10 Questions for Sandhya Rani Jha

Sandhya Rani Jha
Activist and author Sandhya Rani Jha

Sandhya Rani Jha’s newest book, Transforming Communities: How People Like You are Healing Their Neighborhoods, collects real stories of ordinary people who took action and changed their corner of the world. Jha, director of the Oakland (Calif.) Peace Center, writes on race, community, and social activism. 

Why did you write Transforming Communities?

I do a lot of “front lines” work around things like the housing crisis in the Bay Area and racial justice, and it is easy to feel hopeless. I wrote Transforming Communities for myself as much as anyone, as a reminder that there really is forward momentum and that people power can’t be underestimated. I also wrote it as a best practices resource so that folks who want to really transform their city have all the tools they need in one place, but even if someone just said “I could get some folks together to do this one thing,” that would be more than enough. Sometimes we feel stuck, like we can’t do anything. But starting with one small thing, and not doing it alone, can make a HUGE impact.
 
You maintain that “going local,” or healing your neighborhood, is more effective in transforming the world than joining a national issue.  Say more about that. 
 
I think the things happening at the national level are REALLY important, but two things make national organizing hard:
1) It is easy to get overwhelmed with how little change we can effect when chipping away and trying to win small victories in a hostile environment.
2) Part of the reason the environment is this way is that decades ago, people started organizing at the local level to shift American culture away from things like valuing our elders, caring for the poor, investing in a good education for all, honoring the immigrant and religious diversity and so on. Part of why national change is so hard is that over decades, there has been culture shift that started at the local level. So our best work starts local and then builds out from there. It’s really the only way to ultimately effect national outcomes: community by community, then those communities connecting and those values taking root and becoming second nature.
 
What’s your favorite story in the book?
 
It really depends on the day: in the wake of the tragic Sutherland Springs Texas, I keep thinking about the amazing young Sikhs who went through the terror attack on their house of worship in Oak Creek several years ago and turned that tragedy into a process of healing. They showed up to support the victims of Sandy Hook a few months later. They reached out to their neighbors so their neighbors would know about the Sikh religion and be more invested in their wellbeing. They recognized that while they had faced violence because of their race, they needed to deepen their relationship with the Black community whom they didn’t know. They are my heroes for a moment like this, showing us that in the midst of suffering, people can build a community so there is less suffering in the future.
 
But my favorite story for years and years is the story of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative in Boston. Most of us assume that the solution to problems in our community is well-run nonprofits. And most nonprofits feel the same way. (I know I do, as the director of a nonprofit!) So a major charitable foundation gets all of the nonprofit leaders together to propose a solution to the problems in a really underserved neighborhood in Boston, but a few people living in the neighborhood learn about it and show up to the meeting. They say “hey; how come you’re always talking ABOUT us but never talking WITH us?” And the foundation is shocked, because they thought that by meeting with the nonprofits, they WERE meeting with the people from the community. So they started the process from scratch, this time with community meetings that churches (and some nonprofits!) helped coordinate, to capture the voices and commitments of the people who lived there day in and day out. Thirty years later, that neighborhood has developed a pathway to home ownership and small businesses as well as amazing community building and culturally resonant educational opportunities. The city government wouldn’t have created that structure, and neither would the nonprofits or the foundation. But by creating space for the people’s voice, vision and hard work to be part of the plan, it is a community very different from most “urban renewal” programs you see today.
 
Your stories are all very different in their particular people, places, and events. Are there any common threads weaving throughout the stories that are instructive for would-be change-makers? 
 
I think the thing that ties most of these stories together is that (a) they are about listening to the wisdom of people actually facing the problems we want to fix, (b) involving them in the solution-making process, (c) investing time in building up a community, not just fixing specific things, and (d) practicing some consistent ethics. That last one maybe isn’t always explicitly named throughout the book, but it really is at work in every chapter and is particularly clear in the last chapter about the small village in France during World War II that saved thousands of Jewish people and other people fleeing the Nazi regime. Before the French government was even taken over by Nazi sympathizers, the people in that village were practicing values that said they were the sons and daughters of Huguenots, Protestants who had to flee persecution in the 1500s. That meant their faith and their history required them to protect persecuted people, whatever the cost. They knew that’s who they were, so in a time of trial, that is who they were able to be. (And it’s who the Catholics in their community were as well, because it was baked into their community ethic.) 
 
