RE-IMAGINING CIVIL SOCIETY AND NONPROFIT SPACES

Sherna Alexander Benjamin
Posted October 12, 2021 from Trinidad and Tobago

"Rarely are opportunities presented to you in a perfect way. In a nice little box with a yellow bow on top. 'Here, open it, it's perfect. You'll love it.' Opportunities – the good ones – are messy, confusing and hard to recognize. They're risky. They challenge you." - Susan Wojcicki (CEO, Youtube)

I advocated in a time when we (many advocates and civil society members) shied away from good uncomfortable conversations, walked in silence, patting each other's backs and giving pleasantries with guarded smiles while protecting the borders of our organizations and public images. Because we feared having conversations with each other on unconventional issues, and we covered unhealthy behaviors with skewed views of respect.

We feared calling out the behavior of a fellow woman advocate. We feared fear itself and how our internal auditing of actions and behaviors may smear the image of the work. Sadly our silence did a profound job of causing civil society to bleed without their knowledge. We often connect such conversations with conflict, and in our view, "conflict" is something "bad," something to steer away from.

Many flawed social constructs regarding conflict continue to frame unhealthy narratives, thus preventing incredible opportunities for individuals and groups to have transformative conversations to guide interpersonal relationships.

Another reason we shy away from having good uncomfortable conversations is there is often a lack of objectivity. We cringe at the thought of having conversations that make us uncomfortable. Especially when we have to discuss in-group conscious and unconscious biases that enable inequity and discrimination that directly and indirectly impact in-group and out-group members, we neglect to discuss that even within the in-group, different social levels contribute to cliquism and stereotypes. Sadly, the lack of objectivity fuels the need to be right while at the same time defending the in-group belief systems that promote groupthink.

In the mind of many individuals good uncomfortable conversations, create risks—the risks of disconnection. The risk of perceiving being betrayed. These feelings can automatically create images of villains, victims, and perpetrators and blame outsiders to avoid accountability and responsibility. Having good uncomfortable conversations calls for deep consciousness and high emotional regulation. It calls for sweeping the mind of what we believe and consciously listen to another perspective, not to judge not to show right and wrong but to gain common ground to restore hope and faith in a depleting humanity. In so doing we may get the opportunity to restore human dignity.

I am about to have a good uncomfortable conversation about part of my experience within the civil society sector. And I make no apology for too long many women who volunteer and work in civil society and nonprofit agencies do so in silence walking on eggshells; however, they are uncomfortable (not with the work of service but the manifestation of of many people who do "good") with the created spaces that are enabling unhealthy behaviors and fueling gaps and how those spaces make them feel. So pleasantries emerge to counter the thought of expression that is often linked with unhealthy narratives about conflict. Individuals within the civil society and nonprofit sectors shy away from such discussions because it's always better to spotlight other actors and other sectors. It always feels better to demand that others do better; however, many in the civil society and nonprofit sectors fail to demand that they do better, that we all do better. I speak about my experience; however, before I do, I would like to consciously acknowledge those women and men who created healthy motivational experiences that contributed to my growth, journey, and where I am going. Such moments I call anomalies which ought not to be. These moments ought to be the usual culture within the sector to build the capacity of emerging women leaders and advocates.

When I broke my silence in 2000 and subsequently began advocating for the prevention of #Interpersonal and #Family Violence, I romanticized equality, surviving, prevention, leadership, and collaborative working among civil society actors. I dreamt of leaders of #CivilSociety Organizations taking my hand and guiding me. What I experienced were leaders who assumed I wanted to take space (their space). I could not take the spaces they held because they worked for it in one way or another. And I had to carve my own path.

I experienced classism and segregation even by women who pushed for equality. What that classism taught me was something my abusers taught me: you are not good enough. And it's one of many reasons I began focusing on equity because no matter how hard we try inequality will always exist (west that's a hard pill to swallow, I even shudder at the thought). No one within the civil society in-group stepped in as a mentor. The lack of mentoring led me to believe their quest to maintain unhealthy relevance was tied to unequal power relations and this superseded succession planning. There are many ways that advocates and helping professionals hurt others unconsciously and, sadly, sometimes consciously.

I praised women within the sector who I admired and looked up to as role models, quietly hoping they would take me under their wings and guide me as their prodigy. I experienced a kind of protective Lioness effect over territory and claiming space to build clandestine empires, all in the name of development and nonprofit work.

