Saturday, June 29, 2013

The Supreme Court in Action: A Painful Mixed Bag

by Miki Kashtan

Yesterday: the plaintiffs in California's Prop 8 case marry at last
Those of us who have grown up in the industrialized Western world have been fed a steady diet of faith in progress, dating back to the European Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. We were told that between the ongoing evolution and maturation of the human species, especially the freeing of our minds from the shackles of superstition and faith and replacing it with reason, and the astounding accomplishments and discoveries of science and technology, life will continue to improve. There may be setbacks, and still, on the whole, we are on a path towards a bright future.

I’ve always been suspicious of this tale, and only more so over time. It’s not so much that I don’t see aspects of life that I trust have improved since hundreds or even dozens of years ago. It’s that I also see aspects of life that have gotten worse, some alarmingly so, within that same time period. This is true both on the material plane and even more so on the social plane. Compared to our pre-industrial ancestors, we have much more convenience, and less time, overall, to enjoy it. We have far fewer deaths from infectious diseases, and far more from degenerative ones. We have more choice, and less community.

I was shocked, for example, when I first learned that there was a higher percentage of women faculty in universities in the 1910s and 1920s than in the 1970s! Even more so, when I learned that shortly after the end of the Civil War, for a short period of time, Black people were even elected to Congress – and then the Jim Crow system was installed which took decades to challenge and at least partially dismantle.

It is within this context that I see the Supreme Court decisions of last week. Much as I am celebrating the overturning of the Defense of Marriage Act – which now allows same sex couples to have the same access to married privileges provided they live in the right states – my joy is truly overshadowed by the sense of defeat and mourning of the striking out of the core element of the Voting Rights Act, the iconic accomplishment of the Civil Rights movement in 1965. Are we moving forwards or backwards or both? I can only quote Tom Atlee, who coined a phrase that has stayed with me for years: “Things keep getting better and better and worse and worse faster and faster all the time.”

Why my grief ultimately is the more pronounced is that I have some modicum of knowledge about the immensity of what it took to create the conditions for the US Congress and President to accept the Voting Rights Act in 1965. The amount of mobilization, the amount of love and courage, the amount of strategy and leadership, and the immense suffering of so many to achieve these goals are inconceivable to me at this time. All the more grief because here we are, once again being in a position where, if we want to protect the rights of some people to have access to the meager participation in decision making that electoral politics offers, we will need that same kind of genius and determination, because the legal recourse is no longer there. The children in this image from 1965 saying "Let our parents vote" are now in their 60s and have been able to vote all their adult lives, so long as they didn’t run foul of the New Jim Crow, but now may have to fight the fight over again for themselves and their own offspring. I sure hope this time around there will be more white people working with them than back then, willing to take risks to transform the system that still bars so many people from full access to basic civil and human rights.

As to why this happened in the way that it did, I can only refer you to an analysis from Michael Lerner. I don’t have a word to add or take from this piece. It’s called Why “Voting Rights, NO, Gay Marriage, YES” from the Supreme Court? I urge you to read it. I urge all of us to never give up. 

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Creating a Welcoming Community

by Miki Kashtan

A year ago, I wrote a piece about some of the pitfalls of learning and using Nonviolent Communication. That piece has been one of my most popular ones, and I received a number of comments that pointed out more areas to explore in how to possibly make Nonviolent Communication (NVC) ever more practical, relevant, and authentic. Today I want to address one aspect of this that is related to how welcoming the NVC community can be. I see this as an exercise in humility, acceptance, and flexibility.

Humility doesn’t come easily to me individually. Perhaps because of this awareness, I am quite vigilant about maintaining it as a commitment with regards to NVC. I am sadly aware that the NVC community is not welcoming to some groups of people. Most obviously, I know that if I were a Republican, I would find the groups of people attracted to NVC outright inhospitable. This is not true only of NVC groups, and is sadly familiar to me in any group of people I have seen so far who are politically left of center. 

