We begin with the understanding that the fundamental problem confronting today’s world is that we cannot see one another for who we really are. We believe that inherent in our very social nature is a desire for mutual recognition, a desire to see and be seen as good-hearted and decent people who seek to become fully present to each other in the relation that the great Jewish theologian Martin Buber called a relation of I and Thou. We recognize that in the culture we have inherited and stretching over hundreds if not thousands of years, we have become “alienated” from each other, from ourselves, and from the natural world, pressed by our Fear of the Other to deny our deepest longings for authentic contact and connection and to live spiritually impoverished lives of unnecessary separation and mutual distance.
This Fear of the Other has been institutionalized in our overly competitive economic system and fear-based political culture, and has been accentuated in recent decades by the expansion of television and other social media that purport to link us together but often further separate us by projecting an artificial and one-dimensional social environment, a skittish surface of the world that keeps us glancing off the authentic world that we long to come in sustained contact with. It is this culture of fear and mutual distance that has been in significant part responsible for the creation of a world in which wars based on an anxious hyper-nationalism and irrational demonization of others are accepted as likely inevitable, and in which we continue to exploit the natural world whose in-dwelling sacredness, intelligence, and beauty we can no longer easily experience with the awe and wonder that should sustain our attitude toward it. Without realizing it, we live withdrawn into ourselves, in fear of others’ capacity to humiliate and in other ways cause harm to us, passing each other with blank gazes on the street, and seemingly trapped in artificial roles, self-images, and patterns of living that recreate our separation from generation to generation.
We, the founders of this Center, firmly believe that things don’t have to be this way and that the present state of affairs can and must be changed. But the change that we seek cannot be achieved by electing one special person to be president of a country no matter how intelligent or committed he or she may be, or by enacting new socially or environmentally progressive legislation, no matter how laudable that legislation’s goals may be. What is needed instead is a spiritual transformation of the very surround in which we experience one another, an elevation of the social space that we inhabit that will permit us to confirm each other’s essential good, high-spirited, and loving nature and to gradually gain the confidence that the longing for mutual recognition that we each feel within ourselves is also felt within everyone around us.
Such a spiritual transformation of the social environment requires the creation of what we call a “parallel universe” existing inside our present-day society—a just, sacred, and sustainable network of social and ecological relationships that by virtue of the energy and spirit that it generates has the capacity to attract others to it, and to lead others to dare to hope that they too should seek to create a world that can fulfill their own deepest longings and aspirations. By building a Center that in many different ways thinks about, talks about, teaches, and manifests this new social climate and way of being, we wish to embody a model of what the future society might look like, in a way that inspires others to create their own affiliated efforts in the days and years to come.
To carry out our vision, we are lucky to have a remarkable building that was originally a flour mill in the 19th century and has gone through a number of incarnations since then, eventually serving as a brewery and winery in the 1980’s and early 1990’s. The Arlene Francis Foundation acquired the building in 1996 for the purpose of providing educational and cultural activities to benefit Sonoma County, and from 1997 – 2008 the Foundation partnered with San Francisco’s progressive New College of California to offer bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Culture, Ecology, and Sustainable Community for students seeking to link their education with positive social and environmental change. With the closure of New College, the Foundation once again had the opportunity to re-envision the building’s tremendous potential, and an important aspect of this revisioning has been to commit ourselves to transforming the foundation building itself into a model Green Building, meeting all the highest standards of environmentally sound construction, as well as maximally efficient energy usage, ecological recycling, composting, and solid waste practices. During New College’s era, Sonoma State University devoted a semester-long course to the research and development of green recommendations for our historic building. We will make use of their recommendations to shape our plans. We want our building to manifest our commitment to stewardship of the earth and to serve as a model for what is possible in creating “parallel universe” in the area of environmental sustainability.
The Arlene Francis Center for Spirit, Art, & Politics seeks to be a wonderful synthesis of educational, cultural, and direct-services projects that will contribute significantly to the social and political life of Santa Rosa and the surrounding area. Our aim in designing the Center has been to avoid creating a smorgasbord of well-meaning progressive activities, each operating under its own unstated assumptions about how best to achieve positive change. Instead, we have sought to explicitly articulate a unifying vision that joins all our activities as multi-faceted expression of our mission and philosophy. We are convinced that lasting social change adequate to the challenges facing humanity at this moment will only be achieved through transforming human relationships so as to overcome the fear that divides us and enables us to become present to each other in a new and affirming way.
We invite you to support and participate in our effort.
CLICK TO HEAR AUDIO VERSION PAGE OF PETER GABEL’S PRESENTATION OF SPIRITUAL ACTIVISM