Self-Organisation, Open Source Learning and Participatory Leadership in Crisis

Here is a link to the article that I wrote about my experiences attempting to apply participatory leadership practices during the ‘refugee crisis’ in the Balkans in 2015.  Gratitude to the Journal of the Association for Management Education and Development for publishing this and for encouraging me and supporting me in writing it.

Self Organisation in Crisis

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Election Reflections 2016

What to say?  How to make sense of the election results?  I am still in shock at the end of the first long day of living with the reality of President Trump.  And I am curious to observe myself and my reactions.  They are illuminating some big shadows within and making me aware of my need to grow up and to grow up fast.  Perhaps these shadows are shared collectively as well.

For many years I have foreseen collapsing systems and more recently I have been feeling like the little boy saying ‘the emperor has no clothes’ as I comment on collapsing social, economic and political systems.  Systems collapse is inevitable and we needn’t try to resist it.  So, I am surprised by my emotional and energetic response to this election which I see as the near total collapse of the electoral system.  I felt totally deflated, numb, lacking energy.  It was physiologically similar to my sense of total helplessness and powerlessness in my recent saga with UPS and my lost credit cards.  What was this response all about?  If I have been expecting systems to collapse for so long and I even characterized the US political system as such a collapsing system on election eve, then why this strong response?

Intellectually, I had stated that ‘neither of the two major candidates represent a future that I choose and for which I want to commit my life energy – neither a hateful, xenophobic nationalism or a capitalistic neoliberal globalism.’  But I doubt that I would have felt the same this morning had Clinton won.  So, another glaring inconsistency.  Or just a glib intellectualization of what collapse is all about?

What I realize is that there is a disconnect between my recognition and intellectual acceptance of the need for the old systems to collapse and an unconscious belief in those old systems, a belief that that everything is going to turn out alright, that wise and just leaders will emerge and save the day (my Bernie delusion).  On another level, while I don’t think that Clinton would have provided any leadership in support of needed systemic change, I also realize that a part of me wants to go on living the benefits of the good life and postponing the consequences as long as possible – just another 4 years, say.  Maybe the collapse could be kinda gentle and we could choose another direction without experiencing too much pain.  And maybe science will come up with the solution to climate change.  And then there is Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny and…

I am embarrassed and ashamed to look at my inconsistencies and delusions knowing that I am only entitled to experience them by virtue of my educated, white, male status.  If I were a black man in fear of my life when pulled over by police or if I were a woman living in fear of a bully ‘grabbing my pussy’ or if I were an unemployed and unemployable person looking at a very scary future or if I were a homeless Syrian fleeing war and wondering where I would find safety – if I were anything but a privileged white male I would not be living with these delusions that the system would right itself take care of me and provide solutions.  So I am feeling a lot of humility today and recognizing the privilege of my welcoming attitude toward system change.

The systems are collapsing and system change is needed as much (and probably not any more) than yesterday.  What has changed is the increased sense of urgency and my loss of innocence about what this means.  Gone also is much of my unconscious trust in the systems that have protected and cared for me all of my privileged life.  So I recognize that a big part of what I am feeling is mourning for these losses – losses of a deep level of identity and understanding of the world.  Such existential losses are very painful.  They pull the rug of security out and plunge one into existential uncertainty, unknown and insecurity (like losing my lost credit cards experience on steroids).

And, being one who looks for the gift in everything, I believe that this opens the door for experiencing the gifts of relationship and community in ways that are impossible without such vulnerability.  It opens the door for discovering on a deep level that life will provide; that I don’t have to rely totally upon myself or upon systems created in my own image.  It invites a discovery that together we can find a way through these dark times.

There are probably many more gifts but for today, it feels very important to allow myself to be shaken and to honor the mourning process.  To really experience the loss and the pain of the loss and to allow old delusions to be buried.   There is lots of work to be done, I recognize this, and I know that I have been entrusted with gifts and skills and friends to work with that can contribute to the conversations and the healing needed for us to collectively survive the coming years and to find new ways forward.  I know that I will regain my energy and my passion and be ready to engage in that work and I am deeply grateful for friends who are holding me in this process.  But first it feels important to honor the mourning process.

Finally, tonight I am very conscious of the Water Protectors at Standing Rock.  Their steadfastness in the face of the forces of violence and control is a role model for all of us.  They are engaged in spiritual warfare, standing in love before the forces of power, greed and destruction.  When attacked and injured, they forgive.  This is the work that I sense will be called for frequently in coming days and I feel the need for more intensive and deeper training to be able to stand in such love against power.

While the country is divided and polarized, all is not darkness.  There are hundreds of thousands, probably millions, of people who were awakened by Bernie’s movement and they have not gone away as a result of this election.  Actually, this may be what it takes to truly re-activate them.  Hopefully people with a vision for a more just and inclusive future will sense this as a call to action and will answer it with the spirit of the Water Protectors.  May we all become Life Protectors.  And may we look back on 11/9 as the antithesis of 9/11 – the day that we collectively chose a future of love instead of fear.

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No Sign of Health

It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.

~ Krishnamurti

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Reflections from the Balkan Migration

Last fall, I was in the Balkans, Serbia primarily, volunteering with the people migrating to Europe in search of refuge and asylum from war zones.  This was an intense and fulfilling experience that inspired considerable reflection in me.   These reflections can be found  here in my blog.  This posting compiles all of these posts into one for easier access. 

#1  Impressions from Westbahnhof Vienna…

I’ve arrived a day late, maybe. I’m not needed here as the level of caring and response is so strong. The urgency and adrenaline rush of the past weeks has subsided. Hungary has closed its borders and most of the refugees have moved on to Germany or elsewhere. The train station seems almost normal and peaceful. Of course I may be comparing it to an Indian train station and not a normal Austrian station.

Everyone is decently dressed in western clothing and there are few headscarves and no burkas. Everyone appears quite European and this makes me recognize some of my stereotypes of Middle Eastern people and of refugees. I would not guess from looking at them that many have been walking for weeks or that many are seriously traumatized by war experiences, by losses and by the demands and violence encountered on the road. It all seems so normal today.

I am struck by all of the acts of generosity: people handing out bottles of water,shopping carts full of bananas being distributed, fast food meals being given randomly to strangers, the huge amount of clothes and shoes and diapers and other supplies being constantly dropped off. Trucks are being loaded with the abundant surplus to be transported to the next place of need. This contrasts with reports of supplies being turned back at national borders because they lacked required customs clearance. This crisis is not over, just being forcibly displaced by the Hungarian government which is compelling desperate and resourceful refugees to find different routes other than through Vienna. Government attempts at control, personal human expressions of compassion and generosity.

I am noticing the absence of conflict here. Everyone seems to be getting along, smiling. There is laughter, children playing, cooperation. I am also noticing how clean the area is. Yes, there are volunteers collecting trash but I don’t see anyone littering.

A father playing with his adorable toddler is approached by two adolescent girls who ask whether the little girl has shoes for winter. “Yes”, replies the father. ” And does she have paper and crayons to draw with” they ask. When the father says that they do, I can almost feel the disappointment of the would-be donors that there is nothing they can give her.

I am moved to tears by what I am seeing here. So many people moving through this transition to their new lives. So many stories of loss and destruction. Yet, so much courage and kindness. So much cooperation. Such generosity. People wanting to give food and clothing and toys and having difficulty finding anyone left to give to. A donation box with 50 and 100 Euro notes in it. A phone company distributing free SIM cards and even asking me if I want one. So many stereotypes and prejudices being illuminated and challenged. This is such a beautiful display of humanity expressing humanity and maybe discovering more of itself in the process. Are we witnessing the emergence of a new and more compassionate world? Can we sustain it once the immediate crisis is over? And can we find ways to prevent such crises in the future?

#2  September 17, 2015

Today I was at Hauptbahnhof, Vienna’s main train session and my impressions were similar to those I experienced at Westbahnhof the previous day. Everything was orderly. There were abundant volunteers cooking and serving meals and playing with kids and taking groups of refugees for showers. The refugees were well behaved and respectful.

There was also an unbelievable amount of donated stuff: clothes, shoes, toys, blankets, sleeping bags, bottled water… Literally tons of stuff. More stuff than what the current refugees could possibly use. The stuff was in cardboard boxes and many plastic bags piled high for several blocks outside the train station. And a major storm was forecast in about 5 hours so we had the task of moving all this stuff (after string it and transferring much of it from bags into boxes) stacking and covering it on pallets or moving it inside, many hands make light work and we accomplished an amazing amount of work.

Working together physically is an excellent way to build teamwork and to practice collaboration. The tired muscles felt good. But I couldn’t help but wonder why the refugees were left to lie around with nothing to do while the volunteers did the work. It seems like we still have so much to learn about how to practice collaboration and participation. It is said that “it is a gift to ask for help” and I think that we do the refugees a disservice by not inviting them to be a part of the work.

Tonight I attended the Vienna Salon which was a participatory conversation on taking action to support the refugees. We had 30 participants and some wonderful interaction (even if I couldn’t understand much of it in German). What really contributed to the conversation were the three Afghani and two Syrian refugees. The hosting team only today realized that no refugees had been invited and they reached out to include some. What a difference they made. Maybe we are slowly learning a little about true participation but it is not easy and it confronts our prejudices and blind spots. But this practice and this learning is why I am so optimistic about the possibilities that can emerge from this “crisis and why I am so grateful to be here.

#3

What a night and what an immersion into the refugee situation! About 1am as we were concluding a beautiful circle in which friends were expressing their exhaustion and their learnings from the past two weeks of intensity, we received news that hundreds refugees were arriving in Gyor Hungary without food or water. So, as the newest and least exhausted, I volunteered to drive the supplies to Gyor. The abundant stockpile at the Vienna train station was tapped and I arrived in Gyor in a pouring rainstorm around 4am.

What I experienced at the train station was beyond anything I could have imagined. The train station was crammed full of a couple thousand refugees – many families with young children – who had been shuffled about like tired, hungry and thirsty chess pieces by confused and overwhelmed governments over the past several days. One told me that he has had one shower in the past 15 days. One woman was trampled in the crowded station. This whole scene was overseen by 4 overwhelmed volunteers and 20 policemen.

At least we had brought a load of food to help, we thought. But we were quickly told in no uncertain terms not to unload any food for fear that it would incite a riot or panic. We were also informed that the refugees would be transported to Hegyeshalom where they would presumably be left to walk the final 3 km to Austria.

So we drove back toward Austria to assess the situation at the Hegyeshalom train station. What we found there was quite the contrast. There were no volunteers, only 4 policemen and a group of drunks at the adjoining bar. Quite the reception committee and not a safer place to distribute the food.

So, next we drove to Nicklesdorf, the Austrian border town and found a large Red Cross shelter with a couple hundred beds, a portable kitchen and tons of semi-organized clothing and shoes. The refugees arrive only minutes after us and were greeted by a stressed out Red Cross commander yelling and threatening and trying to control a terribly chaotic scene. The next hours are a blur of ripping open the plastic bags of carefully prepared lunches, removing the cans of beans for which there was use, separating out the apples which refugees don’t like and won’t eat, distributing the prized unsquashed bananas and disposing all those that had become casualties of the bean cans and putting out the rest of the food (along with thousands of unsustainable bottles of water), and rummaging through piles of clothes to find ones that would fit the needs of each refugee. Interspersed were moments of appreciating the beauty and patience and respect exhibited by most of the refugees and questioning the need for uniformed and armed soldiers who were utilized by the Red Cross to impose order.

In the midst of the exhaustion and the overwhelming conditions at the shelter, we learned that between Three and four thousand refugees were now at the border without food and all our resources were depleted. And there were another TEN THOUSAND coming in the next 24 hours. So, I contacted Waltraud the coordinator of the network of volunteers in Vienna who began mobilizing 50 volunteers and loads of food to be moved to Nicklesdorf. And I had to accept the consequences of having been going close to 30 hours without sleep and head back to Vienna to care for myself. Later this evening I will probably return with Mischa and Melinda to work another shift.

I am deeply moved by the enormity of humanity moving through this region, by the implications of this migration upon Europe, by the ineptitude of government systems and by the truly amazing response of civil society. The magnitude of this situation today is beyond words. How can we as a global community of humans hold this with consciousness and love?

#4

I came to Austria to help but I am getting so much more out of this than my small contributions to those who are seeking refuge (I am committed to eliminating the “R” word from usage. These are people, not a classification). Yesterday was filled with intense experiences and learning. At least I hope that there has been learning; so far it seems to be more questions than answers.

The afternoon was spent at the main train station where I spent my second day at the hygiene supply station, handing out toothbrushes, shampoo, baby diapers, soap, etc. and disappointing many men with the frequent news that we don’t have any hair gel. Many things were in short supply (hair shampoo, deodorant, shaving cream, fingernail clippers, hair brushes) while other items were in over-supply (body shampoo, false eye lashes, aftershave). The supplies are all donated and come in huge bags or boxes. When a new bag/box arrives, it is a little like Christmas morning for us as we paw through looking for which of the stocks we can re-supply. Occasionally we encounter a surprise like the box of condoms in one bag. I was unsure of the cultural sensitivities in putting these out but we went ahead and were a little surprised to see them disappear within about 20 seconds. Is this a needed supply that we should begin soliciting? How would potential donors feel about such a request? How does it challenge or confirm any of our stereotypes?

The experience of dealing with so much stuff was a real challenge for this nomad and it really held up a mirror for me to examine some of my issues with stuff and with abundance and scarcity. I was bothered by all of the excessive packaging and the marketing of so many personal care items that I did not even recognize (of course they were all labeled in German) and could not understand how we have been convinced that we need. I observed some people only taking small portions, only what they needed and not a lot of extra to carry. And I saw others who grabbed everything they could sometimes without even knowing what it was. I could see some of myself in both of these responses. I could also really understand the sense of scarcity and insecurity that the journey must have caused in some. Having and hoarding can be a means of dealing with some of the pain caused by trauma.

As a volunteer, I would ask myself what role and responsibility I had. At times I would find myself protecting the supplies, limiting people to one of each item and causing some people to justify their need for more. Other times, I turned a blind eye to people filling their bags. Why? It wasn’t “my” stuff. Did I really have a responsibility to try and protect those who would come later and find the supplies gone? A part of this, I recognize is a deep sense of fairness and a value that everyone “should” be considerate to others and to think of their needs. What a joke for me to think that my sense of fairness would have any relevance to someone who has been forced to leave his/her home and risk his/her life and experience all of the indignities associated with being a refugee. And what business do I have trying to control the actions of someone who has been deeply traumatized already and whose actions may be a result of that trauma?

How people reacted to the stuff they were given was also an interesting trigger for me. There were many who said thank you, some even for a single package of kleenex. Others showed no sign of gratitude and some were even demanding. I especially got impatient and a little cranky with the guys who expected there to be hair gel available for them and would act a little put out when there wasn’t. I hate to see it but there is a part of me that thinks “they should be grateful” and “they should be satisfied with whatever ‘we’ give them”. I hate to recognize that us/them dichotomy in my thinking and the attitudes of privilege and entitlement that it represents. Over and over I reminded myself that what I was seeing was largely a consequence of trauma. Then I would wonder how they behaved in their prior “normal” lives. And then I would be reminded by how much trauma affects all of us in our “normal” lives. It was all a reminder of how important healing of trauma is for everyone and especially those who have been through such danger and are entering a new life. How will we, as a global community, provide opportunities for healing of those with trauma? So, I realized that part of my work was to deal with my own traumatized parts and monitor my own triggered reactions and let go of my expectations and values in order to just be present and make as much stuff available as possible. Consequently, I took frequent breaks from the frontline customer service and spent time organizing supplies and trying up the work area. There are so many ways, including attending to space and beauty, to serve.

Late in the afternoon I was informed that there were a few thousand people arriving at the border town of Hegyeshalom in the evening. Many were families with young children. All had been on the train through Hungary and without food for a long time. Food and water was needed urgently at the border so I made arrangements to get food from the Vienna volunteer effort and to take them by car with another volunteer to the border.

Soon after we arrived at the border crossing our carload of bottled water, cookies, chocolate bars and apples were supplemented by a truckload of water and 50 large boxes of Halal sandwiches. These several thousand sandwiches had been made by hand by the Islamic community in Vienna. Later I learned that they have been producing in the neighborhood of 10,000 sandwiches every day for the past couple of weeks. (BTW, I was also impressed by the efforts of the Sikh community in Vienna that produces huge pots of rice and chicken everyday for serving at the train station. This is truly a multi-faith (and non-faith) humanitarian effort.).

Around 10, the first group began arriving. The train had deposited them at the depot in Hegyeshalom, about 5 km away and they had to walk the remainder of the to the border. So they arrived in a straggling column of about 1,500 men, women and children, all hungry and all aware of the proximity of Austria and the safety it represents. Austria would not be the end of the line for most, but it was probably the first place where they would feel safe and welcome. So, they streamed by, intent to reach the border. We greeted them with a smile, a “welcome” and the offer of a sandwich. This was one of the most moving experiences of my life. To see the look of relief and longing in their eyes, to feel their emotional energy and physical drive to reach the border and to sense the hunger with which they took the food touched me deeply. Over and over this little act of offering food and a kind word was met with such genuine thanks. As I looked in the eyes of one of these courageous people and tried to say “you are welcome” I found those words to be so much deeper than the common courtesy and when I tried to speak them I often found myself too emotional and tearful to even speak.

To be in such a presence and to have my heart touched so deeply is a precious gift and makes me realize just how much I gain from this work. Is this selfish? Probably. Is my ego stroked as well as my heart touched? Probably. But I also think that its ok to perform a good deed even when my motives are not 100% pure. It is my hope that each such encounter will purify some of my own egoic motivation and will expand my heart’s capacity for love and compassion. And it is my hope and my belief that this is happening collectively as humanity responds to humanity with love. This is a practice ground for all of us, those present here on the frostlines and those holding us from a distance. Our collective heart is expanding and preparing us for the future challenges that await our planet.

After the first wave of about 1,500 passed, the volunteers cleaned up and sorted all of the leftovers. Eventually many of the volunteers drifted off and at last there was only a handful of us left. Would there be more trains this night? No one seemed to know? Who was in charge and what would be done with the leftovers (maybe half of the sandwiches and water as well as lots of cookies)? No one knew. Finally, it was decided that two of the Hungarian women volunteers would spend the night at the crossing and the rest of us would go home.

