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Nina Horne: Love In Social Justice

--Bela Shah, on Jan 12, 2014

It’s not often that you meet someone that makes the intention to connect with any homeless person she comes across, has developed economic models used by hundreds of U.S. cities to reduce municipal carbon footprints, and is working to integrate mindfulness training into local schools. Nina Horne is one of those rare individuals and we were excited to have her as a guest on the Global Awakin Call. What follows is an inspiring and thought-provoking interview by Rahul Brown. 

Rahul: Nina, when I first met you, what stood out to me about you was this childlike glee mixed with this deep confidence, the confidence that comes from a life that is lived in alignment with goodness. Your capacity to deeply hear what’s happening mixed with a heart of love and compassion was like a warm but fierce mirror of truth. What was even more surprising was the way you seamlessly dance between the microcosm of inner transformation, the mini-cosm of local issues, and the macrocosm of global issues.

Can you use your career trajectory as a touchstone to explain the shifts within yourself as you’ve learned to lead from the heart?

Nina: I wasn’t deeply reflective about how I might engage in things at the heart level until two critical turning points. First, I had become a parent. Thinking about parenting changes one’s orientation to the world!

The second was when I attended a lecture at the Commonwealth Club. It was a lecture by Donna Brazile, the campaign manager for Al Gore. Early on in the conversation, she said, “I started organizing voters when I was 9 years old.”

That was a profound moment of revelation for me--that someone in third grade could rise above their own experience and engage others in making systemic change.


Prior to that lecture I was an academic publisher for leading science educators and worked with Nobel Prize winners. I realized that I was participating in a culture of profit making and asked if there might be other ways to engage in the world.

Since that time, I’ve become much more politically focused. I became the City Commissioner for Oakland and served for 8 years on a grant-making agency that serves 40,000 kids a year in Oakland and later began working at the national and international levels.

I remember a profound experience when I was asked to serve on a delegation representing the United States with 20 other industrialized nations at the OECD. My role was to be able to put on a suit and shake the hands of elected officials at the highest levels and help them see other points of view. At the same time, I felt a lot of deep connection with people in the Occupy Movement. I was heading to a commission meeting and being walked through armed guards as Occupiers shouted in the streets. I recognized faces of my friends within the Occupy movement going through police guards to walk inside to hear the state of the city address and understand the issues we needed to make decisions on.

Because of these experiences, I am more motivated to speak with a wide range of people to find consensus and collaboration because I believe that every human wants the same things.

Rahul: What I’m struck by in hearing you share the way that your trajectory has moved is this feeling of ease and effortlessness. I’m curious about your primary asset that has allowed you to move through that arc.

Nina: I love life…I feel so excited to meet people and learn about them! While there are certainly benefits to being an introvert, my curiosity about people and their unique experiences and points of view excites me and puts me at ease when moving through all of these domains. This world is an amazing place and we’re all people and if you can meet people where they’re at, it ‘s really quite easy.

I do recognize that my experiences have allowed me to be in rooms that people don’t normally get to be in, but I think what allows me to stay in that room is crucial. It’s my ability to engage with other people on what their interests are and what they’re trying to make happen and to realize that we’re working on this together.

Rahul: You’re able to connect with someone at Occupy and someone at the highest level of government that is charged with responding to Occupy and yet hold that same happiness…there isn’t a sense of heaviness around it. How are you able to maintain that positivity in the face of what is not so positive for other people?

Nina: There is definitely a feeling of overwhelm that I feel, just like everyone else. A story that comes to mind was the most painful moment I ever had in my 8 years on the Commission. Our work involved moving between deep analysis and remarkable heartfelt experiences. Kids would come to tell stories of how their lives had been changed because there was an afterschool program and they got out of a gang because of it.

But I remember one report after the economic downturn when things got very bleak for nonprofits. It was being given by local county services and basically said that because of how these children are born and raised that almost anything we can do will not have a significant effect. When I heard something like that my response was to start crying because the sadness was overwhelming. And yet we know we ‘re charged with spending the money to try to do something to make it better.

