Intersectionalization of the Work that Reconnects

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By Sarah Thompson

While we’re all in this together in the Great Turning, we’re all in it together differently.

While we’re all in this together in the Great Turning, we’re all in it together differently. While “differences” can be wonderful, unequal access to opportunities for basic human flourishing often indicate “differences” that are anything but wonderful. Nowhere currently in the facilitated spiral process of the Work that Reconnects (WTR) is there a specific process to address the brokenness within the beauty of the communities that gather in service of the Great Turning, because of the calcified systems that produce inequity.

Facilitators everywhere around the world are creating networks. A group of facilitators that are committed to seeing WTR flourish in North America think we can address this brokenness in workshops and intensives.  The work we are doing under the rubric of “decolonizing the WTR” addresses specifically the sites of colonial rupture on, and directly influencing, Turtle Island (North America)–genocide of indigenous peoples, enslavement of African peoples, southwestern communities caught and devalued in border disputes between Spain and U.S., and historic femicide epidemic (witch hunts) in “New England.”

We believe the Work will be better for it, not impoverished.

We believe a robust naming of the brokenness in our bones will open doors to conversations and communities not yet integrated and influential in WTR circles.

We believe a robust naming of the brokenness in our bones will open doors to conversations and communities not yet integrated and influential in WTR circles.

The group congealed in September 2016 at a facilitators’ gathering on Whidbey Island convened by Belinda Griswold, Jade Begay, Aravinda Ananda, Barbara Jefferson and myself, and has been meeting periodically by phone since then.  We gather to share about our lives and to carefully examine the ways that colonial thinking, racism, and cultural appropriation have seeped into both how we facilitate WTR workshops and where they show up in various aspects of the Work itself. It’s always a lively discussion full of candor and revelation. We’re about 10 regulars, but the group is open to anyone who shares the belief that the work of awakening to ourselves in Gaia means a fierce commitment to seeing the connections between the Industrial Growth Society and the current dominant and oppressive societal systems–that a waking up to the reality of the ecological-self also includes a fearless analysis about one’s social location.

a waking up to the reality of the ecological-self also includes a fearless analysis about one’s social location.

 

The group that has gathered is especially moved by the decolonial struggles happening now across North America. Decolonial struggles are the coordinated freedom efforts led by people who are current colonial subjects, in the sense that they are subjected to the dominant social system, and whose freedom the dominant system diminishes/rejects. The dominant system we have in the United States and Canada is one of cisheteronormative white supremacist extractive capitalist patriarchy and it is a direct descendent of modern colonialism–the Christianized western European apparatus of tributational world governance.

Now, I may have made up the word tributational. Here’s what I mean by that one word: It’s about the “tributes” that peripheral countries must give (or not resist the taking of) such as natural resources, human and nonhuman animal labor, minerals and other raw materials for manufacture and marketing in the metropol (city/imperial center).  This tributational system includes the people considered peripheral; they must defer to news, language, and cultural ways of the metropol over their own local coverage (and self-determination is ultimately oppressed). The countries of North America, especially the U.S., are now one of the countries on the top of the consumptive tributational system. Therefore we know that living within that system our perspective is necessarily limited, and we must learn from the range of people involved internationally in the WTR (even as they analyze their social location and note their relative privilege vis-a-vis most of their compatriots). There are good things about the west, about Europeans, about Christianity, but this tributational system does not emphasize those beautiful things. Bottom line: This system is the structure that underlies and perpetuates the Industrial Growth Society (IGS) that everyone in WTR circles bemoans today.

Though everyone bemoans it, we have different relationships to the IGS based on our social location. Some are more implicated than others in its building and maintenance. Simply lumping all humans together as “the problem for this planet” is not fair or accurate.

Though everyone bemoans it, we have different relationships to the IGS based on our social location. Some are more implicated than others in its building and maintenance. Simply lumping all humans together as “the problem for this planet” is not fair or accurate. We can only have a response to climate crisis that make sense if we’ve analyzed the situation well. Not everyone is equally responsible, and simply because one has reduced their personal dependency on the system doesn’t mean you can opt out of receiving privilege–it is both socially and psychologically near-ubiquitous.  Quoting an indigenous facilitator who experiences re-traumatization when descendents of settlers grieve over the loss of land and livelihood that their ancestors stole from her people,

“If you don’t see that most of the horrible things that are happening to the land and animals that you love are happening because the land was stolen from us in the first place, you’re missing a big chunk of what to grieve. Simultaneously, you’re alienating indigenous participants who have to listen to you cry in the Truth Mandala while you perpetuate erasure of their existence.”

