Looking back in amazement

On the Unexpected Contribution of Collective on Reflection-Based-Ongoing Learning via Group Relation Conferences

by Jona M. Rosenfeld, Ph.D.

I have often asked myself how I have so willingly and persistently worked with, and learned from, the Group Relation Conferences in the Tavistock Tradition over the past 30 years – and done so with so much ardor. While it could have been due to their connections across multiple countries, and to the very special people involved in their commitment to being relevant, and thus their ever-readiness to change their themes and modes of operation, ardor would still not have been enough. What involved me in these activities was their relevance both to my work in the area of Learning from Success and to the actual collective on reflection-based ongoing learning. Instead of going into the details of any particular contribution of these conferences, here I shall confine myself to one particular recent case, nay event, where things developed in unexpected and most effective ways. It was one that raised my interest in exploring how ongoing learning in these conferences has shaped – in terms of learning from success – a particularly worthwhile decision related to some of my own professional learning pursuits.

It all happened quite recently, when I was about to finish writing my book From Exclusion to Reciprocity – A Journey of a Social Worker and before I had considered what I would do next. It was also about the time that I had been asked to write a contribution to the Newsletter of PCCA – Partners in Confronting Collective Atrocities. What happened then was related to the last two words of that organization’s name – “collective atrocities.” Those words made me decide, after much hesitation, to add a final chapter to my book. After reflecting long and hard, I gave it the title” Epilogue: Genocide and Poverty – Two Collective Man-Made Evils: A Challenge for the Future.” As it happens, I had known PCCA as a partner with OFEK, the Israeli group-relations organization to which I have belonged since its foundation 30 years ago. More recently, for over 20 years, it has been an active partner in the Nazareth Cycle of conferences on the Holocaust. Moreover, if that were not enough, it has also co-sponsored a conference named European Victims and Perpetrators – Then and Now, which was the first to take place in Poland. I was a member of the conference staff.

My concentration of the title, and especially on the concept of “Collective Atrocities”, enabled me to see the similarities between “genocide” to which the collective atrocities referred and poverty – a subject I have been involved in for over 40 years. Indeed it was at this point that I saw the connection between genocide and poverty, both being collective atrocities. And if that were not enough, it suddenly dawned on me that what Pere Joseph Wresinsky, the founder of ATD-the Fourth World Movement of Families Living in Extreme Poverty and Exclusion, had said about poverty also applied to genocide: “Poverty is man-made and man can unmake it.” Consequently, in the final chapter of my book I have now written that Learning from Success is a methodology that is relevant for systematically tackling both genocide and poverty, though each one to be addressed independently and each attuned to the individuals involved and not just to them as a collective.

I believe that what made the discovery of these and other surprising and unexpected interconnections between genocide and poverty come about, occurred in the aftermath of my own and others’ exposure to the above-mentioned opportunities on Ongoing and Collective-Reflection-Based Learning at these Conferences. Indeed, by now I believe that whenever individuals, collectives and organizations are exposed to this kind of learning, it probably enables them to free themselves from being “imprisoned” by rehearsed and irrelevant theories and by models and undifferentiated strategies that have deprived them from being inventors and from thus using their intuition. It would not have been possible to move beyond that in any of the above-mentioned relevant and innovative settings or organizations. To move beyond these stalemates and to act in the interest of moving beyond them, the work to be done must be clearly defined in ways that are relevant and innovative for the future development. That could not have happened until I came to see that, like poverty – a topic on which I have worked for more than 4 decades – genocide is to be seen as a collective evil. This understanding and view of both of these – i.e., poverty and the so totally different genocide – as “man-made” enables us to see the possibility of their being “unmade” by man, each in its own way.

None of what I have presented here, actually proves that indeed the development of the modes of addressing both these themes presented here is due to ongoing learning. But it does illustrate how it came about and that at least is an invitation to explore and study which learning events at these conferences have an impact and how they do so.

All this is written to acknowledge one aspect of the contribution of PCCA to some of the most devastating evils of our joint worlds.

Professor [emeritus] of  Social Work.
The Hebrew University, Jerusalem

Senior Advisor,
Meyers-Joint-Brookdale-Institute, Jerusalem

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