Eva Schonveld and Justin Kenrick
As we work together to re-discover and build new empowering political systems of collective decision making, and life-giving economic systems that can meet our real needs, how do we ensure that they stay true to the intentions we’re setting out with? How do we surface, heal and create alternatives to our internalized and cultural habits of domination?
Grassroots to Global is exploring these questions in a range of ways, most recently in the Sunset Assembly, which invited people from communities around the world to a 24 hour meeting that followed the sunset round the planet. Through invitations like this, we are co-creating a deeper understanding of what is really needed when we come together to think creatively or make collective decisions. Much of what follows looks very unlike the politics we’ve become accustomed to. This is no mistake. We need to start from some very different assumptions if we are going to create a new system that doesn’t quickly lapse back into the traumatic colonized mindset much of our world is steeped in.
The politics we have become accustomed to stems from and perpetuates a mindset of domination. We often call it colonial because colonization – the violent appropriation of others’ homes, lands and livelihoods and the deliberate destruction of their culture – is the ultimate enactment of this way of being. It is also enacted through a multitude of other habits of force including patriarchy, white supremacy, ableism and much of western style education. The host of devastating environmental and social issues we have inherited are not the inevitable result of how humans live on this planet. They are outcomes of this particular colonized way of being human – one that those of us who have been born into often don’t even notice.
Those of us born in the global north (and many in the countries it has successfully colonized, or in others similarly mired in a mindset of domination) have a tough job to do: we need to see our culture as it really is, see what it does to us, to others and to the planet, and we need to dig deep to understand how we can make fundamental, lasting change.
Attitudes learned growing up within this culture live, often unnoticed, inside each of us, between us, in our social structures and processes. These embedded habits often enable us to ignore patterns of hierarchy, they desensitize us to a mindset of domination, of power over. From early infancy, through school and on into higher education or work, we have been taught this way of being in a multitude of subtle – and not so subtle – ways.
The personal and cultural change work needed to consciously experience and begin to heal the impacts of this culture – and to co-create genuine alternatives – can feel very uncomfortable precisely because of the conditioning that leads us to over-value intellectual, logical, more action oriented ways of being and denigrate emotional, introspective, more emergent ways of being. Turning our attention to these culturally rejected aspects is a challenge to so much that we unquestioningly accept. It can confront us with a great deal of uncertainty and painful feelings we’d rather keep hidden away – not least that most painful hope that healing might indeed be possible. As a result we often write off these aspects of our experience as unimportant, too messy, too time consuming or self-indulgent. But without bringing them into balance with other modes of being, we inevitably create processes and structures which end up repeating the very system we need to change. In fact this work of decolonizing ourselves and our processes is core to the change we want to see in the world, and it needs to lead how we do what we do every step of the way.
We need to bring into conscious awareness our habits of status and stratification, of prioritizing some ways of being over others, of hiding our full selves in order to fit in. This practice of awareness, resistance and (re)discovery of new possibilities is deeply political and it is an essential aspect of the projects, policies and power sharing structures we’re working to build.
Here are some places to start based on our experience so far with the Grassroots to Global project. We have learned by experimentation and drawn, with huge gratitude, on practices from less colonized cultures.
Essential ingredients for decolonizing our processes
We tend to chop our time up into little chunks, meaning that the things we do get shaped by how long we have to do them, rather than the other way round. For some activities this is not so important, but for collective thinking, problem solving or decision making it can cause real difficulties. If we cut short important conversations because of an external deadline, we can be storing up problems for the future. We may not be able to extend meetings indefinitely, but we should be as generous as we can with complex conversations – specially those where there are strong differences of opinion – and if need be schedule extra time for them, rather than squeezing them into already packed agendas.
Time is an economy within all meetings. Our decisions about how to spend it are important. It’s useful for everyone to be aware of who sets the agenda and who gets space to speak on what issues and for how long. People’s need for space varies and it’s not always simple to decide when and how to meet it. Sometimes we need to look for ways to get space that doesn’t take it away from others – other times our use of the space gives a lot to others. As with so much decolonizing practice, no one size fits all and there is a need for discernment, patience, good communication and clarity.
