5 Learnings From 15 Years

Complexity Feb 15, 2022

I remember the feeling as the humid air hit me as I stepped off the plane in Kota Kinabalu, and the rush of excitment as I knew this was the start of a new adventure that I had no idea where it would take me.

This new chapter started 15 years ago, in February 2007, driven by an early life crisis as I became aware that perhaps my values and opportunities to explore them professionally were not best served sitting in London. Ironically so many young people from Australia and New Zealand, where I eventually find myself, travel the other way in search of different experiences and professional opportunity.

For me, the rising awareness that I needed to see if I could use my working life to address climate change and biodiversity loss, initially led to jumping on that plane to Malaysian Borneo to work with Sustainable Development organisation, Raleigh International, which saw me living under tarps in the jungle in Danum Valley, contributing to the development of a Social Enterprise Ecotourism Camp on the Kinabatangan River, and building accommodation for a school in the foothills of Mt Kinabalu.

Life has continued to deal me ups and downs across a variety of geographies, jobs, ventures, friendships and more. But most of all, it's been a time of huge learning as my comfort zone has been forced to grow with the myriad of experiences that have enveloped me.

This post aims to capture five of the learnings from the 15 years since I left London and turned my attention to better using my privilege to serve all life. Before I dive in, I want to acknowledge many of these ideas are not new - they're just my own attempt to crystallise things I have graciously been taught by my many tuakana, mentors, peers, and friends - human and more-than-human. Perhaps some will be obvious to you, and others will feel like familiar echoes of things other, wiser, people have said, indigenous people have been practicing for aeons, or are just a bit too similar to the latest meme on twitter. Bear with me.

#1 - Am I really helping?

So many times in the last 15 years, I've taken pause to ponder this question. From the inevitable wonderings about the value of sustainable development and charity work in developing nations, to moments of discomfort when you realise you're bringing Western ideas of Wellbeing into Māori communities, and many many other moments - I've tried to stay humble and be honest enough to realise when maybe I wasn't helping - and maybe it was time to just listen and support in different ways.

This brought me into a more conscious relationship with the idea of 'system dynamics', the importance of staying alive to intended and unintended consequences, as well as more participatory approaches to change work. It's a dance sometimes, knowing that what you do affects others, and not always in a good way - and so the quality of how you approach things, and that the actions you take matter, deeply.

#2 - As fast as trees are planted, they can be chopped down?

This one hit me hard when I was 3 or so years deep into pursuing Conservation as a career path. It taught me that there were other patterns at play - power dynamics played out in a range of seen and unseen theatres, over different types of timescales, and sometimes decisions made in far away localities could suddenly and drastically change the outcomes.

What was to be done about that? Well, I sure as hell wanted to learn more about how change happens, how to better understand those processes, how we could influence things, and what different strategies there might be to do that for different types of challenges. At the time, that wasn't a inquiry I thought I could pursue from a paddock on the West Coast of Aotearoa NZ, so I went in search of people who I could learn from, and found them.

I learnt about different types of skills - like facilitation, entrepreneurship, technology development, design, dialogue, and much more. I also learnt more about complexity and systems, and how the old 'linear logic model' planning and theory of change work was coming unstuck - and how people were explore new horizons with ideas like systems leverage points, positive deviants and attractor basins, coordinated systems change portfolios, and much more.

Don't think A + B = C? Got it.

#3 - Relationships ahead of all else.

In sectors where funding can be so fickle, people suffer burnout, and sometimes it feels hard to get purchase on a problem long enough to really make a difference - when everything is said and done, what's left?

A report?

Some 'new skills'?

Sometimes. But what I learnt, especially from my time in Aotearoa NZ, was that the most lasting change work invests in relationships - trust, belonging, a sense of possibility between one another. It still gives me tingles when I think about the spark I've seen flare between people when they truly connect, and something shifts in their lives - in 'the system' - because of their colliding, a new constellation is born.

Too often, relationship building in change work is relegated to what happens in the coffee breaks, rather than being foundational and woven into the program, the agenda, the experience itself - intentionally and skillfully.

#4 - Who is at the table and whose table is it?

The deeper I've delved, the more I've seen the patterns of Power and Privilege play out. In groups. In organisations. In society. My own.

I learnt about facilitation and hosting, and how it might be used to address those patterns. I learnt about organisational and team/group design, and how that might be part of a solution too. I also delved deeper into participatory methods and culture, and I learnt how those, like the others, could be both a blessing and a curse. Undoubtedly I have a lot more to do to be aware of and understand Power, and be better at identifying and working with / against those dynamics.

There's also plenty more learning for me to do around methods and structures to make the Power dynamics more transparent, as well as exploring different methods for shifting power over time.

#5 - Futures are shaped.

I've talked a lot about change work being my focus, and inevitably at some point you have to reckon not only with the past and the present, but what the Futures might be that we and others will live in.

Firstly, obviously I'm using a plural of 'Future', because there is no singular future - the same moment will be experienced differently by different humans (and more-than-human life), and of course we live on a complex, life-filled rock, flying through space - we're not going to be experiencing the same futures equally around the globe. So talking about futures helps us to recognise that we're not all heading for the same point, it opens up a little more space to breath and for diversity of experience to be explored and celebrated.

Likewise, we have learnt that whilst our Pasts are important to be aware of, they aren't necessarily the best predictor of our Futures. Futures are influenced, constantly, by a huge number of factors - they're shaped.

Who? How? When? Why?

So many questions arise about how change happens, and futures are shaped. I feel like I'm coming full circle here.

However, my humble current worldview is that the shaping of futures isn't something which is controlled, so much as it is the outcome of dynamic inter-relationships.

So being in-relationship is important. Other people are much wiser than I about what this means, but for me, it's about recognising that we've been sold a lie - that we are disconnected from nature, and from one another. We are not individuals, we are intermingles.

So, having an intention, a vision, an articulable direction - these are important, because they have power when you're in relationship with others. Throughout the natural world, we see negotiated self-interest as a dynamic force - life negotiates what we want, in tension, collaboration, cooperation and compromise, with other life.

Experimentation is how we learn, when we recognise we are intermingled - because to change anything, we must interact, feel, observe, reflect and draw meaning. And then things change, and we must do it all again.


Thanks for making it all the way to the end! I'd love to hear any reflections you'd like to share...

➡️ https://www.linkedin.com/in/samrye

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