Thursday, June 30, 2011

Invisible Power and Privilege Part 2

by Miki Kashtan

In my previous piece I talked about what privilege is, and how its invisibility makes group dynamics so challenging when diversity is present.

Walking toward Togetherness
How do we address these historical and present challenges? What can we do, especially if we are people with privilege, to transform these conditions? Guilt and shame, though prevalent, too, are not likely to contribute, because they maintain separation. What I believe is needed is a way to face the excruciating pain and grief together, and forge ways together. The issues are structural and societal, not individual. Ultimately, the solutions will be, also. In the meantime, however, whoever is in the room, that particular collection of individuals, can learn to face the intensity using every tool available and more, so that they can learn to work together, and in the process put a drop in the bucket of showing that diverse groups can, indeed, work together.

However challenging these kinds of situations are, and whatever our position, we can move towards more inclusivity by learning and doing significant inner and outer work. To begin with, we can develop our understanding of the dynamics of power even when there are no explicit power-over or structural power experiences. If we are in a position of privilege, we can learn to trust what we hear from others, so we can learn to discern what happens which was previously opaque to us.

In addition, rather than waiting for people of color and/or working class people to join white- and/or middle-class-led organizations, those of us with privilege can join people-of-color-led or working-class-led organizations and learn to follow the lead of others. One of the ways that privilege works is that we are accustomed to knowing the answers and leading the way, and we continue to act in those ways. Without intending harm, just following our habit and what’s familiar, we create conditions that reinforce the power dynamics which are invisible to us and intolerable to others. By learning to follow others’ lead we change the dynamics and learn to work together.

Such capacity to work together is a necessity, not just a nice addition to our work. I am confident that the hard work of coming together and the collective actions that might arise from it are an essential ingredient for creating the level of togetherness and active interdependence necessary to bring about a social order that transcends separation while making room for differences and where people matter regardless of how their humanity manifests.

If you are drawn to learning more about this rich and charged area, and especially if you want to engage with others across race and class differences, one powerful opportunity for you is to join the 5th annual NVC and Diversity Retreat taking place July 23-30 in Northern California.

If you want to learn more on your own about privilege and its invisibility, you could get started by reading “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” By Peggy McIntosh, which is posted widely on the internet, and by watching “The Color of Fear” directed by Lee Mun Wah.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Invisible Power and Privilege

by Miki Kashtan

Some months ago I wrote a piece about privilege and needs (part 1 and part 2) where I explored what I see as the root causes of attachment to privilege. Here I want to look again at privilege with a different aim. I want to shed some light on the way privilege operates on a societal level, and how it comes to be so invisible. I also want to speak about the challenges of invisible power relations as they play out within groups.

Understanding Privilege
Privilege is a form of invisible power. Sometimes privilege also provides us with structural power in direct relationship with another. In the past, this form of privilege was legalized and prevalent. For example, until not that long ago, men had the legal right to have sex with their wives, and consent was not necessary. Such forms of formal privilege have largely been removed, because the official sanctioning of privilege is no longer socially acceptable.

As a result, in recent decades the structural nature of privilege is much more invisible and indirect. As a person with fairly light skin, for example, I have access to untold number of privileges that are mine to enjoy and which are not available to people with darker skin. I can, as a very simple example, go in and out of stores without having security officers look at my movements. If I stand in the street and wave a taxi, it’s likely to stop for me. If I break the law, I am likely to get a lighter sentence than a person who belongs to other groups.

Those of us with privilege are often unaware of the legal or social norms that give us access to such resources simply by virtue of being members of a certain group, without any particular action or even awareness on our part. It’s easy to assume that everyone would have the same access, or to not even think about it at all. Even when our privilege provides us direct individual advantage at the direct expense of another individual, the direct relationship may be hidden under socially sanctioned norms such as individual merit which replace the more explicit forms of the past. A particularly acute example of such relationships occurs both in the educational system and in the workplace.

And so it is that these forms of privilege are largely invisible to those of us who have them unless we take proactive action to learn about them. Those without such access, on the other hand, are usually acutely aware of their lack of access. This creates a gap in experience which is usually excruciating for members of both groups.

Privilege and Group Dynamics
Considering how invisible privilege can be to those who have it, and yet how apparent to those who don’t, it is no surprise that creating truly diverse groups and organizations is the exception rather than the norm.

