Extended Part 1: WTR Through a Lens of Person of Color (POC) Identity, and Intra-personal, Inter-personal, and Group Dynamics

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by Erica Peng

I have known Joanna and the Work that Reconnects (WTR) for twenty-eight years. Her heart-wisdom and work have both shaped me deeply, and also called forth my own leadership and courage to forge a path of healing and reconnection for myself and others. Below I offer a personal perspective through my own journey of identity and personal and professional development, about how powerful WTR has been for my own process of reconnection, as well as how great the opportunity is for WTR’s continued evolution.

I am the oldest daughter of Chinese parents who immigrated from Taiwan in their late 20s. I was born and raised in a small community of 15,500 in central Massachusetts. I was the only Asian kid in my elementary school, and one of a handful in my high school of 1200 mostly white students.

While I don’t consciously remember being the “only” Chinese person in elementary school, I must have felt discomfort because every waking moment was an unconscious attempt to assimilate to the dominant majority. Permed hair, blue eyeliner to widen my eyes, avoidance of other Asian students for fear I would blow my “cover.” I rejected everything about being Chinese, including my parents. My coping mechanism was to convince myself I was the same as the people around me. That I “belonged.” I internalized an identity of being white. And Jewish.

I wasn’t aware of my internalized racism until I arrived at Stanford University as an eighteen-year-old in September of 1986. There, I was welcomed and celebrated for being Chinese-American. This challenged almost two decades of self-perception and self-worth as a white person. I couldn’t reconcile this crisis of identity so after five months of struggle, I dropped out.

My parents withdrew their support of me with the exception of a plane ticket to Taiwan for a two-month cultural exchange for “overseas Chinese” youth. Thus began what would become a two-year journey in Taiwan, China, and Thailand, where I began to integrate and embrace my Chinese heritage as part of my identity.

Given race held the most prominent pain and struggle for me, until I had processed and healed from my internalized racism, I could not access how gender had affected my self-perception and behaviors. It was not until my late 30s that I began to experience some of the impacts of sexism in how much I had rejected traits and behaviors associated with femininity and being a woman, as well as a chronic upswing in my voice when I talked.

The other significant element of my identity which was “closeted” was my innate and deep connection to the universe, global humanity, the natural world, the elements. I didn’t see this part of my reality affirmed in dominant culture norms and values, so to “come out” as an environmental activist, on top of being a Chinese-American woman, felt too risky.

Unlike my race and gender, I was able to hide my deep connection to earth and humanity. And so I did. But I lived out expressions of my Self as an “earth warrior” in ways that felt safe and legitimate by standards of the dominant culture: I learned organic farming as an apprentice and assistant instructor at the UC Santa Cruz Farm Program, I directed an organic gardening and cooking program in the Berkeley public schools, and I designed and built the strawbale house where I live now.

Entry way of Erica’s strawbale home

Sunflowers outside Erica’s strawbale home.

This was the context of my lived experience and identity when I had my first two encounters with Joanna’s work. In 1989, a friend gave me a copy of “World as Lover, World as Self.” Reading Joanna’s words about our interdependency and interconnectedness with the greater natural system was the first time I felt acknowledged and “seen” in my experience of feeling connected to the whole. Her book also affirmed and normalized my grief and despair, which I experienced in loneliness and isolation. Joanna’s words helped me understand why I felt so crazy. And reassured me that I wasn’t actually crazy.

My next encounter with Joanna’s work was almost twenty years later at a weekend workshop. Again, it was a safe haven, this time in community. At that point in my life, the part of my identity that was a child of nature, earth, and the universe, was more discarded than my race and gender. Joanna’s workshop allowed the most tender and vulnerable parts of myself that had been hidden away to be “seen” and affirmed in a community of kindreds. That sense of belonging was quite profound and it transcended differences of race and gender.

These moments with Joanna and her work were a refuge and relief – temporary freedom – from decades of emotional and psychological injury and trauma from being split and disconnected from the core parts of my nature and identity, as a result of being embedded in an oppressive global industrial capitalist system. I suffered from the impacts of self-hatred in ways not dissimilar from others’ manifestations of trauma: deep insecurity and lack of self-trust; over-reliance on external accomplishment and validation for esteem; over-accommodating others’ needs and wants at the expense of my own health and well-being; a “dissociated” state from not feeling safe in my own self and body; anxiety attacks, insomnia, and “hyper-vigilance,” an enhanced state of sensory sensitivity from consistent and unconscious scanning of the environment for potential threat.

Ten years would pass until my next encounter with Joanna at the WTR intensive in June 2016. Those ten years spanned the deepest and most impactful period of my on-going healing and recovery from internalized and embodied trauma. I give gratitude every day that I turned towards teachers, learnings, and practices that intuitively felt “right.” Each one helped surface layer after layer of trauma – and healing.

Here are three of the most significant experiences that shaped me and my on-going recovery process during that period, which I share to provide context for my perspective and recommendations:

1. Transforming Despair Into Hope Through Organization Development

In 2006 I stumbled upon the field of Organization Development (OD) at a facilitator training. I was shocked to discover that the stated core competencies were intuition, empathy, systems-thinking, and awareness of the whole. The very parts of myself I had internalized as deficient liabilities according to dominant US culture norms, were re-framed as valuable core competencies. I ended up pursuing a two-year OD Masters Program which put concepts and frameworks to a worldview I had intuited. I experienced possibilities for how my natural aptitudes and systems orientation could contribute to helping people create meaningful relationships, collaboration, and performance, in groups and organizations. This slowly began transforming the hopelessness and despair I felt from a lifetime of my core identity, intuition, and empathy for the whole not being “seen” and valued by the dominant culture, and as a result, not trusted by my own self.

