Some reflections on 20 years of activism, and an invitation...
(Published in Access magazine in September 1997)
I became a community activist for social change in my eighteenth year as a new student at The Evergreen State College. At the time, I didn't think of it as a career choice, I just knew I was too upset about the state of the world to not get active. Twenty years later, I'm still plugging along, only now I understand that this work is my life work, and I deserve to get paid a living wage. I only wish more people were ready to join me.
I was an infamous student activist. I organized a successful boycott of the campus food service, led nonviolent direct action workshops against the Trident nuclear submarine, founded a city-wide barter exchange before anyone had personal computers (a huge task!), coordinated an on-campus food coop, and much more.
Throughout those two decades, I have watched tons of activist friends burn out and never return to social change work. I have witnessed dozens of close friends who swore they'd never own a car abandon their own idealism, and buy one with much shame. I have watched activist friends charge full speed into a poorly designed or way too ambitious project only to lose faith in themselves. I could go on and on. It has become more and more clear to me that activists take ourselves way too seriously, and demand of ourselves unrealistic expectations concerning our ability to not have contradictory and shadow selves.
Somehow, I managed to survive the long hours without pay because I simply believed so strongly in what I was doing. My resume is an unbelievable (and unhealthy) whirlwind of frenzied activity. Here's an incomplete list of the movements I participated in: organic food, anti-nuclear/safe energy, alternative economic institution-building, bioregionalism, feminism, prisoner rights, alternative media, ancient forest protection, ecoforestry, labor solidarity, Native sovereignty, ecological restoration, and finally, in my last few years: reclaiming citizen sovereignty over giant corporations. Whew!
Last year I realized that, after 20 years of this adventure, I might actually know enough about the social change process to help newcomers take the activism plunge. To test my new-found confidence, I offered an evening course last spring at Humboldt State University in Arcata called, "How You Can Become An Effective Participant In Nonviolent Social Change". Nine students registered, ages 16 to 71. We all had a wonderful time; and we all learned a heck of a lot.
This fall, I am offering it again in an expanded form: six Monday evenings beginning September 22nd, plus two full-day Saturday workshops. I encourage you to enroll - look for the Extended Education catalogue for registration form. The only prerequisite is a yearning to make a difference in the world. (See box for more info.)
At the end of the last course, I wrote a letter to my students sharing with them a few truths that I have learned over the years. Here's a portion of the letter...
Remember, you are not alone in your concerns about the state of the world! And try not to forget the following seven nuggets:
1) There's no need to reinvent the wheel every time you think of some social change work needing to be done. Chances are someone somewhere is already doing it and could use your support. And better that you locate them BEFORE you spend months developing your ideas and vision! How do you find them? You have a number of options...
* Your community is full of incredible resource people hiding in the woodwork, frequently the elders among you. All long-term activists love to have their brains picked.
* Check out the Alternative Press Index in your nearest college or larger library. It's usually found next to the Readers Guide To Periodical Literature. The Index monitors hundreds of alternative periodicals from across the world, and opens an incredible treasure trove of resources to anyone who looks. If your library doesn't have it, tell them to get it; it's very affordable.
* The internet (for those who are comfortable with it) is another treasure trove of social change links and vision, but don't assume everyone's on the web. To enter the internet world requires joining one of the many service providers. I strongly recommend the Institute For Global Communications (IGC), an international non-profit which links more than 40,000 progressive and green social change organizations in 133 countries. For more info, call 415-561-6100.
* And of course, there's always picking up the phone and calling me! I'm happy to help.
2) Consumers are workers are taxpayers are citizens are all of us. These aren't separate categories of humanity! When workers strike, and their employer or the government claims that the public is suffering and why don't those lazy workers be more sensitive to the public's needs, remember that those workers ARE the public and they're already suffering or they wouldn't be on strike. (This month it's U.P.S. employees.) Their issue may not at first glance appear to be personally relevant to you or your issue, but look again. We are all in this together. And if we each make a conscious effort to support each other's activist concerns, and attend eachother's forums and rallies and demonstrations, we will quickly discover that we're all just citizens with surprisingly broad bases of agreement. (It's okay if you show up not fully understanding the issues. You'll learn something, and probably even widen your circle of friends.)
