Posted by: MC | May 3, 2010

The Hundredth Day. Activism: Conservative, Liberal or Effective


April 30, 2009 was the 100th day of the EX:Change.  It was the 101st day of the Obama Administration.  By then, the word change was a bit less consistently electric as a rallying cry.  The desire for unity, confidence and possibility had not vaporized but the everydayness of life had damped down the enthusiasm.  As the months stacked themselves into a year the word continued to echo inspiration but it also fell into phrases like, “that hopey changey thing.”

The leveling off of the energy that built around the word during the campaign was inevitable.  The use of the word change in criticisms or calls for accountability was no less surprising.  Nonetheless the relevance to Americans as individuals and a nation of knowing what we mean when we say change remained and remains relevant; perhaps even more relevant. 

We always proceed from here, and taking stock is a tried and true prerequisite to moving forward in ways that are visionary, viable and wise.  On April 30 of last year, we knew it was time to move the idea into action.  We still know that.  The how is a little baffling.

Today, it’s a year later.  I’m in a plane.  Window seat.  The sky has cleared from the marine cloud layer over the Pacific Northwest and the jarring thunderstorms over the Rockies.  The farmland of Kansas or Oklahoma stretches with its shades of green and brown, its neat circles and squares, its ribbons of rivers and cuts of highway.  Way better than turbulence.

I’m headed for Texas.  A little vacation with friends from college.  We’re thinking, divas in the Texas wildflowers.  The chances are I’ll post this blog from the Starbucks on the Guadalupe River where I interviewed Tom and David (EX:C blog, “Spirit and Faith,” 04-19-2010).   [–sure enough, May 3, soft chair, Starbucks tea and a view of the Guadalupe]

But, back to the airplane.  We’ve just seen the movie “Leap Year.”  The cliffs and heather, brogue and humor of Ireland were a comforting distraction as we hurled through the climactic mash up over the mountains.  Together with the other two people in the row, I’ve now laughed and cried and gasped and variously clinched and unclenched fists; reactions ambiguously due to the movie or the ride.  Whatever the case, we’re bonded now by smiles and glances and my weak attempts at Spanish.

It’s April 30 and, from up here its easy to see the bigger picture of a nation on an enduring stretch of land that is sturdier than circumstances on the ground can lead us to believe.  Tomorrow I’ll pick up on the suggestion that came across Facebook last night and update my status to read, “Hey, so do I look illegal?”  It’s not funny at all to me.  The conversation is certainly necessary to be engaged at the level of public policy, but the people touched by Arizona’s recently passed law are no less alive and worthy as the process moves forward.  This is where questions of public action, personal and collective, become both salient and urgent – no matter what perspective one takes. 

Last April 30, I sat in my living room with my friend Kwang Kim.  On that 100th day, Kwang had agreed to be the100th voice in the EX:Change.  Kwang is a family therapist.  He is a practicing Tibetan Buddhist.  Now and then, when Kwang introduces me to a friend, he’ll comment on how we’re both from the South.  Except, Kwang is from South Korea.  He was 8 years old when his family emigrated.  Ten years later he was at Brandeis.

As he spoke about change, the primary thing on Kwang’s mind was the how of it.  “There are a lot of us who associate ourselves with progressive ideas who wait at home being angry at the other side, thinking they’ll either make the change or someone will force them to change.” 

Kwang went on to reflect on the public discourse coming out of this passivity.  “You hear this most typically in the polemic discussions on talk radio from both sides.  There’s a violent undertone to all of that, an intolerance flying back and forth.  It’s the kind of thing you see in dysfunctional families where everyone is essentially well-intentioned.  And each person would like to see the other people make the change.  Unfortunately, when that happens nothing ever changes.  In fact, that dynamic only increases enmity, increases conflict, increases misunderstanding.  Then people get locked further into their positions.

“In order for a to shift, there has to be some member of the family who says, ‘OK. I’m not going to expect other people to change.  Instead, I need to focus on finding some way in which I gain some space from my own knee-jerk reactions that make me put it on someone else.  I need to figure out a different way to respond in those situations.’  When one person does that in a family, movement can happen.

“Paying serious attention to my part and my reaction, doesn’t mean there are not also public things I can do – protests, becoming involved in activist organizations, becoming more involved in the work place, having neighborhood meetings.  There are bigger things we can be involved in.  But it’s not with the agenda of making people change or trying to make people believe as we do.  It’s with the attitude of self expression.  ‘Here’s what I’m passionate about.  Here’s what I believe.  How can I share this and express this in a way that is not violent, either subtly or overtly?’

