Friday, September 18, 2009

Virginia Ahern and The Zen Zone - Creating Alternative Space for New Jersey Pride.

For years I've been listening to self described Radicals complain about what they call the commercialization of Pride events.

For me, "commercialization of Pride" is represented by the Gay Pride event in San Francisco in 2002. Budweiser was the sponsor. There is "Make it a Bud." "Be Yourself. Make it a Bud." That to me is commercialization. But I feel there had to be a whole lot of other things going on before that corporate saturation point was reached. A Pride committee is a community; folks who get together on a regular basis who share a goal/mission/values, etc...

I feel the interview I did with Virginia Ahern shows how an open minded Pride "community" responds to progressive critiques.

Among (many) other things Virginia Ahern is part of the team that puts on the annual Jersey Pride festival. This interview was done by NJ radio personality Pedro Angel Serrano at 2009 Jersey Pride Festival. Pedro talks to Virginia about the origins behind the Zen Zone, an alternative space at NJ Pride focusing on personal and planetary wellness. From there the conversation moves on how to prevent burn out (activist or not) and the positive effects a small idea can have over time.


Pedro Angel Serrano: What is the Zen Zone?

Virginia Ahern: Well the Zen Zone in a nutshell, is a space at Pride to celebrate personal and planetary wellness. I’d been on the Pride planning committee for about 15 years and a lot of my life is about wellness and being well and preventive medicine, things like that.
So every year at Pride planning committee meetings when were start to get the mailings together, we got a million venders to mail to and who are we going to get for the line up for the stage, at one point I’d say, “Gee, it’d be a whole lot easier, we’d avoid a lot of stress, and anxiety and mailings and resources if we just said lets forget about all the venders lets forget about the stage entertainment and lets just all come to Asbury Park and have a meditation for six hours.
Now I was saying that tongue in cheek. But about six months ago I thought, why couldn’t we have a space at Pride a meditation space? And it started from that and it also started from my other kinds of activism I do in my life, and a lot of other social justice activism that made me question a lot of the things about the directions that Pride festivals where going. So what does it mean when we have the corporate sponsor’s, banks, and a few years ago we had Rebox, and people that may not be doing the best things for the planet?
And so I started to question a lot of that. And I would bring it up at meetings and I would say, “Look I know the direction that Pride festivals are going in. I fully expect that I’m going to be the minority voice for, you know, at least a while on this, and at least I had a space where I could express my opinion and just say, you know we need to keep these things in mind. I was questioning the corporate sponsorship and really just kind of scaling back and thinking about our relationship to materialism.
There’s a lot of wonderful things at Pride and there’s a lot of wonderful business’ that should be supported, but there is also I think it’s time for some space for something a little bit different, something a little quieter a little less focused on consumerism, at least to just kind of balance things out. And you know, I’d love it if ten years from now Prides were ninety percent meditation and tem percent, you know, vender booths, and entertainment, things like that. And that is my very long answer to your question. And there’s probably more pieces or it but I’ll stop there for the moment.

PAS: How did that process go? You pitched the idea. So what happened?

VA: Well I pitched the idea and I was not actually at the meeting where they discussed it and approved it. And I knew I wasn’t going to be able to be at that meeting and I also knew that I had a couple of people that were very supportive and interested in it happening presenting it at the meeting. And they said there were some people that were kind of like, “Huh? She wants to do what?” But a lot of people where excited about it and it (Jersey Pride) is also an event over the eighteen years that we have had it has evolved. There’s been so many things that we have added, have tried, that we have taken out, that we have morphed. So for the second year in a row on Saturday morning there is a Pride Ride, a bicycle ride. I think it’s fifteen miles round trip along the shore line and two of the Pride committee people who ride with the Bike Against AIDS, I don’t remember the exact name of the organization but they were like, “Hey. Lets have a little bike thing. They became bicycle enthusiasts. And there was room for then to do that. Years ago we used to have a beach party. We had it for years and we decided it was time to retire that.
And there’s been other organizations that have sponsored there own events as part of the whole weekend. And so it’s really changed and morphed a lot and I think a lot of people felt thought that “OK this is going to be one more new different thing to try; Why not.” And so it went from what I understand at that first meeting there were some people who didn’t quite get it but a lot of people were “We tried a million other things so let’s try this.”

PAS: What events did you have inside the Zen Zone? Great name by the way.

