Monday, March 11th, 2013
Causes of all stripes have long-rallied others under the banners of ‘unity’ – united we stand, unified voices, etc. But I’m increasingly unconvinced that unity is something we should aspire towards. Worse, our attempts to create it, both in organisations and in movements, might be undermining the very most basic common ground we already share. Instead, could ‘diversity’ be the key to a range of our aims and struggles?
‘We are the 99%’
Occupy LSX, Day 1, London, photo by Liam
‘We are the 99%’: The Occupy slogan the world has come to know since a group of frustrated and inspired citizens set-up camp in Zuccotti Park in September 2011 and sparked a global movement.
The slogan has been cause for much criticism by both progressives and the mainstream establishment. ‘It’s too vague,’ they clamber. ‘What do they actually want?’ they ask, condescendingly.
But these sources of criticism may also be the movement’s greatest strength; they leave plenty of room for literally millions of people to assign their own meaning, within an incredibly basic ideological framework that simply says, ‘I want the world to work for the vast majority, not a tiny minority.’
After that, it’s up to each inspired individual to choose what we/they choose to do.
I call this (as of today, at least) ‘baseline unity, practical diversity.’
The result with Occupy is well-documented. People found their own ways to make the movement their own. At times these approaches and actions absolutely contradicted one another, but they also managed to change public discourse on issues many traditional organisations have been struggling against for decades. (Not to mention all the specific Occupy-related projects and campaigns that quietly emerged from the broader movement, tackling everything from internet monopoly to legal definitions of corporate personhood, disaster relief to toxic debt).
The ‘unity’ at the core of Occupy really didn’t extend beyond a slogan. It was diversity that made it what it has been able to be.
The emergent efforts of countless autonomous individuals, with only this basic sense of common ground, unleashed a kind of collective power the world has rarely seen.
In complexity science, emergence refers to the unpredictable and ever-changing results of countless interdependent variables in a system, acting and interacting autonomously. What at first appears as chaos, gradually takes on a coherent order, as each actor becomes aligned with the others, creating something that no individual could have seen coming.
Schools of fish, flocks of birds, and… what do you call a group of ants, walking in a line, all carrying things way bigger than them? Yeah, that. All emergent phenomena. A couple very basic rules, the rest is up to each individual, and voila! You have a remarkably well-ordered system, without the hierarchy or imposition of a singular ‘right way!’
Margaret Wheatley writes extensively about emergence in her first book, ‘Leadership and the New Science.’ I can’t recommend it enough!
So the lesson of emergence, is that to create well-ordered, effective systems, there must be freedom for everyone within the system to find their own best ways of working towards a simple, shared goal.
Yet for countless years the mantra of so many organisations and movements has been based on the idea that ‘we must have unity if we are going to be successful.’
But unity is inherently singular. People are too varied a species to happily give up our autonomy for something we don’t absolutely believe in, as any ‘basis of unity’ will require, when it involves two or more people.
Organisational reliance on far-more unity than most of us are willing to commit to (because of its cost to our own autonomy), means that we end up giving far less of our energy and potential to our work than we might in a less-controlled environment.
What if passionate support for our mission statements was our only requirements of staff and volunteers? What if it was up to them to figure out the rest? What if we accepted that people within our organisations might not all agree with each other, and let them find their own best ways of advancing the cause, connecting with colleagues or others beyond the organisation, when it made sense to do so?
The disclaimer I put out after many blogs like this one (the ones with especially ‘wacky’ ideas), is this: please don’t tell me why ‘this would never work,’ instead, I ask you to ask yourself (and each other, if you feel like commenting), ‘what could make this work?’
…And if you haven’t noticed over the last two weeks, I’ve been crowd-funding a book I wrote. You can join nearly 100 others in getting it published on StartSomeGood.com, if you want to help it see the light of day by ordering your copy now.
Sunday, September 11th, 2011
Western culture has a secret: there is much in the world that simply doesn’t translate well into written form. Yet we have no shortage of examples (particularly in the voluntary and care sectors) which still attempt to take something impossibly nuanced and complex, and turn it into a static document. Are we telling ourselves a massive lie by pretending such writing is effective communication? And what can we learn from cultures less dependent on text for sharing ideas?
