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At MAG we believe that influencing complex systems requires embedding multiple ways of knowing, advancing deep equity, making space for inner work, and cultivating leaderful ecosystems.

Below we share how art-based storytelling, the concept of “intactness,” and creative visualizations were integrated into the design of network gatherings in order to support connection and align cross movement leaders on conceptualizations of north stars.

Storytelling through art: a way to foster connection and individual and collective intactness* 

*Drawing from the teachings of Rosie Abriam and Norma Wong, the concept of cultivating intactness – in short – is working to be complete in our mind, body and spirit both individually and collectively. When we are not intact, harm and violence are possible. 

Collaborating with the Social Transformation Project, MAG’s Elissa Sloan Perry and I co-facilitated a gathering for graduates of Rockwood’s year-long Leading from the Inside Out program, embedding multiple ways of knowing throughout the gathering’s design. At the United Auto Workers’ retreat center at Black Lake, Michigan where the land and water are present, we invited leaders to cultivate intactness and access their imagination.

To connect us to these natural surroundings, we integrated meditation in nature and small group sessions on boats. These connections to the land supported participants in cultivating their intactness by slowing down, becoming more present and expanding their perspectives.

We asked participants to tell a story by creating a piece of art.  Eissa Sloan Perry prefaced this exercise by sharing the power of accessing multiple ways of knowing when telling stories as a method for cultivating intactness. She shared: 

Multiple ways of knowing is one of the ways of expressing [one’s self] that can hold complexity and get us out of the habits of white dominant culture, where the tendency is to intellectualize everything. Intellectualization itself is not a bad thing,but when it is a cultural and organizational norm, it leaves a lot of people out who have a lot to bring but for whom intellectualization is not their way of knowing or expressing.

Embracing multiple ways of knowing is not something that is foreign to us. We all know how to do it. In fact, we all do it instinctually when we encounter someone with whom we don’t share a spoken and written language. We start to gesture, we draw pictures, we  things with our bodies, etc. We have all known how to tell stories our whole lives and it isn’t until we were six or seven that it got learned out of us, or we learned we were only supposed to tell stories in certain contexts. So we are going to be remembering and reconnecting to that intactness.

Elissa Sloan Perry

With this framing, Elissa invited the group to reflect on the previous day by creating a piece of art to share. Initially, most people hesitated to move towards the art supplies. Yet, after 15 minutes, people had created art that symbolized and encompassed complex emotions and ideas in an easily accessible way. These pieces helped foster a shared understanding of people’s inner conditions and separate experiences at the gathering.  

  Ben Goldfarb's depiction of connections across Rockwood cohorts.
Ben Goldfarb’s depiction of connections across Rockwood cohorts.
  May Boeve's depiction of the balancing act of holding heavy issues and cultivating intactness.
May Boeve’s depiction of the balancing act of holding heavy issues and cultivating intactness.

Ben Goldfarb reflected on how he was renewing and creating new connections between leaders across Rockwood cohorts (above left). He also recognized those who were not present at the gathering. He created the threads that bind them through relationships and movement work. This resonated with many people. 

Being able to hold the heavy issues, take urgent calls, and keep present in the realities happening while simultaneously cultivating individual and collective intactness with the group was a balancing act that May Boeve captured in her drawing (above right). 

  Dennis William's depiction of the joy of sharing a connection to where he lives.
Dennis William’s depiction of the joy of sharing a connection to where he lives.
  Lawrence Benito's depiction of the violence at the US border.
Lawrence Benito’s depiction of the violence at the US border.

This paddleboarding sculpture (above left) represented Dennis William’s joy of sharing a connection to the lake that he lives on, witnessing others joy and challenges, and taking a more open stance to movement organizing. 

Recognizing the violence at the US borders and the ongoing work for immigration justice and human rights was top of mind and heart for many leaders and was illustrated by Lawrence Benito (above right).

  Sulma Arias' depiction of the balance she seeks.
Sulma Arias’ depiction of the balance she seeks.

Sulma Arias illustrates the balance she seeks for herself through yarn, face stickers, and play dough (above).

Sharing back their art, leaders were surprised at the depth of expression achieved despite some people’s initial reservations. Creating art, using our hands, and not relying solely on words as a mode of communication opened space for people to bring in their hearts, minds, and bodies – offering a space for greater intactness.

Making them real: sharing space with our visions and a squid

In partnership with Social Transformation Project, Eugene Kim, Catherine Madden, and Pendarvis Harshaw, MAG helps co-facilitate the Wye River Network, a network of leaders aligning and experimenting around building long-term progressive power. In these gatherings, we have also integrated creative visualizations to help us grapple with complex topics.

  Sarita Gupta and Vivian Huang review the Co-Governance Board drawn by Amy Wu.
Sarita Gupta and Vivian Huang review the Co-Governance Board drawn by Amy Wu.

In an effort to articulate a constellation of North Stars for the network and deepen our shared analysis and strategic questions, Catherine and Eugene drew from previous conversations with each organization to provide an illustrated cross-organization synthesis on key issues such as co-governance, centering marginalized communities, and the ecological crisis. By translating the leaders words into images, we tested specific imagery and metaphors that can often hold more depth and complexity than written descriptions. Additionally, Eugene designed three-dimensional structural barriers, including a robot that represented technology’s impact on movements through automation and technological fixes, which along with the squid were creatively constructed with help from a brilliant youth. We invited the group to review these issue boards and three-dimensional barriers and then make changes, ask questions, cross things out in small groups.

Together, through full group conversation, we made meaning of our changes and were able to reach a deeper understanding based on the visual representations and physical barriers. As a result, we have come closer to articulating our North Stars to navigate towards in our efforts to build long-term progressive power.

