I first became acquainted with the idea of “the outside edge of the inside” in reading the work of the Franciscan priest, Richard Rhor. Last summer his work was picked up in a column by New York Times columnist David Brooks.
As a Franciscan, Rhor is concerned about the same kinds of positive social transformation (equity, justice, etc.) that we are working for at Metanoia. He rightly understands that within any institutions there are “insiders” who often easily become preoccupied with keeping their ‘insider’ status and keeping the institution in tact as it is because that preserves their status. There are also “outsiders” who bear no allegiance or attachments to the institutions. They have tremendous freedom to say whatever they want about these institutions because they have no vested interest in their survival. This freedom also comes with a price in that they are easily labeled by insiders as troublemakers and dismissed out of hand without being taken seriously.
Between these two groups, Rhor notes, there are those that choose to intentionally stand on the “outside edge of the inside.” That is, they create relationships with both insiders and outsiders and seek to be a conduit and bridge builder between the two that can help them develop solutions that lead to something totally new and unexpected by both. Rhor points out that it is often the people on the outside edge of the inside who get consensus built and solutions made in our communities. They exercise a unique power and responsibility by virtue of their social position. Maintaining that position is not always easy, however.
Inevitably, both insiders and outsiders will work to pull as many people into their circle as possible. So to maintain a position on the outside edge of the inside means that sometimes one will be regarded as an insider by outsiders and an outsider by insiders. It can feel like a no-win spot to be in . . . but it is precisely the place where the real work of social change most often happens.
For those of you who know Metanoia well – I’m hoping that by now you can see how we seek to embody this ethic in our work. We maintain important and working relationships with major institutions in our community even as we also work to maintain important and working relationships with groups and individuals that seek to critique those institutions. I personally have been in rooms where I have been encouraged by insiders to “do something” about the outsiders critiquing them. We are not in business to “do something” about anyone honestly expressing their opinions in a public way. One reason is that would then make us lose our position on the outside edge of the inside. I have also personally been in rooms of outsiders where the good work we are accomplishing by working together with a group of insiders has been second guessed and dismissed more out of animosity for the insiders than any real regard for the value of the work itself. Thus is life on the outside edge of the inside.
Nevertheless, the outside edge of the inside remains the place where much of the original and transformative social change occurs in our world. Keeping that in mind, our question becomes how do we develop an organizational culture and ethic that helps the people of our movement remain faithfully on the outside edge of the inside? It takes a significant amount of self-care and the nurturing of an expansive consciousness that looks more for commonality than the apparent divisions. We live in a world that is becoming increasing dualistic in its thought process (i.e. “you are either with us or against us,” issues are always cut and dry with only two possible solutions in opposition, etc.). However, this kind of thinking doesn’t work on the outside edge of the inside. What is needed is a more unitive thought process that seeks value on both sides of an issue and works to put two opposing sides into a new form of relationship with one another. My own faith is very helpful in this endeavor, as it roots me in a way of thinking about the world that calls for love of everyone involved and views all people equally regardless of their outsider or insider status. For example, I have found Jesus’ difficult instruction to “pray for your enemies” an essential tool in helping me remain on the outside edge of the inside. Those prayers, rightly done, remind me that they are more than just “my enemies,” they are also God’s children with their own pains, hopes and faults like me – they help me see people in a fresh new light next time I am with them.
A week or so ago, I had breakfast with a dear friend who is also working on the outside edge of the inside. He is a senior leader in one of our region’s premier institutions and he is working every day to make that institution more equitable. This is an institution that has its outsider detractors and in significant ways, those outsiders are correct about the not-always-positive legacy of this institution in our community. And yet, by working on the outside edge of the inside, my friend has accomplished more within this institution in a relatively short amount of time than a generation of critics critiquing from the outside.
We swapped stories of what it is like to be called a “sell out” by outsiders and then, sometimes on the same day and with the same issue, be regarded by the insiders as an outsider ourselves. We also agreed that there is no where we would rather be to get things done to make our society a better and more equitable place than the outside edge of the inside. I am grateful for those who have respected and supported us in taking this position over our history at Metanoia.