Reflections on The Courage Conference 2018

I got back Monday morning at 12:15 am (yikes!) from being at The Courage Conference (yay!). Here are links, if you’re interested in video replay of the presentations ($20 at Eventbrite), and/or reading the series of live-tweets (mostly from Julie Anne Smith and Ryan Ashton – thanks, you two!).

I attended both the general event (Friday evening and Saturday), and the leaders’ training/brainstorming event (Sunday morning to early afternoon). It was intense, draining, but really really good! I’m still recuperating, but wanted to post some about it while it’s still fresh. It may seem like a random selection of unconnected jottings, but hey, you know me – Mister Randomocity.

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I have only gone to two conferences in the last 10 years. They’re energy-consuming and expensive, which zeroes out two commodities I have little of already. So, why go to this one?

For one thing, it is geared primarily for survivors of abuse/violence. I’ve been writing about related topics for over a decade – mostly on situations of spiritual abuse. Also, numerous survivors and advocates I’ve connected with on social media planned to be there, and I really wanted to meet them in person.

Plus, I sensed it was important to be there as both a witness to history, given the progress of #MeToo in the last year. I started learning about abuse and violence issues 40 years ago from my sister – a ministry pioneer who worked with survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, and was also a child sexual abuse prevention trainer. She passed away in 2011, but I can imagine her cheering everyone on from the great cloud of witnesses observing all of this.

When I go to events like this, I’m hoping to pick up information that helps me identify trends that are driving social change. (That’s just naturally part of what I do as an amateur futurist.) And The Courage Conference did not disappoint! I connected with some women and men who’d been involved for decades as advocates. It was encouraging to hear their stories and tap into their sense of enthusiasm and anticipation about the thresholds of change we’re experiencing. I also gleaned a lot from conversations with various vendors, sponsors, press members, other attendees, and speakers. They added much perspective to the big picture understanding I’ve been working toward, on how systemic abuse works in our society and whether we’re at a tipping point.

I found many reasons for hope and a brighter, more just future horizon. For instance, my overall sense is that there are far more need-focused resources available now for four main groups:

  • Survivors, family, friends, advocates, and social change activists.
  • Information workers (reporters and investigators on individual issues, institutional control, and ideological critiques).
  • Personal/relational-care workers (therapists, counselors, social workers, pastors, spiritual directors).
  • Organizational developers (non-profits, social enterprises, faith-based ministries).

Also, people commented in person and on social media about the evident gender equity. Courage offered a safe space where we saw men and women partnering to make the event happen, showing ease in conversations, and laughing together with joy. (As a sidenote, some survivor blogs that cover the broadest scope of situations and theologies work as teams that include both women and men. For instance, The Wartburg Watch, Spiritual Sounding Board, and Thou Art The Man.) I find this important, as so much abuse is perpetrated by men, so it is significant when we see men serving as agents of healing instead of agents of damage.

It was relatively diverse racially in terms of speakers, which I see as very important. Most “survivor/investigative bloggers” are Caucasian, when abuse/violence issues cut across all demographics. So, the more diverse our community of survivors, advocates, activists, and writers, the more accurate our “spiritual MRI” of the issues and practical solutions can become. (The past year, I’ve been learning more about the realities of African American women survivors from Lyvonne Picou, and have begun following a diverse group of women survivors on social media. The past 10 years, I have learned an immense amount about survivors globally from public health professor SD Shanti.)

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Out of a mountain of data-bits and details, patterns and principles emerge. (This is one of the key skills of futurists: perceiving patterns as part of tracking cultural trends.) The Courage Conference gave me an opportunity to think in real time about emerging issues, particular research articles that might be needed, and figuring out “concept frameworks” relevant to the discussions.

I may not always be able to tie down or articulate where a particular idea comes from. However, I did have several things bubble up to the surface during the conference and the add-on leadership training/brainstorming session. Some were new ideas, others ones I’d worked on before but felt confirmation that research material would benefit our communities.

  • Survivors, advocates, and “confirmation bias.” Because we were wounded by people in power, do we see abuse where it doesn’t really exist? Or do those accuse us of confirmation bias actually have gaps in their spiritual radar because they don’t have accurate indicators of toxicity?
  • Comparing independent versus non-independent investigations, and how various goals can be indicators of which is underway: arbitration, conciliation, mediation, reconciliation, etc. Not all “investigations” are geared to find the truth and serve survivors; some are limit liability to the individuals and/or organizations accused of abuse.
  • Shifts in survivor “storying systems.” I was musing over how things have changed since the mid-1970s when I first started watching for news and personal accounts of abuse because of my sister’s ministries. It seems to me that social media has been a major factor, with a range of platforms that appeal to different generations, and how hashtag campaigns can amplify a message. But what have been the forms of survivor communication before that? How and when did survivor blogs and conferences become more prominent parts of these systems? What are the connections these days between survivor blogs and conventional media? How do these storying elements relate to what might emerge as new and/or stronger ways for survivors, advocates, and activists to share their experiences? How does all of this contribute to a potential tipping point for educating the public about dynamics of power abuse, and motivating others into action?

