Abstract: How can we understand the role of movement and kinaesthetic resonance in shaping our experience and knowledge? This paper gives a brief introduction to my current doctoral studies at Metanoia Institute/Middlesex University, where I am researching the experiences of psychotherapists. I have discovered my area of interest falls within Studies in Practical Knowledge, a growing research tradition in Scandinavia. This article presents some of the material I have gathered so far, focusing on working with embodied awareness in online Gestalt psychotherapy.
Keywords: movement, kinaesthetic resonance, phronesis, Studies in Practical Knowledge, online psychotherapy.
This article originally appeared in British Gestalt Journal 29.2. To purchase the full issue or subscribe to the Journal, please visit britishgestaltjournal.com.
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How do we adjust when a radical shift in the environment forces us to restructure our familiar ways of practising? Covid-19 has challenged us to engage in this question, and for many this has meant moving our practices online.
In this article I will present some of my reflections about working with Gestalt therapy online, specifically how we include embodied processes in our practice. My interest stems from my present doctoral studies at Metanoia Institute/Middlesex University, where I am researching the use of movement and kinaesthetic resonance in psychotherapy. The pandemic has brought working online into the foreground, and I have expanded my project to include this aspect of our profession.
I will begin with an introduction to my research project, discussing my engagement with the theme and the methodology I have chosen. I will discuss how online work becomes interesting within the context of my research, and briefly introduce a few illustrations from my empirical material, accompanied by general reflections from my own practice.
The overarching purpose of my research is to contribute to a wider understanding of the concept of knowledge by studying the role of movement and kinaesthetic resonance in shaping our experience and learning.
Modernity has been characterised as a time when it is possible to gain knowledge about everything and when even what we don’t know, the elusive spheres and horizons of ‘not-knowing’, have been transformed into ‘not-yet-known’ (Bornemark, 2018c). It is an era where a rationalistic understanding of the world is trumpeted as the highest source of knowledge (Weber, 1946). From this perspective, only what we can quantify and measure is considered real and reliable, which raises the question: have we devalued other kinds of knowing along the way?
We are living in an era of major shifts, and our current pathologies are often linked to lacking a sense of belonging, alienation, stress, and loss of meaning. Some stress relates to a fear of the future, to climate change, and to what we have done to our planet. Currently, we are being confronted with the uncertainty of the present moment and the limitations of our familiar ways of knowing. On an individual and global level we are trying to adjust to something we have never experienced before: the Covid-19 pandemic. I find myself asking, ‘What’s now and what’s next? And what capacities do we need to develop to increase our understanding of the world that we create?’
It seems like everything is happening faster and the tempo is rising. Sociologist Hartmut Rosa (2010, 2019) argues that ‘slowing things down’ will not be enough to meet the pathologies of our time. He challenges the dichotomy that slowing things down is inherently positive, while speeding things up is negative. Instead, he advocates for our capability to resonate. He defines resonance as a way of encountering the world and moving with uncertainty.
How we can be with, and respond to, the ever-changing stream of life that binds us together both as living beings and with the natural world? Which leads me to ask, ‘How can we practise this capability?’
I am approaching this question by exploring the practical knowledge that psychotherapists acquire by working with movement and kinaesthetic resonance; what they feel and sense in the flow of contacting. The aesthetic criterion is an essential aspect of Gestalt diagnosis and I am interested in how therapists gain this knowing, and how this ‘feel of relationality’ informs them and shapes their interventions.
Knowing through movement
I have long been interested in movement and non-verbal processes, and this led me to discover Developmental Somatic Psychotherapy (DSP). I have studied with the founder, Ruella Frank, for many years. Her theory contributes to Gestalt therapy by validating movement as the ground for all contacting – how we are always, and already, moving and being moved by the other. DSP does not offer a specific technique for working with embodied processes, rather it teaches the practitioner to break down contacting into its most basic elements, and to attend to the (lost) art of embodied awareness.
