Co-creativity as small cultivators by Máille Faughnan

Blog by Dr. Máille Faughnan of Tulane U.

The coLAB I write about was an invitation to practice with co-creativity through an ecological lens. We began with choosing a plant companion to share our learning journey. I chose the string of pearls in the photo. The facilitators also shared Suzanne Simard’s research as inspiration, drawing us into the image of cooperative forests where trees, fungi and other plants share nutrients and space for mutual thriving. It was a great start!

The powerful metaphor captivated me. I was smugly satisfied with my “instagramable” plant. I wrote in my journal that I was “ready to nurture something and dream big.”

What I actually learned is that embracing small changes could have powerful effects. Through our subsequent exposure to Adult Development Theory (sometimes referred to as vertical development /ADT), I realized I was on a (humble) “hero(ine)’s journey” to find new gifts within myself and let go of old approaches.

One set of particularly perplexing ideas I’d been struggling with relate to participatory action research. As an American scholar of global development, I’m beguiled by this fantasy of collective, liberating and transformative inquiry for social innovation. And I’m often frustrated by social interventions that pay lip-service to these ideals while upholding dominant power relations – whether it’s “empowering” rural livelihoods projects in East Africa that are governed by Western expertise and purse-strings, or seductively “democratic” school choice movements in the U.S. that actually reinforce racial segregation in education. I’ve wondered why these patterns keep repeating themselves.

Exploring with our cohort of ARTists illuminated the systems leadership adage that “problems ‘out there’ are ‘in here’ also.” Our reflections on experiences of co-creation, or the lack thereof, showed me how I was producing harmful patterns of paternalism and white saviorism. When given opportunities to collaborate, I have relied on unilateral, coercive power to protect my own vulnerabilities and limitations from others’ gaze. Ironically, killing my plant companion was an aha moment in confronting perfectionism as a barrier to true collaboration. I was trying to do too much (hello, aspirational houseplant) and I thought I had to have all the answers. I wasn’t seeking feedback or embracing experimentation.

Thankfully, the coLAB also offered many opportunities to try on new self-perceptions and co-inquiry behaviors. When peer-participants Luea Ritter and Nancy Zamierowski’s led a systems sensing exercise, we attuned to our embodied ways of knowing as women (since all in the session that day identified as such). It encouraged me to trust that I didn’t need to be perfect to be good, that I could be powerful without controlling, that I could build generative relationships. In facilitation using Hilary Bradbury’s Math and Circus practice (a collaborative reflection on power dynamics supported by techniques of theatre), I played with exercising mutual power in the workplace. In these iterative interactions I found myself moving (at first uncomfortably!) towards my desire for more playful, collaborative future-creation.

All these experiences have helped me be more present and tune into the sounds of the forest, so to speak. The coLAB was a journey towards trust, curiosity, and connection – necessary nutrients for co-creation.

What I’m taking with me is a spirit of openness to what emerges within a group. I decided not to replace my string pearls plant. Instead, I’m experimenting with more generative gardening pursuits (I have a new perfectly imperfect veggie patch!). I’m practicing with being a small cultivator within a global co-creative ecosystem. And I still respect the heck out of my string of pearls (RIP)!

I offer this haiku in honor of its lessons:

“Rooting Towards

My sweat to your brow

Each bead pauses in tremble

Ask beyond splendor.”