Anti-Oppression Educator, Facilitator, and Coach
I work to shift human dynamics that keep systems of oppression in place. Our worldviews, unconscious bias and conditioning, egos, history, relationships, addictions, traumas, emotions, dreams, uses of power, and cultures. These are the things I’m referring to when I say “human dynamics.” This is what I specialize in. These things have very real impacts on the world, even if they’re often invisible. If you see that, and you know that they can easily sabotage beautiful plans for change when ignored, then you are well-positioned to ask whether we could accomplish glorious things together.
My name is James, and I’m an anti-oppression educator, facilitator, and coach living in Seattle, WA. I help individuals, communities, and organizations heal, grow, and transform themselves and our world.
“There are two related crises in today’s world. The first and most visible is the population/environment crisis. The second, more subtle but equally lethal, is humankind’s relationship to its extensions, institutions, ideas, as well as the relationships among the many individuals and groups that inhabit the globe. If both crises are not resolved, neither will be. Despite our faith in technology and our reliance on technological solutions, there are no technical solutions to most of the problems confronting human beings.” ~ Edward T. Hall
Has anyone ever told you that we could end global poverty and hunger if we wanted to? Technically, it probably wouldn’t even take that long. The problem isn’t that we can’t figure out how to do it. The problem is that we can’t agree that we should. And barely anyone wants to touch that problem. Because what even is that problem? Is it a problem of human nature? Are we just so essentially petty or greedy or stupid that we won’t work together on something that would be good for all of us? Or is it a problem of systems? Of capitalism and wealth inequality? Or money in politics? Just what the hell is happening here?
I think this issue captures the real existential threat our species is facing in the 21st century. The threats of nuclear war, mass shootings, racism, poverty, climate change… All of these are fundamentally challenges of human relationship, and specifically they’re challenges of how human relationships tend to show up in unjust systems. Solving these problems is not primarily a challenge of technical know-how. In other words, we’re not going to find the perfect policy or practice that will get us out of this mess. It is primarily a challenge of human dynamics, which are crying out for our attention. Human dynamics are what get in the way of putting our technical know-how to use for the benefit of all beings. We ignore them at our own peril.
There are ten ways my approach differs from most anti-oppression work I’ve experienced. Read them all or skip to number 10 to get to the core of my approach.
Anti-oppression work tends to overemphasize analysis and intellectual learning. We learn what systems of oppression are, how they’re embedded in culture, and how they affect our lives. We learn checklists of what we should be doing and what we shouldn’t be doing. While these things are important and helpful, they are barely the first step on the journey.
Imagine you decided you wanted to climb Mount Everest, and the only thing you received in preparation was a map. That would be a setup for tragic failure. First of all, a map is not the terrain. And second, a single map doesn’t even begin to equip you with the skills and practice you’d need to climb 29,000 feet.
The serious practice of anti-oppression means wading into some of the most excruciating experiences life has to offer. Just like climbing Mount Everest, it is a treacherous path that involves risk and requires preparation. We must build strong communities capable of holding difficult human dynamics steady enough for them to surface and heal. We must build relationships strong enough to hold each other accountable in the work. And it’s a long journey - certainly longer than it would take to climb Mount Everest.
Anti-oppression work often encourages a fast-paced urgency that attempts to force change. “If you’re not doing the work with me, get out of my way because I don’t have time for you,” I recently heard a DEI trainer tell her audience. Urgency and quickness are important in short-term emergencies and certain types of political action, but this strategy doesn’t work well over the long-haul when we’re trying to transform human dynamics.
When we’re working with the human dynamics of oppression, going slow is actually a short-cut to creating the real possibility of equity and justice. We have to go slow enough for people to genuinely process and integrate what’s happening to them. It will take us much longer if we try to go too fast. People cannot simply willpower themselves into meaningful change. I think that would be more obvious to us if we understood that all dynamics of oppression are trauma responses, and we can’t freight train our way through trauma.
