Values At Work

Transforming work-place culture with compassion

One of the articles in We Can Do It! (IC#33)
Originally published in Fall 1992 on page 26
Copyright (c)1992, 1996 by Context Institute

I walk into the center of the large room. Surrounding me is a ring of 50 chairs, 46 of them occupied by white male road workers, engineers and animal control workers, experiencing varying degrees of hostility, denial and avoidance. Baseball caps pulled down over their eyes, arms folded over beer guts: I stand before the epitome of blue-collar America. With the exception of my co-facilitator, I am the only black person in the room.

They have been ordered by their managers to spend four hours with me as I facilitate a discussion on the changing ethnicity in our society and on building community within the work force. I have been hired to help a group of strangers, with whom I share little in common and who feel coerced into participation, to move toward community. In four hours.

In order for this not to become an exercise in absurdity, I have to know in advance the barriers to community and to get beyond those barriers – quickly.

I first talk about change, and fear of change. That we all experience fear – fear for our jobs, our lifestyles, our family. (Some of the arms unfold, some eye contact.) I then talk about guilt and denial, how we feel these things when faced with the possibility of change. I tell them that I want none of them to feel guilty about being in a system they did not create. (More eye contact, some nods.)

I follow that up with a discussion of "white male bashing," how the men in the room feel defensive because they are threatened and blamed for all of society’s problems. (By this time most of them are sitting forward, making eye contact, smiling to each other and ready for the first exercise.)

I’ve spent 20 minutes talking, and the only thing I’ve said is, "I know how you feel, and your feelings are valid. I know you are afraid, but together we can get through the fear." In 20 minutes, we broke through the essential barrier to community: fear. The essential roadway through that fear is compassion.

– Sharif Abdullah

Sharif Abdullah is director of The Forum for Community Transformation (PO Box 12541, Portland, OR, 97212), an organization that is working on the changes necessary to bring about an "authentic society." His description of his first meeting with the road workers was reprinted, with permission, from the July 1992 issue of Talking Leaves. In addition to consulting and speaking, Sharif writes about values, personal and cultural transformation, and empowerment; his book, The Power of One, is available from the Forum. IC editor Robert Gilman interviewed Sharif during his recent visit to Bainbridge Island.

Robert: When are you called in to a work place, as you were with the road maintenance workers?

Sharif: Let me give you an example: I was called into a situation where the work crews were calling each other by derogatory racial names. They were best of friends, they would get along with each other, go and visit each other, or go fishing together, but the white crew members would call the black crew members "nigger" or "boy," the black ones would refer to the white ones as "cracker" or "honky," and then they would all go get doughnuts together.

Now, into that mix came a temporary worker who instantly fell into the same behavior, started doing the name calling and the back slapping. The temporary worker was not given a permanent position and used three months worth of name-calling incidents as proof that he was "discriminated against."

So, generally there’s a smoking gun: an incident has cost an employer time and/or money, or the conditions are present for one to occur. An incident can cost a county or a city hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost time, bad feelings, damage claims and awards. The idea is to pay a fraction of that for preventive maintenance.

Robert: How do you respond to this type of situation?

Sharif: When we get called in, we ask three questions.

The first question is, What really works well for everybody, that we need to either leave alone or strengthen?

The second question is, What doesn’t work for everybody or for a significant number of people? We help remove the cultural supports for that kind of behavior.

The third question is, What needs to be added to this culture to make it work well for everyone? If we take out one behavior, then perhaps we need to put a new behavior in its place. By looking at these three things we start re-orienting or re-directing the cultural basis for the work place.

Most of the cultures of various workplaces were created back when the only people in the work place were white males, so that one cultural group set the tone. That is beginning to change.

In the past we’ve tried to make changes from the top down, at the level of institutions, without recognizing that the institution rests on the bed of culture, and culture rests on the bed of consciousness. An example is affirmative action: we pass laws, set up guidelines, have statistical reports, etc., but there’s no cultural support for bringing more ethnic minorities and women into the work place. So when ethnic minorities and women arrive on the job, there’s resistance and hostility because the cultural work hasn’t been done. We’re doing the cultural work first.

Robert: How do you get started? How do you build connections to workers who aren’t interested in participating and are most likely quite defensive?

Sharif: The first training is mandatory for the entire work force. When they come in they are at best defensive and suspicious, at worst, openly hostile. We have about 20 minutes or so to reach them, and we do reach them. We reach them because we walk in with our hearts open; we walk in without blaming anybody.

