The remainder of the project and seeds for the future. A personal testimony about Erasmus+Project group process

Article written by Luiza Ștefan, with testimonials from Maria Stoica, Robyn Marie Bors Veraart and Ian Peatey, within the Erasmus+ Project “Building bridges of dialogue”

I. The context

23rd of March 2020 – on this day several members of the Romanian Erasmus+ project’s team (including me) were supposed to be in Denmark, together with other teams from Europe (Austria, Germany, UK, Poland). Two months later I am starting to write this article, with the intention to keep the memory of a rich group experience and of a unique time spent in homes in isolation, between that day of March and this day of May. The title of this article that came spontaneously was `A bit of Wales, Brazil and Denmark in Romania during the pandemic spring (March-May 2020)`. This title captures what we tried to put together in our minds, souls and actions – the seeds kept from Wales, the essence of Dominic Barter’s work in Brazil and the missing part that was not possible anymore from Denmark. All of these planted in the potential soil of our intentions and encounters, of our dreams and work. Eventually, I kept the second title that seemed more aligned to the ending of this article, while the first one fits better with the beginning of my writing process…

The goal of the cancelled training in Denmark was to focus on building resilient communities based on principles of dialogue and restorative approaches to conflict. The days in Denmark were to be seen as a second mobility, after the first one that took place in January in Wales (UK) where another part of the team was involved.

Because the training in Denmark was cancelled as a result of the pandemic context, the team of the project decided to meet online each morning, during the same whole week when people would have been in Denmark. This initiative was taken in the bigger international team as well, and every day, morning and evening, the organisers from the countries involved in the project were together from different places in Europe holding online the common space of meetings.

The situation for the Romanian team was as follows: the first common thought was probably „we will meet and clarify together this topic of the restorative systems.”  There were expectations for persons that attended the first training in Wales, to share with the rest of the team their knowledge about the topic. The intention was intended to compensate the missing in-person encounters with these 5 regular online meetings and to continue our preparation for the dissemination phase of the project. But this first goal became immediately irrelevant because the UNKNOWN of the project continuation as well as the UNKNOWN of our future social life.

What developed after those 5 daily meetings that eventually became weekly meetings (and now, at the time of this writing, we have already had 14 meetings) was far more than what I expected and is very precious from my point of view. I will try to describe it below in order to keep the memory and to offer my reflections about the group.

II. The meetings

This group process of the Romanian team (8 persons) started with the phase of being together in a period of unexpected stress and unusual change in our individual and social lives. After, it went through a second phase of growing discomfort and frustration, unease and conflict and followed in the third phase (at the moment of the writing) of restorative practice.

1. The first phase could be called `building together the safety network`

At the beginning of the isolation and the lockdown, we experienced a mix of feelings due to the situation. Being together that week of March (23-27), every morning, conducted naturally to deepen our relationships in the group and to grow and sustain emotional connections with each other. We created a time and a place, like a ritual, where the mourning of losses was possible, the feelings were welcomed and the needs acknowledged. For me, that deep human connection that remained possible despite the online environment was the most hopeful discovery in this first phase of our group. I remember about me in that first week being enthusiastic, as I would have risen above the physical and emotional limitations imposed by the pandemic lockdown, a sort of inner freedom that gave me a new meaning in my isolation.

Beside this emotional process of sharing, expressing and empathic listening that helped the team to become a safety network, there was a search for ideas related to the big topic of Dominic Barter’s theoretical and practical learnings gained in Wales, in the first mobility of the Erasmus+ project. The challenge we faced was to relate the theme of resilient communities and restorative practices from Dominic Barter to what was happening in the society because of the Covid-19 pandemic and to give it a place in the context of our Erasmus+ project. We tried to find a meaning and a direction of the project’s continuation, missing the piece from Denmark and being in different social conditions for un uncertain time.

There are other voices of the team’s members that found words and metaphors for their experience during that first phase:

`During the first real week of Coronavirus lockdown we spent many extra hours together to fill in for the time that we would have been together in Denmark.  These hours, spent together as a project team now on Zoom, was an experience of resilience.  Meaning, that I had more resources to use as a result of our togetherness; I really felt the support of “us, instead of facing what was happening alone.  For me, an image came which I have used many times to describe what it was like for me that week when I spent 2 hours in the morning (1.5 with our Romanian team and .5 with the larger European partners group) and 1.5 hours in the evening (with the larger European partners group) both supporting and being supported by this Erasmus project: it was like being thrown into a river moving quickly through a section of “white-water rapids.”  If I had been alone, I would have needed to navigate much more skillfully as I would have had my own little “inner tube” to float on…. With everyone together, morning and evening in my case, I felt like I was floating in a very large raft that had a lot of “padding” or “buffers” so that when we hit a rock, we would just bounce off….   And what has remained with me is a very sweet closeness with those who joined these meetings, that we have really had an experience together, though we were physically distant`(Robyn)  

`Meeting virtually is clearly not the same as in person. I miss the physical warmth and touch. I miss the subtle clues of body language and energy that I give and receive that enriches connection. I miss the ease of creating visual representations of our discussions on flip-charts or on paper. I miss the sharing of space, of air, of tea, of collective experience. Yet we can’t always choose the perfect conditions and so we adapt and make the best of what is possible. So Zoom was the next best thing and over the course of daily meetings we built a sense of togetherness and progress. 

Highlights for me were the multiple layers of our interaction. 

The personal where I shared how this period is for me and noticing the daily changes. Having people listen and trusting their nonjudgmental attention allows me to look at myself in ways I don’t usually do. Vulnerable and deep. 

The interpersonal where we got to know each other even better and were able to connect with each unique way of relating to these intense times. Sometimes mourning what we lost, sometimes celebrating together what is emerging. 

The community where I experienced real togetherness simply by all of us showing up. Commitment and community. And a shared purpose that I resonate with that binds us together. A desire to make a difference. To bring new awareness and collaborative ways of being together. One thing I especially noted was that at the start of our meetings we chose a leader for the meeting and after a couple of days we decided we did not need this role as we could all lead and we could all follow. 

The wider community where we discussed and looked at what was needed during this time and what might be needed when things start to return to some normality. No idea what that new normality might look like but we have a strong Erasmus team ready to step up where we can and jump into what might be needed` (Ian)

`Fortunately, someone in our group proposed we meet daily on zoom for a week long to discuss how do we want to proceed with our Erasmus project. This daily call proved to be like a life buoy in the middle of the storm. It met some very important needs like accompaniment, understanding and support. I also learnt many things about myself that I would like to take with me in whatever I set myself to do. What was and still is the most difficult part to learn is that sometimes the best action is non-action, that sometimes you need to just stay with your own emotions, sensations and perceptions and that this might be harder than any external action.

We started the daily calls with the intention of finding ways to apply and share the knowledge and experience accumulated in Wales. My mind already had a few plans how to do this and I wanted action. Some of them were heroic and idealistic. None of them proved appropriate.

From our first daily call we realized that before doing anything together we needed to connect with each other, to form a network of safety and trust and to also make sure that our inner resources are prepared and re-filled before offering them to the outside world.

While in Wales we learnt from Dominic Barter how important support systems are, but it was only now that I really grasped the whole importance and how much it improves my lifestyle, my inner power, my trust in life…basically, everything that forms a sound foundation on which I can build anything I want. A support system is formed by a set of concrete agreements between people of that group or community designed to be easily reachable and as clear and concrete as possible (an example of an agreement can be: when I need urgent empathy I call a specific person and I have 10 minutes in which to just express myself, without any response from the other person). That person is aware of these conditions already agreed and knows what to expect and what is needed from him/her.

In the end, we did practice what we were taught, but in a different way than I was expecting. The support system came like a natural solution for our needs to stay connected with each other, to have an inner balance, to contribute from a space of abundance rather than scarcity. The regular meetings have woven a very strong safety net that forms the foundation of future actions, which is also aligned with Dominic Barter’s teachings. (Maria)

I drew several conclusions of those daily meetings:

  • When things don’t go as planned, we need flexibility to adapt and to adjust.  We need to take a moment together to pause and to assess what is needed, what might be most helpful.
  • Flexibility, creativity and purpose speak to our resilience at individual and collective levels.
  • In human interactions, sometimes the process is more important than the content of the meetings and taking care of the process brings more content in a surprisingly way, sometimes a richer content comes out from permitting the process to unfold.

