Fall Letter

Nov 27, 2020

November 2020

Dear Commonweal Friends:

I hope this personal letter finds you well. Writing weeks before you receive this letter is an almost impossible task. The Republic is at risk. Our world is changing in ways we can scarcely imagine. But Commonweal rises to meet the challenges. We have done that for 44 years, with courage, creativity, and compassion.

In this bi-annual letter, I will step back back and look at Commonweal as a whole. I will describe our most active programs in health and healing, education and the arts, and environment and justice.

Right at the start, I do want to ask you to continue to support our work. In this unprecedented time in which we are living, Commonweal matters more than ever.

A Life-Saving Surgery, Commonweal Prepared, Introducing Rahmin Sarabi

A Life-Saving Surgery

At the end of July, I underwent a life-saving five-hour surgery for an abdominal aortic aneurysm at University of California San Francisco School of Medicine. The incision goes from my breastbone to my pubic bone. My surgeons removed the aneurysm and replaced that part of my aorta with a dacron tube. I am proud of my new scar—my life-saving tattoo.

I spent three days in intensive care and another three days in the step-down unit. For weeks, I slept on the living room couch, barely able to get to the bathroom. Slowly, I was able to walk around the house, walk in our orchard, and then walk out to a bench on the cliff overlooking the Pacific. It took six weeks to feel human.

This has been a life-changing experience. I am living from a different consciousness. I am in a different stage of life. The new consciousness contains my old abilities. But there are new rooms in the house, so to speak. I encountered my own death. Many traditions speak to the value of that encounter.

My mind is clear. Throughout this entire experience I have been journaling and sharing the journal with some friends. I anticipate the journal will prove useful to our work in healing.

I am engaged again in the work at Commonweal. The recovery is said to take six months. If that schedule holds, I should be fully recovered by February.

If you want to write to me about my recovery, please write to amistad1943@gmail.com. This email address is exclusively for such notes. I cannot answer every note but I promise I will read every note.

What I want you to know: I am grateful for it all.

Commonweal Prepared

Commonweal was prepared for an event like my health crisis. Our Executive Director Oren Slozberg had created a framework of “intergenerational leadership.” Our leadership team—Oren, Arlene Allsman, Vanessa Marcotte, Rahmin Sarabi, and I—is strong and experienced.

Oren also developed a plan, approved by the Commonweal Board in June, called 2020 Vision: Commonweal Looks Ahead to A Changing World. It is a visionary document. You can find it here: www.commonweal.org/news/2020-vision.

Oren set out three core themes for the coming decade: healing, resilience, and diversity and justice.

Healing has been at the heart of Commonweal since the beginning. Resilience has been a theme since our early years. Diversity and justice have also been core values since our inception, but Oren has made diversity a more central focus of our work.

When I went into surgery—just as COVID and the global polycrisis reached escalating heights—Commonweal was triply prepared. We have a clear vision. We have leadership at the board and staff levels. We have a gifted and experienced staff. And above all, we have you, our community of dedicated friends, across the country and around the world.

Introducing Rahmin Sarabi

I am delighted to announce that Rahmin Sarabi has joined our leadership team as the Director of Strategies and Partnerships after serving most recently on the Commonweal Board of Directors. Rahmin will focus on deepening our partnerships at Commonweal and in our extended community.

Rahmin writes: “I will work closely with the leadership team and our program directors to deepen our work in healing, resilience, and justice at a time when the world seems to need it more than ever. I will also work on incubating a non-partisan community democracy program inspired by our Healing Circles work.”

Rahmin came to Commonweal as a volunteer staff member for the first Power of Hope Summer Camp in 2015. He attended the Four Seasons Permaculture program at the Regenerative Design Institute at Commonweal Garden. He joined the Healing Circles Leadership Training Program. He participated in multiple Commonweal Fall Gatherings.

Previously, Rahmin has done facilitation and leadership design work at social benefit startups like Good Eggs and civic work at San Francisco Community Support. He co-created a public altar in San Francisco partially inspired by our Chapel at Commonweal. Rahmin is an inspired addition to our community.

