De-colonizing the Work That Reconnects

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Interviews and editing by Molly Brown

whidbey-groupsmIntroduction:  Belinda Griswold, her life partner, and their daughter recently moved to a beautiful piece of land on Whidbey Island in Puget Sound, Washington.  Belinda invited facilitators of the Work That Reconnects to a retreat there over the 2016 Labor Day weekend, to explore how to de-colonize the Work That Reconnects. Although over 35 people wanted to attend, the land could only host about 25 people for four days, so several people voluntarily stepped back.  In the end, 23 people gathered there, both people of color and white folks, and a few children.  

One of the people attending compared the experience to an earthquake, and many of us adopted that metaphor.  I interviewed four people about how this earthquake affected them: Belinda Griswold, Mutima Imani, Aravinda Ananda, and Joseph Rotella.  Here are highlights and themes from those interviews. (Also see Aravinda’s article, “Lessons & Reflections from Radical Dharma for the Evolution of the Work That Reconnects” below.)

Why were we there; what motivated us to come?

Belinda: What inspired me to make the call for everyone to gather to  think about de-colonizing our practice in the Work That Reconnects is that over the past four years or so, it had been gradually dawning on me just how very exclusive a lot of the work that we have been doing is. And I had seen both the impacts on my friends of color and started to have really painful doubts…

I just kept on seeing this pattern of the Work not fulfilling its potential in the most vibrant belindamovements [climate justice and racial justice] of this moment, and even more painful than that, the Work hurting people in those movements when people attempt to bring it in, because of blind spots in the Work, and as white people, our offering of it…

WTR is my heart work in this life; it has saved me; it allows me to do the work that I do in the world. It is so profoundly healing for me, and we can do better. And one way we can do better is at LEAST to have a time where we can make this stuff the main dish, not the side dish… My calling was: let’s make this THE thing that we talk about together…

In the racial justice worlds, people talk about waking up to the reality of white supremacy and how at a certain point in one’s life, you just can’t turn it off, ever; you start to see that everything we see and perceive is structured by white supremacy and colonialism. That’s been the long journey for me, over the course of my adult life.

Mutima: We are looking at how to move the Work out into the world—because all of us agree it’s a body of work that is very transformational, that’s very useful in this time and age—and that we want to be bringing it into the world in the way the world is now, which is multicultural…

mutimaTo de-colonize the work means how to do the work so that it doesn’t cause any harm—and reflect and say, “If there was harm done as an individual or through the work, how can I begin to correct that?”… It’s like cleaning up the atmosphere from the negativity we know we have caused, consciously or unconsciously…

So I appreciated the call to de-colonize the Work because, as a person of color who has gone through a couple of the intensives, and having been on the facilitators’ team, at the core of the Work is some great heart, and the beauty of the work is that we can actually move into our emotions and get unstuck and have real conversations about the impact of the Work, and not just the intent of the Work. So there we are. That’s our opening for why we were there.

Aravinda: I didn’t feel like I could continue to facilitate the Work That Reconnects without growing in my awareness about how different people experience the work, particularly paravinda_a300eople who have been marginalized or oppressed. So I was just so grateful that we were called to be there.

I traveled across the country by train and I read An
Indigenous People’s History of the United States
, half of it, on the way out.  That was a really deep and powerful experience for me–to be moving from East Coast to West Coast while reading about settler colonialism moving from East Coast to West Coast–with some differences.  And my awareness opening up to how brutal it was and how much I had been caught in this US national origin myth and not aware of things.

Joseph: My experience at the Whidbey retreat was in many ways an extension of the work that we’ve been doing with the Earth Leadership Cohorts.… Working with the young folks in these cohorts really opened me up to these issues around the Work That Reconnects. …It’s not just environmental issues that matter to them.  The  Work That Reconnects is this really nice cunnamedontainer to hold these feelings, and a model by which you can… bring the new way of thinking of what’s happening in the world. I can see how that translates far beyond environmental issues, but deep into social justice issues.… How do I start naming some of these issues right at the beginning of the work?  So coming into the retreat, I had already been thinking about how the Work That Reconnects can start to really explore some of these edges beyond just environmental issues.

What it means to de-colonize the Work That Reconnects.

