social justice

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.  

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 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.