Friday, August 8, 2008

Odin Zackman Describes His Work in Service of Social Justice

This video clip is part of an ongoing inquiry into the culture of leadership through the life-experience of social justice workers.

Description: In this video clip, Odin describes the work he does in communities and for what purpose he does the work.

Questions to Consider: How would you describe your social change work within the community? Who does your social change work serve?

Interview Date: May 9, 2008

Interview Location: Berkely, California

T0 learn more about Odin Zackman read the blog posting entitled, "Odin Zackman: Digging Deep to Connect" and visit his organization's website Dig In. Enjoy!

Friday, June 27, 2008

Odin Zackman: Advice for Social Justice Workers

This audio clip is part of an ongoing inquiry into the culture of leadership through the life-experience of social justice workers.

Description: In this audio clip Odin offers advice for emerging and seasoned social justice workers. People interested in learning from this seasoned activist may find this helpful.

Question to Consider: What kind of advice would you offer emerging social justice workers?

Interview Date: May 9, 2008

Interview Location: Berkeley, California

T0 learn more about Odin Zackman read the blog posting entitled, "Odin Zackman: Digging Deep to Connect" and visit his organization's website Dig In. Enjoy!

Odin Zackman: Essential Characteristics of Social Justice Workers

This audio clip is part of an ongoing inquiry into the culture of leadership through the life-experience of social justice workers.

Description: In this audio clip Odin shares what he shares what he are essential characteristics for social justice workers.

Question to Consider: After listening to Odin's list, what do you think are the essential characteristics for being a life-affirming social justice workers?

Interview Date: May 9, 2008

Interview Location: Berkeley, California

T0 learn more about Odin Zackman read the blog posting entitled, "Odin Zackman: Digging Deep to Connect" and visit his organization's website Dig In. Enjoy!

Odin Zackman: Moments of Transformation

This audio clip is part of an ongoing inquiry into the culture of leadership through the life-experience of social justice workers.

Description: In this video clip Odin talks about moments throughout his life that have contributed to him becoming a life-affirming leader and its relationship to social justice work.

Questions to Consider: Can you remember a moment when you were called to affirm the life of others within your community or with whom you work? What was that experience like?

Interview Date: May 9, 2008

Interview Location: Berkely, California

T0 learn more about Odin Zackman read the blog posting entitled, "Odin Zackman: Digging Deep to Connect" and visit his organization's website Dig In. Enjoy!

Odin Zackman: Digging Deep to Connect (text only)

Introduction to Odin Zackman

April 9, 2008. Berkeley, California.

The day before our formal interview Odin and I spent the afternoon at the ball park across the street from his home that sits in a cul-de-sac next to a community center. It seems to be a quiet street for its location next to so much recreational activity. As we sat down on the grass, Odin's beautiful black lab runs around the edges of the field and with a panting smile lies down. Earlier that day I had run into Odin at the office of a mutual friend and learned that he had a cold and was in the midst of recovery; knowing Odin was making time for the interview the next day and a "touch base" conversation later that afternoon I felt thankful and wanted to be extra considerate of his health and recuperation.

Going into this interview process with Odin, my last interview in two weeks, I was well aware that I was feeling a little tired, a little anxious about the next steps of this inquiry process, and wanted to be attentive to holding the space in a way that respected Odin's time and energy in this process. In the prior interviews, making time to meet with each interviewee before the actual interview was a chance to get clarity about my inquiry and the interview process. I especially felt it was important to reconnect with Odin because as consultants we share common experiences about supporting social justice workers striving to live life in a healthier way.

Our conversation during our "touch base" meeting covered many topics, flowing in and out of various subjects from what sort of work we have been engaged in with clients over the last year and even touched on questions related to the interview planned for the next day. From the questions and topics we were discussing I could tell that Odin had taken time to reflect on the questions sent in the overview packet and I felt grateful for that. For me this is a characteristic of a solid leader who values their own time and that of others by preparing to be present in the conversation or task at hand.

On the day of the interview it is a sunny day and the air feels fresh. The home where Odin lives is surrounded by a gently worn wooden fence that makes it look like I am entering a secret garden. As I pass though the gate to my right I notice rose bushes with brilliant white petals on stems with rich green leaves. To my left is an array of other green plants that look like an invitation to explore the backside of the house.

In 2004, Odin and I met through the Leadership Learning Community gathering called Creating Space. Odin stood out from the crowd because of his vibrant energy, his willingness to jump in and support the facilitators, of which I was one, the sense of creativity he brought to interpreting the aesthetics in a room, and his fun eye glasses. I did not know at that time that Odin was the founder and principal of Dig In, "a San Francisco Bay Area-based design and consulting firm dedicated to working with individuals, organizations and communities passionate about social change and building more sustainable communities" (Zackman,, retrieved May 27, 2008).

The way I primarily have come to know Odin is through the his blog and electronic newsletter that he sends out for his organization. It is in this series of newsletters that his values as a social justice worker striving for Life-Affirming Leadership really come through. When I first considered Odin as a possible person to interview, I did not know that he had over 15 years of work in "community and environmental education, organizational and leadership development, and facilitation and community design" (Zackman,, retrieved May 27, 2008). Another reason I chose Odin was because over a casual dinner in June 2007 he eloquently shared the role his own practices play in his life. Similarly to the other interviewees he does not make a big fuss about his practices, they are just integrated into his way of being. During the interview I would learn more about how Odin's commitment to spiritual practice are integrated into how he "strives to link lessons from nature and working in community with building more effective organizations and efforts for social change" (Zackman,, retrieved May 27, 2008).

Exuberant Love

When I ask Odin to explain his work he does not pause. The love for his work flows out confidently and at a quick pace, I sense enthusiasm under his sniffling nose.

My work in the community is really about creating community, it's really about understanding the connections that happen between people and place, and I work in all different in different types of communities; and so my community work is in community in the traditional sense, a place located geographically defined area within, could be, a rural setting an urban setting, but it can also be within an organization, it can be in sets of organizations. And so my work is really about helping people transform the way that they think about each other so they can relate to each other more effectively; and I often talk about my work as being the connective tissue in a community building process or in an organizational development or leadership development process, so that I can help with the weaving that people can do on their own but that I can really help with the weaving together of different ideas and different currents that are coming into the community, to help that community achieve its goals and create a healthier sense of itself.

As the conversation progresses Odin describes how he experiences his work in the context of the larger field of leadership and organization development.

I think my work is seeded within that larger context and it's also very specific in a sense. and this is where it connects t a lot of social justice work and a lot of the history of what community building and activism has been, which is that it is organizational development and leadership development for a purpose; so I don't work with organizations who wanna just improve their bottom line, or who want to help people get along more effectively, or build more effective teams, I do that in service of creating more effective organizations for social change and for sustainability. Because I think those are the critical issues that are facing us, so taking leadership development and organizational development apart from is, it feels out of context for me.
It is during this explanation that Odin touches on an issue that I raised in Chapter Two, Section Seven, where I contend that these questions "Leadership for what purpose?", "Leadership for whom?", and "Who determines what leadership is?"; questions that I believe are not raised nearly enough in leadership development and organization development education or practice.

Odin's description of why he does this work, "I do [my work] of creating more effective organizations for social change and sustainability" offers me verbiage to distinguish how and why I approach my work in the way that I do. My interest of this topic rests on wanting to strengthen organizations and approaches to leadership that enables people from all sectors to work for "social change and sustainability" that is socially just. I struggle with the idea of leadership development and organization development being used to assist individuals, organizations, and institutions to work for social change and sustainability for the benefit of a non-inclusive and select portion of society.

I concede that the question of "leadership for what purpose" is a nuanced issue in the field that the boundaries of this inquiry do not let me address; nor is it a topic which have I placed a concentrated effort to better understand. However, I think it is an important topic to lift-up because it relates to the tension between:
  1. Issues of misappropriation of technology developed for positive and inclusive social change;

  2. The generosity associated with free will to use that technology, and

  3. The hope that experiencing the technology can shift a person's leadership within an organization to positively affect social change for the masses.
This topic sits like a tickle in the back of my throat that I can not scratch and a feeling of dis-ease sits in my belly when it is glossed over. Perhaps part of my persistence in raising this issue belongs to that part of my cellular memory of how Native Americans in this hemisphere and other indigenous people from around the world have been treated after sharing technology, such as farming or hunting, that helped people who would come to oppress them to survive.

Moment of Transformation: Understanding the Wholeness of All Things

Some people remember that first moment where they decide to consciously transform the way they show up in the world happens when they are adults. For Odin it happened at the age of six:

It's really interesting when you think about a moment where something has really sort of come alive or has shifted for you; for me there is that moment, but for me there are many different moments. I can say that the thing that shifted for me was when I was six years old and a new friend the neighborhood I had just moved into told me I should cut down the tree that was in my back ways because it is just a weed. And, I said well you know even if it is just a weed it has the right to exist. So there was something that was seeded very early in me that was about kind of understanding the wholeness of things...
As I listened to Odin's story about how speaking up for this tree when he was six year's old because it too had a right to live, I am reminded of the first time my nephew's hair was cut. On the eve of him turning seven his hair was cut in a ceremony to symbolize the beginning of a transition away from his mother and towards developing a closer association with the male figures in his community. It makes me think that it is no wonder Odin's work is grounded in the principles of nature, by virtue of making a decision to not cut down the little tree, it is like he never made that separation from his Mother Earth. When I share this memory and metaphor with Odin, he "gets it" and gives a gentle knowing laugh while saying, "What a beautiful connection".

Odin describes how this sense of wholeness from his experience at six year's old shows up in his work as an adult and how it is inspired and guided by the words of Aldo Leopold, a man "considered [to be] the father of wildlife ecology... He was a renowned scientist and scholar, exceptional teacher, philosopher, and gifted writer" (The Aldo Leopold Nature Center,, retrieved May 28, 2008). In essence, what I understand of Odin's life-work is about, in his own words:

Bringing this feeling of connectedness to people...that is why I do the combination of the things that I do; where I want to do leadership development because that is about somebody connecting to themselves so that can connect more authentically with their community; why I want to do organizational development because that is about people connecting with each other and being more effective in their work in connecting with others; and why I want to also do work in conflict resolution because that is about feeling a sense of disconnection and withdraw and having the opportunity to connect more deeply.
There is another part of the interview that I think is important to share because it speaks to how being attentive to the relationship between self awareness and organizational culture can be an opportunity to support or diminish how a community is served:

I was going through my studies and just realized I couldn't do everything. Ya know it reminds me of that Thomas Merton quote about, those who try, and this is a horrible paraphrase of it, but essentially people trying to do so many things, to tend to all different kinds of different concerns, to help serve everyone in everything, to do that, is to succumb to the violence of our times; and I always remember that last line, because I think we go through our lives, and for me in college or even in high school, I was trying to do so many things and you just realize, like you can connect things but you need to focus in some way. And I still do that but it is really about a stepping back. And I think there are other moments that I realize I needed to transition out of organization life to do what I am doing now and to have that perspective was that there was something I felt like was getting caught in me and pulling me into really unhealthy patterns in some ways, working in social organizations and in progressive organizations and in doing this worker and I realized in order to be effective I can not do this and the organization can't do this, so I needed to step back, so in some ways the work that I do now is a retreat of sorts but it is about trying to keep that perspective of staying on retreat in some sense and to really doing the work and being committed and getting deeply into the work but always keeping that perspective of balance of wellness and health and spaciousness.
As Odin shares I am taken with his sense of honesty about his humanness and its effects on others. He shares this without bravado. What comes through instead is an authentic humility and a deep commitment to respond to the natural rhythms of life as they relate to his values. Parker Palmer's (2000) concept of vocation embodies the way Odin speaks to making meaning from his life and work: "Vocation does not mean a goal that I pursue. It means a calling that I hear...the truth and values at the heart of my own identity, not the standards by which I must live – but the standards by which I cannot help but live if I am living my own life" (pp. 4-5).

