Can a city heal itself?

With some planner colleagues, we have been testing the idea of “the healing city”, or a “city that heals itself”. Some people get it, and some people don’t. I think our response to this idea depends on our relationship to trauma and discomfort.

In a bar on Thursday night, I was with a group of colleagues celebrating the winter season. As you can imagine, a lot of chit chat, some things to nibble on, drinks in our hands, and pockets of people in conversation. One of the conversations was about one of our colleagues, whose 13-year-old daughter committed suicide two days earlier. The news was just spreading and, of course, we are shocked and horrified, sorting out our own reactions to this news from how to make sure our colleague and her family are getting the support they need. One of the people connecting people with each other is grappling with her own child threatening suicide that very afternoon. A friend cancelled our Friday supper date because she has to be at home on what appears to be a suicide watch for her teenager. Which frees up tonight (Friday) to support a friend (and my son) whose 18-year-old (my son’s best friend) spent the night in emergency for a tricky medical situation and will be in the hospital for a few days.

This morning, I am thinking about the TVs in the bar last night. Screens upon screens of messages like this:

WTF? (What the f&*$?)

WTF? Why are three young people who have, are threatening and contemplating suicide? One of these young people is among a wave of classmates exploring suicide. Why is this converging in my attention?  WTF?

What are we not paying attention to, and why?

I notice two qualities of healing in my city. The first is the physical kind that can be clear and apparent (even when it sneaks up on us) and lands us in the hospital. It can be from a sickness, or an accident that causes injury, and it is usually obvious and clear how to handle it for medical professionals. This is the kind of healing our health system is largely created to do – like for my son’s friend – and we are learning as a society how to be more preventative and helpful, whether it is for disease or accidents.

The second quality of healing needed in my city is emotional, mental, and spiritual in nature. It is the trauma that comes with the physical events, or it is emotional, mental, and spiritual trauma that is experienced. It is the stuff we don’t see, or care to look at. It is the distress a teenager experiences that makes suicide an option. It is the attempted cultural genocide of colonial culture on Indigenous peoples. It is the upheaval experienced by refugees who have arrived in our city. It is the confusion experienced by newcomers finding their way in a new place. It is the settler population coming to grips with “losing” unearned power and privilege. It is everyone who has or is experiencing abuses of physical, emotional, mental and spiritual power. It is all the stuff we don’t want to talk about because it is too uncomfortable and disruptive.

A city that heals itself is a city with the courage to talk about the stuff that is uncomfortable and disruptive.

A city that heals itself is a city with the courage to talk about the stuff that is uncomfortable and disruptive. A healing city invites the legitimacy of others’ experience of life in the city; it invites revisiting our current power structures about who gets the help they need, whether physical, emotional, mental or spiritual. One conversation last night shone a light on two family suicide stories from a couple decades ago: the child on the wealthy side of the family got help and attention while the child on the poor side of the family did not.

I’m sitting with these questions today:

  1. Do we know why young people are contemplating and committing suicide? Are we doing anything about it?
  2. Do we know if all citizens have access to our hospitals and get the help they need? Do some people get better care than others based on colour of skin or language spoken? Are we doing anything about it?
  3. Do we know the truth about our colonial nature? Are we doing anything about it?
  4. Do we know the experience of people not at all like us? Are we doing anything to understand and accept the changes we need to make ourselves to allow them to improve their conditions?

A city that looks after its citizens looks after its citizens. Should a city choose to be a place where people are looked after, I recognize that there will always be healing work to do. A healing city recognizes that there is always healing work to do.

A city that looks after its citizens looks after its citizens.

Roles and challenges for the host-attractor / host-on-the-rim

I’ve met 12 fabulous new people over the course of the last several months in an online learning environment. We have gathered around a host-attractor, in the host-attractor pattern, and we would not have met if we were not attracted to our teacher and his offering. As a host-attractor, our teacher has laid the ground for a safe space for participants: he met each of us to make sure we were clear about what we were signing up for, he provided us with some guidelines and agreements about how we were expected to behave, and he makes himself available to each of us on our learning journeys (we are together for 9 months). Each time we meet as a group, he takes the lead and hosts us. He is the leader of the overall process at all times, gracefully checking in to make sure that what is happening is working for us, and offering us timely ‘teachings’ along the way.

The host-attractor pattern
The host-on-the-rim pattern

In the host-on-the-rim pattern, the deepening of community field comes with a distribution of leadership. I first came across this explicitly as part of a community of practice ten years ago (the Ginger Group Collaborative) that gathered face-to-face every 9 months for an ‘inquiry’, a gathering where a small team of hosts would host the others in an exploration of a topic for several days. The next time we’d meet, another small team of hosts would emerge, and so on, as a community on a journey of discovery.

Ginger Group Collaborative

It’s not one or the other though; it’s a process of discerning what is needed of me/us now.

My last post identified the energetic qualities of the host-attractor and the host-on-the-rim patterns, highlighting the differences about what brings us together, what happens, the shape of hierarchy and our sense of community.  It’s not one or the other though; it’s a process of discerning what is needed of me/us now. I ended that last post with two questions:

  1. As a host I ask: what pattern will best serve the purpose of the gathering – more host-attractor, or more host-on-the-rim?
  2. As a participant I ask: is the pattern we are activating the pattern we want to be in?

Roles and responsibilities

Thinking of the host-attractor and host-on-the-rim patterns as poles on a continuum (not either/or), there are distinct roles and responsibilities for each that, by knowing them, can help us be in the pattern we choose to be in:

  Host-attractor Host-on-the-rim
Roles A fixed host that leads the process at all times

Participants – engage actively in the learning experience with care for each other

Variable hosts that each lead the process from time to time

Participants – engage actively in the learning experience, which includes stepping in to host from time to time

Responsibilities Host – lay the ground rules or agreements for a safe container for the community, help people show up well, remove participants as needed

Participants – discern if the community and agreements are good fit (yes – show up well, no – remove oneself)

Participants – establish a clear purpose for the group and the agreements about how to be together, take turns hosting each other, hold each other accountable to your agreements, notice if you fit

Rotating hosts – remind the group of purpose and agreements, host in ways that serve what the community needs, help make space for those that don’t quite fit

To Note: Roles are clear and familiar and feel comfortable

If someone does not fit it is clear who will ‘deal with it’

Roles can be or feel vague, which feels uncomfortable

If someone does not fit, it is not clear who will ‘deal with  it’

Challenges

The challenges with both patterns stem from misunderstanding the roles and responsibilities of hosts and participants. If not addressed, there are power imbalances that make the circle feel wobbly.

In the case of the host-attractor pattern, there may be expectations of host-attractors to ‘have the answers’ and disappointment and conflict can arise if they do not have or offer answers. There is a trap that both hosts and participants can fall into: a desire for the insight of the host-attractor to be made available. I recently hosted a group of people from two organizations joining efforts to build affordable housing together and the members of one organization, a church, deferred regularly to “The Bishop”, who was in the room. While wanting to work collaboratively, there was a second trap tempting me as the host and participants: that insight of one with perceived power (host or participant) be received without question. While uncomfortable, it is healthy for participants to question and host-attractors to invite questioning because this is what allows a deepening in the shared community experience.

