Akaya Windwood facilitates transformation. She advises, trains, and consults on how change happens individually, organizationally, and societally. She is on faculty for the Just Economy Institute and is founder of the New Universal, which centers human wisdom in the wisdom of brown womxn. She was President of Rockwood Leadership Institute for many years and directs the Growing Roots Fund, which supports young womxn’s finance and philanthropic learning and leadership based in generosity and interconnectedness. Akaya is deeply committed to working for a fair and equitable global society while infusing a sense of purpose, delight, and wonder into everything we do.
She addresses the question of “What Could Possibly Go Right?” with thoughts including:
- “The call to leadership right now is to sit in this deeply uncomfortable, unsettled time and still have the heart to lead”
- The notion of individualistic leadership being a “toxic myth” and that we can’t create change alone
- That aging brings a certain responsibility, to mentor the next generations of leaders and assume that power of eldership
- The need to truly look and recognize the issues around us, as “we can’t heal what we can’t name”
- That acknowledging our individual calling and attending to our particular work will reduce overwhelm as our communities work together on issues
Hi, Vicki Robin here, host of What Could Possibly Go Right?, a project of the Post Carbon Institute, in which we interview cultural scouts, people who see far and serve the common good, asking them each our one question. In the midst of all that seems to be going wrong, what could possibly go right?
Our guest today is Akaya Windwood. She facilitates transformation. She advises, trains and consults how change happens individually, organizationally and societally. She was President of Rockwood Leadership Institute for many years, and directs the Growing Roots Fund, which supports young womxn’s finance and philanthropic learning and leadership, based in generosity and interconnectedness.
Akaya received the 2020 Vision Award from Middlebury College, was one of Conscious Company’s 30 Women Changing the World in 2018, and has been a featured speaker at the Stanford Social Innovation Institute, the Aspen Institute, and the New Zealand Philanthropy Summit Conferences. She is an Ella Award recipient from the Ella Baker Centre for Human Rights, and served on the Alameda County Human Rights Commission. Akaya is deeply committed to working for a fair and equitable global society, while infusing a sense of purpose, delight and wonder in everything we do. Now here’s Akaya Windwood.
Welcome, Akaya Windwood, to What Could Possibly Go Right? We are recording now in December of 2021, as the news of this new Omicron variant is spreading. We don’t know where it’s going to spread to or how severe it’s going to be, but to say that we are in an ambiguous, unknowable moment is an understatement.
But those who’ve been dedicated like you have, to movements for change, for kindness, for regeneration, for repair, for righting all that’s been wrong; we all stretch to see enough to provide some leadership. You’ve taught leadership skills to movement builders for decades. I’m curious in this context of inquiry of this podcast, what you see as possibly now going right, when the old tools of social emotional learning and movement building; when the old tools, the gathering and the improvisational conversations in the hall, all of that that we relied on for decades to build the relationships that would build the movements, that would build change; that’s sort of all gone online or gone underground.
I wonder if we’re learning something powerful and new. Singling that piece of the vast domain that you have paid attention to, I’m wondering about what you see now as movements for change are strengthening, but not in the old ways. What do you see now on the horizon? Are we getting stronger in this trial by COVID and climate failures? Given that setup, use it however you will, but Akaya, what do you see in this time could possibly go right?
Well, that’s a big question. Right now I’m seeing a lot of fear, a lot of discomfort and I’m watching as leaders are getting disheartened and very unsure. I think that’s actually a good thing, because the ways of leading – you spoke to that minute ago – that worked in the past, just don’t work anymore.
So here we are, at the brink of or in the middle of – Joanna Macy is telling us the truth, like many other folks – a middle of this huge transformation. I don’t know if true for you, but I know that whenever I have had a personal transformation period, it is never comfortable, ever. I can get to the other side of it and go, Wow, I’m so glad I did that, and it was hell in some ways. Right?
I think the call to leadership right now is to sit in this deeply uncomfortable, unsettled time and still have the heart to lead. I think that’s the only way forward and we can’t do it alone. So one of the old tropes that actually never was true, was that somebody would be on a mountaintop leading us somewhere, and we’d all line up behind that person, and we’d all go off into some adventure. Well, what’s true is, even for that person on the mountaintop leading, somebody was tending to the babies, and the gardens, and making sure the phones worked, and the emails got answered.
That whole notion of individualistic leadership just never was true. It’s a toxic, toxic myth. So we’re going to get through this time, I’m sure, and none of us can do it alone. So where I see that, when I look out and I go, Oh, that’s what’s going right; there’s a huge movement, let’s call it a wave, that is almost on shore. It’s a movement of like-hearted people across all things race, class, gender – all the things that identity tells us would separate us from one another – that is going to come ashore soon, and is deeply unsettling to the structures and powers that currently exist. If we can see it, Arundhati Roy said, I can hear it; it’s right around the corner.
As I’m looking at the young ones, Oh, my goodness, they’re thinking so differently from my generation of the boomer. They’re thinking differently, they’re connecting differently, they’re on the planet differently. And that’s what’s ahead of us. I’m so excited about what’s coming. Now, that said, these next, I’ll say 10 to 20 years are going to be very strange, as the old systems fall apart and new ones come in to replace them, and other things are coming into play that I may never know about. But the seeds are here.
So, I’m quite hopeful. That’s actually not true. I’m quite optimistic. And in the long run, I’m deeply optimistic. In the short run, I’m sort of optimistic. Again, assuming that what I’m seeing from the young ones will come to pass, we’ll be fine.
Well, there’s so much in what you said. One of the things I’m so curious about is what you are noticing in young people, and the ways that they are feeling the world and organizing themselves in response. And you say, it’s different from how we did it, and I am certain it’s different from how we did it. I sometimes joke that I feel like Moses, my job is just to get across the Red Sea and get the masses across the desert, all our unruly people. That’s a whole big job in itself.
But what is it that you’re seeing in younger people that is new and different and encouraging and surprising, and maybe a bit alien or whatever? What is it you’re seeing?
I’m seeing that one, the trope called Moses, just doesn’t exist anymore. So it’s going to be everybody comes, or we all come, or enough of us come that the rest of us come. So I’m repeating myself, that kind of, I’ll tell us where to go or show us what’s best; that “we” will show us what’s best.
I watched as they organized on TikTok, a response to somebody making this ridiculous thing happen last year, trying to happen a couple years ago. All of a sudden, this huge movement happened in within days, that none of us could have predicted. And I find myself going, Oh my gosh, what is that? That’s just brilliant. So their capacity to connect, quickly throw out ideas and move on it, that’s remarkable. I don’t know what they’re thinking about, but I am deeply grateful that they are thinking about it.
Right. Is the word hope? Is it optimism? Is it expectancy? Is it, I will just stay aligned with and beside and supportive of the young people as they define what they see?
I think that’s crucial. We led in a particular time and context, and that particular time and context is complete. So the tools that I learned about leadership just aren’t working anymore, or aren’t working in the way that’s helpful. So I’ve been talking to some young folks. And when I say young folks, that’s anybody under 50 these days, right? It’s a time for my generation to just go shuffle off our mortal coil. And they’re saying, No. Actually, here’s what we need. We want you here, we want you with us, but we want you beside us and supporting, not just disappearing.
I grew up in a time where getting older was, in the larger context, a thing one avoided at all, if you could. As an African American getting older, and particularly as a woman, you gain power. As a US American, in a white dominant culture, women lose power as we age. So I’m sitting in two places with it, where in my communities, where people understand that along with ageing comes a certain responsibility, to tend to what’s coming next in a particular way, to get out of the way of what’s coming, and yet support what’s coming. That’s been great.
So that’s kind of where I’m leaning into my current leadership, which is about supporting the leaders that are coming behind me, and that’s riding off my optimism. And I want to be careful to not import my optimism from the next generations, because it’s not their job to create a context in which I get to be optimistic.