I think things are so bad that we’re often desperate for a quick fix. The stories in this book yielded often fairly quick results: deeply transformed communities within a matter of years. But the work that we really want to see takes community building and it takes discipline, because the counternarratives of fear and distrust and isolation are so thick around us that we will need to work together to override them. But the great hope of the stories in this book is that we can override those narratives. We can build communities of inclusion and justice and compassion. In fact, we already have, a million times over.
 
What trends are you seeing in community organizing?  Where do you feel the current greatest need is for transformative community work?
 
One of the things I am so excited about that’s shifting in community organizing is how often I hear people from high level labor leaders to leaders in the Movement for Black Lives to organizers for worker justice talking about love. In the midst of the urgent work, we are slowing down enough to be in relationship with each other. History has shown us that the best way to break apart a movement is to sow seeds of distrust between members. This was a very intentional part of government efforts to disrupt the Black Panthers in my hometown of Oakland, for example, and it worked in a lot of ways. For us to invest in honoring each other’s humanity as part of the work of movement building can slow down the pace of the work, but it creates such strong foundations.
 
I have a chapter on faith rooted organizing, the model of organizing I practice with several organizations where I live. It was named and developed by prominent civil rights leader James Lawson and workers’ rights leader Alexia Salvatierra. It emerges out of the Indian freedom struggle of Mahatma Gandhi, the Black-led US Freedom Movement of the 1960s, Latin American Liberation theology and the multisectoral organizing model of the Philipines. What is really inspiring to me, though, is that I am seeing other community organizing movements (PICO, Gamaliel) taking on issues of racial justice, honoring the leadership and wisdom of people of color, and somewhat organically implementing a lot of the values of faith rooted organizing that were not always there before.  They focus on love as well as outrage, on higher vision and not just self-interest. It’s been beautiful to watch.
 
I think the election results of 2016 show us that amidst the many urgent issues facing us (climate, religious liberty, immigrant rights, voter rights, health care, housing access, food safety, and so much more), there is some critical work to be done community by community for poor white people and poor people of color to recognize where their needs and causes and life experiences align. I do want to note that poor white people did not put Donald Trump into office by themselves: middle class and rich white people voted for him at high, possibly higher, margins. So some of the conversation right now distracts from a larger “us-them” issue in the country. But if we spent some energy on honoring the experiences of poor people of all races and also cultivating 
 
How does your faith inform your work in community organizing and activism?  
 
The person who trained me in faith rooted organizing, Alexia Salvatierra, talks about faith rooted organizing as “organizing as if God is real.” To me that means always having an eye on what Dr. King referred to as “Beloved Community,” or what Christians sometimes call “the realm of God here on earth.” It also means not limiting our vision. We hosted a panel on reforming the prison system at the Oakland Peace Center, and one of the panelists said, “you all won’t get engaged in the work of prison abolition (replacing our current system with restorative justice and rehabilitation programs that would better serve victims, offenders and communities) because you want to aim instead for small, winnable campaigns. But you don’t win those either, so why not go for what you actually believe to be right?” There is a need for strategy and for negotiating in coalition, but as people of faith, why don’t we let the secular folks take the lead on that and instead do what all of our faith traditions call us to: tikkun olam or “the healing of the world” in Hebrew. It is ironic to me when faith communities brag about their political acumen or their strategic skills; the people on the front lines of the movement need something different from us, I think. The justice movement could use some big dreaming, some hope, some vision.  I think the other thing we do on a good day is humanize people. Sometimes activists forget that the work is about people; we can keep the movement grounded in the humanity of people who are suffering…and also people who are in power.
 
How do you hold onto hope in dark times? 
 
I’m a big picture, statistics, systemic thinker. But that can also become overwhelming: the number of people facing injustice can feel insurmountable.
 
I’m writing this on a rainy day in downtown Oakland. A homeless person just walked into Starbucks and the people next to me and I made room for them to rest their weary feet at the table we were sharing. A woman standing near me asked if they wanted a coffee and bought them one.
 
