This is About Community Agreements (and Shared Leadership) (and Systems of Oppression)
Last year, refreshing a curriculum for an advocacy training program, I pulled out the usual "Community Agreements" module with the same sigh it brings every year. While I find the concept of having community agreements crucial, I've never experienced a community agreements development and implementation process that felt crucial itself.
In trainings and communities of practice, ask participants what they think should be on the giant post-it of community agreements, and they dutifully contribute the same tropes they contributed the last time someone asked them to do so, which was probably last week. Step up, step back. One mic. Sometimes we get a little deeper: Intent Does Not = Impact. We thoughtfully engage on the content of the agreements and then prominently display the completed poster in our workspace, but many of us aren't comfortable referring back to it when folks in the room are not holding up their end of the bargain. Enforcing agreements, no matter how much finesse one brings to it, is super uncomfortable and feels like a power move, which certainly doesn't fit with the shared leadership frame most of us prefer.
Still, the community agreements exercise is obligatory, and times I've suggested to curriculum designers that we don't do it, or do something else, I have gotten some pretty strong negative reactions, based on the assumption, I think, that I don't believe in shared leadership. But it's precisely because I do believe in shared leadership that I think the way we've been doing community agreements is kind of bogus.
For the training program I was refreshing last year, then, I made an attempt at getting un-bogus. I started with a base of agreements that reflected the social justice values core to our overall program, and I gave folks a chance to read them and reflect in advance. I allotted more time for discussion and, finally, I asked for volunteers to "rep" each of the community agreements, so that we'd all – facilitators and participants -- be sharing responsibility for working with anyone who was having a hard time meeting a specific agreement. And if I do say so myself, my new and improved take on community agreements went pretty well. The agreements process set the tone for how we would communicate in thoughtful, deep ways. We shared responsibility for upholding the agreements and our communication supported solid, authentic relationship formation.
I had impressed myself. So of course the universe sent me a personal challenge to keep me from feeling myself too much. It was through this challenge that I was reminded that in some situations, for some people, typical versions of community agreements are more than merely bogus (or even benign): they can be a tool of oppression and a means by which to protect abusers.
SPEAKING TRUTH TO ABUSER POWER
It's no secret that the world of Eastern spirituality in Western settings is ripe for sexual abuse – be it contemporary reckonings such as in the world of Ashtanga Yoga or older examples in communities such as Shambhala International. Still, I was dismayed when my own yoga community was the subject of media coverage regarding repeated in-class student sexual abuse by one of our highest ranking American instructors, a man who also just happens to be the mentor of almost every instructor I could work with locally in my yoga tradition.
While many board members and long-time instructors in my yoga community seemed to know that this teacher had been sexually abusing students in his classes for decades, as allegations resurfaced, an independent investigation was conducted, and conclusive evidence was gathered, verified, and shared throughout the broader community. It was in the course of that documentation that it became clear that over those years, many of his students (who were, in turn, instructors of the lower-level students like me) knew of his abuse, and, while some of them had chosen in the past to warn some students seeking to study with him, he had continued to be a revered figure – even beloved – in our community.
There's much to be said here about how the institutional structure of spiritual and other types of communities lend themselves to complicity of sexual abuse and other forms of power misuse, but this is a post about Community Agreements, so let's fast-forward to the event that catalyzed this reflection.
Thankfully, our current board chose to be transparent about the allegations, the process, and the findings, and once the report of the instructor's ethical violations had been made public, they offered a short series of listening sessions as a first step to community reconciliation. A board member who is also a trustworthy facilitator stepped forward to support the process, using a typical format. At the first session, the group created community agreements, which were then shared at the start of the two remaining sessions so that attendees could spend more time sharing and listening. Those agreements were as you'd imagine them to be -- express yourself through your own experiences rather than the experiences of others, don't debate other people's perspectives, etc. All in all, it was the standard format with the standard agreement.
The problem is that it wasn't the right format and they weren't the right agreements -- because we were talking about sexual assault in a group that included sexual assault survivors, possibly even survivors of sexual abuse by the instructor we were discussing.
LISTENING SESSIONS AND RESTORATIVE JUSTICE
Like a lot of folks fighting against systems of oppression, I am interested in restorative justice as an alternative to our biased, violent criminal justice system. As more and more women are coming forward regarding sexual abuse, restorative justice is being put forward as a better approach to dealing with sexual violence, as long as it puts the victims' needs first. When listening sessions are part of restorative justice, they require perpetrators and those complicit with sexual abuse to listen to the victims. There may also be opportunities to bring the survivors and the perpetrator together in dialogue to discuss the abuse and make amends, but this is only an option when the wrongdoer has admitted his or her actions and has signaled a strong desire to participate in a restorative process. Never in restorative justice is it acceptable for victims and survivors to be subjected to convenings which include statements of disbelief or gaslighting regarding their abuse, the downplaying of their experiences as victims of abuse or of sexual abuse in general, statements of support and love for the perpetrator, or non-victims' suggestions about what reconciliation should look like.