Before we left for the hour trip back to Vienna, though, Karli was confronted by a very angry and animated reporter. A crew of three journalists from Reuters had been in the midst of the human flow as we were offering food and they used this as the backdrop for a videotaped news report. Now they were back smoking and looking for conversation. Or maybe more accurately looking for an argument. The reporter began by telling Karli how we were all wasting our time and that what we were doing was meaningless. Further, he said that what we were doing was actually harmful because it allowed the governments to avoid taking responsibility. Although I could not understand the content of the conversation in German, I could tell that he was becoming more and more angry and animated. Once I learned about the content, I was astonished. What was gained by sharing this opinion with cold and tired volunteers? Where was this anger coming from? How many others share such a worldview? In time, I recognized that he, too, was probably operating from his own trauma. He, too, needs compassion and healing. Somehow, all of us need healing from our traumas (no matter the cause or the extent) if we are ever to be able to live in peace and love.

So, I am left with the question of how do we help to heal the traumas in each of us so that we can act with more love and compassion. For me, my current answer is to continue practicing, even with murky intentions and without clarity of the consequences and implications. Just keep learning to love.

#5

Today I was back at Hauptbahnhof, the main train station. It seems that I have been promoted from managing the demand for hair gel and condoms. It was impressed upon me that my new task was extremely important and that so far no one had been able to get it “right” or to handle the stress. So I was very curious what this special assignment would be.

When I was told that I was to count the number of refugees, My response was “you’ve got to be kidding.” No, they were very serious about this because the coordination of onward buses and the provision of beds is dependent upon an accurate census.

There is a constant flow of people, volunteers and those we serve throughout a large railway station and shopping mall. It can be absolute chaos at times and in some locations like the kids play area. It takes over a half hour to walk the entire complex without doing anything else but I needed to have the current count turned in hourly. Once I began counting I discovered another complication. Not everyone in a busy train station is considered a refugee so I had to discern which people to count and I quickly decided that it would not be appropriate to ask those in question whether they are refugees (even if we shared a common language.

Well, I enjoy a challenge and love to devise systems. So, I quickly established a few assumptions and principles and began counting. What a mindfulness practice! And what a contrast to the human connections that I had in my other volunteer experiences. In fact, this was nearly the antithesis of compassionate human connection. I felt like a voyeur peering intently at each family or social group, craning my neck to stare at how many heads there were. The flow of people was so heavy that I could rarely make eye contact and smile. Just the numbers!

My system seemed work as it produced relatively consistent totals of between 1,400 and 1,900 people each time and I was pleased that when I trained my replacement, we independently came up with totals that were within 20 of each other. This didn’t quite meet the suggested standard of plus or minus 5 but was far closer than I would have predicted. Of course there is no way of knowing how this count compares to the actual number of people.

So I spent my day as a people counter, utilizing very different parts of my brain and skill set than I anticipated. And this felt good. It made me realize again how many varied skills and roles are needed in any endeavor. Not everyone gets the fun or human contact jobs but that doesn’t make any of them less important. My responsibilities also gave me a great opportunity to see all of the different aspects of this operation and I came away even more impressed by the effectiveness of this self-organizing volunteer system.

My wandering about also allowed me to observe numerous human interactions. Overall, I was amazed by the peace and cooperation that I observed everywhere. I saw a lot of exhausted people and I can only imagine how stressed they must be from weeks of life-threatening travel. Everywhere there were long queues and waits. Despite all of this, I observed incredible courteousness and patience, far more than what I am accustomed to in modern stores, airports or events. And not once did anyone object to my intrusive examination and nose counting.

The highlight of my day came in the shopping mall part of the building. There was a Syrian family sitting on the floor with a very young toddler. A woman shopper came by with her own child in a stroller (a pram for my non-American friends). When she saw the family on the floor, she spontaneously pulled out her child’s winter coat and give it to them, assuring them that it was brand new. Such acts of generosity and kindness fill me with wonder and with a renewed pride in and hope for humanity.

Now on the train to the home of my generous Viennese hosts, I am tired and my legs are more sore than any day I can remember on the Camino but my heart is filled with joy. It all makes me so grateful to be on this journey living life so deeply.

#6

It feels like today has been a long day though I only worked a few hours at Hauptbahnhof today. Today was Eid, the Islamic holiday, and so there was a subtle feeling of festivity in the air. There also seemed to be almost twice as many people as yesterday; apparently the “refugee buses” to Germany were not running for some reason. I was celebrating that I did not have to count the people today. Instead, I got to spend my time with the kids and they were so beautiful. It was wonderful to see them allowed just to be kids, to paint and draw and play keep-away and to enjoy the Eid candy that was in abundance.

Being tired tonight, I have been resisting writing my reflections. But, I am coming to recognize that this is an important part of my role as a Sacred Outsider. How can I make the writing a practice and not a “should”? I have been surprised and gratified by the number of people who seem to be reading my reflections and sharing them. Today I heard from two people who want to contribute financially and raise money to support the people fleeing from war to Europe. If my first hand reports can help to generate support then I want to continue to write them.

When people have asked me how best to contribute to this work, I have given mixed and probably confusing responses. This is largely due to the chaotic and rapidly changing situation here. One day the biggest need was for train tickets but a day or two later train and bus transportation was being provided for free by governments anxious to move people on to the next country. And where is the help needed the most? One day it is Hungary, the next Serbia or Croatia. Maybe Slovenia. And what is needed? Clothes? Water? Tents? Blankets? Electric tea kettles? Tarps and rain gear? All have been needed at some point and I have also seen the problem of too much stuff in the wrong place at the wrong time. What do you do when 14,000 sandwiches arrive unexpectedly at a border crossing without adequate storage space? If you give money, to what organization do you give it? How much really gets to the people who need it? And if you want to avoid the big NGOs and their administrative costs and bureaucratic processes, how do you find reputable and dependable alternatives?

In my time here, I have pondered all of these questions and I have had the opportunity to observe the work of various organizations and come to my own (tentative) conclusions. Based on all of the above challenges and factors, my recommendation is that money is more useful right now than stuff, especially from more distant donors. Money is pretty easily transported and it provides the flexibility to respond to the immediate needs. It also allows supplies to be purchased more locally where the money can contribute to a local economy that needs it.

Personally, I have been far more impressed by the work being done by self-organizing, grassroot volunteer networks than by the big NGOs. I know from personal experience how important it is to have systems and processes within professional organizations but, in my experience, these also slow down the responsiveness of the big organizations and even the most well meaning of professionals tend to treat this work as a job after awhile. There are certainly challenges with volunteer networks but what I am seeing here in Austria is that there is a vibrancy and innovative spirit among these groups that is engaging volunteers and community contributors. What I am also seeing is that the volunteer networks can be so much more flexible than the professional organizations and that they can coordinate with the big organizations when needed, helping to get them the resources that they need when and where they need them. I was on the border last weekend when the Red Cross commandant expressed that their resources were overwhelmed and he needed another 50 people. The network put out the word on social media and the needed volunteers showed up.

What really impresses and amazes me is the lack of turf and ego within the volunteer network (and it really is much more a network than an organization) and their ability to coordinate and communicate effectively by social media. In many ways, the spirit and the processes of this self-organizing system seem to be built upon the experiences and learnings of the Occupy movement and I believe that they are practicing and learning ways of being and working together that will serve the world much more in the future than the leviathan NGOs. This is not to say that the NGOs have not done good work and are not important. However, they also have well established donor bases and huge marketing budgets to assure that they get donations. So, my two cents recommendation is to contribute directly to the grassroots volunteer network.

One other observation that I would like to make and a concern that I have about the volunteer movement… Is it sustainable? I have observed volunteers who are expending all of their time and energy to respond to this crisis situation. Yet, it appears that there are hundreds of thousands more people fleeing from war and trying to make their way to Europe. This crisis could persist for months or years. Will the volunteers develop the skills and practices to care for themselves and to be able to persist for the long term? Will they build the capacity to allow themselves and others to take a break without the system falling apart? Will they find the time for reflection and learning as well as constant response to the next crisis?

I have also observed that many of these volunteers are as generous financially as they are with their time. I know that some have contributed hundreds and even thousands of dollars from their personal pockets to buy train tickets, to drive their own vehicles to deliver supplies, to sponsor individuals in becoming established here. In addition, many are even inviting families to move into their homes or neighborhoods. Such generosity is the fabric of community and I would not want to discourage it; yet it seems that those who are living here in close proximity and seeing the extent of the need are carrying the brunt of the burden (or opportunity to give). How can we engage people throughout Europe and globally to share the financial impact? To participate in the opportunity to invest in a new future for families in need and also for European communities? This is a human crisis, not a European crisis! How can we as a global community be part of financing a different future?

Something big and important is happening here; I can feel it. People are stepping up and practicing compassion and generosity and are collaborating to find new ways of working together and new solutions that the governments and old paradigm NGOs seem incapable of. To me, this is one of the most exciting and hopeful aspects of this amazing experience. And it is also an opportunity for us to collectively support this without regard to national identity or place of residence. There are ways that everyone can contribute in their own ways. I would be very pleased to continue the conversation of how to provide support – either offline in private correspondence or in the comments. Perhaps this is one small contribution of a Sacred Outsider and one small way that I can give back in gratitude for all that I am receiving.

#7

Today it rained. And rained. It was difficult to motivate myself but I went again to the main train station this afternoon and offered myself for whatever needed to be done. The coordinator appraised me and asked if I was tough enough for a very stressful job. Today there were over 3,000 people in the station and many were feeling the effects of the rain. Many were without jackets of any kind and some had no shoes or only flip-flops. Donated clothing was available in the two tents that had been established for that purpose but the capacity of the tents was limited to about 25 or 30 people in need plus the volunteer staffing it. Those needing clothes were being allowed in only a few at a time as others left and this meant that there was a need for security people to control the flow.

So, I began my new volunteer career as a security guard with the warning that it was one of the most stressful jobs and that I would probably not be able to do it for very long. I would have to be tough and to expect a lot of conflict and challenge to my authority. Was I willing to maintain control and to exert my authority without concern for hurting people’s feelings and having “shit dumped on my head” (not literally, I hoped)? I honestly wasn’t sure whether I was up to this challenge but I remembered my intention upon starting on this journey to be open to whatever life presented and to respond with a “yes”. So I signed on to be a security person. And I found it to be one of the most enjoyable volunteer jobs that I’ve experienced this week.

When I showed up at the entrance to the clothing tents I found two tunnels created with two meter high fencing (what we used to call hog fencing on the farm) covered with a plastic tarp. These two tunnels contained the mass of people wanting to get into the tents. The one tunnel that was for men was filled as far as I could see. The other tunnel for women and children had only a few people in it. I got assigned to the men’s tunnel and was immediately told that the press of men was continually pushing forward beyond the end of the tunnel and that we needed to try and push them back. I was also told that we were only to allow two men at a time to enter the tents.

I took a deep breath and projected my energy in a spacious and confident but open way, I smiled at the first two men in line, told them to go on in and immediately stepped behind them to fill the space they had vacated. My fellow-volunteer followed my lead and, by repeating this maneuver a few times, we had the head of the line re-established back at the end of the tunnel.

With re-established of the line in the tunnel, I began smiling at each person as they arrived at the front of the line, saying hello to them and establishing a personal connection. Using humor and an open heart, I soon discovered that this security detail could really be fun. We were rarely able to understand each others language but we definitely communicated and in many many cases I felt a very strong personal connection that needed no words. We were not enemies or adversaries. It was not my intention to keep anyone from getting the clothes they needed and they could sense this. The more that we worked together to deal with the challenges of so many people and so much rain, the easier and more fun it was for all of us. I was really pleased and delighted to discover how easy it was to make personal connection and to express caring and respect despite the demands of the security position. Rarely ever did I have to exert authority and when I did, I tempered it with humor and we usually ended up laughing together.

The biggest challenge of the day (besides the constant rain that drenched me for the entire 4 hour shift) was some of the other volunteers who were dealing with their sense of responsibility and frustration by constantly exhorting the people in the tents to hurry up, to move on. It felt a bit like herding cattle and I could sense the energy level of the entire group responding to this urgency. These same volunteers also at times decided to invite ten men at a time to enter the tents. Whenever this happened, the entire line surged forward and far more than ten got past us and we had to exert authority to regain control of the situation. Every time this happened, it felt like we had to start over again to connect with the men and to engage them in working together to make the best of the situation.

Throughout the course of the afternoon, I came to love these people even more. I experienced them as generally friendly and cooperative people. I was impressed by their patience and by their genuine appreciation for the condition that we were in together. This position actually gave me a little more opportunity to interact and my impression was that most of these men are highly intelligent and quite positive and caring given the situations in which they find themselves. Some did not have jackets and patiently waited in the cold for their turn to get one. Some had little or no shoes. One man had a prosthetic leg with a shoe on the artificial foot and his other bare foot in a plastic bag. Unfortunately, there were almost no shoes available today. When we told this to the men in need, I did not hear anyone express anger or frustration, just a resignation and a hope that maybe things would be better tomorrow. It humbles me and inspires me when I consider all of the little things in my life that I do not handle with anywhere near that kind of acceptance and equanimity. These blessed people truly are my teachers.

My learning for the day is that so much is possible when I approach a situation with an open heart, kindness and a sense of humor. This invites a different quality of connection and relationship and opens the door for collaboration, even in something as simple as managing a queue. And when the focus is on relationship instead of control and exerting authority, unexpected magic can happen. I think that I discovered new capacity and possibility within myself that I hope I will be able to access in other situations.

#8

The Vienna Hauptbahnhof is becoming quite familiar now as I complete my seventh day in a row as a volunteer there. Today when I arrived, I sensed something different in the feel of the place. I guess that I’ve now spent enough time there so that I have become attuned to the energy and to the subtle changes from day to day.

My initial observation was that beds had been added. Where people used to lay about sleeping on the floor, there were now some new cots. Nowhere near enough to meet the demand – maybe 15% to 20% – so there were still many people lying on the floors but the cots added a little more sense of permanence. There was also a new traffic flow that had been devised to keep those waiting in line for food from blocking the entire hallway. New signs were appearing, along with art work and many hand-drawn flags of Iraq, Syria and Kurdistan. When I went to the registration desk, my information was input into a computer rather than just entered on paper. Little by little, systems are emerging, improvements are being made, a community is coming into being. It is not a typical community as the residents will turn over every few days and a new cohort of people will flow in from Hungary, Croatia or Serbia as these move on to Germany or elsewhere is Northern Europe. I am also noticing more Africans among the residents, primarily from Nigeria from what I hear.

Today I was assigned to the children’s program again; I had worked in this area on Thursday. So my time was largely spent cleaning up messes, providing art supplies, making faces and goofing around to stimulate laughter and occasionally intervening to deal with conflict and particularly the aggressiveness of one especially traumatized and poorly socialized boy. Perhaps he reminds me some of my own younger self in his inability to get along and to share with others. This leads to conflict over the most trivial things and then it escalates into physical violence and out of control behavior. Fortunately, he is still small enough that I can physically restrain him and remove him when he loses control. In the process, I was kicked numerous times and nearly bitten. I feel so ineffectual at those times. I don’t want to further traumatize him but I also do not want to allow him to hurt other kids or to learn that he can get away with his inappropriate behavior. As an out of control kid, I always used to feel bad; I didn’t want to get into trouble but I just didn’t know how to avoid it. I wonder if he feels at all similar. A couple of times I was assisted by some other volunteers who could speak his language and were able to get through to him in ways that I couldn’t. After our battles, I approached him and offered my hand in friendship and late in the day he actually took it and began to engage with me, even offering me some of the chips he was eating. I would like to think that maybe I connected with him in some little way. Yet, I also recognize that he is a very troubled boy and I shudder to think what he may grow into if he does not get a lot of help to heal from whatever he has experienced.

It surprised me to find that I recognized several of the kids from my time on Thursday. I would have thought that they would have moved on toward Germany or other destinations. But I heard (and I cannot verify the accuracy of this; it could be one more rumor) that Germany will not be accepting any more asylum seekers until October 4. This, despite reports of 3,000 to 4,000 more people crossing the border from Hungary tomorrow and into the foreseeable future. What will it mean if they are not able to move on toward Germany? How many more people can this little self-organizing community absorb?

I have been learning so much about the journey that these people have taken in their flight from war. Austria feels to me like a downstream place of relative tranquility. Here the local community is welcoming. There is food and clothing (though not enough shoes) and personal care items and the opportunity for showers. There is not a threat of deportation and arrest. It can be a place of relative rest. Upstream is Hungary where I encountered starving and desperate people anxious to cross the border. The Hungarian government has not been at all welcoming and, while a there is a dedicated group of volunteers, the civil society has not been able to adequately support them.

Further upstream is Croatia and Serbia with undetected land mines and great uncertainty of which borders will be open when. This is also the site of large groups of people forced to sleep outside in bad weather and a very tenuous legal status that holds the threat of turning them back. There are reports of water canons and tear gas and many arrests. Even further upstream is Macedonia with the insecurity of bandits, unreliable and expensive smugglers and brutal mountain weather.

Upstream of Macedonia is Greece which is reached by sea on small, unstable rafts carrying people from Turkey. Before I got involved with the work here, I had assumed that the reports of drowning refugees must have involved those traveling from North Africa across the Mediterranean. This was due to my limited understanding of the geography. In actuality, the dangerous water crossings are typically from Turkey to Greece and this means that it is an established part of almost all of the journeys.

Moving further upstream is Turkey which has accepted a couple million people but will not grant asylum so those in Turkey feel insecure and impermanent and this is part of the impetus for them to move downstream along the routes leading to Northern Europe. But the flow does not begin in Turkey. Many people travel to Turkey from Lebanon or Jordan where there are huge refugee camps, semi-permanent encampments without integration into the larger community or adequate social and economic support (think the refugee camps in Palestine that have been the breeding ground of violence and terror). And, of course, the source of this flow is the war-torn areas of Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. A story that I have heard more than once is of families who began in Palestine and were forced to seek refuge in Syria where they were again uprooted by war and forced to begin this long journey.

One aspect that I had not previously appreciated is that there is a sorting out process that occurs at each step in the flow. Those who make it here to Vienna are the fortunate ones who survived the water crossing (so far 5,000 have drowned this year) and encounters with bandits and unscrupulous smugglers. These are the survivors. But they are also the economically advantaged. The journey is not free or inexpensive. Those that make it to Europe are not the stereotypic poor and uneducated. Those are still stuck in the camps in the Middle East. Those that make it to Europe have had to have money – around $12,000 per person to buy passage on boats and to pay smugglers and to eat and sleep along the way.

So, those arriving in Europe are middle class people who were often professionals in their former life, who owned homes and businesses that they had to sell to raise the necessary funds to travel or they are the fortunate sons for whom the family has sacrificed much of all in order to send them. These new arrivals to Europe are generally educated and have employable skills. Those without such advantages don’t make it this far downstream.

