Crafting an Organization

Recently, I changed role from being Director of Intercultural Education to Director of Research and Organizational Development. In this post, as part of my new role, I would like to offer some reflections about four important  ways that Alianza Arkana has been evolving as an organization over the past six years.

1. The new appointment of Professor Eli Sanchéz, in my place, as Director of Intercultural Education expresses the first important aspect of our evolution – that Alianza Arkana is an organization increasingly led,  administered and governed by Shipibos.

Firstly, I want to say how delighted I am that Professor Eli Sanchéz will take on my previous post. Professor Eli is so much better equipped to carry out this role than I am! He is one of the leading Shipibo linguists and cultural experts and is much respected in the Shipibo community as an elder with great integrity and knowledge.

He is currently a member of the advisory board of ORAU, (the Ucayali regional organization of AIDESEP), and is leading their initiatives in intercultural education. Additionally, he is co-ordinator of Intercultural Education for our geographically close neighbors and important allies, AIDI (Asociación Indígena para el Desarrollo Integral).

By making Professor Eli Director of Intercultural Education for Alianza Arkana, we aim to strengthen the institutional relationships between Alianza Arkana, ORAU and AIDI and help create a more coordinated focus to develop intercultural education in the Ucayali region, which is sorely in need of improvement.

Of the six Director posts in the organization, four are now occupied by Shipibos. Of the four key posts on our governing body, two are now held by Shipibo.

Although we take all important decisions by consensus, being a non-hierarchical organization – which implies that no individual can impose their will on the organization solely through having a position of higher formal authority (such as Chief Executive) – the current situation already implies that Shipibo Directors and members of the governing body hold the balance of power in the organization, if it ever came to taking a vote.

2. The second significant aspect of our evolution as an organization has already been touched upon above – our evolution since October 2014 as a non-hierarchical organization.

I have written specifically about this before here, just under one year ago.

In this earlier post, I used ideas from complexity and chaos theory to underline the advantages of being a self-organizing, highly flexible organization. By not having a formal hierarchy, we are better able to embody the value of partnership, which is the key guiding principle in the work we do with our Shipibo allies – as well as a core traditional cultural value for the Shipibos – in the fabric of the organization.

3. The third aspect of the evolution is indicated by the title of this blog, ‘Crafting an Organization’.

For too long in the West, as leading organizational theorists such as Margaret Wheatley, Ralph Stacey, and Gareth Morgan, (as well as other thinkers – including the systems thinker Fritjof Capra and cultural historian Richard Tarnas), have pointed out, the dominant model and metaphor of organizing has been ‘the machine’. This can ultimately be traced to the beginnings of the scientific revolution in the sixteenth and seventeenth century and the, at the time, paradigm-shattering philosophies of Newton and Descartes, which  understood and treated the world as a clockwork machine.

As a result, organizations have been constructed that aim to run ‘like clockwork’. Charlie Chaplin’s film, ‘Modern Times’, is an acute, brilliant and funny exposition of the human costs and alienation that ensue from this way of organizing. Most Western organizations have now accepted the limitations and disadvantages of this machine-like way of organizing, and/or have shifted the idea of machine from a clock to a computer, without fundamentally changing the underlying mechanistic metaphor and mode of organizing.

Most organizations, however, are still hierarchically run, with a corresponding emphasis on control, performance management, individual units (whether persons or teams or departments or divisions), and a belief in linear causality i.e. the assumption that organizational strategies and interactions can be understood in simple cause and effect terms.

In contrast, what we are doing at Alianza Arkana can be best described in  terms of craft – in the sense of the skilled, disciplined, intuitive, shaping and cultivating of an organization and its culture. In the paragraphs that follow, I want to take the crafting of the exquisite, embroidered textiles, called ‘telas’, made by Shipibo women,  and pursue it as a metaphor for how Alianza Arkana operates.

Traditionally, the first steps of making the telas are to create the fabric. This implies growing the cotton, spinning it, and then weaving it on a simple hand-made loom. This is highly skilled and time-consuming work.

The  analogy here is of creating an organizational fabric (culture/structure/processes/strategy) that is deeply and tightly but also flexibly and beautifully woven together, and which draws together the multiple, ever-increasing and evolving strands involved in our work. These multiple strands are both important themes such as indigenous rights, our relationship with Mother Nature, cultural differences, colonial history, power relationships etc. and also all the different individuals and organizations that contribute to and support our work and the Shipibo organizations and communities we partner with.

This complex weaving together of many strands, which themselves have to be found, recognized, nurtured and shaped (i.e. grown and spun) in order to create a fabric is more an energetic and relational phenomenon rather than the literal construction of an organizational reality. Plus, of course, unlike in the actual making of a tela, the work to create the fabric is ongoing and never achieves a final, finished form.

Additionally, we are not doing this work alone. The growing and spinning of the fabric is co-created with all the people and organizations that form our alliance. As we say on the section of our website describing ‘Our Alliance‘, the name Alianza Arkana:

“Expresses our vision of a protective alliance to defend and respect the extraordinary diversity, vitality and planetary importance of the Amazon by working in partnership with its indigenous peoples and other organizations.”

