I arrived at National People’s Action‘s Weeklong Leadership Training on Sunday evening. Northfield is a scant hour’s drive south of the Twin Cities, and the St Olaf College campus is lovely, trees and limestone block buildings with a neo-gothic flair. I fully plan to sneak into Boe Memorial Chapel and sing a few bars to hear the famous acoustics.
This week is based on agitational training. It’s an in-your-face style of interaction between the session leader and the participants that helps break down barriers and the lies we tell ourselves to avoid doing difficult things. I didn’t think I’d ever participated in it before, but it turns out we agitate ourselves and others in our lives every time we won’t settle for the easy answer or the surface explanation.
For us, our formal experience of agitation started right off with introductions. We didn’t get challenged on our names, preferred gender pronouns, or which organizations we’re here with, but everything else was fair game for Don, that evening’s facilitator. “Why?” was the most common question, of course, but he was pretty brutal with his assessment of some people’s answers. “Sounds like typical liberal white guilt to me,” he told one woman who was waffly on why she does anti-poverty work. “Why do you do this work if you don’t know what you get out of it? You’re just wasting everyone’s time,” he told another attendee.
If it sounds harsh, it was. Don relentlessly went after a few people, taking five minutes or more to challenge them, their motivations, and their commitment to the kind of work we’re all here to do this week. It seemed even more arbitrary because his pursuit of a few people early on left less time to go after people toward the end who, it seemed to me, had even shakier answers than those initial targets.
The way I see it, his job was like someone saddle-breaking a horse. This week is designed to be uncomfortable, and he needed to set that tone. Agitational training is designed to keep us in tension, and to propel us forward with greater power. It’s never easy to soften people up for that kind of experience, but Don definitely had a boxer’s knack for bodywork.