Effective Activism (a Repost)

tar sands howl arts collective
The Alberta Tar Sands in 2015, twice the size it was in 2008 and soon to cover an area larger than NY State; its toxic sludge ponds alone are large enough to be visible from space. Photo by Dru Oja Jay, Howl Arts Collective, for The Dominion CC-BY-2.0

I very rarely repost articles I’ve written in the past. I prefer to just link to older articles if I think they’re still useful and pertinent. But a recent email from Christopher Van Dyck had me rereading a 13-year-old post about my meeting with Nina Simons and Kenny Ausubel at Bioneers. Their insights about what constitutes effective activism remain, to me, the most useful guide on the subject I’ve ever heard, and at a small, informal “kitchen table” discussion back in 2008 they just laid it all out for us in less than an hour. Here is what they advised, pretty much unedited:

  1. Developing Holistic Change Frameworks & Approaches: The changes we are trying to accomplish are in systems that are all complex and all interrelated. We cannot isolate approaches to just environmental sustainability, or social justice, or health and nutrition, or quality affordable housing, or media reform, or education, or poverty, or women’s rights, or racial equality, or economic reform. We need to realize that change needs to occur in all of them, integrally, or no enduring change will occur in any of them. What is required is a coordinated “movement of movements”, a whole ecology of collaborative, shared ideas and activities. These efforts need overarching “big picture” frameworks that show the interconnectedness of the problems we face and how efforts in one area can reinforce (or impede) efforts in another. For example, we need to appreciate that many health problems have social (e.g. addiction), educational (e.g. ignorance of nutrition) and environmental (e.g. food toxins) problems underlying them.
  2. Focusing on Two Common Causes: Many of the aforementioned connected problems have our separation from nature and the weakening of local community at their root.
  3. Reaching Across Ideology to Find Shared Values: Our belief systems by themselves are not enough to bring about change. The movement has to be about more than shared ideology. It needs to build bridges, and “reach across” cultural divides to find common cause. Our opinions are not as important as what we value, because many people who differ in opinion share values.
  4. Using the Leverage Points: To be effective, we need to find the leverage points in the system, the places where the need for change is understood, where change is relatively easy to achieve, and where that change will provoke positive changes elsewhere.
  5. Relocalizing and Connecting: The change must be rooted in community, in a massive relocalization and decentralization and de-institutionalization of attention, connection, understanding, power, and effort. Communities need to coalesce, self-organize, and do things for themselves, and then connect with other communities to share their success stories and lessons learned. At higher levels, our political states are bureaucratized, disconnected, unmaneuverable, corporatist, and corrupted, and trying to reform them is largely a waste of time, money and energy.
  6. Making Change Easier: We need to focus on making it easier for people to change. We prevented an ozone layer disaster by simply making CFCs illegal, so refrigeration companies found and invented non-ozone depleting coolants, because they had no choice. Likewise, by ensuring that only energy-efficient light bulbs can be sold in the market, and that only energy-efficient, healthy new homes can be certified for sale, we make it easier for citizens to do the right thing. Working models that let people see how and why they work, and how to replicate them, are likewise useful.
  7. Educasting: A major obstacle to change is the public’s ignorance and lack of capacities to bring about needed changes. We need to start using the new media for “educasting” public information to inform and build capacities. While we should not give up trying to reform public education and mainstream media, we cannot rely on either to support educasting, so we need to work around them.
  8. Delivering to Those in Need: We need a renewed focus on delivery systems for change, so that resources get to where they’re most needed.
  9. Thinking Generations Ahead: We need long range thinking so that we always know roughly where we are going, balanced with pragmatism and effective, sustained implementation. Example: The 50 Top Future Crops for New Mexico is a long-range program that inspires and directs thinking and action about long-term food production and nutrition in that state.
  10. Speaking in Understandable, Inclusive Terms: We must make sure the language we use is inclusive and accessible to people outside our circles of activism. Jargon can be a useful shorthand but also an impediment to communication and persuasion. The terms “environmentalist” and “activist” are not helpful because of connotations of “otherness” and anger (which is why, for example, the more inclusive, positive term “Bioneers” was coined). Stories, of course, are immensely useful in increasing understanding.
  11. More Listening and Facilitating: We need to substantially and continuously improve our active listening and facilitation skills.
  12. Taking the Responsibility That Comes With Privilege: We have to understand that our privilege — just being in an affluent nation, white, working, healthy etc. — imposes on us a responsibility to help those without such privileges, and even more importantly, to take risks that, in the interest of fairness and egalitarianism, may jeopardize our own comfort or security.
