Personal Growth and Social Change (Part 4)

by Miki Kashtan

This mini-series started on Aug 8. After posting a response to part 3, I now return to the next section – what actions can we take towards creating the world of our dreams that works for all?

Joanna Macy has been urging us for some time now to operate simultaneously in three directions to move towards a sustainable future: “Holding Actions in defense of life on Earth: actions to slow the damage to Earth and its beings; Creation of Alternative Institutions: analysis of structural causes and creation of structural alternatives; and

Shift in perceptions of reality, both cognitively and spiritually: a fundamental shift in worldview and values”.* I would like to address and provide concrete examples to how each of these could be done in a manner that is fully consistent with principled nonviolence, the Gandhian approach. The list below is far far from exhaustive, and I only mean it to be an illustration and food for thought for those who want to take action.

Obstructive Action Done with Love

Acts of civil disobedience have been a mainstay of nonviolent social change movements for a long time. In my understanding of how Gandhi and MLK in particular used civil disobedience, at least three factors need to be in place to make the action effective:

  • Those taking the action must be willing to disobey the law and suffer the consequences in an entirely peaceful manner. This may include imprisonment, physical harm to self, or even death.
  • The action needs to be strategically placed and go beyond symbolic protest. Sharif Abdullah maintains that purely symbolic protest actions did not have anywhere near as much effect in Gandhi’s or MLK’s campaigns, and only those that exemplified what he calls vision implementation were fully successful. Vision implementation means that the action itself prefigures the envisioned world – one with access to salt for those who need it in the first example, and one with access to blacks and whites together eating in a restaurant in the other.
  • Those taking the action must be committed to ending the harm done while maintaining love and respect for the people they are opposing.

I see these conditions as very exacting and rarely followed fully. I long to see campaigns that manage to train enough people in the art of courageous, loving willingness to stand up to what they see as harm or injustice, while finding avenues to do so that are visionary and inspiring to all.

Creating Alternatives

At whatever scale possible, freeing ourselves from the legacy of systems and practices that prioritize anything other than meeting the needs of humans and of nature (e.g. profit, control, or mechanical efficiency) will require some people engaging in and showing the rest of us what is truly possible. There are already groups, organizations, and magazines dedicated to documenting and making known to all who wish to know the numerous examples of such experiments and options. In fact, some claim that all the technology and human processes necessary to shift to a carbon-free caring society are available and have been tried somewhere. For starters, you may want to get a subscription to YES Magazine , or search a library for old issues of Hope Magazine (now defunct since 2000), to begin to learn about human ingenuity and to become inspired about what’s possible. Stories include individuals finding ways to effect significant change (countless such stories), local areas moving closer to collaborative living (more and more around the world that, in their own small ways, are standing up to the power of globalization and exchange economy, or a place like Curitiba in brazil), regions with high proportion of cooperative functioning (Mondragon in spain), and even companies that function in dramatically different ways from the mold (Semco in Brazil).

For my purposes here, I want only to highlight what I see as essential elements to be thought about and decided explicitly. Any time we don’t have an explicit system for handling certain aspects of functioning, we are likely to recreate old habits of separation and scarcity, such as mistrust, command and control structures, or punitive approaches to conflict. Alternatively, we may also rebel against such habits and operate in chaotic ways without leadership, order, care, or effectiveness. Sometimes we will do both at once.

  • Decision-making processes to minimize or eliminate power-over structures and/or inefficiencies resulting from abdication of or aversion to power. (see part 3 and the response to a comment)
  • Conflict resolution processes to minimize or eliminate punitive approaches
  • Resource allocation agreements to minimize or eliminate competition and
  • Nurturing and accountability processes to minimize or eliminate overwork, self-sacrifice, and lack of responsibility

Put together, these elements approximate for me the longed for image of walking our talk. Especially when attempting to create and demonstrate alternative ways of functioning, being able to demonstrate different relationships and structures can go a long way to overcome the habitual cynicism that so many people carry to protect themselves from experiencing the heartbreak associated with seeing where the world is.

Consciousness Transformation

Because this area appears to me to be the most developed in terms of nonviolent social change, I don’t plan on elaborating beyond mentioning this aspect. All over the world thousands of approaches based on love, oneness, and fearlessness are being taught and practiced, and are available often at low or no cost. This is the point where the distinction between personal growth and social transformation loops back on itself. Ultimately, personal growth in the form of consciousness transformation is indeed part of social change work, so long as clarity remains that social change is not all personal growth, as this mini-series attempts to illustrate.

I keep thinking that one more post will complete all I have to say about this topic, and I now wonder how many more posts it will take. In the next post (and those after it) I talk about visioning, systemic implications, scaling up from our small efforts, and what all this would mean in terms of what we are to do today, when our world is just as it is.

* See Joanna Macy with Molly Young Brown, Coming Back to Life: Practices to Reconnect Our Lives, Our World, p. 17-24

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