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Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Puget Sound Off Interviews Cristien Storm & Kate Boyd From "If You Don't They WIll" On Clutural Organizing

Can you explain a bit about what cultural organizing is, how it works, and how you think PSO might be able to get involved in cultural organizing?

In an article on Community Arts Network’s Reading Room webpage, Caron Atlas describes cultural organizing as “a means of placing culture at the center of an organizing strategy. It can be done to unite people through the humanity of culture and the democracy of participation. It can also be used to divide people though fear and polarization.”

Cultural organizing works because it situates organizing and social change in the environment of the moment. I want to share some examples from when I was working at Home Alive, a Seattle based anti-violence non-profit organization that offers affordable self-defense classes and provides public education and awareness. Because we were artists, musicians, performers as well as activists, art and music was an integral part of how we did our work. We organized benefit shows that created community dialogue about “How are you getting home tonight?” Which led to discussion around “Are you safe once you get home?” Out of these discussions (which took place in club bathrooms, the backs of taxi’s, on a barstool), rose organic responses that reflected the diversity of people and communities that were talking about things they may have never talked about before. Bartenders began organizing patrons by collecting cab fare for women who didn’t have a ride home; club bouncers called Home Alive to ask us to do a training on what to do with situations of domestic violence in front of clubs; artists approached Home Alive and clubs to post community resources in clubs and do art installations about issues of sexual assault and date rape in bathrooms after a woman was raped in a bathroom stall during a music show. Musicians asked us to table at their shows and during their sets asked fans to make sure to help each other get home alive.

In other words, Home Alive didn’t organize our community, we supported our community organizing. People made zines, organized speak outs with Home Alive’s support. Because community members were responding in ways that reflected them rather that a specific organizational agenda, there were conflicts of interest, conflicts of opinion, differing views, and even arguments and disputes over how to respond to violence. Our response was that there wasn’t one right way to respond and it wasn’t Home Alive’s job to tell people how to respond, but to support people responding to violence in order to create community dialogues that might help create communities and environments where we could not only respond to violence when it did occur, but where violence was less likely to happen. Because people were creating dialogues in their own language all kinds of conversations were happening and they were happening in places and in ways that activist don’t often think of as “organizing.” Beer drinking working class guys hanging out at Happy Hour were talking about domestic violence and how they heard (through music events) that on super bowl Sunday domestic violence increases. They started talking about how messed up that was and how they might respond if anyone they know says or does anything abusive. They didn’t talk about violence against women in feminist lingo. They would have scoffed if you called them activists and trying to get them to attend a rally or community meeting would be an exercise in futility. But they were talking about domestic violence. They were creating ways of responding to violence against women. They were taking it seriously and addressing it in their environments, in this case during happy hour and at super bowl parties. They were changing the culture of that landscape. This small and simple example of a community of men responding to domestic violence in their own language is a direct result of the cultural organizing done by Home Alive as well as a great example of culture organizing, although that particular group of men would never call it that.

Cultural organizing does not try to create one particular response, it’s about creating movement within a cultural context that impacts people and community in ways that shift the landscape in irreversible ways. PSO can engage in cultural organizing by supporting communities who are having dialogues about participation in democracies in all kinds of ways, whether it’s through a music show, arts campaign, spoken word show, button making parties, chalking art, dance-a-thons’s, whatever. The thing about cultural organizing is that it resists organizational control. Home Alive wasn’t successful at cultural organizing because we set out to do it; we were successful because it was how our communities expressed themselves. Home Alive supported people who wanted to respond to violence in their lives, envision liberation, raise money, heal from an incident or be engaged in community dialogues with money, time, resources, backing, belief and commitment. When a 13 year old girl walked into the office and said her friend was assaulted and she wanted to do a zine project, we supported her by helping her get the resources to do the project without micromanaging, even if Home Alive staff disagreed with some of the content or messages of the zine. We valued her project as much as when a famous band member called to say he believes in our cause and wants to throw a benefit show, again, even if some Home alive staff thought some of the band’s songs were sexist. It’s not about creating a consistent controlled message, it’s about supporting community.

What are the ways that organizations like PSO can support youth organizing?

It’s great when organizations ask about supporting youth organizing. A place to start is at our tips and tricks:

Tips and Tricks
For transitioning from organizing youth to youth organizing

• Have a power analysis that includes age
• Commit to prioritizing building multiple age bridges
• Listen
• Have your adult staff and board attend a youth organizing 101 training
• Incorporate the information from youth organizing trainings into strategic planning
• Learn how to be an ally as individuals, as staff, as an organization and as part of a larger social movement
• Support other organizations that are youth run, youth led and have demonstrated a commitment to youth organizing
• Let go of power. Prepare to step down and relinquish control
• Envision youth as leaders
• Be excited about letting youth lead and letting go of control—it benefits all of us!
• Be prepared as an ally to advocate for youth organizing to funders

How does this compare with the activity of organizing youth?

Supporting youth organizing versus organizing youth takes a paradigm shift. The scenarios in our first post can help organizations think about how they might be colluding in organizing youth rather than supporting youth organizing. It’s important to first understand the difference and then make the commitment to support youth organizing. It’s not something you can do part way. If you aren’t sure you or your organization can do it, don’t say you are going to. Don’t represent your organization or project as youth led if it isn’t led by youth. A huge part of it is letting go of control, power and resources. If you are trying to support youth organizing but hold all the purse strings, it undermines youth power. Challenge yourself as individuals and as groups or organizations to examine what fears, feelings, or frustrations come up when you think about letting youth control their own project. Be honest and transparent. If you don’t think your organization is ready but you believe in supporting youth organizing, then give time, money, and/or resources to groups that are doing it. Ally ship is a huge part of this work and there are many different ways to be an ally.

Downward Dog and Dominant Paradigms: Are We Really The Change We Want To See?

As an activist and someone dedicated to working towards social change, I came to yoga as a stressed out cultural organizer and anti-violence program director. I have always been physically active as well being as involved in political organizing. For over ten years I developed self-defense curricula that had roots in traditional marital arts and progressive liberation theory. It was important for me to integrate a critical social justice framework into the various parts of my life. I brought it into how I developed and facilitated self-defense classes. It informed how I negotiated boundaries with friends, family, and co-workers. So, it made sense to me that I would think about how anti-oppression and yoga intersect, how they support each other, and even where they might oppose each other.

I have practiced yoga on and off for over twenty years and have been a more serious and dedicated yogini for the past eight years with a daily yoga and meditation practice. As an anti-violence organizer and counselor working with survivors of trauma and abuse, I have a rich history of exploring healing modalities and believe in the transformative practice of mindfulness that is at the root of both yoga and meditation. We become more powerful agents of change and more connected to each other when we learn to be in our bodies, learn to listen, to stay grounded in the midst of chaos, to not be swept away by quickly changing waves of emotion. Being mindful, non-judgmental, present, compassionate, and intentional with our words and actions can help us in all areas of our life.

The ideals, philosophies, principles, and practices of yoga and meditation can transform individuals, communities and institutions. These same qualities can help us engage in movement building while being a powerful force for social change. Social change and liberation is not, however, what is happening in most yoga classes. When I ask people how their yoga practice and/or meditation practice helps them create social change, interrupt racism and oppression, or dismantle systemic and institutional oppression, I am often met with a blank stare or a pat response along the lines of, Yoga helps me as an individual, which is part of changing the world.” Or, “My time on the mat is about me and my body.
This is not a bad or incorrect response. It’s fantastic that yoga helps people stay committed to human rights and social change work. Our ability to stay committed matters tremendously when burnout and secondary trauma drain our most dedicated folks. But this simple answer strikes me to what is really a more complex exploration of how we can connect the qualities, principles, and ideals of yoga and meditation practice to social change.

In most yoga studios there is not an intentional or articulated link made between what individuals or yoga communities are studying and practicing and social justice. Individual students, teachers, and studios may do this work on their own, and indeed some are with brilliant skill and success, but as a community of practitioners, we are not having this dialogue. In response to my question of how we connect yoga to social change, a fellow yogi suggested that oppression was simply ideology and that enlightenment allows you to see through or beyond oppression—ergo seeking enlightenment by practicing yoga and meditation is in and of itself moving beyond oppression. This perspective ignores the historical, cultural, and institutional legacy of oppression and supposes that we can somehow disengage from it (once we are enlightened enough to see it). The fact that I can see institutional racism or homophobia occurring in my workplace, family gatherings, or daily life means little if I am not equipped to interrupt and challenge it. 

Yoga is still an exclusive practice, accessible to mostly white middle class people. Even when I go into Chicago to my teacher's studio to take his classes, a studio that is in a hip, diverse area, the majority of students are white.[1] This lack of cultural diversity is one of the pressing issues of North American yoga, says Tawanna Kane, Because if the yoga community fails to reach out to people of color, or the poor, or the physically challenged, yoga could become simply another expensive pastime of the privileged.[2] Yoga Journal's 2003 study discovered that at least 15 million people practice yoga in the US with over 30% of them earning an annual household income of $75 000 or more, and 15% making over $100,000. The same research found that nearly 50% of people doing yoga have completed a college education and an additional 40% have some college education or hold an associate degree.[3]
In a place where people are seeking liberation and enlightenment, it’s important to include critical conversations around access, power, privilege, and oppression. There can be a “love sees no color” mindset in many yoga communities. This mindset is rooted in an ideal of equality and multiculturalism that may actually uphold racism and white supremacy by ignoring its systemic and historical nature. If we celebrate difference without understanding the role power plays, we inadvertently risk supporting systems of oppression. A work place can celebrate the diversity of their community while not addressing how institutional racism or sexism play out in who gets hired, fired, promoted, or salary and compensation decisions, for example. We are not all equally different in our relationship to systems of oppression.

I do not mean to speak poorly of yogi’s and yogini’s. There are some amazing, diverse, and culturally competent yoga studios linking social change, justice and personal asana practice. I am one of the many white yoginis after all and most of us do yoga to become better people. We appreciate how yoga helps up participate in our relationships with more humanity, respect and dignity. There is a true and deep desire to “do good” in most yoga practices. But unchecked, a white person’s idea of “doing good” can actually involve doing harm. Privilege may allow you to be unaware of things that other people see very clearly. Privilege allows us access to things we don’t even think about in terms of access. As a white woman, I can choose to be surrounded mostly if not entirely, by white people for example. I don’t have to worry about being the only white person in a work or personal situation unless I choose to. If I do end up being the only white person at a work place, social event, or yoga class and I feel uncomfortable, I can be sure to find understanding and support. An informative article on understanding white privilege is Peggy’s Macintosh’s, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” There are other ways privilege plays out in our daily lives. I can choose to prioritize yoga. I can choose to buy organic foods. I can choose to leave work at home and say yes the personal is political but right now I get “time off.” These are privileges not everyone has access to.

Saying that we don’t have to (or shouldn’t) bring social justice, social change, or anti-oppression into our ninety minutes on our mat is something not every one has the luxury of doing. While an hour and a half to get away from your regular life and focus on your body, your breath, develop non-attachment and cultivate qualities of compassion, dedication, patience, and peace is an amazing thing, let’s be real—it’s a privilege. Not just because it’s often expensive, located in parts of town that are not accessible to certain community members, but also because there exists an unspoken acquiescence to suspend any notion of having to do social change/social justice work while we practice yoga. This means we are asking people who are targets of oppression (of all kinds) to enter a space we have designated as an anti-oppression free zone and feel safe enough to let go, breath and be vulnerable. That we ask them to do this not by addressing oppression specifically, but by suspending discussion of it silences people and ignores the reality of their experience.

What do we do? How do you interrupt racism, homophobia, sexism, ableism, or any other oppression in the context of a yoga class? How do you bring it in the room and on the mat with you? How do you do this while not chasing your monkey mind? There isn’t one right way, but it starts with acknowledging that we can’t separate our yoga practice from our activism. It also involves challenging the notion that simply doing yoga, seeking enlightenment, or meditating is enough to create social change. Here are some ideas. These are a place to start, not a floor plan to how to do it right—just like yoga, it’s a process and the process is just as important as the goal.

Start a discussion group

Meet once a week, once a month to talk about these things. You can bring questions of your own, or develop questions from articles and anti-oppression trainings.

Some questions you can start with include:
1. Why is it important to make links between yoga, meditation, oppression and privilege? What do I gain if we do this work? What do I lose if we do not do this work?
2. Why do I think these discussions are not happening at yoga studios on a regular basis? What can I do to change that?
3. How can each of the eight limbs of yoga contribute to undoing oppression?
4. What are three things I can commit to doing as a yoga practitioner that will support social change?
5. How can this discussion group support social change?