Beaver Lake Cree pow wow 2011. Photo: Pete Speller.
I’ve been helping a friend proof a document he’s written. The document is 18 pages on good relationships between people and organisations. He does it much better than most would. But I’m still left with a strong sense of something having been lost in the process. Can a good relationship be captured on a piece of paper in the first place? Or, like a range of other human experiences, does it need to be ‘learned by doing’, or at least through a more holistic communication of the ideas involved?
What shouldn’t we write as much about?
Relationships are one example of ‘things we don’t do justice via the written word’, but there are many more we continue to confine to a format totally inappropriate to their characteristics… like the difference between writing about happiness, describing happiness in conversation, and being happy yourself; much gets lost in the translation from one-to-the-other. In frontline service organisations, the examples of this can be almost farcical, if they weren’t also so tragic… self-care guides for social workers, for example, cannot begin to make sense of days-on-end spent working with people in their worst moments of crisis, who often hate you by default. The invariable oversimplification of complex issues, the inability to know how emotionally-equipped different social workers are for the stresses of the job, and how different people will respond to those stresses, often make these kinds of guides and policies interesting pieces of theory, with little real world application. Something other than a document is needed to serve this crucial function, for example, on site counselling services that can address all of these differences, as required.
A few criteria for thinking about complex concepts or ideas that might not be best conveyed in writing:
- Emotion – even our best poets can rarely capture a feeling in terms that can resemble the experience itself. Yet emotion is central to humanity, and a key piece of any people-centred service or organisation, so we need other ways of conveying it.
- Nuance – two seemingly contradictory ideas can often both be true. Especially when it comes to individual perception. A programme can be legitimately life-changing and devastating to two of its recipients, depending on their expectations and needs. Writing doesn’t often capture non-binaries especially well.
- Change – like our relationships, people are always changing, thus something written may be quickly made irrelevant by a new revelation or an unexpected influence. Unlike speech, text is static and doesn’t adapt nearly as freely to subtle shifts. However the conversational web is starting to allow greater versatility to published words.
There are alternatives!
Western culture has kept the imperfection of written words secret for so long, in part by not talking about other cultures that don’t subscribe to it.
Most first nations communities in North America, (one of which I had the pleasure of working quite closely with this summer), share their cultures, values, lessons and histories orally, to this day. Storytelling culture has been dismissed by Westerners since initial contact with indigenous peoples in the early colonial period. It’s imprecise, it’s subjective, it changes, it is easily lost… all legitimate critiques, but none of which acknowledge what it does do, that perhaps a written culture lacks… if oral histories can capture the feelings of an experience, at the expense of detailed fact, is that necessarily a loss for those receiving them? We assume when it happens the other way around (feelings or deeper experiential understanding lost for factual accuracy) that this is okay… and even beneficial to western objectivism. But what have we really learned then? More facts, but with nothing to ground them in our lived experience of the world…
What works better when we say it, than when we write it?
For several years I’ve had a strong bias towards interactive, facilitated learning and communications methods. (Blogging, with its ongoing opportunity for commentary and discussion, is the closest thing I’ve found in the written world so far.) I like to facilitate, but I also find that I pick-up ideas and understanding more effectively when I’m in a discussion, than when I’m reading.
We tell ourselves that we ‘know’ something once we’ve read about it, but do we? Can we really understand deep, emotional, experiential concepts, simply by ingesting a series of symbols on a page or screen? For decades countless studies have told us that at least 90% of person-to-person communication is non-verbal – it’s not in the words we say, but how we say them, what our body language and facial expressions are conveying, etc. Thus the well-known shortcomings of trying to address complex problems – or even tell a subtle joke – over email or text message. When we relegate ourselves to text, we are hampering 90% of our ability to convey our message to others.
Which can be fine for some things (shopping lists, for example), but can be nothing short of devastating with more sensitive, nuanced, or emotive subjects.
When an indigenous elder tells a story of their community’s history after a peace pipe ceremony, the point of the story is not simply to convey the facts (these are often adapted to make sense in different times and contexts) but to convey the feelings, sentiments, lessons and values that have been core to that community for many generations. When you experience this kind of storytelling for the first time, it’s hard to understand why we have come to rely so absolutely on text books to pass-along our histories; it’s immediately clear that there is so much the text books are leaving out! Sometimes some of the most important lessons we could be taking from our pasts!
