Podcast: Emerging from hibernation
  • In 2012, we hosted a podcast with Aerin Dunford of The Berkana Institute about the organization’s decision to go into an undefined period of hibernation. Given its focus on promoting ‘living systems’ principles in social change work, we were curious to learn how they were putting these principles into practice internally. Berkana recently resurfaced from its restful state, and so we followed up with Aerin to find out what the experience has been like for them. We were joined by Nicole le Roux of I Am Somebody!, a South African organization that runs Rites of Passage programs with young adults and that has also been actively exploring themes of organizational hibernation, death, and renewal.

    You can either listen to this 23-min podcast or read the transcript below. Links to additional readings on organizational hibernation and related themes can be found at the end of this post.
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    Transcript

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    TANA: Thank you Aerin and Nicole for coming together for this conversation. Aerin, in the podcast I did with you back in 2012, soon after the organization made the decision to hibernate, you spoke of several factors that brought you to that collective decision. One was that there was a lack of coherence and connection amongst members and the work that people were doing, a feeling that the energy was depleting both at an individual level and collectively. Also that you were feeling, as a group, that you were working frantically but not knowing why exactly- there was a sense of being unclear about what the organization was being called to contribute to the world. You also spoke of some unhealthy patterns of relationships that had developed over time, that you guys were feeling that a time of rest would help to break those patterns. I’m wondering how your experience of going through this period of hibernation has influenced those factors, if at all.

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    AERIN: The first thing that comes to mind, I’ll start with the last thing you listed there, which is related to the relationships. Generally the relationships have become much more distant. In some cases people have stayed in contact and have continued to collaborate, but basically as a group we stopped having any regular contact. And I think that that has been quite healthy. I feel that it gave us the opportunity to, more on an individual one-on-one basis, re-explore what was really there. And then those relationships that maybe didn’t feel like they had a lot of traction, purpose, meaning or fulfillment, they went away. And I think that was needed.

    On the flip side, coming out of a 5-6 month period of crossing the T’s and dotting the I’s, we formed a small board. So there were four of us. And our relationships became, over the course of these three years, very, very close. We really found in each other this space of solidarity and connection and support, but without a lot of focus on output or creating something together or doing a project together. And it took some time to get into that rhythm. But it created a different level and kind of relationship. We think those spaces, of coming together in solidarity, are kind of what’s needed in our busy, busy world today.

    Meg Wheatley, as some of you might know, about four or five years ago she began to do three-month silent meditation retreats in the winter. And for a while people thought, “Oh that’s so great that you take care of yourself and that you go and do these things.” And now she’s really starting to put a stake in the ground, to say, “This isn’t about me taking care of myself or resting. These meditation retreats ARE my work. It is essential that I go into this space of silence and introspection in order to do what I do the rest of the year.”

    And so that was really needed to shift my perspective about Berkana. And I noticed as we started to talk about maybe coming back out into the world that sometimes it would cause some concern or tension in me because I didn’t want to go back to that phase where I felt so burdened by the work. We’ve created something that doesn’t require all of that infrastructure and centralized responsibility, so truly creating something that’s self-organized.

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    NICOLE: I’m thinking about what you were talking about- the silent meditation retreat, being silent for three months. I’m wondering about different practices you and other people who are now making up Berkana have in that stepping away or if something changed in you in creating that reflection now as you go back into the work.

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    AERIN: I think that our practice was really coming together on these skype calls every few months. And that was kind of the only practice. So for me, not having to have an agenda for these calls was so liberating. The business part of it took about a fourth of the time. We often just spent time reflecting together on what we were seeing in the world and what we were experiencing in the work we were doing. And little by little that led us to reflect on the space we had created in these years together and that’s where we started to get the idea of what we wanted to offer to others. So this is this very small experiment that we’ve come back with this past March called Gathering Friends. And it’s really just based on our experience as a board. It was a perfect example of expressive change, learning from the inside out. Based on our experience, we created something that we birthed through Berkana and offered to others. So being really attentive to what’s happening in the period of reflection, rest and hibernation is important. It’s not just going to sleep and being unconscious.

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    NICOLE: It’s leading me into another question around structure that I’ve been thinking about a lot as we’ve put the organization I Am Somebody! through a Rites of Passage. What is enough structure, now with your reorganizing and the different way that you’re approaching things?

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    AERIN: We’ve really kept the structure to the bare minimum because one of the challenges that I at least feel that we faced when we made the decision to go into hibernation was having created a structure, and I would say infrastructure, that was pretty complicated…relatively speaking it’s not complicated. I think that at our maximum we were a staff of 8-9 people with a couple of offices and some expenses. Even that became hard to maintain financially and in terms of energy as well. I think it’s very important that the structure respond to what is needed in the organization. And that through that sense of awareness and paying attention we create something and from that the structure should arise, not the other way around.

