A Deeper Focus


Text of Nina Simons talk at Central Coast Bioneers

Many people have written to tell us that Nina Simons‘ live appearance on Friday October 25th at the conference was the highlight of the weekend. As one attendee posted on her blog, “Nina is a gifted storyteller she radiates warmth, joy and genuineness.” Nina’s talk focused on three areas of reflection that she felt are essential parts of our human existence: story, leadership and mobilizing change. For those who missed it (and for those who want to experience it again), Nina has graciously provided the text of her presentation to us to reprint here.

“It’s really a treat for me to be here with you all, and I have to say it reminds me of the first days when we were starting up Bioneers. I was telling Stacey that for the first eight years that we produced Bioneers much like Stacey and Mike and all of you who are contributing are doing it now we did it in our spare time on top of our day jobs. It was an act of love, and it was very clear to me that it didn’t feel like a choice; it felt like I was being pulled by the scruff of my neck to do something that my heart really told me was right. So, I just didn’t question it. When I come and see what Stacey and Mike and all of you are doing here, it reminds me of that time and the intimacy that you have in this.

Being here reminds me of the radical and incredibly important nature of coming together to envision what the world we want to co-create is going to look like. I do think we’re living in a very momentous, pivotal time. It’s such a blessing “I think you heard some of my story earlier today,” but I’m so aware of the gift of being alive right now. There’s nothing like a little brush with mortality to make you realize how much we take for granted. What a blessing it is to have this opportunity to bring ourselves fully to this moment.

So, thank you for that beautiful introduction, Stacey, and for having the heart, courage and perseverance to keep bringing this baby into form. Thanks to all of you for co-creating this in collaboration with the Chumash people. This is a very beautiful place on Earth that you’re tending and caretaking a place the Chumash have helped take care of for a very long time, and it’s quite a privilege to get to do that.

So, as usual, my eyes are bigger than my stomach. I wrote the title for this talk and I realized I needed to compress three talks into one. It’s a little longer than I probably can do in this amount of time, but I’ll see what I can cover.

I would like to offer three areas of reflection that might be useful to you. The three areas are story, leadership, and mobilizing change, and how we integrate and weave those three things. For me, they’re three essential parts of a braid that we need to carry us into the next world.

So, let’s see story. There’s a fellow up in the Bay Area who is actually a scholar, writer and activist named George Lakoff. Many of you may have heard of him. He calls himself a cognitive linguist. He really studies how story lands in people, and what his research has revealed – and a lot of his work is focused on political change and how we reach across differences but his research has revealed that as humans, we’re hard-wired for story. That means that once we’ve heard a story, and our hearts and minds have kind of wrapped around it, no amount of facts to the contrary will get us to let go of that story. The facts are nearly as strong as story.

We see a lot of evidence in the world about that now. When we were first starting Bioneers in the early ’90s, we realized that these amazing people with these incredible stories could be a powerful influence in curricula and for educators, and so we went to an educational conference or two. And in the early ’90s was when James Hansen was really starting to sound the alarm about climate change. In fact, there was a Time magazine that helped motivate us to start Bioneers in the first place. It had the Earth as “Person of the Year,” and it had this great cover that was designed by an artist that had the Earth in bondage. It was all wrapped around with ropes and cords.

When James Hansen did that was when we went to the education conferences as a very tiny organization with nearly no budget and no resources at all. We asked ourselves, how do we break into education? And what we saw were huge booths with mega money that were set up by the oil, gas and coal companies in order to permeate our education system with stories about climate change not being true.

It was kind of jaw-dropping and humbling, as you can imagine, because there would be six booths together, all shiny and glossy, and they were offering free curriculum. Of course, every educator there would say, how interesting; I’ll take a free curriculum. I can’t document it, but there’s probably a direct line between those education efforts 20 years ago and the number of climate deniers we have in this country now.

So, tell its story. Super important. You could imagine that we’re in a time for the battle of the story. I think as you heard David McConville and several people say this morning that it’s not threat that’s going to get anyone to change their minds or their direction, it’s having a more exciting story, it’s having a story that we want to be invited into. So I think that story is an incredibly important part of our tool kit as culture changers, culture doctors, which we all are. We’re all midwifing a new world into being, and story is part of how we as leaders can light up the parts of our brain and hearts that respond to story and seize the image: Oh, I want that story. Yes, I want to contribute to that future, that vision that someone just so beautifully evoked in his poetry. That’s the world I want to contribute to.

