There is Nothing More Difficult

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By Barbara Phillips

“There is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle than to initiate a new order of things.”

And so, courageous social justice warriors convened as the Organizational Fellowship Program September 16 – 17, 2011 in the Bay Area to reflect upon their collective journey to initiate a new order of things within themselves, their organizations, their communities, the broader social justice movement – across the U.S. and beyond.  The weekend was about sharing the stories of that journey and, more importantly, learning from those experiences – lifting up struggles with terminology, theory and practice and appreciating that context matters.  As one participant said so eloquently, the weekend marked not the end and not the beginning, but “The end of the beginning.”

It was so appropriate that the convening of September 16th was at the site in Oakland where the first convening took place almost three years ago.  My hope for those who were returning is that they were flooded with raw, unfiltered memories of that first experience – not just their thoughts, but their feelings about jumping into the unknown. One participant spoke with particular openness and honesty about the panic that swept through him as he pondered, “What do we do now???” – after being a part of the OFP.

My hope is that these social justice warriors embrace the reality of the unending repetitiveness of that query, “What do we do now?”

The answer will come to them as they continue their collective struggle.  And if they are lucky, the answer will never be definitive.  They will never know for sure that a particular course of action is “right.”  They do not need the false certainty of being “right”; all they need to move forward is the intention to struggle honestly and with compassion and to continue reflecting, thinking critically, learning as they go, and sharing all of that with the community.

There will be many times when the way is not certain. That is the nature of initiating a new order of things. The civil rights movement embraced the reality of those recurring moments with a song, “Do What the Spirit Say Do.”  The community sang that song over-and-over until there was a collective decision.  These courageous social justice warriors will create their own unique response to these moments because they are initiating a new order of things.  And for that we should all stand in grateful solidarity.



How NGEC’s Organizational Fellowship Program Built Our Organization’s Capacity to Achieve Gender Equity

By Vincent Pan, Executive Director, Chinese for Affirmative Action

When we consider change, our mindset is typically to reflect upon the past and then imagine a different future.  This is a necessary approach, but it is rarely enough.

Instead, sustainable change requires us to look inwards – at our own beliefs, biases, and behaviors – so that we critique and transform our whole way of being.

In many respects, this is the true challenge of capacity building.  How do we, as individuals and as institutions, intentionally shape our own evolution even as we attempt to shape the evolution of our communities?  How do we do this to achieve a more wholehearted and healthy version of ourselves?

The three years that Chinese for Affirmative Action (CAA) participated in the National Gender & Equity Campaign (NGEC) was part of our attempt to answer these questions.  Through philosophy and through practice (and more practice) we sought to improve how we understand and live our commitment to gender democracy, gender equity, and gender justice.

At times, even plans were profound.  For example, re-organizing our offices to be more physically open encouraged sharing space and subsequently power.  The creation of unexpected teams across work areas, and the rotation of responsibilities within teams, broadened our perspectives and deepened our empathy for one another.

Those steps were part and parcel, and precursor, to the explicit address of gender.  In many ways, gender equity became both a means and an ends.  It was an open challenge as each insight spawned exponentially more pathways to pursue.  Each measure of growth revealed more horizons to explore.  I can better see the pursuit of gender equity as a living, breathing process that must continually surface and resurface in our politics, in our policies, in our programs, in the lives of those who participate in and with our efforts.

Today we live in a time of great danger.  Recorded poverty in America has never been higher even as our capacity for materialism surges unbounded.  Two wars abroad and the domestic war on our civil liberties drain our moral and financial reserves.  Fundamentalists exploit the lack of a coherent system of ethics in our country to further divide and oppress people using class, color, gender, and identity.

Yet it is also a time of great hope.  A new generation of activists has within its grasp the ability to achieve a new universal consciousness.  It is a consciousness that does not circumvent or freeze identity, but instead marches with it towards social justice.  It is consciousness based on love and compassion, and on fairness and freedom.  It is a consciousness that asks what it means to be a human being in the twenty-first century.

Ultimately, this campaign was about us re-engineering our DNA.  This is as it should be, because only by transforming ourselves, as deeply and inwardly as possible, and as individuals and as institutions, can we begin to create the consciousness and fulfill the hopefulness these difficult times demand.

Vincent Pan participates in group discussion at NGEC Organizational Fellows Program Convening

Vincent Pan is the executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action, a community-based civil rights organization in San Francisco.

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Ending at the Beginning: A Reflection about the Final Convening of Organizational Fellowship Program

By Iris Shiraishi, Mu Performing Arts

“We end at the beginning” – that was my first thought walking into Nile Hall at Preservation Park in Oakland, California last week.   Three years ago, walking into the same hall, I had so many questions as we embarked on our collective journey in the Organizational Fellowship Program, a project of the National Gender & Equity Campaign (NGEC).  I can’t say that all those original questions have been answered, but I can say that they’ve been supplanted by those that come from a deeper understanding of the issues as we work towards gender and equity.

