Carol A. Hand
Recently I have been reflecting about what I can do to work toward positive change in the current political context. What have my past advocacy efforts taught me? I have had many learning opportunities (typically thought of as “failures”) and some successes addressing issues that felt hopeless at the time (infant mortality, Indian child welfare disparities, and public school use of demeaning Native American names and caricatures, among many others). I have also been reflecting about my recent attempts to explore possible involvement in existing advocacy efforts (to prevent the expansion of tar sands pipelines in my state and lakeshore community, and progressive initiatives to get out the vote) or catalyzing local initiatives (helping develop initiatives for the high school on the poor side of town where I live, or creating a story-sharing group in partnership with the elders who live in the high rise apartment building across the street). As I reflected, I remembered the importance of essential ethical principles and advocacy strategies that have been effective.
Photo Credit: Tug-of-war
But before I share my thoughts about change strategies, I want to share a story.
Writing about Ed and Jerry in my last post brought to mind a relevant experience that I think is worth sharing. It still makes me chuckle when the images of my first public speaking gig as “THE STATE” flash through my thoughts. I haven’t witnessed karmic payback often in my life, but that’s what I think happened when one of their attempts to manipulate Native Americans and elders was trumped.
Ed and Jerry had finally abandoned their ineffective letter writing campaign in favor of another way to focus attention on putative failures of the state Bureau on Aging. They mobilized tribal leaders and Native American elders promising to expose the lack of concern the Bureau showed toward the unique needs of Native American elders. They set up an all-day forum for elders and tribal leaders to present their concerns to Bureau representatives. I can’t remember why the job of listening and responding to the concerns fell to me, alone, but there I was as Ed and Jerry listed their many concerns. The key change they demanded was the creation of an “Indian desk” – that is, the demand that the Bureau hire a Native American staff person to focus on the needs of tribes. (On the surface, this didn’t sound like a bad idea. But in practice, it really ghettoizes Native American issues and foments conflict among tribes when one staff person from one tribe is hired to serve all eleven tribes in ways that are perceived as fair by all.)
They gloated from their seats in the back of the room as the anger in the room grew during the morning presentations. It was my turn to respond after lunch, but in the meantime, I needed to at least appear composed. When lunch time finally came, I really had no interest in choking down food. Yet, here I was with almost everyone glancing with hostility in my direction when I tried to find a place to sit, except for one lovely elder. Her face was beaming as she looked at me, so I asked if I could join her for lunch. She smiled and graciously nodded yes. (I didn’t learn until later that she had lost her hearing. She didn’t know what had been said during the morning session and merely judged me by my behavior.)
After lunch, I walked to the speaker’s podium with my carefully crafted typed speech and looked out at the hostile audience, took a deep breath, and began by introducing myself. Because Ed and Jerry’s major critique was the lack of a Native American perspective in the Bureau, that’s where I started. “My mother is Ojibwe. She was born and raised in Lac du Flambeau. And even though I was born elsewhere, it’s where I spent many of my summers when I was a child. Yet, being an Ojibwe doesn’t mean that I have the right to speak for Indian people at the state level.” As I said this, I watched as Ed and Jerry hunched down in their chairs as the rest of the audience leaned forward to listen. I went on to describe the roles of state and regional agencies and acknowledged the concerns raised by tribal members. If tribal people felt that regional agencies were not passing on the information they needed to provide services, or sharing tribal concerns with the state on an going basis, we could explore other options. We could explore the possibility of creating a new regional agency that would serve all tribes in the state. (I had already done the background work to make sure this would be supported by pivotal decision makers.) My speech concluded by leaving the decision of how to proceed up to tribes. After the standing ovation, many people eagerly rushed forward to introduce themselves to me and share their concerns. Ed and Jerry came up when the room finally cleared and merely shook their heads. “They are, after all, YOURRRR PEOPLE.”
I admit I was surprised that Ed and Jerry hadn’t figured out that I was Ojibwe sooner. I had worked with them for almost a year and had been a frequent visitor to their regions and board meetings, but it never seemed relevant for me to inform them about my ancestry. It had no bearing on the way I did my job, other than make me particularly sensitive to the needs of elders with the greatest socio-economic needs.
The moral of the story is to do your homework. When I critically examine why some efforts were successful and others were not, the most obvious pattern I seem to find is simply “it was the right time.” The right group of people came together to make it happen. Of course, this was (and still is) always impossible for me to predict beforehand. What mattered across diverse settings and issues were the principles or ethics that guided action. Even if initiatives weren’t successful in accomplishing the desired final outcome, if they were based on the right constellation of ethics and principles, the lessons learned and networks established could still be the foundation for future efforts.
One of those ethical principles is respect for the sovereignty of others to make their own choices. As a Native American, I am not only wary of outside experts who descend on communities to solve issues without ever asking community members what they want, I am repulsed by their self-righteous ignorance and arrogance. After working with folks like Ed and Jerry, that shouldn’t be surprising. I’m not alone in this feeling.
Photo Credit: Aboriginal/Mauri Quote
Many writers, activists, and scholars agree that change efforts need to be directed by community members. Yet community members may not be aware of the collective historical and structural forces that affect every aspect of their lives. Outsiders can play a role in raising awareness and providing forums to envision alternatives as I did in this instance and as Freire (2000) describes in his liberatory praxis work. Mad Bear cautions us, however, not to focus on negative agendas to eliminate threats, but to focus on creating something new.
