A big-picture, co-intelligent vision of diversity and privilege (Part 1)

Discussions and struggles over diversity and privilege are up-welling in societies around the world, including in my own life and projects. In the last several months I have been shown three articles that helped me understand co-intelligent approaches to this charged and vital issue. I share them in this and the next post. The one covered here expands our sense of diversity and provides a generic understanding about how human differences can evolve into social privilege and power. In the next post, I share on that offers guidance for undergoing revelations of privilege in compassionate ways, and a second that clarifies the dynamics that sustain dominant and non-dominant cultures. All three provide insights useful for transforming domination and privilege into justice and equitable partnerships we urgently need to navigate the rising rapids of change. – Tom

For several years I have been increasingly challenged, curious and evolving in my perspectives on equity, justice, and privilege. I recognize this as my own personal experience within a vast, complex societal evolutionary process filled with intensely difficult, necessary, dangerous, puzzling, potent and uplifting events and dynamics around these issues.

In the last few months I’ve been introduced to three articles that together constitute a perspective I experience as a watershed in this exploration.

The first essay linked and excerpted below offers a remarkably co-intelligent perspective on diversity, privilege and equity. I recommend it to everyone attracted to the co-intelligence and wise democracy worldviews. I’ll offer a quick introduction here, but I encourage you to read the whole essay.

After pointing out how diverse forms of diversity are ubiquitous in – and vital to – both natural and human systems, the authors note that in human systems certain variations become preferred over others. Thanks to those preferences, people with those characteristics gain privileges – some of which are obvious while others are more subtle. In a social system, these emergent patterns of privilege in turn generate dynamics that sweep privileged people into the mainstream and non-privileged people into the margins, which tends to generate power for those in mainstream and elite circles. The authors note that such power can then be used to either (1) reinforce or (2) alter these patterns of preference, privilege and power.

Under this paper’s rubric of “the practice of privilege”, the authors highlight how privilege-derived power can be used to change systems of marginalization and oppression. Of course this can only happen to the extent privileged people wake up from the presumption and unconsciousness that usually accompany privilege, so they can CHOOSE to use their power in life-affirming ways.

In this essay we find a richer landscape of human diversity than most modern discussions of “diversity” consider – a mind-expansion I once attempted here. Furthermore, it notes that ANY of these differences can be subject to the above privilege- and power-generating dynamics, often depending the nature of the system they show up in. For example, academic systems tend to privilege fast logical thinkers whereas spiritual retreat communities privilege slower, more reflective thinkers. Since ALL our qualities can be subject to these dynamics, any given person can be privileged because of one characteristic while at the same time being marginalized because of another (a view which gives us an intriguingly expanded view of intersectionality).

Differences that tend to be more visible also tend to be most often used for marginalization, oppression, and social division. This has notably led to the word “diversity” coming to refer to those dynamics that play out around differences in race and gender and, to a lesser degree, class and disability, as well as some sexual and cultural expressions. In contrast, less visible differences – from people’s different life experiences to their cognitive styles – tend to require more intimate knowledge of them and thus are less useful for generating the kind of widespread, generalized stereotyping and othering that established and aspiring power-holders often exploit for social division and control.

The goal of the authors in this first article is healthy systems where all people can find fulfillment through being fully who they are, able to give their unique gifts to the world around them and work together for mutual benefit and the common good.


I celebrate this new, co-intelligence-friendly framing of diversity, privilege and power for which all three articles provide such potent and useful foundations.

I’d like us to see that framing used to reveal how those dynamics play out in newly emerging justice realms – i.e., in privileging our species over other life forms, and in privileging those of us who live today over those who may or may not be able to live two hundred years from now.

I’ve written about this before, but I want to note it newly in the context of this and the other two remarkable articles. I want to explore how they can clarify the ways civilization makes other life forms and future generations invisible to us as we benefit from the privileges of our species in today’s living planet in its sixth great extinction era. Isolated by complex economies, built environments, powerful technologies, and disembodied torrents of information – to say nothing of so many forms of impoverishment – we see so little of the true sources of our sustenance and suffering nor the immense impacts that our lives and societies have on the well-being of nonhuman lives and future generations.

That invisibility bestows to the vast majority of us the privilege of ignoring our impacts and continuing with a business-as-usual that – almost no matter its form – is undermining all life on earth. How does this compare with the dynamics and impacts of other forms of privilege? What are the implications for how we include – or don’t include – our anthropocentric and “current living” privilege in the overall landscape of intersectional privilege and oppression? How can we use our species and generational privilege to catalyze a more just and regenerative culture?

I invite you to read this and the two subsequent essays and to appreciate their remarkably co-intelligent perspectives. While you do, think about what it would mean to fully embrace the privilege dynamics of being human and living now – and how we might creatively use the many forms of power those privileges give us.

I think this approach could help address the often troubling tension between environmental and justice movements that the authors of “Privilege as Practice” note at the start of their essay.


By Matthew Kolan and Kaylynn Sullivan TwoTrees


Difference exists in all systems and has the capacity to be the raw material for adaptation, creativity, and resilience. Yet in many social systems, we find that accrued power is used to oppress, homogenize, and assimilate expressions of difference that do not fit with the dominant perspective or ideology. This pattern causes harm, limits the potential of individuals in the system, and consequently diminishes the wisdom and creativity of the group. We believe that understanding the primary dynamics and processes associated with this pattern can be helpful in building our capacity to engage with difference with well-being in mind….

Part of the practice of engaging difference differently, involves honing our tracking and observational skills; learning to recognize the patterns associated with systems that minimize and oppress differences. In addition to improving our awareness and analysis skills, it is also critical that we develop skills, capacity, and courage to interrupt the dominant system archetype; using the privilege and power we have to find places in systems where we can leverage change to make the system healthier. This might involve changing our own behaviors, illuminating and influencing system dynamics, or tending to the impacts of marginalization and oppression.

In many conversations about diversity, the terms power and privilege have taken on a negative connotation. And while power is often used to reinforce the status quo, minimize and oppress difference, and create norms/structures that confer unearned privilege and power to a select few, it can also be used to interrupt those cycles and create healthier systems.

[The authors then describe three key elements of the “Practice of Privilege” – (1) Working from the inside out, (2) Engaging with tension, and (3) Emphasizing reciprocal relationship. In describing this final practice, they reveal how large their vision is and how it so clearly relates to the co-intelligence frame of reference, using the following language:]

All members of an ecosystem are interconnected in a vast and intricate network of relationships, the web of life. They derive their essential properties and, in fact, their very existence from their relationships to other things. Interdependence – the mutual dependence of all life processes on one another – is the nature of all ecological relationships. The behavior of every living member of the ecosystem depends on the behavior of many others. The success of the whole community depends on the success of its individual members, while the success of each member depends upon the success of the community as a whole. Understanding ecological interdependence means understanding relationships…Nourishing the community means nourishing those relationships.

Fritjof Capra & Gunter Pauli in “Steering business toward sustainability” (1995)


Unfortunately in many social systems, the quality of relationships takes a back seat to solving problems and action. Yet when relationships are nurtured within systems, people often feel safe enough to take risks, make mistakes, and explore new territory. Strong reciprocal relationships create conditions for people to accept and offer feedback and be open to multiple perspectives….

= = = =

The articles I’ll be sharing in Part 2 are these:

You’re Not a Bad Person: How Facing Privilege Can Be Liberating


Patterns of Dominant & Non-Dominant Cultures

Tom Atlee, The Co-Intelligence Institute, POB 493, Eugene, OR 97440 Evoking and engaging the wisdom and resourcefulness of the whole on behalf of the whole

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