I loved meeting up and hearing from folks across both the MN and CA cohorts. I loved seeing past staff join the convening.  It is from these deep and lasting relationships that I hope I/Mu/all of us can begin at this ending and continue on our work with renewed focus and passion.

AAPIP’s plenary session on Philanthropy and the Economy on Saturday was awe-inspiring!  Each of the speakers communicated their purpose and dedication from such a deep, honest, authentic place; you could not walk away without feeling energized and inspired.  I will know to conjure up their presence whenever I get discouraged or too bogged down in the mire of the work.

And that was a rockin’ reception and dinner!  Those little scallop things melted in your mouth; the liquid refreshments flowed oh so freely and I was able to laugh a lot with more folks throughout the evening.

Thank you AAPIP for a great convening; thank you for all your support over these three years; thank you for helping me do my work!

Iris Shiraishi is a part of the Mu Performing Arts leadership team and is currently the Artistic Director for Mu Daiko and director of its taiko programs.   

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For Women to Be All That They Can Be

This is the second of a two-part blog post by Barbara Phillips on her observations at the April 2011 convening of the California cohort of the NGEC Organizational Fellowship ProgramClick here to read Part I of the post, and Barbara’s initial reflections focusing on gender democracy and the roles often assigned to women that were part of the cohort’s discussion.


The April 6th and 7th conversation at the OFP convening of the California cohort reminded me of a billboard I saw recently advertising the value of a particular community college.  The image presented a single Mother and two children, and the text exhorted her to attend this college so that she could become “the backbone” for her family.  This troubles me because there was nothing on that billboard about her intrinsic value, her dreams, her goals.  Her further education was presented as something of value only in relation to her ability to serve her children.  By comparison, let me mention that slogan of the Army targeting men – “Be all that you can be!”  I say this understanding fully that the toughest place to work and the toughest work to do is challenging the culture within our own communities – especially around issues related to gender.

Let me recommend two pieces of reading.  Check out the article “Reclaiming the Politics of Freedom” by Corey Robin in the April 25, 2011 issue of The Nation.  He makes the case for an explicit, progressive argument relevant to why we should engage in policy advocacy by re-positioning the role of the State as an instrument of freedom:

Without a strong government hand in the economy, men and women are at the mercy of their employer.  When government is aligned with democratic movements on the ground, it becomes the individual’s instrument for liberating herself from her rulers in the private sphere, a way to break the back of private autocracy.

Perhaps he offers some answers to our struggles with engaging policy advocacy, and crafting an analysis of the role of the State and the relationship we should have with it.

Another good read is a beautiful, provocative, and small book by Leela Fernandes, an activist/scholar entitled Transforming Feminist Practice: Non-Violence, Social Justice and the Possibilities of a Spiritualized Feminism (Aunt Lute Books, San Francisco, 2003).  Her ideas speak to our struggle against replicating that which we oppose and our sense of impotency in the face of the powerful systems of the status quo. Fernandes offers the possibilities of spiritualized social transformation that gives us the tools to create alternative forms of practice that do not replicate problematic structures and privilege, and which support participatory democracy.  Her tools challenge all forms of injustice, hierarchy and abuse from the most intimate daily practices in our lives to the larger structures of race, gender, class, sexuality and nation.

At its core, Fernandes’s work makes the case that a deep understanding of and adherence to non-violence should begin with understanding that compassion, humility and love are not just feelings but are practices.

She discusses the transformative power of these practices in daily life and especially in the realm of “public” practices – within our organizations, with our colleagues and collaborators, our communities, and even our oppressors. See if her ideas contribute new possibilities as the OFP cohort works through the struggles discussed during the April convening.

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California OFP Cohort Explores Challenges to Movement Building and Gender Democracy

This is the first of a two-part blog post by Barbara Phillips on her observations at the April 2011 convening of the California cohort of the NGEC Organizational Fellowship Program. In Part II of the post, Barbara offers additional reflection on gender democracy and the roles often assigned to women, as well as suggested resources to inform a deeper analysis and richer discourse.


