Becoming Sustainable: Exploring Activism and Well-Being

As a teacher, I’ve enjoyed learning and dreaming about the potential of the Living Schools model for sustainability education. When I take in this vision as an activist, I wonder how civil society can invest in its culture, too. I wholeheartedly agree with O’Brien and Howard (2016) when they emphasize the tremendous value of well-being in an organization’s culture. They state that “policy and practice that foster sustainable happiness and well-being is a paradigm shift that humanity must embrace” (p. 126).

It is essential that civil society embraces well-being as a moving-beyond colonial and neoliberal thinking. Those of us who work for the balance of planetary systems should seek not only to transform oppressive public structures but also their root: the oppressive ideologies that reside in private life. For it’s this ethos that triggers the actions that inflict injury on the earth and people.

Despite the superficial nonsense that pervades mainstream media, there are legions of passionate individuals who are great examples of “a socially and ecologically responsible agent” (Dawson, 2016). They quietly face the dark aspects of society every day and carry worries for the planet in their hearts. Because of many factors, burn-out is prevalent in activist work (Gass, 2014, p.11). Increasingly, researchers are documenting how a lack of well-being may be the greatest challenge faced by social movements (Gorsky, 2015, p.697). I have experienced activist burn-out. The voice inside many of us that says we have to save the planet no matter what is so strong! Following a multiple-year focus on productivity, I was no longer able to sustain my activism without injuring my health. At first, I reflected on how the stress impacted me, but now I am also asking how the ethos of over-productivity impacted my approach. I’ve been considering new ways of collaborating.

The organization I chose to explore was Stand. This beautiful group “challenges corporations and the government to treat people and the environment with respect” (Stand, 2018). They are an excellent example of a collaborative body doing courageous work for a more sustainable world. Stand is not only serious about it’s mission; they are serious about the processes they use to get there. Over the last decade, they have been actively learning how to make their work more effective and sustainable.

What is stand

Image from: Stand.earth – An Organizational overview. (Stand, 2017, p. 1)

“Our end goal is to turn the leaders of corporations and governments into allies who will join with us to create a world where the wellbeing of people and the planet comes first.” (Stand, 2017, p.2)

Educators can think of Stand as project-based learning experts. They find solutions for some of the most pressing threats to planetary systems including deforestation and fossil fuel extraction. Stand goes to the cause and works over the long-term to shift the behaviour of transnational corporations.  Formerly called Forest Ethics, they were renamed Stand with the vision for people to stand together to protect our beautiful home. 

I chose to study Stand’s organizational culture because I think Stand’s goals and processes are the “embodiment of a commitment to improvement of society” (Dawson, 2016, p. 7). I saw connections between the Living Schools model and Stand in terms of values, vision and leadership. I was curious to know more about how Stand supports well-being through their professional development and had the opportunity to interview Stand staff: Laura Svolos, Associate Director of Institutional Giving, and Stephen Danner, Director of Development. I did not compare every aspect of the Living Schools model to Stand because activists work in a different context. Teaching and learning for sustainability happens constantly at Stand because of their environmental protection mandate. I didn’t find enough evidence to compare a nature & place-based orientation; although cherishing the natural world appears to be an implicit part of the culture of their staff. Their annual retreat, for example, occurs outside of urban centres so that they can connect with nature (S. Danner, personal communication, November 2, 2018). Stand’s principles make them a truly dynamic, twenty-first century organization. In the following section, I will analyse Stand’s culture using the Attributes chart of Howard & O’Brien (2016). I will focus on the Values & Vision, Leadership, and Health & Well-Being attributes by Howard and O’Brien. In the following comparison, the words in italics are direct quotes from the Living Schools Attributes chart (Howard & O’Brien, 2016).

Values and Vision

“If confrontation becomes necessary, we don’t see our adversaries as enemies but as people with whom we disagree.”  (Stand, 2017, p.2)

Stand is an organization seeking sustainability for people and the planet and are thus actively engaging with the world to promote the health and well-being of the wider community, natural environment.  As an organization working to defend old-growth forest and to protect from the dangers of fossil fuel extraction, Stand works in collaboration with indigenous people who live and lead on the front lines. They are committed to “campaigns that embody decolonization and that support impacted communities” (Stand, 2018). They respect indigenous world views and traditional ways of knowing. Stand works in a variety of communities that are threatened by extraction projects. Because of the pervasiveness of environmental racism, these communities often live in systemic poverty. Stand works to create trusting and respectful relationships in vulnerable conditions. According to Svolos, one practical way that Stand has supported local activists is with funding to attend conferences (personal communication, October 26, 2018). Relationships receive attention and care in their culture. Svolos shared that “coalition building is really central to our strategy” (personal communication, Oct. 26, 2018).

