Nikki Silvestri — Holding Space For Ourselves And Each Other For Systemic Change

NOTE: This interview excerpt is transcript only
Photo Credit: Center for Food Safety

Photo Credit: Center for Food Safety

Leadership is holding space for new things to come into being.
— Nikki Silvestri

At the core of Nikki Silvestri’s current work is the understanding that while corrupted external systems compromise our health and safety, it is corrupted internal systems that prevent us from doing anything about it. Informed by traditions both ancient and modern, with personal experience ranging from national climate policy to intimate ritual, Nikki’s leadership supports individuals and groups to practice the art of shifting internal circumstances as a first step to external systemic change. Leading with a rare combination of vulnerability and sharp analytical skill, Nikki encourages communities to find resilience as she defines it: the ability to take advantage of change in a way that increases the ability of the community to thrive.

An accomplished thought leader, Nikki’s public speaking and media appearances encourage personal and professional balance, sustainable development, and wealth creation for marginalized communities among a wide diversity of audiences. In addition to her speaking appearances at conferences and private events, Nikki regularly forwards the message of equitable economies through numerous media channels including, the Huffington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle and MSNBC. In addition, Nikki is a Faculty Member at the Food Business School and she sits on the Board of Directors of the Business Alliance of Local Living Economies (BALLE).

On Leading Transcript

Seana Lowe Steffen, host: Nikki, what moves you to do the work that you do?

Nikki Silvestri, guest: You’re catching me on a really good day, because there’s things that have been clicking for me in the last week in particular. I think how I would answer that question now is that I’m motivated by the fact that our internal worlds reflect our external worlds. The disconnection that I see in terms of people being able to be in right relationships with our ecosystem is the same disconnect that we have when it comes to being punitive with ourselves and when it comes to being defensive and confrontational with those we love the most. So, that motivates me — the fact that it’s all the same work, that I don’t have to separate unnecessarily.

Seana: If you could change one thing in the world with a snap of your fingers right now, what would you change and why?

Nikki: Oh, that’s amazing. I would have a balance of masculine and feminine traditions be respected all over the world. I think that would actually solve a lot of problems in and of itself. Not even necessarily restoring the feminine. I feel like both the feminine and the masculine have learned a lot from one another, in terms of traditions, since humanity has been around. What a feminine-masculine tradition balance would look like right now, in a time of unprecedented technology and population boom, would be very interesting to me. So that’s what I would do.

Seana: Imagine that! Well you for your thought leadership and your community leadership, you have been acknowledged as one of The ROOT’s 100 most influential African Americans. In your opinion, what is leadership?

Nikki: Leadership is holding space for new things to come into being. I think at its simplest, over time, leadership means different things to me. Being pregnant now, I find myself thinking a lot about the difference between domination, control, and stewardship. All of those are forms of leading that are rewarded differently in mainstream society. I tend toward the type of leadership that is less rewarded externally, but is more rewarding in terms of the interconnectedness of relationships, which is about stewardship. Stewardship in a lot of ways is just holding space for an entity or a system to arrive. Whatever that looks like.

Seana: What would you say is distinct about the leadership that’s needed at this time in our planet’s history?

Nikki: I think that the type of leadership that is needed now is leadership that is very grounded and rooted in non-dualism, that can hold irreconcilable things as true at the same time and know that that’s the nature of governance and not to freak out by artificially trying to make something linear, or make one thing true and another thing not true, because it’s just easier to grasp psychologically. Leaders have to be able to grasp complexity, because it’s hard for large groups of people together to grasp complexity. I’m finding that the leaders that are most effective in relationships right now are the ones that can hold that level of complexity.

Seana: As you have said, “food is the gateway to the environment.” So I wonder, what were the keys to your successes doing just that as executive director of the Innovative People’s Grocery in Oakland, and any time since them?

Nikki: I think I always had the environment as a value and just found that the environmental movement was very goal-oriented when it came to getting people to care about the environment, quote unquote, through policy, or clean up this river, or just superlinear things. I needed to figure out a way to just be in a better relationship with people, because trying to be in relationship with people to strategically get them to care about something was draining for me. So, that was where food came in, because food is a way to build relationship with people just because. We can talk about health and we can talk about a bunch of things that food touches. The oneness isn’t on the other person to understand any of that. I just get to share with them over a good meal, what I care about, and if they end up caring about that too, all the better. Otherwise, we’ve just supported the building of a cool relationship and hopefully helping with economic development and public health at the same time.

Seana: And above all else, what would you have all people do at this time in history?

Nikki: Take on whatever reflective practices support the ability to have that non-dualistic approach to life.

Practice the Art of Shifting

Soil and Shadow focuses on systemic change through interpersonal change. The consulting firm believes that how we are impacts what we do, so they approach social change from both directions - the soil outside of us and the shadow within. Soil and Shadow's approach to leadership supports individuals and groups to increase systemic and interpersonal fertility — the conditions that create life — and then lets the healthy system build from there.