Liberation from a Living Systems View: Women, Leadership, & Feminism
As a woman, mother, and leader, two recent conversations made me reflect, Am I a feminist? Didn’t I fight against that? Why did I fight?
First, Bard College invited me to speak at its Women and Leadership Summit on November 11th for women leaders across Bard’s campuses in Holyoke and Great Barrington, Massachusetts and in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. Then my colleague Lex Schroeder, co-founder of Feminists at Work, asked me to contribute my thoughts on women’s leadership, living systems, and feminism ahead of the Entrepreneurial Feminist Forum. These two converging requests prompted me to ask myself where I am at age 46 with my womanhood, leadership, and my feminism.
I have always struggled with the term “feminist” because it went along with the term “woman” and both terms, at least in my college years and for some generations still, were for White people; they weren’t terms that were automatically meant for me. As standalone terms, they were reserved for White women; people weren’t talking about me when they used them. And so often today, when you hear about the women’s experience, it is about the white woman’s experience. We can all recall the re-do that was required for the Women’s March of 2017 which after much consternation I attended with one of my daughters and two of my sisters-in-law. Farah Stockman wrote a brilliant analysis of the process by which the Women’s March was organized in The New York Times on January 9, 2017.
To be a feminist or a woman, I have had to qualify each term and say Black Woman and/or a Black feminist to even come close to capturing my identity, life experiences, or perspective. To use the terms without also saying “Black” or “African American” (depending on how clear I want to be about my politics at a given moment) means none of us are on the same page.
So that is the frame through which I waded to find a response to these two invitations. It is only this frame that might claim all four of these spaces that often claim me and my leadership attributes and journey: Woman, Black Woman, Feminist, and Black Feminist. Then I could speak to the potential of “feminist living systems.”
Here’s what I had to say:
On Letting Go of Trying to Control Outcomes
More than anything, we have to stop believing we can anticipate or control outcomes. We can prepare the foundation for a particular outcome to take place and cultivate it like newly planted seeds… We can nurture the path for a piece of work or initiative to grow, following nature’s inner wisdom, and enjoy the “fruits” (spectacular shows of color, shape, size, function: medicinal, nourishing, and aesthetically pleasing) of that work. We can appreciate the diversity of each journey — be it a person or a piece of work — and then later the shape, taste, and diversity of that thing in its final form. It may be something we never imagined but rather only imagined the conditions for, and that might be the very thing we need. In any case we cannot mold that final form.
We can witness in time when the cycle of something, anything, must begin again… and witness the coming to the end of something, the “autumn” when leaves fall. We can remind ourselves to use winter to do our own work of self-education, increasing our maturity, and treating the soil for even healthier outcomes the next season.
And many of you have heard me use this analogy for why we must always work on systems, not only at the individual level: You can rescue a plant, bring it in, water and fertilize it, or plant it next to, among, or with other living organisms that impact its thriving… but as soon as you go to replant it for independent growth and thriving, if the soil has not been treated properly, you have more than likely placed it back in a bed of toxicity. This, I believe, is the case for systems change from a living systems perspective and the difficult grounding work that has to be done. As adrienne maree brown encourages us in her book Emergent Strategy, we must go back to the beginning and wrestle with actions, laws, and structures we can’t always see everyday, but that at every moment shape our opportunities, perceptions, and existence. From this place, we can individually and collectively commit to acknowledging and eradicating barriers to equity at the root while removing toxins that have been sown there.
On Creating Healthier Outcomes
Many things drive folks. We must remember people have many different ambitions and examine drivers at the personal/internal, interpersonal, institutional, and cultural level. What drives so many of us is the desire to see cultural shifts that lead to institutional shifts, but for each of us these shifts look different and will likely render differing outcomes.
For the most part among feminist thinkers, equity and justice resonates. We want systems that uphold these values. To work toward equity and justice, we have to be in relationship with ourselves first (knowing our personal values, goals, and aspirations) and pursue knowledge from those communities we see ourselves advocating for or call ourselves a member. Interpersonally, we have to work first and foremost on relationship: communication, working with, and sharing space of all kinds (labor, emotional, psychological, mental, and vision/aspiration). And at the institutional level, we must find our points of intersection, learn how to be in better relationship at those intersections, and learn to follow when it is time to fall back. We must pause and rethink our strategy when we realize our vision and plan might uphold the very systems we want to eradicate.
I think of this quote from Margaret Wheatley in Who Do We Choose to Be? Facing Reality, Claiming Leadership, Restoring Sanity:
“People need [courageous and visionary] leaders… people they trust because they embody the values and qualities we’re working toward. Leaders don’t have to be perfect, and it helps to make one’s personal struggles and challenges visible. But people need to see what’s possible. That it is possible to live with integrity. That humans can still live and work well together. That we can still behave as human human beings, Homo sapiens sapiens.”
