“It’s never too late to pause and reevaluate the purpose, the structure or the norms that you’re operating with as a group of people trying to make a change in the world or get something done together,” says Aarati Kasturirangan. In this episode of “Movement Memos,” host Kelly Hayes talks with facilitators Aarati Kasturirangan and Rebecca Subar about how organizers can transform conflict in movement spaces.
Music by Son Monarcas and David Celeste
Note: This a rush transcript and has been lightly edited for clarity. Copy may not be in its final form.
Kelly Hayes: Welcome to “Movement Memos,” a Truthout podcast about organizing, solidarity and the work of making change. I’m your host, writer and organizer Kelly Hayes. Today, we are continuing to celebrate the upcoming release of Let This Radicalize You — a book I coauthored with my friend Mariame Kaba. In this episode, we’ll be delving further into the book’s themes by talking about conflict in movement spaces and organizing groups, how it can disrupt our work as organizers, and how we can find our way through it.
One of the reasons our groups and formations are so vulnerable to conflict is that, as human beings, many of us are deeply traumatized by white supremacy and capitalism. We have been forced into survival mode, and pitted against each other, in order to succeed, or even survive. Unfair dynamics have sometimes conditioned us to fight, or flee, rather than deploying skills that we’ve never had the chance to cultivate. The truth is, when we are empowered to resolve conflicts constructively, we pose a greater threat to authority and the system. Our cultivation of these skills of cooperation is not in the system’s best interest, so it’s no surprise that the state or the labor market presents us with few opportunities to learn such lessons. Our alienation from one another strengthens the system and our enemies.
The emotional beatings we take in this society, due to ignorance, cruelty, self-absorption, or poor communication skills, can leave us battered in ways that make us incredibly reactive when we feel harmed. I know I struggled with this for years, and I sometimes still do. When we get accustomed to operating in defensive and survival modes that have seemed to work for us in the past, it can be very hard to shift gears when we are trying to create a more just world — one where our defensiveness, evasion, and aggression might not be the best responses. But we are wounded people, and being injured ingrains particular responses. Our minds apply the lessons of survival, deploying tactics that have worked, or at least made us feel better, in the past, without necessarily evaluating the needs or wants of ourselves or others in the present. As Mariame and I write in Let This Radicalize You:
Traumas abound in our society, and the many disasters ahead are sure to leave an ever greater number of people feeling traumatized. Navigating a crisis—or even a misstep by an organizer or activist—is much more difficult with unchecked trauma responses ricocheting around a room. Many of the social patterns and behaviors that lead us to reject one another and revert to individualism are the products of trauma, so to do the work of being human together, we must make space to address these emotional and physiological realities. Grief work, healing work, and conflict resolution have always been important to our movements, but in this age of catastrophe they are more crucial than ever. A strong organizing community is more than a labor force for social justice. It is an ecosystem of care, learning, relationship building, and action.
Today, we are talking about the work of conflict transformation and how organizers can position themselves to do that work. I am really grateful that, in February, my Truthout colleague Sam Borek and I had the opportunity to attend a month-long workshop series exploring the In It Together toolkit. The toolkit was created by Interrupting Criminalization — an organization Mariame co-founded — and Dragonfly Partners. Dragonfly Partners is a group that helps client-partners transform their internal cultures and structures to build effective social change strategies. The In It Together toolkit provides a step-by-step diagnostic tool to assess conflict in movement-building organizations and groups and provides strategies, tools, and resources to transform that conflict. The toolkit was written by Aarati Kasturirangan and Sara Joffe, of Dragonfly Partners, with contributions from Mariame Kaba. I cannot recommend this resource highly enough, and I really believe that if more of our groups took this wisdom on board, our movements would be strengthened in ways that are difficult for a lot of us to even imagine right now.
I hear from people, on a regular basis, that their groups are in a rut and mired in conflict, or worse, that their organization or their latest project has already been torn apart by conflict. In this episode, we are going to explore some ideas that might help us get out of those ruts, and discuss a tool that could help many of us rethink or recreate our approaches to conflict in ways that can help keep our groups strong. We will be hearing from Aarati Kasturirangan and Rebecca Subar, who are members of Dragonfly Partners, about the lessons of the In It Together toolkit, and how we can build healthy cultures of accountability in our movement spaces.
Aarati Kasturirangan: Hi, I’m Aarati Kasturirangan. I live in Philadelphia and I’ve been in and around movements for the past 20 years. I started out my work in movements for gender justice and got to really get politicized by INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence in the 2000s, spent some time organizing in Chicago around the Iraq war and around reproductive justice. Then I was able to do a Ph.D. in community psychology in University of Illinois, Chicago, and have spent some time then in the last few years in Philadelphia working with local and international organizations working for peace and justice in various ways.
I am a consultant partner with Dragonfly Partners. We had the privilege in the last couple of years to partner with Interrupting Criminalization to develop the In It Together toolkit that really was designed as a starting place for movement organizations that are trying to manage conflict inside their groups.
