Fall Letter from Michael Lerner

Dec 1, 2023

November 2023

Dear Commonweal Friends:

I hope this finds you well in these difficult times.

We cannot know what will be happening happening in the Middle East, Ukraine, and elsewhere as you read this letter. Wars are unpredictable. The toll in lost lives and lost opportunities is tragic. The polycrisis—by whatever name we call it—is unfolding with increasing velocity and force.

We have been thinking about this gathering storm at Commonweal for 47 years. We have explored it intensively for the past decade. Oren Slozberg has wisely made polycrisis resilience the overarching theme of our work in health and healing, education and the arts, and environment and justice.

The personal question for each of us—and for our families and communities—is how we live lives of service in these times. Where do we find hope? How do we protect what is good and beautiful? What do we tell our children? Countless millions of people cannot ask these questions. They can only seek survival. We are fortunate to be able to ask.

This is no time for hopelessness, cynicism, or despair. New opportunities to serve are emerging just as old systems are breaking down. For millennia, humanity has faced long periods when the
world looked as dark as this time does to us. This is what Commonweal is about—finding new and old ways to serve in dark times.


I turned 80 on October 22. I am grateful for a clear mind, a quite healthy body, and a caring heart. My work has changed. I counsel the new leaders. And I continue my own work with four clusters of initiatives. I’ll start with a brief summary of these clusters. Then I’ll address a few in more detail.


Healing with Cancer
Healing with cancer has been my central work for 40 years. Arlene Allsman is my partner and director of the Commonweal Cancer Help Program (CCHP) projects, which include our week-long retreats, our month-long on-line Sanctuary program, our week-end retreats for young breast cancer survivors, and all our alumni activities. Arlene is a wonderful partner.

Miki Scheidel is my partner and creative director of our extraordinary CancerChoices.org website, widely known as the best resource for integrative approaches to cancer on the web. Miki is likewise an extraordinary partner in this equally vital dimension of my life work.

Healing Circles Langley and Healing Circles Global are guided by Diana Lindsay, Oren Slozberg, and their leadership team. Healing Circles includes cancer circles but also offers many other kinds of circles as well. The circles bring community and healing solace to people all around the world. It was a deep joy to co-found Healing Circles with Diana and her husband Kelly and to support the work as it moves forward without asking much from me.


The Resilience Projects
My vision of Commonweal from the start has been a center for healing ourselves and healing the earth. The cancer work has been at the heart of our work on personal healing. Our resilience projects address planetary healing. This cluster includes Omega, the Omega Resilience Awards (ORA), the Commonweal Resilience Project, and the Resilience Funders Network.

ORA supports three cohorts of seven fellows each in Africa, Latin America, and India. ORA also makes ten $25,000 resilience research grants each year. ORA is led by Mark Valentine, Andrea Frey, Stanley Wu, and Susan Grelock Yusem. ORA is our largest resilience project.

Stanley Wu directs the Commonweal Resilience Project. We have mounted a large solar array that feeds sun power to our Main Building (we’re seeking batteries for a self-contained microgrid.) We’ve placed large water tanks strategically around the site for fire and other emergencies. We are working on many other forms of organizational resilience.

Tamzin Ratcliffe is the new coordinator of the Resilience Funders Network. This brave community of funders grapples with the challenges of the polycrisis. They are far ahead of the rest of the funder community which overwhelmingly thinks in silos. Silo work is necessary. But if you don’t take the polycrisis into account, your strategies may get badly disrupted.


The New School, CHE, and the Migration Support Project

The New School, the Collaborative on Health and the Environment, and the Migration Support Project is my third diverse cluster of work. Kyra Epstein is now the co-director of The New School where so much of our healing and resilience work comes together. Kristin Schafer directs the Collaborative on Health and the Environment, which does our work on chemical contaminants. Angela Oh leads our support for the Sanctuary outside Tijuana where Pastor Banda is housing and feeding 1,600 migrants from around the world for the cost of $1 per person per day.