“There’s no need to create any opposing destructive force; that only makes more negative energy and more results and more problems” (Boyd, p. 244).
When we are trying to create something new, we need to make sure that the process we use avoids the taken-for-granted expert-driven, power-over, winner-and-loser approaches embedded in most models of social change. It’s what I love most about the Aboriginal/Mauri quote. We are all in this together. We will survive or perish together if we don’t learn to live in peace with each other and in balance with our one and only planet.
Yet proposing change in my experience has always engendered resistance. Today I remembered the process that has become automatic for me. I know that I’m not willing to let violence and oppression go unchallenged, but the first step for me is to try to understand the situation and look for ways to raise awareness. I begin with the assumption that it is possible to find common ground with others and come up with solutions together. I’m sure that has happened often, but the funny thing about my memory is that I forget the times when things go smoothly. I tend to only remember the times when they do not.
Working toward positive change in the times ahead is likely to be daunting. Often the approaches we choose make it worse – like outside experts telling us they know best. Just because I have learned to follow the “principle of parsimony” doesn’t mean others do or even know it exists. One of my very old textbooks describes this principle.
“… the practitioner confronted with a problem who is in the process of selecting a tactic is advised to begin his [her] deliberations with the most modest tactic that might conceivably do the job. If persuasion will work, for example, it is unsound to pursue the goal by mounting a coercive effort. Only when experience or cold judgment suggests that mild methods are inappropriate would a more extreme method be considered.” (Brager and Holloway, 1978, p. 140)
Because I think in pictures, the illustration of their model helps me remember what I need to consider in planning how to approach change efforts.
Photo Credit: Change Tactics (Brager and Holloway, 1978, p. 142)
Do those who are proposing change (change agents) share the same goals as those who are being asked to support change (targets of change)? The words we choose to frame issues matter more than we often realize. An obvious example of this is the use of language that provokes strong emotions with polarizing effects – such as “anti-abortion” or “pro-life” to frame the debate about women’s choice. How we frame issues can set the stage to collaborate or compete, to fight against demons or to work together on a shared vision. Taking time to frame one’s agenda is crucial.
Do change agents and the targets of change have equal power? Power is not only wealth or status, of course. The most intractable obstacles are “fear, apathy, and ignorance” (Homan, 1999, p. 55). It is possible for those with little formal power to actually be more appealing and influential. If we take the time to frame issues and develop messages that encourage hope, use egalitarian and inclusive processes to work collectively, and incorporate opportunities to continue learning though dialogue, the playing field can be leveled long enough for pivotal breakthroughs.
Can the relations between change agents and targets of change be characterized as socially close or distant? This question highlights a fundamental taken-for-granted assumption – that we are not all in this together. From my perspective, we will all lose if we don’t work together. We really are interdependent. There would be no upper class or elite without technicians, artisans, farmers, grocers, physicians, and workers of all sorts, to support them. The challenge is to find ways past our own biases – to build bridges and discover our shared humanity and visions for the best we can imagine. I know from experience this is not simple, yet I know I am still willing to keep finding new ways to try.
What the model omits, however, is equally important to consider: the seriousness of harm that is or will result if we fail to act, and the immediacy or urgency for action. Are there ever times when it’s appropriate to tell others what they need to do? This is something I have struggled with in my professional life. In emergencies, I have acted instinctively to tell others what to do. And even though I sometimes didn’t have any reason to expect people to listen, they did. Often they would tell me later that they felt what they accomplished was meaningful, important, and part of a collective effort. I worry that this will be the reality we face – ongoing crises have already been affecting the most vulnerable people in the world. Eventually, however, no one will be spared. You can’t eat money, although you can burn dollar bills for heat for a little while. I’m not sure what hoarded gold will be good for, though.
“As men and women inserted in and formed by a socio-historical context of relations, we become capable of comparing, evaluating, intervening, deciding, taking new directions, and thereby constituting ourselves as ethical beings. It is in our becoming that we constitute our being so. Because the condition of becoming is the condition of being.” (Freire, 1998, pp. 38-39)
I didn’t know where I would end up as I wrote this reflection, but here it is. The Borg may be right when they say “Resistance is futile.” But I still have hope – creativity is where it’s at! I honestly do believe that it’s not too late. I know it’s the right decision for me to continue to do what I can as an individual and only engage in those collective efforts that are community-directed, inclusive, egalitarian, and vision-based rather than those that are expert-driven and continue to use the same old tools that led to the situation many of us now find unacceptable.
Photo Credit: Cooperation
Doug Boyd (1974). Rolling Thunder: A personal exploration into the secret healing powers of an American Indian medicine man. New York, NY: Random House.
George Brager & Stephen Holloway (1978). Changing human service organizations: Politics and practice. New York, NY: The Free Press.
Mark S. Homan (1999). Rules of the game: Lessons from the field of community change. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing Company.
Paulo Freire (199) Pedagogy of hope: Ethics, democracy, and civic courage. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Paulo Freire (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed (30th anniversary edition). New York, NY: Continuum.
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