In an era characterized by record levels of protest and an admirable surge of political activism, we can see that expression is transformative – both of ourselves and our audiences. As New York Times bestselling author and activist, John Perkins put it, “writers are alchemists.” Through writing, we can “change perspectives” and therefore “change reality.” But the question is, in times of division, how can we be catalysts for change and promote healing across divides? In an increasingly polarized society, how do we create necessary change, while also creating room for understanding between all sides?
These ideas were discussed at the recent San Francisco Writer’s Conference (SFWC,) co-directed by Michael Larsen and Laurie McLean. Author and activist Brenda Knight and co-director Michael Larsen convened a panel on the transformative power of expression entitled: “Writing the Resistance: The Writer as Activist.” The panel’s outstanding lineup, which consisted of Stephen Dinan, Alan Kaufman, Ms. Knight, and John Perkins, faced this challenge head on.
Before the panel, conference co-founder and panel moderator Michael Larsen encouraged participants to remember “you have the greatest opportunity writers have ever had: to help ensure the country, the human family, and the planet have a just, sustainable future.” Stories and facts have power. And at the event, it was clear that, for all writers, artists, and activists – the future must be something that is actively sought and created – which is why expression of all kinds matters now more than ever.
Appearance Versus Reality
Alan Kaufman, author of the memoir Jew Boy, first recalled what his mother, a Holocaust survivor, once said to him: “you can’t trust the surface of things...what we see as civilization is not what is really going on, at any moment, it could erupt in madness.” Therefore, the truth is something that writers and societies have to work to produce, it does not appear on its own in a transcendental way. He put participants in his mother’s shoes, “one moment, you could be living in the Paris of the 1930s with writers and artists, and, then, in 1941, you could be wearing the yellow star on your dress at the age of 12 and be arrested by the Germans.”
Kaufman went on to describe how “the French gendarmerie” helped turn his mother in and he believes that a related type of betrayal by fellow countrymen is currently occurring in the United States. He warns of the rise of an American dictatorship from the shadows (he organized the first national poets strike after the election). But according to him, while “organizing on the street is important,” it “isn’t enough.” Instead, we have to do “what people in the civil rights movement did.” We have to change hearts and minds.
Reaching Across Divides
How do we do this? Kaufman literally and figuratively invites us to “go into the heartland” and hold a space where liberal and conservative voters can engage in dialogue, even as we work to prevent our “agencies from behaving in gestapo-like fashions” with ICE agents “putting handcuffs on 5 year olds.”
Social entrepreneur and political strategist, Stephen Dinan agreed: “just as the sand creates the pearl in the oyster, the friction of one worldview rubbing up against another can actually cause us to birth something new.” Dinan regards the surge of activism as “incredibly hopeful, from the Women’s March, to people calling their representatives.” People are bringing their full passion to bear in evolving and protecting our democracy.
Yet, in addition to being change-agents, Dinan believes our role as activists is two-fold: “we have this role to summon the resistance and we also have this other role, which is not often seen as the activist role: to be healers of this country as well.” As writers and activists, we’re all required “to do deep inner work within our own consciousness, to examine our own projections, and to challenge ourselves to bridge divides.” When writing his book, Sacred America, Sacred World, he wanted to write a book that could speak across the divides tearing us apart, so he went to have dialogue on conservative radio shows and attended both the DNC and RNC. His goal?
“We must speak to the deeper principles and commitments that unite us as Americans,” Dinan said. “Part of what we must remember as we’re writing the resistance and trying to activate this next wave, is to ground ourselves in something deeper than the political positioning and language of the moment; we have to find the language that works on the other side of the divide.” In this sense, writing is the ultimate transformational practice. It can be a catalyst for change, but also a source of healing for the “American psyche.”
The Writer as Witness
John Perkins, author of Confessions of an Economic Hitman, advanced this re-examination of the writer as activist. He championed the “writer as an alchemist,” but cautioned against overt preaching, stating “the storytelling part is very important” but “preaching doesn’t usually work too well.” Kaufman brought up This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen by Tadeusz Boroski, a collection of stories based on the Boroski’s own concentration camp experience. The stories were so powerful, they were used as testimony in the Nuremberg war crime trials. According to Kaufman, writers must simply “bear witness.” Most importantly, you must “not discredit your experience.” What each of us is feeling and living at this very moment is of historical importance.
