By Erin Holtz Braeckman
Recording of interview
Abigail Sykes is a member of the Starfish Collective (https://starfishcollective.se/), a Swedish-based initiative of activists, educators and researchers, dedicated to supporting the current local and global movements for social and environmental justice.
Incorporating the Work that Reconnects with other methodologies, with a focus on ecological masculinities, the Starfish Collective seeks to address patriarchal structures through engaging boys and men with practices that emphasise care for Earth, others and self in the creation of a sustainable and vibrant planet for all.
Erin: How would you define ecological masculinities, and how did you come to this work?
Abigail: Ecological masculinities is based in the research of Martin Hultman and Paul Pulé, and is sometimes referred to as ecologization to describe moving from a culture of binaries into one where we are back in touch with the interwoven connections that the living world is made of. It’s where we need to go, and where we need to be – but, because this is rooted in the works of two men that present as white, we are also very careful about prescribing what it should look like. So, this approach is very much about co-creating together based on local context and community, where every group we work with finds their own way as we collectively move towards just, sustainable, and regenerative societies.
How I personally came to this work was while at a transition course, at which I met Vidar Vetterfalk from “Men for Gender Equality” – now known as MÄN, a Swedish-based feminist organization. It was so powerful to witness the responsibility being taken for white-male privilege, and the desire to change things on a deep level; it resonated with and moved me so much that I was invited to come and work on this initiative, too.
Erin: How has the Starfish Collective applied ecological masculinities in practice? In what ways is it addressing the patriarchal structures it seeks to dismantle and supporting local and regional needs and cultures?
Abigail: Though each group facilitator does things slightly differently, we all try to make our sessions very interactive, using different types of embodiment practices, contact with nature, and leading discussion that moves us from the head to the heart. So, not talking about theory, but actually self-reflecting on what we feel about it? How am I part of it in my everyday life? How could I start to shift? This is important, particularly because we often work with very privileged groups who are not necessarily used to being embodied and questioning their own behaviour – and doing it with love and connection within trusted environments. Especially for men, that can be absolutely revolutionary – that kind of listening deeply to each other, speaking deeply from the heart.
Martin and Paul have also been very intentional about being generous with their work, sharing as well as opening up the field to ensure that other people are coming in with their perspectives, critiquing it, taking it further. Also, the materials that we’ve been developing are Creative Commons, so that people can pick up and run with it and do their own thing. Supporting the work of other groups, particularly less privileged groups and those with youth leaders, looking at how we can spread their messages and help resource them.
The Starfish Collective is still in the early stages of building an organisation, so we haven’t got everything settled yet; we’re moving very slowly, very organically, while focusing on self-care. Modelling this is helping to build a truly sustainable organisation. One criticism we have had is not being rooted enough “in place”, as we have primarily been very international and academic. Even within Sweden, we’re quite spread out, holding our meetings online and rarely meeting in person – which has been a problem for us. Having said that, many of our facilitated groups – from small ones to bigger institutions – have been meeting “in place”, and so are experiencing that power of connection. We are also in the process of putting together an advisory group that includes people who bring other perspectives and experiences to our organisation in order to make sure their voices are being heard and hold us accountable to our work.
Erin: In what ways have you adapted or integrated the Work That Reconnects into the Starfish Collective? What other practices and wisdom traditions do you draw on from within Sweden, and how is it creating change?
Abigail: We integrate the Work that Reconnects in several ways, one of them being in using the “Spiral”, which is such a good framework for a session – short or long. We also use the “Seventh Generation” practice; everyone loves that one. In fact, I’ve heard many times that it has changed people’s lives. These tools give our collective a shared understanding – concepts and a language we can relate to, like “business as usual”, or “unravelling”. Active Hope has become quite a popular book here in Sweden, and we are currently holding a book group for Coming Back to Life, going through it in depth. Which may take us a couple of years!
Other influences on our work include transition, permaculture, degrowth, intersectionality, decolonization, as well as forum theatre and Dragon Dreaming. One that is specifically more Swedish, however, is folkbildning or folk education. This form of community learning has a strong historical tradition in Sweden as a social movement, wherein people would gather informally – particularly those that did not have access to formal education. The practice is still alive here today, where the focus rests on the ways in which everyone has something to bring to the group, and everyone learns from each other. We are actually hoping to do our own course at a folk high school, which is an adult education college based on the principles of folkbildning – of co-creating.
Some of the changes our group participants experience – even in a one-off session – is the shift in interpersonal relations, in how people treat and work with one another. Obviously, we’re aiming for societal change. But I think some of that does start with our self-care, with our relationships. So, maybe it’s slow and maybe it’s one person at a time, but it’s transformative.
Abigail Sykes is a Sweden-based, New Zealand-born journalist, translator and educator with a focus on the Transition to sustainable, just and regenerative societies. She is a co-founder of Omställningsbyrån (The Transition Bureau), a community of professionals working with stories and conversations about Transition. Key tools include Joanna Macy’s Work that Reconnects, permaculture, and the Art of Hosting.
Abigail is also a co-founder of Starfish collective, a group of activists, educators and researchers dedicated to gender equity and climate and environmental justice, where she is particularly interested in decolonisation, ecofeminism and intersectional perspectives. Starfish is inspired by research by Associate Professor Martin Hultman and Dr Paul M. Pulé that addresses patriarchal structures and dominating masculinity norms as root causes of social and environmental exploitation, and sees care for Earth, others and self as central to the development of a truly sustainable and vibrant planet for all.