Bob Stilger (The Berkana Institute)

Then and Now


I came of age in the sixties.  Coming from a working class family in the Northwestern part of the US, and going to college in the Midwest, I somehow missed the “drugs, sex and rock and roll” part of the sixties. Well, I didn’t completely miss it, but that’s another story. My activism began in college.  It was a time of being against.  We opposed the war in Vietnam.  We were against racial discrimination.  We were against rigid systems of academic instruction.  We were against male domination.


Of course, there were things that we were for.  But mostly, our movements were characterized by what they were against.  Beyond that, except for the most radical edge, our movements were about changing the policies and practices of government and major institutions.  Even on the radical fringe, the talk was about overthrow of the government with very little sense of what came next.


Some writers have looked back at the movements these times and characterized them as being ideological, strategical and tactical.  Our thinking informed and directed our action.  Frequently our thinking was embedded in a particular ideology.  We argued about ideology and about what we thought.  Once we found people who thought like us, we developed strategies and tactics in pursuit of the changes we wanted.  Usually what we wanted was the end of various current practices.

This work of my teens and early twenties was the work of protest.  It said STOP IT. It accepted the current government and other institutional structures as powerful and as the location of change.


In my mid twenties I co-founded the Community Development Corporation which where I served as Executive Director for 25 years.  From time to time Northwest Regional Facilitators, or NRF as we were best known, was able to engage in some transformative work.  But for the most part we worked alongside and within the structures of government to help people who lived at the social and economic margins have better lives.  We helped them find housing and to fix up the housing they lived in.  We helped them conserve energy.  We helped them send their kids to school with full stomachs.  We helped them find child care that met their needs. 


We were deeply committed to working with people in a respectful way that honored their heritage and dignity. After 20 or so years of this work I realized that we had helped many thousand people live better.  But the image that came to mind was that much of our work was like putting our fingers in holes in the dike and that we were running out of fingers with a geometric increase in the number of holes.  Our work was important for those we helped.  And it did nothing to change the underlying conditions...


This work of my late twenties, thirties and forties was about helping the people who were on the margins of the American Dream have better lives.  We questioned and challenged various aspects of the American Dream from time to time, but we did little that challenged the assumptions of this dream, its impact on people around the world, or its impact on the world itself.  It was the work of SOCIAL CHANGE to help some of the people excluded from the dream to have better lives.


My latest pilgrimage began in 2000 when I became part of the Berkana Institute.  I wandered for a while, finding new friends and colleagues.  It was in the summer of 2001 at a global learning village held at Castle Borl in Slovenia that I began to have a sense of direction.  I was sitting in a circle of younger activists who had come together in a session called by Marianne Knuth of Zimbabwe. Marianne had a deep sense that she was supposed to go to Zimbabwe and start some sort of learning center.  She had lived only part of her life in Zimbabwe and, frankly, wasn’t sure what she was supposed to do and why.  She called for a circle to help her find her way.


I was just about the only person in the circle over fifty.  Just about everyone in the circle wanted to assist Marianne and they were feeling a similar call themselves.  No one was sure of what work they wanted to do, but they knew it was local work and they knew that they needed to be in conversation with each other to develop clarity.  As I sat with the circle I sensed the same kind of energy that was present when I co-founded NRF some 25 years before, AND, there was something else present.


The people in the circle weren’t talking about what government ought to do (or ought not to do).  They were talking about work that was calling to them from one local place.  They weren’t concerned that they had more questions than answers – in fact they seemed to enjoy the questions!  They knew that large scale shifts were needed – but they sensed that TRANSFORMATION emerges from work on the ground in local systems.


Over the next several years I followed and talked with many of these activists as they created various kinds of learning centers in local systems.  In fact, my inquiry with them into the nature of their work became the basis for my doctoral dissertation at the California Institute of Integral Studies.  They practice a kind of leadership that comes from mind, heart, hands and spirit and provides a foundation for effective action in the world. I call this approach “enspirited leadership.”


The leaders I’ve worked with come from places like  Santos, Brazil, where the Instituto Elos ( works in favelas, or slums, where people have few material goods but where the human spirit is still strong. They always begin their work by asking the elders to talk about their lives and to look for patterns of possibility in their stories. These leaders come from Edcouch-Elsa High School in Texas in the United States, where a school serving migrant workers has gone from having one of the highest dropout rates in Texas to having the highest rate of placement in top U.S. colleges.  They come from Johannesburg, South Africa, where the Greenhouse Project (  ) is becoming a base for recycling, urban agriculture and sustainable building.


