Posts Tagged movements

Planting Seeds

Planting Sunflower Seeds

Creative Commons License photo credit: tjmwatson

Not Working As Planned

“I’m planting seeds. Planting seeds.” I was muttering to myself again, speed walking up Mission Street past Yerba Buena Gardens. I was trying to catch up with the march that had a 10 minute head start on me, thousands of San Franciscans protesting in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street and people around the world on October 15. I had folded up the banner I was carrying, since it was too big and unwieldy to carry by myself.

I wasn’t planning on marching alone that day. I had made plans to meet up with two different people, and had put the call out to a thousand more. I really could have used a day off from organizing, but people seemed interested in marching and I wanted to support any glimmer of interest in Buddhist participation in the Occupy movements locally in the Bay Area.

But here I was, alone, feeling ridiculous that I couldn’t even carry the banner in a way that people could see who I was with. I felt like a failure, like I was wasting time and money and energy on a lost cause.

“When planting a tree, if you want to do it the right way and get fruit from it, how should you go about it in order to have a relaxed mind? You do that which is your responsibility. Getting hold of the sapling is your job; digging the hole is your job; planting it, fertilizing and watering it, and keeping the insects off it is your job. That’s it. Stop here. How fast or slow it grows isn’t your job. Let go of this part.” – Ajahn Chah in Being Dharma

Some days, it is so hard to remember my job as a community organizer. Fostering the conditions where people can come together, can show up, can take on leadership – this is my job. Ensuring people show up isn’t my job. How much leadership they take on isn’t my job. Wrapping up my ideas of success around having a certain number of people show up, or having people take over leadership, or having an intensely powerful experience – this is all out of my control.

How Do I Let Go?

This is where I’ve learned to be a better community organizer by studying Buddhism and meditation. I can say over and over and over again – this is not my job! Do not be attached to outcomes. Just don’t do it! But how do I actually do this? How do I practice letting go of outcomes over and over and over again until it feels easy?

In Buddhist practice, we don’t do it by starting with the hardest things. We don’t start with letting go of the outcome of an event that we’ve poured our heart and body and mind into.

We start simply. We start on the cushion, watching our breath move in and out. We watch our mind do what minds do which is THINK and PLAN and TELL STORIES and CHATTER. We watch how we are attached to certain outcomes of meditation. My mind should be quiet! My breath should come easily! I should be feeling peace instead of panic!

We look at these attachments first because there’s so much less riding on it. It is just us with our minds and bodies. No one is depending on our breath being a certain way or our mind being quiet. No one can see what’s going on inside, whether we are still or a tornado.

If Practice Is Hard, Taking It to Our Work is Harder

And yet it is still SO HARD to let go of these attachments about how our meditation is going. Especially when they are enmeshed with guilt and shame, with a running commentary about how we should be better, smarter, more relaxed. About how we are inadequate and unworthy. How we are a waste of space just sitting here, not even able to sit still correctly.

If all this is happening when we are simply sitting, imagine how much more is happening when we have other peoples’ needs also at stake? When we’re sure that others will judge us by how many people come out, who attends, whether it’s a transformative experience? These voices of shame and inadequacy scream louder and louder.

I feel like when I was an organizer without Buddhism, I found ways to cover up those voices. I would hush the stories of inadequacy and tell myself other stories about how I was adequate and worthy. I would fake confidence until I felt something that looked like confidence. I would work harder and faster, trying to quiet the voices by demonstrating just how hard working I could be.

And these strategies worked for awhile. People judged me to be successful, and I felt proud of what I could accomplish.

But these nagging doubts lingered. Patching over inadequacy and unworthiness was like putting a towel over an infected wound. I don’t see it anymore, but it doesn’t heal. Instead it gets worse. As I felt worse, I also had less capacity to manage my work, as I was depleted by all the faking, all the working harder and faster. Things unraveled.

Practicing New Practices

During the march last week, I tried out some other practices. There was a lot of breathing as I walked fast to try to catch up with other marchers. When I got anxious, I returned again and again to the words “I’m planting seeds” to remind myself why I was there. When I finally caught up with the march, I found a way to stretch my arms wide enough so the banner was mostly visible. I walked with pride, in connection with others marching even though I felt lonely.

After letting go of this outcome, I was happily surprised to not be alone for long. A nearby marcher who practices with an allied organization saw me and offered to hold the other end of my banner. She ended up marching with me for the next two hours. We eventually met up with the other two people who I had plans to connect with, who helped our contingent feel a little larger. A few others came up and thanked us for being there, glad to see our presence.

Whether people connected with me or not that day was no longer the point. Some days people show up, and some days they don’t. Some days people jump at the chance to lead. Other days everyone averts their eyes when you ask for help. Whichever day it is, the task is the same. Keep planting seeds.


