Vantage Points: Agnieszka Bulacik

Agnieszka Bulacik is the co-founder and co-director of New Visions in Berlin, Germany.

Q: Tell us about your current organization, and your role in it.

I am the co-founder of New Visions. New Visions works with leaders to transform existing narratives into more diverse, equitable and inclusive ones.

The organization is an outcome of long-term collaboration and partnership with my friend and co-founder Liene Jurgelane. We founded New Visions about one and a half years ago.

Our activities include…

– Offering and leading workshops, consultancy, trainings

– Developing leadership programs, such as our new project with female leaders in eastern Europe

– Co-organizing and curating events around social justice and equity. The events range from intimate fireside talks to large festivals.

Q:  Why is this work important?  

Inequity and injustice are still widely present in various layers of our everyday life. Hierarchies and centralization of power maintain a status quo that treats humans as resources, exploits the less powerful, and ignores broader planetary concerns. In our workplaces, we see the overarching structures manifest in forms of harrassment, discrimination, and lack of care.  We feel that by working with leaders, often in culture and arts, to transform existing narratives we are creating a more diverse, equitable and inclusive world.

Q:  How do you approach this work, and what values or principles guide you?

We have five core commitments that guide our work:  holistic approach, love, interconnectedness, imagination, and solidarity.

By holistic approach, we mean that we work with the whole person and invite the whole of a person to our learning spaces, so you can learn with your body, emotions and brain.   Love is a combination of care, empathy, responsibility, and action.  We also try to make our interconnectedness with one another and the ecosystem visible and clear – and make it a source of our actions. 

Imagination is so foundational.  Being able to imagine is a key to transformation.  Our work is designed to unleash creativity.  We practice imagining more just and equitable ways of being and relating.  We also need to be in solidarity with each other to make other worlds possible, to be aware that we are all interdependent.

Q: How did you get to where you are now, what has your life/work journey looked like?

I grew up in post-communist Poland and have always been interested in and immersed in arts and culture.    Photography has been a long-time passion.  One formative experience for me was as a participant in a global education program that placed learners and artists in countries in the global south.  I was a practicing photographer at the time and travelled to Nairobi for the program’s internship.  The experience broadened my outlook and helped shape a more critical perspective and deeper awareness of cultural, social, economic and political dynamics and differences.  

Not long after, I began to design and create learning spaces for others –year-long learning programs, internships, and seminars.   I think of myself less as a social entrepreneur, and more as a creative educator and facilitator.

Q: What is particularly important or interesting about your organization and work that others might be surprised to learn about?

What I find important is that the work is challenging. We are all embedded in social structures and market structures.   One part of what we try to do, is to bring greater focus on this embeddedness and to challenge normalized ways of being and thinking.  

We do this in a variety of ways, some aspects include emotional learning and body learning.  This involves helping people get out of their head, to create spaces and tools for awareness and reflection.  

Sometimes we might work with leaders or corporate executives, who are all suited up and playing the strong, smart always right person.  In working with inclusivity, we have to help create a space to break through, to consider the larger structures in which we are embedded. 

Q: What issue or issues most concern you right now, or what are you working on? 

We are living through the biggest cultural revolution since the 1960s.   Certain conversations were never so visible.  I come from Poland.   The nation’s current president is now signing legislation to require so-called “family card”, visibly excluding and demonizing LGBT people and criminalizing sex education, claiming it as a dangerous “LGBT” ideology.  We continue to see certain leaders in power who spread fear and injustice.  We are, at the same time, seeing global power structures challenged and reconsidered, due to the pandemic and global protests against racial injustice, spurred by what has happened in the United States.  It is a bit like seeing the master’s houses falling down.  And yet there is so much more to be done, and our work is critical here, as we reconsider approaches to equity and inclusion, and seek to build new cultures and approaches. 

Q: Can you share some examples of your work?

We do a number of consulting projects with companies.   As an example, we worked with an organization that sought help because lots of women were leaving the company due to its discriminatory workplace culture  – a culture that was normalized in that environment.

It really was a grassroots movement within the organization that brought the problem to greater attention.   Our first step was an audit.  We asked people about how they feel.  We explored aspects of workplace culture and asked about notions of inclusion.  Next, we helped develop a creative equity task force.   We mapped the biggest areas for change and identified strategies, running workshops, and finalizing our initial audit.  This work, is RREEEALLLLYYYY slow.  Structural changes don’t happen overnight.  Change requires recognition that something is wrong and a sense that people need to do something about it.

