Findhorn's global reach

Jonathan reports from Wongsanit ashram in Thailand where he is on behalf of the Global Ecovillage Ne

Findhorn's boundaries extend far beyond these few acres of land in a distant corner of the north of Scotland. For, what has happened here over the last 45 years or so has struck a deep chord that has truly resonated globally. I never cease to be amazed at the reaction that mention of the F-word evinces in all sorts of folks I have met around the world.

I think immediately of Maria, a land-rights activist living among indigenous people in the interior of Mexico that I met at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002.

- 'Where are you from' she asked.
- 'Scotland'.
- 'Oh, which part?'
- 'A small village near Inverness' (No point in going further than this, thinks I. I have almost certainly exhausted her knowledge of Scottish geography already.)
- 'What is its name?'
- 'Findhorn.'

At the time, I wrote of what happened next in the following terms: 'Maria did not sink to her knees, cross herself and chant the names of all the saints of Christendom in thanksgiving, but it looked as if it took all her powers of self-control not to do so'.

Maria had never even been to Findhorn! She had read one of the early Findhorn books and had some kind of 'experience' – a form of vision, she said – and immediately left her life of luxury in the city to commit herself to activism with and for Mexico's poor and marginalised.

I have lost count of the number of similar stories I have heard over the last six years I have been representing Findhorn and GEN (the Global Ecovillage Network) in international gatherings. In most cases, those affected by the Findhorn magic had been there. But in a good number of others, like Maria they had not.

So, what is it that Findhorn represents that had struck so deep a chord in so many people? The appeal, I would say, can be captured in three words – spirit, community and simplicity.

Remember that Findhorn was created in an era, the early 1960s, characterised by great optimism in the forces of progress and development. Remember Harold Wilson's 'great, white heat of technology' speech? The Findhorn message of humility, simplicity and attuning with the divine would have had decidedly minority appeal in that era. However, as the myth of progress has become progressively tarnished in recent decades, the Findhorn ethic has made something of a comeback.

In the poorer countries of the global South, the virtues of spirit, community and simplicity were always held in higher regard. It is here that some of our strongest and most rewarding relationships lie.

So it is that I am now sitting at the Wongsanit ashram, about an hour outside of Bangkok, preparing for a series of meetings associated with the Global Ecovillage Network. Wongsanit is a Buddhist community devoted to 'developing and promoting an alternative lifestyle that is grounded in Dharma, cultural diversity, and environmental sustainability.' Among other things, it is engaged in grassroots leadership training, under its Spirit in Education programme, for communities in Thailand and in the neighbouring countries of Cambodia, Laos and Burma.

Strong ties exist between Wongsanit and Findhorn. Findhorners teach programmes here, while an ashram member (who happens to be married to a Findhorner) leads courses in Findhorn. Meanwhile, we have hosted members from the ashram and from their Spirit in Education network in each of the nine years that our ecovillage training programme has run. As I walk around the ashram, I am surrounded by familiar faces.

The links with Wongsanit and other sister communities of the South enrich us greatly. Not least, their engagement in programmes on behalf of some of the world's poorest and most marginalised people helps to ground us and keep us aligned with the struggle for global justice.

Jonathan Dawson is a sustainability educator based at the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland. He is seeking to weave some of the wisdom accrued in 20 years of working in Africa into more sustainable and joyful ways of living here in Europe. Jonathan is also a gardener and a story-teller and is President of the Global Ecovillage Network.
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Misogynoir: How social media abuse exposes longstanding prejudices against black women

After decades as an MP, Diane Abbott finally spoke out about the racist and sexist abuse she faces. But she's not alone. 

“Which STD will end your miserable life?” “This is why monkeys don’t belong here.” “I hope you get lynched”. These are just some of the many messages Seyi Akiwowo, a Labour councillor in Newham, told me she has been sent over the past three weeks. Akiwowo has received reams of violent and racist abuse after a video of her suggesting former empires pay reparations to countries they once colonised (and whose resources they still continue to plunder) went viral. She doesn’t expect everyone to agree with her, she said, but people seem to think they’re entitled to hurl abuse at her because she’s a black woman.

The particular intensity of misogyny directed at black women is so commonplace that it was given a name by academic Moya Bailey: misogynoir. This was highlighted recently when Diane Abbott, the country’s first and most-well known black woman MP and current shadow Home secretary, spoke out about the violent messages she’s received and continues to receive. The messages are so serious that Abbott’s staff often fear for her safety. There is an implicit point in abuse like this: women of colour, in particular black women, should know their place. If they dare to share their opinions, they’ll be attacked for it.

