Helping others is the ultimate political act. Lindsay Kyte profiles five people who are changing society from the ground up.
Rights for Domestic Workers
Ai-jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance
Ai-jen Poo has dedicated her life to caring for those who care. She’s spent the last twenty years organizing and advocating for the people, mostly women, who work in other people’s homes caring for what Poo calls “the most precious elements of our lives—our kids, our aging loved ones, our homes. Some people call the workforce ‘domestic workers.’ We call it ‘the work that makes other people’s work possible.’”
Poo, who is director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and co-director of Caring Across Generations, describes herself as “an aspiring Buddhist.” She says her path was inspired by seeing her mother’s constant work for others, which was invisible and not regarded as “real work.”
After being involved with women’s organizations in college, Poo volunteered at a domestic-violence shelter for Asian immigrant women, where she realized how many people in our society lack basic physical and economic security.
“Women kept coming in and out of the shelter because they would keep trying to leave their abuser,” says Poo, “but their jobs weren’t living-wage jobs and had high levels of insecurity. The cards were stacked against them in their struggle to support themselves and their children. I knew we had to look at these important, but undervalued, jobs and figure out how to make them good jobs, so these women could live violence-free lives and rebuild while taking care of their children.”
In 1996, Poo began organizing poor and working-class Asian immigrant and refugee communities in New York City. In 2000, she founded Domestic Workers United (DWU), an organization of Caribbean, Latina, and African nannies, housekeepers, and elder caregivers in New York advocating for power, respect, and fair labor standards.
Everyone needs the same support and security.
In 2010, DWU’s support was instrumental in the passage of the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights in New York State. It was the first American law to guarantee domestic workers basic labor protections such as overtime pay, three days’ paid leave each year, and legal protection from harassment and discrimination. DWU helped form the National Domestic Workers Alliance in 2007, and in 2010 Poo became its director.
The next year, Poo helped launch Caring Across Generations, a national movement of families, caregivers, people with disabilities, and aging Americans that works to ensure that both families and caregivers receive the support and protection they need.
“If I needed home care for my mom who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, I would need economic and systemic support to manage that care while working,” says Poo. “And the caregivers doing that work would need a living wage, benefits, and economic security.”
Families employing caregivers and the caregivers themselves are all working toward the same goal, says Poo. “Everyone needs the same support and security. Families need care, and caregivers need to be able to perform at their highest potential. So we have to enhance the profession.”
Poo says that Buddhist philosophy and practice have helped her stay present to constant change, both demographically and economically. “Accepting change helps us stay ahead of the curve in terms of strategies and solutions,” she says. “It’s being present to seeing the opportunities for positive outcomes and looking for places where human interests can connect and align. These are things I’ve learned through reading Thich Nhat Hanh, Pema Chödrön, Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg, and many others.”
Poo’s staff retreats include exercises to stay centered and connected and to encourage resilience. “This work of caring for older adults, supporting people with disabilities, and caring for children has such tremendous pressure and responsibility,” she says. “If a caregiver is not feeling centered and nourished in her own presence, it’s very challenging. We have to figure out how to really care for these people.”
Growing Food, Growing Community
Doria Robinson of Urban Tilth
As the former executive director and now a collective member of Urban Tilth in Richmond, California, Doria Robinson has spent the last eight years teaching people about food.
Urban Tilth, which was founded in 2005, supports community agriculture and works toward a more sustainable, healthy, and just food system. “We model microbusinesses around preparing food and the production of food, and we teach sustainable living in the city,” says Robinson. “We primarily work with people of color and very low-income people. Everyone involved lives in Richmond or surrounding neighborhoods.”
Urban Tilth starts from the ground up, literally, by restoring soil. “Often the land we get access to is not in good shape,” says Robinson. “It’s been completely neglected, and the life in the soil is gone. We use that as an opportunity to show how you can bring life back to things. You don’t have to give up on places—or on people. It’s transformative, seeing how deeply you can restore life.”
Robinson says Urban Tilth is founded on a desire to give people a sense of choice while cultivating community bonds. “There are things that get robbed from you when you’re growing up in a place that’s thought of as poor or violent. We work to restore our community’s capacity to speak and do for ourselves, and not wait for other people to fix our problems or get us jobs. We create the economy we need.”
If you’re engaging with the world, it can trigger you and bring out all of the stuff you try to hide away.
Robinson’s Buddhist values align with this work. “Practice and compassion make a great gardener,” she says. “And you can’t garden well unless you’re mindful, especially if you’re not using chemicals. When you’re working in concert with others, your ultimate goal is everyone moving toward their highest expression of self. Belief systems get articulated through the practice of growing food and growing community.”
As Robinson sees it, a lot of American Buddhism seems to be focused on getting away from the world and reaching some optimum state, but practice isn’t much use if it can only exist in some perfect space, in some perfect form. It’s through challenges, she says, that practice gets real. “If you’re engaging with the world, it can trigger you and bring out all of the stuff you try to hide away.”
Urban Tilth was burglarized this summer, but within ten hours, community members had donated enough tools and money to replace everything. “People said, ‘What you do is so powerful and important, you have to continue,’” says Robinson. “For a community where there isn’t a lot of money or ready resources, we redefined what it means to be rich.”
