Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Diversity: Considering the Roots of Civil Rights

As we prepare for our first two deep dives in January in Portland, I am continuing to delve into Civil Rights in my own way. This morning a Facebook friend passed me a video set to Nina Simone's 1964 song, Please Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood.

The series of photos included in the video reminded me of the Little Rock Nine. I live in Northern Arkansas. Just 80 miles from here, in 1957, nine African American children were enrolled in Little Rock Central High School. The students had initially been blocked by the Governor, but this was over-ridden by President Eisenhower.

On the first day of school, the Governer called the Arkansas State Guard to form a blockade to prevent the students from entering and to support the segregationist protestors. Two weeks later the children entered the school for the first time, under the watchful eye of the 101st Airborne Division of the United States Army. In fact, Eisenhower actually federalized the Arkansas State Guard in order to take them out of the Governor's command.

The nine children were then subject to a year of physical and verbal abuse. They were spat upon, beaten up, and one even had acid thrown into her eyes.

I sit here now deeply ashamed. Not ashamed to be white, and not ashamed to be an Arkie. In this moment I feel deeply ashamed of being a human. I do not understand what madness drives any human to these ends. By what madness has it ever been okay to terrorize children?

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Diversity: When Comfort Leaks Ignorance

As we prepare to conduct our first conversations with various groups in the Pacific Northwest, I have been observing the behaviour of Forest Service employees in other regions and in other programs. I have recently noticed some dynamics and I am curious about the underlying structures in our system which produce these behavioural outcomes.

A group of middle managers were together for the third session of a six month leadership development course. They had been face to face together for three one-week sessions and felt a strong sense of rapport. During a discussion about the ladder of inference, the group explored the assumption that "all the good jobs in the agency are wired," meaning that a number of hiring officials had engaged in pre-selection.

During the course of the conversation, meant to illustrate the power of making assumptions, the group circled around to a cultural belief that there are diversity quotas and that sometimes the most skilled candidate is overlooked in favor of what's referred to as "the diversity candidate." There are really two interesting dynamics which became apparent to me as I observed the discussion.

First, the group's comments demonstrate a shared belief that there is a difference between the most skilled candidate and the diversity candidate. This implies that collectively we don't believe that the most diverse individual may also be the most skilled individual. When I frame it thus, the logical mind rejects the thought. Of course there are highly skilled individuals in every race! Therefore, I submit that the individuals in the room were not cognizant that their behaviour demonstrated an illogical prejudice.

Second, of the nearly 40 people in the room, all were caucasian but one. It seemed as if those individuals contributing to the group conversation had no awareness that there was a person of color in the room who may have felt discomfort. (Unlike the others, this man may have noticed the assumption which was exposed in my first point.) Maybe they felt so comfortable together that they did not view the man of color as anything apart from themselves? In fact, that idea by itself is beautiful - why should a group of friends view the one man as anything different from how they view themselves?

The two notions together create an interesting tension in our cultural beliefs (writen in a perspective which may represent the majority of our employees): the people with whom I am friendly are just like me, but the people with whom I must compete for employment are different and less skilled.

As I probe the possibilities in this thought experiement, it occurs to me that employment satisfies our most basic needs for food and shelter. Food and shelter are fundamental to our ability to survive. Competition for a job, then, is very closely assosciated with competition for survival. We could say that these two drives are parallel.

So, then, if the drive to compete for employment is parallel to the drive to compete for survival, then is it possible that while under the influence of these tandem drives, an individual may experience amygdala hijacking? This question deserves a whole new blog post. But for now, this is certainly something on which to chew.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Diversity: Crafting the Questions

In order to conduct a thorough exploration of the Civil Rights System in the Pacific Northwest Region of the US Forest Service, we will be hosting a number of focus groups and dialogue circles. The success of each conversation, and ultimately the project at large, begins with identifying just the right questions to ask.

I propose the following Four Levels of Listening, from Otto Scharmer, as a model which can steer our project team both in the development of questions and in providing us with a shared language to use when planning the process for our focus groups and dialogue circles. Also, this model can help us to assess the depth of the information gleened in each session.

