This series of portraits paired with interview-based articles attempts to start a conversation about how change makers think about, communicate, and embody their identities; and how this relates to the personal and spiritual motivations behind their work. The intention of the series is to explore our differences and what makes us individual so as to underline a common threat of desire for love, non-violence, generosity, peace, and caring about others that I happen to believe lies at the heart of all activist work. In particular this work attempts to focus on the idea that bringing your own story of how your identity interacts with your activism allows for those looking from the outside in to be touched on a human-to-human level, allowing them to feel compassion for you and the goal of the work at large.
Stay tuned for parts II and III in this series!
Hadar Cohen, a 25 year old feminist and spiritual activist living in Oakland, California began pivot to bloom, a company that works to transform tech companies into safe spaces for people of all genders, after graduating from Cooper Union with a degree in Engineering. Growing up in a particularly capitalistic family, the drive to “make it” deeply embedded itself in Hadar’s ideology in her own personal understanding of success and hard work. Working one’s way to the top of the corporate pyramid is a very linear and singular road, without room for community, or emotions, something she came to reject very recently, only after following it for the first 22 years of her life. “I think basically the crux of where I am right now stems from a lot of frustrations I had in engineering school that I am unpacking now. One big one was rejection of mysticism, that drove me off the walls, and with that, rejection of women.”
In Hadar’s view Cooper Union, like most educational institutions, and the Engineering school on its own leave very little room for non-linear thought and critique, particularly in regards to what academics consider “rational.” This particular consciousness is one that often completely disregards and dismisses the existence of God and religion as legitimate. At Cooper Union, “In the scientific community, people had a lot of God baggage, and instead would turn to science and would come out saying God sucks, Science is great. There was a lot of discomfort around how people were talking about God, and so I was confused about how I could express that part of myself.”
This led to a partial rejection of her own spiritual and religious values of compassion for all, as she adopted the same sexist logic of success that the many men she was surrounded by in Engineering school actively promoted and discussed around and with her. “Part of the crux that happened [for me] was when one of the guys said something really awful about women, and he was like, ‘Oh but not you, you are a strong woman, I don’t like all these submissive passive women.’ And I just remembered being like, ‘You are part of the problem that is creating this culture which makes women feel like they have to be passive and submissive.’ And that moment it really hit me that I’ve been doing that too, I’ve been saying to myself: ‘I’m not like the other women, these other women suck,’ just being a part of this widespread hatred of women which exists everywhere.”
Hadar then joined art students who were catalyzing protests to preserve the schools tuition free status. “In the art school things are much different, especially around gender. Everybody was deconstructing everything all the time, and I felt like ‘This is so fun!’ ….Then I started really organizing with my art friends and joined Free Cooper Union, which was a student protest movement against debt.” A crescendo of personal conflict, internalized sexism, linear thought, and the discovery of deconstructing social norms and institutional powers resulted in a new realization of self, one that could not do New York anymore, as Hadar puts it “I needed Bay Area.” This vision of self finally saw the whole Hadar, a spiritual Hadar: “Justice communities and religious communities have been the only communities in which I felt like me as a whole person mattered. I mean lots of different things when I say that, a. My experience matters… and that, b. My vulnerability was really important, and particularly my pain mattered which is something that I really haven’t found to be true in communities beyond religion and activism. I find that a lot of other communities sterilize our emotional bodies, and I’m a very emotional person.”
Being able to see herself as a whole person, as completely infinite, as someone without a beginning or an end in the spiritual world, has become Hadar’s essential first step before she is able to help others, and in many ways, this stems from and continues to be nourished by her religious and spiritual practice: “I think prayer was one of the first experiences where I felt like, ‘Oh! Life on earth could be different.’ My living experience doesn’t have to be one of rejection and criticism. That actually there was this kind of complete openness.”
When she came to the Bay Area and needed to find a job, instead of following in the footsteps of the other Cooper Union engineering alumni in pursuing a job in the multi-billion dollar tech industry, she decided to take a step back. “There was just a shift of trying to integrate my whole self into my decisions, if my mind wants to do something but my body’s not on board, we need to have a conversation, we can’t just do it.” And her body did not want to go back to the same sexist, linear, money motivated environment she had felt so suffocated by while at Cooper. “I felt this shift that I can’t keep going and going, I need to make sure I am grounded and ok within myself before I can keep this up. I was like, ‘Maybe I need to learn how to rest.’ I finally got to the Bay Area and gave myself space and rest and all my trauma that I had been repressing for years came up. Nobody tells you how hard that is; that’s way harder than any linear algebra problem.”
Through prayer, and mindfulness, and connection with God, and hence, through connection to herself, Hadar came to understand that, “There is no way that I don’t invest in my personal healing, not if I want to succeed, it’s just not going to work. If you start something, you have to believe in yourself, and believing in yourself is actually really hard, particularly as a woman…I really believe that if we heal this [motioning to herself] we can heal all of that [pointing outside of herself]. But if we can’t even do this [motioning to herself again], then there is no point in even going there.”
Now Hadar is her strongest rock; she has built up a foundation beneath herself that nobody can shake, and this allows her to move on to help other people with her company, pivot to bloom. The basis of this work is utilizing spiritual teachings of love, compassion, and seeing everyone as an infinite spiritual vessel to understand people beyond their immediate hurtful and exclusionary actions and words. Once she is able to connect with her client as such and feels compassion towards them, she is then able to counsel them on using those same principles of compassion, and acceptance through recognition of others’ differences to create a healthy and inclusionary work environment. “I think God has been this incredible teacher to me of how to be endlessly compassionate towards people who are suffering. People suffer, everyone suffers, that’s why we are all here, and if we are attune to that suffering and if we don’t get paralyzed by it, or repress it, or reject it, then ultimately God will be there, God always comes when there is suffering, and that is a really core belief that I have. That is really how I see my work. Jewish tradition teaches me so much, but particularly that God so quickly comes to comfort those who are in pain, and that’s how I want my work to be. Ultimately I believe that every human is so infinite, and that is where the non-judgment piece comes in, because I cannot know anything really about a person’s story, all I can do is experience that person and listen to what they are telling me. But it’s so small, in regards to what is happening for that person. I really believe that we are much more different than we are similar, and I think that difference is our spiritual connection. Every person matters. When people ask me, how did you get all those people to come out to your event, or how did you make pivot to bloom happen, I say: ‘It’s really simple: Treat every person like they matter. It’s not a marketing strategy, it’s a religious theology,’ and that has really been working out. And it’s not like God is always on my side, but when I’m in my practice and I’m aligned with God then everything works out in terms of my work.”
Emily Monforte is a senior at Wesleyan University doing her thesis in Photography, with a double major in Sociology. She is particularly intrigued by the effects of mixing multiple forms of individual representation, both visual and verbal, and how it allows for the multi-faceted truths of an individual to show through. At Tikkun magazine she has helped to illustrate articles in the magazine with both other people’s as well as her own work, she has designed multiple visual advertisements, and most importantly has created a photographic and written blog series on local Bay Area artists.