Healing Circle Global Goes Virtual in 32 States and 14 Countries

Oren Slozberg writes:

“What a year this has been for Healing Circles. Sheltering in place was the impetus to go virtual, both for trainings and circles. We started in March with more than five weekly online healing circles for our Commonweal Cancer Help Program alumni. In September, Healing Circles Global, our national collaboration of Healing Circles centers, turned a corner as we launched a new site and welcomed the general public to join our community in an amazing selection of circles. This volunteer-run program has been able to touch the lives of hundreds by offering sacred spaces for listening and support. A wonderful leadership team that includes Diana Lindsay, David Spaw, Susanne Fest, Janie Brown, Jaune Evans, Lisa Simms Booth, and me are guiding Healing Circles Global.”

Healing Circles Global Co-Founder Diana Lindsay adds these notes:

“When I heard that one of our 75-year-old circle hosts had made it onto Zoom, I realized that Healing Circles Langley could go completely online and continue to be of service to our community. Oren immediately recognized the size of the need and the potential of Healing Circles Global to respond and put the full accelerator strengths of Commonweal behind it. Since our first training in May, we have trained 350 people in the host and guardian roles. People with a tremendous amount of personal and professional experience in serving others have joined us from 32 states in the U.S., six Canadian provinces, and 13 other countries from north and south America, Europe, Middle East, Asia, and Australia.

“We launched our first circles for the public in early September and October:

  • Coming Together: Facing uncertainty—a circle for all us during the pandemic and time of global upheaval.
  • Grieving Together: Losing a loved one—a six-week series for anyone who has lost a loved one either before or during the pandemic.
  • Living with Cancer: Healing together—for anyone who has ever faced a cancer diagnosis and is now challenged to find care during COVID.
  • Supporting Healthcare: Caring for professionals—for all of our heroic healthcare workers.
  • Caregivers Together: Supporting loved ones—for family and friend caregivers who are facing a particularly challenging time to get the support they need during a pandemic.
  • Coming Together for a time on fire circles are our response to the west coast fires.

“In a world that’s hurting, many of us are looking for ways we can help. At Healing Circles Global, our service is to help all of us grieve our losses, cope with uncertainty, increase our resilience, and continue to envision and create the world ahead of us. We invite you to join a circle or come host a circle. You are needed.”

Sanctuary—Our Online Cancer Help Program—Shows We Can Do It on Zoom!

Our first online Cancer Help Program, Sanctuary, demonstrated beyond doubt that our deepest cancer work can be done on Zoom. With Arlene Allsman’s leadership, we piloted  Sanctuary with six women with breast cancer from our Cancer Help Program waiting list. The format was a month-long series of Zoom calls, three 90-minute calls a week: Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. The Monday calls were led by John Laird, MD, a good friend with deep knowledge of integrative cancer therapies and a strong background in Sufi spirituality. The Wednesday calls were led by Natalie Portis, PsyD, MFT, a gifted psychotherapist and alumna of the Cancer Help Program. The Friday calls were led by Angela Madonia, a wonderful yoga teacher who also teaches in the Cancer Help Program.

We now have proof of concept that the Cancer Help Program can be done effectively online. The benefits are profound. We reach people who could never have come to the Cancer Help Program at Commonweal.

And at far lower cost. The next Sanctuary will have started by the time you read this. We will continue Sanctuary even after we are able to offer the on-site Cancer Help Program again.

Beyond Conventional Cancer Therapies

Beyond Conventional Cancer Therapies (BCCT), our online guide to integrative cancer therapies, is undergoing a major website makeover. BCCT has, by far, the best available online resources on integrative cancer therapies. But it is difficult to navigate because of its necessary complexity. A team led by Miki Scheidel and Nancy Hepp is working to enhance it and make it simpler to use.

BCCT is re-imagining the site based on the needs of our users: cancer patients, cancer survivors, health professionals, and caregivers. Our consulting teams have conducted interviews with users and will have an online survey open to anyone. Making BCCT more accessible will enable us to reach many more of the millions of people with cancer who will live better and often longer with access to integrative cancer therapies.