“So, people can be involved personally by thinking about little changes they can make in their own attitudes and behaviors.  But they can also be involved by being more connected in the larger way with a new attitude toward what they are doing publicly.  Being involved in a way that communicates our passion and tolerance is important because we hunger for connection.  If we can connect to others with our passion for change we can also connect with the passion for what we believe in without really needing to change people.

“Attitude matters.  Essentially we are intuitive.  We can sense when something done toward us is manipulative or aggressive, even a violent.  We also intuit when expression is tolerant, welcoming and loving.   People are naturally attracted to that. 

“So, when I think of change it naturally comes back to each of us taking responsibility for our attitudes and behaviors first instead of thinking only of ways someone else or the globe ought to change.  Big change follows from small individual changes.”

In early March, I had connected with a businesswoman in Marietta, Georgia.  Anna’s (at her request, not her actual name) political perspective draws from profound interest in and support for free market economy.  She and Kwang might easily find themselves on opposite sides of any number of specific issues, both of them passionate about their commitments to positive change.  And, both of them spoke at length about the need for dialogue across difference.  For example, in the course of describing what she’d seen as effective activism toward change, Anna spoke of the necessity of admirable leadership.

“It would make a huge difference for some of the people recognized as public leaders on either side to take dramatic steps to really reach out.  I’ve seen it happen.  One of my favorite people in the Universe is our Senator, Johnny Isaacson.  He’s a very moderate Republican.  I have seen his skills with reaching out and garnering support from both sides.  The Republican Party forced him into a far right position when he ran for governor and he didn’t get elected.  But, if you let Johnny be Johnny, there’s almost no way that anyone wouldn’t support him.  He’s such a logical, reasonable, compassionate man. 

“He’s got a huge background in business, but yet he’s been an education supporter and served on the State Board of Education.  He really understands education.  He also understands global stuff and speaks beautifully.  Because of the system, he’s been forced into positions that are more extreme than I know he is.  That’s unfortunate that the system does that, because he’s got the skills and the courage be a true leader.  

“He decided not to come back and run for governor.  I can understand that.  We need him in the Senate, but he would have been a great governor.  He would have had enough support from people that he probably could have made some important positive changes in the State.”

So the concept that blends across these two voices is of leaders with passion who focus first on the wellbeing of the citizens rather than on forcing change in other people’s ways of seeing the world.  It’s risky in the face of an electoral system that has morphed a first priority of persuading the majority they think the way you do.  Hmmm.  Isn’t that the way a democracy is set up, though?  Leaders emerge who convince the public of shared values and goals?  But in true democracy do the leaders herd the citizenry or do the citizens recognize those among them most capable of furthering the interests of the whole?  Probably the answer to this last question is, “Yes.”

There’s a puzzle here.  It’s solution is likely a stretch to something that seems unfamiliar.  That’s the nature of change.  Kwang and Anna describe possibilities for solving the how and the what.  Proceed from passion and interest and commitment.  Put down the need to change everyone else.  Act in ways that have integrity to who you are – ways that might include capabilities for drawing forward the best thinking across differences and collaboration from there.  Change follows from that.

In late January of 2009, the fourth voice of EX:Change, Se-ah-dom Edmo (EX:C blog, “I can’t do this along,” 01-28-2010) added to the conversation with her reflection on what remains the same so that change may occur.  “The thing that always stays the same for me,” she said, “is my belief in people’s ability to gain moral insight through their sympathy and empathy toward other people. I don’t think that’s something we could change even if we had the power to change it.  Anyone who is in that moment of sympathy or empathy makes a commitment, and that’s when morality is formed.  We can’t take that away from people.  And it’s something that seems to be happening more now than it has before.  There is more listening.”

So what makes for effective activism in these days when the voices calling for change are as diverse as the newly formed Tea Party, the people of all races supporting and opposing the Arizona Immigration Law and the White House?   The EX:Change voices remind us of our passion, courage and listening.  There is no denying Americans have these capacities.  I heard it all around the country across those hundred days.  I heard it across ages and ethnicities and political leanings, across income levels and religious orientations and genders and physical abilities, and across landscapes. 

I find myself wishing every American could take such a trip.  The reality that emerges from listening to other American voices is essentially inspiring and comforting.  Issues arise, without doubt!  Thorny, tangled, and baffling.  And the ground remains.  There’s more to the foundation of this country than we hear broadcast by the various media.  Perhaps it’s up to us, the everyday folk, once again to assert our desire for community and connection.  As Kwang suggests, that will likely take getting over our knee jerk impulses to make change everyone else’s responsibility.  It will also take consciously practice drawing instead on our “higher angels.”  On passion, courage, listening.

Now for the next 100 days, and the 100 after that.

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