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Posted by Philip on 30 November 2011, 7:00 am in , , ,

Address to the EOPHEA (Equal Opportunity Practitioners in Higher Education Australasia) Conference 2011

As promised, here is the blog remix I presented yesterday at the EOPHEA Conference. Hi and thanks to those who attended. You'll see I only got about halfway through ;-)  

How to create more rainbows

I work in the area of social change, and I often find it hard to explain what exactly I do. So I'm going to demonstrate it. At the end of this talk, by listening to it, you will have changed, just a little, as will I have also, simply by saying it. And that, in essence, is the nature of social change.

I want to tell you two stories and link them to four ideas: gratitude, compassion, rainbows and leadership. First story: A few months ago my boyfriend and I went to stay a night at the Westin Hotel down on the viaduct. We checked in to one room with a double bed so it was obvious we were a couple. The two guys on the desk, whom we presumed were straight, didn't blink an eye and were polite and professional to the extreme.

The next day when we checked out, the same two guys were standing in exactly the same places, as if they'd been waiting for us all night. We wondered if they had homes to go to. Once again they were generous and respectful, enquiring about our stay.

Driving home I shared how I noticed that I was feeling intense gratitude towards those two young guys for so easily accepting us as a same sex couple. You may be surprised that I would be feeling grateful for something that most may see as an entitlement in 2011. I'll come back to this.

My second story is that at present I am being harassed by my neighbour. Brian is mentally unwell, Catholic and homophobic. Not a good combo, even with fries. I had this confirmed when he added yelling, "You f***ing poof, God will smite you and so will I," to his repertoire of wall banging, water throwing, plant stealing and midnight doorbell ringing. 

Currently I feel vulnerable and unsafe in my own house as I work with the Police and Housing NZ to work through both bureaucracies' lengthy processes, given that he's not throwing bricks or wielding knives...yet. Meanwhile I am aware of the compassion I still hold for the prick, knowing that, from where he stands, he is dealing with an untenable situation – my lifestyle - in the only way he knows how.

Let me begin to bring these stories together. A couple of weeks ago I did a five day retreat run by Allan Kaplan and Sue Davidoff of the Proteus Initiative in South Africa. Sue and Allan use wonderful adaptations of JW von Goethe's "unique ways of seeing and thinking into the living phenomena of the natural world...in order to achieve a new (holistic) way of engaging with social and ecological phenomena. So that we may begin to work effectively with social complexity." 

One of the exercises was using prisms to observe colour. Isaac Newton's theory was that all colour was contained in darkness (black) and that white was the absence of colour. But Goethe proposed Newton was wrong, mooting that, in fact, colour dwells in the relationship between darkness and light.

What prisms (and rain) do is separate the planes of light and dark, shifting them slightly so they overlap. We see the warm spectrum (red, orange and yellow) when we observe light through dark. We see the cold spectrum (blue, indigo and violet) when we observe dark through light. And we see green when the spectrums exist closely together, mixing blue and yellow.

It's interesting to me in a new way now that queer communities, with all their various acronyms, have taken the rainbow as their symbol of liberation. It's also evident, I think, how my two stories exemplify that we live in a time where light and dark, for us, sit so loudly and paradoxically close together.

Finally, let's relate all this to leadership.  It's important, in taking a leadership role, individually and collectively, to understand these dialectics of the social complexity we both create and inhabit.

We need to remember to be grateful for the changes everyone has made and need still to make, even those whom we may see to have caused problems through ignorance. And we must, without risking our self-worth and safety, be generous to those who struggle to change what they have learnt to believe to be true and right.

Simultaneously we need to celebrate, support and nurture ourselves and each other as we strive to work in this difficult space, in between dark and light, and continue to make beautiful, vibrant rainbows.

Activism, advocacy and leadership

Activism is a great activity for young people. Angry, young, passionate people make great activists. They show the world, in no certain terms, what needs to change.

Great activists, as they mature, make great advocates. They have the experience and confidence to help others, who lack experience and confidence, to get what they need.

Great advocates, as they mature, make great leaders. They have the wisdom to create opportunities for open conversations between people from different walks of life in order to create the change that activists highlight and adv0cates navigate.

Be careful how you shine

I talked about the relationship between lightness and darkness in terms of colour. Now I want to talk about another aspect of this relationship that I learnt in the recent retreat I attended, run by Sue Davidoff and Allan Kaplan of the Proteus Initiative.

