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Linda Stout

Jun 172019
 

This is the third part of a three-part series on storytelling and community organizing.

I often tell people that while I grew up in poverty, I also grew up with wealth – a richness of many generations of my family history.  Unlike so many people who have had their family histories destroyed or lost through slavery, genocide or assimilation, I grew up knowing the stories of my family – 13 generations, in fact.  

I didn’t realize until I was an adult how valuable – and comparatively rare – knowing this long history is.  It gave me a sense of belonging, even when, as the daughter of a farmworker, socially I was considered a “nobody.”  It gave me a sense of values, knowing stories of my family members standing up for injustice.  It gave me community. It taught me lessons.

Penelope Stout was the first of our family to come to this land in the 1600s and was my 10th great-grandmother.  When her ship landed, their group was attacked by Native Americans defending their home, leaving her severely injured.  Two Native Americans found Penelope near death and took her into their community where they nursed her back to health.   She remained friends with them for the rest of her life.  Penelope’s children were the first Stouts from our family born on this continent.   

The Stouts were Dissenters from the Church of England in the mid-1600s who joined George Fox, the founder of the Religious Society of Friends and the Society of Friends (Quakers).

As I’ve traveled around the country, I’ve met people also named Stout who are Quaker.  Chuck Stout in Denver, CO came up to me and asked, “Do you know Penelope Stout?”  I started laughing and said, “Of course!  I especially love the story about how she used to let her grandchildren feel her scars through her apron pockets.”   

For an organizer in the South, sharing family history is important, regardless of how many generations you can go back.  People want to know who your kin are.  These stories often hold deep meaning for us – stepping stones from one generation to another. 

Our family had a letter from a relative discussing the compulsory military service required by the Confederate army in the Civil War. It tells how my great great aunt’s fingers were smashed and broken as soldiers tried to torture her into revealing where the men in the community were hiding.  They were trying to avoid fighting in a war that was against their spiritual beliefs. 

In World War II, men in my family were conscientious objectors, yet served as medics and ambulance drivers, one winning a Purple Heart.   A more recent story is about my nephew who was severely injured in Afghanistan.  This young man, the first in our family to ever graduate college, yet unemployed five years later, a pagan and 14th generation Quaker, was against this war, yet felt forced to join the military as his only way out of poverty.

These family stories of war make me realize that you can hold two contradictory values at the same time.  Another stepping stone for me.

In the 80s and 90s, Piedmont Peace Project hosted an annual spring tour, where folks, mostly from the Boston area, would come down for a week to share in our lives and celebrate our victories with us.  On the last day, a group of us would sit down with our visitors to exchange our family stories. 

Sharing these stories was difficult and courageous. It made us feel vulnerable but it built deep trust among us.  From very different backgrounds, listening to each other’s stories was life-changing.

We heard from descendants of enslaved people whose stories were ripped from them, descendants of slave owners, and descendants of Holocaust survivors whose stories were annihilated.  We heard from wealthy, middle class and poor people.  One woman, Lynn, told a story of being a descendent of the Waller family, Virginia plantation owners who purchased a slave, Kunta Kinte, whose story was featured in the miniseries, “Roots.” 

Lynn had never shared her story with others, and she told it with deep shame and lots of tears.  Though she had dedicated her life to working for peace and justice she always carried the humiliation of this part of her family history.  Telling that story was a stepping stone for her.

Family stories are complex, filled with challenges, joy, trauma, abuse, laughter, addiction and triumph.  The stories go back for generations, like mine, or not even a generation.  Being able to tell these stories can give us power over the past. They are stepping stones to the future. 

Storytelling is a formidable tool organizers can use to illustrate lessons learned, and the change we want to make in our society.

Jun 112019
 

This is the second part of a three-part series on storytelling and community organizing.

Stepping Stones

One of the things we work on in the storytelling workshop is how to make the first line capture the attention of the audience and the last line show the learning or moral of the story.

I learned this lesson when I first started organizing.  Having been a victim of Klan violence, I left North Carolina under duress, vowing never to return until I could “fight” the Ku Klux Klan.

In the next few years living in Charleston, SC, I met my teacher and mentor, Septima Clark.  In the brief time I knew her, she taught me to stand strong in the face of opposition, like the KKK.  She also taught me the need to build trust. 

I remember once that she sent me to the NAACP meeting in town to bring up an issue that was affecting our community around public transportation.  I came back to her with head lowered, whining, “They didn’t like me.  No one talked to me.”  “Of course they didn’t,” she said. “What did you expect?  Now, next time you go…” and she told me exactly what to do.  I went back three times, before people asked me what I was there for.

