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Motivated by Great Love: Michael Gagné on Activism and the Spirit

Michael Gagne
Michael Gagne Photo: courtesy of Michael Gagne

Note: The below interview by Silas Wanjala is the third in a series of Interviews with Quaker Activists. I define activist in the broadest sense – those working to help to mend and heal the world, to create justice and peace from many vantage points.  – Lucy

By Silas Wanjala

Michael Gagné has been involved in many campaigns focused on environmental issues and other aspects of social change. A trainer, facilitator and organizer, Michael works with a sense of enthusiasm and urgency – that addressing climate chaos, environmental concerns and other manifestations of injustice can’t and shouldn’t wait. For the past two years, Michael worked with Philadelphia Yearly Meeting as the Eco-Justice Organizer and currently serves as the Director of the Envision Peace Museum in Philadelphia. He is also occasionally teaches at Pendle Hill, a Quaker retreat and training center. Michael has been involved with the Occupy movement in Philadelphia, serving recently as the lead organizer of a Revolutionary Nonviolence series which was co-organized by AFSC. He was involved with the formation of the Earth Quaker Action Team (EQAT) and helped to found the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting spiritual/activist formation program Called to Action.  – Silas Wanjala

Silas Wanjala (SW, for the Acting in Faith blog):  Share about why you have been interested in peace work.

Michael Gagné (MG):  I can trace some of what I do to childhood and my upbringing - in terms of my love for nature, my belief in standing up to bullies, and my commitment to doing what I thought was right.   My awakening to global peace issues happened at about the age of seventeen, however. I had just started college in a liberal arts and a peace studies program and was taking many interesting courses - one in particular was taught by a very unconventional teacher who became a mentor for me. Sandra Stevenson taught a philosophy of law class in which we were expected to learn about Western law. But she also exposed us to issues of war and peace, conceptions of indigenous law, and questions of environmental law, as well. . I took her class at the time of the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 and she invited us into global awareness and to step outside of our western, white, middle-class “bubbles”.

A significant awakening moment for me was when Sandra played an audio recording of a speech by Dr. Helen Caldicott, - a globally recognized voice for antinuclear and environmental concerns. Dr. Caldicott was the first person I ever heard use the term “ecocide” to describe what we are doing to the environment. She drew many links between our impacts on the biosphere and questions of justice, peace and how we handle conflicts. When I first heard the term ecocide and accepted it as a reality I felt I had found my calling. My vocation is to be a part of a “great turning” away from a very destructive way of life to something that is -or approximates -right relationship. The urgency I feel related to environmental action was triggered by that philosophy class and was also fueled by the thought of wanting to start a family some day.Michael Gagne with daughter Aden

Hearing the term ‘ecocide’ made me wonder whether it would be fair to bring children into this world if I did not do everything in my power to change our very destructive way of life.

SW: What is ecocide?

MG: The prefix eco comes from oikous which is Greek for home. Ecocide means that we are killing our own home. Specifically I think this refers to our impacts on what I call the “four sacred things” that are: air and climate, water, soil and biodiversity. So if we look at these things upon which all human life depends,  we can see that all the indicators are going in a pretty unpleasant direction -  that we are undergoing a massive species extinction and this is caused by industrial cultures and civilization. So to say that our Western/industrial way of life is ecocidal means it is entirely unsustainable and that if we continue it even a few decades into the future we will hit a wall - which would entail a significant crash.

SW: How has ecocide contributed to your eco-philosophy?

MG: Exploring the roots of ecocide led me into the realm of eco-philosophy which is really exploring these questions in particular “Why is our way of life as destructive as it is?  What does it mean to be human? Do humans have to have this type of relationship with the environment or is it possible for us to take care of our home planet? How would we have to perceive, think, and relate differently in order to live in right relationship?”

SW: What are some of the approaches that lead to transformation?

MG: I draw heavily on the belief that nonviolent action and spirit-rooted social action has the potential to be transformational. So when I look at social movements that have made major change, I find that there have often been guiding beliefs and feelings that I would call spiritual. A belief in beloved community motivates people and brings them together. It’s important that the spiritual impulse be paired with effective strategy, or the movement won’t be as effective as it could be. I have been inspired by George Lakey’s book Strategy for a Living Revolution. Gandhi’s Satyagraha also resonates powerfully for me. In order to make real change, we must combine inward transformation with campaigns of nonviolent resistance and programs of constructive alternatives for a new society. We must both oppose and propose. We need to help form that new society here and now and create it as more as collective producers than as individual consumers.