  13. Learning What We’ve Forgotten from Aboriginal Cultures: We have an enormous amount to learn from indigenous communities, who still retain, and whose stories bring, important knowledge, capacities and values we have lost or forgotten, or never knew.
  14. Bridging the Generations: Our projects and thinking and collaboration must involve all generations, to bring different perspectives and cross-pollinate ideas and knowledge. This is harder than you might think. (Did you know more people visit zoos each year than attend sporting events?)
  15. Self-Knowing: Effective activism requires self-knowledge and self-awareness. We each need to discover our purpose, develop our capacities and focus our effort on the work we do best, not just what is most needed. And self-knowledge also allows us to recognize our biases and triggers and hence cope with the emotional stress and grief that activists necessarily deal with every day.
  16. Dealing With Religious Groups: In dealing with organized religions, we must deconstruct and separate their spiritual, social and political components, and use our common cause with adherents’ spirituality and social goals to enlighten them politically.
  17. Preparing for Economic Collapse and Enabling Volunteerism: As economic collapse deepens, funding for important work will get scarcer. We must be prepared to tap into more volunteer work; one advantage of unemployment is that it frees up time. Instead of sitting listening to boring lectures, why don’t we get students out repairing watersheds? How can we find space for retired people aching for something meaningful to contribute?
  18. Connecting With Social Entrepreneurs: We must get past our aversion to business and ‘profit-making’ enterprise and realize that many entrepreneurs are (or could be) part of the solution not part of the problem. The current model of psychotic capitalism is not the only model for successful enterprise. The new model is cooperatives and community-based, community-owned business.
  19. Overcoming Learned Helplessness: Too many people are still looking for people (and governments) to do things for them, to lead them, and to tell them what to do and how to do it. Activists need to activate by getting people past reliance and dependence and learned helplessness, to believe in their collective capacity to decide what needs to be done and to accomplish anything they set out to do. The new ‘leadership’ model is not hierarchical and adulating, it is one of reciprocal mentoring, balancing critical and creative thinking, supportive and challenging conversation. Finding and deploying power through, not over, people.
  20. Making the Movement Political: Holistic environmentalism needs to move from a cultural phenomenon to a political movement, like the movement for women’s suffrage and the abolition of slavery. To do this means both resisting and creating, fighting against regressive and repressive forces while innovating and acting at the local level to show how we can accomplish real change. But this does not mean becoming politicians, it means influencing and educating the politicians. And it can’t stop at petitions and protest demonstrations: We need to take Direct Action.
  21. Creating Holistic Coalitions: We need to engage cross-disciplinary innovators and knowledgeable people to help us address the intractable problems that are blocking progress. Example: If birth control pills are polluting struggling nations’ waters, rather than fighting amongst ourselves (family planners versus water conservationists) we should be tasking and helping the medical and pharma profession to innovate green solutions to this.
  22. Embracing Biomimicry: The answers are out there. We just need to ask nature.
  23. Developing a Practice of Gratitude and Kindness: We must resist the tendency to anaesthetize ourselves against the grief, anguish and pain that comes from facing hard truths and grim realities about our current world. We have to be empathetic and give each other permission to feel the powerful emotions that we will inevitably feel in our work. This is a long-term, challenging task. We need to acknowledge and feel the pain, and at the same time we must be patient, appreciative, joyful, supportive, kind to ourselves and each other, and ‘grace-full’.
  24. Balancing Pessimism, Realism, and Hope: This work, as important as it is, depends on us being true to ourselves, self-appreciative, giving ourselves permission to take risks, learning to accept compliments, “smelling fear and heading straight for it”, and managing our own and others’ expectations. We have to balance idealism and realism, perseverance and pragmatism, masculine aggressiveness and feminine perceptiveness and resilience. We must see that the glass is half full and half empty. We have to get past the internalized oppression that we carry inside us, the fear of saying and talking about what we most care about, even though doing so makes us vulnerable and may expose us to disbelief and even ridicule.

Those of you who read yesterday’s post on this blog and may hence find the tone of this post surprising, you should know that Dave #2 and Dave #3 were not consulted in the decision to repost this one. They insist that it’s too late, or impossible, for any action stemming from the above to make any difference in where we are now headed. They are probably correct, and our ‘progress’ since I posted this article in 2008 is certainly not encouraging. But Dave #1 insists that if it is still possible to make a difference, this is how it will be done.

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