Interview with Aftab Erfan

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On deep democracy and why people call her when they feel afraid or stuck

By Michelle Marteleila

This post originally appeared on the http://www.deep-democracy.net/blog.

Aftab Erfan quit her environmental consulting job two weeks after being introduced to the teachings of deep democracy.

As she explained to me, the ‘terrorist line’ metaphor of deep democracy instantly resonated with her – a revelation that seems common among many newcomers to the methodology. In Aftab’s case, she realized she was so far along the ‘terrorist line’ in her own workplace that there was no way to turn it around. Ever since that impulsive decision Aftab has dedicated much of her professional and personal life to the practices of deep democracy for group facilitation and conflict resolution. Of note is her PhD dissertation, the first academic attempt at applying the tools of deep democracy in the context of an Indigenous community on Vancouver Island.

I recently sat down with Aftab, who is now a well-known deep democracy practitioner in Vancouver, a frequent contributor to this blog, and who happens to be one of my professors at the University of British Columbia. We talked about how deep democracy shifted her perspective on life, her current facilitation style, and where she wants to take her deep democracy practice in the future.

Our illuminating conversation has been condensed and (slightly) edited for clarity.

M: When did you start facilitating deep democracy?

A: I was very active in the youth environmental movement, and that summer when I first got introduced to deep democracy I was doing a bike trip to the tar sands in Alberta, Canada with a group of young environmentalists and I ended up using some deep democracy skills with them. We did check-ins, a soft-shoe shuffle, and I told them about role theory – just the basics. But it was so helpful on the trip – I basically became a facilitator then and there. That trip was my safe space to start practicing.

M: It’s an interesting story, actually. You kind of stumbled upon deep democracy, but maybe subconsciously you were looking for it. Did you get that feeling?

A: Yes, the first time I ever experience deep democracy was at a leadership session in Halifax, where my now good friend Sera Thompson facilitated a decision making process for our group. We were deciding as a group what to do for our final celebration day of this leadership program. I don’t even remember what my opinion was but I felt very strongly about what we should do! We did a big soft-shoe shuffle and an ‘argument’, and I was totally in the minority. It was obvious that my view was not what we were going to do. But I just remember coming out of it and saying to the group, “I didn’t get my way, but it kind of doesn’t even matter now because I got to say what I wanted to say.”

So that whole part of being heard and finding out what’s needed to go along – I had never had that experience before. It was very striking.

M: Did you always feel naturally confident doing this work in front of groups?

A: I took the traditional deep democracy learning path, where there are four levels of learning. I took these courses and began subtly using the methods in my work. I wasn’t saying that I was using deep democracy during my facilitation. At that point, when I was practicing, the context really wasn’t high pressure; it was just with my colleagues and I wasn’t necessarily “in front of the group” so to speak.

My crisis of confidence really occurred when I became an instructor. I learned the most from becoming an instructor and doing deep democracy in heated training contexts. As you know, the way we teach deep democracy is that we actually do it! We work with the real dynamics in the training session and the facilitator walks the talk all the way: using the four steps, holding neutrality, etc. So you have to be really quite good with the skills to be able to teach even the most elementary course, and I hit a steep learning curve as I tried to teach it. But as I did a few training sessions I started to realize that it won’t be a disaster – it might not be perfect, but it won’t be a disaster. As soon as I thought about my practice in that way, my confidence really built up. Aftab Erfan facilitating a public housing workshop in Vancouver

M: How would you describe your current facilitation style?

A: I often get called to facilitate when there is conflict, and people are usually either afraid or stuck. That is usually why I get called in, cause no one else wants to deal with that mess! And those are the sessions I enjoy the most.

For example, there was a referendum at UBC (University of British Columbia, where I teach) for BDS, which stands for boycott, divestment, and sanctions, against Israel. There was a group of Palestinian students who had signed petitions and put BDS on a referendum ballot – so now all of the students at UBC would get to vote on whether the university should divest from Israeli products, academic relationships and who-knows-what-else. The student government representatives called me and wanted to have some kind of session before the BDS vote went out, because it was a very heated issue, you know there were a lot of angry op-eds in the student newspaper – things like that. They wanted to organize a panel of four academics to speak to the issue, and asked me to moderate it. They expected about 250 students to show up, but they didn’t want the students to be able to ask any questions because everyone was so passionate about the issue. They were worried that the session would explode and turn into a huge debate.

