The Seed: Conversations for Radical Hope

Love, Power, Justice: How Do We Make Our Activism Effective and Spiritually-Grounded? with Eileen Flanagan

November 01, 2022 Pendle Hill, Dwight Dunston, Eileen Flanagan Season 1 Episode 4
The Seed: Conversations for Radical Hope
Love, Power, Justice: How Do We Make Our Activism Effective and Spiritually-Grounded? with Eileen Flanagan
Show Notes Transcript

How can we practice courage?  How do we build our “fear toolbox” and find our roles in social change work? In this episode, Eileen breaks down concrete steps for discernment around these questions. Her work as an environmental activist and spiritual writer has long focused on building effective movements that are grounded in love and harness people’s power. Here, she and Dwight break down the turning points and learnings over her career that have transformed her thinking about the relationships between love, power and justice, and about the illusion of separation.

Eileen Flanagan
has served as both clerk and campaign director of Earth Quaker Action Team, which uses nonviolent direct action to pressure corporations contributing to climate change. She has also been a Pendle Hill Resident Teacher, a university lecturer on racism, and Trainings Coordinator for Choose Democracy, which trained 10,000 people in nonviolent strategies to prevent a coup in the lead up to the 2020 election. Her online courses on effective and spiritually grounded activism have engaged people around the world. The award-winning author of three books, she tells the story of her leading to work on climate justice inRenewable: One Woman’s Search for Simplicity, Faithfulness, and Hope.

Read more about Eileen's work at

Listen to Eileen’s November 2020 First Monday Lecture, “What Happens Wednesday? Preparing Ourselves for the Work Ahead” here. 

Register for Eileen’s upcoming Pendle Hill workshop, Making Our Activism More Effective through Nonviolent Direct Action, here.

The Seed asks guests to share a quote or text that has been transformational for them. Eileen shared the following quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech “Where Do We Go From Here?”:

“What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best … is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power, correcting everything that stands against love.”

Find the transcript for this episode here.


The Seed is a project of Pendle Hill, a Quaker center, open to all, for Spirit-led learning, retreat, and community. We’re located in Wallingford, Pennsylvania, on the traditional territory of the Lenni-Lenape people.

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This project is made possible by the generous support of the Thomas H. & Mary Williams Shoemaker Fund.

Eileen Flanagan  0:08  

I am not interested in spending my time doing things that are symbolic that won't make a difference. But I'm also not interested in spending my time in ways that aren't grounded in love. 

[“I Rise” plays] 

Dwight Dunston  0:25  

Welcome, everyone, to The Seed: Conversations for Radical Hope, a Pendle Hill podcast where Quakers and other seekers come together to explore visions of the world that is growing up through the cracks of our broken systems. I'm your host, Dwight Dunston. 

Today, we are welcoming to the show Eileen Flanagan. Eileen is an award-winning Quaker author and activist whose work centers on growing a spiritually grounded and effective climate justice movement. She is currently the campaign director of Earth Quaker Action Team. Eileen was a resident student at Pendle Hill in the 90s and continues to give lectures and workshops on themes of activism and spirituality. Her next book will be on the intersection of racial and environmental justice. 

Welcome back, everyone. So delighted today to be joined by a dear friend, someone whose life and presence and the way that she moves through the world deeply inspires me. I'm just so grateful to have Eileen Flanagan here with us on the podcast. And Eileen, we start every episode by just asking our guests, what is it like being them today? So I want to start there. What is it like being Eileen Flanagan today?

Eileen Flanagan  1:42  

Wow, what a question. I feel so blessed. Really! I woke up to a little sound of rain and some green outside of my window, and got to go to do work that I really believe in and have meetings, planning exciting, direct actions for the fall around climate change and justice issues. And then I got to come over here and talk to my friend Dwight. So, I'm feeling very, very blessed.

Dwight Dunston  2:10  

We often ask our guests to bring with them something that's just transformed them, moved them, inspired them in the way that they think about the world, think about their work in terms of bringing into fruition beloved community or a transformed world, a more liberated world. And I know you brought a quote for us today. And I'm wondering if you could read it out loud and tell us just a bit about it.

