7: leaning into generative conflict
generative [jen-er-uh-tiv, -uh-rey-tiv]
adj. capable of reproducing or creating; having the power or function of originating
Author and activist adrienne maree brown names how we create more possibilities for what we can do together in the world when we perceive conflict and difference as an opportunity, a gift, to expand our capacity to be in solidarity. In our work with women of color we leaned into conflict because 1) we fully expected it to arise as we convened leaders engaged in complex, deeply personal work; and 2) we believe that whatever conflict harvests is more valuable than what currently exists.
Even after making a commitment to lean into conflict, the practice of it can be easier-said-than-done. After putting much time and labor into designing a transformational teaching and learning experience, conflict that threatens to derail the process can be disappointing and even feel personal for both the facilitation team and participants. But when perceived as an opportunity we can take solace in knowing that conflict is not an indication of failure. Leaning into generative conflict challenges “othering” behaviors in exchange for sustaining opportunities of belonging. It asks us to consider: What is made possible by showing up differently?
We offer these three core practices for creating the conditions that allow for conflict to be received as a gift to the space:
We drew on our purpose and pedagogy of Vertical Development (see Section 2: Our Core Pedagogy) AND got to know our strengths, challenges, and triggers as a facilitator and as a team (see Section 3: Assembling Our Ride or Die).
Combining our pedagogy and team superpowers, we acted as witnesses to group dynamics and recognized that “the heat” that emerged was awakening the women’s thinking. As facilitators, we attempted to shepherd them through difficult conversations to unlearn calcified ideas and discern new ones from hearing diverse voices. As weavers, we helped the women test the possibilities of being in unity.
We co-created a learning container strong enough to hold purpose yet flexible enough to accommodate necessary shifts (see Section 5: Wireframes & Sessions).
We became familiar with (and appreciated) the many ways conflict shows up in a space as discussed below.
“We speak today about a crisis in contemporary social movements. This crisis has been produced in part by our failure to develop a meaningful and collective historical consciousness. Such a consciousness would entail a recognition that our victories attained by freedom movements are never etched in stone. What we often perceive under one set of historical conditions as glorious triumphs of mass struggle can later ricochet against us if we do not continually reconfigure the terms and transform the terrain of our struggle. The struggle must go on. Transformed circumstances require new theories and practices.”
- Angela Davis, The Meaning of Freedom: And Other Difficult Dialogues
Why Conflict Shows Up
By regularly debriefing what we were observing and learning, our team noticed that conflict appears in many forms yet the reasons why it shows up are fairly consistent. Conflict comes forth as an intentional or unconscious disruption. We believe a woman may want her actions to impact the group in a particular way or may be acting out of learned embodied behavior, in which case the disruption is a visceral response to what is taking place. Disruption generally occurs because women (human beings in general) are uncomfortable with vulnerability, such as by:
Having less confidence or knowledge than they project - Feeling unworthy or unable to meet real or perceived expectations
Fearing too much intimacy - Having to reveal something of themselves that causes feelings of shame or exposure
Having to admit disinterest in what is being asked of the group - thinking there is nothing new to learn, and not wanting to learn from or engage with specific people
Regarding the last point, we noticed some women ascribed characteristics to facilitators, guest speakers or other women in the group because they triggered recollection of unpleasant or painful experiences (e.g., “the white person in the room” or a parole officer as noted in Section 3: Assembling Our Ride or Die). It is also real that in creating a liberated space —something that does not presently exist in society—any of us might operate from a place of scarcity (believing there is but so much generosity of spirit or opportunity to shine), or from desiring a familiar place of comfort even if it is antithetical to our own liberation (i.e., using crisis as a mode of engagement).
This activity is used to reflect on three questions:
1. How, in your experience, do you tend to maximize the value of a learning experience? (i.e., “I take great notes and jot down highlights right after a session.”)
2. How, in your experience, do you minimize the value of your learning experience? (i.e., “I’ll start checking email on my phone or making a mental list of other to-dos.”)
3. How will someone else know if this shows up? And what support will you need?
Examples of How Conflict Shows Up
A disruption might center on one woman who mentally or physically removes herself from the space or is broadened to include multiple women aligned around a shared issue. One woman might also influence others to take on her concern and together they direct their disapproval at a facilitator, guest speaker or another woman in the group.
How conflict shows up can be quite nuanced but the approach to addressing it is clearer. It begins with creating a container for constructive engaged learning and exchange and is sharpened by self-aware facilitators’ stepping in at critical moments to gently call women in and up.
Anticipating disruption, we implement peremptory strategies by facilitating Maximize/Minimize on the opening day of a gathering used to help women identify how and under what circumstances they check out and to lift up their commitment to our created community (see Section 6: Creating a Liberated Zone). During in-person gatherings we regularly pause a discussion for reflective journaling, inviting the “disruptor” and all to recognize and resist the temptation to be distracted by tendencies that have not served them well in the past. In virtual gatherings we might break participants into individual breakout rooms so they have the opportunity to reflect alone. In both settings journaling is an offering of time to help the women process their feelings and thoughts, and when we reconvene they inevitably express appreciation for the pause. Journaling and discussion also helps them move from a space of vulnerability to making intentional choices in sync with their visions for transformational change.
We now share three ways conflict tends to arise in the sacred space we create with and for women: the Mental Escapist, the Radical Edge, the Chaos Maker. None of us wishes to be defined by our worst days and by bad moments, likewise, the examples are offered as nonjudgmental illustrations of how any of us can show up when we feel out of place, out of our bodies, overwhelmed, or under-prepared for the work of creating and living into justice.