The other part of the connection between light and dark is that light creates darkness by casting shadow. The two go hand in hand – they are the equal and opposite reactions of each other. They are a manifestation of nature's perfect balance of positivity and negativity. We cannot have light without shadow; nor can we have shadow without light.

In the social setting of human endeavour, "doing good" can be equated with "creating light". It may be providing a human service, parenting a child, setting up an environmental organisation, even giving pleasure others through entertainment.

Whatever we do, when we create light by doing good, we cannot help to cast a shadow. So how does it manifest, this shadow of good-doing?

It may be the dependence you create in the people whom receive a great human service, or the assumption of complacent indispensibility into which the individuals or organisations providing it fall. It may be forgetting to meet your own needs in favour of your child's. It may be the unexpected disconnection and conflict between staff and management in your sustainable organisation. It may be the arrogant self-interest you get when you know people think you are very talented.

Where the shadow may manifest is uncertain. It may be inside or outside the individual or organisation. It may be close to or far from the good-doing. It may be obvious or subtle. What is certain though, is that the shadow is there, whether you notice it or not. And the more good that is done, the more shadow is cast. And the less it is noticed, the more harm it can do.

It becomes imperative, therefore, to become aware of the shadow so that it doesn't erode the light of the good-doing. It may involve dialogue within a team, arranging parenting support to get a break, checking in with service clients that what you are providing is actually working for them, restructuring a hierarchical organisation or checking that your stardom is not making you too big-headed.

This kind of conscious behaviour helps manage the shadow but, unfortunately, it will just move it around, in the same way a shadow moves when you move an object or the light shining on it.

The only way to lesson the shadow is to do something quite counter-intuitive, particularly if you work in any area of good-doing. It requires creating less light, by doing less good.

It may mean having the honesty, courage and humility to ask yourself, "Am I shining too brightly?" It may mean contemplating how you could share your light with others. It may even mean turning the light off altogether.

Or it may be about asking the paradoxical question: What is the light that comes from the shadow?

You are NOT entitled!

I've been noticing a shadow of the human rights movement in so many people lately that I just have to rant about it: entitlement.

Why do people think they're entitled to anything?

  • "Because I'm marginalised."
  • "Because I'm an employee."
  • "Because I'm your partner."
  • "Because somebody wronged me."
  • "Because I had a hard upbringing."
  • "Because other people have too much."
  • "Because...because...because..."

Entitlement is arrogant. It is an unnegotiated expectation that someone else will fulfill your desires. It is a deliberate shirking of self-responsibility. It is a naive belief that you should have something because you think it's right. It's a total disregard for your own creativity. 

Entitlement may have legal bearings, but even these can be argued against in court. 

This does not mean that we all don't have responsibilities. We have the responsibility to care for children, ensure people have basic human rights, do everything in our power to create harmonious environments. We have the responsibility to be generous, assertive, humble and grateful.

But believing you are entitled to respect because you are older, to food because you are hungry, to  money because you are poor, or to sympathy because you are sad — that's like crossing a road without looking, believing you are entitled to life.

Entitlement or responsibility — that's the choice. Which is for you?

Diversity and decay: it's not what you'd think

There was so much I learnt in the recent retreat run by Sue Davidoff and Allan Kaplan of the Proteus Initiative. I want to share another amazing insight, this time about the nature of diversity itself (and when I say "nature" I mean both the phenomena of the physical world and the basic or inherent features of something).

One of the exercises we did was to go and observe plants that were growing and dying (or decaying). We were asked to observe them carefully and then sketch them. Obviously the latter action is not a forté of mine but observation doesn't require much dexterity and I made a discovery that literally left me reeling for a moment. 

The first leaves I observed were growing. They had order and structure. They had a certain uniformity with the other leaves. They had a certain uniqueness, but amongst a common shape, colour and texture for that kind of leaf. 

The next leaves I observed were dying and decaying. They were random – chaotic even – in shape, colour and texture. Each were totally different.

Do you see what this means? There is more diversity in the process of decaying than in growing.

I don't know about you but I was gobsmacked. After spending twenty years understanding and helping others to understand diversity, I realised I needed to change my whole direction. In order to recognise and understand diversity (not create it, as it's already around in abundance), something had to decay in individuals, organisations, communities and humanity, not grow.

The question was, what exactly needs to decay?

It's taken me a few weeks to begin to be clear about a possible answer. So here is what I might call "Diversity in Decay v1.0".

