Archives for August 2012

The Antidote to Apathy – From Indifference to Making a Difference

One of the perennial questions for change agents is how to get people engaged.

Often, it seems, people just don’t seem to care, or are unable to see either a self or collective interest in becoming active participants in change.

In ‘The Antidote to Apathy’, Dave Meslin talks about how what is considered apathy, selfishness or laziness is in fact the result of actively discouraging engagement by creating obstacles and barriers to participation and involvement.

He gives the example of how we treat changes to things like zoning applications which may be of great interest to a local community – yet they are announced in obscurely-located notices written in bureau-speak. To highlight the absurdity of what we’ve come to regard as ‘normal’, he contrasts this with what it would look like if the private sector took the same approach:

 Imagine if Nike wanted to sell a pair of shoes and put an ad in the paper like that:

mock up of Nike ad to look like a boring planning notice, describing the shoe for sale

Taking the inverse and applying Nike’s approach to planning and rezoning, Meslin thinks the ads would be more effective at garnering involvement (or at least awareness) if they looked like this:

colourful ad announcing building proposal with images, sources of more information, contact details and an invitation to express an opinion

Meslin considers other barriers are that leadership has become synonymous with the ‘hero’ narrative, conveyed to us through popular culture – that the responsibility for change falls on certain individuals, with the support of some others. Yet change is a collective heroic effort and leadership comes from within, not through being ‘ordained’.

Interestingly, the Occupy Movement was criticised for not defining an agenda or having an identifiable leadership – yet this was a deliberate strategy, both for empowering those involved, but also perhaps to prevent offering a visible leadership target to forces intent on derailing the movement:

One thing we’re trying to break in this society is the sentiment that making change simply lies in delegating a task to another person, whether it be through an online petition, an email, elected officials, or anyone else…The OWS community is very aware of the mechanisms used (to) co-opt grassroots movements. The leaderless decision making process acts as a defense against the threat of co-option. A leaderless decision-making process might have disadvantages (for one, it can be slow going), but it has a key benefit: there are no leaders to bribe.

Meslin believes how our public spaces function (or malfunction) hinders involvement because the loudest voices – usually those with the most money – dominate the cultural space, thereby excluding others’ perspectives or contributions.

Indeed, Adbusters – the Canadian nonprofit that sparked the Occupy Movement with their ‘Tactical Briefing’ in mid 2011 calling for people to ‘Occupy Wall Street’ – have called for ‘an insurrection of the mental environment’ as the future of activism, with the article’s tagline stating that ‘mental pollution is not just an annoyance; it is a tool in our oppression.’

Another barrier cited by Meslin, arguably endemic to many countries today, is that people are disenchanted with and disengaged from formal political processes:

Political parties (have) become, sadly, uninspiring and uncreative organizations that rely so heavily on market research and polling and focus groups that they end up all saying the same thing, pretty much regurgitating back to us what we already want to hear at the expense of putting forward bold and creative ideas. And people can smell that, and it feeds cynicism.

He also notes the way the media reports on political issues is another barrier, contrasting the example of a theatre performance review in a newspaper – which includes information on when and where the performance is, how much tickets are – with articles on campaigns which have no follow-up information or references to online information to find out where activities are occurring, how to get involved, who to contact.

The message seems to be that the readers are most likely to want to eat, maybe read a book, maybe see a movie, but not be engaged in their community. And you might think this is a small thing, but I think it’s important because it sets a tone and it reinforces the dangerous idea that politics is a spectator sport.

Despite all this, Meslin is optimistic that if we look more closely at what appears to be apathy, recognising it as a ‘complex web of cultural barriers that reinforces disengagement’ rather than a personal characteristic of individuals, we can work together to dismantle those barriers and open up possibilities for active, rather than passive, democracy.

I think there are a few important barriers Meslin didn’t touch on in his presentation:

Knowledge/Skills

The Wikipedia definition of apathy describes it as:

…a state of indifference, or the suppression of emotions such as concern, excitement, motivation and passion…in positive psychology, apathy is described as a result of the individual feeling they do not possess the level of skill required to confront a challenge. It may also be a result of perceiving no challenge at all (the challenge is irrelevant to them, or conversely, they have learned helplessness).

diagram of states plotting skill level along x axis and challenge level along y axis - apathy is at bottom left (low skill level, low challenge) - clockwise from there are worry, anxiety (then into positive states) arousal, flow, control, relaxation (then back to negative states) boredom and then back to apathy

In order to move out of apathy, people’s skill levels, such as knowledge of how to participate and become involved, how to have a say and to influence, needs to increase. Also, their understanding of issues may need to be developed before they see a challenge as relevant.

Time

People who have just negotiated the workday obstacle course which may include one or all of the following: rush hour commute, grocery shop on the way home, collecting kids from school or care, cooking dinner, supervising homework – are not lazy or apathetic. They are time-poor and often exhausted. Even if they do have a couple of free hours in their day, they might need it for rest and relaxation, not active mental and physical participation.

If we want people to be more active participants in their communities, we will have to make some decisions as a society about changing how we value and use our time.

Convenience

Closely related to time is convenience – how easy are we making engagement for people? Time-poor people are less likely to be turning up to a scheduled consultation session, especially if its at the Town Hall on a Tuesday night, and its raining. But they may well be active in social media – it’s not a substitute for offline engagement, but if the only opportunity a busy parent or professional has is to offer input online at 11pm while in their pyjamas, then surely that’s better than no input at all?

