Images © Meredith Arena
Images © Meredith Arena

FOR THE PAST THREE YEARS, a burgeoning grassroots activist movement on Manhattan’s Lower East Side—the 4,200-member Interdependence Project—has been creating a template for what it calls “integral activism.” In this Buddhist-inspired approach to political engagement, activists cross-examine their own actions and attitudes with the same vigor that defines their campaigns for policy reform. Made up largely of a younger generation of meditators, the Interdependence Project espouses a distinctly contemplative platform: that progressive social change won’t be truly effective until activists commit to an ongoing investigation of their own motives, reactions, habits, and beliefs.

This is not just a more self-centered activism—it’s entirely pragmatic. “If you think SUVs are bad, and you go around slashing tires, SUV owners are just going to get more righteous and find a way to drive bigger Hummers,” says Ethan Nichtern, the group’s 30-year-old founder. “In other words, you don’t convince people to change their habits by telling them they suck. You have to investigate the mind that thinks those people suck.”

Nichtern (poet, self-described “dharma brat,” and charismatic author of One City: A Declaration of Interdependence) is a great admirer of Martin Luther King, Jr., and a secondgeneration teacher in the Shambhala tradition. His parents were both early students of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, one of the pioneers of Tibetan Buddhism in the West. At 24, Nichtern, a 2000 graduate of Brown University, picked up his parents’ vocation and became not only one of the nation’s youngest Buddhist teachers but also one of the most popular. With his pop-culture savvy and self-referential humor, the Manhattan native quickly amassed a following of meditators who seemed eager to take their practice off the cushion.

Gradually, this group evolved into the Interdependence Project, a movement Nichtern describes as a kind of “bridge organization”—one that provides a forum for those interested in transforming themselves through inner work and those interested in transforming society through the arts and activism. The ID Project, as its members refer to it, is an amalgam of social and cultural initiatives. Alongside its political advocacy, it houses interest groups in creative writing, the visual arts, and theater, in addition to offering three dharma talks with guided meditation each week. But it is the group’s activism that has earned it considerable attention from individuals and institutions outside of American Buddhist and meditation circles. New York State Senator Eric Schneiderman, a staunch advocate of integral activism and the project’s unofficial mentor, lends the ID Project a degree of political clout that is unusual for emergent sanghas in the West. Schneiderman says he feels that if Buddhism is to grow in America, more of its practitioners need to reach past the personal and start delving into the political.

“It seems to me that shila [moral conduct] is such an important part of the dharma, and from what I know there are sanghas in Asia that are tremendously active politically, where Buddhists are very involved in all sorts of political and revolutionary activities,” says the senator. “In the United States you find that a lot of people think activism is divisive or dualistic, and that we shouldn’t do it. But I feel that’s sort of used as a rationalization for avoiding taking responsibility for things.”

For the past year, harnessing the skills they’ve been striving to develop through meditation, ID Project members have launched an ambitious effort to ban the use of plastic bags in New York City—a project called “Back to the Sack.” The project has caught the eye of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and drawn the support of environmental groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Defense Fund, as well as people like Schneiderman, New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, and Working Families Party Deputy Director Bill Lipton.

In December, members celebrated New York Governor David Paterson’s signing of a bill that will not only promote the recycling of plastic bags statewide but also protect New York City’s more stringent law, which requires stores to provide plastic recycling bins if they occupy at least 5,000 square feet or have more than five locations.

Ethan Nichtern, 30, founder of New York City's Interdependence Project
Ethan Nichtern, 30, founder of New York City’s Interdependence Project
 

 

 

 

 

 

According to Senator Schneiderman, while the group’s efforts definitely contributed to the bill’s passage, they were only a small part of a much larger effort. Still, members felt that the legislation was a victory and that their advocacy was worthwhile. For more than a year, they pored over current state and national policies relating to plastic bag use, canvassed local store owners on the Lower East Side, and developed a plan to write, propose, and pass a bill. They created street art and produced short films to increase public awareness of the issue. They formed partnerships with other groups working to reduce plastic-bag use and sponsored a daylong “How Government Works” workshop with a host of state and local officials. In July, during the group’s annual “low-impact month,” members endeavored to reduce their carbon footprint, eliminate the use of plastic bags, and meditate on their consumption habits. That same month, they sent press releases to local newspapers, phoned state and local legislators, and in 72 hours gathered more than 400 signatures to send to the governor, urging him to exempt New York City from the state’s weaker plastic bag recycling bill.

As they do for all their activist efforts, ID Project members regularly asked themselves: What is my intention? Am I uncomfortable at the thought of making a phone call, or talking with someone who seems hostile to me? Do I become angry when reading about the plastic bag company’s front groups?

Rafi Santo, the group’s Integral Activism Director, says this work hasn’t been easy. In many cases, despite their reflection, members have found themselves surprisingly unprepared when dealing with people who hold opposing views—especially those in positions of power. He said one member, for instance, found himself on the phone with an angry state assemblyman eager to debate the issue. “The member felt in his heart that he disagreed, but he couldn’t make the argument back because he just didn’t have enough context,” Santo said. “And if you don’t have the knowledge and background, or the mental training—the equanimity and compassion— it can feel very uncomfortable.” Still, it’s all part of the group’s attempts at applied practice. “We’re not just sitting in a room and talking to each other about this stuff and seeing how we feel about it,” Santo says. “We acknowledge that there’s going to be disagreement in the world and don’t somehow think that through integral activism everyone is just going to come to some sort ofkumbaya.”

A large part of what the group is trying to accomplish, he says, “is to get people to a place where they’re able to be reflective when something like that [phone call] happens, and have the equanimity they need to understand where the other side is coming from.”

Nichtern agrees. He believes that in the 21st century, activists need to start engaging in integral practices— connecting external events to the minds that perceive those events—or ultimately they may not succeed. “I’ve personally participated in the anti–IraqWar movement, for instance, and I’ve seen how much aggression there is in a lot of the protesters,” he says. “And when you go violently to an antiwar movement, there’s something of a contradiction in terms that might limit or even eradicate the effectiveness of your good intentions.”

In the short term, Nichtern says, the project’s goal is to eliminate the use of plastic bags in New York City. Its loftier long-term goal is to create a global template for a new brand of activism, one that unites political involvement with contemplative practice. Already, the idea is catching on—in September 2008, a second Interdependence Project was planted in Portland.

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