Nest City Blog

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.


 

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. 


 

A welcoming city has transportation choices

It doesn’t feel good when people in your city scream at you. Last month I was on my bike, on a downtown street, making my way to the new bike lanes a few blocks away. A truck driver yelled at the top of his lungs: USE THE F$&#ING BIKE LANES!!!

Only three days before this happened, I jumped on a bicycle, rode 15 minutes on streets of various sizes that accommodated many modes of transportation — bicycles, pedestrians, scooters, cars, trucks, buses and trams – to get to Utrecht’s Central Station in the Netherlands. I got on a train with my bicycle and in 30 minutes was emerging from Amsterdam’s Central Station with a map in my pocket and two hands on handlebars, to make my way on bustling unfamiliar medieval streets to Park Museumplein and the surrounding sights. I was in the busy throng of people moving in many ways through the city.

There were choices about how to move in Utrecht and Amsterdam. I could choose to move by car, on foot, on a bicycle powered by me or electricity or gas, or by bus, tram or train. The city is designed for choice and the inhabitants live the choices they have made available to themselves. There are people who choose cars. There are people who choose bicycles or scooters. There are people who choose buses, trams and trains. And there are people who choose it all. Most importantly, those choices are available just about everywhere. There is significant public investment made to do this, in the streets and even bicycle parking lots. (Check out this article about the Utrecht Central Station bicycle parking facilities for 22000 bicycles.)

The inhabitants live the choices they have made available to themselves.

There are sensible separations that are responsive to scale and speed, always with a the larger intention to allow choice. There are no bicyles on highways, but bicyles can be on trains or you can ride your bike between cities. In the city proper, bicycles are everywhere and the city is made for it. Make a sidewalk a bit wider, paint it a different colour and there’s room for bicycles on a busy street of any size. On a small local street, bicycles are on the street with the cars. Intersections are made for all modes of transportation and while messy compared to the simplicity of an intersections only for cars, it works perfectly. All people, regardless of their chosen mode of transportation, exhibit care and look out for each other. That’s how it works: accommodation.

All people, regardless of their chosen mode of transportation, exhibit care and look out for each other. That’s how it works: accommodation.

Back in Edmonton, in North America, my experience is a startling contrast. In one 20 minute ride into downtown and back home I realize:

  1. There is no place for me to be. I have to choose to be like a car and be on the road or choose to be like a pedestrian and be on the sidewalk. My ride starts on a quiet street so I choose the street. When the car traffic gets busier I ride on the sidewalk. I don’t like to do this.
  2. The new bicycle path does not go to where I am going, so I choose not to use it, despite wanting to support the public investment.
  3. Friendly drivers don’t know what do to. On a quiet street I choose to ride on the street. At an intersection where I have the stop sign, a driver stops and waves me on. This is nice, but she would not stop like this if I was a car.
  4. The streets with new bicycle lanes downtown do not go where I am going. As I travel through downtown, I pass cross streets with bicycle lanes. I could move south, away from where I am going, to be on a bicycle lane, but that is out of my way and doesn’t feel right. I stay on the street because there are few vehicles.
  5. There isn’t a place to park my bike. I arrive at my destination, Edmonton Tower, for a meeting with City of Edmonton colleagues. There is room for 12 bicycles to park and it is full. I ask, again, for the security personnel to pass along to the management that more facilities for bicycle parking are needed.

    Bicycle parking at Edmonton Tower is oversubscribed.
  6. Some drivers are ANGRY. On my way home, I decide to go out of my way to use one of the new bicycle lanes, so there is one more visible cyclist using this investment. On my way there I find myself on a narrow street with no sidewalk because of construction. This is when the driver screams out his window: USE THE F&%$ING BIKE LANE!!!! I was in the only place I could be to get to the bike lane.
  7. Another driver is ANGRY. A bit later, while crossing a street (on the street like a car) a driver honks his horn at me. I look (maybe it’s someone I know?) and see him moving his fingers as if I should be walking across the street. I shrug my shoulders. He honks again. Longer.

