The life-giving power of an Agreement of Trust

I've been fascinated by human development, learning and growth for over 2 decades. I studied the history of ideas, became a learning researcher, an advocate for creative, immersive, equity-centred education, managed psychosocial work and later trained as a coach. A central question throughout my entire career has been: how do we create spaces where everyone can truly belong? That is, show up as their whole selves and trust that they will be met with respect, honour and care? When we make wholeness our guiding star it requires more of us, as both space holders and community members. It asks of us to re-define the concept of safety as staying in the status quo and open up for the opportunity to create spaces that actively seek to challenge it. Because if we are not prepared to go there, there can be no collective liberation. And our pretty words of wholeness will be seen as empty promises. But the bandwagon of the 'brave space' doesn't have to mean we have to discard the notion of safety. In fact, it's necessary in order to evolve in life-affirming ways.

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Emily Johnsson
Emily Johnsson
Nurturing changemakers for a whole world.

THERE seems to be a trend to claim that there are no safe spaces.

It seems that we want to throw out the possibility of safety and we want to only talk about bravery. 

I understand where people are coming from when they want to discard the possibility of safety, but from where I’m sitting, it all depends on how we define safety, and how willing we are to go beyond binary thinking.

For example: developing our emotional maturity does not necessarily feel comfortable, or ‘safe’ – in fact – if we are not experiencing growing pains, we are likely not ‘going there’ – to the sharp edges that we have previously sought to avoid or ignore. Equally, leaning into and talking about what hurts or feels awkward can be a place of comfort for some people with high emotional intelligence.

But discomfort and comfort are not the same as being safe – or not. We can be safe and deeply uncomfortable all at the same time.

And unsafe conditions can feel familiar and even comfortable, depending on the circumstances of our early life.

So, as someone who has dedicated my life to creating a variety of spaces for learning and growth, quite radically so for many years, I don’t agree.

It is entirely possible to create spaces that are anchored in safety because they are anchored around something that I describe as an ‘Agreement of Trust’. AGREEMENTS OF TRUST HAve THE POWER OF RELEASING THE EVOLUTIONARY POTENTIAL OF A COMMUNITY.

An Agreement of Trust is not the same as a set of

Rules (seek to control)

Guidelines (loose and can be avoided)

Good-will practise (good intentions that are not enough to create cultures of care and belonging)

Curtesy policy or (about politeness – not authenticity)

Manifesto statement (usually a beautiful collection of words that is wheeled out in front of funders or stakeholders but not lived and breathed in action)

Instead, an Agreement of Trust is a function of shared values, which in turn is anchored in a shared world view.

This world view and values are on an Agreement of Trust translated into behaviours, that are to be practised together, for the higher good of all.

Regeneration is in essence about returning to life, liberating ourselves from the death traps of hundreds of years of collective trauma of separation.  So any regenerative community will likely want to have collective liberation as its guiding star.

Spaces that are conducive for learning, unlearning and growth are those where we can enter into what in learning theory is known as the zone of proximal development – conditions where we are neither too stretched or it feels too easy. It’s the optimal space – the optimal soil – in which we can grow.

An Agreement of Trust creates a kind of breathable membrane that allows the organism of the community to arrange itself loosely within those parameters and start to move nutrients around to ensure each part of the organism as a whole is thriving.

In human terms, an Agreement of Trust opens up for the possibility of letting our guard down and our minds and hearts to open. The possibility of seeing into our own hearts and the hearts of others a little deeper. It opens up for emotional intimacy – the birthplace of healing, liberation and wholeness.

But in order for everyone to be able to practise emotional intimacy and showing up as our whole selves, the TRUST part of the Agreement of Trust is essential.

Those that are marginalised intersectionally by our various systems of oppression, are used to hiding parts of themselves, compartmentalising, editing themselves, swallowing their words and emotions too. To them – you – the very mention of safety can feel like a provocation, a luxury granted to the privileged, the normative. A ‘safe space’ can be seen as one that keeps alive the status quo, in fear of eruptive fragility and being rejected.

And that is why an agreement of TRUST is like no other agreement.

Because of the word trust.  You see, an essential part of what is known as the Anatomy of Trust (in the name of wholeness we might want to rename it an ecology of trust!) as described by people like John Gottman, Charles Feltman, and Brené Brown, is accountability.

Accountability is an essential and central part of TRUST. But in the co-dependent system of relating to each -other, we have learnt and been socialised into thinking that accountability is the same as judgement and possibility of being cast out.

This fear is intrinsic to the story of separation.

We have learnt that accountability is the same as conditional belonging. Conditional love.

Which means that the notion of accountability will make some people feel deeply unsafe in spaces that require us to show up fully and meet ourselves in the mirrors of our siblings.

But this is where our Agreement of Trust disrupts and instead seeks to create a new kind of safety needed in order for us to not run away, but to stay and breathe and be brave, and safe all at the same time.

Safe in the knowing – the trust – that loving accountability in the name of collective liberation, is about opportunities for learning and growth, instead of judgement and shame.

Safe in the knowing that through the eyes of our Agreement, we are all seen as imperfect and enough, AND that there is room for growth, all at the same time.

Brave, in that we are saying yes to looking ourselves in the eyes whilst being lovingly witnessed and held by others in our discomfort.

Safe and brave because an Agreement of Trust invites us to show up in a 200% relationship with ourselves, and our siblings.

Not only is it an invitation – but an activation – into a deeper levels of self-leadership, for the whole. and self-leadership, by its very nature, enables us to hold ourselves – enabling us to move through the world with a greater sense of inner safety.

These are in theory life affirming conditions that have the potential to birth new worlds. Within and without. Life-affirming conditions that make us both resilient, connected and purposeful.

IF we truly commit to them. Agree to them. No-one exempt.

It requires that we can TRUST that we will each show up with a commitment to integrity and re-alignment with life.

That we will hold that accountability is a love language necessary for the regenerative age.

And in the process of living, breathing our sacred agreement, we will remember our imperfectly beautiful humanity as each layer of armour falls off, one safe and brave moment at a time, and we come to know the meaning of belonging to each other once more.

3 thoughts on “The life-giving power of an Agreement of Trust”

  1. Mette Lindgren Helde

    Very intriguing – your take on what I “already know” but have felt difficult to grab, express and explain (including to myself): That safe space is not enough and that brave space is not enough – it is something more and different we need. Radical Trust is a concept I reflect on – connected to this. I will come back to this post as I keep on reflecting on the topic. Big thanks. /Mette

  2. Emmanuel Izuegbunam

    Thanks for sharing. You are doing a great job in Nurturing changemakers for the whole world.

Comments are closed.

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What is Wholeness? Embracing the fullness of life in all directions

Wholeness is a process that can support our capacity to lead ourselves well and move through life feeling more connected, resilient and free.

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Emily Johnsson | November 25, 2023
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About Emily & White Supremacy

Emily is a space holder and self-leadership coach to changemakers. She has over 20 years experience in the field of human development, learning and growth, and leads the coaching and consultancy company Wish Tree since 2011. Her work centres around wholeness – whole humans, whole communities, whole organisations, whole ecosystems. A whole world. Her changemakership is therefore dedicated to clearing distortions and fragmentations that relate to our perceptions of separation.

Emily has been exposed to and ‘sat with’ systemic issues around race, racism, privilege and injustice her whole life. She was born in Camden, London, in the late 1970s to a Swedish immigrant single mum and spent her first formative years in a highly culturally and ethnically diverse setting. As a baby, Emily and her mum lived in a bedsit in a shared house with a Black British family. Her first memory of Father Christmas was of him as a Bangladeshi man. Emily’s mum worked with refugee families and in Children’s Homes in inner city London, and since she had no access to child care opportunities, Emily joined her at work. For a while, Emily had an older Black British foster sister called Debbie. She was very often the only white child in the community of children of which she was a part.

Emily moved to Sweden with her mum as a child and as a teenager became involved with, and led, antiracism youth work in her local town through her school and council-initiated networks in the 1990s.

Her mum, who was active in the peace-and- environmental movement and who had been involved as an ally in the civil rights movement in the US on her travels there, introduced her to Black feminist and activist writers such as Alice Walker, Toni Morrison and Audre Lord, and actively taught her about white privilege, white supremacy and the truth of colonialism. She was also taught about the importance of learning from Indigenous wisdom keepers in order to heal and evolve as humanity, and to (in those days) stop climate change.

In contrast, on her father’s side, Emily is of British Colonial descent. Emily’s grandmother was born in Zimbabwe to Scottish sheep-farmers. Her grandfather came from a poor English background but won a scholarship to Cambridge University to study law. As many young British men of his time who sought “adventure, a good job and travel”, Emily’s grandfather joined the colonial service in the final days of the British Empire, and served in several African countries as a high-ranking colonial officer. He spoke Zulu and Emily’s father spoke Swazi and Swahili before being sent to Britain as a child to attend boarding school, thousands of miles away from his parents.

Although Emily did not grow up with her father or his family, she eventually came to know them and have a relationship with them, which involved taking responsibility for understanding and healing her own familial and ancestral relationship to colonialism and white supremacy.

In this process, she came to see, feel and understand first hand and close up, the deeper psychological workings of the system of white supremacy, the colonial mind and its intimate links with narcissism, perfectionism, patriarchy and extractive economies and behaviours.

Between 2003-2015, Emily worked as a learning researcher and Access, Diversity and Inclusion enabler in the Arts & Cultural Sector, deeply rooted in the Convention of the Rights of the Child and the Human Rights Convention. She worked across the U.K and Scandinavia contributing to a number of large scale change projects, self-evaluation initiatives, conferences and trainings such as “Access for All”, “Inspiring Learning for All”, “Belonging – the Voices of London’s Refugees”, “The West Indian Front Room”, “Kultur och Fritid för Alla”, “Vidgat Deltagande”, “In this curriculum I don’t exist”, “In between two worlds – London teenagers’ ideas about Black History, Belonging and being British” to name a few. She worked with a wide range of marginalised communities as well as with leaders and directors holding white privilege, facilitating necessary and brave conversations challenging the status quo.

Emily has worked across many cultures and languages around the world from Sri Lanka to South Africa, Costa Rica and India to Romania and Denmark, continuously reflecting on and challenging white saviour tendencies. In this process has come to observe how white supremacy and racism works differently in different countries depending on context and history.

In 2020, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, Emily became a loud voice in the Wellness industry by calling in leaders bypassing white supremacy through ‘love and light’ rhetoric, exceptionalism, colourblindness and virtue signalling. She closed down several online coaching circles because white participants were unwilling to dive deeper into their own internalised white supremacy, and rendered the spaces not only additionally unsafe, but traumatising for BIPOC clients. Her platform and large facebook community for coaches and wellbeing facilitators centred BIWOC-led anti-racism conversations as a response.

Emily is a skilled and fiercely loving coach and space-holder with many years experience of creating safe spaces for accountability, healing, integration and growth to take place.

She is dedicated to her own ongoing learning, healing and unlearning of covert white supremacy. Examples of this are continuous learning from a wide range of anti-racism educators, authors and activists from around the world.

This bio has not been written with the intention of centring Emily in the context of Me & White Supremacy, but to transparently share about her background, values, skills and experience in order for you to make a conscious decision to choose her as a space-holder, or not.

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