A discussion I had today with two representatives from the South Australian Police (SAPOL) revealed that their Facebook presence had allowed the gathering of ‘crowdsourced intelligence’ which had led to a large number of arrests. Although interacting via Facebook is not quite the same as becoming actively involved in change or campaigns offline, it is an indicator that – given an opportunity – people will become involved in public issues.

Energy

People may be protecting their limited energy through choosing not to become involvedeven if they have an interest in the issue. It may be because previous experiences have left them jaded and unwilling to invest further effort. It may simply be that there are only so many hours in the day.

There will always be some people who have made a deliberate choice to disengage for any variety of reasons. But if we want to dismantle barriers to engagement and participation, we will have to create the time, space and energy to better enable people to do so.

Do you think people would be more likely to participate in public life if it was made easier for them to do so? Or do you think people are truly apathetic?

What other barriers do you feel are preventing people from becoming involved in any kind of change or initiative in the public sphere that they might otherwise participate in?

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Growing Change

This post is dedicated to the memory of Andrew ‘Wilf’ Wilford, a changemaker, a mentor to many, and my friend who died on 13 August 2012.

In the last week I’ve discovered two of the most inspiring changemakers I’ve ever encountered.

Both are leading grassroots change from their respective (and very different) communities – one in the UK, one in the US – and both are doing this through growing food.

Both are bringing into play their own unique styles of comedy and wit in their delivery – note the amount of laughter throughout both of these presentations.

So who are these people? What are they doing in their communities, and what makes them effective change agents?

In under half an hour, you too can learn about their initiatives, feel inspired, and consider how their approaches and techniques could be used in your own work.

Let me introduce you to Pam Warhurst and Steven Ritz.

Incredible Edibles: How We Can Eat Our Landscapes

Pam Warhurst is a co-founder of Incredible Edible, a community-initiated movement in Todmorden in northern England which grows and campaigns for local food.

mary clear (left) and pam warhurst, co-founders of Incredible Edibles

Image credit: Daily Mail UK (Pam at right, with co-founder Mary Clear)

Incredible Edible emerged when its creators were thinking about the most effective way to get people involved in having some agency over their own lives, right where they live:

We tried to answer this simple question: Can you find a unifying language that cuts across age and income and culture that will help people themselves find a new way of living, see spaces around them differently, think about the resources they use differently, interact differently? Can we find that language? And then, can we replicate those actions? And the answer would appear to be yes, and the language would appear to be food.

Here is Pam at TEDxSalon in May 2012 (13 mins):

Leadership Skills

Warhurst’s group initiated the growing of food on unused public land. They started with a seed swap, and then turned a verge into a herb garden. Now food is being grown in a wide range of places, including in the railway station car park and in front of the police station. To accommodate the tourists the group’s work attracted, they established the Incredible Edible Green Route, a walking tour of these and other sites, which takes people through the town and past local businesses.

They started with a small, practical action, created a visible success, then attracted other people into their conversation, their story.

People are ready and respond to the story of food. They want positive actions they can engage in, and in their bones, they know it’s time to take personal responsibility and invest in more kindness to each other and to the environment.

They’ve since established a partnership with a high school, with whom they are designing and building an aquaponics system. The high school is now teaching agriculture as a result of the community wanting to work with the students. They’ve turned some donated land into a market garden training center, and as a result, local academics offered to design a commercial horticulture course.

Warhurst acknowledges that what her group is doing is not original or clever – however it is joined up, and it is inclusive. Their motto is: ‘If you eat, you’re in!’. She understands that an holistic approach for change is necessary – for example, if you can get people interested in local food because they can see what’s growing all around them, then you have a better chance of them spending their money to support local producers.

To engage local farmers and producers, her group established the ‘Every Egg Matters’ campaign, where the availability of surplus eggs has been plotted on the Egg Map. There are now 64 local egg sellers on the map. Imagine doing this with everything that people produce in backyards! People began asking for ‘Todmorden eggs’ in the shops ie. looking for locally produced product. A survey conducted by local students revealed that half of all food traders in the town said they had experienced an increase in their bottom line as a result of Incredible Edible’s efforts.

Further, its not just about people who are growing food:

…we all are part of this jigsaw. It’s about taking those artistic people in your community and doing some fabulous designs in those raised beds to explain to people what’s growing there, because there’s so many people that don’t really recognize a vegetable unless it’s in a bit of plastic with a bit of an instruction packet on the top.

A number of projects have spun out of Incredible Edible, including a commitment from the local authority to make everywhere ‘incredible edible’, starting with creating an asset register of spare land that communities can use to grow food. The group is calling for planning authorities to bring food growing sites into the heart of towns and cities, not relegate them to peri-urban areas where few people encounter them.

More than 30 towns in the UK have adopted the Incredible Edible model, along with communities from the US to Japan to New Zealand, where citizens of Christchurch visited Todmorden with a view to incorporating these ideas in the post-earthquake rebuilding of their city.

Personal Attributes

Warhurst has a sense of dogged determination about her, and is no-nonsense  in her approach, with a very English sensibility of just getting on with it:

We’re starting to reinvent community ourselves, and we’ve done it all without a flipping strategy document…

We’ve not asked anybody’s permission to do this, we’re just doing it. We came up with a really simple game plan that we put to a public meeting. We did not consult. We did not write a report. Enough of all that.

This will resonate with anyone who has ever been hamstrung by risk-averse or officious authorities, or become frustrated with groups where the need to create some universally-agreed to master plan with every last detail planned out (but that all parties can never quite agree to) stymies action.

The can-do approach Warhust embodies has resulted in a remarkable list of achievements in a short time, especially, as Warhust pointedly said:

And we’re just volunteers and it’s only an experiment.

