“Who are your people?”: Building Cultures of Practice

Courage of Care
Jan 27 · 13 min read

“Who are your people?”

This was one of the first questions posed to us by Resmaa Menakem, a somatic abolitionist and author of the famed book, My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies, at the retreat he led at the Rowe Center last October.

“Your people are not the people who come to your workshops,” he continued. “Your people are the ones you are building somatic culture with.”

We are being called to do more than design new theories and strategies, develop new anti-oppression workshops, or amass more social media followers. We are being called to build communities and cultures of practice. Why? And what do we mean when we say “culture”?

Culture is Critical for Transformative Change

There are many theories of transformation. And there are many ways to do transformative movement work. Some folks support social service professionals, activists, community leaders, parents and others who care about our world by offering tools to protect against burnout and empathy fatigue. Others work to transform systems by changing policies and addressing structural causes of oppression and inequity. Others are organizers, advocates, story-tellers and artists. Surely it will take all kinds of work, talents and gifts to build a more beloved world.

And while many are already hard at work on the path of justice and liberation, we have noticed a tendency in some circles for folks to focus on either bottom-up approaches that center tools and strategies for “personal transformation”, while others tend to focus on top-down approaches that privilege tools and strategies for “systems transformation”.

For example, among those who work on educational equity in the US, there are a number of individuals and organizations that take a bottom-up approach to educational change. Their approach seems to assume that changing hearts and minds, or getting more kids to meditate in schools, will put an end to systems of oppression, discrimination, and inequity.

Others take a top-down approach to educational change. Their strategies suggest that changing policies that affect funding inequity, educational access and racial and other forms of discrimination will create the conditions necessary for educational equity.

The truth is, we need the wisdom of both-bottom up and top-down approaches, as neither approach alone is sufficient. See for example Leah Gordon’s work on the limitations of individualistic approaches to anti-racist education, and recall the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case which outlawed racial segregation in public education, yet failed to be implemented for well over a decade. In other words, we need approaches that change both “hearts and minds” and institutional policies.

Yet we need more than just a marriage of bottom-up and top-down approaches. We need new, full-scale cultures of practice that make transformative change work sustainable. And as we continue to build these cultures of practice, we can work to avoid the mistake of adding “personal transformation” to “systems transformation” work, or adding “inner change” work to “outer change” work. The danger with this approach is that we continue to maintain a false divide between inner and outer — as if they represented two totally different spheres — and fail to see the necessary integration (not just complementarity) between inner and outer, or being and doing, or even contemplation and social justice work.

Cultures of practice involve more than just adding a social justice lens to our meditation course, or adding a mindfulness component to our social justice training. Cultures and communities of practice rely less on strategies and tactics and instead call us to build authentic, non-transactional relationships with one another, to get to know each other in our beauty and our messiness, to learn more about what motivates and sustains us, and to break bread together. Building cultures of practice that shape how we think and act, and how we are together, is critical for collective liberation. And for some of us, especially our white allies, building culture and community may feel like a new, or at least lost, skill.

“[W]ithout community there is certainly no liberation, no future, only the most vulnerable and temporary armistice between me and my oppression.”

— Audre Lorde

Our Blueprint for Culture Building

Courage of Care launched in 2016 out of a longing to build a community of compassionate, truth-telling, healing-centered, visionary and transformative practice. It has taken time for our multi-generational, multi-racial, multi-faith and multi-disciplinary team to begin to realize this goal. As we continue to strengthen our own culture of practice and shared sense of purpose, we support other organizations and communities to do the same. Our approach to nurturing cultures of practice draws from our blueprint, which helps folks practice:

  • LOVING in more sustainable and compassionate ways;
  • SEEING that which inhibits our capacity to connect in just, equitable ways;
  • HEALING from collective forms of trauma, oppression and separation;
  • ENVISIONING more caring and meaningful communities and systems; and
  • ACTING to realize and sustain our shared visions.

Though we employ a variety of contemplative and somatic practices, anti-oppressive pedagogies, healing and systems tools in each of these modules, each module in essence is a stance of knowing, being and doing. In other words, learning to develop an ethic of loving and seeing as a community is more important than adopting a particular technique. Below we describe each in a bit more detail.

