Politics and Spirituality (Part 2): Julie Oliver, Kerri Kelly

Oct 23, 2018

Or, listen on Spotify

What is the relationship between politics and spirituality? How can we harness our drive for personal wellness into civic engagement? While the separation of church and state is one of our country's founding principles, spiritual faith has often been at the center of positive political change.

In this episode, we continue the conversation we started with Marianne Williamson by talking to two women whose political activism grew out of their personal journeys: Congressional Candidate Julie Oliver, and founder of CTZNWELL, Kerri Kelly.


Julie: My name is Julie Oliver. I am running for US House of Representatives in District 25 here in the great state of Texas. But I'm also a working mother of four and a yoga teacher.

Jeff: And was there a specific moment that thrust you into a pretty big decision to run for congress?

Julie: It was when congress met a year ago to repeal the Affordable Care Act. My son was born into the neonatal intensive care unit of a local hospital here in Austin. By the time he was a freshman in high school he started to get very, very sick.

And we discovered he had an immune deficiency. he's able to stay on our insurance because the Affordable Care Act allowed children to stay on their parents' insurance until they're 26, and then, two, it prohibits an insurance company from discriminating against him. He can't get denied coverage from an insurance company as long as the Affordable Care Act is intact. And that's what got me going. But there are almost daily reasons to stay in this race.

Jeff: I want to talk a little bit about you as a yoga teacher.

While yoga is a physical practice, it's also very much a spiritual practice. And baked into those teachings are concepts like ahimsa, non-violence, that have been very influential historically in political movements. Obviously, most famously, with Gandhi, and Martin Luther King. But I'm wondering, more personally, if your yoga practice influences how you think about public service and civic engagement.

Julie: I would say it does, very much so. And I would say that what you just referenced, ahimsa, doing the least harm, is probably one of my guiding principles, and what I step into in every day, and what I want to campaign for, what I want to be an advocate for. There's so much need. But there's also so much ability to support people who have need.

And if we turn a blind eye and say, "You know what? Corporate profits are more important than this person's physical needs," that's doing harm to somebody. And I can't, in good conscience, make decisions that would harm somebody in the face of that.

It also has helped me connect truly with others. Because I didn't know what to do when I first started running for office. Because I didn't have this huge network of political operatives who could help me out. And I thought to myself, "I need to go meet people. I have to connect with people. I need to hear their stories." How can I advocate for them legislatively if I don't know them?

And from the start, from the absolute start, I got in my car and I just started driving and meeting groups of people who were meeting. And from there, it turned into block walking. And then, from there, it turned into town halls. And now, it's almost everywhere I go, whether I'm in a grocery store or the gas station, I look at that as an opportunity to connect with somebody and see them.

Jeff: Right.

Julie: And being able to do that with people, especially people on the other side of the aisle, it has been just such a game changer. People are willing to share with me and open up, and even if they don't see eye-to-eye with me politically, they feel like they're in a safe space, that they can talk with me. Yeah, yoga's a big part of it.

Jeff: Your fellow Texan, Brené Brown, of whom I'm a great fan. She writes, "You can't hate close-up. It's hard to hate close-up. Move in." And so-

Julie: True.

Jeff: ... those interactions, face to face, in the yoga studio or in the grocery store, or on the street, those are things that can help create the true meaning of yoga, union, connection, right?

Julie: Right, mm-hmm.

Jeff: So, you're part of this wave of exceptional women. There's 185 women, I believe, that have won the nomination for Congress ... that are running in November. I think 143 of those are Democrats. And I want to tie that a little bit into the yoga community, because there's 37 million Americans who are practicing yoga, and about 80% of those are women.

They tend to be highly educated and urban, which would normally suggest that this would be a fairly politically active demographic, but the wellness and spiritual communities, at least for the last couple of generations, I think, have largely shunned political engagement, because they see yoga and their spiritual practice as a safe place, that's removed from the dirty qualities of politics.

And I was talking to Marianne Williamson, and she talks about, "Well, this wasn't always true." Like, in the '60s, there was a time where spirituality and politics were actually ... went hand in hand. She said, "We did the I Ching in the morning, and then went to an anti-war rally in the afternoon," which I thought was funny. And, obviously, the right brings together spirituality and politics marvelously, to their credit. Just look at the evangelical movement.

So, I wonder if you feel like the pendulum is swinging back, and that the wellness and spiritual worlds, which are largely female, are becoming more politically activated, and that they're beginning to see a clearer line between their own personal wellness and societal wellbeing?

Julie: What I am seeing in my community, or the community that I've even come to know, and this journey of running for Congressional office, is that there are hundreds, in my district, of highly-educated women who didn't wait for somebody to ask them to get involved. I think they saw that the soul of their communities, the souls for the future, were at stake, and the time to be silent was no more. And if they're not even running for an office, they're supporting candidates who are, in such an incredible grassroots way.

So, how do we get people out to vote in years that it is not a Presidential election? And they're out doing the work. Well, let's go out, let's talk to our neighbors. Let's block-walk. Let's phone bank. Let's do this again. They call it the old-school style of campaigning, and it's, you actually have to meet people. And it is revolutionary, because we haven't seen that sort of thing in decades. You change minds by presenting yourself to somebody and just having that conversation. It's a courageous conversation, but it doesn't have to be hostile.

Jeff: So, when you win in November, what are the issues that you want to focus on when you arrive in Washington, D.C.?

Julie: I would love to focus on guaranteed universal healthcare for everybody in America. I would love to work on true immigration reform. I would love for Texas to be the model of what true compassionate, immigration reform could look like. And it can be done. We just have to have the political fortitude to do it. Then finally, I would love to work on corruption in Congress, and I think again, big money is a huge part of that. Again, this is not a Republican issue. This is on both sides. We have Congressmen and women, and senators who are bought and sold based on who their donors are.

Jeff: I want just pick up on a few of the other things that you said earlier in the interview. You're still teaching classes. How do you manage that?

Julie: I am. Well, you know what's funny? Nobody wants to campaign, and nobody wants phone calls at seven o'clock in the morning, so I'm still teaching.

Jeff: Wow.

Julie: So, I find that it's, again, the energy inside of a yoga studio is so grounding to me, and the environment that I've stepped into, that I welcome it. It's like a sanctuary for me. It truly is. I hope that doesn't sound corny, but it's like when I step in, and there's this energy of calm, and quiet, and introspection, it is exactly what I need.

Jeff: Do your students know that you're running?  

Julie: Some of them do. I don't mention it in every class. Recently we had a yoga fundraiser, so I did plug that in my classes. I don't get too involved in talking about me, but when it comes to the registration deadlines to register to vote, I always remind people. When it comes to election dates, I remind people of election dates. So, those reminders I drop in, but I'm not campaigning while I'm teaching.

Jeff: Yeah. Well, Julie, thank you so much for coming on the show, and more, thank you for your decision to serve the public. I hope the next time we speak I can call you Congresswoman.

Julie: I hope so too. Thank you.



Jeff: Kerri Kelly is the founder of CTZNWELL, an emerging movement to mobilize people into a powerful force for wellbeing for all, with personal practice, community building, and collective action. She spent seven years as Executive Director and is currently board chair of the non-profit Off the Mat, Into the World. They work to train leaders around the world in social change, as the bridge between yoga, self inquiry, and effective community action. Her life’s work has been to transform personal wellness seekers into powerful forces in the loving fight for social justice and equality.

Kerri: My name is Kerri Kelly. I live in New York. I'm a recovering corporate executive. I'm a yoga teacher. I'm a community organizer. I'm a political hacker. My passion is in really just mobilizing the wellness community into a political force that can democratize wellbeing for everyone, and so we do everything from street actions to small group community organizing to advocacy work to electoral engagement, so as to get people more politically conscious and engaged and really connecting what we know to be their private passion around wellness into public engagement around policies and programs that support the wellbeing of everyone.

Jeff: That's a lot. You're a yoga teacher, and you're an organizer and founder of Citizen Well. I'm wondering how did those roles for you inform each other? How your yoga practice and your teaching informs your political organizing and vice versa.

Kerri: I mean, for me they've always been really similar. I got political around the same time that I became a yogi. It was right after 9/11. I lost my stepdad, who was a fireman, and yoga was the thing I turned to to heal. So my getting politically activated because the world landed on my doorstep literally, and my discovering the capacity to heal and to find purpose happened simultaneously.

So I never really understood those things to be separate, and as I taught yoga and really leaned into that spiritual path, for me it was really about organizing my body, organizing my mind, organizing around what matters most to me, organizing around my values. It starts on the mat. It starts, I think, in a real individual way, but as you know, it very much expands from there and it started to inform the things that I ate and the products that I bought and the places that I visited, and the way in which I wanted to serve my community.

So what at first was a very individual seeking path for me spiritually became collective and political very quickly, and as I started to organize communities, it felt really similar. It felt like facilitating an experience where people get aligned with their values. What issues they align with, what they fight for, how they fight for it. The two things have always felt not just intertwined but really complimentary. We can really use the spiritual practice to be, think, really effective political advocates. We can use the spiritual practice to become really effective allies in community organizing, especially when fighting for frontline communities, and I think we can use the spiritual practice to stay in integrity, to hold ourselves accountable to are we really walking the talk?

Jeff: The two really, I think, feed off of one another, and that was the thing I think that really inspired the work of Citizen Well was ... And I know you know this. We saw this huge trend of people just doing yoga religiously and spending so much money in the wellness marketplace. I think it's $299 billion, and it looked a lot like an emerging constituency but it wasn't necessarily, to your point, translating publicly. It wasn't necessarily translating into the political sphere, and I think in some way it's because the private space was giving people everything they needed individually to be well, but it wasn't giving us everything that we needed collectively to be well.

The private space wasn't necessarily addressing the systemic barriers to wellbeing, and so I think people are seeing now that we actually have to be engaged not just in our individual wellbeing, but in our societal wellbeing and in our collective wellbeing if we all want to be well on individual and collective levels.

Kerri: Yeah. When we're talking about personal wellness on an individual level, we're focusing very much on the places where we have physical deficiencies or maybe we're sick or we're changing our behavior to affect and impact in a positive way our own personal wellbeing. For a while, some of the illness in society seemed asymptomatic for people. They couldn't really see it. And then obviously in the last couple years, I think what we've seen is those symptoms come really forward, and people then are now actually looking to address sort of what the ills of society are.

Jeff: As the wellness industry is led by women, generally, and comprised of women, certainly yoga, which is 80% female, I think naturally what we've seen over the last couple years and certainly this year is women stepping forward in a way that maybe you haven't seen since like 1992 in terms of running for political office. But it goes deeper than that. Really, really turning out on the streets, engaging in civil disobedience and social activism.

You saw all of the protests surrounding the Cavanaugh hearings. And I wonder ... There's 185 women who have won their nomination for their parties for Congress in these midterms, and that's certainly one way to go. You could raise your hand and run for office, but not everybody can do that. I wonder what you would say to everyone within the wellness community, but particularly women, of here are some ways for you to tangibly kind of get involved and express your personal empowerment and responsibility.

Kerri: Yeah. I was in DC. I got arrested three times around the Cavanaugh hearings, and it was really remarkable to see women having so much skin in the game and really putting their bodies on the line. I just see that as a testament to, I think, what women are starting to realize is at stake. Everyone is threatened. Certainly some communities more than others are being targeted, but women, women's bodies ... Roe is very much at stake in this upcoming Supreme Court term, and so I think women are starting to find their words and really understand more clearly how the personal is in fact political, and so it was incredible to see women not just marching but really laying it down.  

I think what's really cool is that you know you'll not be alone if you want to hit the streets or if you want the advocate or if you want to do civil disobedience and non-violent action, that there's a real budding community emerging around that kind of work. And then I think there are other ways to get active, too. I think you see a lot of people hitting the phones and calling their congressmen and starting to realize that their elected officials in fact work for them, so there's I think a real realization that we need to hold our elected officials accountable for what they promise and for what they say they're going to do.

But more often than anything, what I end up telling people in our organizing work is to really start by having courageous conversations with the people who are most proximal to them, whether it's your coworkers or your students or your family members. Having political conversations at the dinner table and really building the muscle and cultivating the skill of how to have conversations across difference, across the divide, that help us understand one another better but also hold relationship really sacred. And I think that's a really good beginning place that often emerges into hosting small groups or advocacy groups.

You see women's huddles and indivisible groups popping up around the country, and that small group format really actually ... That's been around for ever and ever and ever, but I remember studying that when I went to Saddleback Church when I first started to be an organizer because the evangelicals really understood how to organize communities and small groups around shared values and get them activating and serving. So I think there's a real emergence of that happening now on the left. So many people are coming together in small, local groups. So many more people I think are finding their voice and just having courageous conversations in places where I believe that being political wasn't welcome.

In the yoga space, even, it was really taboo to ever talk about politics in the yoga room because that was meant to be so-called neutral, but we're just seeing that everything is politicized, and we really just have to be centering these conversations in conscious and mindful ways and relational ways and curious ways as often as possible. And then the last thing I would say is get engaged locally.