So, story is really important, so practice storytelling. A couple of the things that I’ve learned as a storyteller are that details are what makes stories come alive, and that actually revealing emotion and sensory awareness, and how something impacted you as a human animal is part of what lights us up and helps people to connect with your story.

There’s a metaphor that Janine Benyus first taught me, which was: I hope we can all learn to carry stories like birds carry seeds in their feathers, to help seed the vision of a new world. And, you know, whenever an ecosystem has been decimated, part of what brings it back to life is the seeds the birds carry on their feathers, and they just drop them seemingly randomly to reignite fertility and hope and life.

This is an example I just heard recently. Joanna Macy, who is one of my favorite teachers in the world, teaches us how to shift our relationship to time. She uses one exercise that I invite you to experience with me for a moment. So you might want to close your eyes because it might help you imagine.

Imagine that time travel is possible, and you’re about to be visited by someone from seven generations in the future. A young person is coming back in time to interview you because you were alive in this moment. Take a moment to imagine and notice what the tone of that interview might be, and let your body feel it. Notice any sensations that come up in your body, your heart, your mind or your spirit. Then Joanna suggests that this young person is coming back from the future because you are a hero or a shero to them. They are coming back so excited to ask you, how did you know what to do? How did you bring yourself to this extraordinary moment when everything about human civilization had to change? What can you teach me about how you gave yourself to this transformation? How did you know?

So, notice any changes in your body, heart, mind, and spirit. And then, very gently, when you’re ready, come back.

Did any of you assume that somebody coming back from the future would be man? Yeah, I did. Some part of me, not even rationally, assumed that. And when I heard that Joanna had framed it that you’re the hero, you were here, you helped make the change, I thought, wow, look at that invisible bias that I carry! It’s the invisible bias that says the good guys are losing.

So, we have a lot of reason to have that invisible bias, you know. Turn on the nightly news; it gets reinforced all the time. But this is why it’s so radical and so important to be coming together in this way. Because we can support each other in knowing that the outcome is not final. The outcome is still up for grabs, and you know, part of what Bioneers has done for me is to continue to open possibilities for how I can bring myself more whole-heartedly, more ardently and more lovingly to what calls me to this reinvention, to contributing my best guess.

So that’s what I wanted to offer up about story.

A piece about leadership.

Many of you already are familiar with this book, and I’m a little awkward with the self promotion, but it’s really an offering to my teachers. So, if you don’t know it, I would encourage you to check it out. It’s a beautiful book and the story of this book, Moonrise: The Power of Women Leading From the Heart. I’m very proud to say it has some men in it, even though the publisher pushed back hard. I said, no, there have to be men in it, and they said, really? Why? After I submitted the manuscript they said, okay, we get it; it works. You know, it’s not just women who are going to lead the change. We need all of our allies and all of our help. And the truth is we all have masculine and feminine within us, and we need men leading from the feminine as much as we need women leading from the feminine right now, I think, to rebalance the world.

So, when Kenny first came up with the idea for me to do this book, I was pretty skeptical, as I usually am with any of his suggestions. My first reaction is rebellion—it’s getting better over time, but still, the dynamics of couple partnering. I realized when I turned 40, I started getting acknowledged for being a leader, and I had a mixed reaction like, ooh, don’t put that title, that name on me. I didn’t think of myself as a leader. I thought of myself as following my instructions the best way I knew how, and honestly, I found that I had a real aversion to being called a leader and being labeled that way. I thought, well, this is interesting; if what I’m learning from so many of the Bioneers speakers is that really we’re all called to be leaders right now, and what the world needs of us is to step into our leadership assignment, then there’s a problem with me having this reaction. So, how can I reconcile that contradiction?

I realized that I had the opportunity, because I had been shaped so much by so many extraordinary leaders through all these years of Bioneers, that I could read through the stories of many of them and try to understand what they were teaching me about leadership. I went in without any preconceived notions. I read hundreds of transcripts, and I was searching for pattern. What are they showing me? What’s different about my implicit bias?

I’ve learned to become sort of a detective hunting for implicit bias because one of the challenges we face is to make our own implicit biases visible to us. It’s one of the things that I’ve really come to understand about this crazy, unjust world. When you benefit from the bias, it gets really hard to see it, and when you’re at the losing end of the bias, it’s really easy to see it.

