The dance between darkness and light will always remain— the stars and the moon will always need the darkness to be seen, the darkness will just not be worth having without the moon and the stars.
C. JoyBell C
I’ve been working in the charity/civil society sector for some time now. Not as long as some of you perhaps, but long enough to learn internal working cultures and habits of behaviour.
I often wonder: why do we treat each other so badly?
People are leaving activism because of us
I train and mentor activists across the country. I’m often called up when people want to leave. Not because the work is too hard or they fancy a change. People are just sick and tired of being treated badly by their organisations. It is even harder for those who work on issues that are wrapped up in their own survival. They stay working, frustrated and disempowered by the sector because their chances and the chances of their community are determined by the success of a campaign.
All sectors suffer from this issue. I also think there is something particular about ours. To persuade ordinary people juggling studies, jobs, children and everything else, to do something for the often vague greater good…well, it’s bloody hard! To make it a little easier we play a persona to the world that our efforts are certain, just and moral.
Personas aren’t real
Pretending that you and your work are unquestionably good is not true and is dangerous. The work we do is uncertain, messy and painful: as well as brilliant and beautiful. All that generous and agreeable spirit given to the outside can make us neglectful, disagreeable and judgemental on the inside. Shadows dance between our bones and in the office with our tribe. The cost of all this outward light brings shadows in-doors.
Where are those shadows going?
The shadow mocks a co-worker for entertainment. It pays June less than Richard because Richard nods his head no matter what and June does not. It lifts up mediocre work instead of supporting the brave and uncertain. It exaggerates achievements and simplifies what it takes to succeed. It watches staff drown rather than teaching them how to swim. Staff in positional power use their authority to humiliate and overwork the people they should be developing.
The little lies we tell
I believe this is partly because some people are just not good at working with people. People are sexist and racist, lazy and privileged. I also believe some of the time it is because we fear that what we do will never be good enough. It makes us feel inadequate and to say that out loud is too scary. People won’t volunteer if they knew how bloody hard and long justice will take. So we overpromise, over exaggerate and overwork to reach impossible targets. We get tired and treat the people we should respect most terribly.
Deep down we know all this light is not honest and these little lies start to bubble up into things that won’t go away. Unloved and unattended to, these little bubbles become bulging blisters bursting out unexpectedly at meeting-room tables, coffee conversations and in your guts.
We need shadows
Shadows are often a metaphor for the wicked aspects of life. If we care about humanity we must kill off the shadows with illuminating goodness. But without the dark none of us can see light. We are incredible and terrible all at once. The shadows tell us what we need to learn.
To light a candle is to cast a shadow
Ursula K. Le Guin
Can we be brave enough to see our shadows and discuss them publicly?
To speak about the challenges and uncertainty in what we do? And in doing so, can we bring a little of that light we project out, to come back inside? To give some of the light we share with the “public”, to our incredible co-workers and to our brave, broken selves? I believe this could do more in terms of healing and building trust with the world than cheerful slogans followed by shameful apologises ever can.
Postive cultures exist
I know incredible organisational cultures exist. Brilliant women changing the health of a city with a growing staff team and an ever-growing work-load, young people taking on the immigration system despite their personal risks, and huge funders who will admit they don’t know it all. They appreciate their shadows as much as their light. They approach their work and each other with a radical honesty that takes more courage than most of us would like to muster.
Knowing your own darkness is the best method for dealing with the darkness of other people
Radical honesty is our moral obligation
We rarely discuss our shadows but I believe it is our moral obligation. Not only for the work but to each other and our own souls. I’m not saying this is easy or the only answer. But it could be a helpful starting point.