We should also remember that there are many ways to create more time – or experience time differently. For example, in a normal ‘time-sequence focused’ meeting, an agenda is decided and then gone through step by step. Another way is to establish the agenda and then circle round the group, allowing each person to address it by making the connections that matter to them, possibly also responding to the way the person speaking before them has made connections. Our lists of disparate items are an atomized version of an interconnected world. Spiraling through an agenda can allow deeper connections to emerge and with a well connected group, can enable a lot of work to be done in much less time than expected.
Activists feel a sense of urgency for change – and most of us have overly busy lives, so there’s a real temptation to try to get through as much work as we can in the shortest possible time. New technology means there’s almost no end to the lengths we’re able to push ourselves to. This can feel exciting for a while, but eventually rushing tends to stress us out, meaning we forget important parts, listen only to the loudest voices, judge ourselves and others and generally feel miserable and exhausted.
While speed is unavoidable at times, prioritizing and normalizing slower, more relaxed and enjoyable processes make us more effective at working together and more able to continue long term without burning out.
We’re brought up to believe we are separate, but we are interconnected. We can think well as individuals, but collaborative thinking, specially when a group has high levels of empathy and trust, gives much better, more resilient results. Collaborative thinking needs time, trust and the development of shared skills in navigating areas of disagreement and tension between those involved.
Understanding and addressing oppression
Throughout our lives in this stratified system we all have huge obstacles placed in our way to our ability to be ourselves and to live well. But depending on our position in the social hierarchy, our experience of this stratification is very different. It can be useful to think of our struggles with these obstacles as being on a continuum from high to low intensity. The landscape within which these struggles happen is complex. Many of us (globally) have experience of some high and some low intensity struggles, but most of us have much more of one kind than the other. Low intensity struggles can be very painful and difficult to deal with, but they don’t continually affect most aspects of our lives. High intensity struggles are ones where our day to day life is loaded with damage and risk – often to the point of fearing for our survival.
When we carry an aspect of privilege within this system it tends to be held unconsciously, so we will not easily notice or acknowledge it. Having our blind spots pointed out – usually by those with less privilege in the system, and therefore less unconsciousness around this area – can be painful and often shameful, but it is incredibly useful feedback and we should always take the time to process it.
When we carry an aspect of oppression within this system, we will likely also have experienced silencing, shame and being blamed for our own oppression. The journey towards healing these impacts can be very long and difficult. It is the responsibility of the whole group to support healing for all of its members.
Understanding and healing the unconscious
Most of our lives, specially our social lives, are lived as if what is on the surface is everything there is. This is complicated by the fact that much of our inner experience is unconscious – and can only become conscious if we deliberately decide to look into it. Early learning, traumatic experiences and social or cultural assumptions are some of the elements that live in the unconscious. Our cultural conditioning tells us that it is scary and destabilizing to look into it, but it is essential to do so if we are to understand why our lives – from the personal to the cultural – are how they are, and how we can change them.
Our unconscious assumptions, biases and fears are core to what makes it so difficult to make good collective decisions. Uncovering and healing them is core to this work.
A wide understanding of trauma – which takes in the ways traumatic patterning of different degrees of severity lives in our unconscious and bodies, relationships, processes, structures, systems, society and culture – is essential to decolonization. Living in a colonial system is traumatizing, and trauma is almost always unconscious, so understanding how our traumatic patterns intersect and affect the change we want to make in the world is complex.
Decolonization is healing at the cultural level. We will not be able to successfully create a decolonized system without attending to healing at all levels, including our personal trauma. This doesn’t mean that all our meetings need to turn into therapy sessions, but it does mean that we need to pay attention to the emotional side of our work and be open to digging deeper to look at root causes of the difficulties between us when we get stuck, come into conflict or otherwise feel unhappy with what’s going on in our groups.