’Nothing happens until something moves’, Einstein said.(1) Movement and perception are inseparably intertwined: we experience through movement and every move we make is felt. Through movement we know that we are, where we are and how we are (Frank, 2016). Contact means ‘to be in touch with’ (Kearney, 2015). Merleau-Ponty (1945) exquisitely illustrates this through what he calls the double-sidedness of touch; how we are simultaneously touching and being touched by the world. We are active and receptive, informing and being informed by our surroundings. This ‘feel- knowing’ is with us from the beginning to the end of our lives, and it is the root of our cognition (Ettinger, 2006). However, the ability to know through movement, and to make sense of felt qualities and dynamics, are capacities that can become less available as we practise our thinking in words (Sheets-Johnstone, 2016).
Evidence and qualitative research
From the beginning, I have wanted to position my research within the field of qualitative research. Quantitative research is important but can be insufficient when studying the complexities of human experience.
Olsson (2009) suggests that the emphasis on quantitative research in psychotherapy has led to a greater trust in manual-based approaches and techniques. These approaches aim to help the practitioner solve specific problems in line with desired results – that is, the result of seeing the client ‘improve’. A consequence, however, is that both client and therapist expect to know, even before therapy begins, what the process will include and what the result will be. This does not leave much room for ‘not knowing’ together or for any unforeseen insights to develop. As any therapist knows, a human being is manifold; it is rare that anyone attends therapy with only one symptom that can easily be ‘cured’ (Olsson, 2009).
Professional psychotherapy can partly be defined as the clinician’s ability to continuously reflect on their own work, and for serious practitioners this includes reflecting in supervision (Nilsson, 2009). A therapist’s craftsmanship develops through experience and becomes evident in the situation.
Evidence from this perspective is situational, relational, and dynamic – an ongoing process where the client and therapist are responding and creatively adjusting to each other and the novelty of the situation. In Gestalt, this can be said to be the therapy.
Studies in Practical Knowledge
While searching for a research method I came across Studies in Practical Knowledge, a fast-growing research tradition in Scandinavia. It was first developed by Senter for praktisk kunskap at the University in Nordland in Norway, and Swedish Centre for Working Life at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. In 2001, the Centre for Studies in Practical Knowledge was established at Södertörn University in Stockholm. There are slight philosophical variations between the schools, but I am establishing my research within the Centre for Studies in Practical Knowledge, which leans on phenomenology. Their interest in closely attending to specific situations within the profession inspired me.
The aim of this field of study is to raise awareness of what Aristotle called phronesis, practical wisdom;(2) a kind of knowledge that becomes evident within professional praxis and differs from what we classify as traditional scientific knowledge: it cannot be captured through measurement or evaluation (Bornemark, 2018a). Praxis can be defined as embodied action, where the quality of doing and acting in relation to others, or the situation in itself, is the purpose. Praxis is guided by phronesis, which often resides within the non-verbal realm; it is a knowing that is sensed and felt. Sometimes this is referred to as silent or tacit knowledge as we often lack the words to sufficiently describe our experience (Polyani, 1966). I was drawn to Södertörn University because the researchers were not settling upon defining practical knowledge as only residing within the tacit domain; they wanted to go beyond that. They believe that this is a kind of knowing that does not yet have a language. This resonated with my own research intention, to verbalise otherwise ‘hidden’ knowing.
In order to examine this, I approached psychotherapists who had completed a two-year training program in Developmental Somatic Psychotherapy to be my participants. I gathered empirical material from focus group dialogues, in-depth inquiries, and auto-ethnographic writing from my own practice. By reflecting on my research findings through a theoretical framework, I hope to make implicit knowing more explicit.
It is through this lens of phronesis that working online became particularly interesting to me. Practical knowledge, phronesis, is our capacity to act in relation to unique situations, and it becomes evident when we are in situations that are novel to us, for example, when facing a dilemma or a new situation. A new situation requires us to lean on previous experiences and habits, while also engaging and immersing ourselves in the specific unfolding of one moment to another. Well, none of us have faced this situation before – not the Covid-19 pandemic, nor having to move our entire practice online. I am left wondering, ‘What can this situation teach us about our practice? And what happens when aspects that we might have taken for granted are no longer available to us?’
Working online is not new for me; I have been working in this medium for a while now. However, I have often felt that it was seen as more acceptable to supervise online than it was to offer therapy. Despite this, I did offer online therapy. My clients live in other countries, and for them it is more important to meet someone who speaks their language than it is to meet someone face-to-face. On reflection, I am aware that I have hesitated to talk about my online work with colleagues: I have felt embarrassed, as if what I was doing was not considered ‘real therapy’. I think my embarrassment was a response to an attitude in the field, but as we are all now aware, the field has had to change rapidly and develop in interesting ways.
