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Power, love and justice: an interview with Rebecca Freeth

Reos Partners
September, 2012

This interview explores Rebecca Freeth's experiences, working in South Africa on issues of justice and, in particular, racial justice. 

In our last issue, Reos associate Rebecca Freeth wrote about Power, Love and Justice. Her article received lots of interest. We decided to interview her about her experiences of working in South Africa on issues of justice and, in particular, racial justice. What has influenced her, personally and in her work as a facilitator, to eschew neutrality while being equally wary of what she describes as “blind activism”? What lies between these two orientations?
We were also curious to hear how to create conditions for change when people are trapped in stereotyped, negative assumptions about each other. This is a challenge inherent in every multi-stakeholder process we run, regardless of the issue or the geographical location.  
What’s the starting point for working with issues of justice and injustice?

Rebecca: Being awake. Awareness about the world we live in and awake to how wonderful it is and how awful it is at the same time. What Paulo Freire called “critical consciousness” and Arnold Mindell calls “the politics of awareness”. So it’s a particularly sharp-edged quality of awareness, as well as being appreciative where appropriate. 

What are your blind spots as a facilitator around justice? How did you uncover them? 

Rebecca: Self-righteousness! I think the shadow side of being attuned to matters of justice and injustice is that I can appear to occupy a moral high ground that is experienced by others as judgemental. Not only is it really annoying to others, but I can be seen as aloof when I appear to have sorted it all out already. Which of course I really, really haven’t. Righteous anger about injustice is a trap. I may feel genuinely appalled by injustice, but that anger can quite quickly turn into pointing fingers at others, which can protect me from seeing how I too am part of that system of injustice, how I too benefit from the status quo. Righteous anger can become a defense against seeing that and knowing that. And if my anger turns into blind activism, it can really alienate others who had the potential to become (unlikely) allies. Using the language of power and love, I think blind activism at times represents reckless and abusive power at the expense of love. It looks like power dressed up as justice, but it can end up re-creating injustice. An activist in full avenging flight can cause all kinds of harm. I’m certainly not saying there’s no place for activism in a world replete with social and environmental injustice; there’s a world of difference between blind activism and self-reflexive activism.

I’ve been in dialogue groups about race for several years now in South Africa – as a participant, as a facilitator, and as a convener. I know about my self-righteousness because other members of those groups tell me, particularly other white South Africans. My experience of growing up white in South Africa was different from that of many other white people. I happened to be exposed to the atrocities of apartheid by virtue of my parents’ activist orientation, and I grew up in a multi-racial community of their friends and colleagues. That was very unusual and taught me things about my own privilege and what was being done by the apartheid state – torture, detention without trial, and assassination alongside the more daily indignities and abuses – in my name, as a white person. Those lessons were deeply engrained at a young age. I can never unlearn them. I can’t claim any merit for having had this exposure. But it means that I’ve not had to do the work as an adult, post-apartheid, of separating the lies from the truth. That’s an advantage over many other white South Africans.

 On the other hand, it took me a long time to move from being angry with other white people – for their denial, collusion, and blindness to their privilege – and toward being empathetic, because all that is part of me and my experience, too. I benefited hugely in terms of my education, my access, my sense of belonging and being entitled because of the colour of my skin. Moving from anger to empathy to a sense of responsibility for carrying that privilege – which continues today – with awareness, and a sense of responsibility for working with my fellow (and sister) white South Africans toward reclaiming what we lost and being accountable for what we gained – are my biggest lessons. 

In your article on justice published in the previous issue of the Reos newsletter, you wrote that neither activism nor neutrality is desirable when convening, leading, or facilitating social change processes. You’ve just mentioned the problems with a certain form of activism, but what’s wrong with neutrality? 

Neutrality is highly prized in our context. It’s considered a virtue. Of course, it is virtuous to be able to hear every perspective whether I like it or not and create the conditions for others to hear every perspective whether they like it or not. But when one is working in contexts of injustice and especially when working at a systemic level as we do at Reos, I don’t really believe it’s possible to be neutral. I’m part of these systems, and I either benefit from their skewed patterns of material distribution and recognition or I’m marginalized by those patterns. Moreover, even if I believe I’m neutral, I’m unlikely to be perceived as neutral by the group I’m working with. If we’re talking about race, it’s not hard to tell I’ve got white skin. If we’re talking about food insecurity, it’s not hard to tell I can eat whenever I’m hungry. I’m seen to be implicated. I’m watched very closely, and if I’m seen to be unaware of the ways in which I benefit, I’m likely to be caught out.

