Why I Got a Master's of Divinity

My commitment to empowering communities and transforming social systems surfaced early in my life.  When I was 21, I studied Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. intensively, and was deeply moved and inspired by these incredible leaders who channeled their spiritual and ethical values into direct social action.  That’s why, when I decided to become a community organizer, I joined the largest faith-based organizing network in the country, PICO.  I wanted to work alongside people who were passionately driven by their spiritual and ethical ideals to pursue and create peace and justice.

In 2010, I was managing a PICO National health reform campaign in Washington, DC.  And something happened that changed my trajectory.  I joined a small group of friends that were reading Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way on Tuesday evenings in Dupont Circle. For me, it was revolutionary. 

The Artist’s Way is a call to find and express your creativity.  Cameron suggests that exploring your creative instincts is a spiritual path to uncovering new solutions, new directions, and coming more closely in line with your life purpose. I followed the books exercises and began digging more into own creativity.  I drew and painted, wrote more, sang and played instruments, took and edited photographs, rearranged my home, and just generally approached the world through a creative lens.  What I experienced was a profound shift in perspective—encountering life from a place of creative discovery gave me a rich sense of power.  It made me feel more like an agent of my own destiny, like I was creating a new and exciting story for myself. In essence, I found that seizing my own creativity was deeply empowering.  And it wasn’t just an internal experience of empowerment, it was manifesting very real and exciting external changes in my life. 

This realization sparked a huge inquiry in myself:  how could I incorporate this orientation towards creative discovery in my career? 

In my work as a community organizer, I supported local communities to lead innovative social change, from reforming the criminal justice system, to challenging immigration policies, to fundamentally changing the healthcare system.  The bedrock of community organizing is empowerment--it is all about helping people discover their unique leadership abilities and harnessing that power to create real concrete changes in their cities. 

An itch of curiosity began.  I wondered if weaving creative practices into community organizing would enrich leadership development and deepen the experience of empowerment for local communities.  And I wondered if it would help to accelerate the changes we wanted to achieve.  What it would it be like for the communities I worked with to uncover the power in their stories and their vision for a different world using art—images, movement and dance, song, and theatre? Might it make our vision for justice clearer, more lucid, more compelling, both to ourselves and to the policymakers we wanted to influence?  As a faith-based organization, might it help us to practice our faith in a radical way, to experience ourselves as modern prophets, heroes united, bringing forth God’s justice and equality?

I decided to earn a Master’s of Divinity because I wanted to test my thesis.  I wanted to see if cultivating creativity in social movements would strengthen leadership development.  I wanted to see if using the arts would empower communities to not just paint the picture of their vision for justice but to call it forcefully into reality.  And I wanted to grow in my own capacity as a leader, in the same tradition of MLK, Jr and Gandhi.  

The Director's Cut

Building a powerful movement depends upon telling our stories—that’s why it’s critical for organizations working for social change to share their work in a fresh, vibrant, exciting way.

The UNITEHERE! HEALTH Better Living video shares the transformation that's happening in the lives of the union members I work with everyday.  It is a valuable tool to encourage other members to join. And now it’s being used by health organizations across the US and internationally!

Power of Story
One of the reasons the video tells such a great story is because it captures a holistic picture of the leaders featured.  As director, I collected hours of conversational footage with Barbara, Elizabeth, Mark and others to make sure that we honored their fears, their motivations, and their hopes.  That essence, that heartbeat, is still present, even when it couldn’t be included in the short final cut.

Leadership Development
Behind the scenes, creating this video strengthened my leadership team.  Intensive story collection is profoundly empowering.  Veteran leaders, and new people who are just getting involved, have the experience of seeing their stories lifted up, to recognize themselves as vital and important to the movement, and to know their example is guiding deep change and inspiring others to join.

Transformation
The communities we work with are transforming!  Capture the story and make it the fuel for the wide-scale change we imagine!  

The Value of Relationship Building

Wow, the Better Living promotional video I directed is kinda going viral in the world of people who follow the Stanford Chronic Disease Self-Management Program.  It's not even officially released yet, but already has close to 900 views, and The National Council on Aging featured it on their website!

I'm pretty sure the video tells such a great story because of the relationship building and teamwork taking place behind the scenes with the UniteHere! Healthcare Committee.  Bravo!

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Lifelines: Culture Change in Oakland

In 2006, I started working as a community organizer in Oakland, California. I spent the first few weeks on the job driving around West Oakland, meeting with church pastors, families who lived in the neighborhood, teenagers at the district high school, and people who ran local service programs. Everyone was talking about the same thing: gun violence and homicides in Oakland. 145 people were murdered in the city that year. Mostly men, these were the lives of sons, brothers, nephews, fathers, cousins. The community was devastated. And angry.  And wanted to do something about it. 

That’s when I learned about Ceasefire. Ceasefire is a national violence prevention model that grew out of Boston and was gaining traction in other cities, like Chicago.  My community organizing network flew the Boston Ceasefire leaders out to Oakland to tell us what they did to dramatically reduce homicide in their city. What I heard hooked me.

Ceasefire is based on the premise that building strong relationships between local community, social services, and police can fundamentally alter patterns of gang and drug violence.

