Often in training and leadership development spaces, our primary focus is on content and curriculum. Transformative organizing focuses on long-term vision, self-awareness, naming and addressing the oppression that is replicated in our strategies, and the healing of personal suffering. In order for this deep personal work to happen within our organizing, particularly with impacted leaders, we need to co-create the conditions for individuals to bring their full selves into the room and for the group to try on new, more affirming ways of being together.
We do this by co-creating a “Liberated Zone,” a concept inspired by so many revered teachers and organizers from Ella Baker to Paulo Freire to Octavia Butler to Ed Whitfield and George Lakey. But it is the women of Community Change’s women’s fellowship and Power 50 programs who are really teaching us what goes into co-creating a liberated zone and what this can mean for our movements. These are the pieces of our practice that they have highlighted for us.
Deep time spent creating and reengaging with community commitments
Community commitments are often bullet points we gather from the group at the beginning of a meeting or retreat and paste up on a wall, hoping that they will keep us safe from conflict. When we’re co-creating a liberated zone, we develop community commitments through a process adapted from BYP100 that asks participants to really consider and name what safety, transparency, trust, validation, affirmation, accountability, and joy feel like and look like in action. These descriptions form the basis for our community commitments. We began each day by assessing our fidelity to our commitments the previous day and repeated this check-in practice at each reconvening (See Creating the Container).
Shared analysis about what disorganizes us
As we built our commitments we learned together about the culture and systems harming us, disorganizing us, and keeping us from living into our commitments. Namely we talked about the impact of white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism on our lives and our work. We also discussed the ways that we have internalized the culture stemming from these systems and how this can show up in our space even if white people, men, and money are not physically present.
Spiritual & Cultural Practices
Frequently, we are asked to show up fully prepared to think and strategize about a more just world while our cultural knowledge and spiritual practices based in love and justice are left outside. We adorned our spaces with fabrics, images, music, plants, books, art, and activities to remind us to draw on the many forms of wisdom available to us.
Somatic practices that bring us back to our bodies
We recognize that there are multiple ways of knowing and that many of us have learned to disassociate from the wisdom in our bodies. Under the leadership of healing justice practitioners like Viveka Chen (who works with Power 50) and Holiday Simmons (who works closely with the women’s fellowship) we tapped into practices rooted in Generative Somatics, Tai Chi, yoga and other ancient teachings to learn how to both physically and mentally return to center. Some of these practices are in Cultural Work Resources.
We commit to the process/not to the agenda
Tammy Alsada of the women’s fellowship reminded us how often time is used as a form of social control, particularly in our incarceration system and in spaces where poor people and people of color are at the margins. While we respect the labor of those who have come prepared to lead conversations and give space for all to participate, our first commitment was always to “the conversation that only these people in this room can have.” For the facilitation team, that meant being very clear about essential outcomes for the day and the overall retreat and conveying that clearly to the cohort to engage them as partners in adjusting the agenda to meet our shared goals (See “Heart of the Heart” in Program Reflection & Reimagination.)
At its best, a Liberated Zone creates an opening, a wholly inclusive space to test ideas and solidarity, not to constrain relationship building through othering or canceling folks. In many ways, it functions as a co-created initiation of the women into shared purpose and healing. In a Liberated Zone, grace and love are abundant and available to all.
How to know if participants are embracing our liberated zone
In their writings about the five elements of building a “thriving justice ecosystem,” Change Elemental talks about embracing “multiple ways of knowing.” By the time many of our participants enter into our program spaces, years of schooling and “professional development” have cut them off from some of their most essential tools for making meaning of the world around them - art, cultural practices, and hidden talents, even cooking. As facilitators, the re-emergence of these tools is one of our clearest indicators that participants are embracing and co-creating the Liberated Zone:
Poetry: Some of the most powerful program moments come when participants request space to share a poem they wrote the night prior as they reflected on the sessions of the day. These pieces tend to add nuance and complexity to the conversations that deepen the thinking of everyone in the room. One Power 50 participant, Nkenge Browner of Mothering Justice, even went as far as to write a poem honoring what she had learned from each participant in the program. These poems allowed her fellow cohort members to be fully seen and deeply appreciated in a way that the wider world often misses (see sidebar p. 67).