Evolutionary Leadership: An Interview with Victor Lee Lewis

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The following is an interview with Victor Lee Lewis (VL) of Oakland, that took place on October 31, 2017, in Joanna Macy’s (JM) home with Molly Brown (MB) attending via Zoom. Founder and Director of the Radical Resilience Institute, Victor is a social justice educator, trainer, and activist.  In this interview, he shares his perspectives on the challenges of acting as evolutionary leaders and social justice leaders in the face of oppression, violence, and trauma. 

MB:  How did you respond to the special issue of Deep Times published last August?

VL:  It’s the same conversation; I just say it in my own way.  And I have a different emphasis. One of those emphases is the way I think about leadership, about transformative leadership, the way I think about social justice leadership. At this moment in history, at this moment of deep time, it has to overlap with evolutionary leadership because to be agents of social change or agents of history at this collision of the arcs of… I think we are in the evolutionary driver’s seat so our leadership has to be evolutionary leadership. The job of this social justice leader is to help our species to evolve. 

The job of this social justice leader is to help our species to evolve.

And that is way beyond justice, way beyond equity and fairness, way beyond reparations, way beyond even restoration. It’s about taking leadership because the whole human family is in a position of being oppressed.

I started my thinking about the themes that the Work That Reconnects takes up back when I was a teenager, so I’ve got probably 40 years of reflection. I got my start from Buckminster Fuller among other people. Anytime he gave a lecture on any topic or presentation or a workshop, he would always start with the whole universe and telescope down to the present moment.

He never made it sound like it’s too cumbersome to start with the whole universe, like “who’s got time for that?”  We don’t have time to not do that, and we can do it quickly using concentrically smaller circles of concern.   But beginning with the whole so that when we engage the challenge of current time and place, we can do so without as grave a risk of ignoring important feedback loops. Because we started with broader contexts and then telescoped in, instead of taking a chunk out of reality and removing things from our field of consideration prematurely.

JM: That’s quite a switch from how—not very long ago and even now in some voices—talk about the “environment” (which is not a word I like to use) may be seen as kind of a dodge of the real issues of racial equity.

If we refuse to see the crisis as evolutionary, I don’t think our vision will be deep enough or long-range enough to bring us through to the other side.

VL: What I would say is the importance of the cosmology. It’s to say, “Okay, this flash point of police brutality and the resurgence of the voices and hearts and minds and hands and struggles of marginalized people of color—especially thoughtful queer women of color– this is a beautiful thing.” What I would suggest is that this struggle between women of color and “black and brown lives matter,” and “queer lives matter,” on the one hand, and the law and order demands of the police with their implicit or explicit bias on the other—these flashpoints are reflective of an evolutionary crisis that we’re in the middle of. And if we refuse to see the crisis as evolutionary, I don’t think our vision will be deep enough or long-range enough to bring us through to the other side.

At the same time, I think that the experience of threat has a tendency to organize our priorities in particular ways. Everything is either seen as a threat or a way to overcome the threat. I think for most of us—either through evolutionary hardwiring, a legacy of our mammal and reptilian ancestors—or through social conditioning—that we lapse into win-lose thinking.

JM: yes, I can see that.

VL: For me, I think it’s an example of win-lose, either-or thinking under extreme pressure. And the hardest thing to do is to maintain an open heart and mind to complexity, under extreme duress, threat, or stress. And that is, I believe, the direction of evolution and transformative leadership.  The resilient, flexible, inspiring, and transformative leader has flexibility in their body, flexibility in their heart, flexibility in their mind and in their vocal chords.

MB: What you were saying is blowing me away: to be able to maintain an open heart and mind to the complexity under extreme duress: that is the challenge of evolutionary leadership.  Is that what you’re saying?

VL: I think it’s the challenge of an evolutionary leader and a social change leader.

MB: Right, same thing.

VL: Because these systemic problems are so complex that if our thinking becomes more schematic and less nuanced in the face of that complexity, we do damage unintentionally, reflexively.

MB: Yes, I think of my distant white relatives who are watching Fox news and coming up with these simplistic explanations: “Oh, it’s the immigrants” or “They are trying to take our guns away.” I’ve experienced people who are doing that, but it’s under duress. That’s the compassionate part that I hear you speaking. It’s your compassion for the duress that people are under.