We know that in the last several years there’s been a lot of stress because of the pandemic and movements have been working overtime. It has inevitably led to a lot of stress and strain within organizations and many people looking to Mariame Kaba, who is at Interrupting Criminalization, a well-known abolitionist, asking for support, and Mariame said, “Let’s develop a toolkit,” and luckily for us asked us to join in that effort. So, several members of the Dragonfly team were part of developing the toolkit and we’re so excited that it’s out in the world.
Rebecca Subar: I’m Rebecca Subar and I am a white middle class secular Ashkenazi Jew. I’ve been gender queer since 1963, which gives you some age specs for me. And I’ve been with Dragonfly, also a partner, a core partner, a core consultant with Dragonfly Partners since we started 11, 12 years ago. My greatest passion in our work is working with groups who are wrestling around power and conflict and the In It Together toolkit sort of brings together all of my favorite things to think, ideas, people who think them, provocative tools, and sort of descriptions of some of the work that we do with our clients in movement space.
The two pieces of political work that are home-base for me are Palestine solidarity and anti-racism work among white people. So, I’ve spent some time in the space of Jewish Voice for Peace as well as SURJ as my context for my political work. I will also say that the practice of all the stuff that we’re talking about here today happens for me in Dragonfly. It’s really our work with social movement groups and with each other trying to do that work in more and more accountable, more and more transformational, in more and more loving ways. That is the home base for my political practice now.
And I’m also the author of one of the books that’s referenced in In It Together, which is When to Talk and When to Fight: The Strategic Choice Between Dialogue and Resistance. That is really a struggle around power and choice and our strategic biases and what we bring to the table when we try to have good relationships and also hold each other accountable, try to change the world and also try to make some peace at home.
KH: One thing I really appreciate about this toolkit is the way the authors distinguish between accountability and punishment early in the toolkit. This distinction is so important, and it’s really crucial to building trust with people whose words and actions we might call into question. Those of us who are accustomed to being punished for any deviation from the status quo, or from other people’s expectations, or for simply trying to survive, can develop really engrained, defensive responses. To respond differently, when people take issue with our words or actions, we have to develop a completely different framework, one that reassures us that we are now operating within a different social ecosystem — one where people are not trying to punish or hurt us. We also have to work to approach the harms we experience from a place of expecting accountability, rather than pursuing punishment. I sometimes hear people use accountability and punishment interchangeably, and in my experience, that’s usually the result of people wanting to put an abolitionist spin on their desire for punishment. But these ideas are not interchangeable. As the authors of the toolkit write:
Accountability refers to one person’s ability and willingness to report back to the group and/or the community the group represents on actions they have taken, things they have done or not done, or things they have said, to take ownership of the consequence or outcomes of their action, positive and negative, learn from mistakes, make amends as needed, and change their behavior in the future.
How does this differ from punishment? As the authors of the toolkit explain:
In psychological terms, punishment is a response to an undesirable behavior that is designed to stop that behavior. A punishment can be taking away something good — for example, the right to be part of a group, or to have a certain position in a group. A punishment can also be administering something painful to the person — for example, by shaming the person, damaging their reputation, berating the person verbally, threatening future abuse or physically abusing them.
In my own experience, punishment tends to come down to the desire to see someone harmed because they have caused harm. It’s about revenge. While accountability can involve consequences that may feel like punishment, hurting the person who caused harm is not the goal.
To recalibrate our responses to harm, such that we are striving for accountability, rather than punishment, requires a lot of self-examination. For example, we have all internalized a lot of messages of inferiority and superiority that are embedded in the norms of this society. We have also learned to conflate satisfaction with justice, and most of us have not been taught to prioritize healing, for ourselves, or for others, in addressing conflict.
AK: So, we know that those of us who are in movement work understand that the systems that surround us have done a lot of damage, have created a lot of harm, and that most of us have been swimming in these waters where we have learned lessons about punishment and about power and about how to get what we need and about our own value from the systems that are around us, that they’re everywhere and they’re inside of us.
We understand that part of this work of changing the world and changing society has to involve changing ourselves, examining ourselves, understanding our own biases, and the ways that we show up in the world that might mimic the systems that we’re inside of and understanding that these systems have caused harm and that many of us are walking around holding on to trauma, causing one another pain even as we’re trying to be in it together.
So, if we really want to be doing this work together, we have to acknowledge healing as a part of the work. Our hope is that in this way, people are more able to show up with one another honestly in this work and movement work and as we say, build principled communities of struggle. Meaning that we are all very intentionally working on ourselves, working with each other, and bringing all of our brilliance and wisdom and skills to bear on making change in the world around us. We really need all of those things to be able to have an impact.
