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Family Activism: Empowering Your Community, Beginning with Family and Friends

Family Activism: Empowering Your Community, Beginning with Family and Friends

by Roberto Vargas

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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? Activist Roberto Vargas says the answer lies surprisingly close: at home, with our family and friends. We can apply the practice of family activism to foster what he calls familia-warm, loving connections with our


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? Activist Roberto Vargas says the answer lies surprisingly close: at home, with our family and friends. We can apply the practice of family activism to foster what he calls familia-warm, loving connections with our relatives and with those we choose to call family-and develop the skills and attitudes we need to tackle broader problems in our community, our nation, and the world. In Family Activism, Vargas draws from his own life to show how to apply tools such as copowering communication, family councils, and unity circles to create family and community cultures that empower all of us to become more committed and skillful agents of positive change.

About the Author:
Roberto Vargas is principal consultant for New World Associates. His clients have included colleges, corporations, public institutions, Native American reservations, and over 150 agencies and organizations dedicated to community service

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Vargas, a longtime corporate and community consultant, approaches social activism with high ideals, a positive viewpoint and, most helpfully, a practical and gratifying plan of action, based in his personal experience and cultural heritage. The "Familia Approach" treats activism not as a solo enterprise but as "a way of living so as to teach love and activate the positive power of our families and communities." Vargas unpacks the Mexican idea of familia and finds enfolded within its notion of the extended family-"everyone you care for and who cares for you"-the American passion for social activism. Each chapter expands on this idea, including reflection questions and bullet-point "practices," with much insight into Vargas's own family and Latino culture in general (both modern and ancient). Though not religious, Vargas is "spiritual," and does consider prayer and indigenous religious practices (like unity circles) important and powerful. Equally important, however, is real human understanding, for which he introduces the surprisingly complex concept of conocimento-conversation meant to deepen participants' knowledge of each other. Vargas's text, full of new agisms like "transformation," "energy" and "synergy," will strike some readers as redundant, but those ready to share in Vargas's passion will find much to learn.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Product Details

Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
Publication date:
BK Currents Series
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

Read an Excerpt


By Roberto Vargas

Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2008 Roberto Vargas
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-57675-779-6

Chapter One


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.

As family activists, our work is about developing ourselves and our ability to facilitate the growth of others. Each of us can foster mutual support and power for positive change among family and friends. Fortunately, once we make this wisdom integral in our interactions with others, we open ourselves to more purposeful living, as people and as activists. We discover that taking care of family and friends is another way of taking care of ourselves and bettering our world. Given your particular family reality, this insight may initially feel challenging, and oftentimes it is. Yet, inspiration will come from knowing you are on the right path and learning valuable tools.

In this chapter, I invite you to view yourself as an activist, and maybe pursue becoming a more mature activist who makes family part of your fundamental perspective. When you choose to view your life with this activist lens, you expand your power to make positive change for your family and communities. Additionally, when you help move your family and friends toward their greater potential, you empower yourself to create greater joy and change than you can imagine. I hope to convey this truth by introducing my understanding of family activism, sharing some personal experiences of discovering its importance, and presenting several ideas that can help you develop your ability to become a more powerful resource and change agent for your family, community, and society.

What Is Family Activism?

Family activism is interacting with those close to you in a way that inspires and prepares them to serve their families and communities as a positive force for change. It is teaching and modeling love among all your relationships, extending acts of caring, thereby encouraging more folks to increase their commitment and time to advancing love and change.

An act of love can transform a relationship in an instant, or it can leave seeds of forgiveness and hope that may manifest within a day, a week, or many years later. It can implant an affirmation that empowers another whom you may never see again to live with courage, or it can kindle a connection with another that can lead to ongoing collaborations to make good happen in the world. This is the type of impact that family activism fosters.

What do the acts of family activism look like? Family activism can include seemingly minor actions, such as initiating a dialogue with your niece to boost her confidence, initiating family meetings to coordinate household chores, or requesting at a birthday party that the group "take a few moments to share with our dear friend why he is truly special to us." Family activism might be having a difficult conversation with a sibling about being a more involved parent, or welcoming a family friend to live in your home until he or she can find a new job. Many of us extend these acts without any thought about our motivation or the implications of our actions. We are just being family or good friends. Yet I believe these acts should be affirmed as a form of activism because they contribute to bettering our world, certainly for the folks immediately involved, and maybe for others we may never know about. And if we do these acts with an ounce of added mindfulness about their activist quality, we can potentially multiply many times over their impact in advancing love and change.

