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In my article “A Pattern Language for Women in Permaculture”, published in the Permaculture Activist in August 2013, each pattern identified a core solution to a problem that undermines women’s full involvement and leadership in permaculture. Since then, I’ve been collecting “best practices” that support women’s participation in the permaculture community, so that we can move from discussion to effective action. These practices were identified by many people, from many places (including in a working group at the 2014 North American Permaculture Convergence). I regret that it is impractical to list the names of all those who helped shape this document, and am grateful for the generous engagement of many contributors. Permaculture Design Magazine published this article in its Fall 2015 “Decolonizing Permaculture” issue. In this online version of the article, there are many hyperlinks to resources.
Permaculturist are invited to discern and adopt the practices that will leverage their personal development and/or the development their organizations. Equally important, you are invited to share (in the comment box below) your commitment to implement at least one of these “best practices”–please include a benchmark or time frame by which you will evaluate outcomes.
Please note: Some practices require a high level of facilitation skills to ensure optimal outcomes. Please “care for the people” by making sure you have the training and experience necessary to create safe spaces in which to explore and develop these practices.
As always, this is a living document–your constructive feedback, amendments, additions, and stories about success and challenges in implementing these actions are welcome.
The “Best Practices” are outlined below under the pattern to which they correspond from the original article, which you can reference here.
Pattern 1: Reflect upon, clarify, and improve “mental models”
This “systems thinking” diagram below (from http://www.donellameadows.org/systems-thinking-resources/) shows that underlying any discrete event are patterns of behavior, which arise from the systemic structures that we create, which ultimately emanate from our mental models. Mental models are often unstated assumptions that are the “sources of systems.” Dialog brings these paradigms to surface–allowing us to reflect on them them. Evolving our mental models is key leverage point that can rapidly transform systems.
- Study the Gender Schemas Tutorials to learn how subconscious beliefs hinder women’s progress in leadership roles.
- Counter gender schemas and other forms of “unconscious bias” by learning to be allies who co-create equitable environments (see Pattern 8).
- Learning about the systems of privilege and oppression is a life-long process. Host a study group on these topics in your local permaculture community.
- Use and grow this resource list: https://permiesforequity.wordpress.com/self-education-resources/
- Daylight what goes unseen. Host a fishbowl exercise in your local/regional permaculture community. In this exercise, women sit in the center of a circle and speak to topics like, “What is the landscape for women in permaculture in our area?” Men silently witness this courageous sharing. These processes should be guided by experienced facilitators, and the men present should have time to debrief afterward with a facilitator.
- Be a “pattern literate” systems thinker: understand feedback loops.
- Recognize vicious cycles: for example, “calling out” an “-ism” is met with defensiveness, unproductive reactions, and flaring tempers on both sides–causing relationships to erode.
- Listen and reflect to defuse situations before they spiral out of control; or take a break if things get heated, etc.
- Cultivate virtuous cycles: daylight underlying assumptions by “calling in” problematic behavior, practicing deep listening, and asking questions that help all parties better understand assumptions. Engage excellent facilitation and communication skills, and strengthen relationships.
- Value and hone social permaculture skills (such as effective and compassionate communication, facilitation, and conflict resolution, etc.) as crucial parts of your “permaculture toolbelt”.
- Co-create “call-in” culture:
- “There are ways of calling people out that are compassionate and creative, and that recognize the whole individual instead of viewing them simply as representations of the systems from which they benefit.” Asam Ahmad
- “…when I see problematic behavior from someone who is connected to me, who is committed to some of the things I am, I want to believe that it’s possible for us to move through and beyond whatever mistake was committed.“ Ngoc Loan Tran
- Jiggle mental models. Micro-affirmations, when part of an organization’s culture, counter “–isms”, and help people succeed. Male and female teachers can counter gender schemas with micro-affirmations for women. These small, appreciative acts not only block inequities, but can also reverse their negative effects, and model behavior that when replicated, creates a positive snowball effect. Some examples from the Gender Schema Tutorials:
- A woman who adopts “a friendly but assertive leadership role” receives “more negative facial expressions than their male colleagues.” This can affect how other people in the room view her, and erode the woman’s morale.