  1. Individuals
    In individuals, what needs to decay is identity. In order to recognise your own and others' diversity, you need to let go of your idea of who you are or who you think the other person is. This may include dropping labels, assumptions, values and beliefs. You may hold them dear, but they will lock you into an idea of who you or someone else that is constrained by them. I realised this clearly when I spoke this week to a meeting of Gender Bridge, a community group established to provide support for transgendered people, their friends, families, and communities. In order to successfully understand and/or enter into a process of changing gender identity, you need to decay many things, including the values society places on static, binary notions of gender and your own idea of yourself as your biological or born gender.
  2. Organisations
    Most organisations see strategic diversity management as a way to add fairness, variety, competence and productivity to their workforces, services and/or products. They write policies and procedures, do awareness training and even "diversity activities" like putting on ethnic lunches, learning cultural traditions or acknowledging lifestyle differences. All well and good but, in my experience, this attempt to "do" diversity is often inauthentic and usually fails. Why? Because they forget to decay organisational culture – ideas of what is efficient, professional, acceptable and usual. Without losing these old notions of what was important, diversity strategies are token. (I heard a great quote fromTamarack & Vibrant Communities Associate Mark Cabaj a few weeks ago: "Culture eats strategy for breakfast." It is so true in this context.)
  3. Communities
    Where communities struggle with diversity, I believe, is in their need to hear or to speak with one voice. In short communities need to decay agreement. Communities tend to need common language, behaviour and structures to create collective identity. Like leaves on a healthy tree they want to foster a certain shape, colour and texture. Unfortunately, diversity within community is about embracing and working with paradox, discomfort and uncertainty. It's messy, frustrating and hard work.
  4. Humanity
    Humanity – no pressure. I'm aware I'm at risk of totally destroying my credibility by positing one thing everyone needs to do without, in order to embrace diversity. But what the hell. I'll put it out there. I think the thing that humanity needs to decay is the need for answers. Answers impede the exploration of diversity more than anything else in the world. Once we know (or think we know) the answer to who we are, or who someone else is, or how, or why or when, we stop asking questions. The Diversity Inquiry - or DIVINQ - process I designed a couple of years ago is based on that one simple premise – the need to inquire constantly about our personal and social dynamic.

There you go. Identity, or ganisational culture, agreement and the need for answers. Four very complex things we need to be prepared to let decay, in order to let diversity grow in abundance.

Not bad for a couple of leaves.

Our brainless obsession with categorisation

I think, unwittingly, many groups labelled “diverse” are guilty of creating division in society. The problem is our brainless obsession with categorisation. 

Two high profile news stories caused me to blog about this recently. First, radio station The Edge's "Hug a Ginga Day" and then World Cup ambassador Andy Haden's "darkies" comment.

Both fuelled debates in the media, as well as the lounges and lunch rooms of the nation. The arguments ranged from accusations of racism and even terrorist intent, to justifications of harmless fun and political correctness. Mitigations came thick and fast: the use of similar terms like "honky" for Europeans and the commonplace acceptance of blonde jokes make ginga-hugging and darkie-calling okay. 

I didn’t wade into the dialectic exercise of deciding whether either were right or wrong — to be frank, I thought both debates were trivial in the scheme of things. What interests me is that both issues exemplified our obsession with characterising ourselves and each other visually and, specifically in these cases, by reference to colour.

Let's blame the reptilian brain — the least sophisticated part of what American physician and neuroscientist Paul D. MacLean calls our triune (three-part) brain. This most ancient part connects us to dinosaurs, reptiles and birds, is responsible for instinctual behaviours such as aggression, dominance and territoriality.

According to British author, researcher and speaker David Icke, it responds to "partial representations" like colour and strangeness. Racism, among other forms of discrimination, is reptilian.

The two more evolved parts of the brain are the limbic system and neocortex. The limbic system governs motivation and emotion responsible for feeding, reproductive and parental behaviour. The neocortex, found only in mammals and most evolved in humans, produces language, abstraction, planning, and perception. People choose not to – or simply are unable to – engage these cerebral systems.

So when a person decides to design promotional days around hair colour or makes throwaway comments about sportspeople based on the colour of their skin, they are not necessarily being discriminatory or meaning to be offensive. They are just being lazy. 

They could think more complexly, but they are choosing not to because it's easier not to. They are using the most basic part of their brain to appeal to the lowest common denominator. The result is aggressive, dominant and territorial – and they risk hurting people in the process.

