Strength in Diversity
At Wisdom In Nature, we have found that it is only when the walls that separate us can be softened, is it possible to begin real dialogue. This process of softening has the potential to be taken even further, reaching a place from where it can become easier to look at the world from another’s viewpoint. When this process deepens within our group’s meetings, a ‘group mind’, begins to form. Our personal awareness moves into something much bigger, something more open. The experience is not imaginary, but is palpable. One newcomer attending one of our review meetings described his experience, that the process “seems to have a mind of its own” – elaborating to mean that the answers naturally arrive.
Contributions emerging from this place bring with them a quality of inclusivity and carry a deeper truth; and through meetings we can feel energised rather than depleted! We begin to value one another as our collective wisdom is enriched by the presence of each person. Diversity becomes a strength that we naturally welcome.
In terms of specifics, at WIN, we use basic ground rules, or a group agreement, that welcomes deep listening and a diversity of viewpoints as a start. In addition we include a variety of ways to support this further. For example, after we have settled a little, we join together for a couple of minutes silence – as a means of letting go of some of the mental baggage we have each brought in! At key meetings we can also bring in active exercises. These can be as simple as asking a question or two, “What are the qualities that bring us to the group?”, or “How do we see the state of the world?”, to give a couple of examples. By opening this up to allow for all ideas including seemingly conflicting ones, and ensuring each is acknowledged and noted e.g. visibly on a flip chart, it makes it easier for each person to step into other shoes. The process of developing a group mind is under way.
Whilst we aim to be conscious of issues around rank, power and privilege, we have found that the cultivation of a group mind brings with it somewhat of a natural antidote to such inequalities. In our experience, it is not uncommon, for example, for an individual with considerable ‘religious’ knowledge to hold more power in the group. Yet, when a group mind begins to form, trust and humility begin to manifest, allowing power to become more equalised and those that feel marginalised to feel more included.
Nonetheless, we still place value on and consider ways of actively reflecting on the rank and privileges that we hold. For example, we will take turns at facilitating meetings. Also, as part of our ‘Islamic Community Food Project’ in Tower Hamlets, in which we attempted to integrate social organising with connecting to the land, we used an exercise that involved throwing the following statement to the group: “It is selfish for the middle class to think about the food they eat when millions of people are starving”.
Participants were then asked to position themselves in the room according to how much or how little they believed the statement to be true. The different voices were then drawn out and participants were also free to move should their perspective shift. I must confess that although we are keen to draw more people from less privileged background into WIN, we have not had as much success as we would have liked. However, in small ways we experience some fruits of our work in the area of rank and privilege. One example follows from the exercise just described. As one participant wrote on a blog post:
“We had workshops – wonderful, free, organic workshops – in the afternoon which challenged our perceptions and called for us to really look at how responsible we were when it came to food. I realised that my middle classed upbringing and lifestyle gave me the freedom to make choices – to be fair-trade; organic etc. Yet, I still was unable to really take action. Since then I have ventured baby steps into home gardening. My balcony now supports coriander; chives; and basil. I look at them tenderly and consistently, like an overzealous new mother, hoping that they might survive the spring chill and that my sabr (patience) and taqwa (God Consciousness) will generate nourishment: physical and, spiritual.”
An edited version of this article appeared in a booklet produced by The Transition Network titled:
7 Ingredients for a Just, Fair and Inclusive Transition (the article is on page 12)