As I read about and watch the events unfolding around us in recent months I find that I have more questions than answers, and unfortunately more despair and anger than I do hope or clarity.
I'll get to the questions in a moment. First, the things I know:
Black Lives Matter. The open wounds of slavery and racism upon which so much of modern U.S. society was founded and continues to operate are far from universally acknowledged or understood, let alone healed. Finding ways to pursue justice for black people and people of color everywhere is one of the greatest and most important challenges of our era. The ongoing hate, oppression, discrimination, aggression, violence and death that is wrought by us upon our fellow humans because of the color of their skin is an atrocity, an outrage and an embarrassment to anyone who would think us any kind of moral model in the world. It demands our greatest care, attention and action. As white people, it demands our solidarity, our self-examination, our hard work, our listening, our discomfort. I fully support the protests and other direct action happening around the world in the name of big changes and in pursuit of justice.
It's been a long time since I started a petition to try to change something in my world. But in recent weeks my local City Council has been threatening to do some silly things related to funding the development of bike and pedestrian paths here, and I'd heard enough people say informally that they were concerned by those threats that I decided it was time to create a central spot where they could put all their names for Council members to see.
And that's how I ended up using the petitions.moveon.org service, which has turned out to be excellent for this purpose.
A few things in particular that I like about it:
While clearly scaled to support national and state level petitions, the MoveOn tool did a great job of enabling a smaller petition targeted at a local legislative body that might not otherwise be in their system. I was able to enter the names and email addresses of my local Council members as "targets" of the petition, and they then were set up to receive deliveries of signatures directly.
Related to that, the MoveOn system allowed the targets of the petition to respond directly to the petition signers with a message, without giving them direct access to each others` private contact information.
The system automatically picks small signature goals to start with and then scales them up as new milestones are hit. I think this helps avoid the awkward "WE'RE GOING TO HAVE A HUNDRED MILLION SIGNATURES HERE!" declarations by petition creators that quickly yield disappointment.
The system offered up interesting summary stats about where signatures were coming from and what activity on the petition looked like over time.
When I had to contact MoveOn's petition support (one of the signers had accidentally left out a word in a comment that significantly changed the meaning, and wanted it corrected) they were fast to respond and provided a quick solution.
Other features in the petition tool, like handling delivery via print and email, contacting petition signers, "declaring victory," and more seemed really well designed; simple, effective, built for bringing about real action.
One of the things I wanted to do as the signature numbers climbed and as I prepared to present the petition to Council was create something that visualized the signing names in one place. The signature count on the petition itself was not super prominent, and in only displaying 10 names at a time it was easy to miss out on the sense of a large part of the local population making a clear statement about what they want.
So I sniffed the XMLHttpRequests being made by the MoveOn site and found the underlying API that was being used to load the signature names. I whipped up a simple PHP script that queries that API to fetch all the names, and then does some basic cleanup of the list: leaving out anything that doesn't look like a full name, making capitalization and spacing consistent, sorting, etc.
I published the tool online at https://github.com/ChrisHardie/moveon-petition-tools in case anyone else might find it useful. (I later learned that MoveOn makes a CSV export of signatures and comments available when you go to print your petition, so that's an option too.)
Using the output of my tool, I created this simple graphic that shows all of the signed names to date:
All in all the MoveOn petition platform has been great, and I think it's made a difference just the way I wanted it to. I highly recommend it.
The people who I see making the most progress in community building (at any level) are the ones who can effectively articulate the things that they are working toward, what they're for, and then get other people excited about different ways to make that happen.
The people who I see doing the most damage to community building efforts are the ones who only seem able to talk about the things they are against.
Maybe you recognize these different profiles?
Is usually dreaming about ways to make something better
Celebrates existing strengths and accomplishments as a foundation to build on
Understands possibilities for the future, describes them well
Lets their ideas evolve as they get feedback
Connects with stakeholders and figures out how to help
Engages through questions, observation and collaboration
If you consider yourself an activist in any form, there's a good chance that the book will challenge some aspect of the way you think about what kinds of activism are useful and effective. If you're proud of the successful Facebook or Twitter campaigns you've orchestrated to raise awareness about a certain issue, you'll probably be made uncomfortable. If you have invested heavily in becoming the change you wish to see in the world, you might feel insulted or deflated. If you think of yourself as a pacifist, you might feel like hitting something. And if you're pretty content with the status quo, or if you're not someone who appreciates activism in any form, it might be upsetting to think about the very existence of such a book, let alone some of its implications.
The Millennium Curse tackles head on the question of why much of modern activism is proving itself to be largely ineffective.
A week ago I had the opportunity to hear Frances Moore Lappé speak here in Richmond. She's primarily known around the world as author of Diet for a Small Planet, but she's also an Earlham College graduate, so it was great that she came back to her alma mater to give a talk.
Lappé's talk overall was about how we can move from a place of powerlessness to a place of empowerment when it comes to working on addressing various ills that plague the world - from climate change to energy/resource crises to poverty, and all of the other systems and issues that are related.
It's a topic, a question that's been on my mind lately as I think about my own vocation, and where (to borrow from Frederick Buechner) my talents and interests might meet the world's deep needs. The question wasn't answered for me during the talk, but there were a few insights and random bits of wisdom that I want to preserve here:
It seems that every healthy and thriving community, city, social group or ecosystem remains healthy and thriving because they can handle having a disruptive element with an important role to play.
The disruptors are the people or events that shake up the status quo, question why things are done a certain way, or introduce an element of chaos or discontent into the system and forces it to evolve, change or adapt. They are the people whose survival or well-being is not dependent on the stability of the system; revolutionary new ideas and significant change rarely come from those whose livelihoods and sense of security depend on things going along as they are.
Practicing what we preach is hard, and fear of change is sometimes paralyzing, so it's no wonder that we can become confused, resentful or even outraged when someone does stand up for what they believe in, especially if what they believe in is different from our own views and beliefs. It's vulnerable, difficult and even embarrassing to put ourselves out there in front of complete strangers, let alone to do so for hours, days, weeks and months at a time; no wonder we sometimes look at the OWS folks like they're a little crazy. "There are civilized ways one is supposed to handle these things," we say. "Standing in the street can't accomplish anything."
I'm just back from a weekend-long gathering in Bloomington, Indiana, where I was joined by ~25 other fine folks for a "Transition Training" event. The Transition US movement is part of a vibrant, international grassroots movement that builds community resilience in response to the challenges of peak oil, climate change and the economic crisis. Today's edition of the New York Times Magazine had a cover story featuring the Transition movement, including one of the facilitators who I had the benefit of working with this weekend, Michael Brownlee.
I've been thinking for far too long about how to do something about the U-Washee laundromat on NW 5th Street here in Richmond, Indiana. I say "far too long" because I've known about its existence for years, and have only thought and talked with others about it, instead of taking action. I've been trying to figure out how to convert its overt displays of racism into a useful and transformative conversation in the community. Why does this place exist in the first place? Who patronizes it and what do they see and think about its imagery and stereotypes? How does our Asian population feel about it? Why isn't there more conversation happening already about U-Washee?
It was simultaneously a good and bad thing today to see that there are plenty of people talking about U-Washee outside of Richmond. A little more than a month ago, The Bilerico Project put up a great commentary with photos and really calls Richmond out for not taking action on this, but also ties it to larger trends of racism in the Midwest: