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.  

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.