Buying a car ‘with training wheels’

My two kids are great at metaphors. The latest: that they are buying a car “with training wheels”. 

They’ve been noticing their favourite vehicle out on the roads of the city for years: the Honda CR-V, circa 2000 +/-. They love the look of it; it makes them feel good. So when family friends offered a 1999 Honda CR-V to them for one dollar, they had some thinking to do. With some research, they identified the immediate repairs needed and the cost. There was research about what insurance would cost, and if it would be more economical under my insurance policy or on their own. They came up with a budget for operating costs that include insurance, registration, planned and unplanned maintenance. They researched the sale prices for other similar cars, and the shape they were in. They thought about the purpose of having a car and their budget, and where the money would come from. Then they made a decision: take on the responsibility of an awesome, well-loved Honda CR-V that they feel great about

They’ve been thinking about this, informally, for a few years, but the opportunity was in front of them and they had to make a decision. It was like the smaller version of themselves and the decision to try out a two-wheel bike, instead of the tricycle. They could have done the whole transaction on their own, but there were some training wheels: me. 

They could have done the whole transaction on their own, but there were some training wheels: me. 

Training wheels provide stability while learning a new skill. When we move from three wheels to two, those two little extra little wheels beside the rear wheel are that stability. (Even if only mental stability!) With my kids, there was a point where the training wheels came off and there was an adult hand on the seat as they figured it out more fully on their own. Then it was bike rides together, showing them the rules of the road. I offered layers of guidance, to “train” them about how the world around them works and how to fit in it safely. (Things like stop signs, stay on the right side of the road, make eye contact with car drivers, get out of the way of pedestrians.) As kids age, the nature of the guidance provided continues. 

First times are often wobbly. 

The “training wheels” my kids needed as they bought their first car showed up this way: 

  • What is the purpose of having a car? 
  • There is no pressure to make this happen now, so go at your own speed. It will happen when the time is right. 
  • What is your budget? How much do you want to spend to buy the car, on repairs, insurance? Do you have what you need to spend on the car? 
  • What is the risk of something unexpected happening to the car, or your ability to make payments? What is the likelihood of those things happening and the consequences?
  • Is this a safe thing to do, financially and physically? 
  • Does this feel right or wrong in any way? 
  • What are the steps to buy and make repairs to a car? 

With a little stability, they determined that a car was something they wanted to spend their money on. They figured out a budget. They determined that the $1 car (plus repairs) was the perfect and simple solution that meets their purposes. They researched the paperwork needed to buy and register a new car. They did most of the work, with me as training wheels on the side. 

Whether it is kids, co-workers, students, anyone for whom we serve as training wheels, this experience has taught me a few vital things about my relationship with the sovereignty of people making decisions. 

Whether it is kids, co-workers, students, anyone for whom we serve as training wheels, this experience has taught me a few vital things about my relationship with the sovereignty of people making decisions, whether they are my kids, clients, friends (or myself!):

  1. It is their decision to make, so I have to act like it is their decision to make. This involves careful discernment about what information or guidance to share, and when, to help them with their decision-making. Is the information relevant to their situation? Am I trying to push them in a direction I want them to go? 
  2. Acting like it is their decision to make means I have to ask: “Is this something you want to do on your own, or would you like my help/support in any way?” Whatever their answer, I need to respect it. After a while, I might discern that the question needs to be asked again. Again, I must respect the answer. 
  3. Acting like it is their decision to make means I offer what will stabilize them, not what will stabilize me. I need to notice if I am panicking about my kids having their own car and not let that interfere with their decision. 
  4. I need to notice when I have opinions that are not relevant. Sharing my opinion might be more about me, and what I would like them to do, rather than be helpful for them. When I offer my opinions in this way I am inserting my values into their decision making. 
  5. Supporting them to be clear on purpose helps them and me. With clarity of purpose, clear boundaries emerge about what is helpful and what is not. It enables them to put aside unhelpful advice or information. It also helps me discern what is helpful or not. 

Training wheels do not decide where the bicycle is going, or how fast it goes. They simply provide the bit of stability for the rider to make a new range of choices.

Training wheels do not decide where the bicycle is going, or how fast it goes. They simply provide the bit of stability for the rider to make a new range of choices. When my kids were learning to ride a bicycle, or buy a car, I no longer have control of where they are going. They are the decision makers. 

And most importantly, they decide if they want to use training wheels

This “training wheels” metaphor comes with great insight about respecting and allowing the sovereignty of others, whoever they are (kids, clients, partners, family, friends, or peoples). And whatever the other decides, I have a choice to make about my relationship with their sovereignty. If I want control, power over them and their decision, I will insert myself to affect the outcome. If I am not looking for power, I will offer support in ways that they determine are helpful (not how I determine are helpful). If I insert myself, even in the form of support, if it is on my terms, I am violating their sovereignty. 

If I insert myself, even in the form of support, if it is on my terms, I am violating their sovereignty. 

