We are all inspired by Stephane Hessel who, in his nineties, produced the short book (“Indignez-vous!”) about the global crisis and inequality which touched millions. But I hadn’t heard of Grace Lee Boggs who is apparently still campaigning in America at the age of 99. A journal devoted to art and politics called Guernica has a fascinating interview with this Chinese-American philosopher who has been refusing to stand still for nearly a century, mobilizing alongside various freedom struggles from civil rights to climate change campaigns. The opening chapter of her book – The next American Revolution; sustainable activism for the 21st Century - has echoes, for me, of Robert Quinn’s hugely underrated Change the World
Most of us operate with an “instrumental” or “agency” view of social change. We assume that “a” causes “z” and that socio-economic ills can therefore be dealt with by specific measures. But a couple of decades ago, an approach – variously called “chaos” or “complexity” theory – started to undermine such assumptions. Writers such as Margaret Wheatley and Quinn have shown the implications for management practice - but few activists have.
Lee Boggs puts it as follows
I think it’s really important that we get rid of the idea that protest will create change. The idea of protest organizing, as summarized by [community organizer] Saul Alinsky, is that if we put enough pressure on the government, it will do things to help people. We don’t realize that that kind of organizing worked only when the government was very strong, when the West ruled the world, relatively speaking. But with globalization and the weakening of the nation-state, that kind of organizing doesn’t work. We need to do what I call visionary organizing. Recognize that in every crisis, people do not respond like a school of fish. Some people become immobilized. Some people become very angry, some commit suicide, and other people begin to find solutions. And visionary organizers look at those people, recognize them and encourage them, and they become leaders of the future.
Quinn’s book was produced in 1996 and is an excellent antidote for those who are still fixated on the expert model of change – those who imagine it can be achieved by “telling”, “forcing” or by participation. Quinn exposes the last for what it normally is (despite the best intentions of those in power) – a form of manipulation – and effectively encourages us, through examples, to have more faith in people.
As the blurb says – “the idea that inner change makes outer change possible has always been part of spiritual and psychological teachings. But not an idea that’s generally addressed in leadership and management training.
Quinn looks at how leaders such as Gandhi and Luther King mobilised people for major change and derives certain principles for “change agents” to enable them to help ordinary people achieve transformative change. These principles include recognizing our own hypocrisy and fears; “going with the flow” and “enticing through moral power”