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Social Justice in the 21st Century:
What's It Going to Take?

The Fannie Lou Hamer Lecture on Economic Justice

by Linda Stout

Cosponsored by
The Wellesley Centers for Women
and the Boston Research Center for the 21st Century

February 12, 2002

I stand here because of the incredible women who have gone before me. Fannie Lou Hamer, like many great civil rights leaders, attended training through the Southern Christian Leadership Conference Citizenship Schools. These schools were co-founded and administered by a woman named Septima Clark and were one of the most effective organizing tools of the civil rights movement. Mrs. Clark explained that these schools prepared people in the community to be able to hear and accept Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s message. The schools, like many women in the civil rights movement, served as "quiet structures" behind what appeared to be spontaneous uprisings.

When I first began to get involved in the community that I was living in and wanting to address issues that concerned us as poor people, folks told me I needed to go talk to a woman who lived in our neighborhood. I was assured that she could tell me what I needed to do. One Saturday, I walked over to Septima Clark's house and knocked on the door. She was eighty-five years old and immediately invited me in to eat.

Septima Clark became my mentor, pushing me to do things I would not have ordinarily done. One time, she sent me to a meeting of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Here I was, 29 years old, white, and going into a predominately male, all African-American meeting to talk about issues in the community. I went back to Mrs. Clark, announcing that people did not like that I was there. In fact, they did not like me. She looked at me and said, "Of course not. What did you expect? Now next time you go…"

When I told Mrs. Clark that I was organizing people to go to Washington, D.C., to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the 1963 march led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., she said to me, "Well, I want to go." I was surprised because she was so old. Then she added, "You know, I was at the first one." It was only then that I learned about her history and the fact that she was one of the most effective leaders in the civil rights movement; that she had worked at the Highlander Center, a nonviolence training center in Tennessee, and at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Martin Luther King, and had trained people like Fannie Lou Hamer and Rosa Parks.

Mrs. Clark told me that the main weakness of the civil rights movement was its sexism. She believed that the movement would have been more successful if they had allowed more women in leadership roles. There were many women who played a critical role in the movement, but were not often recognized. For instance, when Rosa Parks sat down on the bus, most accounts described Rosa Parks as a quiet older woman who spontaneously refused to give up her seat on the bus because she "had had enough and was tired."

In fact, Rosa Parks was deeply rooted in the tradition of protest and had refused to obey the segregation rules on several occasions before the famous incident. She had been the secretary of the local NAACP for 12 years when she was arrested in 1955. An organization of black women, the Women's Political Council led by Joanne Robinson of Alabama State College , had been trying to organize a bus boycott for over a year and made up 35,000 leaflets overnight calling for the Montgomery Bus Boycott. As a result, they convinced the previously reluctant Black Ministers Network to call publicly for the boycott.

In addition to the civil rights movement, we have had many powerful, incredible movements for justice that have brought us to where we are today: the women's movement, labor movement, peace movement, environmental movement, etc. All of these movements have had a major impact. All of our lives have been changed because of them.

But we are in a different time today, and different circumstances face us. Our movements have become more fragmented and many movements have grown up to focus on many different problems. Despite all our victories, it sometimes feels that things are getting worse. We have to look at a building a different kind of movement . We have to look at deepening the connections between movements. We have to build a "new" unified movement for transformative social change.

Many of us here have been working to create a better world – a world with justice, equality, and peace. And for many of us, there have been times in our lives, even if only for a brief moment, that the reality of making this happen has seemed not only possible, but close at hand. But looking at the state of the world today can create a great sense of despair. Some of us have gotten tired, and some have left the movement as a result. Others of us keep doing the work, even though we're often filled with a sense of hopelessness. I admit that I sometimes feel that hopelessness as well. Not because I don't believe we can change things, but because I believe, as long as hopelessness and despair are so prevalent among us, we will never have the energy and vision to make change happen.

Cornell West says in his new book, Restoring Hope:

"Hope is not the same as optimism. We know that the evidence does not look good. Hope enacts the stance of the participant who actively struggles against the evidence in order to change the deadly tides of wealth inequality, group xenophobia (racial intolerance), and personal despair. Only a new wave of vision, courage, and hope can keep us sane – and preserve the decency and dignity requisite to revitalize our energy for the work to be done."

So what is it going to take to give us the hope and re-energize our work for social change?

First, I believe we have to build a unified movement. I have felt this strongly since working as an organizer in rural North Carolina. As a group of low-income people, working to change things that affected us, we knew we had to work at the local level as well as the national level. And though we were successful, and were even able to have a significant impact on how our U.S. congressman voted, we knew that unless we were connected to a broader movement, we could never make long-term change.

There are an incredible number of organizations, groups, and individuals working for justice and peace. Each of us are making change at all levels of society but, unfortunately, it's not adding up to "more than the sum of its parts." And that's what it's going to take.

