- Undoing Oppression
Context and history of efforts within the Work That Reconnects
At this time of great social and environmental crises, a group of facilitators has been exploring ways that the facilitation of the Work That Reconnects (WTR) has reflected the industrial growth society’s patterns of harm. The intention of this exploration is to more fully recognize, address, and reframe the ways that power, privilege, and oppression appear within WTR spaces in order to develop the WTR and its facilitators.
Acknowledgement of the Gift of the Work That Reconnects and Gratitude for the Good Hearts of the Facilitators
The Work That Reconnects has changed many lives around the Earth and continues to offer heartening inspiration and motivation to serve the healing of our world. It is our deep love for (and as) the world that fuels this Work and has led to a large network of facilitators leading spirals in over 21 countries. There are 1,345 friends of WTR listed on the website, almost 4,000 people on the mailing list, and the website consistently lists between 3-6 workshops a month around the world. Facilitators of WTR are a group of passionate lovers, activists, and change agents who know we are not separate from the suffering of our world.
Acknowledgement of the Gap Between Intention and Impact
Even with so much goodness driving WTR and its forty-year contribution to healing, there are ways in which its facilitators unconsciously replicate patterns of the industrial growth society that unintentionally result in harm. Holding the best of intentions, many facilitators are unaware when we are enacting patterns of dominance and oppression that perpetuate the very habits we seek to change. While bringing our good hearts into our work to heal the world, we may also inadvertently be undermining our own best efforts and contributing to suffering.
Naming the Problem
Unless it is consciously interrupted and transformed, much of the harmful conditioning of the dominant culture will pervade any social space. The WTR workshops and retreats are no exception.
The replication of dominant culture unintentionally happens when facilitators of WTR do not attend to the dynamics of power and privilege (before, during, as well as after a workshop) and when people of marginalized identities are not fully included. The demographics and culture of the WTR facilitation community has historically been privileged and most typically US American white middle or upper middle class, higher educated, able-bodied, and cis-gendered. Thus it is particularly prone to unconsciously replicating interlocking systems and patterns of oppression and perpetuating inadequate diversity and inclusion.
This and subsequent documents are inspired by specific experiences, which call for an immediate turn of the lens toward awareness and inclusion. The strong focus on race is not an attempt to deny other exclusions but is a critical starting point grounded in an oppression central in shaping U.S. societal structures.
Affirm the Opportunity!
It can be very difficult to perceive and dismantle the often insidious ways harm results from structures of oppression recreated in WTR spaces. And yet, nothing brings greater joy, freedom, and intimacy with life than aligning our actions with our most life-enhancing values. Success in our mission is impossible without this shift. Our commitment to the Great Turning within our own consciousness, and our recognition that this is not separate from the transformation of our world, keeps us engaged in and committed to this difficult task.
Facing the challenge of bringing more sensitivity and skill to our work is a beautiful and challenging opportunity to not only become more effective but to more fully embrace our interconnected true nature. When our actions align with the values of a life-enhancing society, they are aligning as well with the creative powers of our 13.7 billion year old universe. As we embody the inclusive nature of the cosmos in our own human lives, we are profoundly acting our age. Out of our recognition of these dynamics, we invite the WTR community to welcome the opportunity to learn from our mistakes, take steps to repair the resulting harms, and close the gap between our intentions and our impact.
The Long Haul
The process of waking up to and dismantling our conditioning around power and privilege is extremely demanding and ongoing. Yet it is an essential component of the Great Turning. This document is intended to encourage facilitators to approach the challenge with the same fierce determination, humility, and compassion with which we approach the WTR itself, to “breathe through” the pain that comes with recognizing our own complicity with, as well as the complexity of, the problem. This is not just a temporary add-on or minor part of WTR; it is integral to the future effectiveness of the Work and to our own wholeness and well-being. We are in it for the long haul.
Cultural Context – The Call
This Historical And Evolutionary Moment
We are in the midst of an extraordinary historic moment. The veil that has shrouded public awareness from the full extent of the chronic, systemic social justice violations rampant in these times is unraveling. Communities of all kinds are being forced to address issues of power, privilege, and oppression arising from their own structures. While the world is unraveling, it is also becoming increasingly “woke.”
The WTR Is Embedded in the Current Historical Context
The Work That Reconnects is part of this trend toward awakening. The ways in which we as a community have perpetuated social injustice are becoming visible. This article proposes that we affirm and embrace this historical moment as an opportunity to make the critical adjustments and transformations in consciousness in ourselves and in the WTR: to name and interrupt the harmful patterns, repair the resulting harm, and create healing patterns that expand the Work’s potency, scope, and effectiveness.
The WTR to Embrace Human Diversity
The WTR focuses on our reconnection with the larger living world, affirming the depth of our interconnectedness. In this time of divisiveness, we also need to recognize both the depth of our interconnection with other humans and the extent and vital importance of our differences. All people are afflicted by dynamics of oppression – personal, communal, structural, and ideological. Only through this full recognition can we begin to heal the broken places we endure together as human siblings. We do this to co-create a life-sustaining present and future for all.