In those instances it is hard if not impossible to say the expected “I hear you,” and “we’re with you,” when settler participants neither name nor grieve the loss of the traditional people and lifeways on the land they are living, experiencing Gaia’s force, and even fighting on behalf of.

To some extent decolonizing the WTR is a simple correction of naming the various forces that are in the room, who’s not in the room, and why.

To some extent decolonizing the WTR is a simple correction of naming the various forces that are in the room, who’s not in the room, and why. We believe that we’re big enough, brave enough, and strong enough to hold those realities. We’re each suffering holding those realizations anyway and feeling guilty.  Might as well name it out loud and allow the visibilization of it to illuminate the path toward acceptance and healing of societal and ecological brokenness.Just as anger, sorrow, and fear have a tantric side, I see one for guilt and it is motivation. 

Just as anger, sorrow, and fear have a tantric side, I see one for guilt and it is motivation.

 

When guilt turns to motivation it produces a desire to get involved in whatever way in decolonial struggles on behalf of the Earth.  This is where things get more complicated.

We all have different relationships to the decolonial struggles of these times. Some will be leaders in it, and some will be allies to that leadership.  I think it’s best to follow the leadership of those most impacted by colonial, racist, sexist violence–in the sense that they know most what is needed for their reality. It is only through a different kind of movement (one not white-led or white-dominated) that we can shift from what we have now to the world we all want to see.

We all have different relationships to the decolonial struggles of these times. Some will be leaders in it, and some will be allies to that leadership.  I think it’s best to follow the leadership of those most impacted by colonial, racist, sexist violence–in the sense that they know most what is needed for their reality. It is only through a different kind of movement (one not white-led or white-dominated) that we can shift from what we have now to the world we all want to see. Not white-led or white-dominated does not mean that white folks and settlers-of-color aren’t involved. Rather it’s an invitation to get involved in a way without being in control of the direction or managing the situation to suit (y)our comfort. Detroit-based poet-scholar Jim Perkinson experienced the rewards of this over his 30 years in that locale, saying “I have been re-arranged on the molecular level by Black anger and Black humor.”

WTR facilitators have received some serious criticism over the years, and especially recently as to how some of the exercises perpetuate the patterns of the dominant social system. The last thing any of us want is for people to be harmed! My assessment leads me to believe that in addition to North American society, the WTR itself is going through positive disintegration in order to open so that less harm is done… and to prepare us for this next level of intersectional decolonial struggle.

My assessment leads me to believe that in addition to North American society, the WTR itself is going through positive disintegration in order to open so that less harm is done… and to prepare us for this next level of intersectional decolonial struggle.

 

This quote on Joanna Macy’s website drew my attention:

“Dangers to their survival move living systems to evolve. When feedback tells them–and continues to tell them–that their old forms and behaviors have become dysfunctional, they respond by changing. They adapt to such challenges by seeking and incorporating more appropriate norms. They search for values and goals which allow them to navigate in more varied conditions, with wider connections. Since its norms are the system’s internal code or organizing principle, this process–which Ervin Laszlo calls “exploratory self-reorganization”–is a kind of temporary limbo. To the mind it can be very disorienting. Psychiatrist Kazimierz Dabrowski names “positive disintegration.” It can feel like dying.”

The parallel is strong (read more on the website). There is a vibe of disorientation in the WTR community.  Some think that this work to explicitly decolonize and reduce oppression takes away from the center.

Some of the urgency to embrace “values and goals which allow” us “to navigate in more varied conditions” is because many white facilitators want “wide connections,” in this case they want the participation of POCs in WTR to increase. They want to follow our leadership in ecological justice work. Belinda Griswold remarked on a call,

“If we don’t have the voices of POC folks who are various combinations of indigenous, queer, young, and differently-abled, our gratitude, grief, new realizations, and plans will be impoverished. If we cannot figure out a way to directly grieve the most cataclysmic environmental events on Turtle Island–the institutionalization of racism [and the genocide of indigenous peoples]–we’re fucked! WTR perpetuates this evasion and so I’m committed to figuring out how to facilitate it in a way that doesn’t, or not facilitate it anymore.”  

