The Case for Space

Having just returned from a desert camping adventure, I’m intrigued by the meaning of “space” on so many levels. It seems, when I’m able to view/be immersed in the vastness of nature, I discover new places in my soul I didn’t even know existed.

By absorbing endless natural spaces, or just gazing at the stars above (when they’re visible), creates a combined sense of awe and relief that we can actually breathe and thoughtfully reflect, just by “taking it in.” Indeed, the “wow” factor is a human-only condition, often transcendent.

As much as I love (sub)urban life, work deadlines and productivity, these spacial “time outs” seem critical on so many levels. We are a society that chews on time. Even with the Pandemic slowing some things down, we find other ways to eat up the other spaces in our lives. 

I also think about how to manifest “space” organizationally (aside from just the physical environment). As Founder and former Executive Director of Insight Garden Program, everything felt urgent and weighty during my transition from one role to the other. It was suggested that I “let go of the small stuff,” delegate work, and consider the bigger picture from a systems perspective.

It was a gritty, but necessary transition, common among founders turned EDs. 

Setting boundaries and taking some “space for myself” was critical to avoid burnout. Organizations can implode without taking space. Breathing into important decisions, being more inclusive in organizational management, and taking real vacations to literally “unplug” became IGP’s collective mantra.

These moments of space, between breaths, words, meetings and even conflict allow our brains to shift into non-reactive mode. Decisions become more thoughtful when we open hearts and minds to inclusiveness. Fostering new ideas by listening to every voice in the room helped to spark creativity and send us to places that I couldn’t ever have imagined. We slowed time down to more deeply renew commitments, explore possibilities, and rethink strategies. For changemakers, it’s a necessity. 

This idea of finding (and creating) space – literally or figuratively – is a lesson from our natural world. Our ecosystems provide us with all we need in moments of contraction to expand again, get grounded, and experience wonder and awe – from our own backyards to a sublime desert.

And the science, indeed, proves this point. The work of Dacher Keltner and the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley has been particularly focused on the study of wonder and awe. 

So when we feel like the world is closing in, we can go out again, expand our consciousness and creativity, reconnect, replenish and renew.

“Drifting across the vast space, silent except for wind and footsteps, I felt uncluttered and unhurried for the first time in a while, already on desert time.” – Rebecca Solnit

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The Longest Year

Today is the first anniversary of the Bay Area’s Shelter in Place.

It feels stunning, really. 365 days of the most surreal year. Life, as we knew it, turned into slow motion trauma, or as my friend Jenny-Beth says, “wading through jello.”

In the beginning, there was novelty. Shifting overnight into a strange upside-down world with no TP to be found for miles. Hand sanitizer meltdowns, real masks (instead of just invisible ones), physical disconnection and the six foot physical distance zone. And we entered into the two-dimensional, shapeless world of Zoom (in which we more or less still exist). 

This invisible virus sucked away life as we knew it – and that of our families, jobs, and social contracts. The Vampire Virus, with its spikes poking holes into the world.

Last March, people pivoted left and right to find a new normal. Standing in lines meant learning a new kind of patience, mostly unfamiliar to Americans. Neighbors gathered on the street for happy hour, socially distanced, in circles, trying to find a new normal. Kids took their chalk to the street, with inspiring sidewalk art. The sky turned brilliant blue when carbon emissions crashed. The birds (the BIRDS!) let us know very loudly that spring had sprung and the neighborhood cats didn’t rule the roost. 

About a month after everything shut down, I drove to Santa Rosa, about 50 minutes away. The freeways were freed…no cars for miles. And when I returned over the San Rafael – Richmond bridge, the view of San Francisco took my breath away – as it did when I saw it for the very first time. Crystal clear, shiny and new. 

At a certain point, though, it wasn’t a novelty anymore. 

Like millions of others, I’ve been isolated, home alone, and grounded from travel. It began to sink in that flying to see my closest family was no longer an option…and that I might not see them for a very long time.

Sad cracks appeared. No control over the circumstances, compounded by governmental incompetence and how “personal choice” somehow trumped collective care. More Black lives lost because of police brutality and much deeper, systemic racism, with inequities laid bare (yet again) for all to see. Last spring became a literal spring of discontent.

