Perception Difference and Divide
Right now, particularly in the United States, we are seeing a rise of identity politics. A highly used definition: identity politics describes when people adopt political positions based on their ethnicity, race, sexuality or religion rather than on broader policies(1). There are incredibly valid reasons for this rise, and some might argue identity politics have been ever present in the history of the United States. While present across the globe, recently the U.S. has seen an increase in hate speech, attacks based on race and an increase in the subtle micro aggressions people of color (POC) are subjected to on an awfully consistent basis. People are living very different lives based largely on ethnicity, and the socio-economic gaps are getting wider and wider.
The differences these divides seem to be built on have more to do with societal perception of ourselves and each other than the reality of being different from one another. While these differences may have generated division, we need to shift our focus if we want to see wellbeing for all. Fundamentally we are interconnected, and we are tearing down the fabric of our humanity and the future of our planet by pitting ourselves against each other based on the varying parts of our identity. These fights will not serve to address the isolation and the divides we see and sense today.
The divides run deep. Throughout my work looking at issues women and young women face (through facilitating dialogues like World Cafe’s with the Westchester Women’s Agenda, Women Together or other groups over the last decade) whether it’s stay-at-home moms feeling like they have no community, survivors of Domestic Violence not being sure how to get help, or women trying to start a business with no place to go, women have felt isolated and alone. This crosses boundaries of gender, race, ethnicity, class or creed. When we feel alone, we perpetuate that feeling by recreating it. So, if we are feeling alone, instead of reaching out and finding people to be social with, we often box ourselves even further away from others. We find reasons that we can’t connect with other people and, sometimes, we start to blame them for our experiences. We turn them into ‘other’ which is fully separate from ‘self.’ While there are often many people to hold accountable for our situations, there is also a choice we can make to do something differently or show up differently. By holding ourselves accountable, we have more agency to take action. Yet, there is another piece to the puzzle.
Individualization vs. Interconnectedness
Individualization on a societal and economic level. The basic idea is that the individual, rather than the family or the community, is becoming the central unit of social life (theory developed by Ulrich Beck). We have come to believe so deeply in our own uniqueness that we forget about anything that ties us together. We have created family structures, an economy, a health care system, religion etc, based on the idea of the individual. The individual has their own beliefs, their own ability to take care of themselves, their own brand, their own house, their own family. I’ve been gardening a lot lately, so here’s my garden metaphor. We each see ourselves as unique little flowers — with our own unique life experience, our unique backgrounds/ethnicities, beliefs, desires and dreams. Yet, we are all flowers (or at the very least, plants) and we all grow with soil, sun and water. While we are all different, there are many aspects that bind us in the human experience.
So how does our isolation relate to societal individualization? While individuality, or the growth of becoming an individual does not necessarily breed isolation, our social order has gotten out of balance. We’ve started to build walls (internally and externally) that block us even from our own selves, our own emotions and abilities to be compassionate. We seek out perfection as if it’s something we can attain and someone that looks/thinks/acts like us. We try to ensure that we won’t feel pain by not feeling at all. We believe that we are the only ones who are right and that everyone else who we deem as ’other’ is wrong — we start to fraction off and splinter until our web of connection is so thin that it can easily break.
Shift & Intersection
Today, we are facing unprecedented crises. Friday, Sept 20, millions of people around the world took to the streets to demand a reversal in global warming — to say that we cannot keep going the way we have been (fossil fuels, coal, driven by economic greed). Our leadership and thinking needs to shift. MIT Senior Lecturer and Founder of the Presencing Institute, Otto Scharmer states, “The profound changes that are necessary today require a shift in our paradigm of thought and a shift in consciousness from an ego-system to an eco-system awareness. The deeper we move into the complex, volatile, and disruptive challenges of the twenty-first century, the more this hidden dimension of leadership moves to center stage.(2)”
Otto’s main point and mine is that we need a shift in consciousness. We each, with all our uniqueness, need to lift our focus of attention to the places where we are bound together. We need to find the linkages and nurture them in order to build resilience individually and as a society. The biggest key to resilience is having a net to fall into and bounce back up from. The net needs to be made up of many threads, and each of the threads in that net need to be thick and strong to be able to do its job. The net cannot only be built when we need it. In order for the net to be there, we have to do the work all year round.
This past year, we, at the Eileen Fisher Leadership Institute, brought a group of young people to the Native American Museum in NYC as part of a program looking at Sustainable Fashion. There was one moment (a few actually) when I was so touched, tears sprang to my eyes. One such moment was in watching a video of a group of four communities in Peru weaving the bridge at Q’eswachaka. Every year, this community replaces a bridge so that they can cross the river. All year the community grows the particular reed, harvests the reed, weaves the reeds together and create ropes that take up whole roads. They then weave the ropes together and work as a community to replace the bridge each year so that they can cross the river. The community doesn’t wait until the old bridge is falling apart to start growing the reeds. It is engrained in their ancestral knowledge because they know their livelihood depends on their ability to come together.
The bridge has been built year after year for over 500 years in the same traditional Incan way. One of the builders says, “It’s not a spirituality, it’s not a religion. It’s a way of life.(3)”
What I saw in that community is a piece of what we’re missing in our ‘Western’ society. We like to pretend that we don’t need each other. One of the greatest compliments people like to give, “she is so independent.” I venture to say, when we need each other, we can feed each other. When we start looking at the places we can build our collective net — in our government, in our own communities (connecting with our neighbors) in business and beyond, we no longer need to walk alone. We become interdependent and a whole lot stronger.
It’s a myth that we are that separate or that any of us are one thing. Recently, we have been hearing a clarion call for focusing on making our movements intersectional — to include diverse voices and ideas (i.e. is your feminism intersectional — meaning are people of color included in your feminism, also applies to environmentalism etc.). I venture to say, we are all intersections. Therefore we fundamentally know how to do this. We are an intersection of our ancestors, an intersection of our skills and experiences, an intersection of all the myriad identifiers that make up our identities.
Being an intersection isn’t easy. It often feels easier to go it alone. I often hear, and feel the sentiment, “if I want it to get done, I need to do it myself.” Let’s say we realize it’s not sustainable to try and do everything ourselves. The next step is often to “learn to delegate.” However, this is a function of a belief that we have control and power over others — which, long term, doesn’t work on a lot of levels. In a business, for example, you may have employees who do a job for a short period of time but then they leave because they are not being encouraged to cultivate their own meaningful contributions. The same goes for us as individuals and as a society.
What we need is much more democratic and it begins within the self. First and foremost, we begin by recognizing (shifting awareness to) our own intersections. Where are the places where I have unique value to offer the world? To keep the business example, we might look at this as strengths — what am I capable of? What am I not capable of? What am I bringing and what can I learn? Where have I been shutting off parts of myself due to judgement, fear or cynicism? Where have I been shutting out others (largely due to the same qualities)?
When we shift our consciousness, shift our focus of attention from ego to eco, we see intersections in ourselves and see them in each other. When we can move to a sense of eco-system awareness and ecosystem leadership. From a place of eco-system awareness, we a) become more compassionate b) are able to see the whole outside of ourselves c) can ask others to come in and join us in co-creation d) begin to own our piece as part of a whole. Co-creation builds community. Stakeholder ownership builds resilience. We need to lead from a place in which we all contribute to the whole, be aware of all the different parts of ourselves and our communities and make space to hear each of them. It’s time we venture out of our own little bubbles, be the intersections and lead from the whole rather than the sum of our parts.