According to Otto Scharmer's work, Theory U, there are four levels of listening. At level one listening I hear you through the filters of my own attitudes and beliefs. As I listen I compare what you are saying with what I already think. I seek to either accept or reject your words based on whether or not they confirm my own judgements. At level one listening, what you say to me does not fit in with what I already believe, I will reject your words and I may even reject you.

At level two listening I have stopped my internal thinking and am simply hearing what you say. Because your words aren't passing through the filter of my own attitudes, I am willing to change my mind based on what you've said. That's why Scharmer calls it the "Open Mind" phase.

At level three listening I have become emotionally hooked on what you are saying. Some how during the course of conversation I experienced an empathetic connection to the words. Now I'm not only listening with an open mind, but an open heart as well. When you're chatting with co-workers at the water cooler, and the conversation switches from football to someone's recent cancer diagnosis, the listening leaps from levels one and two to level three. You can feel the shift in the room. You'll notice that when an entire group shifts to level three, some people will even place their hands on their hearts for a moment.

Level four happens the least frequently but provides the most memorable experience of conversation and connection. When I am in a group and we are all engaged at this depth, I feel like the very forces of creativity and innovation are passing through us. I find that the words which move through me in these moments represent completely new ideas. I'm often startled at the clarity afforded in these moments of being "in the flow" with others.

As we craft our key questions we'll need some questions which specifically target each level. Here's an example:

If we trust the model and agree that the greatest learning occurs at deeper levels of listening, then it becomes strategically important to drive the group toward conflict and debate (level two) in order to reach levels three and four.

What do you think? What are the really hard questions? What sorts of debates stand between our intention and our collective learning?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Diversity: Epigenetic Factors

Epigenetic factors are the biases, prejudices, and fears passed from one generation to the next. (Villoldo 2010).

Along with hair color, shape of nose, length of legs, we inherit a great deal of our thinking from our families. Carolyn Myss compares communities that are ethnically and culturally similar to tribes. Being strongly identified with a tribe means that some percentage of the individual's thoughts and actions are dictated by the tribe.

Here's an example, many white teens raised in small Mid-Western, rural towns choose to become Republican and Christian as adults, which reflects the dominant paradigm of their community. As children, we cannot fully comprehend politics, religion, and philosophy so we default to expressing the same views as our parents and other nearby role models. Even adult tribe members don't often take time to consider religion, politics, and philosophy to any great length. It is more efficient to default to the tribe, or often to the leader of the tribe. Believing that the leader is responsible and accountable and leaving the details to him is a justification for reduced consciousness, reduced awareness.

The epigenetic factors passed from generation to generation are patterns because the complex of biases, prejudices, and fears take the form of neural networks (see pic) which have been reinforced by each generation and then validated throughout one's own life as we "see that which we expect to see" of others.

Socialization is the process of being introduced to the thought constructs of our parents. It's the replication of neural circuitry from generation to generation. We are introduced to our parents thought constructs in the simply course of daily living. For efficiency and survival we are programmed to largely trust and accept these ideas. And that helps us fit in with the tribe. Around the age in which the young leave the family home there is a window of opportunity in which rebellion and differentiation from the parents may include becoming aware of and rejecting inherited thought patterns. Other opportunities to notice and reject social programming arise throughout adulthood. Frequently in the form of negative feedback.

As we journey to the center of the Civil Rights system it is important we maintain awareness of the concept of epigenetic factors. I suspect that the replication of neural circuitry among tribe members who share thought constructs produces an electromagnetic resonnance which increases the gravity of that thought construct.

The beliefs we share with our family and our community of choice produce a sense of cohesion, safety, and trust. These beliefs are interwoven with sentiments such as care for and appreciation of our community. The sensitivity around epigenetic factors is this: When we invite someone to notice their own subconscious attitudes and actions they may discover incongruence. The individual may discover that her subconscious attitudes and actions are not at all in alignment with her values. This can be quite shocking and a big part of the threat is that it calls into question one's loyalty to the tribe.

It has only been five or six generations since Americans owned slaves. It has only been three generations since Germany sought to exterminate Jews. Some epigenetic factors are connected to actual trauma experienced by recent ancestors. Passing down fear of enemies is a survival instinct.