There have been many attempts to bring groups together and some have had success; we can learn from and build on these successes. For example, when working in West Virginia in a community poisoned by chemicals being released into the environment, we were trying to organize a press conference but could not get any response from the state or national media because it was so far away from any city or media center. We connected with a group in Louisiana dealing with the same company and chemical poisoning and asked them to join us in a simultaneous press conference. We also contacted people in Bhopal, India, who also had been poisoned and they agreed to hold a prayer vigil and media conference at the same time. As a result, we not only were able to get many state and national papers, we also got our story in the New York Times and got international coverage.

I have been on a journey now for several years—a journey I will probably continue for the rest of my life — to discover answers to building a winning movement for real and transformational social change. Part of that journey took me to Peace Development Fund where we conducted a National Listening Project. We asked organizers and activists across the country what we needed to do in order to build a winning movement? What was currently missing?

People identified three key areas about when they thought about what it would take to build a winning movement:

  • First, we have to create a vision of what it is we are trying to build. People will not join us when all they see us talk about is "what we are against" instead of what we are for.

  • Secondly, folks said we have to learn new ways to communicate and connect with each other. We often recreate the competitive and distrustful environments that we are trying to work against in our organizations for change. There are also issues of racism, classism, and other oppressions that affect how we work together; we have often learned to look at each other with the most critical eye, rather than at what each other's best gifts are to the work.

  • The third thing folks talked about was hardest to put into words. It's what I call "spirit." I define "spirit" as a connection to something greater than ourselves, a connection to the whole. It is our connection to each other, to the earth, to the ancestors, and to our deepest self.

Many activists we interviewed talked about the fact that they were drawn to the work for social justice from deeply held heart-values or spiritual beliefs. Yet there is often no room for paying attention to spirit in our political work. As a result, many people don't feel they have the support to sustain them through this difficult time. People also attributed this to the reasons we don't connect with each other as deeply as we should.

So how do we go about addressing these issues?

First, we have to create a common vision of what kind of world we want to live in. I'm not talking about a utopian fantasy, but a vision based on what we know is possible, a vision that answers certain questions. What is the world we want to create? We have to explore and figure out what kind of government we want and how to make it truly representative of the people. What kind of education system? What kind of economic system? Justice system? Medical system? In all of these areas, there are examples of what is possible. But often we are so focused on the problems that we can't see the possibilities. And that destroys our capacity to make change.

We must develop and move toward positive visions of the future. And to do that we have to create positive compelling images that will draw us toward them. Once we do, we must act as if the world we are trying to create already exists. Gandhi says, "Be the change you want to see in the world." We must create experiences and models so people can feel and understand what it is we want to build.

When I had a chance to go to Nicaragua in the 1980s, it gave me a solid vision of some of the ways things looked and sounded and tasted when poor people led a movement that transformed their society. It was the first time that I, as a poor person, began to understand the power poor people have when we don't work from a place of shame. It transformed my life and who I am in the world. If we can show what it will look like and feel like, I think our main problem will be how to manage all the people clamoring to be a part of our organizations.

Secondly, we have to learn better ways to work together. I believe we have to create a new culture among us and learn to think as a community. Although many progressive activists share similar visions and values, there are many things that fragment us and inhibit our work. So what do we need to do differently? We often believe we don't have the time it takes to build community because the issues we're struggling for take priority. But the truth is, if we don't take the time, we will not be successful in achieving our goals.

Over the past two years, Spirit in Action has organized two gatherings of media activists. We have spent at least a third of the time on building community, on building trust. There were concerns expressed by some members that we spent too much time on this instead of getting to the work at hand. But in both cases, at the end, people expressed delightful surprise at how much we were able to come together in agreement and how much we were able to accomplish. At our most recent gathering, we agreed to form the first national network of progressive media and public relations practitioners committed to increasing the power and reach of grassroots voices in the media.

The more time we put into creating community with each other—learning to listen to each other, celebrate with each other, and really understand each other—the more successful our work will be. There are no short-cuts to this. It is time-intensive and requires courage on our part to make sure it happens. It is not what many people feel comfortable with in our movement for change. But it is the only thing that will allow us to be successful.

We also need to look at ways we get separated around the isms—classism, racism, sexism, ageism, etc. We need to learn to deal with oppression in ways that do not make people go to a defensive or shameful place. I have conducted many workshops on classism and racism over the years and they have had a profound impact on many people. But they have also had the effect of making probably just as many people shut down or become angry and defensive. Where I've seen the most profound understanding and the most fundamental change has been with people who have been able to talk and listen to each other, to understand what happens to the other when being oppressed, and to learn how they can become allies.

So… how do we help people learn to build community with each other? There are many ways to do this. Storytelling is number one. We need to provide constant opportunities to tell our stories, to share our lives and passions and dreams with one another. We also need to spend time together, eat together, celebrate, sing, and play together. In his Veterans of Hope interview The Reverend Andrew Young talked about his time as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. He approached it just as he did his ministry. He personally visited and made connection with all 159 ambassadors just as he would visit members of his church. And he never sat down to a negotiation without first sharing food. It was the only period in the UN's history in which a U.S. ambassador didn't get vetoed a single time.