KH: Part of showing up honestly means acknowledging, from the start, that while we may have shared goals or a shared mission, we may not always have the same values or experiences, and we may not fully understand each other. The hopes, fears and desires that inform the positions we take may be quite different, and those differences may manifest sharply in the stances we take. In this society, we are taught to view conflict as adversarial. A zero-sum game. Common models for this kind of thinking include debate, or the adversarial system of a courtroom, where both sides make their argument, and an appointed group decides who has won the conflict, and who has lost. In our organizing groups, it’s important to do away with these adversarial models. Because we are not doing this work in order to defeat each other. Our goal is to transform the world we live in, which is why we have to take a transformative approach to conflict. The In It Together toolkit reframes conflict resolution as conflict as transformation. As the authors write:
Conflict resolution implies that a conflict is resolved with one person being right and the other being wrong. In conflict transformation, the relationship between the two people or parties is where the change happens allowing for shifts in power dynamics, new ways of communicating, or new shared understanding of what the conflict is about.
This may sound great in the abstract, but to have a shot at putting it into practice, we need to start by asking ourselves: How does conflict manifest itself in the groups we build?
RS: Maybe we can start by defining “conflict.” What are we talking about here? I think we all have a picture of what it means, but let’s put some words around it so we deepen our understanding of it even as we talk about it. We can think of conflict as when somebody else has something that’s yours. It may be something that you need or something that you want. It may be tangible or not. It may be your stuff starting when you’re a kid and your sibling took one of your toys. It could be a conflict. The conflict isn’t necessarily that they took the toy. The conflict is that you want it and saying it doesn’t get it back.
It could be a dispute over a border where there’s a country that says to another country, “Hey, you took my land,” or “We want your land,” or something like that, or your resources rightly belong to us. You took them unfairly. But here in social movement space, what does that look like? It can be that someone took credit for something that you did or that your group did. It can be that another group went ahead with a campaign that you never agreed on. You believe you should have been part of the decision making and here the other group went and decided without your input. And there is another place that is easily recognizable as a source of conflict in our movement spaces, which is when something less tangible like our dignity gets lost.
We’re all very familiar with the conflicts that come up because someone dishonored our dignity or our humanity, our humaneness. One group may have failed to take on the work of unpacking racism inside their group and the way that that’s affected our group was by doing harm. And what makes that a conflict is that it’s in the way of our needs being met and simply asking for it, simply saying, “Whoops, everything about your organization is racist and the impact that our interacting with you has is a harmful one. Please change” is insufficient, right? What is the reason? What’s the reason that that’s insufficient? Well, it’s because I can’t get my needs met without you, but you may not even know how to give me what I need.
You may not know what I need and you may not want to give it to me. There might be some reason deep inside you that you don’t want me to have the dignity or the decision-making authority, let’s say, or the agency that I’m seeking. One of the reasons for that is that you might have more power than me. You might have structural power, institutional power. You might be wealthier. You might be a wealthier, more resourced organization. You may have more authority or your racial identity and lived experience and your class experience or your rank and organization, or you might be a famous person who has a lot of power in movement space because you’re well known.
Any of those power differences may lead to conflict like Aarati said, in the same way that power differences out in the world lead us to make claims against those in power. This, of course, is conflict too. Now we don’t think of ourselves as not wanting the best or not wanting each other’s dignity, but we also know that we consistently hurt each other and harm each other because of our humanity and our fallibility. So, we’re going to be talking about conflict here. We’re talking about conflict in groups and of course this often echoes the dynamics of conflict in the world outside. But we might be talking here about the conflicts where all sides or both sides really have the desire and the commitment to shift the way that power works in our communities and our world.
So, when we talk about groups or communities where we have a high level of confidence, that everybody truly wants to shift the power relations in the world, then we can talk about transforming conflict and that is what In It Together is all about. But we should note here that sometimes power differences are real. And if we’re working with a funder, if we’re working with a group that is maybe marginally in social movement space but also is beholden to a lot of interests which are maybe in corporate space, or if we’re working with different communities which are outside of formal organizations, but there are combinations of people where we’re not sure we trust each other, it may be that we have to organize.
It may be that we need unions or other organizing in order for people’s needs to be heard by those with more power in an organization. And that discernment is really important here. So, if you have something I need and for whatever reason my asking or requesting from you wasn’t enough, just asking for it didn’t meet my needs, then we wind up here with an unmet need and a perception that the other might be able to meet it, that they have our missing puzzle piece. They might have the key to honoring our dignity, to correcting a harm that was done, but this is where we have a perception, spoken or unspoken, that now we have a problem. This is now conflict. That’s the roots of conflict in movement space.
KH: The In It Together toolkit stresses the importance of grounding agreements. Many of you have probably participated in the creation of grounding agreements in particular spaces, but not nearly enough of us have done this work at a cultural level in our groups. Often, we simply trust that our shared mission and shared intentions will inform our interactions. But that kind of group cohesion is often illusory, because it’s based on a collective idealization of one another, rather than an effort to truly understand one another, and cultivate expectations that we can all consent to.