The lesson I learned from Septima Clark was that I couldn’t expect to “fight” the Klan.  I had to create an environment in which they could no longer exist.

Septima Clark

This became one of my “stepping stone” stories: 

“I woke up one night to find five men in white hoods standing around my bed.  My heart froze as I tried to see the eyes behind the masks. 

The Ku Klux Klan had broke into my house to teach me a lesson.  I had become their enemy by aligning myself with African Americans — a traitor in their eyes to the white race!  I had hired Black employees at the place I worked and the white men did not want to work with them. They had warned me many times, and I had only hired more people of color.  

After two days held captive and tortured I escaped, leaving my home in North Carolina.  I moved to a low-income African American community in Charleston, SC.  There I met an elderly woman, Septima Clark, who was often referred to as the grandmother of the Civil Rights Movement.  

I declared I would only go back to North Carolina when I was able to fight the Ku Klux Klan.  She taught me that was a no-win proposition. That the only way I could win was by building a society where the KKK could no longer exist.  

Six years later I moved back to North Carolina to organize and build power to eliminate the Ku Klux Klan.  

I hated the Klan.  When I first started working with Piedmont Peace Project (PPP), we had many gatherings at the trailer I shared with my mother.  Blacks and whites were constantly pouring in and out of our home.  Two young white men who helped us with yard work and repairs around the house were often there and were always included in our many dinners, picnics and celebrations.

Many times, PPP members encouraged them to join our efforts – to come to our trainings and conferences.  One day, Billy, the oldest at 20, pulled me aside.  He said, “You know, I don’t think y’all would want us to come because we’re both Klan members.”

It took my breath away.  Don’t I hate these people?  But I loved Billy, just like I had once loved my two uncles until I learned they were part of the Klan.

After taking a deep breath, I said to Billy, “You don’t believe what you’ve learned as a Klan member, or you wouldn’t be hanging out at our house.”  So finally he and his friend started coming to our meetings. 

In one workshop, we were talking about what it meant to trust each other as whites and Blacks working together.

One young African American, William, said indignantly while looking pointedly at Billy, “Well I would need to know that if one of you saw me outside of these meetings, like at the grocery store, you would speak to me.”

“Well,” said Billy, “Just maybe that person was with their father and couldn’t.”

After a pause, William leaned forward and asked him, “What would happen if you went home tonight and told your parents what you had been doing with us today?”

Billy spoke quietly and seriously, “I wouldn’t wake up in the morning.”

Stepping stone stories are not linear pathways.  They take us back and forth across the contradictions and challenges in our lives, making us appreciate that there were turning points, sometimes only to be realized later. 

In our work for social change, sharing our stories, and the moral of our stories, may seem very personal.  But it is only by sharing those stories that we can build trust, understanding, and ultimately, acceptance of one another.

Jun 042019
 

This is the first part of a three-part series on storytelling and community organizing.

Indigenous communities have used stories for teaching and passing down information for thousands of years. Today, science is catching up and starting to understand the importance of storytelling. 

Storytelling isn’t just a better way to connect with your audience:  It also improves their retention of your presentation. “The data shows that all audiences retain emotions and stories better than facts and figures.” (Source)

I believe that to be a good organizer, it is important to use storytelling.  I’ve used stories to break logjams, to explain concepts that are difficult to understand and to help with fund-raising. 

When I was first starting to work with a multiracial group in rural North Carolina, I brought a group of whites and Blacks together in the same room.  I had placed the chairs in a circle, but people ended up moving their chairs to opposite walls, dividing themselves by race.  

I didn’t know what to do.   

But falling back on the power of stories, I asked each person to tell a story of what they wanted for their children.  As people began to share, they realized they had the same concerns, fears and hopes for their families.  The logjam broke.  They became animated and engaged, and began to move their chairs closer together.  

That was the beginning of one of the largest multiracial organizations in the South at the time. 

To get people comfortable telling their own stories, one exercise I use is called “The Three Stepping Stones.” It involves people identifying three stepping stones, or life events that have brought them to working for social justice today.  

I started using it when I faced a logjam of my own. 

Some time ago, I was asked to lead a workshop for media communicators at the last minute.  As I drove to the gathering, I wondered why I had ever agreed.  I had no idea what I was going to do with these experienced communicators.  

I arrived in a panic but then I saw a garden filled with river stones.  I gathered a bunch of stones in my shirt, intending to return them all at the end of the workshop. 

