2020 Center Update: Surrender and Become Attentive

December 17th, 2020

“To everything there is a season,
A time for every purpose under heaven:
A time to be born,
And a time to die …”

Ecclesiastes 3:1

“Surrender to what is dying, and become attentive to what is emerging.” 

Sister Pat McCaulay, Paul’s spiritual director

Last February, when I heard the first rumblings in the news of the possibility of coronavirus shutting down the global economy and spreading disease to every continent, I was skeptical. I was insensitive around people I thought were being paranoid or fearful due to mass hysteria and rumors, which I connected with experiences of trigger events in my own lifetime, like 9/11 and social movements I had been part of. So I can’t say I was the first person to understand the implications of this pandemic. But by April 10th, when LA County’s first “stay at home” order went into effect, at that moment I began to realize that this virus would shake the foundations of our lives and our culture. 

I had planned that spring a chaotic schedule of speaking, writing, and training–setting up new online training infrastructure in Boston at the Ayni Institute office with Carlos Saavedra, and speaking at a variety of big public events, with honorariums that would sustain my life of voluntary simplicity at the Center for the Working Poor for the next year. But in the space of a single day, it seemed, everything was cancelled.

I was trapped, frantically reorienting, pacing around my house on the phone, strategizing with Carlos, my trusted thought partner, co-founder of the Ayni Institute. We were in a trigger event of a size and impact greater than anything I had ever known in my life, probably the biggest one within a generation. The stock market collapsed, stores were out of basic necessities, and there was tremendous anxiety and fear gripping masses of people who were now trapped in their houses, and there were already signs that hundreds of thousands of people were going to die, with hospitals flooded and overwhelmed in Italy.

One of my specialties is the study of what are called “trigger events,” or “moments of the whirlwind.” These are a kind of politically liminal or “in between” space, in which the typical rules of organizing and mobilizing people, the typical rules of politics, break down. My brother Mark and I had written about many trigger events and the theory of trigger events in our book, This Is An Uprising. And the central focus of Momentum, the training institute that I helped form, was preparing people to understand trigger events and the opportunities they provide for social movements. Now, here I was in the middle of the biggest trigger event I had ever experienced, disoriented, pacing around the room frantically looking for answers. What was our role and calling to help in this crisis?

Soon, the house felt like a war room, with all my roommates and I frantically researching on the Internet, calling and Zooming with experts and elders, and collaborating with my brother Mark, who found little bits of time in between emergency child care duties. Meanwhile, his partner Rosalind, the president of UNITE HERE Local 274 in Philadelphia, along with my eldest brother Francis, political director at UNITE HERE in LA, worked day and night to figure out how set up a network to provide basic needs for hotel and restaurant workers, 90% of whom had been laid off overnight. In Boston, the Ayni Institute had created a similar  buzz of activity in the Saavedra household, all trying to come up with a plan and a framework to understand a social movement response to the crisis. 

What could we learn from past moments of crisis, like Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy, when grassroots networks rapidly mobilized to provide mutual aid and build public support for relief for the most in need? Soon, we were writing multiple articles that were published in many progressive publications, including Waging Nonviolence, CommonDreams, and others. Carlos and the team at Ayni wrote a beautiful piece about the possibilities of the Bernie Sanders campaign reorienting to the pandemic, which was before its time in signalling to the campaign ways they could change to address the crisis. I wrote a piece called “Coronavirus is a historic Trigger Event and we Need a Movement Response,” which went viral. Up to that point it was the most read article in the history of Waging Nonviolence, and was republished in dozens of prominent publications–we estimate it was viewed over 170,000 times. Soon I was getting calls from publications to do interviews–from Vice News, and newspapers, as well as dozens of community organizations, asking for advice. I was suddenly working 12 hour days with very little sleep.

The Center collaborated with Ayni to create online trainings to try to communicate to all the people who were reaching out to us. We did a series of three webinars that were the most attended we’d ever hosted, some with more than 300 participants, with little advertising. Our conclusion was simple: within trigger events, there is a possibility for new movements to arise, and we needed a new movement that could link all the emerging individual efforts of neighborhoods doing mutual aid, politicians advocating for crisis relief, and community organizations scrambling to protect the elderly and the poor from evictions, hunger, and loss of healthcare.

There were millions of people trapped in their homes, desperately wanting to help, and very few avenues for people to feel they could jump in to help. In England, the government had some foresight and made a call to recruit people to drop out and join a volunteer army to support their national health system, similar to a wartime enlistment effort. This was widely viewed as a highly ambitious program, with officials hoping that at most 250,000 people would sign up. However, 250,000 signed up on the first day, overwhelming their system, with the total reaching 750,000 in the coming weeks–1.3% of the total population.

In this new environment, we asked movement leaders to think how we could enlist this new base of people to meet the tremendous need of the moment. We predicted that something was going to emerge to absorb the tremendous energy and discontent of the moment–but what was going to emerge, and how effective it was going to be was still something people could have some agency in creating.

One of the key elements that was different about this trigger event is that it simultaneously overwhelmed the market, the healthcare system, and state services. Like natural disasters or pandemics of the past–the AIDS crisis, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, or Hurricane Sandy–there was a vacuum that could be filled by a social movement that doesn’t just do advocacy, but meets basic needs directly. We needed to help people see the model of past social movements like ACT UP, Common Ground or Occupy Sandy, which were movements that both advocated for people and created amazing services in the vacuum created by their crises. Already, thousands of different mutual aid groups were spontaneously emerging and coordinating, in thousands of neighborhoods across the country. And our articles helped point to a vision of a movement of mutual aid and directed people to join, within their own organizations, neighborhoods, and churches.

At the Center for the Working Poor, we had already been thinking about doing mutual aid, and early in the year had formed a group of community organizers and therapists, to discuss creating a new mutual aid model for mental health support, something like 12 Step recovery (Alcoholics Anonymous, etc.), that could scale to reach many people, and even set the foundations for a new movement that could facilitate personal growth and mutual aid for a new generation of movements that had emerged out of our experience with Momentum Training Institute. We were in the early stages of planning a pilot group when the pandemic hit, and this sped up our timeline. So we created the first pilot group of what is now called Community Counseling, and filled it with leaders from Cosecha, IfNotNow, and Sunrise.

Community Counseling is our attempt to carefully weave a quilt of all the best practices of deep personal growth that we’ve experienced in our many roles, from community organizing, the labor movement, providing psychotherapy for low-income people at the Relational Center in Los Angeles, forming a training institute that incubated social justice movements at Momentum, meditation practice  with Contemplative Outreach, and even my own recovery process that I went through with the 12 Step program Codependents Anonymous.

The question was not just how to provide good services to people. The question was how do we create a community that can provide support and counseling to each other, like 12 Step, which has literally thousands of groups all around the world, composed of recovered and recovering alcoholics supporting each other, on a purely voluntary, mutual aid basis. What would a mutual aid counseling movement look like? A movement that could be run by volunteers, at very low cost, and scale to reach as many people as possible–organizers in movements, the poor, prisoners, and even people in my own house. A movement that could be supported by churches, unions, and neighborhood groups.

We’ve made tremendous progress, after a lot of work, with a tremendous core of leaders, and help from our writing assistant, Aaron Jorgensen-Briggs. We now have a rough draft of a book, an introductory twelve-week training program, and a pilot group of 8-12 people that has been going on for the past seven months. And the response has been tremendous. Many people in the group have been powerfully moved and the beginnings of a community have been formed. We are still figuring out the next steps.

It seems that all my plans in my life before the Coronavirus died, however, being attentive to what was arising allowed a new birth. The rhythm of my life at the Center changed drastically, and although I was trapped mostly in my house, a new calling appeared–to support the organizations in my community in the crisis. Although the movement that I had predicted would emerge from the pent up energy and suffering of the people in this pandemic did not appear in the way I expected, a new wave of movement activity did appear, related to many different factors that I did not foresee. Black Lives Matter, in the wake of George Floyd’s death, created the largest protest wave in the nation’s history. At the same time, there was a massive wave of mutual aid connected to the pandemic, and the largest voter turnout for a presidential election in the nation’s history. And we, through our attentiveness to what was emerging, became a small part of it all.

–Paul Engler

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