In showing how her group of volunteers brought about change, particularly with limited resources, it gives people a real sense of hope and possibility that they too could do the same.

Presentation Skills

Warhurst’s delivery is matter-of-fact, yet witty, and her presentation is rich with images of the people and places associated with Incredible Edible.

She tickles the crowd by referring to the group’s work as ‘Propaganda Gardening’ and noting that they’ve invented a new form of tourism – ‘Vegetable Tourism’. Creating vivid phrases for concepts like these are effective ways to marshall and promote ideas, and enthuse others about becoming involved. The idea of ‘planting verges’ may interest a few folks, but framing it as ‘Propaganda Gardening’ both connects it to a bigger idea and makes it sound more appealing.

All through her talk, Warhurst conveys a feeling that all of this has happened not because it is a kind of  miracle, but because doing it was just plain common sense, and that everything that has been done is perfectly normal, including growing food in the town’s cemetery where, she informs an amused audience, ‘the soil is extremely good!’.

The Green Bronx Machine – A Teacher Growing Green in the South Bronx

Steven Ritz teaches at-risk kids in the South Bronx, where the unemployment rate is 25%, poverty is at 40% and the median income is $20k a year. Most of his students are homeless, and many are in foster care.

Steven Ritz and some of his students at work in Harlem, NYC

Image credit: Green Bronx Machine

Now that’s a challenge for a changemaker. How has he turned those starting conditions into this?

Ritz believes that students shouldn’t have to leave their community to live, learn and earn in a better one. Moving generations of students into spheres of personal and academic successes they have never imagined while reclaiming and rebuilding the Bronx, Stephen’s extended student and community family have grown over 25,000 pounds of vegetables in the Bronx while generating extraordinary academic performance. His Bronx classroom features the first indoor edible wall in NYC DOE which routinely generates enough produce to feed 450 students healthy meals and trains the youngest nationally certified workforce in America. His students, traveling from Boston to Rockefeller Center to the Hamptons, earn living wage en route to graduation.

Here is Steven Ritz at TEDx Manhattan in February 2012 (13 mins):

Leadership Skills

Ritz has formed a community around the gardens students are designing and the food they are growing, which provides them with food, skills and jobs. He’s found a way to help the students meet pressing personal needs, and contribute to something bigger than themselves, both of which foster self-esteem.

He’s created a highly visible example of something that works, and can demonstrate success, which has attracted the attention and support of media, foodies and politicians.

Ritz understands that he is merely the enabler, the ‘conductor’ of an orchestra (*meaning himself):

…when you put big kids together with little kids, you get the big fat white guy* out of the middle, which is cool, and you create this kind of accountability amongst peers, which is incredible.

He’s constantly searching for new ways to build on the existing body of work. He celebrates achievements and ensures his students get that positive feedback.

And where it counts? The results of how Ritz has helped students change their lives speak for themselves:

Forty percent attendance to 93 percent attendance. All start overage and under-credit…my first cohort is all in college, earning a living wage. The rest are scheduled to graduate this June.

It’s not just about the gardening and food growing – it’s about raising expectations and expanding horizons.

Personal Attributes

On a personal level, Ritz is an absolute dynamo. His enthusiasm and confidence is contagious, his energy leaps off the stage and out of the screen – as he himself exclaimed ‘I’m the oldest sixth grader you’ll ever meet!’

He delights the crowd with his self-deprecating wit and uses comedy to get people to laugh with him. He tells his stories in a way that makes the apparently unlikely seem perfectly normal:

…I met nice people like you, and they invited us to the Hamptons. So I call this ‘from South Bronx to Southampton’. And we started putting in roofs that look like this, and we came in from destitute neighborhoods to start building landscapes like this, wow! People noticed. And so we got invited back this past summer, and we actually moved into the Hamptons, paid 3,500 dollars a week for a house, and we learned how to surf.

Part radio DJ with his rapid-fire delivery, part Baptist preacher as he responds to the reactions of his audience in the moment, Ritz explodes preconceptions of what life options are available to poor and often homeless kids. He is deeply emotionally invested in what he is doing, and one gets the impression he would not give up easily or take ‘no’ for an answer.

Presentation Skills

Ritz delivers not so much a presentation as a performance.

As a speaker, he moves along at a rapid pace, and can do so because he knows his content inside out. And because he’s telling a story, not delivering information, because he’s using images (not bullet points) to illustrate his talk, the audience can keep up.

He uses rich metaphors, such as when he explains how the green wall in his classroom is there to be grazed: ‘if you’re hungry, get up and eat – my kids play cow all the time’.

He uses repetition of certain phrases, such as ‘I am not a farmer. I’m a teacher,’ and  ‘the glory and bounty that is Bronx County’ (the latter is also a rhyme, a mantra even).

He uses vivid language to highlight the stark difference between what is, and what would have been, if it wasn’t for these initiatives:

The borough that gave us baggy pants and funky fresh beats is becoming home to the organic ones.

Brook Park feeds hundreds of people without a food stamp or a fingerprint.

Nothing thrills me more than to see kids pollinating plants instead of each other.

Thank God Omar knows that carrots come from the ground, and not aisle 9 at the supermarket or through a bullet-proof window or through a piece of styrofoam.

How could you not warm to a character like Steven Ritz and want to get involved in whatever he is doing?

Although from very different communities, Pam Warhurst and Steven Ritz are both leaders who ignite in people a passion and belief that they can change their world and themselves, and they tell their stories as empathic and inspiring communicators.

Have you worked with a great change-maker? What personal attributes and leadership skills did they have that made them effective?

Can you identify people around you who are creating change through practical action? How can you help support their efforts?

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How Activists Can Set Boundaries and Stay Sane

white text on purple background, 'Keep Calm' meme: 'Keep Calm and Do Less'

‘My goal is no longer to get more done, but rather to have less to do’ – Francine Jay

Have you ever felt like you wanted your life back from activism or change work? Although you enjoy what you do, now and then do you wish you’d remained blissfully unaware, or that someone would just ‘sort it’ all so you can go back to doing what else your life path might have taken you on?

Crux defines ‘activism’ as any work undertaken in the public sphere that is unpaid; or that is over and above what you are being paid for because you are committed to something intended to bring about change, whether you are a full time volunteer, or accepting lesser rates/doing extra/pro bono work around paid consultancy; or whether you’ve been handed/taken on extra responsibilities to create change as an add-on to your ‘real’ job.

Whatever you’re working on, there are times when it can feel like little headway is being made. Maybe you’ve suffered a major setback or defeat – hopefully only temporary, but it still feels like an effort to generate the psychological energy to keep going.

I was highly amused when the satirical news site The Onion released this piece, ‘Nation’s Experts Give Up’ – change agents working across areas including health, sustainability and safety will smile at the sentiment, and daydream about similarly being able to throw their hands up and let all care go:

WASHINGTON, DC — Citing years of frustration over their advice being misunderstood, misrepresented or simply ignored, America’s foremost experts in every field collectively tendered their resignation Monday.

“Despite all our efforts to advise this nation, America still throws out its recyclables, keeps its guns in unlocked cabinets where children have easy access, eats three times as much red meat as is recommended, watches seven hours of TV per day, swims less than 10 minutes after eating, and leaves halogen lights on while unattended,” said Dr. Simon Peavy, vice-president of the National Association of Experts. “Since you don’t seem to care about things you don’t understand, screw you. We quit.

“Go ahead…you don’t need us. Watch all the topsoil go down the Mississippi. Transport your children in baskets on top of your SUV deathmobiles. Keep playing with your cute and cuddly pal, the atom. Press your nose against the TV screen for even more educational 3rd Rock From The Sun enjoyment. Use plentiful gasoline to burn book-readers at the stake. Don’t eat anything but sugared pork lard. Do whatever you want.”

Excellent. Yes, let’s leave them to it. Can we go to the pub now?

When it seems the vast majority of people don’t know or care about what you’re working on, it’s understandable to hit a few ‘why do I bother?’ moments.

After all, you could be doing something entirely selfish with your discretionary time. You could be spending it with your family, on a cherished hobby, generating a better income so you can worry less about bills, or just ‘doing’ nothing.

And yet because you believe that what you are doing can and does make a difference, here you are, reading another report, writing another submission, participating in another online debate, responding to another request, planning another event…

What your efforts demonstrate to others is that you are a willing person, and the reward for doing such work and doing it well is: more work. More requests for your time, involvement, input.

On the one hand, this is positive – it means you are considered an influencer, and that you have leadership qualities that people look to.

On the other, as you become more influential, the demands for your time and advice will multiply, and being able to decide which to respond to, which to delegate and which to let pass will determine how effective you are.

Here are some thoughts on how change agents can set boundaries for themselves, and retain their sanity:

1. You do not have to respond to every email, accept every meeting request, or attend every event

Have you ever received a communication or request from someone that was so vague or open-ended, you simply did not know what the person wanted, nor how to respond (these drive me mad – I’m not a mind-reader). If it’s not following rules 3 and 4 of the Email Charter, there’s a good chance that, these days, I’m not willing to spend the energy interpreting what is wanted if the sender is not willing to spend the energy framing it so it is clear.

Maybe you suspect the request may have found its way to you because you can be relied on to take an action or do the research that others will not. There is a reason this site was created. Not all questions people will want to ask you are ‘dumb’ of course, but there’s a difference between asking for your personal input or guidance and being plain lazy. Do not fall for this trap!

For years, I persisted with a ‘service’ ethic and mindset that if someone needed my help, I should provide it. We’re all working to the same objectives, on the same team, right? Because I had the knowledge they needed around green procurement, or where/how to recycle whatever, I should share it.

Because I could, I should (see #5).

This placed me in a reactionary space where I found I was always responding to others’ ideas and needs rather than being proactive with my own work and intentions.

Some years back, I emailed UK columnist and author George Monbiot and received an automated reply, which included a thank you for anyone sending kind comments and an assurance that all messages were read; that speaking enquiries could be directed to a nominated contact, and similar pre-emptive responses.

It ended with words to the effect of: ‘I have found that I can either be polite or do my work, and unfortunately it is the politeness that has to go’.

Although I realised that meant I would not get a reply to my question, I thought this was brilliant! How true, and how honest.

I could easily fill my evenings and weekends with any one of a number of workshops, seminars, events on a range of issues – there is always something on. Sometimes I go. Sometimes I’d rather relax, play a game with my dog and not have to rush off somewhere, or think, even if whatever it is worthwhile, which it usually is.

Be aware that if you attend a meeting or event, it will (if it has been an effective gathering) generate motion in terms of things that need doing. Are you prepared to take on any of those things? Because once you’re there, and you’ve provided input to/spoken in support of a course of action, are you willing to put your money where your mouth is?

2. Put the work back on to the people who need to do the work

If you notice that people are overtly handing you work that you’re not in a position to influence (see #6), or subtly throwing out bait to see if you will bite and take something on, ask ‘who really needs to do this work?’

