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How do we work with power, colonialism and collective trauma in sustainable change-making?

Boundless Roots
Boundless Roots
Published in
11 min readSep 28, 2020


With our second thread of inquiry we explored the topic of power from June 2019 to February 2020. Since then, the potency and awareness of these ideas has radically increased and changed. We are taking this moment as an opportunity to reflect before we dive into exploring our thoughts in the light of the latest developments.

At Boundless Roots, we engage in action inquiries to address the challenge of radical changes in society that are required in response to the magnitude, urgency and scope of the climate crisis. Together we explore the underlying question: How can we create the conditions for radical changes in how we live? We do so through systemic action inquiries. You can read more about the process we engage in here.

Last year, we split up into four sub-groups for a first cycle of inquiry. Each group was composed of people holding different theories of how change happens and engaged in a variety of approaches. Our focus was set on identifying where we see the biggest potential to contribute to deeper and more radical shifts.

One of these sub-groups explored questions around power, colonialism and collective trauma. Since our conversations that took place mostly in 2019 and at the beginning of this year, the context has shifted massively. We are now confronted by new questions raised by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and the surging of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, which is strongly influencing the discourse around social justice. We have started a new cycle of inquiry. We still wanted to reflect on where we left things in February 2020 and share our thoughts and insights. You can read about our first thread of inquiry on urgency and depth that took place in another sub-group here.

Power inquiry

In three sessions, we came together to explore the question: How do we work with power, colonialism and collective trauma? During the process, we exchanged our personal experiences and frameworks, identified shared challenges, engaged in case clinics around concrete challenges we encountered in our work and used the three horizons framework to explore how we could transition to the futures we desire.

We started this inquiry based on the understanding that we are all rooted in particular relationships, places and cultural histories and that we wanted to understand how we can change how we live together in our families, communities and on this planet. It was important for us to acknowledge our own power with humility. As practitioners working towards more sustainable lifestyles, we noted that advocating for change itself is a form of using power that springs from a certain way of looking at the world.

We came to this with an acknowledgement that the processes we engage in in our work and the way in which we make decisions are critical. Making power explicit, setting up healthy structures and engaging at the level of personal relationships can be met with resistance, as it takes time. However, when done well it can be the ‘oil of change’, leading to much more rapid action with fewer blockers down the line.

In addition , it seemed crucial to understand our own traumas and triggers. Power imbalances, built unconsciously through generations and passed through our own development, can create personal and collective traumas. They affect us as we respond and try to work towards change. If power goes unacknowledged it can lead to feelings of separation, not being heard, apathy to change and can thus continue to perpetuate the power asymmetries we aim to tackle. Consequently, self-reflection made up a significant part as we approached this inquiry.

The case for change

Inspired by the three horizons framework, we looked at our current situation, imagined a desirable future and thought of pathways that could allow us to transition there.

Image credit: Forum for the Future

We felt a need to engage with the power in our relationships, the colonial histories that have created our current dynamics and the underlying traumas to understand the present moment (Horizon One). In our understanding, engaging with power, trauma and colonialism is in essence about changing how we relate with each other. It is not possible to speak about individual behaviour change without recognising how we are living together and taking into account our cultural and colonial histories, our traumas as well as our socio-economic contexts. People have been affected and abused by the existing systems in different ways, and the reactions to that trauma can block change as well as peoples’ agency in change. We need to be able to acknowledge these contextual relationships, their asymmetries and intersectionalities to be able to truly work towards change together.

We also wanted to recognise that advocating individual lifestyle change in itself is a form of taking control. In doing so, we assume a position of power that can be rooted in a colonial mindset (‘you need to change your behaviour’) and individualism (‘you as an individual’). Misuses of power can take the form of governments prioritising individual behaviour change over policy decisions that enable the burden of change to be shared between government, business and civil society. Another example could be the leadership of social movements centralising power and decision making instead of finding ways to enable more horizontality. These poor uses of power can be a blocker to collective action and change.

Power well shared can lead to much more effective change-making. To allow for this, it requires us to address disconnection arising from power asymmetries and abuses of power. It is critical to actively engage with the topic on a personal, collective and historical level and work towards a culture of personal agency and mutual empathy. This requires setting the context: consciously creating enabling structures that support agency and healthy power relations. In places where this is done well, we see a positively reinforcing connection between enabling people to move with power in their own lives and their potential for societal change-making: when people take control over their own lives at the individual level, they feel more power to create change in the wider system.

If we want the whole system to participate in change, we also need to name the power at the roots of our consumption and capitalist models that cause (and constrain) our behaviour. The current climate crisis, for example, is rooted in the same crisis as other examples of dominance and exploitation. If we don’t pay attention to this in the way we design and think about how we work, we will be tripped up and miss essential parts of the puzzle.

Visions for the future

To get a clearer picture of the future we envision (Horizon Three), we collected ideas and pointers. They ranged from recognising power dynamics and moving beyond them as change-makers, over governance structures that enable a mindset of shared inquiry and co-creation, to fostering regenerative cultures and shared learning. From all the conversations we had, we synthesised the following vision of a future we would like to see:

A change-making ecology flowing with power towards health. The quality of the relationships between us are such that we feel freer to move and work towards creating changes in our ways of living. We have a healthier relationship to power: we’ve got a lot better at exploring, naming and working with power and trauma, so they no longer go unacknowledged and lead to feelings of separation, not being heard and apathy to change. But rather our decision-making processes and practices engage with power gently and creatively, becoming the ‘oil of change’, leading to much more rapid action. There are governance structures and support structures in place to enable a mindset and culture of shared inquiry, which are reinforcing a healthy (regenerative) culture of healing and co-action.

