The Importance of Activism during a Crisis

 

In the last few weeks I’ve given several webinars on how to maintain health and well-being during the current pandemic. Some common questions at the end of the presentation include how to stay focused, how to cope with stress, and how to contribute to the community. As a result, I’ve decided to publish a series of posts answering these questions. This one is about the benefits of activism.

 

Fighting for a fair social system can bring about benefits for you and others. There is evidence that political activism leads to improved psychological well-being. Activism enhances a sense of control over your life and combats helplessness and hopelessness. To improve our sense of mattering in the community, and support others in their quest, especially during pandemics, we must join a cause. Of course it is important to improve your personal well-being, as I have detailed in other posts, but it would be a big mistake to lose sight of the need for social change. Now, more than ever, we see the devastating consequences of injustice in our social system.

Well-being is not a spectator sport. We must participate in the process of creating a culture where we all have the right and responsibility to feel valued and add value, to self and others, to experience wellness and fairness.

To improve mattering for all in the community, we have to make a plan. There are three essential steps to transformative change in the community: join, organize, and reflect. To make it stick, this three step plan must include a sustainability strategy, which comes from simply making sure that everyone in the process feels valued and has an opportunity to add value.

Join in Ways that Matter

Transformative change in the community requires collective effort. Social change is the quintessential team sport. You must join an organization, a government, or a social movement to create lasting change. When you join an organization to pursue a social cause, such as advancing the rights of people with disabilities, or securing universal health care, you have two key responsibilities: to make sure everyone within the organization feels valued and adds value, and that your partners outside the organization also feel valued and add value. In short, your job is to ascertain that everyone matters, your peers within, and your partners outside the organization. Coalition building, network creation, and collaborative solutions require that all partners feel like they matter. Without them, you are lost.

You may think that joining a group or a social movement is all about the external cause. After all, you share similar values. No need to worry about the people within the organization because they all join voluntarily to pursue the common good. Big mistake! You cannot treat people within the organization as if they don’t matter because you are all engaged in some bigger good. The most effective teams are those in which people are socially responsive to others and take turns to participate.

Activists and agents of social change do not check their psychological needs at the door. Treating them in dismissive ways is intrinsically wrong and extrinsically stupid. No coalition is built on animosity and marginalization of players. You do not need to be the leader in a group to care about the feelings of people in the organization. That would be narrow minded. Everyone has a role in making sure that people within the settings feel like they matter, that people you partner with also feel valued and respected, and ultimately, that the people whose lives you are trying to improve feel like they matter, both in the process and in the outcomes of change.

If you join a group just to get flattery, you may diminish its efforts. If you expect other people to do the “nurturing” work you are short sighted. It is incumbent on all agents of change to guarantee the sense of mattering of activists. Do not expect just women to do the caring work, or some committee to look into the touchy feely stuff. Mattering is real, its consequences are real, and ignoring it is tantamount to wanting activists to act like robots.

Organize in Ways that Balance Process with Outcomes

The right to be heard, an unquestionable part of mattering, can be taken to extremes. Occupy was an extreme case of people wanting to feel valued for their opinions. This was done to such an extent that little or no attention was paid to the demands and strategies that come with the responsibility to add value, not just to the participants, but to all members of society, and especially the folks who are marginalized. The wellness of the process took precedence over the fairness of the outcomes.

The state of Kerala in India provides an example where political parties and social movements managed to keep their eye on the ball. Multiple pressure groups have worked together and separately to achieve concessions for the working poor. For over a century now, the struggle to make Kerala fair and just for women and children has resulted in enviable results. Although the activists came from many corners, including labor unions and political parties, they managed to create a common set of demands that produced results. The good of the whole prevailed over the particular interests of sectarian groups.

The Kerala case is interesting because it started investing in human development and quality of life before it experienced economic growth. Many skeptics thought that these voluminous investments in public health and social services would cost the economy greatly, but it turns out that there is not a trade-off between quality of life and economic growth. On the contrary. These are important lessons for the current pandemic.

Focused attention on results helped social movements, human service organizations, non-profits and government officials to achieve better levels of wellness and fairness for all people in Kerala. This was a very political and transformative process. Lives were saved because of the power struggles mounted by women and labor unions. The focus was not on what the powerless can do better, such as mindfulness, but on what the powerful can do differently, such as land reform, universal health care, free education, pension plans, maternity and paternity leave. What lessons can we derive from Kerala and other progressive countries in the corona age?

Reflect to Learn from Experience

PICO (Pacific Institute of Community Organizations) was founded in 1972 by Father John Baumann, a Jesuit Priest. Baumann had learned community organizing in Chicago before moving to California, where PICO got started. The organization changed its name to Faith in Action in 2018 to reflect its national, faith-based nature. Faith in Action consists of 44 affiliated federations and 8 statewide networks operating in 150 cities in 17 states. This is a community-organizing network that brings citizens together to demand social cures and not just mind cures. It advocates for more resources for children, families, and people with addictions. It also mobilizes people to reduce crime and help people in poor neighborhoods.

Faith in Action is very successful in engaging its members and volunteers. More than a million families and one thousand congregations participate in action-oriented campaigns. They work to hold corporations accountable, increase voter turnout, eliminate racial and economic discrimination, and pass legislation to improve affordable housing, education, health care, and the criminal justice system. It mobilizes citizens for rallies, facilitates town halls, gathers information, leverage the media, and confronts politicians with difficult questions.

The list of its accomplishments is impressive. Among others, it led a $190 million public bond initiative for school infrastructure in California, prompted Minneapolis to stop school suspensions for non-aggressive behavior, secured $9 million for the treatment and prevention of substance abuse, defeated a proposal by the Mayor of Indianapolis to build a new prison and immigration detention center, supported law enforcement reform in many communities, and many others.

Faith in Action believes that “everyone belongs and that our fates are bound up with one another’s.” It balances a good interpersonal process with a focus on tangible gains. Parallel to the three steps offered here, join, organize, and reflect, Faith in Action follows three principles:

  • Social power is built on the strength of interpersonal relationships.
  • Empowerment can only be realized through organizing.
  • Empowerment must be grounded in a dialectic of action and reflection.

 

The last and crucial principle is about reflection. Faith in Action learns from successes and failures. Some important lessons in organizing derive from Occupy and Kerala. Occupy failed because it valued a participatory process more than a focused approach on results. The people of Kerala won major concessions and massive investments in human development because they came together in broad-based coalitions. Faith in Action knows how to engage people, how to keep them involved, and how achieve resources for the community. We must learn from them how to organize to have a government that works for the people, and not just for corporations and elites.

  Photo of Isaac

posted by Isaac Prilleltensky
07/21/2020