Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Fostering a National Movement

A friend recently asked me, “What is missing in your life?” I replied, “I would like to participate in a massive grassroots movement to impact national policy.” She replied, “That’s a tall order” and changed the subject. Her response is typical. Interest in building a national movement is limited.

Nevertheless, I persist. From time to time, certain events encourage me. One example was the August 17 op-ed in Time magazine by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar @kaj33, the former basketball star. Titled “The Coming Race War Won’t Be About Race,” the essay argued, “Ferguson is not just about systemic racism — it’s about class warfare and how America’s poor are held back.” The sentence that struck me most strongly was the following (the key phrase was emphasized with italics): “If we don’t have a specific agenda—a list of exactly what we want to change and how—we will be gathering over and over again beside the dead bodies of our murdered children, parents, and neighbors.”

Precisely. That is what I was trying to get at with “A Meditation on Deep Community,” which I presented to the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples on July 14. In that piece, I stated:

• Relieving suffering requires addressing root causes, getting deep.
• Addressing root causes requires correcting national policies that are the source of so much suffering.
• If we see a child drowning, we don’t tell her to pray. We change her environment.

The most problematic element in Abdul-Jabbar’s formulation is the “how.” One barrier that any such strategy must address is the social conditioning that has been embedded in each one of us. This dehumanization divides us and undermines our ability to work together effectively. To unite, we must unlearn this “internalized oppression.”

Different individuals have different issues. Trying to tell others how they need to change is counter-productive. Each individual can make their own decisions. But we can support one another in these efforts, if only by listening to one another report on our successes and challenges.

Growing a unified movement will be enhanced if we develop user-friendly tools, like Alcoholics Anonymous did, that concerned individuals, without going through any elaborate training, can easily use to meet the unmet need for deep connection. I would like to experiment with such options that could be easily replicated, and learn about other such efforts.

We also need to develop new structures that will facilitate broader political engagement between elections. The other night, a disturbing dream woke me up in the middle of the night. It involved a double murder, the first of which was a mistake. The dream left me with a sense that my dream of a national movement was dead. I had trouble going back to sleep.

But I woke up with a wrinkle on an old idea: get a group together to engage in a series of open-ended, problem-solving discussions with their Congressperson’s office about how the Congressperson and the community might work together to build that movement. One option that could be placed on the table at the outset would be monthly Congressional Community Dialogs, the carefully structured forums I’ve been proposing for some time.

Regardless, we need to keep on pressin’ on. If we do, eventually we can fulfill that dream that Abdul-Jabbar and so many others have articulated.

Support Group Experiment

my toy factory rainbow line
Adam Foster | Codefor / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

To explore the viability of a particular format for an “activist empowerment” support group, on 2/26/14, I individually sent 25 people the following email with “Experiment” as the subject. So far two individuals have responded to the questions and I’ve had a series of exchanges with a third. This response prompted me to postpone a road trip throughout the States, during which I had hoped to experiment with this and/other formats to facilitate such support groups. Rather than spending so much time behind the wheel driving, I plan to spend more time writing. Those three responses and my replies are posted below as comments. You can click on Comments to see them.


Please imagine that you’re with a few close friends in your living room and each of you respond to the following questions (If you will, please reply to the questions here. Whether or not you do, I’d be interested in your thoughts about this idea.)

1. In what way or ways have you worked on becoming a better human being last month?
2. In what way or ways would you like to work on becoming a better human being this month?
3. In what way or ways have you volunteered to help build a stronger face-to-face community last month?
4. In what way or ways would you like to volunteer to help build a stronger face-to-face community this month?
5. In what way or ways have you engaged in political action last month by supporting near-term, achievable change in public policy?
6. In what way or ways would you like to engage in political action this month by supporting near-term, achievable change in public policy?

After responding to those questions, you and your group of close friends would conduct an open-ended conversation and plan any future activities in which some or all of you might engage.

