Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Community organizing idea

This is what I've been thinking about since I went to the Northwest Dharma Association's annual meeting. As I write for their newsletter, I am a member. Portland Buddhist Peace Fellowship is also a member group. So I am doubly committed to this organization. As a coalition group, it is growing up. Elections of board members are moving beyond a raising of hands. The push to provide more collective information on how to do this thing, grow a Buddhist sangha, is coming from the member groups.

During the afternoon of our day-long gathering, we divided into groups based on our topic of interest. In April I will post what I wrote about those topics for the newsletter. I may not be getting paid, but I don't wish to preempt publication. The most natural group for me to join was, of course, Engaged Buddhism. We had a lively discussion, a complex discussion. An idea germinated for me that could really be the culmination of these my five years spent organizing and learning what we Buddhist activists need.

You see, it has been a conundrum: how to get people more engaged. It isn't just a problem of Buddhists sitting quietly on their cushions...though that may be some of it. It isn't just a problem of activists being too reactive/ angry/ confrontive...though that may be some of it. Those, by the way, are stereotypes and not generally true in my experience. Mostly I think the problem is that there is just TOO MUCH to engage. There is too much suffering, too much war, too much violence, too much systemic inequality, too much economic disparity, too much earth-trashing. All activists are scrambling, so many issues to choose from, so scattered, so insurmountable. In some cases I think we freeze and don't choose any. In some cases, we just don't know how to find each other. We cocoon, take care of family, find meaning in those small moments of intimacy, and barely dare to peak our heads out at the hell of this addictive, righteously entitled, militarist American society. While we cocoon though, the sky will be falling. More on the big mess later...got some books that are currently influencing me.

Here it is, my idea germinated into a full-fledged proposal I am sharing with my local BPF chapter, the whole of BPF, and the NW Dharma Association. I hope it goes somewhere. I can't make it happen alone.

Engaged Buddhist Challenge

Buddhist Peace Fellowship Chapters and/or NW Dharma Association challenge the Buddhist communities of the Northwest to name and make available an Engaged Buddhist focus. Communities would agree to provide a networking forum of some nature for Buddhists in the area that are interested in that focus. Larger communities could name more action focuses, tiny communities might decide to attach to larger communities to participate in the challenge.

Buddhist communities would gain greater focus and activity in areas of social need, service, and social action. Individuals in those communities would cross-pollinate, keeping their home sangha commitments while creating new connections with communities that focus on their Engaged Buddhist interest. Buddhist communities would gain a more unified voice in the arena of social action, and would gain greater commitment to social action beyond the boundaries of their sangha. Individuals in those communities would more easily find a connection and their niche in social action, and will have support from their Buddhist faith and practice with those activities.

There will be more Buddhists visibly engaged in engaged social action, and more interconnections across Buddhist communities, interfaith communities, and activist communities. Opportunities for Engaged Buddhist practice will be more visible and available to all Buddhists in the area.

Buddhist communities are very busy nurturing the growth of their communities. Often interest in social action activities is as varied as the individuals in those groups. This is true in the secular world of social action as well. People can become scattered, and focus groups small. In some cases, individuals can be overwhelmed by the multiplicity of service/social action needs. By uniting across our common interest in Buddhism, and each community providing focus on a particular area of interest, we can create more visible venues through which people can combine their spiritual practice with their community engagement practice.

Many communities already have such focuses, but they could be flushed out and made more visible to the wider Buddhist community. Sometimes experienced Buddhists need mentors in the community engagement arena, and sometimes experienced activists are looking for mentors in the Buddhist arena while still keeping their engagement focus. The world of activism would benefit from the reflective intentions of Buddhist practitioners, and Buddhist communities would benefit from the vibrant interconnections and energy from the activist and social action communities.

How this Could Work
Keep in mind these are simply my brainstormed thoughts of how this could work. Once more people get involved and this takes off (it must it must!) and more voices contribute to the idea pool, I'm sure this will change and get better. Also, once this gets started, I'm sure it will evolve as we as a community find out what works and what doesn't work.

Participating sanghas choose a focus or focuses of community engagement. By submitting a pledge of engagement, they agree to guidelines of the challenge. When submitting a pledge, they say what they are committing to: the focus topic, and how they will support it.

Here's a possible scenario. A large sangha may already have members doing work in prisons, and may have an interest in developing a stronger focus on green issues. This sangha would have at least 2 facilitating members for each focus. They may decide to form a support group for people doing or thinking about doing prison engagement. They decide commit to offering monthly meetings in which they practice together, and discuss together the practice and dharma issues of this focus. The green sangha facilitators may decide to see what people are looking for before making solid commitments, and pledge to solidify their commitments within X number of months. Eventually the green core group with individuals from various sanghas may decide to focus more on public venues, such as round table discussions, speakers, perhaps creating a green challenge of their own for the wider Buddhist community. Later on, a subgroup forms from the prison group, people who decide to focus on facilitating community connections for Buddhist ex-prisoners.

Another example, maybe a sangha of 10 people or less has two people who wish to focus on green issues. This sangha commits to this focus, and joins their focus with the larger sangha, doubling the number of committed facilitators. Two other members of this small sangha join the hospice worker support group facilitated by a medium-sized sangha in the area. The hospice worker support group also starts an email listserve dedicated to discussion of dharma and hospice work. Buddhist hospice workers from the rural coastal area join the email listserve, and once in a while make the trip to the city for connection in the support group.

One goal of this challenge is to unite Buddhists across denominations in their field of engaged interests, so sanghas would be encouraged to name a unique dedicated focus. There may already be five sanghas in an area doing prison work, but one of those sanghas could agree to "host" this as a focus.

Participating sanghas keep their members aware of the Engaged Buddhist Challenge, and of the opportunity their members have to get involved. They disseminate the list of participating communities, and there could also be an online database with direct connections to the web presence of those communities. An online community blog could keep up-to-date with latest developments and challenge participants. Postings could be sent via email and periodic newsletters could give summaries of activities.

Possible Guidelines
-Your community has at least two members who are committed to facilitating the efforts of your Engaged Buddhist Focus
-Participation in the challenge means opening up your sangha to people who may have no wish to be a member of your larger sangha, and no one should be pressured to join your larger sangha
-Facilitating members make a commitment to organize some sort of forum of support for the engaged focus. This could be regularly scheduled practice/support groups, email or web-based discussion groups, a phone tree, etc. Larger sanghas could host speakers or panel discussions on their committed focus. The basic need to be met would be a feeling of connection between like-minded Engaged Buddhists. They would have a means to deepen their understanding of the connection between their reflective practice and their active practice. A wider societal need would be education about the particular focuses, and greater visibility to the wider community. Larger sanghas could commit to hosting public forums, speakers, etc.
-Facilitating members make a commitment to report regularly to the Engaged Buddhist Challenge sponsors, or delegate someone from their focus group to report regularly.

Possible Timeline Portland area
-clarify challenge among interested organizers, produce brochure or flier for June 2nd Park Festival, generally invite participation in challenge planning
-create ad-hoc committee to facilitate the challenge before and after June 2
-issue challenge in Fall, 2007
-ask communities to respond to challenge by February 2008
-have working database, publish list, by June 2008
-ongoing review, meet changing needs and wishes

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