Eileen Flanagan  2:33  

Yeah, I actually learned this quote at Pendle Hill, I realized. And I guess the context is that I had started becoming an activist in my 20s. And I did, you know, work for a couple years that really felt like it was missing something for me, and I wasn't sure what. And that was what led me to come to Pendle Hill as a student, kind of seeking a more spiritual way. And that was great. But then the activism I got involved with coming out of that was very spiritually grounded, but not very effective, frankly. I've protested so many wars that just happened anyway. And it wasn't until like, right around turning 50 that I discovered a way of integrating those things, of making social change and being spiritually grounded. And so this quote from Dr. King really captures that. He delivered it at the 10 year anniversary of the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference that he led. So he was speaking to a bunch of ministers about the fact that religious people sometimes think it's just all about being faithful. It's not about being effective. And he was challenging that and saying, like, we've accomplished a lot, but we haven't accomplished enough. And it's because we don't have power. So the quote I shared was:

"Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice. And justice at its best is power, correcting everything that stands against love." 

So that quote just really crystallized something for me, especially that first sentence and the idea that love without power is sentimental and anemic. I was like, that's what all those peace vigils--that's why they were so disempowering. Why I started to feel like it didn't make any difference to be out there. Because we weren't actually challenging power, we were just kind of demonstrating how we felt about war. But that's not the same as intervening in a way that can actually stop the war.

Dwight Dunston  4:46  

Yeah, you said so much in there. You mentioned the monumental birthday. You just had another birthday, happy belated birthday. Yeah, I don't know. For me, whenever a birthday comes around, there's a going inward for me. And then also there's like a new way that I feel like I'm viewing the world around me. So I'm curious, as you've read this quote, if there's any new or fresh eyes you might be coming to this quote with in this moment?

Eileen Flanagan  5:09  

That's a really interesting question. I think the relevance of turning 60, for me, is just [that] I can't pretend that more than half my life is still ahead of me. You know, and so, really feeling like, I want to be making deliberate choices about how I spend my time. I am not interested in spending my time doing things that are symbolic that won't make a difference. But I'm also not interested in spending my time in ways that aren't grounded in love, partly because I think it's more effective, but not just out of effectiveness. You know, like, there's a gazillion meetings I could go to tonight, really.  Especially now with Zoom, there's literally an endless amount of things I could sign up for. And the things I want to sign up for are at that intersection of building love and power. Because I think we, working at the grassroots, really need both.

Dwight Dunston  6:10  

I also feel called to really think about the love, how do we deeply rooted in love. I mean, King and others called the will in the skill, this belief in transforming our society by embodying a deep love and a deep care for individuals and turning our righteous anger towards the systems and some of the bigger things, but also be skillful. And I know that you been working on a book recently, and in many ways, you've been led to write this book. And so I'm just curious if you can talk a little bit about the leadings that you had around writing this book, and yeah, any learnings that you have had and just exploring that leading.

Eileen Flanagan  6:51  

Wow. Yeah, I think one of the lessons of this book is that some seeds sprout really fast. And some are like those Sequoia seeds, but need a long time and some fire to kind of get them going. It was eight years ago that I received the seed that became this book. And it was like a spiritual message that came to me, that said, it's not about us saving the Earth, the Earth will survive whether we do or not. But the crisis of the Earth is saving us from our illusion of separation.

Dwight Dunston  7:25  

Can you say that one more time? 

Eileen Flanagan  7:25  

Yeah. And that last line, in particular, the crisis of the Earth is saving us from our illusion of separation. So the first layer that I heard in that message was around organizing. There had at that point been this new thing called the Cowboy Indian Alliance, where indigenous people and white ranchers and the American West came together to fight the Keystone XL Pipeline. Something similar was happening in South Africa in anti-fracking, the white farmers and the Landless People's Movement, which is like the people who are landless because the ancestors of the white farmers took the land. We're working together to protect the Karoo desert from Shell oil company that wanted to do fracking there. And I started hearing these little stories and glimmers of unlikely coalitions, and I just felt this huge hope, like yeah, if we're going to beat Shell, we're not going to do it without coming together. And everybody needs to drink water and breathe air, and everybody has a place they love. So it makes sense to me that this isn't just an organizing strategy, that it actually has a very deep root, this coming together to protect the land. 

And then after that, on the one hand, I heard all these amazing indigenous prophecies. It turns out, there are lots of indigenous people who prophesized this very thing. And I also learned pretty quickly that all those stories are messy. You dig under the Twitter post, and like those coalitions aren't easy, you know. 