The dialogue with your niece can be the first of a lifelong series of conversations to support her leadership development. The family meeting to take care of business can be designed to also nurture a deeper family connection or to evolve an ongoing practice of analytical thinking about our political environment. Similarly, the sharing at the birthday party can be done so that participants leave feeling touched by love and inspired to increase love in their lives.

How do these acts advance social change? To create a society that truly supports life requires that many of us become less selfish and disconnected, and more caring and powerful. These major changes entail evolving our ability to feel, think, and act in more loving ways. With inspiration and mindfulness, we can learn to live and interact with each other so that we are continually cultivating a feeling of connection and a desire to support each other's well-being. As more of us strengthen our caring instinct and learn to accept our power to create change, we can become a more caring culture able to create changes in all facets of our life, from the way we treat those around us to the political and social priorities in our country.

I will draw on personal experiences to illustrate how activism directed to supporting family and friends can lead to both healthier families and social change. Within my family of birth, I worked with my parents and brothers to develop a culture of mutual connection and support so that we became both a healthier family and one very much involved in community service. The result is that between us we have touched numerous people and created dozens of programs and campaigns that have improved the lives of many. The same is true for the family Rebeca and I have created with our children, in which the methods of family activism have enabled us to better support each other and also be an influence of love and change in our daily personal, community, and work lives.

Finally, much of what I learned from my own family blossomed into even greater outcomes among our extended familia. Being a family-oriented person living hundreds of miles away from my family of origin required me to develop and expand my family. Within our new family network of over a dozen and a half families and individuals, I became the recognized facilitator of "family councils" or "unity circles" for special family gatherings such as anniversaries, birthdays, graduations, weddings, and funerals. In essence, my role as a family activist was to create sacred time for family and friends to express their truth, whether it was heartfelt words to honor another or dialogues to learn from each other's experience. Together, we developed traditions for gathering as community in ways that were inspiring, healing, and instructive. Now we get to enjoy interacting with a new generation of young people raised in the tradition of family connection and community service.

These young people are now inspiring us. Many of them are working as teachers, counselors, planners, and community advocates, or do their occupational work and then volunteer in activities that advance community betterment. Many have incorporated into their community service the principles and practices for community building that grew out of our shared experience. These are examples of how family activism that nurtured connection and inspiration among family and friends resulted in the development of more people doing their part to advance social change.

There are more impacts. When we develop a pool of family and friends who share similar vision, commitments, and appreciation for "building community from the family out," together we can become a force to influence even larger circles of community. Various combinations of members of our beloved community have been able to initiate campaigns, organizations, and projects with results like better education, increased multicultural respect, youth leadership development, community empowerment, and peace advocacy. As individuals and families we learned to apply activism within our own family circles to inspire and empower each other to make family and community life better. It's this type of living, doing, and thinking that constitutes family activism.

Multiple Influences for Multiple Effects

When we think of the impacts of family activism, it is important to keep in mind the principle of multiple influences for multiple effects. The change we desire in our society does not occur through a simple cause and effect process. One does not inspire another person to create change in the world in a single conversation. Most often there are multiple events that influence people to become conscious of their power and purpose to make the world better. While they begin to learn how to use their power in positive ways, they are influenced by others who are also extending their influence in the world. Central to the art of activism is to recognize this principle, and to trust that what you do will have its impact over time, as the following account illustrates.

The story begins with my relationship with Joel and Judy García, which formed during the Vietnam War era when Joel and I worked together as conscientious objectors organizing health care for the poor. Early in the development of our families, the Garcías evolved the tradition of frequently bringing family and friends together to celebrate important events. I was often asked to facilitate a unity circle during these events to bring people together to do heartfelt sharing, thereby strengthening our sense of community and connection. At one of our gatherings, Bret Hatcher, a fifteen-year-old friend of the García sons, was deeply impacted by the experience. In his own words, this is the story of the birthday ceremony that began his transformation.