When she shows up - At a moment when we are getting to the heart of the heart, the difficult part of a conversation that is awakening the women to dissonant ideas, the Dis-associator will almost unconsciously get up to straighten the space, get a snack, scroll on her phone or otherwise mentally disengage.
How the disruption impacts the space - It is a subtle distraction and reminder of the world outside of the intimacy being manifested within the circle.
Why she disrupts - The Dis-associator’s actions are a release valve from the intensity of ideas and emotions being lifted. While adhering to Community Commitments that include taking care of yourself, her actions break the spirit of the commitment by not staying present to the process through difficult moments.
How to call her in & up - First, as a group we name this tendency that we all engage in, make a commitment to remain present, and identify triggers for disengagement through the Maximize/Minimize. When a Dis-associator shows up anyway, either the facilitators or her “homegirl” (see Section 8: Tools & Spaces for Embodying New Habits) will for example, ask her to put down her phone (e.g., Is it really important for you to be on it now?) or to return to the circle rather than clean.
What is the gift? - Calling the Dis-associator reminds her that her presence in the space matters and that this space is part of her self-commitment. It helps her develop a sense of personal responsibility and self-reliance, gives her insight into habits that are self-sabotaging (conscious or not), pushes her toward greater integrity (what we do when not being watched), and offers an opportunity to share her brilliance with her sisters.
The Radical Edge
When she shows up - During a discussion of a complex issue the Radical Edge will quickly analyze the issue as a black/white, either/or dichotomy that leaves little room for others to reflect. For example, in a conversation on how structural racism has influenced the actions of another woman of color leader of a political organization, the Radical Edge might highlight the cause as internalized racism and present their behaviors as a simple choice to be complicit. While this may be accurate it offers a conclusion rather than an opening for interrogating more complex realities.
Why she disrupts - The Radical Edge has established her identity within the group as the most progressive and as someone who is braver than others to step over this political line. When confronted with new information or pushed to go deeper, she becomes worried about that identity and uncomfortable with self-reflection.
How the disruption impacts the space - It can shut other women down, curtail deep reflection and nuanced thinking, and consequently keep the discussion at a broad or general level.
How to call her in & up - Facilitators and other participants can ask the Radical Edge pointed questions to invite her into deepen her analysis. For example, we might ask how she came to her conclusion. What informed her thinking and if there are other perspectives she thinks we should draw on? What does (a situation or experience) look like for you? How did you navigate it? How could you be a sister to a person in a similar situation? Calling her in, questions are posed to the Radical Edge but are an invitation to the entire group for reflection.
What is the gift? - Critical questioning leads all of the women to higher thinking, but specific to the Radical Edge, calls her into a collective journey of liberation in which everyone is always progressing and where no one is left behind. The Radical Edge is encouraged to bring both her knowledge and her humility.
The Chaos Maker
When she shows up - Typically, when a gathering is moving toward its conclusion or venturing into next steps and accountability, the Chaos Maker will bring a personal or group problem to the fore—whether real or manufactured—magnify its significance and/or downplay attempts by facilitators to remedy it. She may also play the role of martyr, conveying that she is being put out, ignored or otherwise not being cared for by the facilitators/program.
Why she disrupts - The familiar personal setting of the Chaos Maker is one of crisis. It is an emotion in which she apparently feels comfortable and which also brings her attention. It is often also an effort to avoid what she perceives as pending responsibility that arrives with the setting of “next steps.”
How the disruption impacts the space - The Chaos Maker inevitably draws the group into the “crisis” without providing full detail or explanation, often at an inopportune moment, hence chaos ensues. She pulls a metaphorical fire alarm that prevents the group from a crucial discussion or experience. Fomenting chaos can be divisive, splitting the group between those in the corner of the Chaos Maker and everyone else. It can also distance the facilitators from the group, presenting them as more committed to the agenda than the care of a participant.
How to call her in & up - Because chaos conveys urgency it can keep us running in circles, never accomplishing what we set out to achieve. The response to chaos is to address both the Chaos Maker (often in front of the group) and the group. The Chaos Maker is reminded that 1) her needs will be met in this space/program that supports her to achieve her goals and 2) the concern she raised will or is being addressed by facilitators. To the group it is important to let them know that 1) there are behind the scene conversations they may not be privy to that are working on the issue and 2) that they are gathered in this sacred space committed to something larger and more collective (advancing transformational leadership) than the urgent crises that often consume us as Women of Color.
What is the gift? - Calling the Chaos Maker in, reminds the group of its shared purpose (resulting in greater fidelity to the community commitments) and the program’s core principles (assuring that individual support is available to each of them). The women are given the opportunity to reflect on and observe what it means to invest beyond the immediate toward realizing bigger objectives and can experience how it feels not having to be the caregiver knowing facilitators have the women’s back.
The 6 Principles of Trauma-informed Care
Trauma-informed care (TIC) is grounded in the belief that healing justice is not only a vital part of our social movements, but a necessary component to interrupting intergenerational trauma, practicing principled struggle, and maintaining our sustainability. The TIC six principles are:
2. Trustworthiness & transparency
3. Peer support
4. Collaboration & mutuality
5. Empowerment & choice
6. Cultural, historical & gender issues
Community Change Women’s Fellowship Program (2019-2020), Trauma-Informed Care Report by Holiday Simmons, MSW
Accompanying Journaling Prompts & Coloring Pages:
Journaling Prompt: Create a playlist that speaks to your relationship with conflict (such as Collide by Tiana Major9 & EARTHGANG, Stand Up for Something by Andra Day feat. Common)
Coloring Page: Butterfly by Favianna Rodriquez
Journaling Prompt: Reflect on a time when you found yourself engaging with participants who were showing up in some of the ways we describe in this section. How did you approach the situation? What new learnings came from the framing of conflict offered here?