Over time, my mind started to involuntarily ruminate about disturbing scenarios with lots of “what ifs?”  In different times, I’d usually notice and shift attention back to my core, my breath. But I’d be thinking these dystopian thoughts for minutes before I even noticed. Hence a lot of self- talk to tame my mind to just shut up with the disasters already! So many complex emotions simmering right under the surface would unexpectedly erupt in the most mundane moments. 

Self-preservation required me to even more consciously do the things I know how to do – meditation, exercise, (a lot of) time in nature, gardening and a new pup mid-summer. She is the gift that keeps on giving. Caring for another creature meant a more structured schedule for me and my deaf “healer” has become the neighborhood therapy dog. 

But there’s a part of me that still wants to fill the glass halfway. I do find much gratitude in the community “pods” developed over this year offering comfort, humor and support. Despite profound Zoom fatigue, my family and friends are more connected (online) than ever before. And, of course, this place – the Bay Area – continues to gift us the grandness of nature and reminds me every day why I moved here. 

Now that there is the proverbial, “light at the end of the tunnel,” I do wonder about the “new normal.” This Pandemic year has literally rewired our neural pathways to be cautious, distrustful and fragmented. Many haven’t had human physical contact for months and thousands have lost loved ones, never being able to goodbye. How do we heal from this collective trauma and grief into a more easeful life? 

Let’s lead the healing, design new ways of gathering to meaningfully reconnect. Find new rituals. Come together to share our profound Pandemic wounds and create new paths forward. And use our personal and collective experiences of jello-wading through this longest year to find care, empathy, support and resilience, together.  

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Coming Home

More than six years have passed since my last blog on this site, coinciding with becoming Executive Director of Insight Garden Program, and not too long after that, the coronation of Donald Trump. And this past year, the Pandemic. All took my breath away, for entirely different reasons. 

Running and managing an organization as a founder transitioned to ED is an all-encompassing labor of love.  

And the past 4+ years of cult leadership even more deeply polarized our country, gnawed at parts of me that I didn’t even know existed (or were better left forgotten). 

I had to stuff a lot away. My love of creative writing dissolved into an abyss; I had to do the things that needed to get done to evolve Insight Garden, tend to our people, and keep one foot in front of the other. All while our country seemed to be imploding. 

So I compartmentalized, found joy in our prison garden installations, the growth of IGP, the stories and successes of our participants and comfort in the community we built around us – as well as the support of family and friends. All while navigating the personal and collective trauma of unhinged leadership and a deeply divided country. 

Then, the Pandemic. Pivots everywhere. Openings, closings, fraught decisions, so many challenges – and maybe possibilities? What is the future we want to create for ourselves, live into?

After 18 years of navigating the criminal justice system, and in the middle of last spring’s racial justice moment, I made a leap of faith to let my baby go to make way for new leadership. No small steps there, just a giant leap. 

Since then, beset by election chaos, violent unrest, and Pandemic-stoked groundlessness, it also was time to revisit the emotions I’d so tightly packed away over the past few years. Time to find the words again that I’d left behind in the name of self-preservation. 

In a past blog, Home is Where the Heart Is, I noted all of the places I have called home. But the most important one, it seems, is right here.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

Why do I Help “Criminals?” (Part II)

Daniel Having Fun Veggie GardenAt the Insight Garden Program, we’ve worked with more than 1,000 people at San Quentin Prison. Aside from our great results (less than 10% rate of return to prison compared to CA’s 70%), a transformative curriculum (now grounded in the latest learning strategies from brain science), and hands in the dirt, there is one question I get repeatedly:

WHY did I start the program?

The answer: it was really a crisis of faith after 9/11.  Such destruction, desolation, and despair led me reassess pretty much everything in my life and onto a journey to find my faith in humanity again.  I figured if I could find humanity in prison, I could find it anywhere.

WHY do I even want to help “criminals”?

So here’s my list, in no particular order:

  • When people understand options available to them, they can lead healthier, more productive lives.
  • By reconnecting people to the natural world, I live more fully.  I also get back from the men we work with much more than I give – in terms of respect, care, and compassion. Prisoners are people, too. The men have a saying:  “You get what you give, and you give what you get.”
  • Everyone has a heart (believe it or not), and though hearts can be deeply mired in hurt and pain (which is often anesthetized by alcohol and drugs and bad behavior), hearts can heal.
  • I believe in second chances.
  • As a citizen, I have a responsibility to care for the collective because I’m part of it.
  • If we support one person, their whole relationship system outside of prison potentially benefits when they leave.
  • Working with people in prison (who ARE going to leave) so they gain the skills they need to lead productive lives outside means that taxpayers don’t have to dish out almost $50,000 a year/inmate in California’s prison system.
  • Reducing mass incarceration is essential — since 70% of those people return to prison (nationally), it becomes a revolving door of incarceration, with enormously negative impacts on prisoners, their families as well as the victims of their crimes — as well as the communities from which they came.
  • Whether we like it or not, most prisoners eventually are released and come back to our communities. So why not work with men on the inside so they stay out once they leave?
  • Instead of the old stereotype of being “tough on crime”  through mass incarceration, we’re actually “being tough on crime” by working with people in prisons so they leave  with the skills and resources to make it. THAT enhances public safety.

And finally, I do this work because I have observed first hand the power of transformation through connection to the natural world. That is what has given me faith in the human capacity for change, time and time again.

To learn more, please join our Facebook Page or follow us on Twitter @InsightGarden and help us sow seeds of national expansion at #IGPgogo!

Group Shot

 

 

 

 

 

Photo # 1 courtesy of CDCR-San Quentin; Photo #2 courtesy of Kirk Crippens.

Posted in Citizenship, Community, Environmental Care, Gardening as Transformation, Prison Reform/Prisoner Rehabilitation | Tagged , | 1 Comment

From Prep School to Prison

Much gratitude to the Hotchkiss School Alumni Association’s Board of Governors for the school’s 2013 Community Service Award.  Below is my speech to the Hotchkiss community on April 12, 2013.

To the Hotchkiss School Alumni Association’s Board of Governors and to the Hotchkiss community, I offer my most heartfelt thanks for this 2013 Community Service Award. I accept it on behalf of the more than 1,000 men who’ve participated in the Insight Garden Program at San Quentin State prison and whose lives continue to be transformed through connection to nature.

I also extend my love and gratitude to my family and friends, and the faculty who are here today – and some who taught me many years ago — and who have, in many ways, been part of my journey.  And to all of the current students who are planting the seeds of future care, community service, and building a better world.

I’d like to start off with quote I first discovered when reading “The Little Prince” – in my prep year French Class, taught by our dear Bob Hawkins – “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

So I’d like to briefly share the story of how I got from Hotchkiss to San Quentin State Prison.

For some context, I grew up in these bucolic hills of Lakeville, CT…playing in the streams, wandering the woods, and sailing on the lake. Nature was then, and still is now, my refuge.

When I entered Hotchkiss in the early 70’s, the school had just welcomed girls for the first time only the year before. These were years of great transition. In my first year, there were only four girls in my prep class. We were, upon reflection, pioneers and faced some interesting challenges in those early years of co-education.

Those were also times of great national and international upheaval. We had Watergate and an oil crisis. As the  “outside” world swirled around us – in this bubble – we remained somewhat protected and only remotely aware of the massive shifts underway. Back then, we didn’t have email, computers or cell phones to connect us — only television, radio, and each other.

And as part of that larger “Shift,” I shifted too, thanks to an evening in the Walker Auditorium with then consumer advocate Ralph Nader. He spoke passionately about the auto industry in the context of consumer rights and large corporate interests — at the expense of our environment and people. At that point, I didn’t even know what fossil fuels really were, where they came from, or why I should care. But he stood up for the rest of us, demanding large systems change, and predicted back then what is now our current state of environmental degradation, the gaps between the rich and the poor, and important issues of social justice.

For me, he planted a seed. Although I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I “grew up” after graduating from Hotchkiss and even college, I did feel a restlessness to make a difference. What I did know intuitively was that I wanted to integrate my love of the natural world with my work.

So over the years, as an activist, I began to find my place in the world. I dabbled in politics, and ran social marketing for federal programs in Washington DC. In some of those arenas, my head and heart weren’t always aligned. For me, it was uncomfortable to be doing someone else’s bidding…corporate public relations is where I ended up working after I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 1990s.

So in 2001 when jets flew in into the World Trade center, I finally woke up.

From then on, I knew I had live a life more aligned with my heart. To do that, I would have to reestablish my faith in human capacity for transformation and goodness.

Through a serious of synchronistic events, the year following 9/11 actually led me straight into prison. I wanted to practice “being present” with what I thought then would be a difficult population – prisoners. When I was asked to start a gardening program there, despite all odds, we did.

