When we started to envision cleaning as a transformational practice and metaphor, we had no idea how to transition from a residential and commercial cleaning company to one that used cleaning to change – to clean – the world on many levels. From a traditional viewpoint, what we were envisioning was not “cleaning” but perhaps “consulting” since we were starting to concern ourselves with “bigger issues” than just garbage or dirt on the floor. When I explained what we were doing, I was often told “you are not just a cleaning company,” but I stubbornly refused to accept that improving the intangible aspects of an organization, a culture or a society was outside the scope of a Cleaner.
Even if we were only cleaning the hallways and bathroom, it was hard to go into a school and not see that the invisible space of the school, where interactions, teaching, learning and thinking occurred, needed at least as much cleaning as the visible, tangible space. I thought that cleaning needed to be unshackled from influencing and transforming only physical spaces and that it ought and sought to transform the invisible and intangible too, which is in much more urgent need of transformation given how broken our world is. While my hands swept the floors of a school, my heart and my mind could not help but desire to sweep the invisible space of schooling, education and learning, removing accumulated dust, debris and trash that prevent true learning and potential from unfolding.
If cleaning can transform and restore the physical space of a school, why can’t cleaning transform and restore education to wholeness? This is one of the questions a relatively obscure Montreal-based cleaning company chose to grapple with and explore until gradually opportunities started to open up to work with and hold workshops in schools and youth programs.
But how does a cleaning company successfully hold workshops that invite people of all ages to clean on every level, grounded in the physical act?
After all, there are important barriers, including the stigma and shame associated with cleaning. In addition, we only have experience cleaning and extracting insights and wisdom from the physical act of cleaning. Our familiarity is with the principles and wisdom of cleaning, which technically makes us inexperienced workshop facilitators at best.
Although I am very comfortable speaking in different environments, I struggled with nervousness when I found out we would be holding a workshop for a group of basketball playing teenagers. We would be introducing them to Cleaning as Practice and would be exposing them to the universal metaphor of cleaning and how it helps both with basketball and with the life issues that matter to teenagers. Metaphor or no metaphor, we would be inviting them to do something as “uncool” as cleaning their gyms by themselves, regularly. I am fine presenting the practice and metaphor of cleaning to hundreds of business leaders at once, but I was nervous about presenting something so “uncool” to teenagers.
The first thing I did was acknowledge my nervousness and not run from it or sweep it under the carpet. I engaged with it and owned it. This is Cleaning 101. Cleaners do not run from or hide dirt, rather they are attracted to and engage with dirt. They not only remove it, they shift it from where it makes a mess, disfigures, contaminates or corrupts to where it beautifies, nourishes and makes things grow. This is why a rotten piece of apple on a conference room floor becomes food and nourishment in a compost bin. Composting, recycling, management of waste, conversion of waste into nourishment and energy and eliminating the concept of waste are all part of cleaning.
I decided it would be helpful to think of the workshops like a cleaning assignment: the goal is not to bring something new into the space, but to expose what is already true, beautiful and sacred within the space. As a Cleaner, you are relieved of the pressure of being an expert. Your task is to reveal the essence of the space. Our task became going into our workshops to unearth, to expose the wisdom already in the space. This was liberating.
Cleaning is fundamentally an act of caring, a practice of empathy and service in pure form. We would not be cleaners if we did not prepare to go into our workshops to love the participants, to share with them, to reveal their wisdom rather than dump ours on them. Teaching and learning would be simultaneous, indiscriminate and mutual and that realization dispels nervousness. Love cleans out fear.
My nervousness became an opportunity to self-clean, to clean the intangible as I prepared for workshops about cleaning the intangible. The effectiveness of cleaning lies in embodiment, integrity and authenticity. As a practice, it easily exposes and cleans out dishonesty and other intangible dirt. The practice of cleaning makes it difficult to hide! This is both a challenge and an opportunity.
In cleaning my nervousness as I prepared for the workshops, I spoke to several people who were more experienced with teenagers. One common piece of advice was that our “vibe” and how we showed up in the space mattered much more than the content of our presentation. A great workshop experience, like a great talk, is not so much about doing – communicating what we know – but about being – sharing who we are. This put me at ease and reminded me of this quote from a group called Creative Leaps International:
“We are transmitters, natural transmitters of mysterious transmissions. Whatever it is we as parents and teachers give or transmit to our children and colleagues, it is far more important than the mastery of subject. It is very much palpable essences of ourselves and our impulses toward growth. We are transmitters of life…or the absence of life. Our choice is clear.”
