Organizational Development

Spiritual Practice and Social Change Organizing: Why You Should Connect Them

Photo: Wickerfurniture via Flickr (Creative Commons)
Photo: Wickerfurniture via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Spirituality, religion, faith, sacredness, and many more.

These words can quickly conjure up a strong response (both positive and negative) from those who hear them.

For myself, I know I thought issues of devotion should be kept strictly separate from the groups I was a part of and the work we did.

Honestly, I was probably scared of these discussions so I just avoided them or stopped listening when they came up.

It seemed fine for other folks to have their own beliefs, but to actually have some form of spiritual practice integrated into the group? That was a completely foreign concept.

So why am I bringing these words of the soul up in the context of organizing?

Over this past year I began to notice a few activists here and there, in person and through their written works, stating the need for organizers to incorporate some level of spiritual practice into their work.

I want to highlight some of these activists and show why spirituality (or whatever you choose to call the understanding of meaning in personal and collective existence) has a strong role to play in supporting our changemaking work.

Through the words of these changemakers, I’ll illustrate how these practices could help mainstream organizing better learn to aid its members, build a more resilient movement, and be in line with the world we aim to create.


Why we should be incorporating spirituality into organizing


“Faith and spirituality can provide us with a new foundation for our work, by shifting our perspective of what is possible” ~ Adjoa Florência Jones de Almeida in The Revolution Will Not Be Funded

While some communities and groups have consistently approached their organizing with a look toward their cultural/spiritual beliefs, the dominant organizing movement has been much more reticent to adopting this manner of operating.

Adjoa Florência Jones de Almeida notes that one reason for this is “Among activist circles on the Left, there is often a silent, sometimes condescending disapproval of talk about faith. In part, this is due to the association of religion with fundamentalism…”

However, there are clear oppressive issues entrenched in some outputs of religion/spirituality, that doesn’t mean we should discount all of spiritual practice (just as we don’t disengage from other systems, we work to make them exemplify justice).

We need to move beyond this false assumption that religion must equal fundamentalism.

Elizabeth Martínez, in De Colores Means All Of Us, gives the stark assessment that this aversion to incorporating spirituality in leftist circles “has opened the door wide to right-wing manipulation of spiritual hunger.”

She continues by writing “[this open door] undermines the possibility of mobilizing masses of Latinos/as for whom faith has been an affirmation of heart in a heartless world.” This analysis also applies to any other person with a “spiritual hunger.”

Instead, we should proactively find ways to incorporate spirituality as a propelling force in our activism, as opposed to pushing away the sacred to reactionary entities.

As the quote at the beginning of this section promotes “spirituality can provide us with a new foundation for our work.” For those of us without as much experience combining the spiritual and changemaking, the opportunity now is to figure out how to do so.


5 ways to incorporate spirituality into your activist work


So if you are a little curious about the idea of incorporating spiritual practice into your changemaking work, the following ideas give a few concrete practices to consider.


1. Support holistic self-fulfillment and spiritual expression

“We must first practice mindfulness and grow compassion in ourselves, so that peace and harmony are in us, before we can work effectively for social change” writes Thich Nhat Hahn in Creating True Peace.

How often do we see or feel “activist burnout?” Thich Nhat Hahn’s point shows us that there is a another way to facilitate our organizations.

We must build in organizational structures to aid people in meeting their own needs, both spiritual and otherwise.


2. Find common ground with religious institutions

Faith leaders from many religious backgrounds show how spirituality can play a vital role in bringing about all forms of justice, from environmental to economic.

These religious representatives show that some from institutionalized religions have a clear recognition of systemic oppression and are working to undermine it.


3. Continue to challenge oppression as you adopt spiritual practices

Divinity is not immune to institutionalized “isms.”

As the previous point shows, many from established religions seek to dismantle oppression, so we have many supporters as we respectfully and conscientiously address unjust attitudes and actions.


4. Learn about the history of spiritual activism

As I mentioned earlier, spirituality has frequently been embedded in activism. We must understand how to authentically reconnect the issues of the spirit and the issues of injustice.

This also means we have develop our skills in applying spiritual practice to our changemaking work.


5. Have discussions about spirituality/religion

Like so many other barriers to liberation, we must break the “silence.” In this case around talking about spirituality/religion within our organizing groups.

With preparation, intentionality, and practice you’ll be on your way to invigorating conversations about faith and life.

Now it will take a lot more than just a few discussions to truly integrate spirituality into our organizing efforts.

We must continue to seek out new ways to reduce the disconnect between activism and our personal lives.

It’s essential to support our spiritual and personal lives if we want to continue this organizing work for the long-term.

So hopefully the next time you hear someone have a negative reaction to the word “spirituality/religion,” you’ll have a few ideas to show them a different way of making change.

As many topics here at Organizing Change, incorporating spiritual practice into our organizing is a tough subject.

What thoughts do you have about how we can better adopt spirituality into our organizing work? Leave a comment below!