Sharon Jeffrey Lehrer, The Evolution of a Radical's Consciousness

The Evolution of a Radical's Consciousness    

Living an Authentic Life

Sharon Jeffrey Lehrer – A Founder of SDS

Even though I was a child of the cold war, grew up in a deeply segregated city, Detroit, Michigan, and in a country ruled by white men, I was raised by a social activist, feminist mother, who took me to an NAACP convention when I was 13 and who worked for the United Auto Workers (UAW). I'd march with her on union picket lines and was inspired by UAW President Walter Reuther's vision and values. I met Eleanor Roosevelt when I was five in her home in Hyde Park, New York. From then on, I wanted to be like her, serving humanity as a strong woman.

I got my chance when I met Al Haber in fall 1959 at the University of Michigan. He had a vision of creating a national student political movement months before the students sat-in at Woolworth's in Greensboro, North Carolina. Two years later, after organizing students at campuses around the country, SDS held its famous Port Huron Conference.

Standing on the shores of Lake Huron, watching the sunrise after an all-night session adopting the Port Huron statement, I was in awe of what we had done. We knew we had accomplished something significant, that we were dreamers and visionaries who were pushing out the boundaries of the traditional left and American culture. We were challenging authority and creating a society of empowered, authentic individuals who would actively participate in the body politic.

We were big thinkers with big hearts, we had big visions and beliefs of what is possible for humankind.

I believed what we wrote in the Port Huron Statement that individuals are fully capable, creative human beings with infinite possibilities for reason, freedom and love. It lifted my heart and soul then, and it still does today. I wanted to become that realized person. I wanted to live an authentic life, grow into our values, live my vision and change the world.

There were six themes that were and still are important to me about the Port Huron Statement: asking questions that matter, our values, our vision of participatory democracy, analysis and systems thinking, relationships, belonging, community and love and change and transformation.

During summers in college and for two years after graduating, I worked and lived in black communities in the South registering voters, in Harlem organizing rent strikes and in Guinea, West Africa building a community center. I wanted to live my SDS vision.

In 1965 I established the SDS Economic Research and Action (ERAP) project in Cleveland, Ohio, organizing white and black welfare mothers. Living communally in a poor white neighborhood, we organized by day and at night explored the meaning of "participatory democracy." We'd have lengthy discussions before arriving at decisions by consensus. We were committed to living our values. I chose to go to the Cleveland ERAP project because the men there respected the women and the women were strong leaders and organizers.

In 1973 I was the director of a community organization on the South Side of Chicago working to build an integrated community. While on a camping trip at Mt. Rainier, I had a very unusual experience which brought even more radical change to my life. It was what I now understand to have been a spiritual experience. I unexpectedly found myself in an internal dialogue. One part of me affirmed that I had a very successful professional career. Another part presented a question: "But how do you feel in your heart?" I had no idea how I felt in my heart. I was an organizer. I didn't know about my feelings. Who had time for that? Then a third part of me suggested that I resign from my job. This was a shock.

The next morning I awoke knowing that I was going to leave my great job of seven years. It was instantaneous: a new experience of decision-making.

Six months later, I made the big leap and left my job for California. I was smitten by California's beauty, the ocean, the mountains, and the freedom I felt. Through a series of synchronistic events I ended up at Esalen Institute, a center for the development of human potential on the Big Sur coast.

For someone who was a driven political organizer, whose purpose was to change the world, finding myself sitting in a hot tub gazing at the Pacific Ocean and attending workshops exploring my feelings and inner life was truly the most radical thing I had ever done. I was out of my comfort zone, and at the same time, I was intrigued by the journey.

Esalen gave me the opportunity to explore worlds that I didn't know existed. I discovered I had a heart. I discovered my emotions were rich with meaning, language and intelligence. I discovered that living authentically meant being able to identify and respect my feelings, even the uncomfortable ones.