For me, hearing about the Canadian residential school experience this summer, from a range of people who had been forced into them at a young age, gave me an understanding of both the hideous reality of that Canadian experience, as well as of the current dynamics between indigenous and settler cultures in Canada. Nothing I read in school growing up in Toronto had given me that understanding. Nothing even came close to it…
Why writing doesn’t always do what it says it will…
I’ve noticed a few things that seem to limit the possibilities of written communication and learning:
- Inability to filter complex information, based on context – A book or a policy document can’t adapt itself to suit all possible scenarios or readers, and to include information to address all possible scenarios or readers is an impossible task. A person with a breadth of knowledge on a subject can (and does) make judgments as to the importance of sharing different information, in different situations, with different people (like the adaptive nature of indigenous oral histories).
- Static nature of text – Once it’s there, it’s there, though the online world – wikis as a prime example – are shifting this into less-absolute terms (and offer amazing opportunities). Still, a written document mostly exists as a snapshot of thinking and knowledge of a particular moment in time, from a particular perspective.
- Lacks 90% of human communication – Without intonation, expression and body language, it is practically impossible to meaningfully capture some of the critical factors involved in complex dynamics (as those listed previously)….
But we keep writing; policy documents, training guides, text books… (blogs like this, even?) all with the hope that these static reams of paper will help others learn things that they didn’t know before about complex, ever-changing scenarios and ideas.
So should we draw a line?
Should we say that if you’re training a new staff member at a social care organisation in working with patient who has recently begun suffering serious memory loss (for a particularly sensitive, but non-life threatening example), ‘good practice’ might be better learned via talking with other staff and watching them in action – even with particular different patients – rather than reading about it in a guide?
I’ve commented before on ‘relationship policies’ at workplaces (‘you cannot be in a personal relationship with someone else who works for the organisation’) as one of the worst examples of trying to codify a highly-nuanced emotional issue, into a standard document. Some relationships will get messy and create workplace problems, many will not, but attempts to legislate against them will only breed resentment and deceit. Address the individual issue, as is needed, with the individuals involved, rather than trying to create a template applicable to all workplace relationships. Save the paper.
I suggest keeping the three bullet points at the top in mind (emotion, nuance, change) when deciding whether or not another document is needed in your organisation. While writing can be seen as a shortcut to sharing necessary information with a large number of people, we should be clear about what kinds of information it can and can’t be effective at disseminating. Are we creating a false economy by not investing the initial time and effort into having more individual conversations about subjects that won’t get across effectively through generic text? Is the large scale of mass written communication in itself a false economy, with our efforts better spent mobilising a smaller number of people though more individual means, than a large number more generically? (That’s a blog in its own right… and it’s half written… stay tuned!)
Wednesday, August 10th, 2011
If we want to prevent such hardships as the current UK riots from happening again, we’ll need to understand and appreciate how the different life experiences of people who have done things we would never condone, may have shaped their recent decisions…
The Pembury Estate, Hackney
It’s hard to comprehend how greatly our respective lived experiences can lead us to differ so drastically from one another; how they can create underpinning beliefs in us that seem as insane to someone else, as they are fundamental to who we are.
At the start of the latest recession, I was in a car with a fairly conservative uncle and inadvertently made reference to greed in the financial sector nearly causing the collapse of the global economy. He exploded and told me that greed made the world go ‘round, and that all of the work I do (campaigning, charity, etc) could only exist (i.e. – be funded) through the results of that greed.
I was a bit shocked by the logic of this response. Greed so clearly seemed like what was wrong with the global economy, and yet my uncle seemed to fully believe it to be a virtue! I didn’t know where to start, so we stayed mostly quiet for the rest of the car ride…
He and I have lived very different lives, in a number of ways. Without addressing the details, there’s a point at which this difference must be accepted; not as a way of justifying his views (I still think they’re fundamentally wrong), but as a way of trying to explain them and engage with them.
