on the road again

i have been traveling a lot this past few weeks. the ruckus camp was incredible, and then i was at web of change up off the coast of british columbia, which was fascinating.

i sat on a panel at web of change which really challenged me – which is righteous i suppose because it was called Our Challenge, and the 3 of us were talking about what we see as the key challenges of this time. there ended up being a real sense of a dichotomy on the panel, which i didn’t expect. one panelist spoke of the importance of failing and being able to admit it and learn from it – michael silberman – i thought this was SO important. if we could see our failures as an equally important (or more important) part of our experiment at living/organizing than our wins, i think we could grow.

the other 2 of us…i think it felt like a reform vs revolution conversation (with me holding down the revolution part)…or maybe an electoral vs community organizing thing. but for me it was really a lesson in how to communicate what i am feeling and thinking about right now, which feels like it goes beyond those old dichotomies. i want us to think deeply about what we really mean by success, and no matter what type of work we are doing – electoral, community organizing, reform, revolution, or work that may not be called organizing – that we are embodying a new way of relating to each other, to the way we think of “success/winning”. i feel hopeless when i see how many of the oppressive practices we say we are trying to change/stop that we are actively engaging in within our organizations and campaigns. even if we are doing electoral/reform level work, are we challenging the models that we know are not working? or we doing work that is DEEP, or just trying to get as big as possible without knowing what we are leading folks towards?

i loved the level of conversation we got to have at web of change, but i am still really worried about our collective eagerness to scale everything up without actually practicing it at a small and deep level – like in our organizations. i see so many organizations where we don’t practice transparency around money or power, and yet we want to gain control over the money and power of our cities, states, country. i see so many of us resort to emotional manipulation and violence in order to move our ideas forward at an organizational level, and then we want to talk about nonviolence and cooperation between nations and in our domestic and foreign policies. its not that our desires are wrong, i just don’t think we can get there wishing/hoping/demanding it of others…i think we have to “transform ourselves to transform the world” as grace lee boggs says.

i will publish my notes from web of change before this week is out.

my trip to ny was wonderful because the whole time it was like – i am not an ED of anything, so i can just see my friends for once!! so that’s all i did, one deep conversation after another, which a few hours at the russian baths thrown in. totally indulgent and awesome and i spent a lot of time walking and feeling glam like i only do in ny, paris and tokyo.

now i am at the common fire board meeting, which is already a good and challenging space for me. we’re on a gorgeous farm in upstate ny where the leaves are all turning into gorgeous shades of sun and fire. rain and wind are my constant companions these days, and this place is no exception.

learning and thinking about what it means to form communities that are intentional about sharing resources, centering the wisdom and experience of impacted communities…this feels like my most octavia butler work. but its also hard, because i am wondering how those communities can serve folks like me who are more nomadic, naughty, occasionally glam, urban, folks who don’t want to have a bunch of house meetings as the main way of being in relationships, folks who do long to change. i’ll keep you posted on how it goes.

tonight one of our board members, esther, who is one of the most inspiring women i have ever met – she lives a zero waste life in a forest home with no electricity and at 57 is the healthiest person i know, all of which she learned from her life as a peasant, not from sustainability theory…she led our opening ceremony, and she said, “if you are moving with spirit, listening to spirit, then you are going in the right direction.” this was so perfect for me to hear because i don’t know how to describe the magnitude of what i am being called to do, but i do feel like its an operation of faith, of listening, of following feelings more than logic. it’s marvelous.

we went through the four agreements tonight, toltec wisdom brought to today’s masses by don miguel ruiz. the agreements are always liberating for me, bring such peace into my life when i actually bring them to mind:

– always do your best
– be impeccable with your word
– don’t make assumptions
– don’t take things personally

simple to say, harder to practice, liberating to embody.

oh my goodness all the feelings

yesterday i ended up alone for a very long time and it was totally a gift. (a gift i gave myself when i forgot my passport and messed up all my travel plans…) i suppose i needed all that room to even begin to deal with how wide open my life feels in front of me.

i started writing this from the airport closest to our ruckus camp. tuesday was my last day as the executive director of ruckus…it’s been a 5 year journey so far, and i am going to join the board so it continues, but its a major major transition for me, and for my beloveds in ruckus.

warning before you read any further: i am feeling so many feelings!!

all week, as we camped in the cold and rain, not showering because of the chill wet that would follow, huddling around the campfire, volunteering in the kitchen, playing with gorgeous big dogs between deep conversations on how to really DO this revolutionary work, watching our participants learn community-based strategy and action skills, i was reflecting on what i have learned from ruckus:

to do things right when no one is looking.

to look for work that needs to be done, to revel in the impersonal joy of being useful.

to be fearless with your body when doing the work of justice.

to be vigilant about any hypocrisy between words and actions because that is the space where meaninglessness festers.

i learned that i have an instinct to run from trouble, but stronger than that is a capacity to stay where i am needed, (as long as we’re all being honest).

now that this moment has come it is absolutely bittersweet, mostly because i LOVE the people of ruckus, i put them way up on a pedestal as a network of just damn good people.

i’m feeling the combination of future-missing my interactions with them, combined with my excitement for the spaciousness that is entering my life.

at some point on my journey yesterday – i think in toronto – i saw the moon dominating a setting-sun-sky. it was the first day of fall, of letting go of all cover and stripping down to the spare self that survives the winter. that spareness of season, juxtaposed with the moon, which looked like everything at once to me – reflection and holy light and fat and beaming (i could have missed a flight looking at her) – that felt like what i am feeling.

when i travel i get to deeply indulge in music. my soundtrack right now includes bilal’s incredible new album Airtight’s Revenge. One song, All Matter, is like a meditation on being at peace with every single thing about existence:

We’re all the same
and all so very different
Divine by design,
it all intertwines
Ain’t nothing new
but it’s always changing, movin’
Still waters soft yet so hard
You ain’t even gotta try,
all you gotta do is realize
It’s all matter
A speck of dust in this vast universe
Just like a raindrop
in the sea of consciousness
It’s all matter…
It’s everything it ought to be
It’s everything it needs to be, ok
Don’t stand in the way
You’ll only make it hard
Just keep it flowing
Flow with the ocean and you’ll be just where you should be

(this is like the soul sung version of one of my favorite pieces of writing/thinking, Hopi Elder Speaks)

the other wonderful find this trip is the roots How I Got Over. the whole album is one pleasurable set of sounds and concepts after another, but i had heard and then forgotten how amazing the title track is. its the other side of what i am wanting to remember right now:

Out on the streets
Where I grew up
First thing they teach us:
Not to give a fuck
That type of thinking can’t get you nowhere
Someone has to care.

people keep asking me what’s next for me. i don’t know the details, but it will be a continuation of my life’s work to care, and to invite/demand other people to care, and let that care (and compassion, and love) become the guiding force of our life’s actions and impact.

and that feels like the blue flame at the center of all the other wildfire emotions moving through me right now.

time to go – time for the next leg of my journey.


thrilled and chilled

i’m writing from a laundromat in a small town in minnesota. i’m washing the participants’ underwear and sleeping bags which got soaked in 3 torrential downpours yesterday during the ruckus society advanced action bootcamp for ecojustice.

it’s been cold and beautiful, rainy and challenging.

i have to say that i am deeply thrilled by the level of conversations and skills being shared in this space. we started off with the Ruckus Action Framework, a collective work that has been in the process of development and practice for the last 5 years. the framework is fairly simple:

1. ruckus comes where we’re called.
2. ruckus supports action where the community is the leader of the strategy, vision and execution.
3. we support action that builds and creates space
4. we support actions where the vision is more compelling than the injustice (what we are FOR is more compelling than what we are AGAINST)
5. no social movement in history has succeeded without direct action and we must step up to our role now
6. “transform yourself to transform the world” (grace lee boggs). we must be the organizational model of the change we wish to see in the world.

we covered this and folks got to reflect on how that framework intersects with their work. we also covered movement generation’s ecojustice powerpoint, and then had a powerful conversation on allies and impacted communities, led by some of the most respected indigenous organizers in the country, heather milton-lightning, kandi mossett, with marty aranaydo and others contributing.

in that context, folks are now off in their tracks, focusing on arts and communications, blockades and climbing. i am focused on staying warm and taking care of folks logistics needs as the assistant to megan and sharon (camp directors and incoming co-directors of ruckus).

in a VERY cool twist, the camp medic and i have exactly matching tattoos – labyrinths on our inner right arm! its so very grounding to see how healing manifests in all kinds of choices.

ok – time to fold clothes and get back to camp. brrr. send love and wishes for warmth. 🙂

this one’s for you mom

my mom recently reminded me that she reads my blog. when she first told me this, years ago, my main content was heartbreak and my wild ny life. i was flummoxed and then promptly put it out of my mind.

now, she reads to see how i am doing.

so i want to tell you how i am doing.

while you were in town, i woke up the morning after my birthday overcome with gratitude. i sat in the bathroom and wept, thinking about what an incredible mom you are.

i am here because of you on so many levels. the obvious one – you falling in love with my (black) dad in the 70s in south carolina, carrying me within you for 9 months, your day long labor – thank you (and sorry) 🙂

but what i was thinking of was all the times i have called you because i wasn’t sure i wanted to stay here, i was depressed, i was going through something, i was high, i was empty – and you listened, and you didn’t judge, and you invited me to come home and be taken care of.

knowing i could always come be loved has created this incredible grounding in my life. you believing in the miracle of my life has been a reminder to look beyond the moment, to look deeper within myself, to have faith again.

and you are fun, vibrant, curious – you are politically astute, but not stuck in any point of view. you are interested in the world around you, understanding that it is complex and there is much more gray than black and white.

you are such a good mom that my friends also come to you. for years now i have had friends ask for your email, spill everything 3 minutes after they met you, finding wisdom and comfort in your words and energy. i have friends who i am pretty sure stuck it out with my ridiculous behind so that they could have access to you!

i remember us going for a swim, and telling you i was seeing a girl, and instead of drowning in shame or shock you went straight to curiosity and reflection. you spoiled me into thinking it would always be easy to come out to people, and then you supported me when it wasn’t.

and though some might say the depth of our connection is because i am your firstborn, you are just as thoughtful and interested and supportive and engaged a mother with both of my sisters, finding the little and big things that let them know you support our independence, our learning, our happiness.

on top of that you are an amazing daughter – i have witnessed you extending Papa’s life by engaging his best self through the sickness; being a witness to the work and slow grief that Mema goes through.

you are an amazing wife, a steadfast and uplifting friend – i have watched how you consistently lean in and increase your commitment when your friends go through rough patches.

i love you. you are just a wonderful person.

thank you for reading my blog, thank you for the attention, love, support, laughter, devotion, hours of talking over each other to share everything, and for knowing when and how to be my friend and my mother.

love you!

How to Be an Executive Director

I wrote this up a few weeks ago as part of the Ruckus Society transition and thought it might be useful to publish it here. Enjoy:

How to Be an Executive Director (from someone who never wanted the job):

1. Get a coach and/or a learning environment where you will be able to vent about how impossible things are (either a leadership development program like Rockwood or Social Justice Leadership, or start/join a Women’s ED circle, or EDs of color, etc).

2. Be able to articulate what you are bringing to the table, and your limitations. Because it is an impossible job, there will be parts you don’t do well. The cost/benefit analysis is important – are you helping or a hindrance to the organization?

3. Join a board or two where you will be forced to have interactions with people of means and influence (be clear that your primary fundraising obligation is to your organization, so you will help in other ways).

4. Identify a few of your funders who you can/do have authentic relationship with and get them in your corner. They will keep you supported and sane through the lean times, and give you honest feedback on what is and isn’t working.

5. Cherish and stay in touch with your community outside of your work to keep you grounded politically and socially – this will help you stay in touch with the true impact of your work. I have a circle of friends to whom I explain things that Ruckus is doing. The reactions they have – laughing, confusion, or dropping their jaws in awe – that helps me gauge our impact in the civilian world.

6. Write every single day – force yourself to get comfortable being a public voice on your own terms, not just in other people’s interviews. I (obviously) recommend having a blog.

7. When doing media, know your do-or-die talking points (Ruckus is a network, directly impacted people are our priority, we cultivate leadership from communities, direct action is relevant when used strategically – these have been mine through the past 5 years). There’s nothing wrong with asking print media to email you questions, and writing your responses, to increase clarity.

8. Understand the strengths and weaknesses of your predecessor(s). Don’t try to fill their shoes, you are walking your own path. However, absolutely put them to work to earn any ongoing adulation folks have for them – instead of resenting them or putting them on a pedestal of awesome you can never attain, see that person’s humanity and make it work for the good of the organization.

9. Be compassionate with yourself – you are totally going to fuck up big things.

10. Be hardest on yourself – as long as you sit in that role, you are responsible for the survival and well being of the organization.

11. Automate organizational development. Build in set times throughout the week, month and year for accountability and awkward, in-depth conversation. Otherwise this slips to the wayside and resentment and/or unintentional practices become the norm.

12. Never do anything to indicate that your role is more important than anyone else’s in the organization – you have the responsibility to hire, fire and manage, someone else has the responsibility to make the program happen, someone else drafts budgets, etc. All that work is equally valuable and should take nearly equivalent time. Never have an assistant unless everyone else does. (This is aspirational but where else are we going to learn new ways of holding power?)

13. Actually do exercises with your team to practice media talking points, speeches, elevator pitches. Ask other organizations who do well to coach you. Never be above learning to do better for the sake of the communities you serve.

14. Don’t get too caught up in the games of people with more financial resources than you. Let them drink, let them smoke weed, let them get naked in the hot tub; do only what you feel comfortable doing (which may be all of those things, or none). Don’t lose your composure – as long as they give only a portion of their resources, you are not in authentic community with them, you are in a power dynamic and you need to be fully aware of your choices and their actions. (***Many of them are amazing, wonderful, compassionate people trying to do well…and some will take advantage of your need, especially of women, POC directors)

15. Don’t cultivate a spirit of gossip in your organization, about people or other organizations. It’s toxic, and translates into a long list of reasons to hate people, rather than growing solidarity and an evolving community and movement – which should be our constant goal.

16. I learned this by doing it the wrong way several times…if you think someone isn’t a fit for the organization, a) give them really clear feedback, b) give them a period to improve, (and if it isn’t working), c) let them go swiftly and with loving kindness so they can move on to a place where they fit and you can focus on meeting the needs of the organization.

17. Do excellent work. Have high standards around the integrity and impact of the actual work – spend more time doing great work than you do writing grant proposals and talking about the kind of great work you could do.

18. Hire people who you think are more brilliant and capable of you, and then actively develop them as leaders and give them opportunities to grow. You should have a few options of leaders who could move up internally into holding the Executive Director duties, and they should know you believe in them and be a part of shaping the way the organization acts and feels.

19. Make sure the other members of your team (note: seeing yourself as part of a team instead of the shepherd or bright shining hope will always help) get the attention and praise they deserve for the work they do, publicly and privately.

20. Have fun. You are still a miraculous being so every moment of the time should feel vibrant, educational, not like you are biding time or wasting your life force. You are so fortunate and radical to get paid to spend time bringing justice into the world. Enjoy it!

I’m sure there’s more, but those are the things that stand out at this moment.

It’s been a huge honor to learn all of this. Thank you Ruckus.

birthday eve

i am deep in the throes of my birthday week. this means – my dreams are incredibly vibrant and otherworldly right now, my parents are in town to celebrate with me, and i am reflecting a huge amount on me, myself, and i.

here’s my self-reflection/assessment:

1. overall, healthiest i have ever been. (yay!) not thinnest, or sveltest, or prettiest, or whatever else…but given that i have been suicidal, have been an over eater, have been terrified of my own mind, have been an addict (say it aloud) and self-abuser (own it) – and at this moment i am eating well, exercising, expressing my needs and desires, saying no, saying YES!, being really deeply patient with myself – i’m Good at a deeper level than i have experienced before.

2. loving and being loved is the most important work in the world. it isn’t easier than being single, as i so proudly and adamantly was for so long. it isn’t better than being single, and it isn’t worse. it’s a new learning environment that changes daily. it’s miraculous to me each and every day, the quality of people who love me. i don’t know if people at the point of love are always so amazing, but i know i am surrounded by the most brilliant, beautiful, fabulous and deeply good people in the world.

3. being an auntie is The Best Job Ever.

4. Best. Job. EVER!! and it’s mine!!

5. i thank science, love, and the stars for the gift of being a virgo. i don’t care if there is no truth to it – being a virgo for me is a huge relief, a cosmic reason for all the logic and systems and order and blessed beautiful functions of my observant brain. do i observe too much – in myself and others? absolutely. tons of seemingly useless information piles up and becomes narrative in my little mind. BUT – then i do things with all that information. i read people, i feel places, i create systems. i trust my mind. i trust myself to not know and to ask questions. i encourage you all to access your inner virgo, just for a moment, in the spirit of celebrating my birth.

6. forgiveness and compassion are more useful skills to develop and master than vengeance and anger, and i am on the path. those latter passions make me feel shaky and alive and overwhelmed and hopeless. but each time i forgive, or act from compassion, it literally soothes me, fills me up, makes me feel more whole.

7. reading science fiction, the buddha, vandana shiva, deepak chopra, and margeret wheatley is a better use of my time than reading the headlines any given day.

8. my life is good. i recognize the privilege of the family i was born into because its a love-based family – we didn’t have much other than love, but that was beyond enough.

9. i love to write, and i am blessed that others love to read what i write. that’s a calling.

10. i’m not done finding ways to have a fantastic life, but so far i know that it entails living simply, living fabulously, being healthy, showing radical love for every person you encounter, treating your body as the most sacred space in your life, letting go, having faith, and choosing joy.

happy birthday eve to me!

my sister autumn’s newsletter is incredible this month

by autumn brown

Hello Good People!

The transition to our new life here in the great MN continues. We’ve spent the month of August swimming in the lake, harvesting incredible produce from the garden, and putting food up for the winter. In the last few weeks I have canned Yellow Tomato Jam, Corn Chowder, and many jars of Arabiatta Sauce. It is the most satisfying kind of work: hard and finite. I look forward to the taste of summer that I will treat myself to in November, December, January, and on.

And like any transition, I find myself thinking very hard about things that are very hard to think about. Yesterday Sam took me and Finn and Siobhan on a long walk through a restored wetland protected and cultivated by Saint John’s University. We walked slowly on a tilting boardwalk through the tall grasses and shallow green water smelling of manure, that fecund smell of deteriorating biomatter. The boardwalk became a path through dark Eastern Hardwoods. And just beyond the ridge I could see another forest begin, the white grey of the boreal forest. Sam tells me this collision of forests is the mark of biodiversity resulting from living at the very point where the glaciers descended and would go no further. Our path continued into a restored Oak Savanna and Prairie melange. At that point, the mosquitoes became ferocious and I was no longer waxing poetic.

But I came away feeling very deeply this same sense I have had now for months – that I am standing in the flow of time, and watching it stretch out behind me and watching it stretch out before me. And there are small signs – how my hands are beginning to age. And there are very very big signs – how my three month-old daughter can laugh and stare and seem to see right through me. How in a weird way, my son Finn seems to know me better than anyone (is that a first kid thing?). I feel lucky and I despair my own death, and I feel carefree and I am burdened by choices, all at the same time. Now isn’t that living?

Then this morning I am listening to MPR, hearing the economy defined as “everything that people make and do and buy and sell,” and it occurs to me again how insane capitalism is when you consider how precious and finite life is. The very idea that a people’s economy – that which creates and impacts a family’s livelihood – could be predicated on how many unnecessary things can be invented, patented, produced, marketed, sold, bought, consumed, accumulated, wasted, and thrown away. It is curious as a practice, but it is appalling that such a practice can be defended or worse: normalized.

I am reading an incredible story, The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin, of his journey through Australia in the effort of understanding the Aboriginal’s practice of singing their country and keeping it alive and whole through the continued songs that march every inch of ground. The book was written in the early 80’s. Hear this message from one of the white men Chatwin spoke to while on his journey: “Today, he said, more than ever before, men had to learn to live without things. Things filled men with fear. The more things they had, the more they had to fear. Things had a way of riveting themselves on to the soul and then telling the soul what to do.”

And later, a central figure in the book, Arkady says, “The world, if it has a future, has an ascetic future.”

So I am challenging myself to an ascetic future, to consider how to do more making and doing, more remaking and trading and giving, and less buying and selling and accumulating and throwing away. More generosity, and less hoarding. Now isn’t that living?

In Transit

So last week was a highpoint in my Ruckus life – we had an event to celebrate the transition of the organization from having me as Executive Director to having a leadership team, with the two staff members being two women who I have been through the struggle with me for the last few years. They know how much I wanted to escape when times got hard – each time it got hard – and then what it meant to stay – what it meant for each of us to ride through the economic and structural transformation of Ruckus. Now they are so ready for the next phase, and I get to be on the board!

We are in the midst of a near perfect transition. We’ve spent nearly two years making decisions as a team so they know what it’s like to carry the responsibility for the economic and programmatic well-being of the organization. We’ve mapped out roles, responsibilities, relationships, and they are starting their own authentic relationships with key folks in the Ruckus galaxy…it’s literally like a thrillingly smooth effort.

I don’t have time to write much here, but I just want to document, to myself, that this happened, and is possible.