It is often hard for me to remember that I am dealing with someone who has been successful and once lived a comfortable middle class life as I offer them cast off clothes or inform them that there are no more shoes available. How hard and humiliating it must be to be forced to live by charity and the generosity of others when once having been self-sufficient. “And there but by the grace of God, go I.” I often wonder what opportunities there will be fto continue to practice their professions and to contribute their gifts in Europe. Or will they be reduced to driving taxis and selling kebabs?

I also wonder how healthy the abundant generosity is for anyone long-term. I’ve begun to notice that some of the clothes that were so desirable yesterday are now lying discarded in the mud puddles. The children have been provided so many sweets by so many well-meaning people that they leave half-eaten food lying around. I am not happy with the judgmental thoughts that I see arising in me as I look at all of the waste and think that people “should” be more appreciative and take better care of what they have been given. These are my values and they come from a very priviliged background so I intellectually know that they are not reasonable or well-grounded. Yet still they arise in my thinking and I am continually invited into the practice of acceptance and love and compassion for the person that I see in front of me.

When I allow my thinking to drift into questions of sustainability or long-term implications, it feels indulgent and unproductive. The people in need continue to flow constantly through my life and really all I can do is to show each of them all of the love and welcoming that I am capable of and to trust that somehow together we will co-create the future. What an amazing learning opportunity this is.

#9

Tonight, after working my final shift at the Vienna Hauptbahnhof (at least for now), I walked through the community that I have watched emerge there over the past eight days. It looks so different now than it did when I first showed up to volunteer. There are little changes everywhere as the collective learning is manifest in subtle changes reflecting a living community rather than a planned facility. But maybe the changes are largely in my own perspective as I realized that I have come to love this place in all of its chaos and imperfection. I have also come to recognize some of the people and to care about them. Today I even saw the little out-of-control boy that I have struggled with and he recognized me, smiling and waving (even as he pulled the hair of the kid next to him). Yes, this is one more community on my journey that I have come to know and love. And now it is time for me to leave.

It has been a good week of volunteering in Vienna. I have been comfortably hosted by friends who have given me use of their home on the outskirts of the city so that I have a bed to come home to each night, good internet connection and the spaciousness and privacy to maintain my meditation practice each day and to begin this reflective writing practice. I’ve learned the train system into the city and can almost do it on autopilot now. I have good friends here which have allowed me to engage in reflective conversation to help make sense of what I am experiencing. Twice I have been able to go to the Hungarian border crossing to welcome people as they arrive at the refuge of Austria. These two trips have stirred in me a desire to move “upstream” on the migration path and to engage with the asylum-seekers earlier on before they reach the “promised land” of Austria.

While here, I have offered my services in whatever ways I could, desiring to travel to Hungary or Croatia or Serbia but, with the exception of my two trips to the border, I have not heard an invitation or call. This is not from lack of need, I know, or from any desire to ignore me but rather from my inability to access the intelligence network here because I don’t speak German and don’t want to intrude and slow down the process by asking for everything in English. So, I have just found my little niche at the Vienna train station and I have trusted that when the time is right that I would be invited into work elsewhere before my visa expires and I have to exit Europe.

Today I got a message from a friend I met this summer on the European Peace Walk. Jenny has been following my journey and my postings and now feels her own calling to work with “refugees”. We corresponded about possibilities and in a very short time we had decided together to go to Serbia to work. It is incredible to me to observe how quickly and easily this all fell together and also to reflect upon my learnings from this.

Since I have been here in Vienna, I have been contemplating about the experiences of “refugees” and wondering what is the essence of the refugee archetype. How have I experienced being a refugee? The answer has eluded me until now. But my experience today helps me to better understand this.

People often comment on the courage that I have to live my nomadic life but I do not experience it as courage. In fact, I feel a bit cowardly in my hesitance to strike out alone into the unknown. Most all of my journey has been in response to invitations and has been supported by friends who have helped me to adjust to new places. Rarely have I ventured like a refugee into totally unknown places where I don’t know anyone and I realize that I am reluctant and afraid to do so. I fear being alone and unconnected without meaningful work and without emotional support. I also fear that i will not be able on my own to find my place in a new community. This has been a part of why I have remained in Vienna instead of going to Croatia or Serbia or even further to Macedonia or Turkey. I don’t know how to connect and find my place in the unknown and I avoid this level of challenge. But, all I needed was a tiny bit of encouragement in the form of Jenny’s interest and I am totally willing to join her in the unknowns of Belgrade.

So, I really am a refugee, one who seeks the refuge of a friend, a companion, another sojourner. Maybe what refugees have to teach us in how to step into uncertainty, how to be vulnerable and how to ask for and accept help and refuge. I am a resistant refugee, if I am honest with myself. I hate to step alone into the unknown. Instead, I prefer to respond to invitations, to go where I am welcome and have a role. The refugee does not have such a luxury. The refugee knows that s/he has to leave and to move into the unknown, trusting or hoping for assistance without any assurance. That is real vulnerability and real trust. When I consider the journey of those we call refugees, I am filled with awe and respect for their courage and for their willingness to make themselves vulnerable. There is so much that I have to learn from them.

Tomorrow I will be leaving Vienna, traveling to Belgrade Serbia where I will meet Jenny and together we will discover how we can be of service there. It feels like it is an important next step on my journey to leave the relative comfort and safety of Vienna and to venture into the unknown, trusting that there will be opportunities there to serve and to learn. This is a learning edge for me, this venturing into the unknown. I don’t know if I could have done it alone so I am very grateful to have Jenny as a companion. My experience is that life is continually calling me into greater challenges and at the same time life is generously providing the support to allow this learning to occur.

#10

After my second day of work with the Mikser House project here in Belgrade, I am really noticing the contrast the situation in Vienna. In Vienna, the railway station was constantly buzzing with the activity of a couple thousand people seeking refuge and hundreds of volunteers self-organizing and co-creating an emergent village. Here is Belgrade things are so quiet in comparison. There have rarely been more than a hundred or so people seeking refuge at the site with maybe 25 or 30 volunteers. Some say that these have been unusually quiet days and others have said that it has been a reaction to UNICEF having just opened a site in a nearby hotel.

What we lack in people here is more than made up for in stuff! My job these two days has been to sort and organize clothing. This involves opening bags and bags and boxes and boxes of donated clothes and sorting it into men’s, women’s, children’s and throwing out the unusable or inappropriate. The weather has begun to turn cold and wet so we are also on the lookout for any suitable winter clothing. As needed, clothes are moved out to the public area where people paw through them and select what they need. More often, they express their disappointment that what they need is not available.

By the end of the day, there were two large rooms filled to the ceiling with bags of sorted clothes with no indication of when, if ever, there will be enough demand for them to be put out for the public. In addition there are hundreds and hundreds of cases of pampers filling a huge room with more packages of diapers piled in every available space. Apparently, word had gone out recently that diapers were needed and the community responded with unbelievable generosity. Unfortunately, they did not respond as quickly when the word belatedly went out to stop sending diapers. They just keep coming and no one knows what to do with them all.

As I sorted clothes, my mood shifted between appreciation for the generosity shown by this community to provide so much and surprised irritation at the kind of stuff some people give. I was especially appalled by the skimpy, sexy, suggestive women’s clothing being offered to these largely Muslim women. Most of the women do not even want skirts, let alone thong underwear, low-cut blouses or t-shirts with sexual messages. To be honest, I could not even figure out what some of the pieces of clothing were or how someone would wear them and when I had it explained, I was embarrassed myself more than once.

In addition to the inappropriate clothing, there were also badly stained or torn clothes and random things like neckties. It appears that some people used this solicitation as motivation to clean out their closets and drawers (or attics) and to give it to “support the refugees”. An opportunity to get rid of what wasn’t wanted with the bonus of getting to feel generous and virtuous. That is probably a pretty judgmental perspective on my part but after dealing with so much of this stuff all day long, it is difficult to be more charitable. What these donors probably didn’t think about was how many hours have to be spent to sort this stuff and then to dispose of much of it and to store the rest.

In my imagination, I sense a river of people flowing from the Middle East to Europe. Multiple tributaries with damns at some borders causing some reservoirs. Meanwhile, I imagine another stream of stuff flowing from affluent Europeans to the refugee centers in cities like Belgrade and Vienna. There some of the stuff gets selected for offering to those in need. Some of it gets sent directly to the landfill, some gets put into storage and some of it gets sent to other charities to deal with. I wonder where it will all end up. Baled and shipped to India? There is some concern here in Belgrade that the Roma are coming in and taking the clothes meant for the refugees or that some of those seeking refuge are taking more than they need and selling it on the streets. So much energy and concern getting expended about all this stuff. What kind of world do we live in where some people can’t get the clothes they need, other people have way too much and we have bags full of inappropriate clothes to dispose of?

When I contemplate more deeply, I remember my own process of disposing of my stuff when I decided to become a nomad. I gave away a lot of crap and I justified it as being generous and as allowing others to sort out what was usable and to dispose of the rest. It bothers me to throw anything away; I can thank my parents for instilling such frugality in me. So, I would rather have someone else have to make the decision to throw something away and I convinced myself that it was an act of generosity to give away such garbage. When I recognize this in myself, I can better understand what we are dealing with.

One thing that I discovered in my own processing of getting rid of my stuff is that I felt lighter and more free every time that I disposed of something. I experience a joy in the lack of stuff that I own even though I continue to wonder why my pack is as heavy as it is and what it is that I could get along without. And I think of the ecological cost of all this stuff. And the human cost of all the cheap clothing produced in sweat shops. And my conclusion is that it would be a much more generous act to resist buying stuff than to buy it and give it away. How can we create a world in which everyone has what she or he really needs without producing and consuming so much more that really does no good and, in fact, does great harm to the planet? My fear is that this “refugee crisis” is just perpetuating our fixation on stuff (piles of plastic bottles of water piled higher than my head, unbelievable quantities of diapers) While still not providing the warm clothes needed by families crossing the mountains.

How do we connect the dots between our ecological crisis and war and the dislocation of people and our economic system? These are not disconnected issues but are all symptoms of our disturbed relationship to all of life.

#11

My education in the refugee situation was suddenly accelerated a few hours ago. Since arriving in Belgrade Serbia on Tuesday, I have been up to my eyeballs (literally) in donated clothing. There has been such an abundance of clothes donated that a team of six to eight people has been kept busy sorting and organizing it. This has felt like important work, but it has lacked much direct contact with the people seeking refuge. The scene in Belgrade has also been quite serene compared to what I experienced in Vienna because most people arriving from the Greek/Macedonian route are now bypassing Belgrade unless they are waiting to reconnect with separated family members or awaiting money transfer. This means that most of the refuge seekers are Afghanis who have traveled over the mountains from Bulgaria.

At the end of a tiring day of moving and sorting hundreds of bags and boxes of clothing, I suddenly had the opportunity to go to the border with Greg, an Australian volunteer that I met the night before. There have been some reports of a chaotic situation at Presevo, the crossing on the Macedonia border. The information has been very incomplete and unclear which for some reason seems to be a common pattern among the organizations serving people seeking refuge. So, Greg and I loaded his rental car with blankets and warm clothing and made the four hour trip to Presevo.

What we found in Presevo totally astounded me. As of about three days ago, the Serbian authorities began requiring all persons seeking asylum in Europe to register before being granted a 72 hour transit permit allowing them to travel through to Croatia. The border crossing at Presevo is the convergence of multiple migration routes with four to five trains carrying about 3,000 people per day. These people have to walk about 1 km to the border town of Miratovac where volunteers meet them with food, water and transport for the seven km to Presevo. So, around 3,000 people per day arrive in Presevo where they stand in a queue for over a day to get the registration papers. Despite working 24 hours per day, the government workers can only process about 2,000 people per day. A quick bit of arithmetic confirms why the numbers in Presevo are growing.

Downtown Presevo is totally closed by the queue which has reportedly been four people wide and a kilometer long. The street is lined with tents and people shivering in blankets. There are fires burning and trash accumulating. The crowd was becoming increasingly agitated as there was confusion about the process and the need for the registration paper. Some refugees have caught buses north without the required paper and been turned back at police checkpoints. The majority of the people arriving in Presevo are from Syria with over half (estimated) to be families.

There is not enough food in Presevo to feed this number of arrivals in addition to the local residents. The volunteers fear the reaction of the crowd if inadequate food is made available so they are not trying to feed them. This means that a few thousand people are waiting more than a day in the cold without food and adequate water. And the number and wait time is increasing each day. The Red Cross, UNHCR, MSF and a couple of other NGOs are present in Presevo but their presence is limited to the enclosure area where the registration takes place, leaving the care of the people in the queues to volunteers. The professionals from the NGOs also go home at 10 pm leaving all the care to volunteers. There are reportedly 12 volunteers in Presevo and another 40 needed. Almost all of the current volunteers are busy shuttling people from the border to the town of Presevo leaving no one to care for the cold and hungry in the queue. He crowd is becoming increasingly agitated and there is a large contingent of police arriving by bus at each shift change.

With the help of two volunteers, Greg and I distributed all of the blankets and clothes and are now headed back to Belgrade where we hope to recruit and organize volunteers and supplies and money to return to Presevo by tomorrow night.

I cannot begin to describe the heart breaking conditions in Presevo with thousands of people huddled on the ground or pressing the barricades. But even more heart breaking for me was listening to the story of Badwan, the volunteer coordinator. He is an Albanian who arrived in Presevo 15 years ago seeking refuge from the Kosovo war. He was welcomed along with many other Albanians by the largely Albanian community in Presevo. Now these former “refugees” are welcoming this flood of refugees and in the process many of them are experiencing traumatic memories of their own escape. Badwan has been working largely without sleep for several days and he told us that his mother had surgery today for breast cancer and he has not even been able to find the time to visit her.

I honestly don’t know how to respond to the kind of courage and caring that I continually witness here – among the volunteers, the host community and the people fleeing for safety. Everyone has treated me with such courtesy and gratitude and I feel humbled and a bit embarrassed because it is so little in comparison to the need. We as a global community have a flood of vulnerable people in desperate need and our capacity to respond is inadequate to the need. Meanwhile, our governments continue to spend millions of dollars per day dropping bombs that create more displaced people and building fences (literal and figurative) to keep them out.

This is exhausting and heart breaking work yet I feel so grateful to be able to do it. It makes me feel alive and connected to humanity unlike anything I’ve experienced. In the process I am also meeting so many other volunteers from around the world and hearing them also say what a gift it is to be doing this work.

#12

What a day it has been. There has been a dramatic shift from the mood in Presevo this morning until evening. For awhile this morning, it looked like we would be entirely overrun by people seeking refuge. Everyone seemed agitated and when the crowds surged forward and the barriers could not hold the people back, police responded with force and night sticks.

The crowd tilled the Main Street from side to side making it nearly impossible to escort the most vulnerable people to the head of the line. The pleas were heart wrenching and too many times I had to say no, often accompanied by my tears.

Sometimes there was nothing to do but witness the situation, breath deeply and generate love for everyone. Other times, there were opportunities to say good morning or thank you to the police. Other times I would hand out water to the thirsty.

I was really touched by one of the burly Serbian policemen who kept telling the agitated people “we are brothers, we are brothers, please be calm, please be calm”. I could feel his caring and see its effect upon those in the lines.

By afternoon, systems had evolved. The enclosures were modified. Those in the lines were enlisted to communicate and to help maintain order. Everyone would be asked to sit on the ground and the would comply and then cooperate to help women and children to be moved out of the crowd and expedited toward the processing center. A sense of communal shared purpose emerged. People passed water to those who couldn’t reach it. Even though the wait was still interminable, people seemed much more patient. I cannot begin to count how many “thank yous” I heard for water or information or just for simple courtesies.

In the afternoon we volunteers took advantage of the more orderly systems to begin dealing with the mountains of garbage that was accumulating everywhere. With shovel and brooms and our hands we filled hundreds of garbage sacks with trash and discarded clothing and blankets that had become rain and mud soaked. As we collectively attended to the environment, I noticed that the people in line began moving to allow us to work easier among them. Then a couple of them asked if they could help. Before long, we had volunteers and people seeking refuge working side by side in the muck and trash and soon we had transformed the street. One of the volunteers from the line suggested that we hang garbage bags on the barriers so that people could dispose of litter rather than throwing it on the ground and then he took it upon himself to hang the bags. I was so gratified to receive this help because it has been really bothering me that we do everything for the people and have not been allowing opportunity for them to participate in meeting their own needs. There was so much more of a sense of community and much more cooperation and watching out for each other by the end of the day.

Now it is evening and time to go prepare food bags and to distribute them to all of the people who will be spending the night on the street. Hopefully, it will be a much smaller number tonight.

#13

It has been a very strange experience today watching the town of Presevo Serbia return to normalcy. Yesterday morning we were inundated with the press of people seeking refugee. Before they can find that refuge in Europe, they must cross through Seria, Croatia, Hungary and then into Austria.

The Serbian government, reportedly at the insistence of the Europol police, have been implementing a strict screen process upon entry into Serbia. First their luggage is scanned (like airport security) at the border. Then, in Presevo they are surveyed, interviewed, fingerprinted and photographed as part of the registration process. This is the process that caused the Main Street of Presevo to become a series of holding pens for thousands of people. Thirsty, hungry, tired, scared, confused – this must have been a hellacious experience for them. Some people spent multiple days in these pens euphemistically called queues. They were constantly under the watchful and controlling eyes of a large contingent of police including the elite special forces with their riot gear and automatic weapons.

Things were amazingly peaceful and cooperative really. Police generally showed restraint and even caring. Most of the people in the pens displayed patience and courtesy. There were a few incidents Thai witnessed where the crowd pushing caused the barriers to burst and the police to forcefully respond. But my sense was that no one wanted violence and all worked to maintain order.

Yesterday afternoon something shifted and everything became more a orderly flow. By evening the queue had shrunk and by 1 am, it had disappeared entirely. This morning all was quiet but the area looked like a hurricane had hit. There was garbage everywhere and metal barriers forming empty enclosures.

Then a miraculous transformation occurred as local town’s people, volunteers and aid workers worked together to clean up and return the town to normal. Many volunteers packed up and moved on to the next hot spot while others of us shifted into a next phase of this work. For Jenny and me this meant cleaning and equipping the volunteer house we have been staying in to be able to more comfortably house more volunteers in the future. It also involved unloading a huge UNHCR tent and placing it into storage so that the “next time” the enclosures can be sheltered from sun and rain and we also put 200 new cots into storage for future use.

