“How are you doing?” I emailed my friend, Roshi Michel Dobbs, in Long Island.
He answered: “Generally, I feel like the guy who fell off a building, and at every floor he fell past, he said ‘so far so good.’”
I laughed. But lately, in talking to the local sangha or even to my friends, I haven’t been laughing much. Anxiety seems to be everywhere, and we haven’t yet reached October.
I tell people that I don’t feel particularly anxious, and most of the time that’s true; I am confident that Biden will be inaugurated as president in January. But I woke up at 3 this morning and couldn’t sleep. The fears and apprehensions that usually hide out in the day poke their heads out of the closet at night. Staring into the darkness, I realized that anxiety didn’t spare me, either; these are dark times.
So I went downstairs to my office and out the back door, where the gorgeous fall is in full swing. I took the picture above, and the flash gives you a sense of what it looks like right outside my office at night.
A couple of days ago Alisa Glassman, Bernie’s daughter, sent me a pdf copy of a book called Reveille for a New Generation: Organizers and Leaders Reflect On Power, by Greg Pierce, who put together various chapters on the power of organizing community, with chapters by such luminaries as Frederick Douglass, John Lewis, Saul Alinsky, Cesar Chavez, and more modern organizers today, including Alisa, who has made community organizing her life’s work (she is currently the lead organizer for VOICE (Virginians Organized for Interfaith Engagement). Her father and I have always greatly admired her work. Of course, the title immediately brought to mind Alinsky’s classic organizing book, Reveille for Radicals.
Alisa sent me the book specifically because of a short chapter that she contributed, which continues to reverberate in my mind, called: Don’t Win Too Quickly. In it she recounts how, some 24 years ago, she had just begun her organizing efforts in a campaign for a livable wage for Baltimore city employees, and indeed, Baltimore became the first American city to do this for its low-paid workers in the public sector. She recounted that in the middle of that campaign, her boss turned to her one day and said: “Whatever you do, don’t win this campaign too quickly.”
She wrote that she felt betrayed by those words. She’d visited the homes of janitors who worked for a little over $4.00 an hour and saw firsthand how impossible it was to live like that. “I had become an organizer to win, and to win as quickly as I could,” she wrote. “This is what the world needs, I believed. I felt the deep righteous anger of my profession . . .”
Seven years later she got a similar lesson, this time from an African American matriarch and activist who’d saved her neighborhood in Montgomery County, Maryland, from being turned into horse stables for the adjoining wealthy town. Alisa recounted how Ms. Bette Johnson had taken her to see a dilapidated community center, sandbags alongside the outside of the brick walls. As they walked back, discussing how to revitalize the neighborhood, Ms. Johnson had turned to Alisa and said: “Whatever we do, we can’t win this campaign too quickly.”
“Eve, Ms. Johnson was 70 when she said that,” Alisa told me on the phone.
I couldn’t stop thinking about that. Ms. Johnson was 70, had already saved her neighborhood once and was trying to save it again. She could have said: “Let’s hurry up so that I could see this work completed before I’m gone.” Instead she said: “Whatever we do, we can’t win this campaign too quickly.”
As an organizer, Alisa always looks at what makes people working together powerful: “Authentic, meaningful relationships take time. Building relational power takes time. If we want long-lasting power, we must give the building of new relationships the time it takes for people to learn to trust one another. We must give these budding relations the time to gel and become real.”
I am not a community organizer, I practice engagement in the world based on the dharma, on the experience that we’re all One Body and that nothing is excluded. I grow restless and unhappy when I hear people making broad, demeaning generalizations about others, giving vent to us vs. them, and how the world will end if they win. It’s not Donald Trump that caused this schism; Donald Trump knew how to use it, and in that process revealed this reality, and I’m grateful to him for revealing it to my blind, oblivious eyes.
I’m not worried about Donald Trump, I’m concerned about what comes after him, about the much smarter, more capable, less self-sabotaging people watching the estrangement and flood of anger that has lain waiting for someone—anyone—to unleash. They’re watching, learning how to manipulate this rupture that has broken our society apart, how to set up one group against another in these Disunited States of America, and take over and harm the country in a way that could well dwarf whatever Trump has done.
More important, I think of that One Body, our one world, and realize it is not my practice to fear or grow anxious over Donald Trump or November 3, my middle-of-the-night insomnias notwithstanding. My practice is to bear witness to this One Body, to better understand why a fine and intelligent man close to me believes that the coronavirus is a hoax, to bear witness to those feeling that, no matter how hard they work, they’re always being left behind, always on the margins of things, and their children will fare no better—be they white or black.
Believe me, if we don’t work to heal these divides—between rich and poor, between white and people of color, between men and women, between secular and religious—Donald Trump will be the least of our problems.
And that means that we can’t rush to win too quickly. We can’t think that the outcome of Election Day will be a victory or defeat. As Alisa Glassman wrote, we need to build new relationships, learn to trust one another, give those new relationships time. We’re always in such a hurry: now, now, now, now! It’s not how life works.
By all means, get Joe Biden in in January, but it’ll be meaningless if it isn’t the beginning of a much longer campaign to heal this country. As Alisa wrote at the end of her chapter: “The work is always about building new relationships among and between communities that did not exist before… Our job is not to let the win be our sole objective or even the top objective. The irony is that unless we prioritize other areas besides winning, we will always lose. Without this clear focus, we sabotage the very communities we say we care about.”
You can pre-order Reveille for a New Generation: Organizers and Leaders Reflect on Power, which includes the chapter by Alisa Glassman, on Amazon here.