So, as a woman of pallor, I’m a white woman with the benefits that come along with that. I was raised in the middle class by liberal parents in New York City, so I had all kinds of benefits that I couldn’t see. What’s been really important to me is to learn how to zero in through my own lenses to see my own implicit biases.

As I read all these stories I realized I have this inherited definition of leadership that comes from a culture that has been biased toward all things masculine and against all things feminine. We’re all products of that culture. There’s no blame, it’s just the nature of the suit we live in or the water we swim in. I realized, oh, these people understand their leadership assignment from the inside out; they’re all people who fell in love with something. They’re not motivated by having a graduate degree or a title; they’re motivated by love. They’re standing on behalf of something they care deeply and profoundly about. And often, like me, they go into it not knowing what they’re getting into, like Stacey. We go into these things because they call our hearts, and if we really understood—If I really had understood in 1990 that 24 years later I’d still be producing Bioneers, I’m not sure I would be here. It’s a wild thing, and you step onto the journey and you just don’t know where it’s going to take you.

I found that they were motivated by love. They were often deeply called by dreams or spirit or intuition. They were often practicing their leadership through connection and collaboration. So, instead of leadership being my inherited definition, which was top-down, isolated, dominating and aggressive, these people were all leading in different kinds of ways, but they were modeling collaboration, they were modeling humility and receptivity. They were sharing power and authority, and they were using their relational intelligence to design ways of reaching people that were really creative and exciting, and that opened new pathways. And so, that’s how we designed the book.

I love it that the book is now being used in college classes on leadership, diversity, and on women’s studies. So, it’s got a broad range of uses as we redefine leadership.

I’ve come to believe that we need to redefine leadership in a way that I call full-spectrum leadership. What I love about that word “full-spectrum” is that it refers to everything from the inside out. It refers to leadership within each of us as individuals, and within the society at large. So, for me, full-spectrum means that I don’t only lead from my head, I lead from the combination of my body’s wisdom, my heart’s intelligence, my intuitive or dream awareness, my spiritual awareness. That’s the level that’s full-spectrum, whereas our inherited definition is leading from the intellect. On an individual level, I hold myself accountable to full-spectrum leadership.

The other thing that’s true for me is that I see a future where we all rise up together, women of all ages and colors and disciplines and classes, along with men, and LGBT folks. This is a people’s movement that we’re all a part of. So, that full-spectrum thing has to apply to who is in the room, and who are we connecting with, and who are we engaging in this movement of movements.

I have a friend named Rinku Sen, and she’s a leader who runs a social justice organization called Race Forward (formerly Applied Research Center), and they work to understand how to undo racial bias and increase the love of community and racial justice in our world. She made an observation that I thought was so important. She said that she learned through her research that as human beings we carry a false assumption, and the false assumption is, in terms of racial justice, that we have to do our own individual work before we can engage with the system. She said, you know, the problem with that assumption is that our individual work will never be done. That effectively postpones it until another lifetime. And the truth is, we can’t. We can’t postpone it to another lifetime.

So, for me, full-spectrum leadership means how do I stay accountable to my own inner work because, really, I can’t change anybody else, I can only change me. That’s the lesson I keep learning. And the hard news is it’s hard. The great news is when I change myself, each incremental step that I make, my experience of my life changes, and somehow the people and the systems around me are changed by my own changes. So, full-spectrum leadership: accountable to myself for bringing the full spectrum of my capacities, and accountable to how I name and help transform the structures and systems of inequity that as a woman of privilege I have a tremendous opportunity to bring myself to. The most exciting thing is I know that I can—even though it’s scary. I have to say it thrills me, and it’s more exciting than just about any other work that I know, to actually confront that and see how I can be an instrument of change to it.

So, the last thing I want to offer is about mobilizing change for a healthy, just and resilient future. Ha, a mouthful.

I’ve said a lot of it already, you know. I’ve said that it’s an inside job first. For me one of the most important powerful leadership skills we can cultivate in ourselves is how to connect across the differences in our culture that tend to separate us. How do we connect across generational differences, racial difference and class difference?

I’m very proud that we had a workshop on recognizing and leveraging white privilege on behalf of beloved community at the national Bioneers conference. There was a couple that attended it, and they wrote to us a week later and told us about when they were driving home from the conference, and they stopped to get gas. In the gas station there was a homeless woman who was camped out at the side of the road. They said they had just experienced the white privilege workshop. Ordinarily, they would have given her a dollar or five dollars, and would have looked away and left. But because they had just experienced that workshop, they decided that that one or five dollars wasn’t enough. They actually went up and spoke with her, and learned about her situation and how she had come to be there. They decided that they wanted to treat her to a motel room. And they took her to a motel and they spent time with her. They really exercised their own capacity to step into that woman’s shoes.

We’re living in a time of such tremendously polarized difference that that’s an enormously courageous step to take. I find myself feeling really good when I stretch to do something like that.

One of my teachers is a woman named Jeannette Armstrong, and she is an Okanogan elder, a First Nations woman from British Columbia, and in her tribal traditions, they do something called The Four Societies work. It’s a way of bringing together diverse perspectives because they are what create a resilient and meaningful whole. And what she says is, the greatest gift that anyone can bring to me is a perspective that’s 180 degrees opposed from my own. I asked, wow, really? Think about that in terms of our culture. And she said, yeah, when I hear that perspective, it challenges me to expand my own vision enough to encompass theirs as well. And that’s the job of [INAUDIBLE].

It kind of gives me chills when I think about all the divides, of faith, politics, generation, race, and all those divides that we’re grappling with. What if we were able to ask, how do we develop a vision that’s big enough to encompass them all?

That’s most of what I wanted to say. And I’m standing between you and lunch, which is not a good place to be.

So, why don’t I just offer in the next five minutes, to tell you a story? I’m going to tell you the story of how I first came into working for nature, because I know I can do it in five minutes, and it’s a good story.

I was the child of artists. I grew up in New York City, and I always assumed that the way that I would influence the world was through the arts because that’s the world I knew. And so, I worked in theatre and I worked on movies, and I worked for the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, and then I met Kenny. And after I met Kenny, he was invited to come and film a biodiversity garden in Southern New Mexico. It was a garden that was being cultivated by an extraordinary master gardener named Gabriel Howearth. And Kenny and I had been together for a while, and he invited me to go with him to visit this garden so he could film it.

We drove down to Gila, New Mexico and got out of the car. Gabriel proceeded to take us on a tour of his garden. It was the most beautiful living space I had ever seen. It was filled with hundreds and hundreds of diverse and rare varieties of flowers and food plants, and it had whole societies of tomatoes, like every color and size and shape, and they were all being warmed by the midday sun in New Mexico, so they had that sweet smell, you know, that tomatoes have when they’re warmed and running with juice.

And Gabriel invited us to taste as we walked through the garden. There were things I’d never heard of. There were things like lemon licorice mint, and chocolate basil, and so we were tasting things, and I thought, wow. The tastes were amazing.

And there were pollinators. There were all these butterflies and bees and birds all around the top of the garden. The garden itself was this riot of color. It was just absolutely gorgeous. There were sunflowers that were 12 inches in diameter, and they were seven or eight feet tall, literally. It felt like they watched us as we walked through the garden.

As we went through this garden, Gabriel would introduce us to each plant, and he would tell us the Latin name, then the common name, and then he would explain how it was related to all the plants around it. I realized that this man knew these plants actually better than a lot of people know their own families, and that there was this intimacy about what he was introducing us to that was so sweet.

I wondered whether the story of the Garden of Eden might have been based on a garden like this, because I had never seen anything like it. I realized as I tasted things, and the scents, the colors, that my senses were dancing. I was just, I felt so alive.

Then he began to explain to us that because of the centralization of seed companies, there were all these seed companies that were buying up all the mom-and-pop companies that had been all over the country for hundreds of years, and that where there used to be hundreds of kinds of apples in cultivation, now there were mainly five or three. He explained that in nature diversity is nature’s way of making sure that nothing goes extinct, because diversity is how you have resilience, right? So, if one kind of tomato gets attacked, another kind of tomato survives.

As we learned all this, I was sort of in this place between realizing I was falling in love with the natural world in a way that my child self had known, but my head and heart had never fully experienced before, and at the same time I was learning about this massive planet.

As I walked out of the garden, I felt like the spirit of the natural world tapped me on the shoulder and said, you’re working for me now. What? I don’t know anything about farming and plants. How can I do that? It was really unmistakable, and it just wouldn’t let me go.

So, I wound up going back to Santa Fe and quitting my job at the Chamber Music Festival, and becoming part of a company that was to become Seeds of Change. Then a few months after that, starting with Kenny, to produce the first Bioneers conference.

That’s how I went from being artist to Bioneers.

Thank you so much.”

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