Delving into this lake of the collective subconscious with the intention of understanding why our workforce does not reflect the population demographics of the American public will require sensitivity, respect, trust, and honor. (gulp)

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Diversity: Circling the Lake Together

Last week I flew to Portland to meet the project team for the Civil Rights & Diversity Systems Mapping project. The project team includes Laurie Thorpe, the Executive Officer for Independent Resources (a Forest Service Enterprise Team) and Heidi Bigler Cole, who holds PhD in Social Sciences. We held a three hour meeting and invited employees from the region to meet the project team and join us in framing the project. There were probably 25 people in total.

During the session we shared a definition of systems thinking and together explored why it might be valuable to take a systems approach to understanding the Civil Rights program in the Pacific Northwest Region of the US Forest Service.

In my last blog post I compared exploring the way that a system pervades our subconscious mind as going on a deep dive. To further the metaphor, last week's brief session was about becoming acquainted with my fellow divers. Our small project team will be as a stone dropped into the center of the lake with a design and intention to go deeper into the collective subconscious and perhaps even brush the unconscious expression of diversity, or lack thereof, in the region.

Laurie, Heidi, and I will meet weekly and form the core container - the stone which is to be dropped in the lake. The first ripple circle beyond the point where the stone splashes into the water will be our guidance. This circle includes the Civil Rights Director, a Dialogos consultant, and a Diversity consultant, Audrey Peterman. The work itself consists of convening a number of focus groups - circles of people who'll be invited to the lake and coaxed to go for a swim.
It will be up to each individual whether they dive in or splash around in the shallow edges of the lake. Even if an individual chooses to simply watch from the shore she will discover that the surface of the water is changing and the reflections which are mirrored back will gently raise questions for the observer.
Today I'm feeling ready and would love to jump right in to the water. But I recognize that we need a few more weeks to plan several dives. We will let a number of people know where we plan to go. We will attempt to pre-sense just what might be lurking down there. We will design methods and schedule focus groups and discover more fellow swimmers.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Diversity: An Invitation to Dive Deep

I have recently been invited to apply my systems thinking and mapping skills to the area of Civil Rights and Diversity. The Pacific Northwest Region (Region 6) of the US Forest Service has a new civil rights director. She has been involved in the application of systems thinking to the exploration of the agency's safety culture. That work, lead by Dialogos, has touched many employees in a very significant way. As a result, systems thinking and mapping is gaining in noteriety in the agency.

My role, which is only just beginning, will be to sit in circle, hold deep conversations, quietly notice the patterns and dynamics, and then draw a map of the complexity.

In preparation for our very first meeting, which is next week, the director asked us to ponder what the project means to us. This was a very difficult question to answer. Perhaps because a core aspect of my role is to be present while groups of people co-create meaning and understanding, and I can't possibly anticipate what meaning I will participate in creating.

I feel as if I'm arriving at a beautiful and serene lake. In my approach I can see the brilliant blue surface reflecting the light of the sun. I have no idea how deep the water is or what lies beneath the surface. I only know that in order to be safe I must tread gently. As I prepare for this deep dive, of which I will dedicate one week per month for the next six months, I review what I have learned about myself and diversity thus far. I scan my herstory for clues as to what the exploration might reveal.

My scan reveals to me a tenderness, a vulnerable place within my core. There is only one thing of which I am certain: this exploration will expose me to aspects of my thinking which are subconscious or perhaps even unconscious. How do I know that? Because I too was socialized into a system of disparity and oppression. The simple act of growing up in a small town in Oklahoma has exposed me to generations of misinformation, fear, and even hatred. Within the boundaries of my awareness I have been thoughtful and even an activist. But in order to stretch the boundaries of awareness I must dive into this lake.

On more than one occassion I have observed the appearance of a thought in my mind which is ugly and shameful. I'm grateful to have even noticed. When this happens it gives me pause and I explore what lies beneath the thought. In most cases I realize that the thought is a judgement with which I am not actually in agreement in the present moment. So how is it that I have thoughts with which I don't agree?

The way I explain this to myself is that a great deal of my thinking was programmed in as I participated in society. I have seen a black man, for example, and had the thought "Be careful." Then paused and challenged the thought and saw it as ridiculous. Why be any more careful around a man simply because of his skin tone? It has nothing to do with the man before me. It has everything to do with the messages which saturate the world in which I live. It is the voice of my college roommate, a jewish girl from Philadelphia, who cautioned me against getting gas on Broward Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale one night because every patron was African American. It is the voice of my great Aunt who hissed obscenities. It is the voice of some ancient ancestor who perhaps felt he had to compete with people of color in order to have enough food for his family.