In the case of my yoga community, the instructor who sexually abused students for decades was continuing to deny any wrongdoing, even in the face of an independent investigation. He was continuing to teach at his own studio, though he could no longer use the family name of the yoga method we study under. Several of our teachers continued to teach at his studio, while still holding classes at ours. Because of his near-guru status, he was getting a lot of support from his advanced students, and the usual threats and name-calling were being directed at those speaking against him on line, including individuals he had abused, some of whom were demanding reparations. Though the instructor did not attend the listening sessions, his actions and those of his supporters deeply impacted the work of the listening sessions.
FLASHBACK: MINDFUL FACILITATION
Almost twenty years ago, I was working as a faculty diversity trainer at a predominately white university in Oregon. It was rough going, and, hoping to find solace and solidarity, I joined a campus group of staff who were doing diversity training in different capacities on the same campus. They were using a train-the-trainers curriculum by Lee Mun Wah, who is well known for his Color of Fear film and project.
At the time (and maybe still), Wah's main discussion ground rules were the tried and true:
Listen to each other with respect.
Speak about your own thoughts, reactions, feelings, and experiences, not those of others.
Do not debate someone else's experience; do not argue with their statement.
The trainers in my Oregon group were mostly white, middle-class women with a few white men and only a couple of women of color. Our format was to read a scenario from the Wah curriculum followed by discussion. On the last night I attended, the scenario depicted a workplace listening session to address racism within an employee group. In the scenario, a white man stands up and makes a "racially charged" comment about Black women's work habits and how they create problems for him in terms of his workflow. While he is speaking, one of the participants, a Black woman, walks out of the room, visibly upset. The training module asks the trainers, "What would you do?"
My colleagues uniformly agreed on the best approach, one that mirrored Wah's tips for dealing with difficult facilitation situations: To validate the man by restating what they heard him say and to thank him for "speaking his truth" before moving on to the next speaker.
My colleagues of color were silent – probably gone to their "happy place," which probably wasn't a super-white college town in Oregon.
How would I handle the situation, the rest of the group wanted to know when they noticed my discomfort. I volunteered that I really wouldn't know for sure until I was in such a situation, but my gut told me I'd give the group a quick time out and head out into the hall to check with the participant who left. I started to say that I would next offer to do whatever she needed in order for this work-place workshop to feel safe to her, but then I realized how inane that was. How on earth was this format going to work for her? In her workplace -- which included at least one and probably more overt racists?
It came down to this for me: Do I believe racism is a perspective that needs to be listened to with respect? No. Do I believe that people who endorse racism have the right to subject people of color to their racist beliefs? No. Should people of color have to remain silent while white people subject them to racist monologues? No. I don't think that's what Wah had in mind, and it certainly wasn't the way I was going to move forward.
I realized then that listening sessions and the community agreements that also support them and related formats aren't appropriate when they insist that survivors, victims, and oppressed people hear out perpetrators of abuse and their apologists. The problem was, though, that I failed to realize that pretty much every discussion, meeting, or community I am called upon to facilitate – given the kind of work I do and the topics I work with – contains both people who have caused trauma and people who carry the weight of the resulting trauma – because that's how systems of oppression work. I understood the limitations of the tool. I just didn't understand yet the extent and power of oppression, and the pervasive way that oppression logic was organizing me as a facilitator. So there were lots of times I used formats like listening sessions when people must have walked away feeling re-traumatized.
Why do we keep using listening sessions and their supporting community agreements instead of an alternative? Maybe it's because we don't think we have an alternative.
COMMUNITY AGREEMENTS — AND ACCOUNTABILITY
I don't want to say too much about the content of the listening session that was conducted in support of my yoga community because I take the confidentiality community agreement rule seriously. But all in all, though there were bright spots, I think the session did me more harm than good. I spent much of the last half hour weeping and shaking with rage while subjected to an array of I-got-mine-ism, gaslighting, and just plain old misogyny – all of it fair play under the rules that we had all agreed to. In the end, I wasn't sure I'd go back to the studio again, and it took me several weeks to return. I couldn't even bring myself to practice at home.
I'm not blaming the facilitator, who as I've mentioned was thoughtful and emotionally tuned in. Given the format and agreements he was working with (and oppression logic!), re-traumatization for any abuse survivors in the room was almost inevitable -- the listening session format and community agreements ended up better serving those who were there to cast doubt on the accusers, downplay the abuse, or stimulate support for the abuser; those tools did not serve people in the room with a history of sexual abuse. And, by having to be the keeper of the format and rules, the facilitator was ultimately guilty of failing to support those in the room who were victim/survivors of power and patriarchy.
So, what way forward? Because I'm giving up on listening sessions pretty much completely, but I still hold on to my belief that community agreements can be an effective tool, I've decided to put my energy into thinking about the latter. (And I will say, in terms of post-abuse community formats, I really think no one has said it better than survivors Karen Rain and Jubilee Cooke in their straightforward guide, "How to Respond to Sexual Abuse Within a Yoga or Spiritual Community.")