We all have experiences where the responsibility of what we’ve taken on is larger than our capacity to meet demands. Staying with the individual story and with the small improvements are the ways to move past those moments of feeling overwhelmed.

Rahul: What really helps you is staying with the power of small; the power of small is something very close to most of the people in this community. Has that insight always been with you or if not, what made you understand its capacity for effecting change?

Nina: It goes back to my father. He worked with student athletes and when they were struggling, he would tell them, “I just want you to focus on this: Get a good night’s sleep, wake up and have a good breakfast, get clean, do a hard day’s work, get some exercise, and do something for someone else. If you follow those 6 rules, your life would be good everyday.”

It was this message of how doing something for someone else could help you rise above the challenges of any day and help you move beyond yourself that really inspired and influenced me.

It is the small acts of each day that can bring incredible micro moments of love. One practice I’m working with is being very concrete and saying thank you to service workers. I write a letter to the person I sat with on the phone for an hour that was trying to resolve an insurance problem. I walk with the guy who helped me change my batteries in my key fob and have him stand there while I tell the store manager why he’s an amazing person. If we have 5 moments of that everyday, that is an awesome life.

Rahul: Is there an initiative from your various roles that you feel most proud of?

Nina: That’s like choosing among your children! But two things emerge and a common thread has been systemic change and how to get people to stay engaged.

How can we show up more effectively in life and in our world? I am very passionate about helping people to find ways to engage in the system…and engagement involves understanding the role of our own personal self-awareness and self-management and interpersonal awareness and interpersonal management. Understanding this is a tool for engaging in the world most effectively. If we could use these tools more broadly and have our children be exposed to them early on in their lives in the same way we were taught physical fitness, we could show up more effectively.

Rahul: It’s such an unusual thing to hear about mindfulness in government.

Can you tell us more about how you navigated the process of bringing these unfamiliar things to what I imagine would be a skeptical audience?

Nina: Working with skeptical audiences requires understanding what their needs are and using their needs to understand the product better.

In meditation and mindfulness, people’s needs are to lead a life of happiness and meaning. What does that look like and how do you get people to accept foreign ideas or even ideas that are hostile to them?

The military is investing in mindfulness training but they call it “situational awareness”. They need to be aware of their situation at all times but it’s the same as being present to the present moment; they’re just using different labels. Along the same lines, the terms that are familiar within an educational environment are self-regulation and resilience, and the ability of students to regulate bodies and minds so that they can take in information.

Rahul: I feel like you’re a meta translator. Your capacity to connect with people at all levels, driven by curiosity, enthusiasm, and a true spirit in seeking to connect means you understand things from people’s perspectives though they may be different from your own. But as a meta translator across all these spaces and levels is not just translating, it’s also then backing that up with insight and resources about how it’s beneficial for them to integrate these worlds. Can you elaborate?

Nina: I have used that term many times, not just simply understanding what people need and want and how different worlds relate but really bringing new frames and a shared common understanding.

For me, the world and human relationships is compromise and collaboration…helping people come together to solve problems. One of my favorite ideas in public policy is bringing together different groups of people to work together to solve big problems. This is the greatest power: shared understanding to solve big problems.

Rahul: How can we serve you?

Nina: Engage. Given what I know about making change happen within existing political structures, apathy is not the solution. What I want to ask of everyone is to feel your passion and anger, but to encourage your networks to stay engaged in a meaningful way and to do what matters and has impact. Apathy is not going to make anything better.

Rahul: Do people have to have self-love in order to be their best and truly serve?

Nina: I feel that whatever good we bring into the world does improve our community for the better. Do something good for others even if you’re in a really challenged place. But I recognize that self-love is important for people to cultivate and this is a life goal. We are all in a process and no matter where we are on the path of self-love there is the opportunity to move beyond self. 
A quote from Karen Armstrong: “I commit myself to examining my heart as fully as possible and commit to ensuring whatever pain is in my heart I don’t inflict on others.” If we can commit to that while we’re doing good for others, we’re doing the best we can.