Pragmatic Activism is the peak of an almost 20-year effort to try to transform people's lives in my community. On my journey as a community organizer, political operative, congressional staffer, behavior change campaign manager, adjunct professor, and leadership development trainer, I observed three massive issues that create a petri dish perfect for apathy and cynicism to take hold of our society:
Most activists are reactivists!
Since the murder of George Floyd, the idea of protesting the systems of oppression has been super popular. People are more tuned into the challenges facing society. However, just because people are tuned in does not translate to people taking ownership of doing the work necessary to change the system that makes decisions on our behalf.
There is always a significant drop-off when asking people to take their energy from the protest and commit long-term to attending government meetings, increasing voter turnout, donating to important causes, and generally doing the thing that brings about change. So rather than overhauling racist systems, we will get symbolic gestures like new national holidays rather than transforming the criminal justice system or policing.
This observation is not unique to progressive issues as we do not see much activity after January 6th, 2021, aside from their representatives' changing laws like Abortion or the culture wars that are popular in southern states. Therefore, it seems people use their anger to drive their Activism rather than it being a long-term effort to ensure their protest informs the change they seek.
The dependence on best practices drowns out any best principles from innovation.
I have worked for and with many organizations over the years, and there is an outsized dependence on best practices. The best way to approach food insecurity is by supplying healthy foods; the best way to help people experiencing homelessness is to give them a home; the best way to improve child welfare is through more programs. These are tried and true practices in most organizations. These are great programs, but they usually position the organization as the group that is "Transforming society through food, home, programming, etc.".
However, we have never seen an entirely equitable society in history. Therefore, to transform any community, we must do things differently and innovate how we work to change things. We can address the zoning laws in towns that have the space to build more affordable homes or market to the community to improve their demand for healthy foods rather than only expecting supply to be the panacea to solve food insecurity.
Or work with the business community, which is the best source of innovation in any sector in the US. All in all, we have to decrease our dependence on how it was done before and look forward to how things can be! All in all, we must open the door to perspectives that we are not used to hearing from.
Modern Day Idealism and Identity Politics inspire tribalism, which undermines collective responsibility.
Words like individualism, freedom, privacy, achievement, work, action, justice, equal opportunity, efficiency, collective, accountability, collaboration, and many more words we use to describe our work can mean anything to anyone. The way we practice our ideals today seems to be that it is more coming from the gospel of "me" rather than a fidelity to the source of these values. However, that does not stop anyone from accusing others of not living up to standards of freedom or other matters that are often vague.
Similarly, with Identity, whether being White, Black, Latino, or Latinx (see what I did there, I know I have to add Latinx to signal my awareness of gender dynamics to people who will probably shoot the Messenger and ignore my message and reason for not leading with it) can mean anything for anyone. However, leading with values and Identity creates a tribalistic environment that undermines the idea that we are all in this together. You can add this to levels of physical and mental abilities, age, ethnicity, religion, and other demographic and social features.
These dynamics create an environment where nonprofits compete for funds for their individual issue area, businesses become more self-interested by needing a lot of incentive or security before using their platform to advocate, philanthropy asks for profound transformative change for the cheapest budget possible, and activists are out there triggering people's resentments, anger and frustration which are not bedrocks to solid alliances and collaboratives.
Ultimately, if we cannot agree with the WHY of change, we may align ourselves to the HOW change happens. That is why I created Pragmatic Activism, a social approach that shows people how to stay committed to the social good for the long term. This journal and our podcasts and workshops will explore Pragmatic Activism in more detail. Please stay tuned to learn more!
ctivism in more detail. Please stay tuned to learn more!