At its simplest, healing is about pausing and making the space to deeply listen to the parts of oneself and others that are not being heard. In terms of group process, having someone facilitate in a way that reassures people they will be heard allows us to calm down, allows us to listen beneath what is being said to what is being felt, to listen beneath peoples positions to what connects us – whether it is taking a polarized or compatible form at that moment.
Centering the earth
We have been taught that we are separate from the earth and the idea that ‘we are the earth’ is ignored or ridiculed, even though it is a simple truth that there is no future for our species if we don’t recognize that without the earth we are nothing. We have been persuaded that we exist as individuals, as part of families or communities or any other kind of group, in some kind of isolation, disconnected from and oblivious to this larger part of ourselves on which we utterly depend for our nourishment and survival from moment to moment.
Colonial thinking needs us to believe that it is through money that we can meet our needs. There are countless examples of people’s direct relationship with the earth for need meeting being targeted in a deliberate attempt to force us into a cash economy which then becomes the means of securing our ongoing dependence on working for wages.
We may be more or less connected with the skills that enable us to meet our needs directly and sustainably from the earth, but the potential is there. Reconnecting and rebuilding the skills and attitudes that bring us into a more direct relationship with the earth, also brings us closer to our personal and collective health and wholeness. It reconnects us with our true nature – not as the dominant species on the planet – but as minuscule cell- like entities, entirely dependent on and essentially inseparable from the life systems of a larger body.
Practices of direct re-engagement with the earth around us, as well as movement, stillness or visualization can help us to drop from the experience of being separate (something the mind has learnt as a survival strategy) to recognizing that we are a breathing heartbeat of a body that is – miraculously – alive right now.
This work takes time. We often cock up and feel criticized, stupid or ashamed. Bringing an attitude of patience – with ourselves and others – is essential. With deeply learned patterns it can take many tries and a long time to shift. We’re much more likely to be able to shift if we feel encouraged and supported rather than told off (by ourselves or others) when we ‘get it wrong’. This work is for the long haul – messing up is inevitable and, handled generously, is the perfect opportunity for learning.
Cultivating attitudes of honesty, openness, curiosity, self – and other forgiveness and learning around messing up are some of the keys to doing this kind of work.
Self reflexivity/understanding myself
Developing the ability to notice what’s happening inside ourselves is an essential element in decolonial practice. Noticing when we’ve started reacting to something, when we’ve withdrawn, zoned out or started feeling aggressive, noticing the judgements we’re making of ourselves or of others or when we’ve slipped into reactivity – all contribute to the learning that enables us to unpick internalized colonization, making us more and more able to create and embody a decolonized way of being.
Sharing insights honestly and authentically with others in the group – and listening well when others do the same – takes our ability to work well together to another level.
Listening and speaking from the heart
If we can listen really well to ourselves and other people, we can put empathy at the heart of decision-making – and ultimately make decisions that work for everyone.
Listening is an everyday art and virtue we need to re-learn. We often have a lot else going on in our heads and sometimes spend a lot of time (when someone else is speaking) thinking about how we’re going to respond (specially if we don’t agree with them). Listening is more than being quiet while others have their say. It is about presence as much as receiving; it is about connection more than observing.
Learning to listen well to one another is essential. Listening well means putting our own reactions to one side as much as possible and really listening with care and support to understand what the other person is saying. Having enough time, not going too fast and other ingredients really help with this.
Real listening is powered by curiosity. It involves vulnerability — a willingness to be surprised, to let go of assumptions and take in ambiguity. It is never in “gotcha” mode. The generous listener wants to understand the humanity behind the words of the other, and patiently summons their own best self and their own most generous words and supportive questions that enable the other to go deeper.
Likewise with speaking – we often feel the need to know in advance what we’re going to say – and sometimes we do – but just letting the thoughts be spoken as they come to us can often be more powerful, interesting and insightful. Knowing that we are being listened to with a lot of support and interest – from the heart – is a necessary requirement for this kind of talk.
