Episode 008- Elizabeth Rabia Roberts

Bearing Witness

Episode Summary

Elizabeth Rabia Roberts, Ed.D, is an internationally known citizen activist and women’s advocate. She is MaShieka — spiritual guide and teacher—in the International Sufi Way, and a lifelong student and teacher in nondual Buddhism. She has spent nearly 50 years working as a change agent for environmental and social justice, and the past 26 years working in 17 countries using “Bearing Witness” as a model for transformative action. Bearing Witness is a process that has grown out of the teachings and inspiration of many people (Bernie Glassman, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Witness for Peace, and Elias Amidon, to name a few). It has deep spiritual roots — but is being newly adapted to improve the effectiveness of working with transformative change. Rabia has slept in tents, bamboo huts, ashrams, church basements, hotels, the occasional palace, and the guest rooms of friends around the world. She describes her work as an exercise of happiness and optimism – something that you can feel palpably when talking to Rabia.

In this episode of The Peacebuilding Podcast: Bridging the Divide, Rabia shares a specific story of Bearing Witness, in a multi-party conflict playing out in the national park system between native people, environmental activists, loggers, the police and others in the then Burma where she spent many years with her husband Elias Avidon.

About the process of Bearing Witness, Rabia says, “No one person, organization, or political party holds a monopoly on what will make a healthy future for us all — either at the planetary or community level. Perhaps nothing is more important today than crossing the boundaries that seem to separate us and learn to think like an interconnected system.”

“Our challenge is to loosen our attachment to our personal or group agendas so that we can begin to sense what is trying to emerge from the larger whole. . . .”
“This does not mean we excuse greed or need to capitulate on what is true—i.e. pretend that a river is not polluted when it clearly is—but we must continue to dialogue. Future leaders will be those who have the collaborative skills and spiritual maturity to bear witness to the totality of what is.”

Rabia describes the principles of Bearing Witness as “appear(ing) quite simple—you may have heard them before from a spiritual teacher, or in your church—but like most important things in life (i.e., marriage, child rearing, committing to a spiritual path), they are not easy. Whether you work in peace building, education, community development, corporate training, or simply want to improve your family dynamics, the process of bearing witness can be helpful.
• Encounter the other; show up; take the plunge
• Ask caring questions that open the heart of the “other”
• Practice the art of Deep Listening, without judgment
• Understand techniques for setting aside one’s own beliefs and attitudes
• Learn to guide meetings without driving one’s own agenda
• Learn the difference between fixing, helping, and serving
• See ways to bring forth the greater whole that is emerging
• Perceive what is ‘yours’ to do, and when action is ready to emerge

In 1999 Rabia and her husband, sold their home and undertook a deliberate period of homelessness as part of an international pilgrimage of direct service and teaching. In 2002, while working with a peace group in Iraq, Rabia was elected the first American delegate to the Global Non-Violent Peaceforce. Since then she has worked organizing and teaching active non-violence in Burma, Indonesia, the tribal lands of Southeast Asia, Iraq, Syria, Israel/Palestine, Brazil, Afghanistan, Pakistan and most recently Standing Rock.
Please tune in to this wise soul whose upbeat spirit is simply contagious, and path of activism and adventure compelling.

Show Notes

* Susan explains how Rabia’s leadership excites her in a chaotic time in the United States after the election of Donald Trump

* The niche of the podcast is strategies towards building common ground and not political activism or spiritual practice, not that it doesn’t support both

* Lines between activism, spiritual practice and neutral interventions can be blurred

* Rabia describes her work as an “exercise in happiness”

* Elizabeth Rabia Robert’s bio
* Internationally known citizen activist and women’s advocate

* MaShieka- spiritual guide and teacher in the international Sufi way

* Non-dual Buddhism

* Social and environmental justice issues

* Extensive and creative travels around the world

* Works on Buddhist retreats and women’s empowerment programs throughout the world

* Referred to as a “Global Grandmother” in Afghanistan

* Earlier social activism in Selma, Alabama, USA with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

* MA in Liberation Theology from Marquette University

* Youth coordinator on the White House Conference on Children and Youth

* Assistant Program Director National Public Radio

* Special consultant for John D. Rockefeller III on Women’s empowerment, population, and development

* Doctorate from Harvard University * Influenced by Catholic priest Fr. Thomas Berry and Buddhist teacher Joanna Macy

* 1999, Rabia and husband sold home and undertook a deliberate period of homelessness as an international pilgrimage of service

* 2002 peace group in Iraq- first American delegate to the Global Nonviolent Peaceforce (started by Mel Duncan)

* Teaching active nonviolence in Asia and the Middle * New project: “Waking Up Together: Feminine Wisdom and Global Transformation”

* Deep respect for the activating power of the receptive and a deep faith in the capabilities and intuition of women of all ages and cultures

* “Love and Dust: On the Road from Selma to Kabul”

* Recently, supporting Native Americans at Standing Rock

* Committed early to social justice and adventure

* Rabia says the first part of her life was more “standard,” going to Harvard and being deeply influenced by living on welfare for a year

* Got to the place where she wanted to generate peace: What would it be like if I just showed up and began? Talking to local activists? This encouraged her and Elias, her husband, to get up and travel the world. They both had many concrete, transferrable skills.

* Went on a retreat and told her husband that she wanted to get on the road and he said yes! Sold house and agree to spend years on the road.

* She dreamed to be a peace and social justice activist on the road. She wanted to be the source of this peace. Peace comes from within us, and Rabia thought peace was more intimate than what she had been doing for the last 20 years (foundation proposals, planning, evaluations).

* Went to friends and asked for their support. Elias and her had good reputations and people trusted them with quite a bit of money.

* Gave out small grants totaling up to half a million dollars to people around the world through their foundation: “flow funding”

* 7 year story

* Came to call what they doing “bearing witness” after working with MLK

* Bear witness is show up in the world- intimate work

* How do you become part of a system and generate healing relationships

* Invited to Burma to help start training activists

* Invited by Right livelihood award winner Sulak Sivaraksa who had met Rabia by coming to a school in Colorado Rabia and husband had started to train people in Deep Ecology

* Sivaraksa wanted something similar in his region for liberal monks and tribal people

* Many activists were attempting to persuade the Thai government to preserve land for national parks, but there were many native peoples living on this land and had never been consulted. These activists were mostly urban and did not know the tribal people and had never been in the jungle.

* They began to move around by using a network of activists doing similar work

* Susan reads Rabia’s description of “Bearing Witness”

* All sides of most disagreements tend to use the same tactics for change, and they are not successful

* People spend time meeting with others who hold the same opinions as us, this is not productive in our diverse world

* Bearing witness is showing up to where the suffering is. Show up with “unknowing” and no judgement. The exact opposite of a plan.

* Intention is to be of service, but not to have goals.

* In this story, she didn’t know anything about the tribal people of Burma. Led a “vision quest” with activists in Burma into the jungle to interact with tribal people. Began to think of herself as a pilgrim: the journey is the building of a spiritual friendship.

* King Arthur story: ask a question

* Asks the tribe: what can we do for you?

* The tribal people wanted their story heard.

* Elias (husband) agreed to bring people back to hear their story. They are the protectors of the forest, and if becomes a National Park, it will be destroyed.

* Begin “solidarity walks,” bringing about 1,000 people to hear this story

* Elias and university students created a series of ecological maps of the forest and had a “Forest Festival” to have the tribal people meet and interact with civil society groups * Bearing witness (steps learned in Burma) (Learn more here)

* Meet the other, you show up

* Ask questions that open the heart of the other

* Practice deep listening without judgement

* Set aside one’s own belief

* Run meetings without pushing your own agenda

* Learn the difference between fixing, helping, and serving

* See ways to bring forth the greater whole that is emerging

* Perceive what is yours to do and where action is needed

* What did the people think of you?

* The people didn’t know what to think of them because they weren’t typical tourists. They became friends with people everyone respected. “It isn’t as hard as maybe it’s sounding.”

* Did this in the Middle East

* When you ask people what they want, people open up.

* Effects of getting the tribal stories out?