As I circle the lake and climb over the boulders which represent that which I have already learned about diversity I can't help but wonder what lurks beneath the surface. What thoughts are yet so unconscious that I've never glimpsed them? I set the intention to be gentle with myself and my ancestors, I draw in a deep breath, and I slide my left food along the sun baked boulder and into the cool water.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Locus of Consciousness

Otto Scharmer describes four fields of being, or "structures of attention". His diagram makes sense to me because I've had personal experiences of each level. In level one my attention (aka my consciousness) is located solidly within my self. I experience myself as completely unique and located within my physical body. When I look out at the world I am looking through my filters, which are constructed out of my own experience, dreams, and expectations.

At field two my consicousness is resting at the edge of my self. I've pushed myself beyond my filters and can listen to others in a very neutral and objective way.

In field three I am having a deeply compassionate experience of another being. This is always, for me, an emotional connection. When I feel compassion and empathy for you, the electromagnetic frequencies of our two hearts are resonnating at a similar frequency and this allows me to temporarily move beyond myself and feel deeply connected to you.

Recently, and with more frequency, I've been experiencing field four, which is the field of presence. And this is why I'm writing, in order to attempt to further understand the field four experience. Near the end of the winter I experienced a somewhat abrubt shift in consicousness. I had the experience of spontaneously gaining access to information which was located beyond the boundaries of my physical self. It seemed completely out of context and even scary. Since then I've been practicing field four as often as I can, so that I may understand the space and feel more comfortable operating that way.

If you look at the diagram above you can see that unlike the first three fields where there is only one red dot representing the source of one's attention, or consciousness, field four shows multiple points. When I practice shifting to field four out in nature, I consider the boundaries of my awareness. I look to the horizon and identify the farthest points which I'm capable of seeing. I listen to the sounds and think about the area of the domain of which I'm capable of hearing. I also check in with other sensory perception, though the reach is not as far for taste, smell, and touch. From this state of expansion I then notice feeling as if there is not one "me" located firmly inside my body. I also notice that I have almost no thoughts, no internal dialogue... only the awareness of that which occurs within my domain of perception. Things like birds singing, or an airplane overhead, or the play of sunlight and shadow on the distant hillside. It's actually a quite peaceful state of being, and one which is strived for through a number of spiritual practices.

But when I've had this expansion among other people it has not been so peaceful. There have been several times in my life when my awareness has expanded into a domain which includes other people. It is as if the boundary of my perception is the edge of the room rather than the edge of my physical body. Usually when I'm at my most expansive state of presence I am aware of the emotions and attitudes of others in the space. Periodically, when someone is having a very negative emotional experience I have had the experience of feeling that emotion as if it belonged to me personally, and even having thoughts associated with the feeling that were distinctly not my own thoughts. For example, once on a week long river rafting trip I sat, for a few hours, next to a woman who was experiencing back pain and was really unhappy about being on the boat for several more days. During the time while I sat next to her I found myself having a stream of thoughts along these lines: What am I doing here? I never should have come. This is completely ridiculous. I am miserable and I want to go home. But I was actually having the time of my life and really enjoying the trip and the scenery, which allowed me to notice that these were not, in fact, my own thoughts.

There have been three distinct times in my life when, from this place of deep presence and expansion, I've experienced temporarily seeing and hearing other peoples thoughts. Experientially it was disturbing... particularly when the other person noticed that I was understanding more about them than should usually be the case. Intellectually it is exciting and makes alot of sense to me.

Physics is showing us how the particle/waves which construct our reality are also units of information, perhaps even consciousness itself. Conceptually I believe human systems each have a kind of sentience of their own. I am a sentient being known as Toni, but I'm also part of several other human systems which each posess their own domain. Perhaps field four is the map of a non-local, non-individual sentience in which I participate? Perhaps it is not Toni who can sometimes access information which is not usually available to an individual. Perhaps that which is Toni can be temporarily disolved into some larger form of sentience, and from that place each of us has access to the internal subjective experience of a collective in which we participate? I reckon I'll be gently groping about in this exploration for several months. Perhaps even longer...