AK: Grounding agreements are one of the ways that we can be very intentional about how we are going to treat one another, how we are going to be when we’re in the space together, and if they’re done well, how we are going to navigate conflict that is inevitable inside of our groups. Within In It Together, we offered up a set of sample in some ways grounding agreements for principled communities of struggle to bring in, but we strongly encourage folks to develop their own. But some of the grounding agreements that we cover in In It Together include one, presuming and building shared purpose.
So, this idea that if we are within a group, the same group together, or let’s say we’re in a coalition together, presumably we are there because there’s a change we want to make together in the world. So, that’s a starting point that can help us ground our relationship with one another, but we also have to then be able to acknowledge the differences that we bring and really be explicit about them where they can, because we’re going to have different interests in the room. So, we want to make sure that we’re not railroading over that or making assumptions about what our interests are.
We also want to commit to unlearning and learning together as we talked about in another point in time, that we’ve all imbibed these systems of oppression and we all are going to say things and do things that may harm other people even if that’s not our intent. We have to be actively engaged in unlearning and learning together and also recognize that we support one another to do that. So, we do that in ways that are about creating accountability and support as opposed to punishing one another, which is another way that we are in it together that can actually make us fall apart, creating space for difficult conversations.
Difficult conversations, one of the things that we talk about at Dragonfly is instead of seeing each other as difficult people to recognize that there are difficult conversations that we may need to have with one another can really help us to come together in conflict as opposed to just avoiding people that we think are annoying or toxic, et cetera. Then setting up clear guidelines for participation. So, for example, “How many meetings am I supposed to be attending? Or if I’m going to be late, what do I do? Or when I’m in the space, is it okay if I’m angry, if I shout and scream? Are we allowed to touch each other? “These are things that might seem very specific, but in different groups, they have different meanings.
So, it’s important if there’s something that’s important to you, especially for your own safety, to be part of a group, to put that out there and come to some agreement about how we’re going to be together. In this way, we create a container for our groups to be able to navigate conflict and hopefully continue to build that shared purpose with one another and then to remember to hold one another accountable to them. So, we should be able to gently remind one another of our agreements.
If someone’s consistently not willing or able to live into the group agreements, we need to check in with them and explore if this is the right group for them to be a part of or how we can support them to be present in the ways that the group will thrive. So, that’s a hard part of conflict too, that not everybody is able to participate in the ways that maybe they’re not there yet on their journey or they’re over it and they want to do something else. That’s fine. But we all have to find the places where we fit to do our work with one another.
KH: In section seven of the toolkit, there is a passage that reads, “In an ideal world, a newly forming group will set up the group in ways that allow for healthy conflict to take place.” But of course, we know that doesn’t always happen, and also that conditions can shift over time. So, how can a group that was not built with strong mechanisms for conflict adapt to meet those needs?
AK: We wish that groups would be able to take that time to set up healthy norms from the get-go, but so often, groups form because they’re responding in the moment to something that is critical, something that needs attention right now and rightly so. They form quickly and are focused on getting what they need to get to support people or to correct harm or to organize and to challenge power. There are groups that do start off with strong containers and mechanisms for conflict that over time, new people come in, things change, and perhaps those things become less clear to the folks who are joining the group.
What we believe is that it’s never too late to pause and reevaluate the purpose, the structure, or the norms that you’re operating with as a group of people trying to make a change in the world or get something done together. Indeed, this is a lot of the work that we at Dragonfly support the client partners that we have to do that work very intentionally over time, but we don’t think that you necessarily need a consultant or someone from the outside to do that. You may require some time though and space to talk about things that have been swept under the rug for a long time, to acknowledge that perhaps conflict avoidance or unhealthy patterns of conflict are not really serving us, that we’re stuck in some way and we need to shake some things loose in order to get unstuck.
Part of how we might do that is to go over what’s happened in the past, but not just do that, but really learn from each other, hear from one another, what we need to be able to be fully engaged, to be our whole selves, to be active members of the group. Now, what do we need as individuals and then what do we need as a group? So there’s some questions that we can ask together and sit together and talk through and hopefully build some new ways of being together that includes space for conflict. Because one of the things that we have as a norm at Dragonfly as one of our group agreements is that we believe that process and conflict and time for those things leads to stronger agreements and stronger work. We want to support other groups to do the same thing.
KH: What are some practices that are important to creating a culture of accountability and transformation?
RS: One practical thing that a group can do is to take inventory of the habits and practices that the group does around conflict. So, how do we know that every group has habits and practices? Well, we each come into the space that we’re working in with pasts. And we know that we all bring the challenges of our past, the experiences with conflict and relationships that we’ve had in the past, the experience working in movement space and the traumas that each of us has experienced as a person and a member of a community that’s experienced trauma. All of these factors wind up entering into difficult conversations and challenging situations. And, of course, those conversations become more difficult and more challenging because of our complicated humanness that we bring in.
