Creating safe and trusting spaces for difficult conversations
“For me the D&D circle within DA is a safe space. I came in as a consultant, and that role has transformed profoundly. I don’t think I have western words to describe that. And I really feel it needs to be captured. I did the trainings, and the trainings had an impact, and we created relationships, and we’re building something beyond just consulting. I think we need to look back and appreciate our journey together,even though we’ve made some mistakes and not everyone is happy with us.”Nontokozo Sabic
I met Dorian during a collapse retreat I took part in, in Russia, in March 2020. At the time, I was very tired and frustrated by the lack of learning about racism and colonialism on behalf of white Europeans in environmental movements. Also, I felt I was asked to hold indigenous ceremonies on such events and retreats, without any space being offered for me to speak about the social justice issues underlying climate change. So I started speaking out. At one point, Dorian came to sit down next to me, and admitted he had lost track of his original impetus to work on global sustainability and climate change, which was connected to the deep injustice of it all. He asked me how he could learn to do better. I felt deeply touched by his lack of defensiveness, and saw that he genuinely wanted to hear more and take action. Usually there is a strong reaction of defensiveness towards this topic from the white-body community.
That night, we walked in the ice together. We agreed that the Deep Adaptation Forum, once the retreat was over, would invite my help in support of opening spaces for such discussions in the network. This is how my journey started in Deep Adaptation. A few months later, we began having these conversations. I was soon invited to join the newly established DAF Diversity and Decolonising Circle, as a consultant.
These discussions were difficult at first. The Covid lockdowns had begun, and we were connecting through Zoom. But also because the subject was heavy and scary. Besides, I was starting to see how huge and international DAF was, as a network. I knew how people would react to these kinds of topics, and started wondering what was the point of even doing this, and what my role was supposed to be.
But I witnessed strong commitment from the Circle members to keep showing up, and build strong relationships, in spite of the conflicts and difficulties we faced from trying to heal the trauma of racial divide inside of us. People kept coming back, no matter what. I also found that everyone brought strong skills, especially as facilitators, and were able to be creative and use them to craft processes adapted to our specific context, which helped us overcome our difficulties. This commitment to being in the group even when it was difficult helped me feel able to trust these white-body people I worked with.
Now, through the work we do in the Circle, I have found a space of safety. A space in which I can openly speak about racism and other oppressions and be fully myself, without having to face the sort of complications and reactions I experienced from white-body people in other organisations. Even though others in the network might not be comfortable with what we do, and how we do it, we’ve managed to create this space to bring these topics to the forefront. And this has ripple effects, this has an impact on the network and in our personal lives, including other spaces that we interact with.
I think what has happened is very profound. I don’t have western words for it. While I originally joined this group only as a consultant, I feel an internal personal change has happened for me, which has given me hope. Now, I can say that I have a space where I can go which feels safe, with white-body people. This is so important! A white-body person cannot understand this – the privilege of feeling safe in spaces and groups and how whiteness can impact on the safety of BIPoC in spaces and group dynamics. It’s a space in which I can just express myself openly. It doesn’t feel heavy. Although I still experience racism in my life, having this space enables me to breathe and take care of myself, especially my mental health. It makes it possible for me not to feel like I’m fighting all the time.
It feels very important that we capture what we have achieved, so it can be shared, and maybe this experience can be replicated somewhere else. More people need to witness that this is something that is possible to achieve. Not just white-body people, but also our BIPoC community who are wounded by everyday struggles of oppressions, who are hurt and angry and are seeking justice. They need to know that there are other possibilities, which involve being able to relax, and to heal, without having to fight so much all the time. We can create those spaces of trust. Of course I do not take it for granted, I know it’s a privilege, a privilege that should be a basic human right.
Getting to this point required a lot of work and commitment from all of us, and it may not work in other organisations. Policies and strategies are useful, but not enough: radical systemic change will not come only from the justice system (the system is deliberately created to be as it is), or from the documents we write. It has to come from people committing to being on a journey of personal change and the willingness to create an inclusive and just world.