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Ruminations on Em-Powerment

a Fishing Village, Giving Birth, Discernment, and Empowerment

Ruminations on Em-Powerment

by Frederica Helmiere

After my second child was born, I found myself yearning for a hearty dose of vocational discernment. Perhaps it was the presence of this new little life in our home that compelled me to reassess my own life’s calling, or perhaps it was a general growing dissatisfaction with my work that I could no longer ignore. Maybe it was just all the free time afforded by maternity leave (ha ha). But regardless of motive, I dove into the process with gusto. After weeks of coffee shop conversations, Enneagram analysis, and an eight week “Life Compass” discovery process, I emerged with a vision statement: I want to empower people and organizations to deepen their effectiveness in working for social change at the intersection of ecology, spirituality, and justice. 

Empowerment is at the heart of this declaration, but the concept is neither simple nor easy. Many progressives think of power as something we must work against, dismantle, redistribute. We are encouraged to “speak truth to power,” and “fight the power.” But in the community organizing world, power is the ability to bring about change. If you want to change the world, you need power. Not exploitative, unaccountable, unilateral power, but generative, relational, distributed power. Em-powerment therefore, might be understood as enabling others to bring about change for themselves, to access their own power.

The islands in pink are the Central Visayas islands in the Philippine Sea. – Photo:          Wikipedia, Cc.3.0

The islands in pink are the Central Visayas islands in the Philippine Sea. – Photo: Wikipedia, Cc.3.0

My first foray into empowerment as a vocation came after college. I joined the Peace Corps because I wanted to experience solidarity with my brothers and sisters in the Global South, build long-term relationships, and somehow participate in making their lives better. But I was also 23, and, if I’m honest with myself, sought adventure. I was sent to a small island in the Central Visayan region of the Philippines as an environmental education volunteer.

The global development machine purports to empower those on the margins, but I quickly became disillusioned with the Peace Corps model. The friendships were beautiful, the life experience invaluable, the spiritual growth significant. But was I really empowering those around me? Was my presence on the island helping my Filipino neighbors become agents of their own change? I had just enough development studies under my belt to know that I was supposed to know that I didn’t know very much.

An old adage states that it is better to teach a person to fish than to give her or him a fish. But the charitable, individualized act of teaching someone to fish doesn’t work when (as was the case in the actual fishing village where I lived), a) locals fished very efficiently with cyanide and dynamite, b) the fish supply was damaged by commercial over-fishing that benefits global corporations, and c) ocean acidification and climate change altered the ocean’s ability to sustain life. Also, I had never fished in my life. In short, empowerment was complicated.

Somewhat jaded, I brought my newly honed development critique home with me and into the classroom and board room. Missionaries and development workers shared the same savior complex, it seemed. Most non-profits engaged in global development work, even the faith-based ones, even the self-reflective grassroots ones, implicitly believed that they had the answers: the techno-fixes, the best practices, the quantified data, and certainly the power. All this could be generously shared with those who (it was assumed) lacked it, if they were willing to participate in the neocolonial development machine. Empowerment and development meant them becoming more like us.

It was disheartening to feel that the whole global non-profit development field left little room for engagement with integrity. Organizations that respected non-western worldviews, that engaged in mutual exchange and solidarity, and who transferred their own power – these were hard to come by. I turned instead to studying and teaching about development, environment, social justice, and religion. I was especially interested in the resources buried in religious traditions that empowered faith-based groups to claim their own development agenda, rooted in their own worldview.

The Life Home at the Maryknoll Ecological Sanctuary in Baguio, Philippines. – Photo:    maryknollecosanctuary.org

The Life Home at the Maryknoll Ecological Sanctuary in Baguio, Philippines. – Photo: maryknollecosanctuary.org

For example, a group of Maryknoll sisters outside of smog-ridden Baguio City have witnessed the environmental degradation of the city resulting from urban and economic development. Drawing their own interpretations of Catholic doctrine, the nuns converted the convent school into a center for alternative environmental education, started a biodynamic garden, created the “Stations of the Earth,” and reconnected local Filipinos and visitors with an Earth-centered Spirituality. Stories like this fascinated me.

The classroom offered a new opportunity for empowerment. Together my students and I explored the overlapping terrain of ecology, religion and international development. How might the depths of the world’s religions be plumbed for symbols, convictions, practices, texts, rituals, images of God, that could serve the causes of liberation and healing for humans and the Earth, rather than domination, oppression and destruction? I don’t know to what degree these classroom explorations empowered my students. In my own experience, a teacher, text, or classroom discussion sometimes only reveals itself as truly empowering years later. But I do know that my students challenged and inspired me to ground my theories in praxis – lived actions that reflected my values. I longed for that feeling I get when I’m marching in the streets; I missed the “harsh and dreadful” love in action of which Dorothy Day wrote.

In a Filipino classroom – Courtesy of Frederica Helmiere

In a Filipino classroom – Courtesy of Frederica Helmiere

So when I embarked on my post-partum vocational discernment process, it led me to reconsider the work of tangible empowerment, and I was determined to find a way to do so with integrity. I came across the United Religions Initiative, a global, grassroots, interfaith, peace-building network whose work is to enable more than 800 autonomous, independent, interfaith “cooperation circles” around the world to fulfill their own missions.

I was skeptical at first. How effective could this organization be if I had hardly heard of it? It is, as executive director Victor Kazanjian put it, the interfaith world’s best kept secret, effective because of its humility and behind-the scenes work. At URI it’s all about the network – this vast, complex, fragile, brimming, messy, pulsating network that URI holds together but does not control. It struck me as empowerment work at its very best.

Photo: URI, Think Peace Media

Photo: URI, Think Peace Media

Last September I joined URI as the regional coordinator of the Multiregion, a unique non-geographic “region” of the network consisting of interfaith organizations whose membership spans multiple continents or whose work is transboundary. The 50 Multiregion cooperation circles range from a handful of folks meeting occasionally in living rooms to robust, well-funded, international organizations. And these groups are utterly inspiring.

Consider the Hope in Life Foundation, who this January will empower prisoners in Kolkata by giving them a day under open skies with therapeutic art and social interaction with the public. Consider CARAVAN, whose art exhibit in Amman this March will visually celebrate the rich, diverse, and crucial contributions that Middle Eastern women make to the enduring global quest for harmony and peace. Consider Think Peace Media, which gives voice to the voiceless by providing a media platform for stories about the healing of communities and of the world.

Howard Thurman – Photo:  Found SF

Howard Thurman – Photo: Found SF

My blessed task is to nurture and sustain these groups – to support, connect, encourage – in short, to empower them. What this looks like in practice is one of the more fascinating and daunting aspects of my job. I listen. I try to make connections and offer advice when requested. I honor their agency. And in the process, I am learning to honor my own roots, to know who I am and recognize my own strengths and weaknesses. Here I embrace that religion can serve as a powerful force for radically re-shaping social relations and human-Earth relations toward sustainability and justice. 

Theologian of the heart and interfaith pioneer Howard Thurman said, “do not ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come fully alive and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who can come fully alive.” He might also have said that what the world needs is cooperation circles that come fully alive. To feel fully alive in work that helps others feel fully alive is a blessing indeed.