Anti-oppression work tends to overemphasize external activism and underemphasize internal healing and growth. Groups that do internal work are often criticized for naval-gazing and not being out in the streets. Being out in the streets is important. But we can’t effectively do external work without inner work, and vice versa. Imbalance will ultimately sabotage our work. As Shakil Choudhury put it, “Anger, rage, rigid boundaries and demanding change are honest responses to injustice AND lead to burn out if they become our default states. Inner work and healing allows us to move sustainably towards compassionate yet courageous conversations that nurture Beloved Community.” I strive to balance the necessary inner and outer work through a praxis-oriented learning model that is rooted in accountability.
Anti-oppression work needs a more nuanced appreciation of power. We tend to talk about power as if only those who are privileged by systems of power have it. I believe we all have access to incredible sources of power, even when we don’t have easy access to privilege, but it’s certainly complex and challenging. Because most of us use our power unconsciously, it can be difficult to learn about. Learning to use the many dimensions of power well is a fundamental pillar of my work.
Anti-oppression spaces are sometimes blind to the ways they can inadvertently replicate dynamics of oppression. (See Frances Lee’s “Excommunicate Me from the Church of Social Justice” or Tada Hozumi’s “Understanding accountability abuse.”) There’s an assumption that because we’ve all come here to be against oppression, we won’t participate in it. Nothing could be further from the truth. Because dynamics of oppression are trauma responses, we’re prone to replicate them unconsciously, especially in anti-oppression spaces. One way I grapple with this challenge is by building communities and containers strong enough to hold the challenging conversations that will inevitably need to happen in order for us all to grow.
Anti-oppression work ironically needs a more nuanced understanding of oppression. We sometimes talk about it without much consideration of exactly what it is, why it happens, and how we can usefully engage with it. We do not always come to it, as Paulo Freire would say, with a critical consciousness. In my view, “oppression” and “systems of oppression” are two terms that are related but different. Everyone alive knows what it's like to be oppressed, at least on some level. But we have very different experiences when it comes to being oppressed by systems. This creates a complex social landscape that takes real knowledge and skill to navigate. I teach ways of understanding this landscape and skills for navigating it.
Anti-oppression work could use an update in its approach to shame. Too often, we subtly or overtly rely on shame as a motivational tool to get people on board with our work, and then we tell them that their shame is of no use to anyone. It’s a confusing double signal that does little to heal shame.
Shame is a complex phenomenon. I believe it is a natural response to trauma, but it is also a major barrier to healing from oppression. One of the trickiest parts of our work over the long-haul is healing shame, which is pretty unusual for most anti-oppression spaces. I find that the most effective work in healing shame happens when we work on it both individually and in groups. There are no one-size-fits-all solutions to healing shame, but building communities strong enough so that each person can be truly seen for their beauty and value is one sure way I know to support it.
Anti-oppression work tends to rely most on the least enlightened form of psychology (at least in my view) to explain our experiences of systems of oppression: behaviorism. Behaviorism attempts to explain human behavior almost entirely in terms of conditioning. Understanding ourselves in terms of our conditioning is extremely useful. However, when it’s the only tool we have, it poses a real problem to healing. Yes - our conditioning is a central part of who we are and how we behave, and it is far from all of who we are. Anti-oppression needs to update its basic psychological approach.
My psychological approach to working with oppression is based largely on Processwork, which is a model for working with individuals and groups that trusts that the wisdom of what’s needed is already inherent within the person or group - it may just need more support to be realized and integrated. Processwork is strongly informed by Jungian psychology, dream work, Taoist philosophy, systems theory, and quantum physics. I also see a lot of commonalities between Processwork and Internal Family Systems work. It’s impossible to explain simply, but one way that I think fits is to say Processwork is a kind of Taoist psychology.
Anti-oppression work does not yet fully understand the critical link between oppression and addiction. The reality is that oppression and addiction cannot be separated from one another. Why? Because they are both symptoms that reliably show up in the aftermath trauma. In the same way that swelling and bruising show up after a bodily injury, oppression and addiction show up after an injury to a person’s, family’s, or culture’s being. They are two sides of the same coin, and unconsciousness is a central actor in both. Unprocessed and unsupported, these symptoms of trauma become causes of it. This is the cycle of generational trauma that anti-oppression work seeks to heal. Those who work with addiction often have the same foundational skills needed to work with oppression and vice versa. However, both the treatment of addiction and efforts against oppression have often fallen into similar pitfalls over the past few centuries. We need updates to both approaches, and they have a lot to teach one another. You can read my article on this topic here.
