Today, I'd like to ask you to do something unusual.
In involves a pen or pencil and one sheet of paper. There's nothing all that consequential about the particulars of what you do with that writing utensil and sheet of paper...it can be virtual, real, scrap, messy, neat, elaborate, exhaustive or, in point of fact, nonexistent.
The main thing I'm asking you to do is take a moment out of your busy schedule and reflect for a few minutes...
Got your paper and pen? Great!
The first thing I'd like you to do is draw a line down the middle of this sheet of paper, dividing it in two.
Now, on one side of the sheet of paper, I'd like you to make a list. (I'm going to ask you make a list on the other side of the sheet of paper, too. Both are equally important.)
First, I'd like you to take a moment and list out all of the people, places, businesses and organizations in your life that you might characterize as human scaled, organic, local and personal.
This could be friends and family, a business or a workplace. This could be the greengrocer where you buy vegetables. Or a high school teacher who teaches at your local school. It could be your church, or a local community organization. It could be a political club. It could be your softball team, choir, or bowling league; it could be a bar, a diner, a support group or cafe.
There's a simple rubric that governs this side of the sheet of paper.
Do I know the people involved? Can I go, physically, to see how the organization is run? Do people know my name? Do I have an ongoing relationship? If I had to ask, say, where this tennis shoe, or tomato came from, could the person selling it to me answer? Is there mutual personal accountability where what I say and do and think matters to the other party, and vice versa?
We have this kind of relationship with our families. We have this dynamic with friends. We have this kind of mutuality, sometimes, with local businesses and community organizations like schools and libraries. And, sometimes, we also have this kind of dynamic with our union, our workplace, our church, our political party, our local government and press and other chapters of large organizations.
The bottom line for this side of the sheet of paper is that when I interact with this person or entity, does someone on the other side know me, and do they authentically care about what I think?
In the simplest terms, do they really know my name?
Ok. Great, that's done. Let's move to the other side of the sheet of paper.
Here's the place to list everything you relate to and do business with that is impersonal, corporate, data-driven, mechanical, and anonymous.
This could be the multi-national corporation that supplies the gas the fuels your car or the power company that supplies your electricity. It could be the big box chain where you buy goods for your home and family or grab your coffee in the morning. It could be the political party and candidates who send you emails soliciting donations and signatures. It could be the tech company that sells the mobile device that you use to text and post and communicate with people you care about. It could be that musician whom you follow on Twitter, or the link bait website your best friend just posted on Facebook five minutes ago.
In sum, this side of the sheet of paper is for everything you interact with on a day-to-day basis where there's little or no mutuality, little or no personal accountability, where you don't really know and couldn't really ask where that tomato came from, or who made this chair, or how the chicken you are eating was raised, or, even, say, who is behind the link you just clicked on.
(I can't be the only person who has ever experienced the situation where you try to ask the manager of a big store some specific question or give feedback and they tell you, "Look, mister, I can see where you're coming from, but talking to me won't make any difference." ie. I just work here, and the real decisions are made by business executives you can't talk to.)
These massive, anonymous, entities, be they aircraft carriers or mining outfits or big box retailers impact our lives on a daily basis. They are listed on this side of the page because, however much they impact our lives, these outfits don't really know who we are, and, on a practical level, we seemingly have very little leverage on our own to communicate with them or impact their conduct.
Despite that, what's remarkable is that these massive, impersonal entities increasingly know our names, our shopping habits, our social networks and even private details about our personal lives.
Google, to name just one example, knows more about people's sexual proclivities and health concerns than an army of pastors, physicians or therapists. Despite this surplus of confidential information, Google isn't really in any way our friend or confidant; they are, in fact, the world's largest seller of ads. And, as part of that, Google is also the world's largest purveyor of our personal information. And that big box store? It isn't by and large accountable to us, as much as it is wholly accountable to the corporate bottom line. And even that friendly politician who sent us the folksy email; well, for the most part they really don't know our name or our concerns...despite the recipes they may send or their repeated invitations to "join them for dinner."
The point I've been making is pretty clear, if I haven't hit you over the head with it already!
But, what I've asked you to do so far isn't the important part of this thought experiment. It's not even the most significant thing I'd like to invite you to think about.
What I'd like you do to do now is flip over that sheet of paper and make one more list.
On this side of the sheet of paper I'd like you write out your vision for this planet, both globally and as it relates to your community.
You might write that you'd like a more sustainable economy with good jobs and a secure retirement for everyone. You might write that you'd like quality healthcare and equal treatment under the law regardless of race, gender, ability or sexual orientation. You might list your desire for equal access to an affordable education, equitable treatment in our places of work and a fair and just immigration policy. You might write that you desire a reduction in the gun violence and the wars that have cost so many lives and wasted so many dollars. You might describe your hope for environmental policies that reduce the poisons and toxins in our food and water and conserve our natural resources in order to protect our planet for future generations.
Or you might simply want better roads and schools, parks and public amenities for our families, and help for our communities to salve the wounds of the hungry and the homeless and to serve our veterans, our seniors and those suffering from ill health.
As you make out your list you will be thinking, like all of us do, about the people you love the most and care about. Your grandparents. Your parents. Your children. Your nieces and nephews. Your neighbors. Your community. Your fellow churchgoers. Your co-workers. Your friends.
Mister Rogers put it best: These are the people in my neighborhood. The people that I meet each day.
And here is what I'd like you to think about.
When you flip your sheet of paper over again, and look at the two columns of lists, what side of the page represents the zone where we have the most power and leverage to make the changes necessary to build the planet and community we would like to see?
Which of those two columns represents our best chance to create solutions, and which column represents more often the source of our problems?
On that note, I would like to make one more point today.
When someone tells you that we can build the world that we want, that we can build the kind of change our communities need and hunger for, without engaging in building real, mutual, sustained local relationships and organizing to make that change in the communities where we live, they are selling you an illusion.
The important political battles of the coming decades will be centered on people organizing locally to create laws and regulations that hold the powerful accountable and to build the society we would all like to see. There is no short cut to this process and never has been.
It is tempting to think we can build the planet we want without organizing locally. It's tempting to think because we are fighting behemoths that we need only to become behemoths ourselves and that we can skip the meetings and conversations and accountability that local organizing entails.
We might even think that the tools of "big data" can be used to beat back those who snoop and sell and invade our confidential private information at their own game.
But when we indulge that temptation we are simply fooling ourselves.
You might say, "Ha, I'm reading your post online on dailykos, doesn't that disprove your point, right there!"
To which I'd reply, everything that I've learned about politics and organizing I've learned through relationships with mutual accountability and in a context of small scale. And everything I've written online comes from that direct, personal experience.
The most powerful rallies, strikes, protests, actions and campaigns I've participated in have been the sum of countless local actions, meetings and relationships with mutual accountability and trust.
There is no short cut to organizing and never has been. The powerful use the tools from one side of the page, because they work...for the powerful.
We need to use the tools from our side of the page to hold the powerful accountable.
That, in my experience, is the only way to the build the world that we desire, and so desperately need to win.