My Learning Journey

Posted by ocean on May 28, 2009 in Uncategorized |

My Learning Journey
By Ocean Robbins Each of my eight great grandparents were Jews in Eastern Europe who fled persecution. They found refuge in Canada and the United States. Some of them managed to build a life in the “new world,” others were driven crazy by the trauma they had endured. All four of my grandparents grew up with a great deal of terror, and they struggled to pass on to their children a life of material securi ty. My dad’s father succeeded — materially — beyond his wildest dreams. He created an ice cream business that flourished. Known as Baskin-Robbins, or 31 Flavors, it became the world’s largest ice cream company. My dad grew up swimming in an ice cream-cone shaped swimming pool, eating enormous amounts of ice cream, and inventing new flavors. My grandfather worked almost ‘round the clock, building the business. So my dad hardly knew his father, except at the corporate headquarters, where he was pushed from his earliest childhood to one day join his father in running the hugely successful company. But rather than commit his life to inventing a 32nd flavor, my dad dedicated his life, publicly and personally, to the growth of compassion and healing in the world. He walked away from the company, and from any access to his family’s ice cream fortune, and moved with my mom to a tiny island off the coast of British Columbia, Canada, where they built a 1-room log cabin, grew most of their own food, and lived on less than $500 per year.
That’s Where I Came In
I was born in that cabin, with few material possessions and a very simple lifestyle. I grew up monetarily poor, but I grew up feeling rich. I had clean air, clean water, time with my mom and dad, my basic needs met, and beautiful nature all around me. This upbringing grew in me a deep love of nature and the Earth. Then in the 1980s, when I was 10, my family moved to California, and my dad began working on a book called Diet for a New America, which was one of the first books to show how our food choices affect not just our health and happiness, but also the future of life on Earth. His book became a runaway bestseller, and he began appearing on most of the major national US talk shows. The media had a lot of fun with my dad’s story, calling him the “Rebel without a Cone.” They said he was the ice cream heir who walked away from a life of sure riches because he wanted to make a difference in the world, and tagged him the “Prophet of Non-profit.” His work made him something of a celebrity. There were 20,000 letters-a-year pouring in from enthusiastic readers, and the response to my dad’s work brought financial security to our family. Inspired by his example, and feeling blessed by tremendous emotional and spiritual support from both of my parents, I felt that I wanted to give something to the world, and to do something to reach out to my generation. Recognizing that the planetary bio-system was deteriorating rapidly under the impact of human activities, and that my generation seemed too cynical or too distracted to be stepping up in response, at age 15, I joined with a friend named Ryan Eliason in starting a project that would later become an organization we called YES!. Our goal was to help young people make a difference in the world. We organized a national tour, speaking to school assemblies about the environment and what our peers could do to make a difference. Ryan and I found other enthusiastic young people to join us, raised tens of thousands of dollars, and launched an organization. The response to my dad’s work opened many doors for us, as people who were inspired by his books would ask how they could help and he would often encourage them to support YES!, or to bring us to their communities. Fueled by this support, tremendous passion, and a lot of hard work, in the first half of the 1990’s YES! was to reach half a million students in high schools in more than 40 US states.
It Wasn’t Always Easy
In time, many people would respond to our message with great enthusiasm, but we got off to a terribly bumpy start. From the outset, we were confronted with our high degree of ignorance about the realities and life experiences of some of the communities we were intending to reach. For example: In February of 1990, we delivered our first school assembly — at Galileo High School in San Francisco. The school was surrounded by barbed wire fences, it had metal detectors on the way in, and we were told that students were forbidden to wear blue or red of any kind, as these were “gang colors.” We were warned not to wear these colors ourselves, lest we risk appearing to take sides in the gang war. For amplification of our assembly, which was held in the school gymnasium, we were given a battery-powered megaphone that sounded nasally at best. Five hundred students poured into the bleachers, and it was only then that it dawned on me that they were all from communities of color – people descended from Asian, African, Latino, Pacific Islander and other ethnic groups – while I was one of four presenters, all of whom were white. We began the presentation with a skit that was funny enough, though I don’t think most of the students could hear us as we passed the megaphone back and forth to deliver our various lines. Then we began to talk about the melting polar ice caps, the falling tropical rainforests, and