intentions of a fellow

last night i landed for the first night of this 18 month process of being a BALLE fellow, continuing my work with the detroit food justice task force.

this opportunity came to me from someone who had been aware of my work and my love of detroit, and saw a connection i didn’t see. BALLE is a network of networks focused on growing ‘local living economies’, encouraging businesses and organizations to deepen and center the value on life, health, place and sustainability in their idea of business success. with this fellowship, i get to work with the task force to build skills around growing a local living food economy in detroit.

i am going on four years of living in detroit, seven years of loving what is and could be in the city. the initial awe and rush has passed, and more and more i see the scale of healing and work really needed. this work needs to be done with intention. here are my intentions as i begin this part of the journey:

to attend to the body. this effort is a way to nourish the living bodies of detroit – the baby bodies, elder bodies, activist bodies, mama bodies, worker bodies, wounded bodies. i intend that we who are constantly made aware of the toxic environment are given nourishment, and to begin that, that i do this work in a way that nourishes me.

to be creative. so much of our work in detroit is defensive, with communities, individuals and land under constant attack. being creative in those conditions can seem impossible, and yet it is precisely the reason why communities have survived in detroit these past few decades. fortunately i work with immensely creative and hardworking people. i will bring back the skills i learn and figure out creative ways to apply that to the brilliance already afoot in the city.

to be undaunted by the idea of citywide success. i dream of 700k people with access to and desire for healthy local food, one block, one neighborhood, one school at a time. i believe it is young people who will make this desirable.

to document everything so this can be a model in practice for other cities, and so other folks in detroit can see what we are attempting and learning.

to reach beyond the choirs. there are choirs everywhere – activist choirs, entrepreneur choirs, worker choirs, artist choirs. i hope this work allows people to see that there are so many pieces of the solution for the city, that we must learn to heal together, work together, have tension with each other, be honest with each other, grow together – that where we can bring together sweat, analysis, vision and justice, we can begin to inhabit a future that is abundant, that serves us all.

to be interconnected. food is a beginning place for me, a thriving place for detroit, and it connects to every other aspect of survival, depends on so many other shifts. i will stay complex.

to be accountable. the task force has done beautiful work of naming assumptions, growing vision, constantly returning to the focus on community rather than organization, movement rather than program. i see myself as a part of that whole in this process, bringing my learnings back to be integrated into the efforts and vision and work of the task force.

wish me luck, and please continue connecting me with folks who share these passions!

Reflections on miracle work

The most important things in life are breathing, sleeping, eating, and letting go of what you don’t need.

It really works to use the right words for the situation. ‘Yes’ ‘down’ and ‘open’, for instance, are great words, chants, guides for a birth.

Love at first sight is possible, in context. When I first saw her, I saw my whole lineage in her strong body swimming through the tub towards her mama. I started crying because love opened me.

There are ways to be strong even when you can do nothing on your own, even when you need many hands to hold you. This child has dignity, as do her strong and vulnerable parents.

The most radical gift one human can offer another is encouragement to listen to themselves, their bodies, their own knowing.

The beauty of children encouraged to feel – it’s a perfect tender beauty. Watching my nephew and niece fiercely miss their mama as she attends to their new sister, and be able to say so, is emotionally thrilling.

Some feelings are so big they require me to go outside. I keep going to bring in more wood so I can smile in the snow and let my body move around all this massive love in my heart.

Anxiety is not useful in miracle work.

It takes about two hours to heat enough water on a stove to fill a birth tub and have it around 96°.

An apron with pockets is a great uniform for a birth.

Delegation, done well, is an act of kindness. People of all ages and abilities long to be useful.

Patience is a gorgeous feeling. To actually feel unrushed at a cellular level, not urgent in your soul, is healing.

There are so many things we don’t understand. Lately I’ve been worrying about mortality, beginning to feel rushed and anxious about my life and my philosophies. But the patience generated as the baby was coming was a balm. She didn’t know where she was coming to, but still it was time to move beyond the known world. It was an active patience, she was not pushed only, she was working too, finding the way.

