Everyday Activism

ac·tiv·ism n. The use of direct, often confrontational action, such as a demonstration or strike, in opposition to or support of a cause.

Thus reads the definition of activism in The Free Dictionary. And I suppose this illustrates well the traditional perception of what an activist does. Hugs trees. Marches with placards. Hunger strikes.

None of these activities appeal to me.

Yet, I consider myself an activist. (It’s in my Twitter bio, so it must be official…)

Tabita's Twitter bio

We All Need to Act

One thing I’ve realized during my two and a half years of researching mental health-related topics for my upcoming book, is that we need to enact major social change if we want to optimize our children’s mental health. For this to happen, we need lots of activists. Everyday activists.

It feels like traditionally, activism has been an all or nothing mindset. Either you’re out there on a regular basis picketing, collecting petition signatures, and handing out leaflets on the street or you’re sitting at home doing nothing.

Fortunately, the world has changed. There are lots of ways to get involved and make a difference—even if picketing isn’t your thing. And it’s okay to start small. Doing something is better than doing nothing.

Three Steps to Everyday Activism

  1. Become educated on the issues. For example, before I started my research, I didn’t know what “Citizens United” was or this Supreme Court ruling’s impact on politics. Now I know that it allows corporations and other groups to spend unlimited amounts of money on swaying the public one way or another during political elections. This means that corporations and other groups have way too much influence in our political process. People should decide election outcomes, not Big Money. (To get an awesome introduction to Citizens United, check out The Story of Citizens United vs. FEC.)
  2. Make a commitment to vote. And encourage others to do the same. Due to Big Money’s influence on politics, people feel like it doesn’t matter if they vote or not. All politicians follow the money anyway, so what’s the point, right? The point is that it is our civic duty and right to participate in the election of our leaders. I was shocked to find that only 58.2% of us voted in the 2012 general election. We need to send people to Washington (and our local governments) who will fight against Big Money in politics and look after the needs of everyday people.
  3. Pick one focus area. It’s so easy to get overwhelmed by the amount of work that’s needed to create a society that prioritizes happiness and health over consumption and wealth. There are so many organizations working on everything from raising the minimum wage to parental leave policy to mindfulness in schools. You probably feel drawn to a few different areas based on your individual needs or interests. Narrow it down to one area and invest your time there. (But keep abreast of other important issues so you can contact your representatives and let them know where you stand.)

Places to Start

There is no need to reinvent the wheel. Like I mentioned above, there are a number of organizations that facilitate different levels of everyday activism. I’ve listed a few here:

Beyond writing as activism, I have chosen to focus on bringing mental health awareness, mindfulness, and social emotional learning to our local school district. It really doesn’t take much to get started. Just invite a few people with similar goals over for an informal discussion and see where it leads. You can accomplish a lot with a handful of people and a common vision.

How Are You an Everyday Activist?

Let me know in the comments below.

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The Long Road Ahead

Last week I wasn’t feeling very well. Mentally, that is.

Early in the week, I received feedback from a few people on my book, and it hit me that I have a lot of work ahead of me to get it published. The tasks seemed endless: review feedback, make updates to the manuscript, contact agents, contact independent publishers, keep my social media presence active and interesting, write emails to key people in the mental health world to introduce my work, and on, and on, and on…

I was also still recovering from a massive update to the Luther College website, the responsibility for which is my day job. While most people expressed great appreciation for the work we did and genuinely liked the new design, there were a handful of people who weren’t as pleased—for the most part rightly so. We have more work to do to get it just right.

On top of this, other—mostly enjoyable and important—commitments piled up and seemed suffocating. I literally felt a pressure in my chest and seemed incapable of tackling any remotely brain-intensive tasks (or even responding to emails from friends). I worried about being over-committed and not having enough space in my life to just be—and be available to my family.

I was allowing my fear of the long road ahead to paralyze me.

For a minute or two, I was ready to call the whole thing off. I was mad at myself for caring so much. Why couldn’t I just worry about the health and happiness of those closest to me and be done with it. Why did I have to feel the weight of the world on my shoulders?

So I went to yoga. And talked to my husband. Cried a little. And slowed down. Took a few deep breaths. And wrote down the things I really needed to get done the following day. Turns out, it was manageable.