Let’s talk about some specific ways that shows up. We may be leaning towards accountability and unaccountability as a central motivator for us. We want justice now. We all want justice now, and our desire for justice can easily become more urgent than the relationship that we’re in with others. It can easily be more important to us than another person’s dignity. Our desire for justice and in some moments, our desire to be perceived as centering justice. We all know these things about ourselves and we perceive them in others. This prioritizing of accountability is just what we want and this thing that we want can result in call out culture. It can result in a lot of canceling and we’ve all experienced this or observed it.
On the other hand, if we find ourselves and others in our community to be really leaning into relationships, we might have lots of grace for the other person and we might let our boundaries go a little bit and maybe let accountability go a little bit because of wherever we came from, because it was necessary where we grew up or how we grew up to protect ourselves from conflict or because we’re afraid of being seen a certain way or because constitutionally, we’re not able to lose relationships and we don’t have trust in the relationship of the group that we’re in, that it can work through an accountability process. Then we wind up with what we experience as a “nice culture.” We sometimes describe it as a white norm culture or a white culture, a culture that’s so deep in white supremacy culture that people avoid conflict, avoid accountability for racist and sexist and ableist and transphobic and other kinds of indignities.
So, we want to see where we are inside our organization, what our habits are about balancing accountability with grace. So that’s a word that Tarana Burke, the originator of the MeToo Movement, uses about the choices that leaders make and how important it is to offer grace to people when we don’t necessarily know yet or understand what brought somebody to do something that to us is an indignity.
So, having these imbalances is fertile ground for transformation. If we go too far on the accountability side, we get closer to punishment. And if we go too far on the reconciliation side, or if we move toward reconciliation too fast without taking a beat, without moving through what’s usually very difficult and challenging work about getting to difficult truth, then that work can threaten to separate groups in times, and it could threaten relationships, and reconciliation can wind up being collusion.
So, it’s like if we go too far towards accountability, we get closer to punishment. If we go too far in the direction of reconciliation, and sometimes even dialogue and negotiation, this can wind up being collusion and we want to avoid punishment and we want to avoid collusion. Both of these are the opposite of liberation. So, the only way to do this is to learn to dance back and forth with both of these, with accountability and reconciliation and even learn to do them at the same time, because being able to balance them in the moment in the process, that is what we see as transformative work.
KH: When we talk about reconciliation and accountability, we also have to talk about safety. We obviously want to cultivate spaces where people feel safe, and where our boundaries are respected. Of course, safety and comfort are not synonyms, and the two sometimes get conflated in these contexts. But in matters of conflict, boundaries and safety considerations have to be factored in. So what questions or practices can help us draw those lines in a caring and ethical manner?
RS: Well, like we were talking about before, it’s not always time for dialogue. Sometimes you have to take a beat before you sort the thing out. In fact, we usually have to take a beat. If there’s something difficult that’s happening, if we’re in conflict, that’s because somebody’s need or desire is unmet. That means that somebody, if not everybody in the group or in the system, is in a state of stress, things have escalated, you’re feeling hyped up. So, this is not the ideal moment to make a connection to another person or another group. We all know that. We find ourselves in situations where I should have taken a beat. I should have taken a walk. In fact, in my mind right now, as I say that, I’m thinking of a story, an example that I’m not going to unthread, but I’ll just refer to it.
Aarati was a witness to this. It was a time when I got really hyped up about something that was happening in our Dragonfly space. One of our colleagues said, “I’m going to take a walk.” I want to say this was just before the pandemic, so three and a half, four years ago. At that time, I didn’t have the tool of taking a beat. I’ve worked with conflict. I studied conflict at Harvard. I’ve practiced conflict transformation work in all these social movement contexts, but I didn’t have this really obvious tool which was take a beat, which was settle myself. I’ve been studying somatic since and I can see that that’s a source of settling ourselves, taking a walk, grounding ourselves, settling ourselves, Resmaa Menakem’s language.
So, those are fancy ways of thinking about the very straightforward tool of taking an effing beat, taking a beat, so that we are in a place where we can be generous while caring for our own needs. That is a grounded place. So, we take a beat to get grounded. Arati was talking before about what we can do in the spur of the moment when things get difficult and what we can do if we think things out in advance. At good times when we’re not in the middle of dealing with the conflict, this is a time we can practice grounding, whether it’s somatic grounding, whether it’s meditation, my go-to grounding practice has been to lean back in my seat. Even as we’re talking, Kelly, I’m practicing that. While Aarati’s talking, I’m leaning back in my seat. Then in this part of the conversation, I found myself leading forward. I don’t know if you as a listener can hear, but it shifts my presence and my ability to be with what’s going on around me.
