Sunday, January 31, 2016

Storytelling as Organizing: How to Rescue the Left from its Crisis of Imagination by Adam Kader - January 2011

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Storytelling as Organizing: How to Rescue the Left from its Crisis of Imagination

By Adam Kader
January 10, 2011
In an editorial in In These Times'  November 2009 issue, reflecting on the right’s success at re-framing the healthcare reform debate in its favor, Kevin O’Donnell wrote, “When it comes to messaging, Republicans believe in science. Democrats don’t.” To their detriment, “Democrats cling to the idea, disproved by science and electoral experience, that if you present the facts, people will reason their way to the right conclusion.” Republicans, on the other hand, know to use “simple words, short sentences and a heavy dose of repetition.” 

Must one be this cynical in order to win a campaign or a policy battle? Is the way to beat conservatives on important issues to “race to the bottom,” debasing rhetoric, and treating the public as imbeciles? Fortunately, for those looking for a more generous understanding of public discourse, there’s Re:Imagining Change: How to Use Story-based Strategy to Win Campaigns, Build Movements, and Change the World (PM Press, 2010), by Patrick Reinsborough and Doyle Canning.

Reinsborough and Canning provide another way of looking at “the battle of the narrative.” Like O’Donnell, any experienced activist knows that framing the issue matters to any campaign's success. But rather than “dumbing down” progressive campaign messaging, Reinsborough and Canning argue for a story-based strategy that deconstructs dominant narratives and constructs new ones that challenge assumptions and move citizens to action. 
The authors encourage readers to re-imagine both how change can happen and what can be changed. They introduce a series of concepts “to win campaigns, build movements, and change the world” based on Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci’s notion of hegemony, which posits that powerful interests exert control through dominant culture so that the status-quo becomes “common sense.” If campaigns are to change the status-quo, the authors argue, they must be communicated in ways that fall outside the narrative categories created by the status quo. 

Just as a successful campaign can change the material conditions of society, Reinsborough and Canning argue, so can it change the way society thinks—it creates change on the level of meaning. In the same way that a direct action physically interrupts a target’s business-as-usual, a campaign has a deeper impact when it also interrupts the dominant narrative about the campaign issue. 

Consider Re:Imagining Change’s example of Greenpeace’s Save the Whales Campaign. When Greenpeace activists took action by literally placing themselves between whaling ships and the whales, it “showed it was the activists, not the whalers, who were the courageous people on small boats risking their lives—not to kill whales, but to save them. In this new narrative, whales were not big and evil; rather it was the giant whaling ships that were the dangerous monsters. The whales were the helpless victims and became sympathetic and worthy of protection...The story changed and the roles of hero, victim, and villain shifted.”

Successful campaigns utilize a “meme,” or a unit of “self-replicating cultural information such as slogans (Just Do It!), iconic images (Abu Ghraib torture), catch phrases (“wardrobe malfunction”) or symbols (the peace sign). Just as engines of dominant culture create memes, so can social change groups.

Re:Imagining Change's accessible language and hands-on exercises make it ideal for busy community and political organizers. My favorite feature of the book is the “Reflections” box included in each chapter. An example:
What are some assumptions in the dominant culture you think need to be changed?  Make a list.  You can carry this assumption list with you and keep a running tab of times when they show up, or when you surface new ones.  Choose one assumption to work with for the moment...Are there institutions where it lives?  Are there ways it is felt in popular culture?  Now think about actions you could take to challenge that assumption and change the story. Are there physical points of intervention that could expose this assumption?

The exercise pushed me to step back and consider a campaign that my organization, Arise Chicago, and other worker centers around the country are engaged in. The fight against the exploitation of low-wage earners is not new, but our “anti-wage theft campaign” is because of its use of the “wage theft” meme. Before, institutions like the Department of Labor and the mainstream media referred to the phenomena of worker exploitation as “non-payment of wages.” 

Several years ago, however, worker centers designed the “wage theft” meme.  This meme overthrows the dominant assumption that wages are the property of the boss, to be shared with workers.  Rather, in this new narrative, wages are the property of workers that have been stolen by the boss. 

The wage theft meme is deeply effective, because a common defense narrative spun by an employer caught for not paying his workers is that these are hard economic times; that in a difficult business climate everyone has to tighten their belts—that the boss is doing everything he can to keep things running. 

The public is sympathetic to this defense. The employer is understood as benevolent; he is the job provider, the one who can save our economy—the workers, protesting, are ungrateful! They should be thankful to be employed at all in this bad economy! The audience of this dominant narrative will identify with the employer, who is the one struggling to stay alive in this economy.  The workers are troublemakers, trying to take wages away from the employer, a property owner, just like you and me! 

But through the wage theft meme, workers, not employers, become the victims of the bad economic climate. The boss, not the workers, becomes the unreasonable one.  The self-respecting public will identify with the righteous worker who is trying to stand up for their right to recover their private property.  Using the wage theft meme, when my organization fights an employer who is not paying minimum wage, overtime wage, or wage at all, we also are fighting some of the assumptions embedded in the dominant narrative about labor. Accordingly, the media has begun to use the meme when they report on our campaigns and legislators have incorporated the phrase “wage theft” in the names of bills.

All of this is to say that Re:Imagining Change has inspired me to evaluate the choices we’re making in designing and communicating our organizing campaigns. Other progressive organizers should strive to do the same. The left is losing the battle over narrative, which means we often lose the larger war over legislation and fiscal policy. Think of common current rhetoric surrounding climate change legislation (“it kills jobs”), public sector jobs (“we have to cut back to decrease the deficit”), gender parity (“it will result in frivolous lawsuits”), etc. 