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It always makes me smile when a random connection happens. I was so used to random connections happening in the small town I’ve lived in for the past 7 years. Walking into most public spaces, it wasn’t a question of whether you would see someone you knew, but who. With only 14,000 people, I was daily reminded of the vast and numerous ways that everyone is connected. The web is almost visible, you can see the strands that connect me to you to everyone you meet on the street.

So when it happens in San Francisco, each time I’m a little more amazed. It feels the same, that there’s the vast web of interconnections and I’m tightly bound up in it even though I’ve been here just over four months. And as I feel how tightly woven this web is, I realize how deeply held I am in this new city of mine.

I run in to people I know all the time in San Francisco. On the train, on the street, at restaurants. One day on BART, I ran into a member of the leadership team of the Anne Braden program. The randomness of this instance – that we both happened to be riding into the city at the same time, on the same day, and happened to get on the same car out of 9 cars to choose from on this particular train. If I’d have been 7 minutes earlier or later, or picked one car closer to the front of the train – we’d have never met.

But of course, it gets better. A simple meeting like this is starting to feel commonplace in San Francisco. But this day held even more connection. We start talking, and towards the end of the conversation I mention that I’m heading to meet my mentor, who I’ve been paired with as part of the program. As I start to get off the train, a woman who has been sitting in the seat right next to where we’ve been standing says, “Please say hello from me to your mentor – I know her from my work at SF Women Against Rape.” SERIOUSLY. Yet another person, on the same train, in the same car, who could have been running 7 minutes late and caught the next train instead, or who could have chosen another car, but instead found herself sitting next to us at just the right time and place, who is part of this web of connections that wraps itself even tighter around me.

Where I feel it even more in San Francisco is when I read something I love, something I’ve been thinking and feeling, something I’ve been hoping and wishing tha I can find others who know something about this. Like this lovely post by Yashna Maya Padamsee, who says “We need to move the self-care conversation into community care. We need to move the conversation from individual to collective. From independent to interdependent.”

YES. I am so tired of the conversation about self-care being about individual problems and individual solutions. I am experienced at burnout, and it’s so easy to feel again and again like I am the center of the problem. But in reality, our cultural push to work and overwork is driven by capitalism. And the ways that we are internally driven to feel shame and guilt if we don’t “achieve” in the right ways are fueled by sexism, racism, heterosexism – every system that tells us that we are not okay, broken, and inadequate. Making space for myself and others to practice self care is a radical act to say that we are okay as we are, that we have worth separate from what we produce. Cultivating self-care is essential to our movements to transform our world.

Of course, this story cannot end with a simple connection of ideas. I read this article, am touched and go on Facebook to share with others. And of course, brilliant people I’m connected with here have not only posted this article themselves, but are tagged in the original post as people who Yashna thought of when writing this post. I am already building connections with the people who I moved here to connect with.

In case I have any questions about whether I’m in the right place, connecting with the right people ….. San Francisco continues to remind me that I am right where I most want to be.


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One Strong Belief

I’m participating in the #trust30 challenge to reflect on quotes and writing prompts from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Self Reliance. I hope to develop more trust in my writing, more self reliance that what I write is worthwhile, even if just to me.


It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude. – Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance

Buster Benson asks, “What’s one strong belief you possess that isn’t shared by your closest friends or family?”

I believe that Buddhist teachings on mindfulness and lovingkindness hold the keys to transforming our world to be peaceful and just.

I have been fortunate to have amazing friends who share many of my political views and understandings of life. Right now, I have a set of friends working actively on creating a more just world, and a set of friends engaged in Buddhist meditation – but those circles have little overlap. Whatever circle I’m in, I have work to do to make my beliefs understood and I often feel like I’m on the edge of lecturing people about things they don’t really want to hear. Like when I had lunch with some Buddhist friends, and started breaking down the dynamics of sexual violence when our conversations meandered from living in France, to the sexual mores of France versus the US and how that relates to each country’s perception of DSK’s rapes of multiple women. Or when I’m with activist friends who cringe at training activities that get a little “woo” – especially if they slow things down and ask us to be mindful of the body. I’m overjoyed when I meet people who find interesting the overlap between social justice and meditation.

I chafe at Emerson’s love of the independence of solitude. As a community organizer, it goes against every cell of my being to just hang out with my solitary beliefs. If I find an idea compelling, I want to share it. Preferably not in a dogmatic way, but in a way where others can interact with it and tell me where it’s not quite right. And when it speaks to them clearly, I invite them in to my life as co-organizers, as friends, as family so we can work together to spread this idea, and change the world.


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Giving Myself More Space to Speak

I have been noticing how quiet I am here. Yes, I am busy. But I also have a lot on my mind, a lot that would be helped by talking through it, writing through it, grappling intensely with all that is going on.