I’d also be interested in your responses to the following questions:
1. If you did not reply to the questions, can you say why?
2. What do you think about the potential value of this approach? Any suggested changes?
3. Are you aware of one or more other user-friendly tools that self-governing groups are using to support one another in their personal growth, community building, and political action efforts?
4. Do you have ideas about possibilities for such tools?
5. Can I share your responses privately with the other respondents (I will not identify you publicly as the author of any responses that I quote)

This format is merely one possible such tool. I’m not wedded to it. I’m not even convinced that anything along this line is feasible. But I put it out there to clarify my thinking and to seek feedback. I’m very interested in your response.

Join the Club

Join the Club_

On reflection, it strikes me that my use of the word “club” in “Building a Full Employment Movement: Options for Action (2/14/14 Draft)” was likely influenced unconsciously by my reading of Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World, by Tina Rosenberg (April 23, 2012). The book addresses personal, social, and political change.

Following is the publisher’s book description:

A winner of the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, Tina Rosenberg has spent her career tackling some of the world’s hardest problems. Now, through striking stories from around the globe, Rosenberg shows how positive peer pressure can change people’s behavior and solve seemingly intractable social quandaries. In every case, pioneering social entrepreneurs throw out the old models for social change in favor of humanity’s most powerful and abundant resource: our connections with one another. The result is one of those rare books that will not only revolutionize the way you look at the world but also give you the power to change it.

The Newsweek” review by Abraham Verghese included: “Empowering . . . sweepingly ambitious . . . . Rosenberg’s case studies are as different as they are fascinating . . . A brilliant book.”

On Amazon, 16 customer reviews give it an average of 4 out of 5 stars, but even the “most helpful” critical review is rather positive. It reads:

Hidden Wisdom. This should have been one of the most fascinating books I’ve ever read; the premise is groundbreaking, the examples (mostly) of tremendous interest and extremely well-researched, and the author’s personal commitment to the subject from her own life experience adds another dimension of insight. Add to that the promise of a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist at the helm, and you start to wonder whose fault it is that the end result is such a sorry mess. In fact, it kept sending me to sleep, and the only reason I struggled through to the very end was my utter fascination with the subject.
It reads like an early, unedited draft. Why? Firstly, its unnecessarily long. The obsessive attention to detail added nothing to my interest in the subject or my understanding of the argument. Secondly, it reads like two books mixed randomly together. One book (the one you ordered) is about significant social change for good brought about by peer-group pressure. The other book (slipped inside without prior warning) reads like a long-winded promotion for some kind of commercialized evangelical Christianity. Thirdly, its disorganized. With such a complex and ground-breaking idea, drawing examples from so many diverse and contested areas of social conflict, it was always going to be difficult to create a coherent line of argument. Unfortunately, a supporting cast of thousands surges on and off the page in a way that obscures the main characters, the ideas.
There are many important nuggets of wisdom hidden away inside this book. The ideas are brilliant and the argument is convincing and has already changed my perspective on life. It’s sad and frustrating that the writing and editing didn’t fulfill the potential.

The most helpful favorable review reads:

Breakthrough Thinkng. “join the Club” provides some much needed thinking for Social Workers and others interested in making a difference – especially in such difficult economic and anti-social policy times.

Ms. Rosenburg has explored a number of social problems, both domestic and international and explored how the “social cure,” peer pressure as she defines it, can make positive changes. Domestically, the exploration of both teen smoking prevention and study groups for Calculus provide brilliant reporting. The use of professional thinking in marketing to engage teens is particularly helpful, and similar ideas to engage youth in political opposition to corporate manipulation in consumerism, worker exploitation, etc. spring easily to mind.

The international examples are also strong, with powerful stories in Indian, grass-roots health care, the empowerment of women and political action. She also examines the probable peer pressure factors in the success of micro-loans.

While for this reader the overly-long section on the use of groups in a protestant, suburban, mega-church doesn’t measure up to the other stories – this book is good food for thought for advocates everywhere.

I believe this book is extremely relevant to the work of grassroots activists aiming to build a national movement in the United States. The chapter on the overthrow of Milosevic in Yugoslavia is of particular interest.