A homeless woman came in and sat down with me and chatted for a while, and then the two of them traded advice on cheap footwear that doesn’t rub. Then she showed them a video from her phone of when a rat jumped into her lap this morning and offered them some leftover halloween candy from her backpack.
 
I could probably get depressed about that scene, but that’s people being human, being in relationship even for a moment.
 
If that is who humans can be, what can’t we do when we set our sights on actually making the world better, with a few of the right tools?
 
What books are on your nightstand (or Kindle) right now?
 
I keep rotating among Samantha Irby’s “We Will Never Meet in Real Life,” Roxane Gay’s “Hunger” and Sherman Alexie’s “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me.” They are all so brilliant and also so sad that I have tossed in the Alexander Hamilton biography that Lin Manuel Miranda used as the inspiration for his musical, just to keep things light.
 
But confessionally, I’m really digging post-apocalyptic young adult fiction featuring people of color characters these days. That’s my almost cliche escapism.
 
Oh, and can we require that every American read Claudia Rankine’s book of poetry Citizen in order to actually be a citizen?
 
What is inspiring your work and ministry these days? 
 
I’m a big believer in having a volunteer project that inspires a person. That and taking vacation are what stop me from burning out. (Ask me about my trip to Chiapas in October; it was amazing).
 
My volunteer project is Bay Area Solidarity Summer. For eight years now, a group of volunteers has created a five-day camp for South Asian (Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, Bangaladeshi, Burmese, Bhutanese, Nepali, Afghani) young adults to be trained as activists around our own struggles but also in solidarity with other communities fighting for justice…where we have privilege, let’s figure out how to use it to support people with less privilege. Where we are oppressed, let’s learn the skills to advocate for change. Everyone who runs it is a volunteer and we raise enough money for the program to be free or almost free so that low-income activists can attend.
 
This past year, the young adults inspired me: they had such amazing understanding of issues of justice in this country. They were so open to learning new skills and techniques. But what amazed me was how much love and compassion and care they extended to each other, and to us as organizers who were more like aunties and uncles to them than siblings. That level of heart gives me so much hope for the movement.
 
What advice would you give to an aspiring yet hesitant, overwhelmed,  or discouraged activist?  Where does one start?  How does one keep on?
 
It depends on the activist! 🙂 I remember saying to a room full of sincere church elders who wanted to ease into anti-racism work that the day we were meeting Muslims were being detained at customs and sent back to countries they were fleeing. I told them that I knew they were looking for evolution and not revolution, but since they had a lot of power, my people needed them to evolve REALLY fast. But they knew I was saying it with love and compassion, and that church is doing church-wide work around anti-racism and partnering with Black-led organizations in their town to effect change, less than a year later. That’s really what this book is about. Regular people really can come together and move the dial, if they find the people who want to move it with them.
 
I also know that the story of the little girl walking along the beach and throwing starfish back into the ocean is overused. (If you don’t know it, the beach is littered with them, and they will die without water, and a man sees the girl throwing them into the ocean. He tells her she can’t save them all, and she shrugs, picks one up, throws it into the ocean and says “Yeah, but I can save that one.”) But it’s true. 
 
Part of the way systemic injustice gets entrenched is we come to see people, or some groups of people, as disposable. A dear friend of mine adopted a girl who had been through everything you could imagine by the age of 9. They have been through hard times. The system had given up on that girl before she could walk. But she’s about to turn 16, and holy terror that she can be, she is 100% going to make this world a better place to live in. My friend’s investment in that little girl is going to end up improving not just that girl’s life but whole communities. If my friend had chosen an easier path, a whole community decades from now would suffer from that absence.
 

And I think that’s the other thing: we do this work for the generations to come. If we only measure our success in its immediate yields, our emotions are at the whims of so much that is out of our control. Should we fight for immediate wins? Absolutely. If all homeless people were housed, our work to build Beloved Community would be exponentially easier. If everyone had access to good affordable healthcare, we could concentrate on soul-deep work so much more easily. But if we gauge our success only on what is winnable, our vision shrinks. Let’s invest ourselves in a world where no 9-year-old has been given up on by their community or their government. Let’s remember, as the prayer that still gives me comfort on hard days says, that “we plant the seeds that one day will grow.”

For more on Sandhya Jha, visit her website: www.sandhyajha.com.

To order Transforming Communities, click here.

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