2. Intrapersonal, Interpersonal, and Group Dynamics Through a Lens of Systems Theory, Power, and Oppression

In the first year of my Masters Program, I took a life-changing class on “interpersonal and group dynamics.” The learning format wasn’t through lectures or discussion about interpersonal and group dynamics, but rather examination of reactions that came up in real-time interactions. My fifteen classmates and I sat in an open circle in what’s called a “T Group” (training group), with three facilitators who pointed out emerging energy, issues, and dynamics. This experiential learning format was profound for me. I became aware of a huge area of cultural unconsciousness: the extent to which emotions and fight/flight/freeze responses to threat, shape our personal and professional lives and our effectiveness in relationships.

T Group was pioneered in the 1940s by Kurt Lewin, a German American psychologist, often recognized as the “founder of social psychology” in the US. Lewin is often associated with the Frankfurt School, an influential group of largely Jewish Marxists in Germany. Exiled when Hitler came to power in 1933, Lewin’s personal experience with identity, migration, power, and oppression informed his exploration into the process of denying one’s identity and promoting self-loathing as a form of coping with a dominant system’s oppression. His commitment to find effective ways to combat religious and racial prejudices laid the foundations for what is now known as T Group.

As I engaged with my classmates through T Group with the support of faciitators, I began to see how my perceptions, assumptions, thoughts, values, beliefs, etc. were shaped by my social context of current and historic systems and structures of power, privilege, and oppression. I began to understand what Lewin experienced: my own self-hatred was the result of unconsciously internalizing the values of the dominant system. I was deeply struck and saddened by this.

I realized that ultimately, we have been “colonized” by the systems and structures of our social context. These systems and structures manifest in and are perpetuated through our reactions and behaviors as we interact and engage with each other. I felt (and continue to feel) determined to disentangle my own perceptions, reactions, and behaviors from the dominant culture I was embedded in, and to become aware of how I unintentionally collude with the very system that oppresses me and others, through my unconscious perceptions, reactions, and behaviors. The T Group format offered me a concrete way to surface these unconscious processes and counter them with awareness, and the choice to exercise different behaviors. This gave me hope.

Determined to deepen my learning – and liberation – a few months after I completed my Masters Program, I was accepted to an intensive year-long training program to learn how to facilitate T Groups for the most popular class on interpersonal dynamics and leadership at Stanford University Graduate School of Business (GSB). My role as facilitator was to model behaviors for building safety, trust, and rapport (including taking risks to learn alongside the students), as well as to facilitate connection and understanding across difference, misunderstanding, and conflict. It was imperative we were aware of our triggers and could manage them and “self-regulate” when they arose.

Since the training in 2008, I’ve spent about two thousand hours facilitating T Groups for over seven hundred students, individuals, and emerging and senior leaders who want to be more effective with people of different backgrounds, ages, worldviews, etc. I am consistently moved and inspired by sitting in circle with others who choose to take the risk to connect with their heart and humanity, and interact with others from this place.

At the same time, despite our common desire to connect and collaborate, I’m consistently humbled by how difficult it is to connect and empathize across difference, especially when difference has shaped our personal histories of power, oppression, and trauma. Over and over I experience in myself and others, how our reactions and behaviors are largely shaped by unconscious processes which often lead to misunderstanding, disconnection, and conflict:

  • We are hard-wired to unconsciously scan the environment for harm. When our brain picks up perceived threat, our nervous system is “triggered” within milliseconds to react with fight/flight/freeze responses.
  • We instinctively perceive threat in people who are different from us. Our brain tends to register people who are racially different – especially minorities – in the same part of the brain where objects and things are processed. We are not conscious of this, believe the perceived threat to be real, and react with defensive and/or self-protective postures that often dehumanize the “other.”
  • Our survival instinct to focus on harm and threat leaves us with a bias towards negativity. Positive experiences and elements are present but our brain notices the negative much more quickly.
  • Stereotypes, prejudice, and bias are inevitable. Our brain functions by perceiving inordinate amounts of data through filters and patterns that act as shortcuts. The problem is we apply these shortcuts to people and human groups. We make inaccurate assumptions, judgments, and stories about ourselves and each other. All the time. And we believe them to be true.

It is stunning how quickly we get derailed from being present and in empathy and connection with ourselves and others. Milliseconds. The rare opportunity offered by T Group, is a safe learning environment for becoming conscious about the nature of our own triggers, perceptions, assumptions, and judgments, and for practicing critical skills (with modeling, coaching, and support) like self-regulating one’s physiological fight/flight/freeze response, and giving and receiving feedback, real-time and in moments of stress or threat.

3. Systemic Power and Oppression Embodied in Trauma

Four years into facilitating groups for the Stanford class, I began an eight-month “Somatics and Trauma” training which opened my awareness to how systemic structures and dynamics of power and oppression are embodied in our physiology and bodies through our trauma responses. I also became more aware of how my own, and others’ embodied trauma manifests in interactions and group dynamics, how to approach safely working with trauma that emerges in a group, and/or the resulting collective anxiety and fear. Consistent somatic whole-body practices facilitated transformation of my own fight/flight/freeze responses from trauma, into new embodied “postures” and internalized experience of healthy self-perception, thoughts, behavior, reactions, and responses.

After ten years of the above intrapersonal, interpersonal, and group level training, practice, and development, I arrived at the 2016 WTR intensive relaxed in my body, comfortable in my multiple identities, and grounded in my resilience. I also brought experience with group process and the power of feedback that informed how I showed up and engaged.

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