May 6th, 2011

How Do We Really Make Change Happen?

By Gibran Rivera

At the 2010 Prescott College Sustainability Symposium,  Gibrán  Rivera talked about creating a vision of success and how to engage others in the pursuit of a vision, whether it is educational reform, environmental reform, advocating for change, leading collaborative processes…the social side of change. We are in the midst of a significant – and desperately needed – paradigm shift.  The industrial models of the dominant paradigm no longer serve us; they are in fact holding us back. But what does this emergent paradigm look like?  And how do we live our way into it? Mr.  Rivera spoke of the shift from mechanic to organic, an outlook that calls us to help create the conditions for emergence rather respond to the changes. It affects our forms of organization, our economic drivers and our value systems.  Here is the text of his presentation:

We are going to need to do this together.  We’ll need to exercise the collaborative muscle tonight.

I want to begin by inviting you to see yourself as the member of a tribe.  I’m not telling which tribe, I just want you to consider what it means to be tribal.

We are not going to be turning to our neighbors and sharing our answers, so I don’t want you to worry about being politically correct when you think of the word tribe.  You’ll have no one to impress either, so go ahead, let yourself consider what it means to be tribal.

Tribes existed before writing, before books and before the internet.  Tribal knowledge is transferred through stories.  Stories are also how tribal wisdom is transmitted.  Stories are how the tribe makes meaning.  It is through stories that the tribe comes to know itself.  Stories are how the tribe defines its role in the world.

What is your role in the world?

Stories are so important that they are made part of human ritual, of the most important rituals.  Tribes make time for story telling.  In an often dangerous world, in a world where you are well occupied with survival, the tribe still makes place for sharing stories.

Tribes create the space in which to share stories.

Tribes create the space in which to share stories.  They hold it, and they host it.

Consider a fire with people around it, on a dark and starry night, it’s very warm here, and people look beautiful and mystical behind the fire’s light.  You like to be huddled together.  It feels good to be in this tribe.

And now we turn to our story.

This one takes place in the future, not too very far away.

It takes place soon, but we are momentarily taking ourselves out of the picture.  It’s in the future, not too far away, but definitely after we are all dead.  After we have passed, become one with the earth once again.  So it takes place during the time of our grandchildren, but they are well into their middle age, maybe our grandchildren are old now, after their parents are dead.  We are not saying something bad happened!  We are just saying they are dead.  Death always happens in time, it happens to everybody – death just is.

This story takes place in the time of our grandchildren and great-grandchildren.  It is a story of the future, that is not very far away.  These are tough times, but not bad times.  Important things have been lost, but important things have been won.  We are their ancestors.

Their world feels different from ours.  Weather is not regular here, it’s not very predictable, which makes impossible to do things like farming at a massive scale.  The climate is not very stable, seasons are very weird – life feels a bit more precarious, and a lot less comfortable than ours.

It’s well past the year 2042, so the population is also very different, it does not make any sense to use the word “minority” to refer to people of color in North America.  And borders don’t make any sense either, they feel like archaic visages of a long time ago.  This makes for interesting politics, and the national political scene has finally defined itself as pure spectacle – a strange sort of anti-ritual – lacking in meaning and sustained by a self-imposed mechanism of continuity, sustained by a mechanism, not a belief.

Our descendants are stronger than us, their bodies are more fit, they use their bodies to thrive and survive.  They are also very smart and their technology is very advanced.  The culture is interesting, smaller in scale; it carries a sense of grief but also a deep sense of responsibility.  These people are strangely empowered.  They are not perfect, no one is, but there is something dignified about them, a seeming embrace of their struggle.  There is a pioneering spirit about them, but it’s more like they come from pioneers, they carry a wisdom that comes with experience.

Communities are linked to each other, and many are close to each other, but none of them is very big, people have a good sense of who is around.  Everyone knows a musician, every community has a few, there are no pop charts in these times, and music tends to happen live.  Communities have story tellers too, and they have people called “hosts.”

Hosts are people who hold space for other people, they help conversations happen, they make room for story telling as well as for story sharing.  It’s how people learn together here, it’s how they handle complex systems, it’s how they make meaning and make decisions for action, it’s how they stay abreast of what’s going on, of who is coming and who has gone.  Stories are how they make meaning, and so everyone knows how to tell them, and space is always made for sharing.  There is a tribal sense among these people, and it makes them very strong.  It makes them very strong together.

These are very difficult times, resources are scarce and security is hard to find, but there is a powerful sense of resiliency among these tribes, and a sense of making the world anew.

