Well here it is, May of 2018, and we’re six months away from the mid-term elections. We have descended into Dante’s Hell of campaign missives. All news is to now to be framed in a political narrative – yet none of it is really informing us to make better decisions at the polls. Combine this bi-annual event with Trump being at the helm of this Titanic of a federal government … and retaining ones sanity is easier said than done.
Here in Billings, Montana, I’m subjected to a daily barrage of GOP hopefuls on full display strutting their stuff in hopes of uprooting the Democratic incumbent Senator Jon Tester. You have Troy Downing, out-Trumping even the orange clown himself – trying dearly to conjure up a bucket of patriotism by enlisting Mike, the felon, Flynn on the campaign trail. Not to be outdone, we have Billings’ own former judge Russell Fagg. His message to the world is death to them murdering marauders from south of the border. But of course the vengeance will have to wait until after his weekly morning prayer meeting for the local business community. God help us all please … as I cry from the depths of Circle Five and the River of Styx just hoping Cheron the oarsman doesn’t toss me overboard with the other wallowing souls. Come to think of it … put me out of my misery.
Regardless of what end of this ideological political absurdity you reside – there’s still one question virtually no one asks. Can these politicians subjecting us to all of this narcissistic babble do the job they so desperately want. We just had the Tester/Trump battle over Trump’s pick for the VA, Ronny Jackson. All the attention was on whether on his character was suitable; as if that has really mattered for any of Trump’s other picks. While this definitely should be addressed – shouldn’t also the fact the man had nowhere near the background to do a job like this. Nothing indicates any level of ability coinciding with the magnitude of running the VA. Unfortunately this is normally always the case. Ideology trumps ability.
Corporations and business have interview processes that hopeful identify competent candidates and then from there a qualified decision is made. This isn’t always the case, but at least the attempt is there. Politics doesn’t work that way. And unfortunately neither do social movements and cause-based activism.
Let’s look at gun control efforts. Since Columbine, there’s been many opportunities to launch strikes against the NRA and those beholden to them. In addition to Columbine, the Gabby Giffords’ shooting and Sandy Hook being two in particular. None of them have really gained any traction. They have NGOs set up and I’m sure there are people out making an effort, but if anything the gun lobby is as strong now than ever. Donna Dees wrote an interesting article for Fast Company, just yesterday on her experience founding the Million Moms March after Columbine. She blames branding primarily for its lack of being able to “change the game.” I think it goes a lot deeper than that.
Now we have the #MarchForOurLives student crusade that seems to be making some headway. The founding high school students from Parkland, Florida have social media followings several times that of any effort to date. They may also be more organizationally adept than any other movement also … believe it or not. We’ll see how this all plays out come November and the midterm elections though. I’m hoping to be pleasantly surprised.
Let’s not forget Occupy Wall Street and all the other hundreds of Occupys. This was supposed to be the start of a decentralized push to bring down “the man.” No one was in charge, so all participating voices would be heard and no one could be targeted by the establishment. Emotional momentum is a hard thing to maintain though. This is especially the case if there’s no one leading when the inevitable push back comes from those in the status quo who are affected.
Historian Bill Moyer wrote an excellent account of movements called, “History is a Weapon: A Movement Action Plan.” Moyer’s essay is a strategic framework describing the eight stages of successful social movements. Moyer outlines the decades long fights for the curtailment of nuclear power in American. He details the eight stages activists and their opponents battled through. The piece is a must read for anyone who wishes to make it a life protesting against “the man” … and a life it is. Ask anyone fighting for a woman’s right to choose. Just when you think the battle is done and you can finally go home and put your feet up … out pops the latest reincarnation of pathetic sexist zealotry.
Another movement I’ve been following is #MeToo. For all accounts, it should succeed. It has potentially huge numbers with what should be virtually all women and the men who aren’t assholes. That said, what’s actually happening though? What’s being accomplished? We’ve had some women come up publicly and face their abusers. We had a favorable Bill Cosby verdict (which I attribute to #MeToo). But what about women’s equality in the workplace. What’s the game plan by those in charge? Is there anyone in charge? Unfortunately these questions are all too common.
Social movements normally arise out of nowhere with a tsunami of momentum – only to burnout just as fast. There will be a few people who will hang on, create an organization and try to stay relevant. Is anything accomplished … normally not. Implementation is hard, and those who ignite a movement (if many can even be called that) are not qualified or have the resources to sustain it once the media and its twenty-four hour news cycle moves on. These people are not hired to run and grow an organization like those hired to run a corporation. They weren’t chosen … most often the movement chose them.