Practice and Activism: Transformation Over Time

The concept of practice as it has been discussed throughout this inquiry is closely related to Odin's awareness about the role of connection to self, others, and the land. The CCMS describes practice as: "an activity undertaken regularly with the intention of quieting the mind and cultivating deep concentration, calm, and awareness of the present moment" (CCMS, 2006, p. 1). Like for many people, Odin's practices were in place long before he recognized them as a practice (CCMS, 2007). Even though he has a cold when he speaks to his interest in hiking and gardening as his way of being able to connect to nature and providing a literal grounding I sense gusto:

I think that the work that I do around place and around community and my own background in using urban agriculture and community gardening as a way of developing connections between people and then taking that out in a broader dense and using those metaphors to help connect people, and look at eco systems and how they are organized, and seeing how we are organized either internally or with each other is just really powerful; And, my practice came out of that, that practice of just being on the land, of gardening, of going on a hike.
As Odin came into his 30's he started to learn about Buddhism and felt like it complimented practices that he already valued "connectedness, compassion, and just acknowledging the present moment". Odin goes on to describe the connection he sees between practice and his work as activist.

"[Practice allows me] to be able to react in a way that I choose as opposed to a way that is visited upon me; and so to have that moment to experience and acknowledge "Oh, I am angry right no" or "Oh, I'm feeling giddy or punchy" or "Oh, I am sick" and to just allow that to be allows us, I think to be more creative and artful in the way in which we respond in the world.

What is critical to me about this particular reflection is how Odin's take responsibility for self-development. In addition he seems to be able to understand that he and social change constitute one another.

And here there is a clear connection to activism and to engagement is that it is really hard if you are just reacting, to ultimately do something that I think is going to affect change on a really deep level. And I think that is what has guided my transforming from running around and screaming in the streets bonafide way of creating change, and is stills something I engage in, but to think a little more about why screaming, why not silence and being with other people, why in the streets and why not meeting with board members of large corporations; and so I think we establish these distinctions for ourselves and I think practice helps us unravel those distinctions somehow, because we are just acknowledging "I am here you're here, I'm a person you're a person can we connect on some level" as opposed to what I am creating in my head about you and just realize that it is all being created in my head.

In this passage Odin demonstrates how the value of connectedness he came to know as a child was now being asked to be applied in new ways; ways, perhaps, that when he was younger may have seemed out of step with his struggle for change (Loeb, 1999). When Odin talks about his life-work I feel like he understands the wisdom of pacing oneself when working for social transformation.

Essential Characteristics

In my telling of Odin's life-work, I have not mentioned how he holds a smile on his face much of the time he is talking or listening. I have also not described how he laughs at things that seem paradoxical about life or how he responds to things I am saying with a "huh" not with the pronunciation of a question like, "What are you talking about?", but more like, "That's interesting, I hadn't thought of it like that." In all my conversation with him he never mentions that he might be feeling miserable with his runny nose—he just seems totally present with me and whatever we are talking about—like he is embracing the cold without judgment just as part of the experience. This small act of his, conscious or not, requires me to be mindful of my own self and how my values of caring for colleagues is expressed in how I conduct the interview with attention to length and intensity of the interview.

As we begin to delve into his description of essential characteristics of social change workers who demonstrates coherency between their values, actions, and beliefs, Odin holds a moment of silence before he answers:

I think that it is really important when involved in social justice and social change work to try and be consistent in terms of what it is that I am saying and practicing, and how it is that I actually am in the world. I think it is a lot of modeling; which is a lot of my work, showing people this is a way we can speak differently with each other, in showing people this is a way that we can take some time for ourselves, even in the course of this meeting, can we start with a reflection, and put the breaks on and take some time to check back in with where we are. I think it is rally important to bring that out into the world.
Another characteristic Odin mentions is humility, which he informs me, comes from the same root word as human and humus, the part of the soil where all the organic matter is, so that in essence humility really means to be close to the earth. Odin's own humility is reflected when he says:

And to acknowledge that even when trying to model this stuff, we unravel, we fall down, it is not about, again it is not about the egoic model of leadership; it is about walking side-by-side with people, it is literally about doing the work and not just directing the work to be is about integrity.

When Odin speaks about his work as an activist, I don’t sense anguish; I feel liberation from self-importance and self-image as they could relate to his work.