Late this afternoon, I realized that the town was back to normal when I saw a few cows being being led up Main Street, a more typical scene for a rural Sebian town than pens full of human livestock. The street was clean of all garbage. The barricades were discretely moved to the side of the road. The street was again open to traffic. A large police presence remained but they were relaxed and inconspicuous. Town residents were out cleaning the areas in front of their homes and businesses and there was lots of friendly conversation and cooperation.

Back to normal? That was my impression but I wonder if it is really possible to return to an old sense of normal. What is normal anyway? And how has this community and those of us outsiders that have been hosted here – how have we been changed by this experience? In this modern world, maybe the new normal is the ability to adapt and to welcome the outsider and to be resilient enough to roll up the collective sleeves, clean up the mess and be ready for the next challenge.

I find it tempting to consider this respite to be the end of the crisis. But it seems that it might just be a temporary lull caused by turbulent seas and storms preventing the crossing from Turkey to Greece. It is possible that the flow will resume or even intensify at any time. Bombs are still being dropped in Syria. The Taliban is on the offensive in Afghanistan. War is making it unsafe for families to live peacefully in much of the Middle East. So, people will continue to seek refuge and this respite may soon seem like a dream.

And I wonder how I have been changed by this experience. How will I be unable to return to “normal”? What are the learnings that I am taking from this experience? It is still too early for me to be clear on my personal learnings but I suspect that my heart has been stretched. Many times in recent days I would be unable to talk without crying. This feels like a gift, like my capacity to feel and to care and to love has been expanded. I also think that I learned a lot about the interactions of police and crowds and I have a much deeper appreciation for the challenges of police and a respect for those that I witnessed practicing restraint and caring while also enforcing control. I also have another personal experience of order emerging from chaos and some of the negative responses to attempts at imposing control. I’m in the process of learning more about what I have to offer in such crisis situations. When there is such pressure to do something, I am realizing that my presence, my state of being can be more powerful and more of a gift than anything I could do. There are also nascent learnings about the role of egoic and attention-getting motivations and actions. I need to spend more time in reflection upon my own motivations and how I can be more selfless and compassionate in my service. What a gift it is to be here and engaged in such powerful and important learning.

#14

(written October 5,2015)

What a day it has been. There has been a dramatic shift from the mood in Presevo this morning until evening. For awhile this morning, it looked like we would be entirely overrun by people seeking refuge. Everyone seemed agitated and when the crowds surged forward and the barriers could not hold the people back, police responded with force and night sticks.

The crowd tilled the Main Street from side to side making it nearly impossible to escort the most vulnerable people to the head of the line. The pleas were heart wrenching and too many times I had to say no, often accompanied by my tears.

Sometimes there was nothing to do but witness the situation, breath deeply and generate love for everyone. Other times, there were opportunities to say good morning or thank you to the police. Other times I would hand out water to the thirsty.

I was really touched by one of the burly Serbian policemen who kept telling the agitated people “we are brothers, we are brothers, please be calm, please be calm”. I could feel his caring and see its effect upon those in the lines.

By afternoon, systems had evolved. The enclosures were modified. Those in the lines were enlisted to communicate and to help maintain order. Everyone would be asked to sit on the ground and the would comply and then cooperate to help women and children to be moved out of the crowd and expedited toward the processing center. A sense of communal shared purpose emerged. People passed water to those who couldn’t reach it. Even though the wait was still interminable, people seemed much more patient. I cannot begin to count how many “thank yous” I heard for water or information or just for simple courtesies.

In the afternoon we volunteers took advantage of the more orderly systems to begin dealing with the mountains of garbage that was accumulating everywhere. With shovel and brooms and our hands we filled hundreds of garbage sacks with trash and discarded clothing and blankets that had become rain and mud soaked. As we collectively attended to the environment, I noticed that the people in line began moving to allow us to work easier among them. Then a couple of them asked if they could help. Before long, we had volunteers and people seeking refuge working side by side in the muck and trash and soon we had transformed the street. One of the volunteers from the line suggested that we hang garbage bags on the barriers so that people could dispose of litter rather than throwing it on the ground and then he took it upon himself to hang the bags. I was so gratified to receive this help because it has been really bothering me that we do everything for the people and have not been allowing opportunity for them to participate in meeting their own needs. There was so much more of a sense of community and much more cooperation and watching out for each other by the end of the day.

Now it is evening and time to go prepare food bags and to distribute them to all of the people who will be spending the night on the street. Hopefully, it will be a much smaller number tonight.

#15

(written October 7, 2015)

It has been a very strange experience today watching the town of Presevo Serbia return to normalcy. Yesterday morning we were inundated with the press of people seeking refugee. Before they can find that refuge in Europe, they must cross through Seria, Croatia, Hungary and then into Austria.

The Serbian government, reportedly at the insistence of the Europol police, have been implementing a strict screen process upon entry into Serbia. First their luggage is scanned (like airport security) at the border. Then, in Presevo they are surveyed, interviewed, fingerprinted and photographed as part of the registration process. This is the process that caused the Main Street of Presevo to become a series of holding pens for thousands of people. Thirsty, hungry, tired, scared, confused – this must have been a hellacious experience for them. Some people spent multiple days in these pens euphemistically called queues. They were constantly under the watchful and controlling eyes of a large contingent of police including the elite special forces with their riot gear and automatic weapons.

Things were amazingly peaceful and cooperative really. Police generally showed restraint and even caring. Most of the people in the pens displayed patience and courtesy. There were a few incidents Thai witnessed where the crowd pushing caused the barriers to burst and the police to forcefully respond. But my sense was that no one wanted violence and all worked to maintain order.

Yesterday afternoon something shifted and everything became more a orderly flow. By evening the queue had shrunk and by 1 am, it had disappeared entirely. This morning all was quiet but the area looked like a hurricane had hit. There was garbage everywhere and metal barriers forming empty enclosures.

Then a miraculous transformation occurred as local town’s people, volunteers and aid workers worked together to clean up and return the town to normal. Many volunteers packed up and moved on to the next hot spot while others of us shifted into a next phase of this work. For Jenny and me this meant cleaning and equipping the volunteer house we have been staying in to be able to more comfortably house more volunteers in the future. It also involved unloading a huge UNHCR tent and placing it into storage so that the “next time” the enclosures can be sheltered from sun and rain and we also put 200 new cots into storage for future use.

Late this afternoon, I realized that the town was back to normal when I saw a few cows being being led up Main Street, a more typical scene for a rural Sebian town than pens full of human livestock. The street was clean of all garbage. The barricades were discretely moved to the side of the road. The street was again open to traffic. A large police presence remained but they were relaxed and inconspicuous. Town residents were out cleaning the areas in front of their homes and businesses and there was lots of friendly conversation and cooperation.

Back to normal? That was my impression but I wonder if it is really possible to return to an old sense of normal. What is normal anyway? And how has this community and those of us outsiders that have been hosted here – how have we been changed by this experience? In this modern world, maybe the new normal is the ability to adapt and to welcome the outsider and to be resilient enough to roll up the collective sleeves, clean up the mess and be ready for the next challenge.

I find it tempting to consider this respite to be the end of the crisis. But it seems that it might just be a temporary lull caused by turbulent seas and storms preventing the crossing from Turkey to Greece. It is possible that the flow will resume or even intensify at any time. Bombs are still being dropped in Syria. The Taliban is on the offensive in Afghanistan. War is making it unsafe for families to live peacefully in much of the Middle East. So, people will continue to seek refuge and this respite may soon seem like a dream.

And I wonder how I have been changed by this experience. How will I be unable to return to “normal”? What are the learnings that I am taking from this experience? It is still too early for me to be clear on my personal learnings but I suspect that my heart has been stretched. Many times in recent days I would be unable to talk without crying. This feels like a gift, like my capacity to feel and to care and to love has been expanded. I also think that I learned a lot about the interactions of police and crowds and I have a much deeper appreciation for the challenges of police and a respect for those that I witnessed practicing restraint and caring while also enforcing control. I also have another personal experience of order emerging from chaos and some of the negative responses to attempts at imposing control. I’m in the process of learning more about what I have to offer in such crisis situations. When there is such pressure to do something, I am realizing that my presence, my state of being can be more powerful and more of a gift than anything I could do. There are also nascent learnings about the role of egoic and attention-getting motivations and actions. I need to spend more time in reflection upon my own motivations and how I can be more selfless and compassionate in my service. What a gift it is to be here and engaged in such powerful and important learning.

#16

(written on October 8, 2015)

Thank you friends for all the birthday greetings today. This will definitely be one to remember. I have had happier ones but I doubt that I’ve ever had a more meaningful or fulfilling one.

My day began at 5:30 in our crowded shared house, turned volunteer command center and refuge. Despite people coming and going all night taking turns sleeping in our limited beds, I slept the deep sleep of exhaustion and renewal.

By 6:00 I was on the front lines answering questions, distributing UNHCR raincoats until they ran out and then plastic garbage bags for DIY raincoats, identifying EVRs (extremely vulnerable refugees) and advocating – sometimes quite assertively – with the overwhelmed police to allow them to escape the 8+ hour queue, listening to some of the world’s most heart breaking stories, carrying babies through the mud when it became too much for exhausted and overwhelmed parents, and helping police manage the crowd. Far too often I had to say “no” to desperate people wanting the woefully inadequate number of raincoats. I felt ashamed when I had to listen to grown men begging me for a plastic garbage bag and I would refuse them because we were prioritizing women and children. A few times I had to channel my inner warrior and shout with all my intensity for people to back off. What kind of world do we live in where a plastic raincoat can nearly cause a stampede or small riot?

I was disappointed and discouraged to repeatedly discover the limits of my compassion. There were times that I closed my heart to any caring emotion, times that I wanted to run away, times that I wished we didn’t have any raincoats so I wouldn’t have to decide who got one and who didn’t. Is it humanly possible to remain loving and caring in such an emotional pressure cooker?

The end of my six hour shift (I will work two of them per day) came and went. I could feel my fatigue but there was no relief coming so I stayed on, dreaming of taking the time to escape to the pizza parlor to treat myself to a proper birthday meal.

All of a sudden, around 13:30, I was called to immediate attention when a young woman fell and was knocked unconscious. I ran to the MSF medical tent and begged for a doctor. I was told to take her to the medical clinic inside the enclosure. A quick search revealed that there were no stretchers or wheel chairs available so I ran back to the woman and four or five of us ran with her to the clinic. All I know of her condition is that she was alive and moving a little. I guess that is a microcosm of the work here. We do what we can and the people move on and we never know more about their condition or destination. My emergency response sapped my last reserve of emotional energy and I walked off to find my pizza.

Now, over my pizza, I am recounting some of the successes of the morning. The babies I carried through the mud. The genuine gratitude from some people as I gave them a simple garbage bag, the organization that I have dove with our volunteer communication system, the pregnant women that I was able to rescue from the line, the sense of teamwork and mutual respect with the Serbian police and with UNHCR colleagues. So much to be grateful for.

Finally, a little plea. All of the grassroots volunteer groups here in Presevo have run out of money. Many came with their pockets full of money raised in Germany, Sweden, Switzerland and elsewhere. But the funds have gone fast, purchasing food and raincoats and garbage bags and emergency bus tickets and, and, and. All of us are frequently and willingly using our personal funds to respond to emergent needs. But more money is needed. I hate to suggest that money is (ever) the answer and I hate to ask for money. But the reality is that the flood of refugees does not appear to be slowing and the rain continues to fall. We expect a very difficult night ahead of us an more days of the same. If any of you would like to honor my birthday celebration in a tangible way, I invite you to donate money and I promise that it will be used to help a person in need.

Finally, thank you all for the birthday greetings and the personal notes of encouragement and concern. I apologize that I’ve not been able to respond personally to them. But they make a difference and help to sustain me. I couldn’t do this work without your support. Yes, I am tired and my emotional resources are tapped but I am also blessed with strength and resilience (some might say stubbornness) and I am able to continue and I am caring for myself. So, thanks for your concern, but there is no need to worry.

#17

(written October 9, 2015)

Just a quick update tonight as I am exhausted from working two 6 hour shifts in the past day.

I am grateful beyond words for the response that you, my friends and family, made to my birth day request for money to support the work with people seeking refuge. In less than a day I have already received nearly $3,000. I would like to be able to send a personal thanks to each of you but, given that I am having trouble keeping my eyes open at 8pm, this is not likely to happen soon.

Please know that I am grateful and that this will make a huge difference for many tired, hungry and destitute people, Strangely, I am already aware that it will also make a difference within me. I long to be more generous and to live in a mood of abundance. But I am disappointed to recognize the depth and tenacity of my attachment to the narrative of scarcity. It is so difficult for me to give freely without some internal calculation of whether I can afford I, whether the person really needs it and what will happen if I don’t have “enough”. Old messages that no longer serve me or the world.

So, with your generosity, I trust that I will be able to more easily respond with “yes” rather than “maybe” or “no” or to give with less than a truly open heart. My hope is that this will re-program my response pattern and that it will be reinforced by the joy and satisfaction I feel when I give. Maybe one result of your generosity will be a more generous Steve. I hope so.

Today has been a day of emerging systems here in Presevo. We are expecting an influx of volunteers in coming days and need to develop the minimal necessary structures to support and utilize them. In addition, the volunteer community is developing as we share information, establish relationships and develop systems in response to the problems we are experiencing. It has been interesting to watch my own participation in this process as I move the full spectrum from picking up garbage to attempting to facilitate our volunteer meeting to negotiating revised systems with UNHCR. There seem to be opportunities to practice many of my skills and to refine and deepen them in a new and very challenging environment. I am so grateful for this ongoing journey of service and learning.

So, I guess that I wasn’t able to keep this short after all.

And just as I was finishing this post, I got interrupted by a request to buy food and water to provide to the people standing in the queue through the night. So the first 15,000 dinars ($150 US) has been put to good use. Gratitude.

#18

Very tense situation in Presevo tonight. It has been raining much of the day. Cold rain in the morning caused hypothermic conditions, especially among the young children including one 10 day old infant.

An unexpected benefit from the miserable weather was that we built a spirit of teamwork with the police. Volunteers were frantically making DIY raincoats and ponchos out of garbage bags and suddenly some of the police began helping and before long we were laughing and working together with the policemen who with whom we have been on tense terms. Amazing how working together can create such positive spirit.

An added attraction this morning was a Serbian wedding complete with a brass band and procession through the town square and lively Serbian dancing. What a weird contrast between the miserable people in the rain and the festive dancers. As I worked in the pouring rain, I had to wonder about what kind of world we have created in which people feel such gratitude to be given a plastic garbage bag. Of course, that plastic bag could be the difference between hypothermia and just miserable chilling.

By noon, everyone had been admitted to the processing center and our work shifted to mucking up all of the garbage from thousands of people in the rain and mud over the past couple of days. By 2pm the next load of people began arriving and the line began growing. Then the power went out and all processing stopped which caused the line to grow long. And the rains resumed. Tonight, processing has been going very slowly using backup generators. The lines are very long and restless. The rain continues. People are very cold and all of their patience seems to be gone. There is a lot of concern that this could be the conditions that cause violence and rioting. So it could be a long night.

We are slowly but surely building a volunteer system here. We now have established eight hour shifts; mine begins at 6am though I am still working at 10 tonight. The frustration we are experiencing is that lots of volunteers come with supplies and big ideas for wonderful new projects and systems changes. But they are gone again in a couple of days leaving their projects for others to maintain. Meanwhile, we sometimes struggle to have enough volunteers to cover our basic shifts. Self organization is wonderful (I really don’t want to work in any other system but there is also a need for minimal structure and for the kind of relationship building that comes over time with consistency and continuity. Having been here a week now, I am the old-timer and even though I don’t have any sexy exciting pet project, it does seem like I am providing some of the glue that is holding us together. So, I will continue to find hypothermic kids and muck garbage and contribute what I can to relationship building and system development. What an incredible dojo this has been for practicing warrior ship with compassion, quiet leadership with humility. Feeling incredible gratitude.

#19

(written October 12, 2015)

A huge thank you to all of you who supported us yesterday in the calamity we experienced in Presevo Serbia. We survived the flood (of rainwater and of people seeking refuge) with no fatalities to my knowledge; a few cases of children with extreme hypothermia, one miscarriage, exhausted and traumatized volunteers, and tons of garbage in the streets.

Today the sun is out and spirits have brightened. It is amazing to witness the resilience of people and communities.

I have been here in Presevo for ten days and I am seeing big changes. We have an emerging volunteer system that is providing many essential services – food, information, shelter, clothing, emotional support, etc. Yesterday we had a first coordination meeting of most of the aid organizations and our volunteer system. Personal relationships are being developed among all the players including the police. Order is emerging constantly from the chaos. Slowly, we are developing a sustainable system for the long term.

All of us here are very grateful for all of you who are standing with us in so many ways. Your words of support and encouragement, offers of medical supplies, financial contributions (the “generosity fund” that I have been stewarding through my webpage has received almost $8,000; over $3,000 in the past 24 hours), sharing the story and raising awareness, and more people coming to volunteer.

This morning everything looks so much more positive and hopeful. The temptation is to think that the problems are behind us. But there are dark clouds over the mountains to the west, we know that it will be snowing within a few weeks and the flow of people seeking refuge is unabated. We need to be prepared for the long term needs here. So our attention is divided between the immediate needs and developing sustainable systems for coming months.

Again, thank you all and I hope that your support in all of its forms will continue even as we move beyond yesterday’s crisis.

#20

(written October 13, 2015)

Today I am feeling empathy for the “Little Boy Who Cried Wolf”. After posting about the terrible conditions in Presevo experienced by the people seeking refuge, I woke up this morning to discover that the flow of people dried up over night. There were literally only five people seeking refuge left in town. The processing center had finished registering everyone and shut down operations for the night.

Today the sun was out, the flow of people was very light and the energy of the town was quite positive. The police smiled and responded when I said dobradan (good morning). I saw lots of acts of little kindness and consideration. We even had the municipal garbage service pick up the tons of garbage that has been accumulating since Saturday. Presevo was a different place and today was almost like a day off.

So what if the crisis is over and we no longer need so many volunteers? What if I’ve solicited money and volunteers that is really not needed? Did I over-react to calf-deep water in the streets and hypothermic kids? Of course, I know that I wasn’t over-reacting and that there are no words to describe the intensity of the misery. But, what will people think if they arrive in response to my description?

