A community organizer breaks down the practice of creating sustainable social change.
This is the ninth in a yearlong series of interviews conducted by guest editor Seane Corn, co-founder with Suzanne Sterling and Hala Khouri of the yoga service organization Off the Mat, Into the World, each featuring a different leader in yoga service and social-justice work. This month, Corn interviews Marianne Manilov, a co-founder of The Engage Network, which helps organizations build and scale networks of leaders in the social-change community.
Seane Corn: What was your intention in creating The Engage Network?
Marianne Manilov: I went through three things within an 18-month period starting in 2oo6: the ending of my partnership, a brain tumor that meant I needed full-time care, and the death of my friend Jeremy Paster, a great organizer with a strong spiritual practice. What saved me was my network of friends who showed up and bathed and fed me. I felt I would lay my body down for any of the people who had cared for me. I thought, “This is what will change the world—how we build deep community.” At the same time, the social-change community had invested in these big email lists—it was the way we were engaging people. While that is important to build breadth, in many places where the social-change community had grown large, we had become transactional. I knew that I wanted to build more love as a form of resistance in a world where so many of us feel isolated and alone because of our economic systems.
I co-founded The Engage Network in 2oo7 to explore how to do this, and we found that small group networks could be an answer. Around the world, we know how to form groups—such as book groups and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings—but forming social-change groups is a practice we had in some ways lost and needed to find again. The process is easier today thanks to the Internet and social media. But we also have to practice coming offline, and being in community with others. Community builds stronger roots in a movement for social change.
SC: Why are small, in-person groups so important to social-change organizing?
MM: You can get information on an organization by email, but people also need to be actively connected on the ground if they are to stay involved for the long-term. For example, a group of moms who do daycare for each other may decide to do social action together one Saturday a month, and they’re more likely to stay together than those who donate via the Internet or share social action on Facebook.
SC: How does yoga fit into social-change organizing?
MM: My organizing over 2o-plus years was often not sustainable until I was introduced to you [Seane Corn]. Before that, I couldn’t inhabit my body and do organizing at the same time. The change happened when you asked me to come to your leadership training in 2oo7. I had only done Ashtanga Yoga a few times before. At the training, the first yoga class I took of yours was three hours long. I thought I was going to die; I remember lying down that night with Bengay on my body and weeping. I went back the next day for six hours of yoga practice. On day five, you pulled me aside and said, “I’ve been watching you, and this is a class of mostly yoga teachers and people who have been doing yoga a long time. I keep thinking you’re going to give up, but you don’t. I know that whoever you are on the mat is who you are off the mat. You can’t rest.” I went back to my room after that conversation, and I cried. Then I learned to do Child’s Pose in life. Now, when I do yoga poses, I rest and feel every inch of my body. You gave me that gift, which has provided me with patience, love, and joy at a level I hadn’t had before in organizing—in every cell of my body. The practices of yoga, dance, meditation, and time off make my work sustainable now.
One of the things that happens in organizing, whether it’s around climate change or poverty or gun violence, is this sense of overwhelm and aloneness. There’s so much happening in and around you that you need to ground yourself on your own and through groups of people you feel seen by and connected to. It’s important to allow the body’s adrenaline to come down even if you only have five minutes, to do things where you reground into your body and feel the roots. Also, when you’re working in small teams in organizing, it often brings people into conflict. The idea is to have a practice like yoga to find balance and help the leaders see each other with love.
SC: How have you helped communities organize?
MM: I’ve worked over the last three years with Walmart employees as part of the Organization United for Respect at Walmart. There are more than 4,ooo Walmart stores in the United States, and many Walmart workers have faced difficult conditions. Many of the women who work there have had to do heavy lifting on the job, even when pregnant. Some of them have had miscarriages or pregnancy complications. A group of these moms formed a small group called Respect the Bump, and they were able to change the policy by being brave enough to find each other online and share their stories. That’s the power of the small group.
Also, I’ve been working with survivors of gun violence: people from mass shootings like Sandy Hook; people who had loved ones taken in domestic-violence shootings; people whose loved ones died by suicide. They are holding onto each other and turning their pain into purpose by building a network of love, community, and change.
SC: What is your hope for the yoga community?
MM: Yoga can be an embodied practice with a sense of connection to the ground and to other people. But sometimes the yoga community uses the practice as a space to go and separate from life and to feel calm and centered in a very chaotic, very busy, very overwhelming world. And some of the world’s problems, such as inequality and climate change, feel so huge that we wonder what one person can do. Yet when Rosa Parks sat down, a bunch of people joined her on a bus strike and changed history.
There is enormous possibility in the yoga community for doing things collectively. My hope for my interaction in the yoga community is that I can be a bridge that people walk across into authentic, grounded change—just as the yoga community was the bridge for me into greater groundedness and love.
SC: Where can people start in order to act on their passions?
MM: Find somebody who’s similar to you and who you think also has a calling to make a difference. Go for tea, or have that fellow mom over to your house while your children nap. Talk about what you can do together. Then, find two more people who feel the same way, and then agree to do one thing for, say, two hours that you feel can make a difference. For instance, four moms could go around their block and ask everyone to change their light bulbs to more efficient ones. This will make a positive impact on climate change—more than just sharing a photo or article on Facebook. To make a difference, you don’t even have to leave your neighborhood, or the yoga studio. You and three friends could meet with the studio manager and ask to host donation classes for teachers who hold classes in prisons or schools, or you can ask that the studio bathrooms be changed to nongendered ones.
I think we’ve been taught that we have to reach out to a big organization or go online to find the answer. Instead, organizing is a practice like yoga. You have to break it down so that it’s not overwhelming. You have to be willing to show up and participate, and stay centered with simple poses before you take on changing the whole world. Working for change is part of a compassionate practice. It’s part of yoga.