VL: I’ve been hearing echoes of this in different versions for many years, but the more explicit endorsement of this I got from the great Rev. James Lawson himself. James Lawson was probably the single most important educator in strategic nonviolence during the civil rights movement. He was the key training expert for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee as well as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He said two things that I think are really relevant to the Work That Reconnects and the struggles it is having in transculturalizing itself or intra-culturalizing itself. One thing he said of himself and his colleagues in the 50s was that we never expected that we would finish the struggle in our lifetimes, that we saw this as a long range historical struggle that would be intergenerational. We’re putting something in place and then passing it onto the next generation. So I choose to adopt that from him. That’s  already built into the Deep Time framework and sensibility as well as the many indigenous traditions of our ancestors and future beings.

JM: That gives you enormous patience, the capacity for patience and uncertainty.

 VL: Yes, a capacity for both patience and uncertainty are supported by this. And another thing he said—and it really thrills me to no end—in a single sentence: that principled deeply-thought nonviolent social change is the leading edge of evolution for our species.

Principled deeply-thought nonviolent social change is the leading edge of evolution for our species

JM: He said that?

VL: He did. And I went “I knew it!” But I just so happy to hear you say it.

JM: And that was something that you had sensed or known.

VL: But to have such a stellar figure who has faced tremendous horror and hardship and mean- spiritedness and ugliness, who held space through many life-and-death struggles with many victories and defeats and 60 years later he’s still saying that. He started with Martin Luther King in—I want to say—1957.

JM: So it’s the essential factor in evolution…

VL: The leading edge of evolution of the human species is our capacity to look at impossible repression and violence and to courageously and imaginatively bring compassion and the re-weaving of complex oneness to bear. That’s the hardest thing to do: to proclaim kinship and interdependence in the face off all that ugliness and win-lose thinking.  

But I believe that the revolutionary direction for social activist is not simply to push back.  There are certain conversations we would refuse to have. Strategic nonviolence presupposes the oneness of the human family and won’t argue that point with the enemy. The enemy wants to argue that we are truly separate in some fundamental way and then win some struggle on the basis of their vast difference in their superiority. But the transformative activist says, “No, we  are interdependent human family in which some of us are confused and this nonsense has to stop.” (laughs)

MB: This nonsense has to stop. Yes.

VL: I keep being tempted to call him the late great James Lawson because he was famous in the 50s, but he’s still a professor at UCLA.

JM: Does he distinguish his nonviolence from Gandhi’s?

VL: It’s very much aligned with Gandhi’s. They’re saying it’s not nonviolence as attractive that might work in particular situations, but it’s nonviolence because reflects something more fundamental.

JM: I would certainly agree with that. It’s done on principle.

VL: Principal and strategic. Every member of the body that is doing the action has the same knowledge about why we’re doing it and why we’re doing it this way.

A strategic nonviolence founded in principle in the service of the evolutionary awakening of the human family just has to have a critique of patriarchy also.

MB: I was thinking of going back to keeping an open heart and mind to complexity under extreme duress as the evolutionary challenge. Do you want to say a little bit more about that?

VL: I’d like to give a perfect example of yearning for a simple solution to resolve sense of distress. We truncate the feedback loops so we’re only looking at a manageable thing.  The limbic system loves manageable threats so it will try to reduce everything to something you can conceptually cope with. The challenge is that most system-based stress, the limbic system can only sound the alarm for it, it can’t fix it. We have to allow the more mature collaborative functions of the brain to come into play in order to solve the problem.  If there’s a comet coming, we can’t dig a hole to escape from it!

MB: Or build a wall.

VL: Or build the wall. Or a giant umbrella. (laughs). We have to get all the best minds, we have to get every great mind on the planet to either think through solutions or have a farewell party. But either way, the solutions are not going to be less simple than the problems.

And the simple problems are not the greatest threats.

MB:  And yet I see that constantly in mass media and politicians trying to tell us that the threats are government interference or immigrants or Muslims or whatever.

VL: The threats are the enemy and the enemy can be defeated or warded off, and must be!  I think we’re a culture that has learned to mobilize itself through fear, typically a fear of an external enemy.

There’s a great movie, The Abyss, about underwater intelligent creatures that come out of the ocean. They wind up nonviolently exposing human violence, sort of shaming us into awakening. That’s the task. The task is not overcoming oppression, although that has to happen along the way.

MB: What is the task?

VL: Awakening.

MB: To?

VL: To our role as a species in the earth community as local stewards, local human healers.

JM: In promoting the ongoing health of life– do you mean that?

VL: Whatever keeps the game going and celebrates its complexity.

JM: So it’s shifting from a finite to an infinite game.

VL: As a social activist, I’m becoming a ecumenical heretic, meaning I’m inclined to give a offense to all orthodoxies, including multiculturalists or interculturalists.

JM: You are willing to give offense to all the orthodoxies.

VL: Yes, including progressive orthodoxies. And one of them may be the most difficult and crucial challenges for social change leaders, which is to give up a sense of personal grievance, and not to organize for the redress of personal grievances primarily.  I’m not saying that if a woman’s husband or son or daughter has been shot that she shouldn’t organize for justice. I’m saying that undoing racism and undoing sexism, I don’t think we’ll ultimately complete the task.

JM: it’s not enough, is what you’re saying.

VL: If we’re going for justice and fairness or the redress of grievances as opposed to a restoration of a golden age or a future existing complex interdependent oneness—the beloved community as King would have described it. Our vision of liberation has to include the liberation of the oppressor.

Our vision of liberation has to include the liberation of the oppressor.

MB: Ah, right.

VL: I believe the only alternative is to kill them, and that’s not going to work.

MB: And then we are back to the same-old same-old, yeah.

VL: Same thing. And we don’t have enough guns or sufficient training or blood-thirstiness to kill people.

Empires have found a way of domesticating human populations for at least 5 to 7000 years and are now doing it with high technology and social media

VL: The work of Inquisitors in collaboration with empires has at least a solid 500 hundred year history and the consequence is that part of our job and the job of a critical theory—which is where the social change philosophers have a better handle on it then evolutionary eco-philosophers—is that we ought to include and account for the false consciousness that is part of the evolutionary crisis. I would put it like this: empires have found a way of domesticating human populations for at least 5 to 7000 years and are now doing it with high technology and social media, the Russian hacking being the most staggering and astonishing recent example. There are many others such as the entire modern advertising industry. We need to liberate ourselves from domestication, which is the same as liberating ourselves from embeddedness in the multiple contingent social hierarchies completely socially constructed and aimed at profit in this service of greedy heartless mindless polluters.  It’s not that they don’t have hearts and minds, they’re just disconnected from them.

MB: That’s a lovely rant. So you speak of liberation and what I want to ask you, “What are we liberating ourselves from?” One of the things you say we are liberating ourselves from is domestication—and social conditioning in a sense.

VL: yes. I like domestication as contrasted with a natural human wildness, and wildness not meaning out of control and thus needing to be controlled, but meaning being guided and motivated by intrinsic rather than an external forces. I eat because I’m hungry, not because it’s lunch time and they rang the bell and said it was okay. I go to the bathroom because I have to pee, not because I raise my hand and they gave me permission.

MB: Yes. And here’s where the connection with the so-called natural world comes in, because that natural wildness arises from our biological being and/or interconnection with all of life, not just humans.

VL: I might as well point out that patriarchal mistrust of that is projected onto women and people of color and it’s projected onto the poor and working classes. There’s a way in which the ruling classes are—to a person—among the most domesticated.  

JM: I was talking about the Tea Party seeing me as a crazy pagan animist, and you then spoke about the Inquisition and its service to Empire, to the Holy Roman Empire or the Vatican, to the power holders. You were going to go somewhere with that.

VL: One of the beauties of being human is that we can draw the boundaries of kinship anyway we want, in any manner whatsoever.

JM: That’s right. Just as we can our “self.”

To the extent that we are disconnected from the feedback loops of living systems, we are much more manipulatable.

VL: Yes, the boundaries of self are also very very mutable. One of the vulnerabilities of that is that we can invest a sense of meaning and sacredness, for example, in the flag as if the flag represents Life, and then we will kill in the service of the flag and will die in the service of the flag whereas the flag is just a symbol.  To the extent that we are disconnected from the feedback loops of living systems, we are much more manipulatable. The folks in Cancer Alley can see over the generations many species–not just their neighbors–die, but they’re not connecting that to the polluters because of the media outlets that are telling them to hate Hillary Clinton.

JM: This is the paradox. I am evolving my thinking about relating to our common body, the Earth and this intelligence that’s thrilling, and at the same time finding that 30% of folks in my country that would see me as an evil thing.

VL:  I think that this challenge is something that activists of color have a lot of experience with. We’re used to, in our hearts, being completely invested in love and beauty, yet being seen as threatening objects of threat or sources of contamination.

JM: That’s a good point to make. It’s not just the earth lovers or tree huggers. It’s many many…

VL: And that learning to hold that with some kind of compassion and good humor is part of the hard job. We don’t get to find a way of doing it that’s easy.

JM: I needed to hear that so much!

VL: This is something we have to metabolize as a weakness in our species.

JM: I realize now hearing you say that, “Isn’t that so!”

MB: The thing I always wonder about when the subject of the people like tea partiers comes up is the simple fact of brainwashing. It’s real. It’s happening every day on FOX News. It’s not like these people have just come to these ideas on their own. They’ve been fed it.

VL: And I think that the precise words that you used maybe more salient than you imagine. The  physical structure that people use for learning and survival are malfunctioning. I would say brain hacking. Their brains have been hacked and so instead of serving the organism, the brain works against the organism and for the stockholders. And the stockholders have enough capital to hire brain hackers to get people to act against their own interest on behalf of of stockholders. And that is precisely one of the battlefields that activists and shamans have to struggle on for the hearts and minds of people who are lost in propaganda, lost in ideology.  

How do we get ourselves to go along with what we go along with?

“How do you get people to go along with this shit?” is the question. It’s the same question we need to ask ourselves: how do we get ourselves to go along with what we go along with? What is it that has allowed us to align with the forces of death and against our own heart’s desire, and our highest vision?

I think it’s a distraction to focus primarily on the haters, instead of doing all the holding actions as needed where it’s most pressing and urgent. We want to prevent Carrot Top from antagonizing North Korea into nuclear conflict. But even if we succeed, the world is still falling apart and and we gotta do things that are more vision-based as well.

JM: That’s right. We can’t be distracted from following as seriously and wholeheartedly as we can what makes the most sense to us, what is calling to us.

VL: I think the infinite game is reinventing ourselves as a regenerative, restorative, responsible, collaborative presence in the Earth community.  We cannot do that without social liberation across all forms of oppression and without it we don’t survive as a species. We can fight over the steering wheel while we’re careening over the cliff or we can cooperate in orienting ourselves as a species in the mess that we’ve made. I think that all Progressive liberated talented folks have to maintain and hold to that longer vision and not just be in opposition to an antagonist.

MB: What you just said–a restorative,  regenerative presence–that I can apply to me as an individual as well as part of a movement or organization. There’s sometimes a split between what can I do as an individual versus how can I change my society, but it sees seems like that articulation is something that I can apply to my personal life and to my involvement in larger social movements.

VL: Yep, yep.  

MB:  This feels like a good ending place but I’m wondering if there’s anything you want to say you didn’t get to say.

JM:  And some practical stories or ways in which you can see this happening.

It is our duty as activists to understand social neuroscience, and trauma neuroscience in particular.

VL: I seem to have committed myself to making a map of the world that tracks issues related to social change and social justice education and overlaps with the concerns with the Work That Reconnects. I find my way of thinking about things is sometimes explanatory and sometimes descriptive. An example of how a good map can help us understand social change challenges and opportunities is recognizing that the limiting factors are in the brain in many instances. It is our duty as activists to understand social neuroscience, and trauma neuroscience in particular.  We need to understand the nature of the stress response and the threat response—how the stress response and the threat response compromise our wisdom and flexibility—so we can recover our wisdom and flexibility even under stress and threat.

I’ll give you an example: I’m attending the Occupy Oakland general strike and I understand that there’s an unexplained delay of buses to go from Grand Avenue and Broadway to the Oakland pier. The buses were a grand stroke to get lots of numbers of families, elders, children, indigent people—people who couldn’t make the walk—and the buses weren’t moving.