To support this enspirited work in the world, in 2004 Berkana launched the Berkana Exchange ( We work primarily with centers around the world that are helping ordinary people step forward as leaders. Working with urban youth in Dakar, Senegal, with villagers in rural Zimbabwe, across the generations in Udaipur, India, and with indigenous peoples in Chiapas, Mexico, these centers are helping people offer whatever leadership they can in these changing times.  I have identified six key landmarks for enspirited leaders and now activists:

·             They work from a sense of true calling

·             They journey in the company of others

·             They live with a spiritual center

·             They demand diversity

·             Reflective learning guides their lives

·             Their work is filled with ambiguity and uncertainty


A Sense of True Calling

Each of these activists has stepped into his or her work because of a strong sense of calling, rather than through a methodical, strategic decision-making process.  In many ways, life leads them to their work.  And, of course, their work then leads them to their life. 


Marianne Knuth from Kufunda Learning Village ( in Zimbabwe explained her commitment to her work in this way:

“I had this feeling that I had to do it. If I would have thought someone else was going to be able to do it, I would have let them. Maybe that’s being arrogant, but I just had to do it. There was a real fire that was burning—and it was really exciting.”


Tim Merry, who began a learning centre in Holland and now has started the Shire ( in Nova Scotia, Canada, said it this way:

“It has been a really personal journey, and the reason I am doing this work is because it is making me stronger. And because it is making me happy in what I do. I am beginning to understand the greatest gift we can give to the world is our own happiness, and that’s all we really have to do. We don’t need to do anything more than be content with who we are. We don’t have to change the world.”


What stands out to me from many conversations is that they follow deep gut instincts that tell them where to place their attention and where to create their intentions for action. Their actions are conceived in a place of spirit, not in a place of thought. What gives these young men and women the confidence and courage to respond to that which called them? How were they able to step forward while so many who hear such a calling choose to ignore it? 


In the Company of Others

Part of the answer is that they don’t do their work alone. Close friends and family who share deep bonds of trust, love and respect are essential for finding the courage to follow the inner voice. Moving into new territory, doing work that seems unconventional and perhaps even foolish to some, requires companions.


Some of the most striking characteristics of the companions who move together are that they come from different age groups and are frequently family members. This pattern is different from the activists of the 1960s. What I recall from my 20s was precious little connection with siblings, a distancing from my parents’ ideas, and suspicion about most people over 30. 


In describing how he began his work, Cire Kane of Synapse Center ( in Senegal said that he kept remembering his grandfather’s and parents’ advice:

“’Dare to build on your relationships rather than pursuing money. Success in life lies in relationships.’ I have learnt from them the value of understanding myself and my place in this world. I’m here because many people contributed to my development. And I remember so much of what happened to me and understand more myself when I listen closely to others. My whole life is a simple movement circling around community, relationships and joy. And this community is expanding everyday beyond the borders of my birth land, crossing oceans and connecting with many good-hearted people around the world.”


There may be some who believe they can make these journeys alone, as rugged individuals. But why? Why wouldn’t we all want to find close companions to share our journey? Why wouldn’t we seek others excited by the same possibilities and the same questions? Where would we find nourishment if we traveled alone?


A Spiritual Center        

What do leaders need to have in order to stand with confidence in a complex, changing and unpredictable world? A partial answer, I suspect, is that holding an encompassing view requires, at least from time to time, a higher level of consciousness. The evolution of such consciousness seems to require a spiritual practice. Each of these learning center founders works from a spiritual center. Their practices are simply a part of their daily lives. 


Zoë Nicholson, founder of LifeWorks in England, says:  

“I started a meditation practice about the same time I began this work and I realized it was possible to have a fuller life at a slower speed. I didn’t really need to run around filling up my life. I could just slow down, unpack and my life would be a lot fuller… We can do all the intellectual stuff about saving the planet, but the bottom line is how can I find a way to feel alive?”


Una Nicholson, Zoë’s sister, adds:

“Things just seem to happen a lot more harmoniously, bountifully and easily. The right things happen at the right time. Surprises come along and good things happen. For me, it just becomes a practice of being aligned with myself—that seems to provide the path.”


When I asked Manish Jain from India about his work at the core of Shikshantar (, the learning center he has created with others in Udaipur, India, his response was:

“This work is not about saving or changing the world, but about how I live my own life and live it as an invitation to others. As the Bhagavad-Gita says: ‘Try to live the way that you feel is true with your own inner values. Don’t worry about the results.’”


The presence of a spiritual center is what allows these leaders to hear and trust their inner voices and follow their calls. They also move, with that spirit, into a place of reflective learning that acts as a compass to guide their action.