Urban Tilth lobbies for salad bars in local schools and works with small stores and pop-up farmers’ markets to create more access to healthy food.
“There are 56,000 kids in Richmond whose meals are devoid of healthy fruits and vegetables,” Robinson notes. “We are taking on policy change and systemic change and encouraging nutrition education. We also live in the shadow of an oil refinery, and there’s noise and contamination. People should have access to food without chemicals, and they should be aware of the impact of chemicals in the soil and how it poisons farm workers.”
Urban Tilth “turns people back on to why they care,” says Robinson. “Even if they are poor and struggling, there’s a larger community of people who are going through the same thing. There’s a way we can be active and make choices that are softer on other people and our planet.”
From the Streets to College
Taz Tagore, cofounder of the Reciprocity Foundation
Taz Tagore is not going to get you a job at McDonald’s. While many organizations working with homeless and foster youth are satisfied with helping them find part-time jobs, Tagore believes young people deserve more.
In 2005, Tagore and fellow activist Adam Bucko were collaborating on projects at Covenant House in New York City. “We were seeing that young people were not making a successful transition out of homelessness,” Tagore says. “They were stepping out of the system for a few months, but they’d be back in. Conventional tools weren’t helping, and it was heartbreaking to see.”
That experience gave Tagore and Bucko the courage to start the Reciprocity Foundation, which has pioneered the “Whole Person Approach” to working with homeless and foster youth. The foundation helps young people trust their inner voice through yoga, meditation, holistic counseling, and spiritual retreat. Once they’re ready to connect their inner wisdom to the outer world, the foundation helps them apply to college, find independent housing, cultivate professional skills, and eventually start careers in media, education, social activism, or anything else that inspires them.
We’ve had to be advocates for weaving contemplative practice into social services and proving it was the secret sauce that created healthy transformation.
“We’re not interested in solutions that simply try to work with external conditions,” says Tagore, who now serves as the foundation’s executive director. “We’re interested in uncovering deeper solutions that engage a young person’s mind and heart. They’re much more comprehensive and sustainable solutions because they’re rooted from within that person.”
Tagore says they’ve had to pioneer their own model, often in the face of skepticism. “We’ve had to be advocates for weaving contemplative practice into social services and proving it was the secret sauce that created healthy transformation. Proving it was this approach that creates real and lasting change was a difficult but wonderful challenge for us.”
The first few years of the foundation were difficult. “I had to cash in part of my 401(k), and we felt like we ourselves could become homeless,” says Tagore. “There wasn’t much openness to contemplative, holistic approaches. Back then, people didn’t see how it was going to make a big difference.”
Eventually the effort paid off. “Now our approach is not just an idea,” Tagore says. “It’s been proven with data and statistics and stories. We have become teachers of our methodology. It’s really nice to have gone, in twelve years, from not many people having faith in our ideas to showing others a different set of outcomes that are much more sustainable.”
Tagore, who is a Buddhist teacher, says this work is spiritual practice for her. “It was clear, from a very young age, that I’m here to serve others. I’ve seen so much suffering in youth—trauma that’s psychological or physical or sexual. They feel helpless.
“Buddhism taught me experience is relational to our mind. Depending on our orientation to our experiences, we can either feel overwhelmed and disempowered or we can feel like, ‘Aha, how interesting. By changing my perspective, and practicing mindfulness and compassion, I can shift my experience.’ That’s empowering for someone feeling a lot of pain.”
There’s so much potential for positivity in anger, but many people working with homeless and foster youth are dealing with it as a completely negative situation.
Suffering can be a reason to shut down and get angry, or it can become the spark for compassion, Tagore notes. “There’s so much potential for positivity in anger, but many people working with homeless and foster youth are dealing with it as a completely negative situation. We wanted to provide a space for youth to work with very caring adults and contemplative practices so they could see what’s possible beyond what they’ve already experienced.”
Future plans for the Reciprocity Foundation include forming a leadership collective with graduates from their programs, meditation sessions for incarcerated youth, and connecting to other large social movements such as the LGBT community.
“The engagement of Buddhist practice gives immediate relief,” says Tagore. “That’s unique. There are a lot of other organizations—religious and secular—that offer meals or temporary shelter. But we’re offering peace. That’s profound.”
Helping Hawaii’s Elderly
Rose Nakamura, cofounder of Project Dana
When Rose Nakamura was growing up in Hilo, Hawaii, her parents shared their meals for ten years with a neighbor who was widowed. It was a lesson in giving she never forgot.
“Even a little thing, like a smile or asking someone how they are, can make a big difference in somebody’s life,” says Nakamura.
After teaching health and physical education at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, Nakamura went on to work with international students at Honolulu’s East-West Center, an organization dedicated to strengthening relations among the peoples of Asia, the Pacific, and the United States. In 1989, after twenty-five years as a teacher and mentor there, she retired. But she didn’t retire from helping others.
