Fresh Perspective: Integral International Development: Gail Hochachka and Michael Simpson

Fresh Perspective / August 2011

Integral International Development: Gail Hochachka and Michael Simpson

Russ Volckmann

Gail Hochachka

Michael Simpson

Gail Hochachka is director of Drishti – Centre for Integral Action, where you can find some of her writing and reports on international development ( and Integral Program Coordinator at One Sky: Canadian Institute for Sustainable Living. Her husband, Michael Simpson, is the Executive Director of One Sky. Their work in Nigeria and Peru will be discussed here, but a quick search will demonstrate the extensiveness of their work, including helping to organize and/or do presentations at the Integral Without Borders conferences in Turkey, France and Canada.


Russ: Before we get started on the subject of international development, would you each give us a sense of your backgrounds and how you got into the work you are doing?

Gail: Sure. I was working with environmental NGO’s in Canada and went to El Salvador to work with a Salvadoran NGO. Increasingly I was finding—this is back in the mid 90’s—more and more how the questions that we need to raise and address in the field of development can’t actually be answered by mainstream approaches on development, including questions about consciousness and social evolution. I began to search for approaches that could include these questions and other perspectives that were essentially missing from mainstream approaches. It felt like I took various approaches to their limit, and then just kept searching for others that could continue where those left off. Through this process of seeking for an approach that could respond more fully and more adequately to the global issues that I was working with at the time in Latin America, I came across Integral. So, I came to learn and apply the Integral approach in the field, directly in relationship to practice in sustainable development.

Russ: How did you get interested in Latin America and Central America in the first place?

Gail: I was working in rainforest ecology in a rain forest in Canada on the Western Coast of Canada and it began to dawn on me that the issues around conservation could not be addressed through science alone. I was spending a lot of time with both conservation groups as well as resource users—like foresters and loggers and fishermen—and realized that all of these perspectives are needed.

That was the first glimmer of realizing that all views are partial. All perspectives are needed, but how could they come together? I had no idea! I started working with NGO’s in Canada doing more conservation work, specifically. I was puzzling about how in Canada we can talk about conservation of national areas and don’t necessarily include the human dimensions of environmental issues. That just confused me, because it seems like humans are not only part of the ecosystem, but they are also huge players in it. We can’t protect rainforests fully until the value for those forests are rooted in human consciousness. Or so it seemed to me at that point. Yet, it didn’t seem like conservationists were working with the dimension of consciousness as explicitly or skillfully as perhaps they one day will.

I went to El Salvador as an intern on a project working with one of the country’s main environmental groups. El Salvador not only is a country of seven million people in a very small area of land such that an environmentalist has to include humans in their action, but also it has an incredibly strong history of social movements that understand how awareness and consciousness raising play into social change. So, it was there that I began to learn how to include human dimensions, at least in a preliminary way. Salvadorans have had to find these ways to do so, not only because of over-population, but also because they have this long-standing history of asking the hard questions that tend to be interior in nature. I ended up working there on and off for the next 13 years. I did my masters thesis there and am collaborating on a project there now on community resilience and climate change adaptation with an integral approach.

But, getting back to your question of how I got into this field, who knows when it all began? It could have been when I I was 14 and went to Peru with my father on one of his research trips. He was doing biology there and I was spending time getting to know the place. I met quite a few children who weren’t street children, but they were really poor children who walked the streets selling their postcards and other wares. We used to invite them to eat with us quite regularly and got to know their situations. It was heart-breaking and revealing. At that point, I awoke to some extent to what’s going on in our planet. Perhaps my later involvement in El Salvador was simply an extension of those first few moments in Peru.

Russ: Michael, you have worked in Latin America as well, haven’t you?

Michael: Yes. My background was in film. I was interested in the use of documentary as a tool for social change. I did that work when I was going to university. I set up a company and then ran it for about 15 years. I did documentaries on the environment, human rights and development. That led into developing One Sky later on.

During that period when I was making documentaries, I did spend quite a bit of time doing films and working with human rights groups in El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua. I did quite a bit of work in Latin America.

Russ: Is One Sky an organization for your work?

Michael: Yes. Originally, I started it during the civil war in Sierra Leone, as a way to address some of the systemic issues in that country. At that time, I was interested in the principles of organization of change and working with the idea of the principles of organizational changes as fractals or things that can replicate themselves over scales. For example, in the Millennium Development Report, Chapter 5 addresses the issue of multiple scales in development and sustainability. This is the idea that what happens at the local level is very different from what’s happening at the international scale. There are many scales in between and you can drill this right down to personal change.

So, for example, if we are going to address climate change effectively, we must ask if it is just an accumulation of the things all of us are trying to change in our personal lives or is there something functionally different that has to happen at a higher scale? That issue of scale is fascinating because that is where we can find the fulcrums of change. I was trying to find those fulcrums or points of change and address those. They had something to do with scales. I was playing with those ideas and then in about 2002 Gail and I met again and started talking about this.