So I said look, I can’t do the panel thing, because to me that is a recipe for disaster. You would be igniting something but not letting people who feel passionately actually talk about it! And the students are going to talk about it somewhere else – you know they will take it outside and the fight would happen on the streets. So I volunteered instead to design a forum where the students could talk to each other and there would be no panel. There was a very delicate art in how the invitation was put out and even what title we gave the event. We couldn’t call it a ‘dialogue’ because the Palestinian students would not go to something called a ‘dialogue’. It was very contentious in that context; every time the Palestinian students had been to a ‘dialogue’ session in the past, it meant that all the participants would be expected to sit around a circle and act friendly. There’s an expectation of civility in a dialogue, and they felt that it would not have room for their political anger, and that it would not acknowledge the context of systemic oppression inherent to the issue in the Middle East. So anyway, we had to tiptoe around the connotations of the word ‘dialogue’ and call it ‘a conversation’ instead.

On the day of the event about 80 people showed up, and we did a brief check in, a soft shoe shuffle and an argument. Basically, I asked the open-ended question “what are you feeling about this referendum?” Very quickly the group became polarized, and the polarization was the pro-BDS versus the anti-BDS. In the session, we set some agreements and we had this argument between the two sides. A lot of people were really wedded to one of those sides, but there was also a lot of people going back and forth between the two sides – feeling of two minds about the whole thing. I told one side that they had all the time in the world to say what they needed to say, that no one would interrupt them – and then the other side would have all the time they needed, without interruption. They got kind of excited about that.

And so what were the results? I would say we probably didn’t change anybody’s mind – but we did create more understanding between the groups. Because the issue has been so tense there really hadn’t been an exchange of information, so people didn’t even really know what was going on or what the other group stood for. A lot of the argument was spent clarifying things for each other.  So the pro-BDS people were explaining what they really wanted, they went over the basics of why they had mounted this campaign and why they felt it was important to sign onto BDS. It also became clear that they didn’t necessarily have a definition for what divestment would mean. What they wanted in the end, if the the BDS vote went through, was to form a committee to decide what divestment would mean for UBC. Only then would divestment be defined. It wouldn’t necessarily mean no one could have cell phones because the chips are manufactured in Israel! It could mean putting pressure on those chip manufacturing companies to stop investing in the war – or something like that. All of this was very clarifying for the other side to hear.

Then, the Jewish students talked about their fears of violence if the vote went through because other campuses where the BDS has been voted in have experienced instances of violence against Jewish students. And then we had this very powerful moment, when the Palestinian students stood up and said, if that happens we will stand by you. And it was very sweet. I really felt like there was a shift in perspective. There was a softening towards each other because that kind of thing was said. As we finished the session several people said that this level of understanding between the two sides had been unprecedented in their opinion. They were amazed that they could actually talk to each other, even though they disagreed on virtually everything.

How were you able to hold such a contentious space?

Well, right before the BDS forum, for three days I couldn’t do anything except meditate and pray and work on my neutrality! Really, it was a lot of work. But as a Deep Democracy practitioner, the biggest thing that helps me in contentious spaces is that I have a lens, which comes from role theory, about what is really going on the group, and I am comfortable enough with conflict that I’m not scared. I feel like everyone else around me might be freaked out, but I don’t have to be because I am resting in this neutral place of not being attached to any view or any outcome – no strong sense of right and wrong. Somehow that makes it safer for other people. I think that is the crucial role for facilitation in these heated contexts: being somebody who is able to see through the mess and hold the space open without judgement.

I had not heard about deep democracy until I took your classes, and I really wish it was more well-known – it is so useful in a variety of contexts. How does the Deep Democracy methodology translate for classroom settings?

Well, the Deep Democracy steps make it possible for the students to have a real conversation as adults. They don’t have to agree with the teacher, they don’t have to agree with the readings, nobody will be shut down officially by the person in front of the class – so there is more safety to actually explore ideas. And any real learning at the university level has to come from really exploring ideas – it doesn’t come from being told what the answers are.

M: Where do you want to take your practice in the future?

A: I think it will be more like a two-pronged approach. One part is that I want to continue working with these highly contested issues, especially around race, ethnicity, and other dimensions of diversity. I think the Indigenous-settler conflict in Canada is very ripe to work on, as are the issues around new immigrants. And on the other hand, I almost want to do a shallower version of deep democracy, which has also been developing around the world. So taking the four steps and role theory as a lens and applying it to many more contexts, like every classroom in the country, every board room. We need to spread a lighter version of it that is easier to teach and easier to apply.

There is a lot of work to do, not necessarily in going deeper with issues, but going wider. I am committed to doing that in Vancouver especially, but also across Canada. I’ve been thinking that I almost have an army of past and present students that have been using deep democracy in little bits, and I love that!