Daring to Do What the Spirit Say Do

Daring to Do What the Spirit Say Do

By Barbara Phillips, Social justice activist and former Ford Foundation Program Officer for Women’s Rights and Gender Equity

Moments of the day with the Minnesota NGEC fellowship organization’s kept poking at me.  So when Peggy Saika shared that it is racism within philanthropy that led to the creation of Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy (AAPIP), and while AAPIP never intended to be and is not a “funder” it seized the opportunity to create the space for the National Gender & Equity Campaign of which the OFP is a component.

Peggy Saika grounded the OFP work in the initial conception of NGEC, describing NGEC as an example of what’s possible when philanthropy actually undertakes a collaborative, respectful partnership with the community.  NGEC should be understood as a bold experiment in building democratic philanthropy that requires the creative engagement of all the partners.

The OFP groups are making the road by walking it – an over-used phrase, but in this case the most accurate shorthand description of what is really happening.

The OFP groups’ thoughtful struggles keep coming to mind:

* We are managing the issue of “offending the community,” and it compels thoughtfulness about where we stand.  Do we shirk from offending some community members who are unable, yet, to respect the full humanity of others?

* It takes courage to have honest conversations about an organization’s new vision and mission that is grounded in social justice.

* We are exploring what gender looks like in the LGBTQ community and building respect for inclusion.

* We value re-setting aspirations – now we understand our work to be about social change with four core strategies and we need a new structure to implement our new vision.

* We are changing our definition of success from the amount of the grant dollars received to how much change is effected and the duration of that change.

* We’ve altered our identity, structure, and strategies – we need to look for solid connection between intention, practice and impact.  We’re trying to change who are the decision-makers in the community.

* We consider art a strategy for social change and we need diverse artistic expression and perspectives.

* We are building our base, measuring change, and staying accountable.

* I think about the tremendous courage required to embark on this challenging new venture of community organizing within the context of also continuing internal transformation.

First, I meditated on the notion that there’s going to be lots of discomfort and tension along the way.  But, comfort is really over-valued.  It is struggle, not comfort that generates creativity, transformation, energy and ultimately the world in which we want to live.  And sometimes discomfort /tension is not a problem to be solved.  Sometimes the solution to that condition is evolution of a new consciousness that appreciates the condition as an incubator of new vision and new ideas.

Second, I think it is important to make friends with your fears.  Sometimes it is a very smart thing and quite rational to be afraid and to stay afraid.  But, don’t let that stop you.  Advice to “just don’t be afraid” never worked for me.  If I had waited for my fear to subside, I’d probably still be waiting. I learned, instead, to hold the hand of that fear and to take it with me – to “do it” anyway.

I’m reminded of an extraordinary evening several years ago when Marion Wright Edelman of the Children’s Defense Fund invited a bunch of college age organizers to spend an evening with veterans of the Civil Rights Movement at Haley Farm in east Tennessee.

The legendary SNCC organizer Bob Moses and several of his colleagues sat around one end of the table and the students sat around the other end and spilled into the room.  Conversation was pretty stiff as the students seemed awed and intimidated by the veterans.  Finally, Bob Moses asked them about what issues grabbed their passion and the students focused upon the prison-industrial complex and its specific impact upon the Black community.

Bob Moses listened attentively and then explored their analyses, strategies, and tactics.  The students shared their experiences and frustrations, contrasting their condition of often being uncertain with the clarity the veterans had brought to the Civil Rights Movement.  The veterans erupted into laughter.  Really.  They did.

And then they explained, “You think we KNEW what we should do?  We so often didn’t know what to do that we even had a song for it!”  And with that, the veterans launched spontaneously into the song, “I’m Gonna Do What the Spirit Say Do.”  And explained that when stuck on deciding what to “do,” they would sing that song in a SNCC meeting or a community organizing Mass Meeting, and then they would do what the spirit say do.  Together. The students were astonished and – finally – real conversation commenced.

I’m gonna do what the Spirit say do

I’m gonna do what the Spirit say do

What the Spirit say do, I’m gonna do Oh, Lord

I’m gonna do what the Spirit say do

I’m gonna fight when the Spirt say fight

I’m gonna fight when the Spirit say fight

When the Spirit say fight, I’m gonna fight Oh, Lord

I’m gonna fight when the Spirit say fight

I’m gonna march when the Spirit say march

I’m gonna march when the Spirit say march

When the Spirit say march, I’m gonna march Oh, Lord

I’m gonna march when the Spirit say march

This is a participatory song and is adapted to whatever conundrum faced the community.  The verses were modified depending upon the circumstances with which the community was wrestling.  It could be pondering alternatives of “fight,” “march,” “pray” – whatever – the song allowed the community to name all the possible alternative actions.  But the closing verse always repeated the first, “I’m gonna do what the Spirit say do.”

We can be immobilized by uncertainty and the fear of doing the “wrong” thing.  But, the response to uncertainty is not to wait for the Angel of Certainty to whisper in our ear.  She won’t be coming and those who are certain are the most dangerous people there are. The response to fear is not to wait for it to subside.  We are challenged to trust ourselves and our communities, to take risks together, to learn together as we move with those risks – to do what the Spirit say do.

 

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