Reflections on Now Activism

by Aerin Dunford April 14, 2007

by Manish Jain and Bob Stilger, 2007


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I believe that we are at the point now in the United States where a movement is beginning to emerge. I think that the calamity, the quagmire of the Iraq war, the outsourcing of jobs, the drop-out of young people from the education system, the monstrous growth of the prison-industrial complex, the planetary emergency in which we are engulfed at the present moment, is demanding that instead of just complaining about these things, instead of just protesting about these things, we begin to look for and hope for another way of living…

I see a movement beginning to emerge because I see hope beginning to trump despair. I see the signs in the various small groups that are emerging all over the place to try and regain our humanity in very practical ways.

With these words, Grace Lee Boggs, a 91-year-old activist speaking in recent interview with PBS’s Bill Moyers, described a movement that we call the Now Activism. This is the activism of today, of right now, and it shows up as people everywhere are stepping forward with the leadership they have to offer to make a difference in their communities and organizations. Writer Paul Hawken also explores this new movement in his most recent book, Blessed Unrest:

I sought a name for the movement, but none exists. I met people who wanted to structure or organize it—a difficult task, since it would easily be the most complex association of human beings ever assembled. Many outside the movement critique it as powerless, but that assessment does not stop its growth.

We noticed this new movement as many friends from different parts of the planet began to ask similar questions: What new kinds of activism are required to face the crisis that threatens us today? What are the roots of this crisis? What gives us hope?

At Berkana, this movement reveals itself through the Berkana Exchange, a community of learning centers where people gather to develop their capacity as leaders of community change. In May 2007, nearly 50 people from 14 countries convened in Greece at the newest learning center for our annual Art of Learning Centering. We explored our identity as changemakers, our choices about language, the similarities and differences in our practices. We knew we recognized each other; how to name this recognition was elusive.

In support of this challenge of naming the movement, Shikshantar, one of the founding learning centers of the Berkana Exchange, took the lead in assembling a collection of more than 50 stories and essays which explore this Now Activism. Publication of this booklet comes as we begin the celebration of the 100th anniversary of Hind Swaraj, written by M.K. Gandhi in 1909. At its release, and still today, Hind Swaraj represented a significant effort to reorient the fundamental direction of the Indian freedom struggle. It offered to Indians and to the world a unique analysis of the crisis in India as a civilizational crisis, and it also suggested the deeper purpose behind the struggle to be free of British rule and institutionalization.

Spiritual Activism and Liberation Spirituality: Pathways To Collective Liberation

by Aerin Dunford May 12, 2006

by Claudia Horwitz and Jesse Maceo Vega-Frey, 2006

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There is a new culture of activism taking form in the world–a new paradigm for how we work, how we define success, how we integrate the fullness of who we are and what we know into the struggle for justice. Activists are being asked to examine our current historical moment with real intimacy, with fresh eyes, fire, and compassion. Many of the once-groundbreaking methods we know and use have now begun to rot. Many of our tactics are now more than simply ineffective- they are dangerous.

For agents of change, and all those who we work with, the detriment is twofold. We are killing ourselves and we are not winning. A life of constant conflict and isolation from the mainstream can be exhausting and demoralizing. Many of our work habits are unhealthy and unsustainable over the long haul. The structures of power have become largely resistant to our tactics. Given the intensity of our current historical circumstance it would be easy for us to rely on what we know, to fall back upon our conditioning and our historical tendencies, in our efforts to create change under pressure. Many lessons of the past carry wisdom; others are products and proponents of dysfunctional systems and ways of being in the world. A new paradigm requires a complex relationship with history; we must remember and learn from the past, but we cannot romanticize it.

Neither do we presume that the answer lies only in the new, the innovative, and the experimental. We carry the hearts and minds of the ancient ones of many traditions, across time and continents, while also connecting to the resources that surround us.  Our intention is to survive and flourish in the landscape that we find ourselves living in. A new philosophy and practice of social change is emerging, one that grows out of an ethic of sustainability, spirituality, and a broader understanding of freedom. We are weaving old threads together in new forms and new ways of being.

spiritual activism and liberation spirituality

At its best, this new paradigm, which some of us are calling “spiritual activism” or “liberation spirituality” is revolutionary.  It provides us with deepened competencies and tools to go forward in this tangle of conditions history has prepared for us and to assume the roles we’re being asked to play.  While the field growing up around this new paradigm is varied and vast, we are beginning to see each other and understand what we share:

  • a deep commitment to spiritual life and practice;
  • a framework of applied liberation;
  • an orientation towards movement-building; and
  • a desire for fundamental change in the world based on equity and justice.

We are moving toward a doing that grows more deliberately out of being; an understanding that freedom from external systems of oppression is dynamically related to liberation from our internal mechanisms of suffering.  It provides us with a way to release the construct of “us versus them” and live into the web of relationship that links all. Instead of being limited by the reactions of fight or flight, we encounter a path that finds fullness in presence. The humility of not-knowing allows truth to appear where fear once trapped us. We recognize the pervasive beauty of paradox, the dynamic tension between two simultaneous truths that seem contradictory. We enlarge our capacity to hold contradictions and to be informed by them.  And our movements for change are transformed as a result.

swimming in the dominant culture

The culture of activism in the United State is like a fish swimming in murky waters. It lives and breathes in the dominant culture and it is greatly impacted by its nature. Even as we are attempting to change this culture, we easily overlook how it has impacted us and how we recreate it. As we begin to understand and reckon with these attributes, we start to unravel their influence. Like anything, the more we invite and allow ourselves to notice and name what is, the more space, opportunity and permission conditions have to change.

