A journey of deep learning in the Diversity & Decolonising Circle
“I think part of me, and one of my character traits, is to listen – I’m interested in other people’s life stories. And so I realized that I wasn’t hearing people’s life stories, because I was telling a story that those people couldn’t get around, you know, they couldn’t be heard, because my story was sitting over their stories. And in so many aspects, you know, I would speak about Deep Adaptation, saying ‘For me, it’s like this.’ And then just that small voice occasionally that would come up and go, ‘Well, for me, it’s absolutely not like that, you know, for various reasons’. And I realized that I certainly wasn’t the only one who was doing that, and that there was probably a – not probably, I knew that there was a deeply rich layer of knowledge and experience around the process that I wanted to go through with Deep Adaptation that we were completely missing because there were so many loud voices shouting with what I’ve come to realize is white privilege and white supremacy.”Wendy Freeman
How the D&D circle got started
I met Sasha Daucus during the DAF Strategy Options Dialogue in 2020. We were both in a breakout room on the topic of diversity or lack of diversity, and were wondering what could be done in DAF on this issue.
It was around the time of George Floyd’s murder in the US. There were riots, and the #BLM movement had become more of a focal point for me and others.
Around the same time, I witnessed an incident in which a Person of Colour was silenced and forced out of a group I was in, within the permaculture network, for complaining about racism. This person was a friend of mine. So I got together with two other white people to stand with them. This made these issues even more present for me. (Since then, I have fed back into this group some of the work and thinking we did in the D&D circle, which resulted in changes in the language on their website and in their charter.)
As a result of this context, I became increasingly aware of the privilege I had of being able to speak out loudly and forcefully in the DA Facebook group, about things I didn’t agree with. One incident, in particular, struck me deeply: I had just posted a comment that I felt quite pleased with in the group, and a person with disabilities pointed out that this comment was ableist, and didn’t land well with them at all. This gave me the feeling of having a mirror held up to myself, and allowing me to notice more of my privilege (including that of having access to a computer and internet access), and the white worldview that I have, which is also predominant in the group. And I realised that I was not the only one expressing myself loudly in this group, and preventing other voices and other stories from being heard: it dawned on me that there was a deeply rich layer of knowledge and experience around the process that I wanted to go through with Deep Adaptation that we were completely missing because of these loud voices in the room. After all, Deep Adaptation is about changing the narratives we live by, and transforming the culture we live in, because it’s killing the planet.
This made me want to learn to step back to give more space to these other voices – but also learn to step in to make this space safer, by engaging with the other loud voices in the room that can be harmful in completely unconscious ways. I knew I needed to learn the language and skills to do this better.
So Sasha and I decided to launch an initiative that would help to make the Deep Adaptation Forum more inclusive. Talking about this topic with her, over WhatsApp and some Zoom calls, a picture started to take form. Sometimes, all you need is one other person to give an idea some legs! It felt very organic.
The DAF Core Team reached out to us and were very supportive of our initiative from the start, which helped us to set up a structure for our discussion group – which became the Diversity & Decolonising Circle – within the Forum. Sasha and I were very well supported in going forward, as two “plain volunteers,” so to me this is an example of the DAF governance structure working tremendously well. Most of the Core Team joined us in the group, and Dorian invited Nontokozo to join us in a consulting role, to provide us with some guidance.
We were not sure what to do, but had the sincere desire to provide a safer space within DAF for Black, Indigenous and People of Colour, who are going through collapse and have been through collapse and their ancestors have been through collapse. Deep Adaptation is very much about them, too.
Our group quickly built strong relationships, as we try to meet every week. These relationships have been very important to us.
Learning about my own white supremacy and racism
The more time I spend doing research and spending time in this group, the more I realize that I am absolutely racist. And there are so many things that have happened through the circle that have helped me with that work – although I realise how much more work I still have to do.
Heather Luna, who was part of the circle at one stage, ran some “white supremacy culture” workshops in the forum. I found out that I could tick every single one of the 20 boxes for behaviours and beliefs that define white supremacy culture. Almost every single one of those was about something that I do, or things that I hold dear, such as being right or always speaking first. It felt like a big slap in the face. As a result, I have definitely taken on this understanding of myself as having white supremacy culture.
Since then, I try to be more aware of myself speaking, particularly in groups where there are Indigenous people or People of Colour. I know that I tend to always jump in and speak first, as a strongly held habit that I am trying to work on.
Similarly, the gentle education that I’ve had in the circle, and particularly from working closely with Nonty (Nontokozo Sedibe) , has shown me that racism is very present in me. In the past, I’ve sometimes noticed racism in other white people, but thought I myself wasn’t racist. But now I realise that a lot of things I have said, and that I probably will say, are in fact unconsciously racist, and deeply separating.
This may be partly due to my education – I was born and raised in South Africa, and only left the country at age 37. So I have been socialised into white supremacy and racism from a very young age. Everything about me is born of the privilege of being a white South African. I was at university as Nelson Mandela was being released and apartheid came to an end, so I had access to intellectual information about racism. I don’t think I’ve ever consciously tried to be racist towards someone, but I’ve been taught to differentiate between People of Colour and white people – it’s a huge part of how my mind has been formed. I have to unpick this. In particular, I want to become more aware of the words that come out of my mouth, and avoid presenting those things in front of people who will be hurt by them.
Through my engagement in the circle, I have also learned how to better communicate with other White people when I notice that what they are saying may be problematic. Instead of telling them that they are wrong, I talk of my own experiences and beliefs and understanding, and I let people hear the problem in the language/thinking, by critiquing myself.