And here we are, it’s us again, in Prescott, Arizona, ancestors in training, and we have a strong sense of how the future happened.  We know what we are doing, we know what’s happening to the earth, we know we want it to change, and we know we are a part of it – it’s so big, it’s overwhelming.

Some of us are pessimistic, some of us are optimistic and all of us are right here – ancestors in training – defining the future of our tribe.  There is a momentum against us my friends, and I know I don’t need to tell you that.  It might be too late to fix some things, there are aspects of this climate crisis that already are well on their way.  It’s not the future we are talking about with some of these things, there are big changes happening now.

And so we think of the future we are leaving behind and we must look at what we are doing and what is already done, and we know it’s not good news for our kids, nor for the kids of our kids.  But when we pause to look at our future, when we consider this story, there is something awfully inspiring about it, there is something we resonate with, and that momentum is also with us – it comes to us through the ages, it is our evolutionary thrust – the very best of what we’ve always been.

What is that thing?

What is this good momentum?

What is it that’s at work right now?

What is it that is working right now?

What’s good?

What is changing for the better?

What is busy becoming good?

What is it my friends?  Because whatever it is, we don’t have to wait for it, what ever is happening that is good, is here, right here with us right now, inside us an among us – it is the alchemy that is transforming us, and all of alchemy is good.

For one thing, we’ve come together, we are here at this symposium, we have engaged an important inquiry, we are listening, and some of us are doing it deeply.  Right here, right now, with us, are the things we’ve been preserving, the human practices and sensibilities that we have not left fully behind – they seem to be embedded enough.

Our capacity to love.  Our curiosity.  Our need to belong.  Our connection.  Our stories.  The narrative that we tell that makes us us and still holds the best of us.

What is THAT?

And what do we do with it if we are here to do our part?

I want to take a moment right now and see if we can tap into THAT.  I want to find out if, given time and a little bit of space, we can tune into those qualities that make us worthy ancestors.  I’ll need your help.

Do you know what an epiphany is?

Have you had one?

Have you had something like – and here comes the definition – “a sudden, intuitive perception or insight into the reality or essential meaning of life?”  I’m going to trust that you’ve had one, I don’t believe you would be here if you had never intuited that something is going on.  I want to invite you to think of your epiphany.  Consider what it was and how it has impacted your life.

Now I want you to recall that moment.  Were you on the road to Damascus when suddenly a flash of light…  Or maybe it was more subtle than that, maybe you were just stepping out of the shower, or walking to the bathroom in the middle of the night.  It is also likely that you were not alone, and that a taste of truth descended on you with a feeling of profound love.  It does not matter how it happened but I want you to think of the time, the moment and the place, what was going on around you, was it cold or was it warm?  Was there a breeze?  Were you outside?  Was there a candle light?  What is the story of your epiphany?  What did that moment look and feel like?

Take a moment.

It is incredibly important that we recall how it happens, how epiphany comes about.  And it is just as important that we reclaim the space to tell it.  Epiphanies are to be shared.  They are stories of transformation.  They hold the power of alchemy.

I’m going to give you a few minutes to turn to the person next to you and share the story of your epiphany.  Be generous in your telling, don’t just share a concept, share the details of the story – tell your partner how it happened.  And be even more generous when you listen, create space and hold the space – stretch yourself, make room for the other, become spacious, very spacious, listen deeply, very, very deeply.

Go ahead, I’ll bring you back in about 10 minutes, so take about five minutes each, and don’t forget to introduce yourself!

How was that?  Did you find resonance?  What did you learn?

I’m a big fan of Ron Heifetz and his notion of Adaptive Change.  He makes an important distinction between technical change and adaptive change.  Technical change is about good implementation of solutions we already have – the answers to technical questions exist, we have them, they are findable, there are experts who have them.  Adaptive change is different.  Adaptive change is for those big and complex problems we don’t seem to be able to solve.  Adaptive change demands and evolutionary leap, it calls for a significant shift – a shift in our values, beliefs and assumptions.  Adaptive change is big.  Really big.

I also like to make a distinction between revolution and evolution.  Revolution has come to imply taking something out and putting something else in.  There is something mechanistic about our take on revolution.  Evolution has a more organic feel.  What I like most about evolution is that it seeks to transcend and include.  We still have our reptile brain, it comes included with our evolution.

So we have stories and epiphanies.  We have adaptive change and evolution.  And we have a very big world we want to change.  I don’t believe we can move forward, I don’t believe we can evolve if we don’t find a way to include.  We have to claim our inheritance.  Somehow, in some sort of bizarre way, we have managed to de-emphasize the very strengths that can get us through this mess.  We no longer make time for stories, and so we let the media shape our world.  We don’t know how to be together, and so we let organizations shape the ways in which we connect.  We don’t honor our epiphanies, and so we seek answers somewhere else.

