Marianne Manilov | Beyond the Social Network, Engaging Community

Marianne is the Co-founder and Co-Director of The Engage Network, formed to respond to the inquiry How do we build stronger movements to make real systemic change? The Engage Network marries the best online organizing strategies with a unique, small circle approach to offline base building. The result is Change on a Human Scale- a robust network of deeply engaged donors, members and constituents where real scalable change can happen.

Marianne has written pieces on organizing and social change and been quoted extensively in the media including: The Huffington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Nation, Good Housekeeping, and Business Week.  She has appeared on ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, and Good Morning America, and on the BBC. 

Marianne Manilov has a powerful presence, one that’s noticeable even as she sits and talks in what she calls her “comfortable clothes.” She talks about activism as a thing that’s people oriented, not as something wholly driven by ideas and strategy. And she has the ability to weave the personal into the professional without missing a beat. At some point near the beginning of our interview I set aside the questions I’d planned to ask and mostly just listened.

We began by talking about Kindle–correction, we began talking about books versus Kindle–and the changes one has to make, adjust to, accept when one gets a book that has only virtual pages. Considering the work that her organization, The Engage Network does, building community both offline and online for groups, Kindle was the perfect way to begin. Besides, books are one of Marianne’s favorite things.

“For some people it’s shoes, for me it’s books and theatre. I think I could’ve been a librarian, really. My one regret,” Marianne tells me,”is giving up twenty-six cartons of books after I left university. But when I look at my apartment…where would I have put them?” All things considered, the social change community is better off because of Marianne’s dedication to organizing and her striving to bring relationship within community back to the table.

Something Marianne said about relationship and activism in an interview with Tom Watson is worth reposting here. “Much of the success of Occupy’s core group of organizers came from their collective realization that in today’s society, “there’s no one coming for us.” Pulling together into “small circles of trust” isn’t a technique – it’s a necessity, she said. “People are coming together and they’re re-knitting the broken fabric of our broken communities by standing together.” [quote from Tom Watson | My Dirty Life & Times article, The Human Touch--Occupy and the Outstretched Hand]

Besides her work with The Engage Network, Marianne’s been involved in the Occupy movement and is also connected to Rebuild the Dream, a movement supported by everyday people with the intention of changing economic injustice. In fact, Marianne has a long history with organizing.

“Well, I come from an organizing family, union organizing family. Some people’s families are doctors or lawyers, mine’s organizers. I was involved from a very young age in many different social change things. As a college student, I was part of the national student divestment movement. I went to the University of Iowa. We took over a building. We locked down.” [quote from Blogher article, Small Groups Can Change the World, Britt Bravo]

If Marianne had become a librarian, no doubt organizing would’ve found a way into her life there as well.

XC: How did Engage begin?

MM: Engage was the vision of a lot of people who understood that there is a particular shift happening now, which is that we’re going through the democratization of media tools.

We’re moving from a time when media is sort of centralized (CNN, the New York Times, etc.) [around one entity] to Twitter where news breaks at the point of the individual, or in the case of Arab Spring, breaks at the point of 100 people who are participating in something. There are many people collaborating to shift that, and this shift is happening through many different spaces in society, but it’s also happening in organizing.

Engage was founded after we’d already made the shift away from a small group of people who were deciding on a campaign, and we were seeing a shift happening that was going to be more “ground up.” I think, perhaps, we weren’t seen as more serious by the outside NGO [non-governmental organization] structure, but we kept saying a shift was going to happen from the ground up, on the Left and on the Right. This was before the Tea Party and Occupy movements, and people asked how we knew it.

If you study media and organizing, I think a lot of people knew it. I can remember Billy Wimsatt [Organizer, Author, and Founder of the League of Young Voters] felt that there was going to be a rising on the Left. He was asking would we all be willing to make a difference when this happened–a year before Occupy. So I don’t think that among organizers watching movement building that it was that surprising, and I think we were all in a beginner’s mind position with it.