She introduced me to integral theory and holarchy, which is actually a beautiful description of scales. It perfectly expands some of the ideas I was thinking about. I just had never seen anything like it that so quickly grabbed my attention. One Sky has gone through a fairly dramatic shift. particularly in the last five years, from what I would consider a very primitive kind of attempt to include multiple scales and interiors in social change towards a deeper theoretical or a philosophical perspective based on the brilliance of Wilber’s work.

Russ: Perhaps what we can do is use that notion of scale to guide our conversation.  One of the things that I think all the readers will be interested in is to what extent the two of you see a broad level of international collaboration and communication around integral approaches to development. I’m aware that there is a conference that has been held in Turkey, at least a couple of times and there have been other development efforts such as UNDP in Africa, Cambodia and the Caribbean. What do you see out there right now in terms high level development efforts—attempts to identify, organize and implement efforts on an international level?

Michael: A couple of things—I will give a short response, then I know Gail can build on this and answer this question as well. We have international processes that currently exist around sustainability, the environment and international development. We have the UN Commission on Sustainable Development and the Earth Summit coming up in Brazil, again. These are on-going processes that the international community has been involved in. They are evolving. They are moving forward and they are not going to change and suddenly become integral, right?

Then you have integral theory that is going through what I think of as an emergent process. It’s so on the leading edge of how we can currently organize human thinking and perspective taking. It’s sort of a post-post modernism, right? So you have got existing processes that are really attempting to capture post-postmodern thinking and then you have got a very small group of people around the globe who are deepening this thinking using integral theory and trying to apply it in international development.

It’s so important that the people who are trying to use integral theory right now talk to each other. We need to develop the language and lessons learned. We need to understand what is emerging, because the thing is literally flowering. It’s not a flower yet. It’s just literally flowering right now. In order for us to understand it, we need those people who are involved in those processes to get together and share their experiences so that it can influence the conventional meetings, like the UN Commission on Sustainable Development.

All of the biodiversity convention talks, all of the discussions on poverty reduction, women’s rights—all those things—are all desperately in need of fresh ways of solving problems. The integral way of thinking offers that, but not in its current form, because it doesn’t have proof from practice yet. It needs those people who are out there being practitioners to say, “Hey listen, this is what we have been doing. It seems to be working. It’s new! It’s fresh!” They need to create interest around it.  But they can’t do that on their own. They need to work together and coordinate it a bit more.

Gail: If I can just continue on from that, I would agree very much. Back in 2005, with the Integral Institute we created a learning center called the Integral International Development Center. One of its first intensions at the outset was to create a collective sense of what integral international development even means. What we have done since then is hold global meetings to bring together individuals from all over the planet who are taking a stab at what integral approaches to international developments might look like.

Since 2006, we have held four conferences, one in Southern France, two in Istanbul, one in Vancouver. We are planning another one in South America later this year, or early 2012. These meetings have served people by bringing them together into conversations with other integral practitioners where they share and learn new practices and ways of thinking. They have basically connected them across borders. It’s a wonderful community.

Russ: This is called Integral without Borders, is that right?

Gail: Right! It was quickly re-named Integral Without Borders (IWB) by its members. It acts much like a professional network. As Mike says, eventually we want to be able to influence the higher scale and broader initiatives that are often spearheaded by the UN, into governmental meetings, into intergovernmental panels on climate change, for example. It would be really great to get more innovative ideas and new ways to look at things in these higher scales of intervention.

What an integral approach offers to these global issues is a new way of thinking about problems. What it offers is a way to play the deep probabilities, the deep patterns that are present in the issues. What we are finding is that individuals across the planet, some in fairly high places, are realizing that new thinking—informed by these deep probabilities, these deep patterns—is not that common. What integral theory is providing is something quite unique. In a room full of veterans in this field with 20 or 30 years behind them you can see peoples eyes light up. They realize, “Wow! This is a new way of looking at this!” when they start hearing someone speak from an integral perspective on the topic.

What I think Michael and I are both saying is that there is a lot of individual experimentation happening across the planet with this new thinking. What we need more of at this moment is to collaborate and bring together our thoughts on it all. We need to bring together these efforts. Then, a third step would be to influence mainstream, large-scale, international scale programming on the planet, which I don’t think is happening as much as it could be at this point.

The UN Leadership for Results Program that you mentioned was great and applied some incredible integral thinking amongst some 19 innovative tools for change, but it hasn’t single-handedly fostered a different way of thinking about development per se. It was a very big project in many countries and invested multimillions of dollars, but we need more of those to shift the actual paradigm.

Russ: I am aware that in relation to both of your responses there are activities that are going on in the world, such as Barrett Brown in the Netherlands training leaders with an integral approach for sustainability, educational programs in Australia and South Africa, in Austria, in Brazil. Mexico, Romania, the United States and elsewhere that are based on predominantly what is known as a transdisciplinary approach. Many of them are focused on sustainability.

There is an article that Sue McGregor and I did about the program in Australia in the March 2011 issue of Integral Leadership Review. The director of that program is informed about both transdisciplinarity and integral. There are all of these efforts around the world that seem to be working towards the same kinds of things that you are talking about. Are you saying that what is needed is a greater opportunity for shared learning and integration across this domains? Do you see any potential for that?

