Spirituality & Community Organizing

Spirituality & Community Organizing
No Small Project
by Daniel Gelbtuch

This effort is no small project...Can we stop focusing simply on transactional moves we see as winnable and start working for the transformation of the institutions that perpetuate suffering? Can we speak to people’s deepest needs—to feel a sense of connection, to feel love? Can we realize that working for the elimination of social suffering is an integral part of any spiritual project? Can we have a discussion about values that is grounded in hope and acknowledgement of our connected being? I believe we can, and I believe we must, if we are to heal the self and have a future at all.
— john a. powell, Racing to Justice

In this moment of disruptive change in our political environment I see both hope and real possibility to integrate traditional community organizing, social movement theory, and spiritual practices in order to bring our whole selves to the work of transforming systems and structures that oppress people and prevent them from realizing and sharing their gifts. 

Through my experience of organizing in Massachusetts over the past ten years, I have come to sense a widespread and growing feeling that the way we organize and fight for justice needs to change and is in the process of changing. Our historical and current model remains largely transactional, largely head-centered, and largely focused on singular policy changes that are not powerful enough to meet the challenges and possibilities of this moment. This moment in our collective story calls for more expansive vision and a more hopeful sense of what is possible for social change. We need an organizing model that is bolder and more courageous than what we currently have.

My organizing career began in 2007 through the Jewish Organizing Initiative (JOI, now JOIN for Justice). I had an internship through JOI at Dorchester Bay Youth Force in Uphams Corner, Dorchester, MA. Working with an incredible group of teen leaders to increase after-school jobs for teens in Uphams Corner, we won 20 new jobs by convincing local banks to create an after-school youth employment fund. The teen leaders and I learned an incredible array of organizing skills during this process: how to develop a campaign strategy, how to understand the way that power works, how to organize in a way that builds power, how to share their stories to inspire, and how to run a meeting with a clear ask of a power holder. 

Based on that success, over the next five years I worked successfully with a wonderful group of teen and adult organizers to build the Youth Jobs Coalition (YJC), which was founded to stem drastic budget cuts to youth employment funding in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ budget. We followed a model of organizing that pushed us to focus on tight and winnable issues. This way of organizing pushed me to find mentors and to be rigorously reflective about my strengths and weaknesses. It was fertile ground for my own leadership development and for the leadership development of the youth I was working with. 

At our first Youth Jobs Rally in 2009, as I stood at the top of the steps at the Boston Common, I could see a solid wall of teenagers, shoulder to shoulder, approaching. There were teens from every neighborhood of Boston, teens from Worcester, teens from Lowell and Lawrence, teens from across Massachusetts. Their signs read: “We Are the Future”, “No Jobs, No Justice”, “Youth United, Will Never Be Defeated.” The chants were deafening. It was power embodied—one of the most beautiful things that I have ever seen. Teens who had been pushed aside as Massachusetts decimated funding for youth employment were fighting back. I felt part of something bigger than myself, bigger than us. Because of this rally and our advocacy efforts, we successfully stopped the proposed budget cuts and began to build a coalition of over 40 youth groups from across the state. As one elected official told us, when I now meet with a small group of teens, I know that there are hundreds more of them at their back. 

The clear campaign structure and power analysis we were following taught us ways of engaging with issues. It was powerful, and yet rigid—the approach stifled the imagination and creativity of our teen leaders by directing all of their efforts in a narrow way and by positing that all change is derived from a limited number of power holders—the Governor, the Mayor, or the head of a company. We had no strategies for disrupting the underlying structures and narratives that kept the status quo in place. And despite our successes, we lacked a deep sustainable sense of hope to ground our own collective transformation in the organizing work. A few of my mentors helped me begin to understand our deficits were connected to a lack of spiritual imagination and resources. The experience I had on the state house steps was deeply spiritual—not just for me—but we had no way of nurturing and tending to that experience in the day-to-day work.

My challenge to be more grounded in my work and to organize in a way that disrupted the larger structures underlying youth unemployment is  perhaps best understood by looking at my struggle with Whiteness. I had always known that fighting against racism played a critical role in my social justice work, but I often resisted attempts to put race in the center of my work because it was personally painful to wrestle with my role as a White person organizing youth of color. I was eventually forced to reckon with these things. My own struggles with belonging caused me to hurt people, take up too much space and act in ways that damaged the work I was a part of. In addition, winning relatively small amounts of youth employment funding started to feel insufficient in light of the stories of deep pain and injustice I was hearing from our teen leaders. It was, frankly, overwhelming for me to think about how to tackle something as big as racism. It was easier to focus all of my energy on being a good organizer—we, under my leadership, simply directed our collective energies on winning more jobs for teens. 