While uncomfortable, it is healthy for participants to question and host-attractors to invite questioning because this is what allows a deepening in the shared community experience. 

In the host-on-the-rim pattern, a different danger emerges: a reluctance or resistance to share the role of host. This pattern asks participants to step in to the discomfort of being a leader, if even for a moment. A safe community will make this possible; rotating leadership will not happen in a community where expectations and needs are not discussed.

A neighbourhood group I volunteer with decided to take leadership roles that best suited our styles: the extrovert took the hosting role, the writer was our scribe, the convener was our volunteer coordinator. While we didn’t share the explicit hosting role, we did share the work and spoke candidly about our comfort and how much discomfort would ruin our individual connection to our community and our project. We found our way because we share the work in ways that suited us. Our individual and community well-being—and our identification with our community—rested with all of us. (We expect our pattern will change as we become more comfortable with each other.)

The challenges in each pattern are about power dynamics and the power we give—consciously and unconsciously—to a host or the community, to a handful (or one) or to the whole.

The challenges in each pattern are about power dynamics and the power we give—consciously and unconsciously—to a host or the community, to a handful (or one) or to the whole:

Host-attractor Host-on-the-rim
Signs of a wobbly circle Expectation that hosts will have all the answers

Expectation that participants will not question hosts or anyone with authority

Reluctance to share and rotate the hosting work among community members
Danger Going where the host wants to go, from a host-ego place that is not in service to participant learning Going where a few people want to go, rather than discerning where the whole is wanting to go

While each pattern in isolation appears to have distinct challenges, it is not a binary, either/or matter. Most often, both patterns are activated simultaneously, which creates significant challenges to the wellbeing of that circle’s social habitat. These challenges can be addressed when we circle up and talk about what we don’t like to talk about: power.

How do you see the variations of the host-attractor and host-on-the-rim patterns in your world? Is it acceptable to talk about this, or taboo?  


This is the second post in a series about “how much of me” to put in while hosting community that wants to be in conversation with itself.

  1. Host-attractor / host-on-the-rim 
  2. Roles and challenges for the host-attractor and host-on-the-rim

 

Host-attractor / host-on-the-rim

How much of me do I insert while hosting a community in conversation with itself? In sitting with this question for years, I’ve noticed two patterns in which hosts and community relate to each other: the host-attractor and the host-on-the-rim.

Host-attractor pattern
Host-on-the-rim pattern

These two patterns are distinct in their energetic pattern: the host-attractor pattern occurs when community gathers around the host and the host-on-the-rim pattern occurs when the host is embedded in the community.

The host-attractor pattern is easy to spot; it is activated when we gather around people whose work we follow, who compel us to think and be differently, who energize us and lead us. In face-to-face situations, or in online virtual communities, we circle up around them, to learn from them. They play a critical role in helping us find a community of people who make their way through the world like us, or are on similar life journeys. The host-attractor helps us find our distributed tribe, the people like us that we might not otherwise meet in our usual life because they call us together based on a shared attraction.

In contrast, in the host-on-the-rim pattern there is no ‘attractor’ front and center. The attraction in this case is not identification with the attractor, but rather with the community, of people to each other, the community as a whole.

The energetics of these two patterns of hosting are different in significant ways. 

The energetics of these two patterns of hosting are different in significant ways. The host-attractor pattern is imbued with a teacher-learner hierarchy (not a bad thing), where the host-on-the-rim environment flattens the teacher-learner hierarchy into a community where all are teachers and learners. In the host-attractor pattern, the teacher is looked to for leadership and teaching; in the host-on-the-rim pattern, teaching and learning is expected everywhere, from everyone.

Here are the qualities of these two patterns:

Host-attractor Host-on-the-rim
Energetic shape Community surrounds the host Hosts are embedded in the community, taking turns
What brings people together Desire to learn more about the messages or teachings of the host-attractor Shared identity, shared interests, desire to learn together
What happens A teaching/learning community around a teacher A community that learns about, from and with itself
The shape of hierarchy Clear and distinct, fixed teacher and learner roles Clear and distinct shared leadership roles to support the community
Sense of community Primary identification with host; secondary identification with surrounding community is possible; sense of community is short, lasting the duration or the event or as long as there is a connection with the host-attractor Primary identification with community, with each other; sense of community is long-lasting

It’s never a clear answer, it’s not one or the other, it’s a process of discerning what makes sense for where we are now.

When a community is having a conversation with itself, these two patterns are instructive when I ask the question: how much of me do I insert? It’s never a clear answer, it’s not one or the other, it’s a process of discerning what makes sense for where we are now. Two questions I ask myself:

  1. As a host I ask: what pattern will best serve the purpose of the gathering – more host-attractor, or more host-on-the-rim?
  2. As a participant I ask: is the pattern we are activating the pattern we want to be in?

How do you see the host-attractor and host-on-the-rim patterns in your world? Who do you rally around? Who do you rally with? 


The next post will explore the roles, responsibilities and challenges that come with recognizing the host-attractor and host-on-the-rim patterns.


 

A castle’s not made for everyone – is a city?

After a delectable Turkish meal in Inverness Scotland, I found myself contemplating eras of old: a visit to 4000-year-old Bronze Age Corrimony Cairn, the ruins of medieval Urquart Castle and a boat ride on Loch Ness. While no humans today know why the cairn has 11 standing stones, rather than 12, we do know it was purposefully built, assumed for ceremony of some kind. Urquart Castle, looking out on Loch Ness, is likely on the site of an earlier Pictish fort, and it’s more tangible history is as a military stronghold from the 1200s to its ruin in 1692. The English took it in 1296, and it went back and forth between the Scottish clans and the English. At the Urquart Castle visitor centre, the words “fire and sword” are front and center. And then there is the myth of the Loch Ness monster, Nessie, and whether she exists, did exist, or even could have, according to scientific research. The Turkish meal, with my journal beside me, elucidated mystery and clarity.

Urquhart Castle on Loch Ness
Urquhart Castle on Loch Ness

While the precise details are not known and the castle itself stands (or not) in ruins, the role of Urquart Castle is pretty clear. It is the physical manifestation of power, it’s occupants revealing who is in power. If you are not the ‘king of the castle’ you are not the king. If you are not closely tied to the king of the castle you do not have his protection. If you are not living in it, or tied to who is in it, you are on the outside. And the castle is only looking after those within and their allies.

While Urquart Castle now stands in a natural setting on a rocky promontory along Loch Ness, elsewhere in Scotland, in contrast, the setting of Edinburgh Castle is a medieval and modern city. Just like Urquart, Edinburgh Castle is a story of power and sieges. (Have a look at the Wikipedia page on Edinburgh Castle for the details of the ‘Game of Thrones’ power struggles involving Edinburgh Castle.) As I walked along the Royal Mile in Edinburgh’s old town up to the castle, and as I enjoyed the view of Edinburg from the esplanade, looking down upon the city, a question emerged for me about castles and cities: a castle is not made for everyone—is a city?

Looking up to Edinburgh Castle from Grassmarket
Looking down from Edinburgh Castle to Johnston Terrace

With a castle and a king or queen, there are physical walls and barriers to keep people in and keep people out. The game is about power, sorting out who is on the inside or outside. The invisible walls and barriers are tangible and clear: if you are of a certain class, gender, age or financial resources, you have your place. Roles are clear and defined with firm protocols and consequences. The expectation is that the lower your station, the less power or influence you have, the least change you can effect. You have to have power to be somebody. A castle is not made for everyone.

