October 14, 2011

Yes, you can

The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don't have any. -Alice Waters

I've had too many conversations with people who seemed deeply convinced that there was nothing they could do about issues that seemed incredibly important to them - involving government at all levels, as well as schools, churches, businesses.

Up until recently, that sense of personal hopelessness just seemed to keep accelerating, fueled by cycles of hope and disappointment that left too many people thinking the game was rigged on too many levels.

The game is rigged, in favor of various people with various kinds of power. That's what having power means. However, the game is not over.

If you want to address large issues - like tackling climate change, abolishing fiat money, making millionaires pay their fair share, or replacing the tax system with a flat tax - there are two challenges. The first is that there are established interests opposing all of those positions, and the second is that there are so many voices in the conversation. Before you even get to deal with the established interests, you have to make your voice heard.

The same is true of smaller issues. Schools, neighborhoods, villages, cities, towns, and counties are far easier to reach than federal and state governments, but it still takes time to figure them out, get them to know who you are, and work on behalf of things that matter to you.

This keeps coming up all over the world. In May, I stumbled across a piece on "enraged citizens" working outside established German political structures, and a more recent article on people frustrated that voting by itself seems to make little difference.

Voting is great - please show up and vote - but there is much more you can do.

So what to do?

  • Listen

  • Find friends

  • Talk

  • Do

All of these are most easily done with other people, but you can certainly get started by yourself.


Really listening is really hard, but it's the place to start. Listening helps you figure out:

  • what the situation is,

  • what needs to change (or stay the same),

  • who can help you,

  • who can hurt you,

  • why people hold their beliefs,

  • how you can help.

Listening in this sense is a lot more than hearing. It can mean reading or watching, and it always means thinking.

Listening isn't magic. Every now and then, someone tells me that "if people just listened, we could all agree on a solution," and I wince. Everyone hears things in a different context, and even if people hear the same things, they take them different directions.

What listening does most, however, is equip you to work with other people. It helps you understand the situation and connect with people who care.

Find friends

Finding friends is often the most important part of getting involved, the heart of "getting organized". You won't agree on everything - that's a good thing - but finding people with similar interests and concerns makes it much much easier to keep going. It's much easier to sustain momentum when working together than when working alone.

There are, of course, some perils. Friendships built on interests in issues often work differently than "classic" solid friendships built over years of knowing people. They're often more volatile, often involve people you might not otherwise ever have known, and sometimes - certainly not always - come and go with the interests.

One key thing to remember is that friends can come with different levels of commitment. Some people may be ready to work 100 hours a week on a project, while others will only sign a petition or forward an email. Some people may focus squarely on one issue, while others try to address a wide variety of issues.

So where can you find friends? They may be friends you already have. They may be people you find online. If there are events about issues - whether supporting 'your' position or not - you may find new friends there. Meetings may sound dreadful, but they're a good place to find real people.

While it's easy to think "they won't want me", pretty much everyone is looking for more friends.

Even if you can only sign a petition, write a check, or put a sign in your yard, though, you can help friends who can help you get things done. You can come back later and do more with them when you can, too.


Talking can be part of listening, but often it breaks free of the conversation to tell a story by itself. Some people focus on talking from the beginning, while others never really get around to it. You need to decide how loud or quiet you should be to be effective.

Do you want to be up on a soapbox? Do you want to be in a crowd protesting together? Do you want to be the quiet support for other people doing that? Do you want to write articles and letters to the editor? Are you willing to put your real name on the conversation?

Some people say "but I'm not any good at talking". I rarely find this is true. Different people are often better or worse at different kinds of talking. They all take practice. I know people who are convincing in person and terrible in writing, and vice-versa. I know people who best express themselves by collecting ideas from lots of other people and assembling them into a new story. I know people with voices made for radio and people with voices made for newspapers.

Find a way to talk that makes you comfortable. Friends can help.


Yes, this is last, though these pieces all mingle. Sometimes just getting out and doing something breaks the barriers that made it hard to listen, find friends, and talk. Sometimes it takes years of listening to be ready to talk with friends, and more years to go out and do.

Doing can be lots of things. It could be running for office, but it might be cleaning up litter in a park, it might be adding insulation to your house, it might be sending donations. It might be driving more slowly. It might be bringing food to people, or hosting a party. It might be putting signs in front of your house or flying the flag. It might be assembling a mailing or writing for friends or the public. It might be camping, or it might be voting. It might be analyzing vast quantities of data or collecting key stories. It might be partisan, non-partisan, or non-political. Even tiny things can make a difference.

It's easy to look at the world and get overwhelmed. It happens to me every single day. Let that feeling wash over you, then listen, find friends, talk, and do. There's a lot to do, but that's only more reason to get started.

Posted by simon at October 14, 2011 6:31 AM in
Note on photos


Hilary Lambert said:

Excellent advice. People often give up before they start due to the cynical words, "It's a done deal." Just taking a baby step or two can work wonders on a person's understanding of their ability to change - themselves, the situation they are in. Success with small steps reinforces a person's tendency to do more, to activate themselves.
After a while, when a person really begins to flex their can-do muscles, good words to live by are: "They cannot win if you do not quit." RFK Jr said that in the mid-90s at a meeting about mountaintop removal in KY, and the unified push-back against King Coal across Appalachia was under way.
Take a first step - it will feel good.