At Occupy this year I felt like I was learning the practice of what it was like to aggregate people offline into experiences that other cities then pick up. So something happens in New York and other Occupys listen. And whether Occupy exists or not, or even the Tea Party exists or not in three years, we saw that structure of somebody taking an action.

We’ve seen it in a number of different cases around the country where something happens in the media–just think about the shift in the media around black children being killed and how that has become a national issue. We can make an argument [around which children are chosen], but even the shift in the murders that have happened by the police in Oakland over the last three years is what makes a national case now. It happens in a much shorter time frame, and we’re learning how to aggregate that. And there’s a lot of problems with that–who’s choosing, why this case, why that case. But we’re in a situation where nothing gets out in the same way, and that, I think, is part of the social media. And social media also has people doing stuff offline.

So Engage was really founded by a network of about 15 different people, some online activists, some offline…one or two hip-hop people thrown in for good measure. Namane Mohlbane, who owns a couple nightclubs in downtown Oakland, was in one of our founding meetings, and really had a lot of influence around the sense of culture and social connection and networks and music and art and [around the idea] that we’re not just political beings.

So now Engage helps build leader led networks and advise organizations who are looking to make the switch. We’re about six years old.

XC: It makes a lot of sense when you think about it. One of the most natural things for human beings to do is to work in small groups. Why wouldn’t we go back to that?

MM: I keep saying to people, “It’s not rocket science.” I was meeting with some human rights people from United for Iran [a group that promotes civil rights in Iran], and the organizer, who’d just come on board, said, “Yeah, we’re excited to survey, but in the meantime I called people up and I just started listening to them.” Online surveys aren’t as good, I think, as doing deep listenings of your network.

XC: And so would you tell me more about the deep listening?

MM: It’s one of our trademarks now. Trademark is more a legal term, but whatever the other word would be… It’s something we do regularly, and we’re more known for it when you’re looking at a social network. Let’s say we’re looking at something as small as Oakland–or we’re looking at something as large.

So I go to a spiritual center in Oakland, you go to a different one. If you we wanted to listen to all of the people doing meditation in the world, you couldn’t do that. But you could go to Spirit Rock, you could go to Sharon Salzberg and you could say, “Give me some of the people who’ve been most actively involved in spirituality and politics. I want to build a network that serves those people and I want to build it with them.”

So you would be able to go to social champions, Jack [Kornfield], angel [Kyodo williams], or Sharon Salzberg, get names of people who they felt were really strong leaders, and then I could sit with you and we’d do deep listening for an hour, an hour and a half of just sitting with someone and finding out what brought them to this point, what are their dreams, how are those intersecting with the organization or not.

XC: So if you gave me a question and I responded to it, what would you all be listening for?

MM: So if I was doing a listening about meditation centers and how we could build a network of people in leadership who’ve done both meditation and politics–this is one of the things I’m most interested in doing–if i wanted to build that network, I might say to someone, how does meditation and your social change work support each other, how doesn’t it? If you were dreaming of a community and you could build any community, what would that community do for you? Would it be local, would it be national?

We listen for their story.

I always want to hear people’s stories to see if there’s a common path that they followed. A lot of people who were involved in inner work and social change had some kind of physical or mental crisis; the breakdown led to the break through. If I know that that’s how a lot of people get there, then I might develop a program that says when you’re in breakdown because you’ve been taking on too much social change, and you’re ready for more inner work because you’ve already done a little bit, here’s the program for you.

We look for the pathway that led them where they are in leadership–that shows what their vision is going forward–so we can build that together. And if I could bring more people into leadership, I would want to know how to get there.

There are now a lot of people who are part of the transformative social change community. So somehow we’ve managed to build that–meditation became bigger, yoga became bigger. So, I would want to see the people who’ve made it happen, the people we consider leaders. Where’s the commonality, and how could we have been in service to their journey? Were there key moments along the pathway? If there had been a network, where would they have turned for help? Was there a commonality so we could start to say, “Here’s the program?” Those leaders would be the first ones that I would want to pay to develop a program.

We community source engagement, both the inner work and the outer work. We believe that within networks of people, who are ready for change, there are naturally, always people who’ve already done the change.