Prentis Hemphill, who probably listeners know from their podcasts, defines boundary setting in this way where you take care of yourselves, you can take care of yourself and feel your care for the other. Prentis is actually using the word “love.” I want to find the place where I can take care of myself and feel my care for you at the same time. That’s a boundary that we want to maintain in order to get through the daily bumps intact, but especially we want to have that grounding of steadying ourselves, so that when the ground really gets bumpy, we’ll be able to take a beat and steady ourselves in whatever way works for us and whatever way we might have been practicing. So that we’re in a steady enough space where we can identify our boundaries and we’ll know how to care for ourselves and care for others. That’s the state that we can be in, that we kind of need to be in order to tend to our group and ourselves and each other tenderly.
KH: Something in the toolkit that really resonated with me was a question about whether people in our groups tend to talk directly to the people they are upset with, or whether we are more likely to raise the concern with someone else. The answer to that question tells us so much about what may be lacking in the social ecosystem of our groups, and why we may be stuck, or at risk of getting stuck, in conflicts. It’s not always easy to address people directly when we are upset, and if we have not done the work of building understanding, or skills, to address those moments in a good way, our efforts can easily go off the rails. But the question of who we are talking to when we are upset, and whether or not it’s the person we’re upset with, can tell us a lot about the work we may need to do in our groups, in order to build a culture where healthy conflicts and conflict transformation are possible.
AK: Direct communication and feedback are critical tools in our conflict transformation toolkit. Why is that? One of the major sources of conflict in our group is the assumptions that we make about other people’s intentions, the meaning behind other people’s actions, or the assumption that whatever it is that we want or we need is plain, is visible just because we feel it so strongly. We expect each other to be mind readers in ways that are really unhelpful and also just really unrealistic.
Particularly given that we are often working in groups that are a mix of people, some of whom have been targeted by systems of oppression, others who’ve benefited from systems of oppression, so many different ways, cultures and identities and experiences that really bring us to different places even within the same thing happening. I think that the practice of direct communication starts with what Rebecca was talking about, which is taking that beat, taking that beat first before jumping to some conclusion to really settle yourself, get clear on what your own intent is. What’s your goal in speaking directly with someone or giving someone some feedback? What is the specific thing you want to address? We can tend to talk in generalities.
We can tend to be really vague, and we do this sometimes thinking that if we’re direct and specific, we’re going to hurt somebody’s feelings. But actually, when we’re being vague, then we aren’t giving people the information they need to be able to actually change their behaviors in ways that are going to support your being in it together. So, really getting specific about the behavior that was problematic or the impact that that behavior had on you or on the work or on other people, including the feelings, because we need to get better at understanding our impact on other people and to also be understanding of one another’s feelings and to make space for those feelings and know that we can still manage that, navigate that, and come out on the other side.
In fact, that’s how trust is built. We often think that we have to say all the right things and do all the right things and never say anything to anybody that could be critical, some of us, because we don’t want to hurt them or because that way we’re not going to mess up. But trust building requires risk and we need trust inside our movement groups and direct communication and feedback where we can sit with somebody and speak to them as opposed to about them with other people. That’s something that we see a lot in the groups that we work with, that people are speaking about one another. So-and-so really pissed me off when they did X, Y, Z. Well, did you talk to them about it? No, I didn’t have the time, or I don’t know, they probably won’t take it the right way or whatever it is.
We make a lot of excuses and that’s part of our conflict avoidance. That’s part of that white-norms culture, that niceness that Rebecca was referring to that can really prevent us from moving through the conflict and coming out on the other side, often stronger, often able to work together better, often with more trust. So, we really encourage people to muster their courage, to give that direct feedback, and also to receive feedback. That’s part of what we don’t often talk about is some of us are really bad at receiving feedback. We take it personally or we feel like we are the worst person in the world.
We might fall really quickly into self-blame and shame or on the other end to completely being defensive and angry, rather than just receiving the information. So, again, that also requires some of that self-regulation that will allow us to receive feedback and consider it and think about it, right? Ah, I didn’t realize I had this impact on someone. What could I do differently? So this is why we think this is one of the most important tools in the toolbox, direct communication and feedback.
KH: So what does it look like to create healthy mechanisms for conflict transformation?
RS: If you’re going to become an organization, a group, a community, a pair of people who are committed to conflict transformation, you’re going to change some of your habits. You’re going to learn certain tools. What are you going to do? What mechanisms are going to actually help you to do these transformations? Well, I’m part of a group, many of us are part of an online group that meets once a month and we have goals. We set goals and we try to support each other to meet whatever those goals might be. The reason we do that is because it’s really hard to change your behavior. Most of the time I want to do things like take a walk every day or go to sleep on time. Those are some of the commitments that I make to myself. We wouldn’t have groups like that. We wouldn’t have struggles trying to make our life align with our intentions for our life unless that was a hard thing for people to do and it is a difficult thing for most of us to do.
