This summer:

  • I am living in a community juggling daily wildfire alerts and emergency evacuation orders as fires burn in parts of Canada and the United States as well as Macedonia, Turkey and Italy. My community is also among the growing number of places contending with the discoveries of unmarked graves of children at former Indigenous residential schools in Canada.
  • There has been flooding around the globe from Germany to China to Colombia to Pakistan, India and Afghanistan.
  • In the wake of the heat doom in the Pacific Northwest (also where I live and experienced it), new analysis into the mortality costs of carbon emissions paints a dire picture of a ticking time bomb, in which we have till 2050 to radically reduce carbon emissions at macro policy levels to reverse our climate spiral. The analysis of which countries and societies are leading the downward spiral is telling.
  • In Afghanistan, there is a growing refugee crisis as US troops withdraw and the Taliban advances across the country.
  • Humanitarian and Refugee crises are continuing and escalating in Syria, Yemen, among the Rohingya Refugees, in Venezuela and at the Southern US Border.
  • Human rights abuses and violence continue in the cycle of humans seeking dignity and freedom who are being intercepted on the Mediterranean seas to prevent them from seeking asylum in Europe. Supported by European Union funding and policies, these asylum seekers are being sent back to Libya, where they are detained and face cycles of beatings, rapes, forced labour and atrocities over and over again. As noted in this article from The New Humanitarian, we seem to have forgotten the horror of the dead body of baby Alan Kurdi that shocked the world when he was found on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea in 2015.
  • Meanwhile, the coronavirus is still with us, presenting a new wave of challenges as the delta and lambda variants spread….

And these are only a sample of the people and planetary crises facing us in this moment, amidst many more known and unknown….

If you are anything like me, it is so tempting to shrink under the weight of it all. The oscillating patterns of trauma we are experiencing seem never-ending. It is not surprising that we are simultaneously facing increasing mental health concerns globally. It would be easy to turn away from the news cycle in the name of self-care, which I do sometimes. But I cannot and will not turn my face permanently aside. The costs of doing so are too high, as all the  examples above illustrate. I have lived some of the consequences of human terror, and count myself lucky to still be here, breathing and able to share these words with you.

The root of all these issues, whether we inherited them or have been part of creating the structures that sustain them, is us, humanity. Our denial, abdication or distancing ourselves from that reality will not make them go away and our futures are bound up in the choices we make now. The only way forward, is to choose, with clear-eyed sobriety, to be part of the solutions wherever we find ourselves. Whether in the public benefit or private sectors, we all have a part to play in examining the impact on people and planet of the decisions we make. In my work and practice, I am often asked: How? How do we move past the overwhelm and crippling emotions to take action for social justice and change?

I do not have answers for these wicked problems, but here are some thoughts to consider, which I try to center in my own leadership, and in all I do as a scholar-practitioner at the intersection of organization development and social change and increasingly at policy-making tables. I continue to develop practices to support Transformation After Trauma through the power of Resonance that incorporates the need for confronting and processing the traumas we are contending with and finding purpose in co-designing a better future for all.

