How familiar is this? You're meeting someone from another organisation. It's a “get to know you”. You're kind of looking forward to it. Their work sounds interesting and, on the face of it, there seems to be synergy in your endeavours. But something strange is happening. You begin to feel that you're being interviewed, questioned sharply and closely about what you do. They're doing all the asking and giving little away.
Or worse still, they're offering unlooked for beneficence. Pointing you by way of unasked for resources or suggesting contacts, taking the role of provider of knowledge and aid. You came to discuss the ways in which you might work co-operatively, creatively, together and suddenly you find that you've been jockeyed into the role of supplicant.
And it gets worse than that ..
Julian Boal in his Notes on Oppression writes beautifully about this. He explains that “oppression is beyond individual relationships”. I believe it has all the hallmarks and characteristics of jealousy; unreasonable viciousness, the need to negate and suppress, but it is what happens when whole social groups do this to others. Jealousy, on an individual level, and oppression, at a societal level, is what happens when we believe resources are scarce and under threat.
You see now why jealousy and oppression interest me so, as an participatory practitioner. I have made it very clear from the start that the place-based, community-commissioned activity of the Squilometre technique is meant to potentiate positive social change. It is profoundly influenced by Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed and then of course by Augusto Boal, Julian's father, and his Theatre of the Oppressed. Only by animating communities from within to become aware of the nature of their oppression, they write, can change ever happen.
Oppression is what happens when whole social groups act in jealousy ….
So understanding jealousy and oppression is important. The whole gamut of engagement, community arts and participatory practice depends upon a clear understanding of that fundamental human characteristic. Jealousy is a guttural, visceral reaction to the threat of loss. A reaction that we are ALL susceptible to. So when I'm meeting with that colleague and my ideas begin to threaten the loss of their professional standing, they need to reassert dominance. Nicely, of course, because we're all civilised aren't we? But dominance nonetheless. Hierarchy is the ladder that we use to navigate jealousy and oppression. Someone must be above. Someone must be below.
When we work with our communities we can't afford to be unaware of this. Because unless we understand it and recognise it in ourselves, we will forever be its unwitting players. Constantly suppressed into the role of supplicant or, worse still, acting out the role of oppressor. Even the best designed and most well-intentioned “engagements” have the potential to leave participants identifying themselves as lesser beings; in receipt of temporary beneficence from elsewhere. A boon that must necessarily end when the funding draws to a close.
So what is happening, what is the fundamental belief that underpins oppression and jealousy?
I call it The Invisible Order.
We are not born with an understanding of The Invisible Order. As new borns, all the world's souls are the same to us. Each of us is a tall blade of grass on a vast, flat and above all, totally level, plain. An endless savannah where we, every single person, are all equal in status and worth.
Very quickly however, as we grow, we are taught about the differences. The Invisible Order is ranked vertically and we are brought into the knowledge of where we fit; who is above and below us. Our education, as Freire says, is not intended to make us question The Invisible Order but to compete to ascend it.
That is what is so profoundly wrong with the notion of "Levelling Up" - the implicit acceptance of hierarchy without question. Buying into the damaging believe that we are not already equal in status and worth.
I do NOT accept this.
Participatory practitioners MUST be aware of their own internal beliefs. For my part, here's my new mantra:-
All the souls of the world stand as grasses upon one, flat and level plain. Each of us equally tapped into the richness of the earth and blessed by the sun in the sky. We are all equal in status and worth.
JoJo Spinks is a Westcountry writer in love with her landscape and her life. She is a founding member of Interwoven Productions CIC and the creator of the Squilometre tool for sustainable community animation. JoJo writes here on landscape, art, community and working in the gift,