Activist strategies for the times we live in: Flying under the radar

Josh Haner/The New York Times)

Some good old-fashioned protesting went on in lower Manhattan today, with folks coming out to tell the Wall Street tycoons and corporate elite that they do not rule unopposed.

Protests like these are a good thing, like online petitions and letters to Congressmen or to the editor.  But they’d have to get a lot bigger and fiercer to really create change–as they did in Egypt and other parts of the Middle East in the past year.  Things have to get ugly.  People have to get hurt.  It’s so much easier to just stay home and try to make the best of it.

I am really doing a lot of puzzling lately over what kind of protest movement would be most effective for the times we live in.  On a spectrum from the riots in London to the dignified sitdowns in front of the White House this fall, it seems like something inbetween is likely to get the most attention.

But it has to be a BIG movement.  The powers that be will not listen to a few hundred protesters, or even a few thousand.  It has to be big and national and coordinated, like the Civil Rights protests were.  Although there are a few movements going on now that are national, or even international–for example, Moving Planet, scheduled for next Saturday–there’s still nothing on the horizon that has anywhere near the draw power of, say, Monday night football.

So maybe protests are not the way to go, at least not until people are really hungry and desperate, at which point it might be much too late for any kind of harmonious transition to a new planetary paradigm.

Margaret Wheatley, whose work with the Berkana Institute I admire greatly, thinks that we need to think about leadership in a different way than we’re used to.  Instead of waiting for a charismatic leader–say, the next Martin Luther King Jr.–to step up and lead us all to sweeping changes, we need to think smaller and more locally, focusing on what we ourselves can accomplish within our own spheres.

“The process that creates change in the world is quite straightforward,” she says. “We notice something that needs to be changed. We keep noticing it. The problem keeps getting our attention, even though most people don’t notice that there’s even a problem. We start to act, we try something. If that doesn’t work, we try a different approach. We learn as we go. We become very engaged with the issue, spending more and more time on it. We become exhausted by our efforts, but still we keep going. The issue keeps calling to us. Any time we succeed, no matter how small the success, we gain new energy and resolve. We become smarter as we learn more about the issue and understand it better. We become more skillful at tactics and strategies. As we persevere, and if we are successful, more people join us. Sometimes we remain as just a small group, sometimes we give birth to a movement that involves tens of thousands, perhaps millions, of people.

“This is how the world always changes. Even great and famous change initiatives begin this way, with the actions of just a few people, when “some friends and I started talking.” Including those efforts that win the Nobel Peace Prize.”

So maybe each of the few hundred protesters gathered in New York City should go home to their own communities and continue to agitate locally against corporate monopolies and the stranglehold of Wall Street on Main Street.

Maybe someone decides to find out more about local currencies like BerkShares, and starts a movement to create a local currency or a time bank in her town.

Someone else decides to work with young people in his town to create a community garden that will bring fresh produce into the elementary school cafeteria.  Another group goes home and decides to file for a license for a low-power radio station, like WBCR-LP here in the Berkshires.

What we need now are a million local actions, all animated by the desire for community resilience, collaboration and service to the common good.  Put together, they’d make up a mighty movement for change.  But for now, I think they’ll be more effective staying small, local and under the radar.

Who needs those riot police coming around anyway?

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