Rabbi Tarfon

What can I do, to calm the climate?

What can I do, to calm the climate?

If the IPCC’s Special Report on climate change made you want to do something – anything – to calm the climate, swiftly followed by a sinking feeling that you just don’t know what is both doable and meaningful, and you’d rather not think about it…. You can do something meaningful! Here’s a great way to find your contribution.

What do we need now, from sustainability leaders?

Belaying. Aimee Custis Photography,  flickr .

Belaying. Aimee Custis Photography, flickr.

When I got the news about the US Presidential election result, I went through a lot emotions that I'm still processing.

One that may have been shared by those of you who are looked to for leadership - in ways big or small - was uncertainty about what to say to people who are wanting guidance.

I had to think about this pretty quickly, as I'd been asked present on leadership in the closing session of a four-day workshop on sustainable business.

So what now?

What kind of leadership do we want, what kind of leaders do we need to be, when the going gets really tough?  For me, it boils down to resilience and responsibility.

Resilience

It will be tough. There will be defeats and failures.  People will try to stop the things we are working for.  For some of us the challenges will be unbearably hard.  For some of us they already are.  (I know I speak from a position of privilege as a white, well-educated, able-bodied, straight, comparatively wealthy person from a Christian cultural background - I don't know I'm born.)

Part of what defines stepping up to lead - wherever we find ourselves - is that we are resilient and find ways to continue the work, especially when it is tough.

This doesn't mean that we can't take time out - rest, recharge, recuperate, get some R&R - these things are part of keeping ourselves resilient.

As Rabbi Tarfon said:

It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either.

Responsibility

Knowing isn't enough.  We need to take responsibility.  Find the intersection between what we think is needed and what we are able to do, and step into that space.  If you are there already, thank you.

If you are able to step up, thank you.

What if you're not sure, yet, what is in that intersection?  Then keep doing the good you were already doing, and when you are sure you can step up. You're unlikely to be doing harm in the meantime.

Collaborate and support

Not all of us need to be leaders all the time.  Being a great supporter is an essential job too.  The climber relies on the woman belaying, in the picture. If the work you are doing is to enable and empower others to lead, thank you.

The event

The workshop was part of the 2016 Postgraduate Certificate in Sustainable Value Chains, part of the suite of brilliant executive education on sustainability offered by the Cambridge Institute of Sustainability Leadership.  Thanks team for asking me along!  The full slide set I used is here.

Facilitation and justice

I’m going to be thinking a lot about justice over the next few months, as it’s this quarter's theme at the weekly meeting of like-minded locals that I go to, at Newington Green's Unitarian chapel New Unity.

Today, we heard an extract from a sermon by Unitarian minister Theodore Parker, which was picked up in later years by Martin Luther King Jr and Barack Obama. 

“I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight, I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”

And we reflected on what we can each do, to move us further along that arc.  More words from religious sources, this time in the Jewish tradition (Rabbi Tarfon):

"It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work [of perfecting the world], but neither are you at liberty to desist from it" 

What does this mean for facilitators?

What is the justice that we can seek to advance, in our work?

When the content is 'just', or not

We may choose, or be lucky enough, to work with groups whose content concerns what we consider to be justice.  Whether this is structural and social justice, questions of inter-generational justice of the kind that climate change throws up; or justice in the realm of victims and perpetrators and the criminal law; or justice as right relationship and fair dealings between people in dispute with each other. 

Or we may find ourselves in the uncomfortable position of helping groups get better at doing something we don’t entirely agree with – their ideas about fairness and right action may be different to ours.  We may be faced with hard choices at this point – time to remember our mandate! Did we come to the group to serve it as its facilitator, or were we contracted for some other role (mediator, arbitrator, content expert, trainer...)?

But in this post I’m interested in how ‘justice’ manifests in our process, as content-neutral facilitators.

'Just' process

There’s justice as fairness / equality, and there’s justice as getting some kind of outcome that is considered to be ‘deserved’. 

And when we look at equality, there’s equality of opportunity and equality of outcome.  And when we look at inequality, there’s systemic or structural inequality (manifested as patterns of unequal outcome for e.g. women, people of colour or marginalised ethnicity, people with disabilities, people with non-straight, non-cis sexuality and gender, people with fewer resources or unfavoured class status) as well as what might be going on in the room, in individual conversations and transactions.

I’d argue that underpinning our entire profession is the assumption that it is better (more just) for people’s truth to be heard than not.

A few aspects came immediately to mind:  the opportunity to have your say and be listened to with respect; power balancing so that those who are habitually dominant are not privileged in the conversation; ground rules or working agreements which reinforce a culture of openness and listening; reflecting back to the group when individuals or types of individual are being heard more or less than others.

Gently stretching our mandate

I think there are some greyer areas, where we can gently exercise our mandate more actively in pursuit of ‘justice’. 

Asking the client about the values or principles which they want to see manifested in the conversation and conclusions might prompt them to consider the subject matter through a lens that might otherwise remain unused. 

Asking for clarity on the rationale for who gets invited to be part of the conversation, and whether the rationale has been applied objectively, can help to bring in marginalised voices.  I write more about stakeholder identification and mapping here.

Setting aside time in the agenda or process for the group to explicitly consider its criteria for decisions gives an opportunity for assumptions to be shared and questioned, including assumptions about whose interests need to be considered.  Helping the group to understand the different decision-making methods (single decision-maker, majority decisions, vetoes, consensus) before they agree which to use brings unspoken assumptions about fairness and power to conscious attention. There’s more on that here.

Knowing our own prejudices

We need to be very aware of our own prejudices: who do we marginalise, dismiss or consider to be 'other'?  Where might we over-compensate, and swing the pendulum too far?  When do we judge the conversation and the points being made, according to our own (flawed, personal, partial) standards of justice?

Working in teams, especially diverse teams, can help us see our own blind spots.