Fast forward to East London, 2011
A view from the flat, Tuesday morning
Sitting in my adopted home of London, in the 4th floor Hackney flat I share with my wife, I can still see smoke billowing up on the horizon to the north east of us. It’s less than it was yesterday, but the city is still burning, after 3+ days of rioting.
A combination of fear and not knowing what I could possibly be doing to help, have mostly kept me at home (baring an initial foray to Hackney’s own ground zero on Monday evening and the #RiotCleanUp activities there the next morning).
As I’ve been sitting here, reading and Tweeting, I’ve been shocked – as I know many others I’m in touch with have – as to the hatred that has emerged from the woodworks in the face of this mass unrest.
People who I’ve generally considered progressive and open-minded, have resorted to calls for ‘shoot on sight’ orders against looters, rounding up of immigrants and sterilisation of benefit claimants.
I’ve found this deeply disheartening. More so even than the actions on the streets, as the pre-planned hostility in what they are suggesting. seems to go above and beyond any cruelty the rioters have managed to achieve.
Someone Tweeted “Nothing like a good riot to find out which of your mates are racist, and/or just a bit thick.” That’s a simple truth, but there’s more here…
Rather than dwell on this, I’ve been trying my best to think about what has brought these responses out in people. Clearly, many of us feel scared, worried, threatened. But one of the recurrent themes I’m coming across is, how hard, from a perspective of someone not in the middle of the violence, it can be to ‘make sense’ of smashing and burning one’s own neighbourhood, or looting new shoes or TVs in response to a police murder.
Hannah Nicklin has written beautifully on this subject, so I won’t dwell on specific possible motivations, but am interested in how reluctant so many of us are to acknowledge that the people burning cars in recent days, while sharing a city with us, have probably lived incomparably different lives to our own.
‘Comfort’ and ‘Struggle’
Here are a few assumptions of difference that my time on the streets of Hackney this week, and some of my youth work background more broadly, have highlighted for me. I’ve (very) crudely classified two broad mindsets as ‘comfort’ (generally experiencing that you can get what you want, if you work hard enough) and ‘struggle’ (experiencing that hard work will most often lead to disappointment and rejection), to represent where I think the crux of difference lies. It’s basically a measure of ‘how much faith you have in the systems around you to work for you, not against you’.
There are all kinds of racial, class, gender and other differences that get caught up in this binary (really, we are all a some combination of both columns), but there is lived experience which, while by no means absolute, often separates those whose bandana-covered faces we’ve seen so much of on the news, from much of the rest of the country.
|“The police are here to protect us and should be supported.”
||“The police humiliate, oppress and hurt us and shouldn’t be trusted.”
|“When you have a problem, there is always an appropriate person (or people) through which it can and should be raised and addressed.”
||“When you have an issue, you will probably never get listened to and your opinion means nothing to people who make decisions anyway.”
|“If you want something, work hard, and you will get it.”
||“If you want something, you’ll have to find a backdoor way of getting it, or live without it.”
|“Everyone has a fair chance at work and education in Britain, if they try hard enough.”
||“Almost everyone around me is unemployed, without education and on benefits, working low-wage jobs they hate, or doing something illegal to get by.”
The knee-jerk response to this oversimplified distinction would be to say ‘those in the right-hand column are simply wrong’, but would this change countless British peoples’ life experiences and corresponding beliefs? Like with so many things, perception is reality, and in practice, feeling powerless is exactly the same as being powerless. If your lived experience leads you to believe one thing, but someone else tells you it’s wrong because they haven’t experienced it, are you going to belief that your experience has indeed been wrong? Or that this other person is wrong about you?
‘I need this to succeed.’
I think of a friend, who had emerged from a struggling youth in a Northwest London gang and gone on to set-up a small local youth charity, telling me, “I need this to succeed; there’s no one I grew up with who’s been able to do anything like this, and so all the youths today see is a generation above them who are out on the road. They need to see this possibility can be real for them.”
Think about this for a minute. I’m going to guess that this is not the same experience most of the people reading this blog had growing up; the experience that ‘no one from my neighbourhood gets a job or sets up their own business. No one.’ What about: ‘everyone in my group of friends gets stop-and-searched and humiliated by the police. All the time.’?
