Written by Vanessa Andreotti, Elwood Jimmy, and Bill Calhoun, February 24, 2021
The usual story of change is that there is a problem with the system that needs to be solved. The degree of the problem can vary from the system “not working optimally” to “totally screwed up”. The logical solution proposed is one that keeps our hopes up: that “we” the (virtuous, woke, moral, righteous, deserving, enlightened) people in the “good team” can choose to fix the system by either patching it up or offering a replacement, a better alternative.
Our analysis has a different starting point. It begins with an examination of how violence and unsustainability are conditions that are necessary for the system (that is “not working”) to exist, how we are part of this system (and complicit in harm) and how this system has screwed (all of) us up. This analysis is about how the current system:
- has kept us tied and addicted to its promises and comforts;
- has limited the ways we can see, feel, relate, desire, heal and imagine;
- has led us to deny the violence and unsustainability that are required for it to exist, as well as our interdependence and the depth and magnitude of the mess we are in;
- has encouraged us to create narcissistic delusions about our sense of self importance and our perceived entitlements, keeping us in an fragile and immature state that leaves us unequipped to face the challenges of our times;
- has untethered us from the realities of the planet, and the fact that our mode of existence can cause our own extinction.
The analysis also emphasizes how immensely difficult (but not impossible) it is to interrupt these patterns and let go of the harmful attachments and co-dependence we have developed with the system itself, so that we can let it go and create space for something genuinely new to become even possible. Without this cognitive, affective and relational “decluttering”, we will only be able to want and imagine different versions of the same thing.
We use the term “gesturing towards decolonial futures” to refer to this analysis. Before we proceed, it is important to remember that people use words with different meanings, therefore the terms decolonization, decolonial and decoloniality are used in different ways by different groups of people. Our use of the term decolonial emphasizes facing humanity’s wrongs, our own complicities in harm, and the likelihood of social and ecological collapse in our lifetime, while learning to walk a tightrope between naive hope and desperate hopelessness, with honesty, humility, humor and hyper-self-reflexivity.
In this sense, decolonial gestures start with the interruption of our satisfaction with harmful desires encouraged and rewarded in the current system – including desires for looking and feeling good, for certainty, for unrestricted autonomy, for innocence (redemption, absolution), for simplistic solutions, for heroic protagonism and for unlimited consumption. This also means that we need to move beyond forms of politics that are based on exceptionalisms (e.g. looking for the most virtuous or meritorious groups/leaders), the expansion of colonial entitlements (e.g. unlimited consumption of knowledge, experiences, relationships), exaltedness (e.g. expectations of pats on the back and celebrations of success), ego-empowerment (e.g. self-centering/self-congratulatory), and externalization of culpability (e.g. denial of our own complicity in harm).
Containers for “imagining otherwise”
When we run workshops based on the work of GTDF, we usually say that we “lovingly don’t care about what you think”. This means that our focus is not the content of thoughts and ideas, but our collective capacity to navigate the imprints of historical and systemic violence and unsustainability in our relationships with the land, with knowledge, with reality, with each other, and with our own internal selves. We offer tentative tools and experiments that can create pedagogical containers for these things to be held with more sobriety, maturity, discernment and accountability (SMDA).
Having these pedagogical containers may give people a space of mental health and wellbeing that is unthinkable (and urgently needed) within our current systems. However, the development of these containers does not come cheap. It requires people to want to declutter their existence by confronting their shadows, fantasies, fears, insecurities, fragilities, addictions, denials and delusions. This involves learning through painful things, including how we “read” and how we “are read” by others, how we harbour complex and conflicting thoughts, emotions, projections, desires and traumas, and how our inner toddlers and protectors/controllers may drive our responses to threats and crises.
This (un) learning takes time, discipline and stamina, but once people learn to use these containers, they should have much more resilience to navigate VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity) and to build more enduring relationships. From the evidence we have gathered thus far, people who learn to do this become much more comfortable with discomfort and have more capacity to generatively hold space for tensions, failures and other difficult and painful things without feeling immobilized, overwhelmed or demanding to be rescued from unpleasant feelings . The containers also support people to become more capable and disposed to build more resilient and honest relationships based on trust, respect, reciprocity, consent and accountability. Check the anti-assholism memo, the invitation for depth conversations, the gifts of failure, and the radars for learning to read and to be read for an idea of what this entails.
