Last February, Social Transformation Project invited me to attend a “Wye River” meeting in Oakland as a storyteller, present to take notes and photos of the experience. The goal of the meeting was to bring together organizations who all work to better society in order to align around a “North Star” that guides them as they unify and move forward. There were ten attendees, representing APEN, Jobs With Justice, 350.org, People’s Action, and Forward Together.
As I entered Nile Hall in Oakland’s Preservation Park, I saw the words, “Radical Hope,” written in bold letters on a whiteboard in the back of the room and encased in a glowing yellow image of the sun, the brightest star in the sky. It felt like a powerful combination of words, thought provoking and esoteric. It sounded like candy to my optimistic side, and was a bit jarring to the little pessimist that owns real estate in the back of my mind.
After a brief introduction, the attendees were asked to approach the board that read “Radical Hope,” as well as the other white boards in the room, and ask questions, leave comments, and explain to each other how the concepts applied to their work. We spent much of the next two days working together in an effort to further understand what Radical Hope, and all that it entails, meant to this group.
Beyond the “Radical Hope” board in the back of the room, there were a series of other whiteboards, with words like “Hearts & Minds — Narrative + Big Vision” and “Marginalized Communities at the Center,” written at the top of them. “Co-Governance,” another term I was unfamiliar with, was written atop another board. “Redistribution of Wealth,” words I’m all too familiar with and still waiting to see enacted, were jotted on another flip chart.
In the center of the room, there was a stuffed-animal squid resting atop a large cardboard box, which also had squid-like features, complete with spread tentacles that were labeled with language that represented elements of white supremacy. The attendees scribbled notes on the squid, and eventually added another box, labeled, “Heteronormative patriarchy,” to prop the squid up higher, in order to show that these two forms of oppressive mind-states are intertwined.
The words and concepts on the boards were the result of notes taken from previous discussions the collective held, dating back to their last in-person meeting in June 2017. Though they had all talked a number of times before this meeting, I wasn’t the only one scratching my head at the concept of “Radical Hope.”
During a follow up phone call, Kalpana Krishnamurthy, Senior Policy Director at Forward Together, told me that she found the Radical Hope discussion a bit obscure. However, she did find immense value in the potential of the gathering.
“It was amazing to spend two days in a room to talk about big picture framework and issues, as well as gritty campaign work,” said Krishnamurthy. She applauded the work done on multiple levels, saying, “we went from telescope to microscope.” And she found that doing that, in a place where there were people from a cross-section of movements, was beneficial to all involved.
As I took photos and notes of the attendees’ conversations, as they perused the boards and objects, I thought to myself, “What if school was like this?” Active engagement. Cross-collaboration with other students. Objects standing as tangible metaphors for large concepts that might be hard to grasp in word form. What if school was about working on the root causes of the problems in society? And what if students laughed and enjoyed the work they did in class, as much as the attendees of this workshop did, whilst working to save the world. How much better would the future of education be? Hell, how much better would the future be?
The conversation around the objects in the room — from the “Radical Hope” board to the cardboard robot — were just a fraction of the larger conversation that took place during the two-day session and served as a portion of the overall dialog that has been happening since this incarnation of the Wye River group was convened.
I overheard comments like, “As an academic, I love talking about it, but having to go back to my org tomorrow, it’s hard.” And someone else said, “But the world is burning, we don’t have time to figure this out.” There were points made that helped me understand concepts a little better, like, “ecological sustainability is at the center of co-governance.”
And then there were points that made me want to put my camera down in order to free-up both of my hands so I could applaud. “You don’t like robots? Have you seen what corporations are doing?” one guy said to a trio of other attendees. I laughed and kept taking photos.
Along with applying and analyzing the significance of concepts and objects, attendees spent time getting to know one another. They shared meals and went on a walk. They found time to collectively sing a pop song from the 1980s. They did group exercises that involved stretching, and another that was all about breathing on one common accord.
They went through the exercise of creating Emergent Learning Maps, in which attendees had to present their organization’s insights, ground truths, hypothesis and experiments in a quad chart, and allow other attendees to constructively critique their work. Someone mentioned how this practice is something that has been going on in collective strategizing circles for eons, and that they had learned it from the Zapatistas.
On the second day, the group discussed the concept of fractals, which is a geometric figure in which similar patterns manifest on all scales.
During the morning warm-up exercise, the facilitator cited Adrienne Maree Brown’s book, Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, where she writes about “fractal change” and how a person’s individual growth can lead to larger societal change.
I could easily see that the work of the organizations at the Wye River North Star Experiment Meeting could be looked at as a form of fractal change. Within their individual organizations, they have small teams that work to address root issues that are present in society. And those small teams are just replicas of the larger organization. Furthermore, the actual work being done at the Wye River meeting — the need to find commonalities across movements and the efforts to break down the steps in the audacious task of saving the world — is just a fractal of the larger narrative that is, or at least should be going on, given the current state of politics, healthcare, the economy and the world in general.
Lastly, the individuals themselves, just as complex as any other human beings, are each a small example of growth, constant betterment and manifestation of good intentions in order to be the change they want to see in the world. They, themselves, are fractals of the work.
Unifying these complex people in order to save the world can be an overwhelming task, so having a North Star, some sun rays, or just some form of guiding light can be useful. The Wye River group’s tagline, “A long term home for visioning, strategizing, experimenting and muscle building, grounded in rigor and inspired by radical hope,” serves as such.
The hope is that this group of organizations can grow. The aim is to include more people, more movements, and be more focused on achieving one goal at a time, all in effort to move toward liberation of all oppressed people.
Again, this work isn’t simple. I saw the disagreements about concepts, miscommunications about goals and intentions, and the need for further clarification. Flights were delayed and some people had to leave early. There were people stepping out in order to take phone calls, and others responding to as many emails as possible during breaks in-between the sessions. The world doesn’t stop in order for you to find solutions to its problems.
I personally had to leave 15 minutes early each day in order to pick-up my daughter from childcare. But when I got to her, I felt better about the world, knowing that there are groups of people working in order to make it a better place for her. I was exhausted from spending the better part of two days taking notes, photos, and trying to process it all. But I felt more optimistic about the future of the world she will live in.
Before I left to get her on the final day of the convening, the attendees developed a 2018 roadmap. They made plans for future meetings, phone calls and experiments. They then traced outlines of their hands, and inside the lines they wrote down what they’ll leave the convening with.
In one last act of solidarity, they collectively created a poem: a letter to their old friend, “Radical Hope.”
Dear Radical Hope,
How are you? I miss you. I wish that I felt more connected to you.
But I see you coming like I see spring, if you’re recovered from that beating we gave you, and took a big, deep breath.
I’m still not over that Santa Claus thing, but I’m going to continue to believe in you. Because I feel us getting closer to you.
By practicing love, joy, and hope. I imagine a year from now we will all be changed because, breathing and blinking, you’ve transformed not only me but spread to others. We’re feeling more connected. I know where to find you when times are hard. Just have to look for the joy in all the small things that unleash our creativity, lady bugs and wildfires. It means trying and failing, and keeping our eyes on the prize.
Radical hope, I’m looking forward to seeing you again soon.