So is a city made for everyone? I propose it can be. As we evolve past the turf and territory of castles (whether literal or metaphorical), we move into the experience of the city a shared project: a city that serves citizens well. We can care out in open.

As we evolve past the turf and territory of castles (whether literal or metaphorical), we move into the experience of the city a shared project: a city that serves citizens well.

As a shared project, the making of a city involves all of us and our work, everyone in the city and city region, to make it as we want and need it to be. There is an implicit contract in city life, that my work helps someone, who helps someone, who helps someone, who helps someone who helps you, and vice versa. As our work becomes more and more differentiated, this reliance on each others is how it works; I rely on others to do my dentistry, to make sure groceries are at the store, to make sure I have clean water. If I didn’t rest in this reliance, I would have a very different life.

Like any shared project, it works best if all parties are involved in ways that are meaningful to them. It is an ugly and beautiful process with ugly and beautiful results.

In my city, much like yours I suspect, a significant challenge rests in the acceptance of others’ experience of the city, their experience of the invisible walls and barriers. For example, when working with my city library in the development of a new culinary learning space, they ensured a variety of perspectives about food were in the room to explore how to design the space. There are the people who want to learn how to make cheese or Indian food. There are the teaching chefs who know how to design a space that works for instruction. There are the people who want to learn how to cook for themselves. There are the new local food producers who need a place to work for a weekend. There are the library patrons that need a lunch. There are the people who grow food. There are people who want to gather to share a meal and talk about fun or tough stuff. There is no one purpose of the culinary learning space, for it will be different things for different people. Just like a city is different things for different people.

In a castle world, people in different positions don’t view the world in the same way. This still occurs in the city when power imbalances are in play—it’s just that the walls and barriers aren’t so visible and clear. In my work with people across my city, I notice that we humans find it hard to believe in the existence of barriers named by others if we don’t see that barrier, or experience that barrier. It might be a builder who says the development approval process is onerous, not believed by citizens concerned about new construction in their neighbourhood. It might be the social service agencies who describe the ongoing structural struggles for the city’s poorest families to find appropriate housing and make ends meet and the electorate who has sufficient resources at their disposal so doesn’t see the need to provide assistance.

I notice that we humans find it hard to believe in the existence of barriers named by others if we don’t see that barrier, or experience that barrier. 

We humans trust our experience and mistrust the experience of others if it is different than ours. It’s hard for us to imagine and believe. Yet in the city as a shared project, we have to accept that just because I don’t see or experience barriers named by others, that does not mean those barriers are not there.

Making a city that’s made for everyone involves trusting others’ experience of the city.

Making a city that’s made for everyone involves trusting others’ experience of the city. Knowing that the city is castle-like for many, there’s a leap to be made by those of us who have our needs met: to trust and believe what others tell us about their experience. To not argue, debate, deny and resist, but accept.

____

Warning: The reason we find it difficult to trust another’s experience is because it invites their sovereignty, which involves disruption of out view of the world, and might even disrupt our sense of identity. Inviting the sovereignty of others means I will need to let go of things I enjoy from my place of privilege and power.


Under what conditions do you find you are able to trust another’s experience of the city when that experience is different from your own? 


 

Sovereignty is necessarily disruptive

I watched two men well into their 60s get into a physical fight at the ski hill yesterday. I’d taken a break to sit in the sunshine and give my knee a moment to tell me if skiing was a good or bad thing to be doing. I watched a family of three ski up beside the chalet. The woman in her late 40s stepped out of her skis and headed into the chalet. The man (man #1) in his early 60s and a boy of fifteen then stepped out of theirs and walked into the chalet. As I watched this unfold, I had a feeling I should go and tell them that they should put their skis in the racks, rather than leave them laying about, but I chose not to say anything. I also chose to not go and move them myself. My rationale: “it’s a quiet Monday April 30 at Marmot Basin, there’s hardly anyone here, I don’t have much energy for this and what does it matter?” It mattered when a handful of people had to dodge their skis when they came upon them unexpectedly, one of them another man in his 60s.

Man #2 marched up to the skis and picked up a pair and some poles and threw them toward the racks, then another a violent swing of skis. His hands were on the last pair when I saw man #1 heading toward him with great speed. He pushed straight into man #2 with a shove, shouting, “don’t throw my skis”, and they pushed and shoved, with man #1 trying to throw punches. (It still seems stupid to me to fight with a man with a ski in his hands.) In seconds a man nearby was shouting at them to stop, soon joined by the woman now out of the chalet. After a few moments, when man #1 let go, man #2 walked away. I could hear snippets of the woman telling man #1 that his behaviour was bad, that it is important to notice the etiquette of a place and do what is expected, and how he was treating her was not ok.

Violence is not only physical, it is emotional, so do what you need to do to look after yourself, because you’re worth it. 

Now ready ski myself, I had to move by this family of origin to get my skis and ski over to my kids now waiting for me. I paused to say I saw what happened and man #1 snapped at me, so I moved on. The woman stopped me, wanting to know what I saw. I told her: man #2 threw the skis and he should not have done that. I came to say I saw you leave them in a bad place and I chose not to tell you to move them, and I should have. And your man’s reaction to the situation was both inappropriate and way out of proportion.

In a moment, I learned from her that he does not hit her, or is physically rough with her, that they have no money in their shared bank account but he has an unknown amount separately, enough to fund an impromptu trip to Mexico with a hunting buddy.

I said to her, reminding her that I am a total outsider who knows nothing about her situation other than what I just saw, this: violence is not only physical, it is emotional, so do what you need to do to look after yourself, because you’re worth it.

What I did not say to her: when you exercise your sovereignty (I like the language of sovereignty that Heather Plett uses), he is not going to like it. When you put in place the boundaries you need to be not only safe, but healthy, he is not going to like the changes to his life that come with that. He will find the new you disturbing and destructive to his sense of self and he will do everything he can to claw you back into that place that is unhealthy for you–even while telling you he loves you and supports you. In simple terms, he will do this because he won’t like that it means his world must change. In simpler terms, he won’t want to lose the benefits he enjoys with his power over you in the current arrangement.

What I did not say to her: when you exercise your sovereignty, he is not going to like it… He will find the new you disturbing and destructive to his sense of self and he will do everything he can to claw you back into that place that is unhealthy for you–even while telling you he loves you and supports you. In simple terms, he will do this because he won’t like that it means his world must change. In simpler terms, he won’t want to lose the benefits he enjoys with his power over you in the current arrangement. 

To be in relationship without the power imbalance will require two things: she has to do the emotional labour of figuring out what she needs, speaking it, and demanding what she needs when necessary, and he has to do the emotional labour of receiving it and allowing his sense of identity to shift, even be radically changed. She may choose to stay under his power, and he may choose to work hard to keep her there. They will both choose what they are capable of handling (without judgment).

