Each one teach one

Last week Saturday I was in a theater in Beverwijk. In case you have no clue about this small town, no worries, but it has been around for more than 1000 years. In this place, I didn’t learn about its history, which includes being conquered by the Normans, I learned about Hip Hop. Not to dance, but about the history of the Hip Hop movement, from 1973 to 1991 to be more exact. Why? Just because I could and the storyteller is a famous Dutch rapper, Brainpower, or actually MC who knows his stuff. More importantly to spend a nice evening with my brother.

Honestly, I am not a fan of most Hip Hop music, but I do love a good storyteller and storytelling. He shared at the beginning, I want you to walk out feeling inspired, have a good feeling about yourself and know what you do matters. Not exactly what I expected, but he achieved exactly that.

He inspired me to think about my work again in a different way and to understand better what I am doing, or trying to do. Hip Hop started as a movement of social change and in many cases still is.

For the past year, I have been working on developing a vision for my organization on Equal Partnership (or Authentic Partnership or Equitable Partnership). Finding out what this means for the organization I am part of in the context of decolonization, racial justice and really living feminist principles. It is definitely not an easy process, but Brainpower inspired me to think and reflect on 5 things I have learned so far in trying to be part off an external and building an internal movement for this.

1.      Social change is slow. I can feel pressured to deliver a vision on authentic partnership and maybe hard truths, but no matter how hard I want to push or pull, I am not in control, nor do I find these hard truths or will the process go any faster. This process started in the beginning with a number of managers wanting to understand how we could hold the organization accountable by designing some indicators and seeing progress towards more equal partnership practices. I panicked at first. Coming back from pregnancy leave, I felt overwhelmed. What seemed like a simple management question, I realized quickly was something much more fundamental. I was not sure how open the organization would be to finding this out – due to corona and mostly working from home, it was simply harder to sense where the organization was at. I was lucky, I had a very good ally, who had very similar ideas to me. She became my backbone to lean on and into. And going forward, I have identified and found many more allies, which have become the new backbone of the process. It is not me needing to lead this change or control it, we are in this together and every step of the way we are uncovering many truths instead of one.

2.      Speaking your truth is easy. Speaking a nuanced truth is much harder. To be able to do this spaces for discussion should not only be safe, but require to be brave spaces as well. I am only starting to understand and learn what role I have in this. After years of facilitating many different meetings, coaching and training, I am still working on how to translate a space where there is place for empathy and openness to also be a space where more painful truths and nuances can flow freely, without fear of rejection, and being comfortable with the uncomfortable. It is an ongoing practice, where I stumble and try to acknowledge gracefully when I get it wrong.

3.      One skill for the above is active listening, obviously, but again knowing is something different than doing consistently. For me it has become a practice of listening with intent to the other and to myself. In each conversation I listen and try to postpone judgement, gently nudge to share more, keeping an open mind, especially when I feel it closing or being challenged to my usual perception. And so much is not about me, although I always try to relate to me, what would I do in their situation? Before I could get a little lost or feel overwhelmed, but there is always a distinction to make between sympathy, empathy and compassion. In particular the latter helps me understand it is about holding space instead of needing to resolve or help. Agency always remains with the person you are listening to, unless they actively request you to help.

4.      Decolonize your mind. I see this as a great gift of the process. What biases, personal or systemic, influence how I operate and work daily. Being able to question this and exploring what I am responsible for and what not, feels liberating. I think it strengthens me in my humility and my basic belief that kindness is key in everything I do. For a long time I bought into the idea that with these two qualities you do not go far in the world – ambition and being bold were the key qualities I would aspire to. At times they were needed, but over time I realized I create the greatest moments of connection, collaboration and success when I stay truthful to showing up with humility and offer kindness – even when this is tough (and my ego wants to try a different strategy to create a shortcut or achieve the opposite and the result is conflict).

5.      Last, Brainpower shared the strategy of Each One Teach One. A proverb that is still used in Hip Hop culture and originates from the times of enslavement taking place in North America.  When one enslaved person acquired knowledge or skills including learning to read or write, it was a shared understanding and commitment to teach another. For me this is key in the process. I do not want to coopt this idea, but we all need to learn to think, act and speak differently if we truly want to come to new forms of partnership, which all means we have to learn and teach each other. I love the many exchanges and insights I have gathered throughout this process, every time ‘being taught’ or ‘imparting or discussing ideas from myself or others’, both equally rewarding and creating a space for growth on both sides. I am looking forward to many more opportunities to apply this principle and to be the humble receiver and sharer of new ideas and learnings which can help this process forward.

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