Teachers and communicators do not just transmit what they know, but who they are. Our students and listeners pick up not only what we say but also what we do not say and may never say. They pick up who we are.
Linda and I went into 3 “special-needs” classes at a school in Laval, north of Montreal, unsure what we would experience but open to whatever emerged in the space. The theme of our workshop was Labels and Stigma, which was apt considering the stigma associated with “special-needs.” The power of cleaning’s simplicity was evident as it was easy to convey the idea of cleaning and dirt at any level. Framing issues like bullying, anxiety, honesty, kindness, stigma, shame and prejudice around cleaning and dirt made them easily digestible. The special-needs students understood the idea of tangible and intangible dirt, although it was heart-breaking to find out the intangible dirt they were dealing with when we asked them to write down dirt they needed to get rid of and symbolically throw the pieces of paper in the recycling bin. One of them wrote, “I am tired of being judged by society.”
We asked these “special-needs” students to comment on two photos: one of a janitor and one of a business executive. We ourselves happened to play both roles but chose to dress closer to business people than cleaners for this workshop. Most students favored the business executive but one of the students had the courage to say he preferred the janitor. When we asked why, he said, “the janitor is likely to be wiser because he spends a lot of time alone.” Very loaded response from a “special needs” student who will not graduate because they are “intellectually handicapped”. I wondered what else he knew that was buried under “special needs.” This and other responses reaffirmed our role as cleaners of the intangible – to reveal the wisdom in the space as we would reveal the beauty of a floor. However, exposing the hidden potential of a 15-yr old labelled “intellectually handicapped” is, to put it mildly, more rewarding than making a floor shine. Making a floor shine is the metaphor. Making a teenager shine is the real deal. In the “special-needs” classes, there were unsurprisingly, special insights. And if there are special insights, wouldn’t there be special gifts and talents if parents and educators approach them as cleaners whose task is to remove blockages to potential?
In preparing for a workshop with Montreal Community Cares, an organization that uses basketball for leadership development and character building, we (Linda, Franklin and I) decided to do away with presentation slides. We had a structure, in terms of activities and themes to cover – conversations around the comparison of cleaning and basketball, physical dirt and the act of cleaning, intangible dirt and intangible cleaning solutions. But we prepared to go in ready to present their wisdom back to them, to use whatever arose in the space, trusting that truth will emerge from them. During our check-in, it was clear that there was confusion about what on earth cleaning had to do with basketball. But it was a delight to witness the transition from perplexity to full engagement and participation. We essentially used their words and contribution to show that the act of cleaning was good for life and for basketball and to enrol them in the act. We welcomed every objection and disagreement but we witnessed how truth emerged from the seeming chaos of opposing views. All the conclusions were theirs. They gave us all that was needed to move them from resistance to the idea of cleaning to a desire to clean at all levels. Perhaps the desire to do something good for themselves and the world was already within them; our task was simply to reveal it.
After asking a question about what was needed for a basketball game to happen, we asked what was needed for cleaning to happen. One of the participants said, “you need to identify the dirt.” The significance and profundity of what he said almost eluded me but thankfully, I caught it before it slipped away. I realized he did not say, “you need dirt” but “you need to identify the dirt.” He was teaching us what creates the impetus to clean, to change. If dirt is not identified as dirt, implying that it is an impediment, why remove it? Why clean? Change, healing, restoration cannot begin until we come to terms with brokenness.
I was asked by one of the participants, “so how did you clean your nervousness?” This put me on the spot but thankfully I was ready. I shared with them how I cleaned my nervousness – honesty, love (the number 1, all-purpose cleaner) and courage not to run from it but just to do it. While answering that question about cleaning my dirt, I realized how happy I was to be in their midst and to share with them, to teach and also to learn from them. Love dispels fear, creating a field where everyone is free to be themselves and show up just as they are, faults and all, free to be human. Then potential is unleashed and anything becomes possible, even getting teenagers to look forward to cleaning and to tell us after the workshop, “thank you for giving me something I can use in my life”.
We are still inexperienced in delivering and facilitating workshops and I am aware of how that admittance may seem self-sabotaging from a business standpoint. But our experience suggests that we only need to embody cleaning to have great workshops. It seems we do not need years of workshop experience to go into any space and activate a field where potential is free to unfold. We are still holding the question, “how do we move from providing cleaning services to introducing cleaning as a transformational practice and metaphor for individuals, organizations and society?” It seems we only need to be cleaners – to identify the dirt that blocks us, including fear and all its offspring – and to start by being a channel for the all-purpose cleaning solution – Love.