Dwight Dunston  8:45  


Eileen Flanagan  8:45  

So it was a few years later that I felt led to use that term to start doing interviews to write a book about this. And that has taken me all kinds of places--you and I went to Louisiana together and saw Norco, Louisiana, which was named for the New Orleans Refining Company, and the little Black neighborhood that is right next to the chemical plant next to the larger white neighborhood that's between the chemical plant and the refinery. And hearing the history of that land, which was old plantation land, and the pollution and all the stuff. Like, this little Black community actually won some big demands against Shell by organizing themselves and working with other people. So the book has led me to Louisiana but then at the other end of the Mississippi I got to spend a month camping with Ojibwe people who were fighting a pipeline at the headwaters of the Mississippi River. I got to go to India, and the Navajo Nation, and all these like really different places. Well, the amazing thing that happened this last year was I ended up getting hired by EQAT, who I had volunteered with for over a decade, to work on a campaign against Vanguard, which is one of the biggest investment companies in the world, managing investments for people and putting a lot of that money into fossil fuels, deforestation, and things like that.

Dwight Dunston  10:37  

And for our listeners who aren't aware, EQAT stands for Earth Quaker Action Team. And they are a grassroots nonviolent action group that includes Quakers and people of many different diverse beliefs who are really working together to create a more just and sustainable future.

Eileen Flanagan  10:52  

So it turns out, Dwight, I don't know if I told you this…

Dwight Dunston  10:55  

Tell me…

Eileen Flanagan  10:55  

But I had to take a little pause from writing the book. And at some point, I realized every chapter of the book has a Vanguard connection. So, biggest investor in coal in India? Vanguard. Biggest investor in Formosa, one of those companies that's trying to build a new plant in cancer alley, Louisiana? Vanguard. Exxon, also one of the big companies on cancer alley? Vanguard. The company that built the pipeline through the Ojibwe territory? Vanguard. Like, it's wild. So I've kind of been joking, like, is that God, God sent me to all these places knowing that they would have this Vanguard connection, that will be a really good conclusion to the book? Or is that just like how much power Vanguard has, you know?

Dwight Dunston  11:39  

Both/and-- it might be both, right? 

Eileen Flanagan  11:41  

It's a little bit of both. But on the spiritual level, I think a thing that relates to this seed metaphor you're working with in this podcast, is something to do with right timing. Because I kept feeling bad, like, 'Oh, this book's taking me longer than my earlier books. What am I doing?' You know, all this kind of stuff, 'Why am I not done [with] this damn book yet.' But now with this Vanguard connection, it was like, 'Oh, this book will be so much stronger, because it wasn't published two years ago.' And I think like, as a gardener, there is something about we need to water, we need to make sure we're getting the sunlight and you know, all the things that plants need, that sometimes they just need time. You know?

Dwight Dunston  12:22  


Eileen Flanagan  12:22  

No amount of wishing it can make that sprout happen faster than it's meant to.

Dwight Dunston  12:43  

I'm curious about your experience supporting people who might have never thought of themselves as an activist or somebody who could be a part of direct action, your experience helping to support these people to maybe step into a brave space, a courageous space, unlike they ever could have imagined, and knowing that you've done trainings for folks supporting folks doing actions for the first time, or being part of movement spaces in that loving and effective way. You mentioned earlier, you know, you've just had lots of experience bringing in first-time folks, and I just would love to hear you talk about what it's been like to work with folks at the beginning of their activism lives. And what you might say to somebody listening today, who's also just beginning.

Eileen Flanagan  13:27  

After Donald Trump was elected president, I started teaching online courses about this, because it just felt this surge of people new and newly interested in doing more than they had done before. And so that was a really interesting moment. My first course I think I had like 180 people in it on Zoom. But one of the things I think was helpful was giving people a big picture. So one of the tools I teach a lot is called the four roles of social change. And it's based on research about what works, and to say that there are different roles that are needed. 

Like we need people who are helpers who like, feed the hungry and tutor the kids after school when the budget of the school was cut. We need people meeting those kinds of direct needs, but we also need people lobbying and making phone calls to elected officials saying, hey, we need a bigger school budget, or we need housing for the homeless or whatever. Most of us were taught to do those two kinds of things, if we were taught anything about a kind of social engagement, but the other two are also really important: one is the organizer role, which is really focused on bringing people together building coalitions, and activating new people who haven't been involved before. And then the fourth role is called the rebel. The rebel is shaking things up. You know, you could do that in a way that's an advocate-y kind of way using the tools of the system to make an impact--but the rebel interrupts the meeting. The rebel does civil disobedience or uses tactics that are not what power holders expect. And most of us were not trained to do those things at all. So that's the one that is the biggest challenge for most people to think about. 

