As part of the broad community of people in the U.S. who sought a different outcome in the recent elections, I’ve been listening deeply to the various responses being offered in the last few weeks, and also to my own heart. Those of us who identify as somewhere on the democratic-to-progressive spectrum are a diverse bunch… not just with regard to the biggies of race and class, but also with regard to our strengths and gifts, how we process information, our different approaches to change, and even what we hold as our long-term visions.
How can we work with the diversity of perspectives and responses among us, in ways that strengthen rather than weaken us? Here are some initial thoughts in this regard, for those of you who may want something to ponder this Thanksgiving weekend…
First though, a bit more about where I’m coming from. My life’s work is about the power of deep listening, both inner listening as well as outer listening. At the same time, I am an activist at heart. I don’t see these two paths as contradictory, but rather as complementary, as I’ve written about in an earlier blog post. Similarly, I see the following six threads as potentially complementary ones, weaving in and out of the various conversations I see and hear around me:
1) Honoring emotions – our own, and one another’s. In stark contrast to the jeers prodding us to “get over it”, many of us have found ourselves in the midst of deep grief work, struggling with terror, and/or filled with righteous anger and indignation. There are clearly dangers associated with navigating our emotions: we can get carried away by our anger, we can isolate due to our grief, we can caught in mental loops by our fear. Yet there are also great learnings to be had: we can respect our fear as a signal of caution with regard to the real dangers that surround us, we can honor our grief as way of testifying to the beauty and goodness of our losses, we can transform our anger into useful fuel for compassionate action.
In the last few decades, science has been confirming that emotions are a necessary part of being human; it turns out we can’t reason well or even make decisions without their benefit. So there’s much learning here, for all of us… some of us process emotions on our own, turning feelings into inspiration for art or poetry. For many of us though, having safe spaces where we can share how we are feeling about political events, without the risk of being “fixed” by others (or worse, shamed or jeered at) can be crucial for finding our way to empowering action. May such spaces be available to all of us who benefit from them.
2) Reflecting and learning. Lots of valuable analysis has been taking place as people explore, “What did we miss? What were our blind spots? What’s really going on?” Loss can be a tremendous opportunity for learning; it is inspiring to see all the hard work being done to understand what happened. Whether it’s rural resentment and identity politics; the long-term harm created by unrestrained neoliberalism; the nefarious effects of voter suppression efforts including ones labeled as “anti-fraud” campaigns; the self-reinforcing loops on social media sites of largely fabricated news stories; or “all of the above” –there’s much to consider as we move forward.
Given the complexity of our political system, chances are that each of these factors – and others – have valuable perspectives to offer. May we benefit from engaging one another productively around the various perspectives on these questions, in ways that do not minimize the differences among us, but instead allow us to learn from one another.
3) Strategizing, Organizing, and Taking Action. As an activist, I love taking action. Even a small action can be tremendously empowering. To all those voices that have enjoined us to “wait and see”, I say, “say whaat???” Bernie implored all of his supporters to vote for Hillary, so that we could “hold her feet to the fire from Day One”, to ensure that she implemented the progressive agenda that we succeeded in having the Democratic Party adopt. For whatever combination of factors, we were not able to elect a Democratic President. So here we are now… and now, we should “wait and see” instead of speaking out and taking action on our values?
And so I’m delighted to be seeing so much creative ferment taking place… from hosting neighborhood gatherings to organizing larger vigils and demonstrations, from signing petitions and making phone calls, to circulating information on how to intervene effectively when people are being targeted by bullying. There’s lots to do, and plenty of room for different approaches, especially if we allow some basic values such as respect, to weave our actions together into a larger whole.
And yes, I am very open to being surprised in a positive way by our new president-elect. But there is no need to wait for that… there are plenty of good actions we can take that are not based on attempting to predict what the president-elect will or won’t do. As I see it, there is no better time than now for speaking out about and taking action on long-standing issues, such as the health of the Earth, the safety of our precious life-giving waters, and the well-being of Native people – those whose original kindness and generosity are celebrated in this holiday season’s iconic Thanksgiving stories.
4) Bridge-Building –both within and across divides. As mentioned earlier, “taking action” and “bridge-building” don’t have to be “either/or” propositions. We can choose to both act on our principles and also seek to understand those whose perspectives differ from ours. Some of the work mentioned above under “reflection and learning”, has involved in-depth efforts to understand those whose perspectives may be vastly different than ours.
A practical rationale for working to generate understand across divides is the time-honored “know thy opponent” — how is it possible to effectively advance our goals in a long-term, sustainable manner, if we choose to remain unaware of and/or discount, those who oppose us? (Along those lines, here’s an exploration of the economic motivations of the proponents of the pipeline.)
