I have never been one to get involved in politics. As a journalist I definitively steer clear of anything that could be construed as activism or partisanship. In Buddhism, taking action in the face of injustice can pose a similar question: how to do this in keeping with one’s bodhisattva vows of non-harming, yet without being partisan?
“When we engage with worldly politics, we try not to take sides,” Phap Dung, a Thich Nhat Hanh disciple, said in a recent interview. “It’s easy to choose a side, but as Buddhist practitioners we try to have more inclusiveness.”
We do our best to act on basic truths: that humans come in all forms, colors and geographic origins. That each life is precious. And that our country, despite its complicated relationship with this continent’s original inhabitants, is also historically a haven for the oppressed, and a safe space for free speech, assembly and other rights granted by our Constitution.
With this in mind, here is a sampling of online resources dedicated to making changes in our world. These resources have been collected in keeping with our shared commitment to relieve suffering. They are empowering, informative, demystifying, and put forth social and political action in a way that creates a level playing field for all.
It starts with the inner, as Angel Kyodo Williams so elegantly points out in a TedX talk. In 20 minutes she makes it clear that it is impossible to attend to the larger world without first caring for and cultivating your inner one. “You don’t have to save the world; just connect to what matters to you,” she says. “It turns out that justice is actually a practice.”
A resource guide created by The Movement Strategy Center delves into this as well in a report, Out of the Spiritual Closet. With firsthand stories and strategies for community organizers, this guide calls into account the the secular nature of traditional left-leaning and progressive movements and identifies the spiritual strengths that activists can bring to the table.
Reaching Out Skillfully
The Civil Conversations Project, from the radio program OnBeing and found on their website, is a treasure trove of information on how to promote civil discourse.
Here you can also find two pdfs available for download: Better Conversations: A Starter Guide and Ask Three Questions, containing instructions on how to talk to someone you disagree with, and how to talk to people you know well who may not share your views. There are also numerous videos available here, such as one between two people who disagree about abortion, and an inspiring interview with humanitarian, civil rights visionary and U.S. Congressman John Lewis.
The Zen Peacemakers Order offers resources on social activism and engagement, all designed to increase our inner awareness while engaging skillfully with the outer world.
With every passing day it becomes clearer that what’s happening in our country right now transcends party lines. Good advice comes from Indivisible, the wildly popular guide written by former congressional staffers that lays out how to engage with one’s local representatives. While the guide is couched as a vehicle for combatting the agenda of President Donald Trump, that is merely shorthand for pushing back against practices that would undermine our democracy.
Texting your zip code to 520-200-2223 will generate an immediate response listing your local representatives’ names and office phone numbers. But don’t stop there, as Indivisible notes of one’s member of Congress (MoC):
Engage with your MoCs locally,” the guide says. “Instead of pressuring them to do the right thing, praise them for doing the right thing. This is important because it will help ensure that they continue to do the right thing. Congressional staff are rarely contacted when the MoC does something good—your efforts locally will provide highly valuable positive reinforcement.
Reflecting on the lack of civic engagement prior to the last election, “We held town halls consistently that fewer than 50 people showed up for,” wrote former Congressional aide Emily Ellsworth on Twitter. “And it was always the same people. So, shake it up.”
Speaking of the Constitution… Read it lately? It’s online, along with the Bill of Rights and all the amendments.
The Constitution affirms that the government of the United States exists to serve its citizens. An introduction to the document reads, “The supremacy of the people through their elected representatives is recognized in Article I, which creates a Congress consisting of a Senate and a House of Representatives. The positioning of Congress at the beginning of the Constitution reaffirms its status as the ‘First Branch’ of the federal government.”
That’s us. We’re the first branch of the federal government. Remember that.
Confronting white privilege can begin by looking in the mirror, but that is merely the start of a committed self-study and investigation. The website White Accomplices gives pointers on how to understand the issues and empower oneself to stand up against bigotry and racism in ways that actually help dispel the harm.
Beyond the ACLU, there are lots of organizations nationwide working for immigrant rights and recognition, and several are listed in a Daily Kos article by a contributor known as “wagatwe.” The writer says she did not vet them personally, but has included links for easy research.
Shoring Up Democracy
The Centre for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS) was started by two people who learned their peace trade in Serbia. New York Times writer Tina Rosenberg wrote about their organization a year ago, long before the election. Some of their lessons are becoming ever more applicable. Check out related articles here and here about their work .
Consider watching the 2002 documentary Bringing Down a Dictator, which tells the story of how the two founders of CANVAS went about toppling Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic—nonviolently—by building a strong democratic coalition. While the U.S. does not face such a situation, it’s an interesting film, and offers useful insights. An hour long, for free on Vimeo.
The filmmakers also created the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict providing numerous resources for about nonviolent civic action.
Another area of civic engagement would be buttressing voting rights. Laws enacted over the past several years have undermined many people’s ability to register and get to polling stations, in addition to redrawing districts. The Southern Poverty Law Center offers suggestions on how to fix the election system and get people registered and has released a documentary, Selma: The Bridge to the Ballot, about how voting rights were won in the South. The American Civil Liberties Union has a section on voting rights too.
War veterans commit suicide at an alarming rate, and they are an underserved segment of society in many ways. There are many groups that reach out to them. The Corporation for National and Community Service lists ideas.
“The ice doesn’t care about politics or Democrats and Republicans; it just melts,” said retired Rear Adm. David Titley in 2014 at a conference on climate change and national security held at the Wilson Center.
While we can’t stop the ice from melting, or end our reliance on fossil fuels as if flicking a switch, we can inform ourselves, and do small things. Take seeds, for instance. The Seed Bank is looking for volunteers to guard seeds, 94 percent of which have been lost during the 20th century alone, according to a new documentary, Seed: The Untold Story. The film’s website connects to a global consortium of seed keepers, of which you can be one.
Hollaback calls itself a global movement to end harassment, powered by a network of grassroots activists. Their mission:
We work together to understand harassment, ignite public conversations, and develop innovative strategies to ensure equal access to public spaces. We leverage new technologies to bring voice to an issue that historically has been silenced, and to build leadership within this movement to break the silence.
The group provides bystander training for witnesses of street and online harassment, as well as works toward gender justice overall.
I find that the internet is a great way to get in touch with groups and causes we might not have known existed. While it is not always easy to suss out the genuine from the fraudulent, the web can be a valuable resource when used skillfully, with integrity and clarity. Whether one is organizing an event via Facebook or giving oneself an impromptu civics lesson, the resources available online can be an organizer’s best friend.
Theresa Braine is an MRO sangha member who lives in New York City.