We're most impacted by our local politics, and yet I think people are often more removed from local politics because we tend to get caught up in the sexy, big national elections, whether that's governor or Congress or president, and yet so much incredible stuff is happening at the local level and there's an opportunity to participate as a citizen at that level, but there's also amazing opportunities to run for office, whether it's for school board or city council or city advocate, or even just to go and attend town hall meetings and become a vocal citizen, that's participating and that gets to know the process and that gets to know the stakeholders and the people that are governing. It's a really, really powerful act that I think goes a really long way.

Jeff: And you can have so much influence at that level because in many cases you have so much influence at that level, because in many cases for public hearings around issues, there will be just a handful of people there.

Kerri: That's right.

Jeff: I mean, you know in local elections, it could be a hundred or a thousand votes that can swing.

Kerri: That's right.

And I think that that is maybe the big crisis that we're not talking about, because we can talk all day long about how the system is broken, and how all the branches of government are corrupt. But we've been a really passive citizenship for a really long time, and I think it's because our lives have become so privatized and so individualized. And so this kind of waking up that you've mentioned before of people really seeing and the cognitive dissonance of people really feeling disheartened, like there is something really wrong here on a big collective, systemic level and I can't not get engaged.

And so to me, if we can reignite that spirit of citizenship, that culture of citizenship, in the same way that we're ignited around wellness, right? Everyday, we meditate. Who says we can't call our congressperson everyday, right? Everyday we buy green juice or we eat organic. Who says we can't hit the streets or visit our elected officials' office everyday? So for me, I think there's so much potential around the way in which we can actually start to practice citizenship in the way we practice spirituality. Everyday, every moment, everywhere you are with every [inaudible].

Jeff: That's inspiring and incredibly actionable advice. I want to kind of mind your own personal experience a little bit. I think, as we discussed [inaudible] couple of generations our spirituality and political activism under poor engagement on the left has subsided in some ways become divorced, but on the right you've seen incredible examples of essentially even the Evangelical church really motivating its constituency around political issues and I know that has been a model for you.

Kerri: Yeah.

Jeff: As you contemplate how to create this new kind of political religious lack or spiritual lack. I wonder if you could tell me a little bit about your experience kind of looking at the evangelical movement and how you're applying some of those take aways to what you're doing.

Kerri: Yeah, when I first started organizing, one of my mentors sent me to Saddleback Church, under the leadership of Rick Warren, because they were really curious about the way in which the evangelicals were building both what we call depth and scale on an organizing level. Right? Depth and spiritual practice. Right? Getting people to come together around the bible, around ritual, around values, around purpose. And scale in the way in which they actually built an infrastructure that you know, I mean I think now, you know they've had small group ministries at saddleback since 2006 and they have something like 75,000 small groups that meet every week.

Jeff: Amazing.

Kerri: And then 27,000 plus worshipers in congregation every week and so, they've cracked a code of both building a culture of engagement that's spiritually based that keeps people kind of on this....and I think the hook for people...and I think Rick Warren I think really figured this out with purpose. Right? He was really giving people a pathway to finding and fulfilling their purpose in relationship to one another and in relationship to ministry.

So we set out, when I was running off them out into the world, we really set out to replicate that. What would it look like to actually build a culture around our spiritual practices that was centered in values and shared practice and community and replicate that through small circles all over the country and actually help those folks and those communities start to bridge the personal to the political.

Jeff: Yeah, On the left we talk about community quite a bit, but the evangelical...I mean they really built the community, and a lot of that has to do I think with this small circle concept that you're talking about, because they have physical space everywhere. Between 250 and 300,000 churches. Right?

Kerri: Yeah.

Jeff: Where people go every week to connect around shared practice and shared values and those are the places that then become the discussion point for a lot of these issues, and for candidates, and for fundraising, and what have you and I think in some ways that's what's missing on the left and we've talked about this a bit, but there are 24,000 yoga studios in the United States and that's where people go, often to tap into their community. You could practice at home.

Kerri: Yeah.

Jeff: You could go for a jog if you're really just looking for exercise, but a lot of people go to their local studio because they're looking to connect around shared values and practices. That has largely been very A-political.

And so I'm wondering how can one on the left create those containers? What are the places where people can congregate around these ideas and organize?

Kerri: Well I think the medicine for individualism is relationship. I do think that actually online and field can work together. I do think that we have become disconnected and distracted and isolated from one another so for me, the core of the core, of the core that we're talking about here is reestablishing relationship with one another.

I think that yoga studios are really fertile ground for that, for sure and all of these meditation studios that are popping up. But I think that workspaces, I'm in a co-working space and we have a ton of community culture in our co-working space. I think that neighborhood, like block parties and living room-small group conversations are really powerful. I think about the Tupperware movement.

Jeff: Sure yeah.