In those beginning months, the staff was steadfastly against any gardens on a prison yard. Why would they care? Coming from a fear-based frame, they assumed prisoners would plant weapons instead of flowers. But at the helm of San Quentin in 2002 was a woman, Warden Jeannie Woodford.  She had faith too, that working in a garden would be therapeutic at most, and at least keep men busy. With her leadership, she championed our effort for a garden on a prison yard in an institution highly resistant to change.

So after a year of planning and some false starts, on winter Solstice of 2003, we planted a gorgeous flower and herb garden there…an experiential lab for men to learn landscaping skills and to tend to their “inner gardens.”  The men worked quietly in their new garden on winter solstice, installing what for them might become a path to salvation.

Over the years, our garden has become a place that represents connectedness and of interrelation and wonder. It is a place prisoners name the bugs, pet the bees and tend to themselves and each other. They literally stop to smell the roses. They learn about landscaping and gardening, food, farming and urban agriculture, human/eco connections, and green jobs. And it’s the only place on the prison yard where the races mix without fear of retribution. With all of this, seeds of compassion, forgiveness, and care are nurtured both in the garden, and in our classroom circles.

For the men, their “shift” happens somewhere between understanding that they alone are responsible for their behavior and feelings and for how they show up in the world. When they stop blaming others for that which binds them they gain a greater level of consciousness and the healing can begin.  We are about restoration, not punishment.

Although these men come from backgrounds we can’t even begin to imagine – they have a second chance — sometimes a third of forth. Whatever it takes. We are willing to hang in there with them, because we realize that growth and change is a lifelong possibility and process.  When those in our program leave prison, most of them don’t come back.  They become productive members of society – and have a new commitment to caring for each other and our world.

So along with our garden (where nature teaches us everything we need to know), these men are my teachers. When they can touch their own humanity, they open up to the possibility of transformation. They offer me hope, time and time again, in the human capacity for change and for good in the world.

So being here, today, in front of all of you feels like coming full circle 30+ years after my Hotchkiss experience. I am so touched to see the evolution an institution which has evolved in into a community, deeply committed to service, environmental care – and, of course, a lot more women. You are all a great reason for hope. You CAN follow your heart, dare to be different, take your leaps of faith, and let your passion for the things you care about guide your life. We have to be the change we want to see in the world – and we have to do it together.

I’d like to close with a quote from Steve Jobs…who while struggling with cancer, offered these words of great wisdom to Standford University students:

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.” [Stanford commencement speech, June 2005]

Again, thank you so much, on behalf of all of us at the Insight Garden Program.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

What does it mean to be free?

(Reposted from January 2012)

In last week’s prison garden class, our provocative question for the day was:  “What does it mean to be free?”  Aside from the obvious – that most people in prison want to get out – some interesting answers emerged, including:  “uncluttered (mind), choices, peace, protecting our country, willingness to help others no matter what, and my heart is right when I lay down at night.

The Insight Prison Project has a great tagline, “Leaving prison before you get out.” In other words, with some hard work, reflection, meditation, and a slew of personal development tools, we can find a space within ourselves that is abundant and light. Finding our true selves, where we are most authentic. When we can find ways to free ourselves from our stories, and gently explore triggers and traumas, our light can emerge from a place deep inside.

Our garden program is designed to help set people free from within – by connecting them to the natural world. Since nature doesn’t care about our egos, people “get real” in the garden amazingly fast. And in our class, there’s really no hiding. The people who aren’t ready for the deeper work usually weed themselves out, so to speak.

Men in the garden tune in instead of check out, become interested the simple joy of smelling a rose or mentoring new gardeners. Where traditionally prisoners self-segregate on a prison yard, all races comfortably work together in our garden without fear of retribution. And what we’ve found is that reconnecting with nature results in connecting with self, community, and care for the natural world.

Having worked with almost 1,000 prisoners over the past 10 years, I’ve seen many of the guys’ internal seeds sprout through the process of gardening and community care. For instance, when Big Al started our class a few years ago, he said he was “numb.” A year later, he delightedly announced “I’m happy today” (and he really meant it). The shift not only comes in words, but in actions. It is a discovery of the heart, and that feeling our feelings is actually OK since it’s usually our thinking that gets in the way. So when we can cultivate the goodness within and heal through feeling, hearts are freed.

