The other day, I had a coffee with a friend who is promoting change in how we do democracy. She is particularly preoccupied with the way well-educated, professional middle (and upper middle) class people dominate the mainstream politics and the conversations along the Beltway. She has repeatedly said to me: “Veena, we go about our business as though it is merely business, but for some people these matters are life and death!”
A lot of people in the United States (and, of course, around the world) are in basic survival mode. Bills to be paid, increasing debt, an education system that is letting them down, unemployment, exhaustion etc. In some ways, the description I just wrote applies equally to lower and middle folks alike. Yet, my friend – let’s call her Paula – was thinking about the people who are just keeping their heads above the water, who live in communities plagued by drugs, violence, large numbers of men in prison and other destructive dynamics. You would think – or at least I did – Paula would be ready to do almost anything to feel like she is doing all she can to push boundaries, to wake people up. Because, after all, she is feeling very awake to the idea that on the one hand people’s lives are at risk and on the other our democracy is trundling along weighted down by professionals (everywhere on the political spectrum) pushing papers, stroking their own egos, debating ideas, being partisan, living comfortable lives and being very reluctant to break with convention.
Yet, I witnessed in Paula something that surprised me when we were talking. It also left me feeling a bit sad. Not withstanding the life and death nature of the business we are in, Paula seemed afraid to break with convention, challenge the rules, take risks.
Last week, I wrote about jumping – jumping off the train we often ride in our social change work, the train that takes us through the lands of frustration, disempowerment, lack of voice, conflict etc, within our organizations and partnerships. My conversation with Paula reminded me of another aspect of jumping – jumping into the unknown.
Paula’s organization is going to have a big event next year. We – or perhaps I – started kicking around different ideas for it. I was feeling playful and a bit agitated. I was thinking: “Okay, you are frustrated with the status quo, so DO something! DO something DIFFERENT!” One idea that came to mind was to have the event in a place like Detroit. Work with local people to use the event as a hook to do some regenerative work in a city that is full of degeneration. I said this in the context of thinking that it would be amazing if bunches of people – of Occupiers, for example – went to Detroit with the intention of slowly rebuilding the city (or a small community within it) applying the range of so-called alternative principles and systems that we progressive social changemakers say we are about and that are being lived out in community pockets around the world. It would take time, creativity, love, patience and perseverance. It could be done by stepping on convention over and over again, by tossing aside rules, regulations, bureaucracy. It could be done by drawing on internal, relational and material resources in ways that we right now perhaps cannot even imagine – but can trust will unfold.
We agreed that DC has its own fair share for need regeneration, and thus Janet need not go so far afield. I responded to this with “Ohh, yeh, you could do the conference in DC, but do it differently. You could make it so all the services, e.g. catering, are done through local vendors or even train up currently unemployed folks to do everything. You could build on that by somehow making it that everyone at the conference has a service role to play (even if only for a few hours) and the traditional service providers, e.g. caterers, cleaners etc. all participate in the conference. This could break down the server/served split and nurture a more meaningful sense of equality in the space. It could bring more active voices into the dialogue. Yeh, you could have FUN with this!”
As I was talking about all this, I got excited. I moved myself to the edge of my chair and did this bouncy thing I do when I get enlivened by ideas. So there I was, bouncing on the edge of my seat and throwing out ideas for doing a conference differently- which to me means something like making the conference an imaginative living model of how we really want the world the be.
Janet responded to my excitement and my ideas with: “Now, now, I can only take on so much at once” or something like that. I stopped bouncing.I got the sense that she wanted to do a conference that tweaks the status quo around its edges. I said ‘Yeh, sure.” I was thinking – “If we are talking life and death here, surely, now is the time to be pushing the boat out, making a leap – even if you don’t quite know where it takes you or how exactly you get there…”
I didn’t say that. And I don’t know that I even was thinking that so clearly at the time. At the time, I was more feeling it – feeling something in the pit of my stomach that just made me contract a bit, made me reel in that sense of expansion I had been feeling minutes before. It is only now, as I reflect on the conversation, that I’m getting clarity on what I was thinking in response to what I experienced as Janet’s reluctance to get excited and go “Yes, and…!” I was thinking: For F&^%$*’s sake, Janet – JUMP!!!!” I didn’t care if she did or didn’t like any of my specific ideas – I just wanted her to be excited about stepping over the threshold and jumping into different territory – some of it explored, some of it not – as a way of really challenging the status quo.
Jumping – so often easier said than done. What prevents us – social changemakers – from jumping into new/different territory? Why, when we are so fed up with the status quo, do we become reluctant to do things differently? What holds us back from taking risks? What kind of risks could more of us being taking in our day-to-day work that could open up our creativity and help us align more deeply with our values?