By George Lakey
May 10th, 2017
Courageous cultures are created by centering ourselves on our strengths and encouraging members to take chances with the support of the group.
I asked the group of community and labor leaders to say, honestly, what they were feeling. The responses I received included: “stressed out,” “anxious,” “wishing it were over,” “dreading what might happen.” As facilitator, I wasn’t surprised.
This was Vancouver on May 3, less than a week before a high-stakes election for the government of British Columbia. The Liberal Party had been in power for 16 years, making decisions that hurt ordinary people and served the economic elite. This time the polls said that the main left-leaning opposition party, the New Democratic Party, or NLP, might win. The operative word was “might.”
The 35 people in the room were exhausted, with the election countdown on their minds. Still, they responded to the invitation of the Hospital Employees Union, or HEU, to spend the morning together. I’d been asked by Jennifer Whiteside to facilitate the session because I have a long history of working with Canadian unions and movement groups, in British Columbia and elsewhere in the country.
The night before the workshop I met with a small group of leaders to learn more about the situation facing them. They didn’t want to wait until the election was decided to start developing a plan. By gathering people together ahead of time, they hoped to build connections and start building strategic unity. On the other hand, I could see they were in no shape to do so as long as they obsessed about what the political parties would do; they reminded me of some of my fellow Americans who obsess about Donald Trump and moves by politicians. People don’t do their best thinking when they are in a state of high anxiety and their primary attention is on others, whether the “others” are Trump, Hillary Clinton, the Liberals or the NDP. They give away their emotional — and psychic — energy to persons or events that they can’t control, instead of centering on their own power to act.
Because we clearly needed to shift individual attention to the enormous resource of collectivity, the next morning I abandoned the set-up of rows of tables and formed a circle of chairs instead. Seated one by one, the attendees said their name and organizational affiliation, as well as one adjective to describe their state of being.
After being introduced, I briefly reviewed the goals of the morning and asked them to form groups of four in which their partners would be strangers or bare acquaintances. Once they were settled, I gave them their assignment: When, in past years or decades, community groups or unions gained victories, what did they do that worked?
At first hesitantly, then more vigorously, the groups set to work. Toward the end of their time I told them to select one of their remembered cases to use for a skit to present to the whole group. With an escalation of nervous laughter, they set to work and chose a time that could be dramatized. Then we created a theater so we could watch as group after group went to the front to perform a skit, arousing frequent laughter by the audience.
The whole group was asked, while watching the skit, to discern what the skit showed in terms of successful practices. At the conclusion of each skit, a scribe listed the named practices on the wall under the label “What did we do?”
Four large sheets of paper gradually filled with the list of strengths and brilliance of British Columbian activists. These sheets of paper became the primary reference point for the rest of the meeting, replacing the feeling of scarcity that previously prevailed.
By the time this activity was over, the atmosphere in the room had entirely shifted from the anxiety of observers watching an oncoming train wreck to a group of leaders in touch with their own power. After the entire workshop was over, I heard one leader say, “I haven’t laughed this much in a month.”
How to use our power
The next step in the workshop was to form new groups (again, with people not so well known to each other) to address the possibility of the Liberals winning. Thanks to the skits and lists on the wall, their own strengths were now a resource they could use. At the end of their small group work, each group shared one initiative that might be taken if the Liberals win, this time simply stated, rather than presented in a skit. The scribe filled more of the wall with paper listing these action possibilities.
The possibility of the NDP winning the election was addressed next, but first I told them the sad story of the electoral win of Barack Obama in my country. I described how most of those who voted for Obama abandoned their president, rather than mount massive direct action campaigns early in his first term to make it possible to win the victories that were — at that time — available with an ally in the White House. I asked the Canadians if they wanted to follow the U.S. example and largely sit on their hands, expecting the NDP to take care of them.
The new small groups, again mixed with new people, went to work with a will and showed pro-active creativity in choosing actions they could take for justice in British Columbia.
We spent the final part of the morning together, as a whole group, making suggestions for how people there could create a coalition and reach wider to include even more constituents. Praise was heaped on HEU for taking an initiative most would think impossible within a week of an election. In the closing circle, in which each person shared one word to describe their condition, most chose “inspired.” For me, it was fun to watch people walk out of the room with a bounce in their step.
Why do we scare each other?
Not long after the November election in the United States, I attended a national gathering of young leaders from recent insurgent movements like Black Lives Matter, the Dreamers and campus fossil fuel divestment. I noticed that these strong young activists spent a lot of their informal time during breaks and meals scaring each other with gossip about Trump and “the latest” indications of impending fascism.
I was able to get the whole group’s attention and point out what I had witnessed. I observed that the job of authoritarians is to keep people in submission by scaring them — that, after all, is the goal of tweeting threats of violence, putting activists in prison, beating us up and militarizing local police forces. For authoritarians, violence is about getting what they want, which is to make us scared.
I told the young people that if they were going to do this work for Trump, they should keep a tab of their hours spent doing it and send an invoice to him. They could consider it a fundraiser for their group.
The next day many of the young people thanked me for naming a dynamic that dominates some activist subcultures and disempowers us. Everyone knows our situation is dangerous, I said. Think of joining a climbing party to go up Mount Everest: Does the guide spend their time telling the climbers all the places along the way where people got hurt or lost their lives, putting them in such a state of anxiety that they can’t climb well? Of course not. Effective guides focus on the task at hand, encourage the climbers to believe they can do well, and help them to visualize reaching the summit, i.e, winning. Organizers can learn from the wisdom of others who deal with danger.
As we informally discussed this dynamic and young people remembered their own life experience, it became clear to them that they make their activist subcultures toxic by their own choice to scare each other. They give their power to Trump, the bully, who is bound to be delighted if he hears about it.
Black young people in the civil rights movement of the deep South knew they would burn out if they obsessed about the terrorist Ku Klux Klan. At its best, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and other civil rights groups had cultures that supported their members. Courageous cultures are created by centering ourselves on our strengths, our achievements and encouraging members to take chances with the support of the group. That can be as simple as performing skits, when — as the Canadians admitted to me afterward — no one wanted to go outside their comfort zones to do them. It can also be as simple as refraining from scolding each other and calling each other out. And, finally, it can be as simple as the abundant laughter that I remember so well as a young gay man in the 1950s — the releasing laughter I found inside a community of the persecuted.
George Lakey has been active in direct action campaigns for over six decades. Recently retired from Swarthmore College, he was first arrested in the civil rights movement and most recently in the climate justice movement. He has facilitated 1,500 workshops on five continents and led activist projects on local, national and international levels. His 10 books and many articles reflect his social research into change on community and societal levels. His newest books are “Viking Economics: How the Scandinavians got it right and how we can, too” (2016) and “How We Win: A Guide to Nonviolent Direct Action Campaigning” (2018.)