for the first time since i wrote it in 2011, i read my dissertation recently. a solid decade stood between my now-self and my then-self; so much learning and living in the in-between–so much changed and so much still the same.
it felt good and timely to return to my research. i did so because i’m still in the same questions, really: what does change and transformation ask of us? how do we bring forth that transformative change? what kinds of relationships and conditions are needed to cultivate and sustain transformation?
the title of my dissertation was reform from within: an ecological analysis of institutionalized feminism. at the time, i was looking at how reform is generated from within a system and the challenges and opportunities inherent in these efforts. i was working in a campus-based women’s center and the research offered an opportunity to examine this issue with my friends and colleagues as we were all positioned to do just that–create institutional change within the institution that was also paying our checks.
a decade later, what i am now finding to be true as i re-encounter these questions around transformation and reform from within?
much of the dissertation research still resonates–the theoretical orientation, the methodology, the findings. i found myself reading it and being like, “damn, girl. yesss.” the emphasis on critical consciousness, relationship, third space—yes, yes, yes. and here, i gotta say a word about third space because it’s just so juicy.
third space represents the state of being or space that transcends socially constructed dualistic systems of meaning where one can be both/and and more rather than existing in either/or paradigms. some of my most beloved teachers (Collins, hooks, Anzaldua) draw on third space theory in speaking of their social positions and point to this reality as promising and essential to transform. there is wisdom offered from those who necessarily straddle two, opposing worlds or socio-political positions–wisdom that opens a doorway into a whole new way of being.
and… i’m writing on this as i work out what feels disorienting about my returning to my research, now. how have i changed? what is this new lens through which i now read this data? these questions matter not because of an abstract theoretical interest but because i literally find myself in these questions now–grappling with how to evolve and transform in relationship, especially in the context of organizational and institution given my current work focus with the Episcopal Church.
i think the biggest change since my dissertation is the wisdom i’ve gained around the role of the self. at the time of my research, my focus on relationship was between entities–two people, two organizations, between a person and the organization. now, that focus has shifted to focus more on the relationship within the self. i used to think of reform from within as about an agent of change within a larger system working to create change. now, i think of it more as about creating the conditions within to allow for right relationship.
first, a bit on the shift to conditions within: my teacher, meg wheatley offers that the “health of the self determines the health of the self-organizing”. this wisdom is also reflected in the piece around “the outer reflects the inner”. and all great spiritual teachers and wisdom traditions guide us in our inner work, reconciling our own personal selves and stories as we grow into our more full and whole versions of self. only then, when we can love and welcome our full selves, can we love and welcome others. for me, when it comes to leadership–individual, organizational, communal–this piece is an essential piece to that puzzle. a devotion to some sort of personal practice around self-love and compassion.
on right relationship: i’ve learned a lot about relationship and community in this past decade. interestingly, while much of my research focused on these, i didn’t really say a lot about what these mean or what they ask for/offer. this stands out for me now because i’ve learned that there are different kinds of relationships and particular ones that generate transformation + growth. i mean here right relationship–a connection based in wholeness and diversity and reciprocity and mutuality. right relationship is rooted in the reality of interdependence and the knowing that we are both individuals and bound up together.
it cannot be taken for granted that relationship and community will necessarily offer this sort of right relationship.
in fact, given our conditioning around worth and supremacy (shout out to White Supremacy/Patriarchy/Capitalism), there is a lot of unlearning that is required. and part of the unlearning is to experience an other way. this is where it gets tough because you can’t offer an other way unless you know it–and not in an intellectual way of knowing, but a messy, lived + embodied way of knowing that stays in your bones.
those committed to growing our systems, must also be willing to grow themselves. and growth requires relationship and community and…guides who have the embodied knowing. this point raises an additional nuance to my research: the need for guides/leaders. guides who have done their own personal healing and reconciliation work have the capacity to hold space for others to do the same. those who know and live third space can then wisely invite others into it.
returning to third space here is helpful. it names a particular quality of space that builds on the commonly used and general concept of “holding space”. third space invokes an active occupation of both/and and more. third space disrupts the roles and positions and categories we hold (internally and externally). third space breaks down ways in which we other and cracks open possibilities to include and transcend these, together. third space opens ourselves to the reality of ubuntu; our inherent interdependence; the truth that we belong to each other. third space creates the conditions so that i might see myself in you, you in me, and to taste the truth that we are each essential participants in the unfolding story of our cosmos.
practicing third space is to include all and transcend; it is the both/and and more. ken wilbur’s integral theory and spiral dynamics clarifies that this is the constant and brilliant evolutionary dance of the universe. in other words, this is how evolution works. life/love incorporates all the stuff–the good, the bad, the ugly–in life’s unfolding. everything really belongs.
to fully participate in this dance of evolution is excruciating (think labor pains, death to the false self, dark night of the soul!). a recent example comes to mind:
last week, i participated in our diocesan convention, during which time there were elections, voting on budgets and resolutions, business matters to attend to. a gathering themed, “Proclaiming the Dream” with little energy or focus on dreaming outside of some very disconnected threads offered by our team. there was an striking experience of the established church up against the new and emerging; the contrast was honestly, disorienting. anger and frustration helped signal that something wasn’t sitting right with me as I began to point fingers at “those people”, creating comfortable stories of “us/them”. so, i embraced the event as a contemplative exercise to be with the both/and and more–to occupy third space.
i found that this practice helped to keep myself in the story, in relationship to all, opening up an expanded experience of myself, church, the institution.
a decade after writing my dissertation, it’s good to know the learning has continued, deepening in an embodied way. it’s good to know that i draw on this learning everyday as i show up to my own growth and transformation and as i offer that in service to and love for others. it is good to know expansiveness and to be expanded.