Stand values skills to address positive change.  As an organization they “practice fierce compassion to speak truth to ourselves, our colleagues, our allies, and our adversaries with skill and grace” (Stand, 2018.) They employ positive communication skills because they are committed to solving serious problems, not winning a competition.  Stand retains a focus on positive relationships despite the adversarial context of corporate activism. Stand innovatively works towards a solution focused growth mindset when facing challenges and opportunities. Stand’s goal is not to vilify but to apply pressure for companies to become leaders in their field: “Companies like Home Depot, Staples, Victoria’s Secret and others—once the targets of our highly publicized campaigns —have become strong allies, challenging their industries to meet or beat the environmental standards that they’ve set. This type of systems-based thinking has become a hallmark of Stand.earth’s work” (Stand, 2017, p.2). Stand sees itself as part of a system “that is focused on disrupting the status quo” and within the system, they “provide feedback to corporations” (Danner, Nov. 2, 2018).

Leadership

“Investing in our team is a priority and we strive to do so through leadership training and mindfulness practice to tap into the immense power resident in each of us.” (Stand, 2018)

Stand engages in “opportunities for professional development for transformative learning”. They have worked in depth with various consultants since 2010 to develop leadership practices that are congruent with their sustainable planet goals. They have worked with respected leaders in developing fluid structures in facilitation, meeting process, mindfulness and equity training that matches their staff; these investments are key to achieving their goals. Activist groups are often pressed for time and as a result, meetings are overloaded with tasks. Stand uses a meta process called POPP which guides discussions during meetings. Using POPP they bring their tasks into focus by considering the Purpose, Outcome, Process, and People involved in their planning (S. Danner, personal communication, November 2, 2018). POPP increases efficiency. Meetings run smoother and clarity is enhanced. This process relieves a common frustration in organizing. It swiftly gives staff a voice and agency to shape discussions and alleviates confusion. Like the rest of Stand’s choices, they use POPP because it works. Because POPP is effective, it increases well-being at meetings.

Stand’s work is about people. Like Dawson College (2016), they innovate in practices for “forging new relationships” (p.7). They focus on relationship development not only externally but also internally with their own team. Their staff participates in equity training called Race Forward; this increases awareness to cultivate an ethos of equity. Danner says that equity training is essential in our society because the “details of how we operate are based in structures of supremacy; it’s a hard thing to see and that’s why we have to do it” (personal communication, November 2, 2018). This training is given to all staff and is a way for the organization to get to know itself better (S. Danner, personal communication, November 2, 2018). It generates new questions like: “what are the issues we’re facing and what are some of the structures we can scratch away at to develop a more equitable culture” (S. Danner, personal communication, November 2, 2018). This is one example of the positive risk-taking that Stand does.

Stand also provides organization-wide support for well-being. Stand staff do a twelve-minute meditation at their weekly meetings (L. Svolos, personal communication, October 26, 2018). Svolos explains that mindfulness is empowering in many ways; for example, it improves concentration and offers various physiological benefits including boosting the immune system (personal communication, October 26, 2018).

Well-being

“Mindfulness and contemplative practice is in our DNA.” Stephen Danner

Mindfulness helps one develop emotional, physical and spiritual well-being which spreads across a group. At Stand, mindfulness is a part of their professional practice: “we believe it strengthens our work and it’s pretty much integrated in the work we do” (A.K. Williams, webinar, June 24, 2015). Their senior management engage in mindfulness coaching and their staff share mindfulness experiences and receive training. For example, when working on the Boreal Forest campaign, their staff has done specific visualizations of the Boreal Forest (S. Danner, personal communication, November 2, 2018). They reflect on these processes with questions like “how does mindfulness and contemplative practice influence Stand’s culture” (S. Danner, personal communication, November 2, 2018). Mindfulness training is excellent preparation for understanding inequity and being able to handle bias in ourselves. The mindfulness program laid the ground work for equity training (L. Svolos, personal communication, October 26, 2018). One might question the ultimate purpose of a mindfulness program without it being used to shift hierarchical thinking. The “mindfulness program would not work unless we ask the hard questions about ourselves” (S. Danner, personal communication, November 2, 2018).

Mindfulness helps increase well-being. As mentioned, meetings include meditations. This may be the only quiet time one gets all week (S. Danner, personal communication, November 2, 2018). Taking these pauses helps not only with personal happiness but with focus, articulation and organizational flow. By investing in this training, Stand moves beyond the “Rock Concert” model of activism where people have euphoric experiences at inspiring one-time events to “build the resources and capacity within our staff here” (S. Danner, personal communication, November 2, 2018). Mindfulness practices increase resiliency. Through reflection, Stand has developed a number of core principles which promote well-being for everyone. Svolos shares that “one of our cultural principles is balance; we know that our mission is marathon, and sometimes we have to sprint but you can’t run a marathon at a sprinters pace and so we really strive to practice balance between our personal and professional lives” (personal communication, October 26, 2016). Stand means business about defending the voiceless. They take care of their energy to amplify their power.

Another impact of mindfulness training is the development of holistic vision. As Danner eloquently expresses: “Mindfulness work has personal benefits but as a work benefit, it helps us to understand the larger system and structures in which we operate. We have to be able to locate ourselves – we exist in a personal sphere, a larger organizational sphere, the community sphere, the larger movement, and then the larger global structures” (personal communication, November 2, 2018).