What I am learning is how difficult it is to live in a situation where there is no way to anticipate, where all is uncertain. Our supply of volunteers and materials seem to be constantly out of synch with the need. We are over-extended by the heavy flow of people and inadequate number of volunteers one day so we recruit moe volunteers only to have the flow of people slow the next day leaving volunteers without enough to do. Or we will have a rainstorm and request raincoats only to have cases of unneeded plastic raincoats arrive just as the sun comes out.

I realize that this is just a magnification of the uncertainty that is all of life. There really is no certainty but our extensive commercial and government systems insulate us from having to experience this. We live in the illusion of predictability and normalcy. Here, that veneer has been totally destroyed and we are forced to face the vivid and painful reality of not knowing.

My plans and expectations and elaborate schemes all seem pretty silly. And yet, without looking ahead and trying to anticipate, nothing complicated can ever get accomplished. So I am reminded that everything we are doing is an experiment or a prototype from which we will hopefully lean something. And part of what I am learning is the importance of accepting my own and other people’s feeble attempts to plan or control anything and a realization that getting it “right” is totally an illusion and a set up for negative emotion.

Time now for bed. I wonder what surprises I will wake up to tomorrow.

#21

What a gift it is to sit beside a beautiful flowing river and to gaze at the wooded mountainside beyond. It is so peaceful here in Macedonia where I am taking a few days of rest and recovery. Yet, my mind cannot let go of the experiences of the past month and of the knowledge that not far from here there are families struggling against fatigue and weather and resistant systems in their effort to find safety and asylum. What a contrast between the peaceful powerful flow of the river and the chaotic flow of migrating people.

There is so much that I cannot begin to find the words to describe. The experience had so many facets to it…

Watching the cooperation and the courage of migrating people in the most extreme conditions. Dealing with challenging logistical problems. Feeling the bone-deep chill from hours in the cold rain. Sensing the warmth of my life-force flowing into the hypothermic child in my arms. Seeing genuine gratitude in response to a banana or a raincoat. Feeling frustration with the demands of everyone wanting a plastic garbage bag while knowing that I only had enough for the women and children.

Anger at being alone in life and death crises while the medical and aid professionals awoke from their night’s sleep or did their paperwork between shifts leaving volunteers and police to manage the situation. The amazing volunteer system that self-organized over a couple of weeks. The sense of comradeship with fellow-volunteers at the end of a long shift. Teamwork with the stoic police officers with the big hearts that they dared not show openly. Deep respect and appreciation for some of the professionals who persisted against so many obstacles.

The resourcefulness of volunteers who sourced scarce supplies and devised creative solutions. Frustration and anger with the anarchist volunteers who resisted any attempts at organization and structure and endangered the good relations that others had worked so hard to develop. Frustration and anger at attempts by those in position of power to impose unilateral decisions on people who had far more understanding of the complexities of the situation. Fear, frustration and exasperation with “Mafia taxi drivers”, those who find ways of exploiting the vulnerable at each point of their journey and who threaten volunteers who attempt to provide honest information.

The heart-expanding experience so deeply feeling the emotion of the crowd of people around me that I could not speak without crying. The powerlessness of lying sick with a fever for over a day while knowing that I was needed on the streets. The surprise of discovering a capacity to energetically hold an agitated crowd at the edge of rioting and to help them breathe and calm. Impatience with inefficiencies, waste and redundancies. The sickening piles of garbage every day and the sense of accomplishment when we had cleaned the street. Concern for the lack of sanitation and the constant risk of an outbreak of dysentery. The gift of friends showing up to be with me and to support me in this work; I couldn’t have done it without that support.

The beautiful smile of children. Aggravation toward people whose ego seemed more important than the needs we were addressing and toward those cavalier volunteers who come to town and initiate projects only to leave them half-complete for someone else to implement while they rush off to the next hot-spot to feed their adrenaline addiction. Impatience with my own judgmental nature and tendency to see the worst in situations. The tiresome use of the pronoun “I” when”we” were responsible for most everything that was accomplished. The difficulty of opening my eyes at 6am after 5 hours of sleep and pulling myself out of bed. Falling soundingly asleep in a restaurant while eating dinner.

The sense of total overwhelm while accompanying the son of a deceased woman in search of her other son; looking for an Ahmed in a sea of Middle Eastern faces. The feeling of deep connection when I laid my hands on a man about to have a heart attack and we together breathed him through the crisis. The sense of satisfaction at the end of a shift or the end of the day, knowing that 5,000 or 10,000 people were a step closer to their destination. The embarrassed pleasure in being told “thank you” over and over again.

It feels like each of these snippets of experience deserves its own story and exploration. Yet my time for reflection has been so limited and tomorrow I will be returning to Presevo to see what is next for me.

I was in Presevo for 21 days, working 15 to 18 hours most days. During that time, at least 100,000 people walked through the town and through my life, having fled war and having crossed the Aegean in rafts, some having lost family members, many having lost their life savings and their belongings, some searching for lost family members. All determined to make their way to a new life in Europe. This is a epic event that I am convinced will have change the future of Europe and the world. There is so much positive and so much potential if Europe is able to continue welcoming and assimilating these incredible people. And so much potential for conflict and cultural war if the world closes its heart and allows fear to direct our responses.

Over and over, I was struck by the fact that many of the people in front of me had been middle-class professionals in their home countries – doctors, lawyers, factory owners, professors, engineers, teachers. Only a week before, some of them had been living a middle-class lifestyle similar what I have known. And during that week, they had progressively been stripped of their dignity and their sense of agency and choice to the point that they were begging for and gratefully accepting a plastic garbage bag or a bit of food. And, at the same time, there were proud families that insisted that the children say “thank you” for each little thing they received.

This has truly been the most intense experience of my life, filled with all kinds of emotions and with difficult physical challenges. And it has probably been the most satisfying and rewarding experience also as i discovered my own capacity and gifts and experienced the gift of being of being a channel for love and compassion. I am so grateful!

#22

This experience in Presevo has been really challenging and difficult – physically and emotionally but also in confronting some of my values and beliefs about leadership and systems development. At times, I feel like a total failure as someone who fancies himself to be a systems thinker, a change agent and a practitioner of collaborative leadership. It feels like all attempts at creating a self-organizing and self-governing volunteer system have failed miserably. The current system that I returned to after my five day break seems terribly dysfunctional and at the point of falling apart. Most of the volunteer have left. There is an ongoing conflict between self-proclaimed anarchists and others who believe in command and control. Things feel polarized and I feel overwhelmed and powerless to change the dynamic despite many people expressing an unrealistic expectation that my return will change things.

My desire has been for us to develop a coordinated volunteer system in which all of the participants had a voice and a sense of ownership in decisions. I believed that the system could self-organize to be able to respond flexibly and wisely to the needs of the people we are here to serve. This didn’t happen and I wonder why. What can I learn from this experience and what learnings might there be for the field of practitioners in participatory leadership? As is so often the case, I don’t feel like I can easily identify the learnings from this experience but I do have some observations and questions to explore.

A persistent problem that we have encountered is the culture clash between authoritarian and anarchical styles. Many of the young volunteer are very strong in their identification with anarchy. Whether this is true anarchy or not, I’m not sure; several people have claimed that it is not anarchy but just anti-authoritarianism. At any rate, these young people seem to resist all attempts to coordinate activities, refusing to sign up for specific times to work and avoiding any scheduled meetings. This is not to suggest that they are not committed to serving people. In fact many of them are very deeply dedicated to the work. But they insist upon doing it on their own terms.

Early on, volunteers were not welcomed by the police and by aid workers and we had to work hard to build relationships. One strategy that we used was to establish a strict protocol and criteria for identifying and expediting “extremely vulnerable refugees”. We trained all of the volunteers within our volunteer system in these procedures and experienced greatly improved relationships with the police and agencies as a result. However, well-meaning (self-proclaimed) anarchist would see a family that they felt needed special attention and would advocate unilaterally with the police which often reduced the goodwill we had been building. When I experienced this, I found myself getting angry and resorting to attempts to control the situation by restricting the work to trained volunteers. Of course, this was interpreted (probably rightfully) as being authoritarian and it led to more rebellious behavior. My learning from this experience is to be more vigilant about my own reactions and to use this as an opportunity for conversation and genuine curiosity rather than to jump to judgmental interpretations of the behaviors.

On the other extreme were the local Youth Center authorities who were the sponsors of the volunteer system. These were Albanian locals who had relationships with police and other local authorities and who felt that they would be held responsible for the actions of the volunteers. This seemed like a very real issue and one that I thought should be recognized and respected by all of the volunteers. In fact, I considered it to be a primary principle that, as volunteers, we should not do anything that was not approved by the Youth Center. Not surprisingly, the anarchists did not agree with this principle. They interpreted it as another means of exerting power and control. One of the requirements of Serbian law is that all non-residents must register with the local police. The Youth Center handled this registration as a service for volunteers. When some of the anarchists chose not to register, the Youth Center staff felt the need to enforce the regulations rather than allowing the natural consequences to occur with the police enforcement and this led to escalating authoritarian actions and anti-authoritarian reactions. And lots of energy was wasted as the two parties became increasingly polarized. In retrospect, what I see is that there was never a forum or an opportunity for conversation about the issue, only demands and refusals, threats and passive aggressive reactions.

I wonder how it might have been possible to host a conversation about this issue. Would anyone have been willing to participate? I wish that I had been less reactive myself and more present to call for a conversation. What I noticed, though, is that I was triggered by the conflicts and was taking sides rather than holding the space for both sides to express themselves and listen to the others. My learning from this is that it was too much for me to be able to stay present and open while being a participant in the process. One of the reasons for this was that I was largely working in isolation. I had no other participatory leadership practitioners with me most of the time so I had no one to help me recognize when I was getting triggered and reactive. I would like to think that I am able to avoid such reactions and to always respond with mindfulness, consciousness and emotional awareness. The reality of this stressful environment is that I was not capable of such an enlightened response and I suspect no one else would have been either. It is so important to not work alone and the more demanding and stressful the environment, the more important to have support. This leaves me with a question of what to do when finding oneself in a situation that needs skillful hosting without mates.

The other reminder for me from this experience is the importance of hosting myself to be able to stand in the place of unknowing and uncertainty, to be able to listen without judgement and to hear the truth in all positions. This personal work is so important to be able to work in highly charged and stressful environments without having one’s own personal issues triggered and when they are triggered to be able to recognize it and acknowledge it. This experience definitely made me aware of my own limitations and my own need for more personal work.

To me, it seemed very important that our volunteer network develop as a system, that we established norms and expectations and regular meetings and clear processes that would allow all of our actions to be coordinated. So, I proposed meeting times and I tried to implement processes in the meetings that I knew to be supportive of effective communication. And I advocated for a regular schedule. And I felt like I met resistance at each step of the process. The group wanted to do good with refugees, not to have effective meetings and coordinated schedules. For awhile, I pushed harder and then at one point I realized that I was overly attached to a particular outcome and this was not helpful for the group or for my peace of mind. At that point, I remembered that order is a natural outcome in any self-organizing system and that any attempts by me to rush the process or to impose order was just another form of control and not helpful. From then on, I continually reminded myself to let go of expectations and attachment to any particular system and instead to intentionally hold space for order to emerge. Well, I certainly felt less stressed with this new approach but I am not sure that the system was ready for the emergence of order. What seemed to happen is that one person after another would attempt to impose a plan or a system, would experience push back and would get tired or discouraged and another system would get proposed. Just holding space for emergence may not be sufficient if there is too much external stress in the system and if there is inadequate skill and experience or lack of vision in the group.

This whole experience has been practice in walking the “chaordic path”. The forces of chaos were well represented by the anarchic volunteers. Forces of control were represented by the Youth Center. The sides were clearly established: chaos and individual autonomy versus systems of control. What was missing, from my perspective, was an appreciation for order and cooperation and mutual accountability. Accountability only to self or accountability to authority seemed to be the only options and neither served the work we wanted to accomplish. So, my question in this is what is my role as someone who has experienced and appreciates participatory processes? How can I be a constructive influence within the system when I have no authority, no standing and no invitation to play a hosting or leadership role? My sense is that I had some effectiveness when I was able to be be present and unattached to any outcome and to ask questions, when I was able to really see the various participants and to appreciate them rather than react or judge them. But this was so difficult to do in the midst of the turmoil, and especially when there was not time or space for me to engage in my own practices to help me stay present.

As I look back on this whole experience, I am saddened by the loss of opportunity to co-create a more functional system. It is so easy for me to take this on as a personal failing but I also recognize that this task was beyond what any individual could do, even with greater capacity and more skills and more presence. Such work requires a team and a very effective team. For a few days, I was joined by Joost, an Art of Hosting colleague, who helped me immensely just by his presence. As a team, we were able to create a more effective meeting space with a beautiful centerpiece and to host good check-ins that allowed people to begin to know one another more deeply and we were able to shift the energy of the group from frantic urgency into at least a moment of silence and reflection. These sound like small accomplishments and they were not sustainable when we were not present, but they were significant improvements at the time.

There is so much more to be harvested and learned from this experience. I hope to be able to continue to deepen my understanding through more reflection and conversation. For now, I am still left with so many questions about what is possible and how to invite the possibilities in during times of great crisis and conflict. This is such important work and I need so much help and support in it.

#23

This journey just continues to be full of surprises and possibilities beyond anything I could imagine.  

In the spring, I was riveted to stories from Greece of the referendum, Syriza’s resistance (and later capitulation) to imposed austerity and especially of the solidarity economy that was emerging.  In the summer, I walked the European Peace Walk from Bratislava through Hungary, Croatia and Slovenia to Trieste Italy.  In many ways, I did not feel like this experience was for me, and yet I felt strongly that I needed to be there for some unknown reason.  It was in Vienna prior to the trip that I first began hearing about the “refugee crisis” and to pay attention to it.  In August, I attended a gathering in Ireland on the Art of Communing which was a conversation about post-capitalist economic models based upon communities caring for themselves and each other.  Later, I experienced some of the vibrancy of the communing community among the anarchist and artist communities in Ireland.

In September, I returned to the Balkans, arrived in Prague with the intention of doing something to support the migration of people from war-torn counties to Europe.  I had no idea what this would involve or where it would lead but what I am discovering is that it is weaving together strands from all of my earlier experiences since spring.  First it led to work at the Hauptbahnhof in Vienna where one of my responsibilities was dispensing personal hygiene products and, in the process, learning about the uneven availability of donated products and the demand for certain items that were frequently not available.

From Vienna, I moved to Belgrade where I joined my friend, Jenny, in sorting clothes and preparing them to be distributed at places of need.  In the process, I learned a lot about the need for warm clothes as summer was just coming to a close and again about the inappropriateness and inadequacy of many donations.  After a few days, I had the opportunity to join Gregory Vink in visiting the frostlines in Presevo where we immediately experienced the demand for warm clothes and blankets.  The next day, Jenny and I moved our operations to Presevo where I worked for 21 straight days serving a never-ending flow of people – people who were cold and totally unprepared for rain; families with infants and children, some without shoes, families without money for bus fare.  

As I shared what I was witnessing in Presevo, I suddenly found myself with thousands of dollars of funding contributed by generous and trusting friends from around the world.  And, as the money accumulated, I began feeling the responsibility of fulfilling the trust place in me by wisely spending this money.  This created some stress for me, especially as I assessed spending opportunities only to find most of them being covered with other funds.  What I began to notice is that there was a lot of money being spent and much of it was being spent impulsively to staunch the immediate needs without good coordination and without thoughts of sustainability and environmental consequences.  It pained me to hand out cheap raincoats in the pouring rain in the morning and then spend the afternoon picking up the muddy, discarded and torn coats from the mud and sending them to the landfills.  Yet, I also knew that this environmental folly was saving people’s lives.

While in Presevo, I also had the opportunity to observe the struggle between anarchy and authority.  I witnessed this in the struggle to find order and to develop a coordinated volunteer system and I saw it mirrored in my internal struggle between desire for control and resistance of authority and domination.  I was left with lots of questions about anarchy and whether it was the positive contributor to emergent self-organizing process that I had thought or was it only a resistance to any attempts to create order.  Lots of lingering questions, too, about my own personal relationship to power and control.

When I left Presevo, I still had much of the donated money and a strong commitment to spending it wisely in ways that would benefit the people seeking refuge.  So, when I learned about an innovative plan to create super-tarp ponchos, I decided to travel to Greece to learn more about them and to assess whether this would be a good investment for some of my funds.  What I discovered here was so much more than super-tarps.  

Currently, I am being hosted by the developer of the super-tarps.  He is a very intelligent and thoughtful anarchist who has given me so much more insight and perspective on this way of thinking and acting.  He has also been active in the solidarity economy for many years and has a deep understanding alternatives to capitalism and some specific plans for building alternative community-based systems – tangible applications of concepts from communing.  He is also giving me an inside and close-up view of how Greeks are struggling to cope with austerity and the collapsed economy here.  What I have found is that super-tarps are only the tip of the iceberg in bringing together the needs of those on the migration route with the resources and opportunities of worker collectives in Greece and elsewhere in the Balkans.  What if the needs of the migration could be source locally, employing those needing jobs in this region?  What if durable products (ponchos, body warmers, cots, etc.) could be developed that would be worth holding onto beyond the end of a rainstorm?  What if a collaborative network could be established of volunteers, aid organizations, donors, local manufacturers and supplies and the the people in need?

Today my host and I went shopping for the supplies to build a proto-type of one of his ideas.  On the way, we got lost and ended up at a factory.  As I discovered, it is rather famous (the subject of a documentary film and a place visited by luminaries such as Naomi Klein) because when the local company was downsized and its assets were liquidated by an acquiring predatory company, the workers occupyed the factory and created a worker-owned cooperative.  Under this new self-managing system, the company changed from making toxic chemical products to producing a new line of affordable ecological cleaning products and has managed to maintain full employment and solidarity wages (barely more than subsistence level so far).  

So, today we found ourselves sitting with three of the worker/managers of the factory discussing the possibilities of a collaboration in which they would produce a line of hygiene products specifically for “refugees”, open-source designed by volunteer chemist and funded by international volunteers.  This would allow a steady and reliable supply of appropriate products to be purchased by donors and distributed where needed (remember my experience in Vienna?) while providing work for a worker-owned company in Greece.  

Within a half hour of sitting in the warmth of the autumn sun on a loading dock drinking Greek coffee, we had an invitation to meet with the entire worker assembly on Monday to present the idea and to explore possible next steps.  Just imagine, the opportunity to experience first-hand a cutting edge Greek company working in the solidarity economy and to be exploring a potential win/win collaboration that could benefit Greece and the people seeking refuge… Wow!!  Suddenly, it felt like a beautiful tapestry was emerging from the many strands of the past months and, while I have no idea what I bring to this, it feels like I am right where I am meant to be, sensing what wants to happen and how I might be able to contribute.