Michael: I feel that to bring everything together under one umbrella would be a mistake at this point. But to bring people together to discuss their experiences so people can go back and experiment in a whole wide variety of ways right now is really intelligent. I think that, because this is an actually emerging thing and it needs a whole bunch of different stabs at it.

The critical thing though is not to think that you are out there alone providing an application of theory and international development. There are other people doing this. The powerful concept in my mind in the next maybe 10 years or so is to make sure that those learnings are applied really well, that we are learning from each other in the best way that we can to come up with a really good way of doing this.  Because its not figured out yet, we are experimenting in One Sky—its an experiment.

We are changing a lot of rules around how we do things and using different concepts. I’m finding it to be a very articulate and precise way to be able to actually figure out how things fit. Philosophically, it has some language and some concepts behind it that really work well. But I feel like we still need a bit of time to make sure that we are not just working in a theory. We need a bit of time to bring together theory and practice.

Gail: We are going to see this happening in this decade. One of our colleagues in Norway is bringing together a center of excellence at the University of Oslo. It’s still in the funding process. She hopes to bring together researchers, thought leaders and practitioners from a number of different institutions around the world. That kind of center is important for having experiments in a research setting and then having cross-pollinating conversations about them. What Integral Without Borders has been doing is really valuable. I would love to take it to a greater scale. We are working on figuring out institutionally or administratively how it could be housed to be able to do that.

International development is a unique field for transdisciplinarity. There are certain characteristics of international development, including the millennium development goals with some of the conventions that Michael was mentioning earlier, that are unique. Integral without Borders builds on that inherent transdisciplinarity, bringing together themes that are directly involved in that field to have the kinds of unique conversations particular to the field.

Russ: Could you give us a sense of the scope of Integral without Borders? About how many people attend these conferences, for example?

Gail: They vary from about 30 upwards of 50 or 60. It is not that many, although our mailing list is some 200 strong. They come from groups that are quite broad—from community based organizations right through to some large corporations, development banks, and everything in between. There are quite a few coaches who want to offer their coaching services in the context of reaching the millennium development goals. There are also quite a few consultants who work in different institutions, so it’s quite a diverse group.

Russ: Could you give me some examples of countries that have been represented as well as the kinds of projects that may have been presented?

Gail: Where should I start?

Michael: Start in Africa.

Gail: Okay, I will start in Africa. There are a few South Africans who are involved in doing village development work, including sustainable architecture work in vulnerable communities. There were a couple women involved in health care in a development context in South Africa that were involved initially. There was a woman who came from Ethiopia via Sierra Leone who wrote a book, Butterflies over Africa, Yene Assegid.

Russ:  Yes, Integral Publishers published that book. It is a wonderful read that is both about development and her personal experiences.

Gail: Yes. She has come to two of the events. There is another woman from the Democratic Republic of the Congo who is working with refugee families. We have a few of the One Sky people who are doing our programs in Nigeria and who are on the mailing list and have come to some of the events of will come to the future ones. We have a few contacts in Ethiopia that we’ve tried to get to the IWB meetings by offering scholarships, but that hasn’t worked for one reason or another, usually schedules or visas. There are a few people who are involved from Asia. There are a couple from New Zealand and Australia who have been present at some of the events. Their work touches on some of the issues that are arising in Asia. But Asia is probably our least representative part of the world in the network. We have quite a few Europeans, all manner of folks working on different things. Karen O’Brien from Norway is working on climate change and adaptation and is a Nobel peace prize laureate for that work. She has been there a couple of years and is a big contributor. There is a large Latin American participation coming from El Salvador, Paraguay, Bolivia and Chile. There are also people from the Caribbean.

Russ: Why was the conference held in Turkey twice?

Gail: Partially because one of our directors, Emine Kiray lives there. She is Turkish-American and travels back and forth between the two countries, so she was our host for both of those conferences.  The other reason is that it’s a natural context at the confluence between East and West, given that the city literally has Europe and Asia represented in it. This was appropriate, given the integral embrace of Eastern and Western thought. Then, the third reason is that it doesn’t require visas for the African and Latin American participants and is much closer than coming into Denver or Vancouver. The visa requirements that we found in France became a bit limiting. There is one Ethiopian man who couldn’t come, because he couldn’t get a visa to come to the France meeting. There are a few of the reasons, plus it’s a beautiful city. We all fell in love with it the first time around and we wanted to do it all over again.

Russ: What about One Sky? What are some of the activities that One Sky is currently involved in?

Michael: Well, we have been involved in an enormous variety of projects—from working with ex-child soldiers in Sierra Leone, to doing energy work in the Canadian context around everything from policy right down to solar panels, to working in Peru on rain forest issues.

What we are trying to do right now is to be clear about some of the essential principles that we are working with and how we can best apply those in terms of the scales I mentioned earlier. The scales have changed and we are looking at fulcrum points or strategic places to affect change, instead of trying to do just anything that helps improve sustainability and sustainable living. We are trying to focus our work and be more discerning, as if we have less time than we think and more pressing problems.