The first time I saw a vision of how to organize in a different way—a way that both helped me reckon with my own pain around racism and offered strategies to disrupt systemic racism—was at a PICO (People Improving Communities through Organizing) training in March 2014. I began to open my heart up to the pain and complexity inherent in exploring identity, race, and racism in my work. The training provided a structure for me as a White person to wrestle with my identity and the question of where I fit in the social justice landscape. Each day of the training opened with an activity that the trainers labeled as spiritual transformations. The activity supported us in being centered in our hearts as we began the learning and work. I opened up to my brokenness and began to wrestle with my Whiteness instead of hiding from it. The process was painful and difficult as I waded through my bias, resistance, and hesitation, but ultimately, it was liberating. In addition, the trainers gave us powerful strategies through which we could center race in our campaign work. The strategies provided a theory around narrative change, which posited that shifting the stories that were told about young people of color was ultimately just as important as changing specific policies. We learned that transformational change would only be possible when people and structures in power were able to see young people of color as being fully human and deserving of opportunities. This deep understanding of the narrative work of social change was an important step forward in shifting my approach to organizing. However, despite my new awareness, we still lacked an organizing methodology that truly challenged the racist structures and narratives that were preventing real and sustainable change for the youth with whom we worked. 

Finally, knowing what we were looking for in understanding how to organize in this more transformative way, we discovered Momentum—a training institute that seeks to bring together the structure-based organizing tradition with the social movement organizing tradition in order to create an organizing model that can deeply change the political climate instead of just winning small reforms. Over the next two years, our entire adult staff and multiple teen leaders attended Momentum trainings. We were mentored by Carlos Saavedra, one of Momentum’s founders, a leader in the Dreamer Movement, and co-founder of Movimiento Cosecha. We created deep relationships with the Momentum community and experimented with integrating Momentum teachings into our organizing work.

As I sat at the closing reflection of one of the Momentum trainings, I was overcome with emotion. It was a frigid January day. We—the training leaders and coordinators—were sitting in a circle and reflecting on what had been an incredibly moving experience. I was not the only one of us overcome with emotion. We were all weeping as we acknowledged the depth of relationship that had been created in just three days, honoring the power of story, vulnerability, and hope that we had offered each other. I could feel myself shaking. I was nearly at a loss for words. When it was my turn to reflect, I said simply: “During the first five years of my organizing career, I led with anxiety and control, now I want to lead with love.” 

Momentum helped guide me through a life-changing spiritual transformation and leadership change. I learned new tools and practices for my organizing work. But on a deeper level, I was able to sustain myself in hope for the first time in my organizing career. I was connected to a larger organizing community. I met a group of incredible leaders who played roles in movements and campaigns across dozens of issues. These relationships supported me in transcending the feelings of not belonging that I often felt in social justice spaces. I didn’t have to be a “good organizer” in the Momentum community. I could be my broken, complicated, whole self for the first time. And I finally had a theory of change that posited current political structures could be disrupted so that a more fundamental liberation would be possible. The training structure helped me to integrate this new theory of change experientially, through song and chant. I was making change on a spiritual level.

The YJC’s collective journey with Momentum came to fruition when teen leaders organized a “Die In” on the floor of the Massachusetts State House to illustrate the moral crisis of a state government that freely invests in youth incarceration but not youth employment. There were moments of deep doubt that invaded the planning process. Would YJC members want to leave the coalition now that there was a bigger vision? Would the teen leaders be seen as too radical by community stakeholders? Would there be a loss of focus now that there was a more expansive vision for young people? 

It was through spiritual grounding—meditation, yoga, deep reflection, storytelling, and community—that the teen leaders were able to generate the hope and creativity to center themselves in the midst of the challenging transition to using a new approach. This action led to the founding of the I Have A Future Movement. While the movement is still young and only beginning the journey to integrate a more radical and spiritual framework, teen leaders are already approaching their organizing work with a deeper sense of hope, creativity, and ownership and our staff culture is far more visionary. The experiment has also begun to influence and spread into different parts of our organizing networks, including the Mass Communities Action Network and Jobs Not Jails. Just last month, I Have A Future had its first major victory winning substantial changes to the state’s juvenile justice system.