SW: What have been some of your accomplishments while working with Philadelphia Yearly Meeting?

MG: A couple of things come to mindMichael Gagne at Robin Hood action. One is a training program that I helped to create, Called to Action’. This is a six month training program in spirit-rooted nonviolent action. We are more than halfway through the program now. Two, I was able to work with some coalitions helping to bring Quakers into collaborative work with groups like Greenpeace,  the Sierra club, and environmental justice organizations, etc. Some of that has been focused on campaigns and some of it has been relationship-building for the long-haul. I have also been happy to have a liaison role with the Occupy Movement and helping Friends to figure out how they can be involved with  Occupy beyond just the hospitality role - but in a solidarity role as well. In conjunction with the AFSC, we launched a six part series on ‘Revolutionary Nonviolence’ that elicited some attention across the country. It is very heartening that people are looking to that work as a model for how to bring people together across a spectrum of strategy, vision, and the conversation about faith/secularism.

SW: You seem to be working in solidarity with the Occupy Movement. What attracts you to the movement?

MG: The baseline recognition that ‘These are my people, and these are my concerns.’ When I went to the first organizing Occupy meeting in Philadelphia, I felt happy, proud and that it was a gift to be in the room. Doing this work with people who are experimenting with a beloved community is truly a gift. Some of the most powerful religious moments that I have had have been with people who are struggling together as opposed to just exploring ideas or the “inner landscape."  I often think about the title of Gandhi’s autobiography,  My Experiments with Truth,  and for me it seemed that Occupy from day one was going to be a wonderful experiment with truth. My perception of it was that it was not going to lead to systemic change in a period of two months, but that it could be a prefigurative (creating the change we seek) step for change. I'd say that Occupy has planted many seeds and I am looking forward to these seeds bearing fruit.

SW: Are people working with some of the strategies shared in the Revolutionary Nonviolence? series?

MG: We have heard people talking about how Occupy has shifted the national conversation on questions of economic justice. Our series was helpful, I think, in furthering and deepening conversations about strategy.  We had been exploring for some time the need for ongoing training, capacity-building and popular education within Occupy and the Quaker community and that particular series was a response to what felt like an energized  focus on questions about nonviolent activism vs. "diversity of tactics. ”We felt that it was really important to bring people together to explore these questions in a way that builds trust and enables people to work together. My sense is that the series has helped people to continue to work together rather than split - which is so common when you conflicts around violence and nonviolence emerge. We created a space for a conversation that was more about strategy and less about our projections.

SW: What are some of your expectations for the Earth Quaker Action Team (EQAT) campaign?

MG: Our hope for the BLAM! campaign (BLAM= Bank Like Appalachia Matters!) is to shift PNC Bank from pretending to be a green bank, to actually being a far greener bank. And that starts by getting them out of financing mountain top coal removal mining and then iMichael Gagne at Young Adult Friends Gatheringnviting them to proactively invest in clean energy.  It means helping them shift from investing in coal and oil to real alternatives. Beyond that I see campaigns focused on banks and particular institutions as capacity building opportunities. As Quakers and others ask what kind of world we want to live in, we’ve come to the awareness that we can’t continue with business as usual and that indeed another world is possible - we need to strengthen our muscles for building that alternative. Campaigns build those muscles.

SW: What would be the ideal alternative of the world you will want?

MG: This is fun and potentially dangerous territory just because it is so easy to sound like we are talking in a utopian or even science fiction manner. I start with values; what do we see as the roots of that different world? One of them for me is what was said by anthropologist Ruth Benedict: the idea that you can actually distinguish between “good cultures” and “bad cultures”. Cultures that are said to be good have low violence and high levels of wellbeing and equality. What makes the difference is whether the social systems support the sense that by serving you,  I also serve self and by serving self I also a serve you. In these good (or high well-being) cultures, this interdependence is not only a intention but a systemic reality.   Right now we live in an economy that is based on many absurdities  including the idea of infinite growth. Our current economy is also based on the idea that by fostering competition and selfish interests that somehow we are going to end up with a good society. I certainly  think that we need to look at our basic economic and social structure. Yes, I believe we can foster a more direct democracy and that there are many things we can do that will  help us move from being an empire toward a more steady state and sustainable economy, one that is locally focused and takes into account the nature and needs of human relationships.

