What Does Ancestral Work Have To Do With Organizational Change?

Sunday, May 1st, 2022

Happy International Workers Day! 

As the days get longer, spring is a natural time for folks to come out of hibernation, revel in the dappled sunshine, and gather together with friends, family, community, and fellow workers. With the ebb and flow of the pandemic across different locales, it is super tricky to figure out, of course, the ifs, hows, and whens of groups gathering together again.

I have noticed an uptick in requests for in-person meeting and retreat facilitation that center strengthening interpersonal connections, building culture, and reestablishing ways of working together. I couldn’t be more thrilled to be of support during this time of shift and change.

I love this picture of new spring blossoms, young leaves, and old, shriveled crabapples still hanging on. It’s multiple generations dancing together!

One way to strengthen organizational community is to spend time together reflecting and sharing how our personal and social histories impact our organizational life. I’ve been working on a longer piece of writing that gets at this. It is a set of memoiristic essays that are about group process work, experimental theater and performance art, the pandemic, grief and mourning, and ancestry, among other topics. In my writing, I link my current organizational consulting work to my early years in performance art and experimental theater, coining the term Organizational Performance Art to describe the sense-making and community building work I engage in with groups. Below, I share a bit on how I tie together family and ancestral work to a related concept I call Ancestral Performance Art.

While I was writing about Organizational Performance Art, I was working on a parallel piece of writing about family and ancestry work. I struggled to find connections between the two sets of writing. One day, while I was out biking and clearing my head, the phrase “Ancestral Performance Art” came to me. Yes, that was it! The work of mourning and remembering loved ones, uncovering and reinterpreting family stories, and witnessing and holding space in the present, all of it is Ancestral Performance Art.

The two practices, Organizational and Ancestral Performance Art, are interdependent. How can we work effectively across race, class, gender, and other socially constructed power differentials if we do not first examine our origin stories? If we do not take up, sift through, own, and tell our family and ancestral histories, how can there be social and organizational equity and transformation?

Ancestral Performance Art examines and shares familial history and practices for the purpose of individual and communal thriving and liberation. It is the accounting for the influence of the many worlds and histories we each are a part of and the reckoning with their impact on one’s self, family, and larger communities. It centers on an honest, clear-eyed holding of space for the emergence of joy, grief, love, remonstration, inclusion, and possibility. It is also a precondition for engaging in useful and meaningful Organizational Performance Art.

My Ancestral Performance Art includes writing about holding space for my mother as she died, my family’s grieving journey, and an examination of how racism, separatism, and exclusion show up in my white Jewish ancestry, born of –but not excused by–  the trauma of anti-Semitic violence and oppression we have endured for multiple generations.

What is your Ancestral Performance Art? What are you loving, defying, uncovering, and reimagining? Who are you? Why are you? Who do you want to be? Why do you want to be? These questions are central to both Ancestral and Organizational Performance Art.

As the days get warmer, may your personal, ancestral, and organizational branches open to the sky of possibility while your roots deepen and embrace the earth of your origins!


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