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    TANA: I think in a way this is a pioneering way to work and the legal structures and the general mindset of the industrial age has not caught up with that yet. And those of us working in organizations who are trying to really listen to our intuition and really practice that collective intuition are running up against a whole history of being in organization that is totally counter to that. So, yeah, it’s hard.

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    NICOLE: And I’ve been wondering about…because we’ve been working with living and dying…the point of Rites of Passage is to prepare yourself for when you actually die. And just to be aware that there’s death all the time in our lives. And I’ve been wondering about organizations and the relationship we have in the sector with talking about dying- of parts of organizations or of organizations- and that whole thing of failure and silences and all of that. And how that might relate to or just be really similar to how we are with death in general in a lot of societies. Someone said to me, “You know, if it [the organization] does die, maybe it’s great practice for dying.”

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    AERIN: I think you hit the nail on the head with this idea of failure. That in our Western way of thinking about life and death, we don’t often take into account that our death could very well become the fertile compost for whatever is next to be born. And that maybe by not allowing our organizations or part of our organizations to die, we are preventing that. The role of ego in our ability, or lack thereof, to be conscious to what is wanting to happen in an organization…and as I look back, I think about the configuration of the people who were present in Berkana and we all have our dreams and our ambitions and our ideas of what we can make happen through organizations, but if what we want is really getting in the way and blinding some more collective intelligence coming from within the organization, there can be some really challenging moments. Because we can be really attached to what ideas are possible through us as part of this organization.

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    TANA: So linked to that, I’m curious to know what actually sparked the decision to re-emerge.

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    AERIN: When we imagined how this process would be, we said “Okay, we’re going to go into this hibernation. We have no idea how long it will last. It will last as long as it needs to last. And when we start to feel there’s a need or clarity around purpose for Berkana again, we said we were going to engage in this kind of ‘listening out’ activity.” And we have a really wide net and vast community of people who care and who are interested in Berkana, so I kind of figured there would be interviews and talking to people about what they were noticing in the world. And over the course of these three years, it actually evolved into a ‘listening in’ experience, rather than a ‘listening out’. We had discussed the possibility of reaching out to people and each time we had the conversation it just didn’t really sit, it didn’t really feel right. And then about a year ago we had a call and we just took a second to step back and really reflect on the space of these board interactions that we had had over the course of these previous two years. And that was when we started to acknowledge that the experience we just had could be of use or service to others. And that is how we started to conceive of the idea of coming back into the world.

    And so I guess for me the biggest learning was just this idea of having a sense of clarity when we went into hibernation about how this was going to look- that we were going to rest, and then we were going to do a listening out, and then we were going to create something that responded to what we heard from all these people- kind of a very academic research-based approach. And what ended up happening was an entirely different experience, process, result. So just unhooking ourselves from a very common organizational mindset that says, “We have a goal, and then we lay out all of these steps to reach that goal.” This was just much more emergent.

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    TANA: Well and it might be different, you know…Berkana is an organization that is working at the upper levels of social change. Whereas if you have an organization that is working on the ground and their hibernation means that tons of people are going to not get their medication. There are certain things to think about.

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    AERIN: Yeah, there wasn’t any immediate impact. It was a challenge for some people, but it wasn’t like people weren’t being fed or didn’t have a roof over their head because of our decision to go into hibernation. And I had not considered before what it might look like for an organization that really does that on-the-ground work to go through a transition like this. I don’t know.

    It feels like it’s really important to make the point that even though we were ‘looking in’, we were ‘looking’ in through our experiences out in the world. If we believe in a systems theory perspective, we can trust that the experience that we’re having out in the world is probably shared by others.

    There’s also a piece in there, related to our long-term vision, of just staying in this unknown and not having attachments or a lot of expectations about how it needs to look. And that’s hard for us, especially those of us who’ve been in the sector of nonprofit work for a long time. We’ve really been taught to look for impact and look for results and funders often demand that kind of information.

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    NICOLE: It feels like what you were saying now changes the meaning of resilience. It’s not this ‘get up every time you fall down’ thing. But actually…what is it that emerges and how does that change over time…and continue to emerge and continue to become something new? It’s a different kind of sustainability.

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    AERIN: There’s a key distinction in there for me about how we carry on and carry on. Meg has been really connected to this concept of persevering, that we stay and we stay. So there’s a piece of it that has to do with endurance. But it’s not just staying and staying with the same energy or the same intention or doing the same thing over and over because that is what we do, without the sense of presence and awareness and looking around to see what’s happening. We may transform and transform as we stay and stay, if we’re paying attention.

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    TANA: And it seems like what you’re really talking about in terms of sustainability is to sustain the capacity to pay attention and that’s what you need to sustain…and the capacity to ask questions that will lead you to the right action for you and the organization.

