We live in a world that needs radical transformation if our children and grandchildren are to live healthy, peace-filled lives. But where to start? Activist Roberto Vargas says the answer lies surprisingly close: at home, with our family and friends. We can apply the practice of family activism to foster what he calls familia—warm, loving connections with our relatives and with those we choose to call family—and develop the skills and attitudes we need to tackle broader problems in our community, our nation, and the world. In Family Activism, Vargas draws from his own life to show how to apply tools such as copowering communication, family councils, and unity circles to create family and community cultures that empower all of us to become more committed and skillful agents of positive change.
About the Author
Roberto Vargas, principal consultant for New World Associates, is an educator, planning consultant, and ceremony leader. Nationally recognized for his skills in meeting facilitation and leadership development, Roberto has more than twenty-five years of experience providing consultations on community problem-solving, multicultural team-building, and strategic planning throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Sweden. His focus is assisting proactive organizations to become their best, and his clients have included colleges, corporations, public institutions, Native American reservations, and more than 150 agencies and organizations dedicated to community service.
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INTRODUCTION: AWAKENING TO ACTIVISM
Considering the goals and principles I have shared in the preface, you might well ask, are these the unrealistic hopes of an impractical idealist? On the contrary, they comprise the vision and practice of a person dedicated to building a healthy society and a sustainable world. For more than a generation, I have sought to apply love to empower my networks of family and friends so that we can more fully care for and support others. Today, I live with tremendous joy because of the extended family I helped to develop, and because I have found numerous ways to continue expanding my circle of beloved community.
For the past twenty-five years, I have worked as a consultant providing planning, team building, and leadership development to enable proactive organizations to become their best. This work has allowed me to collaborate with fantastic people and organizations throughout the United States, and even places like Canada, Mexico, and Sweden. Whether these organizations are advocacy groups, service agencies, corporations, reservations, or universities, their commonality is dedication to advance good in the world. Most often my job is helping them clarify their vision and become more effective teams in order to more powerfully create positive change.
Culturally, I am a Chicano, a Mexican-American of Indian ancestry, and I am also very much a U.S. citizen.1 I am proud of the ideals envisioned by our nation’s founders, and I am committed to fulfilling our nation’s potential to be a global leader of responsible action. As a Chicano whose ancestors were healers, I live committed to 2 community service and social healing. The stereotyping and racism I experienced as a brown youngster instilled within me a passion for justice, respect, and economic fairness for all people. This led me to discover the phenomenal importance of family activism, as I saw that every one of us has family and friends who can be encouraged to become more caring and motivated to help each other and battle for the changes required in our society. We can all be family activists!
Let me tell you a little more about myself and my family by sharing some experiences that have helped shape my path in life. One day, when I was eight years old, I escorted my Tia Fina home from her regular visit to our house. There was no sidewalk in our section of town, so I struggled to push my little cousin’s baby carriage along the dirt path. Suddenly, a thought came to mind that I proudly shared with my auntie: “When I grow up, I’m going to build a sidewalk from our house to your house.” She listened, and I felt her profoundly considering my declaration. She responded, “Aye, gracias, mijo (thank you, my son), but a sidewalk would be so expensive, how will you pay for it?” By the tone of her voice, I felt she had no doubt in my conviction, so I continued sharing and developing my vision in response to her occasional, but strategic questions. Our conversation ensued, and before we arrived at her home, I knew that my life’s work would be to make the world better.
That day I was glad for the walking time required between our two homes because there was much to think about. My body was keyed up with excitement and discovery. I had connected with my purpose! The questions bubbling up in me were making me think like I never did before and generating many fresh new ideas.
As I thought about this, several teachers came to mind—Jesus Christ, Zorro, and Robin Hood. Jesus was about teaching love. Zorro and Robin Hood were about taking from the rich to give to the poor. I thought, “Maybe when I become an adult I can be like these heroes, but for now, what can I do as a kid?” Reflecting on how hard my parents worked, and being the oldest son of four, I concluded, “For now, the best way I can make the world better is to be a good son and a good person.”
For the next several years, this question of how to be a good son and person influenced my behavior and development. Sometimes, 3 when faced with a choice of doing a chore or going to play, I would ask myself, “What is being a good son?” On other occasions, I might reflect on what I had done or not done, and ask, “Was this being a good person?” As a result, I slowly internalized several values that supported me in my core commitment.
At age nineteen, another formative experience arrived as my awareness of injustice in the world intensified. I found a way to visit the Chilean people who were involved in a revolutionary activism to elect a president committed to economic justice. Once there, I made contact with a student organization leading numerous self-help initiatives among the poor and offered my help. Instead of being welcomed, I was told that if I was truly committed to supporting their struggle, I would return to the “belly of the monster” and determine how to create change within my own nation, which was principally responsible for oppressing their country and so many other people around the world. Essentially, they said go home and work to make your own nation responsible. This ultimately led to my returning home and focusing my energies on healing work in my own community, which I will describe more fully in Chapter 1.