On April 6th and 7th, the California cohort of the Organizational Fellowship Program convened in San Francisco and struggled with some of the most significant and enduring challenges of advancing social justice and movement building. While sharing their organizational development and programmatic work since the last convening, the participants brought their years of organizing experience to enrich the conversation with explorations such as:

• How to translate gender justice analysis into organizational culture and, thus, into structure, operations and programs;

• How to engage with competing cultural values and reach hearts and minds both within the community and in the larger society;

• What does cultural competence look like in gender democracy work?;
The challenges of sustainability;

• How to engage with the State – does community empowerment replace the need to effect policy change;

• When the status quo is so powerful, can we rationally believe in our power to effect change;

• How to raise our own consciousness about aspects of the status quo detrimental to equality and democracy with which we are comfortable and have no will change; and

• How do we not end up mimicking that which we oppose?

There are no easy “answers” to any of these challenges and each one requires constant reflection and risk-taking.  But it is essential that we engage these struggles if we are to have any chance to create the world in which we want to live.

As I listened to these progressive organizers wrestle with how to make their work more powerful by moving gender equity/democracy to the core, I was struck by the pervasive placement of women within the context of family.  Even as the participants noted aspects of the community’s cultural values antithetical to gender democracy, the participants themselves often placed/valued women only in relation to family and children.  The advocacy on behalf of women tended to be couched in terms of how the family and/or children would benefit.  Even when the discussion turned to the difficulty some women had in participating in meetings due to the husbands’ expectations that the wife should be attending to domestic duties, the response was to schedule the meeting earlier so that the wife could meet this cultural expectation.

I encourage OFP participants to reflect upon the need for further struggle.

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Daring to Do What the Spirit Say Do

Daring to Do What the Spirit Say Do

By Barbara Phillips, Social justice activist and former Ford Foundation Program Officer for Women’s Rights and Gender Equity

Moments of the day with the Minnesota NGEC fellowship organization’s kept poking at me.  So when Peggy Saika shared that it is racism within philanthropy that led to the creation of Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy (AAPIP), and while AAPIP never intended to be and is not a “funder” it seized the opportunity to create the space for the National Gender & Equity Campaign of which the OFP is a component.

Peggy Saika grounded the OFP work in the initial conception of NGEC, describing NGEC as an example of what’s possible when philanthropy actually undertakes a collaborative, respectful partnership with the community.  NGEC should be understood as a bold experiment in building democratic philanthropy that requires the creative engagement of all the partners.

The OFP groups are making the road by walking it – an over-used phrase, but in this case the most accurate shorthand description of what is really happening.

The OFP groups’ thoughtful struggles keep coming to mind:

* We are managing the issue of “offending the community,” and it compels thoughtfulness about where we stand.  Do we shirk from offending some community members who are unable, yet, to respect the full humanity of others?

* It takes courage to have honest conversations about an organization’s new vision and mission that is grounded in social justice.

* We are exploring what gender looks like in the LGBTQ community and building respect for inclusion.

* We value re-setting aspirations – now we understand our work to be about social change with four core strategies and we need a new structure to implement our new vision.

* We are changing our definition of success from the amount of the grant dollars received to how much change is effected and the duration of that change.

* We’ve altered our identity, structure, and strategies – we need to look for solid connection between intention, practice and impact.  We’re trying to change who are the decision-makers in the community.

* We consider art a strategy for social change and we need diverse artistic expression and perspectives.

* We are building our base, measuring change, and staying accountable.

* I think about the tremendous courage required to embark on this challenging new venture of community organizing within the context of also continuing internal transformation.

First, I meditated on the notion that there’s going to be lots of discomfort and tension along the way.  But, comfort is really over-valued.  It is struggle, not comfort that generates creativity, transformation, energy and ultimately the world in which we want to live.  And sometimes discomfort /tension is not a problem to be solved.  Sometimes the solution to that condition is evolution of a new consciousness that appreciates the condition as an incubator of new vision and new ideas.

Second, I think it is important to make friends with your fears.  Sometimes it is a very smart thing and quite rational to be afraid and to stay afraid.  But, don’t let that stop you.  Advice to “just don’t be afraid” never worked for me.  If I had waited for my fear to subside, I’d probably still be waiting. I learned, instead, to hold the hand of that fear and to take it with me – to “do it” anyway.

I’m reminded of an extraordinary evening several years ago when Marion Wright Edelman of the Children’s Defense Fund invited a bunch of college age organizers to spend an evening with veterans of the Civil Rights Movement at Haley Farm in east Tennessee.

The legendary SNCC organizer Bob Moses and several of his colleagues sat around one end of the table and the students sat around the other end and spilled into the room.  Conversation was pretty stiff as the students seemed awed and intimidated by the veterans.  Finally, Bob Moses asked them about what issues grabbed their passion and the students focused upon the prison-industrial complex and its specific impact upon the Black community.

Bob Moses listened attentively and then explored their analyses, strategies, and tactics.  The students shared their experiences and frustrations, contrasting their condition of often being uncertain with the clarity the veterans had brought to the Civil Rights Movement.  The veterans erupted into laughter.  Really.  They did.

