Radical Mentorship and the Future


I’ve experienced explosions of organizing activity in social justice arenas. From the anti-gentrification battles on the Lower East Side to the rise of the Global Justice Movement to the rise and fall of Occupy, I’ve witnessed and participated in radical activist movements and peer support networks for a significant portion of my life. And I’ve seen excitement over Icarus and radical approaches to rethinking mental health wax and wane and wax again. But how do we sustain these movements over the long term? How do we, as individuals, sustain ourselves—our physical and emotional and spiritual health—over the long term? It’s clear we need more mentorship and inter-generational solidarity, the kind of love and courage that one might find in a prototypical family. Love means expecting sustained care and support from each member of the community, and leadership to set out radical goals and make difficult decisions, both difficult to achieve among strong-minded individuals that have not yet learned to acknowledge the necessity of their interdependence.

I’ve come to see how important the role of committed mentorship is in maintaining continuity, supporting new leadership, and helping us feel less alone in the work we do. We all come to our movement work traumatized in different ways, and trying to heal ourselves as we’re healing the world. We need the ones who’ve been through the fire and come out the other side with wisdom about how to survive. One of the most important things we can do is learn life skills that work for us, and pass them along to others who need them. To manifest real, sustainable changes, we must change both ourselves and the institutions that harbor our old belief systems. We must address racism, sexism, ableism and other prejudices that are internalized in present institutions. We must collectively practice the values that align us with the world we want to see. We must live the values that we want to inspire in other people. We must do the spiritual work necessary to be solid organizers and good mentors. I think mentorship—both having them and being them to others—is vital to growing and becoming a fulfilled human being.   As I’m turning 38, more and more I’m finding myself stepping into the role of a mentor to younger activists while at the same time still looking for guides of my own. I find myself asking a lot of questions about leaderfulness— how to cultivate it in myself, how to bring it out in others. What would it look like if there was a culture of leaderfulness, rather than leaderlessness, in our movements? To step into a leadership role is one of the hardest things to do in a community that rarely likes to acknowledge the importance of leaders. But what if we thought of leaderfulness as the ability to stay grounded in our principles and foster leadership in others? What if we had a set of shared practices, tools, and values that allowed us to communicate and make decisions without traditional hierarchical leadership?

How do we create a culture of leaderfulness? I think we can apply the tools of Occupy Manifest, seek design principles that lead to systemic change. I want to be a part of a movement where people hang out in person. While the internet has globalized our consciousness and allowed us to communicate in nonhierarchical ways, it has left us without the means for deep connection — the kind of encounter that can’t happen sitting alone in front of a computer screen no matter how many millions of people are connected into the network. So many of us have an intense longing for authenticity and the desire not only to be a “part of the solution” but to actively feel the power of group process at work. I have a hunch that in the coming years there is going to be a greater desire for face-to-face conversations about making the world a better place. And I’ll be bringing the lessons and wisdom from the movements, healing modalities, and spiritual traditions that have clues to a brighter future. But for the moment I’ve said enough. I want to hear what you have to say.

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I’ve taken a long and winding trail of golden thread, sometimes seemingly left by a person other than myself. There have been so many times over the years when I was sure I was stuck in an endless labyrinth of suffering and madness. When I thought that the only way out was by taking my own life. In the dark times, no matter how much I tried to leave a trail for myself with words, I didn’t have the skills to bring peace to the warring factions within. If I looked inside myself there was no solid ground. If I looked to society to mirror my life back to me, I was a mentally ill criminal.

If I hadn’t been locked up and forcefully medicated when I was 18, if, instead of the psych ward there had been a place I could have gone with caring people who understood what was happening to me and been allowed to go through my “psychotic” process and get to the other side of it , I don’t think I ever would have ended up in another psychiatric hospital. I don’t think I’d be taking this Lithium Carbonate I’ve been taking every day for the last 12 years. I don’t think I’d have this bipolar disorder label that keeps close-minded people from taking me seriously because they can always just write me off as being crazy. There are understood ways to help people in psychotic processes and our society isn’t yet enlightened enough to put the financial resources in to develop trainings and programs to develop them.

We desperately need to create sanctuaries for people who are having the kind of spiritual and emotional crises I was having when I was a teenager. The world will be a better place for it. Some of us are just more sensitive than others and that doesn’t mean we need to be taking more psych drugs to suppress our symptoms. A breakdown has the potential to be a breakthrough. It’s taken me decades to make sense of what happened to me when I was young, and many people in my situation never have that chance. There is a small but growing network of alternative institutions in the recovery movement—respites, 24/7 sanctuaries, and runaway houses that reach out to young people who are having their first breaks psychotic episodes and don’t want to end up in the mainstream psychiatric system. There are already a bunch of people who are working on developing these kinds of institutions. They need support. You can learn more about this growing movement at the theicarusproject.net and madinamerica.com websites.

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