While we work for social change, we mostly treat each other as static objects rather than agents. During a training, we mostly think of the participants as half-empty containers for new information. During a meeting, we think of the participants as opinion-holders. We (and I myself included) don’t consider the meeting or the training themselves as processes that people are experiencing as agents, through which they will change and change others. The Ulex project helps us navigate this issue by the Integral Activist Training framework they developed.
During a productive meeting or training: We learn and unlearn things. We get intrigued, triggered, upset, or excited. Some things stick with us, others we forget, yet others we remember vaguely. Some new doors open, others perhaps close.
We receive information. Some is factual, for instance a new statistics we were not aware of. Some is social, like when we discover power dynamics inside the group. Some is perhaps emotional, like how people see us and how we see them. All this information is interpreted through our bodies, through our minds and through our backgrounds, as these filter and organize information in our subjective ways.
To make visible all these processes within each of us and how they unfold with each interaction between us, the Ulex project identifies four distinct and overlapping aspects of an integral activist training: actively empowering, transformative, holistic and participatory.
This aspect helps us embody the values we are striving for.
This is about tackling interlocking systems of oppression and incorporating anti-oppression work in our meetings and trainings. We can thus identify and acknowledge different backgrounds and their meanings in our work.
It is about living the change we want to see in the world, and it is also about healing from trauma and from a culture of shame and blame. With the actively empowering aspect in mind, we can also integrate transformative justice into our work.
This aspect helps us analyze, strategize and act.
These are meetings and training that have a strategic perspective. They look at the political dimension, the systemic roots and the underlying power analyses.
This aspect is also responsive in the sense that it allows us to adapt to changing conditions, to create fruitful loops between action and reflection, and to harvest creative tensions in the group and in the movement.
Harvesting creative tensions in the movement means, on one hand, recognizing the complexity of the movement and the diverse roles and capabilities each actor may have. On the other hand, it requires us to think of ourselves as in an ecosystem, aiming for the good of the whole. These are valid also for meetings when we try to figure out how we want to interact with another organization or another context.
This aspect helps us to grow as individuals, bringing deep inner resources to our struggles.
Keeping the holistic aspect in mind, we treat individuals not as isolated but as inter-connected, recognizing the personal, interpersonal and socio-ecological dimensions of their existence.
We also explore the emotional, rational, intuitive and sensory dimensions. In a training or a meeting, the initial emotional state of a participant conditions their entire experience. Reversely, their emotional experience during the meeting will define what they take out of it in general. Similar issues apply to the other dimensions: some of us interact with abstract concepts through our bodies, and some of us need to get the intuition behind a factual observation in order to comprehend or express it. Ignoring any one of these dimensions doesn’t make them disappear, it just serves to make inaccessible a large part of what is actually going on during the meeting.
In this sense, the holistic aspect makes us more aware of what is happening and what may happen. By being simply present in the space, we can gather information and achieve higher clarity for ourselves and for the group. This is obviously connected to emotional literacy, which in turn allows us to build solidarity and empathy during the meeting or training, making us more resilient throughout the experience and generating energy for action in, for and by the participants.
This aspect helps us to take responsibility towards real collective agency.
Seeing the meeting or training as a process as such, through which participants will be transformed, we aim at creating synergy and creativity.
On one hand, it means acknowledging and utilizing different learning needs and styles. Some of us get more involved through feelings, others through watching, yet others through thinking, or doing. An adequate balance of these styles can make the meeting more useful for all of us.
On the other hand, different modalities of working can also be explored. We may choose to do a certain activity individually, in pairs, in small groups, or as the whole group. Some of these modalities will work better for some participants, but the choice would also depend on the type of task at hand.
Alternating between the styles and modalities requires our active presence in the space, being able to read the room and respond and adapt to emerging needs.
How to use the four aspects in our work
Playing with the integral activist training, we see participants (of a meeting or training) as entire humans, with different backgrounds, different perspectives, and different ways of learning and interacting. These entire humans are in the room, with us, passing through an experience. Being aware of the different aspects of this reality can help us work in ways that are more resilient, regenerative, effective and efficient.
One relatively simple way I found to integrate this framework into my work was as follows: Preparing a meeting or a training, we always go through some list of objectives, desired outcomes, agenda items and group characteristics. Based on these, we set a program/timeline. One could, in theory, try to implement all the four aspects while preparing the program. I would need a lot more experience to develop an intuition to do that. Instead, I propose a beginner’s approach.
- Do the program first.
- Then pick one of the aspects and go through the program with only that lens.
- See if you should adjust anything (change a modality, change timings, introduce a new tool).
- Then move on to the other aspects one by one.
This way, we can make sure that we are attending all the four aspects and make improvements to whatever degree we find relevant for our contexts.
N.B. This text was written following the Integral Trainers Training in Ulex in September 2022. The images are copied from flip-charts used in the training, but the text is mine: everything that is wrongly interpreted in the descriptions are my mistake.