Stop Strip Mining Our Souls; Let’s Compost Non-Profit Culture

Written by Isaac Luria

December 19, 2014

After a brutal election, it’s time for progressive politics to deploy a new living model of movement building.

In the last few seconds before my son was born, the midwife had a hard time finding his heartbeat.

Everything happened so fast that I didn’t have time for fear, and I’m certain my wife’s mind was focused on getting that baby out. What I do remember is the quiet focus of the birth team, and a call to prep a pediatrician next door.

When he came out, he was rushed out of the room to that waiting pediatrician, crying vigorously.

The pediatrician cleaned him up, and handed me my child. He was alive! I had a son! “Caleb,” I remember whispering, “welcome to the world.”

I didn’t look at my email that night, but looking at it the following day, I scanned through the emails. In my raw state as a new parent filled with love, the stark reality of the viciousness of my political world filled my iPhone’s screen. I got whiplash reading about an angry colleague, a political opponent doing something mean, a nasty editorial attacking my organization for something I said, and a fight brewing at the office.

Up until that moment, I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. A political professional who was respected and powerful, who put aside his heart to win. But I couldn’t imagine my son growing up in the world I was creating. I didn’t wish that for him. Now that I look back on it, that’s when I knew I had to try to change what my kids might encounter when their time comes.

For much of my career, I’ve respected activists who are the hardest working, most professional, smartest, most disciplined, and most strategic. And I didn’t leave room for heart.

Since the birth of my son, I’ve been searching for different ways to understand how change works. How can we make change without strip-mining our souls and bodies for whatever ounce of strength we have left? How can we live full lives, be present parents and partners, and fight for what is right?

Without children, it was easier to turn a blind eye to the way that we worked in progressive politics and how we treated each other. Yelling in my early career wasn’t out of the ordinary, neither was a thirst for unhealthy control, nor a deep disrespect for one’s body and spirit, or a singular over-emphasis on winning short-term fights, no matter the cost.

If we took time for self-care at all, it was entirely in service of the work. We’d talk about how we needed to get our “batteries recharged,” despite the fact that we’re human, not a rechargeable power drill.

Movement folks, especially younger activists, tell me that they cannot, in good faith, participate any longer in movements that expect people to give up their lives, souls, and spark of the divine in order to pursue a phantom image of social change.

They see that our work, organized in an extractive, urgency-driven way, only reinforces a mainstream’s culture’s degradation of human value and spirit, foreshadowing the whiplash back from temporary, hollow victories towards the long-term community evisceration and economic destruction that we have felt these past 30 years.

Our have-it-now culture is making us attempt to deliver short-term results, taking a painful shortcut around the hard stuff of deep strategy, relationship building, and community rootedness. Our funders encourage us to look for the hot new tweet or message, the flashy image, or new program — and we’re too happy to oblige. But organizations with limited resources — like non-profits — quickly go bankrupt on the currency of now.

In this system, it’s no wonder that many organizations and executives find themselves in friction with natural allies over limited resources and thirsty for more control over the sector.

Part of this story is how we, as activists, deny ourselves love in our own lives. It’s a surprise that so many of us leave the movements we are a part of when we see that love — real love of self, of family, of people — cannot exist alongside certain kinds of activism, especially when people become disposable commodities.

Yet this isn’t just about our own lives; it’s about this whole justice project.

Indigenous peoples say a society must meet the needs and aspirations of the seventh generation from where we stand. I doubt any of us are looking much farther than the next year or funding cycle in our work, if we’re lucky. This short-term thinking may allow us to win a battle here or there. But we are losing the war.

It is genuinely shocking, the degree to which talented change-makers have internalized inhumane, consumerist, anti-environmentalist, non-living, deeply individualist modes of thinking about our work and our souls, and have been complicit in the ripping out of our own hearts, stunting our capacity to envision a world that values all people equally.

None of this is cause for individual blame or guilt. Given the siren call of the system we operate in, a blame-game isn’t helpful or warranted. However, we do have responsibility about what comes next.

First, we can start by listening — and observing — the ways in which our movements make human flourishing more difficult and learn from those who are experimenting with more life-giving models of movement work.

Second, we can refuse to reinforce dominant cultural paradigms of radical individualism and inhumane, unnatural mechanical thinking in our work. The primacy of extractive approaches to resources (people and money), top-down decision making structures, the hyper-professionalization of staff roles, the near-complete domination of short-termism, dependency on non-native resources, an overreliance on corporate efficiency models for the work of transformative culture change, and a bias against locally rooted change efforts are sicknesses that must be treated.

Third, we can compost what is dead and dying so it can be the life force for the new. We can envision and create new movement and organizational structures that help us, as the prophet Wendell Berry hopes for humanity, leave what we have better than when we found it.

With a different movement model borne out of ecological understandings of the world, we can spark and sustain irresistible communities of resistance that will work to heal us as individuals, as communities, and the world. Organizations and movements need not be machines. They can be overflowing, abundant gardens, to be tended with care, where each human being is encouraged to live a full life.

Drawing on the wisdom of sustainable farming would help us relate more sustainably to each other as individuals, organizations, and to the broader sector — and to steward our limited resources wisely for future generations.

This shift will be difficult yet essential to building the world where true human flourishing is possible. The non-living approach to movement work is deeply ingrained in our movements, our leaders, our economic system, and our culture.

I know from personal experience, however, that transformational organizations exist. With a dose of humility, a soulful commitment, and a good ear, the human capacity for adaptation and transformation makes far-reaching change possible. Seven generations from now — hopefully earlier — our descendants will thank us for the change we were able to make.

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