Violation of sovereignty takes place in clear and subtle ways. The clear ways: colonization of peoples and nations, racism, physical and emotional abuse, dictatorships. The subtle ways are in our day-to-day exchanges, and they are insidious, under the guise of being interested or helpful. (Note: The interest is not in what the decision makers want; the interest is in having something unfold the way they want it to.)

My kids, with a clear sense of purpose and budget, skillfully batted away some unwanted invasions into their sovereignty. Here are a few things said to them, and the underlying “threat to sovereignty” message: 

WHAT IS SAID THE MESSAGE 
“I think what you should do is…”  I know better than you

“An old car makes no sense for all these reasons… You should get a new car.”

I have better values than you
“Have you thought about this, about that, about this…”   You don’t know what you are doing
“I don’t think this is a good idea.”   You need my approval (or I want you to need my approval
“You should spend your money this way…”  You are not responsible

And my kids, how did they bat this stuff away? Their sovereignty did it. They recognized unhelpful information that did not align with their purpose and budget. They put it aside. 

And my kids, how did they bat this stuff away? Their sovereignty did it. 

It was fascinating to witness, and as I did my responsibility to be conscious of my motivation in a conversation became more clear. Offering unsolicited, or unwanted advice, is a primary indicator I can use to notice if I am trying to influence or control outcomes. If I am, I may be needing to feel more superior than the other, and there’s some exploration for me to do around that. None of this is about what the other needs; it has become about me and my needs, whether they are aware of this or not. 

It is also my responsibility to be conscious of the purpose of the conversation, with my kids or anyone else. It helps me keep track of my role in that conversation. Is the other asking for advice? Is the other needing me to hold space for them while they make their decision? Should I just step way back and leave them be? Do I have vital information the other does not have, and do they want it? And when it needs to be flipped around, what am I looking for from another? 

I feel like I’ve been using training wheels. My kids are helping me grow up, discerning more clearly power dynamics in decision making. They are helping me see questions to ask myself in my personal and professional lives:

  1. What does the other need of me? Advice, information, hold space, witness, distance, celebration? 
  2. What am I able to offer? Am I able to be what the other needs at this time — if not, say so. This is not personal; it is looking after self. 
  3. What do I need of the other? Advice, information, hold space, witness, distance, celebration?
  4. What is the other able to offer me? Are they able to play the role I need (they will do it, say yes or no, or be unavailable). Their response is not personal; they are looking after self.  

And the big metaphorical lesson for me, who supports people making decisions in a wide range of ways: training wheels may not be needed. If they are needed, it is the bicycle rider who decides for how long. To respect and allow their sovereignty, they make the decision, not me. Even if it means I tell them that it is their decision to make. 


NOTE #1: The exercise of sovereignty is disruptive. If I exercise it for myself, others may not like it. (They may be attached to feeling superior, giving advice, or attached to the way things were and don’t want things to change.) If I exercise sovereignty by NOT making decisions for others, that can also be tricky territory. This is how power works: it makes us want it, and it makes us not want it. 

NOTE #2: This post published with my kids’ permission. 

 

Fighting is infectious

Under the summer sun, fifteen kids, ranging in age from 6 to 10 years old, and two adults filed on to the bus last week, collecting behind me, near the back of the bus to keep the group together. I imagined the fun of a summer field trip until the adult camp leaders started talking. They were caught up in fight drama, full of fight energy. It was subtle, and infectious as it spread around the bus. If there was any fun on that field trip, it was not fun any longer. 

It was subtle and infectious as it spread around the bus. If there was any fun on that field trip, it was not fun any longer. 

The camp leaders were mad because they were running late. The group of them had been standing at the side of the road in between bus stops expecting the previous bus to stop for them. It did not, and they were furious. “What else would he be thinking? Why else would a group of kids be standing there? I called to make a complaint and they wouldn’t take the complaint because we were not at a stop–how ridiculous is that?” 

A nearby woman chimed in: “Those bus drivers! Not all of them, mind you, but there are enough around that just don’t care about people.” They went back and forth for a few minutes. In front of me, two women who did not know each other started to talk about it by themselves: “What a shame. Bus drivers these days. You can call 311 and make a complaint, but would they even listen? Would they ever change?” (Note: they didn’t hear the words of the camp leaders. They did call 311. It was the fight-feeling that was spreading.)

I found myself wanting to get off of the bus.

I wanted to escape the spreading infection of negativity and criticism and blame. I did not have the energy to witness the tempting pull to dehumanize, and demonize people we don’t even know. My stop arrived a couple minutes later and I stepped off, relieved. 

As I walked home, I thought about it and noticed that the camp leaders were:

  1. Experiencing anger about the bus not stopping for them. 
  2. Experiencing frustration that they were running late.
  3. Voicing their anger and frustration out loud.
  4. Blaming the bus driver for their anger and frustration. 
  5. Looking for and securing allies to justify their view. 