This microcosm of power dynamics is playing out at much larger scales right now. People are figuring out what they need and speaking it and demanding it (#metoo, Black Lives Matter, or the Truth and Reconciliation Commission work in Canada) and those of us in power have a choice: deny and fight, to protect against threats to our sense of identity and power, or accept and welcome the changes that come with finding new ways to live together that are equitable, not skewed in favour of us.

Those of us in power have a choice: deny and fight, to protect against threats to our sense of identity and power, or accept and welcome the changes that come with finding new ways to live together that are equitable, not skewed favour of us. 

I include myself in the ‘us’ here as I have enjoyed and continue to enjoy a life of white privilege. Here’s a question I ask myself: “How does what others share about their experience threaten my sense of identity, and how does that sense of threat lead me to deny their experience so I can maintain my position of privilege”? Deep down, I have a choice about whether to fight to maintain the status quo and my place of privilege, or do the inner work that allows my sense of self to grow into understanding the conscious and unconscious ways I benefit from being white. It is from here that I am able to support others in their growth into their sovereignty without continuing to threaten or harm them.

At small and large scales, this is about how the experience of those who have experienced less power historically is allowed and invited to change the identity of those enjoying power. This is not easy work, for anyone, and it is necessary. It is a struggle about power.

There is the difficult work for the people who exercise their sovereignty—tell of their experience and what they need—and experience and withstand the backlash. There is the difficult work for people traditionally holding power now told to find a way to accommodate the rising sovereignty.

And then I think of the two white men in their 60s, enjoying a day of skiing with friends and family (a privileged life just like mine), fighting each other to protect their skis (not like me). For a moment, a part of me thought we should be supportive of men like this, men I imagine are having a hard time with the pressure to change who they’ve always thought they’ve been (i.e., it’s not ok to touch women when without consent, it’s not ok to deny the experience of People of Color, it’s not ok to deny the attempted cultural genocide of Canada’s Indigenous peoples). It was only a moment before I realized these men are stand-ins for all people who experience the benefits of power, and this pressure to no longer be who we’ve always been is not to be denied; this pressure is necessary and it needs to be experienced or we, as a whole species, will not move through it.

These men are stand-ins for all people who experience the benefits of power, and this pressure to no longer be who we’ve always been is not to be denied; this pressure is necessary and it needs to be experienced or we, as a whole species, will not move through it. 

We are all moving through a recalibration of power relating to any form of inequity (gender, race, etc.). Most often, change only happens when we are sufficiently uncomfortable. Writ large, denying ourselves discomfort is not helpful to our growth as individuals and as a species because we need that discomfort to improve ourselves. White culture, men and boys, or whoever is on the better side of a power imbalance, do not get to dodge the truth of harm because they feel ‘harmed’ by hearing about the harm they’ve caused, or ‘harmed’ by the consequences of their actions. Harm and hurt are not the same thing; when my bad behaviour is pointed out, I am not harmed, I am hurting (though I may feel harm if I have escalated my reaction to be highly defensive of my sense of self).

Telling each other what we need to tell is uncomfortable and necessary. Hearing what we don’t want to hear is uncomfortable and necessary. It hurts. We may feel—or be told—we are causing harm by doing this, but we are causing more harm by not speaking and receiving what needs to be said.

Telling each other what we need to tell them is uncomfortable and necessary. Hearing what we don’t want to hear is uncomfortable and necessary. It hurts. We may feel—or be told—we are causing harm by doing this, but we are causing more harm by not speaking and receiving what needs to be said. Exercising sovereignty is disruptive, as it should be, because it compels us to honestly look at how we relate to each other.


 

7 tips for generative check ins

The generative quality of a check in can be eroded when the holding space we create for ourselves is weakened or collapsed. Two things do this: fear of empty space and discomfort in listening. Below are 7 tips to amplify the generative quality of a check in. (Of course these 2 things affect more than a check in, but this post looks specifically at the dynamics of a check in.)

Two things erode the generative quality of a check in — fear of empty space and discomfort in listening. 

So there are the situations when we meet and leave; this is business as usual. Then there are the meetings where we start with a check in, often in the form of a question, to bring a little more of ourselves into the meeting and tune ourselves into the meeting and its purpose. Some sample check in questions: ‘How are you arriving today?’; ‘What did you say yes to?’; ‘What is your inner weather?’; ‘What do we need to pay attention to today?’. In this space at the beginning of our meeting we pause to fully arrive and focus.

When a meeting starts with a check in the rest of the meeting has a more purposeful quality for three reasons:

  1. We each have a chance to leave behind what doesn’t belong in the meeting (like the last meeting or whatever else we were just doing)
  2. We each, and together, tune in to the purpose of the meeting just starting and how we are showing up
  3. What happens in a check in shapes and informs everything that follows

A check in can be small and quick or big and long. Either way it is a significant step that helps us be our best selves — as individuals and as a group. By its very nature, a check in is generative because it helps us be more focused and productive. The quality of the check in affects the degree of generativity that emerges from the check in and the meeting that follows. It is a sense of energy that comes from our intertwining with each other and little steps to being whole together. The results show up in how we feel (connected or disconnected), what we do (we can get more done with this focus), how we do it (we are more wise) and why we do it (we have a stronger shared sense of why, even if vague).

By its very nature, a check in is generative because it helps us be more focused and productive. The quality of the check in affects the degree of generativity.

In face-to-face situations, a check in will start with one person, moving along around the circle (or table or room). In one online world I find myself in, our host is worried about the time it takes for us each to check in, so he jumps in and tells us at random who’s turn it is, to avoid the empty space in between us. The objective of hearing each voice before we start is met, yet the removal of the ’empty’ space diminishes our generativity. The reason why is simple: the space among us allows us to energetically notice when it is time to speak. It may be something someone has just said and I feel a resonance upon which to speak my words, and when I do I amplify our collective voice. It might be a word or image that resonates, or a whole story. The point is the resonance. I may have something different to say and respond to an energetic impulse to put new words in; this, too, amplifies our collective field and voice.


Tip #1: Let the space linger and trust that there is intelligence in that space; resist the urge to fill it. This compels us to slow down and hear what is happening in self and others and the whole. (This needs our attention in face-to-face and online environments.)

Tip #2 (for online space): Make the order of speakers clear ahead of time, enabling participants to see the order of things as they would if they were together in person. This can be a circulated list, or asking participants to organize themselves in alphabetical order starting with the first speaker, or moving from west to east.


In both face-to-face and online worlds, the power of a check in is often diminished with interruptions and reactions from the host or other participants. In one instance, I experience a host who reacts to many of the participants’ comments during the check in. Not only does this interrupt the field that is being generated by the check in, among all participants and the host, it shifts the attention from the whole — the community that is gathered — to the participant and host. It is an energetic wobble and while not likely to destroy the community, it diminishes the quality of generativity.

In other cases, I often hear hosts and participants verbally reacting to something that is being said, to chime in in agreement, or throw a joke in, or comment or question. This does two things: it erodes speaker’s voice and the quality of the collective field is dissipated. A check in allows each voice to be heard and also enables the voice of the whole to be heard. At a minimum, it is a space for us to practice hearing ourselves (self and selves). If I insert myself into this process, as either a host or participant, I diminish the quality of generativity.


Tip #3: Let the words of each speaker linger, without interruption or reaction. All participants and hosts have a role to play to embody this practice of deep listening, and remind others as needed.


