1. Introduction: Setting the scene
  2. Tools of emancipation, or tools of alienation?
  3. My research approach
  4. Learning from our failures: Lessons from FairCoop
  5. Introducing the Deep Adaptation Forum (DAF)
  6. The Diversity & Decolonising Circle
  7. The Research Team
  8. The DAF Landscape: Cultivating relationality
  9. Considering DAF from a decolonial perspective
  10. Radical collective change

DAF: The Diversity and Decolonising Circle

(a summary)

In this post, I will present a summary of the social learning evaluation process that was carried out within the Deep Adaptation Forum (DAF) Diversity and Decolonising Circle. This process was led by the research team composed of Wendy Freeman and myself, and involved primarily the people who identified as part of this circle between April and December 2022. For reasons of space, this analysis is not discussed in detail within the body of my thesis. However, it is presented in full within Annex 5.3.

(See the previous summary for an introduction to the DAF research project, and for more details about the social learning theory that was used.)

In what follows, I start off by introducing the social learning space. I then mention the aspirations expressed by its participants, before presenting a summary of the evaluation results, including effect data and contribution data. I conclude the summary with a critical discussion of these findings.


  • The D&D Circle was a self-organised social learning space and community of practice, which aimed to spread awareness and take action on topics of systemic oppression within DAF. It held outward facing activities, as well as group processes for its members.
  • Through these activities, DAF participants - especially D&D circle members - gained deeper awareness, fluency, and skillfulness around issues of systemic injustice, and how to engage with them. The circle helped foster action relevant to social justice, within DAF (to a limited extent) and in the lives of participants. Circle participants also learned a lot about conflict and conflict-transformation... and all of them also felt they had undergone deep personal changes as a result.
  • These changes were supported by: the group culture fostered in the circle (centred on relationships, trust and mutual care, and featuring the presence of key enablers); by processes and spaces for deep (un)learning (both public events and regular spaces for circle members); and external organisational support.
  • Importantly, leadership in the group was kept distributed, and took various shapes and forms.
  • The deepest observable changes brought about by the circle seemed to concern circle members themselves. Future efforts might consider pathways for changes in practice throughout the whole network, through the discipline of systems convening.
  • Such efforts should always be done with as much self-reflexivity as possible; and more involvement in actual political work, for instance in order to repair historical harms and/or decolonial solidarity practices, might also be relevant.

1. Introducing the social learning space

History and practice

The Diversity and Decolonising Circle (D&D) was officially launched in DAF in August 2020. It was the product of several conversations and interactions, the first of which took place during the Strategy Options Dialogue (Feb. to Apr. 2020), a consultative strategy process initiated by the DAF Core Team and piloted by volunteers. This circle launched with the following mandate, as articulated in the first version of its mission statement:

"to find ways to reflect on and address the main forms of separation and oppression that characterise our modern industrial societies - including, in no particular order: Patriarchy; White Supremacy; and Desacralization of Nature at large - as we inevitably carry them with us into the Deep Adaptation movement and spaces."

As part of this mission, the focus of the circle's work since its creation has been on finding ways "to make DA spaces safer for everyone, particularly people identifying as Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour," and thus on "opening spaces for deeper conversations to listen to, learn from, and stand in solidarity with Black, Indigenous and People of Colour" (BIPOC). Nonetheless, D&D also aims to address other aspects covered by its mission statement, for example issues of gender and sexual discrimination, ableism, etc.

Along with several volunteers and fellow Core Team members, I have been actively involved as a volunteer in this circle since its creation, and participated in the early conversations that gave rise to it.

Since its creation, the circle has initiated two anti-racism trainings, as well as several workshops on topics related to racial and cultural discrimination, indigenous perspectives, etc. These activities have been mainly geared towards DAF participants at large, but invitations were also extended to members of other networks, and indeed partnerships were established for several of these activities. Individual members of the circle have also provided other educational activities on similar topics, within DAF and elsewhere, with varying degrees of support and collaboration with their fellow members.

Besides these "external-facing" activities, D&D members also engaged in a continuous process of mutual learning, mutual support, and self-education. Shortly after the circle's creation, we launched a series of monthly "learning circles," in order to share insights, experiences, and resources with one another. We also initiated other practices aiming at making our own learning more visible, such as beginning each of our weekly meetings with a review of recent "successes" (see below).

It gradually dawned on us that in spite of the many setbacks and difficult moments we experienced, our continued involvement in the work of this circle had been a source of many important insights, individually as well as collectively. Therefore, we began documenting some of our (un)learning, through blog posts, webinars, video recordings, and a quarterly newsletter edited by Malika Virah-Sawmy.

I feel that my participation in D&D has been one of the deepest journeys of personal change I ever experienced (see Annex 5.2, Story #5, as well as Chapter 6). So I invited my fellow circle members to join me in weaving together an articulation of some of our experiences of learning, awakening, mistakes, heart-aches, conflict, and mutual caring. This annex attempts to summarise this collective work of sense- and change-making.

A social learning space?

In the previous post, I brought up the idea of social learning spaces, referring to an informal social experience or context that can emerge when people get together because they care to make a difference in their lives, for others, or the world at large; when they participate in this space from a place of uncertainty (not as people teaching others what to do); and when they pay attention to responses and feedback to whatever they do or say, in order to better accomplish what they try to do.

I believe that the D&D circle began as a social learning space. We who co-founded the circle came together of our own accord, propelled by our respective desires to create a difference in DAF. We were keen to learn and explore together what the work of upholding diversity and decolonising might mean within DAF.

