We are delighted to start the new year with a reflection from Tolulope Ilesanmi, long-time Organization Unbound contributor and co-founder of Zenith Cleaning. Tolu and his colleagues approach Zenith Cleaning’s mission as a question not a statement. Their capacity to remain in a discovery mindset over many years has led them to some deep insights about the meaning and practice of cleaning and how it can feed personal, organisational and societal transformation. We had the honour of hosting Tolu in Cape Town recently for a week of ‘cleaning as practice’ exchanges.
“Cleaning is the process of removing dirt from any space, surface, object or subject, thereby exposing beauty, potential, truth and sacredness.”
Ever since I had the above epiphany, I have spoken it countless times in many places. Each time I do, I get washed by it, as the essence of cleaning is invited into the space to do its work. This happened again and again while I was in Cape Town recently for Cleaning workshops and conversations organized by my friends and the best hosts I could have asked for, Tana Paddock and Warren Nilsson of Organization Unbound.
Cape Town happens to be a place, like the rest of South Africa, where cleaning is especially needed, given its largely unatoned past. The words of Iain Harris, a resident of Lynedoch Eco-village near Stellenbosch, continue to ring in my ears: “This land where we stand right now is in need of cleansing…”
In one of the sessions, Cleaners at the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business (GSB) guided staff and faculty in cleaning a hotel room and public washrooms, accompanied by conversations exploring the meaning of cleaning and mining insights from the experience. In my company Zenith Cleaning, we call this experience Cleaning as Practice. So many beautiful things emerged from that 3-hour session and the other sessions I had around Cape Town. Here are a few that I continue to chew on:
The practice of forgiveness. During the post-cleaning conversation at the GSB, we reflected on how it felt to clean up behind people after one of the toilet seats was soiled before we finished cleaning the washroom. It was similar to how it feels when someone wearing muddy shoes walks across a floor you are mopping when they could easily have taken off their shoes at the entrance. Yet, we had to go back and clean it and hold no grudge against whoever made the mess. One of the Cleaners talked about her experience cleaning hotel rooms; occupants sometimes screamed at her because they did not want their room cleaned, yet she had to wipe the stain from her mind and heart as she moved on to the next room to prevent her day from progressively spiraling downwards. Cleaners and domestic workers, we realized, with the on-going systemic and day-to-day abuses they suffer, are continuously practicing forgiveness. They never know what to expect and they encounter all sorts of dirt on many levels; yet their task is to meet abuse with the all-purpose cleaner called Love, bringing loving-kindness to spaces and people, while washing their own minds and hearts with the same loving-kindness. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu said at the start of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, “The most forgiving people I have ever come across are people who have suffered – it is as if suffering has ripped them open into empathy. I am talking about wounded healers.” I think this applies to many Cleaners.
Being with the mess. When the toilet user soiled the toilet seat at the GSB, we may have been tempted to flee the scene, but we did not have that luxury. Regardless of who made the mess, as Cleaners we were responsible for the transformation the space called for. Our job was to clean, not to go after the person who made the mess, not to complain about it and not to leave it for the next person to deal with. During my interview-style talk, hosted by the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation & Entrepreneurship at the GSB, I reflected on the fact that Cleaners do not have the luxury of escaping from a physical mess like many of us do when faced with a societal ‘mess’- like fleeing the seemingly messy United States to a seemingly cleaner Canada. What happens when Canada becomes undesirable? Who will take it upon themselves to make the undesirable desirable? A Cleaner’s task is to be with the mess, any mess, and with the practice of loving-kindness transform it into beauty. There is more suffering involved, it is more difficult, you will get dirty, and you may ‘fail’ or even die in the process. But it is more fulfilling to be in the world as a beautifier than as someone who is only drawn to places and spaces that are already beautiful.
From abusers to protectors. I shared earlier that when a cleaner is mopping a floor and someone knowingly makes it dirty, they could get offended. This is not because cleaners are angry people but because the practice of cleaning, when properly stewarded, shifts you from an abuser to a protector. You start to personally identify with the space you are caring for. If you want school children to take care of their learning environment, just get them cleaning it like they do in Japan. It is hard to clean a space and knowingly abuse it. It is hard to clean a space and not become its custodian. And over time this sense of ownership transcends the tangible. You are not simply developing a caring and respectful attitude towards the physical space, you are developing a more caring and respectful attitude, period. In environments where people exhibit violence towards others, whether men to women or school children to each other, cleaning can be used to start a caring revolution. During my visit to Rlabs, I met a group of budding social entrepreneurs who, just like Rlabs itself, are doing much needed cleansing work in Cape Town through their organizations. An idea that came up during our conversation was to organize groups of men in some of the more violent and physically neglected areas of Cape Town to periodically clean community spaces together and then collectively reflect on the experience. If well guided, could they begin to shift from abusers of their sisters and brothers to keepers and protectors?
Cleaning upstream. We can spend our days forgiving endlessly and we should. But cleaning is fundamentally incomplete if it does not get to the root of the mess. Compassion is broken if it continues to enable abuse and neglects the intangible source of abuse. Systems and paradigms need transformation. They need cleaning even more than the immediate effects we experience, and that is where the real work of cleaning and compassion lies, not just in cleaning after the fact again and again. This applies in parenting, in relationships, in politics, in education, in real estate, in finance, in technology, everywhere. Cleaning and cleanliness needs to be built into the design of tangible and intangible systems and structures or else we are not really cleaning.
Cleaners as teachers. Cleaners may not realise it, but they are in a good position to teach the world how to clean the intangible. I was delighted when Warren suggested during the workshop at the GSB that the Cleaners host conversations at the school about how people can approach their work with a cleaning lens. The potential of an educational institution is being unveiled when teaching and learning is all encompassing- when the Professor sits at the Cleaner’s feet just as the Cleaner sits at the Professor’s feet. Education, after all, is from the word ‘educe’- “to draw forth or bring out, as something latent or potential” (dictionary.com), which is similar to my definition of cleaning. An educational institution is truly clean when it welcomes everyone, from all walks of life, to participate in the unveiling of truth and potential.
While I hope I left the people and organizations I visited in Cape Town better than I met them, I certainly left better than they met me. I feel greatly nourished and still have lots to digest from each of the seven sessions. The experience reaffirmed to me that we need more cleaners in the world. At the very least, if I am a stay-at-home dad, a banker, a teacher, a politician or an administrator, I should be one who cleans, one who transforms messes into beauty, not one who makes the world worse than I met it and not one who passively or actively chooses not to make a difference. Whoever we are, wherever we are and whatever our roles are, may we get our hands dirty unveiling beauty, potential, truth and sacredness while we have breath in us.
.I am grateful to the following organizations in and around Cape Town for hosting me: