From Despair to Empowerment

The Work That Reconnects has its roots in the late 1970s, when it seemed that humanity – along with much of life on earth – stood on the brink of devastation. The nuclear arms race between the US and the Soviet Union was accelerating. Talk of first-strike strategies and civil defense plans for a nuclear war terrified the people who could bear to think and talk about it.

Collective solutions arising from the people, and not the government, were desperately needed. A search was on: what could unlock people’s ability and desire to face the crisis together? What could allow powerful, collective solutions to arise?

In the US, systems scholar Joanna Macy, psychologist Chellis Glendinning, and activist Fran Peavey observed that, when people got together in groups and shared their feelings of fear, anguish or despair, their power to act for change was ignited.

They developed a workshop process called Despair and Empowerment work. From this seed evolved the Work That Reconnects, a model that uses counseling methods, spiritual principles, ritual and myth, laughter and tears, reverence and irreverence – to help individuals break out of the numbness of despair and denial.

The Work Develops

In the early 1980s, news of Despair and Empowerment workshops spread rapidly among activists. Many thousands of people, from within and beyond movements for peace, justice and a safe environment, participated. A support collective called Interhelp arose among facilitators.

In 1983 Joanna Macy published a handbook for facilitators, Despair and Personal Power in the Nuclear Age. By this time the Work was spreading to Europe, Australia and Japan. Many of the folks involved participated in citizen exchange programs with the Soviet Union, seeding the work there as well.

In this early era of Despair and Empowerment work, folks from many countries plotted and planned via the postal service and telephone. Visits from far-flung colleagues were occasions of great excitement.

Co-Creative Energies Build

This work soon energized activists working in many arenas. In Australia in 1985, Joanna Macy and John Seed developed the Council of All Beings ritual for rainforest activists. Deep Ecology – a philosophy which places the entire biosphere, rather than the human being, at the center of existence – came to deeply inform the philosophy and practice of the Work.

With the publication of Thinking Like a Mountain by John Seed, Joanna Macy, Pat Fleming and Arne Naess, the Council of All Beings ritual spread throughout the world. Similarly, the Truth Mandala and the Elm Dance ritual, both of which evolved during Joanna Macy’s travels, are now commonly practiced in communities worldwide.

River’s Bend retreat participants practicing the Elm Dance

In 1998 Joanna Macy and Molly Young Brown published the first edition of Coming Back to Life. This volume provided a comprehensive description of the theory underlying the Work along with more than sixty practices.

With the publication of Coming Back to Life, this evolving body of work came to be called the Work That Reconnects on the suggestion of Fran Macy, Joanna’s husband and life-long co-conspirator. In some parts of the world it is commonly referred to as Deep Ecology, or as Active Hope.

In 2012, Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone published the first edition of Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy to support individual reflection, book groups and communities of practice. Both books have been translated into several languages and republished in second editions.

The Evolving Edge of Undoing Oppression

Although the Work itself, from its beginning, has challenged the perpetuation of Business As Usual and called for a transformation of our relationship with power, the implicit bias and cultural blind spots of the dominant paradigm have been nonetheless woven throughout its framework and practices. In the 2010s, People of the Global Majority initiated an exploration into the impact of power, privilege and oppression dynamics within the theory and practice of the Work.

Led by the efforts, insights and contributions of People of the Global Majority, the global Work That Reconnects community has begun to center the work of Undoing Oppression in its practice and study of the Work. The Anti-Oppression Resource Group (AORG) has been a strong leader in these efforts, initiating the revision of many classic Work That Reconnects practices; guiding the shift in focus and language used within the Work That Reconnects community; and providing skills and resources for more accurately honoring all of the world’s peoples. Prioritizing social justice in our practice of the Work and facilitating Work That Reconnects spaces that are safe and welcoming for all people is refreshing the Work in powerful ways.

The Emergence of the Work That Reconnects Network

In 2015 Joanna Macy, who carried the Work forward with passion and creativity for decades, was nearing retirement. A group of dedicated facilitators from the US met and made a commitment to ensure the future of the Work. Thanks to their dedication and hard work, the Work That Reconnects Network took form the following year.

Building on an extensive mailing list developed by Joanna Macy and her long-time assistant Anne Symens-Boucher, the Work That Reconnects Network has grown to include members and followers from around the world. An international group of Network Weavers – which includes both volunteers and staff members – collaborate in the leadership, management and visioning processes for the Network. Volunteers and advisors from around the world contribute on committees and councils to sustain and deepen our work.

Our mission at the Work That Reconnects Network is to nurture a regenerative and thriving world for all beings by providing support, connection and inspiration to the global Work That Reconnects community. We focus on weaving connections among Work That Reconnects initiatives around the world. We provide support and resources for facilitators, emerging facilitators and anyone called to the Work.

Practices and rituals described in Active HopeComing Back to Life and on the Network website have been, from the beginning, open-source. On the website we post new practices developed by facilitators from around the world, as well as adaptations and revisions of old favorites. You are welcome to utilize them. Just be sure to credit the source.

A Resource and Gift for This Moment

The Work That Reconnects is a self-evolving system; it grows and changes with the times, in response to the challenges and opportunities we face. A Wild Love for the World: Joanna Macy and the Work of Our Time, published in 2020, features inspiring and profound stories from people around the world who contributed to the development of the Work over time and in various circumstances.

It feels that the Work has never been more needed than right now. As the Great Unraveling accelerates, the Work That Reconnects helps us face the mess we’re in with “unexpected resilience and creative power” (which is the new subtitle of the second edition of Active Hope, released in 2022).

It is used by activists engaged in many dimensions of the Great Turning and adopted by groups such as Extinction Rebellion, Deep Adaptation, and the Transition Town movement. It has been adapted to the cultural contexts of people all around the world and translated into many languages. It is used at all levels of education from work developed for parents and kids all the way to higher education and academia. And it has been used to transform Business as Usual in governments and institutions as a tool for Truth and Reconciliation Councils and other initiatives for bringing our current structures into alignment with the Great Turning.

As you explore the Work, we hope each of you finds your own way to participate in the Great Turning and find ways to make your own contributions to it – all for the healing of our world.