Saturday, August 7, 2010

Personal Growth and Social Change (Part 1)

by Miki Kashtan

From Tikkun Daily's Art Gallery
Many of us who practice nonviolence carry a vision of a world that works for all, where everyone’s needs matter and people and the planet are cared for. None of us know what will or could bring about our vision. Will it be a miracle of a single leader transforming the cultural assumptions and practices? Will it be a world collapse which will create a void and an opportunity to restructure society? Will it be a critical mass of people who inhabit different forms of human relationship? Will it be a nonviolent revolution? Will it be alternative structures that gradually attract more and more resources and people to them? Or will it be something else none of us can imagine?

Is “Being the Change” Enough?
Not knowing, how can we predict what actions that we engage in could potentially lead to social change? Here’s how one reader has expressed this challenge: “I don't have the clarity I would like about your distinction between personal growth and social change work. Particularly within the NVC framework, where we intend to create change without coercion. We can model the values we want to see; we can invite, request, even try to persuade or instruct when the occasion seems appropriate, but we're not forcing change on anyone. And so a big part of the force for social change that I am imagining comes from being the change that you want to see in the world, which to me sounds like personal development.”

Not knowing what leads to change, I am holding great humility regarding what I am about to say. I really don’t know.

Understanding Structures
Although I can imagine the possibility that if enough individuals undergo a personal transformation the result will be structural and systemic transformation, I have serious concerns about this approach. I do hold that organizations, governments, and other social structures are fundamentally based on a set of agreements, usually implicit, to which individuals give their consent, usually unconscious of having done so. Nonetheless, I also believe in the essential necessity of thinking and acting on the systemic/structural level, not just the personal level. What does it all mean?

Here are four examples of what structural change can mean:

  • Changing the way the economy functions. Our current economy is based on exchange and profit. Other models exist. For one example, an alternative economy could be based on gifting and needs.
  • Changing the way governments run. Current governments have executive power resting in one or few individuals. One other example could be a government based on citizen deliberative councils for policy decisions (see the Tao of Democracy, especially chapters 12 and 13).
  • Changing the way the justice system operates. Most current justice systems are based on a retributive model of punishing people for what they have done. Instead, more and more experiments with restorative justice systems are taking place in the world. I am personally familiar with one such approach, called Restorative Circles, which was initiated by Dominic Barter in Brazil and has been operating with remarkable success since 2003.
  • Currently, more often than not, international disputes lead to war. Instead, methods of international mediation can be employed to de-escalate and resolve conflicts and create robust agreements.

Beyond Personal Growth
On the personal level, the practice of NVC supports the inner work necessary to maintain a stance of nonviolence even in difficult circumstances. However, personal growth, “being the change,” is only one aspect of the work. How do we work towards creating change at the structural level? However we conceive of leverage points for structural change, we would need to organize and act with others to create shifts. For that, we need concrete practices to bring our consciousness and practice of nonviolence to beyond the personal, inner work. Their absence results in at least three interrelated phenomena:

  • Organizations made up of people with a high degree of personal capacity are nonetheless mired in conflict, mistrust, and inefficiency.
  • People with an understanding of and a commitment to interdependence are nonetheless operating as collections of individuals instead of a community of mutual support and effective feedback loops.
  • Individuals committed to a vision of care, inclusion, and distributed power form and run organizations based on command and control practices, and others are unable to stand up to their leaders with love and clarity.

In my next post I address how the practice of NVC can address all of the above phenomena as well as offer a perspective that allows for envisioning, and eventually designing, social systems based on attention to human needs, care for nature, stewardship of resources, and respect for the interconnected web of all life on this one planet we all share.