VA: Once I came up with that name I was compelled to do it. I knew there was no way out. Even thought I thought, “God, I have no time for this.” I’m an anti war activist, I’m an activist in my local food co-op, I do so many other things and I thought I really don’t have time. But I thought, “What would it be called?” I was trying to weave together all the different ideas of maybe stepping away from the corporations that support Pride or sponsor Pride, consumerism and you know I want to also be about wellness and have a space about that.
So with all of those things in mind what the day looked like was a little space cordoned off for quiet meditation. And that was billed as happening all day. Anyone could stop at any point and chill out and meditate.

PAS: and you actually had folks walk up to you and say, “Could we just sit in here and relax?”

VA: A few people did! Yes, actually, it was very sweet. There were two moms and there little kids and they needed a space to quiet down and did some breast feeding which was fabulous. And then they were on there way. Later in the day when people were just a little bit overwhelmed by the crowd or just needed to sit they said “Could we just go in the back and just sit?” We were like “Sure!” So that was the meditation space.
And then we had scheduled events through out the day. I opened up two times for Yoga. And as you can see we have a bunch of yoga mats for anyone who wanted to try some yoga or practice a little on there own if they already knew some yoga. We did also include an open mic/open reading facilitated by Pandora Scooter who does the monthly Out of the Box readings at the Pride Center in New Jersey. So we invited her because we thought you know let’s just have grass roots poets and writers and comedians and singers come and participate. And why not have a little bit of space for that? These are he creative part of the community that isn’t ever gonna be up on the main stage or maybe doesn’t envision themselves that way, but still want to have a space to share, read, and there’s a long history of that in minority movements of a kind of open, shared spaces, for reading, discussion, and things like that. So that was wonderful. That was from about 1:45 to almost 3:00. There were quite a number of people that came and read and because there were chairs set up around the tent, people kinda stopped in or sat on the grass. There were probably about over the course of the hour fifteen minutes about 30 people that came through. Some people were here the whole time, other people would sit on the grass for ten minutes and get up and walk away, and other people would peek in and see what was happening and that was lovely.
We had Morris Kafka giving a talk on becoming more energy efficient in our lives by improving energy efficiency in our home. And we had planned some other things. One of my other activist colleges could not make it but he was going to do some talks on environmental sustainability on a bigger global scale. So we had those things planned and some folks were not able to come but that also opened the space back up for open space and meditation and yoga and things like that. So those were the main events and after we finish up this interview we’ll see if anyone wants to come for the last hour of Om’ing and chanting as a way to sort of wind down there Pride festival.
A lot of people did stop by and said “Hey, I just started Yoga a few months ago.” And “Do you have a yoga center?” They thought the Zen Zone was a place that existed in NJ somewhere. And that was really great to have people stop by and ask questions, including the president of the Pride Center of NJ who was very interested in starting meditation at the Pride Center. So that was a really wonderful connection that I’ll follow up with. And that might be one of the things that come out of this; ongoing meditation groups at The Pride Center.

PAS: It shows how little it takes to get a positive chain reaction going. Where you do one thing, you put out an idea. Other people support it. To me it’s an example of what activism could be.

VA: I felt very empowered today as people walked up and said, “I just started yoga.” Or “Where can I do yoga?” It wasn’t hundreds of people it was probably a dozen or so. That was my goal for the day. I envisioned some people coming in to hang out. We had some nice meditation music going and I loaned the boom box to the AIDS quilt who are a few tents down. I happened to have the Sweet Honey in the Rock CD with there song on it called “Patchwork Quilt.” So I went down and loaned it to them for a while so they could play it on repeat. It was a nice spot to be in at the festival, the quilt just a few tents down, and we’re pretty far away from the stage and not to close to the beer and so it was a nice spot for them (the Pride Committee) to give us also.

Names Project

PAS: So you’re involved in a lot of things: anti war activism the George Street Co-op in New Brunswick. So what other projects do you have on your long, long list of things to do?

VA: Lets see. I do a lot of fund raising for New Jersey Peace Action which is a fifty-three year old organization working towards nuclear disarmament and reduction of military spending in favor of more funding for human needs. And lets see, I’ll continue my work with that. Believe it or not I almost canceled doing the Zen Zone a couple of times because I really felt I barely have time to do it. And now I feel compelled to do it next year. And, what else do I do? I do a lot um, a little bit around health care reform but mostly in trying to provide alternative medicine and alternative healing and things like that. I practice herbal medicine; I’m trained as a midwife. So I do a lot of other things with alternative health care and empower people about there health so there not just sucked into this monolithic medical system.