Drew Dillinger, the poet, who was a security monitor, said to me, “The buses aren’t coming. Would you mind checking it out?”  

I find out that a bus has hit a bicycle and the bicyclist was obstructing the movement of the bus because he wanted to call the police and get his just deserts.  I could see he was really agitated and wasn’t seeing that none of the other 10 buses would leave without the first bus. So there was at least several hundred bus passengers that are hanging in the balance of this strange conflict.

I thought “If we think of this politically, it’s not going to work. This person’s brain is very myopic right now.”  So I asked him what he needed, asked him what he needed, asked him what he needed, asked him how much the damage to his bicycle was. I just kept engaging him. He wanted to call the police and I said, “No, what we need to do is find out how you can let the bus go, because if this bus doesn’t go than those nine buses aren’t going to go. This is a general strike that really needs these buses in order to be complete.”

A black woman came up and saw what I was trying to do to get this person’s needs met so everything could start flowing again. I don’t know who she was but I could feel her joining me in trying to bring some wisdom to this situation. I’m not trying to defeat him, I’m not trying to overcome him, but to bring peace, to give him peace. At some point I asked him “What will the damage cost?” He quoted a number and I said “I will give you this money. Will that take care of it? And I’m sure that there are lots of bicycle shops that, if you told what happened to your bicycle, they would fix it for free. And if they won’t, I will pay for it.”

And the sister’s right there, a black woman by the way. The driver was a man of color; the bicyclist was white. So here’s two black people trying to resolve the situation and chill out this angry white guy. What else is new? We set aside whatever personal agenda we have about those dynamics in order to get this done. We finally got him to soften and settle. We didn’t ultimately give him anything, but the offer to give him everything he needed to be whole…

JM: And personally. You were ready to give him your money.

VL:  Yes, that allowed him to reorganize, so he could consider a possibility such as just let it go. And then he did. I think if we had taken a more rationalistic approach and argued the points, that wouldn’t have helped his brain.

JM: And also what this does is avoid moralizing.

VL: Yes. Didn’t make him wrong.

JM: I’d like to go back to this terrific phrase: social neuroscience.

VL: Social neuroscience is a broad field in which the interconnectedness of the human brain, the co-regulation of the human brain, Thich Nhat Hanh’s “interbeing,” is being mapped neurologically.  Brain, mind, and relationship are whole. They’re part of one circle. Understanding how to intervene in the information processing of the brain in a way that supports compassionate and collaborative behavior, that supports trust and a sense of kinship—that’s part of our job.

Victor Lewis is an nationally recognized social justice educator, trainer, and activist. He has conducted keynote speeches, seminars, workshops and “train the trainer” programs throughout the U.S. and abroad. Lewis is the founder and Director of the Radical Resilience Institute.

As a Progressive Life Coach, Lewis brings a unique socially progressive vision to the work of personal growth, personal empowerment, and emotional health. This is the fruit of his 30+ years search for personal healing and social justice, and nearly as many years of innovating practice in using liberatory educational approaches to bring healing and justice to others.

Lewis has served as Chaplain/Spiritual Director at the Starr King School for the Ministry (Unitarian Universalist), a seminary of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. An ally in the struggle to end sexism, Lewis is a former member of the Leadership Council of the National Organization for Men Against Sexism (NOMAS). From 1993-1995 he also served as Co-Chair of the organization.

Between 1990-96, Lewis served as Director of Adult Education at the Oakland Men’s Project (OMP), one of the oldest and most respected multicultural violence prevention training programs in the nation. He is a past member of the board of A Safe Place, the battered women’s shelter program for the city of Oakland, California. Currently, he is Co-Chair of the Black Church and Domestic Violence Institute,  a founding board member of the Urban Habitat Program, and a former board member of Urban Ecology, Inc.

Lewis received his Master of Arts in Culture and Spirituality in 1987 from the Institute in Culture and Creation Spirituality (ICCS) at Holy Names College in Oakland, California. He has also done extensive post-graduate study. He is a Neuro-Linguistic Programing Master (NLP) Practitioner, an NLP Health Practitioner, an EFT (Emotional Freedom Techniques) Advanced Practitioner, an AAMET-certifed EFT Trainer, a certified NLP hypnotherapist and a resilient and thriving trauma survivor.


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