How do we reclaim our core strengths?  How do we seize our power again?  How do we move away from high language and platitudes and into the actual practices of being together?  How do we reappropriate the means by which we produce reality?  How do create the conditions to make meaning ourselves?  I don’t want my meaning packaged and sold to me by HBO.  I want to make meaning myself, and I want to do it with you.

I’ve been involved with the work of social change for as long as I can remember, it’s the only thing I’ve done.  But too often it’s been just work, just struggle and addiction to the struggle – and there is little that is sustainable about struggle.

What we are seeing that’s emergent, and it’s incredibly important, is a way to make social change sustainable, to understand it as a marathon, not a sprint – even if sometimes we will be asked to sprint.  I like Robert Gass and his concept of personal ecology.  He exposes the inherent contradiction of working for sustainability in unsustainable ways.  We are reminded that we ourselves are biological entities, organic part of this whole we call earth.

Little by little, we are reclaiming the inheritance of our ancestors.  We are coming to understand two of the core principles that inform my life and my work for change –

  • How we get there is as important as getting there – because we are always getting there!
  • We have to live in the world we are trying to build.

As ancestors in training our role is not just to inspire an ambition among our decendants, our role is to teach them how to live, and the only way to do that is by knowing how to live.

There is a lot of work to be done in a world at the brink of extinction, but how we do that work matters just as much as getting it done – I don’t think it can be done otherwise.

One of the key aspects of life after industrialization is the compartmentalization of life.  We have separated our work, from our family life and our spiritual life, but in the work of social change this lack of integration is precisely what limits our progress.  So a first task for us is to seek re-integration, to find ways to weave our lives back together so that the work of social change is informed by our spiritual experiences as well as by our experience of living in community.  This is the realm of personal ecology, it is the end of a life in which we run around like chickens without a head, getting ourselves busier and busier, struggling and struggling, trying to t\sprint through a marathon – this is the place where we say enough, the place where we understand that happiness matters and that generating it is our role.

Adaptive change, the change that aligns itself with our evolutionary thrust, is rooted in an experience of integration.  This social change seeks to reclaim our human inheritance, it calls forth our intuitive powers, it intentionally creates spaces for connection.  When we finally understand that we can’t go where we need to go without a significant paradigm shift then we will start re-inventing our work life and organizational spaces, we will intentionally blur boundaries and craft lives for ourselves that allow us to actually have an experience of the nature we are trying to save.

Practicably, this means that we are more careful about our short term campaigns.  It means that planning for strategic victories itself includes the process of building community.  Shifting our approach means that we engage in group processes that uplift and reveal our more intimate experiences of being alive, because it is in these deeply personal experiences that we find our purpose.  By turning our attention to the processes that build strong social bonds, by engaging in group process that connects our shared efforts to our individual experience of purpose, by continually sharing the stories that define our learning and by creating, hosting and holding the space for the sharing of these stories we begin to build the world anew, we begin to reject the industrialized and mechanistic organizational model and we skillfully create the conditions for something new to emerge.

You see, group process is not just a way to have better meetings.  By re-inventing the ways in which we come together we begin to live in the world we are trying to build.  Good group process intensifies collaboration, it breaks down walls of separation, it fosters human intimacy, it connects us to our purpose and engages us in the work of making meaning together – and it is in no way separate from planning and action, it is fully integrated in strategic development, it holds the whole of our complexity.

My invitation to you is very clear:

  1. Join the process of conscious evolution – reclaim your inheritance, we ourselves are ancestors in training, we need to transcend and include
  2. Know the difference between technical change and adaptive change – make it possible for people to shift at the level of values, beliefs and assumptions by creating space for authentic connection
  3. Find your tribe! Build community every step of the way – like Margaret Wheatley says, whatever the problem, community is the answer, so learn to live in the world you are trying to build.
  4. Take no shortcuts!  How you get there is as important as getting there!  Always make room for people to share their stories, and lift up our epiphanies because they hold our alchemy
  5. Personal ecology – you are an integral part of the whole, you can not work for sustainability in unsustainable ways.  We face an unbelievable amount of pressure to conform to a maddening and unsustainable pace – rebel!  To take care of your self, to look after your soul and your health, in the context of transformative work, that itself is counter-cultural, when we start winning here, more people come, everyone wants to learn to live again.

Whatever it is that makes our descendants great, what makes them dignified, resilient and creative, whatever that is it is a part of us now, they got it from us, and we got it from those who came before us, and it is as beautiful as it is powerful, it is the evolutionary impulse in you.

Thank you for having me, it is a privilege to be in movement with you.

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