Center for Spiritual Inquiry and Integral Education

R. Michael Fisher
CSIIE Consulting in the Social-Environmental Activist Domain
by R. Michael Fisher - Saturday, March 3, 2012, 07:00 AM

When we started as three Associates in Feb. 2011, CSIIE was to offer both services in higher and adult education (e.g., courses, workshops, mentoring), and general and specialist consulting (see "Consulting" on our front page of this website). This Forum is a reflection, a year later, on what CSIIE could be doing in terms of consulting to social-environmental activist groups and movements.

The beginning of 2012 is a sign of CSIIE's research and consulting interest to create a baseline of what delivery agencies, and practices they use, are out there in North America and also around the world. We devoted our energies to creating a beginning resource for this, which we have just published online (see DIFS for a free pdf copy), called "A Survey of Contemporary Integral Adult/Higher Education: A CSIIE Pilot Project." There are a couple articles in the works for publication outside of CSIIE, both in the higher/adult education field and in the social-environmental field of activism. For this Forum I want to share my experience of what CSIIE can do more work on to build a credible support, integrally-based, for activism today and in the future.

Readers and faculty that are attracted to CSIIE usually have a moderate or strong background in activism. They are people who see the role of learning as social action. They want to learn and assist the learning for reasons that go beyond mere entertainment or interests. They are dedicated to empowerment and that means challenging power and its abuses in this world. Whether in the individual, social, or environmental domains, CSIIE is interested in the rehabilitation processes of oppression, repression, of wounding and healing. We are as consultants at CSIIE most interested in problem-solving and the creative and complex ways that can occur. Many of us are interested in problem-solving in social and environmental domains, in which conflicting interests are intense. We may be 'mediators' by training or we are naturally 'mediators' by our intelligence and sensibility-- that is, we know that no one is 100% right and no one is 100% wrong about anything. The integral model tells us that life and events are too complex to be so simply "righteous" about anyone perspective on reality.

As CSIIE faculty, and as consultants, there is a wide diversity of views on activism and education. There are considerable differences in politics and preferred strategies of intervention as well. We at least, attempt to frame all our work under the rubric of "integral." Yet, we may not all agree in all cases on how to best define that notion of "integral" in theory or practices. I'll now speak for myself as an integral human development consultant. When I work with clients I am very interested to hear their framing of "the problem." This is called in therapy the "presenting problem/symptom." My first task is to help re-frame that "problem" if I think it is not totally useful to them solving their conflicts. In terms of social-environmental activism, which is the focus here, I am very aware of repeating patterns I see in all kinds of activist groups and their campaigns. I have experienced this first hand, and have studied the literature on new social movements, as well as watching a whole tonne of excellent documentaries on movements and specific activist campaigns. I watch for their way of beginning, and how they grow, learn, make mistakes, and either "win" or "lose" their battle--and, sometimes a little of both. I am interested to help such groups see the pattern and meta-patterns that play out in the complex system they create as a group or movement, as well as the complex systems they are embedded within and/or often fighting to defeat.

The role of the social-environmental (critical) adult educator (as consultant) is many-fold, and I won't go into all of that. I studied critical adult education at graduate school and learned the rich history of this work. I love it. I also find it hard to engage and even harder to find openings among activist groups toward the role of the professional (scholar) adult educator. I am excited to do consulting in this area, and CSIIE is ripe with an opportunity to develop this more. So, if I come down to a kernel of truth in these patterns I've observed, it probably spins off of what the civil rights lawyer Dan Stormer (LA, Calif.) recently said in a documentary film (1):

"It is hard for people to operating in a manner that doesn't reflect self-interest. It doesn't mean that we can't act honorably. It doesn't mean we can't overcome those instincts."

Stormer was lamenting here on the after-effects of a "loss" in the courts to keep his clients' access and working of the community gardens in LA, Calif. After years of struggle, this grass-roots, largely Latino population of marginalized and poor people, were angry and disillusioned by the fate of the justice system. The gardens were ploughed under and they were all removed by force of the authorities of the city of LA. Stormer's words resonated deeply with the problem. The problem of activists is usually defined by them in a particular way, usually, "them vs. us" and the "them" are the rich and powerful (and one could include skin-color, etc.). The problem that adult education experience and research has shown to be more of a problem is that these grassroot groups tend to undermine themselves by not taking in fully all the different perspectives of the conflicts they are in. As well, they are under-educated into the complexity of the problems they seek to solve. They become self-interested and eventually set up insurmountable barriers ('fear'-based) with their "enemies." One a rare few occasions such grassroot groups will "defeat" (even if temporarily) their "enemies." In most all cases, they do not "win" and are "crushed" or practically drained out of energy and resources to fight.

I like Stormer's perspective, and he was referring to the difficulty (not impossibility) of the people he defends. I picked up he was referring to their inability to get to a "higher" view point on their struggles, and in not reaching beyond, and merely settling into instinctive survivalism, they lose their battles because they cannot get to the "honorable" and to the beyond "self-interest." Even if they have ideologies that rhetorically espouse higher and universal embracing values, as did his clients, the actual group was unable on the whole to embody those higher values or worldviews, and in the end they kept fighting out of self-interest. Typically, this creates people with other self-interests, and many more battles breakout and fighting is in all directions, within the movement (as the film showed) and without the movement. It is sad to watch. I see this repetitive pattern and other researchers in critical adult education (and popular education) have seen this too. How could things be different and perhaps more effective?, is the million dollar question.

CSIIE, and myself especially, are interested in the million dollar question, and we'd like to bring our expertise to it, and we're not going to ask for a million dollars to do this work. We do want our expertise and knowledge paid for, but mostly we want to help groups struggling under oppressive conditions. I begin my consulting with such groups on reframing and redefining the problem, and the enemies. I work toward an integral approach to the problem-solving. I start with Stormer's quote because it says it all in a very grounded and simple way-- it says, x, y, z may be "the problem" (symptom) of the group's suffering and struggle. But the deeper problem is "self-interest" and that problem belongs to everyone involved, all the parties and stakeholders in any situation of conflict. So, how can an integral approach bring this deeper problem to be addressed at the start of a grass movement? I know this can be done. I know CSIIE can help in this, using integral theory and praxis. I know that we can help activist groups assess their own practices, learning more transformatively, and be more successful in their causes. However, that may not show up as "winning" in the traditional dualistic "us vs. them" game. Our clients will have to chose what they want of course. It is up to us as consultants to better share what we have to offer them. For me, that has to begin by pointing out the universal problem in all activism, that is, the instinct of self-interest. Personally, I find that a fascinating area to work from, and for sure, I see it has to do with the instinct of self-preservation, the ideology and fear management systems of survivalism (Beige v-meme in Spiral Dynamics Theory). Yes, I am very clear that "inner work" is crucial in any activist movement or group, call it self-empowerment and consciousnes-raising, but call it that in an integral perspective--and, that's where I want to work.





1. Dan Stormer was the lawyer for the group fighting to keep their green space and community garden plots in the city of Los Angeles in the two decades; see the Oscar-nominated documentary film "The Garden" by filmmaker Scott Hamilton Kennedy, 2008 (Black Valley Films).