Through this working together, we create a mutually sustaining fabric, or  web, of interdependent relationships that forms the energetic and emotional field, or protective alliance, in which the work is carried out.

The work itself, that is the different projects in the three program areas of Intercultural Education, Eco-social Justice and Regenerative Solutions, can be seen as the designs that are then embroidered on the cloth. Furthermore, as in the Shipibo telas, no design is exactly repeated – unless specifically requested for the demands of Western markets. Each piece is unique. Likewise, projects cannot simply be rolled out in a top-down way and replicated in, or at worst, imposed on other communities without taking into account the specific local circumstances.

4. The fourth important aspect of our evolving work is our growing relationship with La Madre Ayahuasca and the other medicinal plants that are at the heart of Shipibo culture.

We are very aware of the complex relationship between the indigenous use of ayahuasca and the growth of Western visitors coming to the Peruvian Amazon in search of healing and spiritual discovery, (often named ‘ayahuasca tourism’), and the impact of this on Shipibo culture. The nature of this complexity, and our response to this, is beyond the scope of this blog, but will be addressed in the future.

As the use of ayahuasca is growing worldwide, its benefits are being increasingly recognized in many fields such as:

  • The treatment of a whole range of illnesses, both physical and mental, including anxiety and depression – see here for an article about the therapeutic potential of ayahuasca for treating depression in the highly prestigious scientific journal ‘Nature’.
  • The treatment of addictions and PSTD (Post Stress Traumatic Disorder).
  • Broader areas of human potential such as creativity and personal and spiritual development.

Additionally, ayahuasca is now the subject of serious pharmacological and neuroscientific academic research. (For an in-depth review of the scientific research done by leading figures in the field in 2007 – since when, of course, there have been many more studies –  see here).

Personally, I could never have realized my capacity to lead Alianza Arkana in a highly participative, inclusive way without the help of the Shipibo healers, known as médicos, using their extraordinary knowledge and ability to work with medicinal plants for the benefit of healing, vision, insight, clarity and compassion. I am grateful beyond words for the help they, and a particular family lineage, have given me.

This is true of many of my colleagues and the organization as a whole.

An important part of our work as a staff group has been to hold regular staff ceremonies for those who want to participate, drinking ayahuasca with a Shipibo médico. In all the thirty or so years I have been practicing as an organizational development consultant, I have never come across anything as effective in creating understanding and bonding between people. This is also a way for us to meet the Shipibo in their cosmology, on their ground, and learn from them.

Additionally, an important source of our funding is now coming from individuals and organizations who are looking for ways to support and give back to Amazonian indigenous cultures for the benefits they have received personally and organizationally from the medicine. These include:

  • Kahpi, the leading website for high quality, intellectually rigorous, educational resources about ayahuasca.
  • Tree of Light Retreats, who organize powerful and safe healing retreats in Peru.
  • Xapiri, one of the leading online stores, which supports Amazonian indigenous culture by unifying ethical art, emotive photography and unbiased news.
  • The newly created Shipibo-Conibo Center of New York, who are helping us publish an intercultural text book for Shipibo primary school children about medicinal plants.

Over time, we have been shifting our funding sources away from organizations and foundations that look, consciously or unconsciously, to impose their own ways of working, usually top-down, on the nonprofits they fund. As a result, Western ways of administration, monitoring and reporting on project outcomes are enforced on indigenous people that do not match or support the way that indigenous people actually function or that could actually provide meaningful assistance.

Traditional models of aid have been rightfully critiqued for this – organizations and countries receiving aid get shaped by the priorities and concerns of the funding agencies, which can often come attached to a strong neo-liberal political agenda. For a particularly powerful exposition of this, written from an insider point of view, see the book Confessions of an Economic Hitman‘, by John Perkins.

This links to the previous third point about crafting an organization whose financial relationships with other organizations and individuals are mutually self-sustaining, and based on genuine partnership, as well as common values and principles.

  • If you and/or your organization would like to join us in this work, please write to:
  • You can support Alianza Arkana and Shipibo women by buying telas from our store here.
  • You can also donate directly to Alianza Arkana here. US citizens receive tax benefits through donating via our 501c3 organization.

Written by Dr Paul Roberts.

I would like to acknowledge of the help of Michael Beljaars, Ryan Smith, Patricia Weiss and Mershona Parshall for their valuable comments on a draft of this blog post. Thanks, too, to Ryan Smith and Leeroy Mills for the use of their photos.


One thought on “Crafting an Organization

  1. It is amazing how much AA has grown over these past six years! Congratulations to all those who participate directly in making the organization such a lively learning experience, such a way of co-creating and sharing wisdom about paths for transforming spaces in the self/society interface. The TELAS metaphor is great, Paul. You make it seem so easy and smooth going; perhaps another piece on the types of conflicts that emerge and how they get resolved into a positive force would be of use to many of your readers? I understand that la Madre Ayahuasca is a mediating and very personal force; I guess finding the right people to take responsability is also acting in a good way. Thank you for this nutritious food for thought.

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