We need impulses that actively invite us into a more beautiful world and for this we need social developers
Currently, many processes of change can be observed in society. What would it be like if change were to be professionally accompanied in a targeted and holistic manner and the discipline were to be called social development?
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What is social development?
Organizational development is probably a term most people know, but what could social development be and what do social developers do? We have been working for about a year on developing the discipline of social development and training ourselves in it. We are seven people from Berlin, Dresden and Kassel with different professional backgrounds (peace and conflict research, team organization and cultural development, coaching & facilitation, philosophy, neighborhood management, theater & dramaturgy acting).
Initiator and founder of the group is Simon Mohn, a studied peace and conflict researcher, who has been working in the field of non-profit organizational development for the last years. Having founded his own organization – Reinventing Society1 – working with utopian methods for sustainable social and ecological transformation, Simon has been thinking a lot about what it takes to initiate and accompany sustainable social change.
„Similar to an organization, a society has many subsystems (only much more complex). These can be organizations, but also the apartment block around the corner, a family system, a metropolis, individual people, alliance networks or entire states. Society developers would have the possibility to start at very different levels or in different systems and to accompany concerted development processes in them“.2
One result of his vision quest is our first self-organized professional development group. We meet regularly via Zoom and live and get to know each other as people and as a group. We dedicate ourselves to the following topic: What exactly is social development and what skills should a social developer have? Together we will train as society developers for two to three years and in the future further clusters of about 5-12 people will be formed.
We are convinced that social change can only succeed with simultaneous personal development and reflection. We try to live together as people and as a group what we think is needed in the world and in dealing with each other: Connectedness instead of separation. This is a relational process in which we work on ourselves and our own personal issues, design communal utopias for the here and now, weave webs of relationships with each other and with others, model change and accompany processes.
„The return and connection to one’s own origins are central components of social development“
This quote is an important insight of one of our last meetings, where we asked ourselves the question, why we in Europe have lost our indigeneity (understood as originality) and to what extent the recollection of our far back roots could be a central part of our way of working as well as a possible starting point for a paradigm shift of the modern societies of western character and an impulse for urgent developments.
How do we come to the topic of European indigeneity? Many people have had contact with indigenous communities through travels to other continents and the boom of indigenous healing knowledge and ceremonies. Two of us – one of whom is me – have worked and lived with indigenous communities in Guatemala and Colombia. These experiences with indigenous cosmovisions (Maya in Guatemala and those of the Kogi in Colombia) have had a great impact on us as well as raised suggestions for our own way of life.
We are aware that as Germans and Europeans, due to our origins and the associated privileges and historical and epistemological continuities of colonialism, we must be careful how we speak about other contexts and not romanticize the way of life of indigenous peoples in particular, or even take their practices out of context, appropriate them or even reinterpret them. Since the 1970s/80s, we have experienced a solidarity coming from the left spectrum with the political struggles in Latin America and other continents of the global South, and since human rights have become a reference point for solidarity in the political mainstream as well. But what exactly does solidarity mean in this context, and who determines it? Do we actually engage in conversation with those with whom we show solidarity about whether they want it that way?
Although the critique of postcolonial theories draws attention to this, a superior undertone often resonates when we people from the global North try to connect with people and contexts that do not correspond to the modern image of so-called development, democracy, capitalism or human rights.
Can we still do that at all, connect with each other without judgments and stereotypes, enter into a human, empathetic contact with each other? I think that we only reach solidarity and honest connectedness when we turn to ourselves, as well as to our lost, denied parts, blind spots and contradictions – both on an individual and collective level. Only when we become truly aware of who we are and from which position we speak, connecting with the earth and ourselves – and not looking at it as objectively and neutrally as possible, are we able to empathically encounter people in other contexts. If we succeed in coming to terms with and accepting our own origins, even those far in the past, with all their facets as our own, we can put ourselves on an equal footing with those who are much more aware of their roots and origins. While collectively we often behave „from the top down,“ if we look more closely, it is actually a matter of coming into contact at eye level „from the bottom up.“ „We don’t give our knowledge to those who don’t know where they come from“ said a Kogi elder to our colleague Lucas. Because those who don’t know where he:she comes from will misuse old knowledge. So our efforts should be focused on becoming equal partners:in order to actually act in solidarity.
This is one reason why it is worth turning to ourselves and exploring the question of who we are and what might have happened to our indigeneity. Inspired by the article „Reclaiming our Indigenous European roots“ by activist Lyla Junes, we looked at our own origins and explored the question of what caused „our indigeneity“ to be lost.5
We did this by means of mapping as well as constellation work. Our goal was to represent various aspects of European (violent) history by co-creatively writing historical events on cards and placing them on the floor in the form of a timeline – knowing that this is not a scientific and complete representation. What emerged was a subjective overall narrative consisting of many puzzle pieces. For example, the events range from the invention of time and rural property, to the subjugation of the female* sex, to industrialization and the two world wars.
