Leaders from Rumi to Grace Lee Boggs to Whitney Houston have all reminded us that we can’t achieve love, liberation, or transformation externally without first loving, liberating, and transforming ourselves. We have to start by looking in the mirror, loving ourselves, and being the change we wish to see in the world.
But when we lead for equity, it’s all too easy to get lost in a sea of problems to solve, people to shift, systems to dismantle. Our organizations can become overwhelmed by a sense of urgency that nudges us toward technical external fixes, as opposed to leaning into the adaptive challenges internally and externally. It’s easy, in other words, to lose sight of the fact that equity work starts within, not without.
We are forced in the true pursuit of liberation to drop all presumptions of objectivity and neutrality. Each of us operates with a lens through which we understand ourselves, engage in our organizations, and interpret the world around us. We can’t be true champions for equity without interrogating our own experiences, values, and perspectives, and our own role in our society’s systems of oppression.
With systems working by the day to sort us, divide us and pit us against each other, the foundation for liberation is connection. But building true connection isn’t as simple as just recognizing our divisions. One way I have found to start the process of genuine connection – to intentionally build a foundation for liberation – is through a team-building activity called “life maps.”
On the surface, life maps are simple. But, when well facilitated, they can create a container that allows for authentic relationship-building and personal growth. When I lead the activity, I invite participants to reflect on their journey to this point, to consider meaningful events before their birth. I encourage them to consider childhood, education, extracurricular activities and interests, travel, career decisions, significant events and relationships, and other important milestones that have shaped who they are, how they view the world, and the values they bring to their current work.
Whether they’re completed in advance to provide time for more creativity or done in the room to kick off the activity, each person creates a visual, digital, or physical representation of their life. Often it does look like a sort of roadmap or treasure map. Others resemble game boards, grids and lists, or timelines. I’ve seen mazes, code, complex shapes and ecosystems so wildly imaginative I can’t possibly describe them here.
Once the maps are complete, I ask a series of deeper reflection questions, in order to surface more about aspects of our identities and the unconscious values, biases, and expectations we bring into our work. After establishing group norms and a brave space, each person shares their map with a partner, a small group, or, if the group is small enough or enough time is allotted, the whole group. The purpose of the sharing is as much for the speaker as the listener. I firmly believe that everyone has the ability to solve their own problems by listening to their own inner wisdom. Life maps offer a moment of pause to listen to that wisdom – to unpack our journeys and our lessons in a meaningful way, alongside the people with whom we are choosing to change the world.
Through this simple framework, with intentional facilitation, personal and collective transformation is possible.
I’ve completed at least 10 life maps at this point, and I have found it to be a surprisingly powerful, transformative tool. Each time I do so, I learn more about myself. I reconnect with my “why” and gain an infusion of urgency and refined perspective. I feel more connected to my partners in the room, more committed to their liberation and our collective success.
I have been brought to tears while looking at the life maps of 6th graders, which included their vision for their lives after K-12 schooling. I have seen life maps lead to the building of powerful bridges among fractured teams, help start the process of hard personal work and evolution, and lead to meaningful job and career changes.
“Sure,” I imagine you’re thinking. “This sounds like a fun activity, but isn’t it a stretch to call it the foundation of liberation?”
I don’t think so – not when you consider the dynamics of oppression and liberation. Oppression (think all of the ‘isms) operates from the outside in. Negative, violent, paternalistic ideologies and narratives infect our systems, our institutions, and our organizations. They influence how we see and interact with others. Perhaps most insidiously, they shape how we see ourselves.
Liberation, on the other hand, operates in the opposite direction. We must start by looking inward – operating from the inside out. By exploring and unpacking the parts of ourselves that have been impacted, we can better understand how our internalized oppression, superiority, biases, and blindspots are contributing to oppression or perpetuating the status quo. We can also explore our strengths, better understanding which superpowers we can deploy for justice. Once we have done this critical personal work – in other words, once we have begun liberating ourselves – we are able to evolve how we engage folks around us. As leaders, our personal work is never done.
Our stories matter and we have a responsibility to share them. Our biases, values, assumptions, expectations, and talents have consequences – not just for us, but for the young people, families, and communities with whom we work. For our own families, our own communities, our country and our world. Once we commit to doing this critical personal and interpersonal work on an ongoing basis, we are able to transform our organizations, institutions, systems, and, eventually, prevailing oppressive ideologies in order to advance a different narrative, based on our collective liberation.
It’s bigger than the maps themselves, and it’s bigger than a conversation in a conference room or at a retreat. This is about making space to share our stories, to more deeply understand ourselves and to build bridges by better understanding others. To align in our shared humanity to take on the world’s biggest problems with more connection, love, and courage. This is about facing the hard truths about ourselves and our journeys while taking the time to celebrate the life we have led and the impact we have had. This is about gaining more clarity about where we want and need to move, and why.
When we know ourselves and each other – our journeys, our values, our successes, our failures, our traumas, our beauty – we are fully capable of doing real work together. Not work that leads to incremental change, not work that centers what is comfortable, not work that perpetuates the status quo. When our movements are led by people in deep community, with great clarity and conviction, they lead to transformational change. We’re only capable of facing our world’s most pressing issues through a stance of love and connection and healing. When led in a liberatory way, this is the foundation that life maps can help us create.