As we begin to wind down the conversation, Odin energetically summarizes:

Integrity, health, wholeness, compassion, humility, honesty are all really critical, and if we are incorporating those and were practicing those and they are showing up in different ways and at in the world, then I think that means were seeing a very different kind of social engagement and social change.
Wanting to make sure I had given Odin ample opportunity to express what he would say to someone who wants to be a serious, dedicated, committed social change person, I ask him "What would you say to them to be able to do this work in a way that is transformative?" and as emergency sirens are becoming increasingly louder in the background, Odin without hesitation gives a gentle but deep laugh and says:

Don't take yourself so seriously. I mean I think it is really, really important, I think social the most important work in the world. I think it is ancient work. It is increasingly more necessary as we are growing in population, as complexity as increasing...I mean think someone who is serious about it, excellent! Use your tools, but use all the tools that you have not just the ones that are given to you, and create new tools...I think it is really important if you are serious, great! But don't be that serious. It is really important to have fun...I have a friend, who is a community organizer, and I use this all the time, so thank you Jack, but he says "Why have a meeting when you can have a party?" and I think that is critically important, there are the party horns right now.
At this point in the conversation we both laugh and agree that his final comment, prompted by the sirens is an appropriate way to end the interview and we exchange thanks to each other.
As I pack up my gear and say my final good bye to Odin I am aware that I feel anxious. At first, I think it might be because I am trying to catch an early flight home. As I drive towards the highway, I take a deep long breath, realizing that what I am feeling is the power and beauty of the conversation with Odin, and am already thinking how I can tell his story and share the experience with integrity.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Marian Urquilla: Pride in Staff Leadership

This audio clip is part of an ongoing inquiry into the culture of leadership through the life-experience of social justice workers.

Description: In this particular audio clip Marian shares a story of a time when she was really proud of the how the staff with whom she worked excelled at responding to a community crisis. Individuals interested in learning about the relationship between consistent attention to internal leadership development and how it impacts the external work of an organization will find this interesting.

Questions to Consider: How is your leadership action within an organization coherent with the work that your organization does in the community? How does your organization create an organizational culture that has integrity with its values, beliefs, and principles.

Interview Date: April 26, 2008

Interview Location: Mebane, North Carolina at the Stone House

T0 learn more about Marian Urquilla read the blog posting entitled, "Marian Urquilla: Journey to the Center". Enjoy!

Marian Urquilla: Transforming Leadership

This audio clip is part of an ongoing inquiry into the culture of leadership through the life-experience of social justice workers.

Description: In this particular audio clip Marian discusses a critical turning point of her transformation into becoming a life-affirming leader.

Question to Consider: Can you remember a moment in your development as a leader that stands out as being significant for how you lead today?

Interview Date: April 26, 2008

Interview Location: Mebane, North Carolina at the Stone House

T0 learn more about Marian Urquilla read the blog posting entitled, "Marian Urquilla: Journey to the Center". Enjoy!

Ingrid Washinawatok El-Issa Ingrid

Ingrid Washinawatok El-Issa Ingrid , also known as O'Peqtaw-Metamoh and Flying Eagle Woman, died on March 4th, 1999, along side two Hawaiian activists, Lahe’ena’e Gay and Terence Freitas. The three activists were victims of kidnapping and executed in Columbia by the Revolutionary Armed Forces while on a mission of solidarity with the U’wa tribe of the Andes. They were there to help set up a school to protect their culture and language, and to help them to defend their lands against oil exploration by Occidental Petroleum. Ingrid was 41 year old wife and mother of a 14-year-old son at the time of her death. Of her many achievements and contributions to the world was her work with the United Nations, the Fund for the Four Directions, the Native Americans in Philanthropy, the Indigenous Women’s Network, AICH, Sister Fund, and the National Network of Grantmakers . (Retrieved, May 15, 2008, http://www. ncccusa. org/news/99news61a.html; Retrieved, May 15, 2008, http://en.wikipedia. org/wiki/Ingrid_Washinawatok).

Eagle Poem

To pray you open your whole self
To sky, to earth, to sun, to moon
To one whole voice that is you.
And know there is more
That you can't see, can't hear
Can't know except in moments
Steadily growing, and in languages
That aren't always sound but other
Circles of motion.
Like eagle that Sunday morning
Over Salt River. Circled in blue sky
In wind, swept our hearts clean
With sacred wings.
We see you, see ourselves and know
That we must take the utmost care
and kindness in all things.
Breathe in, knowing we are made of
All this, and breathe, knowing
We are truly blessed because we
Were born, and die soon within a
True circle of motion,
Like eagle rounding out the morning
Inside us.
We pray that it will be done
In beauty.
In beauty.

(Harjo, 2002, p. 85)

Marian Urquilla: Journey to the Center (text only)

Introduction to Marian Urquilla

April 26, 2008. Mebane, North Carolina.

It has been a long week for Marian. She arrived on Friday night and patiently waited an extra hour at the airport till I found my way on the highway. As she buckled her seat belt she told with an exhausted smile that she used the extra time to attend to some work related a major transition in her life from one work place of twelve years to another. This is signature Marian—ever resourceful. Marian has a well tuned natural ability to see opportunity even in mundane moments. I first met Marian through her reputation to be a fierce community advocate who did not take bullying or bullshit from anyone. The second time I met her was in person on the roof top of a building in the bustling and historical U Street district of Washington, DC. A group of people had gathered to honor the life of
Lisa Sullivan, a dear friend of hers and a professional acquaintance of mine who had unexpectedly passed-on in October 2001.

In the assembly of community workers, Marian recited the Eagle Poem, by Joy Harjo. I remember being incredibly moved with her recitation, my chest aching from her delivery, my mind thinking about the river named in the poem; a river where on the day after my wedding my husband and I were blessed by eagle flying overhead as we sunned ourselves. I was taken by the potency of Marian's voice and the way it uniquely balanced her sorrow and respect for life. It was during that reading when I experienced first-hand the depth of strength in her humanity. On some level I knew her and I would become friends. It would not be till May of 2003 at the Stone Circles sponsored the
Rigmor Gathering when Marian and I truly began to build our friendship.

Marian was born in El Salvador and immigrated to the United States in the 1980's. Marian is the oldest of three children she lives in a city with her brother and sister nearby, while her parents live across the country on another shore. Marian has a deep dedication to the wellbeing of Washington DC and the neighborhoods in which she has lived and worked in for 21 years.

