This is a piece in motion. Nothing finished. It has not arrived at its final destination; it is a journey, an exploration of what “inner work” can mean for an organization such as the global MenEngage Alliance, for people affiliated with it, and for the greater movement for gender equality and social justice.
What is “inner work”? Broadly defined, it is intentional practices of self-reflection to increase self-awareness to facilitate healing, personal growth and transformation.
“Our mission at MenEngage Alliance is all about transformation. We want to transform unequal power relations, patriarchal systems. We want to transform masculinities and we work with men and boys for their transformation.” So said MenEngage Alliance codirector Joni van de Sand, in her welcome last September to participants preparing for the global MenEngage Ubuntu symposium. Under the guidance of Mallika Dutt, a leader in inner work efforts to support social change leaders, the symposium planners at that initial training began participating in a series of workshops and conversations about the meaning of inner work for our individual lives and for the social change we aspire to create together.
“Transformation is required at all levels and they all are interconnected—from the personal to the interpersonal, to the institutional, to systems,” Joni said. “However, as activists and as organizations, we often put very little attention on our personal healing and growth because we are too busy transforming the outer world around us. This is not a sustainable or healthy strategy. Transformation has to start with us, and we need to practice the change that we want to see in the world.”
Speaking about the immediacy of the organization’s global symposium (its third, originally scheduled for Kigali, Rwanda, but virtual because of the pandemic), she went on to say, “We want to invite everybody to infuse our symposium, plenaries and conversations with this vision that the personal is political and that we need to include the whole of us, our bodies, our emotions, our wounds, our shadows, our strengths in the work to transform patriarchal systems. We need to do that in order to build the world that we want to see where everybody is equal.”
Mallika, a longtime feminist leader working for women’s rights in India, shared with the workshop participants some of her personal journey, emphasizing how and why inner work became central for her continued commitment to social change. What emerged was exciting, juicy, promising. Participants did not only talk about inner work but engaged in practicing inner work. Through Mallika’s example, we also witnessed how to talk about our lives, have the courage to be vulnerable, and let others know about our life struggles. We engaged in mindfulness exercises and somatically explored our “5F” default responses to fear: fight, flight, freeze, fawn (appease) and fog (disassociate), making the connection to our leadership roles in the world, which we explored in small group discussions.
Through these sessions, MenEngage members articulated the importance of inner work for social change in poignant and powerful ways. What follows are some examples:
Such reflections make a strong case for embracing inner work as a foundation for social justice work to transform power structures. These insights are an invitation to look within ourselves in order to grow, heal and transform emotionally, socially, intellectually and politically. The very theme of the MenEngage Symposium—“Ubuntu: I am because you are”—points to this deeper approach to the interconnection between the personal/interpersonal and the collective.
Of the remaining questions, how to achieve this aim looms large. Is MenEngage, with its networks and communities of practices, a suitable space to promote inner work? Aren’t we “too busy” already, planning and implementing our programs, campaigns, advocacy initiatives, rallies, workshops with men and boys, to add another layer? At the same time, can we afford not to do so knowing—as we now do—that an unexamined activist’s life undermines the greater good we might be able to achieve? Is it even possible for us to work with men and boys in accountable ways and support their transformation without doing the difficult, essential work within ourselves?
These and other critical questions must be explored by everyone engaged in gender equality work and social justice issues more broadly. At this point there are more questions than answers. Inner work is an umbrella term; beneath it lies many rich traditions, disciplines and contemplative practices. It allows us ample room for choice and growth. Meditation, prayer, journaling, shadow work, communing with nature, trauma healing, psycho- or social therapy, yoga, visualization, contemplative arts. Vigils, council circles, storytelling, deep listening, retreats, devotion to our planet and to a higher power, ceremonies and rituals, are just a fraction of the vastness of what is possible to explore and practice.
Within MenEngage are many members willing to share their personal inner work practices and insights. Among our allies in related social justice efforts are many more. The fruits of inner work can bring not only a sense of peace and inner satisfaction, but also a more conscious way to show up in the world to build, together, a more just and loving society—men and boys included. What are we waiting for?
Oswaldo Montoya has been associated with MenEngage Alliance for 10 years. Trained as a psychologist, he was one of the founders of Men’s Group Against Violence in his native Nicaragua, the first such group of its kind in Central America. This article was made possible thanks to the work of Mallika Dutt and the participants of her inner work sessions. Thanks also to Tom Hornbrook, MenEngage Alliance communications coordinator, for valuable input.