The Upside of Power: Safe and Free

The Royal Commission into sexual abuse of people with disabilities established in 2019, provides a platform for people to tell hidden stories in the not-so-spotlight behind covid front pages. This is a long time coming. Human service providers make a promise to society, to support people dependent on assistance to be safe, to live with dignity, to belong, to learn and contribute, and exercise full rights as free citizens. The worldwide exposure of institutionalised abuse in human service providers is unprecedented in our time, and slaps this bond of trust in the face. Care, protection and educational organisations have harboured perpetrators, secrets, cover-ups and self-protection practices. Punitive, ignorant and corrupt use of power has stripped people of dignity and shattered lives.

Of course there are wonderful examples of people and situations that show another way. But until all people can be safe and free, the need to focus on the conditions that keep so many isolation, mistreatment and boredom in place are front and centre.

Misuse of power, privilege and rank happens in large and small organisations, public and private, among financially wealthy and economically disadvantaged people, in for-profit corporations as well as altruistic, spiritual and religious organisations. It happens n community neighbourhood support settings as well as intentional place-based communities. It happens to able bodied people, as well asp people with mixed abilities, neurological and developmental differences. The stories are tumbling out at record speed – personal agony and systems failures. Look around to the signature movements of our time: nowhere and no-one it seems, is immune to the traps of power. The daily media cycle exhorts us to face it, and place responsibility for wrongdoing on the shoulders of those responsible past and present, and fix there problem. Justice must be done and be seen to be done.

We know what’s wrong, but “this or that” solutions are utterly inadequate for sustainable solutions to this wicked problem, where so many overlapping marginalisation oppressions collide. Racism, gender violence and sexism, guns and war, haves and have nots, ableism, ageism, any ism you can think of. People attracted to these settings may feel it a calling to help. Workers in elder care, mental health, health, disability, safe houses, social housing providers heath care services for low-income citizens, generally earn poorly compared to other professions reflecting our societies priorities. These providers tend to attract attract people who don’t have the finances, social status, networks or citizenship to pursue more status-related work, education and opportunities.

What will release us from the mental prison of surface one track solutions that continue to feed the cycle of human and systemic failings? How to avoid repeating the wounds of history? How many recommendations came out of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in Australia took place between 1987-1991. Yet the rate of deaths in custody of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians continues to relentlessly climb. In the disability and elder care space, there are countless reports, commissions and inquiries exposing what’s wrong and advising what to do to fix it. So why is it so hard? Charging into action with ap lan and armed with facts doesn’t cut it. To quote Einstein’s adage, a problem cannot be solved with the same thinking that created it. So what is the something more?

I view it as the ‘upside’ of power: a radical re-think of how we understand, are moved by and use power. We know what power does, but what is power? Thanks to Arnold Mindell’s concept of deep democracy and differentiated rank which enabled me to formulate deep power. A mindset is the source of awareness from which we think, feel and do, as well as the way we approach what we do. A mindset is the organising pattern that ripples from our deepest beliefs and assumptions inscribed in our psychological and spiritual DNA. Deep power is the signature ingrained in how we feel, interact and behave. These patterns have a distinct quality that allows us to recognise a friend from behinds, from the far side of the street, and to differentiate one team or culture from another.

The process of recovery and change in a human service provider facing the wounds of history, is a long haul. In my view, its sustaining power is nested in the holographic pattern of the hyper-helpee relationship. The helper can make the difference between a life in hell or heaven. This so often flies under the radar and accumulates in moods, tempers, restrictive attitudes, numbness and no. Then suddenly pop. Where did that come from? But it was there, lingering the whole time, the signals palpable to anyone on the receiving end or the heart-eyes to feel and see.

The process of personal recovery and shifting systemic conditions that allow abuse to flourish in provider settings, takes time, persistence, the ability and willingness to go deeper, leadership and role models to show and accompany, rather than just tell and tick boxes. We are enculturated to think that people need fixing, even with the best intentions. There is an entire person-centred industry promoting arrangements for and with people who are voiceless and endure restrictive and harmful conditions. The sweeping shift from congregate, custodial one-size-fits-all services (think Willowbrook or Peat Island) to mini-institutions in the form of restrictive group homes behind a different kind of closed door of the mind and heart, in typical neighbourhoods. The all knowing “we” may be a care or service model, a philosophy, a belief system, experts … this is how you should be. With all the rhetoric, the same mindset that is exposed in the inquires are still present in the daily lived of so many people pendant on care and support, even though these stories don’t hit the headlines.

So how to help, without weakening the internal rudder of the person to follow their own direction and lead from within? This puzzle has been with me for decades.

Power is as global Zeit Geist, a cultural time spirit, with a very real downside, but also an upside:

You have inside you everything you need to follow your own path, and to blossom. My role is to assist you to discover your your joy in the now, as a path of crumbs to your emerging future, and support you to realise it in your way. And in the process, I will discover my inner powers through responding to you.