Other than some of the basic and public facts about Marian's life, I acknowledge that there are parts about Marian's history, like moving to the U.S. in the 1980's, that I do not know too much about. We have never talked in any depth about how that particular experience has shaped who she has become. In the follow-up to this interview Marian noted this fact. As a researcher it prompted me to think about why I had not inquired about this. Why did I feel/think or not feel/think that this was important or relevant. Did it even matter for this research? And if it did, how and why?

As professional colleague I have never outright asked Marian about why her family came to the U.S. in the 1980's because I know about the history of military oppression and civilian massacres that occurred up until the early 1990's. I know that the neighborhoods in Washington DC where Marian has lived and worked for 21 years was a haven in the 1980's for many families from El Salvador and other war stricken countries in Central America. Many of the social changes Marian addresses through her work is rooted in the trauma of violence, depression, and mistrust of systems experienced first-hand by people who have been oppressed from many places around the world.

In truth, as a friend, I can recognize upon this reflection that my choices to know or not know are an exercise of holding a culturally learned tension between "respecting Marian's choice to talk about this subject and how it influences her life and work", "self protection", and "a deep held belief that when any person shares a profound experience there is a responsibility that I have as a listener to hold that information and the experience of the telling in a sacred way and I better be prepared in order to do that". In the end, this is a subject that perhaps Marian would feel very comfortable talking about but I may not be one that I would feel comfortable hearing about given my tendency towards deeply feeling and retaining the experiences of others. It occurs to me that there seems to be something in this written text about how I approach relationships that reflect a respect for the organic process of getting to know someone in a personal and/or professional manner; opposed to pushing or cajoling a relationship to happen, which I think I was more inclined to do in my 20's. There is more respect and capacity for silence, paradox, and the unknown within a relationship.

A self-described "'boundary crosser'" Marian "moves easily between institutions and communities helping people and systems achieve their vision" (AECF, 2007, p. 10). Marian's influence extends to the national level through her association with prestigious fellowship programs and her consulting efforts with national foundations. At a local level, over the last twelve years Marian has utilized "her experiences as a community organizer, nonprofit leader, feminist activist, writer, and policy analyst in her role as executive director of the Columbia Heights/Shaw Family Support Collaborative in Washington, D.C." (2007, p. 10). Marian has shaped and influenced the collaborative to be a network of community organizations that work towards integrity between their mission statements and the way they serve the community. This role provided her with an opportunity to work with "leaders that [strive] to provide responsive neighborhood-based services to families at risk of or already in crisis" (2007, p. 10).

In May 2008 Marian began a new professional journey as the Director of Human Development with Living Cities, an initiative with a mission "to increase the vitality of cities and urban neighborhoods and improve the lives of people who live there" (, retrieved May 21, 2008). This change in organizations and role within the community takes Marian one layer away from the direct service work. It is a different kind of social activism. The stakes, however, are the same; and that is to create healthy and thriving communities where the struggle between life and death are in need of attention every day. During the interview Marian acknowledged that she knew it would take some time to transition into serving the community in this way but that in the end this new role afforded her an opportunity to breathe and reflect on the lessons she has learned over the last twelve years related to large scale social change work.

In many ways this was an incredible moment in Marian's life-journey to interview her because of this monumental transition. But I wanted to interview Marian before I even knew that she would be moving to a new organization. I have tremendous respect for Marian's ability to speak truth to power, her commitment to hold high expectation of those who work with and for her, her clarity to whom she is accountable, and her courage to do the necessary self work in order to be a holistically healthy person. Marian's experience to become a Life-Affirming Leader, by my description, has been a journey traversing over many years. Her transforming path is one that she purposefully enters into, daily. I knew she would be able to offer incredible insight into the experience of life-affirming leaders.

Insight on Being a Life-Affirming Leader

My interview with Marian took place in a cottage sitting on 70 acres of a retreat center for which Marian sit's on the board for the organization,
Stone Circles, which stewards this land. The cottage overlooks a green expansive pasture surrounded by pine trees and various deciduous trees. At night deer cross the forest border and claim the pasture as their feeding ground. On the day we spoke it was sunny outside and quickly working its way to be a warm and humid Sunday afternoon for which North Carolina is known. We sat on a soft old sofa facing each other, settling into the crook of each corner of the couch, Marian on one side me on another. On this afternoon Marian looks tired and peaceful. An odd combination since these characteristics usually contradicts one another. Marian not only wears the paradox well, she fundamentally acknowledges the necessity to embrace and manage paradox as one essential characteristic of a Life-Affirming Leader. More on that later.

As our conversation moved into Marian recalling a moment or a time when she consciously decided to shift how she lead, Marian moves into a reflective state that spans from childhood to adulthood:
I had kind of a life time worry about sort of who I wanted to be and who I was able to be since I was a child. I really wanted to be one of those children who didn't lose things, whose shoes were tied, whose dress didn't get dirty, and whose hair was neat; and I never was (laughter). You know I always felt a little too much for the structure, you know, and just making my mother despair (more laughter). And so I think periodically I have had the insight of the awareness of the impact of self on others…[At the collaborative], I was a bit of a terror, I would like to think the first three years (laughter) but it could of been longer (more laughter). I mean it was not like I didn't get work done, and whatever, whatever, whatever. But it was like one syle. It was sort of this hard-driving, hard-driving, and then really compassionate, but really hard-driving and not in a way that was about…um, I don't know how to explain it. I was much less gentle. And I was much more expressive of anger, that's a nice way of saying I was just really a bitch. And I could go off. And people are very scared of me and then I stopped. I realize now, I didn’t realize then, but I realized in retrospect, because it had been years, [that to this day people are scared of me] and the' shadow' lingered.
During this piece of the interview, Marian's rhythm in how she is speaking changes, a bit more staccato. During the interview I was very attentive to what she was revealing and noted her pauses and laughter more as a form of cathartic exhalation than anything else.

