February 10, 2020

Action Letters, Perspective

039 Ending self-censorship; Believing in our freedom

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Narrative Shift

“It’s not enough to stand on the opposite riverbank, shouting questions, challenging patriarchal, white conventions…It’s a step towards liberation…but it is not a way of life. At some point…we will have to leave the opposite bank, the split between the two mortal combatants somehow healed so that we are on both shores at once and, at once, see through serpent and eagle eyes.”

G. Anzaldua, Borderlands, La Frontera

Photo by Mahkeo on Unsplash

Many years ago, I learned an adage that has proven itself time and time again in my life: What you focus on grows. We often think about this phrase in the personal realm: If I focus on my inadequacies, I tend to see myself as more and more inadequate, despite my best efforts at addressing them. Conversely, if I focus on my strengths, I can build them and eventually achieve the goals I seek. And by the way, this approach also works for animal training and marriages.
While you might see how this dynamic works at the personal level, our organizations often miss this simple insight, with devastating impacts for our work. We see our organizations as machines we need to perfect. We constantly look for what our organizations are doing wrong and try to fix them, change them, make them look like another organization we like better.
There is a difference – one that is often subtle and imperceptible – between seeking to lovingly explore how you can be more of yourself in the world (improvement) and seeking to be something different and better because who you are isn’t enough (loathing). We cannot improve something we loathe. I’ll be honest, some organizations are harmful, and are not here to be improved. They can be let go. For the rest, compassion and asset building is the path forward.
That approach to organizations is completely opposite to all the messages, stories, and advice we get on what “improvement” means in our society today. As we seek to live the values of our missions, we are not working in a vacuum. We are being bombarded by messages, media, “common sense,” internal self-talk, advice and even jokes that reinforce all the values we are seeking to shift. You know the ones:

  • Pull yourself up by your bootstraps
  • Resources are scarce, so get yours before you lose out
  • Competition and merit-based rewards produce the best outcomes
  • Be perfect
  • Go it alone, because you are all you can count on
  • The earth is a resource for us to use however we like
  • You can own people, land, water, air…. 

We could call these stories the “dominant narrative” as they tend to describe our current society and culture in America, whether or not they are true to our personal families, or cultures, or organizations. Their dominance shapes our economy, government, and many of the interactions in public spaces that we do not create ourselves.
We often assume that because we are working in an organization that espouses positive, opposing values, we are immune to these stories about people and how the world works.
We can fail to see how these stories establish mental guidelines around (1) how people behave, (2) what to expect from the world, and (3) what actions we should take. When you look at the list above, it is easy to think: “Well, those are someone else’s values. Those aren’t MY values. I don’t believe those things.” We miss the way these stories have subtly engrained themselves in our thinking and in the decisions and judgements we make in our organizations every day.
The stories above provide a mental guide that drives behavior like:

  • Seeing other organizations or people as our competition
  • Judging ourselves so harshly we seek to punish ourselves or others for our “imperfections”
  • Working on days off in a way that undermines our well-being
  • Creating proprietary work that we tout as “better” than others and in turn feeling better than others
  • Acting from a place of scarcity and hoarding resources for ourselves
  • Undermining our health through behaviors we know make us unwell but “forward the movement” 

When we look at this list, I can think of many organizations trying to do values-based work in the world that are still working from guidelines dictates by the prevailing narrative.

The dominant narrative isn’t the ONLY driver for these behaviors, but it is an important component. I have been to countless meetings, workshops, trainings where organizations are trying to change the behaviors described above without actually addressing the mental maps that reveal our understanding of the world, how people function, and our own self-worth. We try to change what we DO without addressing the idea that who we think we need to BE is based in the dominant narrative.

Stepping away from the dominant narrative is something familiar to community organizers – they do it every day as they challenge structures of oppressive power and the underlying worldview. This is narrative shift.  Shifting the stories about people and the world that limit and constrain our daily choices.

But too often we don’t apply this same discipline and analysis to our own organizations. We often think about the dissonance between an organization’s actions and its values simply as a procedural failing. The organization says one thing and does another.

At least once a week, I have this conversation about some group not living their values. What I’ve come to suspect is that the issue is much deeper than mere hypocrisy or failures of process.. It’s not just that the organization’s actions and values aren’t aligned – it’s that people actually don’t TRUST in the values that they’ve written, whether those be community connection, interdependent support, equal justice, equitable outcomes for all people, etc.

Sure, they believe in the values in their hearts or minds – but that isn’t enough. When they step back, they don’t really trust the world can work that way. So, our practical side takes over…

The economy will always work the way it does. The government will always work the way it works. Look at the world today! People are pretty selfish. People are delusional -– they vote against their self interest.There isn’t enough for all of us, so we need to plan how we will take care of ourselves first, then we can share with others. When we do X then we will be worthy, but only after we have achieved X.

We like the idea of freedom, love, connection – but we don’t actually trust that a society, economy, or government could ever be organized on those principles. **Gentle shoulder tap** That’s the dominant narrative. What we give our attention to grows.

To deeply live our values in the world, we must shift the mental guides we use and tell ourselves about our worth, about resources, about what to expect from this world.

This takes an intentional decolonization of the dominant narrative in our lives. It happens in three deceptively simple steps:

  • Name the dominant narrative, the values it espouses, and see it consistently.
  •  Name our narratives, based on our values, that we want to live in each decision and in each choice we make.
  • Invite ourselves and others to base decisions, work, strategies on the logic of our values instead of the dominant narrative. 

Yes, these actions sound simple. What’s hard is the incredible amount of focus it takes. Shifting the dominant narrative from our minds demands making a commitment each hour to be present and to act from the deepest belief in our values, not from the fictions of the prevailing narrative. Narrative shift is an end to the self-censorship we do every day that tells us our values aren’t realistic, practical, or possible in this lifetime. That self-censorship kills any possibility of achieving our true mission and purpose in this world.

This brings us to the G. Anzaldua quote at the top of this letter. Shifting narrative is an invitation – not a demand, not a debate – and certainly not telling someone else they are wrong and how to “think right.” People don’t change their deeply held beliefs because we stand on an opposite shore from them and shout that they are wrong. At its core, narrative shift invites us to deepen our belief in our own values, to believe in our own freedom, and to stop yelling across the river. Narrative shift invites us to see the ways we censor ourselves, and invites our fellow people along both shores of the river to be free with us. Ultimately this is an act of compassion for ourselves, and for the people we are “fighting.” We are working on a letter about compassion for March, but for now I’ll leave it here.

I gathered these reflections over years of learning from courageous community organizers and, most recently, I was lucky enough to articulate some of these thoughts in trainings with Erik Peterson, principal of Bending the Arc Strategies. Erik’s work on narrative shift has been eye-opening for me – check out our conversation on narrative shift in this month’s Brass Tacks.

Here are some resources Erik shared with us as a groundwork for this conversation:


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