To Transform the World, Think Like a Gardener

By Isaac Luria

In the last few seconds before my son was born, the midwife had a hard time finding his heartbeat.

Everything happened so fast that I didn’t have time for fear, and I’m certain my wife’s mind was focused on delivering the baby. What I do remember is how the birth team got quiet, and a call to prep a pediatrician in the next room.

When the baby came out, he cried vigorously, and was rushed out of the room to that waiting pediatrician.

The pediatrician cleaned him up, and handed me my child. He was alive! I had a son! “Caleb,” I remember whispering, “welcome to the world.”

I didn’t look at my inbox that night, but the following day, I scanned through my emails from my job as a senior team member at a prominent Washington, D.C.–based political organization. The stark reality of the viciousness of my political world filled my iPhone’s screen. As a new parent filled with love, I got whiplash reading about an angry colleague, a political opponent doing something down-right mean, a nasty editorial attacking my organization for something I said, and a fight brewing at the office.

Up until that moment, I knew who I wanted to be: a powerful, respected professional who built winning political machines. But I couldn’t imagine my son growing up in the world I was creating. I didn’t wish that for him. Now that I look back on it, that’s when I knew I had to try to change what my kids might encounter when their time to lead comes.

For much of my career, I respected activists who were the hardest working, most professional, smartest, most disciplined, and most strategic. Heart didn’t even enter into the equation.

Before I had children, it was easier for me to turn a blind eye to the way that we worked and how we treated each other in my particular corner of progressive politics. Yelling in my early career wasn’t out of the ordinary. Neither was a thirst for unhealthy control, nor a deep disrespect for my body and spirit. I had a singular overemphasis on winning short-term fights, no matter the cost.

If I took time for self-care at all, it was entirely in service of the work. I’d talk to co-workers about how we needed to “recharge our batteries,” despite the fact that we are humans, not power drills.

The Bankrupt Currency of “Now”

Since the birth of my son, I’ve been searching for different ways to understand movement work. How can we make change without strip-mining our souls and bodies for whatever ounce of strength we have left? How can we live full lives, be present parents and partners, and fight for what is right? Is martyrdom ever the right path? How can we integrate our spirits and minds — bringing deep knowledge from other disciplines such as organic farming, spirituality, and faith practices — into our movement work?

These questions have only become more urgent as a new activist generation comes into its own. Many in my movement community, especially those who are younger, tell me that they cannot, in good faith, participate any longer in movements that expect people to give up their lives, souls, and spark of the divine in order to pursue a phantom image of social change.

They see that our work, organized in an extractive, urgency-driven way, only reinforces mainstream culture’s degradation of human value and spirit, reflecting the broader progression from healthy and comprehensive movements toward a focus on temporary, hollow victories that has led to long-term community evisceration and economic destruction over the past thirty years. Reversing this process doesn’t require “going soft,” or indulging in too much “self-care.” But to address such deep-seated worry about the efficacy of transactional models of justice making, we need to make an honest assessment of where we stand today, and where we’d like to go.

Our have-it-now culture reinforces the demand for short-term results. Delivering these results has meant taking a painful shortcut around the hard stuff of deep strategy, relationship building, and community rootedness. Our funders and conflict-driven media pressure us to look for the hot new tweet or message, the flashy image, or new program — and we’re too happy to oblige. But organizations with limited resources — for example, nonprofits — quickly go bankrupt on the currency of now. In this system, it’s no wonder that many activist leaders find themselves in friction with natural allies over limited resources and thirsty for more control over the sector.

Given the size of our budgets compared to those committed to extractive modes of existence, social change organizations cannot afford to lack broader vision and shared purpose, or allow a dominant, extractive, short-term mindset to upend our movements, short-circuit our capacity for moral imagination, and undermine our best asset: the people involved in the work.

Part of this loss occurs when we, as activists, deny ourselves love in our own lives. It’s disappointing that so many of us leave the movements we care about when we see that love — real love of self, of family, of people — cannot exist alongside certain kinds of activism, especially when people are treated like disposable commodities such as lumber or oil.

The Great Binding Law of the Iroquois Nations says a society must meet the needs and aspirations of those “whose faces are yet beneath the surface of the ground — the unborn of the future Nation.” I doubt many of us change makers are looking much farther than the next year or funding cycle in our work — if we’re lucky. This short-term thinking may allow us to win a battle here or there. But we are losing the war for our humanity, and in some cases, we may even be complicit in creating conditions that impede human flourishing.

