Why Alice Walker Matters Now

Seems social creatives, progressives, people who think making a positive difference in their town, their country or planet is possible – such folk tend to linger on Why Capitalists Are Bad Guys or Big Pharma is evil or maybe just Monsanto is killing off small farms and heirloom seeds. All worthy points to be sure!

These kindly folk may be true, correct, honest – but seems we need to work together a whole lot better to face what’s coming. Rising temperatures, lack of water, a shift from machinery to nanotech, to say nothing of just what do we do when there is no more “good” petroleum? Creepy shale oil, dug from too deep under at too high a price! If not everyone can afford an electric car, who walks? Bicycles will be more common I’m betting. Numerous challenges like these.

So I’m glad to know this year’s choice of keynote speakers for Progressive Festival, a guiding light for all that is progressive – is Alice Walker – and I think this was a powerful, right choice. She’s a real grown up who didn’t give up her vision. Fine writer, too!

In a GuardianOnLine article, we are told “Walker was active in anti-apartheid politics and “felt close to the struggle”. It was part of her lifelong activism against racist violence and any form of injustice. She also feels deep love for and comradeship with Winnie and Nelson Mandela.

About Winnie, Walker said: “I kept up with Winnie throughout. I was there in prison with her.” She speaks of having been with Winnie when she was banished to Brandfort (a town in the Free State). She felt connected to Winnie all this time and observes how “many of us in the US suffered with her”. Courageous fighter for social justice and against racism. Stars for that.

But what interests me even more than her stellar activism is Alice Walker’s recent connection with Buddhist Pema Chodron, known for her peacefulness in the face of it all. You can read a full conversation between these two wise women at

An excerpt from the wonderful exchange:
Alice Walker: About four years ago I was having a very difficult time. I had lost someone I loved deeply and nothing seemed to help. Then a friend sent me a tape set by Pema Chödrön called “Awakening Compassion.” I stayed in the country and I listened to you, Pema, every night for the next year. I studied lojong mind training and I practiced tonglen. It was tonglen, the practice of taking in people’s pain and sending out whatever you have that is positive, that helped me through this difficult passage. I want to thank you so much, and to ask you a question. In my experience suffering is perennial; there is always suffering. But does suffering really have a use? I used to think there was no use to it, but now I think that there is.

Pema Chödrön: Is there any use in suffering? I think the reason I am so taken by these teachings is that they are based on using suffering as good medicine, like the Buddhist metaphor of using poison as medicine. It’s as if there’s a moment of suffering that occurs over and over and over again in every human life. What usually happens in that moment is that it hardens us; it hardens the heart because we don’t want any more pain. But the lojong teachings say we can take that very moment and flip it. The very thing that causes us to harden and our suffering to intensify can soften us and make us more decent and kinder people.

I will make the attempt to practice this, but may need a little help from Pema and Alice…