On the other hand, we also have evidence that if people who seem interested in our work misunderstand what we are offering or miscalculate their level of readiness to start this process, their inner toddler may cause havoc for themselves and others, and they become “work” for other people. Those who engage with this type of pedagogical processes with investments in feeling virtuous, being validated, having higher moral grounds or finding a universal language or consensus around a specific vision of the past, the present, or the future tend to quit the process as a result of frustration, sometimes causing damage to themselves and to others involved. Very often they become defensive and even aggressive when confronted with perspectives that challenge their positive self-regard, their projections, or the vocabularies or ideas that they want to see validated.
Because it is very common to see people “shooting the messenger” so to speak, we have created something to protect the time, safety and wellbeing of those who volunteer to facilitate this kind of taxing work. This pushback is part of the reality that Black, Indigenous, and racialized people experience regularly within mainstream institutions. Therefore, part of our commitment is to redistribute this labour that systemically falls on their shoulders, especially when working with groups at the beginning of their un/learning journey (where aggression and pushback tend to be more intense). However, we have found that even when systemically privileged people carry out this work, they are not immune from receiving aggressive pushback. Therefore, we have created the “gift contract” (see below) to assist people in making better informed decisions about whether or not they really want to engage in this difficult, uncomfortable work, and to minimize unnecessary pain for both participants and facilitators.
But before we present the proposed contract, it is important to mention something that happens frequently when people find the work of our collective useful and feel motivated by it. It is common for people to assume that we believe this work is universally relevant. They assume that we would like to scale up the work, and that we would be grateful for any platform offered for us to do that. Some people expect that we should feel deeply indebted for their enthusiasm and efforts to bring this work to other people. We perceive this very differently. Offering this work to those who are not ready to engage with it is potentially harmful (to facilitators and participants). It is also often the case that most people want to consume the work superficially and selectively (wanting to make this work fit their own agenda, and demanding time, attention, and validation). Given the demands we already have, we prefer not to use our time and energy with this form of engagement.
Although we often explain the basics of this approach to large audiences when necessary, the in-depth work that is required for the containers to be effective can only be done with smaller groups of people who are ready to accept a high level of responsibility for their own (un)learning and the fact that there are no formulaic solutions or quick fixes to the mess we/humanity have collectively created. No one is off the hook, and no one has all the answers. We need to interrupt the cycle of vilification/pathologization and romanticization/idealization. We need to learn to face the good, the bad, the broken and the fucked up in humanity (within all of us). There is a mega-storm coming, and our only option is to go through it, together.
We offer you unconditional regard to your being and (un)learning journey (regardless of your personal history – we actually do not want to know). We do not put ourselves as “leaders” of this work. We acknowledge this work is hard, and that we are all learning the deeper meanings of sobriety, maturity, discernment and accountability. We gift you time and specific knowledge acquired through painful experiences (of ourselves and/or others) to assist your (un)learning.
You agree to acknowledge the gift of this process and the obligations that come with this gift, including:
- treating shared time as sacred and avoiding contributing to information and work overload (e.g. not centering your need to be heard, to be right, or to be coddled; not taking up time/space seeking personal validation for your goodness, innocence, status or credibility)
- recognizing that there is an invisible cost to your (un)learning that others have to bear and that you have a debt and accountability of reciprocity to those who have historically bore these costs, in other words: you will need to “pay this forward” by doing the work that is not convenient for you but that needs to be done
- promising not to unnecessarily increase the labor of those who are helping you, but also asking for help when really needed in order to avoid things becoming unmanageable
- understanding that, especially in the beginning, this work is taxing both for you and for those who are offering it, exercise patience and grace as the process unfolds
- remembering that, given the nature of this work, the people offering this to you are already “hammered” (especially if they are Black, Indigenous, or racialized), over-stretched and working overtime. The time they spend with you is time taken away from their loved ones and from things that could nourish their lives and enable them to support other people – do not waste their time with unimportant things, do not abuse their generosity or take their service for granted
- committing to sobering up, stepping up cleaning up, growing up and showing up differently, including deepening your learning about the obligations that come with the gift
- authorizing gift givers to remind you that you have agreed to the gift contract
We acknowledge that the language used in this contract is transitional – in between the transactional languages (of cost/benefit calculations, labour, contracts and debts) and a language of gift giving that is non-transactional – and also unthinkable within the vocabularies we currently have available within modernity. This contract will be revised as we expand our shared vocabularies.