Periods of shared silence are counter-cultural and can make us feel uncomfortable. However they are really helpful in creating a better pace, better thinking and understanding. Ironically they also often help us move through things more quickly. Short shared silences can help us notice quieter thoughts or feelings that can get swamped in a fast paced conversation. They can bring realizations that might only have happened once the meeting was over – or that might have been missed entirely.
The tolerance (or even enjoyment) of quiet pauses in our processes is a muscle we can build and which will pay us back in spades.
Cultivating our ability to deeply understand – to feel alongside – what’s going on for others is crucial to building a decolonized system and making good decisions. Ultimately empathy should have no boundaries. It should help us better understand those we disagree or are angry with as much as those we already feel sympathy for.
Empathizing can feel threatening or painful if we have not had much experience of empathy for our own marginalization. We may well need to experience being fully listened to and understood before we’re ready to do this in turn for others. When we do have the capacity, this process can bring real understanding, even healing, between us, cutting through rage or resentment, shame or self-deception, and shedding light on what connects us
Most of us have been brought up to value knowing, being right, being certain and not being wrong. Not knowing, while it has its limits, is where we’re all starting from: no one knows how to decolonize this system, or we’d already have done it. Accepting this enables us to progress more humbly, in a spirit of experiment, working together to understand what our next small wise step together might be. Not knowing allows us to be open to new thinking, ideas and opportunities that we might otherwise skip over.
Come as yourself – welcome others as themselves
Some of us are used to our jobs, qualifications or roles getting us time and space in meetings. But everyone deserves to be heard – whether we have qualifications, experience, seniority, wealth or any other attribute, or not. Our experience can be really useful, but it doesn’t make us any more essential to a meeting than anyone else. Attending meetings as ourselves, rather than in a role (whether professional or social) enables us to be more human, more honest, more flexible, more able to learn and connect.
Unlearning the false sense of being valued that we get from status within a colonized system is part of the work we need to do. Our value – and that of everyone else – to the group is that we show up, that we value others and that we’re willing to do what we can to progress the work.
Check ins and check outs
This simple practice of taking a moment for everyone in a meeting to say hello and a little bit about how they’re feeling, not just the first time we meet, but every time, is deceptively potent. It enables us to ‘arrive’, to shake off (or integrate) whatever we’ve just come from and be fully present in the meeting. And it helps us get to know one another – and ourselves. We can move this process to a deeper level by including decolonizing go rounds (see below), or other processes aimed at developing our relationships.
Check outs can help to end the meeting neatly and can (if we decide to) create a useful summary of the most important elements of the session. They can also be used as a moment of awareness where we can celebrate things that went well, flag things that we’d like to improve for following meetings, or note things that need to be attended to in another session.
Decolonial practice circles
Setting aside time, or making space as part of meeting check ins, to share our understanding, thinking and feeling about how different aspects of our lives have been colonised is an important way of beginning and deepening our shared awareness in our work together. Here’s a brief outline of one way to do this.
As with many of these ingredients, it’s easy to see processes like this as optional extras that take up much needed time. The balance we strike with this may be different depending on the situation, but regular decolonical practice rounds will help embed and deepen our understanding of decolonization in our thinking and action in a way little else will do.
This practice is well aligned with anti-oppression approaches which support our shared understanding of privilege and oppression and can easily be incorporated as needed by the group.
Practicing diverse approaches
We have been taught to favor rational, linear thinking and speaking above other ways of processing information. Our emotions, imagination, creativity, bodily wisdom and many other ways of perceiving, understanding and communicating about the world are usually ignored, looked down on – or are sources of embarrassment. Being willing to experiment with different ways of working together can bring a much broader and deeper understanding of what we’re doing – and is inclusive of those people – and parts of ourselves – that fit in less well with colonially accepted ways of working.
These are a great way of building towards agreement in an organised way, taking everyone with us. They’re used a lot in Sociocracy, a horizontal organising process which has a huge amount to offer to our thinking about the possibilities for decolonised decision making structures.
