The Soft Voices Carry

imagesThe most Buddhist thing I have done this year was go on a retreat with a bunch of people who aren’t Buddhists. I’m working with a group of mostly young women, and a few young men, who are leading the movement to stop the Energy East Pipeline from crossing Canada from the Tar Sands in northern Alberta to an Atlantic port terminus in Saint John, New Brunswick. These young women and men, mostly in their 20s and 30s, are the young leaders of the global climate justice movement.

There’s a couple of us old folks too. We are veteran organizers from the civil rights movement of the 60s, the feminist movement of the 70s, the gay and trans rights movements of the 80s and 90s, and the environmental movement of the last four decades. But we ‘older-and wiser’ are not the leaders of the climate justice movement. The climate justice movement rightly belongs to the young. The world that they are inheriting is the world we have, frankly, completely fucked up. Some of us older folks are stepping up to help stop the destruction, but we’re not the ones who will have to live with the results. It’s the young people, the Millennial Generation, and even younger children, who will inherit the mess we made and have to live with the devastation.

The climate justice movement is not like any other social justice or environmental movement I have ever participated in. The young women who lead the group have inherited the legacy of decades of anti-racist, anti-colonialist, anti-capitalist consciousness raising. They inherited a feminism that was already intersectional in its analysis of the complex interplay of racism, ableism, homo- and trans-phobia, and other forms of privilege and disempowerment. The young women and men have proven adept at ‘checking their privilege’ as white, as male, as middle class, as able-bodied. This “checking their privilege” means that they don’t lead with their egos or from a desire for power. They are modest and gentle, yet have all their youthful energy and exuberance. They are respectful and inclusive towards everyone in the group.

When I joined the group last summer as the only openly trans person, yet as one of the ‘older-and-wiser’ crew, I made a decision right from the start not to impose any sort of ‘older-wiser’ perspective on the group. The young women who had convened the group a couple of months before were clearly very skilled and competent to do the job. Young women are usually silenced and oppressed, and rarely given positions of leadership even in social action groups. I decided from the get go that this was their movement, and they had to learn how to be the leaders of this and future generations. And besides, I was learning more from them about how to lead a non-violent resistance movement than I could ever teach them.

I had learned my organizing skills the hard way from the ‘old school’ style of organizing. It was a style of politics that was riddled with conflict, power struggles, resentment, rage, back-stabbing and betrayal. ‘Old school’ was so caught up in fighting internecine battles amongst factions within the movement that it’s a wonder we accomplished anything. Most of our movement battle-scars were those we had inflicted on each other as we fought to dominate groups and agendas.

The young women organizing today seem to know better. They are starting off in a different place. Many of those old, painful battles have been “won” or worked through. They have trained themselves to respect and empower everyone in the group, to check their privilege, to keep hierarchies flat, to share power and responsibility, to patiently build consensus, to keep the process as democratic and collaborative as possible. Their style of organizing is the fruit of all that struggle, and they are putting it to good use.

When I started working with this group, I noticed something right away. The young women spoke in very soft voices. They did not feel a need to shout, talk over each other, or use judgmental or domineering language. They spoke in gentle, even-tempered tones, without a lot of drama, and with a good dose of humour. They spoke with soft voices, and they were heard. And I noticed that in this group, the soft voices carry. And yet, this gentle way of doing things has proven to be very effective. Everything we have done with this group as been well-organized and enormously successful.

I spent a weekend with this group on a visioning retreat. The purpose of the retreat was to flesh out our vision, our goals and strategies, and come up with a plan for the upcoming year.  We held the retreat at a Buddhist meditation centre in a small town outside of Halifax. The retreat venue was chosen not for it’s religious affiliation, but for it’s convenient location and comfortable accommodations. We started as we usually did, acknowledging that we were on unceded Mi’kmaq territory. Our first workshop was anti-oppression training, understanding how language and behaviour is grounded in racist, colonialist and misogynist social conditions, and how to use our language and attitude to counteract those influences. Then we established norms for how the group was going to work together for the weekend. We shared how we wanted to participate, and what kind of support we needed from the group. At the height of organizing in my era, we never even thought of those issues. Or they were dealt with only after a series of blow-ups and fights brought them to our attention.

As the weekend closed, I was amazed at how much we had gotten done. We were able to get to consensus quickly on many issues and kept the workshop schedule on time. We were able to achieve so much because people kept their egos and their personal agendas out of the way and let the collective process happen. I thanked the group at our closing session for teaching this old dawg some new tricks, a new way of doing non-violent direct action. It was not only non-violent, it was non-aggressive and non-egocentric. I realized that this is the revolution. The revolution would not be loud, angry or aggressive. It would not be ego-driven and power-hungry. It would not be riddled with resentment and conflict. It would be non-hierarchal, collective, consensus-building, anti-oppressive and mutually supportive, gentle and inclusive. It would be, in short, everything that the Buddha taught as the way to create sangha. The Buddha’s teachings were intended not only as a means of personal spiritual enlightenment, but as a social revolution that would bring about a peaceful, cooperative and sustainable society. I was able to see the teachings of the Buddha come alive in our non-Buddhist secular work.

I think it’s interesting that I found a group practicing the Buddha’s teachings who were not Buddhists, in a completely secular, non-buddhist context. This is a result of my choice to practice as a post-Buddhism Buddhist. I have taken my practice of Buddhism out of the shrine room and into the streets. I don’t often find refuge in sanghas in Buddhist organizations. What I find there is often quite the opposite: hierarchy, patriarchy, white privilege, the oppression of women and queers, and the near total exclusion of people of colour. Power struggles, privilege, conflict and oppression is unacknowledged, repressed under a thin veneer of sanctimonious politeness and “acting buddhist.” Where I find Buddhism being practiced now is in those organizations that make anti-oppression and decolonization a core piece of their work, that self-organize around communal anarchist principles of non-hierarchy and consensus-building.

In our last session of the weekend, I closed my eyes and imagined a world with no more oil pipelines or fracking wells. I imagined a world with clean air and water, reforested land, local agriculture, socialized housing and public transportation, running on 100% renewable energy. I imagined a world run by local democratic councils, with goods and services produced by local crafters and cooperatives, not corporations. I imagined a world one’s life energy was not spent on competition and consumption, but on art, education, physical and spiritual development. I imagined a world where people of all genders, colours, cultures and abilities were treated as truly equal, where systemic poverty, racism, misogyny and caste had been dismantled. I imagined a world where all beings had what they needed for their well-being, but no one had more material goods than were necessary. And I imagined a world where the soft voices carry, in a culture of inclusiveness, kindness and respect, because it’s already recognized that that is the most effective way to run the world.

by the editor, Shaun Bartone


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