History within the WTR
The history of this more recent shift within the WTR involved several key events and many people, including:
- three People of Color (POC) Cohorts took place at Canticle Farm, California from 2012-2014. They were initiated by Anne Symens-Bucher and Joanna Macy and supported by Adelaja Simon, Barbara Jefferson, Patricia St. Onge, Gerardo Omar Marin, Diane Johnson, and others.
- a gathering in September of 2016, initiated by Belinda Griswold, Jade Begay, Aravinda Ananda, Sarah Thompson, and Barbara Jefferson
- a group established in May 2017 to meet weekly on Thursday mornings online to address patterns of harm within the WTR
- the WTR Network weavers added an Evolving Edge section to the website as a public space for this ongoing exploration
- a special issue of Deep Times journal in August 2017 focused on the impact of race and culture on the Work That Reconnects
- a letter by Joanna Macy in the fall of 2017, urging white US American facilitators to take specific steps to address oppression within the WTR
- a February 2018 gathering to test-run newly adapted or created practices that address internalized oppression and increase solidarity and inclusion
- a February 2018 gathering, organized by a group of facilitators and hosted at Canticle Farm with the purpose of naming, exploring, and shifting patterns of harm that have occurred in the WTR.
Challenges & Limitations
In this document, we use two terms as political coalition identifiers – “people of color” and “white people.” The terms, however, are insufficient for many reasons, including the facts that a) racially oppressed people include not just people of African descent, but also indigenous people and brown people of various ancestries; b) people have also been marginalized on the basis of gender, sexuality, ability, class, faith, nationality, age, and other attributes; c) some people identify as mixed race; and d) the terms do not address those with intersecting marginalized identities (intersectionality). This document focuses mainly on the issue of color but that is not intended to dismiss other groups in the future. A glossary of words specific to this evolving work is being developed HERE.
It is difficult to talk about the harm that people of color have experienced in WTR spaces without activating a conditioned response of guilt, shame, and defensiveness in those of us who are implicated. Human beings naturally feel bad about our unintentional negative impacts on others. The most transformative challenge is to face the suffering in which we have inadvertently participated without collapsing or defending. Guilt, shame, and defensiveness about our role in oppression can be further expressions of–and add to–the entrenchment of our conditioning. These reactions have been labeled “white fragility” by author Robin DiAngelo. While no individual is solely responsible for the conditioning that leads to our sense of separation from Earth and each other, it is, ultimately, our personal responsibility to dismantle that conditioning. In bringing these harms forward to the WTR community, one important challenge is to share them in ways that are first and foremost attuned to the needs of those who have been harmed and then to attend to those who are implicated in causing those harms.
Our goal is to build and support a culture in which everybody feels safer and held in their tender humanity while also creating openings for deep transformation and learning. Such a process can certainly feel like an impossible task; we undertake it with humility, compassion for ourselves and others, and openness to feedback.
The Shift In Consciousness
Addressing power, privilege, and oppression dynamics is a life-long practice and a learning journey that can be deeply spiritual in nature. People with privileged identities cannot be expected to suddenly recognize and rectify the full extent of a millennia of conditioning. It is a long and demanding process and we each approach it with the resources we have. Meeting people where they are and remaining patient while harms continue to play out is a familiar challenge for anybody acting on behalf of life, and it is a particular challenge to see harms resulting from social injustice taking place within our own spaces–particularly spaces in which we have invested our identities.
A key step in this process is a shift in consciousness among those of us with privileged identities: we can move from guilt and defensiveness into an understanding of how our complicity in systems of oppression devastates our siblings with less power, and also corrodes our own souls, making us fragile and disconnected from the truth of the interdependence that animates all life. When this shift occurs, we become much more powerful in acting to dismantle oppressive systems. We find common cause in our bodies and spirits, and solidarity in our actions; we become more humble, flexible, and willing to experience the stress, as well as the gratitude that comes from seeing the world through new eyes.
We believe this shift is gift of active hope and an opportunity for greater alignment, effectiveness, solidarity, joy, and wholeness.
This document reflects a particular context and history in the USA. Those of you from other countries and cultures are invited to explore the ways systems of oppression show up in your own communities.
In our learning, healing, and transformation, there is neither a beginning nor an end. It is our hope that this document will serve the unfolding dialogue and lead to the learning and deepening relationships needed to restore justice. While race is currently a centerpoint, we recognize that this focus is a call to continually see, identify, and work to dismantle the systems that constrict all reaches of the divide. To that end, we are looking forward to receiving input from those in our community who reflect a broad range of diversity. The process of dismantling structures of oppression is ever evolving. If we work together to support the shift, we have a better chance of living to see it succeed.
To engage with these themes further, please visit the Evolving Edge section on workthatreconnects.org. Stay tuned for updates and opportunities for contributing to this unfolding exploration.