Our Beloved Sonja Ahuja
Updated: Jul 16
This past spring we lost our beloved Sonja Ahuja. Since that time Sonja's family has held a virtual service and celebration of Sonja's life and another virtual circle of folks who have worked with Sonja over the years from CEIO, Beyond Diversity 101, and WCGMF gathered on the summer solstice to honor the life of Sonja. It has been amazing hearing some of the stories of her very particular ways of impacting the lives of individuals and communities.
Sonja served as a Core Team member of CEIO since its inception in 2010. She was a member of the original CEIO Project Development Group. During our pilot phase she served as a Lead Capacity Building & Training Partner and again served in this role during CEIO's second phase with Planned Parenthood of Southern New England from 2014-2019. Sonja's energy, clarity, joy, and wisdom are present in the very fabric of all things CEIO. You can learn more about Sonja's committed work to justice and equity here. Let us rejoice in knowing that Sonja lived with clarity of purpose, radical truth-telling and boundless love, right up to the end of her life. We are so grateful to have been her fellow sojourners. We felt it important to dedicate a space here for continued story sharing, celebration, and honoring. We invite you to:
READ several reflection pieces from folks who have worked closely with Sonja over the years from the William Caspar Graustein Memorial Fund, CEIO, and Beyond Diversity 101- shared below.
LISTEN to an interview featuring Sonja from late December 2019 reflecting on her time with CEIO and the impacts of Beyond Diversity 101 on her and her life work.
VISIT Sonja's tribute site organized by her family.
In times of conflict and confusion as well as in times of rejoicing and gladness, Sonja often reminded us, with a soft smile curling at her lips, "It's all good." She helped us to remember our center and the quiet power of the breath. We will carry these practices and so much more that we learned from Sonja's example as we continue to move the work forward. In peace, solidarity & safety~ Niyonu & The CEIO Core Team
Sonja at center at an Organizer's Path retreat 2018.
From Angela Clinton
CEIO Core Team Member & BD101 Facilitator:
Twelve years ago, I walked into a sunny room with lots of windows and shiny hardwood floors. It was there at Beyond Diversity 101, that I met some of the people who have most shaped the way I see the world, how I work to honor and change it, and the way I love. Our dear Sonja was one of those people. Over the past twelve years I’ve had the honor of working and learning alongside Sonja in developing CEIO, supporting organizers and organizations and through BD101. I count it among my life’s greatest blessings to have been Sonja’s justice seeking sister, her colleague and dear friend. My love and appreciation for Sonja will always run deep and wide.
For months now I’ve been reflecting on what I have learned while being in relationship with Sonja, what I experienced in her presence and Sonja’s ways of being in the world that I value, from which I have grown and upon which I have come to rely. Here they are, shared directly to Sonja as an act of gratitude:
In your presence, Sonja, I experienced connectedness, groundedness, calm. I experienced space to think and to go within. I experienced confidence in myself. I experienced feeling loved. I experienced truth telling, no matter how hard it is. I experienced laughter. I experienced appreciation for beautiful things and meals made with care. I experienced diligent consideration and also action. I experienced doggedness. I experienced thoughtfulness.
With your death, I know that some of your ways of being I will do my best to incorporate into my life. Other things, I will look for and appreciate in others. Many I know will stick with me as yours – their presence in my life reminding me that you are is still with me.
Really see and appreciate people. Tell them what you see in them and what you appreciate about them.
Appreciate everything. Everything you have. All the time.
Face conflict. Do not fear it. Know that it is part of life.
Take time to plan. Make a plan that makes sense to you. Be ready to adjust it for what shows up.
Say things as they are. Be direct while also acknowledging the impact of your words.
Organize your thoughts in ways that make sense to you and you can explain to others.
Create systems. Don’t be attached to the systems you create.
Take time to create beautiful and delicious things with care and intention.
Listen to others and leave space for them.
Develop friendships with people of different ages. Connect the people in your life to one another.
Continue to learn and grow. See yourself as a learner even if you are one of the most experienced people in the room.
Connect with yourself, your spirit. Make a labyrinth. Study Qigong. Read. Sit outside in stillness.
Share what you have. From your apple slices to your most treasured healing stones.
Enjoy working for justice. Revel at the people you meet and get to build with.
Find hope in the incremental while steadily working for larger change.
Understand all sides. Share what you think is right.
Wake up early.
Drop the credentials.
Trust that, no matter what, ‘it’s all good’.
Thank you for these lessons, Sonja. Thank you for sharing yourself so fully. Thank you for being the best kind of colleague there is, the most caring kind of friend and a person who has made me feel whole. I know for sure that I will miss you often and deeply. I also know that it’s all good.