This is not the Edmonton I want to be, where the power of the car dominates the choices of its citizens. But lets be clear — we give the car its power. It is our choice. We attach ourselves to the car life and feel threatened by the choices that are available to all of us. The car brought us a sense of control, an ability to go where we want when we want. This is, however, a form of power over people who by choice or need do not use a car. More of us have control – in the form of choices – if more of us have choices about how to move around in our city.

To be friendly to all modes of transportation, this is what I envision for Edmonton:

  1. Various modes of transportation are available to all citizens. This means both physical access (is the infrastructure there) but also the financial means of the user. This takes place both on the street and also across the city. (Note – street here means the entire public right-of-way.)
  2. Various modes of transportation are available to all citizens EVERYWHERE. It isn’t about choosing specific places where bicycles and buses and trains will go. It’s about choosing specific places where bicycles will not go. Bicycle infrastructure is cheap and easy. Just do it. This takes place both on the street and also across the city.
  3. There are clear rules for how street users behave because there is a clear place for them. Pedestrians, cyclists and vehicle drivers all have their own place to be on the street and know what to expect of each other. The bicycle is not a pedestrian or a car or a train, but since we don’t have a place for bicycles, we have unnecessary conflict between street users.
  4. All street users are courteous and patient. It’s easy to navigate a street for cars or a street for pedestrians. It’s more complicated to navigate a street for cars and pedestrians. It’s more complicated to navigate a street with cars, pedestrians, bicycles, trams and scooters, but it is doable. Millions of humans live this in various parts of the world. The choice is ours, but it will take courage to behave in ways that are courteous and patient both as we recreate our city and figure out how to relate to each other and our city differently.

There is hard work ahead for us in North American cities. We have a built form that serves the car and we need to shift it to include other ways of moving. This is a gargantuan task, but is not the biggest task. The biggest task is to be civil and friendly with each other while doing the difficult work of making cities that serve citizens well.

Some of the bicycle parking at Rotterdam’s Blaak Station near Markthal.

Encourage youth to leave your city (part 2)

A city that embodies courage, invention, cooperation and openness encourages its youth to leave the city. In heeding the call to adventure they are furthering their own growth and development and, potentially, the growth of their city as well. And if we do two things — encourage their journey and are receptive to the changes their departure and return will bring to us — we are helping our city evolve along with their adventure. We who are left behind are on the journey too.

We who are left behind are on the journey too.

Joseph Campbell identifies three elements of the hero’s journey (see part 1 for more): separation, initiation and return. The hero responds to the call for adventure and separates herself from her everyday world, she undergoes a series of events that test her and a grand ordeal, following which she returns to her community with new insight. It is a substantial personal journey for the hero. It is a journey she must make alone but never without relationship to community; she separates from her community and she returns to her community.

Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey is an archetypal human journey that pervades the myths of all cultures, in their stories, symbols, religions and art. Today we no longer pay attention to the journeys of our own people, but rather watch hero stories on big and small screens, fiction and nonfiction alike. We watch without stopping to make sense of what these stories mean for us as citizens and as cities. We do little to notice, let alone punctuate, our own adventures or those of people around us.

The role of community in the hero’s journey is significant and we have some choices to make. When youth leave to embark on their adventures, do we notice? Do we celebrate them? Do we let them know that they will experience tests and hardship and will be welcomed home when the time comes?  When they return, do we notice? Again, do we celebrate them? Do we pause our busy lives and listen to their stories, find ways to incorporate their insights into our lives?

The community-hero relationship

There are three principles embedded in the community-hero relationship. First, as a community we choose to help or hinder the hero’s journey but we are not able to stop it because the call to adventure is strong. Second, the hero’s community is part of the adventure too. Her community is impacted by her desire to go, her departure, and when she returns changed, the community-hero relationship will have to continue to change. Third, this is a community relationship with the hero—its not up to one or two of us to tend to each hero. Community members play varied roles in various heroes lives at various points of time for various lengths of time. It’s an unmappable, unknowable web of community support.

While the hero cycles through a series of stages in Campbell’s journey, the community has similar choices and states. At separation: fight or allow. At initiation: resist or support. At return: disengage or engage.

