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How to respond to powerful feelings for positive change

You know that feeling that comes up in your chest?

For me it’s like a snake slowly slithering around me: a slight tightness, a quicker heartbeat, shallow breaths, and a restricted throat.

I can remember the times when bosses have given feedback, I’ve received upsetting news, someone said something offensive about a community member, or I see something happening and I feel I need to be doing something about it. But I want to bury my face in a sunflower, or something soft and sweet. My body shakes on the inside, but outside I feel stuck.

The body responds, eh!? But what happens next? How to move from internal experience to external? Or to do anything?

Here’s a story:

At a farming conference, a presenter was sharing his 40 years of soil health research and the connection to plant diversity and potato-farmer well being. Sounds cool, except my mind kept saying “Something is missing.”

I had questions about the cultural container or systems in which these farmers were operating--did his research include analysis of the capitalist economy that forces these farmers to get big or get out; of the stolen Indigenous land and hugely disrupted ecosystems from white supremacist policies; or the stress that communities face when patriarchal systems assign unbearable responsibilities on individuals? While my mind raced and I waited to see if he would touch on these points, my palms just kept getting sweatier and sweatier! My throat was telling me that I needed to say something but my tongue was pressed to the roof of my mouth. My heart was beating so fast that I felt I might be rocking my neighbour’s chair (who happened to be my advisor, gah!). My mind was juggling all the past points plus how I wanted to respond, while still trying to follow along with what was being presented.

Finally I decided. I raised my shaking hand and took strength from the sunflowers that shake in the wind. I turned my face to friends in the room and soaked them in like sunlight. When given the space to speak I tried to gather my thoughts like the pollen on furry bee legs, which made me chuckle.

“With all due respect…” I inhaled.

“Yes, go ahead.” he invited.

“With all due respect to the Mi’kmaq communities whose territory you’re conducting research on, if you’re interested in soil health, plant diversity, and the well being of people, how are you in relationship with the Mi’kmaq? How are you taking into consideration the systems--economic, social, political--that literally destroyed the balance that you hope to learn more about and the systems that helped to create what thrived for thousands of years pre-colonization? Without considering this, I caution that this research may just support the systems that cause the underlying issues.” I exhaled, and people applauded (I assume they had similar thoughts).

“I haven’t consulted with Mi’kmaq communities or considered these systems, no. I could ask some Mi’kmaq students in my class, I suppose.” He acknowledged.

“That may be a helpful place to start. May I share some contacts and resources as well?” I asked.

“Yes. Definitely.” He accepted.

When the session ended, I was still a bit shaky but feeling relief. A couple of people shared their appreciation of my question and some sweet friends debriefed with me which was extraordinarily supportive! I felt better having shared my thoughts and hopefully increasing the integrity of our farming community.

I can better recognize my snake of stress now that slithers around me and tries to hold me still. Slowly, I reframe their embrace as a reminder that there is work to be done and that I have support to lean into the discomfort of system change. Again, and again, and again.

I acknowledge that my discomfort in this example is not a comparison to the high chronic stress experienced by Indigenous communities continuously being displaced and harmed by ongoing colonial efforts. I will keep working towards more creativity, compassion, and justice in our cultures. If you need support in this area, feel open to reach out.

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