Credit: Stephen D. Melkisethian. Licensed under CC BY 2.0.
This morning I woke up and made breakfast for my daughter, and thought to myself: we have entered the age of terror.
Terror is not new to the USA. Terror—the infliction of extreme fear—runs deep in our economy and political system, from the enslavement of African people to the genocide of Native people to violent oppression of any Americans not defined as white. Terror is not new to US action around the globe, where our tax dollars have long underwritten war and brutal repression.
But today terror has become the explicit and recognized force dominating public thought and action. In horrific ways the Right has legitimized terror, as we saw in the shameful responses of Republicans after a man opened fire in the deadly Planned Parenthood shooting. Terror—by white supremacists, by extremist fundamentalists, or by police—now dominates our political landscape.
Today, through consumption, complicity, and silence, our country has helped create an unprecedented level of desperation and disruption within our own communities and around the world. We live in a world of ecosystems destroyed in the stampede for fossil fuels, in economies collapsing under the weight of inequality, in cultures cut off from their roots, in communities that are repressed and brutalized. We live in a country where deaths from white supremacist guns remain the most frequent and deadliest form of terrorism.
I’m not going to lie. In this moment I feel afraid for my daughter and for all our kids.
As someone who believes another world is possible I ask myself: what do I do in this moment? What do we do? What does movement building look like in a time of terror? How do we develop strategy in a world that’s animated by fear?
I am grateful to come to these questions grounded in years of work by the Movement Strategy Center with political strategist and Zen teacher Norma Wong, and with dozens of inspiring leaders in what we call “Transitions Labs.” The Labs are designed to explore how we can transition from a world of domination, violence and extraction to a regenerative world of interdependence and resilience.
In the weeks that followed our most recent lab, white supremacists shot Black Lives Matter demonstrators in Minneapolis; the city of Chicago released the video of police murdering Laquan McDonald; an armed misogynist killed a mother, a war vet, and a police officer in Colorado Springs; an ISIS-inspired husband and wife gunned down coworkers at a holiday party; and the fascist campaign of Donald Trump accelerated its wave of violence and organized hate in visible political form.
But the victims of violence have challenged racist reactions to terror in beautiful ways, like the Parisians who held off anti-Muslim disruptors , or in the words of the partner of Larry Daniel Kaufman who died saving others in San Bernardino. In ways filled with hope and possibility for change, the movement for Black lives has shined a spotlight on the daily terror of police in Black neighborhoods.
We sometimes speak of our movements engaging in the ‘battle of ideas,’ a violent concept with winners and losers armed with tools of analysis. We need to move beyond this. If it was ever true that ideas moved masses of people, it certainly isn’t now, as people grapple, individually and collectively, with the powerful emotion of fear.
Every single one of us needs to be healed enough and grounded enough to build and create with anyone, even people who don’t share our ideas. We can no longer seek to work only with those who are ‘like minded.’ We must, as Wong says, seek to build with those who are ‘like-hearted.’
When a white solo mom tells me angrily that I care more about Syrian refugees than about her, I need to listen and engage, not tune out and dismiss. I need to stand with integrity and find possibility in what our hearts share. I can’t do than one of us can—if we’re triggered and reactive, or if we’re listening only from our heads and not our hearts.
In the Transitions Lab, racial justice organizer, policy advocate, and cultural worker Tammy Johnson said this:
“We can’t accomplish anything without healing. For me, any of the issues we deal with can come up with great policy strategies. If they don’t have a framework presenting alternatives to the dominant frame, if they don’t involve healing and reconciliation, then we’re back at square one.”
Does this mean we are nice but weak? No. It means we are smart enough to understand that our collective existence on this planet depends on our mutuality and the humanity of each and every one of us. It means we are courageous and bold enough to lead and love even those who aren’t yet seeking our love and leadership.
Does this mean we all stop working and go up to the mountain to meditate? No. It means we start being aware and present right now, in whatever we are doing. It means we start acknowledging, valuing, and embodying what has, time and time again, over and over, worked. It means we start being Ella Baker and Grace Lee Boggs and Nelson Mandela.
Movement building grounded in love and purpose looks and feels different. It takes a different set of muscles, including taking on intentional practices as individuals and groups. Practice allows us to take small, immediate steps to nurture shifts that are larger than we might imagine in the present.
A pianist runs through the scales daily, developing capacity that makes an entire sonata possible. A runner puts in daily miles, developing muscle strength, endurance, and memory that can be called on in a marathon. Conscious practice can be applied in other areas of life, allowing us to cultivate new qualities and capacities—and interrupt ingrained habits—even when we are unsure or unclear about our future.
Alicia Garza of Black Lives Matter talks about it this way:
“Collective transformative practice is not some hippy dippy thing. It’s about how we are together and how we are successful as movements. This is how Black Lives Matter thinks about transformative practice: It’s about transformative relationship building.”
“We need embodied practice,” says Tomás Garduño, a leader at the nexus of climate and economic justice who was part of the Transitions Lab community, “the conscious, steady physical development of awareness that makes cooperation, connection, compassion, and effective movement strategy possible.” He continues:
“Embodied practice is how we get to the “how.” Embodied practice — whether it’s somatics or Forward Stance or just breathing together — is how we proactively develop the strength, insight, and joy to transform a world that includes the injustices of Ferguson and Ayotzinapa and Bhopal.”
Transformative practice helps us get to transformative strategy—to strategy that generates leaps that seem unimaginable but are utterly necessary. As Wong and others teach, what defines transformative strategy is that it moves from the inside out.
It puts the qualities of who we are as individuals and groups at the core. The possibilities of this echo in the words of Rosa González, a champion of deep community democracy who recently who recently helped groups impacted by the 2010 BP oil disaster to articulate a collective commitment to the leadership, sustainable livelihoods, health, and wholeness of frontline communities. In the Transitions Lab Rosa told us: “We need to create space for people’s whole selves to show up. Our linear logic says that the change people are visioning isn’t possible. How do we expand what we believe? How do we hold space to allow for that?”
It moves with the depth of love and purpose of those who identify as ready for transformation, while staying welcoming and open to those who aren’t. Jacqueline Patterson, who leads the Environment & Climate Justice Program of the NAACP, spoke to this in the Lab. “I’m working with communities to move from the inside out, developing their own vision and modeling that. Community by community we establish an approach until it becomes the norm.”
And it is open source and nonlinear. “We need to get beyond planning processes, to dream bigger,” said Nwamaka Agbo, leader of MSC’s Our Next Economy effort, in the Lab. “Let’s not just make plans; let’s create the capacity to make them happen.”
This kind of transformative strategy is what can generate leaps that currently seem impossible: leaps to food systems that are healthy, affordable, fair to workers, good for the environment, and keep farmers on the land.
Leaps to a just economy that embodies resilience, interdependence, regeneration and collective well being; leaps to climate policy based on keeping it in the ground; and leaps to foreign policy that keeps the planet in balance and peace.
Love, community, and connection are the only things powerful enough to overcome fear and terror. In the face of fear I choose love.
An earlier version of this article was first published on Let's Talk, the blog of the Movement Strategy Center.