Where are the fulcrums of change that we can address and what are our particular talents and passions in relation to those fulcrums of change? We try to be more disciplined about addressing those. The end result is that we focus on organizational change and leadership, because the idea is really simple: there is no way that all these problems can be solved unless we have enough very high capacity social change agents out there to address them.

We still are trying to lay the emergent ground, to try to find fertile emergence through situations or through learning environments so that social change agents have the best opportunity to evolve their thinking. We can’t just go out there and make a leader or make social change. That is not possible. But what we can do is create conditions so that the next stage in evolution has the highest chance of succeeding.

Russ: I’m aware that the leadership piece is very important in the programs that you have in Nigeria currently. Would you give us a sense for how you approach leadership in that kind of an environment.

Gail: The one thing that a place like Nigeria and other countries in Africa are struggling with is to establish a civil society. It’s something that when you are in a country like the United States or Canada or one of the European countries that we take for granted, the fact that we have a really organized social, civil society that can actually call out governments on issues as they arise regarding moral actions or poor governance. A strong civil society is able to say, “Hey, wait a second!” and to hold their governments accountable. The one thing that emerges with modernity and then becomes fully established in post modernity is civil society.

We are working with leaders such as civil society organizations in the South Eastern corner of Nigeria that have proven leaders already in their communities and in their organizations. We are building out a curriculum for leadership based on integral theory. Ideally, in so doing we are supporting the emergence of not just leaders in these organizations, but also leaders who really spark and foster and sustain a civil society in the country. That’s one of the best ways to move toward good governance and toward meeting some of the millennium development goals in that area.

We started with the quadrants [Ken Wilber’s four quadrant model—ed.] and looked at those four domains to pay attention to and be included in leadership training—developing the self in the upper right, building skills in the upper right, engaging culture in lower left, and influencing systems in lower right. We use that as a very broad sketch for how we fill out the curriculum in ways that are relevant to Nigerians at this particular moment in time, at this particular stage of development, and at the particular scales they are working at.

Russ: Do you engage upper left basically through working with people around various practices or do you have some other approach that you use in that quadrant?

Gail: There are four leadership retreats a year and in between times these leaders are working in small groups to carry out great initiatives. Throughout there are different ways that we are engaging interiors. For example, they do short meditations and reflective thinking. We open and close sessions with a ritual.  We also have brought mentoring and integral coaching into the leadership retreats.

We have done a lot of exercises that are building emotional intelligence and in some ways are touching on spiritual themes quite explicitly. I recently wrote an article about engaging a post secular spirituality in international development, describing a case study based on much of what we are doing in Nigeria. There have been quite a variety of activities that we try things out sometimes for the first time ever. I don’t think Integral Coaching Canada has ever had their methodology used in an African context. So, we tried that and found it had certain traction even when the coaches had left.

One Sky then worked with each of the leaders to help them find ways to hold their coaching programs in a more public and culturally-appropriate way. We then facilitated a process by which they expanded their coaching programs into an Integral Life Practice. Each person designed their own Integral Life Practice. We’ve found how in the field of international development where the discourse really is quite secular when you bring in interiors invariably in a country like Nigeria that’s going to mean bringing in questions of religion and spirituality.

Russ: I was going to ask, because then it touches directly on lower left.

Gail:  That’s right! In terms of lower left there has been quite a resonance with One Sky’s approach, partly because while other NGO’s will permit a prayer before the start of a meeting, they don’t really carry the thread of spirituality throughout everything. They don’t integrate spirituality into development. The fact that we are doing that, even though its not always overt, the intention is held and so the people feel it. There has been a lot of feedback culturally about the integral approach in that while we are not a religious organization in any sense, we are also really able to include and integrate religious ideas and spiritual practice in what I’ve been calling a post-secular approach.

This does not roll back all of the secular gains that we have made with universal rights, human rights or individual innovation, and governance separated from religion. We wouldn’t want to disregard those by going back to something mythic and traditional. We actually want to go forward to something integral. But I think for the Nigerians in this program it’s been kind of refreshing not to be in the sort of flatland of modernity where few of those interior discussions and practices can be allowed.

Russ: When we talk about culture as a set of shared values, worldviews and the like, we often talk only about what is shared. One of the things that I’m finding useful is to add to the notion of what is shared, what is not shared—the diversity that one finds within a culture of a particular country or region, for example. When you talk about being able to uphold the intention of spirituality in relation to religion are you finding that religious diversity is a factor to be dealt with or are you finding that’s not an issue?

Michael: This is a super interesting subject, because it goes back to what the international development scene is struggling with right now. In the Paris Declaration you see a lot of emphasis on what they call recipient-led programming. What they are trying to say behind “recipient-led programming” is a pluralist idea that developing countries with their own cultural viewpoints should be legitimate determiners of their own destiny. They should be leading the development process. So, you see all of these efforts trying to the best they can to grasp this idea of a culture, no matter what direction its taking, to have the right to be able to determine its own future, its own unfolding evolution, in the ways that its choosing to unfold. That may have religious journeys along the way that are legitimate.

