Many were blindsided by the presidential election results. Our correspondent, Aliss Valerie Terrell, spoke with Gail Straub, Executive Director of Empowerment Institute and Imagine Global Initiative for the Empowerment of Women, about where we go from here.
Terrell: You say you observed “existential disorientation” after the election. How do we make sense of what happened?
Straub: A lot of people, about half the country, are disoriented, the other half are ecstatic. I’ve spoken to scores and scores of people since the election and what strikes me is how everyone is going through their own individual inquiry regarding what this means to them. If you’re a person of color, it means something radically different than it does for a white woman, and if you’re a Muslim it means something even more radically different. So I think it’s really important to say that anything I share is just one human being’s opinion, one who did vote for Hillary and was deeply disappointed.
I wrote “John Lennon Lends Me His Glasses” a few days after the election. I had a dream and John Lennon came and he took off my reading glasses and put on his iconic wire rims and he said, “You need to see things through different lenses.” And that’s become a kind of guiding principle for me. After the election, at first there was a kind of radical disorientation. One asks: who am I, what country do I live in, what does this ask of me, what do I do next, what happens next? All those humongous existential questions. In all spiritual traditions, radical disorientation can be used to deepen spiritual practice. In fact, this profound disorientation actually is a very fruitful spiritual opportunity, whatever people’s practices are, to deepen in practice, because practice tells us there is no ground anyway, and so the way we’re feeling is, in a very deep spiritual sense, a true part of the human condition. So, for me, it happened to be meditation and time in the natural world, which were extremely helpful during this period of radical disorientation. It helped me accept that I didn’t have answers, because there are no answers yet, we don’t know what’s going to happen, we’re waiting.
For many of us, and I’m part of a tribe of grassroots activists, we’re all more dedicated than ever to what we’re doing. We’re all feeling this is not a time to back off, whatever our activism is, it’s a time to do it in deeper and more dedicated ways. It’s a time to speak out, stand up, march. All kinds of things are going on. My husband David [Gershon] just got back last night from California. He was there for three weeks. He’s a leader in climate change. He was there during the election and all the climate change activists are coming together and saying: we have to rededicate ourselves.
So there’s the spiritual part, there’s the action part, and the third quality is what I call radical creativity, which is the John Lennon thing. We can’t do things the way we’ve done them before and everyone’s realized that. We have to think outside the box, there has to be all kinds of mash-ups and mix-ups and collaborations across sectors. There has to be solidarity, consolidation, collaboration. Again, David found a lot of that out in California these past weeks.
And then there is Martin Luther King’s concept of the Beloved Community, where the earth is safe for all. We have to keep fighting for this idea. Though people are threatened, they’re afraid, they’re disoriented, simultaneously there is a profound rededication. All the women’s groups I speak to, all of us are getting 40 emails a day from people taking on further actions. So I think that there’s perhaps a paradoxical combination of disorientation but also a deepened and passionate commitment to the actions we all believe in.
How does your methodology of personal empowerment foster compassionate engagement?
Our Empowerment Institute turned 35 years old in October, so we’ve been at it for a while, but empowerment for us was always about community engagement. I mean the only reason a person becomes empowered is so they can contribute to their family or their neighborhood, their community or their country, otherwise it’s narcissism and to me that’s the antithesis of empowerment. There’s a lot of narcissism in the New Age, but the true definition of empowerment is that we gain a sense of self so we can become change agents. In twelve countries--including Africa, the Middle East, and India--our organization is working to enable the heads of NGOs to become leaders in their communities. For me, I can’t think about empowerment without thinking about action.
Millions of people are newly radicalized following the American election, wanting to stand up for freedom and democracy. Tell me about your concept of the “growing edge” and how it might be in play.
So the growing edge, for your readers, is simply the concept of what might be the next place, or point, of empowerment. The principle we use is that true empowerment can’t take place if we’re beyond the growing edge or we’re behind the growing edge. For all these people who are newly dedicated to making a difference, I think one potential trap, perhaps, is taking on too much too fast. They burn out and then say, well, it doesn’t make any difference anyway. That's the whole cycle of burn out and compassion fatigue so familiar to activists.
So, people need to work in solidarity. They need to join with those who have been there before. If they’re going into climate change, for example, they join up with some of the activists and the organizations who have been around the block a few times and know what they’re doing. They don’t want to recreate the wheel. If I was just starting out, first I’d identify what’s the greatest place of passion for me. In climate change, women’s rights, or whatever they choose, start with that. Then do research. Who are the best organizations doing this and what can I learn from them? Can I start out as a volunteer or do I want to be a social entrepreneur and start up my own thing? They have to join in community and educate themselves and not take on too much too fast.
What do you see as the “growing edge” for our country? What second-order social change is needed?
There’s a lot on our websites about that. All the things we do are second-order change. That’s really David’s work and I can suggest a chapter from his book. It’s in PDF and it has all you need.
The Imagine Program works with NGOs in the developing world, empowering impoverished women by fostering gender equality and individual “agency.” As a result of the recent election, deep divisions have come to light in the United States. Although we live in the richest country on the planet, there is extreme poverty. What is your program doing in the U.S.?
It’s been in our country for 35 years. It started here, it’s still going on, it’s never stopped. We’ve done this work in prisons, with the homeless, any population you can imagine. For example, along with our Imagine Practitioners from the global south who are coming to our Empowerment Institute in Amman, Jordan, in 2017, there will also be leaders from inner city Chicago, inner city Baltimore, and inner city Atlanta. They’ll all be working next to their colleagues from the Middle East, India, and Africa, because it’s the same work. And they’ll be looking at how to bring agency to the most disenfranchised populations here, and looking at how that leads to community leadership, to actions.
There is David’s Livable Neighborhood Program, an extraordinary program that’s been created for inner city neighborhoods in America. So the first step is with neighborhood leaders, we call them block leaders, who go out and begin making their neighborhoods safer and more livable.
And then they’re joined by activists who are working in climate change. In this case, our pilots are in California because that’s our most progressive place for climate change.
What happens at the Institute is we have a person from Kabul, Afghanistan, sitting next to a person from Palo Alto, California, sitting next to a person from the inner city of Chicago, and next to them someone from Lebanon. It goes on--Tunisia, India, and so on--and those conversations are a form of radical creativity, global exchanges of best practices, about what sustains hope, about what allows compassion in the face of tremendous difficulty.
So someone working in Rajasthan to stop forced early marriage talks to the person working in inner city Chicago, and they have this amazing exchange and they begin to teach each other and exchange how they sustain their own hope in the face of great difficulty. We have to all be in this together, that’s clear.
How can we best heal the divisions in our country, find more balance, a shared vision? What limiting beliefs do we need to clear? What new beliefs do we need to create or affirm?
Well, you know, we’re just starting. I wish I could answer that. The path ahead is how do we heal the divisions? How do we find a shared vision? There’s all kinds of analysis going on now, political, spiritual, but I think we don’t know exactly the path ahead yet, we’re in a new situation in our country. We all feel that.
Again, I can only answer, personally. I agree with what’s been said about the bubble and the disenfranchised, but that also can become overly simplistic. Because if I’ve learned anything in 35 years, it’s that disenfranchisement takes an infinite variety of forms.
The suicide rate among adolescents in America is so high that it’s at a crisis now. And that’s often amongst the most privileged--often white kids. So something is disenfranchised for them, too, if they’re killing themselves in record numbers. So if I could step back and take a spiritual perspective on this, because I can’t really answer it from a political point of view, I think we need a lot more time. I would say that what we’re trying to learn is who is suffering and why--not just this bubble vs. the disenfranchised.
Someone asked the Dalai Lama, of all the prayers you do--and the guy really prays a lot--of all the prayers, what is the most important prayer that you do every day? And he said, that’s really easy. The prayer that’s most important is the simple mantra: “Every person I meet, just like me is suffering and is trying to find the way to alleviate that suffering.” That is something that is unitive. Again I speak for myself. One of the things the election did is ask me to look more deeply at the roots of suffering of those who voted for Trump. Also. it asks me to look at the roots of my own suffering more deeply. I’m a bit of a Buddhist so I’m taking it from that perspective. I think that at the heart of difference is suffering. What is the cause of the suffering, why do we demonize the other because they’re different than us? We all do this. Why do we have trouble with the person who’s different?
Certain things are being asked of us in terms of actions. That’s the outer life, but also what is being asked of our inner life? What sort of development is being asked of us now as humans? I think this is a political opportunity, a spiritual opportunity, an emotional opportunity, and an opportunity for communities. If you ask me this really great question in a year I could say more, but right now it’s too fresh.
Empowerment Institute has worked with the Clinton Global Initiative. How do you see Secretary Clinton continuing her advocacy?
We don’t know, none of us know. We’ve worked with her and President Clinton and Chelsea in our participation in the CGI, which was one of the most inspiring experiences I’ve ever had. You couldn’t join it unless you made a ferocious, audacious commitment to making the world a better place, and they would only accept you if you stretched your own vision to work harder and do more. And so when you went to those meetings you were surrounded by people from all over the world, all of whom were addressing the most dire challenges in the world we live in.
No one knows what she’ll do. I’m a tremendous fan of hers. I’ve seen her work first-hand. All the women I work with in the deepest poverty in Kenya, in India, in Lebanon, you name it, they know her. She has changed the way women are viewed, she has changed the landscape of women’s empowerment. So my hope is she’ll continue with what she’s been doing her whole life, which is advocate for the disenfranchised, for kids, for women. No one thinks that this extraordinary human being is just going to be sitting around. I think she’s taking a pause and she’s going to come out and continue to do visionary, important work.