Here’s one classic form this struggle takes. Whenever I am in any group in which the question of diversity arises there will almost invariably be a well-meaning white person who will express some version of “Why can’t we all just get along and forget our differences. We’re all human, after all, aren’t we?” The gap between this experience and the pervasive, acute, and unending barrage of discrimination, lack of access to material resources, and encounters with the authorities takes more effort to bridge than most people have energy for, especially those who are already worn out by such ongoing challenge of just making it through the day every day. Even if nothing gets said, the gap in experience remains enormous, all the while being known to one group and not to the other.

In addition to the gap in experience in terms of understanding what happens, the different training that different groups receive, itself part of the gap in access to resources, recreates societal dynamics within the group. White people, men, and people with class privilege are more likely to speak in groups and to have their opinions taken seriously than people of color, women, or lower class people, respectively. As one particularly painful example, when a jury is selected, the likeliest person to be chosen as foreman, and I use that word in this way deliberately, is the white male with the highest education in the room. We clearly don’t mean to dominate or take away from others’ access to power, to choice, to participation in decisions, to shaping the vision and direction of a group. And yet we do, without knowing we do it.

Different access to resources makes for different life experiences, which makes for different perspectives, sometimes even about reality or the nature of life. This is part of why the conversation can get so hard. In many situations the differences in perspective are so deep that we see and hear completely different realities, even before the inevitable process of interpretation and assigning meaning to what we observe begins. When the gap is so large, both people want to be heard at the same time while simultaneously having trouble hearing others.

Stay tuned for the 2nd part of this post in the coming days.

Monday, June 20, 2011

No Pushing, No Giving Up

by Miki Kashtan

One of the common misconceptions about the practice of Nonviolent Communication is that it’s about being “nice.” It’s probably a similar misconception to that of thinking of nonviolence as passivity. I believe both misconceptions derive from our habit of either/or thinking. Most of us don’t have models for a path that’s neither aggressive nor passive. Within this either/or thinking, if the only two models are imposing on others or giving up on our own needs, many of us will interpret nonviolence as the latter.

What does this look like? In our relationship to authority, I already wrote about how we can move beyond submission and rebellion. When parenting, as my sister Inbal described in Compassionate Connection: Nonviolent Communication with Children, we can find a path that’s neither coercive nor permissive. And in our relationships, we can find that sweet spot between pushing for what we want and giving up on what we want.

The either/or paradigm as it applies to human relationships rests on two assumptions. One is that we are separate form each other. The other is that there isn’t enough to go around. It is the combination of these two assumptions that pits us against each other fighting for our needs. It is this legacy that prevents us from having satisfying relationships of authenticity and care. As soon as any difference arises between what we want and what someone else wants, our habits direct us to push or give up. How can we transform this legacy?

From Demands to Requests
If we are habituated to pushing for what we want, the message we convey to everyone around us is that their needs don’t matter. If we are the boss or the parent, our employee or child, as the case may be, is put in a position of doing what we want or suffering consequences. While we may get what we want on some superficial level, the cost is high. Every time someone does something just because we have the power to deliver unpleasant consequences, we lose respect, or love, or both. 

In a relationship of fundamental equality, pushing for what we want looks like a fight. When we don’t have the power to deliver consequences, we can’t officially punish or fire the other person. We can, and do, call them names, or judge them, or get angry, or give them the silent treatment, or take revenge at a later time. That’s what “punishment” looks like between equals. The result is the same. We are watering resentment and fear in the other person, and our own well-being is likely to be held with less and less care by them.

Shifting from making demands and pushing for what we want into an interdependent relationship of mutual care invites us to change our orientation to life as well as how we interact. Making requests is premised on integrating the radical understanding that if something works for us and not for another we pay a price that’s too dear. It also rests on choosing, wholeheartedly, to transcend the fear of scarcity so we can commit to the other person’s needs mattering alongside ours. 

From Agreement to Empathy 
If we are habituated to giving up on what we want, the message we convey to others is that our needs don’t matter, and they can do whatever they want without concern for the effect their actions have on us. Transforming this habit takes two steps. The first is learning to differentiate between agreement and understanding, so that we can offer our empathic presence and interest to another without thereby feeling compelled to do what they want. For many of us this shift requires an inner transformation so that we can take our own needs seriously enough to be willing to offer our hearts to another without necessarily agreeing to do what they want. 

Once we are able to set our own internal limits and trust our capacity to stand up for our needs, we can develop the flexibility and discernment to know when we are caving in and when we are acting out of true generosity of heart.