Here’s one example. Some years ago, I was offering monthly coaching calls to volunteers and activists of the Peace Alliance in support of their ability to work effectively on the Department of Peace campaign – not an NVC group! I remember two specific moments that highlight this difficulty. One was a moment in which someone on the call spoke up and said that she was a Republican, and talked about how hard it was for her to work with the other people in the group, the assumption that everyone would be a Democrat being one of the stumbling blocks for her. The other moment was when I did something akin to a collective role-play. I asked everyone on the call to imagine that they are opposed to the proposed legislation to establish a federal department of peace, and to imagine, as that person, hearing some of the things that they routinely say to each other or the arguments they make about the legislation. Then I asked them if, as that person, they felt any sense of care or respect for themselves. They immediately saw that their normal way of speaking would create barriers; that they truly had some hidden or not so hidden beliefs that Republicans were stupid for having the beliefs they had.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

My Leadership Challenges

by Miki Kashtan

If anyone had told me some 30 years ago that at some point in the future I would be working with people much of my awake time and that I would be enjoying leading groups of people, I imagine it would have been hard for me to believe. I was working in computer programming and feeling really glad that I had machines to work with rather than people. The journey that took me from there to here has been nothing short of extraordinary and miraculous. 

Both photos: a recent workshop Miki (at right) led in Rochester, NY
I am particularly astonished that what I find most inspiring and surprising is that leadership is appealing to me, in large part, because I feel more able to be fully myself. It’s as if the position of leadership is giving me permission to be my full, powerful self. Through that experience, I also find the immense satisfaction of contributing to people’s lives, having a sense of meaning, a deep integrity about pursuing a calling, and the hope (or illusion?) that I can truly make a difference in the world on a larger scale than the individuals I work with.

Since I also work with and coach leaders, I am continually learning about leadership. Sometimes it’s through what the people I support tell me about their struggles and insights. Sometimes it’s through what other people tell me about their experiences with those same leaders. Seeing things from both ends has been so instructive in understanding why transforming the paradigm of leadership from the authority-based model to the collaborative model has been so elusive and challenging.

In addition to what I learn about leadership through working with other leaders, I also experience my own leadership as a learning lab. My ongoing research question continues to be understanding what it would take to succeed in establishing collaborative leadership practices and shifting out of the power-over paradigm. Much of the learning happens through encountering those unexpected moments in which a break occurs in the quality of trust and creative flow that I so cherish in general when I lead. This is what I want to write about today: some of those challenges which are still active and open. It’s part of my commitment to vulnerability, too: not to wait until I have it figured out and then write about it, and, instead, share the raw elemental discoveries and questions as they are when I am still grappling with them.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Talking about Race

by Miki Kashtan

At a training for trainers I recently co-led, an African-American woman, the only one in the entire group (another African-American was there for only three days), initiated and volunteered to lead an evening program about racial identity. With the support of another person, and within the space of less than an hour, she facilitated a discussion that surfaced a number of issues and questions for several people in the room.

In my experience, which is neither vast nor tiny, any time the question of how we relate to our own and other people’s race is raised, complexity and pain come to the room – before, during, or after the event. I myself have been in a major quandary about how to find useful ways of supporting these conversations, and am doing less than I used to in this area, because I have rarely seen the pain that arises, both for people of color and for white people, be engaged with in ways that supported significant transformation. I am grateful to a few colleagues of mine that are continuing to engage in the inquiry year after year, in the NVC and Diversity retreat, where I believe they are breaking ground in creating a space where radical honesty, complete care and respect for everyone in the room, and deep learning for all happen regularly. Slowly, I have some hope that their lessons will support others, as well as me, in conducting race dialogues that are truly fruitful.

Until then, I applaud any of us who tries, who engages, who says what we truly believe, who shares and invites others to share what we are afraid to say of our experience. However little I know, I am confident that not talking about race is not going to get us anywhere new.

After the end of the retreat, one person approached me in writing and asked a couple of pointed questions. These questions, and the topic as a whole, are so significant to me, that I chose, with that person’s permission, to answer them publicly. This is what today’s blog is about. I will call the person who initiated the evening Cassandra, and the person who asked the questions Julie.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Saying “No” across Power Differences

by Miki Kashtan
As challenging as saying “no” is to anyone in our lives, a topic I addressed a few weeks ago, it becomes exponentially more difficult when there is a power difference involved. The reason for it is that, by virtue of having power, the other person can deliver unpleasant consequences if we say “no.” A parent may do anything from frowning, removing privileges, sending a child to their room or grounding them, all the way to hitting the child or shaming them in significant ways. A boss may reprimand, put a note in an employee’s file, overlook the person when a promotion is coming up, all the way to firing the person. These consequences are far from trivial.

This is precisely the reason why people in power rarely hear a “no” unless they set up explicit structures of support for people to say “no” to them. The cost of having power, when not attended to, means that people in power don’t receive all the information they need to make decisions, because people are afraid to tell them the truth; it means they don’t have access to the full wisdom of the people who work with them, because people hold back; it also means operating in an environment of little trust. All of these can sometimes lead to compromised performance.