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March 9, 2009

Uncomfortable Essay #11: Making the "Challenge of Change" into "Change we can believe in".

MARCH 9, 2009

(Uncomfortable Essays #1-10 can be accessed beginning at http://www.mapm.org/presidentsmemo/2008/09/ You can easily sign up for RSS feed of this occasional blog (usually about once a month or so. Instructions at right on this page.)

“Change is inevitable, but growth is optional.” Michael Fullan

January 9, 2009, I clicked “publish” on Essay #10 in this series. Eleven days later, President Barack Obama was sworn into office, bringing a promise of “Change we can believe in.” Six weeks after Inauguration Day polls show that the American public is united (almost 3-1) with the President on his plans to attack the daunting menu of dilemmas which greeted him on his first day in office. The opposition with its more than ample megaphone is attempting to stymie his efforts, or at minimum, to make all efforts appear like failures, and to replace hope with fear of change.

Some of the people who helped elect President Obama are already disappointed that he seems not to be addressing their particular issue, or not addressing it aggressively enough. “He’s selling us out”, some already suggest.

Welcome to the most powerful, daunting and thankless job in the world: President of the United States.

“What gives me hope? As long as your hope is committed in action, then hope is alive in the world.”
Julia Butterfly Hill

*
What’s past has always helped give me context. Back in the 1990s, I attended a stimulating series of annual conferences put on by a major national organization for which I was then a staff member.

The conferences were titled “Challenge of Change”, and staff people and leaders came from around the country to participate. We were in a pleasant resort setting. There were stellar speakers and workshops, all built around the theme of Change. The Conference was in March, too cool to golf, and sometimes snowy (perhaps the better to keep our focus on the reason we were at the Resort Center in the first place.)

After the conference, we went home to our respective states, all charged up. It wasn’t long, though, when the dreaded status quo took hold, perhaps even before we’d cleared the hotel checkout. Even the well intentioned found a back home crowd who hadn’t been there, and may even have resented their colleagues ‘junket’.

The Challenge of Change is an immense one, whether talking about an individual project to, for example, lose weight; or helping bring deep and meaningful change to an organization, regardless how large or small that organization might happen to be.

And now we have a new President elected and inaugurated and committed to change a system of over 300,000,000 people, organized into many states, part of a large and complex world.
Barack Obama needs our help, one action at a time, here, now. This goes as well for our Senators, Congresspeople and other lawmakers who share all or some of our values. If we could mentally divide the huge population pie called the United States into a manageable slice, say helping two more people get engaged, and encouraging them to do the same for two more, we could “get ‘er done”. But will we?

Jermitt Krage, who spent an entire career as an organizer, and continues to be a leader in retirement says this: “Sustaining engagement is critical. Support from others is a strong, necessary motivator.” Be critical, yes, but back the criticism with very affirmative supportive action. People who represent you need to know they’re not alone.

*

There are books written about change, and consultants who make very large fees consulting about change. For whatever it is worth, here are a few thoughts I had around the “turn of the century” in 2001 on why change is so difficult to effect. (The article, with graphic, is accessible at January, 2002, http://www.outsidethewalls.org/outside_archive1.html.)

“The reality is simple: CHANGE is TOUGH and SLOW, and consequently, most often AVOIDED. FEAR is a factor (as in "cold sweat").

Almost always, in change, things seem to - and often do - get worse before they get better. You know why this is, from personal changes you've wished to make in your own life. Indeed, the challenge of change seems parallel to the famous Stages of Grief identified by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. First, there is DENIAL AND ISOLATION ("we're okay"); then ANGER ("kill the messenger who carries the bad news"); then BARGAINING, DEPRESSION, and finally, ACCEPTANCE.

A reasonable schematic about the dilemma of the process of change is illustrated [at the above website]. The [straight] red line indicates the status quo – [the steady state], the comfort zone for most of us in most of our lives. We stay with the familiar, whether that is good or bad. The green [ascending] line symbolizes something better if we change; but the inevitable[initial] dip, symbolized in yellow, often sabotages our best efforts - and we quit before the good change can kick in.”

Unfortunate but true, almost always there is an “inevitable dip” as change begins that is the killer in most change efforts. Ask anyone who’s trying to replace a bad habit with a better one. Before it gets better, it gets worse…the temptation is to quit: end of effort, back to the less desirable status quo.