Now what do you do, if you are trying to solve a problem like poverty and these things come up? What I think is so cool about or interesting about the integral approach and certainly what we have been having a lot of good conversations about is how can you hold something like a difference in religious viewpoints as legitimate and have a place and time when there are modern discourses around how we are going go solve lower right hand problems? It is to admit that the lower left has a legitimate place in the conversation.

It’s a bit confusing. It can be summed up by saying that conventional development works when a lot of it is in the lower right. We are going to come up with a policy change. We are going to do a governance intervention. We are going to improve the way that the government works on this and the other thing. But this ignores the lower left and how people are actually functioning culturally, religiously and spiritually. It ignores all those questions of community. What’s so beautiful about the integral approach is that it puts these on the table and says it’s actually truly legitimate and so lets look at it.

Russ: I’m wondering if either of you could tell me a story about where there was an instance of religious diversity that was bridged.

Gail: Sure. For the most part, the Southern region of Nigeria is predominantly Christian, although there are small pockets of animists, as well as Muslims. But in our program the majority was Christian. Throughout the first year of our project, participants occasionally would move into a Christian prayer or suddenly the team would break into a song that was about Jesus or another Christian theme. This had happened all year. Keep in mind that they bring these spiritual themes into a context of really great secular conversations about governance, not at all out of relationship with the important views of modernity and post-modernity; so not regressing to mythic, but seeking an integrative way forward to integral. Then, at the end of the first year, suddenly one of the participants says, “Oh, by the way, I’m actually Muslim,” even though all year this man had been singing right along with the Jesus songs. He knew the words and was fine singing along. We Canadians just shook our heads and said, “This is amazing!” Immediately after he said he was Muslim, the rest of the group warmly invited him to host the next day’s morning prayers, in Arabic. So he led the prayer in Arabic the following day and the room full of Christians were moving right along with it. No problem!

It was really amazing to see. They made a connection beyond diversity and to what the prayers are deeply about, beyond the surface structure differences between the two religions. I really didn’t think that that could happen. Perhaps it was able to happen because the Muslim man was very open-hearted and had actually been raised Christian, and then later chose Islam as a young adult. In other words, he embodied both faiths.

The other reason this could happen is that the group of leaders we were dealing with are the leading edge in Nigeria in terms of consciousness development. We know that from having used Susan Cook-Greuter’s sentence completion test with them.

Russ: Would you say more about how you were using a developmental approach?

Gail: Well, rather than get into particulars, what I would rather talk about is how we structured this leadership curriculum to assess self-development, both empirically and intuitively. We have used some empirical tests, such as the SCTi, the assessment tools embedded in the Integral Coaching approach, as well as a more intuitive approach to assessment using some integral research methods (something particular to One Sky’s engagement in the field). The reason we did this primarily was to get a sense of where people are coming from and to be able to meet them there, in order to create a curriculum that resonates with their own developmental unfolding.

We have also been paying attention to the ways individuals’ development as it is influenced by the social holon they are a part of. Everyone’s likely experienced how amazing ‘transformative’ shifts that occur for a person on retreat are hard to stabilize and hold when that person returns to their home contexts, groups and social holons. To mitigate for this, we had each individual connect in a learning community of two to three people right from the start, as a way to provide them some group support to metabolize the changes they were experiencing individually. We then had them work in larger groups of five to six people for more applied projects (breakthrough initiatives) and then they are also part of a cohort that is 30 people strong.  Interestingly, these nested social holons have continued through the participants founding the African Integral Developmental Network, which is a much larger initiative that arose from this project.

The reason we wanted to embed this approach to social holons was to support individuals in their consciousness development. We were interested in how they would best be supported to sustain personal changes, so we have built that into the program. I think it’s a quite a good idea for anyone intending to work with transformative processes, because its simply hard for an individual to stabilize their transitions without some sort of social support.

Michael: That’s really the key thing that we were lucky to predict. If you go through a social transformative personal change process, you need enough of a cohort of like-minded people around you to support that process. Otherwise, the predominant discourse and the society that you are living in are likely to pull you down again.

Russ: I’m finding the same thing in the leader development of CEO’s and entrepreneurs.

Michael: Yes! They may be stuck in a discourse that just grinds individuals towards the social centre of gravity. If you are above a social centre of gravity it is going to pull you down and you have to have tremendous charisma, stamina or some kind of a support structure to allow you to maintain the instability of a transitional phase. Once you have transitioned through another stage and you are stable, then I think you can be thrown into different contexts and you can get through them.

But it’s the transitional period that is challenging and that’s where we are working with leaders. For individuals who are working through those transitions alone, it is really hard.  So, we did set up some really strong support mechanisms like the cohort group, like working together on a program, and bringing regularity to the program to make sure that there is are intensives going on all year. We also provide support by having people available in our office in Nigeria, a place where people could go to refresh themselves in the social centre gravity that we want to see emerge.

Russ: The parallels with integral leader development in the business world are fascinating, including the on going support systems.

Gail: Yes. In fact, when we had some empirical testing done on developmental action-logics, the person doing the assessments said that this group of leaders in Nigeria are similar to any group of leaders you would find in a business context in the United States.

Russ: Really?