New Power … and maintaining the momentum
Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms just released an excellent book called “New Power,” which has been getting a lot of attention. Jeremy’s organization, Purpose, has been groundbreaking in its support for “new power” efforts worldwide. And Henry made a historical impact with Giving Tuesday. New Power is a manual for anyone who wishes to create change through the empowerment of the “people in the street” in their battle against the status quo of what they call Old Power.
For most of human history, the rules of power were clear: power was something to be seized and then jealously guarded. This “old power” was out of reach for the vast majority of people. But our ubiquitous connectivity makes possible a different kind of power. “New power” is made by many. It is open, participatory, and peer-driven. It works like a current, not a currency–and it is most forceful when it surges. The battle between old and new power is determining who governs us, how we work, and even how we think and feel. (Amazon description)
Now let’s say we all follow Jeremy and Henry’s book – very well we could see results and things might start changing. But ultimately it’s going to come down to actions and leadership of a few to organize, and keep the momentum going. This is not easy and much of the time – it takes what seems like forever – as Bill Moyer so aptly chronicled with the anti-nuclear movement
Wael Ghonim, the main instigator (and I say that in the best possible terms) in the Arab Spring protests articulated the Participation Scale in tweet outlining the multiple steps we can take to sustain a movement.
Ghonim’s suggestions are excellent when it comes to making the movement go – and keep it going. But what happens after the movement? How do we keep the supply of devoted coming, not just for this cause – but for other causes that should follow? How do we create a fertile ground where there is always the manpower to fight that next worthy cause.
But it’s not enough to just have these often random and reactionary outbursts against the Old Power of the status quo. We need a new societal mindset that doesn’t default towards conformity and obedience to Old Power institutions in the first place. Today we have the modern-day Gutenberg printing press in everyone’s hand – social media. The potential is there to create a new way. We just have to decide that we’re willing to do it.
We need to create a new civic norm and power structure that isn’t so much a structure, but a flow. And specifically we need a flow that comes not through the whims and selfish obsessions of “representatives” (and I use that word loosely). We need direct response that truly represents an engaged populace. The advantage will go to those who are engaged, connected and informed; not naive and obedient to a “higher power” that falsely claims the path to the promised land.
Rhizomes and Decentralized Civic Engagement
An increasing mass of people agree that long term human survival depends on us replacing the status quo with a fundamentally different set of behaviours and structures. I believe the root of that challenge is essentially cultural, and the best place to grow culture is in small groups. And until we’ve got a critical mass of activists that are embedded in a new way of thinking, relating and communicating, any mass movement is going to replicate the errors of the past. (5 Reasons to Build a Network of Small Groups – Richard Bartlett)
Biologists say trees are social beings. They can count learn and remember. They nurse sick members, warn each other of dangers by sending electrical signals across a fungal network and for reasons unknown, keep the ancient stumps of long felled companions alive for centuries by feeding them a sugar solution through roots. (Marije van Zomeren)
We need to look no further than our backyard to find a perfect example of decentralized civic participation. One of nature’s most effective means of sustainability is the rhizome. The rhizome is a modified subterranean stem of a plant that is usually found underground, often sending out roots and shoots from its nodes. Rhizomes develop from axillary buds and grow perpendicular to the force of gravity. The rhizome retains the ability to allow new shoots to grow upwards, giving rise to a new node of above ground activity.
“A rhizome ceaselessly establishes connections between semiotic chains, organizations of power, and circumstances relative to the arts, sciences, and social struggles … the rhizome connects any point to any other point, and its traits are not necessarily linked to traits of the same nature; it brings into play very different regimes of signs, and even non-sign states … The rhizome operates by variation, expansion, conquest, capture, offshoots.” A rhizome has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo. (A Thousand Plateaus)
This phenomena of decentralized activity in rhizomes was best articulated in the philosophy or Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in the ’60s. Rather than using the organizational structure of the root-tree system which looks for the single origin of “things” and looks towards conclusion of those “things,” a rhizome continually establishes connections between threads of meaningful communication, organizations of power, and other influences (including arts, sciences, and social struggles). The planar movement of the rhizome resists chronology and formal organization, instead favoring a Nomadic system of growth and proliferation. In this model, influence and application spreads like a body of water, occupying available spaces or in the application of community – maximizing the resources available to it, regardless of the type. This is a perfect alternative to the morass of governmental hierarchical dysfunction we’re current immersed in.
