Monday, August 25, 2008

EAOP Sending Ripples Out Into The World

The first ripple is that EAOP professor Abigail Abrash Walton's article, which was recently published in the journal Environmental Management, is now available online. The piece -- which is based on the talk that Antioch University New England's Center for Tropical Ecology and Conservation invited her to present at their 2004 symposium -- is entitled “Conservation through Different Lenses: Reflection, Responsibility, and the Politics of Participation in Conservation Advocacy.” If you want to have a look, you can access the paper here.

Second, we just heard that a piece on faith and climate protection activism that I wrote for this blog has just been picked up and posted on the Jewish Israeli environmental blog called Green Prophet. This short essay was based on my remarks at Antioch's final Focus the Nation event last February. It focuses on emerging Jewish and Christian responses to global climate change.

Third, we are happy to announce that a hour-long interview I gave at a conference this summer at the University of Pittsburgh--Johnstown has just been released by a radio program called Spirit In Action produced by Mark Helpsmeet. The interview is now available online and it is also being distributed through the Pacifica Radio Network. The episode in question is called "Activating the Activists" and it is focused on my own activist history, the spiritual roots of my work, a short history of activist training in the US, the challenge of corporate rule, the need to transform the environmental movement in the 21st century, and lots and lots of information about the EAOP program and the ES Department at Antioch University New England.

Finally, we've posted a piece online from Morey Burnham, the EAOP's Summer 2008 Congressional Progressive Caucus Fellow who is clearly doing good work with US Representative Raúl M. Grijalva (D-AZ,), who chairs the house subcommittee on national parks, forests, and public lands. (Congressman Grijalva also serves as vice chair of the progressive caucus and heads its environment task force and has been recognized as a leader in environmental conservation by the Sierra Club and Defenders of Wildlife.) To read more about the EAOP's US Congressional Progressive Caucus Fellowship, click here.

Two Groups to Check Out!

Back in July, the Sierra Student Coalition invited me to one of their ten, week-long, Summer environmental activist training programs for undergraduates and highschool students. My job was to give these students a historical (and inspirational) context for understanding what they were engaged in and how activist training has long played a role in building successful social movements. It was a blast and I encourage every college or highschool student to check out their website and program. Plan on doing this next summer!

Happily, I was also invited back the next night by Zo Tobi, a lead SSC trainer, to be a participant in a motivational, 3 hour workshop developed by the Pachamama Alliance called the "Awakening the Dreamer Symposium." I was profoundly moved and impressed with the workshop and watched with great interest how it inspired the young activist trainees I was with that night. This is something I think we need in our movement.

For those of you who don't know, the mission of the Pachamama Alliance is to help inspire people to create a more ecologically sustainable, spiritually fulfilling, and socially just human presense on this planet. One way they do this is to supply funds, technical assistance, and solidarity with indiginous people in Equador and Peru to protect their traditional lands from oil drilling. However, their South American partners have told them that the only long-term solution is if the people of the industrial society wake up from our trance and dream a new dream for our own society. The "Awaken the Dreamer" workshops are one of the Alliance's answers to this request by their partners.

Now, my sister-in-law felt it was a little to "touchy-feely" when she went to a symposium in Philly on my recommendation. Yet, I think the combination of creating sacred space, using interactive exercises and small group dialogs, along with some very informative and inspiring multimedia material about where we are, how got here, how we can create a movement for fundamental social change, and why we should act with hope out of our own deepest senses of personal mission. My partner Katy and I will actually be spending a long weekend in October to take the Pachamama Alliance Facilitator Training for the Symposium somewhere in New York State.

Anyway, there are some webpages to check out if you are interested. First, go to the homepage of the Pachamama Alliance. One thing that I think is particularly helpful is watching the 15 minute online video called "The New Dream," which explains what they are up to and includes some information about their "Awakening The Dreamer Symposium." You can get even more information on the Symposium by going to its own webpage. Click on the green box in the upper right of the screen for more detailed information on the symposium and access to a link to where you can find a symposium in your area.