* Disputes around the forest area are resolved

* Signs about how to behave in the forest

* Document made for the King- they gave their land to the King with the understanding the they would stay on the land and protect it

* Rabia and Elias brought attention to the people and problem

* This attention has kept the police at bay because they were working with the loggers and destroying the forest

* Vision Quest/Solidarity Walks

* Not protests, walks based off Native American teachings

* Brought Native Americans to Burma every year to participate. Native Americans to the tribal people: “Don’t lose this land and don’t lose this battle”

* The people stepped up (this doesn’t always happen because there was not an evident threat, as there was in Syria and Afghanistan)

* In Thailand and Burma, the forest monks travel to teach Buddhist practices to villagers.

* Vision Quests are familiar to westerners, a way to learn from the forest

* Rabia also did this in the Middle East, specifically Syria

* Before 9/11, Rabia and Elias had contacts in Syria and heard the problems of the people

* Confused by U.S. leadership because it did not seem to be responding to the people of the Middle East. Who were they listening to? Wrote papers on what was going to happen between Sunnis and Shi’ias if the U.S. entered Iraq

* Went to Afghanistan with a group, Code Pink

* The women in urban Afghanistan did not want the U.S. troops out because they were afraid of being killed. Code Pink was not saying what Rabia was hearing from the urban women. The rural women did not care if troops were in the country or not.

* Rabia able to get funding for a women’s organization between Pakistan, India, and Afghanistan

* Wanted the military to take off their uniforms to speak to a large group of women, and they wouldn’t. This was a major road block. Peace gets difficult at the high government level.

* Rabia reiterates what “bearing witness” means for her

* This is going to take more time than we think. This will be messy, but it’s the only way to let people understand their diversity.

* Rabia was not giving advice or helping, because this creates a power dynamic. Only the people in conflict have their answers.

* At Standing Rock, the parties could not engage with each other because the people for the pipeline would not collaborate. This is another roadblock.

* No one tried to reconcile black and white people in the U.S. south which is why these racial tensions are not yet resolved

* It is essential to collaborate and communicate in every movement. People have to let go of their plans. We just don’t know the answers. We have to listen.

* Challenge is to lose our personal agenda

* “Applied Systems Thinking” course Rabia teaches

* How to believe that you are part of a larger whole

* Interconnection: no one knows how to see interconnected relationships

* This is the opposite of what we’re taught (we are talk persuasion)

* We will not change by street activism, we have to get inside and see the relationships

* Advice:

* Learn to serve the whole of the situation

* Get out of the hierarchy. All trained to be part of a hierarchy, and this must be broken.

* Don’t be a fixer. Fixing assuming problems.

* Most of us have a humility problem

* Might be healed through training or spiritual process

* Getting welcomed in by multiple sides

* Still have not figured this out in Middle East

* You need some buy-in from people. People need to be willing to work with you.

* Systems thinking: learn to trust that there are larger relationships than you, and you have to surrender to how that’s happening. Enter a negotiation thinking that you don’t know the answers.

* Women are wired to listen and receive.

* Women need to be empowered to be feminine, they will be much more successful in their work as peacebuilders

* Difference between letting women in and letting the feminine in

* Embrace the feminine in these situations. Insist on relationships and listening.

* Brené Brown: TED Talk on Vulnerability
* Bearing witness is misunderstood: this is for all of us, not just for those working for justice

* We think our expertise is more important than our humanity

* Primary focus for political leaders needs to show up to suffering

* Why do people go into service?

* Not because it’s broken, but because it’s holy. This is a sacred tasks. Healing a conflict is an intimate act and can’t be done from afar.

* You don’t need expertise, you need how to be a grown up.

* Put yourself in the place of the other– it works.

* Everything important is hard

* In the U.S., people are taught that they have all the answers

* Rabia feels mostly hopeful.

* Advice for young people: How do you get involved?

* It’s not easy

* Fundraising all the time and don’t get paid for her work

* Younger people will have an easier time raising money if they have the heart to show up

* Get your community to support you.

* Wouldn’t spend too much more money on education– get out into the world somehow.

* Rabia started a school for women: HerStory, the world from a woman’s point of view. * http://wakinguptogether.org/

* Under teachings, people can learn about this program

* Trying to take women progressives into not progressive areas of the U.S. to hear stories of people in different parts of the country.

"The best way to predict the future is to create it".

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