I took the side path to the backyard where the party was going on. I didn't expect anything extraordinary to happen, just another party with my homeboy's family. I saw a lot of people talking, laughing, and kids just running around. Then I heard the drum beat. Roberto, a friend of the García family, was holding a drum, with his wife at his side burning sage. Someone said, "It's time for the circle." Roberto started speaking, saying that to honor Mario's birthday we were going to do a sage-burning ceremony to create sacred space, and open a window in time to invite our ancestors and even the unborn children to be with us! He also said people were going to be invited to share their thoughts, feelings, and prayers for Mario and the García family. Talking about the sage and ancestors definitely grabbed my attention.

While the sage burned, Roberto said a prayer to each of the four directions—east, south, west, and north. The smell of the sage was different and nice. The prayers and being in a circle felt sacred and special. All this was new to me, but it was comforting, and I could definitely feel my spirit. I started feeling very lucky to be a part of it.

Roberto invited people in the circle to say congratulatory words to Mario and his family. I just listened. People were speaking compliments, and it was all love. I could feel it! It really touched me. People were totally opening up to everyone else and even crying. It was very emotional, and I could feel the power of what was happening. It got me thinking about how the García family had always been good to me. I was feeling a strong love and friendship inside me and wanted to say something. At first I didn't because this wasn't like me. I never talk in front of groups, but I just had to express myself.

I didn't say a lot, but I did tell Mario "happy birthday" and thanked his parents for always making me feel welcome in their home. That meant a lot to me, especially when so many other people judged me by my appearance. The García family not only welcomed me and trusted me, but saw my potential.

When we finished talking, Roberto did a closing prayer and suggested that we all hug the people next to us. I couldn't believe it, but I just started hugging all sorts of people. I was feeling love around me, inside me, and I just let myself go with it. Without a doubt, the experience opened my eyes and heart. It not only changed my life, but it changed the way I looked at life. For the first time, I felt that maybe I had a future, a purpose, and a place where I belonged.

This family ceremony and others that followed helped Bret connect with his spirit and purpose. He became enthused about his new journey. He approached me about wanting to learn more about the ceremony, and later joined a council committed to supporting men to "live with heart." Seven years later, he had minimized his use of alcohol, and by example inspired a number of his contemporaries to temper their party ways, live closer with spirit, and give more of themselves to their families and community. He had accepted both his Mexican and Irish ancestry, and forgiven his parents for not being available during his early years. Twelve years later, Bret and his wife work, go to school, and are conscientious parents to their daughters. Bret also is an activist, learning and teaching about his culture to support others in becoming and living as good people. When he can, he supports young people in their development and the causes of environmental respect, peace, and healthy families. While he attributes his good path and success to many influences, the García family gatherings and my role in facilitating their ceremonies are paramount to him.

The impact that first ceremony had upon Bret, our dialogues that followed, and the commitments he made to live a good life provide an example of the dynamic of multiple causes for multiple effects. All these experiences influenced the parent and activist he has become, and now he is in turn inspiring and supporting the development of others.

Similarly with our other good friends we developed the tradition of making any of our family gatherings an opportunity to organize family circles to nurture connection and inspiration. And, as with Bret, other young and older people have shared how a single family gathering inspired them to be more caring, and to become family activists for their own circles of family and friends. The transformation that occurred in Bret's life was the result of multiple influences over time. Understanding this dynamic, family activists do their part to foster the expression of love in a variety of forms, trusting that positive outcomes will result. Likewise, when we make our networks of family and friends our cause, we become more powerful facilitators of health and transformation for them, our communities, and our world.

Discovering the Obvious Takes Time

Sometimes the most obvious insight eludes us until our minds and hearts are ready to understand. Each of us has a story of how we learned the importance of balancing attention to ourselves, our family, and our community in our journey to create a better world. My personal story revolves around the evolution of my activism, and pivotal in it was my discovery of the importance of making family essential to my cause.

As an eight-year-old youngster I was elated when I first saw my purpose—to create a better world! To me it seemed only fair that other children on my street should enjoy a life as good as mine. If we had food to eat, clean clothes to wear, and no worry about violence, they should also. And I felt that by being a good son and supporting my parents, I was in some way doing my part to make the world better.


Excerpted from FAMILY ACTIVISM by Roberto Vargas Copyright © 2008 by Roberto Vargas. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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