XC: Was this part of the process around listening you all developed in the year you were going around the country doing research, the year when you all were trying to understand what Engage needed to be, or did it come after?

MM: It came after.

In that year we were looking for the commonality among people who stay involved in long-term anything, book groups, whatever. What we found was that it’s small groups that are socially connected–book groups, choir groups, church groups, AA groups. We really were distinguishing, and asking, what keeps people engaged beyond the two-year mark, like [engaged for] two to twenty years. So we weren’t looking at people who are connected through a campaign. The Obama campaign ran a lot of small groups. They’re not around anymore. So we were looking at two to ten years beyond a campaign cycle. Whether or not it’s an organizing campaign, what keeps people involved is deep social ties in small groups.

XC: It’s love.

MM: We think that, too.

Actually, I think what we do is just rebuild community so that people can see themselves and understand how loved they are. I think in the political organizing community we’ve gotten very transactional, and we’ve decided that we need people to do things and that they can’t just be. They’ve got to donate, they’ve got to “click”… And I think there’s something about that that wasn’t true in older organizing.

When I look at Gandhi or Dr. King, or all those famous stories, which were made of microcosms of different people, those people had a sense of holistic love for the people they were working for and that was true across all of the leadership. I believe that when that becomes true today that things will shift, but I could be totally wrong. At least by loving each other then even if it doesn’t work out we’re still going to love each other. The earth will die, corporations will take over, and we’ll just be hanging out loving each other.

I was hanging out talking to this guy running the Bully film, and we were trying to figure out if we could help him, which we couldn’t, and he sort of said, “Are you just asking me to sit around and meditate? I need to know what I need to do tomorrow.”

Engage doesn’t work in the tomorrow frame. We’re really building community for the long term. And I think community, when it comes together, is so beautiful and transformational that it seems like it happened overnight.

XC: I love some of the work you’re doing with other folks like What’s Your Tree.

MM: Yeah, the curriculum is great. My co-founder, who wrote that curriculum with a group of leaders in Texas, one of our first groups, said to me, “You need to run a small circle. You haven’t run a small circle.” So I ran one out of my living room. It was one of the best things that happened that year, and it totally changed me.

XC: How so?

MM: I think before I had a purpose that was, “change the world,” and I think the circle helped me to really find a purpose that went beyond social change–in all areas of my life. And it made my life really easy.

My purpose afterward became to be the light or reflect the light in others. So when I come into a room and I’m scared or there are a lot of big names or people or whatever–or even if I’m at a listening or if I get scared in any area of my life and I’m like, “Oh, what do I do?” I just remember, “Oh, be the light or reflect the light in others.” See the possibility in somebody or be a place of love and possibility. That’s not so hard to do. If I do that in a day, then I’m done.

You know, we are in a very evolving field, so a lot of the time I come in and people ask how do you do this? Somebody was asking me about downloadable kits. But the main thing is connection, community.

XC: Yeah, it seems like we’ve gotten far off the mark in believing in our toys as opposed to believing in ourselves and one another.

MM: Although the toys do great things. The toys allowed me to watch Arab Spring from the eyes of someone on the ground.

I think what we want to do is find the spot where’s the both-and. Luckily, I have some young people in my life who push me. I was really against online organizing, but I have been transformed in the last five years to become a real advocate for it–being able to scale, being able to reach people.

For example, I was talking to a human rights group, and they were thinking that in China that people can’t take action because it’s so dangerous. But if you had somebody who was from China and they said, “You know, I can’t take action, but I’m going to have a 100 people around the world who, whenever I say, ‘stand up and be my voice,’ they are. I’ll just have a safe Internet thing and say, ‘here’s the message I want to get out.’”

What if you had a thousand people all willing to be that person? It changes a closed human rights situation into something that’s globally owned by a community. Revolutionary. Not small circles. Definitely online.

I’m interested in people who sustain through what seems like unbelievably incredible odds and through what practice has allowed them to transform in spaces that are so horrific. Generally people who do ongoing work in genocide, for example.

