I recently had an opportunity to connect with program leaders Plácida Gallegos, Akasha Saunders, Steve Schapiro and Carol Wishcamper (pictured above, left to right). Their program, Dare to Connect WE-LAB, provides a space to explore and support participants’ capacity to embrace differences and to connect with one another across those differences with curiosity and love. The program is coming to the Whidbey Institute in March, 2020 and registration is open to all.
During our conversation, I not only got a feeling for the facilitators (a fantastic team) and the program (a wonderful offering) but I also became convinced that there is little the world needs more than work like this. Supporting people across diverse social identities and circumstances in creating brave, vulnerable, and authentic connections can help us begin to heal the rifts of racism, sexism and other oppressive systems in our bodies, hearts, communities, and societies.
Plácida, Akasha, Steve, and Carol come together frequently to host this work but are otherwise geographically scattered. In an online call, I connected with Steve and Plácida in Cedar Crest, New Mexico and Carol in Freeport, Maine. Akasha joined us from Grenada and added that he spends much of his time in Bermuda and throughout the Caribbean.
Here’s our conversation. —Marnie Jackson
Marnie: Can each of you tell me a little bit about your background, as pertains to this work?
Akasha: I have a background in adult development and in facilitating, practicing, and designing transformative experiences that bring people, including men of various sexual orientations and racial identities, together across differences. I am a developmental coach and also work in academia. Being from the Carribean, I bring a global perspective into our work. I’m also the youngest among us. We’re quite sensitive as a group to intergenerational engagement, mentoring, and support. We’re intentional about ensuring that age shows up as one of the differences we explore. We learn from younger members and from elders in our community. We each bring wisdom to our engagements and work in the world.
Plácida: I’m an organizational consultant and coach. I’ve spent time in academia researching issues around diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), and in part that research and practice has led to this workshop. We feel like there’s a missing piece: everybody’s moving in the same direction in the DEI conversation but we still aren’t getting the kind of traction we need around differences, including but not limited to race and gender. We’re bringing a fresh approach to dealing with differences that balances support and challenge collectively.
Steve: I’ve been involved with social justice and anti-oppression education work for most of my career, which has primarily been in higher education. I’ve done a lot of work with white people and men—that is, people like me in particular— around our roles as full partners in this work, with the understanding that none of us is free while others are oppressed and that we all have much to gain by overcoming the power imbalances. I’ve done a lot of work in the community and have been involved in anti-racism study circles and community dialogues across race, as well with Jewish-Palestinian dialogue groups.
Carol: I’ve practiced primarily as an organizational development consultant and coach in the nonprofit sector. As the oldest member of the team, I bring a sense of urgency. I’m impatient with the “stuckness” of our level of conversation across difference. I think that our approach at the collective level, supported by nature, embodiment, and experiential learning, can hopefully lead people to breakthrough conversations.
M: Is this program designed to serve people at a particular maturity level in their work around equity, or do you welcome people who are early in their learning journey around this topic?
P: Both are true. We want to have a conversation that’s beyond the 101 level, and to invite people to think about these topics in an innovative way, but there’s a place for almost everyone in this conversation.
In doing this work, people tend to either get stuck at the individual level or jump immediately to the large systems level. This skips over the intergroup, or collective, level. How we really live as members of groups? Whether we’re in dominant positions or subordinate positions, how do we really recognize what comes to us as a result of those assignments?
A lot of organizations are “checking the DEI box,” so to speak, with superficial inclusion trainings. We’re asking, “What’s beyond that? What’s missing?” We don’t want to go too far to the other end of the spectrum, where people go beyond race and gender without dealing with it. This is spiritual bypass. Instead, we’ll land ourselves right in the middle of the mess. We need to hold ourselves at the level of intergroup differences and get comfortable with being a little uncomfortable. If you meet me there, then I can go with you to the beyond. We can’t go to universal oneness until we’ve had a meeting about the reality that some of us live with great privilege and some of us live with great disadvantage.
“We can’t go to universal oneness until we’ve come to terms with the reality that some of us live with great privilege and some of us live with great disadvantage.”