2. The second phase could be called `struggling together in growing discomfort and frustration`. It started after our meetings became weekly. We searched more to understand where we are with the project itself and how we will continue. After the shock wave passed and we remained safe, we changed the focus from being together in working together with the same goal in mind: our Erasmus+ project. We brought our attention to topics like shared responsibility, dealing with power and with the inner and outer conflicts, continuation of the project after the deadline, as an alternative given by European Commission, efficiency, transparency, vulnerability, our willingness and our capacity as well as our responsibility toward own families. One of the topics was sensitive and we experienced the result of a lack of shared reality, the lack of time or attention and the difficulties arising from our differences. Some of the members carried old feelings and unmet needs in this new and unclear context of the continuation of the project, others experienced emotional discomfort and even hurt in the ongoing process. This is why the necessity of making new steps for the restoration in the team appeared as a new phase and also a meaningful opportunity to live the theory of Dominic Barter.

3. The third phase – beginning of the restorative practice in the group and experiencing how to move from interpersonal conflict to dialogue and new decisions. Ian, who attended the Wales training with Dominic, expressed in an email his reflections and outlined the necessary steps. With his lines and all the energy behind them, we are again in our central effort: how to make sense of the experiential learning with Dominic in the Wales’ training and how to bring to a meaningful life in our present and future community the experience of this Erasmus+ project. He wrote:

`Communities founded on dialogue and restoration

As I see it right now, resilient communities are those that learn to handle conflict and make decisions based on dialogue. When a ‘mistake’ is made it is handled restoratively rather than punitively. This means there are dialogue practices (circle meetings?) plus a restorative system when needed. 

A ‘mistake’ is when one or more of the community does something (or fails to) that directly harms others in the community – and indirectly impacts everyone else because all members share risk and prosperity. 

Dominic talked about 5 things that need to be addressed in a sustainable community based on these principles: 

  1. Power – where does power lay within our community and how to make sure all stakeholders are included?
  2. Time and Space – where and when is our dedicated time and space for dialogue?
  3. Support – is our community supported internally and externally?
  4. Information – is there enough information about our community and how to access its processes? 
  5. Access – is it clear to each of us how to access our restorative systems?

Struggle is a crucial part of the formation of a community or a team. Without it we cannot build the kind of trust that leads to great things. I really believe this. And so I am truly grateful there has been heartfelt sharing and suffering. I don’t enjoy that any individual suffers – my celebration is because I see it as pointing to a necessary birthing pain. And so we are on the threshold of an important moment in our journey together. 

None of us has experience of a restorative circle. Dominic was very insistent that each community designs its own system and that making a template to apply is against what he believes in.

For us, we have developed this template for ourselves:

Phase 1 – Hearing each other (and holding with empathy) – what happened

1.  those directly impacted by what happened

2.  those causing what happened

3.  those indirectly impacted by what happened

Phase 2 – Acknowledging the impact – especially by those causing what happened

Phase 3 – Restoration – what needs to happen to repair the relationships and to restore any damage done. (Ian) 

Maria, who was in Wales too, acknowledged Ian’s understanding of the restorative process: `we’re all in this together and try to find ways to make things work. I recognize in them the sharing of Dominic and I am glad that you managed to put a structure around what we’ve learned in Wales, which is something I’ve been struggling with`. (Maria)

Conclusions of personal learning from this period

  1. The conflict, if permitted and accepted in a group, is a source of growing of the group and of the individuals too. It is normal to have conflicts because of our diverse experiences and perspectives and dealing with them in an open and trustful way brings us toward reconnection.
  2. The best way to understand deeply a theoretical concept is to have the opportunity to experience it.  In real life that means including feelings, not only ideas and thoughts. What we lived in our meetings and between was not only the ideas related to resilience but also many important concepts from NVC.
  3. It seems likely that in the common life of a community/group/team there are normal cycles of unity, differentiation and integration, all of them being useful for the evolution.
  4. Skilful Leadership of can bring helpful energies back into a project.
  5. One of the seeds of our work for the project is the Empathy initiative that was created by 4 people of the team, together with another 4 members from the wider NVC community.
  6. Another seed is this article and hopefully other articles about Dominic Barter’s work or about related topics.

There are seeds that grow further in strong and long lasting plants, there are seeds that last only for some time and nurture shortly a little part of the organism. All are necessary in different stages, for different organisms. I was certainly nourished by our meetings and group process and I am curious to see what it will happen in the future, aware that every seed also needs air, light and warm, water and earth. Thank you all!