Mutima: [Our] group came to the place [of], “Oh, my goodness, let’s take a step back and re-claim our minds, come to center, look at what we believe and why we believe it and why we’re doing what we’re doing it”…through the lens of white supremacy, through the lens of oppression, through the lens of history.… How has history informed us, right now where we are?…

Joanna has said, over and over, and especially in the note she wrote to us before the meeting, that she was glad it was happening because she’s an 87-year-old white woman.  It came out of the best of her, and now if we’re going to take it forward, we need to bring the best for all our audiences—and a lot of our audiences are still pretty white. If you’re an all white group and you have one person who’s in a wheelchair or who’s handicapped in some way or a person of color, then your whole demeanor needs to be inclusive. The languaging of how to be inclusive… can be learned…

The truth is that some people have harmed other people through the work by not being conscious enough as facilitators to see when they were excluding people or excluding a whole race when doing some activity as if they didn’t exist. That’s harmful. It was really great to be telling the truth about that so we could relieve ourselves of the guilt and shame and sadness that comes from knowing that we’ve harmed other people by making them totally invisible through an exercise that doesn’t include them. So it was really great to move through that suffering.  We’re able to come to a place where we are seeing where we have to be more conscious and not just be doing things by rote–to become more sensitive and make the Work really attractive because it’s so full of healing exercises…

Let’s talk about the cultural pollutants that are in the air. It’s in the air; it’s everywhere. It’s in the magazines we read; it’s on TV; it’s where we teach: it’s everywhere.… It’s in the air we breathe. We are full of cultural pollutants…  So to take the time to talk about the work in terms of the harm that’s been done in the past and finding a place of letting go and repairing the harm when that’s possible and being completely dedicated to not doing the work the same way. It’s great to already see that some of the facilitators are taking pieces of the Work that they want to shift, instead of throwing them away, making them relatively culturally sensitive for the times in which we are living.

Joseph: I realized early on that the first thing we need to do is acknowledge where the  Work That Reconnects is now and who’s been left out so far, and…who’s been harmed by this work.  I think that even in my own facilitation… how I’ve done things that may or may not have been harmful to some people, but with different people in the room, might have been harmful.

And to have to step back and take a deep breath and say to myself, “Wow, I am going to take on this responsibility.” I have the best of intentions in doing this work, but I am not always aware of all the impacts that have happened when I do this work. To really acknowledge that some of those impacts may have been harmful to people.

I have certainly gotten feedback… about being sure to name issues of colonization and oppression up front. An example I like to use is: in an all white group or white-identified group, it’s pretty easy to talk about the “Three Stories of Our Time” and the Great Unraveling as if, “Well, this is happening right now; we’ve come to this point where the Great Unraveling is happening.”  But for people of color, especially African Americans [and indigenous people], the Great Unraveling has been happening for hundreds of years.  So to say …that the Great Unraveling is happening now, is like, “Really? You’re finally catching up to us?”

For me as I learn more about these dynamics and am more comfortable looking at and exploring some of these feelings in my own existence, having been brought up in this particular culture, the best I can do is say “All right, I’m just going to name these things. I can’t do anything about it, but the one thing I can do is name them.”  To be able to say,  “Oh, by the way, the Three Stories of Our Time, Business As Usual, this is what it is founded on [i.e. slavery and genocide].” Boom.  At least you’re calling it out right then and there…

I think it’s important for white identified people in the room because then they start to learn these stories, they start to explore these issues, too.  “Oh, this isn’t everyone’s story; I get it now: it isn’t.”…I need to look back with everything I’ve learned about the Work That Reconnects and put this other lens on here.

Challenges in de-colonizing, including white fragility

Belinda: I want to give a big shout out to Showing Up for Racial Justice, SURJ, a national racial justice group for white folks. Their framing is that racism is primarily white people’s problem to solve – we have created it, we must dismantle it. And that we, as white people, might be able to do this not only out of love and respect for our friends and family of color, but also out of love for white people. Not out of shame and blame, but because we white people don’t want white supremacy to have OUR people – our white friends and family. Because they are worth more than that.

And that’s been a huge change for me, and that has unlocked a lot of energy for me, because…the shame shuts white people down, and it makes us actually unable to become real allies…

From my perspective, something really meaningful is that we didn’t have a single white fragility meltdown…I didn’t observe where white peoples’ stuff hijacked things. That is so meaningful to me, because that is such a pattern in so many spaces….white people get triggered and then we just take over the whole world and just erase everybody else’s experience. And part of that is because we got to do white caucus a bit and for me, white caucus is such a hugely helpful thing…

One thing that’s really alive for me these days in general, is ….I’m much less afraid of making mistakes as a white person now. I am just aware that I am making them all the time and I’m okay. What’s most important to me is how do I manifest in solidarity? And that’s going to be imperfect, but the most important thing is not me, and whether I’m doing it right, or we’re getting somewhere, or that whole thing.  It’s how do I show up in solidarity in every way in my life.