When the group came into my workshop, I asked them each to pick three stones and to think of three stepping stones, or life events, that brought them to the work they were doing for justice.  Then people went into small groups off our, with 15 minutes each to tell their stories.  

Afterwards, many people talked about how powerful it was for them to hear each other and to tell their own stories.  One woman asked if she could take the stones home with her to tell these stories to her husband of 30 years and her family.  She had never shared her powerful, life-changing events with them.  

Telling each other our stories is one of the most powerful things we can do to organize deeply and profoundly.  It reinforces the importance of our work in a way that people can connect to and understand. 

And just for the record, I did return the stones to the garden at the end ofthe workshop, though minus several stones people had took back home with them!

Feb 192019
 
Connie Fitzgerald

Connie Fitzgerald, passed away peacefully at her home after a seven year battle with ovarian cancer on January 25, 2019.  She was Spirit in Action’s Operations and Finance Director for the last 10 years, working through mid-December 2018.  Connie was the backbone of Spirit in Action, the glue that made sure everything was working smoothly.  She will be so missed. 

I first met Connie about 35 years ago when she was writing checks for Peace Development Fund to grantees like me at Piedmont Peace Project in North Carolina.  Eleven years later, she became my co-worker at Peace Development Fund in Massachusetts, when I went to work there in 1996. 

Even then, her sweet nature was supportive of me trying to figure out how to create budgets for proposals and reports.  With loving kindness, she would support me to spread my wings and fly while having the ability to bring me back to earth when I tried to fly a little too far!

We shared our love of the work for justice, our dogs and chickens, plants, gardening and visiting nurseries, and very quickly became good friends.  In addition to plants and gardens, we shared our love of food – especially Southern!  We got to share our Southern roots.

When she came to work at Spirit in Action in 2007, our friendship blossomed.  We went on trips together for work, always finding interesting places to stop – mostly nurseries – along the way.  No matter where I went, whether I was talking to someone in the bank, a donor, a contractor or a volunteer, everyone asked about Connie and spoke about how much they appreciated her.  She touched everyone she came in contact with. 

Now, I keep picking up the phone to call her:  “You can’t believe the bird I just saw!” or “My umbrella plant is sick,” or what to do about a problem at work.  She would celebrate joyfully when I shared nature tales, remind me the umbrella plant is really a Schefflera arboricola and tell me what it needed, and help solve the work problem with equal attention. 

Connie was one of the gentlest, wisest, unpretentious and strongest people I ever knew.  She was my co-worker, mentor, confidante and best supporter.  Most of all, she was my dear friend.  She has left a hole in my heart and in Spirit in Action. 

Peace, Power & Love

Linda Stout

Nov 202017
 

Voice Vision Action

Click here to read the entire Fall 2017 Newsletter

Dear Friends,

Do you feel like burying your head in the sand?

I do! I don’t want to think about what the latest disastrous or obscene thing Trump has said or done. I don’t want to look at the destruction from hurricanes and droughts, or the lack of response of our government to Puerto Rico’s heartbreaking situation. I don’t want to look at mass gun shootings, or another innocent black man being shot down.

I would love to be able to ignore the massive wild fires, horrific treatment to people of color and immigrants, and the loss of LGBTQ and women’s rights. I don’t want to think of a looming threat of a possible nuclear war. Many of us are actually getting sick from the tension, sleeplessness, anxiety and trauma.

I would love to turn away from all of it, close my eyes, not listen, and turn off my feelings. But, I can’t. None of us can!

So, how do we overcome the helplessness we feel in this battle for our lives, the lives of our fellow peoples and Mother Earth? First, we must do whatever we can to join with and support those working for justice. We must work from a place of love and action. We must focus on the positive and grow from those glimmering seeds of hope. We must work from our vision of a clean, just and sustainable world. We will be successful if we stay grounded in our communities —from local to worldwide communities.

At Spirit in Action, we’ve taken time to re-evaluate, and look at ways to move forward in positive and transformative ways in these perilous times. We are addressing these issues by building on our strengths, redesigning our workshops and trainings to have the maximum impact. We are working on this through our programs: Standing in Our Power and Changing the Way We Do Change.

We do not have the luxury to turn off what is happening. We must address these problems.

The times we are in demand that we be flexible, creative and proactive. This is not the time to stand back and see what happens. We cannot afford to put our heads in the sand.

Peace, power and love,

 

 

Linda Stout
Executive Director

Sep 202016
 

It’s really hard to have a positive outlook or hope with all that’s happening in the world today: political chaos, hate, violence, environmental disaster, and a list much too long to write here.  And worse, it seems that people are feeding off all this hatred and chaos and it continues to grow, taking over everything else, like a vine that consumes and strangles a tree’s life.  Sometimes it gets so discouraging, that I, like many others I know, just want to bury my head in the sand like an ostrich.

