What does it take to change the world?
by Jim Shultz
I am writing from New York, at the tail end of a journey across four countries and two continents leading and supporting gatherings where citizens have come together to look at how to make a real difference. In Italy it was global staff from the UN Development Program planning their actions on climate change and sustainable development. In Brussels it was labor, trade and environmental activists from all corners of the world organizing to tackle corporate power. In London and here in New York I led workshops for UNICEF leaders campaigning for equal rights for the world’s most vulnerable children.
After teaching citizen advocacy like this for more than twenty-five years I have come to believe in two basic things about citizen action, one innocent and idealistic and the other Machiavellian. The first is that people really can change the world if they join together. The other is that the only way we can do this is to understand the realities of political power and root our actions in that understanding. It is not enough to simply have good intentions; we have to be smart.
Sometimes I begin workshops like these by holding up a note of the local currency and lighting a match under it. People everywhere have a strong reaction to the threat of burning perfectly good money (though I don’t actually burn it). Once I have their attention I explain that citizen action is a resource no less precious than cash, and in most ways more precious still. In a world with so many urgent problems to address none of us can afford to let our impulse to democratic action go up uselessly in smoke.
So now at the end of this long journey, as I get ready to head home to Bolivia, here are three important reflections about what it takes to change the world, inspired by the powerful actions and deeds of those I have worked with these past three weeks.
The Importance of Being Strategic
There are two ways to play the game of chess. One is to study the board carefully, analyze the various options before you based on a realistic reading of your position, and then make your best move. Another is to decide that you just really like moving your bishop – something about those big diagonal sweeps across the board – and so you move your bishop without much study and end up in checkmate two moves later.
Being strategic is fundamental to effective activism. It’s the difference between taking action with our eyes wide open rather than with a blindfold on. But all over the world I find people taking actions based on what feels most familiar. Analytic organizations put out reports. Protesters make signs and march. Lobbyists lobby. A wise friend of mine once called this the “if you have a hammer everything looks like a nail” problem.
All these approaches to advocacy and activism are potentially powerful. What is essential it to take careful time before you act to think together about which combination of actions actually has the best chance of delivering the goods. In the workshops that I lead I never pretend to know what strategies people should use. What do I know about how to get the government to take action on children’s rights in Kosovo, or to protect worker rights in the Philippines?
But I do find in every country I work in that there are some universal questions that people need to ask themselves in order to think as strategically as possible. What do we want? Who has the authority to deliver it? What is the most effective way to talk about our demands? Who do we need with us? What are our options for action, from the moderate to the radical, and which ones are most likely to get the job done?
We’ve put a whole library of materials about how to work with these strategy questions on the Democracy Center Web site, from training handouts to a presentation.
The Difference Between Shifting the Political Winds and Harvesting Them
This morning I paid a visit to ‘ground zero’ of the Occupy Wall Street Movement, Zuccotti Park. Much has been written about this movement (including by us) in the two months since it began in the physical heart of U.S. corporate power, and then spread to hundreds of other cities across the U.S. and abroad. And always, especially this week as New York’s Mayor has moved to shut down the OWS encampment, the questions remain: What are its aims? What are its concrete objectives? What will it achieve?
Citizen action is a coin with two sides not one. Sometimes what we need to do is not merely to make specific demands but to completely change the political winds. In the U.S. the winds of corporate power have been blowing hard in only one direction for a very long time, in favor of the most wealthy and powerful. Huge financial houses that took the nation’s savings and converted them into complex betting schemes were deemed ‘too big to fail’ and were bailed out with our tax dollars. Oil and energy conglomerates have been given near free reign over our natural resources and environment at huge cost to our children’s future. Three decades of economic policy have more than doubled the share of the annual income pie going to the nation’s most wealthy, and more than one in ten Americans is now out of work. In the face of all this, until just a few months ago, the U.S. seemed to believe that the main economic issue in the country was reducing the federal deficit.
Has Occupy Wall Street achieved even one concrete change in public policy or one clear change in the rules that let corporations control so much about our lives? No. But in the end, direct changes are probably not its purpose at all. In many ways OWS has already achieved its purpose, which is to shift the political winds. In the summer the economic crisis in the nation was about the national debt ceiling. Now it is about corporate power and economic inequalities. That is a huge, important change. But the question now is how to harvest that shift in the winds to deliver concrete change, and it is likely to be others – who are not camping out in lower Manhattan – who drive that.
On the 15th floor of UNICEF headquarters this week, staff at the UN’s organization for children’s rights were strategizing about how to use those winds to win concrete actions from governments to address the needs of the world’s poorest children. In Brussels two weeks ago the activists I gathered with were looking at how use the new winds to open up a new challenge to corporate-driven global trade rules (see our new video on those rules here).
Those who use protest and radical action to change the winds, and those who work in the world of concrete policy, are partners in ways they don’t fully recognize. Without those who toil in the details, the changing of the winds becomes a mere political show with no actual impact. Without the wind-changers in the streets, the advocates who work on policy change find the doors closed and get nowhere. At the Democracy Center we believe in and we work with both sides of the coin.
The Art of Staying Inspired
Working for political change is hard and it comes with no guarantees. Those who have disrupted their lives these past months to take to the streets, who have faced a mix of ridicule and arrest, have no assurances that their sacrifices will result in anything other than memories of participation in a historical footnote. The people who campaign year after year in defense of children’s rights may see only backwards steps by the governments they pressure. How do we sustain ourselves in such a fog of uncertainty about the value of our struggles?
Citizen action, like the democracy that is its foundation, is an act of faith. We mobilize because being immobile in the face of injustice is not an option. As we do so we have to take our inspiration from one another, and recognize the inspiration we ourselves have to offer. I and many others have been inspired by Occupy Wall Street. I have also been inspired anew by the people I have met along the way these three weeks – the young environmental campaigner from India organizing her people; the UNICEF advocates in London who are working to help the world understand that climate change is about our children; and many, many others. I know that many young people take inspiration from me and my work, astonished that a guy old enough to be their Dad is still doing the work of activism.
That inspiration that we give to one another is the bridge that carries us to the victories that sometime come out of the blue. Bechtel drops its $50 million case against Bolivia. UNICEF in Canada gets world leaders to commit $6 billion to support maternal and child health in the poorest nations. A handful of public officials in Eastern Europe become champions of renewable energy.
Citizen action is not a science. It is an art in which the most effective path forward begins with a clear-eyed read of circumstance, a mix of wildly different approaches that blend together in unexpected ways, and a belief that you really can make a difference, but only if you give it your best shot.
Jim Shultz is the founder and Executive Director of the Democracy Center.
We look forward to hearing your thoughts on this piece in our comments section below. Our comments policy.