PAS: Any advice for activists on how to prevent burnout?

VA: Yes, this is my advice and this is sort of my number one thing to practice, which is just about every day I do some kind of exercise. Now, a lot of people are “Ugh, I hate exercise.” It doesn’t have to be “exercise”, exercises, like you think of going to the gym or something. I do a number of different things that for me it’s my time out, it’s my time for me it’s my time for keeping my body healthy. I do a lot of yoga, I do a lot of swimming, I do go to the gym, I ride my bicycle a lot.
So something that you do for yourself that you put in your schedule before you put in anything else in your schedule for the day. For instance almost every day I know either when I’m going to the gym or when I’m going to the pool or when I’m going for a bike ride or a yoga class. And I put that in my schedule and if you work a 9 to 5 job then you sort of have to work it around that or on a lunch break. But when your figuring out what your gonna be doing each day to schedule in that time of things just for you. And quiet time is good and walks or deep breathing. It doesn’t have to be this intense workout. Being mind full about knowing when your going to do that every day other wise you just not going to get it done.
It could be something like taking a bath or, a sauna, sitting in a garden, or finding out where the botanical garden is near you, the park or something where you have a few options, because sometimes you can’t always get to one particular thing. And so if you have a few different things, “Oh I could have a bath, or I could go for a walk, Wait I be driving past that park. Yea, I’ll just park my car and I’ll get out and walk for half an hour or twenty minutes before I head home.” If you live near the beach go watch the waves for twenty minutes, things like that. That’s the number one thing that prevents me from burning out. And also, I made a conscious decision many, many years ago to not be a martyr.

PAS: A what?

VA: A martyr. You know, not to be like, “Oh I’m gonna do it even though I’m miserable and my back hurts...” If my back hurts I’m gonna go and take care of it. I might skip a meeting because if I’m not as healthy as I can be, and my mind isn’t present, then I’m not contributing on a level that I could be.

PAS: Beautiful. I really appreciate your time. I’m always fascinated by these things. Now I can get to watch this from the start and see where this goes. Any contact information for the anti war group?

VA: I thought of one other activist thing I do that’s within the L.G.B.T. community that I do want to mention as well. New Jersey Peace Action is Www.NJPeaceAction.Org.
The main office is in Bloomfield but there’s lots of vigils that take place all over the state.

One of the other activist things I do, and feel the need to put it out there. I identify as a fem lesbian and one of the things that I started about nine years ago was the Fem Parade at the Michigan’s Women’s music Festival. And that also started out a little bit like this idea started out. “Should I do this? Will people think it’s weird?” And that’s probably a whole other discussion about identity and identity politics, but it turned into this amazing very positive event around visibility and some of the visibility issues that woman who identify as “Fem” in the L.G.B.T.Q.A. ect.

PAS: On rye with a whisper of mayonnaise.

VA: (laughs) Right.

PAS: I just say Gay. Saying L.G.B.T. is like saying R.O.Y.G.B.L. instead of “Rainbow!”

VA: That’s true. We could just spell rainbow instead of all of that.

PAS: Ellen DeGeneres is Gay. She’s from Louisiana and the women are gay there apparently.

VA: Right. And actually it’s interesting around the country how different communities use the language and the terms and so forth.
So anyway I did just want to mention it because it came from a very personal place to do the Fem Parade and it was just as I was really unveiling more of my identity and coming into incredible personal power that you have around identity. And that has been something I’ve discovered. It’s huge. Every year, it’s absolutely huge. It’s bigger then I ever thought it would be. I’m in awe when it happens and I think “Oh my gosh. I can’t believe that I sort of sheepishly asked a few other Fem identified gals at the festival wouldn’t it be cool to have a parade and just kind of like say like, yea, we’re here and do something around our issues around visibility. So maybe the Zen Zone will go in that same direction of really building and catching on and maybe there’s a real need for space for wellness and quiet and um…

PAS: Breast feeding.

VA: (laughs) Yes, Breast feeding, meditation, the whole nine yards.
So maybe it’ll really take off like the Fem Parade did. If it ends up continuing to be a lovely small drop in spot, that’s fine too. It’s good just to have the space. Hundreds of people walked by and saw the sign and saw the Yoga meditation sign and maybe jogged something in there brain. “Maybe I should try that.”

PAS: It don’t take much. It really doesn’t.

VA: Yes, I agree with you. It does not take much. So we’ll see next year. People may come by and say, “Yea, I saw you last year and I started doing yoga.” Things like that would make it absolutely worth it.



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