A primary lens through which I look at our culture is not just Ruth Benedict’s research but the “triangle and the circle”. Do we have institutions that are based on hierarchy and nonstop competition, that are rooted in scarcity and control and the idea that by excelling and rising to the top of the pyramid you become more safe -  even if it requires stepping on other species, cultures, ethnicities, sexes etc.? Or do we build our culture around a circle, which is my shorthand for a worldview that is rooted in equality and interdependence. With the circle everything is equidistant u from the center, there is no beginning and there is no end. There is nowhere to get to; the sacred is everywhere and everything.  Of course this sounds very abstract but when I look at my own life and my culture I try to remember that ‘you can’t solve a problem on the same level at which it was created.’ To me as long as we live according to  institutions rooted in the “triangle”, in this mechanistic and dominating model, we won’t be able to solve our problems: environmental problems, social problems - any of the big problems. Only by looking from a viewpoint of basic equality and partnership will we be able to make true change happen.

SW: Talk about your work with the Envision Peace Museum.

MG: Envision Peace Museum is an emerging museum of peace, justice and nonviolent social change and I am tremendously excited about our work. The physical building will be in the historical district of Philadelphia. The mission of Envision Peace is to foster insight into the meanings and roots of peace while empowering visitors to overcome violence and injustice in the world. That mission resonates with my soul. Much of the initial impetus for this project came from Quakers who were actively involved such as George Lakey and Tony Junker. One of the ideas behind the creation of Envision Peace is that museums are wonderful places for bringing people together for dialogue, common experience, exploration and reconnecting. They are also one of the most trusted sources of information in our societies. Our idea was that a museum about peace and justice could be a place where people could access new ideas, new stories, and new tools for change - ones that they are not getting in the mainstream media and schools. One of those ideas was the toolbox that we call Nonviolent Action.

From day one we saw stories about nonviolent action, about social movements and people using the power of nonviolence as an important part of the museum. This year we will launch an online Peace museum and exhibitions that we trust  will be useful to people around the world. We have created a travelling exhibition, helped to launch another, and  are now in the process of developing a major collaboration with a national museum. We are also looking for our first museum space, one that will allow us to bring in audiences and participants so that we can share and develop these exhibits with them. Part of what excites me about the museum is this collaborative, participatory development process; many museums are moving in that direction.

SW: Can you speak about your experience of working with Quakers?  Will you share things you would love to see Quakers doing?

MG: I have loved working with Friends for the last four and a half years. It has been exciting for me to see Friends take our work beyond the small pond and connect it to the ocean of powerful, grounded social work that is happening in the world. With Envision and the work I do from this point on, I hope to continue  creating  spaces where people can bridge between faith-based and secular - but principled-responses to social challenges . I enjoy helping people come together in ways  in which we don’t get stuck in our  labels, either political or religious, but instead focus on our  common ground.

With the second part of the question two ideas come in mind; I hope that we Quakers continue to go deeply into our religious experience, so that we can speak from that place. I feel that we have many gifts, just as other faiths do and that part of what we have to share is   our corporate, collective discernment and honoring of “that of God” in everyone. Secondly, I believe that Quakers need to continue to courageously experiment. Part of what drew me to Friends was the courageous roles that individuals and small groups of Quakers have played in social witness around the abolition of slavery, the civil rights movement, the environmental movement etc. That made me really curious about the spiritual experience that was at the root of that embodied courage. I feel l that this "embodied courage” is a marginal thing right now within our community and so I hope that we will more actively experiment with boldness, strategy and love.

SW: Any last thoughts?

MG: My sense is that this is a tremendous time to be alive. It is a difficult and challenging time and it can also be a wonderful time - for many of us. Those of us who have the privilege to be working for social change - we really can be part of creating something beautiful.  A message that is coming to me is that there is a need for death to happen so that rebirth can occur.  The death and rebirth need to happen at the spiritual level and at the social level. We need to be able to lay things down within our own community and also within ourselves. Slavery in America ended in part because people became abolitionists and took a strong moral position that the very institution of slavery was contrary to justice, humanity, spirit. We need to channel that energy in our own time around a bunch of connected issues. We should be abolitionists about factory farms, oil and coal, mountain top removal coal mining, and the prison industrial complex, to name a few. I trust that if we are motivated by great love we will be able to create a new world.


About the Author

Silas Wanjala just finished six months as the Friends Relations intern at AFSC. He was born and raised in western Kenya in Kitale. After graduating from seminary in 2003, he worked as a pastor in Elgon East Yearly Meeting. Silas has been involved in community development and peace work. Silas was a member of the Friends Church Peace Team.

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