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To Change the World, Keep it Simple, Skip the Blame
Two simple actions during the early days of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s drew public support, achieved the desired change, and knocked the first blocks from the wall of official racial segregation.
On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks sat down in one of the front seats of a bus and refused to move to the back where Black men, women and children were supposed to sit.
On February 1, 1960, four freshmen college students sat down at the F. W. Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, Tennessee, and refused to leave when they were denied service because they were Black.
“They stayed until closing time. The next morning they came with twenty-five more students. On the third day, sixty-three students … By the fifth day … more than three hundred … forty-five students were arrested … a massive boycott … sales dropped by a third.” (Library of Congress)
We who were observers could identify. We were drawn in. We all want to sit wherever we want on the bus. We all want to be served at the lunch counter.
Thirteen months after Rosa Parks sat down, the United States Supreme Court ruled that segregation on public buses is unconstitutional. Six months from their first sit-in, the four freshmen returned to Woolworth’s and were served.
Simple demands, simple actions that resonated. The edifice of racism began to crumble.
What can we learn from that history about achieving the changes we want?
Actions are what matter. Ignore attitudes, motives and beliefs. When actions change, the world changes and what you experience changes. You sit anywhere you want to on the bus. You get served at every lunch counter.
Jaylen Brown, forward for the Boston Celtics and an officer in the NBA Players Association was happy to see seven new Black head coaches hired last off-season. Whatever the reasons or motives, he didn’t care. “Whether it was because they were just trying to shut us up, or because they actually believed it was the right thing to do, it doesn’t matter to me.” The action itself was what mattered.
Do we care if people are racist or sexist? Focus on making jobs, education, housing, and the rest of life supporting resources available to everyone on an equal basis. Focus on effects not causes. When the debate over whether racism is systemic is decided, nothing will have changed. Everything that needs to be done will still be in front of us.
Do we care if health care is a right? Whether we decide yes or no, we are no closer to getting a clinic in the neighborhood and delivering health care to the community.
Keep it simple. We are tempted by grand goals, six-point plans, and changing the system. Everything is connected. We need a revolution.
I am reminded of Don Paolo in the novel Bread and Wine who was a communist organizer in rural Italy during Mussolini’s fascist government. He kept trying to persuade the cafoni that there was a better way to organize society.
“Don’t you think that one day the landowners might be expropriated and their land given to the poor? Don’t you think that the country might be run by people such as yourselves? Don’t you think that your sons and grandsons might be born free?”
For his listeners, caught in the daily routine of wresting a living from the soil and interested most in having some bread on the table and perhaps a little wine, Don Paolo’s vision of a better world was “a beautiful dream … none more beautiful … but unfortunately only a dream … drink and pass the bottle … it’s empty, shall I get another?”
When looking at problems, we tend to think we have the answers, particularly if those answers fit within our own belief structure and way of looking at the world. Those we think we are helping, however, want someone who sees the world as they see it, who understands their problems as they experience them, and have solutions that make sense to them.
The “Defund the Police” movement failed that test and crashed quickly. The intent was a complete rethinking of how to do public safety without much input from many of the people directly affected. The slogan focused on what was to be torn down, not on what was intended to be created. The result was a confused message that didn’t resonate.
To have good policy, to keep good policy, to make good policy work, you need public support which requires public understanding. The essence of the change has to be conveyed in words that can be used in ordinary conversation. Words that are easily remembered, comfortably repeated to the person sitting on the stool next to you at the neighborhood bar.
Simple acts can be effective.
Violent crime went down in North Minneapolis when members of the community started opening their lawn chairs and sitting down on the most dangerous street corners of the 4th precinct.
“We know our young people, and they know us. But more important, we represent one of the strongest bastions of moral authority left in these areas: the Black church. We draw on the power of congregation — of family, of friends and of community — to try to interrupt the violence. And our faith gives us the courage to put ourselves in harm’s way.”
Gun violence in Philadelphia neighborhoods went down when trash in empty lots was picked up or front yards made “clean and green” by planting new grass and trees, installing low wooden post-and-rail fences around the perimeter and performing regular maintenance).
Results of the joint University and Horticultural Society project found gun violence went down with just trash pickup or “clean and green”. There was no evidence that crime simply shifted to another neighborhood.
“Study participants around both interventions reported feeling safer, and therefore went outside more often to socialize with neighbors. People around greened lots reported feeling less depressed. … Changing neighborhood conditions … improved seemingly intractable community and mental health problems.”
Also in Philadelphia, a requirement that landlords must try mediation in good faith before evicting a tenant for nonpayment of rent reduced evictions. “By slowing down the process and setting up a negotiation mechanism, it has kept more than 4,000 renters housed since late 2020.”
Skip the blame. Albert Camus, the French philosopher, perhaps said it best, “Civilizations are not built by rapping people on the knuckles.”.
When change is the goal, the goal is the desired change. Not finding an enemy to defeat, or an adversary to shame, but people who can be persuaded to do something different.
Dialogue, “the confrontation of ideas”, replaces knuckle rapping.
It is easier to change one’s own behavior than to admit guilt or fault. There is a reason why so many law suits are resolved by the defendant agreeing to the settlement without admitting fault.
Change requires allies and the people we would blame are probably also among those who would have to act to create the change we want. Public safety won’t change without the participation of police, or education without the help of teachers.
We are all socialized into the systems we grew up with and didn’t create. We take on their practices without much thought. We change, not when we are attacked for who we are, which we resent, but when we recognize there is a better alternative.
The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr noted that the stirring up of resentment in social disputes makes resolution more difficult. “Individuals are never as immoral as the social situations in which they are involved and which they symbolize. If opposition to a system leads to personal insults of its representatives, it is always felt as an unjust accusation.”
Or as Abraham Lincoln said, “If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him you are his sincere friend.”
To achieve and then keep change requires both initial and continuing public support. If support wanes, backlash and regression are inevitable.
Political power in a democracy ultimately lies with the voters. People have to be persuaded that changing the world or the neighborhood will be a good thing. Persuasion is not a selling job after the fact. There is no space between the change and selling it. They are different aspects of the same act.
Both have to resonate with the audience. For that, be specific, focus on what has to be done, keep it simple, skip the blame.