A Long Letter Home: 

Reflections on England and the Halfway Point of the Watson

Monday, March 25 - Cape Town, South Africa 

I stepped into the hot shower. From the nearby door where I had left my phone, I could hear The Best of Bob Dylan playing on shuffle over the noise of the running water. All alone in a remote corner of Northern England, I finally closed my eyes and let myself relax. And in the far off hotel bathroom, on the outskirts of a town whose name I still hadn’t learned to properly pronounce, I heard Dylan pose a question that – despite being incredibly cliche – gave words to a growing feeling that I had been unable to articulate for myself over the past few months: 

How does it feel?

To be on your own

With no direction home

A complete unknown.

If I had to convey what the past 226 days have felt like on the Watson, I would recite this chorus – cliches be damned.

Arriving in South Africa: The Halfway Point

I arrived in Cape Town, South Africa, about three weeks ago. The first line of instructions for the flat I had rented read: “do NOT walk anywhere after dark.” Naturally, I arrived just as the sun was setting and as my Uber from the airport pulled up next to the first of two locking gates I cracked the door and peered cautiously outside. The street being deserted I thanked my driver, pulled my bags from the trunk and stood on the pavement to watch him drive away. 

That moment, right there, is what reminds me of Dylan's song. The first seconds of silence after hours or days of travel, when you step off the platform or out of the taxi into a new city where nobody knows who you are and you don’t know anything beyond the corner of the rapidly dimming street that you are standing on. 

What a good lesson in humility. Because it doesn’t matter who you were in whatever city you just left. Now, you are an unknown once again. And somehow you’ve got to figure out how to make something happen. You start building from the ground up, building trust, identifying key relationships, and listening well enough to know what’s possible. 

In the UK, the time it took to gently navigate these relationships was worth every minute. I was greeted in England with open arms by an incredibly talented and diverse array of organizers at the largest community organizing network in the United Kingdom: Citizens UK. I could not have hoped for a more generous and welcoming set of colleagues to work with and learn from. 

Because Citizens UK emerged from the Industrial Areas Foundation (the US-based network which I organize for) nearly 30 years ago, they have had plenty of time to evolve a style of community organizing that draws on the same foundations, but expresses itself in new and innovative ways. It was like learning to speak a new dialect of the same language.

From the very beginning, Froi Lagespi, the Lead Organizer for North London, was the bedrock of this experience. He spent countless hours with me, and after working together for a few weeks, he essentially enlisted me as part of his team in the areas where they were short staffed. This meant he became my direct supervisor for all intents and purposes. He evaluated my work, allowed me to shadow him in meetings, and gave me a front-row seat to witness the network’s campaign strategies and tactics in action. 

As our relationship grew and I built new contacts in the national network, other organizers from across the country invited me to join them and see their work, lend a hand, or share stories of solidarity from across the ocean. 

So, like a boomeranged, for three months I traveled back and forth across the island-nation from Birmingham to Cambridge, Reading to Preston, Brighton, Manchester, and beyond.

In practice, this meant many long and unglorified hours spent in relentlessly-rocking train carriages, speeding across the English countryside, after which I would be deposited, slightly ruffled and disoriented in a new city where I’d generally make my way to the Church Hall or University auditorium. There, assemblies of 400+ people would be gathered to negotiate with Mayors, Ministers of Parliament, Council members and Health Officials to win better housing, living wages, or access to mental healthcare for themselves and their families. 

When not traveling to see and learn from these massive demonstrations of people-power, I was based in London, working with a team of organizers in the Northern boroughs of the city. Train rides were replaced with travel on the London Underground as we criss-crossed the map, building a campaign that brought together the different campuses of University of the Arts London (UAL) to challenge elected officials on improving their clean-air commitments. 

My constant guide in the UK, Froi Lagespi, Lead Organizer for North London 

Birmingham Citizen UK assembly holding the Mayor to account for the committments he had made to the assembly in the previous.

Say what you will about organizing, but it takes you off the beaten path. We’d ride from the Southall neighborhood (which hosts one the largest Sikh communities outside of India) for a meeting with the NHS supervisors, to Customs House Station, where an action with over 1,000 community leaders was celebrating their organization’s 25-year anniversary.  

Along the way, I also learned more than necessary about the personal drama of many local town councilors who get very chatty after a few drinks at the pub. And I found out the hard way that city buses stop running in London at midnight.  

