To turn this nation into a compassionate community, Americans must unite as never before to change national policies. To achieve that unity, political activists need to improve how they operate.
Yet most activists, habituated to their traditional methods, fail to engage in serious self-examination, honestly evaluate their strategies, admit mistakes, and evolve. Our efforts are commendable. At least we are trying. Overall society is likely better off than it would be if we did nothing. Nevertheless, we need to do better, much better.
The Occupy Central demonstrators in Hong Kong offer inspiration with their deep, disciplined commitment to nonviolence. A recent interaction with David Harris, the renowned 1960s’ draft resister and author, offered me encouragement. The response to the “A Meditation on Deep Community” that I presented to my Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples heartened me. I was pleased that my minister, Rev. Dorsey Blake, liked a draft of a “declaration for action” that could be the focus of an action-oriented national conference and said he would ask Jakada Imani, head of the Center for Spirituality and Social Transformation whether his center and our church might co-sponsor such a conference. A dialog about that draft declaration with Ronnie Dugger, the writer and activist, was reassuring. The feedback I’ve received to my limited distribution of print copies of the first edition of my autobiography, My Search for Deep Community has been encouraging. And my organizing with the Residents’ Council at my 200-unit, non-profit apartment house has been rewarding. On the other hand, certain encounters with activists recently have been less positive.
The other day, while walking home from the store, I saw an old friend with her back to me talking to two people. I walked up to them and joked, “Don’t believe a word she says.” The two strangers informed me they were canvassing for the upcoming election. They asked me how I felt about two ballot measures and I told them I was supportive, but when they asked me about David Campos’ campaign for Assembly, I replied, “I’m not sure. I just heard that some friends of mine are supporting David Chiu because he offered more support to them on the domestic-violence controversy surrounding Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi.” The male canvasser replied, “Campos merely wanted due process,” and proceeded to talk for almost two minutes about the two officials’ positions on other issues. Having been unclear about the facts in that case, suspecting his statement was inaccurate, and truly wanting to discuss the dilemma, I replied, “I do not appreciate you lecturing me rather than engaging in a dialog with me about my concern.” He answered, “Well, I’m a school teacher and I can be pedantic.” “That’s a problem too,” I said, and everyone laughed. My friend then hugged me and told them about how we first met and the second canvasser asked me where I lived, after which we learned that I do not live in the district they were working. I commented, “Well, I guess I wasted your time,” and walked off, irritated because none of them engaged me in that dialog that I told them I wanted. Afterwards, I realized my alienation may have led me to be unduly rude. I expressed no appreciations, did not even say goodbye to my friend (who also failed to engage in a discussion about my concern), and walked away too quickly. But I knew the canvassers had probably been trained to avoid wasting their time.
A few days later I received a phone call from the same campaign on the same three issues. The caller immediately started reading his script at some length. When he finished and asked me his question, I said, “I have a suggestion. In the future, when you reach someone, first ask them if they have a minute to talk about your issue.” He replied, “OK,” but proceeded to read me the rest of his script without asking me if I wanted to talk. He was reading from a written script, but most activists have a script in their head and repeat it endlessly, like a tape recording. Their understanding is that “leadership” involves mobilizing people to do what the leader wants, a notion that is reflected in President Obama’s attitude about “American leadership.”
On September 30, I drove down to Stanford University for an opening reception for a new exhibit of incredible documentary photographs from the 1960s taken by Bob Fitch, an old friend. The event, titled “Movements for Change,” featured a panel of activists from the 60s, including Harris. The panel made opening statements and engaged in a conversation with the audience for about 90 minutes.
When none of the panelists offered any reflections on lessons learned from the past that could inform the future, I tried to get the floor to pose that question, but was unable to get recognized. No one from the audience raised the issue either. Before we adjourned, Bob suggested that the audience circulate and engage in dialog with one another.
In line with his suggestion, I approached a Stanford student who had spoken eloquently from the floor about his activism and asked him, “Have you noticed any weaknesses in past movements that need to be avoided in the future? Mistakes that we can correct moving forward?” He replied by talking about how activists’ intellectual frame needs to shift toward a more transnational focus. I responded by commenting that his remarks were outer-directed and I was more interested in how we relate to each other and the general public. He then said we need more face-to-face interaction. I agreed and asked if any other points come to mind. He said none did. I half-expected him to then ask me about my thoughts, but he didn’t, so I thanked him for his responses and moved on. I was amazed that this elite student of activist movements had apparently not been prompted by his professors to reflect more deeply on that issue, and that the panel would engage in a 90-minute conversation about their activism without reflecting on the question.
I then connected with Harris and asked him the same question. He replied by talking about how “the movement” fell into drawing an ideological “line in the sand,” which undermined its original openness to various perspectives. When I asked him for other examples of weaknesses, he addressed how “ego” is often a problem and that activists tend to “stop learning.” I found his comments very astute and reassuring.
The informal reception that followed was unsatisfying. I approached a few people, including another old friend, but experienced no substantive dialog. (I need to find some new ways to deal with “cocktail parties.”) And my ride home with my friends was also lacking. In the car, I reported on my interactions with the Stanford student and Harris, hoping it would lead to an exploration of the issue. But it elicited only one brief comment, and the rest of the ride involved no real evaluation of our past and ongoing efforts.
So I resolve to be patient. I’ll continue with our Residents’ Council and maybe expand to some neighborhood organizing. I’ll remain active in Fellowship Church (including our October 19th 70th Anniversary) and work to enrich that experience, participate in the October 18 “Soul of Work” workshop, and post to my blogs more frequently, where I hope to plant seeds that will somehow bear fruit someday. I’ve begun posting a Web-edition of My Search for Deep Community: An Autobiography. I envision a new book, which may be a brief memoir focused more narrowly on deep community. Perhaps a strong, inclusive committee will eventually organize a national conference to launch a holistic project that integrates the personal and the political, as I suggested to Rev. Blake. I invited Harris to participate in a public dialog concerning how activists might be more effective, perhaps using a yet-to-be-defined format that would foster rich dialog among all participants. And perhaps I can make some new connections by posting this October 23 Meetup.com event:
San Francisco Personal-Political Mutual Support Workshop
Let’s explore how political activists can be more effective.
We’ll explore developing one or more models that political activists might use to support one another in their efforts to become better human beings and more effective activists. One option is for each member to confidentially report on their efforts and their plans, with no unsolicited feedback. We may experiment with various other models at future workshops. care of myself and others in my life as best I can.
In the meantime, as Kathy Kelly’s Iraqi friend advised her, I try to remember to “love the Universe.”