Cover photo by britt gaiser on Unsplash

By Njoki Mbũrũ

This piece is part of the Slow Study Storytelling Series that focuses on highlighting practices and tools that enable equitable, sustainable, and emergent approaches in Systems Transformation work. I want to highlight that the root of my understanding is informed by my lived experiences, and guided by diverse, generational Afro- and Indigenous knowledge systems. This first part of the series will centre on the practice of ‘Generative Inquiry’ as a tool for systems transformation. 

Sometimes, I get lost in creating and editing ‘movies’ in my mind where I am simultaneously the director, the audience, and the lead character. While some of these imaginary (and might I also say award-worthy) films are about the most trivial and humorous encounters, some of them are also more in-depth, critical interview-like features with some of my favourite thinkers, artists, athletes, dancers, land stewards, and emerging leaders. 

If you may, please buy your ticket to one of my independently-produced movies, grab some tea or an odd snack, and lean back into your seat. Do not prepare to be entertained, but rather, prepare to untangle from your logic, to be witnessed, and to listen beyond sound. Unlike the passive modern-day movie theatres we often go to, I would like to invite you to interrupt this film – raise questions boldly, throw your fists up in rage, release a riveting gasp in shock, interject with song and dance, laugh beyond embarrassment, and even allow yourself to drift into sleep – if that is what your body asks of you. 

For this piece, I would like to borrow inspiration from my archive of made-up films. This one is an interview which features three fabulous thinkers – Leanne Betasamosake Simpson in conversation with Bayo Akomolafe, moderated by Tiffany Lethabo King. I named it “Within the Cracks of Silence: A Conversation on Resurgence, Spillage, and Excessiveness.”

Press play. Let us begin.

PART 1: Collaborating with Chaos

There is a particular neatness and tidiness that Venn diagrams insist on. An unspoken, but widely-accepted condition, that is: the intersecting circles must first be perfectly defined at their edges before meeting with one another. The overlap of circles/shapes requires each shape to first have clear and sharp borders and to contain within itself unique matter or information that is distinct from the other shape. 

What happens, however, when we (try to) overlap two or more shapes that are oozing at their edges? When we overlap shapes whose seams are broken, whose borders refuse to be defined, and whose contents demand to spill with an undisciplined flow? What, then, do we call this kind of rebellious intersection which insists on blurring the lines between the beginnings and endings of one shape from the other?

I do not have a name for it, and I do not wish to create or find one. What I do have is the awareness that whatever we insist on defining in tight shapes or containing in ‘perfect order’ inevitably springs back into its most unrestricted form – for our own good or against our benefit. The paradox here is that the pursuit to create or impose order and predictability often produces friction, opposition, and chaos. So, what happens when we lean into the generative capacity that lies within disorder and chaos? What becomes possible at the intersection between two or more formless and undisciplined ‘shapes’? 

In the same way, our attempt to succinctly name and aptly define systems transformation is not only futile and exhausting, it could also be a source of possible risk to ourselves. Imagine trying to shove an inflated ball or balloon underwater, and in the process, the ball slips away from your slippery palms, shoots straight up and out of the water, and grazes or hits you in the face. 

This image, when extended to the exploration of systems transformation, can be helpful in untangling ourselves from the rigid definitions we come up with which attempt to contain something so monstrous, nebulous, and emergent. Systems Transformation demands excessiveness, spills into formless shapes, rejects stagnation, and regenerates through a practice of generative inquiry. In the same way, Web3 – a rapidly evolving and emergent ecosystem of theories of knowledge, relationships, and practical applications – is also resisting simplicity, moving through the crowd with its elbows out, brushing up against our attempt to package it in one box, and eventually, breaching the levees we have built.

PART 2: Inviting Space and Time

In my imaginary interview with Bayo, Leanne and Tiffany, there comes a point where an audience member interrupts the film to pose a question. Not one that is directed towards any of the speakers, but rather, one that requires the speakers to knit the strands of their individual thoughts into some sort of cohesive shape. 

At the moment the question is raised, there appears a shadow of spaciousness in the theatre, which is filled with the sound of silence. This is the type of question that is already so full in its depth and breadth that responding to it feels sacrilegious. Yet, leaving it unanswered steals from the possibility of generative conversation. 

This audience member asks: “What would it look like to honour the many ‘good intentions’ in our world today in a way that simultaneously troubles saviorism and also generates dialogue and collaboration?”

