This is the fourth in our series of interviews with inspiring and interesting socially engaged Buddhists of our time. Previous guests have been Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi, Arun (author of the blog Angry Asian Buddhist), and Roshi Joan Halifax.
Today I’m very happy to share this space with Katie Loncke, who among many other things is the mind and heart behind the blog kloncke.com, which she describes as “a public interactive journal where I share my thoughts on Buddhism, radical politics, and how I am trying to live both.” (And where you can some times find some pretty fantastic recipes!)
I have been admiring Katie’s blog ever since I started the Jizo Chronicles, and finally got the chance to meet her last winter during a visit to the San Francisco Bay Area. In person, Katie has the same warmth and deep intelligence that shows up on her blog, and she challenged me (in a loving way) to think about how socially engaged Buddhism can be a more effective vehicle for change and justice.
I hope you enjoy getting to know Katie through this conversation.
The Jizo Chronicles: Where do you call home?
Katie: Born and raised in Sacramento, California; currently nesting in Oakland.
JC: What are you reading right now?
Katie: A few things. Another Buddhist woman-of-color Marxist friend and I just finished the Introduction to Reading Capital Politically by Harry Cleaver, as a preparation to read Volume I of Marx’s Capital together. Cleaver’s framework is really compelling, as he advocates using a strategic lens (rather than a philosophical or even economic one) from the perspective of the working class, which isn’t a distinction I ever heard reading Marx in college.
For a socially-engaged Buddhist study group with some folks at the Berkeley Zen Center, I’m excited to dive into a collection of correspondence letters between Gandhi and political leader Dr. B. R. Ambedkar. Here in dominant U.S. culture, and especially among convert Buddhists, it would seem almost like heresy to criticize Gandhi. But a lot of my political South Asian friends are not too keen on him. So I’m really curious to learn more about the disagreements around the political and/or spiritual issues of the time, especially from a figure as compelling as Ambedkar.
Then, literature-wise, I’m slowly sipping Nikky Finney’s award-winning book of poems, Head Off and Split (gives me chills; I fell in love with her, as did many people, after watching her incredibly moving acceptance speech for the National Book Award). And also a collection of short stories by Richard Ford, which I love for their crisp, down-to-earth observations of Midwestern working-class settings.
Finally, I’m constantly reading all kinds of articles online, culled from my friends’ Facebook feeds: dhamma pieces in Tricycle; news; political analysis. It’s like a new treasure-trove every morning!
JC: Who inspires you – Buddhist teachers, activists, writers, artists…
Katie: Oh, goodness — the list would be long! Just to narrow it down, let me offer a few groups that inspire me.
I think many of us have been inspired by the #Occupy / Decolonize movement, especially here in Oakland. And of course the Arab Spring uprisings that kind of incited this new wave of imagination and irreverence for law enforcement, which I appreciate. In figuring out how to build on the momentum, and incorporate this fire in sustainable ways, I really like the model of collective direct action groups — specifically the Seattle Solidarity Network, which bands working-class and poor people together to win specific demands from hyper-exploitative bosses and landlords. They’ve won close to thirty fights in the past few years, and built some community confidence which I think has contributed to the impressive verve of Occupy Seattle.
Groups that link structural and interpersonal violence, and confront racism and gender hierarchy directly, I also love. Here in the Bay, Communities United Against Violence (CUAV) does wonderful work.
In the Buddhist world, I’m super inspired by groups that offer teachings completely on a dana basis, and invite a lot of volunteer work. I think this is somewhat endemic to traditional Asian Buddhist communities. The main ways I’ve experienced it are through Vipassana meditation centers in the S. N. Goenka school (I lived and served at one such center in Spain for a few months), and through the East Bay Meditation Center. Both places have been very welcoming to really diverse communities of practitioners (at my last Vipassana retreat, discourses were translated into Burmese, Vietnamese, Hindi, and Khmer — and students themselves also spoke Farsi, Brasilian Portuguese, Spanish, so many languages!), and I think that the dana / volunteer structure really supports that.
Revolutions and mass movements inspire me. I feel mudita around the recent successful general strike in Nigeria, which restored the oil subsidies. Waves of strikes in China, hella dope. Of course there are big names in mass movements, and in some ways it’s wonderful to have heroes, but I’m equally inspired by the way that people get up early every day, try to eke out a living under capitalism, and meanwhile try to take care of each other, organize, and pursue freedom. That’s wonderful.
JC: What social issue is close to your heart right now?
Katie: I mentioned the Seattle Solidarity Network; I’ve been fascinated and encouraged by the (re-)emergence of solidarity networks for casualized or “precarious” workers. These are typically “at-will” employees in low-wage jobs, often part-time or temporary with little or no benefits, and scant career prospects at any particular company. Without a common industry or large shop floor to form the basis of a union, these precarious workers are finding other ways to build their strength in numbers.