And then they explained, “You think we KNEW what we should do?  We so often didn’t know what to do that we even had a song for it!”  And with that, the veterans launched spontaneously into the song, “I’m Gonna Do What the Spirit Say Do.”  And explained that when stuck on deciding what to “do,” they would sing that song in a SNCC meeting or a community organizing Mass Meeting, and then they would do what the spirit say do.  Together. The students were astonished and – finally – real conversation commenced.

I’m gonna do what the Spirit say do

I’m gonna do what the Spirit say do

What the Spirit say do, I’m gonna do Oh, Lord

I’m gonna do what the Spirit say do

I’m gonna fight when the Spirt say fight

I’m gonna fight when the Spirit say fight

When the Spirit say fight, I’m gonna fight Oh, Lord

I’m gonna fight when the Spirit say fight

I’m gonna march when the Spirit say march

I’m gonna march when the Spirit say march

When the Spirit say march, I’m gonna march Oh, Lord

I’m gonna march when the Spirit say march

This is a participatory song and is adapted to whatever conundrum faced the community.  The verses were modified depending upon the circumstances with which the community was wrestling.  It could be pondering alternatives of “fight,” “march,” “pray” – whatever – the song allowed the community to name all the possible alternative actions.  But the closing verse always repeated the first, “I’m gonna do what the Spirit say do.”

We can be immobilized by uncertainty and the fear of doing the “wrong” thing.  But, the response to uncertainty is not to wait for the Angel of Certainty to whisper in our ear.  She won’t be coming and those who are certain are the most dangerous people there are. The response to fear is not to wait for it to subside.  We are challenged to trust ourselves and our communities, to take risks together, to learn together as we move with those risks – to do what the Spirit say do.


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Social Justice Organizations Moving from Intention to Practice: the Journey of Minnesota’s Fellowship Organizations

Social Justice Organizations Moving from Intention to Practice: the Journey of Minnesota’s Fellowship Organizations

By Barbara Phillips, Social justice activist and former Ford Foundation Program Officer for Women’s Rights and Gender Equity

The Minnesota cohort of the Organization Fellowship Program convened on March 24- 25, 2011 in sunny, cold St. Paul, Minnesota.  We were ever so fortunate to be in the beautiful and huge conference room of the Northwest Area Foundation with sunshine streaming through its windows wrapping around two walls.  It is tremendously valuable to be in beautiful, comfortable spaces.

Those who are stuck in thinking all should go just as well or even BETTER if activists are more “authentically” stuck in some dank, dark, dreary space need to get over it.  Why do you think the Rockefeller Foundation keeps up that beautiful villa in Bellagio, Italy and uses it as a place of contemplation, reflection, and strategic thinking for scholars and activists it considers worthy of investment?

So, we were in a space conducive to challenging work, and the creative facilitation by Bo Thao-Urabe and Karen Perkins enabled high energy, extraordinarily focused collective thinking throughout the entire convening. The convening engaged the organizational leaders in sharing and reflecting collectively.

As the groups shared their work, I was first struck by what seemed to be a deepening of openness, honesty, self-reflection, and appreciation for the uniqueness of each organization and understanding of the work.  Each group shared a particular challenge now encountered in their work, and then there were thoughtful, respectful, creative responses from the collaborative

Some challenges lifted by these groups are:

• How to create, articulate, write and incorporate gender equity into policies and practices,
• How to approach concerns about “offending” the community,
• Defining who the organization is accountable to, and therefore, how do we pick with whom to collaborate,
• How to manage the risk-taking component in all of this, including approaching a potential partner/collaborator/ally,
• How to align the conversation of the board and leadership, who are focused on organizational level policies and practices, with the more personal conversations within the community,
• How to handle the practical side of transitioning from a “crises center” to an “organizing center,”
• Here’s a project we intend to launch; give us your feedback.

It became clear at this March convening that the OFP groups now owned its share of this space – no longer are they looking to AAPIP for answers; these OFP leaders are creating answers within themselves and among each other.

Then, extraordinary community organizers – Eun Sook Lee, Kori Chen, and Pakou Hang – challenged each member of the OFP to take the risks of launching itself into actual community organizing.  As each OFP member is changing internally, how will they move that change externally into programming, into base-building, into that community base, and ultimately into the larger community and public policy?

The most telling comment upon the transformation already experienced by the OFP members came when a member commented, “This is scary stuff.  I can hear it now, but I couldn’t hear it two years ago. I’ll face much opposition. It’s scary.  Are we willing to take that risk?” 

And the answer of the OFP groups is a resounding “YES!”

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