This is the fourth story in a series gathered as part of Love With Power: Practicing Transformation for Social Justice, MSC’s celebration of the transformative practices that are infusing movements with vibrancy and innovation. Click here to download the full pdf.
Mamas and families of Flint – we see you… Water is life. It’s an intrinsic element of our humanity … It is our human right. It’s up to us to recognize that even separated by geography, we are more similar than different and that we face the same struggles against racism and injustice.
Last week Strong Families New Mexico hand delivered their Open Letter to the Families of Flint to their own Environment Department in Gallup as a message to Flint and to the world. Reaching across thousands of miles, the original letter harnessed the power of love to link the experiences of African American, immigrant and Native American families devastated by lead-poisoned water and centuries of environmental racism. Like the families of Flint, Native American families in New Mexico have been suffering from a similar problem without much media attention. Strong Families New Mexico staff delivered the letter to the New Mexico’s Environment Department, keeping the issue alive and calling on the state to act on its higher purpose – ensuring safe access to drinking water for all.
In a political season defined by epic political dysfunction and abuse, the bold human-centered leadership of Strong Families and its home organization, Forward Together, throws the world a lifeline. Rooted in an unwavering commitment to their vision and a bold forward stance, Strong Families and Forward Together are making breakthroughs no one ever believed were possible.
In New Mexico, this journey started three election cycles ago, when, in less than 12 weeks of mobilizing, Strong Families and a coalition of allies, managed to upset a measure massively backed by anti-abortion group Operation Rescue that would have restrict abortion in the city of Albuquerque.
By all measures, this win was remarkable in the socially conservative “purple” state. On the heels of successful abortion restrictions sweeping the country, the measure seemed destined for passage. Early polls showed likely voters favored the ban by a wide margin. The Right funneled money into the measure as part of a national fight against reproductive rights and expected little opposition.
For Strong Families New Mexico and Respect ABQ Women, making the case to voters in fewer than 12 weeks felt nearly impossible. No one even imagined defeating the measure by a landslide.
Adriann Barboa, Director of Strong Families New Mexico and a 16th– generation New Mexican, believes the win reflects the coalition’s commitment to leading a deeply New Mexican campaign, as well as an unprecedented coming together of people of color-led groups with other state-wide advocacy organizations. This diverse coalition was able to align quickly with clarity and strength largely because of transformative movement building efforts led by Young Women United with the support of Forward Together in 2011. Young Women United intentionally invited groups that had not worked together. The groups named and practiced removing barriers that historically kept them apart; they created a strategic vision rooted in shared values; and they used physical practice to experiment with different formations, leadership and strategies. From there, the new coalition began to flex its political muscle and win changes at the local and state levels.
The success of this transformative movement building approach reflects the long history of Forward Stance practice within the organization, as well as the wisdom Forward Together gained from its own history of organizational crisis.
First steps: Confronting Crisis
Eveline Shen was a young organizer when she joined Forward Together (then Asian Pacific Islanders for Reproductive Health). Just out of college, she wanted to work with a social justice organization that empowered young women of color and created a culture where its staff and members could thrive, something “different from what happens in so much of the world.” Eveline saw this possibility in Forward Together.
When Eveline came to Forward Together, the organization was going through rapid expansion and change. Like many groups struggling to manage exponential growth while fighting for change on multiple fronts, the staff and board felt extremely challenged. Internal conflict and physical and mental exhaustion were tearing their relationships apart and crippling their ability to have impact in the world.
The staff turned to talking circles, non-violent communication, and ally interviews to explore how the conflict was impacting them. They discovered that the conflicts they were experiencing were pervasive; a culture of progressive activism and conventional nonprofits pushes activists to sacrifice their health, their families and their well-being. Specifically, they saw many activists operating within a polarizing culture of “you are either with us or you are against us; we are the victims and they are the oppressors.” Says Shen, “Too often we transfer this language and approach to addressing disagreements with each other and we demonize our allies.”
Seeing the conflict more clearly, the staff was determined to shift these deeply held habits and embody a new way of making change.
Creating Another Way: Forward Stance
Shen and others in the core team knew they needed some out of the box doers and thinkers who could help them figure out a new path. When Shen heard about Norma Wong, a Zen priest, former state senator and political strategist from Hawaii – she was immediately intrigued and met with her.
Bringing in surprising props such as water bottles, spoons, and bamboo swords, Wong used mind-body practice to help each person awaken to how they related to conflict. For example, in a simulated sword battle, each person was asked to face a trainer who was advancing towards them and their job was to hold their ground in an open and centered way. Dana Ginn Paredes recalls,
When it was my turn…my body started shaking uncontrollably. Norma said to me. ‘That is how you are in conflict right now. Now that you know that, you have choices.’
Over time, the organization emerged from crisis and developed new core strength. They experienced how this mind-body technology helped them act and see with clarity even amidst chaos. Over time the practice helped each person have agency within the whole and the whole to be stronger than its parts.
Forward stance has shown me the power I have inside of me. Whenever I feel doubt or scared or unsure I use Forward Stance to connect to my breath and broaden my awareness. It reminds me I can trust my gut.
– Amanda Wake, former youth organizing director for Forward Together
Internal Impact: Forward Together
Sometimes the work calls you to do more than you thought you could do. I am grateful for Forward Stance and how it helps you stay grounded and balanced even amidst chaos.
– Alicia Walters
Before the organizational crisis, Forward Together (then still called Asian Pacific Islanders for Reproductive Health) was a local organizing group working primarily with Asian women and girls in Oakland, California. As the organization grew stronger they released New Visions for the reproductive justice movement.and suddenly found themselves in a national leadership position.
Over the next five years Forward Together nurtured their transformative practice, Forward Stance, to help them step powerfully into their new position. They integrated Forward Stance practice deeply across the organization, before weekly staff meetings and in quarterly strategy sessions. By practicing Forward Stance together, they sharpened their awareness of opportunities, identify new ways to position themselves, and clarify where they needed to focus.
When they launched a national alliance to strengthen the reproductive justice movement they relied on Forward Stance and other mind-body techniques to help members understand the “physics of movement building” on a visceral level. They experimented with knowing when to move, how to pace themselves, and how to galvanize allies towards a unifying direction. Through these practices they experienced fully embodying their power as a multi-racial, cross-sector movement and they sharpened their shared values and purpose.
“We used Forward Stance to identify the central value that unites all of our struggles,” explains Shen. “And then that ‘aha’ moment struck: Family was the common value that cut across all our movements. Whether women, LGBTQ or people of color, if we have a strong family, each member can thrive. A strong family can address so many lines of oppression and so many issues.” This also gave groups working on the local, state and national levels insight into how their respective strategies and issue-area foci were complementary towards a long-term vision.
External Impact: Strong Families
The Right has defined family as their turf, and it’s not their turf, it’s our turf. We take care of our families, of each other’s families. When we cede the ground of family we cede a whole lot about who we are. We need to proactively talk about and act for our families in ways that bring us together.
— Kalpana Krishnamurthy, Forward Together Policy Director
Emboldened, Forward Together began to imagine a 10-year strategy to regain the family frame from the Right and change the way people think, feel, act and support families in the United States. Strong Families was born as a way to connect and build movement with everyday people – beyond the limitations of one sector or issue.
This commitment ultimately led Forward Together to take a deep look at the impact of mass incarceration and state violence on families as well as other big, crosscutting issues. In 2015 in partnership with Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Research Action Design and 20 other organizations, they launched a community-engaged research project Who Pays to uncover the deep and complex costs of incarceration on families, especially the women holding those families together. Forward Stance practice enabled this research team to stay grounded and breathe together when surrounded by thousands of stories of trauma that also tapped into trauma within the team. These practices helped them to emerge stronger, as leaders who could tell a new, untold story about the cost of incarceration on generations of families. Together, they are beginning to advance proactive policy and cultural solutions that support the economic, physical, and community health of families.
Beyond the Who Pays project, Strong Families has generated a tremendous success in a very short amount of time. One hundred fifty organizational members and growing, Strong Families is now the largest national cross-sector strategic initiative focusing on gender, sexuality and racial equality.
One of the most vibrant examples of this is Strong Families New Mexico. Building upon the 2013 victory in Albuquerque, Strong Families New Mexico began to move proactive policies at the 2015 legislative session by bringing an unprecedented coalition of youth, environmental, LGBT, reproductive justice, education and immigrant rights groups “to increase the minimum wage, protect drivers license access for undocumented immigrants, promote LGBTQ rights, protect access to abortion and work to end gender-based violence” under the uniting vision of strengthening New Mexican families.
New Mexico is just one hub of the growing national movement working to change how we think, feel, and act in support of all families. “I am so thankful for each and every person who helped to build this movement,” says Shen. “Together, we are developing a culture of working across issue, geography and constituency. We are making Strong Families a home for everyone who believes in a better world for all families.”
Look out for the sixth annual Strong Families Mama’s Day Campaign in Late April!
Mamahood is not one size fits all. Each year, Strong Families commissions artists to create original art that reflects the various ways our mamas and families look and you can send one of these beautiful and unique cards to the families you know and love. This year Strong Families is organizing and encouraging people to send a Mama’s day card to a mama in detention. Look here for more details in late April.