We use an analogy of a toxic waste dump. We don’t know who created the dump, we just assume that no one in the room created it. However, we inherited it and we have a choice to either pass it on to our children or drain it ourselves. Each of us has a responsibility for draining it.

We talk about the profound societal shifts we are all facing and tell them that if they don’t bog down in fear, it will be okay. Their jobs may change, their whole lifestyle may change, but it can be okay, it can be something that they will look forward to. And it’s worth the shift for their children and their children’s children. That’s something they really understand.

Robert: So once you have a basic level of trust established, where do you take it from there?

Sharif: We call our process an "emergent awareness process"; we help them emerge to their next level of awareness.

First, we refer them back to themselves. They love making broad statements about what George Bush ought to do. We turn the discussion back to them. That’s how we get them to face that they do have a fear – that when they’re talking about George Bush, it’s generally masking some fear.

Secondly, we refer them back to the common good. We’ll ask them what would be good for everybody present. They’ll say, "Well, what’s good for me and my friends is x." And we say, "No, what’s good for absolutely everybody here?"

Thirdly, we refer them back to their values. We don’t try to tell them what those values are, but we do ask them to clarify those values.

I’ll give you an example: a few of the crews take their lunch to the nearest high school, and while they are eating they look at the high school girls walking by in their mini-skirts and make inappropriate comments. All of these are grown men with teen-age children.

I say to them, "If your daughter came home from school and said, ‘Daddy, there’s this guy in this truck who is saying suggestive things to me,’ you’d go to your closet and load up your .38 and you’d blow someone away for doing what you do.

"Now, you should get your values consistent, because if what you do is okay, then when your daughter comes home and says that, tell her to go ahead and get in the truck. If you’re not willing to tell her that, then perhaps you shouldn’t be doing that to somebody else’s daughter. Now you resolve the conflict any way you want to."

Our society is schizophrenic. We espouse one set of values and practice a completely different and contradictory set of values. We need to end the schizophrenia by ending it within ourselves first.

Fourth, we refer them back to a healing environment so that they can be challenged without feeling blamed and defensive and angry. It’s okay to push them out of their comfort zone, and we do that very quickly. We push their buttons really hard. But it’s not okay to push them out of their safety zone. Some of them have a joke after each session: they’ll come up and shake my hand and say, "I hated this. And thanks a lot, I’ll be back."

The last thing that we refer them back to is a sense of their own spirit. What we’re trying to do is to evoke the highest level of transpersonal experience that they can muster. Some of them don’t have a belief in anything other than their grandkids. They say they’ll do anything for their grandkids, in which case they’re ready to talk about closing a nuclear power plant, for example.

Robert: What’s at the root of the problem? How did these work place cultures get to the point that they need this intensive therapy?

Sharif: The problem is ultimately that our entire society is made up of people who don’t feel good about themselves. These road workers are at the bottom of that ladder, in a very literal fashion. When you walk through sewers every day, or operate a sweeper, or pick up trash on the side of the road, you recognize that the work that you’re doing is, in the words of Wendell Berry, fundamental and inescapable. In the past we called that work "nigger work." And they know people look down their noses at them.

If you feel bad about yourself, how do you learn to feel good about yourself? What we’re taught is to put someone down; if there’s someone lower than you, you’re okay. I started an interview with one of the workers by asking, "You’re a utility worker." He said, "I’m a utility worker two." That means there is a utility worker one, who’s lower than he is, and he wanted to make sure he’s not the lowest person on the ladder.

The racially and sexually motivated joking or comments are simply attempts by people who don’t feel good about themselves to get a leg up. If we learn to feel good about ourselves without putting someone else down, the behaviors that we’ve been lumping into the –isms – racism and sexism – can go away.

So I find myself in the very rare position of doing self-esteem work primarily with white males. I never thought I’d be doing that. I had always thought that white males were at the top of the ladder, that they’ve got it all together. Now I realize that there is no top to this ladder.

On the one hand, these men are white, they’ve got good jobs, job security, they can buy anything they want, live anywhere they want. But on the other hand, they’re caught in a machinery that they don’t understand, that they haven’t created, and that they can’t affect. So each of us is in some way a victim of the society that we have created, and in some way a victimizer.

The road workers see the society going like a car out of control. They know simplistic answers don’t work, but no one is providing any other answers.

Activists aren’t talking to these people, the people that I call the center, or the majority. They talk to people who are already saved, preach to the choir. The dominant paradigm is dominant because there’s no one articulating to those who are upholding it that there’s any another paradigm.