A classic situation is that of the organisational ‘greening’ or ‘sustainability’ champion – in many cases, the issue becomes identified with a particular person rather than becoming embedded as everyone’s responsibility. When that person leaves or is absent, efforts fall over. The change work has become bound up with an individual, and not the organisation.

In Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through The Dangers of LeadingHarvard University’s Ronald A Heifetz and Marty Linsky warn of the dangers associated with becoming the issue, rather than ‘orchestrating the conflict’ inherent in change:

(Leaders) can rarely can afford to embody one issue. They need to keep their hands free so they can orchestrate conflicts, rather than become the object of conflict…when you take on the issue, you become the issue, and the way to get rid of the issue is to get rid of you…you stay alive in the practice of leadership by reducing the extent to which you become the target of people’s frustrations. The best way to stay out of range is to think constantly about giving the work back to the people who need to take responsibility. Place the work within and between the factions who are faced with the challenge…

Making yourself the hero/ine or taking on the responsibility of change that belongs to a wider group means making the change work vulnerable.

3. Protect your mental & auditory environment

If you work in an open plan environment or anywhere that leaves you exposed to distractions or interruptions, or you are dealing with a level of ‘stuff’ on a day to day basis beyond your brain’s capability to deal with any superfluous mental stimuli, invest in a good pair of ear plugs, or listen to this via your computer or mobile device.

The same goes for mental intrusions that interrupt flow. Mobile tech in the form of remote email access, wi-fi and smartphones is both a blessing in terms of flexibility and connectivity, and a curse as an electronic leash. Be the master, not the slave, of your tools. One of my friends has his phone confiscated by his partner while on holiday and locked in the hotel safe for the duration of the break, and is not allowed the safe combination! Maybe all homes should have such a safe :)

Mental down-time is critical, especially if you’re switching back and forth between a range of different things. Meditation to quiet the mind is always good, but its even better to stop becoming mentally over-busy and frazzled to begin with.

stylised image of brain with 'out of order' sign on it

4. Beware of prestige

Don’t agree to do something because it will look good on your CV or impress others. Think about what it will cost you in time and attention to divert your energies from existing objectives, and to do the new role, task or position justice.

In particular, beware of ‘prestige’ – in his article How To Do What You Love, Paul Graham offers an important insight when he cautions:

If you want to make ambitious people waste their time on errands, the way to do it is to bait the hook with prestige. That’s the recipe for getting people to give talks, write forewords, serve on committees, be department heads, and so on. It might be a good rule simply to avoid any prestigious task. If it didn’t suck, they wouldn’t have had to make it prestigious.

‘Prestige’ also means the spotlight, and attention – and even a way of ‘neutralising’ your efforts. Perhaps your work can be most effectively carried out under the radar?

Weigh up any potential opportunity or request by considering how well you can truly fulfil it, and how well it also serves your existing objectives – not what packaging it comes in.

5. Kill the word ‘should’

There are probably a lot of things you can do. That’s why people look to you. Even so, it doesn’t mean you ‘should’ do anything – ‘should’ is an awful, judgmental word we inflict on ourselves in many areas of our lives. It’s responsible for guilt, and ultimately resentment if we end up doing things purely out of a sense of ‘should’, especially when we no longer enjoy them or feel we are achieving anything as a result.

‘Should’…pffft! Who said?!

There’s only one instance in which the use of this word is acceptable: you should get rid of the word ‘should’!

6. Know your scope of influence

Is the request or opportunity within your ability to influence via your knowledge, contacts or ability to leverage things needed? Consider every request for help or involvement, but ensure it is worth the effort to engage, not only for yourself but for that person or organisation – because if you are not able to contribute to furthering what a group is working on in some way, then you are wasting their time as well as yours.

Sometimes, a conversation or meeting with no clear purpose can yield the unexpected and will turn out to be worthwhile. Yet too often, you can end up frustrated at having spent time doing something that you could have spent better elsewhere.

It’s tricky to pick the difference, but your intuition will usually guide you. Be honest. If you don’t have the time or mental bandwith, you are short-changing yourself and the people and organisation you’ve agreed to assist.

And above all – don’t waste your precious time in any kind of group where others repeatedly show they are only committed to wasting time.

some-e-card of men around a table, caption: 'I'm not convinced we've wasted enough time on this'

Of course, these suggestions apply to all work environments and practices, but they are extra critical to change agents (and indeed any volunteers who are intrinsically motivated and/or emotional captives of their work) for two reasons:

if you’re doing activism around your paid work, you’re managing two such situations not one, and will have even more demands on your time from more people for less available hours, so there is an even greater need to be extra vigilant about time thieves

if you’re not in paid work, there’s often an assumption that your time is much more discretionary – without the structure and boundaries of paid work that ‘quarantine’ you to some extent, your time can quickly become fair game and be chipped away at, a bit at a time, until you feel completely fragmented

It all feels so horribly ruthless at first: saying no, declining to do something for any one of a myriad of worthwhile initiatives. Even worse is the guilt associated with giving up existing associations. But it’s an evolution – you’ll progress from not being able to say ‘no’, to saying ‘no, because (justifying your decision)’, and eventually you’ll just be able to say ‘no’.

Recognise the positive aspects of such an approach – it enables you do what you have committed to doing more effectively, and leaves open the possibility for those who can commit the time and energy to step up.

Remember: be the change, but not all of it!

How do you set and protect your boundaries?

Have you ever given up a position, a role that you felt obliged to continue with, or an emotional attachment to? 