That said, they are imagining things that we can’t, and there’s language that I don’t understand. But I trust in part because I’m watching these deeply committed young people – I sound like Mr. Rogers here – these deeply committed people, people who are connected to each other, fussing with each other. Humans fuss, I don’t think that’ll ever change, but they aren’t giving up on each other.
That’s something that’s really needed right now. They are not giving up on each other, but they’re also understanding that we have a common destiny, independent of any kind of identity or politics. We’re part of this planet, and part of all life. So I can perhaps get stuck in my notion of who I am in other things, but it isn’t much when I think about who we are as humans, as part of the whole natural world.
I see that shift to that, that sense of shared destiny. There’s nothing like a climate crisis to make you realize that you ever shared destiny with people and things and beings you never thought of as anything other than sort of walk-on characters in your movie.
I think that awareness went from like denial to, “Oh, we’ll get ahead of this and we’re going to tell you how to do it.” It’s been very fast, this awakening to a general social awakening to that we have a crisis. It’s almost like it’s been concurrent with the pandemic, this awareness that we have a climate crisis.
I think at a general level, yeah, that’s true. There’s been people talking about it for a long time. I remember celebrating the very first Earth Day, and that was back in the 70s. And while we weren’t talking about climate then so much, it was still an awareness of Oh wait, there’s something we need to attend to here. Indigenous people have been there all along. So, there was a way that again, the dominant culture began to catch on to what Indigenous folks have known for a long time, which is our interdependence. That’s 40 years ago.
Maybe in the long scale of societies changing, civilizations rising and falling, 40 years is a blink of an eye. I think back then, with my Moses complex or whatever it was, I have this feeling of, Okay, I get it, fine. We’re gonna handle this. I thought that through my work, we were going to really make massive change by the year 2000.
I was on board. The 1990s was the decade when all the UN conferences happened on population and development and women. Such a heady time, such a time of consciousness rising and feeling potency, that we could get out ahead of the crisis that we were making for ourselves. I took on sustainable development like a religion. It was like, that’s my value set, that I’m going to live today such that future generations have everything they need to create the lives that they love in that time. I think I went through a lot of grief about, Oh, we failed. But as you say, humans fuss. They don’t march lockstep toward anything.
Is there a different quality to the awareness now around the unraveling, whatever words you want to put on it. Is it a broader recognition? Is it a more sober recognition? How are people responding now, do you see in your networks, to the dawning that this is serious and probably unstoppable? Are we going to adapt to it, we’re going to make changes we go? What’s the different quality to how people are responding to the 70s, 80s and 90s where we did?
I don’t think we failed at all. I think this is part of the way it happens. The things that are atrocious now aren’t new. They aren’t new. When you think about what was happening in the boarding schools for Indigenous kids, that we’re now understanding and beginning to look at the horror of that. That was true before we started looking at the horror.
What’s different now is we were looking at the horror. I think the age of secrets is over. What we have been allowing to be swept under the rug, to not be exposed, we’re looking at it all. And we can’t heal what we can’t name. Right? So the act of seeing it, naming it, and then trying to think about what’s restorative here? What needs to just be let go of completely? What can be recycled? That’s crucial. It has to happen.
In many ways – this sounds terrible, I guess – but I’m grateful for COVID. I call her Corona. Because she’s allowing us to sit still long enough to look at some things we, in our hurried, crazed, early world where we just don’t have the time to look at; now we do. We’re looking at inequities in health care, that’s a global thing, but that’s always been so, or has been so in our current context of big systems. That we are talking about really hard things, is essential. They’re not going to go away just because we put our fingers in our ears and hope for the best.
Now, that said, I do think that again, these next 50 years are going to be very tricky, because if I look at that we’re animals, humans are. We’re mammals, and animals under threat don’t do well. We don’t make the best decisions in terms of our collective well-being. It kind of comes down to, Am I food or are you food, right? Our reptilian brains are really alive right now. But our reptilian brains are not the only brains we have access to. I think there are enough of us now who are saying, Yeah, I’m scared. I’m uncertain. I’m all of that. And I also can reach toward folks, instead of lash out. That’s what I’m counting on.
There’s so much and what you just said. Two things I just want to mention. One is I wrote down the word sobriety, because I think what you said about Corona being a force that just sat us down; it’s been an intervention, if you will. It’s just been a major intervention in our headlong, headstrong, “We are right and we are certain and there is no alternative”; you know, TINA, the old Margaret Thatcher thing. It’s just sit down and think about what you’ve been doing. Just sit in that corner.
And that’s the term; it’s religious, but the term apocalypse is the great unveiling. It’s apocalyptic, not as in terrible. It’s apocalyptic in, finally we get to see the consequences of our actions, which is you are never free until you actually can confront the consequences of your actions and make a legitimate choice. So it’s such a potent time for that.
What I’m hearing you say, is the learning from that is inbred in the severity of what we’re going through. It’s not optional learning, that you take a weekend and you go to a workshop, and then you go, I just had this amazing insight. Let me tell you about them, except I can’t remember what they are. This is like, you’re gonna sit there. And it’s almost like this new variant is like, No, you’re gonna still sit there.
We need to sit there. I’m remembering the first months of the pandemic. So this would have been March, April, May, June 2020. I literally sat in my garden and went nowhere. I was somebody who was on a plane every other month, at the very least. I literally sat still, and I started to notice, Wow, what is that bird? And because there were no planes in the sky at that time, there was a quiet on the planet that I actually could hear the bees. I remember that time, with some deep fondness now, because we were quiet enough that some of the animals returned to the wild spaces.
Then we decided that, Okay, we’ll just get a bunch of vaccines. I’m not disrespecting any of that. But this notion that we’re just gonna go back to normal? And as kind of like a panacea, we’re just going to get better again? And it’s not. We are going to profoundly change. I think all of us on some molecular level know that. We don’t know what we’re changing into, but we know that we’re changing. So be able to sit with some equanimity, while we’re undergoing this massive shift, I think that’s one of the biggest tasks of leaders right now.
It’s a sort of dynamic tension between equanimity, the kind of leadership where you become trustworthy to others, because you are not acting out of your egoic needs. You become trustworthy, and at the same time, this drumbeat of, We’ve got to stay at 1.5. And we’re not doing it. I think it’s almost like we’ve just acknowledged that, all the king’s horses and all the king’s men are not going to put Humpty Dumpty of climate back together again. This is not happening.
It’s almost like this is a potent moment, because we recognize the people who just occupied the seats that had the name tag “grownup”; they’re just not occupying them. It’s almost like we’re being asked collectively to be grownups in the situation, whatever situation we’re in, to be the he or she or we who observe, notice, choose, evaluate, move.
It’s a very different time. It is actually a time of collective leadership, not because somebody has a good idea, but because we are all embedded in multiple systems, and our activity in those systems impacts them. We used to talk about leaderful networks and leaderful this and leaderful that. I think it’s that time.
Yeah, I found myself as you were saying all that, getting a little overwhelmed. I was, Okay, so what’s happening here? I think that by thinking that I’m supposed to attend to every single system in which I am embedded, I might as well give up now.
So one of the things I’ve been talking about lately, is the importance of doing the work that is yours to do, and only doing that. So for me, to say what is my particular work, and let me only do that, means that I then don’t have to be concerned about your particular work. I don’t need to be monitoring you. I don’t need to be wondering if you’re taking care of your business. You can trust that I’m doing my particular work.
I believe that every human is here for a particular reason. So if I think, Oh my gosh, I have to change the financial systems, and all the rest of the systems, and then there’s racism, and oh my God, people are dying in the street, and then there’s hunger, and all of that… I can’t, I’m immobilized. But if I’m clear that, I’m here to insist upon a particular set of values that are about all of us and collective well-being and attending to all life, which is why I’m here, then I can quiet my voices of, Oh you’re supposed to be attending to all of it – which I think is an artefact of white supremacy, patriarchy – and let me go about my business.
So if I’m doing my business and you’re doing yours, and we know that we’re involved in a community, a network of humans taking care of what they’re really here to bring, then I can relax and get about mine. Again, understanding that it’s intricately and essentially connected to all of it. I’m not talking about an individualistic “my business” here.