The degree to which talented change makers have internalized inhumane, consumerist, anti-environmentalist, individualist modes of thinking about our work and our souls is deeply saddening. It stunts our capacity to envision a world that values all people equally.

None of this is cause for individual blame or guilt. We should blame the unhealthy “disaster capitalist” system we’re trying to change. We are conditioned to understand runaway, extractive, market-obsessed thinking as the only possible reality within both our economy and social change work. It is very difficult to break out of a dominant mental model to envision radically different paths from those currently presented to each of us as possible within the dominant paradigm.

A Permacultural Approach to Change

As I was growing more comfortable with this critique of the state of affairs, I started gardening more seriously. I was drawn to watching life unfold in front of me, nurturing sustenance, and doing something in the face of the ecological destruction we are living through.

Somewhere along this journey, I realized that my two callings — movement building and gardening — were meant to thrive together. By drawing on the wisdom of ecology and sustainable farming, we might relate more sustainably to each other as individuals and organizations — and steward our resources wisely for future generations.

With a different movement model borne out of ecological understandings of the world, I am hopeful that we can spark and sustain thriving communities of resistance that will heal individuals, communities, and the world. Organizations and movements need not be machines. They can be overflowing, abundant gardens tended with care, where each human being is encouraged to live a full life and strive for a just world.

How might we get started?

First, we can reconsider the ecology of social change movements through the lens ofpermaculture, a term that encompasses a vast and growing body of thought and practice in organic agriculture and sustainable development.

An organic farmer’s first step is to observe the natural world, then carefully design farming systems to take advantage of natural processes. What areas get the best sun? Where does water come from, and how often? Which plants and animals are already here and doing well? Which plants and animals are not here? Why?

As activists and movement makers, we must do the same. We can listen to the ways in which our movements make human flourishing more difficult and learn from those who are experimenting with more life-giving models of movement work. Observing and remembering what creates loving communities, helps heal human souls, and provides for human flourishing will enable organizations and movements to transform into living, ecologically responsible workplaces. We can “hear each other into speech,” as Parker Palmer says, and find a different way of working.

For instance, why is it that we expect employees to turn on like a machine at 9 am and shut off at 5 pm? Instead, if we observe when and how we are most productive and creative — and what prevents productive or creative moments — we may find that a more efficient use of resources and increased productivity are possible.

What is a “human-friendly” workplace and how does it look and feel? How can we shift the way we are working to embody our human-friendly commitments to social justice? What isn’t working well about our workplaces?

We may also recognize larger systems that pressure us to value and depend on extractive approaches to human and material resources, top-down decision-making structures, hyperprofessionalization of staff roles, short-termism, “nonnative” funding from sources far from the problems we are trying to solve, corporate efficiency models, and biases against locally rooted, place-based change efforts.

It will take time to listen and observe. Yet if we don’t make time, we’ll miss potential solutions that might be staring us in the face. Once we take the time to see the problems, we can start to pull the weeds we have allowed to flourish from our movement gardens, and refuse to reinforce dominant cultural paradigms of radical individualism and inhumane, unnatural mechanical thinking in our work and lives. We can untie the mental and emotional binds that hold us to these mechanical systems of death and dying: unnatural consumerist approaches to movement building, and their logic of extraction.

We may realize that the traditional workday doesn’t make sense. We may realize that meals are sacred. We may also realize the necessity of ritual to crack open our shuttered hearts as the day begins. We may as meeting facilitators note the power of meditation and silence in meetings dominated by so much speaking. We may observe that not everyone wants a single job for forty-plus hours a week — or that talented thinkers will lead us to integrate a new expertise we otherwise never would have imagined.

We may recognize that advocating for healthy communities means we must have a healthy community in our organizations. We may realize that the ways that power typically flows are actually counterproductive to the goals we have in mind (for example, from funders to executives to program staff to those we serve). We may even realize that we carry trauma of many kinds, including traditionally understood forms of trauma and trauma delivered by the scourges of radical individualism and ecological destruction.

Next, we can compost what is dead and dying so it can empower new life.