The Buddha said something akin to “finding freedom is ability to release that which binds us.”  Whether it’s prison walls, the shackles of injustice, or just too much thinking, freedom starts from within. I imagine Dr. King would agree.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Home (is where the heart is)

Where is home? I often reflect on this when traveling to visit family back East, reveling in the beauty of my East Bay “home,” driving through Gerlach on my way to Burning Man, or posing this question to men in prison — who are living there.

I have chastised myself for “accidentally” referring to my East coast places as “home” since I’ve lived in California for 15 years. But I’ve lived in many “places,” and had many “homes” — from New York City, to Connecticut, then Massachusetts and D.C.

While living in DC, I traveled to San Francisco for business, and fell in love with the place. My first Bay Area “tourist” visit was a trip to Muir Woods. I stood solidly on the ground, in awe of majestic, aged trees. California is expansive and inspiring…the ocean, the trees, the mountains, and the desert. Returning to DC felt like a shriveling of the spirit. It was then I realized my spirit needed a lot of space.

Seven years after that first visit, with a one-way ticket in hand, I took my leap of faith, and moved to California – to be in a place that spiritually moved me. It was part thrill of adventure, and a feeling of “starting over” (although wherever I go, there I am!)

Yet even being where I wanted to be, I didn’t find my “place” right away. Though I love San Francisco, Mark Twain was right about the summers. My next move was to Marin County, which was too homogenous. So eight years ago I moved to the Berkeley/Oakland border after discovering the charming neighborhoods of Elmwood and Rockridge. It has just-the right-kind of urban feel, populated by folks in all sizes and colors – with redwood forests just 10 minutes away. This is the “place” I call now call home.

But is it really?

Last winter, I spent Christmas back East. On my fly-by trip, the first stop was New York City, to visit my sister and her family — as well as good friends.  Because it’s my birthplace – and Christmastime in the city is especially magical–it was almost overwhelming to be with this new generation, who now walk in my childhood footsteps. As I traveled from New York, to Connecticut, and then New Jersey and Massachusetts to visit the rest of my family, I marveled at the passage of time, and my family’s expansion and contraction.

In July, I returned to the bucolic northwest corner of Connecticut for my step-dad’s celebration of life party, and then to Plymouth, Massachusetts where I’d spent my childhood summers on the beach.  Now I play with my nieces and nephew, making drip castles and teaching my niece to “surf” the tiny waves there.  I realized how much I still love these “places” that helped shape who I am today. Time goes on. And indeed, these places are still homesteads.

Then the week before Labor Day, I made my second pilgrimage to Burning Man. On my first visit as a “virgin” last summer, a half-naked woman greeted me at the gate, welcoming me “home.”  Hmmm!  I’d heard this was a Burning Man mantra, but how could this place possibly be home? Yet it is, indeed, a magical place – where one practices “radical self-reliance” balanced with community care. What is most evident is its spaciousness, and the impact that has on my spirit. Though the elements are harsh, the beauty of the Black Rock desert is overwhelming. It lifts me out of myself, and provides perspective.

And finally, for the past 10 years, I have entered the gates of San Quentin prison almost every week, to run my rehabilitative gardening program there. Although it is thankfully not my “home,” it is to the men with whom I work. It is there where we collectively explore our “inner gardeners” to reconnect to self, community and nature.

Although the men would rather be “home” on the outside (which doesn’t exist for some of them at all), the only home they have in prison is on the “inside” – themselves (and the garden). Reconnecting to their heart through connection to nature allows them to rediscover their humanity, and is an important element of releasing “that which binds them.”

So as much as “home” can be a “place” in our past or present, on a deeper level, its about connection – to ourselves, and those we love, and to those places that lift our spirits and allow us to soar. Home is where the heart is, and over the years, I’ve discovered it can be many places, all at once.

Posted in Community, Gardening as Transformation, Gratitude, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Tribute to MLK: Finding Freedom

In last week’s prison garden class, our provocative question for the day was:  “What does it mean to be free?”  Aside from the obvious – that most people in prison want to get out – some interesting answers emerged, including:  “uncluttered (mind), choices, peace, protecting our country, willingness to help others no matter what, and my heart is right when I lay down at night.