Sonja in background at center. Embodiment exercise at Beyond Diversity 101.
From Lisa Graustein
BD101 Lead Facilitator and WCGMF Lead Trustee:
When I think of Sonja, I picture her sitting with her graceful posture and a gentle, warm smile on her lips right before she says something that profoundly changes the way the rest of us are understanding whatever it is we are working on together. When I see her in my mind, the circles of people and the spaces change, but this image, this energy - of her grounded being offering wisdom and clarity with deep compassion - is constant.
Like many of you reading this, I was blessed to know and work with Sonja over many years and in many different ways. I was picking up the phone to call her when I learned of her passing. I didn’t get the chance to tell her all that she meant to me, all that I learned from her, and how much I appreciated and loved her. My prayers of gratitude to her being will have to stand in place of that conversation. This writing is one small piece of all that she left to us, all that she taught us, all the ways she invited us to be our better selves through her friendship.
This past fall, a mutual friend and I had hit a place of too much accumulated miscommunication and mistrust to be able to work together. Sonja kindly offered to do some mediation with us. Her presence, and our faith in her ability to hold our brokenness and hurt, made healing possible. Her guidance, reflection, care, and faith in us allowed us to drop some of our defenses and work through some key things we had both been avoiding. I am confident many of us can name the times and moments when Sonja was that person for us: someone we trusted to hold onto our best selves when we were not at our best, someone who knew a deeper, moree loving way of being was not only possible, but was right here within our reach.
Every time I saw Sonja’s name on a workshop, meeting, or event that I was going to, I smiled in anticipation of not just getting to see Sonja, but of getting to be in space that would be impacted by her presence. I am crying as I write this, knowing that won’t happen again. And, I smile as I think of all of us who will continue to show up to those workshops, meetings, and events, carrying a part of who she helped us see we could be for ourselves and each other.
So, to me, the way I best know to honor Sonja, who she was, and how she chose to live her life is to keep showing up and to try to emulate her depth of love, truth-telling, and compassion. I know this is something she wants us to do together.
Sonja at an affinity healing breakout group- Deeper Change Forum 2018.
From Carmen Siberon
WCGMF Senior Program Officier:
”The wise of heart is called discerning, and sweetness of speech increases persuasiveness.”
As Program Officer at the William Caspar Graustein Memorial Fund, I had the honor of working with Sonja for over 10 years. In her role as a Community Liaison during our Discovery Initiative, Sonja brought us a heart full of deep passion and perfectly metered and timely doses of wisdom.
At our regularly held liaison meetings, in the midst of exited and sometimes hurried exchanges of ideas and opinions, Sonja would listen for a very long time and would then often share an observation that was always incredibly insightful and tremendously helpful.
Sonja’s thoughtful and judicious words were always encouraging, uniting and yes, quite persuasive. Sonja’s portfolio of communities all continuously expressed their much appreciation for her dedication and wise guidance. She was highly esteemed among us all. Sonja will be sorely missed by everyone whose life she touched. We will always cherish our memories of her kind and gentle spirit full of great wisdom and great love.
Peace and blessings to all who loved her.
Sonja celebrating the completion of PPSNE's 5 year organizational partnership with CEIO.
From David Carter
CEIO Core Team Member & Capacity Building & Training Partner:
Sonja was the best collaborator and learning partner I have ever had and one of the deepest friendships of my entire life, though I only knew her for a small fraction of it. She was rock solid, and delightfully surprising; fierce and gentle; patient in the moment and impatient with injustice; a loving truth teller; a companion and friend.
Indulge me in a few vignettes:
Sonja invited me to join her in facilitating a short workshop/meeting for folks from one of the CEIO phase I partnerships. When I arrived at Wilson Library, she was preparing a flip chart with the by now familiar quotation from Gary Zukav, “This is Heart-work that we are doing-therefore we are calling on a wider order of logic than that which comes from the mind. This wider order of logic- this heartwork- requires close attention to feelings/emotions." She was doing it from memory, in her graceful and highly legible flip chart script. What struck me was how important it was for her to remind the folks coming to this workshop, in this gentle and firm way, what would be asked of them. A very few people came. The careful plan for the workshop washed away, and we had a deep heartful conversation with those few, who moved with us into the higher order of thinking.