Well-being activation is essential. Our world has taught us to be ill and impoverished in our thinking. We must strive to bring well-being to groups everywhere and of course, to those who are educating for a sustainable world — from them leadership flows. The industrial model of politics, economics and society disrupts not only ecosystems of other-than-human species but the inner ecosystem of humans. Mainstream programming breaks down internal structures of dignity and sovereignty and leaves too many perceiving themselves as mere consumers. The powerful forces of the world today are isolating and so a powerful way to counter the global crisis is through culture-building. We must create life-affirming ways of being together in schools, in work places, in organizations. With neoliberal consumer culture diminishing our well-being, we need to “discover how to accelerate change towards well-being for all” (O’Brien & Howard, 2016, p.126). The ethos of cultural supremacy we live in trains us to think inequitably (S. Danner, personal communication, November 2, 2018). The best well-being accelerator that I have experienced is mindfulness training. Mindfulness is not a way to avoid the world, but at the very least, it provides stress-relief to help us more fully enter the world. As Robert Gass (2014), organization psychologist and change agent trainer shares – “It’s not actually about sitting on a meditation cushion or leaving the world to go on a retreat. It’s about a discipline of consistently bringing all our best inner resources to bear to meet the challenge, have the tough conversation, or plan the campaign” (pg. 23).

Wangari quote

Image from: What is transformation? And how it advances social change. (Gass, 2014, pg. 25)

Stand is part of a greater movement inside civil society that is templating something very important. Under neoliberal policy, transnational corporations have acquired a life-threatening level of power to extract resources and dump toxins and waste with limited governmental restrictions. International economic policies have exacerbated existing environmental and social challenges to the level that planetary boundaries are being crossed. With a new way of seeing and being, civil society can enact its potential and provide a model of well-being and sustainability. With the rise of rabid monetary and political power, it’s time to call upon powers that have been suppressed in public discourse – presence, love, creativity, and collaboration to start. These aspects of life hold tremendous sway when unleashed and we witness their drawing power in music, film, and other arts. The way we make meaning as eco-activists is infinite but the common ground we share when we get to the heart of our work is solid and fresh.

Collaborative movements have been suppressed by neoliberal media. People are disconnected from what moves them by superficial trends. We live in a siloed, global society and we are made to think we are alone. But system changers of the past like Gandhi, Maathai, King, Mandela, and the multitude of nameless others show that when we organize consciously and ignite the values of civil society, people rise. Developing culture for well-being is essential to our sustainable future.

I wish for my own activist community a rising priority in sharing ways to support each others’ well-being. Stand demonstrates how mindfulness increases focus, productivity in campaigns, and successes over the long term. Confronting the economic system is a tremendous challenge. But we can look to organizations – like Stand – who have a strong track-record and reflect on practices that are generative. Stopping to consider our process and how to care for those we work with is a first step. I hope that Canadian, grass-roots activists can look to the support of mindfulness, organizational psychology, equity training and more to find practices to be the change we wish to see inside a patriarchal and superficial society. Activists deserve to feel cared for and be in the knowing of the dignity and beauty of the work. We also deserve strategies to buffer stress. And that’s enough. But more than that, the rivers, the trees, vulnerable people and species across this beautiful planet deserve a fighting chance which can only be delivered by strong movements that are sustainable themselves. We must move outside of neoliberal values like overwork and perfectionism to embody well-being. What kind of success awaits our campaigns when we learn how to collaborate in a life-affirming way? Burn-out should not be a substantial threat to activism. Neoliberal (capitalist, colonial, and patriarchal) culture has not only impacted the public sphere, but also the private sphere. The personal is political and so is movement work. Building a movement couldn’t be more personal.

Audre Lourde quote

Image from: What is transformation? And how it advances social change. (Gass, 2014, pg. 8)

References

Dawson. (2016). Living Campus: Reconnecting people, community and nature. Dawson Foundation. Montreal, QC.

Howard, P., & O’Brien, C. (2017). Attributes of a living school. http://sustainablehappiness.ca/sh-extra/attributes-of-a-living-school/

Gass, R. (2014). What is transformation? And how it advances social change. Social Transformation Project. Retrieved from: http://stproject.org/resources/publications/what-is-transformation/

Gorsky, P. (2015). Relieving burn-out and the “Martyr Syndrome” among social justice education activists: The implications and effects for mindfulness. The Urban Review, 47, 696-716. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Paul_Gorski/publication/281478250_Relieving_Burnout_and_the_Martyr_Syndrome_Among_Social_Justice_Education_Activists_The_Implications_and_Effects_of_Mindfulness/links/562691e308ae4d9e5c4d4124.pdf

O’Brien, C., & Howard, P. (2016). The living school: The emergence of a transformative sustainability education paradigm, Journal of Education for Sustainable Development, 10(1), 115-130.

Stand. (2017). Stand.earth: An Organizational overview. San Franscico, CA. Retrieved from: https://www.stand.earth/sites/default/files/STAND_OrgOverview_%202017.pdf

Stand. (2018). Mission. Retrieved from https://www.stand.earth/about/mission

Williams, A. K. (2015, June 24). Introduction to mindfulness for activists. [YouTube video]. Stand. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=81kqLznjmyU

 

 

 

 

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