The Insight Prison Project has a great tagline, “Leaving prison before you get out.” In other words, with some hard work, reflection, meditation, and a slew of personal development tools, we can find a space within ourselves that is abundant and light. Finding our true selves, where we are most authentic. When we can find ways to free ourselves from our stories, and gently explore triggers and traumas, our light can emerge from a place deep inside.

Our garden program is designed to help set people free from within – by connecting them to the natural world. Since nature doesn’t care about our egos, people “get real” in the garden amazingly fast. And in our class, there’s really no hiding. The people who aren’t ready for the deeper work usually weed themselves out, so to speak.

Men in the garden tune in instead of check out, become interested the simple joy of smelling a rose or mentoring new gardeners. Where traditionally prisoners self-segregate on a prison yard, all races comfortably work together in our garden without fear of retribution. And what we’ve found is that reconnecting with nature results in connecting with self, community, and care for the natural world.

Having worked with almost 1,000 prisoners over the past 10 years, I’ve seen many of the guys’ internal seeds sprout through the process of gardening and community care. For instance, when Big Al started our class a few years ago, he said he was “numb.” A year later, he delightedly announced “I’m happy today” (and he really meant it). The shift not only comes in words, but in actions. It is a discovery of the heart, and that feeling our feelings is actually OK since it’s usually our thinking that gets in the way. So when we can cultivate the goodness within and heal through feeling, hearts are freed.

The Buddha said something akin to “finding freedom is ability to release that which binds us.”  Whether it’s prison walls, the shackles of injustice, or just too much thinking, freedom starts from within. I imagine Dr. King would agree.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Occupy Yourself!

My definition of “authenticity” = becoming more conscious about how we show up in the world, and what uncomfortable changes we are willing to make within to find a better way to be with each other. In other words, aligning values with actions. Standing up for your beliefs. Getting “real.”

In general, our society caters to the comfortable world of social norms and status quos – many prefer not to think too hard or have meaningful dialogue. We can allow the system to run us and blame others for our problems. This thinking allows people to apathetically remain unconscious — until the bottom falls out from beneath. Then what?

Then Occupy.

The way I see it, the bottom is falling out (finally), and people are taking unconventional action – which is why the Occupy Movement continues to intrigue and inspire me. It’s grassroots, messy, ambiguous and loud. It’s also creative, community-based, and – Hallelujah — freaks people out, disgusts others, and creates some level of mass discomfort, including police brutality and the bombastic denial of the 1%. But things just can’t remain the same. Is it the breakdown before the breakthrough — or possibly the breakthrough itself?

And because people are taking action in bold and creative new ways, the status quo is predictably reacting, resisting change, and attempting to suppress free speech…riot police with pepper spray and tear gas…and lots of money changing hands in attempts to stifle the mic checks and tent dwellers.

Occupy has exposed the beast’s underbelly of corporate and financial greed and associated political bedfellows. But at its deepest levels, Occupy also challenges us to personally reflect on what changes we each must make to be engaged, empowered citizens, and what we can do to individually and collectively to make a difference.

Case in point: I recently trekked down Telegraph Avenue to UC Berkeley for a Robert Reich speech about Class Warfare in America. Same day as the General Strike at UCB, and the evening of the Mario Savio Youth Activist Awards. To my great surprise, I discovered a diverse mass of 10,000+ people – from professionals to professors, to students and concerned citizens — at Sproul Plaza — the center of the free speech movement in the 1960’s. People were literally hanging from the rafters.

I had unknowingly entered a massive Occupy Cal General Assembly. And I was completely overwhelmed with that jittery feeling of suddenly being thrust into history-making.

So I nestled into one of the many circle discussions, and engaged. A vote was being taken to raise tents that had been destroyed by the Cal Police a few days earlier. It was a democratic and organized process…and the dialogue was interested and thoughtful. To my right was a German UCB exchange student who couldn’t believe he was witnessing an American uprising; to the left a grassroots organizer who had been present in this same plaza 40+ years earlier. Lots of upsparkles and some differing, yet respectful opinions…all tempered with an urgency for action and civic transformation.

Votes taken, circle by circle. Soon thereafter, a dozen insta-tents popped back up amidst this sea of cheering humanity. And we flashed peace signs at the riot police on balconies above us. My inner mantra: “Love thy neighbors, even if they are armed with pepper spray.” 

The evening was filled with fiery hope. When Bob Reich’s speech brought down the house, my heart wept proudly. “The days of apathy are over, folks.”