I continue to feel incredibly blessed to be on this journey, meeting amazing people and witnessing some of the stories of a new paradigm that is emerging, seeing beautiful parts of the world, learning so much and being able to contribute in small, but hopefully meaningful ways.  Tomorrow the adventure continues with a visit to Idomeni, where the migration route crosses the Greek border.  Immense gratitude!

#24

“How long will you stay in Presevo?”  I don’t know how many times I heard this question as I was working to assist people on their way through Serbia toward the hope of refuge and safety.  Each time I answered that I intended to stay as long as I was being effective.  Then the time came when I knew that it was time for me to go.  Now as I reflect upon my experience, I ponder that question of effectiveness.

Is the desire to be effective just another form of privilege and ego?  What is effectiveness, anyway, other than a story that I tell myself about the importance of my role in a much bigger story?  This story that we are all part of is so much bigger than any individual and the challenges are so complex that it feels like really arrogant folly to even imagine that problems can be solved, let alone by my actions.  Perhaps all that any of us can do is be present and respond  with an open heart and open mind and open will and to take the next step when it presents itself.  At least this is what I tell myself to keep going when it all looks overwhelming and I feel ineffective.

Now I am in Greece witnessing the complexity of the story from a different perspective, appreciating even more the interplay between war in Syria;  the largest human migration in Europe since before my lifetime; smugglers providing passage across the Aegean, often at the cost of a family’s entire savings, the possessions that they are carrying and too often at the cost of lives; a trail of waste and garbage and environmentally unsustainable, short-term practices of consumption and supply; the collapsed economy and austerity disaster in Greece; well-intentioned and generous donors confused by the plethora of independent crowd-funding appeals and slick marketing from big NGOs; an emergent solidarity economy arising from the failure of neo-liberal capitalism; an emergent, sometimes chaotic and uncoordinated self-organizing volunteer movement filling the void left by dithering and unresponsive governmental actions.  Its all one story but it is so complex that I notice my tendency to want to carve it up into neat little narratives in which I can identify the heroes (usually myself and others that think like me) and the villains.  Holding the complexity of all this is beyond my rational mind, yet at times I can sense the wholeness and interconnectedness, like a tapestry that I feel but that I lose whenever I try to focus on it and to make sense of it.

Immediate responses to the urgency of saving lives is essential.  When it is pouring rain, it makes sense to rush out and buy every available form of rainwear including disposable garbage bags.  When there are hungry kids waiting in the line for hours, it makes sense to go to the local grocery store and buy up the handy, overly-packaged junk food.  But what if this “crisis” continues for five years?  What if this is just a dress rehearsal for bigger migration events in response to coming climate changes?  How can we get smarter and to think more long-term about our responses?

I came to Greece specifically to see a product called the “super-tarp”.  It is an extra-large rain poncho that can also be used as a ground cloth and zipped together with a second super-tarp to make a small tent.  The intrigue of the design was enhanced by plans to produce the tarps in Greek communities by worker collectives – solidarity economy meets refuge crisis.  Since I have been here in conversations with Harper Pollack, the designer of the super-tarp, I have come to see that this product is only one of several innovations that could address the current needs of people seeking refuge in more systemic and sustainable ways.

Harper has designed a wood frame cot with a mattress made of multiple layers of bubble wrap.  These beds can be assembled easily onsite in camps and the cost will be comparable with those made in China.  Beds for refugees and jobs for local worker collectives.  Another product is a body warmer using the crystallizing chemistry of sodium acetate.  These warmers are recharged in hot water and carry their latent heating capacity indefinitely until they are activated at which time they produce several hours of 60 degree C heat.  This product will also be produced by local worker collectives.

Finally, we have discussed the development of an integrated supply chain that allows volunteer and aid organizations to identify needed supplies (including food), donors to contribute the funding to acquire them and a network of local farmers and worker collectives to produce the products.  This system will allow needed supplies to be stored until needed and then distributed quicky where they are needed.  The system will also allow facilitate communication, feedback and collaboration among all parties in the system.

I can get very excited about these products because each of them addresses multiple issues from a long-term and systemic perspective.  All of them are locally based and rely upon relationships, communication and co-creation.  The scale is such that continual design improvements can be incorporated based upon the real experience of users.  As this network matures and practices collaboration and co-creation maybe it will even be able to tackle more complex and challenging problems like a sustainable way to distribute and carry drinking water (eliminating the wasteful plastic bottles).

In combination with my excitement, I also have some apprehension.  Each of these products needs time – a couple of weeks to a couple of months – and money – a few hundred dollars each – to move from concept through prototyping to be ready for production.  None of these products is a proven concept currently and so there is some risk involved.  Chances are that there will be some things that won’t work as anticipated.  So, my question is whether investment of donationed money in unproven but high potential projects is a good use of money intended to help refugees.  Is longer term, systemic thinking a responsible stategy or am I being seduced by my own desire for systems change and effectiveness?

I would really appreciate the feedback from trusted friends.  Please take a look at the description of these products and the proposed startup budgets and timelines.  Do they look like something worth investing in?  I value your feedback and impressions as well as any funds that you would like to pitch in as I will be much more comfortable investing funds if they are matched by others.  And, matching funds also allows me to stretch funds further to buy some of the things that are needed immediately as well as supporting these projects as they move into production phase.

Have any of you ever imagined being a venture capitalist?  Well, this project is certainly not a capitalist venture but it is an opportunity to be an early investor in what could have long term impact as an alternative model addressing very real social and community problems.

It has been a long journey to arrive at this place and I feel so grateful for all of the life experiences that have somehow prepared me to be in this place, asking these questions.  And I am also incredibly grateful for the assurance I feel that I am not alone in this work.  I feel the support of so many people and I am very conscious that whatever I do, I am doing on behalf of a global community of supporters and friends.  Thank you for being with me on this journey.

#25

And then I took a deep breath…

Last night around midnight I arrived in Skopje on my way back to the work in Serbia. This morning I awoke late and took my time in eating breakfast and checking out the day’s news. With my bags packed, I decided to meditate for a few minutes before leaving for the bus station. Despite my claims that meditation is one practice that sustains me in this work, the truth is that it has been almost a month since I last practiced.

I settled myself on the beanbag in my hostel room and took a couple of breaths and immediately I was aware of just how tired – emotionally exhausted, really – that I am and I knew that I did not want to go back to Presevo today. With each breath, I found myself settling into a familiar place of meditation-induced presence and I became increasingly aware of how much I have been missing this quality of being – missing it and also actively avoiding it.

First there was the intensity of work in Presevo. Then a rushed trip to Greece where I immersed myself in a new project to develop products and a supply chain that could more sustainably support the needs of the Balkan migration. The one day to experience Istanbul and some very intense conversation there. Then on to Brussels for what was supposed to be a time of renewal but what turned out to be a time of holding space and supporting healing for my dear Helen. Her badly broken leg needs physical healing and necessitates lots of tangible assistance but it also triggers much deeper wounds and need for healing and serves as a metaphor for much of the pain and suffering in the outer world. So, my time of rest and renewal was occupied in feeling and holding intense grief and sorrow. It has been a couple of months of very intense and emotionally demanding work.

To be honest, though, I wasn’t ready in Belgium to slow down and to deal with all the experiences and emotions that I had packed away. While on “frontlines” working with the people we call refugees, there is no time or opportunity to really be with the emotional impact of the work. Tears were constantly expressing themselves in the most inconvenient manner and I feared that if I really allowed myself to feel fully that they would not stop and I would be unable to do anything useful. In Belgium, I was also very distracted by the Paris attack and the global response to it and I was also busy in conversations about the traumatizing effects of refugee work and the need for healing conversations. My mind was constantly busy, distracted, craving information and action, unable to distance myself from the experiences in the Balkans and from this current time in our human history which feels so full of potential transformation or potential self-destruction. I’ve felt such a need to do something, even if it is only to educate myself and to share information, or maybe to contribute to a different kind of conversation.

Busy, busy, busy… So many important things to focus on, to do, to be a part of… Yet, the reality at the same time is that I had become (and remain) addicted to this busyness, to doing something. It kept my mind occupied and the fullness of my life kept me tired enough that I could always sleep.

One of my recent projects is to support a friend in creating a platform for supporting volunteers of “refugee work” to acknowledge and heal from the trauma that they have witnessed and experienced. This has provided me with opportunity to raise this issue with other volunteers. One of them wrote to me: “Personally I realised that our psyche has been skewed/altered, more than we ever realised. My mind is always somewhere far away. I am struggling right now to even try just by “being present” with family and friends.” Another said: “Taking collective responsibility for the group’s wellbeing; scheduling regular time offs, meditation sessions may be the solution for the burnout, helping people to keep their focus. this was what we seemed to fail in repeatedly as there were so many other urgent things to do.”

All along in this work I have known that people were being traumatized and damaged by what we were experiencing. I’ve known that much of what we were doing was not sustainable on a personal level. And I have also seen the need, felt the desperation in those we served and I have not been able to turn away. I’ve known that it is a gift to be a witness and to hold the space for others to process their emotions. These are urgent times! The bombs keep falling. Planes are being shot down. Terror attacks. Saber rattling. Winter weather. Xenophobic, hate-filled rhetoric even among presidential candidates. And at the same time, there are so many acts of compassion and kindness and a new consciousness of self-organizing collaboration is evident in so many places. It feels like we are at a tipping point – one direction of the other. It feels like there is no time to waste. So much to do.

So much to do, and yet… This need for busyness and for doing is part of the problem, at least it feels that way in my own experience. The faster I go and the more that I do, the tireder I become but the more difficult it is for me to slow down. It is so hard to recognize and prioritize the need for meditation and reflection and for deeply feeling the pain, even when it feels like an unending artisian flow of emotion will erupt if I allow it.

Am I strong enough to do this work? I’ve repeatedly proven to myself that I can do a tremendous amount, that my body will keep going in very demanding times. But I wonder if I am strong enough to slow down, to stop, to breath, to feel, to fully experience vulnerability and impotence. Am I willing to let go of my independence and autonomy long enough to allow those who love me to hold me in my pain? Can I be generous enough to allow others to support and to help me? It feels like this is somehow connected to the challenges that we currently face individually, collectively and globally.

Feeling the gratitude and also the challenge of a day off and for the presence that comes from stillness of listening.

#26

Three stories from yesterday in Presevo…

Since I have not yet received permission to work inside the encampment at the processing center, I have spent the last couple of days cleaning the volunteer houses in preparation for the return of volunteers in the coming days. Consequently, I’ve don’t have a lot of first-hand stories to share, but I did have three conversations yesterday that had a powerful impact upon me and fueled my current inquiry into what kind of support is needed to help volunteers deal with the emotional consequences of their (our) experiences.

In the morning, as I was filling water containers next door at the medical clinic (the volunteer houses have not had water for over two weeks – cause, itself, for emotional reactions for some people), I struck up a conversation with a coordinator for MSF (Doctors Without Borders for those of us Franco-impaired). He told me that he had been working the night before on the Macedonian border crossing about 15 km from Presevo. For whatever reason, the people seeking refuge are dropped at the Macedonian border town and must walk for a few kilometers across the border, to the camp in Serbia and then on to the town of Miratovac where they either get a bus or walk the remaining eight kilometers to Presevo.

It was raining hard last night and the route to the border is not paved. It was deep mud. The mud was deep enough to make the way difficult for everyone. It was especially difficult for a handicapped man in a wheelchair. His companions took turns pushing him until they all became so exhausted that they left him. Alone. In the dark. In the pouring rain. In the empty space in between. Eventually, he was found and the MSF coordinator and some police reached him with a 4-wheel drive vehicle and took him to safety.

In the afternoon, one of the local volunteers stopped by to change clothes before his shift working in the chai tent. He had just finished his day job as a waiter at a Presevo restaurant and was ready to begin his volunteer work. He shared with me about his experience of the previous night. He was working near the train station in Presevo when he came upon a deaf/mute person who had become separated from the three young children that he was traveling with. He was distressed as they were inside the camp and he was not being allowed to enter. My volunteer friend attempted to get the responsible aid organization to assist him and was told that they would get back to him in 30 minutes. The 30 minutes became over 3 hours during which time the person became extremely upset and attempted to take his life by stepping in front of a moving train. The volunteer had to grab him and pull him to safety at which point the man continued to try and harm himself by hitting himself in the head with a large stone. Eventually, the volunteer found the aid workers inside the compound sitting around drinking coffee and tried unsuccessfully to get their help in resolving the situation. So, ;eft to his own devices, the volunteer took the man to the medical clinic which is about 500 meters away.

On the way, the man attempted to jump in front of a car and had to be prevented by the volunteer. Eventually, they got to the clinic and the medical personnel put the man to sleep and contacted some local mental health resources.

As my volunteer friend told me this story, he was still obviously upset. He continued to question whether he had done everything that he could and to feel responsible for the man’s safety. He kept repeating “What could I do? I am only 20 years old and he was 40. Is there more that I could have done?” My heart went out to this young volunteer as I remembered how often I felt the same powerlessness and helplessness as a mental health crisis worker without the necessary resources. Many nights I would wonder whether I made the right decision and whether my client would be alive the next day. But I was supposedly a trained professional and was more than 20 years old.

Later in the evening, another volunteer stopped by and we struck up a conversation about his experiences. He shared some of the same stories that I have been hearing about he difficult border crossing. It was never easy but now that winter has arrived the crossing, especially at night, is even more difficult. Now there is the added complication of new policies of only admitting asylum seekers from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. I questioned this volunteer about what was happening to those who were refused admission. What I learned confirmed what the MSF coordinator had told me – that those who are not permitted official entry take off on their own and find alternative routes across the border. This is mountainous country. Yesterday there was visible snow on all of the foothills around town. So, those who are refused entry are not able to walk the difficult muddy road where wheelchairs get bogged down. Instead, they must find their own way, sometimes cross-country off the roads. It was then that the volunteer told me that he had just that afternoon discovered the body of a dead refugee in the mountains nearby. He was very powerfully impacted by this experience and made to leave as quickly as possible to avoid crying in front of me, I think.

Three stories. A man abandoned in the mud. A deaf/mute man trying to kill himself. The body of a refugee presumably trying to find his way across the border in order to gain refuge and safety. The caregivers – two young volunteers and a somewhat older professional – all confronted with traumatic experiences. All deeply affected by their experiences. All back to work the next day without opportunity to adequately process and deal with the emotion. Three courageous, caring people who will be carrying the memories and the feelings of helplessness and frustration with them. Three people willingly (if not fully consciously) sacrificing their own emotional well-being and peace of mind to be of service to humanity.

All I could do was to listen, to witness, to open my heart in appreciation and awe. And I am left also wondering whether there was more that I could have done. Left feeling my own sense of powerlessness and inadequacy in the face of such raw emotional experience. And also feeling gratitude that I could be there to listen, to be there in my role as a Sacred Outsider witnessing even when there is nothing that I can “do”.

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Journal Article on Self-Organization

I have been invited to write an article on my Balkan experiences for the spring edition of e-O&P (Organisations and People), the e-journal of the Association of Management and Education.  Following is the draft of this article.  I welcome feedback, comments and suggestions – especially prior to final submission.  

For my American friends, please forgive my use of European spelling; I’ve not totally converted – it is a requirement of the journal.  Please treat this as a draft and be aware that, once submitted the copyright of the final article will be owned by the publisher who needs to be attributed.

Self-Organisation in Crisis
Observations and Ponderings of a Sacred Outsider

Living without a home base and possessing little more than I can carry on my back, I have been traveling the world for the past three and a half years.  This journey has been in response to life’s invitations to be in support of self-organisation, open source learning and participatory leadership.  Along the way, I have been described as a ‘Sacred Outsider’, one who witnesses and holds a group, organisation or community in its awakening and transformation.  In 2015, my journey took me to the Balkans where I was involved as a volunteer with people seeking refuge and asylum in Europe (and where I came to dislike and resist the depersonalising term “refugee).

One of the practices that sustains me in learning is to recognise my expectations, especially when they do not align with reality, and then to inquire into the tension.  The experience in the Balkans provided a first-hand and real life opportunity to observe self-organisation at work and to test some of my assumptions and expectations. In this article, I will describe two of the assumptions that I hold based upon my work in participatory leadership and self-organising and compare them with what I experienced in Presevo, Serbia, this past October through December. I will then pose some questions I am holding about why things did not materialise as I had expected.  In all of this, I am speaking from my own (quite limited) experiences and from anecdotes of other volunteers working on the migration route.  At this point, I do not claim to have clarity or to offer answers; rather I would like to propose questions for further consideration.

A COUPLE OF ASSUMPTIONS

The history of Occupy movements, Arab Spring, Syriza/Podemos and other self-organising movements can be seen as one of continually amplifying waves.  Each emergence seems to build on the shoulders of the previous movements, starting at a higher level of skill and capacity, learning from prior experiences, and further advancing the practices of self-organisation and self-governance.

Personally, I have experienced this in the work of the Art of Hosting Conversations that Matter, where the level of intimacy and trust in each training/gathering, wherever in the world, seems to be built upon the foundation of all past events, whether or not the same individuals were present.  The patten I am describing is based upon my own observation and conversations, though the work of Rupert Sheldrake on morphogenetic fields seems to provide some empirical or scientific support.

Assumption 1: When I realised that the initial response to the migration seemed to fit this same pattern of emergent, volunteer efforts, I made the assumption that our self-organising would benefit from all of the efforts that had gone on before and that we would contribute to the future of this pattern.  Haha!

Dee Hock identified the Chaordic Path as the natural tendency of order to emerge from chaos in living systems.  This pattern can be seen from the big bang to the evolution of life on Earth to the maturation of an old growth forest.  It can also be observed in living systems such as communities and organisations.  Control is a human-imposed set of constraints intended to create or preserve order.  Since order emerges naturally from chaos in response to the needs of a living system, control is unnecessary and actually suppresses the creativity arising from chaos.  The Chaordic Path is that sweet spot of emergence between chaos and order and the domain where self-organisation happens.  A more in-depth explanation of The Chaordic Path can be found here.

Assumption 2:  Having experienced the emergence of order from chaos in many various settings and having come to recognise control as counter-productive to effective collaboration, I naively assumed that a coordinated volunteer system would emerge in Presevo.  Silly me!

