The United States Social Forum was held in Detroit, Michigan from June 22-26, 2010, and gathered over 15,000 activists from around the country.  During that week I worked as a Spanish/English interpreter for some of the 1000 workshops offered, I performed at a political music concert for activists of faith, and co-led a workshop with Sarah Weintraub, the Executive Director of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship.  Our workshop, “Caring for Ourselves and the World”, was very well received. Sarah will be one of the presenters at the August Symposium on Socially Engaged Buddhism at the Zen Peacemakers center in Montague

In 2001, social movement leaders in Porto Alegre, Brazil, convened the first-ever World Social Forum as a space for progressive activists from around the globe to meet, learn and strategize with one another to strengthen  efforts for justice, peace and equality under the slogan, “Another World is Possible.”  Activists in the United States organized the first national Forum in Atlanta in 2007, and this year the second, in Detroit.   The diverse organizing group included young people, people of color, people with disabilities, poor people, people of various sexual identities, and Indigenous people.    The agenda was created by the participants themselves – thus at any given hour, we could choose to attend a workshop, a live cultural performance, a film festival, a protest march, a work brigade to serve the people of Detroit, a guided tour of some progressive aspect of Detroit’s past, or a “Leftist Lounge Party”.    A space was set up in the main event site for morning meditation followed by guided spiritual practices from a different faith each day.

Sarah Weintraub and I had met in California in late April, and found we shared some common background.  We both had spent time immersing ourselves in human rights work in Latin America in countries in civil war (she in Colombia, me in Guatemala), and both had returned from that work showing signs of what’s commonly called “burnout”, also known as “compassion fatigue”.    Both of us had entered into Buddhist practice as one way of addressing our spiritual and emotional challenges, and both had remained engaged in activist work, this time, bringing some of the lessons of our overseas experience and our Buddhist practice into that work so it would be more sustainable over the long haul.   At our April meeting when we found we were both going to attend the US Social Forum, we decided on the spot to co-lead a workshop to share some of our learnings with others in what we expected would be a somewhat overwhelming and chaotic activist environment.

In fact, our workshop on “Caring for Ourselves and the World” provided a place of respite and refuge for over sixty participants representing the diversity of the larger crowd at the Forum.  For two hours we shared ideas, led practices, and offered written resources that encouraged people to recognize that we must include ourselves in the set of “all beings” for whom we are creating a more just and peaceful life.  We briefly told our stories and invited participants to share theirs in pairs with guided questions.  We introduced the concept and signs of compassion fatigue.  We led a Metta meditation practice and invited people to draw or journal about how they would care for themselves in the upcoming week.  Several times during the workshop we chimed the Mindfulness Bell, inviting people to take a few breaths in silence.  We ended with a period of silent meditation and a dedication of the merit of the workshop based on a quote from the Dalai Lama:

“May all beings everywhere, plagued by sufferings of body and mind,

Obtain and ocean of happiness and joy.

May no living creature suffer, commit evil, or be weighed down by oppression.

May the frightened cease to be afraid, and those bound be freed.

May the powerless find power, and may people be committed to benefitting each other.”

We got enthusiastic feedback from participants after the workshop, and Sarah and I joked about “taking this on the road” and there are conversations about offering a workshop of this kind at the Montague Zendo in the future.

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