From time to time, a check in takes a long time, when there is something that needs the group’s significant attention. Again, hearing the voices and experiences of each other is essential to discern of our way forward. In a recent three-hour check in the challenge was sitting and sitting and sitting to listen to each other and some emotionally heavy material. We took breaks to stretch each time we were a quarter of the way around the circle, but at the last break, with a quarter of our group yet to speak, many of the people who had already spoken released the field: they were chatting and visiting and having fun. Energetically, the last speakers had a diminished field to hold both them and their words. The result: the field was weakened and the last speakers words were not held as well as they could have been.


Tip #4: If it’s taking a long time, sit and sit and sit in it. This is hard work to do and it is necessary. The first speakers have a responsibility to hold the last speakers. Cultivate your capacity to sit and listen. Take breaks as needed and be mindful that the purpose of the break is to allow us to stretch and move and refocus, not break the field.

Tip #5: If time matters, let participants know how much time they have. It’s ok to limit the time a check in takes. If you think you have 30 minutes and 30 speakers, make it one minute each; if you have 90 minutes, make it 3 minutes each. With everyone’s agreement, a timekeeper is appropriate. (One client had a huge cowbell to ring if people reached their time limit. It didn’t ring.)

Tip #6: Use a guardian to create and make appropriate pauses. There are times during a check in when a pause makes good energetic sense. For example, a guardian can ring a bell to mark significant words, both to acknowledge the speaker’s words and to make space for the next speaker. Distinct from an interruption, this is a response to the words spoken from the place of the circle’s energy, not from anyone’s need to react (not an interruption). Note: the guardian can also let the group know how much time is ticking by, if on schedule or not. This enables the group to make decisions about how to use their time.


In the example above where an online host randomly names people in the check in, the purpose is order and efficiency. There may be times when this is appropriate, but that depends on the purpose of the check in. If the purpose is to generate interconnections between people, apply the tips above. Knowing the purpose helps determine the right kind of ‘order’ to impose. Other forms of order allow a greater degree of generativity: if the space is uncomfortable, offer an explicit order of speakers; resist the urge to interject comments (aside from diminishing the field, this also lengthens the check in time) and let the words linger; let people know how much time people have and let them know when there time is up; use a guardian to let people know how much time is ticking by.


Tip #7: Be clear on the purpose of the check in. Is a quick round to see how people are doing in that moment sufficient? Is it a longer round to hear how they are doing and what they think we need to do today? Is it an even longer round to allow reflection on significant events? A different question to ponder: is it unrelated to the rest of the meeting, or can it feed the rest of the meeting?


This is what I notice in any part of a conversation: when we fear empty space, we long to fill it; and when we are uncomfortable listening, we long to insert our voice over the other. The tips above seem to help amplify the generative listening space — for both self, other and the group gathered — in any part of a conversation, at the beginning, the middle or the end.

Do you have any tips to add to these? 


 

Welcoming outsiders

At a conference welcome reception last fall in Canada, I stepped in to join a conversation in progress. The room was full of people I did not know, so I chose a group where there was one person I had met a few hours ago, and three others new to me. I did not interject and interrupt and overstep the unwritten rules for a new arrival; I waited for a sign that I would be welcome. The person I knew, gave me a quick nod and (appropriately) continued to speak in the conversation already underway. The others did not look at me, not even a glance. I thought to myself, “my, this is strange, to not acknowledge the arrival of a newcomer to a conversation at a welcome reception.” I discerned that it was not a private conversation and made the decision to not insert myself further and conduct a little experiment: how long would they continue to not acknowledge, let alone welcome, the presence of a newcomer?

I stood and listened, observing. I waited about 10 minutes then moved away to release the experiment. I allowed time for the conversation to shift and adjust, change its focus, find those moments of transition to bring in the newcomer. They did not do it. For 10 minutes they chose to not acknowledge the presence of a newcomer, let alone welcome and weave in the newcomer.

How long would they continue to not acknowledge, let alone welcome, the presence of a newcomer?

At a separate gathering last fall, I found myself in a conundrum: to participate—or not—in a North American Indigenous ceremony in Europe. I chose to not participate and begin to explore why it did not sit well with me (what I figured out can be found in this post: Colonial blind spot).

At this gathering we were not in the shape of a traditional conference, rather in the shape of listening, a circle, so I spoke what I was struggling with: that the use of an Indigenous ceremony by Europeans without the acknowledgement of the European colonial involvement in the attempted cultural genocide of North American Indigenous peoples did not sit well with me. A few others spoke of other forms of discomfort with the ceremony and somehow, despite being people good at listening and hearing and discerning, we did not know how to handle the uneasiness in our midst. The discomfort did not have a place to land and we who felt and spoke it were left sitting with our unease without the felt awareness or support of the wider community. We were left outside.

The discomfort did not have a place to land and we who felt it and spoke it were left sitting with our unease without the felt awareness or support of the wider community. We were left outside. 

Two yellow backpacks 

As I made my way through these two experiences, two women sporting yellow backpacks arrived to help me make meaning of them. Both are extreme explorers of the world, comfortable in their own skin and being their own self even it they don’t quite fit the ‘norm’. They both arrived when I needed them.

Yellow backpack #1 is Willemijn, who whisked me off to The Hague after the gathering in Europe. With a handful of compatriots, the Netherlands was revealed to me in the most beautiful fashion: by bicycle, by train, by bus and tram, by car; with guided tours of their favourite things; by sharing family and favourite food; and with time for me to explore on my own. Willemijn opened her home and her life to me, adjusted her schedule to fit me in. We got to know each other and appreciate each other. We had time to simply be with each other and talk about many things we found we shared in common. She coordinated the communication with her compatriots to help us find time together too. What she mostly did was share herself and it was beautiful and generous.

Yellow backpack #2 is Celine, who co-hosted a session with me at the traditional conference. We resisted the conference inertia and took our space in the conference to make room for participants to explore their own expertise. Afterwards, we decided to share a meal and found ourselves in an intense conversation about deep personal matters. After having revealed a bit of ourselves to each other with our conference session, we found in each other an instant trust and safety from having revealed. We both tuned in to there being more for us to explore with each other and we both said yes. It started with an unusual conference session where we were allowed to speak to each other. We were able to notice an interpersonal connection and then act on it. (Noticing interpersonal connections is not encouraged at traditional conferences by design, despite intention otherwise.) What she mostly did was share herself and it was beautiful and generous.

I met Willemijn first and had been feeling like she was a guardian angel sent to tend my hurting soul. We didn’t even talk about what was hurting; we enjoyed each other’s company and it was perfect. When I met Celine two months later, I first noticed her yellow backpack, just like Willemijn’s, and how they contain the essentials needed for the day, to serve its porter well. (It always amazes me what comes out of a backpack!) I also noticed how the cheery yellow backpack reflects the spirit of these two souls who make their way through the world with a happy confidence in doing things a bit differently than the norm. The backpacks are a bit dirty because they are well used; these are gals with practical life experience, around 30 years old, charting their unconventional paths with confidence.

What made me look more closely at the yellow backpacks and these two gals was the depth of conversation in which we easily found ourselves. 

