Embracing The Gifts Of Conflict For Social Change

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Above image: BShirien Damra.

As a collective, we are living in unprecedented times. The triple pandemic of COVID-19, white supremacy, and capitalist-driven climate crisis has intensified survival fears and made the structural oppression we are living under more palpable and unbearable. We are coming face to face with the fact of our interdependence, and the stakes are high. Either we as a species learn to live well with each other and the earth now, or die trying.

As so many wise souls are reminding us, our liberation is bound together, and we need each other, now, more than ever.

“Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”

-Fannie Lou Hamer

To get free, we need ways to navigate the hard parts involved in working with others as we build a world rooted in interdependence, regeneration, and justice.

So what do we do when we inevitably run into conflict?

This was the question on our minds when we wrote a new conflict workbook for groups working towards a shared purpose — Turning Towards Each Other: A Conflict Workbook.

As two people who come from community-building and social movement backgrounds, we have seen and experienced dreams crumble because we, or people we love, couldn’t find a way through a difficult interpersonal conflict with a comrade or a colleague. We care deeply about our communities and the ways they’ve been harmed by structural oppression. We put together Turning Towards Each Other because of all the times we found ourselves in gut-wrenching, sometimes relationship-ending tangles with people we depended on.

We believe deeply in people’s transformative capacity to access our wholeness and create new worlds based in love. And we believe this is crucial to a future where we can all thrive. We compiled this workbook to offer exercises for self and group exploration to build our collective self-awareness, resource, and conflict resilience.

By conflict we mean disagreements and interpersonal tensions, not abuse and structural violence. Gaining skills that help us work through conflicts is not a substitute for transforming structures and repairing harms. Rather, being able to work through and resolve interpersonal tensions will increase our capacity to work together for the long haul, which we’ll need to do to dismantle oppressive systems and create regenerative ones.

Because we live in a world shaped by legacies of brutal colonization, enslavement, and heteropatriarchy, we must assume that these power structures are always present in us and our relationships. Whether or not we have formal power, we can enact subtle and gross forms of anti-Blackness, white supremacy, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, classism, and other structural oppressions. When we avoid conflict or move through it carelessly, we end up acting out and reinforcing micro versions of oppressive structural patterns unconsciously, even if we are from an identity harmed by those systems. This can end relationships, sidetrack organizations, and undermine social movements.

Turning towards each other when in conflict may be a messy sticky uncomfortable process, but it is critical, unavoidable, and can yield many gifts, especially if held in a sense of mutual care and commitment to learning.

Five Gifts of Turning Towards Conflict

  1. Conflict connects us to our values and needs. Conflict indicates that there has been a “miss” in meeting a core need. Our core needs (e.g. belonging, autonomy, creative expression) are rooted in values —(e.g. love, justice, liberation). Conflicts allow us to get familiar with our core needs and the ways we get activated when we experience them not being met. This pushes us to grow by taking responsibility for our needs and to come into deeper alignment with our values.
  2. Conflict clarifies strategy. Often times, conflicts in groups are a result of unclear strategy, i.e. how a group meets its goals. Teasing out the strategic questions from the interpersonal tensions can help clarify what the disagreement is really about, and allow a group to more deeply align on the “how.”
  3. Conflict surfaces assumptions. Conflict surface outdated assumptions in how we relate to each other, why we want to do our change work, and what we think the best way to get there is. When these assumptions haven’t been challenged, we can often be operating within the status quo (i.e. structural oppression on auto-pilot). When we surface, name, and update assumptions, insights abound.
  4. Conflict heals. Conflict shines a light on past hurts and traumas (structural and interpersonal), on our neglected parts that are most afraid and most in need of love. If held in the context of mutual care and growth, conflict offers these neglected parts a new context in which to experience being met with care and love. Such experiences can be deeply healing and liberating.
  5. Conflict strengthens relationships. When we take the risk to reveal our needs and uncomfortable truths, and navigate challenges together, we build intimacy and trust. Turning toward each other through conflict heals and brings us closer to the relationships we need, to actually get to the world we want to live in.

For more strategies and practices on how to turn towards each other during conflict to build the world we need, check out our workbook and our upcoming workshop series.

We hope this is a liberating resource for you!

Jovida Ross works with Real Food Real Stories, seeding culture towards a caring, regenerative, and just tomorrow. www.realfoodrealstories.org.

Weyam Ghadbian is a Syrian community weaver, healer, meditation instructor, and transformative facilitator. www.weyamhealing.com.