Like other Life-Affirming Leaders, a significant turning point in Marian's step toward consciously shifting her leadership to a more life-affirming approach happened in 1999 with the death of friend and colleague Ingrid Washinawatok El-Issa. Ingrid was an internationally known human rights activist and citizen of the Menominee Nation of upper Wisconsin. Marian and Ingrid knew each other through the Rockefeller Foundation's Next Generation Leadership Fellowship program and were in the same cohort:
I think it was after Ingrid was killed, which was in 1999, the spring of 1999. And I really had such a hard psychological reaction to that; I realized I needed to do a different kind of work and that that couldn't spill… [Ingrid] is an extraordinarily special human being. I think that part of the impact was the loss of her and the loss of who she wasn't going to be and all that. But also part of it for me was that the part of my life that included people being killed for political reasons was over…and so really it was like the past had blown open in the present, and that was really quite shattering. Followed soon there after by 9/11 and all the other things that happened. I felt like the door had broken right open. And it made me really attended to the fact that under stress, in the face of violence I did not have full command of my resources. So I started to do the work. And I really started to shift.
An underlying assumption I hold in telling the narrative about the transformation occurring in the culture of social justice leadership is the belief that without a coherency between practice and values genuine transformation is compromised. Marian's story speaks to this. As our conversation moved into recollections about her experience to intentionally begin practicing leadership in a way that would affirm life, she shares the initial feelings she encountered:

I think that for a long time [the shift] felt very silencing. So that my way of dealing as to be like, [making a muffled meowing sound], bite my tongue, you know, looking at your plate (laughing), eating a lot, and just suffering and that wasn't very helpful.
When I asked her if it was suffering from what she was to what she was becoming, like birthing, Marian clarifies:

[The suffering] was knowing that I did not want to work a certain way and knowing that I had not assembled all the tools to do work in a different way. I feel that was a pretty harsh 2 or 3 year period. I got good work done but it was not without its pain.
For me, Marian's revelation is an important one, in that when a person enters into an intentional act of changing their ways of being in the world, it is often not comfortable. Marian describes the disorientation she experienced not as a "block" but as a reminder of the intentionality behind her choosing to be in the world in a different way. Bridges (1991) explains that the transformation resulting from change does not happen overnight, the transition is a slow, often suffering felt, process because it is rooted in "the psychological process people go through to come to terms with [a] new situation" (p.3).

In the spirit of the guidance offered in The Activist's Ally: Contemplative Tools for Social Change (2007), Marian speaks to the role and power that contemplative practices represent in the life of a life-affirming leader.

I think that what shifted for me…was when I went from really studying Buddhism to practicing meditation. And that I learned, literally, to hold less judgment of myself. Just a lot more patience about what arose. Less identification with the anger. Less identification with the impatience. It wasn't like this little girl who's sad because she spilled things on her dress and lost the barrette. It was like, shit happens and move on, it was that kind of thing, of not having rage for perfection and rage with imperfection.
In my mind, Marian's description of her meditation practice as an act of mindfulness demonstrates moving from a place of self-destruction to a place of self-realization (May, 2004). In this sense, Marian's transformation leads her to see the "resplendent, inexpressible beautiful, and…completely loveable" (2004, p. 180) self that she is.

Insight on Organizational Transformation

Sitting on the sofa, the conversation seamlessly moved from Marian's ongoing experience of personal transformation to the influence of her transformation within the organization she was leaving after 12 years of dedicated and respected work. Three specific experiences stood out about Marian's insight on organizational transformation as it relates to her journey of life-affirming leadership.

Clarity of accountability
Marian reveals that a big shift in her leadership occurred when she gained clarity about to whom the organization was accountable. When she began to share this information her body slightly shifted, back straighter, focused eyes, and not much pausing in her sentences. I recognized this stance from when I experienced her facilitation. It was one that claimed her authority of hard earned knowledge from life-experience, dedication to learning, and commitment to integrity to creating spaces that optimize learning.

I realized that, this is a hard thing to say…my loyalty in my role as executive director was not to the staff, it really was to the clients; and once I got that straight, it wasn't even to the clients today, it was to the clients who would come or who through our actions would not come; and once I got that straight, I was much less conflicted. And I think that I felt kinder but I think at some level my implementation of that was harsher. Much sharper boundaries with staff about
expectations, results, and insistence of [high performance]...[Knowing to whom we were accountable] felt clarifying, it felt focusing, and then that was really my compass, and so I did not feel a lot of things that had been fraught for me before. Where I felt like that I had a split loyalty or this split sense of priorities and entanglement, it just went away.
I took Marian's commitment to her clarity about to whom the organization was accountable as a significant example of life-affirming leadership, because fundamentally she was promoting deeper thought and more precise actions built on the premise of asking "what does it means to be in the world with responsibility?" (Vaill, 1998, p. 13), a question fundamental to affirming life on many levels and completely congruent with the fourth path, right action, in the Buddha's teachings to diminish suffering: abstaining from taking life, abstaining from stealing, abstaining from unchastely.

Parallel process internal and external of the organization
Another example of the influence of "right action" in Marian's leadership was when she deliberately sought out to join ethics and practice by creating a parallel process between the internal and external expression of the organizations mission of leadership development. For her this meant building coherency between the performance of the organization in the community and the performance of staff within the culture and structure of the organization:

…parallel process was really about capacity building and leadership development...that [the work of the staff] was not just a performative piece that it was about the maintenance and reproduction of the daily life of the organization.
Marian verifies later in the conversation that the internal work she was doing for herself was the beginning of being able to bring transformation to the structure and culture of the organization; an admission that demonstrates consistent with the value she places on creating parallel processes as a leader.

