My next conversation is with Sandhya Rani Jha, the director of the Oakland Peace Center who has written a book that every Christian who cares about social justice needs to read: Transforming Communities: How People Like You Are Healing Their Neighborhoods. If you want to see hope in a time of despair, look at what’s happening on a local level instead of just scrolling through your social media feeds. This book will get you inspired to do justice a way that actually works: through real relationships in lived community.
MG: So tell me about your book.
SJ: Thanks so much for asking! It’s a book for people who know the world is a mess but don’t know what they as individuals can do about it. Each chapter looks at a regular person or group of people who actually effected real change in their neighborhoods, which is where we have to start in order to create lasting national change. I describe it as 1/3 inspiration, 1/3 education, 1/3 diy.
MG: I really love that your book is focused on local transformation. It seems like way too much of our energy in the age of social media is focused on vaguely global “issues” that last maybe a few news-cycles rather than disciplined, relational engagement on the local level. How did you get started engaging in local activism?
SJ: I used to work in Congress, and my career kept devolving smaller until I found a place I could actually make a difference. I’m being silly when I say that, but the only way we can actually effect national change that lasts is by starting local, because it actually has to be about a culture shift and also showing people what our vision can look like in concrete terms, if that makes sense.
MG: Sure. So what was your first local organizing project where you felt like you were able to accomplish something?
SJ: So I think that’s the thing. About five years into living in and showing up with and for the folks on the ground doing violence reduction work, I started to be trusted. So on a personal level that’s how long it took to be part of the community whose gifts could be welcomed. And only because I showed up however I was asked. But as far as a campaign, I have two answers. One is the jobs campaign at the former Oakland army base in the faith rooted organizing chapter of the book, and the other is actually a moment of understanding that business could be done differently as a result of a survey done by the chamber.
MG: Wow so many people go through multiple causes on the Internet in the course of a week and you had to stick with something five years to start to be trusted. In the three years after I graduated college, I worked in three completely different social justice jobs in completely different cities. Do you feel like one of the choices we have to make in our incredibly transient world is to commit ourselves to a particular location for the long haul?
SJ: 100%. That is such a good question. A quote of Grace Lee Boggs I hold close to me in the hard times of gentrification in this city I love is “the most radical thing I ever did was to stay put.” What does it mean to deepen our roots in the places of our heritage as a form of resistance, building beloved community instead of seeking it?
MG: The neo-monastic movement talks in a similar way. There’s a recognition of the spirituality of space: that resistance is spiritual warfare which literally reclaims ground from empire. Are you comfortable with the terminology of spiritual warfare? Or how would you describe the spiritual aspect of community organizing?
SJ: Well, faith rooted organizing doesn’t see any humans as enemy, so warfare doesn’t quite fit….not that it’s a problematic term… this is a squishy term but I think it’s more about reconciling God’s creation to itself.
MG: Ah let’s talk about reconciliation because that’s a word that gets abused by so many Christians in power positions. What makes reconciliation authentic instead of farcical?
SJ: One of the stories from Transforming Communities that moves me is the chapter about restorative justice. I think that notion really gets at what reconciliation is. It’s not just “ok fine I hurt you. Forgive me so we can move on.” It’s about recognizing the damage done so that the person harmed has agency in determining what would allow for their healing.
I think the reason that is so counter-cultural is this: our current criminal justice system is certainly not about rehabilitating people, but it’s also not about the victims’ needs being taken into account. Restorative justice creates space for the victim to name the impact of a crime on them, and to name what justice would really help them put themselves back together. And in some instances, it also unearths the trauma that the perpetrator has lived through, and they are actually invited into creating healing…and sometimes they are even to get some of their own needs met that drove them to the crime in the first place.
To me, that’s reconciliation. Not just person-to-person, but community-to-community, and people-to-planet…what would justice look like if the land could tell us what it is suffering and we could seek to do right by the earth, and to become more human in the process.
This could be a whole book on its own, so I’ll stop there for now.
Oh, except to say… I would love for us to get to a place where racial reconciliation were grounded in “how has your community been harmed in ways from which we have benefited? How do we make that right?” That will be a long and hard conversation, but that would be pretty amazing.
MG: It seems like a basic difference here is between a concern for order and a concern for healing.
SJ: Yes, and actually the pretense of order more than order itself. Our current criminal justice system creates serious disorder in poor communities and communities of color. Wouldn’t it be great to function out of a framework of healed relationships born out of a desire for a safe and healthy community? Which is what we pretend we’re doing but is not actually what’s happening.
MG: That’s a very good point about the distinction between true order and a pretense of order. Whose order does our society care about? It seems like the organizing you’re describing in this book has the role of reordering the disorder created by the false orders endemic to capitalism and white supremacy.
SJ: One of the elements of faith-rooted organizing is recognizing God’s voice in the lived experiences of people on the margins. That doesn’t mean people on the margins haven’t internalized white supremacy and capitalism, but one of the weird ways this pretense of order stays in place is the notion that “fair and balanced” is a value that can be equated with fairness. But in a world that is already leaning precariously towards one group, “fair and balanced” is usually biased against a narrative that leads to real justice and equality.
