Women and Sustainability in Politics: Embrace Crisis and Reframe Shame

Trust the process and don't fear the unknown.
Look for relationships among a system’s parts as opposed to the parts themselves. [Image credit: Rosscophoto, Flickr]
By Laura Tu

The Women’s Network for a Sustainable Future recently hosted a powerful discussion on women and sustainability in politics. Moderated by Darcy Winslow, Managing Partner at Academy for Systemic Change, the panel included Cylvia Hayes, Oregon’s First Lady and Kendall Clawson, Oregon’s Director of Executive Appointments. Two important themes developed during the conversation that should be fueling further and broader discussion in sustainability circles.

#1 Crisis equals opportunity

Crises disrupt the status quo. Clean economy leader and First Lady of Oregon, Cylvia Hayes, explained how this dramatic break from the ordinary opens up our ability to question fundamental assumptions. She pointed to the example of the Great Recession, which has provided us with an opportunity to view the health of our economy through another lens. Unfortunately, and as we have seen play out recently, over-reliance on indicators of economic health like stock prices and GDP have masked shortcomings in our economy’s ability to provide for working people and to protect the planet itself.

We are used to examining isolated issues, but, as Hayes emphasized, systemic thinkers understand that everything is connected. They use a wide lens to examine problems. Managing Partner Darcy Winslow at Academy for Systemic Change agreed, “If you can’t solve a problem, expand it.” By re-imagining businesses in terms of a triple bottom line of people-planet-profit, we can build a healthy economy that serves the needs of ourselves, our planet, and future generations. Sometimes it takes major disruption to imagine what’s possible. And, Hayes believes, “No crisis should be wasted.”

What to expect when transforming crisis into opportunity:

  1. Crisis disrupts the norm. This is a good thing.
  2. Unburdened by the status quo, we approach a problem with a wider perspective that leads us to ask the right questions.
  3. Look for relationships among a system’s parts as opposed to the parts themselves.
  4. Trust the process and don’t fear the unknown. This will feel uncomfortable.
  5. Look for enduring solutions, not quick fixes. There is no limit to what’s possible.

Hayes ended with a cautionary tale. If you think about a company, it starts out with an idea. This idea has a way of doing things. It starts to grow in size and revenue. Crisis strikes and the context shifts. If that company or culture does not evolve, they will reach the top and plummet from there. From fossil fuels and natural disasters to childhood poverty and unemployment, we have many ways to transform crisis into opportunity. How do we take advantage of these disruptions? How can we change our systems to enable our human nature to make better choices? How can we harness renewable energy resources like wind and solar power? How do we integrate human and natural capital? Let’s use our challenges as a catalyst to ask the right questions and inspire economic reinvention. Hayes declared, “It’s time for a system innovation.”

#2 Reframe shame and inspire action

In Oregon’s four-county region where Director of Executive Appointments Kendall Clawson resides, 40 percent of kids live in low-income families. Most of these poor kids are Black, Hispanic and American Indian. But, because much of Oregon’s 88 percent Caucasian majority feels shame when discussing issues of race, not enough is done to assist these children.

Clawson recognizes that you can’t shame people into action, so she reframes the discussion around terms we can all identify with, like class. Anyone can be an advocate for class because we’re all people that want prosperity for our community. Clawson believes that, “people want to be there for one another and the desire to connect is growing.”

Prosperity begins with an education. College graduates have a lifetime earnings advantage of more than $1 million. Education offers a chance a true mobility, but because college can cost $15,000 to $60,000 a year, not everyone can afford it. She explains, “If you are fortunate enough to have an education, then you need to get beyond shame and use your luck to bring people along.”

So here’s the caveat—the process of reframing shame feels like a riptide. Clawson encouraged us to embrace the unknown and trust that you’ll emerge on the other side. She illustrated this point by recounting her story about learning to scuba dive. Imagine breathing under water with an oversized air tank strapped to your back. Everything feels counterintuitive, but the promise of untold beauty waits beneath the waves, so you steel yourself and swim deeper into the ocean. That’s when your diving instructor warns you about rip currents that could drag you away from the beach. You survive a rip current by embracing the discomfort. “Don’t fight it. Do the exact opposite. Relax into the current. There will be times when you are uncomfortable, but you need to relax. The current will take you where it wants you to go. You may be five miles away from the beach, but you will be alive.”

What would you do without shame as a barrier? What unique gifts would you share? What conversations would you start? How would you be change agent for your community, your business, our planet and for the world?

Laura Tu  advocates shared value and gives voice to good causes through Pyramid Communications. She serves on the steering committee of the Pacific Northwest Chapter of Women’s Network for a Sustainable Future (WNSF).

To learn more about WNSF and future events in the Pacific Northwest, visit: http://wnsf-pacificnw.org or follow us @WNSF_PNW

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