We’ve got to practice it. And many of us in movement space use that word for any number of things that we want to practice. I don’t feel comfortable advising us to actually make a commitment to doing some big thing that’s different than what we do now, even though we have to. But what I think we can do is we can study together and we can debrief the conflicts that we have and study in that way and just talk about them and shift our understanding by having a regular practice of after-conflict reviews, if you want to call them that. We’re studying specific aspects of conflict that can give us some wisdom and insights.
So, for example, we might invite ourselves to look at power, to look at the power dynamics inside our groups. One of our norms, did you mention this one, Aarati, was to name and discuss power? What is it exactly, to name our power dynamics and deal with them and do good things with them? I should have our norms memorized and I don’t. And studying power in the group and being able to distinguish power dynamics inside our groups where all of us presumably are longing for transformation and we want to do the work to put right power relations in place.
We need to distinguish those power dynamics from the power dynamics out in the world where we campaign against our targets and against fossil fuels and white supremacy culture and bad healthcare and terrible education systems and deep and dramatic economic inequality. We have to use different tools than we use out in the world. One of the ways to do that is to be aware of power dynamics in the group, be able to discuss them. It humanizes the conversation about power dynamics and it, I believe, makes the group less likely to use tools intended to harm or to bring down another, which we would do out in the world in campaigning, from tools which are meant to hold each other accountable with dignity and with respect and with care.
Finally, one of the most important tools for conflict transformation is practicing curiosity. Now, when we meet periodically and we do an after-conflict review, we’re paying attention to things we might not have paid attention to before and that engenders and encourages curiosity. The source of my own curiosity, I believe, first of all comes from being fourth of four kids in a household where I saw a lot, I experienced a lot. I kind of know what was happening up rank from me, right? Because I was the youngest. I saw a lot of things go down with my three older siblings and that was a root of curiosity, but also, I made a big transition in my life at age 25. I had grown up in a family that practiced, still practices orthodox Judaism and with very strict rules. I was married to a man, an orthodox rabbi.
And at 25, I took my two babies and I left that marriage and I stopped being religious and I came out as a big old queer as I said earlier. I was non-binary from age three, but it took until I was 25 in 1985 to leave the life that I was born into. And by doing that, the combination maybe of being the youngest and maybe being a Jew in the world, but specifically of being a gender queer, queer person, when I came out in 1985, it was as a lesbian feminist. And that queerness that I experienced enabled me to always constantly have around me the awareness that what one perceives because of how they were raised, and the experiences for better and worse that they’ve had in life, is not the entire universe of things to perceive. So, it became my practice from age 25, unbidden, not on purpose, to notice things that happened around me. And that led for me, to be a person who continues to change and want to change as I learn new things. I feel like that is tied to the practice of studying our own conflicts in shared space, in that we have the ability, we have the constitutional ability in our guts, we are able to change our mind about things. We are able to learn new things.
We become consumed with interest and learning about each other and learning what happened. We no longer think it’s uncool if we show we betray that we’re actually in this moment learning a new thing. In this moment, we are learning something we didn’t even understand or perceive last week. That’s the most powerful thing I think that we can do in order to be able to problem-solve and build the kind of transformational movement spaces that we want to have.
KH: This toolkit was created, in part, because Mariame was getting approached by so many groups about conflicts that were straining groups and organizations. When Mariame lived in Chicago, “Have you talked to Mariame” was a standard question among organizers who were seeking advice from their peers about how to resolve a conflict. Years later, I am now one of the people in my city who gets approached with questions when a group is mired in conflict. One of the reasons that a small number of people wind up taking the bulk of those crisis calls is that not enough of us have the practice or training required to grapple with these issues. But having a background in transformative justice, or experience with circle keeping, does not make people into transformation fairies who can resolve everyone’s conflicts. That’s why I am so grateful for this toolkit, which really empowers groups to build their own infrastructures around conflict and harm in ways that can help make transformation possible.
AK: If you are part of a group that is struggling with conflict inside the group or just if you have a sense that the group is stuck in some way or just not relating to one another in ways that feel healthy or feel nurturing, the first thing that we would advise is to check out In It Together, actually. In It Together was created with the idea that people in movements have a lot of knowledge. And just inside your own group, you may have people who are bringing different skills, different experiences, different talents that can be brought to bear in this project of understanding. So, in In It Together, we have section four, which is called a diagnostic tool, that’s just a series of questions to help the group to get clarity on what’s going on.
What do we think is actually driving the conflict that we’re having? Is it that there are people who are doing and saying things that are not valuing other group members or not treating people with dignity, or is it that there’s not really a clear sense of what’s expected of people in the group? Some people are doing all the work and some people are not doing any. Whatever it is, we need to get clear on what it is first. So, that’s the first suggestion is to pause and to take up that challenge of self-reflection as part of the group. And then once you have a better sense of what’s going on within In It Together, there’s suggestions of different sections of the toolkit that you can turn to and a lot of different exercises in there, exercises, tools, guides, et cetera that you can try to help you navigate what’s going on, and hopefully just open up the space for that humility, that self-reflection, and some change.