So in some situations, it’s useful to declare up front that I have certain privileges relevant to the issues we’re discussing. Then I can invite people to keep an eye on me and tell me when I’m being blind to my privilege. That way, it’s less about being caught out – and being fearful of the public exposure that may come with that – and more about asking the group to help me stay awake and to keep learning. I’ve learned that from being in groups facilitated by exceptional people such as Stephen Schuitevoerder from the Process Work Institute in the United States and Zed Xaba, a South African working in Johannesburg.

At the other end of the spectrum is activism, and I’ve spoken already about the dangers of blind activism. If the group you’re working with as a convener or facilitator senses that you have an agenda for a certain kind of change, they may become suspicious that you’ll abuse your power to further that agenda, and they’re likely to resist. And so they should. What’s more, if I over-identify with one part of the system, I risk relinquishing my capacity to see and support the whole system.

So is there something between neutrality and activism? I really hope so! When working in conditions of injustice, I’d like to believe that conveners, leaders, and facilitators can hold a sense of what could be, a vision of greater justice. One has to hold this vision of what’s possible with impeccable self-awareness so that it doesn’t harden into an agenda.

I propose that “presence” is what lies between neutrality and activism. All those familiar with the U-Process know the language of “presence”. I use the word “presence” first to refer to what Bill O’Brien spoke of as the “interior condition” of change leaders and innovators. Second, I mean literally being present to what is in front of me and what is in the context I’m working in – being present to the group process as well as to how power and privilege operate in that group, to my own location in that pattern, and to systemic injustices in the broader context that could surface in the microcosm of the group. Then when I try to create the space for all voices to be heard, the idea is that I’m doing so with that sense of alertness or wakefulness I referred to earlier, rather than a naïve, almost somnambulant version of neutrality. 

Of course, when I speak like this, it sounds like I know how to do it. I’m still figuring it out. I’d love to hear from people who are reading this how they have learned both from their mistakes and their successes. Mistakes are a particularly powerful source of learning because, in our line of work, you tend to make them in front of a whole lot of people, and that experience sticks with you for a long time. 

You told the story of personal insight and change among South Africans working on issues of race. How do you create the conditions for the insights you describe in your article to occur? How do you hold that space?

Rebecca: There are several conditions that support insight and learning, I think. First, the composition of a group is a really important condition. If people find themselves in a group in which they feel like a minority, and especially if this evokes past experiences of being in a minority or feeling relatively voiceless, this is likely to have an impact on their participation. The feelings of being back in a marginalized position (because of your race, your gender, your sexual orientation, etc.) may well surface, but often in disguise, because there’s a cost to being in a minority and expressing unpopular feelings to the majority. As conveners and facilitators, sometimes we can influence the composition of the groups we work with; sometimes we can’t. If we can’t influence it, the next best thing is to anticipate these dynamics and recognize them in all their guises. We do so in the interests of the group as a whole becoming cognizant of experiences of injustice being re-created in the group.

Second, we can lift our dialogue out of well-trodden paths and into places of rapid learning by cultivating awareness in a group about how power and privilege are alive within each one of us and between us. This includes identifying with aspects of ourselves that are powerful and where we have privilege as well as identifying with where we are powerless and lack privilege. In groups, I think we sometimes find it easier to identify with where we feel disempowered in relation to others than where we feel relatively empowered. If we can’t embrace our power and privilege, too, it’s a zero-sum game with many people competing for the role of “the marginalised one”.

Third, the physical location of our gatherings is another important condition. Meeting in unlikely places, ones that expose us to some of the issues we’re facing as a social system, can be really generative. It keeps us connected to the reasons we’re meeting. In South Africa, that means moving across the boundaries of the racial geographies created by apartheid-era spatial planning. It also could mean meeting in less privileged places – i.e., not in upmarket hotel venues – and finding more challenging social spaces. I’m not suggesting working in places that consistently unsettle participants, but some disturbance can be useful, in addition to working in places that are nurturing.

