Fostering Deep Morality: Activist Empowerment

sunset's trumpet : plate from the children's story
torbakhopper / Foter / CC BY-ND

By Wade Lee Hudson

The Moral Monday movement that began in North Carolina is extremely promising. My hope is that it evolves into a nationwide movement that nurtures the morality of its own members as well as that of policy makers. If it does, the movement could become an even more effective instrument for changing our society for the better.

Moral Mondays has been applying universal values to concrete issues in a non-ideological, inclusive manner. As Rev. William J. Barber II, Moral Monday’s leader, stated during the closing speech at the February 2014 rally in Raleigh that drew upwards of 100,000 people:

We are black, white, Latino, Native American. We are Democrat, Republican, independent. We are people of all faiths, and people not of faith but who believe in a moral universe. We are natives and immigrants, business leaders and workers and unemployed, doctors and the uninsured, gay and straight, students and parents and retirees. We stand here – a quilt of many colors, faiths, and creeds.

So far the movement has been outer-directed. It talks about what they should do. The movement also needs to talk about what we should do.

We need to be inner-directed as well as outer-directed. We need to examine ourselves, notice our problematic tendencies, acknowledge our mistakes, and resolve to avoid them in the future. We need to support one another in our personal growth, community building, and political action. Doing so will enable us to better develop our personal and collective power.

We activists have done much to help this country live up to its ideals. Yet we often get wrapped up in our activism and fail to consider ways in which we can improve the quality of our work by becoming better human beings. We need to confront ourselves as well as the governing elites.

In a recent essay, Richard Eskow, Senior Fellow at the Campaign for America’s Future, addressed this issue eloquently on that organization’s blog. He quoted the phrase used decades ago by the Brazilian educator Paolo Freire, “internalizing the oppressor consciousness,” to describe what happens “when people identify so deeply with their rulers that they deny themselves the permission to work toward, or even to dream about, a better future for themselves.” Eskow called on activists “to remove those self-imposed limitations William Blake called ‘mind-forg’d manacles’” so they “can unleash [their] own imagination and courage.”

This “internalized oppression” is deeply embedded in our culture and ourselves. It affects all of us and drives away potential collaborators. The forms vary from person to person, but certain tendencies are common.

We tend to be judgmental, self-righteous, arrogant, harsh, and strident. We define leadership as the ability to mobilize others, rather than the ability to facilitate collective problem solving. We assume that some one person must always be in charge, so we rarely collaborate as equals. We’re afraid to be honest because we’re overly concerned about what others think of us. We get trapped in our anger and set aside the understanding and compassion that unites all of us. We forget to love the Universe and fail to enjoy our fellow activists, which leaves us less able to attract new members.

To overcome these and other hurtful propensities, we first of all need to admit them, especially when they shape our actions. This honesty can be difficult. The Swiss psychiatrist Carl G. Jung wrote:

Nothing is more feared than self-confrontation. Whoever looks into the mirror of the water will see first of all his own face…. The mirror does not flatter, it faithfully shows whatever looks into it…. This confrontation is the first test of courage on the inner way, a test sufficient to frighten off most people.

Then we need to admit those weaknesses to our colleagues, if only in small groups of trusted allies. Naming our demons is liberating. The Swiss psychologist P.W. Martin wrote:

Individuation [by which he meant full personal development] is not likely to come of itself. From the very outset anyone undertaking the experiment in depth is well advised to do everything in his power to bring into operation two great integrative factors: the fellowship of a working group; and the contact with the deep center.

Martin called this working group a “fellowship-in-depth,” in which a “mutual kindling of the flame can happen.”

Personal growth, community building, and political action are three sides of the same reality. The personal, the social, and the political are each inherently valuable. Each is both an end and a means. In a positive upward spiral, being more effective in each of these three areas reinforces growth in the other two. In cultivating all three simultaneously, we can build “holistic communities” as did Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Merely voting is not enough. We are also obligated to help improve public policies between elections. Merely taking care of our immediate family is not enough. It takes a community to raise a child well. Merely looking out for number one is not enough. Selfishness ultimately leads to emptiness. We need to follow the nonviolent Gandhi-King path and cultivate caring communities whose members are dedicated to serving one another.

In our modern, hyper-specialized, deeply divided world, trying to cultivate such communities involves swimming against the stream. To move in that direction, two elements could be helpful: 1) a brief written purpose embraced by community members that clearly commits the community to holistic organizing, and 2) a user-friendly method that self-organizing groups can easily employ to provide mutual support, similar to what Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) groups have done.

The closest manifestation of this approach that I’ve discovered so far is Mujeres Unidas y Activas, a grassroots organization of Latina immigrant women in San Francisco, which has “a double mission of promoting personal transformation and building community power for social and economic justice.” They are striving to fulfill their mission by:

  • Creating an environment of understanding and confidentiality
  • Empowering and educating our members to provide mutual support
  • Offering trainings to build economic security and leadership
  • Working in diverse alliances on the local, regional, national, and international levels
  • Organizing campaigns to win immigrant, workers’ and women’s rights.

Their methods include “mutual support meetings that provide a space for women to tell their own stories in a safe and confidential environment and receive support from other women who have had similar life experiences.”

The “Gift Circle” as practiced by the Gift Culture movement illustrates more concretely the kind of user-friendly tool that a grassroots holistic movement will need. As they describe it:

We always begin with some social time, hold hands around the table, everyone checks-in very briefly around the theme of the month, then we share a pot-luck meal for more connection and camaraderie. Eventually we circle up and begin the process. Going around the circle one at a time, each says what he or she needs. It always ignites a wonderful abundance of exchange. The riches of time and services offered range from window washing to book editing, from singing lessons to bereavement counseling. Someone acts as a scribe to record the wants and gifts, usually posting it later via e-mail.

Mujeres Unidas y Activas and the Gift Circle suggest how we could deepen and strengthen the growing populist movement and shift power away from the elites who dominate our society. Being an activist in the United States of America provides a “similar life experience.” If we develop a brief statement of purpose and agree on a user-friendly tool for conducting meetings, this commonality could be the foundation for a community of “activist empowerment” peer-support clubs across the country.

The time is ripe to create a more just and democratic society with the peaceful transfer of power and a compassionate populism rooted in deep morality.