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New Conversations in Social Equity: Kelly McGowan on Participatory Leadership and Occupy Wall Street

Interview by Lex Schroeder
October 2011

In September, I attended an Art of Hosting gathering called the Art of Participatory Leadership and Social Change in New York City. The host team for this event called the gathering around the question, “What is the new conversation in social justice and equity that you are longing to have?” A few weeks later, I met with queer community organizer and social justice activist Kelly McGowan, to learn more about why she helped make this event happen and why she thinks participatory leadership is important now at this time in history.

NPi: Can you tell me more about yourself and your work?

Nancy Fritsche-Eagan, Kelly McGowan, Tuesday Ryan-Hart, and Chris Corrigan

Kelly McGowan: I’m sitting here on 7th Street and Avenue C in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where I’ve lived and worked in urban social movements since 1985. I was involved in squatter, homelessness and housing movements. I segued into the ACT UP activism around AIDS of the late ’80s/early ’90s. My work with housing and AIDS came together being one of the foundational staff for Housing Works. From there, I got into harm reduction, reducing drug related harm in relationship with HIV prevention, where I co-developed peer models for HIV prevention with LGBTQ street youth, drug users and transgender sex workers.

I was part of that generative—entrepreneurial is the word we hear now—time when ideas and the willingness to act was needed around HIV prevention and AIDS services. We were creating organizations and models, doing a lot of prototyping. Since then I’ve worked with the organizations and movements that came out of that time in policy advocacy and what’s commonly known as leadership and organizational development. I discovered the AoH community about five or six years ago and have been practicing with AoH colleagues since. The participatory and self-governing aspects of AoH facilitation drew my interest.

NPi: What was the purpose of the Art of Participatory Leadership and Social Change gathering in September?

KM: Several of us Art of Hosting (AoH) practitioners work in social justice/equity settings and we were hearing—not only in our AoH trainings, but mostly in our work—questions around ways in which these tools were and were not working and might need to be adapted. Adapted for settings where there’s been deep intention around social justice/equity or where we’ve been [trying] to bring people in who have been separated by organizational hierarchically and by education, class, gender, race, etc. These were communities that wanted and needed to be working together.

As AoH practitioners, we were in this inquiry and we heard it in the field. There was an aching out there to be inviting and inclusive, to move beyond “buy-in”. So we framed this gathering around the question, “What is the new conversation in social justice and equity that you are longing to have?” The purpose was to develop this space of learning, dialogue, and practice with trainers, practitioners, and activists.

NPi: What brought you to be a part of calling the Art of Hosting Participatory Leadership and Social Change?

KM: For five or six years we’ve brought AoH practitioners annually to New York and invited colleagues, friends, and other interested folks who want to study participatory practices. This inquiry around participatory leadership for social change began to form because of the nature of our relationships here. We have a lot of policy-oriented, social justice, anti-racist, women’s movement, LGBT activists and a lot of energy. We started to ask questions about how we might use these participatory tools [in our work settings].

One thing that interests me personally is working with communities that have experienced a lot of trauma. AoH is about developing strategies and wise action for moving forward. There’s something about the attention that’s given to taking care of relationship and creating space for every voice to be part of the thinking together that inspired me to bring these tools into organizational and movement work.

For example, in the AIDS field, twenty plus years later we’re institutionalized in the federal government, in community-based organizations, with funders. We exist in the institutions of the not-for-profit industrial sector. Our foundation was very much about the people’s voice. People with HIV and AIDS were centrally involved in forming and creating their own organizations, interventions and services. But we were working with these big systems and demanding government funding. So we built into federal AIDS funding, into our largest and best developed and funded organizations participatory mechanisms for peer workers, community advisory groups, effective job training and promotion. We came up with ways of working collaboratively. We’ve always been interested in participatory models.

At the same time, there was a pattern that I noticed in the AIDS field that Tuesday Ryan-Hart saw in the domestic violence field. It’s one that [you see] when you’re working with communities that don’t experience social systems or structures (i.e., banking systems, the government, the police) as serving, but rather as oppressing.

As Tuesday says creating “safe enough” spaces is a practice that’s been very important in our social change work. When facilitating community dialogues, we asked ourselves, “How do we make it safe enough for people to work together, to bring their voice, without ‘acting out’ of their anger, their hurt and pain?” But I noticed that we started to err on the side of controlling the dialogue in the name of safety. The way that we constructed town forums or community planning meetings started to feel very controlled and limited. The intention was to keep the dialogue safe and inviting between, for instance, our community based institutions that managed the resources and the communities they served. It came from this very caring place of wanting to engage people who usually don’t have a voice. But our striving to make environments safe began to limit our ability to think and vision, to organize and build momentum, to change the systems. Advocacy became institutionalized.

Tuesday Ryan-Hart, Chris Corrigan, and I have had the opportunity to learn and practice participatory tools in corporate, government, and community-based settings. I knew we could bring these practices to more communities, but to do so, we had to activate this heartfelt, deep knowledge around safety and invitation. We wanted to bring folks in who were showing up in participatory leadership trainings because like us they wanted more tools, but who also had deep wisdom around what traumatized communities need in order to show up were they don’t traditionally have relationship or voice.

NPi: Tuesday Ryan-Hart laid out a model weaving social justice (transformation) with participatory process (co-creation). She calls this middle path “co-revelation.” How do you understand co-revelation?

Tuesday Ryan-Hart and Kelly McGowan

KM: I spoke about creating environments that are safe enough for people to work together. One of the tools facilitators have used for decades is the agreement in the room that “we agree to disagree.” Most of us have gone beyond that now. That got us someplace, it got things done. But it’s not enough for social transformation… Co-revelation is the moment when people who are in a debate or conflict or are being mediated around power and control, when they find that they have a shared purpose that they need to work on together. It goes beyond that “we agree to disagree, so we’re just going to do this other stuff together” idea. It allows people to connect around their limitations and humanity and enter a deeper level of relationship. Co-revelation is that moment when people who are traditionally in power struggle experience the humanity of shared purpose.

When there is an understanding that we can work together in such a way that we can show up in our “multiplicity”. This is the word Tuesday is using now that I think is beautiful, where we can show up as whole people, with our difference fully acknowledged, and work together. Co-revelation has been happening for generations in social movements, diversity trainings, organizations. We haven’t always valued it as a nurturing, significant and generative, but rather have marginalized it as working around the ‘disagree’ part of our ‘agreement’.

As somebody who’s been in social movements where we are trying to hold onto “wins”—wins that we’ve made through advocacy and policy development and people’s movements—trying to enter policy from that position of an established organization, there’s a lot thinking about how change happens. We have some ideas. How do you influence the power structure? One way is having a policy department in your social service organization that hires people who think about policy and then organize the constituents, the clients, and the staff to advocate for a policy change. That’s one established pattern where a lot of our activist energy has gone.

Something I began to see was that there were limitations in the tools that we had that worked, the practices that were established and that books were written about… There were limits in building the groundswell of people’s support, say for policy change advocacy, because there was conflict, tension and stress within organizations, the organizers and the development of the message. The tools that we’d been recycling and using for many years (diversity training, conflict resolution, town hall meetings, collaboration) were only getting us so far. We were seeing the same cycle happen. The people’s power, the potential to change and interact with the power structure was limited by the difficulty people had talking to each other… The conflict returned again and again to power issues that broke down around race, gender, class, sexuality, etc.

That’s something Tuesday and I have thought a lot about. What is the next level of this work? What’s needed now in those settings? So when Tuesday used the word co-revelation, I experienced a great “a-ha” feeling. Because we’ve also seen that in social justice movements and communities. Co-revelation has been happening, it will happen again. We’re just starting to name how you can create an environment for it to happen. How do you consciously invite co-revelation, nurture it and then do something with it?

NPi: What does the word co-revelation mean to you?

KM: It has an emotional impact. It doesn’t go first to my brain, I feel it. What it conjures up for me is this image of people going beyond what they know, what they protect, what we often call our personal agenda, what our personal message needs to be. It’s when people discover each other and have a revelation as a group that there’s this new creation that only could have been noticed, imagined, felt, formed by connecting with each other around a greater purpose. It goes beyond the group we come from, who we represent, what we think our personal role is in the world and gives a name to our feeling of usefulness. Co-revelation is an exciting word because it’s new in this context. It gives us a lot of room to develop individually and as groups.

NPi: You said you’ve thought a lot about how change happens. Can you tell me more about what you’ve learned?

KM: There are lot of useful mental models and frames about how change happens. As human beings and social activists, we like to nail down the best practices. What works? Let’s do it again. Our advocacy organizations get funded to create replicable, outcome-oriented models. I think that’s a very small piece of how change happens and we need a more expansive way of thinking about it and creating space for emergence.

Here’s one learning that I got from being in the HIV prevention field… Right now the behaviorial models we use for HIV prevention are called “packaged interventions.” These are copyrighted, population-oriented how-to’s or best practices. For example, how to reduce HIV transmission among single African American women with children or with Latino men who have sex with men in urban environments.

Talk about leading change! We’re talking about structuring a way to change sexual behavior… We forgot how those best practices got created in the first place, by working with the affected community to develop their own practices to support and sustain deep change… Our government funding focused instead on “this works, so do A, B, and C” and we all lost track of [how to create] an environment where people can think together and support each other. I’ve watched this loss of process and focus on “outcomes” in HIV prevention for decades.

This has to do with our product-oriented capitalist consciousness as the Wall Street occupiers are saying now… That’s what that consciousness does. It has us focus on the product of our work together and forget how we got there. What I love about Occupy Wall Street and what we’ve been trying to do with participatory leadership and self-governing facilitation tools is to hold space for people to think together, co-create together, bring their wisdom together. How do we hold space for and invite people, and as Tuesday says, bring a little “grace” into spaces [where we need to co-create] together? So we are promoting participatory practices instead of how-to’s.

I get goosebumps when I see how Occupy Wall Street organizers are holding space and saying, It’s not about having a 5-point plan that we’re going to advocate for. It’s about broadening our base, bringing more people into the dialogue. Right now our government’s controlled by corporate lobbying and it’s very hard to break in. Some of the protestors say returning to, some of them say creating a democracy where all of our voices are in it instead of it being controlled by certain dominant, “this is how it’s done” voices. I think this is how change happens.

NPi: What is something that’s surprised you in this work?

KM: Taking care of each other and our work has been central in the Art of Participatory Leadership and Social Change event that we just did and it’s been central in my work for the last decade. I think Cornell West’s and Naomi Klein’s speeches at Occupy Wall Street frame it well, this idea of taking care of ourselves and our communities. The Civil Rights Movement in the United States was a cathartic moment and some kind of spin out has happened since then where people have burned themselves out and beaten each other up in the urgency of solving our social inequities.

There’s a significant shift happening now though. You can hear it on Occupy Wall Street. You can hear it in Cornell West consistently saying we are protesting not because we hate, but because we love people, particularly poor people. You can hear it in Naomi Klein who is a survivor of the last participatory movement moment, the World Trade Organization protests in 1999. As she said, those protests happened around one event whereas Occupy Wall Street protesters are organized around the concept of corporate greed. That’s Naomi Klein’s primary message now: sustainability lies in taking care of each other… When you go to an Occupy Wall Street rally, there’s this sense of lightness and love. People are calling each other brother and sister and there’s a shamelessness around love that has been sorely absent in not all, but many social movements. The underlying power conflicts are still very evident at Occupy Wall Street. The difference is that in both rhetoric and practice, they are working to move forward together as the 99%.

There have always been beautiful voices holding this vision of taking care of each other in struggle. Audre Lord spoke to it decades ago. I can think of numerous women of color and women-of-color-led organizations that have held this message. At the same time it hasn’t been woven into the way we’ve been doing social change… When I entered the AoH community, they didn’t call it healing or taking care of each other, there was just a deep practice of relationship and being with each other as human beings. Then whatever else can happen, does, but that’s the foundation. I find it surprising how simple and human and natural that is. I’ve wondered why and how we lose that and sometimes structurally build it out of our social movements, or build it in on Friday night after beating each other up and stressing out all week. I don’t have an answer, but I’m curious. Maybe it doesn’t matter anymore because what’s happening with Occupy Wall Street is the way to lead change now. I think we have a new groundswell of social movements emerging that hold taking care of each other and listening to each other as the work.

NPi: Any further thoughts on Occupy Wall Street?

KM: The way that I’ve been thinking about social movements and change is that since Civil Rights we’ve been building institutions to maintain our gains. That needed to happen after Civil Rights. There was a lot of change, and we needed to have NOW and a grander NAACP and service organizations once money and representative advocacy roles became available. That’s what we needed to do. Then when new needs arose or new social movements came about, we began a pattern of quickly building ‘sustainable’ organizations.

Around AIDS for example, one of the first thoughts was Let’s form an organization and get grants. You’re building a movement, but you have to maintain an organization. You have that hierarchical organizational model. You have concepts like leadership ladders and promotions and mentorship because that’s how leadership happens in the organizational context. But institutions and organizations move much, much slower than what’s needed—emergent needs and emergent leadership are iterative.

Photo by Nancy Fritsche-Eagan

I’m excited that Occupy Wall Street protests are just popping up like mushrooms. You know how mushrooms have miles of threads under the ground and when the conditions are ripe they sprout up? I feel like this new consciousness is here. All these threads are all over the earth around what we need and how we’re going to move forward now. We saw the Arab Spring happen, and now something similar seems to be happening in the United States. The conditions are here, the seeds of new social movements are being watered.

I’m curious, what’s the interaction of the old models and the new models going to look like? Traditional hierarchical organizations are really useful for replicating things like housing homeless people living with HIV. We have created service models that effectively replicate what works. That’s beautiful. The question now is what is going to happen to our social change/advocacy/policy organizations that were built with industrial age hierarchical structures in this time of emergent social movements? What happens to all of that policy work that has been owned and controlled by hierarchical structures? How are last decade’s leaders going to recognize and be influenced by this new network-based, leaderless model?

The new quest is for transformative change, changing the way government works and wealth is distributed. Is a groundswell shift happening now that this leaderless, grassroots (“bottom up”, as they say in the Occupy Wall Street General Assembly) movement is mushrooming? I’m really curious about what’s going to happen next.

How to Get Involved:

Learn more at artofsocialchange.org. Follow Kelly’s work at Going Upstream and Tuesday’s work at Confluence Unlimited. Check out harvest videos from the Art of Participatory Leadership and Social Change on Vimeo. Join the conversation on Facebook.

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