If people have ever seen one of my gardens, they know they are a little bit scruffy. Not all the plants are in neat rows or bunched in the optimal number. Sometimes the flower colors are a little bit of a mishmash. But even without precision or any illusion of perfect grooming, maintaining my garden still brings me great joy. I love all that a garden can give you.
You can appreciate any one individual plant, (I personally am obsessed with blueberries) but one seed, singular, produces one plant. Even though I love a field of blueberry bushes, it can’t compare to what happens when you have the gifts that come from twenty or thirty different plants doing their own thing to produce a singular thing, a garden.
A garden can sustain you on multiple levels. Its myriad plants can feed you for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It can put flowers in your house for months. It can give you medicines for different purposes and beauty for most months of the year. A garden can connect you with all sorts of different creatures who pass through.
And one thing that has fascinated me over years of tending to many hundreds of plants is that each one is its own world. On some level, plants are in competition with each other, especially when they’re starting out. Each seed needs water, sun and soil to grow. They can shade each other out, and they all need the water in the soil to live. They can crowd each other out, but sometimes those overly-crowded clumps of flowers do surprisingly well.
Cooperation seems built into their cells just as much as competition. As they start to grow, their root systems literally hold the soil together and make sure less water evaporates as summer brings brighter, hotter sun.
A variety of plants attract pollinators for each other, and other beneficial insects and animals. They do this best when they are different in shape, color, growth pattern, bloom cycle. Their differences create an ever-shifting ecosystem where they all can thrive.
And part of how these plants do it is by being able to simultaneously be very focused on their own needs and being in the center, but also acting in a way that demonstrates that there will only be a “center” if most of what’s growing around them also thrives. They hold onto the contradiction of putting themselves first while also sharing.
I’ve learned that as a gardener, I can do what I can, but I’m not the ultimate decider of where things are going to grow and thrive. The plants in a garden decide where they will grow. I have to be humble and realize that I am a facilitator and in service to the garden, not its overlord.
Our social justice movements at their best are gardens. They’re made up of unique communities and specific approaches that each began with a single seed. It’s only when these seeds grow into communities and in turn these communities thrive that they become a much larger singular thing—a movement—that has something to offer.
I think sometimes people think a powerful movement is essentially a monoculture farm or orchard, everyone standing at attention in their perfectly formed rows. Orchards and farms are amazing to look at: rows and rows of identical trees or plants. But that kind of growth isn’t sustainable. And they can give you one thing, maybe a lot of it, but just one thing. Most of the time, we can’t thrive on any one plant (even blueberries!). But a busy, messy, garden? It gives you many gifts you expect, and some gifts you don’t.
In my experience and my vision of powerful movements, they’re messy, rambunctious, beautiful gardens. There are direct service organizations, advocacy groups, the lawyers, the media makers and storytellers, the policy nerds, the direct action folks, the guerrilla theater geeks. For decades I’ve done many of those things, but I keep coming back to work with intermediaries—organizations that specifically exist to support the work of other organizations.
I’ve been blessed and lucky to work with great intermediaries over the years—including Seeding Justice (formerly McKenzie River Gathering), Partnership for Safety and Justice, the CAPACES network, Spirit in Action, and I currently work at North Star Fund. My focus has generally been storytelling, technology and other elements of comms but I’ve supported all sorts of organizations with phases of their growth. Sometimes I’ve asked myself why I am so drawn to intermediaries. I think it’s because at heart, I’m a gardener.
An intermediary, when it’s done well, is a fancy word for gardener. We help organizations to grow by providing what organizations and their leaders need: structure, trust and money.
I like creating the environment where organizations can do their thing, put themselves first while also sharing what they have. I’m especially proud to be part of Restorative Justice Initiative (RJI), a community of New Yorkers who are here to support all the many forms of restorative practice in New York City.
Within RJI’s community, many of us seem to have a particular restorative practice we want to grow (I personally am obsessed with surrogate dialogue, which has transformed my own healing in response to my brother’s murder). But at RJI, we are committed to sustaining an ecosystem for many types of restorative practices in NYC to spread. This means supporting dozens of organizations and hundreds of local restorative justice leaders.
We want all the different forms of restorative practice for all New Yorkers:
- Healing circles
- Direct dialogue among harmed parties
- Surrogate dialogues
- Transformative justice
- Student-driven restorative approaches
- Alternative dispute resolution
- Redirection programs
- Trauma-informed practices
- Political education
- Intimate partner violence interventions
- Healing justice
- And more…
RJI and the people in it want it all. We want the big, messy garden. Much as a garden needs sun and soil and water to grow, movements need structure, relationships and money. RJI is building a rambunctious community of restorative practice in New York City, and eventually, I hope the world. If you haven’t made a gift to RJI lately, donate today. Help this beautiful movement grow.