I’ve spent the last year trying to form a brand-new solidarity network here in Oakland, for precarious workers and unemployed people, and it’s so wonderful to see the delight and astonishment on people’s faces when they meet perfect strangers who have shown up to support them in their struggle. Not out of charity, but out of solidarity: asking them, in turn, to support us when we need backup. It’s really very moving. A security guard shows up for a domestic worker’s fight, then they both go together to a mass action against police brutality. A hotel worker shows up for a Whole Foods worker; strangers support someone fighting a bank that’s foreclosing on their home. And over time we work together, organize together, trying to realize and build our own collective power.
JC: How does your dharma practice inform your involvement on that issue?
Katie: On a micro-level, of course, the patience, mindfulness, clear-sightedness and compassion that tend to develop naturally through dharma practice have been a big help to me, and would be to any organizer, I think. There are a few of us in the solidarity network here who practice meditation, and others have expressed interest in learning, or sitting together. I dream of getting a sitting group going for anti-capitalist Buddhists, called the Bay Area Radical Sangha. This might be the year!
On a larger scale, exploring interdependence has really shaped the way I understand solidarity. I don’t have to “know” someone in order to comprehend that we are connected — spiritually, and through local and global systems. The workers at the Foxconn factories in China, who face penalties of twelve years in prison for attempting to unionize, probably helped produce this laptop I’m typing on. And they must continue to work under unbearable conditions; otherwise, they and their families won’t eat. But their situation won’t improve, necessarily, if I give up my laptop, or stop buying Apple products. Instead (in my opinion) I am called to practice compassion and solidarity by supporting the actual struggles of the workers, and similar struggles of workers and peasants not only abroad but in the U.S. as well. (For a beautifully written, Buddhist-informed examination of struggles in the U.S. among Certified Nursing Assistants, I’d encourage everybody to read this piece. And get ready to support increasing organization of workers in the health care industry!)
Ultimately I believe that a commitment to non-harming means tapping into the interdependence that already exists, but which is laden with structural violence, and transforming it into a new, more loving mode of interdependence. One based on the premise that ordinary people, just like you and me, are capable of working together to run society! Historically it has only been the wealthy upper classes and owners who direct the pace and style of production in order to maximize profits. But I actually think that the regular people of the world could do a much better job of running things. All kinds of people: queers, women, people of color, the young, the old, fat people, people with various religious beliefs, people with all kinds of abilities and skills and contributions. I have faith in us. We will do an excellent job at ensuring universal food, clean water, shelter, clothing, medicine, education — all of these — once we have collective control over the reproduction of humanity. And solidarity is key not only to this re-imagined society, but to the process of getting there.
JC: If you could invite people to join you in taking one action on that issue, what would it be?
Katie: Well if you’re interested in starting a solidarity network in your town, by all means check out this helpful guide from SeaSol, which lets you know how to get started. But for those who don’t have that kind of time, I’d encourage folks to explore solidarity through collective direct action like joining a picket line.
Though I’d attended plenty of protests, most of which were symbolic (stop the war, demand reproductive justice, etc.), I had never stood on a picket line before two years ago. Since then I’ve organized pickets, and also walked with nurses, Red Vines candy makers, university students, hotel workers, former Whole Foods workers — all kinds of people fighting for better job conditions. It’s given me a much deeper appreciation for one way that people work together to reclaim their bodies, the labor-power of their bodies, in interrupting business-as-usual. With all the austerity measures and company cutbacks happening all over the country and the world, and all the organized resistance bubbling up, it should not be too hard to find a picket line to join!
JC: What else would you like people to know about you?
Katie: I think it might be useful to say that even though I practice Marxism, and have some pretty strong opinions about politics and social justice, I also love dialoguing with people — not just shutting down debate and thinking that I have all the answers. I say this because Marxists can get a pretty bad rap as dogmatic and cultish weirdos, lol! But I — and the communities I run with — we’re just doing our best to engage some big questions that many people have been engaging for a long time — and that you yourself are also engaging here on Jizo Chronicles. How do we create a society that produces for collective need and well-being, rather than privatized profit? A society where ordinary people exercise direct co-operative control over the places where they live and work every day? Where no individuals can “own” the resources that everyone — including non-human animals and the earth’s ecosystems — relies on to survive and thrive?
The word I use for this kind of reimagined society is communism. I know that word is triggering for a lot of people, and especially for those who’ve had close dealings with so-called “communist” regimes that are actually state-capitalist or basically dictatorships. But that’s not what I mean by it.
Working toward real communism, like vowing to liberate all beings from suffering, may seem futile, but it is not. We take it seriously. We even make plans, though we don’t presume to know exactly how everything will happen. This stuff is complex!
Anyway, thank you so much, Maia, for asking me these simple but powerful interview questions. It’s been an honor and a real treat.