Affirming the life of staff
Marian speaks often about the importance of clarity between boundaries, authority, role and tasks (B.A.R.T.) in relationship to leadership and staff development
[1]. I sense that for Marian her ability to affirm the life of staff within the organization is closely linked to supporting them in clarifying their B.A.R.T in relationship to the context of their work. I ask Marian what it feels like to affirm the life of a staff member and though I feel she does not answer directly, she offers me an example of a recent incident in which she felt the staff performed brilliantly during a community crisis. For me, when she shares this example, Marian speaks fluidly and radiates satisfaction. I press on and ask her "What does an affirmed life look like?" she easily describes that for her it looks like a person:

Being able to ask questions that are uncomfortable…being able to use their own creativity to solve problems…an ability to string together pieces to make a whole new solution and to mobilize other people.
She does not say this, but I intuit that she profoundly understands that the cultural, structural, and performative shifts in the organization were initiated by her intentionality to lead differently. This transformed leadership in essence became a critical part of a conduit for the staff to begin claiming their authority in the role and task during times of crisis for the purpose of serving others. She quickly reveals, almost in passing, that the way the staff handled this community crisis was one of the moments when she knew that it was ok for her to leave the organization. For me, Marian models what Cloke and Goldberg emphasize in their book, The Art of Waking People Up (2003):

The goal in waking ourselves and others up is not about some abstract, idealized managerial model of the perfect employee. Rather it is to assist ourselves in becoming more fully, deeply, and authentically who we are, so we can bring more of ourselves to our work. It is to creating relationships of trust, environments of learning, and organizational structures, systems, cultures, and process that allow us to self-correct and achieve balance in our lives, and be able to learn from every work experience in ways that improve our capacity for perception, understanding, growth, learning, and change (p. 31).
Insight on the Transformation of the Field

Shifts in awareness, attitude, and practice
In 2007, Marian was chosen as one of the fellows in Annie E. Casey's prestigious
Children and Family Fellowship program. This initiative focuses on developing the leadership potential of visionary leaders at the helm of public and nonprofit organizations working to improve outcomes for children (AECF, 2006). The fellowship is an opportunity for such leaders to gain "confidence and competence to create supports and systems that help families make positive choices and to lead and sustain major system reforms and community change initiatives that benefit large numbers of children and families" (AECF, 2006, p. 4). During our discussion, I asked Marian how she knew the culture of leadership in social change work is shifting and she quickly responded.

So, this is how I know things are changing, right. Is that when I did my 360 for the Casey fellowship, the area I scored the lowest on was self-care. And it wasn't like, "Oh, she works so hard; she's so self sacrificing; she's amazing." It was like, "Oh, were concerned". I remember being 20 something and that the thing was to work the most hours, and you know, I think because we were all in the shadow of larger movements that involved much greater, greater sacrifice and our sacrifice was time and self.

Marian is able to see her own transformation in a larger social discourse influencing that is renovating social change work and that it is a narrative that includes the necessity of accounting for the human development process, creating opportunities for life-work effectiveness, and addressing sustainability issues of multiple factors (Wheatley, 2002, 2005; Horwitz, 2002; Cloke and Goldsmith, 2003; May, 2003; Brown, 2003; Vaill, 1996, 1998; and Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, 2002, 2004).

For me, I think some of it is maturity, personally, right, but I see younger people having a different balance or idea about balance. But, I think that we are in a frame, a change frame where we know we are talking about long-distance running not sprinting, and that there is just a different type of conditioning that you do. One is anaerobic, one is aerobic and all that…I think maybe that, that's what we are moving into, and then that what do we as people doing this work, how do we have to manage our relationships, how do we have to manage ourselves, our institutions, our networks because we know they and we have to
exists for the long-haul.
Marian's analogy of the long-distance runner and the sprinter sent chills up my arm. Although I had heard this analogy before, I had never heard it applied to this topic. For me her comments hold an implied responsibility by individuals, organizations, and stakeholders in the field of social justice work to find innovative ways to broaden and deepen the discourse of leadership wellness and organizational sustainability over a long-period of a way that reflects the social change for which we are working. This is an area to which this dissertation begins to address but there are many other topics in the field of organizational development and leadership development that can attend to this opportunity to build knowledge.

Advice for Emergent Social Justice Activists: The Wrong Question?

I was pacing my office, pulling books by Neruda, van Manen, and Markova off the shelves that surround me as I tried to write this section. I was seeking inspiration on how to write about what Marian has shared with me regarding essential characteristics. On one hand it would be simple to create a list from the information she offered along with her description of each one, but somehow that does not feel like it would do justice to what I feel her lived wisdom offers about Life-Affirming Leadership. As I reflect back on this part of the interview by listening to that portion of the interview and pertaining notes, I decide that I have posed a question that might not have really evoked what I am trying to learn about or as Marian pointed out in our reflection of the interview, maybe it created entry ways to other areas for inquiry.

The question I asked a Marian was, "What would you say is essential for [a social justice worker] to have to not just be an effective social justice worker, but to be one that aligns themselves with what they are trying to achieve?" When I listen to the interview it is clear how the question I posed reveals my own assumption that to be an effective social justice worker means to conduct oneself in a way that aligns values of a social justice frame and actions working towards. Not to mention how my question glosses over the supposition that an effective social justice worker is inherently a life-affirming leader. This observation is not about being hard on myself, I am just mindful of how unaware I was about my own beliefs compromised a learning moment.

