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The Great Work Ahead

We invited 65 leaders from a wide spectrum of social change movements to the Cascade Mountains in Washington this spring. A common question was on everyone's mind: How might we move to a more just, sustainable, and compassionate world?
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Two years ago, PFN held the first of three retreats for social change leaders from across the US and throughout the world. Since then, the global political climate and the momentum behind the “movement of movements” has changed dramatically. This spring's Reunion Retreat 2001 offered participants in the first three retreats a chance to reconnect. PFN board chair David Korten opened the conference with his thoughts about where we've been and where we're headed. This is an excerpt from his remarks.

Our struggle has much in common with many previous struggles against the injustice of a dominator system. And in many ways the spiritual awakening underlying our movement is a reawakening to perennial spiritual truths.

Yet this moment of change is wholly unique. It calls for a deep, global-scale transformation of dominant
human cultures and institutions with a speed and consciousness unprecedented in human experience. It is new as well in its focus on creating a politics of the whole, self-organized from the bottom up by millions of leaders.

Rather than seeking to claim for itself the power of the institutions that allow the few to dominate the many, this movement of movements seeks to create partnership societies by transforming and democratizing the relationships of power. Rather than dictating solutions, it seeks to open economic,
political, and cultural spaces where people and communities have both the freedom and the means to
create cultures true to their own values and aspirations and to evolve political and economic structures
responsive to their own needs. It is grounded in a consciousness that allows us to see how unexamined cultural conventions—including those related to race, gender, environment, and economic relationships—have shaped our lives in self-limiting and destructive ways. It makes use of modern communications technologies that have virtually eliminated geographical barriers. And it is informed by the wealth of contemporary scientific understanding in fields such as physics, biology, astrophysics, and evolution.

It was just two years ago that the first State of the Possible retreat brought a number of us together in Port Townsend. As recent as that now seems, it took place six months before 50,000 people took to the streets of Seattle to shut down the WTO meeting in solidarity with hundreds of thousands more protesting on that same day in France, England, India, Canada, Australia, The Philippines, The Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, and elsewhere.

Since that day, virtually everywhere the corporate elites have tried to meet for their secret deal-making—whether in Washington, DC, Calgary, Windsor, Davos, Birmingham, Guam, Prague, or Quebec City—they have been confronted by tens of thousands of protesters. Shaken to the core and desperate to evade these encounters with democracy, the WTO has chosen Qatar as the site for its next meeting. (It was apparently a choice between Qatar or an orbiting space station.) This is an incredible testimony to the global power and presence of our movements.

The protests are backed by countless teach-ins, conferences, and seminars and are unified by a deep commitment to life and to democracy. Indeed, in India it is called the “Living Democracy Movement,” a name that beautifully captures the essence of what we are about. In the US, many in these movements poured incredible energy into the Green Party presidential campaign of Ralph Nader. It has more recently given birth to a multiracial Pro-Democracy Movement.

Most of these developments were beyond our imagination two years ago in Port Townsend. What other surprises might lie ahead in the next two years?

Despite the stolen election that installed George W. in the White House, opinion polls show that a substantial majority of Americans support action to reduce the gap between rich and poor and to increase protection for workers, the environment, and human rights, even at the expense of trade and the economy. They favor curbing excessive corporate power, reducing military spending, and increasing spending on education and health, including provision of health insurance for the poor.

In short, the real George W. Bush—in contrast to the image of the compassionate conservative he presented to the voters—is seriously out of step with what most Americans and the world want.

The cracks are already starting to show. The European Union and many member governments of the G-77 are increasingly inclined to side with civil society against the regressive policies of the US government, particularly on such issues as genetically modified organisms, human rights, trade preferences for small farmers, land mines, the militarization of space, and global warming.

We must get used to the idea that we are no longer a small, fringe resistance movement and position ourselves as a mainstream force forging a majority coalition and getting our issues on the political agenda. We must also keep in mind, as we plan for the challenges ahead, four critical insights that emerged from the previous three retreats.

First, an awakening cultural consciousness is at the foundation of the transformational change ahead; it is freeing millions of people from the self-imposed limitations of unexamined cultural norms that leave them captive to a dominator system of racial, gender, economic, and political relationships. We must extend and deepen this awakening by constantly pointing out disparities between reality and the norms, values, and symbols of the dominator culture. We must also facilitate the processes by which those who participate in this awakening form themselves into communities of congruence.

Second, institutional racism is as much a foundation of the dominator system as is the institution of the corporation. The colonial era centered on the expropriation by whites of the land, labor, and other resources of the world's people of color. This resulted in the present unconscionably unjust distribution of ownership rights over the world's wealth that is the foundation of the present system of global corporate rule. To end the dominator system we must work to end institutional racism with the same energy we bring to ending the abuse of corporate power. A key in both cases is to achieve an equitable distribution of the ownership of productive assets throughout the whole of society.

Third, building a politics of inclusion is the key to our success. It must be a truly multiracial politics, which means that those of us born into white privilege must come to know, understand, and embrace the issues of people of color and honor their leadership in our shared struggle. A politics of inclusion also means choosing language that is inclusive, free of blame and self-righteousness, and respectful of all life. It means keeping clear that our goal is to replace the institutions of domination with those of mutuality.

Fourth, a spirit of joy and celebration can move us beyond our fear of change. We must include music, song, poetry, dance, and the time and space for individual and collective renewal. Our culture workers may be our most important asset.

These are all elements of what Joanna Macy callsThe Great Turning, and what Thomas Berry calls the Great Workahead. It is our work. Let us approach it with joy, celebration, and deep fellowship.


David Korten is the author of When Corporations Rule the World(now in its second edition) and The Post-Corporate World. He is also president of the People Centered Development Forum and chair of the board of the Positive Futures Network, publisher of YES! magazine. Email Signup
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