Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task. ~William James

Friday, February 4, 2011

Back From the Jungle

A week ago yesterday morning, I was on a plane, traveling to my appointed rendezvous with lions.  (See my previous post On the Road Again. . . With Trepidation.)  At the urging of my children (who seem to be doing their share of urging lately, at least of me), I decided to suspend all other commitments and activities while at the three-day Ntosake training, including blogging.  So I have not yet reported on the experience.

As I wrote earlier, the Gamaliel Foundation identifies the term "Ntosake" as "South African," and cites its meaning as "She who walks with lions and carries her own things."  My quick and dirty research reveals some minor disagreement about the word's source, and spelling.  One site claims that the writer Ntozake Shange*, named Paulette Williams at birth, took her chosen name from the Zulu, “Ntozake” meaning “she who comes with her own things” and “Shange” meaning “she who walks like a lion.”  Contemporary American Women Poets:  An A-to-Z Guide agrees about the meaning of her name, but doesn't specify the source.  Black Baby gives the meaning of Ntosake as "She who walks with lions."  The Translation Workplace, like the Gamaliel usage, combines both meanings as pertaining to Ntosake alone, and speculates that its origin is Swahili.   

But whatever the linguistic parsing I might be distracted to apply as I work up my nerve to write about my three days with the women of Ntosake, the real question is what happened there, and how it changed me, or didn't.  

I spent a couple of days online searching for "cover" as I pondered what to say.  I ran into all sorts of stories about the Gamaliel Foundation, its ties to Barack Obama, and its supposed "whackjob" politics and ideology.  None of that is of particular interest to me, since I have been working within "the network" for a number of years now, along with members of my congregation, and those right-wing concerns are not mine.

I was, however, intrigued by some fairly deeply buried insider controversy about the training methods of the organization.  And this is because of my reactions to the approach taken with me and the thirty-some women with whom I attended the most recent Ntosake training.

I had managed for several years to avoid "weeklong," the theoretically more comprehensive program in which all Gamaliel-affiliated leaders are expected to participate.  I have a background as a paid community organizer, extending over a four-year period in my twenties.  My social work undergraduate program and my master's in urban and regional planning with a concentration in social planning both included extensive coursework in community organization and the Saul Alinsky model that is the basis of Gamaliel Foundation congregation-based organizing.  And I have been working with my local organization for years, and been in positions of significant leadership.  Additionally, my life circumstances during this period precluded investing the money, and more particularly the time required to travel to attend.  My organizer gave me a "pass."

But Ntosake takes place over a long weekend; my life has changed a bit; I was invited to go along by a good friend.  And I was just plain curious.  I was especially caught by the notion of training designed by women, and for women, to empower us as women.  

My enthusiasm for the event foundered, however, on the rocks of agitation

As practiced within Gamaliel, and other Alinsky-inspired community organizing groups, agitation involves confrontation and challenge, in an attempt to draw out an individual's "self-interest," and to push her or him to attain "clarity," as a prerequisite to building a powerful public life.  All good, yes?

In notes for the brochure for the October 2010 Supported Life Institute's 24th Annual Conference for which she was a keynote speaker, Mary Gonzalez, Western Regional Director of the Gamaliel Foundation, and hands-down the best of my Ntosake trainers, had this to say about agitation and its intended fruit:

Frederick Douglass, the famous abolitionist, said: “If there is no
struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom & yet
depreciate agitation … want crops without plowing up the ground, they
want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the
awful roar of its many waters … Power concedes nothing without a
demand. It never did and it never will.” 
The purpose of your path must be to build power and make a
demand that will bend the political will to do what is just.
Rev. Dennis Jacobsen, in his book Doing Justice:  Congregations and Community Organizing, writes of his memorably uncomfortable public agitation by Greg Galluzzo, Gamaliel's director, and how it ultimately strengthened his work, and made him more effective.  But he also points out that
Relationship is a prerequisite of agitation.  I have no right to agitate people I do not know.  If I don't know what their self-interests are, who they are, what potentiality they have, I am in no position to agitate them to live out their vision for their lives. . . An agitator is trying to create community, build an organization, raise up leaders.  
And further,
Agitation does not leave people hanging.  It honors the valuable gifts that they bring.  It summons them to release those gifts in service of their vision for their lives.  And it connects them to a community, such as a church or a congregation-based community organization, where their gifts can be actualized and their leadership developed.
sine qua non of saintliness.  It is also a difficult skill to be learned by those who enjoy running over other people.  A balancing act is required here.  As Che Guevara said, "One must be hard, but without losing tenderness."
Suffice it to say that some of my experience last weekend, and that of my sisters in the circle, fell a bit short of  Che's standard.  Some of our trainers might do well to review Rev. Jacobsen's text.  And I would venture to say that most, if not all of us, are still digesting what took place.  (See Eric Fretz's overall favorable account of his time at Gamaliel weeklong training for description of typical interactions.) 

The claim is made that this training approach, which some in my acquaintance have likened to tactics abandoned long ago by Marxist-Leninist cadres, the Black Panthers, and Wernard Erhard's EST training, is responsible for the substantial growth of women's leadership within Gamaliel, and in other national organizations. The jury is still out on my cohort of women.  I have reason to question how forthright we will be in sharing our Ntosake stories.

I did bring home a clearer sense of where I want to go in my organization, and what I will have to change in myself to get there.  And a couple of pretty deep scratches from my time with the lions.

* Shange is best known for her choreopoem "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf," recently adapted into a motion picture by Tyler Perry.


  1. Hey, Just a note on the name. When some of our Ntosake trainers did this training IN South Africa, it was noted that while we had Americanized the meaning, it was essentially the same, AND there was no consistent spelling BUT the meaning was for the most part the same. For the women of South African it seemed to be a "you say toe-may-toe, I say toe-mah-toe" kind of a thing. I'm glad you were there. I hope you get to week-long soon. ---Susan

  2. It is great to see the work you are doing on the Blog. I was at NTOSAKE with you, and you are right...In that there is no telling how deeply we have been changed by the training. Great trainers/stories/voices.