Meet our executive director, Sandhya Jha!
This is the fourth of four bios on the OPC team that can do the work of peace thanks to your generous donations. Thanks so much for your investment in building Beloved Community with us. The OPC exists because of you
Profound thanks again to powerhouse OPC volunteer Jean Jeffress who has written up all four profiles, including today’s about me. If you missed the emails about facilities coordinator Franceyez, operations manager Aja or communications/development intern Tia, you can read them at the links provided.
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“We’re still building the plane while we’re flying it.”
An interview with Sandhya Jha
Greetings, friends, supporters, and lovers of the Oakland Peace Center. For the final installation of the OPC staff member highlights we’ve saved the boss for last. You guessed it! Today’s highlight will focus on the Oakland Peace Center’s founder and executive director, Sandhya Jha. Sandhya holds the vision for what the Oakland Peace Center is working toward and living into. In her own words, she “does all of the things.” Some of those things include representing the OPC in the public square through speaking engagements and panel discussions both locally and nationally. In addition to her administrative responsibilities at the OPC, Sandhya mentors the interns who come through the OPC, taking time out of her schedule to help them discern their place and next steps in the movement for peace. She serves on the board of East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy (EBASE), as well as on the steering committee for Faith Alliance for a Moral Economy (FAME). She is an ordained minister with the Christian Church, Disciples of Christ and can be heard preaching nearly every Sunday here in the Bay Area or across the country or facilitating anti-racism or faith-rooted organizing trainings or promoting her new book, Transforming Communities. She is busy, but I was able to catch up with her for a conversation about the Oakland Peace Center, its beginnings, and what is exciting her about the organization for the New Year. Most of what you will read in this piece is Sandhya’s voice, whether I use quotations marks or not.
The Oakland Peace Center was the vision of First Christian Church of Oakland, Disciples of Christ when Sandhya was the pastor. “When I got there, there were 10 people in a 40,000 sq ft facility. And a couple of years in, we talked about what their dream was for what they could contribute to the community.” The church wanted to do something to create “peace and tranquility in the midst of violence.” Anyone who has lived here for any amount of time has lost people to violence. The small community of First Christian Church began to build relationships with organizations that were doing anti-violence work. At some point Sandhya said, “I don’t know that we’re going to generate anything new, but what would happen if we turned this massive facility into a hub – into a connecting point so that the folks who are on the front lines of this work to end violence – which can be lonely and isolating and exhausting and burn-out ridden work. What if we found a way to use this space for them to be able to connect with each other and renew each other so that could amplify the work of peace in this community?” Sometimes all it takes is the right question to make change.
The Oakland Peace Center launched in 2012 with about 20 partners. During the process of drafting the mission statement, Liza Rankow from OneLife Institute, an OPC partner, said “make sure that you write 20+, because this is going to grow.” Almost 6 years later the Oakland Peace Center has over 40 peace partners. Some have office space in the building, while others are partners to be connected and work together to build a stronger peace movement than any of them could do on their own.
And apparently peace loves company. Sandhya regularly gets calls from people across the country who want to talk about starting peace centers in their communities. “We got a call from some folks in Connecticut who are setting up a Connecticut Peace Center. We got a call from folks in Arizona who are setting up a Peace Center in their community. They want to do the same thing where they’re bringing all of these organizations together to support each other. And they all look a little bit different.” But the OPC model of communities building and strengthening communities, the sense of collaboration between organizations is so needed. The OPC slogan for 2017 is “We Need Us.” We’re living in a time when collaboration isn’t just to share finances and resources, though of course those things are important. We are living in a time when collaboration will literally save our lives. “I really think that we’re in a time where it is easy to be despondent – where it is so easy to lose hope – this notion that actually we can be each other’s hope is really important.” We really do need us.
So the fact that people are seeking to replicate the OPC model is good news. When communities work together, people can take turns feeling hopeless. In community there will always be someone to share stories about small or even big victories in the struggles for justice. “And so in the midst of all the technical ways that this can be a really powerful and replicable model there’s some really intangible ways for the movement to keep going in such a hard time. That’s one of the most valuable ways I see it being – not just a possible model for others, but a necessary one if we’re going to keep going.”
The partners at Oakland Peace Center are working on ways to be more supportive and more connected with each other. “We had a big retreat last year where about a dozen of us came together to kind of build out our visioning and our strategy and all that stuff. So we’ve had moments where we’ve gotten to connect with each other for social reasons but also to vision together. We’re beginning to figure out how to resource share in more concrete ways.” The partners at OPC are also talking about sharing things like office equipment and some staff. Sandhya says these are the “unsexy” things, but they are important for the organization to run smoothly. When the organization is running smoothly, the peace partners can focus on their work and take more time to look at their partner’s work. This is already starting to happen at OPC. “I’m seeing us showing up for each other’s programming more and learning more about each other’s work so that there’s a little more cross-pollination so that when I’m doing a project that’s specifically about faith-rooted organizing, I’m realizing that there are resources from East Point Peace Academy’s work around Kingian nonviolence that is beginning to show up in my work because we work alongside each other – we share our information with each other and it makes my work more robust when I’m taking the resources that are being offered to me by one of the other partners in the building. So we’re looking at finding more ways for us to learn from each other’s work so we can collaborate with each other a little more organically.”
Aside from the space in the building, the value of which cannot be overstated in this intense climate of gentrification, the OPC partners benefit in other ways from being part of a collective. “Those individual organizations rarely have the time or the luxury to step back and think big about how together we can be making a bigger impact. There are staff [at the OPC] whose job it is to bring them together to pause and say ‘ok, how do we collaborate to have a bigger effect?’ None of us individually can make a big impact on violence prevention spending in the city of Oakland. But if all 40 of our organizations get together around a shared platform we can actually have that kind of an impact. We haven’t done that yet, but I suspect that’s only a year or two down the road once we’ve started getting to fully understand the intersections of our work with each other.”
In my view, one of the goals of the Oakland Peace Center is to practice radical hospitality through community building. The OPC wants to grow into a place where basic needs are met, so that joy can be experienced in the work and in the partnerships; so that the support is powerful enough to help “[make] sure that the tyranny of the urgent [does not] displace the work of the important.” Part of the work of “the important” is just being together, talking with colleagues, sharing ideas, and learning from each other. The Oakland Peace Center’s goal is to be a work hub, but also a hospitality hub. Connection is as important as hard work; connection makes hard work worth it.
And the Oakland Peace Center does not just want to be a hub for its member organizations. “A lot of the programs that we do in our building are for folks who are used to having to function in pretty rundown janky kind of places. [We’re hoping that] next year we’re going to be taking the building over from the church. And we’re going to be working with a non-profit developer to rehab the building so that folks that usually don’t have access to nice spaces that they can afford will have access to spaces that are conducive to the work they’re trying to do. And I think that makes a difference.” Renovating the building to see this vision of the OPC becoming a public space will take a lot work that I think Sandhya would categorize as “unsexy.” She says, “One of the challenges is the assumption that only the people with lots of resources deserve nice things.” But she is excited doing the unsexy work if it means living into the vision of creating a public space where a wider variety of people will have access to nice facilities.
Sandhya wrapped up our conversation saying she is proud of the Oakland Peace Center because she realized that they had “unconsciously been functioning out of this filter of only drawing and only accepting non-profits for whom the work matters more than who gets credit for the work.” The member organizations of the OPC were hungry for the opportunity to collaborate, and that is not always the experience in the non-profit world. “I think one of the sad realities is that the non-profit has been misshapen by corporate culture in ways that perpetuate competition and division and the notion that slowly but surely we’re building up a community where we can collaborate, where we can co-create – maybe we can start applying for funds jointly – maybe we can start kind of developing strategies for how together we can access more resources than we could by ourselves.” Sandhya then shared what she called good news; she said, “We’re still building the plane while we’re flying it.”
And this is where the preacher in her came out, or maybe it was church goer in me just wanting to hear a sermon. The take away message is that Sandhya and the peace partners didn’t wait for it to be perfect before they got started. They didn’t know if the OPC would ever get off the ground. They didn’t know if more organizations would join, if they would get funding, if they would get along. They made mistakes, forgot things, messed up and had to start all over sometimes. But they started the work because they were called to it and because it is necessary. The collaborative model of the Oakland Peace Center is a beacon of hope in a city that is rapidly being sold to the highest bidder, in a country that is…that is…well, that’s seen better days. The collaborative model of community bridging together communities is not just practical and economical, it’s life-saving. Give generously to the Oakland Peace Center.