Gail: Yes! The point being that the national, religious, and social discourses of any culture will ‘pull’ on those in the society who are leading the edge of consciousness. And so, as proponents of leadership development, we can account for that by creating nested support structures to help them meet challenges.

Michael: I was just going to say that it also brings up an interesting observation that we have been looking more and more into— that there is a global discourse in the subject matter of development. It is very, very world centric in nature and has a kind of a pull to it. We are swimming in an international development discourse that’s essentially pulling people up no matter where you are in the world. As long as you are caught up in the discourse around sustainability and human rights and global well being and climate change—all of these themes are slowly drawing people up into a social center of gravity that’s global at this point. It doesn’t really matter anymore where you are in that conversation somewhere in the world. You can get drawn into it and pulled up to a very high level of the center of gravity more quickly than before. While there are of course exceptions, that is very encouraging.

Russ: Fascinating. The Nigeria project that you are talking about is in the Delta, isn’t it?

Michael: Yes.

Russ: So it has a built in tension with the interior of Nigeria for its domination of the Nigerian government and budget. The government is closely tied to the oil companies who have been polluting the Delta. Very little resources have been invested back into the Delta. This creates conditions that probably influence how these people proceed and perform. Is that correct?

Michael: Yes. In terms of doing an integral leadership program in the developing world—well, I may be going out on a limb by saying this, but it seems to be that we are definitely working in probably one of the tougher environments on the planet.  There are 148 million people in Nigeria. One fifth of all the people in Africa live in Nigeria. It is really packed and it’s a tough, tough, tough place to live. Most people in Nigeria are living on very little money. The area we are working in has ridiculously high levels of poverty and environmental pollution. There are behavioral stressors in the upper right that really put pressure on people. There is tremendous pressure.

Working there is difficult: very little electricity, tremendous heat, difficult national conditions for getting projects going. There are an enormous number of issues around trying to work in the Niger Delta that make doing this program difficult, for not just for the participants but for us. To see it succeed in the midst of all this is why I have been finding so much inspiration from the Nigerian participants’ efforts to network themselves and continue the leadership trainings for others.

They are pulling this off with gusto and an enthusiasm that would boggle your mind. They have, of their own accord, founded their own organization, AIDEN (African Integral Development Network), with a constitution, their own opening ceremonies and their own legalities, and will start with a leadership conference at the University of Calabar this November. They are using a lot of what they are learning. It’s totally self-motivated, because it is self-generated.

That is really exciting stuff! That’s a bunch of social change agents going purposely forward in creating their own community of like-minded people to try and promote this. They are doing this not just for themselves and their country, but going forward with the audacity to call it an African Integral Development Network. It’s fantastic stuff and it’s happening in a really difficult environment.

Russ: How would you compare and contrast work that you are doing in Latin America or Central America with what we have been talking about in terms of the Nigerian project?

Michael: In Latin America you have a lot of history of organized community change in terms of revolutions and el pueblo unido jamás será vencido—the concept of the people united will never be defeated. That is a phrase that is known throughout Latin America. Everybody knows it. The influence is there. The idea of coming together as an identity group for the common good is very strong.

In Africa you have a very strong and long history of colonization that was extremely brutal regarding social structures. Some social structures are still very much there today. There are lots of tribal identities and ethnocentrisms. They are very, very different contexts. In fact, it would be interesting to hear from other people out there who have worked in these two different contexts. How do they view this, because they are just so distinctly different? One of the things that I think is an open question here is how much of that is just because of our or my own experience in those two contexts and how different they are? It’s hard to make a generalization here, but it feels to me like we are working in two very, very different contexts.

Gail: Yes, I agree with what you just said, Mike. Actually, the only thing I would like to add is that we are talking about very different economic development indicators, as well. Nigeria, Sierra Leone and the other countries that One Sky has been involved in Africa are what Paul Collier out of Oxford would call the bottom billion of the six billion on the planet.

The idea is that before there were a billion affluent people and the other billions were living in poverty. That has reversed now. There is the majority of the human family who are living in the earth on their way to development and affluence. There is only one billion at the bottom who are living in poverty…

Michael: Less than $2 a day. The international cut off for the extreme poverty range is $2 a day. But, it has far more to do with that amount; it has to do with histories of civil war, poor governance, and systemic poverty traps. The thing about that bottom billion group of countries is that they are not making any gains whatsoever. It’s a downward spiral.

Gail: So the countries in Latin America and in Asia have gotten their foot on the ladder—or at least that’s how the economists in development would put it. They are able to climb in an economic sense, but the countries of the bottom billion haven’t managed to get on the ladder. Not only that, but their nations are falling apart more than they are able to climb. So, it’s a very, big difference in terms of the contexts of the lower right, the actual economy. Nigeria is very, very different from countries in Latin America where we have worked.