the need to take action. Our message was greeted with blank stares, and an increasingly bored group that gradually gravitated towards incessant chatter. We talked about eating organic food, recycling, and eating less meat. When we got to the part about eating “lower on the food chain,” the students’ reaction went from bored and ignoring us, to outright hostility. “Are you saying we can’t eat at McDonald’s?”, one girl challenged me. “Yes, I am saying that McDonald’s is part of a system of food production that is destructive,” I answered. “Booh!”, shouted a group of vocal students, and a few paper airplanes were thrown at us. From that point, we went through the motions of our planned presentation with only a handful of our audience members even looking at us. The majority talked, argued, teased one another, listened to music, and generally treated this like a break time. The bell rang with me in mid-sentence, and everyone got up and left like lightening had struck, eager to speed out the door of the gym. Afterwards, only a couple students were kind enough to stick around and talk to us. “That assembly sucked,” said one African-American girl who looked to be about 15 years old. “It just wasn’t about our lives at all,” said another. I felt down, dejected, and dispirited. And at that moment I knew that I was beginning to get a glimpse of a vast piece of work that lay before me. Not just the work of creating a better and more skillful presentation that would more effectively reach our audiences. More vital, I was beginning to sense the inner work that it would take to come to terms with my own identity. For only then could I truly engage with the realities of others.
The Journey of Self Knowledge and Partnership
As we continued our travels from city to city, experiencing the realities and struggles of many different kinds of communities, we kept broadening our definition of the environment to include people as well as the planet. We diversified our performance troupe, our organization, and our message. And I, too, was challenged very personally to see how privileged I was, in ways I had never before recognized. I began to realize that I was coming of age as a white, heterosexual male with a US passport and financial sufficiency, and with all kinds of opportunities available to me and my work. Even more significantly, I had loving parents who had always helped me to believe in myself. Sometimes it is only when we step out of what has always seemed “normal” to us, that we can begin to have a fresh perspective on who and what we are. As I engaged with young people from a broad diversity of backgrounds, I was beginning an ever deepening journey in relationship to my own experience of privilege, and the many questions and contradictions the journey brought to light. Why did I have so many opportunities when billions of people were struggling to feed their families, and when tens of millions of American young people were living below the poverty line? In a world with a vast wealth divide, economic resources give certain people more power, more influence, and more freedom than others. Sweatshop conditions and farmworker treatment are directly linked to lowering the costs of goods, which in a consumeristic culture means that a form of violence and exploitation is somewhere in the dark underbelly of most of the stuff we consume. How did I fit into all that? I didn’t want to be defined by the madness of the times. Surely my life was about giving something to make a difference. But at the same time, we are part of larger systems and institutions, and are impacted by them in ways we might not intend. The more I learned about the realities of oppression and injustice, the more confused I felt. I knew that I had love and gifts to share with the world. From the age of 10, my daily prayer had been quoting from St. Francis, “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.” Surely educating my peers about the environment, and inspiring them to make a difference with their lives, was an embodiment of this prayer. But the road I was on was slowly beginning to teach me that there is a world of difference between being an instrument of peace, and being on a crusade to teach the world. I used to think that there must be some universal message that, if everyone heard it, would transform humanity. Over time I was coming to think that human needs are as diverse as human experiences, and that sometimes it is a greater service to listen than to teach. Over time, I was beginning to listen – and learn. YES! evolved with the years, and by the end of the 1990s, our focus had shifted from a high school assembly tour to week-long events we called “Jams” (initially launched as a project of YES! by my dear friend and colleague, Tad Hargrave) for groups of 30 diverse young leaders. Our “Jam” participants were founders or leaders in organizations or movements working for thriving, just and sustainable ways of life for all, and they came from many dozens of nations. I was growing to have yet another kind of privilege: A global network of friends and allies that worked, learned, and grew with me. The community of Jam participants, and my fellow conveners and facilitators, have taught me profound lessons about the real meaning of partnership, and about how we can bridge some of the great divides of our times in ways that are healing and life giving for all of us.