A VOLUNTEER’S STORY

Upon my initial arrival late at night in Southern Serbia, I was immediately immersed in conflict between another recently arrived volunteer and a group of local community members and local NGO representatives who together had been struggling for weeks to deal with the intensifying crisis.  Strong emotions were apparent but I could not understand what the disagreement was all about.  Being new and fresh and (overly?) confident in my skills as a host of conversations, I suggested that we take ten minutes to slow down and introduce ourselves using a talking piece and some simple processes from the Circle Way.

What followed astounded me.  Part way around the circle, one person walked out stating that he had more important things to do.  Another volunteer took the talking piece and would not relinquish it until she had taken nearly the entire ten minutes to tell about each of her wonderful accomplishments all along the migration route.  In the end, what emerged from the conversation was a recognition of the local context in which any actions taken by volunteers could have significant repercussions in a very old conflict between the Albanian minority community and Serbian government officials.  This issue would resurface in various disguises throughout my time in the area and, while I am sure that I never fully comprehended all the ramifications, I came to understand and appreciate that our actions as volunteers could affect the lives of local citizens long after we had left their community.

An agreement to disagree and to disassociate efforts of the volunteer from the local community groups was as close as we came to a resolution that night and my sense was that the process was ineffective in helping the parties to really listen to each other.  My experience in that first circle also provided a hint that my first assumption about the readiness for good conversation was not well grounded.

Things changed very fast in those early days.  On the first night, two of us had the newly-opened volunteer house to ourselves and we spent the next day preparing it to welcome other volunteers into a supportive home-like space.  By the end of the first week, we had over twenty people sleeping in shifts in the half dozen beds and overwhelming the tiny kitchen with shared food and mess, and every bit of the house had been transformed into a command centre and warehouse for items to be distributed.

The chaos of the volunteer house was mirrored on the street outside the door.  The press of people queuing in the main street waiting to be admitted to ‘the camp’ for processing grew as the inflow continued relentlessly and the undermanned processing centre moved with bureaucratic slowness.

More and more ‘Mafia taxi drivers’ appeared from all over Serbia and spread misinformation in their attempt to profit from the desperate new arrivals.  The processing center and the queue were controlled by Serbian police, mostly with inadequate training and an inability to communicate with the refugees or the volunteers and yet well able to turn a blind eye to exploitative taxi drivers.

A few NGOs were operating inside the camp and many others were ‘assessing the situation’ – i.e. driving around in big SUVs and taking a lot of photographs – but providing no services.  There were doctors from NSF (Doctors without Borders) and the German NGO Humedica, and these provided important services during the limited hours they were present.   But at night the processing center quit operating, while the refugees continued arriving and there was no one other than police and volunteers to supervise and care for thousands of people stranded in the queue.

In my first week, volunteers provided virtually all the services to the thousands of people in the queue.  Volunteers set up an information point to provide factual information (where they were threatened and intimidated by taxi drivers).  Volunteers organised a food and chai tent and distributed food and clothing to those waiting in the queue for sometimes 24 hours or longer.  Volunteers set up tents to shelter exhausted and soaked women and children.  Volunteers identified the EVRs – the ‘extremely vulnerable refugees’ – and notified the UNHCR staff (when there were any on shift) or tried, usually unsuccessfully, to negotiate with the Serbian police to move them out of the queue and directly into the processing centre.

Life inside the camp was the epitome of command and control.  Nothing happened without approval of the commandant, who never agreed to communicate with the volunteers who were holding things together outside the the camp.  Things were intended to work like clockwork inside the camp, though often it seemed like the clock was working in slow motion.  NGOs, including UN agencies, fulfilled defined roles within the camp and seemed to utilise protocols and regulations to reduce or eliminate any experience of uncertainty or the unexpected.  Employees worked their shifts and followed their rules inside the camp and, with the notable exception of UNHCR staff, avoided venturing outside.  Within the camp, it seemed that the system colluded in maintaining the illusion that the commandant was in control and that the system was doing what it was intended to.

Meanwhile, outside the camp it was chaos.  Volunteers had arrived from all over Europe and beyond.  Most came with abundant activist energy and passion, intent upon doing what  they sensed needed to be done.  Many were self-avowed anarchists, many advertising this with their anti-authoritarian slogans emblazoned on their yellow vests.  At times we had trucks distributing oversized bags of food to refugees, who were immediately given another portion of food from a different volunteer group while a third group was trying to provide them with chai, all immediately before they entered the camp where a hot food station awaited them.

Sometimes and in some places, like the fun and sociable chai tent, there were more than enough volunteers, while at other times and places there would be no one available.  The ‘Info Point’ was constantly in danger of being destroyed by angry taxi drivers if left alone, and volunteers could be stranded there for 12 to 18 hours at times with no one willing to relieve them.

Given the tenuous relationships with UNHCR and the police, a protocol was established for identifying and expediting extremely vulnerable refugees.  Under this protocol, identified volunteers liaised with specified UNHCR staff who would negotiate with the police.  However, some well-meaning and concerned volunteers, unfamiliar with the protocol, would independently identify refugees and unilaterally advocate with the police, often undermining whatever goodwill had been established by the protocol.

It was not long before no one knew how many volunteers were operating in the area, what services they were providing and who might be sleeping in what you thought was your bed.  The volunteer house was totally trashed, supplies were cached everywhere and no one seemed to know where to find them in a crisis. The local organisation sponsoring the volunteers was feeling unable to comply with police requirements that they register all volunteers, especially since some of the more anarchical ones refused to comply with any requirements.

As a somewhat naive practitioner of participatory leadership and a firm believer in the natural emergence of order out of chaos, I felt a strong need for communication, coordination and cooperation among the volunteers and advocated for a daily meeting of volunteers.  Another volunteer and I had called for a meeting of the NGOs and we were gratified by their participation and the willingness of everyone present to share what they were doing and able to provide.  This inter-agency group agreed to meet daily and from the first meeting we experienced the tangible result of having all the medical organisations agree to coordinated shifts to allow 24-hour coverage (within a short-time, this also led to co-locating services in a queue-side medical clinic).  Based on this experience, we were hopeful of a similar volunteer meeting in which reports from the inter-agency meeting could be shared and volunteer activities coordinated.

These volunteer meetings was very discouraging.  First, many of the more adamant anarchists refused to participate in anything remotely resembling authority, accountability or limits upon their autonomy.  Other more flexible anarchists attended intermittently but opposed having anyone regularly facilitate the meetings.  Thus, there was a different style of facilitation and different structure (loosely defined) at each meeting.  Either because no one was willing or able to coordinate project-oriented meetings outside the big daily meeting, or because no one was willing to participate in such a meeting organised by someone else, every issue had to be discussed and decided in the large meeting, inevitably leading to interminable and frustrating meetings.

Frustration was high due to the stressful work being done, the chaotic living situation and the lack of coordination and communication among volunteers.  On top of this, many volunteers stayed only a few days and often left suddenly without clearly communicating what they had been doing and what they expected to continue, and without finding someone else to assume responsibility for it.

I kept waiting for the order to emerge from this chaos and continued to practice the methods that I had found useful elsewhere.  This didn’t seem to happen, and instead – to the consternation of this anti-authoritarian – I found more and more traditional leadership roles and responsibilities were being projected upon me, along with the inevitable resistance to authority.  NGOs and other representatives of the control sector saw me as the leader of the volunteers and expected me to be accountable for volunteers’ actions, while the volunteer system seemed to actively resist any and all attempts at the simplest coordinated communication.  “What are the minimal requisite structure and agreements that would support effective and coordinated action?” I kept asking.  And the answer I kept getting was more turnover in volunteers and more resistance and the proliferation of uncoordinated projects.

After 23 consecutive days of working 10 to 20 hours per day, surviving a life-threatening flood and attempting to walk the chaordic path to co-create an emergent, functional volunteer system, I left totally exhausted and discouraged.  During my days away I reflected on my personal attachment to an emergent volunteer system and on how ineffective my approach seemed to have been in that setting (as well as recognising the appreciation and regard that many people expressed).

On a personal level, I made the decision to return after a few days rest to see how the system had adjusted to my absence, and to re-focus my energy and attention on being present for the refugees and serving their needs – which had been my initial purpose anyway.  What I discovered upon my return was a new cast of players engaged in the same dynamics.  I also found that my new level of witnessing and serving the refugees was demanding in itself, and far more rewarding than my battles to hold space for a system to emerge, where the players seemed resistant to such emergence.

Overall, my experiences in these two tours and a subsequent return to Serbia, along with my extensive witnessing of experiences all along the migration route, have led me to conclude that neither of my assumptions about self-organisation were confirmed in this setting.  The previous experiences in self-organisation from Occupy, Arab Spring and elsewhere did not seem to provide a starting place for effective participatory practices, and there was very little emergent order within the official system, characterised by control, or the volunteer system, characterised by chaos. In the final section, I will explore some of the questions raised by these observations.

QUESTIONS FOR PONDERING

Can self-organisation work in an emergency or disaster situation?  The demand for rapid response, quick decision-making and efficient deployment of resources may justify more centralised decision making and accountability.  This need not mean the wholesale implementation of a hierarchical, top-down system, as it might be possible for self-organising teams to appoint members to such roles, or to apply a practice such as holacracy, which combines hierarchy (of scope, not domination!) with self-organisation.  From my observations, the track record of the NGOs does not support the contention that traditional command-and-control structures are effective in such a setting.  NGOs were very slow to mobilise, necessitating an initial self-organising response to the crisis at the outset.  Also, the NGO systems often seemed to be overwhelmed and ineffective in meeting the challenges of resource deployment and management in such volatile circumstances.

What can a lone practitioner do without a local field and a local call?  Within the Art of Hosting community, we avoid absolutes and rules, but we do have one very strong admonition: ‘Don’t work alone!’.  I know this lesson well, and yet I find myself confronted with it repeatedly as I answer the call to engage on the frontiers where I don’t have the presence of my ‘mates’.

In Serbia, I was joined for a few days by Joost, a friend and fellow practitioner of hosting, and I was amazed by the difference this made.  Joost’s presence created a spaciousness within me, allowing me to relax a bit and to lean into the flow of what wanted to happen.  Curiously, Joost was not the only person whom I felt connection and support in Presevo.  I had other friends from the past as well as new friends I had met there – people that I care for deeply and whose care I felt.  Yet there is something powerful about working with someone who shares a worldview and a set of practices, requiring no explaining or justifying, and with whom it therefore feels safer to step vulnerably into the unknown.

When Joost left, I felt myself constrict and my capacity shrink.  Yet I also knew that I was not alone in the work; I was constantly supported, at a distance, by a network of friends and colleagues, and I could feel their tangible involvement in my work. But this is not the same as having another pair of eyes and ears present, and the confidence from having another person in the room who is tuned into the energy and capable of holding what I could not.

So, recognising that this work cannot be done alone, I am left wondering what to do when I find myself alone in situations of chaos, intense emotion, excess control, or other symptoms of a system in need of transformation?  How do I stay open to my heart and really allow myself to feel the pain in such a situation without attempting to ‘fix’ it?  Is it possible to be a practitioner of participatory processes part-time and to shut off my yearning for collaboration where it is not supported or wanted?  Am I called to turn down invitations to work alone, no matter how compelling the need?

What contributions can a practitioner make in a system polarised between chaos and control?   My initial response is to be present as a witness, feeling the tension within a system and giving voice to the tension without attachment to any outcome.  And this brings up old questions and doubts of whether this is enough.  Is it enough to show up with an open heart and open mind, trusting that change will happen naturally without my having to ‘do’ anything?

What minimal practices are necessary for practitioners in self-organisation?  The intensity and demands of this work seem to be constantly increasing and calling for a deeper and more potent response.  As they do, I realise once again that it demands preparation, just as a physical challenge requires training. It calls for presence, authenticity and vulnerability and will inevitably (and sometimes painfully) make me aware when my capacity is insufficient for the demands of the situation.  And this, in turn, reminds me of the importance of practicing self-compassion and patience with the the process of ongoing learning.

What level of maturity and consciousness is necessary for self-organisation to thrive?  In this situation, I was continually confronted with people who relied on power and control and others who angrily rejected anything resembling authority.  Both these kinds of people triggered reactions in me and called forth my judgements about the importance of consciousness and maturity – judgements that allowed me to unconsciously feel self-righteous or developmentally superior.  I still don’t know how to effectively work with such people, but now, from the distance of a few thousand kilometres, I can see that neither those judgements nor that question serve me or the work that I am called to do.  So I am left with a deeper question: How do I learn to open my heart to those who feel so different from me?  How do I welcome them as my precious teachers?  How do I allow myself to be transformed by this situation, instead of focusing on how to transform it?

EPILOGUE:  As I write this, it has been nearly two months since I left the Balkans.  Daily I read reports of the changes happening along the migration route.  It seems that, for now at least, the forces of control are winning.  Borders are being closed, camps are professionalized, volunteers have become redundant and their work is being criminalised.  Self-organising efforts have been marginalised once again but I wonder what has been learned and what seeds have been sown for future harvests.

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Powerful Questions

 Here is the third piece of writing that I have been working in collaboration with Helen TitchenBeeth to revise the Art of Hosting workbook (what I prefer to think of as a companion guide) in preparation for an upcoming training.  This has given me the opportunity to revisit some of the basic models within Art of Hosting and to express them in my own words and through the lens of my experience with them.  What a gift this has been as it has allowed me to step deeper into the powerful mental models and to recognize the meaningful place that they have in my life.  The ideas are not original; they are the product of many sources including listening to many more experienced practitioners explain them.  So, what I am offering here is just my perspective on some deep teachings.

Powerful Questions

What?  So what?  Now what?

Questions are key to meaningful conversation, and so the ability to craft powerful questions is an important hosting skill. 

Questions come in many shapes and serve many purposes. We often unthinkingly assume that the purpose of questions is to find answers. In the scientific world, for example, questions are framed to help us understand why and how things happen in order to better control them. A good answer within science provides a bit of certainty and eliminates unsupported hypotheses.  This is the realm of the “why?” question.  

When working with the emergence inherent in living systems, questions perform a different function. They invite into the unknown, opening into the realm of new possibilities and connections. They invite more questions, welcome uncertainty and unknowing, are unafraid of paradoxical answers.

Knowing what questions to use when

Some questions effectively open up possibilities while other questions close them down.  Convergence and divergence, those basic elements of process design, likewise act to open and close possibilities. A powerful divergent question, then, will be counterproductive in a convergent process and vice versa. In order to craft a good question, you need to be clear about its purpose and function within the process or conversation you are designing, and then you need to construct the question in a way that will help move the conversation in the desired direction.

Open-ended questions support a divergent process. Such questions do not call for yes/no or either/or answers (or even multiple choice answers). They explore what is – the “what?” questions and the “so what?” questions. They invite deeper reflection and allow space for different, even paradoxical responses that represent diverse perspectives. A good question in the divergent phase invites inquiry and curiosity, rather than immediately prompting action or problem-solving. Generally, questions of “what” and “how” are much more useful than “who”, “when” or “why”.

In the convergent phase, helpful questions narrow down possibilities and move the group toward decisions and action. Here, closed-ended questions – who will take responsibility?, by when?, etc. – are useful.  This is the realm of the “now what?” questions.

Where traditional meetings frequently begin with an agenda, a meaningful conversation is more often prompted by an inviting question. This ‘calling question’ engages potential participants with curiosity and embodies the purpose of the meeting. Within the meeting, each discussion topic or process may have its own question that engages and focuses participation.

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The Chaordic Path

I have recently been working in collaboration with Helen TitchenBeeth to revise the Art of Hosting workbook (what I prefer to think of as a companion guide) in preparation for an upcoming training.  This has given me the opportunity to revisit some of the basic models within Art of Hosting and to express them in my own words and through the lens of my experience with them.  What a gift this has been as it has allowed me to step deeper into the powerful mental models and to recognize the meaningful place that they have in my life.  The ideas are not original; they are the product of many sources including listening to many more experienced practitioners explain them.  So, what I am offering here is just my perspective on some deep teachings.

The Chaordic Path

The dance of chaos and order in nature

The history of the universe is a story of order emerging from chaos – from the big bang, to stars producing new elements, to the formation of planets. Here on Earth, we can see this process happening as a forest ecosystem matures through stages following a fire. Our individual lives, organisations and communities are all microcosms of this same process.

Chaos is the natural fertile ground of creativity. The diversity and messiness of chaos provides the ingredients for emergence of order. This is where life innovates, where things are not hard-wired, but are flexible enough for new connections and solutions to occur. Within chaos, there is no clarity, no roadmap or instruction manual and, consequently, this is often an uncomfortable place for many people and organisations. There is often a tendency to try and force resolution to chaotic situations in an effort to return to the more familiar and comfortable realm of order. Unfortunately, forced order usually does not take the needs and interests of all participants of the system into account and this results in a pseudo-order which is neither stable nor sustainable. Given time and communication, the natural order which wants to emerge will fit the needs of the system and its participants.

Order is the preferred state of mature living systems. It provides a sense of predictability and allows for collaboration and coordination of efforts. Things are easier and less energy is required in an orderly system. Given the desirability of order, it is a natural human tendency to try and create and preserve order through methods of control. Living systems have feedback systems that naturally maintain order or homeostasis. When the population of rabbits exceeds the limits of the ecosystem, more predators will show up and the rabbit population will decline. If it declines too far, the population of predators will be reduced. In healthy human systems there are also feedback loops that help to maintain homeostasis or the status quo.

When excessive change occurs within a system – think a devastating fire in an old growth forest or a drastic cut in funding to an organisation – chaos usually results. This chaos is necessary for a system to adapt and change and it will result in a new order and new homeostasis. The cycle of chaos to order to chaos to order is the natural way of systems.

Chaos and order in human systems

Within human systems, order is maintained by conventions and agreements and just because the orderly processes work for those involved, no top-down control is necessary. When these systems no longer work, chaos results out of which a new order will emerge. Sometimes within human systems, however, it is necessary to maintain strict conformity with the order once it has been established. For instance it is essential to follow established practices for landing an aircraft or performing routine surgery.  In these cases, systems of control are important and can take the form of standard operating procedures, laws, licensure – all of which typically require top-down monitoring and enforcement.  One of the big challenges in modern organisations and societies is to discern where control is needed and where to trust the natural process of order emerging from chaos.  Within organisations, this wise application of just enough control is the work performed by conscious managers.

Control is an essential function of all mechanistic  systems (the obvious or complicated domains of the Cynefin framework presented in the next section). Machines need to behave in standard and predictable ways and mechanical systems are incapable of creating order out of chaos. When conditions change in a mechanistic system, the system needs to be adjusted and new controls implemented. However, the world and times we live in are neither predictable nor stable and more and more of our systems are complex, calling for more flexibility, since “more-of-the-same solutions” will not meet the challenges.

