When urgency resides in the slow, quiet, and invisible

Art by Sophia Robele

A few weeks ago, I found myself in a Zoom call with over 150 UN colleagues, gathered in silence from our different parts of the world with our attention fixed on the screen of a woman slowly pouring water over tea leaves. Amidst the reverence of the collective stillness and slight discomfort evoked by not knowing what lay in the minds of others in the room, one thought surfaced that has since lodged itself in my consciousness: The way that a group of UN staff show up to an indigenous tea ceremony on a Zoom call in a moment of global crisis, under the banner of learning to lead transformation of socio-economic and ecological systems, is a metric of hope.

This space was one in a series of UN-wide dialogues that UNDP has hosted, in partnership with the MIT Presencing Institute, as a humble yet ambitious experiment in collectively learning how we move from the current status quo of fixing broken systems, to actually attending to the interior and relational conditions that enable new systems to emerge. As embodied by this particular moment of stillness led by an Anishinaabe participant, one of the key characteristics of this journey has been a unique invitation within multilateral spaces to inhabit ways of knowing, being, and doing that are often sidelined by the forms of knowledge centered by the norms and structures of dominant development paradigms and governance systems.

Beyond its value as a quaint meditative moment with some colleagues, though, what does being guest to a tea ritual in a webinar actually have to do with the capacity of multilateralism to effect real change in the world and the choices that lie before us in collectively shaping the future of development?

One dimension of the answer can be found in the example of the ‘knowing-doing’ gap that persists in the ways that we valorize the wisdom of indigenous peoples on sustainable development in our high-level commitment statements yet fail to actually center such wisdom in most of our development efforts. As the 2020 Human Development Report underlines, “indigenous and local knowledge needs to be embedded in and actively connected to ecosystem governance that recognizes their rights” if we are to chart paths forward for human development that ease planetary pressures whilst expanding human flourishing. In acknowledging the advanced capacities of indigenous governance systems through our reports, we must also contend with the history of exclusionary practices upheld by the institutions that wield the power to operationalize this awareness in development policies and programmes.

While much of this history has involved overt rejection of indigenous peoples’ meaningful engagement in agenda setting or refused adoption of standards to protect their rights, this exclusion at the level of political frameworks is rooted in the thought frameworks and norms that are often perpetuated in the very spaces where we claim to prioritize the inclusion of indigenous peoples in development efforts. No matter how many publications are produced on the need to learn from and amplify the development practices of indigenous communities, or policy dialogues facilitated between indigenous peoples and governments, we rarely actually shift the power imbalances that underly the inequalities we are trying to address. Instead of incorporating approaches that leverage the expertise and capabilities of diverse communities to uncover and address the blind spots — and more often, intentional architectures of exclusion — within an institution’s development strategy or intervention, we continue to uphold through our practices a limited set of knowledge systems as universal standards for the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of development.

Part of the capability building process for development practitioners to create the necessary openings for collaboration with indigenous communities in a way that transcends surface-level exercises is in fact the work that takes place in a tea ceremony on a Zoom call. It is the work of bearing witness to the wisdom that is held in a spiritual ritual used by some communities as a way to embody a felt relationship to nature. It is investing the time, humility, and focus on human connection required to recognize all the ways that such practice forms part of a rich ecosystem of philosophies and traditions that give rise to the kinds of local governance systems capable of safeguarding the well-being of both people and planet. It is a refusal to compartmentalize that awareness from one’s work, inviting it to affect the way one co-designs a programme or measures its progress, even if that means having to deconstruct institutionalized processes, one’s own role, or embedded assumptions that do not serve the realities surfaced by such awareness.