Read anti-oppression and Buddhism/yoga articles together and discuss how they connect, contradict, or support each other. 

A list of books to get you started that address oppression, privilege, and power include: A People’s History of The United States by or You Can’t Stay Neutral On A Moving Train by Howard Zinn, Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Loewen, White Lies by Maurice Berger, Transliberation by Leslie Feinberg, Teaching Community A Pedagogy Of Hope by Bell Hooks, In The Time Of The Right- Reflections On Liberation by Suzanne Pharr, We Are All Suspects Now by Tram Nguyen, The Compassionate Life by The Dalai Lama, The Darker Nations and The Karma Of Brown Folk by Vijay Prashad, The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, The White Boy Shuffle by Paul Beatty, Kindred by Octavia Butler, White Like Me by Tim Wise, The Sprit Catches You And You Fall Down by Anné Fadiman. Some book about yoga, Buddhism might include books by Pema Chödrön, Thich Nhat Hanh, the Dalai Lama, Light on Yoga by BKS Iyengar.

Ask your yoga studio/instructors to support community as part of their yoga practice and philosophy. Many yoga classes and teacher trainings are inaccessible for people. Things like childcare, location, scheduling for single parents and those who do not live near by, language, access for those with different physical abilities, are just a few examples. Doing trades or barter for fees is a great idea but unless in takes into account that the working poor often have both less time and money, it does little to make things more accessible. Look into supporting yoga classes in places that already serve communities that don’t have access to your studio. Think about sliding scale teacher trainings, or scholarships, or donating an instructor training slot. Support local leadership and local community healing that are already going on.

Don’t bring yoga to at-risk youth without doing your homework (and don’t use the term “at risk” youth—it’s deficit language that locates the problem within the individual rather than with social political, and economic systems). Setting up a yoga class for “at risk”[4] youth of color may seem like a great way to do good work, but white people risk reinforcing a culture of white privilege/white supremacy, even while sharing vales of love and respect. If we try to “help” people let go of anger that is truly righteous, for example, without understanding the depth of it, without realizing the pain it holds, and the history it speaks, we risk punishing people for their truth—which our privilege blinds us to, which is hardly a Buddhist moment.

Don’t do this work alone. Take responsibility to educate yourself but don’t expect others who are targets of oppression to educate you. Rather than ask them to help you, ask them what you can do to support them. If you can do it, do it!

Have fun! This is challenging work. If we take it (and ourselves) too seriously, we will undoubtedly burn out. Being committed to undoing oppression doesn’t mean you can’t seek contentment. It means your contentment is in part connected to undoing oppression!

We can’t refuse or give up our privilege. We can, however, choose how we are who we are. We can choose to be honest, transparent, accountable, and committed to dismantling oppression. Yoga and meditation are amazing tools to do this work. They bring us into our bodies. They help us deepen our understanding of the world around us, ourselves, and our relationships. They challenge us to be more open, accepting, caring, vulnerable, and giving. They are invaluable as a healing modality. Both yoga and meditation allow us to cultivate an inner compassionate witness. Being able to be a compassionate witness with the tools and means to act according to values around human rights and social justice are at the root of anti-oppression work. Yoga and meditation can enrich our work, our lives, our relationships, and our selves. It is up to us where and how we want to grow. I hope we choose to grow towards a liberation that includes an understanding of power and privilege and moves us towards social change that includes each and every one of us.

[1] The color of yoga, Linda’s Yoga Journal, August 2007

[2] Personal, Political, Everyday Yoga, by Lesley Marian Neilson. Ascent Magazine , Fall 2004

[3] Diversity in yoga: what do studies say? By Juniper Glass, Ascent Magazine , Fall 2004

[4] The term “at risk” can be undermining and offensive. It is not people who are “at risk”, but institutions, and systems that create environments that perpetuate modes of surviving that from the outside get labeled ‘at risk”.

Notes on Coping


To deal effectively with something difficult

Basic survival in this world requires super heroes with coping super powers

Super power symptoms of survival include: self-medicating, self mocking, self love, self sustaining, sustaining a self

No small thing in a world that obliterates the self, disconnecting, redefining re-labeling, repackaging multiple selves in order to sell


And diseases.

Diagnosing with little regard for complicated social context and legacies of dis-inclusion

It’s pathological to express homicidal thoughts and yet we celebrate cutthroat CEO’s who takes people out in order to get to “the top”

There are degrees and diplomas in cutthroat CEO-man ship

There are reality shows lauding these kinds of selves

Creating glass ceilings sharp enough to cut a soul in half just for dreaming of moving beyond its shinny surface

It’s symptomatic to talk to yourself, but whom do you talk to when no one is listening?

If a woman screams and no one hears her, does it still make a sound?

When you are marginalized and disenfranchised listening to yourself becomes a radical super power…

Our super heroes are everywhere…hidden in corners, camouflaged in plain sight, perched precariously on the ledge, drably draped in defenses deflecting their wicked-swift super power-ness, held captive in imaginations dulled by prime time and too much prime rib, stuck in the childhood of collective unconscious, frozen like kids paying freeze tag…waiting, breath held tightly in the deep bottom pockets of both lungs, for us to notice them, to look up or down or left or right and see them: the 7 year old girl with the sassy smirk and black sharpie marks on her fingernails; the adolescent boy next door who’s always picking up pieces of string; the teenage gangster with the soft sideways stare; the housewife hiding behind her bottle of pinot noir; the garbage man who nods back even though he wasn’t acknowledged in the fist place; the waiter and waitresses who plunk down food and coffee, cocktails and unconditional sustenance day after day to an endless parade of mostly ungrateful and half conscious people; the toll booth operator who knocks you on your ass when she smiles and hands back your change with three inch long bright blue nails with yellow and white daisies on them; the overweight girl who hides in the back of the classroom behind a curtain of black hair doodling pictures of Dalmatians wearing sunglasses; the bus driver who breaks up fights at midnight on her number 10 bus route with a sigh as long as winter…

These are our super heroes who whisper stories of hope into the silent shadow of our deepest self waiting desperately to be heard, to be allowed to speak a truth that has been digitally manipulated beyond recognition like the thighs of super models or the skin tone of our local news anchor

They whisper blustery, mischievous and marvelous stories of courageous, tenacious, and audacious humanity

The grace of a three-year-old dealing effectively with fingers being where they should not be by splitting off from his body and developing another person inside his person who takes care of him

The grace of a gay man being beaten by his lover, who finally punches back and dares to challenge the question, “Doesn’t that mean it’s not really domestic violence because you’re two guys and you took a swing at him too?”

The grace in the ability to fold into ourselves to expand beyond measure inside our skin so we can hide quietly for days in a closet in order to not be found.

The grace of a fist raised in the air in silent opposition to subjugation with so long a history that some have absorbed the myth that oppression is normal, like the air we breathe. But the fist remains an unsettling beacon reminding us that there is, in fact, a different way to be

This coping is phenomenal.

A remarkable silent witness to the versatile, creative and captivating epitomes of survival and resistance.

When a wolf gnaws her own paw off when it’s caught in a steal trap, this is brilliant snarled gnashing coping.

When a little girl, whose pain remains unnamed, ignored and dismissed feels that pain begin to swell inside her like a rising wave, and so she lashes out kicking and cutting, banging and punching hoping someone will hurt her enough to make the pain stop…this is coping.

When a woman is told to be quiet so many times that she learns to hold language inside her like a cyst, letting it feed on silence so she doesn’t forget how to speak, this is tragic and brilliant coping.

And all of us, each and every superhero struggling to gain purchase inside our collective souls has some bad-ass coping to do…we have to tangle with toxic air and toxic baby toys; a food chain poisoned by greed and psychological chains disguised as pharmaceuticals; prisons inside institutions and businesses inside prisons; we, all of us, need to remain compassionate while holding ourselves accountable for every last micro moment of abuse and hate

These superheroes inside us, who are holding their breath are ready to exhale and they are as recondite as the methods of our survival and healing and they love the complicated messy humanness of our coping. They, like all of us can, have learned to love the brilliant tangled mystery in a web of humanity, that while suffering tremendously still dares to dream big and bold and brilliantly of a coping that takes us beyond survival, beyond managing and management towards a vision of liberation where coping is not a superhero but a pedestrian rite of passage into a world that is capable of loving all of us. Equally.