a middle path, which she named co-revealation. It is going to take me a while to unpack this concept, but I can at least begin to see how it works. In the space of power-aware participatory leadership, the gift of relationship is active. As we move together through process, the emphasis on relationship is key and in working together relationship becomes more revealed. In the process, we treat each other with more and more grace and compassion, coming to see that as we are all interconnected both to each other and the systems in which we are working to change, we recognize that personal and social transformation is also both inevitable and required. In Saskatoon last week, one of our participants in the Art of Hosting was carrying the question “how do we collaborate with dictators?” as a way of trying to discern the limits of participation. In several conversations over these last two weeks I have come to ask that question of myself, and reframing it as “how do I collaborate with myself when I am being a dictator?”. With that inquiry active, we may find that dictatorship behaviors are present everywhere, and we may also allow ourselves and others the grace to be imperfect in our lives and behaviors. This doesn’t excuse violence or oppression, but rather it gives us serious skin in the game in trying to address oppressive systems. If we are not a part of the problem we cannot be a part of the solution. And in being a part of the problem we need to treat each other with some kindness and latitude, qualities that are born in relationship, even relationship with people with whom we have fundamental differences.
It may feel as if this stuff is a little old hat, but I experienced it differently in practice. During our gathering in New York a group of three participants brought a proposal into the third day check in circle that required a complete think of our agenda, in doing so they were both proposing a new idea but also challenging the power structure of the system. The design team had been designing the days as we went and hosting the process, but here the participants were inviting us to practice what we preached about awareness of power. The group could have chosen to create a drama around the situation, but our field of relationship was very strong. And so they issued the challenge as an invitation We immediately went into a circle process first to seek everyone else’s thoughts on the proposal and second to gain clarity around how to make it work. It was clear in our group that the idea being proposed – that we all go down to Occupy Wall Street and learn what we can there – was both an excellent idea, and also not one that everyone wanted to do. In the circle, I expressed my faith in the resourcefulness of the group and the design team to offer and hold multiple options so that the decision did not have to be an either/or choice. Towards the end of the first round of circle a proposal began to emerge that made some sense, and seemed workable. Kelly and I, as host and guardian of the circle, invited a round for additional clarity followed by one more round of any refinements to the proposal. Then we thumb-voted on it, took care of two small questions and went forward with a great new design for the day.
What emerged was a process whereby the morning would be spent in proaction cafÃ© which offers people a chance to work on projects. The group that wanted to go down to Wall Street decided to use that time to prepare a learning journey for themselves while others worked on other projects. The afternoon was devoted to nuts and bolts learning in our space while about nine people went off to the occupation. We reconvened at 300 and had two short fishbowls to report on what each group had learned. That harvest was recorded both in video and on flip charts so tat it could be made available to the wider community.
Among the many lessons of the day was the fact that Tuesday’s ideas take us beyond the realm of analysis and into a practice of this middle space. In fact the middle space of co-revelation can only live in practice, it has no power in analysis or in the kinds of theoretical debates that rage without relationship. In those domains the middle space disappears.
It is hard to capture exactly the effect this week has had on my practice, but it deeply continues the theme of “seeing more clearly” that has been the greatest gift of my journey in and around the Art of Hosting community of practice for the past seven years. In our workshops and learning events, we seek less to train people in methodologies and more to situate participatory process in its wider context. Doing so gives the methodologies power and effectiveness and activates the deeper gifts of invitation, collaboration, participation and transformation. And although the word feels raw and new and vague, I think I can finally describe what we do as assisting groups to enter into the space of co-revelation. That was Tuesday’s gift to the group, and that was the group’s significant gift to ourselves.
And as if to confirm it, I sensed this new space active in Liberty Park on the two nights we went down there. The young people who are organizing Occupy Wall Street are doing so in a way that gives profound insight into this concept, but that is the subject of another post.