The Transition Space & Pockets of the Future

How can we move from the present moment to the future we imagined (Horizon Two)? Seeing the need to engage with power, we explored what practices we can identify that exist already — the “pockets of the future in the present”. Power dynamics often manifest in decision-making processes and governance structures that reinforce and perpetuate power imbalances. We discussed practices and structures that allow for distributed governance and decision making, and enable us to facilitate and hold processes that allow us to engage with and shift power gently and creatively. We collected a variety of examples of current practices related to processes and structures to support co-creation, the distribution of power and the creation of listening spaces as well as spaces for shared collaborative inquiry across differences.

A few of these methods and processes to deal with power dynamics are named by Boundless Roots member Eva Schonveld in her article on Trauma, Politics and Empathy:

We stayed with some open questions about how to validate these processes and integrate these practices into wider political power structures and future system shifts. How could we create the infrastructure to support a shift in how we relate? How could we integrate these practices into projects and programmes and even wider democratic structures? How could we create entry points for people to taste what it feels like to share power and work together in a collaborative culture?

These considerations also brought up questions about scale and whether creating the space for this type of relating is only possible in smaller communities, where the size of the group itself is not traumatising. We felt there was a growing need to go deeper into the different contexts of this inquiry which is why we then engaged in case clinics to learn about each other’s practice in the context of live challenges.

In addition to these pockets of the future, we identified a number of potential action areas, if not concrete actionable next steps:

Dealing with the power of money

Money flows often form power structures or amplify them. To deal with the power of money in a healthy way, we feel it is essential to create experimental niches around wealth exchange and develop practices that help people through the difficult territory of navigating power dynamics involved with money. These could be addressing how difficult it is for many organisations to let go of self-interest in relation to money e.g. funders, municipalities, governments. Underpinning this idea is our belief in the power of letting go — that co-created sustainable futures are more meaningful, more impactful and spread wider. Co-creation brings dimensions into our responses that would never be designed from a single point of view in the system. If you are interested in the topic of power and money, we recommend watching Charles Eisenstein’s Talk on Sacred Economics.

Capacity building for process leaders

In order to enable systemic governance and collaboration, we need to foster facilitators that build capacity and connect them to people and organisations who are also interested in exploring and investing in developing their understanding of power, e.g. McConnell Foundation and Lankelly Chase. Questions that seemed relevant for that were: Where and how are we developing the capacity of facilitators? How could we develop facilitation skills together? What scale of the political and democratic do we want to go to e.g. regional, national? What’s the map of people in this field who might want to support this? We were left with an entry point question: Who is on the edge and what do they need (rather than our assumptions of what they need)?

Creating a monitoring & learning system

Existing practices regarding power and inclusion that need to be highlighted and drawn on — e.g. the Tamarak Institute report. How do we connect the dots between behaviour change and the power and the inclusion community? We need to develop the practices and indicators of whether or not we’re moving in the right direction. First ideas were:

  • People who feel free to call each other,
  • an increased sense of mutual understanding and trust,
  • and creating a learning system to check-in on what’s working from all parties involved.

Cohering systems wide processes to support issues of trauma

We felt there was a need to build our awareness of and ability to deal with trauma and to support conversations in different places with a sense of inquiry. How might we inquire as a group spread across the system around shared questions? What could be a cross-disciplinary model exploring how trauma manifests in different parts of the system? How can we be braver in sharing our own trauma and power? What might we be able to introduce that allows people to share trauma and deal with shame?

Creating listening spaces in our political systems

We sense that there is a window of opportunity around the failure of the current democratic model. There is an essential need around listening, patience and humility. In these spaces, we can challenge the big cultural norms that expect certainty with a mindset of urgency.

Healthy power: fluid and named?

For us, there remains a question around what healthy power is and how to move from power-over to power-with. While we do not know the answers, two elements seemed relevant:

  • Fluidity: power flowing rather than being stuck. Power is not bad, it’s essential to things happening. It just needs to be able to move around the system to respond to its environment, rather than being stuck in one place. Often this means having specific practices — for example, limiting the time for which people can hold roles, rotating responsibilities for different aspects of community or organisation functioning, using ‘nomination’ systems rather than volunteering etc.
  • Visible, named and understood: being conscious of how power and trauma show up in everything we do, rather than remaining under the surface and controlling what’s happening in the shadows.

We see both vertical and horizontal power as necessary for change to happen. We need to be able to value expertise, information and knowledge within a healthy system, while also being able to notice when power is being used, who it is being used by and not being afraid of it.

The next iteration has started

In the course of our inquiry, we surfaced some of our own tensions, triggers, limiting beliefs, and blind spots. We shared our challenges and supported each other with insights and captured some of the tools we are already using. While we found “pockets of the future” in our lived practice, we realise the work of better understanding and engaging with power is a complex process. Going forward, we identified promising areas of action as well as new questions and came to the understanding that we need to pay attention to power at all levels of our work.

With all our learnings and open questions we have just moved into a new cycle of inquiry. Through the whole process, and through conversations with other inquiry groups, we have formulated a new iteration of the question that we are exploring in our current inquiry cycle: “How are we contributing to healthy power, becoming more aware of power so we can work with it more fluidly?”

If you are interested in learning more, collaborating or exploring your own questions with us — get in touch, we would love to hear from you!

Contributors of this inquiry

Anna Birney — School of System Change

Eva Schonveld — Starter Culture, read her fascinating piece of work on Trauma and Politics to continue and deepen the inquiry.

Laurie Michaelis — Living Witness

Sarah McAdam — Transition Network

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Boundless Roots — Radically Transforming the Way we Live

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Boundless Roots
Boundless Roots

A community looking into how we can change the way we live to meet the scale of the challenge facing us. More on