I excitedly entered civil society-run spaces with my romanticization of the work, the advocates, and the outward view I had of the work. I was unaware that I was walking into spaces that were not trauma-informed nor healing-engaged and the lack of these critical elements enabled space for abuse to occur. Not the kind of abuse many were advocating against but a more subtle, unconscious, or at times conscious type of abuses that were overlooked using statements like "that is how she is, but she has toiled and pushed for women's rights." It is ironic how human beings can publicly denounce one type of abuse while simultaneously upholding another. Abuse runs on a continuum, and people unconsciously or consciously create, enable, and perpetuate cultures of abuse as they engage with others. Being consciously present and aware and informed makes a difference and can reduce adverse impacts.

I share part of my story not to cause shame but to ignite a difficult conversation to spark changes within the civil society and nonprofit sectors to create an inclusive, diverse, and power-sharing equitable community. A community where conscious and transformative mentoring builds the capacity of emerging advocates and women and girl leaders. One where trauma-informed and healing-engaged environments are created to support individuals who have experienced adverse traumatic experiences, helping them unearth their voices, speak their truth, grow, and gain support to stand on the shoulders of giants.

I share this part of my story, hoping that the women who have cleared the paths I now walk on. And are helping to enhance the world can be courageous and transparent enough to say "I did not know it all" and engage in intergenerational discussions to share knowledge and experiences to share what worked for them and what did not. To share their struggles authentically and apologize to women and girls for direct and indirect harm.

I am happy with the lessons I learned along the way for I created purpose from them and they built my capacity in many ways. The lessons gave me a glimpse into civil society and nonprofit realities helping me to see the gaps, and today I have kicked the romanticization ideology out the window. I work with grassroots and community-based organizations to make more consciously aware decisions thus helping emerging leaders and advocates to reduce making the uninformed decisions I did and to nap that romanticization bug that still exists. Today I share knowledge with others providing tips to make their journey smoother. While at the same time, I am still growing and learning and figuring things out in what we call development work.

One of our greatest failures as human beings is hiding our struggles and amplifying our success while working from a territorial place of unhealthy relevance. When we do, we close the door on incredible opportunities to collaborate, hold space for our sisters, impart knowledge, mentor, build healthy relationships, understand individuals' stories, and model power-sharing and equity to build nonviolent communities and practices. It is never too late to begin; #COVID19 has provided the opportunity for us to reevaluate and re-imagine civil society and nonprofit spaces as we build a better world where no one is left behind. At this moment in history we cannot fail ourselves nor the generations to come.

#TheIntersection #COVID19 #nonprofit #civilsociety #WomenLeaders #mentorship #Emerge #IntentionallyProgressive #biases #ShernaAlexanderBenjamin #GrowthMindset #Leadership #Trauma #MoralLeadership

Comments 7

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Susu Mohamed
Oct 14
Oct 14

Hi Sister Sherna,
wow I really loved your story, as you think positively, Every society should have women who work or think like you.

Much Love Susu

Thank you sister Mohamed, I appreciate your inspiring comment. Keep using your voice and presence for change.

In Conscious Service

Beth Lacey
Oct 14
Oct 14

Sherna, I love reading your stories and seeing you FB posts. You are such an inspiration to us all. Thank you

Hello Sister Beth,
Thank you for this note that graciously remind me that I am more than enough. Thank you for adding value to our lives and being part of shaping this space to help us speak our diverse truths.

In Conscious Service
Sherna

Tamarack Verrall
Oct 16
Oct 16

Dear Sherna,
You are one of the wisest orators I have ever met and I am absorbing this, your most recent gift to us all. What a continuing joy to be able to work alongside you. I love this concept "...good uncomfortable conversations". Knowing we are imperfect. Meeting with open hearts. The joy in being able to have real discussions in depth with each other in our continuing journeys to link arms all together as positive change makers globally.
Heartfelt embrace,
Tam

ceegrah
Oct 17
Oct 17

Circumstances make a lot of women hide their struggles but I appreciate people like you who are bold enough to stand for what is right and their beliefs. Please keep speaking, keep writing.

Much love

Queen Sheba D Cisse
Oct 25
Oct 25

Greetings Sherna,
I really enjoyed reading your story and it is very truthful, full of details as you experienced it.
I can relate to it for I work in the nonprofit occupation and really as rewarding it is it is also full of its challenges and unfortunately all kinds of people we encounter everyday are not so kind, nor helpful as they claim to be.
Keep on raising your voice and speaking your truth. Advocation is powerful because nothing can stop us and you from pushing forward to embrace what is already yours. Claim your voice and your victory my dear Sherna.
Sincerely,
Mama Queen
www.queenshebavillage.org