Healing in the Commonweal Garden—Report from the Natura Institute

Anna O’Malley, MD, is a remarkable gift to Commonweal, to the West Marin Community, and to integrative healing work across the country. Anna is the lead physician at Coastal Health Alliance as well as director of the Natura Institute in the Commonweal Garden. She recently published a brilliant article for the respected journal, Ecopsychology, “Nature as an Ally in Our Chronic Disease Epidemic.” The article includes extensive references. It has the makings of a book, as I have told Anna. I truly believe that Anna’s work at Commonweal will come to be seen as a major contribution to the field nationally and internationally.

Anna writes:

“In this tumultuous time, the healing balm that is connection to the natural world, the path of service, and supporting community health and resilience feels more precious and potent than ever. Here in the Commonweal Garden at the Natura Institute for Ecology and Medicine, we are cultivating this medicine alongside the many medicinal foods and herbs we are growing on the land we are stewarding. We are illuminating, through our Community Medicine Circles, the inextricable connection between our health and that of our living world. We are exploring reciprocity with the Earth by infusing ecological consciousness into the practice of medicine. We are finding ways to safely and joyfully invite people back to the garden, with our recent Harvest Days and our October Medicine Garden Meander. We are keeping our focus on cultivating skill sets to navigate these times with health, vitality, and resilience.

“These times invite us to rise to meet them. Beginning in January, James Stark and I will offer an on-line intensive in personal resilience-building called Resilience Wayfinding. In February, Natura will launch a reconfigured permaculture course emphasizing skills in growing food and medicine, increasing our selfsufficiency as we recognize our inter-dependence. Our Art of Vitality program, an exploration of the intersection of integrative, ecological medicine, community, and spiritual psychology, will resume in 2021. Please join our list at naturainstitute.org for updates. We hope to share in medicine with you.”

Our Resilience Programs

Facing—and Naming—the Global Polycrisis

For years, I struggled to find the right language to describe the global crisis. Widely used terms include “the human dilemma,” “the global problematique,” and “the global challenge.” I have used “the global challenge” as the best of the three. On the web, you will find the acronym TEOTWAWKI—“the end of the world as we know it.” In more visionary circles, you find twin terms: “the great unraveling” and “the great turning.” But a much more self-explanatory term has emerged among the competing memes: “the global polycrisis.” That phrase emerged from the European Union evoking the polycrisis Europe faces.

Getting the language right is a critical dimension of addressing what lies before us.

The Resilience Project

We foresaw the global polycrisis. I have written about its emergence for four decades. My essays include “The Biosocial Decline Hypothesis,” “Biopsychosocial Transformation,” and “The Age of Extinctions and the Emerging Environmental Health Movement,” and, last year in Kosmos, “Resilience, The Global Challenge and the Human Predicament—Facing the Perfect Storm.”

Over the past decade, we have worked with colleagues at the FAN Initiative, the Millennial Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere, the Post Carbon Institute, and other like-minded centers around the world.

We created the Resilience Project to explore the need for resilience and emergency preparedness.

Through the Jenifer Altman foundation, we also created the OMEGA Resilience Funders Network, which addresses resilience in the philanthropic community. OMEGA is getting real traction among far-sighted funders.

Resilience at Commonweal

We are preparing Commonweal for resilience:

  • We have installed a large solar array to power the Administration Building and the Retreat Center.
  • We have installed a powerful new generator at Pacific House.
  • We have installed a ham radio station that will enable us to communicate if the grid is down.
  • We have installed an electric vehicle charging station for Commonweal staff and guests.
  • We are reducing fire fuel loads around the Retreat Center and the Administration Building.
  • Oren Slozberg has asked each program director to develop their own program resilience plan.
  • We share resilience strategies with the Fetzer Retreat Center Collaborative, which Oren co-leads.
  • Christina Conklin is conducting Resilience Project roundtables that deepen our networks.

Stanley Wu, coordinator of The Resilience Project and OMEGA, writes:

“Our 92-kilowatt solar system is almost completely installed. It is an essential step towards energy resilience. We envision an energy storage system and microgrid that will support Commonweal to run despite power outages. It will allow us to assist first responders, displaced people, and our community if the grid is down for days, weeks, or even longer.