No, no, I understand. It’s a trust. I think it’s funny in this conversation, I’m really hearing so much of my own embedded in white supremacy, embedded in boomer mentality. I just feel how embedded I am in the narratives that have occupied me. How could I not be? Of course. And as you said in the beginning, that as white women develop white hair, we become invisible; and as women of color develop white hair, they become matriarchs. They become the sort of recognized moral anchor in a community.
I’m not comfortable speaking about all women of color. I am comfortable speaking as an African American woman, that that has been my experience. I can speak to, and have, to a younger one who’s needs some attention in terms of that behavior. I can speak a word and get paid deep attention.
I don’t have the experience of being a white woman in which I’m becoming invisible. I am finding that as I’m aging, as my hair gets whiter and whiter, I become much more visible. It’s an interesting visibility. It’s asexualized. There’s no, “I’m aware of you because you are a particular kind of attractiveness”. It’s more, “I’m aware of you because you’re carrying a different kind of power”.
Bingo. Yeah, that is an opportunity…
And a responsibility.
Yeah, totally. To assume the power that is yours to assume, the responsibility that is yours. This is very much where I am right now in my own evolution. So I appreciate that. This is not a coaching call for Vicki, but this is very interesting inquiry into how young people are moving, as your observation of the young people you’re connected with, and how they’re working as a “we” and they’re working collectively, and they’re waking up, and they’re being sobered by things. And also how older people – like with your work with Bill McKibben and Third Act – how older people are stepping into a different kind of responsibility and power in relation to the apocalyptic moment we’re in, this time of incredible change.
I want to make a small adjustment to that. We don’t get to assume the power, that we’re actually given it. It’s given to us by those who are watching and who are younger. And that’s very different than me saying, Oh, now I’m an elder and I’m going to assume this power. It doesn’t happen. I didn’t begin to even call myself an elder until the people who around me began to think of me in that way. So it’s a power that is offered. I couldn’t have come in and assumed that power.
Yeah, I’ve noticed that as well, that you’re only an elder to the degree that you are being recognized by somebody younger, as an elder, as a resource. They draw on you. It’s like you become a resource.
That’s right. And it’s wonderful. It is so much fun. Oh, my gosh, I have so much more freedom to not know things, and to just say, Here’s my wisdom, you’re welcome to it; and understand that it is limited, and given from my heart. And we get to laugh, and this is a deeply satisfying time of life right now for me.
I could go on and on and on with this conversation. I feel a certain responsibility to being a podcast host and to your time to wind it up. But I’ll just say, it takes so much faith really, to live in this time together. Not faith that it’s going to turn out, or a particular outcome, or that we’re going to solve it. It’s something different. It’s sort of like, it’s a very ground level faith, just to be alive in community.
We’ve been here before, we’ll be here again, humans. One of the phrases I’m using now, as my sort of grounded being act of faith is: Life goes on. Civilizations rise and fall. Conflicts come and conflicts go. And the worst thing in the world – “he didn’t call you for the prom” or whatever the worst thing in the world is – that comes and goes.
The cataclysmic event is not the cataclysmic event. It’s just a moment in time. We live through it. And it’s the living through it, in community…. History is written about the important people and the battles. But I think there’s this other thing, of life goes on, that we are part of. I think that’s a very strong resource for us at this point.
I think that’s right. I mean, my beloved Rajasvini Bhansali said, it’s all a leap of faith. I think that’s true all the time. I do believe that humans survive. We survived in much fewer numbers, as is reasonable. We’re not at the end. All species have a life. We’re not at the end of human life. But we’re at the end of a particular kind of human life as we’ve known it. There will be enough of us who will take the leap of faith that will get us to our next iteration of human consciousness. I’m very sure about that. There will be those who won’t come, and that’s fine too. It’s all a matter of faith.
Okay, I’m gonna let that be a wrap, because it’s so beautiful. Thank you so much, Akaya. I really appreciate this.