Asking for What We Want
The second step of shifting our habits and letting others know that our needs matter is learning to ask for what we want. Often enough we don’t ask because of being afraid that we will be seen as making demands. This is where both ends of the either/or split come together. For those of us who find it hard to let go of having what we want, learning to ask is about letting go of outcome. For those of us who have a hard time asking at all, learning to ask is about embracing our power, our significance as human beings, and the preciousness of our needs.

Ultimately, what we need to learn is to shift from pushing or giving up to full engaging with both of our needs.

I will be doing a 2-session phone summer course on this topic and I invite those of you who are intrigued to get more information and consider if this might just be the nudge for you. If you are local to the Bay Area or are open to travelling for a weekend of more in-depth learning, I look forward to meeting you.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Power and Humility – Part 2

By Miki Kashtan

This is part 2 of a post I wrote last week. This is my continuing exploration. If anyone is looking for answers, I don’t have them. All I know is to keep asking the questions, to keep opening my eyes and ears and heart to more and more input, and to keep taking the next step, whatever it is, knowing full well I don’t know how.
Perhaps the most pressing question for me remains the question of the limits of my resources. What does it really mean to care for everyone's needs, to really care, and also hold clarity about finitude of my resources? When I fully let myself feel the weight of this, I could scream, because I care not only about the people with whom I happen to come in contact. Although in some ways impersonal, my care for all people living on this planet, and for the unspeakable horrors so many experience on a daily basis is large and the level of pain I am in about it often beyond my capacity to tolerate. How do I match that up with my limits?

I derive some solace from a poem written by a friend, Ted Sexauer, who is a Vietnam vet:

I am not responsible
for the movement of the earth
only what I can handle
what I can take in
is the right amount

I find it easier to know my limits with regards to people I don’t know than with regard to those I do. When someone is in front of me, on my path, someone I interact with, whose life is affected directly by my choices, I struggle mightily with knowing when and how to extricate myself. I do it. I am just never sure whether I am truly holding the other person’s needs as I do it, or essentially succumbing to my lack of imagination and closing off, however slightly.
This is a complex issue for anyone with anyone. It gets even more entangled for me when I am the one in a position of power. Honoring my limitations then borders too closely for my comfort with an assertion of my power over others. I don’t know what it means to use my power with others when I am reaching the limits, when there are more people with whom to be in communication about more things and more often than I can possibly handle.
One of the lesser known aspects of Communist parties is the practice known as “criticism/self-criticism.” What I like about it based on my readings is the intention to provide feedback, including to self, to keep learning, and to support learning for others. I am particularly delighted to see that the process was intended to be applied to people in leadership positions alongside others within the party.
From what I read, I have quite a bit of trust in the intention that led to set up this process. In particular I was relieved to see an instruction put out to stay away from personal attack, and to criticize political and organizational mistakes rather than character. I still find the prospect of this process horrifying. I want people in power to receive feedback, not criticism. The two are dramatically different, even if some of what gets looked at can be incorporated into both. Feedback supports learning, while criticism tends to stir up shame.
For myself, I am still learning through feedback more than any other way, and I am not done. I don’t expect to ever be done for as long as I live. I so much want to know how to train or encourage people to stand up to me and tell me of their experience of me when I am in a position of power. For example, I know I need to learn something about why it is that with all of my profound commitment to power-sharing, learning, transparency, and vulnerability, I still hear regularly that people feel disempowered in relation to me. Is there something for me to change, or is it part and parcel of living in our culture that some people will not find their voice and power even when I am open to sharing it? What can I do to minimize the risk? Is there a different invitation I can issue?
Embracing Power
The more I look at power, the more I find fascinating and endless challenges to explore, grapple with, and continue. As soon as we drop the two positions of authoritarian power and abdication of power, we are on our own, figuring it out, without clear role models. The way through, as so often, is not by returning to previous models of authority but by finding new forms of authority that engage differently with power.
For example, I know that I, and others, can get caught in what I sometimes affectionately call the tyranny of inclusion. I believe it's another of the issues that stops those of us working for change from being effective. I see it as based in fear of making decisive moves and offending others. I am learning. Balancing unabashed power with complete humility is such a new territory for us to explore. I feel myself on a learning edge, sometimes alone, sometimes discouraged, and mostly curious and excited.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Telling the Truth to Create Intimacy

by Miki Kashtan

I have a close friend I walk with every week. We have been doing it regularly for about three years now. The walking and the friendship are mutually reinforcing, and as far as I am concerned, this practice could continue indefinitely.

