Matthew Birkhold
 

Matthew Birkhold

Consultant. Facilitator. Trainer

 
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I connect people with their creative capacity to shape the world. By creating processes where people come to recognize the interdependent nature of the world and their place within it, I create space for people to recognize what contributions they make to the world and assume responsibility for making intentional contributions. To facilitate these processes, my workshops and trainings consist of practices and exercises that support holistic thinking and acting, the importance of interdependent relationships, and the transformative power of recognizing and living within interdependence.  

My work fosters organizing around critical connections at sites of interdependence to facilitate personal, social, political, and economic transformations. These workshops emphasize critical connections because the history of mass movements demonstrates that they typically replicate the power dynamics of those they opposed once they gain power. Because this pattern is indicative of how systems operate, the history of organizing around critical masses demonstrates that changing who is in power cannot transform a system. Rather, systems can only be transformed when we organize around the critical connections that constitute them.

 
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Background

My ability to create processes for people to recognize what contributions they make to the world, to reflect on how the world has developed, and to reflect on how social change happens has been a long journey I could have never anticipated.

A small-time criminal at age seventeen, I dropped out of high school and checked myself into an institution so that I might avoid legal trouble in February 1997. While there I lost multiple friends to gun violence and several more to incarceration, all in situations that I could have easily been involved in had I not been institutionalized. By August 1997 I had received a suspended sentence for a crime I committed while several of my black friends—with whom I had committed many crimes—got sentenced to everything from boot camp to 17-25 years in prison. Intuitively I understood that my whiteness and their blackness played a major role in our different outcomes.

Feeling guilty for the way my whiteness created these different outcomes, the grief of personal loss and of leaving home at 17, yet unable to articulate my feelings, my life had been transformed but I was a complete mess emotionally. After re-enrolling in high school and being miraculously admitted to the University of Utah, I developed a language to understand how I ended up in college while my friends ended up dead and/or in jail. While the language of systemic racism, whiteness, white supremacy, white privilege, and patriarchy allowed me to articulate a responsibility I felt to understand and transform the world, it did nothing to heal me. 

Taking my personal and intellectual understanding of racism seriously, I began to work with and organize white people around antiracism and in Chicago began to organize against the closure of the city’s housing projects. While my actions were righteous and I was able to provide vast intellectual explanations for injustice, because I was carrying around enormous emotional wounds I was unable to emotionally connect to people and was therefore a very committed but horrible organizer. 

Rather than locate my ineffectiveness inside myself, I went to graduate school to gain a better intellectual understanding of housing so that I might organize more effectively. At Temple University I studied intensely with Dr. Tony Monteiro with whom I came to understand that organizing against racism effectively would require that I also develop a better understanding of the economy and of gender. 

Developing an expanded intellectual and political vocabulary but no emotional vocabulary, I developed vast theoretical and political abilities but became a miserable person driven primarily by self-hatred and shame for being white. After losing a number of friendships with black people I began seeing a therapist while writing a masters thesis on race and masculinity. Combined with W.E.B. Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction, therapy helped me understand that my whiteness did not have to be a personal attribute but was rather the product of the historical choices made collectively by white people. Although it was something from which I would benefit structurally—without my permission or desire—it did not have to be indicative of who I was.      

As I began healing, I became a more effective organizer and joined the Philadelphia Local of the National Hip Hop Political Convention. Better able to connect with people and learning how to organize from Muhammad Ahmad (Maxwell Stanford Jr.), I became a very effective educator both in the organization and in formal classrooms. With a sharp intellect and a fair amount of charisma, I developed a selfish and destructive tendency to become romantically involved with women whom I worked with politically and intellectually. Still deeply wounded and without the courage to create and respect women’s emotional boundaries, I essentially became an emotional hurricane in their lives. With multiple women confronting me about my behavior and a string of broken relationships in my wake, I began to see that although I could organize effectively I was unable to live my politics. 

Tired of hurting people, I began to seek out ways to have more healthy relationships with women. Lynn, an older male friend with a keen sense of my situation introduced me to the work of therapist John Bradshaw and provided me with emotional support as I went through a therapeutic process of healing from the wounds of my childhood. As I healed from these wounds, I began to feel for the first time that there was nothing wrong with me and that the sensitivity I had always run from was actually a blessing that allowed me to connect to people and be useful—if I practiced the courage to do so healthily and with respect for boundaries. This process of healing completely transformed my understanding of politics and of organizing, leading me to understand the importance of critical connections and the importance of practicing love.

This transformation occurred because as I was healing from my childhood I was also starting a PhD program in sociology at Binghamton University and developing a close intellectual relationship with Grace Lee Boggs. Combined with my own healing and Grace’s emphasis on personal and political transformation, my study of systems and large-scale social change at Binghamton allowed me to understand the interdependent nature of systems and individuals.  

Having experimented with organizing from this perspective for the last several years, I have gradually come understand that whole systems can be transformed by understanding the relationships between large-scale structural processes as human responses in a way that allows people to act on the interdependent nature of systems and the world. Blessed with wisdom and knowledge from this journey, I feel a responsibility to share it with others so that we might collectively create a more humane world.       

 

"I have seen Matt Birkhold facilitate discussions and workshops with activists and students in New York and at the Boggs Center in Detroit.  His ability to unite people's stories, with deep comprehensive historical understandings,  personal transformation, and systemic change is a unique gift he brings to this movement building period. His depth of practice, personal journey, and study affirms his engagements.

/  Rich Feldman, James and Grace Lee Bogss Center to Nurture Community Leadership  /

 

Experience

Over fifteen years I have consulted, facilitated workshops and trainings, and created transformative exercises for a number of organizations, institutions, conferences, and groups. Some of my clients include: 

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