The pandemic has been surprising and startling. Many of us had to adjust and learn how to work with a screen between us. In a way, it is like becoming beginners in our own practice. I am intrigued by this and feel there is a sense of ‘allowing’ about it. We were pushed out of the familiar and that has created the potential for confusion, but also for growth. How do we respond to and struggle in this new situation? When do we get stuck, and what do we learn there? How do we develop our individual practice alongside the growing world of psychotherapy at large? Merleau-Ponty (1945) says that as a philosopher you are always a beginner, and your work is an ever-renewed experiment of its own beginning. A philosopher cannot only rely on established knowledge and truths, on that which has already been thought. And I can see that in our work as Gestalt practitioners: that is phenomenology in practice – an ability to wonder about the situation.
I was fortunate enough to wonder alongside great colleagues during my research. Working on this project gave us the opportunity to learn, but it also gave us the opportunity to come together in a difficult time and find a sense of meaning in supporting each other.
The feel of our relationality
There were two prominent themes that stood out from our focus groups:
- How do we bring our embodied, moving-feeling- selves to our online work?
- How do we work relationally?
Early on during the pandemic, and a subsequent move online, some practitioners noticed that they were feeling numb in sessions. They reported that they were less animated and withdrew from the client, as if they did not know how they felt or what to do: ‘I don’t know how to be a therapist anymore’. Others noticed how they began to rely on verbal and cognitive interventions more, how therapy became a ‘report of the week’. Moving forward in their chairs, narrowing and reaching intensely with the eyes – almost intending to move through the screen – was another pattern identified. In doing this, many practitioners recognised that their usual creativity had become diminished; they no longer let themselves pause or notice how they were feeling with the other or the environment. They found it hard to stay open to the possibilities within the specific situation. And we recognised the impact this was having on our interventions: doing to the other became more prominent than being with, and the Id of the situation became less available.
Developmental Somatic Psychotherapy describes our immediate response to a situation as kinaesthetic resonance, the reverberating feeling tones generated between us (Frank, 2016). We become kinaesthetically aware as we experience our moving body in relation, as we sense our bodyweight and muscular tensions, and as we feel the various pressures against our body. It is through kinaesthesia that we ‘listen’ to our self- movements and feel our very subtle adjusting within the situation (Frank, 2016). We can never completely shut off our kinaesthesia (Sheets-Johnstone, 2016), and this feel-knowing does not disappear because we are meeting each other via a screen. However, how we move and how we feel the qualities of the other can change significantly. The non-verbal aesthetic information that used to lay the ground for interventions and experimentation is now being presented differently. This can be confusing and create anxiety: ‘When I’m not feeling myself with you in the way I’m used to, maybe you’re not feeling me there with you?’ When my ability to resonate kinaesthetically is different, or dulled, it is easy to interpret that I am not giving enough to the other, or that the other is not being there enough for me.
This direct knowing – kinaesthetic resonance – offers us the possibility of responding to the novelty of a situation, as well as evoking what we can kinaesthetically remember.(3) This remembering is called forth in a relationship or in a situation (Frank, 2016). For example, I have learned over time how, or if, I will be received by the other. If I expect someone to welcome me, I will move towards them very differently than if I expect that they won’t. +++And in moments when we are not feeling sufficiently received by the other, both therapist and client can experience degrees of re-traumatisation.
Movement is our primary support for contacting (Frank, 2001; L. Perls, 1992). When we work in front of the computer, many of the supports that we usually take for granted are missing. It can be easy to feel as flat and square as the screen. We can forget that we still have bodies with volume, that we are surrounded with space that we can move through. We still have legs, we can stand up with our clients, we can swing our arms, we can move up and down, and turn. We can adjust and move the screen. More easily said than done, but my point is that we do not have to let technology completely limit our work.
Frank (2016) emphasises that sensitising ourselves to our own movement experiences is a primary requirement for the organising of flexible and creative adjusting. At first, we need to feel ourselves in order to feel the other and the potentialities within the situation. One way to feel our embodied presence with our clients is to take a moment and feel ourselves with the chair underneath and behind us. Feel our weight, and the slight push back from the environment. Bring our attention to the room, notice the air that surrounds us, let our eyes rest and, slowly, let the world come to us. If we take a moment to pause, to become aware of how we are touching and being touched by the world, we can begin to wonder about the situation with the client.
Sensing the elusive
The restrictions and recommendations following the pandemic have revealed the importance of non-verbal communication. As many people are isolated, and meeting only at a distance (online and physically), it has become apparent how much information we are ‘normally’ embedded in. Personally, I have become aware of how much I use silence in my practice. I came to notice this because silence online feels different, less ‘thick’ than when we are physically together. Others have noticed this too; the new situation brought to our awareness how rich silence can be.
Online silence can feel awkward and make both therapists and clients feel anxious. Some feel the need to fill this ‘empty space’ with words and content to make the gap denser and safer, which of course has the dual intention to connect. Laura Perls wrote that awkwardness can potentially be creative, that it is a temporary lack of balance where we have one foot each on both familiar and unfamiliar ground. If we have mobility, she said, and allow ourselves to wobble, we can maintain the excitement, perhaps forgetting the awkwardness and gaining new supportive ground in the process (L. Perls, 1992, p. 155). In the focus groups I noticed how we stayed with the silence together. Many of us experienced it as peaceful and used it as a support to engage with each other. To some, this was helpful and they thought they could rely on this when working with clients. Laura might have called our practising together ‘the very boundary experience itself’, the prerequisite for growth. To quote one participant: ‘In retrospect, staying with the “between words” made the whole difference and allowed for more depth in my work’.
Some participants shared how they experimented with bigger movements, but most of the time we shared how it was the small shifts in ourselves, and in our clients, that informed our interventions. I have been struck by how minor movements become extremely clear within the frame of the computer. Although we only see a part of the other’s body, it is possible to feel into the whole.
One therapist described how she had noticed a slight difference in her client’s face: something softened around her eyes, like her weight had suddenly dropped. Almost instantly the therapist felt a change in the quality of contact, and she became more present. She acknowledged this, and her client shared that in the moment her cat had sneaked up and found a place to rest his warm and furry body on her bare feet. This gave the client a sense of comfort and connection. In feeling this gentle push from her cat, she was simultaneously feeling more of herself, and could then be more present with the other. The client was reminded of her embodied self and as she allowed herself to sink into her immediate environment, she became more flexible in her way of contacting.
Our lived body
It seems that working online invites a split where more attention is given to content, and to what we can observe and evaluate, rather than to what is felt and sensed in relation to the other. The founding text Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality (Perls, Hefferline and Goodman, 1951) is, among other things, a critique of dualism.(4) Dualism is often referenced back to the French philosopher Descartes (1596–1650) who coined the famous sentence ‘I think therefore I am’. Distinguishing what was reliable and certain knowledge in an uncertain world was important for him. For Descartes, thinking (cogito) and body/matter (extensa) were two strictly different substances that could not be mixed. He valued the cogito (that also incorporated the soul) as higher and more reliable than the extensa. However, this division has taught us to think in dualities, to divorce mind from body, inner from external, reason from sensibility. The ‘Cartesian split’ set the ground for the rationalistic tradition where knowledge is reached through thinking rather than through experience and perception.
It is questioned if even Descartes himself fully believed in an absolute division between body and mind (Brown, 2006). In his late book The Passions of the Soul (1649), Descartes refers to six passions that weave together body and mind. Merleau-Ponty (1945) points out that Descartes’ dualism emphasised only one aspect of our experience: the objective. However, Merleau-Ponty claims that this dualism between body and mind originally drew from the same source, the lived body. The lived body is our primary knowing and understanding of the world, that can experience and be experienced, touch and be touched. We can experience our bodies as objects (extensa) that we can observe, control, and aim at fixing. But we are also perceiving and sensing, we have an immediate feel of how we are moving and being moved; this is our subjective experience.
A research participant shared an example that illustrates this experience. His client was observing herself on the screen, adjusting her hair and obsessing about her looks. The therapist brought this into the foreground and they explored what it feels like to be looking at, what it feels like to be touching her hair. In shuttling between the different experiences they discovered how their sense of togetherness was impacted by those different ‘states’.