There are pockets in Peru and El Salvador that would be considered communities or villages or families in a more ‘bottom billion’ sense. But the nations that they are part of are doing all right these days, economically speaking. There definitely are issues and there are definitely lots of people working on very, very good issues in those countries, ourselves included. There are issues particular to South America and Central America that do require attention. I’m not saying we shouldn’t also be working in the Americas. One Sky has done important work in Peru with rain forest conservation and what it hopes to do with environmental and climate change work in the future. What I’m working on in El Salvador with climate change adaptation and community resilience is all really important work to do. I’m just pointing out that poverty in absolute terms is far worse in West Africa. But it’s just different. We are talking about a categorical difference.

Michael: It’s a totally different scale.

Gail: And, that does matter, because it means that you are struggling on a couple of dollars a day in a nation that has poor governance and a situation where there are hardly any good roads and there is no electricity, where there are diseases like malaria and HIV that are very widespread.

On the one hand, I know how hard it is to be recovering from malaria and trying to be creative. I know how hard it is. I can’t know directly, but I do imagine it would be terrifically hard to be constantly worried about your finances and also trying to work for social change. These sorts of challenges and multiple stressors that Michael is referring to are immense in a place like Nigeria. On the other hand, for that reason it’s absolutely mind blowing and requires so much of our regard and our appreciation when people do show up with such exuberance, with such potential, just flying at it regardless of what is going on in their family context. Its really, really inspiring…

Michael: There is a way this could be summed up. If you look at the UN quality of life index there is a listing of countries. Canada and Australia have competed at the top of that list for years. At the bottom of the list you will find some very interesting scenarios. Sierra Leone has been at the bottom for the last 10 years or 15 years. Once I worked in Sierra Leone for almost seven or eight years. There is something fundamentally different going on when you look at the countries that are at the bottom of the list. If organization change and leadership programs can succeed in those contexts then there is something fundamentally going right with those programs. That’s what I was trying to get at: if it can happen there, then it can easily happen in many ways along the spectrum of countries where the conditions are easier.

Russ: Do you also bring in the inner role leadership work with the programs in El Salvador Peru and elsewhere?

Gail: Our last project in Peru focused on capacity development. We used an integral design for that as well.

Russ: Tell me what capacity development is.

Michael: Well, it’s looking more at the organization. In terms of scales you might have individuals, then organizations, and then you could look at networks and movements—the environmental movement or the women’s movement, etc. In our NGO we traditionally try to work at the organization-to-organization level, so we don’t go to El Salvador or Peru to set up a shop and run a project.

Our preferred way of working is to go and work with a partner organization, a group that’s already working there. If we have some things to offer and you are the indigenous local group that’s been working on this issue, you know we could work together in a partnership model. Hopefully, there are some lessons learned and there are some ways in which One Sky works that is useful and helpful to them.

So this is the capacity development component. We worked with the group to help develop their capacity, for example, to do integral baseline monitoring and evaluation, to be able to figure out integral methodologies for working with indigenous communities by looking at how to engage different worldviews and look at stages of growth. Those are all things that we have worked with. In Peru, we did an integral baseline assessment, which showed us where the gaps were in the organization’s capacity and thus directed what workshops and interventions we then provided, all aligned at a particular worldview or stage of development. In so doing it landed in a way it may not have otherwise. One of the results of the project—which can’t be solely due to One Sky’s work but is partially due to it—was a large tract of Amazon rainforest being conserved in the name of the indigenous community with our Peruvian partner NGO supporting them to manage it.

Keep in mind the scales thing we started with in this interview. Organization-to-organization is an interesting scale level and one that we have traditionally worked on. The Nigerian project drops down to working with individuals within organizations. You had to be part of an organization to be part of that leadership program.

The idea is that we are trying to influence or affect change with organizations. When we are working with organizations, we are trying to affect networks. Ultimately, there is a big movement out there for us to work with and this results in all kind of shifts in the way that whole the social movement works.

Russ: Do you see projects in the future of One Sky beyond Nigeria, Peru and El Salvador?

Michael: Yes, definitely. We did so many projects for a while and we had our fingers in so many pies. What we have been trying to do for the last two or three years is be more precise about our application and make sure that we have got some of our methodologies down right. So, I’m quite proud of the fact that with the Nigeria Project we have gone a little bit slower, but the advisory committee (that includes Ken Wilber) is superb and has been very helpful along the way.

Actually, the kinds of interventions and thought that’s gone into that project is much more precise than what we have traditionally done. It is a good thing to be doing right now. I’m getting more and more confidence, based on the success of this way of going about each leadership development project and so on that we could expound that project now and start working in other countries and places.

Gail: One thing we are doing is visioning where are the fulcrum points of change. Where are the leverage points, but also fulcrum points, where development is possible? We are viewing that as we speak. We have some ideas in mind in other parts of Africa and to continue in other projects in Latin America.

This relates with how we view development practice: not as something out there to be done, or something to be placed upon a context, but as an emergent, spontaneous arising of Eros. There is always development occurring, but often it gets stuck, imbalanced, or hampered somehow. And so we hold our work at One Sky as a way to address those sticking points in whatever way we can, in order to release the moment back into its own unfolding Eros.