I decided to permanently leave the comfort of the Midwest, my family, roots and traditions to move to California without a job or place to live. I soon established a consulting practice in San Francisco using SDS values and visions. For the past 35 years, I've consulted non-profits and small business, was the Director of the Center for Attitudinal Healing, and for the past 13 years, a partner with my husband in Lehrer Designs, Inc. 

Through a client, I had the good fortune of meeting an extraordinary woman, Dr. Angeles Arrien, a cultural anthropologist who was raised in the ancient traditions of the Basque culture. From her I learned that not all cultures share our Western world view. Indeed, some indigenous cultures have profoundly different beliefs about what is real, what matters, and how things change.

Learning to respect differences in cultures was helpful in 1981 when I was the consultant for a project organizing Southeast Asians in San Rafael, California. There were Cambodians, Vietnamese and Laotians, all with a different language, culture and history. Organizing the three nationalities, which had centuries of mistrust, to work together to fight for needed services was challenging and exciting.

Dr. Arrien taught us child-rearing practices that were new to me. I learned about cultures that valued, honored and respected the feminine principle, qualities of being, receiving, listening, nurturing, intuiting, feeling, conceiving, organizing and being in the mystery  They also honored, valued and respected the masculine or dynamic principle, qualities of doing, intellect, decision-making, focus, will and action.

Central to these cultures was balance. For an individual in meant developing and being in balance with ones feminine and masculine qualities as well as ones physical, mental emotional and spiritual selves. It also meant respecting and living in balance with the earth.

We learned what happens when these principles get out of balance. The feminine is dismissed and discounted as insignificant and the masculine is elevated to being superior. People, animals and the earth can be owned, dominated and manipulated for personal status, wealth and power.

Dr. Arrien taught me to take responsibility for my thoughts, feelings and action. To always ask: " What is my impact on others?" I continually witness my own thoughts and actions. It is painful when I find myself discounting my feminine qualities, my feelings, intuition and perceptions. It is equally disturbing when I witness myself exerting my power-hungry masculine self. How I control, blame, judge and manipulate. It is uncomfortable to take responsibility when I disrespect and cause harm to myself or others.

When I recognize my impact, I realize I'm not living the Port Huron Statement values that I so committed to in 1962. I'm not the  loving person I want to be. To live the love,  SDS's primary value, I have to continually change and grow into my "infinite capacity for reason, freedom and love."  Part of changing the world is  changing me.

Finally, Dr. Arrien taught us the Basque proverb: “Walk the spiritual path with practical feet.” This is when I began my spiritual journey, adding depth to my authenticity, greater understanding of whole systems and transformation.

My world view was evolving, changing and expanding beyond normal logic and reason and the SDS political paradigm.

I've come to realize there is a much larger consciousness at play in our world than I ever imagined as an activist. I see complexity in life, politics and transformation. I look for beliefs that underlie economic, political and cultural systems.

I now envision a world where people live in balance and harmony with all that is, seek resolution not just solutions and are defined by the quality and quantity of their love, not by how much they own, control or dominate. 

My childhood as a political activist and then with SDS were foundational for me. So strong is my commitment to live as a free spirit, I am continually compelled to explore assumptions and beliefs about reality and consciousness, as we did so courageously in 1962. I continue to learn, grow and change, becoming more authentic. Being part of the founding of SDS and living my values and vision have created a meaningful and fulfilling life.

I see all the changes happening in the world as similar to the transformative process of a caterpillar becoming a butterfly. The caterpillar consumes everything, goes into a cocoon and then dissolves into a liquidity substance that scientists call “imaginal cells.” Out of these “imaginal cells” something brand new comes into being and a butterfly is born.

I believe we are in a similar transformation. We are consuming everything around us, water, air, oil, money. The old is dissolving and out of the substance of the old, the imagination in us is stirring, bringing forth new ways of being, creating, thriving, and relating to each other and the earth. My hope is in the power of our imagination to envision and birth something new, beyond what is visible now.

I still have Hope for the future and for all dreamers, visionaries and activist around the world.