In that moment, they had hearts at war, as The Arbinger Institute, in The Anatomy of Peace: Resolving the Heart of Conflict, calls it. They needed to find others to blame, rather than try to understand the situation of the other (the bus driver who drove by) or take personal responsibility for their situation. 

In that moment, they had hearts at war. 

When the heart is at war, we see and experience the world in a specific way. Here’s a summary of how The Arbginger Institute describes the heart at war: 

  • View of the world: unfair, unjust, burdensome, against me
  • Feelings: angry, bitter, justified, impatient
  • View of myself: better than, a victim (I am owed), need to be seen well
  • View of others: wrong, incapable, inferior (or superior) 

I know this stance. It is a regular occurrence in my life that I have to pay attention to with my family, friends, clients and the people I work with. From this stance, I am not able to see others as people; I see them, and experience them and treat them, as objects. When I operate this way, everything is going wrong and everyone else is to blame. When my heart is at war, I view the world as unfair and unjust, which leads me to feel anger, bitterness, and justification. When I feel this way, I may view myself as better than others, or as a victim that is owed, which means that my view of others is that they are wrong, incapable and inferior, or even superior to me. And I will look for and encourage allies to support me in this stance. It often feels like an easy way to operate, and it can take a great deal of energy to knock myself out of it. 

In contrast, a heart at peace, also described by The Arbinger Institute, is a very different quality of being. Instead of viewing others as dehumanized objects, I view them as people, with hopes, needs, cares and fears as I have, and not more or less important than mine. There are two ways of being: 

HEART AT WAR

HEART AT PEACE

Others are OBJECTS: obstacles, vehicles, irrelevancies

Others are PEOPLE: hopes, needs, cares, and fears as real to me as my own

The stance of a heart at peace appears to be hard because it involves a degree of self-awareness, and a willingness to notice what is happening within me. For The Arbinger Institute, we each, in every situation, have a sense of what we’d like to do, or how we’d like to be. The path to a heart at war is in the betrayal of that desire. Honouring that desire allows me to maintain a heart at peace. If I do not, I begin to see the other in ways that justify my self betrayal. It takes practice, and with practice it becomes easier. Over time it becomes easier to tell fewer lies to myself. 

Over time it becomes easier to tell fewer lies to myself. 

Did the camp leaders betray themselves?

I am only imagining here… Did they mean to give themselves more time to get to the bus stop, but did not? Did they sabotage this plan and then in anger and frustration blame it on someone else? Are they so entrenched in a heart at war stance that they don’t even know they’ve done this, or was it an infrequent occurrence? (Perhaps they took personal responsibility later, but in the moment they did not.)

Were they aware of the example they were setting for the children in their care, to blame things always on someone else? Deep down inside, did they feel badly and chose instead to justify their indignation and recruit allies to the cause?

Deep down inside, did they feel badly  and chose instead to justify their indignation and recruit allies to the cause? 

(In contrast, I imagine a couple camp leaders and vibrating kids getting on a bus in conversation with each other, kids and adults intertwined. “Did you see that skeleton? Did you notice how big the horns were? Did you see that room full of bugs — which one was your favourite? Oh, I couldn’t go in that room, it was too scary, but I liked the video of the old man talking about the medicine wheel.” Full of joy and revelling in the shared experience of the trip, and, perhaps, one of the adults saying, “Oh my, I so wish that bus driver saw us waving our arms like crazy when we were caught between bus stops. We must have been funny looking!)

In a spirit of having a heart at peace, and not a heart at war, I try to imagine what it was like to be those camp leaders. I have no idea what their day was like up until that point, or the trouble they will be in if late. I have no idea what their life is like, any trauma that they are dealing with. All I can do is notice how they showed up, and how their energy–not necessarily them–recruited others.

All I can do is notice how they showed up, and how their energy–not necessarily them–recruited others.

This heart at war dynamic is akin to the prevalent war mentality that Charles Eisenstein articulates in his book, Climate: A New Story. A war mentality is a stance “based on a kind of reductionism; it reduces complex interconnected causes–that include oneself–to a simple, external cause called the enemy. Furthermore, it normally depends on the reduction of the enemy to a degraded caricature of a human being.” The ‘other’ is therefore “undeserving of reverence and respect, an object to dominate, control, and subjugate.” The camp leaders were operating from a war mentality, demonizing the bus driver and Edmonton Transit Service, and when another joined in they kept going. The camp leaders and the bystander joined forces. Others drew in this anger and riled themselves up.

This war mentality is in play in so many of our human interactions. The war on terrorism. The war against climate change. The war on drugs. The war on racism. It even drifts into the war on bus drivers. This mentality is pervasive and the irony is that it maintains the status quo: 

…fighting the enemy is futile when you inhabit a system that has the endless generation of enemies built into it. That is a recipe for war.

If that is to change, then one of the addictions—more fundamental than the addiction to fossil fuels—that we are going to give up is the addiction to fighting. Then we can examine the ground conditions that produce an endless supply of enemies to fight (Eisenstein, p. 17).