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The Art of Change

quote, white capital letters on black background 'the most powerful weapon on earth is the human soul on fire'

Quote by Ferdinand Foch

If civil rights activist Rosa Parks’s refusal to give up her bus seat for a white passenger, and Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have A Dream’ speech were defining moments of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, what have been the cultural touchstones of the sustainability movement?

Not conferences or treaties, but films, speeches, songs, stories, inciting events – something that lights the fires of passion within a group of people committed to a cause?

Right.

Aside from the Academy Award winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth finally bringing the issue of climate change into the mainstream over five years ago, it’s hard to think of many (if any).

But do we need them? After all, we do have our overwhelming scientific evidence, reams of data and information, on how we are undermining ecosystems and communities with our current modus operandi. A rational response to such information would be to act on it.

Yet it seems the more scientific research, data and information we amass on the ecological and social crises characterised as the sustainability challenge, the less we seem to make any systematic headway on responding to what it is telling us.

Is it because its too complex?

Is it because it does not move us?

Is it because we’re appealing to the brain, yet the values in people’s hearts may not align with the incoming information?

It’s likely to be a combination of all three – people switch off because mentally processing data is extra work in a world overloaded with visual and sonic information and daily work and family demands; it doesn’t create a shift because its appealing to the rational part of the brain; and it may often be clashing with other deeply held values.

It’s also because we’ve diminished and devalued the role of the arts.

anonymous man in suit holding up black banner (covers his face) with white caps text: I am an artist. This does not mean I will work for free. I have bills just like you. Thank you for understanding.'

Bill McKibben, American environmentalist and author, noted:

What the warming world needs now is art, sweet art. We can register what is happening with satellites and scientific instruments, but can we register it in our imaginations, the most sensitive of all our devices?

Has the green/sustainability movement lost its way in the left brain, hamstrung itself with science, neutered itself with numbers?

In his essay, The Quants and The Poets, Dark Mountain Project director Paul Kingsnorth took aim at the over-reliance on numbers and the near-absence of narrative, stories and attention paid to worldviews:

…the green movement has torpedoed itself with numbers. Its single-minded obsession with climate change, and its insistence on seeing this as an engineering challenge which must be overcome with technological solutions guided by the neutral gaze of Science, has forced it into a ghetto from which it may never escape. Most greens in the mainstream now spend their time arguing about whether they prefer windfarms to wave machines or nuclear power to carbon sequestration. They offer up remarkably confident predictions of what will happen if we do or don’t do this or that, all based on mind-numbing numbers cherry-picked from this or that ‘study’ as if the world were a giant spreadsheet which only needs to be balanced correctly…

We live in a remarkably literal-minded and reductionistic culture. I’m struck listening to or reading the news, for example, by how nothing is seen to be ‘real’ unless it is sanctioned by the priesthoods of either Science or Business, and preferably both…which produces an environmental movement made up of frustrated, passionate people who feel obliged to act like speak-your-weight machines just to be heard. If we want to move beyond the futility and despair imposed by the cold narrowness of this worldview, where do we look? What is missing here is stories, and an understanding of the importance of stories in getting to the bottom of what is really going on. Because at root, this whole squabble between worldviews is not about numbers at all – it is about narratives…

These days, the green movement is being taken over by quants. It’s easy to see why. Quants present easy, numbered, labelled arguments which may sometimes require a maths degree but don’t require a rewiring of your worldview or an examination of your narrative. A green quant might be telling you to change your lightbulbs or come out on the streets in favour of a nuclear power plant or a windfarm, but he’s not asking you to examine your values or your society’s underlying mythology. And if you talk to him about this, it is very easy indeed for him to laugh and tell you loftily that this is all very nice but is hardly comparable to the serious business of saving the world one emission at a time.

It’s not that we don’t need our scientists, our ‘quants’, of course we do – but this is only one method of knowing, of being (disclaimer: Crux’s undergraduate degree was in arts, majoring in history and geography – but some of my best friends are scientists). It is also that the arts and sciences are considered ‘separate’ that is part of the problem – because there are many inspiring and beautiful aspects of science and mathematics, just as there is logic and reason to the arts (architecture, Aristotle’s three-act structure of plays and novels).

The issue currently is that public discourse on sustainability, and just about everything else, is now overwhelmingly about numbers and reason. Everything has to have a cost-benefit analysis to be justified. We seem to have lost the capacity to make decisions based on values that are anything other than numbers, particularly dollars.

And if change comes more from the heart than the mind, if we are more receptive to stories than information, to visual communication rather than words and data, what is the role of art, in its broadest sense?

Artist Jay Griffiths put it eloquently in this extract from her essay ‘The Far-Seers of Art’, Climate Change Needs Persuasive Art, Not Propaganda:

The issue of climate change needs persuasion rather than propaganda and art understands the psychology of persuasion. It is hard to allow oneself to be drawn by overt dogma, which is delivered in the daylight areas of the mind.

Art works in the shuttered twilights where darkness bestows a tenderness and protection, a secret place where the psyche feels safe enough to alter. It is always easier to change one’s mind in the dark.

I am far from an expert, an historian, or a sociologist of the arts, but a keen observer of stories and cultural phenomena. Of course art has many manifestations (including one of my favourites, political cartoons, which I have omitted in this post, but may cover separately along with film in a later one) – here are some examples of various forms which have influenced social change, and had an emotional impact on me.

Photography

The power of the still image to capture attention and invite its audience into the story it represents is enormous, particularly if it is unique, compelling, or provocative.

