Commonweal Looks Ahead at A Changing World
by Oren Slozberg
Since 1975, Commonweal has touched the lives of thousands of people, and worked tirelessly to improve the health of our communities, our culture, and our planet. Working as a loose fabric of programs—now more than 20 of them—we have empowered visionary leaders to do their best and most creative work, while holding them in community administratively and structurally. The results have impacted many constituencies—from people with cancer to doctors, to firefighters, to under-served urban youth. A full list of Commonweal’s programs can be found on our website. It is an impressive list to review, even for veteran Commonweal supporters and Board members, and reminds us of the work and visionary thinking done by our program directors and staff over the years resulting in real-world impact in the many areas of our work.
After 45 years of dedicated, consistent, high-energy work, what will be next? Will an organizational model established half a century ago hold in the half-century ahead? How will the changing needs of our planet and its communities be met? How will the changing face of cultural, political, and scientific leadership be reflected and enabled in this beloved organization?
This vision document is an opportunity to explore how Commonweal’s work and structures have evolved, and how we anticipate those changes to continue and be held. Commonweal is deeply rooted. It has been able to weather the winds of time and draw forth nourishment even in the parched earth of current culture. Commonweal continues to reach, always pulling toward the light, blossoming in new and unexpected ways, and producing fruit that is sometimes sweet and always sustaining.
A Different World
On March 2, I submitted a vision document to the Commonweal Board, detailing the process for building the organization’s resilience in program, leadership, and funding by 2022. But the world has changed dramatically since March 2. The COVID-19 pandemic changed the health, work, and personal lives of everyone around the globe. Our county and state shelter-in-place orders emptied our offices, caused cancellation of onsite programs such as the Cancer Help Program and Power of Hope youth camp, and eliminated all retreat center rentals for the foreseeable future. Commonweal and program staff have been working remotely, some even furloughed. Against the backdrop of these significant changes, the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the national sense of outrage elevated the need to prioritize social justice and anti-racist principles in any work that we do.
Commonweal demonstrated its agility in quickly adapting to all these new circumstances. Our Healing Circles and Visual Thinking Strategies programs moved on line, connecting to new communities that we could not have imagined reaching. We started a program called Sanctuary as an online version of the Cancer Help Program. Our Beyond Conventional Cancer Treatments program, the Collaboration on Health and the Environment and Because Health all dove right in to develop new resources for people affected by COVID. The Omega and Resilience programs are now focusing on COVID through the lens of the poly-crisis. The new Earth Lineage Project, a program in development, is working to provide space for people under 40 to explore in an intergenerational setting what meaning and connection may look like in a post-COVID world.
Other work has continued with deepened urgency or in new form. We found new pathways to fund a shelter for refugees in Tijuana; we are re-envisioning our retreat center for the period in which we can’t host groups; permaculture classes continue with small groups on site; and the New School moved to webinar format and featured a regular Friday webinar with Michael.
What Makes Commonweal Commonweal?
Commonweal’s work is guided by a deep trust in the kindness of the heart, the wisdom of the mind, and the commitment of the hand. Under Michael Lerner’s leadership and vision, Commonweal evolved into a stable, enduring and effective organization. In looking at its work to date, several key themes consistently emerge:
Healing. When Michael Lerner first imagined Commonweal, he now-famously envisioned it as a place for “healing ourselves and healing the planet.” The centrality of healing—both as an overt programmatic objective and as an underlying current present in all programs—has remained a constant throughout the life of Commonweal. The work of healing our bodies and spirits started with the Cancer Help Program and expanded to Bay Area Young Survivors (BAYS), Healing Circles, and Healing Yoga.
Even our environmental health programs were inspired by our work with cancer, as the links between environmental toxins and cancer became clear. Even today, the Collaborative on Health and the Environment (CHE), Because Health, the Biomonitoring Resource Center, and our other environmental health programs are founded in principles of healing, although their work is primarily research oriented.
Justice. Commonweal grew out of Full Circle, a residential center for children coming out of the juvenile justice system, co-founded by Michael Lerner. The concern for justice is part of Commonweal’s DNA, reflected in programs like the Juvenile Justice program, Gift of Compassion, Power of Hope youth camp, the Fall Gathering, and the Humane Prison Hospice Project. Commonweal continues to strive to employ a social justice lens in its environmental health efforts, advocacy work, and gatherings.
Manifestation of Vision. Commonweal never set out to develop scores of disparate programs over the years. Instead, entrepreneurial leaders with skill and vision have come to us, and Commonweal has made it its business to incubate and support them in their work. Providing fertile soil for entrepreneurial and creative visionaries remains core to our model and will continue with us into our future. It is this quality that gives us the organizational flexibility to respond to emergent needs, such as our current work in Mexico with immigrant refugees or our work supporting victims during the 2017 Sonoma County wildfires.
Guiding Values for the Coming 50 years
As we look ahead toward the next 50 years, we tried to identify possible themes that could weave through Commonweal. The continuing and emerging themes from our work and conversation that are most critical are:
Healing. Today a healing function or intent runs through almost all of our programs practically without exception. Healing from cancer and grief; healing societal wounds and social inequities; healing the damage done by medical or legal education and corporate work environments; amplifying healing through permaculture, food and farming and the sheer force of creativity. Healing is a core value at Commonweal since the beginning, and one that will continue to drive every choice we make.
Resilience. We live in a region and a world marked by environmental and infrastructural risks. The North Bay has seen – and will continue to see – annual wildfire threats, with associated risks to the electrical grid. And this year we have been introduced to life under global pandemic, with its threats to community life, mental health, supply chains, and medical care. Commonweal has begun to dig into the question of resilience and preparedness at many levels. We have begun to look at what climate change and other global challenges might look like, and what role we could play, both as a regional hub and as a network of programs addressing health, environment, and culture.