In every town and every neighborhood are places where informal leaders go to hang out and do the real business of the town. In Minot, North Dakota where I grew up, we had Charlie’s restaurant and the Elks Lodge. These were the places where the “business of the community” was done (not at the city council meetings). This is where ideas were hatched and where the future of Minot was mapped out … often under the influence of a libation or two.
These informal meeting places, most often locally owned businesses, are what I call Front Porches, named after the front yard gathering spots so often seen in Latino communities that are used for neighborhood discussion and connection to the street. These Front Porches are where the Middle Ring flourishes and what the French political philosopher, Alex de Tocqueville, observed in the 1800’s as the source of America’s “inclusive exceptionalism.”
Your neighborhood’s Front Porch can be anywhere or anything. It can be the local pub down the street or the coffee-house where you get your morning sustenance from. It can be Bill’s garage where everyone gathers to watch Sunday football games. It can even be your kitchen table. What happens at the Front Porch is what matters … not what is looks like or where it is. These Front Porches are what provides the bridge from the naturalistic examples of the rhizome organization articulated by Deleuze and Guattari and your community’s civic sustainability.
Growing New Power In Your Community
With a rhizome-based civic philosophy built around your community’s Front Porch network, the foundation has been laid for a sustainable implementation of New Power; one that will endure well beyond a single movement or display of activism. Your activism will be organized, but not from a conventional hierarchical sense, but rather from a case-by-case basis emanating from Front Porch tactical execution.
In the end, the effectiveness of a movement is dependent on more than structure. It needs the strength and abilities of the individual members of your community. It needs talent. This talent also needs to be schooled in the functions and use of New Power. Just as important though is training future members and new generations to keep the cause going. This is where long-term thinking and a decentralized activist game plan is needed. Sustained engagement requires a learned mindset of change, one that stresses inclusive involvement by all members of the community, regardless of age, gender, or socioeconomic level. Imagine if Front Porches were used as the classrooms and incubators honing the skills for mindsets of change, encouraging engagement at any level; be it simple participation, project organization and even social movement development.
Nurturing “Civic Self-Efficacy”
Now imagine this effort to build “civic self-efficacy” was a concerted effort nationwide, if not worldwide. The Front Porch concept scales well beyond neighborhood businesses in single communities. As long as the tenets of rhizomatic growth is adhered to, and local issues and needs prioritized – why can’t community empowerment scale worldwide?
Why can’t a farmer from Oregon, via their Front Porch, share a success story with farmer from Nigeria via theirs. Their civic needs and resource availabilities may be different, but the serendipitous sharing of insight could “turn on the light;” solving a problem with a solution not otherwise seen. And why do we limit collaboration to only those of common vocations when anyone, anywhere of any profession should cross-pollinate and share solutions to civic fixes in their respective locales. Why can’t our worldwide Front Porch network establish a civic empowerment help line. In fact the Parkland kids behind the #MarchForOurLives have done exactly that. They created Outreach For Our Lives to answer questions and lend assistance to student leaders setting up and running their own local chapters of gun control activism.
We need to find organizers in our communities’ Front Porches who can lead, much like the students of Parkland. We then need these leaders to train and mobilize fellow members and friends from these Front Porches … seeding the process to continue on. The act of activism is preparation for more activism. So in essence, a movement is not just cause or content, but rather a platform to individually build civic muscles, or “civic self-efficacy.” Collectively we can then build an organization (and database) that can be mobilized for additional movements, causes and even structural changes. And with each movement and each participation our collective New Power strengthens and proliferates. No longer will we be dependent on the illusion of the “man on the white horse” riding in to save us. We will save ourselves!
We must evolve, individually and collectively – even if some don’t seem to think so. But to do this, we will have to change our thinking. Instead of relying on past expectations and cultural assumptions as our guides — we must envision what could be …. not just what always has been.
But the vision is only part of the journey. We have to look past how things in past have been done. No longer should the Old Power of government and traditional institutions be looked at as our first line defense … rather should be looked at only as a last resort. Our reaction should be to assemble our friends and neighbors at our local Front Porch, organize and flex our New Power muscle.
We can make the change we need — but it won’t be by thinking the way we’ve always thought, and doing what we’ve always done … the way it’s always been done.
“If not us … then who? If not now … then when?”
If you’re interested in moving on from the status quo – join me in building a New Power coalition in your community … one that is more representative, inclusive and equitable. Please check out Community 3.0, my vision of an evolved society where self-efficacy and well-being is priority.
I can be reached via email me, at firstname.lastname@example.org and we can set up time to have a conversation.