‘The Blue Marble’, the  first clear image of planet earth from space in 1972, became a defining image of the emerging environmental movement in the 1970s:

…the image was seen by many as a depiction of Earth’s frailty, vulnerability, and isolation amid the vast expanse of space. NASA archivist Mike Gentry has speculated that The Blue Marble is the most widely distributed image in human history.

The iconic Pulitzer Prize winning image of nine year old Phan Thị Kim Phúc, taken as she fled naked, screaming and burning down a road in the aftermath of a napalm attack, changed the way the world viewed the Vietnam War – writing in 2ooo, the International Herald Tribune’s Tom Buerkle (my emphasis) said:

For anyone old enough to remember the Vietnam War the photograph of the naked 9-year-old girl running toward a camera screaming in agony as napalm burned her flesh is seared into the consciousness. Her image has become a symbol of war that transcends debate about the rights or wrongs of U.S. intervention in Vietnam.

Photographer and artist Chris Jordan’s work in capturing and communicating ‘mass scale’ of the impact of human activity is outstanding. Here at TED, Jordan talks about his work, including discussion of unconscious behaviours, denial and collective impacts:

…as we try to educate ourselves about the enormity of our culture, the information that we have to work with is these gigantic numbers: numbers in the millions, in the hundreds of millions, in the billions and now in the trillions…We can’t make meaning out of these enormous statistics. And so that’s what I’m trying to do with my work, is to take these numbers, these statistics from the raw language of data, and to translate them into a more universal visual language, that can be felt. Because my belief is, if we can feel these issues, if we can feel these things more deeply, then they’ll matter to us more than they do now. And if we can find that, then we’ll be able to find, within each one of us, what it is that we need to find to face the big question, which is: how do we change?

Jordan’s series Running the NumbersRunning the Numbers IIIntolerable Beauty and Midway capture enormous numbers in visual form, and the impacts of our activities that are invisible because they are ‘out there’, as a work of art.

Make sure you zoom in, scroll down, read the captions. Here’s a sample of Chris’s work: 

Partial zoom:

Close up:

People are fiends for images – one of the reasons social media sites like Pinterest have exploded is that people love viewing, collecting and sharing images. As a page administrator for a community of over 5,500 people, I can say without doubt that regardless of what thought-provoking questions an admin might ask, or what stories are provided, it is the images that are the most liked, commented on and shared – by a mile.

Sculpture

Jason deCaires Taylor’s Underwater Sculpture is both arresting and stunning in its unexpectedness, and is a surreal insight into what a world reclaimed by water could do to all our human artefacts. Ironically, this image is from a series titled Inertia.

sculpture of man sitting on couch watching TV on the ocean floor

There are a series of these sculptures in various locations around the world, including off the coast of Mexico and Greece.

Poetry

To understand the emotional power of poetry – is there an Australian who is not affected by the strains of Waltzing Matilda, or the lines of Dorothea Mackellar’s My Country? Every culture and nation has its defining poems and songs.

I visited the redwood forests north of San Francisco in 2001 – a memento of my visit was a postcard, with the following poem by Joseph Strauss, Chief Engineer of the Golden Gate Bridge:

Here, sown by the Creator’s hand.
In serried ranks, the Redwoods stand:
No other clime is honored so,
No other lands their glory know.

The greatest of Earth’s living forms,
Tall conquerors that laugh at storms;
Their challenge still unanswered rings,
Through fifty centuries of kings.

The nations that with them were young,
Rich empires, with their forts far-flung,
Lie buried now-their splendor gone:
But these proud monarchs still live on.

So shall they live, when ends our days,
When our crude citadels decay;
For brief the years allotted man,
But infinite perennials’ span.

This is their temple, vaulted high,
And here, we pause with reverent eye,
With silent tongue and awestruck soul;
For here we sense life’s proper goal:

To be like these, straight, true and fine,
to make our world like theirs, a shrine;
Sink down, Oh, traveler, on your knees,
God stands before you in these trees.

I have not yet been to the old growth forests in Tasmania in my own country. But after having been to their equivalent in the States and encountering this poem, when I returned home, I signed up as a member of the Wilderness Society, the largest environmental conservation organisation in Australia. Because I was already involved in various initiatives, it wasn’t as a front-line activist – but it was something.

Every time I read that poem, I am back among the redwoods, getting vertigo on the ground, craning to see where the tops of the trees are.

Music

woody guthrie with guitar graffitied with 'this machine kills fascists'

Image credit

A pamphlet, no matter how good, is never read more than once, but a song is learned by heart and repeated over and over.

Joe Hill, labor organiser and songwriter

Just as with poetry, every cultural group has songs which are meaningful and cherished, which endure. Key among these are folk songs, protest songs, songs that tell the stories of people and their lives, their joys, triumphs, struggles and tragedies. In 2010, the New Statesman published a list of Top 20 Political Songs that spanned decades of the 20th century, but which focuses heavily on North American and British artists.

A six part PBS series Get Up, Stand Up traced the history of pop and politics, including the Live Aid concerts of 1985 which were watched by around two billion people in 150 nations around the globe, at the time, 40% of the planet’s population. Widely criticised for failing to solve the ongoing humanitarian crises in Africa (an objective that was never set for, nor possible to achieve as a result of the events), the concerts did act as a massive ‘signal interruption’ and put the issue of Africa on the political agenda. Live Aid co-organiser Bob Geldof:

The point about Live Aid was of course the money, the 30 million. But it galvanised way beyond that. I hadn’t fully anticipated the number of people watching. The number of people watching became a political lobby. Thatcher agreed to put poverty on the G7 agenda, accepting the argument that poverty is a destabilising influence on the global economy.