On Loving

“The basic word I-You can only be spoken with one’s whole being. The basic word I-It can never be spoken with one’s whole being.” ―Martin Buber

A crisis of separation lies at the root of many of our current social and ecological challenges. Empathy is in decline; hatred, violence and apathy are on the rise. We urgently need cultures of practice that help us reconnect in relational and non-instrumental ways. This is why our approach begins with love.

Love and compassion — and their umbrella term, care — are motivational stances that orient our way of being in the world. Compassion, which is the capacity to be with and attend to suffering, harm or hurt, and love, which is the capacity to connect and nurture life-giving qualities like friendliness and joy, are both critical to our project of justice and liberation. When understood and practiced relationally, they protect us against burnout.

Our call to center love and compassion practice is not a call to put on rose-colored glasses. We have a natural capacity for care, but we can also be violently harmful to one another and our planet. We hold that our essential nature — when we feel safe, held and seen — is caring. When we feel threatened, unvalued and alone, our propensity for selfishness, competitiveness, othering and greed surfaces.

A stance or ethic of love invites us to turn toward and engage one another in healing and responsive ways. Love and compassion are not to be confused with politeness. Love and compassion require us to call each other in (rather than out) in order to help us realize our collective potential. We therefore emphasize love because we see it as foundational and also as redemptive. Love is the force of healing.

What comes alive for you when you evoke memories of care and connection? Or feeling seen or heard? Or resting in nature or a place where you feel a sense of belonging? What does the world look like from within this place? What seems possible?

What comes alive when you recall a memory of not being seen? A moment of being excluded or not belonging? A sense that you do not have enough? What does the world look and feel like from within this place? What seems possible?

What benefit might it bring you to cultivate community and the aspect of your nature that seeks to plug in, synchronize and attune to others and the world?

On Seeing

Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” — James Baldwin

We believe that training in love and compassion are important but alone are not sufficient in helping us realize a more just world. We need to nurture cultures of practice committed to true seeing and truth-telling that help us situate our personal salvation within a broader context of collective liberation.

To do that, we need to understand the roots of the unjust, inequitable and oppressive social, economic and ecological crises that we face and the systems and structures that perpetuate them.

These destructive, dominating systems are created and maintained in various ways. Cultural myths and social norms, institutional processes and practices, and individual bias and behavior co-produce and reinforce the systems within which we live. Because systems are co-created and co-produced at various levels of systems ecology, they cannot simply be fixed or eradicated by addressing one aspect of the system alone. Again, neither a bottom-up nor a top-down approach alone will suffice. Rather, we need to build cultures of practice that transform the co-production of myths, norms, institutional policies and interpersonal practices in service of liberation.

While it may seem overwhelming to consider the cultural shifts required to effectively address the crises of our time, the fact that we are involved in the co-production of cultures of practice that shape our world reveals opportunity and agency. Of course the promise of radical cultures of practice is more than an intellectual activity. Transformative cultures of practice require that we understand how oppression and liberation live within our bodies. As Menakem reminds us, we are being called to build cultures of somatic practice that help us hold complexity and contradiction, and that also help us build the stamina and resolve to keep going.

We invite you to check in with your own body. What lives in your body because of oppression? Do you find yourself defended? Contracted? Checked out? Burned out or overworked? Caretaking or appeasing? Performing? Many of us have learned ways of being in the world that have helped us cope and even survive. Though there is deep wisdom in these ways of being or reacting to our world, they also inhibit our capacity for more transformative growth and change. What might it feel like to feel safe, grounded and flexible enough within the body to encounter our world without defaulting to these habitual modes of being, or stress shapes? Or even softening these shapes by 2%? What might it feel like to participate in cultures of practice or in conversations around justice and oppression, in which we tended to the body as much as the mind? Or as much to the how of the work as much as the what of the work?

On Healing

Even in the darkest of times, we have the right to expect some illumination from the uncertain flickering, and often weak light that some [people] in their lives and works will kindle under almost all circumstances.” — Hannah Arendt

Healing is a critical stage of sustainable, transformative justice work. Yet often, we may feel pressured to rush the process of healing in the name of getting things done or “fixing” what seems to be broken or not working. Or, we may totally overlook the process of healing altogether, unaware that healing is not a privilege–it is a necessity for sustainable change.