After our Facilitator Training in October my partner Katy and I are looking forward to co-leading some of these workshops for local community, educational, and faith groups. I will also be integrating certain elements into my teaching in the Environmental Advocacy and Organizing Program (EAOP).

I would love to hear what other people's experience with the Alliance or the Symposia have been.

At A One-Day Democracy School

On August 17, I went to Nottingham, New Hampshire, for a one-day Democracy School co-led by EAOP graduate Ellen Hayes of Advocates for Community Empowerment and by Tom Linzey and Gail Darrell of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund. It was a great experience--and it was just wonderful to meet the folks that led the effort to pass a local ordinance in Nottingham that outlaws corporations from making commercial water withdrawls from their town and also strips corporations of their so-called constitutional personhood rights within the boundaries of Nottingham. Very inspring.

There were also three other EAOP grads in the room as participants and three current EAOP students. I always focus quite a bit on this new "rights-based" organizing strategy in my "Corporate Power, Globalization, and Democracy" course in the Spring. But, I also hope all of my students get to take part in a weekend Democracy School before they finish their work here at Antioch.

Personally, I become more and more impressed with this "outside of the box" organizing strategy designed to challenge corporate rule and and build genuine, grassroots democracy in this country in the process. The box in this case is the conventional regulatory route embedded in most US activist approaches over the last fifty years or so. Now this conventional approach does sometimes mitigate the worst harms of some corporate activity, but it doesn't really scratch the surface of how judge-made law over the last 150 years has elevated corporate power and downsized grassroots democracy--perhaps the biggest obstacle facing those people working for serious environmental and social change today.

To get a better sense of the Democracy Schools, you can view this 15
minute introductory Democracy School video Also, for a look at the thinking of the leading figure at CELDF, check out this video of a talk by Tom Linzey.

Ellen and I will be working hard this week to write a grant proposal to the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation in support the effort by Advocates for Community Empowerment to help northern New England folks learn how to use this new organizing model--which helps local community by teaching them how to pass local ordinances and bylaws that challenge corporate "rights" and drive democratic citizen rights to decide their future into law. I'll be doing that--and getting ready for my Fall classes in "Organizing Social Movements and Campaigns" and "Patterns of Environmental Activism."

Coming Home From Knoll Farm

From July 17 to July 23, 2008, I took part in a six-day "Whole Thinking Retreat" sponsored by the Center for Whole Communities at Knoll Farm in Fayston, Vermont. The twenty-plus participants and facilitators were a multi-racial group of environmental leaders from across the country trying to move beyond the limited thinking so often embedded within each of our particular sectors of the movement. My cohort now joins over 700 other alumni of similar Center retreats. The reflections below are adapted from some journal writing I did upon returning home.

Driving home from Knoll Farm reminded me of the last scene in My Dinner With Andre. In that movie, Wally Shawn is driving home in a cab through the streets of New York City--something he's done countless times before--and he is staring out the window transfixed, seeing everything again for the first time and with appropriate awe. All of life was sacramental to him after his amazing dinner with his friend.

That was also true for me during my quiet trip home through the sometimes cloud-hidden and rainy Green Mountains and hills of Vermont. I drove in silence (without my usual talk radio jabbering on and on) at 55 miles per hour--ten miles an hour less than the speed limit, and twenty-five miles an hour less than I usually drive. Not changing lanes, not passing anyone, and burning far less gas on this trip, I had time to look out the window more, to notice my breathing, to think deeply about my time at Knoll Farm and about all of my companions on the retreat journey, including the luminous green humming bird I saw in one of the flower gardens during one of the few sunny moments in the week.

In Jewish Scripture, the word for "sin" literally translates to the phrase "missing the mark." At the Farm, I tasted "the mark" with unusual vividness. I tasted being a part of a diverse, inspiring, and intentional community working to create a more environmentally sustainable, spiritually fulfilling, and socially just human presence on this planet.