John Lennon’s classic song Imagine has been included in a wide range of most-influential and greatest-songs-of-all-time lists. Covered by more than 100 artists, this song was listed third in Rolling Stone Magazine’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time:

…22 lines of graceful, plain-spoken faith in the power of a world, united in purpose, to repair and change itself. (John’s wife) Ono said Imagine was ‘just what John believed: that we are all one country, one world, one people. He wanted to get that idea out.’

Lennon’s lyrics had a huge impact on the worldview of people everywhere, including offering a way to think about the world in terms other than the nation-state, and expanding people’s consciousness about who ‘we’ are.

Novels

Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael (on my lengthy ‘to read’ list) is often cited as an influential novel about human and societal transformation, as its theme examines cultural mythology and its relationship to ethics and sustainability. Jostein Gaarder’s novel Sophie’s World takes the lead character on a journey of discovery through the history of western philosophy, wrapped up in a mystery story.

British author Ben Elton’s satirical novels Stark, Gridlock and This Other Eden encapsulate social and environmental issues in story (warning – links contain plot spoilers). I will always remember the impact of the very last page and line of Stark (which is only achieved if the rest of the book has been read!) – if it is an author’s goal to leave the reader contemplating their book for a long time, Elton succeeded.

Arguably the most powerful meme of recent times is from a novel – the ‘V’ mask used by the Occupy movement. To the uninitiated, it is the ‘Occupy’ mask; to those who recognise it, it is the ‘Guy Fawkes’ mask. Those who are aware of the film ‘V for Vendetta’ know that the mask is worn by the character ‘V’, an anonymous freedom fighter against government tyranny. But the symbolism and history of ‘V’ goes back even further – it comes from a graphic novel written in 1982, set in a dystopian near-future United Kingdom.

If there is one symbol that has created visual consistency for Occupiers across the globe, it is the V mask – although in a twist of irony, it may be to the chagrin of Occupiers protesting corporate influence that Time Warner owns the rights to the image and is paid a licensing fee for the sale of each mask!

Street Art

Street art, incorporating graffiti, culture jamming, subvertising and billboard liberation, is as much art as any other form. The Real Art of Street Art Facebook page which collects and showcases street art from around the world has over 135,000 followers.

Banksy is arguably one of the most famous street artists, and has attracted a cult following for his work, having self-published a number of books of his work, and also had several books written about his work.

graffiti art of beggar holding a sign that says 'keep your coins, I want change'

Image credit

The latest incarnation of street art is ‘Brandalism’ in the UK:

Twenty-six artists, including Montgomery, have now completed the world’s first international collaborative “subvertising” campaign, hijacking 35 billboards across Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol and London. They seek “to challenge the destructive impacts of the advertising industry” as well as to tackle its detrimental impact on issues such as body image, consumerism and debt.

Social Media

It’s not only authors, filmmakers, poets and playwrights and elusive street artists who can make a splash with their work – with the rise of social media, anyone can become a content creator, with potential reach of messages limited only by the creativity and ingenuity of the individual in producing something ‘shareable’ that will be shared, Tweeted, reTweeted, pinned over and over on Pinterest and more.

Those with little to no graphic design skill now also have a range of online tools with which they can generate simple images that have the potential to become memes.

Recent meme platforms include What I Reallysomeecards and the hugely popular Keep Calm – the latter derived from a poster produced by the British government at the start of World War II, and intended to bolster morale in the event of wartime disaster or invasion. In 1939 there was only limited distribution, but the poster was rediscovered in 2000 and has found resonance with a 21st century public. An open source site for whoever wishes to create content means that what is created is not always of high quality (eg. spelling errors), but it gives anyone with an idea the opportunity to create – and all posters created are able to be voted on, shaping a ‘top rated’ set.

Meme Generator allows people to use images of ‘characters’ (and you’ll be familiar with many of them, if you’ve spent any time on social media) or their own images, and add their own text, slogans or quotes to create unique messages, often mixing two memes, in this case the V/Occupy meme and ‘Keep Calm’:

mashup of 'keep calm' and V memes - V mask in place of crown at top and text 'keep calm and occupy'

Image credit

Anther approach is to undertake something unique or audacious and document it online – people love to live vicariously through others who dare to do things they themselves do not, like give up their jobs and travel the world. Mark Boyle became ‘The Moneyless Man’ by making a decision, living it and writing about it. Now everyone wants to know the story – why is he doing it? How is he doing it?

Social media pioneer and film exec Chris Adams (whose qualifications include a PhD in poetry) helped create Participant Media – the film company established by e-Bay founder Jeff Skoll. Adams characterises Participant as making $300 million dollar commercials for social issues designed to inspire people to become advocates for social change.

Adams points out that social media is simply the latest incarnation of a storytelling medium – that we used to tell our stories in small groups around the campfire. The internet and social media has expanded our ability to connect with others beyond our physical location, and increased the size of our ‘campfire’.

Billions of people are telling each other stories online right now. That, rather than fanning the flames of polarised debate, is the way to ‘set the human soul on fire’.

While it’s true we can’t all be an astronaut, a war photographer, or an internationally famous musician; while we might not have the clout of a Chris Adams or a Bob Geldof, or have the leeway in our professional lives to do something outrageous, we can all find our own ways that let us ‘interrupt’ the status quo, and convey meaning in ways that touch people emotionally, through story, through the arts, through creative expression.

What poem, song, painting, sculpture, play, film or other piece of artwork has touched or inspired you? How did it change you?

What are the defining stories, songs, poems, films, plays, memes of the sustainability movement for you?

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