“I'm interested in the problem of action, not the problem of knowing—unless it's about knowing how to act.” —Zaid Hassan, author of The Social Labs Revolution, in a May 13 tweet
I recently read an article in The New York Times about a giant Antarctic ice sheet that is gradually melting into the sea. Evidently, as it melts, it could cause sea levels around the world to rise between four and twelve feet over the next 200 years. It’s sobering to think that, right in front of our eyes, we are witnessing events that could impact all of life on earth for a long time to come.
“Knowing how to act” is a question with which every change-maker struggles. I want to try to make sense of this question and pose, if not an answer, then at least a helpful provocation to get us thinking.
In practice, when we seek the underlying causes of systemic challenges, we often find them in a society’s paradigms and mindsets. As Emerson wrote in his 1838 essay “War”, the causes of all society-wide phenomena are to be found in “the master idea[s] reigning in the minds of many persons.” This means they are not “solvable” per se, because a group of stakeholders cannot change this kind of “master idea” or paradigm. Understanding this limitation is a good starting point for creating a healthy society, because it redirects us back to ourselves.
We are living in fascinating times for democracy in Brazil and Latin America. Across the continent, democracies, though still relatively young, are increasingly taking root and taken for granted. Yet the nature, quality, and culture of these democracies are still very much in formation. It is possible that, in the coming decades, several Latin American countries will experiment with new forms of democracy that will inspire other countries in the region and the world. This is a phenomenon worth paying attention to.
In Brazil, more than a quarter century after the adoption of the Citizen Constitution after the end of the military dictatorship in 1988, the generation now graduating from universities was born in a democracy. These individuals and the larger population today have wide access to new means of communication, new channels for social participation, and new models of organizing. In 2013, former senator Marina Silva applied to run in the 2014 elections through a new political party called “The Network” (her petition was denied). In the same year, a breathtaking series of public demonstrations took place. Hundreds of thousands of people protested to express their dissatisfaction with the performance of government on issues of public transport, education, and health as well as with government priorities and corruption in relation to the 2014 World Cup. In a country that has tended, at least in the past three decades, to have a complacent civic culture, these demonstrations led some observers to comment that a “giant had awoken”. Brazilians increasingly want to know and claim their rights.
“The power of solutions lies primarily in the people who believe in and own them.” –V. Srinavas
Current approaches to addressing complex social challenges are not working. There is much to celebrate: the number of people involved in change initiatives, the increasing amounts of money being invested in those initiatives, the steadily declining costs of technology, and the attention being given to social innovation. The underlying problems however, from species loss to public debt, continue to grow.
Social fabrics are increasingly strained under loads they were never intended to contain. Inequality is growing. Direct action has become either a strident call for someone else to take action or the frantic alleviation of symptoms that leaves underlying causes largely intact. There’s increasing pressure on individuals to change their behavior around environmental issues and to take on the burden of austerity measures or cuts in basic services. The sociologist Ulrich Beck describes this situation as an attempt to find “individual solutions to systemic contradictions”.
On April 15, 2012, the presidents and prime ministers of the countries in North, Central, and South America and the Caribbean held a private meeting during their Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia. The chair of the Summit, Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos, raised a concern that had been troubling him for some time: that the “war on drugs,” which his country and others in the hemisphere had been pursuing at enormous cost for 40 years, was not being won. In spite of progress in some areas, the problems of drugs have remained terribly and frustratingly stuck, with continued high levels of addiction, incarceration, and violence. “Sometimes we all feel that we have been pedaling on a stationary bicycle,” he said. “We look to our right and our left and we still see the same landscape.”
What do you do when gaps in society seem un-navigable? When the costs of getting things wrong are unpalatably high but where there is little trust and a weak appetite to work together?
In the last Reos newsletter, Colleen Magner of Johannesburg reflected on the question “What do you do when the stakes are high and the trust is low?” and why it is important in South Africa at this time.
To explore the question more deeply, Reos Partners Johannesburg convened a two-day public dialogue in partnership with the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) in February 2013. The dialogue brought together a diverse group of South Africans from the corporate, nonprofit, activist, civil society, youth, and government sectors to explore how they might confront their most pressing cross-sectoral challenges, develop an appetite for trying things differently, and, most importantly, find better ways of working together. Members of Reos travelled from all of the global offices to South Africa to facilitate the discussions, share international experience and learn from the South African context.
In this article, we share some of our learnings, as a “Part Two” to the original article.
The nebulous idea and practice of ‘belonging’ has had a tough time in South Africa in 2012. For those of you who have been to or lived in South Africa, you’ll remember our journey to find belonging after the first democratic elections in 1994. Many of us took to our country’s new story with zeal and blinding optimism. We moved to inner-city areas, forged relationships across economic and colour lines, and spoke a lot about the country we wanted to create together. Everyone seemed to be politicised.
In our last issue, Reos associate Rebecca Freeth wrote about Power, Love and Justice. Her article received lots of interest. We decided to interview her about her experiences of working in South Africa on issues of justice and, in particular, racial justice. What has influenced her, personally and in her work as a facilitator, to eschew neutrality while being equally wary of what she describes as “blind activism”? What lies between these two orientations?
Over the past several years, Adam Kahane has articulated a fresh way of thinking about how to navigate the complexities of social change by drawing attention to the dance between power and love. This kind of navigation evokes for me images of a tango, with two people paying exquisite attention to their own individual embodied scripts while deeply attuned to each other: taut and fluid, alert to the possibility of the moment and submerged in timeless sensuality. This tension between power as self-realisation and love as connection strikes a deep intuitive and conceptual chord with audiences whenever I see Adam present it. It has been a rich resource to my own work as a facilitator.
In this article, I’d like to add the element of justice to the power-love configuration and explore what this combination might mean for all of us who navigate social change. In the tango, our eyes may be drawn to the couple in the middle of the dance floor, but the dance doesn’t take place in isolation. We still need to take into account the music, the other dancers, the audience – and even those excluded from the dance hall altogether. I have found that the presence of injustice is a significant stumbling block to social change. Every country has its own brand of injustice. In South Africa, where I work, it is most evident in terms of racial discrimination, past and present.
In this article, I argue that the time is right to innovate as if the world is at stake. We are at the point where we know where we want to go, whether it’s building a green economy, creating a massive number of jobs, or decreasing global carbon emissions. Now we need to move beyond bringing groups together to discuss vision, or the potential of collaboration and begin implementing action, one step at a time. Where we lack the know-how to get to where we want to go, we need to experiment and create prototypes until we reach our desired outcomes.
Usually, when we think of limits, we think of restrictions that hold us back, impeding our free energies; we think of what we cannot do. In fact, limits are necessary characteristics of every phenomenon, person, organisation, and creative pursuit. Limits, edges, and boundaries are the determining factors that give things their appearance, structure, and definition.