- To help counteract such unconscious reactions from participants, make statements that show confidence in your female colleague’s competence.
- Are your body language and facial expressions engaged and affirming?
- A woman who adopts “a friendly but assertive leadership role” receives “more negative facial expressions than their male colleagues.” This can affect how other people in the room view her, and erode the woman’s morale.
- Understand the role of benevolent sexism in gender inequality.
- Understand and dismantle “horizontal hostility”–a term coined by Florynce Kennedy in the 1970s.
- Replace “guys” as the go-to word when you mean “people”.
An option: What are you “gaias” doing?
- Value the work of people quietly organizing behind the scenes or implementing permaculture on the land. Develop “abundance models” to ensure that the foundational “weaving work” of organizers, care providers, and homesteading doesn’t remain invisible or unpaid.
- When you use a women’s ideas, increase her visibility by attributing the idea to the her. Even more so if she is a woman of color: “statements said by a Black woman in a group discussion are least likely to be correctly attributed”.
- Equally share in the “caring work” during a course—group facilitation, vibes watching, taking care of group process and conflict management. Due to gender schemas, when women teachers do this, they can be subconsciously viewed by students as less competent in technical aspects of their professional work than their male colleagues.
- Women, let’s support each other to overcome our self-limiting beliefs:
Pattern 2: Understand and advocate for the 30% Solution
- Understand why having 30% women in all levels of leadership promotes systematic momentum towards parity for women, and provides better outcomes for organizations.If women occupy fewer than 30% of leadership positions in your organization, educate others about the benefits of the 30% Solution.
- Replace the question, “Who do I know?” with “Whom don’t I know?” Invite capable women onto your teams. (Women, enter your info at http://www.wherearethewomeninpermaculture.com)
- Avoid the gender pay gap. Pay all employees according to skill, experience level, and results delivered. And, if it bothers you when a woman negotiates on her behalf, ask yourself: Would I react the same way if a man did the same? If yes, there’s probably a gender schema at play.
- Write a profile of a woman in permaculture so that more women are more visible, and they can feel that their pioneering work is valued. Rosemary Morrow is a woman who was a pioneer in permaculture. She is profiled here.
Pattern 3: Value diversity
- Heterogeneous groups are more apt to make ethical decisions; studies also reveal that “diverse groups almost always outperform homogenous groups, even if the people in a homogenous group are more capable.” How will this information inform your board meetings, hiring, or programming?
- A great resource for understanding implicit bias (unconscious attitudes that affect our understanding, decisions, and behavior in ways we might not want) regarding race and ethnicity is a webinar at http://www.withinourlifetime.net/. Bias and other phenomena in our unconscious minds give rise to social patterns of inequity. We need to understand bias in order to design for equity. It is suggested that folks gather a study group to watch this together and facilitate a discussion afterward.
- To avoid “tokenism”, scholarships for people of color should be robust enough to invite 2-3 (minimum) people of color to the course. This ensures that the people of color can find support in each other and enriches the social permaculture aspects of any training.
- Understanding the dynamics of privilege/oppression helps us discern systemic factors that create barriers to full participation in permaculture by historically marginalized groups; with cultural competency, we can build relationships and follow the leadership of in underprivileged communities to actively co-create solutions.
- We must be prepared to facilitate the dynamics that may come up when we become a diverse group. Include in your aformentioned permaculture “toolbelt:” facilitation, cultural competency, anti-bias trainings, anti-oppression frameworks, conflict management, non-violent communication, etc. Which skills can you develop further? How can we embed these skills in teacher trainings?
Pattern 4: Intersectional identities matter
- Women in permaculture come from varied economic backgrounds, gender identities, sexual orientations, education levels, ethnicities, abilities, etc. As a result, different types of discrimination interact to form very different experiences and perspectives that are critical to our understanding of the dynamics of oppression. Host conversations that explore intersectionality (a term coined by law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw in the 1980s) in permaculture.
- Understand that people who have been historically marginalized “swim” in the dominant culture and may prefer, at times, to relate with others who share their common experience–so they can focus on their own solutions instead of educating folks from the dominant group about the validity of their experience. This is holarchy at work, because the self-determination and liberation of any constituency better supports the entire system toward collective liberation.
- The “recruitment model” where one enlists some Women/African Americans/First Nations People/Rural Poor/LGBTQ folks onto a board or project is a way in which privileged folks often reproduce dynamics of oppression. Instead, respect the leadership of people who can best develop solutions that are most relevant for their communities. Healthy systems are built upon relationships, so follow their leadership, practice humility as a support person, earn trust. Then, inquire where you can be of service with your permaculture skills.
- Connect the dots between permaculture and social justice locally (food dignity, food systems, systemic inequalities, violence, etc) and globally (sustainable development, human rights, climate justice, etc).
- How do we connect with international women who don’t have internet or the resources to travel outside their communities? If you have the benefit of travelling abroad, inquire if folks there would like to connect with the wider permaculture network, and facilitate those connections.
- Don’t assume everyone in permaculture is okay with hugs, substance use, bare feet, informality, mixed gender groups, or unwashed bodies.
- If you are a guest in another community, be culturally competent and find a good balance between your own expression and the cultural norms.
- People from historically marginalized populations may experience stress when in circles occupied mostly by people of a dominant group–especially if these groups are unaware about dynamics of oppression. For example, one study shows links between racial discrimination, stress and health. By the same token, another study finds, “Women who work in male-dominated occupations face challenges that differ from those who work in more gender-balanced and female-dominated occupations. These challenges affect their retention and career success”. A key point of intervention is thoughtful design of events, organizations and processes, which can greatly reduce the impact of such stressors. See Pattern 8 for more information.
- Improve Accessibility
- Replace the term “disabled” with “differently abled.”
- Note that some folks are differently abled in ways that are visible, others in ways that are not visible; and some folks don’t want to identify themselves as needing accommodation.
- To address this, appoint an Accessibility Point Person and invite all participants to share their accessibility needs before your event, so that accommodations can be made.
- At event openings, create space for the Accessibility Point Person to brief the group on accommodations, and to invite any new requests. This builds a culture of inclusion from the outset.
- Universal design that accommodates “differently abled” folks increases the quality of experience for everyone. For example:
- Are venues wheelchair accessible?
- Reserve a few seats up front for people who need to be closer to participate fully.
- Strive to provide and fund support for visually- or hearing-challenged participants.
- Consider a “scent-free” policy so that chemically sensitive folks will be comfortable at your event, and distribute a “scent-free primer” with registration materials.
- Reconsider the gender binary. During introductions, people can share their names and preferred pronouns. This crafts welcoming language. Also, the Northeastern Women’s Gatherings invite folks who are “women-identified, or female assigned at birth.” However, the wording is unwieldy to use repeatedly throughout this lengthy “Best Practices” text! Can you suggest a solution?
- LGBTQ folks invite the permaculture movement to question “heteronormative” assumptions.
- Value elders’ wisdom! Also, welcome those new to permaculture to the center of our circles—we can learn a lot from them, too!
- For more information on becoming better allies, see Pattern 8.
Pattern 5: Mentoring is key to building women’s leadership
- Make sure you have women on your teaching team, and invite them to teach as much science/technical/math-heavy content as men.
- When students are learning “technical” skills, using tools, or building things: make sure women get equal time, or have optional small-group learning opportunities for beginners with mentors who won’t “do for them”, but instead encourage them to struggle towards mastery.
- Discern, design, and replicate “abundance models.” Lots of women report doing great work in permaculture, but not earning enough to support their Beloveds, nor finding time for self-care. This happens often because permaculture entrepreneurs need business models, but often don’t resonate with “business as usual.”
- Many professional women in permaculture mentor other women. Mentors and mentees are encouraged to develop mutually beneficial relationships that compensate mentors, and ensure high-quality experiences for mentees.
- Showcase women professionals in permaculture who create thriving livelihoods based on the permaculture ethics. Write a profile of a woman who made a difference on your permaculture path.
- Consider trainings for women by women. Do they provide higher quality learning outcomes for the women served? Evaluate! Improve!
Pattern 6: Value archetypically “feminine” ways of leading
- Valorize “archetypically feminine” qualities, such as collaboration, empathy, transparency, etc. They are not only the foundation of effective social permaculture, but are leadership skills for the 21st Century. These qualities are inherent in all humans, and sexism hurts men by demeaning their “archetypically feminine” qualities.
- Recognize, reward and develop these qualities in yourself and others.
- Enable people to get relief from nurturing and caring work.
- Honor risk-taking around vulnerability and authenticity so that more folks can show up that way.
- Note that “archetypically feminine” characteristics are not limited to receptivity and nurturing, but include fierceness, etc.
- Develop and share “abundance models” for fields often filled by women: childcare, nutrition, medicinals, kitchen gardens, flowers, solar kitchens, aesthetics, etc.
- For example, let’s share the burden of developing financially-sustainable models for permaculture education and organizing, so mothers and families can attend. Children can be cared for by established local, licensed, nature-based caregivers who are paid a generous living wage, yet the costs for childcare remain low for families because
- childcare is provided cooperatively with parents and non-parents in situations that are safe for the children (who are always with at least two adults, or professional care providers), or
- the larger group shares the cost of childcare, so the responsibility to incorporate them in educational models is shared.
 to give or ascribe value or validity to.
Pattern 7: Nurture women’s leadership through women’s gatherings
- Create and attend regular local, regional, and national gatherings for women to discuss challenges, solutions, and to network and build relationships.
- Cross-pollinate between women’s gatherings.
- Use these gatherings to co-determine our futures regionally, nationally, & internationally by creating policy for voluntary adoption by permaculture organizations.
- Consider audio/visual/internet options that allow virtual participation, to increase accessibility and decrease carbon footprints. This must be balanced with the need to create safe containers for deep sharing.
- Organizing gatherings is a lot of work! Develop “abundance models” that reward these vital efforts.
- Avoid overworking: host local slumber parties to bond over fun and mutual interests.
Pattern 8: Be an Ally
The pamphlet “Privilege and Allyship” from the Multicultural Resource Center at Oberlin College defines an ally as “a member of the ‘dominant’ or ‘majority’ group who questions or rejects the dominant ideology and works against oppression through support of, and as an advocate, with or for, the oppressed population.”
- Sexual harassment is illegal. If you don’t have policies in place to prevent harassment, this can expose your organization to serious risk. In this “problem” is the solution: instead, designing welcoming and inclusive environments for all.
- When training teachers, have a “code of conduct” that includes teachers refraining from romantic or sexual involvement with a student during a course.
- Men are requested to take an active role in development, communication and enforcement of anti-harassment policies.
- Don’t communicate your harassment policies in ways that make people feel scrutinized or “bad.” Instead, share best practices that create safe space for everyone, clarify expectations, and build community: Starhawk suggests that folks set a tone early in classes or gatherings by:
- Acknowledging that it is normal for humans to be attracted to each other, and that sexuality is a normal part of life; and that healthy boundaries build relationship and safety…
- Brainstorm agreements with the group like “no means no, and yes means yes,” or “ask permission before a hug, etc.”
- Invite people who can offer support around these topics to self-identify.
- Nurture organizational culture and language that honors the humanity of men. Dispel the stereotype that talking about sexism equals male bashing.
- At the same time, women need spaces (perhaps women-only?) to speak their experiences with sexism–including expressing anger and frustration–and to be fully seen. Create containers for this: participation would be voluntary and characterized by deep listening and witnessing; not analyzing, fixing or giving advice.
- If you witness offensive talk or inappropriate actions, practice being an active bystander to signal that norms of respect and inclusivity are to be taken seriously.
- Consider taking a “100% responsiveness” approach (see sidebar).
- Celebrate allies.
- Read “Here’s Why ‘Good Looking’ is Wrong and Damaging” so you understand that calling attention to a woman’s appearance, even positively, undermines her professional credibility.
- If women are requested to pee outdoors, provide dignified “pee spots” or even “pee palaces” that have a bed of carbon-rich material to capture the urine. This makes it possible for women to urinate outdoors without hunting for a long time for a private spot. Many women also won’t pee outdoors during their moon cycles unless they feel their privacy is ensured. This is also a great universal design option because some men also prefer to pee more discretely. Consider accessibility issues, too.
- Normalize conversations around women’s cycles—during long courses at PDCs where many women come together in close connection with nature, their cycles may shift… make available in toilet areas “moon time” supplies, and discuss openly your preferred methods for disposal on site.
- Choose event venues thoughtfully. Will women feel secure in your secluded campground? Will people of color feel vulnerable driving to your rural site?
- Since permaculture gatherings provide lots of “edge”, it is an opportunity for folks from privileged groups to learn about oppression. The People of Color Caucus and their Allies at the 2014 North American Permaculture Convergence (NAPC) issued these (and other) resolutions and requests:
- Allies who have done significant work regarding racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, gender identity, etc. can provide key support by “bridging” social interactions, and acting as a “buffer” so that people of color / women / etc. won’t be expected to always be available to educate about “their people”.
- Folks willing to engage in dialog about a particular “ism” can self-identify by wearing an armband or button. This allows the larger group to direct questions to them when “on duty”, but there is also the option to go “off-duty” (by taking off the armband) and get a breather for self-care.
Cultivate 100% responsiveness – microaggressions matter
A contribution by Uma Lo
Develop the awareness and skills to speak up whenever you hear microaggressions (brief, casual and common speech in-built assumptions that insult, demean, negate and/or further ‘otherize’ marginalized groups of people). This is a direct way to create healthier inclusive spaces and to disrupt prevailing privilege/oppression dynamics. Every microaggression that goes unaddressed reinforces a system that shames women, people of color, trans and gender-non-conforming folk(…) for wanting to be whole, to be seen, understood, and respected; and the invisibility of the harm done (a broken feedback loop) perpetuates the inequality. Facilitators and organizers can create restorative spaces that normalize and encourage interventions and that emphasize (1) care and dignity for the people that are impacted and (2) learning (rather than shaming) for people who do harm, usually without any awareness or intention. “I want to give attention to what was said, ‘x’. Hearing that can be really hurtful and damaging to ‘y’ [group of people]’ because there is an assumption that ‘z’ — and that assumption is false.” Doing this alone, does not at all directly tend to any actual hurt that someone in the room may have experienced, but acknowledging at least affirms that it matters and increases the possibility of restorative witnessing/listening, facing and learning about privilege/oppression, productive dialogue and actual conscious shifts in behavior. In casual conversation: “There’s something you said earlier, ‘x’, that I think could be really painful to some people (and I don’t imagine you would mean to hurt anyone) – are you open to hearing what it was and what was painful about it?” – Uma Lo. Uma is a permaculture organizer, facilitator and dialogue, collaboration and conflict resolution coach living in NYC. firstname.lastname@example.org
Karryn Olson-Ramanujan is a lead teacher and founding board member of the Finger Lakes Permaculture Institute. She works as a permaculture designer and teacher through her business, SEED Sustainability Consulting. More recently, she started online trainings and coaching for women dedicated to co-creating our regenerative future through socially-conscious ecopreneurship. Learn more about this at regenepreneurs.com