3) We may all be in this together, but those of us who are black or female or poor or gay or disabled or old or non-English speakers don't necessarily trust those of us who are white or male or financially comfortable or straight or able-bodied or English speakers. So in order to build authentic alliances across these barriers, we may have to (we may actually WANT to) get to know these folks personally, to learn about their lives, loves, struggles. So try not to make too many assumptions about our "unity" until you've made a real effort to walk in their shoes for awhile.
And you (i.e. we!) white guys: I strongly encourage you to remember always that you carry loads and loads of invisible race and gender privilege which if not acknowledged and periodically struggled with will almost inevitably sabotage your attempts to work with those not white or male. (Believe me, none of us are exempt, even us sensitive new age guys!)
Another angle from which to examine this: Almost everyone you will ever meet, at work, at the movies or shopping, is "working class". Be they poor or comfortable, they make up the approximately 85% of Americans who work for a living. They are us! You'll never even catch a glimpse of the approximately 2% who rule us! (When's the last time you bumped into the head of your region's largest logging company waiting in line at the bank, or the president of your local college in the aisle at the food coop? You probably never will; these people live very different lives!
4) Don't believe what the media corporations tell you (duh). Their primary goal in life (by definition) is to grow and grow and grow and sell you (audience share) to other corporations who wish to advertise their wares to you. That's really all they exist for. It's not all that relevant that what they market is news, they could just as easily be marketing shoes. So bite the bullet and make a $75 or $100 a year financial commitment to keep at least two or three independent green/progressive newspapers or magazines or specialty journals alive. These tiny powerful voices need our support more than ever. One effective way to figure out which periodicals to support is to frequently look up the subjects you're most concerned about in the Alternative Press Index and see which sources regularly cover those topics; or go to your local independent bookstore and see what's on the rack. If you're looking for some suggestions, try Z Magazine, Earth Island Journal, and Rachel's Environment and Health Weekly (for starters). You may find it hard to believe, but this nation has the largest selection of progressive and green general interest and specialty magazines of any country in the world, and most people don't even know they exist! (Call me for details.)
5) Remember, you're not apathetic so don't assume anyone else is either. The institutions that run this society are profoundly good at keeping most of us feeling hopeless, powerless, isolated, despairing, and frightened (which is very different than apathetic), and not the kind of qualities that make good grassroots leaders. So our work, if we're up to it, is to acknowledge that we're all wishing to make a difference in the world, but we have lots of crud getting in the way. And to offer others the tools and support they need to once again take the risk of caring enough about our society to get involved. It's a big job, but you folks reading this article are as qualified to do this as anyone else!
6) Social change takes time. Don't expect to see grand changes in the next five years. The really big changes, the ones that happen in peoples' thinking, can often take a few generations. Patience is a profound virtue in an activist. Practice patience daily. And learn how to breathe properly. It really helps when it feels like everything is going to hell.
7) Lastly, think about joining one of the many social change groups in your community. You'll be surprised how many there are tucked in the cracks of your town! And most of them are probably hungry to meet new committed and energetic people like you! I'm a relative newcomer to Arcata, and have been shocked to discover that there are 61 local groups here doing wonderful work. (I am currently compiling this list for the HOPE Coalition to circulate, let me know if you'd like a copy.)
All the best in your work for a healthier, more just world!
"How You Can Become an Effective Participant in Nonviolent Social Change"
Instructor: Paul Cienfuegos
Did you know that all democratic advances in American society have come about through effective and ongoing social change movements? Through exercises, dialogues, readings, lectures, and two full-day workshops (Rethinking the Corporation/ Rethinking Democracy and Active Listening For Activists), students will learn about the critical role social change movements and organizations have always played in nudging our society toward ever greater democratization and ecological sanity. We will become acquainted with the hundreds of existing independent organizations and institutes, magazines and newspapers, radio stations and book publishers which collectively offer critical ongoing support to America's small but thriving dissident communities. We will discuss current political, social, and ecological trends. Each student will have an opportunity to design - with active teacher and student support - a unique niche in which to play a significant role in nonviolent social change.
Offered through Extended Education at Humboldt State U, a 6-week non-credit course beginning September 22, 1997.