So I was shocked when, one evening a few months ago, I got an email letting me know that my friend would be taking a break from walking with me, at least for a while, starting the next day. My friend, let’s call her Nancy, asked to know my response to her message, affirmed her sense of connection with me, explained what the reason for the break was (she needed her energy for some major projects in her life, which made total sense to me), and proposed other ways of staying in touch. 

As I sat down to write an email response to Nancy, I connected to a deep well of sadness. I knew that the “right” answer was to express my understanding and acceptance and to let it go. Instead, I chose to express the full truth – without holding back, without losing care for Nancy. In the depth of sadness and loss that I was at, this was no small task. I was particularly upset about the unilateral decision she made instead of bringing the issues to joint holding, so we could figure out something together. 

This started a couple of rounds of emails, followed by a one-time walk we scheduled to have an in-person conversation about it, which spilled into a second walk, and resulted in a reaffirmation of our shared commitment to the walks. They have since become even more satisfying for both of us. 

This seeming miracle resulted from bringing to the light of day everything that had not been said before. Nancy, it turns out, had been trained, like so many of us, to withhold anything that might be unpleasant or charged for the other person to hear. Although her love for me and appreciation for our friendship and time together were absolutely deep and genuine, there were things she didn’t feel able to tell me about ways of acting on my part that were mildly distressing for her. Mild enough in the moment so as to be able to tell herself that she could let go. And yet, over time, bothersome enough that interacting with me required some slight ongoing effort, and made our walks, despite how nourishing they were, feel like “work.” On top of that, she was raised with a strong sense of responsibility, and didn’t feel at ease about canceling if and when she didn’t have the energy for a walk. She pushed herself so hard inside, that she finally lost her ability to hold me with care, and thus came the abrupt unilateral decision.

At different times in our conversation one or the other of us cried as we reached for deeper places in our hearts. Nancy finally got to a place of feeling freer than ever, because she was able to tell me everything, and because we came to an agreement that gave her explicit room to cancel on any given week. I, on the other hand, was finally given priceless feedback I am always so hungry for. I was able to learn something about how my challenge around humility affected both Nancy and some other people I came in contact with through her. It’s no secret to me that some of my ways of being are challenging for others, and I can’t think of a better way of learning than through the experience of someone I care about and trust as much as I trust Nancy.  

On another occasion, with another friend, whom I will call Lorraine, I learned that when she is not doing well she is likely to choose to withdraw rather than ask for support. As we talked about what leads her to this choice, we discovered together that in some fashion she has a habit of acting within her relationships as if the well-being of the other person is more important than her own, which takes some effort. When she is not doing well, she simply doesn’t have the energy to expend on that effort. The result, a somewhat one-sided friendship, doesn’t actually work for me, because I want a friendship that nourishes both of us. To put it somewhat bluntly: a friendship that’s designed to work only for me doesn’t really work for me. While we didn’t come to some epiphany or clear resolution, the mere talking about this dilemma, and the holding of it together, brought us to a place of more appreciation for what we bring to each other, and a clearer sense of intimacy.

I see a striking similarity between these two unrelated situations, and a lot to learn about what makes relationships thrive. However scary it can sometimes be, telling the truth creates more intimacy. Instead of believing that we have to sort things out on our own, we can bring our incomplete process to each other and be together in the uncertainty of life.

Navigating what comes up may take some skill and a willingness to experience discomfort and step into unknown territory. This is probably why so many of us avoid it so much of the time. We tell ourselves we can let go, and yet we build resentment. We stretch to hold the other person with care, and don’t notice that we are giving up on ourselves in some subtle way. We prioritize harmony, and we lose depth and authenticity. Ultimately the source of the difficulty is about seeing honesty and care as mutually exclusive instead of recognizing the extraordinary possibilities that arise when we bring our dilemmas, our sorrows and doubts, and our less-then-together selves to each other at the same time as our love, empathy, and understanding. The result is nothing short of resilient and graceful intimacy, the kind we all desire.

These principles apply in all relationships, and most especially in intimate partnerships. If you would like to know more about telling truth to create intimacy, and other ways to make your relationships work, I would like to invite you to a workshop I am facilitating called "Peace Starts at Home". It's primarily designed for couples, and is open to anyone who wants to explore dialogue as a way of life.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Power and Humility - Part 1

by Miki Kashtan

Some time ago I wrote about submission and rebellion, the two poles that we have inherited as traditional responses to another’s power. Today I want to return to this topic from a different angle, which is whether and how we can transform power dynamics, so that the statement that “power corrupts” no longer appears so completely like a truism. Another way of asking this question: what does it take for any of us to become “incorruptible,” meaning being so strong in our inner practice that we can withstand the allure of power? I want to believe that we can operate in a way that diminishes and eventually makes obsolete the responses of submission and rebellion.