When the fighting never ends, the power structures remain the same; all we do is shift who has power and who does not. (Think about the Game of Thrones: endless fighting and all that changes is who sits on the iron throne. And you can never be sure you’ll be there for long.) The “ground conditions that produce an endless supply of enemies to fight” are the heart at war. In the end, then, the question is, who do we want to be? How do we want to be? 

The “ground conditions that produce an endless supply of enemies to fight” are the heart at war. In the end, then, the question is, who do we want to be? How do we want to be?

Do we want to maintain a clear separation between us and them, between right and wrong and maintain the game as we know it? Or do we want to make the transition to a world where conflict is not about right and wrong, but a way to make sure others’ needs are met, because in so doing mine will also be met?

IMPORTANT NOTE: Conflict does not disappear when we stop operating in fight mode. I do not advocate that conflict be ignored. We desperately need to talk about what works and does not work for us and work to resolve it. Instead of reverting to a war mentality of fighting and dehumanizing, we grow our capacity to be in conflict in ways that allow people’s needs to be met. This involves a lot of work within self, with others, and in relationship to the places we call home. 

VERY IMPORTANT NOTE: I am not advocating no fighting under any circumstances. Like Eisenstein, I observe that being in fight mode all the time is not effective. There are instances where fighting does make sense: human rights violations, racism and genocide, ecocide. 

The infection that spreads, then, is not fight drama, but deep and meaningful, interconnected relationships: the ground conditions for support and care for self, others and the places we call home. 

The choice at hand for each of us: Which infection do I choose to spread? The anger and frustration that comes with fight drama, or the generative possibility that comes with exploring conflict? 

 


Resources:

Charles Eisenstein, Climate: A New Story, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, 2018.

The Arbinger Institute, The Anatomy of Peace: Resolving the Heart of Conflict, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., Oakland, 2006, 2008, 2015.


The choice at hand for each of us: Which infection do I choose to spread? The anger and frustration that comes with fight drama, or the generative possibility that comes with exploring conflict? 



This post first published in Nest City News on August 9, 2019.

Disrupt the story of the land

A road trip is full of possibility. With the flexibility of time to take one of those turn-offs, there’s a chance to see something with fresh eyes. At the beginning of July, a friend and I drove from Portland, Oregon to Reno, Nevada in the United States. It was new territory — volcanic territory — that pulled us up to a lookout and down into a cave. 
 
In the northeast corner of California, just west of Highway 139, the Timber Mountain Lookout beckoned us off the highway. Wendy (waving in the photo below) toured us around her summer home, a place to keep an eye on things and send out the alert when there are ‘smokes’ — the evidence of fire. 
 
Wendy has all she needs in her lookout. It is a wee home with all she needs to look after herself and keep an eye on the land.

She has a kitchen, a bed, maps, cameras and lenses. 
 
It is a place of solitude, the quiet and peaceful kind or the solitude that comes with proximity of a surrounding storm. It is a place where there are few human and many animal visitors, but contact with fellow humans is the point. Wendy and her fellow lookout colleagues are in contact with each other and the wider emergency response system. In that location she is alone, but she is part of a larger endeavour.  
 
We created these lookouts to keep ourselves safe from fire. We chose to make these structures, at sensible locations, and create a means for the people working in the lookouts to identify clearly the location of smokes for their emergency services colleagues to investigate and, if necessary, fight fire that threatens homes and/or livelihoods. 
 
The lookouts come with a contract — the one who resides in the lookout is expected to see things we cannot see, to see on our behalf. And we who receive their messages trust what they name is worthy of investigation. 
 
The lookout comes with a contract — the one who resides in the lookout is expected to see things we cannot see, to see on our behalf. And we who receive their messages trust that what they name is worthy of investigation. 
I wonder, who are the people on the lookout for us all in other ways? And are we willing to receive their messages?
 
Who are the people on the lookout in other ways? And are we willing to receive their messages? 
I took this question to our next stop, nearby lava tube caves and a visitor centre at the Lava Beds National Monument. This second pause in our road trip shone a light on a story dominant culture does not like to hear: we settlers arrived to colonize North America and kill or displace people already here. 
 
 
A cave, for me, is dark and unfamiliar terrain,  a world that is unsettling and uncomfortable. Unfamiliar to me, yet intimately familiar to the Modoc people who have left evidence of having lived here for 14,000 years. 
 
When European traders and settlers arrived in the early 1800s there was displacement and a change in the way of life. Then displacement turned into state-sponsored extermination and California’s state legislature funded of a campaign to kill Native people: state sponsored genocide. 
 
A standoff between the colonizers and the Modoc people (who resisted ill-treatment and displacement to reserves and wished to be reunited with their homeland) involved the Modoc vanishing into the caves they knew intimately. Outnumbered 10-1, over the winter of 1872-1873 (the Modoc War), their knowledge of the land allowed them to resist and survive. 
 
