On Common Ground
Over the last 45 years, many social movements have been challenging us to transform ourselves and the ways we relate to one another—the civil rights movement that began with the Montgomery bus boycott, the free speech, black power, and anti-Vietnam war movements, the Native American, Latino, and Asian American movements, the women's, gay, and lesbian movements, the environmental, consciousness-raising, and self-help movements, and the anti-globalization movement that announced itself at the Battle of Seattle in November 1999.
Should we view these as separate movements, mainly concerned with single issues or with the interests of a particular identity group? That is the conventional wisdom. Or can we see them as multiple facets of an evolving cultural revolution that is creating a new civil society?
I was inspired to do this reframing by the recent State of the Possible Retreat in the Cascade Mountains. To begin with, retreat participants were from so many different backgrounds and wore so many hats that the boundaries between groups appeared to be dissolving before my eyes.
The welcoming presentation was made by David Korten, Positive Futures Network board chair and a former faculty member of the Harvard School of Business who is now a spokesperson for the anti-globalization movement. Kevin Fong, also a board member and a Feng Shui teacher, opened several sessions with soul-stirring rituals. African Americans included Verlene Wilder, lead organizer for the Seattle King County AFL-CIO Labor Council, and Jim Embry who marched in civil rights protests as a child growing up in Lexington, Kentucky, and now directs the Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership. Native Americans included Tom Goldtooth, veteran coordinator of the Indigenous Environmental Network and youth leader Clayton Thomas-Muller of the Swampy Cree Tribe. Among the many outstanding women were Mary O'Brien, ecosystem projects director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, and Nina Simons, executive director of Bioneers, whose goal is to unite nature, culture, and spirit. Many of the men had been active in the anti-Vietnam war movement in the 1970s.
Two workshops especially expanded my sense of the new world that is struggling to be born. “The Role of the Activist in a Transforming World,” led by European futurist Marc Luyckx, began with a graphic tracing the 10,000-year rise and fall of agricultural and industrial societies (both patriarchal) to the present period, when we are experiencing the crisis-ridden transition to a post-industrial world based on partnership. Although many Europeans view Bush as the last gasp of industrial society, Luyckx says, the transition is not guaranteed. The danger is that activists are still stuck in protest struggles against the dominating practices of industrial society instead of engaging in the positive struggles that empower people to create the new society.
This workshop was followed by one on “Civil Society Redefining Itself‚” led by Filipino activist and theoretician Nicanor Perlas. Perlas is a member of the steering committee of People Power II, the social movement that recently ousted the corrupt Filipino president, Joseph Estrada. (The 1986 revolution that overthrew Marcos is now known as People Power I). Perlas gave a firsthand account of how the various Philippine social movements came together at this key political moment. About 2,500 people representing different movements responded powerfully to the first call. They elected a committee of 100 that met weekly, which in turn elected a steering committee of 17 that met daily. Because of years of hard work at building trust and creating collaborations, they were able to quickly agree on leaders and strategy. Eventually, they issued the call for the mass protest that brought 1.5 million people into the streets and forced Estrada to step down.
Paul Ray, executive vice-president of an opinion-polling firm researching American lifestyles and values and coauthor of The Cultural Creatives: How 50 Million People Are Changing the World, brought Perlas' story home with a graphic showing how the American population now lines up culturally. “New Deal liberals” make up 10 percent; 18 percent are “traditionalists” supporting the “moral majority” and nuclear power; 10.5 percent are “dot.coms,” the emerging moderns; 20 percent don't give a damn. But remarkably, the largest segment, 35 percent, has been active in or supportive of the various social movements that have exploded in the last 45 years.
Once we stop viewing these movements as separate, single-issue movements and reframe them as facets of an evolving cultural revolution, their members and supporters can be recognized as a social force embodying the more democratic, self-reliant, and life-affirming values of a new post-industrial civil society. When the opportunity arises, as it did recently in the Philippines, this civil society can replace our present hierarchical, commodifying, uncivil society.
Reframing the movements in this way can be tremendously empowering. But it can also be frightening, because it asks those who are burned out from previous struggles or have turned a particular struggle into a comfort zone to recommit themselves to building a new, more holistic movement to bring about fundamental social, economic, and political change.
Grace Lee Boggs, is a longtime environmental and civil rights activist from Detroit, Michigan, co-author of Revolution and Evolution in the 20th Century, and author of Living for Change.
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