Part Two: The Experience of MountainTop 2015

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These are critical and challenging times. But, your leadership blesses us, your passion for justice inspires us, and your determination to make a difference for racial justice and equity in our own day gives us hope. – Reverend Doctor Katharine Rhodes Henderson, president of Auburn Theological Seminary

Dr. Henderson offered these words to the participants at Auburn Theological Seminary’s MountainTop 2015 convention. As reported Wednesday, I was able to sit down live with several attendees to talk about the programming and their experiences. In that article, I highlighted the unique adventure that is MountainTop and how the 3-day program is structured to allow for creative collaboration and safe engagement.

Today, we continue the conversation. The women share how the MountainTop environment has affected their personal growth, and how they plan to take their experience back out into their communities.

Andrea Weston, Courtney Weber, Caitlin Breedlove, Luna Pantera, T. Thorn Coyle, Sabrina Hayeem-Ladani [Courtesy Photos]

Andrea Weston, Courtney Weber, Caitlin Breedlove, Luna Pantera, T. Thorn Coyle, Sabrina Hayeem-Ladani [Courtesy Photos]

Before arriving in Atlanta for the convention, the six women were all activists, artists and community educators for many years. Caitlin Breedlove is the co-director of Southerners on New Ground (SONG), which “organizes one of the largest LGBTQ memberships in the country into intersectional campaigns and base building across race, class, culture, gender and sexuality.” Breedlove was also involved in the planning of several #blacklivesmatter campaigns and protests in Durham, Charleston and Atlanta.

Andrea Weston is the host of the radio show “Liquid Libations Radio.” As a rootworker, she often presents and shares her practice at various events around the country. In May, for example, she was part of ritual performance that brought “together prayers, songs, and dances from throughout the African diaspora.”

Sabrina Hayeem-Ladani is an artist, poet and performer. Working for Auburn, she is on the “Table to Action Project” team that “explores the intersection between art and social justice.” Like Hayeem-Ladani, Courtney Weber is also an Auburn employee. Weber is known specifically for her work with Pagan Environmental Coalition – New York City, through which she has actively campaigned against Fracking.

Courtney Weber [Courtesy Auburn Theological Seminary]

Courtney Weber [Courtesy Auburn Theological Seminary]

Thorn Coyle has been an activist for years, publicly campaigning for racial justice. Her most recent work has been with Martin de Porres House of Hospitality in San Francisco and the Anti Police-Terror Project in Oakland. Her recently-released novel Like Water is directly inspired by this social justice work.

Luna Pantera has served on the regional Board of the National Organization of Women and “the American Civil Liberties Union chapter of the LGBTI.” She is currently involved in two new projects. One will provide media training for activists, and the other is a #blacklivesmatter quilt project that will honor the many lives that have been lost.

In discussing her work, Pantera also noted that she has been away from the movement. She was burned-out and had to take a break. As noted yesterday, this convention is helping her to transition back to being active. She said, “In other conventions, all we do is talk, talk, talk. MountainTop ignites all of our senses.” All the women nodded in agreement.

Luna Pantera [Courtesy Auburn Theological Seminary]

Luna Pantera [Courtesy Auburn Theological Seminary]

MountainTop is also challenging each of them to confront some of their own biases, boundaries and assumptions. Breedlove said, “Auburn builds relationships. It brings people together and teaches them how to engage with each other.” She noted that this is an area that often causes organizations to fail. People don’t know how, or aren’t willing, to engage with others of different viewpoints.

Coyle, then, recalled being in one of the working groups, or containers, with a number of people advocating for solutions involving change in government. As an proponent of more radical approaches, she kept quiet for a period of time and, then, finally said, “Does the radical voice need to be heard here?” And, to her surprise, the rest of the group welcomed her opinion. She said, “They made room for that.” She added that this convention experience is helping her to find “her own bridge.” In other words, she is locating the point of connection between the radical voice and those that work within the systems. She added, “All voices are necessary.”

Pantera also relayed a story in which she came up against “another strong black woman with an opposing view.” They were disagreeing over how to construct their group’s presentation. However, after some tension, both she and the other woman “learned how to share power.” She said, “I also learned how to surrender my power, and that was transformative … We both gave up our personal visions for the sake of the group vision.”

The women said that nobody at the conference was there as a representative of their own religion. They were there for who they were personally; for their passion for justice; and for their leadership roles in various areas. Westin said, “The Auburn staff provides a setting where we can all come together in trust. And, if there is an issue, we can safely unpack it, or find help unpacking it.”

Andrea Weston [Courtesy  Auburn Theological Seminary]

Andrea Weston [Courtesy Auburn Theological Seminary]

Hayeem-Ladani agreed, saying that part of this process is learning “how are we at being together?” and respecting that everyone comes to the conversation from a different entry point.

Next we discussed how these lessons-learned and the experiences would travel back with them to their communities and inform their lives? They unanimously agreed that MountainTop’s “creative visioning” methodologies could strengthen any activist work. As an example, Breedlove described how “leaders of spiritual homes,” such churches, covens, temples, could employ some of the support methods to prepare people for tense or difficult engagement, and teach activists how to avoid burn-out. On a personal level, she added that this experience will serve to “up her level of commitment.”

Coyle said that she plans to present some of the working processes to the Anti Police-Terror Project. She noted that the group is moving toward being more proactive, rather than only reactive. She said that MountainTop’s methodologies “build muscles of action,” which could helpful in the group’s work.

Pantera added that the unique methods of processing “help us come up with new ways of doing it. Then, we ask, ‘how can we never thought of it before?’ ” As Pantera comes out of her sabbatical, she hopes to work more with her local Pagan Community, where she sees a real need for bonding and community coordination. She said, “We need to get our act together.”

Through creative exploration, the MountatinTop environment demonstrated various ways to build the roads to action, and also demonstrated that bonds can be built across difference in order to strengthen social justice work. Hayeem-Ladani added that there is a sense of hope. “If you believe and I believe…,” we can make a difference.

Sabrina Hayeem-Ladani [Courtesy Auburn Theological Seminary]

At the end of three days, Auburn welcomed its guests to a dinner reception at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, one of the MountainTop’s supporting organizations. At the end of the evening, Reverend Doctor William Barber II stood up to speak. In his Pentecostal style, he invoked the spirit of justice for each and every one of the attendees. Then, he invited singer Yara Allen to lead the group in song.

She began an ohm-like intoning of sound using only the word, “Yes.” As this was happening, people privately reached out spiritually in their own way. At the same, Coyle took the hands of the people next to her and encourage others to do the same. Within minutes, the entire room, filled with people from many different religions and walks of life, had created an enormous linked circle. This moment of sound, voices, spirit and connection lasted for about 10 minutes.

Weber called it a “cauldron of rebirth” and an “immense cone of power that called to the ancestors who suffered due to slavery, violence, Jim Crow and more.” She said they were there “guiding us forward and calling us to keep going with this movement.”

Weber called it an “unbelievable moment.”