Creating space for silence and stillness during times of social activism

By Keila Franks

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Through my work in the social justice sphere, I work alongside other young activists. I spend my days advocating for a just and equitable healthcare system in Tennessee. The questions that I get most often from other young activists are not about the substance of my advocacy work. They are far more curious about my meditation practice, and how my work is grounded in my commitment to creating space for silence and stillness. Meditation practice has been essential for me in keeping connected with empathy and compassion, the foundations upon which I sustain my work.

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Keila Franks

In the midst of rapid news cycles, short attention spans on social media, and the constant stream of information about new disasters or harmful policy proposals, it is easy to burn out. It can be hard to sustain this work because of the constant stress and the weight of human wellbeing on the line. When I am anxious and exhausted, I can lose my connection to my deepest values and intentions, which are the reasons that I got into this line of work in the first place.

Meditation practice has been essential for me in keeping connected with empathy and compassion, the foundations upon which I sustain my work.

Meditation allows me to notice when I act out of unwholesome intentions and how unsustainable it is for me when my primary motivations are based on fear or anger. For example, 2017 was a particularly challenging year as we were advocating to defend the Affordable Care Act from congressional repeal. I was overwhelmed by the intense workload, long hours, and constantly changing political landscape. To deal with the stress, I found that I became attached to a certain identity of myself as a "social justice warrior," standing on the moral high ground in the fight against injustice.

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Members of the Belmont United Methodist Church community at a 2018 rally for healthcare outside Legislative Plaza in downtown Nashville.

Through my daily meditation practice and a five-day silent meditation retreat, I realized that my motivations were more about feeling good about myself and validating my sense of self-worth, rather than being centered on care and concern for the individuals I was supposed to be advocating for and with. As I meditated, I became mindful of the top layer of anxiety related to the work that needed to be accomplished. Below that, I noticed a fear of failure and a deep-seated fear that my life would be meaningless. And below that, I was mindful of a profound exhaustion. This wasn’t just a physical or even mental exhaustion, but rather a spiritual exhaustion of trying to constantly prove my worth and my “goodness.” I finally had to let go. As Barbara Brown Taylor describes it: “I thought that being faithful was about becoming someone other than who I was . . . and it was not until this project failed that I began to wonder if my human wholeness might be more useful to God than my exhausting goodness.”

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Tennessee Justice Center staff and interns gather for an optional 15-minute silent meditation every Friday.

My meditation practice allows me to hold my stress, fear, and exhaustion in a space of compassion and kindness. From there, the grip of my unwholesome motivations was loosened. In the silence of meditation, I also noticed when sadness and grief would arise, and how often these emotions were connected to the difficult circumstances of individuals. I then knew who had been shut out of the healthcare system. Meditation allowed me to reconnect with deep compassion for those who desperately need medical care. Working from the motivations of empathy and compassion came with a deep realization that I am not in control of the outcomes of my advocacy work, but I am still compelled to do my small part in trying to alleviate suffering. I strive to follow the ancient wisdom that the Talmud so eloquently expresses, “The day is long, and the work is great, and we’re not commanded to finish the work, but neither are we allowed to desist from it.” Grounding my work in wholesome intentions through my meditation practice has allowed me to sustain my calling to advocate for social justice and a society where all people are free to flourish.

Keila Franks is the Director of Medicaid Policy Advocacy at the Tennessee Justice Center, focusing on advocating to protect and expand Medicaid in Tennessee. She is one of the instructors/facilitators at One Dharma Nashville, a Buddhist meditation community. In this role, she facilitates Introduction to Meditation classes and special interest programs on topics such as contemplating death and the intersection of meditation and social justice. Keila is also an active member of Belmont United Methodist Church, serving on the Engagement Team which helps the church do all it can to live into its welcome statement. Keila graduated from The George Washington University in 2014 with a B.A. in International Affairs, and she served as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Malaysia in 2015.