“My good friend Shim Kanazawa, who’s nationally known for her advocacy, brought up the idea of giving more attention to seniors,” Nakamura recalls. “Social isolation is a huge problem. As people get old, they can’t drive, they can’t go shopping for food, they can’t get to medical appointments.”
With Kanazawa, Nakamura founded Project Dana, an interfaith volunteer program that serves the elderly and disabled to ensure their well-being, independence, and dignity. It’s guided by the Buddhist principle of dana, which means selfless giving and compassion without desire for recognition or reward.
Dana becomes a joy, both to the giver and to the people we serve.
Project Dana is now a coalition of thirty-two churches and temples across Hawaii, with 850 volunteers serving 1,000 people. Volunteers work a total of 50,000 hours annually. It collaborates with more than 150 public and private agencies, and has branches in Japan and California.
“Dana becomes a joy, both to the giver and to the people we serve,” Nakamura says. Project Dana offers home visits, telephone visits, respite care, home-safety assessments, transportation for medical appointments, grocery shopping, religious services, hospital and care-home visits, minor home repairs, and light housekeeping. It also has a Caring for the Caregiver support group and a Persons in Need Fund for seniors.
Nakamura notes that Hawaii leads the nation in life expectancy. That means there is a greater percentage of people with dementia and Alzheimer’s, along with a higher percentage of falls occurring in the home.
“Right now, our priority is effecting positive changes in the home,” she says. “We are very involved in learning more about dementia, forgetfulness, and Alzheimer’s, and we’re trying to increase our fall-prevention and home-safety awareness.”
Nakamura has a special memory of each person she has helped. “There is a woman who lives alone who requested our services around four years ago,” she says. “She didn’t speak English and needed help with shopping. Not many of our volunteers are bilingual, so I responded to her request, and since then I have been shopping for her every week.”
That has grown into a relationship that involves all sorts of different tasks, from reading her mail to her, to finding someone to do her taxes. “I help her in whatever way I can,” says Nakamura.
The more Project Dana grows, the more need Nakamura sees for its services. She is willing to do whatever it takes to see that more people receive help, for, as she says, “Caregiving is everybody’s business.”
“Everyone Is Changed”
Prison volunteer Tyger Blair of the Buddhadharma Sangha
Tyger Blair’s path to prison dharma began when he was mugged at gunpoint. Blair is a member of a Zen community in Oakland that has run a program in San Quentin prison for the last fifteen years. Four years ago, in the aftermath of the mugging, Blair’s sangha helped him work with the anger and terror he was experiencing. After seeing how this experience transformed him, he was inspired to volunteer at the prison.
“It has become one of the most engaging experiences I’ve ever had,” says Blair. “Initially, it was unsettling, because there’s so much processing to go in—so many colors you can’t wear, the checking of so many things, going through big metal detectors and metal doors.”
Now, says Blair, going into San Quentin feels like a respite. “The men are very excited to see us. We do a sitting meditation, a walking meditation, a dharma talk, and then we converse with them.
“It’s reorienting to be in this very brutal and demoralizing system, yet see how the inmates can find a way to stay with it and stay away from perennial suffering,” he says. “They’re very intellectually agile, and their piercing questions get us thinking, how do I answer this effectively? How do I answer this without putting myself above you somehow? They give us an opportunity to think about things in ways we haven’t considered previously.”
The corrections officers also suffer, says Blair. “I realized at some point that I needed to engage them as well. The whole place quells humanity, so it’s important to look at and smile at everyone—not just the men who are incarcerated, but also the men who are the enforcers of this incarceration.” Prison dharma is a collective experience. Guards, inmates, volunteers—everyone is changed.
Blair works as a leadership coach and project manager and acts in local theater. He says all areas of his life are about helping people find their voice. He asks, “How do we deal with huge racial disparities and the violence resulting from these racial disparities—or gender disparities or sexual-orientation disparities?”
Blair says Engaged Buddhism provides ways to relieve suffering. “The prison feels like a war zone,” he says, “and prison dharma gives pathways that aren’t just dark and shadows. The teachings say, yes, your body may be here, but you can still see your world in a different way. You can feel it, live it, walk it in a different way.”
Blair says inmates show him new ways of being in the world and remind him to stay continually engaged. If he visits the prison when he’s feeling angry about a situation in his life or in society, the inmates bring him back to the teachings. Being in the prison reminds Blair how violence begins and is perpetuated.
I have had certain privileges in this lifetime, as far as education and employment opportunities, but San Quentin helps me remember that I am really no different than the inmates.
“When I see another video of another African-American man shot and killed,” says Blair, “I think about how American culture began with a genocide and a brutalizing of people who were brought from another land, the Africans. The prison system is a manifestation of that same system.
“I have had certain privileges in this lifetime, as far as education and employment opportunities, but San Quentin helps me remember that I am really no different than the inmates. It is by the luck of the draw that I do not have the same reality they have.”
Blair sees Buddhism helping to change perceptions on a societal level. “The teachings of Buddhism show us we are one,” says Blair. “We have become so entrenched in the supposed American dream that we have forgotten that we are a village of people that are one. We are here to love and help, and there isn’t any real distinction between us, no matter what we’ve been told.”