Connecting With The Mainstream

One of the articles in Living Together (IC#29)
Originally published in Summer 1991 on page 7
Copyright (c)1991, 1996 by Context Institute

As "The Eagle Connection," John Broomfield and I received a grant in 1990 which allowed us to go on the road for nine months visiting what we call "transformative groups" – retreat and growth centers, ecological and other social activist groups, journals, holistic health practitioners, alternative schools, computer network centers, and many others.

Among the trends we found is a clear shift to activist, work-in-the-world issues. Many who have been working on self-growth are now taking that work along with them out into the world. There is also a yearning for community with kindred spirits everywhere – including people of other classes and ethnic groups.

At the same time, a new generation of leader-activists is emerging in America’s major foundations. Espousing a commitment to consensus building and grassroots participation in social change, the key areas they identify for action are identical to the agendas of many in the social justice and environmental branches of the transformative movement: innovative youth education, safeguarding the ecosystem, and alleviating poverty.

Within this context of mainstream support, organizations working to nurture transformation have a need and opportunity to address the following issues:

Power and leadership * Because many transformative organizations grew out of the ideals of the 1960s, they emphasize participatory process and consensual decision making. In this they offer significant alternative models to the "top-down" structures dominant in our society. However, some are stuck in a "rebel" mode, reluctant to empower talented people to serve as leaders even when the organization has grown to a size in which government by consensus no longer works effectively. Instead of moving back into a hierarchy, a few pioneer groups have developed efficient governance without causing workers to feel they no longer participate in decisions.

The "Us versus Them" mentality * Perhaps those of us who identify with the movement for transformation in our society have rightly taken pride in identifying the critical problems in our culture and standing apart from the major institutions that cause damage. With the growing change in awareness, however, it’s time to jump down from our pedestals and accept that learning is a two-way street. Just as business and government can learn from us, so we can learn from them. Business, for example, can teach organizations how to develop and market a product to become more self-sustaining, instead of relying entirely on foundation grants and donations from a public that may become overwhelmed by the number of outstretched hands.

Communications * If we are to reach people effectively, we must watch our language. Far from persuading others, in-group jargon turns people off. Some people even recoil at the word "spirituality."

On the positive side, there is a trend toward pooling communication resources – mailing lists and workshop information – and some groups are beginning to work on collaborative projects.

Prosperity versus poverty * While our organizations have been correct to eschew greed and espouse frugality in using the Earth’s precious resources, another outgrowth of the ’60s mentality is an attitude that money is somehow contaminating or evil. This has fed the attitude of "us" (the virtuous poor doing the truly important work) versus "them" (the guys with the big ill-gained bucks who should be funding what we are doing). Thus, there is ambivalence toward the very people from whom we seek financial support. This conflicted attitude toward money also prevents many organizations from asking an adequate price for what they offer. Too often non-profit organizations strangle themselves because they pay their staff poorly and work them to burnout – all in the name of the "cause."

Workaholism * Surely there has to be a way to be effective without exhausting and overstressing ourselves. Perhaps wisdom gleaned from non-Western societies and the women’s movement can help us see different perspectives on time and priorities, and different ways to approach our work. Too often we stick exclusively to "talking head" formats in our conferences and meetings, instead of combining intellectual work with forms and processes that draw on non-cognitive knowing, such as music, movement, art and silence. These other modes of communicating and learning could make our work far more rewarding .

Organizational savvy * Transformative groups tend to be overstretched, generally don’t know how other groups are faring, and don’t benefit from others’ experience. When a budget crisis hits or consensual governance no longer works, too often a "blame the leader" stance is taken and chaos ensues. Accumulating some knowledge about how other transformative organizations have progressed – and failed – and knowing how to identify and cope with various stages of growth can help to ride out crises and avoid shootings-in-the-foot.

Founder energy * One predictable stage comes when the founders are perceived, rightly or wrongly, as holding back the organization, moving it too fast, governing too rigidly, etc. Often their unique situation and the pressures on them are not understood by others. If/when they change their role or step aside altogether, staff should be prepared to reorganize and accept more responsibility.

Despair and empowerment * We are not small, not alone, not powerless. The ideas of transformation are spreading fast and have substantial support. We should accept the good news, friends: there is a lot of good news out there.

Writer/artist Jo Imlay and ethno-historian John Broomfield co-direct and facilitate The Eagle Connection, a networking project. They can be reached at 457 Scenic Road, Fairfax, CA 94930.

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