On big ambition, inclusivity and honouring the pain: An interview with Sophy Banks & Solène Aymon
With the White House being stormed, controversies about the Covid-19 vaccines and a looming economic crisis, this current moment is an awakening moment in terms of polarization. While they are becoming more pronounced and visible in some places, others are learning how to build bridges and work with them. We invited two Boundless Roots members, Sophy Banks and Solène Aymon, who belong to different generations of changemakers, to talk about the polarities they are working with and ended up speaking about inclusivity, burnout culture and the importance of grief for healthy social movements.
Thank you for joining our conversation today! Could both of you summarise for us your approach to sustainable lifestyle change? What is your practice of change and what does radical lifestyle change look like for you?
Solène: Makesense is a community of people who are fostering change in different fields, from sustainability to inclusivity, and at different levels of engagement. For us, it is key is to consider several ways of taking action and not only cater to those on the forefront but also allow for easy first steps. We are working with an engagement ladder that relates to different levels of behavioural change: from becoming aware, to growing community, building skills and stepping into action. We are radical in our ambition. In the face of tremendous challenge we seek strength in numbers. Our goal is to engage 10% of the global population by 2030. By empowering individuals and bringing together our partners we are aiming to create a real tipping point.
Sophy: I hear a lot of echo in what Solène is describing with what we set out to do in the Transition Movement. What I saw there (and in myself as well) is the polarisation between the positive “we can do this” approach and recognising a system which is in pain. Back when I worked in the Transition movement, I was strongly carrying the “we can do it “ message, now I run burnout retreats where people come to acknowledge their exhaustion, and often end up getting in touch with unexpressed grief.
From my background as an engineer, I view pain as a feedback signal, a way through which we feel what is wrong with the system. In a healthy culture, we would make sense of the suffering that is expressed together. But more often we lack the spaces to work with pain. We avoid it, medicate it [and] pathologize it. We don’t recognise it as meaningful information that has value. But if people can’t grieve they end up unhealthy, they may feel lost and overwhelmed, become sick or even think of suicide. This happens on the individual as well as the collective level. Speaking about our pain and hearing each other’s vulnerability is a form of feedback and it can weave us back together.
What I see is that those with the capacity to do stuff, often end up leaving the despair to those who have less strength and privilege. This is not the whole truth but there is something in there about the dynamic of oppression. About where pain is felt, by whom and how the ones with capacity to change things interact with it. I am very aware of this split. We need positivity and change as well as ways to work with pain and I am interested in creating spaces to bring both back together.
You both are part of our inquiry group on polarities where we ask: “How do we work skilfully across polarities?” Could both of you share what polarities are evolving for you?
Sophy: I am interested in the connection between burnout and polarising. I have been looking at different archetypes of polarities: being vs. doing, action vs. depth and reflection vs. action. While in the Transition movement, I was on a burnout edge most of the time and I saw many projects and individuals burning out. People said to me, “Burnout is the dirty secret of the climate movement”.
The definition of health is when core archetypes which might be seen as polarities are in the right balance. These core archetypes of action and rest — will and love — might well be connected to the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous system which organise our perception, responses and actions. We can see this in relation to trauma, power and oppression. When we are traumatised, our nervous system is not functioning correctly. On a collective level, that means society is organising itself more from place of fight, flight and freeze — perhaps also appeasing or dissociating. We see the distortion of the archetype of action in neoliberalism or Donald Trump — a hyper distortion of strength where power becomes abusive; the other archetype of love becomes depleted, or a victim.
In a healthy culture, strength is in service to love and not the other way around, the economy is in service of women holding their children in service of life. We can choose to inhabit these archetypes and relate to the other, or to deny or pathologize it. Most helpful is when they stay in connection and relationship.
Solène: What I took away from the inquiry process was an increased awareness of polarities on different levels and layers. One of them being how we see people who are very active and engaged vs. those who are not. We tend to highlight and glorify people who are taking action, who might not be thinking of their own wellbeing.
At makesense, we observed that many of our members feel very hopeful when they first join — they find a light at the end of the tunnel and don’t know how to put limits. Now we include topics like sharing feedback and rest in the training for our volunteers. Personally, I am learning to listen to the symptoms of my neck and back pain that are telling me to slow down. We need to have processes and spaces to realise our limits, feel our grief and to understand that it is not a game over to accept them. Another polarity that came up for me was between claiming to want diversity but not managing to bring in diverse people in reality. While showing solutions, we don’t want to be patronising. In our conversations, we identified blockers like judgement and a lack of time and presence as well as pointers for solutions like active listening, trust building, good facilitation and other tools.
In the past months you had the chance to get to know each other a bit better. Solène, if you could ask Sophy any question, what would it be?
Solène: Once people are in a group where they can express grief and vulnerability they feel the benefits, but how do you manage to create that space in the first place? How do you invite people to connect to shadow and trauma without it feeling too intimidating?
