Eliat Aram tells of directing a three-day Group Relations Conference in New York City

Eliat Aram tells of directing a three-day Group Relations Conference in New York City

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Dr Eliat Aram reports on directing Authority and Leadership in Groups and Organizations: Exploring the Price of Learning.

Two years ago I was invited by Dr Sarah Brazaitis, the Head of the Organisational Psychology department of Teachers College (TC), Columbia University, to direct their Fall (Autumn) Group Relations conference for a period of three years, starting from the Autumn of 2013.

Dr Brazaitis and her boss and mentor Dr Debra Noumair have successfully embedded the Group Relations conference methodology in their institute for way over a decade. In a world where Group Relations programmes across the world are struggling to move beyond being seen as an ‘on the edge’ activity, the Columbia experience is an impressive and perhaps even enviable position. Hundreds of students every year are fortunate enough to have the experience of Group Relations theory and practice as part of their clinical and/or organisational studies.

Having directed the Tavistock Institute’s two week-long ‘Leicester’ conference six times, I was excited to take up the challenge of directing a short weekend conference, with a large membership, in the USA where I haven’t worked much before in experiential conferences. I was supported by a fantastic Associate Director for Administration, Nathan Gerrard, and a conscientious administrative team, Kristen Bakalar and DeMarcus Pegues, all three are doctorate students or recent graduate students of the TC programme. Highly committed to Group Relations, passionate about this methodology and committed to this work they have made the task of directing in a foreign country a nearly seamless experience.

In conceptualising this particular conference, the theme that we put up for exploration was ‘authority and leadership in groups and organisations – exploring the price of learning’: how inter-dependent are our beliefs and ideas about authority and leadership in our groups and organisations? How similarly and differently do we make sense of the ‘price of learning’, individually and collectively? What does ‘learning’ mean to us and how do we think about its price?

This was taken up from the onset through the application forms where applicants were invited to write something about what the title meant for them, including the economic dimension of higher education being so expensive. In the USA this means that often the students carry loans of six figures, paying it back often for the rest of their professional lives; the emotional cost of learning which includes the feeling of loss- of naivety, shame feelings, fear of being exposed for not knowing, the dependency on others for the experience and the opportunities for learning, the non-linear relationship between age and knowledge- knowing and not knowing; learning and love, love of learning.

The rest of the staff, with one exception, were all GR practitioners based in the USA who I knew from working with them previously or through colleagues in the global Group relations network. The conference brochure can be downloaded here.

Not unexpectedly race and ethnicity emerged as an important aspect of the conference work. In a moving moment during a staff meeting, the black men on staff said that for the first time in their professional work in GR they did not feel like the token black man, because there were four of them and they could work with the full spectrum of their colours and identities. Alongside two African American women and an Asian woman, more than half of the staff were non-white European heritage, which enabled the race and ethnicity exploration to rise to the surface and worked with much more openly than, perhaps, any of us have experienced before in this GR context, where the race and ethnicity themes were not the core of the conference.

Sexuality in all its colours also tentatively came to the surface. It seemed to have been more difficult to be an outspoken as lesbian than gay in the conference, perhaps a reflection of a true experience in our current society? And the clumping together of LGBTQ seems to have prevented members and staff alike from exploring differences without losing a sense of authority and identity. Another thing we learnt in this work had to do with current constructs in language- for example, what does the concept cisgender mean?

The 72 members of the conference had a fully engaged ‘deep dive’ into the Group Relations learning modality while the 13 staff members worked collaboratively and deeply with each other and the conference members. I am looking forward to next year, where I will take a second iteration in directing this exciting conference for Columbia University Teachers College as they deepen and expand their practice and secure their place at the top of Ivy League Universities offering Group Relations programmes in the Tavistock Institute tradition.

Eliat Aram
CEO, The Tavistock Institute of Human Relations
December 2013

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