And the way I talk about it is like, you need all the parts of the choir for some music to sound right. You know, you cannot do the whole Messiah with just Sopranos. You can't! And so, find what role is most comfortable for you. But consider the possibility of playing a role that hasn't been in your comfort zone before. So sometimes I tell the story. Actually, I was in the Pendle Hill choir when it first started a million years ago. And the choir director said, like, just so you know, we have like, way too many altos and no tenor. So if it's in your range to play this other role, it would be a service to the community. And that's how I think about the rebel role. Like we're at a point in our society where we need more of that really brave activism. And it's not going to be everybody's thing. Like, if you're a soprano, I'm not gonna tell you, you should be singing tenor. 

Dwight Dunston  16:11  


Eileen Flanagan  16:11  

But if it's in your range to stretch that way, actually, it's really needed. So here's an invitation to try something that is beyond what you think your range is. So that's sort of like when I'm given people a soft invitation. Because otherwise people can get very defensive. But I think we have a lot of fear. You know, that's understandable. I mean, there's real fear about police and repression, but also social fear that we don't want to do the weird thing, we don't want to stand out, we don't want to be criticized. It's funny, when I taught at Pendle Hill, the "Discerning Our Calls" class, I always felt like the linchpin class was always the one on fear. And then I started teaching direct action. And it was the same thing. It was like, oh, I need a whole week just on fear.

Dwight Dunston  16:58  

Right! And how fear can come out as anger, or anger can be shielding some fear. But also the fear, like it limits our imagination, what might be possible.

Eileen Flanagan  17:08  

When you're doing a training, and somebody starts asking, like, where's the nearest bathroom? And like, that's a very legit question, you know, as a woman over 60. But I've learned that there's a kind of question that is really about, you're scared. 

Dwight Dunston  17:24  


Eileen Flanagan  17:25  

So we need to tell you where the bathroom is. But we also need to take a breath, do some grounding and some other things. When the whole training gets taken over by everybody's questions, that's a sign about where the group's at.

Dwight Dunston  17:36  

Yeah, I think about the ways that fear can get in the way of us growing together and building authentic relationships with one another. And you talked earlier about separation. And I think fear plays a big part in this illusion of separation. Fear kind of keeps that illusion alive. And so when we're talking about--and I hear you thinking about--bringing into fruition a more just and connected world, I'm just curious, maybe other people you've met in your journey, researching the book or in different activist spaces you've been a part of, what you've learned from both other people's activism, but also what you learned about really, for yourself, leaning into that connection, and moving away from that fear.

Eileen Flanagan  18:18  

I do think that fear and the illusion of separation are deeply, deeply intertwined. Just to take the example of the community I mentioned that we went to in Norco, Louisiana, the white community that was like, a block away from the Black community, they were so scared of their black neighbors, that they couldn't really hear the truth that they were saying. And it came out in all kinds of ways in meetings and the Shell people even, the way they talked about the community--the community had a meeting, and they called the police because having a meeting. Like, this is like a bunch of old church ladies having a meeting, and the reaction was so out of proportion. And it's so clear how much that's rooted in racism and being taught to fear your neighbor. But I also think, you know, our fear of nature, fear of people around the world, you know, wanting something from the United States, to deal with climate change. There's so much fear that gets in the way. So in terms of things I've learned, a person who comes to mind is not so much an activist as a coach, a woman named Tara Moore--I think she has a lot of tools that actually anyone can use. And one of the things she says is that 'whatever you're doing, if you're trying to play big in this world, you should have a fear toolbox.' You should just figure out what are the things that help you to navigate fear to kind of understand what you're worried about, to ground you when you're feeling afraid. And I just love that metaphor, whether it's song, whether it's prayer, whether it's walking in the woods before you do a scary thing. I think whether it's taking on that big project or doing a new kind of action, or writing or running a meeting with diverse people who you don't know how they're going to feel about something, whatever that thing is, just reach into that tool box. You know, as we know ourselves, we know what can help us show up in the best possible way.

Dwight Dunston  20:12  

What would you tell someone just starting to put together a tool that like 'I hear you, Eileen. Wow, that sounds cool. Thank you, Tara Moore--I haven't met you, but thank you for that, too. How do I build up my tools? Like, what's the first step I take to building a toolbox?'

Unknown Speaker  20:39  

Think of a time that you did something scary, and then think about what helped you. I mean, if you made it through your first day of kindergarten, like, whatever age you are, you've already done things that are scary. And so, I think reflecting on that experience, and thinking like, oh, yeah, that was really scary. When I went to that new thing, just pick some of those and then jot down like, well, what actually worked? And it might be different for you than for somebody else. But when I work with groups, and we brainstorm a list, there [are] some really common things. Nature is very common, some silence, some prayer, you know, music for a lot of people, playing a certain kind of song right before they do something scary. I think reflecting on our own experience, we find that we have more tools already, than we have actually labeled or identified.

