ProSocial Discussions

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Tompkins Weekly          3-8-2023

By Cathleen Banford

Recently, some folks met in downtown Ithaca to generate conversations centered on regional biological regeneration. Plans are underway to gather again, bringing local organizations into the conversation.

Ithaca was just one stop of several for Joe Brewer and his partner Penny Heiple, who host webinars based on developing regional biological regeneration work within communities. They live in the Barichara region of Columbia where they are working with the community to regenerate the region. Their intention is to start talks that will expand within specific locations and eventually intersect with neighboring communities.

Brewer and Heiple are interested in regeneration of watersheds. Their visit included stops in Toronto, Rochester, Binghamton, Cleveland and Ithaca. When it comes to developing a regional vision around land regeneration, protecting and rewilding watersheds is a vital place to start. Watersheds are a key factor in community wellbeing, and tie in directly to food systems.

Cathleen Banford. Photo provided.

The effect of people at the gathering being invited to share beyond the topic of discussion was that sharing became more authentic, conveying personal perspectives in the context of their experiences, values and interests. When people begin to self organize, impassioned yet respectful sharing happens on its own. However, after being accustomed to the hierarchical social organization that is modeled at most schools and places of employment, it helps to have approaches that facilitate equitable and meaningful participation.

The gathering began as a discussion about place and evolved into awareness about our sense of belonging. Here is where some would say we got into the weeds, yet if you have tried to unpack our larger social issues in a space where people feel safe and supported, you know that the weeds are where the real magic can happen. Having a sense of belonging evokes the identity and equity necessary to supporting a healthy relationship with place.

Topics shared revealed a common thread centered on relationship, and issues such as equity, identity and most of all mutual trust. With the community work we do, attention to the quality of relationship can become secondary to the deliverables we expect to see. Given that healthy relationships are key to the effectiveness and sustainability of initiatives and social systems, this oversight is not serving everyone and certainly not supporting desired positive outcomes.

Organizations and social systems have the potential to hold space for supporting healthy relationships with self, with place, and with each other, and for being proactive in designing for effective and sustainable outcomes.

Each nested level of social groups become healthier relationally as the needs, interests and values of real people are addressed in respectful ways. Our current social systems generate racism, misogyny, classism, phobias, and implicit bias; the long term outward effects are showing up as toxic polarization in politics and oppressive economic conditions.

We have a long way to go before this dysfunctional state of being becomes one of transformative social regeneration. Collaboration is necessary given the scale of work to be done. What might it look like to invite accountability around relationships within organizations?

Elinor Ostrom’s Nobel Prize winning work analyzes the existence of polycentric social systems which helped dispel the previous school of thought known as the “tragedy of the commons.” Written accounts about Ostrom describe her as being unassuming, yet she embraced essential questions.

She observed, “We need to ask how diverse polycentric institutions help or hinder the innovations, learning, adapting, trustworthiness, levels of cooperation of participants, and the achievement of more effective and equitable and sustainable outcomes at multiple skills.”

Ostrom shed light on our potential to work together. In recent years authors David Graeber and David Wengrow further illustrated this potential in their book The Dawn of Everything as they describe examples of societies over the ages that have successfully adapted some form of polycentric social organization.

Ostom’s findings inspired the work of local author David Sloan Wilson and two colleagues who authored ProSocial. The ProSocial program utilizes evolutionary science to help map out individual values and interests that groups “used for discovering and clarifying values” providing “selection criteria for action.”

The science involves developing psychological flexibility, through use of their Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) Matrix, first aligning with values, then moving towards living those values. Self awareness of both physical and mental experiences, noting points of disengagement or avoidance, invites people to align themselves with what is important to each person in the group. Prioritizing principles helps build group identity and cohesion.

This is all very different from more familiar hierarchical organizational structures, the overwhelming evidence shows that the long-term potential is worth the effort given the current inequality crisis.

Principles, frameworks, methods, and programs can help, but they don’t replace our individual intentions, they are the tools that bring us closer to our potential as we evolve our social wellness. As author Glennon Doyle writes in her book Untamed, “there is no glory except straight through your story…. Pain is not tragic. Pain is magic. Suffering is tragic. Suffering is what happens when we avoid our pain and consequently miss our becoming. That is what I can and must avoid: missing my own evolution because I am too afraid to surrender to the process.”

Reaching positive outcomes involves a collective courage for listening deeply and prioritizing each person’s experience of being fully valued. This collective trust is essential to the work of regenerating regional watersheds.

Cathleen is a board member of Sustainable Finger Lakes and a liaison with Building Bridges. 

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