My journey from a place of feeling stuck to a place of renewed hope was supported also by my decision to integrate my spiritual life into my organizing work. Through a regular Buddhist meditation practice, I had cultivated a rich spiritual life over the course of a decade, but I always saw my practice as a refuge or a way to recover from the stress of organizing rather than a motivation or source of wisdom. Drawing on the wisdom and models of my mentors and spiritual director, I slowly learned to allow my spiritual life to find its way to be the ground and motivation for my social justice work. 

In making this shift, I have begun to re-examine my Jewish roots. Despite having attended Jewish Day School, having been raised in a deeply Jewish family, and having belonged to a wide range of Jewish organizations, in my young adulthood, I struggled to connect Judaism to my work. My connection to any form of Jewish spiritual practice nearly ceased to exist in my twenties. My spiritual path was focused on my emotional needs and growth, and I did not see or know of any Jewish resources that could meet those needs. But as I have recently started to take a deeper look at these roots, I am seeking to understand what my grandparents’ stories of survival of the Holocaust have to teach me about my own journey and why the version of Judaism that I was taught lacked a heart-center. I am now connecting with the journey of my Bubby and Zayde who survived the Nazis by hiding in Polish forests under the cover of Christian farmers, made it to America as refugees, and were able to achieve a stable middle class life. I am trying to reconcile the enormous privilege that I possess with my family’s history of oppression and trauma. I am seeking to discover and build a heart-centered Jewish practice for myself. In doing this, I am reflecting on the deep spiritual experiences of the Friday night Shabbat practices of my childhood at Camp Yavneh. One counselor, a Chasidic Jew named Leibish Hundert, would visit our bunk and sing Nigguns (Jewish, wordless melodies) with us. By connecting with my family tradition and my own past in these ways, I am beginning to see that a heart-centered Judaism has long been part of my spiritual journey, but somehow, I lost it along the way. As I now seek to reclaim it and integrate it, I find myself building relationships with Jewish spiritual leaders and experimenting with a Mussar practice, which is a Jewish spiritual practice focused on contemplation and self transformation. Now, for the first time in my life, I have a uniquely Jewish practice that helps me navigate my self-doubt; that helps me develop a deeper sense of hope and groundedness. Bringing Judaism back into my spiritual life is no doubt connected to the spiritual path of wholeness and integration that I have been traveling for the last decade. 

Eight months ago, I left my work as a youth organizer. It was time to create space for new leadership, and I wanted more time to wrestle with the questions raised in this essay. I left with a deep sense of hope and peace amidst the uncertainty of what lies ahead. Judaism has become part of the next chapter in my organizing journey as I have been working with Rabbi David Jaffe to bring Mussar to Jewish activists, many of whom are hungry for a Jewish way to build resiliency and spiritual grounding to support their work in the world. More broadly, I am searching for ways to support social justice leaders in finding spiritual supports. I have been trained as a spiritual director and have been offering spiritual direction to social justice leaders in Boston. It is incredibly meaningful to me to help support leaders as they integrate their justice work and spiritual lives. I feel deeply privileged to hold the stories of others, their suffering and their hope, as they ground their leadership in something more sustaining and begin to lead in ever more powerful ways. 

    As I move into the next phase of my life, I continue to think a lot about integration as a guiding theme, which has led me to ask questions around holding paradox. How do we integrate the strategy and rigor of traditional community organizing with the imagination and heart-centeredness of a more spiritual approach to change? How do I show up in all my brokenness and still lead from a place of confidence and strength? How do we change larger political narratives and also achieve specific policy wins? I feel called to continue to wrestle with these questions and to support others who are wrestling with them. One thing I do feel more and more certain about is that spirituality or inner work must be at the center of how organizers and social justice leaders are developed. People must be given space to show up in their brokenness and the tools to transform their suffering into love. It is not enough to know how to do a power analysis. All of these questions, held in deep communal relationships, make up the spiritual context of movement work that I believe will help us lead creative actions aimed at disrupting the dominant narratives told about power, at fundamentally transforming the beliefs taught about superiority and inferiority. § 


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Dan Gelbtuch was born and grew up in Boston, MA. Dan began his community organizing career in 2007 with the Jewish Organizing Initiative at Dorchester Bay Youth Force. During his time as the Youth Force Director, Dan co-founded the Youth Jobs Coalition and I Have A Future Movement. Most recently, Dan is interested in how to connect his spiritual path and organizing work.