Lessons on Organizational Resilience in Colombia

UPDATE: “Organizations Like Bamboo” was also published by the great crew at Organizing Upgrade.

Four years ago I got to live and work in Colombia for a while. I wrote about the movements we accompanied, because at the time there wasn’t much reporting on them in English. Since then I’ve been able to connect more with the resilience promotion activists who work alongside many campesino, indigenous, gender justice and other organizers, who are doing work that has no comparable equivalent in North America, to my knowledge, although similar in spirit to the AMC’s Healing Justice Practice Space and OrgUp’s Communities of Care conversation.

Three years ago this article about their work started coming together, and I’m happy to finally be able to share it. You can read it on Holly Hammond’s brand new & fabulous community website, Plan to Thrive, and at the equally fabulous UpsideDownWorld.org.

Re-reading it, I realize it didn’t quite get to a place where I could share some of the key challenges their collective practice has posed for me as a facilitator. It still seems a little confusing, and way too wordy. So, here’s another bite at the apple.

A Few Challenges From Colectivos Psicosociales

Training to Multiply – Because trauma prevention is viewed by many who work with colectivos psicosociales as key to thriving social movements, there’s a big emphasis on training up trainers and new resilience promoters. For some groups that means making trainings for trainers as replicable as possible across literacy levels. AVRE produces 8.5″x 11″ curriculum books with pages that can be cut-out into four index cards with facilitator prompts for leading the activity. One side has tips for the mechanics of the activity, the other lists possible debrief questions. The curricula are heavy on images, instead of words, and the end of every week-long (or so) training includes ample time for the new participant trainers to experiment with facilitating. I’m not very far along here with my own practice, beyond experimenting with drawing and sketching more rather than scribing words.

Find a Metaphor – Speaking of literacy, metaphors & analogies work far better across education level than detailed conceptual explanations. And they’re better suited to the often-existential content of Colombian psicosocial workshops. So I’ve tried to find metaphors more often where before I would have been content with a wordy conceptual premise. Bamboo, for instance. Taller de Vida think of childhood resilience like bamboo – it can stretch and stretch without breaking, and can live even in contaminated water, serving as a natural filter for harmful chemicals. They liken the ability of children to shrug off traumatic stress as being like bamboo taking in dirty water and returning it clean. I’ve already shared a few other organizational ecology metaphors inspired by emergence, biomimicry, environmental psychology and other fields.

Build-In Routines, Including Rituals – The Western literature on organizational stress is pretty clear about this: having routines and using rituals regularly, protects against stress exposure response — meaning, your organization is more likely to weather stressful events without getting pushed out of homeostasis. (I’ll talk about organizational stress in another post, but it often looks very similar to stress on other human systems, like families.) Rituals like celebrations (to welcome visitors or new community members, or celebrate victories, milestones and anniversaries) are their own kind of routine. I noticed that many organizations had routines they follow depending on what was happening: increased right-wing gang activity = more attention to youth and youth-led processes. I don’t have a good personal example to share here – I’ve just been trying to hold space for both organizational spontaneity/in-the-moment-ness and the conscious incorporation of healthy routines.

Strengths-Based Mourning – I’m not a fan of the United States saying, “Don’t mourn, organize.” Mourning isn’t just culturally important, it’s fundamental to recovery. And despair is often a healthy adaptation to reality – denial and avoidance would be unhealthy alternatives. But Ella Baker was right when she said, paraphrasing, it’s better to focus on what we can do than what we can’t do. In Colombia, many organizations conduct rituals that help their members and whole communities mourn political setbacks, the loss of land and loss of life, often acknowledge the road traveled (back to ancestors) and the path forward (to achievement of a shared, ultimate vision). Diverse contributions are honored, as are strengths like endurance and positive outcomes, such as new knowledge for the road ahead, and these rituals often include creation of sacred space, like an altar or a memory tree. These kinds of rituals are often outside the comfort zone of groups I work with, but I’ve seen them be just as useful here as they are in Colombia.

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