Union activists: Why it's important to get out of our heads and into our hearts

I had been searching for training on leadership and conflict resolution to help deepen my capacity to create union materials around these topics, and there it was!

Sometimes when we least expect it the universe drops a gift into our hands. This what happened to me when I received an email forwarded by a colleague regarding a training offered by the Inner Activist entitled “Building Conscious Use of Power.” 

As a Program Officer in the Regional Offices Branch of the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), I am afforded many opportunities to engage union members, leaders, and colleagues as we seek to make a positive difference in the external world. My other life, that of a yoga practitioner and teacher, finds me seeking a greater connection with my inner world.

There is a union, which is the definition of the word yoga and yes pun intended, at play between these two worlds: our connection to power.  So, as a yoga practitioner when I saw the words “conscious” and “power” in the same line, I took note! I knew the Inner Activist training had something rich to offer. Fortunately for me, my Director also saw the vision of how “Building Conscious Use of Power” would enrich me and the work I do for the PSAC.

Today, unions are experiencing unprecedented attacks on our very existence. Workers themselves are dealing with growing expectations of doing more with less which is creating emotional and psychological stress and long term challenges. Now, more than ever, people involved in the labour movement need to be strong, resilient and whole – as individuals as well as collectively. And this work starts from the inside out.

It had been years since my last in-residence training outside of the yoga context, so I really did not know what to expect. At “Building Conscious Use of Power” I was pleasantly surprised to find a learning environment where nature’s bounty provided a supportive and nurturing backdrop for four days of intense work (the course is offered at the Haven, a beautiful facility on Gabriola Island, British Columbia). To add to this, the facilitators each brought their own unique balance of professional credentials and personal commitment to social justice work. The right physical space and the right team created a safe environment for the twenty participants, all from a diverse range of backgrounds, to meld as a learning community.

From the opening evening where we broke the ice and got a little exposed, the facilitation team led us on a path of activities, explorations and reflections that bit-by-bit opened us up to new insights.  We examined our own social identities and our dominant and marginalized cultural identities; we looked at power through the lens of social and personal rank, learning that our psychological and spiritual rank may often be overlooked and undervalued; we were challenged by participating in rank and power activities; we explored the internal and external systems of oppression; we dove into deep democracy and explored its uncomfortable bits; and we practiced how to resolve conflict by boldly stepping into the role of the adversary.

The exercises helped me to understand how to facilitate conflict situations in a new way. For example, by engaging parties involved in a conflict to step into each other’s role and see the experience in the conflict from the other perspective was very powerful. And some of the exercises helped me get out of my intellectual reductive mind to experience the situation – or the moment – from a more integrated place. Through all of the activities I was able to see the way I habitually choose to process information and emotions, and how I could change this to be more productive, and have a greater impact.

This is the transformational element; the hard work of self-reflection and discovery, where we step away from “it” being about the big bad employer, the nasty boss, the uncaring government, the lacking parent, and make it about me and my own unique journey.

Social justice advocates and activists who avoid doing their own personal work risk becoming a by-product of the change we are trying to make. By identifying too closely with the cause, lacking a sense of personal-professional (or internal and external) balance and a conscious connection with how to best use our inner power, our spark often fizzles out. We may become angry, pessimistic, burned out and adopt unhealthy coping mechanisms.  But we don’t have to. There are choices to be made.

“Building Conscious Use of Power” reminded me to get out of my head and to get into my heart. This is how we become forces for change, by connecting with the personal and the broader aspects of the living world and humankind. 

What I took away from the training is a reinforcement – and reassurance – that:

  • The work we do as change-makers is all about relationships;
  • Our own personal uniqueness is our brilliance and our gift to the world – and to the causes we are so passionate about;
  • If we take time to really see those we recognize as the “other” and approach them with deep compassion and empathy – even our deepest adversaries –  we can achieve so much more; and
  • If we choose to acknowledge our anger, to allow ourselves to experience it, understand it, and then grow beyond it, we will achieve more.

We need more of this type of training in the social change arena. Union training needs to teach us how to look at – and after - ourselves, not just take on the fight, serve our members, rinse and repeat. We will all be stronger and more effective for it.

I’m grateful for experiencing “Building Conscious Use of Power“ and the amazing team from Inner Activist and for having a Director who has a broad vision of staff development. Investing in the human part of our “human resources” can so easily be overlooked.  I encourage others in labour and social justice work to check out the Inner Activist curriculum.  For me it was a truly rewarding experience. 

Make sure to check out upcoming Inner Activist courses here.