Sandhya Rani Jha: Learn how to make a difference in your neighborhood and the world

Photo courtesy of Chalice Press

Ordinary people can effect extraordinary change, but sometimes they need encouragement and information about how to get started, says the pastor, activist and author of the book “Transforming Communities.”

The world around us is a wreck -- and often the challenges of making the world better seem overwhelming, said the Rev. Sandhya Rani Jha.

But Jha, a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) minister with master of public policy and M.Div. degrees, said that ordinary people can come up with solutions. To help them do that, she has written a guidebook to community transformation that she describes as “equal parts inspiration, education and DIY.”

Transforming Communities book coverIn “Transforming Communities: How People Like You Are Healing Their Neighborhoods,” each chapter features the story of a nonprofit, the model on which that organization relies, and a section with resources for learning more.

“Part of the reason I wrote this book was to remind regular people that we have the skills that are necessary, and that we have great examples we can borrow from if we want to make a difference,” she said.

The examples range from a Basque village in the 1940s to a Boston nonprofit helping a poor community increase homeownership to a Minnesota organization working with sex offenders leaving prison to a group of Muslims and Sikhs organizing in the aftermath of the 2012 shooting at the Oak Creek, Wisconsin, gurdwara.

Although Jha hopes that the book will serve as a resource for people of all faith convictions -- or none -- she herself is committed to what she calls “faith-rooted organizing.”

Raised in an interracial and multifaith family, Jha is the founder and director of the Oakland Peace Center, a collective of nonprofits in Oakland, California. She is an anti-racism trainer and community organizer.

She spoke to Faith & Leadership about her book and how she hopes it will be used. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: Why did you write this book?

I’ve come to realize that some of the brilliance of the people who have the opposite goals that I do has been that they have started small and then intentionally built up, because they recognize that culture shift ripples up and out.

I happen to be an armchair scholar of the religious right, and so I’m very aware of the ways they’ve built up power intentionally working from the grassroots, over the previous five decades.

While I imagine a very different world, there is one page I want to take out of their book, which is that the only way to create lasting policy changes, lasting culture shifts, is to start local and build out. So that’s part of where it’s coming from.

The other thing for me, though, is when we try to effect change just at the national level, if there’s not a solid, deeply committed value system underpinning those policies, they get overturned very quickly.

Q: What you’ve just said describes it somewhat abstractly, but the book itself is very concrete, based on the stories of real people.

In the work I do, I encounter a whole bunch of people who recognize that the world is not the way they want it to be but feel overwhelmed by the possibility that anything they do could make a difference.

But there are hundreds of examples all around us of regular people without really amazing skills, without huge fancy degrees, without a lot of technical support or resources, who have actually made huge differences on a communitywide level.

So part of the reason I wrote this book was to remind regular people that we have the skills that are necessary, and that we have great examples we can borrow from if we want to make a difference.

Then on top of that, if we want to make a difference in the world, we need to make a difference in our neighborhood first. As we build out that neighborhood change, we build out communities that are invested in mutual care, in interdependence, in a different way of understanding who is valuable in our communities.

That’s how we effect national change. It doesn’t happen overnight, but it does happen because regular people invest in creating communities that practice those things.

Q: Let me pause on that point that you make, because you do really stress this over and over in the book. What is your advice to people who do feel discouraged?

One story that keeps coming back to me over and over is the story of the village of Le Chambon in France. What strikes me about that story is it wasn’t a group of people starting new programs or innovating the way they financed their social services or re-envisioning the way the government was run.

It was a group of people who grounded themselves in what it meant to be church. And the message they heard over and over was what it means to be church is showing up for the people who are most vulnerable.

They heard that and believed that of themselves, and it didn’t seem to them all that heroic that when the French government was taken over by Nazi sympathizers -- the Vichy government came into power -- they took for granted that their job was to harbor Jews and Roma (who used to be referred to as Gypsies), and intellectuals and homosexuals and the people who were being prosecuted by the Nazi regime.

What I find really important for us to remember is it’s not just about what we do. It’s something as simple as internalizing the very basic values of who we understand ourselves to be.

If we’re doing something as simple as practicing a consistent ethic of who we are as a community, that’s a tool that positions us to be part of a resistance to the ugliest things we see going on in this country.

Q: Each of the chapters tells a story and then describes the model it illustrates and offers resources. Why did you choose the structure that you did?

I think one of the great privileges I have gotten because of the strange career path I took -- I used to work in Congress; I used to work for a national interfaith organization; I’ve worked for my region and for my denomination; and I also work very, very deeply in a very specific local context -- and that diversity of experiences has allowed me to be a witness to how many models there are out there.

Some of what overwhelms us is we don’t know where to start. My hope was for this book to help us get unstuck if we are overwhelmed.

I don’t advocate for one of the models I talk about in my book; I think any one of them could be useful in almost any community I’ve been in in the world.

So it’s not so much, “Figure out which of these models you need to be embracing” as, “What is it that catches fire for you that you could see helping you connect with the people in your community on a deeper level to effect the transformation that you seek?”

So that was a very technical, wonky, nerdy policy-wonk side of me coming out, where I was like, “What would happen if people had these very simple tools, any one of which could make a huge difference in any community?”

Q: So how would you recommend folks who work in more hierarchical structures follow your advice?

I have seen many instances where, within the hierarchical structures, it is entirely possible for people at every level of leadership to practice servant leadership.

I know of a congregation that had a little bit of land in one of the increasingly most expensive communities in California. It is an incredibly wealthy community, and it’s a congregation that I think people would assume had a lot of privilege.

But there were people on their street living in their cars. And one person in that congregation who herself came from a lot of resources said, “I hear scriptures in church on Sunday that say we’re supposed to take care of homeless people. Do people in this church realize there are homeless people in our neighborhood?”

Just that basic observation got them having conversations that ended up going all the way up to the bishop. It was thanks to the bishop, who was really committed to liberation theology and who understood that the Scriptures talk about poverty 2,000 times [that the congregation began to make a difference].

They were saying, “Do we actually have a responsibility to provide housing for homeless people in this wealthy neighborhood where everyone pretends that there is no poverty but we can see it, because it’s parking on the street where we worship?”

They ended up collaborating across what most people would see as a great deal of hierarchy, and a great deal of privilege, to actually push their city to acknowledge the crisis in their midst and to be the kind of city that everyone believed it to be, which was an inclusive and welcoming community where we would not put up with people having to live in their cars.

I went to city council meetings where the people from that church and the other faith communities in the neighborhood showed up to advocate for this housing going in.

What struck me was the impact of people who do have privilege saying, “We stand with homeless people, because we know they are not just a category; we know them to be real human beings.” It made a huge difference.

In fact, the most conservative member of that council -- for the first time that I am aware of -- mentioned just before he cast his vote that he has a brother who is homeless and deals with mental health issues.

He said he wished he knew what resources his brother could turn to -- before he voted in favor of this, which we assumed he was going to vote against. Because, like I said, he was very business-aligned, very conservative.

People just like him had helped him connect to his faith identity, had helped him connect to his own story.

Thank God for that bishop, who, when there were people in that congregation who felt anxious and ambivalent about giving up some of their land for housing, said, “I want to remind you who Jesus said we’re here to work with.”

I think that made a huge difference in the congregation’s willingness to be brave and bold when they were not of one mind about that project.

Q: So there was leadership coming up from the bottom but then leadership flowing back down from the top.

I have been seeing the same thing happening around immigration justice, where dioceses and presbyteries and regions and conferences are listening to the voices of their congregants who are immigrants, their congregants who are undocumented, and realizing that these stories are our stories.

What gives me a lot of hope right now is the way that that dialogue -- where normally there is a top and a bottom -- they are actually in conversation with each other as equals. Where the bishops and the undocumented congregants are on the same team and are informing each other as they do this work together -- not everywhere, but in some places.

Q: What do you hope comes of the book?

I cannot wait -- cannot wait -- to hear the stories. With my last book, “Pre-Post-Racial America,” the most life-giving part of that book for me was hearing people say, “My congregation read that book, and we realized we don’t know the people in the mosque down the road from us. We have now committed to deepening our relationship with our Muslim brothers and sisters.”

Or any number of, “We thought Black Lives Matter was a terrorist organization, and then we read your book, and now we realize the theological value of the movement for black lives. So we’ve started getting involved with young black activists, not just the old-guard civil rights folks that we felt comfortable with.”

That was the moment I realized I wasn’t writing books so that people could read books. I was writing books to on-board people into a movement that they didn’t know how to get involved in.