Or as a youth involved in recent Hackney rioting put it:
“There’s two worlds in this borough. More and more middle classes are coming and we’re being pushed out. The shops are pricing stuff like it’s the West End, we can’t afford the rents. We’re the outcasts, we’re not wanted any more… There’s nothing for us.”
Would this change your understandings of the world at all?
#RiotCleanUp in Hackney, Tuesday morning
Like I said, Hannah Nicklin gets into the depths of this much better than I, but I think what’s critical here is to realise and understand how different life is for a lot of people, even if it’s hard to acknowledge that their struggles are happening in our own backyards, with some degree of our ongoing complicity.
When we acknowledge others’ experiences as real – however different from our own – we give ourselves space to address shared concerns together (like safety on the streets, whether from police or gangs). If we can’t acknowledge the realities that might have made some of the recent actions feel acceptable to some, we’re almost certainly doomed to reinforce those realities, and invariably too, the actions they’ve spawned. Alternatively, people and government can start to think seriously about differences in this city and country, if we want to get to a better place, following all of our recent experiences of hurt and fear…
Tuesday, November 2nd, 2010
‘Diversity’ and ‘equality’ are popular buzzwords in the voluntary sector, but how often do we think about what they really mean? Maybe if we were to have an open discussion about difference – in all its more and less obvious forms – we would be in a better place to answer the questions they raise?
–noun, plural -ties.
1. the state or fact of being diverse; difference; unlikeness.
2. variety; multiformity.
3. a point of difference.
Photo by Christopher Edwards, Creative Commons
There are innumerable pieces of legislations around the world that exist to balance historical and present-day discrimination. These have, I believe, been created with the best of intent – honest attempts to right wrongs that have existed for generations and still hide in the crevices of our institutions and the subconscious of our minds.
But many of my colleagues – often those who would check more boxes than I do on an equalities monitoring form – feel that the current approach may intend to encourage diversity, but in fact creates a smokescreen for a more subtle and insidious form of discrimination.
As one colleague – a black man from a housing estate in Southeast London, working in a national charity put it – ‘I went to university to learn to be white’.
Or as another colleague who recently finished a report on race equality in the private sector found, many of the non-white senior managers interviewed admittedly described themselves as culturally ‘white.’
So while there has been a semi-successful trend towards more visibly integrated workplaces, there is still an issue with homogeneity; people who check boxes, but who have either:
a) Lived very similar lives to those who represent the professional status quo (which is still broadly white, middle class, university educated), or
b) Have adopted or adapted to the culture of the professional status-quo, to be ‘allowed’ into that world.
In either case, the result is the same: many workplaces are less diverse than their monitoring forms might suggest. They still hire exclusively ‘professionals’, and what we understand as ‘professional’ is far too closely linked with what we generally see to be white, male and middle-to-upper-middle class. Thus many of our voluntary and non-profit organisations are missing out on the vast potential energy, creativity, perspective and insight that people who have taken a different path than we have, could offer our work and the people we support. They may even have a lot more in common with the people we support than we do, the value of which should not be overlooked. If our organisations want to tap into the diverse potential that exists outside of our ‘professional’ cultures, we can’t just hire people who don’t look, but still very much act as we do.
That said, I don’t want to minimise the importance of the shift that has occurred – that an Asian woman or a young gay man are more able to get into the professional workforce than they were a few decades ago, is of course a terrific victory on many fronts.
However, if that Asian woman or that gay man must either be born into economic privilege, or learn to give-up significant elements of their own culture to be accepted, then, in my opinion, this represents a pretty significant short-coming of the current approach.
The Marxist argument
Point a) above essentially follows a traditional Marxist class argument and while valuable, has been rehashed many times before by others more qualified than I. I would only add that our institutions (on the whole) selectively include people from non-dominant communities, who still fit most of the economic (and, often correspondingly, cultural) criteria typically associated with the dominant community. Which raises questions about the kind of diversity that is (or isn’t) being fostered in many professional workplaces. We can handle the differences of skin colour, sexual orientation, and religion better than we used to, but when it comes to interacting with people who DO THINGS differently from us, we come up with a range of excuses for why they ‘aren’t right for the job’.
Or is it more complex…?