It’s amazing what happens when we talk to the road workers about what we call the "authentic society," and about the mega-crises, and about the values we need to create a new society, and what that new society might look like. The heads around that room are nodding, you know, it’s like "yeah, this is the first time I’ve ever heard this."

One of the guys came up to me after one of these presentations and said, "You’re talking to the same group of people that David Duke is talking to, and what you’re saying makes sense. We know that David Duke is trying to use us."

Robert: What skills do you need to facilitate these sessions?

Sharif: You have to be willing to work on your stuff in the room in front of people and be vulnerable. You can’t afford to get defensive because they can detect it. It’s like smelling fear or anger; they go after you.

Here’s an example of a time my buttons got pushed. One of the guys raised his hand and said, "The white man is an endangered species." I said something to humor him and just kept on going. About five minutes later he raised his hand again and made a similar kind of statement, and I just turned him off, and he raised his hand a third time and said, "You’re not listening to me!" And I said, "You’re right!" And I said, "I’m going to stop, and I’m going to listen to what you’ve got to say."

And what he said was what you said in one of the issues of IN CONTEXT about the center not being okay (see IC #30, page 10). His language wasn’t as clear and lucid as yours, and he had these racial buzzwords in there that set my bells off. But basically he said we can’t work for the right of a particular group when all of us are in the same boat right now – everybody needs help. And he’s right. When I was able to let go of my stuff and stop and listen to him, I was able to say to him, "You’re absolutely right. And now I can help you to articulate that in such a way that people can listen to it and not think that you’re Bozo the Clown."

Robert: Can you describe other discussions you had during these sessions with the road workers?

Sharif: Okay. This is the 2 am session with the night road workers – interesting group of folks. We were talking about what had happened since the last training. One of the workers said about a manager who was there in the room, "I noticed that Henry is treating the black workers better than he did before." And then he turns to Henry and he says, "But you know, I noticed that you’re treating everybody better. And I really want to thank you for doing that. You’re treating the black folks and the white folks better."

Now, Henry, of course, starts turning red. Henry had a very military style, and he thought that you get the maximum amount of work out of someone by making them feel as badly as possible. That may have been the first unsolicited praise he ever got! That was a very powerful lesson for everybody in the room.

It’s fun stuff. And very rewarding. They have been increasingly willing to expose their inner selves. Anyone who’s been through a community-building process knows that this is a powerful, scary, and in some ways a threatening process.

One time, one of the men just broke down and started crying, bawling. My initial reaction was to run over and comfort him. But I stopped that reaction because the men needed to see another man cry and see that it’s okay. That moment knit the group in ways that it could not be knit before. The man who cried displayed tremendous courage by exposing himself to potential ridicule. Creating an environment where that was safe is the kind of work we do.

Robert: It sounds as though this process would change the workers in their non-work lives also.

Sharif: That’s right. One guy told me that he had had a black family living next to him for 10 years, and he had never spoken to them. After he did our training he went next door and spoke to them. He said it shocked them. But they got over their shock, and now they’re speaking to each other.

This guy fits all of the definitions of what a black person would be afraid of from a "white racist." For him to go next door and introduce himself to that family helped to make the entire world a safer place. He took a chance and stepped outside his normal role, which was to ignore them, to act like the house was vacant. Speaking to them meant he was willing to accept a change in his life.

Another one of the road workers told me that he had talked all weekend about this with his wife and that he’s treating her differently now because of the training.

Robert: Tell me about your background. What brought you to the point where you’re doing self-esteem work for white men?

Sharif: I’m not quite sure where to begin. I was born and raised in the Philadelphia area, in a fairly monotonous, impoverished background – welfare, toxic environment. The environment was toxic because it was polluted, but also because it was socially polluted.

I first started looking at issues of community and empowerment when I was about 12 or 13 years old, when I got involved with the Black Power movement in Camden, New Jersey. At 12 years old I was one of the founding members of an organization called the Black People’s Unity Movement. We did economic development and self-help projects, like creating a supermarket, a corrugated box factory, a gas station.

We had all of these economic activities going on, and we had a sense of political power in the city, but at the time I was an alcoholic, and most of the people in the organization were either doing drugs or alcohol. There was an emptiness inside of us, a lack of fulfillment, a torment. So, despite the economic activity, despite having a deep sense of our cultural roots as African people, we were still killing each other, or ourselves.

Robert: How did you get out of that situation? What changed for you?

