The Inner-Outer Dance for social change. By Andrea Rodericks

Andrea Rodericks

Andrea Rodericks works independently with NGOs, social enterprises, and other civil society organizations and networks on program and organizational design and collaboration around complex development challenges. Action research is at the core of her practice. She is based in Goa in India and Atlanta in the US. Andrea is a personal member (“PerMem”) with AR+ who attended the Gathering and shared her work of the inner-outer dance of social change. Andrea explains:

As a development practitioner immersed in the international development ecosystem for many years, I started to become interested in the power of personal reflection which deepened into ‘inner work’ in the early 2000s. This was the heyday of rights-based approaches and funding for social analysis. In 2007, I was working in Bangladesh for the NGO, CARE International, managing poverty and social justice programs with a focus on women and girls. As part of a global process of inquiry to understand the impact of our work on women’s empowerment (called the Strategic Impact Inquiry), among the groups we chose to do participatory research with in Bangladesh were communities of sex workers with whom we had been collaborating to prevent the spread of HIV/ AIDS. Building on this global research process, we decided to continue a process of action research with some of these groups of sex workers as a way to design of our future work together. My thinking on the link between the so-called “inner” and “outer” components of our work began to take shape here.

I now refer to my work as an “inner-outer dance for social change.” By this I mean the movement between “inner work” – what I may do to observe and overcome barriers within myself, say to understanding and working with others, and my “outer work,” what I do in service of eco-social justice and change in the world. As I prepared for the AR+ eCO Retreat, I felt intuitively that the ideas developing in my own practice about how these types of work intersect – inner-outer dance – may have relevance for others in our ART and AR+ learning community. In preparing for the session on co-creating a healthier AR+ learning community, I tried to highlight the layers of this inner-outer dance. To do that, I thought it would be helpful to describe some of the experiences I had that were the context in which these ideas are being shaped.

Throughout our action research in Bangladesh, we were guided by an empowerment framework that had taken shape during the global research process through conversations with women around the world. Beginning with the idea of women’s empowerment understood (from the literature at the time) as changes in women’s agency and structures in society (including norms and institutions), we had learned from women’s stories the critical importance of a third dimension of empowerment. This dimension – relations – pointed to the range and quality of social interactions through which women enact their agency or influence structures to fulfill their needs and realize their rights. This three-part framework: Relations, Structures, Agency formed the basis of our continuing conversations.

Re-directing inward

In our action research with sex workers, as we learned to pay better attention to ‘relations’ and to explore shifts in power and powerlessness within them, we began to get deeper into conversations around the violence and abuse that most sex workers in that context experienced in their lives – horrific physical violence, emotional abuse, and denial of their personhood. We had already encountered some of this violence in our HIV/AIDS prevention work, but had never really understood the full extent of it, the impact in their lives, and the strength and resilience with which they met it. As our conversations deepened, trauma surfaced – past and present. This trauma was triggering for many of our NGO staff and sex worker researchers alike.

We soon realized we needed help in holding and having these conversations… we drew on what support we could to process the trauma. For the NGO staff in the team, this support helped us turn the lens inward to understand our own fears and trauma and our feelings, attitudes, barriers, and assumptions about sex workers and sex work. This was a new direction as so much of our work in NGOs is outward focused – diagnosing and fixing problems. While that remained our intent, we realized we had to investigate and sometimes overcome our own old scripts and fears about power and sexuality and trauma. In doing so, many of us started to realize the power and promise of inner work, and the importance of bringing our whole selves to our work.

As we worked through these issues, I observed that many members of these sex worker communities had a better developed understanding of their inner world and inner work practices than we NGO staff did. I observed how this ability to look within seemed to have instilled in them incredible resilience and capacity for love. Despite the violence and exclusion from society that they repeatedly encountered, they were not operating from a place of anger, even though they often expressed anger. And importantly, they were able to bring the depth of this practice to their work conversations. They took greater risks than most of our NGO team and allowed themselves to be vulnerable in these conversations. I was struck by the courage and openness they brought to our work and deeply grateful for what we learned together.

Those conversations have stayed with me and it started me on a journey to cultivate more reflective and reflexive practice, of trying to understand power, and attempting to embed first person inquiry and inner work practices in small ways in all my work and all my action research. Sometimes, this meant simply the way we checked in at the start of a meeting, sharing not just the agendas we brought, but how we were feeling. At other times it was allowing myself to be vulnerable in a setting where, as a senior manager, I had authority and was perceived to have more power. Sometimes, it was through efforts to shift our language, using more words like “love”, “joy”, “beauty” in our work conversations or to welcome forms of art, music and story in our work environment.
The 3-part empowerment model also deepened my own thinking in many spheres of life, including how I frame my work as an action researcher – an ARTist – in the world. I too am strengthening my agency (skills, confidence, inner health) to build productive and loving relationships in order to influence or better contribute to change in the ecosystems of which I am a part.