 

We improve the resilience of our cities by encouraging youth to leave – if we stay in relationship. Some of us will be tuned into the whole adventure of the hero, others of us will have snippets of roles in various heroes journeys and all of this serves well because together, as a community, we are in relationship. Collectively, we need to edge into consciousness that we need to be in relationship with the hero before her adventure, and responsibly guide her into the unknown. We need to be in relationship with her during their adventure, and serve as helpers and allies from time to time. (Everyone needs a helper or few when times are tough.) We need to welcome her home and provide support as she bridges the gap between the mysterious world of adventure and the everyday world to which she has returned. We need to be open to hearing what she has learned and open to being changed by what she has learned.

No single one of us will have a monopoly on supporting the hero; it is only as a community that we will. For my 19-year-old who is moving to Toronto next month, many of us have supported getting her ready: parents, teachers, extended family and friends. While she is on her adventure, people I can’t imagine will serve as helpers and allies, and others yet will challenge and test her. She may return to live in Edmonton, or she may not. An even wider community, perhaps a whole new city, will hear her story of adventure on her return. While I will make myself available to hear her stories I expect that others will hear her too, wherever she finds herself. And I will do the same for heroes who find their way to Edmonton.

The challenge for community

The challenge is that for most of us one of two things has happened: either we have not yet responded to the call for adventure or, if we have, we did not experience a community that explicitly sent us and welcomed our return, offering support and changing along with us. This means that we do not know how to do this work, how to support each other in ways that allow and amplify our conscious evolution.

We do not know how to do this work, how to support each other in ways that allow and amplify our conscious evolution. 

We have lost track of this simple pattern in our lives: separation, initiation and return. In today’s cities we lead busy lives that pull us simultaneously in many directions. We generate so much information for us to pay attention to in the “outside world” that we miss the inner information that informs us about who we are and what’s going on in our lives. We distract ourselves from ourselves and we miss our own plot. We miss the plot of our own personal adventures as well as our cumulative and collective adventures.

There’s a transaction between a city and its young people that can take place at many and all scales, should we choose. In friendships and families, in neighbourhoods and organizations, in cities, a nation, or a planet of cities, all we need to do to start is notice the transitions (separation, initiation, return) that take place when they take place. Its not sufficient for the hero to know this—the community/city needs to participate. The community-hero relationship is about our own becoming.

The community-hero relationship is about our own becoming. 

The transaction

Here’s what I have found at the heart of my alarm at my city wanting to keep youth here, in the name of courage, invention, cooperation and openness: for cities to benefit from the young heeding calls for adventure, the hero does not need to go back to “her” city.” It isn’t about one single city, it’s about all cities and their interconnections.

Our youth, heading out on their hero-adventures, are a means for cities to create interrelationships, an essential element of resiliency. Supporting youth to leave, have their adventure and return means we are supporting the interrelationships, and since more interrelationships means more resilience, we are improving the resilience of our cities by supporting youth. When youth leave my city they go to other cities and my city receives other youth when we are open to them. When we are courageous enough to gift our youth to the cities of the world, we receive hero-adventurers in return. This is a vital transaction for my city—and all cities.

When we are courageous enough to gift our youth to the cities of the world, we receive hero-adventurers in return. This is a vital transaction for my city—and all cities.

This is a truth we all know: to best see our place in the world we need to experience other places. In doing this, we recognize the things we most appreciate about our place and grow ideas about how to improve our place. This is what our hero-adventurers are doing for us. And when they don’t physically return, they are still doing this work in ways we will not see.

If it hero makes her way home to her city of origin, welcome her home and listen to her stories and involve her in making the world in your city a better place. In today’s world there are other forms of return for us to contemplate. She might only visit from time to time, or rarely, in which case we welcome her and celebrate. We can also claim her as ours, appreciating and learning from her contributions, and making our gift to the world explicit.

Our hero-youth are the champions of what we are becoming. A courageous city will encourage our young to leave and explore, from a place of openness that allows us to learn along with them.

A courageous city will encourage our young to leave and explore, from a place of openness…

 

 

 

 


Two related posts:

 

Encourage youth to leave your city (part 1)

A city that is confident in itself encourages youth to go out and experience the world beyond the city they know — not try to keep them at home. A city that is confident in itself trusts that gains received by sending young explorers out into the world exceeds perceived benefits of holding explorers back. A city that is confident in itself trusts that what youth gain in their adventure benefits the city, and other cities. A city that trusts itself gifts its youth to the world.

