Ask Joe: Fostering social activism
I have been working for so many years in community building, advocacy work and political campaigns. I won’t bore you with the amount of frustration I have for what it takes to get people engaged in the process, but it drives me nuts. I hear so many people say they are angry with how things are going and want to do something, but when I make suggestions, they turn off. Any ideas?
Hey Over it,
Yes, it boggles the mind. And this is the essential question that so many ask, “how do you get people to take their good ideas and best intentions and put them into practical action?”
Maybe the first thing to acknowledge is that what you do is extraordinary. Maybe it was never supposed to be expected that the majority of us have that level of commitment, passion and dedication that you have. I don’t mean that in a cynical, defeatist way. While I believe more and more of us are waking up to the inevitability of our inherent global interconnectedness and interdependence, and feeling compelled to get engaged, it takes us as human beings a long time to transform our viewpoints, habits and patterns.
Just like with a bad habit, trying to force someone to change, or stop doing that habit, rarely leads to success. Starting with, for instance, “I should do more yoga,” or “I should cut down on my sugar intake,” rarely gets us to our desired goal. So, instead of approaching this issue with “shouldas”, maybe consider starting with what might be possible, however large or small. Instead of focusing on what they are not doing, perhaps start with finding the things that would inspire their passion. I call this kind of involvement “creative social activism”.
This reminds me of a conversation I had with one of my clients a couple of years ago. While she was very successful as a business executive, she didn’t know where to begin to do more to bring about social change; she felt powerless. While she gave generously to charities, she wanted to find a way to get involved. She expressed that she was not the type to protest or go on marches. She was also not interested in getting into politics or public service.
After some inquiry, I suggested she think about the things that inspired her, or that brought her joy and excitement. Eventually, she spoke about how much she enjoyed knitting. While we both acknowledged that knitting in itself was not going to solve our world problems, we stayed in the creative process until she came up with a plan. She spent some time researching and then approaching assisted living facilities in the area and offered to come one afternoon a month with needles and yarn to sit with the residents and knit with them, or teach them how to knit.
It was a risk; she didn’t know how it would go. But while sitting and knitting and sharing stories, she built a rapport with the others. After a number of visits, they asked her to come more often and she started doing the same with other facilities in the area. While this one act didn’t change laws or policy or make significant shifts in our global challenges, it certainly brought joy and a sense of belonging to others. In a world that is filled with so much anxiety, isolation and hopelessness, a simple act of helping people feel seen and valued goes a long way.
This is what I mean by creative social activism. When we find the things for which we have passion, and then turn that into an act of service, we contribute in a small way to the manifestation of a world that aligns with our highest values of kindness, connection, generosity, respect and dignity. Imagine if more of us were to find our way to this kind of civic engagement?
I see this kind of creative social activism happening all the time. I remember at the beginning of the lockdown of the pandemic in the spring of 2020, many of the residents of my neighborhood would take appropriately socially-distanced walks through the streets. Every afternoon around 4pm a young woman would stand in the garden in front of her apartment building and play her violin. She was obviously a professional; she didn’t ask for money. I’m assuming that she felt a strong desire in such a challenging time to offer some kind of relief to her neighbors with some beauty and comfort. It worked.
Yes, Over it, we need people like you to do the noble work of direct advocacy. But I would say that it doesn’t need to be all of us to be that engaged to bring about lasting change, just enough of us. What I’m offering is a more long-term strategy for getting others to put their best intentions into action. Perhaps when they start this journey of creative social activism, after some time they will be ready to commit to a level of engagement similar to yours.
Keep it creative,
Learn more about Joe Weston and his work here. Make sure to check out Joe’s bestselling book Fierce Civility: Transforming our Global Culture from Polarization to Lasting Peace, published March 2023.
Have a question for Joe? Send an email to AskJoe@fulcrum.us.