Unlearning Fear and Doughnuts for All!

“Unlearning” is hard. In my experience unlearning something false is much harder than learning something new and true. A Private Universe (https://vimeo.com/113349804) is a documentary about science education, paradigm shifts, the power of what we first learn about a topic, the power of images and mental models, and how hard it is to unlearn or unsee something once we have a certain understanding fixed in our minds. An interviewer asks Harvard students and faculty at graduation about why we have seasons. Over and over, these arguably smartest and best educated people in the world give the false answer that the seasons are based on the Earth’s distance from the sun rather than the tilt of the Earth’s axis as it orbits the sun. Why do they still believe so confidently at their graduation this misinformation even after learning the scientific truth in astronomy and physics classes? Because the first way they learned about the seasons involved a powerful visual image that intuitively suggested the false information: 

It looks like the Earth is sometimes closer and sometime farther from the sun, and the image is about seasons. Therefore, distance from the sun must cause the seasons. 

Growing up I feared power. I wanted to be the good little boy and earn the praise of adults by following the rules. If I heard the word “power” I also heard “power corrupts.” If I were corrupt, I wasn’t following the rules, would not earn praise, would not be a good boy. In my imagination, power became something to avoid and something to judge others for having or wanting. This misinformation and mental model about “power” had a tight grip on me.  

In college I learned that the quotation “power corrupts” is a distortion of Lord Acton’s full quotation in 1887: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The British historian was writing to a Catholic Bishop ostensibly criticizing the 1870 Papal doctrine of infallibility. I wasn’t so sure myself about a person and institution claiming to be infallible (even if rarely). My original understanding of power loosened its grip a little. 

After college I taught English for three years at a Catholic high school on the South Side of Chicago that was founded in the 1960s to teach young Black men when other Chicago Catholic schools were not accepting Black students. One of the books on the syllabus I inherited was Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. I became enamored with Frederick Douglass. One memorable quotation I admired was “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” The grip loosened more. 

A few years later I learned about Saul Alinsky, the father of community organizing, and how he honed his craft in the Back of the Yards neighborhood of Chicago and founded the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF). A group of Chicago institutions was bringing the IAF headquarters back to its roots from New York. I. started attending house meetings and doing one-on-ones through my church. I learned a new definition of power as “poder,” “to be able.” Power moved from an immoral thing to be feared and avoided and judged to a something morally neutral and effectively necessary if I wanted to get anything done. For me “power” was now a hammer in my toolbox, a useful tool that could be used to hurt someone or build a home and community. I like homes and community. I had a new understanding, a new image, a new mental model. The grip snapped. 

There’s another misquote that I learned early in my life that led to fear and judgment: “Money is the root of all evil.” This misinformation carried with it the extra burdensome authority of being “from the Bible” and something I would hear in church or from people “quoting” the Bible. The full quotation, of course, involves “love of money,” not just “money”: “For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil” — 1 Timothy 6:10 NASB. It took me a long time to “unlearn” my fear of power and money when both are in fact neutral and necessary tools that can be used for good or evil. I am still unlearning that original, false understanding. I believe a better image and mental model to replace the first one I learned would help. I wrote earlier that I want someone to write a new, simple, compelling narrative/story about a shared ownership, antiracist, inclusive, cooperative economy. I went to help hone it and embellish it and improve it and use it even if I am not its creator.  

I want to both unlearn the falsehoods about our economy and business with which I was first indoctrinated and find new mental models and images to take their place. Reading books and listening to podcasts about heterodox economics and cooperatives has helped to loosen the grip, but seasons being caused by the Earth’s distance to the sun still makes too much sense to me.  

I might have found something I can work with: Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics (https://www.kateraworth.com/doughnut/). I first heard about Doughnut Economics a few weeks ago from a friend who is a sustainability consultant. Last week was the second time I heard about this potential paradigm shift and the first time I saw the creative new image when I noticed Doughnut Economics listed on the resource list of this workshop. I must add in Felipe’s reference in the prompt to “the potential for a Shared Ownership Green New Deal.” I have not had time to deeply explore either concept or image, but I believe there is great potential here to unlearn misinformation and replace it with powerful tools that can be used for good.  

Regarding leverage points and systems visualization, I am intrigued and impressed. Both could serve my quest to tell a better story in order to create a more equitable and just economy and society. Part of me still fears power and money. What we learn first is hard to unlearn. But I also see them like a hammer and screwdriver in my toolbox, neutral tools we can use to build homes and community and a shared ownership green new deal and a doughnut economy that works for everyone. All in good time.  

Reflection Script

I appreciate the feedback both in these replies and in my small group. I am aware I do not have a specific project I am working on at the moment. I have become more clear for myself in the past few days that I am here to learn, to connect, to network, to get ideas for how I might engage in this work going forward. While I search for possibilities, I am content in my current role and excited to learn. I continue to be interested in the new paradigm of a pro-thriving within planetary boundaries paradigm of doughnut economics. Corrine, I would be happy to study this image and possibilities with you and a group. In the meantime I am eager to learn more and open to exploring options.

3 thoughts on “Unlearning Fear and Doughnuts for All!

  1. “I wrote earlier that I want someone to write a new, simple, compelling narrative/story about a shared ownership, antiracist, inclusive, cooperative economy. I went to help hone it and embellish it and improve it and use it even if I am not its creator.” This reminds me of David Korten’s book, “Change the story, Change the future”. And Thomas Berry has advocated for a new story taking into account the new cosmology. so I agree with you and wish I was able to be the writer, but alas, that is not my gift. Like you I just found out about the “doughnut” and want to learn more about it. I like her graphic too and think we need more graphics as well. Bumper stickers??? Wonder if we could form a discussion group around studying the doughnut and how we might apply it? I know Amsterdam is using it and I think Philadelphia.

    I’ve been dealing with money my whole life even though I have a vow of poverty. I’ve been managing portfolios to invest in community development and that has enabled me to speak to many others about how to change our ideas and use of money. It is a challenge because the culture is so steeped in money as the sign of value, not a medium of exchange to provide empowerment for all. And so many of our systems are built around money and wealth, hence the need for a shared economy!


  2. Ken, I’m in awe. Are you aware of how clearly and incisively you write and share your story?

    The framing around unlearning is brilliant. I’m riveted as I read.

    Was there any new insight for you as you reflected on your relationship with power and how it’s evolved over time?

    What does it feel like when the grip is loosened and snapped?

    What’s next, now that power is a hammer in your tool box?

    With your redeemed relationship with power and money — what might be on offer for you?

    What relationships could you show up to differently?

    so glad you’re here. thank you.


  3. Ken, I really enjoyed the framing and through-line you chose of unlearning early information, ideas, and perspectives around power and money and replacing those mental models with new “tools”. I find it helpful for my own reflection on personal mental models and journey of unlearning that at the core, you’ve been unlearning Fear (which could also include a spread of misinformation that generates and perpetuates fear) and newly learning the Tools of resourcefulness, clarifying information, and re-framing to alleviate or combat Fear.

    I was so fascinated by doughnut economics when I first came across that framework/diagram several months ago – at that time, I was exploring alternative success indicators and new ways to visualize them for job-seekers experiencing poverty and homelessness whose goal is self-sufficiency. I’m curious of which other audiences or stakeholders might most benefit from unlearning fear or unlearning mental models of power and money, as it relates to fueling a “shared ownership, antiracist, inclusive, cooperative economy” movement?

    I think about how the recognition of a previous mental model and replacing it with new information, framing, or tools could be a success indicator in itself for those whose individual and collective power we want to build up and lead a cooperative economy. Thanks for this thoughtful and thought-provoking piece!


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