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#BlockBuildBe in the Fight to Make #BlackLivesMatter

Aaron Goggans, BPF Co-Director Katie Loncke, and other Black meditation practitioners at Black-owned Flowering Lotus Meditation and Retreat Center, in Magnolia, Mississippi


It’s 5pm at the end of the November holiday weekend and just as I’m winding down, Aaron Goggans is getting fired up. From the cold beginnings of an East Coast winter evening, he’s animated on webcam as we discuss the intersection of Blackness, Asianness, Buddhism and the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

Goggans is a well-tread organizer. He’s worked on affordable housing and harm reduction in various communities of color. In 2014, he co-founded Black Lives Matter DC, one part of his efforts to build “Black led, multi-racial campaigns for justice.”

Goggans took a tentative step toward Buddhism last year as a part of this strategy. He attended BPF’s first annual Block Build Be retreat in July 2016.

Block Build Be (BBB) is a four-day non-denominational retreat facilitated by the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. It’s an opportunity to “explore the questions tugging most strongly at our hearts, engage in collective deep inquiry about our social change work, and draw upon the wisdom of the dharma to support us in meeting the issues of our times.” Unlike most dharma teaching retreats, BBB is highly interactive and focuses on asking hard questions about the intersection of Buddhism and social justice. BPF has been exploring the Block Build Be framework which echoes strategies developed by Joanna Macy, Gandhi, and others, since 2016.

Goggans sits outdoors at a picnic table while writing at the Block Build Be 2016 retreat

Initially, Goggans was skeptical. He says, “While I was aware Buddhism came from Asia, Buddhism felt really white to me.” But sometime between last July and today Goggans says that the Buddhist Peace Fellowship has become, “my spiritual home. In the stories I tell while organizing, I use y’all as a personal example of where I find sustenance.”

After hearing Block Build Be described at the summer retreat, Goggans brought the framework home to BLM DC. Goggans says, that Block Build Be “helped us explain our work in a new way which elevated the work.” BLM DC weaves together the tenets of building, blocking and being as three distinct but interrelated strategies for change.

In the context of his work with BLM DC, Goggans draws on a combination of BPF’s Block Build Be framework, Joanna Macy’s Three Pillars of the Great Turning, and his own organizing experience to determine what works in his context. He understands “block” to mean “actions to slow damage to beings, communities and the earth itself (i.e blockades, survival programs, boycotts). Build” is an analysis of structural causes and the creation of structural alternatives” (i.e. teaching, studying, consciousness building groups and forming intentional communities.) “Be” isshifts in consciousness and new paradigms that are embodied individually and collectively before, after and during blocking and building actions in order to increase sustainability, effectiveness and trans-formative pre-figurative capabilities [the ability to bring bits of the world we want into the present].” Its examples include unapologetic Blackness and spiritual practices.

Together, Goggans says Block Build Be is an integrated approach, “it has layers to it — a blocking action is supposed to build space for new worlds and allow us to be different.”

Goggans’ new orientation toward BBB is an example of a greater political shift within contemporary movement work toward spirituality—one that doesn’t detract from pursuits of social justice, but fortifies organizers and community activists to continue the long march toward it.

In September of last year, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander publicly declared her resignation from the practice of law, specifically in order to pursue spiritual study.

Solving the crises we face isn’t simply a matter of having the right facts, graphs, policy analyses, or funding. And I no longer believe we can “win” justice simply by filing lawsuits, flexing our political muscles or boosting voter turnout . . . Without a moral or spiritual awakening, we will remain forever trapped in political games fueled by fear, greed and the hunger for power.

In many ways, Alexander’s decision illustrates the contemporary return to past spiritual seeds planted 50 years ago by Ella Baker, Bayard Rustin, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and others who convened 60 religious and secular leaders after the Montgomery Bus Boycotts. Under the name of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, they rose to prominence as one of the primary groups using nonviolent protest to challenge segregation and racism faced by Black Americans across the country.

People react as D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser addresses the rise in violent crime in D.C. during a press conference at the former Malcolm X Elementary School in Congress Heights during a 2015 protest. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Similarly, since its formation, Black Lives Matter DC has made national news with its protests. In August 2015, they collaborated with other Black-led groups in DC to shut down Mayor Muriel Bowser’s speech, protesting a new program that would increase police presence in some of the city’s most densely Black areas and ease restrictions on search warrants. Goggans says the BBB framework enables BLM DC to easily connect direct actions with their less conspicuous but equally important counterparts, like community gatherings and meetings. He says, Block Build Be “allows me to put the types of activities that will help black people get free into conversation with each other.”

The Block Build Be retreat continues this year in Petaluma, California. You can learn more about the Block Build Be framework via BPF’s new online course, What’s My Role in the Revolution?

Part 1 in an interview series with Aaron Goggans, organizer with Black Lives Matter DC and participant in BPF’s Block Build Be 2016 retreat. Stay tuned next month, and hear more about Aaron’s take on the complexly held conversations on racism at Block Build Be.

Much gratitude for the generous financial support of BPFers who helped make Aaron’s participation possible!

You can be part of making this magic happen! Please contribute to our Block Build Be retreat scholarship fund!

You can help BPF bring together 35 people like Aaron for our third annual Block Build Be retreat. We carefully select a diverse cadre of experienced spiritual activists from across North America and the globe together to experiment with liberated living in multi-racial and gender-diverse communities. After an intense and joyful 4 days, they bring home transformative experiences at the retreat to their political project or sangha.

This project is 100% funded by people like you who believe in the exponential power of combining political and spiritual traditions for liberation. You can help us continue to offer a retreat scholarship to everyone who requests one.

Can you help us seed these scholarships? Please give today!  

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