Reflections on Attending to Power, Privilege and Oppression Dynamics in Work That Reconnects Spaces

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by Aravinda Ananda

“The Prizewinner” (2017) by Kim Vanderheiden

During check-ins in a Deep Times editorial team meeting in November 2019, Aravinda Ananda described some of what she learned during her experience at a recent Work That Reconnects weekend workshop. Editorial team member Rebecca Selove was curious to hear more and interviewed Aravinda on December 10, 2019, about her reflections. What follows are edited excerpts from that interview.


A growing edge for me with my Work That Reconnects facilitation is learning about how power, privilege, and oppression are operating in group spaces, and being more attentive to those dynamics with my facilitation. I’ve been reflecting a lot on my experience at a recent workshop that I attended in multiple capacities, but not as one of the lead organizers.

Some major learnings happened for me on the first night of the workshop, which I will attempt to unpack here. Two co-facilitators invited people participating in an activity to reflect on the root causes of ecological destruction and of human violence and systems of oppression. I was excited by this because I love quoting Sarah Nahar’s 2017 Deep Times article “Intersectionalization of the Work That Reconnects.” In the article, Sarah encourages facilitators to practice articulating the links between human oppressions and ecological destruction. Rather than  presenting an explanation of this, the facilitators attempted to elicit it from the group with an activity. They divided the large group into four groups of about ten people each, with two groups brainstorming the root causes of ecological destruction and two groups brainstorming the root causes of human violence and systems of oppression. 

After the small group brainstorms, the facilitators harvested small group ideas and wrote them on large sheets of paper. Then they asked “What are the implications of this for our time together this weekend?” This was an important question because responses could inform aspects of our time together; however, several problems emerged during this activity. The discussion ended up being very head-oriented, which was a difficult way to start our time together. While I applaud the people who organized this activity for trying something new with the intention of naming and orienting the participants to oppression and power within our group  at the outset, it was difficult to be so in our heads as opposed to a heart level towards the outset of the weekend – an important time for building trust and connection with one another. This may have contributed to a general sense of unease in the room, and in this context a number of other dynamics unfolded. 

I experienced one dynamic in my small group where I named colonizer languages as one of the root causes of environmental destruction, but then that root cause didn’t get reported to the whole group during harvesting. At the very end of harvesting from all the groups, a woman of color named white supremacy as a root cause of both ecological destruction and human violence. It was painful that no one who was white had said that. I realized that while my language was not explicitly about white supremacy, white supremacy is a part of colonizer culture. It is fascinating to me that my words got edited out of the harvesting notes as something not relevant to report. Was this just a function of only sharing some and not all things, or was this a function of white supremacy editing out certain things?

Another dynamic that I was able to be curious about later (in the moment it just felt deeply uncomfortable) is that during the verbal harvesting and writing on flip charts, I was experiencing freezing in my body. My body was aware that dynamics were unfolding in the room that felt off, but I was having difficulty consciously articulating or even fully perceiving them. So I was feeling very ill at ease but felt unable to speak about it.

I was empathizing with the co-facilitators trying to manage multiple complex functions … wanting them to have more support with the naming dynamics and interrupting … but…I felt immobilized …

I was also experiencing a ton of empathy for the facilitators who were trying to listen to comments that sometimes were not succinctly stated, and then distill them so as to write them succinctly on a flip chart. One of my big “ahas” was that distilling and writing while tracking group process are both complex functions, and a lot of work for co-facilitators to handle simultaneously. I realized I have internalized ableism with expectations for myself when I am facilitating: In addition to managing both of these complex functions of tracking content and group process, I also expect myself to be able to take in feedback about what is going on in the group and respond to it in real time. That would require me doing four complex actions at the same time, and I don’t always have the capacity for doing so many functions at the same time – especially when my capacity is reduced as happens when I am activated, or when I don’t have a lot of muscle/practice – which is the case with naming dynamics of oppression in the moment.

Dynamics of oppression can be activating – regardless of your position in a system of oppression, just of course, in different ways depending on your position. So, during this activity, I was empathizing with the co-facilitators trying to manage multiple complex functions at the same time, and wanting them to have more support with the naming dynamics and interrupting them part, but in my freezing I felt immobilized and did and said nothing. This led to further shut down for me as I was feeling overwhelmed about not knowing what to do, and then hating on myself for both not knowing what to do and doing nothing! What a toxic self-reinforcing loop of powerlessness.  

A takeaway for me is that unless a facilitator feels confident in tracking, naming, and interrupting oppression dynamics while guiding content and process (something that is difficult to do because of the activating nature of it or if one does not have a lot of experience), it can be helpful to have people in the room who are not in a lead facilitation role with content and process who can track dynamics, and hopefully contribute to interrupting and shifting them. As a facilitator I think it is very important to attend to dynamics, which is a reason why it is important to have a co-facilitator, or other people in the room in this role, so as not to expect myself or any facilitator as one person to be the only person who can fulfill all these functions at the same time. In reflecting on that activity, the whole system could have used more support. One option for that could be people whose primary role was watching and naming dynamics and intervening at times, while a facilitation team carries particular responsibility with holding a group and naming and shifting oppressive dynamics. I also am curious about ways to empower an entire community to take responsibility with holding this.

Here is another reflection on my learning from Friday night: I was having a significant nervous system experience in my freezing and shutting down, and I would guess that others in the room were having a similar nervous system experience or sensing that others were. I am curious about that, and the impact of not naming it and not pausing to address it. I would guess a lot of people felt that something was off and we kept moving. It can be tricky to decide in the moment how much to keep going with a planned program and how much to deviate to attend to arising process in the moment. If we are ignoring ouches and harms, that isn’t reconnecting to me. At the same time, if we pause with every ouch, it is hard to get to other planned program content. This is a real skill of facilitators – making in-the-moment judgment calls about when to pause and open things up, and when to continue on. 