The flows of wealth are not only dependent on but also a reflection of the power structures amongst a network of people or communities. Philanthropy, then, without a critical examination of the inherent power structures, risks producing inefficiencies and unintended consequences with real-life impacts on people and planet. This means that while we acknowledge and celebrate the good intentions of our philanthropic initiatives and objectives, it is critical that we address the impacts related to these initiatives. The space between the intentions set out, and the actual outcomes/impacts that are evidenced by social impact initiatives is where we have an opportunity to ask questions that fracture our long-held beliefs. This is the gap which enables generative inquiry. 

Dr. Bayo Akomolafe has a beautiful name for this place of experimentation, play, and alternative power. He calls it “generative incapacitation” – describing it as the opportunity to “build new alliances with the world around us, where new questions become possible … where we go beyond the linear idea of arrival and start to think differently about the world around us from a new politics of humility”. The idea of ‘humility’ captures my attention and insists on my attendance. 

As I allow myself to fall into the cracks of generative inquiry and generative incapacitation, two questions are coming up for me. I wonder if you could allow yourself to fall through these generative cracks with me, and hold the tension/discomfort/curiosity that these questions might stir within you. 

  • How can I meaningfully engage with Systems Transformation work if I do not, at first, prioritise deep listening, show up with presence, and commit to ongoing learning? 
  • What are the specific ways that I practice ‘humility’ in my relationships and work?
  • Considering your specific position of power and privilege, what does it mean for you to engage with humility in the context of historical and ongoing colonialism, systemic racism, and white supremacy?

And here, right before you race to find answers to these questions, I invite you to pause. 

More specifically, I invite you to: lose yourself in the tangled thoughts that flood your mind and deliberately slow yourself down as you follow the threads. To give yourself permission to experience play and amusement as part of your learning journey. To navigate the odd, uncanny shapes that reveal themselves at the intersections of your identity, location, privileges, margins, work, values, community’s needs, and outer world. 

Modernity and white supremacy function to impose a sense of defined borders or ‘perfected’ shapes/forms onto the wild character of nature. If we are to be guided by humility when designing inclusive, equitable, and sustainable systems, then I believe that part of our work will require us to not only reject the ideals of ‘stability’, ‘finality’ and ‘completion’, but to recklessly throw ourselves at the practice of saying ‘Perhaps’, ‘Yes, and’, ‘What else’, ‘Not yet’, and most importantly, ‘Why’? 

Part 3: Foundations Before Form

“In times like this, we need to also build and maintain scaffoldings of care for our communities. Colonial violence is always asymmetric. I think it is important then to build mechanisms into our anti-colonial organising to make sure we are taking care of our communities, acting in solidarity with other communities of resistance, and not just refusing the violence of the colonial world, but relentlessly building liberation out of whatever we have.”

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson in conversation with Dionne Brand (June 2018)

In my years of watching movies at the theatre, I have come to observe that there is usually a moment of lurking anticipation just after the film credits start rolling. When I look around during this particular part, I see some folks already on their way out, some still sunken in their seats trying to process what they just watched, and then, there are the peculiar few who have their eyes still glued to the screen but their bodies angled to leave the room. This group of people who hold the posture of “I am still here, but I am also on my way there”, are those that anticipate for there to be a few more scenes embedded within the film credits. Their guess is that the movie is not really done; there are still a few more surprise clips squeezed in amongst the closing credits. 

This observation, while subtle, is one that I find to be particularly provocative and insightful when translated into the work of systems transformation. That is, to consider the wisdom that lies when we position ourselves partly facing the reality of what is taking place and also partly signalling towards the possibility of what could be. Perhaps this is the place of grief, of awe, of “unsettling the settler within”, and of generous generative inquiry. 

In my storytelling, I find myself in this 50/50 posture on more than one occasion – both intentionally and unintentionally. By situating myself in the messy middle, I have had to complicate the narrative that is sometimes thrown around which claims, “Out with the old, and in with the new.” Most importantly, I have come to honour the wisdom of my grief and anxiety and recognize that the place of tension, contradiction, and conflict is also an opening for creation, correction, momentum, and necessary decomposition. 