It’s not just us who are wrestling hard at the moment. To my observation, the white environmental movement is actually splitting: Big Greens who continue to ignore the concerns of frontline communities (except where it’s expedient to tout their stories) clash with white allies who want to actually organize in totally different ways that don’t center white-ways-of-being. The latter groups sees white supremacy and environmental destruction as inexorably linked…you cannot end the destruction without dismantling white supremacy.

white supremacy and environmental destruction as inexorably linked…you cannot end the destruction without dismantling white supremacy.

 

Most people in WTR are on board with dismantling white supremacy. The rub is that there is a lot of shame and self-hatred for being white in our communities–with a resultant “fragility” that seeks to avoid being called racist. So when someone brings up the realities of racial or gender or class privilege–whether they are angry or super sweet in how they bring it up–it tends to ignite a pushback. Individuals often respond defensively 

when someone brings up the realities of racial or gender or class privilege–whether they are angry or super sweet in how they bring it up–it tends to ignite a pushback. Individuals often respond defensively

about how “they are different than the typical white person,” or “if they hadn’t been initiated into a particular tribe, they wouldn’t have been there to help them save their land…the tribe was grateful…what’s the problem?” Every choice you make matters, yes, but how you are as an individual is not exactly the point.

The few facilitators of color in WTR and white allies are still trying to figure out what are the most strategic ways to bring up this brokenness and disconnection between us. Though skilled from other settings, our efforts in this context are new and not seamless, we know. Please have patience with us and “breathe through” with us in our clumsiness.

Please have patience with us and “breathe through” with us in our clumsiness.

Our panic and fear is not necessarily personal to you as white people, rich people, male people, or older people. If possible, please feel honored that we feel safe enough with you all to choose this space and methodology to grapple with the invisible burden that is on our backs every day.

We share it with you because we trust that you are not the root of the problem. If you are willing to journey with us over this rough terrain, we will find more softness that ushers all of us into deeper levels of friendship and solidarity.Being present to our screams/outbursts/whimpers/rage/whatever-we-need-to-do is a WTR practice, in and of itself.

Being present to our screams/outbursts/whimpers/rage/whatever-we-need-to-do is a WTR practice, in and of itself.

 We want to get better tactics and become more skillful. We can only do this if we have the space to try out new things, and only if our leadership doesn’t get targeted, isolated, scapegoated or punished (all of these have happened in our community).

Because white supremacist heteropatriarchal colonization was in North America before the WTR and infiltrated the air we breathe, water we drink, food we eat, and books we read, it will be in the WTR. We cannot connect to what is deepest in our soul-bodies if we’re not willing to talk about the disconnects.

Because white supremacist heteropatriarchal colonization was in North America before the WTR and infiltrated the air we breathe, water we drink, food we eat, and books we read, it will be in the WTR. We cannot connect to what is deepest in our soul-bodies if we’re not willing to talk about the disconnects. Even while we’re on retreat, the inertia of the North American outside world continues around us and in us, so

if we’re not constantly working on anti-racism and decolonization, then we’re complicit in its continuation

. Much like we try to explain to people who don’t understand the urgency of this ecological moment, in human relations there is also “no neutral ground.” Buddhist practitioner and Radical Dharma author Rev. angel Kyodo williams says this about the U.S., “until we unlock racism in this country, we keep all oppressions locked in.” This includes anthropocentrism. Examining racism is simply one gateway to examine the apparatus of the IGS from the inside. And it’s crucial to do so, because it deeply affects the environmental justice movement and who will participate.

If you want People of Color to lead environmental change, grappling with our realities and ways of doing things while in a healing retreat context can be a very useful experience. In order to be equipped for this era, we need, somewhere in the context of the workshop, an opportunity to look at the historical impact and ongoing realities of the challenges we face as people without skin-color and/or gender and/or class privilege.We can’t stand shoulder to shoulder in support of Gaia with white folks, queer and poor with straight and secure, unless y’all are willing to talk about–or at least give ample grieving space to–the differential power and access dynamics we see and feel within the WTR community and broader social change movements. We must be able to share and have acknowledged the impact of micro-aggressions and challenges of working in white-dominated spaces in North America (which includes the WTR).

We can’t stand shoulder to shoulder in support of Gaia with white folks, queer and poor with straight and secure, unless y’all are willing to talk about–or at least give ample grieving space to–the differential power and access dynamics we see and feel within the WTR community and broader social change movements. We must be able to share and have acknowledged the impact of micro-aggressions and challenges of working in white-dominated spaces in North America (which includes the WTR).