The Modoc, who know the story of the land most intimately — where to find water, where to find food, what makes good shelter, the stories of the land and sky that sustain life and a thriving culture — were killed or forcibly removed from their homeland to a reservation in Oklahoma. The stewardship of the land changed dramatically.  
 
The Modoc were killed or forcibly removed from their homeland to a reservation in Oklahoma. 
The colonizers began a process to reclaim the land for homesteading. Between 1908 and 1930 Tule Lake was drained and converted to farmland. By lottery out of a pickle jar the land was given to homesteaders. A stunning map in the visitor center tells the tale. 
 
By lottery out of a pickle jar the land was given to homesteaders.
The vast majority of the lake was converted to farmland. What remained of the waterbody was labeled “Tule Lake Restricted Sump”. 
 
Our settler/colonizer language is fascinating: 
 
re*claim 
 
verb
  1. retrieve or recover (something previously lost, give, or paid); obtain the return of.
  2. bring (waste land or land formerly underwater)under cultivation.
Our language reveals what we thought of the land and the people who lived on it:
 
  1. The land is ours to take. 
  2. Indigenous use of the land is unproductive. 
  3. Settler use of the land is more productive.
  4. Indigenous people are not productive.
  5. Settler people are productive.
  6. Indigenous people are inferior. 
  7. Settler people are superior. 
We had our idea of what the land could be used for and, deeming ourselves and our ideas to be superior, we occupied the land.  We killed and forcibly removed people to do so, and now we non-indigenous people call it our homeland. 
 
Deeming ourselves and our ideas to be superior, we occupied the land. We killed and forcibly removed people to do so, and now we non-indigenous people call it our homeland.  
I feel a connection to the story of the Modoc because it helps me see my family land lineage more clearly. In similar fashion, colonizers declared land open for homesteaders in central Alberta and my Norwegian great-grandparents arrived as homesteaders. In another family branch, my grandparents took advantage of others having declared land was available for purchase on a lakeshore. They bought lake property to serve as a recreational property, along with many others, surrounding an Indian Reservation. And me, I own land in my city that was claimed for settlement of non-indigenous people. There are Indigenous people who feel the land my city — and “my” land — sits on was stolen. My family lineage, then and now, benefits from the land we assumed to be ours for the taking. 
 
And here I have a choice about how far to go into this cave, and I have at least two stories to choose from. 
 
I could choose to believe that since my people were stronger and superior, then no reparations are needed. It is a story in which there is no room for weakness, especially mine. There is no room to accept that my people before me did anything wrong. (Or if I do accept they did, there is nothing I have done wrong.) This is a story about winners and losers, and when you’re a winner you enjoy the spoils and when you’re a loser you have to buck up and take it. This is a story that takes me to the entrance of the cave and causes me little discomfort as I continue to reap the benefits of living in a system works to raise my people and put others down.
 
A different story will take me into the cave, where I am uncomfortable and in the dark, unsure how to make my way forward. It is the settler/colonizer story where I take intergenerational responsibility for the actions of my people, decades and centuries ago, that were taken from a place of superiority and power. It is a story where I accept that I am part of the settler/colonizer culture that continues to benefit from having taken land. I am part of the settler/colonizer culture that experiences unearned privilege because of my ancestors actions. I am part of the culture that continues to propagate this old story: we settler people are better than Indigenous people. 
 
I am part of the culture that continues to propagate this old story: we settler people are better than Indigenous people. 
A part of this new story shows up in how we tell the story of the land we live on, whether the land of the Modoc, or the Plains Cree where I live. I grew up, and was trained as.a city planner, thinking about two things: 1) the geography and nature of the land (topography, water systems, plant life, geology, etc), and 2) the story of settlers on the land. I paid some attention to the Indigenous people who traverse these time horizons, but not an appropriate amount. Our pattern is to behave as though a group of people did not and does not exist. Further, we are conditioned to not take into consideration their existence. 
 
How we tell the story of the land is changing. The usual story I tell and hear, as a settler/colonizer, is the big natural story, and then the story of settling the land. We are conditioned to tell the story as though no one was here when we arrived. We tell the story as if there were no humans of worth here.
 
Yes, Medicine Lake is a volcano that has been active for over 500,000 years, with the last eruption 950 years ago. Yes the Oregon Trail and the Applegate Trail are significant stories of European “discovery” and settlement of western North America. Yes, the Lava Beds National Monument acknowledges, rather than hides, the story of the Modoc, but it is the stories of settler/colonizer triumph, the hardship, the hard work, the heroes, the defeated that thrive. And we avoid looking at the stuff that makes us uncomfortable. We avoid looking at the things that take us off the security of our superiority pedestal. 
 
We avoid looking at the things that take us off the security of our superiority pedestal. 
 
The new story will acknowledge this more widely. 
The new story will acknowledge this more widely.
 
