Friday, January 11, 2008

Don't Try. Do.

My most extraordinary twenty minutes of the year so far were spent on Wednesday morning at the Sound Alliance leadership retreat. It was the beginning of the second day, and as we prepared for the session, I noticed this little Jewish old man in a cardigan waiting expectantly off to the side. This, it turned out, was Dick Harmon, the lead regional staff for the IAF Northwest, and one of the two main organizers who built the Industrial Areas Foundation along with Saul Alinsky.

From the moment he opened his mouth, he no longer seemed little at all. He had gravitas. He had duende. He spoke as if the words welled up from the ground beneath his feet, slowly, directly, forcefully. His vision was huge, and seemed to come from the sort of spiritual center and political grounding that one very rarely encounters. I felt, funny as it sounds, as though I were in the presence of greatness.
Together, we will create a new spirit, not grounded in optimism, but in hope. A full employment economy. We need to redo every building and car to be energy efficient. We need to build levies to hold back the waters. All of our infrastructure needs to be redone. We are embarking on a task that is more radical than any New Dealer ever dared to dream of. Not because we want it, but because it is being forced upon us.

We need to reground our imaginations. What is being given to us is a new world view, in an early state of articulation: low carbon economy, full employment, power among. When people get together, their imaginations change, as well as their hearts. And so it comes to discipline.

This is a great enterprise that respects the great mix of our people. Wall Street has committed to $6 billion for clean energy. These guys are out in front of us. The churches and institutions are lagging behind. We are present at the founding of the birth.
After Harmon spoke, he asked each of us to think of all of the social pressures that motivate us to work for change, and to assign our commitment a value between 1 and 10. After a moment he asked for someone to share. Someone who hadn't talked much. Since I'd uncharacteristically kept my mouth shut for most of the retreat, I raised my hand.

"I gave it a nine," I said, "because I don't even know what a ten is. If I were at a ten, it would be dangerous." The room laughed. "Our group is cross-class in its work, but my work for twenty years has been with homeless people. I see a system that is massively broken, and these are the people who fall out on the bottom. And the bottom seems bottomless. And I see people seeking advantage at the expense of the most vulnerable people around. So, yeah. A nine."

Harmon stood up front, searching my eyes. "Do you feel grief?"

The question took me by surprise. "Um, yeah. I feel grief."

"What do you do with that?"

"I channel it. I'm not big on despair."

I'd stopped taking notes by then. But Harmon took this as his opening to talk about the need to embrace our grief. To not succumb to the easy denial of optimism. To walk toward what makes us uncomfortable, own it, and make this the source of our passion.

"When we talk together, when we plan and understand," he said, "our hearts are strangely warmed. We need to live in this warmth, and discover new life."


"Uta" Urban said...

Optimism is not a helpful for assessing a situation. To assess the situation, then to embrace the grief, is the path to understanding reality. Then we can move forward in hope.

What is hope? It should be a verb. Hope is what we do powerfully, without denial, as we make things happen in the reality we now understand.

What a fantastic conference you went to.

Anonymous said...
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Emily said...

The last part of this posting about embracing grief reminds me of a great interview in THE SUN magazine this month.

Peace, Emily