Groups can share the ‘picture forming’ phase of developing a proposal, where everyone gets a chance to say what they’d like to see in the proposal. The next step is for one person, or a small group, to go away and work up the best version of the proposal they can (which may not include everything that everyone wanted). As part of doing this they ask for advice from anyone who’ll be affected by the proposal.
When the proposal comes back to the group to be decided on, everyone has a chance to ask questions, suggest changes and finally to say whether they have any objections to the proposal. Objections are made only on the basis that the proposal will harm the core purpose of the group – and if they’re made in this spirit, they’re seen as a gift to the group, to be integrated and potentially immeasurably improving the proposal.
Using disagreement as a gift to the group
We all disagree. If we didn’t we wouldn’t need collective decision making processes.
Our differences can broaden and deepen our understanding of the area we’re looking at (and they offer endless opportunities for self-reflection and healing too) and help us think outside the box.
It’s easy to get anxious, specially when the disagreement is strong, so making sure that we have people with experience of handling differences well and processes that can help support us to stay curious and loosen up from entrenched positions, will help us harvest the energy and new thinking that opens up when we stay in dialogue across difference.
If disagreements have shifted from simple differences of opinion to the hurt, anger, blame and shame of conflict, then – held well – this brings even greater potential for deepening and transforming our understanding. In these moments, it’s really important that we slow down and move towards the discomfort. Traumatic patterns at all levels will have been activated and – if we try to avoid the pain and jump over or suppress it – we risk splitting our group. While this is sometimes unavoidable, we need to take it very seriously: splits can take a long time to heal and they can hurt our ability to be effective in the world.
Proactively developing skills and processes for disagreement and conflict within the group – or bringing outsiders in to help where that’s not possible – is very important.
Good enough for now, safe enough to try
Another useful sociocratic approach can help us to make decisions more quickly and with more confidence. We don’t see decisions as ‘forever’, we give them a term, within which we can try them out and see how they go. This can help shift a tenatious objection: someone may feel it would be harmful to decide on a course of action over a year, but be willing to see how it works over three months. Whatever the term, it’s recorded and the issue is revisited for full agreement, further changes or scrapping and starting again. Proceeding with a proposal if it is ‘good enough for now, safe enough to try’ sums up this approach.
As a bonus, this also collapses into the rather lovely acronym: GEFNSETT.
Feedback loops like this are essential to working in a more emergent, flexible and responsive way.
When in doubt, open up a circle
Going ‘round the circle’ or passing the chance to speak and reflect between everyone present is a simple and effective way of tapping into the wisdom of the group. It’s possible to run very effective meetings by just doing this, or to suggest a round every now and then, for example when we notice that only a few people have been speaking. Building our confidence to not know what we’re going to say in advance, to speak spontaneously, and deliberately creating space on an equal basis for those who don’t feel confident or who tend to think they don’t have anything valuable to offer, reliably brings a huge amount of useful information and feedback into the group.
Pausing, listening, circling, proposing, responding – patiently and persistently we enable and welcome the world we want. Which is the world as it actually is, beneath the colonial bluster.
Eva Schonveld is a climate activist, process designer and facilitator, supporting sociocratic system development, decision-making and facilitation. She co-founded Starter Culture and is currently working on Grassroots to Global, a project which asks: can we co-develop a more empathic, democratic, political system which could connect internationally in a global assembly to address the root causes of climate change?
Justin Kenrick co-founded Heartpolitics, is a Quaker, and trained in Buddhist psychotherapy. He is an anthropologist and a Senior Policy Advisor at Forest Peoples Programme where he works for community land rights in Kenya and Congo. He is a director of Life Mosaic, and also works on land reform in Scotland. He lives in Portobello, Edinburgh, where he chairs Action Porty which undertook the first successful urban community right to buy in Scotland. He writes in many contexts , and was on the Stewarding Group of the Scottish Government’s Climate Citizens Assembly which XR Scotland campaigned for but ultimately had to leave.
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