The “dance” develops: Combatting undernutrition among young children

In 2019 I was asked by the NGO Synergos to write a case study about the value of inner work for social change processes in the work of an alliance (the Bhavishya Alliance) of government, civil society, private sector actors. The alliance had been convened by Synergos, Unicef and Unilever, to combat undernutrition among young children in the state of Maharashtra in India. The premise of the alliance was to bring together actors from across the system to understand the ‘stuckness’ of undernutrition and their own role in it, and to work together to combat the barriers to change. What was new here was that while many organizations had been working on the issue of undernutrition, they had not really worked together, especially not across sectors – government, civil society, and private sector. Therefore, to convince organizations from across the system and sectors to work together on a common platform, was itself a challenge. Moreover, as time was passing, it seemed that significant investments and other positive developments in the state were not yielding sustainable change in the nutrition of young children from the poorest communities. In 2005-06 at the start of the Bhavishya Alliance, almost half of the children under five in Maharashtra were stunted .

The convenors of the alliance (Synergos, Unicef, Unilever) knew that it would take hard work for these diverse organizations to sustain their work together. They drew on the action research social technology called the U-process developed by Otto Scharmer that cultivated deep listening. The key was to become “more present” to the system and to each other. The work of the alliance began with a Change Lab which provided a deep investment in inner work and collective learning. Participants from NGOs, community organizations, government departments and businesses went on learning journeys together; People from different parts of the system got to know one another and understand their different perspectives; They went on a retreat to the Himalayas, where alone in nature they reflected on their own barriers to change and working in different ways. Being better in touch with their inner selves, by allowing themselves to be vulnerable together, by embracing different perspectives and kinds of knowledge, they began to be able to better collaborate across the system in very different ways than in the past. In the alliance, they designed different kinds of interventions and partnerships that at the end of five years proved to be very effective. Writing the case study over a decade later, I was struck at how powerful and vivid these experiences still were for many from the alliance. In my interviews I saw how participants continued to draw on many of the inner work practices cultivated in the alliance.

Sensing the dance moves

Drawing from these two experiences – starting in Bangladesh, studying the Bhavishya Alliance, and several others along the way, the AR+ eCO Retreat was an opportunity to distill and share a few insights that are contributing to my framing of the inner-outer dance for social change.

1) Inner-outer movement happens at the edge. Inner work practices – e.g., meditation, reflection, time spent in nature, therapy, are gaining in popularity and they are certainly powerful. But that does not mean they will automatically make us more effective in understanding or contributing to social change. Through experiences of working on development issues like the prevention of HIV/ AIDS and combating undernutrition as described above, I have observed that purposeful and regular movement between our inner and outer worlds, bringing our more centered selves to our work, and cultivating presence, however, is more likely to make a difference. In other words, bringing the two worlds together in a more systematic way, allows each to influence our growth in the other. Without this, they remain unintegrated. I see this movement between our inner and outer worlds as work at the ‘edge’. It helps us grow, develop ourselves, and push boundaries. And I think that it can help us be more giving in a learning community.

2) Collaborations shift power. The way we understand and hold power can often be a barrier to collaboration for the kind of eco-social change we seek, whether around gender justice, racial justice, climate justice. The good news is that there is growing appetite to shift power, or at least to understand it. One of the ways organizations seek to do this is through efforts to engage actors across the system as was done in the Bhavishya Alliance. Recently, inner work has also been recognized as essential for transformative change. These are powerful ways of engaging, but at the end of the day, overcoming injustice demands shifting entrenched power relations or reframing the way power is understood and then re-experienced. It takes courage and practice in cultivating deep equity. And not every organization – or every person – is well positioned to do this work on their own.
Over the years it has become clearer to me that often those who have been excluded or vulnerable themselves, and have mobilized collectively to claim their rights have been able to build stronger capability in deep equity work that shifts power. But these groups are often small and on the fringes of civil society, and many of the more established development actors find it difficult to collaborate meaningfully with them and vice versa. Overcoming these constraints will take humility and willingness to lift up the work of deep equity practitioners in our collaborative practice, making the space for their narrative, experience, and expertise to surface and guide the work. But it will be worth the effort because we will not achieve the kind of change we want without working on deep equity.

3) Finding spaciousness and presence to embrace complexity as a learning community. We are all operating in increasingly complex environments that are changing fast. Working toward deep transformative eco-social change in this complex environment is not easy. It is filled with uncertainty and it is messy. The tools we have become accustomed to using for planning, learning, collaborating in our work environments may not be well suited to our rapidly changing current environment. We cannot possibly have all the answers upfront. If we had been asked to make ex ante decisions and detailed activity plans upfront to confront violence against sex workers in Bangladesh in 2007, we would have surely failed. The same could be said of the Bhavishya Alliance or any other learning community seeking to contribute to transformational change around a complex problem. The question is, how do we create the spaciousness to embrace and work with the complexity and uncertainty (and mess!) of our current contexts. I am convinced that a learning community – such as with AR+ practitioners – offers a rich and necessary resource for the practice and future choreographing of a more powerful inner-outer dance.

There are likely many other ingredients a reader might name that may help us individually and in community to choreograph the inner-outer dance for social change. I offer these 3 insights as I experience them as relevant and helpful for my journey and I suspect for any learning community in our times, perhaps particularly the learning community of ART and AR+ practitioners.

More about Andrea here: