Spirited Dissent

Five activists talk about staying centered

Making social change is demanding work; progress can be slow, and personal burnout is high. These inspirational activists have chosen to travel inward for sustenance. And in so doing, they’ve found that their spiritual practice, no matter what form it takes, isn’t an escape from activism — it’s the wellspring.

Kyra Bobinet, 35, is the co-founder of Vision Youthz, a San Francisco nonprofit that helps at-risk youth build life skills and inner awareness, with programs based in schools, communities, and detention centers. A graduate of the University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine, Bobinet indefinitely postponed her research and medical career after she had a vision at the age of 24 that pushed her toward a life of service to youth.

Challenges: The biggest challenge for an activist is to be fully applied and yet not allow your effort to be fueled by negative emotions. You will burn out if you use rage, retaliation, or feelings of being the underdog to fuel your work. You need to be clean of vindication, because then you can say hard things to people in power without the extra spin of your own personal anger. For example, we work in the prison system and encounter dysfunction and disrespect from some of the staff, mostly because they are in pain themselves. I tell them when they are sabotaging our efforts to help the youth, but not with judgment or anger, because then they won’t work with me. They’ll make my life harder, my job harder, and they’ll close down my access to the youth.

Daily spiritual practices: Because of the nature of my work and because I want to respect the youths’ spirituality, I have adopted pretty much every spiritual practice there is. The most important things are silent meditation and daily mindfulness: watching my thoughts, watching my emotions pass through my body. I also do meditative walking, a toe-heel version of walking where the ball of your foot hits first, then the heel softly lands. There’s a different neurostimulation that comes from this, and it’s a softer way to walk. I’m half Native American, so it means a lot to me to have an awareness of the planet as I walk. I also pray, go on vision quests, read spiritual texts, and go to retreats and classes. You cannot be an activist without a spiritual base; without that, you wind up recreating the problem you were trying to solve.

Effect of these practices on activism and personal life: I have increased clarity and compassion and sensitivity toward others, and decreased ego demands from myself. I also have a longer lead time for strong emotions: I take longer to react and make better choices. And I definitely have increased endurance. I have more energy to work hard, and I get more done.

Simon Greer, 37, has worked as a labor and community organizer and Jewish social change leader for 15 years. At the end of a successful campaign to organize bus drivers in South Carolina in the mid-1990s, he was approaching burnout when he recalled a figure from the Hebrew Bible that represents freedom and realized that Judaism was what had brought him into the social-justice arena. The New Yorker began to think about the ways that faith and spirituality could strengthen his work. He is now executive director and CEO of the Jewish Fund for Justice, a national foundation committed to combating the root causes of poverty in America.

Challenges: The biggest challenge is the power that the religious right has built in this country. It’s a movement linked to conservative and economic policies that are transforming America and leading to worse conditions for working people and poor people. We have to stem the tide of that movement, but it’s challenging because that movement is so steeped in talk of “values.” This calls to us to reconnect with and assert our values. Often, we are in an unfortunate position in which conservatives talk about values and liberals talk about issues. The issues lose and the values win. We must reassert that values can be a force for progressive change.

Practices: I meet with a small group every Thursday, and we read a portion of the Torah, then talk about the text and our lives. I also do a meditation practice — I went a couple of years ago to an amazing seven-day Jewish meditation silent retreat — and yoga two or three times week. And this is more personal: I got married a year ago, and having an honest, loving relationship is vital to my life being balanced and whole.

Effect of these practices on activism and personal life: They keep me from becoming angry and from burning out. Public struggle, personal values, and religious practice all need to be linked to sustain us and for us to do our work well. You can bring spiritual practices into the work environment so that people remain connected to their purpose. We see a high rate of burnout among activists. People come to the work because they love the issue and they believe in the cause, but the way they’re treated by their organizations doesn’t always reflect the values that drew them to the work. We’re creating management that helps people be present and mindful.


Karen Mahon, 43, is executive director of the Hollyhock Leadership Institute, a Vancouver-based organization with a mission to reinvent social change activism so that it is deeply informed by spiritual traditions. Since she joined Hollyhock, she’s led the training of more than 2,000 activists on a variety of topics from corporate negotiations and grassroots organizing to avoiding burnout. Before this, she worked at Greenpeace Canada for 10 years in a variety of capacities, including managing director. She led Greenpeace’s successful campaigns to protect Clayoquot Sound and the Great Bear Rainforest.

Challenges: Despair and burnout, and they’re interrelated: One feeds the other. The greatest offering an activist can make is a positive vision, painting a picture of a new world and shepherding us there. But when we let despair and negativity overwhelm us, that’s not possible. A positive vision helps people do the work in a more balanced way. Activism is not a balanced lifestyle — it never has been — but it can be livable. I have an ax to grind on this because the way that many people do activism is such that you can only do it in your 20s and 30s, when you have fewer responsibilities, so that means you grow no healthy elders. Reinventing activism from a place of love means being able to have an activist culture in which you can do this as a lifelong practice.

Practices: The only thing I truly do every day — and I teach people this — is a meditation in the shower, because I know I’ll be there every day. I also do several spiritual retreats each year, sing in a weekly community choir, do yoga, and dance. I tell people to do whatever spiritual practices they can do and try to bring this into their work and into their lives. We do a little meditation before our staff meetings here.

Effect of these practices on activism and personal life: In some ways, activism and spiritual practice are one and the same. Both are about giving your life’s energy to what you find sacred. For me, power comes from wedding those two things. The connection to spirit clearly helps us as individuals, but it also changes our work: our strategies, tactics, and the way we communicate. The emerging spiritual activism movement is the hope for the future. It’s blending the best of our minds and our hearts, and informing that with the power of our souls. Many progressives have shunned spirituality, but they forget that the great social change leaders from Martin Luther King to Gandhi have been deeply grounded in a faith tradition. Fierce grace — that’s what spiritual activism is.

Aqeela Sherrills, 36, is a campaigner against gang violence who lives in Watts, Los Angeles. In 1992 he brokered a historic peace treaty between the Bloods and the Crips, two rival gangs. Tragically, his 18-year-old son, Terrell, was shot to death in 2004 in a random killing. Sherrills is executive director and co-founder of the Community Self Determination Institute, an organization located in Watts and created to promote social wellness through positive thoughts and practice.

Challenges: Activists have to be able to express the wounds in their personal lives. On one level, violence is the result of the turbulence in our personal lives. My activism was a result of my coming to terms with sexual abuse. I was molested as a kid by one of my older brothers, and this wound brought me a lot of challenges. I had to come to terms with it, figure out a way to forgive myself and forgive the perpetrator, and that began my spiritual journey. It put me in touch with my own intuitive voice that I call god, that I call spirit, that has guided me over the past 18 years to where I am today. If you want to meet the divine in your life, you have to expose your heart.

Practices: For the past 18 years, I’ve observed Ramadan — not as a religious practice, but as a spiritual practice, as a cleansing, that you observe with a 30-day fast. During the day, you eat and drink nothing, then you have a meal when the sun sets. For the past two years, I’ve observed Lent as a spiritual practice, too. Recently, a Buddhist friend taught me sitting meditation, so I also do that every day.

Effect of these practices on activism and personal life: I couldn’t put myself in the middle of some of the situations in my neighborhood without these practices. We still have major conflicts, but we resolve them on a daily basis, and we’re consistently coming back to the table to renegotiate the peace. I’m in highly dangerous situations all the time. If I don’t have the ability to speak from my heart, I could lose somebody or I could lose my own life. All these practices help me to remain centered. If we can’t intuit ourselves into the future playing a different role with our so-called enemies, then we’re doomed to repeat everything that has happened.

Pat Cane, 64, is the founder of Capacitar International, which teaches individuals and groups around the world mind-body-spirit wellness practices, team building, and self-development. Capacitar is a Spanish word that means “to empower, to bring to life.” The organization grew out of Cane’s work in war-ravaged Nicaragua, after a popular education center asked her to teach what she practiced herself to heal the stress of daily life. Capacitar received the 2005 Peace Prize for the Long Haul from the Agape Foundation.

Challenges: We must be deeply grounded in a spirituality that nourishes our heart in order to reach out and bring about changes in our systems, in our own society, and around the world. We must come from a place of spirit and love, not anger. We can start with anger, but unless this is transformed into love and compassion, our activism will die out. Our whole lives must be informed by spirituality and some kind of practice just to live in the eye of the hurricane of the present moment.

Practices: I practice all the things we teach people. Definitely daily prayer and meditation, with time for deep quiet so I can connect with my center and source. We teach many different practices that are deeply connected to the sacred within.

Effect of these practices on activism and personal life: They allow me to speak with strength and clarity and to do what needs to be done. The wisdom is there within us, and these practices allow us to connect to these deep sources within. Our organization’s vision statement is “healing ourselves, healing the world.” That’s the joy of my work, and that’s what activism should inspire in the world: We should help all people awaken to their potential. They don’t need to go outside themselves to get the expert.

Kristin Ohlson is a Cleveland freelance writer and the author of the award-winning memoir Stalking the Divine, now in paperback (Plume, 2005).

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