What made me look more closely at the yellow backpacks and these two gals was the depth of conversations in which we easily found ourselves. Their openness to drop in and be honest and real about themselves and with another, was spectacular. As I listened to Celine, I could not stop thinking of Willemijn and her yellow backpack. I knew I had more to notice here when I heard Celine say that she is learning to play the cello – just like Willemijn. There just can’t be that many awesome yellow backback-sporting cello-learning 30-something-year-olds in the world, can there?

At 48 and recently single, these two yellow backpacks are a reminder of what I already knew:

  • I love that my life path is a bit unconventional
  • My body feels great when I wear a backpack
  • There are messages in the symbols of the wilderness of the human experience
  • There is more going on in a conversation than what we say, or the shape/form the conversation takes
  • Good conversation matters

Find and meet

Conference design has an energy that keeps the experts and participants separate from each other and, most importantly, keeps the participants separate from each other. Unconsciously and consciously, this is by design:

Whether there is one expert at the front of the room, or a panel, the effect is the same: expert and participants. Furthermore, in this format the participants are not expected or allowed to talk to each other. In an environment like this participants (and speakers too) might see each other across the room, session after session, but rarely speak to each other, and if they do it is more rarely substantial. We speak with those we know, lightly with those we do not know, and often not at all to those we do not know.

A loaded program of presenters and people sitting to listen to those presenters allows minimal community – the people in the room share a similar interest and do not talk to each other. The energetic emphasis on the design is on expert content, not creating the conditions for people to magically find each other. At this particular conference there was great emphasis on conversation in between conference sessions, and there is a significant limitation to where those conversations will go because they have little to build on from the conference itself – interpersonal connections are not cultivated. We keep our distance because we only, perhaps, see each other when we choose similar sessions, but we don’t ‘find’ each other. We don’t ‘meet’ each other. Even over coffee, we keep our distance.

We keep our distance because we only, perhaps, see each other when we choose different sessions, but we don’t ‘find’ each other. We don’t ‘meet’ each other. 

What I mean by ‘find’ and ‘meet’ is this: we share ourselves beyond a simple shared interest; we share stories and struggles and tap in to our collective wisdom; we give our ourselves and receive in return. It may be two of us or twelve or two hundred. But to do this, we have to let go of the sage on the stage—the expert outside of us—and trust the expertise within and among us as a community. When we don’t trust our own expertise we block our ability to access our own expertise.

Enable natural hierarchy 

When people find themselves in the same place at the same time a community of shared interest becomes visible, and because of this we can feel a sense of community, particularly when we are felling isolated. The mere existence of ‘people like me’ brings elation. There is more to community than this when we choose to consciously weave ourselves together, which amplifies our sense of community. And if that community sits in a circle, that shape itself is not enough if the field of relationships between us is not sufficiently nurtured.

If a community sits in a circle, that shape itself is not enough if the field of relationship between us is not sufficiently nurtured. 

Circle is form of meeting where leadership is shared and a diversity of perspectives is welcomed and accommodated. This is also an environment in which ideas in conflict can be difficult to handle if power imbalances are not acknowledged.

If a circle is flat, with no hierarchy or resistance to hierarchy, there is no room to acknowledge power imbalances—and diversity of life experience. A flat circle resists conflict because it wants to consider itself peaceful and welcoming no matter what, even if the opposite is the case. A flat circle, despite its claim to welcome diversity, remains shallow in experience, meaningful only for those on the inside. There isn’t room for those with an ‘outsider’ point of view.

A not-so-flat circle acknowledges the subtle and explicit hierarchies that naturally occur in human systems and explores them.

A not-so-flat circle acknowledges the subtle and explicit hierarchies that naturally occur in human systems and explores them. In doing so, conflict can be held, explored and resolved. This is a circle that endeavours to hear itself and the power dynamics within, and this accommodates more diversity.

Acknowledging the natural occurrence of hierarchy is enabling, both from the structural support it provides, but also as a topic of conversation that allows us to see ourselves better. When we allow ourselves to talk about power, real and perceived, we see our relationships far more clearly. When we don’t, we block ourselves from creating community beyond the sharing of a common interest.

Community means belonging 

We feel community when we feel we belong. We can share a family bloodline, or share geography, in a neighbourhood or city. We can feel community in an organization of any size. We can feel community in social media as we find people with shared interests across the planet. This experience can be meaningful and superficial at the same time (this is often just the right thing!), or it can be meaningful and involve being deeply held as we make our way through the challenges of life as individuals and as communities. As we find ourselves increasingly challenged with the pace of change and conflict in our world, being deeply held and having the capacity to hold and examine conflict is essential. We need to do a better job of finding and meeting each other.

As we find ourselves increasingly challenged with the pace of change and conflict in our world, being deeply held and having the capacity to hold and examine conflict is essential. We need to do a better job of finding and meeting each other.

The conference participants shared an interest in building community sustainability and the standard conference design fostered surface belonging. Community resilience is fostered when a range of ways of being in relationship are activated in the community, ways that reach below the surface of a shared interest.

The circle gathering participants shared a way of meeting (in circle) that fosters conversation in ways that reach below the surface. In this case, when community struggles with noticing and acknowledging power imbalances, it resists the diversity needed to enable resilience.

A resistance to welcoming and accommodating non-expert or outsider perspectives was present in both gatherings in explicit and subtle ways. It manifested as a resistance to talk to each other and invite the outsider in. In both cases, there was a yellow backpack in the room, sitting there, waiting to be unpacked, waiting for its mysterious contents to be revealed and examined. And for the people who gather round to invent their way forward in the mutuality of community.


In your experience, what enables community to welcome and explore the outsider? 


ps – so far, I am resisting the urge to acquire a yellow backpack as I already have too many backpacks…


Recent and related posts

  • The unspoken – a poem on the question of what to do when you find yourself holding the unspoken.
  • Colonial blind spot – People of European lineage – if we are not accepting our story of attempted cultural genocide, we are causing harm. We are propagating the bliss of ignorance.
  • Care out in the open – Care needs to be out in the open or it isn’t happening. To care out in the open means I am willing to be changed by what I hear.
  • Harm happens, intended or not – A welcoming city examines how it defends itself from change, how it maintains the status quo by denying that others are harmed.
  • A welcoming city has transportation choices – All people, regardless of their chosen mode of transportation, exhibit care and look out for each other. That’s how it works: accommodation.

The unspoken

They were the unheard
holding the unspoken
the taboo
and they told you
so what do you do?

 

The unspoken
just because unspoken
does not leave the room
it remains unsaid
so what do you do?

 

What do you do
with what is both
known and unknown
not wanted
and wanted?

 

Do you sit with it
withhold it
leaving the shadow
a glimpse of light
in the shadows?

 

Do you speak it
daring to light
a fire of possibility
that brings on the heat
of discomfort?

 

When is the unspoken
best left unsaid?
Is it a choosing
of discomfort
yours or the other?

 

And who gets to decide,
to choose the discomfort
in the end unknown
and unknowable
and who it will serve?

 

Who gets to decide
who remains comfortable
not knowing the discomfort of others
closed off to the shaking
mystery working us?

 

Those unspoken words
are (mysteriously)
yours and not yours
to be handled with care
as you decide how to share.

 

Is the readiness
you seek yours or theirs,
a seed for now or later?
A ‘see’ for now or later?
Who is ready for what?