The chaordic path

chaordic path

The Chaordic Path is a model based on this recognition of order emerging naturally from chaos. The model proposes three basic conditions: chaos, order and control.  The transition between chaos and order, that place of emergence and innovation, is referred to as the ‘chaordic path’.

Hosting is the process of walking this chaordic path, holding space and processes to allow emergence and innovation to happen. Walking this chaordic path requires ‘chaordic confidence’, the courage and practices to stay in the dance of order and chaos long enough to support a generative emergence that allows the new, collective intelligence and wise action to occur. As we tread the line between chaos and order, individually and collectively, we move through confusion and conflict toward clarity. It is in the phase of not knowing, before we reach new clarity, that the temptation to rush for certainty or grab for control is strongest. We are called to walk this path with open minds and some confidence if we want to reach something wholly new.

The art is to stay in a fine balance between chaos and order. Straying too far to either side is counterproductive. On the far side of chaos is ‘chamos’ or destructive chaos where everything disintegrates and dies. On the far side of order is stifling control—where all absence of movement also eventually means death. When we move toward either of these extremes, the result is either apathy or rebellion—the very opposite of chaordic confidence. Staying on the chaordic path is where the balance is and where life thrives.

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The Four-Fold Practice

 

I have recently been working in collaboration with Helen TitchenBeeth to revise the Art of Hosting workbook (what I prefer to think of as a companion guide) in preparation for an upcoming training.  This has given me the opportunity to revisit some of the basic models within Art of Hosting and to express them in my own words and through the lens of my experience with them.  What a gift this has been as it has allowed me to step deeper into the powerful mental models and to recognize the meaningful place that they have in my life.  The ideas are not original; they are the product of many sources including listening to many more experienced practitioners explain them.  So, what I am offering here is just my perspective on some deep teachings.

The Four-Fold Practice

At its essence, the Art of Hosting is a practice (a repeated exercise in or performance of an activity or skill so as to acquire or maintain proficiency in it), a way of thinking and acting that leads to greater understanding and more skillful action.  There are four domains of practice enfolded within the Art of Hosting practice.  These are commonly referred to as the “Four-fold Practice” and within each of the four domains, there are myriad practices.

An important implication of recognizing the Art of Hosting as a practice is that mastery of the art is dependent upon ongoing practice; if we are not practicing, we are not participating in this art and we will not develop mastery.  People working within the Art of Hosting are referred to as “practitioners” because this commitment to practicing is at the essence of the art.

Given the myriad of practices contained within the Art of Hosting, it can be helpful to focus on the domains described in the Four-Fold Practice.

Hosting Self

The art of hosting is the art of being, of being the embodiment of a host.  No set of skills, techniques or methodologies can substitute for the consciousness of the host.  Hosting requires presence, that quality of authenticity, vulnerability, confidence and courage which comes from deep personal work which cannot be done in isolation.  Presence is a holistic emergent quality incorporating physical, mental, emotional and spiritual dimensions.  Presence is what allows a host to stand in the midst of intense emotion, to tolerate chaos without rushing to fix anything, to be comfortable with silence, to work in service of purpose bigger than personal ego.

Hosting self is the practice domain of developing presence.  On a physical level, it involves getting adequate rest and exercise and managing stress.  On a mental level, it supports the development of an open mind that is free of habitual patterns of thinking and unconscious beliefs and assumptions.  On an emotional level, it learns to recognize what triggers habitual emotional reactions and developing the skills of emotional intelligence.  It also helps us to own our own expectations and projections and to cope with fear and uncertainty.  It nurtures self-compassion and a willingness to take risks, make mistakes and to learn from them.   On a spiritual level, hosting oneself connects us with the unseen world of energy and spirit and reduces attachment to ego freeing us to work compassionately and without the need to be in control.  It supports us in embracing solitude and silence and a connection to the natural world.

The Art of Hosting does not have specific approved or recommended practices for hosting oneself.  Rather, it recognizes that every practitioner must find his/her own practices for developing presence.   These practices could include yoga, dance, martial arts, meditation, contemplative writing, prayer, psychotherapy, time in nature, solitude, tantric sex, or…  The importance is finding a set of practices that increase your personal capacity for presence and then to commit to regular practice.

Participate

With the presence which arises from hosting self, we are ready to participate.  On one level, this means engaging in conversations and allowing yourself to be hosted.  As the practice of participating deepens, it can evolve into a participation with all of life.  Participation is involvement with what is and with what wants to happen without expectations and without a desire to attain any particular outcome.  it is about showing up with your full self and your own interests whilst sensing what wants to happen and discerning how to align yourself and your interests in service of larger purpose.

Participation demands trust and letting go of control.  It invites a depth of conversation in which silence is a welcome participant and in which connection transcends spoken words and includes nonverbal and energetic components.  Participation is an invitation into the unknown, an opening to being changed and the field from which emergence is possible.

Participation manifests through conversation and conversation is an art. It is not just talk. True conversation demands that we listen carefully to one another, to nature and to the unseen.  It demands silence as well as words. It demands that we offer what we can in the service of the whole, to speak with deep intention while listening with deep attention.  Participation flows from the mood of curiosity.  Curiosity and judgment cannot  live together in the same space. If we are judging what we are hearing we cannot be curious about the outcome, and it will be difficult for the conversation to move beyond defending preconceived positions. Skillful conversation requires an open mind, open heart and open will.  Skillful participation in conversation calls for mindfulness and the ability to slow a conversation to allow deeper listening and clarity to arise.

Practices within the domain of participation include active listening; dialog; asking powerful questions; owning ones own projections, expectations and assumptions; clarifying intentions; check-ins and other elements of ‘circle practice’; cultivating a mood of curiosity and openness and listening to nature.

Host Conversations

The domain of hosting conversations is often perceived as the tip of the hosting iceberg.  This is the domain of methodologies, yet it is so much more.  Hosting conversations is the art of creating and holding a container in which people can do their best work together.  It is about sensing all of the conditions that will allow a group to settle into collective presence, holding that space through chaos so that new order and clarity can emerge.  Such conversations do not just happen, they are the product of clear intentions, a powerful calling question, a compelling invitation, good design, skillful framing of the context and the holding of space in which the work can be done.  These are the practices and skills of hosting conversations.

Initially, hosting is likely to consist of mastering the core methodologies.  In time, the practice calls for increasing depth of presence the ability to ‘hold space’ for deeper conversation.  Eventually, the practice also includes more subtle aspects including preparation of the physical space, invitation and welcoming and working with the energy of the group.  While much of the attention of practicing hosting is focused on the external work, the actions, an equally important aspect of the hosting practice is to attend to one’s inner state and learning.  Hosting inevitably challenges us at our growing edge, whether that is the ability to let go of control or to feel competent and adequate as a hosting team member or in finding the right language to invite deeper participation or to find the courage to overcome fear.  A practitioner of hosting is engaged in both the internal and external practices.

None of the practices are best done alone but it is particularly important to work as part of a team when hosting.

Practice community

The fourth of the four-fold practices is the practice of co-creating learning communities, communities of practice.

It is one thing to go to a training and to learn the basics of the hosting practice.  But what then?  How do you implement your learning and stay connected to other practitioners?  How do you sustain your learning and keep your practice alive and growing?  The old paradigm to address such challenges is to create a organization or an association and to listen to the wisdom of the experts.  But, this model doesn’t work in emergence where shared knowledge is the result of collaboration and conversation, not in the possession of an expert.  There are no rules or formulas or requirements for doing this work.  Practitioners are all encouraged to innovate and collaborate and to discover new models and processes.  Yet, there is also a need to recognize and protect the essential DNA and to learn from those practitioners with more experience.  How does a community of practitioners participate together where there are no clear guidelines or agreements?  How is information curated and disseminated in a self-organizing community of learners and practitioners?

This has been the challenge and the beauty of the Art of Hosting community for over a decade.  From a few friends sharing ideas together, the community has grown to several thousand practitioners with a website and open-source workbook and other materials.  All of this without any licensing or copyrighting, without any organizational structure or staff or headquarters, without any financial expectations or agreements.  As a community, we did not start out knowing how to do this.  We began with a focus on shared purpose, shared principles and friendship.  As friends, this community of practitioners looked for opportunities to work together, to learn together and to share their learnings.  In time, what has emerged is a group of more experienced practitioners who are recognized as stewards and periodic gatherings to sense into the needs of the community and to make any necessary collective decisions.  What has also emerged has been an online platform for communicating and for collecting and disseminating learnings, models, materials and other artifacts of our learning.

This community of practice pattern has emerged regionally throughout the world in response to local trainings and local needs.  While it does not look the same everywhere, there are many shared elements.  This experience of building a community of learners is not unique to the Art of Hosting and the learnings of this particular community are not held as the right way.  The beauty of this fourth domain of practice is that we are all learning together what it means to be in learning together and how we can collectively hold the emergence of the work.  Like so much within the Art of Hosting, this is fractal; what we are learning in the global community has relevance in local and regional communities of practice.  The practices that we are learning together are being applied and tested and refined as communities of practice develop and evolve.  Together we are learning how to learn together and as we learn this we are able to apply it to the work we do.

Finally, as we learn together we are also confronted with our blindspots and those parts of our practice that are less skillful or conscious and this provides an opportunity for us to individually and collectively increase our capacity through hosting ourselves.  Thus, the Four-Fold Practice is a cycle leading to deeper practice and capacity.

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Reflections on Humanity #26

Three stories from yesterday in Presevo…

Since I have not yet received permission to work inside the encampment at the processing center, I have spent the last couple of days cleaning the volunteer houses in preparation for the return of volunteers in the coming days. Consequently, I’ve don’t have a lot of first-hand stories to share, but I did have three conversations yesterday that had a powerful impact upon me and fueled my current inquiry into what kind of support is needed to help volunteers deal with the emotional consequences of their (our) experiences.

In the morning, as I was filling water containers next door at the medical clinic (the volunteer houses have not had water for over two weeks – cause, itself, for emotional reactions for some people), I struck up a conversation with a coordinator for MSF (Doctors Without Borders for those of us Franco-impaired). He told me that he had been working the night before on the Macedonian border crossing about 15 km from Presevo. For whatever reason, the people seeking refuge are dropped at the Macedonian border town and must walk for a few kilometers across the border, to the camp in Serbia and then on to the town of Miratovac where they either get a bus or walk the remaining eight kilometers to Presevo.

It was raining hard last night and the route to the border is not paved. It was deep mud. The mud was deep enough to make the way difficult for everyone. It was especially difficult for a handicapped man in a wheelchair. His companions took turns pushing him until they all became so exhausted that they left him. Alone. In the dark. In the pouring rain. In the empty space in between. Eventually, he was found and the MSF coordinator and some police reached him with a 4-wheel drive vehicle and took him to safety.

In the afternoon, one of the local volunteers stopped by to change clothes before his shift working in the chai tent. He had just finished his day job as a waiter at a Presevo restaurant and was ready to begin his volunteer work. He shared with me about his experience of the previous night. He was working near the train station in Presevo when he came upon a deaf/mute person who had become separated from the three young children that he was traveling with. He was distressed as they were inside the camp and he was not being allowed to enter. My volunteer friend attempted to get the responsible aid organization to assist him and was told that they would get back to him in 30 minutes. The 30 minutes became over 3 hours during which time the person became extremely upset and attempted to take his life by stepping in front of a moving train. The volunteer had to grab him and pull him to safety at which point the man continued to try and harm himself by hitting himself in the head with a large stone. Eventually, the volunteer found the aid workers inside the compound sitting around drinking coffee and tried unsuccessfully to get their help in resolving the situation. So, ;eft to his own devices, the volunteer took the man to the medical clinic which is about 500 meters away.
On the way, the man attempted to jump in front of a car and had to be prevented by the volunteer. Eventually, they got to the clinic and the medical personnel put the man to sleep and contacted some local mental health resources.

As my volunteer friend told me this story, he was still obviously upset. He continued to question whether he had done everything that he could and to feel responsible for the man’s safety. He kept repeating “What could I do? I am only 20 years old and he was 40. Is there more that I could have done?” My heart went out to this young volunteer as I remembered how often I felt the same powerlessness and helplessness as a mental health crisis worker without the necessary resources. Many nights I would wonder whether I made the right decision and whether my client would be alive the next day. But I was supposedly a trained professional and was more than 20 years old.

Later in the evening, another volunteer stopped by and we struck up a conversation about his experiences. He shared some of the same stories that I have been hearing about he difficult border crossing. It was never easy but now that winter has arrived the crossing, especially at night, is even more difficult. Now there is the added complication of new policies of only admitting asylum seekers from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. I questioned this volunteer about what was happening to those who were refused admission. What I learned confirmed what the MSF coordinator had told me – that those who are not permitted official entry take off on their own and find alternative routes across the border. This is mountainous country. Yesterday there was visible snow on all of the foothills around town. So, those who are refused entry are not able to walk the difficult muddy road where wheelchairs get bogged down. Instead, they must find their own way, sometimes cross-country off the roads. It was then that the volunteer told me that he had just that afternoon discovered the body of a dead refugee in the mountains nearby. He was very powerfully impacted by this experience and made to leave as quickly as possible to avoid crying in front of me, I think.

Three stories. A man abandoned in the mud. A deaf/mute man trying to kill himself. The body of a refugee presumably trying to find his way across the border in order to gain refuge and safety. The caregivers – two young volunteers and a somewhat older professional – all confronted with traumatic experiences. All deeply affected by their experiences. All back to work the next day without opportunity to adequately process and deal with the emotion. Three courageous, caring people who will be carrying the memories and the feelings of helplessness and frustration with them. Three people willingly (if not fully consciously) sacrificing their own emotional well-being and peace of mind to be of service to humanity.

All I could do was to listen, to witness, to open my heart in appreciation and awe. And I am left also wondering whether there was more that I could have done. Left feeling my own sense of powerlessness and inadequacy in the face of such raw emotional experience. And also feeling gratitude that I could be there to listen, to be there in my role as a Sacred Outsider witnessing even when there is nothing that I can “do”.

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Reflections of Humanity #25

And then I took a deep breath…

Last night around midnight I arrived in Skopje on my way back to the work in Serbia. This morning I awoke late and took my time in eating breakfast and checking out the day’s news. With my bags packed, I decided to meditate for a few minutes before leaving for the bus station. Despite my claims that meditation is one practice that sustains me in this work, the truth is that it has been almost a month since I last practiced.

I settled myself on the beanbag in my hostel room and took a couple of breaths and immediately I was aware of just how tired – emotionally exhausted, really – that I am and I knew that I did not want to go back to Presevo today. With each breath, I found myself settling into a familiar place of meditation-induced presence and I became increasingly aware of how much I have been missing this quality of being – missing it and also actively avoiding it.

First there was the intensity of work in Presevo. Then a rushed trip to Greece where I immersed myself in a new project to develop products and a supply chain that could more sustainably support the needs of the Balkan migration. The one day to experience Istanbul and some very intense conversation there. Then on to Brussels for what was supposed to be a time of renewal but what turned out to be a time of holding space and supporting healing for my dear Helen. Her badly broken leg needs physical healing and necessitates lots of tangible assistance but it also triggers much deeper wounds and need for healing and serves as a metaphor for much of the pain and suffering in the outer world. So, my time of rest and renewal was occupied in feeling and holding intense grief and sorrow. It has been a couple of months of very intense and emotionally demanding work.

To be honest, though, I wasn’t ready in Belgium to slow down and to deal with all the experiences and emotions that I had packed away. While on “frontlines” working with the people we call refugees, there is no time or opportunity to really be with the emotional impact of the work. Tears were constantly expressing themselves in the most inconvenient manner and I feared that if I really allowed myself to feel fully that they would not stop and I would be unable to do anything useful. In Belgium, I was also very distracted by the Paris attack and the global response to it and I was also busy in conversations about the traumatizing effects of refugee work and the need for healing conversations. My mind was constantly busy, distracted, craving information and action, unable to distance myself from the experiences in the Balkans and from this current time in our human history which feels so full of potential transformation or potential self-destruction. I’ve felt such a need to do something, even if it is only to educate myself and to share information, or maybe to contribute to a different kind of conversation.

Busy, busy, busy… So many important things to focus on, to do, to be a part of… Yet, the reality at the same time is that I had become (and remain) addicted to this busyness, to doing something. It kept my mind occupied and the fullness of my life kept me tired enough that I could always sleep.

One of my recent projects is to support a friend in creating a platform for supporting volunteers of “refugee work” to acknowledge and heal from the trauma that they have witnessed and experienced. This has provided me with opportunity to raise this issue with other volunteers. One of them wrote to me: “Personally I realised that our psyche has been skewed/altered, more than we ever realised. My mind is always somewhere far away. I am struggling right now to even try just by “being present” with family and friends.” Another said: “Taking collective responsibility for the group’s wellbeing; scheduling regular time offs, meditation sessions may be the solution for the burnout, helping people to keep their focus. this was what we seemed to fail in repeatedly as there were so many other urgent things to do.”

All along in this work I have known that people were being traumatized and damaged by what we were experiencing. I’ve known that much of what we were doing was not sustainable on a personal level. And I have also seen the need, felt the desperation in those we served and I have not been able to turn away. I’ve known that it is a gift to be a witness and to hold the space for others to process their emotions. These are urgent times! The bombs keep falling. Planes are being shot down. Terror attacks. Saber rattling. Winter weather. Xenophobic, hate-filled rhetoric even among presidential candidates. And at the same time, there are so many acts of compassion and kindness and a new consciousness of self-organizing collaboration is evident in so many places. It feels like we are at a tipping point – one direction of the other. It feels like there is no time to waste. So much to do.

So much to do, and yet… This need for busyness and for doing is part of the problem, at least it feels that way in my own experience. The faster I go and the more that I do, the tireder I become but the more difficult it is for me to slow down. It is so hard to recognize and prioritize the need for meditation and reflection and for deeply feeling the pain, even when it feels like an unending artisian flow of emotion will erupt if I allow it.

Am I strong enough to do this work? I’ve repeatedly proven to myself that I can do a tremendous amount, that my body will keep going in very demanding times. But I wonder if I am strong enough to slow down, to stop, to breath, to feel, to fully experience vulnerability and impotence. Am I willing to let go of my independence and autonomy long enough to allow those who love me to hold me in my pain? Can I be generous enough to allow others to support and to help me? It feels like this is somehow connected to the challenges that we currently face individually, collectively and globally.

Feeling the gratitude and also the challenge of a day off and for the presence that comes from stillness of listening.

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