Later, another powerful experience added further dimension to my sense of purpose. The young husband of a dear friend unexpectedly and suddenly died. The impact upon Julie and her friends was devastating, and I went to the memorial service to support her. I genuinely looked forward to the officiating priest providing her with the comfort and support she needed. However, the ritual and words spoken felt empty. When the priest stepped down from the pulpit and walked out of the hall, he left all of us more saddened than when we had arrived. A feeling of powerlessness seemed to weigh heavy in the room because we had neither honored our friend who had died nor supported his wife.
I felt a deep anguish for Julie and a strong desire to say or do something to console her and honor her husband, Annu. I didn’t know what to do and felt insecure and afraid, but I decided to act. I stood, and words came. I reminded people of how Annu enjoyed being among good friends, and I invited everyone to come forward to make a circle around his coffin. As people joined the circle, I reached out to hold another’s hand and others followed. Soon we 4 were all holding hands and our circle started to move of its own accord until we circled Annu several times. I invited people to say final words for him, and heartfelt expressions were shared. Then we broke the circle, and several of us exchanged hugs. However awkward and short, the ceremony was genuine and touched many of us. We felt we had given Annu a little of the love he had always shared with us, and that we had given Julie the support she needed.
For me, this experience brought major revelations. The first was that we have historically transferred to the church and other institutions the authority to administer many of our ceremonies surrounding key life events, yet this doesn’t mean that they own these opportunities or that their ministers or priests know how to guide them well. Many of the religious rituals surrounding events such as birthdays, weddings, or death are so steeped in old conventions that they fail to nurture our spirit or inspire us to commit to improving our world. I began to consider that we ordinary people could develop and guide our own ceremonies, and invite guidance from God or our spirit to help us create more inspiring and meaningful rituals. This revelation was liberating and exciting.
Not long after, I had a dream that affirmed my thinking. I found myself alone in the church of my youth with all the pews lined up one behind the other.2 Then Jesus Christ appeared at the front of the church and told me to remove all the pews and create a space to gather the people. As I worked at moving the pews, he said that my job was to bring people together in circles. While part of me wanted to ignore the dream, the message was unambiguous—bring people together in circles and create ceremonies that foster life and love. This I have sought to do, not as a follower of any church or religion, but as a spiritual person who believes we are all part of the miracle of life.
These are a few of the experiences that prompted me onto the path of family activism, first as a son, then as a father, and now also as a friend and adopted “uncle” to many other families. One of the outcomes of these past thirty years has been to develop the Familia Approach to guide caring people to increase love, support, and power within their circle of family and friends. The Familia 5Approach is a collection of knowledge and tools to encourage love and power within all our relationships, with the goal of bettering our world. The initial motivation for this approach was to support healing required within my own family. Then, as I worked with people throughout my community, our nation, and in other countries, I saw the tremendous need and opportunity we all have within our family networks to teach each other how to be more caring, confident, and skilled in creating positive change in the world.
I also grew to realize the awesome responsibility we all share to address the environmental crisis facing our world. My graduate studies in public health confronted me with the unequivocal evidence that given current population expansion, food and water limitation, and environmental damage, we will not leave our children a healthy, sustainable world. At the same time, I also agree with many leading social philosophers and activists who speak of the Great Turning, the combined efforts of growing numbers of people worldwide who are committed to positive values and a sustainable earth. These efforts are shifting the direction of our society toward becoming a life-sustaining culture.3
I have written this book because I yearn to see more joy and well-being for all people, I want to see the health of Mother Earth restored, and I want to know that she will be protected for future generations. This vision will involve millions of people doing their part to transform our culture and society. We can begin with ourselves, and then engage our families, friends, and community. Toward this end, I offer this understanding of family activism and the Familia Approach—wisdom and tools to enable you to share in the joy of evolving our human potential for creating a better world.
May the Creator bless us all for our vision and our efforts to honor all creation.
Table of Contents
Introduction: Awakening to Activism
Part I: The Family Perspective
1. Making Family Your Cause
2. Principles to Guide Family Activism
3. The Familia Approach
4. Family Activism and Transformation
Part II: Tools for Family Power
5. Getting Your Act Together
6. Creating Family Connections
7. Co-Powering to Battle EL NO
8. Love the Children
9. Learn, Communicate, and Teach
10. Be the Facilitator
11. Forming Unity Circles
Part III: Moving from Family to Community Power
12. Creating Powerful Family and Community Gatherings
13. Expanding Family Action into Community Action
Conclusion: Praxis and Blessings
About the Author