A Demand for Diversity

When these leaders look at a given situation, they look for the surrounding web of relationships and systems. They look for the whole picture. The younger leaders I’ve worked with all have had experience in multiple cultures. Such experiences may not be a precondition for enspirited leadership, but they usually shake people up enough that they begin to see the world more broadly. Ante Glavas who started Horizon ( in Croatia says:


“When one is born in one culture, it is taken for granted that the world is as it is. When one then truly learns another culture deeply, then one realizes that there is not a set way of seeing the world.”


The capacity to understand that the way we view our lives is a construct our minds have created makes it easier to let go of false certainties. In Beyond Culture (Doubleday, 1976), Edward Hall suggests that multicultural experiences literally demand an expansion in consciousness. An expanded consciousness is required for this work. 


The presence of others whose ideas and experiences differ greatly from our own invites us to let go of our limited view of what’s needed and what can happen. Diversity is a key to open exploration and inquiry. It is what helps us let go of old ideas and solutions and to search for what else might be possible.


Reflective Learning as a Guide

For these leaders, the search for spiritual grounding is accompanied by a continuous process of surfacing facts and impressions, revealing patterns and assumptions, examining actions and behaviors, and affirming or changing the course of action.  This continuous process makes up reflective learning. 


In early 2002, I met with many younger leaders in Prague, and we characterized this approach as follows:

· Above all, this is a creative adventure. It is experimental. It calls us to focus our attention on the now. Our work, and our lives, are laboratories of grace. (Ann Dosher, an elder and community psychologist who serves on The Berkana Institute’s board of directors, first coined the term “laboratories of grace” in the late 1990s.)

· This work is much bigger than any of us are separately, and it still calls on each of us to be separate and ourselves. 

· We are called upon to use our full imagination and learning, our collective diversity, our respect for synchronicity and mystery, and our willingness to be transformed.

· We do this important work with a spirit of play, humor, friendship and love.  We are connected and we connect to others. 

· Our local work is the critical ground from which global transformation can emerge, with integrity.


These reflections are alive. They hold a sense of genuine curiosity. This kind of reflective learning affirms life and invites inquiry into the uncertain path of transformation. The process of making such reflections explicit is as ordinary for these leaders as their spirituality is. They have a capacity to move easily from the realm of spirit to the realm of thought, and this motion gives them balance.


Ambiguity and Uncertainty      

Ambiguity and uncertainty are befriended in this work. To follow a sense of calling, in the company of others, aware of a diverse world, from a spiritual center and with an awareness of assumptions, is to let go of control. There is simply no other way. Doing all of those things throws the doors of ambiguity and uncertainty wide open.


A choice each of us can make is whether ambiguity and uncertainty open a pathway to fear or a pathway to balance. When we think we are supposed to be in charge, when our self-confidence is based on being able to predict what will happen and how things will turn out, then ambiguity and uncertainty usually invite our fear to rise up and bite us. 


When we are able to release ourselves into the uncertainty, we are invited to become explorers, to discover what lies ahead as we work with others to create that future. Cire Kane put it well:


“Today, the path is still unclear. It is literally invisible, and yet my heart is often being moved and my soul split open. My lovely work is taking me every day on a journey of new experiences. These experiences are opening my heart to the unimaginable beauty of life and community around me. Every day I awaken to a new day. I go out into the world with a feeling of excitement and joy and a feeling of being at home, everywhere in our diverse supportive community. I do my work with engagement and joy, with lots of downs and still many ups. I break for prayer, sometimes meditation, often to be with my parents or to hang out with friends. I love my work. I love my community and I love the life I’m living. I will persevere through uncertainty and fear about my ability to carry out the mission before me.”


Landmarks in Your Life

The work of these leaders is enspirited, in that it comes from a strong inner force that demands attention. It is appreciative, in that it looks for strengths that can be built upon. It is emergent, in that it creates both its path and its destination. These six landmarks are a guidance system for work in this territory. 


As exciting as this work can be, it is also easy to get lost. I have opportunities to talk with people all over the world engaged in this enspirited work, and they often feel discouraged, isolated, lonely and disconnected. They’ve forgotten to make sure that what they are doing is their true work. They have lost touch with those around them. They’re just too busy to slow down and be quiet. They’ll get to reflection later. The views of others are just too distracting. And, oh yes, wouldn’t it be nice to have some certainty? 


My work, and that of the Berkana Exchange, is to help people be wildly excited and deeply grounded in this kind of work. These landmarks are part of this process. Please think about how they are present in your life and work.