The Commonweal Archive, the Jenifer Altman Foundation, and Work Beyond Commonweal

My fourth cluster of work is with the Commonweal Archive Project, the Jenifer Altman Foundation, and work beyond Commonweal. The Commonweal Archive Project is rescuing the history of Commonweal from old files and artifacts before it is lost. We need to know where we came from to know where we are going. Erin O’Reilly, Susan Grelock Yusem, and Natalie Tallerico are working with me on the archives. Ann Blake directs the Jenifer Altman Foundation, which has been a significant force in environmental health and justice philanthropy for more than
25 years. My work beyond Commonweal is an essential space for me since I have always been drawn to frontiers of knowledge—some of which are not ready for broader dissemination and others that are simply not part of our Commonweal work.


This, at 80, constitutes a full plate. It is only possible because of the leadership that each of these projects enjoys. Now I’ll offer you a short tour of some of our work in more depth.


Our Resilience Work

Our resilience work addresses what is happening in the world. We were a decade ahead in studying the global polycrisis. Last year the polycrisis burst into public awareness. Now the field of polycrisis research and action is flooded with analyses from every corner of the globe. It doesn’t matter much what you call it. There’s a big debate over whether the polycrisis is anything new or whether it is simply history continuing to unfold.

Whatever view you take, the crises are coming thick and fast. The headlines began with the climate emergency. Then COVID-19 added a new layer. Then war broke out in Ukraine. That was when people began to acknowledge the polycrisis. Next came concern about Artificial Intelligence. Then the war in Israel erupted with the Hamas attack and Israel’s response. These are just the headlines.

In the background, global geopolitics is moving toward a multi-polar world. The global economy and finance are in uncharted waters. Technological innovations are exploding beyond Artificial Intelligence. Flows of desperate migrants are larger than ever. Toxic chemicals permeate the entire biosphere. And much more.

Through Omega, ORA, the Commonweal Resilience Project, and the Resilience Funders Network, we are in touch with researchers, analysts, and practitioners around the world. This is an arena of active invention for us since Oren has made resilience the overarching theme of all our Commonweal work. It is a prescient choice.



The Commonweal Cancer Help Program

CCHP has been the great love of my life at Commonweal over the past 37 years. We recently completed our 221st week-long retreat. The retreats profoundly change lives. Many staff members have worked for decades together. Arlene Allsman, as I said, directs CCHP, Rachel Naomi Remen is our medical director, Frances Weller and Natalie Portis are two of our senior psychotherapists, Angela Madonia teaches yoga, Erlene Chiang teaches qigong, Katrina Mayo-Smith offers sandtray, Elizabeth Evans is our senior masseuse, Waz Thomas coordinates alumni work, and Claire Heart is the master chef in the kitchen.

Due to COVID-19 we have a shorter waiting list. We strongly encourage CCHP alumni who’d like to experience the magic again to return. We equally warmly welcome newbies. CCHP is soul work. The power of love as a healing force is nowhere more evident.




Integrative cancer therapies can help people live better and often longer with cancer. It is tragic that so few people have access to these therapies. Integrative cancer therapies and approaches should be the standard of care for cancer.

Our CancerChoices.org website is thriving, with more than 53,000 visitors in the last year. We’re the best source of deep information on integrative cancer choices on the web. This year we added 10 new reviews of complementary therapies; three new stories from cancer survivors; two updated and expanded cancer handbooks on breast cancer and prostate cancer; and two updated and expanded handbooks on managing pain and hot flashes.

Miki Scheidel, as I said, is our creative director, Nancy Hepp is project manager, Laura Pole is our senior clinical consultant, and Melissa Oprish is our new social media coordinator. Many others support the work.

The tragic truth is that for all the billions of dollars that go into cancer research, few people have the navigational skills to integrate the best of conventional and integrative therapies. Integrative cancer care reliably improves quality of life, reduces suffering, prevents or extends time to recurrence, and often extends life as well. These integrative approaches also help people find meaning in these great life transitions. Every person should have access to integrative cancer care.

