In­spire peace with cover model Seane Corn

A com­mu­nity or­ga­nizer breaks down the prac­tice of cre­at­ing sus­tain­able so­cial change. By Seane Corn

Yoga Journal - - Contents -

This is the ninth in a year­long se­ries of in­ter­views con­ducted by guest ed­i­tor Seane Corn, co-founder with Suzanne Ster­ling and Hala Khouri of the yoga ser­vice or­ga­ni­za­tion Off the Mat, Into the World, each fea­tur­ing a dif­fer­ent leader in yoga ser­vice and so­cial-jus­tice work. This month, Corn in­ter­views Mar­i­anne Manilov, a co-founder of The En­gage Net­work ( en­ga­genet.org), which helps or­ga­ni­za­tions build and scale net­works of lead­ers in the so­cial-change com­mu­nity.

SEANE CORN What was your in­ten­tion in cre­at­ing The En­gage Net­work?

MAR­I­ANNE MANILOV I went through three things within an 18- month pe­riod start­ing in 2oo6: the end­ing of my part­ner­ship, a brain tu­mor that meant I needed full-time care, and the death of my friend Jeremy Paster, a great or­ga­nizer with a strong spir­i­tual prac­tice. What saved me was my net­work of friends who showed up and bathed and fed me. I felt I would lay my body down for any of the peo­ple who had cared for me. I thought, “This is what will change the world—how we build deep com­mu­nity.” At the same time, the so­cial-change com­mu­nity had in­vested in th­ese big email lists—it was the way we were en­gag­ing peo­ple. While that is im­por­tant to build breadth, in many places where the so­cial-change com­mu­nity had grown large, we had be­come trans­ac­tional. I knew that I wanted to build more love as a form of re­sis­tance in a world where so many of us feel iso­lated and alone be­cause of our eco­nomic sys­tems.

I co-founded The En­gage Net­work in 2oo7 to ex­plore how to do this, and we found that small group net­works could be an an­swer. Around the world, we know how to form groups—such as book groups and Alcoholics Anony­mous meet­ings—but forming so­cial-change groups is a prac­tice we had in some ways lost and needed to fnd again. The process is eas­ier to­day thanks to the In­ter­net and so­cial me­dia. But we also have to prac­tice com­ing offine, and be­ing in com­mu­nity with oth­ers. Com­mu­nity builds stronger roots in a move­ment for so­cial change.

SC Why are small, in-per­son groups so im­por­tant to so­cial-change or­ga­niz­ing?

MM You can get in­for­ma­tion on an or­ga­ni­za­tion by email, but peo­ple also need to be ac­tively con­nected on the ground if they are to stay in­volved for the long-term. For ex­am­ple, a group of moms who do day­care for each other may de­cide to do so­cial ac­tion to­gether one Satur­day a month, and they’re more likely to stay to­gether than those who do­nate via the In­ter­net or share so­cial ac­tion on Face­book.

SC How does yoga ft into so­cial-change or­ga­niz­ing?

MM My or­ga­niz­ing over 2o-plus years was of­ten not sus­tain­able un­til I was in­tro­duced to you [Seane Corn]. Be­fore that, I couldn’t in­habit my body and do or­ga­niz­ing at the same time. The change hap­pened when you asked me to come to your lead­er­ship train­ing in 2oo7. I had only done Ash­tanga Yoga a few times be­fore. At the train­ing, the frst yoga class I took

of yours was three hours long. I thought I was go­ing to die; I re­mem­ber ly­ing down that night with Ben­gay on my body and weep­ing. I went back the next day for six hours of yoga prac­tice. On day fve, you pulled me aside and said, “I’ve been watch­ing you, and this is a class of mostly yoga teach­ers and peo­ple who have been do­ing yoga a long time. I keep think­ing you’re go­ing to give up, but you don’t. I know that who­ever you are on the mat is who you are off the mat. You can’t rest.” I went back to my room af­ter that con­ver­sa­tion, and I cried. Then I learned to do Child’s Pose in life. Now, when I do yoga poses, I rest and feel ev­ery inch of my body. You gave me that gift, which has pro­vided me with pa­tience, love, and joy at a level I hadn’t had be­fore in or­ga­niz­ing—in ev­ery cell of my body. The prac­tices of yoga, dance, med­i­ta­tion, and time off make my work sus­tain­able now.