Yet ultimately, to be sustainable, this movement requires us to reflect on how we integrate our words with action. We can complain and shout and demand change from the ground up, but will we move our money out of the large institutions that almost tanked the economy? Will we flex our consumer muscle and stop shopping at big box stores? Or continue to fill the pockets of the 1% (including working for them) without considering the consequences?

Maybe we invest in our local communities. Move our money. Buy locally grown food. Reconsider our client base or job position. Publicly question authority. Instead of blindly following our leaders, we forge leadership qualities within ourselves and our communities. If we do this inner work, the outer walls will come tumbling down.

Of course, we will always have blind spots, but the point is to reflect and connect – internally and with each other — and truly begin to embody the change we want to see in our institutions, society, and the world.

With a lack of authenticity so prevalent in our corporate and political institutions, let’s courageously align our values with actions – from the inside out.

“There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious—mak­es you so sick at heart—that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part. And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.”

~ Mario Savio, Sproul Hall Steps, UC Berkeley,1964

Posted in Associational Life, Citizenship, Community, Grassroots Change, Leadership, Organization Development, Politics, Uncategorized | 7 Comments

Real America (again)

I’m reposting this after almost a year.  Seems appropriate, considering the (very sad) state of politics these days. During campaigns, I’m always reminded of Sarah Palin’s “Real America” mantra so prevalent during the last presidential campaign. Somehow she positioned folks from the heartland as having one up on the rest of us, to which I’ve always had something of a visceral reaction (hey, I’m Real too!)

To me, that people from Middle America are what constitute “real” is a bit off base. At first, I used to wonder how could they experience REAL when their demographics make up a fairly homogenous group of people who may not have been to an inner city, or a diverse environment laden with all the folks they claim to hate. It’s easy to hate that with which you’re not familiar.

I checked online: the Mirriam Webster dictionary’s definition of “real” is: a : not artificial, fraudulent, or illusory : genuine <real gold>; also : being precisely what the name implies <a real professional

What is scary or unknown can be considered unreal – how can we have connection to something if we don’t have any concept of it?  What if it’s not like us?  It gets labeled as a threat (to fear), or worse, becomes totally ignored.  I often wonder how humans have become so woefully wonderful at de-humanizing each other.  Easier to deal with I suppose, to make what’s not like us become the enemy. Then we don’t have to deal with it on a deeply emotional or practical level, and can just throw it away (but where is away?)

This objectification of “bad” allows us to not take responsibility for our own behavior.  It gives us permission to ignore our own contribution to the negativity and to create an ongoing cycle of intolerance, overreaction, and retribution.

So Sarah Palin’s version of Americans may be PART of “Real” America, which I believe is much broader and more diverse in scope.  To me, Real America is inclusive of those who seem “different” – all those gays, lesbians, and transgenders, our Black (+ White) President, Arab-Americans and Muslims, different colors, races, religions, behaviors, the poor, the rich, and our shrinking middle class.  It is made up of people who have different opinions, look different, live in different parts of the country.  It is our “melting” pot of history and the tradition of so many cultures that used to be what made this country so unique.

In fact, maybe “Real” America is the inner city, the outer city, the suburbs, our rural communities and everything in between.  “Real” includes our prisoners (who we like to throw away behind bars) but most of whom will come back to our streets.  It is our police officers, and fire fighters, and politicians, and all of our citizens.  It is the collective.  One type of person or place does not make for real  – all of us do.

Instead of the labels, I wonder what might happen if we replaced suspicion with curiosity, and our hoarding mentality with generosity towards others?  What if we embraced our differences rather than belittled them?

What if we found our compassion, humanity and power again in the strength of community and citizenship rather than “us” against “them”?  What if we stop depending on our leaders to lead us, and led ourselves through an acceptance and celebration of diversity and action?

What if we didn’t try to change others’ beliefs, but focused on cultivating our experiences to be more worldly through open examination and allowed people’s experiences to inform their beliefs rather than have others dictate their advice to us?

What if we accepted that constant change is the nature of things?

What if let our acts of kindness and care define us rather than our stuff?

All of our America is rich and full of diversity.  That is what makes it “real,” at least for me. And I continue to want to find ways to pull us together, not apart.

Addendum:  It’s possible that “Real America” is what exists inside the “Trash Fence” at Black Rock City. But I’ll save that topic for another post… 😉

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment