The possible has been tried and failed. It is now time to try the impossible.
— Sun Ra
This morning I woke up and made breakfast for my daughter and thought to myself: We have entered the Age of Terror.
Terror is not new to the U.S. Terror — the infliction of extreme fear — runs deep in our economy and political system, from enslavement of African people to genocide of Native people to violent oppression of any Americans not defined as white. Terror is not new to US action around the globe, where our tax dollars have long underwritten war and brutal repression.
But today terror has become the explicit and recognized force dominating public thought and action. In horrific ways the Right has legitimized terror, as we saw in the shameful responses of Republicans after a man opened fire in the deadly Planned Parenthood shooting. In beautiful ways victims have challenged racist reactions to terror, as we saw in the Parisians who held off anti-Muslim disruptors at a peaceful vigil, or in the words of the partner of Larry Daniel Kaufman who died saving others in San Bernardino. In ways filled with hope and possibility for change, the movement for Black lives has shined a spotlight on the daily terror of police in Black neighborhoods. Terror — by white supremacists, by extremist fundamentalists, or by police — now dominates our political landscape.
Today, through consumption, complicity, and silence, our country has helped create an unprecedented level of desperation and disruption within our own communities and around the world. We live in a world of ecosystems destroyed in the stampede for fossil fuel, in economies collapsing in the weight of inequality, in cultures cut off from their roots, in communities repressed and brutalized. We live in a country where deaths from white supremacist guns remains the most frequent and deadliest form of terrorism.
I’m not going to lie. In this moment I feel afraid for my daughter and for all of our kids.
As someone who believes another world is possible I ask myself: What do I do in this moment? What do we do?
What does movement building look like in a time of terror? How do we develop strategy in a world animated by fear?
I am grateful to come to these questions grounded in the years of time Movement Strategy Center has spent with political strategist and Zen teacher Norma Wong, and in the days of time our MSC team spent together with dozens of the most inspiring leaders in our movements today. We brought these leaders together in an MSC Transitions Lab to explore how to transition from a world of domination, violence and extraction to a regenerative world of interdependence and resilience. While we were gathered terrorists murdered 43 people in Beirut and 130 people in Paris.
In the weeks that followed, white supremacists shot Black Lives Matter demonstrators in Minneapolis; the city of Chicago released the video of police murdering Laquan McDonald; an armed misogynist killed a mother, a war vet, and a police officer in Colorado Springs; an ISIS-inspired husband and wife gunned down coworkers at a holiday party; and the fascist campaign of Donald Trump accelerated its wave of violence and organized hate in visible political form. Today, one month after the Transitions Lab, I believe more strongly than ever that the embodiment of hope and possibility we practiced in the Transitions Lab, and that so many are practicing across our movements, is the most critical and strategic work we can do.
I believe that these dark times illuminate what matters most.
We sometimes speak of our movements engaging in “the battle of ideas,” a violent concept with winners and losers armed with tools of analysis. We need to move beyond this. If it was ever true that ideas moved masses of people, it certainly isn’t now, as people grapple, individually and collectively, with the powerful emotion of fear.
Maya Angelou once said that, “People don’t remember what you say. They remember how you make them feel.” It’s really important for us to be mindful about the environment that we’re creating, about the feelings that we’re leaving people with. What is the feeling that you’re creating around people as you’re organizing? Is it inspiring? Does it give people hope? Does it encourage people to bring the best of who they are to the work? Does it make them feel like change is possible?
We, every single one of us, needs to be healed enough and grounded enough to build and create with anyone, even people who don’t share our ideas. We can no longer seek to work only with those who are “like minded.” We must, as Norma Wong says, seek to build with those who are “like-hearted.”
When a white solo mom tells me angrily that I care more about Syrian refugees than about her, I need to listen and engage, not tune out and dismiss. I need to stand with integrity and find possibility in what our hearts share. I can’t do that — none of us can — if we’re triggered and reactive, or if we’re listening only from our heads and not our hearts.
In the Lab, racial justice organizer, policy advocate, and cultural worker Tammy Johnson said these words:
We can’t accomplish anything without healing. For me, any of the issues we deal with can come up with great policy strategies. If they don’t have a framework presenting alternatives to the dominant frame, if they don’t involve healing and reconciliation, then we’re back at square one.
Does this mean we are nice but weak? No. It means we are smart enough to understand that our collective existence on this planet depends on our mutuality and the humanity of each and every one of us. It means we are courageous and bold enough to lead and love even those who aren’t yet seeking our love and leadership.
Does this mean we all stop working and go up to the mountain to meditate? No. It means we start being aware and present right now, in whatever we are doing. It means we start acknowledging, valuing, and embodying what has, time and time again, over and over, worked. It means we start being Ella Baker and Grace Lee Boggs and Nelson Mandela.
Movement building grounded in love and purpose looks and feels different. It takes a different set of muscles, including taking on intentional practices as individuals and groups. There are many ways to practice and many definitions; Norma Wong defines practice as “conscious and repetitive action that cultivates specific qualities and capacities.”
Practice allows us to take small, immediate steps to nurture shifts that are larger than we might imagine in the present. A pianist runs through the scales daily, developing capacity that makes an entire sonata possible. A runner puts in daily miles, developing muscle strength, endurance, and memory that can be called on in a marathon. Conscious practice can be applied in other areas of life, allowing us to cultivate new qualities and capacities — and interrupt ingrained habits — even when we are unsure or unclear about our future.
Alicia Garza of Black Lives Matter talks about it this way:
Collective transformative practice is not some hippy dippy thing. It’s about how we are together and how we are successful as movements. This is how Black Lives Matter thinks about transformative practice: It’s about transformative relationship building.
“We need embodied practice,” says Tomás Garduño, a leader at the nexus of climate and economic justice who was part of the Transitions Lab community: “the conscious, steady physical development of awareness that makes cooperation, connection, compassion, and effective movement strategy possible.” Garduño writes:
Embodied practice is how we get to the “how.” Embodied practice — whether it’s somatics or Forward Stance or just breathing together — is how we proactively develop the strength, insight, and joy to transform a world that includes the injustices of Ferguson and Ayotzinapa and Bhopal.
Transformative practice helps us get to Transformative Strategy — to strategy that generates leaps that seem unimaginable and are utterly necessary.
As Norma and others teach us, what defines transformative strategy and makes it so powerful is that it moves from the inside out. That means from the inside of individual people outward and from inside of groups outward.
Norma builds on this insight, offering some very practical suggestions about transformative strategy.
As we know from nuclear physics, a critical mass of energy on the inside can produce external energy at an exponential magnitude. Or as we know from Baker, Boggs, and Mandela, one person’s grounding in love and purpose can inspire and empower entire generations. What if our movements were filled with people deeply grounded in love and purpose? What level of magnitude becomes possible, what speed of chain reaction?
In the lab Norma walked us through the difference between strategies for change and strategies for transformation. What matters, she said, is to be clear on the difference and to make a conscious choice about which one you need for what and when.
Transformative strategy is different than change strategy:
- Transformative Strategy puts the qualities of who we are as individuals and groups at the core. The possibilities of this echo in the words of Rosa González, a champion of deep community democracy who recently helped groups impacted by the 2010 BP oil disaster to articulate a collective commitment to the leadership, sustainable livelihoods, health, and wholeness of frontline communities. In the Transitions Lab Rosa told us: “We need to create space for people’s whole selves to show up. Our linear logic says that the change people are visioning isn’t possible. How do we expand what we believe? How do we hold space to allow for that?”
- Transformative Strategy moves with the depth of love and purpose of those who identify as ready for transformation, while staying welcoming and open to those who aren’t. Jacqueline Patterson, who leads the Environment & Climate Justice Program of the NAACP, spoke to this in the Lab. “I’m working with communities to move from the inside out, developing their own vision and modeling that. Community by community we establish an approach until it becomes the norm.”
- Transformative Strategy is open source and nonlinear. “We need to get beyond planning processes, to dream bigger,” said Nwamaka Agbo, leader of MSC’s Our Next Economy effort. “Let’s not just make plans; let’s create the capacity to make them happen.”
How do we actually do transformative strategy? As Norma points out, we’re all familiar with change strategies, which we usually develop like this: 1) Start with purpose; 2) Identify the change you are seeking; 3) Seek buy-in for the change; 4) Develop a strategic plan; 6) Implement the plan.
In place of this, Norma offers a different sequence for developing transformative strategy:
Step One: Start with purpose — Why are you seeking this transformation? Why are you choosing transformation rather than change? What is your appetite for transformation?
Step Two: Envision — What is the transformation that you are seeking?
Step Three: Embody — Who do you — individually and collectively — need to be to bring about this transformation? What qualities do you need to embody that make the impossible possible? Practice those!
Step Four: Emanate — Move forward with a critical mass of people ready to move toward transformation.
Step Five: Experiment — Within your purpose and what you are embodying, unleash multiple experiments.
This kind of transformative strategy — grounded in who we are, moving with depth of love and purpose, open source and nonlinear — is what can generate leaps that currently seem impossible: leaps to food systems that are healthy, affordable, fair to workers, good for the environment, and keep farmers on the land; leaps to schools, communities, and laws based on restorative justice and systematic fair treatment of people of all races; leaps to a world free of gender-based oppression and violence; leaps to a just economy that embodies resilience, interdependence, regeneration and collective well being; leaps to climate policy based on keeping it in the ground; leaps to foreign policy that keeps the planet in balance and peace.
Love, community, and connection are the only things powerful enough to overcome fear and terror. I know that this moment, my daughter, and the future of our world, demands my courageous commitment to transformation and the love with power it generates.
In the face of fear I choose Love.
Sign up here to join with MSC and the growing network of people and organizations committed to the practice of love, community, and connection as the core of movement strategy.