  Jodie Tonita, Erica Smiley, and Miya Yoshitani review questions posed on the robot representing technology including, “How many human jobs do we want to maintain?” and “How do we interrupt the perception that our worth derives from our production?”
Jodie Tonita, Erica Smiley, and Miya Yoshitani review questions posed on the robot representing technology including, “How many human jobs do we want to maintain?” and “How do we interrupt the perception that our worth derives from our production?”

Articulating a North Star and the barriers to it simply is an art. To draw on our multiple ways of knowing and our experience in the space, Eugene Kim introduced a 3 foot tall squid into the room as an experiential reminder of white supremacy. This was inspired by a recent article, network member Erica Smiley wrote that included the metaphor of a squid to refer to white supremacy. The article is titled: Time to Tackle the Whole Squid: Confronting White Supremacy to Build Shared Bargaining Power and was published in Class, Race and Corporate Power in 2017.  Like a squid, white supremacy can be present in its environment but ephemeral, literally disappearing from sight. As the article illustrates, the tentacles of white supremacy are strangling different communities, movements, and sectors. It is only by zooming out and looking at the body of the squid that will we be able to strategically fight its effects and envision a different reality. Having to maneuver around the squid throughout our meeting and getting caught in its tentacles was a constant reminder of the need for and centrality of racial justice and deep equity in all of our movements and efforts to advance a world of dignity and justice.  

Photo credit: Eugene Eric Kim
The 3-foot tall squid was an experiential reminder of white supremacy.

Metaphor, art, and other creative ways of knowing are critical in our efforts to invite in people’s multitudes of wisdom and cultivate our intactness.  We’d love to learn how have you been accessing your multiple ways of knowing as a means of reflection or to work through complex systems and towards deep equity.  Please share with us on twitter


Wye River images by Eugene Kim and Pendarvis Harshaw. Black Lake photographs by Tracy Nguyen.

3 thoughts on “Creativity and Cultivating Intactness as Ways Forward Through Complexity

  1. Thanks for sharing the moving art your participants created at the Black Lake gathering, Alison! Thanks also for sharing the story about the Wye River meeting this past February. I think you’re inadvertently giving me too much credit for the robot and the squid. You, of course, know this, but I think unraveling that story might further reinforce your point for others as well as say something about our vulnerabilities as practitioners.

    The actual creator of the robot and the squid was Joaquin Zuniga-Perlstein, an Oakland middle school student, whose dad is an artist-activist, a social entrepreneur, and a friend of ours. It was Jodie Tonita’s idea to "delegate" the robot and the squid to him. (We properly compensated him with a tasty meal.) I think it’s fair to say that we were all stressed about having to create these, but Joaquin brought joy and enthusiasm to the project, which is evident in the results. He did things that none of us would have and that added so much to the experience.

    We had two brilliant, professional artists helping us with that meeting, the aforementioned Catherine Madden as well as Amy Wu of Duende, but that wasn’t what enabled us to infuse the meeting with art. It was the mentality and spirit that we all shared that made it perfectly obvious to invite a seventh grader into the space to help us set up this a high-stakes, serious meeting.

    As practitioners, I think it’s so important to remember that it’s not just about inviting our participants to access their different ways of knowing, but for us to model that. People see that you and Elissa and Catherine are exceptional artists, and they might assume that you’re able to create these kinds of spaces so expertly because of that. What I’ve had the pleasure of seeing first-hand is that it’s not about your individual skills, but about how you all model being playful and open and vulnerable, and the impact that has on the rest of the team, the space, and the participants.

    Unlike the squid and the robot, I was fully responsible for the box representing climate change, which not surprisingly is not featured in these photos. I truly understand what your Black Lake participants felt when confronted with that exercise, because I felt the same thing when I had to make that damn box — fear, inadequacy, self-judgement. Being in that environment with Joaquin and all of you helped me get over it, and of course, all of those feelings I had were totally irrelevant to the actual impact my box and the whole space had on that meeting.

  2. Yes, I second Eugene’s note of gratitude- thank you for sharing this, Alison!

    I really appreciate Elise’s explanation of what multiple ways of knowing really means. I often experience "analysis paralysis" when my intellectual side gets to run the show, and when I step into a more intuitive, playful, and curious mindset I find that is where things start to connect and congeal, and my knowing takes new and interesting forms.

    This article and Eugene’s comment also have me reflecting on the different fears that people (myself included) face when creating art to express an idea. Theres the fear of failure, fear of judgement and/or misinterpretation, fear of trying something new/unknown….all of these things prevent us from just getting started. One thing that is helpful for me and the teams I work with is to emphasize that this is really more about the process of creating and sharing the art, and less about the outcome of what the art ends up looking like. If we embrace the process and lower our expectations on the outcome, it frees up our mind to explore and play.

  3. Eugene and Catherine, thank you for your comments and contributions. You’ve both influenced the way I think about and live into multiple ways of knowing and how to bring creativity into meetings in order to move through complexity. I’ll admit considered not showing the pieces of art because they don’t “look professional” But that is the whole point, they are not and yet they expressed complex ideas simply.

    I absolutely agree with Catherine that “If we embrace the process and lower our expectations on the outcome, it frees up our mind to explore and play.” and with Eugene’s similar conclusion about feeling inadequate but the space and people in it offering encouragement as essential. Often we are very practiced in expressing ourselves through talking and inviting in other parts of our brains can lead to breakthroughs. Onwards with hesitancy, art supplies, and desire for increased intactness. – Alison

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