Sophy: This is a great question! First, it’s important that people are there because they want to be; if I include grief tending in more general spaces it is always optional. We build safety, making an agreement around confidentiality and trust. Noticing what supports us is important — people, places, practices; where there is beauty and goodness in our lives. Then we can feel resourced to go towards things that are painful.
There are many forms of grief — we welcome any feelings that are coming up: outrage, numbness or fear as well as sorrow. We use tools like the truth mandala (a practice from Joanna Macy’s Work That Reconnects, editor’s note) to open a space where grief might be expressed.
This ritual provides a simple, respectful, whole group structure for owning and honoring our pain for the world. The…
It can be helpful to find questions that open a doorway into what really matters to people, like, “Tell us something good you inherited from a previous generation? What is your greatest longing for your children? Something that broke your heart?” People start to speak from the heart and get out of their head.
If there is enough safety and support we can come through grief quite quickly. Even people who feel suicidal or have lost loved ones. After the process, people feel energised — there is laughter as there is space again for joy and life and warm connection among the group. Many say after grief work, “I was surprised at how much beauty and laughter I experienced!”
Thank you, Sophy! Do you have a question you would like to ask to Solène?
Sophy: What are you most proud of about makesense? It looks like it is going fantastic and goes way beyond to what we did in Transition. I am also curious about the shadow dynamics, what do you see as your tensions and challenges?
Solène: What I am most proud of is the spark in people’s eyes when they join because suddenly they find themselves surrounded with people that also want to change things and are not experts either. They go on a journey of self-transformation, listen to people, become more empathetic and start building projects. I visited local communities in Lebanon, Mexico City, Berlin, Manila… everywhere our members had the same superpowers: being catchy and engaged. They make being a volunteer cool and appealing. I notice that the newest generations don’t need that sexiness as they are so angry about the state of our world. Joy and happiness are part of our culture. This does not mean we are covering over the facts, but connecting to our feelings, taking care of the people working with us as well as the collective. Our members always learn new things, from social entrepreneurship to nonviolent communication.
Thinking of shadows, at makesense we tend to struggle to make choices and find focus. We don’t have a final answer to the question on whether it is better to have one person doing a hundred things, or one thousand things done by one thousand people. And we work with a decentralised leadership model where people have agency to bring their own ideas on board. This invites creativity and innovation but also opens us up for burnout and unforeseen dynamics and consequences. I am still not sure if we are as effective as we could be.
Sophy: I recognise this tension. To understand this, I created a diagram in the shape of a triangle (Figure 1). If you go for the most radical change you will only reach very few people:, [and] if you formulate a more gentle invitation it can reach loads of people. Therein lies a trap — with both approaches you can create a message of failure saying that you don’t reach the people you need to reach.
Marianne Williamson gave a talk about the heart and soul in Totnes where she talked about building a movement. She said there are two dimensions of change: the deep message and the broad message. Most movements are doing outreach work and don’t pay attention to deepening. But the more their leaders are continuously going deeper into the purpose, the more people they can attract. When leaders stop deepening, movements can’t keep attracting people. How to bridge both is a strategic question.
Solène: This makes me think of a project from our community. Two years ago three of our members launched a sub movement called Paumé.e.s (“lost” in French, editor’s note) that worked amazingly well. They created a podcast, asking people who seem cool from the outside about how they feel lost and ended up creating a very benevolent community with over 15,000 people sharing their stories on Facebook. They could relate to each other and realised together that aligning their life to their values improved their wellbeing. Sometimes it is more emotion than reason that catalyses action.
Paumé·e·s - makesense_france
Bienvenue dans le monde merveilleux de la paumitude. Cet endroit où se rencontrent des personnes qui traversent une…
Sophy: When I hear you I see the landscape is really changing. There is more self care and awareness. In my generation, there was a greater inhibition to speak about emotions.
Do you want to share some final thoughts on your overall experience with the Boundless Roots community?
Solène: Boundless Roots is a place to find the most amazing thinking. I got in touch with different views and theories and got to evolve my thinking about communities and the world. It was beautiful to be surrounded by people whose work is related to their values and beliefs.
Sophy: For me hearing people who are really engaged in the world — which I used to be but am not as much anymore — is really inspiring. Things are evolving, our movements are getting smarter, deeper and wiser. It is heartwarming and energising. And the way the journey has been facilitated is really creative, it is an amazing space.
Thank you both for the inspiring conversation!
Solène Aymon is the head of community at makesense, a dynamic global network of people who share common values and a passion to create a better world through social entrepreneurship. It inspires and empowers citizens, entrepreneurs and organizations to build an inclusive and sustainable society together. In the last 10 years makesense has opened local chapters across 140+ cities around the globe.
Sophy Banks has a background as engineer and computer systems designer, was a radical grassroots footballer and worked as a Psychosynthesis psychotherapist. She helped to build the Transition movement in Totnes, co-founded Transition training and worked with groups around the world. Her focus was on integrating insights from inner practices into a movement tending to focus on outer action. Since leaving Transition in 2016 she has been growing the field of grief tending and Deep Adaptation. Watch Sophy explain her work on human culture in these interviews, in brief, and longer
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