Point b), however, raises a less-unpicked argument; that the ‘DNA’ of the current professional paradigm (across the sectors), is still very much the DNA of a privileged, white, straight, male reality, and that those from outside this reality who rise through its ranks must adopt (to varying degrees) that dominant culture in order to do so.
Basically, our idea of ‘professionalism’ is not something we can honestly describe as culture-neutral.
When I’ve posed this hypothesis to others, the negative responses tend to fall into one of two categories:
1) The DNA of the professional world is simply the most effective and appropriate for getting things done, and is not an issue of values or methods associated with any particular group.
2) While the professional ‘DNA’ may be reflective of a dominant community, there are too many non-dominant communities to shift it, so it makes most sense to maintain the current way of working.
‘It’s the best’
The first argument I simply can’t believe; there is too strong a correlation in a) western countries and b) in other parts of the world following periods of imperialism or top-down globalisation, to assume that the structure and modes of working are not associated with a particular dominant group. The ‘Efficiency Drive’ which justifies a vast array of negative practices across the sectors, does not appear to have emerged from, or grown naturally in many other cultures (beyond a traditionally European-descended ‘elite’), without economic or political coercion. The argument that it is simply ‘the best’ verges on discriminatory against the cultures that don’t automatically adopt its methods.
‘There are too many alternatives’
The second argument I usually counter with a less binary option: we need to actively encourage (as some workplaces do) a range of people from non-dominant groups to take more active roles in shaping workplace cultures, in their own images (rather than allowing the workplace cultures to force a shape on them, by default). A workplace culture does not have to be one homogenous entity, but can actually itself adopt elements of the range of influences it allows itself to open up to.
While different understandings of ‘professionalism’, working relationships, hospitality, non-verbal communication and countless other assumed subtleties may not immediately mesh with one another, I feel this is a challenge we are capable of starting to address in the 21st Century. We need to have the discussions about the assumptions our organisations subconsciously impose, within and beyond their walls. We need to acknowledge alternatives, learn from other communities, countries, our own personal lives even, and see how we could involve, say, potluck lunches, events with families of staff, changes to how we hold meetings, design office plans and how decisions get made…
There’s also the question of the external image our organisations present. While our traditional definitions of workplace diversity may help foster some sense that our organisations are really ‘for everyone’, this is unlikely to last if those we’ve hired who check boxes on a form are still worlds removed from the experiences of the young people, ex-offenders, refugees or others we may try to support. This is not to say that everyone who works for an organisation should be from its client group, but that this can create a sense of shared experience which tends to make people more comfortable engaging with otherwise seemingly-foreign institutions.
Think of the number of times you’ve walked by an African barber shop, a gay bar, a mosque, a Polish convenience store, and never even thought of going in because the people hanging around were so far separated from your own experience of the world. Maybe this is something you’ve never even noticed, because the idea of walking into such a place is so radical it doesn’t even cross your mind at such moments?
When you’re part of a dominant culture it can be easy to forget that we create these same sentiments amongst others; that when a bunch of us who look, talk and act in similar ways work together, our work may well take on associations of difference to those who do not feel a part of that world. Then add to this difference the power dynamics still so often associated with a dominant group and you’ve got a pretty off-putting combination. If we want to be inclusive to those outside of our organisations, as well as those inside, we need to think about what we mean by diversity and equality. Any real attempts to address inequality must address the less visible issues of difference that continue to drive unspoken wedges between us.
Mixing it up…
How can we bring pieces of Ghana, Vauxhall, Pakistan, Peckham, Poland and Dagenham into our workplaces, without subsuming them in a still broadly Oxfordian establishment (which I feel most of us not of that ilk must conform to ourselves, even if it’s a more subtle shift)? I know that making a list from the aforementioned place names and putting them on a form with check boxes beside them is not the way to do it. It is not simply about including more people in the established protocols of the day, it is also about ensuring people can be included without having to take on the traits of those they have never shared true equality with. It’s about the system changing for the people, not simply the other way around. If the systems aren’t changing, what kind of diversity are we trying to foster? Is this a manifestation of true equality, or does it just allow us to see enough difference to stop asking the uncomfortable questions about power that we might not want to admit still need asking?