While not everyone has the assigned power to lead formal change, anyone can be a facilitator of deep power, because mindsets ripple though there human and energetic field like wave, with its own mind and momentum. The UPSIDE of power is the resilience, healing, friendships, excitement from learning and growth, and the power of deepest dreams which carries those humble warriors from all stations in life, who take the plunge with their inner navigator. The upside of power helps you ride the waves through the ups and downs, trying and failing, and succeeding and falling and trying again with a friendly hand reaching out to you. The greatest happiness I find is to feel the joy of another person discovering happiness, adventure and a safe harbour using their their inner navigator and for part of the journey, riding together. 

This skill set cannot be learned in the abstract. The fix it mindset says, find out what to do and then go do it. but I have found that this trickle down effect doesn’t work. The prevailing mindset says: “Let’s work it out in the leaders office with the consultant, and believe it is somehow going to trickle down from plans, policies, dos and don’ts, and euphemisms”. The trickle down effect may be a good idea, and may work for some, but in the 40 years I have been in this field, I have never seen it work. What I do know about from experience, is that the sustainable and life enriching way to bring out happiness happens within the relationship with the person, and then assisting the practitioners, their supervisors and the person’s entire network to learn from the experience. As Myles Horton, founder of the Highlander Centre so aptly quipped: You only learn from the experiences you learn from”. 

What seems to help practitioners shift gear to the upside of power, is the guidance and good company of a seasoned human being, an experienced role model, who can interact with kindness, using their unique style, and with awareness, frame the learning in the midst situation, in dialogue with the person as co-teacher. 

The inner powers – or deep power  – described in my book Applying Deep Democracy  cluster around two main themes. At a universal level, some powers give access to an inner guiding compass. These are: the power of an inner direction. The capacity to engage respectfully in love-based curiosity and to ask, learn and follow. Develop inner strength from surviving adversity, as a quality of eldership – a term coined by Arnold Mindell for the attitude of detachment from the raging fires of your own suffering to bring more relatedness between opposing sides. Access to an inner numinous resource to sustain buoyancy and optimism. And internalising practices to help quieten the dystopic  voices of inner critics that mirror ghosts of society, culture, global conflicts, painful family experiences, minority oppressions.  

At the subjective level of polarities, self-awareness is a powerful reserve. Facing injustices of history and opening up to the wounds of those who have been harmed by your organisation and actions – whether you were personally present or not – is a key to personal and collective recovery. Self attunement  is the capacity to tune into yourself and feb tour own first line of defence, by attuning to your unique safety and warning system. The art of making conflict fruitful helps to find meaning in the mess, and go through it to the other side. Facilitating collaboration is as important for your inner team of figures and voices as for outer world teams; they mirror and influence each other. And the capacity to facilitate multi-faceted and positional interactions is a hallmark of any change process. 

If you push too hard to make things happen without these innate resource to guide you, results will likely lack the internal vigour to sustain themselves. This is why about 70% of change processes fail, and facilitators, activists and teams often get sick, stuck in one groove, and depressed. 

Awakening and animating these universal and psychological powers are a natural elixir for restoring justice and building vibrant community experiences. A deep power mindset can help policy makers, leaders, practitioners. Victims can access their own path to emerging new identities, as can perpetrators committed to making amends. 

Deep power navigators are trans-cultural facilitators, because they are in any profession, age, ability, state of health, social class, status or culture. Their special talent cannot be prescribed or manufactured. What these facilitators fro transformational change have in common, is an intuitive feel for deep power at work. How?

One aspect is the inner outer mirroring effect. Everything n the world – good, bad, right and wrong, and everything in between – can be known and worked with from the inside out and the outside in at the same time. We humans or of the world, and so the world expresses itself through us, just as we express ourselves in the world. The talent of such a facilitator is a mix of character, personal history and attitude to life. The ‘way’ of doing things and being, is as important as the ‘what’. Such a person  intuitively knows that transforming the corrupt and punitive tendencies within their organisation or community, is inseparable from their personal path of development and growth. Thus the title – Transform ourselves and blossom together. Transform and Blossom for short. They intuit that self-knowledge ad transformation is a potential power within every person, and can be discovered, developed and used to change the world, as the world changes us. 

Another aspect is the speed of change. change happens in phases owe time. Change also happens in the blink of an eye. The mind-shift requires the capacity for long-distance endurance, as well as opening up to momentary surprise. Such facilitators have an inner capacity to make space for both. 

Yet another aspect, and core to the message of my book Applying Deep Democracy inn Human Services, safety and freedom is not an either/or. So many people are over-protected in the name of safety, and robbed of their rights. Seeing people as weak and vulnerable, has contributed to wrongful removal from society into insular settings. On the other hand, many are left to fend for themselves on the streets, wit inadequate services, and fall between the cracks of care, justice and educAtion systems. The upside of power – deep power – is one contribution to co-creating a world in which people can be both safe and free. 

My latest response to shifting the conditions that hold institutional and personal abuse in place to become safe and free in residential and other service provider settings, is Transform and Blossom: a depth capacity framework: JoinU, Facilitation, Conflict. Read more on the site, and more to come here.

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