When sensory information is not available in familiar ways, there can be a tendency to lean towards aspects of experience that are more practised – the rational, cognitive and objective body. This might be why we sometimes feel less satisfied with our online connections, why we might feel that something is missing – because it is. However, I wonder if this felt absence will bring the attention needed to valuing and practising our lived body experience. This seemed to be the case in our focus groups where we asked ourselves: ‘How can we bring forth that sense of “I-feel-you-feel me” via the screen?’.
During one of my own sessions, a client of mine – a musician – said that he felt disconnected and empty. All performances were cancelled because of Covid-19 and he said composing felt pointless. As I inquired about the emptiness, he placed his hands on his sternum: ‘It feels hard in here,’ he said. His fingers were slightly curled, like he was grasping onto that hardness. As he spoke, I held my breath and an intense pressure built up in me. We sat like that for a while, almost breathless. I was hardly feeling myself, and I did not know how to proceed. ‘There’s no point,’ he said, and he made tiny movements with his fingers, like he was pushing something away towards me. I felt as if I was hit by something soft yet sharp, and it made me respond with a subtle twitch. I asked if he felt his movement, he did, and my interest intrigued him. His movements became more distinct. I allowed my twitching response to increase and become more visible. He noticed and paused for a second. He continued, now involving more of himself. I let his movements move me. His excitement was building, as was mine. After a while, he stopped and I suggested that we stay with the aftermath of the encounter. Then he spoke: ‘Even if I don’t know if anyone will hear my music, maybe I need to continue playing. Then at least there is a possibility that someone will.’
The client had been invited to feel the quality of his emptiness. The emptiness was something. Feeling himself and noticing my willingness to ‘be with’ him lay the ground for an exploration of the relational dynamics between us. This gave him a sense of agency: he could do something with me, and he could have an impact on another. I am not sure that I would have worked differently in my office, but the online situation highlighted to me the immediate need to emphasise this feeling of relationality.
Lost – and found
I must confess that in almost every online session now I experience a moment of grief: a sense of loss, a longing to be together in the way that we used to. For me it has been important to acknowledge this, to acknowledge that working online is different from meeting someone in real life. It sounds obvious, but I need to do this in order to avoid comparing the current situation to what I no longer have. And I have noticed that bringing my awareness to what is missing also brings into focus the buzzing background information that we are usually embedded in. Sitting with a client one day, I felt that sense of loss and I asked her what it was like for her. She responded:
- ‘I miss feeling your voice, when we’re in the same room I can feel your voice touching me. I hadn’t known before how important that was to me. Like when you hear live music you can feel it move right through you, and it’s different from when you hear music from a stereo. It’s so flat. It’s so empty here,’ she said, and touched the air around her. ‘And it’s so different when we start and end sessions. Usually I come to your room, and that’s like a breeze of fresh air for me. And I travel there, and then you and I hug when I leave. I save those hugs, and they stay with me all week.’
From there, we attended to how she could feel in herself with others, and we created an experiment where we passed an imaginary ball between us. We played with changing the qualities of how we gave and received that ball, and we paused to let ourselves feel this quality of togetherness. In the following session she sat outside, she said she wanted to feel the wind on her skin: ‘It makes me feel more of me’. The presence of what was absent made her aware of something that was important for her, and how she could adjust to find more support. Now, together with this client and with others, I have negotiated different ways of beginning and ending sessions that are more gradual than the abruptness that Zoom normally affords.
However, the distance in online therapy can also be a support for both therapists and clients. Being in one’s own environment can enable people to share themselves differently. The therapy room is no longer ‘mine’. We are both meeting in a new shared space where the client is in their home, and I’m in mine. This creates a new level of intimacy, and how we both situate ourselves to this new experience has an impact and adds information. ‘I feel more bold in my interventions,’ one therapist said. The situation enabled her to feel more creative, and less hesitant to experiment.
Some interventions have also become possible that would not have been possible face-to-face; for example, the depressed client who sometimes does not show up for sessions. Now we can meet where she is, in that depressed place. One anorexic client hadn’t managed to shower or change clothes for several days, because she couldn’t bear having to feel her body. In our session we attended to her fears and when she felt ready to take a risk, I waited for her. She left the computer to have a shower and change her clothes, and then came back. I became her point of support. Both these cases are examples of how online work opens up the possibility of developing relational support for the client in their everyday environment.
