trust the people

‘if you do not trust the people, they will become untrustworthy.’ – lao tzu, tao te ching

i am writing from biloxi mississippi where i am co-facilitating a gathering of activists coming together around extreme energy extraction – organizing around the processes and impacts of a society run on coal, oil, natural gas, uranium. we had an amazing gathering, and it inspires me so much to put the emergent strategy approach in action.

one of the primary principles of emergent strategy is trusting the people.

often, facilitation seems to do the opposite of this. we sit with the organizers of a gathering and try to figure out ahead of time every single necessary conversation we want to see happen, and then create an agenda that imposes our priorities on the people who we have invited to gather, ostensibly because they are the experts and front line thinkers on the issue. then, a few hours or days into the gathering, we are harried and desperate because the people have realized what we are up to, or simply aren’t feeling heard, and/or we have missed something crucial that is at the center of the gathering. there emerges a sense of facilitators and participants working against each other, instead of everyone working in collaboration to meet the goals.

i have been experimenting with what it means to ‘trust the people’ in practice.

i’ve been facilitating for a while, and although i know that the common wisdom is that every meeting has a flow of ‘form, storm, norm’ – the group comes together, then explodes in opposition to what is happening and creates what they need, and then a norm emerges where there is a sense of accomplishment and deepening into their united identity – i have often wondered if there was another option, one that would save us time, resources, stress, division and energy.

it’s happening. none of the meetings i have facilitated this past year have had a significant storm component. facilitate means to make it easy, and i feel like finally it is happening, it is getting easier for the participants and for me and my cofacilitators.

here are some of the practices for trusting the people in practice.

1. goal setting.

why are we meeting? what can this group uniquely accomplish?…i have to thank taj james for this clarifying question. there are always a ton of relevant conversations that could happen, but there is usually a very small set of conversations that this particular group, at this particular moment in history, can have and move forward, given their capacity, resources, time, focus and beliefs.

the organizers should have this question at the center of their planning for the event. i also find that it helps to survey the group of invitees to sharpen the goals.

2. invite the right people.

we invite people to meetings for a lot of the wrong reasons – obligation, guilt, representation…even love. the questions to ask when shaping the invite list are ‘who is directly impacted by this issue?’ and ‘who can move this work forward?’

inviting the right people means we aren’t wasting time by renegotiating the goals nonstop throughout the meeting, and/or managing the dissonance that occurs (righteously in my opinion) when a participant who shouldn’t be at the meeting tries to make it worth their time by derailing the process of advancing the stated goals.

now, right people doesn’t mean easy people – conflict and difference are often an important part of advancing the work, bringing the real issues into the room. trust is built when the right people are in the right room, and can bring their opinions and work into a container that advances their individual and collective goals.

the right facilitators are also key. i love co-facilitating with people more creative and meticulous than me. inca mohamed, hannah strange, autumn brown, raquel lavina, kavitha rao, jodie tonita, anasa troutman, alicia garza, the generative somatics teaching body, many more – this is a time of brilliant facilitation!

3. individual participant articulation.

there are real language barriers, both literal and cultural, that mean we often think we are hearing each other, but really we have no clue about what others are saying. we all have filters, only some of which we are aware of.

in a gathering, this can create the utmost confusion. folks are using different cultural references, different touch points and acronyms, coming from widely different experiences and passions – even if what they are saying is similar, they can’t hear and understand each other.

giving everyone room to say what they want to prioritize and discuss, and then synthesizing that set of topics as a group, grows the common tongue of the participants, and allows for genuine clarity to happen in the dance of organizing all of the desires into a manageable number of conversations. my friend allen gunn taught me a way to do this with post its and a blank wall, and i just keep iterating off of that exercise to create self-generated agendas.

when trying to determine which articulation to prioritize, go with that of the most impacted people in the room – it is usually the most relevant, and often the clearest and most accessible.