While I don’t want to ignore harm when it happens, deciding what to do can be complicated. In the article “Turtle, Shark, Kangaroo: What To Do When Harm Happens” in the Summer 2016 Deep Times journal, I reference my friend Sarah Pirtle’s thinking on a menu of options which include checking in with your inner tuning fork – pausing and creating some space so you can listen to your internal guidance. If a harm has happened, as a facilitator you can invite the group to get into pairs and you can pair either with the person who contributed to harm or the person who experienced it, wherever the need is highest. Another option is to wait until a break and talk with the relevant people, maybe the person you perceived was impacted and say, “I noticed this thing and I thought maybe it landed this way,” so as to check assumptions with their actual experience. Another option is talking with the person who may have caused harm. Both options can be helpful because you are not ignoring the harm, but not interrupting full group progress to address it. Another option would be to mentally note it to yourself but not talk about it with anyone. If you are on the receiving end, you have agency about whether you want to talk about it or not. A fourth option would be to invite the whole group to engage in some kind of conversation or exploration about it. Discerning which option to take is a place where I have learning and growing to do.

I have a fair amount of social anxiety when I am experiencing activation. It is super hard for me to talk at such times, but talking could benefit everyone in the group. Some of the complexities for me include that if somebody experiences impact from something that was said, they could feel supported if people stop and attend to it, and don’t carry on as if nothing happened. On the other hand, consent is an important value of mine. If you pause the whole group process, you are putting the spotlight on someone who might not want that. I want to get consent before bringing the whole group’s attention to one person. But if you never say anything, and people observe that nothing was done, that has an impact too – both on the person who experienced the ouch and on anyone in the group who witnessed it.

“The Breadwinner” (2017) by Kim Vanderheiden

Another big “aha” for me is that, over the course of the weekend, I was trying to do a lot of relationship tending and mending of ruptures during breaks and meal times, but there just wasn’t enough time apart from the planned program for that. So I chose to miss some of the whole group program – something I could do, because I didn’t have a lead facilitation role and was not responsible for holding content and process. Saturday morning I was able to show up for listening about painful impacts that had been experienced. I was able to participate in this role in the workshop community, which meant co-facilitators could continue facilitating the spiral with the larger group.  While I appreciate processing the ouch in a more personal way with the people directly impacted, and think this was a good level to do it at rather than at length in the whole group because it centered the needs and experience of the people who were impacted, the absence of the people processing this ouch was noted in the whole group. What gets shared and what doesn’t get shared with the whole group? There are important considerations of consent and confidentiality here. Unless consent is given for sharing, someone who experiences an ouch should probably be the only one communicating about the details of that impact. Is there a broader way that the ouch can be acknowledged so it doesn’t go unnamed while maintaining confidentiality?

An opportunity to practice this issue presented itself on Saturday afternoon when I thought I observed a painful micro-aggression along racial and gender themes in the large group but wasn’t sure. I was activated and felt really nervous about naming it in the whole group because I didn’t know if what I had observed was real or not, and wanted to check with the people who I guessed were impacted to check if my assumptions about impact were correct or not before bringing attention to it in the whole group. 

Here is a snapshot of how I perceived what happened: During a full group sharing circle, a woman of color started speaking and got interrupted harshly and asked to speak more loudly. My internal response: I immediately froze. Later in the circle, a second woman of color started speaking and someone barked at her to speak more loudly, while later a white male was kindly and gently interrupted and asked to speak up. I saw a big difference in how the requests or demands to speak up were made, and later thought about it on several levels. On one level, I wondered if there is racial and gender stuff going on. On another, I wondered about ableism. This was an intergenerational space with a lot of folks in the room who had difficulty hearing. There was a structural problem in that we weren’t using a microphone. One of my principles is that I don’t want to police people about how they speak about their pain. On the one hand, being able to hear is an access need, and I can understand people experiencing soft volume as a painful ouch. I didn’t want people to feel shame about their access needs, but on the other hand the comments about people’s volume seemed to have a racial and gender component in how respect was extended in asks to speak up.

I’ve been in conversation with colleagues about a training that can support facilitators in strengthening this capacity of noticing dynamics and choosing in the moment how to respond or intervene …

Rather than naming it in the moment, I spoke with a colleague about it who then named the micro-aggression in a general way the next morning. In retrospect, there may have been an opportunity for group learning that was missed by keeping it at the general level, but more importantly, with lacking this specificity, it was not a full naming of the harm. I have so much to learn here! And I am grateful for opportunities to do so in community. One of my commitments as a facilitator of group work is to continue to learn and improve. I’ve been in conversation with colleagues about a training that can support facilitators in strengthening this capacity of noticing dynamics and choosing in the moment how to respond or intervene and hope that can happen soon for my own benefit, and any other facilitators needing support in this area.

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Aravinda Ananda is a member of the Interhelp Council, helped start a Greater Boston Work that Reconnects Community of Practice and has been a part of many co-facilitation teams including the Earth Leadership Cohort – an immersion in the Work for young adults and the Community Leadership Cohort – an exploration of communities of practice. Her primary life’s work is helping to transform human-Earth relationships to be mutually enhancing; she is currently finishing a book called Living rEvolution. She seeks to live the rEvolution daily and support others on this path.

Kim Vanderheiden’s images were used with permission. Click here to visit her website.

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