Connected Activism Challenges Code Orange

06/20/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

This past weekend, Kuwait's civic glass ceiling got a seismic crack when four women won seats in that small Gulf state's parliamentary elections. News reports said their victory marked the first time that women won parliamentary seats since given the right to vote and run for office in 2005.

Amidst the bigger, scarier goings on in the Gulf, this transformation barely registered. Unfortunately, the seemingly objective phrase "given the right to vote" is one of many examples of "credit theft" that silently seeps from headlines into textbooks, fueling the fearful helplessness, in realms from work to governance, that living Code Orange inflames.

Time for a bit of history.

Kuwaiti women weren't just given the right to vote, like some giant bouquet from a guilt-ridden spouse. They won it. And rather creatively, employing some clever 21st century tools, too.

Ten years ago, in 1999, Kuwait's Sheikh Jabir-al-Ahmad al-Jabir as-Sabah issued a decree granting women full political rights (read all about it in Momentum: Igniting Social Change in the Connected Age by Allison Fine (Jossey-Bass, 2006). The catch? For Kuwaiti women to realize this right, the decree had to become law. The nation's legislature stalled for six long years.

"Suddenly, in May, 2005", wrote Fine, "the Kuwaiti legislature voted by a surprisingly large margin of thirty five to twenty three, with one abstention, to remove the word men from Article One of the election laws, thereby guaranteeing women the right to vote and the opportunity to run for elective office."

Why? The cool part somehow didn't make this week's reporting. According to Fine (who blogs nowadays at http://afine2.wordpress.com/) "privately, often beneath their burkas, women used their blackberries and cellphones to text and email, urging legislators to vote for full women's suffrage. "In the click of a mouse" Fine observed "we have traveled from... silent majorities to connected activism."

Part of the way Code Orange works is through erasing what it took to catalyze change. That cedes some real power to violence, or at least the constant threats of violence. Meanwhile, peaceful, gamechanging transformations are reported as if one day, some powerful leader awoke and simply opted, in a vacuum, to change more than just his playlist.

Whether it's Rosa Parks in a bus or Kuwaiti women taking up digital tools for women's suffrage, social change rarely happens on the spot or in a vacuum. Perhaps that's why spot news coverage, without context, gropes in vain to explain sea changes that happen in five minutes plus many years, even decades, after many meetings and missteps.

If we're to lower our anxiety levels and make more waves, we need to know more about the back stories to social change. That way, we can more effectively wield all the tools at our disposal to become actors, directors and playwrights in our civic lives.

Now, off to vote in a little noticed, but significant election that will determine, among other things, if my community has school libraries. I wonder who'll report those results.