4. a living agenda.

develop a spacious adaptible agenda where the participants can shape the meeting. again, our tendency is to fill up every minute from the beginning to the end of the day with formal session time, creating schedules that are hard to change when new information comes along. not to mention, these agendas sometimes underestimate how long conversations may actually take.

most conversations need at least 1.5 hours to adequately cover orienting around the content, identifying what is needed and identifying clear next steps. and that’s conservative. a meaningful full group conversation for thirty people or more needs roughly a minute person participant. underscheduling means that energy will start to build up looking for release.

folks are so used to not being heard. so used to not getting their needs met. when folks feel heard, the time starts to expand as people move past expressing and start to be able to listen.

it is a beautiful thing to give people space and time, but within the agenda also point continuously towards collaboration. in the u.s., which is where i do most of my facilitation, there is a socialized tendency towards competition – ‘my idea is the best and i am just here to sell it!’. well…no thank you. what can we do together from our passions?

collaboration can only be built on relationships and shared vision. relationships have to be respectful (‘oh i totally see why you are here and why i would want to work with you’) and real (‘what you just said offended/disrespected me, and i can tell you about it because i want us to grow!’). and shared vision doesn’t mean a ten point shared utopia – it means you can generally state that you are moving in the same direction.

the spacious agenda often leads to ending the meeting early, or right on time. try it! it’s magical.

5. listen with love!

the participants absolutely mean to be listening to each other, but their own agendas might fill up their ears with misunderstandings or frustrations. your work as a facilitator is to listen to the needs of the group, help the participants to be clear to and with each other, and make sure you actually understand what folks in the room need.

listen to the feedback you request, and to the other feedback that flows in from the edges, the participants who need something more. my confession here is that i have, at times, grown annoyed with those participants who tend more towards deconstruction, anxiety or frustration…they are the ones often less able to state clearly what they want. however if i can drop in and set my annoyance aside, those folks are sometimes trying to get at the heart of the matter, or name the root schism in the room – the thing that is unnamed because it hard to name. taking time to hear the participants in the margins of the agenda can actually help get the event on point. and i can’t count the number of times a disgruntled participant was actually just misunderstanding something that, when clarified, made them a star participant.

6. know when to say yes and when to say no.

yes to those things that deepen the gathering – cultural grounding, local welcome, clarifying questions, learning in real time, suggestions to slow down. no to manipulative efforts to quiet others, pontification, ignorance. yes to singing, bio breaks (bathroom, fresh air, snacks, self care), ending early (when the group has run out of energy for the day), talent shows, parties and efforts to synthesize. no to judgment, delays, circular conversations and people who are rejecting the process.

7. what you gonna do?

my friend gibran rivera once articulated a question to me: ‘what is the next most elegant step?’ oh i love this question. too often we come up with plans that don’t take into account the fog on the horizon. then we go off and the work doesn’t happen, perhaps can’t happen, and then we feel demoralized because our energy doesn’t flow into action. an elegant step is one that acknowledges what is known and unknown, and what the capacity of this group actually is. an elegant step allows humility, allows people to say ‘actually we need to do some research’ or ‘actually we need to talk to some folks not in this room’ or ‘actually we need a full day to build this plan out into something realistic and attainable’.

in any conversation – and i would say in any moment in life – there is a next elegant step – one that is possible and strategic based on who is taking it and where they are trying to go. find it and you cannot fail.

as with all things, these practices are emerging as i learn them. feel free to add on. love y’all, and let’s keep learning to do our movement work better and better.

american revolutionary

i assert my solutions as the living embodiment of my nationality…

i’m testing that statement out.

for a long time, most of my conscious political life, i have not thought of myself as an american (and not a nationalist at all, especially not of a colonial empire). i have been a world traveller. a future ex-pat. a staunch critic of the ways america is failing at everything from dreams to execution of values, from founding to present. and i hold these critiques to be self-evident – how can anyone with a mind and a heart not see the failure, the epic moral failure of the country i was born into?

recently, 3 things have made me reconsider my relationship to america.

