Sharing our burdens

For a dozen years I have been traveling the road of nonprofit worker, wearing many different hats, but probably the most well-worn are organizational development and building power through volunteer coordination and coalitions. For three years I have been studying the art of tarot, believing it to be a tool of self-reflection and individual support, and it has been a valuable tool for me as I navigate heartbreak and two years of great personal upheaval. However, after being drawn to do a number of “collective” readings in the past that read quite literally for those taking collective action, I feel I’m being invited to explore reading tarot as a way to discuss organizational concerns as well. The following is an extended essay drawing from an initial post on IG.

This is a reading meant for those working collectively in progressive or Left social movement organizations. I used the “3 Graces” spread from Diana Rose Harper while working with the Brady Tarot, and drew the following cards at random for the corresponding positions:

What grace is present – 7 of horns – the shadow side of too many beautiful ideas

What grace is forming – 9 of horns – satisfaction with our circumstances

What grace is ours to embody – 5 of feathers – a battle of egos

One practical benefit to using tarot to understand complex collective dynamics is the invitation to investigate how different concepts or issues may relate to each other. So, for instance in interpreting the results above I think about how a “grace that is ours to embody” (5 of feathers) works with “what grace is present” (7 of horns) to point toward a “grace that is forming” (9 of horns). My initial interpretation here is that we’re called to examine how a battle of egos might work to inform a current situation of too many beautiful ideas to bring us to a grace of being satisfied with our circumstances. The next several paragraphs will discuss this how I think this relates to our current movement work.

In this time of reckoning, the role of the nonprofit organization is under the most scrutiny from those of us who work and lead them that I’ve seen since I finished my undergraduate degree in 2008 and started my journey by spending the next few years in Americorps. I understand that the role of nonprofits is suspect from the root as its history in the U.S. directly correlates to the dismantling of a social safety net, to be replaced by a “thousand points of light.”1 However, that history also includes blatantly anti-capitalist organizations leveraging what they can from this absurd system to build power and redistribute resources in real time. It is worth trying to figure out how people can be in organization together effectively under the circumstances until we have broader transformation that makes the 501(c)(3) a defunct form. Navigating this world is, at least, a piece of the puzzle of liberation I have the experience to steer through.

It’s past time to retire the kind of non-profit organization that promises to do it all. Take a look at the imagery in the card for the 7 of horns. There are two beavers working steadily away while their dam has been breached. Nearly every organization I’ve worked at could be described this way. Each cup holds a dream. Maybe each cup holds a program at the organization. You have six staff and your director and each person holds a program that no one person can possibly hold, but the idea is to sell that dream and get more people! But with each person you promise a new cup! And each person is saddled with more than they could possibly do in a lifetime, but it’s OK we can get volunteers! But then they need training and support, and the turnover is constant, the dream of volunteers and activists to catch the breach is another cup, another dream itself. The 7 of horns looks like so many nonprofit organizations, and I have been those beavers trying to hold impossible dreams together. I’ve been the one to point out we have too many cups, too many dreams for one organization. All anyone hears is the no, without hearing what we could be saying yes to if we do things differently.

The 7 of horns is a balm for me, reflecting that there is wisdom in making choices where some dreams get tabled in favor of the one or two where we have enough energy and resources to see them through. I’ve struggled to communicate that if our energies are spread far and wide we will not be effective in any given thing we work on. That “giving up” a dream allows the ones you champion to succeed. I’ve also come to realize also that this “giving up” of an idea, a program, a campaign could actually mean creating the space for others to take it on and give it their full attention. We could be saying yes to promises we can keep. We could be saying yes to deeper and bolder networks of activity. We could be saying yes to others (some of those volunteers?) leading in their own organizations and growing their own base of support, that due to whatever reason, be it human nature or circumstances, we wouldn’t be able to reach.