For a certain kind of person, there are few resources that rival Commonweal in terms of what we offer to help navigate a cancer diagnosis. We are there for people who think for themselves, who have a sense of agency, who believe integral approaches to cancer are fundamentally better, who understand what we offer, and who believe it may help them.



Kyra Epstein Is the New Co-Director of The New School

I warmly welcome Kyra Epstein as the new co-director of The New School at Commonweal. Kyra has long served as New School coordinator—we are recognizing her leadership contribution. We have passed the 10,000 subscriber mark on our YouTube channel and average 30,000 listens and watches every month (15,000 on YouTube, 17,000 on audio feeds).

Among our top watches and listens in the last six months include:

  • Rachel Naomi Remen’s extraordinary conversation with U.S. Surgeon General
    Dr. Vivek Murthy (don’t miss it).
  • Gary Cohen, president and co-founder of Health Care Without Harm, on the
    Evolution of the Modern Environment and Health Movement.
  • Our spiritual biography of Orland Bishop.
  • Our conversations with philosopher Jacob Needleman.
  • Our conversations with Beatrice Chestnut on Enneagram, which are our most
    popular videos of all time at The New School.

The New School also has a vast archive of dozens of conversations about integrative cancer care, many co-presented with CancerChoices and Healing Circles. This year, for example, our conversation with Radical Remissions founder Kelly Turner has been watched or listened to almost 13,000 times. The collective CancerChoices/New School conversation playlists were watched or listened to more than 24,000 times this year alone.



Sanctuary: How We Help 1,600 Migrants in Tijuana

I have a deep personal resonance with our Sanctuary work—formally the Migration Support Project. Here is Commonweal Board Member Angela Oh’s report:

“The Gift of Compassion (GoCompassion) began its journey with a sanctuary for
migrants in 2019, following the 2018 Fall Gathering. The connection to Pastor Gustavo Banda in Tijuana happened out of an inspiration to send a message that the traumatizing separation of minor children from their parents as they were making way to seek asylum at California’s southern border, was seen and action would be taken. The Migration Support Project is where the on-going support continues.

Thanks to the courage of a single undocumented graduate student from Cal Berkeley who walked from Oakland to the border, a journey of love and compassion led to a deep connection to the heart work of Pastor Banda at Cañon de Alacrán (Scorpion Canyon). GoCompassion/Commonweal was part of that journey and began by raising funds to buy land so that a dedicated children’s space could be built.

Later, more funds were raised to support building a school for hundreds of children who were part of the human flow into the church sanctuary. Refugees arrive from Haiti,
Honduras, Guatemala, and parts of Mexico where climate change, conflict, and poverty made it necessary to seek asylum.

In the past year, refugees have been migrating from Ukraine, Afghanistan, Brazil,
Pakistan—all learning of the sanctuary through word of mouth. GoCompassion has
committed to delivering clothing, food, blankets, and a minimum of $2,000 per month to help cover costs needed to shelter and feed the migrating families. The pastor estimates it takes $1 a day per person.

Today, in any given week, there are 1,200 to 1,600 people—hundreds of them are
children. GoCompassion will not lose contact as long as Pastor Banda is committed to his vision of providing love and compassion to those seeking safety and security.”

We can’t solve the global tragedy of migrants uprooted from their homes and seeking new lives. But we can make a difference in the lives of the thousands of families and individuals who find their way to Pastor Bandor’s extraordinary sanctuary. The sanctuary isn’t just a place that provides food, shelter, and clothing. It is a place of true spiritual succor deeply aligned with our work in healing. It’s the level at which we know we can make a difference.



Partings (and Stepping Back)

One of the things I have always most hoped is that when the time comes for each of us to step back or depart from Commonweal, we do so with grace and commitment to the well-being of our beloved community of service work. Here are three people who are doing just that.