When Sonja signed up for Courageous Community, a sister program to CEIO, I did not yet know her well. As I saw her in action, making root-level observations, holding space for others to learn, sharing her vulnerability, I looked forward to the opportunity to work with her one-on-one in the coaching sessions that were part of the program. I remember one session vividly. She brought a work relationship that was challenging, and I invited her to succinctly define the issue, then take a series of postures or perspectives of the issue to see what might shift. The perspectives were creative metaphors: a wild animal, a favorite food, a vacation spot, an admired relative…We made these up together, she embodied the perspective, and imagined what was possible about the issue from there. From her effervescent subconscious came the “Harley-Davidson boots” perspective. You can imagine her mischievous smile. As she embodied this posture, her energy shifted. Radiant, she realized she could stand her ground around this issue, and a path forward was open to her. Harley-Davidson boots. Sonja Ahuja. Who knew?
At a BD101 Training for Trainers several years later, I was having a particularly hard time understanding how my good intentions could cause hurt. It was clear that something I said, or the way I said it, was met with anger and hostility from an individual I wanted to connect with and support. My attempts to restate or reframe only made it worse. I went deep into shame and failure. How could I aspire to be a trainer when I screw up like this? I didn’t ask for help, I just stewed, and essentially shut myself off from learning. Sonja bided her time, waited to find me alone, and just said “I’m here.” I don’t remember where the conversation went, except it was deep and open hearted. She called me back into compassion, for myself and others, and what I learned in the rest of that BD101 shifted my foundation. She will always be “here” for me and many others.
A reflection on this amazing person wouldn’t be complete without saying something about how she showed up. I mean about her personal appearance, clothing, jewelry, accessories. Her bright yellow bag and matching smart phone. She could carry off any kind of jewelry, from delicate and intricate to big and bold, often with a story of its maker and her relationship to that person or place. It wasn’t just jewelry, it was a manifestation of her beauty and the strength of her connections to people, and places, and materials. Thank you, Sonja, for being you and inviting me to join you on part of your journey. You changed my life, I will always be grateful, and I miss you every day.
Sonja with the CEIO Core Team- 2015
From Bill Graustein
CEIO Co-Founder & Lead Trustee WCGMF:
Sonja will remain in my memory as a gracious, calm, wise and determined presence who consistently supported and inspired individuals, groups and organizations to discover and embody their better angels.
Sonja’s was such a steady presence that I suspect these adjectives would come to mind for anyone who has worked with her as a community liaison with the William Caspar Graustein Memorial Fund or as a capacity building and training partner with Co-Creating Inclusive and Effective Organizations.
It was in working with Sonja as one of the partners in forming and guiding the evolution of CEIO that I began to realize that the way she was present to us partners was more than simply welcome traits of her personality, but also the result of conscious choices. She chose to approach her work in the world not as guide, showing others the way, or as an expert, with a particular skill to pass along, but as a companion on a journey. The route might not be clear, but Sonja would help us recognize where we were. She would speak up when the direction we were heading in the moment didn’t seem to align with where we said we wanted to go.
CEIO set out with a broad intention – our hope for our journey – “to support community organizers and community service organizations to fully embody inclusivity, justice and conscious co-creation, thereby inspiring encouraging and expanding the wider practice of these values within the community they serve." Sonja has been a beloved companion on this journey. Her way of being with us made real and tangible what this intention could look like in daily life. She is a model for me of how individual growth and growth of the group and community nourish each other.
Niyonu sometimes informally puts one of CEIO’s intentions as “being who we say we be,” so it seems fitting to close this tribute with Sonja’s own words from a conversation with Hanifa Nayo Washington late last year:
“Inclusion is about really fully embracing the range of humanity in all its humanity, in all its settings, in all the potential, and really engaging in an inclusive and diverse universe of humanity. It’s that deep.”
“The fact is that you will encounter difficulties beyond what you expected. Be prepared to weather those storms, to go through it, because what you get at the other end, after having made it through is actually worth it. As much as this is harder than you anticipated, the outcome is better than you anticipated, and worth more than you thought it would be. That is true, even in my role, as a capacity building and training partner. I wasn’t always successful in what I was trying to accomplish. It was hard, and I would have to try again sometimes to try to get it better the next time, and it is a partnership. We are all in it. I just think if you can stay with that depth of engagement in authentic and honest ways, understanding that it is not going to be easy and that the difficulties that you encounter are going to be the ones you anticipated and ones you never even knew were possible and that the outcomes - the beneficial outcomes - the joyful outcomes - the ecstatic outcomes - can also be the same.
They can be things that you never anticipated that were possible, that the benefits are so much more worth it than you ever knew going in. I will go back to saying [that is true] on all levels, as an individual, in any group that you are part of, as an institution, or organization as well. And so, as much as you are in relationship with each other with the work, and committed to making it through the things that you don’t even know are going to happen, you get the benefit at the end. It is good work. Worth doing.”