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What insights has 2017 left with us?

Colleen Magner
December, 2017


The end of 2017 is fast-approaching, and it felt like a good moment to pause and consider moments of learning and change, and even of failure.  To start this reflection, which I intend to continue over the quieter summer days of holiday, I’ve looked back at this year’s editions of Moving Through Tough Terrain. It’s brought back useful reminders from the different contexts and projects I’ve been privileged to be a part of this year.

In “The dreaded R word” edition, I wanted to challenge the notion that dialogue must always lead towards reconciliation.  In the various sectors we have worked this year – be it environmental, financial, social or gender justice – it has felt that the appetite to talk and work things out together across our diverse views is at an all-time low.  In part this is because dialogue has been equated to “reconciliation” and that in turn, reconciliation has been equated with letting those with power and privilege stay where they are. This has been particularly challenging because economic and social structures in South Africa haven’t visibly changed as we had hoped some 23 years ago despite the long-time collaborative effort.  Much of the year’s experiences have been about witnessing and facilitating the difficult conversations that acknowledge this failed transformation.  Verne Harris's opinion piece which appeared in the Huffington Post put's it well, arguing that reconcilliation needs to start all over again.

In February my colleagues and I continued our work in northern Namibia, building scenarios for the future of water use in this dry region. In the edition “Facing the unknown can help us shape the future”, our initial reflections acknowledged that these processes are tough for people because of the strong impulse to focus on short term solutions rather that longer-term “what if’s..” There was a frustration expressed by scenario members who wanted to spend the time together working on what they could control and do now. It was important in retrospect to let the group grapple with these short-long term dilemmas, as it lead to the realisation that these options aren’t necessarily choices. Struggling with these tensions also increased the group's capacity to manage this dilemma - to both act in the short-term water crises, and continue to build collective understanding and responses to longer-term possible futures.

For much of 2017, our work focused on a social lab aimed at reducing violence against women. One of the major difficulties was the challenge of building trust to enable people to work across painful divides . The Lab members identified that one of the main reasons for this lack of trust and inability to work together was because we haven’t had “the difficult conversations” that were largely around inequalities of power and race. Back then it felt like we weren’t making much progress even after two years of multiple interactions, four workshops and the hard teamwork needed to identify good innovations. My tentative learning was that breaking through these stuck social issues requires the continuous acts of staying in a relationship and conflict, even when there aren’t yet signs of progress.

The thread that seems to weave its way through these experiences is that the growing realization that the work of changing things is not about transcending the past so that we see the world in the same way, but about the willingness to commit to the issues and to staying in relationship with each other, even when we don’t want to because its seems to be the more difficult option.  This is the critical question in Adam Kahane’s book ‘Collaborating with the Enemy: How to Work with People You Don't Agree with or Like or Trust’ in which he explores the notion of ‘stretch collaboration’. In November this year, we invited a diverse group to a 1-day Stretch Collaboration training event.  The intention was to share and explore the capacities of stretch collaboration with our clients, colleagues and fellow ‘problem owners’ (those who take leadership of driving some form of social change). Participants at this event raised a number of real experiences about what it takes to exercise “stretch collaboration”. Across these different experiences and insights, there was a shared recognition that collaboration (and staying in relationship) is just one choice of many options, and a difficult one.

So I’m finishing 2017 not with a tidy answer about how to work with tough problems, but a greater insight into what it takes to start to create small but real shifts. And new questions about resilience and what it takes to stay inspired and creative in uncertainty.

My colleagues at Reos and I wish you a very peaceful, restorative and joyful holiday. We look forward to connecting with you in 2018.

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