Baku Training Project

Baku, Azerbaijan September 6, 2004. by Craig Barnes

We have been aware, as we planned this meeting, that studies show that it is often very difficult to heal a single individual if the environment in which he or she lives is not also changed. The cultures which surround us have a powerful effect on how we live and how we see ourselves. Sometimes, with the best of programs, the most solid financing and expert assistance, when we try, for example, to reduce smoking or heart disease we have found that if we only address the single individual when that person goes back out into the environment which created the problem, the overall situation may overwhelm the healing and re-stimulate the old conduct.

So we planned this training to try to bridge between the personal work and the work of social change. Every participant took part every day in small group work through which we hoped to create the conditions for personal growth and psychological development. These groups met in small, confidential circles which could address issues of personal pain, failure, success, image and identity all of which might be barriers to wholeness and health. Scholarship indicates that group therapy may sometimes be even more effective than individual therapy and that men and women often heal more effectively in the culture of a group than when working alone, or even with a single therapist.

Each day, in addition, we also met in circles which discussed the national cultures in which we live, the communities of social and political opinion which support us and those which defeat us, in the United States, in Azerbaijan, in Tajikistan, in our progress toward a civil society. We discussed the mechanics by which ideas move through society, moving from innovators, through opinion leaders to early adapters. We discussed the paralyzing effects of corruption, the dimensions of the problem in educational institutions, in medicine, in business, in the progress of democracy. Such payments are bribes to some but insure a living wage to others and as a result divide the population among themselves, destroy confidence in each other and in political and economic institutions, destroying the conditions necessary for civil society or for a free market economy. These small groups also discussed the difficulties inherent in moving beyond the narrower social or professional groups in which we currently work and the need to make bridges outside our professional connections thus to spread a way of thinking throughout a whole culture.

Each day of our sessions included a substantial presentation of information relating to personal or social healing and so we heard in detail facts about PTSD, its devastating effects on those who fight wars or are damaged by natural disasters, on both men and women, and on generations through time. We heard about how the stories which we use to organize our intentions and resources have their deep roots in history, how we have individual stories and national stories and how while we are on the one hand working in small personal groups to heal our personal stories we are also working in the public arena to heal and change our national stories. We traced our fascination with heroism and war back to Homeric times and came to the grips with the fact that these stories are a choice that we make and that we still are making these choices today. One presentation discussed movements of the peoples all over the world over the last 100 years which have brought about shifts in national thinking, cases where the seemingly powerless have become powerful enough to dissolve empires of the United Kingdom and Russia, brought change to South Africa and Eastern Europe, to consciousness and intention in the American South and on issues like children's labor, women's rights and the Vietnam war. Another presentation included detailed discussion of Virginia Satir's styles of communication, working with models for placating, blaming, distracting and being super reasonable, illustrating the fluid nature of these strategies and their widespread use by nearly all of us. A final presentation featured an interactive program relating to vulnerable groups in which participants sculptured models, framing the dynamics of these relationships by using other participants and shaping them to create the picture. The modeling was followed by full discussion in small groups of what works and what does not work to move such groups out of their extreme vulnerability toward integration into the society as a whole.

These special presentations each day gave to our training a kind of intellectual super structure and exposure to new areas of research. These presentations also provided a framework for understanding the personal work which was being done in small group therapy sessions and the small groups on social change. The presentations therefore provided facts and details which might be useful to the participants as they themselves teach and work in the communities from which they have come and to which they will return. Participants were provided book lists for useful reading.

Because, however, we are all different and learn in different ways, some of us through facts and details, some of us through pictures and emotions, touch and feel, the training each day also included a block of meetings under the title of the Theater of the Oppressed. Some of those who may have been less comfortable in the purely mental or abstract presentations led the way by acting out images of corruption and, contrarily, images of community. Movement and silent personal contact became means to unlock truths of our condition, not by speaking, but by showing. We laughed and cried at the vivid portrayals and discovered that it is more difficult to portray community than to portray corruption. Community seems to be a thing of the heart and the mind, less specific than guns and money and therefore more difficult to capture in images. The difficulty itself became a teaching. Groups pointed out that community building must be a work of years and not simply of the moment and that corruption is quicker and easier. Still, the progress on community building was apparent in the process.

As one of the goals of the meeting was to talk about building a civil society with conditions of mutual respect and openness between leaders and the community, these meetings began each day with a temperature reading in which leaders and participants expressed appreciations, problems, puzzles and solutions, new information and wishes. It was a way of putting into practical application the conditions for a healthily functioning community. Distances between trainers or alienations because of misunderstandings or changes in schedules or overall intentions for our work could be shared in this way and each afternoon we closed the day with comments and dialogue about how the day's work had gone, summing up, making sure that the community was working together.

In combining these methods, leading from temperature readings to presentations of new facts and theories to group therapy, to developing new understanding of social change, there was a pioneering element. Few, if any, programs, bridge directly from group therapy, actually experienced in the sessions, to social organization and action, actually planned and discussed in corresponding sessions, to movement and interactive theater designed to illustrate the meaning and feeling of these ideas. Doing all these things at once was intended to create a sort of synthesis, some greater resonance than might be possible than if we worked in only one discipline at a time, and it was clear after eight days of continuously working together that the combination was working. Participants said that they were experiencing a sense of greater personal power and hope. The joining of personal work and social or community action, the intention to change our national as well as our personal stories, was creating a new sense of realistic possibility. Whereas a the beginning of the week participants had expressed doubt that corruption or democracy or civil society would be at any time within their reach, by the end of the week many were saying that they could see a way change might happen.

Hope may also have come from the intention to continue this program over the long term, over four years, to not simply have a good seminar and go home, but rather to build community over the time it takes to have real meaning. This too, therefore, was a factor in the planning: that the program would not simply end; that these participants would not simply be replaced with new participants next March, or next June, but that they would be able to return, to continue to work with these trainers, adding new ones as possible; that they would continue to work with each other, that they could build continuously upon this foundation.

The participants were in ages from their early twenties through their fifties but the largest number were between their late twenties to early forties; they were mostly professionals, doctors, social workers, teachers, psychiatrists and psychologists, some who have worked with refugees or displaced persons or with the disabled or with the mentally ill. The group was therefore unusually skilled and experienced, sophisticated and thoughtful, with considerable life experience but not so far up the professional ladder as to be uninterested in change, either in themselves or in their society. They were from Azerbaijan and Tajikistan and the trainers were from Azerbaijan, Croatia and the United States.

As the session ended, participants were asked to close with a word or a sentence that expressed something of their experience. Reports were rather remarkable. Some said that they had found a new hope. Some said that they had not before experienced a meeting which so matched their expectations, not disappointing them. Some said that they were eager to meet again, or to work in the interim on continuing programs, in Azerbaijan or Tajickistan, or to organize their own materials for presentation and discussion at the next meeting, to develop media contacts, to write articles. Some expressed gratitude for the democratic nature of the sessions, the absence of dogmatic teaching, the sense of inclusion, the opportunity to be heard in many different ways. Many said that they had been changed, personally, by the experience.

After eight days, the meeting closed on the note that each small new community that is created in this way is like lighting a campfire in the wilderness and as the years go by and more such communities are created and come in contact with each other in Azerbaijan, in Tajikistan and in the United States the effect will be to bring a glow, to spread a light through the whole forest of our lives and it will be the glow of a new civil society.

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