Joseph: I think of the workshop we did recently when we did not do a good job of defining what we meant when we talked about oppression, oppression dynamics, and marginalization.  I think that a little bit of white fragility showed up in the sense that some people within the workshop said, “I’m not being oppressive; there’s nothing oppressive about what I do”… People were in different places and we didn’t have the full faculties to handle all of those responses…

How do we bring in some of the Work That Reconnects concepts in a way that really brings to light some of these oppressive dynamics and ideas of marginalization—and to bring those ideas forward in a way that people are open to hearing them and not just becoming defensive?

Mutima: To be in the position of “I’m not good enough” or “I don’t know what to say” or “I’m in so much guilt and shame that I don’t know what to do”– all of that emotional stuff is white fragility in my mind and keeps white people from really learning the language of inclusivity.  Ask a person “how do you identify?” or “What is important to you?”— make that one-on-one contact.  And to begin to see systematically what’s happening to groups of people, and believing that it’s happening even though it’s not your individual white experience. The mind has to expand itself in order to hear those experiences and actually imagine those experiences…

Our minds have been colonized. And each individual person needs to take a breath and sit in that knowing of what did my environment say about different cultures? …to ask that question of what was my people’s experience and part in history?

One of the most beautiful things that came out all the retreat was Adelaja Simon saying, “Go back and get your own culture. Do that work; find out your heritage.” … He was saying it particularly to the white folks, but everyone needs to do that. We have to heal the wounds that have been passed down from our forefathers and that is to do our lineage work.  It’s important to resolve in whatever way what’s been passed down that is not useful.

Specific suggestions for facilitators

Mutima: Let’s talk about the facilitators and where they need to start. They should only do what’s comfortable for them or what makes sense and not try to imitate Joanna or any other leader. Because when it’s not authentically yours, and you’re just reading from the book, you can create harm because you’re not coming from a place of knowingness…

For facilitators, it’s very important to know your audience and prepare for your audience. Some things are perfectly fine in an all-white group—but even then, we’re at the place now where you’re going to lose even some white folks if you’re not giving a clear picture of what’s really going on today.

Belinda: We really need to move towards a much more vibrant, much more supportive co-facilitation model overall in this work, and that showed up in this retreat. …That’s a really wide-spread cultural need, of course, and it’s definitely a need in this work, about how we do work together in teams to hold this so that nobody gets fried and nobody is holding too much and that we are working together as facilitation teams.

And in conclusion…

Belinda: The team of people who planned this thing were Sarah Thompson, Barbara Jefferson, Aravinda Ananda,  Jade Begay, and myself. As with all things that are worth anything at all, it was just completely an organic manifestation of the completely powerful wisdom and energy of that group of people…. and so I just couldn’t be more grateful to them and to our knitting these connections closer and closer with each passing year so that this continues to catch fire.

How do we build these communities of resistance, these rough weather networks that Joanna always talks about? For me, it’s got to be about undoing these interlocking systems of oppression. We need these communities of resistance where white people are really really stepping up.  I’m just very much in that process of how do we do that together.

Mutima:  It’s living in me now as a turning point for the Work That Reconnects. I’m actually celebrating the fact that we got together for the very first time to really spend some quality time and our attention on de-colonizing the work so that it can have better global impact… I really appreciated the gentleness with which we held ourselves, even when we were talking about how we were harmed and how we created harm. We did that in a very gentle loving way so as not to cause more harm…

The community is a diverse community; we have the support that we need. We have very skilled facilitators; we have people who are willing to listen from both sides. We have people of color who are committed to the work as well as white facilitators. I’m hoping we build a bond so that if you have a question about how to proceed, you’ll get on the phone and ask somebody. If you have any experience where you think you harmed someone, you call someone. We’ve got to individually take care of each other as we collectively do the work.

And on this retreat we really took good care of each other. We want to support each other by really stepping up and talking through it.  There’s ways to heal all of the wounds.


Molly Brown, editor of Deep Times, co-authored Coming Back to Life: The Updated Guide to the Work That Reconnects with Joanna Macy.  Molly brings the Work That Reconnects and psychosynthesis to her work writing books and essays, teaching on-line courses, phone coaching, talks and workshops. Her six books include Growing Whole: Self-realization for the Great Turning and Lighting a Candle: Collected Reflections on a Spiritual Life. She leads retreats for elder activists in the Work That Connects with Constance Washburn through the Conscious Elders Network,

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