Sharif: I get asked a lot what changed me from a relatively hard-hearted young man, who didn’t care about himself and surely didn’t care about anybody else, into a person who can be compassionate with everybody and almost everything, including the ants on the ground. There wasn’t a moment of epiphany when I realized I was one with all of life; it was a gradually evolving process in which I came to recognize that that which I was angry about was something I was fearful about. And when I addressed and faced that fear, I could walk through it and come to another room that was larger than the room I left.

The first fear I had to face was the fear of white society in general. Being raised almost exclusively in a black environment, where all of the faces and images coming at me were African-American, created a fear of white society. Now, in my mind I interpreted that as dislike for white society; I couldn’t admit I was afraid. So facing that fear for me meant being able to, for example, attend a predominantly white college and survive.

The next fear was the fear of people who had more resources than I did. Being raised on welfare meant the people who were even middle-class were foreigners to me; there was a lot of distrust and fear around being put down. What I learned through experience was that middle- and upper-class people have the same kind of fears, the same kind of issues that I have.

So each time I had to face a fear, what I really had to do was face a level of who I was as a person. Each step revealed another part of me and allowed me to encompass a broader reality.

Robert: Out of all of this, what did you learn about the empowerment process?

Sharif: From doing work with the road workers, I’ve come to see that the group that we are trying to empower is the middle, the majority, the center of gravity for our society in North America. It’s those who unwittingly support the dominant paradigm.

We want them to be empowered so they can move in the direction of an authentic society – one that is based on compassion, that is sustainable, that is ecologically in balance, and that works for everybody.

We also want them to be empowered so that they don’t move in the other major direction of our society, which is fascism: cutting the corners off of life to get it to fit into a preconceived notion of how people should think, act, and behave.

People move when you make a direct appeal to their hearts, when you engage them at their level, on their issues, and you do that with a sense of your compassion. As Thich Nhat Hahn [a Vietnamese Buddhist monk] says, it’s easy to be compassionate with someone whom you consider to be a victim; it’s harder to see the victimizer as the victim. I have come to look upon the people I’ve been dealing with as victims of a system that all of us support in some way, and all of us are victims of in another way.

Robert: You mentioned earlier that you talk to the road workers about the mega-crises we face. Can you say more about that?

Sharif: In my book, The Power of One: Authentic Leadership in Turbulent Times, I examine five mega-crises that are facing everybody on our planet. These crises have to do with the economy; diversity – the fact that everyone on the planet is facing an issue in regards to how we see ourselves in relationship to some other person or some other group; ecology; human fulfillment; and leadership.

If I have a sense of my personal power and authenticity, those five directions manifest themselves into a coherent whole.

With regard to economy, I get to practice voluntary simplicity; I get to look at the world and say, this is a level of economic activity that I choose for myself and that I can live with. In terms of diversity, it means that I can truly honor everyone else’s path.

In regard to ecology, I can practice transpersonal ecology: instead of looking at humanity as being the top of a food chain and everything else being subservient to humans, humans are just part of the web of life. And I will treat all of that life in a sacramental way.

In terms of looking at fulfillment, I ask: what does it mean for me to live a fulfilling life? What do I need from myself, what do I need from others, what do I need from my society, in order for me to live a value-centered life? – to live a life that has value and meaning outside of how much money I make or what kind of car I drive.

And in terms of leadership, I have to be a leader of one. The reason that the title to my book is The Power of One is that I believe that if I fully encompass my authority, I become an empowered person. When I rid myself of fear of others or fear of consequences or fear of how I’m seen by others, I become a very powerful person. When everyone acts this way, we’ve created a society that is empowered.

I don’t know what a society that is based on compassion or authenticity looks like. We have very few models of that in the world. But we get to find out; we get to experiment with having competition between nations as to who can do the most good for the planet. Instead of who can sell the most arms, who can help the most people feed themselves?

It ushers in a brand new era, a brand new way of thinking about and dealing with things. We’re out of a reformist mode.

It’s interesting that many people in our society, even people who consider themselves progressives or activists or whatever, still buy into the inherent value of the existing paradigm. What we have been talking about is truly revolutionary. We’re talking about a major shift in how we see our society. It’s the kind of shift that Newtonian physics had hundreds of years ago. It’s a brand new ball game.

Robert: It’s a shift at the level of consciousness and culture.

Sharif: Yes. And our ability to cooperate with it just by saying, ‘Yes, it’s going to happen, I’m not going to stop it,’ is going to spell the difference as to whether we’re in for a 20-year exciting roller coaster ride or 20 years of pain and anguish. And I’m up for the roller coaster ride.

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