Unfortunately, also, ACCEPTANCE is often a last minute acknowledgement after all else has failed, and there is truly no remaining hope. In this case, we get around to accepting our own responsibility to be cause in the matter of change when it is too late. Losing hope could happen to Obama himself. Another long-time organizer, Bob Barkley, says “this factor may well happen to Obama himself as well as to the rest of us.” We need to change our own attitudes, acting early and constantly towards the possibility of positive change, and in the process raise up the President in his administrations efforts.

Again, as Michael Fullan said “Change is inevitable, but growth is optional.” According to Barkley, “the point is that change is going to happen in spite of us, but if it happens because of us, it would be nice if it could be called progress.”

*

The question becomes, what are we going to do to make “Change we can believe in” meaningful? It is impossible, after all, for a single person, the President, to effect the change. He can make change possible, but our “boots on the ground” are what will make the difference.

A big temptation will be to revert to old behaviors: “I’ll start tomorrow…or next week”; “I need to read one more book, go to one more speech – then I’ll know enough”…. We all have our favorite dodge. As one who’s “been there, done that”, there are no excuses. None of us have to leave town or impact on thousands to make Change real. We just need to have the will to do so with a few.

We need to be up to the task. Without us, positive change won’t happen.

*

Leaving an inspirational talk by Green Economy leader Van Jones on March 5, we were each given a business card sized piece of paper on which three quotations were printed. These quotations seem to be a fitting call to action for us all, to make positive change happen in our families, communities, states, nations and world. The first, from Julia Butterfly Hill is near the beginning of this essay.

The others:

“I think the most hopeful thing that I can point out to you is look to your left and look to your right. Look at the beautiful people who are around you right now…We don’t need any hero on a white horse. We are the people we’ve been waiting for. You already have within you enough love to save the planet.”
Van Jones

“Every single one of us can do something to make a difference. You can. You can. You can. I can. God bless you.”
Bishop Desmond Tutu

The change curve applies to every one of us who, in one way or another, supported then-candidate Obama’s “Change we can believe in.”

Let’s disprove Pogo’s famous quotation “We have met the enemy…and he is us”. http://www.igopogo.com/we_have_met.htm

Go forth.

Among an endless array of resources, check these: http://www.vanjones.net; http://www.greenforall.org; http://www.earthcouncils.org

March 21, 2009

Uncomfortable Essay #12: Revisiting the "Proles" and George Orwell's 1984

I will click “publish” on this Essay, and then travel to the demonstration marking the 6th anniversary of the tragic and destructive War on Iraq – a war that has helped destroy both our national reputation and our economy. The demonstration is good; what is far more important is what is done by every individual after the demonstration becomes a memory.

The Tuesday, March 17, 2009, Minneapolis Star Tribune http://www.startribune.com carried a column of mine, "Passive Actors in our own destruction". A primary emphasis was recalling George Orwell's 1984. The first response to the column came from Will, who asked: "My only question to you, Dick, is this: please tell me how the Proles are going to overthrow the establishment." (The complete column follows this essay.)

I don't know why the STrib decided to print my piece. Whatever, the fact of the matter is that for a short while this week, 350,000 people of all ideologic stripes, and many more on-line around the world, had a chance to consider my thoughts, front and center in the best spot on a major newspapers opinion page. At minimum, my guess is that there will be a little uptick in interest in "1984". There were perhaps a dozen pieces of direct feedback to me about the column – from my experience after other columns that is a heavy response. The response was positive. There were no brickbats.

But I have noticed something as this week ends: the recognized leaders of the organizations that are my natural allies, peace and justice (P&J) folks, did not comment to me about the column; neither did the column become a link on progressive websites.

Why? I don’t know. Maybe…. More in a moment.

To Will, I responded that "Overthrow" never entered my mind. If anything, I was "equal opportunity angry" at our entire system, including the present day Proles who are all of us and who have in many ways been "partners in the crime", accepting the unacceptable, playing small rather than large. Reflecting back on 1984 while writing the column, I didn’t see the Proles as innocent victims of Big Brother; rather they had created the monster they now felt powerless to destroy. That’s an uncomfortable indictment…of us, in 2009. Maybe that’s why there was no response.

Orwell was an astute observer of the human political condition, and he observed that the vast majority of humanity – the Proles –were willing to let things happen to them, even beyond the point of no return. At the very end of 1984, the last four words actually, the decision of the main character, Winston, is revealed. (You need to pick up the book to learn what he decided.)

