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Science shows that meaningful collaboration & engagement requires social-emotional safety and skill in navigating conflict. Here's the how.



We humans are wired to be creative and open to learning only when we feel a base level of safety within any given social setting--from classrooms and playgrounds to the office, the gym, the neighborhood, the civic group, amongst friends and family, and everything in between. While decades of science supports this and many would acknowledge it makes intuitive sense, it remains little known within the actual social structures of formal institutions not to mention informal networks. This proposal seeks to change that.


If it’s meaningful collaboration and engagement we seek--in order to raise awareness, inspire action and behavior change--then why not offer a foundation of tools and skill-building that empowers people with the know how to create the conditions for true collaboration and navigate the discomfort and conflict that is bound to arise?


The Joanna Macy Center @Naropa houses such a toolkit, and would partner with organizations dedicated to social-emotional learning and group dynamics. Dr. Joanna Macy is a scholar of liberation theologies, living systems theory, and deep ecology. She has been a visionary force in environmental activism for over five decades. Her groundbreaking work, The Work That Reconnects, is a practical open-source toolkit that anyone can use to build the stress-resilience, authentic community, and learn the systems thinking needed in order to bring the change we wish to see in the world. The Joanna Macy Center is dedicated to bringing these tools for personal, relational, and community resilience to anyone interested in making the world a better place. Studies show that healthy social-emotional conditions dramatically increases engagement, learning capacity, and creativity in the face of conflict and chaos. Not to mention deepening comradery and stress resilience.

Why not empower people with a means to face the difficult and uncomfortable dimensions of climate reality and empower them with skills to respond collaboratively and creatively?

What actions do you propose?

  • The Joanna Macy Center @Naropa and other relevant expert organizations/trainers offer regular sessions of The Work That Reconnects (WTR); curriculum includes relevant insights from neurophysiology and skill-building tools for healthy group dynamics.

  • Start with regular trainings (half-day and day-long intensives) for key intervention organizations and/or community groups - a group like the Climate Culture Collaborative (C3) who seek to convene collaboration across sustainability initiatives.

  • A minimum of three up to ten days of training is recommended for greater integration and experiential practice (the experiential is what rewires us, and a critical mass of this is needed for it to be lasting).

  • Use feedback from this initial training phase to refine the curriculum to broader organizational, business, and institutional audiences.

  • Offer regular trainings to the C3 member organizations/community groups and other sustainability mission driven orgs.

  • Host regular practice groups to ensure the tools become skills, to ensure translation into action for all participants.

  • Feedback is the food of living systems, and healthy living systems are always open to feedback; regular evaluations and surveys are essential in order to continue to evolve the WTR open-source toolkit and ensure that the tools remain relevant, easily applicable, and translate into behavior change and action.

  • Offer train-the-trainer to the first cohort of organizations and individuals, empowering them to take this work beyond into their businesses, community and civic settings.

  • Host focus groups from this first cohort to further refine curriculum and reach.

  • Begin to gather metrics on how the WTR has impacted productivity, morale, creativity, innovations and behavior change in those organizations, community groups, etc.

  • Scale the program and metrics gathering to different types of organizations, groups, and communities beyond Boulder.

  • Continue to offer the WTR and support the integration of resulting resilience into our groups, workplaces, and climate action endeavors.

Who will take these actions?

First, some context: founded in the spring of 2015, the JMC@N seeks to advance the vision and legacy of Dr. Joanna Macy’s work in order to empower present and future generations in building a more resilient world that works for all. The Work That Reconnects (WTR) emerged as an experiential toolkit from her scholarship into living systems theory at intersection with Liberation Buddhism. The work is intentionally inclusive and secular not religious, and rather takes insights from Buddhist philosophy (interdependence, mutual causality) and psychology (working compassionately with self, other, world). The work represents an integration of both scientific and spiritual views.

Key actors at the outset include the JMC@N’s program manager and certified facilitator Karta Elise Hassler, who would collaborate with the city and other interested orgs in order to coordinate the initial round of trainings, gather and analyze feedback, and contribute to refining curriculum. Other key actors include the JMC@N’s advisory council and a partner organization of WTR facilitators titled Great Turning Boulder. The former is an advisory body to the program manager, the latter is an excellent resource for skilled facilitators for the trainings.

From day one, the JMC@N has been establishing partnerships with area organizations and we would seek to collaborate with them to both host as well as experience the trainings. These include CU’s Environmental Center, Naropa’s Diversity & Inclusion Initiative, the Boulder Shambhala Center, MatrixWorks: Groups As Living Systems, PassageWorks, C3 Boulder, the Earth Guardians, and many more. We would seek to offer the initial trainings with willing participant orgs, with folks who are already willing to face and work for justice, sustainability and resilience.

What are the key challenges?

The primary obstacle to integrating healthier social-emotional conditions into our orgs and community is the resistance that emerges for most when faced with the prospect of teambuilding, working with emotions, relationships, and facing the frightening dimensions of climate crises. This resistance is perfectly natural and inculturated given the prevalent worldview of industrial growth society. Joanna Macy describes this as the story of Business As Usual. The defining assumption: there is little need to change the way we live; the central plot: getting ahead; the primary mode of being: numb out and avoid pain, whether personal or the result of bearing witness to suffering in others. Economic recessions and extreme weather are just temporary difficulties from which we will surely recover, and even profit. This entrenched worldview, woven into the fabric of our workplaces and way of life, is the biggest obstacle and source of resistance to social-emotional modalities such as the WTR.