I have to think on this more, this active patience, doing my work in abundant time, with a respect for ripeness.

For the moment I am inspired by remembering my central work is like hers, to breathe/meditate, to sleep/rest, to eat/nourish, and to let go/have faith.

Welcome to my new teacher, Mairead Irene Brown Conway.

thoughts for foundations and major donors

in my work as an organizational healer, facilitator, and coach, i regularly support, both formally and informally, lots of movement leaders. one of the major trends i’ve seen over and over is folks struggling because they can’t get consistent long-term funding. if you work for a foundation, or sit on a foundation board, or even consider yourself a major donor, i would love to share some thoughts with you on ways you can shift this trend.

for years, leaders have been told that y’all don’t want non-profit organizations to become dependent on you.

in the general meta sense, i agree with this sentiment. it’s tragic, and not accidental, that work for change and justice is so dependent on resources generated by the system it most needs to change.

however, that dependence is a given, it’s how the system functions. breaking that dependence won’t come from cultivating constant financial instability amongst the groups. it will come from getting in the work with them, being in relationships that are accountable in multiple directions over time, being part of the success of the movements themselves, and i daresay being willing to be transformed yourself.

(if you are a foundation or donor who already engages in long-term [5 year +] funding processes, then yay to you! i know y’all are out there going against the grain and you thrill me. you can stop reading this, and just toast yourselves.)

i am an abundant-minded person, and i have done fundraising work at multiple levels in movement. i’ve learned that there are finite financial resources for social justice, which tend to lessen as the work gets more specific, local, and/or radical. finding foundations and major donors like you, who actually align with the work, and are willing to fund it…let’s just say that every time it’s a major relief and a victory.

the finite-ness of the funds deepens when that funding is only offered for a year at a time, or for a limit of 1-5 years, because you don’t want to create dependence.

now one move might be to grow the pot of funds to draw from. when i was an executive director i remember wondering why social justice foundations and major donors weren’t just automatically responsible for growing the pot of resources for social justice work, instead of, or at least with, the organizers and activists. why did we all spend so much time writing, reading, submitting, and rejecting/approving grants for people who agreed with us, at least on paper? why weren’t we all mostly organizing, movement building, and resource building as a team, with folks playing a variety of positions based on access to resources and the skill set to inspire and direct giving?

to be fair, more and more foundations see this and are shape shifting and making commitments to build the relationships and do the peer educating that will grow the amount of money social justice can access through foundations and major donors, as well as shifting the power dynamics with which resources are redistributed. brava!

but growing the pot doesn’t actually liberate us all from the dynamics of privileging money over time in movements, which is what happens when foundations keep movement leaders in cycles of asking, rather than engaging in partnerships.

and there are so many foundations and donors who are still engaging in super short-term funding, some doing so even when the program officers are longing for deeper longer-term work with their grantees.

in some cases, i get it – common sense says if an organization you are funding is being mismanaged, isn’t effective, or doesn’t align with your strategy, it’s worth developing the capacity to have the hard conversations demanded in those situations. and if you can’t get to a place where your investment feels like a great choice, sure, stop funding, with clear communication to the organization.

or if you are the group’s only funder, or primary funder, and your funds aren’t in a stable place…then by all means encourage resource diversity.

but if that isn’t the case? if you are financially sound, inspired by the group’s work, think they are being well-managed or doing great self-management, and their work is strategic, if you have a relationship with them that is rewarding to you?

go deeper.

first, realize that you are one of the relatively few people/institutions that is funding this work. yay – you have the privilege of being a conscious good person with resources of your own or through your institution – and you want to use those resources in the best possible way, to support social justice. you are rare, a liger in the rough!


realize that it impacts leaders to constantly be in proposal mode about their work, trying to come up with new projects and milestones or reframes of their work, instead of getting to focus in on sustaining and growing the existing work.

realize that the moment you place a time limit on your funding (as opposed to having the future determined by the work and the relationship), most strategic movement leaders have to place you in a limited investment category of relationships. because they have to begin planning how they will sustain the work your gift helps them create.

but most importantly, realize that you could have more – you could have more authentic relationships with the people who are changing this world, if you didn’t set up temporary conditions on the front end.

you wouldn’t begin a relationship with a potential co-parent by saying ‘basically i’ma love you and the baby for 12-18 months but once that baby needs consistent sustained care? you will have to find someone else. someone just like me, who loves y’all, who really understands you and the life you want to create for this baby, but is not me. for your sake. for your independence.’

that wouldn’t go over well with most humans who want to parent.

these movements are our babies, or rather our co-creations – at least, that’s the invitation that awaits you. there is greatness, life’s work, possible for all of us, regardless of how much wealth we carry.

without the time limits and constant reapplication process, there is room for movement building. there is room for reality-based adaptive engagement and assessment of the resources needed over time.

there is room for sharing lessons from both successes and failures, without the fear that every proposal has to be flawlessly achieved. there is room to move beyond proposal thinking and into sustenance thinking.

there is room for foundations to be in community with other foundations and with movements, to co-fund efforts, to strategize over how to support thriving movements as opposed to competing organizations.

and…if you still want to see the organizations you fund pursue independence from foundations and major donors (which should be a radical intention and not the inevitable result of short-term funding) then support all of your grantees to go through the GIFT program, or something similar, which grows their capacity to generate support in other ways. and invest in those other efforts.

work is always happening on multiple levels. in the longest run, i hope we continue to fundamentally shift what movements are, how they work, how that work is measured, how we live every day and resource that living in ways that feel impeccable to our souls.

but in the meantime, it would definitely help if more foundations and donors would fully commit to what you feel is important. lengthen your attention spans, be in and of it all.

and stay open to learning. i’ll do the same.

p.s. i’d love to hear strategies from funders who have actually made this shift! or any other feedback 🙂

sometimes it takes years: travel journal nyc

i came of age in new york. i think places really shape us – i came here as a teenager to go to school and ended up staying for a decade.

i remember strutting around, ‘dressed’, walking the length of the city as an afternoon’s entertainment. here i learned fashion is a liberating force, and food has a hierarchy that had nothing to do with how a place looks, and i learned how to party and what to read. i grew up moving a lot, so i loved that this city felt larger than american, that i could lose myself in neighborhoods that felt like i had transcended borders.

yet by the time i left i felt like i had been worn down, that the city was always sweeping past me, pushing me aside, hurting people i loved, abundantly unjust, offering both too much and too little to sustain me.

being here during 9/11 was traumatizing in ways i didn’t understand, and i couldn’t shake the feeling when everyone else seemed to be moving on. when my life in the city felt too dark, busy and lonely i packed up what could fit in a rental minivan and drove to california and sunshine.

when i would visit these past six – nearly seven – years, from cali and then from detroit, i would spend much of the time in a crochety complaining place. ‘there’s too many people, too much energy, they closed my favorite this and moved my favorite that, and barclay what?, and new tower huh?’, and so on. i only came because people i loved were committed to being here for some reason, even though i explained over and over that california was sunny and detroit more affordable.

this time, though…this time i felt that original tingle, i felt the generative spark of nyc, and the style inspiration and the independence amongst millions.

this time i spent several days in harlem, and i thought:

oh i don’t want this blackness to end
harlem to the horizon
in four directions, in seven
til we remember
we are already whole

years ago, harlem gave me a first taste of what i have come to love in detroit: self-aware blackness.

i was staying just off 125th street and walking to the national black theater each day past the familiar smells and sounds of black space – isley brothers, michael jackson, public enemy, offers to braid my hair, opinions on my appearance, frankincense, egyptian musk.

i ate, slept and worked in harlem and was reminded of that aspect of new york, where you can live in a particular borough or neighborhood and be somewhat unaware of the rest of the city. the sub-island of harlem is invigorating.

getting to work for soffiyah elijah and the correctional association just blew me away. they are doing incredible and brave and meticulous work with currently and formerly incarcerated people, including a collaboration with an old columbia colleague, bryonn bain, of lyrics from lockdown at the national black theater. that space is living history! getting to facilitate there was inspiring, and i hope to be back.

when my work in harlem was done i went to the russian baths on 10th, for women’s day. as always, i wanted to be a skilled photographer allowed to capture this sort of stranger intimacy. there is so much beauty in watching women care for themselves and each other.

i had a special moment there, i saw a woman who had a similar shape and color to me, and literally gasped at how beautiful she looked in the steam in her nakedness. there is a fine line between ego and healing self-love, and i’m on it…but this felt so reaffirming – i wanted to applaud her hips and her belly. something about the experience made me blush, but we ended up speaking of it, of our beauty, and it was good.

i haven’t found places quite like the baths in the other u.s. cities i frequent, so remarkably unbougie. it feels more like the hammam i go to in paris, very old and singularly focused.

i saw some music in the city, including a piece by a new friend, nico muhly, which was inspiring and interesting. it was classical music played by this group ymusic ensemble which is working to take classical music into nontraditional spaces – they were lovely. nico has an opera opening in october which i am committing to return for.

my balancing of old friends and new isn’t quite perfect, but it’s getting better – i saw lots of evans and sofia, shane, adriana, tanji, idelisse, inca, jen, a quick taste of dream and nina, nico, natasha, sam, and reconnected with monifa.

each time i come to nyc the dance card is full, but this feels like a good problem now.

i made my way to brooklyn, generally my borough of choice. my friends have migrated as neighborhoods gentrify, and its hard not to experience microshocks to see my old neighborhoods of ft. green and bedstuy these days. some of my favorite places are closed…but there’s this app called seamless that unveils a plethora of new places…change, change, change.

for instance tonight there are so many options. one is to see karma mayet johnson singing songs from indigo. i got to see this show a couple years ago and it was stunning and powerful – a slave era lesbian love story with time travel and gorgeous music. her voice is honey.

there’s also an astrea foundation night of performances featuring the divine imani uzuri, whose album gypsy diaries was one of the best of the year, and firebrand poet staceyann chin.

if you are in ny you should definitely be at one of these events tonight. and maybe hit up freedom party after. after my big fall in december i needed to actually get walking shoes to be here – it would be nice to see if they are dancing shoes as well.

we’ll see – i have to pack, and see a few more people, and am already feeling quite satiated and delighted by this trip. i am realizing that when i came before i was trying to resist that this place which shaped so much of who i am had changed, was changing.

but in these past few years i have begun to learn, just begun, that change is a sacred and constant force. partially this is from my octavia butler scholarship, partially from grief and loss and heartbreak getting somewhat normalized, and partially from seeing all the opportunities and blessings flowing into my life as i loosen my resistance, lean into the changes.

i don’t think i will live here again anytime soon, detroit still suits my pace and titillates my movement dreaming self more than any other place. but i feel at peace on these streets again, and excited to visit often.

if octavia was right that change is god, i’m sure god keeps a residence in nyc.

2013: reminders

i resist the resolution thing. it feels like the epitome of trying instead of doing. if nothing else has changed but the number in our random count of time, then why should i expect my way of being to truly change?

and yet there are things that i know increase my quality of life, and that of my loved ones. so instead of resolutions for the year, here are some reminders:

hydration makes my skin look delicious, makes me feel limber, keeps me young, invites my body to function with ease.

yoga gives me capacity to breathe and be present in my life, and feel the longing in my limitations.

spending time with my family grounds me, focuses me on changes i can actually invest in long-term in myself and our relationships, and keeps me humble.

singing is my happy place. writing songs and poetry about my experiences in the world continues to be my primary form of journaling, if im not singing, writing, and otherwise making art, something fundamental in me has gotten too quiet.

love is abundant and healing and i know how to do it and i have so much still to learn and experience. stay open.

i am a practice ground for abundance.

i don’t know how to recreate my own miraculous existence, so i must be celebratory, tender and in awe of this body, these days, this worldview, this moment in which i am living, and these people who love me.

every day, waste less and less.