Yes, I do need to get out of one or two additional commitments and continue to narrow my focus outside of work to my personal wellness, the wellness of my family, and promoting mental health in my community and through my writing.

And yes, it’s going to be a long road ahead—a bumpy road with many challenges and twists and turns along the way.

But if I take one day at a time, break the work down into manageable chunks, adhere to simple productivity best practices, accept support, and factor in relaxation time, I can do this.

I must do this. Because, as my husband said to me after reading it, the message in this book is so important. It must be widely promoted and widely read. It is my hope that it will change lots of lives—especially the lives of children and parents—for the better.

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Music Is Good for the Soul

When I teach my simple productivity class, I start the presentation by asking participants to identify things that matter most to them. These are the things we want to find more time for. My example list always includes “Making Music.”

Music has been part of my life since I was born. I remember pressing my ear to my mom’s chest as a preschooler to hear her wonderful soprano voice amplified. I sang along with the adult choir by the time I was four. My siblings and I were like the Swedish Von Trapp family and toured churches and performed at community events. All five of us played several instruments and participated in orchestras, folk music groups, and pop bands. As an adult, I have formed and directed a number of ensembles and choirs. So it’s no wonder that making music would be something that matters most to me.

Except, I haven’t been making a whole lot of my music lately. The last time I sang with others (except hymns in church) was at Christmas, when I sang with a seasonal community choir. I’ve barely sat down by the piano to play and sing. And I haven’t touched my violin in over a year.

However, the past week, I have had a number of musical experiences that have inspired me to “get back into music.”

Last Saturday, I rode up to St. Paul, MN with friends to attend a barbershop concert featuring two choirs and three quartets. The main reason I went was because one of the choirs, The EntertainMen, and one of the quartets, Ringmasters, hail from Sweden. I didn’t really know what to expect and the concert blew me away. The performances were world class. (Ringmasters became international champions in 2012.) But equally importantly, the singers expressed genuine joy through their uplifting music. The tight harmonies exemplified the close bonds that exist between the members of these music groups. It was pure delight.

In my research, I have learned that singing with others has benefits for physical and mental health. Indeed, Swedish scientists have discovered that when people sing together, their hearts synchronize:

Musicologist Björn Vickhoff, who led the study, explained that not only did the choir members’ heart rates slow down as they began to sing, but their heartbeats gradually synchronized, eventually beating as one, with the song’s tempo as a guide. (From Choir Singing May Be Good For Your Heart, Says New Study)

The next day, I couldn’t stop thinking about the wonderful concert and the joy of singing. I thought about it when I walked the short distance to the local UCC church, which I was visiting that morning. During the service, the music director led the congregation in several short reflective songs. One that really resonated with me, and the theme of this blog, was a short song called “Dream God’s Dream:”

Holy Spirit, help us dream…
Of a world where there is justice, and where everyone is free
To build and grow and love
And to simply have enough
That world will change when we dream God’s dream

Not only is music fun and uplifting, it can also contribute to ones spiritual life. Indeed, music is spirituality to me. Later that afternoon, I sat down at the piano for the first time in a while and belted out some old favorites. Wow, did it lift my spirit! There are few activities that are more enjoyable than making music. Truly.

But The Universe was not done telling me that it’s time for me to start making music again. On Wednesday, a Swedish youth choir happened to be passing through our town to perform their 14th performance during a 20-day Midwest tour. Since I try to go to everything Swedish, I showed up after a long day at work. Again, I was reminded of the joy and community that comes from singing and making music with others.

This week of music culminated in attending the Saturday evening service at my church and singing a solo for the offertory (a jazzy gospel song from my youth in Sweden). It was fun and appreciated. Next time, I’ll make a point to invite others to sing along.

But even if it’s just me and the piano at home, I will make a point of making music by my lonesome, because music is good for the soul.

I will leave you with Ringmasters singing Blackbird. Because they make me happy (and they’re really nice).

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In Order to Get It Done

“Two weeks and one day!” my daughter reminded me today. Until she comes home from her semester abroad, that is. (I can’t wait!) It seems like the last five months have flown by, but a lot has happened too—especially related to my book project.

I have two more chapters to write to complete the first draft. I plan to finish these two chapters before my daughter returns—so I can cherish our reunion and not be writing around the clock. (And because this is the third deadline I’ve set for myself. Third time’s a charm!)