Lastly, and this is really the core of my approach, anti-oppression work needs to take more seriously the power of nonjudgmental awareness, true love, and compassion (sometimes fierce compassion) to transform our world. If you hear that and think I’m talking about fluffy nonsense or boutique activism, I’d say you’re not understanding where I’m coming from. Developing the capacity to offer compassion and love as antidotes to oppression is one of the most difficult things most of us could ever do. They’re not called for in every moment, but they’re absolutely essential ingredients when we’re seeking true transformation. As I recently heard Paul Kivel put it, “We must love people into our movements for justice.”
I help people not only to increase their capacity for love, but also to access it alongside their power. Love and power are, after all, two sides of the same coin. We must develop and use them in balanced ways.
~ Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
The folks I work with usually come with an emerging or strong analysis of systems of oppression. What I offer is a unique diagnosis of their root causes and prescription for how we effectively heal and transform the human dynamics that drive them.
If you’re considering working with me, you probably fall into one of three broad categories:
Person A: You’re learning about systems of oppression (or already know a lot about them), and you find it overwhelming to wrap your head around the ways humans treat each other. You’re looking for a perspective that doesn’t rely on the simplistic idea that human nature is fundamentally flawed to explain what’s happening in our world.
Person B: You or your organization are actively involved in disrupting or dismantling systems of oppression, and you’d like support for working with the human dynamics that sometimes get in the way of doing that.
Person C: You want to grow your inner capacity for being with this work over the long-term. You may have burned out one too many times, but you can’t imagine living a life where what you’re doing doesn’t align with your values.
The bad news is that too much anti-oppression work falters because ego, ambition, conflict, and hurt feelings are stronger than love and community. It’s not a sign that the work can’t be done. It’s a sign of which stage of the work we’re in. The good news is that those human dynamics are in fact exactly what we need to get to the next stage. We can’t avoid them because they are the very gateway to the love and community that will change the world.
Along those lines, there are basically three buckets of my work:
I teach conceptual reframes that help us understand the nature of anti-oppression work more clearly.
I support the creation of community and containers to hold the difficult work of processing our shit.
I facilitate that difficult work.
Buckets one and two constitute the preparation work. Bucket three is where the deepest and most difficult processing begins to happen. Our work goes off track a) when we aren’t aware of or are trying to avoid the human dynamics undergirding our work, or b) we skip the prep work for delving into human dynamics and try to dive right into the most difficult stuff.
Anti-oppression work is a vast and diverse ecosystem. My professional work happens in a very specific corner of this ecosystem.
I focus on what I call the deep operating system, which I believe is a core set of human dynamics that drive all systems of oppression.
I base the strategy of my work on two premises.
Premise #1: Human dynamics are a powerful unseen force driving systems of oppression that are largely left unhealed in our anti-oppression work. This is understandable. The violence of these systems demands we ignore much of our inner experience to keep our everyday minds intact. The fast pace and largeness of our work is also an effective trauma response that helps us avoid inner pain we don’t have the support to feel yet.
Premise #2: Processing, shifting, and healing these dynamics happens when we can surface them and become more aware of them. This means increasing our capacity to be with, witness, and interact with these dynamics in ways that are not normally accessible to us.
Here are some teachers who I really, really like. If you like their work, you might like mine too.
“As a result of having a false sense of identity, we act in a way that is inappropriate to our natural environment. And when that inappropriate way of action is magnified by a very powerful technology, we swiftly begin to see the results of a profound discord between [humans] and nature. As is well known, we are now in the process of destroying our environment as a result of attempting to conquer it and master it. Our environment is not something other than ourselves. In assuming that it is, we have made a great mistake and are now paying the price for it."
~ Alan Watts
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