However, through our sustained activities and engagement, a particular regime of competence emerged from our learning – i.e. a set of (often tacit) criteria and expectations defining conditions for competent membership in the group. For example, awareness of the pervasive presence of systemic racism in society would constitute a key element of the repertoire of practice constitutive of this regime of competence. Moreover, this prolonged engagement with one another – and with other interested parties beyond D&D itself – led to solid relationships and to a sense of belonging and identification with our group, as our stories indicate.

This leads me to believe that from our social learning space and our activities, a community of practice (CoP) also took form - that is, "a sustained learning partnership among people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly." (see previous post for details) This CoP can be seen as involving participants beyond our immediate circle, especially regular participants in our monthly open calls, who co-defined the regime of competence with us. But this emerging repertoire did not stop D&D circle members from continuing to engage with each other, work on addressing difficult issues, and pushing the boundaries of our practice. For example, as a result of facing conflict within our group, we let our repertoire evolve - for example, through the introduction of "hot spot rounds" during our regular calls, in which we could speak freely about uncomfortable topics or tensions between us. So by this token, our regular calls still functioned as an active social learning space.

Why is this important? Because an emerging hypothesis for me is that when a group manages both to consolidate a regime of competence (which brings a sense of belonging and commitment), AND to keep questioning what its participants take for granted, to venture out of the collective comfort zone, then this group might be a particularly fertile ground for social learning to unfold.

2. What were our intentions?

How did we, as D&D circle members, understand the purpose of the circle?
It may seem like a strange question, given what I've already shared above, about our circle's mission statement.

For me, our original mission statement had primarily to do with creating change in DAF, from a strategic, organisational and cultural standpoint: we wanted to address things like patriarchy, white supremacy, and the desacralization of nature. However, my understanding was that pursuing this change had to also involve the development of critical self-awareness among ourselves, and therefore, the creation of spaces for mutual learning on these difficult topics – for us to be able to carry new insights into our respective other areas of personal, political, and professional engagement.

We slowly discovered that we did not share this understanding. Discussions on this topic led us to write an updated statement about two years after we started, in which we placed equal weight onto both of these questions:

"Are we bringing about generative change for others (particularly BIPOC)?" and "Are we ourselves changing in generative ways?"

Let's look into how we answered these questions.

3. Seeds of change

What have been the main “seeds of change” that we, in the D&D circle, have tried to cultivate, with regards to the intentions above? And to what extent have we been successful in doing so?

Deeper awareness, fluency, and skillfulness around issues of systemic injustice, and how to engage with them

In order to facilitate generative changes in ourselves and others, the D&D circle has paid special attention to facilitating the emergence and transmission of insights and resources relevant to its area of work. This has been the case both within the circle, and beyond.

Within D&D

The deepening of awareness and skill was facilitated in D&D by regular moments dedicated to sharing insights, personal experience, and engaging in collective reflection. In particular, since October 2020, we convened monthly learning circles, in which we discussed personal insights, experiences and discoveries; and from February 2021, we started to open each call with a brief round of "sharing successes" - referring to any instance of positive change in our lives or beyond, particularly in reference to the mission of our circle. Later, we included the possibility to also discuss during this round "case studies" of interest, based on our personal experience, in order to make space for the consideration of generative failures.

At times, these moments of sharing were also the occasion to comment on insights and information received in other spaces (for example, courses and workshops), or to update one another on certain challenges and difficulties as we tried to "do the work." From these reflective conversations, ideas for new initiatives, practices or processes sometimes emerged.

These rich conversations and rounds of storytelling, along with various other activities undertaken as part of our involvement in the circle, helped us to develop new skills and capacity, and new forms of understanding. This includes a refined understanding of our practice, new language, as well as a refined awareness of oneself and the world.

"I no longer feel a need to defend whether or not I am racist. Before I started in the circle, I wanted to defend, claim or at least think maybe I wasn’t racist – or not very, or not deliberately – but since, when we went public, with the training in particular, I realised, in the course of our work together, I no longer need to defend whether I am racist or not – it shifts the dialogue."

Besides, participating in the circle led us to devise certain methods and processes to support our learning (e.g. the success-sharing round), and to co-create a number of publicly disseminated artifacts reflecting our learning and our intentions - such as our list of Circle Agreements, as well as blog posts and videos.

Beyond D&D

The D&D circle organised several educational workshops and training sessions, involving participants from DAF and beyond, in the hope of raising awareness and fluency around issues of systemic oppression – and therefore, to make DAF safer for participants from marginalised social groups.

Two main data sources help to assess the impact of these activities:

  • Responses to anonymous feedback questionnaires following D&D activities; and
  • Informal feedback from stakeholders affected by D&D activities, conveyed to members of the D&D circle who then relayed it to the circle.

First, it appears that the work of the circle was a source of non-generative discomfort for certain stakeholders in DAF. By this, I mean discomfort that does not seem to have brought about helpful changes for or in anyone. For example, in interviews carried out as part of this project, two former DAF participants indicated that they had chosen to withdraw from actively participating in the network, partly as a result of their discomfort around the framing we adopted in the D&D circle with regards to the topics of racism and colonialism. Both of them considered that this framing did not feel relevant to their respective cultural backgrounds.

However, feedback on D&D workshops and training sessions was largely positive. Interestingly, while many testimonies mentioned experiencing discomfort as participants awakened to difficult truths around their own racism and privilege, they also included statements showing that these same participants had been successfully disturbed out of their usual ways of thinking and being, brought to acknowledge their privilege and racism, and connect emotionally with the impact of systemic forms of oppression on others. This “generative discomfort” has also been a constant companion for members of the D&D circle.

