This group work arose in North America in the late 1970s, during a time of escalating concerns about nuclear weaponry and the hazards of nuclear power. Chellis Glendinning, Joanna Macy and Fran Peavey observed that when people share with others their feelings of fear, anguish or despair, their power to act for change is released. Thus began “despair and empowerment” work (phrase coined by Chellis). Joe Havens and Sarah Pirtle added the concept of “the turning” – the natural release of energy and insight that arises out of the mutual acknowledgement of shared feelings. (“The Great Turning” was first used by Craig Schindler and Gary Lapid to describe the framing idea underlying their work in reducing the risks of nuclear war and conflict transformation.)
Rapidly the efforts of these people and many others (including Barbara Hazard, Tova Green and Kevin McVeigh) synergized to develop a model that used 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. Joanna Macy’s 1979 article “How to Deal with Despair” and her 1983 book, Despair and Personal Power in the Nuclear Age, were vital to the spread of the work. Workshops, ranging in length from an evening to a week, in churches, classrooms and police armories, drew many thousands of people from within and beyond movements for peace, justice, and a safe environment.
In the mid-1980s participants began calling it Deep Ecology work, thanks to the consonance and inspiration they found in the deep ecological perspective. By then the work was spreading to Europe, Australia, South Asia, Japan and the Soviet Union. In 1988, Thinking Like a Mountain: Toward a Council of All Beings, which Joanna co-authored with John Seed, Pat Fleming and Arne Naess, was published, reflecting new forms of the work; and subsequent workshops often took the form of Councils of All Beings.
Coming Back to Life: Practices to Reconnect our Lives, Our World, co-authored by Joanna Macy and Molly Young Brown, was published in 1998 to provide an up-to-date description of the theory behind the work and some sixty of its exercises, both new and old. Here the group work, reflecting the breadth of its applications, came to be called the Work that Reconnects.
Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy, by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone, came out in 2012 and has been translated into several other languages. This book presents the background and context of the work, with exercises old and new, at a level appropriate for individual reflection, book groups and communities of practice.
A new edition of Coming Back to Life was published in 2014 with updated practices, theory, and additional chapters, including “Learning with Communities of Color.” This section reflects an important current emphasis: the exploration of the impact of power, privilege and oppression dynamics on the Work That Reconnects as it has been practiced in the past, along with a comprehensive effort to develop the Work so that it better serves the needs of all and supports urgently needed cultural change in an ever more powerful way. A reframing group has been meeting regularly since 2016 and helping to rewrite practices and texts in conjunction with Molly and Joanna, which are being posted on the Workthatreconnects.org website.
The Work That Reconnects is a self-evolving system, and it is growing and changing with the times. It is called “Deep Ecology Work” in Germany, Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan and “Active Hope” in parts of Japan. The Work That Reconnects Network formed in 2015 with the help of a small group of long-time Work That Reconnects facilitators called the Network Weavers. Recent milestones include the launch in 2016 of Deep Times: A Journal of the Work That Reconnects and an upgraded Workthatreconnects.org website in 2019. The Network has also begun to offer webinars for facilitators and network hub leaders to bring people together to share their experiences with the Work.