Sitting in Liminal Space

I was recently introduced to the concept of liminal space by someone at the David Suzuki Foundation. It’s a space of discomfort, “the time between ‘what was’ and the ‘next’. It is a place of transition, a season of waiting, and not knowing” - where genuine newness can begin (inaliminalspace.org). The possibilities ahead are vast, and present opportunities for transformative change.

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As the new Executive Director of the Nova Scotia Community Sector Council, I find myself personally in a liminal space. But this is also the case for the organization, and for society at large due to COVID-19, the rise of anti-racism movements, and changing political landscapes. Liminal spaces invoke feelings of lack of clarity, uncertainty, and where things that once held importance are questioned.

We can choose to fight against the liminal space and struggle, or to flow with it by listening, sensing, and responding. Transformation happens when we are not in charge. It can’t happen when we are holding on to control. Sometimes we need to be shaken loose from our foundations in order to be open for something bigger. (transformationalpresence.org)

Once exposed to this concept, I found myself reflecting on what this means for my own leadership journey, for the CSC-NS, and for the sector. Personally, I am in a time of listening and absorbing. It’s an uncomfortable space for me since I tend to be very action oriented and solutions focused. But I feel strongly that I need to resist these urges right now in order to build trust and become familiar with my new context.

At an organizational level, we are at a time of release and reorganization. If you’re familiar with the adaptive cycle model you’ll recognize these phases as part of the natural evolution of ecosystems. Periods of change can result in feelings of needing to hold onto or “conserve” the old ways of working. In the case of CSC-NS, we’re consciously moving into a time of redeveloping our internal team, culture and priorities. It’s very much a time of transition and anticipation of what the future might hold. As an organization that has a voice in the sector, it feels important to be intentional about our internal relationships and ensure that our operations align with our values and vision. In the words of Michelle Balwin, Senior Advisor, Community Foundations of Canada, “To be resilient in one of the most uncertain times requires reflection and the intentional building of brave space” (https://futureofgood.co/transforming-leadership/).

Reflecting on the community sector more broadly, it feels like many organizations are sitting in a space of questioning what the future holds. There are financial realities associated with COVID-19, calls to address systemic racism in the sector, and workforce challenges - while the problems we’re working to address are increasing in complexity and severity, and equity gaps are growing. Here it also feels like a time for release and reorganization - to think about how we might do things differently, where it makes sense to let go or dig in. Recent meetings of the NS Nonprofit COVID-19 Coalition have touched on some big ideas for the sector and there is clearly energy in the field for transformative change.

So to return to the idea of sitting in liminal space, it feels like this is the current reality at multiple system levels. Perhaps there is great opportunity found in this alignment if we can hold the discomfort and not rush forward too quickly in a search for how things have been done up to now. I certainly believe there is.

Annika Voltan bio photo

Annika Voltan, PhD
Executive Director
Community Sector Council of Nova Scotia