One of the things that hap­pens in or­ga­niz­ing, whether it’s around cli­mate change or poverty or gun violence, is this sense of over­whelm and alone­ness. There’s so much hap­pen­ing in and around you that you need to ground your­self on your own and through groups of peo­ple you feel seen by and con­nected to. It’s im­por­tant to al­low the body’s adren­a­line to come down even if you only have fve min­utes, to do things where you re­ground into your body and feel the roots. Also, when you’re work­ing in small teams in or­ga­niz­ing, it of­ten brings peo­ple into con­fict. The idea is to have a prac­tice like yoga to fnd bal­ance and help the lead­ers see each other with love.

SC How have you helped com­mu­ni­ties or­ga­nize?

MM I’ve worked over the last three years with Walmart employees as part of the Or­ga­ni­za­tion United for Re­spect at Walmart. There are more than 4,ooo Walmart stores in the United States, and many Walmart work­ers have faced dif­fcult con­di­tions. Many of the women who work there have had to do heavy lifting on the job, even when preg­nant. Some of them have had mis­car­riages or preg­nancy com­pli­ca­tions. A group of th­ese moms formed a small group called Re­spect the Bump, and they were able to change the pol­icy by be­ing brave enough to fnd each other on­line and share their sto­ries. That’s the power of the small group.

Also, I’ve been work­ing with sur­vivors of gun violence: peo­ple from mass shoot­ings like Sandy Hook; peo­ple who had loved ones taken in do­mes­tic-violence shoot­ings; peo­ple whose loved ones died by sui­cide. They are hold­ing onto each other and turn­ing their pain into pur­pose by build­ing a net­work of love, com­mu­nity, and change.

SC What is your hope for the yoga com­mu­nity?

MM Yoga can be an em­bod­ied prac­tice with a sense of con­nec­tion to the ground and to other peo­ple. But some­times the yoga com­mu­nity uses the prac­tice as a space to go and sep­a­rate from life and to feel calm and cen­tered in a very chaotic, very busy, very over­whelm­ing world. And some of the world’s prob­lems, such as in­equal­ity and cli­mate change, feel so huge that we won­der what one per­son can do. Yet when Rosa Parks sat down, a bunch of peo­ple joined her on a bus strike and changed history.

There is enor­mous pos­si­bil­ity in the yoga com­mu­nity for do­ing things col­lec­tively. My hope for my in­ter­ac­tion in the yoga com­mu­nity is that I can be a bridge that peo­ple walk across into au­then­tic, grounded change—just as the yoga com­mu­nity was the bridge for me into greater ground­ed­ness and love.

SC Where can peo­ple start in or­der to act on their pas­sions? MM Find some­body who’s sim­i­lar to you and who you think also has a call­ing to make a dif­fer­ence. Go for tea, or have that fel­low mom over to your house while your chil­dren nap. Talk about what you can do to­gether. Then, fnd two more peo­ple who feel the same way, and then agree to do one thing for, say, two hours that you feel can make a dif­fer­ence. For in­stance, four moms could go around their block and ask ev­ery­one to change their light bulbs to more ef­f­cient ones. This will make a pos­i­tive im­pact on cli­mate change— more than just shar­ing a photo or ar­ti­cle on Face­book. To make a dif­fer­ence, you don’t even have to leave your neigh­bor­hood, or the yoga stu­dio. You and three friends could meet with the stu­dio man­ager and ask to host do­na­tion classes for teach­ers who hold classes in pris­ons or schools, or you can ask that the stu­dio bath­rooms be changed to non­gen­dered ones.

I think we’ve been taught that we have to reach out to a big or­ga­ni­za­tion or go on­line to fnd the an­swer. In­stead, or­ga­niz­ing is a prac­tice like yoga. You have to break it down so that it’s not over­whelm­ing. You have to be will­ing to show up and par­tic­i­pate, and stay cen­tered with sim­ple poses be­fore you take on chang­ing the whole world. Work­ing for change is part of a com­pas­sion­ate prac­tice. It’s part of yoga.

ABOVE Manilov, at right, with gun­vi­o­lence sur­vivors from Every­town for Gun Safety Sur­vivor Net­work who are work­ing to cre­ate change. To get in­volved: every­town.org.

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