Manifestos, Charters and the Limbic Brain

The biology of why we need these guiding documents, and why Karabena develops and publishes them

By Kerry Arabena

Nothing gets me going in the morning more than a good cuppa tea and a Manifesto to read.

Some people like to read the news, talk to their partners, pat their dogs, go for a walk, do Pilates or chant, but I like to think. Manifestos can help me do just that because they describe the intentions and motivations of the individuals who write them. Being a curious person, I like to understand what I think about the content and, importantly, I need to know why I think what I think. 

I have read Manifestos that promote new ideas, reconceptualise truth or describe the nature of things, and others that are political or poetic. I value the opportunity to interrogate my views about a literary stance on an issue. Early on in my career, I got brave enough to get involved in the formulation of Manifestos, and eventually I wrote a few of my own. 

The first Manifesto I held in my hands was Noel Pearson’s Our Right to Take Responsibility back in 2000 when I was the Executive Officer of Apunipima. There were many a late night discussion around campfires all over Cape York as we pondered passive welfare, the debilitating impact the experience had on the cultural expression of reciprocity, and the flow-on effect of this for infrastructure, the quality of life and the meaning of hope. Welfare and the welfarist mindset of ‘getting (or giving) something for nothing’ propelled me to write about the ‘fitness’ of belonging in modern Australian society. While my writing won’t change the world, acknowledging that passive welfare continues to abound in communities, and ultimately hurts our children, has been a powerful catalyst for my work to address the experience of poverty during the first 1000 days of a child’s life. 

What welfare has also done, terribly, is to undermine the cultural principle of abundance, one that we are reactivating through IgNITE and the promotion of Indigenous to Indigenous trade. Just as the right to take responsibility creates opportunities to reengage reciprocity, Indigenous enterprise founded in the principle of abundance is the antidote to welfare. 

The thread of my first Manifesto is still weaving through my life. I studied in great detail Taiaiake Alfred’s Peace, Power and Righteousness, and received rare insights from immersing myself in the reverence of our world in the Manifestos of theologists, scientists, evolutionary cosmologists and ecologists. My first book, an exploration of the multitude of worlds that we occupy and are referent to, was an epistemic, science-based Manifesto about our species’ smallness and fleetingness in the vastness of all there is. I have attempted to rename large reports I have written as Manifestos – but have been (rightly) cautioned against it. I note with interest the recent virtual explosion of Manifestos ranging from the Black Lives Matter movement, to Indigenous health and demands for sovereignty, and an ever-widening circle of inclusion to incorporate the international recruitment of health care professionals. Perhaps, as a sign of the times, Manifestos for a healthy recovery from COVID-19 are emerging and providing pathways forward, a rallying call for hope when no hope seems available. 

To support people in having their voices heard, I set up a publishing house dedicated to Indigenous science, and the health and wellbeing of our Country and our people. We have also established writing retreats to support all manner of people to write their Manifestos, and their books, journal articles and reports, and to assist them in getting their work published

While I have written a great variety of things, I can honestly say that manifestos are my first love, but I think I might have a new favourite thing. This might come as a bit of a surprise, but… I think I love writing Charters more than I love writing Manifestos. 

I know, big statement, right? 

I love writing probably because it is a solitary process. In the context of a consulting firm, writing has a pace and tempo that oftentimes disallows the deep thinking needed to reimagine what can be possible, whether it is in relation to women’s leadershiphousing, health and wealth creation or the impact of traumatology as a science for precision medicine practitioners and an experience that can transform our biology. 

I love the process of co-creating documents that inspire rather than inform. This is why I left the university sector and became an entrepreneur, and I have no regrets. In my new life, I work with people in organic processes and capture their hopes, dreams and aspirations in powerful and tender ways. I cherish witnessing those moments when a particular kind of light shines from people’s eyes and softens into hope.

Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.’ Theodore Roosevelt

This softening occurs when I am working with people’s worldviews, beliefs, purpose, causes, self-image, and who we wish to become. When we know why people do what we do, we can identify the driving force behind everything we do. We then put in place ideas (not strategies) about how to make these ideas happen – the action we take, the habits we follow, the systems and routines we need to enact our ‘WHY’. 

As a trauma-informed facilitator, I understand my duty of care to people who are triggered, and I acknowledge when people are being brave. Acknowledging pain and bravery is critically important when creating Charters for individuals, families, communities and organisations. The challenge of holding space for diverse groups of people with varying life experiences in ideas-generative processes, quite frankly, rocks my world. A lot of my current identity is bound up with my ability to hold spaces for people who are processing conflict, change and transformation. 

People in these groups often speak with an earnestness that is ancestral and evocative. I have had the hairs on my arms stand up on end when people call on their ancestors and you can feel them come into the room. I have been humbled by the magnitude of what is said in different moments. I note when people offer their voice to the room for the first time, and say how much their voice is respected. I take the time to thank them publicly for sharing their voice with us because they deserve to be heard

When you work in a trauma-informed facilitation process, you can acknowledge when people have said things that need to be followed by silence. This silence is gracious, respectful and honours not only what people have said, but also honours the places in their bodies from where they have said it.

Much of our First Nations’ wisdom cannot be uncoupled from the pain of lived experience. 

As a skilled facilitator, I know the force of acknowledging the person’s voice and will say to the room:

‘…what you just said was powerful. I honour not only your voice, but I honour the lived experience which has given you your voice and I would like to sit with that a while. I need, and others need, to reflect deeply on what you have gifted us and what this means for this process and for our lives…’

I then drop my head or close my eyes to role model to others how to listen deeply. This is the cultural practice of Dadirri: of listening to the voice of people, of accepting their voice as a gift to the group, of legitimising the places in our bodies from where that voice emerges, and of honouring their lived experiences. To truly listen to others is transformative for them, the group and, if we let it, for us. The profoundness and simplicity of these types of teachable moments touches me deeply. I have come to respect that I need these moments to ground me as a human and to connect me to other humans, in human experiences. From these processes then, emerge our Charters.

Charters are meant to have two purposes. Firstly, they serve as a source of focus for people working together as a team. Secondly, they serve to illustrate the direction of that team. Some Charters are structured to reduce both confusion about group objectives and the risks associated with their implementation. While this is no doubt important, it is equally, if not more, important to aspire and inspire. After all, Martin Luther King had a dream, not a plan. 

We have chosen a different way to develop our Charters, processes that resonate with our biology, not our sociology. And, as evidenced by Simon Sinek, working with biology is key. 

If you are working with First Nations’ people, as I do, no matter where you are in the world Elders will talk about their hopes for future generations, and men will talk about a future in which they are a source of peace, providers for their families and upstanding members of their own nations and the societies that have colonised them. Women’s visions, however, always connect the past, present and future and amplify the need and desire for connectedness and love. 

The processes from which Charters and Manifestos emerge, in a First Nations-led process, are deeply felt and emotional. They are often experienced as a gift – where a group of people gift their knowledge and experience from one group to another. The Charters we support people to write are not the result of a singular person exercise. Each person involved in the process contributes a view, a phrase or, even better, they offer something beyond words, an emotion, a feeling. 

The other important thing for us to remember is that Charters are particular to the time, the place and the people who contributed to their development because they are the ones who believe in what they have created. In working with Ngunnawal Elders and their families back in 2013 to develop their Charter, I can recall the impact of reading out the statement about their desire for healing, for unity, for their need to engage deeply with their responsibilities as leaders in community, for feeling like they have a place where they can belong. There was an urging and urgency embedded in their experience:

We need to come together to create our future – one in which everyone has a place where they can feel proud, have dignity and feel they belong.

In some aspects of the Charter, they were communicating from their limbic brain, acknowledging that their identity is literally their repeated beingness, where habit becomes part of our identity. Rather than saying we want this, the Elders were saying we are this:

In being courageous we are a direct link back to the Dreamtime. This is the essence of Aboriginality, as is our relationship to land. 