We were aware that in the further course of our work we would also have to answer the question of indigeneity in the German / European context regionally and contextually, since Europe is a construct under which different countries are subsumed, each with its own specific history, events, references and peculiarities. Accordingly, we chose a more regional focus at a subsequent meeting. Along the lines of the question „What do we know about the special characteristics, traditions and rites as well as the history of a region that shapes us?“ we narrowed the focus again. The assumption here is that a thorough understanding of our origins should take into account different geographic-cultural scales.
What does indigeneity mean to us in that context, and what does it even mean?
In Latin America, the term pueblos indígenas, which translates as „indigenous peoples,“ is an emancipatory concept of self-description of the indigenous population in distinction to a conquering actor. According to this view, indigenous peoples are, „the descendants of the former inhabitants of a territory affected by foreign conquest, who live predominantly according to social, economic, cultural customs that differ significantly from those of the dominant group.“6 Moreover, the relationship for indigenous communities to territory is a holistic one with historical, cultural, spiritual, economic and political dimensions. For them, land is a space where social life takes place, economic production is organized communally, and political organization is regulated. At the same time, the communally worked land represents the reference to the mystical space of the ancestors. Juan Tiney describes it as the space where the relationships with the ancestors are shaped and the footprints that emerge from the relationships of the community members become visible.7
We have held for ourselves that indigeneity is something relational, a way of life and understanding of the world in which everything is connected to everything else and is part of a larger whole. It has something to do with originality, in distinction from something (externally) imposed, and has a concrete territorial reference. If everything is connected with everything, then things cannot build sequentially on each other, but can only arise out of themselves, circularly, like the rings of a tree bark. Thus we are dealing with a circular understanding.
For dealing with origin and lost indigeneity this means to understand time as circular as well. Concretely speaking, this means that the events of our collective past stretch over the present into the future and describe a circular movement in it. Our task would therefore be to name unhealed, „open“ collective injuries in our history of origin and to look for ways to take care of their „healing“ in a responsible and respectful way. In doing so, all incisive events are to be included, regardless of whether a perpetrator or victim role was present at the time (often both are the case, especially when it comes to collective historical memories). In the search for a good „healing,“ the question of role is, of course, crucial for the approach to be taken to the collective historical legacy.
U.S. peace researcher John Paul Lederach, in a book with his daughter Angela, When blood and bones cry out – Journeys through the soundscape of Healing and Reconciliation, offers important reflections on this issue in relation to collective healing and reconciliation processes. He describes healing processes as circular phenomena, since experiences of violence are not linear events either:
“Lived community experience (….) is a dynamic context in which people simultaneously live and face elements of both conflict and peace; a context in which reconciliation and healing are embedded. This suggests that healing and reconciliation may be better captured through images that are less like linear progression and more akin to phenomena that contain yin/yang-like characteristics and relationships.”
John Paul Lederach
For our work as society developers, decisive insights were that our modern societies have lost their own origins and indigeneity and that therefore the recollection and connection to our own origins must be central components of our work. In concrete terms, this can mean, for example, that working with the past, memory, mourning processes and ritual work can be a component of our accompaniment. In the context of the German past and the current situation in Ukraine, which just at the beginning has brought with an unexpected force, the collective traumatic memories of the situation in Europe at the beginning and during the Second World War, into our minds, bodies and emotions, this work and insights seem to me more important than ever.
We are aware that we are still at the very beginning of our journey of insight and that it may be new and possibly alienating for the reader:inside. For us, too, our findings are sometimes disconcerting, at least surprising. But for this we have embarked on an experimental journey, the outcome uncertain. I am happy in the name of our group if the thoughts shared here can be read with open ears and for the time being without judging and can be left for themselves as a process that will continue to develop. We are looking forward to thoughts, impulses and constructive feedback!
Jana Hornberger – Social Developer
- Zentrum für Realutopien: https://www.realutopien.de/. Rev 02.06.2022.
- Mohn, Simon: Von der Organisationsentwicklung zur Gesellschaftsentwicklung. From: https://socius.de/von-der-organisationsentwicklung-zur-gesellschaftsentwicklung/ Rev 02.06.2022.
- June, Lyla: Reclaiming our Indigenous European Roots. From:
- Gurr, Ted R. und Pitsch, Anne (2002): Ethnopolitische Konflikte und separatistische Gewalt. In: Heitmeyer, Wilhelm, Hagan, John (Hrsg.) (2002): Internationales Handbuch der Gewaltforschung. Westdeutscher Verlag. S. 287-312.
- Tiney, Juan (2010): Tierra y territorio desde la cosmovisión del pueblo maya. From: Carea Guatemala Reader. e.V. Berlin.
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