In the reflective state that accompanies the transition Marian is in with her career and the life-style it will enable her to have, I experienced Marian's answers to the question as if I was hearing a master key note speaker giving a PowerPoint presentation; meaning Marian spoke with what I took as authoritative wisdom, illustrated by the tone in her voice (which I interpreted as confidence), and offered a description of each characteristic as if she had shared them many times before. When Marian got to the second to last characteristic she stopped and said with a slight chuckle, "I don’t know. That feels like a long list." I commented that this was quite a substantial list and "that [the list] was really good", she said, "Thanks" with a hearty laugh as if it were no big deal, and then a subtle "Ya" that for me, suggested a healthy sense of self. Then she paused and we moved onto the next question; Over the years, I have come to experience Marian's "pause and move on" after a compliment as an endearing sign of her modesty about her wisdom and brilliance as a life-affirming leader. Embedded in this very subtle act is Marian's not only a reflection of her cultural upbringing but of her work ethic to reflect, celebrate successes, and move to the next needed action needed to create a better society.

The six characteristics Marian offered during this part of the interview reflect, for me, characteristics from other parts of her narrative that describe where she has experienced the significance these characteristics played in her own leadership and that of the people whom she has mentored. The following is a summary briefly describing each essential characteristic that Marian named.

1. Paradoxical stance. The ability to care about more than just yourself. The ability to give all but to keep some for yourself; the ability to extend but to ground. One might not need to come with a paradoxical stand already developed but they must have a tolerance for paradox. Social justice work requires working with chaos.

2-3. Ability to envision change and believe in solutions. Being able to envision change and believe in solutions are related. A person has to be ale to see that could be. They have to believe that things can change and that there are already strengths in the community that can be part of the solution. If they do not exercise this social justice is futile work. Learning how to focus on what has worked, verifying that it actually does, and then applying that knowledge to situations that are not working is incredibly important. Inherent in this strengths based approach is the idea of having the ability and stamina to test, try, experience possible solutions—and then modify and test, try, experience again until things change.

4. Connect with others. This means that a social justice worker has to be able to see other people as real. That the people they are working for and with in the community have feelings, joys, sadness. They are more than a label or a role. As such, the ability to authentically and compassionately connect with other people is paramount to the work.

5. Ability to love. The ability to love is vital to being able to connect with others. Of course this includes the ability to love your self. It is love with arms wide open—it is not a clutching or smothering love.

6. Learn from experience. This might be the most important essential characteristic of any social justice worker. The ability to learn demonstrates that you are reflective, it helps you keep track and see what you're bumping up against; learning from experience gives you ideas on how you can do better and shows you that it is your responsibility to move in that direction.

As the interview ended, we both expressed surprise that the amount of time had passed that did. Marian excused her self to go and finish some work before she flew back to DC. I pulled a saffron colored wingback chair to the nearby window and sat down. As I contemplated the beauty in life Marian had revealed over the last few hours I looked out onto the green pasture and the shifting sunlight and felt like I was being supported by a gentle and firm hug.


[1] Marian is well schooled in the Tavistock Institute approach to human development. She has great mastery about how the concept of role plays an important part in someone's development as a leader. The boundaries of this inquiry do not permit me to fully explore her knowledge of this subject with her or to demonstrate in writing her deep level of understanding in any significant way.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Why I Do This Work

My quest to explore Life-Affirming Leadership as it relates to social change efforts grounded in social justice is deeply rooted in the personal. As a third generation activist, I have been surrounded my whole life by people working for social justice who have perpetuated a culture leading to behaviors, attitudes, and systems that impose physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional costs on leaders. The negative toll this has on the people who surround them has inspired others to transform the culture and practices of social justice work.

Over the last twenty-five years, I have experienced activist colleagues who suffer from post traumatic shock syndrome, clinical depression, suicide, and other health issues related to the demands of the current model of social justice work to which they are committed. The toll for two of these bright and formidable leaders has been death. Some allow the state of their leadership exhaustion to be the downfall of their organizations or to severely diminish organizational capacity (Kofodimos, 1993; Hormann, 2007). While others, thankfully, take radically different approaches to establishing a leadership approach and life style that will serve them and their life-long commitment to social justice.

Transforming one’s own way of being, let alone that of an organization or a whole social movement culture, must be entered into with an intentionality that strengthens one’s commitment to and sustains their leadership within social justice change work. The death of two people, one who I knew personally and one I knew distantly, was a turning point for me and many colleagues in my social activist community. This is one more reason to engage in a sincere effort, seeking how we can sustain ourselves in a more healthy and holistic way as human beings, as social justice workers, as leaders.

The work of these two leaders was shaped by the historical discourse of social justice work. A history that is rich in detail about the sacrifices made to foster progress in human and civil rights. The highly acclaimed documentary “Eyes on the Prize” details how during the Civil Rights Movement people of all ages demonstrated their commitment to the Movement by jeopardizing their livelihood, education, and physical well being (Hampton, 1999). Stories about the role of collective song, prayer, marches, sit-down demonstrations, and other non-violent actions ending in mass arrests are popular, often motivating, and accurately reflect the spirit of that time.

What is not reflected in this particular example and is less often discussed, especially in public, are the negative impacts this necessary level of involvement and stress placed on individuals, families, and whole communities. The level of gender discrimination regarding power, credit for initiating successful actions, and the burden associated with low financial compensation are other critical factors rarely discussed. To this day the legacy of similar issues permeates activist culture shaping one generation of activists to the next. The persistent romanticization of the Civil Rights era has defined the approach to domestic social justice leadership for the last 50 years, shaping how emerging generations of nascent activists are “schooled” in realizing or forwarding social justice; but this is changing. My work will tell the story of those who are leading the way.