Keep in mind, too, that the changes are not all out there in the developing world. One of the critical things that One Sky looks at is that the so called developed world—Canada, the United States, Europe—there are huge opportunities to shift the whole global path that we are on. Those opportunities are not necessarily in the developing world. They are in the developed world and we can’t ignore those. Particularly around environmental questions or climate change questions, often the problem is not predominantly originating in the developing world even though it is being felt there.

Russ: I think that’s a whole exciting topic that probably would require another interview. I have two more questions. The first is, in the face of both the successes and the challenges that you have talked about in this interview, what is the cutting edge learning for each of you?  What do each of you need to be focusing on in terms of your own capabilities and competencies and capacities?

Gail: I have spent quite some time in the integral community, writing for integral publications, teaching at JFK University, holding integral field courses, and so forth. At this point actually what’s an edge for me is to actually leave that integral world, at least to some extent, and enter more mainstream conversations with less overt integral language. More and more, I am engaging with integral principles that are held implicitly, and am less concerned about the theory per se. Although I love the theory and have found nothing that comes near its comprehensiveness. But, I am yearning to step into certain mainstream large-scale systems more fully, most of whom don’t have a reference point for Integral theory. What matters to me at this point is the awareness from which that theory flows, as I believe that awareness can make substantial changes on our planet. Basically, I feel our hearts and minds can hold more in the mainstream spheres of influence that define development practice, and am in service of that deepening, however it might arise. That’s an edge for me. A koan of sorts.

Russ: Mike, how about you? What’s your cutting edge?

Michael: In the social world people often with great intentions, myself included, tend to align behind very passionate courses to change the world. What is offered to me at this point is a lot of introspection. My own learning around this is that behind that real desire to change the world is actually a very distinct border between the way that I think and the way that the world is heading. There is an us and them boundary. It’s a very distinct. I’m going to change things. We are going to change things. I joined a group and a movement and we are going to change the way things are and the world that’s out there, because of this bad path that it is on.

The thing that that brings up for me though is that there is still an “us and them” boundary. That’s emerging ground for me, because ultimately if we really do get rid of that “us and them” boundary, we will have to get into more collaborative behaviors. We have to stop thinking of the business community, for example, as being the problem out there in environmental sustainability. There are a tremendous number of business people who are really struggling, who don’t formally think of themselves as part of the sustainability movement. We can build those bridges, the kind of bridges between all the different groups. Until we can make those bridges, we are caught in an “us and them” dynamic.

So, it feels good to be in an “us and them” dynamic, because you feel you are on the course of doing a good thing in the word. It’s a right thing in the world. But the problem is you are still in the “us and them” dynamic. I don’t know if that’s making sense, but it has to do with that because for me ultimately to grow further in this field means that I would like One Sky to be able to work comfortably with the business community, with governments, with people that don’t think like we do and to be able to sit down in a really mature way.

When we really know we are on the same ship at this point—and the good thing is that some of the problems that we face like climate change, some of the global problems that we face—we are all in this together. We are all living in this planet and we are all here to stay. We can’t get away from that. We have to live on Earth with a bigger “us” dynamic, not in an “us and them” dynamic.

Russ: My final question is, is there anything I haven’t asked you, you wish I had?

Michael: We can talk for a long time.

Gail: Maybe the only thing that I would add is that there is something of a sacred contract that Mike and I have reached each in our own ways. In this field, it may look romantic from the outside, but it’s not romantic. It’s hard stuff. It can tear up your soul to be working in some of these places. It definitely is hard on the body, health and everything. But somehow, inexplicably, we’ve been bound into a sacred contract to continue to show up in these places. So, as you ask where we would want to take One Sky, I realize that we can only answer that from our perspective up to a point. Then, from there, it becomes answered in another way, from far beyond us. Or, prior to us. So to answer your questions about where to go next and where our edges are, we can go only so far in explaining this to you. The rest is behind a curtain, awaiting it’s own sacred emergence. So, keep in touch. Something might happen and then you will know. And then we will know.

Michael: Hopefully, you detect that there is humility here. The problem with thinking that you know what you are doing in this field is that time and again there is a lot going on out there. The longer you are in the field, the more humble you get about this. Although we may sound like we have thought it out, you know, to be honest the more you think it out, the more you realize, “Wow! A lot of this is not up to us or how it’s going.” It’s so crazy in that sense.

Going through an interview like this, I hope you detect a certain amount of humility, because that’s how I feel these days about the international development question. There is so much to learn for us, personally. Each time we realize that we do not know what we are doing in this field right now.

Russ: That is so appropriate, because at least from a literal point of view, whether you are talking about leadership or you are talking about any kind of change dynamic, the context is different each time. We have to attend to that, which means attending to cultural and systemic issues and the relationships among not only individuals but entities.

Michael: That’s so full.

Russ: Thank you both so much.

Gail: Russ, I want to thank you, too, for all the work you are putting into the Integral Leadership Review and all the support you are giving people for getting their work out there. You are making connections in the community that are really important.

Michael: Yes. And we are in this with other One Sky staff and volunteers, amazing integral practitioners: Lisa Gibson, David Cicerchi, Bergen Vermette, James Baye, Emily Levang, Oliver Ngodo… the list goes on.

Russ: Thank you both, so much.

Russ Volckmann