This week I was part of an extraordinary event. It felt like many of the lessons I have gained over the years in community engagement, what I know about how we learn and the power of collaboration all came together. As part of the trio that is Collab4Good with Amy Orange and Sarah Gun, I had the job of setting the scene for the day’s activities. But that was an arrogant place to start! The scene was in place, long before I walked into the space. We were at the Old Adelaide Gaol and before I opened my mouth we had been captured by the spiritual wealth and strength of Kaurna ambassador Mickey O’Brien, whose dad Uncle Lewis, Old man of the Sea, was one of my first teachers in the way of Kaurna.
I was acutely aware the day was going to be challenging for some and had already been full of trips and spills for the three of us. We had stumbled through anxieties, misstepped with those we would most not want to do that with, debated and played along with our shared vision and commitment to systems change while holding onto our L plates. The foundation of psychological safety seemed important as I tried to craft some words. I drew on the work of Amy Edmonson and Mark Mortensen to help me frame up what I wanted to say. Once the time arrived for me to say it, foreboding clouds were hanging low in the sky, people had been standing out in the cold for longer than planned and we were all quietly settled by grace, humour and reverence of a smoking ceremony led by Mickey O’Brien. I knew what was lying ahead for people too and didn’t want any more talk to get in the way with something that I knew was going to be transformational. My prepared notes were going to be reduced to their essence and to get movement happening I invited everyone to walk forward in the circle they had formed until they came back to their starting point. A simple technique to hold me to time, keep them warm and to show, not tell, that universal truth so beautifully expressed by TS Eliot.
“We shall not cease from exploration And the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time.” –from Little Gidding, TS Eliot
Preparing words, rehearsing our lines and then, not always delivering them in the way we thought we would, is a familiar experience. We imagine ourselves speaking truth to power and then go weak at the knees when the opportunity presents, we practice a line and then miss the cue, we are speechless and in awe of beauty or pain where no words are adequate. We write and re-write only to find by the time the words will reach the ears of the intended, the moment has completely passed and our efforts redundant.
So I have gone back over my notes today and done the circuit of arriving back to where I started, I have chosen some of the lines that I did or didn’t deliver on Thursday under those dark clouds, in the courtyard of the Old Adelaide Gaol, where colonial brick walls hold the remains of those sentenced to death by the State and where 80 change makers stood to be in community for a day to embrace their system shifting powers.
We can’t predict though how this will impact on you or on us as a community for this day. We’ve tried to align our values with the program and maybe they aren’t shared by you. This is a carbon neutral event or our best attempt at that so helping us out on that front will be appreciated. As the world looks to leaders in Glasgow elected by shareholders and voters, it is the non-elected leaders who have inspired me – Greta Thunberg, David Attenborough, the child poets, the young indigenous caretakers of the forests in Chad. We too are unelected leaders and within us all have the power to change our own behaviour, influence those around us by our behaviours, attitudes, what we buy, what we don’t buy. Today is all about the impact you are making, can make into the future and how the past, our assumptions, our relationships and the systems we swirl around in are shaped by us and us by them.
In setting the scene, one of the elements in Edmonson and Mortensen framework, I called on what was visible and invisible.
This place has it all – racism, colonisation, patriarchy, homophobia – all the intersections ; and all kinds of links in the chains of impact – housing, families disturbed and disrupted by the State, ill health, poverty, a State going bankrupt over building a Gaol – there are going to be hurdles ahead today – just as there are always when we bring our whole selves, our past, our preferred futures and together we are all responsible for one another’s psychological safety today as well as physical health. You all play a creative and critical role in enabling that for one another. This is not about happy families, it is about feeling safe enough to speak out, hold space for others whose voices find their way to your ear and to your heart, it is about thinking the very best of the other person, they are not here to do you harm
Drawing on the Harvard research, I invited people to step into their leadership and to recognise each other as peers, all with their own lived experience that brings wisdom, power differentials and all kinds of capital.
Words are cheap so we aren’t going to use many words – the best way to show you are serious about helping to create a safe psychological space is to expose your own vulnerability. Be vulnerable, be humble, be open, leave your logo and your ego at the door. And don’t forget the power of humour – it can bring warm, openness and generosity to relieve a dark and difficult moment. It is sometimes an act of compassion for the person with the big smile and goofy words that break open another part of our hearts and heads. We hope you are among us today to give us a little respite when it is needed.
Knowing we are always rehearsing, always doing something for the first time and recognising mastery comes only after years and years of practice, the invitation to take baby steps was made.
We know that the approach we are taking to learning and impact is beyond programs or policies. We are going to challenges that are risky, culturally curious and may even shake your confidence a bit. That is all OK. Take the baby steps you need to take. There are people here though with big shoes, who through their lived experience taking a baby step into vulnerability is not an option. Be generous with each other as we welcome in others’ disclosures and understand they are all rooted in systems challenges. If you need a few quiet minutes to yourself, take them, if you want to chat with someone about what’s going on for you find someone you can trust here or give a friend a call. Be each other’s friend and be your own best friend.
The temptation to undermine, blame, shame and bring cynicism or negativity to discomfort was met with an invitation to curiosity.
If you have something to share, knead it into something positive that will help stretch the conversation and build more curiosity, find questions that might unlock or unleash something hidden. Impact Chains is not about conforming.
I am often reminded of John O’Donohue to “mind yourself” or the practice of self-compassion and this often means taking a step back and noticing, being watchful, and so the instruction was to lean into those moments.
If you notice the potential of a conversation or moment becoming unsafe, find a way to build more trust. We are in an emergent space and making more space for learning and problem-solving and testing waters is what Impact Chains is all about.
Edmonson’s framework to: set the scene, lead the way, taking baby steps, share positive examples, be watchful, seems a very helpful recipe for psychological safety beyond the walls of the prisons we put ourselves in as well as the very real walls, restraints, language and bias that hold injustice and inequity in place. Plenty of invitation and instruction as I go ahead and the meet the moments I may or may not be prepared for, despite having a map. I am grateful to keep arriving even to the same places, because I am not the same person I was the last time I was there.