You might have heard of the experiment where people only read authors of color for a year to see how it changes their worldview. I think part of how we can dismantle injustice is actually counterbalancing decades of exposure almost entirely to white men’s thoughts by listening intently to non-dominant communities.
I also do think we’re heading in a direction for at least the near future where rich people will keep getting richer and the rest of us will have to figure out how to survive with less and less…so now is a good time for us to be changing our relationships with each other so we can learn how to share with, resource, and grow food with each other as part of how we live within an increasingly exploitative capitalist system, and also how we build the alternative to it.
Now, I’m writing this from my fifth floor apartment; I’m not living on a commune and growing my own food…but I’m beginning to think I’ll need to figure out how to live in community and work the earth with others, partly to live and partly to be a whole human being….
again, probably a tangent we don’t need to go down right now (although reading Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents has me taking that more seriously than even a year or two ago).
MG: I like how you identify the importance of listening to the wisdom of marginalized people AS the voice of God. I’ve worked in the labor movement in contexts where young privileged, college-educated white radicals work with working class communities of color. It’s easy for intellectual elitism to become a part of the dynamic in those relationships. I feel like one of the biggest idols that has to be smashed in organizing is the idol of professionalism: the idea that I have as much credibility as I have degrees. How have you seen process in smashing the idol of professionalism in organizing contexts?
SJ: A beloved friend of mine was part of the School of Theology in the University of the Poor People’s Economic and Human Rights Campaign. I remember telling her I loved how They preferenced the voices of poor people over academics. She was quick to say that no, they saw all people as bringing value to the work, including clergy and academics. They just honored all forms of wisdom into the room on equal footing. That in and of itself is a radical shift.
I won’t lie. I am grateful I got a seminary degree; I learned some technical knowledge that is helpful in conversation and in analysis of movement issues. I learned some critical thinking skills there that helped me research news sources and their social location. That is helpful stuff.
It doesn’t mean that I have the same wisdom as a clergy colleague of mine who didn’t go to seminary but has a life of experience pastoring and living in a neighborhood where the city’s pollution was funneled because it is poor and Black. He has learned how politicians relate to his community; he has learned what faith can do in the face of pollution-instigated cancer; he has learned what it means when developers start looking at buildings in a neighborhood.
So he and I can trade information that strengthens the movement of which we are both part. And that only works if I know he has a line to God in a different way than I do that requires me to listen first and ask questions and be curious rather than just talk. Because the world has already taught him to listen to me.
MG: It seems so obvious and straightforward to honor all forms of wisdom in the room on equal footing. And yet it’s so foreign to the hierarchical premise often promoted by the church that someone needs to be the expert or the leader so the community doesn’t fall into chaos. How can communities create this kind of horizontal power-sharing where everyone’s perspective is valued and still be able to make decisions efficiently?
SJ: So I think this was a way in which maybe my book was too subtle. My goal was for people to be witness to the wisdom of regular folks when they’re brought together and function out of models that value everyone’s wisdom equally. I bank on people getting really inspired by that and realizing that this is where the most profound (AND LASTING) change happens. I don’t think there’s a how-to for horizontal models of community organizing. There’s recognizing that it’s important and figuring it out in real time. And getting it wrong. And listening when it goes wrong. And getting back on track. Maybe I’m wrong about that, but I don’t think that one has a formula; it just has a willingness to center that value. Ah…that’s it. It’s not a model so much as a value, the way I see it.
So there’s an example that springs to mind. I just read an article about racial profiling of a Black youth from my neighborhood at our local grocery store. Several people said we should meet with management about this. I love that instinct; it went beyond my personal instinct just to stop shopping there. But I am pretty sure I recognize that youth. That means I know his family from the neighborhood. In our desire to do justice, there’s another step we’ll need to build in: reaching out to the mother and asking how she would like us as her neighbors (and her mostly non-Black neighbors) to engage this process alongside her.
MG: What I hear you talking about in responding to that racial profiling incident is the difference between having real relationships and having causes. And I really appreciate what you said about the importance of getting it wrong and learning as you go. Again it’s completely relational, contextual, and thus not reproducible. It’s a risk that too many people aren’t willing to take. I think we’ve got some great content here to get people interested in your book. Is there anything else that you’d like to talk about?
SJ: I think the only other thing I want to interate or reiterate is that I think the good news of this horrific moment is that it took fifty years of hard work from the grassroots up to get us to this place. That means we are at the beginning of the NEXT fifty years, where we will have to work hard from the grassroots level up to create Beloved Community…but what they have torn down, we can replace with something more glorious (and more godly, if that’s one’s frame of reference).
Thank you so much Sandhya!!! Please check out Sandhya’s book Transforming Communities: How People Like You Are Healing Their Neighborhoods!