I am a relatively small fish in the large order of things. I have less than 400 subscribers to this blog, for example. The organization I co-founded has about 10 employees, and I have at most a few hundred former and current students who look to me actively as their teacher. Nonetheless, I am quite aware of at least some of the dynamics of power within which I operate, and have intimate knowledge, even on the small scale at which I operate, of the dilemmas and complexities that come with power.

The Challenge of Structural Power 

In blunt terms, having structural power means having the option of attending to my needs without including others’ needs. Structural power means access to resources based on my position within a structure, not based on relationship or personal resources. Here are some personal examples:
* As a boss (which I mostly am not), I  can fire someone. They cannot
   fire me.
* As a program leader, I can choose not to give someone access to the
   program, they cannot restrict my access in the same way.
* When I sit in a room and speak, people listen to me and are likely to go along
   with what I want much more often than when someone else, who is not a
   “designated” leader, speaks into the same group.

I find it extraordinarily challenging to know this and to have any clarity about how to operate in integrity. I am so committed to moving forward in a way that honors everyone’s integrity, dignity, and autonomy that I sometimes act with less than my full personal power in certain moments as a way to avoid imposing anything on anyone. I know enough to know I want to transform this habit, and am chipping away at it. I am not yet where I want to be. This is a learning edge for me.

The Temptation
I hold a very large vision for the world, and my life is completely mobilized for the foreseeable future to do all I know to do to increase the likelihood of a livable future. This is a lot of work, a huge amount of effort. I teach, I write, I am a key leader in BayNVC, I created and continue to offer leadership to the Consciousness Transformation Community, I am part of several collaborations, and I receive a steady stream of requests from former students, colleagues, and others. That in itself is more than a full life.

I also have a sister, Inbal, that I love beyond words and who is living with cancer. I am a major and active part of her support and care network. This is a journey full of uncertainty and immense beauty, as my two sisters are the biggest joy of my life. (Inbal is doing well at present, in case you are worried, and that’s not always been the case in the last four years and may not continue.)

If that’s not enough, I myself had cancer in 1997 and want to do all I can to minimize the risk of having another one (cancer runs deeply in my family, on both sides), I am very committed to attending to my own body and self-care, and to do things that nourish me.

Between these three primary commitments, my life is essentially unmanageable. The metaphor of a blanket that’s too short seems very apt to me. And, on top of that, I am a person with many sensitivities, physical, emotional, and social, and I find daily living often challenging.

I crave ease in the midst of so many commitments and challenges.

I know I am far from the only one who is challenged by life. Many many people are craving ease in the midst of challenging lives, all over the world. Most of them will never have enough ease and relief. I can’t not be aware of that truth. I also know that I do have enough power to arrange for some ease in my life if I want to use my power in this way.

Because I am so mobilized and putting so much of my energy towards service, I can easily “justify” using my power to create ease for myself. I feel that pull. I also know, and trust this insight, that it’s not going to serve the world for me to resist the pull and do nothing to create ease in my life, because it would result in my being less effective. At the same time I want to stay clear of slipping into more and more ways of creating ease that are less and less aligned with my values. Like many, this is a very complex line to walk.

For example, I like the outcome of my own decisions and how I do things better than most people most of the time. Full ease would mean making all the decisions and telling other people what to do to support me. That is too far, too similar to old models, and in that way ultimately not serving my vision. It’s also not doable for me emotionally, because I have a visceral aversion to imposing my will on others. I am still learning about when and how to involve other people in decisions and in the doing to maximize effectiveness, connection, collaboration, and empowerment for all of us. Like many things, this is a tall order.

Full ease would also mean working only with people who are fully empowered in their relationship with me, able to transcend the submit/rebel paradigm and make choices based on their full sense of inner power, and easily aligned with my vision and direction. This would mean people who can say “no” to me when I ask them to do something, who would give me divergent opinions when I offer mine, and who would be relaxed and comfortable shifting through dialogue with me. It would mean people who can speak clearly and articulate what’s important to them even when there is tension, as well as able to hear me and open their hearts to me without much effort. That’s a lot to ask for. If I don’t have it with someone, then I am at a loss about how to tend to the relationship with integrity, how to use my power with people, when it could take so much effort and open spaces in my schedule to do so. How can I do it? How can I not?

As often, I have more to say than fits in one entry. Stay tuned for the continuation of this topic in the coming days.