Dwight Dunston  21:37  

There's something so simple about that invitation to just remember a time and think about what worked. It feels both simple and really profound. Because I think, yeah, we haven't named it. We haven't identified the tools that we use there. But actually slowing down and remembering that moment, jotting it down--yeah, we get to excavate things that worked, when we felt the fear coming in.

Eileen Flanagan  22:00  

I also really believe in learning from history. And I think it's one of the forms of separation that I didn't think about when I first heard that message but has come up in the research for this book again and again: people learning from their past, the past of their community, the past of their ancestors, what can you learn from that family history? And whether it's something that an ancestor did or, maybe not our own literal ancestors, but I love watching movement movies. You know, like, if you're scared of doing anything in Philadelphia, like go watch Selma, you know? Like man, those people faced down such scary situations. And in some of those memoirs, especially the civil rights movement has really been important inspiration to me: singing together, praying together, eating together, walking together. Like, all of those ‘together’ things were part of what helped people show up in really, really powerful ways against really overt violence and hatred. So yeah, I guess that's the other thing. I'm suggesting that people do that reflection, kind of, because you asked the question as an individual, but if you can do it with other people, so much the better.

Dwight Dunston  23:16  

Any last thoughts or reflections? I want to just hold some space for maybe something that's just coming to your mind that you want to share as we move to close?

Eileen Flanagan  23:25  

Yeah, one other thing I've been thinking about a lot is the state of the United States and the January 6th hearings, the deep, deep divide in our country, just in what we think is happening, and the real potential for violence. I don't feel like we're out of the woods at all. I think we're heading for some scary times ahead around elections. And a couple of years ago, one of the things I paused the book for was to work for Choose Democracy, which was doing nonviolent direct action training for people who wanted to prevent a coup, because some folks saw January 6th, coming, you know, just from what Trump said months in advance--it was clear that he wasn't gonna accept the election result if it wasn't what he wanted. And I've been thinking a lot about those trainings, which were based on what has worked around the world when people wanted to nonviolently stop a coup. And the bottom line is those things all require courage. It requires standing up when somebody's just trying to steal government, you know, it requires the courage to reach out and build alliances with people who maybe you weren't in relationship with before. And all of those things, I think, make me really interested in asking the question, how can we be more courageous now? How can we stretch that muscle? And so I'm working on this Vanguard campaign. Anyone you know who can travel distances Southeastern Pennsylvania who wants to come be part of nonviolent direct action, even if that's not your primary calling, come try something new. Or find some other group and maybe stretch your courage muscles to do some things that are new, because I think we really need collectively to build our capacity to stay nonviolent, to navigate our fear and to be grounded and love. Because I don't see how we're going to get through this next decade of my life without doing that. And so whatever form it takes for people, I hope people will think of this as a time to stretch in new ways.

Dwight Dunston  25:40  

I'm thinking about that choir metaphor, right? There's like the stretching into--the soprano is not going to go tenor. But no matter if you're soprano, alto or tenor, you can all sing a C note. The courage to me as I was just hearing you talk: that's a note that we can actually all sing, no matter what range we're in. 

Eileen Flanagan  25:58  


Dwight Dunston  25:59  

And so I hear this invitation to sing that, that courage tune.

Eileen, thank you so, so much for being on the podcast. It's such a blessing every time I get to just be in space with you and connect with you. So, I'm grateful to have gotten the chance to do it here on this podcast today.

Eileen Flanagan  26:18  

I'm grateful to you. Thanks for having me.

Dwight Dunston  26:31  

Pendle Hill is a Quaker center open to all for spirit-led learning, retreat, and community. We’re located in Wallingford, PA, on the traditional territory of the Lenni Lenape people. Visit us at

To learn more about Eileen’s work, visit

The podcast was produced and edited by Ariel Goodman, with the support of Pendle Hill education director Frances Kreimer and education associate Anna Hill. Our episodes were mixed by Leah Shaw Dameron. Our theme music is the I Rise Project by Reverend Rhetta Morgan and Bennett Kuhn, produced by Astronautical Records.

If you're listening to these last 30 seconds, you made it to the end with us and we would so love it if you could subscribe rate or review us wherever you get your podcasts. It helps us to keep planting those seeds. This project was made possible by the generous support of the Thomas H. and Mary William Shoemaker fund.