I found myself at a city council meeting earlier this month listening to a discussion about Edmonton’s brand and reputation (see CBC coverage here) and how Edmonton is living into being Edmonton. Edmonton’s brand is Edmonton itself — who we are — with four themes that describe us: inventive, open, courageous, cooperative.

A key feature of the brand and reputation strategy is attracting 18-34 year-olds to Edmonton. As I listened I heard two threads: attract new young people to Edmonton and keep those that are here. As I thought of my 19-year-old who is thrilled to be leaving Edmonton and explicitly embark on life’s journey, I found the latter thread — to keep young people from leaving — alarming.

I found the latter thread — to keep young people from leaving — alarming. 

My daughter started university here in Edmonton last year and simultaneously made arrangements to transfer to the University of Toronto. She leaves Edmonton next month — and she might not come back. Here’s what we need to remember: it isn’t about leaving, it’s about responding to a call for adventure.

When youth leave our cities, they are not leaving as much as they are moving toward something that will fuel them for the rest of their lives. Those of us “left behind” may feel threatened because others’ self-empowerment threatens our sense of who we are. At the scale of citizen or city, we disguise others’ self empowerment as a threat because it causes us to grow and change, requiring us to be courageous and face our own self-empowerment. The part of us that doesn’t want to rock the boat, that is closed to our own development, is threatened. The part of us that wants to grow and evolve is shut down and blocked. Wanting to “keep” our youth here holds both them and us back.

The drive to respond to the call to adventure, and even resist it, is part of a large pattern of the human journey. My 19-year-old is embarking on an archetypal journey to reach out further into the world and expand herself. It is the thread of the hero-path, as Joseph Campbell calls it, the “standard path of the mythological adventure of the hero” that involves a simple formula that punctuates rites of passage: separation–initiation–return.Leaving, or separating from life as we know it, is something we must do to both grow ourselves and, if we follow through on our/their return, our communities.

Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey

For Campbell, it starts with a call to adventure, where the mythological hero sets out voluntarily or is made to cross a threshold of adventure (separation). On the other side of the threshold, in the heart of the adventure, the hero finds tests and magical helpers, and at the height of the adventure experiences an ordeal. Triumph over the ordeal is an expansion of consciousness that involves illumination, transfiguration and freedom (initiation). The final work of the hero’s journey is the return, which is either easy or arduous travel, and the crossing of the return threshold to her people. The journey is not yet complete, for she must reconcile the two worlds she knows: the one that has transformed her and everyday home. She must share what she has learned — the boon, or the elixir — with her community (return).2

Here’s the simple pattern:3

  • Separation: the hero ventures forth from her everyday world into a new world of wonder
  • Initiation: the hero encounters fabulous forces that challenge her — tests — and magical helpers, and she overcomes a supreme ordeal
  • Return: the hero returns from her adventure with stories and lessons for her people, a boon

The hero will go on her journey and we have a choice to be obstacles or helpers. We have another choice on her return, to ignore or shun who she has become, for she will not return as the same person, or to welcome her and her insights. We can choose to thwart or foster their – and our – growth, or we can choose to send and receive our heroes. These choices have implications for our growth as citizens and as a city. We choose to grow or not.

The hero will go on her journey and we have a choice to be obstacles or helpers… These choices have implications for our growth as citizens and as a city. 

For Campbell, the return is about becoming more of ourselves, which means integrating the lessons learned on the adventure. It’s not only about the growth of the hero; she is expected to bring back what the community needs to know. We have to know enough to both send her and receive her on her return. For Edmonton to be radically inventive, open, courageous and cooperative, we will send our youth out into the world knowing the ‘return’ might be a familiar physical return, or something completely different. A city that trusts itself is a wonderful nest from which to leap into the world.

How do you and your city send and receive young people on life’s adventures?  

(In my next post I’ll explore the community-hero relationship.)


NOTES —

  1. Campbell, Joseph, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, New World Library: Novato, California (2008, 3rd ed) p. 23
  2. Ibid p. 211
  3. Ibid p. 23