If you do that and you’re still feeling like, “Wow, we are really struggling and we can’t seem to get past this,” or “We don’t know everything we need to know to be able to make this change,” which is also okay. I think in our movements, we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to know how to do everything. Some humility can go a long way, and then it’s time perhaps to seek some support from other folks. In the toolkit in section nine, we have just a description of a bunch of different kinds of practitioners who can help, because sometimes you don’t know what you need.
What kind of help do you need? Do you need someone to help you do planning? Do you need someone to help you do mediation? What is it that you think would be supportive of the group? And then you can look around and there’s actually a link to some referrals in there as well to different practitioners who have different kinds of expertise that movement folks can go to. I think once you have more clarity on what it is that you need, it becomes much easier to find someone, to offer that support, or to find people within your group who can really guide the group through that process of self-reflection and transformation.
We believe that all of our groups have what they need to be healthy and they can do that by looking inside, but also that in our movements, we have a lot of people with these skills and expertise to bring to bear. We want to support one another. So, that’s where I would start. I think it’s exciting to think about people doing that work with one another in our movements to really build those principled communities of struggle and be able to have the conflict transformation and transformative experiences that we can really be living into the vision we have for the world in a really hopeful way, in a really intentional way.
KH: Living into the vision we have for the world is no small task. In my own experience, it’s not just bad habits and survival mechanisms that have the potential to thwart those efforts, but also, sometimes, our own best intentions. I know that, earlier in my work, I was so task-oriented, so focused on being effective, getting results, and not allowing anyone to silence me, in the ways I had so often been silenced in the past, that I was not prioritizing the relational skills that our best organizing efforts require of us. Fortunately, I worked with a lot of great people, including Mariame, who met me where I was, and sometimes made room for my flaws and hangups as I grew. But my work never would have evolved, and I never would have grown as a person, if I had not come to understand this relational work as being the most important part of my radicalization.
One thing I really appreciate about labor organizing, specifically, is that it teaches people to organize with folks who are not of their own choosing. We all need that ability to cohere with people who we might otherwise never spend time with. When we sharpen our communication skills and figure out how to work through difficult moments, on shitty days, when everyone’s feelings are hurt and no one wants to yield any ground, we become more powerful, and we also confound the expectations of our enemies, who benefit from our inability to resolve conflict. While the government has a long history of sowing and fueling conflict within our movements, such interventions aren’t always required of those who would like to see us fail. They can often rely on us, our traumas, our defensiveness and our individualism to undo our own organizations and movements. Building the skills we need to avoid those outcomes is some of the most important work we can do in these times — and I am so grateful to Dragonfly Partners and Interrupting Criminalization for giving us a framework for those efforts.
Much of this work comes down to how we understand our relationships, and the purpose of our connectivity as human beings. So, I want to close today with some words from the afterword of Let This Radicalize You, which was written by my friend, Harsha Walia. Harsha wrote:
Interdependence and reciprocity are not optional. One of the contradictions of capitalism is that while we are dependent on intricate production processes for our basic needs, we are increasingly atomized and isolated from one another. The COVID pandemic has exposed how ingrained individualism is and how human worth is based on a racist, gendered, and ableist system of commodification and productivity. In the face of such cruel and callous disposability, it is a radical act to admit that we are made and undone by each other.
I want us to think about those words, and the idea that we are “made and undone by each other.” I think that can be a scary truth for a lot of us to inhabit. But scary or not, it’s our reality as social beings. We need each other, and if we want to change the world together, we have to reconfigure the ways we relate to one another. Transformation always begins with us, and if we did not have the potential to grow and move together in ways that defy individualism, this alienating culture never would have been imposed upon us. Our potential is there. It’s up to us to break free and seize it together.
I want to thank Aarati and Rebecca for talking with me about the In It Together toolkit. It’s an incredible resource and we will be linking it in the show notes of this episode, on our website at truthout.org.
I also want to thank our listeners for joining us today, and remember, our best defense against cynicism is to do good, and to remember that the good we do matters. Until next time, I’ll see you in the streets.
- You can find the In It Together toolkit here.
- Don’t forget to check out Let This Radicalize You: Organizing and the Revolution of Reciprocal Care by Kelly Hayes and Mariame Kaba. The book will be released on May 16!
- Interrupting Criminalization is an initiative, led by researchers Mariame Kaba and Andrea J. Ritchie, that creates resources, develops containers, and weaves cross-movement networks, building capacity for and with organizers and advocates working to end the growing criminalization and incarceration of women, LGBTQ, trans, and gender non-conforming people of color.
- Dragonfly Partners supports client-partners to transform their internal cultures and structures to build effective social change strategies.
- When to Talk and When to Fight: The Strategic Choice Between Dialogue and Resistance by Rebecca Subar
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