Decolonial: From Battle to Transformative Potential
By: Shane Lapp | July 31st, 2023 (~7 min read)
Seven years ago, I found myself embarking on a journey through graduate studies in an activist decolonial academia program. Since then, decolonial concepts have gained widespread attention, but along with this has come increased division and polarization. Whether you are an advocate for decolonial principles, seeking to understand more about them, or actively opposing them, I can relate.
While decoloniality has shed light on systems of power and historical injustices, it currently lacks transformative pathways toward an equitable and thriving future. That said, there are ways to integrate the best of our current systems, with decolonial concepts, and transformative approaches.
First, let me back up.
Saying a hearty yes to adventure
In 2016, I found myself at a crossroads in my life. Despite a successful career in renewable energy and entrepreneurship, I felt unfulfilled and frankly, I was riddled with anxiety. At the time I was working with a gifted Eco-Psychotherapist, essentially a soul guide, and she encouraged me to tune into my dreams, some of which had recurring themes of school, circles, and community leadership.
I was in awe at her perceptive and intuitive capacities, and she shared that her training was from a school in California. Of course I googled it, and that’s when I found a resonant program – Community Eco-Psychology. Even though the cost of graduate school in the US seemed prohibitive as a Canadian, she encouraged me to apply, saying if it was meant to be, the resources would align. And sure enough, from a surprise source funding for school arrived.
I soon found myself in class on a beautiful campus in Santa Barbara, where I first encountered the term ‘decolonial’ and other academic jargon. The experience was deeply unsettling, especially as a male professional of European descent. I listened to stories of racial discrimination, read about historical injustices, and witnessed waves of collective anger during social uprisings. This exposure awakened me to the underlying colonial political, economic, and social systems perpetuating societal inequities.
Business as fractals of the larger society
Adding to the challenge of grad school, I simultaneously co-founded a software company. The startup was seen by many of my professors and classmates as ‘capitalistic,’ a term demonized from a decolonial perspective. I was surprised by this, while also relating to their concern that large corporations continue to extract wealth from community and their machine-like organizational structures repress deeper aspects of soul.
From my perspective, a corporation can be viewed as a mirror, a smaller fractal of our larger society. Thus by transforming it, we could demonstrate the possibility of cultivating regenerative, soul-centric cultures on a broader scale. Unfortunately, this was dismissed as a colonialist, and the soul-centric approaches I proposed were apparently co-opting ecological technology for capitalistic gains. I began to doubt myself.
These challenges, combined with business mentorship that didn’t have the capacity to integrate the tension between my business partner and me, contributed to us eventually parting ways. In reflection, that experience was incredibly valuable to see the cost of not implementing soul-centric approaches, and it provided an opportunity to rebuild a trusting friendship with my old business partner.
The Paradox of Fighting
Now with time to focus on my studies, the decolonial intensity increased and my perspectives were not only challenged, they were labeled as ‘colonizing’ and ‘oppressive.’ Rather than moving beyond shaming of historical injustices and racial inequities, the program doubled down on its anti-racist framework, reinforcing labels of white privilege, white supremacy, oppressor/oppressed, and intersectionality.
Essentially the Western way of life, and the history that got us here, was labeled as “bad” and was to be rejected. An African American professor went as far as calling me a racist simply because of my skin colour and argued that people of colour couldn’t be racist because they were below white people in the social hierarchy.
By the third year, an atmosphere of ‘you’re with us or you’re against us’ pervaded the decolonial program with the explicit aim of destroying Capitalism, Colonialism, and Patriarchy. Race was centered in each class, and the program’s solution to the larger societal challenges was generally focused on indigenous land ownership and the concept of ‘land back’ – even if forcefully taken.
I attempted to offer suggestions for collectively transforming these systems, but encountered unexpected resistance. I was often told that as a white male I was the problem, and that people of colour would lead the arising new world. This seemed strange, and as one of my classmates reflected on the confrontational nature of the program, he eloquently encapsulated it: “you become what you fight against.”
Transformative Soul-Centric Approaches
My final presentation in the spring of 2019 proposed approaches for transforming businesses (both non-profit and for-profit) into soul-centric organizations that foster profound relational and psychological development. Additionally, the presentation proposed preliminary concepts for how we might use the corporation as a vehicle for rebuilding collective economic and political power, both foundational elements for restoring harmony with each other and our planet.
The two core soul-centric approaches for organizational transformation I proposed were Circle Leadership and Self-Governance. Circle Leadership develops capacities for deep listening, authentic sharing, and trust-building, which is often done in small circles to ensure everyone is seen and heard. In contrast, Self-Governance moves circles into tried-and-tested scalable organizational practices that distribute decision-making authority with evidence-based approaches that increase innovation.
Not surprisingly, two of the core faculty members disapproved, questioning my understanding of the program’s central tenet – that business and money were inherently “bad.” While I could empathize with their decolonial standpoint, it was disheartening that they showed no interest in applications for my local community.
