Over the past 8+ years of nonprofit experience and during a brief stint of training with a high demand group focused on meditation and leadership development (The Monastic Academy) I have observed how patterns and ideologies related to the complex socio-emotional and historical contexts of American culture and colonization show up, again and again, both within the broader systematic issues nonprofits exist to address as well as within organizations themselves. 

Recently while reviewing a list of characteristics and patterns common in “cult” dynamics I recognized that I was also looking at a list that describes colonization. According to a simple google search, colonization is the action or process of settling among and establishing control and domination over the indigenous people of an area. Historically, global colonization has often targeted and disproportionality affected many communities of color including the genocide of indigenous peoples, forced assimilation into cultural and religious practices, loss of language and culture, taking of indigenous lands, the enslavement of Africans and other peoples, forced separation and abuses of indigenous children in boarding schools, etc. Before then many groups within Europe had their own history of invasion, conquest, and colonization (i.e. spread of the Roman empire, English clearing of the Scottish Highlands.) These practices and the history of colonization has left a deep psychological, physical, emotional, and spiritual imprint on people from all walks of life. Unfortunately, these unconscious and conscious patterns/attitudes inherent in “colonization” still show up throughout all levels of our society, perpetuating harm and inequity, causing environmental damage, and are often deeply embedded within our frameworks for community, leadership, and organizational management. This makes it critically important to be intentional about recognizing and addressing unhealthy and dysfunctional patterns of behavior, structures, and practices that perpetuate harm directly and indirectly within our communities and organizations. 

On the far end of this spectrum, we see high-demand groups, commonly known as “cults”.  Many of these groups operate under a 501c3 nonprofit status and have a mission to bring transformative change and/or to save the world. However, the outward-facing mission and values these groups aspire to often prove to be incongruent with the internal narrative and actual impacts of the organization. Perhaps these groups are not as separate from the dominant culture as we might like to think but are in fact intense microcosms in which particular underlying ideologies, structures, and behaviors are taken to an extreme. Common characteristics, ideologies, and patterns within cults include but are not limited to recruiting of “elite or special ones”; we are the chosen ones; we are going to save the world; we have the right to have and exercise power over others because we are better in x,y, or z ways; unlimited expansion (Manifest Destiny, anyone?); use of religion/spirituality and power to control people and governments; dominated group submits to the will of the dominator; hierarchical and authoritarian (often patriarchal) styles of leadership, breaking down of ones personal and cultural identity and replacing it with a new cult dogma and identity, abuses of power and lack of accountability for those abuses; distorted and disempowered relationships between feminine/masculine energies and persons; disconnect/distrust of your own body and emotions; unhealthy relationship to resources (i.e. money, land) and resource extraction (i.e. unethical fundraising practices, illegal activities), ect]. Involvement in and hierarchies within these groups are often but not always reflected along lines of class, gender, and race reflected in the broader society as "cults" aka high demand groups often target people with money and greater social influence.  

At the same time, "cults" are likely a long-term cultural byproduct of colonization that has left many people rootless, with intergenerational trauma, experiencing "the loss of the village", with inadequate socio-emotional support networks, and a lack of cultural identity and connection to the cultures their ancestors came from. These impacts also include many people of European descent. It is important to acknowledge that capitalism has played a significant role in the breakdown of and the “loss of the village”.  Many people today, especially young people are hungry for individual and cultural identity, a sense of belonging, initiation, community, guidance and mentorship, power and influence, searching for solutions to societal and environmental breakdowns, transformation, and for shared purpose and meaning that is lacking in the broader culture. It's important to note that none of these are bad things by themselves and that generally speaking the broader culture has done a poor job of meeting these needs. Throw in a major loss or life transition or past childhood trauma without the support of a "village" and people are incredibly vulnerable to charismatic leaders who are also seeking to meet their own needs who more or less promise to give people everything they have been looking for at a "price.” This price often being their agency, their power, their silence, access to their resources (money, sex, social influence) and their complicity in perpetuating harmful and even abusive power structures and dynamics.

Many nonprofits and companies that do not fit the defining characteristics of a "cult" have also been guilty of perpetuating these systems, patterns, and practices that further disempower marginalized groups, individuals, and local communities (especially poor and BIPOC communities.) Some of the ways these patterns of "colonization" show up in both nonprofit organizations and companies that may or may not meet the criteria for “cults”; but nonetheless are problematic and cause harm within our communities  are:

  • Mission-driven vs. Community-centered.  The “mission” and/or the needs/desires of the institution/leaders are put above the needs of the communities they serve (i.e. clients, participants, customers) and employees even in cases where the actions of the organization cause harm to those who interact with it. Healthy organizations intentionally use metrics for evaluation and feedback processes to gather data about their impact and the needs of communities through surveys, focus groups, listening to feedback and grievances within the community, and centering the experiences and needs of the community as being fundamental to their work and mission. They do not put "the mission" above the needs of the community or use it to justify unethical and/or harmful behaviors and impacts.
  • Hierarchical and inequitable power structures that reflect along lines of class, race, ability, and gender (often unconsciously) creating and perpetuating longstanding patterns of harm, inequitable access and opportunity, power imbalances, and abuses of power, etc. For this reason, many organizations have started to shift towards collaborative and decentralized models of leadership, and focused education and training in anti-oppression models are essential.
  • Lack of effective accountability and grievance processes. Healthy organizations create intentional structures and processes that ensure that leaders, employees, and community members understand standards of conduct and are accountable for their actions and impact. Some examples of this include a well developed and diverse board that has at least 7 members without conflicts of interest (re: nonprofit best practices), clearly outlined grievance and feedback processes for employees and participants, checks and balances within the system, distribution of power, committees and/or employees devoted to handling grievances/complaints and accountability, acknowledging and making amends for harms done,  active engagement in restorative practices and meditation processes, etc.
  • Erasure of personal and cultural identities and differences through policies that limit the expression of identities (i.e. sexuality, religious, political, etc.), fear-based compliance and silencing of voices of dissent, lack of inclusion, and lack of power given to those with different backgrounds and perspectives, etc. While a healthy company or organizational culture is important to cultivate and can create strong group cohesion; when branding, policies, uniforms, and other practices seek to exclude or replace existing identities this can lead to unhealthy group dynamics. Healthy organizations value diverse backgrounds, thinking, and approaches; and see the essential and valuable contributions these bring to any organization.
  • “Save the world” narratives and marketing of self-aggrandizing narratives that many organizations and companies engage in by over-exagerating the importance, role, or uniqueness of their mission and work. Healthy organizations demonstrate awareness of other organizations who engage in similar types of transformative and social change work in their focus area and/or others who offer similar products or services in the for-profit world - as well as what is unique about their approach, methodology, service, or product. They understand that social change and transformation is a collaborative process as well as the importance of accurately representing and demonstrating the claims they are making; especially when positioning themselves as “best” or better than alternative options.
  • Engaging in narrative control through the use of nondisclosure agreements, threats, or other forms of manipulation and coercion. By silencing accounts of harm and unethical conduct within the organization they effectively control the narrative and sharing of information. Withholding or distorting information that would reflect negatively on the organization and/or impairs people’s ability to make fully informed and consent-based decisions through PR, reports, and solicitations that do not accurately describe the activities of an organization or events being reported on; especially to stakeholders, funders, and major donors. Healthy organizations take accountability for their impacts, learn from their mistakes, and seek outside perspectives and expertise when confronted with difficult challenges. They place a high value on integrity and transparency; and do not sacrifice these values, their personel, or opportunities for meaningful growth and change for the sake of reputation, money, or power. 
  • People are treated as a means to an end, and actions that are unethical or that either intentionally or unintentionally result in harm are dismissed or rationalized through the argument that “the ends justify the means.” Healthy organizations and companies center the experience and needs of community members, participants, employees, clients, and customers; and do not sacrifice the wellbeing and safety of any of these in pursuit of “the mission.”
  • Appropriation and consumption of cultural identities (especially BIPOC identities) practices, knowledge, attire, lands, and more without the permission of those who are a part of that cultural identity and without the proper cultural and historical context for the things we are partaking in. Appropriation can also extend to using and/or taking credit for other people's ideas and intellectual property without their permission.

Because of the prevalence of these patterns within organizations and community spaces, I believe it is critical that all organizations (regardless of whether they use a nonprofit or for-profit model) engage in accountability processes, staff training, and community dialogue focused on decolonization, anti-racism, anti-sexism, and other anti-oppression frameworks as well as engage in preventive conversations and measures designed to address systemic barriers, common pitfalls and challenges, and intentionally nourishing and maintaining health organizational practices and community dynamics. It takes a lot of work to examine and de-program the many toxic ideas of leadership and community we've received and build healthy organizations because many of the models we have inherited are harmful. 

Please feel free to comment below on other ways you’ve seen patterns and behaviors of “colonization” show up in organizational cultures. By no means is this list of examples comprehensive. How have you seen these patterns show up within the communities and organizations you’ve been a part of? What steps can we take to radically “decolonize” our organizations and communities? What practices and structures do you think best support the development of healthy organizations and community dynamics?



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Just to nip any confusion in the bud (since this came up a couple weeks ago): My name is Herschel, I am not the author of the OP. I spent two years at the Monastic Academy, and have been around the rationalist community since ~2017. [edited to remove the author's legal name, at their request]

Hierarchical and inequitable power structures that reflect along lines of class, race, ability, and gender (often unconsciously) creating and perpetuating longstanding patterns of harm, inequitable access and opportunity, power imbalances, and abuses of power, etc. 

That seems to be a quite big claim. What evidence do you have for it being true?

For this reason, many organizations have started to shift towards collaborative and decentralized models of leadership, and focused education and training in anti-oppression models are essential.

Is there any evidence that such training reduces abuses of power?