But perhaps more pragmatically, I also became a better organizer. Certainly in terms of the fundamental practices, but more crucially in the imagination I have for what organizing can look like

Citizens UK has done pioneering work folding universities into the civic alliances that have traditionally been built of mainly religious congregations, neighborhood schools, and community clubs. This innovation has opened up a whole new world of potential that American organizers have not yet been able to tap into. 

They also put together incredibly creative and novel campaigns designed to bring their targets to the negotiating table. One of my favorites is the historic “Cardiff Chicken Run,” where a group of young Muslim community leaders brought national attention to the lack of Halal foods in the area by dressing up with a chicken costume and running 18 kilometers between the closest Halal restaurants. Their stunt brought top executives of Nando’s chicken to the negotiating table and persuaded them to create the first ever Halal Nando’s restaurant in Cardiff.

It felt like drinking from a firehose at times. Between learning a new style of organizing during the day, being dropped in strange new cities every other week, and then trying to record as many of the lessons as possible at night, there was rarely a dull moment. 

But sooner than I would have liked, the time came to leave. It was time to say goodbye to the new community I had built, drop out of the spaces I had worked so hard to get into, and close that chapter. Goodbye to the people I had grown to confide in and rely on, the projects only half finished, and the aspirations yet unmet.

It’s strange to see the chapters of your life open and close so definitively in rapid succession. Picking everything up and starting life over again are things generally associated with the big events: college, getting married, having children, etc. Here I was racing through it every few months - getting existential whiplash in the process.

Standing on the curb in the encroaching darkness of Cape Town, in a city on the other side of the world, this was certainly the case. For me, I’ve noticed that starting over again and again in this way tends to bring up the same question: What remains?

What remains?

What remains when you are gone to mark that you were ever there at all? 

During the middle of my time in the UK, my grandfather passed away. As soon as I got the news, I made the decision to go home and support my family. He was the flagship of our little clan, and truly the best of us. A Doctor from Kansas, he grew up during the Dust Bowl and Great Depression which left him with a lifelong ethos of frugality and joy for life. Drafted into the Korean war at 22, he became a staunch anti-war activist and dedicated the rest of his life to caring for others in medicine. I can’t think of a person who lived their life with more integrity. 

He carried convictions that were as strong as steel: that people should be treated with dignity, that they deserved forgiveness and love no matter what, and that everyone was worthy of being believed in.

I first felt called to the work of community organizing because it was a way to carry out these convictions in my own day to day life; because, at our best, an organizer’s job is to sit with people, truly see them, and enable them to grow into the person they want to be. The vehicle for doing that is the campaigns we build, the actions we run, etc., but these steps are not the end in themselves. The focus is on people. As Ella Baker, one of the giants of community organizing said: “over the long term, whether a community achieved this or that tactical objective [is] likely to matter less than whether the people in it came to see themselves as having the right and the capacity to have some ‘say so’ in their own lives.”


When I returned home to the US and found a world that my grandfather was no longer a part of, I asked the same question I now do every time the word changes: What remains?  

Home with the family.

The question made me recognize just how much of the life I have created is owed to this man. So many of the convictions I try (and often fail) to live up to were the ones I saw him model. The way he treated people – with unwavering faith in their potential to do good, no matter what they had done before. The determination to heal people – no matter if he liked them or found them unbearable. The courage to do what he believed to be right even if others ridiculed him – like walking to work at the hospital every day during the Iraq war with a sign on his back that read “No Blood for Oil.”

All this ran through my mind as I stood on the sidewalk outside my new apartment in Cape Town in the shadow of Table Mountain. After we leave those people and the place we love – or after they leave us – what remains are the marks we have left on the souls of those around us.

Six months after departing for the Watson, the most important change for me has been a deeper understanding of the type of marks I want to leave. 

If there’s one thing that jumping from one fight to the next across these countries has made me realize it’s that we’ll never run out of problems to organize around – there will always be another action, another issue. There are incredible people I have met who dedicate their lives to doing exactly this. And the world needs those people. I have always wanted to be one of them.

But sooner or later those individuals go away, and no matter how many battles they win, more always come up over the horizon. 

What if, rather than being someone constantly fighting and focused on overcoming the obstacles, I can be the one to bring out this capacity, the confidence, the imagination in others? That way whatever comes over the horizon, long after I’m gone, we’ll be ready. That is what my grandfather did for me. That is the mark he left on my soul.

When it comes time for me to leave Cape Town and continue onward, that is the standard by which I will judge the chapter. Not by asking ‘what campaign did I contribute to,’ but what mark did I make on those I was with? Did I contribute to their ability to build a better future, and will that contribution remain long after I have left? 

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