What makes for effective activism?
Lately, I've been having a conversation with my girlfriend Donna about the topic of activism. We've both observed that as activists protest and "fight" for what they think is right they are 1) either preaching to the choice - namely, the other activists with them or 2) alienating passers-by with their outrage. Not very effective, eh?
A comment made by noted spiritual teacher David Hawkins at the outset of the second war in Iraq comes to mind: "Pacifism is not peace." He was criticizing the pacifists who were protesting and pointing to the performative contradiction that they are waging war on war. This isn't, as Einstein famously said, addressing our problems at a higher level of consciousness that the level that created them. Instead, this is addressing them at the same level and also not very effective.
Of course, there is a lot in the world today that is "protest worthy." Domination of business by mega-corporations, practices generating climate change, social injustices, pollution, human rights abuses, war, occupations, corrupt politicians, political special interest groups, and on and on.
Then there are "awareness raising" groups. These groups aren't protesting or fighting but instead are pointing to what's really going on. Pachamama Alliance (who I am a big fan of) comes to mind. But I have to say it - awareness (insight) is not behavior. New awareness can lead to new behaviors but often those new behaviors aren't sustained. Why? Because the structures that reinforce the old behaviors over the new ones are still there reinforcing old behaviors. So we may buy a reusable grocery bag and use it once or twice but then the convenience of paper and plastic bags usurps the function of the reusable bag soon after.
I'm currently working in Ireland on a large culture change project for a major bank. Certainly there are parallels between that kind of change - spotting provocations to change, introducing new interpretations and new practices, shifting assessments, and generating new results - and the kind of change that activists wish to bring about. Of course, very different scales from several hundreds of people in my culture change case to millions if not billions of people in the changes activists are trying to bring about. But I wonder what activists might be able to appropriate from the practices we know to be effective in changing corporate cultures.
Here are some (early) ideas:
- People have to clearly see and own their current way of being (as a reaction from the past to get things to turn out a certain way, for example, so they can be safe, be happy, be satisfied, be recognized, etc.).
- People have to feel that their current way of being isn't being attacked by others. Instead, it is being appreciated and understood as an expression of people's good intentions and as reasonable and rational ways that people have adjusted to and dealt with past difficulties and traumas. If they feel their way of being is under attack, then they will entrench and defend and some may even go on the offensive (as the U.S. did after 9/11).
- People have to see the pay-offs they are trying to get in their current way of being (to "be" something or someone) and the tremendous costs they are suffering to get them. And, of course, how out of balance those things are and how unnecessary the costs are when being isn't somewhere to get to but instead somewhere to come from.
- The difficulties and traumas have to be "completed." Those difficulties must be owned. Yes, that's what happened in the past. Pay homage to it. But stop reliving it. Stop acting from it (really, reacting to it). This is where working with the strong emotions that are fueling the current way of being comes in.
- A new way of being must be declared by the people (who step forward as leaders in the moment). Think of the Declaration of Independence as a good example of this. A group of influential people mutually declared their independence from King George and a new way of being and living together was created.
- Then people have to be shown and demonstrate to themselves that there are ways to live in the present and respond to what is actually occurring from this new way of being that address the concerns they already have better than the old ways (instead of reacting out of the past to get things to turn out in such a way that past difficulties and traumas aren't re-experienced).
- Then all the structures that were born of the old way of being and put in place as controls to get things to turn out must be undone. People will feel nervous about doing this. They will feel unprotected. People need lots of support from each other at this juncture. Life isn't safe. You can't always feel protected. But you can always respond to what's happening in the moment. And often, with time, we come to see that in the past we wanted to feel protected but the limitations and costs of protection were actually more painful, more damaging, more traumatizing than the threats they were supposed to protect us from.
- New structures are born of and reinforce the new way of being.
- New behaviors and new results are generated and sustained.
To me one of the interesting aspects to this approach is that it doesn't fight to change the current way of being but instead builds a new way of being simultaneous and co-located with current way of being and simply invites people to make the jump.
This is what I have learned about culture change in corporations. It isn't an easy journey. It isn't a safe journey. But it is the journey of life - fully of vigor and vitality, full of drama, heroes and heroines, successes and failures, grand elations and deep disappointments. Making the journey takes leadership but not the kind of leadership only offered by a figurehead. It takes leadership by those who are willing to create the new way of being and those willing to make the jump in the context of their own lives. These people are the true leaders.
How this plays out on a larger scale is still a mystery to me. Maybe you all can help me make the connections. I'd love to hear from some of you ... what makes for effective activism?