Yet I’m facing a lot of fear about not getting it “right” if I try to write things out here. Particularly around processing so much of the insights, epiphanies, and challenges brewing in me as a result of my participation in the Anne Braden Anti-Racist Training Program. I’m noting here how silence can be a detour in my struggle to be a white anti-racist. I catch myself thinking, “I’ll wait until I have it sorted out, then I’ll write about the insights, not the messy internal process that got me there.” I’m much more comfortable projecting an idealized image of myself as someone who has it together, a leader, the person to come to with questions and concerns because I’ve got it figured out.

But I don’t have it figured out. I moved to San Francisco this February because I had reached the limits of what I knew, and I wanted to learn from others. From my work in an anti-violence nonprofit organization, I had reached the capacity of what I could do within the organization.

As part of the Progressive Leaders Fellowship, I had time to think through what I most needed to experience next and create a plan for how I would develop that aspect of my leadership.

I hope for a future without racism, violence, gender bias, homophobia, and hatred. To create that future, we need to rebuild our social movements of the 1960s and 70s. These days in the US, we rely too heavily on social justice non-profits to do the work of ending oppression.

We need to rethink the roles that social justice non-profits play in creating or limiting social change:

  • How does a business model for non-profits take us away from building social movements?
  • How do narrow missions keep us from working across issues for social change?
  • How do current non-profit structures contribute to staff burnout that ultimately drains away our best people?

We need to reform social justice non-profits back toward their roots in social movements, while at the same time we seek other structures outside the non-profit realm that contribute to rebuilding our movements. The specifics of this vision aren’t yet clear to me, in part because they need to be built collaboratively, based on the experiences of many people working to end oppression. The immediate needs are spaces to build a larger vision for how nonprofits and other organizing structures support ending oppression.

In re-reading this vision, I am excited that my move to San Francisco has allowed for exactly this. The Anne Braden Program is helping me root deeply in the history of U.S. social justice movements, and see my work as part of this larger, longer-term vision.

Yet, I’m also experiencing some dissonance with my blog title being focused on “nonprofits” – as I think more and more about movements and not nonprofit organizations, I feel limited by this scope. So much so, that this morning I contemplated a blog name change – perhaps to “Rooting Movement” or something similar that would allude to the broader basis in social movements that I am shifting toward.

Yet as I contemplate this shift (which may or may not happen) – I also remember that I am speaking to people who are based in nonprofits, people who feel frustrated with the limits of their organizational structure, people seeking the broader container that social movements bring to our work. And that remaining with a nonprofit-centric name will continue to allow me to be connected with people seeking information about nonprofits.

For now, I make these two commitments:

1. I will write and press “publish” even when my thinking still feels messy and incomplete. As a mentor reminded me last week, “You might try worrying less about your coherence. Even when you think you aren’t speaking clearly, I am understanding you.”

2. I will allow myself latitude with what I publish here under the name “Rooting Nonprofits.” I will give myself more space to write at the intersection of personal and political, and more space to write about larger social movements and not only about work within the four walls of a nonprofit organization.


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Where were you on March 19, 2003?

I was on a cruise ship near the Bahamas when George W. Bush declared war on Iraq eight years ago today. Bush declared war because of the potential threat to the American way of life. Coming off a cruise ship made clear that this “American way of life” was  about my ability to live in relative affluence both on the cruise ship and back at home, all while being served by the rest of the world.

My first and only cruise vacation was a gift from my mother to help me through one of the most difficult periods of my life. I was in the midst of a deep depression and trying to find some way to come back to life after a painful end to a relationship with an alcoholic. I remember the anticipation of this vacation, the daily, hourly, by the minute reminders I would give myself that I had at least this one thing to look forward to. It was the carrot that kept me going through an otherwise dark chapter.

The cruise itself was surreal. At the time, I was reading about Jean Baudrillard’s concepts of simulacra and simulation – that in these postmodern times we have replaced real experience with simulations of reality. Like Disneyland, the cruise ship was a great example of hyperreality – an “obviously fake” version of reality that makes us feel like our normal lives are real, when in fact those “normal lives” are not real either.

The cruise ship “is meant to be an [opulent] world, in order to make us believe that the [rich people] are elsewhere in the ‘real’ world, and to conceal the fact that real [opulence] is everywhere, particularly among those [rich Americans] who go there to act [opulent] in order to foster illusions of their real [opulence]” (Baudrillard, p. 172). It allows Americans to say, “I’m not normally into being pampered, but for 4 days of my life I deserve it.” This masks the ways that Americans are continually pampered in comparison to most the rest of the world, and that our “way of life” depends on people in other countries serving our needs. [March 26, 2003]

On the cruise ship, war was not real. There was no mention that the country we would be returning to would now be at war. And because my daily life as a U.S. academic was largely disconnected from the daily reality of the rest of the world – I returned to a life where war was not real.