I practiced using this language on several occasions in the DA Facebook group, in response to comments that had an ecofascist slant, for example when people talked about overpopulation – which generally refers to there being too many non-white people in the world. When this happened, I didn’t call out these comments as “ecofascist,” but mentioned how I would have said similar things in the past, and how I had become educated about the implications of such statements. There was also an example on a Zoom call where a Person of Colour was a participant. Someone else made a comment about overpopulation, and I saw this person flinch. So I stepped in, said that the comment could be received as a microaggression by People of Colour on the call, and that I felt it wasn’t OK. I left it at that.
The Person of colour felt supported I think, as they then spoke up in the group call and explained why the comment was problematic from their perspective. It was educational, and I don’t know if this discussion could have happened if I hadn’t stepped in as a white person and pointed out the elephant in the room.
In the past, I would have winced, and avoided stepping into such conversations, but I feel that participating in the work of the circle has given me the courage to do so. Also, because I am involved in this circle, I feel it is a responsibility for me to try and make spaces safer, and thus embody in action the circle’s charter, even though I always speak from a personal standpoint, not as an official member of a Diversity group. I want to improve my skills around being an ally, and so I try to intervene in order to engage in deeper learning, and become better with the language I use. Sometimes I’m a bit off, and people will give me some feedback.
Loretta Ross’s course
I gained a huge amount from Loretta Ross’s training, “Calling In the Calling Out Culture.” I wanted to attend it in order to learn how to better express myself and help make the spaces I engage in safer, and more inclusive. In fact, I had already offended another white person in our circle in the past, due to my use of language.
The course was very rich and useful. As a result of taking it, I’ve become much more confident, and I have learned better skills on how and when to engage with people directly, mostly using private messages, instead of publicly (i.e calling the person “in” rather than publicly “out”). For example, whenever I see racist comments from South African men on my personal timeline, I call them “in” first about it, in a private message. If I receive poor feedback or a more racist response, I may call them “out” on my public channel, and ask them to apologise. If they don’t do it, I remove them from my friends list – which I had to do with one person.
On one occasion, a close family member said something problematic during a family call. I pointed out that it was a racist comment. He was angry at me for doing so, but later we had some good conversations about it. As a result of our discussions, he doesn’t share the kind of racist jokes that he used to in the past, and he has also toned down the more patriarchal or anti-feminist things he used to express before. So it was difficult for him at first, as he really didn’t feel he was “racist” – but talking about how he sounded, something has shifted. He and I are very close and have deep trust, which might have helped. Calling out racism with people we love is very hard, and risky.
The transformative power of conflict resolution
For me, the work of anti-racism and decolonising, on a private, personal, interior level, has very much been part and parcel of the work that we’ve gone through in resolving conflict in this group. We are all colonised: we are brought up to have expectations of what work looks like, what our purpose is, and how we should appear to others. We want to maintain an ideal picture of ourselves for others to see. The conflict-resolution process that I went through, for some conflict that I was involved in, was incredibly helpful to peel away some of these onion skins.
Katie Carr facilitated this process for us. She just gave me and the other person some space, in which she held a very safe and secure center for each of us to bring our version of the story. We took turns doing this, digging deeper and deeper, with no “feedback” – just telling each other how we had felt and what our intentions were (not critiquing each others stories). It enabled me to see myself from an outsider’s perspective, and gave me deep insights into how different people with good intentions can approach the same situation. Because we look at the world through our own lens, broadening the scope of that lens and understanding that the other person sees the same situation in a very different light can be very helpful.
The process was extremely interesting – and I think it will be a completely unique way of learning for anyone who goes into it.
Thanks to this process, I started to better understand the white supremacist pattern of assuming oneself to be always right. This encourages us to argue with people who think we are wrong, and try to fight them down, and get them to be wrong. But in this space, I realised that while I may be right, the other person is also 100% right! What had happened was some form of miscommunication between us – not just in the use of words, but in what the words stood for, or how we presented ideas. I also found that none of us meant harm: we both wanted to do the right thing, but in so doing, we hurt or triggered each other, or attempted to paint a picture that we felt should be true for the whole group – which couldn’t happen.
I personally feel that the D&D circle became much more intimate as a result of this conflict transformation process. A lot of things shifted.
The awareness I developed in the process also helped me find a way to have that difficult conversation with my family member around racism, as I drew inspiration from the process to hear them out, and then tell them what I was feeling. In another instance, we took advantage of what we had learned in our conflict-resolution process, in order to defuse tensions that were emerging between two of us from the Diversity Circle, and another Deep Adaptation Volunteer, around a certain project. We had a call, and managed to create a space in which each of us could be heard on a very sensitive and personal topic. This allowed the other person to better understand what we in the Diversity Circle had in mind, but also gave them the chance to give us some wise advice, and improve the approach we had originally. As a result, there is now much deeper trust and mutual understanding between the three of us.
Although the work of conflict transformation can be incredibly painful, there is no better way to learn about oneself. So I think people should welcome conflict as an opportunity to help themselves, and their group in which the conflict happens, shift. Besides, the work of Deep Adaptation is to keep looking for the love in our situation and in this predicament. And as the physical predicament gets worse for all of us, the urge to exclude people we don’t get along with will become stronger, and our circles will become smaller. So for me, it’s very important to learn to get on with people that we don’t necessarily understand. I think the best way to begin practicing is with someone who is similar to you, speaks the same language, and has a lot of common ground with you – although you don’t get on with them for some reason. To prepare for the situations where we are in serious conflict with those who have very different ideas from us. We need to find ways to get on. It’s difficult, but there’s a huge amount of personal growth that arises out of being able to do that, and it feels to me, to be a fundamental tool in the Deep Adaptation toolbox.
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