Susan Coleman

Bearing Witness by Susan Coleman

I just came back from my biannual trip delivering a seminar in international negotiations to NASA (the U.S. space agency) and their international space partners. The two basic strategies in negotiation are competitive and collaborative and, for the most part in this workshop, I recommend the latter. Where people need to build strong relationships (like they do on joint projects in space), and especially in an intercultural environment where misunderstandings can happen quickly, it’s my experience, and the research bears it out, that collaboration works best.

From years of working with intercultural groups, and tens of thousands of people around the world, I have an insight that feels super relevant today. I am confident that if you give me a diverse group to work with, I can create either polarized intercultural conflict, or group harmony, by fostering competition or collaboration. For instance, I can run a competitive game like Prisoner’s Dilemma which will predictably create mistrust and anger and watch the group break down along identity lines. In contrast, I can build a climate of trust and understanding and see people come together in spite of identity-group differences. I think of this often now as I watch the climate Trump has created and the increase in anti-semitism, anti-muslim, anti-gay, anti-women, anti, anti. . . 

Another insight (that’s certainly not my own) but that feels super relevant and that I find myself repeating is that “race” is an illusion: Biologically-speaking, there is no such thing. Like birds, human beings are one species, just different colors. I remember making this point when I was working in South Sudan with folks who were very dark skinned. To one participant, William, I said, I may have more in common with you genetically-speaking than I do with my white neighbor at home. I remember the stunned look on participant faces as the idea registered. This fact needs to be more widely understood if we are to stop making color such a big and destructive deal. Please check out the excellent and well-researched documentary, “Race: the Power of an Illusion” for more on this topic, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Race:_The_Power_of_an_Illusion.

So, the current episode of the podcast I created and host is with Elizabeth Roberts and is on the practice of “Bearing Witness”.  Elizabeth Rabia Roberts, Ed.D, or “Rabia”, is an internationally known citizen activist and women’s advocate. She is MaShieka—spiritual guide and teacher—in the International Sufi Way, and a lifelong student and teacher in nondual Buddhism. She has spent nearly 50 years working as a change agent for environmental and social justice and the past 26 years working in 17 countries using Bearing Witness as a model for transformative action. Bearing Witness is a process that has grown out of the teachings and inspiration of many people (Bernie Glassman, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Witness for Peace, and Elias Amidon, to name a few). It has deep spiritual roots—but is being newly adapted to improve the effectiveness of working with transformative change. Rabia has slept in tents, bamboo huts, ashrams, church basements, hotels, the occasional palace, and the guest rooms of friends around the world. She describes her work as an exercise of happiness and optimism – something that you can feel palpably when talking to Rabia.

In this episode, Rabia shares a specific story of Bearing Witness, in a multi-party conflict playing out in the national park system between native people, environmental activists, loggers the police and others in the then Burma where she spent many years with her husband Elias Avidon.

About the process of Bearing Witness, Rabia says, “No one person, organization, or political party holds a monopoly on what will make a healthy future for us all—either at the planetary or community level. Perhaps nothing is more important today than crossing the boundaries that seem to separate us and learn to think like an interconnected system. . . Our challenge is to loosen our attachment to our personal or group agendas so that we can begin to sense what is trying to emerge from the larger whole. . .. This does not mean we excuse greed or need to capitulate on what is true—i.e. pretend that a river is not polluted when it clearly is—but we must continue to dialogue. Future leaders will be those who have the collaborative skills and spiritual maturity to bear witness to the totality of what is.”

Rabia describes the principles of Bearing Witness as “appear(ing) quite simple—you may have heard them before from a spiritual teacher, or in your church—but like most important things in life (i.e., marriage, child rearing, committing to a spiritual path), they are not easy. Whether you work in peace building, education, community development, corporate training, or simply want to improve your family dynamics, the process of bearing witness can be helpful.

  • Encounter the other; show up; take the plunge
  • Ask caring questions that open the heart of the “other”
  • Practice the art of Deep Listening, without judgment
  • Understand techniques for setting aside one’s own beliefs and attitudes
  • Learn to guide meetings without driving one’s own agenda
  • Learn the difference between fixing, helping, and serving
  • See ways to bring forth the greater whole that is emerging
  • Perceive what is ‘yours’ to do, and when action is ready to emerge

In 1999 Rabia and her husband, sold their home and undertook a deliberate period of homelessness as part of an international pilgrimage of direct service and teaching. In 2002, while working with a peace group in Iraq, Rabia was elected the first American delegate to the Global Non-Violent Peaceforce. Since then she has worked organizing and teaching active non-violence in Burma, Indonesia, the tribal lands of Southeast Asia, Iraq, Syria, Israel/Palestine, Brazil, Afghanistan, Pakistan and most recently Standing Rock.

Just hearing Rabia’s voice makes me smile. Please tune in here. You will not be disappointed. For the latest news and updates, and to support the podcast, please subscribe here. It’s free. 

Some exciting news at The Peacebuilding Podcast. I have two new interns – Kishawn Kevin Gajadhar, https://www.linkedin.com/in/kishawn-kevin-gajadhar-74748976/ a U.S. Army Iraq veteran and graduate student at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University and Mary Grace Donahue, https://www.linkedin.com/in/mary-grace-donohoe-a04435b2/. I am super grateful to have both of them on board.

With best regards,

Let’s take our planet to the next level,

Susan

Susan Coleman
Systems Coach, Mediator & Host
The Peacebuilding Podcast
m: 8456610350
w: www.thepeacebuildingpodcast.com  e: susan@thepeacebuildingpodcast.com
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