Lost in the darkness
As the three years of decolonial education came to a close, I found myself feeling confused. Even as opportunities emerged to contribute my skills to local community resilience initiatives, I struggled to articulate my underdeveloped ideas effectively. Consequently, these opportunities gradually slipped away.
This was a dark phase for me, where I was plagued by depression and recurring dreams of death, lost opportunity, and the potential of being kicked out of community. Deep seated anxiety arose, and I was visited by dark thoughts.
Thankfully, I got a much-needed metaphorical wake-up slap from a local community leader – a deeply spiritual man who also happened to be black – and he reminded me that beyond race, we are all souls, and that my voice and ideas were important to express. Concurrently, my soul guide, recognizing the extent to which my education had veered from its transformative Eco-Psychological roots, stepped in to guide me back on track.
Rekindling the Fire
Reinvigorated by this guidance, my PhD research pivoted to focus on economic transformation within holistic community frameworks. Although this seemed a daunting task, perhaps even impossible, a deep fire was rekindled within me.
Moving beyond mere rhetoric of a broken system, my research focused on groups who were actively developing transformative approaches to community well-being. This enabled me to simultaneously integrate decolonial perspectives, with my Eco-Psychology soul training and business knowledge, that had been suppressed during my education.
This fusion led to a partnership with the Okanagan coLab, a local entrepreneurial center, for a grassroots community Design Lab with the simple aim of co-creating a scalable framework for community well-being. So we sent out invites and gathered a diverse group of community visionaries, and over the course of a catalyzing six-week journey, we developed the seeds of a holistic community framework – the Okanagan Circular Society (OCS) Community Enterprise.
Research & Development
Recognizing the limits imposed by my decolonial education, I decided to step away from my PhD to focus on further R&D on economic transformation, with a focus on the OCS Community Enterprise. I expanded my scope to the national and global levels, where I engaged with social innovation programs and met with key leaders of philanthropic, social innovation, and impact investing organizations.
Throughout this journey, I connected with people from various political spectrums who shared passion for positive social change. However, challenges like fragmentation, silos, groupthink, and a lack of holistic systems understanding hindered collective progress.
Now having advanced the OCS Community Enterprise to its furthest extent locally, nationally, and globally without external funding, I feel a tremendous sense of personal accomplishment. This has been a collective journey and I have deep gratitude for the visionary lawyers, accountants, business experts, academics, cultural architects, musicians, and passionate individuals who contributed to its refinement (see HERE for more information).
“Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.” ~ Goethe
A few months back, I had an unexpected conversation with a former professor of mine, an Indigenous woman steeped in decolonial activism. During the call, I voiced my concerns about the division created by the activist decolonial approach and its missed opportunity for transformative change.
She acknowledged some potential truth in my concerns, but emphasized they had doubled down on their activist approach to breaking the current system. Then something surprising happened; she had reviewed our work on the OCS Community Enterprise (I had shared it before our meeting) and she highlighted its importance, urging me to come back to academia and complete my PhD.
I initially hesitated but agreed to return if it was funded alongside the practical development of the OCS Community Enterprise. Additionally, I sought the freedom to critique decolonial approaches while proposing new transformative pathways. Much to my delight, she agreed, assuring me of a supportive committee for my research. With this as a potential path, I’m curious to see if funding will materialize as it did in 2016.
Decolonial Academia Reflections
While I resonate with many aspects of decolonial education – particularly its illumination of systemic inequalities tied to race, historical injustices, and imbalances of corporate power, its obsession with race has detracted from the transformative potential of ecological community systems. Instead, it has become entrenched in adversarial power dynamics and magnified outrage, often creating new forms of exclusion and discrimination.
Similarly, a subset of decolonial approaches is Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) for organizations. DEI initiatives have made significant strides in raising awareness and elevating previously marginalized individuals to positions of power. However, they often repeat patterns of polarization and have largely failed to transform organizational structures of power.
These reflections are not intended as definitive statements, but as part of an ongoing learning journey where I am open to growing from diverse perspectives. Additionally, I am inspired by the success of organizations, such as SnapChat, who have implemented Circle Leadership across their organization to cultivate capacities for deep and meaningful relationships, foundational for creating environments that are truly inclusive and welcoming.
The past seven years has been a time of profound growth, and for that I have gratitude for my immersion in decolonial academia. Additionally, I feel heartfelt appreciation to my family and friends, even during moments of misunderstanding and tension. The complexities and challenges of systems change are many, and for your support through this journey, I thank you deeply.
In this momentous period, systemic change has become inevitable. Yet, it is disconcerting to see top-down strategies increasingly resorting to censorship, control, and closed-door dealings. Similarly, many decolonial perspectives, while enlightening, risk fueling further division and polarization, leaving our communities vulnerable to external influences. It’s crucial to remember that our world is much too complex to be divided into simplistic notions such as ‘you’re with us, or against us’.
As community, we have the opportunity to come together beyond race and gender to collectively shape a shared future of prosperity and well-being. By working together, we can create a world where everyone’s soul potential burns bright, and where we re-align with the harmony of our planet.