Violence isn’t random. The goal of Ceasefire is to focus on people actively involved in violent circles, in order to interrupt shootings before they happen. What’s innovative is that the Ceasefire model doesn’t target violent offenders in order to to arrest them. The goal instead was to CONNECT them. To connect young people to real job opportunities beyond drug dealing, to connect young people to supportive social services that could help them make different choices, to connect young people to community members who cared about them, and to connect young people to former violent offenders who had changed their lives and who could help mediate conflicts and disputes. 

This was different! It was a strategy that wove new relationships between community, social services, and police, to take a stand together, in order to protect and support a group of young men who have been marginalized.

It was hard work to get this new strategy off the ground in Oakland. A lot of people said it couldn’t be done. But my team of community leaders and I met with the police chief, we met with the department of social services, we met with job-training programs, we met with church leaders and community-based programs, and we got them to commit to work together for the Ceasefire violence prevention model. We mobilized thousands of people to stand before the mayor and police in support of Ceasefire. We declared: “This is the new way to handle violence in our city. This is what Oakland should invest in.”

And we won!  Oakland hired street outreach workers to build relationships with young people involved in violent circles to interrupt conflicts. The police started partnering with community and social services to connect potential offenders with help. We built an alliance between community, faith leaders, social services and police that hadn’t existed before. 

It was an uphill battle, but we slogged along because we knew that Ceasefire was a new chance for Oakland, a new chance for the next generation of Oakland youth.  We were saving lives, and we were radically changing the culture of Oakland. 

Oakland is still changed. This week, eight years since we started our campaign in Oakland, the East Bay Times ran the headline: "Steps Towards Peace: Ceasefire seen as a cultural shift in Oakland," reporting that Oakland has a 30 percent decrease in homicides. The article states that Oakland has undergone a transformation, that the city is different because of its commitment to build new relationships and persevere to achieve new outcomes for the people who need it most.

I’m proud to have worked, with community leaders, to catalyze this change. I’m proud that over time (which is how culture change works!), we moved Oakland towards more peace and justice for the families and communities who deserve it. Bravo, Oakland!

 Photos:Oakland Community Organizations

Photos:Oakland Community Organizations

Art and Change: The People's Climate March

"Artists were not just a side component of the People's Climate March.  Artists were the glue."  --Artist-Activist Favianna Rodriguez, poster art above.

Over 300,000 people flooded NYC streets this last Sunday (9/21) to demand just action on our swiftly warming planet.  This historic march was an impressive display of solidarity among a diverse crowd of people, including indigenous communities, folks who work on Wall St, local high school students, vegans, labor, and every kind of religious and spiritual tradition. 

I walked away even more convinced about the power of art in social change movements. 

Artist-activist-intellectual Favianna Rodriguez, in partnership with CultureStrike and 300 other artists, were out in full effect at the march, telling the many stories of migrant communities, communities of color, shoreline communities, and all the people hardest hit by global warming. 

 Photo: CultureStrike

Photo: CultureStrike

Art has the power to communicate a strong compelling message, FAST.  This is the point of public demonstrations, and why art is so vital. 

Art also has the power to engage new voices and lift up the experiences that have been marginalized.  At this march, artist collaboration helped bring forth the participation and expression of people who are not stereotypically thought of in the "environmental movement," radically embodying the march slogan, "to change everything, we need everyone." 

 Photo: Mark Thompson

Photo: Mark Thompson

"The power of culture is often underestimated within the field of social change.  Culture is the realm of ideas, images and stories; it is where people make sense of the world, where they find meaning and forge community.  Culture alters the way people think about—or choose to ignore or reject—an issue or policy.  It affects how people think, interact, react, speak, write and vote."  (The Culture Group 2011, p.1).

 Photo: Mark Thompson

Photo: Mark Thompson

As an organizer, I am committed to integrating art and culture into my work because I recognize it is a powerful tool to shape our stories and our prophetic voice, strengthen leadership development and build more vibrant campaigns.  To shift culture and move social justice policy, we have to move away from relying only on data and statistics to make our case.  In order to ignite and engage our society, in order to paint a new vision for the future, we have to let creativity lead. 

Pictured:  Me working with CultureStrike and Communities Creating Opportunity in Kansas City (May 2013) for an immigration reform action with Senator Moran.  We made sunflowers, the Kansas state flower, to represent people's desire to become citizens.

Better Living

For the last four years, I have been organizing to help communities overcome injustice in the food and healthcare systems (see my recent post Sugar and Social Justice).  When I was in Washington DC, the work focused on making sure that low-income people with diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol have access to doctors, so they can better manage these chronic conditions and stay out of hospitals and emergency rooms. 

But what if we could actually support people to become healthier?

At UniteHere!, I’ve organized a committee of low-income union members who are focused on making sure that their co-workers stay healthy.  This summer, we launched a program called Better Living.  It’s a six week workshop where people with diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and other chronic conditions learn together about taking better care of themselves through nutrition, exercise, and stress-management.  Together, the group sets goals to make concrete changes in their daily lives that support health.  Eating more vegetables, laying off the sugar.  Regular exercise.  Meditation. 

This week, 28 people graduated from our first workshop.  These union workers are from all over NYC, from the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, Harlem and Washington Heights.  And they are taking what they learned back to their workplaces, back to their families, and back to their religious communities.

Carlos is one of the first graduates of our Better Living workshop.  He works in the cafeteria at the American Museum of Natural History. 

Carlos: “I’ve had diabetes for 27 years.  Before this workshop, my doctor told me to change my diet but I didn’t know how to do it.  I felt really alone.  It was hard to stick to a program when I was trying to do it by myself.  Better Living gave me a lot of support.  Now I am starting to stick to my goals.  I didn’t even realize before that I was feeling depressed.  But by working with others and taking better care of myself, I feel so much happier!

The Unite Here healthcare committee is all set to get another 30 people through the program in October. Together, we are working to transform the health of our families and communities.

Sugar and Social Justice

In 37 years, the rate of diabetes in the United States QUINTUPLED.  According to National Geographic from August 2013, there are now more than 22 million Americans living with diabetes.

The primary cause?  Sugar.  It’s in everything.  Bread and cereal, processed lunch meats, yogurt, ketchup, and of course, soda.  The average can of coke contains 8 teaspoons of sugar. Low-fat yogurt has more than 6 tsp. National Geographic reports that the average American consumes almost 23 teaspoons of sugar a day!  For perspective, that’s equivalent to 1,135 cups of rice. 

As the rate of diabetes skyrockets, sugar in the US diet also contributes to high cholesterol and high blood pressure. 

Who suffers the most?  The poor.  People who live in neighborhood food deserts, where it's challenging to find fresh, whole food.  People who can't afford to buy food for a week at the grocery store and rely on fast food.  People who have Medicaid, which can make it hard to access good primary care doctors.

This is why I organize around health care.  I support communities to win the policies and the practices that will help them not only overcome the injustice in our food and healthcare system, but to THRIVE. Check out my recent work on Better Living! here.  

Why I Became an Organizer, Part 2

I was eighteen when I discovered what I was meant to DO in the world.  I had just moved to Santa Barbara to attend community college.  I didn't have many options in the education department.  The San Francisco school system had not prepared me for university.  Most of my friends whose families had the means or the know-how had opted for private high schools or elite public high schools based on academic performance. At seventeen, I looked up to see these friends heading off to Columbia, Harvard, and Wellesley.  I had no plan at all.  I hadn’t even taken the SAT’s. Actually, high school felt so pointless that I left my senior year to work at Starbucks. Community college was the only choice I had, and I moved to Santa Barbara for the sheer fact that it wasn’t San Francisco. A change of scene. 

To this end, Santa Barbara was the biggest culture shock I had ever encountered.  I went from living in a racially, culturally and economically diverse inner-city (SF before the tech-boom!), to a homogeneous, upper-middle class, suburban town.  Having grown up around the corner from low-income housing projects and gone to school with a majority of classmates who qualified for the free lunch program, I was suddenly in an environment where people spoke with smug disgust about “welfare queens” and vehemently defended border control to keep “illegals” out of the country.  While I researched my first college paper about continued segregation and inequality in public education, my Santa Barbara classmates were planning their futures in banking (I realize this is an unfair generalization, but it describes the general climate).  I was appalled; filled with anger.  And I was seized with energy and purpose.  The cries for justice that had entered my bloodstream in the picket lines of my childhood, that filled my heart with passion, would not let me sleep.  I felt my life purpose beating strongly in my chest, pounding in my ears, relentlessly pushing me towards my true path.  I knew then that I wanted to dedicate my life work to creating just systems, to standing for radical social change.

I moved right back to San Francisco to get started! 

Why I Became an Organizer, Part 1

I grew up in San Francisco, where my father organized for Local 2, the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union (H.E.R.E).  From the time I was an infant until I was a teenager, after-school and on weekends, Dad took me to picket lines, rallies and marches, where I joined the crowd chanting "Contract Now!" and singing Solidarity Forever.  I wasn't too excited about these activities when I was young.  My legs would tire out from the endless walking, I whined that I wanted McDonald's, I begged to go to my friends’ houses instead.  

But at some point, all that changed.  At some point, the meaning of the chants and songs broke through.  I began to sense the power of what we were doing there, together.  Instead of just plodding through the throng of grown-up legs, I saw men and women, African-American, Latino and Asian, who made beds, cooked food, carried luggage, and did the million other thankless tasks that served as the backbone of the SF tourist industry.  I began to feel the strength of their unity, the courage it took to challenge international business tycoons and demand a fair labor contract.  I began to connect, as my heartbeat pounded in my chest, to the deep moral obligation which kept us walking, mile after mile, on the same city block in front of the five-star hotels.  I saw the power of commitment.  It sometimes took years, but these maids and cooks and porters would WIN.  They were on the side of justice.

“In our hands is placed a power greater than their hoarded gold

Greater than the might of armies magnified a thousandfold

We can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old

For the Union makes us strong”

--Solidarity Forever

 

I didn't know it then, but this was the foundation that would shape my life work.