When we engage in forms of learning that are not about soliciting inputs from a few ‘representatives’ of a community so that we can claim to better ‘see’ a system through their eyes (reducing the complexity of the person and their experience) and use that as the basis for calling a process participatory, but rather about expanding our understanding of where our own sight and capacity is limited, the premise upon which we engage in processes of co-creation fundamentally shifts. If we truly want to surface “unheard” voices and center the perspectives of those pushed to the margins of our economic or political systems, then we can’t simply offer seats at the table without questioning whose norms and assumptions dictate the rules of that table, or the perceived expertise and roles of those at the table, or what matters have been brought to it in the first place. There is power in the ways we see another person or a community. There is power in the knowledge systems we privilege through our processes. When we shift or expand the ways we see and the ways we value, and learn how to collectively embody that site through intuition-informed and relationship-driven actions, we start to shift power. It is at this level — in the connecting points between consciousness, relationships, and power that play out in our meeting rooms, in our dialogue spaces, in our planning processes, in the decisions of where we create connections and how we foster them — that we actually start to sow the seeds of change that lead to the transformation, or overhaul, of systems.

While many in the UN sense the value of being present to another and the importance of seeing our own role in, and relationship to, the systems we seek to transform, we struggle to connect this awareness to our work. Part of the challenge in making these connections lies in the test of how we articulate them: in how we define the ‘concrete’ impact that a space of embodied learning and relationship-building has on shaping a country’s climate policy or ensuring equitable access to vaccines, particularly when working with language and thought models that often equate impact with efficiency and visibility.

When we are consistently called on to respond to the systemic challenges that are ‘urgent,’ and base our investments and attention on that which poses the most pressing existential threat to humans and the planet, our understanding of the concept of ‘urgency’ is significant. What if the urgency is not in how quick we respond, but how deep? What if the slow, deep work of collective unlearning, or making space for different ways of being and thinking together, or taking the time to value different cultures through practice rather than words, is how we address the source of our interconnected crises, not just their symptoms?

Both the potency of and challenge in ‘making the case’ for this deep intangible work lies in the fact that it does not yield any single or predictable outcome. Its impact is non-linear, emergent, and context-specific. It might be what resides in the spaces where trust and shared understanding is born among diverse partners and becomes the fuel for the kind of experimentation required to address a wicked problem. It might reside in the way a moment of expanded awareness, of self and others, leads a programme officer to identify that the protocols for including vulnerable populations in the design of a programme have not actually yielded true co-creation. Or to unpack the ways that the use of the label ‘vulnerable populations’ might be part of the problem. It might lie in the collective shifts that result from increased willingness to sense and follow intuition: for development practitioners to question the givens in a process or policy or narrative and follow whatever path that questioning leads them down. Maybe that takes the form of an organization’s reexamination of the narrative that technology will save us, to an exploration of the values that need to be fostered for all humanity to benefit from technological progress. It might reside in the spaces where open-mindedness and humility is modeled and leads a team to expand the scope of what it considers in its process of horizon scanning for locally-owned ‘innovations,’ such as the social technologies of a religious community. It might emerge from the connective tissue formed in a space of introspection among change agents — or an invitation to bring the heart into a discussion about economies or the environment — that opens the door for unlikely connections to be made across ideas, work areas, and geographies.

Or it might lie in the way that spaces like these can fundamentally reconfigure the landscape of permission and possibility felt by someone in the room: how something as simple as seeing the word ‘spirituality’ on a slide about development in a UN dialogue, or discovering that the incoherence felt between one’s inner life and work is shared by other colleagues, might enable someone to feel that their insights, lived experiences and belief systems might actually be welcome and valued in the conversation. And the way that this shifted perception and the forms of sharing it evokes, even in a single person, can engender more vulnerability and openness in response — setting in motion an ever expanding net of meaningful relationships across hierarchies and silos, sensed community, and the collaborative glue for change.

The extent to which we perceive examples like these as indicators of impact depends ultimately on the goal. If our goal is simply to deliver the material, pre-defined results of a development programme with the greatest efficiency and quantitatively visible achievements, then maybe these kinds of outcomes can’t be validated as worth one’s time and attention. But if our goal is to step back and understand why our quest for efficiency and effectiveness hasn’t actually changed the systems that render our programmes necessary in the first place, then we can’t afford to discount the possibilities that are situated in the intangible shifts and emergent connections that are forged in the quiet moments in a tea ceremony on a Zoom call.

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Sophia Robele

Sophia Robele

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