one thing is sitting with the words of the late james boggs and being with grace lee boggs, and their clear belief that we have to understand the context of where we are, that there is a real place in which we have the right to be revolutionary. jimmy said, “i don’t believe no one can run this country better than me,” and he said that as a worker. now i feel challenged by grace’s latest thinking, that a new “more perfect union” is ours to envision and embody, and i think we have to believe that no one can run this country, community by community, better than those of us with clear visions and practices of justice and sustainability. if we believe that, then we must take on the responsibility of bringing our visions into existence – through our actions, not just our words.

the second thing that has made me reconsider this is a conversation that happened at web of change. it was hosted by anasa troutman and angel kyodo williams, and i wasn’t even there, just got to debrief how powerful it was with several participants afterwards. one of the key components was the idea of being able to say that those things that offend us at the deepest level, which seem inhumane, which give us feelings of shame by association – we have to step up to say “that is not our America.” leaving the space open for american identity to be defined only by those who are driven by fear leaves us with what we have now – policies of walls and borders instead of open arms and visions, prisons and penalties instead of communities that hold each other accountable and safe, poverty and joblessness instead of meaningful roles in communities where we each feel our worth and get honored for our contributions. america holds an international role which we who have citizenship here can’t shake off – unsolicited and violent judge, oppressor, manipulator of resources and relationships, bringer of trash/waste/dehumanizing work. what we are within our colonized borders is amplified in our external actions. and there are enough of us who know a better way that if we truly took on the responsibility, the practice of being american revolutionaries, it would have a worldwide impact. scaling up, yes, but only by going deep in accepting the privilege and responsibility of being american at this moment in time and taking up new practices wherever we are.

the third piece for me is looking at my family in light of recent stories i have heard from immigrant families living and dying to get a hold of a status i have taken for granted. my sisters and i were born in texas, in el paso. folks who are brown like me and whose ancestors’ blood still bakes in the earth of my birthplace, folks who were born 10 miles away from me, they have died because of long-term impacts of our foreign policy, trade policy, drug habits. on a fundamental level, being an american means being responsible for the human cost of our way of living, our mistakes, our policies. i may not agree with the policies, but that doesn’t much matter to the people impacted by them if i do nothing to change the ways of this country. my family has had a chance at happiness that was made possible because of american military endeavors and i have to attend to that reality. can i face it completely and instead of feeling shame, think of what can bring justice to my family, to my nephew and niece as they begin their young political journeys? this feels like huge work for me.

i see more and more that my path is not necessarily an organizing path, be it electoral or community. this is not simply because i am disappointed in our movements, though i feel, viscerally, that we/they are mostly practicing what i could call the old american ethic: spread, grow, mainstream yourself, prosper in competition, value new ideas over ancient wisdom, colonize by spreading as many chapters with cookie cutter action plans as far and wide as you can, don’t apologize, pitch first and listen later, etc.

all of that is there, but my calling is underneath that critique, and it feels like yearning, it feels like a budding set of solutions. i am interested in connecting with, building with, and supporting folks who are interested in the next american revolution – in holding space for a new american ethic that speaks to the experience of masses of people within these hyper-enforced borders: we start by seeking indigenous wisdom for how to be in this place and honor those who have been here the longest. we stand with the world in calling for america to evolve as we practice these new-old ways of being here. we build our economy of relationships, not dollars. we see ourselves as part of a global network of citizens of one shared planet who have a collective responsibility towards home. we respect each other and the land, we practice restorative justice, we begin by listening, we accept the responsibility of where we are. instead of being known for our critique, we embody the revolution wherever we are, in whatever work we are called to.

i know i can’t change the past, not even the very recent past, our actions of yesterday and even this morning. but i am also more and more aware that i can’t put off this being of a place for even one more day. i have lived in many places, and i have loved many places, but i have papers for one place, voting power for one place, family all rooted in one place. it is this place where i will make my stand.

in a way this is another coming out, full of terror and bravado…and pumping out of me like blood. i will test this out, here, as a truth and an invitation: i am an american revolutionary.