Even if I see these as probable needs, that isn’t automatically a calling to write the article. But I suspect I may be writing eventually on all three …

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There was one other issue that captured my thoughts a lot during The Courage Conference: How do we track social change? This is an important issue, given that there is a back-history to the #MeTooMVMT started in 2007 by Tarana Burke and the #MeToo of 2017. And there has also been a proliferation of more specific spin-offs, such as #ChurchToo and #SBCToo for institutions; and #BoysToo, #MenToo, and #MaleAbuse for individual males who are survivors of abuse/violence.

However, it’s difficult to pinpoint how far the movement has come. But then, that’s typical. Hard to do orienteering when we’re in the middle of a paradigm shift as it is happening. The Courage Conference leadership event on Sunday gave me an opportunity to consider that issue a bit, and share some information about how paradigms figure into strategic foresight (studies of the future).

The kind of futurist I aspire to be is not about predicting the future, but drawing a group’s attention to relevant long-term cultural trends that are driving significant social changes in their field of interest. From there, it’s about helping them sort through plausible ways their futures (plural) could unfold, and equip them to choose their most preferable route forward in ways that match the current cultural situation with their mission, resources, and vision for how to make a difference.

I heard several versions of this question: How do we track our impact? I shared paraphrases of two quotes that I find particularly helpful on generational shifts as indicators of social change. Here are the exact quotes and their sources:

Helen Haste Quote, *The Sexual Metaphor*, 1994

Angela Merkel Quote, July 2018

I also shared a concept I’ve been working on more recently, on what drives personal and social transformation. At the core, I think it’s questions. People who function inside closed systems aren’t encouraged to develop questions – those open the box to independent thinking. And those who think are more likely to discover (or perhaps create?) ways to escape the box.

But, for people who’ve been locked into a toxic system and don’t know it, where do questions come from that make them rethink the stink? What sparks them to gave beyond the human aquarium that has them trapped?

Lately, I’ve been thinking that those types of potentially paradigm-shifting questions arise from three sources: shock/horror, surprise/the unexpected, and/or suffering/pain – something jarring enough to unsettle our stultified thinking. [ADDED December 15, 2018: To this I’d include story — which, though our entering in via empathy, can interweave each of the other three “S” motivations driving change.]

For instance, in my early 20s, I endured a nasty split at our “Bible doctrine church.” It splintered our congregation into four groups, most of which wouldn’t talk with each other. One group literally stole the church, demanding that everyone turn in their keys, and then they changed the locks overnight and put bars and chains across the parking lot so no one else could use it other than the group that now ran the church. This horrific situation distilled out into one key question for me: How could this happen in a Bible-teaching church? My options for answers we both scary: Either Christianity is a crock and I need to repudiate it, or there was something desperately off in what and/or how we were taught and I need to identify it. This was a traumatizing experience that led to a life-changing question that drove action-oriented solutions.

A lot more work needed on this, as it’s just in the initial stages of reflection. But maybe this explains why I am so drawn to survivors’ personal stories and organizational case studies: I seems to me that stories of conflict tend to present an essential question that can either reinforce someone’s bias, or motivate change. Which will it be? And if this is relatively accurate, then instead of trying to convince someone to change via our external motivation, we need to observe for when they have a question that will drive change from their internal motivation. If we can convince them into doing something, they can also be convinced out of it. But if the action arises from their own gut question due to shock, surprise, or suffering [or story], won’t it be more likely to lead to a paradigm shift and long-term change?

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I am grateful things worked out for going to The Courage Conference, for those who helped me get there and while there, and the depth of connections. It was seriously good for me to be there! And it was also a lot of fun. Can’t recall last time I laughed that much, or sparked as much laughter for others. The thing that seemed to give more people a chuckle than not was when I told them about what my home-made business card used to be. And with that, I will end this post.

Brad/Futuristguy Business Card, Circa 2007

In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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6 thoughts on “Reflections on The Courage Conference 2018

  1. The ever present question is: do we actually learn from history or are we ultimately bound to repeat it?

  2. I really like the “what drives personal and social transformation” section because it seems to propose the potential for doing some positive good to curb spiritual abuse. I would be interested in seeing more examples of people and ministries that turned around to some degree to address spiritual abuse. What were the key factors in those situations? My experience has been that people are convinced to address spiritual abuse when the damage caused by it outweighs the perceived cost to confront it. This weighing of values from a human standpoint leads people to believe the spiritual abuse isn’t that bad and this leads to them doing things that are in fact gross violations of their stated values and beliefs.

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