 

Who is ready for what?
Is this yours to carry?

 


 

Colonial blind spot

2018 begins with a contemplation of the settler / colonizer story in me and my European cultural lineage on the Canadian Prairies. My understanding of this story and its implications has been growing over many years, most recently with a trip to Germany last fall. It was one of those trips where I realized I had to leave North America to see the story of European settlement in North America more clearly—the story of the changing nature of our nations, cities and communities and how power shows up.

I am of European descent (Norwegian, English and Irish), born in North America. My sense of home is in North America but by lineage I am indigenous to Europe, so time at a retreat center in Germany last fall came with this question:

What in Europe is indigenous to me?

Germany and Europe is the lineage of many who populated the Canadian Prairies and who I grew up with. Just over 100 years ago, my Norwegian forebears settled in New Norway, Alberta. My former husband’s forebears settled in Stockholm Saskatchewan. Settlers from Germany began arriving in Alberta in the early 1880s and came from a variety of ethnic and religious backgrounds and countries: Austria-Hungary, Switzerland, Russia, Russian Poland and Romania. By 1911, they were the largest group of non-British settlers in Alberta (Source: Collections Canada. More on German-speaking communities can be found at the University of Alberta, here.)

Many place names on the Canadian Prairies reflect settler’s homelands, such as New Norway and Stockholm. German place names in Alberta include:

  • Bismarck
  • Bruderheim
  • Carlstadt
  • Dusseldorf
  • Fribourg
  • Friedenstal
  • Gleichen
  • Gnadenthal
  • Greisbach
  • Hussar
  • Josephburg
  • Rosenheim
  • Rosenthal
  • Stettin
  • Swastika
  • Volmer
  • Wagner
  • Waldheim
  • Wiesenthal

This is a simple and phenomenal fact: my culture arrived from Europe—we settled here—to colonize North America. Another simple and phenomenal fact: there were people already here, a sophisticated and rich culture, indigenous to this land.  The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada recognizes this as part of a global occurrence:

The Age of Empire saw powerful European states gain control of other peoples’ lands throughout the world. It was an era of mass migration. Millions of Europeans came as colonial settlers to nearly every part of the world. Millions of Africans were transported across the Atlantic Ocean in the European-led slave trade, in which coastal Africans collaborated. Traders from India and China spread through out the Red Sea and Indian Ocean, bringing with them servants whose lives were little different from those slaves. The activities of explorers, farmers, prospectors, trading companies, or missionaries often set the stage for expansionary wars, the negotiation and the breaking of treaties, attempts at cultural assimilation, and the exploitation and marginalization of the original inhabitants of the colonized lands.

Source: Canada’s Residential Schools: The History, Part 1 Origins to 1939, The Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Volume 1 (p. 9-10). Includes references to Howe, Stephen. Empire: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002 (p. 21, 22, 57).

The arrival of my European culture here was colonial. Two examples:

  • The founding of Hussar, a village east of Calgary, was settled by a group of German noblemen and reservists in 1913. They created the German-Canadian Farming Company Ltd. and bought lands from the Canadian Pacific Railway to establish colonization farms in the area (for more, see the Our Roots website).
  • The German-American Colonization Co. was founded in 1906 ​​​​​​​by John Steinbrecher to bring Germans from the US to Canada.  The company sold over 100,000 acres of farm land (1910), located 400 homesteads in the Stettler District in Alberta and developed subdivisions in Calgary (Source: Settlement history of “the Germans” in Calgary between ca. 1900 and 1914, University of Alberta.)

A few weeks ago I was gifted an 1846 map of Upper and Lower Canada. The title: British Possessions in North America. It is a map that reveals the initial city plans for Montreal and Quebec city, the division of land for townships, and remaining “Crown Land” and “Indian Territory”. The purpose of settlers–of whatever their descent–is to colonize the land; in 1846, or the early 1900s, it was to claim it for the British Crown.

As we Europeans arrived, we were part of Canada’s efforts to cause harm to Aboriginal people.

As we Europeans arrived, we were part of Canada’s efforts to cause harm to Aboriginal people.

The first words of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada:

For over a century, the central goals of Canada’s Aboriginal policy were to eliminate Aboriginal governments; ignore Aboriginal rights; terminate the Treaties and, through a process of assimilation, cause Aboriginal people to cease to exist as distinct legal, social, cultural, religious, and racial entities in Canada. The establishment and operation of residential schools were a central element of this policy, which can be best described as ‘cultural genocide’.

Physical genocide is the mass killing of the members of a targeted group, and biological genocide is the destruction of the group’s reproductive capacity. Cultural genocide is the destruction of those structures and practices that allow the group to continue as a group. States that engage in cultural genocide set out to destroy the political and social institutions of the targeted group. Land is seized, and populations are forcibly transferred and their movement is restricted. Languages are banned. Spiritual leaders are persecuted, spiritual practices are forbidden, and objects of spiritual value are confiscated and destroyed. And, most significantly to the issue at hand, families are disrupted to prevent the transmission of cultural values and identity from one generation to the next.

In its dealing with Aboriginal people, Canada did all these things.

Source: Canada’s Residential Schools: The History, Part 1 Origins to 1939, The Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Volume 1, (p. 3).​​​​​​​ 

I don’t like to think that I have caused others harm, yet I must acknowledge that I, and my European culture, have caused harm. My people were part of a wave of settler immigration to colonize Canada. This is my cultural lineage, and it is a lineage that belongs to European culture resident both in Europe and North America.

Commitment to not cause harm

I am a fourth generation settler in Treaty 6 Territory. I am part of the settler culture that colonized Canada generations ago, and in addition to this I enjoy privileges of being white. (I have a great-grandfather who stopped speaking Norwegian so his progeny could easily assimilate. He noticed that by speaking perfect English and being white, we would “fit in” with dominant society.)

In Canada, we settlers are growing into our understanding of what this means; we are just starting to reconcile how this changes our sense of personal identity. We have caused harm and will continue to cause harm if we are not able to respond (i.e. be response-able).

I arrived in Germany pondering Pema Chodron’s five precepts that form part of a commitment to not cause harm (Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change). My summary:

  1. On protecting life—awareness of ways to cultivate nonaggression and compassion, rather than cause suffering with the destruction of life.
  2. On respecting what belongs to others—awareness of ways to protect the ‘property’ of others, rather than take what is not offered.
  3. On not harming others with sexual energy—awareness of ways to nurture love and respect for all beings, rather than cause harm with unwanted sexual energy – to myself and others.
  4. On mindful speech—awareness of ways to speak truth, rather than gossip, slander, lies, idle speech, words that create division or hatred.
  5. On protecting body and mind—awareness of ways to be open to all beings and to life itself, rather than engage in things that diminish my inner strength and flexibility.

The legacy of residential schools in Canada is one of intergenerational trauma for Aboriginal peoples. There is another legacy for settlers to live into; I call it intergenerational responsibility. I can take responsibility–on behalf of myself and those before me–for having caused harm and to work to not cause harm.

It takes courage to accept, without defense, that we did not protect life, that we took what was not offered, that we caused sexual harm, that we created hatred toward Aboriginal people, that we were closed to appreciating a way of life different to our own. It takes courage to accept that this is still happening.