For some practitioners and clients, online work opens up opportunities. For others, it doesn’t. We always have to carefully assess how to grade interventions; that’s not new, but now it is certainly different. One major concern that came up in the focus groups was whether we could sufficiently contain our clients in online work. Sometimes we found that we could, other times we could not. One client always had a scarf next to her, and when she needed comfort she would wrap herself into it, holding it tight. The pressure gave her a clearer sense of herself and allowed her to find support in her environment, and with me. In between sessions, the scarf reminded her of our togetherness.
Many of the practitioners I have spoken to, who were first reluctant to work online, have now discovered the benefits, and some hesitate to return to face-to- face meetings. Paradoxically, some therapists feel they are moving more freely behind the screen and think meeting in person at this time might carry more obstacles – such as health risks, wearing masks, and being more physically distanced. The screen has become a safe boundary.
To date, I do not know when I will return to my office. But when I do my clients and I will need to navigate and negotiate how to do this together; that will be a centrepiece of our therapy. There are currently no restrictions where I live (and have never been), but I am not ready to return yet and I will wait until I am. We have never been in a lockdown here in Sweden, instead it was up to each individual to follow recommendations, and that brought with it certain relational challenges. I have explained to my clients that working online is an ethical choice for me, and although being so obviously transparent about my values with my clients has been new for me, it has also felt necessary.(5) This pandemic has revealed something that has always been true, but has now been brought into the foreground: when I meet you, I’m also meeting everyone that you’ve recently met, and I have the potential to impact everyone that you will meet. My body is not only mine. My health is your health. It becomes so clear now that we are, and always have been, interconnected and interdependent.
I am sure that this time will have changed my practice forever. I feel resistant to say that I like working online because I much prefer physical meetings. However, I have adjusted and there are sessions that I really enjoy. I am learning new skills; my clients and I are exploring this ‘newness’ together and finding each other in novel ways. That’s growth, right? Whatever happens, I feel that working online is here to stay.
By attending to details and nuances in our work, and verbalising how we have gained information in specific situations, my research participants and I have begun to create new knowledge together. The core of Gestalt therapy has always been attending to how we creatively adjust, and to noticing the feel of our relationality.
Now, however, the importance of this has been brought to our attention. As Bornemark (2018b) says:
- To act in relation to unique situations includes the capacity, not to reduce either oneself or the others to objects, but to relate to them exactly as living. (p. 444).
Both phronesis and kinaesthetic resonance include the capacity to continuously adjust to the ever-changing stream of life that binds us together. I want to propose that these are aspects of knowing that cannot be measured, but can be practised, and can develop and unfold when explored interpersonally.
1. I have searched for the original source of this famous and well-known quote by Einstein, but have not found it.
2. Aristotle developed a pluralistic model of knowledge, where he classified different aspects of knowledge as theoretical, practical and productive.
3. To understand the experience of kinaesthetic resonance and kinaesthetic remembering in greater depth, students of DSP explore the stream upon which resonance flows, which Frank (2001; Frank and LaBarre, 2010) refers to as ‘fundamental movement patterns’.
4. ‘We believe that the Gestalt outlook is the original, undistorted, natural approach to life: that is, to man’s thinking, acting, feeling. The average person, having been raised in an atmosphere full of splits, has lost his wholeness, his integrity. To come together again he has to heal the dualism of his person, his thinking, and of his language. He is accustomed to think in contrasts – of infantile and mature, body and mind, organism and environment, self and reality, as if they were opposing entities. The unitary outlook which can dissolve such a dualistic approach is buried but not destroyed and, as we intend to show, can be regained with wholesome advantage’ (Perls, Hefferline and Goodman, 1951, p. viii).
5. For more on Ethical Presence see Chidiac and Denham-Vaughan (2020).
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- Helena Kallner, MA, MSc, UKCP registered psychotherapist, practises Gestalt psychotherapy in Stockholm. Helena is a senior teacher and supervisor of Developmental Somatic PsychotherapyTM, presenting workshops and trainings internationally. She is presently a doctoral student at Metanoia Institute/Middlesex University, researching psychotherapists’ use of movement and kinaesthetic resonance. Helena is a member of Relational Change’s leadership team and she works closely with Ekskäret Foundation (Sweden).
- Address for correspondence: email@example.com