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Family Activism

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We live in a world that needs radical transformation if our children and grandchildren are to live healthy, peace-filled lives. But where to start? In this inspiring new book, activist Roberto Vargas says the answer lies surprisingly close: at home, with our closest relationships.

In our daily lives we experience countless opportunities to empower, inspire, and support positive change in those around us. In Family Activism Vargas explains how fostering what he calls familia—close, loving connections with our relatives and with those we choose to call family—can help us develop the skills and attitudes we need to tackle broader problems in our community, our nation, and the world.

Vargas explains the ideas underlying the familia approach and the techniques that support it using examples from his own life, some of them very emotionally charged. He does more than just describe practices like the family council, unity circles, and family ceremonies—he shares how they transformed him as a husband, father, son, brother, friend, and as a committed community activist. Each chapter ends with a series of questions that will help readers understand these practices more deeply and apply them inside and outside of the family.

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13 Chapters

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1: MAKING FAMILY YOUR CAUSE

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As activists or people who deeply care about others, we want our society to work for all, and our world to be safe and plentiful for our future generations. For this reason, many of us commit heart and energy to the causes important to us. Maybe our cause is to protect our environment, ensure safe schools and parks for our children, or raise funds to prevent AIDS or cancer. In our passion to make a difference, we often become so focused on our cause that we miss a key principle essential to advancing our vision. The change we desire in the world begins within ourselves and our networks of family and friends.

The idea that we must embody the change we desire is critical, and the “we” includes our circles of family and friends. Whether our commitment is for social justice or a sustainable world, family must be included. For it is among family and friends that we most experience the relationships and support that bring us meaning and joy. Yet, despite the central role that families play in our lives, we often neglect to teach love and change among the people closest to us, to care for and enlist them in creating the better world we seek.

 

2: PRINCIPLES TO GUIDE FAMILY ACTIVISM

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My earnest involvement in family activism, even though I didn’t identify it as such, began when I was twenty-six years old. That is when I decided to consciously apply my knowledge about communication and organizing to make my family more united, nurturing, and mutually supportive, including my networks of friends and colleagues whom I also considered as family. My thought was to strengthen my immediate community so we could be more available to create positive change in our society. During these years, there was no articulated idea of family activism, just a handful of friends believing that a better world somehow begins with healthier families, so we just learned from our doing. Now, as I reflect on my activism thirty years later, I recognize that I was largely guided by five key foundational principles.

These five principles represent my basic philosophy about how to advance a world that works for all, beginning with co-powering family and friends to become part of the force of love and transformation. By no means are these principles fully inclusive of all ideas required for change and transformation, yet they provide an important beginning for those who seek to make our families, communities, and societies better for everyone. They provide an understanding of the “know why” that underlies the methods and tools imparted in this book.

 

3: THE FAMILIA APPROACH

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Whether you are eighteen or eighty years old, the parent or child in your family, or even if your closest family is made up of your best friends, you can be a force that nurtures group connection and inspires others to be their best. You can create positive changes for your family and friends, and even develop your own activist communities. To do this, your desire and commitment are essential, and knowledge of the Familia Approach will help get you there.

The Familia Approach is a way of living so as to teach love and activate the positive power of our families and communities. It includes various principles, tools, and commitments to strengthen our ability to create the change we desire, and to optimize the healing potential of our family and friends.

I call it the Familia Approach because it was developed out of my experience of being familia. Coming from a Chicano and healer tradition, my family life taught me the core lessons of how to be a social healer and a family activist. Family activism is about healing our society by being more familia, by caring for and being responsible for family and community. It is making our communities safe and healthy by being family with all our relations, including our loved ones, neighbors, the people down the street, the people at church, school, soccer, or work, and even the child care providers, bus drivers, and housekeepers. Being familia with others is treating them with respect and communicating with them to lift their self-esteem or promote their desire to do good for others. In so doing, we 44 prepare our relations to be more caring and possibly to act in more socially responsible ways as well. So the Familia Approach is for all people who want to increase health and healing within their family, community, and society.

 

4: FAMILY ACTIVISM AND TRANSFORMATION

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The most powerful tools to advance the well-being of our relationships, families, and communities are our love and the vision we develop of what is possible. We can create relationships of powerful mutual support. We can transform family life from complacent disconnection to purposeful enthusiasm that inspires change. We can develop communities to become a movement for cultural transformation and corporate accountability.

The prior chapters spoke to the philosophy of family activism, key definitions, guiding principles, and the commitments that comprise the Familia Approach. Before I present the actual tools involved in my approach to family activism, I want to introduce a vision of possibility by sharing the story of how family activism contributed to the transformation of my family. Not that we have become a model of the ultimate caring family, yet we were able to move from a state of dysfunction to become a true familia, taking good care of each other while contributing much love to our multiple communities.

 

5: GETTING YOUR ACT TOGETHER

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To be a successful family activist and create the change we desire in the world requires preparation and grounding. This involves connecting with what nurtures your spirit and energy. It involves living with integrity, health, and the feeling of success in fulfilling your goals and objectives. It also involves lasting the distance by living with balance so that you never give up your vision and continue inspiring others to be their best. To sustain this effort we must prepare ourselves for a life of personal joy and service.

The success I live today I credit to a combination of good fortune, the connection I made to my spirit, and preparation. I was fortunate to have had caring people and experiences that pointed me in the right direction and taught me that life success requires ongoing learning. Interestingly, that which we do to prepare ourselves for personal success or to be effective family activists also primes us to be better supporters and teachers for our family and friends as well.

 

6: CREATING FAMILY CONNECTIONS

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Our goal is to develop such connection among family and friends that they see themselves as sharing a “common unity” where supporting each other is desired and comes easily. The most powerful means to foster this connection is by doing conocimiento (sharing conversation to know each other) and applying the Unity Principle. Doing conocimiento is the essential tool we can use to connect people, and the Unity Principle is a formula to help us realize the many opportunities we encounter every day to increase group harmony and power. The intent of this chapter is to deepen your understanding of conocimiento and the Unity Principle toward enhancing your ability to increase family interconnection, unity, and power, and create beloved community.

Think about the times when you and family members are working in close relationship. You coordinate schedules to help each other or share conversations to encourage each other’s growth. In these instances the support flows because there is a feeling of connection. Where does this connection come from? Is it inherent in your blood relationship, does it come from years of experience together, or is it an unspoken commitment you made to each other years back? All these set the foundation and contribute to your relationship, yet the real connection occurs when you take time to meaningfully90 get to know each other. Among Chicanos we call this process doing conocimiento, actively sharing about ourselves to create connection.

 

7: CO-POWERING TO BATTLE EL NO

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Aremarkable statement from Marianne Williamson begins, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.”1 While inadequacy may not be our deepest fear, it is often a deep wound, and the truth is that too many of us carry feelings of inadequacy that limit us. To advance a healthier society we must understand what undermines our power and how we become empowered. Toward this end, this chapter elaborates on the concept of EL NO, the negativity that limits our power, and co-powering, the process of empowering others and our relationships.

The Great Turning, the shifting of our world to the positive, requires all caring people to accept and develop their power to make good happen for themselves, their families, and our society. Key to this goal is developing our skills to empower each other. We can do this by engaging in co-powering communication, and consciously confronting the negativity that undermines our personal, family, and community power.

 

8: LOVE THE CHILDREN

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Boosting family power begins early. We express our love to our young ones and continue to do so through their youth and adulthood. We aid them to grow up self-confident, and inspire them to care for others and our earth. In this process, sharing love, conscious communication, and modeling are our most important tools.

When we look with open wonder at newborn babies, we find that they are absolutely beautiful, intelligent, and courageous. They may wear on you sometimes, or you may feel awkward holding them, yet they already exhibit their brilliance. They know how to move, find comfort, and seek nurturance. In your effort to hold and protect them, you quickly experience their energy and power. Soon they push away to reach out, touch, and discover. These little creatures are full of love and life, and are ready to learn and grow.

Too soon, many of these children experience deficient care from unprepared parents. As much as we love these babies, many of us are so ill informed or overwhelmed that we fail to convey to them how wonderful and brilliant they are. The result is that too many children grow up never knowing or believing in their beauty, intelligence, and potential, and are handicapped by an internal voice of self-depreciation.

 

9: LEARN, COMMUNICATE, AND TEACH

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Our desire is heaven on Earth, a society in which people actively care for each other, schools support our children to become their best, government serves the will of the people, and corporations act on behalf of the common good. To create such a society requires tremendous amounts of communication, learning, and teaching.