 

A recognition of the different privileges and access that we have is not a conversation stopper nor emphasizing differences for the purpose of separation (as we are sometimes accused). “It’s not about shaming or blaming, it’s about naming” as Anne Symens-Bucher likes to say. It’s a conversation beginner! Once we’re aware of what we’ve got access to and what we don’t, once we’ve had a chance to process in affinity groups some of the tangle the IGS has got us in, we can more easily reckon with the whack history that has created massive disparities among participants. As a result we’ll devise better strategies to protect and support and challenge each other going forward. An analysis of social location fuels the movement building and nurturing we can do as the WTR community of practitioners.

We are not getting the practice we need for the world that we want, if we are in mostly white spaces. Here’s some quick tips for intersectionalization if you’re a facilitator and feel that you cannot join us for these “decolonizing the WTR” meetings. In each workshop you prepare:

  1. Acknowledge the pre-colonial/traditional caretakers/occupants of the land on which the workshop is held. If possible, contact local descendents and community leaders to ask permission to hold ceremony (a WTR workshop) on the land. Make sure to know something about the current reality of decolonial and solidarity struggles of the moment, even if you’re not involved directly. It’s an important way to recognize that indigenous people are not only “romantic relics of the past.”
  2. In your welcoming remarks, acknowledge the folks in the room from the various walks of life that are there. A welcome can include acknowledgement of visible uniqueness (gender, race/ethnicity, language, ability, age, size, nation/tribal/diaspora status) and less visible differences (medical conditions, religious adherence, class, education level, profession, sexual/relational orientation).
  3. Do group agreements in a fashion that allow people to say “ouch” if something oppressive impacts them. By saying “ouch,” it gives a way for impacted folks not to be silent, but also doesn’t necessarily derail the conversation.  If the speaker wants to circle back to the person who said “ouch,” they can, and the impacted person can say a sentence about the impact. The speaker may respond only by saying “thank you for sharing.”  As a facilitator, flag if you want to delve deeper into that at another time, unless you feel capable of tackling it then. Ask for help from someone to get another perspective.
  4. Create a mechanism for healthy conflict resolution, so there is not a temptation to bury or minimize conflict that arises in the group. Conflict, when handled well, can be a generative force for human connection and solidarity building.
  5. Alert people in your introductory and registration materials that you seek to make your workshop an anti-oppressive space as we awaken to ourselves as Gaia, and include a glossary of terms you may be using that might be unfamiliar to folks (e.g., decolonization, intersectionality, oppression, Samcentrism, totalitarianism, white supremacy).
  6. Play with expanding the Deep Time stage of the spiral. Facilitate an exercise that emphasizes redeveloping kinship ties that have been broken by IGS forces.  Know that as we name and heal the wounds that present in this generation, we not only impact the future but we help heal ancestral wounds as well.
  7. Attend an undoing oppressions training, and reflect on your favorite activity.  See if you can think through a way to integrate that activity into your WTR facilitation, keeping WTR’s methodological integrity but expanding its ability to grapple with human difference and privilege, to help examine the different ways IGS impacts and/or “empowers” us, and what to do about it.
  8. Practice articulating the connections between anti-racism, decolonization, and environmental advocacy. Foreground a story about the decolonial struggle for ecological justice.
  9. (Advanced) Try identity based caucuses, around race/ethnicity or another social location that significantly influences how one experiences the world and copes with the impacts of the IGS. This will give a chance, for example, for all the weirdo POCs to have the chance to see each other and go deep on some of our stuff (what a gift as we do not have those spaces often enough!). In white caucuses, this can be a time to grieve the impacts of white supremacy on the souls of you and your children, and sort through the shame and anger that’s coming up that you may have toward your self, other whites and the system itself. It is a place to find accountability partners to counter defensiveness and strategize change, and most importantly a white caucus is a great space to both get more resources and cultivate courage and self-love.

I hope these tips are helpful. Joanna suggests not having more than five things to remember so it fits on your hand. I admit remembering all 9 of these will take two hands (with one digit left to give yourself a thumbs-up!) Also, please feel free to write me with other tips. Doing some of them will avoid a lot of confusion and invite deeper engagement.

Yet deeper engagement means more profoundly difficult things will have the space to emerge. Yay! Eek! Therefore, do a practice pre-facilitation that refocuses you from the desire to be right, the desire to have it all together, the desire to reward and punish, the desire to feel like “no matter what you say you’ll get it wrong,” to your goal for the workshop. Accept that you will make mistakes, but that you are making a difference. You are not alone in this noble effort. You belong in this movement.