“Resilience is about more than physical infrastructure. The Resilience Project is embarking on an experiment on ourselves that we hope inspires others to develop their own resilience. The Resilience Project will be an open process of learning and implementation that draws from deep reservoirs of knowledge, wisdom, and principles of resilience from around the globe.”

What It Took to Go Solar

The solar energy system installation has been an enormously complex project. It was made possible by an angel donor. It required a complex negotiation with the National Park Service (our landlord), the contractor, and a third-party lender. Chief Operating Officer Arlene Allsman supervised the project. Chief Finance Officer Vanessa Marcotte was the financial wizard. Executive Director Oren Slozberg was intimately involved from the start. Resilience Project Coordinator Stanley Wu brought his expertise.

Jacob Scheidler and Ayn Plant contributed greatly. We still need batteries so that we have a true resilient microgrid. If you want to contribute to the batteries, or have suggestions for funding them, we welcome your interest!

Our Environment and Justice Programs

Commonweal Helps Close California Youth Prison System

One of our longest-fought projects has been an effort to join with other allies to reform or close the California youth prison system. Led for three decades by David Steinhart, Director of the Commonweal Juvenile Justice Program, this effort was hard fought for 30 years. When we began, California had the largest youth prison system in the world, with more than 6,000 young people, mostly young people of color, incarcerated. Steve Lerner, then Commonweal Research Director, wrote three books on reforming the system. David Steinhart sent us this email:

“On September 30th Governor Newsom signed SB 823 into law. This measure provides for the closure in 2021 of the state’s troubled youth prison system—the Division of Juvenile Justice. In the future, young offenders will be managed close to home, with state funds supporting the community-level services and treatment they may need. SB 823 was a hard-fought result, strenuously opposed by probation and county interests that sought to keep the Division of Juvenile Justice open. We worked hard with a team of advocates and legislative budget staff, drafting the realignment proposal in negotiations between stakeholders, the legislature, and the Governor. Many times we hit obstacles that appeared to doom the effort—but it turned into (literally) an 11th hour victory. This is an historic youth justice system achievement. There are implementation challenges ahead, but, for Commonweal, the enactment of SB 823 is a fitting victory and crowning achievement in our 30-year history of advocacy of youth justice reforms in California.”

This struggle exemplifies the truth of Margaret Mead’s famous dictum: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

The Collaborative for Health and the Environment and Because Health Take on COVID-19 and Sustain Environmental Health Work

Karen Wang, Director of the Collaborative for Health and the Environment (CHE) and Because Health writes:

“CHE and Because Health have been continuously working to bring their audiences scientific, fact-based information on the intersection of COVID-19 and environmental health issues. CHE has been providing educational, science-based presentations on coronavirus and air pollution and indoor air quality. At the same time, Because Health has been creating content that fosters new conversations between consumers and their friends and family. Because Health posts on Instagram are saved or sent to friends approximately 35,000 each month. Recent topics we have covered include why voting matters for environmental health, what are the best face mask materials, and how to get rid of pests at home without pesticides.

“CHE is partnering with the University of California San Francisco’s Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment on a new seven-part webinar series, “Generation Chemical: How Environmental Exposures are Affecting Reproductive Health and Development.” Top scientists and experts will address the impact of environmental exposures and toxics on reproductive health, pregnancy, and development.

This seven-part webinar series will run from October 29, 2020 – Spring 2021. The series is being cosponsored by the UCSF Environment Research and Translation for Health Center, the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics, the Endocrine Society, the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments, and the International Federation of Fertility Societies. Visit tinyurl.com/generationchemical to learn more and to register.”

Sharyle Patton Takes on Firefighters’ Toxic Exposures

When my wife Sharyle Patton was a little girl, she and her brother Jake set their house in Buena Vista, Colorado, on fire. They decided to put a jack-o-lantern with a candle in a closet in order to scare their friends, and then forgot about their plan until they saw smoke. I think Sharyle has been trying to make amends ever since.

