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Social Design Course
Parts 1-3 of 6
For GaiaEducation.Net GEDS Course
I. Embracing Diversity & Building Community
II. The Art of Compassionate Communication
III. Facilitation Skills: Decision Making and Conflict Resolution
“The next Buddha will not take the form of an individual. The next Buddha may take the form of a community; a community practising understanding and loving kindness, a community practising mindful living. This may be the most important thing we can do for the survival of the Earth.” – Thich Nhat Hanh
The archaeological evidence shows that the primordial social pattern for human beings is to gather together in relatively tightly-knit, egalitarian, clan-sized "bands" closely coupled with Nature. Today, we need to consciously reinvent cooperative and harmonious ways of living and working together. Therefore, seeding, growing, and rebuilding meaningful groups, communities and networks are vital steps towards a more liveable, sustainable future.
Building cooperative groups, organizations and communities is an endeavour whose immense challenges should not be underestimated. Reconnecting with one another across barriers and borders of misunderstanding and miscommunication calls for clear, calm, firm intention. One of the most cited common reasons for the break-up of intentional group projects is conflict. And so, propagating successful community will necessarily entail a healing process in which we step out of the cycles of pain and violence that have run through human history and take responsibility for initiating new patterns; the fact is, this healing process is needed, and healthy, constructive social skills can be taught and learnt! Peaceful, productive relationships can be a conscious, deliberate choice rather than left to capricious, random chance.
Rediscovering the beauty, compassionate nature and innate power of human beings is part of our journey through this Dimension. It also has a very practical orientation: to give an answer to questions like:
Designing for Sustainability implies holistic design processes that pay attention to the 'people' side of things, alongside the work on economics, ecology and our worldviews. On the threshold between vision and reality, an integrative design can set the course for a healthy and sustainable reality.
The Social Design dimension begins with Module 1 – Building Community and Embracing Diversity – which discusses the basics of building community, and teaches values and skills that help foster an atmosphere of trust. Module 2 – Communication Skills: Decision-Making and Facilitation – is a journey into learning the art of decision-making and the facilitation of groups. It talks about redirecting the energy of conflicts towards growth, inspiration and a deeper mutual understanding. Module 3 – Personal Empowerment and Leadership – offers lessons in distinguishing between ‘power from within’ and ‘power over,’ and developing leadership skills that serve the group and the world as an important part of taking responsibility. Module 4 – Celebrating Life: Creativity & Art – reminds us all that in community there is a re-unification with the Source. And finally, Module 5 – Local and Global Outreach – helps to broaden our perspective and see the value of networking. Looking at the dimensions of time and space, an awareness is strengthened of the threads that connect us to past and future generations, as well as to communities all around the globe.
I. Embracing Diversity & Building Community
All beings, humans, animals and nature, have an intrinsic, equal value. Diversity is a gift which we cherish and celebrate. All separation in the human community, whether due to class, race, political observation, gender or age needs to be healed. For example, many have pointed out that all world citizens have the same right to CO2 emissions - the atmosphere is a common good. The rights of women have been suppressed historically but are gradually improving. And there is a strong movement in all walks of life to find ways of organizing institutions and workplaces so that the combined contributions of all involved are honored and synergetic.
But will equal rights solve all problems? Is increased institutionalization of children, old and handicapped necessarily the best form of organization? The Scandinavian welfare states are thought by many to have found viable solutions. They have solved many problems, but marginalization and loneliness cannot be dealt with only by providing people with an income. The institutionalization of children may not be the only answer. A modernization of the welfare state has taken place through private initiatives over the last 40 years. Cohousings, especially for the elderly, and intentional communities have sprung up in great numbers in Denmark and is spreading to the whole world. This movement can be seen as a response to the need for everybody to be part of Thomas Berry’s “communion of subjects”.
Communities focus on the idea of "unity in diversity", which combines the growth of strong individuals with the ability of synergizing their unique gifts, so that they may realise dreams together. In order to arrive at synergy (where the result is more than the sum of its parts), we need to bring out the best in one another. We need to be as curious about the needs, visions and talents of others as about our own. We need to practice the art of rejoicing in the beauty of others. In a community, every being has its unique place and task. Like in Nature, every part of a living organism is interconnected and communicating with all the other parts.
Throughout history, we have used our ethnic, religious, and cultural identities to separate ourselves from others. Today, as monoculture is narrowing down the diversity of species by the day, we appreciate our differences as treasures of experience and wisdom to draw from. Sharing in circles, we symbolize the manifold rays of expression and viewpoints that can be held, while centering on the same goal. Everyone potentially holds a part of the greater truth.
Although diversity is a source of inspiration and enrichment for every group, it is not always easy to embrace it. When diversity is perceived as a threat, our tendency is to suppress it. Racism, sexism, homophobia, ideological or religious fundamentalism, economic exploitation, child abuse, elders and disabled carelessness, etc. are cultural roles already ready to appear, cover our fears and make someone else guilty. Awareness is needed to face oppression and exclusion, as is an active attitude encouraging and nurturing all voices. A strong and diverse community needs all of these.
The Power of Building Community
Building community can make all the difference! There is a "group mind" that is far wiser than any individual; there is a group potential far vaster than any solo effort. We live in community as part of the Web of Life anyway, so it is our conscious choice whether we acknowledge this fact and take responsibility for creating a well-knit, positively expressed form of community.
In essence, respecting life means consciously caring for community on all levels. Although we concentrate here on the building of community within the human world, the qualities required to do this are basically the same for our relationships with all the natural worlds as well. Connective thinking and acting is needed in every realm. Developing an ever finer capacity for sensitive observation and communication are the stepping stones. Climbing out of a space of inner judgement, in which we feel that we already know it all, allows us to perceive freshly. This will bring out the true individuality of everybody’s special gifts. Cooperating and sharing then become possible. Building a new global culture is the accumulated product of so much individual and collective work.
Most significant human acts are determined by the fact of being part of a group. Family, classmates and workmates, friends, neighbors, and community organization are some groups we are part of, allowing us to meet our basic needs.
These groups are not just a simple collection of individuals: they have common goals and objectives, membership rules and a collective identity that, to some extent, determine the behaviour of the individuals. These features might go unnoticed by members of the group, unaware of their existence, but it doesn't mean they don't exist: they influence us in a variety of ways and definitely affect our lives.
It takes time for a group to build up, consciously or unconsciously, all these elements. From its inception a group evolves, goes through different phases or stages of growth, and, in some cases, working through the inevitable challenges of conflict, attains maturity, developing into its full potential.
In its adulthood, a group discovers itself as a living organism, with each member fulfilling an important and necessary role. The organism is a complex and diverse network of relationships embodying trust, truth and love, as a pure expression of life made visible through its actions. In short, a mature group is a rich and diverse community of life. The mature community group values difference and diversity, appreciates the contribution of all its members, accepts tension and conflict as part of its own being and manifestation, and acknowledges and celebrates the underlying unity from which all Life emanates.
Building community is the process by which a group becomes aware of its own existence as a living collective unity - and of the life spirit that sustains it. Building community is to invoke the group spirit through a shared and clear vision. It’s to take care of the group spirit through compassionate communication, empathy and assertiveness, generating trust and a pleasant work atmosphere. It’s to sustain the group spirit through appropriate liberating structures, such as good decision making methods and conflict resolution procedures. And it's to strengthen the group spirit through personal work to let go of our fears and our feelings of powerlessness, moving from reaction to a procreative participation with Life.
What can a group, an organization, an intentional or local community do to attain the maturity stage and become a life community, a real sustainable community? What are the steps toward building community?
Stages in Group Evolution
Every group is a dynamic, living reality, in constant evolution. From its inception to its dissolution, every group forges it own path, partly predictable, partly unexpected. The stages of group development have been studied and described thoroughly. There are 4 main stages:
Difficulties caused by the lack of experience generate different states of expectation, anxiety and some tension. They are easily overcome thanks to a general feeling of excitement, and a strong wish to get along.
Once the initial excitement begins to fade, differences appear and conflict arises: misunderstandings, unmet needs, power struggles, lack of clarity in goals or procedures... Conflict is necessary for the development process of a group. It forces us to know each other better. It helps us to grow, individually and collectively. It is our great opportunity to learn about mutual respect and acknowledgment, about democracy and interdependence.
The group decides to learn to solve conflicts, to make coherent decisions everyone can support, to work cooperatively. Everybody is seen and valued as they are. Individual needs and group needs accommodate one another better. Members are more aware of having a collective identity.
There is cohesion, interconnectedness, harmony. Interpersonal relationships have a vibrant emotional quality. Productivity is high. The group works well in achieving its goals. Leadership is distributed among all members.
This process is by no means rigid or static. How the group experiences the process depends on the particularities of the group. Besides, external circumstances - such as the arrival of new members, change in the social reality where the group lives, political or economic uncertainties, etc. - can cause the group to regress from a stage of maturity to some previous stage of learning, with renewed tensions and conflict.
The Group Field
"Organizations are not simply bodies, but dreaming bodies, physical entities moved by dreams as well as organizational structures, by emotions as well as spirits and money. The organization, together with its dreams and undercurrents, constitutes a field that is manifest in physical structures, human feelings, a particular atmosphere, and specific jobs and roles". - A.Mindell
Every group of people can be considered as a place where different forces originate - some are creative, others destructive; some are impulsive, others restraining. Every group is a force field where all kinds of feelings, attractions divergences arise and take form.
The group field is fed with materials brought, consciously or unconsciously, by each of its members: interests, needs, behaviours, defence mechanisms, reality visions, values, lack of affection, frustrations, expectations, complexes, fears, certitudes, etc. The past of each individual - contained in his/her personal backpack - comes into contact and interacts with, attracting or repelling, others, and feeds the force field in ways beyond our control or conscious awareness. On the other hand, the group field is not just the sum of personal contributions: it has its own dynamic, its own energy and life, and is able to modify and condition the individual attitudes and behaviours.
The field concept is crucial to understanding what happens in a group. From a systems perspective, you cannot explain what is going on in a particular level of complexity through properties and principles borrowed from a lower level. You cannot explain what is going on in a group or community merely by analyzing the personalities of its members, however complex they may be. If you want to explain what happens in a group and use this knowledge to grow, you have to deal with the relational system of the group as a whole, you have to pay attention to the group field and learn how to release its wisdom.
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