I could ignore it and pretend it isn’t happening.  I can dream about moving out of the country if things get worse.  Many people are talking about that.

However, that is not what I’m here to do in this lifetime.  I am here to create transformative change in my community, my state, my country and my world, and I hope you are too.

For me to do that, I have to bring vision and hope – both to myself and others.  To do this I begin with dreaming, with visioning about what I want the world to look like.

Eleanor Roosevelt said “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams”. 

Fred Pollack, a well-known Jewish Dutch historian who went into hiding during World War II, used that time to study 3000 years of civilizations to understand what made some societies flourish, while others self-destructed.  He found through his research that only those that held a vision of the future of their society were the ones that thrived and succeeded.  Those that didn’t hold a vision turned to violence, war, and eventually self-destruction.

He concluded that a society’s image of itself becomes a roadmap for its future.  He wrote, “Those societies with positive and vital images flourish while those with uninspired images stagnate.”  He added, “We found the positive image of the future at work in every instance of the flowering of culture, and weakened images of the future as a primary factor in the decay of cultures.” [The Image of the Future, Fred Polak, translated and abridged by Elise Boulding, Jossey-Bass, Inc. 1973 (p.800)]

Why have we become a society lacking vision and hope for a much better world?  Here are some quotations that inspire me:

Neither let us be slandered from our duty by false accusations against us, nor frightened from it by menaces of destruction to the Government nor of dungeons to ourselves. LET US HAVE FAITH THAT RIGHT MAKES MIGHT, AND IN THAT FAITH, LET US, TO THE END, DARE TO DO OUR DUTY AS WE UNDERSTAND IT”.  – Abraham Lincoln

All this will not be finished in the first one hundred days. Nor will it be finished in the first one thousand days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.” – John F. Kennedy

“If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”, and “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: Only love can do that.”  – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Ultimately leadership is about the strength of one’s convictions, the ability to endure the punches, and the energy to promote an idea. And I have found that those who do achieve peace never acquiesce to obstacles, especially those constructed of bigotry, intolerance and inflexible tradition.” – Benazir Bhutto – Former Prime Minister of Pakistan

Although all of these people gave their lives for their beliefs and their visions, they still inspire generations after them.

While I am motivated by these amazing, brave visionaries, I realize having a “leader” is NOT enough.  We can’t wait on one person to step up and take leadership and tell us what we need to do.  We all have to “shout from the mountaintops.”  We need to join together, create a collective vision, and work together to bring hope to a community, a state, a nation, the world.

We begin by looking for the seeds of hope around us.  There are lots.  Think of each one as an acorn (I have some on my vision altar), and then imagine it as a seed of hope growing into the largest oak tree you have ever seen.  We need to start planting now, wherever we are.

What is the barrier to visioning and creating a world that is just and beautiful?  For most people, it is lack of time, commitment, or money.  Sometimes, we’re not strategic about how we work for transformation and get caught up in the minutiae without a long-term vision to keep us on the right path.

I want to invite you to do three things.

  1. First, figure out what you would need to be able to commit 2-4 hours to social change a week.  Could it be not scrolling mindlessly through social media sites, or not watching a couple hours of television one night just to escape the burdens and reality of everyday life?  Many of us are devoting most of our time to making change, but I often hear from people they just don’t have time to make a two- hour meeting, or to go out in the community to canvass and educate neighbors, or drive people to the polls.
  2. Share this blog and webinar invitation for a visioning webinar with other friends and allies.  Have conversations with others.
  3. Figure out how you can support other organizations doing this work.  Can you give up that $3 coffee each day? Or $50 on eating out each week? Or just figure out $5 a week that you could squeeze from your budget.

And remember, it is critical for those doing this work all the time, to devote some time to self-care, whether spiritual or singing or writing poetry or spending time in nature.  This gives us the ability to dream and work for social change.  Yet, many think they are too busy to even do this basic piece by caring for ourselves first.

I invite you to join me on a webinar on October 5, 7pm – 8pm EST (4pm – 5pm PST)  to explore this type of visioning and creating hope for yourself and others. [Click Here to Sign UP]  Hope is contagious and we need to create an epidemic of it in this country.  We’ve done it before.  Now more than ever, it’s important to our survival, both at an individual level and a world level.

If you can’t make this webinar, let us know if you are interested in another date, and we will set another time up as well.

Spirit in Action