Last year she was awarded a Chief’s White Helmet by the San Francisco Firefighter Cancer Prevention Foundation for her dedication to reducing toxic exposures to firefighters. The presentation was a trip: a banquet hall filled with firefighters and their partners, decked out in their finest. After the awardees were announced, we heard bagpipe music from the back of the hall. Down the side aisle came bagpipers in kilts with flags and four young firefighters marching in step carrying four Chief’s White Helmets on cushions.

They came onstage, presented them to the awardees, and saluted.

Sharyle also works as a consultant to the International Association of Fire Fighters and played a central role in bringing IAFF leadership to the conference of parties for the Stockholm Convention that has banned some of the world’s most toxic chemicals from use. Firefighters are powerful advocates because of their non-partisan role saving lives and the high regard in which they are held by the public. Sharyle was the northern co-chair of the international advocacy group IPEN when it achieved the Stockholm Convention, the first global legally binding treaty on toxic chemicals.

As a citizen scientist, Sharyle is a co-author on more than a dozen peer-reviewed scientific papers. She also has played a central catalyzing role in developing a whole new field of studies of firefighter exposures to toxic chemicals. Right now she is working on a major report to firefighters who were exposed to smoke from the California fires.

Sharyle has made deep and lasting friendships among the firefighters. Ever since she was awarded the White Helmet, whenever we hear fire engines go by, Sharyle responds as though she were in the firehouse when the bell rang. “There go my people,” she says, with quiet pride.

The Gift of Compassion and the Migrant Support Project

Angela Oh and Tu2 lead one of our most creative projects from their home in Los Angeles.

Ying Ming Tu (Tu2) is co-director of Commonweal’s Gift of Compassion program. He is a Taiwan-born visual artist, whose extraordinary exhibit, 108 Faces of Compassion, had its international opening in the Commonweal gallery in 2013. Tu2 creates portraits that illuminate the essence and interior qualities of his subjects. He sees his work as a meditation. Each portrait expresses awakening, affinity, and compassion.

Angela is an attorney, Zen Buddhist priest, and nationally recognized expert on race relations and conflict resolution. Her work for peace began in 1992 during the implosion of Los Angeles after the acquittal verdict of four police officers following the police beating of Rodney King. Angela became a clear spokesperson for the precarious position of the Korean American community. Ever since she has worked tirelessly to overcome racial, gender, religious and intergenerational differences. In 2014, Angela and Tu2 co-created the Gift of Compassion. The program combines contemplative practice and art as tools for healing. They work with underserved communities including prisoners returning to community, young adults transitioning from the foster system, social change/social justice activists, and migrants in Tijuana.

Angela writes:

“The Migrant Support Project began in 2019 following a walking pilgrimage made from Northern California to the southern border by Pancho, a Bay Area activist and Commonweal friend. The separation of children from parents, the inhumane immigration policy of the United States, and the fact that migration is increasing across the globe inspired Pancho’s pilgrimage and eventual discovery of a churchbased sanctuary for desperate migrants in Tijuana. The Gift of Compassion helped with land acquisition and donations to be delivered to 200-300 migrants from Haiti, Guatemala, Honduras, and parts of Mexico. COVID-19 arrived in early 2020, paralyzing the flow of donations. Sadly, our ability to bring food, clothing, shoes, toys, and other goods to the site has been interrupted. We are determined to renew it. We are still able to help with the local planting of a garden, thanks to donors who have designated their contributions for this purpose. There are also resources to build 20 tiny homes through a grant from University of California San Diego. We will find a way to continue to support the sanctuary. We are grateful for the support of those moved to help. The need will continue and the answers will have to emerge as our awareness, hearts, and consciousness shifts.”

Our Education and the Arts Programs

The Mirror Project—Art and Stories for Health, Equity, and Justice

The Mirror Project is a perfect example of how Commonweal’s work in environment and justice and our work in education and the arts come together. Angela Oh, who co-directs the Gift of Compassion Project in Los Angeles with Tu2, also leads the Migrant Support Project described just above. Here she describes The Mirror Project:

“Tu2 and I brought our passions together to create “Faces of California—Reflections in the Mirror.” We call it the Mirror Project for short. Our focus is health, equity, and justice in the state of California. Tu2 did portraits of more than two dozen remarkable Californians. I wrote the narratives about their work.

“The Mirror Project portraits include healers, policy experts, environmental researchers, community activists, philanthropists, and bridge-builders who provide support for disparate views to come together.

Our subjects explored issues of death and dying, individual and collective resilience, ecology, poverty, criminal justice, and immigration.

“Next year we hope to develop the Mirror Project further, reaching more individuals, building a curriculum, creating short videos, and producing a detailed guide for supporting virtual and in-person (someday) gatherings. Past experience has shown us that Tu2’s artwork can be used to develop critical thinking about the collective challenges we face as the great transformation we are experiencing today unfolds.”

Power of Hope Summer Camp Goes Virtual

The Power of Hope Summer Camp, like the Mirror Project, also demonstrates how our education and the arts work comes together with our equity and diversity work. The participants in the camps are highly diverse in their backgrounds. Oren Slozberg writes:

“The Commonweal summer camp for teenagers moved to Zoom in July and August with co-lead facilitators Samara Atkins, CJ Suitt, Melodie Kaufman, and the support of Amber Faur. With the guidance of six staff artists, young people found an expressive change for their creative voices online. It’s not the same as being in tents on the land, but it is better than the isolation and alienation so many young people face in these times of COVID.”

The New School at Commonweal

I close with one of our strongest programs, The New School at Commonweal. New School Coordinator and Communications Manager Kyra Epstein writes:

“The New School (TNS) moved online to virtual webinar events shortly after shelter-in-place was declared. By the end of March, all TNS conversations were being presented virtually. The first few webinars had incredible attendance with up to 500 people attending from around the globe, almost doubling the attendance we’d seen before at our largest in-person events. Of course, TNS already had in place a virtual component: our podcasts and videos were reaching a world-wide audience via our 4,500 YouTube followers and many thousands of followers, viewers, and listeners on our website, Apple Podcasts, Soundcloud, and Vimeo. Moving to virtual events allowed our two audiences—those who have been able to attend our in-person events in Bolinas or Cotati, and those who listened around the world—to merge. It has created a rich environment with audience interactions (via chat) that has never been possible before. In the six months following shelter-in-place, TNS presented 26 webinars—almost four events a month on average—with a devoted community forming around Michael’s Friday morning conversations at what we called the “Learning Community.” The largest events included conversations with Rachel Naomi Remen, Francis Weller, and BJ Miller; with other conversations featuring notables such as Carl Safina, Donald Abrams, and Sunita Narain; as well as beloved members of our community such as Steve Heilig, Cynthia Li, Jamie Brown, Diana Linsday, and Lisa Simms Booth. You can find out more at our website: tns.commonweal.org.”

We Need Your Help. We Can’t Do This Without You.

Please Help Us Continue the Work—As Generously as You Can

I ask you, dear friends, to do all you can in this transformative time to support our work at Commonweal.

To keep Commonweal strong, we urgently need your sustained support. A monthly donation on your credit card—even $20—makes a real difference. Please give what you can afford.

We welcome your gifts to specific Commonweal programs or to support all of our work.

We are profoundly grateful to those of you who include us in your estate planning. Oren, Arlene, and I are all happy to talk with you if you’d like to discuss an estate gift.

Finally, we welcome unusual gifts of vehicles, boats, real estate, and other things of value that you are ready to liberate and would like to see put to good use. We could really use an electric car and an electric golf cart that we can now charge at our electric vehicle charging station.

We don’t besiege you with donation requests. We are a hand-crafted service community. Quite a few of us have devoted much of our working lives to our work.

When you make a gift to Commonweal, you join your energy with the collective energy of a community of service that has come together at Commonweal over 44 years. Your contribution makes you an active participant in our work—as surely as if you were working on the site or at one of the many of the places around the world where our work is being done.

I have been given the gift of life by the life-saving surgery I had at the end of July. I write to you from this new stage in my life. I write literally from a different consciousness. I know what matters to me. I know where I am in life now, where Commonweal is now, where our country and the world are now, and I know the work that lies before us.

Let us continue our part of the Great Work—together.

With love and gratitude,

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