Women Who Are Changing the World: Angie Thurston

Reading hundreds of picture book biographies of remarkable women for The Picture Book Club's "12 Women Who Changed the World" subscription has made me want to shine a spotlight on other remarkable women who, though they don't (yet!) have biographies written about them, inspire me every day.

-YiLing Chen-Josephson, Founder, The Picture Book Club

Angie Thurston

Q: What do you do?

I am a Ministry Innovation Fellow at Harvard Divinity School. What that entails is studying the emerging community landscape in America and trying to support leaders of innovative communities that are bringing people together at a time when we have a crisis of isolation in this country.

The thing that brought me to this work was the trend among millennials in the US of disaffiliation from organized religion and the sense that religious community has been a really important location for people to form meaningful relationships that help them grow spiritually. And so, as that fabric has come apart, I started to wonder how might I be useful in fostering the rising generation of spiritual community, which seems like it will look very different from generations that have come before.

At this point, my focus is on helping to build what I call the "infrastructure for belonging and becoming." Belonging has to do with a connection to one's authentic self, to other people, to this world (our shared home), and to something more, or what some call God. Becoming has to do with growing into the person you have the potential to be, and finding places where you can be formed so as to be both fulfilled and contributing meaningfully to making the world better.

Q: What’s your favorite thing about doing what you do?

I get to be in relationship with the most inspiring people from the most unlikely places. In a single day, I can be in meetings with the founder of CrossFit and an Episcopal priest and someone who runs a contemporary Jewish mikvah and a theologian who is trying to make sense of the ways that people are using SoulCycle for spiritual experience. It's a fascinating combination of leaders from both the secular and religious world who are brought together by shared commitments that they sometimes don't even recognize until they are in relationship with each other. Getting to participate in cross-pollination that's in service of helping people to discover meaningful community and their highest selves -- that gives me great delight.

Q: What's something challenging about it?

We're living at this incredible inflection point where things are changing so rapidly that it can be both exciting and challenging. Religious institutions are being forced to contend with a lot of uncomfortable change that often manifests in people no longer participating the way they used to, if at all. On the other hand, you have this emerging ecosystem of innovative communities and their leaders who are responding beautifully to this cultural moment, yet are often disconnected from ancient sources of wisdom that could be vital to the success and sustainability of their work. So the task is bridge-building between institutions that are struggling to adapt, and fledgling communities that lack sustainable structure and a sense of history. Finding ways to foster relationships between those two landscapes is one of the most difficult parts of my job.

Q: What is something you’re proud of?

There was a moment at a dinner when I had gathered 50 leaders from all over the country who are fostering community. The host of our meal was giving a blessing and the room was full of people who would not otherwise have met. The quality of excitement and kinship in the room was palpable and I had this feeling like, "this is what I'm for." This kind of gathering is something that I seem to have a special capacity to bring about. So I felt proud of that.

Q: Who is someone who inspires you that you know personally?

My mom inspires me, among many other reasons, because of her fearless commitment to living in alignment with her highest values. I got to grow up with the fruits of that commitment manifest in my everyday life, so that meant I was raised with an extraordinary combination of love and creativity and spirituality. The more that I get to know the world of institutional religion, the more I realize how much courage and clarity it would take to forge the kind of path my mother forged. I'm inspired by the strength of her follow-through even, and often, in the face of adversity.

Q: Who is someone who inspires you that you've never met?

Father Greg Boyle. He is the founder of Homeboy Industries in LA, which is the largest gang intervention rehab and reentry program in the world. Father Greg Boyle is a Jesuit priest who had lived a life in LA in which he witnessed the impact of gang violence for decades. The radical thing he did for the time was to start treating the gang members as human beings and to ask them questions about what it would take to make changes in their lives. Homeboy Industries now trains former gang members in social enterprise and has served about 15,000 a year for many years. What most inspires me about Boyle is his use of love as a strategy and his unflinching dedication to putting people first no matter what. He has identified violence as an outcome of the absence of hope and so his work is about fostering hope in a way that is tangible and transformative. I would like to be more like him when I grow up.

Q: What is something you would like to change about the world? 

I would like to see inter-generational community become the norm in our society. I would like to see young people have relationships with not only their parents but a circle of elders. I would like to see the older people in our society be treated as though they are potentially vessels of wisdom. I think the devastating isolation we're seeing among older and younger people in this country is solvable, but not without relationships. So the more we can do to consciously foster that in our own lives, the better. 

Q: What’s a picture book you remember as a favorite from your childhood?

Annie and the Wild Animals by Jan Brett.

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The Picture Book Club will make a donation to Homeboy Industries, the charity chosen by Angie, for every purchaser who mentions this Q+A.

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