The Space Between Us is Alive: Truth Talk with Gibrán Rivera

What if we had a sense of the collective so powerful, it made us as individuals feel more free? Gibrán and I have never met in person, but we are connected somehow through our work in the world. He is one of those people whose name tends to come up when I describe to people what I do. I’m usually reluctant to describe what I do because facilitative leadership can feel so nebulous. I was inspired to reach out to Gibrán to help me trace the contours of this work that feels necessary in these times of crisis, confusion, and opportunity for forward momentum. My intention is to be in more active dialogue around facilitative leadership practices that can help us uncover our power to reweave the world. Those of us looking to enliven cultures of deep participation and leadership are sitting by the same rivers of energy and inspiration whether we see each other or not. In one conversation he transmitted vibrant pieces of wisdom that elevated my understanding of the freedom that could be possible now.

Gibrán Rivera spent the last four years convening the “Evolutionary Leaders Workshop.” And in that time, he witnessed a growing inclination towards facilitative leadership and a depth of personal and collective power coming forward in people. He noticed an evolution of people over time -- more leaders carrying their own healing practices and the capacity to gracefully and respectfully claim the space to heal together. “It wasn’t that they were messing up or disrespecting the space I was holding. They simply took leadership within it.” When he invited people in the workshop to name what they wanted to bring into the world, increasingly they named the power of facilitation and the capacity to hold space as key to manifesting their visions.

What does it mean to “hold space?”

This seemingly abstract piece of facilitation jargon is such a powerful practice, and yet many of us struggle to even describe it. It’s one of those things you know and feel when you experience it, but what is actually happening when someone effectively “holds space” is hard to say. Holding space is a combination of thoughtful agenda design with a facilitator who embodies trust, integrity, a depth of listening, and an openness to new possibilities that inspire people to connect with one another, and move into action together. Kind of nebulous, right? I asked Gibrán what holding space means to him and how he prepares for the responsibility:

I understand it in my body. My key role is to ground. I bring an awareness that I am grounding the group. In performance, the energy moves from the chest and face out to the people. But when you’re facilitating, the energy moves down to the ground and back up as a energetic bowl that holds the group.

This powerful description of holding space makes an important distinction essential for facilitative leaders to understand: facilitation is not a performance. The anxiety people feel around facilitation, as well as the tendency to talk too much while “facilitating,” stem from a pressure to perform. Thinking we have to be the expert in the room, or being too caught up trying to do a good job, are unconscious tendencies that get in the way of holding space. Releasing the need to perform brings you back into yourself, so you can be present for the group. A facilitator who is present, open, curious, and culturally humble gives groups permission to connect with one another, to find their own voices, and sometimes, as Gibrán found in his Evolutionary Leadership Workshop, to gracefully take over the space for what they need.

When a facilitator is too attached to their own agenda, or too focused on “getting it right,” it can feel like a failure when people in the group you’re facilitating take leadership in the space for what they need. I have found that when I let go of binding expectations, I discover my capacity to respond in the moment. I think of facilitation as the banks of a river. The water is already flowing, and yet without the banks the water would flood. Here’s how Gibrán describes it:

Holding a structure matters - open, narrow in, close. You want to take people through an arc that is the structure of the space you are energetically holding.. I pray and meditate before facilitating a group and ask for grace... You start by abiding by the structure and as you evolve you start to listen to what wants to happen without letting go of the structure… Having 10,000 hours of experience, gives you the benefit of knowing that energy is moving as energy and you cultivate the capacity to simply get out of the way.

Facilitating Power

So, in addition to 10,000 hours of experience, how does one cultivate the capacity to both hold structure and get out of the way? Through our conversation, I found Gibrán and I both came into facilitative leadership through our involvement in social justice movements. I was born into the Chicano Movement, and Gibrán, moving to Massachusetts from Puerto Rico when he was twelve, knew something was wrong right away. He spent many years as an organizer and activist trying to right the wrongs of structural racism and exploitation; he even ran for public office. We were also both influenced by Malcolm X; reading his biography as young people was pivotal for each of us, helping us make sense of the injustices around us, Malcolm made us aware of a hidden power to determine our own destinies.