This is the extreme end of this reptilian process. But I wonder if a similar process hasn’t happened in the civil rights movements. Let’s take the gay/queer rights movements. 

Haven’t we just taken two “partial representations” (originally “heterosexual” and “sick”), and dreamt of a time when there would be more “partial representations” (eg. straight, gay, lesbian, bi, queer) and ended up with so many of them that we are stuck with an unpronounceable acronym (GGLBTTTFIQA(S))?

And then we call it diversity, when in fact it is just a more sophisticated version of partial representation and categorisation?

If we pretended that I’m right, that diversity is now limiting us more than serving us, the question that begs to be asked is, “What next?”

We could move on to considering spectra of diversity, sexuality and identity, which is what a lot of my work in the disability sector has been about. Presenting the notion of disability as a spectrum of functional diversity through which we move in, out and around during our life time.

Or we could think about dimensions – but if the difficulty I had making this slide visually represent something meaningful is anything to go by, then perhaps even a dimensional paradigm is not sufficient.

So what about fluidity?

I experienced a powerful example of how fluidity is becoming more of a social imperative at a recent forum run by Rainbow Youth. Several of the young people speaking were transsexual, having either transitioned from living as a young man to a young woman, or vice versa.

When I was 19 I came out as gay and that was difficult enough. I'm still recovering. These 20-somethings had already come out as bi, then lesbian, then male and are now often mistaken as being gay when they are actually straight.

Confused? That's fluidity for you.

What saddened me was that, in a world of Boy Georges and Ellens, Melissa Etheridges, Elton Johns and Ru Pauls, it's still not safe to come out as transsexual. You may not know that the guy you work with used to be a girl, because in our "modern" society, people are still threatened with isolation, hatred and violence if they do not conform to a binary notion of gender.

We have the highest youth suicide rate in the world, a high binge drinking rate among youth. How much of the cause of this is fear of categorisation and its impacts.

These impacts exist not just in the straight world, either. Gender and sexual orientation intolerance exists in the gay world as well and the panel believed the change needs to be led by the gay community. I agree.

Fluidity is about uniqueness and commonality, similarity and difference. Fluidity is not about what we believe, it's about how to believe, especially when we don't agree with others, or they disagree with us.

Fluidity is about self-awareness, communication, inquiry, exploration. It's about certainty and confusion, knowing and not knowing. It's about recognising fear and meeting it, head on, with love and peace. 

Where religion promotes fear and doctrine, where diversity promotes representation and categorisation, perhaps fluidity promotes realisation, wisdom and synergy. 

In a fluidity paradigm we can replace the plethora of partial representations with two areas of exploration: how are we common and how are we unique?

And with that simple yet complex landscape, we might have time to consider other elements of existence, such as:

  • Wisdom, which I define as Reality Experienced After Love
  • Identity, which encompasses internal and external elements, and congruency between these elements
  • Synergy or the interaction of two or more roles, behaviours, identities etc to produce a combined effect greater than the sum of their separate effects
  • And expression on a diversity of  levels – social, physical, emotional, cultural, intellectual, environmental, sexual and spiritual.

Together, these elements create the mnemonic WISE SPECIES. That's what I want us to be.

Diversity - straight from the horse's mouth

According to Wikipedia, "Clever Hans (in German, der Kluge Hans) was an Orlov Trotter horse that was claimed to have been able to perform arithmetic and other intellectual tasks. After a formal investigation in 1907, psychologist Oskar Pfungst demonstrated that the horse was not actually performing these mental tasks, but was watching the reaction of his human observers.

"Pfungst discovered this artifact in the research methodology, wherein the horse was responding directly to involuntary cues in the body language of the human trainer, who had the faculties to solve each problem. The trainer was entirely unaware that he was providing such cues.

"In honour of Pfungst's study, the anomalous artifact has since been referred to as the Clever Hans effect and has continued to be important knowledge in the observer-expectancy effect and later studies in animal cognition."

What's interesting about the Clever Hans effect, beyond animal cognition, is how it may impact on human interaction. How often do we observe a behaviour, hear something, or make sense of a dynamic, and apply our own personal meaning without making sure there is another interpretation?

Clever Hans is a reminder not only about the danger of making assumptions. It's also a lesson in diversity — that we live not only in a shared, common world, but also in seven billion individual, unique worlds, the scope of some of which we may not even know exists.