For five of our days together, we walked up and down Bragg Hill--or rode in the "sun buggy"--though the Farm's gardens, grasslands, and woods. At the top of the hill, we sat in a circle in a giant yurt and shared our core visions and values and--very blessedly--took the time to talk honestly about race, power, and privilege in our lives and in our organizations. We did this even when it was painful, incomplete, and raw. All of us experienced moments of anger, hurt feelings, and misunderstanding in that yurt--as we sometimes did during the rest of our time together at Knoll Farm. Yet, we also shared many moments of profound forgiveness, repentance, and insight. We became imperfect, but powerful, allies during those six days.

Our time together also fed my tattered, middle-aged, Quaker soul. We spent from ten at night to ten in the morning in silence. We even meditated together several times during the "talking" part of our day. We told stories about our lives and about our work back home to help heal the world. There was one night of ecstatic dancing and chores everyday, as well as hot, outdoor, solar-heated showers early in the morning, sometimes taken in the rain. I mulched and picked blueberries, sorted wool, or shucked peas most afternoons. There was singing sometimes while we worked or did spoon carving--and some people read poetry before dinner. Don't even get me started about the food! There were also giant orange moons coming up over the mountains at least partially visible through the clouds to the southeast most every night. These moons were most frequently viewed from a fire circle where several people sat a while before heading off to sleep in their tents.

I found it hard to say goodbye to everyone at the Farm and drive home on our last morning. Yet, as well as one can driving alone in a car powered by gas and lubricated by oil, I came much closer to the mark than normal on that journey home. Inside that car, I drank water from the Farm that I carried in the metal bottle that I now usually keep clipped to my belt loop. On such a trip in the past, I would have stopped along the way and purchased six or seven plastic bottles of diet soda.

I also got hungry for lunch near Randolph and took the town's exit off Interstate 89 and drove right past the McDonald's at the end of the ramp. Usually, driving alone and with no one looking, I would have turned into that parking lot and indulged in some childhood/teenage comfort food, one of my private guilty pleasures that has had a huge addictive pull on me for decades. On this afternoon, however, McDonald's did not hold any allure or offer any pleasure to me. It was not just far from the mark, it was also far from my heart.

Instead, I drove into town and looked for a little, locally-owned restaurant that served me a handmade salad with a bit of chicken, a hard boiled egg, and some diced black olives on top of a mix of greens, romaine lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, and carrots all lightly dressed in olive oil and balsamic vinegar. The Depot Restaurant owner brought it to me with a smile, along with a slice of homemade bread, and all of it in a glass bowl!

I ate slowly thinking of the single wooden bowl that I had eaten out of every meal for a week, the very bowl that was now sitting cock-eyed on the front seat of my borrowed car. I also thought of Helen and Jay, two long-time organic farmers that I now knew personally. I silently lifted my glass of local tap water and toasted them for their love of our soil and their ability to help the earth say beans or squash or blueberries.

I only wished that the owner had stood by the table before I ate and told me what farm every ingredient in the salad had come from. I also fantasized about someone standing up at the next booth and reading a poem by Rumi out loud and then another customer on the other side of the room offering a few passages from Wendy Johnson's Gardening at the Dragon's Gate. Gently letting go of that sweet image, I offered a silent prayer before I ate my lunch. "Stealth meditating" Wendy would call it.

Driving homeward again, I felt Dunking Donuts, Burger King, even the Olive Garden slipping away from me. As I munched one-handed on Knoll Farm organic blueberries for my dessert, I felt myself drawing closer toward the mark--closer toward farmers markets, roadside produce stands, locally-owned restaurants, and the organic section of my big chain supermarket until those precious folks in Keene, who are working on establishing a food coop in our town, succeed. And, yes, I thought I should send them a little money and a thank you note, right after I send a thank you poem to all the dear ones from my retreat week at Knoll Farm.

When I finally arrived in Keene, I picked up my computer from work and drove straight to my house, unlocked my backdoor--I hadn't had keys in my pocket for five days, let alone a computer nearby--and I began to put my stuff away. I laughed at a week's worth of unread newspapers dutifully piled on the dining room table by my partner Katy and I checked to see if there was any mail for me that had arrived while I was gone. I only opened one piece--the invitation to the upcoming September weekend celebration of the Center for Whole Communities' fifth year anniversary at Knoll Farm.

