We have been great friends for the last ten years. Judy comes from a history of left and feminist activism, Velcrow is an activist film maker who has focused on environmental and spiritual activism. Over these ten years, we have learned a lot from each other, leading to collaboration on each of our projects.
As new movements arise, we noticed that more and more activists are expressing a need for connection and community. People want to practice compassion in their activism but sometimes don't know how or how to convince others that anger and denunciation is counter-productive inside the movement. Occupy Wall Street asked Velcrow to write a piece on compassionate activism for their new Occupy the Economy handbook. We decided to write it together and make it available to others. Let us know what you think.
Compassionate action is positive, kind, fierce and transformative. It comes from the heart, not just the head. It is activism that works for the interests of the whole, not just an isolated individual or group. It is rooted in interdependence, and the recognition that your well being is my well being; the planet's well being, is all of our well being. This understanding of interconnectendess is both spiritual, and scientific -- in science it's called "systems thinking." We are part of interconnected systems within systems -- there is no separation.
Despite the best intentions of consensus decision-making, people fall into old habits of polarizing debates, attacks on other people or their ideas, not listening to others, insisting “I am right” and everyone else is wrong. Politics in our cultures, right or left, tends to be an argument, not a discussion. Most of what happens in mainstream politics is a choosing of sides, not a process of finding agreement or collectively breaking new ground. Activists too, are often better at monologues than dialogues. When we are changing the world, differences will always arise and we should welcome them, as ways to help us to see the next step.
Anger is also part of our political heritage, and it is often the fuel that propels a person out of silence into activism, but too often our anger is turned on each other. Anger is a short term fuel -- it is not sustainable. Van Jones said that "anger is like running on diesel -- we need to learn to run on solar.” Compassion will keep you going for the long haul. Treating each other and even our opponents with compassion is the human relationship part of consensus decision-making. Without it, people becoming despairing and burn out.
Compassionate Activism recognizes that the process is important, not just the end goal -- in our journey to create a more just, equitable and sustainable society, we strive to live our ideals, to “be the transformation."
Here are some guidelines for compassionate activism.
1) Working towards what we are for, not just what we are against
Dreaming of and beginning to put into practice the world we want, creates feelings of compassion and love. A big part of the world we want is about co-operating instead of competing and taking care of each other through sharing. Focusing on what we are against can keep us in a state of anger and sometimes hopelessness. We are seeking solutions, not just presenting the critique. This doesn't mean we accept the problems; we are indeed against the destruction of the planet, and local economies -- because we are for the earth, for humanity.
2) Compassion is rooted in an understanding of the connection between all living beings
Our differences are superficial compared to our similarities. Most ancient teachings, including many Indigenous teachings, tell us that we are all inter-connected.
Science is now confirming our close connection to each other and to all the creatures on the earth. When we understand that connection, supporting the struggles of oppressed peoples, whether in our country or in the global south shifts our action from one of "us helping them" to one of "for the good of all."
We still need to recognize the privilege and the oppression that exists even in our circles. The great learnings from feminism and anti-racism can be integrated into compassionate activism. We want a world where everyone is equal -- but we are not there yet.
3) Learn to act rather than react
Most successful social movements, like the civil rights and women's movements, had a dream. We had visions of what equality could look like and our battles were placed in that framework. But more recently we have been anti-capitalist, anti-racist, anti-poverty. Occupy is reminding us we need to talk about what we are for to attract large numbers to work for change. Creating alternatives while we oppose the injustices of the current system is central to maintaining hope and broadening our movement.
4) The ends do not justify the means
Capitalism is all about the ends justifying the means. How else could the banks, the mining companies and other corporations do what they do? Compassionate activism turns that upside down. The means are just as important as the ends and shape the result as significantly. We live the change we want to see, in our actions, in our communities, in our process.
5) Don't put people down ... raise each other up, and build on commonalities.
Whatever our disagreements, we are all working for change. I can disagree with you even on big questions, but that doesn't make you a bad person. We love our family even if they don’t think much of our activism, so most of us all know how to maintain connection despite differences. We can do it with our comrades in the movement too and it makes us much healthier, and happier. Beyond just "getting along" -- we can consciously look for ways to empower each other, inspire each other, raise each other up. A little acknowledgement goes a long ways.
6) It's only an opinion
Because we are often swimming against the stream, we use our opinions as a life jacket. Hanging on to our opinions for dear life or even worse identifying ourselves with them can create very polarized debate. Opinions are important but to be creative we must be willing to change our minds. That’s what listening is all about. Often times, we may discover a new approach, and a more creative solution, when we open our minds.
7) Be a peacemaker
Be active in peacemaking. Teach what you know about compassionate activism and intervene if you see people fighting or treating each other without compassion. Never be patronizing -- come from a place of empathy. Often times, people are longing to be heard, and once they feel heard, tensions will ease.
8) Learn to listen to your heart, not just your mind
It is a balance of heart and mind that will give us the questions and the answers that we need.
9) It's all about process
In the women's movement, we started to understand the importance of process to our work. Collectives, horizontal organizing were features of the feminist movement of the 70s but as we got more powerful many of us forgot Audre Lorde's advice "The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house."
10) Be mindful
Mindfulness is about truly showing up, truly being present. When someone is speaking, listen deeply, instead of thinking about what you are about to say. When doing an action, focus, give it your full attention. And remember to breathe. The simple of act of returning to the breath releases tension, grounds us and brings us into the present moment. It creates spaciousness, which can be incredibly powerful, especially in a crisis or during times of stress or tension. Breathe. So simple, yet so often we forget. Breathe.
Judy Rebick is the author of Occupy This! and was the founding publisher of rabble.ca.
Velcrow Ripper is an acclaimed Canadian documentary filmmaker and the director of Occupy Love.