The program is open to all, and time after time we find that the collective spirit lifts everybody. The group creates its own center of gravity. We’ve had people who are experts sitting in the room with people for whom it’s the first honest conversation about this social inequity. They’re able to bring each other along. The collective takes care of holding people at whatever level they’re bringing.
C: We’re interested in engaging people who are truly interested in bridging these differences and trying to get to a different level of discourse and understanding. Within that, varying levels of experience and comfort with these conversations is just another kind of difference.
S: We just completed a workshop a few weeks ago with a very diverse group, both demographically and in terms of peoples’ level of understanding. That diversity in understanding can be a good thing, because it adds things to the mix that would otherwise be missing. Some people who come in thinking they already understand may grow because of a question they were holding, and which was asked aloud by someone more naive who’s not so careful.
M: I’m interested in the name “Dare to Connect.” Connection is, of course, such a strong human instinct. Does the title of the program refer to people being invited, through the work, to connect with one another?
A: I’m glad you asked! There is opportunity for us, as humans, to practice more connection. We’re referring to connection at multiple levels: yes, connection with each other, but also connection with ourselves. We start here. How much do we know ourselves? How do we bring ourselves and what makes us unique to the engagements we have with one another? I would say that the more connected one is with one’s self, the greater the connection one can have across differences and with others overall.
“We’re referring to connection at multiple levels: yes, connection with each other, but also connection with ourselves. We start here.”
In this work we support each person to feel whole, feel present, and then to begin to form other connections at multiple levels. We provide room for paired interactions, small group interactions, and full group interactions where we reach for the highest level of “we-ness” that we can experience together.
It’s equally important to note our respect and love for nature. We recognize that connecting with nature, the cosmos, and even the spirits is important. These are additional elements of connection that we honor and bring into our workshop.
C: For most people in our culture, there’s novelty in connecting to the collective. It’s something many people have never experienced. We’re also inviting people to connect with themselves, their cultures, their own histories, and what it is that they’re bringing in all aspects of their being. As each autonomous individual comes more fully into the collective, the collective is optimized.
P: We include the word “daring” because we want to go beyond superficial contact or connection. Our social norms tell us we can connect only as long as we talk about what’s similar between us. As soon as we start talking about sexual orientation, race, class differences, socioeconomic levels, and equity issues, we shut down. In this program, we create a container for connection in order to have really difficult conversations. We need to become open to conflict, to have a robust enough container to support real, authentic connection.
Moving from avoiding differences, we co-create spaces in which loving fiercely across differences can be practiced. Our differences as team enable us to approach learning and equity from many perspectives. We privilege our relationships and see DEI as deepening our connections.
Our model is experiential and interactive, so people do have a lot of opportunities to form deep relationships both with people who are similar to them and with people who are really different. This in itself can be transformative.
C: We’re also talking about connection to our own embodiment. So many of us, as white people, numb ourselves out. How can we be present, feel embodied, and connect with those areas of self that we have turned away from? Sometimes our whiteness keeps us disconnected, for powerful reasons that are often unknown to us.
A: Similarly, we acknowledge that people of color often have more expressive ways of connecting with their ancestors. That’s something that we invite into our workshops for everyone, recognizing that we all have different relationships and experiences with ancestors. To the extent that the group is comfortable participating, we look at deepening this connection.
M: As a result of participating in this program, what kinds of outcomes might someone take away and bring into their life, work, family, or community?
P: After practicing being in a we-space and thinking more collectively, someone may see where these practices, this vocabulary, applies in their own work. After the program, people are more likely to see opportunities and have the capacities and skills to nurture we-space in other contexts. We bring a developmental approach to our workshops and see unexplored opportunity to grow in ability to work across, within and between group memberships – what we call WE-space. By providing new frameworks, we help people maximize intergroup connection that moves us toward authentic allyship.
C: I hope that people will get more comfortable with discomfort. We can’t move into these new areas without breaking our comfort, without getting real about what we don’t know or what we might be afraid of. I hope people can dare to be braver, dare to be messy, dare to be imperfect, and dare to try to engage with folks across differences.
“I hope people can dare to be braver, dare to be messy, dare to be imperfect, and dare to try to engage with folks across differences.”