I want to say more about a couple of points, #3, #5, and #6.

#3 How does this help decolonize us? The IGS wants us to suppress our differences and only tolerates them as far as it is possible to capitalize on them as market segments. Acknowledging differences as life-giving forces for our ecosystem’s health is a creative resistance to the IGS. This welcome and acknowledgement can also go a long way to giving people (both folks new to the WTR and veterans) the permission to be in their subjective body-mind and speak from that place rather than a false universal place. If you “miss a category” that’s okay. It’s not about political correctness, rather admitting that there isn’t a universal experience of life; centering the message that whatever experience you have in this WTR workshop, we pray it edifies you and emboldens your vocation.

#5 vocabulary note: Samcentrism is a term “coined” in the middle of a 2014 workshop in Concepción, Chile.  We paused the workshop to co-create this when participants requested a shift in language. It’s more specific than the usual anti-imperial term Amerocentrism. It comes from the name Uncle Sam, the iconic image of what constitutes the most oppressive elements of US imperialism: its use of human bodies and public cash to fuel the military industrial complex and global dominance through war-making and economic pressure.

#6 I’ve found the most juice addressing kinship structures that were systematically destroyed by the IGS (immigration policies, anti-marriage laws, forced sterilization, femicide) through the stage of Deep Time. Much of the material also comes up during the exercises in the Honoring our Pain stage, but there is often not time to process it at that time. I note it for later. Also, naming the disconnects and brokennesses also is a nod to how oppressed people are resilient, and we have clues to everyone’s survival during the sixth extinction/anthropocene.  When I began in 2014 in the second POC cohort (a six-month training program hosted at Canticle Farm), the stage Deep Time wasn’t articulated as a stage on the Spiral. It was only when I had the opportunity to endorse Coming Back to Life: The Updated Guide to the Work that Reconnects that I saw the stage of Deep Time articulated. This made me leap for joy because I saw how the Spiral itself was alive, flexing and open and absorbent of new learning.

At the Summer 2017 WTR intensive at Emerald Earth, brontë velez hosted a language workshop on two afternoons. Inspired by the Bureau of Linguistic Reality: A Dictionary for the Future Present, we worked in groups to come up with language that describes our reality now, as the positive disintegration of our society is stretching beyond our ability to explain it with the words that currently exist.  One word a group suggested is that we call our decolonizing efforts “intersectionalizing.” This is a nod to the black feminist understanding of intersectionality. It’s a term created by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw to describe overlapping or intersecting social identities and related systems of oppression, domination, or discrimination.

As of this writing, the group of facilitators that meets hasn’t collectively thought through that wor(l)d suggestion yet, though we are extremely grateful for the offering. Intersectionalizing the WTR… it makes sense as our efforts are  about more than shifting from center (colonial) to margin (oppressed) toward inclusivity at the intersections of this moment. De-colon-izing, or “getting our heads out of our asses” was also suggested. So, lots of choices going forward…

Predecessors in this type of work were Adelaja Simon, Patricia St. Onge, Barbara Jefferson and many others. See pages 245-267 in Coming Back to Life for some writing on doing this work in communities of color. Joanna Macy’s life too, has reflected a commitment to decolonization and anti-racism. Next time you see her ask her about the shoeboxes of contact cards and other stories of her efforts on behalf of the newly independent north African countries’ ambassadors in the 1970s! Awesome innovation and care. We are grateful for her blessing and engagement with this work, and seek to honor her as the root teacher of such an important vehicle for story, collective imagination, and replenishment.

In the end, I do hope WTR helps us decolonize our minds, and actually empowers the movement to give land back, to extract less from ourselves and earth, and redistribute wealth. I’m not participating in WTR for the accolades. I’m here to win. Who’s with me?  I look forward to our many experiments together in transitioning to a life-sustaining society; I surely need y’all.

There is more I want to say, but I’m working on being okay with “not saying it all.” I’m open to conversation, email me at [email protected]. The beginning is near.


Sarah Thompson was born in Elkhart, Indiana (traditional Potowatomi land) to a family of people of African descent and people of European-Mennonite descent. She is 33, a graduate of Spelman College and Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. She is finishing up her work as Executive Director of Christian Peacemaker Teams, an organization committed to building partnerships that transform violence and oppression in areas of lethal conflict. She plans to continue supporting movements through both working at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, and later pursuing her dream of popularizing composting toilets and increasing awareness about sanitation justice.

Contribution link: paypal.me/sarahet

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