It takes courage to accept, without defines, that we did not protect life, that we took what was not offered, what we caused sexual harm, that we created hatred toward Aboriginal people, that we were closed to appreciating a way of life different to our own. It takes courage to accept that that is still happening.

A first step for colonizers: assume a stance of intergenerational responsibility.

Intergenerational responsibility 

My trip to Germany involved several days at a retreat center with a group of mostly Europeans, either resident in Europe or of European descent (a few of us from Canada and the US). The retreat posed a challenge to me when we started our time together with a Lakota sweat lodge ceremony.

The authenticity appeared clean to me, with the local German hosts having spent decades learning the ceremony with the Lakota people from North America—with this I have no quarrel. (This was not an example of Winnitou-like German fascination with North American Indians). It took me a while to figure out what was bothering me, careful not to step in and speak on behalf of anyone, in particular not on behalf of North American Aboriginal people who are fully capable of speaking for themselves.

What I figured out was this: there was a lack of reciprocity in this sacred exchange.

The offer of a cultural ceremony from another culture is a sacred exchange that demands some form of reciprocity; in this case, this exchange must include acknowledgement of the efforts we, as Europeans, made to eradicate that very culture. This would have involved naming what we Europeans have taken that is not ours to take. We:

  • Took land
  • Took art
  • Took sacred practices
  • Took language
  • Took children from families
  • Took hair off children
  • Took lives of children
  • Took culture

Without acknowledgement of what we have taken, we continue to take.

I’ve come to understand that when a gift is offered, the spirit in which it is received and shared matters. My German hosts do not live in Canada, where Truth and Reconciliation is beginning to run in our veins. They are not aware of the harm caused to North American Aboriginal people by us, Europeans. As a result, the ceremony was offered without acknowledgement of harm, which meant the ceremony was received, by participants, without knowing that their very culture organized itself and went to great lengths to eradicate Aboriginal culture in North America.

Participation in such a ceremony comes with an obligation to understand that our European culture attempted cultural genocide.

Participation in such a ceremony comes with an obligation to understand that our European culture attempted cultural genocide.

I write as a European-settler, making an observation about the historic relationship between Europe and North America that is still present today, perhaps helping people of European lineage, residing both in Europe and North America, to see this story more clearly. We share the same lineage and the same colonial pattern regardless of which continent we now call home.

In the moment, at the retreat, I cobbled together some of these thoughts. It was difficult for people to hear, because, of course, we don’t like to hear that we have caused harm to others, but we need to be courageous enough to hear it. If we can’t hear it, then we won’t be receptive to reconciling ourselves with new truths that will change how we think about ourselves.

For some of my colleagues, this seemed like a crack they wanted to open. For others, a quick look and then a desire to look away. And for some, no desire to look at all. All of these responses are normal, for there is only so much rocking we can take.

The challenge we face is thinking we are looking when we are not. A blanket of love and fascination for the spiritual practices of Aboriginal people can serve as a defense: I love it, therefore I can not possibly be causing harm. As people of European lineage, if we are not accepting our story of attempted cultural genocide, we are causing harm. We are propagating the bliss of ignorance.  We are taking culture. Love comes with listening, whatever it takes, to the hardship we, ourselves, have caused.

As people of European lineage, if we are not accepting our story of attempted cultural genocide, we are causing harm. We are propagating the bliss of ignorance.  We are taking culture.

This matters because the consequences of our taking—the harm—continue. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada has documented the legacy of this colonial relationship:

  • Overrepresentation of Aboriginal children in care
  • Educational and income gaps
  • Erosion of language and culture
  • Staggering health challenges for Aboriginal people
  • Overrepresentation of Aboriginal people in prison
  • Denial of justice
  • Overrepresentation of Aboriginal people among victims of crime

Harm continues.

Now is not a time to pretend that our love and affection for any practice or ceremony from another culture—as participants and as hosts—is enough. Now is a time to dig deeper to find what the use of the practice means, to find the sacred exchange and enter into that exchange.

Now is not a time to pretend that our love and affection for any practice or ceremony from another culture—as participants and as hosts—is enough. Now is a time to dig deeper to find what the use of the practice means, to find the sacred exchange and enter into that exchange.

We are a global culture, with colonial behaviour and residue everywhere. I embody European colonialism, even when I didn’t know it. I sense this: as I have lost track of my European lineage in Europe, Europeans have lost track of their colonial lineage in North America and around the globe.

There is much to heal when it comes to colonial and indigenous facets of humanity, and healing will only take place if we, of colonial bent, are:

  1. Ready to hear about harm
  2. Receptive to a shaken sense of identity
  3. Willing to step into a relationship of reciprocity

And along the way, we must strive to notice what we take, large or small, particularly when the culture we are potentially taking from is working to reclaim itself from us.

In my patch of the world, I recognize that I have a lot to learn with the Aboriginal people who welcomed my family to Treaty 6 territory four generations ago. Waves of newcomers arrive, all accommodated with unimaginable grace. A sacred exchange is underway, even if we don’t acknowledge it. We have a lot to reconcile.

A sacred exchange is underway, even if we don’t acknowledge it. We have a lot to reconcile.

RESOURCES

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada Report
  • Canada’s Residential Schools: The History, Part 1 Origins to 1939, The Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Volume 1.
  • Canada’s Residential Schools: The Legacy, The Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Volume 5, retrieved at on January 10, 2018.
National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation
Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21
German and Norwegian Immigration to Canada and Alberta

Care out in the open

In cities we each pursue our passions in diverse work, and in doing so we end up looking after each other. Laura looks after our teeth. Arundeep moves gravel to construction sites. Rob looks after teaching our kids. Thor looks after our bodies. Vicki helps me pay for my groceries. Nancy looks after how we keep track of our money. Scott makes decisions on our behalf at city council. Liz looks after kids we seem to forget about. Anand helps make sure the climate for business is healthy. Lin is pursuing nanotechnology. All together, we are, in theory, looking after ourselves and growing ourselves.

There’s another layer to this: we can not assume that we are caring for each other. Care needs to be out in the open, or it isn’t happening.

Care needs to be out in the open, or it isn’t happening.

Assuming we are, in fact, caring for each other is not good enough. It needs to be explicit, not hidden.

At the scale of a partnership, or a family, a group or even a city, when someone tells us they are in need of something, we need to acknowledge they are heard. Hearing is a first step in caring; we have to care enough to hear.

In the messiness of city life people are asking for what they need at every turn. It might be an organization looking for financial support to better serve people that need caring. It might be the message emerging from the Inquiry into Missing Indigenous Women and Girls that took place in my city this month: looking for people in power to care about their struggles. It might be taxpayers asking for better oversight on how we spend our shared resources. It might be an environmental group pointing out the things we do that harm ourselves. All of this work makes our communities better and stronger – but only if we truly care about self and others.

To care out in the open means I have to be willing to first care about what people have to say – to stop and listen, acknowledge what I heard. To care out in the open also means that I need to be willing to change my thinking and my actions because of what I have heard. To care out in the open means I am willing to be changed by what I hear.

To care out in the open means I am willing to be changed by what I hear. 

Do you care enough to hear, to be changed by what you hear? If you do, you are improving your city. No matter how small or large.