I drank some water from my own kitchen faucet and got back in my borrowed car to fill up its tank at a Citgo station--whose profits at least help some of the poor in Venezuela. I then returned the car to my friend and, by way of a small thank you, gave her my last unmolested box of Knoll Farm blueberries. She was thrilled. We hugged, chatted a bit, and then she offered me a ride home. Even with it threatening rain again, I said no.

Like my four hour drive home, I walked this final bit as Wally Shawn rode home in his cab--in my case, wide-eyed and delighted while walking by our Town Common, which sits across from City Hall and the big white United Church of Christ, then on down our Main Street dotted with small businesses on either side, past the Colonial Theater (an amazing nonprofit arts organization), and up the hill on Water Street to my little house surrounded by Katy's flowers. Walking through my community, I felt more committed than ever to fostering creative citizen action for climate protection, ecological sustainability, social justice, and the democratic control of corporations.

Still, on this day, I just sat quietly looking forward to Katy returning from work and hearing all about her week. I imagined her as a double rainbow over the Mad River Valley and waited.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

On Blueberries and Hate

I love community events like the Keene Pumpkin Festival and have often carved my share of pumpkins to make that event a success. So, why don't I support the recent Richmond Blueberry Festival? You would think I would love it. I adore blueberry pie, fiddle music, and hanging out with neighbors on a hot August evening.

The problem I have is that the Blueberry Festival is an annual fundraiser for the private school run by the Saint Benedict Center of the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, a controversial religious group based in nearby Richmond, New Hampshire.

I recently went to the group's website and, frankly, I was more than a little shocked. While the New Hampshire Catholic Dioceses of Manchester doesn't recognize the group as a Catholic order, the group identifies itself on its website as a militant crusader for the "traditional" or "conservative" or "right-wing" Roman Catholic Church, in contrast to "the heresy of liberalism" that they claim has afflicted the Catholic Church for sixty to seventy years. More chillingly, they also say that they stand firmly in the tradition of those "Catholics who fought in the Crusades" and "approved and upheld the Inquisition."

They even argue for the restoration of theocratic "Catholic states" around the world and they explicitly oppose "religious liberty," the "destructive program of ecumenism," and the "dangerous policy of opening up to the world through dialogue." Furthermore, in several places on their website, they identify the Jewish people as the arch-enemy of their faith, quickly adding, "This is not racism, bigotry, or prejudice. It is a fact of history, which is very documented."

The Saint Benedict Center is not just hostile to Jews though. On its website, the group describes its central article of faith--that only traditional, conservative Catholics like themselves can find salvation at the end of their lives--and that everyone else will be tossed "into the eternal fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels." In its list of those who deserve eternal punishment and torment, the group includes "the Episcopalians, the Quakers, the Unitarians, the Christian Scientists, and the Jehovah's Witnesses" and even the "the careless housewife who missed Mass on Sunday" and didn't confess her sin.

Why? Because all of these people are guilty of "contempt or even hatred of God." Indeed, the website says that anyone who doesn't share the Center's beliefs are the "personal enemies of God." They even add that every homosexual, and everyone who supports gay rights, deserves to die.

Furthermore, if you believe the Boston Globe, the core group even includes holocaust deniers. In a 2004 article, the Globe quoted the Center's Brother Anthony Mary, saying "There's a lot of controversy among people who study the so-called Holocaust. There's a misperception that Hitler had a position to kill all the Jews. It's all a fraud. Six million people... it didn't occur."

Nope. I'm just not going to donate my money to this group so they can teach such lessons to children. The Catholicism I admire is the Catholicism of Saint Francis, Thomas Merton, Ceasar Chavez, Dorothy Day, and Bishop Oscar Romero. I would happily pay to go to a Blueberry Festival that raises funds for a school that teaches their message of peace, justice, and compassion. The Richmond Blueberry Festival is not that. It is not even close.