Diversity and Justice. Through our Fall Gatherings and other cultural convenings and initiatives, Commonweal has, over the past several years, developed a broader and more diverse community of stakeholders and leaders. These include a growing number of leaders from communities of color as well as young leaders doing a range of meaningful work. Being of service to communities of color is an important area of growth for Commonweal. This growth involves real exchange: on one hand making our current programs and models accessible and offering them to new communities. And on the other hand, actively listening to the articulated needs of communities of color to explore how Commonweal can help meet them.
A Global Community. In the last few months we learned firsthand that our constituency extends far beyond the Bay Area. As COVID forced our programs to become virtual, we suddenly experienced the influx of an international audience into several of our programs. While there will, we hope and expect, be a return to programming on our physical land which mostly serves our adjacent communities, our global reach through online programming is now a permanent part of Commonweal.
An Urban Community. Another growing edge for Commonweal is the call to bring our work to urban settings. How do we help nurture healing and resilience work in a diverse urban environment? As Commonweal expands to new locations, it might include a physical expansion into urban areas, offering programming in communities that would not have traveled to West Marin. Our expansion into urban areas will be accompanied by deepening our partnership with local community organizations.
A Visioning Community. Typically, organizations doing good work have strong relationships with other players in their specific fields, but not necessarily outside of them. Commonweal, however, through its community of programs and program directors, has the opportunity to increasingly offer leaders and staff of projects a chance to be held in – and inspired by – this interdisciplinary community of changemakers.
For instance, what insights of permaculture might be surprising and relevant in the quest for juvenile justice reform? Outside of a mutually caring and nurturing community like Commonweal, it is unlikely that question would be asked, or the resultant, unexpected synergies emerge. Current collaborative opportunities, such as the Commonweal Fall Gathering, allow such cross-cultivation to happen among inspired leaders beyond Commonweal’s own programs. There is a continuing value here around breaking out of our typical thought frameworks through intentional community.
We have been increasingly engaging in partnerships with like-minded organizations. For instance, Healing Circles Global now includes eight organizational partners. The Retreat Center Collaborative, co-founded by Commonweal and the Fetzer Institute, has more than 100 retreat centers collaborating on program development, re-envisioning, and developing resilience plans.
Deepening Organizational Leadership. Commonweal is moving to broaden our shared intergenerational leadership model by hiring staff in areas where we lack expertise, inviting program directors to develop cross-program thinking and activities, and engaging the Board and Advisory Circle in developing new programs.
Next Steps in Implementation
These values, taken together, form the foundation of the next step in Commonweal’s evolution. They will guide us as we consider new programming at Commonweal, as we explore new locations for our work, and as we invite new Board and Advisory Circle members into our thinking community.
New Program Development. Often the right people show up to do the work they are called to do, and that work aligns with Commonweal’s values. As we increasingly weave principles of resilience, healing, and collaboration into our work, these principles will become meaningful in screening new programs. And while our programs are global in impact, we hope to maintain the hand-made quality that is the signature of a Commonweal program.
Commonweal will also begin to seek out new leaders from underrepresented communities who are doing such work, finding ways to support them in that work’s development: e.g., potentially offering stipends to promising program directors to bring them into the Commonweal community. We will nurture and support new programming in several ways including changing our fee structure to make it easier to start a new program at commonweal, providing mentorship, and providing strategic support and fundraising counsel to new visionaries.
Multidimensional Governance Model. Commonweal is developing a multidimensional governance model. That is, a model of overlapping and intersecting circles—like planetary orbits, each with its sphere of responsibility and influence. The circles that make up our dimensions of governance include our Core Management Staff, the Board of Directors, a newly created Advisory Circle, our Community of Program Directors, and all of our communities. These circles will intersect and interact as needed. We will create specific programming to bring them all together, such as the Commonweal Open House in the spring, the Fall Gathering, and the winter holiday celebration.
Sites and Locations. Commonweal has been on the site on the old RCA radio station since 1976. We signed a 50-year lease in December 1979 with the National Park Service. Throughout the past 45 years, thousands of people have had transformational experiences on this land. Our work is deeply identified with the Bolinas site.
We are all aware of the role that this magical land—off the Continental Plate, formed by crazy geology, stewarded by the Coast Miwok, and now in our care—plays in holding, grounding, and setting a tone for so much of our work. This land is at the heart of Commonweal and hopefully will continue to be there for another 50 years.
We are also exploring the idea of finding another site, in addition to the Bolinas location. This will allow us to broaden our reach, increase our resilience, and provide new opportunities for programs and staff. We hope to find another inspiring place where we can grow our retreat and permaculture work.
It’s possible that we may explore the opportunity to partner with a community group to put down roots in an urban setting. Such an expansion could potentially be housed in an urban retreat center or a shared community space for circles and other workshops. This could increase access for urbanites and underserved communities who might have the resources to travel to Bolinas.
Or, it’s possible that we could find a retreat center in a new community, in an area with climate resilience and plenty of magic, water, and trees. Alternatively, we could find a large parcel of undeveloped land that has the potential to house a retreat center, staff housing, a permaculture school and farming capacity.
Commonweal in Motion
We are an organization in motion. It is our commitment to be guided by our continued learnings and by an ongoing strategic thinking process—not by a static written document. This narrative will continue to evolve as organizational, community, and global circumstances change.
In 2013, when Michael invited me to join the Commonweal community, I asked for six months to decide. I knew that taking on a leadership role at Commonweal was a lifetime commitment, and I wanted to be sure that the decision was conscious, responsible, committed, and forward-looking. After four years I became executive director, with similar discernment. Now, as the future unveils itself, I look forward to working with our community, management team and Board to guide and support this vision.