I have worked for social change for more than 20 years, fighting for causes as diverse as police reform, juvenile justice and green jobs. Over the years, I have come to believe that two major flaws are undermining our reform movements.
Simply Put: We Are Too Bossy -- and Too Boring.
That's why Rebuild the Dream has been exploring some new directions. We realized that we can't defend middle and working class families relying solely on white papers, press conferences and email petitions (as important as those tactics are and will remain to us!). A crisis this deep requires a deeper set of responses. That's why we are starting to work with artists, poets, actresses, dancers, painters, cartoonists, video gamers -- and a certain rock star (more on him later!).
We are not the only organization that has come to the conclusion that we must do a better job of capturing the imagination of the American people -- and unleashing the power and creativity of millions of people to help solve the nation's problems. Increasingly, I hear versions of this desire echoed on listservs, in conferences, in workshops, and in private conversations with others who are working for positive change.
Everyone knows that our present models are underperforming. Too many organizations (including my own) are effectively still trying to boss their members around -- demanding their signatures, votes, or bodies at rallies. In today's hyper-connected world, we are still having too many one-way conversations. Like other national organizations, Rebuild is still struggling to figure out how to "turn over the keys" and let people take more ownership and bottom-up initiative. We will continue exploring and experimenting in this area.
Not Just Too Bossy -- Too Boring!
But being too bossy isn't even the worst of it. In the Age of the iPad, too many of our organizations are also painfully boring. Change-makers spend endless hours laying out policy arguments -- hammering away at the facts and figures. Our conferences are too often an endless series of joyless panels and bloodless lectures, without music, fun or color. We have the data on our side, and we still act as if that is all we need.
Certainly, our efforts should be grounded in logic and reason. But humans don't live only in our heads. We also live in our hearts. And in the modern age, we have innumerable tools to touch people's hearts and win people over at a deeper level. Young people are using low-cost digital technology to make each other laugh and cry, to share anger and hope. In a world bursting with creativity and human connections, the failure of social change agents to "get the memo" and engage the full person is glaring and apparent.
The results speak for themselves. While it is true that some groups are thriving, and all of us are working hard, we are just not getting the buy-in and widespread participation that we need to create a better world.
Rebuild The Dream "Revivals"
Joining the movement for social change too often feels like joining a study group. We believe it should feel like joining a block party.
That is why, this year, we have been piloting this idea in a series of Rebuild Revivals. In Honolulu, Los Angeles, and Milwaukee, we brought together community leaders, artists, poets, activists, and thousands of people who would never see themselves as members of a movement for positive change -- and we tried to create something better than the sum of its parts.
In Los Angeles, people who came to see radical artists in a gallery show ended up joining trainings about civil disobedience -- and they participated in a flash mob art project protesting Citizens United. In Milwaukee, word about a talent show for local amateur hip-hop artists spread through Twitter and friends; thousands of fans came for the music and ended up screen-printing t-shirts or registering to vote.
Now, I am incredibly excited for our next block party. Prince, one of the world's greatest living artists, has invited Rebuild the Dream to create a "Village" at his upcoming shows in Chicago, to bring a positive message to the tens of thousands of fans at his legendary performances. This gathering is about people, not politics. As Prince himself said on Monday, "It's not political... we're at a place now in this country where we're going to have to work together and stop looking at each other's affiliation and start taking care of each other. It's desperate times."
Prince is not red or blue; he is "purple" -- operating well beyond traditional partisan divides. Millions of people are in the same place, and we need to start engaging them.
The Purple One: His 'Royal Goodness'
At the September 24-26 "Welcome 2 Chicago" concerts, Rebuild and our allies will connect local organizations and socially responsible businesses to Prince's immense fan base. For example, a participating organization might encourage people to change to energy-efficient light bulbs, or help stop unfair foreclosures in their community. Fans might sign up to be part of a high-tech platform like Task Rabbit, which can help them generate income on the side.
On the one hand, we will be increasing the reach of the organizations that participate. On the other, we will be connecting Prince's fans to a suite of opportunities that can increase their work, wealth, and health.
WATCH: Prince, Rosario Dawson and me on The View
Our Revivals take encouragement and inspiration from a host of sources, both old and new. In the 1900s, reformers used to gather at events called "Chautauquas" to hear storytellers, performers, theater, and music. They gathered to party, and they found a purpose. Too few social uplift organizations are borrowing from these playbooks. But things are changing. I am hearing change-makers discuss serious and feasible ideas for how to break out of this demoralizing pattern. We're beginning to see more and more groups integrate creative digital media and other tools into their work, and moving out of people's heads so that we can move their hearts.
I am thrilled that Prince -- one of the greatest living artists in the world -- is not only touring the United States once again, but is willing to bring do-gooder organizations and companies along for the ride. More tour dates will be announced in the coming months; I hope that more artists who want to bring more hope and healing to the world will step forward, and that more organizations will partner with them.
Those who want a better world are starting to realize that we can't push people into action; we're starting to figure out how to pull people into community.
Follow Van Jones on Twitter: www.twitter.com/VanJones68