In order to get it done, I’m going to have to not do some things the next fourteen days. Specifically, I’m going to press the pause button on my Sunday newsletter and blogging. I probably won’t be as active on social media either, but who knows. I might find some great quotes to share. Like this one:

When you parent, it’s crucial you realize you aren’t raising a “mini me,” but a spirit throbbing with its own signature. ~Dr. Shefali in The Conscious Parent

I don’t feel too bad about not blogging for a little while, considering that great thinkers/authors such as Naomi Klein and Nilofer Merchant do the same thing when they’re working on book projects. (And Nicholas Carr had to move to the middle of nowhere, stop blogging, and get off social media in order to complete The Shallows.)

Please hang tight while I immerse myself in writing about “Compassionate Parenting” and “Student-Centered Learning.” (And send energizing vibes my way.) When the draft is in the hands of my volunteer content editing team, I’ll get back to posting and emailing. I’ve got some exciting topics lined up!

I’ll leave you with the (completely unedited) opening paragraphs of Chapter 16: Creating a Culture of Enough. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

When I started working in Corporate America twelve years ago, I didn’t have any world-changing plans. My main priorities were to earn a decent living (I started at $29,000, which was way more than I’d ever earned), take care of my family, stay healthy and fit, and enjoy life. I never dreamed of fast cars or a mansion, but I longed for the day when we might afford a slightly larger house (we lived in a 1,200 sq. ft. townhouse) and have enough money to visit Sweden (and my family) every year.

I was a good worker. I completed my tasks quickly and took initiative. After less than a year, I received my first promotion and pay raise. As my role at the company became increasingly demanding, I started working longer hours. While I had started at 45 hours/week (company policy), I soon found myself working 50-60 hours each week, taking work home with me every weekend. I became obsessed with my work, which led to additional promotions (but wasn’t awesome for my family or my overall wellbeing). I was like the antagonists in Hollywood workaholic conversion stories such as Elf and Up in the Air.

When I got promoted to Product Manager, we decided that we had enough money to buy a bigger house. I fell in love with a 2,800 sq. ft. home with a view of downtown Nashville in the distance. It was way more space than we needed, but we had the money, so why not? After filling our house with IKEA furniture (I am Swedish after all), we hosted a housewarming party for friends and colleagues. Everybody loved our house, and I loved being able to have so many over our friends over all at once. While chilling on the couch after the party, a straggling guest (a colleague from New Zealand) said something that would stick with me forever: “Congratulations! You have achieved the American Dream. You have this great big house and no time to spend in it.” (Did I mention that he’s a minimalist?) It hit me in my core. Wow—yes, that had happened. I had become trapped in the hamster wheel, running faster and faster and faster.

While I didn’t do anything about my hamster wheel situation immediately, my colleague had planted a seed in my brain—a seed of contemplation that perhaps something was wrong with the picture that was my life. In the meantime (in a quest to become more productive and squeeze even more work into my day), I read the book Getting Things Done by David Allen. The book served its intended purpose, but the reason I bring it up is that it led me to the blog Zen Habits by Leo Babauta. This blog changed my life forever. Literally. Leo (and guest bloggers) wrote about how to slow down[i], how to declutter your life[ii], minimalism[iii], and other fascinating topics. Reading this blog quickly became the favorite part of my day, and it led me to explore a whole new world of simple living/voluntary simplicity literature such as Simple Prosperity by David Wann, Radical Simplicity by Jim Merkel, and Your Money or Your Life by Vicky Robin and Joe Dominguez. This opening paragraph from Radical Simplicity gave me the perspective I needed to realize that life wasn’t just about me and my family having enough—it was about everybody having enough:

Imagine you are at a potluck buffet and see that you are the first in line. How do you know how much to take? Imagine that this potluck spread includes not just food and water, but also the materials needed for shelter, clothing, healthcare and education. It all looks and smells so good and you are hungry. What will you heap on your plate? How much is enough to leave for your neighbors behind you in the line?

Until this point, I had never considered that shopping for the heck of it might negatively impact the earth and other human beings (think sweatshops). I happily threw away plastic grocery bags, not realizing that it would take hundreds, if not thousands of years for them to break down. I had never stopped to think about how much of the world’s resources I was using up while others used barely any. Yes, of course I thought (occasionally) about the fact that people around the world were starving, but only when I heard about it on TV and then only fleetingly. It seemed like something beyond my reach to address. I was busy building software to help big box retailers increase their profits, so when would I have time to save the planet or work toward ending world hunger?