The fourth condition relates to something I mentioned earlier: the presence of the facilitator. A sense of interior spaciousness – to hear all the voices regardless of whether I agree with them – alongside a certain discernment achieved by being attuned to the socio-economic and political environment we’re in can be valuable when working with issues of justice and injustice. I’m not saying anything new here. We all know this. But perhaps when there are many other pressures on our choices of whom to invite into social change processes and where to hold them, we let these other considerations slip. Particularly if we ourselves are not directly negatively affected by issues of injustice ourselves.

Where have you had the most impact in situations fraught with these issues?

Rebecca: Probably among other white people. And it’s a modest impact, among small groups of white South Africans who have gathered to talk through issues of racial injustice so that we can go back into our multi-racial contexts and relationships with a bit more awareness. This was largely inspired by a sense of frustration and exhaustion expressed by black (both African and mixed-race) South Africans about constantly holding up a mirror to white South Africans and pointing out our racism and our centrality, some of which is conscious but a lot of which is unconscious. When it’s unconscious, it means that the mirror may be received with denial, justification, or counter-accusations. It’s clear that there’s a much bigger role for white South Africans to hold ourselves accountable. 

One of the things I’m most proud to be part of is the ongoing work within Reos Johannesburg to hone our alertness to, and skillfulness with, matters of race and racial injustice. As a team, we’ve spent the last 18 months conducting our own learning journeys, dialogue interviews, and conversations to more deeply understand the current and ever-changing context in South Africa. We want to get better and better at supporting our clients and partners to notice when issues of racial injustice are woven into the complex social issues they’re working on and to engage constructively with these. Yvonne Field, an associate of both the Oxford and Johannesburg offices of Reos, has been a wonderful co-conspirator in this endeavor, and we’ve been joined by six or seven others in Johannesburg.

What was the hardest thing that you have ever encountered around this issue?

Rebecca: Being accused of racism in a group process. The accusation, which came in my first year of facilitating social processes, shook me to my core. It wouldn’t leave me alone. I had to find the part of that accusation that was true and work with that truth. Nothing has taught me more over the years. 

Why would people do this work if it’s so difficult? 

Rebecca: What’s on the other side of difficult conversations is the potential to release the tension that gathers around our own anger, frustration, fear, shame, or sadness. There is often absolute delight in really hearing each other and seeing someone anew through their expression of themselves and their story; and in the liberation of speaking for yourself, even when it means saying some difficult things. When a group has experienced those moments of deep connection, the relief is palpable, and the release is huge.

This work is often painful, but in my experience it’s always worth it. Personally, I’ll do it again and again.

How do you deal with your own emotions when they show up?

I try to keep connected to nature. It reminds me to breathe. It reminds me how little I am in the bigger scheme of things . . . so it puts my feelings and my immediate experience back in perspective. More and more I want to facilitate in nature, so that it’s a constant resource to us as facilitators and to whatever group we’re working with. When I talk about presencing – trying not to fall into either of the traps of naïve neutrality or blind activism – nature is a wonderful source of presence. I don’t get any pleasure out of facilitating inside the sterility of four walls, especially when there’s artificial lighting and no fresh air. It’s a way of not seeing the world we live in, with all its natural beauty as well as all its injustices. It’s that much harder to be relevant or connected to our context like that.

What’s your learning edge in this work at the moment?
Rebecca: I’m acutely aware at the moment of the limitations of language and spoken engagement between people when we’re dealing with issues of injustice that affect us personally. Recently, a colleague suggested that some of the pain related to racial injustice in South Africa is pre-verbal; we still don’t know how to talk about it. This calls for a gentleness and an ability to work in less verbal and more embodied ways. There are others in Reos who are very skilled at working with social sculpture, art, and other ways of engaging people’s creativity. I’m watching and learning.

Rebecca Freeth is a Reos associate in Johannesburg and a trainer at the Reos Institute, where she teaches the Systems Thinking and Effective Group Facilitation courses. She is currently working on the Southern Africa Food Lab and on a dialogue process to address winter flooding of informal settlements in Cape Town.

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