David Steinhart
I want to acknowledge the extraordinary contribution of David Steinhart, director of the Juvenile Justice Program at Commonweal since 1992. David is retiring at the end of this year. He is recognized, both within California and nationally, as an advocate, expert, and author on a wide range of youth justice issues.

David was a key contributor to the 2020 landmark youth justice reform (SB 823) that has shut down the state’s troubled youth prison system, the Division of Juvenile Justice (formerly known as the California Youth Authority) as of July 2023. The legislation requires a “realignment” of the youth custody population to local control. He helped design and draft 2021 California legislation establishing local Secure Youth Treatment Facilities for these realigned youth. He was also a prime architect of the 2007 juvenile justice realignment law (SB 81) that moved nonviolent youth out of the state Division of Juvenile Justice and into local control with more than $200 million per year in state funds to support county programs for realigned youth.

David also co-drafted California’s Juvenile Justice Crime Prevention Act, which has provided local agencies with more than $100 million per year in state funds for youth crime prevention programs since its inception in 2000. Between 2014 and 2020, he was the lead sponsor and drafter of five California laws that now allow many more justice system youth to seal their old offense records, opening pathways to jobs, education, military service, and other re-entry options. Previously, he co-drafted California laws removing children from adult jails, revising the law of youth  emancipation, establishing youth service programs in major California cities,
and increasing children’s access to mental health services.

Nationally, David was the principal advisor on detention risk assessment for the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI), training justice system personnel on detention reform in more than 30 states. He is the author of the JDAI “Practice Guide on Juvenile Detention Risk Assessment.” Under Commonweal grants from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, between 1994 and 2018 David led on-site trainings on detention best-practices for judges, attorneys, and law enforcement personnel in more than 30 states.

David served for 10 years as the state senate appointee to the California Board of State and Community Corrections, which sets standards for local juvenile facilities and has oversight responsibilities for both juvenile and adult corrections realignment. His final term ended in 2022. While on the board, David chaired the Juvenile Justice Standing Committee and multiple grant allocation and facility standards committees. He served previously on California’s State Juvenile Justice Commission (2007-09); the California Governor’s Juvenile Justice Working Group (2004-05); and the California Juvenile Crime Task Force (1995-6). He previously chaired a national advisory committee for the Positive Youth Justice Initiative of the Sierra Health Foundation, as well as a Youth Justice Policy Board of justice system leaders and experts for the
California Endowment.

David has written extensively on youth corrections realignment, alternatives to youth
incarceration, status offender reforms, teen courts, juvenile boot camps, and detention risk assessment. Formerly, David was policy director for the National Council on Crime and Delinquency and executive director of the California Child, Youth, and Family Coalition.

David has been a treasured partner and friend in Commonweal’s work for 30 years. He has had an immense impact on how young people—overwhelmingly young people of color—are treated in the state juvenile justice system, which once included the largest youth prison system in the world. His untiring efforts on behalf of these young people over three decades made him among the most influential advocates in California on their behalf. We will miss him.


Jenepher Stowell

I also want to honor Jenepher Stowell as she steps back as director of the Commonweal Retreat Center. Jen is not retiring from her role as senior staff of the CCHP. Jen has been at Commonweal since 1986 and has led the Retreat Center since its inception. It has been home to all Commonweal retreats and residential events. It has also housed a carefully selected community of other service groups who have come back for years for their own retreats.

Jen is also among the most gifted intuitives—readers of the invisible world—we have had at Commonweal. That cherished quiet community would include Marion Weber and Rachel Naomi Remen. Her first project at Commonweal was to renovate an old abandoned 10’x12’ RCA shack on the bluff overlooking the Pacific as a rustic chapel. The chapel became a sanctuary for countless inadvertent pilgrims who have left stones inscribed to their departed beloveds on a rough wooden altar. Others fold messages on scraps of paper and wedge them into cracks like those on the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. Jen keeps fresh flowers in the chapel at all times. The floor is covered with a sea grass mat. On occasion, errant cows have poked their heads in and munched on the mat. Jen is a quiet explorer of mystical realms. She has been a beloved friend for almost 40 years. She will be spending more time on the East Coast in a family home in the Hudson Highlands and in Bluff, Utah, where she has helped to lead a land conservation and historic preservation movement that will leave a permanent mark. We’re grateful she will keep her small retreat at Commonweal and will continue to staff the CCHP.


Waz Thomas

Waz Thomas has also stepped back—but, like Jen, not entirely. Waz has worked with me at Commonweal for 40 years. Our birthdays are a few days apart. He was the first person I hired after Commonweal collapsed seven years into our journey. Our funding dried up and I had to lay off more than 40 staff people, myself included. Then I was awarded the MacArthur Fellowship, the funding returned, and Waz and I rebuilt Commonweal from the ground up. He has served as general manager and coordinator of the CCHP. Waz still works part time at Commonweal doing, he says, “whatever needs to be done.” He is also the first person people talk to when they apply for the CCHP. He is one of the most unusual people who have ever walked in the door—and we specialize in unusual people.

Waz’s principle avocation is as a collage artist. He cuts up old magazine photos and reconfigures them in extraordinary collage pieces. I had long suggested to Waz that we have an exhibit of his work. One day a year ago he gave me about one thousand of his collages and told me to do whatever I thought best with them. I asked my colleague Erin O’Reilly to help. She was joined by a new Bolinas resident, Jessica Shaefer, a professional curator who thought Waz’s work was extraordinary.

After Jessica hung Waz’s show, my beloved friend of 35 years Rebecca Katz came to visit. Rebecca started work at Commonweal as a temporary cook for the CCHP. She became one of the most renowned “culinary translators” in the country with a half dozen cookbooks to her credit. She then stepped back from her culinary writing career and became an extraordinary painter of large-format canvases of great beauty. I recently did a New School spiritual biography with Rebecca, which you can find on The New School’s website at tns.commonweal.org.

This is Rebecca’s artistic statement:

My inspiration comes from the beauty of the atmosphere—of the sky and how it’s connected with the earth. Every time I look at what nature is presenting in front of me, the clouds, seductive with the constant movement of the atmosphere, I am reminded that life is constantly shifting and never stagnant. I work in acrylic and graphite, using many layers of glazes to achieve the luminosity of the atmospheric quality in my work. I also work wet on wet and use drips to create texture and atmosphere, which alludes to what’s beneath the surface. Layers and layers of paint are applied on the canvas before I even know how the image will present itself in its final form. My paintings
are asking viewers to step into a world of possibility, mystery, magic, and atmosphere and to be transported through color and light and texture.

You can find out more about Rebecca and her work on her website: rebeccakatzart.com.

Rebecca and Waz are longtime friends: Waz was the person who originally invited Rebecca to come as a substitute cook for the CCHP. Rebecca recently saw Waz’s exhibit and was absolutely enchanted. I asked her to be the senior advisor to the Waz Thomas Collection project. She and Jessica are creating a book of Waz’s art and scanning several hundred of his pieces for a permanent high-resolution collection. Waz at first said he would not come to the opening gathering on October 2 but he was so impressed by Jessica’s curation that he decided to show up. His friends gathered from far and wide. It was one of our best art openings in Gallery


The Commonweal Archive Project

As the founding generations of Commonweal partners move toward the exit, the task of rescuing and curating the Commonweal archives has fallen to four of us—Erin O’Reilly, Susan Grelock Yusem, Natalie Tallerico, and me. For decades, dozens of boxes of old files have been collecting dust in the Riggers Bay at the back of the Main Building. Erin and I began scouting the collection a year ago. We put a big table in my outer office and brought boxes down for sorting. We found dozens of true treasures of Commonweal’s history. We separated out the “gold” from the rest. Natalie and Erin began to scan it and put it in a large database. The first effort has been to curate work that I have been involved with or thought was important. I have done an extraordinary  amount of writing over the past 48 years. Katherine Fulton, our board vice-chair, who is also my literary executor, insisted that if she was to be my literary executor we had to do the hard work while I am still on this plane. I couldn’t argue with her. An organization has a hard time moving forward for its second half century if it has forgotten where it came from. So, we’ve been hard at work saving what should be saved.


We Need Your Support

That’s a wrap, dear friends. I will close with a few more words on what turning 80 means to me and why I hope you will continue your vital support for our work at Commonweal.

It’s a rare thing, I’m told, for a founder to turn over the leadership of a nonprofit to his or her successor in a skillful manner. Oren and I have now partnered for more than a decade. It is a tribute to Oren’s immense generosity of spirit that he created this model of distributed intergenerational leadership that continues to offer me and other elders a place at the table where we can contribute as we are able. In for-profit corporations, they know the benefit of keeping founders or previous leaders on board to advise or provide support as they are useful. In the nonprofit world, it is much more rare to do this well.

In two years, Commonweal will reach its second half-century—stronger than it has ever been, with a highly diverse community of board members, program directors, and staff who are making Commonweal anew. It is a joy and a wonder for me to be present at this new creation as Commonweal has begun to serve in ways beyond my imagination.

As you can see, my plate is full. I am beyond grateful for Oren and his team for their skilled leadership of our beloved community. I have three tasks for the years ahead. The first is to do my Commonweal project work well and to offer counsel to the Commonweal leaders when asked. The second is to live as fully as possible and to prepare for the last journey at least in this body. The third is to venture, as I always have for 50 years, to the frontiers of knowledge. Those frontiers are sometimes within Commonweal’s purview. But others are on frontiers where Commonweal is either not yet ready to explore or frontiers where, given its mission, it should never go.

Those are the travel instructions, at 80, for my work now. Be useful to Commonweal. Do my Commonweal work well. And find the places where the helmsman in me can still steer my little craft where I may be called to serve. Who could ask for more?


If that is my calling now, dear friends, may I ask what you are called to at this time in your life? Are you in this search with me—the endless pilgrimage we walk with our fellow pilgrims—and yet that we must also walk alone?

One thing I ask of you: please continue to walk with Commonweal in the days and years ahead. I ask that you keep Commonweal in your heart.

Commonweal is unusual in the great extent to which our work depends on your contributions. Much of our work—like CCHP and Healing Circles—depends almost entirely on your contributions. Many other projects depend in large part on your contributions. The New School, the Migration Support Project, and many more.

If you are of modest means, a $20 monthly contribution on your credit card is immensely valuable to us. If you can afford something more, it means the world to us. If you can put us in your estate planning, I can’t tell you how much that helps. Or, if you can, offer a more significant gift to Commonweal.

I hope Commonweal matters to you. If you go to our donate page, you can give to Commonweal as a whole or choose the project that matters to you. You can make a one-time or sustaining donation. You can send us a check. You can let us know we are in your estate plans. Or if you have good stuff that you no longer need—cars, boats, land, houses, whatever you can imagine being of real value, we’d love to put what you no longer need to work.

I have devoted almost 50 of these 80 years to Commonweal. It is truly only because of you, our beloved community, that we are still here.

So please, don’t put it off, click the donate button, or write a check, or send us a note about including Commonweal in your estate plans, or tell us about some good stuff you’d like us to put to work. If you’d like to discuss a gift or your estate planning with Oren, me, or Arlene Allsman, we’d be delighted to talk with you.

And, if you just don’t have resources to contribute, please just keep us in your thoughts and prayers, or tell people about resources here like Healing Circles or The New School, or just know how deeply you are part of our beloved community as a friend of Commonweal.

With love and gratitude,
Michael Lerner
Co-founder and Board Chair


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