We cannot stress enough how critical it is for organizational staff to be in right relationships with others in the organization they represent. Poor relationships among people within the same organization drive down staff morale, make collaboration impossible, erode at leadership functions, and compromise an organization’s capacity to engage with communities.
Although it is common practice to look at relationships mostly at the level of individuals relating or not relating to other individuals, within organizational contexts, relationships between people also are influenced greatly by organizational cultural patterns. What an organization values expresses itself also through the quality of relationships between individuals in an organization. For example, I used to work in an organization that sought to implement circle practice. This is still a White dominant, White culture, hierarchical and classist organization. The Executive Director began to pull me aside after each circle to berate me for the things I shared in circle that challenged her or that she disagreed with. Instead of processing her emotions through the circle process, she preferred a space that she could control and in which I was subordinate to do so. She valued having control over other people, and so she compromised the sense of safety for me in circle process. The result was that I would no longer be authentic in the circle and pretty soon simply refused to sit in circle with this person. She went on to develop organizational agreements that were mostly speaking to what she wanted the organization to embrace, and not really as a set of agreements that would be put to use as guides for the behaviors individuals within said organization would work to embody. The result was a hollow implementation process that was and is at best ineffective with clients over the long term.
I did not really know what to expect from the domestic violence organization that survived the shooting based on that earlier experience. After the shooting, it began its organizational agreements process as a result of what we understood as a clear need for making sure we continued to be close to each other in the aftermath of the events of October 18th, 2014. As our collective understanding of the implications of circle process deepened, we also understood that in order to do right by the process and by survivors, we had to be in right relationship with each other. We began a multiple week series of conversations about what we each needed to be well. We generated an exhaustive list of needs.
We then began to discuss what each of these needs meant to us. We whittled down the list little by little and through full agreement. As we got closer to ten words, our conversations became richer and more emotionally challenging. Eventually, we began to experience that emotional challenge as conflict. Some of us wanted the word love to be included in our list. Others did not. Some felt that love was too much of an expectation on an office environment. Others felt that they did not want to commit to feel something they simply did not feel. Others simply said that they did not and could not love people in the office. The same type of dynamics also occurred with the words trust, respect, and forgiveness. As we were able to keep making progress on the rest of the condensed list, we were stuck on these four. We could not move beyond them for a while. We pointed them out on our working list (see below) and began to call them “that square.”
We only were able to understand why we could not agree on love, forgiveness, trust, and respect, after we heard what each of these words meant to the people on our staff. Through these conversations we heard about the impact of sexual assault, domestic violence, war, social oppression, state-sponsored violence, and racism on each of our lives. It became evident that agreeing to create spaces together where we experience love, trust, respect, and forgiveness demanded of us that we overcome our fears of betrayal, exploitation, and heart break in order to give this process a chance at all. We asked ourselves how was it that we thought it possible to work with survivors to support them in their efforts to create different lives free from violence and rich in educational and economic opportunity when we ourselves could not agree to treat each other well. Can relationships exist without love, trust, respect, and forgiveness?
We agreed that none of us wanted relationships without these four fundamental qualities. It became evident also that if we were not willing to create relationships with those four qualities in our organization, that we would not be likely to create the type of impact in the lives of survivors that we seek to create. Although we were clear that we would most likely fail to be loving, trustworthy and trusting, respectful, and forgiving, we also were equally clear in the knowing that we should at least try every day to be these things together. That square eventually became the centerpiece of our agreements. In the end, we whittled down our list to eight words and our commitment was to work every day to model good relationships based on love, respect, forgiveness, trust, authenticity, communication, compassion, and accountability. When you think about it, these are the founding principles of healthy relationships in general. Thus, by attempting to create a violence-free healthy work place, we hoped to support the possibility of communities having relationships that support social justice.
However, maintaining these agreements then becomes a focus in the daily life of organizations. In the case of this organization, the agreements lasted without breach for about eight months or so. Several new people joined the staff after several others left. The management in this organization did not understand the pressing need to revisit and renew these commitments. Several major events affected the Central American community in particular. Folks in the organization failed to respond in the ways in which they had professed they would. The agreements were compromised. The organization itself was unable to address this break in trust. Where they go from there remains to be seen.