What’s more, we both felt called into spiritual practice as adults and meditate regularly. Meditation expands the capacity to hold complexity, work with the energies that are present, and be open to possibilities as they arise. Gibrán experienced a series of life events that affected him like a natural disaster does. He lost everything, but losing everything cleared the way for a fuller sense of self, rooted in a depth of spiritual connection and guidance, to come forward from the rubble.

It’s striking to me how a social justice awakening and a spiritual awakening in one’s life can work hand in hand to cultivate this balance between structure and flow. Finding the dynamic relationship between love and power, between addressing reality, and uncovering truth. A facilitative leader has a framework for understanding power, and works to balance uneven power dynamics, but doesn’t stop there. A facilitative leader feels a responsibility to hold space for more expansive notions of power to arise, helping us see each other reflected in one another. Attention to both transactional and transformative power are essential. If we neglect to address the realities of power and privilege and the range of issues that result from structural oppression, then we are by default reinforcing the status quo of exclusion. But if we reduce facilitation to a negotiation of power, then we lose the opportunity to grow beyond dominant power structures.

If we are to rebuild the world, we are going to need to redefine power in the image of the larger natural order: interdependence. We are going to need to awaken from the myth of separation and recognize that our liberation is caught up in the liberation of the whole. As Lilla Watson, the indigenous artist and academic from New Zealand, so beautiful mused, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” Just as we are inextricably linked to the elements of nature, we are inextricably linked to one another. The facilitative leaders’ journey is about listening and learning from life and the natural world to become cultivators of collective evolution.

Evolutionary Crash or Evolutionary Leap

Many people describe this historical moment as an evolutionary crossroads. We are either headed towards an ecological crisis so monumental, the earth will cease to sustain human life, or we will turn towards one another to unleash the collective capacity needed to bring our systems back into balance with the natural order. As Gibrán describes it:

I look at the time we are living in as either our evolutionary crash or our evolutionary leap - the momentum is towards a crash - towards a collapse - the species might survive - but it might not.. When I facilitate, what I’m thinking about and working on is our evolutionary leap... we need to take a leap; we need to enter a new stage of being human beings together. And that leap, from my perspective, takes the sense of self away from the individual where it is so deeply rooted and towards the collective.

Healing the wounds of exclusion and separation, we grow our capacity to work together across horizontal networks of mutual support. Healing requires a willingness and a capacity to move through pain, which is challenging for most us living in a quick fix society. These days, as Gibrán notes, there’s a reliance on facilitators to serve as ‘trigger police,’ making sure no one does or says anything that might trigger the harm caused by generations of structural oppression. Facilitators do have a role to play in cultivating responsible spaces of mutual accountability, but we can’t let our role be reduced to policing. Policing is based on an assumption of “other.” It creates an “us and them” binary that limits our evolution. If we are going to heal from extractive economies, structural racism, heteronormativity, anti-indigeneity, violence, and depression, now is the time to be building networks of sacred responsibility and collective power to transform oppression, instead of getting stuck protecting ourselves from it. Separation and exclusion are fueled by fear. And fear stems from a limited understanding of who we are. Gibrán spoke to a more expansive notion of self when he described to me his purpose as a facilitator:

[Evolving the Self toward the collective] doesn’t eliminate the individual. In fact the individual, in this kind of collective is only more autonomous, more free, grows more… We are able to tap the intelligence that is emergent among us. The understanding that the space between us is alive, has a being; and that we can listen to it; and it has more intelligence than you and I.

That is my facilitation mission -- I want people to have, if only for a moment, an experience of that-- when they feel in their bodies that they are more than this tiny little fragile, post-modern, narcisstic, over-individualized self. If we can touch that state with some practice, much like when we meditate, it informs our stage development, so that we have a way of being with each other that is palpably different from what we are experiencing now.

Horizontal inclusion, Gibrán says, is a beautiful contribution of the field of facilitation. But, as facilitative leaders, we must be careful not to strive for horizontal inclusion at the expense of the vertical. We need to draw on the vertical in order to make clear decisions and achieve forward momentum. “Knowing your purpose is what allows you to harness that vertical energy.” Aho! At the intersection of horizontal and vertical energy is our capacity to leap into a sense of the collective so powerful, it makes the individual more free.