But once I got clued in, I started making personal changes. Some were small changes like bringing cloth bags to the grocery store and getting rid of unnecessary clutter. Other changes were bigger like creating a philanthropy plan for the year and attempting to buy mostly organic and local food. But the biggest change of all, which I outlined on my shiny new blog, Simply Enough, in January 2009, was that I was going to stop buying clothes unless I really, really needed them. I wasn’t a compulsive shopper or anything, but the idea of buying based on need rather than want was revolutionary to me. When I recapped my experience at the end of the year, I wrote on my blog that only clothing items I bought were a pair of athletic shorts, two workout shirts (made of recycled polyester), and a pair of SmartWool™ socks.[iv] So that was a success, but more importantly, I realized that I enjoyed not buying clothes unless absolutely necessary. I enjoyed it so much, in fact, that I decided to apply this idea to all my buying (inspired by Judith Levine, author of Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping)—and I haven’t looked back.

[i] http://zenhabits.net/how-to-slow-down-now-please-read-slowly/ (Accessed 5/3/14)

[ii] http://zenhabits.net/18-five-minute-decluttering-tips-to-start-conquering-your-mess/ (Accessed 5/3/14)

[iii] http://zenhabits.net/gandhi-lessons/ (Accessed 5/3/14)

[iv] http://livesimplyenough.com/simplicity/reflections-on-my-no-new-clothes-experiment/ (Accessed 5/3/14)

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Benefit Corporations: Business for Good

Corporations. Don’t you shudder just a little when you hear that word? It seems the big, bad corporations of our time have given all corporations a bad rap by evading taxes, underpaying employees, overpaying CEOs, and buying political candidates. And, of course, it is quite problematic that the modern form of corporation’s raison d’être is to make money for its shareholders—at all costs. (Which is why we shudder.) But that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of people out there wanting to make the world just a little bit better and make a living at the same time. That’s really the ideal scenario, isn’t it?

Social Business

In my wellness utopia, I talk about establishing social businesses and worker cooperatives as standard business types. Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus invented the social business concept as a means to create businesses for a cause. Social businesses’ primary goal is not to make money. Rather, they are designed to make the world a better place. Profits do not go to shareholders, but rather back into the business. Investors do get their money back, but not with interest (so kind of like lending money on Kiva). (Worker cooperatives, of course, is a model where all employers are equal owners of the business and every person has one vote. It is a democratic workplace and everybody is paid their fair share.)

Benefit Corporations

I’ve been talking to people about the social business concept for years, lamenting that it is not a legal business type in the United States, and brainstorming ideas, should I want to start one some day. Well, my friends, I have good news. It’s not exactly like a social business, but as of this writing, 24 states have passed laws to establish a new kind of corporation—a corporation to add benefit to society and the planet: a benefit corporation!

Here’s what makes benefit corporations different (from the Benefit Corporation website):

  1. Benefit corporations have a corporate purpose to create a material positive impact on society and the environment.
  2. Benefit corporations are required to consider the impact of their decisions not only on shareholders but also on workers, community, and the environment.
  3. Benefit corporations are required to make available to the public an annual benefit report that assesses their overall social and environmental performance against a third party standard.

This is huge! Entrepreneurs who want to do big things to benefit society now have an actual legal framework in which to operate. They no longer have to worry about the ramifications of making decisions for the good of society and the environment above the good of the bottom line and their shareholders.

Take Action

I (and many others) have high hopes that this will be the primary type of corporation in the future. Really, it makes no sense for us as global citizens to allow our traditional type of corporation to continue to exist (at least not without major corporate law reform). Corporations should serve society, not the other way around.

Here’s how you can support the cause:

  1. Find out if your state has already passed laws in favor of benefit corporations (see list). If yes, figure out if the business you work for or own could be a benefit corporation. If not, let your representatives know that you think it’s a good idea (14 additional states are already working on such laws).
  2. Support benefit corporations and other businesses known for doing good things in this world. This could be through investments or simply by choosing to make your purchases with these businesses over big, multinational corporations.

As the B Corporation slogan goes, B the Change!

Over to You

What do you think? Are benefit corporations the wave of the future?

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