Saturday, April 18, 2015

Putting the Inactive in Activism

Simon brought up at lunch yesterday that he's lately eschewing institutionalism for activism; he'd rather work from outside than within. Which is funny, because I've headed the other way. What would get me out into the streets today? Maybe jackbooted neoNazis parading through Dryden. Other than that... pretty much nothing.

That's partly cranky old ladyism, partly a steadily growing fear of crowds, and partly my memory of one particular aftermath of a march in the 1980s. I ran into a friend and merrily told him that I'd just come from a march at the UN for US Out of El Salvador. "Oh," he replied. "Did it work?"

Ever since Paul got onto the school board, he has become increasingly convinced that board work is meaningless; that real progress comes from people shrieking at the board and forcing change out of the board's fear of bad publicity. That's only partly true, I think. Some of the little changes that have come in his three years on the board have been due to a collaboration between the audience and certain board members—not a collusion, but rather a meeting of the minds. I think that happened with the fracking "ban" in Dryden, too. Part of the audience supplied the fervor, and the board members who were in agreement helped it happen. So it takes all kinds.

I like to encourage smart activists to run for school board or town board, in part because I think it's extremely useful to understand the backstory of How Things Really Work. It helps activism become both more focused and more pragmatic when activists get the history of How We Got Here and the rules of legislating, rules that may either stand in the way of or create a possible pathway toward acceptable change.

Behind-the-scenes change takes more time than most activists are willing to spend, I think, because their kind of passion burns hot and can flame out. Getting pre-K at Dryden took me nearly a dozen years of steady nagging, on and off the board, bringing in experts, looking for funding streams, finding $32K when Dryden lost it. Getting a Democratic majority on town board—the reason, I'm convinced, that we got the ban at all—took 15 years from the time I joined the committee. Both of those are insecure successes that could easily slip away without vigilance. There's no glory there and no real feeling of a job well done. It's about continuing on and dragging forward slowly, one step at a time.

I went and sat for a bit with Occupiers in Buffalo a few years ago, because theirs was an issue that resonated with me. But what's going to effect real change—a movement that mostly gave us a vocabulary word, or someone like Elizabeth Warren? Or are both needed for any success to be possible?

Paul is pretty excited about Harvard kids blockading offices to get their university to divest from fossil fuels. There's a lot of money involved, and if all the major universities did what they earlier did around apartheid, there could indeed be some real, important change. The Harvard president has been quoted saying that an endowment should not be seen as an "instrument to impel social or political change." But of course, it should.

In a workshop he gave recently on nonviolence, Barry Derfel talked about the interconnections of education, politics, and money in any successful movement. It takes a three-pronged approach, with participants behaving in a way that re-educates the witnesses; actions that pressure politicians to change laws; and boycotts that produce monetary pressure on businesses, municipalities, and ordinary citizens. Smart civil disobedience is a wonderful, powerful thing.

Here's what I've done about divestment at my alma mater: Liked the DivestNow Cornell Facebook page. Submitted my opinion to the student assembly's public comment page. Written this blogpost. Here's what we've done at home: Invested in geothermal heat and solar electric. Here's what I'm probably not going to do: March around Ho Plaza with a sign. I'm putting the antisocial in social protest, the inactive in activism. It takes all kinds.

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