This weekend we are going to Poland to lead a workshop for leaders, mostly NGOs.  We are working with people looking for new perspectives to see their work differently and to consider new approaches and ideas.   There really are no one size fits all solutions.   Leaders need to be able to find their own routes. 

Q:  What is most difficult or challenging about your work in this time? 

Our work is so much about human connection, and interconnectedness.   The global pandemic has limited the ability to connect with people, to have close physical proximity.

It has meant an adjustment for us, as our first response to the idea of virtual, on-line workshops was no.   Then, we began to recognize that we needed to find a way to continue to work, to use online formats and technology to allow connections across distance.  

And what we discovered, which is exciting, is that there is an ocean of possibility there. You can use technology thoughtfully and create spaces for learning and connection.  We incorporate and acknowledge bodies and presence, we use guided meditations and movement practices, and lots of smaller groups or one on one conversations, albeit online.  This still enables people to see and be in front of another human.  We also include opportunities for off-line self-reflection activities and movement, so we are not simply screen-reliant.  As always for us, our sessions are more about inviting people to show up and be present with each other rather than lecturing or information delivery. 

Q: What are you excited about, where are you finding hope?

Right now, we are organizing a festival in Riga, a city in Latvia.  The focus is the “body” and we are engaging academics, educators, activists, and others in thinking about what it means to engage with bodies, human and non-human, and how we do so in different ways.  

I am also excited about our transformational leadership program for women in Eastern Europe. Women are part of their communities, and a big part of creative movement in the region.   Our work here has to be sensitive to that local and regional context as well as the history of how women were perceived and treated, especially during communism.  Feminism and female leadership may be emerging differently from this geo-political and cultural context.  And it may be more complex than simply adopting Westernized ideals of feminism, or of leadership, for that matter. Our work requires sensitivity to that context and extended conversations about voice, about power, and about change.  

Systems are built on culture so if we change culture, then change will follow.  We don’t have perfect correct answers – there are many answers.  Instead, we shape creative open spaces for empowerment.  For this program, we are partnering with many other organizations and are seeking to include a diverse, multi-generational group of women and join them in a space of learning from one another.

Q: What lesson or advice from your work and experiences might others find helpful?

This work, the work of social justice, of working for equity and inclusion, can be overwhelming and lonely.  Finding your sources of energy and inspiration and taking care of them and keeping them close at hand is super important.  By doing so, we can build resilience to better deal with the moments of doubt and frustration.   We have found that change and social justice work is a long process and a human process.   You are interconnected with other humans, so emotions will come in.  Those emotions are part of the process, but we need to know how to deal with them and recognize them. 

Do you know the quote from Maya Angelou?  The quote is something like. “You should be angry. But you must not be bitter.”

Angelou reminds us not to succumb to bitterness and resentment but to use our anger, all our emotions, for action and change.  This is a good thing to keep in mind because talking about privilege and power is difficult.  Working with those who have privilege and power is tough.   Bitterness and doubt can creep in.  

We had a workshop with a group of leaders, who had their leader, the head executive in the session with them.   After the session focused on inclusion and equity, the organization’s leader, a white male,  provided his feedback, which was very critical and non-constructive.  There may well have been reasons for his critique, and he may have felt threatened in that kind of space.  It was hard for me to hear his feedback, but I learned from that to stay grounded and keep the focus on who we enter in our work, and whose opinions matter, and which voices are actually meaningful voices in this work.

Indeed, if we are to practice courage and invite others to do that too, then the value and difficulty of that effort will not always be rewarded.   There a capitalist notion of value that we all deal with, the scales of costs and benefit, and an overemphasis on returns and quantifiable impact.  In our work it is not so clear and what is of value is not always what is rewarded. 

When founding New Visions, Liene and I thought about what was important and what was valuable and why.  We had a beautiful process thinking about values and meaning and who we wanted to serve. We revisit that process every six months or so, checking in with ourselves and with each other.   Are we practicing what we preach?  If we are trying to challenge normative ways, we can’t adopt the lifestyles and practices of that which we try to change.   That means asking, are we valuing profits more than people, are we working too many hours, adopting unhealthy habits, or helping the right people? 

bell hooks writes about love as an active force for good, and I feel that too in our work. For me, my perspective is certainly shifting throughout years, I am becoming more gentle in approach.  Our work is a journey, ever-evolving.  We knew our general directions at outset, but then the precise destinations shift and change as we travel and the processes unfold.