I was reading about this hospital in Afghanistan that’s in the center of a war zone. People in that hospital may not have a sitting practice, but they have a practice. What amazed me is that these people were not hopeless despite what they were seeing.

XC: What’s your practice?

MM: I do both meditation and dance. I was doing meditation and yoga, but I switched to dance about a year ago.

I dance in community at a place called ODC [Oberlin Dance Collective]. It’s a dance center out of San Francisco that does choreographed dance. It’s the most body positive, age, gender, race inclusive place I’ve ever been where people are using their bodies and their souls in a transformative way.

XC: Why did you stop doing yoga?

MM: Something happened when I was doing yoga, breathing and moving from pose to pose. [With dance] I wake up in the morning and I think, “I want to dance.” Maybe as Engage grew, and the pressure grew, I got to just be in freedom with dance. It’s really changed my presence in my body and changed my meditation, because, this is going to sound strange, I think I was meditating with my lungs and my stomach.

I think because of my life history I didn’t feel safe in all areas of my body, and I think that dance has helped me move some of that energy. It wasn’t a planned practice, but I’m fiercely committed to it and my meditation. Because of it, I feel like I can meditate in my hand or that my meditation is not as closed, the boundaries of it aren’t as closed. I practice usually about an hour a day, when I go on vacation I don’t practice.

XC: How do you bring practice–the results of practice–to work?

MM: Presence. I think that’s the first one and breathing through and way.

This is going to sound strange, when I started meditating for longer amounts of time–there was a time period when I was that 5-minute girl–but I made a commitment to deeper, longer periods of meditation so now when something comes at me it’s like the bullet [in The Matrix], it never actually comes to me. I look at it and I say to myself, “Oh, that’s fear, oh that’s somebody’s reaction of anger, or they’re having a reaction of separation, or they’re having a reaction that I can feel and I don’t know what it is.” But [the reaction] doesn’t actually come into my body. Not that I don’t carry anything, but there are a lot of things I’m able to look at and people will say to me, “Oh, I’m sorry for this.” And I don’t even remember the conversation because it would have to come in.

It’s not that I love sitting, because I don’t. I wish I did. I’m not that person. But I love the sense of–I love being free of more stuff.

XC: An hour a day is a big commitment for something you don’t like.

MM: I do it in chunks, not all in one sit. And it’s a predominate practice, same with dance. The more I’ve given myself freedom around predominance of practice instead of being saying, “Why didn’t you do it today?” Especially when I just spent three days in Bodega [Bay], in Napa drinking wine–I did not get up and meditate. That was not on the list, and that’s okay.

I came back [from vacation] last night and there was this voice [in my head]: You could catch up. You could meditate. You could be good. And I was like, “Uh-oh, it’s the you- could-be-good voice. Definitely not. Watching a movie. See you later.”

But I also think that if you’re in social change, you’re required to dedicate yourself to tools and practices that can get you free because your job is to help people and institutions get free. And if you’re not doing that, it would be like a runner for the Olympics who does not get up and practice. So when people say to me, “How do you find the time? You’re so busy.” I consider it a muscle I need for social change.

And I spent a lot of years, you can ask people, being triggered and creating all sorts of drama in coalitions and relationships, some of which I’m still apologizing for. Anyone who met me before a spiritual path–Yes, I am deeply sorry, and the only thing I can do is 1) be a practitioner and 2) really encourage others. I will pay for people to go to Landmark or retreats or whatever because we have to get free.

And I really think it was Taj  [Executive Director & Founder of Movement Strategy Center] who saw that part of me when everyone else hated me [she laughs]. He said, “I believe that there’s a person inside of you who is more loving, who is more compassionate, who is more movement building.” He really stood by that when I couldn’t see it–as an organizer, not as a friend. “I believe this is in you. You’re a great leader, and you had some stuff happen to you in your childhood. Guess what, gotta work that out. You’re going to get triggered more often than others, and you’re going to be able to hear others who’ve been in pain more. Those are the gifts and the curse that you got.”

So limit the curse, expand the gift.

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