Today, I am thinking about the stories of the U.S. during World War II – with rations and Rosie the Riveter, or the Vietnam war – with mass protests and massacres at Kent State and Jackson State. How public and present war seemed in the daily lives of everyone in the U.S. then.

And I am struck that many days can go by – days, weeks, months – and I do not remember that the U.S. is at war. I still live a life where war is not real. I don’t believe I am alone, and that there are many of us who are disconnected from the day to day reality of war.

I know that my experience does not translate to everyone, that there are millions of soldiers on active duty and millions of families who live in daily anguish that their loved ones will be killed or injured in the line of duty. Yet my disconnection from the reality of war persists, and it surprises the me who is normally compassionate, anti-violence, and politically active. I suspect there are a number of ways that my disconnection (and the disconnection of others) is actively cultivated as a method for heading off massive anti-war protests.

I write this today as the military strikes of Operation Odyssey Dawn begin in Libya, and in solidarity with the folks I was hoping to march with today in San Francisco against war. While a number of life circumstances conspired to keep me from marching, I write this in the hopes that others who also find themselves disconnected can join me in finding ways to reconnect with what is real – both the reality of war and the reality of our daily lives. Eight years later, and I still find myself on the cruise ship.


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Deeper Roots with Spirituality?

I’ve noticed the real lack of spiritual or religious foundations to the work of many social justice nonprofits. In some cases, that is good. I hate to see people who need help or who are continuously marginalized from society forced into certain beliefs (or forced into pretending to have certain beliefs) in order to get the help they need.

Yet I look at Martin Luther King, Jr as a counterpoint. His faith in a power greater than himself was essential for him to stay the course. I remember a quote of his I read at one of his memorials, how he stayed up all night doubting this path he was on. His house had been recently bombed, his life was at risk, as well as his family’s lives. He spent the night wrestling with God in prayer, trying to find some relief, some way to just fade back into the shadows, not to have to continue to lead this civil rights movement. Through the struggle, he found yet a deeper foundation in his God to move forward toward justice.

Creative Commons License photo credit: h.koppdelaney

I am beginning to see ways that spiritual practice is necessary to sustain work that challenges the fundamental structure of our societies.  When it takes hundreds of years to do something so simple and obvious as to give women in the US the right to vote, we need to be sustained by something deeper. I’m not sure it matters what religion or spirit-engaging practice you choose, just that something sustains you. That could be as secular as a deep connection with nature and the earth, or as religious as a deep commitment to following one of the world’s major spiritual traditions. The connection to something larger than the self, the feeling that we are but one cog in a greater system that seeks justice, the solace found in watching a cycle of birth, growth, death, and regeneration – these help us make sense of the struggles for social justice we engage in.


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We need a therapist

This is the phase in our social movements where we are dealing with our emotional, mental, and spiritual trauma. Not that all of the threat of physical trauma is gone. People are still being murdered, dying slow deaths of neglect, committing suicide because of their race, sexual orientation, gender, and ability. But with some of that threat lessened, our other traumas are coming out.

I see this in how we act out against each other, how we play out our internal traumas on the faces of other folks in our movements. Bearing the brunt of this kind of projection can be painful. It hurts enough when the world tries to tear you down. But when your own people, the people who are supposed to have your back are lashing out at you, it’s devastating.

But projection doesn’t have to be all bad. In therapy lingo, projection is expected between a client and therapist. If you can recognize it as projection, as you reacting in the present to something that happened in your past, you actually have a ripe opportunity to change your patterns.

We need new movement strategies. We need a movement therapist.


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Pushed out of Political Movements

The Color of Violence

In the violence against women movement, most of the best critiques of the institutionalization of rape crisis centers and shelters comes from women of color. In The Color of Violence: The Incite! Anthology, women of color critique our over-reliance on the criminal justice system to respond to domestic and sexual violence, when this system clearly reinforces violence against communities of color. White women in the movement years ago had a choice – do we collaborate with cops or with women of color? When we chose the cops over women of color, we effectively ended our connection to the women’s movement and solidified our institutional status.

The number of women of color still organizing around violence against women speaks to their commitment and their resilience. This is often in the face of active disempowerment and marginalization.

From Another Anonymous Person of Color:

Yes, but there’s a summary effect that happens to people of color in political movements. When a person of color raises a concern, even if it sounds unconstructive or emotional, it’s generally done because that person cares about a problem and believe in a political movement, or else they’d be in Toastmasters. White people, who some claim also care, show that care by minimizing the concern through deflection, mocking and other forms of intimidation. A person of color who had the courage to say something becomes frustrated with the lack of concern and willingness to defend a way of life rather than act against it, and that consternation is used as another weapon against him/her. Pretty soon, the original speaker is marginalized and disempowered — effectively politically killed off and disappeared.


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