We see healing as a stance, not as a fixed end goal. In its most basic sense, we understand healing to be about restoring and transforming relationships. Like the concept of resilience, healing involves being able to adapt and take in new information, and to restore and repair. And we know that the greatest predictor of resilience is the presence or absence of nurturing relationships at various levels of social ecology. Cultivating healing relationships that embody an ethic of care, in which repair, reconciliation and restoration are centered (and where no one is “cancelled”) are critical, on our view, to helping us build the beloved community.

Healing-centered cultures of practice support healing not only between people, but also to land. They also help us recognize that while there are indeed harms and injustices that require tending, beings and nature also have a way of healing themselves. Not everything is broken. Healing-centered cultures of practice can therefore look like tending, letting be, or even transmuting. Cultures of practice that center healing also help us learn to embrace joy and suffering both as the path and product of healing, rather than seeking out an end to pain, discomfort or change.

What might it mean to take a restorative healing stance toward others in your life and community? How might a restorative stance look and feel different than a retributive stance? What does or might it feel like to live in a community in which folks are not disposed of or cancelled, but invited into processes of repair? What would have to shift in our own minds, bodies and hearts in order to embrace a restorative stance in a more sustainable way?

On Envisioning

“Look well to the growing edge…It is the extra breath from the exhausted lung, the one more thing to try when all else has failed, the upward reach of life when weariness closes in upon all endeavor. This is the basis of hope in moments of despair, the incentive to carry on when times are out of joint…the source of confidence when worlds crash and dreams whiten into ash…Look well to the growing edge.” — Howard Thurman

Healing is a central stage in our process of transformation. But for radical transformation, we have to move from healing or fixing what is broken to cultivating what could be. In other words, we need to move from a critical or deconstructive stance to a constructive or reconstructive stance. This shift involves a capacity for even more radical openness, generosity and creativity.

Dystopias are everywhere. If you watch TV or follow political commentary or ever log into Facebook, you may be convinced the end of days are near. So much of our media and entertainment (and to be honest, quite a bit of our social justice rhetoric) is framed in terms of oppression, death and destruction. It is amazing any of us have any hope left at all!

In this sea of despair, it is important to remember and lift up the stories of healing, repair and transformation that are all around us. New worlds are being built all the time. Movements are succeeding. Change is happening. The resistance is alive and well.

Creative visioning is a key part of our culture of transformative practice. We have to practice sensing that something else is always possible, while also staying in touch with what is right here.

What are the stories of the future you are co-creating with your community and your people? What are your visions for the future? How are they influenced by your stories of the past? What might it feel like to be in community with others actively exploring alternative futures?

On Acting

“You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.” -Angela Davis

We can begin shaping the compassionate, just world that we know is possible right here and now — we need not wait for the perfect time or the right conditions. We can build this world by shaping and creating new cultural norms, institutional practices, and healthier more loving ways of being with each other.

To sustain in the work, we need to develop a stance that helps us continue even in the face of seeming hopelessness, despair, and even defeat. Action requires an element of risk and of hopefulness: it requires we continue to show up even when there are no guarantees of success. We are empowered to act when we deeply sense our connection to all others, and when we develop the courage to act as we learn of the extraordinary vision and strength of all who have come before us who have worked for a better world.

We need to be in community to do the work — we need to learn with and from others about the best course of action, to co-consider desired goals, the intended or unintended consequences of our actions on ourselves, each other and the world. We can not see all sides of every issue, and there is not one method, one approach, one answer to our problems, or even to how we should be.

What’s your commitment to the work? Why do you do the work that you do everyday? What breaks your heart and what keeps you going? What might it feel like to sense that you were working toward your commitment with the support of your community, your lineage, your people?

Sustaining Cultures of Practice

As we wake up to the sense that our world is not fixed and that the ways we think act and relate to one another matter, we realize that we have profound potential to effect change. This is the heart of transformative practice as we see it. And this is why culture building is key.

And that is the heart of the work and the meaning behind our name, Courage of Care: as we deepen in our sense of connection, or sense of relatedness, we touch in to our natural capacity for care. And from that care — that sense of being held, connected, truly inter-dependent, we awaken the Courage to show up, to see, to heal, to envision, and to act.

That’s how we work to build cultures of practice. We know the work will take time, but we’re in it for the long run. We’re building the world we wish to live in.

Courage of Care

Written by

Committed to collective liberation. Building communities and cultures of compassionate, truth-telling, healing-centered, visionary and transformative practice.

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