At the same time, there are good reasons why some are reconsidering bridge-building efforts across political party lines. Sean McElwee’s critical review of Mark Gerzon’s recent book on transpartisanship describes how the rhetoric of “finding a middle ground” has been badly abused. When one side consistently chooses an extreme position, while the other side decides to be ‘reasonable’ by meeting them half-way, the resulting “bipartisan” policies often end up being disastrous, and the new ‘middle ground’ between the two sides effectively ends up creeping ever rightward. Especially when it comes to institutional politics, any of us who choose to ignore issues of power do so at great risk.
It may be easier to see the value of bridge-building within the realm of those who are on “our side” of the red-blue divide. We clearly have no shortage of differences among us, and the potential gain is a stronger and more unified movement. At the same time, there are pragmatic as well as principled reasons for seeking to understand one another across larger divides. Beyond gaining advantage within a “win-lose” struggle, there are often real possibilities for creating real “win-win” outcomes, especially with regard to concrete local issues in which all “sides” can benefit by arriving at common ground. One example worth celebrating is the recent decision by the City of St. Petersburg to commit to a 100% clean energy future; it is now the 20th U.S. city to have done so.
In addition to the potential for arriving at mutually beneficial outcomes, there are strong spiritual and systemic reasons for developing our capacity for radical empathy: Charles Eisenstein writes about this most eloquently in “The Election: Of Hate, Grief, and a New Story.” We can also see the power of this stance in “The White Flight of Derek Black“, a Washington Post story about a young white supremacist leader who grew into renouncing his previous beliefs through being treated with kindness, while simultaneously being offered new information. (Read here about some of the science supporting this approach.) Of course, we too can find ourselves changed through engaging in dialogue. And it bears repeating that engaging dialogue with systems of structural power does not preclude our taking action to protect what we value; instead, it often requires it.
5) Reconnecting With Source. For many of us, Spirit has been here all along; it is part of our inspiration to work with challenging emotions as a path to growth, and it is what calls us into reflection and learning. It also leads us to take action, to protect the vulnerable, and to search for, and to find, common ground with others. Yet even if we hold that Spirit infuses everything, we still need to intentionally dedicate some part of our time and energy for the specific purpose of nourishing and renewing ourselves, through our celebration of the Larger Whole. We may conceive of this “Larger Whole” in different ways and with different Names: as Nature, the Universe, the Cosmic Intelligence that Is Present in Everything… as the Sacred Heart that Reaches Out to All…as the Heartbeat of Life, in all of its diverse manifestations.
Alternatively, our Higher Power may take a secular form: we may know it as Laughter, Art, Family, Community, Humanistic Values…. Regardless of the form it takes, whatever restores us and revitalizes us, whatever calls us out beyond a separate sense of self and into connection with “Something Bigger”, needs to become a grounding thread in our lives, as well as in our community-building and social change movements, to inspire and sustain our work together over the long haul.
6) Re-inventing Democracy Everywhere. We keep hearing that many of those who voted for our current President-elect, did so in hopes that this would bring about much-needed “change”. With regard to our current electoral system, there is indeed an enormous need for major structural changes, including countering voter suppression with new laws that provide young people with greater access to voting, as activists in Louisiana have recently accomplished; implementing practical innovations like “instant run-off” or ranked-choice voting, which allows for a greater number of candidates without the risk of divisiveness, and is currently being used in many municipalities across the country; and effective strategies for getting money out of politics, such as the state of Maine has currently adopted.
Beyond these and other much-needed changes to our electoral system (not to mention our economic system) we also need to expand our idea of what democracy looks like – not just at the national level, but also at neighborhood, city, state, and regional levels. What if “democracy” did not just mean, choosing elected representatives to make our hard choices for us – but also meant, working together as community members to meet the challenges we face, using our diversity wisely for the benefit of the whole? We can see emerging signs of growth along these lines in initiatives such as Civic Health Clubs that create opportunities for both socializing and growing civic awareness. Other projects with greater immediate impact include innovative participatory budgeting projects being explored in several cities around the world. These may be small steps, but they point toward a growing movement for participatory democracy, one that has been garnering growing support across a wide spectrum for the last several decades– from more mainstream proponents to progressive and radical voices.
The notion of participatory democracy can be expanded further: what if “democracy” was not just about our political system, but also, about all of the various organizations to which we belong – whether they are schools, or non-profits, or hospitals, or businesses, or worker-owned co-ops? The challenging aspect of posing these questions is that we can see clearly how much work there is to be done; the silver lining is that there are no shortage of contexts where we can develop and practice the skills we need to re-invent democracy.
Those, then, are the six threads — honoring emotions; reflecting and learning; strategizing, organizing and taking action; bridge-building; reconnecting with Source; and reinventing democracy. Each of these threads can be an opportunity to honor our differences; all of them together, create a potent synergy.
As we make room for each of these facets of our work, may we build stronger and more resilient movements. May our actions deepen in power and in kindness, and may we create fruitful spaces where our differences can be heard, where we can learn from and with one another, and be richly blessed by our diversity.
Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours…
I welcome hearing your thoughts below.