My friend and I went into one easy to travel (and lit!) cave. There are many more deeper, darker and challenging caves to look explore. As i write, I imagine myself in a place of solitude up on Wendy’s lookout on Timber Mountain. I learn some peaceful things about myself, and I also witness the disturbance of stormy weather within myself.
 
There is a series of caves I have only begun to explore as a settler/colonizer of North America:  
 
  1. I do not understand and acknowledge my people’s role in the story of displacement and genocide and North America’s Indigenous Peoples. 
  2. I do not fully understand the implications of my people’s arrival and settlement, that it involved a desire to explicitly to “kill” and “terminate” the Indians”.
  3. I continue to live in a story of superiority over Indigenous Peoples.
  4. As descendants of settlers and colonizers, I have benefited and received the privileges that come with their actions and a story of superiority.
  5. I do not fully understand or acknowledge the explicit and subtle ways this story of superiority runs in my life.
  6. I am conditioned to remain unconscious to the ways the story of superiority runs my life. 
  7. I am threatened by the “loss”  I perceive if I lessen my hold on what I own.
The story of the land we live on is not singular. The story I grew up with, the dominant story, conditions me and us to believe in a superior people. And this story works very hard to maintain its position of dominance. The way to erode the power of that story: make room for others stories of the land, and our relationships with the land. This makes room for disruption.

 This post first appeared in the Nest City News on July 24, 2019.

Hold the phone!

Last week I attended a conventional event, with a speaker and an audience. It worked because I got what I was looking for: one-way information from an expert about how to do something. 

I also got something I wasn’t looking for: the understanding that it is a big deal, and rare, for people to be in the same room together. 

I also got something I wasn’t looking for: the understanding that it is a big deal, and rare, for people to be in the same room together. 

The MC, when thanking the speaker, was effusive about how fantastic it was for us to be together, in this room together, authentically. My brain yelled at me: HOLD THE PHONE! DOES HE THINK BEING IN THE SAME ROOM MEANS AUTHENTIC HUMAN INTERACTION? 

It got me thinking… do people think that being in the same room, face-to-face, somehow pulls out our authenticity in a way that we do not do via our devices? And what does it mean to be authentic, and does it automatically happen when we are in the same room?

A definition for authentic (adj):

  1. Being what it is claimed to be; genuine
    • Made or done in the traditional or original way
    • Based on the facts; accurate or reliable
    • Relating to or denoting an emotionally appropriate, significant, purposive, and responsible mode of human life  

If something is authentic, it is real, true, or what people say it is (Cambridge Dictionary). When it comes to people, Christopher Collins, in his article about the 5 qualities of an authentic person, defines an authentic person as, “representing one’s true nature or beliefs; true to oneself or to [another] person.” The person is not false or copied, not phony or fake. 

I would go on to say this: present. 

A person must be present to be authentic. 

So yes, the audience and I showed up to get the information we were looking for. There was a little bit of Q & A with the speaker, but otherwise there was no interaction between attendees, the speaker, the MC and the evening’s host. Here’s my proposition: if there is little or no interaction between people, can there be any degree of authenticity? It seems to me that we have to get to know each other in order to know if we are representing our true nature or beliefs, if we are true to oneself or another. If we don’t get to know each other then we don’t get to know our beliefs, let alone if we are each living in accordance with our beliefs. If we don’t interact with each other, we don’t get to know each other. Therefore, if we don’t interact, it is not possible to know if we are authentic. (Perhaps we are, but we don’t know this.) 

If there is little or no interaction between people, can there be any degree of authenticity? 

So if there are no interactions, there can’t be any degree of authenticity — at least that we know of. Which means that if we are in a room together but do not interact with each other it is at most a shallow degree of authenticity. 

I imagine an assumption in the MC’s mind: that since we are in the same room together that we are relationship with each other. 

We have to interact to get to know self and other. 

Perhaps it is ironic that we get to know more about each other, our thoughts and feelings and perspectives on things in social media than we do in person. On the face of it, social media may be more authentic than a conventional presentation in a room full of people. (Not saying it is; it could be.) 

The event and the speaker was authentic in that it was what it said it would be: expert advice. Was it authentic human interaction that allowed everyone an opportunity to represent their true beliefs with integrity, and explore each others’ beliefs? No. We were in the room together but with exception to the speaker, we barely exchanged a couple of sentences with each other. We did not offer to self and others our presence to explore the world and how we make our way through it. Authenticity does not automatically happen.   

If we are hungry to simply be in the same room together, are we also hungry for more human interaction that explores ideas and feelings and how we think and feel about those ideas and feelings? I am. It is in this realm that humanity expands itself and grows into new potentials. 

If we are hungry to simply be in the same room together, are we also hungry for more human interaction that explores ideas and feelings and how we think and feel about those ideas and feeling? I am. 

8 strategies to navigate power patterns

How much of me do I insert while hosting a community in conversation with itself? This is a question I often explore in my work with cities and I’ve noticed two patterns in which hosts and community relate to each other: the host-attractor pattern and the host-on-the-rim pattern.

These two patterns are distinct in their energetic quality: the host-attractor pattern occurs when community gathers around the host (or a few hosts) and the host-on-the-rim pattern occurs when the host is embedded in the community and the role is shared by the community. ​​​​​​​

Host-attractor pattern 

Host-on-the-rim pattern

There are roles we play and challenges to be found in each of these patterns, and when we don’t acknowledge the roles in play, and the challenges that come with them, our experience can be confusing and wobbly. One of the ways the wobbles happen is by not paying attention to the power dynamics in the group. Below are 8 strategies to navigate these power patterns.

A wobbly circle

8 strategies to navigate power patterns

Here are eight strategies for hosts and participants in the variations of the host-attractor and host-on-the-rim patterns:

  1. State the desired pattern. Either pattern is appropriate, but it is essential to identify which pattern is the one you want to live into and make this clear for the group. While this is a good statement to be made by hosts, it is helpful if stated by participants in both patterns. Hosts and participants both show up better when the pattern is clear. If a transition is underway, knowing what you are moving from and to, and for what purpose, is helpful.
  2. Make the role of the host-attractor explicit in the host-attractor pattern. If the host-attractor pattern is desired, the host can describe how they will show up: “I am a teacher in this community and I have a different role from participants. This is what you can expect of me (roles and responsibilities)…”
  3. Make the role of the host explicit in the host-on-the-rim pattern. If the host-on-the-rim pattern is desired, the host can describe how they will show up: “I am a participant in this group, taking a turn as host at this time. This is what you can expect of me (roles and responsibilities)…”
  4. Notice the presence of a host-attractor in the host-on-the-rim pattern. The presence of a host-attractor in a community setting is best served by acknowledgement of the impact of their presence. A host-attractor can describe how they will show up: “I have been a teacher in this community and I have had a different role from participants. This is what you can expect of me now that I am not taking a leadership role…” A participant can also say this. This understanding may shift and change over time, and noticing this often—and how it is shifting—is helpful for both hosts and participants.
  5. Make the role of the participants clear. In either pattern, offering some boundaries about what it means to be a participant is an essential contribution to creating quality social habitat. This is most often done through the use of agreements, or ground rules. If the host-attractor pattern is desired, make the boundaries clear about the degree of participation and questioning that will align with the learning objectives. If the host-on-the-rim pattern is desired, the boundaries/agreements must be explored and agreed upon, along with the additional expectation that participants will take turns serving as host.
  6. Resist the urge to do what is expected of the ‘other’ pattern. If there is one pattern you are living into, the other pattern always has a pull to be aware of. In the host-on-the-rim pattern, the group (host and participants) could have a tendency to look to a host-attractor for direction or approval. All must be vigilant to not step into this territory or they will activate and reinforce the host-attractor pattern and destabilize the community. There is a particular responsibility for the host-attractor to not give direction or approval and consistently redirect that energy back to the community. ​​​​​​​In the host-attractor pattern, the group will have a tendency to resist the authority of the host-attractor if longing for a sense of community with less hierarchy.  All must be vigilant about the aligning the appropriate responsibility—and authority—with the host-attractor as agreed. (Note #1: participation in the host-attractor pattern is a choice. Clear purpose and boundaries articulated by the host-attractor are a good start, yet the ultimate decision to participate is made by participants. Note #2: there is great trust placed in the host-attractor to not overstep the granted authority.)
  7. Acknowledge ego, identity and community. Embedded in these two patterns, and the variations of patterns in between them, is ego and identity at two scales simultaneously: the self and the community. The hosts are front and center, with potential for a lot of ego and identity investment, or on the rim, where the ego and identity is blended with the wider community. Self-identity and community-identity are not necessarily at cross-purposes but can be felt to be. This dynamic is at the heart of the relationship between these two dancing partners, and all the shadow and projection we bring as our imperfectly perfect selves into community.
  8. Explore conflict with humility and heart. If the pattern is not clear, an unclear host-attractor role is present and this will generate conflict in the group.  Hosts and participants alike need to explore which pattern is desired and the steps needed to embody that pattern. If the host-attractor pattern is desired, it may be necessary for the host-attractor to step more fully into that role, with clearly articulated expectations of the host and participants and allow space for participants and host to digest discuss. If the host-on-the-rim pattern is desired, there is a need for the participants to step forward and for the host-attractor to step back. In both situations, regular checking-in on progress is essential. Moreover, an explicit invitation can be made to all involved to notice—and state—the drift whenever it occurs.

Note #1: Participation in the host-attractor pattern is a choice. Clear purpose and boundaries articulated by the host-attractor are a good start, yet the ultimate decision to participate is made by participants.

Note #2: There is great trust placed in the host-attractor to not overstep the granted authority. ​​​​​​​

A main feature of these strategies is this: there is no room for the rescue energy of the hero. A host-attractor can be imagined as a host-hero, the person on whom we rely on for answers and action, which means we don’t: a) have any answers or insight ourselves, and b) need to take action ourselves. The presence of a host-hero means disturbance is deflected and denied. And if disturbance is deflected we deny ourselves the experience of disturbance, we deprive ourselves of an opportunity for growth.