A: Another dare that we’re big on is to dare to love—fiercely and expansively—and to be loved. We’ve experienced love as an outcome of the kind of connection we encourage. Participants will really get a different taste of love, not just as a concept but as something to swim in—a river or an ocean of love. As a result of this depth of connection that we’re facilitating, we each feel deeply loved. We talk openly about love and we practice it. A big piece of what we bring to the workshop experience is love in action, and with the participants we co-create what that looks like.
S: For the white folks who are participating, one outcome can be going beyond our sense of ourselves as individuals to gain a sense of how our fates are really tied up with the fates and the condition of people of color (POC). We’re trying to create a world in which it’s easier to love, where we can relate across our differences in an authentic way.
A: Sometimes POC have some hesitation to participate in something like this, because there’s a sense they might be going to do a lot of work for white people. We are intentional about giving them—giving us—a break. Part of our desire is that everyone in the space is doing our own work, so no person or group feels pressured to carry another. Yet, we are all responsible for realizing the potential benefits of the we-space. Our hope is that POC will leave Dare to Connect feeling refreshed not drained by their interactions with white people. I expect to leave feeling hopeful, as though we are in solidarity together across our racial differences.
“Sometimes POC have some hesitation to participate in something like this, because there’s a sense they might be going to do a lot of work for white people. We are intentional about giving them—giving us—a break.”
M: Can you tell me how long you’ve been doing this work together?
P: We’ve done this work together in different formations for many, many years. Our collaboration goes back over twenty years, in different configurations. In this particular format, we’ve been delivering the program for about a year. We have well-established patterns for how we deliver the work.
We’re also interested in non-traditional ways of leading. Shared leadership is part of what we practice within Solfire. We ask, “how do we take advantage of all the differences we bring? Who, in this moment, is the right person to lead?” Inclusive leadership is our practice.
S: The program is always a work in progress, and we all bring different perspectives. Part of the excitement in our work is maximizing our individual contributions as well as what we are as a collective.
A: We’re constantly bringing to ourselves what we’re bringing to groups—we get messy. We grow. We mess up with one another. We ask, “how are we daring to connect?” Then, we bring some of what we have been learning together into each workshop. It’s something I’m most proud of. We are intentional about practicing what we are exploring with others.
P: We chose the name WE-LAB because it’s a laboratory. Even though we see ourselves as holding the container for the group to do its work, we’re also in it. We can do this twenty times, and every session comes out differently because of the people in the room who come to experiment with us, to lean into braveness.
M: I heard Akasha speak to the importance of nature connection in this work, and I’m wondering if any of you could speak further to the question of why you chose a nature-based home for this program.
C: We intentionally design in a time where people can go out, connect with the land, walk softly and sit quietly, explore, ask questions, and listen closely to what the Earth has to say. Sometimes Earth has something to remind us of, to inform us of—something about why we’re here on this planet and what this is all about.
“We intentionally design in a time where people can go out, connect with the land, walk softly and sit quietly, explore, ask questions, and listen closely to what the Earth has to say.”
S: When I participated in Pacific Integral’s Generating Transformative Change program, the land was a really important part of my experience. Feeling held by the land, having room to be in nature, we can let the outside world recede. I think one of the reasons we wanted to have our session at Whidbey was precisely because of the environment and the care with which the environment is held and stewarded by you all. It’s clearly an important part of what you value.
M: Is there anything else you wish to share before we say goodbye?
P: When we mention DEI, or racial and social justice, many people bring a lot of blame and shame forward because of having had painful experiences in this work. We try to hold people gently around that, bringing kindness and respect while at the same time not dumbing down the work.
Blame and shame are harmful and they don’t get us anywhere. We can approach these issues with love, as an opportunity to heal. This about healing, from the ways people—including POC, white people, straight people, gay people—have been hurt. This is about moving forward in loving community.
S: I would add that we don’t want finances to be an obstacle for anyone wishing to participate, and that those with need are welcome to inquire about tuition support beyond the scale that’s offered.
To learn more and register for the workshop, which is scheduled for March 7—11, 2020 at the Whidbey Institute, visit this link.