Brenda Knight, president of the Women’s National Book Association - San Francisco Chapter, stated that solutions emerge organically when we pursue truths that “need to be told.” She referred to environmental activist Cheryl Leutien’s forthcoming book Love Earth Now: the power of doing one thing everyday which, in addition to being an essay collection about current environmental devastation, also contains self-reflective “check-ins” that encourage readers to arrive at actions, large and small, to ensure a more healthy planet and future.
A Greater Perspective
Then, the panel moved into a larger discussion: how do we find the commonality amid resistance that allows us to transcend the very need for resistance? Panel moderator Michael Larsen quoted William James: “We’re like islands in the sea, separate on the surface but connected in the deep.” He said there is far more that unites us than divides us. While "we shouldn't minimize what separates us," seeking to transcend polarities "is a more important overview to have of the human condition."
The cultural exchange of ideas and values is one place to start. Kaufman believes: “culture is a place where people can find common interests and common expression.” He organized last year’s East Village Folk Festival in New York City, which brought conservative Americana musicians from traditionally red states to perform alongside liberal-minded musicians to a New York audience and it provided “a new interaction between musicians from both sides of the political aisle around the area of music.”
Perkins added that the task for writers is to “bring into balance a greater understanding that there is no ‘them;’ we’re all on this planet.” This alludes to what is often termed the “Overview Effect,” the idea that an astronaut’s view of the earth could be the key to world peace. Perhaps, once we regard our planet as a whole, as an interconnected system from a single perspective in space, we begin a fundamental shift in understanding who we are as a human community.
So, in addition to a global perspective, how do we arrive at an objective perspective? How do we test our own perception to know that our perceived reality is truth? To Perkins, what is important is not looking at objective reality but at “how our perception changes objective reality.” Instead of seeking to “recognize objective reality” we must recognize “that we can have an impact on that objective reality.” Consciousness is powerful. Since “we created our economic and political systems through our perceptions,” in turn “we can change them by changing our perceptions.”
A Look to the Future
The evening closed with a renewed focus on the balance between resistance and healing. Dinan stated, ”You can only bear as much darkness as you have light within you to handle it.” In other words, as a country we have to celebrate our creativity and innovation, while also giving ourselves rigorous self-evaluation and critique.
But seeking a balance between the love for one’s country and dissent, does not mean remaining silent about efforts to curtail freedom and justice. Perkins stated “I’ve been accused of being unpatriotic with Confessions of an Economic Hitman. To me it’s the most patriotic thing I could do. Democracy demands that we criticize.” Knight added the following advice to writers, “Don’t worry about the trolls or the opposition. What burns inside you to say? Say that -- we’re all in this together.”
Looking ahead, Dinan said that “writers are the bridge between the unmanifest and the manifest, between the future and the now.” We must reach beyond what we know, to create something new. According to Dinan, “we have to do deep soul work to name the truth of what is and share stories of oppression and darkness, as well as stories of hope.” Stories bring us all courage, whether we find it embodied in the words of another or we summon it from within our own voices. With this courage, the panel paved the way for the upcoming “San Francisco Writing for Change Conference” in September.
As a final send off, Kaufman gave a rousing reading from his poem, “Do Not Go Gentle.” He said the “time has come to write the Constitution with our poetry and flesh;” the “time has come to costume up for liberty and ride with words like steel-tipped whips into the soul of America, and rage there and sing.” His words echo in our blood with the legacy of the Declaration of Independence and of the Constitution. A living legacy and human legacy we must uphold each day.
Larsen left us with a quote from an essay by the Jewish Theological Seminary: “A human life is like a single letter in the alphabet. It can be meaningless. Or it can be part of a great meaning.” We are all shapers of a better future when we work together. Let us create bridges with our consciousness, so that we can write across divides and arrive at a shared human perspective. A place where we can sculpt not just the truth, but the dreams that unite us once again.
For more information about the upcoming San Francisco Writers for Change Conference, the next San Francisco Writers Conference, and other San Francisco Writers Conference Events, visit: https://sfwriters.org/