What’s Alive for Me Now
Now I’m 35 years old, and I am married to an extraordinary woman named Michele. Eight years ago, with a little help from me, she gave birth to identical twin boys named River and Bodhi. They were born prematurely, and spent their first six weeks of life in the hospital, in intensive care. They turned blue from lack of oxygen many times per day, and when they finally came home, we were overjoyed, though we knew it was going to be a long road ahead of us. River and Bodhi continue to struggle with numerous developmental delays and special needs. They are also incredible reminders to me, on a daily basis, of the power of play, of the simple healing beauty of love, and of what really matters most in life. It’s been a long haul, caring for the special needs of these two little guys while directing an organization and trying to help a generation respond to the madness and violence of our times. Sometimes it has seemed a heroic achievement just to make it through the day. Truly, there isn’t enough time, ever, to do all the things I would do if I could. So I get to practice doing the best I can with the time I have, and trying to let the rest go by.

My parents spent twenty years building a solid nest egg of financial resources, and Michele and I also valued saving whatever we could to care for our children’s long term needs and our own financial futures. Then on December 11, 2008, we learned that almost the entirety of my family’s life savings were essentially stolen in what was suddenly exposed to be the largest Ponzi scheme in world history – an outfit run by a man whose name is now synonymous with greed and exploitation, Bernard Madoff. It was a rude and economically devastating first-hand encounter with the economic meltdown that has rocked the world’s financial markets and wiped out pension funds, foundation assets, stock portfolios and jobs around the world.

In one fell swoop, my wife and I had lost our life savings, and we had lost the safety net of my mom and dad’s earned wealth. We had special needs twins, and were in the midst of an economic meltdown. Yet I knew that my faith was being tested again. For several years, I have made it a custom to pray every morning, “may I be given everything I need to do what I am alive for.” I felt that somehow, in some way, even this devastating loss could be a part of the ultimate purpose for which I took birth.

So we set about rethinking all of our expenses, and looking at what we could do ourselves, what we could make our selves, what we could do without, and how we could live more simply, more healthfully – and more frugally. We began renting spaces in our home, and living in more community with loved ones, some of whom needed to downsize or save money themselves. We now share a bathroom between seven people – but it is working for us, and I love the community with whom I am sharing space. I think it is making life richer, and more beautiful, than it was before. And on more learning: if ever we have any savings to invest again, we will invest differently, too!

In my twin’s premature birth and subsequent special needs, and the theft of our savings, I have felt my faith tested. And what is clear to me is that we don’t get to choose most of what happens to us. Into every life, it seems, comes some share of tragedy. Most likely, a lot of the pain I will know is yet before me. And yet we do get to have some input into how we respond. Life, perhaps, is a lot about what we do with what is given to us. I use to pray to God to have things go the way I wanted them to go. Sometimes I still do. But increasingly, I find myself praying for the strength, the wisdom, and the patience, to make the best of however things unfold around me. My favorite question to ask people right now, perhaps because it is so alive in my life, is: “What has been a defining struggle or challenge in your life’s journey, and how has your response to it helped you to grow in wisdom, faith, or compassion?” In these times, when there is so much suffering and struggle for so many, we each need to be asking ourselves how we can make the best of what is so, and transform our own traumas and struggles into precious gifts for humanity. For in that transformation, I believe, lies the hope of the world.

Learn more about Ocean at www.oceanrobbins.com, and about YES!, the organization he co-founded, at www.yesworld.org.

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