7 of horns from the Brady Tarot

The nonprofit that promises to do it all is an ego-trip. The organization that thinks it could reach all people doesn’t understand that a diversity of voices is needed for social transformation because a mass of people do not respond to a single message, said in the same way, but by a variety of people they trust.2 The organization that wants to be the only one working on an issue and spends their energy in turf battles and gatekeeping is overestimating their power and relevance to the detriment of social movements. I understand how we got here, but it has to change. We overpromise to be competitive in grants from foundations. We overpromise because the need is so great and we want to do all we can to help and feel guilty if we don’t. But the people on the other side of broken promises don’t care to assuage our guilt. People that never get a response when they are in need, never get support when it’s been advertised. We need to be honest about what problems we can and can’t solve, and when we have reached our limits. The 7 of horns is a beautiful, unsustainable mess. 

5 of feathers from the Brady Tarot

The 5 of Feathers is a “grace for us to embody” and I interpret this as examining more closely how we engage in struggle. The Gila Monster can be an embodiment of principled struggle. On the card for the 5 of feathers these lizards are essentially in a wrestling match for who might go on to mate. Gila Monsters are unique in that their bite has poisonous venom, but they never use their venom in this contest. They bring their best within the bounds of continued survival for all, and the loser (this time) goes on to fight another day. They are not cancelled for daring to disagree or not using the right language. They are not shunned for standing up for themselves. There are rules for engagement that support continued life and growth. They know the difference between a fight for their lives and conflict amongst allies, and use their weapons accordingly.

Instead of trying to do too much, we need to further develop our skills in principled struggle to exist in networked relationship with a variety of organizations. There are no duplicative organizations where they work with different groups of people. If organizing is about relationships, and our work is built on trust, there is nothing wasted where people work together. For example, moving away from chapter models with state or federal associations, to organizations at this scale redistributing resources toward independent grassroots infrastructure, without the expectation that those groups act in lock-step with a “parent” organization. The organizing needs of the moment calls for people to step into their leadership, and over-management sucks the energy from our movements.

Principled struggle is the medicine we need to build powerful decentralized networks. Black feminist and LeftRoots leader NTanya Lee has articulated a framework for principled struggle that has been practiced internally in groups, but as our movements are increasingly lived out online and in public, I think it should be considered a broader practice. Her guidance: 1. Be honest and direct while holding compassion. 2. Have side conversations and one-on-ones to help us get to better and build us up, not to break us down. 3. Be responsible for our own feelings and actions. 4. Seek deeper understanding. (We ask and read first). 5. Consider that this (meeting, gathering etc.) may not be the container to hold what you need to bring.3

We are meant to transform society and ourselves in the struggles for social, economic, environmental, and racial justice. We cannot transform without conflict. In the 9 of horns, representing “what grace is forming,” the Caribou have just completed a long migration that their survival depends on. They have come to the end of a difficult journey together and much of what they worked hard for is here, but it is not the end of the story. The hard work of focusing our personal and organizational dreams, finding our place in movement through struggle can bring great peace and fulfillment. Liberation is the larger dream some of us won’t live to see, but we can bring satisfaction into our lives by committing to a shorter-term dream as our contribution to the collective work. 

I offer this reading at a time when it feels like the work we need to do is tremendously overwhelming. If you have similarly dedicated your life to social justice, you experienced that this was the case even before the pandemic. Existing crises of housing instability, environmental racism, militarism, and white supremacy were already problems far bigger than what those who cared could solve. It was never really ours to hold alone, but we struggled, many for far more decades than I, to make the case and lay the groundwork for greater collective action. What I see in the world and in the cards is an offering for more of us to take up the work together. And for those of us who have been here struggling to share the burden of some of what we have been carrying, and to do so with focus, in principled struggle, and because our vision of another world is truly possible.  

9 of horns from the Brady Tarot

1: https://www.wsj.com/articles/heres-the-point-of-points-of-light-1538433396

2: https://narrativeinitiative.org/blog/polyvocal-narrative-strategy-turning-many-voices-into-durable-change/

3: https://www.thecrisismagazine.com/single-post/2019/12/09/the-three-committments

Thank you to Diana for her brilliant spread and encouragement to elaborate on my initial thoughts. Thank you Charlie F. for your feedback on a draft of this piece and validation on some of my analysis. Friends that are deeply here for both tarot and the work of liberation are rare and dear.

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