There is no shortage of evidence to show women of colour are sent racist and sexist messages for simply having an opinion or being in the public eye, but there is a dearth of meaningful responses. “I don’t see social media companies or government leaders doing enough to rectify the issue,” said Akiwowo, who has reported some of the abuse she’s received. Chi Onwurah, shadow minister for Business, Innovation and Skills, agreed. “The advice from social media experts is not to feed the trolls, but that vacates the public space for them," she said. But ignoring abuse is a non-solution. Although Onwurah notes the police and media giants are beginning to take this abuse seriously, not enough is being done.

Akiwowo has conversations with young women of colour who become less sure they want to go into politics after seeing the way people like Abbott have been treated. It’s an unsurprising reaction. Kate Osamor, shadow secretary of state for International Development, argued no one should have to deal with the kind of vitriol Abbott does. It’s well documented that the ease and anonymity of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have changed the nature of communication – and for politicians, this means more abuse, at a faster pace and at all hours of the day. Social media, Onwurah said, has given abuse a “new lease of life”. There needs to be a concerted effort to stop people from using these platforms to spout their odious views.

But there is another layer to understanding misogyny and racism in public life. The rapid and anonymous, yet public, nature of social media has shone a light on what women of colour already know to be a reality. Dawn Butler MP, who has previously described racism as the House of Commons’ “dirty little secret”, told me “of course” she has experienced racism and sexism in Parliament: “What surprises me is when other people are surprised”. Perhaps that’s because there’s an unwillingness to realise or really grapple the pervasiveness of misogynoir.

“Sometimes it takes a lot of effort to get someone to understand the discriminatory nature of peoples’ actions,” Butler explained. “That itself is demoralising and exhausting.” After 30 years of racist and sexist treatment, it was only when Abbott highlighted the visceral abuse she experiences that politicians and commentators were willing to speak out in her support. Even then, there seemed to be little recognition of how deep this ran. In recent years, the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been ridiculed for having a relationship with her in the 70s, as if a black woman’s sexuality is both intriguing and laughable; people regularly imply she’s incompetent, despite having been in Parliament for three decades and at the last general election increasing her majority by a staggering amount; she has even been derided by her own colleagues. Those Labour MPs who began the hashtag #PrayforDiane when she was off work because of illness spoke to a form of bullying that wouldn’t be acceptable in most workplaces.

These supposedly less obvious forms of racism and sexism are largely downplayed or seen as unrelated to discrimination. They might be understood through what influential scholar Stuart Hall called the “grammar of race”. Different from overtly racist comments, Hall says there’s a form of racism that’s “inferential”; naturalised representations of people - whether factual or fictional - have “racist premises and propositions inscribed in them as a set of unquestioned assumptions”. Alongside the racist insults hurled at black women politicians like Abbott, there’s a set of racialised tropes that rely on sexualisation or derision to undermine these women.

The streams of abuse on social media aren’t the only barrier people of colour – and women in particular – face when they think about getting into politics. “I don’t think there’s a shortage of people in the black community who put themselves forward to stand for office, you only have to look at when positions come up the list of people that go for the position,” Claudia Webbe, a councillor and member of Labour's ruling body the National Executive Committee told me. As one of the few black women to hold such a position in the history of the Labour party, she knows from her extensive career how the system works. “I think there is both a problem of unfair selection and a problem of BME [black and minority ethnic] people sustaining the course." Conscious and unconscious racial and gender bias means politics are, like other areas of work in the UK, more difficult to get into if you’re a woman of colour.

“The way white women respond to the way black women are treated is integral,” Osamor says, “They are part of the solution”. White women also face venomous and low-lying forms of sexism that are often overlooked, but at times the solidarity given to them is conditional for women of colour. In a leaked letter to The Guardian, Abbott’s staff criticised the police for not acting on death threats, while similar messages sent to Anna Soubry MP resulted in arrest. When the mainstream left talks about women, it usually means white women. This implicitly turns the experiences of women of colour into an afterthought.

The systematic discrimination against women of colour, and its erasure or addendum-like quality, stems from the colonial racial order. In the days of the British empire, white women were ranked as superior to colonised Asian and African women who were at different times seen as overly sexualised or unfeminine. Black women were at the bottom of this hierarchy. Women of colour were essentially discounted as real women. Recognising this does not equate to pitting white women and women of colour against each other. It is simply a case of recognising the fact that there is a distinct issue of racial abuse.

The online abuse women of colour, and black women specifically, is an issue that needs to be highlighted and dealt with. But there are other more insidious ways that racism and sexism manifest themselves in everyday political life, which should not be overlooked. “Thirty years ago I entered parliament to try and be the change I wanted to see,” Abbott wrote. “Despite the personal attacks and the online abuse, that struggle continues.” That struggle must be a collective one.

Maya Goodfellow researches race and racism in Britain. She is a staff writer at LabourList.