Friday, October 14, 2011

Up Against the Wall Street

A reader sent me this query the other day:

Okay Laird. Here's your chance. Please comment on the Occupy Wall Street organizing. Organic. Ad hoc. Fascinating. This is a lesson for us all who wish to bring about change. Your impressions please...

This is a good question, and I'm going to give the long answer. I see myself as a social change agent. That is, I dedicate myself to trying to be an influence for positive change in the world. That commitment doesn't particularly distinguish me from others, yet it's foundational for how I make choices about where to devote my energy. As it turns out, knowing that I have that commitment tells you almost nothing about what I do—because there are nearly infinite ways to make a difference.

I went to college during the years 1967-71. That was the height of the Vietnam protest era and I participated in a variety of activities as part of the general foment on campus. I did door-to-door surveying about racism in the middle class Twin Cities suburb of Roseville. I got arrested for joining a sit-in that blocked a draft induction center in Minneapolis. I got together in the
summer of 1970 (just before my senior year and after the spring of student strikes that erupted in response to Nixon's invasion of Cambodia) with other college students that I went to high school with, to talk with groups of angry and upset adults in the Republican suburbs Chicago (where I grew up), explaining why students were striking. (I had a low enough lottery number that it looked like I was going to be drafted after graduation and I was preparing the ground for the Conscious Objector status I intended to seek.)

Having taken the time to digest my various protest experiences over that summer, I recall vividly a conversation I had with classmate Doug Hanson once I was back on campus that fall. He and I played on the soccer team together and we were pausing between wind sprints to reconnect after not having seen each other for 15 months—he spent his junior year studying in Europe and missed the crescendo of campus protests at Carleton.

Doug asked me what I thought about everything that had been happening, and how I fit into it. I told him, "I've gotten clear that I'm more of a builder upper than a tearer downer," and that insight has stayed with me ever since. It was the right question at the right time.

Ever since, this realization has provided important guidance for where I invest my life force. To be clear, it is not my analysis that protesting (nonviolently, or otherwise) is wrong or misguided. Rather, I don't see it as my gift, and it rarely brings me joy. Instead, I've been focusing on what would be better (rather than convincing people how bad things are).

Similarly, I have tried to be deliberate in finding suitable venues for my focus. Once I became solidly rooted in my commitment to community as both a suitable model and a robust vehicle for social change work (that is, community simultaneously is a reasonable way to live—that doesn't diminish the opportunities available to others—and is a terrific platform from which to operate in the world), I can look back over the last 37 years (my tenure at Sandhill Farm) and notice the points at which I intentionally expanded my field of focus to something larger:

o 1974—Sandhill: creating a single viable intentional community.

o 1980—Federation of Egalitarian Communities: working with a network of 6-8 income sharing communities to make common cause.

o 1987—Fellowship for Intentional Community: creating a network for all stripes of intentional communities.

o 1987—Process consulting: working with other cooperative groups to help them function better.

o 1997—Dancing Rabbit buys land three miles away: recruiting an exciting forming community to be neighbors, enriching the social milieu without compromising the integrity of Sandhill as a family of friends.

o 2003—Facilitation training: pioneering a two-year program to teach the essential skills of running high quality meetings (which turns out to also be leadership training).

o 2005—Creating Community Where You Are: explicitly broadening FIC's mission beyond intentional communities.

o 2007—Blog: writing every three days about Community and Consensus.

o 2008—Teaching cooperative economics: expanding my teaching horizon beyond social sustainability.

As expansive as this progression may seem, it has proceeded in an orderly way and there are noticeable limitations. For example, I don't work off continent (I'll never run out of work in North America and this is the culture I know best), I only work in English (the only language I'm fluent in, unless you count algebra, or canoeing) and I've chosen to work outside the political system—not because the political system couldn't use help, but because: a) politicians aren't asking for my help; b) I don't trust politicians to tell me the truth (which severely undercuts my effectiveness as an outside facilitator); and c) I think the surest change is bottom up, not top down. I figure if I can change the nature of how problems are solved at the neighborhood level, politicians will essentially have no choice but to honor the integrated, cross-stakeholder requests that bubble up to government agencies, and get out of the way.

All of which is to say, I feel for the frustration that has fueled the protesters who've taken part in Occupy Wall Street, and wholeheartedly agree with the essentially analysis that our current system is not working well. Yet I don't focus my attention there. I'm a cooperative problem solver (I focus both on problems in cooperation, and on how to solve problems cooperatively) and try to spend as little time as possible complaining.

Mind you, I am not suggesting that we become callous to the pain (what kind of chilling world would that be?); I am suggesting instead that we have to learn how to both respond from the heart—to show that we get it viscerally what people in pain are experiencing— and channel those feelings into the energy needed to craft constructive responses. While there's no doubt that well-timed protest can be a powerful galvanizing force in the world, at the end of the day tearing down—or pushing up against the wall—is never enough all by itself.


Anonymous said...

Life choices and options take people different directions- I was also a Vietnam era person on a campus in forment- but having a ended up in Vietnam era army- I did not see another option at time and now at end of various career choices think there is a better way to live that IC communities perhaps offer.

Whether the IC choice will always be a fring movement or an important evolution of community only time and history will tell- but for sime reason at this time it kind of hits me in gut as something I am attracted to.

larry rider said...

Hi Laird,

I think one aspect of the question was about the phenomenon of the self-organizing nature of the movement and the use of facilitation in a large group, not just your personal involvement. Yesterday in Seattle NICA sponsored a Facilitation Training workshop with Tree Bressen. One of the participants was currently in Occupy Seattle, and said there was a need there for experienced facilitators. Do you have any comment on that?
Larry Rider