I've admired and adapted some agreements examples I've seen, such as this set of agreements from the Brooklyn Zen Center and these from East Bay Meditation Center. I've also appreciated the Brave Spaces framework from Brian Arao and Kristi Clemens. In thinking ahead to my next facilitation of advocates – groups that always include folks with various forms of intersectionality as well as folks with various forms of power and privilege, here's what I've come up with so far:
Our Community Agreements
Our work together requires us to be willing to have challenging conversations in our community about power, inequality, pain, and injustice within contexts of histories, cultures, and experiences. While our intent is to bring compassion that honors our shared humanity as we face these challenging conversations, we know that growth requires accountability.
Below are our proposed Community Agreements. We ask you to read through the agreements prior our convening, at which point we will discuss them to determine which agreements we can all accept, what changes we may need to make, and if we want to add any not on this list. We will also ask you to individually designate agreements that you will shepherd as part of your responsibility in our shared facilitation throughout this training program.
We honor the different ways people in our community got here today. We know that today is just a snapshot of each community member's journey. Everyone has not read the articles and books you have read, lived the experiences you have had, taken the courses you have, or done the work you have. We come from different places, yet, we all came here because we share an interest in creating a just society.
While we can gain a lot through being patient with one another, we acknowledge that part of that patience includes thoughtful suggestions to others for taking steps from where they are to where they have indicated they want to go next, as long as they are still on the road for justice.
We expect and accept discomfort. It's going to be messy. We accept that we all have been indoctrinated into systems of oppression that must be unlearned, and that unlearning can be uncomfortable. We accept that it is those systems, not the individuals with whom we cross paths, that tightly hold us in this current unjust and unequal society.
We acknowledge that unlearning such deeply rooted systems won't happen in neat, tidy increments. Our individual and collective learning is going to be messy and will happen over time, with a pace that will inevitably feel too slow. Again, we have a lot to gain through patience with ourselves and others.
We ask questions of ourselves and others. Part of helping ourselves and other people sort through ideas and beliefs is to ask questions about those ideas. We can start this practice by always asking ourselves hard questions: Why do I believe this? What about this is making me uncomfortable? What am I gaining or losing by trying on a new perspective?
Dialogue and exchange of ideas help us come up with our own answers, but ultimately each person will come to their own ideas about justice and oppression on their own time and through their own process. Asking good questions is more supportive than pushing our own perspectives, as long as our colleagues are truly trying to learn.
We engage in deliberative dialogue -- not debate or arguing, and not just listening. We value sharing our own experiences and listening to others' perspectives because we know that doing so is necessary to maintain the fabric of our community.
In conversation, we offer and receive perspectives, knowledge, and data/theories for consideration and curiosity.
When we catch ourselves and one another debating or arguing, we hold ourselves and one another accountable and insist on course correction.
When we catch ourselves and one another withholding perspectives, we open the door for those perspectives to be shared, either by speaking up ourselves or inviting others to speak. If we don't know what we think yet, we offer even that so that no one is left wondering about our silence.
We acknowledge intent, and we are accountable for impact. We actively work against systemic oppression, and we support one another in unlearning. As the wisdom goes, while others' words may have an impact on us, they are rarely actually about us. Still, when we allow others to speak in ways that feed systems oppression, we are complicit with that oppression.
When we allow individuals to speak and act in ways that – whatever their intent – promote the myriad levers that keep us all locked in systems of white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, and imperialism/colonialism, we are failing in our work toward a just society.
We strive to keep our community intact for those who are truly working for justice, while at the same time holding all members accountable for their contributions to systemic oppression.
We work to understand how we benefit from the oppression of others. One of the ways that systems of oppression maintain their own power is by dividing us from one another. We fight against their "logic" by deeply understanding and embracing the complexities of intersectionality and rejecting the binaries that make for "the oppressed" and "the oppressor," which can take our energy away from analysis about shifting benefits of oppression.
To this end, we actively locate and continue to track the ways that we personally benefit from the oppression of others.
And when we see that other beneficiaries in our community are not maintaining accountability, we don't expect those in adjacent categories (i.e., people of color to white people, women to men, straight folks to LGBTQ folks, etc.) to carry the burden of correcting their course; instead, we step up and do the work ourselves. While this work has been called "allyship" in other contexts, we know it's more than that. We know that we are acting on behalf of ourselves and our entire community when we do not allow community members to enact power over or around those from whom they (unconsciously or not) attempt to derive their power.
STEP UP BUT DON’T YUCK MY YUM WHILE YOU’RE DOING IT
So, what have you been doing with community agreements? I'd love to hear from you – to get your feedback on this draft, and also to get a sense from you of what's working and what's not in your own attempts. Let me know below or send me an email.
Salanoki! (Until we meet again.)
Laurie Jones Neighbors is an independent consultant and educator who specializes in developing, implementing, and assessing programs and educational experiences in support of equitable political representation and local, regional, and national decision making by low-income communities and communities of color.