Effective activism's a long-haul process, not "save the Earth in 30 days, ask me how." But there are some principles that seem to reoccur for people addressing every kind of challenge from the Gulf Oil spill to inadequate funding for urban schools to how to deal with Afghanistan and Iraq. They give us clues on how to reach out to engage our fellow citizens and help us get past our own barriers, not to mention burnout and disappointment. When I was updating my Soul of a Citizen book on citizen activism, an activist rabbi who was teaching the book at a Florida university suggested I gather together a Ten Commandments for effective citizen engagement.
Calling them Commandments seemed a bit presumptuous, but I did draw together ten suggestions that can make engagement more fruitful. Some I've already explored in various Soul of a Citizen excerpts., many of which I've linked to below, woven into my suggestions. I'll explore others in coming weeks, but pulling them together in one place seemed useful.
You don't need to know everything, and you certainly don't need to be perfect. You want to make sure you're acting on accurate information, but you don't need to know the answer to every conceivable question, and you don't need to be as eloquent as Martin Luther King or saintly as Gandhi, particularly since even our greatest historical figures had their hesitations, failures, and doubts.
Suggestion #2: Take things step by step. You set the pace of your engagement. Don't worry about being swallowed up, because you'll determine how much you get involved, and in what ways.
Suggestion #3: Build supportive community. You can accomplish far more with even a small group of good people than you can alone. Isolation breeds cynicism and despair. Engaged community helps sow the seeds of hope.
Suggestion #4: Be strategic. Ask what you're trying to accomplish, where you can find allies, and how to best communicate the urgencies you feel. You don't need to have every answer, but you want to think through your actions as best you can.
Suggestion #5: Enlist the uninvolved. They have their own fears and doubts, so they won't participate automatically; you have to work actively to engage them. And sometimes they come from very unlikely places. But if you do, there's no telling what they'll go on to achieve.
Suggestion #6: Seek out unlikely allies. The more you widen the circle, the more you'll have a chance of breaking through the entrenched barriers to change. Internet Neutrality, for instance, was mostly saved by an unlikely alliance between the liberal group MoveOn and the highly conservative Christian Coalition.
Suggestion #7: Persevere. Change most often takes time. The longer you continue working, the more you'll accomplish. If Rosa Parks had given up in year ten of her 12-year journey from her first NAACP meeting to her famed stand on the bus we'd never have heard of her.
Suggestion #8: Savor the journey. Changing the world shouldn't be grim work. Take time to enjoy nature, good music, good conversation, and whatever else lifts your soul. Savor the company of good people working for change
Suggestion #9: Think large. Don't be afraid to tackle the deepest-rooted injustices, and to tackle them on a national or global scale. Remember that many small actions can shift the course of history. It's tempting just to focus on areas where we can make a personal one-on-one difference, but it's even more powerful if we can tackle the roots of the issues we take on.
Suggestion #10: Listen to your heart. It's why you're involved to begin with. It's what will keep you going. And never forget to tell and retell the stories that go to the heart of why you act and will help you keep on.
I'd love reader comments on how these idea have played out in your own personal social engagement.
Adapted from the wholly updated new edition of "Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in Challenging Times" by Paul Rogat Loeb (St Martin's Press, $16.99 paperback). With over 100,000 copies in print, "Soul" has become a classic guide to involvement in social change. Howard Zinn calls it "wonderful...rich with specific experience." Alice Walker says, "The voices Loeb finds demonstrate that courage can be another name for love." Bill McKibben calls it "a powerful inspiration to citizens acting for environmental sanity."
Loeb also wrote "The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen's Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear," the History Channel and American Book Association's #3 political book of 2004. HuffPo is serializing selected sections of "Soul" every Thursday. Sign up here to see previous excerpts or be notified of new ones. For more information, to hear Loeb's live interviews and talks, or to receive Loeb's articles directly, see www.paulloeb.org. You can also join Paul's monthly email list and follow Paul on Facebook at Facebook.com/PaulLoebBooks From "Soul of a Citizen" by Paul Rogat Loeb. Copyright © 2010 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin's Griffin. Permission granted to reprint or post so long as this copyright line is included.
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