Similarly, in the work of examining present-day philanthropic models, using Web3 to shift current processes, transforming granting models, and critiquing our definitions of wealth or wealth distribution, we might find that what once seemed to work is now fracturing or collapsing under the magnitude of change. At this point, some might choose to push through in the direction of their ‘revamped Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) proclamations’ without making time or space to learn about what it would truly take to build a stronger, more equitable foundation. Some might choose to abandon the pursuit of change altogether due to fear, opposition, or overwhelm because, from their perspective, it is all ‘too much, too fast, too soon’. Yet, some might perceive this as the opportune moment to pause and slow down – both individually and collectively – to re-strategize on how to create what Leanne Betasamosake Simpson calls “scaffoldings of care”. This latter group moves with an awareness that good and lasting systemic change is not about competition, perfection or charisma. Rather, they recognize that the work of systems transformation is only sustainable when individuals and communities feel dignified, safe, and supported to meet their needs, ask questions without shame, learn in public, fumble through mistakes, practice accountability, collaborate, find spaces of belonging, and to move at a pace that upholds everyone’s well being

Like the people I spoke about earlier – those that wait for the end of film credits to hopefully watch potential surprise clips – you might also be finding yourself at a moment of time in your work where something that has ‘worked’ for so long is eventually coming to an end. Pause right there. I urge you to drop into your breath. To honour and welcome doubt, grief, and anticipation. In that same breath, I invite you to recognize that these experiences of tension and fracture can co-exist alongside play, amusement, and generative inquiry. Most especially, however, I urge you to observe your posture as you move between meeting rooms, conversations, webpages, tabs, online events, conferences, lunch and learns, etc. 

Ask yourself: 

  • How am I showing up during these ‘in-between’ spaces? What am I leaving behind, and what am I moving towards?
  • How am I pausing and slowing down? 
  • Where are my “scaffoldings of care”? Who are my “scaffoldings of care”?

In the Cocoon, Before Take-off

Like your favourite song or film, even my imaginary movies must come to an end. There are no award shows, galas, or post-screening dinners. This is one of those ordinary moments where the next best thing is possibly calling a friend, strolling around my neighbourhood, or returning to tapping my keyboard to finish up some work. Nonetheless, each of my films is as valuable as the ones I pay to watch, if not more. The fact that the characters and audience are completely made-up does not hinder me from producing a variety of genres and writing fantastical plots that might never see the light of day. And also, perhaps they will be public knowledge someday. 

What matters more to me is that I have space, room, and freedom to imagine. That I can pause and sink into the capacity to wander, or that I have permission to lose myself in time and space, is an incredible privilege. I have come to observe that our perspective of, conversations about, and practices of ‘Futurism’ and ‘Imagination’ often bypass the reality that we do not all have equal access/permission to imagine and dream. That, for some of us, we are surveilled and policed not only as physical bodies but also in our etheric capacity. 

Liberation feels chimeric when your ever-present reality is one that demands hypervigilance, enforces assimilation, denies humanity, invalidates traditions, and bypasses accountability in the pursuit of ‘healing’. 

Systems Transformation insists that we commit to sitting within the tension that lies between “this is where we are” and “that is where we want to be”. However, in order to accurately locate ourselves where we are now, we must first name and hold ourselves accountable to what got us here in the first place – the good, the bad, and the ugly. The work of dreaming and imagination can easily become a fraudulent escape from the responsibilities we have to ourselves, one another, and our generations, if we are not attentive to the ways we are replicating patterns of exclusion and harm. The practice of Systems Transformation is both a commitment to humility and also an ongoing practice of generative inquiry.   

I invite you to include these questions as part of your practice: 

  • How are you uncomfortably, intentionally engaging with questions about wealth, wealth distribution, reconciliation, and philanthropy? 
  • How have you been responding to current [racial, climate, economic, etc.] crises? When was the last time you allowed the crises to transform you, rather than you urgently trying to transform it? 

“Chaos is a productive space; it inspires new action and new space.”

Tiffany Lethabo King

Additional Resources

Tiffany Lethabo King on The Black Shoals [with brontë velez], Part One /315

Tiffany Lethabo King on The Black Shoals [with brontë velez], Part Two /316

We deeply appreciate Canada Life, the RBC Foundation, and Propel Impact for partnering with Community Foundations of Canada to support the Transformation Storytelling Fellowship and its intent to mobilize young people to bring storytelling and an equitable and intergenerational lens into the transformation work.