  1. Find your squares. In a recent fireside chat, I found myself leaning into the analogy of a quilt and simultaneously feeling the sensation of deja-vu as the historical significance of quilting in Black History ricocheted back to me (see here and here). I followed that inspiration and spoke of what could be possible if we each found our square in the issues of change and trauma that concern us. Our square is that place of purpose in the broader movement to restore our humanity and heal our planet. This requires that we understand that while no one of us can solve it all, we each have a place in quilting our global futures. We need the faith to know that our square(s), connected to the emerging quilt of our global futures will make a difference.
  2. Operate from Resonance. I encourage people to make resonance conscious and hang on to it. Resonance is moments of awakening, through personal stories, that opens space or creates an opportunity for transformative learning even in the most traumatic contexts. It allows you to make personal and collective meaning, (re)frame trauma into purpose and realize interior capacity to sustain you on the road to transformation. Getting to that level of connectedness to ourselves and others through Resonance, such that transformational change and action can happen, is a requirement for humanity in our times. The alternative is continued divisiveness and our downward spiral.
  3. Connect to your Resonant community. Connect to your resonant community of people who are focused on using their life stories and passions towards a shared purpose and focus your efforts. Part of the challenge I notice in communities seeking action for change is the tendency to try to connect to everyone and do everything that seems possible to make a difference. This is ineffective and exhausting and only leads to dysfunctional team and organization dynamics as people unravel. You need only focus your efforts and maintain closest connection to the squares closest to your own to see the beauty of what is emerging and amplify your impact.
  4. Co-design your way forward. Take the time with your resonant community to think through your process and theory of change. What impact and influence are you trying to have? What is the most important thing you can do to get there? What pattern do you want to create? With whom, when and how do you need to connect with others.
  5. Collaborate, then differentiate and integrate. Change work is hard and collaborative change working with your resonant community is essential to progress and success. However, doing everything, altogether, all the time, can be as exhausting as trying to be all things to all people. When you have confirmed your purpose and after you have collaboratively designed the way forward, differentiate into smaller groups or task individuals as needed, with a clear process for now to reintegrate the work as it builds and grows.
  6. Learn and Iterate. Whether you work in organization development’s first generation (action research), second generation (action learning) or third generation (dialogic/collaborative change) methodologies, learning in order to iterate forward is a core practice and often the difference maker. In the traumatic and transformative era we find ourselves in, pausing when feeling stuck to ask: What is happening? So what? Now what? may be the only difference that makes a difference.

It is well documented that quilting in Black history in the North Americas was much more than artistry or a trade for Black women. It was about storytelling and survival, encoding hidden messages enroute to and through the underground railway. As I have been playing with the quilting metaphor, I find myself returning again to the power of story and this block of text from an Encyclopaedia of Leadership which I often quote:

The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre calls humans the storytelling animals and asserts that narratives enable people to glimpse possible shared futures. Not only do humans tell narratives of their own, but also they continue narratives that others started before them and tell their narratives in competition with others. Thus, people come upon a page of a human narrative and have a chance to continue or alter a story but not to begin a new one. Nor can people shape their narratives without concern for an audience with whom they share a past. In this sense, humans, including leaders, have agency—the capacity to shape history—but they also have a shared history that has shaped them. MacIntyre suggests, I can only answer the question “What am I to do?” if I can answer the prior question “Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?” We enter human society, that is, with one or more imputed characters—roles into which we have been drafted—and we have to learn what they are in order to be able to understand how others respond to us and how our responses to them are apt to be construed. The questions “What am I to do?” and “Of what story am I a part?” capture the essence of leadership—to take action, which may exceed one’s authority, in the face of doubt. However, these questions miss the essence of leadership because they focus on the individual. Leaders ask and answer, “What are we to do?” Effective leadership asks implicitly or explicitly, “Of what story are we a part?” Leadership imparts an immediacy of the shared past of many people and a possible future that influences people to build a link of action between the shared past and a possible future.
Couto, R. (2004). Narratives. In G. Goethals, G. Sorenson, & J. Burns (Eds.), Encyclopedia of leadership. (pp. 1068-1075). Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications. doi:

As we all contemplate our part and contribution to quilting our global futures and transform the traumas of this era into positive change for people and planet, I ask you to consider:

  • Of what story are you a part?
  • What are we to do?
  • Of what story are we a part?
  • What futures do you want to be a part of quilting?

The work may never be done. Sometimes we will unravel what we’ve done and stitch, re-stitch and backstitch to fortify again. For inspiration about the power of unravelling to get to transformation, check out this amazing talk by my fellow TedxSFU speaker, Meagan Woods-A new form of progress: lessons from sewing – making & moving in reverse

Ultimately, our job is to do our part and create a quilt worth passing on to the next generation.