Picture this: Week 3 of a five-week Intensive Course. About forty people—from different (and warring) countries, cultures, religions, races, genders and socio-economic backgrounds—are in attendance. The students have different levels of education, health, physical abilities, English language capacity and range in age from twenties to seventies.
The stated intention of the course: Education and Training in Processwork. The topic for Week 3: Relationships. The background or emergent need: For the group to know itself, to work on the many conflict and diversity issues that had surfaced and submerged over the last few weeks, and that haunted the atmosphere, and to feel safe (a diversity issue in itself), while doing it. In short, they wanted to explore the world, to engage in a method known as Worldwork.
And I’m in charge (haha).
Either I’m crazy or I’m a glutton for punishment.
Or maybe it’s simply that I care, and want to use my conflict facilitation skills in service of the world. Or at least I want to try. Even when my job is to teach stuff. Even when my notes, the materials I spent hours preparing, are really quite brilliant. The group has another agenda.
Worldwork, an important branch of Processwork, is a method for supporting diversity awareness and conflict transformation in small and large groups and communities. Much has been written about the method and it’s underlying philosophy—deep democracy—developed by author and Processwork founder Arnold Mindell. Co-founder Amy Mindell made some animated films about World work
It’s extremely hard to practice—especially when agendas conflict, like last week.
As a facilitator, it is my job not to turn against the people with whom I work. (Could anything be more obvious?) But this can sometimes be tricky, for example when someone or a subgroup’s behavior goes against your values, is hurtful to others or when it activates or triggers your own issues.
I struggle with this almost every time I‘m in front of a group. Most of us do.
What follows are some ideas that have helped me appreciate others and myself as we navigate experiences of power and centrality (our privileges), and experiences of low power and marginality (our internal and external oppression). Seeds of these ideas first appeared in a 2004 article written together my friend and colleague Lesli Mones.
These ideas help me in principle, and occasionally in practice.
Some experiences we go through when working on privilege
1. No awareness or denial. This keeps us comfortable. (Obvious.)
2. Guilt. On the positive side, guilt may encourage critical self-examination and motivate us to do something (take social action, mobilize resources, contribute money, work on becoming an ally). But too much guilt can wreak internal and external havoc by creating self-hatred, hopelessness and even backlash against oppressed groups. Or we put ourselves in emotional harm’s way; we deserve the anger and revenge of the people we put down, so we turn the other cheek when they hurt us. Guilt can also lead us to turn against others from our group, thinking we are more enlightened than they are.
3. Liberalism. We see the other as suffering and in need of our help. In order to protect ourselves from our own pain, we focus on the other’s pain. Patronizing.
4. Awareness of one’s own marginalization and suffering. People who reap the benefits of social privilege are not immune to the ravages of life and death. Becoming aware of the places where we have been hurt, wounded and marginalized is essential to any social justice work. We need to work on our personal histories and discover the emotional triggers that cause us to fear our vulnerability and hold on to power.
5. Mobilization and psychosocial activism. Becoming an ally. First doing the work to become more whole ourselves—and then to make the world better.
6. Eldership. During moments of eldership we can flow between the different experiences and stages within ourselves and in a group. We are curious about all the voices, perspectives and levels of awareness. Our attitude can be healing to others—we give everyone a sense of having a place or of being at home.
Some experiences we go through when working on oppression
1. No awareness or denial. Can serve as important protection from pain that is too great to bear.
2. Victimization. We become aware of how much we have been victimized and are suffering because of external and systemic prejudice and oppression. We notice how much we have been taking care of our oppressors, trying to keep them comfortable and treading lightly so as not to make things worse. We use our experience of victimhood in any number of creative and destructive ways.
3. Anger and revenge. We hate the system. We hate our oppressors. We want others to experience the hurt, discomfort and marginalization that we live through every day. We do what we can to get back at those who hurt us.
4. Grief. The is only way to get through grief is by grieving. Deep and genuine grief can be a healing and transformative experience. Grief can connect us to all of humanity. It can lead us to take action, to want to make the world better for all.
5. Mobilization, education and psychosocial activism. We have it within us to educate others about their role in creating oppression, both systemically and through their momentary behavior. We are willing to wake others up, sometimes gently, sometimes fiercely but with the best interests of everyone at heart. We have an uncanny (often fleeting) capacity to do this without harming ourselves, meaning we are awake about the exquisite training we’ve received to take care of others while stepping on ourselves.
6. Eldership. Same as above. Momentarily “off the wheel.”
No one stage has any more or less inherent value. We do not “progress” from one stage to the next in a linear fashion. At times they all exist simultaneously within us, and they are all present within diverse groups. There is personal and collective trauma at the root of several of these stages and they come up again and again at different points in our life and in different circumstances.
Movements and communities develop around each stage. Spiritual communities might support the detachment of the elder; both mainstream governments and terrorist organizations support revenge. Subgroups tend to promote the values of one stage over another and see individuals in other stages as “traitors,” “sell-outs” or simply less developed.
Practicing deep democracy means appreciating and valuing each stage, respecting individual’s as they move through or get stuck in the various stages, and recognizing our shared humanity, regardless of where we are at.
Last week, I did not do this well enough.
Although I got mostly outstanding and appreciative feedback about my facilitation (some called it mastery!), I also learned that some participants did not feel valued; they felt unseen or even disrespected.
There is so much more to learn—which is why I love this work.