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Dec 142011

Shilpa JainStanding in my power has been a journey of unlearning, listening, and embracing.  It’s taken me around the world and into relationship with so many different kinds of people and places.  It’s been about celebrating my gifts, acknowledging my limitations and rooting myself in spirit and communities.  And, as I reflect, I realize how many blessings I’ve received to really live and practice love – which is ultimately where my power derives from, I believe.

I am the daughter of “brain-drain” immigrants from Rajasthan, India.  My mother, a doctor, and my father, an engineer, were among that minority of people who were let into the United States in the 1970s.  They came to study, but ended up staying on, thinking they would create a better life for me and my brother.  So, I was born in Chicago and grew up in its suburbs in an incredibly multi-cultural community of folks from the Philippines, Haiti, China, Taiwan, Korea, Pakistan, Thailand, Syria…  I had no idea at the time what a privilege it was to grow up with that kind of diversity; I just thought it was ‘normal’.

At the same time, I had the blessing of a strong Rajasthani community — my parents’ friends who lived throughout the Chicago metro area — who we would meet every weekend, to speak Hindustani and Marwari (my mother’s mother tongue), celebrate festivals, share food, and just be together.  Multiple trips to India in my childhood cemented the connection.  So, I felt myself simultaneously rooted in a community and comfortably building bridges across difference with others.  That’s one strong source of power for me.

The second is from nature, spirit and my faith.  I was raised Jain, which is a small minority faith in India.  I won’t get into all the details, but there are three core principles of the faith that really shaped and strengthen me. The first is anekantavaad, which means “there are many paths to truth”. It’s essentially a call for respecting diversity and for recognizing that everyone has a part of the answer – it’s their truth.  By withholding judgement, and instead listening and learning from each person, this value echoed a feeling in my gut: that everyone is sacred and I need to make space for each person, in order to reach a deeper truth (satya).

The second is ahimsa, which focuses on creating a culture of love, compassion and understanding. It’s about doing as little harm or violence as possible.  For me, this shows up powerfully not only with people, but with how I feel toward the trees, the birds, the small insects… that sense that we are all connected, and it is part of my being alive to care for and be sensitive towards all.  And the third principle isaparigraha, which is living with a sense of enough.  That is to say, I am enough, we are enough, we have enough, and that there is enough time, enough money, enough love, enough of everything we need to build a meaningful and contributive life.  It’s a sense of sufficiency – which really challenges the near-constant messaging of scarcity and lack.  It focuses on sharing and completeness, as a means to restore balance and achieve justice and fairness.

I have been working with all of these principles in my journey of activism – from awareness, to charity/service, to advocacy, to teaching, to development policy, to co-creating learning communities, to today, aiming for alignment within myself and nurturing a consistent lived practice of the world I dream of every day.  This journey has taken me from Chicago to the East Coast, to India (where I lived for 10 years with a peoples’ movement on radically rethinking education and development, Shikshantar), to Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia, Thailand, Bolivia, Mexico, and back to the United States, where I now live in Berkeley, California, with my beloved husband, Austin.  In all of this work, in all of these opportunities to deeply connect with communities, I’ve realized another crucial source of power:  collective wisdom and the love of family, friends and co-travelers on a path towards healing, wholeness, and balance.

Unlearning has been a crucial part of this unfolding. There have been so many aha!-clicks and humbling moments along the way, but one was especially vital. It happened about twelve years ago.  Up until that point, my activism had been centered around trying to ‘fix’ what I thought was a broken system.  I had gone through many phases of ‘fixing’ (charity, service, advocacy, organizing, protest, resistance, etc.) and found myself frustrated and disheartened by each one.  I remember going to a conference on Gandhian education in New Delhi. There, I met a Tibetan monk, Samdhong Rimpoche, who later became the prime minister of the Tibetan government- in-exile.  At the height of my frustrations with the world, I asked him, “Don’t you think we need to just destroy this system?  It’s so violent, oppressive, destructive.  Maybe we just need to break it all down.”  He said to me, “Shilpa, instead of thinking about destruction, think about renunciation. If you let go of the system, if you organize around freedom and possibility and build the world we want, the system will lose its power and you will regain yours.” And that really clicked for me.  It connected so beautifully with another understanding that my community of practitioners had arrived at: that the system wasn’t broken; it was operating perfectly well. It was set up to extract, alienate, divide and conquer, disconnect, and dehumanize—and it was doing a great job at it.  So, rather than dedicate my energy to fixing or resisting, I needed to work on renouncing it, at all levels of myself, and co-creating better possibilities.

Today, I feel privileged to direct an organization, YES!, that fosters my commitment to connection and enables me to collaborate with caring and creative individuals, families, groups and movements around the world. In that same vein, I am thrilled to be a part of the Standing in Our Power network. I feel that through our conversations, imaginations, love and friendships, we will collectively generate the modes of leadership and co-creation we need for our times.

Shilpa Jain, SiOP Core Committee, is currently rooting herself in Oakland/Berkeley, CA, where she serves as the Executive Director of YES!.  YES! works with social changemakers at the meeting point of internal, interpersonal and systemic change, and aims to co-create a thriving, just and balanced world for all.  Prior to taking on this role, Shilpa spent two years working as the Education and Outreach Coordinator of Other Worlds and ten years as a learning activist with Shikshantar: The Peoples’ Institute for Rethinking Education and Development, based in Udaipur, India. Shilpa has researched, written numerous books and articles, facilitated workshops and hosted gatherings on topics ranging from globalization, creative expressions, ecology, democratic living, innovative learning and unlearning.  She had been the main coordinator of the Swapathgami (Walkouts-Walkons) Network for five years. She is passionate about dance and music, organic and natural farming, upcycling and zero waste living, asking appreciative questions and being in community. All of her work seeks to uncover ways for people to free themselves from dominating, soul-crushing institutions and to live in greater alignment with their hearts and deepest values, their local communities, and with nature.

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