Setting Forth New Old Visions

Submitted by George Friday on Tue, 02/12/2008 - 20:51.

By Adrienne Maree Brown

It's 2006, a new year, another cycle of war and a hope for peace, another orbit of work and building our opposition to oppression. After waiting for a magical vision for the year to come from some mystic in the bush, I have decided to share the one in my head. I come from the outlook that there isn't much these days that's unique, but I make it my work to bring new energy and excitement and convergence to old work.

To frame this, recently I've relied on the four agreements put forth by Miguel Ruiz to get me through the day. He posits that the world is a dream, and you need these four agreements to navigate it in balance and peace: Don't take things personally, don't make assumptions, be impeccable with your word, and always do your best.

I feel like particularly in the world of organizing, we are living with a common dream, or at least whisps of a common dream. We don't discuss the specifics often enough. But I'm think that if we make the following four agreements, our work might show a major boost in effectiveness.

1. Go On The Offensive

Often when I am speaking to fellow activists, I think - is the vision simply more social services? Or is it autonomous communities? Or is it empowered communities? Or is it just a good vibe and feeling right? When I sit back and listen, the vision seems to be whatever vacuum is left when the all powerful suddenly get a heart and stop oppressing us.

We need to mark the territory of our vision. I was recently at a conference on messaging and PR, and Kathy Bonk was talking about how to her, messaging is like growing a flower. The ground is fertilized by issues, the stem is solutions, and the bloom is big ideas and vision that are so beautiful everyone wants to lean in for the scent. On the left we sometimes never leave the soil, we just keep fertilizing ourselves. Meanwhile the right is spraying our scent all over their crap. It occurred to me that we just need to reclaim the message, take our flowers back. We have to go on the offensive with setting a vision of plenty for the poor people of America.

In terms of how - the right has infiltrated the minds of the good churchgoing communities of this country. I think the only comparable network of access to the American people is the education system, which means we need to educate teachers on ways to bring hope and power and a vision for progress into the classrooms. Organizers and teachers are not so different. Imagine if teachers, in a myriad of small daily ways, started setting a culture of access and plenty in all they did, and encouraging participation and attention...that's how the world changes, by the right people opening the right doors in the minds of our young.

How do you teach young people to aim for more than survival, how do you develop ambition that stops short of dreams of world domination? We have to unveil to people that they need to focus on personal actualities instead of symbolic nationalism – currently the idea that they could achieve trumps the reality that they never do.

2. Alliances and Strategy

Alliances often fail because there is no distinction between what brings the groups together and the work that each group is trying to accomplish on their own. Folks come in and basically spend much of the time trying to push their own work and agenda. We have to mature in how we work together to really develop a strategy that includes the best of what each of us has to offer. The reality is, we are only powerful together - community organizations, direct service, journalists, artists, families, young people - none of us will win alone. But we won't win on just one strategy, there's no purist approach to this contradictory political landscape we're on. Some folks will be working on reform, some will be fostering revolution, we have to bring together those communities for some short term moves, while having open and honest dialogue about the long-term vision.

A couple of hard tips for alliance and strategy work:

Don't skip the step of political landscaping. So often we plan all of our work with no sense of power and powerlessness. The best plan for skiing down a mountain doesn't work where there's no snow.
Don't skip the step of vision. Find out what goals are not shared in the coalition, so you can all focus your collective energy on those goals you share.
Don't skip the step of role clarification. The point of an alliance is that everyone is bringing a different dish to the table. Clarify who is bringing what, and stick to it as the work develops.
3. Set New Cultural Norms: It's All Local

Right now we are swinging between two extremes of engaging the community. On one end is super deep analysis-based organizing over a long time. This often looks like community education programs. This is beautiful, engaged work. On the other end we're trying to move masses to the polls. This often looks like a pure marketing campaign.

It's time for a major shift in terms of how we think of what we are changing at the local level. Trusting that the people, given the knowledge, can do anything, we have to be willing to bring the tools to build a strong knowledge within the community of what they want to see happen in the world, and step back to let those tools flourish. What we are changing is not the actual situation of most people. What we are changing is the possibility.

This doesn't discount the need for big numbers, but it does show that our bottom line is not the numbers, its local power. And what that means is that national organizations have to release their agenda a bit, and think of all of their work as merely bringing tools to empower local work, rather than the borderline imperialistic organizing style of getting everyone to adopt and move our issues forward.

4. Internalize Your Values: Think Populist, Not Us Vs. Them

Each day is another opportunity for us to give in to the instinct of cooperation. Robert Pollack explains that the constant competition we engage in now is not our natural way. It is a sickness that stems from the fact that we are living beyond our means. In organizing, we are trying to change everything all at once and we're desperate for resources and so our work's results often look like crabs trying to build a castle in a bucket. Tying together the need to have a vision, strong alliances, and a local focus - it's all about the people.

But we cannot exclude those we currently identify as opposite from us. They have just not reached what Gandhi called the satyagraha - the love force, the truth power. That's what we must aim for, for all people. This means releasing the idea of progressive as something in opposition to the mainstream. We must rethink progressive as populist and instinctual; and our work more an unveiling than convincing.

And at the end of all this, we must do the work, and then do some more work!