Indeed, Sally Kohn of Movement Vision Lab writes: “Over the past year, much of the left has jealously ogled the Tea Party and its apparently up-out-of-nowhere grassroots movement energy.” Kohn locates the origin of this energy in the proliferation of “an attractive story of power and vision—a story in which everyday activists can see themselves and engage.”

That the left needs to develop strong, compelling, narratives is clear. Re:Imagining Change is the resource that can show us exactly how to do so.

Adam Kader, the director of the Arise Chicago Worker Center, blogs for Labor Notes.

"In Protest, the Power of Place" by Michael Kimmelman

News Analysis
In Protest, the Power of Place

United Press International
OHIO, 1970 Tear gas against protesters at Kent State
Published: October 15, 2011
Michael Kimmelman is the architecture critic of The New York Times. 
NEW YORK, 1967 Central Park protest against the Vietnam War

THE ever expanding Occupy Wall Street movement, with encampments now not only in Lower Manhattan but also in Washington, London and other cities, proves among other things that no matter how instrumental new media have become in spreading protest these days, nothing replaces people taking to the streets.

Another reminder came late last week when the landlord of Zuccotti Park, where the demonstrators in New York City have settled, at the last minute withdrew a request for police assistance in cleaning up the park. This, at least temporarily, averted a confrontation in front of the global media over what protesters regarded as just a pretext to evict them.

We tend to underestimate the political power of physical places. Then Tahrir Square comes along. Now it’s Zuccotti Park, until four weeks ago an utterly obscure city-block-size downtown plaza with a few trees and concrete benches, around the corner from ground zero and two blocks north of Wall Street on Broadway. A few hundred people with ponchos and sleeping bags have put it on the map.
Kent State, Tiananmen Square, the Berlin Wall: we clearly use locales, edifices, architecture to house our memories and political energy. Politics troubles our consciences. But places haunt our imaginations.

So we check in on Facebook and Twitter, but make pilgrimages to Antietam, Auschwitz and to the Acropolis, to gaze at rubble from the days of Pericles and Aristotle.

I thought of Aristotle, of all people, while I watched the Zuccotti Park demonstrators hold one of their “general assemblies” the other day. In his “Politics,” Aristotle argued that the size of an ideal polis extended to the limits of a herald’s cry. He believed that the human voice was directly linked to civic order. A healthy citizenry in a proper city required face-to-face conversation.

It so happens that near the start of the protest, when the police banned megaphones at Zuccotti Park, they obliged demonstrators to come up with an alternative. “Mic checks” became the consensus method of circulating announcements, spread through the crowd by people repeating, phrase by phrase, what a speaker had said to others around them, compelling everyone, as it were, to speak in one voice. It’s like the old game of telephone, and it is painstakingly slow.

“But so is democracy,” as Jay Gaussoin, a 46-year-old unemployed actor and carpenter, put it to me. “We’re so distracted these days, people have forgotten how to focus. But the ‘mic check’ demands not just that we listen to other people’s opinions but that we really hear what they’re saying because we have to repeat their words exactly.

“It requires an architecture of consciousness,” was Mr. Gaussoin’s apt phrase.

Much as it can look at a glance like a refugee camp in the early morning, when the protesters are just emerging from their sleeping bags, Zuccotti Park has in fact become a miniature polis, a little city in the making. That it happens also to be a private park is one of the most revealing subtexts of the story. Formerly Liberty Park, the site was renamed in 2006 after John E. Zuccotti, chairman of Brookfield Office Properties, the park’s owner. A zoning variance granted to Brookfield years ago requires that the park, unlike a public, city-owned one, remain open day and night.

This peculiarity of zoning law has turned an unexpected spotlight on the bankruptcy of so much of what in the last couple of generations has passed for public space in America. Most of it is token gestures by developers in return for erecting bigger, taller buildings. Think of the atrium of the I.B.M. tower on Madison Avenue and countless other places like it: “public” spaces that are not really public at all but quasi-public, controlled by their landlords. Zuccotti in principle is subject to Brookfield’s rules prohibiting tarps, sleeping bags and the storage of personal property on the site. The whole situation illustrates just how far we have allowed the ancient civic ideal of public space to drift from an arena of public expression and public assembly (Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park, say) to a commercial sop (the foyer of the Time Warner Center).

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

OMM celebrates MLK, Jr., with special mass/service on January 17th. 9am.

St. Anne's Altar Society MLK Mass Celebration

The Annual MLK Mass sponsored by St. Anne's Altar Society will be celebrated at Our Mother of Mercy Catholic Church on Sunday, January 17th at the 9:00am Mass.  A reception will follow in the school's cafetera.  Please plan to attend.

Our Mother of Mercy


Sunday, January 10, 2016

Journalist, Author And MacArthur Fellow Ta-Nehisi Coates (Rebroadcast)

Coates, now a national correspondent for The Atlantic magazine, argues in his latest piece that mass incarceration of African-Americans exacts a devastating financial and psychological cost on black families. Diane talks with recent MacArthur fellow Ta-Nehisi Coates on mass incarceration, his memoir and America’s long struggle with issues of race.

Opening the Question of Race to the Question of Belonging

Opening the Question of Race to the Question of Belonging
“Race is a little bit like gravity,” john powell says: experienced by all, understood by the few. He is an esteemed legal scholar and thinker who counsels all kinds of people and projects on the front lines of our present racial anguish and longings. Race is relational, he reminds us. It’s as much about whiteness as about color. And it largely plays out, as we’re learning through new science, in our unconscious minds. john powell is steeped in this new learning and offers it to us, as a form of everyday power, to animate our belonging to others that is already real. But we must claim it.
is the director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at the University of California at Berkeley. He previously directed the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University and the Institute on Race and Poverty at the University of Minnesota. He is the author of Racing to Justice: Transforming our Concepts of Self and Other to Build an Inclusive Society.