We Proles of today need to play more of an active role to help modify our severely damaged system in whatever ways we can. We have huge power as individuals and small groups, but only if we exercise it (which is hard work). Today’s demonstration, like all demonstrations, is only a small down-payment on the effort we need to expend to truly make the change that is necessary in this country.

In all of these Essays, I’ve tried to be always mindful of Solutions: what is being/can be done.

Thursday, March 19, at the annual conference of the Alliance for Sustainability http://www.afors.org, I absorbed some more hope for our future, including:
1) Singer Mari Harris who inspired, as she always does. http://urbznet.com/mariharris
2) In an afternoon workshop on Transit and the Land Use Connection, John Bailey of 1000 Friends of MN, and Michelle Dibble, of TLC, demonstrated by their presence and their knowledge that younger activists are out there, and there exists a great and knowledgeable infrastructure for promoting progress in all areas about which we are concerned. All we need to do is to look them up. (http://www.tlcminnesota.org;http://www.1000fom.org, and endless others.)
3) And Ken Melamed, Mayor of Whistler, BC, a town of 9500 which is hosting the 2010 Winter Olympics, gave great insights into the power of an engaged citizenry to embark on a process of building and maintaining sustainability, town by town. Of the many pieces of wisdom he offered, this one stuck in my notes: “change has to come from the grassroots level”. That’s us, folks. http://www.whistler2020.ca for more about Whistler’s planning process.

Together, in small and large groups, and yes, individually too, we can get the job done!

Now, if the Alliance of Peacemakers and the Alliance for Sustainability could truly collaborate….
*

Published in Minneapolis Star Tribune Tuesday, March 17, 2009
“Passive Actors in our own destruction” by Dick Bernard.

“The Star Tribune main headline (3/15) was "After Bailout, $100 M in Bonuses" to "executives in the unit that brought AIG to its knees". AIG states it is "contractually obligated to pay them".

I know only what I read in the papers and on the internet and see on TV. I also worked directly with contracts, full-time, for 27 years, and it would be hypocritical to defend some contracts and reject others. Contracts are contracts.

In this case, most likely, everything was completely "legal": the Congress and the Presidency were bought and paid for by these same institutions that have now wreaked havoc on the world economy. A friend puts it best: the trickle down pipes are clogged.

It's time for the slow, agonizing correction.

The reality on how our economic crisis will play out is that nobody knows, not the experts, not the person in the street. Nobody knows what the short and long term implications are, including those in high level positions. If the geniuses of Capitalism, in executive offices and board rooms and business schools, were as smart as they portray themselves to be, they wouldn't have structured this “house of cards” to fall on top of them.

In a sense, we are all idiots, grasping at straws. We just don't know, except that the future news is probably bad, probably worse than we are able to imagine. We are intentionally kept in the dark. (Ben Bernanke on Sunday's 60 Minutes a possibly nice exception.) It is hard for us to be "informed critics", or agents for change, because we are denied adequate information to become informed critics. This is happening in one of the better educated countries on the planet.

The lawmakers who are still believers in the unfettered free market and even “trickle down”, and fantasy interpretations of the Great Depression and the excess that led up to it, are idiots one step "up" the knowledge chain from most of us. Their devoted followers, the people who keep them in office, and slavishly follow their every talking point, are a step further down. They want to believe a fantasy that never was, and certainly will never be: They think they'll win the lottery. They also like to think that what they have is theirs, and that sharing is their individual option.

I'm reminded of Orwells description of the Proles (the proletariat) in the book, 1984. I recall that Orwell portrayed the Proles as poor, easily manipulated dimwits: the boys hung out with the boys, getting drunk on cheap gin in the local pubs; the housewife cheerily hung the clothes on the clothesline, singing pleasantly as she did her drudge work; everybody was aware that their every move was being watched; but they were mostly left alone except when they had to stop everything to listen to the two-minute hate about the enemy of the day. They were passive actors in their own destruction. Orwell wrote the book in 1949, about the dangers of the Communist utopia, and the just defeated Nazis, but he was writing about us, too, in the first eight years of the 21st Century, in the United States of America. If you haven't reread 1984 recently, do. It is an eye-opener, about us, in the last eight years, especially.

Personally, I think we can recover, but it will be a slow, slow slog, and the true believers in what failed will be the last to be converted. I find myself latching on a wild hope: the present day Proles will create a better nation and world.”

About March 2009

This page contains all entries posted to Dick Bernard Venturing in March 2009. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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