Kerri: And the circles and how those two right were, and mom circles those are ripe for political and courageous conversation. I actually think the form can take any form of shape. I think actually there's a lot of latent forms  out there that just haven't been radicalized and politicized like moms groups, like these Tupperware groups.

So to me these are the places where we can actually start to bridge the divide and see we have the capacity to have conversations about our personal well being and simultaneously have conversations about our collective and political well being. I just think we need some bridge tools, so I think bridge tools look like this: inviting people into your community and gathers that don't look like you is a really good way to get political whether you want to or not.

Jeff: Right.

Kerri: I also think there are really cool curriculums out there that provide templates or guides for how to lead a conversation about anything from sanctuary to how to eat well and food system reform to democratized well-being to electing a local official to getting out the vote. I mean, there's just so much available to us online right now and there's so many juicy organizations that are putting out tools and resources, and we do this all time because we get that. People feel very paralyzed and stuck until you actually hand them something and you're like here, do this. And sometimes that's enough to get them to do it.

Jeff: Right.

Kerri: I think we just have to start practicing it, the way that we hit our mat and do a pose for the first time. I often tell people, like have a party. Maybe it's a wine tasting. Maybe it's a potluck. Maybe it's a book club. And then get courageous about what you invite into that space, that can become more politically rigorous.

Jeff: Yeah. And finding that direct connection between your wellness and policy, not necessarily always politics.

Kerri: Yeah.

Jeff: I want to ask you about Citizen Well...you could have joined another organization. You ran an organization in the past. But you decided to do something that was incredibly challenging but also because it's incredibly challenging, incredibly powerful.

Kerri: I think it was cooking in me for a really long time, that at some point we were going to hit a ceiling in the non-profit sector. I saw that there was a need to organize, like organize power, because one of the things I love about our community is that so many people ... so many fractals of people doing individual good work. That's always happening, I think, in the wellness and spiritual world, but when it's not organized and coordinated it's really hard to leverage that power against the real big systemic forces that are at work.

Jeff: Yeah.

Kerri: And we saw that we needed to do the culture shift work that got people to see that the personal was in fact political. And so that's where Citizen Well stepped in. We were like, okay, we'll do the organizing. And we looked at people like the NRA. Right? Who was organizing a massive group of people around the Second Amendment and gun rights.

People who were equally passionate, as people are, about being well and eating healthy and taking care of the environment, but they actually built an infrastructure that organized those people and leveraged that power in ways we now know. It's very much at work in DC. And so we were like what would it look like for us to build infrastructure around that within the wellness community so that we could work towards building that kind of power.

Jeff: Well, Kerri. You've always been a leader in this particular realm and the work that you're doing now is more important than ever, so thank you.

Kerri: Thank you.

Jeff: And God Bless you and know that we're behind you 100%.

Kerri: Thank you. I'm so grateful. And thank you for having this conversation and bringing this to light.

Jeff: Yeah. It's only the beginning.




In these tumultuous times, it is easy for many of us to retreat into our spiritual practices. Whether you go to church, a meditation studio, or you just sit quietly at home, this time and space we create for ourselves can provide a much-needed refuge, but it’s important not to become too isolated and divorce spirituality from civic engagement. As Kerri said, we've been a really passive citizenship for a really long time because our lives have become so privatized and individualized.

And the health and wellness of democracy relies on an engaged and passionate and educated citizenry. So many of us are working our own personal wellness, but perhaps, now it’s time to look up, look around, and start working on our collective wellness by becoming more involved in the world around us.  

You  can help organize a march, you can get on the phone to your congressperson, you can even run for local office, but you could also just simply start by inviting a few friends over for dinner, and being brave enough to start a political conversation from a place of love and compassion.

With people like Julie and Kerri stepping up, finding the courage got a whole lot easier.

If you want to learn more about how to connect your spiritual practices with your political ones, we offer courses including how to organize a march at www.onecommune.com, and you can take a course with Marianne Williamson on the keys to a successful career as a teacher and leader.

Spirituality can unite us in a way political discourse often fails us; what we need right now is to recognize and unify around our common destiny as humans living together on this earth. But for now, that's all from the Commune podcast. Please subscribe, thanks for listening, and see you next week!

Leading teachers, life-changing courses...

Your path to a happier, healthier life

Get access to our library of over 100 courses on health and nutrition, spirituality, creativity, breathwork and meditation, relationships, personal growth, sustainability, social impact and leadership.

Try Membership Free for 14 Days

Stay connected with Commune

Receive our weekly Commusings newsletter + free course announcements!