Compassionate Social Action - Living Earth Circles: Turning the World Around by Betsy Toll
Anyone paying any attention at all knows these are dangerous times for all people, all species and all places on Earth. Even a quick list of the major issues of the day—climate change; peak oil and resource depletion; violence, threats to peace and democracy; ecosystem decline/environmental destruction; and human population concerns (famine, racism, genocide, disease pandemics)—is staggering. Add in globalized economic instability, rampant consumerism, and commodification of everything, and the challenges facing us on our home planet in the 21st century are likely to rattle everything we know and love.
Our fast-paced, ever-consuming culture expresses a profound alienation and fundamental disconnection that affects us all, directly and indirectly. Alienation from a meaningful relationship to the sacred, and disconnection from an authentic sense of belonging. However engaged we may be in our communities or issue activism, there lurks—behind all our emails, coalitions and activities—a subtle but pervasive sense of being isolated, fragmented, exhausted, and alone.
In 1998 I launched Living Earth, an all-volunteer group in Portland, as one way to bridge this gap for people engaged in social action. Our intent was to encourage peace, social justice, and environmental activists to develop shared approaches and to work from a place of interconnection and community. Living Earth has been one small voice in the movement over the past decade that has brought the concepts of interdependence and interconnection into common use among activists.
Understanding the interconnection of the critical issues we face—their origins, likely outcomes, and possible solutions—is critical to transforming our social and political systems. On the whole, organizing today reflects a much more wholistic approach than it did 25 years ago. Activism and volunteer involvement engage tens of millions of people in this country to address the conditions they care about most deeply.
Yet something isn’t working. Millions of activists notwithstanding, the world is in a more precarious place today than at any time in its history—“more” activists and more programs somehow aren’t affecting the heart of our dilemma. The interconnection of issues is just one side of the equation. The need to understand, to internally experience, our interconnection at a level much deeper than issues is also crucial.
In working with others to coordinate, organize, and mobilize on a wide range of concerns, I often hear a common refrain, a shared melody of a poignant longing that goes beyond simply wanting a given issue to be resolved to our satisfaction. I’m very familiar with that yearning for a place of shared belonging, an experience of authentic community that supports not only our concerns, abilities, intelligence, and action, but that equally holds space for contemplation, spiritual practice and exploration, for a gentle sense of belonging. It’s a yearning that many of us share, even if we don’t articulate it, or even have much hope it can develop. Our post-modern society has little place or language for this sort of longing of the heart. Finding that language and cultivating that place has become central to everything I do.
At the end of 2006, Living Earth received a grant to develop a program that could address both the dangers facing the planet and the disconnection, that are driving us so quickly to the brink. For more than a year now, I have been working with organizational consultants, other Living Earth-ers, friends, and associates to develop a community-based program model that would meet those deeply intertwined needs. Meetings and conversations with Ram Dass, Joanna Macy, Richard Heinberg, Shams Kairys, and others generated input and support that enriched the program we were developing.
The outcome of all this collaboration is the Living Earth Circles program, a model for community-based circles where spiritual principles and contemplative practices are integral to creative, courageous, compassionate social action on the issues of our time.
The Circle process weaves together reflection on the world’s wisdom traditions and spiritual legacy while encouraging practical action on the very real problems we face. An ongoing Circle can support a way of being and engaging that allows us to bring our greatest love, delight, insight, and skill to our work on the myriad tasks at hand. Whether caring for elders or planting trees, devising policy, teaching children to read, or any of the thousand ways we take action, the context and grounding offered in a continuing Circle conversation affirms our inner exploration and provides fresh perspective on our concerns, goals, and actions.
Transforming our understanding of human possibility and potential is the work at hand. Creating a deep field for change will support human society as we try to find our way through the turbulent century ahead.
A radical shift in our perception and priorities will enable us to alter our trajectory so those who follow in the decades and generations to come can thrive on a planet that—while undoubtedly different from that which we have known—will be rich in biodiversity, beauty, and meaning.
Betsy Toll is the Founding Director of Living Earth. Betsy’s activism began in high school during Vietnam War protests and shifted to environmental and anti-nuclear issues in the 1970s. She served on the Los Angeles steering committee of the Citizens Party in the late ‘70s, and worked with Seva Foundation in the 1980s. She has a professional background in theatre and film, as well as peace and environmental activism.
Betsy started Living Earth as a model for grounding activism in spiritual principles that address the common roots of cultural dysfunction relative to economic justice, social justice, environmental defense and sustainability, and peace. Betsy lives in Portland with her family. She can be reached at: [email protected] or 503-788-7311.