As more leaders understand the necessity of imagining a new organizational structure for a new world, we can reform and reinvent movement organizations to be more in tune with human beings. We can listen to the agrarian prophet Wendell Berry’s hopes for humanity, and his exhortation to leave what we have better than we found it. We can help those with resources see the power in this new model through strategic storytelling of our victories and deep relational work, and by helping them experience the vitality, presence, and success of powerful movement cultivators.

This shift will be difficult yet essential to building a world where true human flourishing is possible. The nonliving approach to movement work is deeply ingrained in our movements, our leaders, our economic system, and our culture. But if we care to heal and repair this world, we’ll need to find a more compelling vision that allows a deeply committed social-change sector to model and lead the way in creating a new kind of integrated, life-giving mode of existence where justice and the good life are considered equal parts of the same equation.

Finally, we can empower those experimenting with new models and practices of rooted movement building with our attention, investment, and faith.

Life-Giving Movements Are All Around Us

A wonderful thing about life is that no matter how much pavement is poured over the ground, life always finds a way to break through. Our job today is to love where life is bursting forth and help these new friends grow and flourish.

Transformational calls for spiritually motivated social justice, like Tikkun’s New Bottom Line, are pushing the boundaries of how we measure success in society, compelling us to judge “the rationality, efficiency, and productivity of our institutions, corporations, legislation, social practices, health care system, schools, legal system, and social policies by how much love, compassion, kindness, generosity, and ethical and ecological sensitivity they inculcate within us.”

The Rockwood Leadership Institute, Transformative Action Institute, the Movement Strategy Center, Generative Somatics, and many other wonderful organizers, trainers, educators, and organizations are engaging transformational techniques and practices to help leaders lead in collaborative, healing ways. Instead of having a leader atop a pyramid who adopts a military-style chain of command, we can lean in to Ella Baker’s style of collaborative leaderful movements that unlock the potential of every participant.

The heart beating deep within the Black Lives Matter movement is one borne out of listening to how the systems around us dehumanize and devalue black lives — and many of their strategies and tactics of collaboration and direct action are more rooted in human-friendly, collaborative, and organic approaches.

Auburn Seminary, where I work as a cultivator of faith-rooted justice movements, is helping faith leaders and organizers imagine a multifaith movement for justice that heals and repairs the world — and heals each of us in the process. Other organizers are envisioning new faith-rooted models of community organizing that put our values and faith at the center of the table.

Through emergent and new practices, movement leaders — and many subscribers to this magazine — are trying to envision a healthier and more collaborative social-justice movement by reaching for what feels right and human. While we might not use agricultural language, our guiding metaphor can be to work as gardeners, rather than factory foremen.

This approach still feels radical, new, countercultural. We still have work to do to inspire movement makers and organizers to throw off the chains of extractive thinking, and embrace roles as movement cultivators.

Of course, this is not to underestimate the questions of financial viability, potential for scale, and the ability of a so-called “slow activism” approach to face urgent dilemmas that cannot wait for seeds to sprout and mature.

Yet the organics movement has a lot to teach us. Despite decades of Chicken Little warnings from industrial agriculture, organic alternatives have yet to cause the sky to fall. Despite alarmist rhetoric, we are witnessing a major shift in our food systems that is helping more people have access to good, real food. We didn’t know exactly how this would happen until millions of people put themselves to work on the problem. Today, we have clearer indications that modern agriculture that respects the environment is indeed possible. The same is true in the context of organizations and movements. We need only start down the path to realize that we can build more human-friendly movement workplaces that cultivate the best of the human spirit.

As with organic food consumption, privilege matters. Those who wish to make the shift to deeper work might not be those who feel the immediate gnawing of a scarcity of resources. This may be true today, yet just as the environmental and food movements are shifting to put marginalized people at the center of our movements, so too can this ecological approach to social movements. An organic farmer looks to the edges of the garden for zones of fertile growth and places to learn from diversity.

With a dose of humility and a soulful commitment to observation, the human capacity for adaptation and transformation makes far-reaching change possible. Seven generations from now — hopefully sooner — our descendants will thank us for the change we were able to make.

ISAAC LURIA is a father, husband, aspiring agrarian, and digital organizer living in Brooklyn. At Auburn Seminary, he helps faith leaders use modern prophetic communications for social change, and is the lead strategist for the multifaith action network Groundswell.

Copyright © Tikkun magazine

Originally printed in Tikkun, visit to view the original article.

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