Cultivating Learning and Design Spaces – Part 3

by Charles Gibbs and Amy Czajkowski

This is the third post of a four-part blog series exploring how to cultivate learning and design spaces for practitioners committed to community-centered peace and development. We understand such a space as one that invites knowledge, experience, wisdom and nuggets of insight from even the most painful experiences to address today’s questions and needs so we can create the new together. We are assuming that no one person has THE answers, but that together we can learn and design our way into the future we desire. In this post, we focus on two dimensions: Inclusion and Welcoming Whole People.

 Inclusion – Who’s in the Space

There are certainly some decisions and challenges we are equipped to face as individuals, but when we look at our big challenges, such as how to care for our Earth community, safety in our communities, food security, and governance, we must take multiple perspectives into account. We must include people with diverse voices and perspectives. Not only do they need to be in the room where key deliberations are taking place, they also need to feel that their voices are heard and make a difference. They need to see that they are making a meaningful contribution from their real, lived experience, including the parts they think others don’t want to hear.

Fambul Tok’s work in Sierra Leone – from post-war healing, reconciliation and development through Ebola into inclusive people’s planning for peace and development — was founded on the practice of radical inclusion. This required taking great care to include all parts of a community, with special attention to groups that often weren’t at the table – including, women, youth and people with disabilities. It meant creating a safe space for conversations and decision-making that respected traditional authority, embodied in the mostly male power structures, while making space for mostly unheard voices to have a say in the process and plans that evolved.

Early in this work, it became clear that women, whose voices had not often been heard, had a critical role to play in issues of community peace and development. Women tended to think about the wellbeing of the whole community, a perspective that was often missing when it was only men making decisions – as it had been for many years. Women brought direct experiences that helped the community prioritize projects that would benefit women and the whole of the community. It was critical that women participate in inclusive decision-making. To do this effectively, they realized they needed separate spaces to cultivate their voices and cultivate their belief that they could and should be part of the public community conversation. Fambul Tok helped women across the country set up Peace Mothers groups where exactly that could happen. Men were welcome to join, but with the understanding that the purpose of the spaces was to cultivate women’s voices so they could more freely contribute to the betterment of the whole community.

Welcoming Whole People, Including Pain and Hard Things

 In our experience, meaningful positive change requires welcoming the whole person. Inevitably and often uncomfortably, this means creating space where people are free to be vulnerable enough to share their pain.

Pain and other emotions hold a critical part of the story – our humanity and a potential source of connection. Expressing pain and other emotions invites all of a person and his or her being into the room; into the conversation. The Fambul Tok process in Sierra Leone started with facing the harms of the civil war – often harms committed by one neighbor against another. Murdered family members, physical injuries, loss of land, loss of community, education, trust were all part of the deep harms. As Fambul Tok organizational staff worked with communities, they invited the communities to create the space they needed to face the harms directly. It was through creating a container, the fambul tok bonfire process mentioned in the second post in this series, and then facing the harms and pain with the intention of moving forward together that they paved the way for inclusive community structures that dealt with on-going issues of conflict and prioritized development projects. Projects such as community farms and centers required coming together and working together, which would not have been possible if people still felt isolated or divided from each other.

Amy reflects, “In my work with Coming to the Table, we invited the pain and trauma from the legacy of slavery, seeing the healing work, part of which involves feeling the pain to access our full humanity and intelligence, as necessary. Rather than pulling us apart, expressing our stories and pain served to build relationships and open up space where we could collectively identify action that would begin to make things right. Rather than energy going into defensiveness and blame, it went into creativity, opening up greater possibility for what we could accomplish individually and together. Burying one’s pain makes it hard to connect, to hear, and see oneself and each other. When we don’t create space for pain, it continues to work under the surface. Human strategies for insulating the pain include blame, shutting down, avoidance and patterns of thought and behavior that reinforce stagnation and/or conflict.

Inclusion, both with different groups of people as well as inviting the many aspects of ourselves, is key to learning and designing something new that draws on multiple perspectives and intelligences as a powerful path toward enduring positive change. 

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