As family activists, it’s important to realize both the enormous influence we wield via our communications and the significance of knowing the purpose of our communication. Every day we engage in dozens of communications. We communicate to express a good morning greeting, to coordinate the day’s activities, and sometimes to offer feedback to others about what’s working or not working. Yet, how often do we stop to consider the powerful influence of our communications—not just what we say, but why and how we say it? Our communication can lift self-esteem, inspire, teach, or it can reinforce a sense of apathy and powerlessness. It’s our choice. Given the evolving crises in our world, it’s time to learn to make our communication as impactful as possible so as to enhance the power of family and friends to become greater contributors to transformation.

 

10: BE THE FACILITATOR

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The most powerful skill that activists can possess is the ability to bring people together to share meaningful conversation. Every day the need or opportunity arises to assist a group to plan, solve problems, have fun, or to share caring thoughts. When we know how to convene these groups and guide their conversation so that everyone participates, we can make major contributions to their transformation. The skill of assisting groups to effectively converse and work together is called group facilitation, and it is an essential tool in family activism.

I have been facilitating family gatherings for more than thirty-five years, as a son, brother, father, and a friend to many families. The first meetings I facilitated were to help restore unity within my family, then to coordinate our family response to the challenges that came later, including caring for my father after a disabling surgery and supporting my mother after his death. By the time our oldest child was four years old, my wife and I had developed the tradition of holding spontaneous and regular family meetings to plan and coordinate our lives. The skills I developed coupled with my desire to support other families led me to become a regularly invited facilitator for the gatherings of friends, particularly when they were hosting major celebrations involving many families.

 

11: FORMING UNITY CIRCLES

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There is tremendous power when people gather in a circle. The circle serves to create a synergistic environment where people feel more connected and are better able to share and listen. In addition, many healing traditions recognize that the circle serves to facilitate healing by creating a vessel in which the positive energy generated by the group’s sharing is enhanced, negative energy that participants may be carrying is dissipated, and the group’s energy facilitates individual transformation.

My vision for society includes that, on any given day, thousands of circles of family and friends are expressing love for each other, gratitude for life, and optimism that we are making the world better for all. It involves people coming together as family and community, and sharing feelings and thoughts with each other that deepen connection, empower, and inspire. The best strategy for doing this is the unity circle. Learning to appreciate the power of these circles and how to facilitate them will prepare you with a valuable tool for making almost any group gathering an opportunity for inspiration. This chapter presents a series of examples of unity circles to activate your imagination around their many possible forms and to illustrate the role of the circle maker. The chapter ends with a review of key principles to assist the facilitator.

 

12: CREATING POWERFUL FAMILY AND COMMUNITY GATHERINGS

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Aprimary intention for this book is to provide tools for empowering our families and friends to serve our larger community as love in action, by committing to being family with each other while engaging in cultural and social change. Now that we have reviewed the essential tools of the Familia Approach for connecting, co-powering, facilitating family meetings, and creating experiences that inspire, I offer here several examples of how these tools can be used to support powerful family or community gatherings that aid us in becoming beloved community.

We repeatedly hear the adage that it takes a village to raise a child. This may work for many villages because all members feel responsible for the children in their community; that is the expectation that they hold for themselves and each other. How can we generate a similar feeling among family and friends today? One way is by developing the pact of being family with those we wish to be close with. The following example illustrates the tradition we are evolving to recognize and celebrate the commitment of becoming family in a way that nurtures increased community connectedness. While the strategy is grounded in our Chicano culture, it could be easily adapted to resonate with many other traditions.

 

13: EXPANDING FAMILY ACTION INTO COMMUNITY ACTION

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By applying the Familia Approach, we can all increase our ability to create positive influence in the world. We can facilitate experiences that foster joy and love within our families, while nurturing values that make us more caring people ready to serve our communities. We can create beloved and empowered community with family and friends who support each other as we pursue the evolution of our culture and the betterment of society. We can do all this when we have a clear vision, and believe in ourselves and our strategy.

Earlier, I described how multiple actions are often necessary to achieve our desired outcomes. Our vision of a better society actually involves a constellation of desired outcomes that begins with more empowered and caring individuals and families, who in turn can influence positive change among their communities and beyond. The effort we invest in our family networks is but one of the influences required to actualize this larger vision, which ultimately must involve hundreds of thousands of families participating in community service and action. Yet it is essential that we fully recognize that what we do in our family networks can lead to other activist actions, and this is even more possible when we have in mind what those other actions look like.

 

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