Original image by Tola Brennan

Since starting work on Commonwealth Hudson Valley last winter, I’ve been thinking about a little piece of writing I did over a decade ago, during a workshop at a retreat. This week, I finally dug it out — finding it, of course, in the very last notebook I looked in. I’m sharing it here on the 56th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech at the Lincoln Memorial, with its famous refrain, “I have a dream.”

The workshop was about the work we do in the world, and how we sustain it in the face of the suffering and injustice we confront, and the burnout we may constantly court. It was February 2009, less than a month after President Obama’s inauguration on a bitterly cold January day, a time when dreaming felt somewhat more accessible, but also very tender and raw.

The morning’s exercise was inspired by astrologer and writer Rob Brezsny, who in turn drew his inspiration from Dr King. Brezsny had urged his readers to write their own “I have a dream” statements, putting into words our greatest longings and most inspiring visions for our lives and the better worlds we hope to help bring into existence.

Our workshop leaders played us a recording of Dr. King’s speech and then read us Brezsny’s own dream, which invokes such things as reverential ecstasy, widespread everyday creative genius, and an eleventh commandment: “Thou shalt not bore God.” Then they set a timer and asked us to begin writing our own.

I did not want to write about dreaming. After seven dark years of war, concretely envisioning a just, caring world skirted too much grief and horror. But once I reluctantly began, words and ideas began to flow. I share here what I wrote then:

I have a dream…(this is how we were encouraged to begin)… I have a dream that the living heart of wonder and invention in every person is respected and cherished. I have a dream that love is always nourished. I have a dream that learning to solve problems peacefully is a sacred art.

I have a dream that the community is strong enough to surround anyone violently disturbed with care and connection, to keep the violence from spreading. I have a dream that acts of terror and violence are mourned publicly, with open hearts, connected to a deep well of human pain and human caring.

I have a dream that we value each individual’s gifts and delights, that we know how to make networks of enterprises and organizations that make what the communities needs and tend all that needs care.

I have a dream that everyone has their own way to honor and to be in deep, rhythmic relationship with the sacredness of all, and that our ways interweave together to create a net of reverential celebratory delight.

I have a dream that for every one who hurts, there are a dozen who know how to give care.

I have a dream that expertise, knowledge, and skill are spread so wide and so deep that decisions can be taken as close to the problem as possible.

I have a dream that our decisions are deliberative and thoughtful, that we have learned how to listen to the earth and each other. I have a dream that expertise, knowledge, and skill are spread so wide and so deep that decisions can be taken as close to the problem as possible, and that neighboring and distant communities share skills and knowledge and arts.

I have a dream that we have learned so well how to contain and diffuse the aggression that naturally arises in human hearts that no hurt soul can drag a community into violence, and no community can drag its neighbors into war.

And in my lifetime, I have a dream that we become strong and wise and connected and present enough that we are able to spread this dream wide, so that it begins to appear obvious, rather than impossible or naive.

Many of the threads that came up in this piece were familiar ones for me by then: wishing for a world where everyone’s talents and interests are better nourished and fully employed, and for more deeply skilled peacemaking and violence prevention. But one thread was new, or newly expressed, and it stuck with me over the years, though I didn’t know what to do with it.

I had been reading around that same time about the water privatization debacle in Cochabamba, Bolivia. In 1999, at the urging of the World Bank, the city of Cochabamba — Bolivia’s third largest city — had signed a 40-year contract, handing over its water system to a consortium of multinational companies led by US-based Bechtel. Water rates were quickly doubled or tripled, and many people literally found themselves choosing between paying for water or food. Anyone who didn’t pay their bill had their water shut off.

The contract gave the multinationals rights over not only the municipal water system, but to all water in the city, including the many small cooperative and traditional community systems in the barrios and agricultural regions, and it guaranteed a 15 percent annual profit rate. People became afraid their own wells would be expropriated, meters slapped on them, and payments demanded. Protests began, and soon swelled to thousands of farmers, workers, engineers, and students in the streets. The army was called in, and one protestor was killed. After several months of “Water War”, the consortium fled town, and the city canceled the contract.

The municipal utility SEMAPA resumed management of the system, under a new planned “social-public” approach, in which representatives from the coalition that had coordinated the protests would have seats on its board and the rights of traditional and cooperative users would be formally recognized. In subsequent years, other privatization contracts in Bolivia were also canceled, and the country’s 2009 constitution enshrines water as a fundamental human right. The success of the protestors in ejecting the multinationals and retaking their water resounded around the world and provoked fresh debate about the terms and very mixed success rate of these privatization deals.

The upshot, it seemed to me, was that if you wanted a publicly-owned, community-controlled water system — and there were many good reasons to want one — what you needed to do was learn to run a water system really well, and to ground that knowledge not just in the political appointees and union power brokers who had previously controlled the municipal utility, but in the public who were hungry for meaningful engagement in transforming their broken system. Cochabamba was ahead in this regard — many of the protest leaders were those who had been managing the traditional and cooperative systems that filled in SEMAPA’s gaps. What’s more, once a community had learned to do this, they could share what they had learned with other communities all over the world, creating a network of skill-rich communities that could not be hoodwinked by profiteers or corrupt politicians.

It was this notion that showed up newly articulated in my “dream”: that “expertise, knowledge, and skill are spread so wide and so deep that decisions can be taken as close to the problem as possible.” I came to summarize it as “the capacity building vision”, the idea of decentralizing decision-making and economic control by spreading the capability to make decisions — over not just water systems, but also health care systems, security, energy, really any community asset — as far and wide as possible, through the spreading of learning, now so accessible worldwide via the internet.

Seeing this possibility also revealed that the tacit assumption that ordinary people needed either a competent, self-interest-motivated corporation or a benevolent, technocratic state to manage things for them was a peculiarly recent Euro-American invention that we could just as well do without, and certainly did not need to pick sides on.

For years I did nothing with these ideas. And then last year, as I began studying in earnest the cooperative movement, reinvigorated since the 2008 financial crisis, I saw that cooperatives, community wealth-building efforts, and other solidarity economy practices were very much beginning to implement this capacity building vision worldwide. I wanted to bring that to the Hudson Valley, and so Commonwealth Hudson Valley was born. And suddenly, my languishing dream is out in the world doing something.

Dr. King was a gifted speaker who spent years deliberately cultivating the craft of oratory. He gave hundreds, if not thousands, of thoughtful and inspiring speeches. Yet this is the one we remember, the one every American schoolchild knows. Yes, this is in part because of its monumental setting, and in part because its message is an easier one for people of all levels of privilege and all kinds of views to swallow than, say, his messages about the Poor People’s Campaign or the injustice of the Vietnam War.

But it’s also because there is something both terrifying and tantalizingly powerful about articulating a dream so discordant with today’s reality. The tension that the dissonance between dream and present reality creates provokes new thoughts and new actions. Throughout the speech, Dr. King was urging the crowd not to rest comfortably on the civil rights gains that had been made by 1963, but to kept organizing and fighting. In articulating this dream, he set the agenda for another half century and beyond.

I did not want to write about dreaming on that winter morning in 2009. I groaned when the exercise was introduced, and I struggled to start writing. And then for years, though it lingered in the back of my mind — mocking me for my inaction, so I thought — it actually provided the seed for slowly germinating the core of the work I’m doing today.

So, like Brezsny, I’ll urge you, today listen to Dr. King’s speech, get out a sheet of paper, and begin “I have a dream…” and see what comes.

Or at least listen to Dr. King’s speech and reflect on the still unfinished journey he articulated for this nation, 56 years ago today.