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Unlearning Separation and Learning Ubuntu

Written by MJ Ryan, SheEO Development Guide

We white Westerners have so much to learn from our Indigenous sisters and brothers around the world. Virtually every week, I receive a shock to my mind/body/spirit when I an awakened once again to the deeply unconscious mindsets from which I view life. It happened last week when we were discussing the vacation policy at SheEO. Why did we need a rule? Why wouldn’t you just rest when you need to? asked an Indigenous teammate.

Why not indeed? We make so many assumptions that lead us to recreate the same structures over and over. To create life-enhancing organizations and systems, we need fundamentally different mindsets. That’s why I’ve been captivated by two recurring social media posts on the concept of umbuntu. Ubuntu is part of a Zulu phrase umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu, which can be translated as “a person is a person through other people.”

But it’s more than an acknowledgement of our common humanity. The concept was used to create the Truth and Reconciliation Commission headed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, which was designed to bear witness to, record and hopefully heal from the terrible atrocities of apartheid in South Africa. As an act of reconciliation, for instance, perpetrators were “sentenced” to help the families of those they had harmed. While there are many criticisms of the commission and whether it brought justice to black South Africans, its intention reflects the spirit of ubuntu.

How ubuntu embodies a very different mindset than a mere “we’re in this all together” kind of generalized feel goodness is clear from the two postings reproduced here, particularly the second. What does it really mean to help someone recall their goodness when they have done something wrong? What would happen to our way of thinking and being if we truly embraced ubuntu? How would we deal with those who have harmed us? And how would we even begin to understand all the unconscious assumptions our notions of separation and competition creates and what other behaviors ubuntu calls us to?

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