To Transform the World, Think Like a Gardener

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 downright 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.

Running man with clock as head

Corporate ideas of efficiency pressure activists to adopt "extractive approaches to human and material resources," Luria writes. The alternative? A permacultural approach to social movements. Illustration by Oona Taper. Credit: Oona Taper ({link url=""}{/link}).

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.
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