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    AERIN: I kind of ask myself now looking back what was lost? What did we lose by going into hibernation? And I think that’s a good question as well. And I’ve had some moments of thinking that I would like to more actively try to heal some the relationships that were damaged in the process. And I’ve been pushed by my fellow board members to just let time heal things. And it’s been a really good exercise for me personally in just trusting that with time and with a clear intention of healing, even if nothing happens outwardly, that those things can be released.

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    NICOLE: Is there anything that you realized about relationships? You know, in giving it that space and continuing now to give it that space, even thought it’s challenging…

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    AERIN: Hindsight is 20/20 but….if there’s a way to be more forthright and really bring to the surface and name what’s going on in the moment. There were a lot of dynamics going on underneath the surface that weren’t explicit. I think it’s all about the container we create within our organizations. So obviously a lot of this stuff seems very self-evident, but it’s harder to live it in the day-to-day. So just creating a space to talk about the interpersonal piece of all the work that we do organizationally. And of course we bring that in when we do a check-in circle or we talk about what’s going on in our personal lives, but often we kind of avoid the conversations that have to do more with the interpersonal dynamics. You kind of have to figure it out for yourself and your own organization what that looks like. I don’t think that there’s a cookie-cutter answer to that question unfortunately. But you have to create the space for it. That much I’m sure of.

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    TANA: There was an organization that I came across that had a weekly gathering where they have no agenda, no framing question, nothing. It is just a space you can bring things that you wouldn’t necessarily feel comfortable bringing into any of the other spaces.

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    AERIN: Yeah, I think we really need more spaces without agendas. Because something about the pressure of getting all of these things checked off our list in a board meeting or…I think that all of that pressure and fullness doesn’t allow the space for these other kinds of issues to emerge.

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    TANA: Aerin was there anything that you wanted to share that we didn’t ask or is there anything else that is sitting with you?

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    AERIN: We probably don’t have time, but I was really interested to hear a little bit from Nicole of your decision of I Am Somebody! Rites of Passage…what’s going to stay alive and how?

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    NICOLE: Some months ago, I came to the personal realization of needing to change my role. And then the organization went through a process as a result. And we used the four-shield tool that we use in our Rites of Passage work. It’s kind of that cycle of life and death- the four cardinal points and each one is a metaphor for a stage of life. So, we looked in the South to ‘What wants to live?’. And we did this as a process with community and the Board. And in the West, ‘What wants to die?’ and then in the North, ‘What wants to hibernate?’ And then in the East, ‘What wants to be born?’. And out of that it became really clear that people want the community piece to continue and the long-term relationships and the sitting in circle sharing stories, which is a lot of the work we do. So we are continuing that piece. And it feels there isn’t that kind of stress around organizing story-circles or organizing short rites of passages. It’s not the same as the program burden feeling.

    And it felt like as long as we were talking about an NPO people kind of got nervous about all the stuff that had to happen. And it just felt like, in a way, the only way we could have a rebirth is if we don’t have that feeling of burden and if we really allow a big part of the work to close. So we made that decision. And for the rebirth- ‘what wants to be born?’- we looked at a lot of the young people in our work wanted to be trained in the tools we’re using. And I think that’s going to come together with the story circles and the Rites of Passage. And then hibernating our program, which is kind of just feeling out for when or where it can continue. And I don’t know how soon that would be but I think at some point that will probably happen.

    But I guess one of the questions now is how to allow the process going forward to emerge and not to control it too much. There needs to be structure to some extent. And the reactions to the closing of the NPO…and can you continue with work when people are having those reactions. I think a lot of that is just the emotional, you know the fears and all the stuff that’s in this period.

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    AERIN: I’d just encourage you to give it time. And let it settle. And be aware. It’s interesting to me this theme of burden. That seems to be something that’s tying these two experiences together.

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    NICOLE: Yeah, and also just that moving between what we personally need and what the organization needs. And how organizations can allow individuals to do both. But I also just want to say ‘thank you’ to you and to everyone else who has been involved in the process because it really helped us to read your letter that you sent and to listen to the podcast. It was really helpful in broadening the way we looked at what was possible. So really, thank you.

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    TANA: Thanks Aerin, I hope we can have a conversation at some point that doesn’t necessarily involve us talking about organizational life.

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    AERIN: That would be great Tana. So nice to meet you Nicole and best of luck with everything and I hope to be in touch with you both in the future.

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    Further readings…

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    Practicing conscious closure, by Vanessa Reid

    The frenzy, by Tana Paddock

    Managing transitions, by William Bridges

    An interview with William Bridges

    Where do organizations go when they die?, by Tana Paddock

     

     

    (Homepage photo by Louise Williams. Podcast photo by A. Kerner v. MARILAUN, “Pflanzenleben”, 1913)

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    July 29th, 2015 | Podcast | No Comments

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