To me, if liberation is the goal, making way for the “living” part of systems change is in the generative sweet spot of self-reflection. We have to take the time do this because how many of us know what liberation looks like? I dare say none. From the heterosexual White male to the feminist Black female, we have a lot of imagining and trusting and stewarding of new work to do before we reach liberation.
“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” -Lilla Watson, activist, academic, and artist who says this quote was born of a collective meeting
As a Black feminist who believes that we all need liberation, I believe relationships have to be built to hold up reflections of the White patriarch in all of us — or at least who we have internalized is the correct one and all powerful. We have internalized this system of oppression, its values, and its measures of success and as Maya Angelou reminded us, it is insidious. You can’t just step to the left of it; you must eradicate the violence of capitalism and oppression from within your own work. It’s a kind of exorcism.
The necessary work is to look at the ways our work might extract from others, how it may devalue distract and disrupt the labor and work already being done thereby disrupting our collective progress and shared work. This clear examination and ownership of extractive behavior is the necessary baseline of generative work. This is the work that liberates the Black feminist in me to work in harmony alongside the feminist and within each of our own humanity towards a sharpening vision of equity.
At Bard’s Women and Leadership Summit, Dr. Browdy of Simon’s Rock and the Bard committee offered this quote from Grace Lee Boggs as a prompt:
“We committed ourselves to transformational organizing, which does not mainly denounce and protest oppression or mobilize Americans to struggle for more material things, but challenges us as Americans to evolve or transform ourselves into more human human beings.”
I always say we must accept that we are visible ONLY when we are all visible to ourselves and to the world around us. If we can’t imagine change or being visible without pushing someone else aside, excusing overstepping anyone’s humanity, or taking what wasn’t ours, our work will never be successful. We will never make the impact we want to make.
On Envisioning Together What’s Next
We want to neutralize, reconcile, and repair the violence of capitalism — capitalism that perpetuates a deadening system rather than a living, generative system — to create a collective generative space for all.
Women have a choice to make, and feminists have a choice to make when it comes to working alongside others, not for or on behalf of others. What is the world we want to generate? It isn’t just a world with more women in leadership; we want more women leading us towards liberation. Will we create a new world or the same one just dressed up with new language, sex organs, and a different set of hormones?
I challenge us to step into the bravery and courage of the unknown which starts with a sisterhood and connectedness that rises above all else. A world without women or men? A world without credit scores? A world without whiteness? A world built on a currency of love and humanity first?
I would like to see all feminists co-create these “living” systems for new ideas to emerge by knowing and embodying this idea:
“The first most important, critical, and strategic coalition in an individual’s life is the coalition with one’s own self. To form a strong coalition with yourself you’ve got to be good in being invisible sometimes, learn to stalk with coordinated precision, get to know whom to chase and whom to avoid, make the most of even the smallest opportunity, and choose whom to team up with.” -Sameh Elsayed
Toward this vision, these are the generative behaviors I shared with Lex Schroeder for her piece "Move as if Women Are Half the World and You Are Part of Something Larger":
1. Identify diverse leadership in values, current social identities, and individual identities that have a historical oppression to transcend (gender and race in particular).
2. Create access in small ways and large ways (matching your resource level of capacity) to education, health, mobility, and resources.
3. Create pathways of accessible, equitable education into all sectors and know that there is no “right” audience. Individuals impacted (children, women, African Americans, people living with generational poverty or with disability, LGBTQ people, etc.) need the same education as educators, doctors, corporate executives, and lawyers. The learners become seen as one in the same, repairing generations of exclusion.
4. Create large (systemic) movements and small (interpersonal) moments of reparation, working towards restorative justice and equity.
5. Amplify underrepresented perspective, voice, and experience.
6. Act/do as if positive social impact for all is our collective goal.
7. Work together in order to change and transform the world; work separately in order to work and change yourself.
8. Build trust and relationships by joining in (i.e. not taking over, saving, or advising).
9. Build on what is working and what connects our work.
10. Identify shared values across difference and make them explicit.
11. Establish accountability as a core practice (i.e. practice non-violence).
12. Hold attribution as a core practice (i.e. practice non-stealing).
13. Lead with a clear edge of no harm (intentional or unintentional) and zero tolerance for extractive behavior to another group.
14. Establish and continually sharpen a shared vision of liberation and equity and what it requires.
15. Eradicate oppressive identities such as Whiteness that shape our daily lives Acknowledge first, then eradicate.
John Lewis said:
“You have to be taught the way of peace, the way of love, the way of nonviolence. In the religious sense, in the moral sense, you can say that in the bosom of every human being, there is a spark of the divine. So you don’t have a right as a human to abuse that spark of the divine in your fellow human being. From time to time, we would discuss that, if you have someone attacking you, beating you, spitting on you, you have to think of that person. Years ago that person was an innocent child, an innocent little baby. What happened? Did something go wrong? Did someone teach that person to hate, to abuse others? You try to appeal to the goodness of every human being and you don’t give up. You never give up on anyone.”
© 2018 Gwendolyn Hampton VanSant