"I learned how heavy this burden is for BIPOC, and how much I have justified that through my life, I learnt that is not ok to call myself progressive and not be laser focussed on racism." - Testimony following the Dismantling Racim training (Nov.2021)

Besides workshops and trainings, the D&D circle also convened community discussions in DAF, with the aim of establishing an informal circle of supporters and enablers for our activities. These monthly calls were regularly attended by a steady number of participants expressing a strong interest in the work of our circle. While informal feedback on these calls was very positive, issues also emerged in the course of these meetings, which led us to rework their scope and purpose.

There was also anecdotal evidence that the D&D circle’s activities may be helping network participants to become more literate in terms of our topics of interest, and that others may be helping to spread this awareness as a result. For instance, after taking part in D&D workshops, at least two DAF participants wrote blog posts documenting their learning, and shared them broadly in DAF. And in 2022, thanks to a process involving Core Team members and several DAF volunteers (including from the D&D circle), several new pages emerged on the DAF website to call more attention to invisibilised voices within the "collapse field"; to the need for international solidarity within the network; and to authoritarian responses to the global predicament. The main “About” page, itself, was rewritten from this perspective.

In spite of these encouraging signs, it was difficult to assess the extent to which D&D educational and outreach activities may have helped make DAF spaces “safer” for representatives of marginalised groups. Indeed, there were no sufficiently fine-grained statistics on DAF membership that would help to assess whether the number of BIPOC participants, for example, might have increased in proportion over time. At the level of "network leadership", representatives of marginalised social groups did not appear to be more present – at the time of analysis - than they were in August 2020.

Finally, beyond DAF itself, D&D circle members also brought the practice and awareness developed within the circle into our personal and professional lives – for example, by creating and sharing relevant resources and information. It appears that we also created generative change around ourselves in this way, notwithstanding discomfort and tensions arising as a result.

Fostering action relevant to social justice

Because the D&D circle aimed to “address the main forms of separation and oppression that characterise our modern industrial societies,” action in this domain was another important seed of change to consider.

For D&D circle members, this action mainly took the form of the activities mentioned above – i.e. educational workshops and information sharing, within DAF, but also beyond. For example, two of us co-organised an anti-racism training within a UK environmental organisation, which led to a regular learning circle being initiated by the training participants; two of us co-hosted an event within DAF as an attempt to raise funds for a Global South grassroots organisation; and one of us became a regular workshop facilitator within a social-justice-focussed organisation.

As for stakeholders beyond the circle, we had little clarity with regards to the forms of action they may have taken as a result of D&D activities. Encouragingly, in their responses to the feedback questionnaires sent out following D&D workshops, several people expressed a wish to explore various avenues for generative change as a result of their participation - including by creating shifts in their current practice, or starting new activities and projects.

"I am so grateful as the training has raised many relevant concrete doorways for me where I can go forward with this dismantling racism work inner and outer. Eg questions about how I am in my projects both those involving people of many races and those just with WP. eg I work with asylum seekers and while I dont believe I respond differently to the BIPOC asylum seekers than to the caucasian ones that is now one area to explore for me."

A number of respondents also made specific mention of their wish to experiment with new practices, bring extra mindfulness of the topics of racism and privilege, and go deeper into anti-racism work within the context of DAF.

However, it was not possible to keep track of the extent to which these aspirations were followed through in practice. Disappointingly, over a year following the launch of the D&D circle, it still remained challenging for us to find more than a half-dozen participants in DAF willing to make time and financial commitments to attend an anti-racism workshop, or support a Global South grassroots fundraising campaign. This may well point to a failure of the circle with regards to this particular “seed of change.”

Willingness to engage with conflict and conflict-transformation

Dealing with conflict was a seed of change that the D&D circle had to nurture by necessity. Indeed, tensions and conflict were recurring topics of conversation in our circle.

Given the often triggering nature of the topics explored by the circle, and their instrumentalisation as part of current “culture wars,” we expected tensions to emerge between the circle and other DAF stakeholders. This notably happened in the run-up to the first event organised by the D&D circle, in November 2020.

However, the most challenging forms of conflict emerged between members of the circle, on several occasions. First, between three of us, including one person identifying as a Person of Colour. This protracted conflict led this person to cease being part of both the D&D circle, as well as the DAF Core Team. As a result of this conflict, relationships between the circle and two groups of external stakeholders were also interrupted. Collective reflection within the D&D circle and the Core Team eventually led to the publication of statements acknowledging responsibility for harmful mistakes. However, these were not successful in mending relationships.

Parallel to this, tensions also grew between two of the remaining members of the circle, which led to the departure of one of them. However, a conflict resolution process facilitated by a third member of the circle led to reconciliation and to the return of the member who had left. One year later, as tensions reemerged between these two members, another round of conflict transformation took place, and led to a fruitful reconsideration of the D&D circle’s mission.

Finally, at various points in time, other tensions emerged for some of us in other groups we are or were part of, and were discussed in our circle.

While interpersonal conflict was a source of very difficult emotions for most of us in the circle, myself included, it also appears to have been a source of very rich learning and change, individually and collectively, particularly in the process of exploring conflict transformation within our circle. Many insights and changes emerged from our collective reflection on this topic - see the video on conflict produced by the D&D circle in April 2022 for more details:

"Welcome conflict! Don't create it, but welcome conflict, and welcome that as an opportunity for the group to shift. Because our circle became so much more intimate after we'd gone through that process. I do think I do think a lot of things shifted."

Indeed, our discussions led us to conclude that becoming more comfortable with voicing dissent, sitting with difficult emotions, and holding one another accountable, was an essential aspect of doing the work we were setting out to accomplish.

Firstly, because in nearly all of the cases of tensions or conflict we discussed in our circle, these tensions seemed related at least partly to our topics of interest - i.e. addressing systemic forms of separation and oppression. This may be a sign that working on such topics is likely to bring about frictions with others, particularly in a context of increasing social polarisation.

Secondly, we realised that “facing into conflict” itself was countercultural, and an integral part of decolonising our ways of being and relating. As a result of this reflection, we wrote the following in the D&D Circle Agreements:

"We understand that conflict avoidance is an aspect of white supremacy culture, and that it plays a key role in keeping various structures of oppression in place within society. As such, we commit to placing a special emphasis on acknowledging conflict as an opportunity for deep cultural change, and to do so tenderly and with dedication. ...
We recognise that our social and cultural conditioning brings unconscious behaviours that are expressions of systemic racism, white supremacy and other patterns of oppression. We are committed to identifying these patterns in self and others and commit to inviting and providing feedback when these patterns emerge in the spirit of learning."

We also created more intentional space for the expression of discomfort and difficult emotions during our regular calls.

My assessment is that interpersonal conflict, as an object of reflection, and as an impetus for generative group processes and renewed mutual understanding (when we succeeded in doing so!), was ultimately a major source of generative (un)learning for the D&D circle - although one that never ceased to be challenging.

Personal transformations

Within the D&D circle, each of us expressed undergoing deep personal transformations as a result of our involvement, on several occasions. While it often seemed difficult for us to pinpoint precisely what these shifts have been, three recurring themes in our discussions on this topic may be indicators of transformative learning occurring.

The first one is about considering oneself and/or the world from a very new perspective. Some of us, particularly with a more privileged background, expressed how the work we had been doing in the circle enabled us to become much more deeply aware of systemic oppression and our role in perpetuating it. For one of us, this realisation completely shifted her idea of what the work of this circle was about.

"And so for me being part of this circle, and the early work that we were doing in the run up to and then in response to the anti racism training was deeply, deeply, deeply transformational, for me personally, because I started to really understand systemic racism and just how blind nearly everybody is to it unless they are suffering because of it, unless they are a marginalized group unless they are black or indigenous."

One of us also stated that coming to terms with this awakening of their role as perpetrators of oppression was particularly difficult. A crucial aspect of it was to understand the difference between personal and collective responsibility. On the other hand, several of us also explained how engaging in the work of the D&D circle had enabled us to gain a clearer, deeper awareness of our own experiences of oppression (particularly those of us self-identifying as women), and how this may have constrained our ways of being and acting in the world.

Another circle member, who identified as a Black and Indigenous person, testified she found a depth of safety and trust within our circle, among White people, unlike anything she ever experienced elsewhere. This had enabled her to be more fully herself, and showed her that it is possible for Black and White bodies to form such spaces together. She expressed it was critical for more people to know that this was even possible.

As a second indicator of transformative change, several of us spoke of important changes that took place in the group, largely as a result of the challenges we faced - especially conflict - and of our perseverance in overcoming these challenges, which led to much deeper trust (as expressed above) and mutual understanding between us. In particular, the conflict transformation process that reconciled two of us appears to have played a very important role.

Finally, several of us mentioned having become empowered by our participation, especially as a result of learning new ways of expressing ourselves and overcoming our internalised oppression.

While most of these statements appear to put the emphasis on internal change, it is likely that some of these changes - by affecting our identities and ways of being in the world - also had external ramifications within the other learning spaces in which we participated. Indeed, in our calls, we often referred to these instances of “awakening” as compelling us to take generative action with regards to issues of social justice.

4. Enabling soil

What was the enabling soil that helped us to nurture these seeds of change?

D&D group culture

As we often reflected on, an essential factor enabling our group to keep going, in spite of the difficulty of the work we set out to do, and the magnitude of the challenges we faced - particularly with regards to conflict - was the strong relationships, deep trust, and psychological safety that was cultivated in the D&D circle.

This appeared to have been enabled by such things as the relaxed pace, and the open and democratic atmosphere of our calls, which has made it pleasant for us to keep attending them week after week; the many occasions we created to get to know one another better, including our respective personal and professional contexts; our willingness to prioritise mutual care above project outcomes - while still paying attention to the latter; the emphasis in our circle, as elsewhere in DAF, to connect with our emotions, and voice our mutual affection and gratitude to one another; etc.

A sense of commitment and identification with the group emerged as a result, for those of us in D&D at the time of analysis. Indeed, we often remarked on the importance of our regular attendance of our online calls, which in turn also helped us to deepen our relationships and mutual understanding.

The presence among us of key facilitators, bringing to the group essential skills, wisdom and processes, was also critical to provide a more structured container for these bonds and this atmosphere to be continuously nurtured. However, we always made sure to favour distributed forms of leadership among ourselves, with each of us stepping up at times to take the initiative on certain projects or activities. This allowed our group to avoid relying on a single leader, and therefore, it may have been helpful for more co-creation and mutual accountability to happen among us.

This container of safety and trust provided the critical foundation enabling us to keep attending the online spaces we convened in which to focus on our own learning, for example by transforming our conflicts, or discussing our challenges, difficulties, and other stories (often of a very personal nature). It was also a source of self-confidence, and of inspiration to experiment with new initiatives or engage in new collaborations, which yielded generative (and sometimes, painful) changes for others. In other words, this sense of courage made it easier for us to take risks, make mistakes, face into conflict, and grow more tolerant of uncertainty.

For many, and perhaps all of us, this space of trust led to deep impacts: in and of itself, being part of the circle was a uniquely rewarding experience in our lives, despite the challenges we have faced. Therefore, I see this foundation of trust and mutual care as an essential enabling condition for everything we did, and even for the very existence of the D&D circle.

Spaces and processes for deep (un)learning

A variety of practices (or “rituals”) were used within the D&D circle to support social learning, within and beyond the circle itself.

Weekly business meetings

An important part of D&D calls, be they those only attended by the circle, or the more public-facing events and workshops, had to do with bringing our attention back to our whole being, including our affective and somatic states. As was commonly done in DAF, we began our calls with a moment of "grounding," which is a moment of collective meditation, followed by a “check-in,” in which each of us in turn expressed where we were in our day and in our lives, and could touch on such personal issues as physical or mental health, bereavement, etc.

We made a point to rotate roles and responsibilities in our circle. Therefore, in our weekly “business meetings,” following check-ins, we negotiated who would facilitate, who would take notes, and who would be the "vibes-watcher" paying attention to the energy in the call and pointing out tensions when necessary. This allowed for each of us to become more skillful at these various tasks, and avoided the burden or privilege of facilitation to fall on the same person every time.

The first "work item" on our calls tended to be a round of success (or case study) sharing. In this round, each of us is free to tell the others about encouraging (or, on the contrary, difficult) changes in our lives or in the world, generally in relation to our topics of interest. This was often a time in which to discuss the outcomes of new individual initiatives and experiments.

As an outcome of our work on conflict transformation, we then opened up some space for a round of “hot spots,” in which anyone was invited to voice underlying feelings of discomfort or dissatisfaction with the work of the circle, or with any individual circle members, for collective exploration in a spirit of compassion, curiosity and respect.

The call then proceeded with agenda items being selected from the circle backlog document and suggested by whoever is present.

Towards the end of our call, the facilitator asked everyone “whether anything needs to be said or heard.” This provides another occasion for any unvoiced discontent or friction (or, indeed, positive feelings) to be expressed. If necessary, the group (or some of us) would decide to stay longer on the call to address the issue more fully. Finally, we ended our calls with a round of “check-outs,” which are similar to check-ins.

These weekly rituals have played an important role in shaping the D&D group culture, and strengthening relationships among us.

Other learning spaces

D&D spaces dedicated to learning and reflecting included other regular calls, such as our monthly learning circles, and monthly “community meetings” open to any DAF participants. In the former, which were only attended by D&D circle members, each of us shared new insights or inspiration, or reflections that occurred to them recently, for discussion. On occasion, these circles could also be used to hear and process individual or collective challenges.

Publicly-advertised community meetings brought together with the D&D circle anyone interested in the work of the circle, and keen to participate in it. The format of these calls evolved over time, as the circle attempted to find more generative ways to engage with other stakeholders, especially within DAF.

But spaces for learning and sharing also included various ad hoc collective processes, such as our strategic retrospective sessions; the reframing sessions that led to the rewriting of our mission statement; and, especially, our conflict transformation processes. The latter were often hosted by different facilitators, to help resolve tensions and conflict between members of our circle.

Public events

Finally, the public-facing events organised by our circle were meant to enable learning among all participants.

Our discussions led us to consider several aspects that are important for the design of a container that may enable difficult conversations around systemic oppression to take place, for maximum individual and collective learning.

The issue of psychological safety often came to the fore in our reflection. As I mentioned above, for us in the D&D circle, this feeling of being in a "safe enough" space - and our sense of trust in one another - were critical in enabling us to be more present with one another, and to support each other as we worked through considerable tensions and difficulties.

Within the confines of a short workshop or training session, in which participants have little time to get to know one another and develop trust, we as event facilitators learned that we could create a safe-enough space through such practices as:
Giving participants a sense of agency to do what's best for themselves, including choosing when and how much sensitive personal information to share with others;
Articulating clear requests on issues of confidentiality, within and outside the workshop;
Letting participants know exactly what they were going to be experiencing from the start, to avoid any surprises;
• Inviting everyone to travel to their "tender edge," with one foot outside their comfort zone - and to assume that everyone else was at their tender edge, in order to encourage more mutual kindness;
• etc.

In particular, we found that inviting the sharing of stories of personal oppression and trauma required special care and attention, due to the charge underlying this topic. While finding space to voice such stories can be liberating, safeguards should be in place to elicit respectful attention from the audience, instead of objectification, expressions of empathy, or even dismissal as part of "oppression Olympics" reactions. This extends to the need for confidentiality around repeating or commenting on personal issues outside the space where such aspects may have been voiced.

Much of the art of facilitating such difficult conversations seems to revolve around a difficult balance: that of inviting others to “remain at the edge of their comfort zone” long enough for personal growth and transformation to occur - but not to venture completely outside this zone. Otherwise, it is likely that people will shut down or turn away from such conversations.

External organizational support

Finally, on occasion, the work of this was also enabled thanks to external support. In particular, members of the DAF Collaborative Action Team and Core Team supported the D&D circle from the very beginning (see Stories #3 and #4). This sponsorship - for example, by supporting the circle to have its own page on the DAF website - helped the circle gain legitimacy, for example when inviting DAF volunteers to the Nov.2020 Dismantling Racism training. Communication and trust-building were facilitated by several Core Team members (including myself) being simultaneously part of both the Core Team and the D&D circle.

Other external support has come from funding provided by various donors to the D&D fund on the DAF OpenCollective platform; and from the conflict transformation facilitators, without whom it is unlikely that our circle would have successfully resolved and learned so much from the instances of conflict we were faced with.

5. Sowers

What have been the main forms and characteristics of leadership and action taken within the D&D circle?

First, in our reflective conversations on our activities, we remarked on how it has been important for us to keep leadership distributed. As one of us noted:

"I haven't noticed any of us dominating. There isn't a single leader, which is so beautiful, because that leaves loads of space for co-creation and for... creating in that moment, as a group of people. There was never - at one time or another, some of us have stepped forward to make things happen or to take on a responsibility. But I've never felt like anybody was exerting undue power or influence or control over the group or what the group was doing.”

This is not to imply that our collaboration always flowed effortlessly as a result. On the contrary, discussions emerged occasionally, showing that each of us did not always respond in the same way to questions such as “Who does what?” and “How do we keep each other accountable?” In fact, lack of consensus on such issues eventually gave rise to tensions in the group. The conflict transformation processes that followed enabled us to start experimenting with new tools perhaps necessary to structure our collaboration, in the absence of standard line management or other accountability structures.

This same process also enabled us to clarify how each of us embraced leadership in different ways. While some of us paid special attention to launching and organising public-facing workshops within DAF, others with less time concentrated on bringing the insights they found in the circle into their professional work. Others yet would take it upon themselves to educate other people in the network by means of their interventions in conversations taking place within the DA Facebook group, or even with their family members for example.

Statements on new initiatives or risks taken as a result of our participation in the group featured prominently within our stories – often, alongside statements indicating that new skills, awareness or capacity had been acquired in the circle. Therefore, it appears that generative learning loops occurred for us: the insights we gained in our conversations within the circle prompted us to undertake new activities, which then gave rise to further reflection and insights, thus generating new experiments and action, etc.

Our stories also indicated that the presence of “key enablers and facilitators” within our group has also been an important factor of modelling compassionate, vulnerable, and accountable forms of leadership that have proved inspiring to us. This has been most obvious with the first conflict transformation process that took place within the group, in 2021, as a result of one circle member proactively offering to facilitate a conversation between the two conflicting parties. Several of us commented on the value of this process for the entire group. For example, in Story #4 (cycles 21 to 28), one of us said that insights from these conversations enabled her to have difficult conversations with a family member and with another DAF volunteer.

It is also important to point out that the D&D circle always remained quite small – with no more than 7 members at most, and only 5 members for most of its history – and that its membership remained steady. On several occasions, we remarked on the importance of this aspect in relation to the building of trust and psychological safety. Preserving the “intimacy” of this space prompted us to refrain from inviting more members into the circle. Instead, we looked for alternative ways to invite collaborations on behalf of other DAF participants, in the hope of widening our impact. This led to the start of monthly “open meetings” in November 2021.

However, while these meetings attracted a number of regular participants over time, at the time of analysis, discussions taking place in these spaces were yet to generate new initiatives in DAF. Beyond these calls, little engagement with strategic stakeholders had taken place on behalf of the circle since its creation, save a few exceptions.

Overall, my understanding is that while the D&D circle launched with the strong intention to proactively initiate new activities in DAF, in several instances it appeared that a sturdier foundation for collaboration on these difficult issues needed to be built first. This led to much time spent on conflict transformation processes, at the expense of more active project involvement. However, these processes led to deeper trust and mutual understanding to emerge in the circle, and may therefore allow for many more new initiatives to be taken by the D&D circle – in collaboration with other individuals or collectives, in DAF and beyond.

6. So what?

What can we conclude from this evaluation process within the D&D circle? How does it relate to the topic of enabling radical collective change within online communities like DAF?

What has worked, what hasn't, and what might be tried next

In terms of the circle's twin objectives - i.e. for D&D to "bring about generative change for others (particularly BIPOC)" and for D&D members themselves to "change in generative ways" - there were many more observable results concerning the latter. This was acknowledged in the new D&D mission statement of July 2022:

“So far, the clearest benefits [from D&D circle activities] seem to have come to us in the group, individually and collectively, thanks to the learning and personal growth we have experienced in this circle. However, we have also been bringing these insights into other groups and spaces, in this network and beyond, and there are signs that others have benefited from our conscious interventions or involvement. We aspire to make our work much more visible, and for this work to spread further afield.”

In other words, we in D&D could point out many areas of change within ourselves, and in our relationships, but much less in terms of spaces beyond our circle, especially in DAF as a community. What could be new pathways to explore in order to realise such forms of outward change?

An area of theory and practice that may be helpful in this reflection is the notion of systems convening, developed by E. and B. Wenger-Trayner (2015). According to these authors, systems conveners (SC) are people who seek to reconfigure a social system, in order to create new configurations of people and activities, which will bring about new (learning) capabilities. They seek to create lasting change, by brokering between various stakeholders to encourage participation in new endeavours and activities from people with different interests and expectations.

By convening educational events on the topics of anti-racism and decolonisation, and in several instances, sending invitations to representatives of various DAF stakeholder groups (e.g. Facebook group moderators, Facilitators, etc.), one could say that the D&D circle has attempted to change the configuration of DAF so that these topics may become a more central area of interest and action, and to enlist support in doing so from various areas of the network (or the DAF "landscape," composed of various communities of practice such as D&D).

Garnering support for new configurations, however, requires difficult work:

"The only way conveners can get people to join them is to allow them to make the endeavor their own - part of who they are and what they want to do. Conveners need to offer people new ways of seeing and experiencing themselves in the landscape. They have to go beyond simply inviting people into a project; they invite them to reconfigure their identity to become part of a reconfigured landscape." (Wenger-Trayner & Wenger-Trayner, p.106)

I believe that what D&D has tried to do has been to invite more and more DAF stakeholders to personally identify with the work of anti-racism and the decolonising agenda, and by so doing, to develop a sense of accountability to the new configuration. According to B. and E. Wenger-Trayner (ibid.), achieving such a reconfiguration of identity requires doing work through the three main modes of identification that characterise social systems:

  1. Imagination: SC need to tell a new story about the landscape, in a way that may generate buy-in. For example: “Deep Adaptation is also about anti-racism and international solidarity.” Others should identify with this story, or at least part of it, from their own perspective.
  2. Engagement: SC must find locations in the landscape where new forms of engagement across boundaries of practice could be productive, then "facilitate meaningful encounters where people from relevant locations in the landscape can negotiate who they are to each other and what they can do together" (ibid, p.107). Boundary activities should be designed that help participants “stretch their understanding while also addressing key current concerns from their existing contexts” (p.107). Indeed, “The most successful learning activities tend to engage people in doing something concrete relevant to stakeholders' practice and calling for collective engagement in negotiating significant issues" (ibid). For example, a useful boundary activity might be a workshop in which the D&D circle would invite members of the DA Facilitators community of practice to reflect on decolonising facilitation. And:
  3. Alignment: For changes in practice to be sustained in time, they need to involve a realignment of practice across the landscape. This calls for SC to “propose aspirational narratives ambitious enough to transcend specific locations in the landscape” (p.109). In order to reach effectiveness at scale, conveners need to challenge everyone to change their practice and the way in which they identify within the network – not just specific stakeholders.

At the time of analysis, the D&D circle had not succeeded in bringing about such a wide-ranging reconfiguration of identification in DAF. Could this be explained by the lack of attention brought to some of the dimensions above? And maybe too little co-creation?

For example, the circle has organised anti-racism workshops to which various DAF stakeholders were invited. These constitute boundary activities (the work of engagement), enabling encounters across boundaries of practice. Some of these activities have been well-attended. However, we mostly framed these activities without specific concern for the particularities of the practice characterising the various parts of the landscape that participants hailed from. Anti-racism workshops, for instance, were designed “for White people to better understand their own racism” instead of “for Facilitators to enact anti-racism in their practice.” In other words, they may not have sufficiently addressed the concrete challenges and concerns faced by various DAF stakeholders in their daily practice.

As for the narrative on anti-racism and decolonisation championed by the circle (the work of imagination), it has not been - for the most part - co-created with other stakeholders across the landscape, which may explain why it seems not to have gained much traction: “Telling the narrative must be an invitation to a variety of stakeholders to share in its creation” (p.106). At the time of writing, there were signs that we in the circle had improved our ability to “refine and rehearse the telling and retelling of the aspirational narrative” (p.107) by engaging in a more wide-ranging consultation process with various stakeholders over the topic of discussing ecofascism in DAF.

Finally, while several efforts in the circle have attempted to disseminate skills and awareness at all levels of the network (the work of alignment), the lack of participation in some of these efforts could signify that these activities were not perceived as relevant to others. “The convener’s push for alignment does not displace people’s agendas; on the contrary it embraces these agendas to make them more ambitious, more connected, and in the end more likely to be effective” (p.109). This, of course, points to a fundamental challenge in convening reconfigurations in the domain of anti-racism and anti-oppression more generally, particularly among White participants: such work is generally very challenging and confronting, in many ways – and it can be difficult to relate it with concerns for “effectiveness”… particularly in a social context (DAF) in which proficiency with these topics may not be considered essential to one’s practice.

In summary, systems convening initiatives such as the D&D circle might need to pay closer attention to the social learning process for reconfiguring identification – “identification with a broader, more ambitious endeavor with other players in the landscape and with effectiveness to be achieved across practices and at multiple levels of scale at once” (p.110). This likely requires more in-depth consideration of current characteristics and challenges of practice across the landscape, and the co-creation of aspirational narratives that would invite the creation of new relationships, synergies and capabilities. More and more people should be invited to appropriate the vision for themselves, and in so doing, engage in new forms of participation within the reconfigured landscape.

Who has benefited the most from the work of the circle?

It is also important to reflect critically on what we have perceived as learning and change within the circle and each of us.

First of all, as mentioned above, all of us said we had experienced deep personal changes due to our participation in D&D. But to what extent may our stories be showcasing a flattering and reassuring image of personal and collective change, for our own and others’ consumption?

Scholars from the field of decolonial studies, such as Vanessa Machado de Oliveira (2021), point out that we – as individuals immersed within the context of modernity-coloniality – are “unreliable narrators of our own experience” (p.75) and that we must therefore cultivate self-reflexivity and remain suspicious of our own subconscious motivations and desires to “feel good, look good, and move forward” (p.113). Similarly, according to Sharon Stein (2021, p. 491),

"There is a common misconception that if we say we are doing something differently, then this means we are already doing it. In reality, despite our best intentions, we often fail, because the well-worn grooves and ditches of our existing system pull us back in."

Therefore, we should be very cautious not to exaggerate any personal changes and “decolonising” that we, as individuals, may have undergone.

Furthermore, as we acknowledged in our mission statement above, the impact of the circle’s activities in terms of addressing forms of systemic injustice within DAF appeared to have been quite limited. For example, it did not seem that DAF spaces had become particularly “safer” for participants identifying as Black, Indigenous or People of Colour, although lack of data made this an area difficult to assess. Besides, the circle had not attempted to engage directly as a group with representatives of marginalised communities since an episode of conflict that took place in the first half of 2021.

One could therefore charge that the circle has mostly been a conduct for personal development for its (mostly privileged) members, and that it has done too little work to address structural forms of oppression, which is something that may qualify as “radical collective change.” It would even be possible to consider this part of a performative strategy aiming at reclaiming a degree of innocence with regards to systemic oppression – i.e. “If we are talking about it, then we are not as implicated in it!” (although I think such a criticism would be somewhat unfair. I will return to this point in my summary of Chapter 6).

Indeed, as Thompson (2003) points out, for white educators to demonstrate any degree of interest in antiracism can help to make them stand out as “disinterested, citizen-minded individuals” (p.18). Due to the moral economy of white liberal framings, “the very acknowledgement of our racism and privilege can be turned to our advantage” (p.12). Teel (2016, p. 33) agrees:

"If I ignore whiteness, I experience no obvious ill effects; I get to feel good about myself, as is white people’s modus operandi, and put all my energy to advancing the cause of me. If I fight whiteness, I get to feel good about myself, as well as sometimes receiving accolades and admiration from people of color and white people who (aspire to) ‘get it’, which also advances the cause of me."

Because studying the tools of whiteness can even provide white people like me, a doctoral student, with “ways to further exploit [our] white privilege” (Thompson, 2003, p.16), my decision to include such a case study within this thesis, in itself, could be a particularly egregious case of my own “advancing the cause of me”!

We, in the D&D circle, may have wanted to feel like “good white persons” (ibid, p.13) as a result of our personal growth and self-actualization occurring in our learning spaces. One could argue that it was precisely for this reason that political action took a backseat in the work of our circle. As the D&D circle was mostly composed of white people, to what extent did we engage in this work in order to assuage our feelings of guilt? Were our activities truly part of “a conscious strategy to disrupt the operations of… the racial system” (Owen, 2016, p. 164)? Or were we only seeking to obtain our “good White people medals” (Hayes and Juárez, 2009)?

Because modernity-coloniality conditions us to want to “feel good, look good,” and have a sense of “moving forward,” we members of the circle ought to be considering our subconscious drives for taking part in its work with suspicion, and exercise renewed self-reflexivity. Indeed, “this threat of acting out of self-interest can neither be eliminated nor overcome; it is a constant companion for white people who seek to perform authentic antiracist practices” (Owen, 2016, p.164).

One way to conceptualise the work of the circle is that of aspiring “allies” – i.e. “people who work for social justice from positions of dominance” (Patton and Bondi, 2015, p. 489), such as white people engaging in anti-racist work within a racist society. Many scholars have pointed out the tendency for aspiring allies to fail to address institutional inequities, and avoid placing themselves in contentious relationships with those in power, by focusing on the “micro-level, leaving larger issues unaddressed” (ibid, p.505). Following the model developed by Edwards (2006), to attempt becoming “allies for social justice” (and venture beyond being mere “allies for self-interest” or “allies for altruism”) would involve the D&D circle becoming more deeply involved in building social justice coalitions with marginalized persons, and directing more of our attention to oppressive systems and processes.

Besides, the intention to embody “allyship” itself is not altogether unproblematic. As Kluttz, Walker and Walter (2020) point out, the word “ally” can insinuate that one has achieved a certain status, a permanent identity end goal (“I am an ally”). This label, particularly when self-granted, can all too easily become a pretext for absolving oneself of any implication in systemic harm. So instead of claiming allyship, members of the circle might choose to engage consciously in practices resonant with decolonising solidarity – that is to say, “a strategy for as well as a process towards decolonization” (Boudreau Morris, 2017, p. 469) that involves both enacting deep and unconditional solidarity with Indigenous struggles, and critical reflexion on how to decolonise the solidarity effort itself. A key aspect of doing so is that of “taking active steps towards building ‘right’ relations, with a commitment to both naming and righting the material, epistemic, cultural and political injustices of present and past” (Kluttz, Walker and Walter, 2020, p. 56). Indeed, this approach is predicated on building “purposeful, positive relationships” (ibid.) as a goal in itself, while developing tolerance for the discomfort and messiness that this relational work often entails. Some of the more recent initiatives taken by the circle seem to point in this direction – for instance, the launch of a page on the DAF website designed to support international solidarity projects.

However, when referring to “decolonisation” (including in its name), the D&D circle has mostly pointed to the aspiration to “decolonise the mind.” This has exposed the circle to critiques from DAF participants positioned within a settler colonial context. Like Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang (2012), they argued that “decolonisation is not a metaphor”: while these authors recognize the importance of the cultivation of critical consciousness, they warn against “allow[ing] conscientization to stand in for the more uncomfortable task of relinquishing stolen land” (p.19). They consider this a “settler move to innocence,” that is to say, one of the ways that non-Indigenous people have used to alleviate the historical impacts of colonization, by attempting to “reconcile settler guilt and complicity, and rescue settler futurity” (p.3). Given that for most of its history up to the time of analysis, the D&D circle had been mostly composed of white British, French, US, and South African members, in other words representatives of national groups heavily involved in the violent history of settler colonialism, this critique carries a particular sting.

Philosophically, the work of the circle has drawn from scholarly work in the field of decolonial studies which often centres the need to “interrupt modern/colonial patterns of knowing, desiring, and being” (Stein, V. de O. Andreotti, et al., 2020, p. 5) over considerations of representation, recognition, and redistribution – although the two are not antithetical. Nonetheless, this last critique is another reminder that the D&D circle may consider enacting deeper involvement in more political efforts aiming towards forms of reparations for historical harms. Doing so while trying not to reproduce destructive patterns would likely require starting by cultivating relationships based on decolonising solidarity with groups of Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour, while foregrounding consent, trust, accountability, and reciprocity (Whyte, 2020). This could enable the circle as a whole, and its individual participants, to bring about more generative external action in the pursuit of its mission, and simultaneously to enable deeper social learning with regards to what the difficult work of solidarity actually entails. Indeed,

"learning towards decolonising solidarity is not simply a cognitive process, and it does not happen in isolation. It is instead active and takes place through the informal learning that occurs through collective experiences of taking social action." (Kluttz et al, 2020, p.62)

In the next summary, I will examine what seeds, soil, and sowers have been nurtured within the research team that led this social learning evaluation within DAF.