If disturbance is deflected we are denying ourselves the experience of disturbance, we deprive ourselves of an opportunity for growth.   


This is the third post in a series about “how much of me” to put in while hosting community that wants to be in conversation with itself. (This content first appeared to subscribers in the Nest City News in May 2018.)

  1. Host-attractor / host-on-the-rim 
  2. Roles and challenges for the host-attractor and host-on-the-rim
  3. 8 strategies to navigate power patterns
  4. Shifting to host-as-all-of-us (a city in conversation with itself)

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.


 

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

Harm happens, intended or not

Not intending to cause harm does not mean that harm is not caused. For those of us causing harm, we use this ‘lack of intention’ as a defence mechanism, to distance ourselves from the discomfort of knowing that we did cause harm. It’s a defence mechanism that makes learning unwelcome because it may mean I have to change my actions, and change my assumptions about who I believe myself to be.

A welcoming city examines how it defends itself from change. Welcoming citizens and organizations examine how we maintains the status quo by denying that we cause harm — even if not intended.

A welcoming city examines how it defends itself from change, how it maintains the status quo by denying that others are harmed. 

Three examples this week:

First, 53% of of LGBTQ youth feel unsafe at school compared to only 3% of heterosexual youth. 44% of LBGTQ youth reported having thoughts of suicide, compared to 26% of heterosexual youth. 50% of LGBTQ students reported participating in self-harming behaviours compared to 35% or heterosexual youth (see Edmonton Community Foundation’s 2017 Vital Signs Report). While we are making efforts, in the form of Gay Straight Alliances in any school where requested by students, for example, we have not created a world safe for LGBTQ students. Most adults don’t intend to hurt LGBTQ youth but we are.

Second, the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls began in Edmonton this week. A few headlines involve harm, beyond the obvious harm to the missing and murdered women and girls (my synopsis of messages):

  • I feel alone without the support of the police to find my mother
  • No matter what my mom did, she’s still a missing person
  • They lost the police report
  • I just walked out of the police station – I felt let down
  • The systems in place to serve and protect and help us – what are they doing about violence?
  • RCMP destroyed her belongings before anyone was charged with her death
  • I was let down

(For a sense of what took place, see CBC article, I felt let down, and Metro News article, A sense of relief.)

Again, did anyone mean to cause harm? Most people working to investigate these missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls likely did not, yet harm was done.

A third example this week is the discussion of renaming the Edmonton Eskimos football team; it’s time to stop using the word ‘eskimo’. Several callers to a CBC radio call-in show were adamant that if no ill intent was in play decades ago, that it should not be offensive now. Then or now, the intent to cause harm is not relevant. Not intending to cause harm does not eliminate the fact that harm is caused. It merely helps us pretend we are not causing harm. We need to be courageous enough to acknowledge that we are fully able of causing harm — and then do what we can to mitigate the harm.
Harm is not decided by the person causing the harm. Harm is decided by the person harmed. It is not up to the people in power – the people causing harm – to decide if their actions are justified. It is up to the people in power, however, to listen well and allow themselves to be changed by what their hear. It is up to people harmed to be clear about what caused harm, to be clean ‘in themselves’ that the action and the harm are connected. (I have found myself mad at one person only to realize later that I was mad about something else, for example.)

Harm is not decided by the person causing harm. Harm is decided by the person harmed.

Moreover, writer Sarah Schulman offers a perspective on this:

In my experience, it is the the person who is suffering who wants things to get better, while the person who is repressing their own conflicts usually wants to be the one to feel better (Conflict is Not Abuse).

To all adults out there: if kids are asking for help and they have an idea about how to help themselves, get yourself out of the way.

To all the non-Indigenous / settler people out there, especially those of us in positions of power: listen well. Notice the power we have by virtue of being white, for example. Look for our bias to help us keep our power — its in our selves and the systems we create to continue the power imbalance.

To Edmonton Eskimo fans: there are mixed messages out there from the Inuit community. I hear some are not offended, I hear some are. We need to ask and listen and do what they ask. It has nothing to do with our intentions, or how long this team has been named the Eskimos, or how attached we are to it. It has nothing to do with what the word means. If it’s the right thing to do to keep it, keep it with newfound pride. And if it’s the right thing to let it go, do it with pride and celebration. Both options are in the spirit of reconciliation alive in Edmonton right now — if we listen and act on what we hear.

It’s a bold and uncomfortable place to be, acknowledging that we have caused harm when not intended. But its the right thing to do. A welcoming city accommodates a variety of transportation choices; it also examines how it defends itself from change, by denying that harm is caused.

Because admitting that harm is happening means I have to change. And this is a good civic practice.

Admitting that harm is happening means I have to change. And this is a good civic practice.