Relationships to Power

Change.org revamped their entire platform just the other day.  Gone are the articles that keep readers informed about the issue and inspire us to take action.  In their place on the front page is a list of petitions that anyone can create and anyone can "sign."  This is clicktivism at its finest. 

As founder Ben Ratray says in his blog post about the launch of the new site--the only one really directly accessible on that front page, I should add--this change comes from the desire to be a more effective engine for social change.  If people have the chance to post petitions, and everyone has the opportunity to sign as many petitions as they can, then the voices of the 2.5 million people who visit the site each month will be amplified.  In short, says Ratray, those who create the petitions, who bring the campaigns to center stage, will be able to win.  

Even as such piecemeal victory becomes paramount to those who created and direct Change.org, the feedback page reverberates with criticism.  When we checked on the evening of day one of the new format, every single post reflected someone who was upset about the changes, and who cried out for the old format.  While it may not be uncommon for those who are against such a big ripple in the system to speak out first, I was stunned to see such homogeneity across the critical spectrum. 

Now, frankly I'm in no position to join the chorus of naysayers about this particular site, but for me these changes did bring up broader questions about social change and what it means to win.  Are we to believe that if we get enough people to click on a petition that there's a chance that we can win a campaign?  No.  Instead, as more and more people create, sign, and send more and more petitions, it only erodes the credibility of an issue.  What kind of weight can an email have if it's read by someone who knows that the vast majority of people who signed it neither have much knowledge of the issue, nor have taken more than 10 seconds to review what they're signing?  What's even worse is that those who will continue to click on these petitions will remain convinced that they are "doing their part" with their clicks, moving rapidly onto the next issue, the next petition, without engaging further or reflecting on what it would really take to make a substantive change in the world.  

If the social movements of the last century taught us anything, it's that real, substantive, social change that has ramifications across a society comes from building power.  In an age in which information is taken for granted, lets not forget that real change comes from suffering.  Gandhi, King, Mandela, Chavez.  These are all names of charismatic men who led movements.  But they are also the names of leaders whose lives were inextricably bound from the causes they supported.  They were not only spokespeople.  They were not only firebrands or fire starters.  They were aflame.  When I can create a petition oh so easily, and click on one even quicker, I lose the depth of experience that helps me to understand what I'm really doing.  Without a clear path from knew knowledge to action, and from action to reflection, I lose the opportunity to learn more, to empathize more, to move beyond my world and challenge my worldview, to become more fully human.  

To build the power that's necessary for social change, the most essential ingredient is perhaps a radiant core of relationships.  Let's not make that secret.  Relationships are the glue that bind insurgents and turn them into freedom fighters.  They're the reasons that people walk out in the freezing rain to hold signs and stand in solidarity.  They're the reason that people sat at lunch counters knowing they would be heckled and beaten.  They're the impetus for taking risks, and the drive--the lifeblood, the source--for creative actions.  Without trust and human connection poor Indians surely would not have marched with Gandhi to claim an essential and abundant element that was already theirs.  Without quiet conversations and careful strategizing sessions, no farmworkers' movement would have erupted.  Without a dedication to learning from and with those who were most intimately experiencing the embedded shame of oppression, Freire's critical pedagogy would never have been born.

It's easy to loft these leaders up in our history books and convince ourselves that their examples are unattainable for commoners like us.  It's easier to take in the technology and access that we have today and use it to amplify our ability to feel moved and to find meaning.  But let's remember Malcolm Gladwell's warning that "the revolution will not be tweeted." Let's make sure that we're building power, not just casting stones.  Let's make our action a change in itself, a seed from which something new and different has already sprung.  By signing a petition, even by just creating one and watching our numbers climb, remember that we are, in fact, validating the very power we're hoping to change.  Let's make sure not to make technology the middle man for the mainenance of the status quo, and further alienate ourselves from each other.  If we do that, there's no way we can win, even if our opponents capitulate and give us incremental change.