Additionally, the limbic brain gets activated when people are concerned with changing their processes to change their results. We know that when behaviour and identity are fully aligned, you are no longer pursuing behaviour change, you are simply acting like the type of person you already believe yourself to be:

In this Journey we strive for Unity. We do this by empowering people, creating confidence, self-esteem and room for difference so we can work and laugh together, moving forward all the while. 

In the Charter for the Rights of Children yet to be conceived, we worked with the First 1000 Days Australia Council to talk about what children can rightfully expect of the families into which they will be born. The whole concept of working in the time before conception occurs was developed to correspond to the limbic system. This is the part of the brain responsible for all our behaviour and decision making, which we were consciously activating to evoke feelings like trust and loyalty. 

So many pregnancies are unplanned, and the voices of the children are not often conceived of until the pregnancy test comes back with two stripes and you have that moment of awe. Unlike the neocortex the limbic system has no capacity for language and, by all recent accounts, it is the microbiome and the vegus nerve that link the sensory experiences of our visceral organs and the brain. This is where the saying ’I have a gut feeling about this…’ comes into its own; it’s that feeling we get about a decision we have to make that we oftentimes struggle to explain. That particular Charter is precedent setting – nowhere else in the world is there a Charter that talks about the rights of children yet to be conceived, and when it is read out to people, they have often cried or had a deep and emotional response to the work. 

We have had a similar experience with Our Men, Our Shields, a Charter that redefines what our men can mean to our families, given the opportunity, and the narrative that allows this to happen. This was not a ‘you should’ perspective emphasising the ‘what’, which is the neocortex focused result of our ‘why’. We wrote this from a child’s perspective, again emphasising what it is that children can rightfully expect of the men who will provide care for them. We created opportunities for men to enact their cultural roles and responsibilities during the early formation of their families and, particularly in the Welcome Baby to Country ceremonies, the outcomes have been heart-warming. 

We need to touch people emotionally, because we can only be rational and logical after we have been emotional. The primary mode of the brain is to feel; the secondary mode is to think. In this instance, the Charter is seeking to align the non-conscious part of the brain focusing on feelings and anticipation in order to establish the foundations for our response to our children, the slow and conscious part of the brain that does the thinking. I did not have the time to think much after my children were born, but I immediately became a protective warrior Mumma bear. 

In our most recent Charter, which we developed in partnership with the Board of Koondee Woonga-gat Toor-rong the Victorian Indigenous-led philanthropic organisation, we used yarning as a way of structuring the Charter. Literally sitting around in an apartment suite in Barwon Heads for one and a half hours talking about hopes, dreams and aspirations was a wonderful experience. Through my coaching, I am learning more about what transformations are possible when we ask powerful questions of others, rather than giving them advice. The women in the room were shocked when I said, ‘Wow, you can go for morning tea now, you have just written your Charter.’ ‘We just did Whhhaaatttt????’

LOL. 

Through processing a series of questions aimed at asking ‘how we can live better’, these female Directors  were able to come up with a Charter that not only responds to the work of the Board, but one that accurately accounts for the influences of internal emotions on our daily lives. 

The process of writing a Women’s Leadership Manifesto went through the same process, and will be part of a ceremonial handover to the next cohort of women who will attend the pilot leadership program, taking these messages and using them for powerful impact in other areas of their lives. 

At Karabena Consulting, First 1000 Days Australia and our many subsidiaries, we know that behind every system of actions are systems of beliefs. We always reiterate that you can only work with people who believe what you believe. We also know that as deadly a speaker as I am(!), people are not showing up for me, they are showing up for themselves and their beliefs, many of which can be engaged with through Charters, Manifestos and ways of working; ways that recognise our humanness, that we are all in this together, and, when the world quiets to the sound of our own breathing we all want the same thing, love comfort and a peaceful heart. 

For more information on how Karabena can support your organisation to develop communications that are evocative, supportive and engaging of your limbic system, contact us on: info@karabenaconsulting.com

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