The third thing we need to do is bring spirit into our work for change. My own connection to spirit has been what sustains me in the face of impossible odds. When I first began organizing, I kept going back to a passage in a Quaker guidebook. The passage said that social change has always happened because one person or a few people had a vision and set about to make it happen. It was my connection to my own spiritual path that gave me the courage to start working for change, even when I didn't believe I could. It was what helped me find my own voice and overcome all the messages that I wasn't smart enough or good enough to make a difference. And it's what allows me to continually walk into unknown territory and take risks.

But as we all know, bringing in spirituality or religion can be a very complicated issue. Religion has long been a source of inspiration and unification but it has also been a source of division and repression. Many of us understandably have a gut reaction to anything we thinks smacks of religion. So what is the answer? We have to find ways that we can allow spirit to be present in all its forms, understanding that this strengthens not only individuals but our groups as well.

This is an area that is seems most "unknown." How do we do this in a way that honors all peoples' different beliefs and practices? It is a place that we are exploring in Spirit in Action. A powerful exercise that one of our Circles of Change did was to create an opening where each person was asked to call on "spirit" in the way they understood it. One person prayed to God, another to the ancestors, one spoke to the spirit of the earth, one called for a moment of silence, and yet another led us in song. Everyone's way of connecting was brought forward without one taking priority.

Singing together is a powerful way to bring spirit forward as well as celebrating and doing ceremony together. One teacher who participated in our Circles of Change had to be very cautious about doing anything that might be interpreted as religious or spiritual in a public school. She simply lit a candle and set an intention for the gathering, asking students and parents to reflect on their vision of what they wanted to accomplish and how they wanted to be with each other in that process.

I want to do a Vision Exercise with you and give you a chance to experience how we begin to explore these questions in our Circles of Change: Think about 25 years, a generation or so, into the future. Even though the future is, in many ways, a mystery, we want to begin to visualize the kind of world you feel we are being called to realize, a better world, the kind of world you want to leave to the children in your life, your children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews. What do you see in your vision of a better world?

Take a minute to think about this.

Specifically, what are three changes or developments that have happened in the world in your vision? What is happening that is positive and different, and how do you know? How would you feel if these three things were realized? Turn to your neighbor and take about five minutes each to share with each other.

Fannie Lou Hamer was an ordinary, poor, and uneducated woman. She wanted to make changes, but didn't know how. What made her extraordinary was that she had a hope and a vision of the future. She believed we have to work together. She was grounded in and supported by spirit. And most of all she had the courage to step out and try to make a difference. She worked from her heart. We have to get out of our heads and into our hearts for real transformative change to happen. The key here is working from the heart, working intuitively, and having the courage to break out of our old ways of doing things.

We have to think as community, as family, not as "individuals." We have to develop a way of seeing so that our organizations work together for the good of the whole. So often, we come into social change work, into organizations and groups thinking "what do I need or want," rather than thinking about how can I contribute to the good of the whole and help this group move forward with one voice, one vision. It is time for us to look deeply into our hearts, connect ourselves to our deepest sources of inspiration, and keep focused on our vision of what we want to create. If we all do this, we will certainly change the world.

I'd like to close with a quote from the last paragraph of my book, Bridging the Class Divide:

"We will have many visions of what a just and equitable democracy will look like, and we will have even more ideas on how to get there. But we must begin to work together, to compromise, and to listen to each other in order to realize our visions. Working together will be the hardest challenge we will face. Much harder than facing the opposition or working alone. But it is the only way we will win. It is the only way to create revolutionary change".

And now I'd like to invite you to join with me in reading a poem by Marge Piercy.

The Long Road

What can they do to you?
Whatever they want.
They can set you up, they can bust you.
They can break your fingers.
They can burn your brain with electricity,
Blur you with drugs til you can't walk, can't remember
They can take your child, wall up your lover.

They can do anything you can't stop them from doing.
How can you stop them?
Alone you can fight, you can refuse,
You can take what revenge you can,
But they will roll over you.

But two people fighting back to back
Can cut through a mob,

A snake-dancing file can break a cordon,
And an army can meet an army.

Two people can keep each other sane,
Can give support, conviction, love, massage, hope, sex.
Three people are a delegation, a committee, a wedge.
With four you can play bridge and start an organization.
With six you can rent a whole house,
Eat pie for dinner with no seconds,
Hold a fundraising party.
A dozen can make a demonstration.

(all join in) A hundred fill a hall.
A thousand have solidarity and your own newsletter;
Ten thousand, power and your own paper;
A hundred thousand, your own media;
Ten million, your own country.

It goes on one at a time,
It starts when you care to act,
It starts when you do it again after they said no.
It starts when you say WE
And know who you mean,
And each day you mean one more.

Linda Stout © 2002

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