Journeying to a New World

by Aerin Dunford March 29, 2006

by Margaret Wheatley, 2006

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Twelve years after preparing the Second Edition of Leadership in the New Science, I’m still trying to come to terms with the experience of seeing, feeling, tasting and working earnestly from a new paradigm while living in the old one. And I’m more concerned than ever that we understand how crucial it is that we stay together and support one another.

I was in this work a few years before I was able to identify its real nature. I realized that I and others weren’t asking people simply to adopt some new approaches to leadership or to think about organizations in a few new ways. What we were really asking, and what was also being asked of us, was that we change our thinking at the most fundamental level, that of our world view. The dominant world view of Western culture–the world as machine–doesn’t help us to live well in this world any longer. We have to see the world differently if we are to live in it more harmoniously.

Once I understood the nature of the work, it helped me relax and be more generous. I learned that people get frightened if asked to change their world view. And why wouldn’t they? Of course people will get defensive; of course they might be intrigued by a new idea, but then turn away in fear. They are smart enough to realize how much they would have to change if they accepted that idea. I no longer worry that if I could just find the right words or techniques, or describe multiple case studies, I could convince people. I no longer expect a new world view to be embraced quickly; I don’t know if I’ll see it take root in my lifetime. I also know that people are being influenced from sources far beyond anyone’s control. I know many people who’ve been changed by events in their lives, not by words they read in a book.

These people have been changed by life’s great creative force, chaos. One of the gifts offered by this new world view is a clearer description of life’s cyclical nature. The mechanistic world view promised us lives of continual progress. Since we were in control and engineering it all, we could pull ourselves straight uphill, scarcely faltering. But life doesn’t work that way, and this new world view confirms what most of us knew–no rebirth is possible without moving through a dark passage. Dark times are normal to life; there’s nothing wrong with us when we periodically plunge into the abyss.

Over the past years, nudged by the science, I have come to know personally that the journey of newness is filled with the black potholes of chaos. The science has restrained me from trying to negotiate my way out of dark times with a quick fix. But even though I know the role of chaos, I still don’t like it. It’s terrifying when the world I so carefully held together dissolves. I don’t like feeling lost and emptied of meaning. I would prefer an easier path to transformation. But even as I experience their demands as unreasonable, I know I am in partnership with great creative forces. I know that chaos is a necessary place for me to dwell occasionally. So I have learned to sit with these dark moments–confused, overwhelmed, only faintly trusting that new insights will appear. I know that this is my only route to new ways of being.

The more I contemplate these times, when we truly are giving birth to a new world view, the more I realize that our culture has to take this journey through chaos. The old ways are dissolving, and the new is only beginning to show itself. To journey through chaos, we must engage with one another differently, as explorers and discoverers. I believe the passage is possible only if we claim these roles. We need to realize that no single person or school of thought has the answer, because what’s required is far beyond isolated answers. We need to realize that we must inquire together to find the new. We need to turn to one another as our best hope for inventing and discovering the worlds we are seeking.

The Irresistible Future of Organizing

by Aerin Dunford August 1, 1996

by Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers, 1996

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Why do so many people in organizations feel discouraged and fearful about the future? Why does despair only increase as the fads fly by, shorter in duration, more costly in each attempt to improve? Why have the best efforts to create significant and enduring organizational change resulted in so many failures? We, and our organizations, exist in a world of constant evolutionary activity. Why has change become so unnatural in human organizations?

We believe that the accumulating failures at organizational change can be traced to a fundamental but mistaken assumption that organizations are machines. Organizations-as-machines is a 17th century notion, from a time when scientists began to describe the universe as a great clock. Our modern belief in prediction and control originated in these clockwork images. Cause and effect were simple relationships; everything could be known; organizations and people could be engineered into efficient solutions. Three hundred years later, we still search for “tools and techniques” and “change levers”; we attempt to “drive” change through our organizations; we want to “build” solutions and “reengineer” for peak efficiencies.

But why would we want an organization to behave like a machine? Machines have no intelligence; they follow the instructions given to them. They only work in the specific conditions predicted by their engineers. Changes in their environment wreak havoc because they have no capacity to adapt.

These days, a different ideal for organizations is surfacing. We want organizations to be adaptive, flexible, self-renewing, resilient, learning, intelligent–attributes found only in living systems. The tension of our times is that we want our organizations to behave as living systems, but we only know how to treat them as machines.

It is time to change the way we think about organizations. Organizations are living systems. All living systems have the capacity to self-organize, to sustain themselves and move toward greater complexity and order as needed. They can respond intelligently to the need for change. They organize (and then reorganize) themselves into adaptive patterns and structures without any externally imposed plan or direction.

Self-organizing systems have what all leaders crave: the capacity to respond continuously to change. In these systems, change is the organizing force, not a problematic intrusion. Structures and solutions are temporary. Resources and people come together to create new initiatives, to respond to new regulations, to shift the organization’s processes. Leaders emerge from the needs of the moment. There are far fewer levels of management. Experimentation is the norm. Local solutions predominate but are kept local, not elevated to models for the whole organization. Involvement and participation constantly deepen. These organizations are experts at the process of change. They understand their organization as a process of continuous organizing.