Embodying AKRI: Reflections on the 50th Anniversary and Dialogues IV

Embodying AKRI: Reflections on the 50th Anniversary and Dialogues IV

I.

AKRI’s 50th Anniversary Celebration and Dialogues IV meeting began with a ninety-minute mindfulness workshop entitled “The Role of Embodiment.”  Truth be told, I was anxious about this event. There’s little consensus about the inclusion of these kinds of embodied experiences in Group Relations work, and I was worried that beginning the Dialogues with one would remind us of our divisions rather than bringing us together.  Some might be right at home with the meditative exploration of our breath and body, but I worried that others might think AKRI had lost its way.

What I failed to appreciate until later was how the Dialogues itself was about the experience of AKRI’s organizational body.  The body scan had an analogue in a Dialogues program that brought together so many parts of the Group Relations community.  We felt our age and youth; our masculinity and femininity; our races, national origins and identities; our pains and pleasures; wounds and scars; and strength and vitality.

It was a Dialogues where we felt a new circulatory system, with the lifeblood of AKRI pulsing through Affiliate Centers, as well as universities and other Group Relations organizations.  It was unfamiliar and sometimes awkward: exploring our embodiment with our professional colleagues and realizing how little we knew about our own history and our own parts.  But it was also congruent with who we are: being present in the here-and-now, being aware of our experience, and learning about ourselves through the other.  The weekend as a whole was a body scan of AKRI.

It sometimes seemed like AKRI-as-a-whole—our history, our parts, the potential of our connectedness—was itself a thought in search of a thinker.  None of us could think it on our own, but the more we thought and talked together, the more we shared a common language.  With this language, we could have the debates and make the inquiries that we needed to before we could move forward: debates and inquiries about things like the recent election(s) and Board composition; about our matriarchs and patriarchs, generational succession and abandonment; and about identity and diversity and difference as they play out in our selves and our others in the work.

 

II.

The body scan facilitated an inquiry into our own internal otherness.  To me, this inquiry was captured in contributions that bookended the Dialogues.  At the closing plenary, Evangeline Sarda inquired about whether the name of our organization could represent both the man and the woman at AKRI’s origin, and Charla Hayden urged us to reflect on the lack of women running for roles in AKRI leadership. Jim Krantz wondered if we were witnessing expressions of a loss of confidence that men and women can work together these days.

If there was an articulation of a path out of this dilemma, I’d say it came in the opening Women in Leadership Plenary Panel, when one of the youngest panelists, Candice Crawford-Zakian, offered how her own selfhood is experienced as reflecting some emergent capacity to find fluidity in binaries and to work within opposing poles: black and white; masculine and feminine; hetero- and homo-; traditional and innovative.  She seemed untroubled by a set of older debates and was instead eager to see identity as a dynamic space rooted in diverse experiences.

What if AKRI’s body is itself fluid: the product of an ambiguous partnership and varied lineages.  At times, we have experienced these as splits and intractable conflicts.  We’ve taken our membership as a zero-sum exercise and preferred founding new organizations or cutting ties with old ones to finding room to work together in a shared one.  But with re-affiliation, we can bring critical issues to our national community and make the progress that none of us could make on their own.  And even beyond the Centers, there’s a flexibility and openness that’s defying an us-or-them logic: ISPSO has co-sponsored AKRI events and there were panels about AKRI events at the ISPSO Annual Meeting; AKRI has endorsed GRI conferences and together we’re co-sponsoring an upcoming Director’s training; and AKRI’s links to Group Relations work in China, Russia, South Africa, and Lithuania, as well as to the Tavistock Institute and other national and international organizations, mean that our connections and potentials extend beyond our borders and into an emerging global community of Group Relations practice.

At the mind-body event on Thursday evening, we had the private experience of feeling our own fluid, multiple identities (young and old; feminine and masculine; strong and weak; aches and pleasures).  Perhaps this prepared us for Sunday morning, when we engaged with the challenge of whether AKRI itself could be fluid.  From the perspective of the closing plenary, we could consider together all the diverse voices represented at the Dialogues and how we are—and aren’t—one AKRI. 

 

III.

We live under the illusion that our bodily coherence is simple and easy—it feels like we live in our skin, even as we know how others live in us and how we live in others.  Organizationally, it’s easy to see we’re not one body.  The divisions, disagreements and conflicts make it easier to divide into tribes of like-minded friends.  But we do have a body—an AKRI-as-a-Whole—and it’s 50 years old.  Its coherence isn’t based on its people but on a shared commitment to Group Relations Conferences and a shared responsibility for shepherding them into their second half century.  It’s this mission that offers the possibility of transcending our human developmental trajectory and lifespan.

We’ve lost generations and we witness new generations emerging.  AKRI and I were born in the same year.  I, too, turned 50 this year.  Last February, I spent the week of my birthday in the hospital, helping care for my ailing father.  During long days by his bedside, I took several AKRI calls.  It was during this week that I guided a negotiation between two competing structures for relations between the AKRI Board and Affiliate leadership.

My father was cognitively impaired and often sedated, but at one point he seemed to be attentively watching me talk on the phone with an AKRI Board member.  Afterwards, he asked me what I had been doing.  I answered that I was trying to help people work together.  My father was never very generous with compliments and it was difficult to understand him, but I’m pretty sure he said, “You’re good at that.” 

My father died five days later, on my 50th birthday.  If I’m good at helping people work together, it’s because of what I’ve learned at Group Relations Conferences.  And I know I’m not alone.  At moments of our dysfunction, it may be a cruel irony that we study organizational life, but at other times, we all carry the collective learning of our work and can make use of it for organizational growth and health.  It’s only fitting that this learning might help AKRI and Group Relations thrive at 100, even as only a very few of us might be there to see it. 

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