We propose that this training be initiated with groups and orgs that are actually willing to experience and experiment with the tools. These are the folks who are well aware of how the lack of empathy, forthrightness and true teamwork in the workplace and group endeavors impacts not just productivity but also morale. These are folks who are frustrated with this as the norm, the legacy of now outdated management structures that dehumanize the workplace. These are also the folks who are and have been willing to face the immense challenges presented by climate change; they are the perfect audience primed to benefit from the insights, tools, and antidote to burnout that the WTR wields. These are also the right people to help inform translation to broader audiences, and to take the toolkit to their own organizations and community groups. It is critical that this first round of trainings involve surveying to gather feedback to inform the curriculum and its translation to broader audiences. 

What are the key benefits?

When people learn how to skillfully relate to themselves, each other, and the crises we face in the world today through the WTR, their capacity for creativity, collaboration, and behavior change increases dramatically, resulting in emergent properties and real solutions beyond what previously more siloed and burnt out folks could ever have managed, let alone produce, on their own.

The more folks who experience this personal and relational resilience, and capacity for creative responses and skillful teamwork, the more engaged, authentically connected and thus effective our sustainability working groups can be. The more community members experience the rewiring that occurs in healthy social-emotional learning containers, the more open to learning and capable of behavior change they will be in order to particpate meaningfully in Boulder’s climate action.

The WTR builds genuine community and would include compassionate relationship management skills so that folks can work better together. Not only will people feel greater resilience in facing the crises of climate change, they’ll be equipped to navigate any group conflicts (bound to arise any time people seek to accomplish some goal together) with both compassion and effectiveness.

The WTR is a rejuvenative to burnout, an antidote to numb-out; the experiential nature of this work literally rewires us, neurophysiologically, for the safety and trust needed in order to get things done together. It provides the tools for participants to better understand themselves and others in social-emotional context, and relate more directly and honestly with the state of the world today and in the coming years.

What are the proposal’s costs?


Half-day workshop hosting: $250 minimum for two co-facilitators or seek pro-bono; seek locations with partner orgs such as Naropa University, CU, the Shambhala Center, etc. as well as public spaces like the public library.  

Full-day workshop hosting: $400 minimum for two co-facilitators or seek pro-bono; seek free locations with partner orgs such as Naropa University, CU, the Shambhala Center, etc. as well as public spaces like the public library. Seek in-kind donations and sponsorships from coffee shops and food purveyors for additional hospitality.

Practice Groups: convened initially by the JMC@N in the first year, but this becomes the purview of participant organizations and community groups, and structure/guidance for hosting these is included in train-the-trainer.

The JMC@N is currently a staff of just one, and will be building in more staff support in the next two years, which would be critical in order to continue this collaborative endeavor with the city and to provide quality coordination, hosting, analysis of metrics and ongoing curriculum evolution. These tasks are already within our mission to offer the WTR to broader audiences and evolve its curriculum, but the increased scope this particular collaboration would bring will need to be considered in terms of our staff and resources. 

Time line

Short term: prototype the design and execution of initial round of trainings with C3 or another handful of orgs who are most ready, in the first year. Year 2 & 3, expand the training to orgs in the network of the initial set. Gather feedback, analyze it to inform revisions and development of train-the-trainer curriculum. Year 3, offer trainings to marginalized population groups, with explicit requests for feedback to inform how the tools translate in more inclusive ways that honor more diverse experiences, perspectives, and language.

Offer train-the-trainer beginning year 3 - 5; continue data collection to measure effectiveness and inform evolution for broader and broader audiences. This could also include hosting focus groups of participants for additional metrics.

Years 1 - 15 implement surveys and analysis of participants orgs in order to measure how the WTR has impacted productivity, morale, creativity, innovations and behavior change in those organizations, community groups, etc. By year 5, be informed enough through metrics on program design and outcomes to now offer scalable versions of this program to other communities around the US and beyond.

Medium term: Years 15 - 25, in addition to ongoing trainings and practice, would involve standardizing versions (relevant to audience) of the WTR and relationship management tools into the culture and regular training rotation in local organizations and community groups. The goal is that the personal and relational resilience that the WTR builds would empower a critical mass of Boulderites (and other communities who adopt these practices) to work more effectively together for climate action and lasting behavior change.

Long term: it’s difficult to predict such an extended timeline in today’s rapidly evolving climate and culture, but ideally by 50 - 100 years from now, society is far more radically inclusive and valuing of diversity, far more compassionate and awake to our relationships with self, others, and this world.


Related proposals

Value not set.


Short list of relevant scholars, authors, practitioners:

Joanna Macy

Molly Brown

Brene Brown

Otto Scharmer

Peter Senge

Daniel Goleman

Margaret Wheatley

Fritjof Capra

Francisco Varela

NOTE: this proposal was prepared by the single JMC@N staffer on very short notice, and thus not enough time to compile full citations. A more complete and thorough list can be made available upon request and in a second round.